Every day the sun rose on Vanai, she thanked the powers above for one more day of life. After two Algarvian constables in Eoforwic seized her when the spell that let her look like a Forthwegian wore off before she could get back to her flat, she’d expected to be shipped west and slaughtered right away. The redheads saw the Kaunians of Forthweg as no more than a convenient source of life energy to fuel the sorceries they used to fight their evermore-desperate war againstKingSwemmel of Unkerlant.
But all they’d done so far was throw her into the Kaunian quarter in Eoforwic. It was as if they were saying, We don’t need you in particular right this minute. Now that we’ve got you, you’re not going to get away again.
Or maybe they were saying something worse. Maybe they were saying, We can wait till you have your baby. They we’ll slay you both, and get twice the life energy from you.
She walked out of the flat in which they’d stuck her-a flat, ironically, bigger and finer than the one she’d shared with Ealstan, and she had it all to herself-and went down to the street. Not too many people showed themselves in the Kaunian quarter these days. Some of those who did had hair like hers: formerly dyed black but now showing its blond roots. They’d been caught trying to live their lives like anyone else, too.
She walked toward the edge of the Kaunian district. It wasn’t far: only a couple of blocks. But it was clearly marked and strongly guarded. A constable pointed his stick at her and snarled, “Get away from me or you’re dead, you stinking blond whore.”
He wasn’t even one of Mezentio’s men. He was young, stocky, swarthy, black-bearded, big-nosed-a Forthwegian among Forthwegians. He even looked a little like Ealstan, whom she loved with all her heart. But this fellow didn’t love her. The Algarvians found plenty of Forthwegians ready, even eager, to help hold down the Kaunians. That let the redheads send more of their own soldiers off to fight the Unkerlanters. How convenient for them, Vanai thought.
“Go on, get away!” The Forthwegian was so young, his voice cracked. But he was easily old enough to blaze her down. “Or else keep coming.” He sounded as if he wanted her to.
“I’m leaving,” she said hastily, so as not to give him an excuse to do just that. She turned and retreated, letting out a sigh of relief as she put a building between her and the hothead. She’d had guards, Algarvian and Forthwegian, growl at her before, but never an encounter like this.
Icould escape, she thought. Icould. It would be easy, if… She still knew the spell that would let her look like a Forthwegian. She should have known it. She was the one who’d devised it, reconstructed a botched charm in a cheap, stupid book calledYou Too Can Be a Mage into sorcery that really did something. She always kept a bit of dark brown yarn and a bit of yellow with her, in case she got the chance.
But the guards wouldn’t growl and snarl and curse if she approached the edge of the Kaunian quarter while looking like a Forthwegian. They would blaze without warning. They’d done it before. No Forthwegians were supposed to be inside the district, and no Kaunians were supposed to go outside it unless they were ushered forth to go to their doom.
Since the redheads had stopped letting Kaunians out, Vanai had wondered what she would do inside the quarter. But the Algarvians didn’t bother with Kaunian-manned manufactories. Maybe they should have. Had they been as efficient as Swemmel of Unkerlant claimed he was, maybe they would have. Or maybe not. They valued the Kaunians only for the life energy they gave up on dying, not for what they might accomplish alive. And so, whether the Kaunians worked or not didn’t seem to matter to Mezentio’s men.
A young Kaunian who’d never dyed his hair nodded to Vanai and said, “So you got caught on the outside, did you?”
“Aye.” She nodded, then rested a hand on her bulging belly. “I think carrying a baby made the spell wear off faster than it should have. Whatever it was, the spell gave out and I got nabbed.”
“Too bad for you,” the young blond man said. “Being a Kaunian these days isn’t much fun.”
“Being a Kaunian in Forthweg never was much fun,” Vanai answered. “But you’re right, of course-it’s worse now.” She paused in some surprise. “I’ll tell you one thing, though: speaking my own language again feels good.” She’d used Forthwegian, not classical Kaunian, whenever she talked with anyone but Ealstan out in Eoforwic, and more and more with him once she assumed her Forthwegian disguise.
“Sure enough.” The young man scowled. “We can even write in our own language in here. Why not? The penalty for writing in classical Kaunian is death, and the redheaded barbarians are going to kill us anyhow.” He laughed without any great mirth, but then scowled again. “Couldn’t you speak Kaunian with your man?” He pointed at her abdomen.
“Some,” she said. “But he was-he is-a Forthwegian.”
“Oh.” The young blond fellow looked revolted for a moment. Then his face froze. He walked away from Vanai as if she didn’t exist.
Back in Oyngestun, her home village, both Forthwegians and Kaunians would have reacted the same way to the thought of a union between their people. Here in Eoforwic, in what had been the capital and most sophisticated city of Forthweg, such marriages and other alliances had been more readily tolerated back before the Algarvians overran the kingdom. So Vanai had heard, anyhow. Maybe the fellow she’d been talking with had been dragged here from a little village of her own. Or maybe, like some Kaunians, he was as blindly prejudiced against Forthwegians as so many Forthwegians were against Kaunians.
She wandered aimlessly through the Kaunian quarter for a while. When the Algarvians first herded the Kaunians they hated into this little district, it had been disastrously crowded. It wasn’t any more. A lot of Kaunians had already been shipped west-and only the tiny handful of them lucky enough to escape their captors had ever come back to Forthweg. A lot had slipped out of the Kaunian quarter sorcerously disguised as Forthwegians before the redheads started getting wise to them.
Vanai took a certain somber pride in that. Even though she’d been caught, she’d helped a lot of her people go free. But, on the other hand, even though she’d helped a lot of her people go free, she’d been caught. It all depended on how you looked at things.
A bell began to clang in a little square a couple of blocks away. She hurried toward it. So did plenty of other Kaunians, men, women, and children, spilling out of blocks of flats and houses. Seeing all those blond heads around her, Vanai was very conscious of belonging to a separate people. Not for the first time, she wondered what it would be like to live in Valmiera or Jelgava far to the east, where almost everyone was of Kaunian blood.
Whatever the Algarvians were doing to the Jelgavans and Valmierans, they couldn’t possibly stuff them into tiny districts and have their neighbors help keep them there. She was sure of that.
And they couldn’t possibly set up feeding stations in the middle of the district. That bell might have summoned cattle on a farm. The only difference was, Kaunians knew how to queue up.
“Here,” an Algarvian said when Vanai got to the head of the queue. He gave her a chunk of barley bread, a chunk of crumbly white cheese, and some salted olives. It wasn’t fancy food, but it was enough to keep her going till the next time the bell rang. She’d feared the redheads would starve the Kaunians they’d trapped, but that turned out not to be so. The Algarvians didn’t care if Forthwegians starved. But if Kaunians died of hunger before they could be sacrificed, they were wasted as far as Algarve was concerned. And so they got something close to enough to eat.
Vanai was just spitting out an olive pit when more bells began to chime, these not in the Kaunian quarter but all over Eoforwic. She needed a moment to understand what that meant. Then someone close by spelled it out for her, exclaiming, “Dragons! Unkerlanter dragons!”
KingSwemmel’s dragonfliers didn’t come over Eoforwic very often; the capital of Forthweg lay a long way east of land Unkerlant still held, and Swemmel’s forces had trouble sparing dragons from the more urgent fight against Algarve. But every once in a while they would load eggs under some of their stronger beasts and pay a call on the city and the ley-line junctions it contained.
The day was cool and cloudy, with a threat of rain. That made the Unkerlanter dragons, painted rock-gray, all the harder to spot. Only after Vanai watched eggs fall from beneath a dragon’s belly and heard them burst not far from the Kaunian quarter did she realize that standing in the street and watching wasn’t the smartest thing she could do.
She ran into a block of flats and then down into the cellar. Even if an egg landed on the building, that was the safest place she could go. She wasn’t the only one to see as much, either. Plenty of other Kaunians had got there ahead of her. She wondered whether they lived in the block of flats or had fled there from the street, as she had.
“I hope every one of those eggs comes down right on an Algarvian’s head,” an old woman said.
“Powers above, make it so,” Vanai exclaimed.
“I wouldn’t even mind too much if an egg came down on me,” a man said. “Then the redheads couldn’t use my life energy.”
“No!” Vanai said. “I want to outlive them. I’m going to have a baby. I want my baby to outlive them, too.”
“That’s right.” The old woman nodded vigorously, though Vanai could hardly see her in the gloomy, shadow-filled cellar. “That’s the best revenge. They lose their life energy and we keep ours.”
That would have been the best revenge. The only trouble was, Vanai hadn’t the slightest idea how to make it real. If the Algarvians seized her, if they took her from the Kaunian quarter and threw her onto a ley-line caravan and sent her to the barbarous wilds of Unkerlant and slew her… how could she fight back? She couldn’t. She knew it too well.
Unkerlanter eggs kept thudding down. Every so often, one nearby would make the ground shake under her feet and the block of flats shake over her head. KingSwemmel ’s dragonfliers still didn’t come over Eoforwic all that often, no. These last few raids, though, they were coming in larger numbers than before. Vanai hoped that meant they were doing more damage than before, too.
She heard a different sort of thud-not the harsh roar of a bursting egg, but the sound of something large hitting the ground after falling from a great height. “They blazed down a dragon,” the old woman said.
“Too bad,” Vanai said. “Oh, too bad.”
“Their eggs might kill us,” the man said, “and we’re sorry when they die.”
“Of course,” Vanai told him. “They’retrying to hurt the Algarvians, and that’s the most important thing.” Nobody in the crowded cellar presumed to disagree with her.
Snow blew out of the west, intoColonelSpinello ’s face. Winters in the north of Unkerlant were less savage than in the south, though still bad enough. The Algarvian officer had fought in both, and had standards of comparison. He also had a wound badge with a ribbon to show he’d been blazed twice, and puckered scars on his chest and his leg to prove he hadn’t got it by paying off a clerk.
If anything, he welcomed the snow. It meant the ground got hard enough for proper maneuvering, and he was convinced that gave the advantage to the brigade he commanded. Unkerlanter warfare was that of the bludgeon, not the rapier. Yet the rapier could be more deadly, slipping between a man’s ribs to pierce his heart and kill him while hardly leaving a mark on his body.
“Listen to me!” he called to the soldiers within earshot-and theydid listen to him. He was a bantam rooster of a man, not very tall but proud and swaggering even by Algarvian standards. When he spoke, men paid attention… and so did women. Just for a moment, he let himself think of Fronesia, the mistress he’d acquired while recovering from his latest wound in Trapani.
But his mistress was a distraction now. The Algarvian capital was a distraction, too. “Listen to me,” he repeated, louder this time, and more troopers in the muddy, half-frozen trenches and holes in the ground turned their heads his way. “We’ve got to take Pewsum back, boys, and we’re going to do it.”
He pointed ahead, toward the battered Unkerlanter town a couple of miles to the west. When he’d first taken command of the brigade, Algarve had still held Pewsum; he’d made his headquarters in the village of Ubach, a few miles farther west still. KingSwemmel had spent a lot of lives pushing the front this far; Spinello hoped to spend far fewer repairing it. He shook his head. Hehad to spend far fewer repairing it, for he couldn’t spare that many Algarvian lives.
“Weneed Pewsum,” he went on. “We need the ley-line caravan depot there, and we need the junction with other ley lines running north and south.” Algarvian soldiers weren’t peasants too ignorant to write their names. The more they knew about what wanted doing and why, the better they fought.
“We’ve got some behemoths.” Spinello waved at the big, white-draped beasts. “I had to yell and scream and jump up and down to get ‘em, but I did it.” Some of his soldiers grinned, but he wasn’t kidding. The north had been the quiet front in Unkerlant for quite a while; most Algarvian behemoths had been moved down to the south, where the fighting was harder. “We’ve got some dragons laid on, too.”
That drew whoops from the men. Dragons were even harder to come by up here than behemoths were. A trooper shouted, “And we’ve got our luck, Colonel!”
“Well, of course we’ve got our luck,” Spinello answered. “She’s standing right here next to me.”
The soldiers cheered as fiercely as if they were attacking right then. The pretty young Kaunian girl named Jadwigai-who looked quite fetching in a broad-brimmed Algarvian hat and a heavy cloak over her tunic and trousers-blushed and smiled and waved to the men.
They cheered again, harder than ever. They’d brought her along with them after overrunning her village in western Forthweg when the war against Unkerlant was new and triumphant. The brigade had always fought well since, and Jadwigai had become a sort of mascot for it. Nobody’d ever tried to force her into Algarvian-style kilts. Nobody’d ever tried to force himself on her, either. Had anyone been so rash, his own comrades would have put paid to him-and, odds were, gruesomely.
Spinello sighed, fog trickling from his mouth and nostrils. Fronesia was a long way away. He wanted Jadwigai. He’d had a Kaunian to keep his bed warm, a girl named Vanai, when he was stationed in the Forthwegian village called Oyngestun. Jadwigai was even younger and even prettier. But Spinello kept his hands to himself. He didn’t want trouble-and he did want to keep the brigade fighting hard.
He added, “And we’ll have some… special sorcery to help us when the attack goes in.”
That was all he said about that. He glanced over at Jadwigai. Did she know that the Algarvians who treated her like a princess slaughtered Kaunians from Forthweg by hundreds, by thousands, by tens of thousands, to power the magics they hurled against the Unkerlanters? How could she not know? But if she did, she kept it to herself. What went on in the mind behind that blue-eyed, smiling face? Spinello couldn’t tell. Not being able to tell excited him, too.
The brigade comes first, he thought, and then, curse it. He turned toMajorRambaldo, one of his regimental commanders, and asked, “What is the time, Major?”
Rambaldo pulled from his belt pouch an egg-shaped windup clock smaller than his fist, a triumph of the watchmaker’s art. After glancing at the glass-protected dial, he answered, “Sir, it is the very hour set for the attack.”
“Then put your clock away and keep it safe-and yourself, too, of course.” As Rambaldo stowed away the little mechanical treasure, ColonelSpinello drew from his own pouch a less complex tool: a brass whistle. He took a childish delight in loud noises, and the whistle certainly made one. A moment later, he made another all by himself, shouting, “Forward, you lazy whoresons!” at the top of his lungs.
“Stay safe, Colonel!” Jadwigai called in good Algarvian, and blew him a kiss. He waved his hat to her as he went forward. He would have thought more of her good wishes had she not sent kisses to other soldiers who went past her. He shrugged. That was how things were. She didn’t belong to him. She belonged to the brigade.
“Mezentio!” Spinello yelled. “Algarve!” He still favored his wounded leg a little as he trotted forward. He could use it, though, which counted for more. A lot of Algarvians with wounds of one sort or another were back in active service these days. The kingdom needed them too much for them to stay back a moment longer than they had to.
MajorRambaldo, he of the fancy clockwork, trotted along beside Spinello. He was half a head taller, and correspondingly longer of leg. He was also whipcord lean, where Spinello was stocky by Algarvian standards, and so seemed to be hanging back when he could have gone faster. “I wish we’d hit them yesterday, or even the day before,” he said, not breathing hard.
“We wouldn’t have had the behemoths then,” Spinello answered. “We wouldn’t have had the dragons, either, or the Kaunians to kill.” With Jadwigai out of earshot, he spoke frankly.
Rambaldo’s shrug was a work of art even among Algarvians, who could say more with their hands and bodies than most folk could with words. “The Unkerlanters wouldn’t have had the extra day or two to dig themselves into Pewsum, either.”
Spinello grunted. An Unkerlanter detachment new in a place might be easily routed out. A day later, the job got harder. Two days later, it could become impossible. He’d seen as much in Sulingen and at the Durrwangen bulge and a good many other places besides. He hoped he wouldn’t see it again here.
Eggs burst in front of the advancing Algarvians. Moments later, eggs burst among them; Swemmel’s soldiers in Pewsum had no intention of being dislodged. Algarvian behemoths lumbered forward to deal with the Unkerlanters’ less mobile egg-tossers. And then the terrible beam from a heavy stick blazed through white surcoat and armor and flesh of three behemoths in quick succession. The rest milled about in dismay before pulling back out of range. The heavy stick’s crew didn’t bother burning down individual foot-soldiers with it; that would have been like smashing cockroaches with an anvil.
Feeling very much like a cockroach, Spinello scuttled forward, cherishing whatever cover he could find.
Dragons painted in Algarvian green, red, and white swooped down on Pewsum. That horrible heavy stick waited for them, and swatted first one and then another out of the sky. Then more eggs burst around it, and it fell silent. But the dragons couldn’t silence all the sticks and egg-tossers around Pewsum, any more than the behemoths had, and Spinello’s brigade stalled just outside the town, taking casualties and unable to advance any farther.
Huddled in a hole behind what was left of a stone fence, Spinello cursed the stubborn Unkerlanter defenders. “Well, you were right, Major,” he called to Rambaldo, who sprawled not far away. “Now we have to see what else we can do about it.” He raised his voice to a shout: “Crystallomancer!”
One of the young mages attached to the brigade hurried up. “Aye, sir?”
“Put me through to the mages at the special camp,” Spinello said. “We’re going to need the strong magic.”
“Aye, sir,” the crystallomancer repeated, and took the glass globe from his pack. After activating it, he pushed it to Spinello: “Go ahead, sir.” Spinello spoke to the wizard whose image appeared in the crystal. The mage nodded. Then he vanished. The crystal flared and went inert. Spinello gave it back to the crystallomancer.
“Will we get what you want?” Rambaldo asked.
“We’ll get what we need,” Spinello answered, and the regimental commander nodded.
The sorcerers at the special camp had had such requests many times before over the past two and a half years. Swemmel of Unkerlant preached efficiency; the Algarvian mages practiced it. Rounding up however many Kaunians they needed and slaying them didn’t take long.
Peering out from behind the stone wall, Spinello watched the ground shake in Pewsum, as if it were being visited by its own private earthquake. But the magic the Algarvians powered with Kaunian life energy was potent beyond any mere temblor. Not only did buildings shudder and collapse, but great fissures in the ground opened and closed, gulping down men and even an Unkerlanter behemoth. And lambent purple flames shot up from the ground, engulfing still more enemy soldiers and beasts.
Spinello’s whistle screeched, along with those of the rest of the Algarvian officers still able to advance. “Forward!” he shouted, and sprang to his feet himself. “Now that the mages have staggered ‘em, let’s knock ‘em flat!”
With a cheer, the brigade went forward again. The men had confidence, no doubt of that. Some of them shouted, “Jadwigai!” along with “Mezentio!” and “Algarve!” Again Spinello wondered what the pretty little Kaunian mascot thought. She was close enough to Pewsum to have seen, even to have felt, the magecraft. How could shenot know whence it came? But if she did, how could she stay friendly to the Algarvians who kept her? Could she pretend so well, just to stay alive? Spinello didn’t know. He wondered if he ever would.
He also discovered, not for the first time, that counting on the Unkerlanters to stay stodgy was no longer a paying proposition. No sooner had his brigade burst from cover and rushed toward Pewsum thanKingSwemmel ’s mages unleashed against them the same sorcery the town’s defenders had just suffered. The Unkerlanters didn’t kill Kaunians. They got rid of their own old and useless and condemned. But life energy was life energy. The spell wreaked as much havoc on the Algarvians as it had on the Unkerlanters.
Spinello fell to the ground as it shuddered beneath him. Algarvian soldiers shrieked as violet flames devoured them. Not twenty feet from Spinello, the earth opened up, swallowingMajorRambaldo. An instant later, the crack slammed shut, crushing him and his fancy, ever so expensive windup clock. Spinello staggered to his feet once more, but he could see at a glance that the assault on Pewsum had failed.
He hung his head and kicked at the frozen dirt. Algarve had seen too many failures lately, some small like this one, some very great indeed. When, he wondered, would his kingdom start seeing successes again?
Leudast had spent a lot of time commanding a company while still a sergeant. He was far from the only Unkerlanter underofficer who’d done that. Unkerlant often gave responsibility without giving rank to go with it. That saved the paymasters money-it saved them more than just the monthly difference between a sergeant’s rate and a lieutenant’s, too, for everyone’s pay was chronically in arrears.
But now Leudast was a lieutenant himself. It would have taken capturing a fugitive would-be king to get a born peasant bumped up to officer’s rank, but he’d done exactly that. Mezentio’s cousin Raniero, who’d styled himself King of Grelz, had gone into Swemmel’s stewpot, and Leudast wore two little brass stars on each of his tunic’s collar tabs.
He still commanded a company.
MarshalRatharhad promised him five pounds of gold for capturing Raniero. He hadn’t seen any of it yet. If he lived through the war, maybe he would. As a born peasant, he knew better than to complain. If he let people see he was unhappy, he didn’t know exactly what he’d get, but he had a good idea it wouldn’t be the missing five pounds of gold.
At the moment, he stood inside a peasant hut not much different from the one he’d grown up in, save that one wall and half the thatched roof had burned away. With him stood the other lieutenants and sergeants commanding the companies in his regiment, and Captain Recared, the regimental commander. Recared looked preposterously young to be a captain; the previous summer, before the great battles in the Durrwangen salient, Recared had looked preposterously young to be a lieutenant.
“You know what we have to do, men,” Recared said in the abrupt tones that marked him not only for a city man but for an educated city man to boot. “We’ve stopped the redheads’ drive on Herborn. They’re not going to take it back from us, no matter how much they want to. And they’ve stretched themselves thin trying, too. Now we see if we can bite off the columns they used for their push.”
“We’ll hurt ‘em if we do,” Leudast remarked. His own accent said he came from the northeast, not far from the Forthwegian border, and sounded particularly out of place down here in Grelz.
Recared smiled at him. “That’s the idea, Sergeant-uh, Lieutenant. The worse that happens to the Algarvians, the better for Unkerlant.”
“Oh, aye, sir.” If anything, Leudast knew that better than his superior. He was one of what couldn’t be more than a handful of men who’d fought the redheads since the first day of the war against them. Most of the soldiers who’d servedKingSwemmel on that now long-vanished day were dead or captured or crippled. Leudast had been wounded only twice, and put out of action for a few weeks of the slaughter around Sulingen. If that wasn’t good luck, what was?
“All right, then,” Recared said. “We’ve got plenty of behemoths. We’ve got plenty of dragons. And if we need sorcery, we’ll manage that, too. When I shout, ‘Forward!’ we shall go forward. We shall not halt until I shout, ‘Stop!’ Gentlemen, I do not intend to shout, ‘Stop!’ “
Leudast and the rest of the company commanders looked at one another. Slow grins spread over their poorly shaved faces. One of their number, a sergeant, said, “Curse me if that’s not an Algarvian kind of thing to say. Makes it into a riddle, like.” The others nodded.
Recared said, “The Algarvians have taught us some lessons in this war, no doubt about it. But that time is passing. By the powers above, it is. Now we’re the schoolmasters, and we’ll give them stripes for not learning.”
The lieutenants, all of them but Leudast, nodded again. He and the sergeants looked blank. They were peasants, and knew little of schoolmasters.
“Let’s go, then,” Recared said. “We can do it. We will do it. Nothing is more efficient than victory.”
KingSwemmelhad been trying to make Unkerlanters efficient throughout his reign. As far as Leudast could see, the king hadn’t had a lot of luck. Also as far as Leudast could see, saying the king hadn’t had much luck was about the least efficient thing one of his subjects could do.
He pulled his cloak more tightly around him as he left the farmhouse. He’d known hard enough winters in the north of Unkerlant. Down here in the Duchy of Grelz-the Kingdom of Grelz no more, not after what had happened to Raniero once Swemmel had his way-the wind seemed full of icy knives.
“Do we hit the redheads, Lieutenant? The redheads and the traitors, I mean?”SergeantKiun asked. He’d been a common soldier when Leudast’s company captured Raniero, just as Leudast had been a sergeant. But Kiun had been the one who’d recognized that Mezentio’s cousin wasn’t just the Algarvian colonel his uniform proclaimed him to be. He’d been promised a pound of gold along with his promotion. He hadn’t seen it yet, either.
“Aye, we do,” Leudast answered. “High time we finish breaking out of this box they’ve tried to put us in.” He’d had to break out of Algarvian encirclements before, and counted himself lucky to have escaped with his life. But this was different. For one thing, he and his comrades weren’t altogether cut off; the redheads hadn’t been able to slam the lid down on the box. And, for another, there was more power here inside this box than was out there trying to contain it.
Egg-tossers began hurling their loads of death at the Algarvians. Watching the bursts kick up snow and smoke in the distance, Leudast nodded to himself. He’d seen heavier poundings-especially down in Sulingen, where his countrymen and the Algarvians had hammered at each other till the redheads finally broke-but he’d also seen what the Algarvians were capable of in this particular fight. They’d never flung so many eggs at the Unkerlanter trenches.
Dragons painted Unkerlanter rock-gray swooped down out of the sky, dropping more eggs on the redheads and flaming men and behemoths they caught in the open. Few gaudy Algarvian dragons rose to challenge them.
Captain Recared blew his whistle. “Forward!” he shouted. “Swemmel and Unkerlant! Urra!”
“Forward!” Leudast echoed. Only then did he remember he’d finally got his hands on an officer’s whistle. He shrugged. Shouting would do. “Forward! Urra!”
And forward they went, all of them shouting so they wouldn’t blaze one another by mistake. Some of them didn’t go forward very far, but stopped beams as soon as they broke from cover. Some of the shouts turned to screams. Red flowed here and there on white snow, flowed and quickly began to freeze.
Back when things had gone well for the Algarvians, they’d always had a knack for flanking Unkerlanter units-sometimes squads, sometimes whole armies-out of position. Even after things started going not so well for them, the redheads had kept that gift for showing up exactly where they would make the most trouble. If they hadn’t had it, KingSwemmel ’s soldiers would long since have run them out of Unkerlant.
Leudast wished his countrymen showed a similar knack. No matter what he wished, the Unkerlanters seemed to lack it. As far as he could see, Unkerlanter forces too often hit the Algarvians where they were strong and tried to bull through instead of hitting them where they were weak and going around. Had he been a general, that was what he would have tried to do. Maybe the Unkerlanter generalswere trying to do it. If so, they didn’t have it down yet.
On the other hand, if you hit anything hard enough and often enough, it would eventually fall over. The Unkerlanters had more egg-tossers and dragons than their foes. And they had many more behemoths. Behemoths on snowshoes were cursed awkward beasts, going forward at an aggressive waddle and kicking up little clouds of snow at every stride. But they went forward, which was the point of the exercise. Wherever the Algarvians tried to rally- and, with their usual skill and dash, they tried again and again-eggs from the tossers most behemoths carried, and beams from the heavy sticks the rest bore on their backs, smashed up strongpoints.
“Mezentio!” Leudast had heard that defiant war cry more often than he could recall. This time, it came from a tiny village near the edge of a forest of snow-covered firs. The enemy soldiers holed up in the village blazed at the advancing Unkerlanters. Misses boiled steam from snow. Hits sent men sprawling bonelessly in death. “Mezentio!” The shout rang out again and again.
But it didn’t sound right. Algarvians yelled their king’s name almost as if they were singing it. These soldiers simply shouted it, the same as they might have shouted, “Swemmel!”
The very same as they might have shouted, “Swemmel!”… Leudast stiffened. He shouted, too: “Those aren’t redheads! Those are fornicating Grelzers!”
Men who’d served the Algarvian puppet Kingdom of Grelz couldn’t very well shout, “Raniero!” any more, not after Swemmel had boiled Raniero alive. A lot of the soldiers who’d chosen to wear dark green tunics instead of rock-gray had sneaked away from the fighting, doing their best to pretend they’d been nothing but peasants or shopkeepers while the Algarvians occupied Grelz. Few who tried to surrender to Swemmel’s soldiers succeeded. None had joy of it afterwards.
But here some stubborn souls still did what they could to help Mezentio’s cause. “Forward!” Leudast shouted again. This time, he remembered to blow the whistle. “Let’s give the traitors what they deserve.”
Kilted soldiers slipped away through the trees: the Grelzers were buying time for their Algarvian comrades to get away. Maybe the men who’d followed Raniero and the dream of Grelz as a kingdom of its own realized how little their lives were worth with the duchy back in Swemmel’s hands and the king’s inspectors sure to be hunting them down. Or maybe the Algarvians were simply selling out their erstwhile allies.
Leudast didn’t care why the Grelzers fought. He just wanted to be rid of them as fast as he could so he could go after the escaping redheads. His men converged on the village from three sides. Some of them had a shout of their own: “Death to the traitors!”
By the way the Grelzers blazed, there weren’t very many of them. They didn’t look like holding up the pursuit for long. But, as the men from Leudast’s company came close to the tumbledown shacks in which the enemy fought, they got a nasty surprise: What looked like small pottery jugs flew toward them and burst like miniature eggs when they hit the ground. Several soldiers howled as flying shards scored their flesh. Others hesitated, and the attack wavered.
“Come on, curse it!” Leudast shouted. “I don’t care what sort of toys they’ve got-there can’t be more than a dozen of them!” He got up and went on toward the hamlet. If his men didn’t follow, he wouldn’t last long.
Follow they did. The Grelzers proved to have only a few of those small, throwable eggs. Leudast would have liked to ask them where they’d got the few they did have, but, by the time the fight was over, no Grelzers remained alive to ask.
His broad shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. If the Grelzers had this particular toy, the Algarvians would, too. He was liable to find out more about it than he wanted to know. He shrugged again. “Are we going to let those Algarvians get free of us? We’d cursed well better not!” He plunged into the woods after the redheads. Again, his men followed.
More often than not, MarchionessKrasta worried about no one’s feelings but her own. Thus, when her maidservant, Bauska, came into her bedchamber one morning to help her decide what to wear that day-in Krasta’s mind, always a vitally important choice-she greeted the woman with, “How’s your little bastard doing?”
Bauska’s lips tightened. She’d had a daughter by one of the Algarvian officers billeted in Krasta’s mansion on the outskirts of Priekule. Carefully, she said, “She’s doing very well, milady.”
“Well, good.” Krasta hadn’t intended to be cruel, so she added, “I haven’t heard her howling in the night lately. That’s something.”
“Two-year-olds don’t cry as much as newborn babes, no,” Bauska agreed.
“I suppose not,” Krasta said. “Did you ever hear even a word from the father?”
Bauska shook her head. “Nothing since he went off to Unkerlant to fight.”
“Too bad.” Krasta sighed. “Mosco was a handsome chap, I’ll give you that.” Mosco had been a good deal handsomer thanColonelLurcanio, whose adjutant he’d been. He’d also been a good deal younger than Krasta’s own Algarvian lover. Every so often, she thought Bauska had got the better bargain. Bauska didn’t need to know that, though. Neither did Lurcanio.
“Perhaps the gray silk tunic and trousers, milady?” the maidservant suggested, taking them from one of Krasta’s cavernous closets.
“Powers above, no!” Krasta shook her head. “Do you want me looking like an Unkerlanter soldier?”
“Milady, if you put onKingSwemmel ’s crown, would you look like him?”
“Of course not,” Krasta said indignantly. “He’s dreadfully ugly, from everything I’ve heard, and I’m not.”
“Well, then,” Bauska said.
“Well, then, what?” Krasta snapped. She was impervious to logic, as any number of schoolmasters who’d tried to instill it in her might have told Bauska. “What does that have to do with anything? Get me another outfit and be quick about it, before I box your ears.”
She meant it. Bauska must have known she meant it. The gray tunic and trousers disappeared as if they had never been. Dark blue trousers and a gold tunic met with more approval. As if to prove she could make her own choices, Krasta shrugged on a rabbit-fur jacket and went downstairs, pushing past Bauska without another word. Had the maidservant not got out of her way, Krasta would have pushed right through her. Bauska must have known as much, because she did move.
Down in the front hall, Krasta pointed to another servant. “Tell the driver to ready the carriage. I shall go into Priekule before long.”
“Aye, milady.” The servant went off to do her bidding.
Before the war, hardly anyone had ever said anything but, Aye, milady, to Krasta or done anything but go off to do her bidding. Even now, hardly any Valmierans presumed to go against her wishes. But Valmierans, these days, weren’t the only folk with whom Krasta had to reckon. She was reminded of that as soon as she went into the west wing of the mansion.
The Algarvian occupiers had taken over the west wing without so much as a by-your-leave. They’d made it plain that, if Krasta proved difficult, they were capable of taking over the whole place and throwing her out. Up till then, no one had ever dealt with her on those terms-who would have dared? The redheads dared, and they, unlike her countrymen, had the power to enforce their wishes.
Desks and cabinets full of papers filled the elegant salon of the west wing these days. Algarvian military bureaucrats sat behind the desks, doing what they needed to do to keep Priekule running the way they wanted it to. Krasta had never inquired about the details. Details were for servants and other commoners.
But one detail she did notice: Fewer Algarvian military bureaucrats sat behind the desks this morning than she’d ever seen before. More and more these days, the endless grinding war in Unkerlant pulled Algarvians out of Valmiera and off to the distant, barbarous west. Bauska’sCaptainMosco had been one of the first sent away from civilization, but many, many redheads had followed him since.
Those who remained eyed Krasta with a leering familiarity that would have earned them slaps in the face… had they been Valmierans to be despised rather than Algarvians to be feared. As things were, Krasta swung her hips a little more than usual when she walked past them. They looked, aye, but they couldn’t presume to touch because she belonged to their superior.
CaptainGradasso, the adjutant who’d taken over for the departed Mosco, wasn’t at his desk in the antechamber in front of Lurcanio’s office. Krasta beamed at that. She would have had to try to make sense of his archaic Valmieran, so heavily flavored with the classical Kaunian he knew embarrassingly more of than she did. As things were, she walked straight into Lurcanio’s lair.
Gradasso wasn’t in there, either, as he often was when not out front to block importunate visitors. Krasta’s Algarvian lover glanced up from the papers that covered his desk like snow drifts in a hard winter. How tired he looks, she thought. Lurcanio was in his fifties, close to twice her age. He was a handsome man; more often than not, distinguished came to mind when she thought of him. Not now. Now the only fitting word wasweary.
“Good day, my dear,” he said, bowing in his chair. His Valmieran, unlike his adjutant’s, was fluent, flavored only by a slight Algarvian trill. “You’ve come to say farewell before you venture forth to the shops, unless I miss my guess.”
He read her far better than she could read him, which never failed to annoy her. “Well, aye,” she admitted, not quite daring to lie to him: a telling measure of how much he intimidated her.
“Enjoy yourself,” Lurcanio said. “I wish I could find such an easy, pleasant escape.”
Honestly puzzled, Krasta asked, “Why can’t you?”
Lurcanio sighed. His mustaches-graying copper-were waxed so stiff, the exhalation didn’t trouble them. “Why, my sweet? Because, unlike you, I have to work for a living. I have duties to perform.” He waved at the blizzard of papers in front of him. “Who would take care of them if I went off whenever I chose?”
Krasta didn’t recognize a rhetorical question when she heard one. “Why, CaptainGradasso, of course. What are servants for?”
ColonelLurcaniosighed again. “First, an adjutant is not a servant. Second, they aremy duties, not his; he has his own. And third, at the moment he is performing his duties far from here.”
“What do you mean?” Krasta asked.
“I mean that he is on his way to the Duchy of Grelz, if he hasn’t got there yet,” Lurcanio answered. “Powers above grant that he stay safe. For the time being, I have his work to do as well as my own. I may eventually be assigned another adjutant. On the other hand, I may not.”
Where she was sensitive to little else, Krasta understood every nuance of rank. “That’s an outrage!” she exclaimed.
“It is war.” Lurcanio’s shrug was less extravagant-less Algarvian-than usual. He got up, came around the desk, and took Krasta in his arms. As he kissed her, his hands roamed her body. She wondered if he would want her to flip up his kilt; she’d done that a couple of times here. She wouldn’t have minded doing it again-the danger of discovery often excited her. But Lurcanio let her go. With a last pat, he said, “Go on. Enjoy yourself. Be glad you can.” He returned to his paperwork.
Krasta needed no more urging to do what she already intended to do anyhow. Before she left, though, she went around behind the desk, bent beside Lurcanio, and teased his ear with her tongue for a moment. If he preferred work to her, she wanted to remind him of a little of what he’d be missing. Then, laughing, she hurried away before he would grab her.
Her driver smelled of spirits. He often did. Krasta didn’t worry about that overmuch. Even if he was drunk, the horse remained sober. “Take me to the Boulevard of Horsemen,” she said. When she went into Priekule, she most often went to the street with the capital’s finest shops. The driver nodded. He probably would have taken her there even had she said she wanted to go somewhere else, because he was used to heading there, waiting for her, and drinking while he waited.
As it had ever since the Algarvians marched into it, Priekule looked sad and gray. Buildings needed paint and a scrubbing they weren’t likely to get any time soon. A lot of the people on the street seemed to need paint and a scrubbing, too: they shambled along, lacking the will or the energy to do anything more. Some of the Valmieran women, by contrast, wore altogether too much paint, and wore either trousers that might have been painted onto their backsides or Algarvian-style kilts that barely covered those backsides. Some of them had caught the redheaded soldiers they were obviously after, too.
Krasta sneered. She’d caught a redheaded soldier, too, but she didn’t usually let herself think of it that way.
Now that she was here, she wondered why she’d come. To get away from the mansion for a while, she supposed. But the Boulevard of Horsemen wasn’t what it had been. Shop windows displayed mostly junk, and often old junk at that. The only shops with plenty of new items on display were the booksellers, hardly Krasta’s favorite haunts. Just because she could read and write didn’t mean she felt she had to very often.
But then she sawViscountValnu flipping through some volume or other inside a bookstore. She tapped on the glass. Valnu looked up. His smile illuminated his long, bony face. He fluttered his fingers at her, then did a proper job of waving, urging her to come in.
She did, though she felt at least as out of place as she would have walking into a brothel. “Where are my spectacles?” she exclaimed, careless as usual of the proprietor behind his counter. “Don’t I have to have spectacles?”
“Not you, darling,” Valnu murmured in a husky voice that enchanted women-and also Algarvian officers of a certain inclination. He kissed her on the cheek. “Youare a spectacle, so you don’t need to wear any.”
“You should talk,” Krasta said: He was wearing a kilt himself, one that showed off as much leg as those of any of the slatterns on the street. “What are you doing here?”
“Eating beans,” Valnu answered. “What else is there to do at a bookseller’s?” He started to put away the tome he’d been looking at.
Krasta took it from him before he could slide it back on the shelf. “The Kaunian Empire and the Barbarians of the Southwest,” she read from the front cover, and started to laugh. “Don’t let your redheaded friends know you look at such things.”
ViscountValnulaughed, too. “It shall be my deep, dark secret, believe me.” He rolled his blue, blue eyes, as if to say no one could possibly take him seriously.
And then Krasta remembered something that had shaken Priekule-had certainly shaken her-not long before. “Don’t let your redheaded friends know about Amatu, either,” she said, this time in a lower voice. Amatu, who’d gone over from the Valmieran underground to the Algarvians, had been ambushed and murdered on his way home from a supper with Krasta and Lurcanio. Valnu had known beforehand he would be there.
The viscount’s smile never wavered. “You’d better keep quiet, my dear, or you’ll go the way he did,” he said.
“That could happen to you, too, you know,” she answered with a smile of her own. “If I had an accident, Lurcanio would learn everything.” That was a lie, but Valnu couldn’t prove it.
He condescended to raise an eyebrow. “Maybe we should talk further.”
“Aye.” Krasta nodded. “Maybe we should.”
MarshalRatharwished he were back at the front, still commanding the Unkerlanter armies battling to drive the Algarvians out of the Duchy of Grelz. There, he was lord of all he surveyed: who dared go against the wishes of the second most powerful man in all the Kingdom of Unkerlant?
One man dared, and no one in Unkerlant, not even MarshalRathar – perhaps particularly not MarshalRathar -presumed to disobeyKingSwemmel ’s express command. And so Rathar found himself back in Cottbus, far from the fighting, all too close to the king. The maps in his office-the maps whose moving gray- and red-headed pins showed the fight going well in the south and not badly in the north-did little to ease his spirit. If anything, they reminded him what he was missing.
Running a hand through his iron-gray hair, he glared at his adjutant. “I feel like a caged wolf, Major, nothing else but.”
MajorMerovecshrugged. “I’m sorry, lord Marshal,” he replied, not sounding sorry at all. He’d spent the whole war in Cottbus, in the vast royal palace. Rathar didn’t doubt his courage, but he’d never had to show it. He went on: “The king will surely be glad to have your advice.”
Swemmel was never glad to have anyone’s advice. MajorMerovec andMarshalRathar both knew that perfectly well. They both also knew how deadly dangerous saying anything else would have been.
A young lieutenant whose clean, soft rock-gray tunic and clean, soft features said he’d never done any real fighting, either, came into the office and saluted Merovec and Rathar. He said, “Lord Marshal, his Majesty bids you sup with him this evening, an hour past sunset.” Having delivered his message, he saluted again, did a smart about-turn, and strode away.
“A signal honor,”MajorMerovec murmured, “and a signal indication of the king’s trust in you.”
“Aye.” Rather against his will, Rathar found himself nodding. Supping with Swemmel meant being trusted enough to hold a knife (no doubt it would prove a small, dull, blunt knife, but a knife nonetheless) in his presence. Considering how the guards searched everyone granted audience with the king, considering how Rathar had to leave his marshal’s sword on hooks in the antechamber before passing through, Swemmel had chosen to show him favor. By evening, the palace would be buzzing with the news.
Rathar shrugged. Maybe I misjudged him, he thought. My guess was that he recalled me from Grelz to keep me from winning too many victories, to keep me from getting too popular. I don’t want his throne, curse it. But if I tell him I don’t want it, he’ll only worry more that I do.
When he walked through the hallways of the palace on his way to supper, courtiers bowed low before him. They were smooth, sleek, confident creatures these days, altogether unlike the frightened lot of two and a half years before. When Cottbus looked like falling to the Algarvians, a lot of them had fled west. For good or ill, they were back. To those of lower rank, being second most powerful in the kingdom seemed little different from being most powerful. Rathar knew better, but also knew no one would believe he knew better.
Pretty women dropped him curtsies as he went by. Had he put forth a little effort, he supposed he could have had a good many of them. His passions didn’t run toward seduction, though. The only woman but his wife with whom he’d lain recently was Ysolt, his headquarters cook. That hadn’t been a seduction: more on the order of a molestation, of him by her. He grimaced. He wasn’t proud of being conquered rather than conqueror.
KingSwemmel’s dining room, like his private audience chamber and the throne room, had an antechamber attached to it. The guards in the antechamber took Rathar’s ceremonial sword from him. Then they patted him more intimately than Ysolt had, though he enjoyed their attentions rather less. Only after satisfying themselves that he carried nothing more lethal than his hands did they let him go on to the king.
In the dining room, he fell to his knees and then to his belly, knocking his forehead against the carpet. He sang Swemmel’s praises, and his own love, awe, and loyalty for his sovereign. Some of the ritual phrases were as old as the Unkerlanter monarchy. Swemmel and his henchmen had devised most of them, though.
At last, the king said, “We give you leave to rise, and to sit at our table.”
“Thank you, your Majesty. Powers above bless you and keep you, your Majesty.” Rathar sat at the foot of the long table, Swemmel at the head. The king had a long, pale face, made longer by a receding hairline. His hair, going gray now, had begun dark; his eyes, of course, still were. Save for that, he looked more like an Algarvian than one of his own people.
But he was an Unkerlanter through and through. “Bring in the spirits!” he shouted to a servitor. Rathar had seen the man before, in bodyguatd’s uniform rather than waiter’s. Once Swemmel andMarshalRathar were served, the king raised his glass. “Death to Algarve!” he cried, and gulped down the potent stuff as if it were water.
“Death to Algarve,” Rathar echoed-KingSwemmelhad chosen a toast he liked. He, too, had to empty his glass, and he did, though his gullet felt as if he’d swallowed a dragon while it was flaming. Impassively, the servitor poured both glasses full again.
“Death to traitors!” Swemmel shouted, and drained the second glass.
“Death to traitors!” Rathar agreed, and matched him. The dining room began to spin a little. When in command out in the field, Rathar couldn’t afford to drink like an Unkerlanter peasant holed up in his hut for the winter. But, when summoned before his sovereign, he couldn’t afford not to drink a toast against traitors-forKingSwemmel saw traitors everywhere, and would surely see one in a marshal’s uniform if he refused to condemn them.
As if to prove that very point, Swemmel muttered, “We are surrounded by traitors. Traitors everywhere.” Two big glasses of potent spirits had put a hectic flush in his cheeks, but his eyes were wild and staring. “Everywhere,” he repeated. To Rathar’s relief, the king was looking up at the ceiling, not right at him.
Bowing his own head, the marshal said, “Thank you, your Majesty, for doing me the honor of inviting me here.”
“Oh, aye,” Swemmel said carelessly. He gestured to the servitor, who filled the glasses yet again. Rathar wondered what outrages the king might commit while drunk, and also whether he himself would be fit for duty in the morning. If an Algarvian mage were somehow keeping track of Swemmel’s drinking bouts… Rathar shook his head. Mezentio’s men could have worked far worse outrages than they had if that were so. The king, meanwhile, leaned toward the servitor and commanded, “Bring on the supper.”
“Aye, your Majesty,” the fellow replied, and went off to the kitchens.
Now KingSwemmel did turn his bloodshot gaze full onMarshalRathar. “Tomorrow or the next day, we shall have somewhat to say to the ministers from Lagoas and Kuusamo. They claim they are Algarve’s foes, but leave to our kingdom the burden of fighting and dying.”
“Theyhave taken Sibiu back from the redheads,” Rathar said, “and their dragons visit Algarve’s towns by day and night.”
Swemmel snapped his fingers. “This for the islands of Sibiu!” He snapped them again. “And this for dragonfliers! If our so-called allies would reckon themselves men before their mothers, let them come forth to fight on the mainland of Derlavai. ‘Soon,’ they say. ‘Before long,’ they say.” He made his voice a piping, mocking falsetto to show what he thought of that.
“Well, all right, then, your Majesty,” Rathar said. KingSwemmel had a point. Had the Algarvians not chosen to grapple with Unkerlant to the death, they could have worked far more mischief in the east than they had. WereKingVitor of Lagoas and Kuusamo’s Seven Princes grateful for the burden Unkerlant had so unwillingly assumed? So far as Rathar could see, only in the sense of being glad they hadn’t had to shoulder it themselves.
The servitor came back from the kitchen with a large iron pot, the lid still on. He had cloths wrapped around the handles so he wouldn’t burn his fingers. Setting the pot down on a trivet in the middle of the table, he bowed to the king. “Supper, your Majesty,” he announced unnecessarily.
Or perhaps not so unnecessarily; Swemmel started as if he’d forgotten all about food. Once reminded, he nodded and said, “As a mark of our favor, you may serveMarshalRathar first.”
“As you say, Your Majesty.” The servitor took the lid off the pot. A great cloud of savory steam rose from it.
“You do me too much honor, your Majesty,” Rathar said, and not for politeness’ sake alone. When the king sobered up tomorrow, would he remember what he’d done, remember and regret it? He might. If I let Rathar eat before I did, he might think, my cursed marshal might decide he deserves first place in the kingdom all the time. Other men, famous in their day, had vanished when such thoughts occurred toKingSwemmel.
But Swemmel seemed unconcerned now. As the servitor spooned meat from the pot, the king said, “We give you what you have earned, Marshal.”
When the first whiff of that savory steam reached Rathar’s redoubtable nose, he recoiled in something worse than mere horror. When Raniero went into the stewpot in Herborn, Rathar had smelled this precise odor of cooked flesh. He was sure of it. Swemmel wouldn’t, couldn’t, serve him… The servitor set the plate in front of him. Just as he was about to push it away and flee the table, heedless of what the king might think, the man murmured, “I hope the stewed pork pleases you, lord Marshal.”
“Stewed… pork,” Rathar said slowly. He looked down the length of the table to his sovereign.
Swemmel rarely laughed. He was laughing now, laughing till tears gleamed in his eyes and slid down his hollow cheeks. “Well, Marshal?” he said, dabbing at his face with a snowy linen napkin. “Well? Did you think we were serving you up a ragout of boiled traitor?” More laughter shook him. It hit him hard, as spirits smote a man who seldom drank.
“Your Majesty, I must say it crossed my mind,” Rathar replied. Most courtiers would have denied the very idea. Rather had found the king could- sometimes-take more truth than most people thought.
Swemmel shook his head. “It may be that we shall eat of Mezentio’s roasted heart, but we would not share that dish with any subject. It isours.’“ Was he still joking? Or did he mean every word of it? For the life of him, Rathar couldn’t tell. Swemmel wagged a forefinger at him. “Before that day comes, though, we needs must drive the redheaded robbers from all our land, not merely from the south. How do you propose doing what we require?”
Rathar sighed with relief at dealing with a purely military matter. “I have some thoughts along those lines, Your Majesty,” he replied, and took a bit of pork. He hoped it was pork, anyhow.
At the isolated hostel in the rustic Naantali district of southeastern Kuusamo, Fernao felt like a pine in a forest of poplars. He was the only Lagoan mage- the only Lagoan at all-there. The rest of the theoretical sorcerers, all the secondary sorcerers, and all the servitors were Kuusamans: short, golden-skinned, black-haired, flat-featured, slant-eyed. As a tall, fair, straight-nosed, ponytailed redhead, he could hardly have stood out more.
No, that isn ‘t quite true, he thought, and nodded to himself. My eyes are set on a slant, too, even if they’re green, not black. Lagoans were of mostly Algarvic stock, descendants of the invaders who’d settled in the northwest of the large island off the Derlavaian mainland after the Kaunian Empire collapsed. But they’d intermarried with the folk they found there, and a fair-sized minority showed some Kuusaman features. Similarly, some few who lived under the Seven Princes, especially in lands near the Lagoan border, had the inches or the nose or the bright hair that spoke of foreign stock grafted onto the roots of their family tree.
Fernao waved to one of the serving women in the refectory. She came over to him and asked, “What is it you want?”
She spoke Kuusaman. Fernao answered in the same tongue: “An omelette of smoked salmon and eggs and cheese, and bread and honey, and a mug of tea, Linna.” When he first came to Kuusamo, he’d known not a word of the local language. But he’d always had a good ear, and now he was getting close to fluent.
Linna nodded. “Aye, sir mage,” she said. “I’ll bring them to you as soon as they’re done.” She hurried off toward the kitchens.
“Thank you,” Fernao called after her.
A hand fell on his shoulder. He looked up in surprise. “What are you thanking her for?” Ilmarinen demanded in coldly precise classical Kaunian.
“My breakfast,” Fernao answered, also in the international language of magecraft and other scholarship.
“Is that all?” Ilmarinen said suspiciously. By his wrinkles and white, wispy little chin beard, the Kuusaman master mage carried twice Fernao’s years, but he sounded like an angry young buck. He’d been chasing Linna ever since this hostel in the wilderness went up, and he’d been annoying doing it. Not long before, she’d finally let him catch her. He’d been much more annoying since.
With what patience Fernao could muster, he nodded. “As sure as I am of my own name. If you care to, you may sit down beside me and watch me eat it. And if you care to”-he paused, as if about to make a radical suggestion- “you may even get one for yourself.”
“I think I’ll do just that,” Ilmarinen said, and slid into a chair.
“How are you this morning?” Fernao asked.
“Why, my usual sweet, charming self, of course,” the older mage replied. Like most educated folk, Fernao had no trouble using classical Kaunian to communicate-at first, he’d used it all the time after coming to Kuusamo, since it was the only tongue he’d had in common with the locals. But, again like most educated folk, he spoke it with a certain stiffness. Not so Ilmarinen. He was so fluent in the ancient language, it might almost have been his birth-speech.
Fernao eyed him. “I must say, you did not seem particularly sweet and charming.” Ilmarinen reveled in irony and crosstalk, but he hadn’t seemed ironic, either. What he’d seemed like was a jealous lover of the most foolish and irksome sort.
Perhaps he even knew as much, for the smile he gave Fernao was more sheepish than otherwise. “But did I seem my usual self?” he asked.
“If you mean your usual self lately, aye,” Fernao answered, not intending it as a compliment.
Before Ilmarinen could say anything, Linna came out again. She waved to the master mage, then walked over and ruffled his hair. Ilmarinen beamed. As long as she was happy with him, all seemed right with his world. Fernao wondered what would happen if-no, when-she tired of him. For the sake of the work on which so many mages were engaged, he hoped he wouldn’t have to find out any time soon.
Ilmarinen asked for smoked salmon, too, and sliced onions to go with it. Linna’s nose wrinkled. “Poo!” she said. “See if I kiss you.”
Ilmarinen looked devastated-but not so devastated as to change his order. Fernao took that for a good sign. Sniffing, Linna headed back to the kitchens.
And then Fernao stopped worrying about Ilmarinen’s infatuation, for Pekka walked into the refectory and he had to start worrying about his own. Like most Lagoan men, he’d always reckoned Kuusaman women on the small and scrawny side. By Lagoan standards, Pekkawas on the small and scrawny side. Somehow, that mattered very little once Fernao had come to know her.
She sat down at the table with him and Ilmarinen. “I hope the two of you were talking about our next experiment,” she said in classical Kaunian.
Since she was not only a woman in whom he was interested but also the theoretical sorcerer heading the project for which he’d come to Kuusamo, Fernao didn’t want to lie to her. On the other hand, the prospect of telling her the truth didn’t fill him with delight, either. It didn’t bother Ilmarinen one bit. “Well, now that you mention it, no,” he said breezily.
Pekka gave him a severe look. It rolled off him the way water rolled off greasy wool. She said, “Whatwere you talking about?”
“Oh, I just wanted to let this Lagoan lecher know that, if I ever caught him sniffing around my Linna, I’d cut out his liver and eat it without salt,” Ilmarinen replied.
He was on the small and scrawny side, too, to say nothing of being an old man. That didn’t keep a small twinge of icy dread, like a detached bit of the savage winter outside, from sliding up Fernao’s back. However small and scrawny and old Ilmarinen was, he was also, with Master Siuntio dead at Algarvian hands, the leading theoretical sorcerer of his generation, and a formidable practical mage as well. He wouldn’t have to use a knife to make unfortunate things happen to Fernao’s liver.
Fernao said, “For about the fourth time, I was not sniffing around her.”
When he brought out a phrase like that in classical Kaunian, he sounded both pompous and preposterous. Ilmarinen, now, Ilmarinen sounded menacing.
Pekka snorted. “I have never seen Fernao behave at all strangely around Linna,” she said, “which is rather more than I can say for certain other people of my acquaintance.” Linna came back with Fernao’s omelette and Ilmarinen’s smoked salmon and onions before the elderly theoretical sorcerer could make any more snide comments. He might well not have let that stop him; the serving girl didn’t speak much classical Kaunian, and couldn’t have followed whatever he said. But Pekka asked her for a plate of bacon and eggs and sent her off again.
Ilmarinen let out a cackle, the laugh of an old man who made trouble and had fun doing it. “Which women have you seen Fernao behaving strangely around, then?” he asked, and cackled again.
Without the least hesitation, Fernao kicked him in the ankle. And that wasn’t the only small, dull thud from under the table. Pekka must have kicked him from the other side.
“Aii!” Ilmarinen said. That wasn’t a cackle-more like a yelp. “Between the two of you, you can carry me out of here. I don’t think I’ll be able to walk.”
“If you keep on being rude and obnoxious, someone will carry you out, sure enough: someone will carry you out feet first,” Pekka said. Her voice was quite mild. As far as Fernao was concerned, that made her more intimidating, not less.
Ilmarinen attacked his food with single-minded determination. Unlike the other theoretical sorcerers, it wouldn’t talk back-unless the onions did. He left an odorous trail behind as he got up and hurried out of the refectory.
“Both his ankles seem in good working order,” Pekka remarked.
“Aye,” Fernao said, and then, “Maybe I should have kicked him harder.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Pekka said. “Hewill be difficult just for the sake of being difficult.” Linna brought her the bacon and eggs; she dropped back into Kuusaman to say, “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” the serving girl answered. She picked up Ilmarinen’s plate. “He got out of here in a hurry, didn’t he? Did you scare him away?”
Fernao understood every word of that, where he wouldn’t have understood any of it when new to the land of the Seven Princes. He spoke in Kuusaman, too: “We did our best.” That made Linna laugh as she went off, though he hadn’t been joking.
Pekka also stuck to her own language, saying, “You’re getting quite fluent. The only time we really need to use classical Kaunian these days is when we talk about the fine points of sorcery.”
“Thank you.” Fernao kept on using Kuusaman, not least because he plainly pleased Pekka by doing so. “You probably praise me too much, but thank you.”
“Not at all,” Pekka said seriously, which made Fernao glad he’d always had a good ear for languages. Then she dug into her breakfast, pausing only to tell him, “You should eat.” She might have been speaking to a little boy, not to a fellow theoretical sorcerer.
She has a little boy, Fernao reminded himself; Pekka would sometimes talk about Uto. She has a husband, too, a mage in his own right. When Fernao was newly come to Kuusamo, Pekka had talked a lot about Leino, too. She didn’t do that so much now. Fernao wondered why. Part of him hoped he knew the answer.
“Eat,” Pekka said again, this time in peremptory tones. Aye, she might have been talking to her son.
“I’m sorry,” Fernao answered, as contritely as if he were a boy. “I’m- how do you say, going slowly without any particular reason?” He used classical Kaunian where he lacked the Kuusaman word.
Pekka supplied it: “Dawdling.” She took a big bite of bacon. “Don’t dawdle. We have no time for it. There’s no excuse for it. If we don’t get to the bottom of this sorcery, if we don’t get to the point where we can use it against the Algarvians, we’ll be in a world of trouble no matter how the Derlavaian War ends up. Am I right or am I wrong?”
“Oh, you’re right. Without a doubt, you’re right.” Fernao dutifully attacked his omelette. After a bit, though, he said, “It’s only that…” When he paused again, it wasn’t because he’d run out of words in Kuusaman.
“Only that what?” Pekka asked sharply. Fernao didn’t answer. He looked down at his plate, then glanced back up to her. Despite her golden skin, she’d flushed. “Never mind,” she said, and rose, and hurried away.
It’s only that, if I dawdle, I can sit here and be with you. He would have said that, or something like it. She had to understand it even if he hadn’t said it. And it had to be on her mind, too, or she would have joked about it.
Fernao sighed. He finished breakfast, then got to his feet and reached for his cane. He couldn’t hurry away, not after a bursting egg almost killed him and did ruin his leg down in the land of the Ice People. And he and Pekka had to go on working side by side as if they felt nothing toward each other but professional respect. He sighed again. It wasn’t easy, and got harder all the time.