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VOIDFARER

by

Sean McMullen


Chapter One: Eve of the War
Chapter Two: In Alpindrak Palace
Chapter Three: The Falling Star
Chapter Four: On Wharfway Plaza
Chapter Five: The Cylinder Opens
Chapter Six: How I Reached My Room
Chapter Seven: The Sorceress and the Heat Beam
Chapter Eight: The Fighting Begins
Chapter Nine: In the Storm
Chapter Ten: What I Saw of the Destruction of Gatrov
Chapter Eleven: Dead Gatrov
Chapter Twelve: What We Saw From the Ruined Tavern
Chapter Thirteen: How We Spoke with the Lupanian
Chapter Fourteen: The Deaths of the Sorcerers
Chapter Fifteen: The Banks of the Alber
Chapter Sixteen: Death of A Glass Dragon
Chapter Seventeen: Dinner with Mother
Chapter Eighteen: Exodus From Alberin
Chapter Nineteen: Alberin Against the Lupanians
Chapter Twenty: The Megazoid
Chapter Twenty One: Temporians
Chapter Twenty Two: Evening's All for Courting
Chapter Twenty Three: Alberin Alone
Chapter Twenty Four: Wreckage

 

CHAPTER ONE: EVE OF THE WAR

No one in Scalticar would have believed that in the last months of the year 3143 they were being watched keenly by intelligences from another world. "If they are so very intelligent, why are they bothering to look at us?" would have been the reaction of Empress Wensomer. Would have been were the three critical words, however. Empress Wensomer had gone missing, and Scalticar was experiencing what historians annoyingly refer to as interesting times. Times were about to become considerably more interesting, however, because in the first month of 3144, the Lupanians were ready to do a lot more than merely study us from a distance.
#
My name is Inspector Danolarian Scryverin of the Wayfarer Constables, West Quadrant. Danolarian Scryverin is not the name that I was given at birth, but my birthname has the very angry survivors of a rather unfortunate accident in search of anyone bearing it. Thus I go by Danol Scryverin's name, and although he is dead, nobody needs to know that. The truly annoying irony is that I had never done anything other than be born to the wrong parents. Even though I am eighteen, I give my age as twenty-three, and I carry the papers of a sailor named Danol Scryverin who would be about twenty-three were he not dead. The date of my actual birth is the seventeenth day of the first month. I celebrate it every year, but that is the only link I keep with my past.
On the day that the Lupanian invasion was launched, I was leading my command through the Drakenridge Mountains. The upper trails of the highlands have the most enchanting vistas that you could ever hope to see. At fourteen thousand feet there were alternating layers of dusky sandstone, creamy marble, green granite, and speckled schist, all capped by snow and embroidered by racing meltwater streams and spectacular waterfalls. At that time of year the skies tended to be clear, and even the great Torean Storms had abated somewhat. The air was as clear as a crystal lens, and very, very cold. Little more than tough, dry lichen was growing at this altitude, and there were certainly no villages or inns to be found. Thus we slept in the open, and staying warm was always a problem. Even when we boiled water, it remained tepid even though it bubbled furiously.
All these discomforts were as nothing compared with what I had to endure from the trio who comprised the little squad that I commanded, however. As commands go, it left a lot to be desired, consisting of Constable Riellen, a former radical student of sorcery, Constable Roval, who had a serious drinking problem, and Constable Wallas. Wallas had once been a courtier of great consequence, until he had assassinated an emperor, then managed to offend some important magical personage. I have never heard the full details of what happened, but Wallas had been transformed into a rather overweight black cat.
We had stopped for lunch at a quite breathtaking vista looking north across the mountain peaks, but while I gazed at the achingly beautiful view, Riellen read a book of political theory, Roval muttered curses at a charstick sketch of a woman in a locket, and Wallas scoffed down a handful of dried fish pieces. I unfolded a sketch of a beautiful Albino girl. Very gently, I caressed the cheeks of Lavenci's image, as I had each day for the ten weeks since I had left Alberin. Presently I took out my almanac to memorise a few matters that someone pretending to be an amateur astronomer would be expected to know. I noticed that it was the seventeenth day of the first month, and after a few moments' thought I decided to have a little celebration for my birthday.
"Why have you put a candle on that gingernut biscuit?" asked Wallas as he sat up and began to wash his whiskers.
"I felt like being a little formal today," I replied stiffly. "It's an improvised cake."
"Oh. So when you shook up two dried grapes, some melted snow, and a half-gill of rum in that beer bottle, was that meant to be improvised wine?"
"If you don't want any -"
"No, no, I didn't say that! It's probably your birthday, is it not?"
"It might be. Riellen, wine for you too?"
"Wine is a poison sapping the strength of the downtrodden commoners, and I drink only ale because it is the drink of the oppressed," she declared automatically, then she looked up and added "Sir!"
"Even as a gesture of solidarity between downtrodden Wayfarer Constables?" I asked.
The words gesture, solidarity, and downtrodden did their usual work in her mind.
"Er, oh, in that case, yes."
"Afraid I can't offer any to you," I said to Roval. "Orders, and all that."
"Brought low by a woman," muttered Roval, whom I had forced to confine his drinking to the occasional tavern as we travelled.
Thus it was that I toasted my birthday with two of my companions, Wallas lapping from his tin bowl, Riellen pretending to sip daintily from the beer bottle with a reedpaper straw - but actually drinking nothing out of solidarity with the downtrodden, ale-drinking masses - and myself drinking from my half-gill measure. I lit the candle from a tinderbox with some difficulty, then hurriedly blew it out before the wind beat me to it. Finally I broke up the gingernut biscuit and shared it around before starting to pack up.
"Not as good as Fralland-Style Kitty Krunchies," muttered Wallas as I picked him up and put him on the rump of my horse.
"Next time I'll have your share," I said as I set off, leading the way.
By now we had been leading our horses for nine days, for they were not coping well with the altitude, and had to carry their own fodder as well as our packs. The trail was wide, well made, and in good repair, but even on a good day we would be lucky to cover a dozen miles. Generally it was less.
"I was once great, I was once a courtier," Wallas's voice droned from behind me.
"Brought low by a woman," mumbled Roval, his thoughts far away.
"Actually it was not a woman, it was two women who brought me low," said Wallas. "Low, as in reduced to a cat situation, that is. One was a glass dragon, the other was a sorceress. I was used as a pawn. Can you imagine that? Me, a great courtier. Once I lived in a palace. Now look at me."
"Hard to miss you," I pointed out wearily.
"You should not be sad, Brother Wallas," said Riellen, who was leading her own horse behind mine. "Fate has saved you from becoming an establishment exploiter of the downtrodden people."
"I never asked to be saved."
"But you were saved, when you were transformed into your present, er, circumstances. Now you can go on to a great destiny."
"How can a cat have a great destiny? I don't even like cats! I'm a dog person."
"But as a cat you are liberated, Brother Wallas. You were freed from your aristocratic chains when you were transformed."
"I paid a lot of money for those chains! Once I was rich. Now I get a mere ten florins a week from the Wayfarers because I'm just a cat. Blatant discrimination."
And so it continued for the next hour. I too was rich, I thought as I walked, but I did not miss any of that. My parents had educated me well, and had me taught fencing, archery, and riding by the finest masters. I had never wanted for anything until, at the age of fourteen, I was left with just the clothes I stood in. My education and skills had proved to be worth more than a waggonload of gold, however, and now I was eighteen, wise beyond my years, and feigning to be twenty-three.
We reached a milestone with thirty-seven chiselled into it, and it was at this point that my patience with those whom I commanded finally ran out.
"Constables Riellen, Roval, and Wallas, stay here with the horses while I go on ahead," I said as I handed the reins of my horse to Riellen. "I'll make sure the way is clear."
"Yes sir!" said the thin, intense girl as she saluted.
"Is there danger?" called Wallas anxiously from atop a saddlebag.
"If I thought there might be, I would send you," I responded.
"Brother Wallas, have I ever told you my theory of inner liberation?" asked Riellen.
"Aye, and I've told you what you can do with it!" snarled Wallas.
Roval took out his locket, flicked it open, and began to abuse the image therein.
#
I left them to their bickering and curses, because the milestone we had just passed meant that we were nearly at the end of our journey. The narrow road was wrapped hard against the slope of a mountain, but to the right was clear air, straight down, for a very, very long way. The voices of Riellen, Wallas and Roval faded as the bend hid them, then Alpindrak was before me.
It was as if colossal white crystals capped with silver domes encrusted the summit of the mountain, which was the highest on the continent of Scalticar. The building had once been the summer palace of a very rich king, Senderial IX, who had the rather unusual vice of merely loving to gaze up at the night sky. That was simple and harmless enough, but it turned out to be the most expensive individual vice in the history of the continent. There was no place in Scalticar where the air was more clear than on Alpindrak, so he had had a palace built there at a cost that half-emptied his treasury. After he died, the place was stripped bare by his son. The buildings could not be moved, however, and none of the king's comfort-loving descendants wanted to live in a cold, remote place which was so high that even breathing was difficult, and water boiled when it was only lukewarm The place was assigned a small garrison of soldiers, who were sent there as punishment, but otherwise abandoned.
Alpindrak Palace had experienced sixty years of neglect when some scholar had realised that the newly invented farsights could be used a lot more effectively in the study of other worlds if they were sited very high, where the air was more clear. The monarch of the time bequeathed the otherwise unusable palace to the Skeptical Academy, and ten years later it had become one of the greatest research centres for the cold sciences in the known world.
The place was truly beautiful. I had seen glorious paintings done from the place where I now stood, I had read exquisite poetry inspired by this view, and I even knew hauntingly evocative songs that tried to encompass it. I had indeed been expecting beauty that no art could possibly describe, and the idea of my first glimpse of Alpindrak taking place while Riellen and Wallas bickered about politics and class distinction beside me had been too depressing to contemplate. Thus I was alone when I first caught sight of the palace. I was not disappointed, in fact I was quite overwhelmed. For many minutes I just stood there, letting the mountain, the palace, the deep blue sky, the sound of the wind, and even the chill on the air etch themselves into my memories. After unfolding Lavenci's sketch and showing the scene to my girl's image, I walked back and signalled Riellen and Roval to bring the horses on.
"Obscene excesses of the ruling establishment," declared Riellen as she caught sight of Alpindrak Palace.
"And now a fantastic observatory and cathedral of scholarship for the cold sciences," I responded.
This put Riellen on the moral back foot. Although she had once been a student of sorcery, she felt solidarity with all scholars - except those who wrote histories and chronicles glorifying monarchies, of course.
"Not a patch on the emperor's palace in Palion," said Wallas, poking his head out of a saddlebag. "Did I ever tell you I was once the seneschal there, before I was transformed?"
"As I heard it, the appointment lasted only ten minutes," I replied, hoping to silence him as well.
"Er, well, were it not for the unfortunate death of the emperor it would have been longer."
"Brother Danol told me that you assassinated him," said Riellen in a very approving tone.
"That is not true!" cried Wallas. "I was an unsuspecting pawn in some royal intrigue."
"Oh yes, you were exploited by the ruling establishment," said Riellen, admiration dripping from her words.
"Stop it, both of you!" I snapped irritably. "We are about to enter Alpindrak Palace, and I want no mention of magic, dead emperors, or liberating the riff-raff from the yoke of imperial rule. Riellen, you and I are to be Wayfarer Constables."
"But we are Wayfarer Constables, sir. My badge number is 203, and my guild number is -"
"I mean I want us to be three unremarkable, ordinary, male Wayfarer Constables, who will not cause comment. Tie back your hair, and pull your cloak over your breasts."
"It is a sad statement on the state of society that I must take the guise of a youth in order to experience enough freedom to -"
"Assume the guise of a youth, Riellen, and that is an order."
"Yes sir."
"And Wallas, remember that you are a cat."
"I would have thought that depressingly obvious - sir."
"I mean you are to act like a real cat, because the person we are stalking knows about you. While we are within the walls of Alpindrak you are to say nothing but meow to anyone else but me, or I shall perform a simple but highly distressing operation upon you."
"No need to be crude, sir. I may look like a cat, but I can and do follow orders."
"Roval, there is a final climb of five thousand stone steps to the palace," I said, pointing ahead and upwards. "Get drunk in the palace tonight, and you will wake up with the shakes tomorrow. Five thousand steps with the shakes, Constable Roval, think about it. If you can't walk down, you will have to roll."
"She could have explained that I would be just one of many, I would have understood," sighed Roval. "But she said there was no other but me. I gave her my hearts."
#
We trudged on. The road ended about three thousand feet below the summit, but there was a gate station there. Separating the road from the gate station was a chasm about two hundred feet wide and roughly a mile deep. At the bottom of this was a raging meltwater river. We stopped at a small stone landing, directly opposite the gate station. Beside the landing was a stone arch of green and red granite, and within this was suspended a large brass bell. I untied the clapper and rang it five times, paused, rang twice more, then waited. After a short time there were three peals from a bell on the other side. I replied by ringing twice more.
The doors of the gate station opened outwards, and then a large dragon's head emerged. It was a red, square-sided head, about eight feet high. The jaws were open as it slid out over the chasm. It belched a streamer of burning hellfire oil. Riellen gasped and skipped back, and Wallas gave a yowl of fright before ducking back into the saddlebag.
"An enclosed bridge," I said to reassure Riellen, who was so astonished that she had not even made a sneering remark about establishment extravagance. "It's in my brief. The covering is lacquered hides over a wicker frame. Only the flooring is wood."
"But it breathed fire," said Riellen.
"A simple flamethrower," I explained. "It's designed to frighten superstitious peasant outlaws looking for easy plunder."
"Well I'm no superstitious peasant, and I got such a fright that I wet the blanket in my saddlebag," said Wallas. "What's here to plunder? Who would want to steal giant farsights?"
"They make Senderialvin here."
"That's not right, it comes from vinyards on the Cyrelon Plateau, fifty miles southeast."
"Sorry, I meant Senderialvin Royal."
There was a gasp from the saddlebag, then Wallas lapsed into awed silence. Senderialvin Royal was the rarest, most costly, and delicious wine in the known world.
The fantastic bridge reached the landing, and the lower jaw locked into a slot in the stone lip. Peering in, I saw a grillework door just inside the throat. In the gloom further down the throat there was a guard approaching. He unlocked the door, then walked out onto the landing.
"Name, rank, fealty, and business," he said, holding his hand out for our papers.
"Inspector Danol Scryverin, Wayfarer Constables, delivery of dispatches from the Alberin Academy of Cold Sciences," I replied, saluting.
"Constable Riellen Tallier, Wayfarer Constables, support for Inspector Skryverin," declared Riellen smartly.
"Constable Roval Gravalios, Wayfarer Constables, support for Inspector Scryverin," said Roval in a flat voice.
The guard began to search our packs and saddlebags, and before long he discovered Wallas.
"What the - blow me away! A cat?"
"Special delivery for Stormegarde Garrison," I said explained casually. "They've got a rat situation, like."
"What's this tag on the collar? Ratsbane Pouncer Blackpaw the Seventh?"
"That's his name. The Blackpaw family is highly regarded in ratting circles. He got the title Ratsbane after three hundred confirmed kills."
"Looks a bit fat to be much of a ratter."
"Oh it's all muscle," I assured him.
The guard grunted as he lifted Wallas out to check the bottom of the saddlebag.
"Well, mostly muscle," I added.
"Aye, suppose he'll need some padding, 'cause it gets mighty cold over at Stormegarde," said the guard as he replaced Wallas. "Know the rules for crossing? One at a time, leading your horse. One false move, and a special mechanism releases the lip and hinges the neck to point straight into the chasm -"
"- and dumps me one mile down into the Glacienne River. Should I grab on to something, large rocks will be dropped down the throat of the bridge as an incentive to let go."
"Aye, that's it. I see you've been briefed. I stays here with your weapons until you're all across, and under escort. Then I follows with the weapons, which will be impounded for the duration of your stay."
Crossing the bridge was an anti-climax, because it was steady under foot, and totally enclosed. Riellen followed me, then Roval. We had a short rest, during which Wallas dragged the sodden blanket out of his saddlebag, and Riellen, Roval and I massaged, oiled, and re-bandaged each other's feet. Then we shouldered our packs and began the climb to the palace at the summit. There were five thousand steps cut into the rock, zig-zagging up the slope. Near the end of the climb my pack seemed to have tripled in weight, and we swapped the saddlebag containing Wallas nearly every minute.
The sun was nearly on the horizon as we reached the landing in front of the palace gates, and we stopped to catch our breath as the guard went inside to present our papers. I gazed at the glorious splashes of colour all across the western sky. Miral's immense green face and ring system had the classic shape of a giant crescent bow with an arrow, aimed to fire at the descending sun. The moonworld Dalsh was a bright mote a few degrees from the lordworld's rings, while Belvia was a tiny half-disk near the Zenith, shining like a glowing sapphire. Between them was Lupan, a minute, bright crescent. Lupan was the trickster in sky lore, because it could be brilliant white or blood red. Tonight it shone red.
"How are you doing, Ratsbane Pouncer Blackpaw the Seventh?" I asked.
"Veteran of three hundred kills," sounded from the saddlebag.
"Did he really ... kill three hundred rats ... sir?" wheezed Riellen between laboured breaths.
"No, sometimes one has to lie when duty to the service requires it."
"I once killed a mouse," protested Wallas.
"Aye, when you fell off a barrel while drunk and squashed it."
"That took real skill, I'm famous around the Alberin taverns for it. You know that song, The Cat On The Barrel?"
"I think you are getting fame mixed up with infamy, Wallas. Now then, we're about to enter the palace, so do you need to step out for a kitty crappy?"
"No, I'm busy licking my arse. It's the worst part of being a cat."
I had actually meant him to share the beautiful view of sunset, with Miral, Dalsh, Lupan and Belvia strung out above it, but after that comment I decided not to risk further damage to my memories of the glorious vista of lights and colours. For a moment I wished so intensely that Lavenci were there that the feeling was a real ache, then I glanced over at Riellen, who was hugging her knees and breathing through her mouth.
"Will you hear me play the sun down?" I asked.
"Lower middle class male exclusionist ritual ..." she managed, then lapsed into laboured panting.
Although she was wiry, tough and determined, the thin air at seventeen thousand feet had Riellen close to her limits of endurance. I noticed that she was actually looking at the sky over her spectacles, however. This really did surprise me, until I realised that by now it was too dark for her to read her political book. She was looking up at Lupan.
"When Lupan shines so deeply red there will be deaths," said Roval as he sat rubbing the cramps from his legs.
"Mere superstition," Riellen panted, "from which common folk ... should be liberated."
"It's nearing inferior conjunction, its closest approach to us," I said. "Sometimes I wonder if there are folk on Lupan, looking up at the night sky and wondering about our world."
"Well I was wondering if there are downtrodden peasants there living under the yoke of an oppressive royal establishment," said Riellen, who then fainted with the effort of speaking such a long sentence in the rarified air. The guard called out from the palace gate that our papers had been cleared.
Thus it was that I entered Alpindrak Observatory, gasping like a landed fish, feeling so giddy that I could hardly walk in a straight line, my lungs burning like a smithy's forge, generally feeling as if I were eighty instead of eighteen and not wearing my years well ... and carrying two backpacks, Wallas, and Riellen. The badly cramped Roval was also holding on to me for support. In spite of all that, there was one thing more that I had to do, one of those life's ambitions that has no foundation in common sense.
Leaving my squad in an untidy pile just inside the gates, I took my pack and climbed the steps of the palace wall. There, working with great haste, I assembled my bagpipes. The three extended drones and their special reeds went into the stock within a couple of dozen heartbeats, and the custom-built chanter was already in place. The mountains were jagged on the sun's face as I propped Lavenci's sketch up with my axe, stood, and puffed into the bag. Now I pressed down hard with my left arm, spoke the drones, and began to play Evening's All For Courting. Even customised, the pipes were not at their best in the thin air, but I did manage to play the sun down from the highest peak in all of Scalticar. With the sun down but the horizon still glowing, I played Truelove's Fancy, then finished with Stars In My Lassie's Eyes. As I ended, there was a pattering of applause, and a few cheerscame from some guards down on the battlements. Down in the courtyard I saw Roval saluting me.
"Lass, if only you could have been here," I whispered to Lavenci's portrait.
#

 

CHAPTER TWO: IN ALPINDRAK PALACE

Half an hour after we arrived I was summoned to meet with Nortan, Astronomer General of the Skepticals, and head of Alpindrak Observatory. Announcements of great discoveries at Alpindrak were sent to the outside world via carrier pigeon, but most sketches, data tables, and suchlike were carried down annually by horse, in a large satchel. Observation requests were handled the same way. I presented a satchel of observation requests from the Skeptical Academy of Cold Sciences, and Nortan told me that a satchel of observations for the year past would be ready for me to collect the following morning. We Wayfarers were then invited to join him for what was for us dinner, but was breakfast for Nortan.
"Your first time up here at the palace?" he asked as we sat down to bowls of leek, cabbage and chicken soup, washed down with a light red wine,
"Yes sir, I volunteered for the trip," was my reply. "I wanted to play the sun down with my bagpipes."
"Oh I heard, I heard. You played Evening's All For Courting. What's your set?"
"Alberinese parade pipes, by Carrasen, modified by Duntrovey."
"Wonderful. I'll add all that to the register."
"You have a register?"
"Oh yes, we keep a register of all who make the journey here, and of anything special that they do. Brilliant idea, playing the sun down on the summit of Alpindrak, well done!"
"Thank you."
"Was that the only reason you volunteered to journey here?"
"Not entirely. I am something of an amateur astronomer."
"Oh, very good!" he replied, clapping his hands with delight. "I am unused to meeting couriers who have not been given the trip up here as punishment. What do you think of breakfast?"
"Delicious. You eat well."
"The staff grow most of what we need in the palace greenhouses."
"You do? But hardly anything grows outside," I pointed out. "Why is it different in the palace?"
"I concede that the air is thin, but cold and lack of rich soil is most of the problem outside. Our greenhouses are warm and, er, well manured, if you catch my meaning. There are only two dozen of us here, so they produce more than we need. We also grow grapes and make Senderialvin Royal, our famous heaven wine."
"I once met a man whose commander had tasted it," I said suavely.
"Try some?"
I very nearly fell from my chair. Senderialvin Royal sold for eleven gold crowns a jar in Alberin, and the jars were very small. I nodded my head, my mouth hanging open. Roval shook his head, but to my surprise, Riellen nodded also. Must have decided that this is a case of the delights of rich oppressors being shared among common people, I thought as the Astronomer General left the table. He returned with three tiny crystal goblets, and a jar about as long and thick as my thumb. There was a splash of golden stars across the label, which bore the year 3140. The wine was a distinctly golden colour, and although I am no wine fancier, I sniffed the bouquet and examined the colour in the lamplight before taking my first sip.
"What do you think?" asked Nortan.
"It's liquid enchantment," I said softly, although the words did not even come close to defining the experience of drinking Senderialvin Royal.
"You have just drunk the value of at least half a year of your wages," he laughed. "A reward for coming all the way up here."
"But surely it will be missed," I replied.
"No, we are allowed a jar or two in return for helping with the cultivation. I am not much of a drinker, so I share my ration with the few fellow lovers of celestial beauty who manage the long and difficult trip up here. Constable Riellen, what do you think?"
"Riellen?" I prompted, but she was asleep, still sitting up. I now realised that her earlier nod was actually her nodding off to sleep. "I'll carry him to bed once we've eaten."
I reached out and shook Roval, but he too was asleep.
"Your men have had a hard day of it," observed the Astronomer General.
"Rovel takes a few drops of sleeping draught when the opportunity to drink is upon him. He was sent with me to reform his drinking habits, and it is his last chance with the Wayfarers. As for Riellen, don't ask."
"Well then, best not waste any."
With steady hands and great care, Nortan poured Riellen's share back into the jar, then corked it and handed it to me.
"Surprise him with this later," he said genially.
"It will be greatly appreciated," I replied, but thought Mind you, I'm not going to say just who will do the appreciating.
"Is not Riellen a girl's name?" he now asked.
"He is from Alberin. Stress the second syllable and it is a girl's name. Emphasise the first, and it names a boy."
"But she - er, he has a Sargolan accent."
"He was a student there."
"I see, I see. Well, you two have come a very long way, so I should not keep you from your beds," he said, ringing a small bell for the table maid. "I, on the other hand must get to work."
"With your lordship's permission, I would like to take my own little farsight out onto the battlements. It's only a Cassentron Brothers foldaway with a two inch objective, but I have had a brass stand made for viewing the heavens."
"Of, course, why not?" he said expansively. "King Senderial would have been proud of you - but what am I thinking? Come to the main dome once you have put your men to bed. I shall give you an entire hour, I'll show you the lordworld and moonworlds through our giant fourteen inch reflector."
#
My cunning plan had fallen flat on its face. Rather than have an excuse to go prowling the palace grounds and battlements for the whole night, I would now have to spend at least an hour with the Astronomer General. I dumped Riellen onto her bed and flung a quilt over her without even bothering to remove her trail boots, then fetched Roval to his own bedchamber. Back in my own room at last, I dragged Wallas out of the saddlebag by the scruff of the neck and held him up.
"It's night," he mumbled peevishly.
"Cats are nocturnal," I pointed out. "I brought you a chicken wing."
"Probably cooked with no great skill, but leave it in my dish, I shall consider it presently."
"I also brought half a jar of Senderialvin Royal."
Wallas suddenly became a large, furry ball of thrashing, frantic limbs and tail. I dropped him on the bed, but he immediately bounded off and sat beside his bowl looking expectantly up at me.
"Well don't just stand there, pour it out!" he demanded. "Have you tried any yet?"
"Only after you have searched the palace for the empress," I said sternly.
"What? That will take all night! We don't even know she's here, and, and ... what heartless, cruel torturer could make me wait all night for a taste of Senderialvin Royal? Er, what year did you say it was?"
"I didn't, but it's 3140."
"Oh yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! A classic, from before the Torean Storms."
"But as the great Captain Gilvray once said, Victory first, victory feast second."
"I don't believe you really have a jar of Senderialvin Royal at all!" Wallas suddenly exclaimed.
I took the jar from my pocket and held it out for him to see.
"Bastard," he muttered, with a very feline scowl.
"I saw the duty roster board when I called in at the kitchen to collect your chicken wing. There are twenty eight people in the palace: Riellen, Roval, me, the two dozen who live here, and one other guest."
"A visiting astronomer, no doubt," he grumbled.
"I wonder. For the past three nights Riellen has noticed magical activity in the area when she goes into her darkwalking trances. There is a powerful sorcery initiate nearby, and there is one extra person in the palace. Find that person, Wallas, and a generous measure of what is left in the jar is yours."
I shook the jar, to show that some was left.
"Don't, you'll bruise the wine!" he yowled.
"Rendezvous with me every hour at the north tower," I said as I put the jar away. "There's a little courtyard at its base. I shall be with the Astronomer General for the first hour, and when I have escaped his tour of the skies, I shall want a full report on likely places to hide in the palace."
#
Although the buildings of the original palace were fashioned from thick, finely wrought blocks of granite faced with marble, the domes housing the farsights were merely of lacquered wood painted white on the outside. The brass and crystal instruments and their clockwork drive engines had been far more costly to build than the domes, yet they crowned the palace beautifully, and gave it the aspect of a temple.
It was two hours past sunset when the Astronomer General finally sent for me. He was in the main observation dome, which was lit dimly by a single lamp with a red shade.
"Come in Danol, come in," he said without looking up from the farsight's eyepiece as I entered. "You are just in time. Miral is on the horizon, but you can still see a lot."
Through the eyepiece I saw on the lordworld's surface great swirls of green in many different shades. The simple bands that the naked eye can make out on our lordworld are actually made up of an intricate embroidery of whorls, eddies, swirls, and spirals. The rings were nearly edge on at this time of the month, and when the Astronomer General trained the farsight on them and put a more powerful eyepiece at the focus hole in the main mirror, I could see tiny twinkles. There was perhaps one flash every two or three seconds.
"They sparkle and glitter," I breathed in heartfelt wonder.
"We think the rings are made of tumbling blocks of ice, some the size of this palace. Every so often one catches the sun, and you see a little flash."
We continued our celestial tour. Dalsh, the closest moonworld to the lordworld, was no more than a mottled crescent of gray, white, orange, green and blue.
"We think Dalsh is more similar to our own moonworld than any other," said the Astronomer General. "You are seeing forests, seas and clouds. Now let us swing right up past Lupan to Belvia."
Belvia was mostly covered in oceans, in fact its entire land area was less than that of our continent of Scalticar. I saw a half-disk of dark blue, with white caps of ice at the poles, greenish splashes that were its islands, and vast, ragged cloud systems.
"Last of all, I give you Lupan," said my host as he moved the farsight again.
At this time Lupan presented itself as a thick crescent. Most of the sunlit part was reddish orange, with smears of white at the poles. Its seas were no bigger than Belvia's islands. There were the famous canals, of course. Some meandered like rivers, but others were quite straight, and there were thickenings where they intersected.
"I see the canals," I said slowly.
"Ah no, that is vegetation spreading out in their vicinity - and they are not really canals, they are channels. Scribe's error in the original pronouncement of discovery, you see."
"How could such straight, regular features not be artificial?" I asked.
"They might be great earthquake cracks filled with water, perhaps. One must keep an open mind, else we would return to magic and all be mere sorcerers."
"I defer to your scholarship, my lord," I said, reminding myself of my place.
"Danol, you too speak with the tone and authority of a scholar," he observed "How came you to be a Wayfarer?"
"An unfortunate incident in my past," I volunteered without looking away from the eyepiece.
"Would you consider a vocation to the Order of Skepticals?"
"Such a vocation would not suit me, sir. It shames me to admit it, but I am too fond of drink, song, and alluring women."
"Ah, pity. So, do you like the farsight? It is called Gigoptica, and it is the largest in the known world. The brass tube is twenty feet long, with a silvered concave mirror at the base and a secondary at the top. The main mirror is the real treasure. It is fourteen inches in diameter, two inches greater than the next largest anywhere."
"And where is that, sir?"
"Why in the north dome, of course. We have here the four largest farsights ever made. This one, the twelve inch, and two eleven inch reflectors. There is also a very short focus ten inch reflector. That one is for wide field viewing, we use it to hunt comets and other moonworlds."
"Others sir?" I asked innocently. "There are only four."
"Oh no, there are nine now. The five new ones are quite tiny, in fact the two smallest are in orbit around Lupan. Moons of a moonworld, can you imagine that? We discovered them all. What sorcerer could ever do that with magic? Let me check my tables, I'll try to find a comet for you."
He went off to a side room, leaving me to observe Lupan alone. The farsight was of the type that had a second, smaller mirror at the top end, and a hole for an eyepiece in the main mirror at the base. As I gazed into the eyepiece, I saw what was familiar to me from drawings, except that it was now so real that it seemed almost artificial. Lupan was strangely sharp in the field, too bright, too well defined, too stark, too intensely coloured. The clockwork drive clacked steadily, keeping the moonworld in the field of view. Its two tiny moons gleamed like luminescent diamonds beside it.
"I see very few clouds in Lupan's atmosphere," I said as Nortan returned.
"That's why it shines so red tonight," he replied.
Through the largest farsight that existed, I was gazing at another world's orange deserts, little blue seas, and dark green vegetation. Forests or cultivated fields, I wondered? The lines looked so deliberate, they had to be artificial canals across the deserts. Where they intersected there was always a dark dot. Were these cities? Several canals ran to the gleaming white polar cap.
"Lupan is always good value for a viewing," Nortan remarked.
"It's quite beautiful," said I, enraptured.
"Your interest gratifies me. I have had dukes, counts, princes, even kings in here, but they merely squint, grunt, then ask what else they might look at."
"Those canals simply have to be artificial," I speculated again.
"Why? Is there evidence?"
"Some sorcerers say that they are aware of castings done on Lupan. They say that they could make contact with the minds of Lupanian sorcerers if -"
"If they had a sufficiently large research bequest," interjected the astronomer. "Sorcerers just talk, but what we have here is a direct view, not some dream journey that non-sorcerers are cut off from forever. I am a Skeptical, all of us here in the palace are Skepticals. We believe only what is before us, and what is before us is the face of Lupan, with seas, rivers, forests, deserts, and polar wastelands. That is fact, and fact is all that there is."
As he was speaking there was a faint flash, no more than a twinkle, on the darkened area of Lupan's disk. I gasped, and the Astronomer General asked what was the matter.
"I saw a small flash on the dark side of Lupan."
"A flash?"
"And now there's a sort of faint glowing dot against the darkness."
"A dot?"
"It's very, very faint."
"Twenty one minutes past the ninth hour of noon by our escarpment clock," mumbled the Astronomer General, and I heard the frantic scratching of chalk on slate. "Quickly now, let me see!"
He was at the eyepiece for a long time, all the while writing and sketching on his slateboard.
"I estimate that it is squarely on the equator, where the Lontassimar Canal crosses the Florastia Desert. There are known to be isolated mountains in that area ... and there is a definite glow that is spreading in a circle, but it is fading as it spreads. A volcanic eruption, I would say."
"Might it have been artificial?" I suggested.
"Oh no. That cloud is by now larger than a small kingdom. No civilization could stage such a massive blast."
"Four years ago our own civilization set off an ancient weapon that destroyed a continent," I pointed out. "That triggered the Torean storms, and after nearly four years they have only just started to decline."
"Yes, but that was an accident."
"Indeed lordship, Lupanians might have accidents."
"They would not be so silly."
"Well three years ago our sorcerers girdled our entire world with that ether machine Dragonwall, lordship. "It melted several cities when some very vindictive people got control of it."
"And several of our temples! That was a typical sorcerer's endeavour. All lights and spectacle, no theory or principles. No wonder it self-destructed and killed them all."
"But perhaps there are sorcerers on Lupan, making the same mistakes as did ours."
"The Lupanian would be far too sensible to build a thing like Dragonwall."
"What basis in fact do you have for saying that, lordship?" I asked innocently.
That remark struck at his honour as a Skeptical. He looked up from the eyepiece, glared at me for a moment, seemed to privately concede that I might have a point, then looked back at Lupan about as eagerly as a drunkard taking a swig from a jar of good wine.
"There's a bell rope to the left of the door," he said urgently. "Kindly give five rings to summon the other astronomers here."
#
Five rings was clearly the code for a summons of the very greatest possible urgency. The four other astronomer Skepticals arrived within a half minute, followed by the four artisan technicians, a serving maid who wanted to know if anyone wanted a cup of tea, the cook with a tray of shortbreads, and nine guards who looked as if they were rather bored and were hoping for a good show.
The Astronomer General hurriedly explained what I had seen, what he could see, and what it might mean. The other four astronomers scattered to the other four farsights, followed by various members of the palace staff. I considered the situation. There were by now only two guards actually on duty, and they were three thousand feet below in the gate station. Everyone else was in the five farsight domes.
I slipped away, met with Wallas, and listened to his report on the palace. He had done a fairly thorough general search, but being unable to open doors meant that virtually every small room and bedchamber would have to be checked by me.
"The thin air makes exertion all the more unpleasant," Wallas complained.
"So, you finally exerted yourself enough to notice."
"Can I have my Senderialvin Royal 3140 now?"
"No! While I check the small rooms, you must keep watch for anyone slinking about, trying to change their hiding place."
"What about Riellen and Roval?"
"Riellen has been walking all day, and is liable to faint again unless she gets a few hours of sleep. Roval has taken his sleeping drug, but you spent the day in a saddlebag and are ready for anything. Get moving, exert yourself again."
I left him, and began to search the palace complex. No doors were padlocked, except for the Senderialvin Royal stores, but the racks of grotesquely expensive wine were visible through a grillwork door, and I could see that nobody was hiding in there. The large halls were empty, cold and still bare, but the greenhouses were planted to capacity and still warm from the day's sunshine. There were literally hundreds of bed chambers, parlours and sunrooms to check.
I prowled the corridors, battlements and cloisters for hour after hour, but found nothing. It was tiring work, for I had been walking all day and the air was very thin. All the while I was unaware that a thing was now hurtling through the void, on course for our moonworld. Even had I known, I could scarcely have believed it. The night was clear, tranquil, and exceedingly cold, and Lupan seemed so very far away as I caught sight of it through a sunroom window.
By nearly two hours past midnight I had found nothing, yet I had explored less than a quarter of the palace. I needed help. Roval had drugged himself asleep, so Riellen would have to be roused after all. Returning to her room, I rapped at the door. There was no sound. No sound from my knuckles, that is. Some sort of muffle spell, I guessed. I reached down for the latch, but traceries of blue fire lashed out and stung my hand. Magic, I thought, rubbing my fingers. I knew just enough about sorcery to be wary of guard spells and castings. Some of them could remove a finger. Riellen was probably sleeping safely inside the chamber, unaware that she was trapped. I was still free, of course ... but it was now obvious that my quarry knew we were in Alpindrak to find her.
The bell of the clock in the north tower clanged out the second hour past midnight, so I hurried away to my rendezvous with Wallas. He was not there when I arrived, and at fifteen minutes past the hour I decided that he would not be meeting with me. We hunters had become the hunted, and our ranks were already down by three quarters.
#
I abandoned my lamp and hurried away into the shadows. If the empress knew we were after her, she would certainly not be asleep. She might also have been watching me search the palace. There was no way for her to know that we had not left more constables to form a roadblock on the track down the neighbouring mountain, so she would not try to escape that way. She could escape, however. She was a sorceress as well as a monarch.
My eye was caught by a bright flash of light on the western battlements. Magic, she's there, I thought at once, then I reconsidered. Timed castings were possible, in fact those on Riellen's door would probably dissolve at dawn. Empress Wensomer's dazzle casting would annoy the astronomers, but was probably meant to catch my attention. Another flash blazed out at the same place, tempting me to go there. The wind was coming from the west, meaning that the eastern battlements were relatively sheltered. That was where she would be.
I was probably more hasty than I should have been as I hurried along to the east of the palace. There was a long, wide balcony built into the main wall, about halfway down. Once courtiers and ambassadors had milled about there, wearing furs against the cold, breathing heavily in the thin air, and sipping warm drinks as they attended the eccentric king who liked to hold court beneath the glory of the stars. Now, for the first time in seven decades, another monarch was present.
My expectation was that Wensomer would use huge etheric wings to escape. I had never seen such a thing done, but I knew it was possible. Wings of ether could be cast by a really skilled initiate. The wings weighed nothing, and could be used to ride the air currents and glide dozens, or even hundreds of miles if the winds were favourable. I had expected that she would have been busy casting the giant wings, putting all of her power and concentration into the task. I was wrong. I have since realised that I had been dealing with one of the most intelligent and cunning people on the continent.
A dazzle casting burst before my face as I hurried out of the archway leading onto the balcony. I flung myself down at once, but my momentum carried me across to the smooth tiles to the railing at the edge. I clung to a stone pillar, aware that there was an immense amount of nothingness mere inches away, terrified of what I knew was there, and blind. Something lashed at my upper body, something that wrapped itself about me very tightly and bound me to the pillar. Empress Wensomer had not been busy casting wings for an escape, she had been waiting in ambush for me.
"Your majesty, I am your servant," I wheezed hopefully."Inspector Danolarian Scryverin, at your service."
The reply was some time in coming, but I could hear someone pacing about, and the jingling of buckles.
"The Wayfarer inspector," she said at last. "I saw you climbing the steps this afternoon, then I watched you searching the palace. You were sent to find me, let us have no stories to the contrary."
"Yes, your majesty."
"You are the same Wayfarer who nearly caught me at Malvar, Dekkeridge and Green Castle?"
"Indeed, but -"
"Your dedication, resourcefulness and intelligence leaves me astounded. It also annoys me a great deal."
"I apologise, your majesty, but -"
"You are not trying to kill me. You had the chance at Dekkeridge but did not take it. Just why are you chasing me?"
"Your empire needs you -"
"My empire needs me like a fish needs a towel. I am not going back, and there's an end to it."
"But a usurper -"
"There's a usurper already? Wonderful."
"It's Regent Corozan."
"Even better. My rather decadent rule will seem a golden age when compared to his."
"You cannot mean that."
"Oh yes I can. What was all that fuss earlier tonight? I heard talk of a mighty explosion."
"There was a huge explosion on Lupan, your majesty."
"Lupan the moonworld, or that place in south Alberin - Lupan's Discrete Entertainments for Discerning Ladies?"
"The moonworld, your majesty."
"So, that is why everyone is in the domes. The astronomers must be as happy as pigs in a cesspit. So, you are Inspector Danolarian Scryverin of the Wayfarer Constables. You saved my sister's life just before I abdicated."
"Ah, that is not so, your majesty," I said after thinking carefully. "The only princess I ever served was Senterri, daughter of the Sargolan Emperor. I was but a humble reccon in her escort."
"But my sister is also a sorceress - albino girl, your height, and her eyes are black from being treated with squid ink."
Every muscle in my body clenched for a moment, then everything collapsed from beneath me. My stomach became a chasm deeper and darker than that whose edge I was lying on.
"Lavenci?" I gasped. "Er, that is, Lady Lavenci? She is your sister?"
"My half-sister, we have a mother in common, with whom she runs a secret academy of sorcery. I made her a noble before I abdicated, she's now a kavelen. Anything more elevated and she might get ideas."
That had been a bad moment. Wensomer as my sweetheart's sister would have meant that my sweetheart was my half-sister. The world suddenly became a warm, bright, and wonderful place again - even though I was still blinded, and bound to a pillar at the edge of a shadowy chasm that was about a thousand times deeper than was necessary to kill me.
"So, where did she have you?" asked Wensomer. "The pantry, or the towel cupboard?"
"I - er, your pardon?"
"You know, skirts up, drawers down. Don't tell me it was in bed! She's such a biter, Laron still had the marks on his neck twenty days after their first night together."
"Laron, as in the Presiding Advisor to the Regent of Alberin?" I asked as the solid flagstones beneath me suddenly became a mixture of chilly quicksand and acid.
"Didn't you know? Oops, what a gossip I am."
"Your majesty, I'm but a lowly inspector with the Wayfarers," I said, reeling from her candour."I'd not have dreamed of courting a great and powerful noblewoman, had I known."
"I'd not let that worry you, Danolarian. Lavenci has laid amourous ambushes for more than her share of spotty students in mother's academy - she likes them intelligent, you know. She raised her skirts for ... Ulderver, Decrullin, and Laron, to name but a few. Then there was the prefect, Lees, oh, and that chinless tutor, Haravigel. Actually, she managed an encounter with Laron on the roof, I chanced upon them during the very act." -"
"Never!" I cried involuntarily. "Never! Never! Stop it, damn you! Stop it!"
"Whatever is the matter?" asked Wensomer, her tone suddenly one of puzzlement, and sounding almost concerned. "Just what did she do with you?"
By now I was beyond humiliation. The world had ended, what did I care what people knew of me, or thought?
"We held hands, danced, kissed goodnight five times, shared groundnut rolls at the market, and watched two sunsets."
For a moment or two Wensomer actually had to stop and think.
"And that's all?"
"Once ... once I made so bold as to caress her breast. She slapped my hand away."
"What? She's had more hands on her breasts than I've had hangovers. Dear me, why were you so low in her esteem, Danolarian?"
"You must have another sister," I said desperately.
"Only one is still alive. I know she likes a bit of adventure to spice her lust, she's the grope and fumble type. I, on the other hand, like huge beds, silk sheets, a featherdown mattress deep enough to suffocate in, sweet pastries and fine wine to hand, and the privacy that locked doors provide. So you and she never, you know, did it?"
I was lying on cold flagstones, blinded, and bound to the base of a pillar by etheric tendrils with the strength of steel, yet the distress caused by what I had just been told was far worse. In an instant I had learned for myself what had made Roval curse the image in his locket for three years. My only attempt at love, flung down, shattered, and trampled. I resolved to preserve a little of my pride, if that was at all possible.
"No," I said with as much dignity as I could muster.
"Really? I wonder why. She had two broken ribs the night she met you, care of the Inquisition Constables. Perhaps she was waiting for them to heal before supporting your weight ... yet there was nothing to stop you supporting hers. I know that she researched your background in the government archives."
"She did?"
"Yes. She said you were once a rather thick-witted sailor, and that you vanished on a voyage to Diomeda. Two years later you were back in Alberin, speaking nine languages, able to read, write, and quote from the classics, and proficient with half a dozen weapons. You had been in the escort of a Sargolan princess, a hero at the Battle of Racewater Bridge, and a member of the Regency Guard of Capefang."
"I believe in self-improvement."
"And eleven inches taller."
"Nutritious food and healthy exercise."
"You seem to have grown back an eye lost in a tavern brawl."
"I, er, met a skilled sorcerer."
"Presumably he also restored the ear you lost to a broken bottle in yet another tavern brawl?"
"Er, yes."
"Inspector Danolarian Scryverin of the Wayfarer Constables, you know that you are not Danolarian Scryverin, I know that you are not Danolarian Scryverin, and you know that I know that you are not Danolarian Scryverin. I also know that you know that I could be very indiscrete about what I know about you, and that you would prefer that nobody else should know what I know about you."
"Very knowledgeable of you, your majesty."
"Did you kill Danolarian Scryverin?"
"No."
"Then what?"
"It was in Diomeda, when the Toreans invaded. They turned on free beer and wine in the city for an entire night, to get the locals sympathetic to them. The next morning I found Danol's body on the banks of the Leir River. More people died of the drink that night than died in the fighting for Diomeda. I looted his papers. It was easy to change identities in the confusion."
"Who were you before that?"
"A humble Torean refugee," I said as respectfully as I could, and I heard her laugh softly.
"The only Toreans in Diomeda were sailors and marines who were with the invasion fleet. Four years ago. That would make you rather young then."
"Nineteen."
"Really? Sailor or marine?"
"Deck hand."
"Interesting. An educated youth would have been made a cabin boy, a shipmaster's clerk, or a navigator's apprentice. To enlist as a deck hand implies that you wished to conceal your excellent education. Perhaps a pregnant girl somewhere back on Torea? Or perhaps a pregnant sister, and her dead lover's blood on your knife?"
"It was a matter of honour," I said vaguely.
"I thought as much."
My eyes were beginning to clear, and I could see the blue tracery of a tether casting wrapped tightly around me. I could also see a darkly dressed figure kneeling nearby, wearing a pack and snowmask. Two spires of pale light were growing out of the palms of her hands, and they were already about ten feet in height. As they grew, they faded. From my general reading, I knew this to be the etherwings casting. An experienced sorcerer can cast a spike of energies, split it, and mould it into two mighty wings that weigh nothing at all. A sorcerer so powerful that even the minor gods are nervous about offending can grow a double spike. I knew that the empress was not to be trifled with, but had not suspected her powers to be in this sort of league. The casting did seem to be a strain on her, however, because she was breathing heavily.
"Your eyes must be recovering by now, Danolarian. Can you see that I have ... lost a great deal of weight?"
"I'll be sure not to tell anyone, your majesty," I replied at once.
"You had damn well better tell them! I worked hard to lose those one hundred and thirty pounds, and I want everyone to know it. Three years as empress! My word was law. Orgies ... almost daily. My pick of the most delightful ... expensive and exotic foods. Several dozen lovers ... or was it several hundred? When I fled ... had to be shipped out ... in a firewood wagon. Quite humiliating."
It seemed to me that the spikes of faint, shimmering light were about a hundred feet high when she spoke some words of power that caused them to separate. As the two spikes folded outwards they grew broader, flattening into intricately patterned, delicate structures, like dragonfly wings. Occasional gusts of wind pummelled them about.
"That is the hardest part of the casting done," Empress Wensomer panted with relief. "I shall soon be gone. Your tether casting will collapse around dawn."
"But why flee, your majesty? Your rule was wise, there was peace and prosperity. Nobody else could have so cunningly conducted the Inquisition against sorcerers while sending the Secret Inquisition Constables out to rescue them. What shall I say to my master?"
"What indeed?" she panted, now fashioning harness castings and control tendrils for the enormous wings. They glowed very faintly, like a tapestry of spider webs, and they probably weighed even less. "Excess began to make me ... very sick. I was confined to my bed ... without company. Had time to think. Dangerous pastime, thinking. Do you know ... why magic is like too many really wild orgies?"
"Why - What? I, er, no," I confessed. "I have no magical talent, and I've not ever been to an orgy."
"Both are bad for you in the long run," she explained, her breathing now becoming easier. "Vices should be enjoyed sparingly, and with a guilty conscience. Magic is like that, too. Before the Inquisition we had magical academies churning out an entire sorcerer class! There were whole industries based on magic. Then our sorcerers were stupid enough to link together, and create vast ether machines. They wiped out entire cities and temples with Dragonwall."
"But it was destroyed."
"Hah. Pure luck. The monarchs are right to ban all magic and sorcery. Giant ether machines have destroyed one continent, two islands, and several dozen cities, temples, towns, and castles in just under five years. At that rate the entire world will be merely a thick layer of char and melted rock within a century. When I became empress I banned sorcery in public while supporting in secret. Soon it was thriving as never before, and I discovered that I had organised a mighty and effective secret government. I had also begun to resemble my father. He was not a nice man. I imagined him as the emperor of all Scalticar. I compared him to myself. The resemblance was disturbing in the extreme. I had become empress by accident, but I was about the most dangerous person who could have blundered her way onto the throne."
I lay thinking for some moments, shocked beyond bearing. Far from sorcery being a dying and persecuted art, it was a conspiracy to rule the continent.
"This is like a nobleman ordering the slaughter of some village of his own people, so that he can have an atrocity to blame on an enemy," I said forlornly.
"Bright lad. I disbanded the Secret Inquisition Constables, I put several thoroughly nasty little bastards in places where they had access to dangerous amounts of power and secret information, I destroyed the sorceric government by a series of carefully staged betrayals, and then I vanished."
I had been a founding member of the first squad of Secret Inquisition Constables, so I well remembered the incomprehension in our ranks when we were disbanded. Some of us had become very sympathetic to the sorcerers, so we had voluntarily continued with the secret rescues.
The empress began to insert her arms into the harness built into the fantastic wings. The wings trembled and wobbled slightly with every puff of turbulence, even though we were in the lee of the palace and sheltered from the western wind. She stood up, very slowly and carefully. In spite of her heavy clothing, I could see that she was now fit, lean, and strong. My master had warned me that she had the willpower to transform herself from being helplessly overweight to fit enough to join the Special Warrior Service. With three months of manic exercise and dieting, she had done it.
"I am no longer a monarch, Inspector Danol, so tell your master that I've abdicated. And do not cause trouble for these kind Alpindrak folk by telling people that they sheltered me. Last of all, do not try to follow me, or I shall get very, very angry. A pleasure to do blackmail with you, but it is time to go - and don't think about letting the pure and virtuous Constable Riellen, the heartbroken and alcoholic Roval, or the fat and furry Wallas betray me in your stead. I shall hurt anyone who corners me."
"Ladyship, I will be ordered to go after you again."
"Then you will have to face me when I am very, very angry. Pity, you strike me as rather cute. I tell you what, as my last act as empress I order you to stop following me. Oh, and one more thing."
"Yes?"
"I loved it when you played the sun down with Evening's All For Courting. It set me shivering with delight. I might ... I might even wish to meet you again, Inspector, under nicer circumstances. Half-sister Lavenci might be stupid enough to spurn you, but I am not. Take that as a compliment, but for now, goodbye. It's been a real challenge eluding you."
Without another word Wensomer took a short run at the railing, jumped up, pushed off over the chasm with one foot, and went sailing out into the darkness. After only a moment I could see her no more, for Miral and the three moonworlds were all down, and the stars gave very little light by comparison.
#
Wensomer's tether casting bound me tightly for the rest of the night, so I had a lot of time to think. I thought mainly about Kavelen Lavenci, half-sister of the empress. After my colleagues and I had rescued her from the Inquisition Constables, we had gone to a tavern, and there we had danced for a time before I had walked her home. We had kissed at the door, and agreed to meet again. I remember four afternoons spent at Riverfront Market, wandering among the stalls and holding hands. On our last evening together we had shared a groundnut roll for dinner, watching the sun set behind the Ridgeback Mountains, then we had kissed, pressing greasy lips together in the deepening shadows. I had fondled her left breast, and had had my hand slapped for my trouble. I had felt rather foolish and chastened as we walked slowly to the doorway behind which was her home. She had not kissed me goodnight.
The next day had seen Constable Riellen released from three weeks in the public stocks for incitement to riot, Constable Roval released from two weeks in the stocks for being drunk on duty, and myself promoted from lieutenant inspector to inspector first class and awarded a field magistrate commission. A three month tour of duty, with secret orders to seek out the empress, was assigned to me, along with instructions to leave Alberin that day, before Riellen found another crowd to address, or Roval got anywhere near a tavern. I had sent many letters to Lavenci since then, but no replies had arrived at the regional Wayfarer offices that I nominated in my letters.
The annual climb of Alpindrak for the collection of observation sketches had also been assigned to me as a means to search out Wensomer. Lavenci, sister of the empress. The thought conjured a feeling like acid in the pit of my stomach. Lavenci, a kavelen and an academician, as well as a sorceress. She had told me none of that, nor had she discussed allowing the most extreme of intimacies with students and tutors. Then she had slapped my hand when it had merely wandered to her breast. Why was I so very repulsive? I gazed over the edge of the wall, contemplating the long, long drop to jagged rocks, and realising why suicide can hold such an allure for some lovers.
I was watching the sun rise over the Drakenridge Mountains when the casting finally collapsed and released me. I was numb, stiff and cold, and dismayed to see that clouds were gathering, foreshadowing bad weather. Worst of all, I was wretched to the very core of my soul about what Wensomer had told me. In addition to all that, I was also slightly depressed for failing my master. I had been ordered to find the empress and bring her back. The idea that she had fled deliberately had never entered anyone's thoughts. The concept of sorcerers persecuting sorcerers in the cause of wiping out sorcery so that sorcerers could rule all Scalticar was so confusing that I was still not entirely sure if I had the story right.
The castings on Riellen's door had collapsed while she was still asleep. I entered and woke her.
"Apologies for being so tired, sir, my lungs are not adequate for the thin air," she said sleepily.
"No problem, constable, in fact you are authorised to sleep in this morning."
I took out a silver florin, put half a dozen scratches across the likeness of Empress Wensomer with my knife, then dropped it into her hand.
"Sir, you have defaced a coin of the realm," she said uncertainly.
"I found the empress and spoke with her. She is no longer empress. That is a one florin bonus for you, because I feel like doing something to celebrate. Now go back to sleep, we'll be going home later today."
Wallas had been hidden in the one place I would never have thought to search: my own room. He was on my bed, tied in a sack.
"Cunning bitch was too fast for me!" snapped Wallas as I released him.
No creature other than a cat can put quite so much venom into the word "bitch." He sat on my bed and began to groom himself.
"Brilliant woman," I sighed as I sat on the bed beside him. "Well, she's gone now."
"As in flown away?"
"Yes, and - hold a moment! How did you know she could fly?"
"I am a cat with a past. She fancied me when I was a man."
"Just shows, one does not have to be stupid to be tasteless."
"Hah! Pure jealously - and where's my jar of Senderialvin Royal 3140?"
"Well, I suppose you've earned it," I began as I reached into the pocket of my leather trail coat.
I drew out the corked neck of the shattered jar, which must have broken when I threw myself down on the balcony after being blinded by the empress. Wallas stared in wide-eyed horror for a moment, then fell sideways on the bed in a dead faint.
Now I went next door and woke Roval, who swung his legs over the edge of the bed and rubbed his face. I sat down on the bed beside him, handed him my half-gill measure, and produced my little jar of rum.
"I am violating my orders concerning you, Constable Roval, but I am in need of someone to drink with just now," I said as I removed the cork. "Will you swallow a half-gill with me?"
"Mission failed, sir?" he asked, looking genuinely concerned.
"The mission failed, it is true, but at least I managed to speak with the empress this time."
"Then you are celebrating?" he asked, brightening slightly.
"No. She let slip some words about another woman ... my truelove."
"Lavenci?"
"Aye. The wench has a grubby past and a grubbier present," I concluded miserably.
"I wager she has shared her charms with another since you have been gone," said Roval, shaking his head knowingly.
"Worse, much worse."
"May your revenge be sweet and artful, sir."
"I'd not hurt her," I sighed. "A cat cannot help being a cat after all. No, I shall merely tell her what I have discovered about her. Then I'll say I promised mother on her deathbed that I'd never consort with naughty girls."
"Did you, young sir?"
"Actually mother is probably still alive."
"Probably, sir? Do you not care?"
"Of course I care. If she is indeed alive, I shall have to take extreme care to avoid her."
#
We chatted of this and that for the next two hours, until called to the astronomer's 6.30 am dinner - which I chose to call breakfast. After that, I was given a tour of the palace by one of the technical artisans, but he spent more time talking excitedly about the enormous explosion on Lupan than relating the history of the palace. We had what I called lunch with the Astronomer General, who was about to go to bed, and after this were formally presented with a satchel of notes and observations for the Academy in Alberin. We spent most of the afternoon descending the five thousand stone steps to the gate station. This was made particularly depressing by Wallas complaining about the broken jar of Senderialvin Royal at nearly every step.
At the base of the steps I got out my bagpipes and played the sun down again, this time for the guards at the observatory's gate station. The sun had been behind an overcast at the time, but they appreciated the gesture. They then invited us to share whatever the meal is that observatory guards have when the sun goes down, and we spent the night in their bunk room. Riellen managed to get the guards into a conversation about liberation economics, but within ten minutes both had fallen asleep. Wallas made the mistake of reminding me that I had broken a jar of Senderialvin Royal 3140, which caused me to seize him firmly by the scruff of the neck, stuff him into a sack, and leave him hanging up for the night in the pantry. Roval stole a large jar of cheap wine from the guards and drank himself into oblivion. I dropped the empty jar into the chasm. By then I had been awake for two days and one night, so I slept like a dead man.
At dawn the following morning we had saddled and loaded our horses, and the dragon bridge was being wound out over the chasm when the exhausted Astronomer General himself arrived at the gate station. He had descended the five thousand steps from the palace in the darkness to present us with one final despatch.
"There was another flash on Lupan last night," he panted as he broke his seal on the satchel and inserted the latest observation folder. "It was at precisely the same place as the night before, but fifteen minutes later by the clock. This is very, very significant."
"Why is that sir?" I asked.
"The Lupanian day is precisely fifteen minutes longer than ours. Both flashes happened at precisely the same local time on Lupan. That could only be due to intelligent beings doing something timed by an accurate clock."
We crossed the bridge and set off down the trail, and I contemplated the fact that I was carrying proof of intelligence on Lupan! I had history in my saddlebags! Inevitably, my thoughts strayed back to Lavenci. I dropped back a little to walk with Roval.
"Constable, could I speak with you for a moment?" I ventured.
"I apologise about the wine, sir," he replied listlessly.
"I mean privately, as a friend."
"A friend?" he asked, as if surprised to learn that he had one. "Aye."
"Were a girl to sport with scabby knaves in the most supremely indelicate way, yet give an honourable admirer nothing but chaste kisses and elevated conversation about poetry, what might that very confused youth draw by way of conclusion?"
"He must know she is playing games of power," he said sadly, looking me in the eyes for a rare and fleeting moment before shaking his head and returning his gaze to the trail. "She means to elevate him to within a step of the summit of all hopes, then cast him down by showing how even some muck-shovelling churl is higher in her esteem. It happened to me once. Such a woman brought me low."
"But why?" I asked, aghast.
"For the pleasure of seeing a strong man crushed. For the feeling of power."
His words left me with much to think about, and none of my thoughts were happy. That evening I lit a fire with the reedpaper pages of a letter that I had been writing to Lavenci, then stared up at Lupan for a long, long time, wondering if lovers on that world also did such cruel things to each other.
#

 

CHAPTER THREE: THE FALLING STAR

We managed the fourteen day journey to the pigeon roost at Bolanton in ten days. There I sent the special news ahead to Alberin by carrier bird, as the Astronomer General had instructed me to. After that we were low enough for the horses to carry us again, and five days later we reached the bottom of the Cyrelon Rapids. From here the Alber River was navigable all the way to the sea, so we boarded a barge for the two hundred mile voyage to Alberin.
For five days I did very little, other than rub medicinal oil into my feet, sew up damage to my uniform, polish my axe, read a book of Sargolan erotic poetry from the Twenty-Eighth Century, talk with Wallas about royal scandals - to distract him from talking about Senderialvin Royal 3140 - and sleep. On what turned out to be the last day of our voyage, Roval somehow managed to get his hands on a jar of fortified wine belonging to one of the crew, liberated the contents, and retreated from his memories into drunken oblivion. Riellen was practised her public speaking almost continually, which was mildly annoying, but inevitable.
Riellen was nineteen, very thin, and wore thick spectacles with wire frames. She had studied sorcery, but I wondered if she had studied only so that she could be a student agitator. What I did not realise was that two years in the Wayfarer Constables had taught her a lot about leadership skills and tactics. Even I knew that good leaders give clear, simple orders, repeat them often, and get their followers to repeat them back. Riellen wrote her speeches with these principles in mind, learned them word for word, then rehearsed them. While aboard the barge, she practised on a cargo of sheep being taken to the Alberin markets.
"The nobles, kings, and emperors are meant to attend the welfare of the people that they rule, yet does anyone attend your welfare?" she demanded of the bland stares before her.
"Baaa!" one of her audience replied.
"No, they don't!" Riellen assured it. "They rule for their own pleasure and convenience! Oh yes, but although despotic rulers are often overthrown eventually, what are they replaced with?"
"Baaa!"
"Other kings! And then the new king, once crowned, makes it his highest priority to execute those who led the uprising. This makes sense for a king, but as a system is it fair?"
"Baaa!"
"You are right, brother, it is quite unjust. You should not just shout down with the king, you should shout down with the establishment."
"No being fleeced without representation!" called Wallas.
"Brother Wallas is correct. If you pay taxes you must have a say in how they are spent. You must decide .... er ... I'd better change that."
Riellen knelt down, dipped her goose quill in a jar of ink, scratched out some words, then scribbled a few more. She stood up again.
"Think of government as a battle between two armies. Kings make decisions about strategies and tactics, but an army of peasants could also make such decisions. They could vote on everything."
"Too slow," I called. "Most decisions in battles have to be made quickly. By the time you have had a vote about tactics you could be defeated or even dead."
"They ... must vote for ... a ruler with their confidence!" cried Riellen, while kneeling down and scribbling something new into her speech. "Someone to rule ... for them."
"Ah, so instead of an autocracy, why not a voteaucracy?" I suggested. "Rule of the vote?"
"Voteaucracy ... it does not have an inspiring ring to it," said Wallas.
"What is a vote but a demonstration of the people's will?" said Riellen.
"Demonaucracy, then?" I suggested.
"No, that sounds religious," responded Wallas.
"Electocracy?" said Riellen. "Rule by election?"
"Electocracy," said Wallas thoughtfully. "Electocracy ..."
"The word has a good edge to it," I said, feeling a little sorry for Riellen for some reason, and trying to be positive for a change.
"Yes, yes sir, electocracy is what it must be!" she cried, then she stood up again and faced the sheep. "Electocracy is what you must be ruled by, brothers and sisters. The elected choice of the voting majority must rule. Those who pay taxes, vote. Those who labour, paid or unpaid, vote. Each of us must have one vote! Each of us must want electocracy! Each of us must want it now! What do we want?" shouted Riellen.
"Cat food!" called Wallas.
"When do we want it?"
"Meow!"
Some speakers deal with annoying hecklers by witty, cutting responses that deflate them completely. Riellen dealt with hecklers by treating them as if they were enthusiastic supporters. Wallas was very effective as an annoying heckler, however, so she was getting a lot of practise at fielding sarcastic comments.
"One vote per person will unite the people against the royal establishment. United, the people are bigger, stronger, more clever, and more powerful than any establishment ruler.
"United,
"The people,
"Can never be defeated!"
"Baaa!" replied one of the more vocal and politically conscious sheep.
"United,
"The tomcats,
"Can never be castrated!" suggested Wallas.
Faced with a female Wayfarer Constable preaching revolution to a cargo of sheep, and a talking tomcat heckler, the steersman on duty took a jar from his pocket, stared at it for a moment, then tossed it overboard. A sickeningly sharp pang reminded me of something that I also needed to do. I took a small camphorwood box from my pack, wrapped it in Lavenci's portrait, then dropped the package over the side. The silver chain and black opal within the box had cost my wages for two months.