"It's winter! The Guild's confirmed it."
I sat up, squinting in the glare of the afternoon sun, to see where the voice was coming from. After a moment I heard footsteps on the path below, and then a head appeared behind the rocks.
"For sure this time?" somebody sitting on my right asked.
"When aren't they sure?" The original speaker clambered up the last few feet and came around to sit down on a threadbare path of grass.
"The priests were two weeks out last year." Her questioner shifted position and inspected her lute critically, brushing a stray seed-pod off the fingerboard.
"That was the priests. They haven't got a clue."
"They certainly ought to have -- they're the only ones who can forecast it properly."
I looked up into the cloudless blue sky, as if somewhere up there I could see the same signs as the priests, to tell us the temperature was about to plummet and the storms redouble their efforts.
"The Guild would be far better at predicting winter if only the priests gave it a chance."
"Let's not get into that argument again, Cathan," the newcomer said, leaning back against the trunk of the lone cedar tree set apart from the forest near the cliff edge. "We've got a few more days of it being warm enough to sit outside, and there's no need to waste it. We'll have all the time in the world to argue when winter does come."
"When's that going to be?"
"When this unnatural hot spell finishes." She wore only a thin tunic and sandals despite the fact it was well into autumn. "Two or three days at most."
Two or three days. Well, nothing lasted forever, and we certainly hadn't expected this sudden return to summer temperatures so late in the year. It would have been even better if I hadn't had to spend so much time working, attending to clan business while my father was convalescing. He might have taken his title back, but he still wasn't fit to cope with all the paperwork, so I ended up doing it. It was a job I loathed, but it didn't seem quite so bad as it had been. Perhaps that was because I'd been through a lot worse now.
"Have you done anything useful?"
"Depends what useful means, Palatine," said Ravenna, who was sitting next to me with her back against the tree trunk. There was a book lying face down next to her, which she hadn't been reading for some time -- at least, not since before the last time I bothered to look.
"Useful as in what you said you were going to do." Palatine's grasp of Archipelagan grammar was still a little sketchy sometimes, even after eighteen months away from the convoluted language of her homeland.
"Look through this book for something that obviously isn't there, you mean."
"If it isn't there, why are you bothering? Why not actually go and look for it somewhere?"
"Just as soon as you tell us where to start."
Palatine rolled her eyes and absently began twisting a green shoot around her fingers, unable as ever to keep still. She was the only one of us who hadn't welcomed the heat and the chance to do very little.
Sighing before picking the book up once more, the other woman started reading again. I had a copy too, but not the faintest idea where I'd put it. I couldn't remember having brought it out here...no, it was at the bottom of the chest in my room, where nobody would accidentally come across it and investigate its contents.
I moved back a little, trying to find a more comfortable position for my head on the broad tree-root. It really was too hot to do anything except lie around in the shade. Besides, there was no need to do anything. I'd done all the paperwork for today -- the rest of the clan was feeling just as enervated, and people were reluctant to get down to tiresome ledgers or petitions. I banished from my mind the thought that there would be a sudden excess of such work with the onset of winter.
I closed my eyes again and slipped back into a contented doze, able to ignore the inconvenient projection on the root that was digging into my back, and even the highly irritating cooing from some doves in the woods behind us. Doves were fine in small doses, but the noise they made got on my nerves very quickly. The muffled sound of the surf on the beach below was much better, and served as an excellent accompaniment when the lutenist started playing an air a few minutes later.
"Palatine, how on earth did the Thetians win this war?" asked the reader suddenly.
"What do you mean?"
"They were drunk all the time. Look, the man who wrote this was their high priest, but in one week he goes to more parties than a regiment of socialites."
"We enjoy life," Palatine said. "When we have time free, we don't lie around under the trees staring dreamily out to sea."
"If it's so good, why don't you want to go back?"
I could almost feel the glare Palatine gave her, but didn't bother to open my eyes. Palatine had been irritable for at least a week, if not longer, and I was used to it by now.
"Stop arguing," the lutenist said without interrupting the flow of her melody. "You're disturbing my concentration."
"My apologies, Elassel," Palatine said, not sounding as though she meant it.
There was no answer, and my mind drifted off again, far away from the sun-dappled shores of Lepidor.
I knew the reasons for Palatine's short temper; all of us did. But it was what I was doing, or rather not doing, that was to blame. While she fretted, anxious for us to leave, I was content to wait -- and do nothing. Not that I didn't have some support, because none of the others seemed in any hurry.
I hadn't told anybody why we were still here, why we were lingering so long when staying here for good obviously wasn't an option. I had pleaded clan duties, and for more than a month, as my father slowly recovered from the effects of his poisoning, it had been enough. But all of them knew that wasn't the real reason, that no dull paperwork, however necessary to the clan, required my personal presence. My mother and the First Adviser were just as capable and infinitely more patient.
"I suppose it's too much to ask if we'll be moving once winter's here?" Palatine said, jabbing her finger into my side. I looked at her indignantly, the bright sunlight momentarily dazzling me.
"I'm not going to leave just because the weather changes."
"Then when will it be? When the stars fall and the oceans rise to cover us all? When a priest opens his mouth without mentioning heresy? Or when everyone else has died of old age?"
"We've already told you. I'm not setting out until I have an idea where I'm going."
pard"So how does staying in Lepidor help you? There's nothing here that could possibly aid you, except that wretched book."
"And where else can we go?"
"You might consider a library. They have lots and lots of books in them, even old scrolls with cobwebs on that I'm sure might tell you what you're looking for."
"So the people who have gone to ridiculous lengths to hide the thing are then going to leave messages everywhere saying, We are here. Palatine, I know you hate doing nothing, but we can't just rush into this. And what happens if the Inquisition find out? If they get hold of it, that'll be the end of disagreement with them."
"Don't I deserve to be told just what you're waiting for? Don't we all?" She looked to the other two for support, and so did I. Elassel was concentrating on her lute playing, seemingly absorbed in the music.
Beside me Ravenna put the book down again and fixed her serious gray gaze first on me, then on Palatine.
"You're waiting for someone, aren't you? Someone in particular," she said.
I bit back an annoyed retort and nodded. Perhaps I hadn't been as clever as I thought.
Palatine buried her face in her hands, exaggerating as always.
"We could be here forever. Why didn't I see this earlier? I could have gone off on one of the other ships when they left. Cathan, Tanais takes months to turn up, and never where you want him."
"He said he'd be back when Lepidor was secure."
"But meanwhile he'll have been dealing with some clan rebellion or troublesome priest or somebody's agent, and he'll be stuck in a backwater for weeks at a time."
"Would you set out on a sea journey knowing you hadn't consulted an oceanographer? Tanais may not turn up when we want, but he was there when it disappeared. If anyone knows where it is, it'll be him."
"I wish you luck." Palatine stood up and headed off along the shoreline, disappearing after a moment behind the trunk of another cedar.
"She's only going to get worse," Ravenna said, staring after her. "And she does know Tanais better than you."
"That doesn't change anything. We still have to wait for him."
"I know, I know. But what if he doesn't come? Do you want to stay here all through the winter while the Inquisition schemes and plots? We may have won a victory here, but they're very bad losers, and by staying here we're certain to draw their attention again. It's best to keep moving."
Something rustled in the branches of the cedar tree above us, perhaps one of those wretched doves. Elassel's lute went on, accompanied by a chorus of cicadas.
"If they move against us, they're admitting that what happened wasn't just the work of a few renegades, and people will begin to wonder what they're up to."
"It's old news by now, Cathan. And a fundamentalist never forgets a setback."
"Nor does anyone else, it seems."
"If that includes our allies, then why so morose?" She took my hand and reached for the book again, but at that moment there was a sharp crack. A second bundle of cedar fronds fell on both of us, accompanied by a shower of cones.
"Jerian!" I shook my head, trying to clear bits of tree out of my hair as Ravenna brushed twigs off herself. I looked up to see my brother's grinning face looking down at us.
"I thought so!" he said triumphantly.
He was well out of reach, three or four branches above us, but before he could say anything else there was a strangled cry over to my right.
"Krreh! You little...it'll take forever to get all that dust out of my lute!" Pausing only to make sure her precious instrument was safe, Elassel jumped to her feet and ran around to the other side of the tree, and in short order my brother's triumphant grin gave way to a wail of outrage as Elassel clambered up toward him as easily as if she was walking along the beach. I'd never been sure where Elassel had learned to pick locks or scale walls and trees like ordinary mortals climbed steps, but her skills had proved useful more than once.
"As far as Jerian's concerned, grown-ups can't climb trees," I whispered to Ravenna. "With any luck he won't try this one again."
"I hope not," she said, dusting herself down. "You look a fright."
"Look who's talking. I think the primitive look suits you, especially that twig in your hair."
Ravenna's hands flew up to her mass of curly black hair before she saw my grin and realized there was no such twig.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you really were related to Jerian." There was a sadness in her eyes suddenly, and I remembered her mention of a younger brother who'd been killed by the Inquisition's companion organization, the murderous holy warriors who called themselves Sacri, the Sacred Ones. Whether or not they were sacred, they were certainly devout. Devout in their zealous dedication to the religion of shedding blood.
A steady stream of protests and apologies was now coming from somewhere in the branches of the cedar tree, a noise which intensified as Elassel reappeared from behind the trunk, her hand clamped round my brother's wrist.
"What do you want done with him?" she asked me, trying to stifle a smile. Elassel seemed to be constitutionally incapable of anything more than momentary anger -- except where Halettites were concerned. She hated their entire people with a passion, which I thought might have some bearing on her escape-artist abilities. But she'd never said anything about it, and none of us wanted to ask.
"We could always give him a dunking," I suggested, gesturing down at the beach a few feet below us.
"I've got a better idea," Ravenna said, and went over to whisper in Elassel's ear. There was a howl of protest from the eavesdropping Jerian.
"I've got news," he said, shouting to make sure he got everybody's attention. "I won't tell you unless you let me go."
"Fine, then we will," Elassel said, bending down and gathering a handful of bark and twig ends. Having scattered them over Jerian's hair, she let go of his arm. "Now, what's the news?"
Jerian shot her a black look and drew himself up, shaking his head.
"Some important people have arrived from an important place with an important message."
"The sea's still just down there," Elassel said, but Jerian had got her measure by now.
"A huge manta," Jerian announced. "From Pharassa, with that big blond Canadrath man on board. He says there's news from Taneth, and he didn't look very happy. Oh, and Courtieres is with him."
"The Halettites," Elassel said instantly, and slipped her lute into its leather traveling case. Ravenna and I looked at one another, and she nodded slightly. Both of us had had the same thought.
"Now you'll be gloomy all the way back," Jerian said, with a seven-year-old's intolerance for problems that didn't concern him.
"No, we won't," I said, forcing a smile.
Jerian chattered cheerfully as we made our way down the path and on to the beach, the quickest way back to Lepidor. There was a proper track through the forest to the logging road, but it meandered to avoid obstacles and wound round the side of a small hill, and none of us wanted to waste any time. I assumed Palatine had gone back into the city, because there was no sign of her sitting on the edge of the ten-foot rock cliff -- in fact a sea wall -- that separated the forest from the beach.
The city soon came into sight, across the broad curving sweep of the bay from where we were. Some of the stone buildings within the walls still had scaffolding around them, and many roof gardens were missing. This was the legacy of the storm we'd unleashed more than a month ago, ironically enough to try to protect the city. But most of the damage had been repaired: the walls had been bolstered, and construction of a new gatehouse between the Palace Quarter and the Harbor Quarter was well under way.
As we approached the city, though, my thoughts kept straying back to Jerian's news, especially the bit about the presence of Oltan Canadrath. We only knew him and his House slightly, since a month ago when they had led the relief force, and although we'd rewarded them for their help, they were still more or less an unknown quantity. So why had the son of Lord Canadrath come all the way out here to deliver bad news?
We entered the city through a small postern gate in the Palace Quarter, accessible only along a wooden walkway that ran under the walls. It was forever being damaged by waves and storms, but no one had ever proposed replacing it with a stone path: that would give enemies a clear route into the city.
The marines guarding the postern looked at us curiously as we approached.
"Been taking a dust-bath, Escount?" one of them said to me, his eyes straying to Ravenna's hair.
"My brother's taken up tree surgery," I said, before he could say anything suggestive. "Unfortunately he didn't take the trouble to check which tree he was operating on."
"You can come and prune my olive tree, then. Huge thing it is, keep you occupied for a week or so," the other guard said to Jerian, his bearded face split by a broad grin. "Good day to you."
The postern led into a narrow street only a short walk from the palace. The doors of the houses were all open because of the heat, and two old men playing cards in the shadows of a narrow colonnade greeted us as we went past. It was cooler here in the city, shielded from the sun by three- and four-story buildings and washing hung across the street on lines and poles. There was a gentle splashing sound everywhere, too, made by the little fountains that stood in alcoves and at street corners. Once these fountains had been the city's main source of water, but since the concept -- quickly followed by the reality -- of piped water inside houses had reached Lepidor about fifty years ago, their main purpose now was to keep the air fresh in summer.
Two more marines on duty at the gate of the palace waved us through and into the small whitewashed courtyard beyond; even with the tighter security since the invasion, they didn't need to check my identity. Like the houses, the palace gate was covered in scaffolding and the doors weren't yet finished. Wooden barricades were erected and taken down noisily at dusk and dawn.
"There you are!" came Palatine's voice. I looked up to see her standing on the balcony at the top of the flight of steps running up the right-hand wall. "What on earth have you been up to, Ravenna? Were you trying to dye your hair?"
"That was Jerian," I said, as my brother rushed up the stairs ahead of us.
My father and his guests were in the reception room, Palatine told us, looking more animated than she had in days despite the worried frown on her face. Ravenna and I brushed the dust out of our hair as best we could, using a polished bronze plate as a mirror.
"Come on, it'll have to do," Palatine said eventually. "If they appear without warning, they can't expect you to look immaculate."
I wouldn't have worried if it had just been Courtieres, my father's oldest friend, but I'd only met Canadrath once before. I hadn't made a good impression then, either, hollow-eyed and bruised as I'd been, wearing a long robe to hide the livid marks on my arms and legs. This would be a definite improvement.
There was a servant waiting by the door to the reception room, and he announced us without formality.
"Ah, there you are," my father said, turning from his conversation with the other two men.
"Escount Cathan," the second man said, making the customary stiff bow to one of equal station. "I'm glad to see you in good health."
I bowed back, absurdly conscious that all three of them were quite a bit taller than me. Oltan Canadrath, who'd greeted me, had a fair coloring and blond hair rare on any continent, let alone equatorial Taneth. My second meeting with him only confirmed my impression of a man who was in the wrong business. With his straight beard and moustache, not to mention his impressive build, he should have been one of those northern pirates who'd roamed the Archipelago in the old days, making their home in the now-vanished primeval forests of Thure.
"He's right, Cathan," said Courtieres, a friendly smile on his face. "You looked dreadful last time you met."
The greetings over, Palatine handed out drinks and Oltan told me and Ravenna his news.
"The Halettites have taken Ukhaa and seized the Delta," he said bluntly. "We've now lost all the mainland territories, and thirty thousand Halettite troops are camped under our noses."
"This being Taneth, the Merchant Lords are all rushing around trying to find things the Halettites want to buy," Courtieres said acerbically. He might have looked like a bear, but he had a keen mind and was usually a lot more tactful than my father.
Oltan didn't take umbrage at this insult. "I fear the Count is right. Lord Barca and I have been pressing for military action, but the other Houses are reluctant to upset what they see as the new status quo."
There was silence for a moment. Anyone with any sense at all knew what bad news it was. Taneth might be a mercantile city built on islands, but it was still very close to the mainland, and the Halettite army had so far proved invincible. Lepidor's future, and that of most other clans, depended on a free Taneth ruled by the Merchant Lords. It couldn't stay as a trade center under Halettite military rule, especially not if they followed their normal policy of sacking captured cities. I felt my good mood drain away.
"They're not doing anything at all?" Ravenna asked.
Oltan shook his head. "Nothing whatsoever. Oh, the Council of Ten sent a protest to the King of Kings, but they might as well have saved themselves the ink."
"Are the Halettites preparing to attack the city?"
"Not yet," Oltan said. "They still don't have a fleet. They can make life difficult for us, but nothing more. As yet."
Then I realized why the heir to Canadrath, one of the largest Houses in Taneth, had come all the way out here. Lepidor had the biggest iron deposits in Oceanus, and we'd soon be the biggest weapons manufacturer as well. Oltan wanted to make sure our weapons wouldn't be going to the Halettites.
"Does this change anything?" I asked my father, who was wearing a loose green robe that had once been formal but had seen better days. He was concerned that the clan shouldn't see how much damage the poison had done, and was wearing the robe to give the appearance that he wasn't emaciated. Most people knew otherwise, but nobody said anything. Courtieres's renowned healers had assured us he'd recover the lost weight in time.
"It makes our sale of weapons rather questionable," he said. "In view of the fact that weapons sent to Taneth will probably end up where we don't want them, shipping them there may not be such a good idea."
Where we don't want them. He wasn't talking only about the Halettites. They were the immediate menace, true, but behind them was the priesthood -- the Domain, with its dreams of crusades and blood. They had tried to seize Lepidor for that very reason, to manufacture the weapons for a crusade. After everything we'd gone through, simply to sell the weapons to their allies was unthinkable.
And, as it happened, House Canadrath had made its fortune selling weapons in the Archipelago, the very place that the Domain wanted to cleanse with holy fire and Inquisitors.
"You want to sell the weapons somewhere else, then?" Ravenna asked.
"We'll have to talk to Hamilcar about this, because he's making his profit carrying our iron and weapons to Taneth." Hamilcar was our official Tanethan partner, with whom we'd signed the iron contract. And the man who'd saved all our lives in the invasion. "But if there's a market in the Archipelago..."
Selling weapons to kill Sacri -- that was a different matter. I saw Ravenna's slight smile. For her, they were the butchers who'd destroyed her family. Sacri were not even human beings.
"I have some more information that you might find useful," Oltan said. "Concerning the two priests who survived the attempted coup here. Avarch Midian and...Sarhaddon, I think his name was."
My ears pricked up. They had been the only two survivors of the Domain force that had tried to take over Lepidor, and their fate would be a good indicator of how the Domain had reacted.
"Go on," my father said levelly.
"They went back to the Holy City, where apparently Prime Lachazzar saw them in person." That couldn't have been a pleasant experience; nicknamed "Hell's Cook," Lachazzar was apparently given to accusing subordinates of being in league with heretics when they failed. But Oltan's next words gave the lie to that. "Sarhaddon's been promoted to full Inquisitor and sent out to the Archipelago. The Inquisitor-General is already there, with orders to crush any thoughts of independence in Qalathar."
"They never give up," Ravenna said sadly. "They killed a generation and that wasn't enough. They took over the country and that wasn't enough. You know, the people they torture and burn are the ones who learn Qalathari, or who keep the dynastic histories."
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize," Oltan said sympathetically. "I took you for a Thetian last time we met, but I should have realized my mistake, seeing you now. There isn't a Thetian born who could look like you."
Canadrath was right, I thought as Ravenna smiled wanly, her good mood of a few minutes before destroyed by his news. For years she'd straightened her naturally curly black hair, endured the irritation of changed eyes, and spent as much time outdoors as possible to accentuate her coloring, pale for a Qalathari. She'd almost looked like a Thetian, but with brown eyes and a mass of black curls, nobody could mistake her any longer.
"What about Midian?" Courtieres asked.
"He's been given a posting in the Archipelago, I'm not sure what. I don't think it's anywhere important, but it does mean he's at the center of things."
"So why does Lachazzar give them another chance?" Palatine said. "He's got plenty more where they came from."
"I don't think he has, actually," my father said. "Sarhaddon is exceptionally clever, although he rarely showed it when he was an acolyte here. He must be extremely loyal, too, and Lachazzar isn't stupid. Their defeat here wasn't Sarhaddon's fault. As for Midian, he comes from a powerful Halettite family. He's almost indestructible, a member of the old nobility in the Domain. This might have set his career back a bit, but he'll still make Exarch someday."
The thought of that arrogant boor one day rising to almost the highest post in the service of Ranthas was sickening. Even if I had agreed with their teachings, I had no time for the Domain with men like Midian and Lachazzar at the top.
"We know he wanted a Crusade," Palatine said, toying with a glass. "Since we've disrupted his plans, he's got to hit at the Archipelago some other way, and the Inquisition is the best answer. For him," she added, seeing the look on Ravenna's face. I couldn't imagine what she must have gone through, seeing her country systematically ripped apart by the Sacri who'd been running it ever since the Archipelagan Crusade, nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Ravenna had been born a couple of years afterward, and had never known a free Qalathar. She had inherited the title of Pharaoh from her grandfather, burned during the Crusade, but it had been nothing more than a hollow, mocking reminder of what they'd lost. I sympathized with her. Being an heir was bad enough anyway, as far as I was concerned, without having had to endure the agony Qalathar had gone through.
"We're in a position to help," my father said, fixing his gaze on Oltan. "If we can agree on a route for these weapons that bypasses Taneth and goes straight to the Archipelago, we might be able to slip people out on the return run."
The Canadrath heir looked doubtful. "Great Houses have to be careful not to get involved in smuggling," he began, but Courtieres cut him off.
"If all the people you want to sell weapons to are moldering in Domain prisons, nobody's going to give you money. If there's an organized resistance outside, you might have a chance."
"I suppose so," Oltan said, still looking doubtful. "It could ruin our commercial reputation if we're caught, though. It's illegal to import weapons into Qalathar, on pain of excommunication, so we'll have to find a third country to ship to. I think the first step, though, is to put a proposal to Lord Barca."
Copyright © 2002 by Anselm Audley