Cover image for Glass dragons
Title:
Glass dragons
Author:
McMullen, Sean, 1948-
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Tor, [2004]

©2004
Physical Description:
495 pages : map ; 25 cm
General Note:
"A Tom Doherty Associates book."
Language:
English
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 6.5 29.0 84574.
Subject Term:
Electronic Access:
Publisher description http://www.loc.gov/catdir/description/hol041/2003060677.html
ISBN:
9780765307972
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

Sean McMullen, one of Australia's leading genre authors, delivers "Glass Dragons, "the scintillating sequel to "Voyage of the Shadowmoon "which "Kirkus Reviews "called "a brilliantly inventive, marvelously plotted sea-faring fantasy that both mocks and surpasses genre expectations. . . . Australian author McMullen writes like Roger Zelazny at the peak of his powers: his dashing, flamboyant, cleverly resourceful characters trade off insults and reveal surprising abilities as they swagger bravely from one hair-raising scene to another. Exciting, suspenseful, vividly believable, and great, clever fun: a major fantasy-award contender."
"Glass Dragons "continues the tale of Laron, the chivalrous 700-year-old vampire, the appallingly dangerous and beautiful Velander, and the long-suffering Terikel, as they investigate a secret project of arcane magic, a magic so dangerous it could destroy their world. A project which threatens to fall into the wrong hands.
"Glass Dragons "is a broad and complicated tale, filled with wonderful characters both new and old, woven through with low humor and great courage, built upon grand acts of heroism and love. Enjoy.


Author Notes

Sean McMullen is one of the leading Australian SF authors to emerge during the 1990s, having won more than a dozen national awards in his homeland. In addition, he has sold several dozen short stories to magazines such as Analog, Interzone , and Fantasy & Science Fiction , and was co-author of Strange Constellations, a History of Australian SF . He established himself in the American market with the publication of the Greatwinter trilogy (comprised of Souls in the Great Machine, The Miocene Arrow, and Eyes of the Calculor) . His fiction has been translated into Polish, French, and Japanese. The settings for Sean's work range from the Roman Empire, through Medieval Europe, to cities of the distant future.

He has bachelor's and master's degrees from Melbourne University, and post-graduate diplomas in computer science, information science and business management. He is currently doing a PhD in Medieval Fantasy Literature at Melbourne University, where he is also the deputy instructor at the campus karate club, and a member of the fencing club. Before he began writing, Sean spent several years in student reviews and theatre, and was lead singer in three rock and folk bands. After singing in several early music groups and choirs, he spent two years in the Victorian State Opera before he began writing.

He lives in Melbourne with his wife Trish and daughter Catherine.


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In 2002, on the heels of his critically acclaimed Greatwinter trilogy, a saga firmly rooted in sf territory, Australian rising star McMullen launched the Moonworlds series with The Voyage of the Shadowmoon, a story owing more to fantasy. In the second helping of the saga's eccentric wizards, embattled medieval cities, and enigmatic glass dragons, McMullen adds to a nucleus of characters from Voyage a few colorful new ones: Laron, a 700-year-old vampire in a 14-year-old body; Terikel, an ancient sage from a vanishing magical sect; and Wallas, a royal musician masquerading as a commoner after being falsely accused of regicide. While Voyage featured an insidious device known as Silverdeath, here the itinerant protagonists confront Dragonwall, a series of megaliths designed by powerful wizards to undo Silverdeath's destruction that, unfortunately, may prove just as deadly. McMullen has a gift worthy of the best mainstream authors for creating memorable, finely nuanced characters, making him must-reading for fantasy enthusiasts weary of routine sword-and-sorcery outings. --Carl Hays Copyright 2004 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

Like 2002's well-received Voyage of the Shadowmoon, this second novel in Australian author McMullen's Moonworlds Saga expertly blends fantastic melodrama and broad farce. It also demonstrates the truth of the old saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Vain sorcerers create Dragonwall, a world-encircling magical barrier, to improve the weather, but they discover that the wall's etheric energy offers them an irresistible temptation to incinerate their rivals-or any entity that imagines it could exist outside their control. It's up to more cautious, self-doubting people to destroy Dragonwall, including a cowardly court musician, a centuries-old reformed vampire, a guilt-laden priestess and a drunken but chivalrous young lout who wishes to better himself. It takes a while for all those characters to get to where they need to be, literally or figuratively, and meanwhile agents of the Dragonwall sorcerers are plotting to thwart them. McMullen tells a lively tale that jumps from person to person as the plot meanders along, but the book is especially attractive for its tricky shifts from dark, passionate intrigue to sly but rowdy slapstick, like a Storm Constantine story line performed by Monty Python. There may be a lot of story to come before the world's balance of magical powers is restored, but readers won't mind if additional books in the series are as entertaining as this one. (Mar. 26) Forecast: McMullen at first comes off as a cheekier (and less thoughtful) version of Terry Pratchett, but he also has a serious side that will attract Pratchett fans and others who prefer substance to their humor. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

In this sequel to Voyage of the Shadowmoon, the honorable vampire Laren, the priestess Terikel, and the voluptuous Lady Velander continue their journey aboard the exploratory ship Shadowmoon. Their search for a doomsday weapon known as the Dragonwall leads them to an encounter with a fugitive bard, a runaway sailor, and a widowed princess. Australian author McMullen depicts a world filled with intrigue and strange magic, where the borders between the living and the dead are thin and where mystical weapons have the power to destroy the world. His sometimes whimsical, always literate style brings a gentle touch of wry humor to a tale of courage and cowardice, love and death, mystery and magic. Suitable for most fantasy collections. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One DRAGONSCHEME On the night of the wedding of Princess Senterri to Viscount Cosseren, there was one thought that could not have been farther from the mind of the Master of Royal Music to the Emperor of Sargol. He had heard the saying Great elevation brings the danger of a really, really long fall , but he was sure that it could never apply to him. Milvarios of Tourlossen had no real political power. He merely had to look dignified and make sure that nothing went wrong with the music to be played on important occasions. Being Master of the Royal Music meant that one had to know the emperor's tastes in music, be an excellent and efficient organizer of events, know which bards, minstrels, and players were in favor or on the way up, know all the court intrigues and gossip, dress well, and be able to hold one's drink. One very seldom had to sing, compose, or play an instrument, but this suited Milvarios, because he did neither of the first two particularly well, and did not play any better than those he hired to play for the emperor. He was, however, a meticulous and efficient organizer. The wedding music had been played without so much as a single sour note, broken string, or missed cue. The ceremony itself took place in the palace temple, and required brass bands for the processions, marches, and fanfares. The lavish reception in the throne hall featured a string consort for the feasting, and a woodwind band for the dances. None of that was as exposed as the music in the temple, so that even though the night was not quite over, Milvarios was already beginning to relax. He had spent eleven hours either posing with nobles and royalty as solemn words were chanted, or frantically scurrying about behind the scenes waving schedules, and making sure that dozens of musicians and hundreds of singers were in the right places at the appropriate times, and all with the correct music in front of them. The career of Milvarios of Tourlossen, Master of Royal Music, had precisely nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds to go before experiencing a quite catastrophic and spectacular termination. * * * Elsewhere in the palace, a tiny problem had emerged that had the potential to sour the occasion far worse than broken strings or missed cues. The bridal suite of the newlywed couple was in a tower that overlooked the harbor. The tower had been emptied of all servants, guards, and courtiers, and the base was heavily guarded. All of this was to guarantee privacy to Senterri and Cosserin for the night that was to be theirs and theirs alone. Viscount Cosseren had a physique that many young women swooned over. Being from a family of considerable means, he had spent much of his life riding, hunting, and learning to excel with every weapon deemed suitable for a gentleman. Most courtiers agreed, however, that he had probably forgotten to stand in the queue when common sense was being handed out. Still, being too stupid to be ambitious or rebellious had a certain attraction about it as far as the emperor was concerned. As far as Princess Senterri was concerned, it was a very different matter. She was sitting naked on the enormous matrimonial bed, her arms wrapped around her legs while she sobbed behind the veils of brunette hair that concealed her face. "I have never, never been so insulted!" muttered Cosseren as he laced up his shirt. "Not a virgin! I know about virgins, I've bedded dozens, there's nothing you can teach me about virgins. Why, and, and you, lost it to a common slaver, too!" "My lord, please listen !" Senterri pleaded. "He was my rescuer , not a slaver." "Slaver, rescuer, what difference does it make? You have been defiled by some upstart of low degree." "He was a gentleman." "Gentleman! A mere kavelar can be called a gentleman. What was his family's estate?" "He was from North Scalticar--" "A foreigner too! I am going, and I am sure that your father will be very interested to hear how you lied about your, ah, honor's status." Cosseren strode to the door, flung it open, and slammed it shut behind him. He had taken only a dozen steps when something detached itself from the shadows of an arched brickwork vault and knocked him to the stone floor. Viscount Cosseren awoke to find himself staring into a very pale face. The thing's eyes flickered with just the trace of a bluish glow, and its mouth was slightly open in a shallow smile. Cosseren had a vague impression that it was a girl of some description. He also wished that she were not smiling, because it exposed her two upper canine teeth. They were three times longer than they should have been, and they also glowed slightly. Although she was lightly built, she was holding Cosseren by the throat, at arm's length, with one hand. The young viscount glanced down. The drop to the courtyard was at least a hundred feet. There were guards patrolling there, but none were looking up. There was a suggestion of mildew and rotting meat in the air. "Senterri, is upset," the apparently female daemon declared in a silky whisper. "You caused. Senterri, my friend." "Who...you?" managed Cosseren. "Myself, am very evil. Senterri nice to me, once. Grateful. Senterri, you hurt." "Szzoorrgrinniy," the rapidly choking Cosseren answered as the grip on his throat tightened. "Having any idea, how more strong, than you, am being?" "Gnnng." "Not drop you. Is only terror, for making. But ..." "Bnngeg?" "But if not return Senterri, grovel, say sorry, do sexing, then..." "Genng?" "Rip throat. Suck blood. You, long time, for dying. Body never will found, be. Senterri merry widow, be. Or is joyous widow? Happy widow? Adjectives confusing." Just around a nearby corner stood Senterri. She wore nothing but her hair and tears, and had been intending to run after Cosseren and plead with him not to dishonor her to her father. Now it had become obvious that her very strange friend was doing some rather more persuasive pleading. Cosseren was dragged back through the window and released. His wheezing gasps went on for quite a long time. "You, to Senterri, back, go," said the menacing, silky voice with the strange and heavy accent. "If not return, I return. If Senterri sad, I return. If Senterri angry, I return. If no grovel, I return. If no sexing, I return. For you, very bad, if I return." * * * As he glanced at the common musicians in the string consort, Milvarios sneered in a discreet sort of way. In spite of the fine clothing they had been given, they still contrived to look just slightly scruffy. Some already looked drunk. On the other hand, Milvarios left nothing to chance, and he had selected his musicians for their ability to play well while drunk, as well as their ability to play well in the first place. One day his efficiency would see him rise to be seneschal of the imperial palace, he was sure of that. For some reason Milvarios found himself staring at the man playing the angelwing lyre. He was tallish, with a neat black beard, curly hair, brown eyes, and long, thin fingers. He might have been the very image of Milvarios had he been about sixty pounds lighter. The man looked up and locked stares with Milvarios. There was suddenly something very alarming about him. "My lord has had a great triumph tonight." Milvarios turned to be confronted by a woman about ten years his senior. Other gentlemen of the court and diplomatic service had been paying her no heed, but Milvarios was motivated rather differently from the others. By paying court to women of palace society who were just a little past their prime, Milvarios generated goodwill, and had people speaking well of him when he was not there to speak well of himself. "My lady Arrikin, you are a triumph by your very presence," responded Milvarios, bending to kiss her hand. Widow, daughter soon to be married, spending massive amounts of gold on the wedding, wishes to impress the court, late husband made a fortune in camel-caravan speculation and bought a peerage flashed through Milvarios's mind. "The emperor can certainly afford the best of everything," said Lady Arrikin, with a wave of her fan at the musicians. "Ah, but I believe your most supremely lovely daughter is to be married next month. You must take care not to overshadow this lowly spectacle, you know what the penalties for treason are like." Lady Arrikin smiled demurely. "It was on that very subject that I wished to speak with you. What would you charge to put your quill to a bridal anthem?" "My lady!" exclaimed Milvarios softly, placing a hand across his chest. "My quill may be put to use for no other than the emperor." "My lord Milvarios, I am sure there are certain uses for your quill that the emperor would rather not know about," replied Lady Arrikin with a discreet flutter of her eyelashes. "Well...perhaps I could at least share some inspiration with you in, perhaps, one hour, once the feast has reached a stage that requires no more supervision?" "In your chamber, then, Lord Milvarios?" "I could not countenance the delay of a journey to some more distant tryst, most excellent lady." As he took his leave of her, Milvarios cast a glance over the musicians. All was well, except that the angelwing lyre was leaning against a chair, and its musician was nowhere to be seen. On the other hand, nobody seems to be paying much attention to the music by now, so there is no harm done , thought Milvarios. My triumph is still complete . Except for the music, the wedding had been plagued by tiny, annoying problems. The acrobat who had leaped out of the cake modeled after the royal palace had stumbled, but not actually fallen. The groom had answered where the bride should have spoken in several parts of the ceremony. One of the horses in the guard of honor had voided its bowels during the fifty-yard parade across the courtyard from the palace temple to the reception portico. Only my music has been truly without flaw , thought Milvarios over and over. The emperor had been pleased indeed, and had promised to make him Herald of the Declaration. Now Milvarios had a bedmate to impress for the rest of the night. Although she was a little older than some might prefer, her skin was flawless and she was rumored to diet--and even exercise--in order to preserve her allure. While Milvarios could not actually sell an anthem to Lady Arrikin, he could write it, then let rumors free that he might be the composer. By protocol and convention, he was then free to refuse to comment rather than flatly deny those rumors, implying that he had composed the anthem. This also implied the emperor's favor to the woman's daughter, which was the whole point of the exercise. The irony was that the anthem did not even have to be very good, as long as he refused to deny that he wrote it. At the very worst, Milvarios would spend a very pleasant night with Lady Arrikin, then pay some starving music student to ghost-write the anthem. Glancing around one last time, he decided that everything was going smoothly. Most present were getting drunk, eating too much, and flirting with each other's partners. Milvarios managed to catch the attention of the emperor, and was beckoned over. "My lord musician, where would I be without you?" the monarch said softly as Milvarios bowed before him. "Such a myriad of petty annoyances with the wedding. Does it portend a similar clutch of vexing little problems with the marriage itself?" "I cannot say, Your Majesty. I am a musician, not a seer." "Only your music was without flaw. Now, surely you could read a meaning into that?" "Perhaps..." began Milvarios, thinking very quickly. "Perhaps it means that the marriage will indeed be plagued by vexing little problems, but the couple will live in harmony in spite of it all." The emperor smiled, then chuckled. It was his first sign of mirth for all of that day. "Tell me, most harmonious friend, what is your experience of seneschal work?" he asked, smiling up at Milvarios. "A music master must also be a seneschal, Your Majesty, but a seneschal need not be a musician." "Oh clever, Milvarios, very clever. Now then, why did you want to see me?" "I hoped to be granted leave to retire for the night, sire." "Certainly, go to your bed at once and sleep deeply. I shall have some extra duties for you tomorrow, attend me at the hour before noon. Perchance you can bring some of your harmony to the running of the palace." Milvarious felt that he was walking on air as he slipped away to prepare his quarters for his visitor. This would involve scattering important-looking scrolls and declarations about, for her to chance upon and find impressive, but soon his mere name would be vastly more impressive. The emperor was to appoint him as palace seneschal in a mere twelve hours. He was not to know that the emperor had a mere three minutes and fifty-seven seconds to live. * * * Senterri hurried silently back to the matrimonial bedchamber, climbed onto the bed, and sat waiting for her husband to return. Presently she heard the cautious tread of leather-soled riding boots outside. The footsteps slowed. They stopped. A hand reached around and tapped on the open door. "Yes?" said Senterri in a clear, sharp voice. "Er, dearest petal, I, er, thought it over," said Cosseren, sidling into view. "So I see," responded Senterri sternly. Cosseren had thought that she would be almost hysterical with relief that he had returned. Senterri was not, in fact, sounding at all hysterical. This did not bode well. "And I decided, that, well, you are so lovely that I could not dishonor you, so I have decided to forgive you and return to your bed." Senterri turned her head to one side. "That is a very sweet story," said Senterri, "but the finger marks on your throat tell me a rather different tale. I think that you have met a friend of mine, a friend who can climb sheer walls, is stronger than you and your horse combined, and has some awfully unsettling eating habits." Cosseren put a hand to his throat and glanced hastily over his shoulder. "Look, I, er, really am sorry," he replied. "Very sorry. Desperately sorry." "Oh, but you will soon be sorrier, much, much sorrier," rasped Senterri. "You may not have had the chance to dishonor me in front of anyone else, Viscount Cosseren, but dishonor me you certainly did. Bedded dozens of virgins, have you? Well, if you so much as smile at another woman's portrait from now on, I shall be very angry. Do you know who will return if that happens?" "Ya-ya-yes." "And what is more, you will--as my daemon friend put it so charmingly--'do sexing' with me six times a night--" "Six times? I say--" "--until I become pregnant. Now take off your clothes and get into bed." "Yes, my petal bowl, at once," babbled the viscount, kicking off his boots and literally tearing off his shirt. "But, but, six times !" "Think of someone else if it helps, I shall certainly do so." "Whatever you say, delight of my eyes." "And Cosseren!" "Yes, my petal storm?" "That first time did not count for tonight." * * * Milvarios turned the ornate, three-tumbler key in the lock, then pushed the door open. It was as well never to rush through any palace door, especially one that had been locked. One might disturb someone in the process of making off with the silverware, and people of that kind tended to be armed. Milvarios glanced to the gold coin that he always left on the table. Were that missing, he would have pulled the door shut, locked it, and screamed for the guards. The coin was still there, however, and all that was moving within his suite of rooms was the flames in the fireplace and the shadows they cast on the walls. He entered, glanced about, closed the door, and turned the key in the lock. Halfway across the room, he suddenly realized that the gold coin was no longer on the table. " Oh dear, I forgot to order a jar of expensive wine for my beloved and I to share tonight !" exclaimed Milvarios in a voice that bordered on a shout, had suddenly become highly pitched, and was on the very edge of hysteria. He turned, and was confronted by a rather thin, bearded mirror image of himself. The image slammed a fist into his plexus. The wheeze that Milvarios gave as he doubled over was barely audible. With the skill of one who did that sort of thing for a living, the intruder guided Milvarios down to lie in front of the hearth, then tied his wrists after looping his arms through the heavy iron bars that stopped burning logs from rolling out onto the floor. Next he gagged him, then tied his ankles. "You came back a little early, Milvarios," said the intruder as he peeled off his beard. "I had expected you to spend at least another half hour brown-nosing with the emperor, but no matter." Milvarios watched as the intruder lifted his robes and began to insert a framework of cane slats beneath. In a very short time the slats took the form of about sixty pounds of good living, and with the man's robes back in place and smoothed down, there was nothing to distinguish him from the Master of Royal Music in either form or face. "You are probably wondering who I am," said the intruder in a soft, casual voice. "I cannot tell you that, but I can tell you about my identity. Actually, I stole my identity. It belonged to a peasant, but he was not making very good use of it." The intruder walked out to another room, then returned with a small crossbow and a basket of flowers. Milvarios watched him cock the string, pour something from a phial onto a bolt, then load the weapon. He was a little puzzled when the intruder started clipping flowers onto the weapon, but suddenly he understood his purpose all too clearly. "Who I am is of no importance, however," said the man who was not a peasant. "The peasant who provided my identity is working hard for the first time in his life, feeding the fish about half a mile out to sea, and may he have a good story for the gods to explain his transgressions in life. But enough of him. I used a very powerful casting to make my flesh as dough; then I fashioned my face to pass for yours. Now I shall become you for a minute or two, kill your monarch, then become the dead peasant again. You see, Milvarios, I do not exist." He inspected the crossbow, which now resembled a bouquet. "As I return, I shall accidentally lose my hood and cloak, and be recognized as you. Before I unbind you and remove that tiresome gag, I shall then pour a particularly subtle poison into your ear. The poison will soon have you crazed with pain, and you will go thrashing about and screaming as if in a rage. The guards will think you are fighting them, and they will kill you. Alas, Milvarios, I would like to leave you alive to face the wrath of the soon-to-be crown prince, but I cannot have you telling people to search for a peasant with your face, can I? You know, I do look forward to this part of each assassination. My reluctant doubles are the only people that I can ever tell about my skills and methods, and I do enjoy performing to an audience. No, please don't bother attempting to applaud." He left. Milvarios looked about frantically, but saw nothing nearby that could aid him. He strained against his bonds, but his captor had done his work well, and they were as tight as a harp string. He could barely move; in fact, the early stages of cramp were taking hold of his left calf. He stretched his legs. This had the effect of pushing his hands closer to the flames. He quickly drew his legs back...then he stretched them out again, and extended his hands to the fire. Some blind scrabbling soon had a partly burned log extracted. He turned it so that its hot coals were facing him, then pressed the cords binding his wrists against the coals. Milvarios was not used to discomfort, and he flinched away from the sharp, bright pain of the red-hot coals; then he reminded himself that the alternative to a little burned skin was death. He pressed his bonds against the coals again, and again, and again. The cords binding Milvarios's wrists began to char. So did his wrists. He squealed with pain through his gag, but such was the noise from the nearby revel that nobody could have heard him. There was the scent of burning cloth, burning hair, and burning meat. Suddenly he felt the bonds give a little. They snapped. As he sat up, Milvarios saw that quite large areas of both wrists were blistered and even charred. Not nearly so much of me as will be charred if I wear the blame for the emperor's death , he thought as he pulled the gag from his mouth. "Murder!" he shouted. "The emperor's to be murdered! Warn the emperor!" There was no response. Too much noise from the feasting and music, he knew. He undid the bindings on his ankles and stood up, then fell down again because his legs had lost circulation. The distant music and singing became screams. He's done it , thought Milvarios. He's done it, and as me ! For a moment the Master of Royal Music lay rigid with despair; then despair became outrage. The assassin was going to make sure he was seen running about with a crossbow, and then he would come back to the room, grab his disguise, and be gone. It was not fair! Milvarios picked up a poker from the fireplace. He is a master assassin with any number of deadly weapons , thought Milvarios. I am a musician with a poker. I have about as much chance of taking him by surprise and hitting him over the head as I have of winning the Dockside Topless Hoyden of the Month competition. So what to do ? He dropped the poker. The assassin would have a way to escape from the room, having led the guards back there. How? Where? Milvarios suddenly remembered that there was a lover's hide behind a secret panel, but he knew that it led nowhere. Somewhere in the distance he heard a female voice shriek "Milvarios!," then another crying "Milvarios, what have you done?" Even though it led nowhere, the lover's hide had the advantage of being the only hiding place that was unlikely to be searched within the first quarter minute of the guards arriving. Milvarios crawled across the floor, and was through the secret sliding panel and sitting silently in the darkness within the time it took to draw five breaths. He heard the door's outer latch rattle; then there was a slam as it was shut. The inner latch rattled as the assassin bolted it from the inside. "Now, Milvarios of Tourlossen is about to go free, but not for long--" began the assassin. He had noticed that the Master of Royal Music was no longer there. Milvarios heard a brief and enthusiastic clatter as the assassin made a frantic search of the bedchamber and other rooms. Fists began pounding on the door, gruff voices called upon Milvarios to surrender. The assassin finally thought to abandon the search for his scapegoat and merely escape. Fingers scrabbled against the filigree fretwork of the sliding panel and pressed a hidden release. The release did not release, however, and the panel certainly did not slide. Milvarios was holding the mechanism very, very tightly from the inside. There were soft but intense curses from the other side of the panel, curses in some foreign language. A loud crash reverberated as the door burst in, followed by the sounds of blades clashing and furniture being smashed. Screams and groans were mixed in with the sounds of the fight, and from the general tenor of the cries, it was apparent that the assassin was winning. "Stand clear!" someone called, then added, "Shoot!" There was a patter of loud snaps as the guardsmen's crossbows spat their bolts at the assassin. For some moments Milvarios heard little more than boots tramping on the shattered remains of his expensive crockery; then a voice announced, "The traitor is dead." Milvarios sat listening to the guards talking while they waited for someone to persuade their senior officers that the assassin really was dead. "Who would have thought it, a fopsie like him." "Killed five of us." "Game bastard, fought like a daemon." "We're lucky we killed him." "Lucky for him, you mean, penalties for regicide being what they are." "Would've been hung by his toes over a slow fire." "Aye, while his ballads was read to him." "So, you had to stand guard at his readings too?" "Ye know, it makes sense. Such a terrible balladeer turns out to be a master assassin." "Aye, a man can't be bad at everything." Milvarios slowly released the mechanism and lowered his hand. His fingers found clothing--and the string of some instrument! The soft note was as loud as a thunderclap to Milvarios, but was not heard by the guards. Very carefully he examined the thing that had very nearly betrayed him. It was a board lyre, a commoner bard's instrument. He decided to stay hidden for a few more moments, at least until the officers arrived. Guards tended to do hasty things in the heat of the moment, and he was not convinced that the moment was sufficiently cool for him to emerge. There were sounds of feet approaching, and someone shouted "Attention!" Boot heels clicked, and there was a brief silence. I'll make sure that every man in this room stands guard at my readings until his dying day , thought Milvarios as he sat shivering in the narrow, drafty space. "He looks dead," said a cultured voice. "Crossbow bolt through the forehead is always hard to argue with, my lord." "Is he safe to approach?" "I'd bet a month's wages on it, my lord." "Look at this! Cane hoops and frames under his clothes. A thin man disguised as a fat man!" "Amazing. With all the food he scoffed down, you'd think he'd be fat without any help." There was another pause. "Prince Stavez is furious. He ordered the Tourlossen mansion and warehouse burned." The moment is still hot, thought Milvarios. "Surely the elder Tourlossen would protest." "The elder Tourlossen would require a head for that, and likewise his wife. Their other two sons are abroad, and I doubt they will ever be back." "Give me your crossbow, I must report the assassin's death to the prince." The sound of receding footsteps reached Milvarios. "Bastard's thinking to take credit for the kill himself." "Aye, and he will." The moment is being lowered into a volcano , Milvarios decided. Surely someone knew he was genuinely fat--of course! The wife of the Clerk of Provisioning, who was his secret lover. Secret , that was the tricky word. Not only would she be unenthusiastic about her husband finding out about the liaison, she would be even less happy about being associated with a man accused of murdering the emperor. No, being fat would not help Milvarios. One movable panel of wood was separating him from the attention of the guards. Should he slide the panel aside, they would want to know. Know what? What was the worst thing that they could ask? Why had he hidden quietly in his room while the emperor was being murdered? Why--no, that first why was sufficient. Milvarios took stock in the light leaking past tiny cracks in the woodwork. Aside from the robes he was wearing, he had on hand one pair of grimy, roughweave trousers, a pair of reeking boots, a tunic stained with red wine, a woolen cloak, a half-empty wineskin, and a board lyre. He reached forward for the boots--and something batted softly at his face. Milvarios nearly screamed with terror, then realized that it was only a dangling rope. He groped above his head, and discovered a circular hole cut in the hide's roof. This was how the bastard entered my locked suite , Milvarios realized. It is also the way he intended to flee . The presence of an escape route changed everything. Milvarios also had the knowledge that Milvarios of Tourlossen was safely dead, and that nobody was currently looking for Milvarios of Tourlossen. He examined the assassin's disguise in more detail. A grimy drawstring purse contained a few coppers, and a city gate pass scrawled out to Wallas Gandier, goatherd. Very slowly, and in complete silence, Milvarios began to ease himself out of his own robes and into the dead goatherd's clothing. The trousers were a tight fit, and that of the tunic was not much better. "Will ye look at this?" exclaimed someone on the other side of the panel. "Gold!" "Lots of gold." "It's the assassin's fee, that's for sure." "And a right generous fee. Feel the weight." "Surely a coin each would not be missed." "Among five of us?" "Still not much amid all this." "Two for me, I killed the assassin." By the time Milvarios of Tourlossen had become Wallas Gandier, each of the guards had seventeen gold coins and the leather pouch was burning in the bedchamber's grate. One of the more literate of them had written "Death to the emperor who seduced my beloved" on a sheet of reedpaper and left it in the chest where the gold had been found. "What I can't think is why he fled here, where he's been trapped." "There's a secret panel somewhere, what slides aside. Bet he meant to hide there." "How d'ye know?" "All the palace bedchambers have 'em. They're to hide lovers in, like when husbands of wives show up at the door unexpected." "But how d'ye know of 'em?" "Well, I've had occasion to make use of a couple." Time to move , thought the former Master of Royal Music. He slowly straightened. The space was small; in fact, it appeared to be an old built-in cupboard that had been converted into a hide. There was a roughly cut hole above his head, however, and through it dangled the knotted rope. While the guards poked and pressed at the filigree work on the panels, the man who was now Wallas hauled himself up the rope left by the assassin. The space was narrow, and he was both broader than the assassin and unused to climbing. The rope was tied to a beam, but above the beam were boards. He pushed, and found that the boards were not nailed down. He climbed out into a portico that led out onto the battlements. Wallas replaced the boards and stepped outside, just as the sound of tramping feet sounded from around a corner. Thinking faster than he ever had in his life, the former Master of Royal Music sat down on the edge of the outer wall and strummed the board lyre. It was badly out of tune, which did not surprise him at all. "The great emperor, wise and old, Struck dead by an assassin bold. The deadly Milvarios, full of stealth, Betrayed his emperor for golden--" "Hey! You! Halt!" barked the squad's leader. Because he had not been moving, the newest bard in all of the Sargolan Empire stopped playing instead. "What are you doing here?" the marshal of the squad continued. "I'm composing a lament for the dead emperor," replied the grubby intruder. "I mean how did you get up here?" "By the stairs." "The stairs were guarded." "No, my lord, you ordered all men to the Master of Royal Music's chambers," said his corporal, who was holding the squad's torch. Wallas gestured to the overcast sky without looking upward, then strummed the board lyre. "I came here to compose between the mighty strength of the battlements and the frail beauty of the stars," he declared. "While the horror of the assassination's moment was fresh in my mind, I sought to call upon the muse of my art to--" The marshal placed a boot on Wallas's chest and pushed. Wallas tumbled from the battlements, and screamed for the entire sixty feet to the dark and rank waters of the moat. "Some people just don't appreciate art," said the marshal as he looked over the edge with his hands on his hips. Then he strode away with his men. * * * Still clutching his board lyre, the new Wallas crawled out onto the mud at the edge of the moat. He then vomited up his dinner, some very expensive mulled mead, at least three pints of reeking moatwater, and half a dozen tadpoles. The perimeter guards now came running up. He was frog-marched to a servants' gate in the outer promenade wall of the palace grounds, then sent on his way into the city beyond with a hefty kick. He hurried away into the dark and forbidding streets, but by now it was raining again and the more dangerous urban predators had retired to the taverns. By just walking aimlessly Wallas eventually came to the river, and one of the three stone bridges that spanned it. The bridge appeared to be burning, but only because a couple of dozen beggars had a driftwood fire on the bank beneath. "Hie, bard, join us!" someone called, and Wallas needed no more persuasion than that. "Thee be wet," observed a beggar as he joined the circle on the mud. "Jumped in t'moat of palace," he replied economically, aware that his educated speech was the single flaw in his disguise. "And why was that?" asked a streetlord, who was wearing a crown made from scraps of rubbish held together with string. "Were set on fire," Wallas said, holding up his wrists to display his burns. "And why was that?" "Some bugger said me music were not bright enough," replied Wallas ruefully, and they all laughed at what may or may not have been a joke. "Now what would ye have for us?" asked the streetlord. "What say a tune?" Wallas thought fast. A bard who could not play his own board lyre would be the occasion for comment. On the other hand his wrists were badly burned and his lyre was wet. "The catgut got soaked as I swam, so there's no tune in me strings," he replied. "And me wrists are roasted." There was silence. The silence lengthened. Clearly Wallas was meant to contribute something. He thought of the purse on his belt, which contained a few grubby coins. "What's the skin, then?" asked a beggar beside him. "Wine from the emperor's table," said Wallas at once. It had probably been wine from the musicians' servery, but nobody present was in a position to know that. He offered it to the beggar streetlord, who accepted it with undisguised delight. Wallas was now guaranteed a refuge for the night. A beggar who claimed to have once been an herbalist rubbed a reeking paste onto Wallas's burns, then bandaged them with strips of sacking. While he sat steaming his clothes dry by the fire, Wallas entertained the company with descriptions of the royal wedding--and subsequent assassination--as they sat passing the wineskin around. In turn, Wallas learned how to gut, skewer, and roast a rat, along with several songs about beggars, lamplight women, sailors, and getting drunk on very cheap wine. Wallas was relieved to discover that the soaking in the moat had allowed his trousers and tunic to stretch to accommodate his size a little better. Dawn saw the rain at an end, and a heavy mist on the river. Even though Wallas's clothes were now dry, they were cheap and coarse, and they stank. His woolen cloak did double as quite a reasonable blanket, however, and the beggars had kept the fire alight all night. He again took stock. He had the clothes that he was wearing, a purse containing four copper demis, a small knife, and a board lyre. Some twelve hours after acquiring the instrument, he finally looked at it more carefully. As its name implied, it was a board that had been cut into a lyre. It had no sound box, only five gut strings, three bone frets, and the wooden pegs. It was designed to put out just enough sound to be heard within a few feet. It was also designed to be virtually worthless but practically unbreakable. Were it ever to be stolen, one could always build another as long as some scrap wood and a slow cat were within reach. The problem for Wallas was that he could not play it. The former Wallas could probably do something with it, but the former Master of Royal Music was not even sure how the thing was meant to be tuned. As he sat pondering the lyre, several lamplight girls and women came out of the mist and joined the group. "Aye, more news from the palace," one of them told the streetlord as he hailed them. "Seems that the music master may be livin'." "What's yer meanin'?" asked the streetlord. "I 'eard it from a militiaman, what 'eard it from a guard. The dead man were skinny, like, but a chambermaid the master 'ad rogered said she'd noticed that 'e were definitely fat. Seems the master let a warrior in to do the killing." "Makes sense. Court fopsie like that would lose a duel 'gainst a roast chicken," said the streetlord. Chambermaid ? wondered Wallas. Must have been after that terrible night at the Musicians' Guild banquet . "She expected a reward, yet they beheaded 'er for just knowin' 'im." Wallas stayed silent as they laughed. What they were saying was largely true. He knew that one grasped a fighting ax by the end without the sharp metal bit, and he owned several ceremonial axes, but he had never actually swung one in anger--or even in training, if it came to that. As for crossbows, he had not so much as picked one up since the day he was born. Horses and riding? Horses were a long way up, and a lot more unsteady than a carriage. Wallas was definitely no warrior. "Breffas, squire?" asked the former herbalist, holding up an oblong of charred meat by its tail. "What is it?" asked Wallas, accepting the offering for fear of not fitting in. "Roast battered rat." "I see no batter." "Nay, it's rat wot's been battered to death, then roasted." Wallas gingerly removed a little meat with his teeth, smiled and nodded at the old man, then spat it out as soon as he turned away. His parents were dead. The thought took a while to make an impression on Wallas. In his time at court he had tried to live them down, because they were mere merchants. His father had actually been a pastry cook, and his mother distributed the produce. That made them technically merchants, rather than artisan-class. More or less. Actually from a strictly legal point of view his father was an artisan, while his mother was an artisan's wife. On the other hand, she did sell his loaves, buns, and pastries to five shops, making her a type of merchant. Now they were both dead, and because of him. More or less. I try to rouse grief within myself, but grief is apparently still in bed , he thought as he nibbled absently at his battered rat again. The odds on his own head being mounted on a pike and joining those of his parents above some gate were strengthening by the hour. "Five hundred gold crowns is the reward for 'is 'ead, attached or otherwise," one of the lamplight women announced. Wallas shivered with fear. Five hundred gold crowns was more than three generations of millers could earn in their combined lifetimes. He knew all about millers, because his father had employed one after he had become more prosperous. Wallas left the bridge, taking the empty wineskin with him. Through his father's associates he knew that wineskins were worth two copper demis. By noon Wallas had indeed sold his wineskin for two copper demis, and exchanged one for a loaf of bread and a cut of cheese. He had eaten while watching his effigy being shot full of arrows and pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables. It was then burned at the stake. He tossed a stone at his burning straw form for the sake of blending in with the crowd. One of the militiamen who had brought the effigy and brushwood to the marketplace got up on the back of a cart and rang a bell for attention. "Hark one and hark all!" he shouted. "Be it known here and throughout the city that this very afternoon there will be a gathering of bards within the palace grounds. At this gathering there will be free beer for one and all, and without limit." The militiaman paused until the cheering and shouting died down. The vendors of assorted used musical instruments would soon be doing uncommonly good business, but the court-wise Wallas had already guessed the agenda. He had his lyre hidden under his stained and ragged cloak, and was already edging away. "At the end of the afternoon, Prince Stavez will bestow a prize for the best loyal toast to the dead emperor, in verse." It was all too clear to Wallas. Someone had collated the accounts of all the palace guards who had been on duty the night before. That someone soon realized that only minutes after the assassin had been killed, a bard had been discovered within mere yards of the exit to the secret escape route from the Master of Royal Music's bedchamber. The master was thus known to be alive, and to be hiding in the guise of a bard. There could be only one reason for the prince to stage a gathering of bards, and Wallas was fairly sure that everyone was liable to get a very unpleasant prize. * * * As far as stormy nights went, Alberin was hard to beat. Near-freezing rain lashed the port city, driven along by winds from the chill heart of the continent of Scalticar. Alberin was so often in the path of bad weather that the streets were all fringed with awnings, covered walkways, overhangs, and public shelters. Keeping loiterers out of small, dark alleyways was easy: the alleyways were merely left open to the sky, and the rain kept them free of shadowy figures with suspicious intentions. The three shadowy figures of suspicious intent who were on the streets on the fortieth day of Threemonth, 3141, were not loitering, however. They were purposefully scanning what was visible of those streets by the light of one of the very few public lanterns that were still burning. So far their quarry had proved elusive, but they persisted with the patience of professionals. The lamplight girl that they now approached was distinguishable from the trio only by her strident perfume. The main occupational hazard for streetwalkers in Alberin was pneumonia, so that when they disported themselves in public they were even more heavily robed than members of some celibate religious orders on other continents. The girl turned as the men splashed over to her. They surrounded her. One held up a sack and a length of cord. Another waved a cudgel. The third offered, five silver coins on the palm of his hand. "You have to be joking!" she exclaimed, not quite laughing. "No joke," said the man with the silver coins. "Can you help?" "Add another silver one to those in your palm, and you can have an experienced sailor with a Carpenters' Guild plate." "Oh aye, and which house do we have to break into, and how many guards do we have to fight our way past?" "None." "None?" "Well?" "If he's what you say he is, three down and three on pickup." A pale hand emerged from the folds of the girl's clothing, accepted three chilly silver coins, and withdrew again. She sauntered off, and the three men followed. Around a corner and halfway down the next street she stopped at a doorway, where what appeared to be a pile of dark, sodden rags lay in one corner. The press-gang's leader hunkered down. "Gah! Peed his trousers!" he exclaimed. "Not so," said the girl, nudging a piece of broken crockery with the toe of her shoe, then pointing to the shutter above the door. "I saw it all. He bunked down in the doorway, then got out his fife and started playing. The madam of the house emptied a chamber pot over him, then dropped the pot on his head when he didn't go away." The press-gang's leader fingered a lump on the unconscious man's head, then looked up at a window. "Good shot. Aye, and there's a guild plate on the chain around his neck. Hammer shape, he's a carpenter all right. You say he's a sailor too?" "I heard him playin' a river-barge jig before the pot hit him," replied the girl. "A riverman, the only kind left, I suppose. Very well, me boys, truss him up and get him into the sack." He dropped two coins into the girl's outstretched hand. "I ought to deduct one for the smell." "Skinny bugger, too," said the man with the rope. "It comes out of your fee for the next one," the girl pointed out. "Could you have found him by yourselves?" Another coin dropped into her hand. The largest of the men heaved the sack onto his shoulder. "Don' tell Mother," mumbled the youth from within the sack, without really waking up. "His name's Andry," the girl remarked. "D'ye know him, then?" asked the leader. "Not so, I got standards!" said the girl indignantly. "I heard the madam shouting 'Piss off!' and he shouted 'Andry Tennoner pisses off for nobody!'" "True? Well, that saves them flogging it out of him later. Are ye calling it an early night, then?" "Nay, I'm for a tavern and a mulled wine first. Who's he for?" "The Stormbird ." "Oh aye, the last big coaster? Is she bound south again?" "Nay. This is a special, a charter voyage to Palion, in the Sargolan Empire." "Palion!" the girl exclaimed. "Aye." "Palion, as in across the Strait of Dismay?" "Aye." "But, but, you might as well set the ship afire and drown the crew at the end of the pier. Drooling Gerric was aboard the last ship to cross the Strait of Dismay. He's the one who drinks his ale under a table in the Lost Anchor, and crawls about on all fours." "And that ship was the Stormbird ," said the press-gang leader, with the calm of one who was not to be going on the voyage. "The cargo made everyone aboard rich." "Oh aye, and the voyage left Gerric raving mad." The press-gang moved off, reached the end of the covered walkway, and walked straight out into the rain and darkness. The girl stood looking after them, a hand to her mouth. "He seemed a nice young fella, even if he were a slobby drunk," she said softly and with genuine remorse. "Like, I never knew..." The crashing of unseen waves thundered from the direction of the harbor, foretelling what was sure to be Andry Tennoner's fate. * * * The megaliths of ringstone circles and other magical places often stand undisturbed for thousands of years, but all of them begin their existence as work that pays money to masons. In societies where money has not yet been invented, the payment might be a number of sheep, fish, or chickens in proportion to the size of the megalith, but there is always payment. Golgravor's Significant Stones never accepted any work from charities, least of all religious charities, but although the yard's current commission was definitely religious, it was paying large amounts of real money. Golgravor Lassen's commission stated that seventeen megaliths were to be made, and the overall dimensions and design were specified quite precisely. Decoration was optional. Golgravor was particularly fond of the Grattorial school of floral embroidery of the twenty-seventh century, and he had directed his apprentices and assistants to cover every square inch of the stone megaliths in his workyard with entwined and flowering primroses, and bluebell vines. "Not the seat area, however," Golgravor explained to a new freelance mason who was having his first tour of the workyard. "The dimensions of the seat area are absolutely precise, and are to be plain, unadorned rock." "Looks to me like a man would recline with his arms held open above his head," replied Costerpetros. "That is the general shape of it, yes." "So, this is intended for some temple, to hold some priest in a position of prayer?" "I cannot say. What I can say is that I'm paid in plain gold bars, and the gold is of a very high grade of purity." "Oh. Well, er, who takes delivery of the stones?" "The stones vanish, and someone drops a bar of gold payment where they stood." "Just like that?" "Yes." "About ten tons of rock?" "Five tons, actually. There's a bit hollowed out in the base, like it's going to sit on a rounded surface." "And gold is left behind?" "A bar of the very purest of gold." "What does your client look like? Surely someone has seen him?" "No, not a one. We were told never to spy on the collection. At dusk everyone withdraws, and at dawn we return. The megalith is gone, and there is one gold bar in its place." "How many have you been commissioned to carve?" "Seventeen, at five tons each. Now to work. That one goes out tonight, and there's one more to go after that. You're to work on number seventeen, doing the primrose decorations. It must be finished by the end of this week, and we've been falling behind schedule. That's why you've been hired. There's a big bonus if we finish on time." "But who are the buyers? Don't you have any clue?" "No. Be they people, dragons, spirits, or gods, they pay in large bars of pure gold. That's all we need to know, and that's all I want to know." * * * Costerpetros made sure that he was in place before dusk. He had worked hard for a week, even doing double shifts, and he had proved to be a popular recruit. He told good jokes, always shared his jar of wine, and was particularly interested in what even the most boring of artisans and apprentices had to say about the routines of the yard. At one stage he even ran a competition to see who could come up with the best theory of how the completed megaliths were being carried away, and by whom. Everyone pooled their knowledge and gossip, and the winner's theory was that a god reached down out of the clouds and took the megaliths away to be pieces in some enormous board game. Now Costerpetros was lying flat-out in the long grass, with a green cloak draped over himself. The bar of gold that would pay for the megalith was reputed to weigh one hundred pounds. Costerpetros had a heavy-duty sling sewn with pack straps to carry the bar. A hundred pounds would be a strain, but he was strong. There would be a walk of a mile through woodland to where his brother was waiting with a horse and cart. Costerpetros knew he could manage that. He had even practiced walking that distance with twice the weight, for he left nothing to chance. On his feet was a pair of great taloned bird's feet, half a yard in length. They were made from leather, with claws of ivory, and would leave quite alarming impressions in the circle of white sand where the megalith had been left. The megalith was on a wooden pallet, securely tied down, and with four thick ropes running from the edges and woven into a loop of braids that could support ten times the weight. It had been lifted from the working platform by a wooden pulley crane, and placed at the center of a circle of pure white sand that had been raked and brushed smooth. The light faded in the west, and the sky was lit by two moonworlds and the stars. After all the chipping, hammering, cursing, work shanteys, and foremen's shouts of the daylight hours, the workyard now had a quite unsettling quality. By day it had been bright, hot, and noisy, but now it was dark, cool, and silent. Costerpetros lay absolutely still, apart from his breathing. Something would come by, something would appear. He thought about all the theories that had been suggested by his workmates. Perhaps a rent really would appear in the air above the megalith, and a huge, taloned hand would descend, draw the megalith up, then leave a gold bar. Daemons could open holes in the air itself; his brother had studied the magical arts to the seventh level of initiation, and he knew those things. Daemons also had good hearing, however, so it was important not to cry out with astonishment or fear if one appeared. There was a swish in the darkness, and something briefly eclipsed the stars and moonworlds. Great wings beat above the workspace; then a shape like an enormous bat descended slowly and straddled the megalith. A daemon, not a god , thought Costerpetros. The thing's wings had a span greater than the workyard was wide, and its eyes glowed a faint bluish violet. There was a very large hook in its jaws, and from this hook a rope ran up into the sky. The daemon neatly attached the hook to the loop of rope--and Costerpetros saw no more. Neither did his brother, because another vast, winged shape swooped over the part of the woods where he sat waiting in his cart, spat a streamer of white-hot fire, then ascended back into the night sky. * * * Golgravor Lassen looked down at the body in the long grass, his hands on his hips and his head shaking. The hundred-pound gold bar had obviously been dropped from a great height, as it had obliterated the man's head. There was a lot of mess splattered about, but he had clearly been taken by surprise, because there was no sign of a struggle. A dark green cloak covered most of the body, but two large, clawed feet protruded. Golgravor lifted the cloak and determined that the body was that of a man. A search of the clothing produced a seal and guild scroll identifying him as Costerpetros. At this point a foreman came running over from the direction of the burned-out woodland. "We found some metal fittings and powdery bits of bone that might have once been a cart, horse, and driver," he called. "And I think I've found an accomplice," replied Golgravor, indicating the body. The foreman took in the body, the bird feet, and the gold bar. He thought long and hard before trying to reply. "When I was a lad, my mother said that if I did not finish all my dinner, then Chicken God would come and peck my gronnic off for wasting the flesh of his worshipers. I used to think it was just a story, but now..." "According to the scroll in his pouch, this was Costerpetros, the new contract mason. Or maybe Costerpetros is really Chicken God in disguise." The foreman tugged at a clawed foot. It came away. He let out a loud sigh of relief. "I cannot tell you how cheered I am that the feet are false," he declared. Golgravor waved a hand over the gold bar. "Have a couple of apprentices collect it in a tool cart, then wash the blood and brains off." "And the body?" "Have it scraped up and disposed of after the constables see it." The foreman tossed the false bird foot onto the body. "What are we to tell the men?" he asked. They stood in silence for a moment, contemplating the body. "The gold bar looks to have been dropped a full mile, from the way his head's splashed," said Golgravor. "The cart appears to have been turned to ash by something that can breathe fire as hot as the inside of a forge, and the megaliths are being lifted into the air when they are removed. All that points to very large things that can fly and breathe fire--and are very bad-tempered about being spied upon." "Dragons?" "Dragons don't exist." "Then what?" "Very large and rich birds wearing dragon costumes." "Birds can't breathe fire." "Then we are definitely narrowing the field to dragons." "But you said dragons don't exist." "Of course not, but if they did exist and they learned that you knew they existed, they might drop a gold bar on your head, too." "So why do the dragons that don't exist want five-ton megaliths?" "I neither know nor care." "Er, you have not yet told me what we tell the men." "Tell them that spying on our customers is a very dangerous idea, and show them the proof. Now get people moving! We've already wasted enough time this morning." * * * The fact that the Stormbird arrived at all was an occasion for wonder in Palion. The maze of shoals and rocks that lay across the approach to the harbor was now acting as a natural breakwater to mountainous waves raised by the latest Torean Storm, and no pilot had been willing to row out to the ship and guide it in. This proved to be no problem for the Stormbird , however. A particularly large wave had caught the ship, lifted it high, then flung it safely over the rocks in a seething, thundering maelstrom of foam. Within the harbor the waves were a mere five feet or so in height, and those of the crew who were capable of movement had no trouble guiding the ship past the inner breakwater and to the wharf. It was now that a few dockers braved the screaming wind and stinging rain to help the crew tie up. What was left of the embarkation flag declared the ship to be from Alberin on the continent of Scalticar, a mere four hundred miles to the south. Normally the voyage would have taken little more than a week, but this crossing had been dragged out to thirty-two days by a continuous storm. Cold, hard rain was lashing the city, driven by a wind that howled like a mortally wounded dragon. A gangplank was brought up and its grapples dropped onto the side of the ship. An ashen-faced, haggard woman of about thirty appeared and shuffled cautiously down to the wharf. She had a large sling bag over her shoulder, and her robes were soaked with water that had burst over the ship as it was carried over the rocks. Having stepped off the gangplank, she dropped to her knees and began to kiss the wet timbers of the pier. The rain beat down without mercy, and the wind flung spray, rain, and occasional hailstones at her. A heavily robed official hurried along the pier, stopped, and extended a hand to the woman. "Welcome to Palion, gateway to the tropics," he said as he helped her to her feet. "Are you willing to make a declaration before whatever gods you worship that you are not under sentence for any civil or felonious crime within the Empire of Sargol or its allies, or do you carry goods in excess of the value of five gold crowns?" The woman reached into her robes, fished about for a moment, then drew out a gold crown. She pressed it into the official's hand. "No," she croaked, with the energy of someone who has been vomiting almost continuously for thirty-two days. "Ah, I see," responded the official, holding out a small scroll. "Just write your name at the bottom of that at your leisure. Bear in mind that it's from a batch declared stolen, so try to stay out of trouble. Any other passengers aboard the ship?" "None that can move." "Ah good, I'll pay them a visit right away." As the official hurried aboard the ship, the woman began walking unsteadily down the pier. A youth now hurried down the steps of the wharf wall and ran out onto the pier. "Learned Elder?" he ventured. "Learned Elder Terikel of the Metrologons?" The woman looked up and focused her red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes on the youth. "Yes," she wheezed. "Learned Rector Feodorean sent me to greet you," he explained. "She regrets that she cannot be here in her personal persona, so to speak, ha ha." The attempt at a joke was either ignored, misunderstood as bad grammar, or missed completely. "Not nearly so much as I regret having made the voyage to be here in person," rasped the Elder. "The emperor was assassinated recently, so Rector Feodorean's services are required at court." "Lucky emperor," muttered the Elder. "My lady!" exclaimed the youth. "Our emperor's death is not to be made light of." "Young man, for over thirty days I would cheerfully have died to escape the waves, wind, spray, damp, tossing, pitching, rolling, vomiting, and cries of 'Pump, ye buggers, pump!' Even now I am not sure why I did not kill myself on the first day out." "But that is all part of life at sea, my lady. Why, I have been to sea as well--" "And was your ship ever airborne, due to the severity of the waves and wind?" rasped Terikel. The youth gulped. "Surely not," he managed. "Surely so. I lost count after our tenth flight." She stopped and leaned against a bollard, comforting herself with its solidity. "I never believed in love at first sight until I saw the timbers of this pier." "But why did you leave Scalticar?" "For a start, to see your mistress. What is your name?" "Oh! My most abject apologies for not introducing myself. The shock of seeing your distress rendered me--" "What is your name ?" Terikel insisted. "Brynar, Brynar! Brynar Bulsaros, acting head prefect of the Palion Academy of Aetheric Arts. We call it the A-three when--" "I know, I know, the A-three when you are trying to impress tavern wenches, the Arrr when you are drunk, and the Aaah when you are falling asleep in boring lectures. Now take me to the academy's bathhouse, and kindly carry my pack. While I am cleaning up, you are going to burn my clothes." "Burn them, my lady?" gasped Brynar. "By the time even a diligent washerwoman gets the stench of vomit out of them, I am liable to be dead from old age. Check my pack, I have a change of clothing sealed in wax paper and leather." Behind them, on the deck of the Stormbird , the official waved his arms crosswise three times. One for examine her disembarcation scroll , two for arrest her , and three for confiscate whatever she is carrying . As the Elder and Brynar reached the end of the pier a second official and two guards emerged from a building whose sign declared customs, excise, and alien movements. They barred the way. "In the name of the crown prince, halt and declare--" began the official. He got no further. Terikel breathed a tangle of fiery threads into her cupped hand and flung it down at the official's feet, where it exploded with quite an impressive blast. The man flew several yards through the air, along with some fragments of flagstone. The guards fell to their knees and scrambled to hide behind each other. The official began to get up, but having reached a kneeling position he decided that it might be sensible to rise no farther. "The Most Learned Elder Terikel Arimer of the Metrologans," growled the Stormbird 's only passenger who was still capable of walking. "Late of Alberin, capital of North Scalticar." "I, I, I, er, charmed," the official responded. "That clown who met me at the ship took a gold crown for my disembarkation fee and said you would give me a legal scroll, write my name in the arrivals register, and give me forty-seven silver vassals in change." "He did?" "It might be a very good idea to do it," warned Brynar. Two minutes later Elder Arimer emerged from the customs, excise, and alien movements office with a legal scroll, a small bag of silver, and the satisfaction of knowing that her name was legally in the port's register. She had also claimed a reward of ten more silver vassals for handing in a blank scroll that she said she had found on the pier. "If there is one thing that I cannot stand, it is a corrupt official who does not provide value for money," she muttered as they began climbing the steps of the wharf wall. "Yes, it breaches the principles of this new merchant economy that everyone keeps talking about," said Brynar. They were soon over the wall and amid the buildings of the wharf-side. The few people who passed them were on their way to see the only large ship to have arrived in the past month. "So, an exciting voyage, you say?" asked Brynar as they walked, sharing his rain cloak. "If you call three-hundred-foot waves exciting, yes," Terikel replied. "Surely not!" exclaimed the student, suspecting that the Elder was joking, but wise enough not to laugh. "Prefect Brynar of the A-three, the sea swells from the Occidanic Ocean are funneled between Scalticar and Acrema by the Strait of Dismay, and after a year of the near-continuous Torean Storms they have become very, very big sea swells. Three days after we passed across the mouth of the strait, I saw one particularly large wave break over Sead-ragon Pinnacle, and send spray over the top. That rock is definitely over three hundred feet high. In the fourteen days it took to clear the strait I doubt that I saw a single wave rearing less than a hundred feet. We were driven so far west into the Placidian Ocean that we passed the Malderin Islands. I would have given anything to have stopped there, but the shipmaster said that he could never have persuaded his sailors to come back aboard had we paused to do any more than take on provisions. There was only one member of the ship's company not reduced to a gibbering wreck by the time we tied up here, and he was killed by a falling spar on the fifth day out." "But at least you survived." "Are you trying to tell me that I'm not a gibbering wreck?" When they reached the academy's temple complex Terikel went straight to the kitchens, took a half-baked loaf of bread from an oven, and began to eat it, explaining between mouthfuls that she had been fantasizing all the way from Alberin about warm, dry food that did not taste of salt. Next she had a hot bath, with a tray of cakes and hot tea floating on the soapy water. Brynar unpacked the Elder's sodden sling bag while she watched from the tub. He sorted through the contents, and set the sealed pack of dry clothing aside. There was also a sealed wax-paper cylinder with Feodorean's name on it. "My spare clothes and those parchments were probably the only dry objects aboard the Stormbird ," said Terikel. "Take the parchments to Learned Feodorean. Now. I need to rest....Let me know...when she has read them." Outside the bath chamber, Brynar told a maid to make sure that the Elder's head did not slip below the surface of the bathwater if she fell asleep. "The parchments must be important if she went through such a nightmare to get them here," the girl commented. "I cannot understand why she did not send a hired agent-at-arms, or even an auton carrier bird," he replied, then added, "Unless there is more to the message than just the text." * * * An hour later Feodorean returned from the palace, to find Brynar waiting with the parchments. "And how was the Most Learned Terikel?" asked the head of the academy. "Haggard, wrung out, exhausted, and chilled to the bone," replied Brynar. "She spoke of three-hundred-foot waves, the Torean Storms, and winds that flung the Stormbird bodily through the air." "Ah, poor woman. Sea voyages never agreed with her. Now, what was so important that she had to bring the news here herself?" Brynar handed the parchments to her. After a few lines Feodorean let them flop to her lap and began massaging her temples. "Bad news, my lady?" asked the youth. "Young man, this missive defines whole new frontiers for the term bad news . The Elder of the Metrologans is here to halt the building of the ether machine, Dragonwall." * * * Ringstone Logiar was the last of the seventeen ringstones to be completed. There was a very simple reason for this: wind. The ringstone site was on a floodplain, barely a mile from the coast, and although it was in the lee of a mountain that sheltered it from the prevailing westerly winds, the turbulence in the vicinity was quite severe. Those who delivered the megaliths were airborne, and turbulence is of great concern to everything that flies. Waldesar always supervised when the megaliths were delivered. The deliveries were made in a field thirty miles inland from Ringstone Logiar, and this was in a sheltered valley whose permanent inhabitants had been forcibly evacuated. The elderly but very powerful sorcerer waited beside a massively built cart that weighed twelve tons, and had to be drawn by a hundred oxen with fifty drivers. They were currently five miles away, awaiting his signal. So far Waldesar had met all the deadlines set by Gironari, but Sergal was behind on his quotas of sorceric recruits. Waldesar had a feeling that whichever of them finished first would be given the position of ringmaster of Ringstone Logiar, and Astential had already specified that only someone with the thirteenth level of initiation could hold that position. The ringmaster would preside, sitting on the seventeenth megalith when Dragonwall was brought to life. Waldesar was very concerned with history--or legend, at any rate. The legend of the original Dragonwall was that the presiding ringmaster sorcerers who established it somehow destroyed the megaliths rather than let others join them as gods. That was a very good reason to be presiding when Dragonwall was established. The night was overcast, but that was good, because the delivery crew was sensitive about being seen. The sorcerer did another tour of inspection of the wagon, checking that the massive strut brakes were all locked in place at each wheel. It was while he was checking the front right-hand wheel that there was a heavy gust of wind over the wagon, followed by a soft thud nearby. Waldesar looked up. The darkness in front of the wagon was now just a little lighter, and the shape of this vague glow was that of something huge that was practically all wings, but that also had quite a long neck. The shape was in the process of folding its wings as Waldesar walked in front of the wagon and bowed deeply. "The last of our gifts to you mortal sorcerers," rumbled a voice from some distance above Waldesar. There was a series of creaks from the wagon as a very heavy weight was gently lowered onto its tray. Waldesar knew better than to try to watch. It was too dark to see very much, but if he did happen to see something that he was not supposed to see, then his life would be ended so quickly that it would probably not even get a chance to flash before his eyes. "On behalf of all sorcerers, in Acrema, Lemtas, and Scalticar, my heartfelt thanks!" the sorcerer replied in a shrill, nervous voice, even though he was trying to make the words sound like a grand pronouncement on behalf of all the sorcerers of three continents. "Release the hook," commanded the dark shape. Turning to the wagon, Waldesar climbed the steps onto the tray, then slowly clambered up the rope and netting that enmeshed the megalith. He was eighty-two years of age, and quite stiff in the joints, but although he was happy to delegate some work to sorcerers of lesser levels of initiation, he never shared tasks that involved glory. Nobody else was sure who came to meet him on these delivery nights, and even Waldesar was unsure of the true nature of his benefactors, but if everyone else knew even less than he did, then it raised his status with everyone else. For the seventeenth time he freed the hook attached to a rope that hung down from the sky, supported by things that were so vast that their wingbeats were more like booms than flaps. It was evident that the things above him could also see in the dark, for the hook was drawn upward the moment that it was released. There was a whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of huge wings fading into the distance, then silence. "May I thank all the other..." Waldesar caught himself about to say dragons . "The other entities for carving the megaliths and bringing them here?" It was a delicate moment. As a very senior sorcerer he was acutely aware of how touchy glass dragons could be, and he was sure that they were glass dragons. "The other entities do not require thanks," rumbled the shape in a voice that resonated right through the sorcerer's body. "Neither do I." "I see. Well, er...we shall not fail you." "I should hope not. We have gone to a lot of trouble to provide you with the foundations of this ether machine. It is your responsibility now." "Ringstone Logiar's sorcerers are highly disciplined. It is the other ringstones whose crews may fail. Ringstone Alpine has not got the--" "Typical of you mortals. You prefer to see your rivals humiliated rather than have the main task succeed." "Oh no, lordship, we are just friendly rivals of the Alpennien sorcerers, not enemies. We hope that they will perform well enough, it is just that we have little faith in them." "Should one fail, all will fail, and Dragonwall will not become established. Should that happen, all of you will lose, and so will we. Should we lose, we shall be exceedingly angry, because these Torean Storms are troubling us greatly. I warn you, do not try to cause the other ringstones to fail, just to make fools of those you dislike. Be ready when the transit of Lupan, across the face of Miral, provides a signal to all sorcerers at all ringstones. It is then that Dragonwall must be brought to life, across half the world, from pole to pole." The great wings began to unfold in the darkness, and Waldesar held tightly to the rope netting that covered the megalith. The downdraft from the first beat of the huge wings was a mighty gust of wind that lashed Waldesar with dust and pebbles, and all but tore him from the megalith, but by the second beat it was already some distance away. Now that he was alone with his megalith, Waldesar slowly climbed down to the ground. He spoke a minor fire casting onto his fingertips, and it hovered as he checked the pyre in its light. The first pyre had been a disaster. One beat of the huge wings had scattered the brushwood so widely that it had taken Waldesar an hour to gather enough together to make a proper signal fire. All the pyres since had been tied down with ropes secured to tent pegs. The sorcerer flicked his casting into a bundle of kindling at the base. It blossomed into a nest of flames, then became a bright blaze. * * * Several miles away, a lookout noticed the bright gleam of the pyre, and he blew three sharp blasts on his whistle. The ox drivers had their huge team in motion almost immediately, but the riggers rode ahead to tie the megalith down to the cart. Between the riggers and the ox team were the floral decoration and lighting crews. It was over three hours before the oxen reached the cart, but it took only minutes to hitch them up for the thirty-mile journey to the ringstone. By then, the megalith had been securely tied down to the cart by the riggers, and there were dozens of escort riders waiting in orderly ranks, all carrying torches. The cart had been garlanded with freshly cut vines and seasonal flowers, and yet more burning torches had been tied along its front, back, and sides. All of the oxen were garlanded as well, and their drivers each carried a torch. "I cannot see what all the fuss is about," said Garko, one of the level-twelve initiates, as he sat with the other level-twelves around the megalith. "For the first twenty miles there is nobody to see us, apart from the occasional shepherd." "Waldesar likes a parade," said Sergal sourly. "We proper sorcerers lurk about in the shadows, back rooms, towers, and wild, isolated places doing arcane things. Learned Waldesar likes people to know that he is important. He is no true sorcerer." "Could be that we're late as well," added Landeer, who was the most senior sorceress in any of the ringstones, and who specialized in hidden agendas. "Ringstone Logiar is the last ringstone to be completed, and that makes us look late. This way Waldesar makes it look like we are saving the best and most important until last." "But we are late," said Garko. "There were tons of dirt that had to be dug away at the site. That took a lot of time and labor." "But it sounds like a mere excuse," said Landeer. "It is a valid excuse," said Garko, "and the high winds and Torean Storms also delayed our, ah, deliveries of the megaliths." "Waldesar does not want excuses, so he turns them into triumphs. This parade will tell people that we were meant to be last because we are so important. Did you know that thousands of people are to be sitting on the walls of Logiar to watch us drag this thing past?" "Free ale and a butternut pastry for everyone who has a basket of flowers to fling at us as we rumble past," said Sergal. "Paid for out of Waldesar's own purse," Landeer added. "Learned folk, may I ask a difficult question?" asked Sergal. His two companions nodded. "Why is Dragonwall being built?" "To blunt the force of the Torean Storms," said Landeer. "Yes, Astential approached me a month after the first of the Torean superstorms began. Now tell me, how could have Astential surveyed the sites of sixteen out of seventeen ringstones stretching halfway around the world in such a short time? Remember, Ringstone Logiar was the last site to be explored, and that was just a month after the storms began." "Obviously the glass dragons helped," said Landeer, dropping her voice to a whisper. "They could fly to the sites within days." "So the glass dragons do most of the survey, carve and deliver the megaliths, and quite possibly even suggest the idea to Astential. This implies that the Dragonwall machine was being prepared long before the Torean Storms began." "If that is the case, then the glass dragons have an agenda that has nothing to do with taming the storms," concluded Landeer. "That is my thought, and it worries me," agreed Sergal. * * * The procession escorting the last megalith moved very, very slowly. By the time the overcast sky began to lighten with dawn, it had traveled ten miles. At that point the procession was halted to refresh the torches, repair and water the garlands of flowers and vines, provide the escort with breakfast, and feed the horses and oxen. Because the chief initiate of Ringstone Logiar wanted to preserve the appearance of dignity and avoid any semblance of haste, nose bags for the horses and oxen were forbidden. Thus they had to stop to be fed, and this gave everyone a short rest. The short rest lasted until noon, which suited everyone, including Waldesar. This way they would be at their closest point to the city of Logiar about two hours after sunset. The torches would be ablaze, and all attention would be focused on the procession. The afternoon was a foretaste of what was to come. Villagers who had seen sixteen other megaliths pass through and barely paused to give them a glance now suspended their routines as the great chunk of carved rock slowly rumbled through on its enormous decorated wagon. People cheered, and flung flowers and green leaves. Members of the escort managed to stop at the taverns in the general confusion, and even Waldesar flung the occasional pyrotechnic casting into the air to impress and amuse the villagers. At sunset the torches were lit again, but this time the break was kept down to a mere hour. Two hours into the night, they reached a part of the road where it passed the city walls. It was halted at the city gate, where the acting regent of the Principality of Capefang rode out on a white horse. He gave his compliments to Waldesar, then rode to the head of the team of oxen and gestured the procession into motion again. Like Waldesar, the acting regent was convinced of the importance of being seen on grand occasions, and so he always chose a white horse and white surcoat for night parades. His alchemist had even mixed a fuel for his torch to make it burn with a brilliant blue-green flame. At one level Waldesar was flattered that the acting regent would honor the procession with his presence, but at another he was annoyed that someone was stealing the glory of his parade. Nevertheless, Waldesar smiled and waved, acknowledging the cheers of people who understood no more about the ether machine than that this was the last bit, and that the parade was less boring than sitting at home and wondering whether or not to go to bed early. Most of the petals flung from the walls were going in the direction of the acting regent, and this rankled with the elderly sorcerer as he glared at the distant white figure. "Damn you to the lowest level of the deepest of all hells," muttered Waldesar. Abruptly a hundred yards of road collapsed into a vast hole that belched fire. The first two-thirds of the hundred oxen vanished into it, dragging the others and the wagon after them. The acting regent of Capefang and his horse also plunged into the gaping conflagration. Now the city walls began to collapse, tumbling over into the hole, and bringing thousands of onlookers down with them as they smashed down into the pit. Waldesar was jerked off his feet, and he recovered to see his initiate twelves leaping from the accelerating wagon with all possible haste. "I didn't mean it!" the sorcerer shouted in horror; then he recovered his wits. Only ten yards from the edge of the pit, Waldesar grasped a small and inconspicuous wooden lever and wrenched it back with all his strength. The lever tripped a hair-trigger release. The release popped open an iron joint. The iron joint was all that attached the wagon to the oxen, but its release also triggered four iron shafts to drop and jam the wagon's wheels. The wagon stopped a single yard from the edge of the pit, just as a section of the city's wall crashed down on the last of the oxen. * * * Later investigations revealed that there had been a large, deep siege tunnel beneath the road, the product of a siege some three hundred years earlier. The siege had ended early, when the hungry citizens had rioted, defeated their own militia, killed their well-fed rulers, then flung open the city gates to the enemy. Faced with the cost of refilling the enormous siege tunnel, Logiar's conquerors decided to merely fill in the entrance. After all, the roof was held up by strong beams and pillars. True, they were designed to collapse if anyone pulled at a rope attached to a keystone, but if the entrance was blocked off, then that would never happen. The conquerors not only blocked off the entrance, they built a memorial over it to commemorate their glorious victory. Folk memories are not easy to erase, however. Several ballads had managed to survive three centuries in the taverns of Logiar, all telling how a mighty cavern had been excavated under the road beside the west wall of the city. Someone had listened to the ballads, then rented a house near the city walls and dug a shaft all the way to the ancient siege tunnel. Whoever had rented the house had had the sense to vanish as soon as the collapse had been triggered, so the city officials contented themselves with executing the owner. Traders and vendors in the Logiar markets revealed, in some cases under torture, that enough hellbreath oil to conduct a small war had been purchased recently by foreign-looking merchants. Several minor intermediaries were caught and tortured, but those behind the plot had covered their trail too well, and they went free. In the meantime, the megalith was transported along a detour that went through the streets of Logiar itself, then out the south gate of the city and along the coastal road to the ringstone site. This time people stayed as far as possible from the procession. The wagon was pulled by a thousand laborers who had been rounded up at spearpoint, and these men were made to wear garlands of flowers and vine leaves, even though there was nobody to see them but the city militiamen who were escorting them at what they hoped was a safe distance. The deputy acting regent watched from the distant battlements of the palace, surrounded by courtiers who were sipping spiced mead and hoping to witness another spectacular attack on the wagon. No such attack took place. Although a little late, the megalith arrived undamaged at the ringstone site, and was lifted into place by a spindly but effective wooden crane. Waldesar had been severely shaken by the spectacular attack, yet once he had returned to his operations tent, called for a goblet of wine, and checked over the damage and casualty lists, he realized that Goddess Fortune must have had a strong liking for megaliths. None of the senior initiates had been killed, the megalith was undamaged, and there was every prospect of having Ringstone Logiar operational with an hour to spare before the transit of Lupan. What disturbed Waldesar was that the seventeenth megalith was definitely the target of the attack. It was too big and heavy to steal, too tough to damage easily, yet too small to hit easily with a stone shot from a siege engine. Dropping it into a deep pit and collapsing a section of Logiar's walls onto it would definitely have left it in poor condition, however. The two thousand people who had been killed when the walls collapsed did not even enter Waldesar's thoughts. They were merely bystanders, and he was only concerned with being seen to save the world. Without any warning, Astential entered his tent. Waldesar bounded to his feet as fast as a man of eighty-two could manage. He had not been aware that the level-fourteen initiate was within a thousand miles of the place. "Most learned sir!" exclaimed Waldesar slowly, gathering his thoughts as he spoke. "I was not told of your arrival." "Neither was anyone else," replied Astential. "Gather the level-twelve initiates, Learned Waldesar. Four of you are to be regraded to the thirteenth level, and of those four, you are to be declared ringmaster of Ringstone Logiar." * * * Andry Tennoner left the Stormbird and strode down the pier with a roll pack slung over his shoulder and forty-seven silver nobles in the pouch under his tunic. There was the small detail that he was meant to remain in irons until the following morning, but he had picked the lock with a quite precisely bent length of stiff wire, and freed himself. He then wrote his own release in the penalties register, took it up on deck, and showed it to the duty watchman. Not only could the man not read, but he assumed that Andry could not write. Further, he wanted Andry to believe that he actually could read, so he pretended to read what Andry said was there. As sailors go, Andry did not stand out. Skinny, a little taller than average, and with shoulder-length, straggly hair and thirty-two days of beard growth, he was bulked out by his leather knee-length jacket and sea boots. In his belt was a light ax that had a sea serpent with its tongue poking out carved into the handle. He stopped at the customs checkpoint. "What's to declare?" asked an official with a bandage around his forehead. "Three ship's blankets, a ship's ax, a ship's backsaw, a chisel, a caulking iron, a ship's-issue spare tunic and trousers, and a knife ground from a broken deckbrace." "So, press-ganged, were you?" "Aye, so they tell me." "Currency?" "Fourteen silver nobles." "What? All the others had five gold crowns." "Aye, but I had a few expenses." "Such as?" "A fine for spending a night in the shipmaster's liquor store, a fine for pissing from the rigging, a fine for being sick over the deckswain, a fine for--" "Try to behave in Palion," said the official. "Any floggings?" "Aye, for insubordination, and attempted desertion." "Insubordination? Desertion?" "Aye, I, er, annoyed the prime mate. Then at the Malderin Islands I punched the deckswain and tried to jump overboard to swim ashore." "The penalty for punching a ship's officer is death within twenty-four hours of the offense." "Aye, but I was the only carpenter aboard." The official pressed the fingertips of both hands together, and pursed his lips against his thumbs. It was his impression that the sailor had helped to make the voyage from Scalticar just that little bit more unbearable for everyone aboard, possibly including the sorceress who had blasted a large hole in the flagstones, and an even larger hole in his self-confidence. He tossed Andry a copper. "Welcome to Palion, and have a drink with the compliments of the Sargolian Customs, Excise, and Alien Movements Service," he said as he began to write out a seaman's visa for Andry. "Now take this visa and piss off." * * * Andry found his way to a nearby tavern, where part of the crew of the Stormbird was already a good way along the path to becoming blind drunk. There was a newly lit fire in the taproom grate, and about two dozen young women had already arrived to help the sailors spend their money. He was surprised to see the ship's deckswain over in a corner near the fire, smoking a long-stemmed pipe and oblivious of the noise around him. Andry went over to the serving board and leaned on it. "Hie champion, could I get a pint of amber?" he said in passable Diomedan, the trade language of the Placidian Ocean's ports. "Amber?" asked the somewhat harried Sargolan tapman. "Aye, amber. Comes in barrels, people drink it." "You mean sandy? That's beer." "Oh aye. Give a pint here, I'll try it." Andry made short work of his first pint of sandy, and was midway through his second when he found the deckswain beside him, leaning on the serving board. "Pint of sandy," he called, and was given a tankard of beer. "Nothing like travel to broaden the education, know that?" said Andry when the deckswain showed no sign of returning to the fire. "Like I've been here just five minutes and I've learned amber is sandy." "Thought you were in irons," said the deckswain with no real interest in his voice. "Well, you know. Asked for the punishments register to be checked, and Sonning found I was overdue for release." "But the register is only filled out when punishment is complete." "Is it then?" exclaimed Andry. "Why then Sonning must have mistook someone else's punishment for mine." "Lad, you're quick as a rat up a drainpipe," laughed the deckswain. "Still, you did well to keep the Stormbird in one piece. Without you, we'd not be here." "Hie, that's fine," laughed Andry, elbowing him in the ribs. "Without you, I'd not be here!" "You're going to have to get us back again." "Now that assumes I want to go back," said Andry with a wink. "Miles from mother, no brothers closing me, no sisters shouting at me, money to spend--Hie champion, another two pints of sandy!" "But don't you have a girl back in Alberin?" "What Alberin girls look at Andry Tennoner? Think I like it here, that I do." "Well, I call Alberin home, and the Stormbird 's the only way back," sighed the deckswain. "She's almost the only large ship left anywhere . Too many shipmasters tried to sail during the first of the Torean Storms. The profits were fantastic, because so many ships had been lost in the wars. The more ships were lost, the greater the profits became. Gold tempted the crews to sail again." "But we were tempted too." "Well, yes and no. We carried a load of furs and oils that could ransom the crown prince of Alberin--were anyone to take him prisoner, that is. But we also carried the Most Learned Elder of the Metrologans over here." "Why, and who's she anyway?" "You heard of the Torean Storms?" "Oh aye man, I've just spent thirty-two days in 'em." "I mean how they started. Andry, could you imagine storms like this being normal weather, all the time? You must have heard of Torea." "Oh aye, a big island, long ways off. Some sorcerer set fire to it." "Torea was a continent the size of Scalticar. An enchanted weapon called Silverdeath got out of control and melted the place down to the bedrock. It was like...well, come and see." The deckswain led Andry across the taproom to the fire, then took Andry's tankard and set it down on the edge of the hearth. He scraped out a large, glowing coal with his knife. Very carefully, he balanced it on the blade, then tipped it into the tankard of sandy. Brownish foam erupted from the tankard with much hissing and bubbling. A few of the nearby drinkers clapped and whistled. "The magical heat that melted Torea was dispersed on the winds, and it's made them right buggers for sailing. A large number of sorcerers are trying to do something to stop the Torean Storms with a thing called Dragonwall. I'm no sorcerer, but I try to help. I volunteered for the voyage. The Elder is something to do with Dragonwall, so we sailed the Stormbird here." "Hie, deckswain, that's a brave cause," said Andry, genuinely impressed. "So let's drink to it. Hie, tappy, two more pints." "You're being bold, telling me the likes of this, dekky. I could be a spy." "Hah, I'm in need of someone to talk at, ye know, and I'm fairly sure that you'll soon be drunk, and liable to remember little of what I've said." "You talk like you're more than a deckswain." "We all are." "Er, say again?" "We're the tools of many factions, most of 'em with different aims and agendas. Some radicals like the idea of the storms continuing, to cause chaos and destroy the status quo. Most want the storms to stop, but some inland kingdoms want their seafaring neighbors to be ruined first, and so they prefer the storms to continue for a little longer. The seagoing folk want less wind but more rain, so the inland kingdoms' pastures and crops will rot. That means the demand for fish goes up." They drank on, the deckswain and Andry matching each other pint for pint. The deckswain bought drinks all round, then again, and yet again. All the while, he talked. "Then there's the sorcerers. They've got to, to, ah, do something...magical, to make this Dragonwall work. Thousands of sorcerers, getting together at places called ringstones. Become gods, control the winds." "Oh aye, gods control winds," agreed Andry. "Everybody knows that." "They'll control Dragonwall, and it...controls the winds. Stop the Torean Storms." "Oh aye, and that sorceress Elder, she's one of them, then?" "Strange one, she is. Born in Torea." "Torea? The melted continent? Hie there, champion, two more pints--No, hands off your pouch, deckswain, this round's mine. Another round for the house, tappy." The vintner and serving girls began filling the order as eager drinkers gathered around. Andry turned back to the deckswain. "Big problem, Torean Storms." "We're so small, and the problem's so big, Andry," said the deckswain. "Why do we bother?" "Er...tell me." "No, I mean, like, I don't know why we bother." "Then don't." "Should find some bawdy wenches and get drunk." "Bawdy wenches?" echoed Andry, instantly thinking about the consequences if his mother found out. "Aye, bawdy wenches. They drink with ye, ye spend money on them, then they take off their clothes and get into bed with ye." "Oh aye. Then what?" "You play making babies." "Er...aye? And then?" "Once you're asleep, they sneak away, takin' what's left in your pouch!" The deckswain roared with laughter, then flung half a dozen silver nobles into the air. Several girls and drinkers dived for the coins. The deckswain put an arm across Andry's shoulders. "You need a bawdy wench," he declared. "Thas an order." Andry swallowed. A girl. A girl to sleep with. He had never been in bed with a girl. He was not even entirely sure of what to do, but had gleaned a lot of what was involved from countless conversations in shipyards, taverns, barges, ships, and late-night drinking sessions on curbstones. More to the point, his mother was a long way away. Almost as important, if he made a real fool of himself he was so far from Alberin that his friends were unlikely to find out. By now several girls had converged on the deckswain, on the theory that if he had silver to fling into the air, then he probably had more silver available to spend on them. Andry fumbled for his pouch. He found nothing. He looked back to the deckswain, who was taking a silver noble from a suspiciously familiar pouch and pressing it into the cleavage of the giggling girl on his knee. Suddenly realizing what was going to come next, Andry drained the pint that he was holding. "I'll be troublin' ye for the price of that round for the house," declared the vintner. Being unable to produce any money, Andry was promptly set upon, beaten, and ejected by the vintner and barrelkeep. Moments later, his rollpack and ax were flung out after him. His pack of tools remained within the tavern. "Ye can 'ave 'em back when ye return wi' the price of the round!" shouted the vintner, before slamming the door. "Stolen anyway!" bawled Andry at the closed door. It was only now that Andry realized some of his silver nobles had leaked down his trousers and into his sea boots when he had been fumbling for money earlier. He picked himself out of the gutter, wiped off some of the scum and slime, then set off in search of another tavern. After all, his mother really was very, very far away. * * * In a rather more genteel part of Palion, Rector Feodorean and Elder Terikel were sipping Angelhair 3129 frostwine from crystal tumblers, and lying on silk and goose-down cushions before a fire in a blackstone grate carved in the shape of a sea dragon's mouth. Terikel was drinking rather more than the rector. "The Dragonwall Council did ask me to journey to Ringstone Alpine," the rector was explaining. "Learned Sergal himself came to convince me. I said I'm too old for raw power castings. Three weeks in a coach on muddy roads, then strenuous etheric castings? Not for me." "Compared to a voyage from Scalticar, it sounds luxurious," said Terikel. "You are game, crossing the Strait of Dismay," said the old woman. "I would rather enter myself in the Dockside Topless Hoyden of the Month competition than do that. And speaking of futile quests, why do you wish to stop Dragonwall?" "I have done calculations, based on observations of my Metrologans. Dragonwall is not necessary, and it is very dangerous." "The Dockside Topless Hoyden of the Month competition is not really necessary either, but trying to stop it could also make you very unpopular." "Dragonwall is dangerous. The Torean Storms have already peaked, and are slowly declining. All that Dragonwall can do is bleed energy from the winds and change it into etheric potential. Such energy must be stored somewhere, and it can then be used for great evil. Look, imagine your basement is flooded, and a clever sorcerer comes along. He says he will change the water into beer, then you can put a free beer sign at the cellar door and all the neighborhood layabouts will come rushing along and drink the place dry. What would you do?" "Oh, charge admission, I suppose." "Precisely! You could not bear to waste it. Now imagine huge amounts of magical etheric energy, stored in a mighty casting stretching across the sky! Would you waste that?" The rector waved the decanter of wine in the air, then poured Terikel another measure. "Just say you are right, what can we do? We are both initiate eleven, Astential has a thousand times our etheric potential." "So the enemy is strong. That is no reason to surrender without a fight." "Terikel, Terikel, you are starting to sound like young Wilbar of the Clovesser Academy of Applied Sorceric Arts. He founded a little group of radical students called the Sorceric Conspiracies and Occult Plots Exposure Collective, and they are the laughingstock of the empire's academies. His theory is that the Dragonwall is a plot by the sorcerers of another moonworld to control the minds of our own sorcerers." "Then this Wilbar admits the possibility of conspiracy in the first place, which is more than you are doing. I know there are conspiracies, Rector, and I know far more than I am willing to discuss. Dragonwall will store titanic energies. The last time a mortal got control of such energies, Torea was melted down to the bedrock." "Suppose you are right. What power do I have? I am not even a member of the council." "You don't need to be captain of a ship to sink it," replied Terikel. "You have connections in the royal palace. Four of the ringstones are in the Sargolan Empire, or lands controlled by its allies. The late emperor had a lot of doubts about Dragonwall. He even insisted that an audit be made of Dragonwall's powers, capacities, and controls. When that is completed the truth will emerge." "The audit has been completed, and the crown prince has seen it," said Feodorean impatiently. "He is satisfied that Dragonwall is no threat." Feodorean expected an outburst from Terikel, but the Metrologan went strangely quiet instead. She stood up, put her glass on the sideboard, and folded her arms. "The emperor opposed Dragonwall, now he is dead," she said slowly. "Now the crown prince just happens to be 'satisfied,' as you put it. Very significant." "The emperor was due to be shown the results on the day after his assassination, so that he could veto the commencement if anything dangerous was found." "Suddenly everything makes sense," said Terikel, shaking her head, but not looking as agitated as the rector expected. "Terikel, you cannot be suggesting that the crown prince of Sargol is involved in some conspiracy to murder his father." "Of course not, it would get me arrested. I should go now, Rector. Thank you for your hospitality." "What will you do now?" "The Stormbird sails for Diomeda in a day or two, to buy tropical produce for sale in Alberin. I shall be on it." "Why Diomeda?" "According to a, ah, consultant of mine, Dragonwall has a weakness. I can travel up the River Leir to Ringstone Centras. What I do there is between me and my conscience, but I certainly can collapse Dragonwall even after it has been initiated." ...Once Terikel had left, the rector spoke a small casting, then shaped it. It took the form of a small image of herself, but with a few cosmetic improvements. Holding it in her cupped hands, she spoke to it for several minutes, then bound it to an amulet. As the figure was dissolving into the polished stone, Rector Feodorean rang a small bell. Brynar appeared a half minute later. "Take this to the palace and give it to the usual person," said the rector, handing the amulet to him between her thumb and forefinger. "The Metrologan Elder looked grim as she left," observed Brynar. "The Metrologan Elder is a very dangerous person, Brynar. Now go." Brynar took his leave, pulled the door to the rector's room shut behind him, and hurried away down the corridor. "Yes, a very dangerous person," said Feodorean as the prefect's footsteps died away in the distance. "And something must be done about her." Copyright © 2004 by Sean McMullen Excerpted from Glass Dragons by Sean McMullen All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.