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Through magic, King Edisthen has been abducted from Chrysanthe. Evered, the rebel prince, brings to bear his army against the throne; an army led by creatures out of nightmare. The land blazes with war as Evered's host heads for the seat of power. The defenders of the realm are unequal to the task, save for one who might ...
Through magic, King Edisthen has been abducted from Chrysanthe. Evered, the rebel prince, brings to bear his army against the throne; an army led by creatures out of nightmare. The land blazes with war as Evered's host heads for the seat of power. The defenders of the realm are unequal to the task, save for one who might hold the power to defeat the rebels . . . if she is willing to risk the fate of the world.
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1. The Conclave at Testenel
Tiellorn stood at the center of the world. Outward from the city, fields spread, with their attendant villages. Beyond lay tamed wilderness, well-coppiced woods, and meadows where any traveler might refresh himself. Then villages again, and some modest towns. Human population had achieved a stable distribution here. Tiellorn had long ago ceased to grow; though its pull on the people of Chrysanthe remained strong, most of those who traveled to it did so merely as a sort of pilgrimage. One did not yearn to live in Tiellorn; one was either born to it or not.
Around the heart of the land the Hedges drew a sort of colossal maze, emblems of borders that had once, at the beginning of the world, meant much more than they did in this age. For centuries, the extent of Man's full rule on the world had stopped at the Hedges. To go past them was to travel into the unknown, and sometimes into mind-twisting peril.
In these latter days, the Hedges were no border at all. Temerorn, the central district of Chrysanthe, extended well past them and its borders existed only on maps. Three duchies divided the land beyond Temerorn: Archeled lay east, Estephor north and west, Kawlend to the south. At the outermost edges of the three duchies the land fragmented into ever-pettier baronies, until one reached the edges of civilization, where the rule of a single baron might extend no further than the borders of his makeshift castle. Though all of these regions owed ultimate fealty to the king on his throne in Testenel, in practice the power did not flow so smoothly. The petty barons' power might exert itself over a small area, but it was all the more fiercely bound to its native land, and its ties to the central authority tended to be weak.
Most of the barons of the marches cared little who sat on the throne. Whether the king's name was Vaurd or Edisthen, it all came to the same in the end. What they did care for was local power, and wealth. And that was something that the son of the deposed king might promise them, assuming he gained the throne.
So, when he approached the barons of the southern marches of Kawlend, Evered had found the terrain at first fertile: His cautiously phrased schemes had met with unexpected, instant enthusiasm. Support his cause? Well, of course the barons would. It stood to reason Evered had been defrauded of his inheritance. Nothing could be more important than restoring him to the throne that was his by birthright. Raise levies, of men and horses, to swell the ranks of their small military force? It was feasible. Indeed, a grandfather, a great-great-uncle, had done just that, in the olden days. That tradition had not been lost. Why, at a moment's notice they could be ready to move....
But the more precise Evered became, the more evasive the barons. They could not commit to a date. Unexpected circumstances always arose: bad harvests, sheep plagues, insubordinate farmers. Hard and fast guarantees on their part were something Evered could never get. At times the Law was mentioned, almost idly. It was also remarked that promises of gold and favors were far cheaper than their actuality.
Though he tilled his field and sowed the seeds of revolt, Evered's crop remained disappointing. Still, he did not give up. Year after year he plowed the land anew and waited for a richer harvest. He got to know the barons, well enough to tell the rams from the sheep. But for all his patient work, he knew that he could not count on enough men to mount a viable attack on the center of things.
Chrysanthe's standing armies were small though well trained, and troop levies would greatly swell their numbers. Eight skyships plied the land under the direct command of the crown; these had proved significant in warfare in the past, useful both as scouts and as bombardment platforms. Even without the skyships to consider, to lay siege to Testenel, Evered would have to march through most of Kawlend and then the southern half of Temerorn.
When he was young still, Evered had imagined his forces sweeping north through Kawlend, under safe conduct from the duchess, protected from Estephor by the mountain range that formed the duchy's border--but always his fantasy faltered at the thought of Archeled. This was the most populous of the duchies, and one whose duke bore Edisthen an unswerving loyalty. From the day when Edric, Duke Archeled, had prevented him from flinging himself at Edisthen, Evered had borne him a very special hatred, as one holds fond memories of a former lover close to heart. And always in his dreams of vengeance Duke Archeled would appear, as if claiming primacy over Edisthen. Before even the usurper could be faced, his cat's-paw would defeat Evered, sometimes at the gate of Temerorn, sometimes before he had even managed to cross half of Kawlend.
Evered could not deny reason: Against Archeled the forces of the barons would never prevail. But several factors might be used to even the odds. For many years, Evered had cultivated his relationship with Duchess Ambith of Kawlend. She had been a favorite of Vaurd's, influent at court; in the Usurpation War Kawlend had thrown its lot against Edisthen. Though defeated in the bitter end, its duchess had scarcely been cowed. She had been a young woman barely out of her twenties during the war; she was now a mature woman at the height of her power. A man less idealistic than Edisthen might have seen the wisdom of taking her hand in marriage after the death of his wife. A man less of a fool would have seen the danger staring him in the face and had her assassinated. But the Hero, indolent ruler that he was, treated her with grave and absent courtesy. It did not take much brains to understand this enraged Ambith, who could not stand to be ignored.
Ambith had always been generous with Vaurd's sons; they had readily chosen Kawlend as the place of their exile, though the dismal castle of Vorlok offered no incentives of its own. However, Ambith had often graced them with visits in the beginning. Once they reached their majority, she allowed them to leave Vorlok to spend time in Aluvien, in direct contradiction to the peace terms Edisthen had imposed. Vaurd's sons remained discreet about these visits, even the slack-witted Olf, and their imprisonment became much easier to bear.
Shortly after the end of the Usurpation War, Evered had begun cultivating Ambith, responding to her flatteries with some of his own, repaying every kindness as best he could. What passed between them was not sexual, much that Aghaid and Innalan liked to drop callow hints that it was. It was lust for power, pure and simple--though perhaps, on her part, there was some infatuation. Evered for his part felt no desire for her, who was fifteen years his senior, bony and dry. So he played a delicate game, scrupulous both to encourage Ambith's feelings if they existed, and to ensure that proprieties were always strictly respected.
In 6078 Ambith had wed a nobleman of Kawlend, an agreeable, spineless man ten years older than herself. This did not reduce the frequency of Evered's visits, nor their nature. Evered took precautions to be even more irreproachable than ever: Were the duchess's husband to become convinced he was being cuckolded, he would sooner suspect Talquen's shade of bedding his wife than Prince Evered. And as their odd relationship deepened, Evered won promises from Ambith, of men and money. Yet even with Kawlend's entire army on his side, history argued Evered could not win. The Usurpation War had seen Kawlend beaten and humiliated. A border action against Archeled might well succeed; seizing Waldern was remotely conceivable; an assault on the heart of the land would be met by forces from the three other duchies and fail. This war, however, was going to be a war of magic.
Magic had always been the key factor. Men fought with swords and bows, and there numbers were determinant. Wizards fought with spells that twisted the world, and there raw power was what counted. Troops at a numerical disadvantage could prevail given magical support, but since the Carmine War this piece of wisdom had been forgotten.
Casimir had joined Evered's service in 6079, after a long courtship, and swiftly proven his worth. The wizard, though younger than Mathellin by nine years, mastered many more spells and wielded them at a keener pitch of power. Evered now commanded two strong wizards; Edisthen had Orion and the latter's young apprentice Melogian.
One might think the advantage now lay with Evered's side. However, Orion's power was immense. During the Usurpation War he had mostly nullified Mathellin's efforts to help their side. Though at first the Hero had refrained from using magic of his own against enemy troops, in the end he had brought such harsh spells to the field that Kawlend was forced to surrender.
The way Evered saw it, it was thus imperative to remove the mage from the playing board. Christine's abduction had been a step toward this, rather than an end in itself. Orion had invested a large part of his power into the knights who had set out questing for the girl; and then had gone himself, time and again, striving to locate Christine.
Already this weakened Orion significantly. In fact, giving assault while he was absent was a temptation Evered had had to resist: Orion never remained gone for too long. It was a better strategy to use the power of the made worlds against him. Twice Casimir had raised imaginary armies in the made worlds and sought to capture him. The first attempt had failed. The second one also, almost catastrophically. Evered had ordered a stop then. For years the conspirators had made no move. Deep down in Errefern, Mathellin and all his spellcraft guarded Christine, while Orion quested for her in all the wrong places. Slowly, slowly, Casimir gathered new forces. He had always been impatient, hungry for power and mastery; Evered bade him learn the virtues of patience. Casimir buried himself in books, returned time and again to the made worlds to build a web of forces, much as Mathellin had done in Errefern. On the day the third and final trap was sprung, there had been no risk of failure. Casimir returned from Jyndyrys exulting in his enemy's destruction. And Evered's great plan entered a new phase.
With Orion eliminated, only Melogian stood by Edisthen--Evered felt nothing but contempt for the girl, most of it learned from Casimir. Yet he was not such a fool as to dismiss the talents of one whom Orion himself had chosen as apprentice. Casimir was confident he could best Melogian in a contest of magic, but Evered was not content with this. If the mages were to battle one another, leaving armies to take to the field, this would only be a replay of every major conflict since the Carmine War.
Then a new development had arisen, with Casimir perfecting a spell to enter an underworld and learn magics from ages past. For years the fat wizard had boasted of his plan to devise this enchantment, until Evered ceased to believe in the possibility. But it had come true. And what Casimir had learned from his explorations had transformed the conflict. His skills now surely exceeded Melogian's: He had learned spells humankind had forgotten for centuries and millennia. Evered began to plan for a bold assault on Testenel, supported by Casimir's elder magic.
His fortunes suffered a reversal when Christine was brought back to the real world. On the day he learned of this, Evered had affected indifference, though inside his head he could hear his own voice screaming inarticulately. For a moment of terror he had felt his old madness boiling up to the surface; but it was the realization that it had always been so close that truly terrified him. Yet he had overcome it; clenching his hands on the arms of his chair, he had regained mastery of his feelings. After all, Christine had always been secondary to his plans.
He had been ready to commit himself fully at that moment, to bring his forces together and attack, in sheer defiance over this caprice of fate. Casimir had convinced him to wait just a while longer, while the wizard exploited one more facet of his hard-won knowledge.
And at last it was done. Evered now bestrode the fields he had slaved over, and reaped his harvest, such as it was. Commitments were finally honored, some at the price of greater promises, some brought about by a trifle of inflicted pain--however forced, they were fulfilled. Men had begun to gather to him. Duchess Ambith was ready to raise her troops and place them under his orders. Soon the baronial militia would join with Kawlend's regular armies and Evered would stride forth at the head of a host that might well have lasted all of a week before it was torn apart by loyalist forces.
Except, of course, that Evered had a small surprise in reserve.
As he gazed down from the window, the prince could not suppress a shiver of primal terror. From adits sealed from the pryings of mankind, Casimir had drawn them. Six demons from the dawn of time, bound to a single man who commanded them with a word and a gesture. One by one they had come, crawling, flying, flowing at Casimir's behest. Now they stood arrayed before him; the wizard paraded them as if he were drilling a gaggle of boys with wooden swords. Evered did not know if it was the demons he feared more, or the man who commanded them--but this thought he buried in his mind almost before he had entertained it.
He did note that there was no one in the field behind Vorlok apart from Casimir and his horrors. Evered had walked among the men who had begun to arrive; had heard those who had seen the demons tell the others what it was that would be marching amongst them. Had seen more than one man grow pale and restive. Had challenged one such would-be deserter, drawing not blood with his dagger but shame with his words. Tomorrow, it would be necessary to force the men to get a closer look at the demons. It was vital that they understand the beasts would remain under Casimir's power. But once that realization had sunk in, it would work to Evered's advantage. Knowing he was being preceded into battle by Hell's very spawn, what man would fear opposition?
Still...Evered's stomach lurched. The most hideous of Casimir's demons was swaying back and forth, an affront to the sense of sight. This one did not have a body as such: The demon was a constant boiling of motes, sublimating into smoke at its outer edges, while nearer the center the motes thickened and clotted into a bulbous head-like shape, from which tentacles seemed to depend. But these were mere standing waves amongst the chaos of swirling flecks: Not one constituent part remained in place. The tentacles were no more real than the head, and yet one could see them, twisting and lashing the ground in a mad rhythm, as if the demon danced the way a flame burns.
Casimir's demons changed the situation completely. With them at the head of his troops, Evered could more than hope for victory: It was almost assured. His forces would sweep north into Temerorn, besiege Testenel, and restore the crown to its fated inheritor. The thought made him light-headed and sent sparkles at the edges of his vision; he had to lie down and breathe slowly, hoping that the fit would not really start. Even as he felt the cool floor beneath him, it seemed to him he could sense the six demons outside the walls, knots of malevolent presence, thankfully unaware of him. Terror and ecstasy warred within his mind, and he strove to contain them before one or the other overwhelmed him.
In the wake of Evered's challenge to the crown, King Edisthen had ordered a conclave be held at Testenel. He had summoned the three dukes of the land to his presence, along with some of their advisers and ministers. Delivered by skyship, the invitations had arrived promptly. The craft that had carried them remained at the ducal capitals to ferry the dukes and their entourages back to Testenel in as swift a manner as possible.
The most distant capital was Waldern, erected on the shores of the Eastern Ocean; yet it was Duke Edric of Archeled who arrived first, several days early in fact. He had started preparing to journey to Testenel as soon as news of the return of Christine had reached him. By the time the skyship Excelsior arrived at Waldern, Edric had already set forth; the skyship had to retrace its course and pick up the ducal entourage from an inn along the way.
Duke Corlin of Estephor was next to arrive. On the first day of High-Summer, the Black Heart returned to Testenel, ferrying him and his entourage. The duke was young--he had been born in 6071--and still bore himself in some ways like a child. Surrounded by friends of his own age, with only two or three graybeards to spice his delegation with an air of respectability, he greeted Edisthen with a minimum of pomp and a maximum of enthusiasm. Gaunt Edisthen accepted Corlin's effusions with stolid dignity; when the young duke asked to see the Princess Christine, he was informed she was resting at present and would meet him later.
Christine had spent as little time as possible at official functions, which both bored and scared her. Her father's presence she could bear, for a few minutes at a time, if he were not too close. But her tolerance varied from day to day, according to factors she could not divine; she sought not to press it, and kept her interactions with her father to the bare necessities. When Duke Edric arrived, she had been compelled to meet with him, but she found she did not like him much. He was too brusque, too haughty for her tastes; he was an old man, his hair mostly gone white, and Christine could sense in him a general annoyance at the world she associated with old men. And yet, her return to Chrysanthe had obviously delighted him; her presence made him blush pink and smile. Here was a staunch ally, it would seem. Perhaps in time, she thought, she would learn to like him.
She met with Duke Corlin on the afternoon of his arrival. There were rooms in Testenel specifically devoted to entertaining high-ranking guests of the royal family, and so Christine made use of one of these Presence Chambers. She would have liked Quentin to be by her side, but he had left for Lydiss three days before. She had promised him she would cope without him, and she did; still, she had come to depend upon him more than she'd realized. In the presence of a duke, warded only by ordinary guards, she felt herself on unsafe ground.
There were musicians in the Presence Chamber, bowing stringed instruments to make a music like an endless silvery sigh, fading into the background of one's thoughts. At Corlin's arrival, they struck up a sprightly theme, appropriate to the demeanor of the young man who came almost bouncing into the room. A guard at the entrance announced in a loud voice, "Corlin, Duke of Estephor, Warden of--"
"Yes, yes, thank you!" Corlin cut her off. "Her Highness knows who I am, I'm sure. Cousin!" This was said to Christine, in a jaunty tone of voice. Corlin strode closer, half bowed when he was within reach. He seemed to expect something from her, but Christine, not knowing what it was, remained immobile. Then the young Duke knelt abruptly and kissed the hem of her dress. His head rose up to meet her gaze: "I am honored to be in your presence, Your Highness."
Christine belatedly guessed he had expected her to extend her hand; but she wasn't willing to go that far.
"I'm, ah, very glad to meet you, Corlin--Your Grace," she said.
Corlin smiled broadly, the handsomeness of his face suddenly marred when a missing left premolar became revealed. "Corlin will do, Your Highness. Ceremony is for old people."
Someone cleared his throat behind him. Corlin glanced over his shoulder to the two people who had accompanied him, an older man in purple robes and a young woman dressed in hunter's breeches and doublet.
"Ah, yes. May I introduce my minister, Veldaunce, and the Lady Ysolde, a boon companion."
"I am glad to make your acquaintance as well," said Christine. Corlin's companions bowed deeply and murmured polite nothings.
There were chairs in place for visitors. Christine remembered just in time to tell her guests that they might sit. Corlin took his ease in the largest armchair and began a sprightly conversation throughout which he managed to cover two or three subjects at once, mostly referring to events and people Christine knew nothing about. Yet his energy made his speech most enjoyable and Christine decided she rather liked him. She attended the next evening meal in the company of her father and the two dukes, and spent a pleasant enough time. She worried, however, about how things would go once Duchess Ambith arrived. Her duchy had sided with Vaurd during the Usurpation War, and tensions had run high between Kawlend and Temerorn since then.
Conclave had been called for the third of High-Summer, but by late afternoon of that day, Duchess Ambith of Kawlend had not yet arrived. Near sunset, the Glorious Niavand finally appeared and docked at one of the tower berths. Duchess Ambith was aboard, along with her retinue. King Edisthen himself was on hand to welcome her; as soon as her feet had touched solid stone, Ambith called one of her guards to her. Holding on to the man's mailed arm and keeping her head very straight, she crossed the landing stage and reached the doorway where Edisthen waited.
"I am ill," she told him before he could open his mouth. "I wish to be taken to my chambers at once. We will speak in the morning."
Edisthen's nostrils flared. "Take the duchess and her staff to their apartments," he ordered in a quiet voice. Servants scrambled to obey; the Kawlendian delegation was taken into the heart of the castle, none of them so much as sparing a word for their king.
News of the snub traveled quickly throughout the castle and a hundred rumors bloomed. For his part, Edisthen simply sent word to the two other dukes that conclave was delayed until the morrow. That evening, Melogian went to spend a few hours with Christine, as she usually did.
Since their trip to the edge of the world, Christine had felt more adrift in reality. She was forced to admit now that her knowledge of the world was inadequate; the science she had learned, the explanations that had ruled her world, those were dream-lore. She could no longer dismiss the flatness of the earth as a naïve doctrine. Melogian had shown her the edge of things, and one day--not now, not yet--Christine would ask her to take her up into the sky, and see the sun from above, to touch the vault of the heavens with her bare hand.
When she did that, she had no doubt that something in her would shrivel up and die; but no matter how weird the truth was, still she would accept it. Logic, now, logic did not and could not fail her. The world was as it was; it was knowable, and so she would know it. She read works of geography, consulted maps, in an effort to memorize the shape of Chrysanthe. Not that the coastlines were complicated: one to the west, one to the east, each with some bays and capes. The interior was one contiguous mass, without anything remotely like a sea. There were many small lakes and an abundance of streams. The land sloped downward from the center toward west and east; there were some mountain ranges, and one extensive plateau to the north rose very high indeed, with Mount Gasphode at its center rearing its head to challenge the heavens.
Christine wanted to ask Melogian how a mountain so high could have arisen if the vault of heaven was low from the ground at the edge of creation. She wondered about rainfall, the effects of six thousand years of erosion on mountains and hills. Wondered if her questions would be met with shrugs or dodges, or claims that the Law worked in ways no one fully understood. Perhaps deep in the ground lay another edge to the world, and stone was born in those depths, pushing the land upward under Mount Gasphode. Faced with evidence of the miraculous nature of the world, it was easy to give up inquiry, or to invent fantastic explanations. Worst of all was knowing that the real answers might be even more fantastical than any she could imagine.
Christine wanted to take her time with her inquiries, both to avoid annoying Melogian and to pace herself. Too much dwelling on existential matters made her dizzy. Also, there was in the presence of the sorceress something very precious to her: companionship. She had learned not to fear Quentin, and now that he was gone, she needed someone familiar by her side. Althea performed her duties as loyally and cheerfully as ever, but Christine could not confide in her. The girl might be one of an elite circle of body servants; this did not necessarily make her a delightful companion. She was eager to please, impossible to upset, and fully competent at her tasks. She was also nearly incapable of initiative, incurious, and basically ignorant of everything beyond the castle and her duties.
So it was with genuine pleasure that Christine received Melogian whenever she came to visit. The sorceress always had interesting things to talk about, and lately Christine had started telling her about some of the episodes of her early life. It wasn't as if Freynie Long sat in Melogian's place, but still Christine could reminisce with someone who at least partly understood her.
That evening, Melogian came in bearing a distracted expression. She inquired after Christine's health then immediately came to the point.
"Kawlend's delegation has finally arrived, but Duchess Ambith claims to be ill; Edisthen has postponed the conclave till tomorrow. It worries me."
Though Christine disliked the subject, she did not ignore it. "Do you think he..." She forced herself to correct: "My father...made a mistake?"
"No, it's the duchess I'm worried about. Traveling aboard a skyship is hardly traumatic; Ambith is either lying to annoy the king, or she is really ill for some reason, and this makes her even more of an unknown. I expect the conclave will be stormy."
"You've said before that it would be hard. You're worried that Kawlend will side with Evered. But you said you thought things would be all right."
"Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. My intuition says we are due for trouble, but intuition is just a mask our fears and desires wear. I wasn't even present at Ambith's arrival. Still, I have a request to make of you."
"What is it?"
"I believe, Christine, that you should attend the conclave. Hear me out; I know you said you didn't want to, but I'm asking you to reconsider. I thought at first it would be all for the better if you did not stay much in Ambith's presence. Now I'm not so sure; the duchess hates Edisthen, but she might not feel the same toward you. You're young, and a woman. Also, your disposition has greatly improved these past few days. You're no longer as fragile as you were when you arrived. You can take the pressures of the conclave; all you have to do is listen, no one will require you to speak."
Christine shook her head. "I...I don't think I could do it. You're asking me to spend hours at my father's side."
"No. Not at his side. That's just it. I've looked at the chamber, and there are several boxes; you can have one all to yourself. You wouldn't be present as Edisthen's heir and supporter, but as an independent observer if you will, come to learn statecraft. I've vetted it with the Master of Protocol and it's perfectly acceptable; he says there's precedent. You could show up at the beginning, stay for a while, and leave when you felt you'd had enough."
"You really want me to do this."
Melogian sighed. "Yes, I want you to do it. It will be good for you. It will be good for the realm. It will be good for your father. It might remind Ambith that Edisthen has an heir, a female heir. You don't have to do it if you don't feel capable. I will not force you."
Christine looked at her hands. "You told me the Law pushed Vaurd off his throne because he wasn't a good ruler. If I don't attend, if I just keep spending my time reading books and taking walks outside, I'll become a bad ruler, won't I? So I don't have a choice; the Law is a trap for me."
Melogian frowned. "It isn't that bad. You are who you are, yes, the princess of the realm, but you do have a choice in what you do. All of us are free. There will be many other occasions to learn. I would never think of compelling you; I am just asking you."
Christine heaved a sigh. "Yes, okay, I'll do it."
"Thank you," said Melogian. "I'll inform the Master of Protocol you'll be present. Ask Althea to choose something appropriate for you to wear. Someone will come for you just before the conclave is due to start."
Casimir had risen well before dawn and gone to his task. At his worktable were the sheets of parchment where he had scriven the words Nikolas Mestech had taught him; plans of Testenel; maps of Temerorn and Kawlend. In the middle of the table was a bowl full of fluid in which a ring of braided metal wires had been sunk. Two days ago, the ring had been so hot still that the fluid bubbled and steamed; now it had finally cooled. Casimir took up a pair of wooden tongs and dipped them cautiously in the fluid to fish out the ring. Three drops fell back into the bowl, then the ring was dry. Alloyed from gold, silver, and orichalc, its metal glittered yellow-white in the workroom's light. The wires had been perfectly fused at the point where the ring bent back upon itself: Now it had no beginning and no end, and what had been a pair of wires had become a single one, twisted with itself.
Scraps of knowledge he had salvaged from Mestech hinted at the immense potency of this talisman. Here was, Casimir thought, quite possibly the first and essential step to opening a made world. A ring that bit its own tail so seamlessly that the whole swallowed itself at the same time as it remained entire; had he known how to thread space between the braids and pass the ring thrice through itself without breaking it, he might have accomplished more than anyone in the past two millennia.... But the lore was too vague and fragmentary. Or perhaps, Casimir told himself consolingly, in these latter days the creation of made worlds had become an impossible task; perhaps at the dawn of time the mages of the First would have understood with the greatest of ease what was required, while the minds of the men of the seventh millennium could no longer encompass the underlying notions.
It mattered little, in the end. The ring could still be attuned to an existing made world, and Mestech's memories had yielded more than enough in that respect. Casimir had crafted the ring to resonate with a particular opening; in its final forging it had proven itself, and there had remained only the business of waiting for the enspelled metal to cool to a temperature that allowed its proper handling.
Casimir wrapped the ring in a square of silk and carefully wiped it, seeking the least bead of fluid remaining on the metal's surface. When he was satisfied that the ring was clean, he picked it up between left thumb and forefinger and put his right thumb through the opening. There was some resistance, but the ring slid over his thumb up to the second knuckle. Casimir let out a sigh of relief. He pulled the ring back up his thumb until only the tip remained within, then inserted the tip of the other thumb. Focusing his will upon the self-intertwined braid, he drew his thumbs apart; in his grip, the ring widened, remaining circular. Again there was resistance; again he overcame it. After two minutes, the ring had become a hoop as wide as his hand. The wizard grinned in triumph. He relaxed his efforts, and the ring shrank swiftly. Exerted his will again, and saw the ring expand once more, much faster than the first time. He let it collapse back to its initial size, laid it gently on the surface of the worktable.
He opened a cupboard door; there was a servant within, a small female that seemed ten or twelve years old. "You; attend!" said Casimir. The servant stepped out of the cupboard and looked at him with unblinking eyes. "Locate Evered within Vorlok," continued Casimir. "When you have located him, deliver the following message: 'Casimir has laid the trap.' Afterward, return to the nearest servants' post and assume availability for normal duties."
The girl shut her eyes for two heartbeats, then reopened them and said, "I understand." She exited the workroom and Casimir locked the door behind her.
There was a cask of water upon a pedestal, and next to it a commode. Casimir stripped off his clothes and clad himself only in a woolen robe. Then he went to sit on the commode, settling his bulk carefully onto the velvet cushion round the rim. A fine catgut tube had been tied at one end to the cask's spigot, at the other to a hollow needle welded to a metal grommet. Casimir checked the connections carefully, then he spoke a simple spell, grasped the hollow needle, and pushed it through his left cheek; the flesh stretched and stretched, and finally parted. His other hand reached inside his mouth and pulled the rest of the needle through, then gave it a quarter-turn; gearlike teeth on the grommet bit into his flesh and anchored the needle in place. The spell prevented any bleeding or pain.
Casimir turned the handle of the spigot very slightly; water began to dribble slowly down the tube. Presently a drop of water fell from the needle's tip onto his tongue; Casimir made a point of not swallowing, felt the moisture coat his tongue. The next drop came, moistening his throat.
There was a table to his right, within easy reach of his hand. Casimir tipped over the hourglass upon the table. A single grain of sand fell through the constriction at its middle. Then he brought his hands together in his lap, over the folds of the woolen robe, holding the braided ring in his palms. Days, perhaps a week, he could remain thus, a spider in the middle of his web, but then he would need to rest for a time; he was only human, after all.
He cast a final spell, to send his consciousness across the leagues, speaking with perfect clarity, unmindful of the sting of the needle on his tongue. Power gathered in the confines of the room; Casimir felt it coming to him in waves, and his heart sang with glee. He wanted this part of it never to end, the minutes when might flowed into him. He saw himself grow huge, huger than the world, so that he looked down upon it as God might, held it in his palm instead of the ring, to be molded according to his desires. Sweat beaded at his temples as he worked the magic; water dribbled into his mouth, unnoticed. The ring attuned to Mestech's made world lay between his fingers, singing with power torn out of the dead wizard's dream-flesh.
Casimir slipped the ring over his joined thumbs; one flexion of his will, and it enlarged. He was ready. He cast his perceptions toward Testenel, along the weft of force of the spy-spell he had laboriously threaded through Melogian's wards. From a hundred points within the castle inchoate sensations came to him. As he poured more of his power through the web, his apperceptions sharpened. Images came now to his sight, still dim and watery; sounds, echoing and muffled. His immediate surroundings faded; Casimir flowed into Testenel, until he seemed to become the castle itself. The vast majority of the edifice still lay beyond his senses; he was as a man stricken with apoplexy, most of whose body has betrayed him and now surrounds his soul as a dead burden. Splinters of sound and shards of vision coalesced in Casimir's awareness; he felt himself encompassing Testenel's expanse like strands of cobweb crossing a vast empty room. People moved within the reach of his senses; he saw and heard them. Servants of a dozen stripes, guards...He saw Ambith of Kawlend cross a corridor, with her minions in tow. Somewhere else within him Edisthen's daughter Christine slept in her apartments, but the wards were packed tight about this place and Casimir had not yet managed to wedge a strand of perception between them.... In a courtyard open to the morning air the Royal Gardens slumbered, the rising sun soon to kindle their life; no one walked their paths.... And in the core of the castle, where his adits clustered thickest, Edisthen's gaunt figure stalked the rooms and corridors.
Time passed. Casimir's bladder relaxed and urine plashed into the jug beneath the seat. On the wall behind him, a man's shadow was cast for a second, but it was as if it struggled in vain to be born, and the next instant it had vanished. Water dripped from the tube into his mouth. Another grain of sand fell.
It took until early afternoon before the conclave was able to start. Christine made her way to the council chambers dressed in full regalia. Althea had selected for her a gown beaded with gems as a spiderweb is beaded with dew in the morning. Pale silk shot with yellow threads, it fitted her closely at the waist and belled out below, its shape maintained by a cage of wires. Her hair was knotted to a small apparatus that was in turn covered by a faintly ridiculous little pillbox hat, which Althea had spent ten minutes defending as the height of fashion to her skeptical mistress.
Christine entered the chambers announced by a herald; when her name was called, every head in the room turned to look at her. For a moment dread urged her to flee; she was saved by her dress, which so hindered her movements that she could not simply bolt out of the chambers. After a flustered moment, Christine regained her composure and allowed the Master of Protocol to direct her to her box.
The council chambers were circular, with tiers running up from the speaker's pit in the center to the walls. Seats in a variety of styles looked down at the central pit; low partitions set off several boxes. Christine took a seat in one of those, while two of her guards posted themselves at the forward corners of the box. Althea sat a row behind her and to her left, with an undermaid at her side. They had brought in food and drink for Christine, and Althea immediately poured a goblet of water that she put at Christine's left elbow.
Edisthen was there, with his advisers, not quite directly across from her. Between them were the Archeledians, a dignified group surrounding Duke Edric. The Kawlendian delegation sat to Edisthen's other side; Duchess Ambith looked at Christine with an absence of expression. Christine returned her look for a second before averting her gaze, intimidated. She knew Ambith was in her late forties, but she looked fifteen years younger--though the makeup was caked rather obviously on her face. Her prominent cheekbones and thin nose made her face harsh; her eyebrows were pulled down in a habitual frown.
Duke Corlin of Estephor was still missing; he arrived a few minutes later, his entourage contrasting with the solemn delegates from Archeled and Kawlend. As soon as they were settled in, to Christine's left, Edisthen rose from his seat.
The Master of Protocol gave a signal and a quartet of white birds, their wings dyed in contrasting colors, were let loose in the chambers. Flying each in a spiral pattern, they climbed to the ceiling and settled upon a gilded perch; an instant later, the perch ascended and the birds vanished. Christine watched the process with curiosity: Was this magic again? But a flash of light from above and a glimpse of a pair of hands guiding a panel shut over a circular hole proved that a much simpler explanation prevailed.
Edisthen had remained silent while the birds circled the chamber and left. Now he spoke, his voice clear and ringing. It was not very much the voice Christine imagined a king ought to have: a rich basso rumble commanding obedience. Edisthen's voice was rather high-pitched for a man's, and his long gaunt frame could not give it much bass resonance. Still, it had force and volume; Edisthen spoke, Christine thought suddenly, like one of those long and thin ceremonial trumpets.
"Cousins! Honored delegates! I have brought you here today concerning a matter of urgency. For the first time in the history of my reign, all three dukes of the land are gathered together under my roof. This is a memorable date and the annals of the realm shall preserve it.
"Thirteen years ago, my daughter and heir, the Princess Christine, was abducted from Testenel and vanished from our ken."
Most heads in the chambers swiveled to look at Christine, who felt herself wither under the attention. She clenched a hand on the arm of her chair and kept her expression neutral. To her relief, as her father continued to speak, the people's attention returned to him.
"On the thirteenth of Summereve of this year, my daughter Christine was brought back to us; this all of you know, as the news was sent all across the land. What you do not know is what took place on the fourteenth: I received a visit from Evered, Vaurd's eldest son. By royal decree Vaurd's offspring are confined within Vorlok, in Kawlend. However, Evered did not disobey the decree, inasmuch as he was not physically present: This was an eidolon, an image of him if you will, although possessed of far greater presence, evoked by his wizard Casimir."
A mutter ran through the assembly at this; Edisthen waited for it to subside before speaking on.
"I was surprised to see Evered, as you can imagine. More important, I was appalled by what he said. Evered spoke out in challenge: He threatened that I should be cast down from the throne, and that war should engulf the land. I have summoned you here because I take his words seriously, and I wish to engage all our energies to oppose him."
He turned to face Duchess Ambith, who frowned at him, her mouth a slit.
"Your Grace. Twenty years ago you and I were on opposite sides. I mention this not to embarrass, not to threaten, but because it must be addressed if this conclave is to move forward. I hold no grudge against you, none against your people. Loyalty is a virtue not a flaw, and you were loyal to the old sovereign. Our accounts were settled long ago. You are welcome here as a peer of the realm. I dearly hope that so much is clear to you."
To this speech Ambith made no reply, not even a gesture. After a time Edisthen turned his gaze away from her and addressed the assembly as a whole.
"I have brought you all here because I believe action must be taken, and I wish the realm to be united in this decision. I believe that Evered seeks to instigate war, using as his troops the armies of rebellious barons of the southern marches; but also, that he plans to make use of hostile magic, magic of great potency. You may well greet these words with skepticism; but I assure you there is cause for alarm, if only because the wizard Orion remains lost to the realm. I think it will be necessary for us to move against Evered, and even to fight a serious battle. We must prepare for this."
An old man seated two rows behind Duchess Ambith jerked to his feet and shouted in outrage. Edisthen allowed the interruption. "Your Grace," he addressed Ambith, "shall I let your counselor speak his mind?"
Ambith spared the man a glance; then she nodded once. The old man looked at the assembly, almost ignoring the king.
"We came here in good faith," began the counselor, "though we knew we would not be treated well. It has taken less than five minutes for His Majesty to start with calumnies and destructive innuendo. We are appalled, though I can't say I am very surprised."
Christine felt herself trying to shrink in place. None of the venom was directed at her, but every time she found herself in a situation like this, rather than feeling virtuously unconcerned, she would quail inside in unwilling sympathy for the object of the anger.
"When the Usurpation War was over, who was it who had to provide shelter for the deposed king's family? Kawlend! Who was it who suffered endless travails, who saw the flower of her youth slaughtered, who was over a decade stunned? Kawlend! Whose resources were strained by demands for reparations? Who was bled dry by weregild? Who has lost her status at the court? Kawlend! Twenty years of insult we have endured, and now this!"
"Och, that's rich coming from--" burst forth an Estephorin delegate, who was immediately bidden to silence by Duke Corlin.
The old man refused to acknowledge the outburst. Looking at Duke Edric now he continued: "For twenty years, Kawlend has done her duty and warded the sons of Vaurd, as she was ordered at the end of the war. For twenty years they have been watched, and for twenty years their behavior has been irreproachable. These men have spent a score of years within the walls of their miserable castle, peacefully resigned to their disgrace. The Law protects them, you say, but no Law compelled the king to imprison them, yet he did. And Kawlend has been their jailer."
The old counselor stopped there and crossed his arms. Edisthen waited after him, obviously expecting him to make a point, then eventually tried to give an answer.
"I should remind everyone present that Vaurd's sons chose Vorlok as the place of their exile, of their own free will. I am not casting any aspersions here, not on the duchy nor on any of its citizens. However, when we come to irreproachable behavior, surely threatening to cast the land into bloody chaos is not irreproachable...."
Once more the king was interrupted by protests from Ambith's entourage. The tone was set for the remainder of the day. As Edisthen tried to make his point, various Kawlendian delegates would take the stand and offer protests. Nothing was acknowledged on their parts, no factual points debated. Instead they spoke of Kawlend as a victim of history; they listed injuries the duchy had sustained; they complained of generalized unfairness, financial imbalances, long-standing disputes never resolved. Archeled and Estephor replied to some of these accusations, to be countered by claims of favoritism. The Kawlendians demanded the floor, then poured out streams of recriminations that made Christine's head spin. She wasn't familiar enough with history to know if these claims were founded or not, but there were so many, and the delegates so vocal, that surely some fraction of their grievances was justified?
Tempers were rising; some of Corlin's delegation in particular were young and hot-blooded enough that they had trouble holding their tongues, and met some of the Kawlendians' claims with derisive calls. Edisthen tried, again and again, to bring the discussion back to the issue of Evered's challenge; he met with no success. The Kawlendians were now embroiled with the Archeledians over an abstruse reckoning of deaths suffered during a particular battle, which was apparently an emotional issue for both sides. Duke Edric had become involved in turn and was quoting official reports while the old Kawlendian counselor harped on his personal memories of the battle.
Edisthen, his cheeks coloring, gestured at the Master of Protocol, who rapped his staff on the floor repeatedly and shouted: "Order! Order!" The audience slowly fell silent. The Master of Protocol continued: "By command of His Majesty, a recess is called until tomorrow morning!"
Edisthen, his face hard and his brow clenched, rose to his feet; then, accompanied by his aides, he left the chambers. The audience had risen as well; once the king was gone, there was a moment of hesitation. Althea leaned forward and murmured in Christine's ear that it might be her turn to leave; but already Duchess Ambith was sweeping from her box, followed by her delegation. Duke Corlin was next. The Archeledians remained in the chambers. Duke Edric, looking very sad and tired, addressed Christine. "After you, Highness."
Christine in that moment lost some of her awe of him. She replied, "Thank you, Your Grace," and made a dignified exit. She retired to her rooms and ate a solitary meal, feeling glum.
Edisthen left the council chambers in a black mood. Kawlend had played him for a fool, and succeeded. His best efforts to debate the current situation had been in vain. As one man, every Kawlendian delegate had fastened onto a single subject and would not let go. It was as if, for them, the past twenty years had never been. Still they wailed at their losses, still they demanded reparations for every slight suffered in the war, while dismissing what others had undergone. Edisthen would have expected this line of argument from an uneducated commoner; coming from senior counselors of Duchess Ambith, it reeked of willful ignorance. Either that, or these men had spent two decades convincing themselves Kawlend had truly been the innocent victim of the war. Which was not beyond the reach of possibilities, after all: Nothing is so fiercely believed in as that which one wishes to be true.
Edisthen winced at the spike of pain in his left eye; his anger bred migraines. When he had given the order for recess, he had been on the verge of letting all restraint go and forcefully reminding Kawlend who it was had bloody well lost the war. Talquen would not have allowed such disorder amongst his vassals; he'd have had the Kawlendians cowering in terrified silence while he ranted his orders at them.... Then again, Talquen would have had Ambith beheaded upon her final defeat twenty years before. Edisthen was not cut of the same cloth; his way was softer--weaker, no doubt, less decisive, but it was his way. Less than any born man did he imagine he could change the core of himself. Some days he wished to be other than he was, but this was never more than a short-lived folly.
Still, for the moment he felt assaulted by despair and self-doubt. He needed a measure of solitude. At times like this the press of people all around him felt like a crushing weight. He wanted to walk alone among trees, with no sound but the sigh of his breath. He had heard many times of other people craving such surroundings; but in their case, what they sought, he knew, was merely peace. What he sought went further: He yearned to return to the moment of his origin--he would be wrong to think of it as a birth. He had come to consciousness almost all at once, walking in the forest, on his way to overthrow Vaurd and rule the land. Since that moment he had been driven, had driven himself, without cease. He did not mind it--how could he, since this was all that he was? Yet even he hungered at times for respite from his struggles; and he strove to return to the moment that had started it, or rather to the moment before that. He had been taking a step as he grew aware of who he was, but surely, since his leg was already coming down upon the ground, surely it had rested on the earth a heartbeat before? Surely there had been a time, so brief, less than a second, but a time when he had been in existence yet still innocent.... This was all the childhood he had had, that crumb of time before he grew into who he was. And he yearned for it at times, and accepted this yearning as something that was also part of him, that tied him to true humanity.
So he left the rooms and corridors of Testenel and came out into the Royal Gardens, and walked there alone. There were various gardens around the castle; most were situated around the edges, to be able to catch the sun directly, but some nestled close to the center and needed sunlight brought to them by the great mirrors that surmounted the castle, as otherwise the overhanging mass of Testenel blotted out all illumination. This was the case for the Royal Gardens, which were surrounded on all sides by the shafts of towers. The reflective panes of the mirrors sometimes presented an unexpected sky if one looked straight up; but most of the time the illusion worked and it was possible to imagine oneself outside of colossal Testenel.
The sun had set; the vault of heaven was cobalt blue though a smudge of pinkish brown still beat at the western edge of the sky. The stars were faint yet, not having fully awoken. Edisthen breathed deep of the evening air, savored the smell of wetness. He took a path close to the edge of the enclosure, lined by trees at either hand, a few of them old and massive enough to remind him of the forest where he had been written into existence. Beyond the trees, the highest towers of Testenel rose into the sky, blurred by dusk.
Perhaps, he allowed himself to think, perhaps one day soon Christine might walk this path with him. She bore his presence more readily now, as witnessed by her long stay in the council chambers; though Melogian insisted it was too soon to press her, still he could tell his daughter was healing. His heart swelled at this thought; hope was a fragile thing in so many ways, yet somehow it could not be crushed, could not utterly die. From its own ashes it rose, as Ilianrod's Firebird had in days long past.
Silence all about him; not even insects could be heard, only the breeze rustling leaves. The path turned left and meandered between trees set close together. The towers of Testenel could no longer be seen; for a moment Edisthen thought of the made world that opened at the very center of the garden, and which he certainly had no desire to enter, or even to approach. Yawning pits into infinity, Orion had once called them. In all the twenty years he had spent on the earth, Edisthen had entered a made world but twice, and then only briefly. One world was more than enough for him.
This path kept to the outer edges of the garden. Edisthen walked it peacefully, at one point closing his eyes and still striding. Was it a touch of memory he felt, or his imagination? It seemed to him he recalled an instant of time like this, his leg swinging forward, his eyes not closed but unseeing yet....
The path went over a quaint wooden bridge over a dry stream; his boots rang on the weathered planks. At the end, he ran his hand over one of the knobbed posts, enjoying the grain of the wood under his fingers.
It was growing much darker. There were usually lights in the garden; why were they not yet lit? Were the gardeners aware of his presence, and respecting his solitude? Edisthen slowed and halted. He should go back: This section of the gardens was not very familiar to him, and the darkness made it even less so.
Ten strides did not bring him to the wooden bridge. Neither did ten more. Clouds were massing in the sky, and the gloom deepened. Edisthen felt his heart speed up, tension singing in the pit of his stomach. There had been no fork in the path; he could not have taken a wrong way back. He strode on, blinking furiously, and suddenly knew relief as the bridge appeared before him.
He was halfway across when he stopped; he could hear the liquid rustle of water beneath the planks--but the stream had been dry. He was sure, as sure as he could be sure of anything, that the stream had been bone-dry. It came to him then, as he stood atop the bridge in the darkness, that he had never known fear, never known what it was, until this very moment.
He shouted, his voice thunderous: "Guards! To me! Guards! The king calls! Guards!" Only the wind answered him.
Melogian had gifted him with a small spell, to summon her to him in emergencies. Edisthen brought it to the fore of his mind; it was like a bright insect, spinning and turning, waiting to be set free. He willed it loose, and with an inaudible snap it came free of him and vanished. Wherever the sorceress was, it would reach her and bring her to him.
He stood waiting on the bridge a long, long time, and no one came. A darkness nearly absolute had fallen, and still only the wind kept him company. He counted his heartbeats to measure time, and when half an hour had elapsed he stopped waiting.
He went all the way across the bridge; when his boots touched the path again it was sand they touched and not gravel. He wrapped his cape tightly about him as he sat down by the side of the path, leaning against the bole of an oak. He told himself he would sit here through the night, and when the sun had come up, he would try to find his way back. But there was a chill in his soul that said there was no way to be found, and he recalled that in time, even Ilianrod's magical bird had died.
A gap, a hollowness, a sudden lack. Melogian started. Something was wrong. She sent her mind roaming among the strands of the web she had woven all about Testenel. Through intangible feelers she sped, back and forth, crisscrossing the castle and its hundreds of chambers, corridors, hypogees, anterooms, staircases, grand hallways. It took her three heartbeats, no more; finding nothing amiss, she shifted her attention to Christine. The protective tangle of spells she had set about the girl remained undisturbed. Immixed with the coils of defensive magic, the perceptive tendrils brought back the echoes of Christine and all nearby: the handpicked guards at the door of her suite, Captain Veraless on watch. Christine herself was sitting in a chair, reading a book.
Two heartbeats on Christine, then on to her father the king--Melogian stood up, a shout rising to her lips.
The web was severed around him, the strands of her spells evaporated to nothingness. Melogian had no sense of him. She sent a surge of power riding along the strands, to compel them to reconnect, but the effort was futile. She did shout then, and started running out of the room. Where had Edisthen been? Her question raged through the web, but the spells had little memory. From the swiftly fading impressions still extant within the strands, she gleaned a picture of the Royal Gardens drowning in the dusk.
She screamed for guards, and when she burst into the gardens it was at the forefront of a dozen soldiers with drawn blades. They were met by Corporal Keller, a grizzled veteran and member of the king's personal guard.
"What the fucking blazes is going on?" asked Keller angrily.
"Where's Edisthen?" shouted Melogian. "Where is the king?"
"He went down for a stroll, Lady. He's along that path."
"Alone? You let him go alone?"
"He dismissed us--but I'm no idiot. I've got three men keeping watch on him, he doesn't even know they're there."
"Edisthen!" screamed Melogian. "Majesty!" There was no reply. Here and there among the hedges and bushes, small lanterns glowed, barely able to overcome the darkness. Melogian shouted out a spell: yellow flames billowed out of her fingers, rose crackling up into the air over the center of the gardens, condensed into a ball of fire that shed a brighter and brighter light until it rivaled the sun's. Every flower, every leaf glowed in the glare and cast a quivering, bluish shadow.
"Find him," she told Keller, her tone equal parts command and supplication. "Find him!" From the shouts of the soldiers who strode through the starkly lit paths and met only one another, the situation became swiftly clear to her. Keller bawled orders, wrung replies out of the soldiers, went himself to verify. In the end he returned and confronted Melogian, disbelief plain on his face.
"We knew where he was, Lady. We fucking knew! Alfonse was twenty paces ahead of him, Anastasia less than ten to the rear. Ragels heard him cross the bridge; he says he was on the verge of revealing himself and offering a light."
"Where is he, then?"
Keller shook his head. "He's...he's not here, milady."
Melogian moved past, trying to shove him aside and succeeding only because Keller yielded to the weak thrust of her arm before it had even touched him. She walked stiff-legged along a radial white-gravel path, her shadow behind her growing shorter and shorter as she approached the center of the gardens above which her sunlet shed its light.
She stopped when she had gotten within ten paces of the inner bower. From here, it was no more than ten yards on a side, delimited by four rows of broad-needled shrubs, pierced by an opening at each corner. A basin of still water reflected the light of Melogian's sun. If she were to approach it, it would loom larger and larger in her sight, as the path grew wider and wider. Fifteen paces into the bower, fifteen paces into the made world Nikolas Mestech had raised, she would be walking a road through a clearing in a forest of pines. A quarter-mile farther in, she would reach a dock on the edge of a small lake where boats were moored. Across the lake was the Long Isle, and if she followed the road that threaded it, she would eventually reach a port where sailships from strange countries were docked....
She had not been raised in a pious household, and being apprenticed to Orion since she was eight years old, she had scarcely ever gone to worship. Yet she found the words of ritual rising to her lips. "Sweet and gentle God, lay not this burden upon me. In the name of the Book, let this burden be taken from me. Heroes of the Book, lift this burden from me...."
She started screaming like a little girl having a tantrum, her fists clenched at her sides, her face raised up to the blinding light, repeating "No! No! No!" until her voice failed her.
The sound of a commotion reached through two doors into Christine's bedroom, where she sat reading Alindor's History of Chrysanthe. She heard Captain Veraless open the door to her suite and then an exchange of raised voices. A knock sounded at her own door, and she answered it with a voice grown suddenly tense. Melogian entered, her face very pale. "I must talk with you, Christine. It is about your father."
"What about him?" The heavy book lay open in Christine's lap, her hands resting on facing pages. Captain Veraless was looking in over Melogian's shoulder, his face also in turmoil.
"He is gone. I mean, he has vanished. He was in the Royal Gardens when it happened, twenty minutes ago."
Christine could not rid herself of the impression Melogian was playing a joke on her. "What do you mean, he's gone? What happened to him?"
"I'm not sure. But I know he is gone from this world. I had woven spells all about him; they've been cleanly severed. If he had taken a secret passage, or even if he had been whisked away by magic to the northern edge of the world, still my spells would be bound to him. He isn't in Chrysanthe anymore; I believe he entered the made world at the center of the gardens."
"Why would he do that?" This still made no sense. The world had lurched out of true, without warning. Still Christine could only feel numb astonishment.
"He had no good reason," said Melogian. "And he disliked the made worlds, he only entered one once that I know of. So I have to assume that he was taken there against his will. Abducted."
In the silence that followed, Christine put the book very carefully on the table, marking her place in it with a ribbon of silk. She wanted very much to lie down and go to sleep. "If he's been abducted, then it'll be my turn next, won't it?" she asked Melogian.
"No. No, it won't happen. I will not let it."
"You'll really protect me?" asked Christine, her voice shaking. In reply, Melogian took her in her arms and hugged her.
"I will. I won't let anything happen to you," she said, running her fingers through Christine's hair. "I laid a much greater number of enchantments about you than about your father, and several of them are intended to oppose hostile spells. You're safe, Christine. Now listen: For the moment, stay in this room. Make sure that you are never alone. You're not in danger, but I just want to be utterly careful. All right? I have to go for now, but I will be back. If anything happens, scream. Call for me. I will come, I promise."
Christine shakily agreed. Melogian broke the embrace, stroked Christine's cheek in apology, and left the room with Captain Veraless. A guard came to stand into the room. Christine sat down, opened her book at the marked page, and stared blindly at the ink marks on the paper.
Outside Christine's apartments, Veraless took Melogian aside.
"God's eyes, Melogian, you may have fooled Christine but I'm not a seventeen-year-old girl. She's going to go next, isn't she? What are we going to do?"
"She will not be taken, Veraless. I won't allow it."
"You won't allow it? It seems to me you pretty much allow anything to happen to anyone! You couldn't prevent Edisthen from being taken!"
Melogian held up her hands. She was fighting a sense of panic, and Veraless's ranting was making things worse.
"Reason this out with me, Captain, please. True: For the third time, someone from court has been abducted. But the circumstances have been different each time."
"What does it matter what the circumstances were?"
"It matters; it matters very much. Christine was abducted thirteen years ago, when she was four. One of her body-maids was bribed to bring her into a secluded room; the girl believed a minor noble wished to ingratiate himself with the royal family by giving the princess a special gift."
"I know the story as well as you do. The stupid cow was coshed the instant the door had closed, and Christine was taken away."
"Yes, by people who used both masks and spells of distraction so that they remained seen but unnoticed. They managed to conceal Christine, whether through disguise or just stuffed in a sack, or perhaps they convinced her they were playing a game. And they managed to take her outside of Testenel."
"Yes, and Orion himself couldn't help her!"
"You're being unfair to him. The instant Orion was apprised of the situation, he sent off a dozen benedictions in every direction of the zodiac, and then he prepared a seeking-spell. But a seeking-spell takes hours to cast, sometimes half a day. He acted as fast as he could, but even Orion isn't infallible."
"You're telling me! I've always thought it, and I'll say it to your face, Melogian: Your precious master was a fool; even the damned king was a fool. How could you leave the child in the hands of idiots, unprotected?"
"She wasn't unprotected! You have no idea, Captain, what the bringing up of a royal child entails. Grab her too roughly and you die. Maids have to be carefully chosen for placidity and mildness, and this means they tend to be...naïve. I'll remind you that abduction of a royal heir has been attempted only a handful of times in all recorded history; such plans had never succeeded before."
"At any rate, what happened happened. What good is it to rehash ancient history?"
"I'm trying to point out in what ways the abductions differed. Now consider Orion. What happened to him may not even be an abduction. Certainly it wasn't murder--he lives still. He was deep within Jyndyrys when it happened, and as far as I can discern he is still within it. A made world offers limitless potential for ambush. Whether he met with some horror from nightmares that overpowered him, or whether it was one of Evered's wizards who fell upon him, I don't know. But his disappearance was the result of direct physical attack, in an environment that was extremely dangerous. All right?"
"Fine! I'll grant you that. It was a direct attack. So?"
"And so, we come to this latest event," Melogian continued, forcing her voice to calm. "Edisthen has vanished from the Royal Gardens. Unlike Christine at age four, he knew what was happening to him. Like her, if he is so much as scratched, his assailant dies upon the instant. He was not heard to struggle or to call out. Three guards and Corporal Keller were keeping watch over him. Ragels reports having distinctly heard him cross the bridge. He saw him start across, then lost sight of him in the gloom, although he couldn't say when."
"One or all of them might be traitors."
"I've had them put under arrest and they'll be interrogated; but I don't expect them to be proved disloyal. Orion himself vetted each applicant to the king's personal guard. Also, what Ragels described is exactly the perceptual trick one experiences while traveling through a made world."
"Yes, you've said it before: You think Edisthen entered the made world at the center of the garden."
"And yet he was nearly a hundred yards away from the entrance. How then did it happen? How can one enter a made world without passing through the opening into it?"
Veraless shrugged exasperatedly. "How should I know? You're the wizard!"
"When I walked through the gardens and approached the bower where the made world opens," said Melogian, "I strained my senses to their utmost; and there was something overlaid on the gravel of the path, something over every leaf, every blade of grass. It was like when one washes a stone floor: the faint gleams as the last of the water evaporates from the surface of the stone. Even as I sensed them, they faded away."
Melogian took a deep breath. "I believe that the opening was made to expand, to gape hugely wide, for a moment. It caught all of them in its maw: the king and the guards who watched over him. Then it drew itself back to its natural size again. Like the surf withdrawing from the shore, it left them where they had stood, unaware that they had entered and exited a made world. Except for Edisthen; somehow, he was pushed farther in, and he remained inside the made world. Does that make sense to you, Captain?"
"I'm not a magician. It seems to make some sense, but I don't know the lore."
"I am not asking you to. Just tell me, do I sound insane, or am I making sense?"
"I think I can understand what you mean. You don't sound insane."
"Then help me make a decision. I must choose a course, and at once. The made world remains a dangerous trap, but there are limits to magic. I have no idea how an opening might be widened like this, but without a doubt the more it is to widen, the more difficult the task. I am confident it cannot reach beyond the walls that bound the gardens.
"So if I am right, then I must enter the made world myself and seek for Edisthen there. I'll have to cast a seeking-spell first, otherwise I might as well sift the sea with my fingers. The spell should sense him swiftly enough; surely--well, at least I hope--he can't be too far down into the world...."
Melogian had been speaking very rapidly; now the flow of her speech slowed. Veraless put word to the very objections she found rising in her mind.
"You don't know how deep he is, do you? You just think he's close to the surface. And when you don't find him right away, are you going to do what Orion did? Are you going to summon all the knights of the land and send them down into the made world? How many years before the king is found? How many years will you spend looking for him and forgetting us here?"
"I won't abandon the king!" Melogian protested.
Veraless drew back his torn upper lip. "I'm not asking you to. Don't you dare put it in those words. You asked me to reason with you; well, now, you have to keep reasoning. You need to make a sane decision, not play along with Evered's plans. He expects you, he wants you, to bury yourself in the made world and never come out. He wants us all to panic, to stand there doing nothing except waiting for the king to return. The Book of Miracles gave us Christine back; I don't expect a second blessing to come down upon us so soon after."
"I don't care what you say, Veraless. I have to look for him!"
"One day, Melogian. That's all. I'll give you one day. Seek him for one day, and when the day is done, give up."
"You don't command me, Captain," she said hotly.
"No. The Lady Christine does, now. But you're not going to present her with that decision, are you? That would be sheer cruelty. So, have some presumption. Do what's needful, not what you think is right. The land has lost its king, don't let it lose all the rest."
"I didn't know you could be so callous."
"Then you're an idiot. I've commanded men in battle and sent them to their death; my soul is scarred aplenty, little girl. I spent over a decade mourning the loss of Christine, wishing I could have gone to find her myself. I won't have us start it all over again. We're going to fight Evered with our full strength. We're going to defeat him, slaughter his soldiers, put the traitors in our ranks to the gallows...and then I'll kill him. I'll slit his throat open; I don't care what the Law does to me after that. I've had enough of fear. We've been like Barkazan who wore an iron mask across his face for seven years after losing his right eye in battle, in fear that he should lose the left. You know the story? After seven years in utter darkness, when he finally mustered up the courage to remove the mask, he found his left eye had gone blind. One day, Melogian. Because even that is weakness."
She turned away from him and ran down the corridor, to her own apartments. Her mind was in turmoil; her power stirred within her, a dozen spells swirling confusedly before her inner eye. Once she had reached her workroom, she sat herself down at a table and forced herself to calm. To invoke magic in the extremity of passion was just as risky as swinging a weapon: The blow might be stronger, but it was less precise. And what she needed at this moment was precision.
She arranged implements for the casting of a full seeking-spell. Bowl, tripod, a seven-armed metal cross. It was the same spell Orion had used to hunt for Christine; the one he had laid upon a score of knights before sending them down into the made worlds. Of the twenty who had gone seeking, eight had returned fruitless; of these, three had gone forth again. Four had abandoned the search, three because they had sustained such injuries that they could never more pursue their calling, and one because of something that had happened to him, something he could not bring himself to speak of but which had withered his soul like a blade of grass dropped into a forge. And there had been that young knight, too, Reivin, who had thought to fetch a girl from the edges of the world and pass her off as the long-lost heir, and killed himself when his ruse had failed.... Fourteen knights of Chrysanthe still lost deep in the made worlds, hunting for Christine not knowing she had been found. How many of those would ever emerge again? Perhaps all were dead already.
Against her will, Melogian pictured Edisthen's broken corpse at the foot of a cliff of bone twenty miles high; saw him attacked by a swarm of winged horrors, huge flaccid-bodied insects with minuscule children's faces; then captured and enslaved by a race of blue-skinned giants. It was the worst parts of her own travels down into Jyndyrys she recalled, casting her liege as the victim of perils she had barely escaped. But these misadventures had occurred deep into the made world, where reality had shifted far away from the norm. Surely Edisthen must be close to the surface. He knew enough not to move down a gradient--though he might not be aware of its existence as such, the effects would be clearly apparent.
The final element of the spell must be a part of Edisthen's flesh; from a sealed box Melogian withdrew a single black hair she had plucked from his beard herself, laid it inside the bowl, and evoked a tiny flame to lick at the copper.
Then she cast the spell, wrapped it around herself like a tiny thread of power. It was a slow spell to cast, glacially slow, because its power must reach far: To hunt for a misplaced book amongst her shelves might take an hour, but to seek for a man who might lie miles distant, a world away, required half a day's casting. Slowly, slowly, Melogian kept winding the spell around her, thread on a bobbin.
Even this is weakness, Veraless had said. Melogian could not dispute it. She went from failure to failure in her life, unable to protect those whom she loved. Still she would try; she would go hunt for Edisthen, no matter that she doubted the point of it most of all. There were gradations of failures, and the failure to even make an attempt was not one she would allow herself.
Edisthen opened his eyes and found the sun had risen, and a pale light now washed the garden. He levered himself to his feet, cast his gaze all around him. He was in a garden still, a garden that seemed very similar to the Royal Gardens of Testenel. But where he would have expected to see walls and towers rise, there was only the sky and distant masses of foliage. If this had the same layout as the garden he knew, then there would be a bower at its center; and if the made world opened in that spot in Chrysanthe, did it not follow that this should be what he should aim for?
Slowly, he got into motion. The sandy path he followed ran straight and did not approach the center, which had lain to his left. Before leaving the path, he would see if he could find a fork that led in the direction he wished to go.
He went on for a while, and encountered no other path. Bushes and trees grew in tight ranks to his left: He could never make a straight way through. Still, this path led him nowhere he wanted to go; he had best attempt to thrash his way to the center. Just before stepping off the path, he was struck by a sudden thought and looked back the way he had come. Then a braying laugh escaped him, for the foolishness of his hopes. As far as his gaze reached, behind him, there were no footprints in the sand.
THE WAR FOR THE REALM Copyright 2012 by Yves Meynard