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Chapter Eight

Night had fallen over the mountains. The new arrivals seemed to glow with their own ghostlight as they flew through the purple-dark sky toward Chaumel's balcony. Keff, concealed with Chaumel behind a curtain in the tall glass door, recognized Ferngal, Nokias, Potria, and some of the lesser magimen and magiwomen from that afternoon. There were plenty of new faces, including some in chairs as fancy as Chaumel's own.

"The big chaps and their circle of intimates, no doubt. Wish I had a chance to put on my best bib and tucker," Keff murmured to Carialle. To his host, he said, "Shouldn't we go out and greet them, Chaumel?"

"Hutt!" Chaumel said, hurriedly putting a hand to his lips, and raising the wand at his belt in threat to back up his command. Silently, he pantomimed putting one object after another in a row. " . . . (untranslatable) . . ."

"I think I understand you," Keff said, interrupting IT's attempt to locate roots for the phrase. "Order of precedence. Protocol. You're waiting for everyone to land."

Pursing his lips, Chaumel nodded curtly and returned to studying the scene. One at a time, like a flock of enormous migratory birds, the chariots queued up beyond the lip of the landing zone. Some jockeyed for better position, then resumed their places as a sharp word came from one of the occupants of the more elaborate chairs. Keff sensed that adherence to protocol was strictly enforced among the magifolk. Behave or get blasted, he thought.

As soon as the last one was in place, Chaumel threw open the great doors and stood to one side, bowing. Hastily, Keff followed suit. Five of the chairs flew forward and set down all at once in the nearest squares. Their occupants rose and stepped majestically toward them.

"Zolaika, High Magess of the North," Chaumel said, bowing deeply. "I greet you."

"Chaumel," the tiny, old woman of the leaf-green chariot said, with a slight inclination of her head. She sailed regally into the center of the grand hall and stood there, five feet above the ground as if fixed in glass.

"Ilnir, High Mage of the Isles." Chaumel bowed to a lean man in purple with a hooked nose and a domed, bald head. Nokias started forward, but Chaumel held up an apologetic finger. "Ferngal, High Mage of the East, I greet you."

Nokias's face crimsoned in the reflected light from the ballroom. He stepped forward after Ferngal strode past with a smug half-grin on his face. "I had forgotten, brother Chaumel. Forgive my discourtesy."

"Forgive mine, high one," Chaumel said, suavely, holding his hands high and apart. "Ureth help me, but you could never be less than courteous. Be greeted, Nokias, High Mage of the South."

Gravely, the golden magiman entered and took his place at the south point of the center ring. He was followed by Omri of the West, a flamboyantly handsome man dressed fittingly in peacock blue. Chaumel gave him an elaborate salute.

With less ceremony and markedly less deference, Chaumel greeted the rest of the visiting magi.

"He outranks these people," Carialle said in Keff's implant. "He's making it clear they're lucky to get the time of day out of him. I'm not sure where he stands in the society. He's probably not quite of the rank of the first five, but he's got a lot of power."

"And me where he wants us," Keff said in a sour tone.

As Nokias had, a few of the lesser ones were compelled to take an unexpected backseat to some of their fellows. Chaumel was firm as he indicated demotions and ignored those who conceded with bad grace. Keff wondered if the order of precedence was liquid and altered frequently. He saw a few exchanges of hot glares and curt gestures, but no one spoke or swung a wand.

Potria and Asedow had had time to change clothes and freshen up after their battle. Potria undulated off her pink-gold chariot swathed in an opaque gown of a cloth so fine it pulsed at wrists and throat with her heartbeat. Her perfume should have been illegal. Asedow, still in dark green, wore several chains and wristlets of hammered and pierced metal that clanked together as he walked. The two elbowed one another as they approached Chaumel, striving to be admitted first. Chaumel broke the deadlock by bowing over Potria's hand, but waving Asedow through behind her back. Potria smirked for receiving extra attention from the host, but Asedow had preceded her into the hall, dark green robes aswirl. As Carialle and Keff had observed before, Chaumel was a diplomat.

"How does one get promoted?" he asked Chaumel, who bowed the last of the magifolk, a slender girl in a primrose robe, into the ballroom. "What criteria do you use to tell who's on first?"

"I will explain in time," the silver mage said. "Come."

Taking Keff firmly by the upper arm, he went forth to make small talk with his many visitors. He brought Keff to bow to Zolaika who began an incomprehensible conversation with Chaumel literally over Keff's head because the host rose several feet to float on the same level as the lady. Keff stood, staring up at the verbal Ping-Pong match, wishing the IT was faster at simultaneous translation. He heard his name several times, but caught little of the context. Most of it was in the alternate, alien-flavored dialect, peppered with a few hand gestures. Keff only recognized the signs for "help" and "honor."

"I hope you're taking all this down so I can work on it later," he said in a subvocal mutter to Carialle. Hands behind his back, he twisted to survey the rest of the hall.

"With my tongue out," Carialle said "My, you certainly brought out the numbers. Everyone wants a peep at you. What would you be willing to bet that everyone who could reasonably expect admittance is here. I wonder how many are sitting home, trying to think up a good excuse to call?"

"No bet," Keff said cheerfully. "Oh, look, the decorator's been in."

The big room, which had been empty until the guests arrived, was beginning to fill in with appropriate pieces of furniture. Two rows of sconces bearing burning torches appeared at intervals along the walls. Three magifolk chatting near the double doors discovered a couch behind them and sat down. Spider-legged chairs chased mages through the room, only to place themselves in a correct and timely manner, for the mages never once looked behind to see if there was something there to be sat on: a seat was assumed. Fat, ferny plants in huge crockery pots grew up around two magimen who huddled against one wall, talking in furtive undertones.

A wing chair nudged the back of Zolaika's knees while an ottoman insinuated itself lovingly under the old woman's feet. She made herself comfortable as several of the junior magifolk came to pay their respects. A small table with a round, rimmed top appeared in their midst. Several set down their magical items, initiating an apparent truce for the duration.

After kissing Zolaika's hand, Chaumel detached himself from the group and steered Keff toward the next of the high magimen in the room. Engrossed in a conversation, Ilnir barely glanced at Keff, but accorded Chaumel a courteous nod as he made an important point using his wrist-thick magic mace for emphasis. A carved pedestal appeared under Ilnir's elbow and he leaned upon it.

Each of the higher magimen had a number of sycophants, male and female, as escort. Potria, gorgeous in her floating, low-cut peach gown, was among the number surrounding Nokias. Asedow was right beside her. They glared at Chaumel, evidently taking personally the slight done to their chief. As Chaumel and Keff passed by, they raised their voices with the complaint that they had been wrongly prevented from finishing their contest.

Ferngal and Nokias were standing together near the crystal windows beyond their individual circles. The two were exchanging pleasantries with one another, but not really communicating. Keff, boosting the gain of his audio pickup with a pressure of his jaw muscles, actually heard one of them pass a remark about the weather.

Chaumel stopped equidistant between the two high mages. His hand concealed in a fold of his silver robe, he used sharp pokes to direct Keff to bow first to Ferngal, then Nokias. Keff offered a few polite words to each. IT was working overtime processing the small talk it was picking up, but it gave him the necessary polite phrases slowly enough to recite accurately without resorting to IT's speaker.

"I feel like a trained monkey," Keff subvocalized.

As he straightened up, Carialle got a look at his audience. "That's what they think you are, too. They seem surprised that you can actually speak"

Chaumel turned him away from his two important guests and tilted his head conspiratorially close.

"You see, my young friend, I would have preferred to have you all to myself, but I can't refuse access to the preeminent magis when they decide to call at my humble home for an evening. One climbs higher by power . . . (power-plays, IT suggested) managed, as ordered by the instructions left us by our ancestors. Such power-plays determine one's height (rank, IT whispered). Also, deaths. They are most facile at these."

"Deaths?" Keff asked. "You mean, you all move up one when someone dies?"

"Yes, but also when one makes a death," Chaumel said, with an uneasy backward glance at the high mages. Keff goggled.

"You mean you move up when you kill someone?"

"Sounds like the promotion lists in the space service to me," Carialle remarked to Keff.

"Ah, but not only that, but through getting more secrets and magical possessions from those, and more. But Ferngal of the East has just, er, discarded . . ."

"Disposed of," Carialle supplied.

" . . . Mage Klemay in a duel, so he has raised/ascended over Mage Nokias of the South. I must incorporate the change of status smoothly, though"—his face took on an exaggerated mask of tragedy—"it pains me to see the embarrassment it causes my friend, Nokias. We attempt to make all in harmony."

Keff thought privately that Chaumel didn't look that uncomfortable. He looked like he was enjoying the discomfiture of the Mage of the South.

"This is a nasty brood. They make a point of scoring off one another," Carialle observed. "The only thing that harmonizes around here is the color-coordinated outfits and chariots. Did you notice? Everyone has a totem color. I wonder if they inherit it, earn it, or just choose it." She giggled in Keff's ear. "And what happens when someone else has the one you want?"

"Another assassination, I'm sure," Keff said, bowing and smiling to one side as Ferngal made for Ilnir's group.

As the black-clad magiman's circle drifted off, Nokias's minions spread out a little, as if grateful for the breathing room. Keff turned to Potria and gave her his most winning smile, but she looked down her nose at him.

"How nice to see you again, my lady," he said in slow but clear Ozran. The lovely bronze woman turned pointedly and looked off in another direction. The puff of gold hair over her right ear obscured her face from him completely. Keff sighed.

"No sale," Carialle said. "You might as well have been talking to her chair. Tsk-tsk, tsk-tsk. Your hormones don't have much sense."

"Thank you for that cold shower, my lady," Keff said half to Potria, half to Carialle. "You're a heartless woman, you are." The brain chuckled in his ear.

"She's not that different from anyone else here. I've never seen such a bundle of tough babies in my life. Stay on your guard. Don't reveal more about us than you have to. We're vulnerable enough as it is. I don't like people who mutilate and enslave thousands, not to mention capturing helpless ships."

"Your mind is like unto my mind lady dear," Keff said lightly. "That one doesn't look so tough."

Near the wall, almost hiding in the curtains behind a rose-robed crone was the last magiwoman Chaumel had bowed into the room. IT reminded him her name was Plennafrey. Self-effacing in her simple primrose gown and metallic blue-green shoulder-to-floor sash, her big, dark eyes, pointed chin, and broad cheekbones gave her a gamin look. She glanced toward Keff and immediately turned away. Keff admired her hair, ink-black with rusty highlights, woven into a simple four-strand plait that fell most of the way down her back.

"I feel sorry for her," Keff said. "She looks as though she's out of her depth. She's not mean enough."

Carialle gave him the raspberry. "You always do fall for the naive look," she said. "That's why it's always so easy to lure you into trouble in Myths and Legends."

"Oho, you've admitted it, lady. Now I'll be on guard against you."

"Just you watch it with these people and worry about me later. They're not fish-eating swamp dwellers like the Beasts Blatisant."

Keff had time to nod politely to the tall girl before Chaumel yanked him away to meet the last of the five high magimen. "I know how she feels, Cari. I'm not used to dealing with advanced societies that are more complicated and devious than the one I come from. Give me the half-naked swamp dwellers every time."

* * *

"Look at that," Potria said, sourly. "My claim, and Chaumel is parading it around as if he discovered it."

"Mine," Asedow said. "We have not yet settled the question of ownership."

"He has a kind face," Plennafrey offered in a tiny voice. Potria spun in a storm of pink-gold and glared at her.

"You are mad. It is not fully Ozran, so it is no better than a beast, like the peasants."

Remembering her resolution to be bolder no matter how terrified she felt, Plennafrey cleared her throat.

"I am sure he is not a mere thing, Potria. He looks a true man." In fact, she found his looks appealing. His twinkling eyes reminded her of happy days, something she hadn't known since long before her father died. If only she could have such a man in her life, it would no longer be lonely.

Potria turned away, disgusted. "I have been deprived of my rights."

"You have? I spoke first." Asedow's eyes glittered.

"I was winning," Potria said, lips curled back from gritted white teeth. She flashed a hand signal under Asedow's nose. He backed off, making a sign of protection. Plenna watched, wild-eyed. Although she knew they wouldn't dare to rejoin their magical battle in here, neither of them was above a knife in the ribs.

Suddenly, she felt a wall of force intrude between the combatants. The thought of a possible incident must also have occurred to Nokias. Asedow and Potria retreated another hand-span apart, continuing to harangue one another. Plenna glanced over at the other groups of mages. They were beginning to stare. Nokias, having been disgraced once already this evening, would be furious if his underlings embarrassed him in front of the whole 16assemblage.

Asedow was getting louder, his hands flying in the old signs, emphasizing his point. "It is to my honor, and the tower and the beast will come to me!"

Potria's hands waved just as excitedly. "You have no honor. Your mother was a fur-skin with a dray-beast jaw, and your father was drunk when he took her!"

At the murderous look in Asedow's eye, Plenna warded herself and planted her hand firmly over her belt buckle beneath the concealing sash. At least she could help prevent the argument from spreading. With an act of will, she cushioned the air around them so no sound escaped past their small circle. That deadened the shouting, but it didn't prevent others from seeing the pantomime the two were throwing at one another.

"How dare you!" Zolaika's chair swooped in on the pair, knocking them apart with a blast of force which dispelled Plenna's cloud of silence. "You profane the sacred signs in a petty brawl!"

"She seeks to take what is rightfully mine," Asedow bellowed. Freed, his voice threatened to shake down the ceiling.

"High one, I appeal to you," Potria said, turning to the senior magess. "I challenged for the divine objects and I claim them as my property." She pointed at Keff.

* * *

Keff was taken aback.

"Now just a minute here," he said, starting forward as he recognized the words. "I'm no one's chattel."

"Hutt!" Zolaika ordered, pointing an irregular, hand-sized form at him. Keff ducked, fearing another bolt of scarlet lightning. Chaumel pulled him back and, keeping a hand firmly on his shoulder, offered a placatory word to Potria.

"She's not the enchantress I thought she was," Keff said sadly to Carialle.

"A regular La Belle Dame Sans Merci," Carialle said. "Treat with courtesy, at a respectable distance."

"Speaking of stating one's rights," Ferngal said as he and the other high magimen moved forward. He folded his long fingers in the air before him and studied them. "May I mention that the objects were found in Klemay's territory, which is now my domain, so I have the prior claim. The tower and the male are mine." He crushed his palms together deliberately.

"But before that, they were in my venue," the old woman in red cried out from her place by the window. Her chair lifted high into the air. "I had seen the silver object and the being near my village when first it fell on Ozran. I claim precedence over you for the find, Ferngal!"

"I am no one's find!" Keff said, breaking away from Chaumel. "I'm a free man. My ship is my magical object, no one else's."

"I'm mine," Carialle crisply reminded him.

"I'd better keep you a piece of magical esoterica, lady, or they'll kill me without hesitation over a talking ship with its own brain."

La Belle Dame Sans Merci raised a shrill outcry. Chaumel, eager to keep the peace in his own home, flew to the center of the room and raised his hands.

"Mages and magesses and honored guest, the hour is come! Let us dine. We will discuss this situation much more reasonably when we all have had a bite and a sup. Please!" He clapped his hands, and a handful of servants appeared, bearing steaming trays. At a wave of their master's hand they fanned out among the guests, offering tasty-smelling hors d'oeuvres. Keff sniffed appreciatively.

"Don't touch," Carialle cautioned him. "You don't know what's in them."

"I know," Keff said, "but I'm starved. It's been hours since I had that hot meal." He felt his stomach threatening to rumble and compressed his diaphragm to prevent it being heard. He concentrated on looking politely disinterested.

Chaumel clapped his hands, and fur-faced musicians strumming oddly shaped instruments suddenly appeared here and there about the room. They passed among the guests, smiling politely. Chaumel nodded with satisfaction, and signaled again.

More Noble Primitives appeared out of the air, this time with goblets and pitchers of sparkling liquids in jewel colors. A chair hobbled up to Keff and edged its seat sideways toward his legs, as if offering him a chance to sit down.

"No thanks," he said, stepping away a pace. The chair, unperturbed, tottered on toward the next person standing next to him. "Look around, Cari! It's like Merlin's household in The Sword in the Stone. I feel a little drunk on glory, Cari. We've discovered a race of magicians. This is the pinnacle of our careers. We could retire tomorrow and they'd talk about us until the end of time."

"Once we get off this rock and go home! I keep telling you, Keff, what they're doing isn't magic. It can't be. Real magic shouldn't require power, least of all the kind of power they're sucking out of the surrounding area. Mental power possibly, but not battery-generator type power, which is what is coming along those electromagnetic lines in the air."

"Well, there's invocation of power as well as evocation, drawing it into you for use," Keff said, trying to remember the phrases out of the Myths and Legends rule book.

Carialle seemed to read his mind. "Don't talk about a game! This is real life. This isn't magic. Ah! There it is: proof."

Keff glanced up. Chaumel was bowing to something hovering before him at eye level. It was a box of some kind. It drifted slightly so that the flat side that had been directed at Chaumel was pointing at him. Looking out from behind a glass panel was a man's face, dark-skinned and ancient beyond age. The puckered eyelids compressed as the man peered intently at Keff.

"See? It's a monitor," Carialle said. "A com unit. It's a device, not magic, not evoked from the person of the user. He's transmitting his image through it, probably because he's too weak to be here in person."

"Maybe the box is just a relic from the old days," Keff said, but his grand theory did have a few holes in it. "Look, there's nothing feeding it."

"You don't need cable to transmit power, Keff. You know that. Even Chaumel isn't magicking the food up himself. He's calling it from somewhere. Probably in the depths of the dungeon, there's a host of fuzzy-faced cooks working their heads off, and furry sommeliers decanting wine. I think he's acting like the teleportative equivalent of a maitre d'."

"All right, I concede that they might be technicians. What I want to know is just what they want with us so badly that they have to trap us in place."

"What we appear to be, or at least I appear to be, is a superior technical gizmo. Your girlfriend and her green sidekick at least don't want something this big to get away. The greed, by the way, is not limited to those two. At least eighty percent of the people here experience increased respiration and heartbeat when they look at you and the IT box, and by proxy, me. It's absolutely indecent."

Chaumel went around the room like a zephyr, defusing arguments and urging people to sit down to prepare for the meal. Keff admired his knack of having every detail at his fingertips. Couches with attached tables appeared out of the ether. The guests disported themselves languidly on the velvet covers while the tables adjusted themselves to be in easy range. The canape servers vanished in midstep and the remains of the hors d'oeuvres with them. Napery, silver, and a translucent dinner service appeared on every table followed by one, two, three sparkling crystal goblets, all of different design. White, embroidered napkins opened out and spread themselves on each lap.

Something caught Keff squarely in the belly and behind the knees, making him fold up. A padded seat caught him, lifted him up and forward several feet into the heart of the circle of magifolk, and the tray across his middle clamped firmly down on the other arm of the chair. Under his heels, a broad bar braced itself to give him support. A napkin puffed up, settled like swansdown on his thighs.

"Oh, I'm not hungry," he said to the air. The invisible maitre d' paid no attention to his protest. He was favored with china and crystal, and a small finger bowl on a doily. He picked up a goblet to examine it. Though the glass was wafer-thin, it had been incised delicately with arabesques and intricate interlocking diamonds.

"How beautiful."

"Now that is contemporary. Not bad," Carialle said, with grudging approval. Keff turned the goblet and let it catch the torchlight. He pinged it with a fingernail and listened to the sweet song.

A hairy-faced server bearing an earthen pitcher appeared next to Keff to fill his glass with dark golden wine. Keff smiled at him and sniffed the liquid. It was fragrant, like honey and herbs.

"Don't drink that," Carialle said, after a slight hesitation to assess the readouts from Keff's olfactory implant. "Full of sulfites, and just in case you think the Borgias were a fun family, enough strychnine in it to kill you six times over."

Shocked, Keff pushed the glass away. It vanished and was replaced by an empty one. Another server hovered and poured a cedar-red potation into its bowl. He smiled at the furry-faced female who tipped up the corners of her mouth tentatively before hurrying away to the next person.

"Who put poison in my wine?" Keff whispered, staring around him.

Chaumel glanced over at him with a concerned expression. Keff nodded and smiled to show that everything was all right. The silver magiman nodded back and went on his way from one guest to another.

"I don't know," Carialle said. "It wasn't and isn't in the pitcher, but I wasn't quick enough to follow the burst of energy back to its originator. Seems it isn't an unknown incident, though."

All around the room, a Noble Primitive was appearing beside each mage. Full of curiosity, Keff eyed them. Each bore a different cast of features, some more animal than others, so they were undoubtedly from the magimen's home provinces. Asedow's servant did look like a six-pack. The pretty girl's servant was hardly mutated at all, except for something about the eyes that suggested felines. Potria didn't look at her pig-person, but stiff-armed her goblet toward him. Cautiously, the Noble Primitive took a sip. Nothing happened to him, but two other servants nearby fell over on the floor in fits of internal anguish. They vanished and were replaced by others. Whites showing all around the irises of his eyes, the pig-man handed the goblet back to his mistress, and waited, hands clenched, for her nod of approval. Other mages, their first drink satisfactory, held their glasses aloft, calling loudly to the wine servers for refills.

"Food-tasters! There's more in heaven and on earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio," Keff said.

"Hmph!" Carialle said. "That's an understatement. I wish you could see what I do. Those languorous poses are just that: poses. I'm recording everything for your benefit, and it's taking approximately eighteen percent of my total memory capacity to absorb it. I'm not merely monitoring three language forms. There is a lot more going on sub rosa. Every one of our magifolk is tensed up so much I don't know how they can swallow. The air is full of power transmissions, odd miniature gravity wells, low-frequency signals, microwaves, you name it."

"Can you trace any of it back? What is it all for?"

"The low-frequency stuff is easy to read. It's chatter. They're sending private messages to one another, forming conspiracies and so on against, as nearly as I can tell, everyone else in the room. The power signals correspond to dirty tricks like the poison in your wine. As for the microwaves, I can't tell what they're for. The transmission is slightly askew to anything I've dealt with before, and I can't intercept it anyway because I'm not on the receiving end."

"Tight point-to-point beam?"

"I wish I could transmit something with as little spillover," Carialle admitted. "Somebody is very good at what they're doing."

IT continued to translate, but most of what it reported was small talk, mostly on the taste of the wine and the current berry harvests. With their chairs bobbing up and down to add emphasis to their discourse, two magiwomen were conversing about architecture. A couple of the magifolk here and there leaned their heads toward one another as if sharing a confidence, but their lips weren't moving. Keff suspected the same kind of transference that the magifolk used to control their eye spheres. He looked up, wondering where all the spy-eyes had gone. That afternoon on the field the air had been thick with them.

Keff contrasted the soup that appeared in huge silver tureens with the swill that Brannel's people had to eat. And he and Cari were still not free to leave the planet. Still, in spite of the shortcomings, he had a feeling of satisfaction.

"This is the race everyone in Exploration has always dreamed of finding," he said, surveying the magifolk. "Our technical equals, Cari. And against all odds, a humanoid race that evolved parallel to our own. They're incredible."

"Incredible when they amputate fingers from babies?" asked Carialle. "And keep a whole segment of the race under their long thumbs with drugged food and drink? If they're our equals, thank you, I'll stay unequal. Besides, they don't appear to be makers, they're users. Chaumel's mighty proud of those techno-toys left to him by the Old Ones and the Ancient Ones, but he doesn't know how to fix 'em. And neither does anyone else. Over there, in the corner."

Keff glanced over as Carialle directed. On the floor lay Chaumel's jelly jar. He gasped.

"Does he know he lost it?"

"He didn't lose it. I saw him drop it there. It doesn't work anymore, so he discarded it. Everybody else has looked at it with burning greed in their eyes and, as soon as they realized it doesn't work anymore, ignored it. They're operators, not engineers."

"They're still tool-using beings with an advanced civilization who have technical advantages, if you must call it that, superior in many ways to ours. If we can bring them into the Central Worlds, I'm sure they'll be able to teach us plenty."

"We already know all about corruption, thank you," Carialle said.

A servant stepped forward, bowed, and presented the tureen to him. Keff sniffed. The soup smelled wonderful. He gave them a tight smile. Another popped into being beside him bearing a large spoon, and ladled some into the bowl on his tray. The rich golden broth was thick with chunks of red and green vegetables and tiny, doughnut-shaped pasta. Keff poked through it with his silver spoon.

"Cari, I'm starved. Is any of this safe to eat? They didn't assign me a food-taster, even if I'd trust one."

"Hold up a bite, and I'll tell you if anyone's spiked it." Keff obliged, pretending he was cooling the soup with his breath. "Nope. Go ahead."

"Ahhhh." Keff raised it all the way to his lips.

His chair jerked sideways in midair. The stream of soup went flying off into the air past his cheek and vanished before it splashed onto his shoulder. He found himself facing Omri.

"Tell me, strange one," said the peacock-clad mage, lounging back on his floating couch, one hand idly spooning up soup and letting it dribble back into his bowl. "Where do you come from?"

"Watch it," Carialle barked.

"From far away, honored sir," Keff said. "A world that circles a sun a long way from here."

"That's impossible."

Keff found himself spun halfway around until he was nose to nose with a woman in brown with night-black eyes.

"There are no other suns. Only ours."

Keff opened his mouth to reply, but before he could get the words out, his chair whirled again.

"Pay no attention to Lacia. She's a revisionist," said Ferngal. His voice was friendly, but his eyes were two dead circles of dark blue slate. Tell me more about this star. What is its name?"

"Calonia," Keff said.

"That leaves them none the wiser," Carialle said.

"That leaves us none the wiser," Chaumel echoed, turning Keff's seat in a flat counterclockwise spin three-quarters around. "How far is it from here, and how long did it take you to get here?" Keff opened his mouth to address Chaumel, but the silver magiman became a blur.

"What power do your people have?" Asedow asked. Whoosh!

"How many are they?" demanded Zolaika. Hard jerk, reverse spin.

"Why did you come here?" asked a plump man in bright yellow. Blur.

"What do you want on Ozran?" Nokias asked. Keff tried to force out an answer.

"Not—" Short jerk sideways.

"How did you obtain possession of the silver tower?" Potria asked.

"It's my sh—" Two half-arcs in violently different directions, until he ended up facing an image of Ferngal that swayed and bobbed.

"Will more of your folk be coming here?" Keff heard. His stomach was beginning to head for his esophagus.

"I . . ." he began, but his chair shifted again, this time to twin images of Ilnir, who gabbled something at him in a hoarse voice that was indistinguishable from the roar in his ears.

"Hey!" Keff protested weakly.

"The Siege Perilous, Galahad," Carialle quipped. "Be strong, be resolute, be brave."

"I'm starting to get motion sick," Keff said. "Even flyer training wasn't like this! I feel like a nardling lazy Susan." The chair twisted until it was facing away from Ilnir. A blurred figure of primrose yellow and teal at the corner of his eye sat up slightly.

Beside Keff's hand, a small glass appeared. It was filled with a sparkling liquid of very pale green. Keff's vision abruptly cleared. Was he being offered another shot of poison? The silver blob that was Chaumel shot a suspicious look at the tall girl, then nodded to Keff. The brawn started to take the ornate cup, when two more tasters abruptly keeled over and let their glasses crash to the ground. Two more servants appeared, always four-fingered fur-faces. Keff regarded the cup suspiciously.

"What about it, Cari? Is it safe to drink?"

"It's a motion sickness drug," Carialle said, after a quick spectroanalysis. Hastily, before he was moved again, Keff gulped down the green liquid. It tasted pleasantly of mint and gently heated his stomach. In no time, Keff felt much better, able to endure this ordeal. He winked at the pretty girl the next time he was whirled past her. She returned him a tentative grin.

The Siege Perilous halted for a moment and Keff realized his soup plate had vanished. In its place was a crescent-shaped basket of fruit and a plate of salad. His fellow diners were also being favored with the next course. Some of them, with bored expressions, waved it away and were instantly served tall, narrow crockery bowls with salt-encrusted rims. Before he spun away again, he watched Zolaika pull something from it and yank apart a nasty-looking crustacean.

"Ugh," Keff said. "No fish course for me."

Thanks to the young woman's potion he felt well enough to eat. While trying to field questions from the magifolk, he picked up one small piece of fruit after another. Carialle tested them for suspicious additives.

"No," Carialle said. "No, no, no, yes—oops, not anymore. No, no, yes!"

Before it could be tainted by long-distance assassins, Keff popped the chunk of fruit in his mouth without looking at it. It burst in a delightful gush of soft flesh and slightly tart juice. His next half-answer was garbled, impeded by berry pulp, but it didn't matter, since he was never allowed to finish a sentence anyway before the next mage greedily snatched him away from his current inquisitor. He swallowed and sought for another wholesome bite.

The basket disappeared out from under his hand and was replaced by the nauseating crock. His fingers splashed into the watery gray sauce. It sent up an overwhelming odor of rotting oil. Keff's stomach, tantalized by the morsel of fruit, almost whimpered. He held his breath until his invisible waiter got the hint and took the crock away. In its place was a succulent-smelling vol au vent covered with a cream gravy.

"No!" said Carialle as he reached for his fork.

"Oh, Cari." His chair revolved, pinning him to the back, and the meat pastry evaporated in a cloud of steam. "Oh, damn."

"Why have you come to Ozran?" Ilnir asked. "You have not answered me."

"I haven't been allowed," Keff said, bracing himself, expecting any moment to be turned to face another magiman. When the chair didn't move, he sat up straighter. "We come to explore. This planet looked interesting, so we landed."

"We?" Ilnir asked. "Are there more of you in your silver tower?"

"Oops," Carialle said.

"Me and my ship," Keff explained hastily. "When you travel alone as I do, you start talking out loud."

"And do you hear answers?" Asedow asked to the general laughter of his fellows. Keff smiled.

"Wouldn't that be something?" Keff answered sweetly. Asedow smirked.

"That man's been zinged and he doesn't even know it," Carialle said.

"Look, I'm no danger to you," Keff said earnestly. "I'd appreciate it if you would release my ship and let me go on my way."

"Oh, not yet," Chaumel said, with a slight smile Keff didn't like at all. "You have only just arrived. Please allow us to show you our hospitality."

"You are too kind," Keff said firmly. "But I must continue on my way."

The spin took him by surprise.

"Why are you in such a hurry to leave?" Zolaika asked, narrowing her eyes at him. The face with the monitor, hovering beside her, looked him up and down and said something in the secondary, more formal dialect. Keff batted the IT unit slung around his chest, which burped out a halting query.

"What tellest thou from us?"

"What will I say about you?" Keff repeated, and thought fast. "Well, that you are an advanced and erudite people with a strong culture that would be interesting to study."

He was slammed sideways by the force of the reverse spin.

"You would send others here?" Ferngal asked.

"Not if you didn't want me to," Keff said. "If you prefer to remain undisturbed, I assure you, you will be." He suffered a fast spin toward Omri.

"We'll remain more undisturbed if you don't go back to make a report at all," the peacock magiman said. A half-whirl this time, and he ended up before Potria.

"Oh, come, friends," she said, with a winning smile. "Why assume ill where none exists? Stranger, you shall enjoy your time here with us, I promise you. To our new friendship." She flicked her fingers. A cup of opal glass materialized in front of her and skimmed across the air to Keff's tray. Keff, surprised and gratified, picked it up and tilted it to her in salute.

"What's in it, Cari?" he subvocalized.

"Yum. It's a nice mugful of mind-wipe," she said. "Stabilized sodium pentothal and a few other goodies guaranteed to make her the apple of your eye." Keff gave the enchantress a smile full of charm and a polite nod, raised the goblet to her once again, and put it down untasted. "Sorry, ma'am. I don't drink."

The bronze woman swept her hand angrily to one side, and the goblet vanished.

"Nice try, peachie," Cari said, triumphantly.

Keff seized a miniature dumpling from the next plate that landed on his tray.

"Yes," Carialle whispered. Keff popped it into his mouth and swallowed. His greed amused the magifolk of the south, whose chairs bobbed up and down in time to their laughter. He smiled kindly at them and decided to turn the tables.

"I am very interested in your society. How are you governed? Who is in charge of decision-making that affects you all?"

That simple question started a philosophical discussion that fast deteriorated into a shouted argument, resulting in the death or discomfort of six more fur-skinned foodtasters. Keff smiled and nodded and tried to follow it all while he swallowed a few bites.

Following Carialle's instructions, he waved away the next two dishes, took a morsel from the third, ignored the next three when Carialle found native trace elements that would upset his digestive tract, and ate several delightful mouthfuls from the last, crisp, hot pastries stuffed with fresh vegetables. Each dish was more succulent and appealing than the one before it.

"I can't get over the variety of magic going on in here," Keff whispered, toying with a souffle that all but defied gravity.

"If it was really magic, they could magic up what you wanted to eat and not just what they want you to have. As for the rest, you know what I think."

"Well, the food is perfect," Keff said stubbornly. "No burnt spots, no failed sauces, no gristle. That sounds like magic."

"Oh, maybe it's food-synths instead," Carialle countered. "If I was working for Chaumel, I'd be terrified of making mistakes and ruining the food. Wouldn't you?"

Keff sighed. "At least I still have my aliens."

"Enough of this tittle-tattle," Chaumel called out, rising. He clapped his hands. The assemblage craned their necks to look at him. "A little entertainment, my friends?" He brought his hands together again.

Between Nokias and Ferngal, a fur-skinned tumbler appeared halfway through a back flip and bounded into the center of the room. Keff's chair automatically backed up until it was between two others, leaving the middle of the circle open. A narrow cable suspended from the ceiling came into being. On it, a male and a female hung ankle to ankle ten meters above the ground. Starting slowly, they revolved faster until they were spinning flat out, parallel to the floor. There was a patter of insincere applause. The rope and acrobats vanished, and the tumbler leaped into the air, turned a double somersault, and landed on one hand. A small animal with an ornamented collar appeared standing on his upturned feet. It did flips on its perch, as the male boosted it into the air with thrusts of his powerful legs. Omri yawned. The male and his pet disappeared to make room for a whole troupe of juvenile tumblers.

Keff heard a gush of wind from the open windows. The night air blew a cloud of dust over the luminescent parapet, but it never reached the open door. Chaumel flashed his wand across in a warding gesture. The dust beat itself against a bellying, invisible barrier and fell to the floor.

"Was that part of the entertainment?" Keff said subvocally.

"Another one of those power drains," Carialle said "Somehow, what they do sucks all the energy, all the cohesive force out of the surrounding ecology. The air outside of Chaumel's little mountain nest is dead, clear to where I am."

"Magic doesn't have to come from somewhere," Keff said.

"Keff, physics! Power is leaching toward your location. Therefore logic suggests it is being drawn in that direction by need."

"Magic doesn't depend on physics. But I concede your point."

"It's true whether or not you believe in it. The concentrated force-fields are weakening everywhere but there."

"Any chance it weakened enough to let you go?"

There was a slight pause. "No."

A prestidigitator and his slender, golden-furred assistant suddenly appeared in midair, floating down toward the floor while performing difficult sleight-of-hand involving fire and silk cloths. They held up hoops, and acrobats bounded out of the walls to fly through them. More acrobats materialized to catch the flyers, then disappeared as soon as they were safely down. Keff watched in fascination, admiring the dramatic timing. Apparently, the spectacle failed to maintain the interest of the other guests. His chair jerked roughly forward toward Lacia, nearly ramming him through the back. The acrobats had to leap swiftly to one side to avoid being run over.

"You are a spy for a faction on the other side of Ozran, aren't you?" she demanded.

"There aren't any other factions on Ozran, madam," Keff said. "I scanned from space. All habitations are limited to this continent in the northern hemisphere and the archipelago to the southwest."

"You must have come from one of them, then," she said. "Whose spy are you?"

Just like that, the interrogation began all over again. Instead of letting him have time to answer their demands, they seemed to be vying with one another to escalate their accusations of what they suspected him of doing on Ozran. Potria, still angry, didn't bother to speak to him, but occasionally snatched him away from another magifolk just for the pleasure of seeing his gasping discomfort. Asedow joined in the game, tugging Keff away from his rival. Chaumel, too, decided to assert his authority as curator of the curiosity, pulling him away from other magifolk to prevent him answering their questions. In the turmoil, Keff spun around faster and faster, growing more irked by the moment at the magi using him as a pawn. He kept his hands clamped to his chair arms, his teeth gritted tightly as he strove to keep from being sick. Their voices chattered and shrilled like a flock of birds.

"Who are you . . . ?"

"I demand to know . . . !"

"What are you . . . ?"

"Tell me. . . ."

"How do . . . ?"

"Why . . . ?"

"What . . . ?"

Fed up at last, Keff shouted at the featureless mass of color. "Enough of this boorish interrogation. I'm not playing anymore!"

Heedless of the speed at which he was spinning, he pushed away his tray, stepped out from the footrest, and went down, down, down. . . .


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