Ten

Now that so many practical mages came to the wilds of the Naantali district to train, more copies of Kuusaman news sheets also arrived. When Pekka walked into the refectory of a morning, she found Fernao working his way through one. “You’re reading it without a lexicon,” she said, and softly clapped her hands together to applaud him.

“I’ve always been good at languages,” he replied. “Where is this place called Kihlanki? Somewhere in your east, isn’t it?”

“As far east as you can go and stay in Kuusamo,” Pekka said as she sat down beside him. She wasn’t so nervous about being with him as she had been after they ended up in bed, though she did sometimes wonder whether that lack of nerves was a good sign or not. “Why?”

He waved the news sheet. “Because unless I’m reading this wrong, it says that your navy has gone and launched a big fleet into the Bothnian Ocean from there, bound for the islands Gyongyos still holds.”

“Let me see,” Pekka said. Fernao handed her the sheet. Their fingers brushed for a moment. Fernao noticed it; his breath caught. Pekka noticed it, too, and did her best to pretend she hadn’t. She quickly read through the article Fernao had been talking about. “You read it rightly. That’s what it says.”

“If any Lagoan news sheet published a story like that, KingVitor ’s men would close it down the next day-maybe the same day,” Fernao said. “It tells the enemy what you’re going to do.”

Pekka shrugged. “We don’t like to close down news sheets unless we have a truly important reason. I’ve seen things like that before. We would rather be open and tell ourselves the truth than have someone say we may not.”

“Even if it hurts your kingdom?” Fernao asked.

“Even if it hurts some in the short run,” Pekka said. “In the long run, we think it’s better.”

Fernao scratched his head. “You Kuusamans are peculiar people.” He smiled a lopsided-and oddly attractive-smile. “Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of you.” He set his hand on hers.

Something close to panic swept over her, as if he’d made much more overt, much cruder advances. What caused part of the panic was that alarm wasn’t the only reason her heart beat faster. Even so, she took her hand away. “That’s over,” she said. “It has to be over.”

“Why?” he asked, in much the same tones her son Uto might have used with an endless series ofWhy? s when he was four years old.

She felt like answering, Because, which had the virtue of stopping that whole ley-line caravan of questions. In fact she did say, “Because,” but went on, “I have a family, and I want to go on having a family. Once”-she shrugged-”anything can happen once. If something like that happened again and again, though, what would I have to go home to?”

“Me,” Fernao answered.

He meant it. She could see as much. That made it worse, not better. “It’s impossible,” she said. “It has to be.” She grimaced; that left her open to another, Why?

Instead of using it, Fernao just shook his head. “It doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “You’ve decided you want it to be that way, which isn’t the same thing at all. If you think I’m going to quit trying to get you to change your mind, you’re wrong.”

He told her that in fluent, idiomatic Kuusaman. A few months before, he would have had to use classical Kaunian to get his meaning across. Pekka wished he still did; that would have accented the differences between them. She said, “If you go on this way now, you’ll make me angry. That won’t do you any good.”

Fernao studied her face, plainly trying to decide if she meant it. She did her best to look stern, partly to convince him, partly to convince herself. Most of her recognized the need for that. Part of her, though, kept saying things like, Of course you can enjoy yourself here, and then break it off when the war’s over or when Leino comes home or when you and Fernao get assigned to two different places.

A serving woman came up and asked her what she wanted. She ordered smoked salmon and eggs, glad for the distraction. How am I going to make Fernao believe I don’t want to go to bed with him again when I have trouble making myself believe it? she wondered. She called after the serving woman: “Oh, and a pot of tea, too.” The woman nodded. Pekka hoped the tea would help her think straight. She hoped something would.

By Fernao’s expression, he knew she was fighting a war with herself. He wasn’t of two minds; he knew exactly what he wanted. In a way, that was flattering. In another way, it just made life more difficult.

Before Fernao could find anything to say, a serving girl came up to the table they were sharing. “MistressPekka?” she asked.

“Aye?” Lost in her own thoughts, Pekka needed a moment to realize it wasn’t the woman who’d taken her breakfast order. “What is it, Linna?” she asked. She needed another moment to realize that, whatever it was, it wasn’t good. Linna was pale and biting her lip. “What’s wrong?”

Fernao was a jump ahead of her: “Is it something to do with Ilmarinen?”

Looking paler than ever, Linna nodded. “Is he-?” Pekka broke off the question without finishing it. Ilmarinen wasn’t a young man, and Linna was a young, pretty woman. If he’d tried to do something too strenuous, he might have died happy, but that could only be horror for the person in whose company he was at the time.

But Linna said, “I don’t know where he is. I went to his chamber this morning, and I found two envelopes. This one was addressed to me.” She pulled out an envelope and took a note from it. “It says, ‘If I come back, we’ll celebrate. If I don’t, there’s a little something in my will to remember me by. Have fun with it. I had fun with you.’ “ She folded the leaf of paper, and then produced another envelope. “This one has your name on it, MistressPekka.”

“So it does.” Pekka took the envelope with a certain reluctance. She glanced over at Fernao. “Do I want to find out what’s in it?”

“I think you’d better.” He was all business now, not mooning over her at all.

Pekka sighed. “I think I’d better, too. But do I want to?” She opened the envelope and pulled out the leaf of paper inside. Fernao and Linna both bent toward her to see what Ilmarinen had written. I still think I’m right, the note said, and I think I can prove it. I’m going to try, anyhow. The rest of the page was covered with closely written calculations.

“Right about what?” Linna asked. “What’s he talking about?”

Of course the calculations made no sense to her. Pekka said, “I’m not quite sure myself. I’ll have to look at this. Thank you for bringing it to me. It’s something I need to see.”And something you don’t, she added by implication.

Linna took the hint. “All right,” she said. “Please let me know what you find out, though. I’m worried about him.” She went off, looking back over her shoulder.

When the other serving woman brought breakfast a moment later, Pekka hardly noticed. She and Fernao had their heads together, both of them bent over the note Linna had brought. Their index fingers traced Ilmarinen’s calculations line by line. Pekka’s finger moved a little faster than Fernao’s. When she got to the bottom of the paper, she exclaimed, “He can’t do that!”

Fernao grunted. He didn’t say anything till he’d got to the bottom, too. Then he replied, “No, but he thinks he can. He may even be right, but I don’t think so.” He switched to classical Kaunian for precision’s sake: “See this indeterminacy two-thirds of the way down?” He pointed. “He treats it as if its value were defined, but it is not. If he acts on that basis, I believe the spell will fail.”

Pekka studied. She nodded. “Thank you,” she said. “I missed that when I hurried through. I think you’re right. I’m not sure, but I think so. But if the spell does fail, how will it fail?”

Some spells that didn’t work just didn’t work: the world went on as if nothing had happened. Others… Fernao summed up the others in one classical Kaunian word: “Energetically.”

She feared he was right. They both got to their feet. “Your breakfast, MistressPekka!” the serving woman said. Pekka ignored her, but hurried out of the refectory, out of the hostel, with Fernao. He limped and leaned on his stick, but still moved fast enough to suit her.

When they went to the stable for a carriage, they discovered one was already gone. “Are you heading out to the blockhouse withMasterIlmarinen?” their driver asked. “He left a while ago.”

“Did he?” Pekka said tonelessly. “Well, then, maybe you’d better hurry, hadn’t you?” The fellow barely had time to nod before she scrambled into the passenger compartment with Fernao. She looked at the Lagoan mage. “If it does fail energetically, it occurs to me that we might get there just in time to be caught in the energy release.”

“Aye, that occurred to me, too,” Fernao agreed. “We have to try, though, don’t we?” He waited for her to nod, then went on, “There’s a worse possibility, too, you know: he might succeed.”

“In going back through time? In changing things?” Pekka shook her head. “I don’t believe that. Powers above, I don’t want to believe it. And if he does it no matter what I believe…” She shuddered.

Fernao took her hand. She let him; she was glad of the contact. “If he can meddle, others will be able to do it, too,” he said. “And we won’t have a past to call our own anymore.”

Pekka leaned out the carriage. “Faster!” she told the driver. Obligingly, he got the horses up to a trot.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Fernao said. “If we’re late-”

“We have to try,” Pekka said, though every instinct in her shouted for turning around and going the other way. If Ilmarinen failed… energetically, Leino would lose his wife and Uto would grow up not remembering much of his mother. Pekka clutched at Fernao’s hand. Suddenly, absurdly, she wanted him very much. No chance of that, not now. Iknow I might die at any moment. That’s what it is.

The carriage stopped. Pekka and Fernao piled out. She ran for the blockhouse. He followed at the best pace he could manage. In spite of the stick, his long legs made him not much slower than she.

When Pekka threw open the door, her worst fear was finding the place empty. That would mean Ilmarinen had done what he’d set out to do, and that would mean disaster. But there stood the elderly mage, still incanting. “Stop!” Pekka shouted. He hadn’t come to the indeterminacy, but he couldn’t be far away.

He smiled and shook his head and kept on with what he was doing. Fernao wasted no time talking. He simply tackled Ilmarinen and knocked him down. Ilmarinen shouted in fury, but Fernao, bad leg and all, was much bigger and younger and stronger than he. Pekka quickly chanted a counterspell to neutralize the sorcerous potential Ilmarinen’s magecraft had built up.

“You idiots!” Ilmarinen cried, and then several choicer epithets.

“No,” Fernao and Pekka said together. She went on, “Your calculations have an error in them. Fernao found it, and I’m sure he’s right.” Ilmarinen kept right on cursing. Pekka didn’t care. She still had a future-and the world, despite Ilmarinen’s best efforts, still had a past.

KingDonalituof Jelgava paced alongHabakkuk’s icy deck once more. Leino made a wish. Wishes had very little to do with magecraft; the Kuusaman sorcerer knew as much. He made this one anyhow.

And, whether by the powers above or just dumb luck, it came true. As Donalitu was pompously declaiming, “And so we approach once more the land from which I was unjustly driven almost four long years ago-” his feet went out from under him and he landed, hard, on the royal backside.

Leino had all he could do not to clap his hands in glee, as Uto would have done. Like everyone else aboardHabakkuk, Donalitu wore shoes with cleats or spikes to keep such mishaps from occurring. Maybe he hadn’t paid attention when people had explained how to walk in them. He didn’t seem much in the habit of paying attention to anything.

Beside Leino, Xavega did clap her hands. But even she tried to pretend she hadn’t done it afterwards. She grinned at Leino. He smiled back. If it hadn’t been for Donalitu, they never would have ended up in bed together. If it hadn’t been for Donalitu, she still would have looked down her nose at him-not hard, when she was taller than he was.

He wasn’t about to arrange a dissolution from Pekka to spend the rest of his days with Xavega. She remained bad-tempered, arrogant, difficult, prejudiced. He could see all that clearly enough. But when she stripped off her clothes and lay down beside him, there was never a dull moment. He hadn’t been sleeping well aboardHabakkuk. He did now.

Assisted byCaptainBrunho, Donalitu got to his feet and managed to stay upright. He started to go on with his remarks, but didn’t get the chance. One after another, screeching with fury, dragons flapped their way into the air and flew off toward the west. Not even a king so manifestly foolish as Donalitu was foolish enough to try to outshout a dragon.

Leino looked around and then back over his shoulder. Every ley line leading west toward the Jelgavan mainland was full of ships. Some of them flew Lagoas’ crimson and gold banners. Quite a few more, though, showed the sky blue and sea green of Kuusamo. Xavega might not think much of either his homeland or his countrymen, but Kuusamo was stronger than her kingdom.

Since she thought well enough of him to open her legs, her other opinions distressed him less than they had. He knew that was wrong, but had trouble doing anything about it.

He didn’t want to think about her other opinions just now, anyway. He said, “I hope the ruse worked. When the fleet sailed from Kihlanki, we made it very plain we were sailing against Gyongyos-so plain, the Algarvians couldn’t help but find out about it. All the ships flew Kuusaman flags then, till we were out of sight of land.”

“Everything seems fine so far,” Xavega said. “We are close enough to the Jelgavan coast to send out our dragons, and the Algarvians have not troubled us with dragons of their own, or with ships of their own, or with leviathans. It looks as if our surprise is complete.”

“It will not stay complete for long,” Leino said. “Having dragons drop eggs on you and flame your soldiers will probably draw your notice.”

“Aye, I suppose so,” Xavega said. Leino hid a sigh. He’d tried to be playful with his classical Kaunian-the only language they had in common, since he’d never needed to learn Lagoan and Xavega showed less than no interest in everything Kuusaman except him. Had she even noticed? He shook his head. She hadn’t.

So what are you doing with her? he wondered. But the answer to that was as obvious as it was trite: I’m screwing her till we annoy the people in the cubicles on either side of ours. He’d been surprised at how much a man in his mid-thirties could do-pleasantly surprised. Very pleasantly.

“We have to smash them,” Xavega said. “If we do not smash them, the landing on the Jelgavan coast will fail. And it must not fail.”

“It had better not, anyhow,” Leino agreed. “And so the war comes back to eastern Derlavai. I wonder if the Jelgavans will thank us for it.”

“Of course not,” Xavega said-she was no more fond of Jelgavans as a people than of Kuusamans as a people. But then she asked a perfectly reasonable question: “DoesKingDonalitu seem grateful?”

“No. As far asKingDonalitu is concerned, he is doing us a favor by allowing us to convey him back to Jelgava onHabakkuk?

That made Xavega laugh, though Leino hadn’t been joking. He looked toward the west. More dragons were flying in that direction, not only fromHabakkuk but also from other ice-ships in her class and from the smaller, more conventional (which, to his way of thinking, also meant old-fashioned) dragon-haulers Kuusamo had devised to fight the war against Gyongyos in the wide reaches of the Bothnian Ocean. Again, some of the dragons were painted red and gold, but more were Kuusamo’s sky blue and sea green.

Along with the ships that carried dragons were a great many more that bore soldiers, and others with behemoths and horses and unicorns and egg-tossers and all the other supplies an army needed to fight on land these days. Xavega said, “This is a far mightier armada than the one the Algarvians used to take Sibiu.”

“So it is,” Leino said. “But the Algarvians were sneaky in a different way, for their ships did not use the ley lines at all: they were just sailing ships, like those of ancient days. They got into the Sibian ports before the defenders even realized they were there.”

Xavega cared nothing for such details. “This fleet is mightier,” she said again, which was indeed true. “Lagoas is mightier than Algarve.” Taken by itself, that struck Leino as much less obviously true.

Coughing a couple of times, he said, “Kuusamo has also had a certain amount to do with this fleet”-that certain amount being about two parts in three.

“Well, aye, a certain amount,” Xavega allowed reluctantly. By her tone, that certain amount might have been about one part in ten.

A shout rose fromHabakkuk\ tall watchtower: “Land ho!” Down on the deck, Leino couldn’t see the Derlavaian mainland, not yet. Before long, though, he would. Habakkuk and the other dragon-haulers would want to stay as close to the mainland as they could, to let the beasts aboard them fly as far into Jelgava as they could. Before too long, the Kuusaman and Lagoan dragons would fly from farms on Jelgavan soil, but Kuusaman and Lagoan footsoldiers would first have to take that soil away from the Algarvians.

Xavega said, “Still no trouble fromKingMezentio ’s men. They are all looking across the Strait of Valmiera, thinking we would try to strike against them there. But we fooled them by sailing out of that eastern port.” She didn’t remember the name.

Leino nodded. “We seem to have fooled them. The better our job of that, the smaller the price we shall have to pay.” He pointed. “Look-some of the ships are sending their landing boats toward the shore.”

Sure enough, men were scrambling down nets and rope ladders from the ley-line transports to the smaller craft that would take them up onto the beaches of southeastern Jelgava. Because a good many ley lines ran toward those beaches, the smaller craft also had sorcerers aboard to take advantage of the world’s energy grid. In earlier invasions by sea, some Kuusamans had had to try to reach Gyongyosian-held islands from their transports in rowboats and little sailboats. Logistics here had improved.

“They are not going to be able to make behemoths, or even unicorns, climb down ladders,” Xavega said. “How do they propose to get them into the battle?”

“I do not know,” Leino answered with a shrug. “I have not tried to find out, either, I must admit. KeepingHabakkuk going has been plenty to occupy me for now. If I thought they did not have a way, I would worry. But I expect they do. If I transfer to the land campaign, I suppose I will have to worry about that kind of thing.”

He looked west again. Now he could see the mainland of Jelgava. He’d been here on holiday with Pekka, but that was at the resorts of the far north. Whatever this was, a holiday it was not. I hope it’s not a holiday for the Algarvians, either. It had better not be, or we’re all in trouble.

He didn’t just see the mainland. He saw smoke rising from whatever Algarvian fortresses or barracks or other installations the dragons could find. And he also saw fountains of water rising from the sea not far in front of the foremost ships of the invasion fleet. He cursed softly in Kuusaman: cursing in classical Kaunian never satisfied him. The dragons haven’t wrecked all their egg-tossers. Too bad.

An egg landed on one of the small craft taking soldiers toward the shore. After Leino blinked away the flash of light from the burst of sorcerous energy, he stared at the spot, hoping to spy survivors clinging to bits of wreckage. But he saw only empty sea there, empty sea and other landing boats hurrying toward the shore.

Xavega had chanced to be looking in the same direction. “Brave men,” she said quietly.

“Aye.” But Leino wondered. Then he shrugged. Whether they’d been brave or terrified, what difference did it make? The egg hadn’t cared. And what they were now, irretrievably, was sunk. A moment later, another egg struck a boat. That vessel too, vanished as if it had never been.

And, a moment later, alarm bells aboardHabakkuk clanged. A dowser shouted, “Enemy dragons!” and pointed toward the west.

For a long moment, Leino didn’t spot them: he was looking high in the sky, where the Lagoan and Kuusaman beasts had flown. When his gaze fell closer to the sea, he spied the dragons-two of them, a leader and his wingman-driving straight toward the fleet just above the wavetops. Each of them flamed a light craft full of soldiers. Then they pressed on toward the bigger ships of the fleet itself.

Every heavy stick aboard those bigger ships started blazing at the Algarvian dragonfliers. None struck home, though. The dragons flamed a few men on the deck of a ley-line cruiser not far fromHabakkuk. That done, they dodged their way back toward the Jelgavan mainland.

“I hope they get home safe,” Xavega said. “I do not care if they are the foe. They have great courage.”

Algarvic peoples-Lagoans as well as Algarvians-were prone to such chivalrous notions. Leino didn’t argue with Xavega, but he didn’t agree with her, either. As far as he was concerned, a particularly brave enemy was an enemy who particularly needed killing.

The Algarvian dragons did escape the massed blazing power of the whole allied fleet. But they were the only two enemy dragons Leino saw that whole day long. And, even as they escaped, the first small craft let their soldiers out on the beaches of Jelgava. Now the Algarvians had a new fight on their hands.

Talsu was discovering that life in a tent was less different from life in his home than he’d expected. He was warm enough. He had a roof over his head. True, it was a cloth roof, but with spring edging toward summer that mattered very little in Skrunda. If he was still under canvas when rain came with fall and winter, that would be a different story. He’d worry about it then, though-he couldn’t change it now. After the eggs from Kuusaman and Lagoan dragons burned him and his family out of their house, he was glad they were all alive and in one piece.

Worst about sharing the tent on the edge of town-one of many-with his father and mother and sister was that he and Gailisa had so little privacy. His parents were considerate enough to go out walking every now and then, and he and his wife did the same for them (both pairs taking Ausra along as needed), but still…

He also went out walking and into town for other reasons than privacy these days. For most of four years, ever since the Jelgavan army collapsed andKingDonalitu fled to Lagoas, he’d taken Algarvian occupation for granted. It wasn’t that he liked the redheads-he despised them. But he hadn’t seen anything that would get them out of his kingdom. In certain minimal ways- accepting coins withKingMainardo ’s beaky profile on them, in making clothes for Algarvian officers, in not using his every waking moment thinking up ways to dismay or kill them-he’d acquiesced in their presence in Skrunda.

Everything was different now. After days of uneasy silence, Skrunda’s news sheets had to catch up with rumor and admit what could no longer be denied: the islanders had landed on the Derlavaian mainland. They’d landed, in fact, not far from Balvi-the capital of Jelgava lay close to the beaches where they’d come ashore.

After fetching a news sheet back to the tent, Talsu waved it in his father’s face. “Just listen to this.”

“Well, I will, if you ever read it to me,” Traku answered.

“All right.” Talsu stopped waving the sheet and started reading from it: “ ‘King Mainardo, the rightful ruler of the Kingdom of Jelgava, expresses his complete confidence that his forces and those of his valiant Algarvian allies will succeed in repelling the vicious invasion by the air pirates whose raids have already caused the Jelgavan people so much hardship.’ “

“He’d be pissing in his pants if he wore pants instead of Algarvian kilts.” Traku had heard enough news-sheet stories to have little trouble extracting accurate meaning from deliberately inaccurate words. He screwed up his face and made as if to spit. “I’m sure Mainardo loses hours and hours of sleep worrying about the Jelgavan people. Aren’t you?” He spoke in a low voice; canvas walls were thinner than those of brick and wood.

“Aye, worrying about how to do more and worse to us than he has up till now,” Talsu said, also quietly. “But wait-there’s more. ‘Jelgavan forces and their bold Algarvian comrades have inflicted heavy losses on the enemy and are making gains in several areas. Fierce fighting continues all along the line. The invaders’ hopes for a speedy triumph are doomed to disappointment.’ You know what that’s really saying, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.” His father looked irate. “Think I’m stupid or something? It means the redheads tried to boot ‘em back into the ocean and they cursed well couldn’t do it. Or d’you think I’m wrong?”

“Not me.” Talsu shook his head. “That’s what I think it means, too. And here’s the best part of all: ‘An impostor claiming to be the abdicated fugitiveKingDonalitu has been reported to be in the grasp of the invaders. This effort to incite the contented populace of Jelgava will surely meet the failure it deserves.’ “

“So the real king’s back, eh?” Traku said.

“Can’t very well mean anything else, can it?” Talsu returned.

“No.” Traku’s tough, rather battered features wore a thoughtful expression. “Those fellows who were scrawling street signs about the king coming back knew what they were talking about, didn’t they?”

“Seems that way, doesn’t it?” Talsu said. “I wish I knew who in blazes they were. I’d join ‘em in a minute, and you’d best believe that’s true.” There, his voice dropped to a whisper.

And, of course, whether the anti-Algarvian underground would want anything to do with him was a different question. He knew it. He’d gone into a dungeon, and then he’d come out again. The assumption had to be that anybody who came out of a dungeon cooperated with the redheads. And so Talsu had, at least by giving them names. That the names were of people at least as likely to collaborate with them as to struggle against them might not matter. He knew as much, though it pained him. His hand went to the scar on his flank, the scar from an Algarvian soldier’s knife. That had pained him, too, and a great deal more.

Outside, some called in fair but Algarvian-accented Jelgavan: “Is this being where I am finding Traku the tailor?”

“Aye,” Traku and Talsu said together. Talsu didn’t know what was going through his father’s mind. As for him, he quickly had to send his thoughts down different ley lines. The redheads might be in trouble in Jelgava, but they hadn’t been heaved out of Skrunda-and Skrunda, unlike Balvi, lay a long way from the invasion. Here, the Algarvians still ruled the roost. As the redhead-a captain, by his rank badges-ducked into the tent, Talsu cautiously asked, “What can we do for you today, sir?”

“You are still getting cloth? I am needing a new kilt,” the officer answered. His eye fell on the news sheet, which Talsu had set on a blanket. He pointed to it. “You are reading this?” Talsu stood mute. So did his father. Admitting it might land them in trouble. Denying it might be too obvious a lie. The Algarvian’s laugh was bitter. “What are you saying when my back is turning?”

Talsu saw even less way to answer that than the other question, and so he didn’t. Traku must have been thinking along with him, for all he said was, “Aye, I can get cloth-the bank didn’t burn, so I’ve still got some money. What sort of kilt will you need, sir? Lightweight, or something heavier?”Are you staying here, or have they sent you to Unkerlant?

“Lightweight,” the redhead said. “I am to be staying and fighting in Jelgava. I am to be staying until they are capturing me or until they are killing me. The officers over me are so ordering, and I am obeying. And the powers below are eating everything here.”

“Lightweight,” Talsu echoed. He’d borrowed a tape measure from another tailor who remained in his own shop. “If you’ll let me take your measurements…”

The Algarvian laughed. It was not a happy laugh. Talsu had laughed that same kind of laugh sitting around a fire with other soldiers while he was in the army. It said, Here we are, and we may as well laugh, because nothing else is going to help, either. Having laughed, the captain said, “I am seeing your troubles. You are not knowing if I am trying to trap you.”

Again, Talsu stood mute. So did his father. The Algarvian was right, but admitting as much was dangerous. Talsu stepped forward with the tape measure.

“I am telling you this,” the Algarvian said. “You are not having to say anything. Algarve in Jelgava is…” He used a word in his own language. Talsu didn’t know what it meant, but the officer’s gestures were expressive enough for him to get the idea: ruined was the politest term he could think of. Idly, he wondered if Algarvians would be able to talk at all with their hands tied. “How are we fighting here?” the redhead asked. “All our good men, all our good behemoths and dragons-where are they being? Here? No, Unkerlant!” He used that word again, with vast scorn.

“If that’s what you think, why fight?” Talsu asked. “Why not just give up?”

“No, no, no, no.” The Algarvian wagged a forefinger under Talsu’s nose. “No doing that. I am being a soldier. Fighting is what I am doing. And who is knowing?” He shrugged an elaborate Algarvian shrug. “Maybe Kuusamo and Lagoas will be making mistakes. We can be doing that-so can they be doing it. If they are making mistakes, we may be winning yet. And so”- another shrug-”I am fighting still.”

He sounded like a soldier, sure enough. Talsu hadn’t gone into the fight against Algarve with any great hope or expectation of victory, but he’d kept at it till his superiors surrendered. On a personal level, he didn’t suppose he could blame the redhead for doing the same. On a level slightly different from the personal…

Talsu shook his head. If he started thinking that way, he’d stab the officer instead of measuring him for a kilt. Were the fighting right outside of Skrunda, he would have thought about that. As things were, nobody was going to kick the Algarvians out of this part of Jelgava any time soon. And so, with a small sigh, he advanced with the tape measure, not with a knife.

Traku drummed a fingernail on the three-legged stool that was the sole bit of real furniture in the tent. After Talsu finished measuring the Algarvian, his father said, “What with things being the way they are right now”-his wave encompassed the canvas walls and the blankets on bare ground-”I think maybe you’d better pay up front.” He named his price.

The Algarvian raised an eyebrow. Talsu expected him to raise a fuss-Mezentio’s men, to a Jelgavan, were some of the fussiest people ever born. But, instead of turning red and throwing a tantrum, or even haggling, the captain dug into his belt pouch and set silver on the stool. “Here,” he said, and started to walk out. As he reached for the tent flap, he looked back over his shoulder. “Two days’ time?”

“Three,” Talsu said.

“Three,” the redhead agreed. “I am seeing you in three days’ time, then.” He ducked out of the tent and strode away.

Once he was gone, Talsu and his father stared at each other. “Did you hear that?” Talsu breathed. “Did youhear that? By the powers above, there’s a redhead who doesn’t think Algarve can hang on in Jelgava!”

“KingDonalitu’s back,” Traku said. “We’re going to be free again.”

“Aye,” Talsu said, but then, quite suddenly, “No. We’re going to have our own king back again. It’s not exactly the same thing.” His father made a questioning noise. Talsu explained: “When the redheads arrested me and threw me in the dungeon, the fellow who interrogated me wasn’t an Algarvian. He was a Jelgavan, doing the same job for KingMainardo as he’d done forKingDonalitu. And ifKingDonalitu ’s giving orders in Balvi again, what do you want to bet that same son of a whore will go right on doing his job in the dungeon, except with different prisoners?”

Traku grunted. “Gaolers are all bastards, no matter who they work for.”

“Oh, aye.” Talsu nodded. “But you have to be aparticular kind of bastard to do your job without caring who you work for.” He hesitated, then added, “And you have to be a particular kind of bastard to want your dungeons full of people-if you happen to be a king, I mean.”

Traku looked around, as if fearing people were leaning up outside the tent with hands cupped to their ears. Even in the days before the war, such words incautiously spoken could cause a man to disappear for months, for years, sometimes forever. “If it’s a choice between our bastard and the Algarvians’ bastard, I’ll take ours,” he said at last.

“Oh, aye,” Talsu said again, and then sighed. “That’s the choice we’ve got, sure enough. I wish we had another one, but I don’t know what it would be. Most kings are whoresons, nothing else but.”

They got supper that evening from kettles full of slop not much better than he’d eaten in his army days. After they brought their bowls back to the tent, Gailisa said, “Somebody who came into the grocery shop today said that Mainardo was going to run away from Balvi and back to Algarve. That would be wonderful.”

“Even the redheads don’t think they can go on holding our kingdom down,” Traku said, and recounted the Algarvian captain’s words earlier in the day.

Talsu bent down to spit a bit of gristle onto the ground. Then he said, “The redheads may not think they can hold Jelgava, but they’ve got to keep trying.”

“Why?” his wife asked. “Why don’t they just go away and leave us alone?”

“I wish they would,” his sister added.

“So do I, Ausra,” Talsu said. “But if they go away, the Lagoans and Kuusamans-and I suppose our own army, if we have an army again-will follow them right on into Algarve. And so they’ve got to fight here, to hang on to their own kingdom.”

“We’ll just have to help throw them out, then,” Ausra said, not quite so quietly as Talsu would have liked. He didn’t answer that. He’d tried to help throw out the redheads, and what had it got him? Time in the dungeon and an undeserved name as a collaborator. Of course, his timing had been bad.

If I saw the chance, would I fight the Algarvians again? he wondered. He gnawed on another piece of gristly meat. That helped hide the fierce smile on his face. Of course I would. If only I could kill them all.

Ilmarinen looked at Fernao as if he hated him. He probably did. “You miserable pup,” Ilmarinen said. “I was after experimental proof.”

Fernao shrugged. “You wouldn’t have got it. Even you’ve admitted you ignored that indeterminacy. All you would have done was take out a big piece of the landscape, and you have to admit that, too.”

“I don’t have to do any such thing, and I’m not about to, either,” Ilmarinen retorted. “It might have worked fine. We’ll never know now- thanks to you.”

Theycould find out. Ilmarinen could go off and repeat his experiment. Fernao kept his mouth shut. If he suggested any such thing, the Kuusaman mage was altogether too likely to take him up on it. He could think of nothing he wanted less. To keep Ilmarinen from coming up with the same notion, he changed the subject: “Our armies are pushing farther into Jelgava. So far, the Algarvians haven’t started killing people to try to stop them.”

“So far,” Ilmarinen echoed. He leaned across the refectory table. “But I have friends in interesting places. One of them said the redheads-the other redheads, I mean: not your lot-moved a lot of Kaunians from Forthweg down to the edge of the Strait of Valmiera, because they thought the blow would fall there. How long will it take to drag those poor whoresons to Jelgava, or else to start hauling Jelgavans off the street?”

“Not long,” Fernao said.

Ilmarinen grunted. “There-you see? You’re not as foolish as you look. And I was trying to go back and change all that-change everything that’s happened since this war started-and you and Pekka had the nerve to try to stop me? You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” His eyebrow rose. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves for all kinds of reasons, but that’s the one I’ve got in mind right now.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Fernao replied, and Ilmarinen laughed raucously. Ignoring him, the Lagoan mage switched to classical Kaunian: “And suppose-just suppose, mind-that you were right about what you tried to do. Suppose the sorcery does have a true timelike component. I do not think it does, but suppose as much for the sake of argument.”

“I have supposed as much,” Ilmarinen said in the same language. “That is why I tried to do what I did. And if I had succeeded, the world would be a different place, and a better place, right now. Because of Pekka, that wouldn’t make you so happy, I know, but it’s still true.” He spoke the language of scholarship as fluently and idiomatically as he used Kuusaman.

“Different? Aye. Better?” Fernao shrugged. “Perhaps you would have changed things to your heart’s desire. But what would the next person who meddled in the past have done? What about the fellow afterhint! How long before we had no true past at all, only an endless war of changes? If the Kaunian Empire had beaten the Algarvians at the Battle of Gambolo, would it have fallen? If Sibiu had beaten Lagoas in our sea wars two hundred and fifty years ago, the Sibs would have got more from Siaulia and the islands in the Great Northern Sea than they did, and we less. And so on, with every kingdom trying to set its lost cause to rights. Do you see?”

He spoke classical Kaunian like most scholars and mages: well enough, but without real liveliness. But that didn’t matter so much here. All he wanted to do was get his point across. And he did. Ilmarinen didn’t answer right away. “You’ve given this a good deal of thought, haven’t you?” he said at last.

“Aye,” Fernao answered. “Pekka and I had little else to do while going out to the blockhouse but think and worry. The other thing we worried about was how much energy your spell would release if it went wrong.”

“Nothing you could have done about that-except jumping on me and stopping me the way you did, I mean,” Ilmarinen said. He added, “I saw the carriage you came in. You should have spent your time screwing-the driver wouldn’t have known. If you were going to die, at least you would have died happy.”

Fernao got to his feet. “You are impossible,” he said. “Fortunately, the spell you tried is also impossible.” He wanted to warn Ilmarinen not to try it again, but refrained once more. He wished he could have strutted away with his nose in the air. His permanent limp and the stick he used prevented that. He did the best he could, given his physical limitations. It was good enough to make Ilmarinen laugh at his retreating back.

And he got his nose high enough in the air to keep him from paying much attention to where he was going. He almost ran over Pekka before he realized she was there. “What did I do to you?” she asked.

“You?” he replied. “Nothing, sweetheart.” Her expression warned him not to say such things. It always had, ever since he’d fled his own bedchamber after they’d made love. But this time, he was able to go on. “Ilmarinen, on the other hand…”

Pekka’s face cleared. She was always ready to be annoyed at the elderly theoretical sorcerer, even if he was her own countryman. “What now?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing new,” Fernao said. “But he still thinks he’s right in spite of the evidence, and-” He broke off again.

“And what?” Pekka asked. When Fernao didn’t answer right away, she drew her own-accurate-conclusion. “He’s teasing you about what we did, is he?” Fernao nodded. Pekka wagged a finger at him. “You see? Going to bed didn’t stop the gossip. It didn’t slow it down. It didn’t solve anything.”

“But it was wonderful,” Fernao said.

That didn’t solve anything, either; it just brought the annoyed look back to Pekka’s face. “It made things more complicated,” she said. “We don’t need things to be more complicated right now. The most important thing we can do is work on this magecraft. Anything that gets in the way-anything at all-we have to push aside.”

She didn’t deny that they’d had a good time in bed. She’d never denied it. But she did keep on behaving as if it hadn’t happened. That might not have been calculated to drive Fernao out of his mind, but it certainly had that effect.

“What are we going to do?” he said.

“When I get the chance, I’m going back to my husband and my son,” Pekka answered. “As for you, I hope you find a wonderful Lagoan woman-or even a wonderful Kuusaman woman, if you find your tastes running that way.”

“I already have,” Fernao told her.

“One without encumbrances,” Pekka told him. When she saw he didn’t understand the word in Kuusaman, she translated it into classical Kaunian. He could have done without such thoughtfulness. She added, “And I’m not feeling any too wonderful right now, either.”

Fernao looked around. By some accident, nobody was staring at them as they stood just outside the refectory. That wouldn’t last long, though. It couldn’t, by the very nature of things. While he had the chance, Fernao kicked at the boards of the floor-after carefully positioning his stick so he didn’t fall on his face. “What’s the use?” he muttered. “What’s the cursed use?”

“You see?” Pekka set a hand on his arm. It was a sympathetic gesture, not an affectionate one-or not an affectionate one of the sort he craved. “It complicated your life, too, even without encumbrances.” Now she used the Kuusaman word without explanation.

“It wouldn’t have, if…” he said.

“If I’d decided to keep doing what we did once,” Pekka said, and he nodded. She shook her head. “The complications would just have taken longer to get here and been worse when they finally did. I’m sorry, Fernao; by the powers above, I’m very sorry. But I can’t imagine anything that would make me change my mind now.”

“All right,” he said. But it wasn’t all right, nor anywhere close. He limped off toward his room. Pekka didn’t come after him or try to call him back. He hadn’t really expected her to. He’d hoped-but expectation had the encumbrance of truth, while hope lived its own life, wild and free.

Once he got back to his chamber, he wondered why he’d come. All he had here was the chance to be alone with his misery. He sat down on the bed, then wished he hadn’t. Sitting there made him think of those frantic few minutes when he’d got everything he wanted… only to discover that, once he’d got it, he couldn’t keep it. That felt worse than not getting it, for now he could look back on what he’d had, know it was real, and know-or at least be certain enough for all practical purposes-it wouldn’t happen again.

Muttering something pungent under his breath, he got up and left his room. He did, at least, know where he was going: to the crystallomancers’ chamber, where the mages and their crystals kept the hostel in the Naantali district connected to the outside world throughout the year. As spring gave way to summer, getting here was easy enough, but that didn’t hold in fall or early spring or through the seemingly endless winter blizzards.

“I want a crystal for private communication with my Grandmaster,” he told the Kuusaman mage in charge of the chamber.

“Of course,” she said. It hadn’t always beenof course; he’d had to make a nuisance of himself to gain the privilege. Only by pointedly asking whether Lagoas was truly an equal ally to Kuusamo had he prevailed. The chief crystallomancer took him to a crystal in the corner. The couple of Kuusamans closest to that crystal moved away so they couldn’t listen to him. “Here you are,” the chief said. “Do remember that the Algarvians are always trying to spy on our emanations.”

“I will,” Fernao said. Looking discontented, the Kuusaman mage went back to her desk. Fernao murmured the charm that would link this crystal to the one in Grandmaster Pinhiero’s office back in Setubal. As the crystal activated, light flared inside it. A moment later, Pinhiero’s image filled the glass globe.

“Who’s that?” the Grandmaster said, peering into his own crystal. Then he recognized Fernao. “Ah, it’s you. What do you want? What sort of trouble are you in?”

So far as Fernao knew, Pinhiero hadn’t heard about his entanglement with Pekka. Fernao hadn’t told him, anyway, which might not have been the same thing. Pinhiero could learn things from all sorts of unlikely places. Fernao said, “When will the first contingent of Lagoan mages come here for training? We really need our own wizards familiar with the new magecraft now that we’re fighting on the Derlavaian mainland.” Speaking his own tongue with Pinhiero felt odd after using classical Kaunian and Kuusaman for so long.

“They’ll be leaving Setubal day after tomorrow,” Pinhiero said, scratching at one end of his graying, sandy mustache. “The demon of getting them ready, of course, was making sure none of them would start whispering in Mezentio’s ear. Would you believe it, we found one mage the Algarvians planted on us twenty-five years ago? He’d had a past made up that was perfect rill you looked really hard, and he speaks Lagoan better than I do.”

“I’m glad you found him,” Fernao said. “Now-can you find someone to take over for me here? I think I’ve done about as much in Kuusamo as I can do.”

Pinhiero shook his head. “In a word, no. In two words, definitely no. I don’t care if your affair with that Kuusaman mage didn’t work out the way you hoped. This is more important than you, my boy. This is for the Guild and the kingdom. You stay right where you are.”

Fernao scowled. He might have known Pinhiero had a peephole of some sort into the gossip here. “Aye, Grandmaster,” he said, and broke the etheric connection with no more of a good-bye than that.

KingSwemmel glared out of the crystal atMarshalRathar. Rathar stolidly stared back; he much preferred dealing with the King of Unkerlant at a distance to trying to deal with him face-to-face. “We are not amused, and we are not pleased,” Swemmel said in his harsh, high-pitched voice.

“I’m sorry to hear that, your Majesty,” Rathar replied. That, on the whole, was true; when Swemmel felt aggrieved, he was even more hair-raisingly erratic than in his calmer moods.

“They mocked us,” the king snarled. “They mocked us most unforgivably-CountGusmao and in especialLordMoisio. Were they not ministers of kingdoms also at war against Algarve”-he couldn’t bring himself to say, friendly kingdoms -”their heads should answer for it. We do not tolerate insolence.”

Rathar wondered when anyone had last dared be insolent to Swemmel. Not for a good many years; the marshal was sure of that. But the ministers from Lagoas and Kuusamo had the advantage of not being Unkerlanter subjects. Swemmel risked real wrath if he abused them. Of course, even that might not stop him if he reckoned himself provoked enough.

“They have the gall to say, ‘I told you so,’ to us. Tousl” Swemmel snapped, still fuming.

Gusmao and Moisiohad told Swemmel what was going to happen. And they’d told him the truth. He hadn’t seemed much interested in hearing it at the time-he’d actively resisted believing it at the time-but it had turned out to be true. And… “Your Majesty, now that the Lagoans and the Kuusamans finally are on the Derlavaian mainland, that can only help us,” Rathar said. “The redheads can’t concentrate all their strength against Unkerlant alone.”

“That is so.” Swemmel sounded unhappy about admitting even that much. But Rathar had distracted him. “Aye, thatis so. And we shall make the Algarvians pay.” He stabbed a finger out at Rathar; even though it was only an image in the crystal, the marshal had all he could do not to flinch. “Do you suppose that, if they capture the Algarvian pretender in Jelgava, they shall use him as we used the Algarvian pretender in Grelz?”

“I… don’t know, your Majesty.” Rathar tried to imagine the Kuusamans boilingKingMainardo alive. The picture refused to form in his mind. But he couldn’t very well tell his sovereign that.

“Well, never mind.” Swemmel waved a hand. “You carry on with what you have been ordered. And mind you, Marshal-we expect to see results.” His image vanished. The crystal flared, then went back to being an inert glass globe.

As often happened after a conversation with the king, Rathar needed to shake himself to return to the real world. The commandant’s headquarters in Pewsum weren’t so very much, not as the real world went. Rathar got up, stretched, and walked out onto the street. No one followed him. No one dared disturb his privacy. Who would disturb the most powerful man in Unkerlant save Swemmel alone?

After a little while, GeneralGurmun dared. Gurmun, from everything Rathar had seen, had as much daring as any officer needed, and a little more besides. “What news from the king?” he asked.

MarshalRathareyed him. Gurmun also had as much ambition as any officer needed, and a little more besides. One of the posts to which an ambitious Unkerlanter general might aspire was the one Rathar held. Even so, the question was reasonable. Picking his words with care, Rathar replied, “His Majesty is irked at the Kuusaman and Lagoan ministers for not being as polite as they might have when talking about their invasion of Jelgava.”

“He’s got a right to be irked, too, if anybody wants to know what 1 think,” Gurmun answered. “We’ve been carrying the load against Algarve all by ourselves the past three years. And now the islanders are crowing like roosters because they’ve taken on a little? Powers below eat ‘em, I say.”

That held some truth. It certainly matched Swemmel’s view of things. Rathar said, “They haven’t been idle, not altogether.” Gurmun snorted. The marshal went on: “And, as I told his Majesty, the more the redheads have to put into fighting Lagoas and Kuusamo, the less they’ll have left to use against us.”

“Well, that’s true enough.” Gurmun nodded vigorously. “It should have happened last year, or maybe even the year before, but it is true now. We’ll make Mezentio’s men pay, too.”

“I expect we will,” Rathar agreed. “Our edge has always been in manpower and behemoths and dragons. Now it will be a bigger edge, and I intend to take advantage of it.” He pointed toGeneralGurmun. “You’re going to help me do it, too.”

Gurmun showed his teeth in a wolfs smile. “That’s just what I’ve got in mind, lord Marshal. I’m really looking forward to it.”

“We’re all looking forward to it, General,” Rathar replied. “We’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. If all goes well, we get to show the Algarvians what good scholars we’ve been these past three years.”

“Did the king say anything about the timing of what we’ve got laid on?” Gurmun asked.

“Not a word.” More than a little relieved at that, Rathar shook his head. “We’re still two weeks away, more or less. That’s always provided the redheads don’t do something we didn’t expect.”

“They’re not bloody likely to attack us first, not with everything they’ve got on their plate,” Gurmun exclaimed.

“I should hope not.” But then Rathar shook his head again. “No-I should hope so. If they want to waste their substance, they’re welcome to do it as far as I’m concerned. But that isn’t what I meant.”

“What did you mean, then, sir?”GeneralGurmun sounded suspicious. He didn’t care for Rathar’s seeing things he couldn’t.

Here, Rathar wasn’t sure what he was seeing, or whether he was seeing anything at all. He answered, “It’s just that… you never can tell with the redheads. They might pull some new sorcery out from under their kilts, they might not try to stand their ground, they might have ready lines farther east…”

“No sign of it from the dragons,” Gurmun said. “No sign of it from the mages. No real sign they even know what’s building against them here in the north. As far as we can tell, they’re still worried most about the Duchy of Grelz.”

“Aye, as far as we can tell,” Rathar agreed. “I just hope we can tell far enough.” His chuckle held no mirth. Back in the days of the Twinkings War, he’d always had a good notion of what Kyot’s forces were likely to do. Like him, they were Unkerlanters; he’d understood how they thought. “Anybody who’s sure he understands what the Algarvians are up to deserves to get his head handed to him, and he probably will.”

“They aren’t as smart as they think they are, and we aren’t as stupid as they think we are,” Gurmun said. “We’ve used that against them a few times.”

Rathar nodded. Pretending to do something foolish in the hope the Algarvians would pounce on it and thus fall into a later trap theyhadn’t foreseen, had worked well fairly often, in fact. Mezentio’s men were proud of their own cleverness. If they saw the ignorant Unkerlanters acting stupid, they felt duty bound to punish them-and ended up punishing themselves in the process. And, in their arrogance, they had trouble realizing what they’d done wrong.

“Are your behemoths in place?” the marshal asked.

Gurmun’s blunt-featured head bobbed up and down. “I’m right on schedule, lord Marshal. If we weren’t moving only at night, if we weren’t keeping quiet with our crystals, we’d be farther along still. Not being able to send a message ahead to let people prepare for the beasts slows us down.”

“I know,” Rathar said. “But all the emanations we’ve been able to intercept from the redheads show they don’t know what’s coming. That’s just how I want things to stay. The surprise will make up for everything.”

“I hope you’re right, sir.” Gurmun’s eyes flashed. If you’re wrong, KingSwemmel will hear about it. I’ll make sure he hears about it.

Rathar almost let his smile show on his face. One thing he’d seen was that Swemmel didn’t think he aimed at usurpation. He was content to be marshal; the idea of being king horrified him. Did Gurmun feel the same way? Rathar had his doubts. And, if he had doubts, Swemmel surely had deep, dark suspicions. Imay not be so easy to topple as you think, General.

A wagon in no way out of the ordinary pulled up. The driver asked, “Ready to go on up to the front?” Rathar nodded and climbed in, Gurmun right behind him. Lots of wagons went up to the front. Both Rathar and Gurmun wore uniform tunics ordinary but for their rank badges; not even a dragonflier at treetop height would judge them anything but common soldiers. Of course, even common soldiers get attacked, Rathar thought. He shrugged. Life didn’t come without risks. If Gurmun worried, he didn’t show it. Rathar had never had any reason to doubt his courage.

The wagon rattled east out of Pewsum. The trees-the ones still standing after the fighting in winter and spring-were in full leaf. Men and behemoths sheltered under the cover of those leaves. So long as day stayed in the sky, they didn’t move. Men and behemoths sheltered under trees and in barns and huts and under mats that looked like grass for many miles back of the line of battle. When night came, they moved forward from one place of concealment to the next.

“This is all very good,” Rathar said to the colonel commanding a brigade at the front line. “The redheads still don’t seem to realize just how much we’ve built things up here.”

“They will.” Anticipation was naked and hungry inGeneralGurmun ’s voice. “Before very long, by the powers above, we’ll show them.”

Worry in his voice, the colonel said, “The brigade opposite me has a good commander. Spinello, his name is. He’s always active. You never can tell what he’ll do next.”

“Are you worried about a spoiling attack?” Rathar asked.

Gurmun’s laugh was hungry, too. “It’d be a sorry-looking attack after it tried biting down on everything we’ve got in the neighborhood.”

“Oh, we’d beat the bastards back-I’m not worried about that,” the colonel said. “I’m more afraid he’ll try raiding along my front and learn from the captives he takes that we’re a lot stronger than he thinks right now.”

MarshalRatharnodded. That was a sensible worry to have. A lot of Unkerlanter officers wouldn’t have fretted about such things. This fellow was someone to watch. Rathar said, “The best way to keep anything like that from happening is to make sure only the regiments the redheads already know about are in the forwardmost positions. That way, they won’t take captives from any units they’d expect to find somewhere else.”

“Aye, Marshal. I’ll see to it,” the colonel said earnestly.

“Good.” Rathar glanced over to Gurmun, and wasn’t unduly surprised to find Gurmun eyeing him. He spoke one more word: “Soon.” The commander of behemoths nodded.

Muttering under his breath, Hajjaj buttoned his Algarvian-style tunic. Just putting on the garment made sweat pour from him. At this season of the year in Bishah, the sun stood as close to straight overhead as made no difference. He would have been hot nude but for sandals and a hat. Muffled in tunic and kilt, he felt as if he were stifling. “The things I do for Zuwayza,” he said.

Qutuz-who, being but a secretary, could remain comfortably unclothed-came in and announced, “The Algarvian minister is here to see you, your Excellency.”

“Send him in,” Hajjaj answered.

“Shall I bring tea and wine and cakes?” Qutuz asked.

Hajjaj had used his kingdom’s rules of hospitality to delay discussion with Marquis Balastro a good many times. Today, though, he shook his head. “No, by the powers above,” he said. “The sooner I am out of this cloth bake oven, the happier I shall be.”

“As you say.” Qutuz sounded as if he disapproved. Technically speaking, the secretary was right to disapprove. Hajjaj didn’t care about technicalities. As foreign minister, he could ignore them if he so chose-and, every so often, he did so choose. Not quite shaking his head, Qutuz went out to bring the Algarvian minister into Hajjaj’s office.

By the way Marquis Balastro strode in, it might have been three years before. Algarve might have been invincible, unstoppable, leaping from one triumph to another in the east of Derlavai and about to embark on the campaign that would surely bring Unkerlant to heel. Balastro’s stride hadn’t changed in those three years. The world? The world had.

After polite bows and handclasps and professions of mutual esteem, Balastro plopped himself down on the carpet and made himself at home with a mound of cushions. He adapted to Zuwayzi customs more readily than most foreigners. This once, Hajjaj wouldn’t have minded his coming to call without his clothes, even if that meant having to stare at his pale skin and his circumcision.

Balastro was no fool. He noted the absence of the ritual food and drink, and drew the proper conclusion from it: “You must be suffocating in your clothes.”

“I am,” Hajjaj admitted.

“Well, let’s get down to business, then, Your Excellency,” Balastro said. “What’s on your mind?”

“His Majesty, KingShazli, asked me to invite you here to get Algarve’s view of the present situation in light of recent developments,” Hajjaj replied.

The language was fine and diplomatic. Nevertheless, it couldn’t completely hide the real meaning underneath the fine words. The king wants to know just how much trouble you think you’re in.

Balastro understood that, too. His grin also flashed as jauntily as if Algarve remained on top of the world. “We are not beaten,” he said stoutly. “I repeat it: we arenot. We are fighting hard in Jelgava; the enemy has not gone far from the beaches where he landed, and he will have a demon of a time doing it. And in Unkerlant, here it is summer, and still Swemmel’s soldiers stay silent. We have taught them what assailing Algarve costs.”

“Fair enough,” Hajjaj said. It was a more optimistic assessment than he would have made, but Balastro’s job was to be optimistic, and he did it well. Hajjaj’s job was to expose optimism with no visible means of support. He raised an eyebrow. “Suppose you’re wrong, Your Excellency.”

“All right. Suppose I’m wrong.” When Balastro smiled, his teeth seemed much too sharp to belong in his handsome, fleshy face. “In that case, you get to treat with Swemmel of Unkerlant, and I wish you joy of it.”

Hajjaj winced. The Algarvian minister had chosen a good moment to be undiplomatic. Negotiating with Swemmel was the last thing Hajjaj or any other sensible Zuwayzi wanted to do. You will do as I tell you, was the only style of negotiation the King of Unkerlant understood. With a sigh, Hajjaj said, “I shall hope you are right, then.” Hoping and believing were two different things, however much Hajjaj wished them one and inseparable.

This time Balastro’s smile looked less frightening. He said, “Believe me, we are in this fight for as long as it takes.”

“I am glad to hear it,” Hajjaj replied. I hope it’s true. “I do also want to bring to your attention once more the evidence our soldiers and sorcerers have gathered of an Unkerlanter buildup of some size here in the north. Details, I am sure, will have been passed fromGeneralIkhshid ’s office to your soldiers, but I would be remiss if I did not mention it myself.”

“Fair enough.” Balastro sounded almost amiable now-indulgent might have been a better word. “You’ve mentioned it. I’m sure our attache here knows about it, as you say, and he will have passed on to Trapani whatever he thinks important.”

And if he decides it isn‘t important, no one in your capital will hear about it, Hajjaj thought. That was what being the junior partner in an alliance meant. Algarve could make Zuwayza dance to her tune. The reverse did not hold true. Like a child tugging at an adult’s arm, Zuwayza had to work hard to get Algarve to pay attention when she spoke.

Hajjaj did his best to tug: “Ikhshid and his staff reckon this a matter of some urgency, one you should take seriously.”

“I’ll pass that on to our attache, too,” Balastro said-aye, he might have been humoring a child.

Icould point out how many times Algarve has already been wrong about Unkerlant. But Hajjaj kept his mouth shut. Balastro had already made it plain he wouldn’t listen to much more. And Zuwayza had been wrong about Unkerlant, too. If we’d been right, we would have stayed neutral when the war between the two behemoths started.

And then, suddenly, Balastro’s glass-green eyes sparkled. “And how are your own foreign relations these days, Your Excellency?”

“My-?” For a moment, Hajjaj didn’t know what the Algarvian minister meant. Then he did, and rather wished he hadn’t. “MinisterIskakis’ wife prefers to remain in seclusion at my home for the time being,” he said stiffly.

“I hope she’s not too secluded to keep you from enjoying yourself.” Balastro leered a very Algarvian leer. “Never a dull moment there, not between the sheets, but watch out when she loses her temper-and she will.”

“I wouldn’t know, not yet,” Hajjaj said. Balastro rolled his eyes, as if to say Hajjaj was obviously mad, if harmlessly so. Hajjaj wasn’t so sure Balastro was harmlessly mad. He went on, “You know, you’re learning such things about Tassi may have done more to hurt your kingdom’s ties with Yanina than several misfortunes on the battlefield could have.”

“Nonsense,” Balastro said. “KingTsavellas isn’t going to run off and embraceKingSwemmel just because his minister here would sooner sheathe his lance in a handsome guardsman than in his own wife.”

“Not for that, no,” Hajjaj agreed. “But you, your Excellency, were altogether too public about whereyour lance found a sheath. Yaninans have long memories for that sort of slight, and they will avenge themselves, now and again, even when they would be wiser not to.”

Balastro shook his head. “Nonsense,” he repeated.

“I tell you, your Excellency, it is not,” Hajjaj said earnestly. “I understand them in this regard. They are very much like Zuwayzin there.”

“Ha!” Balastro said. “I’m not going to lose any sleep over this, and you can believe me thatKingMezentio isn’t going to lose any sleep over it, either. I would adviseyou to lose a little sleep, though, your Excellency-enough to find out how tasty the treat is. What have you got to lose? Even if you’re right, Iskakis will blame me, not you.”

Hajjaj scratched his head. How strange to have his senior wife and the Algarvian minister telling him the same thing. And it wasn’t that he wasn’t tempted, either, or that Tassi had shown herself obviously unwilling. What is it, then?\\e wondered. Back in the days of the Kaunian Empire, some philosophers had advocated fighting temptation just because itwas temptation. That had never made much sense to Hajjaj, and he couldn’t see that it had done the ancient Kaunians much good, either.

Well? he asked himself, and gave the best answer he could: “I think it would be more trouble than it’s worth.”

“I’m sorry for you.” Balastro got to his feet and bowed. “And I also think we’ve covered everything on account of which you summoned me. Good day, your Excellency. Always a pleasure.” He swept out of Hajjaj’s office with much less ceremony than the occasion called for.

In mild weather, Hajjaj might have been offended. As things were, he felt so glad to get out of his tunic and kilt that any other emotions ran a distant second. As soon as he was comfortably nude once more, he hurried toKingShazli ’s audience chamber. Shazli was talking about taxes with the treasury minister; Hajjaj waited till that troubled-looking official departed.

“Well?” Shazli asked after Hajjaj had bowed before him. “What does the Algarvian say?”

“What you would expect, your Majesty-no more, no less,” Hajjaj replied. “He makes light of the enemy landings in Jelgava, says Algarve will triumph in spite of them, and predicts victory against Unkerlant, too.”

“That would be nice.” For a relatively young man, KingShazli could be dry when he chose. “The hope of victory against Unkerlant was what brought us into the war.”

“I know,” the foreign minister replied, in tones that could only mean, Don’t remind me.

“Did he say why he thinks his kingdom will beat the Unkerlanters?” the king asked. “Or was it the usual promises with nothing behind them?”

“He offered the quiet front as proofKingSwemmel has come to the end of Unkerlant’s strength,” Hajjaj said.

“Did you tell him what we have learned?” Shazli asked.

“Of course, your Majesty.” The question came close to offending Hajjaj. But Balastro’s attitude had annoyed him, too. “He thanked me most politely.

After all, though, we’re only naked savages, so what could we possibly know?” “The Algarvians are very clever. Their chief failing is how well they know it,” Shazli remarked. Hajjaj dipped his head in delight; he would have been pleased to claim the epigram for his own. The king continued, “I have also had another letter fromMinisterIskakis, with him threatening to swell up like a skink if this Tassi woman isn’t delivered to him forthwith.”

“She does not wish it,” Hajjaj said. “Something bad-something very bad-would happen to her if she were delivered to Iskakis. And you know of Balastro’s role in this.”

“Aye.”KingShazli sighed. “The worst thing I can say about my foe is that he makes my friends look good.” That was another fair epigram-and a searing verdict against the whole world.

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