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From the top of the cliffs the world appeared bathed in blood. The dawn was ruddy, stained crimson by the red sun as it began to set in the west, chased out of the sky by the larger, brighter, yellow sun on the eastern horizon. The scarlet clouds hung heavy and thick and tasted of ash. There had been an eruption somewhere, Tia realized, as she stopped to study the view. No wonder Neris had gone missing. Eruptions always had that effect on him.
The heat was oppressive, despite the overcast sky. On this world with two suns, it never truly cooled down.
Except during the Age of Shadows.
Tia wiped the sweat from her brow and looked down toward the river. From the cliff top the delta spread out before her; a confused network of channels and sandbars constantly shifting with the moods of the fickle Spakan River. The water was muddy and sluggish; it reminded her of a series of veins and arteries, bleeding into the lighter waters of the Bandera Straits. There was little vegetation. The line of smoking volcanoes that marred the northern horizon spewed out their smothering ash often enough to ensure that everything struggled to survive here in the Baenlands. To the west, Tia could just make out the patchwork fields where their few crops fought to thrive in the ash-choked soil, and beyond them the fields of Ranadon poppies, the only thing that grew around Mil with any enthusiasm.
Behind her, a few faint wisps of thin smoke from the houses of the settlement drifted upward, hanging motionless in the still air for a moment before being swallowed by the cumbrous clouds.
The silence was complete. Even the wind that normally howled through the delta had taken a moment to catch its breath. Tia looked along the rim of the cliff to her left. In the distance she could just make out Neris, perched perilously close to the edge.
With a sigh, she began to walk toward him, making no attempt to hide her approach. She didn't want to startle him.
It took her nearly half an hour's walk over the rough, stony ground to reach the man perched on the edge of the precipice. The solitary figure did not move as she neared. His hair hung long and untended down his back, and it looked like he'd been wearing the same shirt for a month. For a brief, irreverent moment, Tia was glad that there was no breeze. He wasn't a pleasant creature to be downwind of when he was like this. He was sitting cross-legged on the cliff top as if he was carved from the rock itself.
Neris knew she was there. He was mad, but he wasn't deaf.
"Have you ever noticed," the madman remarked as she came up behind him, "that the only time we get truly spectacular sunrises is when there's been trouble somewhere? There's a moral in that, I think."
"What do you mean?" Tia asked cautiously. Although he sounded rational, she knew him too well to be fooled.
"It's like life," he mused. "If nothing bad ever happened, you would have perfect skies every day, and you'd be bored witless. But this . . ." he said, waving his arm to encompass the magnificent, fiery skies, "this comes from a disaster. Somewhere out there, the Goddess has spoken."
Tia halted in her approach. It was never a good sign when Neris began to speak of the Goddess. "It's just a volcano, Neris."
"The Goddess has spoken."
"You don't believe that."
The madman shrugged. "It doesn't really matter whether I believe it or not. Millions of people all over the world will climb out of bed this morning and look at this sky and think the Goddess is trying to tell them something."
He was right, Tia knew, but she didn't want him dwelling on it. That line of thought was just a step away from Neris recalling his own contribution to what people believed about the Goddess and that was an extremely dangerous thing, particularly as he was sitting on the edge of a cliff with a drop of some eight hundred feet below him.
"People choose to believe or not believe," she shrugged. "If they want to have faith in a stupid myth, that's their problem, not yours."
Neris turned to look at her. Dark hollow circles ringed his eyes, his pupils were contracted, his eyes unnaturally bright. He was high on poppy-dust, she realized, which meant he might stay calm for a while, or he might fall into the depths of depression, or he might suddenly launch himself off the cliff in the mistaken belief that he could fly.
For a fleeting moment, she wished she'd thought to bring Reithan along. Reithan was much better at dealing with Neris than she was. Tia was too impatient, too angry.
"What is faith?" Neris asked.
"I don't know."
"Which is why you'll never understand the power of the Goddess and her minions."
"Neris . . ." she began, feeling helpless to divert the conversation from such a dangerous topic. "You mustn't keep blaming yourself . . ."
"Then who should I blame, Tia?"
"Antonov Latanya," she replied without hesitating. "And that evil bitch Belagren."
Neris smiled. "I wish I was like you, Tia."
"Because you still have hope. You still believe there's a chance you can set the world aright. Even Johan doesn't believe that anymore. We old men have lost our faith."
"Faith is for fools," she scoffed. "Faith is for the idiots who believe what the High Priestess tells them. Faith is for monsters like the Lion of Senet, a man who murders in the name of the Goddess."
"Yet you believe that somehow you can make it better. You and Reithan and the other young people here in Mil. Deep in your hearts, despite a wealth of evidence and experience to the contrary, you all truly believe that given half a chance, you could make everything better. What's that, if not blind, foolish faith?"
Tia bit back the retort that leapt to mind. He was sucking her into his argument. That was the danger with Neris. He was insane beyond redemption and hopelessly lost to his addiction, but he was still the smartest man who had ever lived, and it was foolish in the extreme to argue with him.
"Lexie's making blincakes for breakfast," she said, deciding to change the subject rather than fight a losing battle.
"Is she making them the proper way?" he asked, with the sudden eagerness of a child.
Neris was quite adamant about the recipe for the thick, chewy blincakes that he loved, and would refuse to eat them if the ingredients weren't added in exactly the right quantities and exactly the right order.
Unaccountably, his shoulders suddenly slumped, and he hunched over, hugging his thin arms around his body. "I'm not hungry."
"But you love Lexie's blincakes."
"I love nothing," Neris corrected miserably.
Tia knew her father too well to be upset by his declaration. She sighed and took a cautious step closer to him. "Neris . . ."
"Why don't you ever call me Father?" he demanded suddenly. "You never call me Father."
"The last time I called you Father, you told me not to. You said you didn't deserve it."
"Did I really say that? I wonder why?"
Tia knew why, but she had no intention of getting into that discussion either.
"If I promise to call you Father, will you come down?"
"I shouldn't be your father. Johan's a much better father than me. You should go live with him and Lexie."
I already live with Johan and Lexie, she wanted to say. If they'd left me in your tender care I'd never have made it past my second birthday.
"Johan's not here," she reminded him instead. "He's gone to find Hari and the others, remember? You'll just have to keep being my father until he gets back."
Neris didn't answer her. He stared out over the delta as Tia tried to calculate how fast she could get to him should he decide to jump.
A noise behind her made her turn sharply, then a wave of relief swept through her as she saw Reithan climbing up the rocks behind her.
Reithan was twenty-eight, dark-haired and brown-eyed, like all the Seranovs of Grannon Rock. He was a cunning fighter, an experienced smuggler and Tia's best friend. He was also an old hand when it came to dealing with Neris.
The madman turned at the sound, too, and smiled thinly as Reithan came to stand beside Tia. "Ah! That's cheating. You've brought reinforcements!"
"Neris, what are you doing?" Reithan demanded impatiently.
"Contemplating the nature of faith."
"Well, how about you do it somewhere a little less dangerous?" he suggested.
"Are you afraid I'll jump?" Neris teased.
"You won't jump," Reithan replied with conviction. "If you jump, you'll die, and that would mean you'd have to stop torturing yourself."
Neris stared at Reithan for a long time, as if savoring his words before digesting them. Then, without warning, he grinned and scrambled to his feet. Loose pebbles tumbled over the edge. Tia stifled a gasp.
"I never thought of it like that," he announced. "Torturing myself. Yes, I like that."
"Neris" Tia began, holding her hand out to him. The madman teetered on the edge of the precipice, grinning like a fool.
Reithan was quicker. He lunged forward and grabbed at Neris's tattered sleeve. Although he looked as if he would struggle, Neris was wasted and thin from a lifelong addiction to poppy-dust, and had no hope of defeating Reithan's size or strength. The younger man pulled Neris away from the edge and shoved him past Tia, placing himself between Neris and the cliff.
"If I truly wanted to die, you couldn't stop me," Neris warned as he regained his footing. His bright eyes were glistening with amusement. Tia could have throttled him. She hated it when he was like this.
"If you ever truly want to die, just let me know," Reithan suggested sourly. "I'll happily put you out of your misery, old man."
"You know, Reithan, I believe you would," Neris replied with a suddenly lucid glare. Then he turned to Tia as if nothing untoward had occurred. "Blincakes, did you say? Lexie is far too good to me. We shouldn't keep her waiting, you know. Come, come. She'll get angry if we let them go cold . . . what you're doing up here at this time of the morning is beyond me. Truly, Reithan, you're a bad influence on Tia."
Neris turned and began to pick his way down the rough goat track that led toward the village. He chattered to himself as he walked, as if Reithan and Tia were beside him, listening to every word. "She's never going to catch a husband if you insist on leading her astray . . . perhaps I should see about introducing her at court. I was a nobleman once, I think. Or was it her mother? I can't remember . . . Johan will know . . . or Lexie. Lexie makes excellent blincakes . . ."
Tia started a little as Reithan came up behind her and placed a brotherly hand on her shoulder.
"Are you all right?"
She nodded. "He just scares me when he's like this."
"I know. But you can't watch him all the time."
"He was talking about the Goddess again."
Reithan glanced up at the sky with a frown. "He won't be the only one talking about the Goddess this morning," he predicted grimly.
"You don't believe there's a Goddess, do you, Reithan?"
"Of course not, but a lot of people do. And you can wager your right eye that Belagren is plotting a way to make this look like a divine event, even as we speak."
Tia knew he was right. "We'd better get to Lexie before Neris does. I made up that bit about the blincakes."
"Come on, then," Reithan said. "And next time you go charging off to rescue Neris, come and get me first. If he'd decided to jump, you'd never have been able to stop him."
"I just thought"
"I know," he said sympathetically, then smiled. "Come on, let's get down to the longhouse. Look at you, you're shivering."
It wasn't the weather that made her shiver. The gooseflesh that prickled her skin came from a much less tangible source. She glanced up at the blood-red sky again, unable to shake the feeling that this morning's eruption really was some sort of dire omen. Somewhere on Ranadon, it was certain, someone would find a way to use this eruption to cause trouble.
Then, silently berating herself for being a superstitious fool, she shook off the ridiculous feeling of impending doom and followed Reithan and Neris down to the village.
It was just on dawn when Belagren heard the screams. They woke her from a deep sleep that had been filled with pleasant dreams. She was sitting on a vast golden throne, while every soul on Ranadon knelt before her, begging for her blessing . . .
Annoyed at being woken from such an agreeable fantasy, the High Priestess opened her eyes and cursed softly. The red light of the night sun filtered through the cloth walls, filling the tent with dull crimson light.
When her aide did not reply, Belagren rose from her pallet and walked to the entrance of the elaborately embroidered silk tent, throwing back the flap. The camp was in an uproar, people were running to and fro, but most were heading toward the Labyrinth.
"What in the name of the Goddess is going on?" she demanded of a young man dressed in a dark red robe running past her tent. "Who is making that ungodly noise?"
The Shadowdancer skidded to a halt before her and bowed. He was young, perhaps twenty-three or -four, only just risen from the ranks of acolyte. Belagren knew his face, but couldn't think of his name. He was very handsome. All her Shadowdancers were. She quite deliberately recruited these young men and women for their beauty. It set them apart.
"I think it's coming from the Labyrinth, my lady."
Any fool could tell that much, she thought impatiently.
"Perhaps they've broken through?" he suggested, seeing the look of displeasure on the High Priestess's face.
Belagren had been wondering the same thing, although the screams sounded as if they were filled with pain, rather than triumph. Lifting the hem of her red robe out of the dust, she followed him through the campground set up amid the ancient ruins, toward the entrance to the Labyrinth. She was not particularly tall and had some difficulty in keeping up with the long-legged stride of her companion. The High Priestess glanced around at the tents as she hurried along. Some of them, she noted with displeasure, had been here so long they were taking on a disturbing air of permanence.
But maybe . . . finally . . . after all this time . . .
Belagren was almost afraid to finish the thought for fear of jinxing herself.