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Chapter 1

Tenoctris the Wizard stood in the prow of the royal flagship, staring intently at the sky. "Sharina," she said, "we're suddenly in a focus of enormous power. There's something here. There's something coming here."

Sharina glanced upward also. "Is it good or bad?" she asked, but the wizard was lost in contemplation.

Cumulus clouds were piled over the island of First Atara on the northern horizon, but here above The Shepherd of the Isles there was only a high chalky haze. Whatever Tenoctris was looking at couldn't be seen by an ordinary person like Sharina os-Reise.

Sharina grinned: or, for that matter, seen by Princess Sharina of Haft. In preparation for meeting the ruler of First Atara, she was this afternoon wearing court robes garments of silk brocade stiffened with embroidery in gold thread. They were hot and uncomfortable in most circumstances; here on shipboard they were awkward beyond words. The Shepherd had five oar-banks and was as big as a warship got, but the deck of her streamlined hull was no wider than necessary to allow sailors to trim the yards when the vessel was under sail.

Sometimes Sharina wondered whether she'd feel more at ease in formal garments if she'd been raised wearing them. Liane bos-Benliman, her brother Garric's noble fiancée, certainly wore hers with calm style. On the other hand, Liane did everything with style. If Liane hadn't been such a good person and so obviously in love with Garric, even Sharina might've felt twinges of envy in thinking about her.

Sharina and Garric had been raised by their father, the innkeeper in the tiny community of Barca's Hamlet on Haft. No school for the wealthy could've educated them better in the literature of the Old Kingdom than Reise himself had, but they'd grown up in simple woolen tunics and had gone barefoot half the year.

Sharina grinned. She guessed she could learn to wear court robes more easily than even Liane could learn to wait tables in a common room packed with sheep drovers and their servants, many of them drunk.

Horns and trumpets were calling, slowing the hundred and more ships of the royal fleet to a crawl. A little vessel draped with gaudy bunting was coming out to meet them with a wriggle of oars.

One of the royal triremes, the swift and handy three-banked vessels which were the backbone of the fighting fleet, had already come alongside the stranger and passed it as harmless, though that didn't explain why the island's authorities felt a need to approach Garric—Prince Garric—at sea. No reasonable official would choose to negotiate on the wobbling deck of a warship, since even people who weren't seasick would find a conference table in the palace a better location for spreading documents and consulting ledgers.

"There seem to be five—no, six passengers," Sharina said, peering down at the deck of the twenty-oared barge bringing the Ataran delegation. She frowned and added, "And one of them's just a boy."

The island's present ruler called himself King Cervoran, and his ancestors for hundreds of years had claimed the title "king" also. They'd gotten away with it because First Atara kept to itself, never making trouble for its neighbors or for the King of the Isles in Valles... and because for generations the King of the Isles had ruled little more than the island of Ornifal and eventually had ruled nothing outside the walls of the royal palace.

That'd changed when the present King of the Isles, Valence III, adopted a youth named Garric, a descendent of the ancient line of Old Kingdom monarchs, as his son and heir apparent. It had to change. Unless there were a strong hand on the kingdom's rudder, the same forces that swept up Garric and his sister would smash the new kingdom. The second catastrophe would finish what that of a thousand years before had left.

It was all well to say that every man should live his life without being pestered by distant officials. That's the way things had been in Barca's Hamlet, pretty much, simply because the community was a tiny backwater on an island which had ceased to be important a thousand years before.

Most of those who said that now, however, were local nobles. What they meant by freedom was that nobody from Valles should tell them how they should treat their own peasants. A peasant given the opportunity generally prefers a bully on a distant island to a bully in the castle overlooking his farm. Even better: Garric's government didn't bully and it tried to protect its citizens.

Garric hadn't set out to conquer the other islands of the kingdom; rather, he was visiting thtem one by one in a Royal Progress—accompanied by a fleet and army that obviously could crush any would-be secessionist. As a result, the reunification of the Isles was taking place in conference rooms, not on battlefields.

Tenoctris clasped her hands and muttered in reaction to the pageant she alone saw in the sky. If there were proof that the Gods rather than blind chance ruled the world, it was in the fact that the same cataclysm that brought down the Old Kingdom threw Tenoctris forward from that time to this one.

Wizards used the powers on which the cosmos balanced. These waxed and waned in thousand-year cycles and were at a peak now. Because wizards remained for the most part as blind, clumsy, and foolish as they'd been when they'd conjured music and baubles from the air to amaze guests at a feast, disaster loomed over the New Kingdom as surely as it had wrecked the Old.

Even in these days Tenoctris could affect very little through wizardry, but she saw and understood the powers which greater wizards used in ignorance. Her knowledge and the strong hand of Prince Garric of Haft had so far been enough to reunify the kingdom; and the Isles to be unified if they were to face the threats, human and demonic, which had swollen as the underlying powers increased.

No one could look at the present world and doubt that Good and Evil existed. Those who thought they could remain neutral in the struggle had chosen Evil, even though they wouldn't admit it.

Sharina put her arm around Tenoctris for companionship. The old wizard had lived seventy years or more, and something of the weight of the ten centuries she'd been thrown forward seemed to lie on her shoulders also. Tenoctris didn't believe in the Great Gods and all she'd ever wanted from life was peace for her studies, but she was spending her life in the service of Good.

As were Garric and Sharina and their friends; as were all the members of the royal army and the royal administration. Individually they included better folk and worse, but all were on the right side in the greater struggle... or so Sharina believed.

She smiled again, broadly this time. She did believe that.

Sharina turned to watch the barge nuzzle the Shepherd's high, curving stern where Garric stood with Liane, a pair of aides, and a squad of black-armored members of the Blood Eagles, the bodyguard regiment. Garric's silvered breastplate made him look both regal and heroic—which was the purpose, of course; nobody expected fighting here on First Atara.

Sharina noticed he hadn't donned the helmet with the flaring gilt wings that completed the outfit, though he probably would before they landed. By the time her brother was fifteen he was already the tallest man in Barca's Hamlet, and the helmet added a full hand's-breadth to that height.

Garric was strong as well as tall, but there was a stronger man yet in the community: Cashel or-Kenset, an orphan raised by his twin sister Ilna after their grandmother died; a quiet fellow, gentle as a lamb and without a lamb's querulous self-importance. A man taller than most, broader than almost any, and stronger than anyone he'd ever met or was likely to meet.

He stood now behind the two women like a wall of muscle, his hickory quarterstaff an upright pillar in his right hand. Sharina, still touching Tenoctris with her left hand, put her right in the crook of his elbow. Cashel smiled because he usually smiled, and he smiled wider because Sharina touched him. It would've embarrassed him to take her hand in public, but nobody seeing the two of them together could doubt that they loved one another.

Sailors from the barge had thrown lines from bow and stern aboard the Shepherd; crewmen snubbed them to the outrigger that carried three of the flagship's five oar-banks. The sailing master was blasting the barge captain with remarkable curses, though, at the notion that the smaller vessel would be allowed to lie hull to hull where it'd scrape the flagship's paint. The barge captain swore back.

"We've been three months since the ships were overhauled in Carcosa," Sharina said, frowning. "I don't see that a few more scrapes are going to be noticed."

Sailors tended to carry out their business as though the officials travelling as passengers didn't exist. She and Garric had been taught to keep their affairs—the inn's affairs—secret from the guests. This slanging match the officers of the two ships offended Sharina's sense of propriety, though the curses themselves did not.

"I think what he's saying is that we're fine people from the palace in Valles," said Cashel, quietly but with something solid in his tone that wouldn't have been there if he were better satisfied with the situation. "And they're just nobodies from the sticks. Only we're not, not all of us; and I guess that fellow'd have been as quick to call me a nobody back before Garric got to be prince and it all changed."

"Not to your face, Cashel," Sharina said—and kissed him, surprising herself almost as much as she did her fiancé. It was the perfect way to break his mood; Cashel's face went the color of mahogany as he blushed under the deep tan. They were in the shelter of the jib boom, though, and everybody else was looking toward the stern where the delegation was swaying aboard on a rope ladder. Nobody was likely to have noticed.

"Do we know why these people are meeting us at sea?" Tenoctris said.

Sharina jumped. The older woman had been so thoroughly lost in her own thoughts that Sharina'd forgotten her presence.

"Ah, no," she said. "We could join them in the stern if you'd like, though. They're certainly an official delegation, so I guess it's our duty to be there."

"Right," said Cashel, turning and starting down the walkway stretching the length of the ship between the gratings over the rowers. There wasn't much room, but the sailors on deck would get out of his way though they might be so busy they'd ignore the women.

Sharina motioned Tenoctris ahead of her and brought up the rear. She didn't have Cashel's bulk, but her tall, slender body was muscular and she had reflexes gained from waiting tables in rooms crowded with men.

"They may have nothing to do with what I feel building around us," Tenoctris said quietly, perhaps speaking to herself as much as to her younger companions. "But their meeting us at sea is unusual, and the way the forces are building is very unusual; almost unique in my experience."

"'Almost unique'" Sharina said, delicately emphasizing the qualifier.

"Yes," said the wizard. "I felt something like this in the moments before similar I wwas ripped out of my time and the island of Yole sank into the depths of the sea."

* * *

One of Garric's guards gave his spear to a comrade so that he had a hand free to reach over the railing to the twelve-year-old climbing the swaying ladder ahead of five adults. "Here you go, lad," he said.

"Have a care, my man!" cried the puffy looking bald fellow immediately behind the boy. "This is Prince Protas, the ruler of our island!"

"All the more reason not to let him fall into the water, then," said Garric, stepping forward. "Since I'm told that right around here it's as deep as the Inner Sea gets."

He took the boy's right hand while the soldier gripped him under the left shoulder, and together they lifted him aboard. Protas tucked his legs under him so that his toes didn't touch the rail. Though he didn't speak, he bowed politely to Garric and dipped his head to the soldier as well, then slipped forward to get as much out of the way as was possible on the warship's deck.

The plump official reached the railing. Garric nodded a guard forward to help him but pointedly didn't offer a hand himself.

"That would be Lord Martous," Liane whispered in his left ear. "Protas is King Cervoran's son, but Cervoran was ruler as of my latest information."

Among Liane's other duties, she was Garric's spymaster; or rather she was a spymaster who kept Garric informed of events from all over the Isles, whether or not they took place on islands which had returned to royal control. Her father had been a far-travelled merchant. Liane of her own volition—Garric wouldn't have known what to ask her to do—had turned his network of business connections into a full-fledged intelligence service. It'd benefited the kingdom more than another ten regiments for the army could've done.

Lord Martous had an unhappy expression as he struggled aboard in the soldier's grasp. Garric shared his mind with the spirit of King Carus, his ancient ancestor and the last ruler of the Old Kingdom. Now the image of Carus grinned and said, "If I know the type, he looks unhappy most of the time he's awake. Being manhandled over the railing just gives him a better reason than usual."

Martous straightened his clothing with quick pats of his hands while he waited for the remainder of the delegation to climb onto the deck, aides or servants from their simpler dress. One of them carried a bundle wrapped in red velvet.

The delegates wore baggy woolen trousers and blouses, felt caps, and slippers whose toes turned up in points. Martous and Protas had long triangular gares of cloth-of-gold appliqued vertically on their sleeves and trouser legs; those of the other men were plain. The wool was bleached white, but it was clear that First Atara's society didn't set great store on flamboyant personal decoration.

Garric preferred simplicity to the styles of the great cities of the kingdom, Valles and Erdin on Sandrakkan or even Carcosa which now was merely the capital of the unimportant island of Haft. It'd been the royal capital during the Old Kingdom, and it remained a pretentious place despite its glory being a thousand years in the past.

Garric grinned at Lord Martous: a balding little fellow, a homely man from a rustic place who was incensed that he and the boy on whom his status depended weren't being treated with greater deference. That implied that pretentiousness was one of the strongest human impulses.

"Come along, Basto, come along," called Lord Martous to the aide struggling with the bundle. Then on a rising note, "No, don't you—"

The latter comment was to Lord Attaper, the commander of the Blood Eagles and a man to whom Garric's safety was more important than it was to Garric himself. Attaper, a stocky, powerful man in his forties, ignored the protest just as he ignored all other attempts to tell him how to do his job. He plucked the package from the aide's hands and unwrapped it while the aide came aboard and Martous spluttered in frustration.

"I'm sorry you had to scramble up like a monkey, Prince Protas," Garric said, smiling at the boy to put him at his ease. Protas was obviously nervous and uncertain, afraid to say or do the wrong thing in what he knew were important circumstances. "I'd expected to meet you—and your father, of course—on land in a few hours."

"King Cervoran is dead, sir," Protas said with careful formality. He forced himself to look straight at Garric as he spoke, but then he swallowed hard.

"Yes, yes, that's why we had to come out to meet you," Martous said, pursing his lips as though he were sucking on something sour. "His highness died most unexpectedly as he was going in to dinner last evening. Quite distressing, quite. He fell right down in his tracks. I was afraid the stewards had dropped something on the floor and he'd slipped, but he just—died."

"I probably could give you advice on housekeeping in a large establishment," Garric said, smiling instead of snarling at the courtier's inability to come to the point, "but I really doubt that's why you've met us here at the cost of discomfort and a degree of danger. Is it, milord?"

Martous looked surprised. "Oh," he said. "Well, of course not. But I thought—that is, the council did—that since you were arriving just in time, you could preside over the apotheosis ceremony for King Cervoran and add, well, luster to the affair. And of course we needed to explain that to you before you come ashore because the ceremony will have to be carried out first thing tomorrow morning. The cremation can't, you see, be delayed very long in this weather."

"Apotheosis?" said Liane. She didn't ordinarily interject herself openly into matters of state, but Lord Martous was obviously a palace flunky, and not from a very big palace if it came to that. "You believe your late ruler becomes a God?"

"Well, I don't, of course I don't," said Martous in embarrassment. "But the common people, you know; and they like a spectacle. And, well, it's traditional here on First Atara. And it can't hurt, after all."

"This doesn't appear to be a weapon, milord," said Attaper dryly. "Shall I return it to your servant, or would you like to take it yourself?"

The velvet wrappings covered a foiled wooden box decorated with cutwork astrological symbols. Inside was a diadem set with a topaz the size of Garric's clenched fist. The stone wasn't particularly clear or brilliant, even for a topaz, but Garric didn't recall ever seeing a larger gem.

Protas, forgotten during the adults' by-play, said in a clear voice, "We brought it to your master the prince, my man. He will decide where to bestow it."

Garric nodded politely to the young prince. "Your pardon, milord," he said in real apology. "We've had a long voyage and it appears to have made us less courteous than we ought to be."

He took the diadem. The gold circlet was thicker and broader at the back to help balance the weight of the huge stone, but even so it had a tendency to slip forward in his fingers.

Cashel had led Sharina and Tenoctris to the stern, butt now he stepped aside and let the women join the group of officials. When he caught Garric's glance over Tenoctris' head, he smiled broadly. Cashel stayed close to Sharina, but he wasn't interested in what the locals had come to discuss and didn't pretend otherwise.

Cashel wasn't interested in power. He was an extraordinarily strong man, and he had other abilities besides. If he wasn't exactly a wizard himself, then he'd more than once faced hostile wizards and crushed them. That alone would've gained him considerable authority if he'd wanted it. Add to that his being Prince Garric's friend from childhood and Princess Sharina's fiancé, and a great part of the kingdom was Cashel's for the asking.

But he didn't ask. Cashel wouldn't have known what to do with a kingdom if he'd had it, and anyway it wasn't something he wanted. Which of course was much of the reason he was Garric's closest friend: Garric didn't want power either.

"That may be," said Carus. "But the kingdom wants you; needs you anyway, which is better. Otherwise the best the citizens could hope for is a hard-handed warrior who knows nothing but smashing trouble down with his sword until trouble smashes him in turn. Somebody like me—and we know the bad result that leads to."

The ghost in Garric's mind was smiling, but there was no doubt of the solid truth under its lilt of self-mockery. Garric grinned in response; the delegates saw the expression and misread it.

Lord Martous stiffened and said, "The crown may seem a poor thing to you, milord, a mere topaz. But it's an ancient stone, very ancient, and it suits us on First Atara. We were hoping that you would invest Prince Protas with it following the ceremony deifying his father."

Garric glanced at the boy and found him chatting with Cashel. That probably made both of them more comfortable than they'd be in the discussion Garric and Martous were having.

Both the thought and the fact behind it pleased Garric, but he politely wiped all traces of misunderstood good humor from his face before he said, "I'll confer with my advisors before I give you a final decision, milord, particularly Lords Tadai and Waldron, my civil affairs and military commanders. That won't happen until we're on land."

"But you're the prince—" the envoy protested.

"That's correct," said Garric, aware of Carus' ghost chuckling at the way he handled this bit of niggling foolishness. "I'm the prince and make the final decisions under the authority granted by my father King Valence III."

Valence was so sunk within himself in his apartments in a back corner of the palace that servants chose his meals for him. He wasn't exceptionally old, but life and a series of bad choices had made a sad ruin of a mind which on its best day hadn't been very impressive.

"But I have a staff to keep track of matters on which I lack personal knowledge," Garric continued. "The political and cultural circumstances of First Atara are in that category, I'm afraid. I have no intention of slighting you and your citizens by acting in needless ignorance. We weren't expecting King Cervoran's death, and it'll take the kingdom a moment to decide how to respond."

"Well, I see that," said Martous, "but—"

"I'd have tossed him over the railing by now, lad," Carus said. "By the Lady! it's a good thing for the kingdom that you're ruling instead of me."

Garric looked into the big topaz. There were cloudy blotches in its yellow depths. The stone had been shaped and polished instead of being faceted, and even then it wasn't regular: it was roughly egg shaped, but the small end was too blunt.

It was a huge gem, though; and there was something more which Garric couldn't quite grasp. The shadows in its heart seemed to move, though perhaps that was an illusion caused by the quinquereme's sideways wobble. Only a few oars on the uppermost bank were working, so the ship didn't have enough way on to make its long hull fully stable.

Liane touched his wrist. Garric blinked awake; the eyes of those nearby watched him with concern. He must've been in a reverie....

"I'm very sorry," he said aloud. "It was a long voyage, as I said. Lord Martous, while I won't swear what my decision will be until I've consulted my council, I can tell you that I intended to grant the rank of marquess within the Kingdom of the Isles to the ruler of First Atara—whom of course we believed to be Lord Cervoran."

"King Cervoran," Martous protested quickly.

"King is a title reserved for Valence III and his successors as rulers of the Isles, milord," Garric said. He didn't raise his voice much, but his tone made his meaning clear. "That is not a matter King Valence or I will compromise on."

"Well, of course you can do as you please, since you have the power," Martous said unhappily to the deck plank which his gilt slipper was rubbing. In a tiny voice he added, "But it isn't fair."

Garric opened his mouth to snap out a retort. The grim-faced ghost in his mind would've backhanded the courtier for his presumption or possibly done something more brutally final. Perhaps it was that awareness that allowed Garric to catch himself and laugh instead of snarling.

"Lord Martous," he said mildly. "The kingdom is under threat from the forces of evil. The people, all those who live on all the scores of islands large and small within the circuit of the kingdom, are threatened. We and those whom we rule won't survive if we aren't united against that evil. I hope that in a few years or even sooner you'll be able to see that First Atara is better off as a full part of the kingdom than it would've been had it remained independent; but regardless of that—"

Garric made a broad gesture with his right arm, his sword arm; sweeping it across the long line of warships to starboard. As many more vessels were arrayed to port.

"—I'm very glad you understand that the kingdom has the power to enforce its will. Because we do, and for the sake of the people of the Isles, we'd use that power."

"We're not fools here," Martous said quietly, proving that he after all wasn't a fool. "We cast ourselves on your mercy. But—"

His tone grew a trifle brighter, almost enthusiastic.

"—I do hope you'll see fit to crown Prince Protas in a public ceremony. That will be quite the biggest thing that's happened here since the fall of the Old Kingdom!"

Garric laughed, feeling the ghost in his mind laugh with him. "I trust we'll be able to come to an accommodation, milord," he said, glancing toward the prince and Cashel. "I'm sure we will!"

* * *

Cashel or-Kenset prickled all over like he'd gotten too much sun while plowing. That could happen, even for a fellow like him who'd been outside pretty much every day he could remember, but it wasn't what he was feeling this afternoon.

This was wizardry. He'd known his share of that too, in the past couple years since everything changed and he'd left Barca's Hamlet.

Cashel held his quarterstaff upright in his right hand; one ferrule rested on the deck beside him. He crossed his left arm over his chest, letting his fingertips caress the smooth hickory.

In his tenth year Cashel had felled a tree for a neighbor in the borough and taken one long, straight branch as his price for the work. He'd cut the staff from that branch and had carried it from that day to this.

A blacksmith travelling through Barca's Hamlet on his circuit had fitted the first set of iron butt caps, but there'd been others over the years. The staff, though, was the same: thick, hard, and polished like glass by the touch of Cashel's calloused palms and the wads of raw wool he carried to dress the wood. It'd been a good friend to Cashel; and with the staff in his hands, Cashel had been a very good friend to weaker folk facing terrors.

Just about everybody was weaker than Cashel. He smiled a little wider. Everybody he'd met so far, anyway.

The little boy who'd come aboard with the puffed up fellow and the servants looked uncomfortable as he edged back from the adults talking politics. Getting up on their hind legs, really. The fellow from First Atara was trying to make himself big and Garric was pushing him back, showing him he wasn't much at all. With luck the fellow'd stop making trouble before he wound up with a headache or worse.

A shepherd didn't have a lot to learn about how people behaved in a palace. It was all the same, sheep or courtiers.

Being uncomfortable while folks talked about things he didn't know about or care about wasn't new to Cashel either, so he grinned at the boy in a friendly way. It was like he'd tossed him a rope as he splashed in the sea: the boy stepped straight over to Cashel and said, "Good day, milord. I'm Prince Protas. Are you Lord Cashel? I thought you must be because you're, well... you're very big. I've heard of you."

Protas spoke very carefully. He was trying to be formal, but every once in a while his voice squeaked and made him blush. Cashel remembered that too.

"I'm Cashel," he said, letting the smile fade so Protas wouldn't mistake it as mocking his trouble with his voice. "Not 'lord' though. And I've met bigger folk than me; though not a lot of them, I'll grant."

Protas nodded solemnly. He looked away from Cashel, facing in the general direction of First Atara. "My father King Cervoran died just yesterday," he said. "Lord Martous tells me that I'm going to be king now in his place, or whatever Prince Garric lets me be called."

"I'm sorry about your father, Protas," Cashel said, meaning it. Kenset, his father and Ilna's, had gone away from Barca's Hamlet and come back with the two children a year later. Kenset had never said where he'd been or who the twins' mother was. He hadn't said much of anything by all accounts, and he hadn't worked at anything except drinking himself to death. He'd managed that one frosty night a few years later.

The children's grandmother had raised Cashel and Ilna while she lived. After she died, leaving a pair of nine-year-olds, they'd raised themselves. Ilna always had a mind for things, and Cashel as a boy had a man's strength. When he got his growth, well, his strength grew too. They'd made out with Ilna's weaving and Cashel doing whatever needed muscle and care. Mostly he'd tended sheep.

"I didn't know my father very well," Protas said, continuing to look out to sea. Cashel guessed the boy really didn't want to meet Cashel's eyes, which meant either he was embarrassed or he figured Cashel'd be embarrassed by what he had to say. "He was very busy with his studies. He was a great scholar, you know."

"That's a fine thing to be," Cashel said. He meant it, but mostly he spoke to help the boy get to whatever it was that he really wanted to say.

Cashel'd learned to spell his name out or even write it if somebody gave him time and didn't complain that the letters looked shaky. He was proud of knowing Garric and Sharina because they read and wrote as well as anybody even though they'd come from Barca's Hamlet instead of a big city. Those weren't skills Cashel felt the lack of himself, though.

"My father King Cervoran was a wizard, lor-l... Master Cashel," Protas said, his voice squeaking three times in the short sentence. He glanced sideways, then jerked his eyes away like Cashel had slapped him. He kept talking, though. "You're a wizard too, aren't you? That is, I've heard you are?"

"I don't know where you'd have heard that...," Cashel said, speaking even more slowly and carefully than he usually did. He cleared his throat, wishing there was room so he could spin his quarterstaff. That always settled him when he was feeling uncomfortable, which he surely was right now. "Anyway, I'd as soon you just called me Cashel with no masters or lords or who knows what elses. It's what I'm used to being called, you see."

"I'm sorry, m-mas... Cashel," the boy said. He sounded like he was ready to start blubbering. "I didn't mean to say the wrong thing. I'm just so, so—oh, Cashel, I just feel so alone!"

Cashel squatted down so that his face was a bit lower than the boy's instead of staring down at him. He didn't look straight at Protas either, because that might be enough to push the boy into tears.

"I'm not a wizard like most people think of wizard," Cashel said quietly. He didn't guess anybody but Protas could hear him over the sigh of the light easterly breeze; and if they could, well, he wasn't telling any more than the truth. "I don't know anything about spells or the like. Only my mother...."

He paused again to figure just how to say the next part. Protas was looking at him straight-on now. He seemed interested and no longer on the verge of crying.

"I didn't know my mother till I met her just a little bit ago when we were on Sandrakkan," Cashel went on. He gripped the upright staff with both hands, taking strength from the smooth hickory. "She was a queen in her own land, and she was a wizard. Not the way Tenoctris is by studying and memorizing old books, but sort of born to it. Tenoctris says my mother is really powerful; and I guess she must be, from the things I saw her do."

He cleared his throat again, then made himself look up and meet the boy's eyes squarely. "I guess I picked up some of that from her," Cashel said. "I did and Ilna did too, only not the same way. Ilna can do things with cloth, weave anything and make a net that catches somebody's mind when they look at it. And Ilna's smart, too, like our mother."

He grinned broadly. "Not like me," he added. "I'm about smart enough to watch sheep, but that's all."

"King Cervoran wasn't a wizard in a bad way," Protas said. He was still facing Cashel but his eyes were fuzzy; looking back into the past, most likely. "He just used his art to learn things. That was the only thing that was important to him, learning things."

Cashel nodded. "There's people like that," he said carefully. It struck him as strange to hear Protas talking about his father so formally, but he wasn't the one to judge. He didn't talk about Kenset much at all.

But then, maybe Cervoran hadn't had any more to do with Protas than Kenset had with his children while they were growing up. The things Cervoran wanted to learn about didn't seem to have included his own son.

"I thought...," Protas said, then looked away again. "I thought when I heard about you that you were like my father. With your art, I mean. That you didn't use wizardry to hurt people. That's so, isn't it?"

"Well, I try not to hurt good people," Cashel said. "I've met my share of the other kind, though, and some of them got hurt. By me."

He understood what the boy was getting at now. Though he didn't want to be unkind to Protas, he didn't intend to let him think Cashel was going to be some kind of father to him.

He grinned broadly. "Look, Protas," he said, "being a, well, a wizard the way I am isn't anything to be proud of. It's like Sharina having blond hair: it's the way she was born and I was born. The way she reads things, though—that she worked to do. Sharina's a scholar and Garric too; that's something they did all by themselves. And I'll show you what I did and I am proud of."

Cashel looked both ways to make sure not only that there was room but also that nobody was about to step where he was going in the next instant; then he hopped to the railing. The ship heeled a trifle; Cashel was a solid weight, and The Shepherd of the Isles was both slender and perfectly balanced.

Master Lobon, the sailing master, turned and snarled, "Hey, you moron!" When he saw he'd shouted at Cashel, Lord Cashel the Prince's friend, he swallowed the rest of what he was going to say with a look of horror. Lobon's opinion of what Cashel was doing hadn't changed, but he wished he hadn't been quite so open with it.

Cashel was facing seaward on the stern rail. He crossed one bare foot over the other and turned so he could meet the eyes of everybody on the Shepherd's deck, then started his staff spinning slowly in a sunwise pattern.

He grinned. The sailing master was right about the foolishness, but it was in the good cause of lifting Protas' mind out of whatever bad place his father's death had put him in. Besides, Cashel needed the exercise after a day at sea.

The staff spun faster. The gentle sway and pitch of the ship wasn't a problem; Cashel was used to crossing creeks on rain-slicked logs, carrying sheep which were still muddy and kicking in terror from the bog he'd dragged them out of.

Everybody was looking at him now. Garric grinned with his hands on his hips; Sharina's expression was a mixture of pride and love. How amazing it was that she loved him! The ferrules blurred into a gleaming circle.

Cashel lifted the whirling staff overhead, feeling the tug of its rotation fighting the strength of his powerful wrists. He gave a shout and jumped from the railing, letting the hickory carry him around so that he faced seaward again; shouted, jumped, and faced the ship, the staff still in his hands.

Cashel jumped down to the deck, flushed and triumphant. The pine planking creaked dangerously at the shock; he'd hit harder than he'd meant too. He was making it look easy—that was half the trick, after all—but it'd taken a lot out of even his great muscles. After the strain, his judgment wasn't as good as maybe it ought to've been.

"There!" Cashel said to Protas, fighting the urge to suck in air through his mouth. "That's not something I was born to or given. That I can do because I worked till I could. That's something I'm proud of!"

But as he spoke, his skin itched like hot coals. Wizardry was building to the breaking point in the world about him.

* * *

Ilna os-Kenset squatted on the foredeck of the cutter Heron, a hand loom in her lap and her eyes on the sky. She was weaving a pattern that'd be abstract to the eyes of those who viewed it: blurred, gentle curves of grays and blacks and browns, the colors of a coast soon after sunset. All the hues were natural; Ilna didn't trust dyes.

She smiled faintly. She didn't trust most things. In particular she didn't trust herself when she was angry, and she'd spent far too much time being angry.

Though the plaque Ilna wove looked to be only an exercise in muted good taste, the pattern would work deep in the minds of those who glanced at it. They wouldn't be aware of the effect, not consciously at least, but they'd go away soothed and a little more at peace with the world and themselves.

Ilna smiled again. It even worked on her, and her disposition was a very stiff test.

"Give us a song, captain!" called the stroke oar, a squat fellow with his wrists tattooed to look like he was wearing bracers.

"Aye, give us The Ladies o' Shengy, Cap'n Chalcus!" agreed one of the rowers from the lower tier, sitting on deck now that the ship idled along with only the slow strokes of four oarsmen to keep her steady in the swell.

The Heron had a crew of fifty rowers in two tiers, with a dozen officers and deck hands for the rigging when her mast was raised. She was a stubby vessel, neither as fast nor as powerful as the triremes that made up the bulk of the royal fleet let alone the quinqueremes which acted as flagships for the squadrons and fleet itself.

For all that, the cutter was a warship. Her ram and the handiness of her short hull made her a dangerous opponent even to much larger vessels.

Ilna's smile, never broad, took on a hint of warmth. A fishing skiff would be a dangerous opponent if Chalcus commanded it.

"I will not sing such a thing and scandalize the fine ladies here with us," said Chalcus, but there was a cheery lilt in his voice. He bowed to the ten-year-old Lady Merota, seated on the stern rail like an urchin and not the heiress to the bos-Roriman fortune, then bowed lower yet to Ilna in the bow. "But I'll pass the time for you with The Brown Girl if there's a swig of wine—"

The helmsman lifted the skin of wine hanging from the railing by him where the spray kissed it. He slapped it into Chalcus' hand though neither man looked at the other as they made the exchange.

"—to wet my pipes," Chalcus concluded as he thumbed the carved wooden plug from the goatskin and drank deeply.

He was a close-coupled man, not much taller than Ilna herself. Chalcus looked trim when dressed in court clothing; he was hard as mahogany statue when he stripped to a sailor's breechclout, as he did often enough even now that Garric had made him the Heron's captain.

In a breechclout you saw the scars also. Several of the long-healed wounds should've been fatal. If one had been, Ilna would never have met him. It was hard to imagine what value she'd find in life at this moment were it not for Chalcus.

"'The Brown Girl she has houses and lands...,'" Chalcus sang in his clear tenor. His eyes continued to smile at Ilna till she leaned around to look at the sky again while her fingers wove. "'Fair Tresian has none....'"

Chalcus had sailed with the Lataaene pirates in southern waters. He didn't talk about those days or other days of the same sort he'd lived in the course of collecting the scars on his body. Ilna supposed Chalcus had as much on his conscience as she did on hers, though he carried the burden lightly as he did all things.

"'The best advice I can give you, my son...,'" Chalcus sang, his voice shining like a sunlit brook, "'is to bring the Brown Girl home."

Ilna didn't ask whether Chalcus was a good man or a bad one. He was her man, and that was enough.

Something rippled and seethed behind the sky's curtain of thin clouds. Ilna's fingers worked, weaving contentment for people she didn't know through ages she couldn't guess. Her patterns would last for the life of the wool, and that could be very long indeed.

Ilna'd always had a talent for yarns and fabric that went beyond mere skill. She could touch a swatch of cloth and know where the flax had grown or the sheep had gamboled; and she knew also what'd been in the heart of the one who wove it.

By the time she was twelve everyone in the borough knew that Ilna os-Kenset wove fabrics softer and finer than anyone else around. Before she left Barca's Hamlet at eighteen, two years past, merchants came from Sandrakkan and even Ornifal to buy her subtly woven cloth.

"'He dressed himself in scarlet red...,'" Chalcus sang. The Heron's crew, sailors as coarse as the hemp of the ship's rigging, listened to the lovely, lilting voice. Other men lined the near rail of The Shepherd of the Isles. "'He rode all o'er the town....'"

Ilna's road had led from Barca's Hamlet to Carcosa, the ancient capital on the other coast of Haft; and from Carcosa she'd gone to Hell where at the cost of her soul she'd learned to weave as no human could. She'd used her new skills in the service of Evil and in her own service, because she'd returned from Hell as surely an agent of Evil as any demon was.

Garric had freed Ilna from the darkness she'd sold herself to for love of him, but nothing—no deed, no apology, no remorse—could undo the things she'd done while she rejoiced in the power to make others act as she and Evil chose. So be it. She'd live the best way she could, helping the friends who'd been wiser and stronger and knew Evil only as an enemy. And whenever she could, she'd weave patterns that would make life a little less bleak for those who saw them.

The patterns helped even Ilna os-Kenset, who'd never forgive herself for the harm she'd done through anger and pride in her own skill. Her fingers worked, and her lips quirked wryly. She wasn't good at forgiving others either, if it came to that.

"'... they thought that he was the king," Chalcus sang, and Merota joined in on the harmony. Ilna glanced back. The child was clasping the sailor's left hand in both of hers, her face bright with delight.

It was remarkable the way the noble Lady Merota had taken to them, the peasant girl and the sailor who'd once been worse things. Merota had tutors, of course, and advisors to manage the properties and investments to which she'd fallen heir; but her parents were dead, and she'd never had anything like real friendship until she met Ilna.

Ilna knew how people treated an orphan girl without anyone to protect her. She couldn't change the whole world; but while she lived no one was going to use Merota as a stepping stone on their route to wealth and power.

The clouds on the eastern horizon had grown into an overcast smearing the heavens like lime wash over gray stone. The sun, barely past zenith, was a bright patch to the south. The sky wasn't stormy, and the sea moved as gently as ripe barley ruffled by a breeze. The threat, the lurking power, was no part of the natural world.

But it was present nonetheless.

"'What news, what news, Lord Thoma?' she said," sang Merota, taking the women's parts alone now. "'What news have you for me?'"

Sailors were hard men, and sailors willing to serve under Captain Chalcus were often harder still; some of the Heron's crew were little more than brutes. They listened to the girl with pleasure as innocent as her own.

It should come very shortly, Ilna thought, trying to read the pattern above the heavens.

"'I've come to ask you to my weddin','" Chalcus sang, and the heavens split with a continuing roar.

A blue-white glare hammered down, brighter than the sun in the first instants and growing brighter still. Ilna jerked her eyes away, but even the reflections from the wave-tops were so painfully vivid that she found herself squinting.

The clouds bubbled back like mud shocked by a thrown stone. Something was coming, and it was coming fast.

"Man your bloody benches!" Chalcus said. He was shouting, but even so the words were little more than a whisper over the sound of the sky tearing apart. "Get a way on, ye beggars, or the Sister'll swallow us down to Hell where we belong!"

As Chalcus spoke, he grabbed Merota by the back of her tunics and tossed her aft, under the rising curve of the stern piece where the helmsman stood. It wasn't a safe place, but there was no real safety on a cutter; and as for gentle, that could wait for when there was time.

Ilna unpinned her hand-loom, folding it with the warp and weft still in place and returning it to its canvas bag. She worked methodically, making the same motions at the same speed as she would if the Heron had landed in Mona Harbor and she was preparing to go ashore. She always moved as quickly as she could without error; and if putting away her loom was the last thing Ilna os-Kenset did, then it too would be done properly.

The roar pounded the sea and the ships, a weight like a storm-wind that made men flinch from its force. Not all the oars were manned but most were, and rowers were hauling back on their looms. Chalcus' orders were driving them, but reflex drove them also. Men try to do the thing they know in the midst of a chaos they don't understand.

Ilna slung the strap of the loom bag and rose to her feet. The blaze in the sky threw her shadow as a black pool at her feet. She didn't know why Chalcus had ordered the rowers to their posts; perhaps it was merely to give them a task and prevent panic. Another man might've been trying to get away, but the thunder raced too fast for the Heron or any other human device to escape.

Besides, Chalcus wasn't the sort to think first of running.

The object struck the sea with a cataclysmic flash, as far to the south of the royal fleet as the island was to the north. Steam and water spouted skyward. There was a moment of silence, broken only by ringing in Ilna's ears from the punishment they'd taken during the thing's passage.

"Port oars stroke!" Chalcus shouted. "Starboard back water! Bring us bow on, you dogs, or the fish'll kiss our bones!"

The Heron jumped as the sea slapped its keel, knocking Ilna and every standing man save Chalcus to the deck. The blast of sound through the air followed, noticeably later and less violent.

Water lifted in a mountain-high ring about the column of steam, racing outward at a pace beyond that of a galloping horse. The wave's height lessened as its circle expanded, but it'd still be of immense size and power when it reached them.

"It's the Shepherd's sling stone!" cried a sailor, weeping over his oar loom. "Ah, mercy on a poor sinner!"

"It's a meteor!" piped Merota, hugging the sternpost with both arms. "It's a stone from the sky and we've seen it! We've seen it!"

"All oars stop!" shouted Chalcus. "Now together boys, forward and put your backs in it. Stroke! Stroke! Stro—"

The squadrons to starboard, south of the Heron and the flagship, were in confusion, dancing like straws in a millrace. Ships lifted on the rising wave, then slid or tumbled off the back. Some capsized and one trireme, older or harder used than most, broke in the middle like a snake under a spade.

"Ship oars!" Chalcus cried. "Wait for it my buckos, my heroes, for—"

A wave washed the cutter's deck bow to stern. Ilna, caught unaware, grabbed a jib stay. She hadn't been consciously aware of it, but in the crisis her instinct went to a rope and saved her. The sea rushed past, bubbling and powerful, but a lifetime of working looms had given Ilna a grip and muscles equal to this test and worse ones.

The Heron lifted from the back of the wave and bucked onto an even keel. Here the cutter's short hull glided over what meant danger to a longer vessel.

Chalcus stood silent, surveying the whole situation while the officers under him sorted out their divisions. The crisis was over for the Heron. The wave-crest moved on, shaking ships like rats in a dog's jaws and leaving flotsam in its wake.

"Ahead slow!" Chalcus called. "Holpa, Rennon, Kirweke and Lonn—fetch yourselves lines and stand in the bow. There's men in the water as'll drown if we don't get them out!"

Ilna joined him. Merota, cautiously holding the rail, got up also and took the sailor's hand when he reached back for her.

"There's many that'll drown despite us, too," Chalcus said in a voice pitched for the pair of them. "We're one small ship and there's a dozen foundered or I miss my bet. But we'll do what we can."

"Chalcus?" said Merota. "That was a meteor, a really big one. Can we go see where it landed?"

"Where it landed, child...," Chalcus said, looking toward the pillar of steam now piercing the roiling overcast. "Is a trench deeper than any man's plumbed. There'd be nothing to see, whether it's your scholar's meteor or the Shepherd's sling stone as simple folk like me were raised to think."

"You don't believe in the Shepherd or the Lady, Chalcus," Merota said sternly.

"Aye, there you have me, dear one," said the sailor, but the banter was only in his tone and not his eyes. "Nor perhaps in the Sister who rules the Underworld. But if there was a Sister and a Hell for her to rule, I think we might find them in a place that looks much—"

Chalcus nodded toward the column of steam, still rising and now seeming to sparkle at the core.

"—as that one does."

"Yes," said Ilna, her eyes on the horizon. "And I've never found such a lack of trouble in this world that I needed to borrow it from the heavens."

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