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Author's note:

The edition of Ventus that you are looking at is my own, and is not a product of Tor Books. As such, only I am responsible for the inevitable typos and other differences between this and the published text. This eBook version is free and cannot be sold.

Printed editions of this book are available for sale from Tor Books (in English) and under license in translated editions. The English mass market paperback edition is
ISBN 0-812-57635-7.



Karl Schroeder

karl@kschroeder.com

www.kschroeder.com



Sept. 1, 2007

















VENTUS by Karl Schroeder





















...Frankenstein's monster speaks: the computer. But where are its words coming from? Is the wisdom on those cold lips our own, merely repeated at our request? Or is something else speaking? --A voice we have always dreamed of hearing?

--from The Successor to Science, by Marjorie Cadille, March, 2076

















Part One

The Heaven hooks















1

The manor house of Salt Inspector Castor lay across the top of the hill like a sleeping cat. Its ivied walls had never been attacked; the towers that rose behind them had softened their edges over the centuries, and become home to lichen and birds' nests. Next to his parents, this place was the greatest constant in Jordan Mason's life, and his second-earliest memory was of sitting under its walls, watching his father work.

On a limpid morning in early autumn, he found himself eight meters above a reflecting pool, balanced precariously on the edge of a scaffold and staring through a hole in the curtain wall, that hadn't been there last week. Jordan traced a seam of mortar with his finger; it was dark and grainy, the same consistency as that used by an ancestor of his to repair the rectory after a lightning storm, two hundred years ago. If Tyler Mason was the last to have patched here, that meant this part of the wall was overdue for some work.

"It looks bad!" he shouted down to his men. Their faces were an arc of sunburnt ovals from this perspective. "But I think we've got enough for the job."

Jordan began to climb down to them. His heart was pounding, but not because of the height. Until a week ago, he had been the most junior member of the work gang. Any of the laborers could order him around, and they all did, often with curses and threats. That had all changed upon his seventeenth birthday. Jordan's father was the hereditary master mason of the estate, his title extending even to the family name. Jordan had spent his youth helping his father work, and now he was in charge.

For the first four days, Father had hung about, watching his son critically, but not interfering. Today, for the first time, he had stayed home. Jordan was on his own. He wasn't all together happy about that, because he hadn't slept well. Nightmares had prowled his mind.

"The stones around the breach are loose. We'll need to widen the hole before we can patch it. Ryman, Chester, move the scaffold over two meters and then haul a bag of tools up there. We'll start removing the stones around the hole."

"Yes sir, oh of course, mighty sir," exclaimed Ryman sarcastically. A week ago the bald and sunburnt laborer had been happy to order Jordan around. Now the tables were turned, but Ryman kept making it clear that he didn't approve. Jordan wasn't quite sure what he'd do if Ryman balked at something. One more thing to worry about.

The other men variously grinned, grunted or spat. They didn't care who gave them their orders. Jordan clambered back up the scaffold and started hammering at the mortar around the hole with a spike. It was flaky, as he'd suspected--but not flaky enough to account for the sudden outward collapse of stones on both sides of the wall. It was almost as if something had dug its way through here.

That raised dire possibilities. He flipped black hair back from his eyes and looked through the hole at the vista of treetops beyond. The mansion perched on the highest ground for miles around and butted right up against the forest. Jordan didn't like to spend too much time on the forest-side of the walls, preferring jobs as far as possible inside the yards. The forest was the home of monsters, morphs and other lesser Winds.

The inspector who built this place had been hoping his proximity to the wilderness would win him favor with the Winds. He used to stand on the forest-ward wall, sipping coffee and staring out at the treetops, waiting for a sign. Jordan had stood in the same spot and imagined he was the inspector, but he was never able to imagine how you would have to think to not be scared by those green shadowed mazeways. That old man must not have had bad dreams.

Bad dreams... Jordan was reminded of the strange nightmare he'd had last night. It had begun with something creeping in thorugh his window, dark and shapeless. Then, as morning drifted in, he had seemed to awake in a far distant hilltop, at dawn, to witness the beginning of a battle between two armies, which was cut short by a horror that had fallen from the sky, and leapt from the ground itself. It had been so vivid...

He shook himself and returned his attention to the moment. The others arrived and now began setting up. Jordan had scraped away the top layer of mortar around the stones he wanted cleared. Now he swung back along the edge of the scaffold, to let the brawnier men do their work. Below him the reflecting pool imaged puffy clouds and the white crescent of a distant vagabond moon. Ten minutes ago the moon had been on the eastern horizon; now it was in the south, and quickly receding.

He looked out over the courtyard. Behind him, dark forest strangled the landscape all the way to the horizon. Before him, past the courtyard, a line of trees ran along the three hilltops that lay between his village and the manor. To the right, the countryside had been cultivated in squares and rectangles. He could see the trapezoid shape of the Teoves's homestead, the long strip of Shandler's, and many more, and if he squinted could imagine the dividing line which separated these farms from those of the Neighbor.

All of this was familiar, and ultimately uninteresting. What he really wanted to look at--up close--was sitting right in the center of the courtyard, with a half-circle of nervous horses staring at it. It was a steam car.

The carriage sat in front, separated by a card-shaped wooden wall from the onion-shaped copper boiler. A smokestack angled off behind the boiler. The tall, thin-spoked wheels made it necessary to board the carriage from the front, and the gilded doors there had been painted with miniatures showing maids and plowsmen frolicking in some idealized pastoral setting.

When the thing ran it belched smoke and hissed like some fantastical beast. Its owner, Controller General of Books Turcaret, referred to it as a machine, which seemed pretty strange. It didn't look like any machine Jordan had ever heard about or seen. After all, if you weren't putting logs under the boiler it just sat there. And last year, on Turcaret's first visit, Jordan had watched the boiler being heated up. It had seemed to work just like any ordinary stove. Nothing mechal there; only when the driver began pulling levers was there any change.

"Uh oh, there he goes again," grunted Ryman. The other men laughed.

Jordan turned to find them all grinning at him. Willam, a scarred redhead in his thirties, laughed and reached to pull Jordan back from the edge of the platform. "Trying to figure out Master Turcaret's steam car again, are we?"

"Winds save us from Inventors," said Ryman darkly. "We should destroy that abomination, for safety's sake. ...And anyone who looks at it too much."

They all laughed. Jordan fumed, trying to think of a retort. Willam glanced at him, and shook his head. Jordan might have enyoyed a little verbal sparring before, when he was just one of the work gang. Now that he was leader, Willam was saying, he should no longer do that.

He took one more glance at the steam car. All the village kids had found excuses to be in the courtyard today; he could see boys he'd played with two weeks ago. He couldn't even acknowledge them now. He was an adult, they were children. It was an unbreachable gulf.

Behind him Chester swore colorfully, as he always did when things went well. The men began heaving stones onto the rickety scaffold. Jordan grabbed an upright; for a moment he felt dizzy, and remembered last night's dream--something about swirling leaves and dust kicking into the air under the wingbeats of ten thousand screaming birds.

A group of brightly dressed women swirled across the courtyard, giving the steam car a wide berth. His older sister was among them; she looked in Jordan's direction, shading her eyes, then waved.

Emmy seemed in better spirits than earlier this morning. When Jordan arrived at the manor she was already there, having been in the kitchens since before dawn. "There you are!" she'd said as he entered the courtyard. Jordan had debated whether to tell her about his nightmare, but before he could decide, she bent close. "Jordan," she said in a whisper. "Help me out, okay?"

"What do you want?"

She looked around herself in a melodramatic way. "He's here."

"He?"

"You know... the Controller General. See?" She stepped aside, revealing a view of the fountain, pool, and Turcaret's steam car.

Jordan remembered Emmy crying at some point during Turcaret's visit last summer. She had refused to say what made her cry, only that it had to do with the visiting Controller General. "I'll be all right," she'd said. "He'll go away soon, and I'll be fine."

Jordan still wasn't sure what that had been about. Turcaret was from a great family and also a government appointed official, and as father said constantly, the great families were better than common folk. He had assumed Emmy had done something to anger or upset Turcaret. Only recently had other possibilities occurred to him.

"Surely he won't remember you after all this time," he said now.

"How can you be so stupid!" she snapped. "It's just going to be worse!"

"Well, what are we going to do?" Turcaret was a powerful man. He could do what he liked.

"Why don't you find some excuse to get me out of the kitchens? He comes by there, ogling all the girls."

Jordan looked up past the scaffold at the angle of the sun. He wiped a skeen of sweat from his forehead. It was going to be a hot day; that gave him an idea.

He put his hand on Willam's shoulder. "I'm going to fetch us some water and bread," he said.

"Good idea," grunted Willam as he levered another stone out of the wall. "But don't dawdle."

Jordan swung out and down, smiling. He would get Emmy out here for the morning, and keep his men happy with a bucket or two of well water in the face. It was a good solution.

He was halfway down when a scream ripped the air overhead. Jordan let go reflexively and fell the last several meters, landing in a puff of dust next to the reflecting pool.

Surprisingly, Willam was lying next to him. "How did you--?" Jordan started to say; but Willam was grimacing and clutching his calf. There was huge and swelling bruise there, and the angle of the leg looked wrong.

Everybody was shouting. Flipping on his back, Jordan found the rest of his men plummeting to the ground all around him.

"--Thing in the wall," somebody yelled. And someone else said, "It took Ryman!"

Jordan stood up. The scaffold was shaking. The men were scattering for the four corners of the courtyard now. "What is it?" Jordan shouted in panic.

Then he saw, where the men had been working, a bright silver hand reach out to grab one of the scaffold's uprights. Another hand appeared, flailing blindly. Bright highlights of sunlight flashed off it.

"A stone mother," gasped Willam. "There's a stone mother in the wall. That's what made the hole."

Jordan swore. Stone mothers were rare, but he knew they weren't supernatural, like the Winds. They were mechal life, like stove beetles.

"Ryman reached into a hole and the silver stuff covered him," said Willam. "He'll smother."

The second hand found the upright and clutched it. Jordan caught a glimpse of Ryman's head, a perfect mirrored sphere.

Jordan knew what was happening. "It's trying to protect itself!" he shouted to the scattered men. "Ryman was sweating--it's trying to seal off the water!"

They stood there dumbly.

Ryman would be dead in seconds if somebody didn't do something. Jordan turned to look at the open doors of the manor, twenty meters away. Clouds floated passively in the rectangle of the reflecting pool.

Jordan decided. He reached down, splashed water from the pool over his head and shoulders, then started up the scaffold. He could hear shouting behind him; people were running out of the manor.

He pulled himself onto the planks next to Ryman. Jordan's heart was hammering. Ryman's head, arms, and upper torso were encased in a shimmering white liquid, like quicksilver. He was on his knees now, but his grip on the upright remained strong.

Ryman was stubborn and strong; Jordan knew he would never be able to break the man's grip. So he reached out a dripping hand and laid it on the oval brightness of the man's covered head.

With a hiss the liquid poured over Jordan's fingers and up his arm. He yelled and tried to pull back, but now the rest of the white stuff beaded up and leapt at him.

He had time to see Ryman's blue face emerge from beneath the cold liquid before it had swarmed up and over his own mouth, nose and eyes.

Jordan nearly lost his head; he flailed about blindly for a moment, feeling the coiling liquid metal trying to penetrate his ears and nostrils. Then his foot felt the edge of the platform.

He jumped. For a second there was nothing but darkness, free falling giddyness and the shudder of quicksilver against his eyelids. Then he hit a greater coldness, and soft clay.

Suddenly his mouth was full of water and his vision cleared, then clouded with muddy water. Jordan thrashed and sat up. He'd landed where he intended: in the reflecting pool. The silver stuff was fleeing off his body now. It formed a big flat oval on the water's surface, and skittered back and forth between the edges of the pool. When he caromed back in his direction, Jordan jumped without thinking straight out of the pool.

He heard laughter--then applause. Turning, Jordan found the whole manor, apparently, standing in the courtyard, shouting and pointing at him. Among them as a woman he had not seen before. She must be travelling with Turcaret. She was slim and striking, with a wreath of black hair framing an oval face and piercing eyes.

When he looked at her, she nodded slowly and gravely, and turned to go back inside.

Weird. He glanced up at the scaffold; Ryman was sitting up, a hand at his throat, still breathing heavily. He caught Jordan's eye, and raised a hand, nodding.

Then Chester and the others were around him, hoisting Jordan in the air. "Three cheers for the hero of the hour!" shouted Chester.

"Put me down, you oafs! Willam's broke his leg."

They lowered him, and all rushed over to Willam, who grinned weakly up at Jordan. "Get him to the surgeon," said Jordan. "Then we'll figure out what to do about the stone mother."

Emmy ran up, and hugged him. "That was very foolish! What was that thing?"

He shrugged sheepishly. "Stone mother. They live inside boulders and, and hills and such like. They're mecha, not monsters. That one was just trying to protect itself."

"What was that silver stuff? It looked alive!"

"Dad told me about that one time. The mothers protect themselves with it. He said the stuff goes towards whatever's wettest. He said he saw somebody get covered with it once; he died, but the stuff was still on him, so they got it off by dropping the body in a horse trough."

Emmy shuddered. "That was an awful chance. Don't do anything like that again, hear?"

The excitement was over, and the rest of the crowd began to disperse. "Come, let's get you cleaned up," she said, towing him in the direction of the kitchens.

As they were rounding the reflecting pool, Jordan heard the sudden thunder of hooves, saw the dust fountaining up from them. They were headed straight for him.

"Look out!" He whirled, pushing Emmy out of the way. She shrieked and fell in the pool.

The sound vanished; the dust blinked out of existence.

There were no horses. The courtyard was empty and still under the morning sun.

Several people had looked over at Jordan's cry, and were laughing again.

"What--?"

"How could you!" A hot smack on his cheek turned him around again. Emmy's dress was soaked, and now clung tightly to her hips and legs.

"I--I didn't mean to--"

"Oh, sure. What am I going to do now?" she wailed.

"Really--I heard horses. I thought--"

"Come on." She grabbed his arm ran for the nearby stables. Inside she crossly wrung out her skirt in a stall, cursing Jordan all the while.

He shook his head, terribly confused. "I really am sorry, Emmy. I didn't mean to do it. I really did hear horses. I swear."

"Your brain's addled, that's all."

"Well, maybe, I just..." He kicked the stall angrily. "Nothing's going right today."

"Did you hit your head when you landed?" The idea seemed to still her anger. She stepped out of the stall, still wet but not scowling at him any more.

"No, I don't think so, I just--" A bright flash of light in his eyes startled him. He caught a confused glimpse of sunlit grass and white clouds, where straw and wooden slats should be.

"Jordan?" His elbow hurt. Somehow, he was on the floor.

"Hey..." She knelt beside him, looking concerned. "Are you okay? You fell over."

"I did? It was that flash of light. I saw--" Now he wasn't sure what he'd seen.

Emmy gently felt his skull for bruises. "Nothing hurts here, does it?."

"I didn't hit myself, really." He brushed himself off and stood up.

"You looked really weird there for a second."

"I don't know. It's not anything." He felt scared suddenly, so to cover it, he said, "No, I was just joking. Come on, let's check on Willam. Then we'd better get back to work."

"Okay," she said uncertainly.

Willam and Ryman were still with the surgeon, and nobody knew what to do about the stone mother, so Jordan told the rest of the men to take an early lunch. He went to the kitchens and found a stool near Emmy. They wiled away some time near the warmness of the hearth.

Jordan had just decided to round up his men and get back to work, when he suddenly felt a horse under him, and saw grasslands sweeping by. A thunderous sound, as of many mounted men, filled his ears. This time, he was lost for what seemed a long time.

His hand gripped the reins tightly, only it was not his hand, but the sunburned hand of a mature man.

In an eye-blink the vision was gone, and he stood again in the kitchen. He hadn't fallen, and no one was looking at him. Jordan's heart began to pound as if he'd run a kilometer.

He waved at Emmy urgently. She was talking to one of the bakers, and ignored him until he started to walk over. Then she quickly intercepted him and whispered, "What?" in that particular tone of voice she used lately when her interrupted her talking to young men.

"It happened again."

"What happened?"

"Like in the stables. And outside. I saw something." Her skeptical look told him to be careful what he said. "I--I do think I'm sick," he said.

Her look softened. "You look awful, actually. What's wrong?"

"I keep seeing things. And hearing things."

"Voices? Like uncle Wilson?"

"No. Horses. Like in the dream I had last night."

"Dream? What are you talking about?

"The dream I had last night. I'm still having it."

"Tell me."

"Horses, and grasslands. There was a battle, and the Winds came. All last night, it was just like I was there. And it keeps happening today, too. I'm still seeing it."

Emmy shook her head. "You are sick. Come on, we'll go see the surgeon."

"No, I don't want to."

"Don't be a baby."

"Okay, okay. But I can go on my own. You don't have to come with me."

"All right," she said reluctantly. He felt her concerned gaze on him as he left.

The surgeon was busy with Willam's broken leg. Jordan stood around for a few minutes outside his door, but the sound of screaming coming from inside made him feel worse and worse, until finally he had to leave. He sat in the courtyard, unsure whether to go back to work or go home. Something was wrong, and he had no idea what to do about it.

He couldn't stay idle, though. If he went home, his father would treat him with contempt at dinner; Jordan always felt terribly guilty when he was sick, as if he was doing something bad.

He thought of the walk home, and that made him think of the forest. There was someone there who could help him--and maybe solve the problem of the stone mother too. It was a long walk, and he didn't like to be in the forest alone, but just now he didn't know what else to do. He stood up and left the manor, taking the path that led to the church, and the house of the priests.

§

The church lay several kilometers within the forest. Jordan relaxed as he walked, frightening as the forest was. Father Allegri would help him.

The path opened onto the church lands abruptly: Jordan came around a sharp bend where towering silver maple and oak trees closed in overhead, and there was the clearing, broad and level, skirted at its edges with low stone buildings where the ministers lived. In front of the church itself, a broad flagstone courtyard, unwalled, was kept bare and clean.

The priests' house stood off to one side, under overhanging oaks. It was a stout stone building, two stories high, with its own stable. Jordan had been inside many times, since his father helped in its upkeep.

With relief he saw that Allegri was outside, seated on the porch with his feet up, a news sheet in his hands. It must be something important he was reading. The priests received regular news about the Winds from all over the country.

Allegri looked up at Jordan's shout and quickly walked to meet him. Now that he was here, Jordan ran the last part, and appeared on the porch huffing and puffing.

"Jordan!" Allegri laughed in surprise. "What brings you here?"

Jordan grimaced; he didn't know where to start.

"Is something wrong? Shouldn't you be at work?"

"N-no, nothing's wrong," said Jordan. "We're taking a break."

Allegri frowned. Jordan shrugged, suddenly unsure of himself. He pointed to the paper Allegri held. "What's that?"

"Copy of a semaphore report. Just arrived." Allegri sent Jordan another piercing look, then sat, gesturing for Jordan to do the same. Jordan dropped on a bench nearby, feeling uncomfortable.

"It's fascinating stuff," said Allegri. He waved the paper. "It's about a battle that took place yesterday, between two very large forces, Ravenon and Seneschal."

Jordan looked up in interest. "Who won?"

"Well, there hangs the tale," said the minister. "It seems each side lined up, on the edges of a great field south of here, on the Ravenon border. They camped, and waited all night, and then in the morning they donned their armor, and took up their weapons, and marched against each other. Very deliberate. Very confident, both sides."

Jordan could picture it clearly; this sounded so similar to the nightmare he'd had last night. In his dream, the mounted horsemen had clashed in clouds of dust on the ends of the lines. Bracketed by the horror of dying men and screaming horses, stolid infantry marched up the center. In his dream, Jordan could tell from the angle of the sun that it was nine o'clock in the morning. He had stood on a hill above the battle, surrounded by flying pennants and impatient horses.

"What colors?" he asked.

Allegri raised an eyebrow. "Colors?"

"What were the colors of the pennants they were flying?"

"Well, if I recall correctly, Ravenon flies yellow pennants. Those are the royal colors, anyway. The enemy were the Senschals, so they'd be red," said Allegri. "Why?"

Jordan hesitated before speaking. To say this to Allegri would be to make it real. "Your semaphore... does it say that the Seneschals had these steam cannon hidden behind their infantry? Like fountains in a way, grey streams of gravel flying up and into the back ranks of the Ravenon footsoldiers."

"Yes." Allegri frowned. "How did you know? I just got this. We're relaying it on to Castor's place right now." He gestured to the far side of the clearing, where one of the brothers was yanking the pulleys on a tall semaphore tower.

"I dreamed this battle." There, he'd said it. Jordan looked down at his feet.

"Is this why you came to see me?" Allegri asked. "To tell me you'd dreamed today's news?"

Jordan nodded.

The priest opened his mouth, closed it, and said, "Where were you in this... dream?"

"On a hillside. Surrounded by important people. I think I was an important person too. People kept looking at me, and I said things."

"What things?" Allegri prompted.

It wasn't like remembering a dream. The more Jordan thought about it, the more like memory it became. "Orders," he said. "I was giving orders."

He closed his eyes, and recalled the scene. His own lines were wavering, and the infantry fell back even as his cavalry outflanked the Seneschals on the right. A group of his cavalry rode hard at the steam cannon, and cut down their operators, but some were lost in the last moments as the cannon were laboriously turned against them. Ravenon now had the Seneschal forces bent back like a bow, but their own lines were stretched thin. Jordan described this to Allegri.

Allegri shook his head, either in surprise or disbelief. "What happened then?" he asked. "The news just reached us--but it's unclear. Unbelievable. What do you know about it?"

Jordan squinted. He didn't want to remember this part; he could see bodies strewn across the grass below, some writhing, and in places where the line of battle had passed, women walked to and fro, cutting throats or administering first aid depending on the color of a helpless man's uniform. Jordan saw one man play dead and then leap up and run down a woman who had approached him with her knife drawn. Three others converged on him and cut him down in turn.

In the dream Jordan had looked away then, and spoke. "We deployed a new weapon," said Jordan now.

"Describe it." Allegri's hands twisted in the cloth of his robe. He sat hunched forward, eyes fixed on Jordan.

"We had the breeze to our advantage. My men set fire to some sort of long tubes filled with... sulphur, I think. They made a horrible reddish-yellow smoke." Jordan didn't want to talk about it any more, but once he had started it was hard to stop. And Allegri was staring at him as if he could force the story out of him by willpower alone. "The smoke went over the Seneschals. They started to fall down, they choked on it. The lines broke. We had time to regroup, we got ready to charge."

"And then?"

Jordan swallowed. "And then the Winds came."

From the hillsides all around the battle scene, a cloud rose as the birds, the bugs, the burrowing animals and the snakes, all rose and marched into the valley. The grass itself began to twist and come to life, and the earth trembled as great silvery boulders wrenched themselves out and sprouted legs. The men and horses around Jordan milled in panic. He could see they were screaming, but their voices were drowned by a tumbling, roaring, and shrieking mass of life descending on the battle lines.

"It was the sulphur," he said quietly. "They smelled the sulphur and became angry at us. It was okay as long as we were cutting each other up. Beating each other to death. But the smoke..." Jordan relived a feeling of terrible helplessnness, as he watched both armies dissolve under a tumult of fur, feather and scale. Only a few stragglers and quick horsemen escaped. The steam cannon exploded with ringing bangs, and mist and sulphur clouds hung low for many minutes until, drifting away, they revealed an encampment of the dead. The animals slunk away into the hills, shaking the bloody fur of their backs as they passed the stunned witnesses.

"It's okay, you're safe," Allegri was saying. Jordan came to himself to find the priest at his side, arm around his shoulder. He realized he was shaking. "It wasn't your fault."

"But I was the one on the hill. The one who gave the order!"

Allegri shook him gently. "What are you saying? That you got up in the middle of the night, grew some centimeters and an army, and commanded the battle yourself? It's more likely that you've been using that fantastic imagination of yours," laughed the priest. "Maybe you heard something last night, from Castor or his men. After all, he might have the news from some other source. Did you maybe sit on near some conversation last night, that you maybe didn't realize you were listening in on? Some word or phrase you caught, that came back to you as you were going to sleep?"

Jordan shook his head. "I went straight home." He wiped at his eyes.

Allegri stood up and started to pace. "The semaphore said there was a battle yesterday, near a town called Andorson. Everyone died, it said. We looked at that and didn't understand it. Everyone died? But who won? What you've just said clears it up. It could be this was a true vision you had."

"A vision?"

The priest chewed on a fingernail, ignoring Jordan. "A vision, for the son of a mason. Won't this upset the applecart. Do we tell Turcaret and Castor. No... no, that wouldn't do at all."

Jordan stood up and grabbed Allegri's arm. "What's going on? What's this about visions?"

Allegri scowled. He was more animated than Jordan had ever seen him. "You know some people can talk to the Winds. Turcaret claims the power; it runs in his family." Jordan nodded. The whole foundation of sensible government was men like Turcaret, who had a proven connection to the Winds, hence the authority to guide the hands of economics and bureaucracy. "The Winds often speak in visions," said Allegri. "Or dreams. But they rarely speak to someone of your class."

"What does that mean? Am I like Castor?" The thought was absurd; Castor was hereditary Salt Inspector for this province. His pedigree was ancient.

"I admit it's unusual, but most of the great families got their start with somebody like yourself, you know." Allegri pointed towards the church. "Let's talk in there."

"Why?" asked Jordan as he followed the rapidly walking priest.

Allegri shook his head, mumbling something. "It's a shame," he said as Jordan caught up with him.

"What do you mean, a shame? This means our family could get a government post, doesn't it?" Was that really the voice of some spirit that had entered his dreams last night? The idea was both exhilarating and terrifying. Jordan found himself laughing, a bit hysterically.

"Am I going to get my own manor house?" As he said it, he realized something: "But I don't want that!"

As they entered the church, Allegri frowned at Jordan. "Good," he said. "I had higher hopes for you--you've always been inquisitive. A lot of the ideas you've spoken to me about are like ones from the very books Turcaret bans. I'd hoped you would show an interest in the priesthood. After all, it's the one thing you could legally do besides being a mason."

They stood now in the pillared space of the church. Allegri gestured at the cross that hung between the tall windows at its far end.

"If Turcaret and his like had their way, this place would not exist," Allegri said, gesturing around.

"What do you mean?"

"Turcaret and his kind have power because they claim--claim, mind you, that's all--to know the will of the Winds who rule this world. All they know, really, is merely how far the Winds can be pushed before they push back. The Inspectors and Controllers use that knowledge to control the affairs of men. They claim to serve Man; really, they serve either the Winds, or themselves. And those who serve the Winds, do not serve God.

"Jordan, I hope you don't become such a one. Whatever the Winds tell you, you can choose how to use the knowledge. But beware of becoming their tool, like the Controller and his men."

Jordan looked around at the quiet space, remembering many evenings he had spent here with Mother. Father did not attend church; he was not a believer. Only about half the people at Castor's manor were. The rest adhered to one or another of the Wind cults.

"What should I do?" asked Jordan.

"I'll consult by semaphore with the church fathers. Meanwhile, tell no one. If these visions disrupt your day, claim sickness. I'll back you up. Hopefully we'll get some guidance in a day or so."

Jordan brought up the subject of the stone mother. Allegri called one of the brothers over and they consulted, returning after a few minutes with some suggestions for handling the mechal beast. Jordan thanked Allegri, and they made their farewells.

He felt as if a great weight had been lifted off him as he walked back to the manor. Whatever was happening to him, he had put it in Allegri's hands. The priests would know what to do.

§

The usual bustle of the hallways was muted today, out of deference to Turcaret, whom they needed to impress, if for no other reason than that Castor wanted not to seem too provincial to his rich visitor. The silent summer air weighed heavily in here, as outside, and when he had stopped puffing Jordan headed straight for the back stairs to the kitchen.

"She's quite a filly, eh?" That was Castor's voice, coming from behind the wood-inlaid door to the library. "Turn around for Turcaret, Emmy."

Jordan stopped walking. Emmy. He looked around, then put his ear against the door.

"A fine girl." Turcaret's dry, sardonic voice. "But hard to appreciate in all that get-up."

"Emmy, you hide your beauty too much," said Castor. Jordan heard a faint whisper of motion as someone walked across the room. "Turn around."

An appreciative noise from Turcaret. "Clasp your hands behind your neck, girl."

"Sir?"

"It's all right, Emmy," said Castor. "Do as the Controller General says. Stand up straight."

Something about the tone of the voices made Jordan uncomfortable. He put his hand on the doorknob, hesitated, took it away. He had no excuse to be entering the library.

"Emmy, whatever happened to that dress you had last summer? The off-the-shoulder one? That was quite pretty."

"I-I outgrew it, sir."

"Do you still have it? Hmm. Why don't you wear it tomorrow, then?"

Emmy said something Jordan didn't catch. Dry laughter from the men. Then she gave a little shriek: "Oh!"

"Here comes the lady," said Turcaret suddenly.

"All right, Emmy. That will be all," said Castor in a distracted tone. "Remember what I told you about tomorrow."

Jordan heard the door on the far side of the library open. Castor started to speak, but he was cut off by a strong female voice Jordan had never heard before. "All right, gentlemen, what about our agreement?"

Another door, this one around the corner of the same hallway Jordan was in, opened and closed. He left off eavesdropping and ran around to find his sister leaning against the wall underneath a watchful portrait of one of Castor's ancestors.

"Emmy!" She looked up, then away. To his surprise, she turned and started to walk away without even acknowledging him.

"Hey! What are you doing?" He caught up to her. He felt a fluttering uneasiness in the pit of his stomach. "I talked to Allegri--everything's all right. There's nothing wrong with me."

Emmy rounded on him, grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him against the wall. "Where were you when I needed you?" she shouted. "Everything is not all right. It's not!" She thrust herself away and ran off down the hallway. Jordan stayed leaning on the wall for a long moments. Then, still feeling the prints of her hands on his shoulders, he slouched back the way he had come. What had happened? It was as if last night some veil had been withdrawn from reality, showing behind it an ugly mechanism.

For just a second, he saw blue sky, clouds, heard the snorting of a horse. "Oh, stop," he murmured, squashing the palms of his hands against his eyes. "Just stop."





















2

Jordan's mother ladled out a thick soup and revealed a spread of cheese, salad and fresh bread. She smiled around the supper table with proprietary kindness, while Jordan's father talked on about the stone mother and Jordan's bravery.

"Ryman can't say a bad word about the boy now. Ha! What a change. But the fact is, when it came to the moment, he panicked, and you didn't."

"Thanks." Jordan found himself squirming. All this sudden fame was strange, and tiring on top of everything else that had happened today. Despite his exhaustion, he was afraid of going to sleep tonight. The nightmare might return.

He wanted to tell his family about Allegri's idea that he'd been blessed by the Winds. He opened his mouth to speak, but a cold feeling deep in his stomach stopped him. Father kept printed broadsheets detailing the escapades of the inspectors and controllers; Jordan could see several tacked up by the door if turned his head. That was all Mother would allow as decoration, the rest being relegated to a chest on the porch. Father would would be thrilled and proud beyond description if he thought Jordan might be able to gain a government position. But it wasn't what Jordan himself wanted.

He had always assumed he would follow in his father's footsteps, and was content with that. Jordan's highest ambition was to have a comfortable home, a family, and to be considered a solid member of the community. What more could a man ask for?

So he said nothing. It was desperately necessary that the peace of the supper table not be disturbed. His mother's careful preparations, her cleanliness and little touches such as the chrysanthemums in the center of the spread, were talismans, protective as was his father's way of hovering about all problems without alighting his attention on any, and smoothing all troubled waters with belittling wit.

His father had said something more. "Hmm? What?" He blinked around the table.

"Where's your head?" His father's smile was puzzled, traced with a little sadness as it often was. "Have more potatoes, they're good for you," he said, but he looked like he wanted to say something else.

What he did add was, "I met a man today, a courier for the Ravenon forces named Chan. You know about the war they're having with the Seneschals?" Emmy nodded dutifully. Jordan sat up straight, his food forgotten.

"This fellow said there was a battle yesterday. On the border."

"Is the war coming here?" Emmy asked.

"No. I don't know if the war is going to continue. It seems the Winds intervened in the battle. Stopped it.

"The Winds are mighty," said their father. "That's the lesson; though truth to tell, this fellow Chan seemed more amused by the tale than anything." He shook his head. "Some people..."

He turned his attention to Emmy. "Your brother did well today, didn't he?" he asked.

"He did okay," she said in a monotone.

"Okay? Well, aren't you proud?" She said nothing. "Well, how about you?" he asked. "Did you get to see our master's guests? Did you meet Turcaret?"

Emmy glanced up; her eyes met Jordan's. He looked down, squirmed in his chair. "Yes," said Emmy.

"He's pretty grand, isn't he? I hear his house is twice the size of Castor's. Mind, that would be twice the work, I expect."

"I--I don't like Turcaret," blurted Emmy.

Their father reared back, raising his eyebrows. "What? That's a pretty definite opinion to have for somebody you've barely met, especially one of your superiors. What brought that on?"

Emmy didn't answer immediately, hunkering down over her meal. Finally she said, "He got Castor to make me wear my old dress tomorrow."

"What dress?" asked their mother.

"The canary one."

"But you've outgrown that dress, dear."

"I told them that."

There was a brief silence. Jordan felt a familiar tension, and the clamoring need to defuse it. He cast about for something

funny to say, but his father was faster. "You still have it? I thought you gave it to Jordan as a hand-me-down!"

Everybody laughed except Emmy. She looked a bit sick, actually, and Jordan's own laugh died in embarrassed silence.

"Well, after dinner we can try to let it out a bit," said mother.

Emmy looked at her aghast. Then she pushed away from the table and ran for the stairs.

"Emmy!" thundered their father, then more weakly, "come back."

They sat in silence for a few moments, then mother got up. "I'll talk to her," she said quietly, and padded up the stairs after Emmy.

Jordan and his father completed their meal in silence.

§

After dinner Jordan took a walk to the spot where he planned to build his own house. He was heartsick. He strolled the rutted, red tracks that joined the houses of the village, but it only took a few minutes to cover them all. He stopped to talk to a few people, family and friends who sat in the lazing sun and talked while their hands busied with spinning and mending. He was distracted, however, and soon resumed walking again. The Penners were fixing their roof, along with a mob of relatives. Jordan avoided them; they would just want his advice.

This village was his home, always and forever. Jordan enjoyed hearing tales of the outside world, and often dreamed of a life as an traveller. But outside the village waited the

forest.

The forest appeared in the fading daylight as a ragged swath of green-black across the eastern horizon, exhaling its hostility across the reach of fields and air to Jordan. The forest was a domain of the Winds, and of the morphs that served them. Unlike the morphs, the true Winds had no form, but only a monstrous passion sufficient to animate dead moss and clay. They drove the wall of trees forward like a tidal wave, slowed to imperceptibility by some low cunning, but just as unstoppable. The previous summer, Jacob Walker had gone to the back of his fields to cull some of the young birch trees that had invaded his fields. His son had seen the morphs take him, and the way Jordan heard it, the trees themselves had moved at the morphs' command. Walker's farm was abandoned now, saplings spiking up here and there in the field, the crops turned to woodsage and fireweed, poison ivy and thistle. The Walker family now lived in another village, and did odd jobs.

Some things could not be avoided, or confronted. There must have been a time, Jordan felt, when he was unaware of the pressure of the sky on him, of the eyes of conscious nature watching from the underbrush. He vaguely remembered running carelessly through the woods when he was very young. But he was swiftly educated out of that. Once, too, he had run and laughed in the corridors of the manor, but he knew now that however familiar Castor might be, he was something different than Jordan and his people, hence in his own way a force of nature like the Winds. To be obeyed, his anger sidestepped if possible, else accommodated. Jordan could not become that.

Better not to think about it. His pace had increased as his thoughts drifted back to the manor, and the visiting Lord. Jordan slowed his pace, consciously unclenched his fists. From here, at the edge of the village, he could see the roof of his parents' house over those of the neighbors. Everything looked peaceful in the goldening glow of evening. He had come to a fence, past which a row of haystacks squatted, surfaces alive with attendant grasshoppers, wise blinking birds sitting on their peaks. He sat down on the stile, and propped his chin on his hands.

Across the road was a expanse of unruly brush, interspersed with trees. It was far from the forest. Jordan had decided when he was ten years old that he would build his house here. Although he had yet to buy the land, only just having begun to earn a wage, he felt the place was already his. Lately he had begun drawing up plans for the building. Father had laughed when he saw them. "That's a bit optimistic, isn't it?" he'd said. "Better start small."

Jordan had kept the plans as they were. His house would have a big workshop where he could do stonework. Why limit himself to repair work? People would need detailing for new buildings. He could do that. So he needed that extra space, regardless of what Father said.

Evening canted slowly over the village, lighting and deepening the roofs as planes and parallelograms of russet and amber. There came a time when there were shadows, and Jordan knew this was when he should go back. The hammering from the Penners' had stopped, and now only a few lazy laughs drifted in, mixed with the barking of dogs called on to herd the goats back home.

Jordan heard a sound behind him. It was only a blackbird taking off, but he realized it too late to stop a cold flush of adrenaline. He stood up, brushing dust off the backs of his pants, and glanced at the dark line of the forest. Yes, go back.

He did feel better now, his mind calmed of any bad thoughts. His father was sitting in the doorway of the cottage, whittling, as he did sometimes. Yawning, Jordan bade him good night; his father barely glanced up, only grunting acknowledgment. Jordan saw no sign of his mother or sister inside. He padded up to the attic and threw himself on his narrow bed.

As he drifted off, he saw and heard flashes reminiscent of his nightmare last night. Every one would jolt him awake again, a little pulse of fear setting him to roll over or hug the blankets tighter about himself. He imagined something creeping in through the little window and whispering in his ear. He was sure someone had touched his face while he slept last night, and that this had set the nightmares off. What if it had been a morph?

Jordan sat up, blinking in the total darkness. It had not been a Wind. It was a person, someone unfamiliar whom he had seen, sometime today. Turcaret? He couldn't remember.

He had been so absorbed in battling memory that he hadn't noticed the sounds coming from downstairs. Now Jordan could plainly hear his father and his sister arguing, it sounded like in the back room.

"I won't go back there," she said.

"What are you saying?" said their father. "What will you do instead? There is nothing else, nowhere else to go. Don't be silly."

"I won't."

"Emmy."

"He's an evil man, and he makes Castor evil whenever he comes. They were... they were looking at me. I won't wear this."

"Castor commanded it. He's our employer, Emmy. We owe everything we have to him. How can you be so ungrateful? If it weren't for him, where would we be? Huddling in the forest with the windlorn."

"You'd let him... you would..." She was in tears.

Father's voice became softer, placating. "Emmy, nothing is going to happen. We have to trust Castor. We have no choice."

"It is! It is going to happen! And you won't see! None of you!"

"Emmy--" Jordan heard the door slam open, and quick footsteps recede into the night. He leaped out of bed, and went to the window. A slim form raced away from the house, in the direction of the black forest. Jordan's scalp prickled as Emmy vanished in the shadow of the great oaks.

His father had heard the boards above his head creak. "Go back to bed, Jordan!"

He remained standing. Downstairs, his father and mother spoke together quietly; he couldn't hear what they were saying.

Jordan fell back on the bed, his heart pounding. The murmured conversation continued. Why weren't they following her? He listened, a tightness building in his chest as his parents' inaction continued. After a few minutes he realized they were praying.

There were morphs in the forest, and maybe worse things. Jordan felt a sudden certainty that Emmy was going to stumble into its arms. She must be trying to get to the church, but the path was difficult even in daylight. At night, the forest was so dark you couldn't see a tree trunk centimeters from your face, and, he knew, every sound was magnified so the approach of a field mouse sounded like a bear was coming.

Emmy had never feared the woods. He should have told her what had happened to him today. Jordan put his hands to his eyes and squinted back tears. At that moment, he felt terribly, awfully helpless, and abandoned because she was abandoned. Their parents were doing nothing!

And neither was he. He went to the window again.

"Jordan." His father's voice filled him with sudden loathing. His father was afraid of the forest. He wouldn't follow Emmy because he was scared of the dark, and he was sure inaction would cure whatever was wrong.

Jordan sat on the bed, seething with hatred for his parents. The tightness in his chest was growing, though. Do something, he commanded them silently. Sitting in the dark with his fists clenched, he tried to move his parents with sheer will power.

The tightness had him gasping. Finally, he admitted to himself that they would do nothing--not tonight, not tomorrow, or ever. Their desperate fear of any disturbance in their carefully ordered lives paralyzed them utterly--and it always had.

He hurriedly dressed, not caring how much noise he made, and thudded down the steps. Candles lit the kitchen, where his parents knelt on the gritty wooden floor. Both looked up as Jordan appeared.

His father opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. He met Jordan's eye for only a moment, then looked down. His mother nervously fiddled with the bow of her night dress.

Some spell had lifted, and Jordan walked past them with no feeling of compulsion to stop, obey or even heed what they might say. He stepped into the cool August night, and turned toward the forest.

He took the lantern that always hung outside the door, fumbled for the matches that were stuffed in a crack nearby. Frowning, he lit the lantern as he walked. Behind him he heard a shout, but he ignored it. Somehow, the action of lighting the lantern, of picking the likely path his sister had taken, absorbed his attention and he felt no emotion as he walked. No emotion at all.

Once he was under the trees, the lantern seemed to create a miniature world for him. This little universe was made of leaf-outlines, upstanding lines of grass, and grey slabs of trunk, all stuck in the pitch of night. Without the light, he would be stuck here too. It was inconceivable that Emmy could go any distance in here; but he had to admit she knew the paths. He had once asked Allegri what he would do if he lost his light in here, and the priest had said, "It happens now and then. But the trees are cleared near the path, so if you look straight up, rather than ahead, and sweep your feet ahead of you as you walk, you can do it." It was like walking backward using a mirror. Emmy knew this.

But she could have fallen, could be lying two meters away, and he would never see her.

He opened his mouth to call her, heard a croak come out, and his own voice, circling around to his ears, somehow broke the dam of numbness that he had preserved as he left home.

"Emmy!" His shout was louder than he'd expected, and his voice cracked on it.

A few meters into the blackness he saw a small footprint in the mud; she had come this way. Emmy must be making for the church. She wouldn't go to the neighbors; they would just bring her back home. And she wouldn't go to the manor. The church was the only other refuge.

"Emmy!" He started to say, come back, but what came out was "Wait for me!"

He walked for a long time, calling out now and again. There was no answer, though once he heard a distant crashing in the brush which froze him silent for a long moment.

She couldn't possibly have gone this far! Had he missed her in the dark? Maybe she hadn't come this way at all, but just skirted the forest, and was even now back home, waiting for him with the others. That thought made Jordan's scalp prickle, as if he were the runaway... but that was silly.

The lamp was starting to gutter. "Shit." He was going to wind up huddling the night under some bush; in the pit of his stomach he knew he'd lost Emmy. And now he was alone in the forest.

He bent down, placing the butt of the lantern on his knee, and opened the glass to check the wick. There was probably enough oil to get a kilometer or so. It was more than that back to the village. The church was probably closer.

So he had to go on. Somehow he felt reassured by this. He stood up to continue.

A little star bobbed within the blackness ahead of him. He stared at it, biting his lip and remembering stories of spirit lights that led travellers off cliffs. But such lights were supposed to be green, or white, and to flicker and dodge about in swampy country. This light was amber, and swayed just as a lantern would if someone were walking with it.

He raised his own light and shouted, "Hallo!" The sound echoed flatly away.

The little light paused, then bobbed up and down. He started toward it, along the path. Maybe someone had found Emmy, and was returning with her. The thought sped him up; his heart was in his throat.

It was a lantern, and it was an ordinary person carrying it. But... Jordan had expected a man, a woodsman or even Allegri, but this was a woman stepping delicately over mossed logs and bent reeds. Not Emmy. And alone.

She raised her light again, and he recognized her. He had seen her at the doorway of the manor kitchen, asking for water. She must have accompanied Turcaret here in his steam wagon. When he'd seen her this morning she had been dressed in a long gown, but now she wore buckskin pants like a man, a dark shirt, and a cape thrown over her shoulders. She stood in stout muddied boots, too, and had some kind of belt around her hips, from which several leather pouches hung. Her glossy black hair was drawn tightly back, only one or two careless strands falling past her dark, arched brows. Her eyes gleamed in the lamplight.

"What a happy meeting," she said. Her voice was melodic, and strong; she seemed to taste each syllable as she spoke it, weighing how it might best be pitched. "What are you doing so far from town?"

"Looking for my sister. She... she came this way." He felt suspicious suddenly, wary of admitting Emmy's vulnerability. "Have you seen her?"

"No..." She tasted the word as if it had some special savor. "But then I have only just ventured onto this trail. Perhaps she went by earlier?"

"Not long ago." He heard himself groan faintly, knowing he must have missed Emmy somewhere in the dark. "Please," he said, "can you help me? I'm scared for her. I can't find her. She should have been... back there." He looked around at the curtains of black. "Maybe I missed her."

"All right." She came up to him, and her fingers lightly touched his shoulder as she walked past. He found himself turning as if she held him tightly. They began to pick their way back along the trail.

"I've seen you up at the mansion," she said. "You're the lad who outwitted the stone mother, aren't you?"

"Yes, ma'am. Jordan Mason."

"Yes." She was smiling now, as if delighted. "It's fortunate I met you just now, Jordan. It saves me a lot of time."

"Why?"

"I wanted to talk to some of Castor's people. On my own, you know?"

Jordan thought about it. She didn't trust Castor? "Is that why you were out at the church?"

"Yes." She shot him a dazzling smile. She was, he noticed, notably taller than he.

His lantern guttered and finally went out. "Shit," he said, shaking it. "Excuse me."

"You're not afraid of the dark, are you?" she asked, chiding.

"No, ma'am. I'm afraid of what's in it."

"I see." He heard, rather than saw, her smile in the sound of the words.

The lady appeared to be thinking. She glanced about herself, then said firmly, "I heard voices a ways back. Was your sister going to meet someone?"

"No…" But what if she had met Allegri, or someone else coming from the priest's house? "Where did you hear the voices?"

"This way." She held the lantern high, and walked back the way she'd come. He followed, hopeful that they would meet Emmy coming back from the priest's house.

The lady paused at a fork in the path. The way to the priest's was on the right, Jordan knew. The left way led deeper into the forest. She stepped onto the left-ward way.

"Wait!" He hurried forward. "She wouldn't have gone this way. It doesn't lead anywhere."

"But one of the voices I heard was that of a girl," said the lady, frowning. "And they came from down this way." She stood hipshot, radiating impatience. "You are keeping me from my own errands, young man. I need not help you at all, you know."

"Of course. I'm sorry." He followed her onto the lesser of the two paths.

This way was half-overgrown; the lady seemed to have no trouble seeing the path ahead of them, but to Jordan every way quickly came to look the same. He glanced behind them, and saw only a thatchwork of tree trunks and ferns, framed in black.

"Are you sure this is where you heard the voices coming from?" he asked after a few minutes.

"Of course. Look, there's a footprint." She lowered the lamp for him to see. Jordan peered at the ground where she pointed, but he couldn't see anything.

"I don't see-"

"Are you questioning me?" said the lady. "You are keeping me from my duties. What will Castor and Turcaret say about my lateness?"

"You mustn't tell them!"

"Well, then, stop dawdling."

Jordan was silent for a while, but his heart was sinking. Could Emmy have run afoul of a bandit, or worse, a morph? Who else would be out in this blackness?

"What were you doing out here alone, ma'am?" he asked boldly. "Were you visiting the priests?"

"Yes, of course," she replied promptly. They continued on over the uneven ground, until the thickets and trunks surrounded them tightly, and there was no longer any indication of a path underfoot.

The lady had one foot on a fallen log, about to step over it, when Jordan said, "Stop."

"What?" She stepped up and balanced precariously on the mossy log.

"This is crazy. She can't have come this way. Sound plays tricks in the forest. Maybe the sound came from somewhere else."

"Maybe." She sounded doubtful.

"We need to go back and get help," he said. "I'll roust my work gang. There's no need for you to worry yourself, ma'am. You have your own business to attend to."

"True." She started to step down from the log, but slipped. Jordan saw the lantern fly in an arc, then complete darkness fell around them.

"Damn!" He heard the lady groping about for the lantern.

Jordan put his hands out and hesitantly edged in the direction of the sounds. The darkness was total. "Are you all right, ma'am?"

"I'm fine. But I can't find the lantern."

Now that he was completely drowned in darkness, Jordan realized Emmy could never have come this far. It was impossible to take two steps in any direction without encountering a wall of uncertainty more solid than any tree trunk.

"Hmmf. Well, that's that," said the lady. "I can't find it. Give me your hand." He reached out tentatively, felt her warm fingers entwine his own.

"Come. This way."

"What are you doing?"

"We were headed uphill. I'm just going to go down. I'm sure we'll find the path again."

"Begging your pardon, but we should stay right here. You're not supposed to keep walking if you're lost in the-"

"We're not lost!" Her voice expressed outraged anger. "And I am not going to miss my appointments tonight!"

"But-"

"Come." She tugged, and though his every instinct was to remain still, Jordan followed so as not to lose contact. Slowly, they walked hand in hand over the uneven path.

Jordan was completely blind, and was sure he would blunder into a tree at any moment, but the lady's pull was steady. Jordan fought within himself and craned his neck up, looking for small swaths of starlight overhead instead of straining to make out the logs and stones underfoot. He tried to feel his way. And she did seem to know where she was going, for she did not stumble at all.

It seemed so strange, placing his feet by faith, seeing only the occasional star, and feeling acutely the touch of this stranger's hand. It was at once intimate and solitary. He cleared his throat and said, "What's your name?"

"I am the lady Calandria May. Turcaret was my travelling companion, but I am not in his employ."

"Oh." So she might be Castor's equal; Jordan felt uncomfortable to be holding her hand. She was his superior, so she could take his, but he could never have touched her so first.

"Careful." She stepped him over another fallen log. He hadn't felt or heard her hit it, but then he was concentrating on staring up. He didn't remember this log from a few minutes ago, and his footing was much rougher now. Round stones rolled under his shoes and long drooling fronds of grass wet his thighs. He smelled the metallic tang of moist earth, mixed with many green and fetid odors.

The strip of starlight was disappearing. He kicked himself for not looking up when he'd first come this way, to judge now where they were. They were not on the path. "We're not on the path," he said.

"Yes we are," she said in the same calm, even tone with which she had pronounced her name. Jordan stumbled over a root; her hand pulled him leftward, then back, and he felt tall brambles tug by. By instinct he had looked forward, and his free hand was out to ward him. When he looked up again, the stars were gone.

He craned his neck to try to see behind him--futile, naturally. His mouth was open to protest that they really were off the path, but her grip tightened, and she pulled him ahead with renewed speed. His warding hand brushed something slick--a tree trunk, he realized even as he snatched his hand back with a gasp.

"Steadily now, Jordan," she said.

"But--"

"Come now," she said. He heard gentle humor in her tone. "We are on the path. After all, we haven't hit any trees, have we?"

It really wasn't his place to question a lady. Her hand was his only lifeline, she his only recourse here. But how could she see in the dark? Was she a Wind? The thought nearly made him break his contact. She sensed something, and gave a reassuring squeeze.

"How can you see in the dark?" he blurted.

"I am as human as you," she said.

How was he going to find Emmy now? "We should stop and wait here for morning," he insisted.

She let go of his hand.

Jordan shouted in surprise.

The lady's voice issued from very nearby. "You may wait here, if you'd like," she said crossly. "I am going on back to the manor, and a warm fire and good companionship. You can sit here in the damp and stew in your own fears, or you can come with me. Which is it to be?"

Then silence. He couldn't hear her moving away, couldn't hear her breathing or moving at all. The silence stretched uncomfortably; Jordan could hear his own breath rasping, and the sounds of crickets, wind in the treetops. Nothing else. Had she left him?

"Please," he said.

Her fingers twined in those of his outstretched hand. Her touch, in the dark, made him remember last night, when a dark-haired woman had come to stand over him in his half-sleep, and laid her hand on his brow.

"Come," she said.





















3

Dawn found them walking. Jordan was cold, and almost deliriously tired. For hours now, he had let the wet leaves slide over his face without raising his hand to fend them off. The Lady's hand remained clamped on his, and a strange passivity made him follow her. For the first part of the walk, she had spoken constantly and unhurriedly to him, her voice and the feel of her hand the only realities, until he seemed to lose touch with his body entirely. It seemed they were a pair of spirits, drifting through the underworld.

Morning in Memnonis, Jordan's country, began with the gradual realization of shapes in the dark of the forest. Jordan began to see outlines of tree branches if he looked up, although they seemed etched onto a medium as dark as themselves. And as more became visible, the cold of the night settled to its absolute bottom. In the distance, he heard first one, then another bird begin to sing. The sound made him realize that, for hours, all he had heard was the dumb crashing of his feet in the underbrush, and the slight breaths of the woman ahead of him. Now he could see her, caped back swaying slightly as she trod over the matted leaves and fern beds. She was very close to him, the hand that held his fallen to her side, his own held stiffly in front of him. His own fingers felt numb; hers were warm.

His self-awareness returned with the light. No sharp line divided his passivity from memory and decision, any more than day came like the lighting of a lamp. He simply became more aware of his situation as he became able to see around himself. He was far from home; his sister remained lost and in some peril he may well have not been able to save her from. It was partly to salve his own conscience that he had run after her, and he did feel better for having tried; but as he walked he was troubled by the inadequacy of his parents' response--and his own, for what had he planned to do when he found her?

Now, as color returned to leaf and branch around him, he considered what Emmy had done, and the decision it had forced on him. Whether she and he returned to their home again, they could never again be the daughter and son he had always imagined they were. He and Emmy stood apart from their parents now, and that meant they would have to stand together.

But they could only do that if he could find her. He and the lady Calandria May were now profoundly lost in the woods. Was Emmy going to creep back home after a cold night in the woods, finding him gone and no one to stand with against mother and father--and Castor and Turcaret? Jordan knew the consequences if a search party was called out, and if she was found alive and in good health: she would find the anger of the whole village aimed at her.

The first fingers of sunlight slanting through the treetops overhead told Jordan exactly which direction he and the lady were walking. They were going north-east.

"This is the wrong way," he said. "I knew walking was a bad idea. Who knows how far we've gone?"

"This is the right way," said the lady quietly. Her steps did not falter.

Jordan opened his mouth to object, then stopped himself. She knew they were going the wrong way. It had never been her intention to return to the manor. And somehow, she had mesmerized him into following her. The last few hours were a blur; and even has he realized this, he continued to follow her, step by step.

He stopped walking. "What did you do to me?"

She turned, her face serious. "I need your service, Jordan Mason. Last night, you were too wrapped up in your search to listen to what I had to say. Now, in the light of morning, perhaps we can talk like adults."

Morning light provided Jordan his first good look at the lady. Her oval face was beautiful and strong: her dark brows and the lines around her mouth spoke authority, while her soft skin and the delicate bones of her jaw opposed them with an impression of fragility.

"I'll make a deal with you," she continued. He stood still, glaring at her. May crossed her arms and sighed. "Look, I can save your sister from Turcaret. All I have to do is send a message to one of my people. She'll be safe."

Cautiously, Jordan stepped closer. "Why would you do that?"

"In return for your coming with me. And if you don't, then I don't send the message, my man doesn't find her, and Turcaret does; and you'll still come with me!" She turned abruptly, brushing leaves from her cloak. She glowered over her shoulder at him. "Consider her my hostage." She walked away.

Jordan was sore and stiff, and emotionally battered. "Why are you doing this?" he mumbled, as he followed her. "Because you have information I need," she said. "Very important information."

"I don't," he protested weakly.

"Come come," she said, her voice no longer smooth but peremptory. "If I promise to protect your sister, will you promise to come with me?"

"How do I know you can protect her?"

"Astute." She pointed through the trees to a brighter area. "Clearing there. We'll camp and catch up on our sleep." She waved him ahead of her. "You know about the war between Ravenon and the Seneschals?"

He nodded. "I work for Ravenon," she said. "Right now I do, anyhow. I'm searching for a renegade from the Ravenon forces."

"But the battle," he protested. "They were all killed by the Winds."

"Not all of them. I'm not alone on this journey, Jordan, and Turcaret is in debt to my people. He'll do as I say, at least for such a small matter as your sister."

She was probably lying, but it might do him good to let her think he was gullible. Meanwhile, he stumbled through the brush to an area where young, white birch trees thrust up through the ruined stumps of a very old fire.

May looked up at the open sky. "Six o'clock," she said matter-of-factly. "Well, do we have a deal?"

"Yes," he said. He resolved to escape later, as she slept. She was not of Castors' family. She had no real hold over him unless he decreed it.

"Good." She kicked at an old log, judging how decayed it was, and sat in the single ray of amber sunlight that made its way almost horizontally through their clearing. Little wisps of her black hair floated up, gleaming in the light. "You weren't well prepared when you left the house last night," she said. Jordan had nothing other than his clothes and the lantern that had banged against his hip for the last few hours. He looked down at himself emotionlessly, then around at the soft moss and wild flowers that had taken over the ground. The need to sleep was overpowering.

"Go ahead," she said. Reaching up, she unclipped her cloak and held it out to him. "It's still cold, cover yourself with that. I'm going to go send word about your sister."

He took the cloak. "What's to stop me running away while you're away doing that? Are you going to tie me up?"

"I'll send the message from here." Uncomprehending, Jordan knelt down, then let himself topple sideways onto a mat of vivid green moss and tiny, finely-etched ferns. He started to draw the cloak over himself, but was asleep before he finished the motion.

§

Calandria administered a sedative shot to the youth. Probably not necessary, judging by his condition, but she didn't want to take any chances.

She sat back, and let the exhaustion she'd walled off these last few hours wash through her. Finding Mason last night had been unbelievable luck. His disappearance, which she had been trying to arrange for days, would now be seen as misadventure, a family tragedy to be sure, but unlikely to be caused by foul play. Because search parties would be out in force by noon, however, she'd had to get him as far away from the village as possible, and chose the deepest uninhabited forest to hide them.

She would program herself for three hours' sleep. But first, she had to adhere to her part of the bargain. She had no idea if such a bargain would help with the boy, but it was worth trying; and he needn't know that, as soon as she learned the trouble his sister was in, Calandria had resolved to do what she could about it.

Closing her eyes, she activated her Link. "Axel," she subvocalized. Spots of color floated in front of her eyes, then coalesced into the word CALLING.

"Cal?" His voice sounded pure and strong in her head, as it had on the several occasions they'd talked last night. She had been in touch with Axel Chan from the moment she found Mason on the trail. If the youth had gotten away from her, Axel would have scooped him up.

"What's your status, Cal? I read you as ten kilometers northeast. Still have Mason?"

"Yes. But I have a job for you, to help cover our tracks."

"Go ahead."

She told him about her arrangement with Jordan. Axel grunted once or twice as she spoke, but made no other comment. "Think you can take care of her, Axel? Keeping her safe from yourself too, I might add."

"Cal!" He sounded hurt. "I like 'em experienced, you should know that. Yeah, she's safe, as soon as I find her. What about you?"

"I'm taking Maso east and then north. There's a manse located about twenty-five kilometers from here, we'll make for that first. Then west again. What say we rendezvous at the Boros manor in one week?"

"Unless you get Armiger's location first, right?"

"Exactly."

"Will do. I'll call you as soon as I get the girl."

"Good. Bye."

The connection went dead, but Calandria did not open her eyes. She accessed her skull computer, and told it to initiate a scan of the area. "Check for morphs," she told it.

Gradually, from left to right, a ghost landscape appeared behind her closed eyelids. The scan was registering all the evidence of the Winds in this vicinity; mostly, it showed lines like the ghosts of trees, and the pale undulating sheet of the ground. But here and there, bright oblongs and snake-shapes indicated the third of Ventus' divisions of life--the mecha, distinct from the ordinary flora and fauna.

The scan showed evidence of a morph about three kilometers south of her, but it was moving away. Still, that was a bit close for comfort. She hoped it hadn't heard her transmission to Axel.

She opened her eyes. The scan had shown a very small mechal life form nearly at her feet. She squatted and shuffled leaves aside until she spotted it, a nondescript bug form.

Watching it crawl brought a strange sense of betrayal to mind, as though the world around her were somehow fake. It wasn't--but of all the planets she had been to, Ventus was somehow the oddest. Maida had been a world of glaciers and frozen forests; Birghila was enwrapped in lava seas, with skies of flame; and Hsing's people lived on a strip of artificial land hovering in tidal stress thousands of kilometers above the planet itself. But Ventus seemed so like Earth; it lulled the visitor, so that when you ran into a morph, or a desal, or witnessed the serene passage of a vagabond moon or the buzz and smoke of mecha life forms devouring the bedrock, a kind of supernatural unease was awakened. She'd felt it when she first arrived, and watching that little bug, knowing the earth and air were full of nanotechnology as thickly as with life, made the prospect of lying down to sleep here unpleasant. The sooner she accomplished her purpose and left Ventus behind, the better she'd feel.

There was no indication that any of the nano around her was aware of her. It should have been; this was the greatest puzzle of Ventus, why the Winds did not acknowledge the presence of the humans who had created them. It seemed to have become a small hobby of Axel's to discover why, but Calandria was merely grateful she could pass unseen.

She checked once more to make sure the morph was really heading the other way. Then she lay down on the damp earth next to Jordan, and compelled herself to sleep.

§

Jordan awoke in another place, and his hands were on fire.

He was screaming. For a moment he thought he was in the sky again, because he was surrounded by flame--orange leaping sheets of it to all sides, a smouldering carpet underfoot, and blue licking tongues above his head. But he stumbled against a post, and the fires around him shook and long tears ripped through them. The flaming walls of the tent he was in began to collapse.

For some reason Jordan didn't feel the pain, though he saw flame licking up from his hands, the backs of which were black and bubbling. And he could hear himself scream, only it wasn't his voice. It was the worst sound he had ever heard.

The tent pole snapped, and the broken bottom half scraped up his side. He stumbled, flailing his arms wildly as, in a strange spiral fall, the heavy burning fabric of the tent came down on him. The impact, as if he were enfolded in an elemental's arms, brought him to his knees. He breathed smoke and could no longer scream. His throat spasmed.

From somewhere he heard voices shouting. Men. He was pulled to and fro violently, and he heard the ring of swords being unsheathed. Blows all about. And the arms and chest of the elemental branded him, burned away his hair, stripped his skin, pressed against his raw muscles in a hideous, intimate massage.

The cloth over his face was torn free. He tried to blink; could see with one eye; watched bright blades held by desperate men tear at the burning canvas. But although his mouth was open, he could not breathe.

Then he was free. He staggered to his feet, straining, arms lifted to grasp at the sky itself, as if he were trying to climb the air. Jordan heard a deep clicking breath escape from inside himself. He caught a glimpse of men standing in a semicircle, expressions of horror or grim calculation on their faces. They wore military jackets and turbaned metal caps; one or two held muskets. Behind them was a green field crowded with tents.

He heard a deep voice say, "He is dead."

He mouthed the words. Then he died.

§

Jordan struggled to awake. He reached blindly hoping to find the headboard of his bed; he felt cloth. That jolted his eyes open. Was he enshrouded in canvas? But no, it was a leaf-green cloak he pulled away from his face.

He arched his back with the effort to breathe. Rolling back, he blinked up at a ceiling of pale leaves, blue sky and white cloud beyond them. He heard himself gasping.

He tried to sit up, but it was as if someone very heavy were sitting on his chest; he struggled halfway up, and collapsed back, his arms out at his sides, hands up to grab the air. For a few seconds, he struggled to just breathe.

This wasn't the nightmare of fire and death, but it was no better. He wanted to be in his bed, awaking to an ordinary day. The curtain wall wasn't patched yet, and what was the work gang going to think if he didn't turn up for work? He desperately longed to be there, digging at the mortar.

When his breathing settled down, he concentrated on raising his right arm. It moved like a leaden object, hand flopping. He brought it across his chest, and vainly tried to roll over. What was wrong with him? His body had never betrayed him like this before.

His head fell to the side. A meter away, a woman slept on her side, hands folded in front of her as though in prayer. Seeing her, Jordan knew what was wrong--or at least why. The witch had paralyzed him so he wouldn't run away. She intended some evil for him, that was certain.

He moaned, and her eyelids twitched. Suddenly more afraid of being helpless with her awake, he held his breath. His vision began to grey after a few moments, and he started gasping again. She took no notice.

He was trapped, his choice either to be awake in a nightmare reality where his family was lost--or to be asleep and open his eyes in an inferno. He whimpered, and shut his eyes, and the very act of doing so propelled him into a dizzying spin that ended in unconsciousness.

§

Calandria awoke refreshed. She was on her side facing the boy, who was sprawled awkwardly as though he'd been fighting with her cloak. The sun was higher overhead and the morning was warming up nicely. She sat up, brushing leaves and bits of bark from her cheek, and smiled. The air was fresh and the sounds of the forest relaxing. Her job was going very well. Feeling lighthearted, she cleaned herself up, rolled the boy into a more comfortable position, and set about making a small fire. When that was going to her satisfaction, she rooted through her pouches, considering the rations situation. They would need more than the concentrated foods she had on her. Best reserve those for an emergency.

The Mason boy would be asleep for a while. Meantime, she would get them dinner.

First, she sat in full lotus, closed her eyes and scanned the vicinity. There were rabbits on the other side of the clearing. They were keeping an eye on her, and she would never be able to run them down. Luckily she wouldn't need to.

Fluidly, she moved from the lotus position into a crouch. From her belt she drew the pieces of a compound bow. She put it together quietly, strung it and reaching in another pocket, drew out one of a number of coiled threads. These had an arrowhead on one end and feathers on the other, but were limp as a string. She unrolled the one she'd selected and gave it a whipping yank. Immediately it snapped straight and stiff.

Armed now, Calandria crept very slowly over the log next to Mason, under the canopy of a young pine, and into a nest of rushes by a stagnant puddle where midges hovered. She could see the dome of ferns under which the rabbits were eating. They were invisible to normal sight, but by closing her eyes and scanning she could pick them up easily.

Eyes closed, she straightened slowly and drew the bow. A moment to aim, battling the urge to open her eyes, and then she let fly. A thin squeal sounded from across the clearing.

She walked over the uneven ground and flipped back the canopy of ferns. Her rabbit lay twitching, well impaled. She smiled, and broke down the bow while she waited for it to stop kicking.

"Transmission," said a voice in her head.

Calandria smiled. "Go ahead, Axel."

"Got her. She was hiding near a brook a few hundred meters inside the forest. Seems to have been one of those old kids' forts. Scan picked her up just in time--there's a morph hanging around here, and it had located her too. Now that I have her, what do I do?"

"Hire her."

"What?"

"Axel, she's compromised where she is. She may be in a position to embarrass Castor or Turcaret, which makes her vulnerable. She'll get no help from her family. Best to make her independent of them for a while. Designate her Ravenon's postmistress for this area. She can handle dispatches between the Ravenon couriers. She's of age, and we see women handling positions like that all the time. It's a good chance for her, because it's a light job and won't last more than a year or two. Once the war's over, she'll be able to move right back into her community, because she'll have been there all along. Meanwhile, she's independent of her family, and Castor won't touch her because she's one of ours."

"Yeah. I see it. So you want I should brazenly walk into Castor's place and install her?"

"Why not? See if there's a house you can buy for her. And send a dispatch to Ravenon to open up a route here."

"They might not do that."

"Doesn't matter. It's appearances that count right now. We've got the cash, and the seals of authority, we might as well use them." She watched the rabbit kick one last time and go still. She reached down and picked it up by the arrow through its belly.

"Sounds pretty complicated, Cal."

She smiled. "Just curb your tongue and your appetites, Axel, and pretend you really do work for Ravenon. The indignant knight, discovering a cowering maiden in the dawn light. Make yourself legendary. Isn't that why you came on this expedition?"

He hmmphed. "You make it sound like a bad thing." She laughed. "What about your kid?" he added.

"Asleep. I'll see what I can get out of him today. Maybe knowing his sister's safe will make him more reasonable."

"Reasonable--" Axel bit back on whatever he was going to say. "Treat him gently, Cal." He broke the connection.

She dropped the rabbit by Jordan's feet and sat down on the log to contemplate him. He looked strong enough. Whatever did Axel mean?

Gently. She frowned down at the smooth skin of her hand, matched it against the mossy bark of the log. She was as gentle as water, she knew. It was only that today, and with regard to this youth, she was as purposeful as a river in flood.

She went to work skinning the rabbit.

§

Jordan awoke to the smell of cooking. The lady had prepared a stout meal for him. He avoided her eyes as he ate. She watched him expressionlessly for a while, then said, "You sister is safe."

He sat up, eyeing her suspiciously. "Tell me."

She explained that she had gone to a nearby road and intercepted a courier she knew was scheduled to pass. She'd told him of the girl's plight, and he went in search of her. Later, he'd sent another runner back with news she'd been found.

"How could all that happen in just a few hours?" he wondered sullenly.

"You needn't believe me. Axel said he found her in some kind of kid's fort, a hundred or so meters in the forest. Does that sound familiar?"

Jordan looked down. It did. He hadn't thought of the place in his own rush; the other kids had used it more than he, because of his fear of the forest. Emmy probably had more memories of it than he.

That meant he'd passed her almost immediately last night.

He ate silently for a while, his mind paralyzed in a catalog of "if-only's". Finally he said, "I want to see her."

"When we've finished with our job," she said.

"What job?" He felt a faint spark of hope; she hadn't suggested before that she was going to let him go at all.

"You have to help me find the man I'm after," she said. "Armiger. Do you know him?"

"No. Why would I?"

"He knows you." She leaned forward, squinting a bit as she appeared to examine him over the small campfire. "He visited you years ago, and left something of his behind. In there." She pointed at his forehead.

Jordan reared back, eyes wide. Was there some kind of thing in his head? He pictured a worm in an apple, and touched his temple with suddenly trembling fingers.

This had to have some connection with the visions. Was that thing their source? But if it had been there for years, he would have had visions for years, wouldn't he?

"You're crazy," Jordan said. "There's nothing in my head but me. Plus the headache you gave me!" he added.

She scowled, but he'd seen her do that before, and she hadn't beaten him then, so she probably wouldn't now. She stood up, stretching her slim arms over her head. "We'll figure this out later," she said. "Put out the fire, will you? We have some walking to do."

He sat obstinately for a few seconds, until she fell out of her stretch and snapped, "I can carry you if I have to. You'll be safe, and you'll see your sister again, but not until I'm done with you."

Reluctantly, he moved to obey-for now.

§

Jordan crashed through the trees, his heart pounding. There was no way he could run quietly in this brush. It didn't matter anyway; he knew she was right behind him.

The first time he'd tried to escape, he had slipped away while Lady May was engaged in her toilet behind a bush. She had caught up with him half a kilometer away. That time, she had simply stood in front of him, and frowned fiercely, her hands on her hips. He had tried to laugh it off, and followed her for a while. It was obvious she was faster than he was, though, and he no longer believed there would be a moment when he she slept while he did not.

So, when he spotted a stout but dead branch right in his way, Jordan had reached up with his free hand and snapped it off. May did not look around.

He had tried to transcend his exhaustion, summoning what strength he could behind the blow that he landed on the back of her head. She fell, and he was free.

His legs were like jelly from walking all night over uneven ground, and now, only minutes after he struck her, he was only able to stagger from tree to tree, following no path but only trying to get away.

Suddenly his legs went out from under him and he was face down in the leaves. "Huff!" Lady May squatted on his back, and twisted his right arm painfully behind him.

She spat some word in a language he didn't recognize, then said "Nice try," in her slow measured way. Her voice was full of menace.

"Let me go, you witch!" he shouted into the dirt. "Either kill me or let me up, because I'm not going with you! Let me find Emmy! You took me away from her!"

He heard her muttering angrily in that strange language. She said, "You damn near broke my head, boy."

"Too bad I didn't!" He tried to struggle, but she had him completely pinned.

She sighed. "Okay, I guess I had it coming." Without loosing her hold, she left his back in a crouch and rolled him over. Her free hand rubbed the grit away from his face; his wrist was still pinned at an awkward angle. If he moved to much, he was sure it would break.

She let go of Jordan's wrist. A trickle of blood down the center of her forehead lent her a fearsome aspect, as it seemed to point at her eyes, which were narrowed accusingly at Jordan.

"I have done you a great disservice, Jordan. I know that. But you must understand, it is a matter of life and death, for everyone we know, your family included. Your friends will call you a hero when we're through. And I should only need you for a few days. Please trust me about your sister. Will you please wait a day or so, until I can give you proof that she is safe? All this running is doing neither of us any good."

He thought about it. "I will wait for a day."

She nodded wearily, rubbing her forehead, and winced. "Then get up. We only need to walk a little more today, I'm tired too. A rest will do us both good."

§

Soon she was smiling in her enigmatic way, asking him to name the various trees and birds they passed, and letting him pause for breath when he wanted. Her anger was swift and volatile, and though he had hurt her, she fell out of anger quickly. He expected the unforgiving smolder he had always seen in his parents, and had feared because he'd always felt each bad thing he did diminished their love for him permanently; this woman had flashed into fury, dragged him back to her invisible path, and then forgot her anger. He hated her for what she had done to him, but she seemed incapable of hating him, and this confused him. He decided to be insulted by it.

The countryside they passed through was deeply forested by black oaks that trailed moss, muffling the birdsong. The forest floor was bathed in a secretive green twilight, broken by dust motes sparkling in infrequent shafts of sunlight. The air was warm, but held the expectant fullness of late summer, as if Life were resting. They were far from the habitations of men.

When darkness fell Lady May decided to camp again. Jordan was worn out, and grateful for the respite. She made a quick fire and roasted some more rabbit, and he ate his and fell asleep immediately. His mind had been going all day, running up against walls of fact and memory, and it was mental exhaustion more than physical that put him under.

The last thing he was aware of was Lady May watching him with something like sympathy in her eyes as she languidly fed the fire.

§

They slit open his belly and dumped out his organs. He did not protest. His eyes remained fixed on the ceiling of the tent. Muttered voices all around; the sharp tang of incense; and outside, professional mourners wailed hypocritically.

The two men who were preparing his body were elderly, their long grey hair tied back with strands of hair from the corpses they'd worked on. They wore black velvet robes sewn with many pockets, and from these they produced a variety of vials filled with noisome chemicals. These they dripped on and into his body, and painted over his skin with brushes.

The ceiling was aplay with shadows of underworld spirits, from statues placed around the perimeter of the tent. The shadows elongated and bent, shortened and faded, as if the spirits were waging a war with some unseen enemy across the amber heaven of the canvas.

A metal handle clanked; the bucket containing his blood was taken out of the tent, to be burnt. One of the attendants bent over him, holding a mallet and a long spike with a T-shaped head. Placing the spike under his chin, the man hammered it up, nailing his tongue against his palate, piercing the palate and the nasal palate and imbedding the iron deep into his brain. The T held his slack jaw shut.

"Speak no more," said the attendant, and putting down the hammer he nodded to someone at the door of the tent.

Six men entered, looking solemn. Some stared at him; some looked everywhere else. They lifted the pallet he lay on and he passed out from under the sky of canvas, to the sky of night.

Diadem, the only moon of Ventus, was up and glittering like a tear. The rest of the sky was clear and splashed with stars, rank on rank, gauze on gauze of finest points of white. The river of the galaxy ran across the zenith. The human mourners fell silent, leaving only cricket sounds that seemed to come from the stars themselves.

The night air lessened the smell of burnt meat that had pervaded the tent.

Torches to the left, right, ahead and behind. Spirals of grey moved up to dissolve among the stars. Murmuring voices and the sound of shuffling footsteps, as he was carried out across the plain toward a dark hill.

The hillside rose steeply, blocking the stars. The torches lit a deep cut in its side, where a bare rock face had been smoothed, maybe centuries ago. Deep letters were carved over a slotted doorway uncovered by a huge stone slab. The slab had been tilted to the side, and now leaned heavily on a scaffold made from catapult parts. Rough soldiers sat on the scaffold, passing bottles back and forth. They watched impassively as he passed under them.

Another sky drew overhead, this one of yellow stone. The ceiling was centimeters away. The deeply pitted sandstone was painted in abstract clouds of grey and black by the passage of many torches. The smoke from those burning now swirled up and around him, settling into a layer of trembling heat.

Around a corner, and now he was being carried down a steep flight of steps. His bearers spoke back and forth as they lowered him carefully. Ten meters down, then twenty, into a region of dead air and penetrating cold where squat pillared halls led away to either side. His bearers moved more quickly now, and the torchlight flickered off an uneven ceiling and dark niches in the walls where objects, long or round, were piled.

He was lowered to the floor in front of a black opening, and unceremoniously slid in. The ceiling here was just above his nose. Bricks thudded down just behind his head. What little light there was disappeared, and of sound, only that of stones being mortared into position. After a few minutes, even that ceased.

There had been no name carved above the niche. So, after a while, he raised one hand, slid it across his opened chest, knuckles scraping the stone, and felt behind his head. There, in a band of moist mortar, he wrote the letters:

ARMIGER.

§

Jordan sat up screaming. Calandria was at his side instantly, holding his shoulders while he shuddered.

"What is it? A dream?"

"Him, him again--I saw him--" He seemed not to know where he was.

"Saw who?"

"Armiger!"

Calandria lowered him back onto his bedroll, and when he closed his eyes and drifted off again, she smiled.























4

In the morning he awoke feeling sore and frustrated. He expected Lady May to raise the subject of his dream last night, but she didn't, as if daylight were not the proper time for such things. She did seem even more cheerful than she had yesterday, though. When Jordan awoke she had already hunted, for there were two pheasants near his head, which she indicated he should tie to his belt. She had also gathered several handfuls of mushrooms and some other roots he recognized as edible. At least they wouldn't starve any time soon.

"Come," was all she said, and they set out again.

He was content not to talk for most of the morning, but the warm sunlight and the shared exertion of the walk was bound to loosen his tongue eventually. She might have been counting on this. Even so, he cast about for a long time for a subject other than the dark vision he'd had last night, finally asking, "Why are we going this way?"

Lady May looked back, arching an eyebrow in apparent amusement. "It speaks," she said. "That was a question you should have asked yesterday, Mason."

He glared at the ground.

"We're avoiding the people who are searching for you. I had my man say he'd seen you going south, but even so they may search north. But not this far into the forest."

"Did Emmy hear that?" he asked sharply. "She thinks I ran away?"

"I don't know what he told her," she said. "He's a compassionate enough man, if a bit of a libertine. I'm sure he wouldn't hurt her by telling her that, if he thought he could trust her with the truth."

Jordan chewed on that. Just how much could Emmy be trusted with something like that? He had to admit he didn't know; she kept secrets pretty well, he thought, but what about the secret abduction of her brother? It made more sense to let her believe the lie everybody else had heard.

In which case she would believe he had abandoned her.

After a while he asked, "How can you know where we are? You say you aren't a morph, but you're not using a compass or anything. And you can see in the dark." And you're pretty strong, but he didn't say that.

They were walking through an area of new growth now. Slender willows and white birch stood in startled lines all around, and the sun had full access to the ground. Very high in the sky, mountainous white clouds were piling up over one another.

Lady May squinted up at them. "Storm coming," she said.

"What are we going to do when it rains? We'll get soaked."

"Yes." She shrugged. "We should be under shelter in time."

"How do you know that?"

Lady May sighed. "It's rather difficult to explain," she said. "And I really didn't want to get into it yet. But you and I are going to have to make an agreement to work together, I mean really work together, and I'm going to tell you some things and you're going to tell me some. Understand?"

He nodded. He didn't want to talk about Armiger; even in daylight, he vividly remembered the embalming tent and the slot in the hillside, and the disturbing implication that he had been looking through the eyes of a corpse.

§

Calandria debated how much to tell the youth. There was no law as such against revealing galactic news to the isolated and backward people of this world. At worst, the various anthropological groups that studied Ventus would be furious at her for muddying their data.

There was little, however, that Jordan Mason could do with anything she might tell him about the wider world. He was a prisoner of this place, like all his countrymen. There was no prospect of rescue, or escape, for the people of Ventus; compassion dictated that she not even hint that Mason's life could be other than it was.

She was going to have to tell him something, though. It might as well be the truth, as far as he was able to understand it.

They skirted the edge of an escarpment for a while. This path gave a great view of the endless, rolling forest, and of the towering thunderheads that were bearing down on them. Calandria sniffed at the air, feeling it change from dry and still to charged, anticipatory. There was no way they were going to get to the manse in time.

It was ironic, she thought. In idle time before landing she had stood at the window of her ship, the Desert Voice, and contempated this world. Gazing down at Ventus, the human eye lost itself in jewel-fine detail. Her eye had followed the sweep of the terminator from pole to pole, gaining a hint of the varieties of dusk of which this world was capable. Sombre polar greys melted into speckled brown-green forests, along a knee of coastline reddened by local weather, and in a quick leap past equatorial waters her gaze could touch on this or that island, each drawn in impossibly fine detail and aglow with amber, green and blue. Each, if she watched long enough, summoned into night.

She had wondered then if the original colonists had felt the way she did now. When they first beheld Ventus and knew that a chapter of their life was ending, and a new one beginning, had they felt the same unease? And the anticipation?

She had tried to picture what their imaginations brought to the pretty little islands that had caught her eye. Standing above this canvas, each must have painted it with his or her own colors, drawing the boundaries of new states and provinces. It would be irresistible, at a new world, to wonder what the forest looked like from underneath; how the rain smelled; what it would be like to sleep under the stars here.

At that time the skies weren't as empty as they now appeared. The Winds were still visible, like gossamer winged creatures dancing above the atmosphere. All frequencies were alive with their singing and recitative. They were almost as beautiful as the planet itself -- as intended -- and they took human shapes to communicate with the colony ships. This was expected; they had been designed that way.

The Winds sang, and danced in slow orbits in time to their singing. In those last moments before the nightmare began, the colonists' eyes must have beheld a perfect world, an exact embodiment of their dreams.

Thunder grumbled. It was so different when you were down here, she knew now. The invulnerability of space was a dream. Calandria found her steps quickening, not so much because of the coming rain, but because once again she was reminded that Ventus was not the natural environment it appeared to be.

They rounded another arc of escarpment, and there it was, right where the Desert Voice had said it would be: a manse. Jordan hadn't spotted the long rooftop yet, obscured as it was by trees. Calandria smiled at the prospect of warmth and comfort the manse promised.

Jordan was ignoring the view. In fact, he seemed to be sniffing at something. She raised an eyebrow, and cleared her throat. "What are you doing?"

"Death," he said. "Something's dead. Can't you smell it?"

Damn if he wasn't right. She should have been more alert. Jordan had walked several steps off the deerpath, and now gingerly parted a spray of branches. "Lady May, look at this."

She looked over his shoulder. In a dark, branch-shaded hollow of loam and pine needles lay a giant bloated object. It looked like nothing so much as a big bag of mangy fur. At the top was a kind of flower of flesh, which, she realized uneasily, had teeth in it. As if...

"What is that?"

"Looks like it used to be a bear," whispered Jordan. Its mouth had folded back to become a kind of red-lipped flower atop the bag of flesh, and its eyes had receded into the skin. She looked in vain for signs of its four limbs; save for the vestigial head, it was little more than a sack of fur now.

A sack in which something was moving.

She stepped back. For once, Mason seemed unfazed. In fact, he looked back, caught her obvious distress, and grinned.

"A morph's been here, maybe two, three days ago," said Jordan. "It found this bear, and it's changed it. I don't know what's going to hatch out of it, but... looks like several things. Badgers maybe, or skunks? Whatever the morph thought there was a lack of in this part of the woods."

Of course. She'd been briefed on morphs, she knew what they were capable of. It was a very different thing to witness the result.

"They'll come out full-grown," said Jordan as he backed away from the clearing.

Thunder crashed directly overhead. Calandria looked out over the escarpment in time to see a solid-looking wall of rain coming at them.

"Come on!" she shouted. "It's only a little farther."

Jordan looked at the rain and laughed. "Why hurry?" he asked. "We'll be wet in two seconds."

He was right--in moments, her hair was plastered down on her head, and cold trickles ran down her back. Still, Calandria hurried them away from the disturbing thing that had once been a bear. They continued to skirt the top of the escarpment for a hundred meters, then came out near what might normally have been a good deer-path down the slope; it was a torrent of muddy water.

"What's that?" Jordan pointed. Perhaps two kilometers away, warm lights shone through the shifting grey of the rain.

"Our destination. Come," she said, and stepped onto the downward path. Her feet went out from under her, and Calandria found herself plummeting down the hillside in a flood.

§

Jordan watched Calandria May get to her feet at the bottom of the hill. "I'm soaked!" she shrieked, laughing. It was the first time he'd heard her laugh in any genuine way.

She was a hundred meters below him, with no obvious way back up. He debated turning and running--but he had no idea where to go. Doubtless she'd be able to track him down, even if he got a half-hour's head start. He sighed, and started picking his way down the hill.

About halfway down he took a long look at the lights burning in the distance, and felt a chill greater than the rain settle on him. He ran the last few meters a bit recklessly, but arrived next to May still on his feet.

"Don't you know that's a Wind manse?" he said, pointing at the distant lights. "If we go in there, we'll be killed!"

She had that serene, unconcerned look about her again. "No we won't. I have protection," she said. Ahead of them, tall stately red maples stood in even ranks. The underbrush was sparse, as if someone regularly cut it back.

Jordan shook his head. They jogged through tall wet grass and into the shelter of the trees. Calandria pointed to a brighter area ahead. "Clearing. I guess there's extensive grounds around this one."

She led him on. After a minute he said, "So you've been in other manses?"

"Yes. I have a way of getting in." She stopped and rooted around in one of her belt pouches. "This." She brought out a thick packet of some gauzy material, which she shook out into a square about two meters on a side. "We wear this over us, like we're playing Ghost."

She held it out to him and he touched it. The material was rather rough, and glittered like metal. It crackled a bit when it folded.

"Stand close." Reluctantly, Jordan did so. She pulled the sheet over both their heads. It was easy to see through, but a little awkward to walk with, as it tended to bell stiffly out. They had to take handfuls of the stuff and hold it close. "Put your arm around my waist," she directed him when it became apparent they were not walking in rhythm. Jordan did so with the reluctance of someone touching a snake.

He forgot his wariness when they came out from under the trees. His hand tightened around her and he gasped. Calandria stopped as well, and smiled.

The forest was cleared here in a perfect rectangle almost a kilometer long. They stood at one end of a green, clipped lawn dotted here and there with artfully twisted trees. Square pools of water trembled now under the onslaught of the rain; under clear skies they would be perfect mirrors. Softened by the haze of rain, made shadowless by the cloud, a great mansion rose up at the far end of the lawn. Its pillars and walls were pure white, the roofs of grey slate. The windows were tall and paned in glass, which lit up every few moments with reflected lightning. Behind some of the windows, warm amber light shone.

Jordan indicated the lit windows with his chin. "They're home. How can we get in when the Winds are home?"

"They're not home." She nodded sagely. "That's part of the secret. The Winds never visit these places. You have a lot to learn, Jordan."

"Everybody knows the Winds live here," he said sullenly.

"I know they don't. You may have a lot to learn, but you are going to learn it, never fear. Let's call this a good first lesson for you. This way." She stepped onto the lawn and led him along the edge. "Wouldn't want to be hit by lightning on the way in," she said.

There were no horses tethered at the front of the huge building. Though light glowed from its windows, Jordan could see no movement within. The marble steps leading up to the tall doors were well swept, but there were no servants visible. He hung back as May trotted up the steps; she took his arm and pulled him gently but inexorably after her.

He held his breath as she reached out to the door handle and turned it. She pushed the door open, letting a fan of golden light out into the blue-grey afternoon. "Come," she said, and stepped in.

He hesitated. Nothing happened; there was no sound from within. Reluctantly, he put his head around the doorjamb.

"I'm soaked!" Lady May yanked the water-gemmed sheet off and tossed it down. "Look at this." Her legs and backside were covered in mud.

Jordan stared past her uneasily. It was warm here, and dry. Light came from a great crystalline chandelier overhead. That meant there must be servants to tend the lights. They were bound to show up at any moment.

"Close the door please, Jordan." He eased in, closed the portal but kept his back to it.

This place was bigger than Castor's mansion. They stood in a bow fronted vestibule at least two stories tall. Two wide marble staircases curved up to either side. Ahead was an arch leading to darkness. There were tall wooden doors at the foot of both staircases. Everything looked clean and straight, but the style was ancient, as if he'd stepped into one of the etchings in his father's book of architectural mannerism.

He looked up past the chandelier. Gold arabesques over the windows. The ceiling was painted with some torrid mythological scene, framed at the edges by ornate gold guilloches.

Lady May followed his gaze. "Derivative," she said. "Venus restraining Mars."

Jordan had heard of neither of them. He looked down. They were both dripping on the polished marble floor. Suddenly horrified at how wet, muddy and disreputable he must look, he said, "We have to get out of here."

"Find the lavatory," she said.

"No, what are you saying? They'll catch us!" He fought a rising tide of hysteria, which clicked in his throat.

"Jordan," she said sharply. "There is no one here. No one to take notice of us, anyway, as long as we keep this with us." She held up the silvery gauze square. "It disrupts their sensors."

He shook his head. "The chandelier--"

"--needs no tending," she said. "And is tended by nobody. There are things here, and I suppose they're servants of the winds, but they're just mechal beings. You know mecha?"

He nodded guardedly. "Flora, fauna and mecha. Like the stone mother. But those are just beasts."

"And this is like a hive for some of them. It looks like a human house for reasons it would take hours to explain. It's not a Wind place; just a mecha house."

"Then why are people killed who try to enter?"

She sighed. "The same reason people are killed when they enter a bear's den. They protect their territory."

"Oh."

"Come on. Let's find the lavatory." She picked up the gauze, half wrapped it around herself, and walked dripping up the stairs. Jordan hurried after.

The halls upstairs were carpeted luxuriantly. Lady May indifferently trailed mud footsteps through the red pile. Jordan walked in her footsteps so as not to soil it even further. His heart was pounding.

Lady May found a huge marble-sheathed room full of fixtures and appliances somewhat familiar to Jordan, but more ornate and absurdly clean. As she entered light sprang up from hidden lamps near the ceiling. Jordan started and stepped back, but she ignored the indication that their presence was known, and went to a large black tub. "Aaah," she sighed, letting her cloak slide off her shoulders. "I need this." She began let water into the tub from somewhere.

"You've been here before," he accused.

"No. This is just a very familiar building plan." She began to unlace her shirt. "I am about to bathe," she said in her slow drawl. "We must both remain close to the sensor sheet, so do not leave the room; but I would appreciate it if you turned you back while I disrobe."

Embarrassed, Jordan turned around. "What you might do," she said, "is clean my clothes for me. I'll do the same for you while you bathe." A sodden bundle of cloth and leather hit the marble next to Jordan with a splat. "Just dump the cloth in that hopper there, and put the leather in the one beside it for dry-cleaning. The boots can go in there too. The mecha will clean them for us."

"Why would they do that?" he asked as he went to comply.

"The mecha keep this house for inhabitants just like us. They have ever since the beginning of the world. The manses were to be the estates of the first settlers here, as well as libraries and power centers. Their tenants never arrived--or at any rate, they didn't recognize them when they did arrive. So they wait. But they're more than happy to fulfil their household functions as long as they don't think we're intruders."

"And this cloth somehow fools them?"

"Yes. It's a machine." He heard her stepping into the water. "Aaah. Do you know machines?"

"Yes. Machines are a kind of mecha."

"Other way around, actually. Mecha is a kind of machine."

He puzzled over that, as he sat down cross-legged facing the still-open door. The hallway was dark; he heard the sound of rain tumbling against distant windows.

"When we've bathed and eaten, Jordan, I will explain to you why I had to take you away from your family, and just what your dreams about Armiger mean."

"You know why I'm having them?"

"I do. And I can end them. If you cooperate. That's why I came to you."

"But--" he started to say for the tenth time that he knew nothing that could help her, but a sound from the hallway stopped him. He scrabbled backward on hands and knees. "What was that?" he whispered.

Lady May was sitting up in the tub, one arm across her breasts. Steam wreathed her. "Probably some mechal thing. Cleaning the carpet, I'll bet. Here, come close and get under the sheet." She drew it up from the floor and draped an end over herself.

Jordan hurried to comply. They could hear a delicate clinking sound now, like wine glasses tapping one another, and then a long slow sliding sound, like a rough cloth being drawn across the ground. Jordan was terrified, and huddled next to the tub. Lady May sank back under the water, just her face showing. The gauze fell into the water and made a flat floor across it.

Something moved in the doorway; Jordan held his breath, eyes wide. He thought he caught a glimpse of golden rods rising and falling, of glass spheres cradling reflected lightning, and then the thing was past, tinkling on down the hall.

He let his breath out in a whoosh. Lady May sighed, and her wet hand rose to clutch his shoulder. "You're safe, Jordan, much safer than you realize. Safer than you were in that village, after you started dreaming."

"I don't believe you," he said.

"Your worst enemy is yourself," she said, and her hand sank back again.

§

They ate well in a dining hall of royal proportions. Jordan had spent the most luxurious half hour he could ever recall bathing in the marble tub. His clothes were now clean and dry, and Lady May had lit a fire here in the hall, in a large hearth with stone gargoyles on the mantelpiece. It looked as though no one had ever lit a fire there before. Warmth against their backs, they contemplated the rain-streaked darkness of the windows, and Lady May told him the names of some of the people on the painted ceiling.

"The stories those paintings tell are traditional stories, older than Ventus itself."

"How can a tradition be older than the world?" he asked.

"Mankind is older than this world," she said in her measured, confident voice. "The Winds made Ventus for us to use, but then they rejected us. Have you never heard that story?"

"Yeah," he said, looking down at his plate. "We made the Winds, the Winds betrayed us and trapped us. They teach us that at chapel lessons." His fingers traced the perfect circle of the china; he was here, and alive, in a place of the Winds. "It always seemed very remote from real life."

"You're very lucky to be able to say that," she said. "Listen, when did you start to dream about Armiger?"

"A couple of days... a day before Emmy ran away, I think. Was it you who did that to me?"

Now it was her turn to pretend to examine her food. "Yes, but I had no idea it would be so traumatic for you. And it wasn't originally our plan to kidnap you this way. But let's go back a step or two. How do you think I was able to get you to dream about Armiger?"

"You said he put something in my head," he said. "But why should I believe that? I never felt it before. I think you put it there, that night."

"You believe what you want," she said with a smile. "Meanwhile, I'll tell you my version anyway. Armiger did put it there, probably six years ago, when he first arrived on this world." He looked over quickly. "Yes," she said, "Armiger is not from this world."

"What other world could there be?"

"We'll get to that," she said. "Armiger came from another world. And when he came to Ventus, he made you and a number of other people into his spyglasses. He could see through your eyes, hear through your ears, all these years."

Jordan suddenly lost his appetite. He put a hand to his forehead, thinking of all the minor shames and crimes of his youth.

Lady May went on indifferently. "He didn't care about you, or what you did, of course. He was looking for something."

"What?"

She sat back, her mobile face squinched into a speculative look. "Not sure. But we think he came here to conquer the Winds."

Jordan shot her the kind of look he reserved for Willam's less-successful jokes.

"Hmm. I guess it would sound crazy to you. Tell me, what specifically did you dream about Armiger?"

Any former reluctance he'd had about revealing his dreams was gone; Jordan now hoped May would be able to remove them, the faster the better he satisfied her. He began with the first dream, and she listened patiently as he described Armiger's death and burial.

"You remember him writing his name in the mortar? That was real, not an actual dream?" Jordan nodded; he felt he could tell these visions from dreams.

"Strange. He's faked his own death. I wonder why."

"Tell me what they mean!"

"Okay." Lady May turned her heavy wooden chair around to face the fire, and stuck out her boots. They listened as something clittered by in the outside hall, and her hand hovered near the protective gauze until it was gone. "In the first dream, you say you saw a great battle, which the Winds interrupted.

"If that was a true vision, he has been defeated here, just as he has in space. Maybe Armiger only just received a transmission telling him about the greater defeat off-world. You see, a little while ago a battle was fought among the stars. I was there. And I helped destroy a creature rather like the Winds. A thing that went by no name, only a number: 3340." Firelight caressed her features as she spoke. "This creature had enslaved an entire world, a place called Hsing. There are other worlds, Jordan. Other places than Ventus where men walk." He shook his head. "Well, anyway, 3340 has been destroyed. But some of his servants survive. One of these servants is Armiger.

"Armiger was sent here six years ago by 3340, who hoped to find a way to enslave the Winds, and thus take all of Ventus as its own. And Armiger sent out his machines to try to find the Achilles' heel--the secret vulnerability--of the Winds.

"I'm sure you know the Winds destroy all machines that are not of their own devising. They did this to Armiger's first probes. He tried hiding some probes in animals, but the morphs discovered them and took the probes out. But he had learned that the Winds do not change humans the way they do other life here. The morphs can kill, but they do not change people, do they? Only animals. So he realized he could hide his probes in people. And he did so. One of those people was you."

"I would remember," he protested.

"No, it was done in your sleep, using very small mecha. That's all the probe is, a mechal infection on your brain. Nanotech, we call it. And for six years he roamed Ventus, casting a wide net to learn as much as he can about this world. In order to learn how to conquer the Winds."

"You can't conquer the Winds," he said. "The idea is absurd. Armiger must not be very bright."

"Maybe, maybe not." She shrugged. "His master had enough power to spare to send him on a mission that had no guarantee of success. But what if he did find a way?"

She left the question hanging. Jordan stared at the fire, and tried to imagine the sovereign Winds bowing to another power, to the thing that had scratched its own name on the inside of its tomb.

"Armiger," Lady May said, "wanted to become god of this world. But he had a master, from whom all his power came. Armiger is only a spy, possibly an assassin. And he has learned that his master is now dead." She steepled her hands and glared into the fire. "So now what? Is he free to pursue the plan on his own? Your story suggests he's gone mad, but he may just be going to ground, dropping from sight, which would make sense if he suspected we were going to come after him."

Jordan blinked at her. This was too strange to question; he could not fit any of it into his understanding of the world.

Lady May seemed to sense his confusion. "The rest is simple," she said. "All 3340's agents are being hunted down and killed. Axel Chan and I have come to find Armiger, and destroy him. Destroy it; Armiger's not a human being like you and me."

"But he died."

"And you went on receiving from him after he died? He's not dead, although he might not realize it himself yet, if he has gone insane. When we came here, Axel and I could not discover Armiger, but we found you. And we found there was maybe a way to use you to find him. Our intention was to hire you away from your father, as an apprentice. I travelled with Turcaret for credibility's sake, to negotiate that with Castor. Castor would have none of it, though; maybe it was Turcaret poisoning his mind about your sister, he realized he couldn't shatter the whole family and chose Emmy. We were stuck until your sister ran into the woods. You see," she shot him a conspiratorial smile, "it was the perfect opportunity, and I really had no time to explain."

"So you made me dream."

"I'm not sure why that's happening. He seems to be broadcasting a signal to his eyes and ears. Trying to summon them home, maybe. A good happenstance, since we still can't track Armiger directly through your implants. But you can tell us where he is. Better and better."

"For you, maybe." He stood up and walked away from the fire, to peer out the rain-runneled window. Instead of telling him something he could make sense of, she'd prattled a tale of insanity. "You're telling me you're from the stars, too."

"I am." She laughed. "Oh, Jordan, I'm sorry we had to meet this way. Our intention was to hire you, and you were to receive all the benefits of our knowledge and skills. We were going to pay you better than in coin for your service, and you would return home equal to Castor or any of the monks in your wisdom. You see, we did plan to tell you something about the world you live in--the truth, not the myths you were raised on."

He heard her stand and approach. Close behind him, she said, "And I will still honor that intention. We have more to make up for now, but I promise you we will make it up. Money is the easiest thing; I can pay you in knowledge, and wisdom."

Jordan had lost the safety of his village and family. Calandria May had told him a tale which, in the normal course of things, would have sparked his imagination; it made a good tale, people up there in the sky, fighting nameless gods and stalking a demonic assassin across the plains and mountains of the world. Now, though, he could only shake his head dumbly, and try not to think at all.

For a while they stood looking out at the storm; when he glanced at Lady May again, her eyes were hooded, her carven features masklike. But she caught his eye and smiled, not with her usual harsh amusement, but with sympathy. In that moment she was beautiful.

"Let me show you something," she said.

§

She led him from the dining hall to another giant room. Though there was no fire, it was just as warm in here, almost too warm. Jordan had seen lights coming on as they entered other rooms, so he was ready when those strangely steady spots of illumination pinioned scattered armchairs and tables. He wasn't ready for the vista of the walls around them.

"Books!" Castor had a library, but it must amount to a twentieth of this bounty. The ornately decorated wooden shelves rose to three times his height, and they covered all the wall surface. "There must be thousands!"

"Yes," she said. "A tiny portion of the knowledge of the human race as of one thousand years ago--when Ventus was settled." She strolled along the shelves, trailing one hand along the spines. "Ah. Try this one." She pulled a thick volume out. "You can read, can't you?"

"A little." The book she handed him was well-made, leather bound and solid. It had a title written in letters he knew, but the words made no sense: Baedeker's Callisto, it said. He flipped the book open to a random page.

"What language is that?" she asked.

"Not sure..." He puzzled over the text, which was perfectly inscribed. Actually, he recognized a lot of the words, and with a bit of puzzling, he could make out what it said. "It's a description... of some place where you can eat?"

She looked over his shoulder. "Ah, yes, the Korolev restaurant strip. I don't think that exists any more, but the city of Korolev does." She flipped the page for him; Jordan found himself looking at a colorful map of roads and towns, all on a surface strewn with circular formations.

"This is a tourist guide," said Calandria. "For another world. It's written in an archaic version of your language. Now, why would the Winds have books? Aren't they omnipotent and all-knowing?"

"I... don't know."

"Books are for human readers," she said. "As are armchairs, and lamps. This manse was made for you, Jordan. But the makers and maintainers no longer know that."

He flipped to another page. This one held a photograph, of much better quality than those hanging in Castor's great hall. It showed a white landscape under a black sky. There was a moon in the sky, but it looked all wrong: orange, banded and huge.

"There is much to the world," said Calandria May. "And there are many worlds. Come, it's time we slept."

Jordan remained awake long after they bedded down in a room opposite the marble washroom. He lay staring at the canopy of the great bed that had swallowed them both. He was afraid to sleep lest he open his eyes in a cold tomb, but also he was aware of a deep current within himself, bringing a change he was not ready to face. The lady had told him a fabulous story, and he wanted none of it. He wanted his home, his work--even Ryman would be good company right now.

He had been stripped of that--and stripped of the only other thing he knew, which was the certain safety of his own mind. And yet he still breathed, and walked and ate. Then who was he? He no longer knew.

There were demonic Winds in the mythology known to Jordan, who gave and took away. In one story he knew, such a creature granted immortality to the generalissimo who craved it--but only after removing his sight and hearing. These Winds often gave and took away, but sometimes they only gave, and the torment of the recipient of the gift took the form of doubt: why should the demon give me this if demons only harm? In some stories, the gift's recipient came to hate and fear the gift because no harm had come from it, where everything they had heard told them some should. Suspicion ate these people from within.

It was easy to see Calandria May as such a gift-giving Wind. It was clear what she had taken away; at the same time, her words placed Jordan in the middle of a tale so wild and fabulous he could not believe it. But when he closed his eyes they opened in Armiger's face, and she was the only one who made that experience sensible to him.

He tossed and turned, and also lay at times looking at her. She seemed to sleep like a stone--the sleep of the just? Her ability to sleep soundly was another sign of her arrogance, he felt. But in sleep her features softened, and he told himself that maybe her true character was revealed now, maybe she was gentle at bottom, maybe he could trust her.

She seemed to trust him, for he was neither drugged nor bound tonight. Although, where would he run?

At length, still wide awake and needing to relieve himself, he rolled to the edge of the bed and groped underneath for a chamber pot. There wasn't one. Maybe it was on her side. He crawled out into surprisingly warm air, and rooted around past her boots. There was no pot under the bed. What did these people do if they had a need, he wondered, then remembered that no actual people lived here.

He had almost grown used to this place. There was nothing threatening in this room, and the gauze draped over their covers guaranteed their safety. Still, he wasn't about to venture out of the room without it. The washroom was right across the hall. No harm would come to Lady May if he walked across and back carrying the gauze; he would be able to watch the doorway from the washroom. Gently, he drew the gauze off the bed and folded it once around himself. Then he padded to the doorway and peeked out.

Nothing. Quickly he hurried across to the marble room and felt about in the dark for the toilet. He pissed hurriedly, feeling exposed the way one does in the woods.

He heard a faint gasp. He frowned and turned to look to the doorway, and as he did Calandria May screamed.

"No no no!" He ran out into the hall, but stopped in the doorway to the bedroom. A thing was on the bed, and its great golden limbs bounced from the canopy and down again as it tried to stab Lady May. She was holding onto the yellow blades at the end of the thing's arms, and was raised and flung down repeatedly as it tried to get past her hands to stab her. Blood ran black down her wrists, and from her throat. She was still screaming.

Jordan stood frozen in horror. It could not have crept past him as he stood in the lavatory, he would have seen or heard it. That meant it had been in the room all along, either on top of the canopy, or... under the bed.

He backed away. He had the gauze--he could make a break for it now, and nothing in this place could touch him. If Lady May wasn't dead she would be in moments. He could escape.

And run until he had to sleep? And then to awake with Armiger in his tomb? What, now, could he escape to?

One of the golden thing's legs was right at the edge of the bed. Jordan tried to shout--it came out as a choking sound--and running forward, he kicked at that leg. The thing lost balance and toppled past him onto the floor.

It rose in a flurry of hissing, whirring limbs. He expected it to attack him but it didn't, instead moving around him to remount the bed.

"No!" He dove onto the bed, raising the gauze above himself. Terrified, staring into glass curves and white metal, he still heard Lady May moving behind him. "The sheet," she croaked.

The mechal thing's arm struck past him. It lifted Calandria May and tossed her across the room in one motion as though she weighed nothing. She broke an ornate side-table in her fall, and skidded on into the wall. The thing went after her.

Before it reached her she was on her feet, eyes and teeth glinting in the faint light from the window. "Bastard!" she hissed, and Jordan didn't know whether she meant it, or him for abandoning her to it.

It struck at her but she ducked out of the way and came up with a piece of the table, which she swung like a club. She hit it and the bit of table shattered. The mechal killer fell back.

"The sheet!" she screamed. Jordan leaped off the bed and ran to her. They hunkered down under the thin stuff. It seemed a suicidal maneuver to Jordan, like closing one's eyes to danger. But the golden thing paused, glass globes whirling this way and that. And then it reached down and picked up part of the ruined table--and another part, and more, piling wooden flinders in its arms. It was cleaning up.

Lady May groaned and slumped against the wall. Jordan took her hands and opened them, expecting to see her cut to the bone, and her tendons severed. She had numerous long thin gashes on her palms and up her wrists, but nothing very deep. And the wound in her throat was also shallow; it had nearly stopped bleeding, though the thin shirt she had worn to bed was soaked.

"How--?" Jordan snatched his hand back from the examination. She opened her eyes and smiled faintly at him.

"No bruises, no deep cuts. I know. I wear armor, Jordan, but under my skin, not over it. I can't be cut deeply. And in my blood is a substance that goes rigid for an instant if it is shocked. Getting thrown across the room is... nothing." She coughed. "Almost nothing."

"Let's get out of here," he said.

She stared at the golden creature which was tidying up the bed now in a fussy manner. "Actually, yes, let's."

They gathered their shoes and clothes from under the bed. As they staggered out of the room she said, "Next time you have to go, use the chamber pot."

He started to protest that there hadn't been one, then thought of the golden thing hiding under the bed. Incongruously, the image of it putting the chamber pot into his groping fingers came to mind. To his own horror, Jordan chuckled, and wonder of wonders so did she, and then they were both laughing out loud, and it felt good.



















5

Armiger tried to open his eyes. Something had changed. Deep within him, all his voices still mourned. But something had pulled him back into this body, where he had never expected to return.

His eyes wouldn't open completely. The lids were drying to stiff leather, and the orbs beneath had shriveled. All he saw was ruined blackness. He was still in his niche, closed in on all sides with stone, as was proper. His neighbors were the dead, and he should feel kinship with them now. He was also dead.

Life to him had been so much more than this one body, that its own survival meant nothing. He was a god, composed of living atoms and enfolding within himself the power of a sun. His had not been a single consciousness, but the coordinated symphony of a million minds. Each thing he touched he felt in all ways that were possible; and each thing he saw, he saw completely and was reminded of all things. All was in all for him, and he had acted decisively across centuries.

He had been brought low by an army of creatures as thoughtless compared to him as bacteria. They were led by a woman to whom he was incidental, merely an obstacle to be removed. And when she killed him, she had no idea that something whose experience exceeded that of her entire species had died. All the questions she could ever have asked, he had answered long ago. She was ignorant, and so all of his wisdom was lost.

This body had no purpose without that greater Self. The fact that it still moved and breathed was irrelevant; the motivating soul was gone.

But lying here, senses blocked, embalmed and shriveling as was proper, Armiger had continued to think. He was locked in the paralytic cycle of grief; all his thoughts had turned on the higher Self, predicated by its existence, and with it gone, every thought hit an impasse and locked hard. He could have no notion, no memory, that did not run up against that barrier, so Armiger's mind was now a chaos where no thought finished forming, no purpose completely crystallized. Jagged nightmare images, half-memories and monotonous fragments of impulse echoed on and on. The flesh of this body would turn to dust, but Armiger's real body was a filamentary net of nanotech, and that would last for centuries. So would the echoes of grief.

And nothing should matter, nor disturb his rest. But his eyes had opened.

A faint vibration sounded--footsteps. The sound of someone walking in the catacombs had waked him. Whatever walked was bipedal, with the same period to its step as a man--but it could still be anything. Maybe one of Ventus' mechal guardians, come to dissect him.

It didn't matter. He tried to shut his eyes, but they would no longer obey him at all.

He couldn't stop listening, either, as the footsteps approached, paused nearby, and came even closer. A second set of steps approached, then a third. Now he heard voices. The men were standing just outside his niche.

Anger emerged from the chaos in Armiger's heart. He should be left in peace. Humans had no idea of his pain; they had killed him, and were they now here to desecrate the remains, play with his corpse? His throat caught in a gesture that would have formed a growl, if he still had lungs to breathe with. His fists rose at his sides, struck the stone overhead, and fell again, trembling.

The anger possessed him. It stilled the mourning voices. Armiger's attention turned to the wall behind his head as the first blow of the hammer fell outside.

§

"He's a general, he's not going to have jewelry," muttered Choltas. He looked around uneasily.

The oldest of the grave-robbers, Enneas, watched him good-humored. Choltas had been into a couple of mounds near Barendts city; the operations had consisted of surveying and tunnelling, based on the assumption that the burial chamber was at the center of each mound. They'd been right once, but the chamber had collapsed long ago. They had sifted through clay and stones in a suffocating tunnel by the light of fireflies tethered with horses' hairs. The operation had taken weeks, but was worth it when they turned up some sintered metal, a little gold and a jade pendant in the shape of a machine.

Choltas had been scared then; how much more so was he now in his first catacomb. This hall was low and wide, so that Choltas' lantern lit a spot of floor and ceiling, and only hinted at the rest of the space. He kept starting and looking around, because every now and then the lantern light would gleam off a slick surface of one of the pillars that lined the place. Enneas knew they could play tricks on the eye; he had been here before. If you let your imagination run away with you, the pillars looked like men, standing still and silent all around.

"He could have anything," Enneas said. "You never know what a man will choose to be buried with. If nothing else, if he's high-born, there's the gold in his teeth."

Choltas grunted. Corres, the third member of the party, waved impatiently from a ways down the gallery. His impatience, Choltas knew, was not due to fear, but a simple desire to get an unpleasant job done. Corres had no imagination, no apparent feelings, and seldom spoke. Enneas had no idea what he did with the money he made in these tombs.

They joined him near one wall of the passage. "It's somewhere along here," said Corres. He swung his lantern, making shadows lean up and down the hall. Corres was merely trying to get a good view, but Choltas watched the moving darkness with growing alarm.

"It's okay," Enneas said, patting him on the shoulder. He pitched his voice at a conversational volume. "This is our place of employ. We belong here." Choltas stared at him wide-eyed. Enneas chuckled.

Well, it was almost true. Fear battled anger in Enneas' stomach every time he entered a tomb like this. The fear was natural; he'd never reconciled himself to death. The anger was more powerful, though, and it had to do with Enneas' legacy: his family had fallen from one of the highest positions in the republic. The deciding moment in his life had been the day his mother took him to visit burial mounds of some ancient warlords. "Your ancestors are buried here," she had said, gesturing at the earthen hills, each surmounted by a fane of pillars. He'd imagined men and women with his family's faces standing at attention under those hills, watching him. Their eyes had accused: you are poor, they had said. You are no longer one of us.

Enneas had naively believed that fortunes lost could be regained. His youth had been a comedy of failure; he could enter no guilds, influenced no inspectors with his painstakingly written political letters. Business ventures begun with pride and faith in his fellow man had ended in betrayal by his customers and friends. One day he had found himself wandering penniless near the field of mounds. He was damned if he would beg. And his ancestors' eyes followed him as he walked among them. He decided to shut their eyes once and for all, and had started digging.

And now he was wealthy. Choltas, too, was from a fallen house, though he was too young to be bitter. Enneas had taken it upon himself to spare the youth the detours that had brought him to this point. Even now Choltas wasn't sure he wanted to live this way, but Enneas kept at him. Tonight was an important test for the boy.

The wall was full of niches. They were not shallow and broad, as in most catacombs, but were deep holes into which a body could be inserted feet-first. The builders of this place had planned it to be used for many centuries, but their nation had been overrun sometime in the dim past. The city this tomb had served no longer existed, so it was seldom visited. The general's army had been camped nearby, otherwise he would have been buried elsewhere. Good luck for the robbers, for although the heavy stone that covered the main entrance could not be moved by less than thirty men, there was another way in which Enneas knew about. It had been easy to convince Corres to come here--nearly impossible to convince Choltas.

"I don't like this," said Choltas. His round face bobbed palely in the lantern-light. He stared in frank terror at the bricked up niches Corres was passing his hands over.

"Quiet," said Corres. "Look for new mortar."

"The sooner we find him the quicker we can be out of here," Enneas sensibly reminded the boy. He joined Corres at the wall. The floor around this whole area was scuffed. The burial party had come straight to this section of wall. No set of footsteps ventured into any of the other halls, unsurprisingly. The superstitious soldiers who'd put the general in here had wanted to get the job done as quickly as they could, and get out again. Enneas imagined they'd looked around themselves fearfully just as Choltas did now.

And his own pulse was racing. He wanted to leave--but each time he thought that, he remembered poverty and disappointment, and his feet remained planted right here.

"It's none of these, they're all old," Corres complained. "And the letters make up other names, I think."

"Yes." The general had not been buried in any of the top or middle niches. Enneas lowered his own lantern and examined the row of low openings at floor level. Several were bricked over, and two of these fell in the center of the scuffed area. "It's one of these."

Choltas backed away. "We shouldn't be doing this," he said.

They both looked at him. Corres was unslinging the smith's hammer he carried for this kind of work. "Getting traditional on us?" he asked.

"It's--it's wrong," said Choltas. "There must be a better way to..."

"To live?" Enneas was annoyed. Choltas was shaking; this would not do. "You can be a beggar, Choltas, you can do that. Go on--leave us and take up your position on some rainy street. And every time a copper piece clinks into your cup, remember that for every one of those, a hundred gold sovereigns hang in the purse of a dead man, vaulted away underground where they'll never buy any child a year of meals, least of all yours. And when they spit on you and call you useless, think how useless those sovereigns are. Now don't be foolish. We have a job to do." This was a rehearsed speech, but his delivery had real passion behind it, and it seemed to work. Choltas' shoulders slumped.

Corres tapped against each niche. "The right one seems newer," he said. "It's hard to tell."

"We'll open it first, then try the other one," said Enneas. Corres swung the hammer back, then glanced at Choltas. He stood and handed the hammer to the youth. "Go."

Breathing raggedly, Choltas leaned over and swung the hammer with both hands. The hollow thuds it made didn't echo, though all the stone around them should have promoted that effect. Enneas imagined the corpses in their bricked niches absorbing the sound, shifting a bit and settling with every blow. He glanced around uneasily.

One of the bricks dented inward, and on Choltas' next blow it disappeared, leaving a black window. "Shit," said Choltas as if he'd wanted the wall to stand firm.

"Good." Corres knelt and, putting his hands in the aperture, pulled. The bricks around the opening twisted out, then fell with a clatter. Choltas dropped the hammer.

Enneas' own fear reached its peak. This was always the hardest part for him--facing the body. He knew what to do from long experience, however: use his anger to deride the fear, make fun of it and thus extinguish it completely.

"Allow me," he said. Corres grunted and stood up, dusting his hands fastidiously. Deliberately, Enneas didn't shine his lamp into the opened niche. He knelt, and stuck his arm into it.

There was no real odor coming from this niche. It couldn't be the general's, then. Oh well, it might still have some valuables in it. Enneas kept a casual smile fixed on his face as he groped around. His heart nearly stopped as his hand fell on a rounded surface covered with lank hair.

Might as well have some fun. "Here he is," he said. He got a good grip on the hair and pulled. The skull came away with a brittle pop. He stood up and thrust the skull at Choltas, not looking at it himself. "Meet general Armiger," he said.

The other floor-level niche exploded outward.

Corres was standing right in front of it. For a moment he looked down in bewilderment at the brick dust covering his boots. Then his eyes widened impossibly, and his head ratcheted over a bit, down a bit, until he stared at the black opening that had appeared by his feet.

A black hand snapped out into the lamplight. It grabbed the edge of a brick and shoved it into the corridor.

Choltas began to scream. Enneas stepped back, raising the skull to his chest as a feeble shield. He wasn't really thinking, and later he couldn't remember fear. But he remembered Choltas screaming. And he would always remember Corres standing helplessly, watching coal-black, half-dried arms widen the opening they had made, and then clasp its sides to drag a foul-smelling, lolling thing onto the floor at his feet.

One of the black hands touched Corres' boot, and he finally moved, stepping away quickly. "Hammer," he said, but Enneas barely heard him over Choltas' screams.

The general stood up. His dress jacket was open, and showed his split torso; there were no organs inside, only darkness. His eyes had dried half open. He swayed unsteadily, like a puppet held aloft without the use of its legs. His right arm swung out widely, then came back to paw at his throat. The fingers closed around a metal bar there, and pulled.

Corres had found the hammer. He stepped forward, shouting the name of a Wind Enneas had never heard him espouse, and swung. The hammer caved in Armiger's split chest, banging him against the stone wall. The general's head rolled around helplessly.

He made no sound as he stepped forward. His hand moved down, drawing a long T-handled spike out of his jaw. Now his mouth gaped open, but still he made no sound.

In the lamplight Enneas saw the black burns that covered his head and arms, and pale white flesh like ivory elsewhere. The image was burned into his memory in the instant Armiger stood with the spike in his hand, then the general moved, almost too quickly to follow.

He stepped up to Corres, and his arm came up and drove the spike into the hollow at the base of Corres's throat. Corres' eyes bulged, and his lips writhed back. No sound came, only blood.

Armiger took another step, his arm rigid before him, and the force carried him and Corres outside of the circle of lantern light.

Choltas stopped screaming, and ran. The wrong way. And that was too much for Enneas, who also ran. He banged into the stone jamb of the door to the hall, and swung himself around it to stagger in total darkness toward their entrance shaft. Anything could be waiting ahead, but he knew what was waiting behind. He heard Choltas start screaming again.

He tripped over a loose stone and fell, banging his chin and twisting his arm. Pain lanced up his neck. He stood anyway and lurched into the opening he knew was there. He expected fingers to encircle his ankle as he grabbed for each hand-hold in the rough stone shaft.

Enneas pulled himself out of a pit into starlight on the top of the hill. He ignored his sacks and supplies, and ran until he tripped and rolled over and over down the slope. He came to rest at the bottom, not badly hurt but bruised and shaken. When he stood up, he continued on at a limp, eyes fixed on the horizon where dawn was hours away.

And though the fear didn't go away, as the hours passed, Enneas began to feel again all the anger of injustice and betrayal he thought he'd overcome years ago. When he wept it was from frustration, at the end of the only chapter of his life that had been in any way successful.

§

Armiger's eyes had dried out, but he could see. His ears had withered in his skull, but he could hear the sough of wind across the top of the shaft as he neared it. Stars glowed above the lip of the pit.

He had already forgotten the humans. A deep passion they would not have understood moved him now. He climbed swiftly, as if chasing something, but what he pursued was his own meaning.

§

Choltas had heard the footsteps of the devil fade away. He knew it would be back unless he stayed very still. This was the thing's home; it would never venture out into the world above. So though he couldn't hear it, he knew it was there. If he stayed completely still, wrapped around himself in this corner in total darkness, it might not find him. But if he so much as sneezed, he knew it would be on him instantly.

Even now it might be creeping up on him silently. He wrapped more tightly around himself, and tried not to breathe.

Time passed, but Choltas did not move. When thirst began to torture him, he stayed still. He wet himself and shat in his pants quietly. And eventually, delirium overcame him; he heard his mother's voice, saw drifting pictures of his home.

He kept his arms around his knees, and his face buried there against his own flesh. And he breathed weaker and weaker, aware at last only of the murmur of his own heart and the torment of cold and thirst, overridden by a fear he could no longer identify.

Stay still, stay still.

Its hand hangs above me.





















6

Jordan became aware that the jolting of the cart they rode had stopped. He blinked and looked up. He didn't remember much of the past day; all he could see was the startled face of that man in the tomb, as an arm that seemed to be Jordan's own pushed the spike through his throat. And then the ticking footsteps to the stone shaft, and up and out into bright starlight.

Armiger was walking in the world again. Jordan could hear the creaking of his dry joints, as if the dreams had begun to infect his waking life. If he closed his eyes, he could even see the afterimage of some other place, a field or clearing. Armiger's steps fell like the beat of a metronome, far past human confidence. Steady and fast, day and night, he was going somewhere.

He hadn't told Lady May much. She knew Armiger was out and moving, and that he still seemed to be dead. In the dream Jordan had looked down at himself, and awkwardly buttoned up his jacket to cover the hole in his chest. The skin of his fingers was taut and black, but in the last day it had turned an awful yellow, and become more flexible.

A horrible thought had come to Jordan this morning. Surely Armiger could see what Jordan saw; wouldn't he know that Calandria May was after him by now? He had asked Calandria, and she had said, "The changes I made to your implants are supposed to prevent him from receiving you." All Jordan heard of that was the phrase supposed to.

He was sure Armiger was coming after them. If Armiger had power over life and death, how was Lady May going to destroy him? She seemed gay and unhurried. The only reassurance he had was the memory of her apparent invulnerability during the fight with the mechal butler at the manse.

He was numb by now from fear and horror, so he said nothing. He'd only spoken once or twice, when Lady May pressed him for details of the countryside Armiger moved through, and when he had asked her, "Are you like him?"

"No," she had answered vehemently. "I am flesh and blood like you." She took his palm and put it her cheek. "I've sold nothing of my self to gain the powers I have. Remember that." She smiled in her quietly confident way.

Now she was smiling in that same way, looking at the stone posts of a large gate they had come to. The road ran on, but the track through those gates was well-rutted, as if from much recent traffic. This belied the impression given by the dead ivy thronging over the posts and the verdigrised metal gates, which seemed frozen open.

"Where are we?" he asked weakly.

Her arm encircled to hug him quickly. "Refuge," she said. "We'll meet Axel here. Then we'll decide how to eliminate Armiger."

She flicked the reins, and the horse obediently turned through the gates. They'd bought this cart and the horse in a village yesterday. Lady May had paid the startled ostler well for it, foregoing the usual haggle over price and quality. Although she treated the horse well, Jordan had the feeling she took her ownership of it lightly, and would cheerfully abandon it and the cart the moment she ceased to need it. Jordan would have to work two years at Castor's to afford such a beast.

They passed down an avenue of trees. Gaps to the right showed well-tended grounds, much more extensive than Castor's. At first no one was visible, then Jordan spotted three children in bright clothing running across a lawn. The path wound down, and Jordan revived a little at the sight of warm shafts of sunlight piercing the green canopies, one lighting a stone trough by the road carved with well-worn images of the Diadem Swans.

Two giant oaks signalled the end of the grove. In the bright sunlight beyond, Jordan could see green grass and the beige stone of some vast mansion in the far background. But nearer, a few yards past the oaks, a table had been planted on the lawn. A clean white cloth draped it, held down by bowls of fruit and meat, plates and cups and tankards. Three people dressed in white livery stood by, gathering up platefuls of food. Now he could hear a continuous murmur of voices, laughter and the thud of hooves, coming through the remaining screen of trees.

As they passed beneath the twin oaks, two attendants appeared from behind them. They bowed, and one took the bridle of the horse.

Jordan barely noticed them. He was staring at the beautiful lawns, where a party was taking place.

Tall beribboned poles had been planted in the ground at wide intervals. At least six tables were scattered around the field, each piled high with food. Servants ran back and forth between knots of people--and the people, when Jordan turned his gaze on them, were amazing. They were brown-skinned, white-skinned, dressed in bright colors, or sombre black, or barely dressed at all. Sunlight flashed off jewels at the throat of a laughing woman. Nearby, a man with iron-grey hair patted his hands on his velvet trousers, and tried again to mount a pair of stilts held for him by two long-faced jugglers. A small knot of red-skinned men were having an archery competition, their target a melon on top of one of the poles.

Calandria May looked puzzled. "What's the occasion?" she asked the servant leading their horse.

He looked back, arched his eyebrow, and said, "Aren't you family?"

She hesitated almost imperceptibly. "Guests," she said. "Of Inspector Boros. Our arrangement was made some weeks ago, but we were delayed, I fear. It seems we've arrived at an unfortunate moment."

The servant smiled arrogantly. "We have plenty of room." He gestured to the manor.

This place put Castor's to shame. Massive fluted pillars framed the entranceway, iron lamps perched upon their capitals. They did not hold up a roof, but were open to the sky. The building's facade was of tan stone, filled with windows, each framed by pillars. Statues posed on the rooftop corners, and more stood in niches in the walls. Three storeys were indicated by the windows, and by the width of the place it must sprawl around a central courtyard large enough to hold Castor's mansion.

Behind the profusion of chimneys on the roof, a bleak grey fortress tower rose incongruously. Its sides did not curve smoothly, but in juts and acute angles; it seemed to have been built of stone triangles. Black stains like tear tracks wove down its sides.

As the cart passed near a group of revellers, a tall woman in severe black and scarlet excused herself and walked over. The servant stopped them as she approached, and Lady May hopped down from the cart and curtsied to her.

"Good grief, are you a boy or a woman?" laughed the lady in a deep voice; Calandria was still dressed in buckskins. The lady made a fluttering gesture with her hand near her breast. Silver chain in her hair glinted as she cocked her head. "And which side of the family are you from?"

Lady May curtsied again. "Neither side, I fear, Madam. I am Lady Calandria May, and this is my charge, Jordan Mason." Jordan started at the sound of his own name. He stood awkwardly and bowed. "I wrote asking for the hospitality of the house some weeks ago, and received it," Lady May went on. "If we have come at the wrong time, please let us know."

"Nonsense," said the lady. "Make yourselves at home. I am lady Marice Boros. My husband is, alas..." she smiled for the first time as she looked around, "missing. You see, we are having the first family reunion in a full generation, and the clan has grown to unmanageable proportions. These are all my kin." She swept her hand to indicate the throng, then turned and frowned at the vista. "Oh dear, they are, aren't they? Well, no matter, we will accommodate you. Alex," she said to the man holding their horse, "put them in the tower." She nodded sharply to Lady May. "I trust you will join us for dinner? I'm afraid we shan't be able to give you too much attention today; I've not spoken to some of our family members yet, and will be doing that at dinner."

"We understand. Though I hope we will be able to converse at some point, your obligations are clear," Lady May said. "Oh--we were to rendezvous here with an acquaintance. Sir Axel Chan. Has he by any chance arrived?"

"Chan. Ah, of course." Lady Marice's eyes narrowed. "I think you can find him right over there."

Jordan and Lady May followed Marice's pointing finger. In a clear area of grass, two men circled each other. One wore a sky-blue silk uniform with winglike feather epaulets. The other, shorter man wore black leather. They were surrounded by a small crowd of young men, who either sipped delicate glasses of wine or negotiated bets among themselves. Abruptly the man in black stepped forward, took the wrist of his opponent and, without appearing to move, flipped him over to land with a thud audible all the way to the cart. Scattered laughter and jeers drifted over.

Lady May sighed. "I was afraid of that. I will take him off your hands, Lady Marice."

"Thank you." Marice curtsied, and walked away. Lady May started in the direction of the fight, and Jordan stepped down to follow.

The youth who'd been flipped stood up angrily. "--Slipped!" he shouted. Two of his friends shook their heads as they paid the ones with whom they'd bet.

The man in black grinned like a gargoyle. He was not tall, slighter than his black jacket and leggings tried to suggest, but broad-chested. His features were strange--flat, with a broad triangular nose and dark hooded eyes. His hair was a black tangle kept tied back in an unruly pony tail. But when he smiled, his teeth were perfect, and he smiled very broadly when he saw Calandria.

"My lady," he shouted, spreading his arms and stepping forward to embrace her.

Lady May shifted her weight slightly and shrugged. Axel Chan flew over her cocked knee and onto his face.

The crowd erupted in laughter. The young man whom Axel had humiliated smiled, and bowed to Lady May as Axel picked himself up.

Jordan's attention wavered between Axel and Calandria May. As she had before, now she changed before his eyes, her mobile face taking on a rakish smirk as she played up to the young men. "Dear sir," she said, "Our friend is not well known to you; he is to me. Hence, you can be forgiven for not being prepared for him. I, however, am surely ready for any meeting with Axel Chan." She put a hand on Axel's shoulder and shook him lightly. Axel grinned stupidly.

"Axel, you will show your worthy opponent what you did to him--later. For now, I need your ear. Get yourself cleaned up and I will meet you in your quarters."

Axel winked at the youths. "In your dreams, Axel," added Lady May, as she turned to go.

Jordan stayed where he was. After a moment, Axel noticed him, and his expression became serious. He waved away the questions from the other men, and came to stand before Jordan, hands on his hips. He smelled of wine and sweat.

"Well. Mason, isn't it?" He stuck out a grimy hand. "Axel. I met your sister."

Jordan wasn't sure he liked the idea of this rogue coming anywhere near Emmy. "How is she?"

"Fine." Axel glanced after Lady May, who was remounting the cart. "Don't tell her ladyship there, but I told Emmy what's up. I have a letter she wrote you." He grinned at the way Jordan's face lit up. "Don't do that! She'll figure it out. This is between you and me. I'll let you have it later, whenever we can escape from her clutches for a minute or two."

Jordan opened his mouth, countless questions crowding for expression. Axel gave him a friendly shove. "Be on your way, boy. She wants you. We'll talk later."

Jordan nodded, and practically ran back to the cart. He remounted it next to a scowling Calandria. "...About as inconspicuous as a tart at communion," she was muttering. "He'll be the death of us all."

They were led to the main doors of the manor, where they dismounted. Another servant preceded them into the giant rotunda of the place, and through a wide greeting hall to a glass-walled chamber which let out onto the central courtyard.

The manor wrapped almost all the way around the courtyard, which was packed with statues like a forest of stone. The neat procession of pillared windows and beige wall was broken at the far end by the strange angles of the old tower. The manor seemed to have grown out of one of its corners.

Jordan marvelled at the workmanship of the statues. They depicted men and women, mechals and desals and other fabulous creatures, and one or two were attempts at modeling the Winds themselves. He paused before one of these, which was a human form made of tortured folds of cloth carved in marble. It looked realistically windblown. The servant noticed him looking and said, "Lady Hannah Boros, six generations ago now. This was her workplace. She made all our statues," he added proudly.

One statue near the dark entrance to the tower was missing its head. The blond stone in the wound was fresh; Jordan could see a few chips half-covered by grass at its feet. "What happened to that one?" he asked.

"Hush," said Lady May. "Be discreet." The servant pretended not to have heard them.

Jordan was still puzzling over that exchange when they were shown their chamber. It was squarish and about six meters on a side, but the ceiling was a spiderweb of buttresses. One narrow window looked out over the courtyard. There was only one bed, but the servant told them another would be brought up. Other than that, the place held only a dresser and wardrobe, and a small writing desk. Sheepskins were scattered about the stone floor; it smelled of camphor and woodsmoke here.

Lady May thanked their guide. "I need clothes," she said to him on his way out. "Can you send me a tailor?"

"We have the best here, lady. Dinner is at six."

"Thank you." He left, and she collapsed backwards onto the bed. "Whew."

"Why are we here?" Jordan asked. He was admiring the stonework. This place was very solid, much more so than the manor house itself. It might even be strong enough to keep Armiger out.

Lady May had stripped off her left boot and was massaging her toes. She peered at him through the window her legs made. "We will be staying here until we know exactly where Armiger is. You have to get hold of yourself now, Jordan. We need you tell us exactly where he is, and where he's going. When we locate him, we'll strike."

"Why should I help you any further?" he asked. "When I tell the Boros' what you did to me..."

"Do you want the nightmares to stop?" she asked quickly. "When Armiger is no more, they will cease," she continued. "But only Axel and I of all the people on Ventus can destroy him. You can surely escape us, Jordan, but by doing that you guarantee you will never escape Armiger.

"Well?" she asked after they had glared at one another for a long moment.

"He's coming here," Jordan said sullenly.

She dropped her foot and sat up. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, he's after me!"

"How do you know that?"

"I... I just know."

She grimaced. "I don't think so. At least, we've seen no evidence that he's aware that his connection with you is still open. As I told you, we've taken steps to disable it so he can no longer see through your eyes. But we'll determine all of that soon. This is our headquarters now, Jordan. We are also guests here, and I expect you to behave accordingly."

"What do you mean?" he asked suspiciously.

She patted the bed next to her. He sat on the linen; it was softer than any bed he'd known, except maybe the one in the manse. Lady May leaned over and massaged his shoulders delicately. "I'm going to go talk to Axel. When the tailor comes, I want you to ask him to dress you. Not in servants' clothing--you are no one's servant now, you are the equal of anyone in this building. So waistcoat, evening dress, the lot. Do you understand?" He nodded. "And do not wander too far, but please do not enter any of the servants' areas--when you walk, you will walk in the main halls like the owners. I think this might be hard for you, but it is necessary."

He frowned. He hadn't thought about it, but it definitely would be hard. Never in his life had Jordan walked the halls of a manor as if it were his home. He was used to ducking from stairwell to stairwell, never straying beyond areas where he could justify his presence. She was right: his instinct would be to find the back halls, eat in the kitchens and leave the building when night came. He shook his head. "I'll try."

"Good." She rolled off the bed. "I'm off to tackle Axel. Wish me luck."

He watched her go, and bolted the door when she'd left. Then he went to examine the mortaring around the window, and tried to gauge its strength.

§

Axel had weaseled his way into the main building, naturally. Calandria had no difficulty getting directions to his room; all the servants knew him. He'd only been here two days.

She took the steps up to the third floor two at a time. Despite herself, she smiled as she thought of Axel tossing that fop on his ear. Outside his door she paused, looking down at herself. She still wore ragged outdoors gear. It would have been so much better if they'd arrived first, then she could have met him in a proper gown, with pearls at her ears. She sighed, and rapped on the door.

"Enter." She stepped into a lavish bedroom. It was huge--and had a perfect view of the grounds. Velvet draperies hung everywhere, over the windows and framing the bed. The bedposts were carved with leaf motifs, and painted gold. Or maybe they were gold. A woman's slipper lay half-concealed under the bed. Yes, this was Axel's room all right.

He rose from a writing desk. He had discarded his jacket, and wore a billowing blue silk shirt. "Ho!" He opened his arms as he came to her. "And don't hit me this time!"

She returned the embrace warmly. He still smelled of wine, but she knew him; he'd have taken a restorative before meeting with her. He held her for a second longer than she'd have liked, but that too was normal. As he broke away he gestured at the room. "Quite a place, no?"

"I expected no less of you," she said, eyeing the slipper.

It constantly amazed her how well Axel did in situations like this. After all, he wasn't a professional, like her; Calandria had been trained in espionage and intelligence-gathering by people who made a religion of such things. They had plucked her out of the crude reformatory she had ended in after her mother's arrest and death, and erased all links with her past and home world. Then they had given her, not a new identity, but a repertoire of identities. Calandria had spent every waking moment since then acting. Only after she had turned rogue on her employers could she behave like something approaching her true Self--and then only with close friends like Axel.

She had met Axel in deep space, on a remote, frozen planet without a mother star. He was a smuggler. They dealt to their mutual satisfaction several times, and each time she was a different person. It took him quite a while to wise up to her act, and by the time he did she had taken a liking to him. When he confronted her, she took the opportunity to chastise him for his inattention. "If I'd been hired to trap you, you'd be undergoing decriminalization now," she told him. "Count yourself lucky." He had laughed at that.

Calandria needed her disguises to move through the different societies and subcultures demanded by her work. Axel just seemed to make friends where ever went, without changing one iota of his appearance or style.

"Here, look at these pictures," he was saying now, as he dragged her to one wall. The walls were hung with large, faded photographs, apparently of ancient members of the Boros clan. "Printed on porcelain," he said. "So they don't deteriorate. Good idea, no?"

She arched an eyebrow. "I suppose." Photography was permitted by the Winds, along with other gentle forms of chemistry; Axel knew that, so why should he care about these examples? They were nothing compared with even the most primitive hologram.

Axel had picked up a decanter of wine. "Oh, do stop," she said. "It's not even dinner time yet."

"I think these pictures are fascinating," he said. "Especially this one--it's printed on vellum." He put the decanter down on an ornate dresser under one, and stretched to grab both sides of the frame. He lifted it off the wall.

An irregular hole was revealed. Set into the plaster was the verdigrised mouth of a large horn. Calandria blinked at it. Axel cupped his hand at his ear. He adopted an exaggerated listening stance. Then he made a talking gesture at her with the other hand.

She cleared her throat. "I wonder how they did that?"

"The porcelain, or the velum?" Axel picked up the decanter, and gestured at the horn. She shook her head.

He shrugged, and upended the decanter into the horn. Red wine gurgled as it drained down into some pipe in the wall, and, she imagined, straight into the ear of whoever might be listening at the other end.

Axel cackled with glee and, grabbing up the silk doily on the table, stuffed it down the horn after the wine. Then he replaced the picture, and dusted his hands. "That was the only one," he said. "Now we can talk."

"Oh come now," she said. "Why would they be bugging us? We're just visiting."

"Timing," he said. He flipped a white, plush-cushioned chair backward and sat in it, leaning his arms on the back. "The whole Boros clan is here, and that's bad. Old Yuri may think we're spies."

"Why? They seem like a friendly enough bunch. Not that I've had the time to talk to any of them..."

"Ah, you will. You're better at this than I am, I suggest we attend dinner and you can tell me who intends to kill whom. They are a murderous lot--did you see a certain statue in the courtyard?" She nodded. "Yesterday night. A duel. I didn't see who, or who lost, mostly because it wasn't pre-announced. Ambush, maybe? Who knows."

"Really." She sat at the writing desk, and looked out over the grounds. "I've never been anywhere quite like this."

"It's positively medieval," said Axel with a nod. "But then, look at their history. Six hundred years ago these people were still scrabbling in the muck, living in mud huts. Only a few warlords had any kind of power. It's actually pretty amazing how far they've come as a society, considering the ancestors of people like the Boros."

He waved at the grounds. "All this is very European in style. I'm pretty sure people must have raided manse libraries here and there over the centuries. How much would it take, do you think, to build a nation? One book of economics? Another about gardening? They saved very little from the initial disaster, so they must have supplemented it from the manses, but it was obviously hard-won knowledge, or there'd be more of it."

Calandria pictured a group of soldiers armed with pikes trying to face down several of the golden creatures she and Jordan had seen--battling their way to a manse library, grabbing a few books at random, then bolting with crystalline things at their heels.

That was interesting, but not what she had come here to talk about. "What's the occasion for this reunion?" she asked.

"Yuri called it--the patriarch, you met his wife. Marice. Good name. There's some kind of power struggle within the clan, and he wants to resolve it. The Boros are old money in three nations: Memnonis, Ravenon, and Iapysia. The revolt of the parliament in Iapysia has tipped the balance of power somehow, and Yuri wants to make sure it trickles through the family correctly. The Iapysians don't mind--they get to call in favors to consolidate their position back home. Problem is, there's two factions represented there--the parliamentarians, and the royalists. If you look you can probably make them out--at opposite ends of the grounds."

"Hmm." Calandria did look out. "Dinner will be fun."

"It gets better. There's some dispute over Yuri's position as patriarch. Which side will he support in the Iapysian thing? That's a touchy question, because the loser might decide to open the old wound of his legitimacy. That's all happening down there even as we speak."

"My." She smiled at him. "We do pick the most interesting hotels."

"Yeah. Well, we'll have to be careful not to get involved. Now: how's Mason?"

"You saw him. What do you think?"

Axel shrugged. "He looks tough. Does he know where Armiger is?"

"If he did we'd be able to send him home," she said. "No, he doesn't. That's our job for the next day or two--locating Armiger. Jordan's a bit wrapped up in his own misery right now, so we'll have to show him the advantages of his position. He's afraid Armiger is coming here."

Axel frowned. "Is he?"

"I don't know. That would surprise the Boros, wouldn't it? I guess Armiger is a walking corpse at the moment, though he may be recovering. We have to know how powerful he is before we face him. I'm wondering how we can get Jordan to find out for us."

"Yeah, yeah..." Axel chewed on one knuckle absent-mindedly. "We need more power."

"Political?"

"No, guns, damn it. I don't like this planet, Cal. The damn Winds are always watching. If you bring anything higher-tech than a wrist watch in here they'll pounce on you and rip it off. We can't face Armiger without real weapons--a plasma cannon would do."

She laughed shortly. "We stick to the plan. When we've got him in our sights, the Desert Voice will hit him from orbit."

"And then the Winds will blow your starship out of the sky!"

She glowered at the table top. "My reading of the Winds is that they have an abysmal reaction time. They let us bring the cutter down, and it got back to the Voice okay. Nothing technological stayed on the surface, as far as they know."

"Yeah, but they'll object to Armiger getting nuked. I have another idea."

She didn't really like the current plan either, so she said, "Go ahead."

"We contact the Winds ourselves. Tell them about Armiger. They're like the immune system for the entire planet; any foreign body gets eliminated eventually. Like we will be, if we stay here too long. I don't know how Armiger's lasted this long; superior technology, I guess--"

"Well, precisely," she pointed out. "He's more sophisticated than the Winds. Even if we knew how to carry on a rational conversation with the Winds, do you think they'd believe us? I'm sure Armiger's totally invisible to them. And I doubt it's going to change."

"Ventus is a lot more complicated than we thought," he said. "Some people do talk to the Winds; I've heard more stories in the past couple of days--"

"Stories? Axel, this planet breeds myths like fungus! None of the locals have a clue what the Winds are, and if they did they can't affect them at all."

"They can--there are ways. Do you seriously believe humans would co-habit this world with them for so long without working out ways to deal with them?"

Calandria looked out over the grounds again. This manor was centuries old, and the civilization that had built it was older still. And the Winds were as constant as their namesake in these people's lives. Axel could be right. "So how do they do it?"

"It's actually pretty simple. A couple of their main religions are ecologically based, right? The inner doctrine seems to be emulation of the Winds. If you act like the Winds, they treat you like one of them. And then they'll talk to you."

"Sounds too easy," she said. "And suspiciously mystical."

He threw up his hands and stood. "Believe whatever the hell you want! But it makes sense, Cal: the Winds are confused about humans to begin with. They don't know whether we're vermin or part of their grand design. How do you think agriculture gets done on this world? People placate them. It works. I think we should look into it."

"All right," she said. "You look into it. Meanwhile, I'm going to work on Jordan, and find out where Armiger is going."

Axel frowned. "He really is on the move?"

"Maybe. The Desert Voice located the site of the battle he talked about, but the forces that survived it are dispersed across hundreds of kilometers of territory. I'm going to try to get some more lucid descriptions from Jordan."

"And what if Armiger is headed this way?"

Calandria looked out at the forest woods beyond the manor grounds. "Then Jordan had better be able to warn us when he's due."



















7

Jordan smoothed the lapels of his vest nervously. He had never worn clothes like this. Their strange fit and discomfort in the oddest places was a constant reminder of his role tonight as apprentice to Calandria May. The stiffness of the fabric and the cut of the shirt and pants made him constantly arch his back, and drew his shoulders up. All the other men stood and walked the same, in an almost exaggerated, prideful posture. He had always assumed that went with their station. The idea that their clothes were made to hold their noses up amazed him. He couldn't look at them with quite the same awe as he'd used to.

He stood just outside the dining hall in a swirl of young men, who mostly spoke among themselves. He knew the language, but had no idea what they were talking about--rights, obligations, and fine points of the pecking order, it seemed. As far as possible Jordan tried to stay out of any dialogue, only nodding and smiling when it was needed. He knew his accent was guild-class, and although Calandria claimed to be able to fix that, she hadn't yet. He gave his name when it was required of him, but nothing more.

"Ah, there you are!" boomed a familiar voice. Axel Chan's hand descended on his shoulder like a vice. "Where's the lady?"

"Changing," Jordan said tersely. Axel had spoken so loudly that heads turned all over the chamber. Jordan wanted to shrink into the floor to avoid all those high-class gazes.

"Good. If she's not about, I'll borrow you for a moment." Axel steered him away from the men, past the ladies, who were preening and talking behind their feather fans, and out of the antechamber. He led Jordan halfway down the lower, stone-floored corridor that ran between the antechamber and the stairways, then stopped under a high window. Evening light suffused the corridor, gilding the stones that Axel leaned against. He grinned, slouching, and put his hands in his pockets.

"How are you doing, lad?" he asked.

"I don't like this," said Jordan, pulling at his jacket.

"It's a fine uniform. Red and gold--your choice?" Jordan nodded guardedly. "Very nice. Tasteful. We'll make an inspector out of you yet."

"Calandria says she can teach me to talk like them."

"It's no trick. You just speak slowly and flap your lips a bit, as if," he switched into an overdone upper-crust accent, "you could barely care to speak at all." Despite himself, Jordan grinned at the imitation.

Axel leaned close. "Don't worry. We're all pretending; that's what events like this are all about."

"Why are we doing it at all?"

"To fit in. Better that we be there to be spoken to than absent to be spoken about." Axel stood away from the wall and smiled archly as two ladies walked past. They ignored him. He slouched back again and said, "Now, I promised to show you the letter from your sister. Can you read?"

"A bit. I can do figures and architectural terms, and a little more."

"I'll read it to you. Your sister dictated it to me." Axel pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket. He flipped it open and began to read.

"Oh, Jordan, I miss you so much. I wish you were here right now, but Sir Chan says you have to finish a job for him first. Then you'll be back and bring lots of money.

"I'm sorry I ran away. Mom and Dad are really mad at us, though they won't say it. They just don't talk about that night. And they pray for you to come back all the time. I can't talk to them! I wish you were here so I would have somebody to talk to.

"Sir Chan told me to write something so you would know it was me. Remember that turn on the stairs in the manor, where we found the crack? Remember the note we hid there before Dad mortared it up? I know what the note says--only me and you know. The first word is 'Boo!'. Remember that?"

Jordan let his tension out with a big breath, and leaned heavily against the wall next to Axel. He smiled at Axel.

"So, it's really her, is it?" asked Axel.

He nodded. "After Sir Chan found me, he gave me letters of appointment to the king of Ravenon. I can't believe it--neither could anybody else, but Castor did. And Turcaret--you should have seen his face when Sir Chan showed him the letters. He wanted to kill Chan, I could tell, but he was afraid to. But Castor--he almost smiled, I think. Anyway, he told Turcaret not to argue, and he signed the letters, and Sir Chan lent me money to move in with the Sanglers which is where I am now. Waiting for dispatches from Ravenon, who will come to me before they come to Castor. I'm so proud, and scared at the same time. And lonely. I hope you come home soon. Sir Chan says you are okay and having an adventure. Please write me and tell me all about it."

"Can I?" Jordan asked.

Axel nodded. "But you can't talk about what we're doing, or say anything about Armiger." He looked over Jordan's shoulder at something, and smiled. "And speaking of ladies, here she is! You're a vision, my dear."

"Than you, Axel," Calandria said, smiling. She wore a long, emerald-green skirt, a bodice worked with beads of gold, and a white loose-sleeved blouse. Her hair was piled up and held in place with pearl-tipped pins. A gold necklace completed the ensemble. Her face glowed with an inhuman perfection that Jordan had guessed at but which had hitherto been hidden under a layer of grime and disarrayed hair. Surely she wore makeup, but he could see no sign of it. Despite all that she'd done to him, in that moment Jordan thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

He stammered something, and blushed. Calandria lowered long lashes and made a near-smile. "You look the proper gentleman, Jordan. Shall we join the dinner party?" She cocked her elbows; Axel immediately stepped out to take one of her arms, and Jordan hurried to place himself on the other. He felt a burst of pride as they entered the antechamber and conversations died left and right. Calandria's smile grew even more subtle, and Axel's face had hardened into an imperious mask. Jordan had no idea what he himself looked like, but strongly suspected he was ruining the effect. He tried to draw himself up as Axel had done and don a suitable air of contempt.

The hall was brightly lit by gas lamps. Jordan could see all the way to the blond stone groin vaults of the ceiling a good fifteen meters overhead. The hall was as wide as it was high, and twice as long. Tapestries hung between the narrow buttresses, depicting scenes from the long, industrious history of the Boros inspector generals: collection and taxation figured prominently, but instead of glorious victories, as true nobility would boast, the few battle scenes showed Boros' militia sweeping away mobs of rioting citizens. A huge fireplace roared at one end of the hall, silhouetting the raised chairs and table of Yuri Boros and his family and filling the room with the smell of woodsmoke. Long tables had been laid out down the sides of the hall, each length overhung by wrought-iron arches holding a lamp and trailing flowers. People were seating themselves now with the aid of black-coated servants, who paced up and down in the clear runway that stretched from the main doors at the foot of the room to the raised table and fireplace at the head. A low murmur of voices lofted up and echoed down from the arches.

When Jordan was very young, he had once watched a gathering like this through a crack in the kitchen doors at Castor's hall. He remembered none of the logic of the occasion, only the brightness and laughter, and the amazing variety of food that was carried past him. All adults had been like gods to him, the controllers and inspectors more so. He longed to find some door to hide behind, some safe vantage from which to watch the tables. At the same time, he wanted to be here, seated with his betters as if he had the right--for at least tonight, Calandria's aura protected him. So, as they took their seats at an obscure table at the back of the room, Jordan sat at his place in wonder and delight, and wished fervently he could also be peering through the crack in the kitchen door, his Self there pulling the strings of his Self here.

He glanced at Calandria's perfect face, and had a flash of insight: were she and Axel standing somewhere aloof from themselves at moments like this, pulling the strings of their public faces?

His contemplative spell was broken by the bray of a horn. Everyone was seated now; Axel and Calandria had put themselves to either side of Jordan, effectively isolating him from conversation, which was fine with him. It came to him just where he was, and he had one of those moments that is later permanently impressed on memory; his finger traced the edge of a blue-china plate such as he had seen but never touched back home, and the sleeve of his arm was red and beautiful in the white light which flashed off the knife and forks by the plate. He looked up, and as he did the main doors to his right opened, and a procession entered.

They had done this at Castor's too, he remembered, and the familiarity mixed with strangeness sent a shiver down his back. Servants dressed as highborn men and women entered the hall, walking sedately in pairs. Each wore a finely crafted mask--the death masks of the Boros ancestors. These masks probably resided in a room of their own, somewhere near the front of the manor. The ones at Castor's manor were racked on the wall in pairs, with lines painted on the wall between the hooks, plainly showing the family tree.

At festival occasions they were taken out and worn, as now. The Boros ancestors had come to visit their descendents.

The horn sounded again. Everyone stood. The masked procession proceeded up the hall within the space between the tables, and each figure bowed or curtsied politely to the head table before it turned to walk back. Polite guests were expected to have already learned the names and histories behind these masks; Jordan had never thought to do so, but then, he had never been any highborn person's guest before. He resolved to visit the mask room and learn the Boros pedigree as soon as he could.

Lady Marice stood. "On behalf of my husband, I welcome you. We have much that is serious to discuss amongst ourselves, but I pray you first enjoy this fine meal we've brought you, and forget your cares for a space."

"What does she mean about serious stuff?" Jordan whispered to Calandria.

"Something's up," Axel responded cryptically. Almost imperceptibly, he gestured at the table opposite. Jordan looked, but didn't see anything odd or unusual--just two family groups seated near one another, each attentive to Marice. Now and then glances were exchanged within each group, but not between them.

Axel nodded to the patriarch of the family closer to the head table. "That's Linden," he whispered. "Direct heir to Boros. Not by blood, apparently, but some kind of tradition." Linden was a thin, whippish man with pale hair drawn back in a pony tail. His eyes were fixed on Marice as she spoke. "And that," Axel indicated the square-faced head of the other family, "is Brendan Sheia, bastard son of Yuri and a lady from Iapysia. By the laws of Iapysia, he is the heir."

"Isn't there a civil war in Iapysia?" Jordan whispered back. Axel nodded.

Calandria touched his arm. "Can you tell me who here is a royalist, and who is a parliamentarian?"

Jordan looked from one family to the other, then down the rows of the tables, where many more sat. Marice had finished her short speech and as she sat down, the buzz of conversation started again. Now Jordan was eager to see who spoke with whom, but there was no easy dividing line.

"Bright lad," Axel said behind his head. "He's looking for the battle lines already." Calandria nodded.

Waiters swirled up carrying trays of food. A very complicated service began; Jordan knew vaguely that there was a protocol to which dishes one took and in what order, but had no idea what that was. In a fit of inspiration, he decided to watch the apprentices of two households opposite, and choose what they chose. Once a plate came to him before either of them, and he felt a moment's panic. He appealed silently to the waiter, who smiled and gave a slight nod. Relieved, he took the dish.

And so it proceeded, through a gruelling two hours of careful eating, followed by a gruelling hour of ambiguous speeches and circumlocutions. Jordan alternated between relaxed enjoyment and extreme discomfort. Despite himself he began to fight back yawns, and to keep himself awake he let his thoughts drift to his sister. He didn't want to think about his parents beyond acknowledging to himself that he was still angry with them. But as Postmistress, would Emmy attend banquets like this one? He would have to tell her about the evening, and reassure her that she could do the same at Castor's.

Except that Castor had not approved of her posting...

He shut his eyes, weary and worried again about Emmy. Her official position was a thin shield, he knew. Somehow he must accomplish what Calandria demanded of him, and return to her. Tonight, or tomorrow; soon.

Suddenly dizzy, he opened his eyes. To sunlight.

Jordan blinked, and again saw the tables and the guests, under lamplight. He craned his neck back. Shafts of evening light still shone through the oculi high overhead, but it hadn't been those he'd seen. For a mere instant, he'd seen forest light, leaves and sky.

He shook his head and sat up a little straighter. Must be the wine, he thought hopefully. With an effort, he returned his attention to the banquet.

Linden and Sheia still ate stone-faced, though their wives seemed animated enough. At the head table, Yuri seemed most relaxed, his slack-jawed pale face shining in the gas light. But, Jordan noticed, his hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat, and it wasn't hot in here. Of course, Yuri was right next to the fire.

In more ways than one, Jordan thought, and smiled. "You wouldn't wish to have the troubles of the highborn," Jordan's father had told him more than once. Just now he agreed.

Jordan leaned back and closed his eyes.

His ruined hand brushed aside twigs, revealing a forest path. With a sigh he stepped down to it. For a moment he swayed, and put one hand out to steady himself against a tree. Then he sat down.

Armiger looked up at the sky. Night was coming. He had been walking for two days now without pause; night merely slowed him down. At first it had been mechanical, aimless activity. Gradually as he walked, though, the bright air and thrum of life all around him awakened something in him--a kind of recognition, an identification with the things that grew and struggled all around. If he squinted at the sky, his healing eyes could perceive the faint threads of the Diadem swans wavering in their high seats. The Winds still did not know he was here. But while the sight of them filled him with a deep pang of loss--for they were his own kind, if distantly related--it was the buzzing insects and the gaudy flowers that he drew strength from. The swans, like his greater Self, were inaccessible.

As he walked, Armiger for the first time contemplated what it meant to be mortal.

Now as he paused on this tenuous path, he forced himself to take stock of his body. Hitherto the body had been just a vessel, rugged but ultimately disposable. Today as he walked he had begun to come to grips with the idea that this was his only body now--that his resources were finite and concentrated in this ruined husk.

His wounds were healing. If he tried he could articulate words with his split tongue, and his fingers could grip again. The terrible wound in his chest had closed, and great sloughs of skin had fallen away to reveal flesh new and pink. As he walked he had stuffed leaves into his mouth to make up the mass he'd lost, dimly aware as he did so that the human biology of his body protested. He overrode it to command digestion and assimilation. After all he was not human; he was Armiger, agent of a god.

Or he had been. What he examined now in the failing daylight was a badly wounded man, dehydrated and staggering on blistered feet. In his experience in the field, he had seen men like this weeping as they collapsed by the side of his marching columns. They tended not to rise again.

When he closed his eyes and listened to this human body, Armiger knew why. Yesterday as he walked he had wondered how the small lives around him experienced existence, unaware that he need only pay attention to his own body to know.

As long as he thought of himself as Armiger the demigod, this body's problems seemed trivial, as he had treated those dying men's tears as trivial. After all, they were so stupidly unaware of themselves as parts of the systems of army, ecology and planetary action which Armiger felt in his deepest being. What was a body, or even a mind? Get rid of it, there were more, the important thing was the system. Armiger had been the systems' awareness; they had been it also, but never knew.

While he had his tie to the omniscient power that had created him, Armiger had rarely used the brain of this human body he was in, except when he needed to understand the irrational actions of his soldiers. This body thought, and felt, like any human, but he didn't need to use that mind, for he had access to the far greater mind of his master, whose own thoughts could themselves be conscious entities.

Previously Armiger had existed as god and mind, with the body merely a tool. Now he was only mind and body. He ran his hands over this body, finding the strains and infections. He stank, he realized. The human instincts he had ignored so long quailed at the damage, the humiliation of his state. For the first time, Armiger opened himself to those instincts.

This was what his men had felt, fighting and dying. This was the essential experience of the deer and foxes he had sighted as he walked: pain and loneliness.

Armiger no longer had the god to center him, make him complete. Humans and the animals of this world had existed without such a god. How? Who are you? he asked his human side.

In wonder, Armiger realized he had sunk to his knees, was clutching himself, and crying in wrenching gusts. And now he knew the feeling of the human misery he had heard so much on this world.

"Calandria!" Jordan clutched at her shoulder.

"Shh!" She put a hand on his lips angrily.

He started to protest--he needed help, the visions were back--then noticed the silence.

Jordan turned his head. A few people were staring at him. The rest had their eyes on the head table, and only one voice in the whole hall was speaking. It was Yuri, who had risen and now stood with his arms crossed, staring at nothing while he spoke. Jordan had not heard him speak before; his voice was a high tenor, very mannered and hard to hear, even in this attentive silence.

"...Are aware of the Iapysian tragedy. The Boros clan has an obligation, as nobility in that state, to not stand aside and allow it to continue. We also have an obligation, as nobility in other states, to avoid any action that might seem to be foreign interference. That is the reason I have not acted before now. It is the reason you were called here. All three nations know the Boros' are meeting, and that we are meeting at our ancestral home because it is our home, and for no other political reason.

"Now, there are many stories circulating about the nature of the catastrophe in Iapysia. It is popularly held to be a punishment by the Winds, who are popularly held to have installed Queen Galas to begin with. Firstly, though, she was the legal heir, so she would have inherited without their help. And second, she has been committing all manner of atrocities in the name of 'reform', many of which have struck at the very heart of our social order."

Brendan Sheia glared at Yuri. "Is reform a bad word around here?" he boomed.

Yuri held up a hand, cocking his head, and said, "Not at all. But we have to face the prospect of a nation ruled only by the rabble, in the form of the Iapysian parliament. Regardless of Queen Galas' crimes, no right-minded man or woman would want to see the state headless. We would all have to deal with the consequences and, I believe, the Winds would not look favorably upon Iapysia. And we, the Boros, are part of Iapysia."

Calandria put her hand on Jordan's sleeve. "Are you all right?" she asked in a whisper.

He wanted to tell her about the visions--but that would end the evening for sure. It wasn't that Jordan was enjoying this assembly, but it was a very big thing to be here at all. He wanted to stay until the end.

He shook his head. "I'm fine." But he was beginning to sweat.

Yuri continued: "The Queen earned the wrath of the parliament, and much of the nobility, by creating a number of `experimental villages' in which the laws of the land were replaced by mock laws of her own devising. In one such, every citizen was entitled to both a husband and a wife--male and female." Yuri nodded sagely at the shocked expressions of his audience. "In another she repealed law entirely, replacing it with crass public opinion. And in yet another, she inverted all the laws of the land, so that no one was punishable for any act--instead of being punished for acting unjustly, people were rewarded for acting justly. In short, she flung a challenge into the face of decency in all its forms. All in the name of some nebulous `reform'." Yuri looked down his nose at Brendan Sheia. "We are all ashamed of the actions of this Queen, and no amount of condemnation would be sufficient.

"But she is Queen, and if she is to be dealt with, it should be by the land owners, not the rabble. So, my dear family, we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma, for the army raised and ruled by parliament is winning the war against the Queen."

Who cared? He had to get out of here. Jordan made to stand, only to feel Axel's hand clamp onto his shoulder, forcing him down again. He turned to snap at the man, but a wave of dizziness overcame him.

Strange, how reassuring tears were. They were right for this body, a healing action. Armiger had never known that about tears before, had always taken them to be some reflex reaction of his men to pain. But they freed up sorrow, and this body of his, now his only one, thanked him for allowing them.

Now he stood, wiped his eyes, and gazed up and down the path. What else did this body need? It seemed he should take it into account now that his greater Self was gone. He required proper food, yes, and shelter, warmth and rest. Rest...

He had not known that his body was so weary. All the energy he had poured into it over the past day had poured right out again as he walked. He was healing despite his great expenditure of energy, not because of it. If he wasn't careful, the body would give out again, this time permanently. He would have to find another, or exist only as the ghostly net of threads that had first come to this world. While he could survive that way, Armiger feared the loss of his human body--it was his anchor. Without it he would drift into the madness of his own sense of loss.

His body wanted the comfort of its own kind to heal it. He would see where this path led to.

Axel took his hand off Jordan's shoulder. The kid had settled down. He now appeared to be concentrating on Yuri's speech. Good; couldn't have him running off to the latrine right now. Yuri was obviously about to announce which ship he was backing, the parliament or the Queen. It would not do to be conspicuous right now.

Jordan couldn't move. His perceptions seemed doubled: he knew he was sitting at the table in the banquet hall, even felt Axel take his hand from his shoulder. But at the same time, he was far away, watching through another set of eyes. His other hand brushed leaves aside; he stumbled, and Jordan tried to put his right hand out to steady himself. It worked!--he grabbed a branch. But then the hand let go again, before he willed it. No, he was not controlling this body, only reacting in synchrony with it.

"So it is with reluctance and in full awareness that this decision will please no one, that I have to tell you the official position of the house of Boros." Yuri frowned around at the assembled family members. "In the interest of eventually returning a true monarchy to Iapysia, we must support parliament at this time."

The path wound down a hillside, and there on a shoulder of the hill, under tall trees, sat a cabin. Extensive gardens were carved out of the brambles at the bottom of the hill, where a small stream wound through this wooded ravine.

Armiger paused, breath heaving. He felt conflicting impulses--to avoid this place, since he was not strong and his body might not survive a hostile encounter--or to seek help for it now. He was desperately ill, tired and wounded.

He stood shifting from foot to foot, aware of jabs of pain every time he moved. Where else could he go? Would he walk to the edge of the world? Or until the Winds found him and wrapped him in their own unwanted embrace? That prospect was daunting.

A gasp from behind him caught Armiger by surprise, and he tried to turn, only to lose his footing. With a raw shout he tumbled down the slope, quite helpless. At the bottom he lay wondering at his weakness. Never, even in the tomb, had he felt this way. His energies were failing from the effort it took to restore his body to life. Coughing, he blinked at the pale leaves high above.

"Goddess!" The voice was a woman's. "Are you all right?"

A shadow bent over him. He heard another intake of breath. "Goddess, you are not!"

Armiger tried to lift his hand. "Please," he croaked. "Help me." His black fingers closed in fine hair.

"No!" Jordan was barely aware that his plate was skittering across the table, and off to shatter on the floor. He had fallen forward, fighting to hold back Armiger's distant body. "Run! Get away from him!"

No one was paying any attention to him. Brendan Sheia was on his feet, shaking his finger at Yuri. "This is a calumny!" he shouted. "We all know the real reason you're supporting parliament, father. It's to cut me out of my birthright!"

A gasp went around the room. Then everyone was shouting at once.

No one could hear Jordan--not those in the banquet hall, transfixed as they were by the drama unfolding here, nor the distant woman, too close to Armiger. Jordan felt her hands on him--or were they Calandria's?

A torrent of outraged voices enveloped him--"Your anger does you no credit, Brendan!" "Quiet, Linden, you traitor." Chairs toppled; ladies scurried for cover as the two Boros heirs confronted one another below the head table.

None of this mattered to Jordan. He tried with all his will to take control of Armiger's body, but it was futile. That hand in her hair... He dimly knew that Axel had him in an armlock and together with Calandria, was marching him from the banquet hall.

He fought the wrong bodies, and even as they resisted, in that distant place the one who should resist, should flee, did not. Instead, her gentle arms gathered him up.





















8

Calandria poured some wine and handed Jordan the cup. He accepted it gratefully, and hunched further under the blanket next to the fire Axel had lit in the fireplace. Axel now paced angrily at the doorway to their tower room. He had barred the door. Several times people had knocked, but he'd shouted that things were under control, Jordan was fine.

It seemed he'd disgraced them at the banquet. Jordan could still taste vomit faintly; he gulped at the wine to mask it. His hands shook, and he stared at them dumbly.

"What's wrong with him?" Axel demanded.

"He seems to be becoming more attuned to the implant. He was only able to receive when he was asleep before. Jordan, can you hear me?"

He drew himself closer to the fire. Reluctantly, he said, "Yeah."

Her fingers alighted on his shoulder. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah." He drained the wine, facing into the fire.

"This is too much for him," Axel said. "We should stop."

"We don't know where he is yet!" she retorted. "The avatar is a threat until we find him and neutralize him. You know how the gods are. We have no way of knowing whether 3340 hid a resurrection seed in Armiger. If it did, and the seed sprouts... then, everything we've done is threatened."

"There are other ways to find him."

"No!" They both turned their heads. Jordan glared at them. At that moment the two of them reminded him of his parents, ineffectually mouthing words instead of acting. "We have to do something now! He's hurting people."

Calandria came to sit next to him. "What do you mean?"

"We have to find out where he is right now," Jordan insisted. "You promised you would take the visions away when I'd told you where Armiger is. Well, let's do it. I thought after the manse that things would get easier, since you said you knew what was happening and I thought you could do something about it. But you didn't expect what happened tonight, and it's getting worse!" He hunkered himself down, trying to pin her with the reproach of his gaze.

Calandria and Axel exchanged looks. Axel shrugged, appearing almost amused. "There are three of us in on this venture now, Cal. He's got a point."

"Where's the wisdom you were going to trade me for telling you where Armiger is?" Jordan pointed out. "I haven't got anything out of this. You kidnapped me, and put visions in my head till I'm almost crazy!" He was mildly astonished at his own outburst. Of course, he'd had a few cups of wine tonight, but really enough was enough. An echo of the force that had driven him into the night after Emmy drove him to speak now.

"You seem like the Winds sometimes," he said, "but you haven't done anything for me. You said you would."

Calandria stood. "I'm sorry," she said. "I promise to make it up to you. And I realize I made a mistake in bringing you to the banquet. I didn't think you would find it so stressful."

"Wait a second," said Axel. "So he was under extreme stress tonight. And started having visions. Is stress the trigger?"

She nodded, and sighed. "Sorry, Axel. I wasn't sure of it before, so I didn't mention it. But the banquet proves it. There's a correlation between stress and his receptivity."

"Maybe if he can control his stress reactions, he can control the visions," said Axel. Jordan looked up again at this.

Calandria looked pained. "Yes, but we don't want to eliminate them entirely. On the other hand, he won't be able to learn to control himself fast enough to prevent us learning what we need to know."

"We can at least teach him how to avoid the sort of thing that just happened." Axel nodded, his arms crossed and his eyes on Jordan. "Teach him some of your tricks. Relaxation games. Mind control. We owe him that much, and you'd said we'd pay him in wisdom. So let's start paying."

Calandria looked from Axel to Jordan, and nodded wearily. "All right." She sat down again. "Jordan, we will start your education right now, if you want."

"Yes!" He turned to face her. Finally.

"This will take time, and a lot of practise. It might not even work for the first while, but with practise you'll start to get it. Okay? Good. The first thing you must learn is that you cannot do anything if you cannot control your own mind--your emotions and your reactions. So, that is the first thing you will learn. Beginning with how to relax."

Jordan forgot the heat at his back and the wine in his cup, and listened.

§

Two anxious days passed. Armiger wasn't moving, so Jordan had nothing new to report to Calandria. He knew she was frustrated by the delay; they went over his previous visions time and again, but he could provide nothing new for her. He often saw her meditating with her eyes closed, and often after these sessions she had new questions for him about the landscapes he had glimpsed: "was there a tall rounded hill in the distance? Did the forest extend in three tongues near the horizon?" He had no answers.

On the third day, on one of his infrequent breaks, Jordan went to the roof to stretch. The Boros estate sprawled out below. People went to and fro about duties that were all familiar to him. He could tell what was happening by watching the servants, though the purposes of the Boros' themselves were impossible to read.

Though politics as such was beyond him, Jordan could read the story of the Boros family home from its very stones--could tell what was added when, and in what style. If you went by the boasts of the visiting family members, the clan had always been prominent. But this tower was ancient, and the manor house new, and in between were traces of buildings and walls in styles from various periods. Jordan could imagine each in turn, and he saw large gaps between the apparent razing of one set of buildings and the growth of the manor. If this were the Boros' ancestral home, it had lain unoccupied for up to a century at a time.

This exercise was a good way to take his mind off things. And, he had to admit, he was starting to relax despite himself. Over the past days he had constantly practiced the skills Calandria May had taught him. He'd never known he should breathe from the belly, not the chest--or that his body carried tension in tight muscles even when his mind was relaxed. He scanned his body every minute or two, and every time he did, he found some part of it had tightened up, usually his shoulders. He would concentrate for a second, relax them, and go back to what he was doing. The feeling of being pursued that had plagued him was receding.

Best of all, the visitations by Armiger were no longer arbitrary and uncontrollable. He still dreamed about the demigod, but in daylight he could tell when a vision fit was creeping up on him. Using the relaxation exercises Calandria had taught him, he could usually stop it dead. Calandria encouraged him to think of the visions as a talent he could master, and not as some alien intrusion.

He knew this worked to her ends, but was prepared to go along because, at last, her ends paralleled his own. He was able to think about the visions with some objectivity, and report what he saw and heard in detail to her.

Most importantly, what he saw and heard had changed. Armiger lay in bed in a cabin somewhere to the south. He was being nursed by a solitary woman, a widow who lived alone in the woods. In his convalescence Armiger seemed like an ordinary man. His terrible wounds were healing, and the small snatches of dialogue between him and his benefactor that Jordan caught were mundane, awkward, almost shy. Armiger had not eaten her, nor did he order her about. He accepted her help, and thanked her graciously for it. His voice was no longer a choked rasp, but a mellow tenor.

Jordan didn't doubt Armiger's capacity for evil. He was not human. But what Jordan saw was no longer nightmarish, and that, too, was a relief.

"Hey, there you are!" Axel Chan's head poked up from the open trapdoor of the tower's roof. He emerged, dusted himself off, and came to join Jordan at the battlement. "What are you doing up here? The gardens are fine today. Soaking up the sun?"

Jordan nodded. "I like it up here. I can see all the buildings." Gardens didn't interest him; they were the provenance of gardeners, not stoneworkers like him.

He hesitated, then asked something that had been on his mind. "We're not staying here, are we?"

"We'll be leaving as soon as we have a fix on Armiger." Axel leaned out carefully, and spat. "Hm. Twenty meters down." He looked slyly at Jordan. "You wouldn't be hiding from Calandria up here, would you?"

"No." It was the truth, though Jordan did know what Axel meant. "She works me pretty hard." If she had her way, Jordan would spent sixteen hours a day on his exercises.

Axel shrugged. "She's trying to pack as much information into you as she can in a short time."

"But she won't answer all my questions."

"Really? Like what?"

"I asked her what the Winds are. She said I probably wouldn't understand."

"Ah. No, you probably won't. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't tell you," added Axel with a grin. "You want to know? The unabridged version?"

"Yes!"

"Okay." Axel steepled his hands, looking out over the estate. "Has she told you what gods are?"

"Primal spirits," Jordan said. "Superior to the Winds."

Axel scowled. "You see, here's one of those places where the questions will go on forever. Okay, first of all, the gods aren't spirits, they're mortal. Second, humans existed before the gods. Thirdly, we made the first gods, centuries ago. They were experiments in creating consciousness in mechanisms. Nobody knows where 3340 came from, but He was the same kind of thing as the Winds, and just as out of control."

"How could a god be a mechanism?"

"Hmmf. Look at it this way. Once long ago two kinds of work converged. We'd figured out how to make machines that could make more machines. And we'd figured out how to get machines to... not exactly think, but do something very much like it. So one day some people built a machine which knew how to build a machine smarter than itself. That built another, and that another, and soon they were building stuff the men who made the first machine didn't even recognize. Some of these things became known as mecha, which is the third order of life here on Ventus. Mecha's as subtle as biological life, but constructed totally differently.

"And, some of the mechal things kept developing, with tremendous speed, and became more subtle than life. Smarter than humans. Conscious of more. And, sometimes, more ambitious. We had little choice but to label them gods after we saw what they could do--namely, anything.

"Most of the time gods go on about their own concerns. 3340 decided its concern was us. Luckily we--humans--know how to create things of equal power that serve us. The Winds were intended to be your slaves, not your masters. Apparently there's stories here to that effect."

Jordan nodded.

"The exact design of the Winds has been lost," Axel said, "since they were a one-shot project of the European Union, and the university that oversaw the project was nuked along with Hamburg in 2078. Anyway, the Winds were created and given the task of turning Ventus from a lifeless wasteland into a paradise where people could live. They did so--except that when the colonists arrived, the Winds didn't recognize you.

"It seems there was no way to communicate with them. One of the things we don't know to this day is what the chain of command within the Winds was supposed to be. There seems to be no central 'brain' which rules the planet. And communications between the Winds seems spotty and confused. It's as if they've all gone their own ways.

"A lot of people think this is what happened. The Winds all concern themselves with the ecology of the planet, but at different levels. The vagabond moons worry about the overall distribution of minerals and soil nutrients, so they scoop here and dump there; they want to do in centuries what evolution and tectonics would take billions of years to accomplish. The mecha embedded in the grass are advocates of the grass, and they may object to the moons' dumping crap on them, say. There's no central brain telling both it's a good idea. But maybe there was originally supposed to be a central plan, that they would all have access to. Knowing this plan, the grass would acquiesce to its death by salting, or drowning in a new lake made by the desals. So, though none of the Winds were to be answerable to any of the others, they would all be answerable to the Plan, because that was the only way to guarantee the proper terraforming of Ventus.

"Humans don't seem to be mentioned in the programming of the Winds. We were supposed to be the apex of the Plan, represented as its ultimate purpose. That's what went wrong--no Plan, no accommodation for the arrival of the colonists.

"So a strange double-world has developed on your planet. Each object seems to have its resident spirit--the microscopic mecha, or what we call 'nano', that coordinate that object's place in the ecology. Originally these resident spirits were supposed to have a common goal over and above the survival of their hosts. They were to put themselves at our disposal--be our tools. But now, it's anarchy. War in the spirit world. The only ones aloof from this war are the greatest Winds, the Diadem swans, the Heaven hooks and the like."

Jordan had only understood a little of this speech. "But some people do speak to the Winds," he said. "That's how the inspectors and controllers know what crop yields should be, or where they can build a waterwheel. The Winds tell them what's allowed."

"Hm..." Axel raised an eyebrow. "I'd heard that from other people here too. Up there," he jerked a thumb at the clouds, "people don't believe it. They say your inspectors are a bunch of charlatans, holding onto power by pretending they can talk to the Winds."

Jordan crossed his arms. "I don't know. I just know how we do things."

"Right. That's fair."

"So what is Calandria May?" asked Jordan. "Is she a Wind, or a thing like Armiger? Or just a person?"

"She's... just a person. But a person with special skills, and enhancements to her body, such as the armor under her skin. I've got that too," he said, rubbing his wrist. "And I'm still human, aren't I?" He grinned.

"So how did you get here? I know you followed Armiger, but..." Jordan had too many questions; he didn't know where to start.

Axel frowned down at the distant gardens. "We were at war against 3340--all humanity was. It wanted us all as slaves. It had all its godly powers; we had our super-mecha. And a few agents who were more than human, but less than gods, like Calandria May. Last year she infiltrated a world called Hsing, which 3340 had enslaved, to try to find a way to turn the population against their unchosen god. She found 3340 had been changing ordinary people into demigods--Diadem swans or morphs, if you will--by infecting them with mecha that ate them from within, replacing all their biology with mechalogy. 3340 enslaved these much more brutally than even the humans. Cal found a way to turn them against 3340, and she did that during our attack six months ago."

"How?"

"She had to briefly become one of them herself. You or I couldn't have done it, but Calandria was able to leave her humanity behind. She became a goddess, only for a day or so. And she killed 3340."

"If she became a goddess, why didn't she stay that way?"

Axel shook his head. "Don't know. She could have kept fabulous powers; she would have lived for thousands of years if she wanted. She didn't want to. I think she was crazy to give that up. Don't understand. I really don't."

Jordan was thinking. "So after 3340 died, you came here. To kill his servant, Armiger."

"Exactly." Axel leaned against the battlement, and squinted at the sun. "What does all of this imply about the Winds, now?"

Jordan hesitated. What came to mind was impossible.

Axel nodded smugly. "You're smart. Isn't it clear? The Winds are made of the same stuff as the mecha. They are alive. And they, too, are mortal."

Jordan turned away. "Crazy talk. If the Winds are mortal, then everything could be. --The sky, or the sun, or the earth itself."

"You're beginning to understand," Axel said. "Now understand this: what is mortal can be murdered."

§

The door to their tower room was bolted; the fire was lit and candles sat on the table. Jordan, Calandria and Axel sat in imitation of some domestic scene, each bent over an evening task. Except that Calandria was not darning, but poring over a map on the table top; and Axel was not repairing tools or his boots, but polishing the steel of a wicked sword; and Jordan was not playing games or cleaning, but sat cross-legged in the center of the floor, hands on his knees, eyelids fluttering. He was trying to count to three, one digit per breath, without allowing any stray thoughts to intrude on the way. Tonight he felt he was finally starting to get the hang of it.

At two-and-a-half breaths, he caught himself thinking hey, I can do this! Stop. Back to one.

"Shit." He slapped himself on the forehead. Calandria laughed.

"You're doing well," she said. "You can rest now."

"But I had it once or twice!"

"Good. Don't push it, or you'll get worse rather than better."

He unwove his legs and stood. Two deep breaths, just as she had taught. Jordan felt great, relaxed and able to deal with things. He'd never really felt like this before... oh, maybe when he was really young, and didn't know what the world was like. All his cares and worries seemed distant, and he was able to pay attention to the here-and-now. He smiled, and plunked himself down on the edge of the bed.

"Axel tells me you have quite a mind," Calandria said. "He told me you figured out your own history of the Boros clan by reading their architecture."

"Yeah," he said suspiciously. He and Axel had moved on to talk about that this afternoon, after their conversation about the Winds and 3340 had ended in impasse. Axel had been quite unaware of the contradiction between the Boros' official history and what the stones suggested.

"Do you want to move on to a new study? You must continue to practise what I've taught you, of course."

"Sure!" He felt ready for anything. "What do we do?"

Calandria folded her map and put it aside. "We can build on what you've already learned. If you can relax, you can concentrate. If you can concentrate, you can do marvels."

"Like what?"

"Perfect memory, for instance. Or perfect control of your body, even your heartbeat. Tonight, I'll show you something to help you control your visions."

"I thought that was what I was learning."

"You've been learning how to stop them. Now you'll learn how to make them happen."

Axel looked up, surprise written on his mobile face. "Do we know that?"

"Everything's consistent," she said. "I'd be very surprised if this doesn't work." She motioned for Jordan to sit on the floor, and seated herself in front of him. "Now, close your eyes."

Jordan wasn't sure he wanted to be able to make the visions happen--he was happy that they were going away. But he obeyed. Armiger was not so frightening any more, and if he could stop a vision once it started, the prospect was less daunting.

"Now," Calandria said, "without actually doing it, imagine you are raising your hand in front of your face." He did so. "Examine your imaginary hand. Turn it back and forth. Make a fist." He obeyed. "Look closely at your hand. Picture it as clearly as you can."

Jordan did his best. "Do you keep losing the image?" she asked. He nodded. "Do you get little flashes of other images?"

Puzzled, he sat for a while. Then he realized what she meant: the hand was replaced for a split-second here and there by pictures of inconsequential things, like the washbasin in the corner, or a vista of trees he couldn't identify. "I see it," he said.

"This is what goes on behind everybody's eyes," she said. "A constant flicker of visions. As you practise the counting exercise and your concentration improves, you'll be able to damp them down, and see what you want to see for longer and longer.

"Now, as you've imagined your hand, imagine you can see your entire body. Keep your eyes closed, and look down at yourself." He moved his head, imagining his bent knees and bare feet against the flagstones. "Good. Now, keep your eyes closed, and don't move. Imagine this second body of yours is your own, and stand up in it."

He did. "Look around." Jordan pretended he was standing and looking around the room. It was hard to maintain the images; they kept sliding away. He said so.

"That's okay. Now pretend to turn around. Do you see the bench where Axel's sitting?"

He concentrated. "Yes..." He kept seeing it as a memory, from the position of the bed where he'd sat earlier. He tried to imagine seeing it as if he were standing in the center of the room.

"See his pack on the floor next to it?"

"Yes."

"Go over to the pack. Open it up. Look inside. What do you see?"

He pretended to do as she said. "There's... a knife, a book, a glass liquor bottle."

"How full is the bottle?"

Jordan pretended to hold it up. It seemed to be a quarter full. "A quarter." That was just a fancy, of course; he had no idea what was in Axel's pack.

Calandria said, "Axel, open your pack. Is there a bottle in it?"

"Yeah."

"How full is it?"

"A quarter full, but hey this is just a memory trick. I was drinking from it earlier, you both saw me."

"Jordan, do you remember seeing Axel drink from the bottle earlier?"

"I... I don't know. Maybe."

"Maybe. But you're not sure. And yet you see the bottle, and you know how full it is, and where it is. How strange, hmm?"

A strong exultation gripped Jordan. He had seen it! What he saw with his imagination was somehow real.

"Parlor trick," muttered Axel.

"Be silent!" she commanded. "Now try this. Sit your body down again where your real body sits. Close your imaginary eyes." He did so. "Imagine blackness. Now..."

Her hand touched his shoulder. Jordan struggled to keep his eyes closed. "Practise your deep breathing. Calm yourself, and see deeper and deeper black." He felt the center of his consciousness dropping through his body, to rest finally in his belly, where great strength drove slow breaths in and out.

Calandria's voice had taken on its most hypnotic lilt. "You will open your inner eyes again, but this time, the hand you see before you will not be yours, but rather Armiger's. Do you understand?"

He nodded.

"Open those eyes."

He did so.

§

The ceiling was low, and beamed. He could see the cross- pattern of thatch crooks flickering above that in the firelight.

Armiger sat up. The effort was easier this time. He looked around, fingers opening and closing on the soft cloth which was draped over his naked body.

The woman sat near the fire. Megan, she had called herself. She held a cloth sack draped across her knees, and was just positioning the second of two buckets at her feet. It was probably the scraping sound of the buckets that had woken him.

All Megan's possessions were visible within the one room of this cabin. She had three chairs, a full set of pots, cooking, and fire implements, two hatchets by the door, and a spinning wheel. Chests were wedged into the corners. Dried herbs and kindling hung from the rafters. Everything was rough-hewn, except three items of furniture: the posted bed Armiger now sat in, a fine oaken dining table and, at the wall behind Megan, a wooden cupboard with inlaid patterns of leaves. Yesterday he had lain for a while, too exhausted to move, and examined the pattern on that cupboard from his position here.

Megan was in her thirties. Her hair was grey, her face lined and wind-burnt. She was very strong, though, and still slim under the red peasant dress she wore. Now she plunged her hand into one of the buckets, and brought out a fistful of brown and white feathers. She began riffling through the mass with her other hand.

"What are you doing?" he asked. His voice sounded stronger.

Megan looked up quickly, and smiled. "How are you?"

"Better." He rolled his head, surprising himself when his neck cracked. It never used to do that. He fingered the underside of his jaw. The scar was almost gone. "I'd like to try to walk today."

"Tomorrow. It's evening."

"Oh." She began stuffing feathers into the open end of the sack, and he realized she was making a pillow. "I've been using your bed. I..." He wasn't sure what he was going to say. Thank her for that? But he had been ailing. It was a human thing for her to do, he knew; not that any of his men would have willingly done the same. "Where have you been sleeping?"

"Oh, I slept there with you the first night," she said, looking down at her work. Her hair hid her face. "You were so cold, I thought you might not survive till morning. The last few times, I've used the table. With some quilts on it, it's quite fine. The bed's mattress is only straw, anyway."

Armiger imagined her lying on the table, like a body in state. He pushed the image deliberately out of his mind.

"I'm sorry to be a burden to you," he said stiffly.

Megan frowned. "Don't talk like that. It's no trouble, all else I have to take care of is me. And I am fine. Anyway... what else could I do?"

"I was dying," he said, wondering at the thought. "You saved me."

"I've tended the dying before," she said. "Last time, with no hope he'd recover. I had not that hope this time, either. So I am happy, you see, if I could save someone." Her face fell as she thought of something. "At least this time..."

"You lost someone close to you?" He looked around, noticing the fine wooden table and bed-frame. "Your husband."

Megan nodded as she reached for more down. "You see I know about losing things. And about trying to keep them." She looked at him, almost fiercely. "You always lose it in the end--what you want to keep. The harder you try to keep it the more it goes. So now I know how to keep things right."

"How is that?"

"You can never keep a whole thing. But you can keep a part of anything." She looked sadly at the wooden cupboard. "Be it only a piece of furniture. And if you can learn to be content with that, then you can let anything go." Megan stood and walked to the cupboard. She smoothed her hand over the fine wood grain. "I would sit and watch him as he made this. He spent so much time on it. We were in love. When you lose your husband, you think you've lost everything--nothing has any value any more. Funny, how long it took to know that this was still here, and other little things. The parts of him I could keep."

She shrugged, and turned to Armiger. "And what have you lost?"

He felt a surge of rage at the mindless presumption of the question. As if she could comprehend what he'd lost! Well, maybe to her, losing her husband was the equivalent of his own disaster. "I lost my army," he said.

Megan laughed. "And nearly your life. But soldiers don't worry about that sort of thing, do they? I admire that."

He scratched absently at the back of his arm. "Good lady, soldiers worry about nothing else."

She came and sat down on the edge of the bed. He smelled pungent chicken feathers. "Now," she said seriously, "maybe I do believe that. Because you've lost something. More than your way."

Armiger stared at her. There was no way he could talk about this--words could not encompass it, they were too small. The part of him he had communed with had been beyond words, or any of a human's five senses; it had invented senses, and sense, to suit its intimacies.

He wanted to speak to her in thunder, in torn ground and shocked air. Would have, had he only the strength.

Reminded that she had given him what strength he did have, he looked down.

"I think... I did die," he said. It was the only human analogue he could think of. "I died when... She died." She was completely wrong to describe his higher Self; but Megan's people thought their souls were feminine. He struggled to find words, wrapping his arms around himself, glaring past her. "More than a wife. More than a queen. My god died, who gave meaning to more than just my life, who infused everything, the stones, the air, with it."

Megan nodded. "I knew. From things you said in your sleep. From the look of you." She sighed. "Yes, you see, we are together in that."

"No. Not like you." He sat up angrily, feeling sharp stabs of pain in his side. Megan stared at him, patient and undaunted.

He wanted to pierce her calmness, her certainty that her own pain was as great as his. "She wasn't a human being," he said. She was... a Wind."

Megan blinked. Her brow wrinkled, then cleared. "Much is made clear," she said. It was his turn to look surprised. Megan reached out, slowly, and touched the healing scar under his chin. "I know the rites of death," she said. "I have had to perform them myself."

Armiger sat back. His anger was deflated. For some reason, he felt unfulfilled, as if he had lied to her, and not merely told her what she would understand.

Everything was greying out. "Sleep," she said. "My morph."

He lay back, listening to her move about the cabin. Just before he drifted off again, he heard her say, maybe to herself, "And what part of this are you going to keep?"





















9

"This may be our last warm night of the year," said Megan the next evening. "It pleases me to see you enjoying it."

Armiger smiled at her. He stood in the center of the clearing next her cottage. The sun had just set, leaving a rose band across the western horizon. The moon Diadem was rising. The moon received its name from the scattering of brilliant white craters on its surface, which made it a dim oval studded with diamond-bright pinpricks of light. On other nights Armiger had praised or cursed those gleaming points, depending on whether night-visibility was to his army's advantage or not. Tonight, possibly for the first time, he was able to admire the sight for its own sake.

He felt content. He knew it was because he was free from all responsibilities during this convalescence.

"Strange," he murmured.

Megan looked up at the moon, then back at him. "What?"

"I should be dead," he said.

She touched his shoulder. "Your wounds were terrible. But they're healing quickly. Isn't that normal for a morph?"

"I'm not exactly a morph," he said wryly. "Just something like one. But yes, you're right." The lie came easily to his lips. Then he thought about it. Could he explain this to a mortal? He would never have thought he had an obligation to try.

Armiger lowered his eyes from the moon, and studied Megan in the pale light. She was a creature he didn't understand. His plans had rarely included women. But she stood next to him now, easy in the cricket-song and darkness, and played none of the dominance games males played. She took her own obligation to him, the wounded soldier, for granted.

"My link to my higher self," he began, then stopped. "It was more than love. We shared an identity. When... she died, I should have died too. Because there was only one of us. Or at least that's what I believed."

Megan nodded. "We all think that of our life's love. But one carries on."

At first Armiger thought she had simply not understood him. Then he thought of another possibility: Megan knew his experiences were not like hers, but she was making an effort to translate them into terms she could understand.

It surprised him to think that she might be spending her time with him doing such an odd kind of work. For it would be work, finding commonality with a stranger's experience. Armiger himself did so only as a way of anticipating the next move of an opponent.

If she'd kept her conclusions to herself, he might have believed she was doing that too. But she shared them.

"Was she killed in the war?" Megan asked.

He started to say no, since this local brushfire he had been involved in had nothing to do with the interstellar conflict that had resulted in his greater self's demise. But he could play the same game as her: what would make sense to her, on an emotional level? "Yes," he said.

"You won't go back to being a soldier, will you?"

He barely heard her. Why am I alive? When his Self died, he should have been extinguished, or at least turned back into an aimless machine.

"I thought I knew what I was," he said. Armiger had pretended to be human since arriving on Ventus. Before that, he recalled bright light and deep vacuum, vision encompassing 360 degrees, radio song in his head, and others' thoughts as well. In that existence, there had been no distinguishing his own mind from those of his companions, the other servants of 3340. And the god's will was the same as their own. The part of that vast identity that was Armiger thought of himself as an extension of the greater whole. He had assumed that when he thought, it was 3340 who was thinking, and when he acted, it was the god acting. It had always been that way.

No, not always...

Suddenly the presence of this woman at his side felt threatening. Something ancient, a memory perhaps, made him turn away from her. "I need to be alone now," he said. The harsh tone of his own voice surprised him.

"But--" she began. Then she seemed to think better, and turned and walked away quickly.

Armiger glanced back. Humans were biological creatures--mortal animals. For a second there, though, he had touched on some deep-buried feeling within himself. Megan had loomed in the darkness as real as 3340 itself. For an instant, he had... remembered? Remembered standing with someone, a human being, who was every bit his own equal. A creature like himself.

A woman.

And there and then a memory unfolded within Armiger like a long-dormant flower: of himself walking and laughing, a young man with a young woman on his arm, on a world with two moons. On a night like this.

That memory was a thousand years old.

Had he once been human himself? That could explain why 3340 had chosen him for this job. On the other hand, the god could have crafted his personality from the remnants of captured human minds. After all, a memory was nothing more than a synaptic hologram. He was sure 3340 could manufacture any sort of memory for its agents.

Armiger stalked through the long wet grass, swiping at it absently with his hands. The moon and the warmth of the night were forgotten now. He came to the edge of the woods, and turned to pace back the way he'd come, scowling.

If that had been a manufactured memory, why should it remain submerged for so long? He would have expected the god to make only useful memories, and provide them all to his agent's consciousness.

This memory... her hand in his... was an alien thing. He couldn't fit it into his purpose or identity as 3340 had given them to him.

He realized he had been kicking the grass out of his way as he walked, tearing it up by the roots. Armiger stopped, and glanced back at the cottage. Megan stood silhouetted in the doorway.

He ran his hand through his hair. Well. Evidently there was some fragment of human mentality in him. 3340 would not have sent him on this mission were that not the case. It could explain why he was still alive: for some reason 3340 had given him the same instincts for autonomous self-preservation as biological creatures had.

He told himself not to jump to conclusions. He had yet to really take stock of himself. Hitherto the overwhelming fact of his bereavement had kept him from exploring what was left to him. Maybe it was time.

He walked back to the cottage. Megan still stood in the doorway, a frown on her face. "I can't say I haven't done that myself," she said. "I'm sorry if I reminded you of things you didn't want to think about."

Armiger felt tired, in body and mind. "I need to thank you, actually," he said. "You've provided me such a safe haven here that I can finally face some of these things."

Megan beamed. She seemed to struggle for something to say. "Oh," she managed at last. Then, slyly, "then I can take your ripping up the garden as a good sign?"

"Garden?" He glanced back at the darkened field.

"You tromped right through one of them a minute ago."

"Oh." What to say? "I'll repair the damage in the morning."

She laughed. "Just do your best. I can't picture you as a gardener, whatever else you may be."

Awkwardly, he tried a grin in reply. Megan combed her fingers through her hair and bumped her shoulder against the doorjamb a couple of times.

"I'll heat up some stew if you'd like," she said at last.

"Thanks. I'm going to sit out here and meditate a while."

"Okay." She ducked back in, leaving the door open to the fragrances of night.

Armiger sat down stiffly on the uneven boards of the cottage's small porch. There was just enough space next to Megan's rocking chair for him to sit in full lotus. He gazed out over the breeze-runnelled grass. Diadem's light cast shadows like nodding figures under the trees. He closed his eyes.

Armiger decided to avoid a full neurophysiological exam for now. He just wasn't psychologically strong enough to take an objective look at how much intelligence, memory and will he had lost with 3340. He could treat his body dispassionately, however, so he started with that.

His resources were painfully low. The gossamer nanotech that made up his real body had unfurled from its usual position at the spine, and spread throughout this human form, right to its extremities. Nearly all his energy was devoted to shoring up the body's ravaged immune system. He had manufactured nano to move in and repair the dead cells of his own corpse, and until a day or so ago he had been warm and breathing only because the nano had replaced normal cell processes with their own harsh metabolism. Now the nano were easing out of revived cells and were being reabsorbed into his filamentary body. His strength was growing, but very slowly. At this rate it would be many months before he recovered fully.

He regretted having been so profligate with his power when he arrived. To think he had detached parts of his own gossamer and implanted them in humans, just to use them as remote eyes and ears...

Armiger opened his eyes. He had completely forgotten about the remotes. It wasn't surprising, with everything that had happened; they had always been a minor part of his plans, the mental equivalent of posting picket sentries around a camp. They did contain valuable nano, however. He could considerably speed up his recovery if he recovered some of that.

If it hadn't been too badly damaged by the catastrophe, he should still have links to each remote. They operated on superluminal resonances, undetectable on the electromagnetic spectrum; he had set up the links this way to prevent the Winds from homing in on his position. It was still possible to trace the signal back from one of the remotes, but that would require an understanding of human physiology and psychology that he knew the Winds didn't possess. Superluminal links were always two way--what affected one station affected the other. Armiger knew of no Wind capable of exploiting the fact to turn one of his remotes into a receiver, so he had felt safe in making them.

Shutting his eyes, he called up their perspectives. The system was weak from damage and disuse, but after a few seconds the remotes began to respond.

There should have been twelve. By the time the system was fully up, Armiger could see through only six pairs of eyes.

Even that was nearly overwhelming. Somewhere in the catastrophe he had lost the ability to process multiple sensory inputs. What came to him now was a chaos of sensations: blue cloth waving near a fire, water down a horse's flank, the feel of stone on his bare back, a warm hand on his belly--

--Pounding heart and ragged breaths gulped into a tight and painful chest.

He recoiled in pain. It was too much to take all at once. After opening his eyes and breathing quietly for a minute, he resumed, this time singling out one remote's perspective.

This other's hands smoothed the chestnut flank of his horse one last time, then turned away. Armiger saw he stood in a small stable, the sort attached to country inns all across Ravenon. This perspective belonged to an engineer who travelled the country repairing and updating the heliographs in royal signal towers. He saw a lot of the country in his travels, and more than once Armiger had used his perspective to gather intelligence.

Tonight he was idle, walking slowly out of the stable, through a light drizzle to the door of a thatch-roofed inn. Armiger stayed with him only long enough to see him slide aside the curtain to a private closet; a candle already burned next the small cot there.

Armiger turned his attention to the next perspective. This man was in bed already, but not alone. Several people sat on hard wooden chairs next to the bed in his small plaster-walled bedroom. Armiger's remote was talking to them.

"...Came at me like that out of nowhere. Why? What did I do to deserve this?" He gestured at his leg, which lay exposed above the bedding. It was thickly wrapped in bloody bandages.

"How many did you say there were?" asked a man wearing the crimson ribbons of a priest.

"Five, six. I don't know! It all happened so fast."

"Well, you must have done something to offend them."

"Not necessarily," said another man. "Maybe someone else did. Matthew was passing by. He was a handy target."

"I don't understand," whined the man in the bed. "How am I going to work now?"

"Don't worry. We'll help you."

Armiger left this perspective for the next.

Still on her back. Cold stone and pebbles ground against her hips. Her legs were wrapped around the broad torso of the man who moved against her. Past his shoulder, Armiger could see bright stars.

He moved to the next remote.

Stumbling in the blackness, he went down on all fours. His own breath was a rasping rattle in his ears. This man stood, staggering now from a broad scrape down his leg, and ran.

Through leaves and dancing branches he ran--down a hillside, recklessly, barely keeping to his feet above prancing stones--and into an orchard. The limbs of the well-tended trees stretched skyward like supplicants' arms to heaven. He barely glanced up at them. After weaving his way down an alley between the trees, he allowed himself to slow, then to pause, and look behind him.

Nothing pursued him in the darkness. He looked up.

The night here was overcast, making the darkness near total. But past the crest of the hill he had just come down, above the clouds, light shone as though men with lanterns rode some causeway there. The lights were coming closer, with apparent slowness.

He gave a cry that was more a painful gasp, and turned to run again. A cottage was visible now at the end of the rows of trees. Low, stone, with a goat-pen attached, it glowed with internal firelight, warm and inviting. He renewed his run, breathing harshly.

Armiger felt the boards under him dip as Megan came out onto the porch. She said something. He raised one hand to still her.

The runner had reached the cottage. "Lena!" he cried, then flung himself to hang on the fence around the goatpen. He shuddered.

"Perce?" A young woman appeared in the cottage's doorway--uncannily silhouetted as Megan had been earlier. "Perce! What's wrong?"

"They're coming! Just like the old man said they were."

"No. That can't be. He's crazy, we all know it--"

"Look!" He reeled around, and pointed at the glowing sky.

She screamed.

"What's going on here?" An older man and woman appeared behind the girl.

"Perce!" She ran to him. Perce reached over the fence as she threw her arms around him. "What's going to happen?"

"The old man said they wanted to take me away." Perce laughed giddily. "We never believed he really spoke to them, remember? All those years... He said they'll take me. And I'll never see you again."

She buried her face in his neck, crying. He could see her parents standing in awkward confusion nearby. They were staring at the sky.

"I came to say goodbye."

"No," she said, muffled. "You can hide here. We'll take care of you. They'll go away."

"I tried hiding," he said. "They found me--started to pull the stables down around me! I ran to the river--dove in and let the rapids take me awhile. That's the only way I got as far ahead as I did. If I stay they'll kill you to get at me. But I couldn't go without saying goodbye."

She shook her head.

"There's so much I want to say," he mumbled. "Something--I wanted to say something to let you know how much you mean to me."

He pulled away, leaving her reaching for him over the fence. "All I could think of was when we were twelve. Remember when we played hide-and-seek in the orchard? That day? I dream about it all the time. Have, ever since."

Turning away to face the darkness, he said, "That's all--I remember that day. Goodbye, Lena."

She screamed after him but he ran with renewed energy. Armiger deduced he wanted to get as far from the cottage as he could before whatever was coming found him.

Perce ran around the goat pen and down a laneway that led between more orchards. Low fieldstone walls lined the laneway, and in the darkness they closed in claustrophobically. Perce's eyes stayed down though; he seemed to know what in the dark he was afraid of, and it was nothing that might lurk behind those walls.

He had gone perhaps half a kilometer, and was beginning to stagger desperately, when he heard a ripping sound overhead. It was a sound almost like a flag in the wind, almost like the blurred noise of a sword on the downstroke, but it went on and on, rising to a deafening crescendo. Dust leapt from the laneway around Perce, and he coughed, and stopped helplessly.

Giant claws crushed him. He shouted blood as they spun him around and pulled him into the sky.

Perce saw his hands reaching down to the receding lines of the laneway, then he saw the jewel-box perfection of Lena's cottage glowing below him. It was intact. Drops of blood trailed off his fingertips and fell toward it.

Darkness fell over him like a cloak.

Armiger cursed, and opened his eyes. Megan stood above him, her expression quizzical.

Something had severed his link to the remote.

"What is going on here?" he asked himself.

Megan laughed lightly. "I was about to ask you that myself. What are you doing?"

He shook his head, scowling into the night. Suddenly the shadows Diadem cast across the clearing didn't look so benign.

I have to leave, he thought. But, looking up at Megan, he found he didn't want to say that to her. In its own way, that was as disturbing as the vision he had just had.

He pushed the heel of one hand against his forehead, a gesture one of his lieutenants had favored.

"You're a mess," Megan said sympathetically.

Armiger thought about it. Then he squinted up at her. "Dear lady," he said, "I believe you are right."

§

Returning from exploring the local town, Axel found the road to the Boros estate blocked by a number of wagons. They sat listlessly in the hot sun, waiting for some obstruction ahead to clear.

His horse snorted and turned to look at him. Axel stretched and grinned. "You hate to wait, don't you?" he said to her. She swung her head away again.

He had gone into town to look for discrete lodgings for August, and to buy a good pair of horses for Calandria and Jordan. He'd found the lodgings, but not the horses. It was a good start.

He cantered over to the wagons. "Making camp?" he inquired of the driver of the wagon that sat square in the middle of the gateway. The man looked at him wearily.

"Everybody's a comedian. Sir," he added, noting the way Axel was dressed.

"Seriously, what's the hold-up?" One very large wagon blocked the wrought-iron gates to the estate. Axel supposed he could ride around through the underbrush. He didn't, but leaned forward as the other man pointed down the road.

"Breakdown up ahead."

Axel laughed. "Some things never change. Any chance you can move that cart a meter or two and let me by?"

"Yes, sir." The driver urged his horses forward a bit. Axel's own steed balked at the narrow opening between the stone gate post and the side of the wagon, so he dismounted and led it through.

Six or seven wagons waited on the roadway ahead. He didn't bother to mount again as he passed them.

Funny, he thought, but these wagons looked awfully familiar. Then he looked past them, and understood why.

Turcaret's steam car sat wreathed by smoke and mist a little down the road. The controller himself stood next to it talking to a pot-belled man in greasy velvet robes. Axel passed the lead wagon and walked up the center of the road to meet Turcaret.

When he spotted Axel, Turcaret turned and casually waved. He was a tall man who appeared forever to be posing for his own portrait. He wore a red velvet riding jacket, and spotless black boots. He stood ramrod straight and held his chin high so that he could look down his long, pointed nose at Axel.

"Ah, the wandering agent of Ravenon," he said. "I see you made use of my suggestion to visit the Boros. How is the lady May?"

"Never better, sir." Axel peered into the pall of smoke around the steam car. He hated Turcaret. "Having a little mechanical problem?"

"Nothing we can't fix. I've sent a man ahead to tell Yuri we're arriving. I trust you've found the Boros' accommodating?"

"That we have." What was Turcaret doing here? He had outlined his travel itinerary at length in several tiresome dinner conversations prior to their arrival at Castor's. Cal had decided to take up the hospitality of the Boros family precisely because Turcaret was not expected to come here. The fewer people to compare notes about them the better.

Might as well admit surprise, he thought. "And what brings you here? I thought you were heading straight for the capital after Castor's?"

"Oh, I was." Turcaret smiled one of his strangely infuriating, smug smiles. "But then I was given some information that I thought Yuri simply must know about. So I thought it best to come here directly."

Axel felt his smile grow a bit wooden. "Information? What information?"

"Oh, that would be telling," said Turcaret.

"Yes, well... I hope to see you at dinner, then?" Axel remounted his horse.

"Oh, you'll be seeing me, Mr. Chan, count on it." Turcaret smiled again, and turned back to inspecting his steam car.

This can't be good, Axel thought as he spurred his horse to a trot. He'd had a very good time here at the Boros estate, but the worm was in the apple now. What would happen if Turcaret and Yuri compared notes? Maybe nothing...

But he would start packing anyway, he decided, just as soon as he'd told Calandria the news.





















10

On the night of Turcaret's arrival, Jordan awoke somewhere around three A.M. For a moment he thought he must be back in Armiger's mind, because the sound that had awakened him was the sound of metal striking metal: clashing swords. He sat up, and looked around. This was definitely the tower room, with its odd triangular stonework. The sound had come from the window. Outside it was the courtyard of statues.

The sound was faint and intermittent. For a few seconds he thought he might be imagining things. Then it came again.

And again, silence. Jordan pictured two figures circling one another, in unspoken agreement that no alarm should be given. Unless one was already dead?

He rose and padded quietly to the window. The smell of the rain which had cascaded down all evening came to him. Calandria slept in her usual comatose way, limbs flung akimbo, body entangled in the sheets. Jordan stood on his tiptoes and peered down at the darkened well of the courtyard.

His scalp prickled. He had never seen the courtyard after lights-out. Not even the glow of a lantern filtered down from the tall windows of the manor. Lady Hannah Boros' statues posed like dancers at some subterranean ball, who needed no light, whose music was the grumble of bedrock settling and whose dance steps took centuries to complete. Jordan had no doubt, after seeing the manse, that such places existed.

One of the statues leapt out of place and dodged behind another. Jordan heard labored breathing and the slide of metal on stone. Shadowed darkness near one wall roiled, showing another figure in motion. Jordan's breath caught, and he pulled himself up farther to look straight down.

These two seemed to be alone. If there were seconds to this duel, they must be invisible in some darkened doorway. Jordan doubted there was an attending physician present; there was the grimness of vendetta about the silence and darting motion of these men.

Holding onto the edge of the window was hard. The opening was little more than an arrow slit, meant to provide light and a good firing point if one pulled up a chair to stand on. The chairs in the Boros manor were huge, heavy and old, and he was bound to wake Calandria if he tried to drag one over. He clung as long as he could, catching frustrating glimpses of movement below. Then he fell back, flexing his arms in frustration.

If he awoke Calandria, she would order him to stay here while she investigated. No way he was going to let that happen.

The whole thing was probably none of his business... but Turcaret's steam car had puffed into the estate this afternoon. Where Turcaret went, bad news followed, Jordan had decided. And Jordan knew that Axel and Calandria had decieved Turcaret; they were both worried about his arrival. It was always possible, he told himself as he headed for the door, that one of the embattled shadows downstairs was Axel Chan.

He raced down the steps, slowing to a loud skip as he reached the first floor, and poked his head around the corner of the archway. Directly ahead was the door to the courtyard; to either side long halls led off in dark punctuated by coffin-shaped opals of light from the windows. These halls connected the tower to the main manor house at ground level.

A black figure reared into sight in one of these lighted spaces. It crossed the beam of crooked light, then disappeared again in shadow. He watched for almost a minute, until it appeared again in a lozenge of lunar grey farther down the hall.

Though the night watchman must be a thirty meters away by now and facing the other way, Jordan still held his breath and tiptoed very quietly across to the door. He eased it open, letting in a breath of cold, misty night air.

Jordan felt exposed just peering around the door jamb. The statues seemed to be staring at him. Aside from them, there was no sound at all now.

The two men might still be circling in the dark, only meters away for all he knew. Now that he was here Jordan had no idea what he was going to do. Sound the alarm? That would be the sensible thing to do--but this was doubtless some political feud, and Calandria's dress-up games aside, he was still only a mason's son, and it was not his place to interfere. He had already drawn the attention and wrath of the household for fainting at dinner. He was not about to compound that by waking the place, especially since the courtyard seemed empty now. Maybe the duellists had lost their nerve, and fled, or one had capitulated.

The silence drew out, and the outside chill began to penetrate Jordan's bones so that he shivered as he clung to the door. Then he heard a cough, followed by a faint groan.

The duel was over then, but the outcome had not been peaceful. Now what? Wake the household? Run back for Calandria, tell her a man was bleeding to death in the courtyard?

'So what', she would say. She was too ruthless, and seemed to think it best if Jordan unlearned empathy as she sometime had. But he couldn't do that.

He eased out into the night air, and paused half-expecting a dark figure to rush him from the forest of statues. Nothing moved.

He heard the groan again, and this time was able to locate its source. Huddled near one wall of the manor was a man. He held his stomach with both hands, and his mouth was open wide as he struggled to breathe. His epee lay neglected on the grass nearby.

Jordan ran to him and knelt down. The man flinched away from him. "It's all right," Jordan said. "I'm going to help you."

"Too... too late for that," the man gasped. He was tall and rangy, with a hatchet-shaped face. Lank black hair lay plastered across his forehead. He was dressed in the livery of Linden Boros' household. "I... I lost. Let it be."

"What are you talking about? You need help, or you'll die."

"I know." Black liquid welled up between his tightened fingers. "Got me... a good one." He gritted his teeth and raised his head to look at his belly.

"Yes, you lost fair and square. But he didn't kill you, did he? You've got another chance."

The man shook his head. "Can't... face them. Now. Too humil--, humili--" he didn't have the breath for the word.

"What?" Jordan was desperate that the man would die in front of him. He sat back on his haunches, suddenly angry. "You can't face them? Is that supposed to be brave or something?"

The man glared at him.

"I've always admired soldiers for their bravery," Jordan went on in a rush. "Being willing to die for your pride seemed honorable. But I guess some men are willing to die because they're brave enough to face defeat, and some because they're afraid of facing their friends after being defeated." He crossed his arms and tried to stare the man down. "Sounds like you're the second kind."

The man fell back with a groan, closing his eyes tightly. "I'd... I'd kill you," he gasped. "If I could stand."

"Yeah, that way you wouldn't have to listen to me. Cowardice again. Are you going to let me help you?"

"Go to hell."

"What's the problem?" Jordan nearly shouted in exasperation. "Where is everybody? Where are your friends? What's so awful about getting yourself sewed up? Who's that going to kill?"

"House--house rules." The man opened his eyes again, to stare at the stars and wind-torn clouds. "Boros rules. No duelling... allowed. I call f-for help... Linden loses. Loses face. Maybe more."

"We'll take you to Linden's doctor. He can cover up for you, surely?"

"Ordered... not to treat... duelists." The man began to shiver violently.

"Oh." Jordan looked back at the tower, which stood in black silhouette against the troubled sky. "So your surgeon won't treat you because he's ordered not to, and Yuri's won't for the same reason. I suppose it was one of Brendan Sheia's men who stabbed you, so his surgeon certainly won't help." The man nodded fatalistically.

"Lucky for you I'm not a member of this household, nor one of yours, or Sheia's," Jordan went on. "I've been given no orders against helping you."

"Are you... surgeon?"

"No, but," he guessed, "my lady is."

The man tried to sit up. Jordan slipped an arm under his shoulders and helped him. "How can... lady be..." A violent shiver took hold of the man. "C-c-cold."

"Come. We'll stand up. Then we'll see." Slowly and gingerly, he drew the man to his feet.

§

Calandria cursed in a language Jordan had never heard before. He needed no translation.

"Look at the trail of blood!" she snapped. "How are we going to hide him as you're suggesting? And what if he dies? We'll have a corpse in our room!"

"Not... my... idea," whispered the bleeding man.

"Lie back," she said to him. She knelt, whipping her nightdress around herself crossly, and poked at the embers of the fire. "You're going into shock. I'm going to get the fire well up, then we'll see to your wound." Jordan sat with his hands pressed hard on the man's stomach. Blood flowed everywhere, but no more than at the butcher's; Jordan was more worried by the amazing paleness of the man, and the coldness of his skin.

"Don't mind her," he said to keep his mind off these things. "What's your name?"

"A-August. Ostler." By Ostler he might have meant his family name or profession; Jordan didn't pursue the issue.

"I'm Jordan Mason. This is Lady Calandria May."

"Jordan, stop it! You're wasting his strength." Calandria thumped two logs onto the churned embers. Sparks flew up, and she poked the wood into position so it caught. Jordan had noticed before that she wasn't very good at tending fires, a strange lack in someone so otherwise talented. Luckily these logs needed no encouragement to catch.

"Get Axel," she said. "I'll take over here." She pulled her pack from under her bed, spilled its contents on the floor, and came up with two white metal tubes. Without glancing up, she added, "Then clean the blood off the steps, and yourself too."

Jordan ran.

He was glad now that they had taken the tower room. The place was set apart from the main manor, so comings and goings like this would be much less noticeable than in the house. Still, Jordan slowed to a cautious walk when he reached the downstairs gallery, and paused every few steps to listen for the night watch.

Infrequent lamps dimly lit the halls of the manor. Jordan's bare feet made no noise on the cold stone floor. He took servant's ways; the idea of walking the main halls still bothered him, especially now when no one should be afoot. This also allowed him to pause at the cistern outside the kitchen. Low voices came from inside. He cautiously ladled water into a bucket, and washed himself. He took the bucket with him up the tall narrow stairs to the top floor. If anyone stopped him, he could come up with any number of plausible servant's explanations for carting water about at two in the morning.

Even with this prop in hand his heart was pounding. As he reached the top of the stairs, he heard voices again. He plunked the bucket in a corner and quickly cast about for a place to hide. Finally he stood behind the door to the hall. Stupid, but what choice was there?

The voices became louder: a man and a woman in quiet conversation somewhere nearby. Very nearby. He held his breath, and waited for them to open the door.

Nothing happened. They must be standing just on the other side. Jordan waited for several minutes, but they did not move. But he had to get to Axel. Time to brazen it through. He took a deep breath, picked up his bucket, and opened the door quickly.

There was no one on the other side.

The voices continued. Jordan put the bucket down and placed his palms over his ears. The dialogue continued, within his own head.

"Shit! Not now!" He staggered back, nearly tipping the bucket. All the excitement tonight had made him vulnerable, and Armiger had stepped into his mind again. Now that he knew what it was, the voices were obviously those of Armiger and Megan.

He stood for a minute in silent panic, waiting for the vision to wash over him completely. He would lose himself here, just when Calandria and Axel needed him. Maybe someone would find him wandering like an idiot, blood-stained. If August died, he would be taken for the murderer.

As he thought this, the top-floor landing did begin to fade. He thought he saw the inside of Megan's house, lit by a single candle. She and Armiger sat close together, talking earnestly. The vision became sharper with each passing second.

Jordan reached out blindly, and felt the bannister at the head of the stairwell. He held it tightly in both hands to anchor himself. It was the panic he had to fight. There was no other way to stop the vision.

He put his awareness into the tip of his nose, and breathed slowly, in and out, counting his breaths as he did so. Over the next few minutes he used every trick Calandria had shown him to engender calmness, and gradually the voices faded. When he was confident he had them at bay, he let go of the bannister. He could see again.

Jordan wasted no more time, but grabbed up the bucket and went straight to Axel's room. He debated whether to knock or walk in, knowing Axel might be with someone. He stooped to peer through the keyhole, just in case.

A candle burned on the table by the window. Axel sat there in a loose robe, his hands steepled. He was speaking in a low voice to someone out of sight. Jordan craned his neck to see who he was speaking to.

"...The local humans don't seem to be in great awe of the Winds they deal with every day," Axel was saying. "They know the morphs and desals moderate animal populations. People treat morphs like they do bears or moose, with caution but not fear. But they mythologize the Winds they know the least--you can see it in their names for the geophysical Winds--like 'Heaven hooks' and 'Diadem swans'. They can't connect the activities of these Greater Winds with their day to day lives."

He still couldn't see who else was in there. Well, there was nothing to be done about it. Jordan knocked lightly on the door. Axel stopped speaking immediately. Jordan heard him approach, and then the door opened a crack.

"What the hell do you want? Do you know what time it is?"

"Come quickly," Jordan said. "We need your help."

Axel opened his mouth, thought better of it, and went to dress. He left the door wide open, and Jordan was able to satisfy himself that indeed, there was no one else in the room.

§

He was not surprised to find August asleep and breathing easily when he and Axel arrived. Calandria had removed the man's bloodstained jacket and shirt, and was examining a harsh gash under his sternum. Amazingly, the gash was not bleeding.

"I had to use nano on him, or he'd have died," she said without preamble. "Jordan, go wash the stairs."

He did so despite fierce curiosity. When he returned, August had been bundled under several blankets. The fire was roaring nicely. Calandria and Axel seemed to be arguing hotly about something. They stopped when Jordan entered, and both glared at him.

"Bad move to save him," Axel said. Calandria said nothing.

"What was I supposed to do, let him die?"

"What were you doing out there in the first place?" Axel shot back.

"What does that have to do with it? I was there. He was in trouble." Jordan stuck out his chin. "What was I supposed to do?"

"The question is," Calandria said drily, "what are we supposed to do, now that we have him? I let the nano work just long enough to suture the wound. I think I got it all out, but he may wake up in the morning without a wound at all. That's going to be hard to explain. Our discretion in this place seems to be evaporating. Once again you are the cause of the problem, Jordan."

"It's hard to think ahead when somebody's dying in front of you," Jordan said quietly.

Axel and Calandria glanced at each other. "All right," said Axel, "we're going to have to handle this carefully. He can't be moved right now, obviously. But he must be moved tomorrow night. You," he pointed at Jordan, "will be his nursemaid tomorrow. Then you will help me sneak him out and into town tomorrow night. Understand?" Jordan nodded. "We're lucky he's feeling personally humiliated. The fact that he wasn't supposed to be fighting will work in our favor; he won't come back here for a while--if, as you say Cal, he's not totally healed by morning."

"How could he be?" Jordan asked.

"Science," Axel said blandly. "Not the kind we're teaching you, though."

"Nano, right?"

Calandria swore in that other language again, and Axel laughed. "Yeah, nano. Shit, Cal, it was your idea to snatch Jordan in the first place. Live with it." She glowered at him for a second, then composed herself: the anger seemed to drain away totally, and she was once again her usual poised, calm self. This sudden calm was in its way more unsettling than the anger.

"How are we going to explain August's miraculous recovery to him?" she asked.

"He wasn't exactly in a position to judge how bad it was," Axel said. "All he knew was he had a hole in him. If it turns out to be less of a hole than he thought, well, he'll just thank the Winds, I suppose. We'll bandage him thoroughly, and if there's no hole there at all tomorrow, I'll put one in--cosmetic, of course, don't look at me like that."

Calandria shook her head. Axel smiled. "You're good at planning," he said. "I'm good at improvising. That's why we get along."

"When we get along," she said with a sphinx-like smile.

Jordan sat down on his bed, suddenly very tired. In the back of his head, he heard Armiger and Megan still talking. It didn't matter. At that moment, he had to wonder which was the more real--the quiet, ordinary dialogue taking place in his head, a thousand kilometers away--or the mad conversation Calandria May and Axel Chan were holding, barely a meter away from him.

"Jordan!" He looked up. "Did you clean the blood off the steps?" Calandria asked.

He shook his head, and rose to do so. He'd left the bucket outside, ready for this.

"I'll help," said Axel unexpectedly. After they got outside and shut the door, he said, "Are you all right?"

"Yeah."

"You did the right thing," said Axel as they both knelt to dip rags in the bucket.

"She doesn't seem to think so."

"Oh, she does. She just gets angry when something happens she can't control."

Jordan sighed, and began swabbing at August's blood. "Why?" was all he could think of to ask.

"Cal has her own problems," said Axel quietly. "She's never been a happy person. Why should she be? She never had a real childhood."

"What do you mean?"

"Cal was inducted into a military organization at a young age, after her mother was sent to prison. Over the years, they made her into a tool, an assassin who could serve the causes they were paid to support. She can change her face, her height, her voice... I don't know what she can't do. She can read a book and memorize every word the first time, or learn a language in days. She's probably the best fighter on this planet. She has amazing powers, but she's never really had her own life. She ran away from her masters, the ones who made her, and for years she used her talents to support herself. Then she got tangled up in the war against 3340.

"People had tried to destroy 3340 from without," Axel continued. "Cal found the way that worked--she killed him from within."

"You told me."

Axel shook his head. "I gave you the sanitized version. You know 3340 was in the habit of 'promoting' humans--turning them into demigods pretty much at random by making them immortal, replacing their biological cells with nano, that sort of thing. He'd subverted the whole human civilization on Hsing to this perverse lottery. Once you became a demigod, though, he took control of your mind using some sort of sophisticated virus program. One of his 'conscious thoughts', I guess. The place really was hell, there was no morality there, everyone just scrambled to try to become immortal, and didn't care what they had to do to get it.

"3340 looked unbeatable. But we kept hearing rumors that one demigod--and only one--had beaten the virus thought, and thrown off 3340's enslavement. Calandria tracked him down, and got the secret. Then she arranged to be 'promoted' by 3340."

"How did she do that?" Jordan had been dabbing at the blood spots one at a time; now Axel upended the bucket and poured the contents down the steps. "It'll be dry by morning," he said.

Axel looked at his now-wet feet. "You needed to really impress 3340 to get promoted. So Calandria betrayed us." He glanced up and, apparently satisfied by Jordan's shocked look, nodded. "The whole underground that Choronzon and the Archipelago had built up on the planet. Had us arrested, thrown in jail... sentenced to be eaten by 3340's data gatherers.

"It worked." His voice had become uncharacteristically flat. "The god took notice of her. He promoted her to demigod status on the spot. She became sur-biological, able to shape-shift, split her thoughts off into autonomous units, invent new senses for herself. They tell me it's the ultimate experience, short of real deification, but you're not even remotely human anymore. And of course, he slipped his virus thought into her, and it took her over."

Jordan had forgotten the wet steps. "Her plan didn't work?"

Axel half-grinned. "Our ally god Choronzon had arrived in force, but his navy was being cut to pieces. Calandria went straight into the heart of the battle. But once she got there... she fought off the virus, and flew through 3340's ranks showing all the other demigods how to get free.

"So suddenly 3340's whole navy turned on him. Both navies chased him down to a mountain on Hsing, and Calandria and Choronzon confronted him there, and killed him."

Jordan shook her head. It sounded like myth, but Axel was telling it in a bald matter-of-fact way.

"It must have been overwhelming for her." Jordan shifted uneasily, trying to imagine what it would take to deliberately choose to become like Armiger. "But you say she's human now?"

"She rid herself of all her powers--had her nanotech commit suicide by building itself back into normal human cells. She did it publicly to show the people of Hsing that being human was better than being a god." He shook his head. "Me, I'd have stayed immortal. Think of the fun you could have."

"Why did she do it?"

He shrugged. "Like I said, she has her own demons--metaphorically, I mean. I think they pursued her even into godhood. She found some way of coming to terms with them by becoming human again. I don't know the details, she won't talk about it. She's also the most fanatically moral person I ever met," he added. "She thought it was the right thing to do.

"The thing is," he added gently, "you impressed her tonight by saving August. She wouldn't have left him to die either, no matter what she might say. She just doesn't understand that at heart she's no different from any of us.

"And that, my friend, is a scar I don't know how to heal."





















11

When Jordan awoke again, it was to the sound of a flock of geese honking their way south. He climbed stiffly out of bed and went to the window to watch them. Calandria was already up--or she had never returned to bed at all.

Autumn was coming. The smell of woodsmoke pervaded the estate, and the dawn chill reminded him of waking at home to find snow on his blankets. He would drag his clothes into bed--icy and stiff, they would start him shivering immediately. Better to warm them under the covers, than to step into the cold air of the loft and put them on there. Quickly he would stomp downstairs, carrying his chamber pot like a lamp to set near the fire if its contents had frozen, otherwise by the door. And then to the chores, and breakfast.

Sleepy winter. He felt a sorrowful ache, remembering and knowing things would never be the same. Resting his head on his hands, he stared out at the brooding sky.

He heard movement near the fire, where they had lain August. He was awake, staring at the ceiling with a puzzled expression on his narrow face.

When Jordan walked over to him, August said, "It doesn't hurt," in a thin voice.

"It will if you move," Jordan warned. Axel had coaxed him on that point. August was almost completely healed. They would have to trick him into thinking he was still hurt.

"I'm thirsty." Jordan nodded and went to get some water from the table. He tilted a cup to August's lips, and the man drank awkwardly.

"Where are we?"

"The tower. We're going to move you to town tonight. You can recover there, out of sight of the Boros."

"Ah." August appeared to consider this. "Will I have a commission to come back to? Duelling is frowned on."

"What about self-defense? You can claim you were attacked while you were out taking a piss." Jordan shrugged. "We'll think of something."

August's eyes squinched shut for a second. "Thank you," he said. "I'm beholden."

"I don't think so." Jordan sat back on the wood floor. "Why were you fighting?"

August sighed. "I saw Sheia's man Andre acting suspiciously. I think he was stealing. Anyway, I followed him and challenged him, and he took me on. Maybe I should have raised the alarm, but... Linden has a curfew, and I was breaking it. I'd have had to explain myself too. And what about you? What were you doing out of your room?"

Jordan pointed to the window. "You woke me up."

"Oh. ...Sorry." August grinned ironically. "We thought we were being so quiet."

Jordan scowled. "Duelling is stupid."

"I know." August looked very serious now. "My older brother was killed in a duel."

"So why did you do it?"

August stared at the ceiling pensively. "It gets easier to risk your life as you get older. I think women understand that when they have children. Suddenly they know they would give their life for their child, and it doesn't bother them. With men it's different, but we... trade our allegiance in the same way. At some point, if you've grown up at all, you have to decide that something outside yourself is more important than you are. Otherwise you'll be a miserable bastard, and you'll die screaming." He closed one eye and peered at Jordan. "That make sense?"

"I don't know," Jordan said uncomfortably.

"You get perspective. You can stand outside your own death, a little. Not while you're dying, though." He frowned. "Shit, I was scared. Scared..." He closed his eyes.

"You should sleep more," Jordan prompted.

"No. I like being awake. Alive, you know?" His face wrinkled; for a moment he looked as though he would cry. Jordan sat back on the wooden floor, blinking in surprise.

August swore. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! Things are coming to a head between my master and Sheia. He needs me right now, and I've let him down."

"Yuri decided in favor of your master," said Jordan.

"Yeah, but we know Sheia won't stand for it. He's going to lose everything, because his queen is going to lose her war. His only hope was to shelter under the Boros title. Now he can't do that. We don't know what he's going to do, but he's going to have to do it soon. Yuri's living in his garden if he thinks Sheia will just accept his decision."

Jordan shook his head, puzzled. "But what can Sheia do about it?"

"Don't know." August scowled. "He's devilishly clever, the bastard. He's probably celebrating my death right now; one less man to defend Linden."

"Linden should leave."

"And leave Sheia alone with Yuri's family? No. We stay."

A key rattled in the door. It opened and Axel poked his head in. "She here?" he asked.

"No."

"Okay." The door slammed again.

Jordan sighed. "You'd better rest," he said to August. "I have to go study."

§

Axel found Calandria on the manor's roof. He'd thought she might be here; this was a good spot from which to signal her ship. The Desert Voice maintained a high orbit, waiting for its order to obliterate Armiger, and Calandria came up here to listen for its pulsed radio beacon every day. She seemed to need the reassurance of its presence, which was one of those unlikely character traits that people who didn't know her well would find hard to credit.

"How are you doing?" he asked as he settled onto one of the crenels beside her. She was staring moodily out over the estate.

"Fine." She shrugged. "Things are getting more and more complicated, that's all. I was hoping we could get out without impacting the local culture at all. That seems unlikely now."

"These people are used to miracles," he said. "They're part of the natural order here. Look." He pointed east, where a pale crescent hung high in the sky: a vagabond moon. Another made a tiny dot above the southern horizon. "We aren't doing anything supernatural, as far as these people are concerned."

"I don't like it," she said. "Especially after last night. August's wound is almost totally healed. That's one miracle already. The Desert Voice is going to nuke Armiger, which is two."

"Well, I'm afraid I have to add to the complications," he said dolefully.

"Why? What's happened now?"

Axel puffed his cheeks out. "This time I really was minding my own business. I went for a walk in the gardens. You know me, I think better on my feet, always have. Anyway, there's the usual conspirators, sitting in shady bowers here and there in pairs. Very silly. As I'm walking, who should I see coming down the path, but the bastard himself."

"Turcaret?"

"The very same." Axel rolled his eyes. "Anyway, he calls me over like I'm some sort of lap-dog, you know--" he gestured with one hand, as if to bring something to heel, "and says, 'I need to have a talk with you. Meet me in my quarters at eight o'clock tonight.'"

"Talk?" She frowned.

"Yeah." Axel shrugged uneasily. Their cover story here might be blown. "So I said yes," he finished unhappily.

"He's forcing our hand," she said.

"So what do we do? I told him I'd be there."

"Wise, but obviously we can't just react at this point. I wanted just a day or two more to pinpoint Armiger, but..." She nodded decisively. "I think we have enough."

"You know where he is?"

"About a hundred kilometers from the Iapysian border," she said. "Almost due south. More importantly, I think we've figured out where he's going."

"The queen?"

She nodded. "He seems to be interested in war. If he can use his powers to save Queen Galas, he might take over Iapysia. I thought before that the battle where the Winds intervened was a test. He may have wanted to find out what it would take to attract their attention. But it could be that he really does want to conquer a kingdom. Maybe he needs a large number of men to help him search for the Winds' Achilles Heel, or some other resource he's after." She shrugged. "It's all speculation."

He grinned loosely. "So let me get this straight: we cut and run now, Turcaret sends the king's guards after us, and where are we running, but straight into a war zone."

She half-smiled. "Essentially, yes. The problem is what to do about Jordan."

"We can't very well leave him," he said.

"We can't very well take him with us either. Not only because he'll slow us down. You and I are prepared for the danger, but he is not."

"That's where August comes in," he said brightly.

"Absolutely not. We've already involved too many people."

Axel threw up his hands. "Will you stop whining about that! It's their world--you can't treat these people like children. So a few of them find out what's going on--what kind of crime is that?"

"That's not the point. We keep adding extra concerns that just muddy the main issue, which is how to deal with Armiger as quickly as we can and get out."

"Is the job all you care about?" He hopped down from the crenel. "These people aren't going to cease to exist just because we go away. We kidnapped Jordan. What's he going to do when we cut him loose? Haven't you considered that?--or were you just planning to get him away from Turcaret and then cut him loose?"

She glowered at him. Obviously, she had been thinking just that.

"You're not playing the whole game, Cal, you never do. We're not just here to eliminate Armiger, we're here to act like decent human beings. What's wrong with getting to know people and helping them live their lives? And letting them help us live ours? I like Jordan. He did the right thing last night; he'll be a man of solid character once he's able to support himself."

"Well," she said coldly, "you've decided the right and wrong of it all, I see. So my opinion now isn't going to matter."

Axel clutched his black hair. "Your opinion matters! So does Jordan's. So does August's! We're not just assassins, that's all! Why don't you get to know these people? Maybe you'll like them. Maybe," he laughed, "you and August will hit it off! What's so bad about that?"

She stalked away. "We'll leave tonight--with Jordan," was all she said as she yanked up the lead-sheathed trapdoor.

Axel watched the door slam, then cursed. She hadn't understood a word he was saying.

§

Armiger stood and wiped the sweat from his brow. He had been trying all afternoon to repair the damage he'd caused to Megan's garden last night. Short of using some of his own nano, there was nothing more he could do.

"Very good," she said. He turned. Megan leaned on the tall stump that marked the end of the garden. She smiled. "But seldom have I seen a man so grimy."

"I told you I would fix it."

She laughed. "One does not 'fix' growing things, Armiger. But... with practise, you could become a good gardener. I may leave the task to you for a while."

He brushed back his hair. She seemed happy at the thought, and he did not want to disappoint her. Still... "I can't stay," he said.

Her face fell. "Why not? You're not going back to your damnable army?"

"This is another army, and another war." He shrugged uncomfortably. "I want to talk to Queen Galas. She's the only one on this off-chart world who seems to know what the Winds are. The only human on Ventus with vision. Naturally, she's going to be killed for it. So I have to reach her immediately."

Megan folded her arms under her breasts. "You know this queen?"

"No. Never met her."

Megan watched him pick his way carefully out of the garden. He hadn't said he was in love with the queen. Still, he was willing to leave Megan to see her.

He paused next to her, waiting for her to fall into step as he headed for the cottage. His recovery had been unnaturally swift, so that by now he showed no sign of having been at death's door. Quite the contrary; his face glowed with health, and he moved with a cat-like grace he had sometimes caught her admiring. None of this surprised Megan; he was a morph, or some spirit very like that, so such powers were to be expected. But he was still a wounded man, she knew, regardless of his bodily strength. He walked and ate like one in shock, and their conversations had continued to be brief and awkward. Some men trod heavily on their own hurt; the worse it was, the harder they would push it down, but it showed--in premature age, in lines of exhaustion and anger in the face. And she well knew that a man who will not salve his own pain will often put all his energy into healing that of others'. To Megan, such brutality against oneself combined the most noble and foolish that men were capable of, and men of this sort drew her like magnets. Her own Matt had been like that. She believed only a woman could ease the intolerable pressure these men put on themselves.

So, Armiger was leaving. But she would be going with him, though he did not know it yet--and she had only this moment decided.

"I have money," she said. "Enough for a horse, maybe two. Riding palfreys."

"I only need one horse," he said. Men were so obtuse sometimes; she half-smiled.

He strode easily through the thick grass, muscles moving in that fascinating synchrony she saw only in horses and men. "I'm not letting you in the house until you're clean," she said mischievously.

"You might have a long wait, then." He grinned back at her. "Your little well only draws a cupful at a time. Do you propose to wash me a palm's-width at a time?"

"That might be delightful," she said. "But wait and see."

When they reached the cottage, he laughed in surprise. "How long did this take you?" She had filled an entire washtub while he was in the garden.

"Well..." She put her hands behind her back and kicked the dirt. "I rather thought you would need it. So I started just after you left."

"I do need it." Unself-consciously he stripped off his shirt. Her eyes widened as she saw he meant to do the same with his pants.

Armiger had only bathed in the presence of other men--officers and enlisted men, at river's edge or encampment. It took him a moment to notice her sudden silence, then he realized he might be shocking her. By then he was naked, and had already stepped into the water.

He turned and their eyes met. Even as she stepped toward him, he felt his sex stirring. Since becoming embodied, he had not made love; it wasn't necessary. Still, he had seen others do it many times, although the rapes performed by his men were distasteful, nothing like the love-making in which he had seen his remotes indulge.

Megan took a washcloth and wordlessly ran it up his leg. She did not look at him as she laved his calves and thighs; but his excitement was visible, and she raised her eyes to his as she brought the cloth there.

He reached to touch the nape of her neck. She sighed heavily, and ran her wet fingertips along his member. She kissed the flat of his stomach, then stood into his embrace.

Part of him wondered why he was doing this--an old, inhuman side whose voice had been losing strength and confidence over the past days. Another part of him, young and ancient at the same time, almost wept with desire and relief as he drew her dress down to bare her shoulders, and buried his face in her hair.

Megan dropped the dress completely, and stepped into the basin with him. "It's been so long," she whispered.

"Yes." He lifted her onto him. The feeling awoke a torrent of memory--false or real, it no longer mattered. He encircled her with his arms. "Too long," he murmured. Their mouths met, and neither spoke again.

§

Jordan came to himself suddenly. Calandria was standing in front of him, bathed in slanting evening light. Her face was framed by a wreath of fine black hair, tendrils of which caressed her forehead and the nape of her neck. She smiled at him. Jordan cleared his throat.

"How is our patient?" she asked, nodding to August. "Well enough to travel?"

"I feel fine," said August. "The wound doesn't seem so bad. I think I could even manage to hide it from Linden."

"Really?" Calandria brushed a hand through her hair absently. "That might not be such a bad idea after all."

Jordan was surprised by this. Last night she had been adamant about getting August out of the way so that he would not call further attention to them. The state of his wound was bound to be cause for comment, after all. Of course, if he himself hid it from his masters...

"Jordan, can I speak to you alone for a moment?" she asked. He nodded, smiled at August, who shrugged, and followed her into the hall.

She closed the heavy door, and said, "Our plans have changed." Jordan felt a quickening sense of excitement, but said nothing. "We are leaving tonight," she continued. As she spoke she watched his face closely. "I want you to pack our belongings and wait for me to return. Be prepared to move quickly," she said.

"What about Armiger? I thought we were staying because we hadn't figured out where he was."

"Well. We have enough to make a start, don't we?" she said brightly. Then she walked away, apparently confident.

Jordan reentered the room, and closed the door. "What's up?" August asked him. The man was stretched out, seemingly at leisure, on his bedroll next to the fire.

Jordan shook his head. "I have no idea," he said.

§

Axel raised his fist, then carefully loosened his knotted muscles and knocked politely on the tower door. It was a hard climb up here, past Turcaret's guards then up a narrow windowless spiral stairway. He could barely make out gleams of light coming through cracks in the door. After a moment he heard shuffling footsteps, and the door opened inward.

"Come in, come in." Controller Turcaret waved him inside.

Axel was surprised to find the controller was alone. The tower room he had been given was lovely. Tall leaded windows in all four walls admitted long shafts of afternoon light to gleam on the leaves of hundreds of plants festooning every surface. The chamber was tall, maybe six meters, and stone-floored. Whoever normally lived here had trusted to the sturdiness of the place, and had potted several young trees of respectable size. One, a willow, curled its long branches down over an iron-framed bed. Another overshadowed a writing desk. A wardrobe, several cabinets and a table sat half-hidden behind the foliage. There was a fireplace by the bed; the place might be quite cozy in the wintertime.

Axel crossed his arms, trying to manage a diplomatic smile. "Well. How are you?" he asked. It really should be Calandria at this meeting; but Turcaret had asked for Axel in particular, so Cal was off getting the horses ready, and he had to pretend to like this man for a few minutes. He manufactured a smile.

Turcaret brushed some leaves and a beetle off the table and motioned for Axel to sit. "Come in, Chan," he said as he rummaged in a cabinet. "Make yourself comfortable." He produced a bottle of wine and two glasses.

Axel eyed the bottle. "Are we celebrating something?"

Turcaret laughed darkly and uncorked the bottle. "We might be. That depends on how cooperative you are."

"Does it have to do with your reasons for visiting the Boros?" asked Axel. What he really wanted to ask was, Did you follow us here?

"All in good time, man." Turcaret made a shooing motion toward the wine glass. "Try it. I think you'll appreciate it."

Axel scowled, but picked up the glass. He took a sip. Instantly his diagnostic nano went to work. They detected no common poisons, although the liquid was full of substances foreign to them. That in itself was normal for Ventusian wine, Axel had discovered.

"Hmm." He dismissed the paranoid thought that Turcaret might try to poison him, and took another sip. It was delightful stuff, so strong it seemed to dissolve into his soft palate before reaching the back of his throat.

He smiled at Turcaret and raised his glass. "All right," he said. "Now what did you want to talk about?"

"Ah, that." Turcaret steepled his hands and smiled. "It has to do with the little matter of your being an imposter."

§

Daylight was seeping away outside. Jordan was fairly sure Calandria would wait for darkness before making any moves, but knowing that didn't make the time pass any easier.

The time dragged. Jordan had packed everything in the ten minutes after Calandria left, and after that all he could do was wait. August had eyed him while he worked, but said nothing. He seemed content to let Jordan speak if he wished, but Jordan was distracted, and too upset to give the man much notice.

What confused Jordan even more was that Armiger and Megan were making love next to her fireplace. If he closed his eyes for even a second, he was there, seemingly touching her himself, and the vision was so mesmerizing he didn't want to look away. It was powerfully arousing, and he couldn't afford that--not tonight, and not with August in the room.

August kept twisting his body, flexing his arms, and touching his wounded side. He looked puzzled. Obviously he was trying to find some motion that would hurt enough to locate his wound. Jordan seized on the distraction.

"I told you, we've put something on it to kill the pain. You'll just open it up if you move about."

"No," said August. "I can feel everywhere around there. It seems..." He threw the blankets off.

"Stop!"

August stood up. "I'll be damned," he said. He pressed his hand to his side. "It feels..." he looked up suddenly.

Jordan heard something. "Quiet!" he hissed. August looked up in surprise.

"What--?" Jordan waved him silent. He sidled over to the door and put his ear against it.

August hitched his pants up and came over as well. "What is it?" he whispered.

"I heard footsteps. They stopped just outside the door," Jordan whispered back.

August planted his ear against the door. "I hear voices. Snuff out the candle, will you?"

Jordan ran to obey. August flattened himself against the wall next to the door, and Jordan barely had time to duck down behind the bed before someone pushed the door open, and three men stepped into the room.



















12

Turcaret glanced out the window to check the angle of the light. It was almost dark. Almost time.

"I sent a semaphore message to the king of Ravenon," he said to Chan. "Shortly after you left Castor's manor. The king had never heard of you, nor the damsel who calls herself Calandria May. You are not couriers for Ravenon. We don't know what you are--but I did receive permission to have you arrested and sent back to the capital in irons if I chanced upon you again."

Chan took another sip of his wine, his expression bland. "We're alone in this room," he pointed out. "If you wanted to arrest me, you would have already done it."

"True." At least Chan wasn't the idiot he looked. "I had a better idea," Turcaret admitted.

"I'm all ears," said Chan. Turcaret had never heard that expression before; the image was so bizarre he laughed.

"I originally intended to turn you in," he said. "After all, you rendered me a tremendous insult."

Chan sat up straight. "In what way? I'm sure we intended none."

"You intended none?" Turcaret couldn't believe his ears. "Well, to start with, you stole my property away on a pretext."

"What property?" The fool looked puzzled now.

"The Mason girl."

A look of disgust slowly spread across Chan's face. He tilted the glass, pouring the wine out on the floor. That was all right, Turcaret decided; he'd probably drunk enough by now.

"People are not property," said Chan quietly. "They have rights, even in this godforsaken country."

"Rights? Yes, let's talk about rights, now," said Turcaret. "That girl was just a thing, of no consequence, and no one would protest her fate, because no one can do anything about it. She was my right, she was the payment of a debt, and that was the beginning and end of it. "But you! You have the gall to be indignant about that little trollop when you yourself are nothing but a thief yourself--the thief of a title of Ravenon! You are the one befouling propriety here, and I'd be within my rights to have you summarily executed right here and now."

"You and what army?" asked Chan. He shook his head stupidly; the plant extract the priests had prepared for Turcaret must be starting to work.

"You're referring to the fact that we're alone. Perhaps you think you could take me in a fair fight. Maybe. But you wouldn't get far, even if you avoided my men and escaped the grounds."

"'Zat so?" Chan seemed to suddenly realize what had happened to him. He tried to stand, unsuccessfully.

"Oh, yes, you've been drugged," said Turcaret. "But that's not why you'll never get out of here. The Winds have chosen you to play a part in the events that are about to unfold. The Winds are on our side. We know they favor us. By the time this evening is out, everyone will know it."

"Go to hell," muttered Chan. He didn't seem afraid at all. Angry, maybe. Turcaret supposed he was stupider than he looked, after all.

The controller smiled, not trying to hide his smugness. "You have been sent to us, sir. You might think you were the author of your own actions, but you are not. A higher power has sent you to us."

Chan shook his head sloppily. "Yer delusional." He tried again to stand, unsuccessfully.

"Feeling a bit weak?" Turcaret asked. "Good. Stay there, I want to show you something."

He reached behind the orange tree and brought out the wrapped packages his man had delivered just prior to Chan's arrival. He leaned the long cloth bundle on his own chair, and put the smaller package on the table. He unwound the cloth that wrapped it. Chan blinked at him owlishly as he did so.

Turcaret spared a glance outside. The sun was down. It was time.

"Recognize any of these?" Turcaret unrolled the smaller bundle to reveal a dagger, a cloak pin, and a wide, ornate belt.

"Hey!" Chan fell forward over the table top. "Those're mine! You stole 'em?"

Well, that was finally a satisfying reaction. Turcaret casually unwound the cloth from the longer bundle. He held up the sword and let the last drapes of cloth fall from its tip. "And how about this?"

Chan stared at the blade. He said nothing. He had obviously expected to see his own sword revealed under the wrap, correctly assuming that it had also been stolen from his room. This was not his sword, but rather a much more ornate, finely made epee. "Yuri's favorite sword," Turcaret said. "He keeps it in his bed chamber. I've only borrowed it, don't worry. It's going to be back there in an hour or two."

Shaking his head, Chan tried to rise. "Hey, wait. Just wait a--" He fell back, head lolling.

"You should see yourself," Turcaret said. "You look pathetic. That's no way to die, Chan. I would have expected more of an 'agent of Ravenon'."

He raised the sword, aiming it straight at Chan's heart. "I've been told to kill you neatly and quickly," he said. "And I will. But not before you tell me something."

"Huh?" Chan levered himself up with his arms; his legs seemed unresponsive. Turcaret stepped forward and kicked him behind the knees. The man went sprawling off his chair.

Turcaret raised the sword, turning it so that it gleamed in the lamplight. Chan's eyes were fixed on it.

"Tell me this, or I'll make it a slow death rather than a quick one," Turcaret said.

"Why are the Heaven hooks coming to take Jordan Mason?"

§

August's epee flashed in the dimness. One of the men who had entered the room screamed and fell, clutching his leg. The other dove forward, reaching for his own blade. This brought him up against the bed.

Jordan looked up into the startled eyes of a man wearing Turcaret's livery.

"Run, Jordan!" August's thrust clove the air where the man had been an instant ago. Jordan rolled sideways and ended up in the middle of the room. He could see the other two struggling, hands locked to wrists. The man August had stabbed was crawling toward the door; his left calf streamed blood. August had ham-strung him.

"Run!"

Jordan staggered to his feet, and ran. He was in shock from the unexpected violence, and didn't even bother to check whether there were more men in the hall. He stumbled down the steps, mindless, until stopped by a heavy thump above him. A dark silhouette with a sword appeared at the top of the stairway.

"Jordan!" He stopped, and let August catch up to him. The man was clutching his side, where he had been wounded last night.

August grabbed Jordan by the shoulder and shook him. "What's going on?"

"What do you mean?"

"Don't you try that with me," said August in a deadly tone. "My sword-wound!"

"What about it?"

"There's a shallow cut there that looks fresh, but I can't feel anything deeper. It's healed!"

"Uh..."

"And why were two of Controller General Turcaret's men invading your chamber?"

"I don't know!"

"You! Stop!" Several men with swords had appeared at the top of the stairs.

"Later, then. Go!" August shoved Jordan down the last few steps. This time Jordan didn't hesitate, but ran. The ring of steel echoed after him as he shouldered open the door to the courtyard, and then he was dodging between statues, as the sounds of the fight faded behind him.

§

Axel tried for the fifth time to stand. "Go to hell!" he muttered. Concentrate, he told himself. Think of a way out of this.

The damned controller kicked him in the ribs. It didn't hurt much, but there went his equilibrium again. Whatever it was they'd spiked his drink with, it had gotten past his usual immunities, and so far the diagnostic nano hadn't caught it. Cheap hardware. Never should have bought it from Choronzon.

He had left his sword and dagger in his room, where all his gear was packed for their flight from this place later tonight. Etiquette had prevented him from wearing them to what he'd been told was a simple meeting with Turcaret; they'd known that he'd leave them behind, so it must have been simple for someone to slip in and take them.

He tried to use his radio link to call Calandria. It needed some pretty specific mental commands to operate, and he couldn't focus well enough to give them. "Damn!"

"Tell me!" insisted the controller. "Why are the Heaven hooks coming for Mason?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," said Axel.

"The Heaven hooks will take the Mason boy tonight," said the controller. "I know all about him, though you tried to hide him from me. The Winds have not told me why they want him, though. All they will say is that he threatens 'thalience'. What does that mean? What is thalience?"

Axel had never heard the word before. He said so. "Who's really pulling your strings, eh? Tell me that, I'll tell you what the Winds want with Jordan."

Turcaret raised the sword, face white. Then he thought better. "If you paid attention to something more than the scullery maids and the location of the better wines, you'd know what's going on," said Turcaret. "We're putting Yuri's mask in the parade room. He backed the wrong man."

"You're in bed with Brendan Sheia?" Axel had to laugh. "You're an idiot! He's going down in flames! The queen is going to lose her war and then he'll be stateless. He hasn't a prayer of convincing the family he's the rightful heir. You know that."

The controller had calmed down. In fact, he looked much too calm now. "Well, Mister Chan, maybe I know something you don't. Unlike Yuri, we have the backing of the Winds. We know the Truth about them, you see." Axel was sure Turcaret had put a capital T on Truth. "That the Winds are ultimately destined to be our servants."

He swung the sword in a bright arc over his head, and brought it down on Axel's neck.

§

Jordan was half way to Axel's room when the new vision began.

He could sense Armiger, somewhere in the back of his mind. He knew the man was still in bed with Megan, but had stoically managed to stay away from them. Armiger's senses were seductive, dangerously so.

This new thing was something else, another voice or voices. Despite himself, he stopped, bewildered.

He stood in one of the main halls of the manor. He could distinctly hear voices coming from one of the salons. Layered overtop that was a confused jumble of whispers, whose origin he could not place. They seemed to be coming from all around him.

Many of the whispers were in languages he didn't know; some were in his own. He also caught fragmentary, strange glimpses of things: black sky; the side of a building at night; something that looked like a tiny model of the Boros estate, viewed from above.

He shook his head, trying to remain calm. As he had the last time, he would have to pause now, and damp the visions down, or else he would be unable to get to the safety of Axel's room. If he was to do that, he would have to find a secluded spot, or Turcaret's men would find him.

He moved as quietly as he could to the door to the mask room. No one would be here at this hour. As he pushed the door open, he leaned against the stone lintel, and the touch sent an electric sense of awareness into him.

"What--?" He snatched his hand back. The murmuring voices hushed again. They might have been coming from the ranked masks on the wall, but somehow he sensed it was more than that. Still, the vacant eyes of the masks sent a shiver down his spine. He turned his back on them.

Tentatively, Jordan reached out, and touched the stone wall with his fingertips. Again he felt a sense of connection, as though he had stepped from a silent corridor into a bright hall full of people.

"What is this?" he whispered.

The voice was strong this time. I am stone, said the stone wall.

§

Calandria had visited the kitchens and filled a pair of saddlebags with food. Then she'd gone to the stables and overseen the provisioning of Axel and August's horses. Leaving at night was bound to cause talk, but hopefully not until morning, when they would be many kilometers away.

When everything was to her liking she went back to her chamber to tell August Ostler he should make ready to travel.

She could tell something was wrong from the bottom of the stairs. The door to their room hung open. Calandria moved silently up the steps, watching for any movement. The room seemed empty, but she saw fresh blood on the floor.

She cursed under her breath and stepped inside. There was no one here. Had Ostler attacked Jordan? The blood was smeared inside the room, but she could see drops of it receding down the hall. Whoever it was that had been hurt, they had left under their own steam, or had been carried.

None of this made any sense, and not knowing the situation alarmed her more than any certainty would have.

She opened her radio link to Axel. "Axel? Where are you?"

There was no answer. Now fully alarmed, She stalked past the discarded blankets by the fireplace, and began stuffing her few possessions into a bag. She scowled down at the beautiful gown she wore; it would be very difficult to ride wearing this confection. Although her instincts told her to run from the room, she paused long enough to shuck the gown and pull on her tough traveling clothes. Then she hefted her bags and turned to go. These few things would have to do.

Where next? "Axel?" Still nothing. He had not activated his transponder, so she couldn't locate him that way either.

Jordan's few things lay on his bed, and she eyed them. He had not taken anything with him, a sign that he had not gone willingly.

Axel was supposed to be visiting Turcaret right now. She could go that way, or follow the blood stains to where Jordan might be in danger.

Axel could take care of himself, but Jordan was only here because she had kidnapped and coerced him to be.

Cursing foully, Calandria wrestled her cape into position, threw her bags over her shoulder, and went to follow the blood trail.

As she left the room, a voice emerged from the darkness ahead of her.

"You're in quite a hurry for an innocent traveler, Lady May."

§

Turcaret stared at the place on Yuri's sword where it had broken cleanly in half.

Axel Chan's hands were at his throat. He gurgled. Then he rolled to one side, spat, and gasped.

"The sword broke," whispered Turcaret. "On your neck..."

Axel put his hands under himself and carefully rose to a kneeling position. Then he grabbed the edge of his overturned chair and used it to brace himself as he stood up. He tried to speak, but only a cough came out.

His throat was red and lacerated where Turcaret had hit it with the sword. Little blood flowed; the wound seemed superficial.

Obviously, he had struck the stone floor with the tip of the sword before the rest of the blade had touched Chan's throat. That must have been what happened.

No time to worry about that, Chan was on his feet. Turcaret grabbed the man's own dagger off the table. Chan made a clumsy grab for him but Turcaret stepped inside his reach and stabbed up, right under his heart.

The dagger tore through Chan's shirt and grated across his ribs. He staggered back, coughing. Blood flowed freely from the wound. Turcaret could plainly see he'd raised a flap of skin the size of his palm--but the blade had not penetrated.

Surprised, but not worried, Turcaret jumped after Chan, who was trying to get to the door. "Die, damn you!" He reversed the dagger, grabbed Chan's shoulder and stabbed him again and again. It was like stabbing a table. Each blow cut Chan's shirt as the blade scored across his skin, and plainly he wore no armor. But the blade would not penetrate more than a few millimeters. Finally it too broke against the man's shoulder.

Turcaret backed away. "How have you done this?"

Chan huddled against the closed door, gasping. His whole upper body was covered in blood. This was not going to be the clean kill Brendan Sheia had demanded. There was no way Chan would appear to have been killed by Yuri's dying blow. Maybe it could be made to look like more of a fight had taken place, but they had wanted to avoid that because the question would be raised why no one had heard anything. But the man would not die!

Chan turned now and uncovered his eyes. He might have been vulnerable there, but Turcaret had not thought of it in time. Chan's face was transformed. The skin around his mouth was pure white, and his eyes were wide. He was shaking, but not, it seemed, from fear.

"Help," Turcaret said under his breath. Then he screamed it.

"Get in here and help me!"

§

Jordan was no longer sure where he was. When the wall spoke to him he'd bolted, and came to himself briefly to find himself here outside on the front lawn of the estate. He tried to keep going, to somehow escape the noise in his head, but only made it fifty steps before he went blind again. He could see--with a clarity which was itself frightening--but no longer through his own eyes.

The spirits surrounding him were handing vision back and forth, like a ball. All the parts of the Boros estate had their spirits, it seemed, and each kind of thing perceived the world in a different way. They were all speaking at once, looking about themselves, as though awoken from an ages-long sleep to find themselves startled by the world.

Something had awoken them. Something was coming.

The trees told of a gargantuan weight descending through the air, and of a shadow between them and the twilight sky. The stones could feel an electricity spreading in a kind of wave, coming from the east. Jordan understood these things because the stones, and trees and water, were speaking in common terms of reference, some of which were actual words and phrases he could understand, some images, some physical sensations.

He staggered to a stop, swaying, unsure whether he was even still on his feet. No, he seemed to be above the ground now, very high up. He could see the rooftops of the manor, and he saw the windowed facades (last rays of sunlight touching them gold) and felt the draft of the passage of human bodies through the halls within. The attentiveness of the estate seemed to draw a tighter focus, bearing him images of people. He seemed to touch the faint trails of heat left by the cooks in the kitchen, as reported by an archway there. The flagstones in the courtyard felt the pressure of walking feet, and measured the passage of four people. The sound of voices echoed weirdly as if from a long distance.

The spirits were searching for someone, he realized--a man or woman who was somewhere on the estate.

He knew he wasn't really in the air; this was just a vision. Jordan began to move again, perversely wishing they would notice him because then he could see where he was, if only through their eyes. He put his hands before him like a blind man, and walked.

The heavens... something was coming down from the sky. The estate knew it, and increasingly the snatches of vision Jordan caught were images from a vast height, far above the highest trees.

If he wasn't able to fight back these visions, he was as good as dead. Was he just going to stand here and let whatever it was that was coming take him?

Angry at his own helplessness, Jordan stopped walking, dropped his arms to his sides, and breathed in deeply. Once. Twice. He called on all the things Calandria had taught him, and tried to subdue the panic. All so he could have his own eyes back, for just a moment.

He felt the kaleidoscope of visions clearing, and tilted his head back. He saw the cloudless sky, scattered with the first stars of evening like finest jewels on blue silk.

And he saw the Heaven hooks.

§

Linden Boros displayed the family smile to Calandria. It was no more charming coming from him than it had been from Yuri or Marice. He was dressed in dark riding breeches and a red embroidered jacket, as if he had just arrived from the stables. He had ten men with him, all armed. August Ostler stood near him, looking uncomfortable.

"August told me there was a fight," said Linden. "Were you a witness to it, lady?" His bodyguards had their swords out.

Calandria looked at the swords, wide-eyed. "What is this about?"

"It would seem my bastard brother has overstepped his boundaries," Linden said dryly. "Through his friend Turcaret." He gestured for her to come up the steps. She walked up to stand before him.

"Where is my apprentice?" she asked. "He should be with your man here." She indicated Ostler.

Linden's brows furrowed slightly. He glanced at Ostler, who shrugged. "Not my concern," he said. "But I think you owe us an explanation."

Calandria cocked her head to one side. "Explanation? Regarding what? That we saved your man here from death requires no explanation--unless you are one of those who would not save a life unless it profit you. That we hid him? It was at his own request. He was a bit ashamed of himself after breaking the rules of the house."

"And why are you dressed for riding at this late hour, lady?"

"Considering the kindness I've done your man, Mister Boros, I think I'm entitled to keep that to myself."

He scowled. "May I remind you that you are a guest in this house?"

"Not for much longer," she said. "And I am not the guest who transgressed the rules," she added, nodding significantly at August, who shrank back.

Linden folded his arms. In this light he appeared quite menacing, slim and poised, with his sword loose at his side. The blond hair cascading down one shoulder was bound with black ribbon. Standing this close to him, Calandria caught a scent of leather, horses and sweat. "Speaking of transgressing rules," he said with some irony, "the Winds might be upset to know just how much science you carry around with you, Lady May."

She didn't reply. "Our poor August, here, was done for, by his own admission," Linden continued. "Someone tried to disguise a freshly healed sword wound with a new and shallower cut, but it's a clumsy job. Especially since there's a corresponding scar on his back. I've never seen such a pair of scars like that before... most people with that sort of wound don't last a day. Now August assures me his blood is actually rather thin, making it difficult for him to clot a cut finger. He says you did something to him... something scientific, which brought him back from the brink of death. The last person to try that was general Armiger, whose entire army was destroyed by the Winds."

"But--" she started.

"But," interrupted Linden, "you happen to be right. You did save my servant's life, by his own admission. I'm not sure what it is you are doing, but those who attacked August the first time just returned to finish the job. That tells me you are not one of them yourself. I don't know who you are, but--"

He was stopped mid-word by screams and shouts breaking out below them. A man ran up the stairs recklessly, shouting "Sir! Sir! He's dead!"

Calandria had bent to pick up her packs. She hesitated, as the man stumbled on the top step, skidded to his knees, and shouted, "They've killed Yuri!"

Linden's eyes widened. "Brendan! I knew it!" He rounded on Calandria. "If you have some involvement in this, lady, then you won't live to see trial. But you saved August, so if you love our house then come with me!" He raced down the stairs.

Calandria reached for her packs, but August already had them. "Where is Jordan?" he asked her, as men raced around them like a river in flood.

"Don't you know?"

He shook his head. Then they turned as one and ran after the mob.

§

Axel reached for the first thing at hand. It was a potted spider plant.

"B-bastard," he managed to croak. His throat burned like he'd been branded. Every time he moved, his arms and shoulders screamed pain. The subcutaneous armor worked just as Calandria had advertised, or else he would be dead by now. It wasn't enough to prevent loss of blood and deep bruising. He had to hope Turcaret didn't realize just how close to collapse he really was.

He threw the pot. Turcaret dodged it easily. Axel's reflexes were still pathetic, but the dizziness was passing.

"I'll kill you," Axel told the controller, trying to sound confident. He stepped into the center of the room. Turcaret backed to the window. Axel stared at his stolen possessions, laid out on a piece of cloth on the table top as if they were for sale. They were going to plant them wherever they killed Yuri, in case they didn't get Axel himself. Good plan.

Turcaret stepped to the window and shouted "Men! Get up here!" loudly.

"Oh, right--" Axel began, but just then the door behind him burst open. Four large men with swords spilled into the room. They stopped their onrush when they saw Axel, bloody by the table, and Turcaret backed against the window.

The leader's eyebrows hopped up and he sneered at Turcaret. "Shall we finish him, sir? It's well past time for--"

He had laid himself wide open, so Axel put a side kick into him. The man sailed across the room and shattered a fine lacquer cabinet. Axel staggered and nearly fell over.

A sharp blow to the shoulder drove him to his knees. This time he had the sense to roll forward, and came to his feet on the far side of the table. The man who had tried to chop his head off was looking at his sword in surprise.

Two of them came around opposite sides of the table. Axel hopped onto it and let one stab him in the chest. He reached out and took the man's wrist; Axel twisted it and took the sword out of his hand while the other bodyguard watched in confusion.

He couldn't let these men catch him. He turned to see a good view of Turcaret's rear end, as the controller struggled to get out the window.

Axel put the pommel of the sword into its owner's face and got off the table. He kicked a chair between himself and the other bodyguard and ran for the window. Turcaret had made it outside, and was clinging to the casement, some three meters above the roof of the manor.

No more time to look--they were converging on him. He grabbed the window frame and pulled himself through it as they howled after him.

The fall would have broken something had he been unarmored. As it was, he was stunned for a second. When he pulled himself to his knees on the rooftop, he could not at first spot Turcaret.

But there he was struggling with the metal door set into the rooftop. Behind him the moon was rising, huge and white. Axel barked a laugh and painfully pulled himself to his feet.

Turcaret looked up in fear--and it took a moment for Axel to realize the controller was not looking at him, but past, at the sky.

Ventus only had one moon, and Diadem was small. The thing Turcaret was silhouetted against was huge--larger than Earth's moon--and growing by the second. It glowed from within.

Turcaret was staring at something behind Axel. He turned around, and looked up... and up.

"Oh, thank you," Turcaret said.

§

The Boros family feud really wasn't any of Calandria's affair, but right now she was surrounded by shouting men for whom nothing could be more important. She let herself be swept along with them, thinking that by doing so she might find Jordan.

Linden raised a hand. "Silence!" he thundered. "Where?" he said to the man who had told them of Yuri's death.

"In his bed-chamber!"

"Oh, pray he was not butchered in his sleep." They hurried out into the courtyard, which was ablaze with torches. The sky was lit by the crepuscular glow of a vagabond moon, huge and lowering over the estate. Servants crowded everywhere, gawking. Linden's men were rallying under the main doors to the manor. "Where is Sheia?" roared Linden.

"We've got his men barricaded in their rooms!" crowed a lieutenant. "Don't know where he is--doubtless he's run, like the cur he is."

"Where is Marice?"

"With Yuri."

"Come then." Linden hurried into the manor. They followed. August stayed close to Calandria, but said nothing.

Yuri's bedchamber was on the third floor, at the front of the house. It had a commanding view through many floor-to-ceiling leaded glass windows. Two fireplaces faced one another across the room; Yuri's giant, canopied bed hulked near the one to the right. Linden's men crowded in after a whole mob of people, who were babbling and wailing incoherently.

Everything had been knocked about in the course of Yuri's final battle. Tables were overturned, chairs smashed. It was astonishing no one had heard the fight--but then, the walls were thick stone, and the door was four centimeters-thick oak.

Yuri lay on his back on the bed. His belly was slit, and intestines bulged blue out of the wound. His eyes were still open, glaring at the ceiling.

Lady Marice stood next to the bed. There was no expression at all on her face; it was as if she were carved from stone. She watched as people ran back and forth shouting.

"The assassin fled," someone said to Linden. He stepped up to Marice and took her hand. She snatched it back, and turned away from him.

"But he left his sword." The man pointed to the floor by the bed.

"Did he now?" Linden knelt and prodded the blade that lay there. "And whose is this, I wonder?"

Calandria gasped. It was Axel's sword.























13

The bowl of the sky was being filled. Jordan could see stars only near the horizon; the rest of the firmament was taken up by the dark mass of a vagabond moon. He had never seen one so low to the ground before--had never realized how big it was, like a thunderhead. It seemed ready to drop on him at any moment.

From a distance the moons seemed featureless, but up close he could make out tiny patterns in its dark skin, like the veins of a leaf. And directly above him, in the center of the bowled-in sky the moon made, he saw a deeply black star-shaped opening appear, and motes of light drifted silently down from it.

The Heaven hooks. He could see them among the lights now: black filaments, like spider's thread, with the lights strung along them like paper lanterns at a fair. Everyone knew the hooks rode on vagabond moons, reaching down through clouds like the hands of a god to scoop up entire fields. He had never seen them before--no one he knew had. But he knew the stories.

The entrance to the manor was only a hundred meters away. Jordan put his head down, and ran for the doors.

§

Linden Boros picked up Axel Chan's sword. The blade was covered in blood. The lord turned it over in his hands thoughtfully. "Foreign make," he said. "Could be Iapysian?" A fresh commotion was breaking out in the hallway outside Yuri's bed chamber. The whole estate, it seemed, was erupting with noise.

"What does it matter," said the lieutenant at his side. "We know Brendan Sheia is behind this."

"Is that so?"

Silence fell like a cloak across the room. Calandria stood on her tiptoes to see what had happened.

Brendan Sheia stood in the doorway. He had one hand on the pommel of his sword, otherwise he appeared calm. "Is it wise to jump to such conclusions, brother?"

"I'm not your brother!" Linden paced up to him. "It was very stupid of you to come here, Brendan. I suppose, though, it saves you the humiliation of being run to ground."

"You're too quick to jump to conclusions," Brendan said. He went to Marice, and gravely bowed. "My lady, I don't know what to say. This is terrible." Again, Marice turned away.

Brendan Sheia wheeled about like an actor on stage. He knew he had the attention of every person in the room. He was a hulking man with a square face, black hair and beetle brows. He wore a house coat embroidered with the family crest, and simple grey breeches, a doubtless calculated attempt to look like he had come from his own bed chamber, which the sword spoiled.

He would have had to be insane to enter this room without the weapon, judging from the way people were looking at him.

"What is that?" He nodded at the sword Linden held. "The murder weapon?"

"Yes," said Linden, "and as soon we find which of your men it belongs to, we'll pin him to the south wall with it--just ahead of you."

"One of my men?" Sheia frowned. "Not likely. That belongs to one of our other guests... the tawny fellow, you know, the irritating one."

"Sir Chan," said Linden's lieutenant.

"Yes, that's the one. Where is he during all this commotion?"

Linden looked at Calandria. She had nothing to say, but simply shook her head.

"Perhaps you do need to tell us the reason for your travelling clothes," Linden said to her.

"Well then." Sheia crossed his arms and glowered at Calandria. "It seems straightforward."

"Not necessarily," said Linden. "They have no motive. Quite the contrary."

"Maybe they were hired by Sheia," said the lieutenant.

Sheia guffawed. "They're agents of Ravenon, by their own admission. By this one stroke they've sown disorder in both Memnonis and Iapysia. Considering the troubles Ravenon's having, they'd love us to squabble within ourselves. If you don't see that, Linden, you're an idiot."

Linden stepped toward him, white-faced. Sheia ignored him, turning instead to Calandria. "So Lady May was taking the servants' stairs, was she?"

"If the assassin got away," Calandria said, pitching her voice clear and steady, "why did he leave his sword? That seems like a rather large oversight."

"Perhaps he was overwhelmed by what he had done. Or, maybe he was hurt?" Sheia appeared to consider that idea. "It looks like quite a fight happened here. That being the case, brother," said Sheia, "wouldn't you agree we should be hunting for Chan?"

Linden appeared to have regained his poise. He snapped his fingers at two sergeants, who came to attention and hurried from the room. "There," he said. "Now let us get back to the question at hand: namely their connection to you." He nodded to two more men. They moved forward to flank Brendan Sheia.

"Before you make an ugly mistake," Sheia said, "consider your options. Who are you going to put to the question here? I did not kill Yuri. With him gone, the family needs us united--it is imperative to our survival. If my men hear you've imprisoned me, there'll be a bloodbath, and nobody wants that. You can find out for sure who killed Yuri. Ask her."

Linden laughed humorlessly. "We will. But you're not going anywhere until we're done. Bring her." He turned to leave.

"Wait!" August jumped between Calandria and the Boros'. "She is no assassin. I can vouch for her."

"And bring him too!" Linden cried. He flipped his cloak about himself angrily as he stepped from the room. Sheia laughed richly as he followed.

"Wait!" August shouted. A soldier clouted him on the side of the head, and he went down on his knees. Another man took Calandria's arm and pushed her roughly toward the doors.

She had just turned to snap something rude at the man, when the ceiling caved in.

§

Turcaret laughed spitefully. "You are too late. The Heaven hooks have come, to take your young apprentice. Doubtless they will take you, too."

Axel stared at the sky. "Oh, shit," he whispered.

The biggest aerostat he had ever seen was hovering over the manor house. They were a common enough sight in the skies of Ventus, and very similar to the aerostat cities he had seen on gas giants and dense-atmosphere planets. The thing was just a hollow geodesic sphere about two kilometers in diameter. It didn't much matter what you built one with; at that size it would remain airborne despite its mass because, due to its high surface-to-volume ratio, sunlight would trap enough heat inside to create buoyancy. On other worlds entire cities lived in the bases of the things; here on Ventus, Axel had been told, they served as bulk transport for minerals and other terraforming supplies. No human had ever entered one and come out again, of course--they were purely tools of the Winds.

The belly of this aerostat had opened out like the petals of a flower--or more ominously, like the beaked mouth of a octopus. Hundreds of cables woven round with gantries and buttresses tumbled into the high air from this opening. He could see them spiralling down at him in glimpses highlit by Diadem, the world's one true moon.

"They will take you, Chan!" Turcaret shouted. "It was going to happen, if you lived. Somehow you and yours have offended the Winds. They have taken notice of you! My killing you was an act of kindness, don't you see? I would have spared you this!"

"Shut up," Axel said distractedly. What the hell was the thing doing here? This couldn't be some random event; his briefings on Ventus had never mentioned an attack like this. But the Winds treated any technology not of their own creation as a pathology to be removed. Axel had thought he and Calandria had succeeded in hiding their nano and implants from the rulers of Ventus. Maybe it hadn't worked.

Axel had to get to Calandria, and Turcaret happened to be standing on the only door. "Out of the way, you bastard," Axel said. Turcaret's face was lost in darkness, but Axel could see he was shaking his head.

"I will deliver you to them," said the controller. "It will be my pleasure." He shouted something into the sky in some old language. Past his dark outline, Axel saw a thing like a caged claw, big as a house, fall straight at them. Just before it hit, great lamps like eyes blazed into life from its crossbeams.

The roof disappeared with a great slap Axel felt in his bones. Dust and scraps of shingle and wooden beams shot into the air, and he was airborne too before he knew it. He landed on his side on the roof, which swayed and pitched like the deck of a ship. Something bright as the sun, and howling like a million saws, planted itself in the roof next to him and twisted this way and that. He smelled hot iron and ozone.

Axel rolled onto his stomach. Turcaret was crouched two meters away, also looking up. Axel willed himself to stand up, but his strength momentarily failed him. As he was struggling onto his elbows, Turcaret sent him a silent, contemptuous glare, and hopped down through the hole in the roof.

A metal tower reaching all the way to heaven was heaving its base back and forth through the ruins of the manor. Only part of one wing had collapsed, so far, but the thing had hundreds of arms, and these pounced out and down into corridor and chamber, and through the dust he could see some of these arms passing struggling human forms inward to the thing's central cage. Horrified, he rolled away from the sight.

He came up against the door, which had popped open. The stairs leading down appeared quite unscathed. A last glance back showed Axel that other giant arms had landed on the grounds and by the stables, in a rough circle around the main building. They were eating the trees.

Axel wailed and fell through the open door.

§

Calandria sorted herself out of the tangle of lead triangles and glass flinders on which she had landed. She had never read of, seen or VR'd someone jumping through a leaded glass window before; it had turned out to be a lot more difficult than she had expected.

It had taken two tries, but she was on the ground now. Poor August was still upstairs, but there was only so much she could do. She rolled to her feet, rubbing blood out of her eyes.

Madness had fallen from the sky. She had a perfect view of the grounds from here in the bushes by the front steps of the manor. People were running back and forth, trying in equal numbers to get into and out of the house. An aerostat hovered over the estate, visible in the light of fires that were springing up all over. Calandria stared at it for a moment, then shook her head to clear the muddle of half-thoughts that filled it. Bits of glass flew from her hair.

A deep crash sounded from inside the manor; the front doors flew open, and a waft of dust blew out. There was no going back in there--but she had to find Axel. She bounced on the balls of her feet for a moment, debating whether to use radio to contact him.

A huge metal arm plowed into the earth a hundred meters away. Its end flopped there for a second or two, then split into a hundred bright threads, which coiled outward. Each thread--which must be a motile cable as thick as her body--bent and probed the ground ahead of itself as it moved. She realized suddenly that this thing might be able to smell her out from the radio waves, and her scalp crawled with sudden fear. She had been about to contact Axel. Its cables continued to unravel and lengthen, and some were heading towards her.

With a terrible rending crash, one wall of the manor fell outward. Calandria screamed as the air around her was filled with flying stone. At least ten people had been hurrying across the patch of ground the wall had hit.

She stood back and cupped her hands around her mouth. ."Axel!" Twenty meters away, a gleaming metal snake reared into the air, its mandibled tip quivering. It slid deliberately in her direction.

A hand fell on her shoulder. It was Axel, coughing and covered head to foot in blood and grey dust.

"You're hurt!" She gingerly peeled his sticky shirt aside.

"It's superficial. You look a bit rough yourself. You okay?" he said.

"So far. Look at that!" She pointed at the questing snake.

He glanced at it briefly. "Yeah. Let's get out of here."

"Which way?"

"We need our supplies. Where's your stuff?"

"August's got it. He's... well, we got separated. How about yours?"

Axel pointed wordlessly at the heap of rubble even now being picked through by metal scavengers.

"Inside!" She went to grab his arm, and thought better of it; she didn't know where all his wounds were. "Oh, Axel, what happened?" She gestured for him to follow her up the pillared steps. The snakelike thing was only a few meters away now.

"Can't we just run for it?" He stood swaying slightly, staring at it.

"Come on!" Abandoning care, she hauled him inside. The foyer of the manor was a chaos of screaming people. One staircase had collapsed; a weeping woman dug frantically at the wreckage, screaming "Hold on! I'm coming!" Some soldiers with their swords in their hands stood in a knot, staring hectically at the shadowed ceiling. Men were hauling injured people and corpses in from one of the side corridors.

"There's nowhere else to go," said Axel.

"What's happening?" She pulled Axel to face her; his expression was lost in darkness, since the only light came from a couple of oil lamps, and from fires burning outside.

"Turcaret says they're after Jordan," said Axel. "I guess his implants set them off somehow. The bastard did this to me," he said, raising his arms then wincing. "Tried to set me up for the murder of Yuri."

She shrugged angrily. "Yes, I saw the result. Where's Jordan?"

"No idea." One of the front doors fell off its hinges. With everything else that was happening, this didn't seem momentous. But harsh cones of electric light pierced the dust from outside. Calandria heard a loud whirring sound, accompanied by undulating movements in the doorway.

"What do we do now?" she said.

"Nothing," he said, staring into the light.

"Not nothing!" She let her breath out in a rush, coughed on dust, and said, "We shoot down the aerostat."

Axel's eyes widened. "With what?"

"Call the Desert Voice. Land her here. Have her take out the aerostat on the way."

"But Jordan--"

"Axel, we're done here! We need to get Armiger and get out of here. Axel--" she couldn't prevent her voice from rising as she spoke--"they're killing everyone here! Because of Armiger!"

Axel's lips were drawn in a tight grimace. He clenched his fists and glared at her while around them people screamed. "All right!" he said finally. "Do it!"

Calandria closed her eyes and opened the link.

§

Turcaret ducked involuntarily as something nearby fell with a crash. The manor was coming down around him, but he couldn't leave it until he had taken care of his people.

He fought his way past running servants to his people's quarters. The maids and footmen were clustered at the windows, staring outside in disbelief. "Run!" he barked at them. "Quickly now. Get outside before the rest comes down."

"What's happening?" wailed one. "Is it the war?"

He shook his head. "Just go."

They made for the door.

He sighed. Duty was satisfied; now to find Jordan Mason.

He had no idea whether the assassination of Yuri had gone off successfully, but that seemed unimportant now. The Heaven hooks were in a rage. He could hear them, a deep sussurating chorus in his mind.

Never in his life had Turcaret been in the presence of such powerful Winds. He had heard voices as a child, and long before he met anyone who could explain them, had decided they were Winds. Little things spoke to him, trees and stones, and sometimes he could reply. They generally rambled about subjects he didn't understand, but every now and then they brought news of the Hooks, or the Diadem Swans, and once or twice had told him of the activities of the desals. He clearly remembered the day he learned that the desals had chosen to put the lady Galas on the throne of Iapysia. She was blessed by the Winds; it was this fact that finally made him throw in with Brendan Sheia, because she had somehow angered the desals, and he feared what the Winds might do if that happened.

Now the voices discussed their search for a man. The Winds were acting to eliminate a threat--but how could that be? In all his years, Turcaret had never heard the Winds speak of any sort of danger to themselves or the world. They were all-powerful.

Sometimes when the Winds were very near, Turcaret could see secrets within things. That was happening now, but on a scale he could never have imagined. Everywhere he looked, ghostly words and images seemed to hover in front of objects--the chairs, walls, casements and jittering chandeliers each had its orbiting retinue of tiny visions. He knew if he had time to stop and examine them, each would reveal some secret about the object behind it. You could learn all the crafts, from masonry to bookbinding this way.

He had always felt exalted by such gifts. They were proof that he was special, destined in some way to be a great leader and master over both Man and Nature. When he heard whispers of the coming of the Heaven hooks last night, Turcaret had assumed they knew of his plot with Brendan Sheia, and were preparing to marshal the forces of heaven itself behind their attempt to wrest control of the Boros family. Sheia didn't believe him when Turcaret told him, so they had continued with the conservative approach: framing the visiting imposters for the assassination. But Turcaret had suspected such detail work would prove unnecessary in the face of what was to come.

Now the Winds had arrived, and they were destroying the estate! He would have thought they disapproved of Yuri's assassination, were it not that he could hear plainly they wanted only one thing: Jordan Mason.

Turcaret himself meant nothing to them. That knowledge came as a deep blow, worse than anything Chan had inflicted.

At the foot of the stairs, people were spilling into the courtyard. He could see Linden Boros trying to organize his men among tilting statues. The terrifying arms of the Hooks reared overhead.

Turcaret ignored them; they were no threat to him. He scanned the faces in the courtyard. He had seen Mason once, being hoisted aloft in Castor's courtyard for some minor victory. And indeed, there he was coming out of the front hall. He looked more boy than man, his dark hair tousled, eyes wide.

"Give me your sword," Turcaret demanded of a passing soldier. Dazed though he was, the man hurried to comply. Turcaret hefted the blade and walked through the mob, eyes fixed on Mason.

What was this boy to the Winds? He was nothing but a loutish tradesman, and yet the Heaven hooks were willing to kill everyone on the estate to get at him. "You!" Turcaret levelled his sword at Mason. "What did you do to anger them?"

"I don't know!" shouted the boy. He shook himself and glared at Turcaret. "And who are you to accuse me?"

Anger always calmed Turcaret; it gave him focus. He smiled now at the boy. "You've spent too long with Chan. Answer me! What have you done to offend the Winds?"

Uncertainty crept into Mason's eyes again. He was lit in intermittent flashes of lightning, making him seem to shift in place. If he tried to run, Turcaret was prepared to kill him.

"I don't know why they're doing it," Mason said simply. He seemed guileless; whatever he had done, he was probably too stupid to remember or connect it to tonight's events.

The Heaven hooks would keep tearing the estate apart until they found Mason. He was the cancer at the heart of the night, and only his removal would restore the correct order to things.

Killing him would also surely make the Winds notice Turcaret at last.

"Stand still," he instructed the youth. He stepped forward and raised the sword.

Lightning flashed again, and Turcaret caught a glimpse of Mason's eyes. In them Turcaret saw something he had never believed he would see.

Words and images flickered like heat lightning in those eyes. Somehow, this youth was both Man and Wind. The whispering voices of nature spoke from within him. All the people on this estate--all people everywhere--appeared to Turcaret as absences, silhouettes against the glow of the Winds. All except Mason, who shone like nature itself.

Mason glanced up at the sky. Suddenly everyone in the courtyard was screaming.

Mason jumped back. People were running for the walls, so finally Turcaret tore his gaze away from the youth.

He just had time to count the claws on the giant hand before it fell on him, took him, and crushed out his life.

§

Jordan met August Ostler in a cellar hallway choked with dust and swarming with terrified people. The soldier looked stunned, and Jordan had to take him by the shoulders and shout in his face to get his attention.

August blinked at him. Despite the warm red light of the torches, August's face was deadly pale. "The Heaven hooks have come," he said.

"I know," Jordan said impatiently. "Where's my lady?"

A series of scraping thuds sounded overhead, like the foosteps of a bewildered giant. The crowd grew suddenly silent; their gleaming eyes rolled and glanced to and fro.

Jordan felt curiously detached. He knew he would be in the same state as these people, if he didn't know who the Heaven hooks wanted. But they wanted him; knowing that made his mind wonderfully clear. He was sure he was as afraid as anyone here, but his fear was focussed and sharp. He knew the thudding steps above were the gropings of a god which was determined to take the manor apart stone by stone until it found him.

August stammered. "Last I saw, she was being held by Linden's men. They suspect her of killing Yuri!"

"Killing Yuri? That makes no sense!"

A giant roaring collapse took place somewhere above. It shook dust from the ceiling. People had begun to talk again, and this silenced them.

Jordan strove to compose himself. It seemed everything that went wrong in his life did so when he lost control. He folded his arms across his chest, closed his eyes, and tried his breathing exercises. With an effort he began mentally reciting one of the nonsense mantras Calandria had taught him.

He would have to leave the building. The Heaven hooks would get him for sure, but it sounded like it was just a matter of minutes anyway before they dug down to where he was now.

Once he came to this decision, he felt calmer. He opened his eyes.

August stood near him, eyes downcast. Only now did Jordan notice the bags he was carrying.

"These are Calandria's!" He fingered the strap of one.

"Yes, I was carrying them because... well, never mind."

"Give them to me!"

August did so without complaint. He seemed relieved, in fact, to be free of the responsibility.

Jordan sat down on the cold flagstones and began rooting through the bags. His mind was racing, spinning between the terrible feeling that he was somehow responsible for this disaster, and a hope that he might be able to set it right.

"August, what do the Heaven hooks look like to you?"

August shook his head dumbly.

"Come on! What do they look like? Animals?"

"No."

"Trees?"

"Almost... no. They are what they are, Jordan."

"Do they look like mechanisms?"

August frowned, then nodded.

Jordan had found what he was looking for. "Listen, August, when Calandria and I were on our way here, we stopped one night in a manse of the Winds. We slept there, unmolested."

"Impossible."

"I thought so too. I didn't want to go in." Jordan half-rose, and poked August in the spot where the man had been run through. "Remember this? The wound that nearly killed you last night? That's now gone? Calandria May has more tricks than that. One of them is this." He held up the gauze they had used to avoid the mecha in the manse, and told August how they had used it.

He had the man's attention now. "I swear to you," Jordan said, "the Heaven hooks are after me! I'm not Calandria's servant, or Axel's apprentice. I'm just a workman. But I've been cursed, and the Winds are after me. They're tearing the manor house apart because I'm down here! If I leave, they'll stop."

"If that's true..." August didn't finish, but Jordan knew what he was thinking. August believed him. It was best for Jordan to go out there, and if he wouldn't go voluntarily, he should be forced. And yet, from the look on August's face, he had no love for the idea.

Could it be that August felt some sort of loyalty to Jordan, because he had saved the man's life? Ridiculous. Other people were worthy of such admiration, but Jordan knew he was not.

He had no time to think about that now. Renewed crashings sounded above them, and deep thuds which seemed to be coming nearer. "Listen," he shouted over the din, "Lady May says mecha are a kind of machine. If the Heaven hooks are like the mecha, maybe this will hide me from them."

"Then they will go berserk for sure," said August. "But anyway, the Winds are different from live things, and different from machines."

Jordan shook his head. "Maybe, maybe not. Anyway, I've got no intention of just disappearing." He told August his plan.

§

Thousands of kilometers above Ventus, a thing like a bird sculpted in liquid metal heard Calandria's call. The Desert Voice was named for the voice of conscience that had driven Calandria from the employ of the men who had trained her. The Voice knew the origin of her name, and was proud of it and of her mistress. When she heard Calandria's call she was nearly over the horizon, following her orbit; she instantly reversed thrust. A bright star appeared in the skies over Ventus.

The Voice had been sailing a very quiet sky. There was no radio traffic from the surface of Ventus, except for localized tight beams between the vagabond moons and the Diadem Swans. The Swans themselves were invisible, wrapped in radar-proof cloaks. They knew the Voice was there, but the starship had been discreet after dropping Calandria and Axel off.

They were about to become very interested in the Desert Voice.

She broke orbit entirely and dropped to hover directly over the Boros estate at an altitude of two hundred kilometers. The fire from her exhaust pierced the ionosphere and created an auroral spike visible over the horizon. To the survivors huddled in the ruins of the Boros estate, the vagabond moon that eclipsed the sky glowed faintly for a moment.

"She's here," said Calandria.

The Voice assessed the situation. The aerostat between her and her mistress was a big one: two kilometers in diameter, comprised of a thin carbon-filament skeleton covered with quasi-biological skin. It was surrounded by a haze of ionized air, which it created and directed around itself to control its movement. It was completely empty except for a ring of storage tanks and gantries in its belly, which was of insignificant mass compared to the lift the sun-warmed air inside it gave.

It stood five hundred meters above Calandria's position. The Voice could see it straining to maintain its place: lightning shot from its waist, and a vast electrical potential roved its skin, pulling the air about. It was creating its own weather, and it would have to lift soon or the instabilities would drag it into the ground.

The Voice reviewed her options. Eliminating the aerostat without having it fall on Calandria was going to be tricky. She could send a nuke into the center of the thing and blow it to smithereens, but a lot of the debris would fall on the mistress. Better to blow a hole in its side--but a quick calculation told her that the aerostat could stay on station for many minutes despite huge structural damage, simply because it would take a while for the warm air inside to be replaced by outside air.

She could nuke a spot some miles above the aerostat. The updraft would loft it into the stratosphere... but might also tear it in half.

Her thoughts were interrupted as, all across the sky, the Diadem Swans threw aside their cloaks and came for her.

§

"Goodbye, August," said Jordan. They shook hands. August looked grim.

"I think I'll see you again, Jordan," he said. "You're a mad fool, and such people have a way of surviving."

Jordan laughed. His heart was hammering. "I hope you're right!" He turned and stepped out the servant's door.

The grounds of the estate were lit by fires and the savage beams of lantern light cast by the Hooks. Jordan ran with Calandria's magic gauze wrapped about himself, and though he passed close to several of the vast armatures, none moved in his direction. They continued pounding at the ruins of the manor. He could see very few people. Only here and there survivors huddled under the shelter of trees, or in archways. They watched the approach of the metal arms of the Hooks with increasing apathy.

Jordan tripped through deep gouges, and ran around uprooted trees and fallen blocks until he reached the middle of the field, where he had first stopped to look up at the Hooks. There was rubble all the way out here, a hundred meters from the house.

He didn't give himself time to think, just threw aside the gauze and screamed at the sky, "Here I am, you bastards!"

For a moment nothing happened. Then he saw the great arms that had buried themselves in the manor were lifting up and out. And above him, a pinpoint of light began to grow into a beacon, as something new fell towards him.

"Oh, shit," he whispered. He had been hoping he was wrong, that the Hooks were here to avenge someone else's transgression.

A wind blew up suddenly, carrying with it a strong smell like air after a thunderstorm. Dust and smoke swirled up, and began to wrap around the base of the vagabond moon.

Certain he had their attention, Jordan wrapped himself in the gauze again, and ran for the trees.

A big metal crane slammed into the spot where he had been standing. The impact threw Jordan off his feet, but he was up and running again in a second. He heard the thing thrashing and digging behind him, but though his shoulders itched with expectation, nothing grabbed him. He made it to the edge of the forest, and paused to look back.

Several arms now hunted over the grass. None were coming after him. Better yet, those limbs that had been demolishing the manor were gone, lifted back up into the belly of the moon. The thunderstorm smell was stronger, though, and fierce, conflicing gusts of wind blew across the treetops. The moon seemed to be hanging lower and lower in the sky.

Jordan had run for the screen of trees that separated the road from the grounds. He stood at the entrance to a pathway that he knew led to the stone trough at the side of the road.

He unwound the gauze. "Hey!" he shouted, waving his arms over his head. "Over here!"

The questing arms rose into the air, and silently swung in his direction.

He covered up and stepped into the shelter of the trees.

§

"It's moving away," Axel observed. He and Calandria stood with some others watching the departure of the arms that had harried the manor. In the sudden silence he could hear the shouts and screams of trapped and injured people. Blocks of stone still fell from the sky at intervals, so everyone's attention was directed upwards; few people were moving to help the injured.

It did seem like the aerostat was moving away, and the strong winds were probably the reason. Along with the smoke Axel smelled ozone. Electrostatic propulsion? Probably.

"Think the Voice scared it?"

Calandria shook her head. "I doubt it. Anyway, we've seen no sign, except that one faint flash. Maybe it decapitated the aerostat, though; we might not know until it hit the ground. As soon as it's far enough away I'll call the Voice and check."

Axel nodded. He returned his attention to ground level. A shame. A real shame. "Our first priority is to help these people," he said. "There's still some trapped in the rubble."

"I'll dig," she said. "You'd better sit down."

He looked down at himself. He was covered in blood, with open cuts up and down his torso. He hurt all over, too.

"Yes," he said as he lowered himself onto a stone. "I think I'd better."

§

Jordan made it to the highway. He was out of breath and covered in sweat, but the Hooks hadn't caught him yet. From here on the countryside was open, which could pose a problem; but he remembered the golden monster in the manse reaching around him to pick up shattered wood after he had merely raised the gauze in front of it. It had not seen him even though he was right in front of it. By now he was fairly sure the Hooks would not spot him even in open country, as long as he had this protection.

He would make for the forest. It was a day or two's travel away, but he wouldn't feel he could rest until he was under the trees, gauze or no gauze. And then, if he survived, he would try to find his way home.

Or would he? He had started walking, and paused now. He might lose the Heaven hooks for a while, but something else would come after him in time. The Winds were everywhere. He had only delayed the inevitable--unless he were to wear this accursed cloth for the rest of his life, and shun any community that the Hooks might dismantle to reach him.

Jordan realized that if he survived, it was going to be as an outcast, unless he was willing to risk everyone around him. Was that how he was going to end his days? Hiding from god and man alike in the forest?

He lowered his head, and wept as he ran.

§

A few minutes later there was a brilliant flash of light in the sky, like sheet lightning but as bright as the sun. A few seconds later, a violent bang and grumble of thunder sounded.

The vagabond moon had lit up like a lantern in the flash. In the aftermath of the thunder, Calandria and Axel stood from their digging to watch as the moon dipped lower, until its base disappeared behind the trees. Then it seemed to crumple like the finest tissue, even as it continued to move east. Over the next few minutes it spent itself across the fields, in a trail of girders and torn skin many miles long. There were no fires, no explosions, and only faint distant rumblings as it fell.

It came down closer to Jordan, and he saw the bottom ring with its mouth full of hooks touch the earth and shatter, spilling stone blocks, trees and human figures. Many of those figures lived, and struggled free of the wreckage; the moon had not fallen straight down, but glided slowly into the earth at an angle. Most of those alive when it hit were still alive afterward.

Jordan saw this, but he could not stop, because he could not be sure some new horror would not follow. He continued walking, nursing a stitch in his side. If he could not go home because of the voices in his head; and if Calandria May was wrong about Armiger, as he had begun to suspect; and if even she could not prevent the Heaven hooks from coming after him; then he would have to find help elsewhere.

He was no longer walking east. His goal now lay to the southwest.

§

When the aerostat had finished falling, Calandria May knelt down, closed her eyes, and signaled her ship. Axel watched as her brows knit, and she frowned. She remained kneeling for longer than he thought should be necessary. When she opened her eyes, she looked at him with an expression of tired acceptance.

"The Desert Voice doesn't answer," she said. "I'm afraid, Axel, that we may be stranded."

















Part Two

The Wife of the World



















14

...We shall win new feelings, superior to love and loyalty, from the field of the human heart.

General Lavin put down the book, and rubbed his eyes. It was late. He should be sleeping, but instead he kept returning to these damnable pages, to stare at words written both by a familiar hand, and an alien mind.

Distant sounds of crackling fires, canvas flapping and quiet grumbled conversation reassured him. His army sprawled around him, thousands of men asleep or, like him, uneasy in darkness. Lavin felt a tension in the air; the men knew they were close to battle, and while no one was happy, they were at least satisfied that waiting would soon be over.

He had closed the book four times this evening, and every time began pacing the narrow confines of his tent until, drawn equally by loathing and hope, he returned to it. The things Queen Galas said in this, a collection of private letters liberated from one of her experimental towns, were worse than heresies--they attacked basic human decency. Yet, Lavin's memories of her from Court were so strong, and so at odds with the picture these writings suggested, that he was half-convinced they were someone else's, attributed to her.

This was the hope that kept him returning to the book--that he would discover some proof in the writing that these were not the writings of the queen of Iapysia. He wanted to believe she was isolated, perhaps even imprisoned in her palace, and that some other, evil cabal was running the country.

But the turns of phrase, the uncanny self-assurance of the voice that spoke in this pages; they were undeniably hers.

He sighed, and sat down in a folding camp chair. He was having more nights like this, as the siege lengthened and Galas continued to refuse to surrender. The strain was showing in his face. In the lamplit mirror his eyes were hollows, and lines stood out around his mouth. Those lines had not been there last summer.

Some kind of discussion broke out in front of his tent. Lavin frowned at the tent flap. They'd wake the dead with those voices. He cared for his men, but sometimes they behaved like barbarians.

"Sir? Sorry to disturb you sir."

"Enter." The flap flipped aside and Colonel Hesty entered. The colonel wore riding gear, and his collar was open to the autumn air. He looked haggard. Lavin tried to take some satisfaction in that: he was not the only one who found it hard to sleep tonight.

"What is it?" Lavin did not make to rise, nor did he offer Hesty a seat. He realized he had spoken in a certain upper class drawl he was usually at pains to disguise from his men. They seemed to think it was effete. With a grimace, he sat up straighter.

"They've found something. Over in the quarry." Something in the way he said it caught Lavin's full attention.

"What do you mean, 'found something'? A spy?"

Hesty shook his head. "No. Not... a man. Well, sort of a man."

Lavin rolled his head slowly and was rewarded as his neck cracked. "I know it's late, Hesty, and one's vocabulary becomes strained at such times. But could you expand on that a little?" He reached for his coat, which he had carelessly slung across the back of a chair.

Hesty raised one eyebrow. "It's hard to explain, sir. I'd rather show you." He was almost smiling.

Lavin joined him outside. The air was cool, but not yet cold. Autumn came late and gently on the edge of the desert; south, in the heart of the land, it never came at all.

South and west lay the experimental towns, now mostly razed. Flashes of memory came unbidden to Lavin, and he suppressed them with a shudder. "It's hard to sleep, now that we're so close," he said.

Hesty nodded. "Myself as well. That's why I think a little mystery might do you some good. I mean, a different kind of mystery."

"Does this have to do with the queen?"

"No. At least, only very indirectly. Come." Hesty grinned and gestured at two horses who waited patiently nearby.

Lavin shook his head, but mounted up. He could see the palace over the peak of the tent. Looking away from that, he tried to find the path to the quarry. The valley was a sea of tents, some lit by the faint glow of fires. Columns of grey smoke rose from the sea and disappeared among the stars.

Hesty led. Lavin watched his back swaying atop the horse, and mused about sleep. Some nights he struggled with exhaustion like an enemy, and got nowhere. Maybe Hesty did the same thing, a surprising thought; Lavin respected the man, would even be a bit afraid of him were their positions not so firmly established, he the leader, Hesty the executor. After one battle, he remembered, Hesty's sword arm had been drenched in blood. Lavin had killed a man himself, and felt proud and ashamed, as one does, until he saw Hesty. Hesty had been grim, his mind bent to the task of securing the town--unconcerned with himself. There was a lesson in that.

It was possible the man was acting that way now--simply doing his duty to try to ensure a night's distraction for his commanding officer. Lavin smiled. It might work, too. Sometimes the only way to win the struggle with insomnia was to let it carry you for a while--ride it like he rode this horse.

As they left the camp, he found his thoughts drifting. The movement of the horse lulled him, though it was a hard rocking from side to side, never subtle, not swaying the body like a dancer swayed. Which made him think of dancers; how long had it been since he had attended a dance? Months. Years? Couldn't be. No one seemed to host them anymore. None like the one where he had first seen Princess Galas, anyway. It wasn't hard to believe that was twenty years ago--easier to believe it was a hundred.

Swaying was how he had first seen her. She was finishing a dance. At that time she could have been no more than seventeen, a year or two younger than himself. He had stood in a corner with some friends, plucking at his collar. They had all craned their necks to try to locate this storied mad princess in the moving maze of dancing couples. When she did appear it was very nearby, as the song broke up--she curtsied, laughing to her older partner. He bowed, and she spoke to him briefly. They drifted apart as the next dance began.

She stood nearby, miraculously alone. This baron's hall held easily a thousand people, and all had to meet her, or be seen to try for etiquette's sake. Her father's spies would know who did and did not pay her compliments. She, like any princess, was a vessel for his favor. Lavin saw her sigh now, and close her eyes briefly. She wants to recover her poise, he thought.

His friends huddled together. "Let's meet her!" "Lavin, shall we?"

"We shall not!" He said it a bit too loudly, and she looked up, her eyes widening just a bit. For the first time Lavin had realized she might have come to rest here because his was the only group of people at the ball near her own age. Everyone else was middle-aged or older, a fact that had been making Lavin's group squirm.

So he smiled, and bowed to her, and said, "We shall not meet the princess. If she wishes, the princess will meet us."

She smiled. Galas was willowy, with large dark eyes and a determined thrust to her chin. She held herself well in her formal ball dress; Lavin envied her such poise. But she was of royal blood, after all. He was merely noble.

His companions had frozen like rabbits caught in a garden. Lavin was about to step forward, say something else ingenuous (although he seemed to have exhausted his cleverness with that one statement) when suddenly Galas was surrounded by courtiers. They had rushed, without seeming to rush, around the edge of the dance floor, and homed in on her like falcons.

Galas became caught in a tangle of clever opening lines. They led her, without seeming to lead her, away to the lunch tables. Lavin stared after her, not heeding decorum.

When they had almost reached the tables, she turned and glanced back. At him.

He would always remember that moment, how happy he had been. Something had begun.

Harsh shouts ahead. Lavin opened his eyes. Hesty had led them to a deep gash in one of the hills near the city. Here, under the lurid light of bonfires, gangs of prisoners labored through the night to create missiles for their steam cannon.

Lavin and Hesty dismounted, and the colonel led him into the pit, where captured royalists cursed and wept on the stones they were chiseling, while Lavin's men whipped them.

Over the years workers had taken a large bite out of the hillside. The layers below proved to be made of salt. Lavin had not been here before, and he marveled at the cleanness of the carved walls. In daylight they would probably glow white. The whole place stank of ocean-side. The scent made him smile.

The salt was precious, and the entire site was under guard because his men wanted to walk off with the stuff. They had tried quarrying for proper stone but it was a good distance underground. Lavin wanted a heap of rock the size of a house near his cannon when it came time to fire on the city. The salt was available; precious or not, he would use it. His men could collect the shards off the street later and buy their own rewards with it. Lavin couldn't buy what he wanted, so he was indifferent to its lure.

"It's over here!" One of the overseers waved at them from across the pit. A large crowd had gathered there, numbering both soldiers. The prisoners showed no fear, but glanced up at Lavin with frank eyes as he strode past. Their attitude made him uncomfortable--they were her creations, and he didn't understand them.

"Sir!" The overseer saluted hastily. His broad belly gleamed with sweat in the torchlight. He stood over a large slab of white salt, perhaps twice the length and width of a man, and at least half a meter thick. Two brawny soldiers were brushing delicately at its surface with paint brushes.

Lavin cocked his head skeptically, and looked at Hesty and then the overseer. "You got me up in the middle of the night for this?"

"Sir. Look!" The overseer pointed. Lavin stepped up to the slab.

There was a man buried in it. The outline of a man, anyway, blurred and distorted, visible through the pale milky crystal crystals. Lavin stepped back in shock, then moved in again, repelled but fascinated.

"Where..."

"The whole slab came off the face over there," the overseer pointed, "about two hours ago. Killed the man it fell on. When they went to get him they thought he'd climbed out and died on top of the thing--they saw the outline, see? But his leg was sticking out from underneath." He laughed richly. "Three legs was a bit unlikely, eh. So they looked closer. Then they called me. And..." he seemed to run out of steam, "I called the colonel."

Hesty traced the outline of the figure with his fingertip. "We have the quarry foreman. He thinks the layers we're working in were laid down eight hundred years ago, by the desals."

Lavin lifted whitened fingers to his face. The sea. "So at that time, this area was a salt flat? How then did it become hilly?"

"Mostly runoff, but this is more of an underground salt mountain than a flat. Otherwise the whole area for kilometers would be mined. But sir: look at this."

Below, and a little to the right of the body, a dark line transected the crystal block. "What is it?"

The soldier, Lavin saw, wore some kind of uniform. He could make out the bandoliers. And poking over his shoulder was, unmistakably, the barrel of a musket.

Lavin caught his breath. Muskets were the property of the royal guard. Always had been, as far as he knew... and he was right. Even so many generations ago, Iapysia had been exactly as it was when Lavin was a boy. And then came Galas, to break all the ancient traditions and bring her people to ruin.

Something else glinted in the torchlight. He bent closer to examine what might be the soldier's hand. "More light. Bring some hurricane lanterns here. I want to see it." People hurried to obey. Lavin heard Hesty chuckle behind him.

Yes, your distraction worked, Hesty, he thought. Be smug about it if you want.

When they had brought the lanterns Lavin took another good look. He was right: preserved in the salt, wrapped around the withered finger of the soldier, was a silver ring.

He stood back, knuckled his eyes and was rewarded by a salty sting. "I want that."

"Sir?..."

"The ring. Get it off the corpse. Bring it to me." He blinked around at the men. They looked uniformly uncomfortable.

"I'm not grave-robbing. We'll return it to him after the siege, and accord him full honors as a member of the king's guard when we inter him. But this ring is a powerful symbol of the continuity of the dynasty. Think about it. I want it on my hand when I ride into battle."

With that he turned away to remount his horse.

Back in his tent he prepared for bed. Something told him he would sleep this time. His lamp still burned above the camp table, and as he bundled his shirt to use as a pillow, his eye was drawn to Galas' book, which still sat open to the passage he had read earlier.

Lavin marveled that he had been so mesmerized by the words. Now, the book beckoned again, and he wondered if Hesty's distraction had been enough to break the spell it had cast over him. He hesitated; then, when he realized he was acting like he was afraid of the thing, he stalked over quickly and bent to read:

An ancient sage held that in different ages, humans held the senses in different ratios, according to the media by which they communicated and expressed themselves. Hence before writing, the ear was the royal sense. After writing, the eye.

We say that similar ratios pertain between emotions. Each civilization has its royal affect, and its ignored or forgotten feelings. Or rather--there are no distinct emotions. You have learned that in the human heart, love resides within such and such a circle, hate there in another, and between are pride, jealousy, all the royal and plebeian emotions. We say instead emotion is one unbounded field. Our way of life causes us to cross this field, now in one direction, now another, again and again on our way to the goals to which our world has constrained us. The paths crisscross, and eventually the field has well-travelled intersections, and blank areas where we have never walked.

We name the intersections just as we do towns but not the empty fields between them. We name these oft-crossed places love, hate, jealousy, pride. But our destinations were made by the conditions of our lives, they are not eternal or inevitable.

We know that the answer to human suffering lies in changing the ratio of emotions so grief and sorrow lie neglected, even nameless, in an untraveled wild.

The task of a Queen is to rule a people truly. The task of the Queen of Queens is to rule Truth itself. We know that the highest act of creation is to create new emotions, superior to those which, unguided, have fallen to us from Nature. And this We shall do.

As We have won new fields and towns from Nature, We shall win new feelings, superior to love and loyalty, from the field of the human heart.

Lavin closed the book.

Hesty had done him more of a favour than he might know. Despite all he knew about the queen's excesses, and even after all the atrocity and hatred he had seen during the war, Lavin still had his doubts. She had been his queen... and more.

The night stars and the rounded hills reminded him now of permanence. Thinking of the ancient soldier they had found, he remembered that those same stars had gazed down upon his ancestors, and they would smile on his descendents, who because of him would speak the same tongue, and live their lives as he would prefer to live his. Things would again be as they once had been. He had to believe that.

A messenger coughed politely at the flap of the tent. Lavin took a small cloth bundle from him, and unfolded it to reveal the soldier's ring. It was shaped like a carven wreath, the tiny flowers still embedded with salt crystals like dull jewels. He sat on his cot for a long while, turning it over and over in his hands.

Then he put it on, and blew out the light. He felt calm for the first time in days. As he drifted off to sleep, Lavin felt his confidence return, flowing from the immeasurable weight of the ages lying heavy in his hand.

Below and behind them, a horse nickered in the dark. Armiger glanced back--though Megan could not fathom how he could see anything in that shadowed hollow. Their horses were no doubt safe, but Armiger had to assure himself of everything.

They crouched on a hilltop overlooking the besieged summer palace of the queen of Iapysia. The palace was dark, a blot of towers against the sky, sinuous walls hugging the earth. The pinprick sparks of campfires surrounded the city on all sides. Thousands of men waited in the darkness below this hill, and Armiger had earlier pointed out pickets on the surrounding hills as well. This hill's sentry watched the palace a hundred meters below the spot where Armiger and Megan hid.

"I count ten thousand," Armiger said. He squirmed forward through the sand, obviously enjoying himself. Megan sat back, brushing moist grit from the cloak she sat on.

"It's sandy here," she said.

"We're right on the edge of the desert," Armiger said absently. He cocked his head to look at the hills to either side.

"Who would build a city in a desert?"

"The desals flood the desert every spring," he said. "The Iapysians seed it in anticipation of the event, and harvest what comes out. The desals are using the desert as a salt trap, and don't really mind if the humans introduce life there. It probably saves them some trouble, in fact. A good arrangement, so Iapysia has thrived for centuries."

"Then why's it all coming apart?" She tried again to count the fires, but they flickered so much she quickly lost track.

"Galas."

There was that name again. It seemed a name to conjure by. If she breathed it too loudly, would those ten thousand men stand as one? Ten thousand hostile gazes turn on her? The queen was bottled up in that palace down there, and in days or hours they were going to storm its walls and kill her. Megan mouthed the name, but nothing seemed to happen.

"Is it rescue you are planning?" she asked. "What will you do, ride in and ask for her? `Pardon me, coming through, would you hand me the queen, please.'" She smiled.

"Rescue? No, I'm sure she'll die when they take the place."

"Then why are we here?"

"Not so loud."

"Excuse me." She placed a finger over her mouth, and whispered past it, "Why are we here?"

Armiger sighed. "I just want to speak to her."

"Before or after they kill her?"

"They have the palace well surrounded," he said. "Withal, I'm sure I could reach the walls; after all, they're watching for the approach of a large armed force, or for sallies from inside. The trouble is, how to get inside."

"Once you're there?"

He rolled over to look at her. It was too dark to see, but she pictured a puzzled expression on his face. "Why do you want to get into the palace?"

"You are an inconsiderate lout."

"What?"

"You're going to leave me here where the soldiers can find me?"

"Ah." He stared into the sky for a moment. "Perhaps you had better come with me, then."

Megan growled her frustration and stood. She grabbed up her cloak and stalked down the hill. After a moment she heard him following.

Armiger was without a doubt the most insensitive man she had ever known. She tried to forgive him, because he wasn't an ordinary person--but she had always assumed the Winds were better than people. Armiger, strange morph that he was, was worse much of the time.

Men, after all, were usually wrapped up in their own schemes, and thought about the things that mattered rarely if at all. She was used to having to prod them into remembering the basic duties of life. Armiger, though! On the day she took him in, Megan had taken on a responsibility and burden greater than any woman should have to bear. For it quickly became evident that Armiger was not really a man. He was a spirit, perhaps a Wind, one of the creators of the world.

Many times during the week-long ride here, he had gone from seeming abstracted to being totally oblivious to the world. He had leaned in the saddle, eyes blank, slack-jawed. This sort of thing terrified her. He forgot to eat, forgot to let the horses rest. She had to do his thinking for him.

Megan had come to understand that Armiger needed his body as an anchor. Without it, his soul would drift away into some abstraction of rage. She had to remind him of it constantly, be his nurse, cook, mother, and concubine. When he rediscovered himself--literally coming to his senses--he displayed tremendous passion and knowledge, uncanny perception and even, yes, sensitivity. He was a wonderful lover, the act never became routine for him. And he was grateful to her for her devotion.

But, oh, the work she had to do to get to that point! It was almost too much to bear.

She had thrown her lot in with him, and this was still infinitely better than the loneliness of rural widowhood she had left. Fuming about him was an improvement over brooding about herself or the past. He was coming to appreciate her, and the vast walls of his self-possession were starting to crumble. She was proud that she was making the difference to him.

Surprisingly, she felt jealous of this queen, as if the great lady might steal her mysterious soldier. Well; anyone could be stolen, and as likely by a peasant as a princess. She found herself frowning, and resolutely pushed the thought away.

She reached the horses and murmured reassurances to them. They had lit no fire tonight, and the darkness was unsettling. Megan was used to the presence of trees, but they had seen the last of the forest days ago. She felt naked amongst all this yellow, damp grass.

She heard him coming up behind her, and smiled as she turned. Armiger was black moving on black, his head an absence of stars.

"We need help from inside. We have to get a message to the queen," he said.

Megan crossed her arms skeptically. She knew he could see her. She just looked at him, saying nothing.

"There is a way," he said. "It will weaken me."

"What do you mean?" She reached quickly to touch his arm.

"I can send a messenger," he said. "It will take some of my... life force, if you will, with it. With luck, we can recover that later. If not, I will take some time to heal."

"So my careful nursing is being thrown out with the dish water? I don't understand! Why is this so important? What can she give you that matters? She's doomed, and her kingdom too."

He stepped into her embrace, and smoothed his hands down her back awkwardly. Armiger was still not very good at reassurance.

"She is the only human being on Ventus who has some inkling of what the Winds really are," he said. "She has spent her reign defying them, and I believe she has asked questions, and received answers, that no one else has thought of. She may have the key to what I am seeking."

"Which is?"

He didn't answer, which was no less than she had expected. Armiger had some purpose beyond any he had told her about. For some reason he didn't trust her with it, which hurt. If it were something that would take him away from her, she should worry, but Megan was sure that as long as he could hold her, his other purposes mattered little. She closed her eyes and clung to him tightly for a while.

"What do you have to do?" she asked when she finally let go.

"Will you keep watch for me? This will take all my concentration."

"All right."

He sat down and vanished in the shadow.

"I can't see. How can I keep watch?"

He didn't answer.

For a while Megan moved about, fighting her own exhaustion and worrying about what he was up to. She stood and stared up the stars for a long time, remembering how she had done that as a child. The constellations had names, she knew, and everyone knew the obvious ones: the plowman, the spear. Others she was not so sure of. Her brother would know, but she had not seen him in years; he had never left their parents' village, and lived there still with his unfriendly wife and four demanding, incurious children.

How strange to be here. She repressed an urge to skip and laugh at the strange turns life took. The day when she found Armiger half-dead on the path near her cottage had started just like any other. Before she knew it, she was nurse to a wounded, emaciated soldier, listening to him rave in the night about the Winds and gods... and three days later she awoke in awe to the fact that he was so much more than a soldier, more than a man.

And he had let her come with him. They were, at least for now, a couple. It was as though she were suddenly living someone else's life. She shook her head in wonder.

A gleam of red in one of the horse's eyes brought her attention back to ground level. At first she thought Armiger had lit a fire, but the glow was too small and faint for that. She went over to him and crouched down.

Armiger sat cross-legged, his eyes closed. His hands were cupped together in front of him, and the glow came from between his fingers.

Seeing this, Megan stood and backed away. "Don't", she whispered. "Please. You're still too weak."

He made no move. The glow intensified, and then slowly faded away. When it was completely gone, he stood up, hands still cupped. Then in a quick motion he flung his arms up and wide, and brought them down again loosely. His shoulders slumped.

"There," he said. "Now we wait."

"What have you done?" She took one of his hands. The skin felt hot, and there were long bloodless cuts in his palms.

"I have called the queen," said Armiger. "Now we will see if she answers."





















15

Galas waited in her garden. It was a cool night, the air laden with water after evening thunderstorms. Their clouds still mounted up one horizon, giant wings lit by occasional flickers of lightning. The rest of the sky was clear, and stars were thrown across it in random swatches. The moon had not yet risen, but the night flowers were opening all around her, giant purple and blue mouths appearing from dense hedges that ringed deep pools. The garden was made around its pools, each one isolated by some artifice of growth so that it seemed a world unto itself, and a thousand years of tradition had dictated as many rules for its seeming disarray as the Queen had for her court.

She had decided to pause beside a long rectangular pool. Diadem, the moon, would rise directly above this pool tonight; that was what this pool was for, to catch the rays of its light on this and the following two nights of the year, to prove that harvest time was over. Throughout the rest of the year it was tended carefully by men and women whose lives were dedicated to the garden, but who would never see this nocturnal vision. All the night flowers would bow to Diadem, all transformed at the critical moment into a magical court, the queen herself its centerpiece. She loved this pool, and this garden, as few other places in her land.

She pulled her shift around her and delicately sat on the stone bench that was hers and hers alone to sit upon. Her maids had woven diamonds into her pale hair, in anticipation of the lunar light; her shift was purest white, belted with onyx squares, and she carried in her right hand her short staff of office, carved of green jade.

Queen Galas smiled at the placid water. Total silence blanketed the garden. She knew quite well that Lavin was encamped within sight of the garden walls, but he was forbidden to attack on this and the next two nights by ancient custom more strict than law. It was the Autumn Affirmation and war was forbidden for its duration. It was a fine irony, she thought, that she should have this time to prepare for his coming. She smiled at the pool's beauty. Aware as she was that death and ruin lay in wait outside her gates, she marveled that such peace should maintain itself within.

"Flowers will grow on your grave too," she said to herself. "The moon also smiles on slaves and cripples."

The smile broke, and she lowered her eyes.

For a long time she sat like that. When she looked up again, Diadem was fully visible, like a brilliant jewel held aloft by the arms of carefully tended trees. Its reflection came slowly down the water towards her, lighting up the curves of bole and stem and creating that lovely illusion of animation that happened only once every year. She had missed the beginning of the event. She frowned a chastisement to herself and sat up straighter.

But a flaw had appeared in the full whiteness of the moon. She stood up quickly, as it resolved into a giant black night moth, two hand-spans across, of the sort that inhabited the mountains many days east of the palace. It dropped from the moon and fluttered across the surface of the pool, directly to Queen Galas. It paused in the air before her.

She sat down. "What do you want, little one?"

It dipped down, then up, and then appearing to gather its courage, landed on her knee. She had never feared insects, and sat admiring it, trying to pretend it was some sort of omen. That was no good, though--she was well past the stage where omens could tell her anything she didn't know. Lavin was coming; nothing would change that.

The moth beat its wings, but didn't rise. Suddenly it seemed to sprout another pair of wings, and then it gave one flap and... unfolded.

She blinked at the single sheet of paper that now lay on her lap.

Galas' fingers trembled as she reached to touch it. The sheet was square, smooth and dry, and slightly warm. Writing was faintly visible on it.

The skin of her neck crawled. She had never seen anything like this, never heard of such an occurrence. The morphs could change animals, she knew, but they didn't understand writing. Could this be a message from some new Wind, whom she had never met? Or had the desals, the Winds who had helped her take the throne, decided to intervene again in her life?

She picked up the letter by one corner, and turned it to the moonlight. She read.

May I humbly beseech Queen Galas, wife of this world, to grant an audience to a traveller? For I have not rested on green earth since before the ancient stones of your palace were laid, nor have I spoken to a kindred soul since before your language, oh Queen, was born.

I came as a falling star down your sky, and now feel again what it is to breathe. I would speak to one such as myself, whose eyes encompass this whole world, for I am lonely and own a question even the heavens cannot answer.

Signed: Maut.

Below this was another line of text. She read it and shook her head in wonder. Here were clear instructions as to how she could meet this being who had written her. Meet him or her tonight.

Galas looked up, wondering if she would catch sight of a trail of light across the skies. She looked at the paper in her hand. Of course I will speak with you.

She restrained an urge to leap from the bench and race inside. Who could she tell? Her heart was thudding and she was suddenly lightheaded. She buried her face in her hands for a moment. She breathed faint rain-scent from the paper she still held.

Galas commanded herself to become calm. She turned her attention back to the pool. All along its edge now waited handsome and graceful courtiers, fair and clothed in dewdrops and ivy. The garden's plants were cultivated just so they would appear this way for a few moments on this night. Ever since she was a girl, she had marveled at the human ingenuity that could create such art, and in the past the sight had served to strengthen her resolve to cultivate her land as though it too were a garden.

The shadowy figures all faced towards the rising moon, and the pool appeared like a flow of glass between them, a mirrored way down which Diadem's reflection moved to meet her.

This contemplation was uplifting, but sad this time. She imagined the faces of her real courtiers on these ephemeral shapes, and fancied herself the reflection of the moon. All brief, a mere shadow play soon to be ended by the blades and guns of the insolent general waiting outside. One shadow overtaking another.

Fear surged in her, and she closed her eyes. Stop, she told herself. I am not the reflection. "I am Diadem herself. All things take their light from me." Even the general who comes to kill me.

She looked down at the paper, and laughed a little giddily.

Then she stood to go inside.

§

The room where she chose to wait was really an old air shaft constructed to cool the Hart Manor, which was the center of the palace. Originally several other floors had openings onto the shaft, but some paranoid ancestor had walled them off. Galas had discovered the place as a girl, but it had gained new, symbolic significance for her after the desals placed her on the throne.

She came here sometimes to pace the three-by-three meter square floor, or scrawl insults on the walls, or scream at the clouds framed by tan brickwork far overhead. She had torn her clothes here, and wept, and done all manner of unmentionable things. Now she lay on her back, and stared at the stars.

Her visitor should be approaching the walls now. Its instructions had been simple: let down a rope at the centerpoint of the southern battlement, and be ready to pull. She had wanted to meet it there herself, and even now her hands pressed against the cool stone underneath her, eager to push her to her feet. But whatever happened she must not blunder out like a gauche ingenue. If this was a Wind coming to see her, she must meet it as an equal. She would wait.

But she wasn't dressed for this! With a groan she stood and left the shaft. One of her maids curtsied outside. Galas waved at her. "Our black gown. The velvet one. Be prompt!" The girl curtsied again and raced away.

Galas entered the shaft again and closed the stout door she'd had made for it. "Why now?" she said.

She kicked the door with her heel. "I'm almost dead! A day, two days." Crossing her arms, she walked around the room. "Bastards! You strung me up, after putting me here in the first place!"

Well, it's not like I haven't done everything in my power to disobey the Winds, she reminded herself.

She'd been wracked with tension for weeks now; so had everyone here. Her courtiers and servants were true Iapysians, and had no idea how to discharge such emotions. Galas showed them by example: she laughed, she cried, she paced and shouted, and whenever it came time to make a decision, she was cool and acted correctly.

But it was all too late. Lavin had come to kill her--of all people, why him? She had loved him! They might have been married, had not an entire maze of watchful courtiers and ancient protocols stood between them. She wondered, not for the first time, if this was his way of finally possessing her. She grimaced at the irony.

"Come on, come on." She hurried back to the door. Ah, here came the maids, bearing gown and jewel box.

"Come in here." They hesitated; no one but her ever entered this place. She was sure all manner of legends had grown up about it. "Come! There's nothing will bite you here."

The three women crowded in with her. "Dress me!" She held her arms out. They fell to their task, but their eyes kept moving, trying to make sense of what they saw. Galas sometimes spent whole nights in this place. She often emerged with new ideas or solid decisions in hand. The queen knew, from faint scratches around the hinges of the door, that at least one person had given in to curiosity and broken in. She imagined they had reacted much as these women to discover there was nothing here--no secret stairway, no magic books, not even a chair or a candle. Only a little dirt in the corners, and the sky for a ceiling.

They had wondered about Galas her whole life. Let them wonder a little more.

"Has the guest suite been prepared?" she asked.

"Yes, your majesty."

"How are the supplies holding out?"

"Well enough, they say."

"Reward the soldiers who bring our guest over the walls. Give them each a double ration. Also convey our thanks."

"Yes, your majesty. ...Ma'am?"

"Yes, what is it? Bring me a mirror."

"Who is this person? A spy of some sort?"

"A messenger," she said brusquely. Satisfied with her appearance, she gathered her skirts and swept from the chamber. They followed, casting final glances about the shaft.

Out of a sense of devilment, Galas decided to leave the door open--the first time ever. She hid a smile as she paced toward the audience hall.

As a girl she had made up stories about the figures painted on the audience hall's ceiling. Later she learned the struggling, extravagantly posed men and women were all allegories for historical events. By then it was too late; she knew the woman directly above the throne as the Smitten Dancer, not as an idealized Queen Delina. The two men wrestling on the clouds near the west window were the Secret Lovers to her, not King Andalus overthrowing the False Regent. Every time she entered this room she glanced up and smiled at her pantheon, and she knew that those observing her assumed she was drawing strength from her family's history, and knowing that made her smile again.

She composed herself on the throne and waited. When had she had a visitor who had not closely studied the history of Iapysia? If this stranger was truly from the heavens, would he know whom the frescoes represented? Or would he be in the same state of innocence as she when she wrote her own mythology on them?

Or would he know all histories, the way that the desals had? She scowled, and sat up straighter.

The doorman straightened. He looked tired and confused, having been ousted out of bed for this one moment. "Your majesty..." He read the card he had been given with obvious puzzlement. "The lord Maut, and lady Megan."

§

Maut? Megan stopped in her tracks. "What name is this?" she hissed at him.

"My name," Armiger said simply. "One of them, anyway." He smiled and strode into the vast, lamp-lit chamber as if he owned it.

§

Galas restrained an urge to stand. Now that he stood before her, she had no idea what she'd been expecting. This was no monster, nor by appearances a god.

He seemed mature, perhaps in his early forties, his hair long and braided down his right shoulder, his face finely carved with a high brow and straight nose, and a strong mouth. He was a little taller than she, and was dressed in dusty travelling clothes, with soft riding boots on his feet, an empty scabbard belted at his waist. As he paused four meters below the throne, she saw the light traceries of character around his eyes and mouth, indications of both humor and weariness.

Behind him, like a shadow, stood a peasant woman. Her face shone with a mixture of timidity and defiance. As Maut bowed, she curtsied deeply, but when she raised her eyes she looked Galas in the eye. There was no hostility there, nor respect; only, it seemed, unselfconscious curiosity. Galas liked her immediately.

Galas held up the folded letter. "Do you know what this says?" she asked the man.

He bowed again. "I do," he said. His voice was rich and deep, quite compelling. He gave a quick smile. "May I humbly beseech Queen Galas, wife of this world, to grant an audience to a traveller? For I have not rested on green earth since before the ancient stones of your palace were laid, nor have I spoken to a kindred soul since before your language, oh Queen, was born."

Galas saw the woman Megan start and stare at Maut as he spoke. Interesting.

"What are you?" she asked. "And--maybe more germaine--why do you speak of me as a kindred soul?"

Maut shrugged. "As to what I am--you have no words for it. I am not a man, despite appearances--"

"What proof do you have of that?"

For a moment he looked angry at her interruption. Then he appeared to consider what she had said. "My moth was unconvincing?"

"There are people who make a life's work of tricking others, Maut. Your moth was highly convincing--but just because something is convincing, that does not make it true. It is merely convincing."

He waved a hand dismissively. "It cost me energy to perform that minor miracle. I have very little to spare, and no time to recover any I lose now."

Galas leaned back. She felt betrayed, and suddenly cynical. "So you have no more tricks? Is that what you're saying?"

"I am not a trick pony!"

"And I am not a fool!"

They glared at one another. Then Galas noticed that the woman Megan was covering a smile with her hand.

Galas forced a grim smile of her own. "You know our situation. This is not the time for frippery, or lies. Is it so strange that I demand proof?"

Grudgingly, he shook his head. "Forgive me, Queen Galas. I am much reduced from my former station, and that makes me tactless and short-tempered."

"But unafraid," she said. "You are not afraid of me."

"He is not afraid of anything," said Maut's companion. Her tone was not boasting--in fact it was perhaps a little apologetic. Or resigned.

Maut shrugged again. "It seems we've gotten off to a bad start. I am very weary--too weary for miracles. But I am what I say I am."

"But, you have not said what that is!"

He frowned. "There is an ancient word in your language. It is not much used today. The word is god. I am--or was, a god. I wish to be so again, and so I have come to you because, of all the humans on Ventus, you are the only one who has caught a glimpse of the inner workings of the world. You may have the knowledge I need to become what I once was."

"Intriguing," said Galas. It was still unbelievable, on the face of it. But... her fingers caressed the letter in her lap. She had seen what she had seen.

As to his flattery--well, she knew, as an absolute certainty, that no one in the world had the knowledge she held. It was perhaps slightly charming that he recognized it.

"And why should I tell you what you wish to know--even assuming that I have the knowledge you need?"

Maut put his hands behind his back. He seemed to be restraining an urge to pace. "You have looked up at the sky," he said. "All humans have done that, at one time or another. And you have asked questions.

"You want to interrogate the sky. And you of all people, Queen Galas, would interrogate nature itself, everything that is other, in your human search for understanding. Everything you have ever done proves this. You are human, Galas, and your madness is very human: you wish to hear human speech issue from the inhuman, from the rocks and trees. Could a stone speak, what would it say? Your kind has ever invented gods, and governments, and categories and even the sexes themselves as means of interrogating that otherness.

"That the world should speak, as you speak! What a desire that is. It informs every aspect of your life. Deny it if you can.

"Allow me my ironic bow. I am here, madam, to perform this deed for you. I am everything you are not. I was blazing atoms in an artificial star, have been resonances of electromagnetic fire, and cold iron and gridwork machines in vast webs cast between the nebulae.

"I am stone and organism, alive and dead, whole and sundered. I am the voiceless given a tongue to speak.

"I will speak."

§

And yet, the irony was not lost on Armiger that on this world, stones did speak; that the very air sighed its voices in his ear. It was the humans who were deaf to the language of the Winds. Armiger, though he heard that language, did not understand it. The sound of his own words was quickly absorbed into the stone of the walls, the ancient tapestries, the lacquered wood cabinets. And in all these things the Winds resided.

Armiger knew they could listen if they chose; he suspected they did not care what he said. The masters of Ventus went on about their incomprehensible tasks, whispering and muttering all around him.

He had spoken half for their benefit, but they ignored him, as they had since he had arrived on Ventus. So, he thought, his words dissolved into the stone, into the carpets, into the wood. Save for the two women who stood with him, none heard his brave boast.

Yet, though none in the palace heard, still his voice went out. It penetrated the chambers and halls of the ancient building, and passed through the sand and stone of the earth as if they were an inch of air. In the high clouds from which the raindrop-dwelling Precip Winds gazed down, Armiger's voice flickered as unread heat-lightning on a frequency they did not attend. Even the Diadem swans, swirling in a millenial dance among the van Allen belts, could have heard had they known to listen.

No swan heard, nor any stone-devouring mountain Wind, or any of the elemental and immortal spirits of the world. But a solitary youth, lonely and sad by a lonely campfire mouthed Armiger's words, and sat up straight to listen.

















16

Tamsin Germaix spotted the man by the road first. Her uncle was busy talking about some grand ball he'd been to in the capital. Her eyes and hands had been busy all morning on a new piece of embroidery, much more difficult than the last one Uncle had her do. But every now and then (and she hid this from him) she had to stop because her hands began to shake. Now was such a time: she frowned at them, betraying as they were, and looked up to see the man.

The figure was sitting on a rock by the road, hunched over. It would take them a few minutes to pass him, since uncle was more interested in his story than in speed, and anyway every jolt of the cart sent spikes of pain up Tamsin's sprained ankle. She had the splinted shin encased in pillows, and wore a blanket over her lap against the chill morning air; still, she was far from comfortable.

Certainly they had passed farmers and other lowborn persons walking by the road. This track was what passed for a main road in this forsaken part of backward Memnonis. Why, in the past day alone, they'd met three cows and a whole flock of sheep!

"...hold your knife properly, not the way you did at dinner last night," her uncle was saying. "Are you listening to me?"

"Yes, uncle."

"There'll be feasts like that again, once we're back home. It'll only be a few days now." He scratched at the stubble on his chin uncertainly. "Things can't have changed that much."

She watched the seated figure over the rounded rump of one of their horses. He looked odd. Not like a farmer at all. First of all, he seemed to be dressed in red, a rare color for the lowborn. Secondly, she could see a fluff of gold around his collar, and at his waist.

"Uncle, there's a strange man on the road ahead."

"Huh?" He came instantly alert. "Only one? Is he waving to us? Ah, I see him."

Uncle Suneil had told her about bandits, and how to identify them. This apparition certainly didn't fit that mould.

As they drew closer Tamsin levered herself to her feet and looked down at the man. He seemed young, with black hair and dressed nattily. His clothes, though, were mud-spattered and torn, and he had a large leather knapsack over one shoulder. He held a knife in one hand and a piece of half-carved stick in the other. He was whittling.

He stood up suddenly as if in alarm, but he wasn't look in their direction. He had dropped his knife, and now he picked it up again, and started walking away up the road. He seemed to be talking to himself.

"I still think he's a bandit. Or crazy! He must have taken those clothes off of a victim."

Her uncle shook his head. "A proper young lady knows fine tailoring. Look, you'll see his clothes have been made to fit him nicely. Now sit down, before you fall off the wagon."

She sat down. He certainly looked mysterious, but after all, they didn't know who he was. She knew the mature thing to do would be pass him by; she knit her hands in her lap and waited for her uncle to prod the horses into a faster walk.

Uncle Suneil raised a hand. "Ho, traveller! Well met on the road to Iapysia!"

§

All he had done for two days was walk. Jordan was exhausted now and was beginning to think his journey to meet with Armiger might be impossible. Calandria had bundled food for several people into her saddle bags, but it weighed a lot. He rested when he needed, and carefully lit a fire before bedding down each night. Despite that, his feet hurt and his shoulders were strained from carrying the heavy bags. So, as midmorning burned away the cold of last night, he sat down on a stone by the side of the road to rest.

He would have given up walking, were it not that whenever he paused to rest, he saw visions of far-off places, and knew they were real. Knowing that fed his determination to keep going.

He needed an activity to keep the visions at bay. He had taken to whittling, and now he pulled out a stick he'd begun this morning, and began carving away at it, lips pursed.

Last night Jordan had sat rapt at his meagre fire as Armiger spoke to Queen Galas. "You wish to hear human speech issue from the inhuman, from the rocks and trees," the general had said. "Could a stone speak, what would it say?" It was almost as though the general knew he was listening.

Armiger had not gone on to tell his story. It was late, and the queen had deferred the audience until some time today. Jordan was not disappointed; he had lain awake for hours, thinking about Armiger's words. He had pushed aside his self-pity and exhaustion, and made himself come to a decision. It was time to take the step he had been avoiding.

Despite his private miseries and loneliness, Jordan had not forgotten for a moment that Armiger's was not the only voice he could hear. On the evening when the Heaven hooks descended, Jordan had learned he could hear the voices of the Winds too. Until this morning he had deliberately tuned them out, because he'd been afraid that at any moment the Heaven hooks would rear out of the empty sky and grab him up.

He had bundled Calandria May's golden gauze into a kind of poncho, then awkwardly buttoned his jacket over that. The gold stuff stuck out behind him like a bird's tail, and up around his neck like a dandy's ruff. But he was pretty sure it was still doing its duty. The Winds did not know where he was.

As the Heaven hooks descended on the Boros estate, Jordan had learned that he could hear the little voices of inanimate and animate things. Each object within his sight had a voice, he now knew. Each thing proclaimed its identity, over and over, the way a bird calls its name all day for no reason but the joy in its own voice. Now that he knew they were there, Jordan could attune himself to the sound of that endless murmur. Last night and this morning, he had worked at tuning into and out of that listening stance as he walked.

If he closed his eyes, he could see a ghostly landscape, mostly made up of words hovering over indistinct objects. He could make little sense of that, so he left that avenue alone.

It seemed that he could focus his inner hearing on individual objects, if he concentrated hard enough.

He held up the knife he had been whittling with, and concentrated on it. After a few minutes he began to hear its voice. "Steel," it said. "A steel blade. Carbon steel, a knife."

At the Boros estate, Jordan had spoken to a little soul like this, and it had answered. I am stone, a doorway arch had said to him. This ability to speak to things didn't surprise him as much as it might have, considering everything that had happened. According to the priest Allegri, some people had visions of the Winds, and the Winds didn't punish them for this. Allegri had told Jordan that he might be one of those with such a talent. He had been wrong at the time; what Jordan had been experiencing then was visions of Armiger--and those, the Winds surely disliked.

But this? This communion with a simple object seemed to have nothing to do with Armiger. Maybe it had been enabled by whatever Calandria May had done to Jordan's head. But was it forbidden by the Winds?

Well, he had Calandria's protective gauze. Jordan was confident he could hear the approach of the greater Winds in time to don it and escape.

It came down, then, to a matter of courage.

"What are you?" he asked the knife.

"I am knife," said the knife.

Even though he was expecting it, Jordan was so startled he dropped the thing.

He picked it up, and began nervously walking. "Knife, what are you made of?"

The voice in his head was clear, neutral, neither male nor female: "I am a combination of iron and carbon. The carbon is a hardening agent."

He nodded, wondering what else to ask it. The obvious question was, "How is that you can speak?"

"I am broadcasting a combined fractal signal on visible frequencies of radiation."

The answer had made no sense. "Why can't other people hear you?"

"They are not equipped to receive."

That was kind of a restatement of the question, he thought. How will I get anywhere if I don't know what to ask?

He thought for a moment, shrugged, and said, "Who made you?"

"Ho, traveller! Well met on the road to Iapysia!"

For just a split second he thought the knife had said that. Then Jordan looked behind him. A large covered wagon drawn by two horses was coming up the road. Two people sat at the front. The driver was waving to him.

Suddenly very self-conscious, he slipped the knife into his belt. He knew the gold gauze was sticking out at his collar and waist, but there was no time to do anything about that.

"Uh, hello." The man's accent had been foreign. He was middle aged, almost elderly, with a fringe of white hair around his sunburnt skull. He was dressed in new-looking townsman's clothes.

The other passenger was a woman. She looked to be about Jordan's age. She was dressed in frills and wore a sun hat, but her face under it was tanned, the one whisp of stray hair sunbleached. She held a embroidery ring in strong, calloused hands. She was scowling at Jordan.

"Where are you bound, son?" asked the man.

Jordan gestured. "South. Iapysia."

"Ah. So are we. Returning home?"

"Uh, yeah."

"But you accent is Memnonian," said the old man.

"Um, uh. We have houses in both countries," he said, mindful of the Boros example. He was itching to listen in to the voices again; he had to know if his dialogue with the knife had alerted the Winds. At the Boros manor, the whole landscape had come alert, almost overwhelming his senses. That wasn't happening now. But he couldn't be sure without checking.

"My name's Milo Suneil," said the man. "And this is--"

"Excuse me," gritted the young woman. She stood abruptly and climbed into the covered back of the wagon.

"...My niece, Tamsin," finished Suneil. "Who is not herself today. And you are?"

"Jordan Mason." He affected the half-bow that the highborn Boros had used on one another. It was harder to perform while walking, though.

"Pleased to meet you." There was a momentary silence. The cart was moving at just the pace Jordan was walking, so he remained abreast of Suneil. From the back of the wagon came the sound of things being tossed about.

"Calm weather, for autumn," said Suneil. Jordan agreed that it was. "Clouds moving in, though. Not good--clouds could hide things in the sky, don't you think?"

"What do you mean?"

"News travels slowly, I see!" Suneil laughed. "You're dressed like a highborn lad, surely you've heard the news about the destruction of the Boros household!"

"Ah, that. Yes. I did hear about it," he said uncomfortably.

"I'm itching to find out what really happened," said Suneil. "We've had ten versions of the story from ten different people. When I saw you walking by the road, coming from the direction of the estate, I thought, could it be? A refugee from our little disaster?"

Jordan, unsure of himself in this situation, merely shrugged.

Suneil was silent for a while, staring ahead. "The fact is," he said at last, "that my curiosity has gotten the best of me. If we were to run into someone who actually knew what had happened at the estate--or Winds forbid, someone who was actually there!--then I might be inclined to give that person a ride with us, provided they told their story."

"I see," said Jordan neutrally.

"My niece has sprained her leg," added Suneil. "And I'm not as young as I used to be. We'll need someone to gather firewood, the next day or so."

Jordan was very surprised. People didn't trust strangers on the open road. Then again, one never travelled alone, either.

Do I look that harmless? he wondered.

"It's all right," said Suneil reasonably. "I'm not a Heaven hook, nor am I in league with them. I just deduced that you were at the Boros place, because you're walking from that direction, and you're dressed well, except for the mud stains and wild hair. Actually, you look like you fled somewhere in a hurry. We've passed a couple of people who looked like that--only none would talk to us."

Jordan eyed the cart greedily. He was very tired. A few days ride in return for some carefully edited storytelling couldn't hurt anything. In fact, it might be the only way he'd get to Iapysia.

"All right," he said. "I'm your man."

§

Tamsin cowered back into the wagon. Uncle must be insane! He was picking up strange men on the highway--they were sure to be robbed and raped by this crazy person who talked to himself and had gold cloth stuffed in his shirt.

She felt the wagon dip deeply as the man stepped up onto the front seat. Then it commenced rolling forward. She sat down on a bale of cloth, disconsolately picking at her embroidery. Finally she threw it on the floor.

Some days were fine. Today had started out that way. Some days, she could wake up in the morning, and clouds would be just clouds, water just water. She could actually smell breakfast as she cooked it, and feel hungry. Some days she could listen to Uncle's plans, and tease into life a small spark of enthusiasm that he seemed to know she had. She could look forward to being an ingenue at Rhiene or one of the other great cities of Iapysia. So there were days when she practised her curtsies, her embroidery, and recited the epic poems Uncle had coached her in.

And then there were days... Her hands trembled again as she reached down to massage her leg. She couldn't remember why she had been running--all she remembered was the overwhelming bleakness of the landscape. Bare trees, yellow grass. Cold air. Her own thoughts and feelings were inaccessible to her. One thing was sure, she was certainly not looking where she was going that morning. No wonder she'd sprained her leg.

Sometimes the tiniest little annoyance would set her off in a fit of temper that made her Uncle's eyes widen in disbelief. Once it was because she had dropped a stitch! He did nothing to calm her down, but let her play it out. Afterward, she was always listless and ashamed.

I will not explode, she told herself. Even if Uncle is trying to get us killed.

They were talking up there--chatting like old friends. Of course, he did that with strangers all the time, but it was normally when they stopped at roadside markets or near towns. Uncle was an insatiable vessel for news, and these last two days he had been stopping everyone for information about the horrible incident at the Boros estate. It just wasn't like him to pick people up off the road to talk.

Tamsin gritted her teeth and glared at the canvas flap. It was true an extra set of hands would be good right now. Rationally, she understood it. It didn't stop her seething.

She sat in the dimness for a while, arms crossed, trying not to think. Thinking was bad. It led to things worse than anger.

This will all end soon, she told herself. When we get to Rhiene everything will be different. Meanwhile, she would have to make adjustments, and test her patience. So, after a little while, she adjusted her hair, planted a smile on her face, and opened the front flap of the cart's canopy.

"Hello," she said brightly to the startled young man who was in her seat. She held out her hand. "My name's Tamsin. What's yours?"

§

Calandria May slung the bag of potatoes over her shoulder, and made her way out of the market. The place was still buzzing with talk of the Boros catastrophe; the consensus was that the Winds had finally gotten around to punishing the family for unspecified past excesses. Attendance at church here in the town of Geldon was decidedly up.

There was some confused discussion of Yuri's assassination. It was laid at the feet of Brendan Sheia, and two spies from Ravenon were named as accomplices. That explained why Calandria was currently disguised as a boy. She had cropped her hair and changed her voice and mannerisms. Right now she used the bag of potatoes to add swing to her shoulders as she walked, since otherwise her lower center of balance was harder to disguise.

People were also talking about Jordan Mason. No one knew his name, but some people had witnessed a confrontation between Turcaret and a young man. The controller had accused the youth of bringing the Heaven hooks down on the household.

Her shoulders itched as she walked--a familiar feeling that she was being watched, or followed. It had nothing to do with any townspeople who might glance at her on the way by. This was an older, and more fundamental, fear.

If she closed her eyes, Calandria could invoke her inscape senses: infrared sight and the galvanic radar that told of the presence of mecha or Winds. She couldn't help herself--every few minutes, she paused, closed her eyes, and looked around using these senses.

Ever since the night that the Heaven hooks came down, Calandria had refused to let herself be lulled back into thinking that Ventus was a natural place. She was trapped in the gears of a giant, globe-spanning machine--a nanotech terraforming system that barely tolerated her kind. This appeared to be ordinary dirt she walked on, but it had been manufactured; it took more than the thousand years that Ventus had been habitable for soil like this to form naturally. The air seemed fresh and clean, but that too was moderated by unseen forces.

Those unseen forces were a threat. They might yet kill her. So she remained vigilant.

Calandria turned into a narrow alley and went through a roughhewn door that had a latch but no lock. Up a flight of stairs, through another door, and she was home.

This was the safe room where they had intended to hide August Ostler. The room was about four by six meters. It had one window which let out on the street--not an advantage, because mostly it just let in the smell of the open sewer that ran down the center of the lane. The place was built of plaster and lath. Calandria could hear the landlady snoring in the room next door. But it was out of the elements, and warm at night. That was all that mattered.

Currently everything she had was in this room, or on her person. Their horses had been killed in the destruction of the Boros stables, and she never had recovered her pack with its supplies of offworld technology. That had complicated matters, over the past couple of days.

Axel Chan grunted something and shifted in his sleep. His face was still flushed from the fever that had gripped him since Turcaret's attack. His diagnostic nano were supposed to be able to handle routine infections. They didn't seem to be working. Without the proper equipment, Calandria couldn't determine why, though she suspected the local mecha were suppressing the offworld technology.

Would the same mecha contact the Winds and warn them of the presence of aliens here? Each night as she lay down, Calandria found herself imagining the harsh armatures of the Heaven hooks reaching down to pluck this small room apart.

It wasn't like her to be afraid. But then, she was never afraid of merely physical threats. This was something else.

She put the potatoes down on the room's one table. Axel coughed, and sat up.

"How are you feeling?" Calandria ladled some cold soup out and put it next to Axel. He drank it eagerly.

"As the good people of Memnonis like to say, I feel like a toad in a pisspot. Is this brackish swill best you could do?"

She sighed. "Axel, have you ever been truly ill in your life?"

"No."

She nodded. "Why?" asked Axel after a moment.

"Because your nurses would surely have strangled you in your bed, the way you carry on."

"Oh, ho," he said. "Leave then. I'll be fine on my own." He coughed weakly. "I'll manage somehow... I'll feed on the rats and bugs, and be sure to die somewhere out of the way, where no one will trip over my shrivelling corpse."

She laughed. "You do sound much better."

"Well..." He raised his arms and examined them. "I no longer feel like I'll leak all over if I just stand up. I should be able to ride in a day or two."

She shook her head. "It's going to take longer than that. We need you in top form when we go after Armiger."

He nodded, and sank back on the straw bed. "Any word on Jordan?"

"No one knows what happened to him, and I have no way to track him now. We used the Desert Voice's sensors to locate Armiger's remotes the first time. With the Voice missing, we don't have that option. Anyway, Jordan's probably on his way home. No reason he shouldn't be."

Axel shifted uncomfortably. "I don't like it. I still feel responsible."

"I know," she said. "But our first responsibility is to find Armiger and destroy him. If we don't do that, then Jordan won't be safe, no matter where he is."

Axel appeared to accept this logic. "I assume," he said, "that we're not going to take Armiger on ourselves at this point. Just track him down."

She nodded, coming to sit next to him. With the loss of the Desert Voice, they no longer had the firepower to destroy Armiger themselves. They would need help. At the same time, having the firepower wasn't enough: they had to find Armiger, run him to ground. Calandria wanted to be sure of where he was before they left Ventus for reinforcements.

Axel looked better, but was still pale. He'd lost weight. "As soon as we get a ping from a passing ship we'll try to get offworld," she promised. "Meanwhile, we can't afford to lose track of him."

"We may have already." He closed his eyes, wincing as he tried to turn on his side. "We don't know for sure that he's going after the queen."

"Yes. Well, it's all we've got." Axel didn't reply, and after a moment she stood and went to the window. His breathing deepened with sleep behind her, as Calandria looked out and up at a blue sky full of rolling white clouds. She fought the urge to look behind that facade at the alien machinery that maintained it.

Losing the Desert Voice was a catastrophe. She loved her ship, but more than that, they would have needed its power in order to destroy Armiger. Somewhere out there, beyond the rooftops and the clear air, he was hatching his schemes. She should be able to see him, like a stain on the landscape, she thought. It was horrifying that he should be invisible to the people he was setting out to enslave.

Calandria hugged herself, remembering what it had been like on the one world of 3340's she had visited. The people of Hsing had been traumatized to the point of madness; their only goal in life--more an obsession--was to win the attention and favor of 3340 by any means possible, so as to avoid destruction and win immortality as one of its demigod slaves. People would do anything, up to and including mass murder, to gain its attention. And once enslaved, they became embodiments of their most base instincts, in turn enslaving hundreds or thousands of innocents; or simply slaughtering them as unwanted potential competition.

And all the while, 3340 had eaten away at the skies and earth, rendering the planet progressively more toxic for the few unchanged humans who struggled to survive in the ruins.

Armiger might find the key he was looking for at any moment. Irrevocable change would come sweeping from over the horizon like a tsunami, and this time Calandria would not be able to stop it.

She sat down by the window, and forced her hands to stay still in her lap. There was nothing to do but wait. Wait--and watch the skies for a sign that the world was ending.





















17

Megan had never seen so many books. They crowded on high shelves around all the walls of a large room on the third floor of the palace. All the shelves had diamond-patterned glass doors. She watched as Armiger walked from cabinet to cabinet, opening them in turn and gazing at their contents. This was their second day here, but as yet the queen had not found the time to speak to them. Armiger was getting restless.

The books didn't interest Megan, but the room itself was sumptuous. It contained a number of couches and leather-bound armchairs, with side-tables and many tall oil lamps. The entire floor was covered with overlapping carpets that glowed in the shafts of morning light falling from tall windows along one wall. She curled up in one of the armchairs, feet under her, to watch as Armiger prowled.

This room and the others in the queen's apartments provided a shocking contrast to the other parts of the palace she had seen. Below this tower, the palace grounds were crowded with the tents of refugees; children and the wounded cried everywhere, there was talk of cholera. The lower corridors and outbuildings bristled with armed men, and conversation there was strained and infrequent. Here, though, it was like another world--luxurious and calm.

Megan knew she would always remember their entry into these walls. Her first glimpse of the interior of the Summer Palace had been of torchlight gleaming off the helmets of a sea of men. Ragged banners hung from the facades of buildings half-ruined by Parliament's steam-cannon. The place reeked of fear and human waste. She had shrunk back on Armiger's arm as they were led along cordoned avenues between the tents, and into the vast tower that held Galas' audience chambers. And the moment they were inside its walls, they were in a minor paradise.

This contrast had disturbed her more than the misery itself. It still disturbed her, the more so since she found herself responding to the comfort of this armchair, the warmth of the nearby fire.

"Amazing," said Armiger.

She smiled. "You? Amazed? I doubt it."

He reached up to take down a very large, heavy and scrofulous looking volume. "I've been looking for this one since I arrived," he said. He waggled it at her as he went to perch on the edge of a desk. "Early histories relating some of the events immediately post-landing."

"Really?" She didn't know what he was talking about, but it was good to see him enthusiastic about something--something other than this queen Galas, anyway.

Armiger flipped through the pages quickly. "Hmm. Ah. There are major distortions, as one would expect from such a large passage of time."

"How large?"

"A thousand years. Not really very long; living memory for me, most of it. And on Earth there are complete daily records of practically everything that went on there from before that time... but Earth never Fell the way Ventus did. Miraculous." He shut the book; it made a satisfying thud and a waft of dust rose before his face.

"I take it you are glad we came," she said. "Despite the army outside?"

He waved his hand, dismissing either the dust or the besieging force. "Yes. I'm most likely to find out what I want to know here. In case they burn this library down, I'm going to read it."

"Read it? The whole thing? Tonight?" She didn't hide her disbelief.

"Well... maybe not all. Most, anyway." He smiled, an increasingly common thing lately.

"But why? This queen, she is important to you for what she can tell you. I see that now. But why is she so special? You want to talk to her. Her people want to kill her. What has she done?"

Armiger inspected another shelf. "Of course you wouldn't get much news living alone in the country as you did. Where to start, though? Galas has always been different, apparently.

"She was installed on the throne at a young age by the Winds. No one knows why. Whatever they wanted, she apparently didn't provide it, because they haven't lifted a finger to stop Parliament marching on her. But she's done extraordinary things."

He came to sit on the arm of a couch near her. "Galas is the sort of philosopher-monarch who arises once in a millenium," he said. "She may rank with Earthly rulers like Mao in terms of the scope of her accomplishments. People like her aren't content to merely rule a nation--they want to reinvent both it and the people who live in it."

Megan was puzzled, but interested now. "What do you mean, reinvent?"

"New beliefs. New religions. New economics, new science. And not just as a process of reform or nation-building. Rather as a single artistic whole. During her reign Galas has viewed her nation as an artistic medium to be shaped."

She shifted uncomfortably. "That's... horrible."

Armiger seemed surprised. "Why? Her impulse has been to improve things. And she's almost never used force, certainly not against the common people. Her actions are reminiscent of those of the Amarna rulers of ancient Egypt... sorry, I keep referring to things you can't know.

"Anyway, what she did was give her people a completely new, and all-encompassing, vision of the world. Nothing has been left unchanged--art, commerce, she has even tried to reform the language itself."

Megan laughed. "That's silly."

Armiger shrugged. "She's failed at a lot of things. In terms of language, she tried to ban the use of possessives when speaking of emotional states, motives and people. So that you could not say, 'he is my husband' for instance."

She glowered. "That is evil."

"But you could also not say that something is his fault, or her fault. She wanted to remove assignments of blame from speech and writing, and refocus expression on contexts of behavior. To eliminate victimless crimes, crimes of ostracization, for instance the 'crime' of being a homosexual. Also to move the emphasis of Justice away from blame and punishment to behavior management. Far too ambitious for a single generation. So it didn't work.

"But no one on Ventus has ever thought of these things before. Galas is entirely original in her thinking."

"So why are they out there?" She pointed to the windows.

"Oh, the usual reasons. She started threatening the stability of the ruling classes, at least in their own eyes. No ruler who does that ever stands for long. She'd built experimental towns recently, out in the desert. Each operated on some one of the new principles she espoused. Naturally most of them flew in the face of orthodox mores. Of course the salt barons will revolt if you display an interest in eliminating money from commerce!"

"You make me sound like a fool."

Galas stood in the doorway, in a blue morning-dress, her hair bound up by golden pins. Megan hurried to her feet and curtsied. Armiger languidly bowed, shaking his head.

"It is merely the voice of experience, your majesty. Humans become violent when they feel their interests are threatened."

Galas scowled. "They were never threatened! Parliament is a rumor-mill staffed by trough-fed clods who abuse the tongue of their birth every time they open their mouths. They all gabble at once and confuse one another mightily, and when this confusion is committed to paper they refer to it as 'policy'."

"I won't dispute that, having never attended," Armiger said.

The queen swept into the room. Two members of the royal guard followed, to take positions on either side of the doorway. "I had to try," Galas said bitterly. "For centuries no one has tried anything new! So what would be one more life in dumb service to tradition? Where would it get us, except back where we started when the wheel of this life had come around again? Someone had to ask questions men have been afraid to ask all that time. It has always been obvious to me that no one else would do it, either now or in the future. I had to do it all, even the things you call foolish. Else how could we know anything? Anything at all?"

Armiger said nothing, but he nodded in acquiescence.

"Sometimes one's responsibility goes beyond one's own generation," Galas said. She sat in the chair next to Megan's, and smiled at her warmly. "I trust you slept well, lady?"

"Yes, thank you, your highness."

"And you, Sir Maut? Do you even sleep?" Her voice held a teasing note.

He inclined his head. "When it suits me." Then he frowned. "I hope you don't view us a pair of jesters, here to distract you from what's waiting outside your gates. My purpose is quite serious--as serious as your own situation."

Galas' eyes flashed, but she only said, "I remain to be convinced. That is all."

"Fair enough." Armiger moved from his perch on the arm of the couch, to sit down properly. "So, who am I, and what do I want of you? That is what you would like to know."

Galas nodded. Megan saw that the moth-note Armiger had written her was stuck, folded, through the belt of her dress. Perhaps she had been rereading it over breakfast. For reassurance?

Megan couldn't begin to imagine what it must be like for her, with those men camped outside, waiting permission to brutalize and destroy everything. Servants killed, treasured possessions robbed... but Galas was outwardly cool.

She must be crying inside. It's cruel of Armiger to give her any hope now.

"Ask me anything," said Armiger. "Ask me something to test my knowledge, if you wish."

"Were all my mistakes obvious?" blurted the queen. "Is what I've fought for all my life trivially simple anywhere else? Am I a primitive, next to the people who live on other stars?"

"They might think so," said Armiger. "I do not."

"If you are what you say you are, then it makes all the pain I've suffered--and inflicted--pointless." Galas was not looking at them, but off into the middle distance. "I've been so busy since you arrived, making final preparations... the assault will come soon. But there hasn't been an instant when I didn't wonder why I was bothering. If everything I've tried to discover was learned millenia ago... I feel like the gods are laughing at me. I feel like an ant all puffed up with pride over having laboriously mapped out the boundaries of a garden. I don't think you can tell me anything to change that impression."

Armiger smiled. "I must be the fool, then, to waste my time talking to an ant."

"Don't make light of this!" She rose and went to stand over him. Megan was amazed at how Galas seemed to tower over Armiger, though the difference in their heights was such that even with him sitting, they were almost eye to eye.

Armiger was unfazed. "I was not. It is you who are belittling yourself."

Galas whirled and walked to the windows. "Then tell me I'm wrong! Tell me about the heavens--who lives there, what are they like? Have you walked on other planets? Talked to their people? Are they all-knowing, all-wise--or are they fools like us?"

Armiger's smiled grew wider. "They are all-knowing, but no wiser than anyone else. In fact, since they know everything they believe they possess the wisdom of the ages. Hence, I'd have to say, they are bigger fools than you."

"But I don't want to hear that either," said the queen. "Because it means there is no progress. If I educate my people and yet they remain fools, why have I bothered?"

Armiger crossed his arms, shrugged at Megan, but said nothing.

"All right," said Galas. She turned around and leaned on the windowsill. "Tell me about the heavens, please. I do want to know."

§

Many leagues away, Jordan Mason paused in his whittling and closed his eyes. He had been basking in the wan autumn sunlight and listening to Armiger and Megan with half an ear. He sat on a log by the remains of last night's fire; he faced away from the wagon, where the girl Tamsin was hiding again.

Jordan had told a carefully edited version of the story of the Boros catastrophe yesterday. Both Suneil and his niece had listened intently. He had excluded any mention of Axel and Calandria, and said nothing about August's duel or the attack by Turcaret's men. Apparently the word was out that Yuri and Turcaret had been killed; Jordan simply shrugged and said he hadn't seen that. His story was that he had panicked and run. Since he was visiting the household on his own anyway, he had just kept walking when daybreak came. Suneil seemed to accept this. It wasn't at all implausible that he should want to get as far away from the place as possible, after all.

Suneil had arisen early this morning, but had said little. Jordan walked the boundaries of the small encampment, kicking the dirt and wondering whether his presence here was endangering these two.

When he heard Galas ask Armiger about the heavens, he forgot all about his problems. Megan had never asked about that, and Jordan was intensely curious. When he closed his eyes he could see what Armiger saw, and if he stayed still the voices became clearer and clearer, until he seemed to be there with them.

The words seemed to emerge from his own mouth. Whenever that happened, Jordan felt almost as though they were his own thoughts he was speaking, and he invariably remembered them with perfect clarity later. Just now he was saying, "The stars in the night sky have their retinue of planets. Millions are inhabited, but if you gaze up at them tonight, know that only one in every thousand you see has people living by it, there are that many. Millions have been visited and explored, but for every one of them a million more are still mysteries.

"Humans like yourself moved into the galaxy a thousand years ago. Your ancient homeworld is now a park, where few can go except by special permission. All the other worlds in the home system were settled centuries ago, and are overflowing now. The've even dismantled the minor planets and smaller moons and built new habitats with them. The population of that star system is now over seventy trillion.

"Many other stars have similarly huge civilizations. Add to that the dozens of alien species, genetically altered humans, cyborgs, demigods and gods, and the peace you see in the sky seems more and more like an illusion."

"What are these things?" asked the queen. "Cyborgs? Demigods?"

"Mecha," said Armiger curtly. "But designed by people for the most part. Some people have had themselves transformed into mechal beings, so that they can live in hostile environments, like open space, or the crushing depths of giant planets' atmospheres. The boundary between human and nonhuman began to blur centuries ago, and now it's completely gone."

"And you? What are you?"

Jordan felt Armiger's hands form fists in his lap. "Demigod. Human once, I think--but I no longer remember. I'm ancient, your highness, but mortal. Even the gods are mortal. And I will die, unless I can find a secret known only to the Winds of Ventus."

Armiger was lying, according to what Calandria had told Jordan when they travelled together. She had told him the demigod had come to Ventus to subvert the Winds, and take control of the entire world. He knew Armiger was weakening, though, and Jordan didn't know if he could trust Calandria May.

"What is this secret?"

"It is the secret of why the Winds ignore or abuse humanity," said Armiger.

Galas laughed. "Countless generations have wondered that. I do too. Do you believe I have the secret?"

"I think you may know more than you realize."

"You came to see me because of the legends," she accused. "They say the Winds placed me on the throne, so I am assumed to know their secrets. For a god, you are rather naive, Maut."

He waved a hand dismissively. "The legends brought you to my attention, but even if they're wrong, I made the right choice in coming to you. I am sure of it."

"Now you speak like a courtier."

"My apologies."

Galas returned to her seat. Jordan admired her through Armiger's eyes; she was not so old as she had appeared in the throne room--perhaps in her late thirties. This war was aging her prematurely, he thought. He wanted to touch her, but had never learned the trick of making Armiger's limbs move at his own urging.

"Why not just ask the Winds of another world?" asked the queen.

"There are no other Winds. There is no other place like Ventus."

Jordan watched Galas' eyes widen. He remembered sympathetically how he had reacted when Calandria told him the same thing. "But," she started, "you just spoke of millions of worlds--trillions of people--"

"There are a million organizing principles in human space. None resemble Ventus. Your world is unique, and the records of the design of the Winds were lost in a war centuries ago. Most of humanity lives in something known as the Archipelago--an immense region whose boundaries are so vague that much of its citizenry doesn't even know of its existence."

"Now you're talking madness," smiled the queen. "Not that anything you've said so far would survive debate in the House."

"Archipelago is the only answer to ruling a population of trillions, who own a million different cultures, mores and histories." He shrugged. "It is simple: an artificial intelligence--a mechal brain, if you will--exists that mediates things. It knows each and every citizen personally, and orchestrates their meetings with others, communications and so on so as to avoid irreconcilable conflict. Beyond that, it stays out of sight, for it has no values, no desires of its own. It is as if every person had their own guardian spirit, and these spirits never warred, but acted in concert to improve people's lives."

"A tyranny of condescension," said Galas.

"Yes. You worried earlier that everything was known. Well, yes and no. The government of the Archipelago has the sum of human knowledge and can speak it directly into people's minds. But it's only the sum of human knowledge. It is only one perspective. Here on Ventus, something quite different has come to exist. A new wisdom, you might say. The sum of the knowledge of an entire conscious world, unsullied by human perspective. Ventus, you see, is infinitely precious."

"Then why aren't they here? A trillion tourists from the sky?"

"The Winds don't permit visitors. Though there are a few, I suppose--researchers vainly trying to crack the cyphers of the Diadem Swans. Hiding from the Winds, of course."

"But you slipped in."

"I did. The Winds know something I must learn if I am to survive. I cannot speak to them. So I must ask you, as the one person on Ventus who knows them best, to help me."

"And why should I help?"

Armiger stood and walked to one of the tall windows. "Outside your gates is an army. That army did not need to come here. You need never have embarked on the path that led you here. And you knew things would end this way, didn't you? It was inevitable from the moment you began to try to change the fundamental beliefs of your people."

Below this high window he could see a crowded, hectic courtyard. Beyond that, walls, then the hazy, unbelievable crush of the besieging army.

"They had to kill you in the end," he said.

"Yes," said the queen in a small voice. "But I had to try... to end this long night that has swallowed the whole world."

He turned, and Jordan felt his eyes narrow, his mouth set hard. "Then help me. If I survive, I may well be able to do what you could not."

§

"I said, hello."

Jordan looked up. Suneil's niece Tamsin stood in front of him, arms crossed, her head cocked to one side.

He was annoyed at the interruption, and almost told her to go away-but he was a guest of these people, after all. "I was meditating."

"Uh, huh. Looked more like sleeping with your mouth open."

Jordan opened his mouth, closed it again, and then said, "Did you want something?"

"Uncle wants a good supply of firewood in the wagon before we get to the border. Isn't that why you're here, to do that stuff for us?"

Jordan stood and stretched. "It is indeed." He saw no need to say anything more to this shrew.

"Well good," she said as she followed him into the grass. "We wouldn't want any freeloaders on this trip."

Jordan noticed that Suneil was watching this exchange from the vicinity of the wagon. "I'll work my keep," said Jordan, as he increased his stride to outdistance her.

"See that you do!" she hollered. Then, apparently satisfied, she limped back to the wagon and began arguing with her uncle about something.

As soon as he was out of sight of the camp, Jordan sat down and tried to re-establish his link with Armiger. This time, it took all his concentration to bring the voices to him; Tamsin seemed to be a bad influence on his concentration. When the voices did return, he found that Armiger and the queen were now discussing military logistics. The terms meant nothing to Jordan, so he stood up with a sigh, and went to gather the wood.

When Jordan staggered back his first load of sticks, Suneil was sitting on the wagon's back step, but Tamsin was nowhere to be seen. "I apologize for my niece," said Suneil. "She lost her parents and sister recently. The shock has brought all her emotions to the surface."

"The war?"

Suneil nodded. "The war. We fled Iapysia three months ago to escape it. Now we're on our way back. They say the queen is defeated... maybe things have settled down."

"I don't know," said Jordan. "I know you can't run away forever." He longed for home. Once he had gotten Armiger to raise this curse that was on him, he would return to Castor's manor.

"Well spoken," said Suneil. "You were patient with her just now. I'm glad. She strikes out, but if you strike back, she'll shatter like glass. Just remember that. I know it's an imposition, but--"

Jordan waved a hand. "No, it's fine. These things happen. We have to help one another."

Suneil grinned. "Thanks. And thanks for the wood. We're going to need a lot more, though, when we get to the border."

"Why?"

Suneil glanced at him, raised an eyebrow. "Well, you said you're from Iapysia, you'd know there's no trees in the desert, wouldn't you?"

"Uh... yes, of course."

Suneil gave him an odd little smile, and walked away.

























18

Two days' travel brought them deep into the barren hills that signified the border of Iapysia. He was confident now that the Winds did not know where he was. The gauze continued to protect him, and hence the people he travelled with. That was good; but he couldn't wear it for the rest of his life. He would have to find Armiger soon--or Calandria would, and either way there would be an end to this.

He was riding up front with Suneil when the wagon topped the crest of a particularly long hill, and Suneil reined in the horses. Standing to look at the vista below, Suneil sighed and said, "Home."

Jordan stood too. Sun had broken through a rent in the autumn clouds, illuminating the valley below within a vast golden rectangle. Within this frame, the land fell in a series of green steps to a landscape of grass and forest cradling a long sinuous lake. The road wound down switchbacks to the floor of the valley, and vanished beyond the sunlit frame at the far end of the lake, where the valley seemed to open out into a plain.

Jordan could see some blue-grey squares and lines near the lake. "Are those ruins?"

Suneil nodded. "That valley lies in Iapysia. The desert starts beyond it."

"It's beautiful. Nobody lives here?" He could see no sign of settlement, though he could easily imagine dozens of farms fitting in near the lake.

"The Winds do. It's okay to visit, but no one stays."

They sat down again, and Suneil flicked the reins. Over the past couple of days they had talked a lot about the local countryside, and Suneil had grilled Jordan at length about the war between Ravenon and the Seneschals. Jordan had spun a long tale about the destruction of Armiger's army and the death of the general, pretending he had heard it from other travellers.

His own eavesdropping had yielded few results, since the queen had not met with Armiger since their first encounter. She was busy with preparations for the siege, and it seemed Armiger was content to wait.

Jordan had reluctantly admitted to Suneil that he was not from Iapysia. His Memnonian accent didn't match his story. Suneil had asked no further questions, but he had also volunteered nothing about his own past. Jordan let his curiosity lead him now, though, as it seemed a natural time to ask. "Tell me about the war. And the queen. All I've heard is that she's mad, and that the great houses revolted."

Suneil nodded. "I suppose your countrymen think it's a scandal that we're deposing our queen." He scowled at the road that rolled down before them. "We do too. Even the soldiers in Parliament's army. But things got... out of control."

Jordan waited for more. After a while, Suneil said, "Iapysia's a very old country, but it was one of the last places settled. At the beginning of the world, they say the Winds made Ventus--and they're not finished making it yet. But they didn't make Man. Some say we made ourselves, some that we came from the stars, and some say that renegade Winds created us as an act of defiance. That's what I believe. How else to explain what Queen Galas has done?

"The first people spread across the world from one original tribe. They had great powers, and they wanted Ventus as their own. They fought the Winds, because the Winds were still sculpting Ventus, and would not let the people build cities or cultivate the land. Men defied them, but the Winds beat them down, until at last there were only scattered communities, who learned to get along with the Winds by obeying their laws. We learned to stay out of the Winds' way, and appease them when we went too far. Your general Armiger went too far--they took notice of him, and swatted him like an insect. There's a lesson in that.

"In the early days after our defeat, some folk wandered to the edge of the desert. There they found the desals hard at work, flooding the sands to strain salt from ocean water that poured in from the Titans' Gates--those are the Wind-built dams at the seaside. They pumped the newly freshened water deep into the earth. We know now that it comes up again through springs all across the continent. Back then, it was just another miraculous and incomprehensible activity of the rulers of the world. Our people huddled on the edge of it, watching the floods in awe.

"Iasin the first, ancestor of all the kings of Iapysia, was the man who realized that the desals were utterly indifferent to the plants and animals that struggled within the flood plains. The ocean water brought nutrients from the sea, the desert sands strained the salt, and fresh water poured up and out through a thousand channels into rivers that flow into your lands, or that vanish into bottomless lakes. A thousand kinds of life thrived during the flooding, and when the Titans' Gates closed to draw strength for another great gasp, they withered and died. Iasin led his people into the heart of the inundated lands, and they began to grow huge crops there, in open defiance of the Winds.

"Our people have always believed that we have a silent pact with the desals. All our laws were made to preserve the pact. As far as we can see, the desals will always use the desert to purify water for the continent. What was in the beginning, will be always. So it should be with our laws, our kings and our traditions.

"The laws are harsh. They dictate everything from our professions to the size of the family. Our cities have grown only so big as the desals will tolerate, and can grow no more. We cannot divert the Winds' rivers to suit our needs. The nobility trace their lineage back to the time of Iasin, as do people in the guilds and trades. All life is fixed. While your nations have been in a constant uproar of change and growth all these centuries, we know you will reach the same point eventually. Humanity cannot rule Ventus. We are merely tolerated. In my country, people believe that life will always be like it is now, for all eternity.

"I should say, we used to believe that. Then came Queen Galas, to upset a thousand years of tradition."

"What did she do?" asked Jordan. The swath of sunlight that had blanketed the valley below was gone, leaving the landscape blued by lowering clouds. More rain was coming.

Suneil pointed along the road that led past the long lake. "Our lives are tied to the floods. We prosper insofar as we can predict them. We have always relied on observation and our records to do that. Galas had no need of such indirect means. She negotiated with the desals, and the desert flooded when and where and by how much she said it would. No sovereign has ever had such power over nature. We prospered as we never have.

"It wasn't enough for her. Galas despises the Winds. She sees humanity as the rightful rulers of the world, and the Winds as usurpers. People find her views shocking, but who could argue with her success? She gained a great following, and began to erase a thousand years of law and tradition, replacing it with daring and unsettling edicts of her own. She wanted to remake the world in her own image.

"She went too far. About five years ago, the desals turned against her. Her predictions for that year's flooding were tragically wrong. Thousands died in the waters or the famine that came after. Whatever she had done to alienate the Winds, their rebuke simply hardened her heart. She pushed ahead with her reforms, although for our own survival we now had to fall back on our old ways of predicting the floods."

"You supported her," ventured Jordan.

"At first, yes. I won't pretend I didn't profit by it. By the time the Winds turned against her, I had become entirely her creature. I'm not a fool, I could see what was coming, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. Parliament tabled a document demanding Galas cease all her meddling, and rescind the edicts that had broken centuries of tradition. She refused. The war... I think no one really believed it would happen, or that it was happening, until it came to visit one's own town or relatives. I believed. I ran. To stand and fight... well, she lost. She's probably dead by now. I wish I knew, that's all."

Jordan could have told him, but a new caution, perhaps learned from his experience with the Boros', made him hold his tongue.

§

They made camp near the etched outlines of vanished buildings and streets. Jordan sized up the place in spare glances while he got the fire going and tended to the horses. Tamsin sat listlessly on the back step of the wagon, watching the men work.

Jordan knew that in his country, a small town might contain a handful of buildings made of stone, and dozens of wooden houses. The wooden structures would make no permanent impression on the land after they were torn down or burned. Stone buildings left a kind of scar, and it was these that patterned a rise near the end of the lake. If there were ten wooden houses to every stone, and every house held eight people, then half a thousand people had lived here once.

Suneil confirmed it. "It was a border town once. They traded with Memnonis. But the Winds razed it to the ground, four hundred years ago."

"Why?"

"They use this place." Suneil gestured to the lake. "It's a transfer point, or something. Don't really know. Anyway, they won't let people build here."

The thought made Jordan uneasy. Since the clouds and their threat of rain had vanished, after dinner he walked down to the edge of the lake. Using his new talent, he listened for the presence of the Winds.

The water was perfectly clear, the bottom covered in a fine yellow sand with red streaks in it. He remembered someone telling him once that clear water was unhealthy for any lake or river outside mountain country. Dark waters held life, that was the rule. He dipped his hand in it, marvelling. This was only the second lake he had seen up close. The water laughed quietly along the shore, and the flat vista glittered hypnotically in late daylight. It was surprisingly peaceful.

He could hear the song of the lake. It was deep and powerful, belying the tranquility of the surface. Thin grass grew here, but the soil beneath his feet was shallow, quickly giving way to sand. Below that... rock? He couldn't quite make it out, though it felt like there was something else down there, a unique presence deep below the earth.

There was no indication that anything supernatural dwelt here.

He sat down, mind empty for the first time in days, and watched the water for a while. Gradually, without really trying, he began hearing the voices of the waves.

They trilled like little birds as they approached the shore. Each had its own name, but otherwise they were impossible to tell apart. They rolled humming towards Jordan, then fell silent without fanfare as they licked the sand. It was like solid music converging on him where he sat. He had never heard anything so beautiful or delicately fragile.

He didn't even notice the failing light or the cold as he sat transfixed. His mind could not remain focussed forever, though, and after a while he made up a little game, trying to follow individual waves with both his eyes and his inner sense.

He tried to follow the eddies of a particular wave as it broke around a nearby rock, and in doing so discovered something new. It seemed like such an innocent detail at first: as the wave split, so did its voice. From one, it became many, then each tinier individuality vanished in turbulence. As they did, they cried out, not it seemed in fright, but in tones almost of... delight. Urgent delight--as if at the last second they had discovered something important they needed to tell the world.

If he closed his eyes, now, he could see the waves and the lake, finely outlined as in an etching, grey on black. Many words and numbers hovered over the ghost-landscape, joined by lines or what looked like arrows to faintly sketched features of the shoreline or lake surface. If he focussed on one of those, it instantly expanded, and he was surrounded by a swirl of numbers: charts, mathematical figures, geometric shapes. It was beautiful, and nonsensical.

The most important part of it, he decided, was that this ghostly vision apparently let him see with his eyes closed. Was this how Calandria May had seen the forest when she lured him away from the path, so many nights ago?

He stared at the wavelets, listening down the chain of nested identities: lake, swell, wave, crest and ripple. Each sang its identity only for so long as it existed. In water, consciousness arose and vanished, merged and split as freely as the medium itself.

Jordan had been raised to think of himself and other people as having souls. Souls were indivisible. What he heard happening out in the lake were voices that could not possibly be attached to souls, because the very identities behind those voices freely changed, merged, and nested inside one another. Even the word beings couldn't be applied to them, because it implied a stability impossible for them.

"What are you?" he whispered, staring out at the lake of voices.

I am water.

Over the next hour Jordan asked a few halting questions of the lake, the sand and the stones. Few of the answers made any sense. For the most part he sat with his head tilted, listening to voices only he could hear. If Tamsin or Suneil crept up to watch and sadly shake their heads, he didn't care, because he had taken a great secret by the edge, and he wasn't going to let anything stop him from grasping it entirely.

When he finally dragged himself back to camp, the others were asleep. Suneil had offered to let him sleep in the wagon tonight, but Jordan was too tired to make the effort, and saw no point in disturbing them. He rolled himself near the fire, and fell instantly asleep.

He dreamed about dolphins, which he had heard of but never seen. In the dream they swam in the earth itself, and leapt and splashed in it as though it were a liquid. He chased them across a rough, rocky landscape and at times he almost caught them, but they laughed as they danced just out of reach. Finally he made one last effort and dove after one as it entered the ground, and he followed it into dark liquid earth. He slid among the rocks and sinews of the solid world with perfect ease, knowing now where the dolphins were going: to find a secret buried deep in the earth.

He woke up. He lay on his back by the cold embers of the fire, and it seemed like some sound hovered above him. Someone had spoken.

Jordan rolled over. It was early morning, and fantastically misty. It looked like the camp had been put inside a pearl. Directly overhead, it was bright; at the horizons dark still reigned. There was no sound at all now. The mist absorbed everything, causing him to cough hesitantly to check that he could hear at all.

As Jordan sat stoking the fire, Tamsin emerged from the wagon. She was dressed in woolen trousers, several layered white shirts and something she had yesterday told him was called a poncho. She looked around once, and a big grin split her face. It was the first time he had seen her smile, and it utterly transformed her. She became at once ugly and electrically exuberant when she smiled.

"It's great!" She waved at the mist. "I've never seen it so thick. I'm going to go see what the lake looks like."

"Okay."

She walked purposefully into the directionless grey, stopping when she had become a two-dimensional shape against it.

"Mr. Mason?" Her voice sounded timid; there were no echoes, and no other sound.

"Yes?"

"You can come too, if you want." Jordan shook his head and followed. He was cold and achy, but he knew the walk would warm him faster than sitting by the fire.

"How are you feeling?" he asked Tamsin.

"Good." She stopped and massaged her shin. "Still hurts, but it's okay to walk on." The wagon vanished behind them, but the fire remained a diffuse orange landmark.

As they walked on, he tried to think of something more to say. For some reason, his mind had gone blank. Tamsin seemed to be having the same problem. She walked with her hands behind her back, head down except at intervals when she made a show of peering through the fog.

The low grey lines of the ruins coalesced ahead of them. Tamsin stood on a low wall that once must have supported a large house. She raised her arms, making the mauve poncho fall into a broad crescent covering her torso.

"Your uncle's not used to travelling," Jordan observed.

"He was a cloth merchant back home," she said. Tamsin lowered her arms and stepped down. "He was really rich, I think. Before the war. When he had to leave home, he took some of his best cloth. We've been selling it to buy food and stuff. But we're all out of it now."

"Did you live with him before?"

She shook her head. He wanted to ask her about her family, but could think of no way to do it.

"He saved me. When... the war came to my town, the soldiers were burning everything. It was a surprise attack. I was trying to get home, but the soldiers were in the way. Uncle... he appeared out of nowhere and took me away. He saved my life." She shrugged. "That's all."

"Oh." They walked on.

"Thanks," she said suddenly.

"For what?"

"For coming with us. For helping out." She hesitated, then added, "and for putting up with me."

Jordan found he was smiling. She walked a few steps away, her face and form softened by mist. She was looking away from him.

"You uncle told me you had a tragedy very recently," he said as gently as he could. "It's understandable."

"It'll be all right, though," she said a bit too brightly. "When we get to Rhiene Uncle is going to introduce me to society there. There'll be balls, and dinners, and the rest of that. So you see, I'm ready to take up a new life now. Uncle is helping me do that."

"That's good," he said cautiously.

She took a deep breath. "My foot feels a lot better."

"Good. But you shouldn't use it too much yet."

They took a faint path down a long slope to a pebbled beach. The sound of the waves was strangely hushed here.

A vast translucent canopy of light hung over the lake now, and in the heart of it... Jordan and Tamsin stopped on the shoreline, staring. Impossibly high in the air, a crescent of gold and rose as broad as the lake burned in the morning sun. The crescent outlined the top of a deep cloud-grey circle that seemed to be punched in the mist overhanging the water. Jordan could see a long, nearly horizontal tunnel of shadow stretching to infinity behind the thing.

The sense of free happiness Jordan had felt only moments ago collapsed. He backed away, hearing his own breath roaring in his ears, and aware that Tamsin was saying something, but unable to focus on what.

The vagabond moon was utterly motionless, its keel mere meters above the wave tops. There was no way to know how long it had been here, though it must have arrived sometime after Jordan had fallen asleep.

Tamsin stared up at it with her mouth open. "It's a moon," she said. "A real moon."

"Hush," he said. "We shouldn't be here."

"This... was this what destroyed the..."

"The Boros household." Jordan nodded, looking up, and up, at the kilometer of curving tessellated hull above them. The thing was so broad that its bottom seemed flat above the wavetops; only by tracking the eye along the curve for many meters could he begin to see the curve, and then its dimensions nearly vanished in the fog before the circle began to close. If not for the sun making its top incandescent, he could almost have missed its presence, simply because it was too large to take in without turning one's head and thinking about what one was seeing.

The important question was what was going on under its keel. Nothing, apparently; there was no open mouth there now, no gantried arms reaching for the shoreline.

Whatever reason it had for being here, it must not have to do with Jordan. It could have plucked him from his bedroll at any time during the night, after all.

The fog was lifting, but it didn't occur to Jordan that this would make him more visible. He had no doubt the thing could see through night, fog or smoke to find him, if it chose to.

"It's beautiful," she said after a minute in which the moon remained perfectly motionless. "What's it doing here?"

"It looks like it's waiting for something." The skin on the back of his neck prickled. Could it be waiting for reinforcements? No, that was silly. Jordan was no threat to this behemoth. It didn't know he was here; he kept telling himself that, even as he fought to slow his racing heart.

"Uncle said he heard the one that attacked the Boros household was looking for someone," said Tamsin.

"Really?" Jordan felt his face grow hot. "I hadn't heard that."

The rising sun slanted into the interior of the vagabond moon, and the entire shape seemed to catch fire. From a diffuse amber center, colors and intricate crosshatched shadows spread to a perimeter of gaudy rainbow highlights that glittered like jewelry on the moon's skin. That was ice, Jordan realized, frosted on the upper canopy so high above. It must be cold up there.

A faint cracking sound reached his ears. At the same time, he saw a tiny cascade of white tumble from the sunlit side of its hull. The falling cloud grew quickly into a torrent of ice and snow that struck the water with a sound like distant applause.

"Maybe we should leave," said Tamsin.

He nodded. He was afraid, but he wished he didn't have to be. The vagabond moon was so achingly beautiful, the way wolves and other wild things were. How he wanted to make peace with such beautiful, dangerous creatures.

I could speak to it, he realized. A mad idea; its wrath would descend on him for sure then.

"Let's go." Tamsin took his hand.

"Wait." He shook himself, stumbling over the words he wanted to say, to express what he was feeling. Then he thought about what Calandria had told him about the Winds, and his awe deepened even further.

"We made that," he whispered.

Neither said anything more as they walked back to the camp.

They arrived to find Suneil frantically hitching the horses. They didn't speak, but fell to decamping alongside him. It was nice to have Tamsin's help this time, since she knew where everything went. As they worked, each would pause now and then to stare at the gigantic sphere standing over the lake. Now that the sunlight was filling it, it was beginning to slowly rise.

The other two seemed increasingly frightened, but Jordan was calm, more so as the mist burned off completely, leaving them exposed to the gaze of the Wind. It had no interest in him; unlike Tamsin and her uncle, he was certain that today at least it was no threat. So when he paused, it was to admire it rather than to worry.

The road led along the edge of the lake, under the shadow of the moon. Suneil wanted to go the other way, backtracking until it was safe. Jordan did his best to calm the old man, and eventually convinced him to go forward. Still, he couldn't shake a feeling of unease as they passed beneath the now sky-blue wall of the moon. Maybe it hadn't acted because there was no way he could escape; when he got too far away, it might just waft after him and pick him up.

They were about two kilometers down the curve of the lake, just starting to relax, when thunder roared behind them. This is it, thought Jordan, and turned to look.

The clamshell doors on the bottom of the vagabond moon had opened. What must be thousands of tonnes of reddish gravel and boulders were tumbling into the lake, raising foaming whitecaps in a widening ring. As he watched, the waves reached the shore and erased the distant thread of footsteps he and Tamsin had left in the sand. The water washed up the hillside nearly to the ruins, and receded only when the last of the stones had trickled into the water.

Lightning played around the crown of the moon. It began to rise, and in a few minutes it had become a coin-sized disk at the zenith. The nervous horses trotted on, and no one spoke.





















19

Armiger closed his hand over Megan's breast. She smiled at the touch, and lay back on the satin.

One candle burned outside their canopy bed. Its light turned her skin deep gold. He slid his fingertips along her collarbone, and kissed her belly lightly. Her stomach undulated from the touch. "Mm," she murmured. "You are becoming a better lover every time, you know that?"

He grinned at her, but said nothing. Feeling strong tonight, he had conjured fresh strawberries, and crushed a few over her chest as sauce. He could still taste it, a bit.

He had told her that the strawberries came from the queen's private garden. Megan would have been upset to know he was wasting his precious energies on an indulgence.

She wrapped her legs around him when he came up to breathe, and ground against him. They both laughed, ending the sound with a deep kiss. Then he entered her, for the third time this evening.

Night breezes flapped the curtains; this was the only sound other than their own. Some part of him was amazed at the quiet, but then he had never been under siege before. Perhaps silence was the inevitable response to being trapped for so long. It was the silence of waiting.

She watched as he came, then drew him down next to her. "I'm done," she said. "You finished me off!"

He was still panting. "Um," was all he managed. Megan laughed.

For a few hours at a time, he could exchange Armiger the engine for Armiger the man. At moments like this, he knew he treasured such times. He also knew that in a minute or an hour, cold rationality would steal over him, like a settling dew, both bringing him back to his deeply treasured Self, and driving out the warmth Megan made him feel.

Spontaneously, he hugged her tightly. She gasped.

"What is it?"

"Nothing." For a few moments he couldn't bring himself to let go. When he did, he flopped back, staring at the embroidered canopy. It was one of the few pieces of bedding in the palace that had not been shredded for the thousand and one needs of a military occupation: bandages, lashing broken spars together, enshrouding the dead. The queen, he thought idly, was unfair; she would never make a decent general if she wasn't consistent with her sacrifices.

"No, what?"

He blinked. Whatever he had been feeling, it was gone already. "I don't know," he whispered.

"What don't you know?" She propped herself up on her elbow, peering at him in the faint richness of candlelight.

Armiger waved a hand vaguely. "Who I am," he said at last, "at times like these."

"Yourself," she said. Megan put a hand on his chest. "You're yourself." She looked away. "It's practically the only time."

He smelled strawberries. Strange; he barely remembered doing that. Something was slipping away, moment by moment. He remembered other evenings with her, when after turning away from her he had felt instead that something returned to him.

To forestall the change, he rolled on his side, putting his nose to hers. "Am I that cold?"

"Not right now."

He ran his hand up her flank. "Why do you stay with me, then? I don't know how to please you..."

"What do you think you've been doing the last three hours?"

"Ah." But he didn't know what he'd been doing. Something that felt to the body exactly like rage had taken him over--but it was the opposite of rage in the things it made him do, and in the purity of the release it gave. Rage he understood. Armiger had come lately to identify it as the single emotion he could recall from his time subsumed into the greater identity of the god 3340. Whether that rage was the god's or his, who could tell? There was no way to know, any more than he could distinguish where his own consciousness had left off, and that of 3340 began.

This, like nearly everything about himself, he could never hope to explain to Megan.

She shook him by the shoulder. "Stop it!"

"Hum?"

"You're thinking again! It's the middle of the night. You don't have to be thinking now."

"Ah." He chuckled, and cupped her breast. "I'm sorry. But I'm not sleepy."

"You don't really sleep anyway." She yawned extravagantly. "But I need to."

"Go ahead. I'll read." He nodded to the gigantic stack of books by the bed.

She laughed, and lay back. For a while he watched the jumbled heap of hair snuggle itself deeper into the pillows. Then she said, almost inaudibly, "Which do you prefer?"

Armiger leaned over her and kissed her cheek. "Which what do I prefer?"

"Do you prefer making love, or reading?" He voice held a teasing note, but he had learned there were frequently hidden needs behind her teasing questions.

"To read is to make love to the world," he said. "But to make love to a woman is to feel like the world is reading you."

She smiled, not comprehending, and fell asleep.

Leaving Armiger the man behind, or so he imagined, he stood to dress. Freed from the need for dialogue, his mind fell in upon itself, and the myriad other sides of Armiger the god awoke.

All night, as he made love to Megan, these other sides of his Self had been thinking, planning, raging and debating in the higher echoes of his consciousness. He had read sixteen books yesterday, and had been revising his opinions about Ventus and the Winds as he assimilated the knowledge. Now he stood for several minutes, fingers touching the leather cover of the next volume he intended to absorb. He was not so much contemplating as watching the vast edifice of his understanding of Ventus shift, and settle, and grow new entranceways and wings.

He had discovered something: the Winds were not mad. They were up to something.

Armiger cursed softly. He no longer saw the candle flame, or felt the hard cover of the book. For it was all there in the histories and philosophical inquiries, if one knew how to read the signs. The Winds acted capriciously, but everyone knew they ultimately acted in the interests of Nature. They were the guides of the terraforming process, he knew. Terraforming a planet was neither a quick process nor one that had an end. The climate of Ventus would never achieve equilibrium; without the constant intervention of the planet's ruling spirits, the air would cool and the oxygen/carbon cycles oscillate out of control. The world would experience alternate phases of hyperoxygenation and asphyxiation, coupled with disastrous atmospheric circulation locks; parts of the globe would be under almost constant rain, others would never receive rain at all. Everything would die, in the long run.

The Winds exercised great intelligence and forbearance. They played the clouds and ocean waves of Ventus like the most grand and complex instruments. Their symphonic teamwork was perfect.

So: capricious they might be, but the Winds were not purposeless. Everyone on and off Ventus knew this. When it came to dealing with other intelligent entities, however, they did at first seem mad. The histories he had been reading, which were more extensive than those available offworld, told of massacres and blessings, following no apparent pattern, which the poor human residents of this world had struggled for centuries to justify and predict. The accepted theory was that they viewed human activity as an assault on the ecosystem, and acted to defend it. Armiger had read enough by now to know that it simply wasn't so.

Throughout the history of the world, men and women had appeared who claimed to be able to communicate with the Winds. Sometimes they were hanged as witches. Sometimes they were able to prove their claims, and then they founded religions.

The Winds were difficult entities to worship, because they had the annoying characteristic of possessing minds of their own. Gods, one philosophical wag had commented, should conveniently remain on the altar, rather than rampaging indiscriminately across the land.

The Winds were utterly inconsistent about enforcing their ecological rules where it came to Man. He had seen it himself; there were smelters in some of the larger towns, pouring black smoke into the atmosphere, while the tiny waft of sulphur dioxide he had used in chemical warfare in one battle had cost Armiger his entire army. The Winds had obliterated every man involved in the engagement. Armiger had stood helplessly on the crown of the hill where he was directing his troops, and watched as they all died.

He had felt nothing at the time. Remembering now, he suppressed an urge to pick up the book he touched, and throw it through the window.

Something was going on here. The Winds were neither malicious, nor mad, nor were they indifferent to humanity. They were obeying some tangle of rules he simply hadn't seen yet. If he could find out what it was...

Something made him turn. There was no one in the room, and Megan hadn't moved. Nonetheless, he sensed someone nearby.

A woman was weeping out in the hallway.

§

Armiger dressed, then blew out the candle, which itself had been an extravagance. In his time here he had heard more weeping than laughter. There was nothing unusual in it. But without knowing exactly why, he found himself walking hesitantly to the door.

It opened soundlessly onto a pitch-dark hallway. There were windows at either end of the corridor, but they didn't illuminate, only served as contrast to the blackness within.

For a moment Armiger stood blind as any man, surprised at the helplessness of the sensation. Then he remembered to slide the frequency of his vision up and down until he found a wavelength in which he could see. A few months ago, that action would have been automatic. He scowled as he looked around for the source of the sound.

The woman was huddled on the floor halfway down the hall. She cradled something in her lap. An infant, perhaps? Armiger opened his mouth to speak, then thought better. He cleared his throat.

She started visibly and looked up. "Who's there?" Her head bobbed back and forth as she tried to see. She was middle-aged, matronly, dressed in a peasant frock. Strange that she should be in this part of the palace... no, perhaps it was stranger that these halls hadn't yet been turned into a barracks.

"I heard you," he said. "Are you injured?"

It was what he would have asked a man. He didn't know what to ask when a woman cried. But she nodded. "My arm," she whimpered, nodding down at it. "Broken." As if the admission cost her more than the injury, she began to cry all the harder.

"Has it been seen to?" He knelt beside her.

"No!"

"Let me see." He gently reached to touch her elbow. She winced. Feeling his way, he found the break, a clean one, in the tibia. The bones had slid apart slightly, and would have to be set. He told her this.

"Can you do it?"

"Yes." She had a tattered shawl draped over her shoulders. "I'll use this to immobilize it. Just a moment." He needed something for a splint. The furniture had been completely stripped out of here, but the walls were wood, with a good deal of ornamental panelling and stripping. Armiger found a beveled edge to one of the panels, and with several quick jerks, pulled the wood strip away from the wall. It groaned like a lost soul as it came. He broke it over his knee and returned to the woman.

He didn't warn her before taking her forearm and pulling it straight. She yelped, but it was all over before she had time to tense or really feel the pain. Armiger aligned the stripping with her wristbones and wrapped it quickly with strips from her shawl. Then he bound the whole assembly in a sling about her neck.

"Why wasn't it set earlier?" From the swelling, he judged she had broken it earlier in the day.

"I shouldn't be here," she said.

"That's not what I asked."

"Yes, it is you see because the soldiers, they, some of them are hurt, so bad, and there's not enough people to tend them. I, I went there, but one man, his stomach was open, and he was dying but they wouldn't leave him, and another his eyes were burned somehow. And I stood at the doorway and they were all hurt so badly, I, I couldn't go in there with just my silly broken arm. I couldn't..." She wept, clutching him with her good hand.

What Armiger said he said not to comfort her, but because he had observed this in human men: "But the soldiers would have gladly given up their beds to a woman."

"Yes, and I hate them for it." She pushed him away. "It's the arrogance of men that leads them to sacrifice themselves. Not real consideration."

Armiger sat back, confused. "How did you get in here?" he asked at last.

"I'm a friend of one of the maids. She offered to shelter me when, when the soldiers came. I... I didn't know where to go, I couldn't go back and tell her I didn't go into the infirmary. I had nowhere to go."

He knew the room next to his was vacant. "Come." He lifted her to her feet and guided her to it. There was enough light here to make out the canopied bed and dressers, and fine gilded curtains.

"I can't sleep here." Her voice held shock.

"You will."

"But in the morning--if the queen finds out--"

"If they ask, tell them Armiger authorized it. Sleep well." Without another word, he closed the door. His last glimpse was of her standing uncertainly in the center of the room.

For a long time he stood, arms folded. He heard her climb on the bed at last. Only then did he turn and walk to the stairs.

§

A stable had been taken over to house the infirmary. Despite the lateness of the hour, it was far from quiet as Armiger walked in. Men groaned or wept openly. In a curtained alcove, someone screamed every few seconds--short gasps of unremitting agony. No one else could sleep with that going on, though a good number of men lay very still on the straw, their eyes closed, their chests rising and falling shallowly.

There were twenty men and women here tending the injured. They looked like none of them had slept in days.

These wounded were merely the casualties from the withdrawal of Galas's hillside defenses. When Lavin stormed the walls this stable would oveflow.

Actually, it would burn, he thought as he walked along the rows of men, appraising their injuries.

"Are you looking for someone?"

He turned to find a red-eyed man in bloodstained jester's gear watching him from a side table. The table was strewn with bottles and medical instruments. The man's arms were brown up to the elbows with old blood.

"I can help," said Armiger.

"Are you trained?"

"Yes." He knew the human body well, and he could see inside it if he wished. Armiger had never tried healing before.

"It's hard," said the jester.

"I know." Armiger had realized, however, that the same lack of empathy that allowed him to send a squad of young men to certain death for tactical reasons, would allow him to act and make decisions to save them, where other men's compassion would paralyze them.

He nodded toward the curtained alcove. "What is his problem."

The jester ran a hand through his hair. "Shattered pelvis," he said briefly.

Armiger thought about it. "I'll take a look." He glanced around. "First though, let's see the others."

The jester led, and Armiger moved down the rows of men, and performed triage.

§

Near dawn, Galas stood watching from the window in her bed chamber. Behind her were the carven trees and fauna of a fantastical woodland scene. It was no regular pattern of pillars cunningly disguised, nor a frescoed wall carven and layered with images; the architect had denied the privilege of rectilinear space here. Like a real forest, the lower boughs obscured vision and prevented movement between different parts of the chamber, and the great roots of the stone trees sprawled across the floor with no regard for the cult of the level surface. There was no order to the staggered forms, nor any symmetry save the aesthetic, which made this room into a group of bowers inside the straight-edged castle tower.

The window itself looked like a gap in the foliage of a jade-carved hedge. Each tiny leaf had been faithfully reproduced in stone, and in daylight they shone with a verdant brilliance that would normally soothe the queen's heart.

She had seldom been here in the day. As she traced the outline of a leaf with the tip of one finger, she knew she might never have the time to be, now. Odd that the possibility of never seeing this window in daylight again, should be what now struck her with the horror of her coming death.

She thought about the strange Wind, Maut, as she sat by the window to watch the moon set. He was letting her look straight into the labyrinth of eternity, at the moment when death was inevitable and imminent. She hated him for that.

She turned to her maid, Ninete, who sat slumped on a divan nearby. Ninete was required to remain awake as long as Galas, and tonight the queen had not slept at all. "He knows there is nothing I can say to him," said Galas intensely. Ninete was startled at being addressed as a person; she said nothing in reply.

Galas fixed her gaze on the maid. "He is cruel, to put it plainly. Why is he telling me these things? I know he is only telling the truth. It is that which is so terrible. He is telling the truth. As to things which should properly be lied about."

Ninete recovered herself. "Let me comb out your hair," she said. The Queen rose with a nod and went to her dressing table. Ninete stood behind her and began letting down her hair into dark waves which tumbled down her back.

"Perhaps he thinks it really will not hurt me to know my whole life has been lived in vain. I wanted to change things, that was what ruled me. I wanted to change what could not be changed, what had never been seen as anything but absolute. I wanted to dissolve the absolute. Maut... Maut, says this has been done before.

"I knew that everything now absolute was once a phantasy. What is good was once evil. He is unaware how devastating such a realization is to human beings. In fact, he's not really bothering to speak of that. He takes it as a starting point. Takes it as given that this upheaval which has been my life is like the dance of dust-motes in sunlight--just an alternation, and change in height of those motes in the galaxy of relations visible to us. He neglects that I am such a mote myself..."

Bothered, Ninete combed silently. In the mirror Galas could see her uncomprehending look. "We could die in two days," she said.

"I know," says Ninete simply. Galas waited for more, but it didn't come.

"Aren't you afraid?"

"My Queen, I'm terrified." Ninete's expression shifted from the neutral silence it had held to an ashen tautness. Her lips thinned, her eyes lost their focus. "I don't want to die now."

Queen Galas looked at her, her own eyes taking on a certain coldness Ninete had seen so frequently in them. But Galas's hand trembles as it searched among the combs, hairpins, pots of makeup on the dressing table.

"You don't want to die. But you understand what death is."

"The soldiers will kill us, Lady. I've seen people die."

"Resume." Ninete brought the brush up again. "Ninete, you will die a good death. You see death so simply. Death to you is the General's men storming the castle. It is missiles from the air, swords, vindictive rape and humiliation. Most of all never to see those you love again, never again to hold those talks, to make love... You understand death, you have studied it the way all folk do, and for your understanding you have recourse to the religious teachings, the rituals, the tragic lovers in stories. You understand it, in the lyricism of fear you have been taught."

Galas's hand hovered over this comb, that pin, uncertainly. "I don't understand it at all. I don't see those lovers, I cannot imagine the body laid in its tomb, those somber brown poems... they don't speak to me. Death says nothing to me. I wish it did. I wish I could see what was going to happen to me, two, three days hence.

"Maut is himself death, but he can't tell me." She turned to look up into Ninete's face. "He refuses to make it into a sign for me. That is what is so cruel."

Her hand descended on a long golden hairpin. "Ninete, leave me! Work on my breakfast. See it is the best you have ever orchestrated. I have no need of you now."

Sullen, Ninete left. Galas watched the emotions play across her shoulders, down her hips as she walked. Ninete read even this rejection like a scene in some traditional play, Galas saw. She had been sent away. And just when she was hearing the Queen's heart speak.

Clutching the pin, she rose and went to the window. A stone bird watched from the carven boughs above her head.

"Where is this coming from," she asked, staring at the tremble in her hand. What she had been saying just now made no sense to her. Her fear made no sense. She was angry with Maut, but did not know why. Her mind swung round and round the things he had talked about today. Behind his words she sensed a kind of...bewilderment in him, as though the engine of human speech remained incapable of rendering his experience to her, however precise the mind of the god that powered it.

Nothing explained her fury just now, however, not even the General's campfires in the valley outside. In fact, they were rather beautiful...

She raised the long pin, and stabbed it into her left shoulder. The pain pulled her to her feet--she hissed and pulled the pin out, casting it furiously out the window.

There it was, the agony of terror and fury. It came boiling up from some hidden source inside her, taking form in blinding tears, as she curled around herself, holding her shoulder. She tried to escape the pain, turning, turning, but it moved with her. Slumping onto a stone root, she began to cry in great gusts. There it was: confusion, chaos. She wanted to run, run anywhere, and it was her body that was telling her this. Run, escape.

Her body was afraid, it was her body which was speaking in her anger at Maut, and in her fear of death. She had been neglecting it, living in her understanding and within that realm she had just accused Ninete of inhabiting: the realm of the story. How could she fail to see in her mind's eye, the riders coming through the gate, the expressions on her people's faces as they ran from her, to join the other side... It was the story of her death she had been telling herself, even as she tried to listen to Maut, tried to see his images, his life.

She could no more escape into his life than she could bring her death to herself here, now, by her worry.

She watched the line of blood move down her breast. The pain was intense. She revelled in it, for with it the phantasms of the day after tomorrow had fled, and Maut's story was mere words again.

In tears, the wonder of despair and release welled from her with the blood. She remembered that once, she had loved her life.

Afraid that Ninete would hear her and come running, Galas put her head out the window. She let herself cry out, once, then hung her head.

"Your highness?"

The voice came from below. She blinked away tears, and looked down the battlement fifteen feet below. A man stood there, his form outlined in the silver, rose and black of predawn light. It was Maut.

She cleared her throat. "Are you sleepless too?" Her words sounded unsteady, frightening to herself.

"Yes." He seemed cool as the night air, as always. "I was helping in the infirmary."

"Really?" Galas wiped at her eyes. "How are my men?"

"Holding up bravely."

"And you?"

He didn't answer, but turned to look out over the courtyards of the palace.

"Maut," she said on impulse, "join me in my chamber."

His silhouette nodded. He vanished from sight like a ghost, and she pulled herself inside, wincing.

First, she must bandage herself. Galas tore a piece of embroidered linen and wrapped her wound clumsily. Then she selected a high-necked black gown and wove herself into it. Without a maid to help, she couldn't do up the back. So she sat back on the divan, feeling the cool velvet against her back. The sensation set her skin tingling.

She gnawed her thumbnail, a habit her mother had never cured her of, and waited.

Presently there came a polite tap on the door. "Enter," she said.

Maut's hair was disheveled, and faint lines were etched around his eyes and between his brows. He had discarded his jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his white blouse. He nodded to her like an intimate, and sat on the chair near her bed. She glimpsed Ninete peeking around the edge of the door, and waved her off impatiently. The door slid closed.

Neither spoke for a while. Outside, she heard the first voicing of a morning bird.

"Will you join me for breakfast?" she said at last.

"I would be honored."

"No, Maut. Don't say that. Will you?"

He smiled wanly. "I would like to, yes."

"Good." She gestured impatiently. "I have no more time for ceremony."

Maut drew up one knee and clasped his hands around it, like a boy. He could only look more at home, she thought, if he sat sideways in the chair.

He cocked his head and looked at her appraisingly. "Ceremony has never suited you, has it?"

She laughed shortly. "No. It's only familiarity that gets me through it. The words come automatically. Even if they're so often like ashes in my mouth."

"I find it hard to believe that this alone is the root of your passion. Because your passion radiates from some deep source. It catches up everyone around you. That's why they follow you, you know. Not because you're queen."

"Ah." This was a compliment she had never heard before. "I'm sure you know my story. Am I not the scandal of the kingdom?"

He shrugged. "I've heard things. They were obvious distortions. I came to you because I wanted to hear the story from the source."

"Why?"

He considered, staring out at the amber sky. "I have been reading the books in your library. They all point to something... a mystery. I mean a mystery in the religious sense, almost. A meaning. When I came here I thought I was after facts, but now I see I'm after more than that. I want answers."

"You? The man whose very mind is an impregnable fortress of history?" She laughed. "You astonish me."

Serious, he said, "In the bits and pieces of your story that I've heard, I catch echoes of that mystery. I believe you know more than you realize. You have wisdom you have hidden from yourself."

"And can you show me this wisdom?" Her hands trembled, as they had in the garden when his messenger fluttered down to land on her knee.

"I don't know."

"You toy with me!" She had leaned forward in anger, and felt the folds of her dress fall apart at her back. Galas sat back again quickly.

"No."

"And what will you give me in return for my story? I think I no longer wish to hear your own tale."

He looked at her for a long moment. Something like a smile danced around his lips. Galas found her heart racing at his examination, and her eyes traced the muscles in his arms, the set of his shoulders.

Then he did smile, rather impishly. "I should be very much surprised if you do not have the answer to that question by noon," was all he said.

"Well."

Maut leaned forward, the weariness returned to his eyes. "Tell me your story," he said.

Galas closed her eyes. In her life, only one other had asked her for this--not the story, but her story. Grief choked her momentarily.

"All right. I shall try to tell it as a tale--as I've often wanted to. I... I pictured myself sometimes, setting my child on my knee and telling it. There will be no child. But here is the story."













20

First, you must understand that I was considered mad as a child, even as I am today. The reasons were not the same, however--in my childhood it was my sense of justice which went against me. I treated peasants and servants with the same respect as kings and princes, and this evoked great ire in my mother, with whom I warred constantly. She strove to impress upon me the war between classes and the divine rightness of this war. It was not that I sided with the lesser people against my own--which however reprehensible would mave made sense to her--it was that I saw no difference whatever between us.

And then, when I was twelve summers old, that thing happened without which I might have grown up to become an ordinary princess--ha! Yes, there is such a thing.

You see, my father kept a book--as his predecessor had, and all the kings back into antiquity. This book contained various proclamations of the Winds made over the centuries, along with interpretations and auguries. And it came to pass that the unusual weather of the springtime and a disastrous fire in Belfonre matched some of the auguries in the book, and the only interpretation that my father and his wise men could make of the augury was that the queen must die.

In later years I came to understand that this was a pretext--he had his eye on another woman, who in time he married. She turned out to be barren, but he was not to admit the fact for many years. Anyway, at the time, I understood nothing, save that the Winds had commanded the death of my mother.

I was in the gardens with my favorite duenna when word came of the arrest of my mother. My duenna immediately burst into tears, falling on her knees before me and clutching at my skirt. She being older had grasped immediately what was occurring but I had yet to. We had been idly discussing some aspect of human nature, its rigidity I believe, which she took for granted and I in my young zeal rejected absolutely. "Nothing in us is fixed", I had pouted. My mother's execution was now fixed, however, and this duenna cried out, "Oh Princess, your youth is forever gone now! Where is the young girl I played with in these summer gardens? Soon you will be an embittered woman with revenge against life driving you. You will cease to laugh, you will weep at life, and you will send me away for reminding you of times lost now when you could be happy!"

"Lady, this is no sense in your words", I said to her. I could feel the emotions overspilling around, the shaking of the messenger, the crying of my older friend, and saw how the windows that opened on the gardens were closing, one after another, shutting inside the airs of grief. For that moment I was the only calm stone in the rising flood. I shall not be carried away, I resolved. In moments all that the messenger and the duenna were possessed by would strike out to possess me--their human nature, of the same order, I felt, as the artificial distinctions between class which even they supported.

It was a moment of supreme mystery. How could the brightness of the flowers, the coolth of the air, my own happiness be so swept away by an event that was, now rumor, later merely fact against which I could do nothing? I loved my mother, and knew that would never change, whatever happened. I looked into the future and saw myself weeping alone in my bedroom, and it was as a figure from a drama that I saw myself, moving to commands issued by some forgotten playwright. I felt a certainty at that moment that it was so, that my duenna's shock, my coming grief were roles cast for us by someone, someone great far in the past. I could be other than grief-stricken, if I chose. I could go mad, in other words.

I chose to go mad. In that moment I decided that although I could not change the fate of my mother, there was no law immutable in the heavens that decreed how I was to react to it. Only much, much later in life can I look back and see that whether I knew it or not, I was under the sway of an emotion then: fury, which I swallowed so deeply that I was unable to experience it until... oh, very recently.

"Come," I said to the duenna. "Rise, and let us practise a while on our dulcimers. The day is still fair, and the next ones will not be." She looked at me with a new horror in her eyes, and I knew I was lost. I wondered what was to come of it, now that I was no longer playing my role in the drama begun by my father.

He was terrified of me from then on. The servants treated me with gentle respect, as one does the mad. They knew I was so overtaken with grief--although I did not witness my mother's execution, and I had seen her a few afternoons a week since I was a babe, never for more than a few hours at a time--that I could no longer feel anything. The king, however, believed I was training myself in hate, keeping inside me a desire for revenge that was willing to wait. He thought perhaps that I would kill him in his dotage, when he could not raise a hand to defend himself. As I grew toward womanhood, he began to look for ways to dispose of me. For I was sunny and cheerful, I claimed to forgive him for slaying my mother, and I was gracious to his new queen. I harbored no instinct for revenge, in fact; on that day when I was told of my mother's arrest I had embarked on a great journey, which I am on to this day, and there was nothing but gratitude in my heart for being given the opportunity to be alive, and yet to have left the human race behind me.

They danced around me as I daydreamed, the figures of all those storied lovers, traitors, thieves and kings and saints and I saw them all as actors even to themselves. If there was a human nature it lay buried far below such inventions as grief and love, so I was sure, and the daring of this vista intoxicated my youth.

I was not expected to become scholarly as I am, for I was a woman. I decided not to believe there was any difference between man and woman, so had tutors hired. The indulgence was given, for my father's auguries said nothing about how to treat the mad, so I was allowed to do what others could not.

Oh I could be charming, and as subtle in my understanding as any scheming courtier--more so, since I was learning the true bounds of human nature. As I grew however my desires became less and less those of the girl I had been, became quite estranged from court and all the ambitions that ruled there. For I saw through those too.

At times, I do not deny it, I was indeed mad, locking myself in my tower and singing to the owls. I would lie upon my bed for days staring at the ceiling, bereft of purpose or understanding and at times weeping over what was lost: grief itself was lost to me, and love and the innocence of romance. Handsome princes and true love meant nothing to me on the journey I had undertaken, but they were believed in by all about me. I longed for an understanding that was no longer possible from these people. Of all those at court it was still the servants and lowly laborers whom I loved the best, for they loved me. They knew I was not mad, but daring in a way even kings were not. The poor have no love of roles, and so they appear callous even with their own; they can love better than we, though, for they are honest in what they do feel. They saw I had in an instant rejected the whole world in which I was brought up, if it led to senseless death and thence to fixed orbits for all involved forever. Too, I championed their causes to the king, and was often indulged by him when no other suitor would succeed.

At length he, noticing my unwomanly interest in sciences and historical studies, hit upon a means of disposing of me. If I would be a scholar, he would give me full reign to be one. In fact, he would allow me to command an expedition then being mounted by the University of Rhiene to measure seismic changes caused by the deep movement of the desals.

The desals occasionally set off thermonuclear charges deep in the mountains, or in ocean trenches. For as long as records are extant, the Winds had been conducting such explosions, one or two a century at different places. Traditionally, we have forbidden any mining in the region affected for ten years after the blast, after which we let people dig as they wish. When they do, rich mineral or metal finds are always the result. I knew from my studies that the explosions were not solitary, but vast coordinated chains set off to drive precious materials closer to the surface of the earth, for our benefit. It is but one of the services that the Winds perform for us.

--Yes, Maut, they do serve us. They simply do not realize it. If you let me continue, you will understand what I mean.

I well knew my father's intent. He wished me far away from him, politically powerless, and demonstrably unmarriageable. I simply did not care what his plans were. I acquiesced to his proposal for reasons of my own. In truth, I was eager to see new lands and to experience life as a man would for at least a time. I indulged myself as men did. I remember on the day appointed for sailing I sauntered down to the docks in leather breeches and a man's tunic, a heavy chest across my back containing all my scientific instruments and books, two fluttering duennas at my side unprepared for ocean life and unsure what to make of my new turn.

The hereditary scholars from the university were even less pleased to see me. They regarded my presence as an imposition--quite rightly--and myself as a scandal. They made it plain to me from the moment I stepped on deck that I would receive no aid from them, that they would obey none of my orders nor in any serious way consider me the leader of the expedition. I found it impossible to reason with them.

This was perhaps the first time since childhood that I had not been indulged instantly in my desires. I was furious and stormed down to my cabin. I believe I fumed for all of six hours before I realized that once again, I was reacting to form. What kind of reaction should I have expected from these men? They were shrewd in the maintenance of their positions and knew nothing about the composition of the real world; I was already aware of that. Why should their rejections surprise me?

I had been romanticizing, hoping that here at least there might be people to understand me. Had I expected to be able to pursue those studies I intended with these men? Surely not; for what concerned me, they had no head. So I laughed and resolved to make the best of it. This proved hard, as they chose to be cruel in the following days.

I do not know how things would have gone had we not had the good fortune to be wrecked. In order to test the extent of the explosion's effect, we had sailed far out along a chain of islands leading into the blank ocean. We were to reach one in particular, a U-shaped isle that supposedly represented the end of the archipelago, and plant our seismographs there. It was to be the journey of a week. On the third day, just after I had been ejected from the mess for eating with the sailors--they had invited me, and tradition be hanged I had agreed--I was seething at the bow as far from the captain and his supercilious mate as I could get when a squall came up. It nearly heeled the ship on its side, but that was only the presage of a worse storm that now loomed up over the horizon, black and terrible. I was bade go below, and refused until the captain lost patience and had me carried down.

As I pounded on my cabin door the storm hit. For hours I think we were tumbled about like matchsticks in a pocket. My duennas were ill and panicked. I chased my chest of instruments as it slid from side to side of the cabin. As night fell the ship gave a strange shudder, and I heard the sailors shouting that we'd hit a rock. Where we had been driven I did not know, but the hold was filling rapidly and the captain, unable to control the ship, determined to save himself.

There was a single longboat, and he commandeered it, with his mate and a few of their cronies. He had no concern for me, princess though I was, for he well understood my father's intent in sending me on this expedition. There would be no brave knight to save me. My duennas clung to their embroidered cushions and refused to move. I forced open the cabin door and made for the deck.

The crew had realized their captain was abandoning them. Under savage skies, with blue light roving along the masts, and sails and lines lashing free like whips, they mobbed by one rail with every kind of weapon and tool in their hands, fighting to get to the longboat which was now over the side but not yet cut free. I stood in the door under the madly turning wheel and watched as they killed one another. The line was suddenly cut and the boat began to heave away and those left at the rail dove for it in their frenzy to escape what they were certain was a doomed ship.

In moments the deck was vacant save for the dead, who with strange animation slid from rail to rail. The longboat vanished behind enormous waves. Alone save for my cowering maids, I and the doomed ship drove into the open ocean.

The rock we had hit was part of an out-thrust of the archipelago few navigators knew of. It lay in a direction no sane man had need to venture. But before the ship could sink, it was driven aground. In the terrible light of the storm the coast we were upon was visible only as a jumble of black shards. My duennas refused to leave the familiarity of the cabin even though the deck tossed under them as the ship bucked to free itself from the rocks that held it. I cursed them for fools and, binding my long hair behind me and taking a knife and matches, climbed out along the foremast and leapt into the dark.

§

I awoke to a fine morning. I was above the tide, half buried in the sand. As I sat up and looked out at the sad wreckage of the ship, I wept. I did not pause to think why now, with no human audience, I did this. The ship was submerged save for its masts, which tilted each in a different direction. No one clung to them; I was certain my maids had perished in the storm.

As I sat up I left an indentation of my own shape in the wet sand. My hair tugged, refusing to be freed from its entanglement in the earth. It was woven with seaweed and knotted terribly. I took the knife and cut it short then stood gingerly. I was not hurt; I had swum strongly and quickly to shore, but could find no way to climb from this sandy reach up to the land above. I now looked closely for such a way and finally spying it, dragged myself up to a grassy area fronting deep forest.

It soon became evident I was not to be alone with the wrack.

Sallow men emerged from the forest, and I, backed to the edge of the low cliff, had no escape. They had been attracted by the sight of the wreck and proceeded to loot it, while I, tied to a log and guarded by an old man, watched.

These men were dressed in an odd parody of my homeland's style. They wore breeches, but they were put together with many small skins; evidently there were no cattle on this island. Their shirts were of similar make, with a kind of armor made with cane woven through them. They seemed to lack metal. They certainly lacked refinement.

After enthusiastically diving and swimming about the wreck, and fighting on the shore over what they found, they pulled me to my feet and marched off along a slight path that led through the woods. They were comparing their prizes: one had a fish gaff, another a belaying pin, while a third had somehow prised loose the ship's wheel and lugged it over his shoulder. They had puzzled over my instruments and finally kept them only because they were metal and light enough to carry. They spoke this language, albeit roughly and with a truly criminal accent. I took them to be shipwrecked pirates or the descendants of same, while they took me to be a boy.

I might have thought my virtue, if not my life, to be safe in this misapprehension, but some leered at me despite. I endeavored to be dumb so they should not hear my voice, and also so that, if they took me to be foreign and unlearned of their tongue, they might speak more freely among themselves.

In the event I doubt they would have thought of caution. They argued happily over their prizes and discussed how they should hide the best part from the priests who apparently ruled over them. My strategy set, I could not inquire further about these priests, but my curiosity was aroused. These people were apparently indulging in the sort of idolatry outlawed in lands such as my own, albeit it thrives under the ban. In short, they worshipped the desals.

What they knew of the desals in such a backwards spot I could not guess, although I was soon to learn and to wonder at my own ignorance. They took me to a slapshod village where they pulled my hair a great deal and showed me about, the more injudicious boasting of the great treasures in the wreck so that most of the population of the town immediately ran to claim their share. I was then taken to a finer house where their priests lived.

The priests emerged--muddy tattered men with gaunt faces. I was paraded again before the six of them and they discussed my fate, I meanwhile striving to learn as much as possible by looking about myself and listening. I spied in the darkened door of their house a woman, much cleaner, haughty of appearance and finely dressed in beads and what seemed jewelry. She was in turn appraising me. I could not fathom what was in her eyes, but her gaze was piercing.

It was decided to imprison me until my origin and possible use could be learned. I was steered away to a tumbled-down shack at the edge of the village. This had but one entrance and was built into a hillside. Thrown into the claustrophobic darkness, I watched the crude wooden door shut with mingled despair and bemusement at my suddenly fallen state. I dithered over whether to reveal myself as a woman and claim my frailty required kinder treatment, but abstained as I discovered I had a companion in this prison.

He was an old man, as eccentric as myself, whom the others had gotten tired of and disposed of here. His first words to me, and I shall never forget them, were, "Do you like the forks with the long tines, or the forks with the short tines?"

I considered that question carefully before I answered. After all, our friendship might rest on my answer. At length I said, "I do prefer a fork with long tines, as one can be more delicate with it."

He was delighted. He pumped my hand and introduced himself, then in uninterrupted monologue spent the rest of the day describing himself, this place, and his situation. I had no need to interrupt him, as he anticipated all my questions or spoke in such encyclopedic detail that I had no need to speak.

This place was indeed a settlement of abandoned pirates. This crowd had no shipbuilding skills--in fact, no skills at all aside from scavenging. They had a few women and after nearly thirty years here were making themselves a community.

When they arrived they had found the island already inhabited, by a very small group who it seemed were descended from a previous lot of castaways. This first group was dying out, apparently because they were persecuted by a Wind.

This astonished me. There was in fact a desal on the island. I was later to learn there were even desals on the ocean floor and it seems under the perpetual glaciers in the northern and southern poles. Their actions are always mysterious. This one had taken it upon itself to kill people at random since before living memory. When it did not kill, it would render men and women sterile.

With the arrival of these new castaways, it seems to have changed its behavior slightly. It ceased killing, but now it would permit no women near itself, save one at a time of its choosing. This the arrivals and the indigenes together took as a sign of religious importance. The arrival of the new people was taken as a blessing and they were welcomed with open arms. A new order was established whereby a woman was chosen to be the medium for the desal. No person could approach it save under her protection.

My curiosity about the desal's method of killing was satisfied when the old man told me of the miasmic clouds and strange diseases that spread out from its location. Desals do not move as such, as you may know, although some have agents to fulfil their will. This one had no such agents but relied on a preternatural sensitivity to wind and other currents. It poisoned from afar.

The people had learned to interpret it through their medium. It was chiefly interested in domestic matters, marriage and inheritance. This struck me as extremely odd, but I attributed it to the desal actually being silent, and the priestess relying on her own judgement to rule local affairs.

Desals, like all Winds, are not mute. They have been known to act spontaneously, even to speak, but usually what they say is incoherent, or totally irrelevant to human interests. I believed these people to be ruled by their superstitions regarding the thing, more than by its real actions.

The next day I was let out of my prison and told I was the property of one of the men who had first come upon me. I was to help him with his farming--gardening, rather, as he had not the skill to grow more than a few roots and berry bushes. I acquiesced.

This could not go on, however. I had no intention of being a slave here. If I could in no ways escape, I resolved to rule and to turn these savages into people more amenable to civilization. There was a great deal I could teach them. I began with my gardener, showing him the benefits of planting two kinds of crops together so they should fortify one another, keeping pests away and enriching one another's roots. While I did this I wondered how I might come to control the community.

They still took me for a young man. I spoke little, and contrived to remain at least somewhat grimy--not that this was hard due to the gardening--to hide the softness of my skin. As I was so mistaken, I began to notice the young women of the community casting glances in my direction. This gave me an idea.

I remembered the look their priestess had sent me and now realized what it had meant. Although she was little seen I would contrive to be seen by her. Too I knew it was approaching the day appointed by the desal to explode its nuclear charge underneath the mainland. I was not sure, but hoped there would be some effect felt here.

I was able to ascertain that this woman was very superstitious, believing in her role as mediator to the Wind. I let myself be visible to her, and when she cast a look I cast back. We were separated by her requirement to remain at all times in the priest's house, or to be at the desal, but this to me was an advantage.

Having some freedom, more so as I instructed my master and he saw more profit to be had in my good will, I managed to dally several days in a row behind the priest's house, making my desire clear to the priestess as she sat by her window. As the day dawned when the Wind would cause its explosion, I rose early and crept up to the house. Tapping lightly on her shutter until she opened it, I made myself known to her. She at once invited me in but I balked, whispering about the old men who kept her here. What if they should discover us?

She nodded, frustrated. The stricture that she remain here or at the Wind was, she said, merely a ruse by means of which the old men kept her for themselves. She had never had the attentions of a young man and wanted them a great deal. She at once agreed when I suggested she retire to consult with the desal that evening, and meet me in the woods.

I had no idea what to expect. Tradition said the Wind killed all women who came within its bounds, save for the particular one it chose as mediator. I believed this to be a superstition, but one I could use. I worked hard that day so that my master could find no fault with me, and when he gave me my leave to go I gathered up my knife and the matches and headed for the woods.

As night was falling she appeared, walking hesitantly into the woods, perfumed in her finest. I appeared on the path before her and bowed, but as she rushed to me I withdrew, saying we were too close to the town, I was afraid of discovery. It was, after all, a small island.

She agreed, but where could we go? There was one place, I advanced, where no one else would go, where in fact no one else was safe. The desal.

She demurred. The idea of having relations in her own shrine appalled her. I however was not to be put off and with a few caresses and murmured entreaties, let her chase me deeper into the woods, until we were close upon the desal itself. Then I renewed my requests. By now she would in no ways refuse me.

We approached the desal as the sun set behind it. It looked as most desals look: a wide expanse of white stone-like material, sloping upwards over many meters to a spire that rose nearly fifty meters above the surrounding forest. Smaller spires stood sentinel around the outskirts of the paving. Forest had made inroads onto it, but only so far. Past the sentinel spires the material was clean and clear of debris, even pebbles. Most of the desals appear this way, whether they be sunken in a lake, on a mountain top, or (as in eastern lands) at the center of a city.

Their chief discriminating feature is the faint etching on their surface: rectangles, octagons or other shapes, always in different configuration. These lines represent openings or at least potential openings. Some will open themselves in response to particular conditions; others may be opened by enterprising human beings, if they possess the cleverness or technology to do so. In Iapysia we are always studying the desals with an eye to opening all their doors, but it is always an occasion when one is unlocked. Then too the doors sometimes close again, and can not afterwards be opened by any means.

It has always been this way. The desals predate our earliest records, and those stretch back a thousand years. They seem to stem from the very beginning of the world. We do not know what their origin is, although I believe you know. How could you not know? You are older than even they, you say.

They have guided us in the development of our civilization. As I outlined, they find minerals for us, and also cure plagues and have been known to cultivate new breeds of plants for our food. We take these as gifts. They are given us out of those doors, when men or women with courage enter to find what they might. Each door typically reveals one thing, but some have walls upon which frescoes and other symbolic expressions appear. It is by these that they communicate.

As I said, they sometimes employ agents. A door may be seen to open at the apex of a spire, and a flock of birds issue from it. Or night beasts may nest in opened doors too small for human ingress. The Winds minister to more than Man, we know this. Those cultures that worship them claim they are the creators of this world and everything in it. The Winds deny this. Although they deny, they do not enlighten us as to their real nature, beyond the simple statement that they are exactly what they appear to be. They are themselves, they are Winds.

As the priestess clasped my hand and drew me onto the blank white plain, I half-expected to be immediately struck down. The Wind's misogyny might not be just a legend. I was not killed however and took heart, even laughing and running with her as I spied the hexagonal opening she aimed at.

It was about two meters across, opening just where the slope of the Wind became too steep to climb. I paused for just a moment to look back, and found myself level with the tree tops, the entire island spread out below. Only a glimpse was allowed me, as I was yanked in by the priestess.

She embraced me right there, but I struggled free and lit a match. She pouted, standing very close, and let me look around. This room was like another I had seen in my own country, round and with domed ceiling and floor, about ten meters across. In the center of the floor was a raised pillar with an open top. I went down to the pillar and gazed into the opening. A black fathomlessness. Who knew what might emerge from it? It was no wonder it bred religious awe in these people.

"Come." She was very insistent now, taking hold of my arm to draw me down beside her. I was out of time.

I stepped back, around the other side of the open dais. Lighting another match and applying it to a small torch I had brought, I said to her, "I am sorry to have deceived you, lady, but it was commanded of me."

"Commanded?" She stood up. "What are you talking about?"

"I am not as I appear. I am not from the wrecked ship." This statement halted her as she began to come around the dais. She instead moved to put it between us again. She looked her question at me.

The hour was right. I nodded to her. "You have served the desal well. I do not doubt you have taken pride in it, but I also know you wish sometimes you were ordinary, living with the others with a husband, maybe children?"

"Where are you from?" she whispered, eyes wide in the shaking light.

I lay down the torch and unlaced my jerkin, showing her my breasts. "I am as you. I am here and alive. The Wind has chosen me as your successor." I was certain I could handle those old men who had ruled her. They would be the first to go once I was in command. I smiled. "You are free."

"No! This is some cheap trick." Her desire was extinguished, but she was angry now. I had anticipated that.

"We knew you would not believe easily, which is good", I said. "You were not chosen to be gullible. This being the case, however, do you need a demonstration that what I say is true?"

She nodded guardedly.

"Good. We shall have one." If the demonstration was not forthcoming, I might be forced to murder this girl if we could not work out our differences. I would then simply await the priests here in the morning, and take over from her that way. I had no stomach for that method, however, and counted on the fact that when one desal acts, all others within a hundred kilometers react.

We did not have to wait long. First there was a faint thumping below our feet. The girl cried out and backed away from the open dais. Although I had been expecting something, I was now very afraid. There is no knowing what a Wind may do.

Suddenly there was a violent shudder through the bedrock-solid desal. Outside a gale blew up from nowhere, and we heard trees cracking and leaves roaring. A faint white glow ensconced the top of a sentinel spire visible through the doorway.

She screamed. "Stop it, please! I believe!"

"All right," I said although in truth I had no idea how or if this manifestation would cease.

Then the door closed.

She and I bolted for it in one motion, I waving the torch as though it were a talisman to open it again. There was no sign that there had ever been a door there, save for half a windblown stick that had been caught as it closed, and snipped through. We looked at one another, she realizing at last that I had no more control over the desal than she did.

The dais in the center of the floor suddenly dropped out of sight, leaving a black hole. The floor of the desal distorted, lowered to form a funnel. There was nothing to hang onto. First she with a despairing cry, then I slid down and into that dark opening.

§

I opened my eyes on a strange vision. I was at the bottom of a well that was three meters across, its top invisible in darkness. The bottom was curved, of the same slick white substance as above, but soft. Around me on the walls of the tube strange images were appearing and vanishing, like moving frescoes.

I cried and tried not to watch, hiding my face in my hands, but I was afraid of I knew not what. I felt compelled to look around myself, at least to look up in case something came down that well at me. I imagined all kinds of terrors from above--giant pistons, water, or monstrous arms lowering to retrieve me. Nothing occurred, except the ongoing panoply unfolding on the walls around me. I could not for long avoid looking at the moving pictures.

Hypnotized, I watched a pictographic catalogue of the world unfold. Sketchy images of thousands of things rolled forward and back. The images were whirling towards some apocalyptic conclusion. The dizzying motion and flickering lights became too much for me. I thrust out my hand and cried, "Stop!"

My open palm slammed against the wall. Miraculously, the pictographs I had struck froze in place, as if painted. The rest continued to move around this sudden little island.

I snatched my hand back. The pictographs remained motionless.

Had the priestess seen what I was seeing? Perhaps this was how the desal had chosen its ministers in the past. I could well imagine those other women cowering as I did, watching in incomprehension as the pictures flew by--maybe to be ejected later by the desal into the arms of waiting awestruck people. The villagers would have demanded to know what the pictures meant. It would be as if you were given a book in an unknown language, and threatened with death unless you explained its meaning.

Maybe none of those other women had the courage or anger to try to touch the pictures. Then they would never have learned that they could stop them, or as I learned in the next minutes, move them.

First I reached out to tap hesitantly at another pictograph. It stopped instantly. Emboldened, I tried a few more. Soon I had a little set of rocks in a moving stream of imagery. Each one seemed significant--a tree, a cloud, a castle, a house. Most were pictures from nature, but there were men and women too, though these were oddly dressed. How? Well, chiefly as though their clothes had been painted on. Some had sunburst halos around their heads, and packs on their backs. Most such pictographs had a backdrop of blackness and stars.

One image that I tapped seemed to stagger as it stopped. I tapped it again and it jittered in place. I touched my finger to the wall and slowly drew it along. To my amazement the pictograph followed.

It probably wouldn't be possible for someone in such a position to avoid organizing the pictographs. Even just on the aesthetic level it made sense to group them, so that I could see them all without having to turn around. Soon I had ten or so of the things lined up in front of me. The rest were still whirling around, but they were less fearful now that I knew I could control them.

I immediately made another discovery. If two or more images overlapped they would both flash for a few seconds, then disappear, replaced by new ones.

These new images were the reply of the desal.

You see, when I moved the pictograph fish on top of a snaking river, row after row of fish shapes sprang into being on the wall above me. I recognized a few I had eaten or seen drawn in picture books. When I drew the pictograph of a carp onto that of an eye, I found myself looking at a very detailed drawing of a carp's eye, complete with little lines of text over and under it, written using our alphabet but in a language I did not recognize.

I became very excited. Quite possibly I would never emerge from this place, but it almost didn't matter. For long hours, until thirst and exhaustion overwhelmed me, I arranged images and watched as the desal replied.

I awoke half-delirious with thirst. The desire for water consumed me, and for a while I shouted and banged the walls, half-convinced that some human agency waited beyond them. There was no reply.

There were a number of representations of water on the walls. I dragged animal and raindrop together. The pictographs vanished, then reappeared without change. This happened, I had come to believe, when the desal did not understand the question.

I put a skull, a human shape and an image of the sun together. Again, nothing. This went on for quite a while, but I was doggedly determined, since thirst is not a need you can ignore. I can't remember the exact combination that worked, but suddenly I heard a clanking sound overhead and when I looked up, received a faceful of ice water.

When the downpour stopped I was up to my knees in it. Still, I was grateful. More, I felt a triumphal glow. After all, I had spoken to a Wind, asked a favor of it, and been given it.

The other women were probably ejected after they failed to grasp that the desal wanted to talk. Myself it kept, as several days passed and I became fluent in its strange visual speech. There did not seem to be anything it would not tell me--provided I knew how to ask. That was the most frustrating part, because I wanted to know its history, and that of my people; I wanted to know where the world had come from, and where it was going. My imagination failed utterly when it came to phrasing such questions in stick-figures and glyphs.

But I could make the desal act for me. I insisted on sun until the top of the shaft vanished, and daylight poured down on me. I demanded that my wastes be carried away, and the floor swallowed them as I slept. I requested food, and received fruit and berries.

Two things I learned, that made me the queen of Iapysia. The first was that I could paint my own images and freeze them on the wall. The second thing I discovered was a trove of information about the desals themselves.

This I came upon when I slapped a little whirling globe and it flattened out into a map of the world. The continents were clear, and I soon had my own nation spread before me, with intricate colors and shapes showing landforms and vegetation. I have never since seen anything like it. It was dotted with tiny dome-glyphs, which I at first took to be cities. They were in all the wrong places, though, and eventually I realized they were desals.

They were joined by fine lines, in a kind of spiderweb. The desals are joined by a subterranean highway system, something tradition says is true, but for which we had no proof. Now I could see it. And I could see the road that linked my desal to others on the mainland.

I had painted a portrait of myself, and now an inspiration struck me. I dragged that portrait to the island on the map where I thought I was. The portrait vanished and reappeared in miniature next to the little dome figure there. The desal had told me I was correct. That was the island I was on.

Next I dragged the little portrait of myself onto the line of the highway running under the sea between the island and the mainland. Instantly the portrait slid out from under my fingers, and zipped along the highway to wait flashing at the dome of a mainland desal.

I touched the portrait. It stopped flashing.

And something overhead blocked the sun as a deep rumbling sound began to build around me.

I had time to issue one more detailed command before the floor gave way under my feet and I fell into the dark cyclonic stream of the highway.

§

I awoke with sunlight heating my face. I heard murmurs of wonder and fear. Opening my eyes, I saw the faces of my own countrymen. They spoke in the accents of the province of Santel, whose city has a desal on the hill above it.

I sat up. I was in a cubic chamber, three meters on a side. A square door opened out on the sunlight; four peasants stared in at me.

They had seen a door open the previous night. The next morning they mustered courage to approach, and the townspeople, alerted, were not far behind. A crowd gathered as I climbed out of this desal, four hundred kilometers from the one I had entered days before, and faced my silent people.

On the walls of the chamber I came from were visions I had crafted with the desal's help. These indelible frescoes were arranged around the portrait of myself, the state crown of Iapysia afloat above my head. To these the desal had added its own panorama, a kind of procession that led around the entire chamber.

From that moment, when the people saw that the Winds had blessed me as queen, my succession to the throne was guaranteed.

The panorama authored by the desal, however, has a different meaning for me than it does for my people. The people believe it is a chronology of my lineage. To me it shows all the stages of humanity's development on this planet, for each scene in the panorama shows something from our history, some major turning point: the founding of religions, of dynasties, of laws and philosophies.

To me the silent figures speak of the invention of humanity: of our own creation of the faculties we take as divinely ordered, our reason, our morality, our science, even our world's purpose. They are all, I believe, of our own generation.

If there is anything I wonder now, it is this: if we are our own creation, whence the Winds? I do not understand them, and they frighten me.

Of all things, they alone frighten me.

§

Galas was sipping a glass of chilled wine, a bowl of fruit before her on the highest parapet of the palace, when general Mattias stormed in. The leader of her defenses was normally in a foul humour--but just now he was positively livid. A small group of men and maids trailed behind him like wind-whipped smoke. "Why didn't you tell me?" he roared at the queen as he towered over her.

Galas had eaten breakfast with Maut after telling her tale, and although she had not slept, had been feeling strangely at peace. She blinked at Mattias muzzily. "Tell you what?"

"Who he was!"

Carefully, she reached for a raisin, and chewed it for a while before saying, "Really, Mattias, I don't know who you are talking about."

"Oh no? You've been closeted with the bastard for two days now. Am I so old and feeble I can no longer be trusted with strategic information? Or were you going to present it all to me as a done thing?"

He really was angry. At her. Galas sat up straight. "Wait, wait, something is really wrong here. Mattias, I would never do anything to question your command. What is it that you think I have done?"

"General Armiger is your guest! I just had it from the maids. And you never told me!"

For a moment Galas stared at him, open-mouthed. Then she realized, and remembered last night, when she had asked Maut what he could do for her, and he had smiled and said she would know by noon.

She looked at the sundial built into her table. It was noon.

Galas began to laugh. It started as a chuckle, but as she saw Mattias' eyes widen in outrage, she could no longer contain herself. Carelessly tossing her wine glass aside, she leaned back in her chair and let the sound of her delight rise above the siege, above the air itself, to the very heavens.





















21

In the morning, Jordan awoke to hear Suneil leaving the wagon. Probably gone for a piss, he thought at first; but the man did not return.

This was just the sort of thing that kept one from falling back asleep. The sun wasn't up yet, and it was frosty out there. Jordan had already been awake half the night, listening to Queen Galas tell Armiger her tale. When she finished he had fallen into a dreamless but apparently brief sleep. Now he tried several different positions--lying on his side, on his back with an arm over his face, even curled up--but he couldn't get back to sleep and Suneil still didn't return.

Finally he rose, shivering, and crept to the back flap to look out. The horizon was polished silver, as cold a color as Jordan had ever seen.

Suneil was standing very still, staring at nothing in particular. His hands were stuffed deep in the pockets of a long woolen coat. Every now and then he looked down and kicked a clod of earth at his feet.

Jordan eased the flap back and went to lie down again. The sight had disturbed him although at first he couldn't decide why. By the time the sun peeked above the horizon and Suneil came back to salvage a last half hour of rest, Jordan had realized that he seldom seen so perfect a picture of a man struggling with an important decision; and it was significant that Suneil had said nothing in the past days to his niece or Jordan about any such worries.

§

In the middle of nowhere, with scattered fields to the left and right, Suneil said, "This is the city of Rhiene."

"Huh?" Jordan stared at a slovenly peasant's cottage mired in its own pigsty near the road. "That?" He had heard of Rhiene all his life. It was one of the great cities of Iapysia, fabled for its gardens and university. There was supposed to be a desal at Rhiene too, and great religious colleges devoted to its study.

Suneil laughed. They were seated together at the front of the wagon. Tamsin had decided to walk for a while, and at present she was a few meters ahead, tilting her head back and forth to some internal rhyme, her hands fluttering at her sides in time.

Suneil pointed to a tumble of low hills ahead. "There."

The hills made an odd arc on the otherwise flat plain, dwindling in either direction. None was more than twenty meters high, and now that he looked more closely Jordan could see numerous buildings dotting the farther ones, and thin trails of smoke rising beyond them. A stone tower stood near the road ahead. Traffic on the road had increased during the past day until now they were part of a steady stream of wagons, horses and walking people, all headed towards the hills. Far off to the south, he could see another such road, converging on what he was beginning to realize was a long rampart of wavelike hills.

There was no city, however. Just those scattered buildings.

"I don't understand. It's underground?"

Again Suneil laughed. "No. Well, yes, parts of it. You'll see." He smiled mysteriously.

They followed the road around several bends. The land here looked as though it had become liquid at some time in the ancient past, and flown in waves that had then frozen in place. Giant boulders stuck up from the earth here and there; they seemed barely weathered.

Several side roads joined with theirs, until the stream of traffic was thick and loud. Vendors appeared walking up the road, offering sweet meats and fresh fish. Still there was no city in sight--but now Jordan heard seagulls, and saw several lift above the next rise.

The builders of Rhiene had wisely widened the road after that rise, because a good half of all the travellers who came here must have stopped dead in their tracks when they got there. Tamsin did, and Jordan stood up and shouted in disbelief. Suneil merely smiled.

First he saw the blue-hazed arc of a distant shoreline, and above that sun-whitened cliffs rising almost straight out of the glittering water. Then his eye took in the whole sweep of the place: those distant cliffs were kin to the crest their wagon had come to. In fact, the cliffs swept in a vast circle to encompass a deep flat-bottomed bowl in the earth. A lake filled most of the bowl; from here Jordan could see sailboats like tiny scraps of white feather dotting it. At the very center of the bowl, a spire of green-patched rock towered out of the water. Coral-colored buildings adorned the spire. He could see docks at its base.

"Rhiene," said Suneil, pointing down.

The road wound down a set of switchbacks into what at first looked like an overgrown ruin. Rhiene was green with ivy, forest and lichen, and Jordan couldn't make out the buildings until he realized the gardens he saw were all on the roofs of houses and towers. Rhiene sprawled along the arc of the cliff for kilometers in either direction, and tongues of jetty and wharf made the nearer shore of the lake into a tangle of geometry.

Seeing this made everything that had happened to him worthwhile. Jordan knew he was grinning like an idiot, but he didn't care. He decided in that instant that Rhiene was where he wanted to live.

"It's the most beautiful place in the world!" shouted Tamsin.

"Perhaps you would like a guided tour?" said a nattily dressed young man who had appeared as if by magic at her elbow.

Tamsin looked him up and down. "Begone, you trotting swine," she said.

The youth shrugged and walked away. Astonished, Jordan leapt down and went over to Tamsin.

"What was that all about?" he asked.

"Everybody wants to make some coin," she said. "Everywhere we go there's people trying to sell you this or that." She sighed heavily. "They hang around places like this, spoiling the moment for people like us." The young man had approached another wagon, and appeared to be haggling with its oafish driver.

Suneil had clucked the horses into motion, so they began to walk. "'Trotting swine'?" asked Jordan.

She blushed. "I read it in a book."

They walked for a while, taking in the gradually expanding view. Tamsin said little more, but she didn't seem to mind Jordan's company either. After a while Jordan dropped back to the wagon and asked Suneil, "What will you do here?".

The old man nodded to the city, which now spread around and above them. "I've got some old business associates here," he said. "I want to see if I can call in some favours, and make a new start. The war's over, after all."

"Is this where you used to live?"

"No. That's one of the advantages of the place," said Suneil ruefully.

Jordan had a vivid idea of what a city at war would look like, based on what he had seen at the queen's summer palace. Clear as that notion might be, he couldn't picture soldiers in the streets of Rhiene. For all that it was a big city, it appeared sleepy and its citizens unconcerned. It took Tamsin to point out the placards here and there that were signed with a royal insignia. Jordan couldn't read the script, so she translated. "It's a decree from Parliament ending curfew and random searches. I guess the war really is over."

"It's not," he said. "The queen is still fighting back. She's trapped in the summer palace, but she's got plenty of supplies and her people are still loyal."

Tamsin looked at him strangely. "I see. You arranged this? Or a little bird told you?"

"I have my sources."

"Oh ho," she said. "Behold the grand seer."

"Hey!" Suneil waved at them from the cart. "We go this way."

They passed through high stone walls into a teeming caravansary. Here were soldiers--plenty of them--inspecting the cargoes of incoming wagons. While they went through Suneil's possessions--with Tamsin squawking protests--Jordan took a look around. The place was just a broad quadrangle of pulverized straw with a few water troughs and sheds. It reeked of manure and wood smoke. All the visitors to the city who had no inn or friend to visit were crammed in here. They squabbled over cart space, water and offal buckets. It was wonderful chaos.

The queen had mentioned Rhiene in her story last night. Her tale had not enlightened him much as to the nature of the Winds. There was something to it, though, as of a mystery whose solution hung just out of reach. He had thought about it a lot, and was sure Armiger felt that sense of near-knowledge too; unless the general had already seen the answer Jordan himself could not.

He thought about this as he helped Suneil get the wagon slotted into a narrow space near one wall. Jordan went to find water and feed for the horses, and when he returned Suneil had changed into fine silk clothes.

"I'm going to visit my people," he said. "Are you leaving us here, young man?"

Jordan shrugged. "With your permission I'll stay the night and make a fresh start in the morning."

"Good. You see to my niece. I'll be back before dark."

"Can we see the city?" asked Tamsin.

"If you'd like. Just don't get lost."

He left with a spring in his step. Jordan turned to Tamsin.

"How's your ankle?"

"Good."

"Up for some walking?"

She held out her hand, smiling. "Lead on, sir."

§

Rhiene was much bigger than it seemed from above, and much dirtier too. The everpresent foliage hid a great deal, and Jordan supposed that was part of the idea. The overriding purpose for the greenery, however, was to keep the Winds at bay.

An ancient statue near the docks showed a man and woman raising their hands to the sky, holding flowering branches. Tamsin read off the plaque at the base of the statue. "The city was destroyed by the desal seven hundred years ago," she said. "They rebuilt in secrecy, using wood harvested without killing trees. They struck a balance between creation and destruction, and the Winds let them continue to this day."

"There's supposed to be a desal here," said Jordan. The statue stood in a busy square surrounded by ivied merchants' houses. The city sprawled for kilometers in either direction, a fact visible from here because this square was emplaced on a knee of land that thrust out of the cliff wall. The cliff itself towered majestically above, and the vast sweep of it to either side was intoxicating.

"There is a desal," said Tamsin. "I saw it on the way down."

"Where is it?" He wasn't sure whether he wanted to visit it or not, after what Galas had said about them. Knowing where it was, though, he would be able to avoid it.

"You can see it from here." She stepped up on the plinth of the statue. "See?"

He followed the line of her arm. There was something out in the bay, offset slightly from a line he might have drawn to join the city to the spire at the lake's center. From here it was visible only as a set of white spikes thrusting from the surface of the water. There were no boats near it, so judging its size wasn't easy.

"I recognized it because we had one near where I grew up," she said. "My father took me to see it once, when I was young. That one stood alone in the desert, like it was abandoned, but he said it was alive, and we shouldn't get too close. It's strange to see one underwater."

"Well, at least it's not in the city," he said.

"Hey, get off that!" shouted a passing woman. Tamsin jumped down from the statue's base. A few heads turned, but no one else stopped them as they ran down the hill to the docks.

In stories Jordan had read, a city's docks was always the place where lowlife sailors and prostitutes waited to prey on travellers and lost children. He had always pictured the wharves of a seagoing city as full of one-eyed men with swords and nasty dispositions, with bodies in the alleys and kegs of wine rolling down from visiting ships.

Rhiene was not like that. Of course, it was an inland port; most of the traffic here came from barges that simply shuttled between the city and the far end of the lake, a distance large enough to cut a day or so off the travel time of wagons coming from the south. There was supposedly a river that emptied into the lake somewhere, and boats went up that too, but not, apparently, pirate ships. The docks were clean and well kept, and other than one disciplined work gang unloading a shallow single-masted ship, there was no great activity.

"This is pretty stale," said Tamsin. "Let's find the marketplace."

"There might be more than one," he pointed out.

"Whatever."

They wandered in the crowds for a while, and though Tamsin looked quite blasé about it all, Jordan felt overwhelmed by the huge press of people. Hundreds visible at any time, and around every corner there was a new hundred. Most of the people in sight were dressed similarly, men in fashionable townsman's jackets, the women in long pleated dresses that swept the road gracefully. He had to conclude that they all lived here. Could he live in such a place, with so many neighbors?

For a while they stood at the gates of the University of Rhiene, gazing at the sun-dappled grounds and ivied buildings. Queen Galas had walked here, he thought, and knowing this suddenly made her seem real in a new way. They had shared something, Jordan and Galas, if only the fact of having stood here.

In a flux of troubled emotions, he let himself be swept along by Tamsin, until they came to a market.

If Jordan had thought there were many people in the streets, this place was as crowded as Castor's during a wedding, only the mob went on and on, dividing and subdividing into alleys and sidestreets. Lean-tos and carts stood along all the walls, and some enterprising men and women had simply laid their goods out on blankets in the street. A roar of voices welled from the press of people, animals, and running children. Smells of incense, manure, fresh-cut wood and hot iron filled Jordan's head, making him dizzy.

Tamsin laughed. "This is the place! See, Jordan, this is the place to be in Rhiene!" She ducked into the press.

"Wait!" Shaking his head but grinning, he ran after her.

The chaos had an infectious energy to it. You could not walk slowly in this place. After a few minutes, Jordan found himself darting around like Tamsin, poking about on tables of turquoise baubles, then flitting over to a fruit seller, nearly stumbling over a one-legged woman selling cloth dolls from her mat--wishing he had more than the few coins in his pockets.

The only problem was, the roar of voices tended to trigger his visions. Every now and then Jordan had to stop and shake his head, because he would hear Armiger's voice coming at him from within his own skull, or that of a doctor with whom the general was speaking. Such moments no longer frightened him, but they made it hard to concentrate on the here and now.

Then, in the very middle of the market, he was stopped in his tracks by another voice that rang sudden and clear in his mind:

"Go to the woman with the brown knapsack. Tell me what's inside it."

"What?" He looked around, blinking.

"I didn't say anything," said Tamsin. "Oh, look. A magician."

There he was--a lean, well-groomed man standing on a little stage at the back of a short alley. A large audience stood in silence, listening as he recited something. His eyes were closed, and he had one hand touched dramatically to his forehead.

A young woman in peasant's garb emerged from the audience. She went hesitantly up to stand beside the magician, and at his urging, opened the pack she'd been carrying. As she displayed each of the items inside, murmurs then applause ran through the audience. Shortly thereafter a small rain of coins landed at the magician's feet.

Jordan and Tamsin watched for a while. The magician was guessing the contents of people's bags, pockets or just what they held in their clenched fists. He was always right. The crowd was amazed, and all too willing to pay to watch the performance continue.

Every time the magician was presented with a puzzle, Jordan heard something no one else seemed to hear. This man had the same power Turcaret had possessed, a limited power to speak with the Winds--or at least with mecha. When Jordan concentrated he could see, almost as if he were imagining it, something like a diaphanous butterfly hovering above the crowd. When the magician commanded it, the invisible thing wafted over to the satchel, bag, case or box, and penetrated its surface with fine hairlike antennae. Almost like a mosquito, he thought.

Jordan's heart was pounding with an excitement he had not felt since he had sat by the lakeshore and learned how the waves spoke. There was no trick to what this man was doing; Jordan could do it. What was amazing was that the little mechal thing allowed itself to be commanded--and the Winds did not rain fury on the magician for commanding it.

"Come on, let's go," said Tamsin.

"Wait. I want to try something."

"Oh, forget it, Jordan, you'll lose your shirt. He's got the game rigged somehow."

"Yes, and I know how."

"Go to the jewelbox held by the man in green and tell me its contents," commanded the magician.

Jordan closed his eyes and, in his mind, said, "Come here."

The butterfly was clearly visible now, like a living flame over the dark absences of the crowd. It was like no mechal beast he had ever seen; it was more like a spirit. It hesitated now over the man the magician had ordered it to, then drifted in Jordan's direction. It circled his head, as though inspecting him.

"Return." It was the magician, calling his servant.

Who was the stronger here? Jordan smiled, and said, "Stay."

"Return! Return now!"

The crowd was beginning to mutter.

"Ka! Return to me at once!"

"What are you?" Jordan asked the fluttering thing.

"I am Ka. I am test probe of the Ventus terraforming infrastructure. I am a nano-fibre chassis with distributed processing and solar-powered electrostatic lift wires. I am--"

Jordan had been wondering for days what he should ask the next thing he spoke to. "Do you speak to the Heaven hooks?"

"No. I report to desal 463."

Faintly, he heard the magician announcing that today's performance was over. The crowd broke into guffaws and jeers. Someone demanded their money back.

"Jordan," hissed Tamsin. "What are you doing? Let's go?"

"Wait." Then, to Ka, he said, "Will you tell desal 463 that you spoke to me?"

"Yes."

"No, don't do that!"

"Okay."

Jordan opened his eyes. Okay?

"The show's over," said Tamsin. "Let's go."

"I'm doing something."

"No you're not. You're standing there like a slackjawed idiot. Now come on." She pulled on his arm.

"Ka, where are you! Please Ka, come back!"

"You are not empty," said Ka.

It took Jordan a moment to figure out what it meant. When Jordan closed his eyes, he could see the mecha all around him, a ghostly landscape of light. The crowd, the magician and even Tamsin were visible only as shadows, holes in the matrix.

"Am I mecha?" he asked Ka.

"You have mecha in you," it said.

"Ka!" cried the magician, aloud this time. He stood alone in the alley, hands clasped at his sides. He seemed on the verge of tears.

Jordan wanted to know more, but Tamsin was pulling at him, and he felt pity for the poor magician, who did not know what was happening. "Return to your magician," Jordan told Ka.

Ka fluttered away. A moment later Jordan opened his eyes to see the man raise one hand into the air as if caressing something. His shoulders slumped in relief, then he began swearing and looking around.

The magician's gaze fell on Jordan, and stopped. What could he do? Jordan met his eye, smiled ironically, and shrugged.

The magician recoiled as if Jordan had slapped him. Then he backed away and raised one finger to point at Jordan. "You get away from me!" he shouted. "Get away, you hear?"

"Jordan!" Tamsin shook him. "Come on!"

They ran together into the crowd, Tamsin worried, Jordan stunned with new possibilities. He wanted to ask the magician where he'd found Ka, how he had discovered he could command the thing, why the desal tolerated his manipulations of a minor Wind. Above all, Jordan wanted to know why the Winds would speak to him and this man, and no one else here.

Ah, but that's just the question Armiger came here to answer, he reminded himself. Armiger himself can't speak to the Winds.

Though they were now two streets away, he concentrated and said, "Ka, why are the Winds after me?"

The reply was faint, but he was sure Ka said, "You are not empty. So you may threaten Thalience."

That was a new name. Or had he misheard it? "Ka, who is... Thalience?"

He heard a mutter, but could not decipher it. Tamsin had dragged him to the gates of the market.

"What was all that about?" she demanded as they stepped into the quiet street. Jordan laughed, shaking his head.

"I'm not quite sure," he said. "Maybe we'd better get back to the wagon."

She gave him a long look. "Maybe you're right," she said.

§

Suneil was waiting for them at the wagon. He looked upset. Tamsin ran up to him and embraced him.

"How did your meeting go?"

Suneil grimaced, and disengaged himself from her arms. "I had to make some... concessions," he said. He wasn't looking at her, but glanced at Jordan, then turned away. "In business and... power... you have to do what it takes to get what you want, sometimes."

Tamsin cocked her head to one side. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing that's going to matter in the long run," he said. "When you get older, Tam, you'll understand why I made this decision. It's in our best interests."

"Tell me," she said. Jordan stood back, arms crossed, and watched. Something was very wrong here.

"You know I was an important minister in the queen's cabinet before the war," said Suneil. "That's why I had to run. Why we had to run. You were all I could salvage of the life Galas had given us--my favorite niece. Parliament went on a witch hunt--hanging everyone who was involved in our work. I did what I had to do to make sure they didn't come after us, but it was prudent to leave the country all the same. And certain men know what I did, and are willing to forget our life before--now that the queen is dead."

"The queen is not dead," said Jordan without thinking.

Suneil sat on the bottom step of the wagon's hatch, and peered at him. "You know that for a fact, don't you, young man?"

"Who cares?" said Tamsin. "What about your meeting?"

"Actually, it's very important that Jordan Mason knows with absolute certainty that Galas is alive," said Suneil. "Because my partners needed a guarantee of my loyalty to them, and if Jordan weren't the man he's pretending to be, the deal I made this afternoon wouldn't go through."

Jordan knew it in that instant. "You've sold me."

Suneil looked him in the eye. "You are a wanted man, Jordan."

"Wanted? Not by the law," said Jordan. "Only by--"

"Me."

Jordan turned. Brendan Sheia's sword hovered centimeters from his throat. The square-headed Boros heir smiled grimly as four men emerged from behind Suneil's wagon, their own blades drawn.

"Uncle!"

Suneil grabbed Tamsin by the wrist as she tried to run to Jordan. "I don't like this any more than you do," he said. "This is what we have to do to prove our worth to the new powers in Iapysia. Don't you see? We can go home now."

"Bastards! Let him go!" Tamsin struggled against her uncle.

Brendan Sheia ignored them. He was pacing around Jordan, inspecting him as one might a prize horse. "I remember you now," he said. "You were with those foreign spies at the banquet. You were sick, if I recall. Nearly spoiled dinner."

Jordan glared at him. "I've done nothing wrong."

Sheia's sword flashed up. "You brought the Heaven hooks against our house! You destroyed our ancestral home, incited the Hooks to kill my ally Turcaret, and when you were done you ran into the night, and the Hooks followed! We have it from our witnesses."

His confrontation with Turcaret in the Boros courtyard had been seen, Jordan realized. But had Axel and Calandria been arrested as well? "What about--" Sheia hit Jordan across the jaw. He staggered, and was grabbed roughly by two men and hauled to his tiptoes.

"Stop it!" screamed Tamsin.

"Silence," hissed her uncle.

Sheia bowed to Suneil. "Lucky thing you chanced on Mason, old man. You'll get your honor and your title back. I can't guarantee the money and lands, of course... but in this new age, what guarantee have we of anything?" He flipped a hand negligently at Jordan. "Take the boy."

The two soldiers holding his arms yanked Jordan into a quick-march; then they were out in the streets, and he was being thrown over the side of a horse, hands and feet bound.

The good citizens of Rhiene watched and commented, but did nothing to help as Jordan was carried away.





















22

"You'll have to pardon me if I seem a bit out of sorts," said Armiger as he sat down opposite General Matthias. "I was chatting with one of your men on the battlements when a rock from one of Parliament's steam cannon took his head off."

Matthias grimaced. "I heard about that. Happened this morning. Lavin's a devil, a positive devil. And the queen admires him! That's the damndest part. Listen, I've got a little beer here from our emergency stock. Care for a cup?"

Armiger nodded. He had talked briefly with Matthias twice, but the man was understandably busy--and, it seemed, wary. It was that wariness that had made Armiger ask for this meeting; he needed Matthias on his side.

They sat in Matthias' tiny office in one of the palace's outbuildings. Outside the single small window a dismal drizzle fell on the tents of the refugees. It was oppressively quiet today.

Matthias poured two pints of pale beer and they both tasted it. Armiger noticed that his hands were shaking slightly; the incident on the wall had shocked him more than he would have believed possible. It was only a man who had been destroyed, after all. And while Armiger might have lost his own head had he been standing a meter closer, he could have grown another one, given enough time. He had no rational reason to be upset. But he was. He was.

"Lavin's an upstart," said Matthias. "Young, bright, ambitious. He's had subtle help from the queen throughout his career. And now he's turned on her. I'd take him to be an opportunist, but Galas disagrees. She says he's an arch-traditionalist."

"Have you tried to use that against him?" asked Armiger.

Matthias nodded. "Had some success too. He detests dealing with morale issues. You can trip him up if you can scare his men. He's a quick learner though--I'm afraid I taught him to press the way he is with the cannon. Never lets us sleep. You saw the result yourself."

Armiger nodded.

Matthias was watching him. "I have to say, Armiger, that you've got steady nerves. I got that impression when we were following reports of your war in the northeast. You were doing a magnificent job. Then we heard you were dead, and you turn up here. Sounded to me like you ran. Why?"

"Is that why you've been avoiding me?" asked Armiger with a smile. "Because you think I'm a deserter?"

"No, not a deserter. A mercenary." Matthias grimaced. "You show up here, offering your services to the queen... for how much?"

Armiger sat up straight. "First of all, if I were a mercenary you'd think Ravenon would have paid me. They didn't pay me--at least not in money."

"What do you mean? What did they pay you in?"

"Information. It was their mail and spy networks I was interested in using. I showed up here with nothing but the clothes on my back, you know that. And how am I expected to get away with my payment if Galas is paying me now?"

"Simple," said Matthias. "You've cut a deal with Lavin."

Armiger laughed harshly. "Your suspicion is well-founded and sound. You think I'm a Trojan horse, is that it?"

"A what horse?"

Armiger took a deep drink of his beer. "Lavin doesn't need my help to take this palace, you know that," he said. "Besides, I haven't exactly offered my services to the queen as a military commander."

"Oh? Then as what?"

"Priest. Confessor." Armiger saw the expression on Matthias' face and laughed. "Look, that man who had his head knocked off today--I've had it with that kind of thing. Why do you think I left the war in Ravenon? The Winds wiped out two divisions of my men. I stood by helpless and watched it happen. At the time I thought I didn't care; but I did. And I do. So I'm not here to fight, Matthias, you needn't worry about that."

The old general sat back in his chair, nodding slowly. "You're an odd one. And if you'd said anything other than what you just did, I wouldn't have taken you seriously. Priest? Confessor? I don't know about that. But I understand a man who lays down his sword. Men who don't have that urge now and then make bad commanders. Galas tells me Lavin has no stomach for war either--but see how good he is at it."

An adjutant knocked politely on the door. Matthias nodded and stood up.

"Now that I know where your heart lies, Armiger, I may just call up on your talents. After all, there's no better man to end a war quickly and cleanly than one who hates war."

§

Jordan surged to his feet with shout. He was not going to let this happen again.

He shook his head and forced himself to breathe deeply, and look around himself. He was in a small cell in the basement of Brendan Sheia' home. A single window-slit let in the wan sunset, and a trickle of cold air that teased at him, making him shiver now that he had noticed it.

They had taken his possessions, including Calandria's golden gauze. He was irrevocably visible to the Winds now.

The sights and sounds of Armiger's experience began to recede. He willed them away entirely. It didn't matter how compelling them were. It didn't matter that he wanted to fall into Armiger like a refuge, the way he had on his long walk south from the disaster of the Heaven hooks. He wished so much that he could be somewhere else right now--be someone else.

"Too bad," he said angrily. Jordan was furious with Brendan Sheia--just furious enough, for now, not to be afraid. He was also angry with himself, though, and right now that was worse.

After all, there had been a moment in his life when he thought he was going to put aside all the habits of denial and retreat that he had despised in his father. When Emmy ran into the night, Jordan had lain in bed for long moments, waiting for someone else to act responsibly and follow her. He still remembered those few seconds; something had broken in him, setting him free. And so he thought afterwards that he would never fall back into those family patterns again.

He'd been fooling himself. He felt now as if he'd been a leaf in a river these past weeks. Calandria's abduction, his terror of the visions, the whirlwind visit to the Boros where intrigue, murder and disguise were daily companions--these events had all given him excuses to feel helpless. He had let Calandria lead him, had accepted her stories; he had let Suneil lull him into complacency. He was a blank page on which others had signed their names, and that was just the way his father lived.

It was shameful--but if he wallowed in his misery, he would just be playing the lost boy again. When Galas' mother died, the future queen had foresworn playing roles dictated by others. There was a lesson in that.

He had been in this cell for a day now. Someone had slid some food under the door that morning; otherwise, he might have been completely alone in the building.

This Boros domicile was not so grand as the manor house the Hooks had destroyed. It stood in the Rhiene high street, squeezed between two even grander mansions. There were no grounds, only a cobbled courtyard in front with a high wall and a gate. The building was tall, he knew, but he wasn't sure how many storeys it was since his only view of it had been upsidedown as he was yanked off the horse yesterday evening. Four, five storeys? It didn't matter, there was only one cellar and he was in it.

In the stories he used to read, bad people always had dungeons in their castles. Emmy had scared him for years by spinning tales of a secret level underneath Castor's manor. There was no such thing there, of course, any more than there was here. He was in some kind of disused storage room. They'd tossed a cot, a blanket and a bucket in after him, and let him set them up himself, in his own dungeon style.

Jordan wasn't quite sure what Brendan Sheia meant to do to him. Certainly the man had power, maybe enough to make an innocent traveller disappear without investigation.

He shivered again. First on the agenda was to find a way to block that draft.

They'd left him his cloak, so he bundled that up and stepped on a jutting stone in the wall to stuff it in the window. As he did so he heard footsteps passing in the hall outside.

"Hey, let me out!" he shouted.

"Quiet in there." The footsteps receded.

"I didn't do a damn thing, you stupid bastards!" He jumped down and gave the door a sound kick.

It felt good, and the crash was satisfactorily loud, so he kicked again. Tamsin would have a suitable insult for an occasion like this, he was sure. All he could think of was the one she'd used earlier today: "Trotting swine!"

He went to kick again but the door suddenly swung wide with a shriek of rusty hinges, and in its place was a huge scowling man with a long stick in his hand.

Before Jordan could react the man butted him in the stomach. Pain exploded in his belly, and he went down.

He curled up instinctively and thus avoided the worst of the kicks that followed. Then the man spat on him and left.

"Bastards," whimpered Jordan, as he unwrapped shaking hands from his head. "Bastards bastards bastards," all of them, Calandria, Armiger and Axel, Suneil and the whole stinking Boros clan. "Bastards."

--And then he was in the flow of Vision, hearing the burr of Armiger's voice in his own chest, and an overlay of chorusing identities in the walls, in the sullenly firm door and the very earth under his shoulder. It was like he'd fallen in a snake pit, with a thousand heads rising hissing all about him. Jordan grabbed his head and doubled up again with a cry.

He concentrated. This is my hand; he brought it up to his eyes. This is my sight. I am here, not in the palace, not in the walls: here.

Jordan rolled to his knees, gasping. The powers whispered and danced around him, but he had carved out a bubble for himself in their center. He could see and hear, and act. With some difficulty, he got to his feet.

Cold air lapped at his throat. He almost laughed. "You're cruel," he said to the Winds. "Now you're going to listen to me for a change."

He sat on the cot and wrapped the cloak around his shoulders. There was no need to take deep breaths to enter the visionary trance now; he closed his eyes and summoned it.

First he had to know where he was. He could see the mansion around him in translucent outline. The basement was indeed extensive, and he was next to a place with convoluted shelves that must be a wine cellar. There were several stairs leading up, and he instinctively chose the narrow servants' way as his goal. That led from the back of the wine cellar, predictably enough.

There was a cistern down here, and a long room with a high arched ceiling. Castor's manor had an exercise room and archery range in the basement, which was probably what this was. All these rooms opened off the same corridor as Jordan's cell. In addition there were several side halls that ran to lockers of various sizes.

The problem with this way of seeing was that it didn't seem to show people. Jordan knew there was a dog on the main floor, almost exactly above his head; he could see it. The rest of the rooms on that level were visible too, though in a jumble of perspective as if he were standing at the base of a huge glass model. He had to sort out what he was seeing, and if he had not had ample experience reading architects' plans at Castor's, he might not have been able to sort out hall from room, chimney from garderobe.

It only took a few minutes to work out the shortest route from here to the tradesman's entrance. Night was falling; in a few hours the area would be quiet. Then he could make his escape--provided the next parts of his plan worked.

He needed to see more than just the outlines of the place. When the Heaven hooks descended on the Boros manor, Jordan's vision had briefly expanded to include distant places. He had been able to see what was happening inside the manor, even though he was hundred of meters away. Try as he might, however, he had ben unable to repeat that experience.

There was something else he could try. Jordan focussed his mind on one name, and hurled it into an imagined sky with all his might:

"Ka!"

He waited. There was no response, and he could see nothing as he scanned the vague landscape that opened out beyond the manor.

"Ka! Come here!"

Nothing. He waited a long while, but the little Wind must be too far away to hear him. All right; on to the next idea.

Careful not to break his concentration, he rose and moved to the door. He ran his fingertip around the keyhole on the large iron lock plate. He could actually see inside the lock if he concentrated; the mechanism was simple. All he needed was something with which to manipulate the tumblers.

There was another thing he wanted to try. He had nothing to lose now, where before he had been afraid of alerting the Winds to his presence by experimenting. Jordan returned to the cot, gathering his cloak on the way; it was getting quite chilly in here.

For some time now he had known he could communicate with the mecha. He had been reluctant, however, to ask himself the next logical question:

Could he command the mecha, as the Winds did?

As he sat by the lakeside and poured water from bucket to cup and back again, Jordan had discovered something he had at the time been afraid to test. Each and every object in the world knew its name; all, that is, save for the humans who lived here, because they had no dusting of mecha within them.

The waves on the lake had known their identity as waves, but as they lapped against the shore they disappeared as individuals. Jordan had found by experimenting that when you changed an object into something else, its mecha noticed and altered its name to suit.

That had got him wondering: could you command an object to change its name; and if you changed an object's name, would the object itself change to match it?

The cot was a plain wooden frame with thin interwoven slats to lie on. He pried one of these up and held it out in front of him. "What are you?" he asked it.

"Cedar wood. Wood splinter..."

"You are now kindling, hear?"

"Consistent," said the splinter.

"So, burn!"

He held his breath. After a moment the splinter said, "Ignition of this mass will exhaust all mechal reserves. Further transformations will not be possible without infusion of new essence."

"Just do it."

He opened his eyes to watch. Nothing happened... then the splinter began to smoke. "Ow!" He dropped it, whipping his fingers to cool them. For some reason Jordan had assumed the thing would neatly sprout a flame from one end. Instead, the entire splinter was afire.

"Splinter: douse yourself."

It didn't answer. Well... it had said something about exhausting reserves. Maybe the mecha in it had died in setting it afire. He closed his eyes and examined it with his inner vision, and indeed the small flame was a dark spot in the mechal landscape.

Jordan restrained the urge to leap to his feet and shout. He would only bring down the guard--but then, couldn't he just command the guard's clothes to burst into flame too? Was there anything he couldn't do now?

He sat there for a while, giddy with the possibilities. He picked up another splinter, and said to it, fly.

That is not possible for this object, said the splinter.

Hmm. Well, at least he knew he wouldn't freeze now. He picked up a rock and tried to convince it to become a knife, but it demurred, listing off a dozen conditions he needed to fulfill for it to transform: heat, presence of carbon and significant iron deposits, etc.

So the mecha were limited. It wasn't really a surprise--and he could hardly complain! He should be able to get out of this room, at least, if he could pick the lock. He might even be able to defeat the guard if he was clever--but it would be better to sneak past him, if possible.

He pried a good splinter off the bed, and said to it, "Can you become harder?"

"At an exhaustion rate of 50% it is possible to--"

"Just do it."

The splinter seemed to shrink a little in his hand. He bent down, closed his eyes, and applied it to the lock.

"Ka," said a voice like a chime.

Jordan turned. Hovering in the narrow window slit was the wraith-like butterfly from the market. It had heard him after all!

"Greetings, little Wind," he said respectfully. "Can you help me?"

§

Ka drifted from room to room, reporting what it saw. Its habit was to hover at least a meter above the heads of the empty ones, because a randomly swung arm could smash it. This had happened to more than one of its previous bodies. Ka was in its own way proud that it had survived in this one for thirty years now.

Desal 463 did not mind Ka's servitude to the magician. Neither did Ka. Its patrol was the market anyway, where it hunted for ecological deviations. The entire city hovered on the edge of abomination, but the empty ones had learned scrupulous cleanliness over the centuries. Every now and then, however, some visitor imported something outside the terraforming mandate --petroleum, crude electric devices, most recently some cheerfully glowing radioactives stolen from a fallen aerostat--and it was Ka's job to find the offending substance. Then other agents of the desal would act, recovering the deviation and generally killing any empty ones associated with it. Empty ones made good fertilizer when they died; it neatly balanced the equation.

The being who had called it forth from the market was something else entirely. Its voice had the power to compel in a way the magician's could not. As far as Ka was concerned, it was a Wind.

"Tell me what you see," it said now.

"I can relay the information directly to your sensorium, if you wish," said Ka.

"What? What do you mean? Show me."

Ka beamed an image of the corridor to the waiting Wind.

"Ah! Stop it!"

"As you wish."

"Um... can you do that with hearing? Can I hear what's going on around you?"

"Yes." Ka began to relay sound as it travelled.

It drifted from room to room, pausing to eavesdrop on conversations, then moving on.

"...Don't know why I'm forbidden to go into the cellars tonight. He's up to something bad, I just know it..."

Down the hall from that room: "...I don't think this meat is cooked through..."

Elsewhere on the same floor: "He could be useful to us, but obviously we can't trust a turncoat like that. Especially one who's spent his career with the Perverts. How do we know what he wants, in the end?"

"So he's a pawn?"

"We'll play him out a little. He could be a competent bureaucrat. When the time comes, we'll trade him for something more valuable."

"And Mason?"

"Mason is going to save us. There's grumbling that our house is cursed. Cursed! --Because of what happened at Yuri's. You and I know it wasn't our fault. We have to convince the rest of the world that we're innocent victims. If Turcaret was right, and the Heaven hooks were after Mason, then all we need to do is stake him out in a field in full view of the town, and wait for the Winds to come. The sooner the better; we can't let the courts get ahold of this, they'll tie us up in years of wrangling. No. Tomorrow, we put the word out, then the day after we put him out, and if anyone objects we put a sword to their throat. It'll be done before anyone can mount an organized resistance. And after the Winds come down, no one is going to question why we did it. We'll be seen as having done the Winds' bidding. It could end up in our favor."

Someone entered the room, and the voices turned toward a discussion of food. Ka drifted on, up the grand stairway, and towards the back of the house. There were voices coming from behind one door there, and it was made to pause and listen again.

"It's called the Great Game, niece, and you have to play it to survive."

"So it was a game you were playing when you led the soldiers to our town."

"No, you misunderstand me--"

"Ha! You could have saved them. You lied to me. And I believed you!"

"You do what you have to in order to survive, niece. And you can't get emotional about it. That's the beginning and the end of it. If it weren't for me, you'd be dead now. I saved you--"

"You killed them! You killed them!"

"Silence!"

"No! I won't be silent anymore. I won't be anything for you anymore."

"You will. Yes, you will. Listen, do you think your life has any value in this country if people find out what you really are? Where you're from? They won't look at you and see a young woman full of promise, as I do, Tamsin--they'll see a monster, born of monsters. At best a curiosity, at worst an abomination to be stoned. Now you have two choices, young lady. You can do as I tell you, learn your lines and your dance steps, and become the proper young lady in society here at Rhiene. Or, if you won't do that, I can still get something of my investment back if I turn you in to the high court as a renegade Pervert. If that's what you want, then that's the way we'll do it. Believe me, I don't care either way at this point."

There was no reply to this; only silence, drawn out until at last Ka was ordered to withdraw.

§

The lock made a very loud click as it turned over. Jordan held his breath past a tight grin. Had the guard heard? Apparently not. He pushed the door open slowly.

The brawny man who had hit him earlier was sitting at a table in the hall outside. He was industriously carving leaf designs into the capital of what was obviously going to be a chair leg. Three other half-completed legs lay on the table next to him.

The knife he was carving with was very large.

What would Armiger do? Jordan asked himself. The general knew when to attack, and when to be discrete. This was a time to be discrete.

It was interesting that Ka had been able to move sound from upstairs down to Jordan's waiting ear. That implied all kinds of things about sound that he hadn't thought before--that it was a substance, that it could be packaged and carried around. Maybe you could also choose not to carry it?

He focussed his attention on the hinges of the door, each in turn, and said, "make no sound," with his inner voice.

Each hinge acknowledged his command, but he had no idea if they would obey. Gingerly, he pushed the door open. He could feel a faint vibration under his fingers, as if the rusty hinges were grating--but he heard nothing.

Once outside, he slowly closed the door again. Holding a torrent of Vision at bay, Jordan stepped into the earth-floored cellar behind the guard, and backed his way slowly to the stone steps that led up. His heart was in his mouth. When he got to the steps he let out the breath he had been holding, but still went up them one at a time, pausing after each to look back at the broad back of the man with the knife. He knew he wouldn't just get a beating if he was found this time.

Upstairs, he ducked into a niche as two servants passed carrying a heap of linen. He poked his head out after they'd gone; there was the back entrance, in plain sight not five meters away. All he had to do was walk out the door, and he was free.

Except that he couldn't do it. The conversation Ka had relayed from upstairs had been chillingly familiar to Jordan, if not in its details, in its thrust. Just as Jordan's father had ordered Emmy to acquiesce to Turcaret's attentions, so Tamsin's uncle was ordering her to become his thing--bait, perhaps, to dangle in front of some high born household's son. And though Jordan didn't understand what threat Suneil was holding in reserve, it was obviously dire.

He owed Tamsin nothing, really. Jordan knew, though, that he would no more be able to live with himself if he left her in this situation than he would have if he had stayed in bed, those many nights ago, and let Emmy run.

§

Tamsin was drowning.

There was no water here. She could breathe, her heart still beat, she could walk and sit and even eat. Still, she was drowning.

The thing shaped like her uncle moved across the room. He was talking, but she couldn't make sense of the words anymore. They came to her like sounds underwater, distorted and harsh.

What was drowning her was the horror she felt every time she looked at him--knowing that inside that familiar body was a soul that had helped her, sheltered her and cared for her, laughed with her and murdered her parents.

"--Get ready for bed," he said now. "Tomorrow's another day, niece."

For her own survival, she needed to be silent now--but inside she was screaming at him: "You knew the soldiers were coming! You knew and you didn't tell anyone, you didn't tell dad you let them die you let them die..."

The worst thing was that she had known these things all along, somewhere deep in a part of her that she had told, every morning to sleep, look away.

Thinking that she had known and had gone along with this monster, her inner voice simply died out. She sat mutely, and nodded without heat, and rose to go to her sleeping closet.

As she walked she drowned a little more.

"Tamsin." His voice held an old note of concern that she had once (yesterday?) believed was genuine and defined family. She looked back at him, knowing her face was slack, unable to raise an expression.

"Sometimes--" He had looked her in the eye; now he kept his gaze on the floor as he said, "Sometimes, you have to block out the here and now, and not think about what you're doing. For your own future good."

She could picture herself laughing at him, or screaming, hitting... she couldn't summon the energy to do more than nod again. Then she knelt to open her night chest.

"Don't scream," said a voice from nowhere.

She froze. The voice was strange, tiny, like a whispering mouse.

"It's me, Jordan. I'm free, and I'm leaving. Tamsin, I don't know what you feel about me. I hope you won't betray me."

She looked behind the chest, up the wall, along it. There was no one here.

"Where are you?" she whispered.

"Outside the door." Yet the door was across the room, and she heard the voice here.

"Who are you talking to?" asked her uncle. He had come up behind her. She whirled, hands behind her on the chest.

"Nobody," she said. Her voice sounded strained to her own ears.

Her uncle's eyes narrowed. He eyed the door, then walked over to it.

No. It all broke in her like a dam, and before she knew what she was doing Tamsin grabbed a brass vase from the table and ran at her uncle. She swung the vase up at his head with all her strength; it made a satisfying crunch, and he fell over without a sound.

She flung the door open and practically fell through it--into Jordan's arms. "Let's get out of here," he said simply, and closed the door behind her.

There was only one lifeline for her now, and Tamsin took it. She grabbed Jordan's hand tightly, and ran with him.



















23

They were ten alleys away from the Boros house before either spoke. "Wait," said Jordan, holding up his hand. "Gotta rest."

"They'll come after us."

"Not for a while." He had an odd distracted look on his face. He'd had it back in the hall, too. Bemused, almost sublime. "Everything's quiet."

She didn't ask how he knew that. "I'm cold."

"Yes, we've got to find some shelter."

Tamsin nearly said, "We just left shelter," but that would have taken too much energy. It didn't make any sense to go anywhere; there was nowhere to go now. She supposed there might be for him. But why had he come for her?

Jordan closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and smiled. "Yes," he said, "you've done well. Now please return to your master. I'm sure he'll be frantic without you."

He opened his eyes and looked at her. She knew he was anticipating a question. Tamsin just stared at him.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

The question was so ridiculous she laughed. "No, no I'm not." She opened her mouth to say more, but the words tripped over one another. And she didn't know where to start, or why telling him would do any good.

He spoke, touched her arm. But something distracted her, a nuance of emotion like a thing seen out of the corner of one's eye. Where to go. That was it.

Tamsin looked around. Nothing was familiar. She had no idea where she was. The buildings looming high around were nothing like the ones in her town. Even the air tasted different. She was lost, sliding. Drowning again. "I--" she said. Jordan had hold of both her wrists now. He was speaking to her, low and urgent, but she didn't understand him. She had no idea who he was.

"We have to go!" Finally words she understood.

"Yes, yes." She nodded, not to him but to herself.

Jordan began to lead her through the alleys. "Out of the city," she said. "Take me to the desert. I have to go home."

"Home?" He tightened his grip on her arm.

"Home, I have to go home, I have to..." She wanted to cry so badly, and she wasn't able to. It was the most awful thing she had ever felt. She gasped for breath.

"Tamsin, don't think me cruel for saying this," said the young man leading her. "But your family is dead."

"I know." But she quailed at his words; until this night, she knew, she had never really believed it. Even now... if she could get home, find out the truth. "Maybe somebody survived. They couldn't have killed everyone--"

"Yes, they could."

"But you need to get to the queen anyway. To find this Armiger person. Do you know the way? No. The way lies through the desert. I can guide you. We have to go that way anyway."

"We'll talk about it. I promise. For now we've got to find somewhere to hide."

He wasn't really listening. Tamsin felt, if possible, even more alone. That sense of drowning came back, like a roaring, unstoppable noise in her head.

Jordan stopped, and put his hands on her shoulders. She blinked, suddenly seeing the grey crescents of his eyes gazing on hers. "I am listening," he said. "And I'll do everything I can to help you. We just have to take things one step at a time."

This time she followed him attentively, and to her surprise, after she had gone ten paces in his footsteps she began, at last, to cry.

§

Jordan stood on the wall of an alley near the vertical uplands of the city. It was deep night now, but the moon was still up, and he could see its light glinting off the spires of the desal that waited half-submerged in the bay.

"You want to talk to a desal?" It was the first thing Tamsin had said since they had bedded down here. She stood below him on the nest of trash they had made. She still appeared stunned, distracted, her hair a bird's nest and her hands grimy. Even a little curiosity from her now was an encouraging sign.

"It sounds crazy, doesn't it?"

She didn't answer for a while, merely chewed her knuckle and looked around herself aimlessly. Jordan returned his own gaze to the desal; ghostly in Diadem's glow, its pinions rose from the middle of the lake like something discarded there, a sunken building or, he imagined, the shipwreck from Queen Galas' story. Except that the spires were perfect, undamaged by time or the elements. The waves slapped against their sides as peacefully as they did the docks; there was no sign of preternatural life to the thing. Just now an ornate barque from the temple was anchored near the giant central tower. He could see the torchlit figures of priests moving about in it, but couldn't tell what they were doing. Some kind of ceremony.

"I thought you were crazy when I saw you," said Tamsin, so long after his own rhetorical question that it took him a moment to connect the two. He glanced at her; she summoned a smile, like an unpracticed conjurer, and hid it as quickly. "With, with your gold underwear and, and talking to things and all."

As they ran he had given her a very sketchy rendition of his story: that he could talk to the mecha because of something Armiger had done, and that the Winds were after him. She would have heard some of it from through her uncle, if Suneil had bothered to explain why Brendan Sheia wanted him. Jordan didn't know if she believed any of it yet.

"I can't think of any other way to put an end to all this," he said. "I can't go home, because this curse will just follow me there. The Winds are hunting me because of the mecha in my head; the Boros want me as a scapegoat. The only one who can do anything about it is Armiger."

"What can he do?" She crossed her arms and looked away; but she was listening and talking now.

"The first time I saw Armiger--saw through his eyes, I mean--he was commanding an army. It was so strange, but part of it was that he was strange. The things he looked at, listened for, and the things he said... they weren't what I would have done. He didn't seem to care about the battle, or the people he was commanding, he just gave orders, and they were always good. When the Winds sent the animals to destroy his army, I remember he was totally calm during the retreat. He escaped because he was as confident and calm in the middle of that butchery as he had been standing on the hillside watching from a distance.

"I've been watching him for weeks now, and he's not the same man anymore. I think Calandria was right, he came here to conquer the Winds. He was the agent of some other creature even more powerful. But that one is dead, and Armiger is free."

She was eyeing him now. He shook his head. "I can't explain it. You have to be there, you see, to see the difference. But he has a woman now, and he cares about her. And he's affected by things around him now, where he wasn't before. The siege, he's really bothered by it. People are dying, you know, starving and injured, and he's realizing he can't do anything to help them. He's not thinking about conquering the world anymore."

Tamsin frowned. "So how can he help you? Can he make the Boros' go away?"

"Maybe. If I can convince him to help me."

"How are you going to do that? By letting that," she nodded to the desal, "eat you?"

Jordan took a deep breath. "Well, this is the crazy part. He went to Queen Galas to learn from her why the Winds are the way they are. Why they persecute people. She told him enough to give him an idea of where to look--but he can't talk to the Winds, and he's trapped in the palace with her now. But I can talk to the Winds. And I can search the places he needs to go."

"So you want to be his errand boy!"

He winced. There was a little of her former haughtiness in her voice, though, and the thought cheered him. "Errand boy for a god is not a bad position," he said. "I want to trade him the information in return for him getting the curse off my back."

"Why should he trade? You said yourself he no longer wants to subdue the Winds."

He hesitated. She did seem interested; he wondered if what he was going to say would make her dismiss him as crazy, and turn her back on her own misery.

"The thing is," he said at last, "I think he should."

Tamsin didn't answer. She just cocked her head, and waited.

"This is the crazy part, Tamsin, and you have to promise to think about it before you laugh at me. See, I think we all of us could originally command the Winds. Everybody was once like I am now."

Tamsin snorted. "If everybody could do anything they wanted, it would be chaos! Why pay for anything, if you can just summon the Winds to create it?"

"The world began in chaos," he said. "Calandria told me Ventus was originally made for us, not for the Winds. Nobody in all the ages has ever been able to change it back, not even people from the stars like her. But Armiger could do it, if only he knew what their secret was. Before, when he was trying to find the secret for his own master, it would have been a disaster to have him win. Now it's different."

"You think he'd set things right?"

"He might. The man he's become, would try."

She didn't answer, just made an odd noise, and thinking she was laughing at him again he turned to fire a retort back. She wasn't looking at him, just pointing at the mouth of the alley.

"There they are!" Jordan saw a confusion of torches in the street, and the dark figures of a number of men.

"Brendan Sheia!" He knelt down. "Quickly, grab hold." Tamsin boosted herself up and he pulled her onto the wall.

"That won't do you any good," said a smug, familiar voice from the ground on the other side.

Jordan looked down, into the eyes of the magician from the marketplace.

"Thief! I'll have your head for stealing my power."

For a second old habits took hold: "I didn't steal him!" yelled Jordan. "I borrowed him and I gave him back." Then he saw moonlight glint off the blade in the man's hand.

There were six men on the alley side of the wall, and four including the magician on the other, which was someone's garden. The wall itself ran between two buildings; there was no exit to be had by running along its top.

Three of the men in the alley had torches, as did the magician.

"Let us go!" said Jordan. "I don't want to hurt you."

The magician laughed. "Nice bluff."

"Get ready to jump" Jordan hissed to Tamsin. "Torch, crack!"

Sparks and burning wood flew everywhere as the torch in the magician's hand exploded. He screamed and fell, batting at the embers in his hair.

"Now!" Jordan and Tamsin landed in the dirt next to the magician, whose friends were smacking him on the head to put out his hair. There was an open gate at the far end of the garden, so Jordan made for that. Tamsin kept up easily.

They entered a moonlit street. In the distance he heard running feet; the others were coming around the end of the block. "Ka! Come to me."

"Ka." The ghost of a butterfly wafted through the open gate.

Tamsin tugged at his arm. "They're coming!"

"I know. We can't stay here. Ka, we need horses. Find me two of them, right now!"

"This way." The butterfly flitted off down the street--thankfully away from the sound of running feet.

"So now I am the thief he accused me of being," panted Jordan. "He deserves it though, the bastard."

"What's going on?" They entered another alley, this one shadowed by the high walls of buildings to either side.

"There! They went down that alley!"

It was too dark here to see anything. Jordan closed his eyes and looked with his other sight. "This way." He followed Ka to a stable door; inside he could see the outlines of two sleeping horses.

"Ka, speak to the horses. I want them awake and ready to go with us if you can do that."

"I have no power to compel. But I can present you to them as a Wind, if that is your desire."

"Yes!"

Torches appeared at the mouth of the alley. Jordan made these explode as well, and their pursuers retreated in dismay. Jordan proceeded to saddle the sleepy horses in complete darkness, relying on touch and the ghost-light of his mechal vision. The horses were pliant and appeared unsurprised at this intrusion.

Tamsin had craned her neck out the door to watch the alley mouth; as he was cinching the second horse she said, "They're waking the people in the houses. This house too. I think they know what we're doing. Smelled the horses, maybe."

"Well, we're ready. Come on." He led the horses outside.

"But where are we going? What about your plan to visit the desal in the bay?"

"You said there was another one in the middle of the desert," he shot back. "You wanted to go home, Tamsin. Well, that's where we're going to have to go."

He dug his heels into the flank of the horse and it bolted through shouting men, and when he looked back Tamsin was following, crouched low on her horse, wearing a grin that could be terror or satisfaction--and maybe was a bit of both.

§

General Lavin laid his quill down wearily, and peered at the manacled prisoner Hesty had led in. "Why is this of interest?" he asked.

Hesty grimaced. "I hate to bother you with trivial matters. This man is a looter, we caught him skulking in the ruins of one of the outlying villages."

"Yes? So execute him." Lavin turned his attention back to his plans.

"He claims to have valuable information to sell. About the siege."

"Torture it out of him."

"We tried."

Lavin looked up in surprise. The prisoner was a small man, wiry and grey-haired. He stood in an exhausted stoop, trembling slightly. His left arm was broken, and had not been set, and there were burn marks up and down his bare torso, and rope burns around his throat. He glared dully but defiantly at Lavin from his good eye; the other's lid was bruised and swollen, as were his lips.

Lavin stood and walked around him. A large portion of the skin was missing from his back; the flesh there wept openly.

"He completely defied the torturer," Hesty explained. "He insists on speaking only to you. And," he shook his head in disbelief, "he wants to bargain!"

Lavin half-smiled, and came around to look the prisoner in the eye. "And why not? He obviously loves his life, Hesty. But there's no reason to believe he knows anything."

"Hear me out," whispered the prisoner. He hunched, as if expecting a blow, but his gaze remained fixed on Lavin's.

Lavin threw up his hands. "All right. Your torturers are incompetent, or this man has more character than they do." He sat on a camp chair, and gestured for the prisoner to sit opposite. Awkwardly, as if his legs would not bend properly, the prisoner sat, hunching forward so as not touch the back of the chair. Hesty folded his arms and looked on in amusement.

"What is your name?"

"Enneas, lord Lavin."

"You were caught looting, Enneas. We punish that with death, but we're not cruel. Why did you choose to be tortured instead of letting us hang you quickly?"

Enneas breathed heavily, and seemed on the verge of fainting. He put his good arm on his knee to steady himself, and said, "I know something that will win you the siege without much bloodshed. But why should I tell you, if I'm going to die anyway?"

Lavin nearly laughed. The answer was self-evident: they would stop torturing him, that was why. But the torture hadn't worked, and by the look of him, the man wouldn't survive much more of it.

"I can't believe you mean to bargain with us."

Enneas tried to smile; it came across as a grotesque grimace. "What do I have to lose?"

"Your testicles," said Hesty impatiently.

Lavin waved him silent. "I'm sure all that has been explained to Mister Enneas. Some of it done, too, by the looks of things."

"I want to live!" Enneas glared fiercely at Lavin. "Free me, and I'll tell you what I know. Kill me, and things go badly for you in the siege."

"I don't bargain." Lavin stood. "Kill him."

Hesty took Enneas by his broken arm and dragged him screaming to his feet. "Sorry to have bothered you," Hesty grumbled as he pushed the prisoner through the flap of the tent.

Lavin sat brooding after they had left. He was preoccupied with plans for the siege, and it did look like it would be costly. There was an option yet to be tried but, much as he hated to admit it, that might not work. If it didn't, a frontal assault would be his only choice.

Enneas had made a pitiful figure, sitting in his clean tent. He was a ruined man, and there would be many more like him before this was all over. Lavin had no compunction about sentencing a man like him to death; he would rather the money Enneas had taken go to feed wounded veterans, widows or children.

But sometimes he lost sight of why he was here. The siege would be bloody, and dangerous, not only to his men, but to the Queen. And that did not sit well with him.

He stood and left the tent. It was late afternoon, and cool and cloudy, but dry. A pall of smoke hung over the staggered tents of the encampment. Men bustled to and fro, carrying supplies and marching for exercise. Far away, on the outskirts of the camp, a simple scaffold stood. Someone was being hung even as he watched.

Hoping it was not Hesty's prisoner, he picked up his pace, mindful to nod and acknowledge the greetings of his men as he went.

The scaffold disappeared behind some tents as he got closer. He hurried, but just as he was about to leave the edge of camp someone hailed him.

"Yes?" He waited impatiently as his chief mechanist ran over. The man was bowlegged and hirsute, and his helmet perched atop his head like some metallic bird. He bowed awkwardly, and pointed in the direction of the siege engines.

"General, sir! Someone punctured the water barrels last night! The supply's shot--I mean, it's leaked out! There isn't enough left to run the steam cannon."

Lavin hissed. "Sabotage? Is that what you're saying?"

The mechanist backed away. "Yeah. Yeah, sabotage. What are we going to do?"

"What about our own rations?"

The man's eyes widened. "The drinking water?"

Lavin nodded. "Is it safe?"

"Uh... not my department..."

"Find out. We will use it if we have to. Report back to me in an hour--and tell Hesty about this right away. Now excuse me."

He rounded the tent in time to see them lower a body from the scaffold. Two soldiers heaved it up between them and carried it to a low pile of corpses nearby.

The rope had already been put around Enneas' neck. The other end went up over the arm of the scaffold and to the halter of a bored horse. To hang Enneas, all they would have to do was walk the horse a few meters.

The thief's eyes were closed. He seemed to be praying. But he didn't beg, and he stayed on his feet, though he tottered.

Lavin was angry about the sabotage. It would cost him lives if the steam cannon were inoperable. He nearly turned and marched back his tent. Maybe though, just maybe, this man could make up for those potential casualties.

Still, he waited until the horse began to walk, just to see if the thief would break down. The rope tightened around his neck, but he didn't struggle as he was lifted skyward.

"Stop! Cut him down!" Lavin strode over to the scaffold. Surprised soldiers jumped to untie the rope from the horse's harness. Enneas fell to the ground, choking, dirt grinding into his bloody back.

They hauled him to his feet and unwound the rope. He coughed and gasped, and blinked at Lavin with his good eye.

"You have your life," Lavin told him, "if you tell me what you know, and if I judge that it will be of use to me."

Enneas' knees buckled. He managed to croak, "Done!" before he fainted.

















24

Through dusty, unventful days the passenger carriage had trundled its way south. Calandria May knew the shape of the seats intimately now; she felt her body had become moulded to conform to them, it certainly wasn't the other way around. The primitive suspension of the vehicle sent every jolt and rattle of the wheels up her spine and into her throbbing head. And the thing was slow, stopping frequently at mail drops or to exchange horses.

Still, it was all they'd been able to afford with the last of their funds. This route would take them unobtrusively into Iapysia, where hopefully they could acquire some faster transportation. The country was in enough chaos that hopefully a couple of stolen horses wouldn't be missed.

"My, you've become a paragon of caution," Axel had said to her when she told him of this plan. "What happened to 'get the hell down and find Armiger at all costs?'"

She'd shrugged. "What's the point? We don't have the weapons necessary to destroy him anymore. All we can do is observe until we can contact a passing ship and call in a strike."

Their last reliable information had Armiger on his way to visit Queen Galas, who was either dead now, or still holed up in her palace, depending on who you talked to. Either way, it seemed unlikely that Armiger would still be going there, because her cause was doomed. They were rattling along in this carriage because the queen was their only lead. But there was no urgency to the journey now.

Axel was mostly recovered now, though you wouldn't know it from the way he slept most of the day away. Without action to sustain him, he folded in on himself and became a dead weight. Calandria didn't have the fight left herself to try to bring him out of his lethargy.

Consequently, when on a completely typical evening of jolting over rutted tracks, her skull computer said without warning Incoming transmission, Calandria May sat up straight and said, "Thank the gods!"

The passengers seated opposite them in the carriage didn't look up; all three of them were nodding drowsily. They would have found it hard to hear Calandria over the noise of the wheels anyway.

She turned to find Axel staring back at her. She was just opening her mouth to ask him to please tell her he'd heard it to, when a different voice spoke in her mind.

"This is Marya Mounce of the research vessel Pan-Hellenia. Can anyone hear me?"

Axel's face split in a wide grin. "A ride!" he said.

The other passenger on their side of the carriage mumbled something, and butted Axel with his shoulder.

The voice continued. "I'm on a reentry trajectory. The Winds are after me. The Diadem Swans went berserk a couple of days ago and they've either captured or driven away all ships in the system. I tried to ride it out but they're on to me now. I'm going to try to land at the coordinates of the last transmission we received from our agent on the surface."

"Agent?" whispered Calandria. "So there really are some researchers down here right now?"

Axel looked uncomfortable. "Well, yes, but maybe not like you think," he said.

It took her a minute to catch on. "You're the agent she's referring to?" Calandria said to him.

"Yeah, yeah. Look, I didn't see any reason why I couldn't make some money on the side, so when those galactic researchers asked whether I could feed them regular observations while I was here, I jumped at it. Why not? I didn't think the Winds would be jumping down our throats quite so enthusiastically."

She had to laugh. "You are full of surprises, you know that?" Usually they were unpleasant, but if this Mounce person was on her way to this part of the continent...

Calandria reached out and rapped on the top of the doorframe. "Driver. You can let us out here, please."

§

An hour later they paused in the center of a darkening field in the very middle of nowhere. The milky way made a broad swath of light across the sky. Diadem was setting, its light glittering darkly off a lake near the horizon. There were no houses visible anywhere; other than the road, the nearest feature to the landscape was a dark row of trees along a nearby escarpment.

"There she is." Calandria pointed to a slowly falling star at the zenith. "We're going to have to break radio silence."

Axel nodded. If Mounce's ship landed back at the Boros manor, it would take them a week to reach it, and by then she would surely have lifted off again. Particularly if the Diadem Swans came down after her.

They watched the little spark overhead grow. Chill autumn wind teased at Axel's long black hair. Neither spoke. Axel wasn't sure what Calandria was feeling, but that dot of light represented escape to him, if they could get aboard it and evade the things that were chasing it.

"We may have to act quickly," Calandria said. "Where would be a good spot?"

"Nowhere's a good spot," he said. "So we might as well flag her down right here. At least it's level and open."

"Here goes," said Calandria. Then her voice spoke in his mind. "This is Calandria May calling the Pan-Hellenia. Can you hear me?"

They waited in tense silence. The brightening star had begun to drift away over the lake, following Diadem.

"Hello! Yes, it's me, Marya. Are you with Axel chan?"

"Yes."

"They're behind me, so I'm coming down at your last location--"

"No! Can you find us from this signal? We're a couple hundred kilometers south of where he last contacted you."

"Oh. I don't know if I can... Yes, it says it can do that. Do you have shelter?"

Axel and Calandria exchanged a glance. He squatted down and began pulling stalks of grass out of the ground. "Shit. Shit, shit shit."

"Why do you need shelter?" asked Calandria. "Are you trying to pick us up, or--"

"Pick you up? I'm trying to stay alive! The Swans are behind me, they're closing in. They've picked off every ship that's tried to get past Diadem. I've stayed ahead of them this far by skimming the top of the atmosphere, but they're all over. Everywhere! I-- hang on--"

Axel could see his shadow on the grass. He glanced up, in time to see the star brighten again to brilliant whiteness, and swerve quickly in their direction. Around and above it, a coruscating glow had sprung up, like an aurora.

All over, thought Axel. Great.

"The forest," said Calandria. "Come on!" She began sprinting. He looked up again, then followed.

Low rumbles like thunder began. Instead of fading, they grew. The sound was familiar to Axel, and unmistakable: something was coming in to land. The sound had a ragged edge to it. Years of exposure to spacecraft told him it was a small ship. The big ones sang basso profundo all the way down.

Their shadows sharpened as they ran. Axel began to feel heat on his face. The roar became a steady, deafening thunder. On the shoreline below, the crescent of sand lit amber under a midnight dawn. Axel knew better than to look directly at the spear of light settling towards them, though it seemed as though Mounce was going to bring her ship down right on top of them.

The sky was starting to glow from horizon to horizon. He'd never seen that effect accompany the arrival of a starship.

Axel redoubled his effort, though he had twisted his ankle and it spiked pain up his leg with every step. Calandria was pulling ahead, but he didn't have the breath to spare to tell her to slow down.

Suddenly spokes of light like heat lightning washed across the sky. Their center was the approaching ship.

A blinding flash staggered Axel. Childhood memory took hold: he counted. One, two, three, four-- Ca-rack! The concussion knocked him off his feet. He came up tasting grass and dirt.

Whatever that flash had been, it had happened less than a kilometer away. He blinked away lozenges of afterglow in time to see the brilliant tongue of fire overhead waver, and cut out.

A dark form fell with majestic slowness into the forest. As it disappeared a white dome of light silhouetted the treetops, and Axel felt the deep crump of impact through his feet.

Calandria was waiting at the edge of the forest. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," he said through gritted teeth. "Let's go." They waded into the underbrush. The darkness would have been total under the trees, except that a fire had started somewhere ahead, and the sky was alive with rainbow swirls. Axel would have found them beautiful if he hadn't been so frightened.

Of course, if there were any witnesses to this within fifty kilometers, they'd all be cowering under their beds by now. No sane person would want to be caught in the open when the swans touched ground.

It was dark enough that Axel couldn't spot branches and twigs fast enough to prevent himself getting thoroughly whipped as they went. Stinging, his feet somehow finding every hidden root and rock, he soon lost sight of Calandria, who as usual moved through the underbrush like a ghost. He could hear his breath rattling in his lungs, and somewhere nearby the crackling of the fire. Above that, though, a kind of trilling hiss was building up. It seemed sourceless, but he knew it must be coming from the sky. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end; so did those on his arms. He might have preferred it if they were doing that from fright, but he knew it must be the effect of a million-volt charge accumulating in the forest.

"Axel!" He hurried in the direction of the voice. Past a wall of snapped tree trunks and smouldering loam, Calandria stood on the lip of the crater Marya Mounce's ship had dug.

The ship was egg-shaped, maybe fifteen meters across. It was half-buried in the earth. Smoke rolled up from its skin, which was blackened and charred. Neither the heat of reentry nor the crash could have cindered the fullerene skin to that degree. "She can't have survived that," Axel said as he staggered to a halt next to Calandria. "What did they do?"

"Can't you feel it?" she asked. Stray wisps of her hair were standing up. Little sparks danced around Axel's fingers when he wiped them on his trousers. "They hit her with a lightning bolt."

"Well they're about to fire another one," he said. "We'd better get out of here--" He was interrupted by a flash and bang! of thunder. He ducked instinctively, though it had come down at least a few hundred meters away.

"There!" Calandria pointed. Warm orange light was breaking from somewhere around the curve of the egg. A hatch had opened.

They clambered over the smoking debris, and rounded the ship in time to see a small figure step daintily out of the hatch, arms out for balance.

"Hello!" shouted Marya Mounce. "Is anybody there?"

The woman revealed by the glow of the ship's lights was not the brave rescuer Axel had hoped for. Marya Mounce was tiny, with pale skin and broad hips. Before seeing her face he noticed the frizz of her dun-coloured hair, which was held back by an iridescent clip. She was dressed in a blouse that swirled like oil, and a black skirt. It was evidently some inner system fashion, spoiled by the kakhi bandoliers slung over her shoulders.

What made his heart sink, though, was the sight of her feet.

Mounce had succumbed to a fashion sweeping the inner worlds, and had her Achilles tendons shortened. Her toes, the balls of her feet and calf muscles were augmented, so she stood en pointe at all times. All she wore on her feet were metallic toe-slips. He doubted she could run, much less climb over the broken trees strewn about this new clearing.

"There you are!" she shouted as Axel and Calandria fell over one last log. "See, we survived! You--you are May and Chan, aren't you?"

"Who else would be crazy enough to be here?" he said. "Are you alone?"

"Yes, it's just me." Mounce turned and waved vaguely at the ship. "I was doing a demographic survey, it involved some close orbits, so that's why I got caught in the--"

"You can tell us later," said Calandria in her most diplomatic voice. "The swans are coming." She pointed.

"Ah. Yes." Mounce's looked disappointed, but not frightened.

The sky was full of arcing incandescent lines. They stretched in a spiral all the way to the zenith, like ladders to heaven. Axel had seen the Heaven hooks when they came to destroy the Boros estate, and those too had been skyhooks of a sort, but nothing like this. Where the Heaven hooks had been cold metal and carbon-fibre, the swans seemed bodiless, creatures made of light alone.

From his scant reading on the subject, Axel knew the swans were nanotech, like most of the Winds. They were constituted from long microscopic whisker-like fibres. These could manipulate magnetic fields, and in their natural environment in orbit they meshed together in their trillions to form tethers hundreds of kilometers long. They drew power from the planetary magnetic field, and projected it by the gigawatt to where ever it was needed.

They could fly apart in an instant and recombine in new forms, he knew. Some of these forms could apparently reach down through the atmosphere itself, maybe even touch down on the surface of Ventus.

Calandria took Mounce by the shoulders. "Do you have any survival supplies?"

"Y-yes, it's a institute policy to carry some."

"Where are they?" Calandria vaulted into the ship. "We need stealth gauze. Have you got any?"

"I don't--" began Mounce. The voice of the ship interrupted her. Axel couldn't hear what it said over the roar of a nearby fire.

With a curse he hauled himself in the hatch after Calandria. She was rooting in a suit locker near the lock.

For a second Axel just let himself drink in the sight of the clean white floors, padded couches and trailing wall ivy decorating the ship. The Pan Hellenia represented civilization, with all the amenities--flush toilets, air beds, hot showers and sonic cleansers, VR, fine cuisine...

"Axel, help me!" He sighed, and turned away from it all.

Calandria was throwing things indiscriminately into a survival bag. Axel spotted a first-aid kit, diagnostic equipment, some emergency rations, a flashlight--

"Aha!" He pounced on the laser pistol. "Now I feel whole again."

"Forget that--help me with this." She was struggling to unclip a heavy box from the wall.

"What's that? Cal, it's way too heavy--"

"Nanotech customization kit. It'll save our lives, believe me."

"Okay." He helped her wrestle it down and into the bag.

"Uh, guys?" Mounce stood in the entrance, framed nicely by a vision of burning forest. "We'd better get going. The swans are here."

Calandria leapt past her, carrying two metal cases. Axel had never seen Calandria like this. It made him more than a little uneasy--as if his own vivid imagination was underselling the danger they were in.

"Hell!" Caught in her urgency, Axel swung the survival bag onto his shoulder and, staggering under the load, followed. Mounce accompanied him, her hands fluttering as she visibly tried to find a way to help.

A strange twilight glow pervaded the shattered clearing. Calandria had dumped both cases on the ground and was frantically rooting through one of them when Axel and Mounce caught up to her. Drifts of wood smoke stung Axel's eyes and the roar and heat of nearby flames made his head spin. Sparks of static electricity were flying everywhere, and Mounce's clean hair puffed out around her head like a dandelion.

Suddenly Calandria cried out, and collapsed. She curled into a ball on the smoking ground, hands clutching her head.

Axel felt it too--a ringing pain his head. It was centered on the left side, just above his ear. Mounce cursed in some foreign language and pulled off her crescent-shaped hair clip.

"What's happening?" she shouted over an impossible roar of sound. The sound of the fire was drowned out by the approach of the swans. It wasn't a single sound, but many, like a thousand strings. The swans sang a single unison chord as they reached to touch ground.

Lightning arced from the top of the starship. "Our implants!" shouted Axel. "We've all got hardware in our skulls. It's shorting out from all this power! Calandria's got more than either of us--she's augmented in a dozen ways." She lay insensible now, twitching next to the golden gauze she had half-pulled from the case.

"We've got to get her out of here!" He grabbed Calandria's arm, hoisting her into a fireman's carry. "Bring the stuff!"

Marya threw the cases into the survival bag and bent to haul it after her. Axel didn't look back to see how she was doing; it took all his concentration just to navigate the splintered branches and gouged earth around the ship. Finally he reached untouched forest and toppled into a thorn bush with Calandria on top of him. The singing pain in his head continued, but not as strongly as it had right next to the ship.

Marya Mounce struggled her way across the obstacles, the huge bulging sack getting caught on every jutting spar. She seemed determined, her mouth set in a grim line.

She had nearly made it to the trees when a rain of white light pattered into the loam right behind her. The ground sizzled and smoked under it.

"Run!" Axel waved frantically at her. "Forget the sack! Just run!" He knew she couldn't hear him over the chorus of the swans.

The rain intensified. It was like a funnel somewhere overhead was pouring down liquid light. Where it landed, the light coalesced, pulsing. The rain stopped abruptly, and started up again farther around the clearing.

The glow it had left behind flashed brightly once, and stood up.

Axel's voice died. He was glad Marya seemed oblivious to the thing behind her, because it would have paralyzed him were he in her place. It looked like a man, but was entirely made of liquid light. Long electric streamers flew from its fingertips and head. As another such being grew behind it, the first began to pirouette this way and that, like a dancer, obviously looking for something.

Marya landed heavily next to Axel. The survival bag spilled open. "Damn," she said meekly. Then she grinned crookedly at him. "Made it!"

Calandria pushed herself onto her elbows. "Steath gauze," she croaked. "Where'zit?"

Axel grabbed the golden filigree she had been trying to unwind earlier. He pushed himself to his knees and flipped it open, letting it drape over all three of them, as Marya hauled the survival bag in under it.

The creature that had built itself behind Marya turned and looked in their direction. Axel forgot to breathe. He felt the other two freeze too, ancient instinct kicking in to save them from a superior predator. Slowly, deliberately, the thing stalked toward them.

"Oh, shit." Axel fingered the laser pistol. It felt hot under his hand; he wondered if it was shorting out too. It looked like he would find out in a second, when he had to use it.

The thing's head snapped to the left. It paused, chin up as though sniffing the air. Then it stepped over a log and headed away. The gauze had worked.

Axel blew out his held breath. Of course the stealth gauze worked--it was designed to fool the senses of the Winds. At times like this, though, he found it hard to remember that the technology of the Winds, including the swans, was a thousand years older than his own.

Old, maybe. But not primitive. He sucked in a new breath, and tried to will his racing heart to slow.

Soon six humanoid forms walked the clearing. Everything they touched caught fire. They tossed downed trees aside, and sent beams of coherent light into the treetops, hunting high and low, but never noticing the three small forms huddled right on the edge of the clearing.

One entered the ship. Loud concussions sounded inside, and the lights went out. Then spiral tendrils of light drifted down from above, and gently but firmly gripped the sides of the ship. The five remaining humanoid forms reached out, and dissolved into the ropes of light. Then, with hardly a tremor, the swans pulled the Pan Hellenia out of the ground, and retreated into the sky with it in tow.

The stellar glow faded; the full-throated cry of the swans diminished; soon the clearing was lit only by ordinary fire. But over the smell of burning autumn leaves lay the sharp reek of ozone.

For a time the three lay where they had fallen, head to head, watching the spiral aurora recede into the zenith, until finally the stars came out one by one, like the timid crickets.

Marya Mounce sat up and brushed dirt off her sleeves. "Well," she said briskly. "Thank you both, very much, for rescuing me."

§

Hours later they paused, halfway around the lake under the eaves of an abandoned barn. Axel was unused to this level of activity, and he had begun to stagger badly. Calandria favoured her wounded arm, so she could only carry so much. Marya had managed to keep up amazingly well, considering her feet. Whatever augmentation had been done to support her shortened tendons had toughened the balls of her feet immensely, and she could indeed run if she needed to.

As Axel slumped down wearily, and Calandria moved slowly to gather old planks for a fire, he noticed that Marya was shivering violently--whole body shivers accompanied by wildly chattering teeth.

"Thermal wear," she muttered. "There must be some thermal wear here." She knelt down and began rummaging through the bag.

"Ah. Here we are." She pulled out a pair of silvery overalls and stood up. Axel expected her to walk away or at least turn around to remove her skirt, but she just pulled the overalls on--and the skirt vanished as she did, leaving nothing but a cloudy blackness that disappeared as she zipped up the overalls.

"What was that?" he said.

"What? What's what?" Marya peevishly squatted down, hugging herself.

"Your dress--it was holographic." He heard Calandria pause in the midst of prying a board off the old barn's door.

"Of-f c-course it-it is," Marya chattered. "It's a-a holo unitard. W-what do y-you expect me to w-wear? Cloth?"

Calandria sent Axel an eloquent look that said, you deal with this. She went back to prying at the door.

Axel wasn't actually that surprised. Holo unitards were increasingly common in the inner systems. They allowed unrestricted and unlimited costume changes for the wearer--but were only practical in climate-controlled environments.

"Well," he said, "you're on Ventus now."

"I know. Anyway, the holo's not supposed to be visible to the W-Winds."

"That's not the point," said Axel. "You'll freeze to death in that thing."

"Anyway, you'll have to get rid of it," said Calandria. "We can't take the chance that the Winds might see it."

"The ship had no cloth apparel in it. And I didn't get a chance to put the thermals on before we landed," muttered Marya. "Too busy falling out of the sky." She shuddered violently again.

She had a point there. "We'd better get this fire going," he said. Calandria dropped another load of scraps at his feet and he bent to whittle some kindling. Marya watched him avidly.

"Pretty ironic," said Calandria as she came to sit on the other side of Marya. She and Axel framed her; he could feel her shudders as he whittled. "A couple of hours ago we were nearly burned to death. Now we're freezing. Typical."

"There." Axel had his kindling. He built a little pyramid of small scraps over, leaving an opening, and began laying larger blocks above and around that. Satisfied, he brought out the lighter from the survival kit.

"I can earn my keep," said Marya. "Here, let me prove it." She reached for the lighter.

"Anybody can use a lighter, Marya."

"I want to do it the old-fashioned way. Do you have a flint and iron?"

"Yes… Have you spent time on Ventus, then?" asked Axel.

"I'm not ground survey staff." Marya stood over them both, still shaking but looking strangely determined. "But I am a cultural anthropologist. I've studied more societies than you've heard about. I know sixteen ways to start a fire. We should save your lighter for a real emergency."

Calandria exchanged another glance with Axel. Then she said, "Let her try."

"I don't want to be useless," said Marya as she took the flints from Axel. She began frantically whacking the flintstone with her iron. She hit her own fingers and dropped it. "Ow!" Before Axel could move she had snatched it up again and resumed, more carefully and also more accurately. A small spray of sparks flew into the shavings.

She bent forward to blow gently on the embers. To Axel's surprise, the tinder caught. She nursed it for a few minutes like a doting parent, while Calandria and Axel watched with bated breath.

Finally Marya sat back, triumphant, as the little fire began to burn on its own. "See! I did it!"

Both Axel and Calandria made approving noises. Maybe Marya wouldn't be as useless as her gaudy exterior threatened.

The anthropologist sat down cross-legged, and beamed at her accomplishment. Axel sighed. "Okay, Cal, let's look at your arm."

"Well," said Calandria as Axel poked and prodded, "What do we do next?"

Marya was beginning to warm up, and seemed to be regaining her poise as well. She said, "Obviously we need to get offworld as soon as possible. Something's happening--I've never seen the swans like this!"

Axel and Calandria exchanged a glance. Armiger. It could only be him.

"Listen," continued Marya. "I know Ventus like the back of my hand, even if I've never been here. We've had agents down here on and off for decades--people like Axel who've sent back reports, brought back books. I know the history. I know the geography, every city and hamlet on this continent. I speak six local languages, without the need for implant dictionaries. I've studied the religions twelve different ways." She leaned forward to warm her hands on the new fire. "I know I'm not the outdoorsy type, I think I can help you."

Calandria nodded. "Thank you. We need the help, right about now. One thing, though--you should get rid of that unitard. I know you say it's supposed to be invisible to the Winds, but do we know that for sure? I don't think we should take the chance."

"Yes, I agree," said Marya. She jerked a thumb at the sky. "Especially after seeing the swans close up--not something I want to do again, let me tell you!" She stood up and unself-consciously unzipped her coveralls.

"Hang on," said Axel. "I disagree. Marya, I think you should keep your unitard."

"Why?" asked Calandria.

Axel grinned. "I've got an idea."



























25

"Where is she?" Marya strained to see through the darkness. She and Axel were crouching in damp weeds, while Calandria snuck up on some horses in a nearby paddock.

"She's nearly there," whispered Axel. "Pipe down, or the dogs will hear you."

Marya started to sit back, remembered they were on a planet covered with foul dirt, and recovered her crouching position. She shook her head. Calandria May seemed to take it for granted that her ways were the best. She had insisted on being the one to steal these horses.

"As soon as they discover they're gone, there'll be a posse out after us," she said, for what felt like the tenth time.

"We'll be long gone by the time that happens," he repeated back. "Trust us."

"My plan was better."

"We've been over this. Your unitard wouldn't fit Calandria."

"So what? I-"

The dogs started barking. Marya Mounce cursed under her breath. Calandria had been approaching downwind and with almost supernatural quiet, but the damn animals had sensed her anyway. She wasn't even to the paddock gate yet.

Calandria raced up to the paddock gate and began unhooked the loop of rope that kept it shut. Horses nickered nervously in the darkness beyond.

Marya shook her head, scowling. She had come up with a plan that, ethnologically, should guarantee that they were not pursued when they took the horses. Calandria had rejected it. The woman seemed to think only in terms of skulduggery--or maybe she didn't want to admit that Marya's plan was better than hers.

Here came the dogs, three of them snarling through the grass straight at Calandria. Marya's breath caught in her throat as Calandria froze--but then there came a brilliant flash of light that dazzled Marya's eyes for a moment.

The laser pistol was set on flash mode. Marya heard yelping, and opened her eyes to see the dogs stopped, pawing at their snouts. Poor things. A moment earlier they had been all teeth and claws, but already Marya felt like stroking them.

Calandria threw open the paddock gate. The horses were a bit dazzled too, and skittish.

The cottage door opened, throwing new light across the clearing. Two men stepped out. One shouted at the dogs.

"Trust?" said Marya. "Yeah, I trusted this was going to happen."

"Calandria will handle it, you'll see."

Indeed, May was walking confidently across the paddock towards the men. One pointed at her and swore. Marya did a mental tally of the Ventus oaths she knew, trying to identify the language. Memnonian, of course...

Marya never found out what Calandria was planning to do next, because her own impatience and annoyance got the better of her. Marya stood up, unzipping her thermal overalls. "Hey, what are you-" began Axel, stopping as Marya disappeared from sight. She had tuned her holographic unitard to black, and before he had time to figure out what she was doing, she ran into the clearing.

The men were both burly, but short. They looked rough. Behind them another figure had appeared in the cottage doorway, hands bundled in its skirts.

"What you doin?" the first barked at Calandria. Pure Memnonian, she marveled. A rich strain of it, from the accent. She could almost trace this man's ancestry by the way he sounded his vowels.

Marya stepped between the men and Calandria, and said "Morph," in a loud and clear voice. As she did, she tuned her holographic clothing to another suit.

The men's eyes widened and they fell several steps back. Marya had gone from peasant clothing to a festival costume that was all feathers and rainbows. Marya knew her face glowed out of it like an angel's. That was the design.

"Uh, hello," she said carefully. The words sounded clumsy in her own ears. "I mean you harm--no, no harm, I mean you."

They both stopped short, a couple of meters away, and looked her up and down. Behind her, Marya heard Calandria muttering something. She chose not to listen.

The men were intimidated, but stood their ground. "W-what do you want?" asked the first, who looked older. "We have nothing. We've not harmed a single creature in this wood. Look, all we've got is horses--"

"Horses," she said, nodding. "We need three. One for me, and two for my human servants."

They looked so tragic that Marya wanted to turn and just walk away. The horses were all they had, after all. They were abjectly poor, and she was robbing them. Maybe there was something she could give them... but all the off-world paraphernalia she had would endanger them if they kept it. "I'm sorry," she said.

They glanced at one another. "Do you need saddles?" said the younger man. The older one shot him a dirty look.

They really did need saddles, but Marya couldn't bring herself to go that far. "No," she said.

"Marya," hissed Calandria.

"No saddles. Just horses. Thank you."

The dogs were recovering their sight, and whined and snuffled around the feet of the men. Reluctantly, they turned to walk three palfreys over to her. She had no way of judging the quality of the mounts, and would probably have turned down the best if she knew they were offering them to her. Silently, the men bridled the horses and handed her the reins. "Spare us," was all that the older one said as she led the horses out the paddock gate.

She could smell the animals--a spicy and enticing odor, but somehow... unsanitary. Her nose wrinkled. She made hushing motions as she approached them.

The walk to the woods seemed to take forever, and Marya looked back several times. The woman had joined them, and the three stood there with slumped shoulders watching part of their livelihood go. Marya felt so bad she nearly cried.

"That was a damnfool thing to do," accused Calandria. "You could have got hurt if they'd attacked us."

"I told you my plan would work better," Marya shot back. "And I told you yours wouldn't work at all, remember?"

For once, Calandria had no answer.

§

"You're crazy," said Axel Chan later that night. "He'll kill us."

"We have to try." Calandria stamped the dirt near the fire in an attempt to warm her feet. "Every day we wait he'll get stronger, and nearer his goal."

"But without the Desert Voice..."

"He's not invincible, Axel. None of them are."

"But we can't guarantee his destruction. You've said yourself every molecule of that body has to be vaporized."

Calandria patted the large case they'd taken from the Pan Hellenia. "This should be enough to incapacitate him. Then we get him offworld, and take care of him once and for all there."

Marya watched them bicker wearily. This had been going on for hours now. She was beginning to wonder whether it wouldn't have been better to throw herself on the mercy of the farmers. At least she had studied them. These two were galactic citizens, like her, but they were also foreign mercenaries with completely alien priorities.

They had made camp in a hollow beneath a windswept hill. It was very cold again tonight; Marya could see her breath. She had never been so cold, for so long, in her life. Privately she was amazed and proud that she was still alive, much less mobile. Every day she battled bone-numbing cold, agoraphobia from being on the unprotected surface of a planet, and the onslaught of so many minor physical inconveniences that she was sure they were going to drive her insane.

To make matters worse, Axel had told her he thought it would rain tonight. Would it hurt? she wondered. The very thought of countless tiny water-missiles plummeting down at her from ten thousand meters made her shudder. But he seemed quite unconcerned. Show-off.

She scratched at the heavy, binding cloth garments Calandria had stolen for her the day before. She had been taught that clothing was primarily an invention for sexual display, but the people who told her that had like herself been raised in an environment of perfect climate and hygiene control. She wouldn't abandon the cloth now, uncomfortable as it was, because she needed it to keep her warm.

The argument across the fire had shifted back to whether they should continue with their mission, and attempt to stop Armiger, or whether they should try to escape the planet. Axel wanted to use their implanted radio to signal other ships that might be in the system; Calandria was adamant about retaining radio silence. She seemed frightened of attracting the attention of the Winds. And yet it was she who proposed that they confront this Armiger, whom Axel said might be hiding in the depths of a besieged fortress. The argument went back and forth, back and forth, and nothing was resolved.

Axel had told Marya the story as they walked, though he glossed over the extent of his and Calandria's interference with local affairs. Covering his ass, apparently. But this General Armiger was an off-world demigod, and somehow a young man named Jordan Mason had gained the ability to see through his eyes.

"I heard about the war with 3340," said Marya. "So Armiger is really one of that monster's servants?"

Axel nodded. "And devilishly dangerous, for that. 3340 corrupted entire planetary systems. He seduced people by offering them immortality and almost infinite power," he added with a glance at Calandria May. "Then he absorbed the resulting entities into himself. Armiger may have been an early victim."

"He was human, once?" She was surprised and disturbed at the thought.

"If he was, there's nothing left of that personality," said Calandria. She hugged herself as her gaze dropped back to the fire. "3340 absorbed millions of individuals, and then mixed and matched their consciousness as he saw fit. Anything he absorbed became part of the single entity that was him. He was ancient when the Winds were just being designed. Maybe aliens designed him--but he claimed to have made himself."

Axel harumphed skeptically. "So did Choronzon--our employer," he added in an aside to Marya. "An ex-human who had himself genetically rebuilt and made himself into a god. He's a few centuries old. It was his war with 3340 that got us involved in all of this."

Marya shook her head in wonder. "I've never met a god, unless you count the swans." She kicked at the wilting grass near the fire for a second, then added, "The Winds are gods of a sort. But damaged. They're fully aware, even if they're not completely awake. That's the tragedy of it."

"They're not gods," said Calandria with odd vehemence. "They're just machines. Idiotic. Mechanical. You can see it in everything they do."

"What do you think they do?" asked Marya.

"She's thinking of the Heaven hooks," said Axel. "They acted like a horde of dock robots gone amok. As far as we could tell, that's what they were too--the aerostats are just big cargo carriers for the terraforming operation."

Marya nodded. They'd seen one that afternoon, a vagabond moon as the locals called it, moving as slowly as a real moon through the sky, but from north to south. It had glowed gorgeous red in the sunset, and Marya had almost cried to think she might never have seen that, had she'd stayed out her term here in orbit. Being on Ventus was affecting her profoundly, in ways she hadn't begun to figure out. All she knew was she was an emotional wreck.

She looked across at Calandria May. The mercenary woman looked back levelly, but it was the steady gaze Marya had seen from prostitutes and beggars--the challenging gaze of the emotionally damaged. Marya couldn't figure her out. She was so formidable in her talents, but incredibly brittle somehow in her fundamental character. Why did she care to argue, tonight, about whether the Winds were gods?

"The Winds are in everything," said Marya, watching Calandria carefully. "The air, the rocks, the soil, the water. But they're not just sitting there, they're working, all the time. Ventus is a terraformed world--a thousand years ago there was no life here. Our ancestors sent the seed of the Winds here by slow sub-light ship, and it bloomed here and turned a dead world into a living one. The Winds couldn't do that if they were just instinctive creatures."

"But they didn't recognize humans when we came to colonize," Calandria pointed out. "When the colonists landed, the Winds couldn't tell what they were. They couldn't speak, or interact with the colonists. They left them alone because as organisms they fit into the artificial ecology--they filled a niche, like they were designed to. But their machines looked like some kind of infection to the Winds, so they destroyed them, all the computers, radios, heaters, building machines. They pounded the people back into the stone age. A thousand years later, this is as far as they've gotten, and it's as far as the Winds are ever going to let them get." She shook her head sadly. "The Winds can't be conscious. They act like some sort of global immune system, cleaning out potential infections, like us or Armiger.

"Because of that," she said quickly just as Marya opened her mouth to speak, "Armiger could take them over. They were decapitated, or born without a brain. There was a flaw in the design of Ventus. Armiger is here to exploit that."

Marya shook her head. "Can't be done," she said. "He would have to reprogram every single particle of dust on the planet. And even if he could, the Winds are conscious. They'd see through it before he could get too far."

"You think he's harmless?" snapped Calandria. She stood up. "You're so enraptured by your beautiful nanotech terraformers you don't think there's subtler things out there?"

"I didn't say that, I--"

"This system is nothing like a real god," said Calandria. "3340 told me that even its thoughts were conscious entities. Conscious thoughts!" She laughed harshly. "3340 was like an entire civilization--an entire species!--in one body. With a history, not just memories. He could make a world like Ventus in a day! How do you know he's not the one who put the flaw in the Winds in the first place? He might have done that a millenium ago, intending to let the place ripen then return to harvest it. But he got distracted by another planet before he could do that. Hsing was a much better toy, he could forge it into his own private hell much more easily. Still, he sent Armiger here. How do you know Armiger isn't a resurrection seed? He may be planning to turn the entire planet into a single giant machine to recreate 3340. It's within his capabilities. Your precious Winds are no match for Armiger."

She turned and stalked off into the grass.

Marya turned to Axel. "Well!" she said.

Axel watched Calandria's silhouette recede for a few moments. Then he grimaced and turned to Marya. "You touched a nerve," he said.

"Obviously."

"We went to Hsing to destroy 3340," he said. "With Choronzon's help, and the backing of the Archipelago." Axel told Marya the story of how Calandria had beaten 3340 by becoming its willing slave. She shook her head sadly when he was done.

Marya shifted, finding that her rear had gone to sleep on the hard log on which she was sitting. She couldn't get used to such physical annoyances. "She's wrong about the Winds though," she said.

"Don't pursue it," he advised. "Anyway, nothing we've seen since we arrived here suggests the Winds are conscious. Little bits of them here and there, like the morphs, might be. I don't know about the Diadem swans." He glanced up uneasily. "But the system as a whole? No, it's just a planetary immune system, like she says."

Marya shook her head. "If Ventus hasn't spoken to you, it's because you're beneath its notice. You forget, this world is my subject. I know more about it than you do."

"But you haven't been here," he said quietly. "You've never seen it up close. You're here now--does it seem like there's intelligence to this?" He waved his hand at the ragged grass.

"I don't know what you see when you look at it," Marya said. "Maybe it's because you've been on worlds where life just is, like Earth. Where nothing maintains it. But everything around us is artificial, Axel. The soil: there may be a thousand years of mulch here," she kicked at it, "but there's meters of soil beneath that, layer upon layer of fertile ground underneath what's been laid down since Ventus came to life. Every single grain of that was manufactured, by the Winds.

"Look at the grass! I know it looks like Earth grass, it's uneven in height, looks randomly patched over the hillside. Maybe in the past few centuries things have settled down to the point where it can be allowed to spread on its own. But I doubt it. The grass has been painted on, by the nano. Look at the clouds. They look like the clouds I see in videos of Earth. But if the Winds weren't busy sculpting them right now, do you think they would look like that? Axel, Ventus is not like Earth. Its sun has a different temperature, it's a different size, the composition of the crust is different, so the mineral balance in the oceans is--was--totally different. As a result the composition of the atmosphere, and its density, are naturally very different. This weather is not natural." She held her hand up to the breeze. "The air's been made by the Winds, and Axel, they have to keep making it. The instant they stop working, the planet will revert, because it's not in equilibrium. It's in a purely synthetic state.

"You don't honestly think the distribution of bugs, mice, and birds around here is natural, do you? It's planned and monitored by the Winds, on every square meter of the planet. Bits of it are constantly going out of wack, threatening the local and global equilibrium. The Winds are constantly adjusting, thinking hard about how to keep the place as Earth-like as possible. It's what we made them to do."

He shook his head. "Well, exactly. It's a complex system, but it's still just a big machine."

"Surely you've wondered why the Winds don't acknowledge the presence of humans?"

"The Flaw? Sure, whole religions exist here to try to answer that," he laughed. "You think you know?"

"I think I know how to find out. Listen, in your last report to us before the Heaven hooks incident, you said that Controller Turcaret claimed to be able to hear the Winds."

He glared at her. "Not claimed. He did hear them." Calandria still didn't believe that part of the story, and it obviously annoyed Axel.

"We've heard of people like that," said Marya. "But we've never been able to verify a case. If we had one to study, I'm sure we could crack the problem."

He laughed shortly. "Too bad Turcaret's dead."

"I'm not sure that's a problem," she mused. "As long as there's bits of him left..."

She heard the grass rustle; Calandria was returning. Marya saw the woman's eyes glinting like two coals in the darkness, and shivered. "We go after Armiger," said Calandria. "You know we must."

"No," said Axel. "We can return with reinforcements. I'm going to keep signalling for a ship, Cal. You can't stop me."

There was silence for a while. Then Calandria shrugged. "You're right, I can't stop you."

The atmosphere around the fire suddenly seemed poisonous. Marya stood up quickly.

"Think I'll turn in," she said, smiling at them both.

Across the fire, Calandria nodded, her perfect face still as carven stone in the firelight. Her eyes betrayed nothing, but Marya thought she could feel the woman's gaze on her back as she knelt and made her bed.

§

Marya dreamed about home. Outside her window she could see the gently upcurving landscape of Covenant, her colony cylinder. Sunlight streamed through a thousand lakes and pools, turning the hills and cities into translucent lace and backlighting the spiral of clouds in the center of the cylinder. As always, thousands of winged human figures drifted in the air between her and those clouds.

She walked the deep moss carpets of home. She breathed the warm honeyed air, felt it drift over her limbs finer than any cloth as she passed through room after room of her parents' apartment. Her family were here, she knew, in other rooms she had yet to reach. Then, in the back of her own bedroom, she found a door she had never seen before.

She waved the door open, and gasped to find herself in a giant library. She recognized paper books, had held a few in her hand as a student, feeling then the tremendous age and dignity of pre-space knowledge. It was this sense of ancient dignity that had driven her to anthropology.

Here were thousand upon thousand of bound books, arrayed in shelves that towered to an invisibly distant ceiling. Marya walked reverently among them.

She stumbled, knocking over a side-table. The echoes of its fall went on and on, almost visibly reaching into every distant crevice between the volumes. When it finally died, she heard a growing rustle, as if the books were rousing from slumber.

A voice spoke. "You've done it now."

"What have I done?" she asked, tremulously.

"You've got to make a choice," said the voice. "You woke us. Now you have to choose whether you want us to become a part of you, as memory; or whether you want us to become people, with whom you can speak."

She looked up at the towering wisdom, and felt a sudden love for it--as if these books were family. "Oh, please become people," she said.

But even as Marya spoke she remembered she wasn't on Covenant any more. She was on Ventus. As grim men with swords stepped out of the walls, she screamed, for she had chosen wrongly.

§

The sound of Axel cursing woke Marya. She groaned and tried to roll over. Her eyes felt pasted shut, for all that she had slept badly. Her back seemed to have been remade in the shape of the stones she had lain on, and the cold had entered through every chink in the blanket.

Axel was using some language Marya didn't know, but it was plain he was upset. Too bad; but couldn't he be quieter about it?

"Damn it, get up, Mounce! She's gone!"

Marya opened her eyes. Grey clouds had taken over the sky while she slept. The fire was out. She levered himself up on one elbow, fought a wave of dizziness, and blinked at two horses where there should be three. The beasts were staring at Axel wide-eyed.

"She snuck off! I can't believe this! What a bitch! 'We'll talk about it in the morning.' Ha! She never could trust anything past her own nose. Damn damn damn damn!" He kicked the log he'd sat on last night, then kicked it again twice as hard. "I'll crack her skull, I'll, I'll boil her alive! Damned, arrogant..." he groped for words.

Marya tried to say, "We can probably catch her," but her voice came out as a croak. Damn this planet! Every bone in her body ached, as if she were a tree slowly freezing up with the onset of winter. And her skin--it itched from the fabric touching her as if a thousand fire ants were biting her.

Axel made a chopping motion with his hand. "To hell with her. We'll find Jordan. We know where she's going. She's going to face down Armiger herself. Of all the arrogant..." Again, he seemed to lose his vocabulary. He switched languages, maybe to disguise the hurt tone that had crept into his voice.

Marya levered herself up. Axel had started jamming things into his pack, pausing now and then to stare down the road. He looked down, muttered, "She never really trusted me," in an unbelieving tone, and then shook himself.

"All right, Marya," he said. "Let's go."

With an effort, she transcended her discomfort. "Where?" she asked, squinting at him.

"To find Jordan. He's still running from the Winds, and it's our fault. The only way he'll be safe is if we get him off planet."

How to put this? "Axel... I understand your impulse to help this man. But Calandria's half-right. We need to do something to attack the larger problem."

"What larger problem?"

"The Winds."

He stopped stuffing the pack. "What in hell's name can we do?"

Marya stretched. "We continue signalling for a ship, you're right about that. Meanwhile, though, we go back."

"Back where?"

"To Memnonis. To steal the corpse of this man Turcaret."

§

Calandria paused at the crest of a hill and looked back the way she'd come. She felt a vague disquiet, leaving like this.

The feeling raised old memories. She remembered crying for days after overhearing that the children she'd thought her friends, had been hired as her playmates by her wealthy mother. Now she felt the same almost-guilty feeling she used to have when leaving residence parties early and alone, at the Academy. She always reached a point where she could accept no more closeness. Her basic alienation came back to haunt her. When that happened she had to leave, and today she was leaving Axel and Marya. It was not, she told herself, that she was afraid of the Winds; if she were, she would have agreed to his plan to leave Ventus as quickly as possible. No, she had come here for a purpose; her resolve was greater than his, that was all.

She chewed on the reasons for her leaving him as she rode. It was easy to suppose that she was saving Axel and Marya from unnecessary risk. It was also true that every day they left Armiger alone, he moved a step closer to taking over the vast and invisible machine that surrounded her. What it finally came down to, however, was that she and Axel could never work together as a team. Calandria liked to pass like a ghost through the worlds she visited. She was the perfect chameleon, adopting personalities and appearances as they suited her. By tomorrow she would have changed, and no one, possibly not even Axel, would recognize her. This was the right way to do the job she had come to do: by dancing around the edges of the human world, darting in only for the quick surgery that would remove the cancer she had come to kill.

Axel wanted to marry every woman he met, and get drunk with every man. He was probably headed for some inn now, to drown his anger at her in a tankard or two. Well. When they met again it would be apologies all around, she was sure. She would have to plan how to conduct those. She didn't want to lose Axel's friendship, after all. Certainly not over their work.

Jordan... Once she killed Armiger, the link, and with it the thing that made the Winds interested in him, would be gone. He would be just a normal man again. And with any luck, he would use what she'd taught him to get rich.

She was doing the right thing.

Her thoughts turned easily to Armiger. How to pursue, how to kill him? Her eyelids flickered; her horse walked on; and Calandria began to drop the Lady May persona, becoming once more the hunter.



















26

The landscape was all curves. Gentle undulating dunes of a wonderfully pale tan color stretched off into a hazy horizon. The sky was full of rounded, white balls of cloud. The sun was bright, but it wasn't hot, which somewhat dashed Jordan's preconceptions about what deserts were like. The rolling hills, though, the color, and the taste of grit in his mouth were all the way he'd imagined.

They had been travelling for several days now. To his own surprise, Jordan felt pretty good. For once he wasn't under the control of somebody else. He could plan the day's travel, set their pace, and admire the scenery as he wished. His thoughts seemed to be getting clearer with each morning that he woke to find himself master of his own fate.

Tamsin's shoulders were slumped like the dunes. The farther they went into the desert, the more despondent she became. She had not spoken about what she expected to find here, but Jordan had his suspicions. None of those thoughts were good.

He walked his horse up next to hers. The horses were a bit nervous in this vast emptiness, but Jordan had Ka constantly scouting for water holes, and so far they had been lucky. At one hole the water had been a red color, and Ka said it was poisonous. Jordan had commanded the water to purify itself, and it had.

Miracles like that should have puffed him up with pride, but they did nothing to penetrate Tamsin's air of gloom, and that was his main concern right now. He had no miracle to cure her of her grief.

She glanced wearily at him as he matched her pace. "How are you doing?" he asked.

She shrugged. "I dunno."

Jordan took a pull from the waterskin he had bought in a hamlet outside Rhiene. "Shall I tell you a story?"

She considered this idea. "What kind of a story? I don't want you to cheer me up."

"Well, I could tell you something depressing, then."

"No."

"How about something that's just true?"

"I don't want--" she gulped. "To hear a story."

They rode on in silence for a while. Jordan was thinking. Eventually he asked, "Have you ever seen the queen's summer palace?"

"No."

"You want me to describe it to you?"

Tamsin sat up straighter. "Look, you don't have to--okay, why not. But not like it is now, all covered in blood. Tell me what it used to look like before the war."

Of course Jordan had never seen it that way, because Armiger had arrived well into the siege. He could imagine it though, with his mental blueprints and eye for the architectural detail buried under the siege scaffolding. And there were many places inside that were untouched.

"They built it in a valley where there's a tiny oasis, centuries ago. The first building was a chapel of some kind--you can still see traces of it in the stonework at the base of the high tower. It's all built of stone the same color as the sand we're riding over. Now there's a big ring wall around the oasis. This has five big towers on it, and one smaller. The biggest tower, on the east side, has a big causeway stretching up to it, and you'd think that that would be gate, but the entrance there was bricked up centuries ago. It's the west tower that has the main entrance.

"If you come in the main gate you're channeled between two more walls to the main keep. This tower is huge, Tamsin! It must have six floors, at least, and it steps at two points. Sometimes the queen walks around these balconies and she can look out over the hills and watch the sunset. Her chambers are in this tower, high above the earth.

"Let's see... if you come in the main doors of the keep, you're channeled again through it, to the great hall which is a big rectangular building attached to the keep on its east side. The great hall is magnificent. It's buttressed, with a pitched roof, with mullioned arched windows and a beautiful staggered triple lancet window on the east facade--"

"A what? What does it look like?"

"Oh. One time when Armiger walked through the banquet hall he looked up at it. It's three very tall arched windows separated by thin mullions--pillars, you know. The glass is leaded in a flame-like pattern. Very beautiful. But I only caught a glimpse of it, because Armiger never looked at it again.

"Anyway, the queen's garden lies south of the great hall. Then there's houses and shops all around the foot of the keep on its north and south sides. The rest of the ground inside the big ring wall is full of tents now. The rest of the queen's army. But I guess it was parade grounds and so on before the war."

He did not tell her that the beautiful copper roof of the great hall was holed in a dozen places by Parliament's steam cannon, or that the arched windows were half shattered, nor that the lovely pink marble floor of the banquet hall was almost invisible under a maze of stacked provisions.

She listened as he went on to describe the gardens, which remained untouched, and the little cobbled streets that crowded against the foot of the keep. She seemed grateful for the distraction. And as he painted in words a picture of the palace in better times, Armiger sat like some gargoyle atop the highest parapet of the keep, and wondered what was to come in the next days.

§

Megan touched his elbow. Armiger awoke from a deep reverie; it was near sunset. For hours now he had been lost in transcendent thought.

"What's the matter?" she asked. He examined her in the fading light. Megan's face was thinner than when he had met her, but she also looked younger, somehow. He found himself smiling.

"I'm sorry I brought you here," he said.

"Why?" He could see she was trying not to interpret what he'd said the wrong way.

"The assault will begin soon. It has to. I can see Lavin's running out of supplies--the number of wagons arriving every day has dropped off sharply. I think Parliament is choking off his budget now that it thinks it's won."

"Are we going to die?" She asked it like she might ask any reasonable question.

"I can protect us against the soldiers. But the Winds are still searching for me, and the attack is bound to draw their attention. If they don't intervene directly, they might still see me. Then, yes, we may be lost."

She held out her hand, and he took it as he stepped down off the crenel. "Then let's leave," she said. "Surely we can sneak out of here."

He hesitated. "We could."

"Then let's!"

"A week ago I would have said yes. After all, I've learned all I can from the queen. Or all I care to," he added ruefully. "And there lies the problem."

"What do you mean?"

He looked out at Parliament's army, a city of tents sprawled in an arc to the southwest of the palace. Hundreds of thin lines of smoke rose from campfires there.

"Once," he said quietly, "I was a god. Then it seemed a reasonable desire to rule the world. That is what I came here to do. I needed to learn the Achilles' Heel of the Winds. My other agents could not uncover the secret, so I came here to the one person in the world who, it was said, knew the most about them. But along the way, my goals... changed."

She smiled. "Are you complimenting me?"

"Yes, but it's not just been you." He kissed her. "I've started remembering. There was a time, ancient now, when I was free, simply a man like any other. Those memories are returning, and..."

How could he describe it to her? Such a memory would come to him like the wind after a storm, full of sweet scent and alert joy. There had been a time when his hand was just his hand, and not one instrument of many in the service of vast intricate schemes. When his eye would light on a beautiful person or place, and simply rest content, with no calculation of its utility. When he began to remember this way, Armiger had also begun to recognize such moments in those around him. The moment that unlocked this recognition had been seeing, on Megan's face, a simple span of pleasure as she savored then swallowed some warm broth from the queen's kitchen. For two, three seconds Megan had thought nothing, merely tasted and enjoyed. And it came to Armiger that it had been seven hundred years since he had experienced such a moment.

"It's something that connects me to all these people," he said, gesturing to include both the palace and the besieging army. "Before, they were counters on a board. Now, somehow, they've become like me. I know it can't make any sense to you."

"Ai," she snapped, yanking on his hair so that he laughed. "Of course it makes sense, silly. You were a child, and now you're growing up. All those years you were one of them, you were like an infant, all want. So now you're surprised when you start to become like the rest of us? You are sometimes a very, very silly man."

For a while he was completely flummoxed, and just stared at her while she laughed. Then he caught her around the waist. "Maybe I am. You made me care about you, and now I've come to care about these people too. And I can help them."

She sobered. "Help? How?"

"I was a general once. I can be again." He kissed her forehead and stood back. "It's time to abandon the plans of the entity that enslaved me all these centuries," he said. "And time to start making my own."

Megan stepped back. "Armiger--"

"Galas is the most deserving ruler on this world," he said. "I can't let her be destroyed. Nor her people."

Megan turned and went to the crenel, where she looked out over the sea of tents for some time. Then she looked back, her face a play of rose-lit arcs in the sunset. "You must be careful," she said. "You may come to care too much, you know. And that could cost us more than all your uncaring ever could."

§

Lavin opened Galas' book once again, unable to resist but reluctant. By lamplight, he read.

Here is a dilemma. We doubt anyone else in history has faced such a dilemma as this. For when One sits at the window to watch the people go about their business, One sees such contentment and joy in simple things, expressed in the routines of the market and the street. And indeed, most people find ways to be happy, most of the time.

But We see also the town square with its gallows, and know that only the healthy walk these streets because only they are still alive. We know that only the strong-minded walk smiling in these streets because only they have won the freedom to do so. We do not see the isolated, failed or victimized people huddling in the back rooms of shops, chained in bedrooms or scattered like dust across the far fields.

If We propose to create something better, then We propose to end this world. That is how it will seem to these happy people, at least. For it may be necessary to make of the rich paupers, and make of the poor princes. In two generations, or ten, all will be well. For now, though, misery! And more and more. Would it not be better to leave well enough alone? If We stay the course, we shall see those smiling faces, bustling streets until Our dying day.

We are certain no one has ever faced such a dilemma. So We are inconsolable.

This is truth, though, that Our fury rises like an ocean storm at the thought that even one poor soul toils in misery out of sight, while these happy folk go about their business. True, it is not their responsibility, and no one should begrudge them what little happiness they can find. It is Our responsibility, however. They may never understand our motives, or see the full scope of the grand plan to be unfolded. We can only hope that their children grow up to be happy, and free, whether they revile our name or not.

He could almost hear her voice saying these words. They were so like her, when in the blush of youth she had fairly burst with idealistic passion. At the time, Lavin had barely understood what she was saying, beyond feeling a certain unease at her strange heresies. She was more intelligent than he, they both knew that, and he had always felt that they both accepted that he did not understand her.

In these diaries, though, he was finding so much loneliness that at times the words brought him near tears. He regretted now not striving to understand her better when he'd had the chance--perhaps he could have changed the course of her plans, and had she not been so lonely, perhaps she would not have chosen fanaticism. He suspected she had ultimately lived up to her reputation of madness because it was the only role left to her in her isolation.

They had met the second time at the military academy. It was some six months after the ball where he had received her approving glance. There were some young girls in regular attendance at academy balls, but Lavin rarely attended; being the faithful son of a rather dour provincial baron, he distrusted such affairs. Consequently he had lived on memories of that one moment of recognition by her. When he heard on the parade ground that the mad princess had been spotted riding through town in man's attire, his heart began to pound and he missed his cue in the horse maneuver he was practising. At mess that day he had discreetly asked after the source of the rumor. It was true, it seemed: Galas was here, staying in an inn not a kilometer from the academy.

Two of the lads began to joke that the princess was here looking for a wife, or at least a concubine. Her mannish ways were a popular scandal, after all. Lavin threw down his cutlery and challenged them both to duels on the spot.

This altercation might have ended in tragedy had not the quartermaster intervened. He was a huge man who imposed his authority by purely physical means. After warning all three of them that any duellists stood to be thrown out of the academy, he beat them all black and blue. Lavin was not greatly upset by this--at least the disrespectful had been punished as well.

The quartermaster was perhaps a bit too thorough in his lesson, because Lavin spent the next two days vomiting and staggering due to some injury to his inner ear. It would come back to haunt him at critical moments for the rest of his life. This time, it kept him in bed until he restlessly demanded a leave of absence. He was given a week.

Looking back, he supposed he would never have worked up the courage to visit Galas' inn had he not been dizzy and bruised--already beaten, both literally and figuratively. His mood was fey and unconcerned as he entered the inn, and inquired as to the whereabouts of the princess.

The barkeep smirked at him--Lavin had a black eye, a cauliflower ear and walked with a distinct stagger--and pointed behind him. He turned to find those same dark eyes of memory gazing at his.

She sat in the company of six of the king's guards. This was her regular bodyguard, men she was comfortable with; just now they were trying to drink one another under the table. She was losing.

Lavin planted himself in their midst and introduced himself. They had met oh so briefly at a ball, he said. Surely she did not remember him.

Oh, but she did.

His bruises impressed the bodyguards. She told Lavin later that otherwise they would have pitched him out the door, as they did with the merchants and effete local noble's sons who came to pay homage. Lavin was no courtier; he wanted no political favours. So they let him stay--but only if he drank to match them.

Never before or since in his life had Lavin been so sick. His only consolation was a dim memory of the princess crouched beside him also throwing up the indeterminate remains of today's--or perhaps several day's--lunch.

Deep and lasting bonds are forged in such moments.

It seemed that by achieving the worst nausea possible, he had found a standard by which to measure his injury. Over the next two days he made a remarkable recovery, primarily by discovering in her company sufficient motivation to overcome his dizziness.

Lately, reading the secret diary, he had recovered the memory of her voice. He remembered now how they had debated politics in those first days. She was passionate and angry, and he was willing to indulge her for he was learning she was not the insane creature of reputation, but a young lady cursed with an intelligence that had no outlet within the life prescribed for her. Lavin understood ambition. He wanted to lead armies, be a great general like the heroes whose faces were carved in the keystones of the academy. So he and she became soulmates, even though he censored from his own awareness half of what she said to him.

He had not been fair, he saw in retrospect. That was why, when disaster struck in the form of her coronation, he had not been invited to her side. She knew that though he understood her heart, he could never agree with her mind, and that as her consort he would have been miserable.

Ah! He could tell himself this, it sounded so objective and neatly encapsulating; the pain was still there. He had not gone to the throne with her.

The miraculous did happen, though. He was the first, and as far as he knew the only man she ever invited into her bed. The first time was at the end of that week's leave. He had won over her bodyguards by dint of being disarmingly frank about his affection for her. They did not interfere when on that last evening she threw him a significant look and retired early, and he quickly made an excuse and followed.

The affair endured two years. They strove for utmost discretion, so meetings were rare and hurried. For all that, or maybe because of it, their passion was almost unendurably intense. Then, she conceived of the sea expedition that was to separate them for the next eighteen years. He learned of it in a letter she sent the day before her departure. The next news he had was of her triumphant entry into the capital bearing the seal of the Winds, there to unseat her father the king. Then nothing, except a single scribbled note received six months later telling him Court was dangerous, that she would meet him as soon as she could escape its entanglements.

They did meet again--once or twice a year at formal courtly functions, and three times she had allowed him to visit her privately, to walk in her gardens and halls alone with her for an hour or two. They never shared a bed again.

Now he rose and went to the flap of his tent. The summer palace lay in darkness, surrounded by an ocean of campfires.

Tomorrow, he would meet her again. The letters of parlay lay on his table now, next to her diaries. She wanted to talk.

He wanted to talk.

Lavin shuddered, and closed the flap of the tent against the chill. He wished he could sleep, but it was impossible. He wished... he wished he could run.

Take her, and run.

He moved to the map table, where the sappers' charts lay, and drew his newly-ringed finger along a line that crossed the palace wall. He had rewarded the thief Enneas with his life for allowing this line to be drawn. If all worked according to plan, he would shower the old grave robber with jewels.

Take her and run.

Maybe he would.

















27

"Bring me some water, boy. What's your name?"

"Cal," she said.

The soldier grunted. "I'm Maenin. That's Crouson, and the bastard across the fire is the Winckler. We been with this thing from the beginning. You're pretty scrawny," he observed. "How long you been with the army?"

"Not long," she said shortly. Her voice was an octave lower than normal. She liked the way it reverberated in her chest.

Maenin was a huge, hairy man. Calandria thought he smelled as if something had crawled into his boots and died. She handed him a cup of water and sat back on the stone she had chosen as her seat.

A vista of campfires and tents spread out down the hillside, and in the distance the walls of the palace spread in black swathes across the plain. Diadem gleamed whitely, outshining the milky way. Somewhere up there, the Desert Voice was debris or imprisoned. She could only hope that someone would come to investigate when the ship failed to report in.

Meanwhile she had to concentrate on thinking and acting like a man. She spat at the fire and scratched the short hair on her head. On the way here she had modified her body in subtle ways; that and a layer of grime made her look like a young man. With all that, Maenin still seemed to see femininity in her, so it came down to how well she could act. Shakespeare had been uncommonly optimistic about a woman's chance of successfully masquerading as male, she had decided.

"Oh ho! Seen any fighting? No, eh? Simple farmboy, off on an adventure, are we?"

Cal shrugged. "Soldiers burned our house. Father couldn't afford to feed us all. I had to join."

Maenin brayed a laugh. "Now that's the way to recruit! Hey--you're not from one of those pervert towns we burned, are you?"

"No. Just a town."

"Good thing, 'cause if you were you'd be dog meat."

"I heard they're bad," she said.

"Ho--you don't know the half of it."

"Have you been in one?"

"Boy, I been in 'em all. Burned 'em all, too. Burned 'em right to the ground. Same as we're gonna do that rockpile over there." He flipped his hand in the direction of the palace.

"All because the queen built those towns?"

"No! Where you been through all this, boy? Don't you know nothing?"

Calandria pretended to examine her boots. "It didn't seem so important to know about it, before the soldiers came."

"The queen, she knew about these oases in the desert for years. Never told anyone. We coulda moved out there, made a good living. She didn't care, she wanted 'em to house her damn perverts. So when Parliament found out about 'em they ask her what she's doing with 'em. She tells Parliament it's none of our business! Same time, she's asking for all kinds of money, extra taxes, from the nobles. She been bleeding us good folk dry, to feed her perverts!

"So Parliament demands she give the towns back. Stop making these pervert things out there in the desert. And she says no."

"She dissolved Parliament," said the Winckler.

"Know what that means, boy? She told all 'em nobles to get packing! She'd run the country directly." Maenin shook his head. "She wanted to turn us all into perverts! The towns were just the start. After them, the cities, who knows what we'd be having to say? All I know is I'll never take orders from no pervert."

"The nobles who make up the Upper House formed an army," said the Winckler. "They called on General Lavin to command it. Except he wasn't a general, then. He was from one of the old families, they gave him the job because he had pull."

Maenin stood up. "Shut up! The General's a good man. He's kept us alive right to the palace, and he'll keep us alive when we go in. We're gonna win, and it's 'cause of him."

The Winckler raised his hands apologetically. "You're right, Maenin. You are indeed right. To start with, the queen's army was bigger than ours. We licked 'em, and it was 'cause of the General."

"Damn right." Maenin sat down.

"How did you do that?" Calandria asked, trying to project boyish curiosity.

Maenin and the Winckler told how Lavin had predicated his campaign on knowledge of stockpiles the queen kept in the desert. Summer was traditionally the time for campaigning; in northern Ventus, war stopped when the snows came. Iapysia's southern desert remained warm, but the population was mostly concentrated along the northern border of the desert, and the seashore.

Lavin launched a phony campaign in summer, and drew the queen's forces on a long retreat along the oceanside. He had the navy on his side, so the queen's forces could not pursue his army too far.

Then he struck inland, and captured the desert stockpiles. When the end of the campaign season arrived, the queen's forces had exhausted their supplies, but Lavin's forces had several months' worth of grain and dried fish. They drove north, as the queen's forces suffered desertion and attrition. By the spring of this year, they had taken two-thirds of the country. The queen retreated to her summer palace, and Lavin marched a small force into the desert to clean out her experimental towns, and strike at her palace from the south. That force had encountered no resistance, and arrived here sooner than expected. The queen's forces were engaged west of the palace by the bulk of Lavin's army. He had no time for a decent siege of the walled summer palace. Lavin would have to throw them against the walls in a day or two, or face the retreating royal army.

"It's okay, though," drawled the Winckler. "He's got a plan, as usual."

Maenin squinted through the roiling wood smoke. "What? What plan?"

"Haven't you heard? He's going to meet the queen tomorrow, to get her to surrender. If he does it, we don't have to fight at all. The war will be over!"

"Shit. Really?" Maenin shook his head. "That'd be something. Be too bad, though, I kinda wanted to taste one of those noble ladies she's hiding there. The perverts were no fun. They had no spirit. I want a woman who'll try and claw my eyes out!" He laughed, and the others joined in. Calandria showed her teeth.

They speculated for a while about how well the noble ladies would perform, and even the queen if they should catch her. They teased Cal for being a virgin, and promised to show the boy how to rape if they had to storm the palace.

Cal expressed her gratitude.

Maenin yawned. "Fine. Sleep time. The bastards 'll wake us up before dawn, and the Winds know what'll happen tomorrow. Where you sleepin', boy?"

"By the fire," she said quickly.

"Wise." Maenin glared at the Winckler. "Stay in sight, that's my advice." He stood, stretched, and walked scratching to his tent.

The others drifted away over the next hour, leaving Calandria to tend the fire. The supply of wood was meagre, but she built the fire up anyway--not because she was cold, but because she had a use for it.

When she was confident she would not be interrupted, she rummaged in her pack and brought out a slim metal tube. She uncapped it and poured a few small metal pills into her hand. She arranged these and peered at them in the firelight.

There was fine writing on the flat beads. When she had found the one she was looking for, she put the others back in the tube, and dropped the chosen one into the center of the fire. Using the tip of her sword, she maneuvered it onto the hottest coals at the core of the flames.

From another pouch, Calandria took some rusty metal rivets she had found on the way here. She dropped these into the fire near the metal bead. Then she sat back to wait.

It would take a couple of hours for the seed to sprout and grow, but she couldn't afford to nap. If someone came, she would have to distract them, lest they look into the fire and see something impossible gleaming there.

§

Lavin ignored the glares of hate that followed him. He and his honor guard of two were safe, he knew. Galas would never let him come to harm. So as he walked he did not look at the soldiers ranked on either side of the narrow courtyard that led to the citadel, but cast his gaze above ground level to examine the damage his siege engines had caused to the buildings. The defenders had hung bright banners across the worst of it to frustrate such scrutiny; the festive cloth looked incongruous against blackened stonework, above the pinched faces of grim soldiers.

He felt more optimistic than he had in weeks. Galas had agreed to parley. Now that her situation was hopeless, she was finally seeing reason. This madness had to stop, and there was no reason it should end with deaths, hers included. All the while she hid in her fortress, and he threw men and stones at the walls, Lavin had been in an agony of fear that some one of those stones would find her, or that dysentery would run through the palace, or her own people assassinate her to escape. He couldn't live with the thought.

But he couldn't live with the thought of anyone else being in charge of this siege, either. She would lose; he had always known that. There had never been any question of his joining her cause, because all he could do for her was delay the inevitable. He might win her admiration and love, but she would be brought down at last, and he wouldn't be able to stop it.

This way, the outcome was in his hands. And though she might hate him, this way he might save her.

In his late-night conversations with Hesty, Lavin had lied about all these things. He had claimed to hate Galas, and the fact that he hated the things she had done leant credence to his words. But it hurt him to talk so, and he often wondered if Hesty saw that, and doubted.

Maybe it would all end today. The thought was uplifting, and he had to restrain himself from smiling. To smile, while walking through the ranks of the enemy, would be cruel. Lavin did not think he was a cruel man.

He ran his gaze across the battlements anyway, measuring for weaknesses. All responsibility lay on his shoulders, after all; he had won this far because he was able to plan for hard realities without flinching. If Galas rejected his ultimatum he would need to know what walls to throw his men against.

One of the banners hung by the defenders caught his eye. This one was bright blue, with a gold-braided knot as its central design. The banner had been unfurled above the gate to the palace citadel, on a wall that appeared quite undamaged. He would have to walk under it to enter.

Lavin had only visited the summer palace once, many years ago. The visit had coincided with the spring festival, and there were many banners flying at the time. Strange coincidence, that they should be hung again now, for such different purpose.

But, the banner over the citadel gate was the spring banner itself. On that earlier occasion, it had hung in the palace's reception hall, alone in a shaft of sunlight.

Under it, he had told Galas he loved her.