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The figure appeared out of the shadows of the alcove
so quickly that Sen Dunsidan was almost on top of it before
he realized it was there. The hallway leading to his
sleeping chamber was dark with nightfall's shadows, and the light
from the wall lamps cast only scattered halos of fuzzy brightness.
The lamps gave no help in this instance, and the Minister of Defense
was given no chance either to flee or defend himself.
"A word, if you please, Minister."
The intruder was cloaked and hooded, and although Sen Dunsidan
was reminded at once of the Ilse Witch he knew without
question that it was not she. This was a man, not a woman--too
much size and bulk to be anything else, and the words were rough
and masculine. The witch's small, slender form and cool, smooth
voice were missing. She had come to him only a week earlier, before
departing on her voyage aboard Black Moclips, tracking the Druid
Walker and his company to an unknown destination. Now this intruder,
cloaked and hooded in the same manner, had appeared in
the same way--at night and unannounced. He wondered at once
what the connection was between the two.
Masking his surprise and the hint of fear that clutched at his
chest, Sen Dunsidan nodded. "Where would you like to share this
"Your sleeping chamber will do."
A big man himself, still in the prime of his life, the Minister of
Defense nevertheless felt dwarfed by the other. It was more than
simply size; it was presence, as well. The intruder exuded strength
and confidence not usually encountered in ordinary men. Sen Dunsidan
did not ask how he had managed to gain entry to the closely
guarded, walled compound. He did not ask how he had moved unchallenged
to the upper floor of his quarters. Such questions were
pointless. He simply accepted that the intruder was capable of this
and much more. He did as he was bidden. He walked past with a
deferential bow, opened his bedroom door, and beckoned the other
The lights were lit here, as well, though no more brightly than
in the hallway without, and the intruder moved at once into the
"Sit down, Minister, and I will tell you what I want."
Sen Dunsidan sat in a high-backed chair and crossed his legs
comfortably. His fear and surprise had faded. If the other meant him
harm, he would not have bothered to announce himself. He wanted
something that a Minister of Defense of the Federation's Coalition
Council could offer, so there was no particular cause for concern.
Not yet, anyway. That could change if he could not supply the answers
the other sought. But Sen Dunsidan was a master at telling
others what they expected to hear.
"Some cold ale?" he asked.
"Pour some for yourself, Minister."
Sen Dunsidan hesitated, surprised by insistence in the other's
voice. Then he rose and walked to the table at his bedside that held
the ice bucket, ale pitcher nestled within it, and several glasses. He
stood looking down at the ale as he poured, his long silver hair
hanging loose about his shoulders save where it was braided above
the ears, as was the current fashion. He did not like what he was
feeling now, uncertainty come so swiftly on the heels of newfound
confidence. He had better be careful of this man; step lightly.
He walked back to his chair and reseated himself, sipping at the
ale. His strong face turned toward the other, a barely visible presence
amid the shadows.
"I have something to ask of you," the intruder said softly.
Sen Dunsidan nodded and made an expansive gesture with
The intruder shifted slightly. "Be warned, Minister. Do not
think to placate me with promises you do not intend to keep. I am
not here to waste my time on fools who think to dismiss me with
empty words. If I sense you dissemble, I will simply kill you and
have done with it. Do you understand?"
Sen Dunsidan took a deep breath to steady himself. "I understand."
The other said nothing further for a moment, then moved out
from the deep shadows to the edges of the light. "I am called the
Morgawr. I am mentor to the Ilse Witch."
"Ah." The Minister of Defense nodded. He had not been wrong
about the similarities of appearance.
The cloaked form moved a little closer. "You and I are about to
form a partnership, Minister. A new partnership, one to replace that
which you shared with my pupil. She no longer has need of you.
She will not come to see you again. But I will. Often."
"Does she know this?" Dunsidan asked softly.
"She knows nowhere near as much as she thinks." The other's
voice was hard and low. "She has decided to betray me, and for her
infidelity she will be punished. I will administer her punishment
when I see her next. This does not concern you, save that you should
know why you will not see her again. All these years, I have been
the force behind her efforts. I have been the one who gave her the
power to form alliances like the one she shared with you. But she
breaches my trust and thus forfeits my protection. She is of no further
Sen Dunsidan took a long pull on his ale and set the glass aside.
"You will forgive me, sir, if I voice a note of skepticism. I don't know
you, but I do know her. I know what she can do. I know what happens
to those who betray her, and I do not intend to become one of
"Perhaps you would do better to be afraid of me. I am the one
who stands here in front of you."
"Perhaps. But the Dark Lady has a way of showing up when least
expected. Show me her head, and I will be more than happy to discuss
a new agreement."
The cloaked figure laughed softly. "Well spoken, Minister. You
offer a politician's answer to a tough demand. But I think you must
reconsider. Look at me."
He reached up for his hood and pulled it away to reveal his face.
It was the face of the Ilse Witch, youthful and smooth and filled
with danger. Sen Dunsidan started in spite of himself. Then the
girl's face changed, almost as if it were a mirage, and became Sen
Dunsidan's--hard planes and edges, piercing blue eyes, silvery hair
worn long, and a half smile that seemed ready to promise anything.
"You and I are very much alike, Minister."
The face changed again. Another took its place, the face of a
younger man, but it was no one Sen Dunsidan had ever seen. It was
nondescript, bland to the point of being forgettable, devoid of interesting
or memorable features.
"Is this who I really am, Minister? Do I reveal myself now?" He
paused. "Or am I really like this?"
The face shimmered and changed into something monstrous,
a reptilian visage with a blunt snout and slits for eyes. Rough, gray
scales coated a weathered face, and a wide, serrated mouth opened
to reveal rows of sharply pointed teeth. Gimlet eyes, hate-filled and
poisonous, glimmered with green fire.
The intruder pulled the hood back into place, and his face disappeared
into the resulting shadows. Sen Dunsidan sat motionless
in his chair. He was all too aware of what he was being told. This
man had the use of a very powerful magic. At the very least, he
could shape-shift, and it was likely he could do much more than
that. He was a man who enjoyed the excesses of power as much as
the Minister of Defense did, and he would use that power in whatever
way he felt he must to get what he wanted.
"I said we were alike, Minister," the intruder whispered. "We
both appear as one thing when in truth we are another. I know you.
I know you as I know myself. You would do anything to further
your power in the hierarchy of the Federation. You indulge yourself
in pleasures that are forbidden to other men. You covet what you
cannot have and scheme to secure it. You smile and feign friendship
when in truth you are the very serpent your enemies fear."
Sen Dunsidan kept his politician's smile in place. What was it
this creature wanted of him?
"I tell you all this not to anger you, Minister, but to make certain
you do not mistake my intent. I am here to help you further your
ambitions in exchange for help you can in turn supply to me. I desire
to pursue the witch on her voyage. I desire to be there when she
does battle with the Druid, as I am certain she must. I desire to catch
her with the magic she pursues, because I intend to take it from her
and then to take her life. But to accomplish this, I will need a fleet of
airships and the men to crew them."
Sen Dunsidan stared at him in disbelief. "What you ask is
"Nothing is impossible, Minister." The black robes shifted with
a soft rustle as the intruder crossed the room. "Is what I ask any more
impossible than what you seek?"
The Minister of Defense hesitated. "Which is what?"
"To be Prime Minister. To take control of the Coalition Council
once and for all. To rule the Federation, and by doing so, the Four
A number of thoughts passed swiftly through Sen Dunsidan's
mind, but all of them came down to one. The intruder was right.
Sen Dunsidan would do anything to make himself Prime Minister
and control the Coalition Council. Even the Ilse Witch had known
of this ambition, though she had never voiced it in such a way as
this, a way that suggested it might be within reach.
"Both seem impossible to me," he answered the other carefully.
"You fail to see what I am telling you," the intruder said. "I am
telling you why I will prove a better ally than the little witch. Who
stands between you and your goal? The Prime Minister, who is
hardy and well? He will serve long years before he steps down. His
chosen successor, the Minister of the Treasury, Jaren Arken? He is a
man younger than you and equally powerful, equally ruthless. He
aspires to be Minister of Defense, doesn't he? He seeks your position
on the council."
A cold rage swept through Sen Dunsidan on hearing those
words. It was true, of course--all of it. Arken was his worst enemy, a
man slippery and elusive as a snake, cold-blooded and reptilian
through and through. He wanted the man dead, but had not yet figured
out a way to accomplish it. He had asked the Ilse Witch for
help, but whatever other exchange of favors she was willing to accept,
she had always refused to kill for him.
"What is your offer, Morgawr?" he asked bluntly, tiring of
"Only this. By tomorrow night, the men who stand in your way
will be no more. No blame or suspicion will attach to you. The position
you covet will be yours for the taking. No one will oppose you.
No one will question your right to lead. This is what I can do for
you. In exchange, you must do what I ask--give me the ships and
the men to sail them. A Minister of Defense can do this, especially
when he stands to become Prime Minister."
The other's voice became a whisper. "Accept the partnership I
am offering, so that not only may we help each other now, but we
may help each other again when it becomes necessary."
Sen Dunsidan took a long moment to consider what was being
asked. He badly wanted to be Prime Minister. He would do anything
to secure the position. But he mistrusted this creature, this
Morgawr, a thing not entirely human, a wielder of magic that could
undo a man before he had time to realize what was happening. He
was still unconvinced of the advisability of doing what he was being
asked to do. He was afraid of the Ilse Witch; he could admit that to
himself if to no one else. If he crossed her and she found out, he was
a dead man; she would hunt him down and destroy him. On the
other hand, if the Morgawr was to destroy her as he said he would,
then Sen Dunsidan would do well to rethink his concerns.
A bird in the hand, it was commonly accepted, was worth two
in the bush. If a path to the position of Prime Minister of the Coalition
Council could be cleared, almost any risk was worth the
"What sort of airships do you need?" he asked quietly. "How
"Are we agreed on a partnership, Minister? Yes or no. Don't
equivocate. Don't attach conditions. Yes or no."
Sen Dunsidan was still uncertain, but he could not pass up the
chance to advance his own fortunes. Yet when he spoke the word
that sealed his fate, he felt as if he were breathing fire. "Yes."
The Morgawr moved like liquid night, sliding along the edges
of the shadows as he eased across the bedchamber. "So be it. I will
be back after sunset tomorrow to let you know what your end of the
bargain will be."
Then he was through the doorway and gone.
Sen Dunsidan slept poorly that night, plagued by dreams
and wakefulness, burdened with the knowledge that he had sold
himself at a price that had yet to be determined and might prove too
costly to pay. Yet, while lying awake between bouts of fretful sleep,
he pondered the enormity of what might take place, and he could
not help but be excited. Surely no price was too great if it meant he
would become Prime Minister. A handful of ships and a complement
of men, neither of which he cared overmuch about--these
were nothing to him. In truth, to gain control of the Federation, he
would have obligated himself for much more. In truth, he would
have paid any price.
Yet it still might all come to nothing. It might prove nothing
more than a fantasy given to test his willingness to abandon the
witch as an ally.
But when he woke and while he was dressing to go to the
Council chambers, word reached him that the Prime Minister was
dead. The man had gone to sleep and never woken; his heart
stopped while he lay in his bed. It was odd, given his good health
and relatively young age, but life was filled with surprises.
Sen Dunsidan felt a surge of pleasure and expectation at the
news. He allowed himself to believe that the unthinkable might actually
be within reach, that the Morgawr's word might be better
than he had dared to hope. Prime Minister Dunsidan, he whispered to
himself, deep inside, where his darkest secrets lay hidden.
He arrived at the Coalition Council chambers before he learned
that Jaren Arken was dead, as well. The Minister of the Treasury,
responding to the news of the Prime Minister's sudden passing,
had rushed from his home in response, the prospect of filling the
leadership void no doubt foremost in his thoughts, and had fallen
on the steps leading down to the street. He had struck his head on
the stone carvings at the bottom. By the time his servants had
reached him, he was gone.
Sen Dunsidan took the news in stride, no longer surprised, only
pleased and excited. He put on his mourner's face, and he offered
his politician's responses to all those who approached--and there
were many now, because he was the one the Council members were
already turning to. He spent the day arranging funerals and tributes,
speaking to one and all of his own sorrow and disappointment, all
the while consolidating his power. Two such important and effective
leaders dead at a single stroke; a strong man must be found to
fill the void left by their passing. He offered himself and promised
to do the best job he could on behalf of those who supported him.
By nightfall, the talk was no longer of the dead men; the talk was
all of him.
He sat waiting in his chambers for a long time after sunset,
speculating on what would happen when the Morgawr returned.
That he would, to claim his end of the bargain, was a given. What
exactly he would ask was less certain. He would not threaten, but
the threat was there nevertheless: if he could so easily dispose of a
Prime Minister and a Minister of the Treasury, how much harder
could it be to dispose of a recalcitrant Minister of Defense? Sen
Dunsidan was in this business now all the way up to his neck. There
could be no talk of backing away. The best he could hope for was to
mitigate the payment the Morgawr would seek to exact.
It was almost midnight before the other appeared, slipping soundlessly
through the doorway of the bedchamber, all black robes and
menace. By then, Sen Dunsidan had consumed several glasses of ale
and was regretting it.
"Impatient, Minister?" the Morgawr asked softly, moving at
once into the shadows. "Did you think I wasn't coming?"
"I knew you would come. What do you want?"
"So abrupt? Not even time for a thank you? I've made you Prime
Minister. All that is required is a vote by the Coalition Council, a
matter of procedure only. When will that occur?"
"A day or two. All right, you've kept your end of the bargain.
What is mine to be?"
"Ships of the line, Minister. Ships that can withstand a long
journey and a battle at its end. Ships that can transport men and
equipment to secure what is needed. Ships that can carry back the
treasures I expect to find."
Sen Dunsidan shook his head doubtfully. "Such ships are hard
to come by. All we have are committed to the Prekkendorran. If I
were to pull out, say, a dozen--"
"Two dozen would be closer to what I had in mind," the other
Two dozen? The Minister of Defense exhaled slowly. "Two
dozen, then. But that many ships missing from the line would be noticed
and questioned. How will I explain it?"
"You are about to become Prime Minister. You don't have to explain."
There was a hint of impatience in the rough voice. "Take
them from the Rovers, if your own are in short supply."
Dunsidan took a quick sip of the ale he shouldn't be drinking.
"The Rovers are neutral in this struggle. Mercenaries, but neutral. If
I confiscate their ships, they will refuse to build more."
"I said nothing of confiscation. Steal them, then lay the blame
"And the men to crew them? What sort of men do you require?
Must I steal them, as well?"
"Take them from the prisons. Men who have sailed and fought
aboard airships. Elves, Bordermen, Rovers, whatever. Give me
enough of these to make my crews. But do not expect me to give
them back again. When I have used them up, I intend to throw them
away. They will not be fit for anything else."
The hair stood on the back of Sen Dunsidan's neck. Two hundred
men, tossed away like old shoes. Damaged, ruined, unfit for
wear. What did that mean? He had a sudden urge to flee the room,
to run and keep running until he was so far away he couldn't remember
where he had come from.
"I'll need time to arrange this, a week perhaps." He tried to keep
his voice steady. "Two dozen ships missing from anywhere will
be talked about. Men from the prisons will be missed. I have to
think about how this can be done. Must you have so many of each
to undertake your pursuit?"
The Morgawr went still. "You seem incapable of doing anything
I ask of you without questioning it. Why is that? Did I ask you
how to go about removing those men who would keep you from
being Prime Minister?"
Sen Dunsidan realized suddenly that he had gone too far. "No,
no, of course not. It was just that I--"
"Give me the men tonight," the other interrupted.
"But I need time."
"You have them in your prisons, here in the city. Arrange for
their release now."
"There are rules about releasing prisoners."
Sen Dunsidan felt as if he were standing in quicksand and
sinking fast. But he couldn't seem to find a way to save himself.
"Give me my crews tonight, Minister," the other hissed softly.
"You, personally. A show of trust to persuade me that my efforts at
removing the men who stood in your path were justified. Let's be
certain your commitment to our new partnership is more than just
The other man moved swiftly out of the shadows and snatched
hold of the front of the Minister's shirt. "I think you require a
demonstration. An example of what happens to those who question
me." The fingers tightened in the fabric, iron rods that lifted Sen
Dunsidan to the tips of his boots. "You're shaking, Minister. Can it
be that I have your full attention at last?"
Sen Dunsidan nodded wordlessly, so frightened he did not trust
himself to speak.
"Good. Now come with me."
Sen Dunsidan exhaled sharply as the other released his grip and
stepped away. "Where?"
The Morgawr moved past him, opened the bedchamber door,
and looked back out of the shadows of his hood. "To the prisons,
Minister, to get my men."