Sample Chapters From:
An Ilvenworld Novel
Nicholas A. Rose
Book Three of the Markan Empire Trilogy
I: A New Task
Neptarik-y-Balnus, one hand resting on a full purse, walked cheerfully along the street. Light-crystals set at regular intervals along the main roads in Marka helped night-blind humans to see, though few other streets and no alleys were lit. Light-crystals, no matter how long lasting, were expensive.
Thanks to Mya staying in, his night had been all the more successful. One of the few who could out-gamble him, she had dented his pride in public several times over the winter. Since their marriage, he supposed that didn't matter too much.
Married. A small smile ghosted across his lips. The best thing to come out of Re Taura had been his marriage. At long last, he had a wife. The smile faded when his thoughts turned to the least expected thing that also hailed from his time on Re Taura.
Neptarik had thought her dead, until the creature turned up on the ferry from Taura City to Calcan, unwanted and unwelcome. Unable to pay her fare, Tektu had managed to bully her way aboard and intimidated the ferry's ancient sylph into allowing her passage to Calcan.
And then the vile creature explained to Neptarik what happened when someone killed her owner.
He hadn't wanted to believe it then, and he didn't want to believe it now. Sat on the sidelines tonight, Tektu had quickly grown bored and wandered away from the gambling. Neptarik thought she might do well, glowering and intimidating people into losing. But she had never shown any interest in cards.
She had only come out because she felt uncomfortable in Mya's company. Mya had stayed in because she hated being anywhere near Tektu. Only after he and Mya had agreed to marry did they learn Neptarik was stuck with Tektu. She had lost her previous owner, Nijen da Re Taura, and lost him under specific circumstances.
No matter how indirectly, Neptarik had caused Nijen's death, so Tektu's allegiance shifted to him. And neither of them - meaning Neptarik and Tektu - could do anything about it. With terrifying honesty, Tektu assured her new owner that she would far rather have torn his throat out while she still had the chance. But far too late for that now, even if she still harbored a wish to see him hurt.
The astounded Neptarik had acquired an unwilling and angry slave. Tektu had never during her long life belonged to a sylph and she still fought the new strictures. But more than that complicated matters.
Tektu might be bonded to Neptarik, however reluctantly, but Mya had married him. Mya hated Tektu, because Tektu had killed her previous owner. The pair stayed far apart when possible, Mya horrified that her husband had somehow won Tektu through some weird automatic lottery she did not understand. Caught in the middle of the mess, Neptarik could see no way out.
Passing an alley, he suddenly had something else to worry about.
A pair of strong human hands grabbed Neptarik and pulled him into the alley. Before he had chance to react, the sylph was thrown to the ground.
Rolling, he assessed his situation, his eyes rapidly adjusting to the sudden lack of light.
Three men, two of them night-blind after staring along the lit street. One was clearly a bad loser, because he had gambled with the sylph earlier. And among the first to lose his money.
The bad loser seemed able to see better than the others in the gloom. "Grab that purse," he demanded.
"Grab the sylph first!" exclaimed another man.
Tektu had once surprised Neptarik, but the scout learned lessons well and adapted his skill. Jumping to his feet between two of the men as they moved to grab him, he twisted away. The two clashed against each other, grabbing for a sylph who had moved.
Their leader drew a knife.
Neptarik contorted again to avoid the slashing blade. One of the men came too close to his leader and screamed as he was cut. Another twist dodged a punch that instead landed on a human.
He began to enjoy himself.
So often the way with fights, it was over almost as suddenly as it had begun. Two men groaned and writhed feebly on the ground, while the third man's screams had reduced to whimpers and sobs as he clutched his slashed midriff.
Certain someone would have heard the man's screams, which meant the City Guard would soon turn up, Neptarik checked his purse and dusted himself down. He hoped he hadn't rolled in anything nasty, alleys were not usually the cleanest places in Marka. Nobody would believe a lone sylph had bested three humans and if these were stupid enough to claim it, they would be a laughing-stock. The guard would suspect the three men had been fighting each other, which up to a point was true.
He bowed to the three men. "Thank you for the ebatela practice," he said in his light sylvan voice, and left the alley.
"Impressive," said a new voice, speaking in sylph.
Neptarik turned, relaxing only when he recognized Smudge, leaning back against a building, one foot casually tucked back against the stonework. The eponymous dark birthmark spread like an ink stain across her right cheek from nose to ear. Spots were visible on the ear-point itself.
He shrugged. "How long have you been there?"
"Only just got here," she replied. She pushed off the wall and came fully upright. "Enya wants to see you."
"I might be busy."
"Perhaps. But I checked."
Neptarik's ear-points slanted forwards and he frowned. "You should know that a smart sylph is soon a smarting sylph," he said.
Smudge humored him with a smile, but her ear-points barely twitched. She clearly did not respond to threats.
"What is it this time?" asked Neptarik.
"Enya will explain," replied Smudge, as she led the male sylph back towards the palace.
Neptarik knew he would get no other answer.
Smudge left after depositing Neptarik in the room he recalled from last year. Visitors still had to sit with their backs facing the fire, and with Fynn's large desk between them and him. The scout nodded to his owner Balnus, and to Verdin, both looking impatient after waiting for his arrival.
"Now Neptarik's finally here," said Balnus, after giving his sylph an exasperated glance, "will you please explain why you called us at this time of night?"
"I apologize for the lateness of the hour." Morran Fynn's smile did not touch his pale-blue eyes. "But the news is fresh."
"Anything to so with the Sandesterans being recalled?" asked Balnus.
Balnus turned his attention to Verdin. "Do you know what that's about? I thought the claim was renounced."
"Me too." Verdin shrugged. "Nazvasta is responsible for the recall."
"But it's not why you are here," interrupted Fynn.
"Enlighten us," suggested Balnus.
"The shadow riders warn me that Dervra rules in Turivkan."
"Old news," murmured Verdin.
Fynn gave the young man a level look. "Dervra has also announced a census," he continued.
"And this causes you sleepless nights?" Verdin arched an eyebrow.
"Something like that." Fynn clasped his hands together. "This census is causing some unrest among Turivkan's people. Boys a certain age are being taken away and not being returned."
"Perhaps Dervra needs more soldiers."
"Maybe." Morran's eyes were calm. "But boys born in just two years are being taken away. Ah, sixteen ninety-six and sixteen ninety-eight."
"Very specific," muttered Balnus.
"Significant too," added Fynn. "The old prefect's sons were born in those years, which suggests they are still alive. I doubt if Dervra's overlooked the daughter, but she might already be dead."
"Why is Dervra moving against them now?" asked Verdin.
Fynn spread his hands. "Who knows why the Gifted act at the time they do?"
Not only Neptarik shuddered. Nobody liked to be reminded that Dervra was Gifted as well as a sorcerer.
Fynn continued. "I suspect that the boys are quietly disposed of, but the people do not know that yet."
"They soon will," said Verdin.
"Yes they will, and no need for you to tell them. When the inevitable happens, we will need one or both of those boys at the head of the rebellion, ready to take their rightful place."
Verdin laughed. "If Dervra cannot isolate them, what chance have we got?"
Fynn smiled. "Both boys are dark-haired and hazel-eyed. Names are Awen and Warlon."
"Like they use those names. I doubt if they're even aware of who they are." Verdin's eyes flashed.
"You are quite right," replied Fynn. "But unlike Dervra, we have contacts in Turivkan who do know. What's the matter, Neptarik?"
The sylph had been scowling at the floor and now looked up. "I'll be falling behind on battle stars," he complained. "Missed one for last year, and from the siege, mine's the only silver one."
"Battle stars." Fynn blinked. "You don't get paid any more for them."
"Not the point." Neptarik's ear-points twitched violently. "The loss of honor alone..."
Fynn's were not the only eyes to glaze over as the sylph warmed to his theme. After all, he was a scout, not a diplomat.
Moments after Neptarik had been taken out of the room, still complaining about his bloody battle stars, Smudge returned carrying an alovak can and two large mugs. She placed them on Fynn's desk before eyeing the rug before the fireplace.
"All right, Smudge, you've had a long day," laughed Fynn. "I'll pour when he gets here."
Smudge nodded thanks and quickly made herself comfortable in front of the fire, which had been allowed to burn down. Already long past her usual bedtime, she quickly fell genuinely asleep.
A quiet tap at Fynn's door brought her head up again though.
"Come!" called Fynn.
General Kelanus of Marcus Vintner's army, surely favorite to replace Mikhan as Marshal of Marka, entered the study. He glanced at Smudge before taking one of the chairs before Fynn's desk.
Kelanus nodded thanks.
"Are the captive Eldovans amenable to our suggestion?" asked Fynn, as he poured the dark liquid.
Kelanus leaned forward to take his mug. "Very," he replied.
"Grasping power for themselves, do you think?" Fynn closed his eyes to savor the alovak's scent. He heard, rather than saw, the other man's shrug.
"Mirrin doesn't strike me as that kind of man."
Fynn reopened his eyes. "They never do, until it's too late."
"What about Janost?" pressed Fynn.
"There are some honorable men, but Janost works to his own morality."
Fynn changed the subject. "The difficult part is finding one of the Gifted with the skills you require and who is willing to help. Tahena does not have the necessary skills?"
"Alas, no." Kelanus grimaced. "But she insists on coming along anyway."
Fynn smiled. "I doubt if she would be happy left to rot on your estate."
"Another problem." Again, that quick smile. Fynn changed the subject again. "Many of those returning to Eldova will be killed. My feeling is that Hingast... ah, Ranallic... will not be eager to see them return. After all, they were abandoned."
"Who would believe them?" asked Kelanus.
"Many, I'm sure. Their leader returns with so few and then large numbers of other survivors suddenly appear. And all telling a tale very different from the official line. I am certain there would be some unrest."
"All the more reason to find a Gifted willing to help."
Fynn nodded. "Agreed. But will Sandev?"
"No. Why not ask Grayar?" suggested Kelanus. "It will be nearly next winter if we must walk to Eldova."
"There has been a development in Sandester," replied Fynn. "I suspect Zenepha will want you to take over as Marka's Marshal."
"Sandester?" Kelanus scowled. "Nazvasta causing trouble?"
"Potentially. He's recalled the Sandesterans."
Kelanus shook his head. "All the more reason to take Ranallic down now. The army stays here; you only lose me and then only for a short time."
Fynn pursed his lips. "We must resolve the Sandesteran problem quickly. You might still be in Eldova this time next year. It is something else for you to consider."
"You don't need me for that. I doubt if I'd leave Sandester alive if I ever returned there."
"There's another thing. Tahena's not the only insistent one." Kelanus paused. "Belaika knows. How..." He shrugged. "That's sylphs. But he's told me that he will be one of the scouts."
Fynn tapped his fingers together. "Good idea. Take him."
Belaika-y-Marcus sat up in his blankets and wiped sweat off his face.
Eleka's arms snaked around her husband and held him close. "Again?" she asked, voice soft.
Fighting tears, Belaika nodded. "Always the same. Haema dead, Gajaran whispering that I am evil."
Eleka stroked his ear-points, hands so gentle that at first he barely felt their touch. Slowly, he calmed and arched his neck so she could get a better hold. "Never evil, not you."
"Kelanus is going to Eldova," said Belaika. "I must go too."
"I know." Eleka did not stop her gentle stroking. Just to soothe, not enough to... She blushed.
"It is the only way," he insisted.
"Yes, Icca." Eleka smiled and continued with slow, deliberate strokes. His ear-point muscles relaxed and stiffened as they twitched. He grew more content with every stroke.
The nightmare had plagued him ever since his return from the Western March. If not for him, Haema would still live. If not for his foolish hope for a second wife, Haema would not have been with him that fateful day. If-
So many ifs. But he refused to believe he had no fault for her death.
And this other nonsense, about the scouts being evil. Eleka almost tensed, before realizing that Belaika would pick up on it. Sandev should stop that Gajaran from spreading her nonsense.
But even Eleka conceded Gajaran had reason to feel this way about the scouts. A dead owner, possibly thanks to sylph scouts giving directions.
Such an event would color her own view. What if Belaika died? Would she blame Marcus Vintner for allowing sylph scouts to exist in the first place?
No. Even had Belaika personally directed the soldiers who killed Gajaran's owner, they had killed him, not her husband. At least, he was not evil. And Gajaran had a new, better, owner.
To ease his mind, Belaika must go to Eldova.
The man who called himself Hingast looked down at the sleeping baby supposedly his and smiled. He must treat this child as he would any real son. The result of a real union between Ansin and himself - or any of the dead Hingast's three wives for that matter - would look nothing like this. The sleeping babe was the real Hingast's get.
After each had given him three daughters, the real Hingast had ignored his older two wives, concentrating on the third, in the now-realized hope of a son. The man who now called himself Hingast had been forced to emulate that. For the time being.
After almost two years, he now almost believed himself to be Hingast, permanently living his new role. He had been an officer in Eldova's army years before and, when the real Hingast had come early to his throne, he had been there to whisper in the man's ear.
Before he moved on to new pastures and new challenges.
This time, he had returned as the most powerful man in Eldova, a definite advance over his previous position. Even if he must wear another man's face as his own.
"They always look so peaceful when asleep," said Ansin, stepping forward.
The man who called himself Hingast snaked his arm around the girl's middle. And she was a girl, not yet twenty. He must be careful. Any slip, and he would be unmasked.
Never again. He had been uncovered many years before, when people discovered a... predilection and he felt obliged to murder his way out of trouble. He'd only just managed to save his own life.
He took much more care now. People grew ever more sophisticated and he knew some already suspected the truth about him.
Fortunately, they did not want to believe logic and their own senses.
"Peaceful and beautiful," he replied. He hated treating the older wives so badly. In fact, Hingast's first wife would be his preference out of the three; she had filled out very nicely. Sooner rather than later, he would make it so.
"What will happen now?" asked Ansin. "We have lost so many men, it will be hard to replace them."
The man who called himself Hingast winced. More importantly, Eldova had lost three generals, almost the entire head of the army removed at once. At best captured, to be ransomed back in the future. For gold, or the promise of peace and a dropped claim?
He enjoyed being a claimant. "More survivors may trickle in," he said. He hoped not; they would tell a very different story than the one he had put about. His fellow returnees were content to go along with this official story, or else be shown as cowards who chose flight over fight.
But Eldova needed all her men. The game was not yet over.
"Marka may attack us," continued Ansin. "The men you promoted are not as good as those we lost."
That was unfair and not completely true.
"A Markan army must cross the Barren," he said. Again, a wince.
The real Hingast had spent most of his sixteen year rule depopulating and destroying lands surrounding Eldova. Fertile farmland planted with softwood trees, changing the soil so other crops could no longer grow. This prevented any invading army from living off the land, the wood useless for making war-machines and siege-engines any potential invader would need.
A terrible waste of perfectly good arable land; he needed years to reclaim and restore it to proper use.
Clearing the land also meant the mass movement of huge numbers of people, which in turn caused prices to collapse in the slave markets. Followed by starvation for many and the highest proportion of enslaved humans anywhere on the continent. Which then made a significant number of sylphs destitute.
Not a good situation. Sylphs, not humans, existed to be slaves.
Everywhere, signs of avoidable neglect stood out. Human urchins infested the streets and were probably responsible for most of the crime. They organized and lived off whatever the many indigent sylphs managed to bring in. As in Marka, so many sylphs, particularly the infertiles, chose negative attention over no attention at all, happily joining human gangs that controlled and used them.
Copying the Markan sylph-emperor's ideas would solve the problem of surplus people and sylphs. He had made a beginning since his return the previous fall. He had so much to put right.
Fortunately, he had a good feel for running a city.
Eldova's guilds had been denuded of men for the army, so the man who called himself Hingast had encouraged them to employ more women and even the older urchins. Trade and commerce must flow again.
Fortunately, the parts of Eldova Hingast had not ruined were fertile, so food shortages - caused by a lack of young men to farm - should not be repeated this year. He had begun to move surplus sylphs out from the city and onto the land, where they happily sowed and tended crops.
Every day, there were fewer and fewer beggars. Crime, a canker in any human society, was relentlessly driven down by a mixture of sylph relocation and strict enforcement of laws.
But he must also keep at least one eye on Marka. The sylph-emperor might not attack, preferring to consolidate his position further east, but one man would have something planned.
"A pity Dervra seems to have left us," remarked the man who now called himself Hingast.
Ansin sniffed disapprovingly. She had never liked Dervra. In fairness, not very many people did, even if a goodly number had cause to thank him for what they were, or what they had managed to achieve.
The man who now called himself Hingast included. He gave Dervra a few moments' thought. The man probably lurked further north, hiding in the stronghold where he believed himself safe. Turivkan was anything but safe, all but surrounded by enemies and potential enemies.
Not his problem.
"The Markans won't worry us here," he said, at last.
He worried more about returning Eldovans, and began to plan what best to do should any appear.
"Support for our claim in Marka falls day by day." Kana Santon shook her head. "Those not for Marcus stand behind Zenepha, united in their desire to keep him from the throne, yet unable to agree who should take it."
Nazvasta grimaced. He was not in his study, but the palace. Carpeted floors were normal here, to help insulate against the bitter cold that could persist into early summer, despite the lack of north-facing windows or doors. And despite the palace being built into the hill.
A fire crackled cheerfully on the hearth and servants stood ready to keep it fed with fresh wood and coal. The ceilings in the palace were lower than in many other grand houses, again to help retain heat.
"So your attempts to garner support failed," he remarked.
Kana snorted. "I would have enjoyed considerable success had Verdin laid his claim, but he followed his father's example."
Nazvasta's eyes flickered aside briefly. "Quite. He seems to have thrown his lot in with Marcus."
Kana smiled. "He fancies himself as the man to rebuild the empire and in fairness, he's doing quite well so far. But he's running free from our control. What influence we might gain through his actions so far is being wasted. Remember though that he is my son."
"It is hard to forget that fact," smiled Nazvasta, leaning back. He rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and clasped his hands together, fingers interlaced.
"Re Taura tamed by Marka, thanks to Verdin," continued Kana. "Ambassadors exchanged between Marka and former prefectures, thanks to Verdin. Other prefectures joining with Marka, thanks to Verdin."
"The boy certainly has a flair for diplomacy," remarked Nazvasta. "He's doing very well without us. Perhaps we can make use of your son yet."
"I hope so," admitted Kana.
"How secure is Zenepha?" Nazvasta kept his voice quiet.
Kana's grey-blue eyes were calm. "Away from his Supreme Council and Senate supporters, not very," she replied. "Marcus and Kelanus outmaneuvered him over Re Taura. Worse, Zenepha has begun to doubt himself."
"We offered Zenepha our support." Nazvasta tapped his fingernails together.
"Will you raise the dragon's head banner?" Kana's eyes were unblinking.
"If Zenepha abdicates?" Nazvasta paused. "I expect so."
Kana smiled and leaned forward. "You can count on my support."
Nazvasta did not return the smile. He faced a massive task to turn around support for Marcus Vintner, but he had overcome obstacles before, and could do so again.
One way or another, his claim would be settled.
Dervra relaxed in his small study, where nobody would disturb him, except perhaps Marlen, if he brought really dire news. He kept the room sparsely furnished, with a desk and two simple chairs, a single painting of a snow-capped mountain above a hearth on which no fire burned. A single rug covered part of the stone-flagged floor and pale beech panels lined every wall to the ceiling.
A door lay behind one of those panels, leading to an escape tunnel, but Dervra had never tried to work out how to get into it. He had more entertaining methods of escape, should such ever be needed.
A row of books lined the mantel, with a carved wooden lion forming one bookend and a stone dragon the other.
Dervra had one chair, his guest the other and two mugs of alovak steamed gently on the desk between them. His guest had dark curly hair, dark-blue eyes and the pale skin that would ensure near anonymity in Marka. Of course, his guest hailed from those parts, and would fit in perfectly there. That guest now sat perfectly at ease. Few people were so comfortable in Dervra's presence.
A closer look revealed oddities. The guest seemed relaxed, but the eyes held a wary glint and those narrow shoulders looked tense. An air of watchfulness, ready for fight or flight at any moment. All movements were sinuous and graceful; sylphlike or perhaps effeminate.
Dervra could not care less which.
"I trust the alovak is to your taste?" he asked, as he reached into a desk drawer.
His guest tensed until Dervra pulled free some miniature portraits. The guest covered the small movement by speaking. "Good alovak." The soft voice held an edge, as if the speaker tried to disguise its true sound. But disguise never fooled Dervra.
He nodded. His guest's alovak stood untouched, probably thanks to a suspicious nature. Dervra respected a strong survival instinct in others. "These are the people I want you to kill." He pushed the miniatures across the desk.
Dark-blue eyes locked momentarily with Dervra's before the assassin leaned forward. The gaze flickered across the pictures before the guest sat back again.
"Many have balked because women and children are to be killed as well as the man," said Dervra. "Not to mention the sylph, of course."
The assassin shrugged.
"Do you need the portraits?" pressed Dervra.
"No." A long forefinger tapped against the assassin's own head. "They are in here now."
Dervra gestured towards the portraits. "You will eliminate all these people?"
"Excellent." Dervra smiled. "Marcus Vintner and his wife Zandra. Three daughters, infant son and Marcus's beloved infertile sylph." He raised a finger. "All of them."
The guest nodded, barely reacting as the targets were named.
Dervra reached into the drawer, and again the assassin tensed until the canvas bag sat on the table.
"Feel free to count it," invited Dervra, "I will not feel insulted. Two hundred in gold."
The long forefinger touched the bag, before the rest of the assassin's fingers wrapped around it. A moment later, the gold disappeared, secreted somewhere within the cloak.
"Make Marcus suffer as he loses his family. Drag it out, drive him insane." Smiling, Dervra grasped his alovak. "Soon, I will take you directly to Marka. But first a toast to your success!"
The assassin lifted the mug and even touched it to lips, but Dervra knew not a drop passed into the mouth. A suspicious nature indeed. Disposing of this one once the task was complete might not be as easy as he hoped.
First Chapter (Turivkan Sub-Plot)
Reshiad wondered if he would see his seventeenth birthday.
Today had begun like any other, with washing and early morning chores, before heading out to check the livestock. Today, he and his father intended to take a couple of sylphs and repair one of the stone walls; sheep enjoyed obstacle courses and eventually pulled down any wall, no matter how stoutly built.
Breakfast, with his father, mother and only sister still living at home, was eaten quickly so father and son could get on with their chore. Sylphs padded around the table, serving the simple meal.
A normal day, up until the soldiers arrived.
They had heard rumors. Boys certain age disappearing, some reappearing unharmed a few days later, but others never came back. Darker tales of burned farms and people murdered also circulated. Few believed these tales, but they persisted, whispered in corners and over mugs of ale.
The prefect's census went on at the same time. His father had filled out the form under the diligent eye of a bureaucrat, whose gaze had turned Reshiad's way more than once...
His sister Lien saw the soldiers first, as her seat faced the window.
"Father!" she cautioned.
Wajrun took one look and dragged his son to his feet.
"They've come for you!" he hissed. "Go now. Quickly!"
Reshiad needed no second prompting. Leaving everything, he slipped out of the kitchen door and began running as soon as he came around the side of the barn.
"Boy!" A stentorian voice, used to command. "Stand where you are!"
The words only spurred him to greater speed. A horse whinnied in frustration and Reshiad risked a look over his shoulder. A couple of sylphs had somehow managed to wander in the way, slowing the pursuit.
Thank you Manto and Kinto, he thought.
One of the sylphs cried out, caught by a boot or riding crop. He did not look over his shoulder to see which. A sylph's lot so often included rough treatment. Not that he agreed it should be this way of course.
He looked to the nearby forest where safety and freedom beckoned. Shouts from the farm faded, but a new sound intruded.
Hunting dogs? Who would hunt so early in the year?
Then he realized he was the quarry.
Reshiad increased his pace and didn't relax even when he reached the forest. He must cross the river to escape the dogs. Called the Foam Race River for good reason, he knew only one calm pool, where the raging torrent quietened briefly before continuing its race towards a distant lake.
Barking grew louder and he knew the dogs had his scent.
He dodged trees as best he could and jumped over anything on the ground that might trip him. Even so, brambles and ivy sent him sprawling more than once as they snagged an ankle or caught his toes.
At first, the river sounded little different from the wind in the upper branches, but the sound steadily grew to a roar as water thundered through gorges and piled across rocks. He almost fell in as trees abruptly gave way to one of the gorges, where water whipped to foam danced high in the air before falling back.
Death waited if he went in here.
He must flee downriver.
He scrambled down treacherous rocks as the riverside path faded to nothing and the ground became rougher, his footing precarious on the slippery surfaces. Even over the river's thunder, he heard the hunting dogs, gaining ground all the time.
Reshiad glanced across the river. Surely nobody waited for him over there? Perhaps he imagined it, he hoped for sanctuary once across the river. He slipped on the rocks and bounced a little distance before regaining his footing.
Barking behind. Barking to the side.
A flash of movement as something ran along the opposite bank. Friend or foe? A census. Boys of a certain age never came back. Reshiad assumed unpleasant things happened to them.
The barking grew louder and nearer.
With courage born of desperation, he threw himself into the river.
He twirled and spun in the water, fighting to reach air. He could deal with wet easily but oh, the cold! And blackness below. He struggled to lift his head as a leg broke the surface, but the current pulled him back under.
Lungs aching, spots danced across his vision. Fear faded and acceptance of the inevitable came. The light above called to him and he stretched toward it, vaguely aware of arms reaching out for him...
Sudden pain, and everything went black.
Reshiad opened his eyes.
Not what he expected from paradise, he blinked at the mixture of tree roots and dirt barely incas above. His head throbbed and a shoulder ached. He lay on a blanket, which in turn covered something soft, and a second blanket covered him, pulled to his chin. They looked clean, but smelled strongly of sylph, and sinabra - the sylph's natural odor - hung in the air.
Turning his head, he tried not to groan at the flash of pain.
This strange cave looked recent, hollowed out from the bare earth. He saw a narrow walkway and another recess opposite. Leaves hung to dry from the ceiling and ragged edges showed where parts had been torn free, for whatever purpose.
He pushed the blanket aside and realized his clothes were gone. He glanced around again, but saw no sign of his breeches and shirt. He felt under the lower blanket, where more leaves and grasses were stuffed to make the bed more comfortable.
Woodsmoke tickled his nostrils, so he must have company. He would remember making the dugout and lighting a fire. Besides, his hair was still damp, so there hadn't been enough time.
The dugout darkened as someone entered and Reshiad stared.
Painted gray, green and brown, the newcomer wore snug short breeches. Earpoints twitched forward and cat-slit silver-gray eyes widened. A sylph, despite his coloring. The only normal thing about him was a leather collar, with a nametag appended.
"Awake now?" asked the newcomer.
Reshiad nodded. He stared as a second sylph entered the dugout. This one wore a shirt as well as breeches, but no paint. The infertile at least looked normal, until he realized she wore no collar.
"Has the boy got a name?" asked the painted sylph and his earpoints twitched a little.
Reshiad spluttered and his eyes widened in outrage. "How dare you?" he snapped. "You will tell me your name and that of your owner. Now."
At home, sylphs always showed due respect and obedience, knowing they would get what for if they dared step out of line. They always lowered their eyes to him, none daring to meet the gaze of a freeman.
These two were different. The painted sylph looked amused - even his earpoints twitched. When Reshiad used this tone of voice to other sylphs, their earpoints always wilted.
The infertile's eyes hardened and her earpoints slanted forward. Bizarre: anger from a sylph?
"He saved your life," she said, indicating her painted companion. "The least you can do is give your name. Or we might put you back where we found you."
"I am Reshiad Wajrun Helzar," he replied.
Both sylphs blinked. "Does Awen Adelbard Haist mean anything to you?"
Reshiad shook his head. "Should it?"
The painted sylph pulled himself together and shrugged. He exchanged a look with the infertile. Stranger and stranger; breeders and infertiles rarely had much to do with each other.
"Now you have my name, you should at least return the courtesy," said Reshiad.
"I am Neptarik and this is Tektu."
"Just Neptarik and just Tektu?"
The infertile scowled at him again, behaving in a most unsylphlike manner.
Neptarik shrugged. "Neptarik-y-Balnus."
"And?" His attention turned to the infertile.
"Tektu-y-Neptarik," she snapped.
Reshiad stared. "You belong to him?" he squeaked.
"Long story," smiled Neptarik.
"One you are not about to hear," added Tektu. She glanced at her companion. "I will see if his clothes are dry yet."
Reshiad blinked again. No hint whatsoever of deference in the infertile's tone, but she must be inferior in status. An odd pair. With Tektu gone, he suspected Neptarik might be easier to converse with.
"What is it you want of me?" he asked.
"Probably nothing," replied Neptarik. "After all the effort of saving your life, I do not want to leave you to the soldiers."
Reshiad inclined his head and wrapped the blanket around himself as he swung free from the recess. "Thank you for that. Why did you ask about the name? Um, Awen."
"The oldest son of the last true Prefect of Turivkan," replied Neptarik. "He had two sons and the present prefect wants them dead."
"You ask me that?" Neptarik's eyebrows and earpoints rose in unison. "A mere sylph."
Reshiad eyed the sylph's paint. "That word does not begin to describe you," he admitted.
Both turned as Tektu rejoined them, carrying a bundle. "Damp here and there," she said, "but wearable."
Neptarik looked Reshiad straight in the eye. "We will give you privacy to dress," he said, before leading Tektu back outside.
Reshiad's shirt and breeches smelled faintly of smoke, but "damp here and there" proved something of an understatement. Thanks to the fire, his clothes were warm and wet, instead of cold and wet. His boots felt worse, but he stamped his feet into them anyway and cheered up. His jerkin went on next, followed by his belt; he blinked in surprise to find his knife still in place.
He crawled from the dugout and eyed the two metal trowels. Surely the sylphs hadn't dug this using just those? He felt grudging respect as he saw no other tools anywhere. Once outside, he took deep breaths of clear air. He could tolerate sylph sinabra in small doses, but it had almost overwhelmed him inside the dugout.
From beside the fire, Tektu stared at him with barely concealed hostility.
"Where is Neptarik?" asked Reshiad.
For a moment, he thought the infertile might ignore him, but she shrugged her shoulders.
"Looking around," she replied. "Making sure the soldiers are not coming here."
Reshiad glanced at the fire; the lack of visible smoke meant the sylphs had found very dry wood. "Do you think they might?"
Another shrug. "If I start to run, it might be a good idea for you to keep up," she replied.
"Why are you helping me?"
Tektu looked him directly in the eyes. No infertile would dare hold a human's gaze this way! Why was she different? "Now that is a question," she said, after a long moment, "to which I have no answer."
Reshiad did not believe her. Something about Tektu bothered him, and not just because she acted nothing like an ordinary infertile. Or like any other sylph. She did not quite fit.
He jumped as Neptarik abruptly materialized and pretended he had not noticed Tektu's smile. He masked irritation as the sylphs conversed in their own language and wished he had taken the time to learn more of it. He only caught one or two words, not enough to follow the conversation.
"I'd like to know what you want with me," he told them, "when you've finished jabbering away."
Both sylphs looked at him.
"You are both from further east," continued Reshiad. He pointed to Neptarik. "Marka?"
He turned to Tektu. "From Calcan too?"
"I am from everywhere." The infertile shrugged. "And nowhere."
Reshiad ignored the cryptic reply and his attention returned to Neptarik. "Why are you here?"
"Told you. Looking for the boy who should rightfully be prefect. Sixteen years old. Hazel eyes. Dark hair." Neptarik paused.
"Lots of boys have hazel eyes and dark hair," countered Reshiad. "Especially around here."
"You were five when evacuated from the palace," said Neptarik.
Reshiad laughed. "You have the wrong boy. I cannot remember much from age five, but I remember my sister being born and she is four years younger. Before the time you say I was taken from the palace."
The painted sylph shrugged. "Perhaps."
"And I would remember having my name changed." Reshiad gave the sylphs a level look. "You know your name from very young, maybe even before you can speak."
"Awen," said Neptarik.
"Reshiad," insisted Reshiad. "I'm not the boy you seek."
"Put him back where you found him," interrupted Tektu. "Or hand him over to the soldiers. There might be a reward. Choca."
Neptarik subconsciously licked his lips.
"I'm not a commodity to be traded," snarled Reshiad.
"If choca is involved you are," said Tektu.
"Enough, Tektu." Neptarik did not raise his voice, but the infertile immediately subsided. The male sylph regarded the human boy for a few moments. "Very well," he said with a shrug, "wait a little longer and I will take you home. Tektu, get ready to move on. Reshiad's home is on our way."
Tektu disappeared into the dugout.
"Why are you looking for the real prefect's son?" asked Reshiad. "Why now?"
"My owner wants the real prefect's son," replied Neptarik. "We want him alive because Dervra wants him dead."
"To cause trouble?"
"More for true justice. Boys your age disappear and we think that what happens spoils their day."
Reshiad looked away. "I'm glad it's not me."
"It could be."
"So your owner sent you out here to look for someone who might be him. Anybody could claim to be... whatever his name is."
"Awen Adelbard Haist." Neptarik shrugged. "Until we find him and get people behind him, these killings will continue. All very cruel."
"He might already be dead," said Reshiad. He saw Neptarik's earpoints suddenly twitch up, sag down and jerk upright again. The human boy leaned forward. "You know more than you're telling."
Tektu saved Neptarik from answering. She left the dugout carrying blankets and the leaves from the ceiling. The sylphs quickly divided the blankets and leaves into two bundles, securing a trowel in the middle of each.
"Neptarik." Reshiad used his firm no-nonsense voice. It usually worked well with his father's sylphs. "Tell me about Awen."
Neptarik ignored him. "We should leave now," he said. He looked at the dugout. "We might need it again."
Reshiad sat back and watched the two sylphs maneuver branches across the entrance. When they finished, nothing looked out of place. If not for his anger at being ignored, he would admire the sylphs' skill at concealing the small cave.
"Tell me about Awen," insisted Reshiad.
"Want me to put him back in the river?" asked Tektu.
"Shut. Up." Reshiad scowled at the infertile.
Tektu glared back. "No."
Reshiad lifted his hand...
...and flew through the air until he crashed back to the ground. Tektu stood over him.
"If you ever lift a hand to me again, I will break every bone in it," she threatened, voice calm.
"Enough, Tektu." Neptarik turned to Reshiad. "It might be wise if you try not to attack her. She can get irritable now and then."
Reshiad surreptitiously rubbed his hip and avoided Tektu's eyes.
Neptarik turned back to Tektu. "I will lead, you follow."
"You should discipline your sylph more often," said Reshiad. "Sylphs do not act like that."
Neptarik smiled. "Leave the when and how to me. Keep your hands to yourself; we are not on your father's farm."
They left the small camp in silence.
Reshiad followed Neptarik, marveling as the sylph appeared and disappeared, thanks to his paint. Without the sylph's movement, he would be unable to see him at all. He felt less happy with Tektu bringing up the rear. What was she? That throw had hurt, but she couldn't be strong enough to hurl him into the air.
"We must cross the river," he pointed out.
"We know," growled Tektu from behind. "Keep moving."
Neptarik dodged this way and that, pausing occasionally to listen. The sound of the river grew gradually to a roar. The sylph scrambled over rocks, keeping his footing easily, unlike the unfortunate Reshiad, who slipped a few times.
"You don't mean to cross here?" squeaked the human boy.
He stared wide-eyed at ragged rocks with water foaming between them. Wet, green and black with growth, those rocks looked very, very slippery.
Neptarik leaned close. "Put all your weight on one foot at a time. Think and look before you move."
"I'll be in the water," protested Reshiad.
Neptarik shrugged and pointed upriver. "There's a road through the forest fifteen milas that way, and a bridge, if you prefer to go around. Perhaps soldiers are there too." He pointed across the river, roughly in the direction of Reshiad's home. "My owner is that way and the way we go from here."
Reshiad tried and failed to see exactly where Neptarik placed his feet, for the sylph moved like a dancer, crossing the river in moments.
"You moving today?" Tektu grumbled from behind.
Reshiad glanced over his shoulder, then looked back to where Neptarik waited impatiently on the other bank. He stared at the water and rocks.
"If you do not start moving farmboy, I will leave you here and you can walk around."
"What are you?" Reshiad's gaze searched the sylph's face.
Tektu sniffed. "If I charged for that question, I might get rich. Now get over that river."
All weight on one foot at a time. Reshiad picked a likely looking spot on the nearest rock and stepped onto it. His boots protected him from the rock's sharp edges and he wondered how the barefoot Neptarik coped.
He looked for his next foothold and tried to ignore the water foaming between his rock and the next. He stepped across the torrent and imagined the river rose up to take him. Momentum carried his other foot forward to the next rock, but he only leaned against that one; his weight still on the rock behind, as Neptarik had suggested.
He glanced over his shoulder to see Tektu watching impatiently. Those silver-gray eyes glittered at him, perhaps willing him to fall in.
The infertile wasn't his problem right now, but he must cross this river. He put pressure on his forward foot. Slippery, this rock would not hold him. He shifted position and tried again.
"Go on, farmboy," urged Tektu.
Reshiad resisted the urge to snarl or swear at her, but one good kick from behind and he would be in.
No turning back.
That last thought almost froze him to the spot, but he fought sudden panic. He shifted position again as he chose where might be a good spot. He transferred his weight by moving his body forward...
For a moment he dangled, aware of something holding on to the back of his jerkin, pulling him back onto the safe rock. He panted and looked over his shoulder.
"You are strong," he told her. "Thank you."
Tektu shrugged, but her expression was neutral, an improvement on disapproval. "Careful," she cautioned. "Try that rock instead."
Two more steps and Reshiad was faced with something more than a step wide. Though not whipped to foam here, the water still moved swiftly. More than a pace wide, the gap was wide enough to make any jump to the next rock something of a leap of faith.
"Is that one slippery?" he called to the waiting Neptarik.
"Yes," came the morale-sapping answer.
Reshiad paused. "I'll have to jump it," he called.
"Fine. I did too."
Reshiad blinked. "I'll be off the other side," he pointed out. "I'm probably twice as heavy as you. More."
"Too well fed," came from the doom-monger behind.
The nimble Neptarik jumped back to the last rock and moved to one side. He tapped a spot immediately in front of him with a foot. "Aim for that," he suggested.
"Keep your eyes open and get ready to hang onto the far bank."
"What?" Reshiad shook his head.
"Keep your weight forward as you jump," continued Neptarik, "so no backward slips."
"Go on," urged Tektu.
Reshiad took a deep breath, and flung himself forward. Hitting the rock, his leading foot immediately slipped from beneath him and his upper body leaned forward. So near, yet he would still end up in the river.
Abruptly, vaguely aware of a hand somewhere on his lower back, his speed increased and he flew across the last step to crash into the far bank. Remembering Neptarik's urging, he clung on.
"Now climb!" shouted Neptarik.
Reshiad obeyed and finally pulled himself to relative safety. He lay panting on his back and stared up at the gently swaying treetops, vaguely aware of the two sylphs following.
"Well," he said, "thank you for getting me across."
Neptarik grunted something before slinging his small pack across his back.
Tektu rearranged her pack and stared down at him. "Might have been quicker to let you walk round." The familiar glower had returned.
"Why are you resting?" asked Neptarik. "The hard part is done now. Thought you wanted to go home."
Pulling himself to his feet, Reshiad resisted a growl.
Reaching the edge of the forest, Neptarik pointed.
"Over that way," he said.
Reshiad nodded, but said nothing. He left the sylphs and trudged towards his home in silence. The late afternoon sunshine bathed everything in a warm, pink glow and he hurried ahead.
When the buildings came into sight, he heaved a sigh of relief. For some strange reason, he imagined that they might have been burned. He had feared that the soldiers would vent their frustration at his escape on his family.
He glanced back at the forest, but saw nothing of his two rescuers. At least Neptarik would be invisible with his paint, but he should still be able to see Tektu.
Clearly, they had not waited.
When he saw the sheep, his relief evaporated.
That one might be resting was normal enough, but woolly mounds dotted the gentle pasture and not one raised its head as he approached.
Crimson stained every fleece. Even the lambs, still very young and barely able to keep their footing, had been slaughtered, together with their mothers.
Reshiad gritted his teeth and increased his pace.
No smoke rose from the chimneys, where his mother should be cooking a meal by now, or the sylphs heating water for baths. None of the sheepdogs raced out to greet him, as normal.
Nothing but silence.
Entering the farmyard, Reshiad took one look and began to scream.
Revulsion shone in Neptarik's silver-gray eyes as he looked around the farmyard. Tektu wore a bored expression as she looked at each human and sylph corpse in turn, ignoring the clouds of flies.
"Why?" Tears streamed down Reshiad's cheeks, but anger shone in his hazel eyes.
Neptarik shrugged. "Maybe because they resisted. Maybe because you got away."
"So it's my fault?"
The male sylph eyed the boy. He had seen this sort of reaction before, even suffered from it himself. "The fault lies with the men who did this," he replied. "And with the man who sent them."
"Because they think I might be this... what's-his-name."
"Awen Adelbard Haist," said Neptarik. "Yes, they think you might be."
Muscles in Reshiad's cheeks twitched. "You knew, didn't you?"
"No." Neptarik kept his voice quiet. Beside him, Tektu tensed.
"You knew they killed people who resisted!" shouted Reshiad.
Neptarik spread his arms. "I did not know they would come here to kill your family," he protested. "Once they saw you, I believed they would carry on hunting you."
"While we were yapping, soldiers were murdering my family!"
"Shouting at Neptarik will change that?" Tektu stared at the human boy, more than a hint of aggression in her eyes. "The soldiers killed your family, not us. Soldiers sent by the prefect."
Reshiad stepped forward.
"You have my sympathy," continued Tektu, expression and earpoints hinting her words were a lie, "but lift your hand any higher, remember what I said the last time you tried that. Lift your hand to the prefect, not me or Neptarik."
Reshiad gave a bitter laugh, almost a sob. "The prefect? How can I lift my hand to him? I'm just a peasant boy."
"You are a human," answered Neptarik. "You can be anything you want."
Tektu looked at Neptarik.
"Come and speak to my owner," said the painted sylph. "He might help." His earpoints wilted and he inspected a fingernail, as if embarrassed.
Reshiad looked from one sylph to the other. "Where is your owner?" he asked.
"A day or so away, if we move fast," replied Neptarik.
Reshiad looked at the sky. "It will be dark soon. And we must bury the dead."
"We?" whispered Tektu.
"Yes," said Neptarik, giving the strange infertile a furious look. "We will help you do that."
"Thought you said you could run."
Reshiad grimaced at the near contempt in Tektu's voice. "I didn't realize you meant all night," he grumbled.
He had not taken much from his home, just a couple of blankets and a change of clothes, all wrapped around a firebow and the bundle in turn wrapped inside his oilskin. His knife hung from his belt, and he'd tucked a sling into a pocket. A flexible saw - a narrow strip of metal - acted like a second belt. It looked like a shiny length of string, but could cut through wood as easily as a sharp knife through cheese.
"Lucky those soldiers are not still here," replied Tektu. "They would catch you otherwise. Annoying after all the effort we have put into you."
Reshiad almost squealed when a shadow transformed into Neptarik.
"The way is clear for milas," said the painted sylph, using the human tongue for Reshiad's benefit. "But keep quiet; you never know if I missed anything."
Although he heard sincerity in the sylph's voice, Reshiad doubted if Neptarik missed a thing.
"We will carry on to the next byawta," continued Neptarik, "and rest there."
"Next what?" asked Reshiad.
Neptarik shrugged, ignorant of the human word he wanted.
"Means a cave we made ourselves," said Tektu. "Now run."
Reshiad feared he might die before they reached the dugout. They ran beside the road, ready to jump into the ditch at the side to hide from any soldiers. From anyone at all, he suspected.
When the road led them into forest again, the sylphs turned aside, Tektu now having to fully guide the night-blind human. Not even starlight penetrated here. Soon, the sylphs pulled branches clear from the next dugout.
"How many are there around here?" asked Reshiad. He addressed his question to the air, for there was not even a glow from sylph eyes to show him where they stood. "The, ah, byawtas."
"Byawtula," corrected Neptarik, absently. "One is byawta, more than one-"
"All right, I'm not altogether ignorant." Reshiad failed to keep irritation out of his voice.
"Mind your head as you go in," said Tektu, helping the boy to the entrance. "You can crawl into the right. Do your best with your blankets."
Reshiad fumbled with his blankets in the dark, grateful that breeder sylphs were more or less the same height as humans. If they were all infertile-sized, he might not be able to straighten out properly. Even so, once comfortable, he turned his face to the wall and hoped Tektu would not overhear him weeping for his dead family.
"This is Merley," said Reshiad, looking about him.
Walking beside him, Tektu nodded.
Too large to be a village, yet too small for a town, Merley consisted of houses, a couple of inns and a handful of shops crammed alongside the single road, with more houses erected in no particular order behind. A river flowed nearby and fields surrounded the buildings.
Neptarik had ranged ahead very early, returning with the welcome news that no soldiers rested in Merley. Then he vanished again, and Reshiad hadn't seen him since.
Familiar with Merley from visits, Reshiad had never traveled further from home. He glanced at the road leading further west.
"This way," said Tektu, turning between one of the inns and a smithy.
She led him to the stables at the back of the inn, where Neptarik, still painted, waited for them.
The male sylph grinned at Reshiad. "Welcome to the Willam's Leap," he said. "The beds are more or less comfortable, but the ale is a bit, well, off."
"Why did you bring me to the stable?" asked Reshiad. Several horses filled the stalls, and a hint of sinabra warned him that sylphs were about. They probably helped the stablers by polishing tack and mucking out.
Neptarik's smile remained in place, though his earpoints betrayed inner irritation by a violent twitch. "Discretion," he replied. "You never know who might be watching in the common room. Spies looking for boys a certain age, perhaps."
Tektu gestured with her head towards the upstairs windows. "Mya is with him?"
The infertile sniffed. "Then I will wait out here."
Neptarik's attention turned back to Reshiad. "Coming?" he asked.
The boy followed the sylph into the back of the inn and up a narrow servant stair, emerging beside a door that led to one of the back rooms. Neptarik opened the door and indicated Reshiad should lead the way inside. The sylph came in after him and closed the door quietly.
Reshiad's gaze flickered around the room. Despite being a back room, it must be one of the largest the inn offered, with doors leading off to the sleeping chambers. Two men sat on the far side of a polished dining table, and light from the window framed rather than obscured them.
Both looked like soldiers, one older than the other. The younger man had perhaps twenty years or so, with blue eyes and dark-brown hair curling over his ears. The other boasted similar hair and eye color, but he was stockier, with lines showing around his nose and mouth.
A female sylph crossed the room to Neptarik. A quick touch of fingertips and foreheads, then the pair parted again. Reshiad realized these two were emotionally involved.
"Alovak please, Mya," said the older man. "For three."
Reshiad relaxed. At last, a more normal human and sylph relationship.
The younger man leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. "I am Verdin Branad Vintner," he introduced himself, "and this is Balnus Kenta Pinton.
Reshiad smiled and nodded his head. "I am Reshiad Wajrun Helzar," he replied.
The smiles remained in place, but Reshiad sensed they were somewhat more forced.
"Not Awen Adelbard Haist?" Verdin's voice now held a definite edge.
Reshiad shook his head. "No."
Balnus turned his full attention onto Neptarik; the sylph's earpoints wilted and almost tucked away. Reshiad failed to hide his pleasure that something fazed the creature.
"The explanation why you have the wrong boy," began Balnus, "had better be outstanding."
First Chapter (Eldovan Sub-Plot)
In The West
The ilvenworld is full of oddities. Like here, a land with no people.
Of course, lots of lands have no people, but such places are usually natural. Dense forests and frozen wastelands are rarely seething masses of humanity. The casual observer might feel the sights here are also natural: long, still-growing grass waving in the gentle breeze, and early spring wildflowers providing splashes of color. Everything the same, as far as the eye can see in all directions.
There is a road, made from packed earth and rutted by the passage of caravans. Nothing remarkable in that, if people choose not to live in a place, it doesn't mean they never pass through. There is also a small row of borderstones, proof of some human interest in this land.
But the trees dotted about, a few in copses, are all less than a decade old, and should our casual observer decide to take a closer look at the grass waving in the wind, familiar agricultural plants such as oat, barley and wheat would reveal themselves. Food crops allowed to grow wild. Which meant this land was not unpopulated, but depopulated.
And further east, if that observer cared to look, lay land spoiled by quick-growing softwood trees that would usually only be seen at much higher latitudes, altering the soil's acidity and making it useless for growing crops. A land deliberately wasted.
Sad, but nothing particularly strange about that, either. People fight wars and are rarely pleasant to the losers.
The oddity here is not the land, but four wagons. Ordinary canvas-covered carts, each with two tethered horses. The animals are eating peaceably and waiting for the heavy work to begin again. The nosy observer might move closer to the carts before realizing the canvas hides cages, each locked and faced with wood, so nobody can see what's inside.
Perhaps these are not the real oddity, either. After all, there are plenty of carts to be found near roads, and they are usually pulled by either horses or oxen. But carts also have people.
There is nobody here.
The air shimmers and a group of fifteen people, six on horseback, materialize from nowhere. Well, nine of the fifteen are people; the other six are sylphs, earpoints slightly wilted, now busy rubbing their arms and staring at each other with wide eyes. Five of those sylphs have a surreal appearance, painted gray, green and brown, all with black slashes across face and chest. The only normal thing about the painted sylphs is that all wear black leather collars.
The fear they display is natural, as no sylph enjoys having the Gift used within sensing distance. No matter how important their task.
A silver-haired old man stared at the small group of soldiers and sylphs with piercing blue eyes, before nodding grumpily to Tahena. He glanced at the wagons, two carrying food and water, the others swords and equipment. A grimace twisted his mouth. He understood necessity, but he had not liked moving those weapons. Precepts might only be guidelines, but they existed for a reason.
Despite appearances, Grayar was never as grumpy as he pretended.
"You are a very persuasive man," Grayar told General Kelanus, the man in command, "but do not call on my services for anything like this again."
Kelanus, still mounted, looked down at Grayar and inclined his head, his pale-blue eyes expressionless. "Sandev refused to help, with her... foci."
Though quickly suppressed, something very like rage flashed across Grayar's features. "You might find Sandev has no more of those," he snapped.
Kelanus opened his mouth to speak again, but Tahena laid a hand on her husband's leg.
"Thank you for your help, Grayar," she said. "Once again, you have proved invaluable."
Grayar's disapproving sniff bordered on a snort. He nodded again to Tahena, looked at the sylphs, then wandered towards the copse of trees. Despite putting distance between himself and the small group, when he finally projected, all six sylphs subconsciously rubbed their arms and stared at each other again. They knew what caused their sudden unease.
Marshal Janost, the senior Eldovan present, smiled as he stared across the verdant landscape. "The Barren," he announced in tones of deep satisfaction.
"Prefecture of Feylkin," corrected Kelanus, absently.
"The Barren is a good enough name," murmured Hanmer, Kelanus's yeoman.
With no other sign of human habitation, the road ran east to west, and even Eldovans still called it the Marka Road.
"Certainly a waste of good land," said Tahena.
Overhearing, Janost sniffed. "Hingast had the people moved, Mistress Tahena. These lands are a buffer no army moving against Eldova can cross easily. Further east there is no agriculture, so no food to plunder. A defensive ring for Eldova, at little cost."
"Except in people's lives, Marshal Janost." Tahena's voice was cold. "Hingast had more butchered than were moved."
Janost shrugged, an almost imperceptible movement that Tahena would have missed had she not been watching for it.
Janost carried on as if he commanded, rather than being a prisoner. All four Eldovans here - three humans and the only sylph not covered in scouting paint - were prisoners, captured either by Kelanus - as in Janost's example - or the shadow riders. Though what their exact status would become once the rest of the soldiers rejoined them remained unclear.
General Mirrin - another Eldovan - joined them. "Waiting here for the walkers to catch up before we move into Mpopa?" he asked, jerking a thumb westwards.
Most of the Eldovan prisoners had been disarmed after their capture and later released to make their own way home. Roads from the east eventually led here, where the Markan Road entered Mpopa, part of the Eldovan lands.
"Yes," replied Kelanus. "They cannot be far away now, so with luck we'll not be waiting long."
Kelanus and his small group had cheated, using Grayar's Gift to move them westwards from Marka. The Gifted had not been happy about that. Not so much moving the people, but the weapons.
Unable to carry them all, the victorious Markans had buried the defeated Eldovans' swords and axes. Everybody feared the Eldovan soldiers regrouping again for another attack; it had happened once already. But attacks were difficult when the enemy was stripped of weapons.
But Kelanus had asked Grayar to take him and some soldiers to the battle sites and recover the buried arms. This, Grayar had frostily informed the general, skirted very close to the edge of principle.
Two of the sylphs - Belaika and Fhionnen - had projected with them to the western battle site. These two sylphs had suffered three moves using the Gift, but looked to be holding up better than the other four, who had suffered one. Perhaps the first two had grown used to the Gift.
"Grayar feels we abused his talents," said Mirrin, making conversation. Of the Eldovans, he was the easiest to get along with. The sixth sylph in the small group - named Shashi - belonged to him and she now heeled her owner.
"He's done it before, so I fail to see what his problem is this time," countered Kelanus. "We had to get ahead of all those returning to Eldova and we had to recover their weapons. The Gift was the only way."
"But done under protest." Mirrin's dark-brown eyes looked towards the copse where Grayar had last been seen.
Kelanus turned his attention to the five sylph scouts that, by some small miracle, he had been allowed to bring with him. "Except for Shyamon, the rest of you disappear and get on with it. Ean, you take Samel; Fhionnen stays with Belaika."
"Se bata!" came from four scouts and they scampered away, quickly blending into their surroundings while they formed a ring around the small group. Shyamon's earpoints twitched as the scouts sent pingers to each other while they found the best positions.
"Right," said Kelanus, "we'd better get our camp set up."
Nobody had brought large campaign tents, but small canvas affairs that each man could carry. Even Shashi had her own tent, which she erected within whispering distance of Mirrin. Only the scouts would sleep under the sky, even Shyamon who remained in the camp. Kelanus liked the idea of small tents and decided he would introduce them to the Markan army when he returned. Even so, with four carts and fourteen horses, the camp took some time to set up.
Grayar had wanted to keep the group even smaller, but Kelanus could manage no fewer than eight humans and six sylphs. Grayar then suggested leaving the sylphs behind, but Belaika and Shashi objected loudest to this.
Understandably, Shashi did not want to be separated from Mirrin, but Belaika refused to reveal his motives. Ever since he had caught wind of Kelanus's plan during the winter, he insisted on coming along and not even his owner could stop him.
Worst of all, there were no cooks until the remnants of Eldova's proud army joined them. Those who had never before cooked for themselves now learned new skills, with varying degrees of success.
They divided their camp by unspoken agreement.
Kelanus and Tahena sat to one side with Shyamon, the sylph tending the pot hanging in the flames of their small fire, using a wooden spoon to stir the stew. Yeoman Hanmer and Messenger Felis were both Calcanese and wanted to have as little to do with the Eldovans as possible. Their small tents were set up close to Kelanus, if still far enough away to allow privacy.
But the Eldovans were also divided. Mirrin sat with Captain Jediyah, Yeoman Taved and Shashi, while Janost set his tent up slightly apart from the rest.
Of the Eldovans, Kelanus trusted Janost least. The man had acted honorably enough since his capture, having the decency to surrender before all his men were slaughtered, but he had been Hingast's man to the core. Even now, he refused to believe that the man who now called himself Hingast was an imposter.
Even more secretive about his reasons for coming than Belaika, the marshal seemed quite happy to stay away from everybody else.
"A shame we couldn't have lost Janost," muttered Kelanus.
Tahena glanced towards the Eldovans. "Can we be sure of Mirrin? Of any of them?"
Kelanus glanced at Shyamon. The scout concentrated too hard on stirring the pot not to be listening. "Belaika seems certain we can," he replied.
"Belaika is close to Shashi. Be careful."
Kelanus chuckled, a bass rumble. "Not that close," he replied. "He was their prisoner, not a guest."
"Those," retorted Tahena, "are usually the most dangerous relationships of all." She looked at Shyamon. "What do you think?"
The sylph scout squeaked and almost dropped his wooden spoon into the fire. His earpoints thrashed momentarily before stabilizing again. "The stew is ready," he said, a touch breathlessly.
Kelanus laughed aloud. "Do you think Mirrin can be trusted?"
Shyamon's eyes betrayed wariness and his earpoints wilted. "He is Eldovan," he replied, as if that explained everything.
"We'll take that as a no," said Kelanus.
Shyamon said nothing further as he used a wooden hook to pull the pot free from the flames. Setting out three wooden bowls, he served the vegetable stew in characteristic silence.
General Mirrin sat cross-legged before his small tent, one hand resting atop his alovak. Shashi ignored all protocol and sat immediately in front of her owner and leaned back in the hope he might tease her earpoints, an increasingly rare treat these days.
Shashi wriggled closer as Mirrin remained silent. Her expectant smile faded and, feeling neglected, she looked over her shoulder.
The general's eyes focused and he forced a smile. "All of us from Eldova have been played for fools, Shashi," he said, answering her unasked question.
His sylph blinked, but wriggled around to face her owner, earpoints slanted forward to show she paid attention to his words.
"Hingast never wanted the throne for himself," continued Mirrin. "He wanted to destroy it and Marka. He intended to use us to enslave or massacre Marka's people."
Shashi shivered; sylphs disliked such talk. "Makes no sense."
"Makes every sense," retorted Mirrin. "Hingast wanted to remove the competition and build a new empire based around Eldova. That's why he allied with Re Taura and didn't care about them monopolizing trade in the Bay of Plenty."
Shashi, who had never seen the sea, shrugged. "Thought you agreed he wasn't the real Hingast."
Mirrin smiled. "Hard to believe that Sandev's claim might be true. All right, so it is true. If Kelanus gets his way, we'll soon find out."
Shashi shivered again. She knew what Kelanus "getting his way" meant. More death and another killing. Would humans ever learn to adapt without slaughtering each other? This sounded like more danger for her owner.
She motioned sideways with her eyes. "What about him?"
Mirrin glanced across to Janost, sniffed and pursed his lips. "It's never easy to learn that you've been living a lie," he said. "Some people adapt quicker than others."
"Why did he come?"
Mirrin smiled. "Most observant," he remarked.
Shashi scowled and waited for an answer.
"Perhaps he wants to see for himself. He might know something no imposter can possibly know."
"From the way he has been talking, he knew last year that Hingast was an imposter."
"Whatever his reasons for coming," said Mirrin, "we'll find out what they are soon enough. Perhaps he's just homesick, like the rest of us."
They fell silent as Yeoman Taved and Captain Jediyah returned with more water from the stream.
"How much longer before they get here, Sir?" asked Taved, more to make conversation than through genuine enquiry.
"Days I expect," replied Jediyah. "They can't be all that far away."
"And it'll be our lads who get here," added Mirrin. He glanced towards Janost again. "I'm not sure the other lot can be fully trusted. Though they should come in along the North Road."
"More sylphs," said Shashi. "Instead of... them." She glanced towards Shyamon and her earpoints wilted.
"Thought you liked them now," said Mirrin.
"Belaika yes," qualified Shashi. "He stopped them from killing you, enya." She blinked back sudden tears.
Mirrin decided that sylph interpersonal relationships were often confusing and said no more on the matter. From the far southwest of Eldova's small empire, Mirrin preferred to surround himself with men from Eldova's outer prefectures. He trusted such men before any others. And the rest might have been tainted from their association with Hingast. Or whoever had replaced him.
In the gathering gloom, Mirrin shuddered.
Belaika and Fhionnen worked quickly together. Based to the east of Kelanus's small group, they would be first to make contact with any Eldovans making their way home after last year's battles. Belaika would know all those expected to come along this road. He had hoped never to see some of them again.
Working together they scraped out a shallow byawta, but made only one sleeping place. The two scouts would share the watches, to prevent anybody or anything from surprising the small group of humans from this side.
They worked well together, despite one being not yet fully trained.
In fairness, Fhionnen's skills had improved over the winter. After last year's adventures, the field held no terrors or discomforts. One of the few city sylphs recruited in Marka to be retained by the scouting corps, he had earned the already-trained scouts' respect. And one of the few not overawed by the more experienced sylph.
Being the first sylph scout ever captured, Belaika had feared ridicule after suffering this ignoble distinction. His experienced colleagues had certainly teased him over this humiliation. But the rest...
He had been captured, resisted giving anything away despite interrogations by one of The Ten, and he had escaped. All Belaika's protests about the help that he had received fell on deaf ears.
Belaika was special and somehow more than an ordinary sylph scout.
Fhionnen resisted such nonsense. He knew Velisar had rescued the prisoner, rather than Belaika escaping from the Eldovans. He also knew about the restrictions forced on Nicolfer and her methods. And he knew how terrified Belaika had been most of the time, rather than the heroic figure imagined by the less experienced scouts.
But Fhionnen had done and said nothing to silence them, either.
The sylphs inspected their work.
In byawta rankings, it might manage somewhere near the bottom, though in fairness they had very few materials to work with. They had cut a couple of saplings to form a square for a roof, and Fhionnen found enough broadleafs to tile that roof before Belaika piled some earth over and grass over the top.
"At least it cannot be seen more than a paca away," said Belaika, after a moment's silence.
"Probably the best we can say for it." Fhionnen grimaced. "If the Eldovans are further away than Mirrin thinks, we can always work on it a bit more." He glanced at his trenching tool and shrugged. "At least it will not fall in on us."
Belaika grinned. "On you," he replied. "I will take first watch tonight."
Fhionnen decided it might be better for him to try and sleep now. He took his blanket and disappeared inside the byawta.
Belaika found a place slightly away from their small cave, where he sat with his back against one of the small trees dotting the deserted land. As darkness strengthened, he continued to think.
Before long he stiffened. Firelight? Belaika stood and glanced at the short tree. He decided it would hold his weight and shinned up. He saw a good three dozen specks of flickering light out there.
He hoped people were still awake. He sent a pinger, and waited for an acknowledgment. It came eventually, suggesting Shyamon's attention had wandered, or he had been asleep. Belaika sent his report and waited again.
Over there, Shyamon was probably waking Kelanus and asking for orders.
Maybe the other scout dithered, but he had worked with Kelanus before. Shyamon would know there would be no trouble, even if Belaika had got it wrong about the fires. There were fewer now, but that only meant the people out there were beginning to settle down.
Finally, a reply.
Investigate. Do not get captured this time.
Belaika scowled in the dark and acknowledged the command. He deliberately ignored the dig about capture; that sounded more like Kelanus than Shyamon.
He woke Fhionnen.
"We have company," he whispered, and explained what he had seen. "You stay here, I will go and see."
"You think it is them?" Fhionnen had woken in an instant, one of the good things about him.
"It might be."
Fhionnen sat outside and both sylphs glanced around. Thanks to the stars, the sky was more gray than dark, and clearly delineated from land, but no moon hung in the sky to flood everything in light. A large, bright star moved briskly across the sky: the Ark Star continuing its eternal voyage. Wind rustling through the grass would help Belaika, but also mask the sound of anyone else moving. If that camp belonged to the Eldovans, they would have their own sentries and scouts. And the camp sylphs might have heard the whistles carrying their messages.
"Lots of light," Fhionnen remarked, looking into Belaika's faintly-glowing eyes.
Belaika left. He knew that even to Fhionnen's sylph eyes, he would disappear before taking more than a few steps. Keeping low in the grass ensured he would not stand out against the starry sky.
Before long, he had left the waiting Fhionnen behind.
He moved fast and low, keeping his head below the height of the grass. He used the stars as guides, quickly closing the gap between his small camp and the larger one to the east. Any other scouts out would be human, which meant he held a slight advantage.
He glanced up at the sky with its countless glittering stars. However imperfectly, even humans could see in this. Even he would be seen if he stood upright. Still no hint of a moon, another advantage.
Belaika paused often and looked around carefully for anything out of place. After pausing for a quick sniff, rabbits ignored him or moved out of his way; if any humans were near, the rabbits' behavior would be quite different.
Soon, he saw no more rabbits.
He stopped and carefully lifted his head, hoping no light reflected out from his eyes. His instincts were good. A dark shape ahead, that might be mistaken for a rock, but for the wind rippling what he assumed was a cloak. He lay lower in the grass.
Earpoints twitching and eyes questing for more scouts, Belaika went around this one, but the perimeter guards were the next humans he saw. At least these were easier to spot than the scout, because they moved about and stood out against the sky.
He slipped past undetected.
Only a couple of fires still burned, threatening to destroy his night vision. Wagons surrounded tents in a series of defensive squares and only a few soldiers were still about. But what a camp! Stretching for some distance, the watching sylph estimated at least two thousand here, including camp followers.
He began to recognize people.
Tempted to report immediately, Belaika remembered how camp sylphs had pointed him out the last time he reported this particular army's location. And that had led to humiliation. Though this army had somehow shrunk in size compared with last year, he knew that there were well over a hundred sylphs here, all with ears that would now recognize a scout's whistle.
Not only the first sylph scout captured by an enemy, but so far the only sylph scout captured by an enemy. His face burned in embarrassment.
He successfully and easily evaded the perimeter guards for a second time, moved carefully until past the scout again (the man had not moved, which surprised the sylph) and had almost reached the byawta before pinging Fhionnen.
The reply came almost immediately, so the boy had not fallen asleep, another of the good things about him.
"Mirrin's Eldovans," said Fhionnen, silvery eyes glowing faintly as his companion returned. He had passed the message on, of course.
"They will make contact tomorrow," replied Belaika. He stood, the better to hear Shyamon's faint acknowledgment. He turned back to Fhionnen. "You have improved. You saw me before I arrived."
Fhionnen grinned. "Three more years and I might be as good as you," he replied, referring to the length of time the Calcan scouts claimed it took to train. Five years to reach the required standard, and Fhionnen had joined the corps two years earlier.
Shyamon's whistle reached their ears.
"Kelanus-ya is pleased," said Fhionnen.
"I heard," replied Belaika. "You had better go back to sleep; it's still my watch."
Belaika and Fhionnen paralleled the Eldovans as they continued along the road. The two scouts sent no messages between each other, just in case any camp sylphs were listening. As a further precaution, they stayed beyond the range of the human scouts with the army.
In daylight, Belaika saw more familiar faces.
Lieutenant Kadyah must be the senior officer, riding ahead of the long column on a white stallion. A patch of blue showed where his sylph - Wenna, if Belaika's memory served - walked at his stirrup.
The fat quartermaster Jurabim rode on the lead wagon, also surrounded by sylphs, most walking, but one sat beside him. Belaika knew without looking there were four, all without owners. There had been six, but two had decided to stay with the Markans for their own reasons.
Belaika grimaced, pleased that Gajaran had chosen to stay behind in Marka with her new owner. The only infertile who had ever made him feel uncomfortable, she blamed sylph scouts for her previous owner's death. He hoped she and Sandev had bonded well. And he hoped he never saw her again.
He glimpsed Cavalry Sergeant Somersen on his horse and shuddered. The man had not been pleasant to the scout during his captivity. The man had never given any hint of an apology; did he hate all sylphs, or just scouts? It must be only scouts; Somersen had never displayed cruelty to any other sylph.
So many faces he remembered and he could put names to most. Once the enemy, but now a defeated and disarmed - if still disciplined - group of men with their camp followers.
Men Kelanus hoped to use.
Belaika shivered. He had his own reasons for coming here, but part of him felt Kelanus's plan was either madness, or perhaps bold and daring. The best plans always appeared insane in the sylph's view.
Belaika grimaced again when he spotted a couple of Eldovan scouts. He remembered his chats with Nalred and Vaul. The Eldovan scouts had adapted, wearing drab clothes, and now painted exposed skin brown and green for better camouflage.
Perhaps he would be in trouble for showing the humans the way.
Nearing the borderstones, Belaika stiffened, watching General Mirrin and Yeoman Taved ride forward to meet their old comrades.
Kadyah held up an arm, and the column halted. Eventually. More men rode or walked to the head of the army to huddle with Mirrin and his yeoman.
Belaika sat back in the grass, so he could just see the wagons and keep an eye on Mirrin. Now everybody else had stopped, movement from him might be seen by the wrong people.
Would the returning Eldovans see things Kelanus's way, or want revenge for last year's defeat? Apart from the sylph scouts, only Kelanus, Hanmer and Felis were Markan, though Tahena might be able to use the Gift to help them all escape.
Kelanus had taken a huge gamble and Belaika hoped it worked in the Markans' favor.
"S'ranva's breath, it's good to see you again, Sir!" exclaimed Lieutenant Kadyar. "How did you get here before us?"
"Long story," replied Mirrin. "Let's just say ours wasn't the only defeat last year. Hingast got routed, but he fled and left the rest of his men to sink."
Kadyar's blue eyes hardened. "Those rumors, about Hingast being not what he seems."
Mirrin nodded. "That's why we're here. The real Hingast has a son and if Eldova is ruled by an imposter, we will put him on Eldova's throne."
"How can we prove it?"
"We'll prove it, Kadyar. Tell me, how was the journey home?"
"Not good." Kadyar's lips thinned before he continued. "We armed ourselves with staffs but still got attacked several times. We also lost a lot of men who've turned mercenary and sold their services to petty lords along the way."
Mirrin grimaced. "How many are left?"
"Just over half, Sir."
Mirrin growled an oath. "Half?"
"If all had come, we'd have starved before now. The Barren is aptly named."
Mirrin glanced along the column. About two thousand men, plus whatever might return from the northern group, who were the Eldovans he didn't trust. The men here might have to be enough.
"Janost is with me," said Mirrin.
Kadyar, not yet as politically minded as Mirrin, nodded.
"And a Markan general. Kelanus."
Kadyar nodded again. "Has he brought any abominations with him?"
"Five." Mirrin forced a smile. "Two will be around here somewhere; they reported your approach late yesterday."
Kadyar scowled. "I suppose we could use them."
"Come meet Kelanus and listen to what he has to say."
"We'll come," promised Kadyar, "and we'll listen. But beyond that, we'll make our own decisions."
Mirrin smiled. "Of course." He hoped his men would make the right choice.
Kelanus had expected a rough ride and he wasn't disappointed. Understandably, the Eldovans refused to trust a word he said, even if respect tempered their opinion of him. After all, he had defeated Hingast not once, but twice.
But they were reluctant to believe that Hingast was an imposter.
Only officers and sergeants were present, their weapons still locked away in the wagon. Should they decide to take matters into their own hands, there was little anybody would do to stop them. Perhaps why they had not, so far, made any demands concerning their arms.
"You expect us to infiltrate our own city?" demanded Sergeant Somersen.
"No," replied Kelanus, "I expect you to exercise discretion until we learn what the man who calls himself Hingast has said or done about you. He fled the field last year and returned home. He and those with him do not want to see you ever again. You fought honorably, but he fled home, so politically, you are all potentially embarrassing. He will have worked out a story to explain his presence and your absence."
"How do you know he fled the field?" demanded an anonymous sergeant.
"He fled the field," said Janost. "I was there."
Silence met that.
"He ran," insisted Kelanus. "He saw an opportunity to go and abandoned everybody with him. Should any appear, his position is weakened. The man I suspect who is really Hingast will realize that and will have done something about it. You will be the ones accused of treason and cowardice."
A growl of disgust met that.
"Exactly. This is the sort of man you're dealing with," said Kelanus.
"Sounds nothing like the Hingast I know," said Nalred, Sergeant of Scouts.
Kelanus smiled. "That's because he isn't the Hingast you know."
"Then who? And how can he pass as Hingast?"
"His name is Ranallic Eydren and he is a sorcerer of some considerable ability. I've seen him at work, when he fled a field of contest, again as a coward." Kelanus's mouth twisted with the memory. He'd had him and still the man managed to escape!
"Ranallic Eydren is a southerner," said a doubting voice. "No way could he pass as Hingast."
Kelanus stared. "You know him?"
Quartermaster Jurabim stepped forward. "Sure I do. And I won't be alone in that. Anyone in the army more'n ten years will remember Ranallic. Ended up a lieutenant and deserted at the turn of the century."
Kelanus exchanged a look with Mirrin. "Do you know the man?"
Mirrin shook his head. "I've always been posted south of Eldova."
Jurabim warmed to his theme. "He was well in with Hingast. And his advisor, ah, Dervra."
"He used to find sylphs for Hingast to hunt," continued the quartermaster. "Some of 'em were already half-dead for some reason."
Kelanus turned to Tahena. "Everything fits," he whispered. "It explains the gap between leaving Pensdren and surfacing in Sandester. He must have learned sorcery from Dervra. Even how he manages to pass as Hingast; he must know him better than almost anybody else."
"But what do you intend to do?" asked Kadyar, quietly.
"My plan is simple." Kelanus smiled. "I intend to kill Ranallic Eydren."
He continued to smile throughout the uproar now surrounding him.
First Chapter (Sandester Sub-Plot)
Plots And Plans
Nazvasta Ulvic Vintner - younger brother of the late Branad Ulvic Vintner, who until his death had claimed 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 now 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 preferred 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. Nazvasta's most trusted advisor, many in the palace forgot Fareen-y-Vintner even existed. Not that the gwerin hid from view, but she rarely pushed herself forward. "That action will warn Marcus you intend to move against him. Whatever else we think of him, the man is far from foolish."
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 stood out against her irises, 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 to stop the invasion from Re Taura, 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, hoping for a change of heart. "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. Another secret she must keep a little longer.
"There is something else you have forgotten."
"You have a gwerin advisor." Fareen smiled. "But Marcus has two. Or will have, once 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 something 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 very good. They're excellent. We knew within hours in Marka everything going 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 the sylphs 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, "today'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. Their army relies more on experienced 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 now 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.
'Ranva's breath, but he had missed this view.
Despite proximity to the palace, his office 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.
Many in Sandester also knew it as the Pauper Gate, because of the old tradition of expelling beggars and ne'er-do-wells from the city through it. Not a tradition exercised today of course, in these humane and kindly times.
But seeing the gate reinforced the knowledge that he had come 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 as the marshal turned away from the window.
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's 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 the city for a year and we 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. Thirty years and the pain feels fresh every time I think of her. "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. And he won't do that, because he offered his fealty. Marka's Senate stands behind the sylph, but enough of them support Marcus should Zenepha fall. 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 the reality is that war is inevitable when politics fail. 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?"
"Do?" Mikhan's smile widened. "You carry on as normal, but we must help Nazvasta in any way we can. Kana is pushing Nazvasta hard to pursue the claim. She believes that is his duty, especially since Verdin stands by his father's renunciation. But whether Nazvasta has the drive and determination to win through is the bit we don't know. 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 renewed excitement.
"Of course we can win." 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 duel. 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 disciplines 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, and where a fresh bruise would soon swell.
Many of these men came 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."
Inside, 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. "He doesn't trust us; we were Nijen's men."
"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, the 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 weapon that rips men to shreds."
Egran stared. "That sounds like it," he said, pleased for the diversion.
One of the cooks stuck his head into the dining hall, saving Egran from further questions. "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 for 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 sound good, Marshal."
"I'm sure they do." 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 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 equipment. 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.
"You relax Sergeant Eltren, 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, 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."
First Chapter (Markan Sub-Plot)
The two boys were sent to the darkened storage room to polish the sword. They carried candle-lanterns and whispered ghost stories to each other, pretending they were too big and old to fear the dark. Being boys, they could hardly resist practicing with the sword, one pretending to attack the other when they finished polishing. When the Imperial Armorer arrived to give the weapon its monthly inspection, he sent the boys on their way, with an empty threat of a cuffing for disrespecting the ancient sword ringing in their ears.
The sword would not have minded being used for its intended purpose once again.
If it had awareness, which of course it did not, the sword would want to taste sweet, fresh blood, as in its distant youth. To be used as a weapon of war, taking lives in its owner's service.
But now, it served as nothing more than a symbol. Of government and administration no less, but still only representing some abstract ideal which had nothing to do with war.
Made from plain steel, its existence began in one of the many forges in Magiere. It could tell a tale of more than seventeen hundred years; it had seen empires rise and empires fall. It had seen yet more lands destroyed and ravaged, or annexed to stronger nations. It knew the euphoria of victory and the bitter taste of defeat.
Lettering etched into the blade had been worn to illegibility centuries ago, and the copper inlaid to enhance the etching gone long before that. The sword would miss the copper; fresh blood had the metallic taste of copper.
Still the sword continued its existence, preserved only because of its illustrious owner, the man who founded the first successful empire and began the long task of reintroducing civilization to a continent.
Whenever one of the man's descendants died, out came the sword, laid across the new emperor's lap to serve as a symbol and reminder of what awaited whenever humanity abandoned order for chaos.
The sword had seen it all. Hope, success, victory, failure, loss and defeat. It had seen battles, it had seen hopes dashed. Wherever the Founding Mark had gone, the sword went too, and was used, perhaps too well used, to steal lives and secure victory.
And now, as the Imperial Armorer completed his monthly inspection, the sword was again returned to darkness. It had seen greatness pass and, if it had awareness, which of course it did not, would see greatness return.
But for now, alone in the dark, the Markan Sword waited.
Zenepha stared out of the window across rooftops towards the huge black pyramid that dominated the countryside and dwarfed the city built alongside it. Despite his position of power, he felt troubled.
The Eldovans' siege of Marka 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 disbanded, at least greatly reduced in size.
Lands bent knee to his rule, submitting once again to Marka's suzerainty, if not her direct authority. The shadow riders had returned from their long self-imposed exile and reaffirmed their vows; two gwerins who remembered the last Markan Empire had returned home and accepted their collars, with a third almost two years old and already beginning her schooling.
But worries furrowed Zenepha's brow. Despite all his success, he still felt like a pretender, as if living a lie. A sylph, sold as a chattel to Marka's supreme councilor... His earpoints twitched. No collar had graced his neck for almost two years and he still missed it. No slave could be an emperor, even a sylph emperor, a caretaker before the genuine ruler stepped forward to take his throne. A human ruler.
He failed to convince himself and squeezed his silver-gray eyes shut. As his previous owner had pointed out to the senate on the day of his manumission, nobody really knew whether Zenepha had been born into slavery or not.
But surely all sylphs were born as property, the cost of their bargain with humanity, security in exchange for service, an alliance with the more aggressive species, instead of competition and enmity. Then wild sylphs had showed up and given lie to his belief.
Not even he knew his early history. All that remained from his early days, from before, was a vague memory of a gentle touch and a strange tattoo of many black lines that permanently marked the inside of his left biceps. He wanted to believe the touch had come from his mother.
He could not even remember her face.
He felt uncharacteristic anger rise as he considered his stolen memories. Nobody knew the how or why, but he wanted them back more than anything else. He needed answers that he believed to be his right. Did he have a family who missed him? Did his mother still live? Zenepha ached for 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 and even admired his former owner's cunning. There were many claimants to the throne, but only the two with the strongest claims had been invited to Marka. They met, they 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 had ever laughed, it happened quietly and in private.
Had he really wanted to be removed from this unwelcome position, Zenepha knew he should have behaved very differently. But no, he'd played along and trapped himself.
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 he made it his duty to serve them.
Then the siege cemented his position.
He had been nothing more than a 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 being non-human.
They pretended they had a real human as emperor.
Which they did not, of course.
Sylphs regarded him with awe. They had elevated him to something more than he deserved, treating him almost as a god and all but worshiping the ground he walked on. Wild sylphs, freed by Marcus Vintner, held him up as an example of what sylphs could achieve without human ownership. Civilized sylphs muttered that he was 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 failed to best serve Marka's interests, and for the reasons Kelanus had so eloquently pointed out.
Everybody now knew that Re Taura really had planned to invade, but Zenepha 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 responsible for siting Marka had chosen their ground well.
Until the winter, he had hoped that the senior people from Sandester, from Branad Vintner's lands, actively supported him because they believed his rule to be for the best. They had ultimately shown themselves self-serving. Recalled to Sandester, all bar Branad's son Verdin, who had proved himself very loyal.
Trouble would come from that province, even if Zenepha had been assured nothing would happen while he held the throne.
That left Marcus Vintner in Marka. Despite his name, Marcus was barely related to the Sandesteran Vintners, a cousin so many times removed that nobody could 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 knew husband and wife continued to campaign for their accession. He had used the Sandester Vintners as a counterweight, but now they had left for home, he stood alone against determined opponents. He realized that the Calcan Vintners waited for him to slip, with no intention of catching him when it happened.
And they were right.
Sold to Marka's citizens as a successful foray instead of a lucky break, the Re Taura business had proved a serious blunder. The Calcan Vintners had carried the day there.
Marcus Vintner's people (though not the man himself, who had cannily refused to commit one way or the other) had warned Zenepha that the Eldovans were the biggest threat. Marcus Vintner's people who had defeated and put the Eldovans to flight. And Marcus Vintner's people who had now gone to Eldova to finish the job.
The people might still look to Zenepha because he was the emperor, but high councilors and senators alike realized Marcus Vintner and his contacts decided almost everything now.
Zenepha gave a sylph's slow blink as he stared out of the window.
Only a question of time before Marcus replaced him. Except that Marcus Vintner remained unpopular with the Senate. Strange to think that senators, who had ridiculed the notion of a sylph emperor, were now his only counter against Marcus.
"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 the 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.
Or did not want to think 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 deferred instinctively to Samrita, something to do with the older gwerin being 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.
Both gwerins curtsied together. It would be the only one he received from them 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."
Zenepha smiled. "Let us sit," he suggested.
Their conversation stayed light. Weather, crops, the timber harvest. Small talk, while waiting for their refreshments.
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. After becoming emperor, I offered her work 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's looks still gave Zenepha pause.
The infertile came from the far north, where sylphs had adapted and changed. Skin so pale it was almost colorless, with only a hint of blue. 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 domestic sylphs, but refused to wear a collar. She hailed from Kelthane, where even infertile sylphs were free.
Yet she served. Both Nynra and Samrita feared that the free could not serve a slave, but nobody had ever questioned their 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 showed little obeisance, 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 since Kelanus went 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, and absorbed her lessons eagerly. 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 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 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 considered herself free, perfectly at liberty to join in conversations.
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 lifted the alovak can and smiled at the two ladies in her sitting room. One of the palace sylphs had brought the alovak in a few minutes earlier, but her offer to pour had been politely declined and the servant dismissed from the room.
Zandra very much wanted to keep today's conversation private.
Hulen Shayler, head of the Mercers' Guild nodded immediately and her companion, Tamsin Mochna, senior wife to Supreme Councilor Olista, gave a verbal reply.
"No Jenn?" asked Hulen.
Zandra finished pouring and smiled. "She's with Marcus. Whenever he's free, she's never far from his side. Quite touching, really."
"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 most. 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 correctly believed that Zandra offered the best route towards realizing that goal.
"Had I known, I might have brought Ylena," said Tamsin. "She's grown used to being a personal sylph now."
"I'm sure your sylph is enjoying her free time at your villa." Zandra smiled. "Besides, much safer for our discussions to remain beyond the reach of long ears. To some, our words are treason and we never know who reports to whom."
"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. Any such unfortunates 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 learning a new role. Sylphs, especially infertiles, find changes in ownership distressing."
"I trust Emperor Zenepha won't be 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 Zenepha would prove rather more malleable once the Sandesterans left the city, but the boy's found his feet now and is more than comfortable with power. He certainly has no need for any hand-holding from us." She grimaced. "Even though I doubt he's forgiven Olista for his manumission."
"Strange creature," smiled Hulen. "He has helped fuel the debate among the sylphs."
"Some debate," said Tamsin.
"I agree," said Zandra. "I suspect that the wild sylphs are only 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 confused on the subject," continued Zandra. "Some scouts have won hearts among the Free Tribe. Sandev couldn't hide her surprise when one begged for a collar, which she refused to grant."
Hulen nodded. "A wild sylph girl 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. "Perhaps he will ask for manumission."
Zandra barked a quick laugh. "Or perhaps he's already had enough of freedom. Among the scouts, he's one of the loudest voices urging sylphs to keep their collars. Two generations, possibly three, and the so-called 'Free' Tribe will be nicely civilized and wondering why they ever made a fuss about collars. Choosing Kestan as leader was but a first step along the road of domestication."
"We shall see." Tamsin laughed. "Speaking for myself, I remain unconvinced. Sylphs are never easy to predict. But let us speak of Sandev. She has remained ominously silent on the subject of emperors since her return home."
"She's become something of a sylph collector," remarked Hulen. "Hasn't she brought some Eldovan infertile home with her?"
"There are certainly a few sylphs at her villa now," said Tamsin.
Zandra said nothing. However many sylphs Sandev collected was none of her business; she wanted to be certain Sandev would 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. People already mistakenly assumed the youngster belonged to the throne.
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 through the crowds, wearing a small though happy smile.
Now the late spring wind had finally dropped, the sun warmed Marka. Thankfully, the heat had not yet grown too uncomfortable, when haze danced in the streets and people avoided outdoors at noontime. Blue skies, calm weather and increasing warmth all helped buoy Kaira's mood. Life treated her well.
Governess to the Vintner's children for the past five years, she had long since resigned herself to living in Marka, rather than Calcan. But 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 earlier, the youngest of seven daughters and five sons, she learned early to compete for attention. Older siblings had previously owned 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 partners suggested by her mother.
And, since arriving in Marka, she had found someone.
Also twenty-four, Basren 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 used the library. Kaira had been researching lessons for the Vintner children the day Silmarila came to reclaim her books. As far as the librarians were concerned, those books now belonged in the reading room and raised voices echoed around the huge vaulted chamber of the main room.
The gwerin had retreated, but returned within the hour, this time armed with several large purple-cloaked guardsmen and an edict from Zenepha. Intimidation carried the day and Silmarila successfully reclaimed her books. The guardsmen took several trips to load the carriage and the gwerin had to walk back to the palace.
Kaira and Basren had found the entire episode hilarious, and this shared humor had brought them together. Kaira had never thanked the gwerin, but she doubted if Silmarila would understand anyway.
They shared a similar sense of humor, and Basren always found a way to make her laugh. Kaira liked the slim young man straight away, and their relationship flowered from that moment. She was headed for the library now, and hoped for a long chat with him before returning 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 stood before her.
She would never understand why she felt so nervous before meeting Basren; even knowing he felt the same way made her 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."
Sandev watched Marcus Vintner, claimant to the Markan Throne, push dark-brown hair away from his eyes. His infertile sylph, Jenn, stood patiently beside him. She stared around the room, finding Sandev's study interesting. Her own sylph Caya stood to one side, waiting for orders.
"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. We made that clear even before his coronation."
Marcus stared into his empty alovak mug. "The Senate still stands against me. That is obvious by the maneuvering to keep Zenepha where he is."
Sandev must remember that this man was no fool. And whatever he missed from Marka's political pulse, his wife Zandra caught.
"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 glanced at the shelves of books rising behind the desk at one side of the room. Sandev had received him in the study because decorators and painters worked in the main living room. Even so, her study offered as many comforts.
His gaze met hers and held firmly. "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 feeling is not reciprocated. You are empty."
Marcus raised a hand and began to say he needed no more, 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, before resting his hand protectively on the infertile's shoulder. "She missed you."
"I know. She's not exactly climbed into bed with me, but she sleeps immediately outside my door. 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. "Before now."
The clepsydra chose that moment to gurgle, which caught Jenn's wide-eyed attention, her earpoints slanted sharply forward. Marcus patted her arm absently and the infertile soon relaxed again.
Sandev noted the speed of the sylph's reaction, but said nothing.
"Zenepha," said Marcus.
"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 into the field; he has reasons of his own." Marcus had no intention of telling Sandev why his sylph had insisted on traveling to Eldova with Kelanus.
As Belaika and Eleka were Salafisa's parents, the older two gwerins in the palace gave them the same respect they would their own parents. Apparently all gwerins behaved in this way. Compared with sylphs, gwerins lived long, and the pair belonging to the throne behaved like children towards Eleka. Despite their great age, Eleka seemed to take their attention well.
And Marcus understood why Sandev voiced her regret that Belaika had left the city. Silmarila was close to Eleka, but Samrita regarded Belaika with a shade more warmth. Perhaps because she had met him first, or because he had earned the shadow riders' respect over the banner.
"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. But remember that the weakness is there when you take the throne, 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. Foolishness, but Sandev 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 Marka's 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 nothing 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 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 pity often shone in their silver-gray eyes, but none ignored him. They could not possibly know his reason for coming here, so why did they pity him?
For his own part, his gaze slid away from collars. How could they bear the things and the low status they represented? Yet these sylphs all wore them with obvious pride. Nedilen would never understand why they did not hang their heads in shame.
He had nearly reached the gates, where two guards stood in the portal, nodding people through after a cursory glance. Would they let him in, or refuse entry because he was a so-called wild sylph?
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 sounded like 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. "Have you his name? There are certainly wild sylphs here."
Nedilen's heart leapt. Wild sylphs would not be in Marka unless forced to be here. "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. Nothing seemed wrong. He spotted an infertile polishing metal in an adjoining room.
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. The paint left no hint of blue skin anywhere. The paint smell completely 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.