Piercing A Veil
[I]t is the hallucination which produces madness and not madness which produces the hallucination; it is the dramatized and enacted, performed, hysterical, and unrelenting spectacle which drives mad the person who had only vague things to blame himself for, and perhaps did not even know what they were.
Alban stirred as from a dream of ten years, noting that he had awakened breathing in, not out. The Order of Inner Light stressed constant mindfulness. His mentor, Roniro, had advised students to cultivate such awareness that they could note whether they fell asleep and awakened on an indrawn breath or while exhaling.
Alban yawned, stretched, then started. Two arms -- that did not surprise him. Flab on his limbs and belly, fish-white skin, morning grogginess -- these surprised him, though he had lived with them for years. Rather, some different Alban had lived with them, and that man, with all his memories, had already become a fading dream.
Alban looked blearily up at the high decorated ceiling, then down and around at his bedroom, a well appointed but messy chamber. He had always kept the cleaning staff out of here, for reasons he could not remember -- probably to annoy Padia. He lay in his huge canopied bed, swathed in white duchesse sheets beneath an eiderdown comforter. Wincing at the aches from his bruises and the shooting pains in every single muscle, Alban thought fondly of the hardwood bed he'd used while in the Order. No goosefeather pillows there, but he'd greeted each dawn with a sharp mind. This opulent, alien dissipation dulled the senses.
While he looked around for space suited to meditation, his gaze fell on a chipped ceramic mug sitting on the nightstand. The mug's embossed design showed an owl in flight. Alban had taken this mug as a souvenir of a memorable brawl in the Downlantern Tavern in Iopos. For ten years he had drunk his morning tea from that mug. The habit reminded him of past prowess, but now he recalled the cup's original purpose. In his adventuring days he had used it as a meditation object.
Alban sat on his heels on a blue-black rug of brithan fur. Closing his eyes, he cleared his mind and concentrated on his breath. Within minutes he felt drowsy, and he stood. Even standing, he still felt sleepy. Frustrated at his soft, poisoned body, he realized he must redevelop old skills. He missed the counsel of his Roniro amulet, the one Vilph stole years ago. His old mentor, in his dying days, had commissioned a crafter to copy his knowledge into the amulet, to guide Alban in situations such as this.
How to overcome drowsiness? Ah, he had it.
Later Dander arrived with morning tea. The old butler silently carried in the tray, looked toward the bed, and dropped the tray. He stared.
Eyes closed, Alban stood straight with one foot held high and back, in crane posture. The other foot rested squarely on the knob of his lower right bedpost, eight feet above the floor.
Vilph's attic room in Twopenny could not have accommodated Alban's bed, nor the ceiling Alban's bedpost. Even Vilph, small and hunched as a thirty-year air sailor, thought the room cramped -- and airless, and dismal, and saturated with the dust of previous tenants in an unbroken line back to the Scourge.
The room did offer privacy, however. Here, five storeys up, a lone oculus window looked out on empty sky; all the other buildings this tall had collapsed in years past. This rickety tenement threatened to follow in the next hard wind.
Vilph untied a leather pouch at his waist. A whiff of ozone rose as he opened it. Staring at the pouch and concentrating, the ork said clearly, ``Peyl's amulet.'' After a pause he reached in and drew out a narrow bronze vambrace inset with a small amethyst. Cut in a rectangular step pattern, the stone glittered like a pool in sunlight. Tiny Theran runes, carved in intaglio on its crown face, read Roniro.
Vilph fitted the armor over his slender forearm. ``Roniro,'' he said aloud, then groped for the phrase he had discovered years ago. ``I seek guidance on the path.''
The amulet flashed, the vambrace shivered, and a high, aged voice spoke in the empty air. ``The teachings guide us all.''
Vilph asked, ``What are the major weaknesses of your pupil, the journeyman adept Alban Peyl?''
Glimmers of light passed back and forth within the amulet. ``Let each seeker first attend to what is proper, then teach others by example. Thus a wise seeker will not suffer.''
Vilph sneered. He had little experience with these compilations an individual's life experience -- encasements, as the crafters called them. He did not know whether this encasement of Roniro lacked the ability to answer his question, or had the wit to evade it.
Vilph had taken the amulet a decade ago in hopes of learning more about Alban; the more Vilph knew about his targets, the better his spells worked against them. His discovery of the Composite Form had diverted him from revenge. Now Vilph intended to redress the delay. ``Roniro, tell me of the weaknesses of the warrior discipline's outlook.''
The encasement glittered. ``Warrior adepts see all of life as a battlefield, whereon they face their enemies. Their magic derives from their concentration upon this view. We in the Order of Inner Light recognize these powers as incidental to our primary purpose, defeat of our deadliest enemy: our own ignorance. `Defeat the enemy within to defeat all without.'''
``Yes, yes,'' said Vilph impatiently. ``What does the Inner Light warrior need to maintain these powers?''
``They arise naturally with correct insight. Insight comes of mindful meditation. First develop concentration, then examine your thoughts and sensations as they arise in your mind. Pay the closest attention, judging nothing, suppressing nothing. Attend to the moment. In the course of years you will realize lasting truths, and with them comes the quiet mind.''
``And the powers, they come of this concentration?''
``Magic flows through the quiet mind. The true warrior learns how to see the Universe with clarity, and how to use martial techniques to create purity, compassion, and beauty.''
What claptrap, Vilph thought. ``Lasting truths''! ``The warrior's powers require concentration. What hinders this concentration?''
``There are many hindrances -- restlessness, sloth, aversion, desire for sensory pleasures....''
``What is the most powerful hindrance? The most dangerous?''
Ah, Vilph thought. If something must distract Alban's concentration, I have the very thing. Perhaps I should offer Hodrick the same treatment. . . .
Ordinarily Padia and Alban ate at the cherrywood dining table. This morning, though her injuries had healed, Padia winced as if still in pain when she saw the table's briar scratches. She retreated with Alban and Hodrick to her drawing room. There Dander served a daymeal of curried eggs with spiced sausage, crayfish in aspic, bamboo shoots sauteed in almond oil, jackfruit with cream, white cheddar, oatcakes, hazelnuts, and glazed gingerbread.
``What is this?'' said Alban with distaste.
``What is what?'' Puzzled, Padia looked over the pewter service. ``I thought you seemed less interested in food, and so I ordered a light daymeal.''
``I'll have a slice of cheese and an oatcake,'' Alban told Dander curtly. ``Serve my wife and Hodrick what they wish, and then give the rest to the servants.''
The old butler, after decades of experience in three fine Oldtown households, could avoid showing surprise. However, he did halt in mid-service, and the length of his pause showed the impact of Alban's words.
With Dander still frozen and Padia dumbstruck, Hodrick said, ``My thanks for your hospitality, but I do not eat. The cord sustains me.''
Alban looked at Hodrick intently. ``I have never heard of any name-giver quite like you. If I may ask bluntly, exactly what are you?''
``Fundamentally I am Radolf, I suppose -- the wizard who sacrificed himself to protect Merron from the Scourge. The warden magicians of all four disciplines destroyed Radolf's intellect and linked his True Pattern to that of the city. They gave me the sense of all patterns in the city, though now I have lost that. In the past three centuries Radolf's original nature has blended with the hundreds of other name-givers from whom I took patterns.''
``Wait.'' Alban's eyes widened. ``You knew all the people in Merron? Their locations, actions, goals, natures?''
``Yes, until the last moon, when Vilph gave me awareness.''
``You remember what you knew before. I heard you telling Vilph about Haerlam and Thanyx. Do you also remember what Vilph has done these last ten years? Where he lived and what he wanted? Weaknesses, enemies?''
I noted the similarity of Alban's thoughts to Vilph's. In both, the old rivalry had erupted afresh.
Hodrick pursed his mismatched lips, then said, ``As to Vilph's goals, I could not discern them. He uses some talent of the mind to evade magical scrutiny. His weakness you know -- his reliance on illusion.''
``Call that weakness if you like,'' said Padia. ``I cannot imagine how he acquired such power. There cannot be a dozen illusionists to match Vilph anywhere in Barsaive.''
``He projects the strength of his beliefs, though those shift like the wind,'' Hodrick said pensively. ``As for enemies, three years ago Vilph tried to enlist two other illusionists to locate me and give me awareness. Evidently he considered the necessary enchantments beyond his own skill at that time. Vilph proposed to the two that controlling me would lead to control of the guilds.
``Just before the planned casting, the two turned on Vilph. They feared his power and resented his attempts to dominate them. They captured him and turned him over to the city watch, bound and unconscious. They offered a story that he had plotted to control Merron's magistrates.
``Vilph escaped, of course. He showed his anger by alerting the elders of the guilds and implicating his betrayers with the same story. The elders stripped the two illusionists of their power for a year and a day, during which time they left Merron. Since then they have both returned. They and Vilph nurture mutual hatred.''
Padia asked, ``Who are these two?''
``Two women named Kharisha and Pluonus. Twins. They conduct an entertainment service in Schools.''
Padia looked shocked. ``Why, I've passed their shop. They've done parties for some of the best families.''
Alban snorted. ``I know of those two. On High Hill we used to debate whether we should award those twins the Medal of Service or swear out a warrant for their arrest.''
Although no hard evidence implicated them, Alban remained convinced that Kharisha and Pluonus had burned down a granary warehouse in Hempline last year. He suspected that one of their fireworks experiments had gone awry. A few days later, the twins financed the relocation of two hundred survivors of a fever plague that all but wiped out the village of Melcher. Kharisha and Pluonus showed no remorse for the lives lost in the granary fire -- two watchmen and their guard dogs, burned alive -- yet declined to attend a banquet held in their honor by the Melcher survivors. Their principles seemed to change with the seasons. With their shaven heads and garish turquoise robes, they hardly went out of their way to cultivate acceptance. Typical of illusionists, he thought.
``We shoul recruit the twins as allies,'' Padia said. ``Then we must alert the city.''
Alban shook his head. ``Useless.''
Padia narrowed her eyes. She laid her half-eaten slice of bread on the edge of her saucer, then folded her hands in her lap. ``Why is that, my dear?''
``Kharisha and Pluonus are illusionists,'' said Alban. ``Nothing good can come from using illusion to fight illusion. It is futile.''
``What about alerting the city? Is that also futile?''
``How would it help?''
``When the citizens realize Vilph is manipulating them, they will reject him. He cannot stand against the city.''
Alban said, ``You cannot make others disbelieve an illusion. Each of us must decide alone to seek truth. We are adepts. Only adepts have the awareness to face Vilph.''
``That is elitist and selfish,'' said Padia. Her voice had taken on a familiar berating tone.
Alban remembered how that tone used to provoke him, and how he had provoked her in turn. ``I must learn not to offer doctrine in place of discussion,'' he said, smiling. ``Your approach is certainly worth trying. I'll visit High Hill and warn the magistrates about Vilph. They can spread the word through the city watch.''
Padia stared. ``I am hardly a wizard, the way I keep forgetting.'' Her voice choked slightly. ``You've changed.''
Dander entered with a silver tray and placed it beside Alban's plate. ``At madame's request,'' he said.
Curiously, Alban glanced at Padia. She sipped her tea, watching from the corner of her eye.
Dander removed the cover. An intoxicating aroma of ginger, lemon, and hot syrup saturated the air. On a gleaming salver sat two golden ginger wafers, glistening with lemon icing, dripping rivulets of pungent wirewood syrup: devotion biscuits. Dwarven chefs in Bartertown had created the delicacy, rare in Merron thanks to the difficulty in obtaining the syrup, tapped only from wirewood trees in the Liaj Jungle. The dish required hours to prepare, as Alban knew well.
During their first week of marriage, Padia had risen before dawn every day to make biscuits for breakfast, the only dish she insisted on preparing herself. They shared the biscuits on each anniversary, a tradition they continued for three years. They missed the fourth year, for Padia had gone travelling after an especially bitter quarrel. After that the tradition had lapsed. He hadn't had devotion biscuits since.
Solemnly he took a biscuit and offered her the other. She accepted it in silence.
He bit into the delicate crust. Heavy, cloying, sour-sweet liquid coated his tongue. His distaste showed before he could stop himself.
Padia's look of delight faded. ``What's the matter?''
``Nothing, nothing!'' He chewed. ``All these years -- I'd forgotten --''
``They taste just the same. I remember. Don't you like them now?''
``Of course! The taste is a bit rich, that's all.'' Have I spent ten years eating this kind of goo? With a fixed smile Alban finished the wafer. Perhaps next year we can use oatcakes.
``Well,'' she said tensely, ``I shall visit these illusionists.'' She rose and turned to Hodrick. ``Would you care to accompany me to Schools?''
``Of course,'' he said.
Alban sensed her tension. Calming himself by observing his breathing, he said, ``Padia. Whatever I think of wirewood syrup, you must know --''
``I know. It isn't you.'' Her fingertips brushed his shoulder. ``We leave in an hour. I need to check the repairs to the house, but there's not much left to do. The staff has been quite efficient.''
Alban wiped his hands on a cotton fingercloth. ``I'm off for High Hill.'' As he rose, a footman arrived with a letter. Alban glanced at it and sighed. ``I'm not off for High Hill. Norgan says there's an emergency at work.'' Norgan managed Alban's dispatch house. He was hard-working and honest, but prone to panic.
``He's probably nervous, Alban,'' Padia said from the doorway. ``You haven't shown up there for two days, and this after you've lost a fortune. You're neglecting your duties.''
Not duties, hindrances, Alban thought. In two days he had not once thought of his financial loss, and he didn't care to start. He sighed, kissed Padia on the cheek, and left for the stable.
Padia had spoken of duty, Alban of self-reliance. Somehow it disappoints me that the matter stood unresolved, that they parted so casually. In retrospect I realize that Alban and Padia never again met as husband and wife.
Well dressed and wearing his magistrate's sash, Alban rode in the Peyl-Villandry whirlicote to the dispatch house. He jerked and jostled in the vehicle, a ponderous chariot with four iron-rimmed wheels. The driver, a chatty youth named Winn, kept the two horses to a canter on the wide paved roads angling gently down Oldtown's slopes. On the crowded lanes of Schools, amid clouds of brown dust, he shouted, ``Make way, a gen'leman, 'way!'' When Alban leaned forward from the rear seat and counseled patience, Winn's eyes bulged the way Dander's had, in occupational surprise.
Soon cobbles rattled the whirlicote's wheels. The road leveled and widened, and they rode onto the high level plain of Keystone. Behind an impregnable levee to their right the Byrose, surging north from the Badlands, sounded a steady bass note, hollow and impersonal as the wind.
From the driver's bench Winn examined the passing levee. ``A happy bitta luck, sir, the flood didn't make it to Keystone.''
Alban looked out at the garish villas, homes to those who had had the bad taste to make fortunes in their own lifetime, instead of inheriting it like the Old Families. ``The merchants must have charged admission, and the river balked.''
``Ha ha, good 'un, sir.''
Flaunting pediments, peristyles, rose windows, rotundas, oriels, and even obelisks, Keystone's too-stately estates halted just short of calling to passersby, Look, we are substantial. For all Alban knew, the wards on their vulgar iron gates might actually speak those words.
Alban and Padia might well have ended up here after he became magistrate a decade ago. However, the battle with Intrantivere had destroyed an Oldtown mansion and its resident Old Family, and the couple had maneuvered skillfully to buy the property. Padia had said at the time, ``I had rather we live in Twopenny than in Keystone.'' Alban had said -- now he could not remember what. To live in any mansion now seemed absurd.
Alban's thoughts flowed with a clarity he had not known in years. Yet clear sight only showed the troubles he faced.
He did not want to run his dispatch house. The Order of Inner Light taught that the mere getting of money distracted a seeker from the path to enlightenment. Still, many people depended on that house. With his fortune gone, should he dismiss his workers, throwing them onto the streets of a devastated city? Or should he try to maintain the failing business for a time, perhaps incurring still more debt, while he found new work for everyone? He decided to meditate on the question when he reached the dispatch house.
The whirlicote turned left onto Mercantile Street, a tree-shaded avenue lined with food shops and tradesmen's lodges. Out of sight behind the pleasant storefronts hid workhouses, long low barracks of brick and wormwood. They made an observer short of breath just looking at them, let alone after twelve hours of work inside. The workhouses stood here because Keystone merchants liked a short, showy palanquin ride to work each morning. If this meant their Twopenny workers must spend two coppers a day for a ferry across the Byrose, or else go an hour out of their way to cross Dovetail Bridge, what of it? If workers disapproved of a merchant's preference, they had every right to stay home in Twopenny and starve.
Alban's dispatch house sat between a bakery and a glaziers' hostel, in the shadow of a bell tower that rang shift changes from dawn to dusk. Alban had seen the nondescript building three thousand times before, always with a surge of pride. He would think of all the business done within those shiplapped cedar walls, and of the rivals he had crushed in lawful competition.
To his new sight, the building looked small, dingy, and crass. It looked like a crypt.
As Alban had suspected, the crisis amounted to nothing more than a mathematical error. No sooner had he walked through the door than Norgan, a jowly dwarf to whom every setback foretold the end of civilization, began waving a parchment. ``Paid in full!'' Norgan shouted, the veins in his bulbous nose about to burst. ``The audacity of the man! No better than a common criminal! Paid in full! What are we going to do?''
In the aftermath of the flood, the dispatch house was busier than usual. Clerks wore thick-soled boots, the better to protect their feet from puddles. They clumped along the tile floor, straining under the weight of a decade's worth of ledgers and reports temporarily relocated to drier quarters. Dismen Alydrys and Bryn Ohme, two rumpled accountants, checked off damaged inventory on a long scroll. Amyqua Risvold, Alban's efficient secretary, lit a bronze incense burner to cover the dusky odor of wet coats and damp wood; soon the building would reek of cherries.
Two middle-aged men, gangly Borton Flatch and pea-eyed Gyb Sperniss, Alban's sales staff, huddled against a stack of crates. They chattered about the prospects of finding gainful employment should the dispatch house go under.
``Not a worry, I says,'' reasoned Gyb, ``given the old man's business sense. He could find silver in a puddin'.''
``Never hurts to be prepared,'' replied Borton. ``He took a big hit there at Antimere.''
Both men fell silent as Alban approached. Alban pretended he hadn't heard them. Truth to tell, he agreed with Borton. It was best to be prepared.
Alban settled behind his desk, Norgan scurrying after him. Norgan turned up the copper oil lamp, suspended over the desk on a thin chain. Alban smoothed the parchment before him.
The message read, In recpt. of 100 Servos war horses, Silv. 15,000, paid in full, Banston Meriwell. ``It was in the delivery box,'' Norgan said nervously. ``I found it when I arrived. It must have been delivered before dawn.''
Alban folded the parchment and set it aside. The previous week, he had indeed approved the Meriwell sale, but the agreed price was 1,500 silver per horse. Meriwell was short 135,000 silver.
``The mistake, I'm afraid, is ours.'' Norgan dabbed beads of perspiration from his forehead with a cotton handkerchief. ``We misplaced a decimal in the invoice.'' He gulped. ``I will find the culprit, I assure you,'' he said. ``I suspect Dismen. He has been notoriously careless of late. Or Bryn. Yes, it must have been Bryn. He helped with the billing last moon, when Amyqua was home with her ailing cat. I will have him fired. Assuming, of course . . .'' Norgan gulped again. ``Assuming we still have a business to fire him from. I do not know if we can absorb a loss of this magnitude, sir, what with the flood, and what with -- ''
``Quiet, Norgan.'' Alban put his finger to his lips. ``No one will be fired. The business will stand.''
``But sir. We have no way of collecting the money. We have no legal recourse.''
``True.'' Legally, Meriwell had to pay the invoice as sent, regardless of the amount actually owed. The statutes were clear. Alban had helped draft them. ``True,'' he repeated, ``but we have other recourses than those provided by law.''
Alban handed Norgan a fresh piece of parchment and a quill pen. ``Two years ago, I brokered the sale of a farmland parcel for Meriwell. Quite a valuable property, that, on the flatlands north of Keystone. It produces an impressive crop of bell wheat, year in, year out. The land belonged to Fyra Rendew, a cranky widow who specified her land was not to be sold before her death. When she took sick -- lockjaw, a nasty way to go -- I assumed responsibility for her affairs.''
``How's that, sir?''
``She was an old friend of my wife. Meriwell had wanted the land for a long time. He thought she was taking too long to die -- it took her a moon. He hired an urchin to camp in the street and watch for the funeral wagon. He was so impatient, I let him sign the deed early. The date of the deed predates her death by a week. Technically, the deed is invalid, though no one ever bothered to check.
``Write this down: Master Meriwell: Partial payment received. Regarding the Rendew property, I cannot sleep for my guilty conscience. Should I seek solace in the courts of High Hill? Please advise. Send that to Meriwell immediately, along with a corrected copy of the invoice.''
Norgan grinned in relief.
``One more thing,'' said Alban. He opened a drawer and pulled out a sheaf of documents. He ruffled though them until he found one near the bottom which he handed to Norgan. ``The deed to Gullwing Marsh.''
Norgan scanned the document, puzzled. ``Gullwing, sir? The swampland?''
Alban laced his fingers over his stomach. ``After all the rain, I'm sure it more properly resembles a pond. Send this to Meriwell also. Quote him a price of, oh, say 25,000 silver. Tell him I expect payment today. If he balks, tell him what good land it is for growing bell wheat.''
Norgan beamed. ``Or pasturing Servos war horses. Right away, sir. Anything else?''
``I have an appointment at High Hill. Return with Meriwell's answer and wait for me. I shouldn't be long. Dismiss the staff early.''
``Very good.'' Norgan trotted away, clutching the parchment and the swamp deed to his chest. Alban thought he heard him giggle.
Satisfied, Alban swiveled in his chair and put his feet on the desk. The wall to his left held an immense map of Barsaive, as big as his desktop. Made of crisp white vellum, the map showed all the city boroughs, every street, and most of the business establishments. Dozens of colored bone pins -- yellow, violet, white, and green -- dotted the map like clusters of tiny berries. Each represented a different interest: yellow pins showed parcels of land Alban owned, violet indicated land sold at a profit. White pins noted major clients, and green represented his trade routes across the province. When he looked at the map, he saw ten years of his life.
Alban removed the yellow pin from Gullwing Marsh and replaced it with violet. He leaned back and studied the map, feeling a surge of pleasure. When he had opened the dispatch house a decade ago, his map contained only a single pin, a yellow one noting this very building. Now it looked like the holdings of a victorious army. He had fought hard for this business, as hard as any general on a battlefield. He had triumphed, time and again. He had a right to feel proud.
That morning Alban completely forgot to meditate.
Padia spent half an hour in the west kitchen reviewing the house repairs with the servants. Anya, the downstairs maid, had removed the last splinters from the hall. Shynn, the laundress, informed Padia that the stains in the curtains had responded well to a third scrubbing. Dander had already arranged to replace the cherrywood dining table.
``Well done,'' she said. ``I believe we shall be in good shape for the nightmeal party.'' Reassured, she returned to the study where she'd left Hodrick.
Hodrick stood before the open doors of Alban's weapon cabinet. He held Starstriker, Alban's prized quarterstaff.
``Hodrick, what are you doing?''
He gazed at the staff raptly. ``It is a magnificent weapon.''
``Do you think so? It was always Alban's favorite.'' Padia could not see why. Starstriker was a simple length of mahogany polished to a smooth finish. A black splotch near the thicker end resembled a five-pointed star.
``He made that staff when he became journeyman at the Order of Inner Light,'' said Hodrick fondly, as though recalling his own past. ``As he cut the staff, and as he finished and polished it, he tried to maintain constant awareness of his motions. At first he hoped to gain praise from his mentor, but as he worked, he grew more mindful of the tools under his hand, of the texture of the wood and the breeze and the sun on his back.
``Some name-givers speak of getting lost in the moment. They become so absorbed in their task that they lose all awareness of time passing. Alban felt the precise opposite, a loss of everything except the moment. He came to realize that Roniro's praise meant nothing, because it did not exist now.''
Padia looked at him wonderingly. ``In ten years of marriage he never told me that.''
Hodrick smiled and moved to replace the staff in the cabinet. Five vertical indentations held staves of various materials: oak tipped with silver, black ash, ironwood, birch with a notched copper grip, and Delaris pine. He tried to place Starstriker in the sixth slot, which was slightly narrower at the top than the bottom.
``You have it upside down,'' Padia said. ``Alban designed this cabinet to hold his weapons just the way he wanted them.'' As she took the staff, her fingers brushed his hand, and she heard him inhale sharply. She thought it best to ignore that.
``Thank you for the lesson,'' she said, replacing the staff. ``On that note, shall we go to Schools?''
Thanyx Destrovan did not know which disturbed her more about this pit, the ritual or the odor. She could not identify the odor, a noxious mixture of sea brine and rotting meat. The ritual's chant reminded her of one the Therans used to burst bones.
She did not know who had convoked Oneiros for this ritual, nor why. Protocol prevented her from asking Ghantrem, the elder of Oneiros standing beside her. She would have to wait.
She had already waited an hour here in Manmidden Field, a forsaken cemetery in the heart of the Twopenny slums. Ghantrem had received her politely, but said nothing. As the elder, he had no obligation to explain. With a gesture, he invited her to watch. His willowy body seemed lost in the deep folds of his ceremonial gown, a billowing vestment of black silk edged with crimson beads. A thin chain of gold dangled from each earlobe.
Perched on the lip of the pit, a damp black cavity large enough to entomb a hundred name-givers, Thanyx felt the darkness of Manmidden Field pressing down on her. Even at midday, the spidery branches of the towering alder trees wove a canopy that draped the field in shadows. A chill wind rustled the waist-high milkweeds and whistled through tangles of thistle vines.
A black obelisk rose on the side of the pit opposite of Thanyx, its sandstone surfaces blasted smooth by the ravages of time. A pair of sculpted human arms extended from the top of the obelisk, beckoning to the heavens; one arm had been snapped off. A tombstone, she thought. The pit wall was not made of earth, but black sandstone, like that of the obelisk. Thanyx recalled legends of ancient ruins deep beneath Manmidden Field, remnants of a race who freely passed between the worlds of the living and the dead. This is not just a ritual, she realized. This is an excavation.
Five nethermancers of Oneiros chanted in the pit, their rumbling incantations mingling with the screeches of wispy spirits above. Poor wretches who died in the Scourge had been unceremoniously buried in Manmidden, their corpses scorched in bonfires and dumped in mass graves. Now their spirits darted through the branches and howled, angry at the trespass.
Like Ghantrem, the five nethermancers wore ceremonial gowns of black silk and crimson beads. One, Xylona Xanthis, scooped handfuls of gray ash from a burlap bag and sifted the ash through her malformed fingers into a long iron trough. Beside her, Morlin the Dreamlover ladled in murky water from a wooden barrel, and Hendon of Hemiptera stirred the mixture with a hickory staff, occasionally sprinkling it with thorns and crushed leaves.
Xylona brushed against the burlap bag. It tipped, spilling ashes across the earthen floor. The magician dropped to her knees and carefully swept the ashes back into the bag.
Thanyx sensed an opportunity. ``Sad accident,'' she said. ``Enough ashes left to complete ritual, I hope.''
A spirit swooped toward Ghantrem, fluttering a foot over his head. The spirit, a streamer of mist with dots of light for eyes and a ragged slit for a mouth, squealed at Ghantrem, sounding like a rat impaled on a spike. Ghantrem glared at the spirit, and it promptly fled into the trees.
``They're not ashes,'' said Ghantrem. He sounded distracted, intent on the ceremony. ``They are flies. We have more than enough.''
Flies. Oneiros occasionally used them in its summoning rituals. Thanyx vaguely recalled a passage from the Devinina, a duodecimo treatise by Iniortas the Dreamweaver. Iniortas described the insects as ``motes of abomination, carriers of corruption -- but cleansed, they become catalysts, bridges to the realm of dreams.'' Or the realm of nightmares? Thanyx couldn't remember.
She examined the wall of the pit. Deep scratches like claw marks covered the wall, but the markings along its bottom edge looked like stick-figure humanoids. Thanyx counted a dozen figures, each as high as a man's knee, each identical: a triangle for the head, a line for the body, two lines for arms, two for legs.
The other two nethermancers, Logro the Skinworker and Daimon Angelicon Dimitrio, soaked twigs in the iron trough, then carefully painted curdled liquid in the lines of the figures. After they painted the final figure, they started again with the first. Over the past hour, Thanyx guessed they must have painted each figure at least half a dozen times. Had the figures grown larger?
She steeled herself for a breach of etiquette. ``What is fluid?'' she asked. She spoke casually, despite her pounding heart. ``Sea water?''
``Yes,'' said Ghantrem. ``From the belly of a whale.''
A silky voice came from behind Thanyx. ``Such expense! You have no idea what that water costs.'' Thanyx recognized the voice immediately, and her blood froze.
Vilph Axehandle stepped carefully through the thick brush, picking thistles from the sleeve of his broadcloth robe. Apparently the small ork had lurked behind an alder tree, listening. ``How good to see you again, friend Thanyx. What brings you here?''
``Could ask same of you, Vilph,'' she said with contempt. Seeing the ork's easy familiarity with Ghantrem -- he plucked a thistle from the hem of the elder's robe -- Thanyx had a disquieting thought. ``You come here at invitation of Oneiros?''
``Rather the opposite,'' Vilph said. ``Some time back my former friend, Hodrick, mentioned an interesting ruin here in Manmidden. He knows quite a lot about Merron that others have forgotten. Last night I told my new friend, Ghantrem here, about the ruin, and I see that the great and powerful have already acted on the news. I suggested that they omit you from their activities, given the shock you endured yesterday in the Fastness.''
Thanyx flushed. ``You trifle with deadly forces, Vilph.''
``One must keep busy,'' he replied with a thin smile. ``Incidentally, my condolences on the death of your apprentice. No one deserves to die so young.''
``We all deserve to die,'' said Thanyx. ``Is why we are born.''
Vilph frowned. ``Tell me, are you fun at parties? You seem to have a gift for killing a conversation.'' He craned his neck to peer into the pit. ``It appears the work progresses nicely. I admire their commitment.''
``You suggest this ritual?'' Thanyx asked.
``I may have broached the idea. It excited Ghantrem, did it not?''
Ghantrem smiled thinly. ``The first summoning in modern times of the Cordial Guards. What a breakthrough!''
Thanyx had never heard of spirits called Cordial Guards, but that meant nothing. She could count every kind of flower in Barsaive more easily than the numberless hordes of spirits. ``Ritual not harmful, then? Does not sound like Vilph.''
Vilph smiled. ``Let me speak candidly. I made a mistake in encouraging Geocosm to bring rain. I thought it would help crops. How could I know those elementalists would carry it too far?''
Ghantrem's nose wrinkled, not because of the pit's rank odor. ``Geocosm. `Headstrong' isn't the word. Those maniacs! This will show them up.''
``I made a mistake in trusting them,'' Vilph continued. ``Oneiros is kindly helping to remedy my error. These spirits can go far in repairing the damage our city has sustained.''
``So powerful?'' Command of strong spirits required the sacrifice of part of the summoners' life force. ``Blood magic, Elder?'' she asked Ghantrem.
The elder looked uncomfortable. ``A certain amount of blood is required.''
Vilph shook his head dismissively. ``If you'll forgive a parasitic turn of phrase, I have no taste for blood magic. Ghantrem, I suggest that enlisting Hodrick could vastly increase the ritual's power, bloodlessly.''
The elder's black eyes widened. ``Really.''
Furious, Thanyx broke in. ``You no longer speak for Composite Form, Vilph. It rejected you, went with Peyl and Villandry.''
``True, Thanyx. How very observant.'' Vilph sounded bored. ``Ghantrem, just for curiosity's sake, when would you need Hodrick for the summoning?''
``We finish the preparations at dusk.''
Ghantrem transfixed Thanyx with the same glare that sent the spirit fleeing. ``You forget yourself, journeyman adept.''
Thanyx felt anguish. She saw no use in arguing; Oneiros had decided to stand with Vilph. Interference with the ritual carried a risk she dared not take.
Thanyx turned from the pit and walked toward the alder trees. Clearly Vilph had something planned for Hodrick. Thanyx would have to warn Padia and Alban.
She did not notice Vilph following her into the trees.
Behind them, murmurs of satisfaction arose in the pit. One stick figure's arm had moved.
Fireshaper Extravaganzas and Catering, the shop run by Kharisha and Pluonus, lay on the west side of Schools, normally a twenty-minute ride from Oldtown. Today, Padia anticipated a journey of at least a half-hour, maybe longer. Alban had taken the good whirlicote. This rickety old curricle, with a loose wheel she was sure would fall off at the next bump, was a distant second. Reece, the dour driver, puffed silently on his gumwood pipe. Hodrick's presence seemed to unnerve him.
Clouds hid the morning sun, threatening to ruin a pleasant day. Wind whipped at the curricle, and Padia pulled her crocheted wrap around her shoulders.
They had ridden in silence since leaving Jessis. Hodrick, beside her, sat straight upright and stared out at the city. He seemed gloomy. Padia passed the time by reviewing her spellcasting techniques. She had spent last night studying her grimoires and practicing. Now she felt sure of only a few spells, but if Vilph attacked again, she could answer with more than a feather duster.
She grimaced at a noxious stench -- rotten eggs, spoiled fruit, slops -- from refuse piled in front of a dreary brick tenement. ``Awful,'' she said, waving one hand before her nose. ``For years I tried to get the Old Families and Keystone to extend their refuse collection to other boroughs. They funded it for a year in Schools, then dropped it because it cost too much. Their workers didn't get sick as often, they could produce more, but no, taking trash outside the city costs too much.''
Hodrick looked at her admiringly. ``Yet you have done much good.'' As the carriage rounded Killdeer Hill, they looked west over the broken docks of Hempline and across the churning Byrose. Hodrick pointed out the window. ``Those brick retaining walls along both shores -- that Twopenny orphanage -- beyond it, a shrine to Garlen -- all those came of your efforts.''
``Well --'' She almost blushed. ``Crafter councils in Oldtown and Keystone deserve the credit.''
``Councils that you organized and led. For centuries I read the patterns of the city and all its name-givers with no more awareness than a spider has of its web. In this last moon I have seen Merron in a new light. Efforts like your own have become enormously significant to me.''
She gave him a tender smile. ``Everything must seem strange to you.''
``Before Vilph gave me awareness, I -- or this body -- was little more than a trained animal, a tool of the Egregore. For every situation it had a fixed response. This is different.''
Again Hodrick stared out the window. ``Very much, but I should not become accustomed to it. What Vilph gave me, he can also take away.''
``How did he give you awareness? I have never heard of such magic.''
``I do not know. I woke with a sense of a broken connection to something, or some entity. The Egregore, I presume.''
``What is the Egregore, exactly?''
``I no longer know, if I ever did.''
The wagon bounced in a rut. Hodrick fell against Padia, who flinched as he bumped her thigh. Hodrick straightened at once. ``I must apologize. The wagon --''
``Hush. We're both all right.'' She flashed a reassuring smile, but inwardly she burned with embarrassment. She hadn't meant to pull away. It was inadvertent, a reflex. Despite his scarred flesh and twisted features, Hodrick was no monster.
She suddenly felt uncomfortable. She asked, ``Do you believe that Vilph still poses a threat to Alban?''
Hodrick answered matter-of-factly. ``Vilph intends that Alban should die. Vilph does not kill with a blade or poison. To my knowledge he has never actually killed anyone, at least not in Merron. No, he prefers subtler deaths.
``Ten years ago Vilph took offense at a troubadour named Boffin, a clownish man with violet eyes and a rosewood lute. Boffin had composed a song about Vilph, a comic tune about Vilph's appearance. It became quite popular.'' Hodrick sang softly, his voice full and rich. ``Too poor to clean his clothes/Alas, old gentleman Vilph/Should rain fall on your surcoat/It will drench your feet in filth.
``Vilph nurtured a grudge against Boffin for ten years, until he mastered the magic necessary to destroy Boffin's True Pattern. Destroy a name-giver's pattern, and you destroy the name-giver.''
``You can't destroy a pattern. Disguise it, change it, but --''
``Everything Boffin meant to Merron, everything Merron meant to him -- Vilph systematically destroyed every connection between the troubadour and the city. He transformed every word written by or about Boffin. Vilph destroyed the living memory others had of Boffin, very effectively.''
``Vilph said we knew the troubadour.'' Padia pictured the mindscape of her memory and searched for any recollection of a troubadour named Boffin. ``I notice nothing out of place in my memory. We can't have known him very well.''
Hodrick looked grave. ``Boffin served with you and Alban in the Gray Owl Company.''
Startled, Padia frowned. ``Nonsense. We never --'' (you don't know him) ``--would certainly remember --'' (you've never heard of him) ``-- if, if -- oh, Passions, no. No.'' Frightened, she covered her face. As she recalled Vilph's parting words in the Fastness, her heart began to pound.
``Oh. Oh, Hodrick, we must warn Alban.'' She looked out the window and saw the Fireshaper shop just ahead. ``We'll talk with Pluonus and Kharisha, then look for him on High Hill. Tell him what you told me. You'll help us with what you know, won't you?''
Hodrick looked solemn. ``I would do anything to keep Vilph from destroying an innocent person's pattern.''
The curricle hit another rut. Hodrick's thigh pressed against hers. This time she didn't flinch.
Winn drove the horses up the steep incline of High Hill, while Alban sat in the whirlicote, disgusted with himself. He had let the dispatch house seduce him again, and now he did not have the excuse of a changed pattern.
Oldtown's slopes mounted to a high promontory that overlooked an eastward bend of the Byrose. Atop this sheer cliff stood a dark-stoned, dirt-caked edifice, towering over Merron like a grave marker. In his days as a magistrate, Alban had attended meetings at the council building, Hill House, twice a week. Now he came twice a year, and less if he could help it. He found the minutiae of governing tedious, the company of his colleagues as excruciating as a toothache. As a courtesy, they kept him informed of council affairs; in Merron, affluence equalled influence.
Leaving Winn with the whirlicote, Alban trotted up granite steps leading to the front door. Its iron arch bore an image of a hawk with a mouse in its beak, reflecting (Alban thought) the philosophy of the legislators inside. He straightened his sash, tracing its smooth edges. The band of cloth attached to his left shoulder with a silver pin, crossed his chest, and tucked into his broad leather belt.
Kriast, an amiable troll with a face like a caved-in pumpkin, stood guard. He waved his arms over his head and cursed, swatting at something Alban couldn't see.
``Good day, Kriast,'' said Alban to the troll. ``Why so agitated?''
``Hullo, Landsman Peyl,'' said Kriast. ``Dint see you there.'' The troll wore the uniform of the city watch, a leather tunic, burlap breeches, and knee-high boots with brass buckles. A pair of crossed swords, engraved on his left forearm vambrace, denoted a rank of corporal.
Alban looked up, too, squinting into the sun. ``What is it?''
``Hornet, sir,'' said Kriast. He unclenched his hairy fists. ``Big as a bat. Been trying to get me all morning. G'wan inside, sir.''
Alban walked through a corridor, his clicking footsteps echoing from the marble walls, to the council chambers. He opened a weathered door. The scarlet ribbon pinned on the door indicated a meeting in progress.
A glittering chandelier dominated the room. An arrowhead shrub grew in a copper pot in the corner, its leafy branches brushing the ceiling. On the table a blue porcelain bowl held butter figs, Liaj oranges, and snowberries.
The three current magistrates of Merron clustered near the end of a long table. Nearest Alban sat Lexa Kittague, a straw-thin dowager who'd made her fortune marketing medicines to the peasants of Nightshade and Twopenny. Kittague hadn't changed her appearance in years. She wore the same ebony frock, the same gray wool scarf, and the same haggard expression; her hollow eyes and sallow skin made her look terminally diseased. Alban had always thought Kittague used her wealth and position to make Merron's life as joyless as hers.
Beyond Lexa sat Niss Reeves, who explicitly equated moral worth with financial success. By those standards, Reeves embodied impeccable morality, for she was among the richest trolls in Merron. Beginning with millions in silver -- an inheritance from her parents, owners of a fleet of merchant ships -- Reeves had tripled her wealth by financing mercenary excursions into the wild Scol Mountains to plunder the ork scorcher tribes. Alban despised her.
Reeves flaunted her success with gaudy jewelry. Apparently, this was platinum day. Platinum bracelets encircled her flabby arms from wrist to shoulder, dagger-shaped platinum earrings dangled from her earlobes, and a platinum splinter pierced each puffy cheek. Tomorrow might be emerald day, the next, opals.
Next to Reeves, Brant Carush fidgeted with a quill pen, nervously running the feather between his fingers. His face was planes and angles, a granite bust, impossible to read. A thin brown beard ran from ear to ear. Alban's only friend on the council, Carush had made his fortune as a livestock breeder, and had spent a portion to build a public park in Twopenny. Alban happily recalled the day Carush revealed this act of charity; Reeves had sputtered like a kettle at full boil. However, Carush's benevolence was an exception, not a rule; he had an unwavering belief that affluence and wisdom went hand in hand, and he had the initiative of a cow.
``It is good to see you again, Alban,'' said Reeves. She made no effort to conceal her insincerity. ``We wondered at the reports about your arm, and now I see they are true. I have heard other reports, about your dispatch house. How goes business?''
``Well enough,'' said Alban curtly. ``I have news about the illusionist Vilph Axehandle. What remains on the agenda?''
``Only the Twopenny project,'' said Reeves. ``We have reviewed it already. I presume there is no need to review it again.''
Alban knew the details. A year ago -- a year! Alban found the sluggish pace of government appalling -- ten Twopenny citizens approached the council with a plan to clean up the garbage in their own borough, Nightshade, and Schools. For decades tenement dwellers and business owners had piled old clothing and food scraps behind buildings and on street corners. Once a moon trash haulers loaded the garbage into rickety wagons and dumped it in the Byrose.
Because they could only charge a few coppers for the service -- residents couldn't afford more -- most haulers had quit. Some had turned to richer trades; others sought customers in Keystone and Oldtown, where they could earn a living wage. Meanwhile, the garbage festered, blocking alleys, attracting rodents, and giving off a stench that on windy days permeated the entire city.
The Twopenny citizens proposed that the council hire laborers to collect the garbage and haul it to Millflower Valley on the border of Keystone. The plan called for a modest tax on Oldtown and Keystone landowners; after all, they stood to benefit as much as those in Nightshade and Twopenny, and the annual tax would amount to less than the cost of a crate of snowberry wine.
``If there are no comments --'' Reeves paused as a courtesy to Alban.
Alban said, ``The proposal seems to me a fine idea, an elegant solution to a problem that will only grow worse as the city delays.''
Reeves proceeded as though Alban had not spoken. ``-- let us vote.''
``I vote no,'' said Kittague. Her voice was a wheeze, the sound of air forced through a pipe. ``Foolishness. Things have been like this in Twopenny for as long as I remember. Now, suddenly, there is some emergency? I think not. We are not these people's parents. It is not our duty to wipe their runny noses or sing them to sleep when they have bad dreams. Let them live the lives they choose. If they want clean streets, show them the shovels.'' The end of her scarf fell over her arm. She wrapped it back around her neck, muttering. ``The draft in this room -- if I come down with the chills again, the city will pay for my treatment.''
``Of course, I agree,'' said Reeves. ``A tax on the successful would send the wrong message. `Sloth, we reward; diligence, we punish.' No. Carush?''
Alban watched his friend. If Carush voted yes, he could table it until the next meeting, giving Twopenny time to marshall support. Alban held his breath.
Carush squirmed in his chair. He had stripped a handful of feathers from the quill, now scattered on the table. He swallowed hard, then spoke with bowed head. ``Merron needs new people. If our population declines, so will our economy. When word of the flood spreads, I fear it will discourage others from relocating here. We might not convince them that Merron is a safe place to do business. A new tax now will only compound the damage. I agree.''
Reeves beamed. ``Then the matter is settled.'' She clapped her hands. ``Meeting adjourned.''
Alban fondled the silver pin securing the magistrate's sash to his shoulder. A fierce anger rose in him, and abruptly, he yanked the sash from his chest. The pin shot across the room and bounced off the wall. ``I am ashamed ever to have served on this council!'' He tossed the sash on the floor and pushed himself away from the table.
``Arm comes back and now he's too good for us,'' muttered Kittague, halfway out the door.
Reeves feigned concern. ``Why, Alban! What's this all about? Business troubles, perhaps?''
Alban almost shouted back. He caught himself and leaned on the table with one hand. He tried to regain his calm by following his breath, but his mind boiled with sudden anger, as if something alien had invaded and crowded out all other thoughts.
``Get some rest, Alban.'' Reeves buttoned her cloak. With a sidelong glance at his arm, she closed the door behind her, leaving Alban alone with Carush.
Carush stooped and picked up the sash. ``Take it,'' he said, tucking it in Alban's coat pocket. ``You know I support you in principle. But this is not the right time.'' He took Alban's arm. ``Perhaps I could finance another park.''
Alban jerked away and took a stumbling step toward the door. His head throbbed with pain.
``Alban,'' Carush called after him. ``If you wish to speak of this, I will be in my chambers the rest of the afternoon.''
A minute later, Alban stood outside the courthouse. Kriast asked, ``Something happen in there? You all right?''
Alban did not know how to respond. His legs wobbled under him, and his eyes burned as if sprinkled with sand. Alban tugged the sash from his pocket and tossed it to the dumbstruck troll. ``Use it to swat hornets.'' He staggered down the courthouse steps into the gray afternoon.
Norgan could not believe it. Alban, his employer, was marked for death.
Minutes ago an old woman had burst into the export house. Emerald scarab at her throat, bone-white robe: Norgan recognized the woman as a nethermancer. She spoke with a heavy accent. ``I am Thanyx Destrovan. Where is Alban? --Gone? High Hill? Ah, very bad.''
Always anxious, Norgan took this as a signal to panic. ``What is it? Shall I send someone for him? Is there anything I can do to help?''
``Gather all employees.''
Without hesitation, Norgan complied. In Alban's office they stood before Thanyx like soldiers at attention. Thanyx stood near Alban's desk, her back to the vellum map of Merron. ``Powerful illusionist, Vilph Axehandle, wants to destroy Alban Peyl,'' she said rapidly. ``Vilph attacked me when I went to warn Alban. Barely escaped. Listen: Alban's friends are Vilph's enemies. All of you, in danger.''
Norgan wasn't sure he understood this, but he and the others were too frightened to ask questions. Bryn Ohme's hands were trembling. Amyqua choked back tears.
``Can you do something?'' asked Norgan, weakly like a frightened child.
Thanyx produced an opaque glass jar from the folds of her robe. ``Rare distillate from bellberry plants on Elemental Plane of Wood. Stole it from Quietus. Dulls the mind, but protects from illusions.''
She broke the jar's wax seal, then dipped her finger inside. A dark red liquid, thick and sticky, covered her finger to the knuckle. She drew a symbol of some kind on Norgan's forehead, then moved down the line, daubing the liquid on each worker.
The liquid warmed his forehead. He heard a faint buzzing in his ears, then grew dizzy with a spate of confused thoughts. The sensation passed, and he felt pleasantly relaxed. He felt he could melt into the floor.
Thanyx finished daubing the last worker, then turned to the vellum map. She stretched to reach the top corner, pulling out one of four nails that secured the map to the wall. Norgan watched indifferently, wondering why Thanyx was removing the map. Should he help her? She had only to ask.
Fireshaper Extravaganzas looked like a brick. The illusionists' shop was a square building with a single window concealed by folds of black curtain. Beside it stood a life-size sculpture of a horse, made of alabaster or bleached clay. It had two heads, one on each end, which alternately spurted streams of sparkling water into a stone pool below.
Surrounded by an expanse of bare dirt, the shop looked lifeless. Padia saw no flowers or bushes, no trees in the yard. Narrow alleys on either side were empty. Even Lydgate Street, a silent lane of nondescript clapboard houses, added to the gloomy atmosphere.
Hodrick said, ``I suggest you ask your driver to wait with the vehicle out of sight. In the event of trouble, we should not jeopardize his safety.''
Padia thought the chances of trouble remote, because the twins were minor magicians. Still -- she had thought that about Vilph. ``A thoughtful gesture,'' she said. She dismissed Reece, who seemed relieved to go.
The lemonwood front door had three inlaid panes of glass. Firework illusions burst silently within each pane: prismatic clusters, radiant dandelion flares, Theran candles. Padia rapped on the door. Hodrick stood unseen behind her.
The door swung open to reveal a grotesquely obese middle-aged man in an immaculate butler's uniform. Folds of fat hung from his chin. His turquoise eyes looked like tiny beans. He looked Padia up and down, arching his eyebrows and flaring his nostrils in distaste. A housecat rubbed against his legs; its turquoise fur matched his eyes.
Padia sighed inwardly. Such obvious illusion, cheap theatrics meant to impress society customers. For now, she could play along. ``Nice kitty,'' she said pleasantly.
``Welcome,'' said the cat, its voice distinctly feminine. ``Memorable diversions for proper clients at reasonable prices.''
``Not this client,'' said the butler haughtily. His voice, too, was a woman's. ``Padia Villandry. Your husband was ruined in the flood. If you want a charity kitchen, go elsewhere.''
The cat's eyes widened. ``Padia Villandry, the high and mighty wizard? We don't like wizards.'' It licked one paw. ``We don't much like anyone, actually. Except sometimes.''
Annoyed, Padia said, ``Please. I know who you are. I must speak with you about Vilph Axehandle. He has brought the Affliction to Merron, and those of us who oppose him seek to learn more about him. If you could let me in -- ''
Butler and cat exchanged looks of alarm. Their bodies shimmered and faded. Two columns of turquoise mist swirled over Padia's head, then shot into the sky like arrows.
``Wait!'' shouted Padia. Too late. The mist arrows swooped over the roof of the shop in a broad arc, then disappeared.
Padia spun to face Hodrick. ``Quickly,'' she said. ``They may be on the far side of the shop. Take the alley.''
Hodrick ran, a graceful lope that reminded Padia of a lion. She raced after him, the stone of the alley hard against her feet, stopping when they reached the edge of the building.
Hodrick moved behind her and pointed with a scarred finger. ``Look around the corner. I will guard your back.''
Breathlessly, Padia pressed her back against the bricks, then leaned around the edge of the building. She saw another expanse of bare dirt, a barren spruce tree, and a pile of bricks. Suddenly she wondered why Hodrick, who could move unseen, needed her to scout for him. She turned -- and Hodrick's fingers dug into her arms. He crushed her between the wall and the hard muscles of his chest, driving the breath from her lungs. ``Hodrick! Stop!'' she gasped, but her words vanished in the folds of his tattered robe.
Astonished, Padia struggled, but the Composite Form's ancient protective enchantment kept her from attacking it. Padia felt that enchantment reach across the centuries and press her against this unyielding form: the work of magicians appalled by the prospect of apocalypse, who therefore cared nothing for any one person. Her pulse throbbing in her ears, she could almost hear their hollow voices:Against our city, what weight one life? Now, the Scourge past, that attitude lingered far beyond its time.
Hodrick pushed her against him, squeezing, smothering. Her world turned black. She went limp in his arms.
Kriast readied the sash. The hornet was circling, and in a moment would dive again. On his last dozen or so attempts, he had missed. The hornet was too quick. This time would be different.
The hornet dropped. Kriast snapped his wrist, and the sash slapped the wall. The hornet flitted away to its nest in the eaves. Kriast sighed.
``Hullo, Townswoman Destrovan.'' He bowed to the nethermancer. The adept frequently visited the courthouse, and they had a nodding acquaintance. ``An insect, is all. I have a health condition, y'know. One sting puts me in bed for a moon.'' As a guard Kriast had learned improvisation on short notice.
``Something that may help you.'' She held a small orange jar with a broken wax seal. ``Look at me. Hold very still.'' Uncertain, Kriast did as he was told.
Red liquid covered her finger, as thick as syrup. She touched it to his forehead. Dizziness and confusion beset him. He reached to wipe off the liquid, but she batted his hand away. ``Don't touch it,'' she hissed.
Kriast dropped his hand, his arm suddenly as heavy as iron. He sighed, relaxed. He felt as if he stood neck deep in a pool of warm water. He yawned. The sash slipped from his fingers.
The nethermancer stooped to pick up the sash. She turned away from the door, walking quickly toward the street. Kriast stared past her, past the street, past the buildings.
The hornet settled on Kriast's cheek. It eased its stinger into the soft flesh of his nose. He didn't feel a thing.
Padia knew Manmidden Field. She had once organized a charity auction to benefit widows and children of the poor folk buried anonymously here. She remembered how, even on that spring afternoon, a lattice of alder branches had blocked the sun and cast long shadows over a jungle of weeds. She remembered the sandstone obelisk, with its skeletal arms outstretched and beckoning; the scent of dead earth; the sting of the wind. Some old and alien presence had left its mark on the place. She had felt a queasy fear then, and she had carried that fear with her ever since.
Now, in the waning light of dusk, she lay in Manmidden near the edge of an immense pit. A stench of sea water and rot arose from it. Her hands bound behind her, her feet tied with thick rope, she craned her neck to look over the edge.
She saw seven nethermancers. She recognized Ghantrem and a few others -- and Thanyx Destrovan. The old woman moved jerkily, like a puppet. Controlled, Padia thought. Thanyx and the rest applied daubs of syrupy black paint to stick figures engraved in the sandstone wall. The figures, dozens of them, looked taller than the nethermancers. This is Oneiros, the guild, she realized. Oh no. Hodrick is helping with a summoning ritual. The Affliction again.
Hodrick stood over her like a statue, his gaze fixed on the nethermancers in the pit. The silver cord shone in his hand. At his feet she saw a rolled sheet of vellum, a chipped ceramic mug, a bronze vambrace inset with an amethyst, and a mahogany quarterstaff -- Starstriker.
No use feigning unconsciousness; he had already noticed her. She quoted his words. ``I would do anything to keep Vilph from destroying an innocent person's pattern.'' Bitterly she added, ``I didn't realize you meant yourself.''
``I beg you to understand.'' Hodrick used the same soothing tones that she had once found appealing. Now they made her sick with disgust. ``I had no choice save loyalty to Vilph. He can dispel my awareness as easily as he created it. Vilph is not as evil as he seems. He has a plan to benefit the city. You will see.''
Padia could stomach no more lies. She felt certain he planned to kill her. Exhausted, she could not make sense of any of this. ``What are you doing with Starstriker and those other things? Are they for that ritual in the pit?''
``No. I fear Vilph has other plans for them.''
``And will those plans benefit Alban?'' she began, when she heard a crunch of twigs behind her. Wrenching herself around, she saw human feet bound in black leather thongs and the hem of a white robe. Padia strained to look up.
``Thanyx!'' she cried. Then Padia looked back into the pit, where Thanyx Destrovan still painted the stick figures. ``Vilph,'' she said flatly. A knot of fear tightened in her chest.
The old woman grinned at Padia. She held a yellow sash in front of her like a prize-- a magistrate's sash, thought Padia -- and tossed it at Hodrick's feet. Thanyx tugged at the sleeve of her gown. ``Cheap cotton,'' she said. ``You would think a person in Thanyx's position could take more pride in her appearance.''
The nethermancer's face melted like a candle. Her gown ballooned, then collapsed. In the old woman's place stood the gray ork, draped in his ashen robe. He scratched his chin with a long fingernail. ``Much better. I have travelled all over the city today, and I grew tired of that form.''
Padia rolled on her back and stared at the dark web of branches high overhead. Bound hands or no, she had to try a spell. Flight? Could she manage such a difficult effect? She concentrated.
``No doubt you expect to cast a spell,'' Vilph said in a smooth, purring tone. He gestured. ``Please, as a favor to me, do not consider such a thing.'' His spell struck into her mind, and his words took on irresistible authority. Frustrated, she broke her concentration.
``So you're continuing with this Affliction,'' she said contemptuously. ``Geocosm last time, Oneiros now. Do you intend to keep attacking Merron until all three guilds turn against you?''
Vilph sorted through the pile of Alban's possessions, examining each one. He spoke to her casually, his voice free of his usual practiced conviction. Because he seemed uninterested in persuading her, she somehow found him, for once, completely believable.
``Padia, I am not dimwitted. Now, with the guilds aware of my relationship to Hodrick, I could not hope to stage another disaster like that flood. I could only enlist the nethermancers' cooperation by offering to help them summon benign spirits -- in this case, the Cordial Guards.''
``I know you better than that. You intend to pervert these `benign' spirits.''
``How disappointing. Padia, I admire your powers of recall unreservedly, but you are not astute. You forget nothing and learn nothing. You think me the same shallow trickster who served Intrantivere ten years ago. Conquer the city! Summon a Horror! Do eeevil!''
He piled the items together neatly. ``So much of what you and the Gray Owl Company did revolved around the notion of fighting `evil.' A foggy notion, and a slippery basis for a career. The Cordial Guards are not evil. Oneiros believes the Guards can rebuild and improve the devastated boroughs. They happen to be right.''
``All right, Vilph, educate me. If you don't intend harm to Merron, what is your purpose?''
Vilph snorted. ``You could not begin to understand.'' Smiling, he stood on his toes and looked into the pit. ``We really should do something about that arm of yours, Hodrick. We need you at your best. Do you agree?''
Hodrick said nothing.
``Good,'' said Vilph sternly. He pointed to Padia. ``Proceed.''
Hodrick raised his silver cord with a trembling hand, then hesitated. He looked pleadingly at Vilph.
``I am surprised at you,'' said Vilph. He picked up the quarterstaff and weighed it in his hands. ``You had no qualms about amputating all those other limbs. How many over the centuries? Hundreds? Thousands? Weren't those name-givers as virtuous as this one?''
Hodrick looked down on Padia, his face a mask. He answered in a whisper. ``I suppose.''
Padia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Hodrick's knee sank onto her chest, forcing the air from her lungs. He grabbed her wrist, pinned her right arm with his other knee, and slipped the cord around her shoulder. He jerked the cord tight, and it cut into her flesh.
In agony, her concentration broken, she could only think, He won't make me cry out.
Then the weight on her chest vanished. The cord slipped from her arm. Still intact, Padia gasped for breath.
``I cannot do this.'' Hodrick trembled and turned away from Vilph. ``At one time I had to. That time has passed. I will follow your commands and enact the rite. As for the rest, leave me alone.''
``Very well, have it as you wish,'' said Vilph, disgusted. He sneered at Padia. ``You've quite a hold over him, haven't you? Does Alban know about this?'' He tossed the staff on the pile of Alban's possessions. ``Drag her to the pit.''
Hodrick took Padia's arm and lifted her to her feet. The hem of her robe caught on a thorn, ripping to the waist. At the ledge of the pit, she gagged on the odor of rotting fish.
Vilph sat on the edge of the pit, dangling his legs. ``Watch, Padia. You can be part of this.''
The nethermancers of Oneiros sat cross-legged in a line, three feet from the sandstone wall. They chanted continuously in a low monotone. Each gripped a long curved blade in one hand. Nearest the wall, Ghantrem rolled up his left sleeve. With precise movements, he sliced his left wrist, five parallel incisions in quick succession.
Rivulets of blood oozed from the gashes, then rose from his skin, curved toward the wall, and floated in a thin stream toward the nearest stick figure. The blood soaked into the figure's dark lines as if sucked through a straw, and the figure grew.
Each nethermancer in turn repeated the procedure. By the time Hendon had slit his flesh, the first stick figure had grown to twice the size of an adult man.
Vilph said, ``The magicians have plenty of blood for the soldiers. There should be enough for the antiphons. But the autrefect --'' He shook his head sadly. ``The autrefect requires more blood than Oneiros can supply. Ordinarily, I would be more than happy to volunteer. However, I must conserve my blood.'' He gestured towards the pile of Alban's possessions. ``Look at all this! I had no idea the map was so big. I'll need every drop I can squeeze out of this old body.'' He thumped his chest.
He continued, ``So you have a choice, Padia. You may give me your blood willingly. If you do, I will spare Alban. If you do not cooperate, I will take your blood anyway, and Alban will die.''
More lies. Padia turned away in contempt.
``No? You refuse? How rude. Well, if you will not help Vilph, then I'm sure you will help -- me.'' The ork's voice deepened. His tusks withdrew into his mouth, and his gray skin grew pale. Padia gaped. The ork's stomach swelled, and his gray robe transformed into a black everclean cloak with gold brocade.
``Padia,'' said the image of Alban. ``Help me.''
The amber eyes, the high forehead, and that voice.... Gold brocade. I always wanted something less gaudy. He smiled at her. She thought, All those years, he always wanted something from me, and then yesterday he stopped wanting. He didn't even want me. Now here he is again, wanting.
The image frowned. ``She seems reluctant. Hmmm.'' Then its mouth fell open, as if at a surprising thought. ``Oho. Oh, my. I have a truly wonderful idea.''
Alban's form shifted, thinned, and grew. Now Padia saw a tall young man. He had curly black hair cut short, warm brown eyes, and a well proportioned face with high sculpted cheeks and a strong chin. He wore a wide-shouldered orange robe with capacious sleeves. Hodrick, Padia thought. What a handsome fellow.
``Padia,'' said Hodrick's image. ``If you will only lend me a drop of your blood, I can become fully human, as handsome as you see me now. Then we may pursue our great friendship.''
Padia smiled languourously. With peaceful heart and a loving spirit she offered him her wrist. As the image of Hodrick grinned ferociously and raised its dagger, she heard behind her the sound of metal against stone.
Two sticklike arms extended from the figure outline, then bent back and braced themselves against the wall on either side. Something struggled to climb out.