Will ye walk thro’ fire? Who walks thro’ fire will hardly heed the smoke.
– Tennyson, Gareth and Lynette
It was her usual nightmare about Morlock. Aloe Oaij recognized it almost before it had begun, she was so used to it by now. As it began they were back in that house they once owned in Westhold, right on the edge of the land, where they could watch the sun rise up out of the sea each morning.
She loved the sea and often lured Morlock into the bright bitter water to swim, shocking the locals (who never entered the western ocean if they could help it). But his skin was as pale as a mushroom and would often burn. Her skin grew even darker and her hair a brighter gold. They would walk (talking, silent, listening, laughing) through the nearby woods; they would go into the village and trade songs with the locals; they would read and work.
She had come into his smithy once while he was working with Deor. It was hot as a volcano and he was stripped to the waist, exposing the unlovely twist in his shoulders. His face was clenched, too, as he hammered out something on the anvil-it was not an image to make a woman swoon. But it was in that moment Aloe understood why she loved him. With the intelligence of a maker afire in his eyes, with the controlled guided strength of his movements, he was an image of power: a man who could strike a dragon from the sky, the master of all makers, a relentlessly determined will made flesh. She had fled from the moment, but the moment had never fled from her: she was in that forge still, gaping like a lovesick girl at her ugly powerful husband.
And then he was going away, saying words that meant nothing, that she could not even hear in her dream, going away. She had begged him to stay, but he didn’t even seem to hear her. And as he walked away he grew older and more crooked; his skin grew almost as dark as hers, but not smooth: withered, weather-beaten. He limped as he walked, and the bright red of his vocate’s cloak darkened to the black of an exile.
She woke screaming, “God Avenger damn you, why don’t you die?” She lay there, sobbing, then quiet, the same dark thought lingering in her wakening mind. Why didn’t he die? Everything he had been was gone. Everything he had sought to be had failed. Why didn’t he die? How could he stand to go on? The Morlock she thought she had known would die rather than live in exile, called traitor like his hated ruthen-father before him. Any man with any kind of pride at all, with any kind of decency, would simply and quietly die. She couldn’t love a man with no pride at all. She could not. She must not. She didn’t. The dreams meant nothing. Someday they would stop. She would find a way to stop them.
She opened her eyes.
Her paramour of the night before was looking at her with his mouth open. He didn’t look at his best, but he still looked pretty good: he had something of Naevros’s smug self-approving catlike handsomeness. (Nothing like Naevros’s strength and grace, of course, but what had that come to, in the end? Ugly clever Morlock had killed him along with everything else she had ever loved.)
“Were you talking to me?” her last-night’s-sleeping-potion asked.
“I might as well have been,” she said coolly. “Take your things and go, won’t you?”
He was weak enough to protest, but not strong enough to protest long. Presently she was having breakfast alone on a balcony that looked over the river Ruleijn and the City of a Thousand Towers.
A familiar knock came at her chamber door.
“Get your own breakfast!” she shouted.
The door opened and Jordel came in. He was dressed for the street, with his red vocate’s cloak tossed carelessly over his shoulders. He tossed it as carelessly across her bed and stepped out onto the balcony. Throwing himself into the chair opposite her, he said, “I never eat breakfast-a nasty habit. I’ll Just have one of your rolls, and some ham, and some toast and jam, an egg or two, and a cup of tea, if you don’t mind.”
“I do,” Aloe said, purely for form’s sake, as he helped himself. “Where’ve you been this morning?”
“Well, I keep having these nightmares about Morlock.”
“That’s not funny, Jordel.”
“It isn’t meant to be. God Sustainer, I wasn’t married to him. Although he did save my life once, and that’s the sort of bond which-“
11 -which means nothing whatever to you, Jordel. I know; I’ve saved your life myself.”
“I don’t think so, my dear.”
“See what I mean?”
“Anyway: these nightmares. It began to look as if some sort of prevision was trying to make itself felt. So I caught one of them in a dreamglass and brought it to Noree this morning.”
“Ugh. Poking around other people’s dreams is a nasty business. I’d as soon be offered a stool sample or a urine sample as a dream sample.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, my dear. Shall I tell you about it?”
“If you must.”
“No sooner did I get there when I found that Noree had another patient. You’ll never guess who it was!”
Jordel’s long, rosy face began to take on a discontented expression. “Has he already been in here? He said he was going to talk to you.”
“It was just a guess, Jordel. You and he were always about equally sensitive to previsions.” Since this was both true and flattering, Jordel’s hazel eyes began to look more cheerful again. “Also,” she continued relentlessly, “you both opposed Morlock’s exile.” This was also true, but riskier territory: Jordel’s expression became more cautious again. “Go on, won’t you?” she said finally.
“Yes, well, Noree took both dreamglasses and collated the dreams; then she meditated for a while.”
“She doesn’t cross the street without meditating for a while. She ought to be at New Moorhope and not in the Graith of Guardians.”
“Do you want to hear this or not?”
Not sure that she did, suddenly, Aloe held her hand out concessively without speaking.
“Noree says that Morlock and his sister-“
“Indeed. She says that Morlock and Ambrosia are involved in a power struggle in Ontil.”
“We knew that. There’s some sort of succession trouble in that empire. Nothing for us.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Noref says the power which moves against Ambrosia and Morlock is not merely political-it is a conflict of deep magic, and Merlin is involved. The Wardlands themselves may be threatened.”
“You can’t take that seriously about Merlin. She’s crazy on the subject of Merlin.”
“My dear, you didn’t know Merlin like I knew Merlin, and I wouldn’t say I knew him at all. If Noree, who fears nothing else, fears him, that should tell you something.”
“It tells me everyone has to be afraid of someone.”
“What a beautiful thought: almost like a song.”
Aloe sighed and said, “All right, Jordel: if you didn’t come by for breakfast and you didn’t come by for my insights, what did you come by for?”
“Well, isn’t it obvious? We’ll have to send someone to keep an eye on the situation. Either Morlock and Ambrosia, or Merlin, or their antagonist may become a danger to the Wardlands. But we can’t send just anyone up against people like that.”
“So you propose to send me.”
“No one is proposing to send you, Aloe, but you might send yourself. No one can slip Morlock the needle like you can; your powers are sure; and, of course, there are those insights of yours.”
“Are you going?”
“Yes. Even if the Graith doesn’t decide to send anyone, I think I’ll wander up that way; perhaps Baran would also like to come. Because I don’t like the look of it, Aloe-I don’t like the look of it or the feel of it. Neither do Noree and Illion. I’d be pleased if you’d come with. But I know it will be difficult for you if you do.”
Aloe, in unfeigned distress, put both her hands over her face and held them there. When she dropped them the distress was gone, or at least under control. “I’ll come along,” she said flatly. “If it’s as bad as you say, you’ll probably want my help. Should we put it to the assembled Graith or just set out on our own?”
So they began to lay their plans.
On that same early fall morning, far from the Wardlands, the King awoke at dawn. He didn’t ring for servants; soon he was washed and dressed and bustling up the corridor that held the ministerial apartments. He rang at Wyrtheorn’s door. When his first tug at the bellpull received no response, he yanked at it continuously until he was rewarded with an incoherent shout within. He opened the door to the apartment and said, “I was thinking about breakfast.”
“A bad habit, but not one beyond breaking,” remarked a nightcapwearing bearded shadow within. “The first step is acknowledging that you have a problem. Give it a try, and come back for me around noon.”
“There’s a meeting of the Regency Council this morning, Wyrth, or had you forgotten?”
“So I had, so I had. When you’re my age you’ll wish you could forget unpleasant matters as easily as I can, if you remember me at all by then, that is. Let’s see-I suppose the sun will be rising soon?”
“It’s burning a hole through your shutters right now!”
“That seems unlikely. I made those shutters myself. Oh, well, you might call the corridor attendant and have him bring me some water for washing.” He stumped off to find some garments in his wardrobe, and the King himself fetched a basin of water from the corridor pump. The dwarf was scandalized almost (but not quite) beyond words, and he gave his King a harsh lecture on propriety as he washed, gesturing wildly with a wet rag which, at various points in the diatribe, served as the royal scepter, the Rite-Master’s staff, the limp sword of a rather inept swashbuckler, or the pen of a scribe as he prepared to (not) write the unwritten laws of What Was Done and What Was Not Done. The King laughed more, perhaps, than the jokes deserved, because he was so fond of Wyrth. The dwarf was the one person to whom all the formalities and legalities of their situation seemed to mean exactly nothing. To Wyrth he was simply Lathmar, and this business of kings and empires was simply a tiresome game “the grown-ups” (as he often referred to Morlock and Ambrosia) had thought up.
The dwarf disappeared into his wardrobe to change, and as the King’s laughter subsided, he thought he heard a gentle rhythmic chanting. Presently Wyrth reappeared, clad in garments of decent gray with his hair and beard brushed.
“Let’s walk across and see if the master’s up,” Wyrth said. They did, but Morlock’s apartments, directly across the corridor from Wyrth’s, were empty. “He’s up in the workshop, I guess. Let’s whomp up some food and bring it there; he’ll never eat, otherwise.”
They clattered down to the kitchens, where Wyrth supervised the cooking of a large breakfast in the dwarvish style, although the cookswearing that to inflict “them hard-bowelled eggs an’ nasty sossidge-pies” on the King was treason in the meaning of the act-insisted on adding some honeyed hotcakes and bacon to the platters. They drafted a fat, gentle, eternally complaining baker’s helper to carry the food to the tower chamber that served as Morlock’s workshop. The lock on the doorpost recognized them, acknowledged them with three separate blinks of the single glass eye in its comically ugly bronze face, and uncurled its strong iron fingers from the door, allowing them entrance.
“Praise the day, Master Morlock,” shouted the dwarf, kicking open the door and entering the workshop with a platter in each hand. “Don’t junzp- we’ve brought food.”
The Crooked Man was sitting cross-legged on the broad windowsill of one of the many windows in the chamber, showing no signs of jumping. But his eye sockets were bruised with weariness, and his eyes shot with blood-he hadn’t been sleeping well lately, Lathmar knew, though he didn’t know why.
“Harven, Wyrth. Good morning, Lathmar. There’s tea made.”
“Hmph. I suppose you think you’ve done your part, then …while me and Lathmar have been down in the kitchen since before dawn, slaving our fingers to the bone over a hot cook-“
Wyrth raved on as he unstacked plates and served out tea and sausage tarts. The King promptly returned the sausage tarts.
“That’s more for us,” said Wyrth cheerfully, while still managing to imply that His Majesty had breached the unwritten laws of What Was Done and What Was Not Done.
Morlock silently collected his sausage tarts onto a separate plate and walked over to a nearby worktable. There he put aside some wrappings made of some sort of scaly hide and revealed a nexus of dark branching crystal, aswarm with live flames.
“We’re hungry!” they moaned, in sharp bright voices.
“Are they alive?” the King asked, astonished.
“All flames are alive,” Wyrth said. “That’s why they can be seen during a vision-you should know more about that than I do, Lathmar. But most of them don’t live long enough to develop their intelligence. (Which, in your ear, is modest at best. They pun-abominably, I might add.) The nexus extends their lifetime indefinitely.”
“Why does he have them?” Lathmar whispered. “Are they pets?”
“I sometimes think so,” Wyrth said in his normal speaking voice. “But they’re useful, too. A choir of wise old flames is very useful in cultivating gemstones, and some other things.”
“Why doesn’t he feed them?”
“That’s just noise. I gave them several fistfuls of wet charcoal last night, and I expect Morlock did the same this morning-you can see it glowing, there, in the center of the nexus.”
Morlock was holding the plate near to the nexus. “I know what you mean about being hungry,” he remarked to the flames. “I was just about to enjoy a delicious sausage tart for breakfast.”
Silence in the choir. “Sausage tart, eh?” said one voice appraisingly. “What are they made of?”
“Cornmeal. Pig fat. Pig intestine. Pig muscle. Everything but the squeal, as they say. And a selection of secret herbs and spices.”
“I hate herbs!” one bright voice screamed. “Spices are okay, I guess.”
“And herbs, too,” another voice added. “The proper selection of herbs really lends a pleasant savor to pig fat, or all the culinary authorities are snecked.”
“No herbs! No herbs! No herbs!”
“They’re secret herbs, see? If you had any discretion you wouldn’t even acknowledge their existence.”
“I’m about to secrete an herb on you, pal. And then …And then …”
“You won’t even acknowledge your own existence.”
A shower of sparky derision greeted this inept comeback. A flame war seemed imminent when Morlock intervened by remarking, “Then I take it you have no interest in a sausage tart for breakfast?”
Almost as one, a choir of bright voices told him how wrong he was.
“Then.” Morlock dropped a sausage tart into the nexus.
There was a brief moment of silence as the choir dug into the moist sausage tart. Then the nexus began to emit slumbrous smoky groans of delight. As the tart faded into coals and ash and memory, the appreciation became more verbal.
“Mmm. A fine texture in this crust-I can sense each individual granule of cornmeal. If only I liked cornmeal.”
“Hey! I remember germinating!”
“I remember how hot it was when the farmer cut our stalks.”
“That’s nothing. I remember wallowing in the mud. Oink! Oink!”
“I remember the delicious swill.”
“I remember-hey, what is this I’m remembering?”
“Get your mind out of the gutter, kid. At least we know our pig lived a happy life.”
“Oh, I’m squamous with the herbulent smoke of despair! It really does go well with pig fat, though.”
“Everything but the squeal, eh?” one voice giggled. “I’d squeally like some more. Get it? I’d squeally like some more. Did you get that? It’s a sort of joke, but I really mean it. Squeally, 1 mean.”
Morlock dropped the second sausage tart into the nexus and covered it up with the scaly wrappings while the flames were still groaning in smoky ecstasy.
Returning to the table he remarked, “Finally, a practical use for sausage tarts.”
“And you call yourself a Theorn,” the apprentice said scornfully to his master.
“Wyrth,” said Morlock composedly, as he seated himself, “I ate those things nearly every day for twenty years at my father’s table. Now I am master of my own shop and I need not and will not.”
“Your father?” the King asked. “I thought you were fostered by the dwarves.”
“I meant my foster father,” Morlock explained. “We do not consider the relationship temporary, though. I am still harven coruthen-chosen-not-given as kin-in the Deep Halls of the Seven Clans under Thrymhaiam. Although I can never come there now.” His dark face grew darker.
“Have an egg,” Wyrth suggested anxiously to the King. “Or even twoone for each cheek, eh?”
Lathmar accepted an egg, but before biting into it asked, “But it was not the dwarves that exiled you?”
“No,” Morlock said flatly. “When I grew to manhood I became a member of the Graith of Guardians, like my father before me-my other father, ruthen coharven-Merlin. And it was they who exiled me, as they earlier did to him.”
“I meant you.”
“Among other things, I killed a fellow Guardian.”
“Oh.” The King thought about what Ambrosia had said about Morlock’s exile. “Why?”
“I had my reasons.”
Wyrth was about to say something, but Morlock held out one hand. His eyes were like gray lightning as he glared at his apprentice. Lathmar had never seen him so angry, not since-not since he had asked the question about the Sunkillers, more than two years ago.
Lathmar found that Morlock’s anger did not frighten him anymore, nor, obviously, was Wyrth intimidated by it. They held their silence, though.
It was Morlock who was troubled by his anger. He got up from the table and limped over to the window and back. He stood across the table from Wyrth and shouted, “Don’t make me into a hero! I’m not a hero! I am a master of the Two Arts-Seeing and Making. It is enough. It is all that I am.”
“No,” said Wyrth quietly.
“I say it is,” Morlock replied, as quietly but more dangerously.
“Rosh takna. Morlocktheorn, when you, as a master of Making, tell me that a seedstone is to be inscripted in a certain way, it is up to me to accept what you have said and strive to understand it. When you, as a man, assert that you have twelve noses, it is up to me-as your apprentice, your harven- kin, and your friend-to correct that error. No one, not even you, can be merely the sum of their abilities. I don’t know why you should be ashamed of your very occasional heroisms. It was no coward, at any rate, who slew the Red Knight at Gravesend Field.”
“No one slew the Red Knight. There never was such a person. Your example is especially inapt. It was the maker who recognized the presence of a golem on Gravesend Field and took steps to sever its name-scroll.”
“I never knew the life of pure reason could be so adventurous! I suppose our people, the Seven Clans under Thrymhaiam, awarded you the name `Dragonkiller’ because you framed some especially trenchant syllogism? The slaying of Saijok Mahr-that, I suppose, was some deplorable accident, perhaps a fall from a height?”
“That was different,” Morlock said sharply. “The dragons came against us. It was life or death, not only for the dwarves, but for all the peoples of the north.”
“I don’t know what you mean by `different.’ I’m not accusing you of being some folly-driven thrillseeker. Nor am I accusing you of being perfect-Sustainer Almighty, I know better than that. It was me, remember, who dragged you out of that tavern in Venche, weeping and vomiting. It was me who knocked you cold rather than listen to you whine for another drink. It was me you nearly strangled the next morning, trying to force your way past me to get one. If I say that you are a bad-tempered evil old childish bastard of an egomaniac-and you are-it’s because I have occasion to know it. If I say that, occasionally, you show admirable qualities that have nothing to do with your superb technical skills, I have the same authority.”
“I’m not evil,” Morlock disputed, “nor admirable. Harven, shall we end this quarrel?”
“Why not? I’m not responsible for what you are. You’re not responsible for what I think about it.”
“Hmph. I, however, am responsible for what you are. At least as regards your superb technical skills.”
“Ur. This sounds bad. I suppose that seedstone didn’t bloom properly.”
“No. There were too many continuous lines in the matrix, I think. In the time before the council meeting, I’m going to set you a problem in spatial representation of motion in a time continuum. Lathmar, you may listen in, if you wish.”
Lathmar didn’t. Grabbing a last egg, he waved good-bye to the makers and wandered off to find his Grandmother.
Karn was waiting anxiously outside the King’s apartments when Lathmar passed by. Lathmar had asked Ambrosia to appoint Karn as his personal guard within Ambrose. He couldn’t help being fond of Karn (for Lorn’s sake, perhaps), although he had reason to suppose Karn wasn’t very reliable. But then, it wasn’t very likely to be dangerous in Ambrose.
“Your Majesty!” Karn cried, coming to attention.
“At ease, Karn,” His Majesty said.
“I was worried when I didn’t find you in, Your Majesty,” Karn said earnestly.
“I was up in Morlock’s tower,” Lathmar replied. “You should get up earlier, Karn.”
“I woke before dawn, Your Majesty. But I had to have breakfast.”
“Well, I’ve had mine. Have you seen my Grandmother this morning?”
“I have not seen Her Ferocity this morning, Your Majesty,” Karn said solemnly. He did not share, at least apparently, Lorn’s distaste for the Ambrosii, and he was always making up new titles of honor for the regent (safely out of her earshot, of course). Lathmar’s favorite, coined after an especially and unnecessarily (it seemed to the King) fractious meeting of the Regency Council, was “Her Bickeritudinery.”
“Let’s go track her down, then.”
They found the Regent, Ambrosia Viviana, inspecting the new bridge from Ambrose to the City Gate.
The last two years had been busy indeed. The Protector’s forces had instantly put Ambrose under siege. At first they were commanded (publicly, at least) by Vost. But soon the uneasy Protector’s Men were soothed by the sight of Urdhven himself (or itself-the King could no longer think of his uncle as a human being). He was, Genjandro reported through crow-post, sporting new scars on his neck and wrist. These, it was given out, had been acquired in the fight with the dragon. This satisfied some of the Protector’s Men; others, who knew or had heard a truer version of the fight in the Great Market, quietly deserted.
At first, the Protector’s forces had attempted to keep Ambrose entirely under siege. But this soon proved impossible. Ambrose was designed to be siege-proof: even if all three outer gates were taken (as they were, in the first success of the Protector’s counterattack), the bridges could be broken (as they were-the King shuddered when he remembered the breaking of the City Gate bridge) and traffic could pass into and out of Ambrose by the river Tilion. It would take a large force indeed to cover that great river on both banks for its entire navigable length.
Naval assault was the only solution, and Urdhven soon tried it, sending tall ships (mounted with siege towers and crammed with men) up the river Tilion from the harbor. These went down in flames before Morlock’s Siegebreaker, a catapult that hurled burning phlogiston-imbued stones for an almost incredible distance. The same device could have reduced half the imperial city to smoking rubble, but did not-a fact which was widely commented on in Ontil, according to messages they received from Genjandro.
The Protector soon had a manpower problem. His recruitment could not keep up with his desertions (Protector’s Men had always been opportunists, and following the Protector was no longer so obviously a path to opportunity), and he needed more men than ever. Eventually, he pulled his men out of the Thorngate and the Lonegate, maintaining a garrison only at the City Gate.
The bridges from Ambrose to the Lonegate and the Thorngate were rebuilt by the King’s forces, and each were garrisoned by hundreds of the new Royal Legionaries. The Ambrosian forces, at any rate, had no manpower problem-or rather, theirs was the reverse of the Protector’s. They could not welcome into Ambrose everyone who wished to defect from the Protectorthere simply was not enough food, water, or space. Members of the old City Legion were generally welcomed (if someone already in the Royal Legion would vouch for them); Protector’s Men were pardoned of treason, but rejected from the King’s service. Ordinary people of the city or country were told to return to their homes, obey the laws, and await the King’s justice.
Among each group of citizens turned away were a few well-trusted former Legionaries or castle servants who went into the city as spies. Genjandro was their chief, and he now led a network of spies that encompassed the city.
“Urdhven can’t win, now,” Ambrosia said flatly in the Regency Council, the day after the last naval attack was repulsed. “It’s just a question of letting him and everyone else know that.”
From that moment on her priority had been the rebuilding of the East Bridge and the recovery of the City Gate of Ambrose. Tactically, this was a triviality, as she explained to Lathmar-even a waste of resources. Strategically and politically, though, it was vital. As long as the Protector’s Men held the City Gate, Urdhven could pretend to the city that he held the Ambrosians in check. If the Royal Legion held the City Gate and could sally out of it when they chose, the Protector’s position would appear as precarious as it was in fact.
But the work had been slow. The bridge had to be built of dephlogistonated wood, which was iron-hard and almost unworkable, if light and strong. The workmen went out in full armor, to protect them from the arrows of the Protector’s Men holding the City Gate, and still there were casualties. There was a company of royal bowmen stationed at the guardhouse of the inner gate, and they returned fire against the Protector’s Men whenever they appeared, so that the workmen labored among frequent showers of missile weapons, friendly and hostile. Unfortunately the iron of a friendly arrowhead, if misaimed, penetrated quite as deeply as a hostile one (if not deeper, as these had been forged under the supervision of Morlock and Wyrth).
Now the bridge was done at last, though. It had been finished only yesterday afternoon, and already the Protector had sent two attacks along it. On the first attack, Ambrosia waited until the bridge was crowded with Protector’s Men and then worked the release that split the bridge in two up the middle, dumping the fully armed soldiers into the river, where most of them drowned. The second attack came a few hours later, after dark-more lightly armed troops, creeping along the surface of the bridge like mountaineers. They had crept up to the center of the bridge, turned left, and crept off the side, drawn by illusions projected into their minds by Morlock and Lathmar.
Ambrosia was eyeing the bridge with great satisfaction from the guardhouse of the inner gate when she heard Lathmar’s voice behind her.
“Good morning, Your Majesty,” she said without turning. “You really shouldn’t be here without armor, you know.”
“I promise to run like a rabbit at the first bowshot,” the King said, and the Royal Legionaries on the post laughed deferentially. Ambrosia smiled, too, Lathmar could see-presumably because she knew he had spoken with complete honesty.
“It’s an hour or so until the Regency Council. Did you have something to discuss with me, Majesty?”
“Yes: two things.” The King caught himself before he said “madam.” She had become more unapproachable and grandmotherly than ever upon taking over the command of Ambrose, but she had taught him, on pain of her severe displeasure, that he must not address her as his superior. As regent, she wielded his legal power, but she was still his servant, as much as the kitchen staff. That was the theory by which she held her power, and she insisted that he abide by it (at least in his manner of speech).
“Let’s walk the walls then,” she suggested. They climbed the many stairs leading to the top of Ambrose’s high walls; when they finally reached the open air Ambrosia gave her guard and Karn a single gray glare; they retreated out of earshot as she and Lathmar walked the heights.
It was a cold, pale blue day in early spring. The King, who wasn’t dressed for the outdoors, soon felt his teeth begin to chatter; Ambrosia took no notice of the cold, but listened intently to him while she eyed the city below.
“The first thing, Grandmother, is Kedlidor.”
“You haven’t heard me.”
“I’ve heard him. He wants to be let off from the command of the Royal Legion. He asked me and I told him no. Now he’s asked you to ask me, and I still say no.”
“For one thing, he’s too good at the job. I know how he hates it, Lathmar. But he has done it superbly, from that first day when he took and held the inner Lonegate and Thorngate. He’s completely ignorant of military matters, I grant you, but he has an eye for picking the right subordinate. Plus, he’s excellent at training the men-a real fiend for drill. You were inspired when you put him in command of that Kitchen Crusade.”
“Your decision is final, then?”
“It usually is. You should resist being used in this way, Lathmar-as if you were my chamberlain who could wheedle me into changing my mind. You’re the sovereign-act like it.”
“Support you without question, is that it?”
“Yes, effectively. But make it seem as if it was your idea all along-as if he should go through me to try to change your decision.”
The King said nothing about this. Ambrosia glanced at him, smiled, and said, “What else was there?”
“Morlock says you have asked him to stop training me as a seer.”
“I want you to tell him you’ve changed your mind.”
“I want you to.”
“The Sight is a dangerous skill for a ruler, Lathmar. To see beneath the surface of things can sometimes be a great advantage, yes, but so much of what we do as rulers involves the surface of things. We shouldn’t grow too detached from it. Philosophers rarely make good kings, no matter what the philosophers claim. Besides, it is physically dangerous. Have you kept an eye on Morlock recently?”
“Then you know how ill he is. He has been sending his mind out of his body so frequently these past few months that their connection has grown tenuous.”
“He says there is a danger we aren’t facing-“
“Yes, I know: the Protector’s Shadow, Urdhven’s magical patron. But you have to take problems one at a time, and if Morlock can’t even locate this adept in his visions, he must be a very remote danger indeed.”
“Or very well protected.”
Ambrosia made a noise in her throat.
“Grandmother, you saw yesterday how useful the Sight can be to us in our struggle. The more I know, the more I can assist Morlock.”
“That’s the short term. We won’t be cooped up in Ambrose forever.”
“What is useful here and now will be useful in other places and times.”
Ambrosia smiled and said, “Have you talked to Morlock about this?”
“Yes. He told me he would think about it.”
“Then that is your answer. If Morlock decides to teach you in spite of my request, there is nothing I can do about it. If he decides not to teach you, the same applies. My powers as regent don’t cover control of Morlock’s mind. Don’t mention this to him, however-I’m hoping against hope that he isn’t aware of it.”
The King was relieved to hear that there was at least one thing in Ambrose over which she didn’t claim direct control. But he didn’t say as much.
The Regency Council convened a short while later. Ambrosia was there as regent, of course, and the King (who didn’t need to be there, but insisted on knowing what was being done in his name). Morlock and Wyrth were each councillors in their own right, as was Kedlidor-not as Rite-Master, but as head of the Royal Legion.
“As to the City Gate,” Ambrosia was saying, “I think it is high time that we took it. But the time has come, indeed, to do more than that-perhaps make a sortie in force against Urdhven’s men in the city.”
Kedlidor was listening solemnly, his face growing longer by the minute. He clearly dreaded the thought of leading his soldiers in house-to-house combat. The King was staring idly out a window, wondering when spring would appear outside the calendar. Wyrth was absentmindedly folding threedimensional representations of four-dimensional figures as he listened intently to Ambrosia. Morlock sat like a living shadow opposite her, speaking one word to her forty, as now.
“Urdhven has been sounding out the field marshals of the various domains, hoping to strike up an alliance that will break the stalemate against us. He can’t have had much luck, or his ally would be here.”
“He should have called for help before he needed it,” Morlock remarked dryly. “No one wants to help someone who needs help.”
“Cynicism makes you talkative, brother. I knew something must. But you see, don’t you, that now is the time to move on Urdhven. If he has begun to understand that he can’t break the stalemate, now is the time to instill in him the fear that we can.”
“That there is a stalemate at all is our victory,” Wyrth remarked. “But in the long run it may be in the Protector’s favor. I agree that an offensive, even a small one, should be our next concern. Urdhven knows now he cannot take Ambrose back by force or by treachery.”
There were thirty bloody months of experience behind those words; they were all silent for a few moments, remembering.
“Still,” Morlock said, breaking the silence, “we cannot take the city. And Urdhven must know this.”
“`No,’ to both of your ideas, Morlock,” Ambrosia said eagerly. “I begin to see a way we could take the city by a well-timed assault on a gate held by our agents-in-place, along with a civil rebellion led by Genjandro’s people inside the city. It would take time to prepare, but we’re able to do it if we can afford the time. We may not be able to afford the time; the empire is dividing up into armed duchies, and if it is ever to be united again it must be soon. But Urdhven may not be aware of this. Further-let me finish, please-Urdhven can no longer be sure what we can or cannot do. We have successfully trespassed on his expectations too many times. That uncertainty will eat at him, and it is up to us to ensure that it takes big bites.”
“To what end?” Morlock asked.
“A treaty, of course. We must kill him or treat with him, and just now he is out of our reach, even if we could figure out how to negate his magical protections. And he has the same dilemma regarding us. Sooner or later we must sit down at a table and cut a deal.”
“Don’t grunt at me. Of course we hate him-“
“I don’t hate him. But I could never trust him.”
“Well, let me tell you, brother, I hate him. I hate him. I hate that mag- gotty little poisoner of his. I hate his private army that’s poisoning the loyalty of the empire’s troops. I hate his stupid face. I hate everything about him. One of my fondest memories is smashing his nose with my forehead when he came to gloat over me, after his thugs had broken my wrists. Ha! That startled him. I expect he had his eyes painted like a trollop’s on the day of my trial, for I know I heard the bridge of his nose crack.”
“And therefore,” Wyrth prodded gently, “you will treat with the man?”
“Therefore. You don’t sign peace treaties with your friends, Wyrth; you sign them with your enemies. And you don’t do it because you trust each other, Morlock, but because an arrangement is the best way out of an intolerable situation. The art of fashioning a treaty is finding grounds for mutual advantage to the two parties. That’s trust, if you want it: both sides will keep the agreement because it is in their interest to do so.”
“You may grunt like a skeptical pig, Morlock, but stranger things have happened. It’s not as if I were telling you a horse had dropped from the sky.”
Morlock’s face lit up with renewed interest. “Are you telling me?”
Ambrosia was taken aback by his reaction. “Uh-that is, er, why do you ask?”
“We’ll put them in a carnival act-the Grunting Ambrosii,” Wyrth whispered, quite audibly, to the King.
“I had a dream you told me that a horse had dropped out of the sky,” Morlock explained to his sister.
She looked at him narrowly. “I can’t say one did. But there is a report that one did, landing in a tree, no less.”
“Is it still there?”
“Morlock, haven’t you been listening? I don’t know that it was ever there. But if it ever was, no doubt it still is. How would a horse get down from a tree?”
“With help. And where was this?”
“The report came from Nalac, a village not far from the Gap of Lone.”
“I know it. The tavern there was where your soldiers arrested me, long ago.”
Ambrosia laughed. “Was that the place? End of the Kaenish War, wasn’t it? If-Where the hell do you think you are going?” she demanded, for Morlock had stood and was walking to the door of the council chamber.
“Nalac,” Morlock replied, pausing.
“You are not,” Ambrosia stormed at him. “And what for?”
“He’s thinking it’s Velox, of course,” Wyrth suggested. “And so it might be, though I can’t see how.”
The King found himself meeting his Grandmother’s astonished gray eyes. Then he said, “Of course! The flying horse! Was his name Velox?”
Ambrosia’s face took on a distant remembering expression. “But that was nearly three years ago….”
Morlock shrugged his wry shoulders. “Flying horses are not everyday occurrences. I’ll go to see.”
“Morlock, this is no joke. I need you here. We’ll take the City Gate within a day or two, and then make our sortie into the city. Shortly thereafter we’ll begin negotiations with Urdhven, if it looks like we can’t kill him.”
“I’m not a soldier nor an ambassador. Wyrth can build you infernal devices as you need them. I’ll be back in two calls* or less.”
“I won’t have you bouncing around the countryside for Urdhven to pluck like a ripe peach!” Ambrosia shouted. “If the Protector’s Men take you, we’ll have to bargain our left elbows away to get you back! And I won’t do it! I’ll let you rot this time, you worthless, bad-tempered bastard!”
“Ripe peaches don’t bounce,” Morlock observed from the doorway. “I’ll see you soon, my friends.”
“Good fortune, Morlocktheorn,” Wyrth called after him. “You mustn’t worry about him, Lady Ambrosia-he’d have taken me if he’d thought it was at all dangerous.”
“So what if it is?” snapped Ambrosia, wiping her eyes. “I won’t miss him any more than I miss my period. Tomorrow we move to retake the City Gate. Wyrth-what have you got that will help?”