The new novel in the sweeping Mageworlds series.
On the planet Entibor, Arekhon sus-Khalgath sus Peledaen has found shelter and domestic tranquility with his old love, Elaeli Inadi, at the price of what he had left behind: a dispersed and shattered Mage-Circle, an estranged brother who had tried to kill him, and a homeworld on the cusp of massive cultural upheaval.
Arekhon finds himself impelled homeward by strange dreams and prophetic visions. The Great Working—the effort to do the unthinkable and reunite a galaxy long sundered by the Gap Between—remains incomplete, left unfinished in the aftermath of the dissolution of Arehkon's Mage-Circle. But too much energy and too many lives have been poured into the Working already; and it cannot end so long as any of the Circle members remain alive and bound into it.
Home, unfortunately, isn't a safe place for Arehkon to be at the moment. For Eraasi has changed—and the great fleet families at the center of the Eraasian culture are girding for war.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald live in Colebrook, New Hampshire. Their previous SF novels include The Price of the Stars, Starpilot's Grave, By Honor Betray'd, The Gathering Flame, The Long Hunt, and The Stars Asunder. Their fantasy novel, Knight's Wyrd, won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award.
Debra Doyle lives in Colebrook, New Hampshire. Her previous SF novels, co-written with James D. Macdonald include The Price of the Stars, Starpilot's Grave, By Honor Betray'd, The Gathering Flame, The Long Hunt, and The Stars Asunder. Their fantasy novel, Knight's Wyrd, won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award.
James D. Macdonald lives in Colebrook, New Hampshire. His previous SF novels, co-written with Debra Doyle include The Price of the Stars, Starpilot's Grave, By Honor Betray'd, The Gathering Flame, The Long Hunt, and The Stars Asunder. Their fantasy novel, Knight's Wyrd, won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award.
Read an Excerpt
Entibor: An-Jemayne Eraasi: sus-Peledaen Orbital Station
On a world not his own, in a life he had never anticipated, Arekhon sus-Khalgath sus-Peledaen sleptand sleeping, dreamed. In his dream he knelt in the meditation chamber of the starship Night's-Beautiful-Daughter, where he had not gone in his waking body for over a dozen years. His staff, a cubit and a half of black wood bound with silver, lay on the deck in front of him, and all around him the Daughter vibrated with the urgency of her passage through the Void.
Arekhon wondered what he was meant to do. Had he only now begun his meditation, here inside his dream, or had he just ended it? He couldn't remember; but somewhere outside the chamber, an alarm began to sound.
He picked up his staff in his right hand and got to his feet. Outside the chamber, the alarm bell continued its steady, pulse-note chime. He found the door and opened it, and stepped throughnot into the harsh illumination of a starship's passageway, but into the Old Hall at Demaizen, and the warm golden light of an autumn afternoon.
Garrod syn-Aigal sus-Demaizengreat Magelord, Void- walker, and finder of worldshad taken the land and fortune that were his inheritance, and had used them to build a Circle strong enough and dedicated enough to carry out the greatest of great workings: to bring together the two parts of the sundered galaxy, crossing the interstellar gap and healing a rift that had existed since the unimaginably long ago. Arekhon had left the sus-Peledaen fleet and his family altars to become a part of Lord Garrod'sCircle, and when the working demanded it of him he had left his native world as well.
He had walked through the Old Hall in dreams often enough since then, in the years after the Demaizen Mage-Circle had split apart in fire and blood, but never as now, with the weight of knowledge bearing down hard upon him. In these rooms, he had grown from a sus-Peledaen fleet-apprentice with a knack for seeing the eiran and making luck, to a working Mage in Lord Garrod's Circleand now he came back to them with the sound of the Daughter's alarm bell following him wherever he went.
Sometimes in his dreams he saw the Mages of Demaizen as he had known them before. On those nights he sparred with Delath or Serazao in the long gallery, or talked of space and stars with Kiefen Diasul, though in the waking world both Del and 'Zao were dead, and Kief had betrayed all of them years ago. Tonight, though, was different. Instead of Delath or Serazao, the dream gave him Iulan Vai.
Vaithe last-come member of the Circle, who had brought Night's-Beautiful-Daughter from her employers, the sus-Radal, to save the Demaizen Mages from utter destruction, and who had stayed behind on Eraasi in order to repay the debt. Arekhon found her in the long gallery, with its tall, westward-facing windows and its racks of exercise mats and limber practice staves. She hadn't altered her appearance since the last time he saw her in the flesh. Under the touch of the afternoon sun, her dark hair still glinted with rusty- brown highlights, and she still clothed her compact frame in tunic and leggings of ordinary black.
"Iule," he saidthough she had always refused the forms of affection, even with those who might have had a claim to use them. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you. Did you think you could go away forever?"
"I didn't think I had a choice."
"You didn't," she told him. "Not then. But everything changes, and we have to change with it."
As she spoke, the light from the westering sun struck the windowpanes at a new and sudden angle, dazzling his eyes for a moment. When the glare died, he wasn't seeing Iulan Vai any longer. Another woman looked at him in her place: an older woman, whose thick black hair was shot through with wide streaks of iron-grey, and whose skin was the color of burnished copper. Not Vai, though like Vai she wore plain black and carried a Mage's staff, and not anyone else he recognized.
"Do I know you?" he asked her.
"Not yet," she said. "But soon." Outside the long gallery, somewhere in the roomsand the lifethat he had left behind him, the sound of the Daughter's alarm changed from a bell-note to a strident metallic wail. "You have to leave now. It's almost time."
* * *
Natelth sus-Khalgath sus-Peledaen stood with his back to the observation deck of his orbiting shipyard and stronghold, his face only a few inches from the armored glass that gave the deck its name. The world of Eraasi lay before him, a great globe against the starfield, black in the vacuum of space, stars glittering all around it. The sunset line lay across the world, on the left as he looked at it, the darkened crescent alive with city lights.
He knew that elsewhere, hidden beyond the bulk of the planet, the citadel of the sus-Radal fleet-family circled Eraasi in an orbit exactly opposite to his own. But Natelth, secure in his own place, hardly thought of the sus- Radal. He led, and the other star-lords followed; and if he started hopping on one foot, before long Theledau sus-Radal would be bouncing around on his head.
Natelth heard the swish-click of the doubled inner airlocks that isolated the observation deck from the rest of the station, but he didn't turn. He would have known who was approaching him even if the armored glass had not shown him her reflected image. His sister Isayana, joining him in the safety of exile from the planet's surface, had come bearing news.
He hated living on the orbiting station.
He watched Isayana's reflection approaching, not a twin of his own, but close enough that he and she had often been mistaken for such when both were young: the same square frame and strong features, the same black hair now going grey. Isayana's light-colored garments appeared stark against the black of space, under the dim illumination of the room. The reflected light of Eraasi provided all the illumination here. The observation deck held no chairs, no furniture, no decoration. When Hanilat and the station slid under Eraasi's nightside, then he could dial up the lights. He could. So far, he never had.
"What's happening?" Natelth asked his sister, after she had walked, ghost-silent, to his side.
"Not much," she said. "The launch of Fair-Wind-Rising will be on time."
She fell silent, looking down at the world where they had both been born, and where they could never live at ease again. Star-lords they were, as their family had always been, but never so much as now.
"We'll need to spend some time in Hanilat before the end of the year," he said. "Working out of the family house."
"The security people will hate that," Isayana said.
Another long silence.
"Have you heard any word from any of the other fleet- families?" Isayana said at last. "About some kind of cooperative arrangement for dealing with problems down on the planet?"
Natelth's face hardened. "There's no cooperation between star-lords."
"We're living in changing times, Na'e. What was true a generation ago isn't going to be true forever."
Natelth turned to look at his sister. The empty observation platform stretched out to his right, the light from Eraasi bringing up the profile of his face, his right side in shadow. "And how do you propose to bring about this new era of cooperation?"
"We need to make alliances," she said. "Alliances based on trust, not fear."
"With the likes of Theledau sus-Radal?"
"Thel isn't a rival," she said. "He hasn't been building warships for almost five years now; maybe he's waiting for you to notice that he's not a threat."
"He's still there," Natelth said. He turned back to the window and gestured expansively across the face of the globe below them. The orbital shipyard was in geosynchronous orbit, the starport city of Hanilat lying forever directly below them. Whatever the space station lacked in comforts for the souland Natelth thought that it lacked most of themat least here he could see strangers approaching from a long way off. "Down in Hanilat, waiting for me to make a mistake. And if he isn't building warships, it's probably because he's working on something else. I would be."
"We have larger enemies than the other fleet-families, Na'e," Isayana said. She hadn't stopped looking out, her feet square to the flat expanse of armor glass. A late-season storm washed over the southern ocean, but Hanilat, approaching its own sunset, had a cloudless sky. This station would be visible soon to those who lived and worked below. "We both know it. The other families know it too. You, me, the sus-Radal, everyone."
She turned to face him, then, and laid a hand on his shoulder. "What will the people of Eraasi do, when the people of Garrod's world come back across the gap to deal with us?"
"Garrod was a meddling fool," Natelth said. "And I was foolish enough to help him."
"All done before we knew, and beyond recall." Her hand continued to rest on his shoulder. "Will you come and inspect Fair-Wind-Rising with me?"
"I suppose I should," Natelth said, and turned his back on the glittering world outside the armored glass windows.
* * *
Arekhon awoke into darkness. The hour was well past moonset, so that the starlit rectangle of his bedroom window took a long minute to resolve into a patch of grey against the black. The furniturebed, nightstand, chair, desktook a little longer to emerge from the undifferentiated night. When he could distinguish the outline of the half-open closet door, over on the far side of the room, he got out of bed and began to dress.
His clothes were on the chair where he had laid them out before retiring: garments of local cut, but made in the plain black and white he had always preferred. He'd never grown accustomed to the colors of this world, its alien dyestuffs and yet more alien aesthetics, and after a while he had given up trying. He put on shirt and trousers and a loose jacket, then hesitated a moment before pulling on his boots. Stocking feet would have been quieter, but far less dignified. Arekhon had nothing against suffering embarrassment in a good cause, but he had no desire to suffer it unnecessarily.
He picked up his staff and fastened it to his belt, then stood for a moment, thoughtful, before opening the drawer of the night table and pulling out a hand-sized object shaped like a flattened cylinder. He slid the pulse-gun into the inner pocket of his jacket, then shut the drawer and left the room.
The lower floors of the building were silent and empty. In the town houses of Arekhon's childhood, the night hours had belonged to the aiketen, the constructed intelligences in their metal shells; it had been impossible for anyone to move about in secret without first subverting the quasi-organic servitors. They didn't have aiketen here on this side of the interstellar gap. The men and women who did what should have been a construct's laborand who worked late and rose early slept in a warren of small rooms high up under the mansion's gabled roof.
No one lived on the bottom floor except for Arekhon. He was, at least nominally, a scholar-savant under Mestra Elela Rosselin's patronage, and entitled to maintain private chambers elsewhere at her expense. But those closest to the Mestra knew himby face if not by nameas the man responsible for House Rosselin's domestic security, and they would expect to find such a one keeping his quarters under the Mestra's roof. Arekhon, who had known the Mestra when she was still Elaeli Inadi syn-Peledaen, considered himself fortunate in the arrangement.
The stairs ascending from the mansion's lower level were dark and narrow. Arekhon went up them with the familiarity of long practice, and up the next set of stairs as well. These were wider, and lit by a night-glow in a niche halfway along. The door at the top answered to a palmprint scan; Arekhon was one of the people it recognized. He placed his right hand against the pad and the lock clicked open.
He passed through one darkened room, noting the dim shapes of chairs and cabinets and pieces of unobjectionable art, all unchanged since his last visit, and through another, this one a private office similarly unaltered, before he came to another door with a palmprint scan. Again he touched the pad, and, when the lock answered, opened the door.
Elaeli was awake, though it took him a moment to spot her in the unlighted room. She wore a loose bedrobe of dark fabric, andstanding as she did a little to one side of the windowseemed at first like a part of the curtain that had been drawn aside. She looked around as he entered.
" 'Rekhe," she said. "I was wishing I dared to go looking for you. I couldn't sleep."
He crossed over to where she stood, and put an arm around her, so that she could lean her head against his shoulder. She was as tall as he was, and her light brown curls were soft against his cheek.
She still wore her hair short, after the style of the sus-Peledaen fleetit was almost the only part of her past she'd been able to hang on to, he supposed. Arekhon had let his own black hair grow out long when he left the fleet for the Demaizen Circle, and he hadn't cut it since, but Elaeli had more reason that he did to cherish the older style.
She'd been a bright young light in the sus-Peledaen fleet Pilot-Principal on the first exploratory voyage to make contact beyond the Edgeuntil Lord Garrod and the Demaizen Circle had conscripted her into the service of the great working. Arekhon was never sure whether her political maneuverings here on Entibor sprang from honest ambition in search of an outlet, or from the need to bury a past that hurt too much to remember.
"I'm here now," he said.
"I miss you when you're away downstairs."
"This is the city," he said. "If I stay in your rooms for the whole night, the servants will officially know, and if the servants know, the scandal-rags will have it by nightfall."
"Damn the scandal-rags." She sounded tired, worn down with waiting for sleep that hadn't come. "Fourteen years I've been here, 'Rekhe, and I still don't understand this place."
"Don't try. Just ride the luck, and trust it to carry you in the right direction." Which it would do, Arekhon reflected; he had expended considerable energy over the years in working the eiran for this world, and for Elaeli Inadi syn-Peledaen. The threads of his own luck were tangled and untended by comparison. He would probably come to regret that one of these days, but not yet.
She made a disgruntled noise. "The Provost of Elicond doesn't believe in luck; he believes in biolabs."
"I know." Nothing could make Arekhon like the idea of the Provost's visitElaeli needed the Provost's support in the complicated political maneuverings of the Federated Quarter, and the Provost had asked for a gene-link with House Rosselin in returnbut at least this alliance would be a matter for physicians and technicians, and not for more traditional methods. "It's only for three weeks."
"I hope that's long enough to suit him," Elaeli said. "Because three weeks is about all I can handle thinking about."
"Tell him all the security arrangements are for three weeks, and that it's too late to change them. Put the blame on me if you have to."
"That's hardly fair."
He didn't bother telling Elaeli that nothing about their life together was fair; she knew that as well as he did already. Instead, he told her, "I'll be tactfully absent from the city by then. Venner" his second, a clever and ambitious young man from the rough side of An-Jemayne "has already been briefed on everything, and you can trust him to handle whatever comes up."
"If you trained him, 'Rekhe, I'm sure he's good." She leaned against him for a moment in silence, looking out at the dark, and then said, "As soon as the Provost is taken care of, I'm going to the country and staying there for a while.... will you stay there with me?"
"Yes," said Arekhon. Elaeli's summer cottage was isolated enough that the scandal-rags didn't bother with itat least not for something as commonplace as bedroom gossip. Arekhon thought of the pleasure of waking beside Elaeli in the morning sunlight, and sighed.
You have to leave now, the woman in his dream had told him. It's almost time.
He did not think that she had been speaking of the house in An-Jemayne.
Eraasi: Demaizen Old Hall; Demaizen Town; Eraasian Farspace Entibor: Rosselin Cottage
Herin Arayet sus-Dariv took his rented groundcar around the last curve on the uphill drive to Demaizen Old Hall. The burnt-out shell of the ruined building reared up against the sky ahead of him. A little later, he saw a line of rusting metal hulks drawn up in good order on the overgrown gravel driveway, with clingvine spreading over them and tall stalks of field weeds springing up around their treads.
He slowed the groundcar into a careful approach. He'd taken his usual precautions before setting out on today's erranda pocket-pistol concealed inside his jacket, a knife hidden up his sleeve, a note to the family's Agent-Principal filed among his personal effectsbut he knew that against Magecraft, such measures would do him little good. And whatever had happened to the line of blasted and shattered assault vehicles had been a Mage's work.
Nobody knew, or at least nobody admitted in public to knowing, exactly who had sent the private assault team up against Garrod syn-Aigal and his Circle. The incident had taken place during the period of civil unrest that had disturbed Eraasi's main continent over ten years before; but Demaizen had been an independent Circle during that period, supported by Garrod's private fortune and not tied formally to any particular faction or institution. True, they'd had an informal connection to the sus-Peledaen fleet-familyLord Natelth's younger brother had been one of the Demaizen Mages, and members of the Circle had taken part in the sus-Peledaen exploratory voyage to the far side of the interstellar gapbut such a connection should have given Demaizen more protection, rather than less.
The one thing Herin could say for certain about the attack was that neither side had survived the encounter, and that no guilty parties had revealed themselves by coming in to clean things up afterward. The house and grounds had passed into the hands of the Wide Hills District Wildlife Protection League, according to Lord Garrod's testamentary wishes; and the League so far had operated strictly within the boundaries of its charter, leaving the ruined Hall untouched.
Herin wasn't surprised. What the Mages wanted had a way of happening. Garrod had wanted the Old Hall left alone, and alone it stayed, unaltered except by the elements. No graffiti marked its smoke-stained walls, and no empty cans or broken bottles littered the shadowed ground beneath. Even the local adolescents, it seemed, chose to go elsewhere for their amateur debaucheries.
He left his groundcar parked in the driveway and made his way up the front steps of the Hall and through the great, broken doors. Inside was more destruction, cracked brick and burnt wood and more than once a disturbing glimpse of something that looked like bone. He found the door that his contact had told him about, a small one that opened onto a service stairway, and started down the narrow steps into the basement.
The voice came from the darkness ahead of him. It was low and not unpleasanta woman's voice, he thought. A moment later, a light came on in the corridor. After a few seconds, he realized that the pale, apparently sourceless glow actually came from a Mage's staff in the woman's right hand. He couldn't see her face, and it took him another few seconds to realize that the blank, reflective darkness underneath the hood of her black cloak was in fact a spacer's ship-combat hardmask.
"Etaze," he said, using the term of respect for a Magelord of high rank. Maybe this one was merely somebody's Circle-Mage, disaffected enough to send along a request for a personal meeting. But if she was notif she was the First or even the Second of a major Circle, whether in Hanilat or in one of the fleetsthen she would need polite and careful handling. "Your message reached me only a short while ago. I came as soon as I dared."
The woman chuckled, a surprisingly warm sound to come from behind the dark plastic of a combat hardmask. "You mean you came as soon as you'd made sure that my message was genuine. Nobody's ever called you a fool, Syr Arayet."
"I must need to work more on my presentation," he said. "What is it you wanted to talk with me about?"
"I heard that you were interested in what became of the Demaizen Circle."
Herin nodded. "I've only heard the rumors, and I'm curious."
"That all happened a long time ago. Why start asking questions about it now?"
"Call it a hobby," he said. "The past informs the present, and so forth."
There was a long pause. Herin could feel the woman's gaze assessing him from behind the unrevealing hardmask.
"A present," she said finally, "in which the sus-Dariv are debating whether or not to deploy private ground security forces as an auxiliary to their fleet arm."
He said nothing, though he was uncomfortably aware that the damp, cobwebby basement of Demaizen Old Hall was the sort of place in which a too-curious researcher could conveniently disappear. Lord Garrod's Circle had died there, as far as anyone could tell, and nobody had come to gather up their bones. Another body moldering away in the dark would probably never be noticed.
"Don't worry," she said, as if his hidden trepidation had somehow manifested itself around him like an aura. For all Herin knew, it could have. Mages saw things like that, where other people saw nothing but plain air. "I still have some standards. If I'd wanted to do you harm, I wouldn't have come up with anything half as melodramatic as this."
"I'm relieved to hear it, etaze."
"I'm sure you are," she said. "Now for the reason you came here: Ask me your questions, and I'll answer them. At least, as much as I can and may."
"Very well," said Herin. "What happened to Lord Garrod's Circle?"
"Who sent the killers, do you mean?"
She shrugged. "The first time? No one knows. They're all dead."
"Yes, I know.... what do you mean, 'the first time'? There was a second attack?"
"When the rest of the Circle came back from across the Gap Between. But the Hall had already burned down by then."
Herin felt a brief flicker of intellectual vindication. Investigating the destruction of the Old Hall had been a personal project. If he'd made it official, he would have had some trouble justifying his interest in a bit of recent history that the family's less irregular agents had chosen to overlook. Already, though, he had retrieved an interesting bit of previously uncollected knowledgetwo bits, if he counted the implication that the identity of the second group of attackers, unlike that of the first, was not unknown.
"You must have a theory about why the initial attack failed," he said.
"You think that this" she used the hand that held the glowing staff to describe a vague circle, presumably meant to include the entirety of the Hall "was a failure?"
"If the attack had been a complete success, somebody would have taken credit for it. Nobody ever did." Herin paused. He'd never intended to keep up his current pose as a hobby-researcher for very longit was a means of gaining entry, and little morebut he shied away from revealing his true interests quite so bluntly. "I think that whoever sent in the strike team was afraid. Those assault vehicles up there were blasted by Magecraft. They had to have been; there's no record anywhere of the Demaizen Circle having weapons. If one of Lord Garrod's Mages survived long enough to do something like that"
"then he or she might still be alive," said the woman. "And still angry."
"A good theory."
"I like to think so," said Herin. "What I don't know is who he was."
"Or she," said the woman. She gave a quiet laugh. "If it will make your mind easier, I can tell you that it wasn't me."
"Can you tell me who?"
"Delath syn-Arvedan died in the first attack," she said. "So did Lord Garrod and Serazao Zuleimem."
He knew the names of the Demaizen Circle, both the ones who had stayed behind on Eraasi and the ones who had gone exploring with the sus-Peledaen across the interstellar gap; he'd made it his business to find out when he began his researches. And he could do subtraction in his head as well as any man.
"Diasul," he said. "Kiefen Diasul."
* * *
Iulan Vai stayed behind in the shadows and watched the sus-Dariv agent make his way out of the ruins and back down to the overgrown drive. He'd come to her for this meeting, not the other way around, and she wasn't sure what that meant. She'd heard rumors that someone was asking questions about the Old Hall, and about Lord Garrod's Circlemaybe she wasn't the sus-Radal's Agent-Principal any more, but she hadn't cut all ties with her old contacts in the shadow world of information gatheringand she had taken steps to make certain that the questioner made contact with her.
Herin Arayet sus-Dariv had not been what she was expecting. To begin with, he wasn't a hireling. He was a family member from one of the inner lines, and probably well- off enough in his own right that he didn't need to work at all if he lacked the inclination to do so. She wondered what had induced him to take up his peculiar hobby. Was he moved by concern for the family good, or by the pleasure of finding out secret thingsor had somebody high up in the inner family trained him for the work?
He was suited for it, Vai conceded, at least inasmuch as nobody would take him at first glance for one of the sus-Dariv. That family ran to slightly-built blondes and redheads, especially in the inner lines, and Syr Arayet was dark and wiry and at least a head taller than the average. Something about the man continued to nag at her as she withdrew from the ruins of the Old Hall and made her way back to Demaizen Town.
She kept a rented room there, upstairs from an all-night staples-and-sundries shop. The name on the lease wasn't hers, of course, except in the sense that she'd created the identity and used it off and on for over a decade. She'd wanted to have a bolt-hole available somewhere outside of Hanilat, and it had made sense, or so she told herself, to set one up where she could keep an eye on the Old Hall as well. The manager of the sundries shop collected the rent and watched over the place for her when she was absent.
The cloak and hardmask Vai had worn at the Old Hall were out of sight in her daypack by the time she reached town. The staff wasn't as easily concealed, so she didn't bother. As far as the townspeople were concerned, her local persona claimed affiliation with a minor Circle someplace in Hanilat, the kind of Circle whose members all had day jobs and only came together for fellowship and the occasional minor working.
She stopped in the sundries shop to buy a pack of candles and exchange greetings with the night clerk, then went on upstairs to her room. She'd told the store manager that she was a field investigator for the Wildlife Protection League, using the small apartment as a place to rest and write up reports in between assignments, and she'd fixed up the room with that identity in mind: locally purchased secondhand furniture mixed in with a scattering of folk-art pieces from the Antipodes and the northern territories; bedspread and curtains made of hand-spun fibers block-printed in traditional patterns; maps and journals and data-readers covering all the available flat surfaces.
She'd thought for a while of painting a proper meditation circle in white and black on the wooden floornothing in the terms of her lease said that she couldn't, and people would be unwilling to gainsay a Mage in any casebut in the end she had decided not to. The landlord would have to refinish the surface if she did that, and there was no point in giving him extra work. A chalk outline scrawled on the floor served well enough for her purposes, and scrubbed away easily afterward.
Vai shucked off her daypack and tucked it out of the way beneath her local persona's cluttered desk. A pottery bowl at one end of the desktop held the stub end of a stick of chalk, along with a flick-top lighter, a spool of black thread, and half a dozen small, weathered stones. She stood for a moment undecided, then picked up the chalk and used it to inscribe a circle on the polished wooden floorboards. Nobody would be surprised if the Mage upstairs chose to meditate upon a private intention. They would assume that she held the shop and its environs in her thoughts as well, and would be, if anything, grateful.
The cabinet in the kitchen nook held a quartet of cheap glass candleholders. She fetched them down and set them out around the perimeter of the chalk circle, then unwrapped the candles she'd bought in the store below and put one in each holder. The rest of the candles went into the cabinet. Then she took the flick-lighter from the pottery bowl and used it to light each of the candles in turn.
A quick tap on the desk's control pad, and the lamp that had come on when she entered the apartment clicked off again, leaving the room lit only by the yellow, unstable candleflames. Vai stepped into the circle she had drawn, and knelt.
As always when she did this, she felt keenly the absence of the rest of Demaizen's Mages, the dead and the estranged and the unimaginably far away. She needed them here with her, needed their greater strength and their longer training as she opened herself to the vision of the eiran. The silver cords of life and luck came to her sight hesitantly at first, in wisps and tendrils. She let herself watch them, and tried not to think about them overmuch. If she focused her attention on them too soon, they would fade, and all her careful non-effort would be lost.
Herin Arayet sus-Dariv.
The name emerged unbidden out of her thoughts, not as a distraction but as something to be dealt with, a part of the unsettled state of mind that had led her to this meditation in the first place. She considered the name, and marked how the words insinuated themselves into the weave of the eiran as she watched. The silver threads caught hold of the name, and ran in and out of it like vines on a wrought-iron fence.
Vai smiled at their eagerness. The eiran knew Syr Arayet, whether Syr Arayet knew them or not.
She considered the matter a little longer, then pulled on the cords enough to twist and lodge them yet more firmly into the man's name and his place in the patternworking the luck, just a little, for a man who was, in some sense, a colleague in a dangerous profession. And if more should ever come of it than that, well, the universe had a strange sense of humor sometimes, and she herself had first come to the Demaizen Circle as a spy for the sus-Radal.
Satisfied, she let her thoughts move outward from the troubles of the present, following the eiran as they traced their patterns through time and space. Arekhon sus-Khalgath had seen the pattern of the great working, the binding- together of the sundered galaxy, both as it stood now and as it would come to completionbut 'Rekhe was on the far side of the galaxy and not likely to be coming home soon no matter how much she wished for him.
She needed him, though; the working needed him. The Circles were changing, moving away from what they had been .... we served all of the people once, she thought, it was that way even when I was a child. Now the fleet-families and the merchant-combines want to make us tend the luck for them alone and not for the whole world, and I don't know enough about the old ways to set things right.
I don't even know if it's possible to set things right. Some things, when they change, can't be changed back.
The tangle of eiran closest to her hand and mind had brighter and darker threads in it. She tugged at one of the dimmer lines, hoping to tease it out of the mass and straighten up at least a fraction of the disarray. When she pulled on the thread, it grew brighter in response.
Under the surface of her meditation, curiosity stirred and came to life. This was a new thread, stretching away out of the local tangle and leading off into strange and uncharted realms. Something different was coming into the workingsomething fresh and unanticipated, yet at the same time very old and very strong.
* * *
The sun was rising over the hills beyond Rosselin Cottage, and a light mist hovered between the branches of the spring-green trees. Arekhon had risen early, after his custom when he was here alone. He sat in a wicker chair on the screened-in verandah, sipping at a mug of the hot bitter liquid the people on this world drank for a morning stimulant.
Elaeli's summer cottage, she'd told Arekhon once, had been Elela Rosselin's first home on Entiborpart of the fictitious identity that Garrod syn-Aigal had made ready for her, knowing that the great working would bring her to it in time. Remote, isolated, and rustic, the cottage had provided a safe haven from which to launch a political career, and Elaeli had used it to play politics with a will.
"I was planning to be Fleet-Admiral for the sus-Peledaen," she'd said to him, "back before Lord Garrod conscripted me into the great working and then marooned me on Entibor with a bankroll and a fake identity. I couldn't leave all that ambition behind just because I wasn't with the fleet anymore; I had to do something, or I'd go crazy. And when I came here, politics was what there was to do."
The cottage itself was a rustic, sprawling building, built of wood and painted white, that floated like a low cloud on the brow of the mountain, against the forest's edge. At the moment, except for Arekhon himself, it was deserted. Elaeli was in the city, entertaining and being entertained by the Provost of Elicond; and it was better for everybody's peace of mind if her chief of domestic securitywho was not, officially, her loverstayed away until the Provost had finished his business and gone home.
As a domestic arrangement it was less than ideal, but far better than nothing at all. They'd had a little over ten years of it, by local reckoning. Arekhon tried to do the arithmetic for converting the passage of time into Eraasian measures, and gave up when he couldn't remember the exact ratio of one planetary year to the other.
At the moment, though, he was content. This world was fair, and this country house was fair, and here, when her business with the Provost was done, Elaeli would be joining him. For a little while, at least, they could pretend that nothing would ever changethough the time he'd had here with Elaeli would never be long enough, and the time he'd spent away from the homeworlds was far too long.
But both times are the same, he thought. Like the Void, where all times are the same time.....
". . . and all places are the same place."
The words were Eraasian, but marked by a strong accent, as though the speaker had learned the language as an adult. Turning, Arekhon recognized the strange woman who had come to him in his dream of Demaizen Old Hall, displacing Iulan Vai and telling him that he would know her soon. One of the wooden floorboards creaked faintly as she stepped forward out of what might have been a shadow left over from the night.
So she was real, then, and a Void-walker as well, one of the powerful Mages who could journey alone and unprotected through the no-time, no-place that lay beneath the physical universe. Garrod syn-Aigal had also been a Void- walker, earning the nickname "Explorer" because of the worlds he had journeyed to in that fashion, marking a way through the Void for the ships that would follow; for that reason, Arekhon was less startled by the manner of his visitor's arrival than by the fact that she had spoken to him earlier in his dream.
Seen in the unexpected flesh, she wasn't tallperhaps half a head less than Arekhon's own moderate height, even in the sturdy boots that she wore with her white shirt and black trousersbut compact and trim with muscle. The staff she carried in her right hand was a cubit and a half of ebony, bound and ornamented with silver wire.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"My name is Llannat Hyfid," she said. "I'm your last student."
"Llann" He stumbled a bit over the unfamiliar syllables. The words weren't Eraasian, or any other language that he was aware of. That meant nothing, given that a Void- walker could be from anywhere, or any when. If such a one had deliberately sought him out, first in dreams and then in the flesh....he tried the name again, this time with better luck. "Llannat."
"If the name gives you trouble," she said, "you can call me Maraganha instead. Some people find it easier on the tongue."
"Maraganha." The name meant "from the forested place" in Eraasian, which told him something, at least, about his mysterious visitorand as she had promised, its syllables were easier for him to say. But the woman herself remained an enigma. "I don't know you. And I've never had a student."
"You wereyou will bequite a bit older then."
Arekhon shivered, even though the morning was warm. He remembered how it had felt to look upon Garrod syn-Aigal sus- Demaizen as a great Magelord in the vigorous prime of his life, and know that the same man would in time become the white-haired idiot the Circle had already left behind on Erassi. The thought of Maraganha or anyone else looking at him in the same manner was profoundly disturbing.
"I said something like that to my own teacher once," he told her. "When Garrod came back through the Void to show the rest of us the way to Entibor. But there aren't any Mages on this world, Maraganha. Only Adepts, and they're a cold and solitary lot."
"It's their way." Maraganha came forward and took a seat in the other chair, the one that was usually Elaeli's, and laid her ebony staff across her knees. "I was one of them, until it didn't suit me any longer. My fault as much as theirs; I've known Mages who would do well in an Adepts' Guildhouse"
"I've seen it happen," Arekhon said. "It's not for me."
"Here you are, though, as lonely as any Adept in the galaxy."
"None of it was my idea. I had a Circle once, but it's broken and scattered across the interstellar gap."
"Scattered, maybe," she said. "But not broken."
He shook his head in protest. "I don't know that. How can you?"
"My first teacher was called the Breaker of Circles. Believe me, I know all about these things."
He sat for a moment in silence, not looking at her, gazing out into the flower-scented dawning. Then he said, "I'm not sure I like my future very much, if it has people in it with names like that."
"It's all part of the great working. Did you think that putting the galaxy back together was going to be a quick and easy job?"
"If I ever thought so, " he answered, "it didn't take me long to learn otherwise. And if that's what you're here for, you've come a long way to tell me something I already know."
"Well, I didn't come here for the sake of sitting on your front porch and admiring the view," she said, rather more sharply than before. "I've got forests at home that I can look at."
"I dreamed about you last night for the first time inlet's just say, for the first time in a long whileand when I woke up I had a feeling you were going to need my help. So I walked the Void until I found where you were waiting."
"That's certainly clear," he said. "Did you happen to see what kind of help I was going to need?"
Maraganha shrugged. "It's as clear as I can make it. And I'm afraid the universe didn't bother to give me specific instructions."
"I don't think anything scares you, etaze." He gave her the title without thinking, and wasn't surprised when she accepted it as her right. If Maraganha was a Void-walker, then she'd have to be the First of her Circle as well. For all her superficial friendliness and ease of manner, Arekhon knew that he was looking at one of the great MagelordsGarrod syn-Aigal's equal and perhaps even more.
"You'd be surprised," she said. "When I was young, I was scared to death of everything, and scared of myself most of all. That's the biggest part of what you taught me, in fact to trust in what I knew and what I was."
"I'm glad that I was able to help. Or will be able to, as the case may be." He shook his head. "If we're going to keep on talking like this, we need better verbs."
"I can't help you with the verbs," she said. Then she looked at him straight on, and her voice had the same firmness and surety it had held in his dream. "But whatever else it is you're planning to doI can help you with that."
"My Circle," he said. There was no chance, not after all this, that his dreams of late had been mere homesickness, born out of a wish that his life here with Elaeli could be something other than what necessity had given them. This was the great working, that he had pledged himself to finish when he was still the Third of Garrod's Circle, and there was no escape from it. "I need to find the rest of my Circle on Entibor, and take them home."
* * *
It was the damned ship-mind again.
Lenyat Iraoknown to his cousins and most of his workaday associates as Lenwatched in disgust as the display on the chart table flickered. Fire-on-the-Hilltops was an old ship, a one-man light cargo carrier purchased secondhand from the sus-Radal after that fleet-family had upgraded all of their own vessels to the new style. Len had known she was obsolete on the day he bought her, but that was how the game was played. New construction was for the star-lords, and everybody else took what was left over.
Still, he'd expected the Fire to hold together long enough for him to finish paying for her. And it was starting to look likeabsent a complete flush-and-renewal of the ship-mind's quasi-organicsthat wasn't going to happen. Lately she'd been growing reluctant to interface with anybody's charts but her own, and if that kept up, there went any hope of getting another decent contract.
The display blinked on and off and on again one more time, then settled down. The false-color display took on a three-dimensional aspect, the orbital lanes in blue, the world in yellow, and the marker-buoy in white.
"Finally," Len said. "Took you long enough."
As usual, he addressed his ship not in the Hanilat-Eraasian that he'd learned in school, but in his milk tongue, the language of Eraasi's antipodean subcontinent. The Irao had never intermarried with outsiders, and Len's knife-blade nose and yellowish-hazel eyes would have passed without remark in the homeland that his family had left a hundred years ago.
With the chart finally stabilized, he went to work setting up the Fire for emergence from the Void. The marker he'd asked for was a deep one, out at the farther limits of Eraasi's normal-space travel lanes. He'd have a long crawl past the outer planets, doing it that way, but he wasn't hauling perishable cargo and safety was better than speed.
For a good enough contract, sure, he'd pop out of the Void close in over Eraasi, and risk having one of the big fleet-families take him for an unlawful intruder and respond with force. He'd gotten his latest contract through the sus-Dariv, and Fire-on-the-Hilltops was listed with their fleet for the duration of the current voyage, but that wouldn't help much if a trigger-happy guardship captain decided not to bother with asking for his papers.
All the Fire had aboard this time was mixed-lot bulk cargo: transport, not trade, most of it, and not big enough to warrant a fleet-family's direct attention. Independents like Len handled the small jobs, and the urgent ones that couldn't wait for a convoy or a fleet courier, but the star-lords would come down hard on any pilot they suspected of working without a contract"in the grey," as the slang term had it.
"Hard times, old girl," Len said to the Fire, as the ship-mind chewed its laborious way through the calculations for normal-space emergence. "Hard times. You and I, we were born too late."
There had been a time, not more than a generation or so ago, when a family working in the grey could gather enough ships (by trade or purchase or outright capture) to put a syn- or even a sus- in front of their name and have it stick. Len had daydreamed of it himself in his boyhood, back when he was the space-happy one among all the cousins. He'd pictured himself taking the family out of the groundside shipping and transportation business and into the stars, making them syn- Irao and star-lords and a fleet-family in Hanilat. Then he grew up, of course, and understood that those days were gone.
He took the figures the ship-mind ground out for him and entered the series of commands that would pass them to the Fire's navigational console. "Emergence in five," he said, and keyed in the final sequence. There was only the ship-mind to hear him, but he'd learned to observe the formalities during his training days, when he'd served as hired crew aboard fleet-family ships.
A little while later he felt the disquieting inner sensation of Void-emergence pass through him like an oily wave. The distinctive hum and vibration of the Fire's passage changed in response. Even if he'd somehow managed to sleep through the emergence, he would have known, by the sound and by the feel of the ship around him, that Fire-on-the-Hilltops was moving through normal space.
It was eight hours before he heard the distress signal. He had the Fire's search-and-scan routines set to a tripwire sensitivity these daysa lowly contract-captain couldn't be too careful. They repaid him this time with a clamoring alarm and, when he put the signal onto ship's audio, a voice:
"This is sus-Dariv's Garden-of-Fair-Blossoms," it said, and the synthesized clarity of its pitch and elocution raised up all the fine hairs on the back of Len's neck. The only thing in space with a voice like that was a ship-mind, and if the ship-mind alone remained able to put out a signal, something very bad had happened aboard Garden-of-Fair-Blossoms. "If you are receiving this transmission, know that we are in distress and call for aid. We beg of you, make all speed to our location at" there followed a warbling noise that Len recognized as the Garden's ship-mind transmitting its reference coordinates directly to the ship-mind of whatever vessel might be listening. Then there was a pause, and the message started all over again.
Len hit the Transmit button on the Fire's communications board. "Garden-of-Fair-Blossoms," he said. "This is contract carrier Fire-on-the-Hilltops. Try to hold onI'm coming as fast as I can."
He turned back to the navigation console. For once, the Fire's ship-mind had behaved itself properly. The false-color display now included a flashing amber dotthe Garden's reference coordinates. He contemplated the symbolic representation briefly, then checked the alphanumeric readout and tapped in his course-query. More numbers and letters came up in reply, and the false-color display shifted, then shifted again after a second query and a second response.
After the third query, he said aloud, "I think you've got it this time, old girl."
The Fire's ship-mind didn't have an internal speaker. Instead, the alphanumeric display at the navigational console reset itself to zero, then said, THIS COURSE CONTRADICTS PREVIOUSLY EXPRESSED PREFERENCE FOR NORMAL SPACE RUNNING DURING ERASSI APPROACH.
"That was then," he said. "And this is now. I'm not going to drag my feet through normal space on my way to answer a distress call, and neither are you."
Excerpted from A Working of Stars by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald. Copyright © 2001 by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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