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When a synod in Videssos the city named Rhavas prelate of Skopentzana, the priest thought he was being sent into exile. Not only that, he thought it an insult to the imperial family, for wasn't his grandmother sister to the grandfather of Maleinos II, Avtokrator of the Videssians? To put it mildly, he didn't want to leave the imperial capital for the city in the far northeast of the Empire of Videssos.

Old Neboulos, the ecumenical patriarch of Videssos, finally had to take him aside and talk sense into him. Gorgeous in a cloth-of-gold robe with Phos' sun picked out in shining blue silk on the left breast, Neboulos sat Rhavas down in the study of the patriarchal residence, close by the High Temple. The patriarch's long, bushy white beard wagged as he poured wine for both of them with his own hand.

"This is not exile," Neboulos insisted. "It is not—I swear it by the lord with the great and good mind. It is opportunity."

"Easy for you to say," Rhavas insisted. "You don't have to go." He was in his mid-twenties then, but remained unintimidated by Neboulos' rank and by his years. Rhavas was tall and thin, with a long, narrow axe blade of a face, a dagger of a nose, and brilliant black eyes under elegant, aristocratic eyebrows. His tonsure only made his forehead seem even higher than it would have anyway. He was one of the most brilliant clerics, maybe the most brilliant, of his generation, and he knew it very well.

So did Neboulos, who made a placating gesture before lifting his silver goblet. "Drink, drink," the patriarch urged.

With an angry gesture, Rhavas took hold of his goblet, which matched the other. Both were decorated with reliefs of Phos, the god of light and goodness, triumphant over his eternal rival Skotos, who dwelt in eternal ice and darkness and worked evil. Rhavas and Neboulos raised their hands in reverence and intoned the good god's creed: "We bless thee, Phos, lord with the great and good mind, by thy grace our protector, watchful beforehand that the great test of life may be decided in our favor."

Together, they spat in ritual rejection of Skotos. Only then could Rhavas drink. Not even his ferocious temper kept him from noting that Neboulos had served him very fine wine. He wants to soften me, to butter me up, the younger man thought savagely. Well, to the ice with me if I aim to let him.

"Opportunity?" Rhavas laced the word with scorn. "Where is there ever opportunity outside Videssos the city?"

"By the good god, Rhavas, opportunity is where you find it." Neboulos sketched Phos' sun-circle above his heart to show he was serious. "You were born here in the capital; perhaps this is not so plain to you. But I come from Resaina, in the westlands. I rose there. Had I not risen there, I would not sit here now." He ran a hand down his glittering patriarchal vestments, which seemed out of place in the comfortably shabby, scroll-filled study.

"Yes, yes," Rhavas said, still full of rage and impatience. "But I am here. I can rise here. Does Skopentzana have a decent library? Does it have a library at all? How am I supposed to study the good god and his glory without the tools of scholarship?"

"Skopentzana will have books. Skopentzana is rich, rich in many things," Neboulos answered. "Among the things it is rich in is the chance for you to administer a major temple. You will not find that chance so easy to come by here in the capital, no matter how high your blood is."

"Oh." Rhavas was suddenly thoughtful. Now he had to fight to hold on to his anger. And fight he did. "Running a temple never did seem all that exciting to me. I'd sooner follow Phos than lead men."

"But, my dear . . ." For a moment, Neboulos seemed at a loss how to go on. He stroked his unkempt white beard. That seemed to give him whatever he needed, for he went on, "As you see, I am old. I shall not be patriarch much longer."

"Most holy sir, may you live a hundred and twenty years!" Rhavas exclaimed.

"You are kind to say such a thing. Believe me, I am grateful, but I shall not live a hundred and twenty years. At my age, one does not commence a long exegesis on Phos' holy scriptures. I do not know who will succeed me; that is for the synod and the Avtokrator to decide. But I have a good notion of who may succeed my successor."

"You do? How?" To Rhavas, the patriarch's speech was as opaque as if he'd suddenly started using the language of the sea-roving Haloga barbarians who dwelt beyond even distant Skopentzana.

Rhavas always remembered how Neboulos smiled at his naïveté. "Who? Why, you, of course." The ecumenical patriarch's right forefinger was bent with age, but not too bent to point straight at Rhavas' chest.

"Me?" Rhavas' voice rose to a startled squeak. "I never wanted to be patriarch. I never thought to be patriarch. Why me?"

"Your modesty does you credit, holy sir." Neboulos chuckled rheumily. "Why you? You are a learned man. You are a wise man. If you will forgive an old man's observation, you are wiser and more learned than you have any business being at your age. That is one side of the goldpiece. The other side is, you have a connection to the imperial family. The Avtokrator is likely to want a man who can run the temples well and is not inclined to quarrel with him."

"He may not get what he wants." Rhavas had a prickly sense of honor and an even pricklier sense of duty. "I will do what I find right and what I find proper, come what may."

"I understand," Neboulos said. "Blood calls to blood even so. My guess is, you will be patriarch—provided you do what you need to do before you don the golden robe. You must be watchful beforehand that the great test is decided in your favor." He smiled at using the words of the creed in a new context.

By contrast, Rhavas frowned. He suspected frivolity there. No matter what he suspected, he didn't let it deter him from his main point: "Why send me to Skopentzana, then?"

"How can you hope to run all the temples if you have not shown you can run at least one?" Neboulos replied. "There is the reason behind it—to let you run a temple and to teach you to run one. Having proved you can do that, you will, I doubt not, be recalled to Videssos the city before too long. Someday, you will plop your fundament onto this ratty old couch. When you do, I pray you, think of me every once in a while."

For some little while, Rhavas didn't know what to say to that. At last, softly, he asked, "You believe in your heart I should do this thing?"

Neboulos sketched the sun-circle once more. "By the lord with the great and good mind, my son, I do. Videssos will have need of you in years to come. The faith will have need of you as well. I could command you. However proud you may be, I am still your superior in matters ecclesiastical. But I do not command here. I beg."

Rhavas bent his head. "So be it, then. Let the good god's will be done."

* * *

Fifteen years went by. After a few of them, Neboulos passed from this world, his spirit walking the narrow Bridge of the Separator to see whether it gained Phos' heaven or fell down, down, down to Skotos' eternal ice. His successor, a certain Kameniates, was translated to Videssos the city from the westlands town of Amorion, where he had been prelate.

So far as Rhavas knew, Kameniates remained in good health. That perturbed the prelate of Skopentzana much less than it would have when he first came to the far northeast of the Empire. He had made his peace with this, his new hometown. It was not Videssos the city. Nothing else in the Empire, nothing else in the world—not even Mashiz, the capital of Videssos' western rival, Makuran—came close to Videssos the city.

But Skopentzana was itself. Before coming here, Rhavas would have denied that any place outside the imperial city could have an identity of its own, a character of its own. Everything beyond the great, unconquerable walls was simply . . . the provinces, as far as he was concerned. The provinces were a dreary place where nothing interesting ever happened, where no one had or wanted to have a new thought, and where shepherds were likely to get to know their ewes altogether too well.

He had learned better now. Skopentzana had a lively life of the mind, though not exactly of the sort he had known in Videssos the city. Here, they thought men from the capital provincial because those men knew nothing of what went on in Halogaland to the north or among the Khamorth nomads on the vast plains of Pardraya to the west. Even poetry was different here. Imitating Haloga models, it gave more weight to alliteration and assonance, less to rhyme, than verse did in the capital. Rhavas had tried his hand at the local style a few times, and won praise from men whose judgment he respected.

He hadn't expected that when he came. He also hadn't expected that Skopentzana would be beautiful. But beautiful it was, though beautiful in ways that had nothing to do with the majesty of the capital's seven hills. The River Anazarbos ran singing to the sea past this city. Every other poem in these parts talked about the river and its banks of golden sand. Rhavas would have got sick of the poetry if it didn't tell the truth. There were times when he got sick of the poetry anyway, but that was only because he had too much of the critic in him.

Dark woods of fir and spruce, winters that came early and lingered late, long misty days of summer when it seemed as if the sun would never set . . . The sunlight had a peculiarly rich tone in the north, one made more intense by the yellow sandstone from which so much of Skopentzana was built. Rhavas had to get used to the steep pitch of the roofs. As soon as he saw snow slide down them, he understood.

He also had to get used to preaching in the temple that, with the city eparch's residence, formed two sides of Skopentzana's central square. Most temples throughout the Empire, from what he had heard, modeled themselves after the magnificent High Temple in the capital. He'd expected one more provincial copy here, and braced himself to judge it by how nearly it approached its prototype.

What he hadn't expected was that the chief temple in Skopentzana was as old as the High Temple, and as different from it as bread and beer. (He'd had to get used to beer, too, as wine was an expensive import in these parts where grapes wouldn't grow. He learned to drink the bitter brew. He never learned to like it.) The High Temple's great dome mounted on pendentives was a wonder of the world. The marvelous mosaic of Phos stern in judgment inside the dome was another.

Skopentzana's chief temple had no central dome. When Rhavas first saw it, he exclaimed, "It looks as if someone used an upside-down ship for the roof!" Ships were on his mind then. He'd been seasick much of the way up from Videssos the city, and the vessel that carried him on the last leg of the journey had to outrace Haloga pirates to safety.

In fact, as he found out later, he wasn't so far wrong. One of the inspirations for the temple was a Haloga longhouse, and longhouses often were roofed with ships too decrepit to put to sea. It made for a different sort of building and, in some ways, a different sort of service. In the High Temple, the altar was at the very center of things, under the dome, with worshipers all around in equal numbers. Here there were worshipers in front and behind, but very few to the sides. The priests who served the altar necessarily adapted to the shape of the building they used.

On the day when Rhavas' life changed forever, he was standing in the central square, between the eparch's residence and the temple. Statues of locally famous Videssians crowded the square. Largest was a great bronze of the Avtokrator Stavrakios, the great conqueror of two centuries before. Surrounding him in bronze and marble and the local golden sandstone were lesser figures. They all seemed to look to him for permission to stand there. It was an illusion, but an effective one.

Rhavas happened to be looking up at Stavrakios, too. Even with a pigeon dropping on his nose, the old Avtokrator looked like a tough customer. By everything Rhavas knew of him, he had been a tough customer. He'd made both the Halogai and the Makuraners fear him, no mean feat when they dwelt at opposite ends of the Empire.

A pretty woman leading a toddler dropped Rhavas a curtsy. "Good morning, very holy sir," she murmured.

"And a good morning to you. May Phos bless you on it," Rhavas answered gravely. The woman walked on. He eyed her with the same careful consideration he'd given to Stavrakios' statue. Phos' priesthood was celibate. Some priests, being men like any others, flouted the rule. Rhavas scorned them. Some kept it, though it ate into their flesh like the iron shackles around the ankles of slaves and convicts condemned to the mines. Rhavas pitied them. He usually wore the shackles of celibacy lightly, even proudly. Every so often, though . . .

His mouth was never wide, nor particularly generous. Now it narrowed to a thin, hard line. He deliberately turned his back on the woman and her little girl. Out of sight . . . Out of sight did not mean out of mind, not here, however much Rhavas wished it would. Though he looked at the woman no more, he saw her perhaps more plainly than ever.

He knew sin in others. Part of his peculiar sort of pride was to know it in himself as well. He sketched Phos' sun-circle above his heart and murmured prayers against the weakness of his flesh. Despite those fervent prayers, the memory of the woman's smile and soft voice lingered.

And then, in an odd way, the good god heard his prayers and answered them. Up from the southern gate, the gate farthest from the river, came a dispatch rider on a horse he lashed into a gallop, though it wasn't far from foundering. "Out of my way! Out of my way, curse you!" the rider shouted at anyone in his path. He flicked his whip not only at the poor horse but also at anyone who did not move out of the way fast enough to suit him. Cries of rage and pain rose up in his wake.

Here was something out of the ordinary. Rhavas forgot about the pretty woman as he stared at the dispatch rider thundering across the square. The man leaped down from the horse and tossed the reins to one of the startled sentries in front of the eparch's residence. Then, still on the dead run, he dashed inside.

Out of the ordinary indeed, and not a good omen, not at all. Something somewhere in the Empire must have gone badly wrong. Frowning, Rhavas hurried toward the residence. The sentries, even the man holding the lathered horse's reins, bowed low as he came up. "Very holy sir," they chorused.

The horse's sides heaved. Its nostrils glowed red as coals. Over its panting, Rhavas asked, "Did the courier say anything before he went inside?"

"Only that he had to see the eparch right away," one of the soldiers answered. Like his comrades, he wore a conical helmet with a bar nasal, a mailshirt, and baggy wool trousers tucked into stout boots that rose almost to his knees. He held a grounded pike in his right hand; a sword in a worn leather sheath hung from his belt.

"Not a word more than that, the miserable dog," another sentry added irately. He was a swarthy man with a wide forehead, a narrow chin, and sharp cheekbones: a typical Videssian, in other words. His indignation at the courier's silence was also typical. Rhavas had preached sermons on the Videssian love for gossip. He feared they didn't strike home as well as some of his other sermons. He might as well have preached against eating. Lust for gossip and news was as much a part of the Videssian character as a craving for good food.

Embarrassment suddenly heated Rhavas' cheeks and his ears and the shaven crown of his head. Why, here I am, guilty of the very sin I've thundered against from the pulpit, he thought. He promised himself penitential prayers before an image of the good god. Even as he made the promise, though, he wondered whether carrying it out would suffice to uproot the sin he'd found inside his own bosom. He hoped and doubted at the same time.

Stiffly, he said, "If the most honorable Zautzes learns anything I should know, I hope he will do me the courtesy of calling on me at my residence."

"I'm sure he will, very holy sir," one of the sentries said.

Rhavas was also sure of it. The civil administration and the temples stood shoulder to shoulder in ruling the Empire. And even if they hadn't . . . Even if they hadn't, Zautzes would have been a fool not to consult the man who was not only prelate of Skopentzana but also the Avtokrator's cousin. Rhavas had no great love for Zautzes; the man was a lecher, and also overfond of wine, at least by the prelate's austere standards. But no one could ever accuse the eparch of being a fool.

Turning, Rhavas went back toward the temple. This time, he strolled instead of striding. As if he were a traveler from afar, he stopped dead and admired each statue in turn. He lingered longest at the great bronze of Stavrakios. He remembered doing the same thing when he first came to Skopentzana all those years earlier. He really had been a traveler from afar then. No more.

This time, his dawdling had method in it. The square couldn't have been more than a bowshot wide. Even so, Rhavas hadn't completely crossed it before someone shouted out his name from the direction of the eparch's residence. He turned, as if in surprise.

There stood Zautzes himself, waving and doing everything this side of jumping up and down to catch his notice. Gravely, Rhavas waved back. Zautzes hurried toward him. The eparch always put Rhavas in mind of a frog. He was short and squat. He had a wide face, a broad mouth, a receding chin, and eyes that threatened to bulge out of his head.

Frogs, however, did not commonly wear fur-edged silk robes shot through with gold and silver threads. Nor did frogs wear boots trimmed with blue. Those boots symbolized Zautzes' own connection with the Avtokrator. Only the ruler himself was allowed a pair all of blue.

The two leaders of Skopentzana bowed to each other. "Very holy sir," Zautzes said, his voice a gravelly bass.

"Most honorable sir." Rhavas' voice was only slightly higher, but much smoother.

"You will know a courier has come to me with news. You will also know he came with, ah, a certain amount of urgency." Zautzes even blinked like a frog. The motion was slow and deliberate and involved his whole face.

"I had gathered something to that effect, yes." Rhavas was not about to let the eparch win a battle of understatements. "Of course, if it's none of my business I'll just go back to the temple and find out about it from my cook or the cleaning woman."

That made Zautzes blink again, even more extravagantly than before. "Well, very holy sir, it does have somewhat to do with you. Yes, somewhat, by Phaos." The eparch was from these parts, and pronounced the good god's name in the old-fashioned, two-syllable way. In the capital, they'd clipped it down to one. Zautzes gathered himself. "D'you know Stylianos, the grand domestikos?"

"I met him a few times when he came into Videssos the city, but he was usually on campaign even then," Rhavas answered. "I can't say I know him well, though. Why do you ask? Has something happened to him? I hope not."

He meant that. Stylianos was a good general, probably the best grand domestikos the Empire had had in at least a hundred years. His forays onto the Pardrayan plains had warned the Khamorth nomads that their raids into imperial territory would not be tolerated. Few Videssian commanders had ever hit back effectively at the plainsmen. Stylianos made a welcome exception.

But Rhavas didn't care for the way Zautzes stared at him: as if he were a fly to be snapped up with a flick of the tongue. The eparch said, "Something's happened to him, all right, very holy sir. He's proclaimed himself Avtokrator of the Videssians, and he's moving against the city." To Videssians from one end of the Empire to the other, the great imperial capital was the city.

"Phos!" Rhavas muttered, and sketched the sun-circle over his heart. "Maleinos will not take that lying down, most honorable sir. He will fight to hold the throne, and fight with everything that's in him. You asked if I knew Stylianos, and I don't, not well. But I know my cousin. I know what he will do." Bitterness filled his voice: "He raised Stylianos up to be grand domestikos. Is this the thanks he gets?"

"So it would seem," Zautzes said, an answer whose breathtaking cynicism left even the sardonic Rhavas at a loss. Into the prelate's silence, Zautzes went on, "It's been a while since the Empire's last civil war. I'm afraid we've got a new one on our hands."

"I'm afraid you're right," Rhavas said. "For that alone, Stylianos will be damned to Skotos' eternal ice." Now Zautzes was the one who didn't respond right away. Rhavas raised an eyebrow. In a very soft voice, he asked, "Or do you disagree, most honorable sir? Maleinos raised you up, too, you know."

"I want peace in the Empire," Zautzes said. "Whoever can give me that, I'm for."

That was an answer that was not an answer. Rhavas' tone grew sharper: "If the would-be usurper comes to Skopentzana, will this city welcome him or close its gates against him?"

"You would do better to ask Himerios than me." Zautzes sounded sullen, resenting being put on the spot.

Rhavas grunted. The garrison Himerios commanded was intended to protect Skopentzana from Haloga pirate ships rowing up the Anazarbos. It wasn't very big; the blond barbarians hadn't been troublesome lately. And Himerios had always seemed content enough with little to do and scant resources with which to do it. Now . . .

Now Rhavas and Zautzes might not be the most important, most powerful men in Skopentzana after all. That role might belong to the garrison commander. Rhavas nodded briskly to the eparch. "No doubt you're right, most honorable sir. I had better do that."

Zautzes looked no happier. Rhavas had a hard time blaming him. The eparch had to go on running Skopentzana as if nothing were wrong. He had to collect the head tax and the hearth tax as usual. He had to see that justice was done, that the city's walls and public buildings were repaired . . . and that whoever won the civil war wouldn't think he'd backed the other side.

With a curt bow, Rhavas turned away. He didn't want Zautzes to see how worried he was. Most prelates throughout the Empire would be making the same calculations as the local eparchs. Rhavas didn't have that burden—or was it a luxury? Stylianos would assume he was loyal to his cousin, the Avtokrator, and the rebel would be right.

Out of the corner of his eye, Rhavas saw Zautzes waddle back toward his residence. That gave the prelate the privacy he needed to swear under his breath. Maleinos had proved himself a reasonably good Avtokrator, and a reasonably able one as well. Rhavas wouldn't have worried about most rebels; he would have been confident his cousin could put them down in short order.

Stylianos? Stylianos was a different story.

A man with the broad shoulders, heat-reddened face, and battered hands of a blacksmith came up to Rhavas. "Is something wrong, very holy sir?" he asked. "You look like you just watched an oxcart run over your pup."

Rhavas looked at him—looked through him. The blacksmith's face got redder yet. It isn't his fault, the prelate reminded himself, trying to be charitable. Charity didn't come easy, not now. "I'm afraid, my good man, that it's nowhere near so trivial as that."

The blacksmith walked off scratching his head.

* * *

Himerios didn't boast anything fancy enough to be called a residence. He lived in an ordinary house, one just like the others along its street. Its ground floor was built of the local golden sandstone, its upper story of timber now pale with years of weathering. The only opening in the ground floor was the doorway, and the door, of thick planks reinforced with iron, could have done duty in a fortress. The upper story boasted a couple of windows with stout wooden shutters that could be closed tight against the biting cold of winter. As usual in Skopentzana, the slates on the roof were steeply pitched, so snow would slide off instead of sticking.

Rhavas knocked on that formidable door. Two boys kicking a ball back and forth in the narrow, muddy street gave him an odd look; it wasn't the sort of neighborhood where priests appeared every day. A scrawny stray dog rooting through rubbish paid no attention to him. He preferred the dog's attitude.

When no one answered, Rhavas knocked again, harder. This time, the door creaked open. There stood Himerios, who stared with even more surprise than the boys showed. "Very holy sir!" the garrison commander exclaimed. "To what do I owe the honor of this visit?" He didn't say, What do you want from me? but that had to be what he meant.

"May I come in?" Rhavas asked.

"Well, yes, of course." Himerios stood aside to let Rhavas do so. The garrison commander was as tall and lean as Zautzes was short and squat. He even overtopped Rhavas, who was far from small, by a finger's breadth or two. He had a long, angular face, with a sharp nose and a mole on his right cheek just above his neatly trimmed fringe of lightly frosted beard.

Several stools and a table furnished the front room, along with one wooden chair near the hearth. Himerios waved Rhavas to the chair. Rhavas shook his head. He perched on a stool instead; the chair was plainly Himerios' special place. Sure enough, the officer—who wore a loose wool tunic over baggy breeches tucked into boots like most men in this cold northern city—sat down there.

"Ingegerd!" he called back to the kitchen. "The prelate's come to pay a call. Fetch us some wine and honey cakes, please."

"Yes, I will do that," his wife answered. Her name said she came from the Haloga country. So did the sonorously musical accent that flavored her Videssian.

She brought out the refreshments on a wooden tray a couple of minutes later. She was almost as tall as Rhavas herself, and exotically beautiful: fair-haired, fair-skinned, with granite cheekbones and chin and with eyes bluer than the sky above Skopentzana. No matter how resigned to celibacy Rhavas was, his own eyes followed her emphatically curved shape as she served him and Himerios.

"Very holy sir," she murmured, and sketched the sun-sign. Unlike most Halogai, she'd given up the fierce gods of her homeland for the lord with the great and good mind.

After raising his hands to the heavens and spitting in ritual rejection of Skotos, Rhavas sipped the wine. It was sweet and strong and good—and he needed bracing. He took a bite from a honey cake. It was rich with walnuts and butter. He'd had to get used to that last; in Videssos the city, which favored olive oil instead, using butter branded one a barbarian. The stuff did stay fresh better here than down in the capital.

Himerios also ate and drank. So did Ingegerd, who'd sat down on a stool after setting the tray on the table. Haloga women had a reputation for forwardness of both the good and the bad sort; she evidently lived up to it. Rhavas clucked, but only to himself. Though her forwardness bent custom, it broke no religious law.

"Well, very holy sir, what's on your mind?" Himerios asked, setting his pewter goblet on his knee.

Before answering, Rhavas glanced toward Ingegerd. She looked back steadily, her sculptured features all serious attention. Himerios still gave no sign of sending her away. However strange it seemed to the prelate, the garrison commander evidently wanted his wife to hear. With a small shrug, Rhavas passed on the news: "The general Stylianos has rebelled against his Majesty, the Avtokrator Maleinos."

"Phos!" Himerios exclaimed, and then, hoping against hope, "You're sure?"

"As sure as needs be," Rhavas answered. "I have it just now from Zautzes the eparch, who has it from a courier up from the south. I saw the courier ride up to Zautzes' residence. He almost killed his horse getting here. He thought his news important. I did not hear it from his own lips or see the dispatch he bore, but I have no reason to doubt the eparch."

Ingegerd spoke with a man's, even a soldier's, directness: "This can only mean civil war. Who will win?"

Nine words, and she'd said everything that needed saying. Rhavas put the best face on things he could: "Maleinos has ruled for many years. Most people are loyal to him. And he holds Videssos the city. No one can claim to rule the Empire without ruling the capital, and Videssos the city is the greatest fortress in the world." Every word of that was true. It would have spelled the ruination of most uprisings before they were well begun. This one . . .

"Stylianos is Stylianos," Himerios said. "Videssos hasn't seen the likes of him for a long time." And that, unfortunately, was also true.

Ingegerd said something in her own language. Rhavas knew not a word of the Haloga tongue. He watched Himerios give him a sudden startled look. Did she just remind him I am Maleinos' cousin? To the ice with me if I don't think she did.

But Rhavas thought he would have stayed loyal to Maleinos even without a blood tie between them. He said, "You need to remember that the Avtokrator is Phos' vicegerent on earth. Maleinos is the legitimate ruler of the Empire; his father and grandfather ruled it before him. And what is Stylianos? A would-be usurper, someone who would topple Phos' vicegerent. Who would do such a thing? Only a man who has taken Skotos into his heart." Again, he ceremonially spat in rejection of the dark god.

So did Himerios and Ingegerd. All orthodox believers in Videssos had faith that in the end Phos would prevail over Skotos, good would prevail over evil. To believe otherwise was to fall into blackest heresy, and surely to forfeit one's soul to the ice of the dark god's hell.

All the same, Himerios said, "Suppose Stylianos wins, very holy sir? I'm not saying he will, mind you, but just suppose, all right? He'd become Avtokrator, right?"

"He would still be a usurper," Rhavas said stiffly. Maleinos' grandfather—his own grandmother's brother—had been a usurper, too, but he didn't bring that up. To be fair, he didn't even think of it.

"He wouldn't just be a usurper. He'd be the Avtokrator, too. He'd wear the blue boots," Himerios persisted. "Wouldn't that make him Phos' vicegerent on earth?"

Rhavas was an honest man. He'd never imagined he would wish he weren't. Here, he did. Making a sour face, he answered, "Technically, yes, but the sin of rebellion would still lie heavily upon him. The patriarch might well require penance before he could worship in the High Temple."

Ingegerd spoke again in the Haloga tongue, sharply this time. Himerios gave her an impatient nod. Then he swung his attention back to Rhavas. "I do thank you for bringing me this news, very holy sir. Now, if civil war should come to Skopentzana, I will know what to do. Phos prevent it, but if it should . . ." He made the sign of the good god above his breast.

So did his wife. And so did Rhavas. The prelate left Himerios' house a few minutes later, certain the garrison commander had said he would act in Maleinos' interest. Rhavas had got all the way back to his own residence before he ran through Himerios' words in his mind once more. He stopped dead, his hand on the latch, realizing Himerios had in fact said no such thing.

"Trimmer. Accursed trimmer," Rhavas said scornfully. But how many others would also wait to see which way the wind was blowing before setting their own sails?

* * *

Preaching had never excited Rhavas. Studying the struggle between the good god and his wicked rival had always interested him much more than trying to put that struggle and what it meant across for layfolk. He'd never given bad sermons. No one as well organized and generally capable as he was could do that. But he'd been competent, not inspired, and he'd always felt the lack.

Now, suddenly, inspiration struck. When he spoke to Skopentzana from the pulpit in favor of Maleinos and against Stylianos, he spoke from the heart, not from the head. He used the same theme with his congregation as he had with Himerios and Ingegerd, but with fresh and vivid details thrown in at every sermon.

He found himself looking out at the sea of faces in Skopentzana's main temple as if they were so many pagan Halogai and he was trying to convert them to the worship of the lord with the great and good mind. (In reality, many priests had tried to convert Halogaland. A lot of them ended up as martyrs to their faith. Most of the Halogai remained stubbornly unconverted—Ingegerd marked an exception, not a rule.)

"Will you deny—can you deny—that the usurper seeks to overthrow the natural order of things?" Rhavas thundered from the pulpit, slamming down his fist. "Can you deny this is nothing but wickedness? Can you deny it leads only to the ice?" He stared out challengingly at the worshipers.

Zautzes was there. So was Himerios. If Ingegerd was, Rhavas couldn't see her; women had a separate gallery, upstairs from the men on the ground floor of the temple, which latticework screened off from prying eyes.

Neither the eparch nor the garrison commander presumed to quarrel with Rhavas or to shout out Stylianos' name. Nor did anyone else. Most of the people who came to Skopentzana's main temple were plump and prosperous and middle-aged; most of them would be just as well pleased to see things go on as they always had.

Skopentzana boasted more than one temple, of course. So did any Videssian city of decent size. Spires topped with gilded sun-balls sprang up from rooftops in every neighborhood. Other priests, men of lower rank in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, presided over them.

Everyone must say the same thing, Rhavas thought. All of them must tell their congregations that Maleinos is the rightful Avtokrator and Stylianos only a rebel and a usurper. This is the truth; it must be made plain.

The prelate's fervor worked its way into the usual prayers and hymns, too. Because of it, the congregation responded with more enthusiasm than they mostly showed. For one of the rare times in his life, Rhavas felt the power of his preaching. There had been times when he took less enjoyment from wine.

After reciting Phos' creed for the last time, he dismissed the worshipers. They filed out of the temple buzzing among themselves. Rhavas couldn't remember the last time he'd heard that kind of excitement among them. He couldn't remember if he ever had.

"Good sermon, very holy sir," said a man with a robe full of ornate—and expensive—embroidery. "You really sounded like you meant it."

"I always mean it," Rhavas said. That anyone could doubt his sincerity wounded him to the heart.

Plainly, the congregant had no idea he'd offended. "Maybe you do," he said, "but it doesn't always have that old oomph, if you know what I mean." The noise he made sounded as if he'd just been kicked in the belly. "You give it that old oomph"—there it was again—"and folks won't forget it."

"Oomph," Rhavas echoed in hollow tones. The man nodded. Rhavas fought the impulse to pound his head against the polished cedar of the pulpit. He knew how long and hard he labored over his sermons. He might not have been an inspiring speaker, but his logic was always clear and straightforward, his theology impeccably orthodox. And none of that had really struck home with his audience? Evidently not. Passion and vigor counted for more with them.

I could have preached for Stylianos instead, he realized. I could have called down anathemas on my cousin's head. If I sounded excited while I was doing it, people would have praised me, the same as they're praising me now.

He wondered why he'd spent so many years poring over Phos' sacred scriptures and the commentaries generation upon generation of theologians had written about them. Was that what made a successful priest? Again, evidently not. He might have done better joining a troupe of actors and mountebanks. That he postured in front of a crowd seemed more important than what he postured about.

Half a dozen more people praised his preaching as they left the temple. Their words left him colder by the moment. Stylianos? I could have called on them to reverence Skotos! And if I did it with passion enough, they might obey. He shivered. Surely the lord with the great and good mind would never let such a travesty of justice come to pass.

* * *

Soothsayers in Skopentzana were three for a copper, as they were in any other city in the Empire of Videssos. Like the witches and hedge wizards who sold fertility spells for livestock and love philtres and charms sworn to make an enemy itch in embarrassing places, many of them—maybe even most of them—were frauds. Some, though, some had a certain talent.

In all the years Rhavas had been in Skopentzana, he'd never felt the need to consult a soothsayer. He and the eparch had worked together to catch some of the worst frauds and send them out of town with stripes on their backs. A man couldn't hang around the edges of magic, though, without learning a little something about who was reliable as well as who was not. And so, when the prelate decided to learn what he could of things that lay ahead, he didn't hesitate. He summoned a certain Eladas.

The soothsayer was a man a few years older than Rhavas—closer to fifty than forty. His robe was of good wool, and clean. So many such people were desperately poor, which of itself disqualified them in Rhavas' eyes. If they couldn't see the future well enough to do themselves any good, how could they hope to help anyone else? Eladas passed that test.

He passed another immediately thereafter. The first words out of his mouth after he was ushered into Rhavas' study were, "Very holy sir, prophesying about the imperial succession is a capital crime. I do not break that law, nor would I ever. I tell you this only because there is civil war in the land. I do not ask what you would ask of me." He did not say he did not know.

"I will not make you worry about the headsman's sword. I will not make myself liable to it, either," Rhavas assured him. He'd intended to see whether Eladas would prophesy along those lines, but could hardly blame the man for ruling it out straightaway.

Eladas politely inclined his head. "You are gracious." His face was ordinary enough—except for his eyes. They were large and dark and haunted. Rhavas could well believe they saw things most men would never notice. Eladas sipped the wine a junior priest brought him. After that young man left the room, the soothsayer asked, "What would you know, then?"

Rhavas smiled, not least in pride at his own cleverness. "I hope to learn from you whether I shall become ecumenical patriarch."

"I see," Eladas said. No doubt he did, too. If Maleinos held the throne, his cousin's chances of promotion were excellent. If Stylianos overthrew the present Avtokrator, Rhavas would be lucky to stay where he was. But inquiring about the patriarchal succession wasn't against the law. Eladas sipped from the winecup again. Then he set it down and spoke in brisk, businesslike tones: "Give me your hand."

"Certainly." Rhavas held it out. Eladas took it between his own hands. They were warm and firm and dry: no clammy touch here, as soothsayers were often said to have.

No nonsense here, either. Rhavas also liked that; he was and always had been a man with no use for nonsense. Eladas chanted no mystic and probably senseless charms. He just study Rhavas' hand as intently as the prelate might study a passage in the scriptures.

Slowly, he nodded to himself. Slowly, he looked up from Rhavas' hand to his face. He nodded again, this time to his client.

"You will—" he began, and then said no more. His grip suddenly tightened on Rhavas' hand, tightened with agonizing force. His eyes, those eyes that saw so much, opened wider than a man's eyes had any business doing. What was in them? Astonishment? Fear? Fear, Rhavas though, for that crushing grip all at once went icy cold. Eladas took one hand away for a moment to point at the prelate. Accusation? Triumph? Again, Rhavas couldn't be sure. The soothsayer's mouth worked, but no sound came forth.

And then those staring eyes rolled up in Eladas' head. The man let out a last gasp and slumped over. At first, Rhavas thought he had fainted. Then, with a twinge of horror, he realized Eladas wasn't breathing. Now he was the one who seized the soothsayer's wrist. He probed for the point where the pulse pounded most powerfully.

He felt . . . nothing, nothing at all. He shouted hoarsely for the young priest who'd let Eladas in: "Matzoukes! Come quickly!"

A wet stain at the crotch said Eladas' bladder had let go. A stench said his bowels had done likewise. Matzoukes hurried into the study. He took in the scene at a glance. "Phos!" he exclaimed. Of itself, his hand moved in the sun-circle. "What happened here, very holy sir?"

"He's dead," Rhavas said dully. "Dead." Of that there could be no possible doubt. "I asked him a question, and he began to answer it, but he had a . . . a seizure, I suppose you would say. He fell over, and the rest . . . the rest is as you see."

"What did you ask him?" Matzoukes inquired.

Rhavas withered the youngster with a glance. Matzoukes turned very red and bowed his head in shame and discomfiture. Rhavas grew businesslike: "Help me get the body out of here. Did he have family? I think he did. We'll have to let them know. And we will have to make sure that the charity of this temple does not leave them wanting. This was not our fault"—he said that as much to reassure himself as Matzoukes and the dead Eladas, whose eyes still seemed filled with blind reproach—"but we shall make what amends we can."

"Y-yes, very holy sir," Matzoukes quavered. But he was steady enough as he and Rhavas manhandled Eladas' corpse out of the study. Afterward, panting a little out in the hallway, he said, "I do apologize for snooping. I meant no harm by it, and I certainly didn't mean that your question, whatever it was, could have had anything to do with . . . this." He sketched the sun-sign again.

Matching the gesture, Rhavas said, "Don't fret, my son. I took no offense." That was a lie, but a lie kindly meant. Matzoukes let out an audible sigh of relief. Rhavas stared down at Eladas. They hadn't closed the soothsayer's eyes, so he still seemed to stare back. Rhavas wished he could believe the man had suffered an unfortunate apoplexy or something of the sort. He wished he could, but he had no luck—no luck at all.

As far as he could tell, Eladas had heard his question, looked for the answer, found it . . . and died of terror when he realized what it was. Rhavas still didn't know the answer. The prelate only wished he hadn't asked the question.

* * *

Every time a courier came up to Zautzes' residence, Rhavas stared across Skopentzana's central square, wondering what news the man had in his head or in the waxed-leather dispatch tube he carried on his belt. And every time a trader came up from the south and set up a display of pottery or bronze vessels or perfume or spices in one of the city markets, Rhavas wondered what gossip he passed on to the traders and townsfolk.

Would Stylianos try to encourage rebellion here? Before long, Rhavas realized that was the wrong question. The right question was, why wouldn't Stylianos? What did he have to lose? Nothing. What did he have to gain? The crown—in other words, everything.

Rumor said Maleinos had won a battle, somewhere down in the south. Then a different rumor swept through Skopentzana, this one claiming that Stylianos had beaten the Avtokrator and sent him scurrying back to Videssos the city. Rhavas had no idea what to believe. Not believing anything seemed easiest.

He gathered the priests in Skopentzana together and spoke to them about the need to keep Maleinos on the throne. One of them said, "Stylianos will make you sorry if he wins."

"No." Rhavas shook his head. "If the rebel defeats the rightful Avtokrator, I will already be sorry, so he will not be able to make me so."

He wasn't the only Videssian to revel in quibbling for its own sake. The priest looked him in the eye and said, "In that case, very holy sir, he will make you sorrier."

"You are a worthy grammarian," Rhavas said sourly. "It is possible that he may make me sorrier. If the good god is kind, however, what is possible will not come to pass. And that is why I have asked all of you here to the temple today: to urge you to do everything you can to keep the usurper from stealing the throne."

None of the priests said he favored Stylianos. Rhavas would have been surprised if any man had, especially with so little reliable news coming out of the south. But Maleinos' support also seemed lukewarm. Fence-sitters, Rhavas thought unhappily. The lesser priests would see who was winning, and choose based on that. Rhavas knew nothing but contempt for such trimming. He would have preferred a man who dared to admit he backed the rebel. At least such a man would show himself principled, and so worthy of respect. His principles might be misguided, but they would be real. The expedient souls . . .

After they left the temple, Rhavas made a note to himself to send men he trusted to the other temples in the town. Hearing what the priests had to say from the pulpit when they thought he wasn't listening might prove worthwhile. They might pledge loyalty under his eye and go back on it as soon as they were out of earshot. With men who cared more about who was winning and who losing than about who right and who wrong, such things were to be expected.

A few days after his meeting with his fellow priests, Himerios called on him. Bowing, the garrison commander said, "Well, you won't have to worry about my loyalty any more, very holy sir."

"No?" Rhavas asked cautiously, not sure what the officer meant.

"No." Himerios' voice was grave. "His Majesty has summoned the garrison here down to the south, to join his other forces in the fight against Stylianos."

"Ah?" Rhavas said: as neutral a sound as he could make. "And you are obeying his Majesty?"

"I am," Himerios replied. "Ingegerd will stay behind. A civil war's nothing to take a woman into, and Skopentzana's far enough out of the way that the fighting's unlikely to get here. If . . . if things go wrong, very holy sir, I'd count it a kindness if you see that she doesn't suffer on account of my choice—and if you'd look out for her generally."

Rhavas bowed to him. "What I can do, I will. How much that may be, I do not know. If things go wrong, they are likely to go wrong for me as well as for you. In that case, I doubt I will have much influence on events. You might do well to ask some other priest besides me."

Himerios shook his head. "You're an honest man. Priests are men like any others. Some of them, meaning no offense to you, I wouldn't trust to keep an eye on a sack of manure, let alone a woman."

That came too close for comfort to Rhavas' own thoughts about his fellow clerics. He said, "You do me honor by not including me in their number."

"You annoy people for different reasons," Himerios said. "You cling strongly to what you believe. I don't mean to offend you when I say that you cling strongly even where another man would think of changing his views. That can't help but upset those who hold their opinions less firmly."

You're a stubborn crank was what he meant. No matter how smoothly he phrased it, that would have offended many men. Not Rhavas. The prelate bowed once more. "Good is good and evil is evil," he said. "I will cling to the stronger one with all my might, and do that which I see as good in the sight of Phos. All men—and all women—should do the same. If they do less, they put themselves in peril of meeting the eternal ice when their days on earth are done."

"I think we all try to do right as we see it," Himerios said. "Not everyone sees it the same way, though."

"There is only one right path," Rhavas said stubbornly. "It always lies ahead of us. We must find it and travel it, for in the end it leads over the Bridge of the Separator and into Phos' eternal light. Choose the wrong path, and you will never cross the bridge. You will fall down into damnation instead."

For a moment, Himerios looked frightened. Rhavas was a more effective speaker talking to one man than he was from the pulpit. The garrison commander visibly gathered himself. "You're not talking about me in particular, eh, very holy sir? You mean any man who falls off the straight path."

"Yes, of course," Rhavas said impatiently, not seeing that it had been anything but of course to Himerios. "Do that which is right, and the good god will reward you. Do otherwise, and Skotos will see to it that you pay the price." He spat in rejection of Phos' dark rival.

So did Himerios. The Videssian soldier said, "I hope to come home to Skopentzana soon. If I do, that will mean the Avtokrator Maleinos has won and the rebellion is over."

"If you do, it will mean Phos has triumphed and Skotos is defeated," Rhavas said. "May the blessings of the lord with the great and good mind go with you."

"Thanks. That means a lot to me." Himerios turned to leave. "And if by some mischance things should go wrong, please . . . remember Ingegerd."

"What I can do, I will," Rhavas said again. "As I told you, though, if things go wrong, she would be better off with some other protector than me."

Three days later, he watched the garrison commander ride out of Skopentzana through the south gate at the head of his men. Videssos' banner, a gold sunburst on blue, fluttered over the soldiers. Rhavas wondered how much good that banner would do during a civil war. Both sides would fly it then, and neither would be able to use it to tell friend from foe.

The soldiers setting forth from Skopentzana didn't seem worried about who their foes would be. The foot soldiers tramped along with shouldered pikes. They had swords on their hips to protect themselves in case their main weapons broke. Some of the cavalry were lancers, others archers. Foot soldiers and horsemen alike waved to friends—usually pretty friends—they were leaving behind. Ingegerd stood not far from Rhavas, her fair hair shining in the sun. Her face stayed stern as a warrior's till Himerios rode past. Then warmth flooded into it. She blew him a kiss. He took off his helmet and bowed in the saddle. It made a pretty picture . . . until Rhavas saw the tears on her cheeks.

Zautzes was also there to watch the garrison depart. The eparch looked like a very unhappy frog. Catching Rhavas' eye, he beckoned him over. The prelate elbowed his way through the crowd.

"What do we do now, very holy sir, if the Halogai swoop down on us?" the eparch inquired.

"Well, most honorable sir, I presume we do the best we can," Rhavas replied.

"Faugh!" Zautzes said, and Rhavas had never heard a more disgusted noise. Zautzes went on, "I can raise up a city militia, and I suppose I will, but asking militiamen to fight without soldiers to stiffen them is like taking a bunch of ropemakers, giving them a dead sheep, and expecting them to cook a tasty supper. You know what the Halogai are like."

Rhavas looked over toward where he'd last seen Ingegerd, but he couldn't spot her now; she must have gone home after her husband rode out of Skopentzana. Only after that half-involuntary glance did the prelate nod. The northern raiders were indeed very ferocious and very dangerous.

"We just have to hope they hold off till we sort through our own troubles," he said. "If Stylianos had stayed loyal, we wouldn't need to worry about any of this. The lord with the great and good mind will remember his treason."

"It's only treason if he loses," Zautzes said. Not for the first time, he was devastatingly cynical. Rhavas started to give back an irate reply, but before he could loose it Zautzes continued, "If Phaos didn't want him to win, he'd lose, right?"

That took things out of the realm of politics and into the realm of theology. Rhavas' anger faded; now he had the chance to teach. "It's not so simple, most honorable sir. We all believe Phos will finally prove stronger than Skotos, and will prevail at the end of days. Light will drive out darkness." He sketched the sun-sign. So did Zautzes. Rhavas plowed ahead: "But Skotos is also a god, and the end of days is not yet. Wickedness may triumph—for a while."

Zautzes stayed cynical, saying, "You do realize, very holy sir, that priests loyal to Stylianos will say it's his Majesty who's Skotos' tool? I do not say this, mind you, for I am loyal to Maleinos, but it's an argument with two edges, and it can cut both ways."

"They may say it, yes, but they will be mistaken." Rhavas spoke with great conviction. Doubt was no part of his makeup; once he formed an opinion, he clung to it through thick and thin. "The Avtokrator is Phos' vicegerent on earth, as I have said before. To rebel against him is to rebel against the good god himself."

"You are surely right." By the way Zautzes said it, he wasn't sure of anything of the sort. "His Majesty is a good and worthy ruler, and is bound to do Phaos' work, as you say. But what of the rulers who are wicked tyrants? The Empire of Videssos has known a few."

"As I say, Skotos can have his momentary triumphs." Rhavas spat on the cobblestones in rejection of the dark god. As Zautzes had with the sun-circle, he made haste to follow suit here. Rhavas continued, "You will notice, most honorable sir, that wicked tyrants seldom rule for long. A better ruler commonly takes their place—Phos gains the advantage in the struggle against darkness and evil."

The eparch nodded. His jowls wobbled when he did. "May it be so here," he said, and turned away.

"Yes. May it be so." Rhavas was on the way back to the prelate's residence before he realized Zautzes hadn't said that Maleinos' triumph and the good god's were one and the same. But Zautzes had said earlier that he was loyal to the reigning Avtokrator. He'd done nothing to make Rhavas disbelieve him . . . yet.

And the closer I watch him, the smaller the chance he has to get away with anything like that, the prelate thought.

* * *

Waiting for word wasn't easy. It never was. Rhavas tried to keep doing what he did every day, but routine had no flavor for him. He might have been mired in mud. Skopentzana, meanwhile, hurried toward high summer like a lover running to meet his beloved. Days stretched and stretched. The sun rose early in the far northeast and set late in the far southwest. During the brief nights, full darkness hardly came. There was always a hint of twilight in the north.

People said that in the Haloga country, farther north still, the twilight was even brighter, so that a man could read a book at midnight—not that many Halogai could read at any hour of the day or night. People even said that in the far north of Halogaland the sun never set at all during high summer, but skimmed low above the northern horizon and then began to climb again.

Rhavas didn't know whether to believe that. For one thing, it seemed unnatural. But if the sun stayed in the summer sky longer in Skopentzana than in Videssos the city—which it surely did—why shouldn't it stay there all day if one traveled farther north still?

Why? The prelate's chief objection wasn't natural but theological. As long as the sun lingered here in summer, it barely dared show its face come wintertime. On Midwinter's Day, the day of the solstice (and a great festival all over the Empire), it poked its nose up over the horizon, scuttled across the southernmost sky, and then sank again. The prayers that went up hereabouts to save the sun from Skotos were uncommonly sincere.

But suppose the sun never rose at all on Midwinter's Day. Suppose all remained in darkness. Wouldn't that give Skotos untrammeled sway over the world till it returned to the sky once more . . . if it ever did? So Rhavas feared. For that reason, he fought shy of believing in either everlasting summer daylight or unending winter night.

Couriers came to Zautzes and rode out of Skopentzana again. Sometimes the eparch would tell Rhavas what they said, sometimes he wouldn't. His silences made Rhavas fume, but the prelate knew he couldn't do much more than fume. Antagonizing the most powerful civil authority in the city struck him as a bad idea. If Zautzes declared for Stylianos and brought Skopentzana with him, that would be a heavy blow against Maleinos.

One of the ways Skopentzana differed from Videssos the city was that summer rain was common here rather than being a phenomenon talked about for years after it happened. One of Zautzes' secretaries squelched across the square on a drizzly, drippy day to summon Rhavas to the eparch's residence.

"Did he say what this was about?" Rhavas asked eagerly.

"No, very holy sir," the secretary answered. "He just told me to bring you back." Plainly, he couldn't have cared less what the news was. And why should he? Except for the sake of gossip, what difference did it make to him who ruled the Empire?

A hooded cape over his robes, Rhavas followed Zautzes' man through the square. The statues standing there seemed softened by the mist and rain. Even stern Stavrakios turned what felt like a benign eye on the prelate as he passed.

Zautzes bowed to him at the doorway. "Very holy sir," the eparch murmured.

"Most honorable sir," Rhavas replied politely. He tried to keep his tone light as he asked, "You have news?"

"I have news," Zautzes agreed. "Will you come into my office and take some wine with me before you hear it?"

"By your leave, most honorable sir, I would rather not. Tell me here and now and get it over with." Cape dripping on the mosaic floor, Rhavas stood there like a man braced for surgery without even the small balm of henbane and poppy juice.

But the eparch surprised him by giving him a large, froggy smile. Rhavas might have been a particularly delicious bluebottle buzzing around the lily pad. "The news is good, though, very holy sir," Zautzes said.

"Good?" Rhavas spoke the word with suspicion, as if it were not one commonly applied to news.

"Good," Zautzes repeated. "His Majesty has defeated the rebel near Develtos, not too far from Videssos the city, and sent him off in headlong retreat."

To Rhavas, born and raised in the capital, Develtos seemed some distance off to the east, but perspective counted for a good deal. Seen from Skopentzana, Videssos the city and the provincial town weren't that far apart. And the news . . . ! The prelate bowed. "I thank you, most honorable sir. You are right, of course. That is the best of news."

Zautzes' jowls wobbled when he shook his head. "Not quite the best, I'd say. The best would have Stylianos dead on the field and his uprising dead with him. Not quite the best, no, but good. And now, having heard the news, will you drink wine with me to celebrate it?"

"I will, and gladly," Rhavas answered.

He seemed to find a special beauty in the simple ceremony accompanying the wine that Zautzes' servant poured for them. Even spitting in rejection of Skotos took on a new meaning, a new truth. The change wasn't in the ritual or even in the wine, though that was very good. Rhavas needed a little while to realize it, but the change was in himself—he was all but giddy with relief.

"Tell me more," he kept saying to Zautzes. "By the good god, tell me more. Driven off in headlong retreat? Retreat in which direction?"

"Away from the capital, obviously," Zautzes repeated. Rhavas only snorted; that was too obvious even to need saying. The eparch went on, "I've told you everything the dispatch told me. Past that, I would only be guessing."

"Guess, by all means," Rhavas said expansively. Zautzes' eyebrows rose and his bulging eyes widened slightly. The prelate hardly ever offered invitations like that. Rhavas didn't care what he usually did. Today he would feast off the spun sugar of speculation if he couldn't bite down on the meat of fact.

"As long as you know I am guessing," Zautzes said, and Rhavas gave him an impatient nod. Screwing up his face in thought, Zautzes continued, "After a defeat like this, not many towns will want to open their gates to Stylianos. He'd have to flee for the frontier, unless I miss my guess. Maybe the soldiers who guard against the Khamorth nomads will keep their affection for him. It's a slim hope, but probably the best one he has."

"What about the barbarians themselves?" Rhavas asked.

"What about 'em?" the eparch returned. "If the frontier troops stay loyal to Maleinos, they'll keep the nomads out. And they'll probably keep them out even if they don't. Why wouldn't they? Stylianos won't want anything like pandering to the savages on his record."

"Yes, that's so. If he wins, he wouldn't want to win with barbarian backing. And if he loses, he only makes his rebellion worse by inciting the Khamorth."

Rhavas remembered that conversation for a long time. Every word he said made good logical sense. He almost always did. But what he reckoned logical and what Stylianos and Maleinos would reckon logical were not precisely the same. Just how far from the same they were would come out in short order.

* * *

Being the man he was, Rhavas did sometimes wish that Skopentzana boasted more in the way of books. The northern city had more than he'd expected when he came here, but not enough to satisfy him. Of course, even Videssos the city hadn't had enough to satisfy him. He sometimes thought all the books ever written wouldn't be enough to satisfy him.

One way to solve that problem was to write a book of his own. If he set out the precise relationship between Phos and Skotos and supported it with quotations from the sacred scriptures and from earlier theologians, no one else would need to tackle the job for years. Others had attempted it before him; it was, after all, one of the fundamental issues facing the faith. But none of those learned tomes was learned enough to satisfy him. He wanted his work to be suitable not only for a generation alone but for all time.

He'd finished the manuscript. Despite the trouble he'd had tracking done some of the more arcane references here in Skopentzana, he'd finally managed it. But finishing a book was only the first step in getting it into other people's hands. He had no trouble reading his spidery scrawl. As far as he could tell, that made him a minority of one.

Skopentzana did not boast the swarm of scribes who worked in Videssos the city. The capital also had swarms of secretaries and clerks and other bureaucrats who needed things written but often lacked the time to do the writing themselves. And Videssos the city had more people who could read than any other four places in the Empire put together. Add all that up, and it could support so many scribes. Skopentzana couldn't.

The one Rhavas had chosen to work with was a middle-aged fellow named Digenis. He peered shortsightedly at the prelate when Rhavas strode into his cramped little shop. Only a shortsighted man could stay a scribe once he got into his middle years. Men with normal vision whose sight lengthened lost the ability to read the small scrawl of a manuscript.

"Good morning," Rhavas said.

Digenis brightened. "Ah! Good morning, very holy sir," he said, recognizing Rhavas' voice where he'd had trouble knowing his face. "How are you today?"

"Well enough." Rhavas unbent enough to add, "Perhaps even a bit better than that."

"I am glad to hear it," Digenis said. "Is this on account of the news from the south, very holy sir, or do you also have other reasons?" He was as avid for gossip as any other Videssian. He also had good connections; the news of Maleinos' victory over Stylianos wasn't all through Skopentzana yet.

"I am certainly glad the news from the south is good," Rhavas replied. If he had any other reasons, they were none of Digenis' business. "Can you give me more news to make me happy? How is my book coming?"

"It's coming well, very holy sir," the scribe told him. "I do have to interrupt it every now and then to take on some small project that will put gold in my belt pouch, but I always return to it as soon as the other work is done."

Rhavas made a discontented noise. He'd paid Digenis in the usual way for a long work: half at the beginning, half when the book was done. That had been a while ago now; of course the scribe would have gone through most of the first installment by this time. Part of Rhavas wished he'd given Digenis the whole fee at the start. The rest, the cynical part, wondered if the other man would have lifted a finger to write if he had.

"How are you coping with my hand?" the prelate asked.

"It gets easier as I go along. I'm used to it now," Digenis answered. "Meaning no offense, though, I still think I'll make my second copy from my first, and not from your original."

"You may do that—after I've been through your first to correct your errors," Rhavas said in a voice like all the worst parts of Skopentzana winter.

He waited to see if Digenis would swell up with indignation and deny he would make any. Some scribes labored under the delusion that they were perfect. More wanted their clients to labor under that delusion. Rhavas knew better. He had yet to see a book with no scribal errors. Most of the books he'd seen held quite a few. He was ready to sound even icier than he had already if Digenis tried to claim he was somehow set above the common run of pen pushers. Perfection is reserved for Phos alone made a good opening. He could go on from there, too.

But he turned out not to need to. Digenis said only, "Well, I hope you won't find too many of them, very holy sir."

Rhavas felt like a trotting horse getting ready to gallop that was suddenly told it had to walk instead. "So do I," he said gruffly.

"Interesting, reading what you have to say," Digenis remarked. "Half the time—more than half the time—you know, a scribe doesn't pay any attention to what he's copying. The words go from your eyes to your hand. You don't think about them in between. I started out like that with your book, too. I couldn't keep it up. What I saw made me think about what I was writing. I couldn't help it."

"For which I thank you." Rhavas was flattered, but not particularly surprised. Videssians were mad for theology: not just priests but potters and farm wives coming into town to sell cabbages. The ones who had their letters—and some of the ones who didn't—could reason with surprising sophistication, too. Rhavas couldn't help asking, "And what do you think?"

"You argue very strongly," Digenis replied. "If anything, I think you make Phaos too strong in the world as it is. He will win in the end, surely—I am orthodox. But the end is not yet. Skotos remains a potent foe." He spat on the floor after naming the dark god.

"Good is stronger than evil. We see it every day," Rhavas declared.

"Anyone would know you come from a rich family, very holy sir," the scribe said in a low voice.

The prelate wasn't sure he should have heard that. He was sure it made no difference, which went some way toward proving Digenis' point.


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