The photos for this walk are posted on my other blog: Nick's Wicked Walks
Sunday, 24 June 2012
The fourth and final subplot sees events in Marka through to their conclusion. Will Marcus actually get his throne?
Zenepha stared out of the window and sighed. Despite everything, he felt troubled.
Eldova's siege had been broken and the enemy forced to return home. The threat from Re Taura had abated, with the old mametain restored, the usurper dead and his army, if not quite disbanded, at least vastly reduced in size.
Lands bent knee to his rule, submitting once again to Marka's suzerainty, if not her direct rule. The Shadow Riders had returned and reaffirmed their vows; two gwerins who remembered the last Markan Empire had returned and bent knee, with a third almost two years old and already beginning her schooling.
But Zenepha was troubled. Despite his successes, he felt like a pretender, as if he lived a lie. He was a sylph, bred into slavery, chattel to Marka's Supreme Councilor... His earpoints twitched. Nothing could be done about his birth and past, but no collar had graced his neck for almost two years. He still missed it. No matter what anybody said, he was...
Only he was not. He squeezed his silver-gray eyes shut. As his previous owner had pointed out to the Senate, nobody knew whether Zenepha had been born into slavery or not. The sylph had always believed all sylphs were born as property, until wild sylphs had showed up and given lie to his belief.
But not even he knew his early history. A vague memory of a gentle touch that he wanted to believe came from his mother, and a strange tattoo of many black lines that permanently marked the inside of his left biceps, were all left to him from his early days.
Somebody had stolen his memories and he felt his anger rise as he considered it. More than anything else, he wanted his early life back. Did he have a family? Did they miss him? Zenepha ached for the knowledge to plug the gaps in his mind.
As Emperor, he wanted to command the return of his memories. Still unable to believe it, he whispered the mantra.
"By Siranva’s Wrath: Emperor of Marka, Dominator of the World, Guardian of the Key, Commander of the Shadow Riders, Lord Protector of Gwerins; His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Zenepha."
Opening his eyes, he blinked a couple of times and felt no different. He still lived the lie.
Oh, he understood what had happened. There were many claimants to the throne, but only the two with the strongest claims had been invited to Marka. They met, fought, and one captured the other. A clear choice.
Except that someone else decided the defeated claimant was now an encumbrance and murdered him, triggering events that led to claims being suspended and an unwilling sylph thrust onto the throne of the most powerful land in the known world.
Trickery had been involved of course, not least of all to himself. His old life had been quite comfortable, with a good owner and a loving wife, but he knew he could never return to that now. Come what may, that old and familiar life existed only in the past.
He missed it.
"I am a sylph," he muttered, as if to remind himself.
That humans had allowed his coronation still amazed him. Had his previous owner planned to make Marka a laughing stock?
But if anybody still laughed, it happened quietly and in private.
Zenepha knew he should have done things very differently, had he really wanted to be removed from this unwelcome position. But no, he'd played along.
His values and loyalties transferred from his owner to his country. He served Marka with the same diligence as he had Olista. He no longer belonged to one man, but to an entire nation and it was his duty to serve them.
Then the siege cemented his position.
He had done nothing more than being the figurehead. Yet people cheered him in the streets afterwards, soldiers cheered whenever he came close. Everybody pretended that they couldn't see blue skin, or silver hair, or earpoints, or anything else that marked him out as not being human.
They pretended they had a real human as emperor.
Which they had not, of course.
Sylphs regarded him with awe. Elevating him to something more than he deserved, they treated him almost as a god and all but worshiped the very ground he walked on. Wild sylphs, freed by Marcus Vintner, held him up as an example of what sylphs could achieve without human overlordship. Civilized sylphs just believed him an exception, yet argued among themselves whether or not they should continue wearing collars.
Both groups of sylphs believed he stood with them.
But he did not. The simple truth was that he stood completely, utterly alone.
Despite what people believed, despite what they wanted, it had begun to unravel last year.
His staunchest supporter, Marshal Mikhan, had advised him to guard against Re Taura. Marcus's general had advised him to concentrate on the Eldovans. Zenepha had taken Mikhan's advice which, even if not precisely wrong, had not proved to best serve Marka's best interests, and for the reasons Kelanus had so eloquently pointed out.
Everybody now knew that Re Taura really had planned to invade, but Zenepha now understood that island country could never occupy a continent, could never force its way to a land-locked city, take it and, most importantly, hold it.
Those who had originally sited Marka had chosen their ground well.
Until the winter, he had believed that the senior people from Sandester, from Branad Vintner's lands, actively supported him because they believed his rule was for the best. They had ultimately shown themselves to be self-serving. Gone now, all bar one (Branad's son, Verdin, who had proved himself very loyal), recalled to Sandester.
Trouble would come from that province, even if Zenepha had been assured that nothing would happen while he held the Throne.
And on the other hand, stood Marcus Vintner. Despite his name, Marcus was barely related to the Sandesteran Vintners, a cousin so many times removed that it was impossible to say they were even the same family.
Marcus had proved loyal, up to a point, but his hunger for the throne had not lessened one whit. His wife, Zandra, had most of the guilds in her apron and Zenepha realized that the Calcanese waited for a slip, with no intention of catching him when it happened.
And they were right.
The Re Taura business was a serious blunder, sold to the citizens as a successful foray, instead of a lucky break. But Marcus Vinter's people had carried the day there.
Marcus Vintner's people (if not the man himself) had warned the emperor that Eldovans were the biggest threat. Marcus Vintner's people who defeated and put the Eldovans to flight. And Marcus Vintner's people had now gone to Eldova to finish the job.
The people might still look to their emperor because he was the emperor, but High Councilors and Senators alike could see Marcus Vintner and his contacts who decided almost everything now.
Zenepha gave a sylph's slow blink as he stared out of the window.
Only a question of time.
Except that Marcus Vintner was still unpopular with the Senate.
"Good morning, Majesty."
Zenepha turned on his heel and only just managed to stop himself from inclining his head. The creature stood before him was far older, and infinitely wiser than he could ever hope for.
"Good morning, Samrita," he replied.
Most people and a few sylphs thought Samrita a human at first glance, until they saw her earpoints and cat-slit pupils of her hazel eyes. Both things showed a sylph connection, though there similarities ended. Zenepha would never understand how sylphs could produce gwerins, throwbacks to some human inheritance everybody had forgotten about.
Gwerins were also highly intelligent and valued as advisors. He had two.
The second of those gwerins slipped shyly into the room behind Samrita.
Silmarila was not shy, but she instinctively deferred to Samrita, something to do with her being the more experienced. Samrita had served Emperor Kylist, great-great-grandfather to Emperor Rono. And Rono was centuries dead, buried in the ashes of the second Markan Empire.
"Good morning, Majesty." Both gwerins spoke together and dropped into a curtsey. It would be the only one he received today. He might get called "Majesty" a few times more though. For some reason, the gwerins didn't see him as a sylph, either.
"Nata should be here soon with sweetbread and fresh water," he promised.
Samrita laughed. "We will have plenty to eat, I also sent Nynra to bring the same to us."
Zenepha smiled. "Let's sit," he suggested.
Their conversation stayed light. Weather, crop planting, the timber harvest. They had little to say while waiting for their refreshment.
Nata, perhaps thanks to greater experience, arrived first. She set her tray on the table between the three of them, and curtsied.
"Thank you, Nata." Zenepha smiled.
The small infertile's earpoints twitched, she mumbled something barely audible, and fled. Zenepha sighed.
"We were friends, once," he said. "On my free day, I always brought her some bread. When I became emperor, I brought her here."
The gwerins exchanged a look. "An act of kindness," said Silmarila, who already knew Nata's history.
"I applaud," added Samrita. She cocked her head and all three heard the sound of ankle bells, growing stronger. "Ah! Nynra."
A moment later, the door opened again. Even now, months after her arrival in Marka with the Shadow Riders, Nynra still startled Zenepha.
This infertile came from the far north, where sylphs had adapted. Skin so pale it was almost colorless, with only a hint of blue. Her eyes and hair were almost white, rather than silver, giving her a somewhat startling appearance to the uninitiated. Many in the palace believed Nynra to be some sort of phantom. The other sylphs - and not just infertiles - regarded her with awe, and even humans showed her more respect than they might to other sylphs.
More importantly, Nynra wore no collar. Both Silmarila and Samrita wore collars, made from red gold and encrusted with precious stones. Nynra had adopted the Markan custom of ankle bells for sylphs, but refused to wear a collar. She hailed from Kelthane, where even sylphs were free.
Yet she served. Both Nynra and Samrita feared that the free could not serve a slave, but nobody had ever questioned the arrangement. Zenepha happily left things as they were; at least one other civilized sylph in Marka did not wear a collar.
Unlike other servants, Nynra made no move to leave, and Samrita made no move to dismiss her. Now refreshments were served, the gwerins came straight to business.
"Mansard's elevation to Marshal has met with surprising approval," said Silmarila, her dark-brown eyes calm. "With him being Marcus's man, I feared the Senate might not approve."
"Captain Crallin turned it down," said Zenepha. "And Lance-General Kestan has had to take command in the field as Kelanus has gone west. That narrowed the list of candidates."
"Just so," said Samrita. "And a reward for Mansard after being pushed aside by the Shadow Riders."
Zenepha grimaced. Until the previous autumn, Mansard had commanded the emperor's personal guard. The Shadow Riders' return had rendered that personal guard redundant, and Fared had long since replaced Mansard.
"With all the Sandesterans returned home, we have little choice," he remarked.
"Very true," agreed Samrita. "Trouble lies ahead from Sandester, I fear."
"Indeed." This was the crux of Zenepha's dilemma. He could renounce the throne in Marcus Vintner's favor, but that might spark rebellion in Sandester.
"They might settle for independence," added Silmarila, who had taken time to study Sandester and knew a lot more than Samrita about this subject. "Bringing them back under the eagle will be Marcus's problem."
"But not a good start to his reign," pointed out Samrita, a little testily. "He ascends the throne and is immediately faced with revolt."
"If he has any sense, he'll leave them to it," countered Silmarila. The gwerin had enjoyed several long talks with Kelanus about military tactics and strategy, eagerly absorbing her lessons. She wanted no repeats of past mistakes. "Whatever Nazvasta decides to do, the rightful heir is loyal to the throne. Verdin is the key to pacifying Sandester. And that will - would - be my advice to Marcus should he ascend the Throne."
"The boy." Samrita sounded quite unsure of Verdin. "Young. Eager. Dangerous."
"All young men are dangerous," retorted Silmarila. "This is why we guide them."
"If they listen."
Silmarila fell silent. She knew the truth of that too well. Despite the passage of centuries, she could not forget the pain.
"Verdin could plunge Sandester into civil war," continued Samrita. "His father renounced the claim and Verdin respects that decision. Nazvasta argues on a technicality that his brother's renunciation does not include him. He is not a descendant."
Silmarila sniffed. "A younger sibling," she said. "An interesting point in law."
"We have no law to cover this eventuality." Samrita's voice was gentle.
Zenepha marveled. Humans would probably come to strong words and shouting matches while disagreeing, but these two gwerins barely raised their voices.
"Other than the law of inheritance." Silmarila smiled.
Zenepha nodded. "But it does not specifically state that younger siblings are descendants," he said. "Only that they can inherit."
Nynra stared at him with her too-white eyes.
Samrita laughed. "I forget that your former owner made you read those books."
Silmarila's smile was at best polite. "Just so. But how can a younger sibling inherit a renounced claim?"
"A very fine point in law," said Samrita.
"But a valid one."
Samrita grimaced. "For it to be valid, we need a judgment first. Trouble is, I doubt if Nazvasta would recognize any ruling from Marka not in his favor."
"Assuming that such a ruling was not," added Zenepha. "A very high-risk strategy to seek one out."
Nynra spoke up. "But why bother? Your Majesty may reign for many years yet."
Everybody stared at the infertile. Even Zenepha had almost forgotten she was still in the room.
The male sylph forced a smile. "Yes," he replied, vaguely, "I may." He tried to avoid the gwerins' combined gaze.
"We certainly hope so," said Silmarila, after a long pause. "But you must remember that our duty is to advise the emperor, whoever that might be."
Zenepha gave her a sylph's slow blink. He hoped he heard no threat in those words.
Zandra smiled at the two ladies in her sitting room. She lifted the alovak can and raised an eyebrow. One of the palace sylphs had brought it a few minutes earlier, offered to stay and pour, but had been dismissed.
Hulen Shayler, head of the Mercers' Guild immediately nodded and her companion, Tamsin Mochna, senior wife to Supreme Councilor Olista, gave a verbal reply.
"No Jenn?" asked Hulen.
Zandra finished pouring and smiled. "Jenn is with Marcus. When he is free, she is never far from his side."
"A good, loyal sylph," added Tamsin, her graying brunette hair swaying as she nodded in approval.
"Sometimes too loyal," added Zandra.
Her companions laughed and Zandra laughed with them. Of all her network in Marka, she trusted these two ladies most of all. Olista and, hence Tamsin, wanted to see Marcus on Marka's throne and had worked to that end from the beginning. Hulen had ambitions, lusting after the President's Chair of all the guilds and believed - correctly - that Zandra offered her best route towards realizing that goal.
"Had I known, I might have brought Ylena," said Tamsin. "She's got used to being a personal sylph now."
"I'm sure your sylph is enjoying her free time at your villa." Zandra smiled. "Besides, it's better for our discussions to remain private. To some ears, our words are treason."
"True." Tamsin nodded. "But Ylena has been with us for many years."
"As a general domestic slave," said Hulen. "With respect, but she is getting a little old for such a large change in role."
Tamsin grunted. "Both Olista and myself are getting a little old for buying new sylphs. They will still have many years of life ahead of them when we are dead. I rest that is a greater unfairness than the temporary strain of a job change. Sylphs, especially infertiles, find changes in ownership distressing."
"I trust Emperor Zenepha is not too stressed when his job changes," said Zandra. "He has been very quiet of late."
Hulen and Tamsin nodded together.
"He felt last year's events showed an error of judgment," said Hulen.
"He fears the people are losing respect, that soon they will grow restless and demand a proper emperor," said Tamsin.
"But who?" asked Zandra.
"Well, he had the sense to replace the Sandesterans with your husband's people," pointed out Tamsin, "so he must favor Marcus over any other claimant. And if he abdicates, he can choose his successor."
"The word is that he cannot have children," said Hulen. "No future claimant from his seed. I also believe he will choose Marcus to succeed him. And I do not say this because of your hospitality."
"I respect your candor," replied Zandra, "and am gratified you both think this way. Has Olista ever mentioned a potential abdication?"
Tamsin pulled air in over her teeth. "We had hoped that the boy would prove rather more malleable once the Sandesterans were gone, but Zenepha's found his feet now and is quite comfortable with power. He certainly feels no need for any hand-holding from us." She grimaced. "I don't think he's forgiven Olista for his manumission."
"Strange creature," smiled Hulen. "He has helped fuel the debate."
"Some debate," said Tamsin.
"I agree," said Zandra. "It seems to me that the wild sylphs are begging the city sylphs to reject their collars because so many of their own wonder about taking one."
"Surely not," murmured Tamsin.
"How many city sylphs have asked for manumission?" asked Zandra, quietly. "A few of the scouts have discussed it, but even the most vociferous has not dared take the actual step. I fear Zenepha very much remains an exception."
"And he did not ask for his manumission," said Hulen.
"On the other hand, lots of the wild sylphs, and not just their infertiles, appear quite confused on the issue," continued Zandra. "Some of the scouts have won hearts among the Free Tribe. Sandev was quite surprised when one begged for a collar, which she refused to grant."
Hulen nodded. "A girl who has gone for her scout?"
"Janin." Zandra smiled. "Sandev has given her blessing to a union, but she won't enslave a wild sylph."
"Janin used to be a beggar." Tamsin's blue-green eyes sparkled. "I doubt if he will ask for manumission."
"Two generations, possibly three, and the so-called 'Free' Tribe will all be in collars," said Zandra. "Choosing Kestan as leader was but a first step along the road of domestication."
Tamsin laughed. "Sandev has become something of a sylph collector over the past year or so. Hasn't she brought some Eldovan infertile home with her?"
"Something like that yes," said Hulen.
Zandra said nothing. Whatever Sandev got up to was none of her business; all she cared about was that Sandev did not stand in her way when the time came to put Marcus on the throne.
"I'm concerned what the gwerins are teaching Salafisa," she said.
Tamsin and Hulen stared at her for a long moment. Clearly they had forgotten one of Marcus's sylphs had birthed a gwerin.
Tamsin recovered first. "They will teach her loyalty to the throne. It is a gwerin's task to advise whoever sits on that throne."
"Will they advise Zenepha to abdicate?" asked Zandra.
"Not immediately," replied Tamsin. "But neither will they stand in his way if he decides to take that route. After all, Marcus is hardly a monster and he does at least have a legitimate claim to the throne. Unlike Zenepha."
Zandra leaned forward. "Then we must make plans to encourage the sylph to step down," she said. A smile blossomed. "More alovak?"
Kaira slipped happily through the crowds.
Now that the late spring wind had dropped, the sun warmed Marka. Blue skies, calm weather and increasing warmth all helped buoy Kaira's mood. Life was rarely so good.
Governess to the Vintner's children for the past five years, she had long since resigned herself to living in Marka, rather than Calcan. She had known the Vintners were headed to Marka before she took the job.
A job she loved.
Born to a middling-successful trader twenty-four years before, she was the youngest of seven daughters and five sons. Older siblings had previously owned all her clothes while growing up, but she was otherwise treated no differently.
Raised to respect certain standards and educated to the best of her ability, her parents were overjoyed when she won her place with the Vintners. Alone of all her siblings, she would choose her own husband, rather than having a continuous parade of eligible boys suggested by her mother.
And, since arriving in Marka, she had found a boy.
He was the same age and worked in the main library. Unlike the library in Calcan, the mostly old men who looked after the books and records in Marka guarded their charges like over-protective bears. Books could be read, but not removed. With few exceptions.
Not that many people came to the library. Kaira was there when Silmarila had come to reclaim her books and raised voices had echoed around the huge vaulted chamber of the main reading room.
The gwerin had eventually won the argument, but apparently only after Zenepha had issued an edict and Silmarila returned with purple-cloaked guardsmen.
Basren had found the entire episode funny and had regaled her with the story at their first meeting.
Kaira found Basren funny and had liked the slim young man from the first moment they met at the library. She was headed for the library now, and hoped for a long chat with him before she returned to her duties at the palace.
She dodged an urchin running as fast as he could from a stallholder with a stick, turned a corner, and the library was before her.
She would never understand why she was so nervous before meeting Basren; even knowing he felt the same way made it no better.
As Kaira mounted the steps to the studded oak doors, calm yet pitiless eyes watched her every move.
"Zenepha is wavering, which is no good for the city."
Marcus Vintner, claimant to the Markan Throne, pushed dark-brown hair away from his eyes.
Sandev regarded him. "Zenepha receives the very best advice," she replied carefully. "He will step aside when the time is right. Everybody knows he is only a caretaker. That was clear from before his coronation."
Marcus glanced into his empty alovak mug. "The Senate is still wavering."
Sandev must remember that this man was no fool. And his wife Zandra caught everything he missed from Marka's political pulse.
"You are popular in the city," replied Sandev. "The Supreme Council want you on the throne, the guilds are prepared to support you once Zenepha steps aside and even the Imhotep is ready to see you in your rightful place."
Marcus forced a smile. "My victory is assured if even the Imhotep is on my side."
"Though you must realize that he pretty much respects whatever Djerana has to say on the subject."
"Djerana, yes." Marcus shook his head. "Ilven do not usually hold so much power over human decisions."
Sandev laughed. "I think Djerana would be horrified if she knew. Sadly, the Imhotep is obsessed with our resident ilven; thankfully that is not reciprocated. You are empty."
Marcus began to raise a hand to say he needed no more alovak, but Sandev had already turned.
"More alovak please, Caya."
The sylph stood slightly to one side inclined her head. "At once, anya."
Sandev sighed when the sylph had gone. "She has hardly left my sight since my return."
Marcus glanced at the door and subconsciously ruffled Jenn's hair. "She missed you."
"I know. She's not exactly climbed into bed with me, but she sleeps immediately outside my door. She's worse than an infertile, now." Sandev peered across the table. "No insult intended, Jenn."
Marcus's own sylph smiled, but she gave no reply, awed by the woman's great age, if not her power.
"She even stays in the room when I use the Gift," continued Sandev.
"Rare in a sylph, that," remarked Marcus.
"Non-existent, in fact," replied Sandev. "Until now."
The clepsydra chose that moment to gurgle, which brought Jenn wide-eyed to her feet, earpoints slanted sharply forward. Marcus patted her arm absently and the infertile soon returned to her cross-legged position on the floor.
Sandev noted the speed of the sylph's reaction, but said nothing.
"Zenepha," said Marcus. He glanced at the shelves of books rising behind the desk at one side of the room. He was received in the study because the main living room was being redecorated. Even so, this was a comfortable room.
"He won't go until he's ready." Sandev shrugged. "We never realized how seriously he would take his duties."
"The gwerins have taken to him."
"It's the gwerins' task to serve the throne," replied Sandev. "No matter who sits there. And before you complain about that again, remember that you do have considerable influence with them."
Marcus nodded. "Thanks to Eleka."
Sandev smiled. "Thanks to Belaika too; it was perhaps unwise to let him out of the city."
"Belaika begged to go; he has reasons of his own." Marcus was not about to tell Sandev why.
Belaika and Eleka were Salafisa's parents and all gwerins afforded sylphs who produced a gwerin the same respect they gave their own parents. Gwerins lived long compared to sylphs; the pair who belonged to the Markan Throne behaved like children towards Eleka.
"Then you must use the available tools," said Sandev. "Eleka can increase your influence over Samrita and Silmarila."
"A strange weakness in gwerins." Marcus smiled.
Sandev shrugged. "Exploit it then. But remember that the weakness is there, in case another sylph produces a gwerin."
"How common is it?"
"Not likely in Marka," replied Sandev. "But someone else might have a gwerin and her parents out there somewhere."
She had the answer, but was not about to enlighten him; such replies usually raised even more questions, concerning how she came by her information. Besides, her sources were thousands of years old and sylphs might have adapted since then.
"Then I'd better take Eleka to the next meeting." Marcus smiled and looked down at his infertile. "Hope you understand, Jenn."
"You might take both of us, enya," replied the infertile.
The door opened and Caya came through, carrying a tray. She set it down and stood back, waiting for the alovak to brew a little more.
Sandev looked at Jenn and suddenly found her unwavering silver stare unsettling. He abandons me too much now, it seemed to say, do not make my task harder than it is already. She blinked and almost asked aloud what task Jenn already found difficult. This was foolish, Jenn was just an infertile. But it was not the sylph who averted her eyes first.
A moment later and Jenn was just Jenn again, an amiable infertile who liked to stay close to her owner. One who thought of little beyond her immediate task and when she might be petted again.
Sandev covered coming second in the battle of the eyes by turning to Marcus.
"Alovak?" she asked.
Nedilen walked towards the gates, staff tapping on the ground, green hood of his yellowflax cloak pushed back from his head.
His earpoints, freed from the constraints of the hood, twitched forward in curiosity. He had seen towns on his travels, but none so grand as this city. Buildings loomed over the patrolled walls and he shivered as a primeval instinct warned him to stay away.
And he pretended he could not see the huge black pyramid, stretching to the clouds. How could humans build such things?
But he must press forward. He had waited three years for this moment.
Nobody paid him much attention and travelers were much more tolerant of his presence than he had expected. Many gave him surprised glances, perhaps wondering why he wasn't with a human, until they saw his uncollared neck.
Other sylphs were the worst: they stared as if he had grown an extra head or something. They usually watched warily, and often fear shone in their silver-gray eyes, but none ignored him. For his own part, his gaze slid away from collars.
How could they bear the things? Yet these sylphs seemed to wear them with pride. Nedilen would never understand.
Nearly at the gates now; two guards stood in the portal, nodding people through after a cursory glance. Would they let him in?
He warranted no more than a quick glance. Not even challenged. He paused and the guards, one with brown eyes and the other with blue, looked back at him.
Nedilen decided the one with gentle brown eyes was probably the more intelligent of the pair.
"Do you sing my tongue?" he asked.
"He can't even sing in his own tongue," replied the blue-eyed guard, speaking in what was probably fluent sylph.
Nedilen should have guessed the dialect would be different here. His attention switched to the sylph-speaking guard.
"I look for my son," said Nedilen. "He was taken and I think he is here."
"This is a large city." The sylph-speaker shrugged. "Is there a name? There are certainly wild sylphs here."
Nedilen's heart leapt. Wild sylphs would not be in Marka unless forced. "His name is Tilipha."
The guards were suddenly wary and exchanged looks. Even the one with brown eyes recognized the name! This father's hope strengthened.
The blue-eyed guard nodded towards a door. "Go through there and ask for Janin. He should be able to help."
The sylph nodded thanks and pushed the door open.
Another guard sat behind a desk, checking paperwork. The mysterious gift of reading, Nedilen supposed. The room smelled of human and paint. He sniffed the air carefully. Could he also smell sinabra?
The guard lifted his head and burbled something quickly in his strange language.
"I look for Janin," he said.
A new voice came from behind him. "That's me."
Nedilen spun on his heel and blinked.
To judge from the silver-gray eyes and long earpoints, the apparition was a sylph. The creature's hair and skin were painted gray, green and brown, and vivid black slashes crossed face and chest. There was no hint of blue skin anywhere. The paint smell almost masked the natural sylph odor, or sinabra.
Nedilen's gaze flinched away from the leather collar.
"I am Janin," said the strange sylph, speaking slowly.
"The guards sent me here. I look for my son and they said you can help. His name is Tilipha."
Janin smiled. "Can do better than that," he replied. "I will take you to him."
Renewed hope flared stronger.
He would see his son again.
The third subplot concentrates on events in Sandester:
Plots and Plans
Plots and Plans
Nazvasta Ulvic Vintner, younger brother of the late Branad Ulvic Vintner and once claimant to the vacant Markan Throne, looked around his study and nodded in satisfaction. The smell of old books mixed with the equally pleasant smell of wood polish. He looked at the two servants and smiled.
"Gena and Yeran, an excellent job as always."
Both servants bobbed their heads and gave a small curtsy.
"Back to the palace with you and remember, that if anybody asks, you've been-"
"Tidying the yard," Gena completed for him, while Yeran hid a giggle with a hand.
Nazvasta smiled. He doubted if the two girls - he still thought of them as girls, though Gena had almost as many years as he - were half as discreet as they claimed, but both were as good as illiterate, so could pass on none of his secrets. Once one servant knew a thing, all did.
He watched them leave by the old service tunnel, used by his grandfather to reach the observatory without leaving the comfort of the palace. Staflan had liked his comforts. Many had forgotten the tunnel even existed, so few ever bothered to come here. And now Staflan's grandson used the place as his study.
Morran Barr Fynn - Nazvasta's opposite number in Marka - had tried many times to infiltrate this room, but every one of his spies had been uncovered and either sent home, or given unpleasant duties elsewhere.
He had thought of acquiring a couple of sylphs for cleaning his study. The creatures were loyal, as well as intelligent, companionable and very discreet. He considered it again for a few moments, remembered that he disliked sylphs' natural odor, and dismissed the idea again.
The main room of the observatory - he had installed a false ceiling to trap most warmth, essential for his books in winter - formed his study. Or, as he liked to call it, his library. Rows of books lined every wall bar one, shelved as high as he could reach. Two reading desks, three chairs and eight light-crystals completed the furniture.
The unshelved wall boasted an impressive fireplace he could walk into, the stone surround carved into every animal the sculptor's imagination could remember. Above that the only decoration in the room: a lone painting of a ship battering her way through heavy seas.
Even though the servants had gone, he was not alone.
"Recalling everybody from Marka may prove a strategic blunder," said his companion. Fareen-y-Vintner was Nazvasta's gwerin advisor. "You have warned Marcus you intend to move against him."
Nazvasta regarded the gwerin. "A little late to concern yourself about that now?" He raised an eyebrow. "Besides, we need our people here once the inevitable happens."
Fareen's pale-brown eyes glittered. Even in this light, the cat-slit pupils could be seen, betraying her sylph heritage. Her earpoints twitched. "Zenepha will fall," she said. "And Marcus is best placed to replace him."
"Our plan failed. Thanks to a sylph."
Fareen managed a small smile. "Better the invasion from Re Taura was stopped, no matter how politically complicated the result has turned out for us. Zenepha's position has been considerably weakened."
"At least the questioning of our people as they return yields some results."
Fareen nodded. "Some surprising results. Will you set up a school?"
Nazvasta grimaced. Many of the officers and men who had served temporarily under Marcus Vintner spoke highly both of his rival and the sylphs he employed as scouts and messengers.
"Tempting," he answered. "But the struggle might be over quickly, and we will have Marcus Vintner's school."
Fareen stroked her chin. "Short-sighted," she murmured. "The struggle might not be over quickly."
"True," admitted Nazvasta, "but the worst that can happen is Marcus attacking us full on. He will either win or lose. Either way, there is only need for one scout training school."
Fareen shook her head, eyes solemn. "The worst that will happen is that Marcus decides to ignore us," she said. She changed the subject, though she would return to it at another time. She dared not tell him that she had already authorized Mikhan to establish a sylph scout school and training had already produced some promising young scouts.
"There is something else you have forgotten."
"You have a gwerin advisor." Fareen smiled. "But Marcus has two. Or will have, when Zenepha falls."
Captain Indelgar Manin da Saar leaned back in his chair and rested his hands on the back of his head. His companion sipped at a dark drink.
"Is anything wrong with your alovak?" asked the questioner.
"Of course not, just waiting for it to cool a little," replied Indelgar. He had nothing against the questioner as such, but the man's line of work left an unpleasant taste in his mouth. Not that Indelgar had been put through a full interrogation, but persistent and thorough questioning made him feel like a suspect.
"Tell me about the scouts," prompted the questioner. "Many of your colleagues spoke highly of the sylphs Marcus uses instead of soldiers. Very good, a few say they are."
Indelgar snorted. "Better than that. They are excellent. We knew within hours in Marka what went on hundreds of milas away."
"They do seem very impressive." The questioner smiled. "And they communicate by whistles that, ah, humans cannot hear."
"That pretty much sums it up."
"Why can we not hear them?"
"No idea," replied Indelgar. "But they can. Their information is second to none and a commander is kept informed right up until the moment he commits to battle." He forced a smile. "Are we getting some?"
"Perhaps," replied the questioner, before changing the subject. "Right, so after serving with Lance-General Kestan, you ended up as second to Commandant Treylfor."
"Yes." Indelgar leaned forward for his alovak.
"What did you think of the Cadisterans, both men and their commander?"
Indelgar's green eyes flashed and he sipped his alovak before answering. "You expect me to talk about these men as if they are enemies. They are my friends!"
The questioner smiled indulgently. "Captain Indelgar," he said, as if addressing a recalcitrant child, "yesterday's friend can become tomorrow's enemy in the blink of an eye. We do not seek to harm Cadister or any of your other so-called friends, but they might seek to harm us."
"Why?" Indelgar shrugged. "We are all part of the Markan Empire now."
Again, that condescending smile. "Perhaps we are. But it is better to be prepared. Now, the Cadisterans, please."
Indelgar shook his head, but acquiesced. "Independent minded but tough fighters. They first came to Marka with little experience, but showed themselves to be quick learners and very, very adaptable. They adopt new tactics very quickly, without forgetting the old. Adaptable and flexible, treat enemies with a healthy respect rather than contempt, and they are well led."
"But a small officer corps," pointed out the questioner.
"A highly efficient officer corps," countered Indelgar, before taking more alovak. "Recruited on merit and not birth. Many are former private soldiers. They rely more on sergeants than young, highborn officers."
"I seem to recall you are not from a poor family." The questioner's eyes betrayed inner laughter as he spoke.
"Only way I could become an officer here," retorted Indelgar. "Whatever you think of my wealth, at least my advancement since has been by merit."
The questioner inclined his head. "Granted. You are highly commended and His Majesty has spoken of you."
A frown furrowed Indelgar's brow. "This is the part I don't understand," he complained. "Who is His Majesty? Verdin refused to return home and says that his father's renunciation stands."
The questioner looked surprised. "Nazvasta Ulvic Vintner is His Majesty," he replied. "Or will be once the sylph in Marka steps aside. Times have changed. We cannot let Marcus Vintner take the throne and, if he does, we must remove him."
Indelgar gaped. It seemed that a war he believed to be over had instead only just begun. "There is something else I'd like to know," he said.
The questioner paused. "Ask," he said.
"What is your name?"
The questioner's condescending smile returned. "It is a requirement of our service that we do not share names with those we interrogate," he replied.
Indelgar leaned back. "So you can hide behind anonymity," he remarked. "Many would see that as cowardice." Siranva, but he hated this wordplay! Unlike his father, he had always avoided politics, considering it a dangerous profession. But it seemed that politics had snared everybody from Sandester who had marched under Marcus.
"They are not my rules, Captain Indelgar," protested the questioner.
Indelgar leaned forward to drain his alovak. "It strikes me that the man who now wants us to put him on the Markan throne is frightened to trust us." He gave an offhand gesture with an arm. "Here we are, being interrogated almost as if we are criminals. And you can tell Naz-bloody-vasta I said that."
Again, that glint of humor in the questioner's eyes. "Safer for you if I did not," he replied. "Or you might learn for yourself exactly how we do deal with criminals."
Somehow, Indelgar failed to see the funny side of the quip.
Mikhan Edric Annada, lately Marshal of Marka and now restored to his previous position as Marshal of Sandester, clasped his hands behind his back and stared out of the window across the city.
He had missed this view.
His office, despite being near the palace, looked towards the bone-white turrets of the South Gate, the most impressive entrance to any city he had ever seen. Sure, Marka had its massive and awe-inspiring pyramid, but its entry gates were nothing special.
Sandester's South Gate was also known as the Pauper Gate because of the old tradition of expelling beggars from the city through it. Not a tradition exercised today of course, in these humanist and kindly times.
But seeing the gate reinforced the knowledge that he was home.
"Two years, Paul," Mikhan said, still looking out the window. "Two years and it's gone in a flash."
Mikhan's companion in the room stirred.
Field-Captain Paul Tennan shrugged. "At least you are back now," he replied, dark eyes thoughtful. Married to Mikhan's oldest granddaughter, he suspected that his promotion to field-captain was partly due to that fact. "Any more thoughts on who to promote general?"
Mikhan turned from the window and his blue eyes twinkled. "Think you are ready for it?"
"Me?" Paul gaped. "I'm much too young."
"And more use at your present rank." Mikhan laughed. "Age is immaterial, experience and skill are more important. I took overall command of the army before I reached forty. Only a couple of years older than you are now when promoted to general."
"Bloodier times," muttered Paul.
"And incompetent leaders," added Mikhan. He gestured out the window. "Marcus Vintner Elder managed to besiege our city for more than a year and it needed new tactics to break him. But break him we did, and the incompetents were cleared out."
"Or dead," added Paul. He did not add breaking that siege had sealed Mikhan's reputation as a poliorcetic.
"We nearly lost everything to Marcus Senior," continued Mikhan. Salin. I lost my beautiful daughter. "Imagine Calcan gaining control over all the ships passing in to or out from the Bay of Plenty, owning both Horns of Ramte."
"I imagine those Vintners might have the Throne by now," said Paul.
"Very likely. But we threw them out of Sandester and they've never been back. The younger Marcus doesn't have the same fire as his father. More diplomat and politician than warrior, but no less dangerous for that."
"You worry that he might replace Zenepha as emperor?" asked Paul.
"He will replace Zenepha. And Nazvasta will rebel against him."
"And remove him from the Throne?"
Mikhan's shoulders slumped. "That is the stated aim," he replied.
Mikhan smiled again. "Very perceptive. Sure you're not ready for that generalship? Maybe I should offer it to Drecan, or Indelgar."
"Indelgar might be the wisest choice," said Paul, eagerly seizing a straw. "Not related to you and very experienced."
"My question?" prompted Paul.
"I don't think Nazvasta will be able to take the Markan Throne without fighting unless he moves before Zenepha steps down. The Senate is behind the sylph, but they will support Marcus. Marcus is there, in place, and ready. He's been politicking hard for two years. The best we can hope for is some sort of continued independence for Sandester, reinforced with military victories."
"Some will see that as defeatism," said Paul. "So many are tired of war."
"I know." Mikhan nodded. "But that is the reality of politics. Trouble is, I believe that Nazvasta agrees with me, even if he dare not admit to it openly."
"What is it you want me to do?"
Mikhan's smile widened. "We must help Nazvasta in any way we can. What I'd like you to do is find out which of Branad's wives is pushing him to pursue a claim they see as his duty, and whether Nazvasta is determined enough to have a chance. The last thing we need, if we must offer our lives, is weak leadership."
"So there is still hope that we can win?" Paul's dark eyes showed his renewed excitement.
"Of course." Mikhan spread his arms. "There is always hope."
Three barrack blocks and a cookhouse surrounded the square. Men formed an inner square, watching the last two men fight with practice-swords. They might learn something while witnessing the fight. Among the junior soldiers, these were the best swordsmen.
Using both hands on the practice-sword, Egran danced. Swordplay and dancing were similar, though one of the two skills was a lot more deadly. His opponent boasted excellent skills, and a telltale line of red across Egran's side showed where a hit had been scored.
Many of these men hailed from Egran's Re Taura, but the rest hailed from other lands. Even a smattering of Sandesterans, who had returned home from Re Taura and joined their own land's army.
Egran turned on his feet, feinted to one side, then whipped his flexible practice-sword against the other side of his opponent's chest, kept on moving and slashed again across the man's back.
"Enough!" The sergeant overseeing the session clapped his hands.
Both men stepped back and inclined their heads.
Sergeant Tresker, Blade Trainer for Sandester's army, came forward.
"An excellent display, from both of you."
Both men inclined their heads again, but remained silent.
"Especially you, Egran. I feel a promotion might come your way very quickly."
"Yes Sergeant, thank you Sergeant." By 'Ranva, but Egran hated this submission. He hoped that promotion would come quickly; he disliked starting again in a new army.
"Right, you shower!" called Tresker. "Dismissed. You've got thirty minutes to get cleaned up for your evening meal."
At the row of wash basins, Egran found himself beside another Re Tauran with the look of a grizzled veteran.
"Wasn't you a red-tabber?" asked the other man, voice little more than a growl.
"That was then," replied Egran. "Just an ordinary soldier now."
A quick grin and flash of strong teeth. "World turns in funny ways," grunted the other man. "Thought you lot would've been looked after."
Egran snorted. "Once the old mametain was back in charge, he had no need for us," he replied. "We were Nijen's men, he doesn't trust us."
"Not much left of Castle Beren, so I hear," chuckled the other man.
"All the mametain's quarters are gone," said Egran. "But the castle is still garrisoned, if no longer by us."
The other man rinsed soap off his face and dried himself. He buttoned up his shirt and stuck his hand out.
"Name's Kullin," he said. "Used to be a lieutenant. Like I said, world turns in funny ways. Yesterday I used the arse-rags, today I'm the arse-rag."
"I'm Egran." He shook the other's hand. "Like you said, world turns in funny ways, but I reckon some of us can make something of what we've got now."
Kullin chuckled. "Like your attitude," he said. "We can make this our army, if we try."
The two men sat together for their evening meal.
"So what did happen at Castle Beren?" asked Kullin, while chewing on something that might even have been meat. "At the end I mean. It didn't just fall down."
Egran considered his words carefully. "Nobody is really sure. Some reckon a secret weapon, planted by spies. Others say sorcerers at work."
Kullin took another bite. "What do you reckon?"
Egran's smile looked more like a rictus. Nobody would believe the truth. He wasn't sure he believed it. "Spies," he said. "That's my favorite." Nearly the truth. He didn't dare add those spies were sylphs.
Kullin's gray eyes regarded his companion neutrally. "Spies with a secret weapon?"
"There's talk here about a secret weapon," said Kullin. "Reckon these were the ones who tried it on Castle Beren first?"
Egran shrugged. "So long as they pay us, I don't really care."
Kullin smiled. "Some of those who fought alongside Marka say there's a secret weapon that rips men to shreds."
Egran stared. "That sounds like it," he said, pleased for the diversion.
He was saved from further questions when one of the cooks stuck his head into the dining hall. "If anyone wants more, he'd best come through now."
Kern Ranja Tulhern blinked myopically at Marshal Mikhan and gestured towards some black powder.
"I've managed to duplicate your sample, Marshal," he said, voice surprisingly deep for such an inoffensive looking man. "A question of getting the charcoal crushed finely enough and in correct proportion with the other ingredients."
"Excellent." Mikhan smiled. He recognized Marka's advantage as long as they held the monopoly on producing Aylos Jalan's firepowder. "It is now only a question of allocating resources for industrial manufacture. How long before you might arrange a demonstration?"
"Demonstration. Um. Yes. Well, er..." Kern blinked again. "Maybe in an hour?"
Mikhan laughed. "I feared you were about to say week after next," he replied. "It will take me a day or two to gather the right people. When I have, I'll let you know."
Kern smiled. "More resources always sounds good, Marshal."
"I'm sure it does." Mikhan's deep-set blue eyes glittered. "Just don't let me down."
"Of course not, Marshal." The blinks came faster now and Kern dry-washed his hands. "You can rely on me. That you can."
Mikhan's smile warmed. "So glad to hear it," he murmured. He hoped the small man never saw his relief. Armies fighting without firepowder would be severely disadvantaged in future.
A modern army now needed another secret weapon, and that was Mikhan's next destination.
Lieutenant Brennin, commander of the scout training school, dashed from his office and buckled his sword in place. He dismissed the messenger who brought warning of Marshal Mikhan's imminent visit.
Brennin hated unannounced visits and regarded them as rude, or else fishing to look for replacements. Thankfully, Mikhan had no entourage surrounding him.
"Sorry for descending like this," apologized Mikhan. "But I'm curious to see how you're getting on."
Brennin nodded to accept the apology. Such things from senior officers were as rare as gold nuggets. "Pretty well, Sir. We're getting more suitable sylphs sent to us every day. Now we've got the screening right."
"Screening?" echoed Mikhan.
"For fear of open spaces," replied Brennin, certain the Marshal already knew the answer. "We screen the candidates before they arrive, it helps keep the program more secret."
Mikhan nodded. "That's a good idea," he said. "Can we go through?"
"Of course, Sir."
Brennin led Mikhan to a large area, full of sylphs. Most exercised, some practiced self-defense techniques copied from Marcus's army, others cleaned. All wore the green, gray and brown paint that acted as camouflage.
"I see there's no black in the paint," said Mikhan.
"Experimenting with the color scheme, we realized early on there's no need for it."
"Marcus's scouts wear it. Well, most of the younger ones anyway."
"It does no harm," replied Brennin carefully, "but adds nothing. So there's no point in adding it to the camouflage. Come this way Sir, and you can see for yourself."
Mikhan followed Brennin through to another area, even larger than the first. A mix of grass, scrub and trees, two sergeants stood beside a wall, one with a spyglass.
"Sergeant Eltren, you relax, the Marshal and me will go out there."
The sergeant without the spyglass grinned and leaned back. "Yessir!"
Mikhan looked at the other man with interest.
Brennin gestured across the area. "How many, Sergeant?"
"Twelve, Sir," replied Eltren.
Mikhan looked out at the apparently deserted area.
"Another test, Sir," said Brennin. "We do this once the lads are a few weeks into their training. If they fail, they are back-classed and choca rations are cut."
"We walk out there Sir, and we find them. We'll find them all right, but that's not the test. I'll put my hand on the head or shoulder and if Sergeant Pourn-" Brennin nodded towards the sergeant with the spyglass "-can see any part of them, he's failed."
Mikhan smiled and nodded in approval. "This I like, Lieutenant Brennin."
The commandant smiled back. "I thought you might, Sir. Shall we see who we can find? Twelve of 'em are out there somewhere."
Mikhan followed Brennin as he walked, crisscrossing the ground. The commandant was right about the scouts being easy enough to find. Despite appearances, sylphs could not make themselves invisible, but stillness counted for a lot. And the paint helped them blend into the background.
In moments, they came across the first scout. They only spotted him at all because his earpoints twitched as he began to fear getting trodden on. Brennin crouched beside the scout and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"If Pourn raises his arm, he can see the scout," said Brennin.
Mikhan watched the man with the spyglass. It seemed the sergeant pointed it directly at him. Eventually, Pourn lowered the spyglass and shook his head.
A slightly muted scent of sinabra reached Mikhan's nostrils, something he never remembered smelling from Marcus Vintner's scouts. How did they mask their sinabra?
"A pass," said Brennin. "All right, lad, you can go and join the sergeants now."
A muffled response that might even have been the correct one, before the sylph stood and trotted across the ground to crouch beside Eltren. Mikhan thought he saw the sergeant congratulate the successful scout.
"The Calcan scouts mask their sinabra," said Mikhan. "We can still smell the scouts here."
Brennin nodded. "We're working on that one, Sir. Hopefully get a result soon."
"I hope so," replied Mikhan, "because I'm already impressed."
He was more than impressed. Firepowder and sylph scouts. Sandester was catching up with her enemies.
Marshal Mikhan smiled. "Keep going as you are," he said. He gestured across the training field. "They don't fight, but that might prove decisive in any battle."
"Yes, Sir," replied Brennin. "We realized that very early on in the training. And these sylphs are second to none."