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10 Year 1016 afe

Fire in the East

NEPANTHE SAT AT her window, staring without seeing. The extreme end of pregnancy had worsened all her tendencies toward alienation, introversion, and brooding. She cried a lot. She snapped at people for no good reason. She considered the gross swollenness of her belly and loathed herself for being ugly, hated herself for bringing another child into a pitiless world. There were irrational moments when she hated the little parasite growing inside her. She spent much of her time feeling sorry for herself, or, gradually, adding to her obsession with her lost son.

She had little spirit or volition now. She did what her husband told her, what her maids asked. Her great initiatives consisted of starting the occasional conversation.

She had been listless, most of the time, since her first husband's death, not long after they had lost their son. She'd always been susceptible to mood swings, into this grey state and out. Since Mocker's death the downs had grown longer every year. She had tried to fake the highs and had failed. She now just stayed out of the way ana tried not to complicate her second husband's life.

Varthlokkur had pursued a hundred wild goose trails in his efforts to quicken her soul. She was aware of his attempts, and only wished he wouldn't bother. She didn't think she was worth the trouble.

The most potent draughts and magicks worked only for a short time. Varthlokkur had concluded that only that supreme medicine, time, would cure her. He now left her to haunt her inner landscapes as she would.

She sensed that he had come to stand behind her. She turned. "You look tired, dear."

"I was up all night. Michael Trebilcock was away on a mission and ran into trouble. I had to send Radeachar to get him out. He's safely home now."

"Michael? Isn't he the one who took Valther's place?" Thus far had she slipped. Sometimes she couldn't remember.

"Yes."

She resumed staring out the window, no longer interested. She had lost six brothers as well as her husband and son. Well, five. Luxos was alive, living in the Kratchnodian Mountains like some crazy old hermit. Crazy like me, she thought. We both might as well be dead.

The world had taken everything. Everything but Varthlokkur and this child as yet unborn.

She could not care about them. She didn't dare. Fate would punish her if she did. They would be taken too.

"Varth?"

"Yes, dear?"

"I really do feel Ethrian sometimes. I still don't know what it means. Can't you find out for sure?"

Varthlokkur sighed. "I've tried, dear. There's just nothing there. I'm sorry. I truly wish there were. It's just your heart trying to turn back the sands of time."

He's probably right, she thought. He's so seldom wrong. But... there was some doubt. No one had ever actually seen Ethrian dead... "It's not imagination, Varth. It can't be. He's there. I know it."

"Then why can't I find him? Why can't I find one shred of evidence that he survived? Why do I find so much that says he's not? Stop tormenting yourself. Please. It's not healthy."

True concern edged his words. She sensed it and shied away. "It's not false hope!" Emotion began to flavor her voice. It grew stronger as she shouted, "He's alive and I know it! Why are you lying to me?"

"I'm not." He spoke gently, as if to an injured, retarded child. "You're lying to yourself. Please don't. It's not healthy."

"Not healthy! Not healthy! Stop it!" She surged out of her chair. "It's because he's Mocker's son, isn't it? That's why you want me to forget him." Her reasoning was insane and she knew it, but the words just would not stop. She wanted to hurt someone, to give some of the pain away.

Agony tightened his features. He calmed himself before responding, "That isn't so. And you know it. He was my grandson. My only. I loved him too. I would have done anything for him. But he's gone now, Nepanthe. It's time to accept that. Please. This is starting to tear us apart." He took her into his arms.

She pounded fists against his chest, the irrational words exploding forth. "You're lying! He's alive. I know he's alive. He's in trouble, and you won't help him."

"Dear, this isn't good for the baby."

She kept hitting, weeping. Finally, she sagged against him. "I'm sorry. I don't know... Oh!"

"What? What happened?"

"I think my water broke. That shouldn't happen yet... Oh! Yes. It did. I can feel it." Her mind became very clear. Not here! Not now! Please... Everything else fled. "Get a doctor. Wachtel if he's still Royal Physician. Help me to the bed."

Her voice had changed dramatically, had become all business.

Varthlokkur guided her across the room, turned her so he could help her lie down.

"No. Undress me first. This was an expensive dress. Mustn't ruin it. Then find Mary and Margo. Tell them to get everything ready."

"Shouldn't I get the doctor first?"

"I don't need him right this minute. Ethrian was twelve hours coming. Elana said he was easy. We've got time. Just warn him that it's coming."

"It's too early."

"Maybe. Maybe I figured it wrong. Nothing we can do about it now." She was half undressed. She saw how nervous he was. "Let me finish this. You get the maids, tell Wachtel, then come back and get some sleep."

"Sleep? How could I sleep?"

"You'd better. You won't be any help at all if you don't. You're too tired to think straight now." She was amazed at herself. She seemed to have changed personalities like changing shoes. The whiner had vanished the instant she found herself faced by a situation wherein she had some control.

"Okay. Sure you'll be okay if I leave?"

She touched his cheek tenderly. "Of course. Silly man. Old as the world, you are. A destroyer of empires. Creator of a monster like Radeachar. And you're as nervous as an eighteen-year-old awaiting the birth of his firstborn. And I love you for it. I love you for caring."

"I'm worried for you."

"Stop. This isn't anything a million other women haven't survived. Just do what I told you. Here. Wait. Help me lay down."

He looked down at her distended belly and its fiery stretch marks, at breasts swollen to twice their normal size. Nepanthe flinched. She knew she was not attractive this way. "You're beautiful," he said.

Tears sprang into her eyes. "Pull the sheet over me and go. Please."

"What's the matter?"

"Just do it. Please?"

He did.

Nepanthe broke into wild tears after the door closed. She could not decide whether they were tears of joy or of disappointment.

The wizard moved through the palace with a fast, jerky step, like a marionette manipulated by a drunken puppeteer. Puzzled eyes followed his progress. He didn't notice. He went directly to the suite occupied by the Royal Physician.

That Doctor Wachtel was held in high regard was evidenced by the fact his personal suite was outshone only by the Queen's. King Bragi himself occupied only two small rooms. The doctor had five.

Wachtel and the wizard were old philosophical adversaries. The doctor received him with ill-concealed glee, yet did not crow about his having come to petition aid. He asked the pertinent questions, reiterated Nepanthe's advice. "Get what sleep you can. It'll be a long time yet. I'll just check in occasionally till the pains get closer together."

The wizard grumbled and babbled and asked foolish questions, and the doctor humored him. Only mildly reassured, Varthlokkur returned to his apartment. He went in and held Nepanthe's hands till the maids ran him out. He tried to rest, without much success.

Varthlokkur was pacing, oblivious to his companions. The King stepped into the wizard's sitting room, watched him for half a minute. "You've got a classic gait," he observed, chuckling, "Get any sleep?"

"A little." As if only suddenly aware of location and situation, he asked, "Shouldn't I be in there?"

"Does she want you?"

"I don't know. Wachtel doesn't."

"I see his point. Made a nuisance of myself at a few birthings. Fathers may be good for the mother's morale, but they're hell on doctors and midwives. At least till they've had enough kids to know when to keep their mouths shut."

"I could help. I have skills... "

"I think the main help Wachtel wants is a closed mouth. He needs you, he'll ask."

"I'm well aware of his opinion of me."

"How's she doing?"

"All right, they say."

As if on cue, the doctor came from the bedroom. He was drying his hands.

"Well?" Varthlokkur demanded. "Is it here?"

"Take it easy. No. She has a long way to go. It'll come around midnight, I'd guess."

"Guess? What do you mean, guess?"

The old doctor scowled. "I meant what I said. I don't have your faculty for seeing the future. All I can do is go by past experience."

"The future? My heavens. I forgot to cast horoscopes for the child." In moments he was furiously busy. He flung charts and books, pens and inkwells onto a table. "Guess I'd better do both today and tomorrow," he muttered. "Midnight. Damned."

The King grinned at the doctor. "That'll keep him out of your hair. See you all later. Duty calls."

Pink ripped the night above Castle Krief. Bold letters formed: IT IS A GIRL. People were amused. The King was heard to say, "Wizard, that's carrying the Proud Papa routine a little far."

Grinning, Varthlokkur accepted congratulations from a horde of well-wishers. He sprinkled silver. He filled the castle halls with diminutive magical delights. Imps dashed about singing silvery hosannahs. The wizard's joy was contagious. He shook hands with people who never had dared approach him before. They contracted the joy-fever and carried it to others. It spread out of the castle and caught on in the town. Winecasks rolled out. Kegs were bunged. For a while it seemed one birth, and one man's pleasure in it, would write the end of an era, would put paid to the long, grim, sober struggle for survival which had ground the nation since the war's end.

"Eat! Drink!" Varthlokkur urged, pushing people toward the groaning tables he'd had set out. "Come on, everyone."

"Make way for the King!"

The noise died a bit. King Bragi pushed through the crowd and thrust out a meaty hand. "It was a long time coming, wasn't it? How's Nepanthe?"

"Perfect. Came through beautifully. Happy as anyone can be."

"Good. Good. Can I see my wife now?" He had sent Queen Inger to hold Nepanthe's hand during the delivery, the only meaningful gesture that had occurred to him.

"If you can find her." The crowd swirled and whirled and swept them apart. When next the wizard spied the King he was forehead to forehead with Dahl Haas, trying to hear over the merriment. Bragi grew pale as Haas talked.

Varthlokkur's joy evaporated. He felt it now. The east was a-boil, roaring, raging. A great typhoon of magical energy had been released there... He should have sensed it earlier. He was getting old, letting one part of life distract him from another this way. He pushed through the crowd, feeling grimmer by the moment. He ignored the startled looks caused by his rudeness. He seized the King's hand, yanked, did not let go till he had dragged the man to the castle's eastern ramparts.

Horrendous flashes backlighted the Mountains of M'Hand. Their peaks stood forth like rotten, jagged teeth. He hadn't ever seen anything like it. The barrage rolled on and on and on, like endless summer lightning playing mutiny beyond the horizon.

"What is it?" the King whispered.

Varthlokkur did not reply. He sealed his eyes and let the indirect might of it touch him. He grunted. Even here, so far away, the psychic impact was like the blow of a mailed fist.

There wasn't a cloud in the sky. A billion stars watched with cold indifference as the two tiny creatures on the stone barrier stood with faces continuously splashed by evil light.

"What the hell is it?" the King demanded, voice scarcely more than a breath. There was no sound in the east, yet the very roots of the walls seemed aquiver.

Varthlokkur stared, ignoring his companion. The signal fires which carried messages from Fortress Maisak and the Savernake Gap were all ablaze. He barely heard the King ask, "Is Hsung attacking Maisak?"

"It's begun. Matayanga is attacking Shinsan. Lord Kuo was waiting. A god wouldn't dare those battlefields now."

The flash and fury went on. "I wonder," Bragi said. "Did Baxendala and Palmisano look that hairy from this far away?"

"Maybe. Though Lord Kuo has mustered more power than we ever saw during the Great Eastern Wars. What can Matayanga throw at him? Besides numbers? They're not much in a thaumaturgic way."

More and more people came to watch the display. There wasn't an ounce of joy left. Varthlokkur spared them hardly a glance. He did not want to see them. They looked like refugees, all huddled and silent.

Bragi said, "I suppose the Tervola will have a taste of that for us someday."

"Shinsan is an empire unaccustomed to defeat," Varthlokkur replied. "We'll see them again. If they survive this."

"If?"

"Would Matayanga have attacked if its kings believed defeat inevitable?"

Horns sounded outside the castle. "That's Mist," Varthlokkur said. "She'll have been alerted before we were."

The woman joined them shortly. "It's begun. First reports came in last night. Southern Army detected the Matayangans moving up. With two million men. Just for the first attack. They've conscripted everyone over fifteen."

"Human waves," Varthlokkur said. "Will they break through?"

"Southern Army is outnumbered twenty to one. There'll be other waves. Lord Kuo is trying to assemble a reserve, but he might not have gotten started in time."

"When do you make your move?" the King asked.

"It's too early to worry about that." Concern creased Mist's perfect brow. "We have to find out what's happening first. If it gets too bad out there we'll drop it."

"What the hell for?" the King demanded.

"You forget she isn't interested in destroying the Dread Empire," Varthlokkur said. He eyed his friend. There was a touch of monomania in the man these days. "Only in seizing control."

"Yeah. Well. Let's set up in the War Room. Looks like we'll be busy for a while."

Mist said, "My place would be better. I'm already in touch with my people out there."

The King looked at Varthlokkur. The wizard nodded. The King said, "In two hours, then."

Varthlokkur turned and took another look at the fire-gutted sky. Worms writhed in his guts. What bold fools we are, challenging the man who has that dancing at his fingertips.

Once Mist was out of earshot, the King whispered, "Are we backing the wrong horse?"

"We? This was your idea."

"Uhm. So it was." Bragi made a sour face.

Lord Ch'ien made a small gesture. Mist glanced up. The King was standing in the doorway, agog. It had been years since he had been here on the top floor of her home. She had made changes.

He strode over. "How about I replace your sentries with mine? We'll draw enough attention without having orientals standing around."

"Right." She beckoned an Aspirator from the runner pool, gave him his orders. Taking the King's arm, she indicated a bank of seats which had been constructed along the nearer and side walls of the room. The entire third floor had been stripped of partitions. The windows were heavily curtained. The far wall was bare and shadowed. A huge table occupied the center of the room.

"Ask your staff to sit and stay put," she said. "And tell them to stay away from the south wall. They could get us killed if they stumbled through a portal."

A man stepped out of thin air. He reported to the gentleman in charge of the room's centerpiece. Mist listened with one ear. A routine report.

"I'd about give my left arm for a map like that in my War Room," the King murmured. The map atop the table was thirty feet long and fifteen wide. It represented Shinsan and the empire's tributaries. Every city of significance was noted, as were all major geographical features. The whereabouts and movements of the empire's many legions were marked in bright colors.

Another messenger popped into the room. A tableman listened, began spreading red sand.

Mist told Bragi, "Sit down." Then, "My people are doing better than I expected. I'm getting first-rate information. Probably because Lord Kuo is keeping his head down."

No probably about it, she thought. Lord Kuo was laying low somewhere, letting the thing take shape. She rose, took a pointer, tapped the map. "Somewhere in all this blank space he's hidden his reserve army. In a few days he'll drop a big hammer on the Matayangans."

"How is Southern Army doing?"

She kept her opinion to herself. "You see the map. It's maintaining the integrity of its lines. Against the odds, that's all you could ask of any army. Just a minute."

A messenger had appeared. She moved round to where she could catch snippets of his report. "Damn!" she said, though softly.

The table chief moved small, numbered black markers into a cluster at the map's easternmost edge. He moved others to a riverbank two hundred miles behind the cluster.

"What's all that?" the King asked.

She told the whole truth when she replied, "We're not sure. Communications are muddled. Eastern Army is under attack."

"Matayanga caught them with a surprise ally?"

"This started before the southern thing. It's been on more than a week."

"There's a whole second war there?"

"Something awful is happening... " She controlled herself. Bragi might be an old friend, and an old fighting companion, but he wasn't part of the family. One did not show one's fears to the outside world. "Before he disappeared, Lord Kuo gave Eastern Army a new commander. Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka'i. He's an old peasant who came up the hard way. Goes way back. Very capable, and stubborn as hell."

"Uhm."

She sighed. Good. He wasn't interested in the east.

"Any notion when you want to move?"

"Not before Lord Kuo comes out of hiding. I don't want to jump in blind."

"If we're going to be a while, I'd better make arrangements for my people." The King rose, grunting as he did so. Mist watched him go. He was feeling very tired, very old. She felt a moment of empathy. She, too, felt tired and old. And she'd feel much more so before this was done. The danger would mount by the minute, and every minute would increase the odds against the coup attempt remaining secret. "Wen-chin," she murmured, "please don't waste any time."

The interminable wait became a deathwatch. The Matayangan attack went on and on and on, and still the time did not ripen. Tempers began to flare.

"Lord Kuo must have nerves of stone," Mist opined to Lord Ch'ien. "I don't think I could have held off this long."

Lord Ch'ien tapped the map with the tip of his pointer, sketching the outline of the bloody stain of Matayangan advance. His hand quivered. The red sand thrust deep into Shinsan. Mist's informants said the original Southern Army hardly existed anymore. Some hard-hit legions had been disbanded and their survivors distributed as replacements. There was a huge gap in the army's line. Matayangans were pouring through.

Lord Ch'ien said, "My limit has been surpassed. Maybe that's why Lord Kuo is in command."

"Tut-tut. No second-guessing at this stage of the game." The King appeared. He scanned the map. "It's been two days," he said. "All this courier traffic has to leave traces. How long before somebody starts adding things up?"

"I know! I know!" Mist snapped. "Pretty soon we'll have to assume they know. Damn the man! Lord Kuo, I mean. Why doesn't he move?"

"He hasn't got them where he wants them yet," Bragi observed laconically. He considered the map again. "But if he waits much longer, there won't be anything left for you to take over."

"Compare the size of the cancer with the whole," she snarled. Then, "Lord Ch'ien. The time. If he hasn't moved within fifty hours, I'll do so myself."

"In the dark?" the King asked.

"If I have to. I won't be able to trust my people much longer than that. By then if one defected they'd all stampede." Wearily, she added, "It would take ten years to put it all together again."

Aral seated himself beside her while she was talking. He said something meant to be soothing. He tried to take her hand. In front of Lord Ch'ien. She pulled away.

It was time to put paid to this nonsense. She shouldn't have started it. Fool. Man-weak fool. She'd lost the Tervola once because of Valther. She wouldn't make that mistake again.

She ignored Aral's look of pain.

Lord Ch'ien hadn't caught the byplay, she saw, but Bragi had. He was nodding to himself. She felt her cheeks reddening. He didn't comment, though. He said, "It's late. I'm going to get some sleep."

She watched him speak with his captains before leaving. Their continuous presence irked her. They had eyes like hawks. She had to keep them in mind every instant. Damn this having to depend on outsiders!

Her irritation mounted as the hours passed. Her men, too, were tense. They couldn't speak without snapping at one another. The conspiracy was about to shake itself apart. And still time twisted the springs of tension tighter.

The night churned slowly onward. The red stain of Matayangan invasion seeped across the table. Confused messengers arrived from the far east, their reports only further obscuring the situation there.

"Lord Ch'ien."

"Princess?"

She tapped the map with the pointer. "Do we dare move while this is happening?"

Lord Ch'ien eyed the east briefly. "I think we can discount it. For the moment. Our people there will keep those forces uninvolved." The weariness edging his voice made it more husky and hollow than normal. Mist shuddered.

Lord Ch'ien volunteered, "Western Army will be the real worry. I've heard that Lord Hsung has an agent in the palace here. By now everybody in this squalid village knows something is happening. The stupidest spy would have sent a message mentioning it."

"Time. The invincible enemy. Are we going to manage it, old friend? Or will time do us in?"

"I couldn't say, Princess. But I do have a feeling we're close to the moment of decision. There's a new tension in the blanklands there."

Mist stared at the unmarked portion of the map, closing out all else. And, yes, Lord Ch'ien was right. She could feel a great something flexing its muscles there, tensing, like a serpent coiling to strike. So. It wouldn't be much longer.

"Princess?"

"Lord?"

"The moment approaches. And still we haven't decided what to do with these people once they've served their purpose."

This was a discussion she had hoped to avoid, and yet had known to be inevitable. "I don't follow you."

"You know who they are and what they've done, Princess. This petty King. This sorcerer Varthlokkur. These carrion-eaters who orbit them." He indicated several of the King's men. "We have to decide what to do if we're successful."

Mist sighed. "They've dealt honorably with us, Lord Ch'ien." She couldn't tell him that they were her friends. A princess of the Dread Empire did not have friends. Not foreign friends.

"For their own ends. They hope to weaken the empire, to delay the inevitable day of reckoning. The King... He would destroy us if he could."

She could not deny that. She didn't try.

"Who knows what treacheries they have afoot, planned for the moment of our success."

Serpents wrestled in her bowels. She'd been too long in the west. She'd become infected with its softnesses. Damn that villain Valther! If he hadn't insinuated himself through the walls surrounding her emotions...

"You're in charge, Lord Ch'ien. Do whatever seems appropriate." She fixed her gaze on the map and tried not to think about what she had done. Moral abdication was as great a sin as any. After a time she left her seat and went downstairs, hoping a meal would ease her tension and soften her self-disgust.

One of the King's men dragged Mist out of her kitchen. He gobbled incoherently and pointed. Baffled, she allowed herself to be pulled to a window.

The east was afire again. Lord Kuo had begun moving. And she had been so tired, so dispirited, so self-involved that she hadn't felt it start. "Thank you." She hurried upstairs.

The air had changed. The old stink of fear and tension was gone. Now a different tenseness filled the place, the tension that develops just before the battle. The eager, wary tension of soldiers about to strike. Everyone was moving faster now, more crisply, with a bounce in their steps. They had forgotten their weariness. They paused when she entered the room. She waved them back to work.

"Reports are beginning to come in already," Lord Ch'ien said. "The indications are favorable."

"Good." She turned to one of Bragi's men. "Will you get the King?" She turned back. "What do we know?"

Some time later she glanced up from her ongoing conference and discovered that Varthlokkur had arrived. The wizard was surveying the room from a high seat against the north wall. He looked rested and alert. He would miss nothing.

The King arrived moments later. He spoke with several of his men. She watched him listen and nod, question, listen, and nod. He paused longest with the wizard. Then he came to her, and led her to the eastern end of the table. "Mist, do you know anything more about this business here?"

She felt almost relieved. About this she could speak the whole truth, could speak without having to worry about choosing each word. "We don't know. We've had one garbled message this morning. It said Northern and Eastern Armies still support us, but that they're too busy with the Deliverer to become directly involved."

"The Deliverer?"

She glanced up, startled. Varthlokkur had come over, as sudden as a surprise thunderstorm.

"The enemy chieftain out there. They call him the Deliverer. Some kind of prodigy, apparently. He's decimated Eastern Army. Northern Army and Eastern Army have decided to make a stand on the Tusghus."

"Uhm." Bragi studied the map, then glanced at Varthlokkur. "How come you're so interested?"

"Ethrian. He's out there somewhere."

"He's alive, then?"

Sweat sequined the wizard's forehead. He rubbed it away. Mist watched him closely. There was something here she hadn't been aware of before, some strain between the two men. Varthlokkur said, "I'm not sure. Intuition says yes."

"Maybe we can bring him home. Great for Nepanthe. A new daughter, then her lost son restored."

"I don't think so. This isn't the son she lost. If it is Ethrian, she won't want him back."

"You don't know her very well, then."

Mist became very attentive. Ethrian? Not dead?

What?... She examined the wizard. Never had she seen him so bleak.

"What is it?" the King demanded.

"I'll never tell her about this—if it's what I suspect. Forget I mentioned his name. She's had enough hurt from life."

Mist frowned. The man wasn't making sense.

"But... " the King said.

Varthlokkur interrupted. "She doesn't need the pain. All right? I don't want her to see her child grown into a monster. I warn you. Tell her and you've lost my help forever."

"Take it easy, man. I don't even know what you're talking about. Do you, Mist? What are you trying to do, Varthlokkur?"

Mist drifted over to Lord Ch'ien and related what she had heard. "I think you'd better send someone to see what's happening out there," she said. "This could be important."

Lord Ch'ien nodded, beckoned a reliable man from the messenger pool.

Mist turned back to the wizard and King just as Michael Trebilcock came into the room.

She'd never learned the details of Trebilcock's disappearance and sudden return. Evidently he had gone into the desert kingdom of Hammad al Nakir and found evidence linking the attack on General Liakopulos with the regime there.

The King waved to her. She went over. Bragi said, "Michael says there was an uprising in Throyes. Hsung put it down."

"I know."

"He says Hsung is going to deploy the Argonese army in his flanking counterattack against the Matayangans."

She was surprised. "Is that reliable news, Michael?"

"No. A rumor out of the Throyen command. But it's certainly his style."

"It is that. I'll accept it as fact." She stepped away. That wasn't good news. If Lord Hsung deployed the Argonese, then he would have troops of his own still free to resist her stroke. "Lord Ch'ien?" She explained. He looked grim.

She backed away to one of the chairs, sat watching the map. The long red arm thrusting into the empire's underbelly had begun to develop a waist near its root. Lord Kuo was going to amputate it, going to isolate a huge army in enemy territory. The Matayangans could not endure being cut off long.

"Will it work?" she asked Lord Ch'ien, pointing.

"Depends on how much Lord Kuo has to work with," he replied. "It's a bold stroke, certainly. Deserving of honor even if it fails. The impression we get from the reports is that the reserve was stronger than Southern Army itself was."

"Any problems in that for us?"

"We won't know till we jump in. His security has been superb."

Mist chewed a thumbnail and studied the map. Her eyes kept drifting to the mystery war in the east. Her nephew Ethrian was there? Part of that? How? Why?... She forced her attention back to the main show.

The moment of decision came. Go or abort. Attack and risk shattering the hope of saving the empire from these southern barbarians? Stand fast and surrender all hope of ever recovering her throne? It would be never if she didn't grab it now. If Lord Kuo pulled this out, he would become untouchable...

She decided, looked up. "The King," she said. "Where is the King?"

Someone said, "He just left, ma'am."

"Get him. I need him here. Now."

Bragi clomped back into the room a few minutes later. Mist guided him to the map, indicated the pincers nipping the Matayangan arm. "We're going to go. When the heads of these prongs are ten miles apart. Lord Kuo will be completely preoccupied. Lord Ch'ien estimates that will be four hours from now. We're alerting my people. I'll need three of your assault teams. My people will take over everywhere else while yours are hitting Lord Kuo's headquarters and arresting him." She indicated her people. "Most of my Tervola will go with you. They'll sort out the confusion for you."

The King's eyes narrowed. A subtle something entered his face. She didn't identify it until he replied. "You ain't number one yet, Mist. You're Chatelaine of Maisak till the dust settles." He glanced at Varthlokkur. The wizard remained seated, watching blandly.

She stamped a foot irritably. These damned touchy barbarians. Had to remind you where the power lay... She forced an apologetic smile, softened her features. Just a few hours more. Then she would be dependent upon no one.

"I'll start assembling them now." The King turned away, gathered his captains.

Mist returned to Lord Ch'ien's side. She glanced back once, found the wizard Varthlokkur gazing her way. His face was expressionless, yet she had the feeling he was amused. She shivered.

She hadn't been paying him enough attention. He was the real threat here in the west. Without him Bragi could not have survived the Great Eastern Wars. Without him the Dual Principiate would never have fallen, and none of this would have come to pass... He seemed so inefficacious in person you forgot just how deadly he could be... Now, more than ever, she'd best remember. He hated the Dread Empire. This might be his moment to enter a silent dagger and accelerate the destabilization begun with the deaths of her father and uncle... It hardly seemed possible that less than two decades had passed since the fall of the Princes Thaumaturge. The empire had had more masters and mistresses since than during all the centuries that had gone before.

Is the empire dying? she wondered. Is it an empire embarking on an era of decadence?

"Three and a half hours," Lord Ch'ien said. "The indications remain positive."

"Thank you. What're the reports from our people in Western Army? I have a feeling Hsung is going to be trouble."

Nepanthe lay with the baby at her breast. Outside, fell witchlight tumbled around the mountaintops like a playful litter of kittens. "Maggie," she called softly. "Maggie?"

"Yes, My Lady?" The servant girl rose from where she had been dozing over her knitting.

"Where is Varthlokkur? Has he sent a message?"

"I'm sorry, Mistress. There's been no word at all. Even the Queen is upset, they say. She hasn't heard from the King in days."

Slowly, Nepanthe turned her head till she could see the witchfire again. A deep sorrow possessed her. "What is that? Does anyone know?"

"They do say it's the Dread Empire at war, Mistress. But not with us. No. Not this time. This time darkness stalks one of those faraway kingdoms you only hear about in stories."

Nepanthe did not reply. She was no longer listening.

She was alone and scared. The presence of the serving girl did nothing to comfort her. Maggie wasn't someone she knew, someone she could open her heart to, someone who wouldn't laugh at her fears... Varth had promised that the baby wouldn't be born here... Be reasonable, she told herself. The child wasn't due for weeks.

She looked down at the hairless, wrinkled, red, tiny head. As if sensing her scrutiny, the baby wriggled, began nursing again. Nepanthe watched the little cheeks move and smiled.

Then she realized that the maid was still talking. Her question was getting far more answer than she cared to hear. "Maggie? Would you see if Queen Inger can come in?" She needed someone, and didn't know anyone... She would have called for Mist, but her brother's wife would be in the thick of whatever the men were doing. That woman only pretended to her sex. Inside that gorgeous body she was just another man.

Queen Inger came in a few minutes later. "Thank you for coming," Nepanthe gasped. "I didn't really expect you to. You have your own things to do."

"I'm probably as desperate to talk as you are, honey." The Queen was cool and blonde, tall and elegant. Truly regal, Nepanthe thought. Always in command of herself and her surroundings. "I haven't seen Bragi for days."

"Varth has been gone since the baby was born. I know he has things to do, but he could at least stop and say hello."

"What're they up to? Do you have any idea?"

"I don't even know where Varth is, let alone what he's doing."

"They're at the Chatelaine Mist's house. Them and their cohorts. I know that much. What they're doing is anybody's guess. They won't talk to anyone. Won't even answer my messages."

"You can bet it has something to do with that." Nepanthe levered herself out of bed, went and leaned on her windowsill. The Queen watched over her shoulder. "It never ends, Inger. I wish... No offense to you, understand. I wish Bragi had never come to Kavelin. We had nice homes in Itaskia. We weren't important and we weren't wealthy, and life was hard, but our families were all together and we were mostly happy. That damned Haroun bin Yousif... I hope he's burning in Hell. If he hadn't gotten Bragi and Mocker involved... "

"You can't change anything. I think it was fated. If it hadn't been Haroun, something else would have driven you out."

Nepanthe turned, her eyes suddenly narrow. "That's right. Duke Greyfells was your uncle or something, wasn't he?" The Duke of Greyfells had been a mortal enemy of her first husband and the King when Bragi was just a mercenary.

"Another branch of the family entirely, dear. Our side never got involved in politics. I wish Bragi wasn't now."

"You don't like being Queen?"

"I love being Queen. I just hate all the trouble and pain and conspiring and responsibility that goes along with it." Nepanthe turned and stared into the distance once more. The sorcery-storm had developed a bilious, lime-colored tint. Sorcery. That too had dogged her all her days. It had claimed Ethrian. It devoured the innocent.

"Does Bragi ever talk about what happened? With Mocker?"

"No. He doesn't want to remember. And he can't forget. He's haunted by it. Sometimes he wakes up in the night crying. Or shouting. He can't convince himself that he had no choice. And he didn't, you know."

"I know. I don't hold it against him. I'm saving my hatred for the people who made Mocker try to murder his best friend. I wish they weren't all dead. If they were alive, I could dream about torturing and killing them."

"He'd do anything to make it up to you, Nepanthe. He still feels that badly."

"I don't want anything, Inger. I have Varth and the baby. The only thing would be... Ethrian. I wish I could know for sure. If he's dead or alive."

"I thought they killed him after Mocker failed. That's what everyone says."

"Everybody thinks they did. But nobody saw it happen. And I keep getting this feeling that he's out there somewhere, and he needs help." She stared into the violent sky, began shivering. She didn't mention her dreams. Varth always laughed at them. Inger might too. "Sometimes... sometimes I think Bragi and Varth know and they just won't tell me."

"Bragi hasn't ever said anything to me."

"I just wish I knew. If you hear anything... Tell me. Please?"

Inger patted her shoulder. "Of course. Of course. What are friends for?"

I don't know, Nepanthe thought. I've never had enough to find out.

The sky raged and swirled.




9 Year 1016 afe | Reap The East Wind | 11 Year 1016 afe



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