the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 10


The tensions built within the Keep until one night Minalde failed to come to Rudy's cell, as had been her custom.

He lay awake for hours in the darkness, listening for the sound of her step, the touch of slippered feet on the damp stone of the winding corridors whose mazes she knew so well, and the slurring whisper of the heavy fur of her cloak- sounds that only a wizard could hear. Some two hours had passed since he had heard the far-off, muffled commotion of the deep-night watch leaving the barracks on its rounds.

She had never been so late before.

And yet he knew- he knew -that she had planned to come to him.

The firesquad demonstration had taken place that afternoon. Most of the population of the Keep-with the exception of Gil, who, Rudy surmised, was so wound up in the pursuit of her mysterious research that she'd forgotten the day- and virtually all of the Alketch troops had been there. The frozen mud of the drilling ground in the meadow below the Keep walls had been darkened with a lake of humanity, crowding to see this weapon with which, rumor had it, Dare of Renweth had defeated the Dark Ones. A dais had been erected at the south corner of the meadow near the road, and on it the somber black and bloody crimson pennants of Realm and Church alternated with the gaudy, gold-stitched banners of the South.

Lying in the darkness of his cell, Rudy picked over the memories of the day, sorting them like jewel-bright photographs. He remembered how straight the ranks of the fire-squad had been, despite the wide range in their ages and origins -boys of ten or twelve on up to one old lady of eighty; the orange oriflamme that was their emblem had blazed brightly on the pale homespun of their uniforms. He remembered the gleam of sun on the looping rigs of their glass and gold weapons and the sharp bark of Melantrys' commands.

Other images came back to him: Vair and Stiarth, like a couple of refulgent tiger lilies in slashed doublets of orange and magenta, jewels twinkling among the extravagant ruffles of their sleeves; Bektis, at the foot of the dais among the other mages, sulking because he had not been given a place with the notables of the Realm-although Govannin would have excommunicated the entire government at the mere suggestion that she and Inquisitor Pinard be asked to share the platform with one who was mageborn; and Alwir's face, and the mingled glitter of wariness and contempt beneath his half-shut eyelids.

Especially, he remembered Minalde, with Tir in her arms.

Ingold had stood at the far end of the meadow, with the heavy folds of his mantle thrown back to reveal the shabby homespun robes and beat-up sword belt underneath, picking little, brightly colored bubbles of illusion from the air with the sweeping gestures of a side-show magician.

Since Rudy was familiar with the rainy-day pastimes of younger wizards, this was nothing much to his eyes. But he heard the uneasy murmur of the crowd as Ingold tossed the small and gleaming colored spheres out into the air, and they grew in a twinkling to some two feet across and bobbed about him, green and purple and electric blue, like monster catfish trawling for garbage in the snow.

The firesquad had moved forward. At Ingold's wave of command, the bubbles had swirled upward like a torrent of blown leaves in autumn. Someone in the crowd gasped in horror; from the dais behind him, Rudy heard Vair whisper, "Devil!" The ludicrous rainbow toys moved in a precise imitation of the gliding, sinuous flight of the Dark Ones.

There was not a person in the meadow who had not seen at firsthand how the Dark attacked. When Melantrys whirled in mid-stride to pick off a quivering globe of scarlet that swooped down upon her from behind and above, there was a gust of applause, which quickly rose to a roar as more targets were hit. Against the drabness of the wintry afternoon, the leaping streaks of fire looked chill and rather pale. The moving targets flashed out of existence as soon as the flames touched them, and the cheering mounted to a thunderous shout, as if it were actually the Dark being destroyed. Up on the dais, Alwir and the peacock lords of Alketch were nodding to one another in grim satisfaction; down below, mages and Guards pounded one another on the back with tooth-jarring verve. Rudy found himself jostled, grabbed, patted, and congratulated by friends and total strangers. Even Thoth unbent enough to admit, "Impressive."

But it was the pride on Aide's face that stayed in Rudy's mind. In all his life, he could never recall anyone who had ever been proud of him.

Why doesn't she come?

There had been that look, that promise, in her eyes as their gazes had crossed, and for a moment they had been alone together in the midst of that ebullient crowd.

And time is so short , Rudy thought despairingly. The Winter Feast is three days from now! And after that …

He pushed the thought from his mind, as he had resolutely kept it at bay these past weeks, so as not to cloud the halcyon days that they had. In a forlorn hope, he extended his awareness far into the mazes of the Keep, seeking for some sound of her coming in all that damp, inhabited darkness. He heard nothing- nothing but the slumberous murmur of a father soothing a crying child and the drip and trickle of water coursing through the Keep's stone veins.

Rudy was an old friend to the night sounds of the Keep. If nothing else, the Nest had cost him that. In dreams he wandered again in that dark, hideous world where staring, white-faced herds shuffled pathetically through the rotting mosses of endless caverns. He felt the clammy, hairless bodies and the touch of dark winds on his face; he saw the slimy, oozing things that infested the ceilings above. Sometimes he saw the tall, gray-haired prisoner again, running and gasping through that vibrating darkness, running nowhere…

Other dreams were more horrible. In them, the faces of the squeaking, pale things that fled his approach were familiar to him-Aide's, Ingold's, his own. The prisoner's eyes returned to him again and again, as he'd seen them for the single instant in the yellow reflection of the fire, wide, blind, and half-mad, the eyes of a beast that had forgotten what it was to be a man.

Then he would awaken and lie listening to the Keep's slumber.

He knew that others had less sleep than he. His own cell lay in the midst of the crowded complex that the mages had taken over. He could sometimes hear a breathing that he knew to be Kara's, when she woke with a cry from similar dreams; he could hear her sobs calm slowly into waking rhythm, but never deepen again into sleep. Occasionally he heard the faint clicking of Gil's wax tablets, or, from another corner of the complex, whispered giggles and the brisk, rhythmical creaking of rope bedsprings. Twice he'd heard a man's weeping, desperately stifled in bedclothes.

Where is Aide?

She could have changed her mind , half of him argued, but the other half remembered that glowing pride in her face. If ever a look said, "I'll come to you when I can…"

Did something keep her?

What could ? he argued. Alwir said he'd grant us his protection .

And then it occurred to Rudy that he could find out by looking in one of the magic crystals.

She has enough spying from Alwir, for Chrissake , he told himself angrily as the idea insinuated itself with overwhelming urgency into his thoughts. You don't own her !

But once it was formulated, the notion took hold of him, like a nagging itch. The tiny green crystal that he'd found in one of the labs downstairs seemed to wink at him in the darkness from the crude shelves that housed all of his few possessions. His fingers twitched to touch it, his mind to see.

Knock it off ! he commanded himself. It's none of your goddam business what's keeping her. You have no claim on that lady – it's you who's going to be deserting her. That's a kid's trick, like driving by your girlfriend's house to see

whose car is parked out front. If she decided not to come, she doesn't need you peeping on her.

Miserable with self-hate and frozen feet, he padded across the room, his blanket wrapped around his shoulders. A spark of witchlight brightened into being over his head as he took the greenish crystal from its place. Its facets glinted with tiny explosions of light as he angled it and stared deep into the heart of the jewel.

The candles in Aide's room were all but guttered. Wax dripped in thick, white columns down over the shoulders of the little bronze knights that upbore them and ran in creamy pools on the gleaming inlay of the polished table. The dying light flickered over the white brocade of her gown, danced in the jewels still knotted in her half-unraveled ceremonial coiffure, and winked on the little heap of rings and earrings that lay piled at her elbow. She had been in Council, he thought, and remembered that the first thing she did when she returned from such official functions was to strip off her jewelry and let down her hair.

He could not see her face, for she was asleep, with her head on the table and her face hidden in her arms.

A sheet of paper-the torn-out flyleaf of one of her books-lay beside her, and something was written on it in large, scrawly runes. Rudy had by this time mastered enough of the written language of the Wathe to spell out the message laboriously:

RUDY, HELP, PLEASE COME.

Her door was locked. The cloaking-spell that hid him from the two red-clad troopers at the end of the corridor would be useless if he called out loudly enough to wake her.

He laid his hands on the door. Closing his eyes, he felt for the mechanism of the lock with his mind in a technique that Ingold had shown him. The mechanics were crude and decadent, put in during the bad times, when the state of the lock-making art was low; working the wards with his mind was less difficult than forcing them to operate against the rust that choked them.

He pushed the door ajar and slid silently through.

As he pushed it to behind him, Tir stood up in his cradle, his plump, pink hands grasping the carved footboard for support. He called out gaily, " 'Udy!"

With a startled little cry, Alde raised her head, her hair swinging down over her face in an asymmetrical tangle of braids and gems. Then she gasped, "Rudy!" in a voice choked with tears.

She half- rose, and he crushed her in his arms. Her face had hardly more color in it than her gown, except for the swollen redness of her eyes. He tasted the tears that salted her lips; she was shivering with sobs as she pressed frantically into his embrace. "I thought you'd never come."

"I almost didn't, babe… What's the matter? Why's the door locked? What's happening?"

Her voice sank to a desperate whisper. "Rudy, Alwir's going to betroth me to the son of the Emperor of Alketch."

He blinked at her for a moment, not taking it in. "He's what?" he asked, not certain that he'd heard correctly. And then, as rage swept him with fever heat, he cried, " He's what ?" But he remembered where he was, and his shout was no more than a violent whisper. "He can't do that!"

"The Inquisitor told me," she went on in a low, stifled voice, "after the Council was over-oh, long after! I think the others had gone on with the talks after I left. I-I went to Alwir… He said the treaty had already been signed-that it would be announced the night after the Winter Feast, and I would marry by proxy and be sent south with Stiarth and an escort when the army leaves for Gae. Then he locked me in…"

Rudy's long acquaintance with the brotherhood of the road had given him considerable powers of self-expression. He wondered how he could possibly have been so naive as to trust Alwir's word. The lengthy tirade upon the Chancellor's ancestry, personal habits, and probable destiny that rose to his lips was partially aimed at his own stupidity as well. But he had been a wizard too long to think that such commentary would do other than waste time.

Instead, he said, "But they can't bring Tir up in Alketch!"

"They're not going to!" she whispered frantically. "Tir's going to stay here to rule the northern realms, with Alwir as the Regent." She pressed her forehead to his shoulder. "Rudy, what are we going to do?"

Damn good question , he thought, with a feeling akin to panic creeping through his heart. What could they do? The Keep was the last sanctuary from the Dark, and there was nowhere in the Keep that Alwir would not have absolute power over them. If her brother repudiated Alde and took Tir from her, she would lose what slender independence she had. Of course, then the heir of Alketch wouldn't marry her… or would he? Rudy cudgeled his fumbling brain to think and found only confusion and ignorance, his train of thought circling back on itself, like a man lost in a snowstorm.

What good would it do to escape ? he wondered. Wherever we go in the Keep, we're Alwir's prisoners. And besides, where in the Keep can we go ?

As he asked the question, the answer became immediately obvious to him.

He bent his head and kissed the frightened, upturned face. "Get your cloak, sweetheart," he said grimly. "I don't know what we're going to do, but Ingold sure as hell will."

Despite the lateness of the hour, Ingold was awake when they reached his alcove, seated in his carved chair with a moth-eaten bearskin blanket pulled around his shoulders, staring into the few coals that remained on his hearth fire. Both his white hair and the blankets on his narrow cot in the shadows at the back of the room were rumpled from unquiet sleep, and the litter of scholarship- parchments, books, those unfathomable charts of dates and food prices Gil was compiling-strewed the desk and the floor about his feet. But by the look of them, they had given the wizard no respite from the thoughts that had driven sleep from him. He appeared to have been sitting, staring silently into the fire, for some time.

He looked up as they entered, his glance going from Rudy's face to Minalde's, and his brow darkened when he saw the wrapped bundle of quilted velvet blankets that Alde bore in her arms. "What is it?" he asked quietly. "What's happened?"

Succinctly and profanely, Rudy informed him. While he did so, the wizard got to his feet, magelight brightening over his head as he handed Alde into his own chair by the fire and took Tir to lay upon the bed. Tir promptly started working to unravel himself and go exploring.

While Rudy was speaking, Alde sat, shivering a little under the bearskin that Ingold had drawn up around her shoulders, her eyes downcast, half-hidden among the fallen coils of her hair. Only when he finished did she look up. Her eyes were dry; the fear that had been in them as she'd guided Rudy, masked by the protection of his cloaking-spells, through the frowsty and smoke-stinking back corridors of the Keep to reach the Corps complex in secret was gone. It had been replaced by the look Rudy had seen in her eyes the night she'd submitted to the spell of gnodyrr, one of determination to do what must be done.

She asked softly, "Ingold… if Alwir agreed to this-this marriage-behind my back, what else might he have agreed to?"

The old man looked down at her consideringly, leaning his wide shoulders against the rounded clay and rubble wall of the chimney, the firelight mottling his robe ocher and rust. "I can think of several things," he replied. "Bishop Maia told me of an earlier attempt to gain control of the Penambra Delta. And there have always, of course, been quarrels over the Gettlesand border."

Her iris- colored eyes seemed to grow darker with bitter and helpless anger; her slender fingers shook as they locked together in the harsh fur. She whispered, "He has gone too far."

Standing half-forgotten in the dim circle of the firelight, Rudy had the sudden impression of having wandered into realms beyond his ken, into politics, power, and matters far above his own troubles and loves. Beside this greater issue, his love for this dark-haired girl seemed suddenly a small thing. Perhaps, he realized, it had always been.

Ingold folded his arms. "How far are you willing to go?"

"How far can I go?" she countered in a taut voice. "Whatever is said, I am still his prisoner, whether in my rooms or here. He'll find a way to bend me to his will…"

"Shall he?" the old man inquired mildly. "The fact that he locked you up as soon as you found out tells me that he wasn't as sure of that as you seem to be. He clearly planned to announce it as a fait accompli … If we can speak to him before he does so, we have a chance to change him."

Her shadow swooped across the broken plaster of the wall as she rose with restless abruptness to her feet. "Do we?" she demanded shakily. The jewels flashed, still caught in the dark knots of her hair. "He has proclaimed he will have an alliance with Alketch, and from that position he will not back down. For that alliance he would sacrifice everything-me, the Keep, his very soul." She turned restlessly, her white gown burnished with honey and flame. Her face in the flickering shadows looked suddenly aged by the grimness of her expression, its beauty tempered by the underlying strength of wrath.

Rudy found himself thinking how much she had changed from being the dead King's frightened child-widow; or perhaps it was simply that she had become what she had never before had the chance to be. Long ago, on the journey down from Karst, she had spoken of a ruler's responsibility to the people, and he had not understood at the time what that meant. It was possible, he thought, that she had not, either.

Ingold shifted his shoulders against the chimney breast, regarding her from beneath half-shut eyelids. "These things that you speak of," he said quietly, "- another's life, the safety of the Keep, the integrity of the soul-are matters of great import to you, my lady. But to my lord Alwir, I suspect that such things yield precedence to power and personal comfort-and those, perhaps, he will not be so willing to endanger, even for the sake of an alliance with Alketch."

She was silent for a long moment, struggling with the unexpected hurt she felt at those words. For all that's gone down , Rudy thought, seeing the sudden hotness that flooded her eyes, he's still her brother; she has loved him and depended on him all her life. That's a helluva thing to know for truth about someone you used to care for .

Then she sniffled and wiped her cheeks with defiant fingers. In a small, carefully balanced voice, she said, "I don't see how we could be in a position to endanger either of those things, Ingold-or anything else for that matter, except yourself and Rudy for sheltering me. I-I suppose I could go back and try to talk with him…"

"Would you believe anything that he assured you?" the wizard inquired.

She was silent, but the mauve-stained lids of her eyes fell.

Ingold turned and fielded Tir just before the baby Prince managed to crawl out the door into the wider world of the dark common room. After setting Tir back on the bed, he bent to take up his sword belt, which lay on the floor. Then he turned to hunt for his boots, his bare feet soundless on the uncarpeted stone of the floor.

"Why should he bother to assure me of anything?" Alde asked after a moment. "Maybe I am, as Gil says, the legal ruler of the Keep, but it is Alwir who holds the power here. I know it. It is only that I never had call to feel it before now. I have no power. Only friends."

Ingold turned back to her, slinging on his heavy mantle and drawing the dark hood over his rough, white hair. His shadow loomed over them, huge and batlike against the stone walls. "Never underestimate our friends, Minalde," he said gently. "In risking your life to visit Maia and the Penambrans and pleading their cause to your brother when he refused to admit them to the Keep, you made a friend; in standing against your brother in his dealings with Alketch, if for no other reason, you made others. And it so happens," he added, retrieving the wandering Prince from under the bed and wrapping him once more in his offensive swaddlings, "that Tomec Tirkenson and his rangers are staying on the fourth and fifth levels, with Maia's Penambrans. You know the backways of the Keep better than I do, my child. Would you be able to guide us unseen to the fourth level?"

It was barely the start of the day watch when Minalde returned to the Royal Sector, surrounded by her entourage.

In the Aisle, the Guards had thrown wide the gates again, and children had gone running out through the steamy dawn, to do their chores and race to the woods and cut evergreen boughs. Their singing floated back over the rucked snow and drifted faintly throughout the Keep itself. In two days it would be the Winter Feast.

But solstice cheer was hardly evident in the confusion of the lord Chancellor's quarters, and the traditional love and friendliness of the season were the farthest things from the rage-darkened countenance he showed his sister when she entered his audience hall with her train.

The opening of the doors had caught him in mid-gesticulation. He froze, mouth ajar, hand extended; all about the council table, eyes snapped to the dark doorway, now crowded with Maia's ragged guards and buckskinned Gettlesand rangers. In the split second of stopped time before the Chancellor swung around to face them, Rudy identified the others there. Vair was opulent in cut-velvet and pearls, but plain beside the emerald-green intricacies of Stiarth's gorgeous costume. Inquisitor Pinard, his white robes an advertisement of spiritual purity, stood beside the gory crimson costume of Bishop Govannin.

Alwir's face was engorged with rage; the finger that stabbed out at his sister was almost trembling with it. "You-" he began in a strangled voice, across which Govannin's dry, harsh tones cut like a knife.

"Be careful what you say, fool," she warned, and Alwir, turning, seemed to realize that they were in the presence of the ears in service to the Emperor of the South. This checked the rashness of his first words, but there was murder in his eyes as Alde and the outland chiefs stepped into the council chamber.

Against the wealth and elegance of Alwir's power. Aide's supporters did not show up well. Under Bishop Maia's tattered scarlet episcopal cloak, he wore a faded panoply of scavenged rags, topped by a sweater knitted for him by one of the Penambran ladies. Tomec Tirkenson, in his fringed buckskin shirt and fleece moccasins, looked much like the barbarians he fought. Ingold, the best-dressed of the three, might have passed for anything from a genteel beggar to a street-corner harpist, but certainly not for the Archmage of the Wizards of the West. Among them, Alde seemed to blaze, like a slip of white flame in shadows.

When Alwir spoke again, his voice was calmer but no less deadly. "I suppose you have reasons which you believe to be valid, my sister," he spat acidly, "for coming armed into my presence. But if we are to talk, it will not be in the company of these-bravos."

"These bravos, my lord, are the commanders of your outland troops," she returned, and her soft voice easily filled the council chamber.

His lip curled. "And what do military commanders have to do with statecraft and policy?"

"They die for it, my lord."

There was momentary silence. Then Alwir's face softened, and he came around the table, his hands held out to take hers, his voice gentle and beautiful. "Aide- Minalde. There are always those who die, child; always those who must sacrifice to the good of all. You know this-none better than you." He took her hands in a warm clasp, the soft modulations of his voice excluding all others around them, speaking for her ears only, as if they had been alone. "If every soldier were given his vote, no battles would ever be fought. That is why there must be leaders, my child. Without unquestioning unity, we are like a palsied man in a duel, with every limb flailing to no purpose. Sometimes one arm must take a cut so that the other can deliver a killing blow."

He stood close to her. For a moment she looked up at him, once more his little sister, sheltered under the strength of his shadow.

Then she turned her wrists, not violently, but sharply, something Gil had taught her, breaking his hold before he could tighten it to draw her close. She stepped back from him, between her tall, ragged allies.

"Nevertheless, my lord, they are your subjects. The lives they put in your hands are the only ones they have. The least you owe their dignity is to invite their opinions and not hold secret councils to seek the advice of foreigners before you ask it of your own."

Alwir's voice hardened, as if edged in metal. "Worthy as these lords are, my sister, they are the servants of one House who have fought the servants of another. Their bravery and sacrifice are not the less for being, perhaps, overzealous…"

Tirkenson's lynx eyes narrowed. "It's damn difficult not to get a little overzealous when you find your sister gone and your brother gutted and their kids speared through the belly with Alketch pikes."

"If we sank to a discussion of every personal grievance that ever existed between the men of Alketch and ourselves, my lord Tirkenson, we would sit in this miserable fortress until we all starved or were devoured by the Dark," the Chancellor flashed haughtily. "And if we continue to be interrupted by these- friends-whom you have chosen to bring with you into my Councils, my sister, we might just as well abandon discussion here and now. If you will seek the company of these ruffians whose blind prejudices would prevent the union of the Houses which they serve-"

" I will not marry the heir of Alketch !"

"You sang a different tune last night," he reminded her softly.

"I was prisoner last night!"

Alwir's upper lip seemed to lengthen, his mouth hardening into a single dark line. "Things have changed in the Realm, Minalde, since you sat on the water terraces of Gae and fanned yourself with peacock plumes. We need the alliance with Alketch. They alone can help us reconquer the Realm from the Dark; they alone can help us rebuild it; they alone have not been scourged with this plague that has washed like a tide of death and ruination across the lands of Darwath. We have suffered, and without their aid we will continue to suffer. We can no longer afford the kind of warlike pride that once kept us from uniting in a single federation for the good of all humankind."

Aide flinched from this accusation of vanity and luxury- not an unlikely one, either , Rudy thought, since the kid was married at sixteen . But her voice was unwavering as she replied, "I will not leave my son, nor will I permit the heir of Darwath to be brought up in a foreign court."

"Not even one that is safe from the Dark?"

Aide swallowed; Rudy could see the struggle in her face.

Alwir must have noticed Tir's absence and known its meaning-that she would not put both of them into his power again. But this was a low blow, Rudy thought. Offhand, he couldn't think of anyone, including himself, whom Alde wouldn't kill to protect her child.

Her voice was unsteady as she said, "I would rather he shared his people's dangers than grow up a stranger to them."

"Don't be a fool," Alwir snapped roughly. "You'd kill the child for the sake of your silly pride?"

Tears flooded her eyes. She started to stammer a reply, but Ingold laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"For a northern-bred boy, like the legal heir to the Realm of Darwath and the last scion of the House of Dare, it is possible that the warmer climate of the court of the Emperor of Alketch might itself prove unhealthy," the wizard said, his deep, slow voice almost, but not quite, laying emphasis on certain words. "A fever or a change of food, perhaps, might carry him off as surely as the Dark Ones, against whom this fortress and the presence of men loyal to his interests would in some measure protect him."

It took Rudy a moment to unravel the implications of the seemingly innocuous words, but Alde gasped and turned pale. Alwir's brow grew thunderous with anger.

"You dare …" he rasped.

With a grinding clatter of his thrust-back chair, Vair na Chandros jerked to his feet. "Are you hinting that aught would happen to the child under the Emperor's care, you devil?"

Stiarth reached up to catch Vair's sleeve and pulled him down once more. The Ambassador's eyes glinted with light, cynical amusement. "In what danger could the Emperor's stepgrandson stand?" he inquired silkily. He looked across the table at Aide, his fine, slender hands echoing, in graceful gestures, the music of his voice. "In time, my lady, you might find yourself the most revered woman in the West of the World, you know. You would be the mother of the rulers of both Darwath and Alketch-the Golden Mother, in fact, of a union of humankind that stretches from the ice in the north to the impenetrable cataracts of the southern wall.

Your love, your motherhood, would unite what has never been united in all the days of the world."

He tossed the sparkling vision of it to her, like a sugarplum cast to a child. But the child did not grasp for it. In a clear, glass-hard voice, she said, "I have been chided for my pride once already, my lord. I cannot see myself with an elder son upon one throne and a younger upon another."

Not if that younger son's Imperial Grandpa has anything to do with the preparation of Number One Son's baby food , Rudy thought bitterly. And leaving him at the Keep for Alwir to raise might just as easily amount to the same thing . The anger that surged through him was not for Alde alone or for himself, banished to the slow death of emptiness and grief. He felt a flash of anger for the child he had grown to love, robbed of birthright and mother and life.

The despair at his banishment turned to rage, rage that he would be unable to protect his own. And if the Inquisition's come to the Keep, Ingold may not be able to stick around to protect the little rug-rat, either . Looking up, he saw Alwir's eyes upon him, and what was in them seemed to slice into his flesh like a dagger of ice.

"And is your-natural grief-so much," the Chancellor continued, his jeweled gaze moving from Rudy's face to Aide's, "that you cannot by any means overcome your understandable aversion to replacing your dead lord so quickly in your bed, my sister…"

Aide's expression did not change, but her chin came up.

"… especially when so much is at stake?"

There was a deadly silence.

For perhaps the time that it might take to draw and release three long breaths, they waited-for Alwir to speak, for Alde to break, for Rudy to give them both away. But as Alwir drew in breath to speak, Ingold stepped into that fraught hush with uncanny timing and every appearance of unconcern.

"In that regard my lady's choice is her own, as you know by Church law. It has been the ruling of every Church Council that has ever convened that no marriage entered into under coercion or force is valid. Indeed, I believe that many years ago my lady Govannin herself fought-successfully-such coercion by her family to make her wed instead of enter the Church. Is that not correct, my lady?"

Govannin's black slits of eyes gleamed as she turned her head. "It is, my lord wizard."

"And the same Councils have ruled," Ingold continued in that mild, scholarly tone, "that the act of love itself, as long as it is between parties of full age and responsibility, is always lawful, be it between the same sex or opposite, mageborn or not, faithful, heathen, or excommunicate, as long as the rights of contract or person are not violated. There is a certain amount of controversy over this ruling, but is that not, at base, the law?"

Govannin's dry, bitter voice sounded stiff. "It is."

Rudy had enough sense left to stifle his gasp of outrage at the lie Alwir had told him. Then a heat went through him, a raging misery. He had no doubt that Alwir would banish him anyway-the Chancellor held too much power over his sister and could hurt her too much if Rudy stayed. But he now saw the full extent of what would happen after he was gone.

Alwir was pale, his nostrils two black, flared slashes, bracketed by the ugly lines graven around his mouth. "It is the law, my lady Govannin," he grated, "but the opinions and good will of the people are another law entirely. For a Queen to- disregard the good of the Keep-" Rudy let his breath out in a shaky sigh. "- would certainly risk creating a scandal. And scandal, as we know, can be extremely expensive."

He loomed over them like a cloud, black and lambent with evil; the rage seemed to burn out of him like thunder heat. Before the threat of his power, Alde looked suddenly very small and young, and Ingold seemed old and ragged.

Except for his eyes; they were bright and fierce under their white brows and met Alwir's unafraid.

"Prohibitively expensive, in fact," the wizard said. "For who knows which way the die will fall, my lord?" Like a fencer disengaging, he turned his deceptively mild gaze to Stiarth and inquired, "Would your lord the Emperor press his demand for this term of alliance at the risk of losing the alliance itself?"

"I cannot in truth…" the Imperial Nephew began deprecatingly.

Alwir rasped, "Nothing will make me forgo the alliance!"

"For indeed," Ingold continued, as if the Chancellor had not spoken, "if there is a conflict and a schism in the Keep, who knows who would hold the power afterward?"

The Chancellor gasped, taken for one instant utterly off balance, as if he could not conceive another coming to power in the Keep. Then his black brows dived over his nose, his face clotting with rage. "And who speaks of that, pray?" He would have reached out and shaken the old man, had not Ingold without apparent effort turned aside Alwir's grasping hand with his staff.

"No one, of course," the wizard replied, widening his eyes at Alwir in surprise. "But surely my lord the Emperor knows that in times of trouble many things may come about."

"Indeed he does." Stiarth got to his feet and salaamed gracefully in the direction of Alwir, Ingold, and Minalde. "Had I known that the match was so repugnant to my lady, I would have hesitated to trample her sensibilities by even the suggestion, nor, I am sure, would our gracious lord the Emperor. It is true that, having heard tales of her loveliness and gentle breeding, he earnestly desires such a union; indeed, the federation of our two Realms has long been a scheme close to his heart."

A voice from the back of the Gettlesand rangers muttered, "I bet it has."

"I am desolated to have been the fomenter of such difficulties. My lord-my lady -I await your convenience." He bowed again; in a whispering cloud of layered silken capes, he turned and minced from the room.

Vair sprang to his feet like a tiger. From among the Gettlesand rangers, Rudy could see him overtake the lithe Ambassador in the doorway, catching the petaled edge of Stiarth's sleeve with his hooks. "Are you mad?" he demanded. "The Emperor said-"

"My Imperial Uncle entrusted this matter and all others to my judgment," Stiarth replied softly. With two fingers, he disengaged his fragile ruffles. "And believe me, Commander, I would far rather deal with the brother than have the sister and the wizard come to power in the confusion that would follow schism. I trust you concur?" Then he was gone in a rustling of perfumed silk, the click of his high heels audible for some moments as he retreated down the long hall.

It was Alwir's voice that broke the silence. "My lord wizard," he said quietly, "I would have a word with you- alone."

"I should never have let him go." Alde spoke without raising her head, her chin resting on her crossed wrists upon her drawn-up knees. On the other side of the common room hearth, Rudy put aside his long-silent harp.

"It had to happen," he said softly. "Oh, Christ, Aide, what are we going to do?"

She shook her head despairingly. "I don't know."

It was midmorning and the common room was empty. Voices murmured among the complex of cells-Dame Nan's yapping curses, Tomec Tirkenson's rumble of protest, and Kara's patient "Mother!" The only light was the honey-gold glow of the hearth. The room smelled of rising bread and of the braided strings of herbs and onions that hung from nails on the walls. Tad the herdkid had brought word that Tir was still safe in concealment among the Keep orphans. If Alwir was looking for him, it had not occurred to the Chancellor that he would be hidden there.

How do I manage to do stuff like this ? Rudy wondered miserably, looking across the hearth to the girl who sat folded so compactly in the inglenook, staring unseeingly into the fire. All I want is to love her and to be happy. Why is it that all I've managed to do is comprehensively screw up her life and bring her nothing but pain and disgrace, excommunication and exile, and loss? Was Ingold right? Are mages born damned ?

"Aide, I'm sorry," Rudy said wretchedly. "I never meant for it to turn out this way."

She looked up at him, tears shining in eyes that looked almost black in the shadows. "It had nothing to do with you, Rudy," she murmured. "Really," she added, seeing the weary denial on his face. "Don't you see? It would have come to fighting between Alwir and myself whether I-I loved you or not. It's just that -I thought for so long that he cared for me." She shifted her position, the white brocade of her skirts polished by the firelight as they rippled down over the hearth bricks. She was fighting to keep her mouth steady. "He could be so kind to me in the old days, but maybe that was because he Knew I-I respond easily to kindness. I suppose he'd say Ingold knows that, too. I always thought he was a very contradictory person, but he's not. I-I'm only sorry you had to be caught in it, that it had to spoil something that was-that you-"

Rudy cried miserably, "Aide, nothing could hurt my love for you! Not time or distance or politics or the Void… Nothing."

For an instant neither of them moved, but only looked at each other, separated by the glow of the hearthlight, as one day the brighter light of the Void must stand between them. Then, with swift impatience, Rudy swung to his feet, crossed the light with his great shadow sprawling across the walls behind him, and dragged her to her feet and roughly into his embrace. She clung to him, her face buried in the rough fleece of his gaudily painted vest, her hands locked behind his back. He whispered desperately, "Aide, if I had a choice, I'd never leave you. I'd always be here."

She whispered back, "It doesn't matter. I'll love you no matter where you are or what becomes of you."

They clung to each other in the dim glory of the topaz light, as if they felt already the currents of their separate universes turning to drag them apart.

Then a deep, rusty voice intruded upon Rudy's consciousness. "My children?"

"You're all right!"

Ingold caught Alde by the shoulders, halting her impulsive rush to embrace him, and smiled into her flushed, anxious face. "Did you conceive that your brother would stab me the moment we were alone?"

"The way he looked, yes!" Rudy put in. "What-" His voice failed him, and he stood uncertainly, looking into his master's face. He swallowed, but still could not speak.

The wizard reached out gently and laid his hand upon Rudy's shoulder, warm and very strong. His eyes went from Rudy's face to Minalde's, a kind of wry sorrow in their deceptively bright blue depths. "Do you love each other so much, my children?"

Neither spoke, but Rudy's hand sought Aide's, the twined shadows of their fingers a closing knot in the firelight.

Hesitantly, Alde said, "If it were lawful…"

"If I- if I could stay…" Rudy stammered.

Ingold sighed. "Indeed." In the fitful lambence of the fire, his lined features looked sad and a little resigned. "I fear I had the temerity to point out to your brother, Minalde, that there are worse things than your permanent alliance to one who is forbidden by Church law and the code of the Council of Wizards to rule those who are not mageborn. And I reminded him that you are strong-willed and stubborn, and that you have, in fact, a power base among the outland chiefs. For a woman such as yourself, it is not inconceivable that at some future time, if driven to desperation, you might ally yourself to some landchief whose realms come only nominally under the sway of the Lord of the Keep of Dare. Your brother was neither pleased nor gracious-but he agreed with me."

"What?" Rudy whispered, after a long, uncomprehending silence. Then understanding penetrated to his brain, and a feeling like an electrical shock to all the cells in his body.

"My children," Ingold continued, "walk very carefully. You still flirt with scandal -perhaps you will do so all your lives. But, by the laws of the Realm, there is nothing illegal in your union, no matter that Alwir may have said…"

His words purled over Rudy's consciousness like the unintelligible voice of a river, barely audible through what felt like a fountain of blazing joy welling up from the depths of his being. He wanted to whoop, to dance, to sing songs and embrace everybody in sight; but as it was, his hand only tightened on Aide's.

Looking across at her, he saw answering oceans of happiness in her quiet face.

Ingold's voice went on about Church law, the position of the individual Bishops, the need for utterly circumspect behavior, and the mutability of all human conditions, but to them it was like the voice of a lawyer reading the fine print on a contract already signed in blood and galactic dust. Through the whirling vortex of his thoughts, Rudy was conscious only that he had never been so absolutely happy since he was a very small child; he was wishing illogically that he were Fred Astaire, so that he could swing this woman who held his hand so tightly through all sorts of crazy, improbable dance steps up and down the walls and over the furniture of the dark, shabby common room.

The old man seemed to realize how little he was being attended, for he smiled and withdrew, leaving them to their unspeakable joy.

Ten minutes later Gil emerged from the corridor that led to her own tiny cubicle, carrying a couple of wax note tablets and wearing an abstracted expression that turned to sudden and appalled guilt at the sight of the lovers embracing before the hearth.

"Oh, hell, Rudy, I'm sorry," she said, to the back of his head and to Aide's white hands that grasped his shoulders so fervidly. "I got tied up in my research. Was your flame thrower demonstration to be this afternoon, or was it yesterday and I missed it?"

She could not understand why, at her words, the two lovers broke apart and collapsed into whooping paroxysms of laughter.