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Back at Cockerel Inn, they nicked a late snack from Thryis' pantry and crept up the hidden staircase on the second floor. Warding glyphs glowed briefly as Seregil whispered the passwords. At the top fo the stairs, they crossed the chilly attic storeroom to their own door.
The cluttered sitting room was still warm from the evening fire. Tossing his wet cloak over the mermaid statute by the door, Alec shucked off soaked clothing as he crossed to his bed in the corner by the health.
Seregil watched with a faint smile. The boy's considerable and, to his way of thinking, unnatural degree of modesty had lessened somewhat over the months of their acquaintance, but Alec still turned away as he stripped off his leather breeches and pulled on a long shift. At sixteen he was very like Seregil in build: slim, lean, and fair-skinned. Seregil quickly busied himself sorting a pile of correspondence on the table as the boy turned around again.
"We don't have anything in particular planned for tomorrow, do we?" Alec asked, taking a bite from one of the meat pies they'd purloined.
"Nothing pressing," said Seregil, yawning hugely as he went to his chamber door. "And I don't intend to be up before noon. Good night."
With the aid of a lightstone, he navigated past the stacks of books and boxes and other oddments to the broad, velvet-hung bed that dominated the back of the tiny room. Peeling off his wet garments, he slipped between the immaculate sheets with a groan of contentment. Ruetha appeared from some cluttered corner and leapt up with a throaty trill, demanding to be let under the covers.
It had been a busy year overall, he thought, stroking the cat absently. Especially the past few months. Just realizing how long it had been since he'd visited the Street of Lights underscored the general disruption of his life.
Oh well. Winter's here. There'll always be work enough to keep us occupied, but plenty of leisure too for the pleasures of the town. All in all, I'd say we've earned a bit of a respite.
Imagining quiet, snowy months stretching out before them, Seregil drifted contentedly off to sleeponly to lurch up sometime soon after from a nightmare of plummeting into darkness, Alec's terrified cry ringing in his ears as they fell down, down, past the walls of Kassarie's keep into the gorge below.
Opening his eyes with a gasp, Seregil was at once relieved and annoyed to find himself slumped naked in one of Nysander's sitting-room armchairs.
There was no need to ask how he'd gotten there; the green nausea of a translocation spell cramped his belly. Pushing his long, dark hair back from his face, he scowled wretchedly up at the wizard.
"Forgive me for bringing you here so abruptly, dear boy," said Nysander, handing him a robe and a steaming mug of tea.
"I assume there's a good reason for this," Seregil muttered, knowing very well that there must be for Nysander to subject him to magic so soon after the shape-changing incident.
"But of course. I tried to bring you earlier, but you two were busy burgling someone." Pouring himself a mug of tea, Nysander settled into his usual chair on the other side of the health. "I just looked in for a moment. Were you successful?"
"More or less." Nysander appeared in no hurry to elucidate, but it was obvious he'd been working on something. His short grey beard was smudged with ink near his mouth, and he wore one of the threadbare old robes he favored for his frequent all-night work sessions. Surrounded by the room's magnificent collection of books and oddities, he looked like some down-at-the-heels scholar who'd wandered in by mistake.
"Alec is looking better, I noticed," Nysander remarked.
"He's healing. It's his hair I'm concerned about. I've got to get him presentable in time for the Festival of Sakor."
"Be thankful he came away no worse off then he did. From what Klia and Micum told me, he's lucky to be alive at all. Ah, and before I forget, I have something for the two of you from Klia and the Queen." He handed Seregil two velvet pouches. "A public acknowledgment is impossible, of course, but they wished to express their gratitude nonetheless. That green one there is yours."
Seregil had received such rewards before. Expecting another trinket or bit of jewelry, he opened the little bag. What he found inside reduced him to stunned silence.
It was a ring, a very familiar ring. The great, smooth ruby glowed like wine in its heavy setting of Aurenfaie silver when he held it closer to the fire.
"Illior's Light, Nysander, this is one of the rings I took from Corruth i Glamien's corpse," he gasped, finding his voice at last.
Nysander leaned forward and clasped his hand. "He was your kinsman and Idrilain's, Seregil. She thought it a fitting reward for solving the mystery of his disappearance. She hopes you shall wear it with honor among your own people one day."
"Give her my thanks." Seregil tucked it reverently away in its bag. "But you didn't magick me out of bed just for this?"
Nysander sat back with a chuckle. "No. I have a task which may be of interest to you. However, there are conditions to be set forth before I explain. Agree to abide by them or I shall send you back now with all memory of this meeting expunged."
Seregil blinked in surprise. "It must be some job. Why didn't you bring Alec?"
"I shall come to that presently. I can say nothing until you agree to the conditions."
"Fine. I agree. What are they?"
"First, you may ask no question unbidden."
"Oh, all right. What else?"
"Second, you must work in absolute secrecy. No one is to know of this, particularly not Alec or Micum. Will you give me your oath on it?"
Seregil regarded him in silence for a moment; keeping secrets from Alec was no easy business these days. Still, how could something so shrouded in mystery fail to be interesting?
"All right. You have my word."
"Your oath," Nysander insisted somberly.
Shaking his head, Seregil held out his left hand, palm up, before him. "Asurit betuth dos Aura Elustri kamar sosui Seregil i Korit Solun Meringil Bokthersa. And by my honor as a Watcher, I swear also. Is that sufficient?"
"You know I would never impose such conditions on you without good reason," the wizard chided.
"Still, it seems to be happening quite a lot these days," Seregil retorted sourly. "Now can I ask questions?"
"I will answer what I can."
"Why is it so crucial for Alec and Micum not to know?"
"Because if you let slip the slightest detail of what I am about to tell you, I shall have to kill all of you."
Though spoken calmly, Nysander's words jolted him like a kick in the throat; he'd known the wizard too long to mistake his absolute sincerity. For an instant, Seregil felt as if he were looking into the face of a stranger. Then suddenly, everything fell into place as neatly as a three-tumbler lock. He sat forward, slopping hot tea over his knees in his excitement.
"It's to do with this, isn't it?" he exclaimed, tapping his chest. There, beneath Nysander's obscuring magic, lay the branded imprint of the wooden disk he'd stolen from Duke Mardus at Woldethe same strange, deceptively crude disk that had nearly taken his life. "You went white the night I told you about showing a drawing of it to the Illioran Oracle. I thought you were going to fall over."
"Perhaps now you understand my distress," Nysander replied grimly.
They'd never spoken of that conversation, but the dread Seregil had felt then returned now in full force. "Bilairy's Balls! You'd have done it, too."
Nysander sighed heavily. ''I would never have forgiven myself, I assure you, but I would also have been furious with you for forcing me into such an act. Do you recall what I said to you then?"
"To pray I never found out what that disk really is?"
"Precisely. And to undertake this task, you must continue to accept that as my answer on the subject."
Seregil slouched glumly in his chair. "Same old answer, eh? And what if I say no to all this? That if you don't tell me the whole story I want no part of it?"
Nysander shrugged. "Then as I said before, I shall remove all memory of this conversation from your mind and send you home. There are certainly others who could aid me."
"Like Thero, I suppose?" Seregil snapped before he could stop himself.
"Does he know the Great Secret?" The old jealousy gripped Seregil's heart. The last thing he wanted to hear was that the young assistant wizard knew more of this than he did.
"He knows less than you," Nysander replied, exasperated. "Now do you want the task or not?"
Seregil let out a frustrated growl. "All right, then. What's this all about?"
Nysander pulled a sheet of vellum from his sleeve and handed it to him. "To begin with, tell me what you make of this."
"Looks like a page from a book." The vellum was darkened with age or weather. Seregil rubbed a corner of it between his fingers and sniffed it, then examined the writing itself. "It's old, four or five centuries at least. Poorly kept at first though later carefully preserved. And the vellum is human or Aurenfaie skin, rather than kid." He paused again, examining the stitching holes on the left edge. "These are still intact, showing that it was carefully removed from a book, rather than torn. It was already damaged by dampness, though. Judging by the color I'd say the page was steeped in poison after that, but that's obviously been neutralized or we wouldn't be handling it."
Oblivious now to everything but the task at hand, Seregil tugged absently at a strand of hair.
"Let's see. The writing is Asuit Old Style and it's written in that language, which originated with the hill people north of Plenimar. From that we can infer that our author was either from that region or a scholar of languages."
"As you are, dear boy. I assume you can read it?"
"Yes. Looks like the ravings of a mad prophet. Very poetic, though. 'Watch with me, beloved, as demons strip the fruit from the vine.' Then something about horsesand 'The golden flame is married with darkness. The Beautiful One steps forth to caress the bones of the house...' No, that's not right. It's 'the bones of the world'."
Moving to the table, he pulled a lamp closer. "Yes. I thought it was just a few errors with the accent marks, but it isn't. There's a cipher here."
Nysander passed him a wax writing tablet and a stylus. "Care to try it?"
Scanning back through the document, Seregil found sixteen words with misplaced accents. Listing only the wrongly accented letters, he came up with twenty-nine.
Frowning, he tapped the stylus against his chin, "This is a bitch of a thing."
"More difficult than you know," said Nysander. "It took my master Arkoniel and myself over a year to discover the key. Mind you, we were working on other things at the time."
Seregil tossed aside the stylus with a groan. "You mean to tell me you've broken this already?"
"Oh, yes. That is not the task, you see. But I knew that you would prefer to work with the original and draw your own conclusions."
"So how does it work?"
Joining him at the table, Nysander turned the wax tablet over and began to write rapidly. "To begin with, the accented letters come out to nonsense, a fact it took a discouragingly long time to discover. The key is a combination of syllabification and case. As you know, Old Asuit is an inflected language with five cases. However, only threethe nominative, dative, and genitiveare used for cipher. For instance, look at the words making up the phrase 'of the world.'"
Seregil nodded thoughtfully, muttering to himself, "Yes, it was that misplaced accent that threw me. It should be over the second vowel of the last syllable, not the first."
"Correct. As 'world' is in the genitive case and the misplaced accent appears in the antepenultimate syllable, you use the last letter of that word. If it occurs in the same case but on the second, or penultimate, syllable, then you use the first." Seregil looked up and grinned. "I didn't know you were such an accomplished grammarian."
Nysander allowed himself a pleased wink. "One learns a thing or two over the centuries. It is truly an exquisite system, and one fairly secure from inadvertent detection. In the nominative case, an erroneous accent over the antepenult indicates that you take the last letter of the word immediately following the one wrongly accented, and so forth. In the dative case only the accents over the penult have any significance. The upshot of it all is that you come out with just fifteen letters. Properly arrangedkeep your eyes on the writing now properly arranged they spell out 'argucth chthon hrig.' "
"Sounds like you're getting ready to spit" Seregil began, but the words died in his throat as the writing on the page swirled into motion. After a few seconds it disappeared entirely, leaving in its place a circular design resembling an eight-pointed star that covered most of the page.
"A magical palimpsest!" he gasped.
"Precisely. But look more closely."
Tilting the vellum closer to the lamp, Seregil let out a low whistle; the entire design was made up of the finest calligraphic writing. "Our mad prophet must have written this with a hummingbird's quill."
"Can you read it?"
"I don't know. It's so cramped. The script is Konic, used by the court scribes in the time of the early Hierophants, but the language is different, as if the writer wanted to approximate the sounds of one language with the alphabet of another. Yes, that's exactly what he was doing, the clever old bastard. So, attacking it phonetically"
Muttering under his breath, Seregil slowly worked his way through the tangled writing. Half an hour later he looked up with a triumphant grin. "Pure Dravnian! Nysander, it's got to be Dravnian."
"The Dravnians are a tribal people scattered through the glacial valleys of the Ashek Range, north of Aurenen. I haven't been up there since I was a boy, but I've studied the language. Great ones for sagas and legends, those Dravnians. They have no writing themselves, but this captures the sound of it. This fellow was certainly a student of obscure tongues. Once you untangle all this mess, it's just the same few words written over and over again to form the design. Written in blood, too, by the way and probably his own if he was loony enough to create something like this!"
"Perhaps," Nysander broke in. "But can you make out what it says?"
Seregil glanced up at him, then let out a crow of triumph. "Ah ha! So that's what this is all about. You can't read it!"
Nysander affected a pained look. "I would remind you of the oaths you have given"
Seregil held up a hand, grinning smugly. "I know, I know. But after all your restrictions and secrecy, I think I've earned the right to gloat a little. All it says is, 'Stone within ice within stone within ice. Horns of crystal beneath horns of stone.' Or vice versa. There's no way of telling which is meant to be the first line. Why he would go to such extremes to hide anything as obscure as this is beyond me, though"
"Not at all, not at al