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THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED, with affection and admiration, to the memory of Karl Hess, who wields the Hammer of Volund at the Forge of Liberty.


PROLOGUE:: The House of Eneri Relda

A fountain sparkled in the broad, tiled courtyard of the hillside villa, cooling the afternoon breeze and sprinkling the sandaled feet of a lean-muscled young man seated before it. His sleeveless tunic, its decorative metallic border just reaching his knees, was the lightest in his wardrobe. As always, Eichra Oren wondered in an absent way how the air could remain so warm after passing across the Inland Sea from the Ocean of Sand where it had been born.

At his master's feet, also enjoying the cool spray, Oasam, a heavily furred white dog, grinned into the slanting sunlight, sniffing with contented curiosity at the hot, scent-laden air from the countryside beyond the villa. A colored bird chirped in a wicker cage hung from a mimosa tree nearby.

As on countless previous occasions, Eichra Oren listened (as absently as he wondered about the wind) to his mother regaling guests in the Original Language with oft-told tales of life before the Continent was Lost. From an unobtrusive corner, a lyrist, hired for the day, counterpointed the burbling of the fountain, weaving notes between the woman's words. More dignified than beautiful in the flowing drapery of her girlhood, she was much respected by those who considered themselves honored to hear the old stories once again from the lips of Eneri Relda, one of the remaining few who had lived them.

Although he still felt bone-weary as he sipped his bowl of wine, the young man centered his thoughtsócouched in a Successor Tongue he had only yesterday been asked to learnóless upon the perilous task he had just performed than upon whatever he might be required to do next. Eichra Oren was skilled and enjoyed most aspects of his trade. A short, broad-bladed sword, the badge of his professionórepresenting all those things about it he enjoyed leastóleaned in its unembellished scabbard against the graceful stuccoed archway leading through the villa's atrium to the cobbled street beyond.

Of a sudden, he heard insistent shrilling behind his eyes. Others heard it, as well. The lyre-playing creature paused to brush its bristly mandibles with claws enameled in the latest fashion. A guest ruffled its feathers, stretched its flightless wings, and scratched its powdered beak with a scaled foot. Another splayed its glistening tentacles over the courtyard tile, turning its awkward, giant, colorfully striped shell to peer at the tunic-clad figure with a giant, placid eye. Eichra Oren's mother gave him a brief, irritated scowl, then resumed her story. Glancing at his wristwatch, he swore a soft oath in the Original Language.

His dog looked up, remarking, "Boss, there goes the doorbellówhat'll you bet it's a snake on a bicycle?"


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