The occasional observations of Carolyn Kephart, writer

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Life and Works, an Introduction (Updated 2/21/2024)

However you found your way here, reader, my thanks for stopping by.  I've created this post to introduce myself and my published work, much of which is free here with my compliments. Other posts relate to past travels, like the three-part Visions of the Mystic East and varied descriptions of Europe and Japan, embellished with my photos. Please feel free to browse those and my reflections on the writing life and latest fascinations.

2/17/2024: Belated but heartfelt good wishes for the new year! Driven by the sense of time passing, I devoted January to the creation of what I hope will be the work that lives after me: newly emended and expanded digital editions of WYSARD and LORD BROTHER, intended to supersede any previous iterations. The story hasn't changed, but I've tweaked the prose and included a previously omitted scene in LORD BROTHER that takes Valrandin and Ryel to a playhouse where they watch a rhymed heroic opera inspired by John Dryden's 1670 Conquest of Granada. Both books of the duology are now inexpensively available at Amazon for the Kindle, and at Smashwords in various e-formats. The first three chapters of WYSARD are available here.

Other news: I've discovered that this blog is a much easier and more enjoyable way to communicate with readers than my website, so I've canceled the latter and made a thing of the past. 

The stories below are gratis with my compliments:

Yan Qi, a short passage from a fondly-remembered online writing group involving two favorite characters in an ancient China-inspired realm, can be found here.

Shojo, a tale of contemporary yokai inspired by an unforgettable visit to a famed sake brewery in Japan some years ago, is here.

Among the new tales will be The Demon Birdhouse and To The Knife. The former is set in the American Now, and the second owes its inspiration to Robert E. Howard. I'm no longer sending my stories out to magazines; the field is thronged and jostling, and I have no time.

Earlier published short fiction (click the titles to read):

The Kind Gods - Did the old gods really die? A warrior seeks answers at the grave of his greatest enemy. Published in Bewildering Stories.

Everafter Acres - Happily ever after isn't always perfect, but dark knights can be illuminating. Published in Luna Station Quarterly.

Last Laughter - A cautionary tale about a wicked court jester and his comeuppance. Published in Silver Blade Fantasy Quarterly.

Regenerated - Cela always hoped she'd see Jorgen again, but was this really Jorgen? Published in Quantum Muse.

The Heart's Desire - A government scryer's life is a prison until she discovers the ultimate secret language. 

My Facebook author page is here, and I also have a Friends page here, where pals can find out what I'm up to lately.

At The Core of the Happy Apple: A Mystery Solved examines the inner workings of a beloved vintage toy, and is my most popular blog post so far.

My current publications, digitally available at most online outlets:

Wysard  and  Lord Brother, Parts One and Two of the Ryel Saga duology, acclaimed  epic fantasy

Queen of Time, contemporary magic realism that takes the Faust legend in new  directions

At the Core of the Happy Apple: A Mystery Solved, an essay on the inner workings  of the popular 1970s Fisher Price wobble toy  

PenTangle: Five Pointed Fables, a collection of short stories previously published in  ezines

(Photo: Pond flowers, taken by the author one lucky afternoon.)

Monday, February 19, 2024

WYSARD: Part One of the Ryel Saga (2024 Revised and Expanded Edition) - The first three chapters

Presenting the first three chapters of the revised and expanded 2024 digital edition of WYSARD, now available at most online retailers along with LORD BROTHER, the second part of the Ryel Saga duology.

Part One of the Ryel Saga
by Carolyn Kephart
Revised 2024 Third Edition

Readers and The Ryel Saga

     “Intricately layered and exotic” — Robin Hobb

Masterful fantasy by an extremely talented author” — In the Library Reviews

 “Carolyn Kephart may not be a great in name in fantasy, but she should be! — Dark Moon Rising Magazine

 “To run your eyes over each word is a grand event by every definition of the word grand. Let it capture you, let it overwhelm you. Once you reach the end, you'll understand that you've undergone something rare, something beautiful, something you might only see two or three  times in your life. — Journal of Always Reviews

               “A well-written, intelligent fantasy with a beautifully crafted world.”                                                                  Crescent Blues Book Views


WYSARD: Part One of the Ryel Saga

Lord Adept Ryel Mirai leaves the great Art-citadel Markul to rediscover the long-lost spell that will release his mentor from the wraithworld of the Void, but a malignant sorcerer likewise imprisoned has enlisted the aid of Ryel’s strongest rival to find the spell first. Amid dangers, joys and temptations, Ryel encounters unlikely allies and unforeseen enemies, and learns that he may well gain all that he wishes...although perhaps not as he wished it.

Chapter One

The Shrouded Citadel

Markul the Best and Highest rose in sharptoothed towers eternally enmeshed in mist, a bristling walled island of black and green and gray that surged up from the flat sweep of the Aqqar Plain as if the continual damps had spawned it overnight. In the skin-smooth, horizon-vast steppe this citadel was the sole interruption. It had dominated the plain for a thousand years, and Ryel had lived within its walls for nearly half of his birth-life. By the reckoning of Markul he was twelve years old, a mere child; by the reckoning of the World he was twice that and two years more.

He stood on the western wall, scanning the gray-brown mist-obscured monotony of the land. Night was coming on, he knew, although in Markul one seldom perceived the transition from day to darkness, so thick were the fogs. One might never discern the sun was setting, but for the faintest hint of radiance on a horizon only guessed at. Far beyond the endless overcast lay the Inner Steppes, Ryel’s homeland, and countless times he had stood at this place on the wall, remembering the World-years of his boyhood. But now though his eyes were again fixed on the uncertain dusk, Ryel’s contemplation roamed not to vast lands and swift horses. His thoughts made his eyes burn, and his breath come painfully.

Edris had been dead almost a month, now. In the reckoning of Markul he had died young, on the threshold of his thirtieth year. Even the World would have deemed him dead too soon at fifty-eight. His body had been carried in state to the jade tower at the joining of the western and southern wall, where among the most illustrious of the City’s lord adepts Edris lay as an equal.

Ryel drew his cloak about him against the cold—Edris’ great mantle of dark scarlet. You are great in death as you were in life, my teacher, he thought, his sorrow heavy within him. But I cut that life short. With my pride I killed you, dearer to me than father. All because overreaching ambition would not let me rest, driving me to seek knowledge beyond reason or my own desert. And now

A stifling oppression drove the thought from his mind and the breath out of his body, even as an alien voice arose from some chartless place within him, murmuring at the base of his brain, making him sweat. But though it answered his meditations, it was not the voice of Edris.

Fool, it sneered. Fool, to mourn that lumbering botcher, and squander your sweet young life and limit your Art among these graybeard dotards. To have wasted your self’s substance in this desolate place, when the World and all its pleasures has waited for you. To have never had a woman...

Ryel put his hands to his temples as he labored to breathe. He stared about him, wildly. Uselessly. “Who are you?”

An insinuating snicker in reply. You’ll learn. But no enemy, young blood. Far from it.

The air lightened, and Ryel could draw breath again. Sharp wind struck him full in the face, pushing back the hood of his cloak, chilling the sweat that had sprung upon his cheeks, prickling the nape of his shaven head, thrusting icy fingers into the rents of his robes. Those few who also stood on the wall had turned toward him in astonishment when he cried out to the air, and now they whispered among themselves. Hushed though their voices were, Ryel heard them.

No, Lord Ter,” he said, resigned and weary, to the one who stared most fearfully at him. “I haven’t gone mad…yet.”

Lord Ter paled yet more, and ran a trembling hand through his ragged white beard. “I never thought you might, my Lord Ryel. Lord Wirgal and Lady Haldwina and I were merely remarking our pleasure at seeing you in health, and unmarked by your late ordeal.”

Unmarked. Yes. In every place but one. And Ryel turned to face them, meeting their eyes with his. They recoiled, huddling back against the stones of the wall.

Yes,” Ryel continued. Every word he spoke came lead-heavy. “Mine were eyes you used to praise once, Lady Haldwina—a color that people who have seen the World call sea-blue.” He gave a bitter smile. “You do not praise them now.”

You looked upon forbidden things,” the lady replied, veiling her face with a fold of her headdress. “For that you lost your eyes.”

Not lost,” Ryel said. His voice felt too tight for his throat, and each syllable came forced. “I still see. But it seems that all of you have gone blind. I assure you that I have not changed in any way since—”

Worse than blind you look,” Lord Wirgal snarled. “All black. No white or color in those accursed eyes of yours—only continued black. It does not affright us, that have seen true horrors in our time; but it marks you forever as an Overreacher.”

Ryel smiled. It felt strange on his face, and probably looked so. “Is it not the aim of our Art, to learn all that may be learned?”

Our Art is in the service of life, and the aim of our Art is Mastery, not death-dealings,” Lady Haldwina said, her glance still averted. “You attempted the cruel Art of Elecambron, and in forsaking the true path have been justly punished.”

Ryel shook his head in cool negation. “The adepts of Elecambron are our brothers, my lady. And do not forget that the First Ones of this City all attempted the Crossing, notably Lord Garnos who learned the secret of immortality thereby.”

And died of it,” old Wirgal hissed. “I will not speak of Lord Aubrel, who returned from the Outer World raving mad according to the Books, and committed the foulest crimes before his miserable end. And what did you gain from the folly that deformed you? Nothing, by your own past admission—nothing save the death of Lord Edris, rest be to his lost soul.”

The others shrank back in terror lest Ryel avenge Wirgal’s hard words with some malign spell. But the wysard only abruptly turned and without reply moved to another part of the wall, flinching at the burning pain in his eyes, that no tears would now ever cool.

Forcing his thoughts away from intruding voices and rancorous adepts, Ryel again drew his hood over his head and faced away from the night-blurred plain to survey the city of Markul with what was left of the light. Yet again he admired the straight tall sides of the myriad many-angled towers, the intricate mosaics of the streets, the great windows opening to the mist-veiled moon and nebulous sun: all of it wrought in black marble and muted green nephrite, gray basalt and imperial porphyry and dark gold, the cold stone softened by the lush redolent herbs that wreathed the balconies and windows and trailed down the walls. Before he had come to Markul, Ryel had never seen buildings of stone, and what had amazed him at fourteen enthralled him still. He grew calm again, and breathed deeply of the herb-scented mist.

Of all the Cities you are fairest,” he murmured. “Most high, and best.”

There were four strongholds of the Art, one at each quadrant of the compass: Markul to the east, Tesba south, Ormala west and Elecambron far, far to the north. Brilliant and gaudy Tesba was built of many-colored glass, drab dirty Ormala of wood and brick and plaster. Great Elecambron towered coldly pale as the icebound island it stood on in the eternal snows of the White Reaches, constructed all of adamantine rock that was neither marble nor alabaster, but something a hundredfold harder and utterly flawless. Tesba and Ormala were cities of the flesh, Markul and Elecambron those of the spirit; and Markul was deemed the strongest and best of the Four. Proud and haughty was Elecambron; but even Elecambron deferred to Markul, with a respect that was entire, however unloving.

The Builders of Markul—Garnos of Almancar, Nilandor of Kursk, Aubrel of Hryeland, Riana of the Zinaph Isles, Khiar of Cosra, Sibylla of Margessen—had founded the first and greatest City of the Art. Shunned and persecuted by the World of men, they had sought refuge in the barren ruleless regions of the Aqqar Plain that drove a thin wedge between the realms of Turmaron and Shrivran and the wide empire of Destimar. Joining mind to mind as other men join hands, the Builders had created massive reality from mere imagination, their visions of peace and strong-walled security translated into the fortress of Markul.

Elecambron the cruel had been created by malignant daimons of the Outer World, Ormala the vile by human slaves, Tesba the gentle by beneficent spirits; but great Markul had sprung solely from the psychic imagination of the First and Highest, and in a thousand years had suffered no harm whether from the passage of ages or the wrath of enemies. Such sublime Art as theirs was known and honored as the Mastery; and since the passing of the Builders none of the adepts of Markul had succeeded in equaling their forbears’ glory.

Ryel ran a reverent hand over the glass-smooth surface of the parapet, as with the same wonder and awe of his first days in the City he beheld the beauty of the place that had for almost half his life been his home. “Lovely you are indeed, Markul the Good. Lovely even now that I am alone within your walls.” As he embraced a porphyry column with one arm, his robe’s wide sleeve slipped down to his bicep. In that moment the air closed in around him, and the voice again intruded into his thoughts, its soft insinuation laced with a connoisseur’s approval.

Most impressive, it breathed. A warrior’s muscles, yours; tall and strong you are amid these creeping hags and half-men. We’re far from the paltry tents and stinking herds of the Inner Steppes, yes. But there are greater cities than this, young blood. Fair cities with women in them fairer still. And there’s more. Far more.

Ryel had at first stiffened in anger at this new intrusion, but temptation warred with anger, and won. The wysard pushed his sleeve down to his wrist and turned from the city to the voice, slowly. “Show me more, then.”

The voice laughed. And then it seemed that the nebulous gloom beyond the wall filled with white-flecked blue, a living burning blue such as Ryel had never known. The wind of the plain no longer howled and moaned, but calmed to a steady breathing, each breath deep and deliberate as a sleeper’s. Ryel clutched at the parapet, leaning out. And it seemed then that the mists parted to reveal diamond-clear daylight, and the sun fell full on the infinite azure that now rippled and tossed in great waves, surrounding the city and dashing against the walls.

Ryel winced at the brilliant light, his eyes burnt and smarting with salt. But only for a moment before darkness again closed around him in drizzling mist, and a harsh wind tried to claw away his cloak.

Again,” Ryel whispered, imploring the air. “Show me again.”

No voice’s reply, no sea’s resurgence. Chilled and weary, Ryel pulled his hood forward against the damp, then slowly descended the wall. As he made his way through the several levels of the town to his dwelling, he passed here and there small knots of mages in discussion, witches trading lore on lamp-lit doorsteps. As he passed, they all greeted him with mumbled formalities, low bows and downcast eyes, and fell silent until he had gone. Reaching his house after many courses of stone steps, Ryel entered and shut the door tightly.

Here was peace, and warmth, and silence. The clutter and paraphernalia usual with a wysard’s apartments were absent here, for Ryel’s learning had long surpassed the necessity for outward Art-trappings. Thick-piled jewel-colored carpets covered the dark stone floors, and deep cushions of soft leather and figured velvet served as seats, for Ryel still used the custom of his yat-dwelling people. Low tables displayed objects chosen for their beauty, long shelves contained books and scrolls. Flowers sprang from vessels of jade and crystal: straight slender irises, purple-blue; crimson lilies whose petals curled like clever tongues; the poppy of sleep with its pallid bloom scenting the air with lazy fragrance, and other blossoms of rarer shape and hue that Ryel’s caprice had formed and brought to life. The east room was a chamber of repose, all soft browns and violets and greens, its walls heavily draped with tapestries so worn by time that it was difficult to discern their subjects, that kept out the equivocal half-light and damp wind of the Aqqar Plain. Its wide bed was curtained with thick silk, and the pillows were filled with fragrant herbs to induce slumber, needful for Ryel who often spent entire nights and days rapt in his study of the Art, until exhausted he fell on his bed unable to sleep for the fevered racing of his thoughts; here he was lured into a spice-scented oblivion, deep and dreamless.

He lay down and waited for that deliverance which had never failed—until now. Sleep he could not, and he dreamed with his eyes open.


In the winter of Ryel’s thirteenth World-year, Edris came to Risma. As the snow fell in the night had Edris come, and as quietly.

The only problem with a yat is that there’s no door to knock on.”

At the sound of that voice, so deep and ironic, Ryel started about. A stranger stood framed in the yat’s inner portal, without a trace of snow upon his great scarlet mantle, although yet another blizzard howled outside. The mantle’s hood shrouded his face save for a white gleam of teeth, a keen glint of eye.

Ryel’s father leapt to his feet at the sight of him, his hand on the knife at his side. “Who are you? How did you get past my guards?”

A laugh, warmly resonant, in reply. The stranger threw off his cloak and now spoke in the dialect of the Inner Steppes, although his first words had been in Almancarian. “Well met in this rough weather, twin-sib.”

Yorganar took a step backward. “By every god.”

The newcomer was clad not in Steppes gear, but in rich outland robes of somber colors. Hulking tall he was, with dark hair cropped short around his head, skin strangely pale, and shaven face; yet Ryel saw that were his hair long and his skin sunbrowned and his face lined and bearded, he would be the exact image of Yorganar. But the greatest difference lay in his eyes and his expression, both wonderfully subtle and acute. At the sight of him Ryel had heard his mother give a soft half-terrified cry, and felt her shrink close to his side; and he had put his arm about her shoulders and held her as a grown man would, proud and strong. Yet he too was afraid of the stranger in the yat-door, whose long dark eyes burned his face as they studied him.

By every god,” Yorganar said again. His voice trembled for the first time in Ryel’s memory. “Edris.”

The stranger nodded, unperturbed. “You live well in this weather, brother. I had forgotten how warm are the yats of the Triple Star when the wind blows wild.” He gazed around him, noting everything with cool approval. “You’ve done well. Rich in goods you always were—richer still now, in a fair wife and a strong young son.”

I do not know you,” Ryel’s father at last replied, rough and harsh.

Edris smiled. Shrugged. “Then give me welcome as your people do for the least of wanderers. That much is mine by right.”

Ryel’s mother rose and came to them. She looked up into Edris’ face as Ryel had never seen her look into Yorganar’s, and it troubled him.

Enter and rest, my husband’s brother,” she whispered. Yorganar glared at her, but she withstood his displeasure unflinchingly, and spoke ever in her soft way, but now with an edge of defiance. “Whatever else our guest may be, husband, he is your closest kin, and was at one time your dearest. Let him enter.”

Ryel’s father frowned. “Woman, this is not your concern.”

Mira put her hand on Yorganar’s arm, lightly but urgently. “He has traveled far. The night is cold. I pray you let him warm himself by our fire.”

Yorganar did not look at her. “You know what he is.”

Her voice was always gentle, but never with this pleading note. “Whatever else he may be, he is your closest kin, and at one time your dearest; I well know that you loved each other, once. Let him enter.”

Yorganar said nothing; but after a long moment he moved aside, and let his brother pass.

Together they sat on the floor’s carpets, amid cushions. Edris looked about him and smiled. “I’ve missed being in a yat. And it’s warm in here, thanks to that stove; far warmer than it’d be with a hearth-ring, and cleaner too.”

Yes,” Mira murmured. “Many other households do the same, now, in Risma.”

Edris nodded. “I remember how greatly you disliked the smoke and grime of the hearth. This is a pleasant change.”

Yorganar grunted. “Almancarian nonsense. I prefer fire, as do all men of my people.”

Following Steppes custom, Ryel’s mother poured out wine for her guest, choosing the finest vintage she had, pouring it brimful into a bowl of gold. Edris took the wine with a nod of thanks, and his hand for an instant closed over hers. Slight and brief as the contact was, Ryel noted it and was angered. Mira saw that anger, and her smile faded.

I’ll leave you now,” she said, and would have stood up to depart. But Edris’ deep voice stayed her.

Wait. I have not yet drunk your health, Mira. Nor would I have you withdraw as a Rismai yat-wife feels she must, but keep the custom of Almancar, and remain to grace a stranger’s welcome. Yet in truth we were not always strangers to one another, you and I.”

Ryel had never in his life heard any man other than his father call his mother by her name. It was unfitting, as it was unfitting for a married woman to remain in the presence of an newcomer after the first greetings were done, or oppose her husband in anything. But his mother was not of the Steppes, and had kept the ways of her city. What shocked Ryel even more was that his father had not ordered her to withdraw, nor rebuked her for her presumption. He felt confused and uneasy at so much law-breaking.

Edris saw Ryel’s emotions, and threw an ironic glance at Yorganar. “You’ve trained your boy well in the ways of the Steppes, brother. I came almost too late, it would seem.” Turning from Ryel and Yorganar, he again addressed Mira. “What else has become of the brat, sister? Has he grown up unlettered and ignorant, like every other horse-breeding lout of this tribe?”

I made sure he did not,” Mira answered with quiet pride, glancing tenderly at her son. “Ryel reads and writes fluent Almancarian, both the common and the palace dialect.”

Edris’ dark brows lifted. “Ha. Impressive. The latter is damnably difficult.”

Ryel learned it easily,” Mira said. “And he has come near to mastering two of the Northern languages.”

Good,” Edris said, clearly pleased. “What of mathematics? Philosophy? Music?”

I have caused the best masters to instruct him...”

“—fetched from afar at great cost, and for no good,” Yorganar growled. “What need has a horseman of the Steppes for such foolery?”

Edris studied his brother with far more pity than contempt. “A natural question for you to ask, my brother, that have never looked with right understanding upon anything on earth, no matter how marvelous.” And his dark eyes moved to Ryel’s mother, resting on her face yet again. “No matter how fair. But I tell you that this boy will never be a warrior as you were in your youth, nor a breeder of horses as you are now.” He leaned across the fire to Ryel who sat opposite, and looked long on him; and when he spoke it was in Hryelesh, one of the Northern tongues Ryel had learned, one that neither his mother nor his father understood, one that enwrapped him with his uncle in a bond half feared, half desired.

You’re tall for your age,” Edris said. “And you’ll soon grow taller, but you’ll never be as overgrown as I am, lucky lad. In all else you favor your mother—girl-slender, maiden-faced, white-skinned and pale-eyed. I don’t doubt the other lads mock you for it.”

Ryel dropped his hand to his dagger-hilt and lifted his chin. “No one dares mock me. I’ve fought and beaten Orin, son of Kiamnur, and he is two years older, and bigger. At the last horse fair I raced with the grown men and won this, that the Sovranet Mycenas himself bestowed upon me.” He pulled the dagger from his belt, and the steel flashed in the firelight.

Ah,” Edris said, not in the least impressed. “Mycenas Dranthene, brother to great Agenor, Sovran of Destimar. And what was an imperial prince like Mycenas doing among the Elhin Gazal?”

He came to buy horses.”

Edris glanced at Mira, who averted her eyes. “Is that all?”

Ryel knew what Edris meant, and was angered by it. “If you’re talking about the lies my mother’s old nurse Anthea likes to babble, forget them. Mycenas Dranthene isn’t of our blood.”

Edris laughed. “What makes you so sure they’re lies, whelp?”

Ryel felt his eyes narrowing. “Don’t call me that.”

Edris’ grin rivaled the blade’s glint. “You’re damnably arrogant. What else are you, lad? Come here and let me see.”

Half against his will Ryel went from his mother’s side and knelt before Edris, who looked long on him, so long that Ryel wished very much to look away, but could not. Edris’ next words made him uneasier still.

Are you still maiden, boy?”

Ryel lowered his head, and his long black hair fell around his suddenly flushed face.

Edris persisted. “What do you not understand—the language, or the question?”

Ryel felt his face burn and sweat. “I understand both,” he muttered.

Then answer.”

Ryel blushed deeper, and made no reply.

Edris laughed. “A few kisses with the girls, then? Some toyings and foolings behind the yats?” He savored Ryel’s confusion awhile. “Well, that doesn’t mean ruin. Good. Your innocence will add immeasurably to your power.”

Ryel lifted his head despite himself. “What do you mean?”

You have the Art within you, asleep but strong,” Edris replied. “You betray it in your every action. Having watched you closely since I entered this yat, I have observed that you favor neither your right hand nor your left, but are double-handed as I am. That’s a thing rare among ordinary men, but a clear sign of capacity for the Art.”

Ryel felt himself enmeshed in Edris’ eyes, that were a burning black in his pale face. Felt himself drawn, and changed, and torn. “What is the Art?”

You’ll learn.” Edris reached out and laid both hands on his nephew’s head, as if in blessing. His long fingers slid into Ryel’s hair, and Ryel shuddered at the touch, but not because of fear; rather because it seemed as if he had longed for that contact all his life. He closed his eyes, giving himself up to it. Then he heard Edris’ deep voice whispering in a strange tongue, not words so much as a continued murmur like the storm-wind outside. Ryel clenched his teeth, shivering.

The fingers moved like frozen slow currents through his hair. But suddenly they turned to ice-knives, stabbing his temples so cruelly that his senses seemed to reel, and the air to blacken before him.

Edris’ voice tore through the blackness, still speaking the guttural tongue of the North. His fingers slid to the back of Ryel’s head, seeking the nape. “You were marked for the Art, boy. It found you, and left its stamp. Forever.”

No,” Ryel gasped. “Don’t touch me. Not there.”

But Edris’ implacable fingers had found the hard lump of scar tissue. “Remember how you got this, lad. Remember all of it.”

At that command and that touch, the light returned—bright sharp high-summer light. Ryel found himself alone in a green infinity of grass, alone save for his horse Jinn that grazed nearby. The air was searing hot, so achingly ablaze that he winced at it, and sweated from crown to heel. But on the horizon in every direction great dark clouds were gathering fast. Shielding his eyes with his hand he watched the lowering masses with increasing disquiet, wondering how it was that they seemed to center on him. Slowly he turned round about, watching the clouds scud ever nearer, the circle of light shrink around him until suddenly there was no light left at all, only endless roiling black. And out of the blackness flashed lightning, bolt after blinding rending bolt—

He would not remember more. He would not relive what came next. He cried out until Yorganar pulled him free.

Ryel!” Furiously his father turned to Edris. “What have you done to the boy?”

Edris met his twin’s eyes, broodingly now. “Nothing but looked within him, and seen what you never could. He can remain in the Steppes no longer. His destiny must bring him to me.”

I’d sooner see him dead.” And Yorganar forced Ryel to look away from Edris and into his own eyes, which were so like to his brother’s, and yet so unlike. “You know what he is. I’ve told you often enough.”

Edris’ voice came deep as the snow outside, and colder. “Have you indeed, brother?” He turned to Ryel. “By all means tell me what I am, whelp.”

Angered and still in pain from that terrible looking-in, Ryel rubbed the back of his neck and replied insolently. “You’re a foul magician of the sorcerer-city of Markul. A charlatan and a fakir.”

And you’re brave,” Edris said. But Ryel involuntarily trembled at the cruel edge in the tall man’s voice. “Brave and stupid. Anyone else using that tone with me would quickly regret he had, but to you I will only give better instruction. A wysard of Markul I am, yes. More accurately, a lord adept of the most powerful city in the World, compared to which Almancar the Bright is a cluster of huts, and its people simple savages—your pardon, sister. And I am Yorganar’s only brother, born of the same womb in the same hour, no matter how much he tries to deny it.”

Yorganar turned his face away. “Dead have you been to me for fifteen years.”

Edris half smiled. “In complete forgetfulness of the thirty years that went before, years that we raced our horses together across the steppe, together wrestled and sang and talked long into the night of wars…and of women.” He gazed across the fire to Mira. “So like to one another did we look in those days that not even the keenest eyes could tell us apart.”

Ryel’s mother spoke after a long silence, her sweet voice laden with anguish. “My brother, surely you cannot—”

Edris nodded, and replied gently. “I know your sorrow, Mira. Three children have you borne, and of them only Ryel has survived infancy. But I can promise you that in seven months’ time you will give birth again. For some weeks you have known yourself to be with child, and you dared not speak of it.”

Ryel had watched the stranger as he spoke; had seen how those dark eyes dwelt on every feature of his mother’s face, and was infuriated by it.

His father was angrier. “This goes too far.” Yorganar reached for his sword. “You jeer at her, and me. I will no longer—”

Edris remained unperturbed. “Put up your tagh, brother. It’s a good blade, but mine’s faster. Mira, you may tell him your secret at last.”

Ryel’s mother hid her face in her hands. “I feel the child within me,” she whispered. Her hands slid down to her waist, and joined together just below her belt. “But I am afraid. So afraid.”

Yorganar turned angrily first to his brother, then his wife. “How is it you knew her secret? And woman, why did he know it before me?”

Don’t use that voice with her.” Edris’ own voice was dangerous. “What I know, my Art has taught me.” He turned to Ryel’s mother. “Little star.”

At the sound of that name, uttered with such gentleness, Mira looked up, and never had she seemed more lovely to Ryel than at that moment.

Edris’ eyes took hers deeply, in a way Ryel knew Yorganar’s could have never done, and the boy felt lost and alone as he listened to the stranger’s prophecy. “You will bear a daughter fair as daylight, and she will grow to beauty, and wed far above her fortune.” Edris darted a glance at Ryel, then, and suddenly grinned in a broad white flash. “But you’re mine, brat.”

Ryel leapt to his feet. “Get out.” He felt as if his heart would burst for fury and fear. “Go your way, and be damned to you.”

Ignoring him, Edris turned to Yorganar. “Before I leave, first I would speak with my sister-in-law alone.”

Yorganar stared, too amazed for anger. “You know you cannot.”

Edris shook his head, almost pityingly. “Your laws were never mine, my brother—nor hers.” Reaching to where Ryel’s mother sat, he held out his hand. “Farewell, little star.”

Mira said nothing in return, and turned her face away at the name he called her. But she put her hand in his, and Edris carried it to his lips and kissed it.

Ryel would bear no more. “Don’t touch her!” Lunging forward, he forced Edris to face him. “Touch her again and I’ll cut your heart out.”

But the look in Edris’ dark eyes made Ryel’s lifted fist fall helpless at his side. “You fool,” the wysard said. “You beautiful young fool. We will meet again, you and I, and soon, and you will ask my mercy on your knees.”

Ryel’s father shoved between them. “Out of this place at once, warlock, or…”

Edris held up a dismissing hand. “No threats, brother. This is the last that you will ever see of me, I promise. I only ask that you bid me farewell as we used to long ago, before we rode into battle together not knowing if we would ever meet again alive.”

I forgot those days long ago,” Yorganar answered. But his voice came tight and strained.

So did Edris’. “I never could, brother. The reek of smoke, and the shouts, and the horses shrilling, and the swords clashing, and you and I so young and wild. The only thing I have forgotten is how many times we saved each other’s lives, for they were countless.”

With a choked cry of impatience, anger, sorrow, Yorganar caught Edris in his arms, and crushed his cheek against that of his brother’s in the warrior’s manner of salute and farewell, and kissed Edris’ temple in the Steppes way between men of shared blood. Edris returned the kiss, and for a long moment they remained hard embraced, until Yorganar thrust free.

There. You got what you wanted,” he said, his words unsteady. “You always did. Now go.”

Edris blinked for an instant as if his eyes yet stung with battle-smoke. “I thank you, brother, for remembering at last. Farewell.” He turned to Ryel, then, and his infuriating grin flashed once more. “To you, whelp, no goodbyes, for in a year’s time you and I will meet.”

When Edris had departed, Mira stood dazed for a moment, then pushed past Ryel and Yorganar and ran out of the yat, calling his name. Ryel would have bolted after her, but Yorganar caught him.

Let her go, lad.”

But father, she—”

I said let her go.” He stood behind Ryel, holding him fast by both shoulders. “She has a right. And when she returns, leave her alone about this.” He shook him. “Do you understand?”

Yes,” Ryel said at last. “But it’s wrong. She—”

She is from another land than ours, with other laws. Even as he is, now.”

I’ll never be like him. I’ll die first.”

Behind his back Yorganar’s voice—deep like his brother’s, but rougher—came musing and still. “You say that now, lad. But he may be right—that you can be mine no longer.” The great heavy hands released him suddenly, with a terrible hint of a shove. “And perhaps you were never meant to be.”


A year later, Ryel stood before the gates of Markul, and Edris looked down upon him from the wall.

So you’ve come,” the deep voice rang. “Even as I said.”

Ryel encircled his mare’s neck with a weary arm, shivering in the dank mist. “I’ve traveled more miles than I can count, alone in this wasteland. Jinn’s nearly dead with thirst.” Ryel himself was weak with hunger, but he was damned if he’d ever let Edris know.

The hulking wysard uttered a word in some strange tongue, and in that instant a spring of water bubbled up out of the ground at Ryel’s feet. “There’s for the beast.”

Ryel leapt away from the water, and sought to pull his horse back from it. “No, Jinn! Don’t drink.” But Jinn would not be kept from the spring no matter how hard her mane was twitched.

Let your mare be,” Edris said. “The water will give her strength. Take some of it yourself; I know you’re dry.”

Parched beyond bearing though he was, Ryel would have sooner died than touch that water. The effort it took to turn away from the rilling clear stream used up the last of his strength. “And now what?” he asked, his voice rusky and trembling with the struggle. “Now that I’m here at your damned witch-fortress, may I not enter?”

The tall wysard shrugged. “What are you here for?”

Ryel was far too spent for rage. “That’s for you to tell me,” he muttered.

I didn’t hear you, whelp.”

Licking cracked lips, Ryel repeated what he’d said. Edris seemed pleased. “Good. Such humility becomes you, after your latter insolence. I will let you enter here, lad. But only you. Not your horse, nor your clothes, nor anything else you have with you. Naked and alone you must join the brotherhood.”

Ryel clutched Jinn’s mane, all his thirst and hunger and bone-weariness traded for this new pain. “No. I won’t. My father gave me his sword that he wielded in battle, and this horse, the best of his herd. She’s like a little sister to me. I cannot—”

Edris was inexorable. “Throw away your World-trash, brat. Unsaddle and unburden the animal, and let it go.”

Ryel’s hand shook as it stroked Jinn’s side. “But…I can’t.”

Edris made no reply, waiting with folded arms. During the silence Ryel at last did as he was commanded, because he had come too far to do otherwise. But he buried his face against Jinn’s neck first, hiding his wet-eyed misery in her mane.

Good,” Edris said, as Jinn galloped away from Markul and was lost in the mist. “Now strip.”

A desperate blush burnt Ryel’s face. He had from the first observed that scattered all about in front of the towering wall were little heaps of belongings, garments and satchels and saddlebags. He had not known why. And now there were other watchers on the wall, some of them women.

We all came naked into Markul, lad,” Edris said, coolly merciless. “You’ve nothing we haven’t seen before, believe me. Get on with it.”

In furious haste Ryel unfastened his clothes and let them drop, kicked them aside and fell to his knees in the dust. Long he waited there with his head bowed. Then he heard the groan of creaking iron as the great doors swung open, pushed by unseen strength.


It was Edris’ voice, nearby now. “I am here, even as you said,” Ryel whispered, hoarse with wretchedness and exhaustion. “Make of me what I must be.”

Edris seized Ryel’s long black hair, wrapped it around his hand and yanked it back, forcing the boy to raise his head and show his face, now stained with dirt and tears.

What shall be done with this young fool? Tell me, any of you.”

Edris spoke in High Almancarian to the watchers on the wall, and was answered in the same tongue. “Send him back. He is but a little child,” old Lord Srinnoul had said. “No one so young ever felt the Art within him.”

He has felt it since his birth,” Edris replied. “I know this, because I have watched over his growing. And as for his youth, all of you remember that before him, I was the youngest ever to come to Markul.”

You were more than twice the age of this boy,” Lord Ter had said. “Let him go back to his mother.”

I say no.” Lady Serah’s voice had come strong and clear. “Let him enter. We’ve need of new blood.” Her voice warmed and teased, then, making Ryel heat all over with acutest distress. “He’s no hardship on the eyes, is he?”

Standing at Serah’s side, Lady Mevanda nodded entire smiling agreement, her silvered dark curls swaying. “None whatsoever. Well-grown in every respect.”

But Lady Elindal at Serah’s other side shook her head, stirring her gray-yellow braids. “I beg you send him back, Lord Edris. We all of us came to Markul after our youth was spent—after we had lived in the World, loved, borne children, joyed and sorrowed. This poor lad is on the threshold of manhood—let him know the pleasure and the strength of it.”

He will know both to the limit, my lady sister,” Edris said. “But not in the World’s way. This brat was born to the Art. And he’s a pure virgin, too—or are you still, boy?”

Ryel trembled for weariness and hunger and rage and shame. “I am,” he muttered.

This news caused a sensation among the watchers on the wall, who murmured among themselves. At last Lord Srinnoul spoke, quavering and thin.

If it is as you say and he affirms, let him enter. But this place may prove his death. Tell him that.”

Edris looked down into Ryel’s face. “He knows.”

Ryel lowered his eyes to the dirt, where his bare knees quivered. “I am at your mercy, kinsman,” he whispered. “I have come to you empty. Whether life or death awaits me, I no longer care.”

Edris again put his hand to Ryel’s hair, but gently now. “Good,” he said, his long fingers smoothing the wind-tangled locks. “That’s as it should be. Enter and welcome.” For a moment Edris looked down at Ryel’s forsaken World-gear, his wide underlip caught in his big teeth as he stared at Yorganar’s sword. And to Ryel’s mingled anxiety and joy, he reached for the weapon, unsheathing it to examine the perfection of its making. “My brother’s tagh,” he murmured, revery mingling with his admiration. “An uncommon blade. But heavy.” Then a grin flashed over his face, and he shoved the sword back into its lacquered scabbard, slinging it over his shoulder. “We’ll see how it does against mine. Come on, whelp.”

Edris raised Ryel to his feet, and they went into the City together. As soon as they had entered the gates, Edris took off the great red-purple cloak he wore, and wrapped it about his young kinsman, and led him to his house.


How well I remember that time, Ryel thought as the memory ebbed. Remember the wind of the plain, raw and cold on my nakedness, and the warmth of Edris’ mantle as it enfolded me. But now…

He rose from his sleepless bed, took up the cloak, drew it about him, and went out into the night.

Never were the dead of Markul buried or burned. They were taken to the great tower at the southwest corner of the city, where they lay in rich robes, preserved from corruption by consummate Mastery. Some had lain there for nearly a millennium, yet to all seeming had died but that very hour. In a rich chamber at the tower’s top, in wondrous state, were laid the bodies of all the First of Markul—save for that of Lady Riana of Zinaph, who had departed the City in secret, and gone no one knew where. Every day since Edris’ death Ryel had climbed the many steps of the tower, entered the cold room where his uncle lay, and stood over the inert figure, wrung with meditation. He stood there now, in the light of torches whose undying Art-wrought radiance seemed to mock the lifeless forms it illumined.

Ryel pushed back the cloak’s hood. The chill air shuddered across his naked scalp. “You would approve, ithradrakis,” he said, using the Almancarian word that Edris had never in life acknowledged, his voice a numb echo on the stone walls. “I mourn you in Steppes fashion, head shorn and robes rent.”

Edris lay unmoved. Half-open were his slant dark eyes, half-parted his lips. In the wide mouth the big teeth gleamed in something very like a grin.

I loved you, Ryel thought, staring down in numb anguish at the tall still form. I would have died in your place. But it was I that struck you down. Show me how to bring you back, because I am at the end of my skill. I have attempted everything, even the forbidden spells of the First. Ithradrakis, dearer to me than father—

And it seemed to Ryel that he would die, too, from the intolerable burning and stinging of his lightless eyes, the torment of unsheddable tears. He lifted Edris’ limp dead hands to his forehead, and after that gesture of respect took his leave.

I cannot find your help in this City, kinsman,” he said to himself. “I must ask Elecambron.”

Tesba and Ormala used the Art for pleasure or for gain, but Elecambron and Markul were refuges for those who, having dwelt in the World and grown discontented with the common lot of their lives, sought a deeper wisdom. Both of the Two Great Cities believed in the existence of the rai, the vital force which animated the corporeal form; but Markul held that death of the body inevitably meant death for the rai, while Elecambron put full conviction in the rai’s immortality. The Markulit Art was in the service of life, and to that end the adepts of that City made the Mastery their chief concern; but for cold Elecambron the after-workings of death were its focus of study, and the Crossing its highest aim.

Among Worldlings, the possibility of existence after the grave was a tenet of belief devoutly held by the credulous of many persuasions, but the lord adepts of Elecambron sought ascertainable proof. Endeavors to reach the threshold of death and look beyond were achieved only through great trials by the Northern brotherhood, and experiments with many spells. So perilous was the Crossing that most attempted it only when very old. Those of lesser ability died trying; those of the greatest skill survived, though never without some cost to body or mind. Markul’s wysards considered the Crossing more a dangerous game than a worthy endeavor, and only a handful of that brotherhood had ever tried it in all the City’s history. Ryel had known the risks, but had expected that his youth and powers would have taken him safely to that terrible bourne and back again. Never had he dreamed that Edris would pay for that journey with his life.

I call Michael of Elecambron.”

Ryel spoke to the mirror that hung in his conjuring-chamber, the reflectionless Glass. The name he uttered was that of his great rival, Lord Michael Essern. Once before they had met thus, and once only; it had been at Michael’s instigation, and had not been a cordial encounter.

Long he waited, and called again; and at last a face appeared, seeming more a mask than human flesh—a mask of gray leather that had been left out in a harsh winter, and crushed flat.

The mask’s lipless mouth moved, proving it toothless as well. “Who dares this?”

Ryel stared, aghast and amazed. “Lord Michael?”

The mask’s mouth quirked upward at both corners, as if pulled by hooks. “Hardly. Michael has left this City.”

Ormalan sorcerers routinely trafficked with mere men, and the enchanters of Tesba on occasion returned to the World; but so infrequently did those of the two greatest Cities, scarce once in every decade, that Ryel was as much perturbed as surprised. “Lord Michael has departed Elecambron? But when was this?”

Two years ago, after attempting the Crossing, and returning with eyes like yours. I was his instructor while he dwelt here, and assisted him in the spell. Here, I am known as Kjal.”

Ryel bent his head in recognition and respect. “I ask your pardon, Lord Kjal. Your abilities are famed in my City, and perhaps I should have sought you first.”

Call me only by my name, Markulit. I know you, even with your long locks rased. The proud Ryel, that meddled where he shouldn’t have, and sent a better than himself howling into the black beyond. Look at me. I said look.”

Flinching at Kjal’s taunt Ryel raised his head, revealing his empty eyes. The Elecambronian laughed in a hyena’s hoarse cough.

Did you summon Michael for that? To show him how your pretty face has changed?”

No. I came for help.”

And what help do you think Michael would have given? He scorned you. He told me as much.”

Ryel felt his face growing hot as he remembered his first and only conversation with Michael Essern. “I seek any help at all. Edris was dear to me. He died untimely. If there is any way I can bring him back...”

The hooks of Kjal’s mouth twitched. “You cannot. Leave it at that.”

No one knows more than you about the ways of death. Surely your Art has the power to...”

Be silent, boy.” Those cold words chilled Ryel mute, and after a long while, Kjal spoke again, his voice a blurry weary wheeze. “There is no resurrection. I have taken corpses and made them walk and talk. Dog’s tricks. Mountebankery. Anyone with the stomach for it can instill a srih of the Outer World into the dead, and have it animate the body for as long as desired. We of Elecambron can all of us animate a corpse in a crude way. The cleverest of us—myself and a handful of others—can cause the srih to subsume the traits and qualities of the dead man, or woman, and so cause a cadaver to seem quite passably alive. But it never fools for long.”

Yet I have been duped by it, Ryel thought, feeling his stomach cramp as he recalled, for a sickening instant, his fifth Markulit year and a beautiful woman with a laugh like crystal when it shatters, who had come to him in the night and...

Kjal’s shrug banished the memory. “The corpse eventually rots, and gives away the game rather nastily. You Markulits have your Jade Citadel to keep your dead fresh; we here in Elecambron have plenty of ice. But interestingly enough, Michael spoke of the Joining-spell not long before he left. That, and a voice which intruded upon his thoughts, giving him no rest.”

Ryel started. “A voice?”

Aye. Michael Essern is not one to hear voices, nor to obey when they command; but this one he gave ear to. It claimed to belong to none other than Dagar Rall.”

Ryel felt a shudder crawl over him, but fought to keep his face calm. “All the Cities know of Dagar. He was a monster. But he lived centuries ago, and even monsters die.”

Kjal’s mouth twitched. “You are sure?”

Ryel winced as his skin crept. “Kjal, what do you mean?”

I think you understand. Your City teaches that death of the body is death of the rai—death entirely. And we of Elecambron have for a thousand years done all we could to disprove you, to no avail. But nevertheless one cannot deny that many of the Art-brotherhood—you and my student Michael the most recent—have stood on the edge of existence, and sensed the shadow-land between being and unbeing. It is my belief that Dagar could well be trapped there, seeking a way to return to the World.”

But Dagar was slain by the entire population of your City, who banded together to destroy him. It took all their Art to do so, and his body was burned with fire so consuming that not even ashes were left. Even were his rai able to escape, it has nothing to return to.”

Kjal just barely shook his head. “There is a moment where body and rai part, on the edge of death. In that instant, with the right Art, Dagar’s rai could readily find a home again in another form.” Again the hooks twitched upward. “Yours would suit him wonderfully. The irony of it.”

Ryel felt Kjal’s eyes on him like crawling pale slugs, and shrugged as if to shake them off. “The Joining-spell you speak of was created by Lord Garnos of this City, and lost long ago. No one of the Brotherhood now possesses the Art to re-create it.”

That’s all as may be.” Kjal’s eyes finally blinked. “I didn’t think I’d miss Michael as much as I do. He was young. Good to look upon. Trouble.” The hideous mask hardened. “Existence is a curse, Ryel Mirai. Do not call upon me again.”

The Glass darkened. Ryel for a long time stood looking at the blank surface, and then moved to the great chair that stood in the center of the room, and sank into it as he buried his face in his hands.

But even amid the most secret of his thoughts, the voice that had whispered to him on the wall spoke again, out of a swelter of oppressive air.

Ah, sweet eyes. What good to be greatest, if it be fool among fools? I that have shown you water can show you the World. Look here.

Ryel looked up, and found himself in a market-square of a city all unlike Markul. The buildings and towers of this place were of pale stone, alabaster and sweet-hued marble beautifully wrought. The wysard could smell fresh water, and rare spices, and almonds; could see merchants’ stalls heaped with rare goods, mosaic-lined canals alive with shimmering fish, throngs of people hastening to and fro under a sun so brilliant and hot that his eyes dazzled and his skin glowed. And he heard music, bells, peremptory voices.

Make way for the Sovrena Diara!”

A long slender boat, airy and graceful in the crystalline spangled blue of the canal, halted at the steps of a temple—the House of the Goddess Atlan, as the carving on the portals made clear. Half-naked slaves draped in jewels plied the oars, while soldiers in golden mail and ladies gorgeously clad guarded and attended a pavilion set in the midst of the deck. Ryel could discern a human form behind the translucent hangings—a woman’s form, surpassingly beautiful. And when the curtains parted—

The vision vanished.

Show me more,” Ryel said, leaning forward, fighting for breath. “I saw her only for an instant.”

The voice laughed. And to what purpose? Are you not dead from the waist down, Markulit?

It was a strange voice, of neither sex; its final words recalled Ryel to himself.

I am Ryel Mirai, son of Yorganar that was,” he said aloud. “A citizen of Markul. The Art and my life are one. I heed no voices but those that I myself call for; and I will no longer listen to you, whatever you be.”

He rose, and would have left the conjuring-chamber; but the voice came again at his back, burning his bare nape.

Do not listen, then, the voice said. Look. Only look.

All unwilling Ryel turned again. Once more he was in the midst of pale lovely buildings, amid music and brilliant light; and the curtains parted, and the Sovrena Diara came forth. “Ah,” breathed Ryel; and beyond that he was speechless.

Her body was veiled in film upon dawn-tinted film of translucent silk, her face concealed by a half-mask glittering with jewels, but Ryel could discern past these coverings that she was far fairer than the riches that covered her—more flawless than the pearls that hung in strings from her diadem, with eyes more heaven-blue than the sapphires about her delicate neck, and lips brighter than the rubies encircling her wrists; and no stone drawn from any of the earth’s mines could be precious enough to equal the beauty of her hair, that hung in loose smooth tresses and gem-entwined plaits—hair like black satin rope, heavy and gleaming.

Just turned of eighteen, the voice continued mercilessly. Beneath her silks, all the answers to men’s riddles: nothing more slender than her waist. Nothing softer and sweeter than her breasts. Nothing smoother than her back, straighter than her legs. Nothing more—

Enough,” Ryel rasped, dry-mouthed.

It seemed, then, that Diara looked directly at him, her gaze at once imperious and inviting. But beyond that Ryel saw something else behind the mask, something that disturbed him—a desperate pleading that froze out his desire. Yet only for an eyeblink, until her jewels flashed and glittered under the white sun with unbearable intensity, forcing him to close his eyes. When he opened them again he was alone, in cold darkness dispelled only by a single candle.

Aye, the voice at his elbow murmured. Light is hard to bear, after years spent in dank fogs and shadows. And lust is even harder...or is it, eunuch?

Leave me,” Ryel snapped. “Leave me and never return.” And he said a spell-word of dismissal, a strong one; but the voice only laughed.

I’m no srih-servant, to be commanded. Nor can you so easily rid yourself of yourself, young blood. But enough of visions. Time now to get your hands full of the World. The World you have been locked away from for a dozen weary years.

I cannot return to the World.” The wysard blinked burning lids, thinking of the beautiful girl who could never look upon him save with horror. “I cannot. Not with these eyes.”

The World does not see with the Art-brotherhood’s acuity, the voice replied, its sly whine laced with honey. It will behold you as you once were.

Hope wrestled down disbelief. “Explain,” Ryel breathed, clutching the arms of his chair.

Only one learned in the Art can discern an Overreacher.

Ryel leapt up. “How is it you know that? Tell me!”

A long while he stood waiting. But he knew by the quality of the air, by a sudden lightening of the atmosphere, that whatever had spoken had departed to whatever place it came from.

Chapter Two


Ryel slept little and badly after that day. Even though the voice did not torment him again, it had destroyed his powers of concentration and his desire for study. The wysard found himself wasting that most precious of his possessions, time. He would sit for hours at his great window that opened onto the Aqqar, watching mist succeed mist, waiting for he knew not what, anxious in his heart for reasons he could not explain. No human form came out of the mist during his watching, nor did he expect it; during the twelve years since his admittance into Markul only three aspirants had emerged from the fog and approached the eastern gates to petition for entry. One of them had been turned away for a madwoman and another for a fool, and the third had lived only months after entering the gates.

Our numbers were ever few, Ryel thought as he looked down at the ground just outside the walls, at the scattered clusters of garments and belongings, most of them wonderfully rich, left behind by those who had been taken into the city. Some hundreds of souls; never more than two hundred at any time. And save for myself, all old, old—Lord Katen the oldest since Lord Srinnoul’s death, with his century and a half, or two hundred years if one counts by the reckoning of the World. In Markulit reckoning I am but twelve, not much less than the age I’d attained in the World when I came to this place; and now I feel as if I have lived both lives in a void.

His impenetrable eyes rested on the humblest of the garment-heaps, one made up of the common gear of a Steppes horseman—a side-fastened shirt of heavy undyed linen, embroidered in Rismai designs at the cuffs and collar and hem by his mother’s hands; a long fawn-colored coat belted at the waist, the skirts vented deep for riding; soft leather leggings, and supple riding-boots that might be drawn up above the knee or downgathered in folds around the calf. Next to these garments were Jinn’s saddlebags, containing things Ryel had cherished or thought needful. Such was the Mastery girding Markul that despite the eternal damp, each of these objects was as whole and unweathered as the day he had flung it from him, as indeed was everything left by others.

Were I to believe what the voice said, I could don those clothes again, Ryel thought. Belt them about me, pull on those boots, toss that bag upon my shoulder and leave this place even as I came. Leave behind the learning of the Art, I that have already learned more than any man living, and take up the World’s way. The world of clear light, and blue water, and golden towers...

He half-rose from the window-embrasure where he sat, but another thought made him return to his place, and lock his arms around his knees.

The voice wants that,” he whispered. “Wants me to venture forth alone, and without doubt wishes me harm.”

He rested his chin on his knees, and stared as far into the fog as he could, and remembered his first years in Markul. From the beginning he had been fortunate in having his kinsman Edris as his teacher. No blood-ties united the celibate wysards of the City, and newcomers were by custom given shelter and instruction by whoever it was that first saw them from the walls—not always a fortuitous circumstance. The first year had been hardest. Ryel had been required to put away all recollection of his past, to force his mind and body into the complete calm and mental readiness requisite for the second year’s learning—difficult enough for a grown man, but far harder for a boy. The second year he had begun to experiment with and inure himself to the many drugs used by the Art-brotherhood to channel concentration and heighten perceptual acuity. And he learned his first spells, those that would harness the servant-spirits of the Outer World, an urgently necessary but dangerous test of will that had ever proven the winnowing-threshold separating live lord adept from mere dead aspirant.

Ryel had resisted this crucial step, but not out of fear. Even as a little child he had been deeply skeptical of those tales in which fakirs commanded the air for whatever they wished. What had seemed impossible to him then was in no way more plausible now. “It can’t happen,” he had said. And Edris had replied with the most contemptuously resonant of snorts.

Spoken like a hard-headed ignorant yat-brat. Look around you, boy. You know full well that none of this was brought here by mules and carts. But what if it had been? Would you have thought mules magical beasts?”

Ryel shrugged as he blushed. “I’m only saying that it doesn’t seem possible to create material objects from nothingness.”

Edris’ scorn was profound. “You’re a fool, whelp. When you threw off your clothes outside the walls, you were meant to strip your mind fully as bare. In Markul the possible and the impossible are one and the same. Yet even in the World everything is a miracle, if viewed closely—the wind in the air, the blinking of your eyes, a seed’s progress to a fruit. The Mastery of Air is no more or less miraculous, no more or less commonplace. But apparently you were too dull in the World to wonder how the stars got into the sky—or how you got into your mother’s womb.”

I’m not as dull as you like to think,” Ryel said, turning away at his kinsman’s last words, remembering how from earliest childhood he would escape into the Steppes night while all else slept, running far from the yats into the deep fields, there to lie with his back to the breathing grass and his face to the flickering infinity overhead. As a child he had known no greater delight than those rapt communions that leapt to ecstasy at every touchstone streak of meteor. But as he grew older the joy ebbed, giving way to aching awe, ineffable hunger, solitude absolute and godless where each pinprick shimmer melded into a burning white weight just above his heart, intensifying with every star that fell.

I have not known the stars in two years, he thought. The remembrance of everything else he missed seemed to envelop him like Markulit fog, chill and desolate.

Rough gibing woke him. “Where’re you woolgathering now, whelp?”

Far away from this place,” Ryel replied, every word snapped.

I’ve been too easy on you. You’re not learning fast enough.”

I can’t learn any faster.”

You mean you don’t want to.”

Ryel lifted his chin. “I know by heart the spells that tame srihs.”

Then use them, fool.”

They shouldn’t work,” Ryel replied, stung and angry. “Not by the World’s laws.”

Edris snorted again, even more contemptuously. “Damn the dullard World. The Art takes imagination, lad—something you’ve shown precious little of, I’m sorry to say. You have to not only accept the impossible, but make it happen. That’s what the meditations and the drugs of the first couple of years are for—to loosen your mind, open it up, free it from fear and doubt. You’ve learned all that, but you’ll never move on to the next step as long as I keep feeding you. A few days’ fasting, and you’d learn srih-Mastery soon enough...” To Ryel’s deep perturbation and resentment, Edris’ long eyes lit in mocking malice. “Now there’s a thought. I’ll just quit feeding you. Find your own dinner tonight, brat.”

Ryel went hungry for three days. During that time he endured not only starvation, but Edris’ taunts and wavings of food in his face, which he stonily ignored. However, by the dawning of the fourth day he knew by the lightness of his head and the famished tremor of the rest of him that he must either progress to the next step of the Art while he still had the strength, or submit to having his uncle throw him scraps and call him idiot. Goaded beyond all misgivings, he called up the last of his strength and strode to the book-table in the middle of his room, knocking aside the scrolls and volumes, cursing his stomach, the Art, Markul, Edris, everything. With peremptory exasperation he barked out the necessary mantra, then commanded a full Steppes breakfast with chal hot and strong. When these things appeared, he felt no astonishment, and scarcely muttered thanks to his unseen servitors as he grabbed a piece of bread and tore off a vengeful bite.

So, brat. You finally came round.” Edris leaned in the doorway, grinning. “Good job, lad.” Uninvited he came in, examining the food with a critical eye. “Not very fancily dished, but everything looks fresh.” He sampled the food with approval. “And not a trace of poison, either. You must have done it right. Srihs are like horses—if you don’t show them straightway who’s master they’ll throw you. The only difference is you might survive a toss from a horse.”

Edris said that full-mouthed, and Ryel for a vicious moment wished his Art less, and his srihs venomous. “My thanks for your fatherly concern.” He put a bitter stress on the adjective, one that made Edris stop chewing and swallow hard.

Listen, whelp.” His two great hands clamped down over Ryel’s shoulders, his dark slant eyes probed Ryel’s like thorns. “I wouldn’t want a hair of your thick head so much as frayed. Believe that. But you’ve got to learn, and fast.”

Ryel struggled to free himself, unavailingly. “Why should I hurry? Am I not to grow old here, like all the rest of you?”

Edris’ warning shake made Ryel’s teeth clack. “Watch it, brat. I’m not so much a graybeard that I can’t keep you in line. It may be that neither of us will stay here forever. It may be that your Art is meant for the World. But even if you end up flat on your back in the Jade Tower, you’re going to learn everything I can teach you first.”

I won’t.” Ryel wrenched himself from his kinsman’s grip and kicked over the table, scattering everything. “I want to go home. I want to—to look at stars. I’m leaving.”

Edris only laughed. “Try getting the gates open.”

I’ll slide down the damned walls if I have to.”

Not a chance, lad.” The big hands caught him again, and tightened beyond any escape. “You’re staying here. And you’re learning. You’re going to learn the Art faster and more cleverly than anyone has since the First built this City. I’ll see to it.” A long time Edris looked upon Ryel’s face, for once without irony. “But you won’t have to live under my roof or by my rules any longer. You’ve shown today that you can take care of yourself. Markul’s full of empty houses—choose one for your own.”

Three days ago Ryel might have greeted that news with overt joy. Now he merely gave a curt nod, as one grown man to another. “I already have.”

Edris was amused, but for once seemed to make an effort not to show it. “Where?”

Close to this. It’s the one built above the wall, looking westward.”

Ah. Lord Aubrel lived there—and died there, out of his mind and by his own hand.”

Ryel shrugged away his shudder. “It’s well-placed and large.”

Edris grinned. “Considerably larger than this, you mean. Well, I had elbow room enough until you came along, whelp, and I won’t mind getting it back. You’re welcome to Lord Aubrel’s house—no one’s crossed its threshold since he was carried out lifeless over it, centuries ago. You needn’t worry about its being haunted, but I’ll wager the dust is a foot thick.”

Ryel shrugged again, confidently now. “My srihs will clean it.”

Well said. That’s what they’re for. The First fully understood that learning the Art left no time for household drudgery. You can rely on srihs to provide all that you need to live—and they’ll do so lavishly, if they respect you. But it’s unwise to ask too much of them. Fatal, to some. Be careful.”

I will be.”

You’re so damned young. Nothing but a boy, and yet—” For a silent while Edris seemed to brood, then, his eyes fixed not on Ryel’s but someplace immeasurably far. “You’re stronger than you know, lad. Stronger than I’ll ever be.” That grin again, more ferociously jeering than ever. “And too foolish by much to fear anything. So order us some fresh breakfast, and after it we’ll go on to the next step.”


Ryel had learned the next step, and the next, and all others after. He learned quickly, without particular effort. The hard part was overcoming revulsion and fear, emotions all too frequent in Art-dealings. His initiation complete, Ryel might have followed Edris’ example and Markulit custom, and devoted all his study to the Mastery. But because he was young and still felt the pull of the World, he often escaped to the great library of the City to study volume after volume of art, music, travel, literature, customs of various countries, sciences, mathematics, history. He also learned the healing arts, since many of the adepts of Markul had been notable physicians in the World, and were glad to teach him. From them Ryel learned surgery and herbal medicine. He could at need set a broken limb, cure illness, counteract poison—and more.

You’re the only male in this city still capable of delivering a baby,” Edris had said, when Ryel was in his fifth Markulit year. “The men here who used to be doctors have long forgotten everything you’ve been learning from Serah and the others. It’s that smooth face of yours—the sisterhood tell you things about their bodies’ workings that the rest of us never had time to understand, and now have no use for. Never was a man—much less a mere boy—so deeply learned in women’s lore. But you’ve got the best instruction, after all. Few women’s minds are subtler and more keen than those of Serah, Mevanda, and Elindal, three of the greatest witches in the world.”

Don’t call them witches. They are like my my—” Ryel caught the word in his bitten lip, but Edris guessed it nonetheless. His dark eyes searched his nephew’s face, unsmilingly now.

You still miss her.”

Ryel looked away. “Yes. And my father, and the sister I remember only as a baby just taking her first steps.”

He thought of them because he was in Edris’ house, sitting on floor-cushions by the fireside as he would have on the Steppes. His own home by the western wall he had made ever more comfortable in the past three years, with Almancarian touches of luxury; but his kinsman’s house was in all respects yatlike, its walls draped with leather hangings, its appointments rough and spare. One might almost walk outside into green miles of field, bright sun and blue sky and whipping winds.

Edris stirred the fire, and poured them each more chal. “Serah Dalkith would willingly be something more than a mother to you. She’s still a beauty.”

Ryel felt himself blushing, and made no reply. The notion had occurred to him many times before. “She’s closer to your age, and I’ve seen the way you two look at each other.”

Edris shrugged. “We’re good friends. But friendship between a man and a woman is never without a bit of spark. Makes it interesting.”

Ryel’s thoughts stayed with the Steppes. “Do you never wish to leave Markul and return to the World?”

Never, lad.”


Because as long as you’re here, I am. To instruct you. And time’s running out.” He tossed more kulm on the fire, watching the flames leap up. “Our Art’s fading, lad. Most of this City think they’re strong and clever because they can order about a srih or two. The First Ones built this place with their Mastery, but nowadays you’ll not find many in all this City who can cobble together so much as a privy using their minds’ power alone.”

It’s because everyone here is so old. Much older than you, even.”

Edris dealt Ryel a withering eye-glint. “It isn’t just age, brat. They’re being bled dry of their Art. But it’s gotten worse. People have been dying too fast in this City, and not by accident nor the wear of years. Their srihs turned on them. We took Abenamar to the Jade Tower only a few days ago—he was far from a fool, and not ten years older than me. And not long before that, Colbrent and Melisende. Whenever one of our brotherhood dies, his srihs go on to serve other adepts, or at least that’s the way it’s always been, until lately. Now they simply disappear. I can feel it, as if the air were growing thin. Someone—or something—has it in for us.”

I’ll find out why. I’m young enough to learn fast, unlike the rest of you.”

Those words elicited a heartfelt snort. “You’re as arrogant as you were when we first met, back in Yorganar’s yat.”

Ryel stared into the fire, where his memories leapt. “They said in Risma that you were one of the best horsemen of the phratri. Do you never miss riding fast? Going at a full gallop in a game of kriy?”

Edris was silent a long time, so long that Ryel stopped expecting an answer. But then he spoke. “You should have put those memories behind you long ago, whelp.”

It is difficult to forget the World, kinsman.”

Edris grunted a half-laugh. “You barely had time to know you were alive in it before you entered this City’s walls.”

Ryel bristled. “I was almost a man.” A flash of anger burnt his heart. “You came here after you had fought in wars, and lain with women. But thanks to you I’ll never—”

Shut up.” Ryel felt Edris’ hand under his chin, forcing his gaze away from the bright flames into darker fire a hundredfold more hot. “So what if I nearly got myself killed a dozen times? So what if I had my first woman at sixteen, and a hundred more after that, using myself up with witless lust? What is it you envy, brat?”

The hard light in those long eyes dried up Ryel’s mouth, and he spoke with effort. “There was...more than that.”

There was. But I was too much of a fool to understand. I came here. I’ll die here.” Edris hesitated; scrutinized his nephew’s face more closely. “You have Mira’s looks,” he said at last. “Her looks and her ways, all unlike those of the rough Rismai.” His unwonted revery gave way to a grin all too habitual as he reached out, grazing a tough knuckle across Ryel’s cheek. “And you’re still beardless, after nineteen World-years. Smooth as a girl.”

Lady Serah taught me the spell for it.” Ryel paused. “She uses it for her legs.”

Edris grinned. “Her legs and what else, boy? Yes, blush like the innocent you are.” He gave the smooth cheek a stinging pat. “You’re getting too pleased with yourself. For your better instruction—and to somewhat temper your conceit—you’ve a rival in Elecambron.”

Indignantly amazed, Ryel lifted his chin. “A rival? Who?”

A tall lad named Michael, a brash young wonder.”

For Elecambron, sixty is young.”

Don’t smirk, whelp. I’ll admit he’s older than you, but he’s not yet thirty. He came to his City at about the same time you found your way here.“

Why did no one tell me of him before?” Ryel asked, half in disbelief. “Why did you not tell me?”

Because I only learned of him recently, and have never seen him myself. It was his instructor, no less than Elecambron’s great Kjal Gör, who informed me when we last talked by Glass some weeks ago. Michael’s a Northerner out of Hryeland, a nobleman of one of the great families there.” Edris half-smiled in ambivalent reminiscence. “His father and I were friends, long ago in my soldiering days.”

Normally Ryel would have wanted to hear more of those days, but not now. “Does Michael know of me?”

Edris nodded, slowly and with irony. “He does; and he’s not overly impressed, from what I hear. Other things I could tell you about his ancestry, but they can keep. You’d only feel more at a disadvantage if you knew.”

Ryel flushed. “If he and I met face to face, he’d learn who was strongest.”

Edris was very far from impressed. “Ah. Would he, now. He’s lived rougher than you’ve any idea. Before coming to Elecambron—a terrible place so I hear, compared to which this of ours is a paradise—he fought in some notably vicious wars. You’ve been safe and snug here in Markul, everyone’s darling boy. But had you remained in the World, I wonder what you’d have become—a mollycoddle at your mother’s skirts, or a rank dullard like Yorg—”

Ryel lifted his chin. “I’d have been as you were. A proud wild warrior.”

Oh, indeed. As I was.” But for all his tone, Edris now looked Ryel eye to eye, no longer jeering. “Get your blade, boy, and meet me in the courtyard.”

Minutes later they faced one another in cold mist, on chill flagstones, their robes and sleeves tucked up and tied back for ease of action, their feet unshod for surer movement. It was ever Edris’ wont to go barefoot even when snow drifted thick upon the top of Markul’s wall, but Ryel had not yet acquired that extremity of control over his flesh. To forget the icy rough rock beneath his naked soles, the young wysard fingered the hilt of the sword that Yorganar had given him in his thirteenth World-year—a Kaltiri blade of great worth, that had drawn blood in battle countless times. The Rismai neither made nor carried swords, preferring the bow, the spear, and the dagger; but Yorganar had wished that his son learn the warrior’s art of his homeland, and to that end instructed him as thoroughly as he might in the little time he had. When Ryel left for Markul a year later, Yorganar had given him stern advice.

Don’t go soft in that sorcerer’s roost. Edris knows a sword’s use as well as me, if not better. Make him teach you some of his skill.”

They spoke man to man in the cold gray of dawn, for Ryel’s mother had retired to the yat with Nelora, unable to bear the torment of parting from her only son. Mounted and ready, Ryel twined Jinn’s mane in his fingers, trying to warm them as he struggled for words, using the most formal of the Rismai dialect. “You have given me great gifts, my father—this horse that is the best you own, and the sword you carried in war..”

Little Nelora at that moment escaped from the yat and ran staggering toward them, bawling with baby abandon. Yorganar picked her up, hushing her with a tenderness he had never shown Ryel.

Hold your noise, wee lamb.” And he tossed the child in his arms until Nel quieted and smiled. Addressing Ryel again, Yorganar harshened. “Those are not gifts. Nelora will grow up as a Rismai woman should, and have no need of a sword. As for the mare, Jinn was yours from the day of her birth, and I am no back-taker.”

It’s better this way, Ryel thought. I’m glad he loves Nel, at least. Reaching out, he stroked the child’s wealth of curls, marveling as he always did at their bright gold gleam, so rare in the Steppes and so praised; the touch felt like a blessing, as did the little arms that stubbornly wreathed his neck until he gently urged them away. “Farewell, baby sister.” He kissed her petal cheek, then turned to Yorganar, all haltingly. “My father, I will miss you.”

Yorganar held Nelora closer, not looking at Ryel. “Edris will take my place. Has he not already?”

Ryel had no reply to that. For the past year he had remembered Edris every night as he lay awake, and dreamed of dark towers when at last he slept; had ridden the plain and climbed the dead fire-mountains and played kriy and wrestled with his play-brothers, knowing in his secret heart that he would never grow to manhood among them; had been a devoted son to his mother, and a loving brother to Nelora; had kept out of Yorganar’s way, save when they fought with swords.

Farewell, Yorganar Desharem,” he said, then bent from the saddle and kissed him for the first and last time in his life, on the temple in the Steppes way between male kindred, swiftly lest he be pushed away. Wheeling Jinn about, he sent her into a gallop with a touch of his heel, and felt the sharp wind blow the tears out of his eyes into his streaming hair.


Wake up, whelp.”

Ryel blinked, torn from his revery. Edris stood waiting, his own sword drawn and ready—a Kaltiri tagh like Yorganar’s, slim and double-edged and silver-bright, its hilt fashioned long for two-handed combat; like Yorganar’s, but far richer and deadlier. Most wonderful of all, it was incredibly light, as easily wielded as a willow switch. Yorganar’s sword felt like a log of lead in comparison. Ryel had been permitted to handle this exquisite weapon only once, but forever after had coveted the way its hilt-ridges took his grip like a firm handclasp, the fearful beauty of its glass-keen blade etched with an inscription that Ryel could not read, and that Edris would not translate.

I want your sword,” the boy-wysard said, feeling Yorganar’s great tagh maddeningly clumsy in his hand.

Edris’ cropped head gave a fierce scorning shake. “You’ll have to kill me first.”

You’ve come close to being killed lots of times, from the looks of it,” Ryel said, at once defiant and daunted. “You’re covered with scars.”

Grown men gave them to me, boy.”

During his time in the North, during the strength of his youth, Edris had become a member of an arcane cult of elite warriors, and the inscription on Edris’ blade had been conferred by the order after deadly combat; that much Ryel knew, but no more. “Tell me what those runes say.”

Never, brat. Come on.”

They squared off and saluted in one of the Kaltiri ways—not the salute of enemies bent upon death, nor of friends vying in strength, but of a warrior testing his squire—a low bow from Ryel, and almost none at all from Edris, and then blades lightly crossed once, twice, then drawn apart slowly—and in that lingering last moment, battle swift and strenuous. Soon Ryel felt all his blood grown hot, heard himself panting as he slashed and lunged.

Edris was fully versed in the formal style of Northern fencing, and had taught Ryel its rules and rituals as an aid to concentration. But for sheer diversion he and Ryel both relished the Eastern fashion of fighting with its wild grace and headlong acrobatics, its yells and grunts and curses, its savage slashings and hairsbreadth dodges. The Northern style relied on cold skill, agile discipline and rigid punctilio, but the way of the East was one of ruthless force and arrant treachery.

Although Edris had never yet employed the latter stratagem, Ryel knew his kinsman’s strength only too well. Fifty World-years had thinned and grayed Edris’ close-shorn dark hair, and deeply etched his outer eye-corners, but none of those years had shrunken or softened the lean muscles that clung to his hulking height. Now the disarray of combat revealed the long stark-sinewed arms and legs, the broad chest, that the trailing amplitudes of Markulit robes at all other times concealed, and at the sight Ryel felt newborn weak and naked.

Someday I’ll beat you.”

Edris only gave a jeering grin. “You’ll need Art for that, whelp. Go on, do your worst.”

Ryel had never forgiven himself for what happened next. Murmuring a word that made his adversary lose his balance, Ryel had lashed forward; and all at once a great jet of blood burst from the base of Edris’ throat, and he sank to the ground, clutching both hands against the gush.

Nerveless with horror, Ryel dropped to his knees at Edris’ side. “Ithradrakis—”

Edris tried to speak, but no sound came save a horrible wordless rasp as he clutched at the wound. Steaming in the cold, blood welled up between his fingers, spilled down his chest, drained the bright battle-flush from his face.

Ryel forced his kinsman’s hands away, replacing them with his own. The hot blood pulsed under his desperate palms, leaving no time for anything but as many words of Mastery as he could remember and rattle off lesson-like, terrified lest none of them should work, knowing that he had no right to utter any of them, that they were many levels above his learning, yet knowing too that any mortal art was more useless still. And with those words he mingled others of his own making, desperate mantras never learned from books, but surging forth from that hidden place within where his secret strength lay.

Only when his tears trickled into his mouth-corners and made him gag did he realize he was crying. He could smell Edris’ blood, there was so much of it—a metallic savor of rust—and the fear-soured reek of his own body; feel the chill damp stones gritting his bare knees, the raw mist-laden wind freezing his face. Under his encircling arm Edris was slipping, growing limp. You can’t, Ryel thought, all his own blood panicking. Not this way.

Edris’ head lolled heavily against Ryel’s shoulder, its eyes shut hard, its lips snarled in a lifeless grimace.

No, Ryel thought. Not while I live. And scorning that life he Art-willed his strength into Edris’ dying body, uttering each word with such fevered concentration that when he fell silent he could barely breathe for exhaustion. But his kinsman remained motionless.

Gone,” Ryel whispered brokenly. “Gone—” he closed his own eyes, sick with desolation. In his heartbreak he began to make the keening moan uttered by the Rismai in their worst despair as he rocked back and forth cradling his kinsman’s dead weight, a mourning-cry he’d forgotten for years.

But in that torturing moment he felt a stinging pat across his cheek as startling as a full-fisted blow, and Edris’ heavy inert body give an impatient twitch. Ryel started, looked down, cried out. Edris’ long dark eyes were open and gleaming, and his wide mouth grinned, and his deep voice mocked.

In the name of All, quit squealing, brat. And hold still.”

Ryel had already frozen. He was mute as well, but Edris didn’t appear to notice.

Not bad Mastery, whelp. Presumptuous, dangerous, and stupid, but good of its kind.”

Ryel felt as weak as if half his own blood had been drawn. He couldn’t speak, and didn’t want to cry anymore, had no reason to now, yet the tears still fell. And for the first time in their lives together he felt Edris embrace him and hold him close, making him sob all the more.

Shh. Quiet down, lad.” Edris’ long fingers raked Ryel’s black locks, and his lips touched the thudding wet-haired fever just above Ryel’s left ear. “Well done. First kill me, which so many have tried to do and failed, and then bring me back. Clever work.”

Ryel heard his voice leap and crack. “Forgive me.”

Hah. Not in a hurry I won’t. You had to resort to the Art to give me that cut—an unfair advantage.”

Treacherous, you mean,” Ryel muttered. “I despise myself.”

Edris shook his head. “Don’t. I asked for it. I wanted to see how good you were in all your skill, Art and swordplay both. You’re an indifferent fighter, but I’ll have to admit you’re turning into a pretty fair wysard.”

Ryel felt his breath coming fast. “You mean you let me wound you?”

Edris shrugged. “It didn’t hurt that much.”

But my uncle. The cut was mortal.”

Edris gave a laugh. “Damned right it was. I’d have died had your Mastery been less.”

Ryel trembled. “You’d not have saved yourself?”

I’m not sure I could have, lad.” He gave Ryel an impatient shake. “Quit sniveling. It’s unmanly.”

Ryel quieted, and for some minutes he and Edris rested against each other on the courtyard flagstones. Ah, ithradrakis, Ryel thought as he rubbed his wet cheek against the gore-stiffened hair of Edris’ chest. How could I love you with my entire heart, and nearly kill you—

You’re shivering,” Edris said. “It’s raw out here, and our sweat’s grown cold and we’re reeking dirty. Come on.” He got to his feet, and pulled Ryel to his.

Ryel stared at the place he’d cut. “Are you in pain?”

Edris considered a moment. “Not much. Hardly at all.”

There’s a scar.”

Edris fingered the place where he’d bled. “Aye. A good big one.” He wiped his hands on his clothes. “What was that name you called me? The Almancarian one.”

Ryel bit his lip. “Ithradrakis.”

Edris seemed not to hear as he threw his cloak about him. “I need a drink of something strong. Come on.” And he strode away, but Ryel watched him long before he followed.


Later that night, after he had returned to his house and calmed his thoughts with a long hot bath and steadying meditation, Ryel dressed in fresh robes and settled in to study for the night. He had chosen one of the Books of the First that gave the histories of the Builders of Markul, his curiosity whetted by words Edris had let fall before their duel.

There in his conjuring-room, as he read by lamplight during that endless interval between midnight and dawn, he felt it—a stirring not of the air, but of something beyond the air. It was wordless, yet it commanded him. Never before had he been summoned to his Glass; Lord Aubrel’s Glass it had been, large and richly framed, hidden behind a dark curtain broidered with arcane symbols in silver and gold. Ryel had always kept it tightly closed, but now he slowly crossed the room and drew aside the velvet drapery.

At length a shadow floated over the Glass, and fixed there; and the shape’s darkness took form bit by bit, as if some unseen artist were painting an image upon the matte silver surface. It began with the hair—startling hair of deep blood-red, that spilled in thick skeins to broad shoulders. The body next appeared, to the waist; a strong form clad not in wysard robes but a black jacket such as Northern soldiers wore, with silver insignia denoting an officer of high rank. The top buttons of the jacket’s high collar were loosened as if for the wearer’s ease, but as if cognizant of Ryel’s scrutiny the form’s hand reached up and fastened them as the face filled in, starting with the eyes.

Those eyes would haunt Ryel’s thoughts forever after. Never had he seen a regard more cold, so icy that he caught his breath at it: eyes of pale gray, wolfish and utterly unreadable under level lowering brows. The rest of the face was forcefully handsome in a harsh, abruptly planed way, every feature firm and unyielding. Ryel could not imagine that face smiling, save in scorn; and even now the fine lips twitched, parting to reveal teeth fiercely white, and a voice like deep still music issued, akin to a great bell tolling at a far distance.

So. Ryel Mirai.”

Ryel inclined his head, but just barely. He knew well with whom he spoke, and his Steppes blood quickened in his veins, and his hand clenched at his side as if around the hilt of a sword. “From all seemings, I address Lord Michael of Elecambron. What would you want of me?”

Only to view for myself the boy wonder all the Brotherhood speaks of. How old are you?”

Five. Nineteen, in World-years.”

Michael’s face made a brief contortion of contempt. “My World-years number twenty-seven. I’ve dwelt in this ice-hell for six of them.”

Ryel felt a twinge of pride. “Then you’re only a year older than me, in Art-reckoning. That isn’t much.”

Michael grunted disdain. “I came here with well-trained wits and a battle-hardened body, studied the Art with my entire attention and almost no sleep, and didn’t throw my time away as I’ve heard you do.”

Ryel bristled. “And how might you have come by that knowledge, Lord Michael?”

The red wysard waved away Ryel’s words with offhand scorn. “I have my ways. I also know how the Art found you. But if you think your little romp in the rain and bit of a shock impressed me, think again. I was thrown alive into my grave, Steppes gypsy. Stripped naked, smeared with pitch, bound with chains, and tossed into a hole full of fire.” He made a noise probably meant to be a laugh. “The Hrwalri didn’t like the color of my hair, perhaps…not that they’re ever gentle with their prisoners.”

Ryel thought of that fate, and shivered. “You were a captive of the White Barbarians?”

Aye, a roving band of them. It was during the Barrier Wars. I don’t think the savages expected me to crawl out of that pit unscathed, any more than they could have imagined the death I dealt them afterward.” His wolf-eyes prowled over every feature of Ryel’s face. “My Art’s strength dates from that time. And my strength is greater than yours, boy. Far greater, even if I chose Elecambron instead of my forebear’s City. I have the blood of the First in my veins.”

Ryel blinked. “How is that possible?”

Michael’s cold stare moved past Ryel and fixed on the open book on the wysard’s desk. “Keep reading that and you’ll find out.” He fell silent awhile, his eyes brooding. “An accursed line it’s been; high time it ended. My brother and I have made a pact to be the last.” He reached up, thrusting back his strange hair as his teeth clenched in evident pain. “Enough of this. I wanted to see you, and I have.”

Wait.” Ryel hardly knew what to say next, or how to say it. He’d suddenly realized how much he’d missed talking to someone close to his own age, and past Michael’s truculence he sensed a kindred isolation. “If you ever wish to speak with me again, my lord brother, I’d be honored.”

Michael grimaced, his face taut. “I’ve nothing more to say to you.”

You seem to be suffering. I have some skill in healing, and if you would…”

Let me be, damn you.”

Stung and angered, Ryel would have replied, but the red wysard growled a word of dismissal and his image faded into blackness.

When Ryel had regained his composure, which took some time, he read further in the history he’d begun, and learned to his amazement that Michael Essern was indeed a lineal descendant of Lord Aubrel D’Sern, one of the most famed of the First and Highest. Aubrel’s family had ruled in the North many centuries gone, and as an eldest son Aubrel was marked for kingship; but the Art called him to Markul. And for a long time he and the other First Ones dwelt there harmoniously together, studying and working the Mastery; but then Aubrel unwisely sought to explore the boundaries between life and death. He survived the Crossing, but returned infected with the malignant energy of the Outer World. It drove him mad, and among his many acts of insanity he forced and violated one of the wysardesses, Fleurie of Ralnahr.

She conceived by him, and was counseled by the Brotherhood to take drugs to end the pregnancy; but Markulit training and her own inner convictions would not permit her to go against the service of life. She left the City and made her way North, where Aubrel’s family took her in and cared for her. Despite their every precaution, the birth killed her; but her son grew to manhood, carrying his father’s infection in his veins, with his outward form likewise tainted—colored strangely, blood-red of hair and unnaturally pale of skin. He too died mad, but not before marrying and begetting. From that time daimonic sickness established itself among the male Esserns of the direct line. The unfortunates who carried the curse invariably died raving witless after lives of unremitting pain—short lives, mercifully, but not too short to preclude procreation.


A terrible legacy,” Ryel murmured, recalling yet again that encounter from years past. “We never met again, and now you are out in the World…perhaps lured by the same entity whose voice gives me no peace.”

I learned so much here, Ryel thought as that memory, like the others, trailed away into the mists. All of my kinsman’s skill in battle, which was great, I learned as well as I could. All of his Art, which was greater. And it has made me strong, stronger than anyone in this City; but what good to measure my strength against the nerveless impotence of these creeping dotards? And what good to have learned the surgeon’s art to no purpose, practicing on corpses? To have a birther’s skill in this childless place? To know all the mysteries of pleasure—for I have learned them, as thoroughly as any amorist—and never hold a woman in my arms?

That last thought made him clasp his knees more tightly, and press his forehead against them until pain came to match that of his next memory.

Something like a woman I indeed embraced, that very night after my duel with Edris—a creature more beautiful than any woman alive could hope to be…which should have put me on my guard. But I had been hot with the knowledge of my strength, and restless with hungers I had no name for, and—

He forced his thoughts away from the memory of that night, but only to remember other beauty, real and breathing beneath its jeweled mask and diaphanous silk. Tormented, he hugged his knees harder, and ground his forehead against them until he winced as much from his body’s pain as his mind’s; and his memories drifted again, becoming part of the chill mists enveloping the City’s dark walls.


He was, by Markulit reckoning, six years old; twenty more by World-count.

You called me.”

Often had Edris srih-summoned Ryel to his conjuring-room, to impart some bit of lore or other. But now for the first time he drew aside the curtain that veiled his Glass. “Look hard here, whelp.”

The black matte surface of the Glass shimmered and lightened. The world it disclosed, endless green and blue, made Ryel’s heart leap. “Risma,” he whispered with a pang of longing; but in another moment he felt unease. Many times in his loneliness he had been tempted to make use of Edris’ Glass to look again on his mother, sister and friends, but Edris had strictly forbidden him. When he spoke again, he was unable to keep a hint of reproach from his voice.

Kinsman, you always told me that a Glass is not meant to be used to view the World.”

True,” Edris replied with an offhand nod. “The Glass is for communication with others of our kind, and—in the old days when the First lived—for scrying into the future, or trying to. Nothing else.”

Then why—”

Edris indicated the Glass again. “Look. You know that man, I think.”

Ryel looked, and saw a cavalcade of horsemen riding at an easy pace over a great sweep of flower-spangled grassland. The leader caught the eye and held it—a tall man of some sixty years, with features most purely Almancarian, dressed Steppes-wise in riding-gear of silk and gold; a man whose eyes were like sky-colored jewels in his sun-dusked face, whose hair streamed in black and silver almost to his belt, whose slim figure had not yielded an inch to age; a man freely and unconsciously regal.

I’ve never forgotten him,” Ryel said, feeling his blood warm and quicken as he spoke. “Mycenas Dranthene, brother to the Sovran Agenor. He came to Risma when I was thirteen, and watched me during the races at the horse-fair, and gave me my dagger.”

Edris’ voice held a grin, one Ryel didn’t like. “Maybe you recall the rumors about your grandmother Ysandra.”

Ryel shook his head vehemently. “I’ll never believe them. They dishonor our house.”

Hah. Spoken like a true Steppes lout. That hearsay would make the Sovranet your kin, and you an heir to the Dranthene dynasty, albeit by many a remove.”

Ryel’s blue eyes flashed. “It’s a vile lie.”

Calm, lad. Calm. Many in the World would give their skin to belong to the imperial house of Destimar, however left-handedly.”

I’m not in the World. Remember?” Ignoring his kinsman, Ryel studied Mycenas and his entourage and their wonderful horses. But then his eyes fixed on one sight alone. “Tell me who that boy is, riding next to the Sovranet.”

Edris seemed surprised. “Boy? What—ah, I see who you mean. I don’t know, whelp. One of Mycenas’ servants, probably. Some page or other.”

He’s dressed too well for that.”

Edris grinned, all too meaningly. “Maybe he’s a special favorite—very special. Maybe the Sovranet’s tastes run to...”

Don’t say it.” Ryel waved away the enormity of the implication, furiously. He’d discovered the truth, to his infinite relief. “It’s not a boy, but a girl.”

Ah. Really. Enlighten me as to what makes you so sure, whelp.”

Her hair. It touches her saddle-bow, and some of it’s in braids. Braids with jewels in them.”

Edris gave a great bay of a laugh. “And what about those beckoning curves in her shirt and her breeches? Don’t tell me you didn’t see them.”

Ryel had. But he’d never let Edris know.

I’ll give the little wench this—she knows how to ride.”

Ryel nodded full assent at Edris’ observation. She was admirably firm in the saddle, this girl—firm and supple and fearless. Overly fearless.

That’s too much horse for her,” Ryel frowned.

I have to agree,” Edris said. “Those Fang’an geldings are as wild as full-stoned stallions. Mycenas should know better than to put his own niece in such danger.”

Ryel’s eyes widened. “Niece?”

As if that word were a malign spell, the horse curvetted and reared. A great outcry went up among Mycenas’ entourage, and all rushed to the girl’s rescue, but she kept tight in the saddle and impatiently waved away every offer of help. The animal at last calmed, and the ride resumed.

Strong legs for a lass so young,” Edris said, coolly approving. “And that Steppes rig shows them off uncommonly well, wouldn’t you say?”

Ryel ignored the question. “She was afraid,” he said. “I could see it. But her pride was even greater than her fear.”

The Dranthene are notable for pride, if nothing else.”

At that remark Ryel turned about to accuse his kinsman. “You knew who she was. You knew all along.”

Edris gave a bare nod. “And now you do, finally. About time you had a sight of the peerless Diara, old Agenor’s daughter. She’s visited Risma every year in Mycenas’ company since she was twelve. She’s sixteen now.”

Ryel felt a surge of regret and anger. “She and I could have met, had I never come to Markul.”

No doubt you would have,” Edris tranquilly agreed. “And you’d have been an ignorant churl stinking of stable-reek, and she’d have passed you by without a second glance. As it is—”

As it is I’m buried here,” Ryel muttered. He yanked the curtain over the Glass, covering the image. “I didn’t need reminders.” And he would have left the room, very swiftly, had not Edris blocked the way.

I didn’t show you the Dranthene princess to torture you, whelp—much though you may enjoy thinking so.”

Then why?”

As with everything else I show you. For your instruction.”

Ryel eyed his uncle bitterly. “And what have you taught me, except to prove yet again that I’m a prisoner here? I’ve been living in cold fog for half my life almost, but it’s springtime in the World. The Steppes are covered with flowers, and the sun is shining down on them, and a beautiful girl I’ll never know is riding through those flowers, under that sun. And laughing. I haven’t laughed since I came to Markul, not once—but you wouldn’t have noticed.”

This Ryel said and much more, as his kinsman stood listening with remarkable patience. When he’d at last made an end, Edris calmly enjoyed the silence awhile before speaking.

Well, brat. I can’t say it hasn’t been hard for you—and it’s going to get harder, believe me. But if it’s any comfort, you’re very likely not destined to end your days within these walls.”

You’ve said that before. Why not tell me what you mean?”

You’ll learn.”

Ryel had heard those two words endless times during his years in Markul—long years full of danger and cold and, very often, pain. He felt anger rising in him, furious resentful rage, but the emotion was so familiar that he despised it.

I’m going to try the Crossing,” he said.

Edris showed no sign of interest. “Oh. Really. When?”

You’ll learn.” And Ryel flung out of the room, expecting Edris’ jeers to embed his back like flung knives. But he heard nothing, and his door-slam resonated in the hollow of utmost emptiness.


The wysard’s musings ranged far until a light hand on his shoulder made him start, even as a voice he loved calmed him again. Once again he was at his window on the wall, dressed in ripped mourning, his head shaven. But his sorrow now had a sharer, and he reached up to clasp those gentle fingers.

Lost in dreams you looked, young brother.”

Lady Serah Dalkith stood at his side gazing down at him, her face unflinchingly kind. “Knock though I might, you heard naught. But I made bold to enter—all the easier since your door’s never locked.”

Never against you, my lady sister. I’m glad of your coming.” The wysard took her cloak and uttered a command-tongue to the air, and instantly a laden tray appeared at his side, with wine and the sweet delicacies in precious vessels of crystal and gold.

Always the courtly host.” Lady Serah took a savoring sip of the wine, and reached for one of the dainties on the tray. “Never do I eat these almond-apricot things except when I’m with you. What are they called again?”

Lakh. They’re Steppes sweets. I never got enough of them, when I was little.”

And do you get enough now?”

Not really. No skill, no matter how magical, can equal that of my mother’s hands.”

Together they gazed companionably out at the mist as they enjoyed the wine and sweets, and the heady Ghizlan vintage—the most excellent obtainable, as one might expect to be offered by a srih-servant—brought on more memories.

Yon’s the frock I threw off twenty years gone,” the wysardess said, pointing a smooth bejeweled forefinger at one of the cloth-heaps beyond the wall. “Purple silk and gold embroidery still unfaded and untarnished. And I could still fit into it, I do assure you, were I to wear it now.”

It’d become you well,” Ryel said, again admiring Lady Serah’s Northern looks—beauty tall and fine-boned, hair like a fox’s pelt thrown back from a high forehead and hanging over strong shoulders. The pelt had silvered along the temples, but the lady’s form retained its slender elegance, even as her face kept its bold hard beauty, its vivid lips and brows. Instead of wysard robes she favored elegant gowns cut in the Northern style, fitted to the body down to the ornately belted waist, thence flowing in folds to the ground, in deep colors and rich tissues. Today’s was midnight velvet and crimson brocade. “You seem not to have aged since you left the World, sister.”

Lady Serah gave that little shrug of hers, that ironic smile. “The Art is kind to women.” She rested her arms on her knees, her chin on her arms. “Even now, so many years away, I well recall the nights I spent with men who loved me; the children I birthed and suckled, the mountains I lived among. But life is sweeter, here where the flesh has no hold on me. Here where I can weigh and consider the causes and purposes of existence, and look into what might come after.”

Ryel had always enjoyed the lilting tang of Lady Serah’s voice, its Northern nuances—the long slide of the vowels, the clipped gerunds, the burry r’s, the quaint inversions. Whenever he heard it he envisioned places he had never seen save in books and dreams—Serah’s native island of Wycast, and its neighbors Ralnahr and Hryeland—cold lands of rough moss-grown crags, towering pines and aspens, snow-fed streams and waterfalls, wide skies of deepest blue and white-feathered clouds. To hear more of it he said, “Among all the talk we’ve shared, my sister, I wonder that I never asked what brought you to Markul.”

She gazed out deep into the mists of the air. “The World drove me. Forty-five of its years had I numbered. My children were either grown or dead, my lovers and my husbands were all of them either dead or gone from me; the World’s way had I lived, without a thought. And then I felt the Art stir within me like a quickening babe, and came here to give birth to that new life.” She gave a sly little laugh. “Greatly abashed you looked when you stripped before the gates—even now you blush at my mention of it. But I felt no shame when I disrobed, far from it. Proud was I of my body, in those days; and I well remember how the City flocked atop the walls to look upon me.”

Ryel smiled. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to witness that.” He offered his guest more wine, which she accepted willingly; but after a sip she set down her glass.

As I said, brother, you greet your guests with Steppes courtesy; and like a true bannerman of Risma you would never think of asking me the reason for my visit. But do you not wonder? All the more since I know the ways of your grassland home, that mourns in seclusion?”

Ryel shook his head. “We have been friends a dozen years, Lady Serah. I know you well enough to understand that when you speak of detachment, you are usually agitated within; and I also know that you will sooner or later tell me why.”

Well, the truth is that I myself had a visitor today.”

An unwelcome one, it would seem.”

Srin Yan Tai it was,” Serah replied slowly. “She called me to my Glass this morning—rather earlier than I prefer. ’Twas of you we spoke.”

Ryel had heard much of Srin Yan Tai over the years, from Lady Serah and others. Lady Srin had come from the Kugglaitai Steppes to Markul, but had left the City many years past to dwell in the mountains overlooking Almancar. “How could she know me?” he asked. “We never met.”

All your life she has known you,” Serah answered. “She charged me to give you a message.”

Ryel waited, then prompted. “And what was it, sister?”

After another silence Serah replied. “Often she and Edris would confer together, when she dwelt in this City; they shared a bond wrought deep, of kindred lands and customs and language. After she departed and you found your way here, he would speak with her through his Glass, asking advice on how best to deal with you. She now wishes to see how you have grown up…and to learn what you experienced during the Crossing.”

I remember nothing of it, sister.”

Recall it now.” Serah reached into the pouch at her belt, taking out a malachite vial, and sprinkled some powder from the vial into her palm. “Here. Breathe of this.”

Ryel wet his finger, touched it to the powder, tasted; recoiled. “But this is quiabintha.”

It is strong, but you are stronger,” Serah said, quietly urgent. “Put your trust in me. You know I would never harm you, dear my brother. Breathe.”

Warm it was within the great curve of the window, snug and dry behind the glass as chill rain fell upon the barren land; silent save for the rain’s fall. Safe. Ryel bent to Serah’s smooth fair palm, and inhaled deeply; closed his eyes, tensing against the shock he knew must come.

Used as he was to quiabintha, having learned its power early in his study of the Art, he trembled as it snaked through his veins. “I have always loathed and distrusted this drug,” he said; and his voice seemed as far as the stars. “Only xantal is more vicious.”

Lady Serah’s voice seemed to come from the same immense distance. “Do not think of the drug. Are you ready?”

Quiabintha was quick. Already Ryel felt its hold upon his mind and body, accelerating his heartbeat and his thoughts. “Direct me,” he said. “I am sightless until you lead.”

Good. Go back.”

How far?”

Drift,” Serah intoned, soothingly. “Drift until I stop you.”

Ryel stared out at the rain, seeing nothing but gray emptiness as his memory slid away minute by hour by year; time felt like a skin that his being slipped free of as he moved ever backward.

Lady Serah’s voice whispered like rain. “You are being born; you are before the walls of Markul, naked as the moment you pushed out of your mother’s womb.”

I am there,” Ryel said, marveling and dazed.

As am I, watching you,” Serah replied from someplace incredibly distant. “Tell me what you see.”

Edris has opened the gates. Has come to me, stands at my side.” Ryel drew a sudden breath, his heart quickening. “He’s pulling my hair.” How real it seems, he thought. To be here, and yet there; to be so cleanly divided, yet so completely whole.

Serah’s voice seemed to echo from afar. “Move through the gates, and deeper into the years. Now you are no longer a boy, but a man, and more learned in the Art than anyone alive in Markul. You have chosen the Mastery of Nilandor for your Crossing spell.”

Yes. It is the quickest.” Fire leapt in the hearth of his house that had been Lord Aubrel’s, and nearby a table stood ready with the things needful for the coming ordeal. “I am there.”

Enter that place again. The emptiness.”

Sudden darkness enclosed him, cold and opaque and seamless. “I cannot.”

Only try, brother.”

Urged by her pleading he felt the glass, uselessly pushing. “I am trying with all my power, sister.”

Surely you must sense something.”

Ryel quit fighting the darkness, and instead pressed the lids of his lightless eyes with the heels of his hands, drawing a weary quiabintha-drained breath. “Nothing.” He opened his eyes to the warm familiar window-nook, the gray rainy light, Serah’s intent concern. “It’s gone from me. All I can remember is losing consciousness, and regaining it to find you telling me that Edris had died giving his life for mine. And then I believe I went mad for a time, until you healed me. Often I wish you had not, my lady; very often, these days.”

Serah did not reply, but took another vial from the bag at her belt, this one full of liquid. When she removed its stopper, the fragrance of celorn made Ryel reach for the little bottle, impatient for its deliverance.

Only a taste or two, brother. ’Tis potent essence, and will work quickly.”

Thank all the gods.” Ryel drank, and almost at once felt the quiabintha’s harsh grip on his mind first relax, then dissipate. As he closed his eyes in gratitude, he felt Serah’s gentle hands on either side of his head, and he leaned slightly forward, resting in her touch. “And thank you, sister.”

You suffered much, dear brother.”

Ryel tried to swallow; snagged on his dry throat. “I suffer more, now. It is an everlasting shame to me. That I should have labored so hard, and in vain; spent months in readiness, and risked my life to seek the boundaries of death, only to come back empty. Worse than empty—bereft of one dearer to me than father, whose greatness in the Art would have far surpassed my own.”

Serah’s voice was always soothing, always like music he loved, but never more than now. “Lord Edris had been my friend from the moment we met. Often would he come to my house, and we would speak of you. Difficult enough it is to live in this City after passing one’s prime, but for a young lad it is harder yet, and for a lad on the edge of manhood it needs must be not only hard, but perilous.” She hesitated. “He told me about the succubus that tempted you in your fifth year.”

Shamed blood burnt Ryel’s cheeks. “I’ve tried very hard to forget that.”

Nor would I have spoken of it, but Srin Yan Tai suspects that the creature was sent by none other than that hell-born miscreant Dagar Rall…even as she believes that Dagar is responsible for the death of Edris.”

Ryel could not speak for a long time, and when he did it came out raw. “But Serah, that cannot be. Dagar died long ago.” As he spoke, he saw again Kjal’s lipless, hideous face, speaking the same impossibility.

His body indeed perished, and horribly as was fitting. But Lady Srin most adamantly maintains that his rai now dwells disincarnate yet vitally malignant, in that chartless realm too terrible for you to now remember. She believes that in these secret reaches Dagar’s power is great, and is steadily increased by the energy it robs and takes unto itself from those emanations we of the brotherhood harness for our daily use. She is sure that Dagar is the cause of the decline of our powers, and I am persuaded she is right. Furious and vengeful Dagar ever was; and if he continues to draw its power from the Outer World, I tremble for what might be.”

Ryel licked dry lips. “You once told me that Srin Yan Tai was eccentric, and given to wild imaginings. What can there be to fear, with Dagar trapped and disembodied?”

Much, according to Lady Srin,” Lady Serah answered. “Much that she would not tell me, saying it was meant for your ears alone.”

Then I will find her through my Glass, and speak with her,” Ryel said.

Serah contradicted him with a shake of her fox-haired head. “You’ll not succeed. Quite insistent she was that she would have a face to face encounter with you or nothing.”

Ryel recalled the invasive unknown voice, the vision of Almancar…and the daimon temptress of his fifth year. He reached for Edris’ cloak that lay near, drawing its warm scarlet cloth over his shoulders. “Then Lady Srin will have to meet me here. I will never leave Markul.”

Not even were it for the sake of the fair Sovrena of Destimar?”

Least of all for her.” He would not remember. Not so much as a jewel-gleam, an eye-glint. “It would take more than a woman to draw me from my City. I will never return to the World.”

Serah shook her head, her copper-tinted lids brooding over her beryl-green gaze, her face somber. “If Dagar seeks ways to afflict that World again, you might find yourself choiceless, young brother.”

Ryel stared at her. “Why do you say that?”

I leave the explanation to Srin Yan Tai. Nay, no protestations; and I will now depart, and leave you in peace. Time you require to consider the matter of our talk.” She rose to her feet in a soft midnight rustle of flowing skirts. “Might I visit you again? Fear not, we’ll speak only of trifles, I promise.”

Since I have no intention of leaving, come whenever you wish, my lady sister.” He stood too. “Your visit was a comfort to me. I thank you for it.” Taking both her hands, he bent and pressed his brow against their smooth backs.

I’ll miss you,” Serah said, her voice a whisper. “We’ll all miss you…”

She departed swiftly, and for a long while Ryel contemplated the door she’d closed after her; but then he turned back to the mist, and reached for his empty goblet.

Again,” he said in the command-tongue, and watched as the rich vintage welled up from the whorled crystal stem like a ruby spring, dark and fragrant. Seldom if ever did the wysard drink more than a single glass of wine at a time, but his conversation with Lady Serah had been taxing, coming so soon after his far less cordial talk with Kjal. Unwillingly he remembered what he knew of Dagar Rall.

It was said that Dagar’s very birth was in death—begotten of fatal forbidden lust in Elecambron, by a wysard spirit-slain at the moment of climax, and a sorceress daimon-butchered in her third month of pregnancy. Born a miscarried half-formed fetus Dagar was, to be reared by srihs, during those disordered terrible times so many centuries ago; born to live and thrive against all odds, and to work every evil within his power. And for a long time he worked evil; for a century and more, during which time his beauty never altered, but stayed that of a youth divinely fair. He was Elecambron’s scourge, his tyranny cruel and ceaseless until at last the entire population of the City combined all their Art to slay him, lest he escape into the World and afflict it to annihilation. Dagar had summoned the daimonic legions of the Outer World in retaliation, and the savagery of the ensuing battle rocked Elecambron to its icy foundations; the echoes of it made even the walls of Markul quiver. Many great adepts of Elecambron had died in that struggle to protect the World they had forsaken forever. It had been a noble sacrifice, one that Markul remembered with greatest respect.

Dagar,” Ryel murmured, the name bitter on his lips. “Dagar, most beautiful and most base. He that no wysard of any City dared or deigned to call brother.” You died, monster, he thought. There’s nothing left of you. Kjal, poor eunuch, has lost what’s left of his mind, up in that white hell of frost and ice.

He lifted his glass to his lips, and drank to dispel those vile imaginings. But all at once he was aware of a sudden oppression of the atmosphere, a stifling heaviness of the air. He fully expected the ever-intrusive voice to torment him yet again, but then he heard a sigh—not the voice’s, but a woman’s, and not within his head, but behind him. Ryel turned, and stared, and felt his fingers freeze around the goblet’s bell. His unmoving lips whispered a word he had not used in a dozen years.


A woman attired in a gown of Almancarian fashion, her heavy black hair falling in mingled tresses and plaits almost to her waist, stood in the middle of the room—a woman neither old nor young, and agelessly beautiful.

Ryel leapt up, heedless of the goblet’s crash. Although a dozen years had passed, he knew the one he beheld, scarcely changed since the day he had left Risma. But surely his mother would never have stood thus unseeing, unresponsive to his voice.

Ryel dropped to his knees. “My lady mother. I implore you to speak to me.”

She did not reply, nor even look his way. Instead she paced distraught to and fro, clutching her body with both arms as if entranced with grief and pain. Then she caught sight of the wysard’s unveiled Glass in the other room. As if gathering her resolution with great effort she swiftly approached it. Ryel rose and followed, knowing now that it was useless to call her.

Mira Stradianis Yorganara stared into the Glass, and to Ryel’s astonishment her reflection stared back. Ever keeping her eyes on the mirrored image’s, she flung back her hair and began one by one to rip away the brooches that fastened the front of her gown. Then with a desperate wrench she tore apart the silken cloth. Ryel would have instantly looked away, having never forgotten the Steppes law that demanded death from any grown man who laid eyes on his mother’s nakedness. But the horror revealed in that first eyeblink held him appalled. Next to the reflection’s perfect right breast hung a bruised bagful of pus, livid and foul. Ryel cried out in horror at the sight, but his mother did not turn around. She only stared into the mirror, her beautiful face now drawn and pale, her dry lips trembling. Then she hid her face in her hands, and vanished.

The wysard stood numbed, incapable of movement, crushed by the atmosphere’s weight.

You caused this,” he whispered into the stifling air. “You wrought this lie.” And he waited in silence, but not for long.

I do not lie, the hated voice smoothly said. The woman’s cancered. As you might have noted, she’s far beyond the skill of any doctor—but perhaps not beyond the Art of the greatest wysard of Markul. The greatest living, I should say.

Ryel remembered what Kjal of Elecambron had imparted to him; remembered, and forgot to breathe. “Tell me your name, daimon.”

The voice laughed at him. Patience, sweet eyes. Rather than rudely questioning, you should thank me for giving you the chance to reach your mama in time. The woman has, from the looks of her, a month of life left.

Ryel could hardly speak, stifled with the heaviness of the air and the still greater burden of his anger. “I scorn this ploy of yours, whatever you are.”

As you wish, the voice drawlingly replied. For my own part, I hardly care whether the woman lives or dies. You’ve already been the death of he that you so cloyingly called ithradrakis, dearer than father; now’s your mother’s turn.

Never had Ryel felt so helplessly enraged. “Go and be damned, slave of darkness!” he shouted. As if in complete obedience the air lightened, and he was again able to breathe freely. Drawing a starved draught of air, he sank down in front of the Glass, that now reflected nothing.

He had never used his Glass save in service of the Art, lest his powers weaken through contact with the World. Always it was Edris who had sought to view the World, and who would later tell Ryel what he had seen. But Edris was dead.

I will prove you a liar, thing of shadow, Ryel thought; and aloud he said, “Risma, the banner of the Triple Star. The yat of Mira, my mother.”

The surface of the glass shimmered and dissolved, until it seemed that Ryel looked through a window into a circular chamber walled in thick hangings covered with embroidered designs. On the low bed a woman lay—the same woman he had seen before his Glass, in the same gown, her face drawn with the same torment. At her side another woman knelt, an old woman with her gray braids straggling from a scarf.

Anthea,” Ryel whispered. “My mother’s nurse, still alive.”

Poor lamb,” the crone said in a voice that quavered even more with tears than with age, “I cannot bear to give you pain, but your dressing must be changed.” And she gently began to unfasten the front of Mira’s gown.

No,” Ryel whispered. But he kept his eyes fixed on the scene within the Glass, his hands clenched on either side of the frame.

Mira gave a desperate gasp despite the old woman’s tenderness; and in a throe of agony she twitched away, and the bodice of her gown fell open.

Ryel cried out furious denial, but nothing lessened the horror of his mother’s affliction, more loathsome to his sight even than before. Sickened and stunned, the wysard turned away; and when he at last regained the strength to look back, the image in the Glass had vanished.

Was this another ruse of yours, shadow-monster?” Ryel shouted to the air. But nothing answered him; and he beat his fists against the steely surface of the unreflecting Glass, his eyes burning like red fire, until he was bruised and breathless.

I can’t lose you, too,” he whispered. “I will not.”

He had felt guilty sorrow two years before, when he had learned of Yorganar’s death—a death such as every Steppes bannerman prayed for, swift and without suffering and in the full accomplishment of his years, his neck cleanly broken by a throw from an overspirited horse. For Edris he had shrieked and thrashed until Lady Serah came to rub his temples with oil of mandragora, uttering frantic spells until he finally quieted and slept. And if his mother were indeed sick, and died through his neglect, he would not be able to survive his grief. “It will kill me,” he whispered.

The air thickened and slowed.

Such extravagance of sorrow, the hated voice sneered. Such filial devotion. Your mama would be proud.

Furious, Ryel did not reply, but leapt to his feet and went to his bedchamber. The voice pursued him, teasingly.

Ah, we are angry. We refuse to speak.

Ryel clenched his teeth, and stared into his mirror, and muttered a word. At once his shaven head began to darken, covering itself with thick hair, straight and black. When the hair reached well past his shoulders, Ryel said another word that stopped the growth.

Very good indeed, young blood, the voice cooed. Much better.

Still ignoring the voice, Ryel uttered a word that faintly bearded his smooth face.

Excellent, breathed the voice. Most virile. Why this charming metamorphosis?

You know why.”

Where will you travel?

You know where.”

The voice grew cloyingly, mockingly sweet. The Aqqar is wide, and Risma far. You may not get to your dear mama in time. But I could help you. I can—

Ryel spat at the Glass. “You can go back to the hell you came from. I won’t need your help.”

A laugh, hysterical and shrill. Then the oppression lifted.


Naked one came into Markul, and naked one was constrained to leave it. Ryel would be able to take nothing with him that he had acquired in the City—no books or talismans, none of his fine robes or other rich possessions, not even the plain gold rings in his ears and on his fingers. Nor did he greatly care. But it wrung him to have to part with Edris’ mantle, and Edris’ sword. He gathered the cloak to his heart in a long embrace, rubbing his cheek across the warm nap, remembering what his kinsman had once said concerning it.

Since you keep badgering, whelp, I’ll tell you.” Edris swathed the red-purple mantle more securely around him, for they stood together upon the walls and the winter wind blew strong. His action was not prompted by any reaction to the cold; the icy mist was hardening into swirls of snow, but Edris could not have been less perturbed had his bare feet been shod to the knee in fleece and felt. “It’s a soldier’s cloak. It belonged to a Northern captain that the army called Warraven, because he lived to fight and he was swarthy as a crow.” Edris’ long eyes slitted with memory. “One of the deadliest bladesmen in all the North—a fact I know only too well, because my left ribs bear a deep remembrance of his skill. When I arrived in Markul and learned to command the air, the first thing I ordered my srihs to do was steal his cloak, just as I had them bring my sword.”

Ryel smiled, remembering the Steppes custom between warriors, how close friends would wear one another’s clothes—most often a shirt, but frequently enough a cloak—as a sign of their bond. Ryel himself had done so with his play-brother Shiran, before leaving Risma. “You must have admired this Warraven very much,” he said.

I did indeed. He damned near killed me.” Edris shot Ryel a suspicious glance out of the end of his eye, wrapping himself inexorably in the red-purple cloth less for warmth than for surety. “Don’t tell me you want this too, as well as my sword.”

Kinsman, I never—”

You’re welcome to both when I’m dead and gone—but not before.”

Then may I wait forever.”

I’ll try to make sure that you do, brat. Go on indoors—you’re turning blue out here.”

Ryel folded that memory carefully into the tyrian web, and set the cloak aside; took up the Kaltiri tagh and slowly unsheathed it, reading character by exquisite character the words that ran like scrolled fire down the brilliant double-edged blade.

Keener than lover’s hunger,

Sharp as a king’s despair,

Fell as a wysard’s fury,

Coward and cruel, beware!

Turning to water the wicked,

Heavy as haunted land,

Lighter than air am I lifted,

Fire in a hero’s hand.

Those verses were Ryel’s doggerel approximation of the distichs written in the hidden language of the Fraternity of the Sword, a Northern cult of great antiquity. Edris had become a Swordbrother during his years as a warrior, when he fought as a mercenary of the Dominor of Hryeland against the White Barbarians. In accordance with the Fraternity’s commandment he had forever after kept its ceremonials and its speech a secret even to Ryel. The young wysard had only divined the Fraternity’s language by accident in his tenth Markulit year, while reading the history of the first lords of Elecambron. To his surprise their ancient runes had proven virtually identical to those on Edris’ sword. He would have told his uncle of his discovery, but an inexplicable reluctance, a dislike of admitting himself an infringer into hard-won privilege, had continually prevented him.

Ryel raised the blade in both hands, touching his brow to it. The cold steel stung like a wound. Sheathing the tagh slowly, he lapped it in the cloak and laid it at the foot of his bed. After a final mirror-glance at his new self, he left the room and strode out of his house, leaving the door unlocked, and swiftly descended the black stone stairs that zigzagged level by level down to the western gate. A cold drizzle had begun to fall, but he did not feel it. Softly though he trod, nonetheless the quick ears of the Markulit brotherhood heard, and many looked out their windows to watch the Overreacher pass. Some left their houses and followed, sensing what was to come.

At the western gate Ryel stood, and uttered the opening-spell. With a recalcitrant shriek of metal stronger than any steel the great portals turned on their hinges, and at that noise so seldom heard a throng began to gather, watching for what would next occur, questioning Ryel to no avail. Lady Serah was among the crowd, and she alone did not ask why he was leaving.

So. You took my advice after all.”

At Serah’s words the wysard shook his head. “When I declared earlier today that no woman could draw me from this City, I erred. My mother is very ill, and needs me.”

Others heard him, and many were scornful of so slight and foolish a reason for abandoning the life of the Art; but Ryel took no notice of them. He was only too mindful, however, of Lady Serah’s questioning gaze and words.

How could you have known she was sick?”

I saw her in my Glass,” Ryel answered, not meeting his Art-sister’s eyes, which could pierce when they chose. “Since I must take nothing with me from Markul, allow me to present you with these, my dear sister.” He unfastened the circlets from his ears and drew off his rings, and gave them to Serah; then took her hands and touched them to his brow. She twined her fingers around his own as her beryl-green eyes met his, no longer with their wonted irony.

It is imperative that you speak with Lady Srin,” she said, her voice low and urgent.

Ryel shook his head. “But I cannot, sister. I make for Risma, not Almancar, and will return to this City as soon as my mother has been restored to health.”

Will you? I wonder. But no matter what passes, good fortune be yours, my lord brother. I will look after your house until your return, whenever that may be.”

You have my thanks, sister.”

Then show it.” Cat-quick, Serah slipped her arms around his neck and drew him down to her, kissing his mouth. “I’ve wanted to do that for years.” Smiling with her old deviltry, she ran a swift hand over his chin. “I like your new looks, by the way.”

Ryel smiled in return. Then he began to ungird his robe, but paused abashed. Lady Serah at once understood.

Come, you gawkers,” she said to the watching crowd. “We’ll climb upon the walls and watch our young brother’s going, even as twelve years ago we witnessed his coming.”

The Steppes modesty that Ryel had learned as a boy he had never outgrown despite all the knowledge he’d gained in Markul, and he blushed to strip before a watching crowd. Thankful for Serah’s discretion, he waited until everyone had begun to climb the many stairs to the ramparts, then cast off his Markulit garb in haste.

He turned and passed through the gate, naked as he had entered twelve years before. The endless mist felt suddenly and unbearably icy on his bare skin as the wysard stood outside his City for the first time in twelve years. But he at once went to the heap of clothes that had been his, and opened the saddlebags wherein were carefully folded other Steppes garments, larger than those he had cast off so long ago.

You will grow,” his mother had told him when he left Risma as a boy of fourteen. “Therefore I have made these clothes to fit the tall man you will become.” And she had embraced him, and he had dried his tears in her hair as he whispered that surely he would return to her someday…

Shuddering with cold, Ryel dressed as quickly as he might in the clothes he found still fresh in the saddlebags. Shirt, leggings, long-skirted coat—everything fit as if made to his measure, even the riding-boots that had been so loose when he set out on his journey. Warmth of both home-loomed web and remembered love enveloped him, but nevertheless he could not help another twinge of chill. A Steppes bannerman of considerable means he now looked, but a true Rismai brave went armed and cloaked, and he was neither. His dagger lay yet unrusted in its sheath, and this he hung on his belt. But it seemed little protection against the predators of the Aqqar Plain, even as his coat seemed insufficient proof against the rawness of the cold, Art or no Art.

Lady Serah, who for a time had left the wall, now reappeared and spoke, somewhat flushed and out of breath. “My lord Ryel! Among my goods nearby you is a purse full of gold coin, which is yours as my gift. You’ll be needing it in the World, believe me.” Then she gave that flashing grin of hers, the one that made her look so young. “And these things, too you may find use for, I’m thinking.” She tossed a mulberry-colored bundle down from the wall. Ryel caught it, and with a thrill of joy found Edris’ great cloak wrapped around his sword.

That was ill done, woman,” Lord Wirgal snapped to Serah Dalkith. “You know the laws of Markul; the boy may take nothing of his from our City.”

She tossed her fox-haired head. “What I gave Lord Ryel were the erstwhile possessions of Lord Edris, beloved and mourned by us all—or nearly all.”

Lord Wirgal glowered under gray brows. “Equivocating female, how dare you—”

Let be, old fool,” Serah snapped back. “Never will you leave this place, Wirgal, but die babbling in your bed.”

During their quarrel Ryel slung the tagh’s belt baldric-wise over his shoulder in the Steppes way, then donned the cloak. Gazing up at Lady Serah, he bowed low in the brotherhood’s most reverent obeisance. “I will never forget this kindness of yours, sister.”

Thank yourself rather, for never locking your door,” Serah replied smiling. But now her lips trembled.

Suddenly others wished to give Ryel parting-gifts, perhaps stung by Serah’s words to Lord Wirgal. “Young lord, over there is the baggage I left more than fifty years ago,” cried Lord Nestris, “and it is full of Almancarian robes wonderfully rich, and of your measure, and still as fresh as the day they were made. I pray you take as many as please you.”

Lady Haldwina, too, raised up her voice. “And among my havings are a case of medicinal balms, and phials of healing essences—take them, and welcome!”

Unwieldy Lord Ter spoke next. “Over yonder are my things. Bottles of water and wine and brandy you will find, and food too, all unperished. Take them, and spare your Art’s strength thereby.”

By this time the ladies Elindal and Mevanda had arrived, and moved to stand on either side of Lady Serah, who explained to them what was taking place, and why; and they sorrowed with her.

Elindal lifted her voice. “Alas, Ryel, that you should return to the World with all its smallness and snares. But since you must, my things are over there, under that green cloak. Pray take you the little pouch blazoned with my crest, for it contains gems of great value.”

And in my havings nearby hers, find and keep the silver scribe’s box,” Mevanda added. “The pens will prove unrusted, and the ink undried.”

Many other lords and ladies of Markul offered Ryel whatever he wished to choose from the possessions they had been constrained to relinquish at the gates; only Lord Wirgal played the churl.

Touch nothing of mine, Overreacher!” he screeched. But he was scorned by all for his meanness.

Soon Ryel’s saddlebags were laden with gifts, and his pockets as well, but one last thing of seemingly little use he also took: Jinn’s halter of gold-embossed leather, that he wished to keep as a remembrance of his beloved mare now forever lost. Thanking his many benefactors once again and bowing a last time to Lady Serah, he shouldered his baggage and set forth. When he was some distance from the City he turned about, and saw that everyone still watched him, and he waved. Then he observed Lady Serah reach into the purse hanging at her belt, and take out what seemed a ball of amber. Breathing on it, she threw it far from the wall. Midway in its flight the little sphere became a bright gold butterfly winging its way toward Ryel like a windblown flame-flicker amid the cobwebs of mist. As it flitted and played about him the wysard smiled, and waved a last time to his Art-sister. Then he faced westward again, and strode on.

Chapter Three


With Serah’s butterfly playing about him Ryel trekked westward, until he knew that the City at his back would seem only a somber child’s strange toy dropped and forgotten. But when he next looked round, he found that Markul had been completely engulfed by mist, and when he turned back again he discovered that the butterfly had vanished. Alone in the biting fog he stood for a time gazing about him, feeling most solitary and bereft. He thought of the contemplative tranquility he was forsaking, the long silent hours of study. Seen from the outside for the first time in a dozen years, the great walls of the City seemed no longer a prison as it all too often had in the past, but a sanctuary. Outside those walls and beyond the fog lay a World whose pleasures and dangers Ryel had read of in a hundred histories, and experienced barely at all, and longed for constantly. But now the pleasures seemed empty, and the dangers mortal.

I’m turning back,” he said, challenging the mist. But although he waited for the atmosphere to thicken and the voice to speak, nothing happened.

You lied,” he said. “She is well.”

Complete silence in reply. Something in its inexorable density made Ryel murmur imprecations and once again turn west, and walk.

No roads led to Markul, and too few aspirants came there year by year for their trails to mark the land. But those truly desiring to find the City never lost their way. Ryel well remembered his own first traversal of the Aqqar, and how much easier the actuality had seemed at fourteen than the very prospect did now.

That was because I had Jinn with me, he thought. Jinn to talk to as I rode and to watch over me over me as I slept, and Edris, feared and beloved, awaiting me at the end of the journey. Now only unknowns draw me on.

For a considerable while the wysard walked untired, following the path of the fogbound sun. But after several hours the saddlebags weighed heavy on his shoulder, and he stopped to rest. Sitting down on a slab of rock and opening a flask of brandy, he swigged and ruminated.

There’s got to be an easier way,” he said aloud, newly aware of how much deeper his voice had grown since that first Aqqar journey, and how it had never lost its Steppes tang despite all the years in Markul. Hearing it emboldened him. “It’ll take me ages to reach Risma afoot. What if I tried that spell of Lord Garnos, the Mastery of Translation?”

But even as he spoke, he laughed at himself. What if, indeed. Not until Ryel was very old in the Art would he dare to attempt anything so risky as a translation-spell. And at any rate, that spell of Garnos’ was a lost one, like so many others of his. But a fool’s trick for amusement’s sake could do no harm—a trick such as Ryel was fond of trying in those days long past when he was a mere famulus…and Edris wasn’t looking. Accordingly Ryel uttered the words to make his saddlebags dance for him, which they should have done with as much nimble alacrity as was possible in their packed state. But they only shuffled listlessly a moment before sinking down again like a fat skatefish on a sea-bottom. Feeling both sheepish and disquieted Ryel once more uttered the spell, this time with complete seriousness and concentration, but the saddlebags stayed sullenly put.

Something, the wysard thought slowly, is very wrong.

He hadn’t packed that heavily. The problem was too much Sindrite brandy, no doubt; the drink which Lord Ter had given him was as good or better than any srih-servant could have procured for him, and like all Steppes folk he had small tolerance for strong spirits. Moreover, he had walked for miles, and the day was beginning to darken; perhaps now was the time to make camp.

The notion of building a fire and sleeping in the open had great charms for him. During his boyhood he would ride out with Shiran and his other play-brothers during the horse-gatherings, to join the grown men working hard in the saddle all the day, and resting around the fire at night before bedding down bone-weary to sleep unshakably until dawn—a blood-thrilling time for a lad eager for manhood and loving the feel of his muscles strained to breaking, the rough savors of charred meat roasted on dagger-point, and goatskin-bottled dark wine passed from hand to hand; the face-scorching heat of the fire, the talk of horses and heroes and women that he listened to silently, and the songs he took part in, the warmth of his mother-woven blankets cushioning him from the hard ground, his father’s abrupt hand on his shoulder awaking him to a cold red dawn and a steaming bowlful of chal.

How long ago that time was, Ryel thought, sensing his isolation to the full. And it can never come again, any more than I can now return to Markul. But chal-powder I have, and water, and the wherewithal for making fire, thanks to the gifts of my Art-brothers and sisters, and Edris’ cloak to warm me and his sword to defend me. It should be a pleasant enough night, even if a lonely one.

But the Aqqar Plain was not the Inner Steppes, as Ryel soon learned to his strong discomfort. Here was unfriendly emptiness, and continual damp, and nothing with which to keep kindled flame ablaze. Save for their scattering of extinct volcanoes, Rismai’s steppes were fully as empty to the eye as the Aqqar, true; but amid their vastness one might readily find great deposits of concentrated plant matter, the remains of deep swamps dried up in ages past, providing fuel that burnt hot, steadily and long. A good-sized brick of kulm would warm a yat all night, Ryel remembered; and weakening under the pressure of that thought he spoke some command-words into the air.

A close tent with a dry floor; and a porch to the tent, with a large fire under the porch.”

The items appeared, but not quickly nor in such good trim as the wysard expected. The tent proved cramped, drafty and dank with a leaky awning; the fire was both meager and fitful. Used as he was to complete and lavish obedience to his requests, Ryel was too amazed to feel anger; and he remembered the poor success he had enjoyed with Lord Garnos’ spell earlier, and sat ill at ease and baffled as he tried and failed to coax the flames higher while dodging water-drip.

Surely mere distance from Markul cannot be causing this, he thought. Could it be that Dagar has drained the spirit-energy from the air around my City, as Serah Dalkith would certainly maintain? No, impossible; a wild fancy. My Art would be strong whether in Markul or at some inaccessible end of the World; no weakness of mine is to blame, surely. I can prove that.

Gathering his saddlebags, he stood up and walked away from the tent into the persistent rain; lifted his face to its chill drip and yelled out a word that in less frustrating times he would have whispered, and that carefully. To the wysard’s intense gratification a wisp of fog whirled into a spiral, and touched ground five feet from where he stood. The spiral eventually took on a wavering man-form, featureless save for long eyes like glowing amethyst, and spoke in a voice blurred and sullen, now running its words together, now stopping short.

Leavemea lone.”

Ryel ignored the request, and instead gestured to the empty ground. “Shelter. And make it comfortable.”

A great soundless flash lit the night, and subsided to reveal a yat fit for a wandering prince, with a porch large enough for ten people, and a blazing fire under it.

Ryel at once installed himself amid the cushions heaped before the fire, and held his hands out to the warmth. “Good. Very good, Pukk. Quite close to my desire.”

The wraith quivered on the point of dissolution. “Iwillg onow.”

Ryel lifted his hand. “Wrong. Stay.”

A long hesitation. Then, “Un usualre quest.”

Pukk’s tone was emotionless and distant, as ever, but its words sharpened the chill of the night. I am alone and outside my City for the first time, Ryel thought with a pang of disquiet. And my powers are not what they were in Markul—a temporary weakening without doubt, yet one that this daimon must not perceive.

But Pukk’s senses detected every uneasy emanation, every prickle of human flesh. “Youf ear. Andnowon der. I amstron ghere. May bestron gerthan you.”

Pukk was infallibly insolent, and Ryel had always taken a tense pleasure in their encounters. The most powerful of all the spirits of air, Pukk alone was capable of semi-speech and quasi-embodiment. It had been the death of at least a dozen lord adepts in both Markul and Elecambron. But Ryel had never allowed himself to fear Pukk—never until now. Steeling his self-command, he used all his Markulit training to keep his skin from sweating, his heart from racing.

You don’t want to try me, Pukk. Since there’s no one else fit to wait on me, I’ll trouble you for some dinner —grilled lamb, say, and rice seasoned in the Rismai fashion, with a flagon of Wycastrian ale, in honor of my lady sister Serah Dalkith.”

Pukk shimmered in fury. “Ic ouldpoi sonyou.”

Ryel lifted his chin, meeting the srih’s glowing eyes with its own empty ones. “I think not. I might destroy you first.”

Silence, save for the rain—far quieter, it seemed to Ryel, than his own breathing. Pukk’s lambent violet eyes became slits, and then blinked. At that moment a steaming trayful of delicious-smelling food materialized at Ryel’s side. “There. Eatitan dchoke.”

The palpitating moment had stilled, and the frisson of fear evaporated like a rag of mist. I have my own strength, the wysard thought as his blood warmed again. My inward Mastery, that owes nothing to the Outer World. Strong Mastery that this srih senses, and fears.

You’ll never kill me with your cookery, Pukk,” Ryel said aloud, quite coolly now. “You forgot the bones and the venom. My infinite thanks.” Suddenly too hungry for fear, he turned all his attention to the tray.

The amethyst eyes of the srih glowed disdain and injury. “Iwillg onow.” And as Pukk spoke it started to fade.

Wait,” Ryel said with his mouth full. “Tell me about Dagar first.”

With a furious smoky shudder Pukk intensified, but did not reply.

Ryel, well pleased with preternaturally exquisite Steppes cuisine, urged without asperity. “He was a hard master?”

Pukk replied with more than a shred of contempt. “Hard erthany ou.”

Ryel sat back, interested and amused. “Where is he now, communicative and garrulous servitor?”

Dagard well sinthe Void.”

The void?”

TheVoid.” Pukk’s emphasis on the last syllable was both weary and contemptuous, but Ryel ignored the inflection in favor of the information, recalling the words of Kjal of Elecambron, and of his Art-sister Serah Dalkith.

Do you mean the shadow-realm of the Outer World, from whence come you and the other servants of the brotherhood?” the wysard prompted.


Startled by that rusky monosyllable, Ryel leaned forward. “Then it is a place apart from both the Outer World and this?”


What else exists in the Void?”

Otherra is.”

What other rais?” the wysard demanded, his vehemence stark. “Rais like Dagar’s, bent on harm?”

Pukk never admitted ignorance. It merely said nothing—as now.

Unsettled as he was by his servant’s silence, Ryel felt his blood heaten with hope never known until now. “The rai survives the body after death,” he murmured. “It survives.”

Pukk heard, and replied almost immediately. “No.” Observing Ryel’s speechless infuriation, it continued grudgingly. “Abo dycanb eseparat edfromit srai. Bot hwills urv ive.”

The body, separate from its rai? But how can that occur?” Ryel demanded.

Pukk made no answer.

Dagar’s body was destroyed,” Ryel said, angrily now. “Burnt to ashes in Elecambron. I read it in the Books.”

Pukk seemed to incline its head. “Yes. But therai ofDag arre mains.” Then slowly, softly, alarmingly, Pukk whispered. “Dagar’sp ow erg rows. Hewill grows trong er. Indark nesshedr awsst rength.”

For once Ryel was confused by Pukk’s idiosyncratic syntax. “Dagar draws strength in the darkness? Meaning that he is powerless during the day?”

Pukk gave a reluctant quiver of assent. “Itwill notal waysb eso. Morew illcome. Soon.”

Why has Dagar not taken you?”

Pukk guttered under the insult. “Iamstr ong. Stron gestof myk ind. Nottobe take nuntilall elseistaken.”

Ryel felt his heart beating too fast, and could not calm it. “And what if all else is taken? What comes after?”

The purple eyes blazed. “Itwill havey ou. As itss lave.” In that last sneering syllable Pukk began to fade.

Ryel leapt to his feet. “I command you stay! You feckless ectoplasm, if you dare—”

But Pukk had vanished, all but its eyes. In another moment those eyes gave a malignant scornful flash, and were extinguished by the rain. A few minutes later the princely yat had dwindled to a miserable tent ubiquitously aleak, and the ardent blaze had shrunk to flickering smoke.

Damn,” Ryel muttered, furious and alarmed. He hugged his cloak around him, and listened hard. Only the lulling fall of skywater came to his ears. At least he’d be able to sleep, if the rain held. The wolves and night-serpents for which the Aqqar was universally ill-famed kept to their lairs during wet weather.

I’ve roughed it worse,” the wysard assured himself aloud. But he knew to his discomfiture that it had been very long since he last had. Sheltering in the folds of Edris’ cloak he with great difficulty found a dry spot inside the tent and flung himself down, overmasteringly spent. But Pukk’s words kept him restless where rain and cold could not.


Uncertain sunlight woke him, and he rose on an elbow, blinking. The tent was gone, and the fire. Only a little heap of soggy cinders marked his erstwhile camp. But at least it wasn’t raining.

Ryel sniffed, and groaned, and cleared his throat. His breath vapored on the chill air. “Chal. At once.”

None appeared.

Quite deliberately he asked again, but with the same result. Dagar might not be powerful in the day, but Pukk had been right: the spirit-energy of the Aqqar was sucked dry. After last night’s colloquy Ryel was disinclined to summon Pukk again, but he had no other servants in this place—only his Mastery, meant for higher aims than the body’s needs, and his own ingenuity, not particularly scintillating just now. Rolling onto his back, the wysard contemplated the opaque grayness overhead as he shivered under his damp cloak and wondered if he was about to catch cold or worse. At that dire thought he redoubled his inventiveness, and suddenly remembered the little chunk of kulm he’d wrapped up with his flint and steel, stuck inside his chal-gear and thrust into a corner of his saddlebags on the morning of the day he’d reached Markul.

Some rummaging and cold-fingered cursing later, he’d coaxed a spark and started a fire under the chaltak; and after an interminable interval the water bubbled hot enough for him to throw in a good big pinch of chal-powder to make the strong brew he liked best. As soon as the powder settled he poured the infusion into the chal-cup, warming his hands around the bowl. The heat was an indescribable comfort, and he gave a little groan of pleasure as his stiff fingers relaxed; and when he put his lips to the bowl he shuddered as the chal, more delicious than any he’d ever drunk in Markul, shed its stimulant warmth into his ill-rested limbs. Since boyhood he’d loved chal, brewed to a deep jade-color in the Almancarian fashion; the Rismai and other steppe-dwellers in the realm of Destimar commonly drank it much lighter. Every horseman of Risma carried a set of chal-gear, neatly and compactly nested, in his saddlebags; most often the gear was wrought of tough fire-resistant Semlorn porcelain, but richer folks’ were of silver. Ryel’s chaltak and bowl were of exquisitely wrought electrum and enamel fit for a wandering prince, which his mother had had made for him as her parting-gift when he left for Markul. The wysard had much missed them during his years in the City, and it was sheer pleasure to have them back again. As he savored that reunion, he thought of the land he had left so long ago, and would at last behold again.

The realm of Destimar was vast, comprising not only the Inner and Outer Steppes to the east and south, but fertile lands reaching as far as the sea, west of the towering jewel-teeming massifs of the Gray Sisterhood. The capital city of Almancar lay emplained at the foot of the Sisterhood’s eastern slopes, and within its walls Ryel’s mother had been born and had lived cherished amid every luxury until the age of fifteen. Much had Mira told her son of her native city and her family, and of her two brothers who roved the World by ship and caravan in search of treasures rich, beautiful and ancient. But she seldom spoke of her parents, from whom she had become estranged when she chose to marry a Steppes horseman rather than one of the several Destimarian nobles who had sought her hand.

The suitor she chose, Yorganar, had grown to manhood on the Outer Steppes, and later moved to the Inner lands. It was the custom in both Steppes for folk to dwell as phratria, loosely-knit clans united and identified by their banner. The bannermen of the Muk’hai, the Bostrai, the Bakatt Segred and the Kaltiri—or the Red Moon, the Raincloud, the Nightwind and the Grass-fox—dwelt in the endless green fields of the Kugglaitan just west of Almancar, and were famed for their great flocks of sheep and cattle; save for the wandering and warlike Kaltiri they were town-lovers for the most part, nomadic only in summer. The people of the Elhin Gazal and the Fang’an, or the Triple Star and the Stormhawk, lived deep in the Rismai lands to the northeast, in encampments they shifted four times a year; they were renowned for the most excellent horses in the World. The Kugglaitai were close friends of Almancar, but relations between Risma and the Bright City were less civil, for the horse-folk of the Inner Steppes were haughty of spirit, and scornful of town-life; and whenever the Sovran exacted his yearly tribute of mares and stallions for his stables, he was compelled to come himself to fetch them, or send his emissaries to traffic at the great horse-fair held every year at springtide.

Long had the Elhin Gazal horses been reputed the best of all the world, and those of the Yorganarek breed descended from Windskimmer were deemed almost beyond price, and sought after by the great and rich of every land. Ryel had thus grown up used to the comings and goings of lords and princes in his father’s yat, and as a boy of twelve had poured out wine for the Sovranet Mycenas of Destimar, and been called a fine young lad; but even then he knew that his family’s privileged status was of very recent date. Yorganar had been born a Kaltiri, and his people had raised cattle. But while young men barely out of their teens, he and his brother Edris had forsaken their kinsmen of the Grass-fox banner to become warriors in Destimar’s border disputes with Shrivran; and they signalized themselves by valor that the Sovran richly rewarded when the struggle was concluded in peace two years later.

Having tasted the life of the armed camp, the brothers found themselves more inclined afterward to be horse-tamers than herdsmen, and accordingly shifted their clan-allegiance to the phratri of the Three Stars, which was glad of such brave and ardent new blood. With riches, skill and strength gained from their warrior’s days the twin brothers together built up the choicest stud in the Inner Steppes, and when Edris renounced his share of it first to soldier in the Northland for the Dominor of Hryeland, and then to spend the rest of his days in Markul, Yorganar was thus made richer even than the Triple Star’s chieftains. But as a new man under a strange banner, without kinsmen among the phratri, wed to an outland wife and father of only a single son, Yorganar was always somewhat distanced from the folk of his adopted clan; and Ryel had grown up without that dense network of relations that signalized the nomadic life of the Inner Steppes. Nor was his bond with his father a strong one, which was likewise counter to Steppes ways. His mother had been so much to him—nurturer, sister, friend, queen.

I would be with you now if I could,” he whispered to her in a sleep-roughened voice unsteady with trapped and burning tears. “But I have no way. And it’ll take long to reach you, every day bringing you more pain. I wish I had the Art.”

As if to partly give him the lie, a whickering snort issued from very close by; and Ryel started up to find an animal grazing less than twenty feet away. Had it been a fabulous monster all horns and warts, the wysard could not have been more astonished; but it was a mare of the true Steppes breed, neat-limbed and strong and lovely, worth its weight in matched pearls.

This is a dream,” he whispered. The horse heard him, and lifted its head to look his way with great dark wondering eyes. At that gesture, so graceful and apt, Ryel caught his breath.


The horse’s ears twitched, and its dark eyes assessed the wysard warily under thick-fringed lashes, but without fear. Very slowly Ryel got to his feet. He was trembling, but not from the dawn cold this time.

Jinn. I know it’s you. Jinn, little sister, do you not remember me?”

The horse hung back, its four legs planted and its head lowered. Ryel took a step forward, ever talking in a voice soft and steady.

How came your mane and tail so long, and so light? It becomes you. Your coat’s all rough, but we’ll smooth it. And how is it you’re so young? You should be old, old; not as fresh as the day we parted before the walls of Markul. Can it be that the land around the City kept you youthful, even as it kept my gear from perishing? But that isn’t possible; surely you’ve escaped from a rich caravan, and some proud young brave is now desolate because of you.”

By this time he had his hand on the horse’s mane. Very gently Ryel stroked the pale shimmering forelock. In doing so he ran a finger over the cocked left ear, seeking a little nick at its base. He found it, and jerked back as if bitten.

No. It can’t be.”

It couldn’t. Not after so many years. But nevertheless the horse was warmly real, its breath vaporing on the raw Aqqar air. Real, and undoubtedly fleet and tough if her likeness to Jinn went further than mere semblance. Slowly lest he frighten the animal away, Ryel went to his saddlebags and took out the halter. “I never dreamed I’d have a use for this, here in the wasteland. Could you get used to it again…Jinn?”

The name worked like a spell. The mare stood motionless, giving only a snort or two as Ryel tossed the saddlebags onto her back and fitted the halter onto her head. Reaching into his pocket, the wysard brought out a bag of dried fruit.

Here, little one. Apricots—your favorites, remember? They’re a bit on the leathery side, and I’d say a word to freshen them, but it wouldn’t work now. What, don’t you want them?”

The horse apparently did not. After a tentative sniff, Jinn turned her head away.

Very well. I won’t force you,” Ryel said. “But let me do this, at least.” And he stroked Jinn’s satin mane, and hugged her about the neck.

Although he had not ridden for a dozen years, the wysard vaulted without effort onto the mare’s back and sat easily despite the lack of a saddle, his Steppes horsemanship unforgotten.

All right, little one. Let’s have a run, and see if you’re as fast as your namesake was.”

He touched a heel to her side, and the mare leapt into a gallop that no whip in the world could have prompted, and that surely no other mount in the world might equal. Ryel felt his hair stream out behind him, and in the fullness of his joy he began to sing a Rismaian ballad forgotten by him until that moment, shouting the words to the wind.

The day passed in an eyeblink—far too fast, in fact. Tirelessly Jinn raced across the infinities of green, never slowing her pace for an instant. At last Ryel forced her to a halt lest he kill her.

This isn’t right,” he said, more disquieted than pleased, now. “Miles and miles gone by at a dead gallop, but you’re not lathered even a fleck. You don’t seem to need to eat or drink—or satisfy any other natural urges, for that matter. I’m starting to think you aren’t real.”

Jinn gave a whinny that sounded indignant, but Ryel was beginning to feel strong unease. He expected in the next moment for the air to close in chokingly around him, and the persecuting voice to shrill about his ears like an evil bug, and the horse to transform into something unspeakably monstrous.

For several taut heart-taxing minutes the wysard awaited the worst as Jinn watched him with great questioning eyes. At last Ryel allowed himself to calm, and put out a steady hand to stroke the mare’s bright mane.

Someone sent you,” he said. “ Someone who knows my memories. Someone who wishes me well. But who could it be?”

Whatever Jinn’s arcane powers, speech was apparently not one of them, and Ryel had no time to ask whose Art-imbued agency had intervened so wonderfully in his behalf. He remounted, and rode.

But even if Jinn never tired, Ryel did. At sunset he made camp in the simple way of a Steppes bannerman, with no other shelter than his cloak. By now he was well out of the Aqqar. The mists had thinned, and now he was amid open air. With a World-horse the journey would have taken many a weary day, but Jinn’s swiftness owed nothing to earth, for which the wysard was inutterably grateful. That evening Ryel looked up at the sky and for the first time in twelve years saw stars glimmering among the ragged clouds; and then the pale gold moon rose in silent state, vast as it slid upward from the grasses, a vision so wondrous that the wysard looked on in breathless awe. He barely slept that night, but continually awakened to fix his eyes on the flickering sparks and glowing disk. With hunger in his heart he dreamed of the dawn, and awoke to find the sky alight as if on fire, and he turned his head and saw the sun, and his eyes dazzled and burned.

That same day he found a trail and followed it sunward, tracing the path to a caravan-road he remembered well, riding ever southwest, joying in the brilliant blue of the sky, the clear ardent light, the green infinity of grassland. And soon the endless jade sweep took on other colors, vivid patches of citron yellow, glowing magenta, bright turquoise, deep scarlet—colonies of flowers spreading in their millions, anemones and roses and lilies in the height of their bloom, eagerly making the most of the evanescent Steppes spring. Amid interfused fragrance and color Ryel journeyed enraptured, feeling like a wandering prince in some epic of Destimar; like Prince Ghenris when he rode up to the throne of the Emperor of Rintala over a carpet that covered the entire floor of the vast presence-hall of the fabled palace, a carpet of the most precious silk dyed in a thousand hues, and pricelessly perfumed—a paltry rug compared to this endless living tapestry in which Jinn’s hooves sank to the fetlock in soft scented growth.

It was under bright midday that he at last saw the banners of his people, deep blue with a triple star of silver, fluttering and snapping above the horizon’s curve. Beyond the banners stretched a soft green plain, immensely vast, studded here and there with little conical hills. And far beyond that plain the white peaks of a range of huge mountains, the Gray Sisterhood, cut a jagged swath between earth and heaven.

My land, Ryel thought as his heart leapt. My great green land.

Those far-flung little hills had once been live volcanoes spitting fire, many thousands of years gone. Each cinder-cone bore the name of a Rismaian deity, and in their hollows the phratri sheltered their horses from the winter winds, sure of divine as well as natural protection. The wysard had grown up with legends of the Age of Fire, when all this earth was red and reeking with fiery lava; his people deemed themselves sprung from those flames. In the undulant slopes at the base of the volcano-hills the Rismai on occasion found ancient bones of men, their weapons and other goods; and the axeheads and arrowheads were highly prized by warriors of the phratri, who deemed them full of power and good fortune in the hunt. And the hunting was good, for antelope sheltered in the rare thickets of scrub pine, and hares in the basalt crevasses.

No river flowed through Risma, but scattered spring-fed ponds and lakes reflected the swift-changing clouds. At the edge of one of these stood the springtide encampment of the Elhin Gazal, its scattered yats echoing the shape of the cinder-cones, smoke rising from the pointed roofs as if from live fire-mountains.

His blood thrilling at the sight, Ryel would have driven his heels into Jinn’s sides, but there was no need, for Jinn had seen the yats as well, and plunged into a gallop that mocked all other speed she’d shown.

A sentinel had noted Ryel’s approach, and now drew his bow. Well aware that only two words would save his life, the wysard forced Jinn to a skidding halt and drew a deep breath.

Ryel!” he shouted. “Ryel Mirai!”

The wysard waited, his hands lifted clear of his weapons in token of his peaceful intent, as the warrior overcame his apparent surprise, returned his arrow to his quiver and his bow to its sheath, and urged his horse to a canter. I know you, Ryel thought, his recognition growing all the more joyous and amazed as the rider neared him. You draw your hood about your face, but I know your eyes. Of all lucks, I had not hoped for this.

They were now a spear’s length apart. The hooded warrior spoke first, in the common Almancarian that was the trade-tongue of the Steppes; and his keen dark eyes surveyed the wysard’s every feature.

The name you shouted so proudly belongs to one many years gone.”

Gone, but now returned,” Ryel said.

You do not use your patronymic, if you are he.”

I follow the custom of our people. But I may call myself Ryel Mirai, son of Yorganar that was. I greet you, Shiran.”

The warrior’s eyes widened, but only for a moment. “Many of the Rismai are named Shiran.”

Your voice has changed, Ryel thought. As mine has.

Shiran is indeed a common name on the Inner Steppes,” he said aloud. “But in all the Steppes there is only one Shiran Belarem Alizai, and he and I once raced our first horses on this same stretch of ground. But he used always to wear a bow-guard of heavy gold, a treasured heirloom. Why does he not wear it now?”

Frowning brows at that, and a searching stare. Then from behind the hood the voice came rough. “Your eyes are strange.”

Ryel felt the blood drain from his face like water into hot sand. No. Oh, no. He sees it. Sees the blackness, and—

Yes,” the sentinel said. “Strange. Not like ours.” But as he spoke he took his hand from his dagger-hilt, and his voice grew calmer, sweetened with something like laughter. When he next spoke it was in the Rismai dialect, although formally, as befit men newly acquainted. “There used once to be a boy with such blue eyes, here in the camp.”

Ryel blinked, but replied in the same language. “Was there indeed?”

The sentinel nodded. “A pale weakling he was. And I used to jeer at him, until he grew strong enough to make me sorry.” The cowl fell free, then, to bare a brave face all in smiles. “Many years, play-brother,” said Shiran, holding out his hand in that frank way that had ever been his. “I’d never forget those sky-colored eyes of yours, no matter how long you kept away. How many years were they?”

Ten or so,” Ryel said, too weak with relief to contest the grip of Shiran’s tough brown palm. “Not many.”

An entire dozen, play-brother, not one of them short.”

You’ve grown strong in that time.”

And you soft.” Shiran released Ryel’s hand after a last hard clasp. “But tabibs’ hands are ever soft. For all that, I dare swear you’ve cut up more corpses than I’ve yet slain, there in that leech-school of Fershom Rikh. So, have you mastered your craft at last? You should have learned by now to raise the dead, at very least.”

Because wysards were greatly feared and distrusted in the Steppes, Ryel’s parents had explained his leave-taking by saying he’d chosen to be a tabib—a doctor—and had elected to study medicine at Fershom Rikh, a far-off city of Destimar famed for its schools and its healers. Tabibs were scarce in the Steppes and honored, so this news had met with the phratri’s entire approval. Shiran’s questions made Ryel remember Edris, and for a moment he looked away. “Somewhat less is my skill.”

Shiran did not observe Ryel’s emotion, for his attention had shifted. “Only a skilled doctor could afford a horse like yours. She reminds me of Jinn—none but Windskimmer’s get could cover ground so fast as this lovely one does. But Jinn would be old now, and this one seems less than two years.” He reached out and stroked the mare’s pale silken mane, and his thoughts seemed to wander. “Your sister Nelora has grown up while you were gone. Half the braves of the encampment are at each other’s throats for her sake—which is just as she likes it.”

Ryel felt a little twinge of pride, but still raised a brow. “Nelora is only a girl of fourteen, if I reckon her years rightly.”

Tell her that. And she’s no cloud-witted child, believe me, but so learned at her age that the elders marvel at her.”

Ryel leaned forward, interested. “So she’s bookish, then, and gentle?”

Shiran flung back his head and laughed. “Hardly. Did you see her playing at kriy a-horseback with the boys—and winning—you’d think her neither. And with that tongue of hers, she doesn’t need a dagger. Half wild she is, and self-willed, and fair as one born of your mother must be.” But then Shiran ceased smiling, and spoke the words Ryel had seen hiding in his eyes all along, words the wysard had been dreading. “I do wrong to throw away your time this idly, Ry. You should see to your mother at once.”

Again Ryel heard the unnamed voice. Its cruel taunting. “Then she is…”

In deepest need of all the physician’s skill you learned in Fershom Rikh. I suppose you are here for that cause, but I wonder how you knew—”

I can’t stay,” Ryel said abruptly, already turning Jinn’s head toward the yats.

Shiran nodded understanding. “May your doctor’s arts help her. And when we next talk, may I hear of her cure.”

You will, ilandrakis.”

The word Ryel had used was an eloquent, cherished one on the Steppes, meaning dearer than brother. At the sound of it, Shiran reached out. “Let this be greeting instead of farewell.” And he bent from the saddle and caught Ryel about the neck, pressing his right cheek against that of his friend’s. “Our faces were smooth when last we took leave of each other, and now we meet again, grown and bearded. Long years, play-brother.”

Ryel returned the time-honored gesture with his whole heart. The two friends parted, and Ryel rode on to the encampment. As he neared the yats, a screaming crowd of dogs and children swarmed around Jinn’s legs, but the wysard made no attempt to scatter them; the sight of shaggy hounds and red-cheeked little faces was too much of a novelty after petless, childless Markul. He merely quieted the urchins with a few calming-words, to which his mare added some kicks that sent mongrels scudding and shrieking in all directions. Because he had passed the sentinel and was therefore a friend to the banner, Ryel was not otherwise hindered as he rode through the encampment, although many paused to scan his face or admire his horse.

They think they know me, he thought as he acknowledged their nods and waves. The old ones who smile at me remember the lad who left to become a physician and study with the great doctors at Fershom Rikh; but did they realize that a lord adept of dread Markul rode among them, every hand now raised in greeting would be hurling stones.

In his admiration of the green infinity of steppe he had forgotten how rough life was among the yats. Forgotten the dirt and the din, the compacted miasma of meat seared by fire, of hot spices, horses, human sweat, the gritty reek of dust and smoke. Markul had taught him the luxuries of peace and cleanliness, however sparely he had elected to live there, and now he could not help wondering why his mother chose still to dwell among the Elhin Gazal when she might freely return to her native city of Almancar, the fairest in the World.

Mindful of ancient custom, he rode to the center of the encampment where the banner of the Triple Star was fastened to a tall slim mast in the midst of a clearing, its azure and gold silk straining at full length in the brisk spring wind. At the foot of the mast a simple wooden shrine held a burner of incense and various small offerings—wildflowers, copper money, and delicate seashells and fishes made of stone. The latter tokens were very rare, carefully pried out of secret places in the rock by horseman’s knives. Bending from the saddle Ryel took up one of the shells and studied its fanned ridges a moment, remembering the old tales of his tribe. One told of how gods had carved the shells in their long millennia of idleness before man was created; another story even more fantastic, which none but the tiniest children believed, spoke of a great ocean that had once covered all the land.

Ryel turned the shell about in his fingers, his eyes fixed on the infinite green of the Steppes but his thoughts filling with another sea of vast and restless blue, splashing and foaming against the walls of Markul; and then the flashing glance of eyes bluer than any sea, azure with a live tint of violet. At that last memory he flinched, and hastened to complete the ritual of return, one performed by every bannerman after a journey. Bowing his head to the flag, he waved some of the incense-smoke first toward his face, then toward the four directions, invoking their gods; then touched the back of his hand to his brow, murmuring the ancient words of greeting to the protective deities of the phratri. These ceremonies done, he straightened, and turned Jinn’s head toward his mother’s dwelling.

He had recognized his family’s yat-compound at once, pitched at some distance from the rest of the encampment and looked after by servants working hard at their various chores. Radiating from its central tent were five pavilions that served as sleeping-chambers and storerooms, while smaller yats for guests, guards, and servants stood somewhat further off—an arrangement once unique in Rismai, but now much imitated by those that could afford it. The yat-compound was but one of Mira’s many successful attempts to confer at least a hint of her homeland’s elegance to the uncivil Steppes. Other experiments were less happily realized: Ryel noted the struggling rose-bushes on either side of the yat’s main entrance, and he recalled the constant efforts his mother had made to bring to this endless grassland some remembrance of the bright gardens of her native Almancar: the little orange-trees she cosseted to no avail in blue-and-white pots, the sweet herbs she sowed in neat patches never strongly enough fenced against marauding dogs and hares, the heaven-blue morning-glories she loved and ever tried, with little success, to wreathe about the yat-door. The memories distressed Ryel for the first time.

Constantly you sought to soften this hard life, my mother. But the roses always died, and the herbs never flourished, and the morning-glories would not bloom, and you would sigh and remember the flowering vines and sweet teeming greenery of your Almancarian girlhood, and my heart would ache for you. Neither of us belonged here.

Still, Ryel could never once recall her complaining of her lot, any more than he could ever recall her spending her time idly. All of the many books she owned, and which Yorganar deemed useless clutter, were good and beautiful. Often Ryel would ask her to read aloud in her sweet voice, or listen to her as she sang. Often he would sing with her; and when she played the faldh, the soft-toned cithern of courtly Almancar, he would accompany her on his krusghan, the Steppes flute known for its soft carrying tones. The skill of her hands was marvelous, and her exquisite embroidery mingled Steppes designs with Almancarian, creating mythical beasts, fantastic flowers, unique ornament. No one else had the secret of those delicate sweets she made, lakh and other rarities that seemed the food of paradise.

Partly because she insisted, partly because it amused him, Yorganar had taught his young wife how to ride, and soon Ryel’s mother had become proverbial among the Steppes for her bravery and skill on horseback. Although it was not unusual for young girls of the Rismai to become avid horsewomen, that activity virtually always ceased after marriage; and some of Ryel’s most pleasant childhood memories were those in which he and Mira galloped together across the endless plains, she in bannerman’s gear with her black hair streaming behind her, her cheeks flushed with the joy of exertion, her blue eyes glowing.

But now as Ryel neared his mother’s yat, all he could remember was that Mira had never once looked upon her husband with any feeling deeper than gentle resignation. In the next moment he recalled the way she had gazed upon Edris that winter’s night of so many changes, and the way Edris had returned that gaze. Ryel felt a wrenching qualm of sorrow for his mother, pity and regret for a delicate nature suborned to a dullard husband, a rough people, a harsh land.

Then the wysard’s breath came fast, for he saw that the largest yat’s entrance framed a woman, tall and girl-slender. Like a queen enthroned she half-reclined in a chair, instead of sitting upon a carpet in the Rismai fashion. Her night-hued tresses, only a little touched with silver, were arranged in the Almancarian fashion of many plaits and tresses, and her garments were Almancarian likewise, heavy silk and fine embroidery falling in a thousand narrow folds. She was more fair than many another woman half her age, but her cheeks were pale and her eyes and lips were taut with pain. She lifted her face to the sunlight as if it were the last she would ever feel.

Ryel flung himself off his horse and fell to his knees before her, pressing the backs of her hands against his forehead to receive their blessing. “My lady mother.” He kissed her fingers, that were fully as cold as his own, and breathed the slightly bitter fragrance that clung to them. You’re drugged, he thought. Drugged strongly with hrask, which means that your pain is great, but your doctors good.

At first she had recoiled, breathlessly startled. But now she gazed down at him, uncertainty giving way to recognition. “My little son,” she said wonderingly, in the palace dialect of her native city, their shared and secret language. “My boy-child, now grown so tall.” She reached out and laid a hand upon his head, caressing his hair. But her fingers trembled, and her voice was as faint as her smile. “Ah, Ryel, I longed for this. At the sight of you my heart beat so strong—”

She paled, and swayed. Ryel caught her in his arms. “My mother, you are grievously sick.”

Not now,” she said; but he could barely hear her. “Not now. My thanks to every god that I saw you again before I breathed my last—”

No,” he said, whispering into the soft braidings of her hair. “No words.”

But you must hear them. You must know that I am—”

Ryel would not hear. “You are ill, yes. And I have come to heal you.”

Too late, Ryel.”

I said no.” And Ryel lifted her up and carried her inside the yat before she could protest, finding his way at once to the curtained chamber where her bed was; and in her bed he set her, and knelt at her side.

And now, my mother, I will consider how best to cure you.”

Mira gazed upon him tenderly, but shook her head. “I am beyond any physician’s cure, Ryel. The doctors have done all they could, save cut me. I would not let them.”

Good. But I know they drug you daily; your skin’s redolent of it. You have cancer of the breast.”

She stared at him. “How could you know that?”

I saw your malady in a vision. Because of it I am here.” A wave of cold passed over him as he spoke, because he had almost chosen not to believe that vision, sent by the voice; had almost not come to this place, but stayed in his City.

You do not ask after Yorganar.”

Ryel had not thought of him until this moment. “I am aware that he died three years ago. Edris told me when it happened.”

Edris.” Mira’s pale cheeks colored momentarily. “Did you mourn for Yorganar?”

Should a son not mourn his father? Did you not mourn your husband?”

Mira gazed long on her son; yet her look was strange. “I never loved man but your father, Ryel.” Again she put her hand to her breast; her beautiful features contorted. “The drug’s power is waning,” she whispered.

I will give you more, and better.”

Some hurts there are that no medicines can touch, my own. You think my cancer gnaws me, but a greater pain has fed upon my heart these many years, years enough to number those of your life …”

Ryel bent near, alarmed. “Let me only—”

She clasped her hands above her heart, desperately. “Never. Have you not seen it already in your vision—a loathsome growth, ulcerated and monstrous? I have done great wrong in my life, yes; but it is hard to endure, this rotting alive. This pain. This horrible pain—”

The wysard would have risen and gone to search Jinn’s saddlebags for stronger drugs, but Mira halted him. “No. No more. Only wrap me in your cloak, and I will be well.”

But my mother—”

Your cloak. Only that.”

Ryel enveloped her in the thick tyrian cloth, and she lay back strangely calmed and smiling. “It’s warm,” she whispered. “So warm.” And she caressed its heavy web, and lifted a fold to her face, breathing as if she scented healing balm.

As her eyes closed, instantly the wysard said a word that made Mira fall into sleep. Then he fastened shut the hangings of the entrance, returned to his mother’s side, and again knelt. All around was silence, for the dense hangings and layered carpets muted every sound within the yat and without. Ryel lit the lamps, and then, keenly feeling the chill in the room, he piled more kulm into the little tiled Almancarian stove, one of several that heated the various chambers of the tent-dwelling. A moment he looked about him as he warmed himself to readiness, and with enstrengthening pleasure contemplated the embroidery that covered every visible vestige of cloth with glowing designs that gentled barbaric Steppes angularity with soft Almancarian grace—every inch of it the work of his mother’s hands, begun when she came to Yorganar’s yat as a bride, increased an opulent hundredfold over the twelve years of Ryel’s absence.

The wysard next threw in a handful of dust onto the fire—feia powder, taken from Lady Haldwina’s gifts—and at once a heady scent, not sweet but redolent of summer’s earth, impregnated the air. In her sleep Mira breathed deeply of it.

Good,” Ryel murmured. “Let it take you.” It’s taking me as well, he thought. Blocking out the World, leading me deep into my mind’s widest reaches, to my real strength.

Outside was strong daylight with Dagar not yet abroad, if Pukk was to be trusted. But Ryel did not greatly care either way, for he would rely on his Mastery to work his mother’s cure, not the services of his srihs. He cradled both his mother’s hands in his own and bowed his head over them, pressing the cold fingers against his brow.

Give unto me the death within you,” he whispered. “The death that thinks it owns you. Give it to me, and let me make it suffer.”

Closing his eyes he uttered a word, and felt his being slip away from his body; and suddenly he was slammed into icy blackness sharp as knives. Excruciating as the pain was, it was yet worsened by Ryel’s realization that he’d felt it once before. This was not his first time in the emptiness. He had stood in the same place almost two months ago; and he had never felt such horror or such fear before as then.

But I’m not afraid now, he thought. It can do no more to me than it has done.

There in the echoing abyss he stood on a narrow bridge that linked him to his mother body and mind. Naked and unarmed he stood, knowing he must not look down, but straight on into the blackness. In that moment he was mindful of the half-mocking words of Edris.

Here’s a little rhyme for you, whelp—never forget it,” his kinsman had said. “’If there be doubt, the Art will find it out.’ Any flinching, and you’ll fail. Always. Either give it your all or leave it alone.”

Half-mockingly spoken, yes. But behind those dark eyes Ryel had seen a sternness that made him tremble. “I will,” he had replied, firmly quelling his fear, facing his kinsman with lifted chin and steady gaze. “I will.”

And now Ryel faced the blackness with the same level defiance, with his entire determination, his complete self committed to the fight. Swiftly and boldly he spoke the needful spells, those that would destroy the cancer and restore the corrupt flesh to wholeness. His words reverberated a thousandfold before silence suddenly enclosed him, heartlessly cold. He stood breathless, straining like drawn wire.

And then it came.

His skin—the invisible integument of his disembodied being, not his shell of flesh now left a million leagues behind—began to tingle, then burn. And then the cancer engulfed him in a crawling swarm of fanged and clawed clots of slime. Taken aback by the onslaught, Ryel struggled appalled.

I can’t fight this. It’s too strong. By every god—

Strangled by overwhelming doom he thrashed and writhed, but all in vain. The foul tusks and fiery talons rent and tore him until he could no longer shriek, but dropped throttled into the abyss.