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Summer 55


HALFWAY TO THE TOP, the lift cage shuddered to a stop and hung, swaying, on its ropes. Leather-winged birds flitted around it, jeering through sharp teeth. The morning sun poured between its bars like molten gold, bright and hot, and wood creaked.

The cage’s sole occupant swore.

Through the slatted floor under her feet, Jame could see the garrison of the Southern Host spread out like a toy city at the foot of the cliff. There was the inner ward, there the quadrilateral, red-roofed barracks of each Kencyr house. Antlike dots moved through the streets with deceptive slowness. How high up was she? One thousand feet? Two? Kendar had warned her, with a shudder, that it was nearly three thousand to the top of the Escarpment at this point, not counting Kothifir’s towering spires above that. At least she didn’t suffer from the Kendars’ inbred fear of heights—not that dangling here on a few strands of hemp was exactly reassuring.

Commandant Harn’s headquarters were somewhere within the office block north of the inner ward. Jame remembered her reception there ten days ago, how the burly man had fidgeted around the room, bumping into furniture, avoiding her eyes.

“Ah, Jameth . . . er, Jame. So you’ve come at last, all the way from the Riverland. Have a nice trip?”

Such a stiff, wary greeting, as if they hadn’t spent most of a year under the same roof at Tentir.

And speaking of cool receptions, what was she to make of Ran Onyx-eyed?

“Do you wish to take command of the barracks?” the woman had asked. “Such, after all, is your prerogative as the Knorth Lordan.”

Did the Kendar want to shift responsibility to her, or did she resent a newcomer’s claim, or was she truly as indifferent as she seemed? That smooth, bland face had given Jame no clue.

“Uh,” she had said, “please continue to run the barracks for the time being.”

The last thing Jame wanted was a raft of new administrative chores. Was she shirking her duty? Perhaps, as at Tentir when she had left her five-commander Brier Iron-thorn in charge of the barracks there. If so, she was worse than Timmon at sliding out of duties. There had always seemed to be more important things for her to do, though, and as the Knorth Lordan she had been allowed more freedom than most cadets.

But “This is Kothifir, not Tentir,” Harn had warned her. “Watch yourself.”

Her gaze shifted to the training fields beyond the camp walls and the encircling arms of the Amar where her own ten-command was currently practicing with javelins, as she would have been too, without special permission to visit the city.

Dar, Mint, Killy, Erim, Rue, Quill, Niall, Damson, Brier . . .

Jame knew the names of the other second-year cadets as well, of course, and now would have to learn those of the third-years. Their leader, she gathered, was that sullen boy named Char. There were the Knorth randon officers as well. Tori knew all of them, and a thousand more besides.

Beyond the training fields was the Betwixt Valley, laced fresh green with irrigation ditches branching off from the Amar south of where its east and west branches rejoined. Beyond that rose the dusky, terraced slopes of the Apollyne mountain range. Jame wasn’t high enough to see over the latter to the Wastes beyond, where the rain stopped and the true desert began. However, a glittering veil of golden dust seemed to be drawn across the southern sky behind the peaks’ dark silhouettes. What lay in those desolate, wide-flung expanses? Would she be able someday to see for herself?

The cage jolted down a foot, making her stagger. Its ropes groaned.

A fine thing, Jame thought crossly, gripping the bars for balance, to have come all this way only to be dropped on my head.

Perhaps she should have taken one of the stairs that snaked up the limestone cliff face, carved out of it. So many steps, though, in her new dress grays with a crisp linen cheche wrapped about her tightly braided hair . . .  To arrive breathless, exhausted, and sweat-soaked on her first visit Overcliff—no, thank you.

Another lift cage, this one enclosed such as the Kendar preferred, ascended smoothly beside her. Should she have taken it instead? It cost more, however, and Jame wasn’t yet comfortable with having money to spend. A small portion of her new allowance hung in a pouch at her side, tapping her hip as the cage swayed. How was she to know what each coin was worth in trade? They weren’t mere toys anymore for her blind hunting ounce Jorin to chase.

Ah. The cage rose again, by fits and starts.

Here caves breached the sheer cliff-face and exhaled cool air in her face through swaying vines. Faces were carved in high relief around many openings—past god-kings, perhaps, or portraits of the engineers who had designed Kothifir. Some looked proud, others merely bored. Through their yawning lips she glimpsed the jagged honeycomb of the Undercliff. Plumes of water fell from some cave mouths, also thicker jets from either end of the three-mile-wide semicircular moat that surrounded the city, bracketing it with rainbows. All were fed by the Amar, which approached Kothifir from the north. One couldn’t see it from here, of course, but it was said to be the biggest river short of the Silver to feed into the southern lands.

At last here was the lip of the Escarpment. The crane swung her cage over the balustrade and it bounced to rest on Kothifir’s limestone-paved forecourt. A squat, sun-darkened Kothifiran opened the gate.

“So,” he said in Rendish, with a flash of crooked white teeth. “Did missy enjoy her ride? Not that such a featherweight as you is any chore, but next time, maybe the heavier lift for comfort? Yes?”

Jame glanced at the grinning winch-men. So that had been their game, angling for a higher fee. She had already paid at the cliff’s foot. Fishing a small coin out of her pouch as a tip, she flipped it to the proprietor.

“For your courtesy. Have you considered installing a trap door?”

“Oh, we already have that, for those who try to shortchange us.”

Looking back at the cage, Jame saw that he spoke the truth. No wonder the floor had seemed so unsteady. She extracted another coin. “On account,” she said, tossing it to the winch-men, and walked off to their crack of laughter.

The city opened out to her at the foot of a broad, curving avenue. Here on the ground level, shops with brightly hued awnings lined the way, offering all kinds of food stuffs from purple eggplants to white radishes, from ruby tomatoes to sacks of golden wheat. Albino crickets sang in shaded cages. River fish gaped in tubs. Hung sheep carcasses seemed to move under a pelt of flies. Spices laced the hot morning air, their fragrance mingling with that of fresh baked bread and spilt blood. Jame breathed the mixture with delight. She had neither seen nor smelled such a wealth of Rathillien’s riches since her days in Tai-tastigon.

Just as enchanting in their own way were the bustling throng of shoppers. The average Kothifiran clearly liked bright colors and wore them with abandon, in pleasing contrast to their copper skins and black hair. The natives tended to be short and squat verging on fat, but brisk and lively in their movements with sparkling dark eyes. Some were taller and fairer, though, with auburn hair, and there were even a few rare blonds. Among them passed the occasional minor noble, borne shoulder-high in a litter whose fluttering pastel curtains gave a glimpse of an unnaturally pale face peering out disdainfully.

Such arrogance was matched by the silent visages of desert dwellers come to town to tend their shabby stalls. Only their eyes showed. The rest was wreathed by the voluminous folds of indigo blue cheches at least twice the length of the one that Jame wore.

We know a secret, their withdrawn faces seemed to say.

Jame wondered what it was.

For all the avenue’s dash and glitter, however, the eye was drawn upward toward Kothifir’s famous “Painted Towers,” half obscured by lines of fluttering, bright flags and, higher up, by no less colorful laundry. Jame saw now that most of these towers were actually faced with travertine, limestone, and marble ranging in color from white to tan to moss green to rose to black. Some featured solid blocks in geometric patterns. Others were faced with mosaic tiles depicting faces, animal masks, crests, and other obscure symbols. It made one’s head spin to take in their lively variety even lit as they were by filtered sunshine, for wispy clouds cut off many towers some ten stories up. Rents in the cover let through shafts of light and gave filmy glimpses of the heights above, gold, bronze and verdigris copper, laced together by catwalks, bridges, and buttresses.

Odd, thought Jame, craning to look up. She had observed no such cloud cover from below; but then one couldn’t see the city proper from the foot of the Escarpment.

She felt a fumbling at her side and, reaching down, grabbed the hand that was trying to loosen the strings of her purse. A small face crowned with a mop of curly chestnut hair gazed up at her reproachfully, pouting.

“You weren’t supposed to catch me.”

“I can see that.”

“We saw it too.”

The last speaker sauntered toward Jame, backed by two followers, and the shoppers parted before them, murmuring. All three wore livery composed of gilded hauberks over russet linen tunics and carried truncheons swinging from their belts. Their eyes were fixed on the boy.

“Do you know what we do to unlicensed thieves, brat? See those drain caps set in the pavement? They lift up, and underneath are dank holes in the earth, full of nasty things, all the way down to the Amar. Just last week we dropped a boy little older than you down one for stealing fruit. Shall we see if you snag on the way or if the river spits you out into the valley?”

A stout, middle-aged man bustled out of the crowd and seized the child’s other hand. “Here now, Byrne, haven’t I warned you not to play with strangers? Your pardon, lady. Today my grandson wants to be a pickpocket. Tomorrow it will be something else.”

The leader of the men drew himself up, an ominous glitter in his eyes. “We caught him red-handed, Master Iron Gauntlet. You know the punishment.”

“Now, boys, I know you too. Has service to Lord Artifice—may the Change preserve him—altered you so much that you would make sport of an infant and an old man?”

The two subordinates shifted uneasily, not meeting his reproachful gaze. In their place, Jame couldn’t have either; with a few words, the elder man had reduced the younger to guilty children. Not so their leader.

“My Lord Artifice”—and here he defiantly touched thumb to forehead in salute—“is not sentimental, like some. He believes in the honor of his craft, and in his men.”

“As well he might, to be sure, and so do I, but since when has he taken over the judicial duties of Master Cut-Purse?”

“I wasn’t robbed, you know,” Jame put in mildly.

The three ignored her.

The boy, also ignored, craned to look up at her. “May I kick them in the shins?” he asked.

“Unnatural child, no. Besides, my boots are bigger than yours.”

The boy’s grandfather gave them both an amused glance. “Hush. Now, do you really want to seize this baby? What would all of these good people think of you if you did?”

The three looked around, suddenly aware that they were at the center of an attentive, not very friendly crowd. The leader turned on his heel and bulled his way out of the circle. The other two followed him, looking rather sheepish. With that, the spectators broke up, either to discuss what they had just seen or, for the minority, to return to their own business.

The older man turned to smile at Jame. “We haven’t been introduced. I’m Gaudaric, Iron Gauntlet of the Armorers’ Guild.”

As his broad, calloused hand gripped her own slim, gloved one, Jame thought that despite his age he looked quite capable of such a demanding profession. If need be, those muscular arms should serve him well in any fight.

“Jame, a second-year randon cadet.”

“By that white cheche, I judge that you’re rather more than that.”

“I suppose so.” Jame eased the unfamiliar headgear where its tight folds pinched across her brow. He too wore white, she noted, in the form of a silk sash tied over richly dyed but practical leathers. “The Highlord of the Kencyrath is my brother. I’m his lordan. Who is this Lord Artifice and why does he hate you so much?”

Gaudaric sighed and rubbed his bald pate, ruffling its surrounding fringe of gray hair. “For no good reason, I should say. His given name is Ruso, a former pupil of mine who wanted not only my trade secrets but also my daughter, when she had chosen elsewhere. As for the title, you must be new in town.”

“Very. I’m here to meet King Krothen.”

“Are you?” He gave her a considering look, then began to walk, towing Byrne after him. “I’ll show you the way.”

“I want a sugared fig!” declared the boy, trying to free himself.

“Will you behave yourself this time? Then go.”

They walked on as Byrne darted from stall to stall, circling back to beg for an orange, a date, a candied newt. Half of the time his fond grandfather indulged him.

“My only grandchild,” Gaudaric said proudly, “although I hope for more. It does one good to see our city through new eyes. Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Jame agreed, eyeing an intricate, tessellated mosaic that gave the illusion of looking into a stately apartment. Changing light hinted at elegant figures moving about in its depths, then at wandering beasts in a forest. How could mere stone achieve such subtlety?

“About Lord Artifice . . . ?”

“It would help if you understood our guild structure. Know anything about guilds in general?”

“A bit,” said Jame, remembering her days in Tai-tastigon as apprentice to the eccentric master thief Penari. How distant those shining nights seemed now. “Masters, journeymen, apprentices. Lots of rules and infighting,” she said, remembering the vicious guild wars in which she had been involved. “One big scrappy, happy family, not very tolerant of outsiders.”

“Do you know what we do to unlicensed thieves, brat?” A figure sprawling on the Mercy Seat, its skin splayed out like a heavy cloak. “Steal a peach, steal a plum, see to what your carcass comes . . .”

Gaudaric nodded. “You’ve got the basic flavor of it, if not all the nuances of political spice.”

“Including Iron Gauntlet and Master Cut-Purse?”

“Indeed. Each guild needs a grandmaster, after all. Paper Crown, Leather Hood, Silk Purse, Intelligencer, Scalpel, Pliers . . . I lose track, but there must be a hundred at least, many with sub-chapters. Beyond that, all guilds are divided into crafts, merchants, and professions.”

“Those who make things, those who sell them, those who profit by their individual skill. Hence Lord Artifice?”

“Yes, may the Change be kind to him. The Armorers’ Guild was honored by his rise and no, I’m not the least bit jealous of it, whatever he thinks. Also there are Lord Merchandy and Lady Professionate.”

“That’s the second time you’ve mentioned some sort of Change.”

Gaudaric shrugged this off. “Ah, never mind. It’s ill fortune to speak of such things.”

With that he started pointing out civic features as they passed them like a tour guide. Jame put aside her questions for the moment and listened. She had already noticed that the city was divided into four to five rings, crossed by the curved spokes of the avenues, further subdivided by streets and alleys. Buildings in the outer rings were quadrilateral, composed of obtuse and acute angles to fit the curve of the street, at least for those structures that still stood.

“We used to be a much larger city,” said Gaudaric wistfully. “Three times as many people lived here when the Salt Sea was still fresh, before the desert came.”

Jame remembered the scrollsman Index’s words as reported by her cousin Kindrie. “That was during Rathillien’s Fifth Age, some three thousand years ago, correct?”

“Just so. Now the outermost rings are mere ruins, their stones quarried to build up the innermost. Kothifir is a shell of what it once was.”

As they approached the city’s heart, the edges of buildings were rounded off more and more until the towers became ovals, their summits disappearing into the clouds. These last appeared to be privately owned, probably by rich merchants and minor nobility. Certainly, they were more ornate than their fellows. Gardens now occupied the spaces between them while vines climbed their walls and balconies blazed with flowers.

The avenue swerved again, and debouched on the edge of a central plaza filled with more stalls and teeming with shoppers. Here, all the avenues met—Jame counted seven. Over the noisy throng, in the center of the square, loomed the only round tower she had yet seen in Kothifir, although it was aggressively asymmetrical. With its recessed floors, it looked a bit like an inverted tornado ascending into the clouds, with a dizzying twist to its structure. It was made of white and pink marble. Carved roses climbed its window frames and the balusters of its circling, open spiral stair, giving it a lacy, almost insubstantial appearance.

“That’s the Rose Tower,” said Gaudaric proudly. “You’ll find His Magnificence at the top of it.”

Jame thanked him, promised to look in on his shop, and pushed through the crowd to the foot of the spiral stair.

The lower floors were occupied by servants. Jame passed doors and windows opening into domestic spaces, kitchens billowing with fragrant herbs, bedchambers mostly empty at this time of day, and watch rooms where guards sat playing at dice. Children ran up and down the stair shouting to each other, shouted at in turn by their harried mothers. Tradesmen came and went.

Her legs ached by the time she left the bustle of life behind and neared the level of the clouds. They appeared solider than they had from the ground, and darker. Soon she was enveloped in their twilight world. Thinner patches revealed other towers curiously drained of color.

Now the mist was growing lighter above her, and a moment later she emerged into dazzling sunlight beating fiercely on the fleecy backs of clouds. The latter slowly circled the Rose Tower and spread out to a hazy horizon—again, something that she had not seen from below. Here the tallest structures ended in glistening domes and spires, or in rooftop gardens.

Another turn of the stair brought Jame to two pikesmen guarding the way.

“I have an appointment with His Magnificence, King Krothen,” she told them.

They looked down their noses at her. Perhaps Krothen chose his servants for their height, or for the length and hairiness of their nostrils.

After a pause and a sniff, however, they let her pass.

Here was a floor with filmy curtains blowing out the windows. Through them, Jame glimpsed an apartment of almost overwhelming elegance. Krothen’s?

Another twist of the stair, and she found herself at the top of the Rose Tower, in a circular room some seventy feet wide. The floor was paved with pale green, golden veined chalcedony. Petals of pink marble carved so fine that the sun glowed through them made up the walls. A thin, hot breeze edged around the overlapping folds. It was like being in the heart of a giant, overheated rosebud sculpted out of stone.

Through this roseate light scurried servants, carrying musical instruments, bowls of flowers, and tray upon tray of delicacies. Half-naked acrobats tumbled among them, disregarded. Clowns pranced.

Others more somberly clothed stood like pillars amidst this rout, ignoring it. Some appeared to be officials; others, foreign emissaries. One was a thin, elderly man in a midnight blue robe spangled with silver stars. Jame recognized a high priest when she saw one. After all, Krothen was a god-king.

Where, however, was he? Presumably, taking a break from his duties. When he arrived, perhaps he would recline on that dais piled high with silken pillows near his high priest.

Then the mound shifted.

A head perched on top of it, wearing a snowy turban. Heavily lidded hazel eyes regarded her speculatively across the room out of rolls of fat. Beneath that, rosebud lips pursed over a fringe of ginger beard which in turn was mounted on too many chins to count. Trinity, was that all him, beneath that sprawl of white damask? He shifted again and released a muted, subterranean fart. Incense covered the smell, but not that of so much overheated flesh.

Krothen, God-King of Kothifir, selected a candied slug from a plate held out to him by a lackey and popped it into the moist hole that was his mouth. As he chewed and swallowed, Jame saw that the dais on which he reclined hovered a foot above the floor and that the hems of his robes floated about him as if in a slow ocean current. Here was a god-king indeed.

An emissary clothed in layers of white lace stood before him, impatiently waiting to capture the monarch’s wandering attention.

“Ahem,” he said. “Sire, we understand that you have a complaint against our fair Rim city of Gemma.”

“Yes.” Krothen’s voice was a surprising nasal tenor, as if all of that fat had pinched his throat into a thin pipe. “Gemman raids on our trade caravans have increased of late. We understand that your governing council now sells letters of marque to such enterprising bandits.”

“They have official sanction, yes, which you refuse to recognize.”

Krothen opened his eyes as wide as their surrounding rolls of fat allowed. “My dear man, we never agreed to any such code.”

“You should. It would be the civilized thing to do, given that it guarantees humane treatment for any captives.”

“But we never raid you. Given that, why should we consent to being robbed?”

“At least let us ransom our captive raiders.”

“Ah, but Gemma has nothing that Kothifir wants.”

The emissary was turning red in the face with anger and frustration. “Someday your arrogance will be your downfall.”

“Perhaps. In the meantime, any raider whom I catch will be hung from the thorns of my tower to the delight of the citizenry and any passing crow.”

“And that is the message I should carry back to my masters?”

Krothen selected another morsel. “Carry what you please,” he said, chewing with his mouth open.

The Gemman gave a stiff bow and retreated.

Jame was the next visitor in line. She cleared her throat nervously.

“Er . . . Sire, my brother, Lord Knorth of the Kencyrath, sends his greetings.”

She gave the rolled parchment that contained her credentials to the majordomo, who handed it to a servant, who passed it to another, and another, and another. The high priest fastidiously flicked back an embroidered cuff to receive the scroll and presented it to his master. Krothen passed it from one plump hand to the other without looking at it, then to a lackey and so on around the circle, left to right, end over end, hand to hand, flip, flip, flip.

Now what? Jame wondered, receiving it back, its seal unbroken.

A commotion arose on the stair behind her.

Servants and minor priests alike hastily retreated to the edges of the room. Jame also withdrew, to be on the safe side. A contingent of ladies entered, one veiled, another in servant’s attire. They were led by a noblewoman so haughty in her bearing that it took a moment to realize that she was very short, almost a dwarf, mounted on very high heels. Trailing after them all came a handsome young man, heavily made up and dressed in a frilly robe.

“So, Nephew,” growled the short noblewoman in a surprisingly deep voice. Jame realized that this must be the redoubtable Princess Amantine, first lady of the court. “I understand that you have refused yet another match. Your half-sister Cella is, of course, heartbroken.”

The veiled lady clapped hands over her face. She might have been crying. Then her fingers slipped and a crow of shrill laughter broke through them. The servant whacked her on the back, at which she gulped and stood still, if subtly aquiver.

“Heartbroken, I say!” boomed the princess, glowering at her.

Krothen spoke behind a plump hand to the priest.

“Your Mellifluous Highness,” said the latter, with a respectful bow. “My lord wonders if Lady Cella’s heart was truly in this proposal. It was his understanding that she prefers to play with her . . . er . . . doll.”

The lady in question nodded so vigorously that her veil fluttered up, revealing a middle-aged face painted white, with buck teeth, protruding eyes, and no chin to speak of.

“Then go,” Krothen said to her in a nasal, not unkind voice. “Play.”

She gave a hoot of glee, grabbed the handsome boy by the hand, and scrambled off down the stairs, pursued by the servant. Two flights down they collided with someone. The new arrival could be heard lumbering up the stairs in their wake.

“Well!” said Amantine, drawing herself up and swaying ominously. “You still need an heir, Nephew. What will happen to this city after you are gone?”

“Where am I going, Aunt? Perhaps, like my father, I choose to stay.”

The princess stomped, and lost her balance. Servants rushed to prop her up.

“What my brother Kruin did was a disaster to his family. Need I remind you that on the male side only you and my dear son Ton are left? Here he comes now, to receive your blessing.”

A figure loomed, wheezing, in the doorway. Unable to enter it head-on, he turned sideways and sidled in, disarranging a coat of bright pink satin as rich as the frosting on a cake. While nowhere nearly as gross as Krothen, the newcomer could easily have made up three men, although he was hardly more than a boy.

“Cousin,” he said, still breathing hard and sounding petulant. “Why you have to live . . . at the top . . . of a damned tower . . .”

Krothen stopped him with a raised hand. “Please,” he said. “Eat.”

A servant offered the boy a platter of locust drizzled with honey.

“Ton-ton, no,” said his mother sharply.

He waved her off, took a dripping insect, and defiantly jammed it into his mouth. Krothen ate another candied slug. Prince Ton grabbed two locusts. Everyone watched first one and then the other as the royal cousins continued to match each other, insect against mollusk.

Ton started to turn green. Cheeks bulging, insectile legs a bristle between plump lips, he made a frantic gesture. A lackey ran up to him carrying a golden bucket into which he was copiously sick. His mother led him away with a grip on his ear that steadied her as much as it chastised him. Those above could hear her scolding her son all the way down the stairs.

Krothen sighed and flipped a fat, dismissive hand at Jame.

As he scooped up the remaining slugs and shoveled them into his mouth, she turned to go, bemused. Had the god-king of Kothifir just winked at her?


SEVERAL TURNS DOWN THE STAIR, out of sight from above and below, Jame paused, thinking. Her call on Krothen had only really been an excuse to visit the Overcliff; her true mission was as yet unfulfilled. In the spring she had sent her half-breed servant Graykin south ahead of her to gather information. He should know by now that she had reached the Host’s camp and have reported to her, but no sign of him had she seen. The bond between them told her that he at least wasn’t in severe distress. Instead she felt echoes of anger and frustration when she thought about him. However, would anyone tell the Knorth Lordan what she needed to know? It was time for a change—one she had been looking forward to for a long time.

Jame stripped off her gray dress coat and reversed it. The tailor who had sewn it had asked why she wanted a finished black lining, but she had only smiled. It was a poor substitute for the knife-fighter’s d’hen, still stowed in her luggage, but at least it was the right color. Unwrapping the tight cheche came as a relief to her burnt, flaking forehead. She considered winding the cloth around her waist, but guessed from Gaudaric’s white sash that to do so would mean something unintended, so instead she rolled it up and stuffed it into her jacket. From an inside pocket came a black cap. The gloves she already wore.

A sense of relief and release swept over her, as if at the shedding of too tight a garment. As much as she enjoyed being a randon cadet, this freedom was an older love.

“Welcome back, Talisman,” she breathed.

No one had yet come up or down the tower, but someone was bound to soon. Were those voices ascending? Time to be gone.

She had stopped near one of the suspension bridges leading to the nearest palace complex above the clouds. She stepped off onto it over the fleecy backs of clouds. At its lowest point, wisps curled over the steps and it swung gently underfoot. A murmur rose from the plaza far below as if from a distant sea lapping around the Rose Tower’s base.

The structure she approached now was another tower topped with an oversized cupola. The sun glowed off sheets of riveted copper and flashed from large, round windows like portholes, ringed with gold. A second smaller glass cupola sat on top like a blister, no doubt giving light to the chamber below. Smoke trickled up the brazen shoulders along with the sound of hammers. Inside, someone was bellowing.

“. . . of all the incompetent, block-headed fools . . .”

Jame stepped off the bridge onto a balcony. One of the round windows fronted it, its glass disc tilted open a crack vertically. She edged inside, emerging behind a high-backed chair which in turn was drawn up to a huge desk covered with paper work. Other tables around the circular room were piled high with scraps of disjointed armor and tools.

In the center of the room, a ruddy, bearded man in burnished half-armor over a white tunic was roaring at a cringing apprentice. His voice made all the surrounding metal ring. Some of it clanged to the floor and tried to crawl away.

“You sodding idiot, couldn’t you see that you had the thing on backward?”

Between the two was a large dog in fully articulated plate armor, trying wretchedly to scratch itself. Not only was steel in the way, but also its front and rear legs appeared to have been transposed.

Jame’s eyebrows raised. Itchy skin be damned. How could it even survive, configured like that?

The ruddy man grabbed the ’prentice and shook him until his cap tumbled over his eyes and his teeth chattered.

“Out of my sight, you . . . you loose screw!”

He flung the man away, straight into a hole against the opposite wall. A complicated, diminishing clatter followed—thumps and yelps generally associated with someone falling down a long flight of stairs.

Lord Artifice, for surely it was he, turned to consider the unfortunate canine.

“Now, how am I going to sort you out?”

He picked up a tool, knelt, and started popping rivets at the shoulder and hip seams. The steel torso came free. He lifted it off its framework and reversed it. There didn’t appear to be a dog inside after all, only a dog-shaped hollow.

He patted its metal back, which rang hollowly. “Better? Now what’s the matter?”

The creature, whatever it was, had begun to sniff and snarl—a curiously echoing sound within its metal shell. Its head swung toward the chair behind which Jame crouched, and it lunged toward her. Jame broke cover.

Ruso straightened with a roar, his red beard again abristle, emitting random sparks. “Who are you, skulking there? An assassin? Ha! Don’t you know that you can’t kill a guild lord?”

Jame kicked the oncoming creature, catching it in the snout and jarring its head askew. It came at her again, slantwise, and again she struck, this time knocking the unsecured torso off its legs, which continued to scrabble blindly forward. Ruso tried to grab her. She felt the heat of his body, but slid past with a water-flowing move that raised steam between them, and rushed down the stairs. Below, on a landing, a knot of people had gathered around the fallen apprentice, helping him up. Jame swerved to a window, thrust it open, and plunged out onto a lower balcony swallowed by the clouds. Here was another catwalk. Without hesitation, she took it. The shouts died behind her as if muffled with a steaming towel.

The world turned a ghostly gray out of which walls and blank windows loomed seemingly at random. A few showed furtive signs of life, but most appeared to be abandoned. Jame thought that she was moving westward, but soon wasn’t so sure. Tower succeeded tower, first ovoid, then with corners. Some she skirted, others she entered by one window only to leave by the next. Interior spaces no longer corresponded to outer dimensions. A reed-thin tower could take what felt like forever to circumnavigate while a broad edifice might take mere steps to cross. All were dark, dusty, and dank, with simmering heat pressing down from above. The going underfoot became more and more decrepit. Window sills crumbled; floors sagged; catwalks creaked and splintered underfoot.

Something tugged unpleasantly at Jame’s sixth sense, like a thread snagging a broken tooth. It wasn’t the trail she had hoped for, but she followed it almost perforce, as if toward the stench of home.

In a great square of a tower open to the sky, the temple rose up out of shattered floors so that only its upper reaches were visible from above. These at first looked snapped off. Then one realized that they had never been finished. The air rising from within wavered with power as if with heat, causing the hair on the back of Jame’s neck to prickle. So did a low, continuous vibration that made the dust at her feet skitter across the boards. This, then, was the Kothifir temple of the Three-Faced God of her own people, although avoided by all except its priests. Jame saw none of the latter, but assumed that they must be there somewhere, perhaps below: otherwise, the temple’s power would have run amuck.

She remembered her first sight of the Tai-tastigon temple in its circle of devastation, in that city teeming with godlings. The Kencyrath was monotheistic, believing only in he (or she, or it) of the three faces who had bound the Three People together and set them against Perimal Darkling on the long path of so many bitter defeats down the Chain of Creation from threshold world to world. Rathillien was the last of these in that here the mysterious temple Builders had died, leaving this, their last work, incomplete and unstable. If the Kencyrath was forced to move on again, assuming it could, it would finally place itself beyond its god. Some might say, “Good!” But even Jame, who hated her absentee divinity, felt oddly naked at the thought of losing him forever.

Tai-tastigon’s New Pantheon “gods” had turned out to owe their existence to the mindless excess energy of the Kencyr temple as shaped by the faith of their worshippers. Jame wondered if there were any gods here besides Krothen, although Ancestors knew there was enough of him to soak up any amount of power. The closest thing she had seen so far other than he was Lord Artifice. There, surely, was power of some sort.

Ironic, that only the natives of Rathillien seemed to benefit from the Three-Faced God. Perhaps on other worlds his power had helped the Kencyrath, but here it existed only as a threat to them.

Yet, was that entirely true? Jame sensed the patterns in it as they plucked at her nerves, muscles, and will. She had directed them before with the Great Dance such as the priests used, causing the explosive untempling of the Tastigon gods. She could dance them now as a potential Tyr-ridan, but only as the Third Face of God, That-Which-Destroys.

And what would you destroy this time, Jamethiel Priest’s-bane? Kothifir, the Kencyrath, yourself?

A foot shuffled on the debris behind her. Jame spun around to confront a young, blond acolyte in a brown robe.

“Who are you?” he demanded. “Why are you spying on us?” He peered at her more closely. “Why, you’re Kencyr. That half-breed sneak we’ve heard about, probably.”

Jame didn’t like being confused with Graykin, much less the boy’s snotty manner or the way he drew back as if to avoid contact with something unclean. Then the floor gave slightly underfoot. It felt rotten. The temple’s rogue power must be gnawing continually at it.

The boy smiled. “I should let you fall. The next floor might stop you, or maybe not. It’s a long way down.”

The spar of a rafter jutted out overhead. Jame sprang and caught it just as the floor dropped away beneath her. The beam felt none too solid either and gave an ominous crack. The boy laughed. Jame launched herself at the doorway where he stood and knocked him back through it into a mural stair. The rafter snapped and plummeted like a spear. Angry shouts below greeted its descent.

“Get off of me, you filth!” the boy snarled, wriggling under her and scrabbling at her jacket front. His expression changed. “Why, you’re a girl!”

Jame reared back, driving a knee into his groin in the process. “Surprise.”

He was, she supposed, a year or two younger than she, but that didn’t excuse bad manners. Speaking of which . . .

“I suppose I had better greet your high priest while I’m here.”

Sulky and limping, he led her down the mural stair past doorways gaping on shattered floors and the looming blackness within. It was the third Kencyr temple that Jame had seen, and no two of them had been alike. The mysterious Builders seemed to enjoy variety. This one resembled a sheer, black pyramid with its top missing. A clutch of priests had gathered, exclaiming angrily, at its foot around the fallen beam and the mound of debris it had brought down. At least it hadn’t landed on anyone, as far as Jame could tell.

“Grandfather.” The boy tugged at a black sleeve. “We have company.”

The high priest swung around and glared in Jame’s general direction. His eyes, under tangled white brows, were clouded over with milky cataracts. How odd that he hadn’t consulted one of the order’s many healers. Perhaps none were available this far south. “And who might that be, eh?”

Jame offered him a half-hearted salute which, in any event, he couldn’t see. “The Talisman, sir.”

As soon as she spoke, she knew she had made a mistake.

“What, M’lord Ishtier’s foe? Oh, we’ve heard all about you and the trouble that you caused in Tai-tastigon. Theocide. Nemesis. Well, I won’t have any of that nonsense here. Leave, before I bring the rest of the roof down on you!”

His gnarled hands rose, clenched, and drew down power along with more wreckage. The others huddled close to the temple’s flanks although they didn’t dare touch them. The temple itself trembled and seemed for a moment to be less substantial.

The boy plucked at her jacket. “Leave,” he hissed. “Before worse happens.”

Jame retreated step by step, unwilling to turn her back on that sullen edifice. What worse could it do? How unstable was it, really, and did she really want to find out? Then she was out of the tower, free of the baleful thing that it contained and its churlish priests.


ONCE AWAY, Jame tried to clear her senses in order to pick up Graykin’s trail again. It came to her, faintly, and she followed it back into the forest of ghostly towers.

Finally here was one that seemed, after a fashion, to be occupied. At least it had a door and, inside, dusty tapestries hung on the walls between the arched windows. Most of the weavings depicted shadowy figures with their backs turned although a few pale, hooded visages faced the room. A thicket of pillars held up the roof. As she entered, a murmur as if of conversation died.


Only silence answered her, and flickers of movement seen out of the corner of her eyes. There were definitely people in the room, standing behind the pillars, shifting as she moved to stay out of sight.

“I’m looking for a Kencyr named Graykin,” she told the room at large.

“So are we,” replied a husky whisper at her elbow, making her jump. One of the gray figures had joined her. She could see half of his face under the hood—a sharp nose and a narrow chin, thin lips pursed as if at the taste of something nasty.

“How long has he been missing?”

“Fourteen days. Are you one of his clients?”

How to answer that? “We have done business before. Is this the Intelligencers’ Hall?”

“It is.”

Belatedly, it occurred to Jame that she didn’t know what Graykin’s relationship was to the spies’ guild. If he hadn’t registered with it, they might well be hunting him.

More gray figures detached themselves from the pillars and the wall to surround her. They smelled of dust and dank, like dirty linen. Now she could see them clearly direct on, but out of the corner of her eye the room appeared to be empty.

“Who speaks for you?” she asked.

“One who is not here. I will show you where he was last seen.”

That confused Jame. “Where who was?”

The thin lips twisted without mirth. “The one whom you seek.”

There seemed no answer to that except to follow her gray guide out of the room and down the stair that angled around the corners of the tower. They passed a door at each level, all shut, but by the dingy underwear hanging from balcony wash lines Jame guessed that the guild occupied the entire structure. She tried to keep her focus on the spy who led her as he flickered in and out of view. Her sense was that he was playing with her. Whatever Graykin’s association with the guild, hers with him had gained her little credit.

At last they reached the ground on a dirty back street many rings removed from the city’s colorful center.

“There,” said her guide, indicating a wide circular hole in the roadway, its cover dragged to one side.

Jame peered into the depths. “The Undercliff?”

“Yes,” he said, and pushed her in.


JAME FELL HEADFIRST into darkness, trapped air snatching at her clothes. Close-set walls echoed back her startled cry. Above, the circle of light receded but, twisting, she saw a dim glow below. Its ghostly light shone on the bars of a ladder flashing past beside her. She reached for it. Its rungs rapped her knuckles sharply, then she caught it. The wrench nearly dislocated both shoulders. For a second she dangled there, breathing hard and scrabbling for a foothold, then her grip weakened and she fell again, onto a sloping pile of rubble at the ladder’s foot.

Sweet Trinity. She would never take the mere falling down of stairs seriously again.

When she got her breath back, Jame propped herself up and looked around. She had come to rest against the wall of a huge cave. Light filtered into it through the vines curtaining its mouth. The shadowy, stalactite-fanged roof must have been a good two hundred feet up and it was nearly as wide side to side. Its floor, while undulating, gave the impression of having been cleared of all obstacles and trampled smooth.

A number of people had turned to witness her sudden descent. Their curiosity satisfied, they went back to work. Jame saw that she had fallen into a subterranean marketplace. As above, so below? Getting shakily to her feet, she limped over to the nearest stall where the merchant in charge handed her a tin of cold water.

“Dropping in on us, eh?”

Jame gratefully drained the cup. The water tasted strongly of iron. “Am I welcome?”

“So long as you don’t come to spy.”

Still collecting her wits, she inspected his wares. Very dingy they seemed—scraps of thin gray cloth, a vest, a codpiece.

“Woven only of the finest spider web,” he said proudly, “and you know how strong that is. One of these strips will stop an arrow.”

He named a price that made Jame blink. It seemed to be her day to meet armorers.

Besides his stall, she saw others selling such basic necessities as fuel and food, the latter rather dispirited, apparent rejects from the market above. Sprinkled among them were more wares native to the Undercliff: multicolored mushrooms, small rock formations apparently intended to be shrines, and water bottled from various subterranean pools. There were also sizable chunks of diamantine softly aglow, priced quite cheaply for such a valuable substance. The Undercliff seemed in general to cater as much to the Overcliff as to its own inhabitants.

The distorted echo of music reached them from farther back in the cave.

“Here they come,” said the dealer. “Happy Vediafest.”

Girls clad in yellow and black robes danced out of the shadow of towering stalagmites playing pipes. As they neared, Jame saw that each one was wreathed with similarly colored snakes, their tails knotted together behind the girls’ necks. Each also carried a long wand at the end of which, tethered with a leash, fluttered a bat. The snakes strained to reach it, coil and strike, coil and strike. When one succeeded, cymbals clashed and the girls cried out in triumph. Supplicants wriggled on the ground at their heels, apparently hoping to see their particular bat caught. Jame saw the bright clothes of Overcliffers and the sturdy cottons of farmers among the drab Undercliffers. Some had obvious injuries; others wore their suffering in their expressions or in the twist of their wasted bodies.

In their midst came a litter carried shoulder high on which sat the statue of a matronly woman festooned with stone serpents.

“Mother Vedia!” the stall holder called out to her as she passed. “Grant good health to me and mine!”

“I didn’t see anything like this above,” Jame said.

“You wouldn’t, not since King Kruin drove all the Old Ones Undercliff. Seems he didn’t want any rivals to his own godhood. Well, his loss, our gain.”

A girl with a bald, tattooed head darted through the celebrants and stopped the litter. The statue quivered. Its surface, laced with cracks and white dust, floated down as both woman and snakes stirred to life. She rose, knelt to listen to her petitioner, then signaled her bearers to set her down. While the dancers continued to thread back and forth between the booths, still singing, she and the girl hurried off. On impulse, Jame returned the tin cup to the merchant and followed them.

They climbed a chiseled stair and ducked into a side cave full of limestone columns with space enough between them for two dozen child-sized sleeping mats. The children themselves were clustered around an alcove at one end of the cave. Jame came up behind them to peer over their heads. In the alcove was a bed and on it lay a restive child with a blood-stained bandage wrapped around his head, supported by a lanky, ginger-haired young man, well endowed with pimples. The bald girl hovered nearby while the matron consulted with another young female, this one plump and blond, wearing a white tunic.

“I told you that my powers are limited Undercliff,” said the latter, with the hint of a child’s pout. “If Kroaky hadn’t been so insistent, I never would have come. Mother Vedia, can you do any good here?”

The matron rubbed a hand over her face, smearing the dust there into a network of wrinkles which the limestone had glossed over. In general, she looked older and more dumpy than she had before as a statue. The snakes slithered restlessly over her plump form, in and out of her loose clothing. Two snapped at each other until she absentmindedly slapped them apart.

“I should have been called sooner, say, when the boy first fell.”

“He seemed all right then,” the bald girl said truculently, revealing filed teeth as she spoke and snapping off her words. Jame recognized her accent from the Cataracts. A Waster, here? “Then he was drowsy and complained of a headache. That was a week ago. Now we can’t get him to rest.”

The boy struggled in the young man’s arms. “It hurts!” he whined.

Jame wondered if this was the unlicensed child-thief whom the guards had thrown down the drain.

Mother Vedia rested a hand on the boy’s head. Her fingers sank down through hair and skin to the bone beneath, which she felt.

“He’s lucky not to have split open his skull. As it is, he’s merely cracked it. Now, which one . . .” She fumbled among a collection of small bottles that hung clinking from her belt. The snakes selected one. “Ah, yes. I can at least make him sleep. Now, drink up, little man.”

The child tried to refuse, but the youth with ginger hair held his nose and ruthlessly poured the potion down his throat. Soon his thrashing quieted. The young man settled him back on the pallet, then raised hazel eyes to regard Jame over the intervening heads.

“And now, as for you . . .”

Jame found herself suddenly the focus of all eyes. The children scattered as the bald girl hurtled through them. Jame countered her charge with a water-flowing move that sent her stumbling among the columns. She came back with a knife in her hand.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“I’m not a spy, but I am looking for one—Graykin by name. Have you seen him?”

Ginger slipped between them. “Hush, Fang,” he said, in a nasal voice that Jame almost thought she recognized from sometime earlier that day. “Not everyone from above is an enemy. What is this man to you?” he asked Jame.

“A servant. If he imposed on your hospitality, I apologize for him. He can be . . . overzealous.”

“And who are you?”

“Many things. Call me the Talisman.”

The youth smiled, baring big, white teeth. “Well, then, call me Kroaky. Fang, my dear, he’s your catch. Will you surrender him?”

The Waster glowered. “Don’t call me ‘dear.’ Anyway, should we trust an Overcliffer?”

“She apparently trusts us.” He indicated the ragged band of urchins who had spread out around Jame and were watching her closely. “Will you fight these, Talisman?”

“Not willingly. They look too fierce.”

The children nudged each other and giggled.

Fang reluctantly sheathed her knife. “Well, all right. He’s more trouble than he’s worth, anyway.”

She led Jame to the back of the cave and a hole in the floor, extending down into a bottle-necked cavity. Firelight glistened on water on its floor. The pit appeared empty, until a white face turned to peer up from the depths.


“Lady?” His voice echoed hollowly. “At last! Get me out of here!”

“Are you sure you want him?” asked Kroaky.

Jame sighed. “No, but he’s my responsibility.”

A coiled rope lay nearby, fixed at one end to a rock formation. Kroaky kicked it down the hole. The line went taut. Scrabbling and cursing came from below, then a thin, grimy hand groped over the stone lip. Jame seized it by the wrist and helped a scruffy figure to climb out.

Graykin shook out his wet robe, looking furious. “Days I’ve been up to my knees in that stinking water, pelted with stale bread. Didn’t you hear me yelling for you?”

“Not really,” said Jame apologetically. “I gathered that you were annoyed, nothing worse.”

“Huh! Why did you chuck me down there anyway?” he demanded of Kroaky.

“I didn’t. Fang did. She doesn’t like spies—and none of your Intelligencer’s tricks: they don’t work down here, as you may have realized.”

“Why did you go Undercliff?” Jame asked as they made their way back to the ladder leading to the Overcliff.

Receiving no immediate answer, she glanced back at Graykin who trudged mulishly at her heels.

“You told me to find out all I could about Kothifir.”

“Well, yes. I didn’t expect you to get quite so . . . er . . . immersed, though.”

He stopped and stomped. His boots squished. “No matter what I do, you only laugh at me! Well, I’ve found out more than you think. For example, I bet you didn’t know that that girl in a white tunic was Lady Professionate.”

Jame stared at him. “The blonde? Why, she couldn’t be more than thirteen years old!”

Graykin smirked. “You don’t know anything about the guild lords, do you? While they’re in office, they don’t age.”

“And they can’t be killed,” added Jame, remembering Lord Artifice’s declaration.

“Yes,” Graykin admitted, a little huffily. “That too. The thing is that Lady P has made it through every Change for at least fifteen years, and Lord Merchandy for three times that at least.”

“Now you interest me. What exactly is this mysterious Change?”

Graykin paused to wring out his dripping hem, over which he had been tripping, revealing a dirty white sash around his waist.

“I’m still investigating that. One happened soon after I first got here. Suddenly the guild lords and masters lost all of their powers, not to mention the king. It was crazy. People didn’t know what to do. No one seemed accountable to anyone. Can you imagine what it’s like in a rigidly structured society when that structure is ripped out of it? Suddenly—oh, horrors—everyone is equal. The Overcliff was like a ship without a rudder, less so the Undercliff from what I hear, which is another reason why I came down here to look around.”

Jame wondered if the Kencyrath would go to pieces like that without its god. Would the Highborn have enough innate power to hold everything together? Now, there was an unsettling thought. Yet hadn’t she often wished that the Kendar were free of their compulsion to be bound to the Highborn? If that ever happened, though, what would they do with themselves?

“And then?” she asked Graykin.

“People got tired of the disorder and began to reorganize. Former grandmasters and lords started politicking for supporters, but as far as I can see, that seldom works. The most unlikely people can suddenly find themselves elevated to lord- or mastership. Take Lady Professionate. She was only a doctor’s servant when the white came to her, not that she hasn’t learned a lot since then, never mind that she still looks like a child. And the more Changes she and Lord Merchandy survive, the more people believe in them. Lord Artifice is less secure.”

So, thought Jame, they were Kothifir’s equivalent of Tai-tastigon’s New Pantheon gods, but less stable because the Kencyr temple that gave them power was too.

“How often do these Changes occur?”

“I’m told that they used to happen every decade or so, but recently much more frequently.”

That in turn suggested that the temple was growing less stable. Perhaps that was what Torisen had meant when he had called Kothifir especially dangerous just now. While he and Jame had talked more freely in those last days at Gothregor than in the past two years, some things had remained unsaid on both sides.

She also sensed that Graykin wasn’t telling her all he knew, so she didn’t share her musings with him.

He looked up with a sudden glint in his eyes. “How were you received in the Host’s camp?”

“Rather stiffly. I seem to make people nervous.”

The spy snickered. “I’m not surprised. As Knorth Lordan you’re supposed to lead the Southern Host.”

“Sweet Trinity. No wonder Harn has been so on edge around me. He needn’t worry, though: I’m not likely to claim the post.”

“You aren’t?” Clearly, Graykin had been looking forward to her ascension. As her servant, it didn’t suit his pride at all that she shouldn’t claim all the honors due to her. “But it’s yours!”

“I’m just a second-year cadet, without the proper training. Besides, I don’t want it. All that administrative work . . . ugh.”

Still, she had to think of a way to get Harn over this awkwardness, knowing how much her brother depended on the big Kendar. As for Graykin’s secrets . . .

“We’ll talk again. Soon.”

And she led the way back to the ladder.

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