David B. Coe

Author of Fantasy Novels and the Occasional Short Story

The Outlanders, Chapters 1 & 2

Chapter 1

In considering the sum of my interrogations of the outlander Baram, I am forced to conclude that future encounters with invaders from Lon-Ser are inevitable.  The conditions in Lon-Ser that prompted this first attempt to destroy the Order and seize control of Tobyn-Ser have plagued that land for more than two centuries, steadily growing worse with the passage of time.  They will not have disappeared.  Indeed it seems likely that the intervening four years have served only to heighten the urgency felt by those who initiated the plot against us.  It is up to us, therefore, to choose the circumstances of our next encounter:  Do we wait for them to make their next move, and risk that this time we will be unable to withstand their assault?  Or do we act first, and set the terms of the confrontation ourselves?  Certainly, no one who knows me will be surprised to learn that I would advocate the latter. --  From Section Nine of "The Report of Owl-Master Baden on his Interrogation of the Outlander Baram," Submitted to the 1,014th Gathering of the Order of Mages and Masters. Spring, Gods' Year 4625.


The paper itself was a message.  Immaculately white, its edges were as straight as sun beams, its corners so sharp that they seemed capable of drawing blood.  It had arrived with first light at Amarid's Great Hall, Sonel had been informed, delivered by an Abboriji merchant who sailed with it across Arick's Sea, through the Abborij Strait, and around the Northeast tip of Tobyn-Ser into Duclea's vast ocean.  Yet, despite the distance it had travelled, it still came rolled in a precise, narrow cylinder and tied with a shining, golden ribbon of silk.   Indeed, it looked so elegant, so unnaturally perfect, that Sonel had known, even before she read the infuriatingly terse response to her own letter of several months before, what the flawless, ornate lettering would say.  She thought now of her own note and she felt embarrassed.  She had used the finest parchment in the land; she had employed the most skilled scribe in Amarid, and had tied her letter with the fine, blue satin used for all of the Order's communications.  But when compared with this missive from Lon-Ser, the image of that first letter seemed to wither and fade.  In her memory the parchment now looked dingy and rough-edged, the lettering coarse and uneven, the blue satin crude and inadequate.  The letter from Lon-Ser's leaders made a mockery of her effort.

Which, of course, was the point.  The words printed so finely beneath the gold seal of Lon-Ser's Council of Sovereigns made that much clear: 

Owl-Sage Sonel:

Regarding your note of this past winter:  We have no knowledge of the events you describe, nor do we have any desire to become entangled in what are most likely internal disturbances endemic to Tobyn-Ser.

That was all, except for the date, given in a notation that Sonel did not recognize, and a second seal pressed in gold wax beneath the message.

She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, smelling the sweet breads and shan tea that sat on the low table before her, still untouched, no doubt cold by now.  Nearly half the morning was gone, and still she could not bring herself to stir.  Twice already, Basya had come to the door, urging her to eat and offering to help her make preparations for tomorrow's opening of the Gathering, and twice Sonel had put her off.  The third time could not be far away.  Again she read the note, as she had perhaps a dozen times already.  It was a dismissal, cold and disdainful.  Little more, and certainly nothing less.  She wasn't sure what she had expected, although she knew that it hadn't been much.  More than this, though; she needed more than this.

***

The idea of writing the letter had first come to her late in the fall, during one of Baden's frequent visits to Amarid.  Once more, he had come to the First Mage's city to continue his conversations with Baram, the outlander.  But each of Baden's visits had seen the Owl-Master and the Owl-Sage spending greater amounts of time together, and Sonel's recollection of this particular occasion remained vivid and brought a smile to her lips, even as she continued to stare at the note from Lon-Ser.  Before that visit, it had been several years since she had lain with any man, and several more since she had passed a night with Baden.  Her smile deepened, then faded as the memory moved past their lovemaking to what had followed.  Lying together in these very quarters, as the glow of the moon seeped through the translucent white windows and illuminated the tangle of sheets and bare limbs, Sonel had shared with the Owl-Master her frustration with the Order's inaction over the last four years.  Ever since Sartol, the renegade Owl-Master, was destroyed by the combined might of the Order in the Great Hall, and the band of outlanders with which the renegade had allied himself was defeated at Phelan Spur, she had tried to compel the Order to address the threat posed by Lon-Ser.  But every proposed plan of action had drawn fierce opposition from a small but outspoken clique of older mages and masters, and, though a majority of the Order agreed that some action was warranted, Sonel had been unable to build a consensus for any specific plan.  The impasse persisted even after Owl-Master Odinan's death, just before last summer's Gathering, robbed the older mages of their most impassioned voice.  Indeed, if anything, Odinan's passing appeared to reinvigorate his allies, giving them a symbol around which to rally.  With the venerable Owl-Master gone, a new leader emerged, Erland, who, though revered less than Odinan, had proven himself an energetic and persuasive spokesman.

"We haven't done a thing," Sonel concluded on that autumn night, lying with Baden.  She had been unable to keep the desperation from her voice as she passed a hand through her wheat-colored hair.  "For all we know, there's already another group of outlanders in Tobyn-Ser, and we've done nothing."

Baden cleared his throat awkwardly before astonishing her with a confidence of his own.  "They may be planning something," he told her, taking her hand.  "They may even be on their way.  But they're not here yet.  That much we do know."  And in this way, Sonel first learned of the psychic link that Baden and his friends had formed in western Tobyn-Ser.  It was an old magic, first developed by Amarid himself after the death of Theron, his friend and rival, and the departure from Tobyn-Ser of Theron's followers.  The First Mage had feared that the Owl-Master's disciples would return and seek to avenge their leader, and he had established a mind link among all the land's remaining mages, a web of consciousness that monitored the land's borders.  Even after the First Mage died several decades later, the Order continued to maintain it.  For nearly three hundred years, Amarid's psychic link guarded the land.  But the link demanded a tremendous expenditure of power that drained both mage and familiar, and eventually, it was allowed to slacken, until it ceased to exist altogether.

Now Baden and his allies had created a similar link in western Tobyn-Ser, smaller to be sure, but, if formed correctly, no less effective than Amarid's.  And they had done so without any proper authority.  The Order had rejected the reestablishment of the psychic link as an option several times over the past few years, though the issue continued to be a point of bitter contention within the Order.  For a time, before the mages learned that outlanders had been responsible for the attacks on Tobyn-Ser, Baden himself had spoken against the link.  Later, he switched sides in the debate, but those against the link still prevailed.  And now Baden and his friends had gone against the will of the Order.  He had no right to do this.  Sonel should have been indignant.  But her immediate sense of relief and gratitude at learning of what he had done would not allow it.

  "You have every right to be angry with us," Baden told her, concern etched in his thin face, his bright blue eyes locked on hers.  "With me really; it was my idea.  But if Erland and his followers learn of this, it won't matter to them that you weren't involved.  You're the one they'll blame."

She allowed herself a smile in response to his earnestness, his dismay at exposing her to this risk when his impulse had always been, had remained even to this day, to protect her.  Then she felt her expression harden.  "If they learn of your link," she assured him in a tone that would brook no contradiction, "I'll tell them that I knew of it from its inception, and that you had my blessing.  Because if I had known, you would have."  She paused, gratified to see him smiling at her with equal measures of surprise and pride.  "So you'd best fill me in on the details," she added a moment later.  "I'll want to be as convincing as possible."

That Trahn and Radomil were involved came as no shock to her.  The dark mage from the Great Desert was Baden's closest friend in the world, and Radomil, the portly, goateed Hawk-Mage who served Leora's Forest was, in his own quiet way, as courageous and steadfast in his devotion to the land as any mage she knew.  Nor was the Owl-Sage surprised to learn that Jaryd and Alayna had joined them.  Jaryd, Baden's nephew, had been the Owl-Master's apprentice.  But more than that, both he and Alayna, who had once been Mage-Attend to Sartol, had played a pivotal role in thwarting the traitorous mage's plot and defeating the outlanders.  Now Sonel fully understood the young mages' decision to serve the Lower Horn rather than returning to Alayna's home near the Abborij Strait or Jaryd's home in Leora's wood.

Sonel was surprised to hear that Orris, Ursel, and Mered had also joined Baden's little conspiracy.  Mered tended to avoid political entanglements of any sort, and Ursel, though she had battled the outlanders at Phelan Spur and was closely allied with Orris and the other younger mages, had never seemed to Sonel the type to take such a bold step.  And then there was Orris himself.  True, the burly mage travelled with Baden, Trahn, Jaryd, and Alayna to Theron's Grove, and stood with Baden and Trahn against Sartol when the renegade accused the three of them of treason and murder.  But Orris and Baden had never gotten along, and they often found themselves on opposing sides of the Order's most acrimonious debates.  Even after all that had happened during the struggle against Sartol and the outlanders, Sonel found it difficult to think of them as allies.

"It's an uneasy alliance," Baden admitted when she asked him about the burly Hawk-Mage, "but Orris has grown quite close to Jaryd and Alayna, and he and Trahn have always had a good rapport."

"So that's why he agreed to work with you," Sonel ventured.

Baden shook his head in response.  "He's doing it because he believes it's the right thing to do.  I've never met anyone who takes his oath to serve this land more seriously than Orris."

Sonel considered this in silence for several moments, glancing at the two owls that sat perched together on the window sill across the room.  She still had not gotten used to seeing Baden with his new familiar, though he had been bound to the creature for over three years.  His owl resembled the bird to which Jessamyn, Sonel's predecessor as Owl-Sage, had been bound.  She was an imposing bird, a good deal larger than Sonel's familiar, with feathers as white as snow, and bright, yellow eyes in a round face.  After some time Sonel looked back at Baden, her mind turning once more to the Lon-Ser threat.  "You've seen nothing, then?  No sign of the outlanders?"

"No sign."

Yet.  He didn't actually say it, but he didn't have to.  It was manifest in his tone, in the shadows lurking in his eyes.  They would be coming.

The Owl-Master seemed to read her thoughts.  "We're keeping watch, but that's all.  Certainly we've done nothing to prevent the next attack."

Sonel let out a long breath.  "I know.  I've been considering calling the Order back to Amarid."

"Why?"

The question caught her off guard.  "To discuss our options; to come up with a plan for dealing with Lon-Ser."

"What makes you think that we'll have any more success than we did at Midsummer?"

"What are you saying?" she demanded irritably.  "That we should continue to do nothing?  That we should just wait for them to come after us again?"

"I'm just wondering," the Owl-Master countered in a quiet, even tone, "why you need to convene another Gathering.  You're the Owl-Sage; you lead the Order.  I don't think you need to get prior approval for every thing you do in that capacity."  He smiled, the dazzling, disarming smile she had come to know so well over the years.  "It's just a thought."

Sitting now in her chamber, with the tea and breads before her, she allowed herself a smile of her own at the memory of that last comment.  Just a thought.  Nothing Baden ever said could be dismissed so easily, and this particular thought stayed with her for the next several days, tugging at the corner of her mind like an insistent child, demanding attention.  It was not until a week later, however, when a second visitor came to her chambers bearing news, that Baden's suggestion and her own frustration with the Order's inaction crystallized into a decision to draft her letter.

It was one of those grey, cold autumn days that presages winter's approach, and Sonel had been wrapped tightly in her forest green cloak, with her chair set before the hearth and her long legs folded beneath her, when Basya knocked on the chamber door and announced the caller.  Twice the Owl-Sage had to ask her servant to repeat the name of her guest, and even after hearing it for a third time, Sonel was not sure she believed it.  But a moment later, Linnea, the highest authority among the Keepers of Arick's Temple in all the land, Eldest of the Gods, as she was properly addressed, swept into the Owl-Sage's chambers, her silver-grey robe swirling impressively around her bulky frame.

As a young girl, Sonel had trained briefly as an acolyte in the Temple near her home, and, as she often did in the presence of the Keepers, she found herself having to resist an immediate impulse to fall to her knees in obeisance.  Instead she rose from her chair, smiling broadly, her arms open in welcome.  As the Eldest stopped before her, she bowed just slightly, enough to show proper respect for the Temple and Linnea's position within it, but not so much that Sonel compromised the standing of the Order and her own status as its leader.  Such was the delicate balance that leaders of the Order had been striking in their interaction with the Children of the Gods for nearly a millennium.  Ever since Amarid's emergence as a powerful figure in Tobyn-Ser, relations between the two institutions had not been easy.  From the beginning, the Temples had distrusted the wild magic of Amarid's Children and had seen the mages and masters as threats to their authority.  Where the Order could offer Tobyn-Ser's people healing from disease and injury, and protection from the land's enemies, the Temples could offer only lore and faith.  The Sons and Daughters of the Gods had found themselves unable to compete with the wielders of the Mage-Craft, and their influence had waned.  And though the Order had done nothing overt to confirm their suspicions or undermine their power, neither had the mages gone out of their way to cultivate an alliance with the Keepers, an oversight the God's children had taken as an affront.

Over the last several years, the Order had paid the price of that provocation.  With the attacks on Tobyn-Ser by outlanders posing as mages, and the Order's slow response to that threat, the people of Tobyn-Ser had grown increasingly disenchanted with the Mage-Craft and had begun to turn back to the Temples for leadership.  Bloodied and humiliated, the mages had hoped that their victory over the attackers at Phelan Spur would help them win back the people's esteem.  But it had not.  Indeed, any good will that might have been garnered from this success was more than offset by Baden's legitimate but unpopular insistence that Baram, the surviving outlander, be imprisoned and interrogated, rather than executed as the people had demanded.  Not surprisingly, the Temples had revelled in the mages' fall from favor and had hastened their own resurgence by leading both the criticism of the Order's response to the attacks and the calls for Baram's death.  The relationship between the Children of Amarid and the Children of the Gods had never been so strained; Sonel had not believed that they could possibly get any worse.

And yet they had.  Soon after Sonel's ascension to the position of Sage, Raina, Tobyn-Ser's Eldest for more than a decade, died, and the Keepers chose Linnea to take her place.  Where Raina had been as accommodating and cordial as one could hope, Linnea had a reputation for confrontation and hostility toward the Order.  Because she was relatively young, the "Eldest" in title only, Baden and Trahn speculated that she had been selected for just this reason.  And in the months and years that followed, Linnea proved them right, taking advantage of every opportunity to remind the people of the land of the Order's failures.

Even as she greeted the Eldest on that grey afternoon, with all the graciousness she could muster, Sonel could not help but wonder why Linnea had come.  "Eldest," the Sage had said, still smiling, "be welcome in the Great Hall.  You honor me with this unexpected visit."  The Owl-Sage turned toward the doorway where her attendant still stood, staring at the two women with unconcealed curiosity.  "Basya," she called in a commanding tone, forcing the young woman to mind her duties, "please bring us some fresh tea and something to eat."

Basya flushed slightly and nodded.  "Right away, Owl-Sage."

Linnea watched the attendant withdraw, a sardonic grin on her broad, pale face.  "Impertinent, isn't she?" the Eldest remarked when Basya was gone, a breezy arrogance in her voice.

"I wouldn't call her impertinent," Sonel replied, fighting to keep the anger from her voice.  She motioned for Linnea to sit in the chair nearest her own.  "She's just young, and easily impressed."

Still lowering herself into the chair, the Eldest stiffened and opened her mouth to fling back a retort of her own.  But then, surprisingly, she appeared to think better of it.  As Linnea settled herself into the seat, awkwardly smoothing her robe with a meaty hand and nervously shifting her gaze around the chamber, Sonel wondered again why she had come.  "You are well, I presume?" Linnea asked perfunctorily, her pale, blue eyes finally coming to rest on Sonel's face.

"Yes, Eldest, thank you.  And you?"

"Yes, fine."  And then, as an afterthought, "Thank you."  The large woman continued to fidget with her shimmering robe for several moments until, at last, she seemed to gather her resolve with a deep, slow breath.  "Owl-Sage," she began, surprising Sonel with the use of her formal title, "I have come today seeking your --"

A knock on the door stopped her, and Basya entered the chamber carrying a crystal tray of fruits, cheeses, and dry breads, and a pot of steaming shan tea.  With quick, economical movements the young woman placed the tray on the low table between the Sage and the Eldest and poured out two cups of tea, seemingly unaware that Linnea was following her every move with manifest impatience.

"Thank you, Basya," Sonel said when the girl was done.  "That will be all."

Basya nodded and left, quietly closing the chamber door behind her.

The Eldest appeared to consider offering another comment on Basya's manners.  But instead she took another breath in an attempt to regain her composure, and began once more, her tone somewhat less subdued than it had been a minute before, and her eyes fixed on her hands.  "As I was saying, I've come seeking your . . . advice," she said, with obvious discomfort, "on a matter of some sensitivity."  Linnea was full of surprises this day.

"Of course, Eldest," Sonel replied.  "Whatever guidance I can offer is yours, and with it, a pledge of my discretion."

The Keeper looked up at that and inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement.  "You remember Cailin?"

"Of course," Sonel answered, her tone suddenly flat.  An image of the young girl flashed into the Sage's mind.  Her straight, dark hair; the beautiful open face; the pale, blue eyes, much like those of the woman who now sat with Sonel in her quarters.  And the sadness that had resided in those eyes.  For Cailin was the lone survivor of the massacre at Kaera.

During one night of blood and flame and terror, this child had seen her village utterly destroyed, and her parents, her friends, every person she knew in the world slaughtered by two men posing as mages.  She had been quite literally, the only shred of Kaera that they had left intact.  And she had lived only because the outlanders had chosen her to be their messenger, so that she might be an agent of their campaign to destroy the Order.

In the aftermath of all this, the girl had been brought back to Amarid where the Order assumed responsibility for her upbringing.  But Cailin continued to blame the Children of Amarid for her parents' deaths, even after it had been explained to her several times that the men who destroyed her town had only been pretending to be mages.  When several of the Keepers came from Arick's Temple demanding that Cailin be placed in their care, Sonel refused.  But she could not refuse Cailin's own request that she be allowed to leave the Great Hall.  In the end, Sonel found herself forced to give the girl over to the Keepers, who wasted no time in making Cailin a symbol of both their own redemption and the Order's inability to protect Tobyn-Ser.

"Of course I remember her," Sonel said again.  "How old is she now?  Ten?"

Linnea nodded absently.  "I think so.  Yes, ten."

"Is she all right?"

"Naturally she's all right!" the Eldest snapped, her eyes flashing, and her round face growing red.  "The Keepers vowed that we would care for her!  Do you doubt our word?  Or do you think perhaps that we lack the compassion necessary to raise a child?"

"Neither, Eldest," Sonel responded soothingly.  "I meant no offense.  You have come here seeking my advice and asking if I remember Cailin.  In what way was my inquiry inappropriate?"

Linnea closed her eyes and said nothing.  After some time she managed a slight grin and shook her head.  "There was nothing wrong with your question, Owl-Sage.  This is . . . difficult for me."  She opened her eyes.  "Please accept my apology."

"Of course," Sonel assured her, returning the smile.  "Now, please, tell me about Cailin."

"She is a fine child:  still beautiful, as you no doubt recall her being, and clever.  She excels in her studies.  She loves to read, but she's good with numbers as well.  And she's as strong and nimble as any of the boys in the Temple."  Linnea wore a wistful smile as she spoke, and it occurred to Sonel in that moment that the Eldest genuinely cared for the girl.  In the next instant, however, Linnea's smile fled from her lips, and her gaze turned inward.  "There is, as one might expect, a sadness to her.  But it's strange -- it can materialize almost instantly, under any circumstances.  One minute she will be laughing, or speaking with passion of the latest story she's read, and the next she'll grow silent and a darkness will come into her eyes."  The Keeper shook her head slowly and took a sip of tea.  "More recently, these bouts of melancholy have been accompanied by a  rebelliousness that we hadn't seen before."

"And this is why you've come," Sonel guessed, brushing a wisp of light hair from her smooth brow.

Linnea smiled wanly and shook her head again.  "I've dealt with a child's temper tantrums before, Owl-Sage," she said evenly.  "If it were just that, I wouldn't be here."

"So there's more."

"Yes."  The Eldest hesitated, but only for a second.  "There's no delicate way to approach this, so I'll just say it:  for more than a year now Cailin has shown signs of possessing the Sight.  We considered coming to you then, but thought better of it.  Last month, though, she bound to a falcon.  She's a mage."

Sonel couldn't have been more shocked if Linnea had said that she herself had bound to a hawk.  But the Sage's astonishment gave way almost instantly to rage and indignation.  For more than a year?  Last month?  "The Order should have been informed immediately!" she stormed, hurling it at the Eldest like an accusation.

"I'm informing you now!" Linnea returned hotly.

Sonel propelled her lanky frame out of the chair and began pacing in front of the hearth.  "I want her returned to the Great Hall at once!"

Linnea glared at the Owl-Sage defiantly.  "I won't allow it!"

"You must!"

"I won't!  And neither will Cailin!"

"You don't know that," Sonel replied, less sure of herself.

"I'm afraid I do," the large woman told her, seeming to sense the Owl-Sage's uncertainty.  "You still haven't heard everything, Sonel."

The Sage halted in front of the Eldest and crossed her arms in front of her chest as if to shield her heart from a blow.  "Tell me," she demanded.

Linnea swallowed.  "Whatever you might think of us, know this:  we are not stupid, and we do not underestimate the power that you wield.  While we will not give Cailin over to your custody, neither would we allow her to use the Mage-Craft as she would a toy.  We have instructed her in the ways of the Order and explained Amarid's Laws to her."  Another pause, and then:  "She has refused to submit herself to them."

"What?" Sonel hissed.  "You can't be serious!"

"I'm afraid I am.  She still blames the Order for the death of her parents --"

"Yes!" Sonel spat, "I'm sure you saw to that a long time ago!"

Linnea shot to her feet, her round cheeks flushed with anger once more, and she leveled a rigid finger at the Owl-Sage.  "You can't place this on me, Sonel!  The Order brought this poor girl's hatred upon itself!"

"We didn't kill her parents or destroy her town!  You know we didn't, and yet you perpetuate these lies!"

"We never accused the Order of attacking Kaera," the Eldest countered, her voice suddenly low, her choler under control for the moment.  "We would never have said such a thing."  Sonel started to protest, but Linnea stopped her with an abrupt gesture.  "Let me finish!  We never accused you of murdering Cailin's parents, but we have held you responsible for the promises you failed to keep.  You mages have pledged yourselves to guarding this land, and you've enjoyed a thousand years of reverence due in large part to the success of your forebears in honoring that pledge.  But the Order as we know it now, the Order that Cailin has come to know in her few years upon this earth, has proven itself incapable of protecting the people of Tobyn-Ser.  Cailin doesn't think you killed her parents -- oh, she did for a time, but she's understood for several years now that it was the outlanders posing as mages -- but she blames you for allowing this to happen.  And, quite frankly, so do I."  Linnea started to say more, but then she stopped herself.  She was breathing hard.  The fierce anger in her pale eyes was gone, leaving something else, something unexpected.  Not self-righteousness, or exultation at the Owl-Sage's discomfort, but pain.

Sonel had no answer, either for the Eldest's words or for the look in the heavy woman's eyes.  She and Baden had been saying much the same thing about the Order for nearly four years; she could hardly fault Linnea for speaking the truth.  There was a dryness in her mouth, like dust or ashes, and she took a long drink of tea.  She felt spent, and, when finally she spoke, it was in a voice scraped raw by the emotions of the afternoon.  "So you want to know what you can do about Cailin?" she asked.  "How you can control her power?"

"Yes."

"Actually," the Sage began, again brushing the strands of hair from her forehead, "there's very little that you can do.  We police our own; the collective power of all the mages in the Order keeps the individual in line -- that, and the oath we take upon earning our cloaks.  There's nothing really magical about Amarid's Laws; there's no power in the words themselves beyond the honor and scruples that each mage brings to them.  From what you've told me of her, I would expect Cailin to be bound to the spirit of the Laws by her strength of character, even without taking the oath."

"I would hope so," Linnea agreed thoughtfully.

"The danger lies in her age, and the rebelliousness of which you spoke.  So young a child, regardless of her normal disposition, might be subject to fits of anger.  That's where you'll have to be careful -- you'll have to teach her to control her temper.  And I don't even want to think of what you'll face as she enters her adolescence."  The Sage shook her head slowly and stroked the chin of her owl, which sat perched above the hearth.  The bird opened its eyes and began to preen itself.  "I've never heard of anyone binding so young," Sonel murmured, as much to herself as to the Eldest.  "You say it was to a falcon?"

"A small one, yes.  A kestrel, I believe."

Again, the Sage shook her head.  "Remarkable."

"Is there anything more that you can tell me, Owl-Sage?" Linnea asked, rising from her chair with a rustle of cloth.

"Not much, I'm afraid.  Frankly, I would feel much better with Cailin in the Great Hall, under our supervision, but I will accept what you say:  that she would not agree to such an arrangement.  Short of that, I would just tell you to raise her as you have been.  To the extent that it's possible, you should treat her just as you would the other children.  She shouldn't feel overly special, nor should she be given reason to believe that she's feared."  Sonel took a slow breath and offered Linnea a thin smile.  "I don't envy you this task, Eldest.  But if there's anything more you need from me, don't hesitate to ask."

The Keeper gazed at her for a moment.  Then she nodded once.  "Thank you, Sonel.  I'll keep you apprised of Cailin's progress."  She began to leave, but, as she reached the door, she paused.  At last she turned and faced Sonel again.  "I don't know if you'll believe this, Sonel, particularly coming from me.  But we in the Temples didn't wish for the Order to fail.  Certainly, we've taken advantage of your loss of prestige, and I make no apology for that.  But we know that, ultimately, Tobyn-Ser will be served best by a strong Temple and a strong Order working side by side.  I personally look forward to a day when that will be possible."

Caught off guard by the Eldest's admission, Sonel stared at her for several seconds.  Linnea seemed sincere in what she had said, but still the Owl-Sage found it difficult to accept that such sentiments could come from this woman.  In the end, she merely nodded in acknowledgement and said, with as much feeling as she could muster, "I look forward to such a day as well, Eldest."

Without another word, the Keeper departed.  Listening to the sound of Linnea's footsteps retreating across the Gathering Chamber, Sonel came to a decision.  Notwithstanding the accommodating words with which Sonel and the Eldest had concluded their encounter, the frayed relations between the Order and the Temples would not be easy to repair, nor would the reputation of Amarid's Children be rehabilitated overnight.  But the Order had done nothing for too long.  And now, in Arick's Temple just a few miles outside this city, a ten year-old girl was mastering the Mage-Craft with no mage to guide her.  The time had come.

Moving to the folding wooden desk by her bed, Sonel took up parchment and writing lead, and began composing an unauthorized letter to Lon-Ser's Council of Sovereigns.  Since her conversation with Baden, the Owl-Sage had given a good deal of thought to what she would say in such a correspondence, and the words came to her easily.

To the Council of Sovereigns:

I write to you as a representative of the people of Tobyn-Ser and as the leader of this land's Order of Masters and Mages.

Nearly four years ago a band of Lon-Ser's citizens entered our land and, in the guise of mages, began a campaign of vandalism and violence against our people.  Although we eventually succeeded in defeating these invaders, killing all but one of them, their actions resulted in considerable loss of property and life.

We seek no compensation for the crimes committed against us, but we do wish to avoid future hostilities.  To this end, I propose a meeting, at a place and time of mutual satisfaction, to discuss the events I have described and any outstanding conflicts that may exist between our peoples.

We did not seek this conflict, nor do we wish to prolong it.  But know this:  our desire for peace is matched by our determination to remain free.

In friendship I am yours,

Sonel,

Owl-Sage of Tobyn-Ser

By the end of the following day, the letter had been scribed and sent.  Sonel told no one, not even Baden, who, having said what he needed to say that night in her bed, never broached the subject again.  Nor did she speak with anyone of her conversation with Linnea.  That, she decided on that autumn evening, was a matter to be broached at a Gathering of the whole Order.

And so, silently bearing the burden of her secrets, she waited.  Through the cold snows and wind of winter, and the grey, damp chill of the rainy season, she struggled to control both her fears and her hopes, all the while watching for acolytes of the Temple, who occasionally brought her news of Cailin, and anxiously anticipating a response from Lon-Ser.  As the last of the rains blew off to the east, however, and the warmth of the growing spring gave way to summer, Sonel's anticipation gave way to a dark foreboding.  In the winter she had looked forward to the arrival of each new merchant ship, thinking that perhaps this one would bare the Council's reply, but she now came to dread the dockages and the grim vigils she found herself keeping for several hours after each ship began to unload.

Thus it seemed an irony that on this, the day before midsummer, the reply should arrive at dawn, coming from a vessel that had docked late in the night, as she slept.  It was small consolation, given what the letter contained.  Or, more exactly, what it didn't contain.  Smoothing the radiant white paper with a careful hand, Sonel read the message one last time.  Such a letter was worse than no reply at all, she realized despairingly, because now she had no idea what to do.

For the third time that morning, Basya tapped lightly on the door, and, for a moment, the Sage gave no answer.  Then, reluctantly, she rose.  There would be visitors soon, she knew:  mages and masters arriving in Amarid and making their way to the Great Hall to offer greetings and to try to divine her mind on their dearest issues.  It was a ritual of sorts; as much a part of the Gathering as the Opening Procession, as much a part of her duties as calling the mages to order.  She still recalled with fondness her own audiences with Jessamyn, when she had been just another mage and Jessamyn led the Order, and she found herself wondering if the diminutive, white-haired woman's cordial hospitality had served as but a cover for burdens as great as her own.  "Of course it did," Sonel said out loud as she raised an arm for her dark owl.  "Why should I think that I'm any different?"  The bird flew to her, hopped up to her shoulder, and regarded her in silence.

Another knock, a bit louder this time.

"Yes, Basya," Sonel called, with forced brightness.  "You may enter."

The young woman opened the door tentatively and seemed surprised to see that Sonel had risen from her chair.  "I'm sorry to disturb you, Owl-Sage, but you have visitors."

Sonel smiled reassuringly.  The girl was, after all, merely doing her job.  "You're not disturbing me, Basya.  Please show them in."

"Right away, Owl-Sage."

Sonel saw the girl turn and motion, heard voices drawing near, and, as she did, she remembered the piece of immaculate paper that she still held in her hand.  Quickly, unobtrusively, she concealed the Council of Sovereign's letter within the folds of her cloak.  There would be plenty of time for such matters over the course of the Gathering.  This was a day for welcomes, and friendships renewed.  As her first guests reached her door, however, a thought occurred to her:  if sending a letter did not get the attention of Lon-Ser's leaders, perhaps sending a group of envoys would.


Chapter 2

Not surprisingly, the governing structure of Bragor-Nal is far more complex than anything that exists here in Tobyn-Ser.  Indeed, the only suitable comparison I can find is to the land tenantry system that has developed under the Potentates of Abborij.  In Bragor-Nal, as in Abborij, a single ruler, whom Baram calls the Sovereign, presides over a complex hierarchy of Overlords, Lords, subordinates, and hirelings.  Moreover, like the Potentates, Bragor-Nal's Sovereign, and presumably the Sovereigns of the other two Nals, encourage and profit from competition among their underlings.  This, however, is where the similarities end.  For while the Abboriji tenantry structure creates wealth through husbandry, and maintains its stability through homage and tribute, the leaders of the Nals gather their spoils through corruption and extortion, and guard their status with a violent campaign of intimidation and retribution. --  From Section Five of "The Report of Owl-Master Baden on his Interrogation of the Outlander Baram," Submitted to the 1,014th Gathering of the Order of Mages and Masters. Spring, Gods' Year 4625.


Melyor surveyed the bar, her casual bearing and indifferent expression masking the keenness of her gaze.  In another part of the Nal, not too many quads from here, her dissembling would have fooled no one, and every man and woman she encountered would have quailed at the merest touch of her glance.  But in this place, where no one knew her, Melyor blended into her surroundings, as much a part of the bar as the drunks slumped in the corners, or the glowing signs, aged and dingy, that hung above the drinks-counter at which she sat.  It helped, of course, that she was wearing the sheer, brightly colored body scarves of an uestra girl -- purple and blue, to offset the amethyst studs she wore in her ears and the sapphire lenses with which she had altered the color of her eyes from their usual bright green.

The crowd seemed a typical one -- she might just as easily have found the same assortment of uestras, break-laws, and sots in a bar in the Fourth Realm of the Nal.  Except that she would not have looked for Savil in her domain.  Any more than he would be looking for her in his.  Melyor suppressed a smile and took stock of what she saw around her.  The drunks, of course, would not be a problem, and most of the break-laws appeared to be absorbed in their own affairs.  There was one group, however, at an adjacent table who had been drinking and carrying on loudly for the better part of an hour, and they had begun, a short while ago, to eye her and the other girls with an expression she knew quite well.  But, for now, there was nothing she could do about that.  Savil had not arrived yet.

"Ale," she said to the tarnished chrome dispenser beside her.

"Pale or dark?" came the metallic voice in reply.

"Dark.  And not chilled," she added anticipating the machine's next question.

"Cash or credit?"

She almost slipped.  Almost.  Normally, she did everything by credit, because normally, back in the Fourth, no one ever tried to collect.  Nal-Lords were afforded certain privileges, even by the barkeeps.  But here, in Savil's Realm, it wouldn't do for anyone to overhear her announcing herself as Melyor i Lakin, even to a dispenser.  She had planned for too long, and gotten herself too close, to give herself away in that manner.  "Cash," she answered, pulling two silvers from the small purse that hung from her sash and depositing them in the slot beside the speaker.  An instant later, she heard the clang of the metal tankard and the soft hiss of the ale being pumped into it.

Taking the mug from the machine Melyor grinned in spite of herself.  Only three-quarters full, even with the head.  Some things are the same everywhere, she observed silently.  She sipped the ale and looked around the bar again.  And, as she did, she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror on the far side of the counter.  The heavy make-up gave her normally soft features a sharpness to which she was not accustomed, and, despite all her preparation, she was momentarily surprised to see the gentle waves of her amber hair teased into soft ringlets and lightened nearly to blond.  Actually, it was a look she liked, she thought with the flicker of a smile, as she passed an absent hand through the curls.  Her expression sobered quickly.  More importantly, she looked the part.

Perhaps too much so, she amended with an inward grimace.  Her eyes still fixed on the mirror, she watched one of the men at the nearby table pull himself to his feet, drain his glass, and saunter over to where she sat.  Slowly, she placed her ale on the counter and took a deep breath.  Carefully, she cautioned herself.

"You're new here," the man said to her, leaning against the counter so close to where she sat that she could feel his breath of the side of her neck.  He stank of whiskey.

"Am I?" she asked in reply, not bothering to look at him, but shifting her position slightly to create some space between them.

"Yes," he told her, moving with her to close the distance once more.  "I make it my business to know the uestras in this part of the Nal, particularly the good-looking ones.  I'm certain that I would have noticed you.  I'm Dob, and I'm very pleased to meet you."

She glanced at him briefly, looking him up and down with an appraising eye before facing forward again.  He was a big man, a full head taller than she and broad in the shoulders and chest.  His hair was black and he wore it long and unkempt so that it fell down over his shoulders and in front of his cold, blue eyes.  Like most of the break-laws in the Nal, his beard was rough, but not quite full, as if he hadn't shaved in several days.  It was, she had concluded long ago, an appearance that the break-laws cultivated.  On the other hand, unlike the other men of his kind, most of whom had managed to have their noses broken at least once, this one had a straight, aristocratic nose, indicating to Melyor that he was either very good at what he did, or very new at it.  Given the man's swagger, she assumed the former.

All this Melyor gathered from her brief look in his direction.  All this, and two other things that were, under the circumstances, far more significant.  First, the man was well armed.  He wore a thrower on his belt, a long-handled dagger in a sheath that was strapped to his thigh, and sharpened spikes on the toes of his black boots and on the stiff wrist cuffs of his long, black coat.  And second, judging from the position of his thrower and blade, she guessed that he was better with his left hand.

"I'm Kellyn," Melyor said at last, her tone cool even as her mind wandered to the long, thin blade of the dirk that lay hidden within her boot, nestled comfortably against her calf.  It was, thanks to the body scarves, the only weapon she had dared carry with her, the only weapon she could conceal.  Uestras didn't normally arm themselves; they usually had no need.  Not that she doubted that the blade would be enough, but she hoped it would not come to that, at least not with this one.  She sipped her ale, quickly scanning the bar again.  Where is Savil? she thought impatiently.

"Where are you from, Kellyn?"

"I used to work a series of bars up in Trestor-Proper," she told him, absently tracing her finger around the rim of her mug.

"Twenty-Sixth Realm?" Dob asked, rubbing a hand across his coarse beard.

"Twenty-Fourth, actually.  But it got too crowded -- too many girls walking the same quad.  And I was looking for a change."

"Twenty-Fourth Realm," he repeated.  "That's Bren's territory isn't it?"

She nodded.

"You ever meet a break-law in the Twenty-Fourth named Lavrik?"

She turned toward Dob, sneering with disgust.  "Yeah, I know Lavrik.  The man's a pig.  He still owes me for two times; and, to be honest, neither was any good."

Dob stared at her for a moment as if unsure of what he had heard.  And then he began to laugh, harder and harder, until tears poured from his eyes.  Melyor noticed that his friends at the nearby table had also fallen into hysterics.  Apparently they had an audience.  This would make what she knew was coming next that much more difficult.

After some time, his laughter subsiding, Dob laid a rough hand on her bare shoulder.  "I like you, Kellyn," he told her, his blue eyes straying from her face down to her breasts.  "I like you a lot.  And seeing as you're new to the Second, you may not realize how lucky you are to have met me.  I'm an important man in this part of the Nal -- I have many friends, some of them powerful."  He moved closer to her, his hand still on her shoulder and his gaze traveling her body.  "I'd like for us to be friends, too," he added pointedly.

"As far as I'm concerned we already are, Dob," she replied, smiling disarmingly and removing his hand from her shoulder.  "I'm very glad to have met you.  I feel at home in the Second already."  She turned away from him, back toward the counter, and she reached for her ale.

Dob stopped her with a hand on her wrist.  One of the men at the adjoining table snickered.  "You misunderstand."  The break-law's tone had grown colder, though a thin smile remained on his lips.  "I'd like for us to be friends.  But friendship as valuable as mine is never given freely; it must be earned."

Once again, more deliberately this time, she removed his hand.  Then she looked at him.  "I don't like games, Dob," she said, not bothering to mask the ice in her voice.  "If you want something, ask for it.  Otherwise, go away."

More titters from the break-law's friends, but Dob had grown deadly serious.  For a moment, Melyor thought that he might strike her and she braced herself for the blow.  But then he grinned broadly and allowed himself to laugh.  "As I said, Kellyn:  I like you."  He glanced back at his companions and winked.  "Very well; you value candor, as do I."  He hesitated, running a hand through his long, dark hair.  "I propose a deal," he went on after another glance at his comrades.  "My friendship and all the benefits that come with it, in exchange for your . . . services for the evening."

She gave him a coy smile.  "That's a very attractive proposition, Dob --"

"One you would do well to accept."  All traces of mirth had left his face, leaving only the grimly set, unshaved jaw, and the severity of his cold eyes.

Melyor straightened, and her expression grew solemn.  "I'm afraid I can't."

"Why not?" Dob demanded, his tone low and dangerous.

"Because I'm waiting for someone," she explained matter-of-factly.  "I'll be offering my services to him this evening."

The break-law narrowed his eyes.  "Who?"

"Nal-Lord Savil."

Dob raised his eyebrows in unfeigned surprise.  And then, once more, he began to laugh.  "Savil?" he asked incredulously.  His companions began to chuckle as well and he turned toward them.  "She's waiting for Nal-Lord Savil," he repeated, his voice colored in equal shades with amusement and derision.  The other men's laughter mounted, and Dob turned back toward Melyor shaking his head slowly.  "You may be pretty, Kellyn," he told her.  "Perhaps even beautiful.  But you have much to learn about the workings of this part of the NalSavil is the most important person in the Realm; he answers to no one save his Overlord and the Sovereign, and he certainly doesn't allow himself to be chosen by the likes of you.  He can have any uestra he wants.  And here you come, new to the Realm, thinking you can just select him as you would an ale from a dispenser."  He shook his head again.  "It would be funny if it wasn't so pathetic.  You'll be lucky if he even notices you."

Melyor regarded the break-law coolly.  "You seem jealous, Dob.  Am I stepping on toes here?  Perhaps you had planned on taking Savil back to your flat tonight."

She was an accomplished street fighter -- she had to be to have gotten as far as she had -- and, slight as she was, she was exceptionally strong.  Even so, and despite the fact that she had been prepared for Dob's reaction, the large man surprised her with his swiftness.  Before the last word passed her lips, Dob had twisted a brawny hand into her hair, and jerked her toward him so that the gleaming spikes on the wrist of his coat rested menacingly against her temple.  "I have killed for far less!" he hissed, wrapping his other hand around her throat.

"I'm sure you have," she answered evenly.  "But, in this case, you might wish to temper your response a bit."

"What?" he snorted contemptuously.

And, by way of reply, Melyor tapped the blade of her dirk, which she already had in hand, lightly against his groin.  She felt him look down, heard him gasp with fear and disbelief.

"Tell your men to back off," she commanded under her breath, sensing that the break-law's friends had formed a semicircle around them, "and then let go of me.  Slowly, Dob -- you wouldn't want to do anything to make me nervous."

For a moment he did nothing, and Melyor pressed the blade just a bit harder against his britches.  "All right!" he whispered fervently.  "All right!" 

"Tell them, Dob," she instructed quietly, "not me."

"It's all right," he said, pitching his voice to carry. "Everything's all right."  And then, cautiously, he relaxed his grip on her hair.

As soon as he released her, Melyor stepped away and turned to face him, a thin smile on her lips.  The break-law was breathing hard and glaring at her in chagrined silence, his lips pressed thin, and his eyes filled with outrage and injured pride.  His friends stood motionless, looking nervously from Dob to her, unsure of what Dob wanted them to do.

"You handle that thing well," the big man said at last, indicating Melyor's dirk with a motion of his head as she slipped it back into her boot.  A note of suspicion had crept into his voice.  "Uestras aren't usually so skilled with a blade."  

"I learned to take care of myself in Trestor-Proper," she replied casually, although she remained watchful lest Dob or his friends attempt something else.  "People up there aren't as friendly as they are around here."

He seemed to accept this, and if he sensed the irony in her tone, he showed no sign of it.  "I hope you realize that you've made an enemy today," he said in a flat tone.

For the first time since Dob had approached her, Melyor allowed herself to laugh.  And though she did so gently and quietly, she saw from the break-law's expression that this infuriated him more than anything else she had done to him thus far.  "Forgive me for laughing, Dob -- I mean no offense -- but, to be honest, I expected that from the first."  This failed to mollify him, and she pressed on.  "It may be small consolation now, but I never stay in one place very long; I'll be gone soon, and you'll be free to forget that this evening ever happened."  There was some truth in her assurances.  More, in fact, than there had been in most of what she had said since the beginning of their encounter.  But this last Melyor knew to be the biggest lie of all:  she was certain that Dob and his comrades would remember this night for the rest of their lives.

His face reddening with anger, the break-law started to reply.  But, at that moment, the door to the bar swung open and another group of men walked in.

Turning to look in that direction, Melyor understood immediately that her waiting was over.  She knew it from the sudden attentiveness of Dob and the other break-laws; she knew it from the fact that every other conversation in the bar ceased as soon as the door opened; she knew it from the odd array of uestras, break-laws, and bodyguards that accompanied the one figure who seemed to guide the throng through the doorway and into the tavern; and, even had she not seen still shots of Savil on several occasions, she would have known it from the striking resemblance that this man bore to Calbyr, the former Nal-Lord of the Second Realm, and Savil's cousin.  Like Calbyr, this man's hair and beard were the color of sand, and, despite his loose fitting trousers and the dark, long coat he wore over his ivory shirt, she could see that he had the wiry, muscular frame of a skilled fighter.  His eyes were dark and impenetrable, and he carried himself with the arrogance of a man accustomed to power.  All of this he had in common with Calbyr, whom he had succeeded as Nal-Lord.  And, if the reports gathered for Melyor by her intelligence aides were accurate, Savil also shared his cousin's ambition and ruthlessness, not to mention his proficiency as a killer.  Melyor also noticed that, like Dob, Savil carried a thrower and a blade.

Stopping just inside the doorway, Savil scanned the bar as one might peruse a dispenser menu.  Little of what he saw appeared to interest him until his eyes came to rest on Melyor and Dob, at which point a hungry smile lit his sharp features.  Striding purposefully toward the two of them, the Nal-Lord called out Dob's name and extended an arm in greeting.  His eyes, however, flicked repeatedly in Melyor's direction.

"Well met, Nal-Lord," Dob intoned, glancing sidelong at Melyor, and unable to keep the residue of hurt and humiliation from his tone.

"Hello, Dob," Savil returned as he halted in front of them.  He was closer in height to Melyor than to Dob, but he seemed larger than the break-law somehow, or perhaps Dob just looked smaller when the Nal-Lord was nearby; it was hard to say which.  Melyor knew, though, that whatever danger Dob had represented was magnified a dozen times in the lithe figure of the Nal-Lord.

"We're honored by your presence here, Nal-Lord.  How may we serve you?"  She could hear the strain in Dob's voice.  She could only imagine how the dishonor she had brought him a few minutes ago would affect his standing in Savil's Realm.

Savil smiled generously.  The expression looked oddly incongruous on his face.  "Relax, Dob.  Everything's all right."  Dob's words from before -- Melyor smiled inwardly.  Savil turned his gaze in her direction, his grin deepening.  "But I will allow you to introduce me to your friend."

"She's not my friend," the break-law said a bit too vehemently.  Savil looked at him sharply, and Melyor could see that Dob instantly regretted using such a tone.

"I see," Savil commented.  He looked at Melyor again.  "What's your name?"

"Kellyn, Nal-Lord.  I've been waiting for you."

"She claims to be from the Twenty-Fourth Realm, Nal-Lord," Dob added quickly.  "But I don't trust her.  I think she's an assassin; she carries a dagger in her right boot."

Savil raised an eyebrow inquisitively.  "Is this true, Kellyn?"

Melyor smiled warmly.  "It's true that I carry a blade.  As for the rest, you must know that no matter what the truth, I can only give one answer."

The Nal-Lord stared at her for another moment, his features giving away nothing.  Then he nodded and gave a small laugh before turning back to the break-law.  "Thank you, Dob.  Your concern is noted."  It was a dismissal.  The big man's face began to redden, and he looked like he might say more, but a second glance from Savil silenced him.  With one last glare at Melyor, Dob stalked off toward the back of the bar, his men following wordlessly.

"May I see your dagger?" Savil asked, the grin lingering on his lips, even as the expression in his dark eyes hardened.

"You may," Melyor responded, deftly retrieving the dirk from her boot and handing it to him hilt first.  "Indeed, you're welcome to keep it."

"That won't be necessary," he told her, examining the weapon, "although I will hold on to it for the remainder of the evening."  He looked up, smiling again.  "Merely as a precaution."

Melyor returned the smile, lightly tracing a finger down the man's bearded jawline.  "Does that mean we'll be leaving together?"

He looked her up and down, drinking her in with his eyes.  "The sooner the better."  He glanced back at his entourage.  "Wait just a minute," he told her.  "Then we can go."  He approached one of his bodyguards, a burly man with a large gold ring in one ear and an equally large thrower strapped conspicuously to his belt.  Savil whispered something to the man, who gazed at Melyor impassively before nodding once.  Then Savil returned and, taking her by the hand, led her out into the street.

After the din of the bar, the warm, sour air of the street seemed unnaturally still and quiet.  It had rained earlier, a rare midsummer downpour, fleeting but intense, like a memory of spring.  Steam rose from the darkened pavement like smoke from a dying fire, and water ran silently down the smooth, metallic faces of the towering buildings that loomed on both sides of the avenue.  A carrier hummed past, the faces of its passengers framed by the small windows, staring out at the night like portraits in a moving gallery.  Even after it had passed, the acrid smell of its discharge stung Melyor's nostrils and made her eyes water.  But otherwise the street was empty.  It was early yet. 

Savil started toward one of the byways leading off of the quad's main concourse and Melyor followed.  She assumed they were headed back to the Nal-Lord's flat.

"I don't know what happened back there, Kellyn," Savil began in an easy tone, "but Dob doesn't like you very much."

Melyor looked at him sidelong and grinned.  "I know.  But it's his own fault:  he doesn't handle rejection very well."

"None of my men do; they learned that from me.  Tell me though," he went on, "what role did your dagger play in all of this?"

She glanced at him a second time.  "Let's just say that Dob doesn't like to be bested either."

Savil smiled coldly.  "Another product of my leadership.  My men don't easily accept defeat because they know that I have never been defeated.  That is something you would be well advised to keep in mind . . . Melyor i Lakin."

At that, for the first time that night, Melyor felt a rush of fear.  And though she quashed it an instant later, she knew that Savil had noticed.  He had, after all, been looking for it.

"What are you doing in my Realm, Melyor?"  The light-haired man had been walking all this time with his hands thrust in the deep pockets of his overcoat, and he did not remove them now.  But the tone of his voice made Melyor feel as if he had a thrower aimed at her heart.

"When did you know?" she asked, hoping to put him off for a few moments.

"When you gave me the blade.  Even taking it out of your boot and handing it to me, you seemed too skilled for an uestra."

Melyor gave a small laugh.  "Dob said the same thing."

"I'll have to remember to commend him for his insight."

"But why didn't you have me taken as an assassin?" she persisted.  "How did you know it was me?"

Savil hesitated.  "Calbyr told me about you once," he explained at last.  "I wasn't certain why until tonight.  He said that he had once seen you win a knife fight against a much larger, stronger opponent, despite having been slashed across the back of your blade hand.  He told me that it was one of the most remarkable displays of fighting craft that he had ever seen.  I believe he was offering the story as a warning."  He paused again as they turned a second time into a more narrow passage.  Then the Nal-Lord indicated her hand with a bob of his head.  "I noticed the two parallel scars across your hand."

Melyor looked down at the back of her right hand and grinned ruefully.  "Serves me right for not being vain enough to cover it up.  I guess I wouldn't make much of an uestra."

Savil halted and turned to face her.  Once more he looked her up and down, not bothering to mask the desire in his dark eyes.  Melyor noticed that they had reached the end of the byway.

"You are very beautiful, Melyor," he said huskily.  "More beautiful even than I was led to believe, and certainly more lovely than any uestra I've ever had the pleasure of knowing."  Melyor could not help but catch the double meaning in Savil's words, and she suddenly felt herself growing self-conscious.  As a disguise, the sheer body scarves were a necessity.  But now they made her feel weak; they placed her at a disadvantage.  Savil seemed to sense this, and he grinned, as if relishing her discomfort.  A moment later though, his expression changed.  "Before such diversions can be contemplated, however," he added, the ice returning to his voice, and his eyes boring into hers, "I must know why you are in my Realm!"

She held his gaze for several moments before responding, and neither one of them looked away.  "It's no secret that Cedrych is considering giving you command of the next force that will be sent to Tobyn-Ser," she said at last, her tone crisp and businesslike.  "I came here hoping to convince you that you need a partner."

Savil laughed.  "A partner?  Why would I want a partner?"

"It's a big job.  Too big for most people."

"Too big for me?" he asked testily.

"I believe it was too big for Calbyr," she told him, sidestepping the question.  "I wouldn't want to see you lost as well."

Her reply did not seem to satisfy him.  He stood staring at her, his eyes smoldering and his mouth set in a hard line.  "And what was the rest of your plan?" he asked at last.  "If you failed to convince me, what then?"

She shrugged.  "Failing that, I suppose I planned to kill you."

He bared his teeth in a humorless grin, and he shook his head. "I don't believe you," he said.  "There were other ways for you to convey this message.  But you came to me, disguised and armed.  I think you planned to kill me all along, hoping that Cedrych would then turn to you.  I think you hoped to lure me to bed, render me defenseless, and then slit my throat with that dagger of yours."

"You may be right," Melyor conceded with an enigmatic smile and a toss of the blond curls she had given herself earlier that day.  "But what's important now is that we're here, together, and I'm proposing a partnership."

"You're proposing that we share something that you've admitted is probably already mine.  What would I have to gain?"

"I already told you:  it's too big a job.  By joining with me, you ensure your own success."

For a second time, Savil shook his head, the same harsh grin still stretched across his face.  "No," he said with finality.  "I don't need anyone's help.  And frankly, Melyor, I don't trust you.  I don't think you'd be a very good partner.  I think eventually, I'd wind up with that dagger in my back."

Melyor gazed at him for several seconds without speaking, and then she shrugged again.  "Very well."  She cocked her head to the side and smiled at him.  "It's too bad though, Savil.  I think we would have had fun together.  If you change your mind," she added, starting to turn away, "you know where to find me."

"Hold it, Melyor!" he commanded in a tone that stopped her cold.  "I'm afraid I can't let you go."  She turned to face him again.  He had drawn his thrower.  "I wouldn't trust you as a partner, but, after tonight, after seeing you here and knowing that you bested one of my most talented men, I can't risk having you as an adversary either."  His expression had grown somber.  "You understand, I have to kill you."

Melyor nodded.  "I understand, Savil.  I'd do the same, were I in your position."  But even as she spoke, even as she assented to her own death, she felt the familiar tranquility coming over her, taking her to the still point within her that she had come to know so well over the years.  Savil was speaking again, saying something about how disappointed he was that they wouldn't be going up to his flat after all.  But she barely heard him.  And by the time he raised his thrower to fire, she had already started to move.

Ducking her head as the spurt of red flame hissed from his weapon and passed harmlessly over her shoulder, she pivoted on her right foot and spun, swinging her left foot in a wide, violently swift arc.  Savil had begun to move as well, twisting his body, as she knew he would, to shield what would have been Melyor's most obvious target.  And so, in mid-turn, she adjusted her attack slightly -- just enough to catch him full in the kidney with the hard point of her toe.  The Nal-Lord crumpled to his knees with a retching gasp, his eyes squeezed shut as his weapon flew from his hand and clattered on the wet pavement.  Barely able to remain upright, he struggled desperately to free his knife from the sheath on his thigh.  But before he could, Melyor struck him again, this time driving her fist into his throat, shattering his larynx with the blow.  The light-haired man toppled onto his back, laboring for each breath with a terrible, rasping sound, and staring at her now with wide, terrified eyes.

"You were right, Savil," Melyor told him as she retrieved his thrower.  "I had every intention of killing you tonight.  Cedrych would have been foolish to send you to Tobyn-Ser; you were bound to fail, just as your cousin did.  It's not your fault, really.  It's just that this job calls for a subtlety of mind that you don't possess."  She smiled.  "I am sorry."  The Nal-Lord was struggling vainly to climb to his feet, and she moved closer, looking down at him with pity and just a shade of contempt.  "I have one other thing to share with you before I kill you:  it's a secret.  I've told people before, but only just before they die -- that way it remains a secret.  Think of it as a tradition."  She paused, taking a deep breath, and then she spoke the words, just as she had so many times before.  And she was gratified to see his eyes widen at what she said, so gratified in fact, that she killed him quickly, with a single burst of thrower fire to the heart, rather than prolonging his life as she sometimes did to those who had angered her.

After that it was but a simple matter to find her way out of Savil's Realm and back to the safety of her flat.  There, she removed the blue lenses, slipped out of the body scarves, and washed the curls and the color out of her hair before falling into bed, exhausted, but pleased with the way her evening had gone.  I should hear from Cedrych tomorrow, she thought with anticipation.  The day after at the latest.  She smiled in the darkness, and, closing her eyes, allowed herself to drift toward sleep.  Only then did she realize, with a small pang of regret, that she had forgotten to reclaim her dagger.