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The Argivian archaeologist removed her lenses and rubbed her tired eyes. The desert grit was everywhere, all the more so when the stiff breeze blew eastward from the inland wastes. The desert air was warm as forge coals, but Tocasia was glad for the gentle wind. Without the breeze it would be merely unbearably and stiflingly hot at the dig site.
The aged researcher sat at an ornate table, a huge monstrosity with thick, fluted legs and a heavy top inlaid with polished shell. It was a gift from one of the noble families of Argive, a reward for "straightening out" an errant scion of their line. The heirloom looked almost comical perched on the outcropping that Tocasia had claimed as her headquarters, beneath a tarpaulin of pale-gray Tomakul muslin.
The gift had been well intentioned, and she could only imagine the expense incurred in sending the table out to her. The desert had already taken its toll: the hand-rubbed finish had been almost entirely blasted away by the sand-laden wind, and the wood beneath had cracked as the heat boiled away the liquids still locked within. Furniture suitable for an Argivian dressing room was much less acceptable in the desert. Still, it was a flat space, and Tocasia appreciated it.
The tabletop was littered with scrolls half-shoved into their cases and survey maps weighted down by bits of rusted metal, the torn edges of the papers fluttering in the breeze. A particularly large chunk of bluish metal sat directly before Tocasia, damning her with itsenigma.
It looked like a parody of a human skull, with a batlike face, and cold, impassive eyes of colored crystal set in the unfamiliar blue-tinted metal. The metal itself seemed as ductile and soft as copper, but bending it only caused it to reform slowly into its original shape. A set of Thran glyphs ran along the underside of the skull, which Tocasia had translated roughly as su-chi. Whether this was the name of the creature, its owner, or its manufacturer was a mystery to her.
The skull's lupine lower jaw jutted forward, ending in a handful of fangs. The top of the skull had been peeled away to reveal a tangle of blue metal cables. Set among them was a single large gemstone, the shade of old glass, worn beyond age, and marred by a longitudinal crack along its top.
Tocasia sighed. Even if her diggers could find the rest of this Thran artifact's body, it was unlikely that they would ever get it working again. The damage was too extensive, and even if they could re-create its form, the gemstone that provided its power was shattered. They had found only a double handful of such stones that were whole and functioning. Glowing in rainbow hues, they could power the old Thran devices. The largest of those stones were shipped back to Argive for additional study and in exchange for support and supplies.
A shadow touched the corner of her table, and Tocasia jumped slightly. She had been so involved with the skull that she had not seen anyone approach. She looked up into Loran's dark face and wondered how long the girl had been there.
Loran was a noble's daughter and one of Tocasia's best pupils, though that was not saying much, given the current crop of students. Early in Tocasia's career she had accepted the financial support of many of the noble houses of Penregon. In exchange, the houses would often ship their recalcitrant or rebellious junior members out to the desert for a summer to join the mad archaeologist in her excavation of Thran artifacts.
To be honest, Tocasia thought, most of the youths she received were guilty of nothing more than being typical young people, and their parents were only seeking to get them out of the manor house. Once on the site, their interest in the past varied from minimal to nonexistent. They were glad to be away from the perfumed and protected courts of Penregon, its petty intrigues, andmost importanttheir parents. Tocasia entrusted them with as much responsibility as they accepted. Some supervised the Fallaji diggers, while others helped glean and catalog the devices they brought to light. Still others were content to man the grapeshot catapults that flanked the camp and served as a deterrent to desert raiders and the scavenging rocs. The young men and women came, served their time, and fled back to the cities with enough tales to impress their friends and enough maturity to mollify their parents.
And a few, such as Loran, had the intelligence, the wisdom, and the presence of mind to come back after their first experience. Loran was on her third season and coming into the full flower of womanhood. Tocasia knew it was only a matter of time before the girl started to care more for ball gowns and dinner parties than for artifacts and dig sites, but for this summer, at least, she was pleased to have her there to help catalog, organize, and coordinate.
Tocasia blinked, pushed her spectacles back up on her nose, and arched an eyebrow at the student. Loran would never speak until spoken to, though Tocasia was trying to break her of that habit.
There was a pause, and then Loran said softly, "The caravan from Argive has arrived."
Tocasia nodded. They had been watching the rising dust cloud from the east all morning, but she'd thought it would be late afternoon before Bly's wagons would reach them. The old wagon master must have finally sprung for new beasts, or else the old aurochs had finally failed him. What Loran meant was that Bly's wagons had finally passed through the stockade gates, and Tocasia had best be there to save her students from the bad-tempered merchant's pique should the mistress of the camp not be there to greet him.
Loran did not move, and Tocasia added, "I will be down as soon as possible. If Bly does not like it, let him stew." Loran's lips compressed in a thin line; then the girl nodded and vanished. Tocasia sighed again. In two or three years Loran would be ordering merchants like Bly around effortlessly, but for now she, and most of the other students, were cowed by the merchant's bluster.
Tocasia watched Loran's retreating form, clad in the cream-colored working shift that most female students labored in. She noted that the girl was already wearing her hair longer, in the fashion favored in the capital. Loran's hair was long, dark, and thick, making her exotic among most of her compatriots. "A touch of the desert" was the saying among the Argivian nobility. It was not a compliment but rather a tacit accusation that some desert barbarian was lurking in the family tree. Perhaps that was why Loran kept coming back for the summersit could not be family pressure. The last time Tocasia visited Penregon, Loran's mother had made it quite clear that Loran should curb such foolish endeavors as rooting around in the dust for scraps of metal.
Tocasia looked out over the camp, a rough wall built around a collection of hills. The low, rolling hills were incised by dry washes and proved to be extremely productive of Thran artifacts. The stockade was more of a demarcation of territory than a true protection, but it kept what desert bandits that might prove a problem at bay. The barricade of piled stone was flanked by a pair of oversized catapults loaded with loose rubble to keep the rocs away. Within the walls most of the activity of the camp was slow in the summer heat. One particular hill, where they had recovered the su-chi skull, proved particularly promising, and was now covered with a grid of string and stakes for further examination. The slow-footed onulets plodded to meet the wagons, steered by noble boys who enjoyed thwacking the great albino beasts with their makeshift goads.
The gate had closed on the last wagon now, and a wide-girthed figure leapt from the lead carriage, waving his arms in an animated fashion. Bly seemed to enjoy terrorizing the students out here, perhaps because he had to kowtow to their parents back in Penregon.
Tocasia smiled at the thought of Bly back in the Argivian capitalhat in hand, head bowed slightly, trying to enunciate his requests without resort to curses. The desert was probably the best place for him as well.
The archaeologist ran her hands through her short graying hair, trying to shake out any nonexistent tangles. When she had been young her hair had been longer and almost as dark and luxuriant as Loran's. There might have been a touch of the desert in her family tree as well. Still, age tended to make all peoples equal, and her shorn locks were easier to care for in the desert.
Tocasia gave the blue-metal skull an affectionate pat and rose from her camp chair. She reached for her walking stick, a shattered fragment of wood and bright steel from some unknown Thran mechanism. She was still spry enough to justify the staff as a walking stick to aid her in navigating the uneven ground and not as a crutch. But aches in her joints in the cool of the early desert morning told a different tale.
Tocasia took her time descending from her perch. Bly would bluster and complain, but that never stopped him from dealing. The artifacts and saleable loot he would bring back from the site was worth the long and arduous trip inland.
It was no surprise, then, that once she reached the wagons there was a wide circle of students and teamsters surrounding the wagon master. The surprise was the pair of young men that Bly was berating.
The two were strangers. One was dark-haired and stocky, and flinched every time Bly bellowed. He was half-hiding behind the other, a lean, tawny-haired boy who stood bolt-upright, taking the full blast of the wagon master's thunder.
"Frauds! Cheats! Liars!" shouted Bly.
The pair were all of ten years old, Tocasia guessed. Twelve at the outside. That was about the age nobles first considered sending their children out to Tocasia's camp. But these were not her students, and no new arrivals were expected until the beginning of the next season. Loran was at one side of the crowd, looking both embarrassed by the scene and relieved that she was not the object of Bly's temper.
"You seek to cheat me! Now get busy unloading, you motherless dogs!" sputtered Bly, a crimson hue crawling through his face.
The dark-haired boy raised his fists and took a step forward. The older blond lad held out an arm to block his companion, but his eyes never left the wagon master.
"Sirrah," he said calmly, though loud enough for the surrounding crowd to hear, "we had a bargain. We would work for you to pay for our passage here. We are now here, so we will work for you no longer."
Wagon master Bly turned an apoplectic purple. "You agreed to serve as hands for the journey. The journey isn't over yet; we still have to get back to Penregon!"
"But then we'll have to get back here on our own!" exploded the stockier boy, leaning forward against the other's restraining arm.
"What's going on here, Bly?" said Tocasia.
The wagon master wheeled on the scholar, blinking as if he had only just then noticed her. "A private matter, Mistress Tocasia. Nothing more."
The leaner of the two youths stepped forward. "You are Tocasia the Scholar?"
"We're not finished," Bly started, but Tocasia held up a hand and replied to the youth.
"I am," she said.
"I am Urza," said the youth. "This is my brother Mishra." The sturdier of the two boys nodded, and the lean youth fished out a battered envelope from within his vest. The seal on the flap, the imprint of a familiar noble household, was intact, but it looked as if the letter had made the entire trip next to the boy's Skin, Bly drew in his breath sharply at the sight.
Tocasia looked at the two youths, then at the wagon master. She slid a sandblasted nail beneath the flap and popped the letter open. The script was fluid and well formed, dictated to a scribe, but the signature along the bottom was recognizable, if weak and jerky.
There was a silence for a moment as she read, and both Bly and Mishra shifted impatiently, waiting for the opportunity to start the argument again. The youth Urza stood impassively, hands folded in front of him.
Tocasia folded up the letter again and said thoughtfully, "Well, that's that." To the two boys she said, "Get your things, and follow Loran there to your quarters." To Bly she said, "These two are now my responsibility. They are joining as students."
The purplish hue returned to Bly's face. "But they owe me half a trip! You're telling me that I have to let these snipes break an agreement just because of some letter!"
Tocasia let the wagon master complain. She watched the boys pull a pair of slender backpacks from one wagon and lope after the slim form of Loran. Only when they had passed through the crowd and that crowd had dispersed to tend to the immediate business of unloading the supplies did she turn her attention to Bly.
"Your agreement was for them to work their way through their journey," she said sharply. "When they arrived here, that journey ended. They are taking up residence here. Do you understand?"
There was steel in her voice, and even Bly knew he could not push the scholar around when she took this tone. Instead he took a deep breath and forced himself to calm.
Tocasia held up the letter. "This is from their father, from whom I have not heard for many years. What do you know of him?"
Bly stammered for a moment, then said, "He's not well at all. Remarried recentlya virago, a real vixen from a good family with her own children. He was taken seriously ill about a month before we left Penregon. He might be dead by this time."
"He might be," said Tocasia solemnly, "or he might be too ill to see to his sons' well-being. You didn't know about this letter, did you?"
The wagon master looked at his feet, embarrassed. "No, you did not," continued Tocasia. "Because if you had, you wouldn't have tried to lock those children into such a hard bargain. `Full trip' indeed! Knowing you, you probably worked those two as hard your aurochs, if not harder. Because you knew that without the letter I wouldn't take them in on just their word!"
"The new mother, she's a hellkite," said Bly softly, by way of explanation. "Wanted them gone, but wouldn't spend a groat on their well-being. Didn't want to dip into the family moneys, since they're all probably hers right now."
"So you gave the boys a break, worked them like slaves, and tried to keep them, since no one would notice their fate," said Tocasia. "That's low, even for you, Bly. Now get the supplies unloaded, and yes, I'll do a complete inventory, thank you. And then we'll load the wagons for return. There are some items there that will fetch you a goodly profit, despite your scandalous behavior."
Tocasia wanted to lecture Bly a bit longer, but Loran came running up. "Mistress Tocasia, the new boys!"
Tocasia scowled at the student. The young girl had actually spoken up, so it must be important. "Yes?"
"They're in a fight," said Loran. "With Richlau and a couple of the other boys."
Tocasia uttered a mild curse. Bly chuckled. "I can always take them back if you want, scholar," he said.
The scholar shot the wagon master a look that would skin an ox at fifteen paces. To Loran she said, "Get Ahmahl and a couple of the other diggers to break it up. And bring the boys to my tent." Loran hesitated, and Tocasia practically stamped her foot. "Now!"
The young girl disappeared in a puff of dust, and Bly said, "I think that pair are more trouble than they are worth, if you don't mind me saying."
"I wouldn't be surprised," grunted the scholar. "Their father was always a handful."
"So you're going to keep them?" asked the wagon master, shaking his head.
Tocasia sighed. "Aye. I owe their father that much. For an old favor."
"Must be some favor," said Bly. "What did he give you?"
"Only my freedom," said Tocasia, and turned away from the wagon master without waiting for a reply.
Bly looked at Tocasia's back as she walked back up the hill. Was it his imagination, or did she seem to be older and more fragile than she had been a few moments ago? Then he heard hoarse shouts among the wagons, and the thought was driven from his head.
"You lot!" he bellowed at the teamsters, throwing himself back into the work. "Have you never hauled freight before? That stuff's delicate! Handle it like you would your sister's newborn, or we don't get paid!"
The hill seemed steeper to Tocasia on the way up than it had on way down, and the boys were already waiting for her when she reached the top. Ahmahl and Loran were there as well.
The leader of the desert-tribe diggers nodded sharply at Tocasia. In Fallaji, the desert tongue, he said, "Watch the little one. He was all fists and bites when we pulled him off. So much fire in one so small. The big one bloodied Richlau's nose, but nothing's broken."
Tocasia responded in the same language, "Richlau deserves to have his nose bloodied. Tell him he's on kitchen duty for the rest of the month. And move the boys' gear to Havack's barracks instead." Ahmahl nodded and left the tarp. Loran made no move to leave until Tocasia instructed her to keep an eye on Bly.
The archaeologist strode around her table, sliding the walking cane back into its holder, a drum-shaped basket made from an onulet's foot. She leaned on her palms on the desk and looked at the two boys. Their fine vests had been shredded in the battle, and Urza's pockets had been torn out in the fight. Mishra had acquired a black eye, and both boys showed numerous scratch marks.
Tocasia sighed and lowered herself into her seat. The boys shifted uncomfortably. "Fifteen minutes," she said at last. "Fifteen minutes and you're already in a fight. A new record, even for this place."
Both boys started talking at once. Urza said, "I would like to apologize on behalf of everyone involved"
Mishra burst out with, "I'm sorry but it really wasn't our fault if"
"Silence!" Tocasia slapped the table hard, so hard the su-chi skull jumped slightly, and a piece of the pearl inlay bounced out of its setting. The two boys quieted immediately and shifted from one foot to another.
Tocasia leaned back in her chair. "What happened?"
The boys looked at each other, as if each were granting the other the chance to explain. By mutual if unspoken consent, Urza won the opportunity.
"One of the older boys picked on my brother. I stopped him," he said primly. "A large boy with red hair and freckles."
"So I see," said Tocasia. To Mishra she said, "And why was Richlau picking on you?"
"No reason," said Mishra. Urza started to say something, but Tocasia held up a hand to silence him. After a long silence, Mishra added, "He said I was on his bunk."
"And were you?" asked the scholar.
Mishra shrugged. "I guess." Then, after a pause, he blurted out, "But he didn't have to be rude about it!"
"Richlau is rude about everything," said Tocasia. "You're going to have to get used to that if you stay here." To Urza she said, "You're the older brother, correct?"
"I am," said Urza, but Mishra made a small coughing noise. Urza made a face and added, "I should say that Mishra and I were born in the same year, I was born on the first day of the year, Mishra was born on the last. So for all days but the last, I am a year older."
"On the last day, we're equal!" piped Mishra, as if pleased that his brother had corrected himself.
Tocasia held up the letter from Urza's vest. "Do you know what this says?"
Again, the two boys looked at each other. Tocasia sensed they were conferring in a secret language, one only they could hear.
"Not exactly," answered Urza at last.
"Your father was a dear friend to whom I owe much," observed Tocasia. "He wants me to look after you, to care for you should something happen to him. That means you're going to be staying here for quite a while. And that means working with me and my students. If you're uncomfortable with this arrangement, I can send you back with Bly, but to be honest I don't know what kind of welcome would await you in Penregon."
Again the boys looked at each other. It was Mishra who spoke this time, "What is it that you do?"
"I dig," said Tocasia. "Or rather, I supervise others who dig. We are searching for artifacts out here. Do you know what I'm talking about?"
"Remnants of the past," said Urza. "Of a civilization that stood here long before Argive or any of the nations of Terisiare. Relics."
"That's right," said Tocasia. "Artifacts that range in power from small toys to great machines, machines that can do the work of many men."
"Like the big white ox-things?" asked Mishra, almost unheard.
Tocasia arched an eyebrow at the younger brother. "Yes, indeed. The onulets that we use as beasts of burden out here are artifacts, ones I created based on the designs we've pieced together of the artifact-creating race, the Thran. The onulets are strong, loyal, unthinking machines that are tireless workers. They require neither food nor water, and when they do at last break down, the fluids from their joints are used to brew a hearty beverage that we then trade with desert tribesmen for information and other artifacts."
"They sound very useful," said Urza.
Tocasia leaned back in her chair. "I'm impressed, Mishra. The framework is covered by stitched hides to protect the workings from the desert sands. I had one student who was quite handy with a needle. Most first-time students assume the onulets are alive, since the only things comparable are the aurochs." She chuckled. "One of the pranks that Richlau and the other boys were probably planning was to assign you to feed an onulet and not to come back until it had finished its meal. How did you guess they weren't living?"
Mishra blinked, then furrowed his brow. "I didn't guess. I just knew."
Urza sniffed and said, "The gait is wrong for something alive. It pitches forward when it takes a step. A real creature would be smoother." He looked at Tocasia and shrugged. "I knew it too, but I didn't think it important enough to mention. The Thran must have been amazing people to have created it."
Tocasia said, "And what do you know of the Thran, young Urza?"
The sandy-haired boy planted his feet apart and put his hands behind his backa recitation position Tocasia remembered from her own youth.
"The Thran were an ancient race that lived in this land many thousands of years ago. They created a number of wondrous devices, only a few of which have survived to the present day. The great clock of Penregon's Grand Court is said to be a Thran artifact."
Tocasia suppressed a smile; the device at the heart of that clock had been one of her earliest finds. "But who were they?" she asked. "Who were the Thran? Were they human?"
Urza blinked, as if the question were odd. "Of course. Why wouldn't they be?"
"What proof can you offer?" asked Tocasia.
Urza thought for a moment, and Tocasia noticed he dropped his head slightly as if trying to support a thought-filled head with his chest. "I don't remember anything saying they weren't. I assumed they were."
"Most people do," said the scholar. "But the truth of the matter is we don't know. They might be human, yes. Ahmahl, one of the Fallaji, has some folk stories about how the Thran were powerful gods who brought his people into this world, but the stories neglect any specifics. The Thran could have been minotaurs, elves, dwarvesor goblins, for all we know."
"Oh, I hope they were minotaurs!" said Mishra. "Those are neat-looking!"
Urza spread his hands before him and said dryly, "There was a carnival in Penregon when we were younger. Most of what Mishra knows of minotaurs comes from seeing one there."
"But the fact remains we don't know who the Thran were," continued Tocasia. "And so we dig, we examine, and we try to piece together the parts of the past. The onulets are a result of what we have learned. So, to a lesser extent, are the grapeshot catapults that guard the encampment. We do know that many of the Thran devices were powered by crystalline energy sources. We call them power stones. What the Thran called them is anyone's guess. We have a rough idea of their language, though precious little that has been written down. We have not found statuary, art, or potterynothing that implies the creative arts. We know they stripped this land bare, but don't know how they died offwhether by internal war, famine, or plague."
She sighed. "We have no idea even of what they look like. They could have looked like us. Or they could have looked like our friend here." She pushed the su-chi forward on the desk and patted it.
Mishra reached forward and grabbed the skull. Tocasia was surprised by the speed that only desert predators and small children can manage. He turned it over and over in his hands.
"Stop" began Tocasia. She wanted to say, "Stop that and put it back down," but she was too late. At the first sound from her Urza leapt on his little brother.
"Put it down!" snapped the sandy-haired boy. "It might be dangerous!"
"Its not dangerous," snarled his darker-haired brother. "If it was dangerous, she'd keep it someplace where we couldn't touch it!"
"Then its fragile!" shouted Urza. "You'll break it!"
"If I break it, it'll be because you made me!" replied Mishra. The pair formed a tight knot, the su-chi skull between them.
"Give!" shouted Urza.
"No!" responded Mishra.
"Enough!" roared Tocasia, thundering both hands on top of the table. At once both boys were on their feet again, and the skull was rocking gently against the pearl inlay where it had been a minute before.
The scholar scowled at the boys. "You two talk a good game and seem to have enough energy to burn. Good enough. You're going to spend the rest of the month learning from the ground up. You'll start by working in the kitchen. Alongside Richlau, so I strongly recommend you figure out how to deal with him. If I have any more trouble with the pair of you, I'll send you back with Bly." She glared at them. "Do I make myself clear?"
As one, both boys nodded.
"Good." Tocasia settled her thin frame in the chair. "Now report to the mess tent and start peeling tubers. They're serving a big feast tonight for Bly's men. I trust there will be no more problems?"
Both boys nodded in unison again. Tocasia waved them out, and they vanished from her tarp, leaving trails of dust behind them as they scampered down the hillside.
Despite herself Tocasia smiled. They were so close in age, but their birth order set their attitudes. Urza was ten yet carried himself as if he were much older and felt responsible for his younger brother. Mishra was nearly ten but acted younger and was more exuberant. He would probably always be willing to try new things, thought Tocasia, because big brother would be there to watch out for him.
Still, she mused, a word to Richlau would probably be wise. Let him know she would not appreciate hearing he was making life difficult for the two newest and youngest students. That might create more hard feelings if the "new children" were known to be favorites, but that was a small price, and a temporary one. At the end of this season, this batch of young nobles would head back to Penregon and a new group would take their place. The brothers should be capable of handling themselves by then, she thought, or they would be gone.
Tocasia's smile died as she picked up the metallic skull of the su-chi. She examined it carefully to see if the boys had damaged it further in their grappling. Somehow, she saw, their fight had jostled the two halves of the power crystal together. The longitudinal crack had vanished, and the crystal now was a solid piece. More interesting, there was a flicker of light deep within the crystal, a weak glow but one that indicated that the crystal still held some of its energy.
Tocasia stared at the skull and its crystalline brain until Loran came to fetch her for dinner with the wagon master's men and her own students. But her eyes and her thoughts strayed often during the meal to the two boys who had so recently arrived in the camp.