David B. Coe

Author of Fantasy Novels and the Occasional Short Story

Rules of Ascension, Chapters 1-3

Chapter 1

Galdasten, Eibithar, year 872, Morna’s Moon waxing

After the bright glare of the dirty road and sunbaked fields, it took Pytor’s eyes some time to adjust to the darkness of the tavern.  He stood at the door waiting for the familiar shapes to come into relief:  the bar with its dark stained wood and tall wooden stools, the rough tables and low chairs, the thick, unfinished pillars that seemed to groan beneath the weight of the sagging ceiling, and, of course, Levan, stout and bald, standing behind the bar.  The air was heavy with the scents of musty ale and roasting meat, but Pytor also smelled Mart’s pipe smoke.  It seemed he wasn’t the first.

“Starting a bit early today, aren’t you, Pytor?” Levan asked, filling a tankard with ale and setting it on the bar by his usual place.

Pytor sat on his stool and took a long pull.  “I’ll do without the commentary, Levan,” he said, tossing a silver piece onto the bar.  “I’ll just thank you to keep the ale coming.”

The barkeep held up his hands and shrugged.  “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Pytor frowned before draining the tankard with a second swallow.  He set it down on the bar sharply and pushed it toward Levan, gesturing for more with one hand and wiping the sweet foam from his mustache with the other.

“Got yourself a thirst today, do you, Pytor?” came a voice from behind him.

He turned and saw Mart sitting at a table in the back, pipe smoke hanging like a storm cloud over his head and curling around his gaunt face.

“Since when is my taste for ale the whole world’s concern?”

Pytor glanced back at Levan and shook his head.  The barkeep grinned like a ghoul and handed Pytor his ale.

“Don’t be sore, Pytor,” Mart called.  “I was just talking.  Come back here and join me.”

He took another drink and sat still for a moment.  Mart wasn’t a bad sort.  Back when Kara was still alive, she and Pytor had spent a good deal of time with him and Triss.  Mart and his wife had been good to them when they lost Steffan.  Better than most, if truths be told.  They’d looked after Pytor’s crop and beasts while he cared for Kara, and even for some time after she finally died.  And Mart had continued to be a reliable friend since, accepting of Pytor’s quick temper and rough manner.

Still, Pytor wished that he had been the first to arrive that day.  Since early morning he’d been restless and uneasy, the way he sometimes felt before a storm.  Perhaps it’s only that.  Morna knew they needed the water.  But he knew better.  Something was coming, something dark. 

Kara used to say that he had Qirsi blood in him, that he had the gleaning power, like the Qirsi sorcerers who traveled with Bohdan’s Revel.  They always laughed about it, Pytor reminding her that he was much too fat to be Qirsi.  Still, they both knew that he was usually right about these things.  He didn’t doubt that he would be this time, too.  He was in no mood to talk.  But Mart was here, and it wouldn’t have been right to just leave him back there alone.

“Come on, Pytor,” Mart called again.  “Don’t be so stubborn.”

Pytor tugged impatiently on his beard.  There was nothing to be done.  He pushed back from the bar, picked up his ale, and joined Mart at his table.

“That’s it,” Mart said, as Pytor sat.  He tapped out his pipe on the table and refilled it.  Then he lit a tinder in the candle flame and held it over the bowl of his pipe, drawing deeply.  The leaf glowed and crackled, filling the air with sweet smoke.  “What’s new, Pytor?” Mart asked at last, his yellow teeth clenching the pipe stem.

Pytor shrugged, not looking him in the eye.  “Not much,” he mumbled.  “Grain’s growing, beasts are getting fat.”  He shrugged again and took another drink.

“You seem troubled.”

He looked up at that.  Mart was watching him closely, pale blue eyes peering out from beneath wisps of steel gray hair.

“Is something brewing?” Mart asked.

Pytor held up his tankard and forced a smile.  “Only this,” he said, trying to keep his tone light.

Mart just stared at him.

“Nothing I can name,” Pytor finally admitted, looking away again.  “Just a feeling.”

The older man nodded calmly, but Pytor saw his jaw tighten.

“It’s probably just my imagination,” he said a moment later, drinking some more ale.  “We’ve been almost a fortnight without rain and I’m starting to fear for my land.  It’s affecting my mood.”

Mart nodded a second time and chewed thoughtfully on his pipe.  “Yes,” he agreed after some time.  “That’s probably it.”

Pytor could see that Mart didn’t believe this either, but the man seemed as eager as he to let the matter drop.  Draining his tankard again, Pytor motioned for Levan to bring him another.

“Can I buy you one?” he asked Mart, noticing for the first time that his friend had no drink.

Mart hesitated, but only for a moment.  “No, thanks,” he answered with a shake of his head.  “Triss will thrash me if she smells it on me.  She’s stingy enough with my time without having to worry that I’m spending all of our money on ale.”

Pytor looked at the man with genuine concern.  That wasn’t Triss’s way, and they both it.  Anyone who spent even a few minutes chatting with her could have seen that.

“Things that bad then?” he asked

This time it was Mart’s turn to shrug.  “They’ve been worse.”  He paused, then gave a wan smile.  “Though not in some time.”

Levan walked over to their table and placed another ale in front of him, but Pytor hardly noticed, so great was his surprise at what Mart was telling him.  True, they needed rain, but things weren’t that bad.  Not yet.  Another turn of it would be a different story, but the planting season had been generous, and the ground still had a good deal of moisture in it.

“What happened?” Pytor asked.  “You’re not having trouble with mouth rot in your herd again, are you?”

Mart shifted uncomfortably in his chair and stared at his hands.  “Actually, we are,” he said at last, his voice barely more than a whisper.  “But not 'again,' as you put it.  It’s still the same problem.”

Pytor narrowed his eyes.  “I don’t understand.”

“I’m sorry, Pytor,” Mart said, his eyes meeting Pytor’s briefly before flicking away again.  “I should have told you at the time how bad it was.”

Pytor just stared at him.  He knew what was coming.  He should have been used to it by now, but it still stung.  “So?” he finally managed.  “How bad?”

“We’ve lost all but three of our beasts.  Most of them died at the end of the planting, just as the grain was starting to sprout, but four more of them died during this past waning.”

“Your crop’s all right though, isn’t it?” he asked dully.  “You can get through the cold turns.”

Mart nodded.  “Barely, yes.  The crop’s fine, and Brice has just sold me a half dozen of his beasts at a low price.  It’s been a hard time, but we’ll get through.”

“Why didn’t you tell me the truth?” Pytor demanded, struggling to keep the ire from his voice.  He knew the answer, but he wanted to make the man say it.  “Why didn’t you come to me?  I’m doing fine; I could have helped you.”

Mart looked away, his face reddening.

“We would have, Pytor.  Really.  But after all you’d been through. . . .”  He trailed off, making a small helpless gesture with his hands.

It didn’t matter.  Pytor could finish the sentence for him.  We didn’t want to trouble you.  He could hear the words in a dozen different voices.  It had been a constant refrain in his life since Kara’s death.  His friends had been so considerate of his feelings that they’d made him an outcast.

“The others know?” he asked.

“By now, they do.  They didn’t right off.  At first I only told Brice.  But now . . .”  He shrugged.

Pytor nodded and pressed his lips together.  He wasn’t certain why he felt so angry.  Mart hadn’t done anything wrong; certainly it was nothing the rest of them hadn’t done as well.  Besides, the man’s herd was no business of his.  He couldn’t fault him for going to Brice, either.  Brice was a decent man, despite his bluster.  He and Pytor spent much of their time together baiting each other, but even Pytor knew that he could be counted on when times got rough.  And it was no secret that he was the most prosperous of them all.  Had Pytor been in Mart’s place he might have turned to Brice too, in spite of their past quarrels.

So why was he so offended?

“Well I’m glad it’s worked out for you,” Pytor said at last, breaking an awkward silence.

“Thank you, Pytor.”  Mart smiled, looking relieved.

Pytor returned his smile, though he had a sour feeling in his stomach.  He drank some ale and Mart puffed on his pipe, sending great billows of smoke up to the ceiling.

They sat that way for some time, saying nothing.  Mart refilled his pipe a second time, and Pytor drained yet another tankard of ale, which Levan dutifully replaced with a full one.  He wanted to leave, but it was early yet.  The others hadn’t even arrived, and there was nothing back at his house except the beasts and his now-too-big bed.  So instead the two of them just sat, keeping their silence and trying not to look at each other.

When Brice and the rest finally walked into Levan’s tavern they both nearly jumped out of their chairs to greet them.  The comfort Pytor took in their arrival was fleeting though.

“It doesn’t come at the best of times,” Eddya was saying as she walked in.  She stepped to the bar, gave Levan a silver, and took her ale.  “But it’s certainly not the worst either.”

“There’s never a good time for it,” Jervis said sullenly, buying an ale of his own.

The others got their drinks as well and all of them walked back to the table.  None of them looked happy, but Davor least of all.  He was the youngest of the group, and the most prone to worry.  If he had been the only one who was upset, Pytor wouldn’t have been concerned.  Brice, too, was easily disturbed, despite his money.  Eddya was impossible to read.  She had been through four husbands, eleven childbirths, and more difficult times than he could count.  Nothing bothered her anymore.

Jervis and Segel were even tempered as well.  Jervis and Pytor had often been mistaken for brothers.  They had the same coloring -- red hair, fair skin, green eyes -- and though Jervis was far taller than Pytor and a good bit leaner, they had similar features.  They also reacted to things the same way.  They were quick to anger, but kept their wits about them in hard times.  No matter the trouble, they always managed to muddle through.

Segel was a stranger to Eibithar; no one who looked at him could have doubted that.  He was small and wiry, with dark skin and darker eyes and hair.  He even spoke with the hint of an accent, although not one that any of them could place.  Some said that he was from Uulrann.  Eddya was convinced that he came from the Southlands.  Pytor had never asked him, though he’d often wondered.  It had never really mattered.  In the important ways he fit in just fine.  He was quieter than the rest; he tended to listen more than he spoke, and he rarely worried unnecessarily.

So when Pytor saw the dark expressions on his face, and on Eddya’s and Jervis’s as well, he knew something had to be wrong.  He felt his stomach tightening like a fist.

“Looks like you shouldn’t have bothered with those beasts after all,” Brice said to Mart as he sat.

Mart glanced at Pytor uncomfortably before answering.  “It wasn’t a bother, Brice,” he said awkwardly.  “Your price was more than fair.”

“Price doesn’t matter anymore,” Eddya told him, with a chuckle.  She always seemed to be laughing when she spoke, even when she didn’t mean it.

Pytor frowned.  “What does that mean?”

“The timing couldn’t be worse for Bett and me,” Davor said to no one in particular.  “What with having just put up the new shed and all.”

“The timing of what?” Pytor demanded, his voice rising.  “What’s happened?”

Jervis looked at him for several moments, licking his lips.  Then he shook his head.

“We just saw a posting at the meeting hall,” Segel finally said in a low voice.  “The duke has called for a Feast on the tenth night of the waxing.”

Perhaps Pytor should have expected it.  But the ale had begun to work on him, and he wasn’t thinking clearly.  Or maybe that was just an excuse.  Maybe on some level he had expected it, but didn’t want to admit it to himself.  Here, after all, was confirmation of his premonitions.  He could almost see Kara standing before him, nodding with that sad, knowing smile of hers.  He had to clamp his teeth together against a wave of nausea.

Davor was saying something else about his new shed and how many days it had taken him to build it, but Pytor was hardly listening.  There was a noise like a windstorm in his ears, and his head had begun to throb.  He wished he hadn’t drunk that last ale.

A Feast, and on the tenth day no less.  The duke had given them only four days to prepare, not that they could do much.  This was the last thing they needed.  With the weather working itself into a drought, mouth rot killing their animals, and the duke taking more than his share of what they managed to make, it was amazing that they got by at all.  But a Feast, that was too much.  Pytor had been through seven of them in his lifetime, including one the year he was born, but there were just some things a person couldn’t get used to.

“Has it really been six years already?” he heard Eddya ask.

“I believe so,” Jervis answered.  Pytor heard surrender in his words, and he hated him for it.  In certain ways, he and Jervis were nothing alike.

“Hard to believe six years can go so fast,” Mart said softly.  He would go meekly as well.

“It’s been five,” Pytor said, his voice cutting through their chatter.

None of them argued with him.  None of them dared.  Steffan had died on the eve of the last Feast.  Indeed, his death had prompted it.

“Five years rather than six,” Segel said thoughtfully.  “It may be that the duke’s Qirsi has gleaned something.”

“I remember back some years we had an early Feast,” Eddya said, cackling.  “Turned out there were people dead of the pestilence in Domnall.”

Segel nodded.  “That could be it as well.”

“That doesn’t excuse it,” Pytor said, not bothering to mask his bitterness.

“Come now, Pytor,” Brice said.  “We all know how rough the last one was for you.  But that doesn’t mean that we should abandon the whole practice.”

“The Feasts are a barbarism!  They always have been, and I’d be saying that no matter what!”

Brice shook his head.  “They’re a necessity,” he said.  “And getting all riled up about it doesn’t do you or the rest of us a bit of good.  There’s nothing that can be done.”

“You have to admit,” Davor added.  “It has worked.”

“Davor’s right,” Eddya agreed, grinning like a madwoman.  “Galdasten hasn’t had a full-blown outbreak of pestilence in my lifetime.  And my father never saw an epidemic either.  Say what you will, but it works.”

“'It works!'” Pytor mimicked angrily.  “Of course it works!  But at what price?  They could kill us all with daggers beforehand and that would work too!  'No pestilence there,' they’d say.  'Killing them ahead of time works just fine!'”

“You’re being foolish, Pytor,” Brice said.  “No one’s been killed.  The Feasts are a far cry better than that.”

Pytor took a breath, fighting to control his temper, struggling against the old grief.  “And what about those the Feasts don’t save?” he asked in a lower voice.  “What about them?  The Feasts don’t always work.”

“No, they don’t,” Brice said.  “But that’s all the more reason for us to be thankful that the duke is being vigilant.  Better we should do this a year early than wait and let someone else lose a child.  The risks of doing nothing are just too great.  And the Feasts aren’t nearly as awful as the fever itself.  You of all people know what the pestilence can do.  You and Kara were lucky to escape with your lives last time.  All of us were.”  He looked around the table and the others nodded their agreement.  All, that is, except Segel.

“Yes,” Pytor said, nodding reluctantly.  “I know what the pestilence does.”  He shuddered in spite of himself.  He wasn’t stupid.  The pestilence was no trifle.  Murnia’s Gift it was called, named for the dark Goddess by someone with a twisted humor.  It had wiped out entire villages in less than three days.  One particularly severe outbreak two centuries ago had killed over half the people in the entire dukedom in a single waning.  It had taken Steffan in less than a day.

But though it worked quickly, it was far from merciful.  It began, innocently enough, with a bug bite.  It didn’t matter where -- Steffan’s had been on his ankle.  If the bite just swelled and then subsided, there was no need to worry.  But if a small oval red rash appeared around the bite a person was better off taking a dagger to his heart than waiting for what was to come.  Within half a day of the rash’s appearance fever set in, and with it delirium.  The lucky ones lost consciousness during this stage and never awoke again.  Such was the one grace in Steffan’s case.  But those who didn’t pass out -- those whom the Goddess ordained should remain awake for the entire ordeal -- could expect one of two things to happen:  either the vomiting and diarrhea would leave them too weak to do anything but waste away, or they would spend the last hours of their lives coughing up blood and pieces of their lungs.  In either case, they were as good as dead -- and so was anyone who came near them within a day of the bug bite.  Given their unwillingness to leave Steffan when he fell ill, Pytor still didn’t know how he and Kara managed to survive.  

“I’m no stranger to the pestilence either,” Segel said softly, a haunted look in his dark eyes, “but I must say that I agree with Pytor:  there ought to be another way.”

“There!” Pytor said, pointing to the dark man.  “At least one of you has some sense!”

“But what could they do?” Brice demanded.  “The duke has healers and thinkers, not to mention his Qirsi.  If there was another way, don’t you think they would have thought of it by now?”

“Why would they bother?” Pytor asked, throwing the question at him like a blade.  “Their solution doesn’t cost them a thing.  And as you pointed out yourself, the pestilence hasn’t reached the city in ages.  If a boy dies here or there, who cares?  They’re still safe as long as they get their Feast in soon enough.  They have no need to look for another way.”

Brice shook his head.  “Other houses have to deal with it, too.  They haven’t come up with much that’s better.  Some of them just let the pestilence run its course.  Is that what you want?”

“I’d prefer it, yes!”

Brice let out an exasperated sigh and turned away.  “He’s mad,” he said to the rest of them, gesturing sharply in Pytor’s direction.

“They’ve been doing it this way a long time,” Jervis said, his eyes on Pytor, the words coming out as a plea.  “Longer than any of us have been alive.  I don’t like it either, Pytor.  But it has kept our people alive and healthy.”

“'Our people?'” Pytor repeated, practically shouting it at him.  Jervis flinched and Pytor realized that Brice was right:  he was starting to sound crazed.  But he could barely contain himself.  Surely Jervis and the others knew the origins of the Feast.

Nearly two centuries ago, the pestilence struck the House of Galdasten, just as it had every few years for as long as anyone could recall.  Kell XXIII, who later became the fourth Kell of Galdasten to claim Eibithar’s throne, hid himself and his family within the thick stone walls of his castle, praying to the gods that the pestilence might pass over the ramparts of his home and remain only in the countryside.  But while Galdasten Castle had repelled countless invasions and endured sieges that would have brought other houses to their knees, its moat and fabled golden walls were poor defenses against the pestilence.  The duke and duchess were spared, but not their son, Kell XXIV.

In the wake of the boy’s death, Kell ordered the razing of the entire countryside.  It was, most had long since concluded, an act born of spite and rage and grief.  But because the pestilence is carried by the mice living in the fields and houses of the countryside, and spread by the vermin that infest the rodents’ fur, Kell’s fire actually ended the outbreak.  Realizing that he had found a way to control the spread of the pestilence, Kell made a tradition of it.  For a time, he looked to his sorcerers to tell him when outbreaks were coming, but it soon became clear that the interval between outbreaks remained remarkably constant:  six years almost every time.  So that’s when the burnings came.  Every six years.

Kell’s younger son, Ansen continued the practice after his father’s death, but the new duke added the Feast as an appeasement of sorts, a way of softening the blow.  It too became a tradition.  All in the dukedom were invited into Galdasten Castle to partake of a meal that was unequaled by any other.  The duke had his cooks prepare breads and meats of the highest quality.  He had greens and dried fruits brought in from Sanbira and Caerisse just for the occasion.  And of course he opened barrel after barrel of wine.  Not the usual swill, but the finest from Galdasten’s cellars.

All the while, as the people ate and drank, dancing as the court’s musicians played and fancying themselves nobles for just one night, the duke’s Qirsi sorcerers, accompanied by a hundred of Galdasten’s finest soldiers, marched across the countryside, burning every home, barn, and field to the ground.  Nothing was spared, not even the beasts.

In the morning, when the people left the castle and shuffled back to their homes, sated and exhausted, still feeling the effects of the wine, they invariably found the land blackened and still smouldering.  Pytor still remembered the last time with a vividness that brought tears to his eyes.  Steffan had only been dead a day and a half.  There hadn’t even been time for Pytor and Kara to cleanse him for his journey to Bian and the Underrealm.  But when they returned to their land they couldn’t find the walls of their home, much less Steffan’s body.  Such was the force of the sorcerers’ flame.

No, the pestilence hadn’t swept through Galdasten in generations.  Instead, they had their Feasts.

'Our people,'” Pytor said again, more calmly this time.  “The duke doesn’t do this for us.  He couldn’t care less about us.  He does it to protect himself and his kin, just like old Kell did, and Ansen after him.  If the Feast comes a day or two late to save the life of someone else’s child, so what?  That doesn’t matter to him.  This Kell, our Kell, is no different from any of the rest.”

“Fine!” Brice said, the look in his grey eyes as keen as the duke’s blade.  “He does it for himself!  And never mind for a minute what we all know:  that the Feasts have spared us more suffering than you can even imagine!  What do you suggest we do about it?  You’ve seen what the sorcerer’s fire does!  You think we can stand against that?  You think we can fight it?”

Pytor glared at him, not knowing what to say, feeling the color rise in his cheeks.

Brice grinned fiercely, though his face looked dangerously flushed beneath his thick silver hair.  “I thought so,” he said at last.  “You’re all bluster, Pytor.  You always have been.  I thought maybe now that you were finally alone in the world, you might have balls enough to back up all the dung you shovel our way every day.  But I guess I should have known better.”

“That’s enough, Brice!” Mart said sharply.

The wealthy man looked away and said no more.

Mart turned to Pytor, concern furrowing his brow.  “Brice didn’t mean anything by it, Pytor.  He just doesn’t always think before he speaks.”  He cast a reproachful glance Brice’s way before looking at Pytor again.  “Steffan was a fine boy, Pytor.  We all liked him.  And we know that losing him still pains you.  But,” he went on cautiously, as if he expected Pytor to strike him at any moment, “Brice does have a point.  I hate the Feasts as well.  We all do.  But what alternative do we have?”

Pytor didn’t answer him at first.  What did Mart know of his pain?  What did any of them know?  Instead, he kept glaring at Brice, watching him grow more uncomfortable by the moment.  In spite of the tone he had used and all he had said, Brice was afraid of him.  He had been for some time now.  Not because Pytor was bigger or stronger than he.  He was neither.  Brice feared him because Pytor had lost everything, or at least everything that mattered.  Brice still had his family and his farm and his wealth, so he was vulnerable.

He kept his gaze fixed on Brice for a few seconds more, allowing the man’s discomfort to build.  Then he looked at the others.  They were all staring back at him.  Davor looking frightened and confused, Eddya with her crazed grin, and Jervis just looking sad, like an old mule.  Segel was watching him as well, but speculatively, the way a man might regard a piece of land that had been offered to him at a good price.  He was appraising Pytor, considering what he might be capable of doing.  Pytor grinned at him, but Segel’s expression didn’t change.

“There are always alternatives,” Pytor said at last.  “It’s just a matter of having the will to find them.”

Brice let out a high, disbelieving laugh.  “And I suppose you have such will!”

Pytor heard the goad in his words, and he knew then what he would do, what he had to do.  None of the others would act.  They weren’t capable of it.  But he was.  Realizing this, he felt more alive than he had since he’d lost Kara.  He turned slowly to face Brice again, allowing himself a smile.  “I guess we’ll see, won’t we?”

“I’ll tell you what we’ll see,” Brice replied.  He looked scared still, but it almost seemed that he was unable to stop himself.  “We’ll see you at Galdasten, lining up at the gates while the sun’s still high so that you’ll be assured of getting your fair share of wine and mutton.  That’s what we saw at every Feast before the last one.  This one won’t be any different.”

Pytor bared his teeth like a feral dog, hoping Brice would take it for a grin.  “And you’ll be there right next to me, won’t you, Brice?”

“Absolutely,” he said, laughing nervously.  “Absolutely.  We’ll sit together and have a good chuckle over this.  And we’ll fill our cups with the duke’s wine and drink to our good health.”

The others tried to laugh as well, but they were looking at Pytor, trying to gauge his reaction.  When he joined their laughter, their relief was palpable.  Pytor just laughed harder.  He had made his decision.

He glanced over at Segel and saw that the dark man was still eyeing him closely, a strange expression on his lean features, as if he could read Pytor’s thoughts.  Pytor was surprised to find that this didn’t bother him, that in fact he found it comforting.  Segel, of all people, might understand.

The others had begun to talk among themselves, all of them in great humor now that the unpleasantness had passed.  But Segel’s expression remained grim as he moved his chair closer to Pytor’s and signaled Levan for another ale.

“I’m concerned about you,” he said in a voice that only Pytor could hear.

“Concerned?” Pytor replied lightly.

“I like you, my friend.  I think I understand you.  I’d hate to see you come to harm.”

Levan arrived with Segel’s ale and placed it on the table.  The barkeep pointed at Pytor’s empty tankard and raised an eyebrow.  Pytor shook his head and watched the barkeep return to the bar before speaking again.

“I like you, too, Segel.  I respect you.”  He turned to face the man.  “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you or your family.”

Segel’s eyes widened slightly, but otherwise he offered no response.  When he reached for his ale, Pytor saw that his hand remained steady.  After another few moments, Segel turned his attention to what the others were saying.

Pytor left the tavern a short time later.  He was tired, he told the others.  He wanted to check on his beasts before nightfall.  But all the way home he could only think about Segel and their brief exchange.  He hoped that he had made the dark man understand.

The next several days dragged by, like days spent waiting for sown seeds to sprout.  Pytor didn’t change his mind about the decision he had made, though given time to think about it, he felt fear gnawing at his mind like mice in a grain bin.  He tried to keep himself busy by tending to his beasts and his fields, but knowing what was coming, he couldn’t help but wonder why he bothered.  Occasionally he would pause in the fields and stare beyond the pasture and the low roof of his own house to the towers of Galdasten, which rose like a thunder cloud above the farms and the low, gnarled trees.

He didn’t return to Levan’s tavern.  After what he had decided, he couldn’t bring himself to face the others again.  He should have known that they wouldn’t let him off so easy.  The day before the Feast, Mart stopped by.

“I was concerned about you,” the man said, sitting atop his wagon and chewing on his pipe, even though it wasn’t lit.  “We all have been.”

“I’m fine,” Pytor said.  He was putting out grain for the animals, and he avoided Mart’s gaze.  “I’ve just been busy.”

“You shouldn’t listen to Brice, Pytor,” Mart said, no doubt trying to be kind.  “He’s an old fool.  I can say that even after all he’s done for me.  He had no business saying what he did.”

Pytor glanced at him briefly, making himself smile.  “Don’t worry about me, Mart.  I’ve already forgotten it.  As I said, I’ve just been busy.”

Mart nodded.  “All right.  I’ll leave you.  We’ll see you at the Feast though, right?  Triss has been asking after you.”

“I’ll be there,” Pytor said.  “Right along with you and the others.”

Mart had picked up his reins and was preparing to leave, but he stopped now.  “Not all of us,” he said. 

Pytor froze, his heart suddenly pounding like the hooves of a Sanbiri mount.  “What do you mean?”

“Segel told us yesterday that he’s heading south for a while.  He says he’s going to see his sister in Sussyn.”

Pytor felt himself go pale, in spite of his relief.  Apparently the dark man had understood well enough.  “Well, the rest of you then,” he said, fighting to keep his voice steady.  “I’ll see the rest of you tomorrow.”

Mart smiled.  “Good.”  He whistled at his ox and the animal started forward.  “Good night, Pytor,” he called as his cart rolled away, raising a thin haze of dust.

Pytor lifted his hand in farewell, but couldn’t bring himself to say anything.

#

The day of the Feast dawned clear and warm.  Pytor rose with the sun and started out into the fields without bothering to eat.  Now that this day had finally come, his fear had vanished, to be replaced with a sense of grim satisfaction.  At least he was doing something.  At least he was proving Brice wrong.  Indeed, he thought with an inward smile, Brice was to be wrong about a good many things.

Pytor didn’t line up outside the castle gates with the rest of the horde.  He spent nearly the entire day in his fields, and though his arms and hands were covered with bites from vermin by midday, it took him several more hours to find what he had been searching for.

As he approached Galdasten Castle, the prior’s bells tolling in the city and the sun hanging low to the west, he had to keep himself from scratching his arms.  He wasn’t certain which had been the killing bite -- there were rashes around several of them -- but it didn’t really matter.  All he cared about now was getting past the guards before delirium set in.  He had his sleeves rolled all the way down and his hands thrust in his pockets to hide the red welts on his skin.  But the day had grown uncommonly hot, and with the fever coming on, he was sweating like an overworked horse by the time he reached the great golden walls of the castle.  If it hadn’t been for Pytor’s girth, and the fact that the guards could see him hurrying up the path that led to the gates, they might have suspected something and not let him inside.  As it was, he felt rather unsteady on his feet as he walked by them.

This at least he had anticipated.  He had forced down some ale on the way to the castle, and now he endured the guards’ snide comments about his drinking with a good-natured smile and a deferential bob of his head.  It was a small price to pay.  Once he was past them he had nothing to fear.

Pytor made his way slowly through the outer ward to the great hall.  The illness was fully upon him now.  He had hoped that the pestilence would attack his lungs -- that was said to be the quicker death.  But it was not to be.  He had to close his throat hard against the bile rising from his gut, and he stumbled through the doorway into the hall, barely able to keep his balance.

This is what Steffan went through, he thought, bracing himself against the open door.  And one last time he thanked the gods for allowing his boy to slip into unconsciousness before the illness was at its worst.

He shook his head violently, as if the motion itself could rid him of such thoughts.  He needed to concentrate.  He had come for a reason.

Still leaning on the door, Pytor surveyed the scene before him.  It was early still, but already there was food on all the tables and empty wine flasks everywhere.  Though his vision was beginning to blur, he could see that the duke and duchess had arrived and were dancing near the front of the room.  That was all he needed to know.  It would have been nice to see Brice’s face as well, but he didn’t have the strength to look for him.  He could feel himself starting to fall.  It was all he could do to reach into the small pouch that was strapped to his belt, pull out the three mice he had found in his fields, and throw them into the middle of the room.

He fell to the floor retching, his body racked by convulsions.  But he heard the music stop.  He heard the incredulous silence and he could imagine the look on all of their faces as they stared at the tiny creatures who had brought the pestilence to their Feast.  And then, just before another wave of illness carried Pytor toward his own death, he heard the screaming begin.


Chapter 2

Thorald, Eibithar, year 877, Adriel’s Moon waning

They had been in the king’s tower since midday, as far from the city marketplace as they could be.  The lone window in the duke’s private chamber looked out over Amon’s Ocean and its rocky coastline, and Filib could hear breakers pounding endlessly at the base of the dark cliffs.  Gulls called raucously as they wheeled above the ramparts of the castle and the sea wind keened in the stone like Bian’s spirits.

Yet, with all this, and with his uncle droning on yet again about the proper method for keeping account of the thanes’ fee payments, Filib could still hear music coming from the city.  He toyed absently with the gold signet ring on his right hand, wondering where Renelle was at that moment.  In the city, no doubt, enjoying the Revel with everyone else.

“Filib!”

The young lord looked up.  His uncle sat across from him at the broad oak table, anger in his grey eyes, his mouth set in a thin line.

“Yes, Uncle?”

“You could at least do me the courtesy of pretending to listen.  This may not be as fascinating as whatever you’re dreaming about, but I’m sure it’s every bit as important.”

Filib grinned.  “Important, yes.  But as I’ve told you, it’s not necessary.”

The duke frowned, gesturing at the scrolls before him.  “This method--”

“Is not mine, Uncle,” Filib broke in.  “I know that you like it.  I know that you feel my method isn’t as orderly or as clear as yours.  But it works for me.  If you really intend to give me control of the fee accounting, you’re going to have to let me do it my way.”

“This isn’t just my method, Filib,” Tobbar said, his voice softening.  “It was your father’s as well.  And the king’s before him.  Dukes of Thorald have been accounting this way since before the Queen’s War.  Do you really think it’s your place to abandon the practice?”

Filib closed his eyes.  His father.  How was he supposed to argue with that?

“All right,” he said, opening his eyes again and passing a hand through his hair in a gesture his mother would have recognized.  “But can we do this later?  Please?  The Revel--”

“The Revel?” Tobbar repeated, sounding cross again.  He gestured impatiently at the door, as if the musicians, sorcerers, tumblers, and peddlers who traveled with Bohdan’s Revel stood outside the chamber.  “You’re nearly two years past your Fating, Filib.  You should know by now that dukes and lords don’t have time for the Revel.  We’ve more important things to do.  Besides, the Revel will be here for another five or six days.  You’ll have plenty of time for all that later, after we’re done.”  He picked up one of the scrolls again and began to study it.  “The Revel,” he muttered once more, shaking his head.  “Do you think your father would have been more interested in what’s going on in the city than in the thanes’ fees?”

Filib had been expecting this.  “Actually, yes.”

Tobbar looked up again.  Filib could see that he was fighting to keep the grin from his face.

His uncle sighed, then smiled.  “You’re probably right.”

“I’m not sure I see the point of giving me control of the accounting anyway,” Filib said.  “I’ll be king before long.  And then it will fall back to you.  Why bother with all this?”

“Maybe I want a respite from it,” the duke said.  “As you say, this will be mine to do for the rest of my life.  I’d like someone else to do it, even for just a short while.  And I don’t want that person ruining my scrolls with poor work.  Besides,” he went on after a brief pause, “as I’ve told you before, kings have accounting to do as well.  Where do you think our tithe goes every fourth turn?”

“A king has ministers to do this.  Certainly grandfather does.”

Tobbar shook his head.  “Only recently.  When he was younger he did it all himself.”

Filib let out a long breath.  “Fine, you win.  I promise to learn your method.  But not today.  Not until the Revel leaves for Eardley.  Please.”

The duke put the scroll down and leaned back in his chair, a grin on his face, much as Filib’s father might have done.  “It is good this year, isn’t it?”

“The best I can remember,” Filib said, grinning as well.  “It seems a shame to miss any of it.”  He sensed his uncle’s hesitation and he pressed his advantage.  “The fee accounting will still be here long after the Revel is gone.”

“True,” Tobbar said, the smile lingering.  “I suppose that girl of yours is down there as well?”

Filib felt something tighten in his chest.  He had no doubt that she was still angry with him about last night.  It had been the Night of Two Moons in Adriel’s Turn.  Lover’s Night.  They should have been together, she would tell him.  Of all the nights of the year, this was theirs.  That’s what she would say, her dark eyes flashing, or worse, brimming with tears.  As if he didn’t know.  As if he had any choice in the matter.  She knew the limits of what they shared, he’d have to tell her.  Again.  She knew that certain things lay beyond his control, that this was one of them.  But still, she’d be angry and hurt.  Who could blame her?

“Yes,” he said, trying to keep his tone light.  “She’s probably there.”

“You’ve grown quite fond of her, haven’t you?”

Filib shrugged, looked away.  “I care about her.  Shouldn’t I?”

“Of course you should.  As long as you remember who she is, and who you are.”

Filib kept his eyes trained on the window, but he nodded.

“What you said earlier about becoming king soon is true, Filib.  I expect your grandfather to abdicate within the year.  It’s time you started thinking about a wife and heirs.  We’ve been lucky.  The king’s long life has ensured the continuation of Thorald control of the crown, despite you father’s death.  It’s time now that you did your part.”

“Has mother put you up to this, Uncle?” Filib asked, meeting Tobbar’s gaze.

His uncle gave a small smile.  “Not directly, no.  But she has mentioned her concerns to me.  She fears you’ve grown too attached to the girl.”

“Her name is Renelle.”

Tobbar’s expression hardened.  “Comments like that concern me as well.  Her name isn’t important.  In the larger scheme of things, neither is she.  If you wish to keep her as a mistress, I’m sure that can be arranged.  But I don’t want you--”

He stopped suddenly, a stricken expression on his ruddy face.  “Last night!” he breathed.  “You didn’t . . .”

Filib looked to the window again.  “No,” he said, his voice thick.  “We didn’t.”

His uncle let out a sigh.  “Good.  That would have been a terrible mistake, Filib.  You need to be building ties to the other houses right now.  And what better way to do so than with a good match.”

“I know all this, Uncle!” Filib said, his voice rising.  “I don’t need to hear it again from you!”

Tobbar fell silent.  Filib looked away once more, but he could feel his uncle’s eyes upon him.

“I’m not even sure the legend applies in this case,” the young lord said after a lengthy silence.  “It says only that a love consummated on the Night of Two Moons in Adriel’s Turn will last forever.  My . . .” he swallowed.  “My affair with Renelle was  consummated long ago.  Last night probably wouldn’t have mattered.”

“Perhaps not,” Tobbar said softly.  “But you were right not to take the chance.”

Filib nodded again.  A lone gull glided past the window, its cries echoing off the castle walls.  Tonight, he promised himself.  I’ll be with her tonight.  After I ride.

The two of them sat without speaking for some time, Filib staring out the window, the duke, no doubt, watching him.  His uncle deserved better than his tantrums.  In the five years -- five years! -- since the death of Filib’s father, Tobbar had done everything in his power to prepare Filib for the throne.  Where a lesser man might have allowed jealousy and resentment to keep him from such duties, Tobbar had embraced them.  In Aneira, Caerisse, and every other kingdom in the Forelands, Filib knew, a man in Tobbar’s position would have been next in line for the throne, with his heirs inheriting the crown after him.  Only in Eibithar, with its ancient Rules of Ascension, did the line of succession pass over the younger brother in favor of the eldest son of the deceased king.  The rules had been established by the leaders of Eibithar’s twelve houses after the death of King Ouray the Second, the last of the early Thorald kings.  By creating a peaceful process for sharing royal power among Eibithar’s five major houses, the dukes sought to give the land some stability, while preventing one house from establishing an absolute dynasty.

Under the Rules of Ascension, only the king’s eldest son or eldest grandson, if he had come of age, could inherit the throne.  If the king had no heir, power passed to the duke of the highest ranking house not in power.  Thorald ranked highest of all the houses, for it was the house of Binthar, Eibithar’s first great leader.  After Thorald came Galdasten, Curgh, Kentigern, and Glyndwr.  Thus, if Filib’s grandfather, Aylyn the Second, had died in the interim between the death of Filib’s father and Filib’s Fating, the duke of Galdasten would have taken the crown.  Or rather, the duke of Curgh, Filib realized, remembering with a shudder the dreadful incident at Galdasten that killed the duke and his family several years before. 

Because Thorald was the preeminent house in Eibithar, and because power always reverted to the highest ranking house, Filib’s house had held the throne for more years than any other.  Filib’s father would have been pleased to know that his death would not keep Filib from taking his place in Thorald’s pantheon of kings.

A knock on the duke’s door broke a lengthy silence.  Tobbar and Filib exchanged a look, then the older man called for whomever had come to enter.

The door opened and Enid ja Kovar, the duke’s first minister stepped into the chamber.

“Sire,” the Qirsi woman said as she entered.  “I was just--”  Seeing the younger man, she stopped.  “Lord Filib, I didn’t know you were here.  Forgive me for interrupting.”

“It’s all right, Enid,” Tobbar said.  He glanced at his nephew.  “I think we’re done.”

Filib stood.  “Thank you, Uncle.”

“I’m going to hold you to that promise, though.  When the Revel leaves, you’re going to learn the old method.”

“You have my word,” Filib said, grinning.

“You’re off to the Revel, my lord?” the first minister asked, her yellow eyes reflecting the light from the window.  Like all the men and women of the sorcerer race, she had white hair and skin so pale that it was almost translucent.  Enid wore her hair pulled back from her face, making her appear even more frail than most Qirsi.  Filib sometimes found it hard to remember that she wielded such powerful magic.  Yet just two years before, when a late-night fire threatened to sweep through the center of the walled city below the castle, he had seen this wisp of a woman raise a dense mist that dampened the flames, and a stiff wind that blew against the prevailing natural gale to keep the fire from spreading.  Without her magic the townsfolk might not have been able to put the fire out before it claimed the entire city.

“Yes,” Filib told her.  “I’m heading to the Revel now.  Have you been?”

She gave an indulgent smile, as if he were still a child.  “I find the Revel  . . . tiresome.  However, I will be at the banquet tonight.  I trust I’ll see you there?”

The banquet.  He had forgotten.  He had no choice really; he had to be there.  He was hosting it, along with his mother and Tobbar.  But how would he explain this to Renelle?  She’d be there as well, though not at his table of course, and she’d expect to be with him after.  But he needed to ride.  It was going to be a very late night.

His uncle was watching him closely, awaiting his reply to Enid’s question.

He made himself smile.  “Yes, of course I’ll be there.”

Tobbar continued to stare at him, as if expecting him to say more.

“I give you my word, Uncle,” Filib told him.  “I’ll be there.”

Still, his uncle did not look satisfied.  “Then why are you behaving as though it’s the last place you intended to be?  Is this about that--?”  He stopped himself.  “Is this about Renelle again?”

“No, it’s not.”  He exhaled heavily.  “I had planned to ride tonight,” he said at last.  “That’s all.  It’s not important.  I’ll just do it after the banquet.”

Tobbar paled.  “I’m sorry, Filib.  My memory is not what it once was.”

“I’m afraid I’m a bit lost,” Enid said looking from Filib to the duke.

“My father was killed during a hunt the night of Panya’s full,” Filib said.  Just speaking the words made him shiver.  He still remembered being awakened by the tolling of the guard house bells and hearing his mother wailing in the next chamber.

“Forgive me,” the Qirsi woman said.  “I hadn’t come to Thorald yet.  But it was my understanding that this happened in Kebb’s Turn.”

Filib nodded, playing with the ring again.  “It did.  But each turn, on this night, I honor my father by riding to the place of his death.  And on this night in Kebb’s Turn, after leading the hunt as he once did, I remain there until dawn.”

“It seems a fine way to remember him, my lord,” Enid said.

“Thank you.”

“I’ll see to it that the final course is served early enough, Filib,” his uncle said.  “I should have remembered.  Forgive me.”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Filib said with a shrug.  “Mother says I’m foolish to do this more than once a year.”  He smiled.  “Actually she called it unhealthful.  But I’ll have to stop anyway once I leave for Audun’s Castle, so I feel that I should continue until then.”

“Each of us honors your father in his or her own way,” Tobbar told him.  “Including your mother.  I see nothing wrong with your rides, and I’ll tell her as much the next time I speak with her.”

“Thank you.”

“Be watchful tonight, though,” he went on.  “For all that the Revel gives us, it also attracts more than its share of knaves and vagrants.  I’d feel better if you’d take one of your liegemen.”

“I’ll be fine, Uncle.  I do this every turn, and I always do it alone.”

“Very well,” Tobbar said, shaking his head slightly.

Filib glanced toward the window.  The sunlight on the castle walls had taken on the rich golden hue of late day.  He barely had time to find Renelle before he’d be expected back at the castle for the banquet.

“Go on, Filib,” the duke said.  “We’ll see you soon.”

He was walking toward the door almost before Tobbar had finished speaking.  He stopped himself long enough to bow to his uncle and nod once to the Qirsi woman.  Then he hurried out of the chamber, down the winding stone steps of the tower, and out into the daylight.  With any luck at all, he’d find Renelle in the markets.  He could only hope that in her happiness at seeing him she’d forget her anger.

#

The singer beside him was nearing the end of the first movement, her voice climbing smoothly through the closing notes of “Panya’s Devotion,” finding subtleties in the piece that most singers missed.  This was a difficult passage, although no part of The Paean to the Moons could be considered easy, and she was handling it quite well.

Cadel couldn’t remember her name, though they had been practicing together since the second day of the Revel.  It was not unusual for wandering singers in the Forelands to meet up with others of their craft, practice and perform with them for a short while, and then, after a most careful division of their wages, part ways to continue their travels.  It was especially common in the cities hosting Eibithar’s Revel.  Cadel and Jedrek had been making their way through the Forelands in this manner for nearly fourteen years; they had sung with more people than Cadel could recall.

He had never been very good with names, a trait that actually was quite useful in his other, true profession.  But in this case, he would have liked to remember, merely as a courtesy.  She had not been shy about showing her interest in him, allowing her gaze to linger on his face, even after he caught her watching him, and standing closer to him than was necessary when they sang.  He liked bold women.  Had he and Jedrek not had other business to which to attend, he might have been interested as well.  She was rather attractive, with short dark hair, pale green eyes, and a round, pretty face, and she was just a bit heavy, which he also liked.  But most of all, she was a fine singer, her voice strong and supple.  For that reason alone, he felt that he should have known her name.  Her interpretation of “Panya’s Devotion” had earned his respect.

Jedrek and the woman’s sister, whose name Cadel had also forgotten, were backing her with a strong, even counterpoint, their voices twined like lovers.  The two of them had spent the previous night together, Cadel knew, and it showed in their singing.  Jedrek gave little credence to the moon legends, although he wasn’t above using the promise of a lifetime of love to lure a woman into his bed.  He had being doing it for several years.  Nonetheless, it still angered Cadel to see him behaving so recklessly under these circumstances.  He hadn’t gotten the chance to talk to Jedrek about it this morning -- Jedrek and the woman had arrived only a few moments before their performance began -- but he would as soon as they ended their performance.

The first woman -- what was her name? -- had reached the end of “Panya’s Devotion.”  The counterpoint was to complete its cycle once, and then it was Cadel’s turn.  He took a long, slow breath, readying himself.  The opening of “Ilias’s Lament” was by far the most difficult part of the Paean’s second movement.  It began at the very top of Cadel’s range and remained there for several verses before falling briefly during the middle passages.  It rose again at its end, but by then his voice would be ready.  The opening, that was the challenge.

The counterpoint completed its turn.  Cadel opened his mouth, and keeping his throat as relaxed as possible, he reached for the opening note.  And found it.  Perfectly.  His voice soared, like a falcon on a clear day, and he gave himself over to the music, allowing the bittersweet melody and the tragic tale imparted by the lyrics, to carry him through the movement.

Those who knew him -- or thought they did -- solely through his profession would have been surprised to see what music did to him.  At times, he was surprised by it himself.  How many times had he finished a passage of surpassing emotion, only to find that his cheeks were damp with tears?  Yes, there was a precision to the art that excited him, just the way the precision demanded by his other craft did.  But there was more.  Music had the power to soothe him, even as it exhilarated.  It offered him both release and fulfillment.  In many ways, it was not unlike the act of love.

With no piece was all of this truer than with the Paean.  Normally it was sung only once a turn, on the Night of Two Moons.  But their performance last night had been such that all those who missed it and heard others speak of what they had done, demanded that they repeat it this day.  Jedrek and the women had been more than happy to oblige, but Cadel hesitated.  The previous night’s performance had been wondrous.  Singing the second movement, Cadel had felt for just a moment that Ilias himself had reached down from Morna’s sky to add his voice to Cadel’s own.  The others had sung brilliantly as well, particularly the woman singing Panya’s part.

But magic such as they had found the previous night was not to be taken for granted.  They could not be certain that they would find it again.  Besides, he and Jedrek had other things to do this day.  It was only when one of the local innkeepers offered them twice the wage they had earned the previous night to sing the Paean again that Cadel realized he had no choice in the matter.  Not that he or Jedrek needed the gold.  But they were supposed to be wandering bards, and no bard could turn down such a wage without arousing suspicion.

So here he was, singing the Lament again, and, much to his amazement, giving a better performance than he had the night before.  All of them were.  He had only to see the expressions on the faces of those listening to them to know it was true.  Even sung poorly, the Paean was a powerful piece of music, capable of evoking tears from the most impassive audiences.  But when sung by masters, it could overwhelm listeners with its splendor and arouse within them the same passion, longing, and heartache it described.   

It told of the love shared by Panya, a Qirsi woman, and Ilias, an Eandi man.  The two races were young then, and the gods who created them, Qirsar and Ean, had long hated each other and had thus decreed that the Qirsi and Eandi should remain apart.  But what Panya and Ilias shared went deeper even than their fear of the great ones.  Soon Panya was with child, and Qirsar’s rage flared like the fire magic some of his people possessed.  For it was well known that Qirsi women were too frail to bear the children begotten by Eandi men.  When Panya’s time came, she lived long enough to deliver her child, a beautiful daughter, but then she died.  Ilias, bereft of his love and unable to find consolation in the birth of his daughter, took his own life, hoping to join his beloved in Bian’s realm.

Qirsar, however, had something else in mind for them.  He changed the lovers into moons, one white and one red, and placed them in the sky for all to see, as a warning to Qirsi and Eandi who dared to love one another.  For all eternity, the great one declared, the lovers would pursue each other among the stars, but never would they be together or even see each other again.  Whenever white Panya rose, red Ilias would set, and only when she disappeared below the horizon would he rise again.

But so great was their love, that even in death they were able to defy the God.  The first time Panya rose into the night sky, brilliant and full, she paused at the summit of her arc.  And there she waited until Ilias could join her.  Ever after, they traveled the sky together, their cycles nearly identical.

Cadel moved slowly through the second movement, carrying his audience with him through the range of Ilias’s emotions:  his passionate love for the Qirsi woman, his fear of the wrath of the gods and his joy at finding that Panya was with child, and finally, as the melody spiraled upwards again toward the Lament’s heart-rending conclusion, his anguish at losing Panya.  Jedrek and the second woman stayed right with him throughout, easing the tempo of their counterpoint as he lingered on Ilias’s passion, matching him as he quickened his pace to convey Ilias’s fear, and, at the last, slowing once more, to wring heartache from their melody as he sang Ilias’s grief.

The third and final movement, “The Lovers’ Round,” which described Panya and Ilias’s final defiance of Qirsar, was sung as a canon.  It began with the first woman singing the lyrical, intricate melody in a high register.  As she moved to the second verse, Cadel joined in, beginning the melody again, though at a lower pitch.  He was followed by the second woman, who was followed by Jedrek.  Thus the melody, first sung high, then low, then high again, then low again, circled back on itself, each voice drawn along by the previous one.  Just as Ilias followed Panya through the sky, turn after turn, so their voices followed, one after the other, thirteen times through this final theme, for the thirteen turns of the year.

They finished the piece and the audience erupted with cheers and clapping.  But much more gratifying for Cadel was the single moment of utter silence just after their last notes had died away and just before the applause began.  For that silence, that moment of awe and reverence, of yearning and joy, told him more about what their music had done to those listening than all the cheers the people could muster.

He glanced at the woman beside him and they shared a smile.  What is your name?

“You sing very well,” he whispered to her.

Her smile deepened, though she didn’t blush as some women might have.  “As do you.”

Each one of them bowed in turn, then the four of them bowed in unison and they left the stage, the noise from the audience continuing even after they were gone.  Four times they returned to bow and wave, and four times the people called them back, until finally the innkeeper came to them and asked if they would sing the Paean once more, for another five qinde apiece.

Once more, Jedrek and the other woman were willing, but this time Cadel and the dark-haired woman refused.

“But, Anesse!” the second woman said, turning toward her sister.  “He’s offering gold!”

Anesse!  Of course.  Anesse and Kalida.

Anesse shook her head.  “I don’t care if he’s offering fifty qinde.  Twice is enough.”  Her eyes strayed toward Cadel for just an instant.  “We found magic twice with the Paean.  We’d be fools to chance a third time.”

The younger woman opened her mouth, but Anesse stopped her with a raised finger.  “No, Kalida.  That’s my final word.”

Cadel nodded his approval and faced the innkeeper.  “I’m afraid we must refuse.”

The man looked disappointed, but he managed a smile.  “I figured as much.”  He turned away and started toward the bar.  “I’ll get your wage and you can be on your way,” he said over his shoulder.

Cadel glanced at Jedrek, who gave a small nod.  The time for singing was over.  They had business.

“Will you be joining us at the banquet tonight, Corbin?”

It took him a moment.  The alias had chosen for the Revel.

“I’m afraid not,” he said, meeting her gaze.  It was a shame, really.  He would have enjoyed passing a night or two in her arms.  “Honok and I will be visiting with some old friends this evening.”

She gave a small frown.  “That’s too bad.  I had hoped to spend some time with you, away from all this.”  She gestured toward the stage, giving him the same knowing smile she had offered earlier as they finished singing.

“I’d like that as well.  Honok and I will be in the marketplace tomorrow, singing some Caerissan folk songs.  Perhaps after we’ve finished?”

Cadel knew what she’d say.  He had overheard the two women discussing their plans a few days before.  Still, he had no trouble acting disappointed when Anesse explained that they would be leaving for Sanbira the next morning.

“So we’re not going to see you again at all?” Kalida said plaintively, looking from her sister to Jedrek.

“It seems not,” Cadel answered.  “At least not for some time.”  He smiled at Anesse.  “But perhaps Adriel will bring us together again.”

“She will if she has an ear for music,” the dark-haired woman said, grinning.

Truly a shame.

They all turned at the sound of coins jingling.  The innkeeper was approaching, digging into a small pouch as he walked.

“I believe we agreed upon four qinde each,” he said as he stopped in front of them.

Cadel gave a small laugh, but when he spoke his voice carried just a hint of steel.  “And I’m certain it was eight.”

The man looked up.  He was quite heavy, with white, wispy hair and yellowed teeth.  He walked with an exaggerated limp.  This was not a man who was looking for a fight.

He merely nodded.  “Of course, I’d forgotten.  Eight it is.  And worth every qinde.”

He handed them each their coins and then smiled, his breath smelling of ale and pipe smoke.  “If you’re back for next year’s Revel, I hope you’ll sing for us again.  At the same wage, naturally.”

“If we’re back,” Cadel said, “we’d be delighted.”

The four singers left the inn by way of a rear door which let out into a grassy area near the west wall of Thorald city.  Immediately, Jedrek and Kalida moved off a short distance to say their goodbyes, leaving Cadel alone with Anesse.

The woman stared after her sister for a moment before facing Cadel, a wry grin on her lips.

“Well,” she said, “if there’s any truth to the old legends, we’ll probably see each other again at Kalida and Honok’s joining.”

Cadel hesitated and Anesse began to laugh.

“Don’t worry,” she told him with obvious amusement.  “Kalida doesn’t believe in the legends any more than your friend seems to.”  Her smile changed, deepened.  “I do, however, and I should tell you that I still was tempted to seek out your chambers last night.”

“I almost wish you had.”

She arched an eyebrow.  “Almost?”

“I take the moon legends seriously, too.  Even if you had come, I’m not certain what would have happened.”

“Fair enough,” she said.  “But what about now?  I don’t think Kalida and Honok would mind a few hours together before evening.  And we have nothing to fear today from the legends.”

He was tempted by her offer.  Who wouldn’t have been?  But he had to meet someone before sundown, and on days such as these he did not allow himself any distractions.  Except for music, of course, which actually served to sharpen his mind.

“I wish I could.  But Honok and I must rehearse for this evening.  We’re visiting friends, but like all our friends, they’ll expect us to sing, and we have nothing prepared.”

“If I didn’t know better, Corbin, I’d say you were putting me off.”

He felt himself growing tense and he tried not to let it show.  “I’m sorry if it seems that way.  I meant what I said before:  I hope the goddess will bring us together again.  But I’m afraid this isn’t our time.”

Anesse shrugged and smiled.  “Very well.  Until next time then.”  She glanced back toward where Jedrek and her sister had been and, seeing that they were gone, looked at Cadel again, a question in her green eyes.  “Where did they go?”

“I think they went around to the side of the inn for some privacy,” he said.  No doubt Jedrek had her pressed up against the building wall by now.

Anesse frowned.  “Kal?” she called.

For several moments there was no reply.

“Just a minute,” her sister finally answered, her voice breathless and muffled.

The woman faced him again, looking uncomfortable, and they stood that way for a few more minutes, waiting for Jedrek and Kalida to return.

He’s gone too far this time, Cadel thought, his anger at Jedrek building as they waited.  He and Jedrek had been together for a long time, but in recent turns Jedrek had started acting strangely, taking risks where once he never would have thought of doing so.  Perhaps it was the inevitable result of success, or a natural response to so many years of caution.  Whatever the reason, it had to stop before one of them got killed.

When at last Jedrek and the woman returned to the grassy area behind the inn, their hair and clothes disheveled, Cadel was ready to throttle him.  Kalida, her color high, refused to meet her sister’s gaze, but Jedrek seemed far too pleased with himself.  He grinned at Cadel sheepishly and gave a slight shrug, as if the gesture alone could excuse his behavior.  At least he had the good sense to keep his mouth shut.

“Goodbye, Anesse,” Cadel said, as he and Jedrek turned to leave.  “Gods keep you safe.”

He didn’t look back, but he sensed that she was smiling.

“And you, Corbin,” she said.

For some time as they walked, neither of them said a thing, and even when Cadel did begin to speak, he kept his tone low and casual, so as not to draw the attention of passersby.

“I’ve half a mind to kill you here in Thorald, and leave your body for the duke’s men to find tomorrow morning.”

Jedrek faltered in midstride for just an instant before resuming his normal gait.  The smile had vanished from his lean face.  He swallowed, then whispered, “Why?”

Cadel looked at him sidelong.  “You have to ask why?”  He shook his head.  “Perhaps I should kill you,” he muttered.  They walked a few paces in silence.  “You understand your job, right?  You know what I expect of you?”

“I’ve been doing this for fourteen years,” Jedrek said, sounding defensive.  “I ought to know my role by now.”

“Yes, you ought to!” Cadel said, his voice rising.  He glanced around quickly.  Two or three of the street vendors were eyeing him, but no one else seemed to have paid any attention.  “You ought to,” he repeated in a lower voice.  “I need you to guard my back, Jed.  I need you to keep anything unexpected from ruining my plans.  You’ve saved my life more times than I care to count, and I need to know that you’re capable of doing it again should the need arise.  And here we are in Thorald, the heart of Eibithar, on the verge of completing the most lucrative job we’ve ever had, and you’re acting like a rutting pig.”

Jedrek didn’t say anything for some time.  When he finally did respond, he sounded contrite.  “You’re right.  It won’t happen again.  I swear.”

“It better not, or I will kill you.  This is a young man’s profession.  We all get too old for it eventually.  I’d hate to think that your time had come already.”

Jedrek halted and grabbed Cadel by the arm so that they were facing each other.  “I’m not too old!” he said, his dark eyes boring into Cadel’s.

Cadel grinned.  “I’m glad to hear it.  And I’m glad to see that I can still get a rise out of you.”

Jedrek glared at him for another moment before giving in to a smile and shaking his head.

“You bastard,” he said, as they started walking again.

They reached the inn a short time later.  Cadel had arranged to meet with their employer just after the ringing of the prior’s bell, which would come within the hour.  He had agreed to come alone -- his employers often asked this of him -- and he gave Jedrek leave to wander the city and enjoy the Revel for a time while he changed clothes and kept his appointment.

He climbed the stairs and walked down the narrow corridor to their room.  But as he approached the door, he saw that it was slightly ajar.

Instantly his dagger was in his hand, its worn stone hilt feeling cold and smooth against his fingers.  He crept forward, each step as delicate as a kiss, and laying his free hand gently on the door, prepared to fling it open and launch himself at the intruder.

“It’s all right,” a woman’s voice called.  “I’d have thought you’d be expecting me.”

Exhaling, he straightened and pushed the door open.

He had never met the Qirsi woman he saw reclining casually on his bed, though he knew her name, and her title.  Enid ja Kovar, first minister to the duke of Thorald.  He also knew that she was right.  He should have expected her.


Chapter 3

“We were to meet by the upper river gate,” Cadel said, stepping into the room and shutting the door behind him.  “Why the change?”

Still reclining on his bed, the woman smiled at the sight of his dagger.  “Was that intended for me?  I hope not.  It wouldn’t be prudent to kill the duke’s minister.”

He returned the blade to the sheath within his tunic.  “Why did you change our plans?” he asked again.

She sat up and gave a small shrug.  “You have a reputation as a dangerous man, Cadel.  I prefer to meet with dangerous men on my own terms, at places and times of my own choosing.”

“You hired me because of my reputation.  It strikes me as strange that you’d suddenly find yourself afraid of me.”

The smile sprung back to her lips, though her pale yellow eyes remained grim.  “I never said I was afraid of you.  If you deal with the Qirsi for any length of time, you’ll find that we’re not easily frightened.”

He shuddered at the thought.  He had no desire to deal with the Qirsi for any longer than was absolutely necessary.  It was not just that he found their powers daunting, though certainly that was much of it.  But more than that, he didn’t even like to look at them.  With their white hair and pallid skin they looked more like wraiths than people, as if they had been sent from the Underrealm by Bian himself to walk among the Eandi.

They had first come to the Forelands nearly nine hundred years before, crossing the Border Range from the Southlands intent upon conquering the northern tribes with their magic and their bright blades.  Instead they were defeated, the survivors of their invasion scattered throughout the kingdoms.  Yet somehow, no doubt due to their powers, they quickly assumed positions of great importance in every court in the Forelands.  To this day, they wielded tremendous influence in all the seven realms, advising kings and queens, dukes and thanes.

Enid laughed gently.  “You don’t relish the notion of doing business with the Qirsi for an extended time.  You should.  We have access to gold, we live in every kingdom in the Forelands, and we don’t tend to live very long, a trait that should be especially attractive to a man of your talents.”

“I work for gold,” Cadel told her, keeping his tone neutral.  “I don’t work for one set of people to the exclusion of others.”

“I realize that.  I just hope that you’ll consider working for us in the future, when we have need.  Everyone knows that Cadel Nistaad of Caerisse is the best assassin money can buy.”

Cadel stiffened at the sound of his surname.  Even Jedrek didn’t know it.  He had done everything in his power to leave it behind when he left his home in southern Caerisse sixteen years ago, even going so far as to stage his own death and have his family informed that he had gone to the Underrealm.  An assassin couldn’t afford to have a past or a name, at least not one that could be traced.  So he had thought to eliminate his.  Up until now, he felt certain that he had succeeded, that nobody knew.

“How--?”  He stopped himself, not wishing to let her see that she had unsettled him.

“How did I know your full name?”  She opened her hands.  “I know a great deal about you.  Your father is a minor noble in southern Caerisse, a viscount I believe, who’s more interested in his vineyards and horses than he is in politics.  Your mother is the daughter of a northern marquess who had hoped she would marry better.  Her first pregnancy -- as it turned out, her only one -- dashed all hopes of that and forced the marriage.  You left your home at the age of sixteen, without ever having your Fating.  The reason for your departure isn’t clear, though there seems to have been a girl involved, as well as a rival for her affections who turned up dead.”

He crossed to the room’s lone window and stared down at the lane below.  “How can you know all this?”

“I’m first minister to the duke of Thorald.  And I’m Qirsi.  I have resources at my disposal the likes of which you can’t even imagine.  Never forget that, Cadel.”

As if to prove her point, she produced a leather pouch that jingled much as the innkeeper’s had, and held it out to him.  He took it reluctantly.  It was heavy with coins.  He stared at her briefly, then pulled it open and poured the contents into his hand.  There must have been twenty gold pieces.  Two hundred qinde.

“This is more than we agreed,” he said quietly, returning the coins to the pouch.

“You see?  Sometimes a change in plans can work to your advantage.”  She watched him, as if waiting for a reaction.  When he gave none, she went on.  “Consider the extra gold an incentive.  As I was saying, we may wish to hire you again.”

He looked down at the pouch, feeling the weight of the coins in his hand.  But it was the threat implied by her chilling knowledge of his youth that occupied his mind.  An incentive, she had said.  And, in case that didn’t work, she had shown him the cudgel as well.

“What about tonight?” he asked, his eyes still on the money bag.

“He rides tonight, after the banquet.  He’ll be in the North Wood.”

“The wood?” Cadel said, meeting her gaze.

“He honors his father, who died there several years back.  A hunting accident, I believe.”

“Do you know where in the wood he’ll be?”

She nodded.  “His father died near the Sanctuary of Kebb, on the north edge of the wood just east of Thorald River.  Do you know it?”

“Yes.”

“I assume he’ll be there.”

“And that’s where you want it done?”

She smiled at that, her small, sharp teeth as white as her hair.  “It seems fitting doesn’t it?  It was good enough for the father, it will do for the son.”

Cadel offered no response, and after a moment she continued.  “I want this to look like the work of thieves.  The boy’s uncle pointed out today that the Revel brings with it a collection of miscreants and lawbreakers.  He’ll readily believe that one of them is responsible.”

“All right.”

“That means you can’t be seen leaving the city; you can’t use any of the gates.”

It was Cadel’s turn to smile.  “That’s not a problem.”

“You’ll have to be careful getting back in, as well.  You should be seen here tomorrow.  It might arouse suspicion if you were to just disappear.”

He held up the pouch of gold.  “You’ve paid me a great deal, First Minister, because you know I’m the best.  Let me worry about the fine points.  I won’t be seen leaving or entering the city, and I have no intention of disappearing.  In fact, I expect to be singing 'The Dirge of Kings' at the young lord’s funeral.”

“I’ll look forward to that, Cadel.  I hear you sing quite beautifully.”

He bowed his head slightly, acknowledging the compliment.  “Is there anything more that we need to discuss, First Minister?”

“No,” she said.  “Leave me.”

He hesitated.  “But this is my room.”

“Yes.  But no one should see me leave.  Not even you.”

“I need to change my clothes.”

“Please,” she said with a raised eyebrow and a coy grin, “be my guest.”

Again he shuddered, as though from a chill wind.  But the first minister showed no sign of relenting.  In the end, Cadel stood in the far corner of the room, his back to her, changing out of the tunic and trousers in which he had performed, and into simple, dark clothes far better suited to what he was to do that night.  When he was finished, he walked to the door wordlessly and put his hand on the knob.  Then he stopped himself and faced her again.

“Why do you want him dead?” he asked.

He had never asked this of an employer before, but neither had he ever been asked to kill a future king.

She regarded him for some time, as if trying to decide whether or not to answer.  At last she gave a small shrug.  “We sense an opportunity, a chance to gain control of events here in the Forelands.  We don’t want it to slip away.”

“With so many Qirsi in the courts, I would have thought that you already control everything you need.”

She smiled, as if indulging him.  “We don’t control everything.  Sometimes events show us the way.  The deaths in Galdasten, for instance.  An accident of history, the act of a madman.  The same is true of the incident that claimed the boy’s father.  Another accident, or perhaps an act of the gods.  But these events created the opportunity I mentioned a moment ago.  And with your help we’re going to turn this opportunity to our advantage.”

He nodded, profoundly relieved to learn that at least some of what happened in the Forelands lay beyond the reach of Qirsi magic.  Still, he couldn’t help feeling that by killing on their behalf, he made it easier for the white-hairs to turn subsequent events to their purposes.

He turned and pulled the door open, but before he could leave, the Qirsi woman called his name.

He looked at her once more and waited.

“What is it about the Qirsi that bothers you so much?  Our magic?  The way we look?”

“Yes, both of those,” he said.  “But mostly it’s that you don’t belong here.  Your place is in the Southlands.  The Forelands were meant to be ours.”

She nodded.  “I see.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes, that’s all.  Do well tonight, Cadel, and in time the gold in that pouch will seem a pittance.”

He felt his jaw tense, but he bowed his head once more, then left her and went in search of Jedrek.  Gold is gold, he told himself as he walked.  It doesn’t matter from where it comes.  Certainly that was what Jed would say.

Cadel found Jedrek in the city marketplace, haggling with a peddler over the price of a Sanbiri blade.

“Leave it, Honok,” Cadel said as he approached the vendor’s table.  “You can’t afford it anyway.”

Jedrek glanced at him sourly, before facing the merchant again.  “I could if this Wethy goat would be reasonable.”

“Twelve qinde is as reasonable as I intend to be,” the peddler said in a raspy voice.

“It may be worth twelve qinde in Wethyrn, old man, but it’s worth half that any place else.”

“We’ll give you ten for it,” Cadel said.  “Final offer.”

The merchant eyed him warily for a few moments.  “Done,” he finally said.

Careful to keep the money from the Qirsi woman hidden, Cadel pulled out two five qinde pieces and handed them to the man.  The merchant took the money and made a point of handing the dagger to Cadel rather than Jedrek.

“Thank you, good sir,” he said to Cadel, a toothless grin on his wizened face.  Then he cast a dark look at Jedrek.  “It’s always a pleasure to do business with a gentleman.”

Cadel nodded once, before walking away.  Jedrek hurried after him, holding his hand out for the blade.  But for several moments Cadel held onto it, examining the bright steel and the polished wood handle.  It was actually a fine piece of work.  Sanbiri blades were the best in the Forelands, except perhaps for those made in Uulrann, which were exceedingly hard to find.  At last he handed the dagger to Jedrek.

“Thanks,” Jedrek said, taking time to look at it as well.  “You can take the ten qinde out of my share.”

“I will,” Cadel said.  “It’s a good blade.”  He paused, before adding, “Better than a musician needs.”

Jedrek shot him a look.  “Then why did you buy it for me?”

“The damage had been done.  Better we should get out of there quickly, without a fuss, than have you argue with the goat until sundown.”

Jedrek shook his head, a sullen look on his lean face.  “So now I’m not even allowed to buy a dagger?  Is that what you’re saying?  Come on Ca--.”  He stopped himself.  “Corbin, I mean.  You’re not being reasonable.  We just gave a great performance, and we did nothing to hide the fact that we were paid very well for it.  Can’t I enjoy that?”

He had a point.

“You told me earlier that I was growing careless,” Jedrek went on, obviously struggling to keep his voice low.  “I think it’s just as possible that you’re trying to be too careful.  You’re the one who’s acting like an old man, not me.”

Cadel had to resist an urge to strike him.  But he also had to admit that Jedrek was right.  It was one thing to be prudent; it was something else entirely to act out of fear.  In many ways it was as dangerous as taking no precautions at all.  It was possible that by trying too hard not to stand out, they could draw attention to themselves.  Yes, the dagger was an extravagance.  But wandering musicians needed to protect themselves from thieves, and fresh from their performances, Jedrek could be expected to celebrate a bit.

Cadel’s meeting with the first minister had left him shaken, but he had no right to take that out on Jedrek.

“You’re right,” Cadel said.  “Enjoy it.  It’s a fine dagger.  Nicer than mine, to be honest.”

Jedrek stared at him for several moments, as if not quite sure whether to believe what Cadel was saying.  Finally he grinned.  “I know it’s nicer.  That’s why I wanted it.”  He slipped the blade into his tunic.  “So where’s your meeting?” he asked a moment later, as they continued to walk.

“I’ve already had it.”

“What?”

“Our employer was waiting for me in our room.”

“How did he know where we were staying?  How did he get past the barkeep?”

Cadel saw no reason to correct him.  “I’m not sure.”

Jedrek dropped his voice to a whisper.  “So are we doing it tonight?”

“Yes.  In the wood.  He’ll be on horseback.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem.”

Cadel nodded.  “I agree.  We also have to avoid the city gates.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem either.  Did he pay you already?”

“Yes.  More than twice what we were promised.”  Cadel grinned at the expression on Jedrek’s face.  “Wish you had held out for a bigger blade?”

“I should have gotten two.”

They circled once through the city, then returned to the inn at which they were staying.

“Go upstairs and change out of your performance clothes,” Cadel said.  “Then join me down here.  We’ll eat supper and go back to the markets.  From there, when it’s time, we’ll make our way to the wall.”

Jedrek nodded and climbed the stairs to their room, while Cadel claimed a table in the back of the inn and ordered two plates of fowl and greens.

The two men lingered over the meal, which, though not particularly good, was not as bad as some of the meals Cadel had endured in inns like this one over the years.  They left the inn just as the sunset bells were ringing.  The sky had darkened to a shade of deepest blue, except in the west where the last rays of crimson and yellow still blazed.  To the east, Panya, the white moon -- the Qirsi moon -- hung just above the city wall.  A handful of stars could be seen overhead, pale as Qirsi skin.  The air was still, which would make it harder to slip by the guards, but easier to hear the approach of their prey.

Cadel and Jedrek walked slowly back through the marketplace.  Many of the merchants’ tables had been cleared away to make room for the Revel’s street performers.  Tumblers soared through the air, twisting and rolling like swallows on a warm day.  Bright flames leaped from the mouths of fire-eaters, and jugglers tossed gold and silver balls into the warm, sweet air.  A company of Qirsi sorcerers conjured flames of every imaginable hue that danced and whirled as though they were alive.  Musicians played at intervals along the street, the music from one group mingling with that of the next.

In the center of Thorald City, outside a great tent, young men and women of Determining and Fating ages stood in a long, winding line, waiting to have their futures foretold by the Qirsi gleaner inside.  For all the spectacles of Bohdan’s Revel, the dancers spinning and gliding in the streets, the falconers displaying the talents of their birds, the tournaments of strength and speed and sword-skill waged by men of fighting age, the gleaning remained its most important element, just as it lay at the core of the traveling festivals found in the other kingdoms of the Forelands.  For children in their twelfth and sixteenth years, it was all they could think of during the turns leading up to the Revel’s arrival in their city.

The gleaning was yet another custom of the Southlands, brought to the northern kingdoms by the Qirsi invaders.  A Qirsi man or woman possessing the gleaning power, the ability to divine the future, would offer a glimpse of each child’s fate with the aid of the Qiran, a great crystal said to be imbued with magic of its own.

Having traveled for several years with Eibithar’s Revel, Sanbira’s Festival, and smaller fairs in Aneira, Wethyrn, Caerisse, and Braedon, Cadel had learned a good deal about the gleanings and how they worked.  He knew, for instance, that the Qiran itself was little more than a pretty rock.  It served mostly as a medium through which the Qirsi sorcerers could convey what they saw to the awed children.  The Determining, done at the younger age, also was not what it seemed, at least not anymore.  Once, perhaps, there had been some magic in it.  Over the years, however, it had become little more than a means for steering children into apprenticeships at the appropriate age.  Still, for the children gazing into the Qiran as the Qirsi before them summoned forth an image of their future lives, it was a wondrous event.  Cadel still carried vivid memories of his own Determining, though he shouldn’t have been surprised by what he saw:  himself as an adult, presiding over Nistaad Manor, tending to the vineyards and stables, and collecting tribute from the surrounding villages.  At the time he thought it prophecy.  Later, long after he fled southern Caerisse, he realized that it had merely been an informed guess.

The Fating, however, was a different matter.  Done in the sixteenth year, it relied entirely on Qirsi magic.  Fatings foretold good marriages or failed love affairs, great wealth or grave misfortune, long life or untimely death.  Those awaiting their moment with the Qiran might be giddy with anticipation or debilitated with fear, but no one took it lightly.  Even Jedrek, who scoffed at the legends and paid little heed to custom, had once admitted to Cadel that his Fating, which offered glimpses of the life they were leading now, had left him troubled for many turns after.

Cadel had often wondered what his Fating would have revealed.  He left his home early in his sixteenth year, before the festival arrived at the village closest to Nistaad Manor.  Tall and strong for his age, with a dark moustache and beard already beginning to appear on his face, he was able to pass for an older man almost immediately.  To have sought out his Fating in another village would only have served to call attention to himself.

At this point, he had little doubt about what the Qiran would have shown him.  He was living the life he was meant to live.  He didn’t need a Qirsi sorcerer to reassure him of that.  Yet, even now, seeing the children of Thorald waiting to take their turn in the Qirsi’s tent, he could not help but feel the call of the stone.

“Corbin!  Honok!”

Wincing inwardly, Cadel turned at the sound of Anesse’s voice.  He and Jedrek could ill afford to be trapped in a long conversation, or, worse, caught in a lie.  It was nearly time for them to make their way to the city wall.

“I thought you had plans for tonight,” Anesse said.  She was wearing a long, blue dress that was almost a perfect match for the color of the sky.  It had a tantalizingly low neckline.

He summoned a smile.  “We do.  We’re on our way there now.”

“You’re certain we can’t lure you to the banquet?”

“Sadly, yes.  You’re certain we can’t convince you to remain in Thorald for another day or two?”

She nodded.  “Sadly.”

Cadel glanced for an instant at Kalida, who was steadfastly avoiding his gaze and Jedrek’s, her face as red as her dress.

“Well,” Anesse said awkwardly.  “We should be on our way.”

“So should we.”

“Goodbye again, Corbin.  Honok.”

“I hope to have the pleasure of singing with you again,” he said.

The two women turned and started up the road toward Thorald Castle.  After watching them walk away, Cadel and Jedrek turned as well, and cut back across the market to the south end of the city.  Cadel would have preferred to go over the city wall somewhere between the south and east gates.  But all the land between the gates belonged to the Sanctuary of Amon, and Cadel wished to avoid any encounters with the clerics.  Instead, they made their way to the southwestern wall, between the south gate and the lower river gate.  There were a few small houses in this part of the city, scattered along a narrow lane.  But most of the residents were at the banquet or enjoying the Revel.  The houses were dark and the street empty.

At least six guards were stationed at each of the gates, and two more walked atop each of the three wall segments between the river gate and the south gate.  A small watch tower separated one segment from the next, and each tower held two bright torches.  Obviously, their best chance was to climb the wall near the center of the middle segment, as far from the torches and the well-manned gates as possible.

Cadel was most concerned about the timing of their climb, which, in turn, depended upon how the guards on that middle segment had decided to keep watch.  If they were walking the wall together, they could be avoided with relative ease.  If not, he and Jedrek faced a far more difficult task.

Walking as quietly as they could through the tall grass that grew behind the houses, the two men soon reached the wall.  It was made of rough stone, and it stood at least twelve fourspans high.  Doing his best to remain in the shadows, Cadel looked up at the torch-lit tower, trying to spot the guards.  He heard them before he saw them.  They were talking loudly, laughing about something, walking northward atop the wall.  Cadel and Jedrek waited until the guards had gone past, then they began to climb.

Over the course of their travels throughout the Forelands, Cadel and Jedrek had climbed rock faces in the Glyndwr Highlands, the Grey Hills of Wethyrn, and the Sanbiri Hills that would have appeared impossibly sheer to most people.  Once, several years before, they had climbed a peak in the Basak Range of southern Aneira to arrange the death of an Aneiran noble who enjoyed hunting bear in the mountains.  This wall, rough as it was, offered ample handholds and footholds.  They climbed quickly, like lizards on a rock, and were soon within a few fourspans of the top of the wall.

Hearing the guards again, Cadel raised a hand, indicating to Jedrek that they should stop.

“. . . Three bloody nights in a row,” one of them was saying, as they drew closer to where Cadel and Jedrek clung to the stones.  “During the Revel, no less.  There’s no justice in that.”

“Captain doesn’t care much for justice.  If he thought you’d give him your wage, he’d probably let you off.  Me, I’ve been on the wall for two in a row.  And it looks like I’ll be up here again tomorrow night.”

“It’s the banquet that does it.  That’s where the captain is.  Him and his favorites.  They’re filling their bellies with wine and mutton while . . .”

Their voices were fading, as was the clicking of their boots on the stone path atop the wall.  Cadel nodded once, and he Jedrek resumed their climb.  As he reached for his next handhold however, Cadel felt the stone beneath his right foot begin to give way.  Grabbing desperately for anything that would hold him, he dug his fingers into the first stone he could find.  Only to have it come away in his hand.  The foothold under his right foot gave way, and is it did, his left foot slipped, leaving him hanging by his left hand.  Small pieces of rock clattered down the face of the wall and into the grass below.  Flailing with his feet, he quickly found new toeholds, but the damage had been done.  The guards had stopped talking and were heading back in Cadel and Jedrek’s direction.

Cadel looked at Jedrek, who was glaring at him as if had just shouted Jedrek’s name at the top of his voice.  The guards had almost reached them.  With Panya, the white moon, full and climbing into the sky behind them, they would be easy to spot against the dark stone.  So Cadel did the only thing he could.  He still clutched the stone in his right hand, and now, with the guards approaching, he heaved it with all his might, up into the night sky and over the wall to the other side.  After several seconds he heard it land on the ground outside the city.

The guards did, too.  They stopped just above Jedrek and Cadel, but on the far side of the city wall.

“What do you see?” one of them asked.

“Not a bloody thing.  With Panya as low as she is, it’s black as pitch down there.”

“I’m sure I heard something.”

“So did I.  But I promise you, whatever we heard wasn’t human.  No person I know could see in that kind of dark.”

“You think it was wolves?”

The other guard laughed.  “Wolves?  More likely it was rats from the river, or a fox from the wood.”  He laughed again.  “Wolves,” he repeated, as the guards began to walk away again.

“Shouldn’t we tell the watch?”

“Sure, we can tell the watch.  We’ll tell them the city’s under siege from a pack of hedgehogs.”

Cadel took a long breath and looked over at Jedrek again.  His friend was grinning, his dark eyes shining in the moonlight.  Cadel had to grin as well.

When they could no longer hear the guards’ voices, they finished their climb, peering cautiously over the edge of the wall before swinging themselves onto the walkway, hurrying across, and beginning their descent on the other side.  Without any further mishaps to slow them, they were on the ground again before Panya had risen high enough to illuminate the outside of the wall.

“Where to now?” Jedrek whispered.

“The Sanctuary of Kebb, by the river.”

His friend smiled, and Cadel knew why.  Kebb.  God of beasts, God of the hunt. 

“How appropriate,” was all Jedrek said.

#

The great hall of Thorald Castle shimmered with torch fire and candlelight.  The smells of roasting meat, baking bread, and sweet wine filled the air.  Dozens of long wooden tables, each piled with mutton and fowl, rich stews and dark breads, steamed greens and fresh fruits, and large flasks of light wine from the Thorald cellars, lined the walls of the enormous room.  All of them were crowded with men, women, and children, whose voices and laughter blended into an incomprehensible din.

The floor in the center of the chamber had been left open for the dancing that would follow the banquet, and just in front of the main table, which had been placed on a great dais, a group of musicians played.

It was a scene that Filib had always loved.  For as long as he could remember, the Revel Banquet had been, along with his own naming day, and the Night of Two Moons in Bohdan’s Turn, one of the high points of each year.

Somehow, though, this year was different.  Perhaps it was the knowledge that he would soon be leaving Thorald.  Maybe it was simply that he was growing up.  Whatever the reason, it felt to Filib that this year’s feast had been going on for hours, though townspeople were still trickling into the hall to start their meal.

It didn’t help that Renelle was here, sitting on the far side of the room, wearing the black dress he had given her, her fiery hair down around her shoulders the way he liked it.  Occasionally their eyes would meet, and she’d give him that small, inscrutable smile that usually made his heart dance so.

Your mother fears you’ve grown too attached to the girl.  Filib wasn’t even sure what that meant.  Too attached.  How was that possible?

She had been angry with him about the night before, just as he had feared.  But she could never remain that way for long.  After finding each other in the marketplace, they had stolen out of the city by way of thieves’ gate, circled around the outside of the castle and its famed double moat, and taken their hidden path to the riverbank.  There, as they had so many times over the past year, they made love in the shade of the willows.

Just before sundown, with the shadows deepening and the air turning cold, he left her there.  But before he did, he promised her that they would be together tonight and, rashly, every night to follow.  It was a foolish oath.  Both of them knew it.  But he would gladly have traded the entire kingdom for the smile it brought to her lips.

He could still taste her skin, he could still feel her hands splayed against his back.  Yet sitting at the front of the great hall, flanked by his mother and his uncle, he felt as though the distance between them had never been greater.

I’ll be with her tonight, after I ride, he told himself.

As if in answer, another voice -- might it have been his father’s? -- echoed in his mind.  You’ll be king within the year.

I can take her with me to the City of Kings.

To what end?  The two of you can never marry.  The children she bears you will be bastards.  And what of your wife?  Are you ready to doom your marriage before you even meet the woman who will be your queen? 

All he wanted was to ride.  To get out of this hall, this castle, this city.

“Are you well, my lord?”

He turned in his chair and saw the first minister, seated to his mother’s left, gazing at him, concern in her pale yellow eyes.

“Yes, thank you, Enid.”

“Are you still planning to ride tonight, Filib?” his uncle asked.

Filib felt his mother stiffen beside him.

“Yes.  As soon as the banquet ends.”

“I think it’s a fine way to honor the duke’s memory.  Don’t you agree, Nerine?”  Tobbar winked at Filib, who responded with a grin.

“I think the two of you have been plotting behind my back,” she replied, her expression severe.  After a moment her face softened, and she allowed herself a smile.  “I suppose there’s no harm in it.”

“The rides are actually quite pleasant,” Filib said.  “Perhaps you should come with me, and you can see for yourself.”

His mother gave him a doubtful look.  “I’ll enjoy the comfort of my chambers, thank you.  I have no desire to go riding into the wood with nothing to light my way but the moons and the stars.”

“A wise choice, my lady,” Enid said.

A short while later, his uncle rose and offered the ritual tribute.  As was custom, he honored each of the gods by name, citing the blessings they had brought in each of their turns during the previous year, and ending, of course, with Bohdan, God of Laughter and patron of the Revel, for whom the year’s final turn was named.  He then thanked Aurea Crenish and Yegor jal Sennah, the Eandi woman and Qirsi man who ran the Revel, and who were seated at the table of honor with Filib and the others.

Once, when they first assumed leadership of the Revel, Aurea and Yegor’s marriage had been the topic of much discussion.  To some, it had been an affront.  Unions of Eandi men and Qirsi women were forbidden by law because of the danger posed by childbirth to Qirsi women bearing Eandi offspring.  The sin of the moons it was called, because Panya died giving birth to Ilias’s child.  Unions between Eandi women and Qirsi men, on the other hand, were legal.  But to those who believed that the races should remain separate -- and there were many, not only in Eibithar, but throughout the Forelands -- they were still offensive.  Many of Eibithar’s dukes refused to allow Yegor and Aurea to attend the Revel banquets.  To his credit, Filib’s father had not been one of them, and to their credit, Yegor and Aurea continued to take the Revel to each of Eibithar’s walled cities, regardless of how they themselves were treated.  With time, their marriage came to be accepted, and the other dukes relented.  Even now, however, Filib saw that many of the people attending the banquet here in Thorald craned their necks to get a better look at the couple.  Many of them wore expressions of distaste.

Finally, Tobbar ended his remarks by thanking all of their guests for coming to the banquet and sharing the celebration with the Thorald family.

“Very well done, Sire,” Enid said, as the duke lowered himself into his chair.

“Thank you, Enid.”  He glanced at Filib, a kind smile on his face.  “If you’ve had your fill, you can go.”

“So early?” Enid asked quickly.

“I agree with the first minister,” Filib’s mother said, before Tobbar could say anything.  “It’s too early yet.  You needn’t stay to the very end, Filib, but I think it would be rude of you to leave now.”

Tobbar shrugged, as if to say, Sorry, I tried.

“Of course, Mother,” Filib said.  “I was going to stay anyway.  I’d like to have a dance or two with Renelle before I go.”

His mother paled.  “You’re not serious.”

“Oh, but I am.  Have you seen how lovely she looks tonight?”

She glared at him, her mouth set in a thin line.  Tobbar snickered.

“Just a short while longer,” she finally said, surrender in her voice.  “Then you may leave.”

Filib smiled.  “Thank you, Mother.”

Out of courtesy to his mother, Filib actually stayed a good bit longer, until most of their guests had finished eating and a few had begun to dance.

Despite what he had said to the duchess, Filib never had any intention of dancing with Renelle.  While many knew that they were lovers, such a public acknowledgment of their affair would have been deemed improper.  Both of them knew it.  As he left the hall, however, he did catch her eye, and they shared a smile.

Stepping out of the hall into the central ward of the castle, Filib took a deep breath.  He hadn’t realized just how warm it was inside until he felt the cool air on his skin.  He could smell the brine of Amon’s Ocean and hear the music drifting up to the castle from the city.

Though anxious to be on his mount, he walked slowly across the west ward to the stables, enjoying the quiet and the soft breeze.  Panya shone down on him, stretching his shadow across the stone path and the grass beside it.

Galdis, his grey, had already been saddled and was waiting for him just inside the stable.

“He’s all ready, my lord,” the stable boy said, as Filib stepped inside and stroked the beast’s snout.

Filib nodded.  “Many thanks, Doran,” he said, tossing the lad a silver half.

He led the horse outside and through the west gate of the castle before climbing into the saddle.  On most nights he would have ridden through the city to the south gate, but with the streets choked with performers and peddlers, he chose instead to leave the city by way of the upper river gate.  Once outside the walls, he rode south along the river before cutting east to the wood.  It was the longer way, but with Panya’s glow shimmering on the river, it also proved to be the more pleasant.  Before long he was in the North Wood, riding toward the sanctuary where his father had died.

He had started his rides nearly five years before, on the night of Panya’s full in Bian’s Turn, just a turn after his father’s death.  He had been in his thirteenth year then, awkward and unsure of himself.  He had worshiped his father, and in the wake of the accident that claimed the duke’s life, he had felt as though the entire world was falling away beneath his feet.  As the duke’s only child -- Simm, his younger brother, had been taken by the pestilence as an infant -- he was entitled to all of his father’s possessions.  His sword and armor, his dagger and hunting bow, his saddle, and the lynx fur wrap he had been wearing when he fell.  Filib’s mother assured him that she would keep all of it for him, until he was old enough to use the weapons and wear the clothes.  But Filib could not wait.  Every item was like treasure to him, a small piece of his father’s life.  On some level he believed that if he surrounded himself with enough of them, the pain of his loss would vanish, the wound on his heart would heal.  Long before his father’s gold signet ring fit on his finger, Filib wore it on a chain around his neck.  Every night for that first year, he would lie awake in his bed, staring at the seal on the ring as it glittered in the candlelight.  The Golden Stallion, the Thorald crest.  And he would talk to it as if it were his father, telling of the day’s events and how his mother was doing.

Eventually, the pain did begin to recede, just as his mother and his uncle and everyone else had said it would.  But the comfort he drew from his father’s belongings never diminished.  Training with his father’s sword, he felt as though the duke was teaching him to fight.  Hunting with his father’s bow, he felt as though the elder Filib was tracking boar and elk beside him.  Sitting in his father’s saddle, he felt as though they were riding through the wood together.

He rode slowly among the trees, moving in and out of the shadows cast by Panya’s white glow and the branches overhead.  Night thrushes called to each other, their songs sifting through the limbs with the scent of fire blossom and the low gurgle of the river.  An owl called in the distance and the breeze coaxed a gentle rustling from the leaves.

Just as Filib first glimpsed the sanctuary fires through the trees, another sound reached him, one that was utterly unexpected.  Somewhere in the forest, not far, a man was singing.

He wondered briefly if he was hearing a cleric at the sanctuary, but he soon realized that the sound was growing louder too quickly.  The singer was traveling the wood, just as Filib was, and he was heading in Filib’s direction.

After several moments, he recognized the tune.  It was an old Caerissan folk song that one of his nurses had taught him when he was a child.  Filib shouldn’t have been surprised.  Eibithar’s Revel attracted performers, including singers, from all parts of the Forelands.  With relations between Eibithar and her southern neighbor as cordial as they had ever been, many of those traveling with the Revel this year were from Caerisse.

An instant later, the singer came into view.  He was on foot, and illuminated as he was only by Panya’s silver light falling irregularly through the canopy of the wood, he was, at first, hard to see.  He was tall and thin, with long limbs and broad shoulders.  His dark hair fell to his shoulders, framing a pleasant bearded face.  As he drew closer, Filib could see that his eyes were pale, although in the moonlight he could not tell if they were blue or grey.

Mostly though, Filib noticed the man’s voice, which was sweet and strong, like the golden wine served this night at the Revel banquet.  It was higher than he would have expected for such a large man, though not so high as to sound unnatural.  His notes floated through the wood like those of the thrushes had a short while before, as if they belonged there, as if they were as much a part of the forest as the river and the whispering wind.  There was something almost haunting in the sound, and Filib shivered even as he and the man shared a smile and passed each other by.

He rode on, still not hurrying, listening as the singer’s voice receded like an ocean wave.  The sanctuary fires appeared brighter now, though the stone walls, bathed in moonlight, were still a good distance off.  The owl hooted again, closer this time.

Abruptly, Filib realized that the singing had stopped.  He glanced behind him, but could see nothing for the trees and the darkness.

Facing forward again, he saw a man standing in the forest path before him.  He was slightly smaller than the singer, though not by much.  His hair was shorter, dark and unruly.  And his eyes appeared black in the forest shadows.

Filib’s heart was pounding like a smith’s hammer.  He reached into his wrap for his father’s dagger, cursing himself for not bringing the sword.

“It’s late for a prince to be about,” the man said.  The accent was subtle, but Filib recognized it.  Aneiran.  He felt his stomach tightening.

Filib kicked at Galdis’s flanks, hoping to ride past the man to the sanctuary.  But just as he did, he felt strong hands grab his leg and arm from the side.  An instant later he landed hard on the ground, the air rushing from his lungs and his dagger flying from his hand.

His shoulder and chest ached from the fall, but he struggled to stand.  Someone held him down, then roughly turned him over.  The singer.  He held the point of a blade to Filib’s throat.

“I have gold!” Filib managed, his voice little more than a whisper.  “It’s yours!  All of it!”

“My apologies, my lord,” the singer said, although there was little remorse in those pale eyes.  “But someone wants you dead.”

Filib flailed at the man and screamed for help, but the singer and his friend held him fast.  After a moment, the taller man covered his mouth with a callused hand.

The singer looked Filib in the eye for another moment.  Then, with a motion so swift that his blade was but a glittering blur in the moonlight, he slashed at Filib’s throat.

#

It seemed to the prior that he had just drifted off to sleep when the screams awakened him.  Out here in the wood, living among Kebb’s beasts, one heard many strange things at night.  In the final moment of its life, as the talons of a great owl closed around its throat, even a simple hare could cry out like a wraith from the Underrealm.  He had grown accustomed to such sounds over the years.  He rarely noticed them anymore.

These screams were different.  They had come from a man.

He lit a candle, dressed, and stepped out of his chambers.  One of the novices was sleeping in the antechamber.  Apparently he hadn’t heard the cries.  The novice looked terribly young in Panya’s glow.  The prior hated to wake him.  But if there was someone in the wood in need of aid, it would be best if he was not alone.

He shook the boy gently.

After a moment, the boy rubbed his eyes and sat up.

“Yes, Father Prior,” the boy said sleepily.  “How may I serve?”

“I heard something in the wood, boy.  Fetch two torches and meet me by the gate.”

The boy nodded, although for some time he didn’t move.  Finally he stood and shuffled toward the door.

“That’s a good lad,” the prior called after him.

He returned to his chambers for his healing bag, a small leather pouch that smelled of betony and common wort.  He knew how to dress wounds and set broken bones, but in that moment he would have given anything for a Qirsi companion.  He feared what he would find among the trees.

He hurried to the sanctuary entrance, where the boy was waiting for him, shivering slightly but looking a bit more awake.  He took one of the torches and opened the gate.

“What’s your name, boy?” the prior asked, gesturing for the lad to follow him down the path.

“Arvid, Father Prior.”

“You’re new in the sanctuary, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Father Prior.  I arrived here during Osya’s Turn.”

Osya’s Turn! the prior thought.  That’s three turns he’s been with us.  I need to give more attention to the novices.

“Where is your family, Arvid?” he asked, though he could tell from the boy’s accent that he came from Eibithar’s eastern coast.

“We live on a farm, Father Prior, just outside of Eardley.”

The prior nodded, scanning the forest as he did.  He was walking quickly.  Occasionally the boy had to run a few steps in order to keep up with him.  The prior knew that he had been foolish to leave the sanctuary.  Even with the white moon up, it would be nearly impossible to find someone in the darkness.  He was about to say as much when he spotted a grey stallion standing just off the path a short distance ahead.

Seeing them approach, the horse nickered and stamped a hoof, but it didn’t move from where it was standing.

The prior felt himself growing cold.  Even from a distance he could tell that this was no farm horse.  It was well groomed and well bred, and it wore a fine saddle on its back.

Had he seen the body lying next to the stallion soon enough, the prior would have warned Arvid to stay back.  But by the time he spotted the man it was too late.  Arvid let out a small cry and then emptied his stomach on the forest path.

The prior hurried forward and knelt beside the body.  The poor man’s neck had been slashed, blood pooling around his head on the fallen leaves and glistening in the moonlight.  There was a stab wound in his chest as well, and another in his stomach.  And the ring finger was missing from his right hand.  This had been sloppily done.

The prior glanced down at the healing bag he still carried in his hand.  He would have liked to throw it into the shadows.  Instead he placed it in a pocket within his robe.  Then he leaned forward to look at the man’s face and let out a cry of his own.

Filib.  The duke’s son, the king to be.

He shook his head, feeling hot tears on his cheeks.  First the father, and now the son.

“Thieves be damned!” he said, his voice quavering.  He knew that Arvid could hear, but just then he didn’t care.  “Bian take them all!”