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On this tab, I've placed the prologue and first chapter of The Chalice of Life.  If you enjoy it and would like to read the rest of the story, please see the home page for ordering information.




Prologue

Sage and Chronicler

Tuhl


Heroes,” mused the Sage. “What’s happened to all the heroes? And where in the name of Ereb are they when you need them?” He took a long drag on his pipe, then leaned his chin on his staff and went back to staring into the fire.

The Chronicler waited patiently as the silence dragged out the space of many heartbeats but finally felt a need to prompt him, “That remark is not one I would ever have expected to hear escape your lips,” she said. “Master,” she added. She said it as though neither her lips nor her brain had yet wrapped themselves around the concept of master and pupil.

The Sage lifted his eyes from the flames and regarded her for a long moment. Then, with sudden good humor, he spoke. “For your people,” he commented, “the mindscape exists as a waking reality: you don and shed your physical forms at will; to you, all paths are one. For one like Tuhl doomed to life as a physical construct, the mindscape is a twisty mazework. You must forgive an old fool for getting lost in it!” He chuckled amiably and refilled her tea cup. “That is what you were thinking—what you are always thinking—that I had been captured in that space where dream meets reality.” A grin. “Or that I had merely fallen asleep.”

She smiled wanly, knowing better than to try to correct him.

Tuhl has given you many tools to use in writing your great chronicle: his library, the Flames, the great Well of Eliannes, access to the Questors themselves both here and across vast distances.” He sobered. “But some things derive from other sources.”

Her face lit in sudden understanding; her eyes rounded into little O’s at a show of further comprehension “You told me there was never a moment when the Questors were not being observed.”

He nodded. “That remark was no curse hurled at the gods from Tuhl’s own lips. Those were the words of Mistra herself.”

Mistra!” the Chronicler gasped. Hastily, she flipped back through the reams of notes she had scribbled. “Princess Mistra? But I have heard from your own lips that of all the servants of the One in Creation, she was the most loyal, the most true, the most—” She shrugged in a show of helplessness and offered up the thick wad of notes as evidence.

Tuhl slapped a finger to his lips to quiet her, then touched it to the side of his nose and winked. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, young Peri. Forget for the moment princess and priest and knight. Their given names will do.” He sighed. “The gods know each of those fine people did his own name great honor by taking up the burden of that Quest of Quests when the Call came, and greater honor yet by staying true to their collective purpose. And none rose higher in the test than Mistra of Caros.” He puffed a moment, framing his thoughts before he went on. “Mistra is, to my mind, the brightest star in the firmament of the Royal House of Caros. When her patroness, Minissa, marked her for the quest, Mistra submitted with as much grace as any I have ever seen or heard tell of—no crying, no screaming, no shouted recriminations.

I did not misspeak: she is devoted to Minissa and the rest, as devoted as if the whole lot of them were her family rather than her gods. But devotion of such proportion entails its own high price—and some of those are heavy indeed. Because of the greatness of the demands placed on her, she was quiet and pale and withdrawn when she came to me, and her heart was broken nearly in two.” He shook his head. “Still, that one outburst about heroes was all I ever heard on the subject. Angry it was, but not without reason.”

He shifted his gaze into the middle distance, his eyes lost in memory. “On the day she came to me and I understood all that had been asked of her, all that she had willingly sacrificed, even I wept. I searched in it all for the wisdom of Caros or the justice of Ereb or the compassion of sweet Arayne.” He let out a ragged breath. “But my search proved vain.” He shook his head again and poked at the fire with his staff.

Peri had remained absorbed by his discourse, but now she pouted a little. “Hmph. None of my people was even chosen for this quest, though every other race in the Union was represented. Goddess bless! Complete outworlders were chosen! We would not have been so easily grieved had one of us been selected.”

Tuhl smiled sympathetically, but there was a memory as of old pain about his eyes. “Oh, I think Minissa knew exactly what she was doing when she chose them for that task and you for this. The questors were sprinters, however difficult and dangerous the course they ran. Your course will be longer—less difficult, maybe, but one whose end only those able to endure will see. And you will endure. You will labor even as Tuhl does; this great Chronicle of the quest that proved to be the Union’s salvation will be only the beginning. Your station, like Tuhl’s, will be that of the hero who remains ever in the background yet performs deeds as valorous as those of the bravest knight. A mysterious figure you will be, like Tuhl; many will regard you as no more than legend, and most will discount you as no better than myth: they are of the foolish. But your business, like Tuhl’s, will be with those who thirst after knowledge, and they will come to fill your days and nights soon enough.” The old bearded lips parted in a serene smile. “The Pantheon, and beyond them the One whom they serve, have ordained in their wisdom a place in Creation for both the sprinters and the distance runners.

And those sprinters, as you mentioned, gathered from all over the cosmos in this very wood. Some came from far away.” He chortled. “And some, it turned out, had been lurking unknown under our very noses for years...”

He reached into the small urn at his feet and drew out a pinch of grey dust. “Watch!” he commanded as he cast it into the fire. The flames blazed up as if they would blot out the night sky above them, then burst into a shower of sparks that descended back to earth like a veil of red and silver lace.

And from that lacework, images began to form...



Part 1

 

The Questors

Sword




CHAPTER 1
 
The Call

Habie

 What is abhorrent to you, do not to your neighbor. This is the Ethic; all the rest is commentary.”

Strephan of Caros


In the chief marketplace in the Carotian capital, a diminutive figure lounged against a wall. Habie, she was called, sometimes in a show of camaraderie, but more often in fitful displays of anger by the local gentry. She was doing what she did best: blending into her surroundings well enough to escape notice even by the city watch. Not that this was an overly difficult task on a day like this when the market was bustling with activity. New trade ships had made planetfall the evening before, and merchants from other planets in the Independent Trading Worlds had been busy since first light setting up the stalls from which they would display their wares. She had given the lot of them a cursory glance as she scouted out a victim. She had to admit to feeling her mouth water not only at the stalls selling exotic fruits and meats but at those selling jewelry made of rare metals and gems.

But not this part of the market for her. True, she could blend in with the mix of human and Tigroid, outworlder and her own folk, the Lemurians. Yeah, she thought, crowds can obstruct your carefully planned escape route as easily as they can hide you. And those outworlders have some pretty wild layouts and some talents I bet the King and Queen—heck, the High King and Queen— haven’t even heard of. Best stick to my own turf.

Her own turf was wherever the local merchants set up shop or where what passed among the Lemurians as nobility hoarded their wealth. She stayed off the city watch’s radar mainly by striking at random and keeping her heists fairly small. She had hit on a victim fairly quickly—a seller of fine cloths at the tent-like stall across the lane. For once, though, her ability to spot a mark quickly had played her false; she found herself with time on her hands. Soon, she thought.

The warmth of the sun shining into her little concealed nook soon had her fighting to keep the drowsiness at bay. Listening to the customers haggling, questioning shopkeepers, and trading in gossip—the universal currency, she thought bitterly—she heard snippets of conversations that struck a familiar note. Yes, a quest, something about a lost prince, and the mention of the mysterious Tuhl. Odd, she thought, that she should share a common ancestry with the elusive sage. People who had seen him said that he barely looked like a Lemurian at all. He shared their smaller stature but had a bald head and a long white beard.

Not like me at all, she thought. Must be that Sleep of Transformation everyone talks about and no one but him’s had the guts to do in like a kabillion years. Like all Lemurians except Tuhl, she was small of stature and covered in lush fur. Her fur was tawny, touched with rose and striped with pastel green. Green feathered away as the stripes crossed her breast and throat; her face was a sea of unbroken tan. Her eyes were that variety of hazel whose color shifts, in her case to bright emerald when she was angry and to a brown mottled with green and gold sparks when she was truly pleased. This interplay of colors brought to her coat and eyes the hue of dappled sunlight on a forest floor. No true child of Minissa—or of any of the other deities involved with art or nature—could have looked upon that woodland palette and not had his breath stolen away.

She hated it. It was her bane, her curse, the source of her misery. Those markings the Carotians would have found so exquisite formed no distinct pattern: there were no whorls, no branchings, no true shaping of light by dark. Her coat announced to any who gave her so much as a perfunctory glance that she was a foundling and that no family had ever claimed her. The Carotians who thought the Lemurians so cute and sweet and inoffensive knew nothing of the seamy underside of life in the Lemurian quarter.

Her given name was Habadiah. She hated that, too. Like her coloring, her lack of surname and the frills that went with it—patronymic, metronymic, honorific—told any ear that would hear that she had no clan to call her own. But custom among the People of Lemur required that foundlings be cared for by the community. Clan after clan had taken her in, fulfilling their duty to the letter and no more. They housed her in unheated garrets, fed her on scraps, and put her to work as the most menial of servants. That she could read and do sums at all she owed to an agile mind and a spirit that refused to be quenched no matter the icy sea of antipathy in which it was immersed.

And to one thing more: her fingers proved to be more nimble than any others in the colony. She had been forced to purloin that first grammar, that first book of numbers, and that with a degree of trepidation. Stealing is wrong had been drilled into her head by every family that had ever taken her in: most said it as though they believed robbing the colony blind one family at a time had become the thought foremost in her mind. The worst probably even believed she had arranged to have her mother die in childbed before anyone could identify to which clans her parents had belonged.

And one day, something in her simply snapped at the presumption. OK, she thought, let’s give the people what they want. She embraced her newly-discovered aptness of hand and found entire new vistas open up to her. She no longer had to beg for the barest necessities of life, and after necessity came an occasional nicety and, here or there, even the odd luxury.

In all of the years Habadiah had been plying her trade, she had been caught only once, and that at an age when the local judge wrote it off as the adolescent prank of a poor relation. After that, she was rarely suspected, never caught in the act, and never found with damning evidence in her possession.

With success came a little pride. She shortened her name to Habie. Habadiah had been a slave in all but name; Habie, clan-bound or not, was free. Habadiah had had the luck of the draw go against her at conception; Habie drew her luck from the very Ether and shaped it to suit her needs. Habadiah with her indistinct coloring might as well have hung a sign around her neck that said, “Orphaned Bastard Child—Exploit At Will!” Habie with her sense of presence just might be able to pass her coloring off as that of a clan-bound youth, mature in form but still too young for anyone to expect her clan-pattern to be well defined.

Well, today, everything changed. The limited excursions that had kept her off the city watch’s radar were about to turn into the one big strike that became the stuff of legends. Lemurian custom that bound the community to take in strays like her also allowed them to disown those strays when they came of age, and Habie had come of age a week ago. Only a proven kinship tie or a formal offer of adoption or marriage could have protected the clan rights that had always been tenuous. She had no place to go, and without the formal protection of a family, she was fair game for anyone—Lemurian, Carotian, Tigroid or outworlder—whose only reason for not lashing out lay in fear of vendetta.

No worries, she said to herself. . This one quick strike, and I’ll be set for life. I can ditch the Lemurian quarter completely. I could find work at the palace, maybe leave Caros behind altogether! Not much guild action around here, but I’ve heard great things about the thieves’ and assassins’ guilds on Thalas. At least on Thalas when they have a problem with you, I hear you square off with weapons in hand and have it out there and then. Protection from a real guild from a place like that would draw rings around the worst mischief the meanest Lemurian in the sleaziest clan could dish up.

As the time to strike drew near, she shook off the laziness that came with the warmth of the suns at their zenith. She suppressed a pang of guilt at the thought that she would be cleaning her mark out of a sizeable percentage of his quarterly earnings. She knew her territory, knew who handled his money how and had a similar opionion of the lot of them. They were all overfed, overcompensated, under-worked mountains of drek. She would not stay awake nights obsessing over this.

She looked up as a trumpeted fanfare sounded. She noticed several standards flapping in the light breeze above the heads of the crowd. A royal party, then, although she didn’t recognize the device. Probably some rural duke or duchess hoping to impress the peasants, she thought, and that didn’t help her, but they were approaching from a direction that would draw folk away from the stall she intended to burgle, and that was all to the good. The party was on foot rather than mounted, and that was odd enough in itself from what little she knew of royalty, but the response the party was drawing was enthusiastic for rustic nobility. Enthusiastic? she thought. This is beyond belief! Patrons who had been leaving the stalls in ones and twos now came pouring out like a herd of sheep being driven to market. Well, she thought, who cares where they’re all rushing off to as long as it’s away from me and my loot? If the whole barmy lot of them cause a human logjam the city watch can’t penetrate if I somehow blow this, so much the better.

Better and better,” she murmured as the merchant himself emerged to see what the commotion was about and then continued a few paces up the lane. In less than three of her own heartbeats, the expression on his face went from one of curiosity to one of recognition to one of absorption. I think whatever-it-is up there has him so enthralled I could set a pronucleonic grenade on his head and pull the pin and he wouldn’t even notice.

Not one to miss an opportunity, Habie skittered across the lane to the stall and slipped around to the back. With a quick nod to whatever god looked out for thieves and a promise to tithe if ever she found a place to do him worship, she drew her dagger, made a slit in the canvas just wide enough for her to enter, and crawled inside.

She stayed low till she made certain the shop was completely vacant. The proprietor might not have stepped out had there still been customers inside, but why take chances? A quick survey, and a broad grin crossed her face: the place was empty. And there, fully visible from the spot where she crouched, sat the object of her excursion—the small strongbox that held the loot. She stole over to it and tried the catch, which held fast. No surprises there. Out came the tools of her trade, and—snick, click—up popped the lid.

Just as the lock opened, she heard voices outside. First came the proprietor’s, and he was addressing at least one “your majesty.” It sounded as if this royal party from wherever-it-was had come to market specifically to see the very bolts of fabric that rose to the ceiling all around her. Oh, swell, she thought. Just draffing incredible. I burgle the best dry goods shop in the market the same day some idiot noblewoman decides she needs a new ball gown! Habie’s common sense told her to forget about the robbery and get moving. But a second sense—avarice—flared at the sight of the small mountain of gold cached in the box, and she could not easily let the opportunity go. Moving quickly as panic started to mount, she collected most of it in the leather pouch she had brought along, then jammed the pouch down the front of her shirt, slammed down the lid of the cash box, and dived behind the nearest display counter. A heartbeat later, the tent flap opened.

In walked the proprietor and his guests. Habie held her breath, then peered out when no footsteps came toward her. No one had spotted her. The entire group remained near the entrance, most of them milling around in a loose knot. If she kept her head, she could escape before anyone noticed the gold was missing. She backed toward the slit she had made, not daring to look behind her for fear of losing sight of a single one of the intruders. Identifying them or their exact number had not crossed her mind when she had first glanced in their direction, but now she saw that the entire party was human, although only about half looked like they were from Caros. All were armed; the guards were simply more heavily armed than the rest. Her nose would have barely come to the waist of some of the men. Unlike the bulky proprietor, the newcomers boasted contours that said they would stand a fair chance of winning a fight against twice their number had they dropped their swords and gone for hand-to-hand. She would have taken her chances against a like number of Lemurians, but this was definitely not a crowd she wanted to tangle with! Well, she thought, two more heartbeats and it won’t be an issue. She felt her heel knock against the wooden support she had sighted as her landmark and slid her toe back to feel for the slit.

A nasty surprise awaited her: the slit had vanished! Her toe clunked against no more than the solid wood of the stall’s frame. She reached a careful hand back and probed the canvas a little while she kept her eyes on the Carotians. Her small shoulders drooped. Fingers or foot: neither felt anything but unbroken cloth.Considering that this might be a manifestation of panic or that she had simply misjudged the distance—but discounting both possibilities—she turned her head to look.

Nothing.

She looked some more, certain that she was in the right place, but, try as she might, she could not find the opening she had made. She cringed as she heard the proprietor pop open the lid of his strongbox—and bellow out that he had been robbed. There were too many people in here for her to hide from all of them for long; even the tiny sound her dagger would make if she slit the canvas again would have the guards on her in an instant. She would just have to make a dash for it!

Still keeping low, she positioned herself so she had a clear shot at the tent flap. She tensed. She cast a dirty look heavenward to tell her theoretical god of thieves that this was his fault and that she would be keeping her tithes to herself, thank you very much. Then she sprang forward.

Time seemed to halt around her; shapes faded to a soft blur. People—big people—screamed and grabbed, and she heard swords being drawn, but the sounds seemed to come from a great distance. One thing only remained in focus: the tent flap. Three meters, and she would be through.

Two meters...

One...

She had dodged every other person who stood between her and freedom, but with bare millimeters to go, a tall nobleman stepped into the gap between her and the tent flap. The fact that he was not Carotian barely registered as she was lifted cleanly off her feet by two burly guards. They held her so she was forced to meet his eyes. She felt her look of earnest defiance crumble away till there was nothing left but bewilderment, for the nobleman wore the last expression she had ever expected to see on the face of a captor—an amused smile.


Well, Allred,” the nobleman said to the merchant, “was this a demonstration you arranged for us, or is this a genuine thief?”

Or something out of our hands entirely?” murmured the one woman in the party who was not arrayed as a soldier.

Whatever it is,” growled Allred, “it’s the little scamp who emptied my cash box, I’ll wager. All right, out with it!” he barked at Habie. He leaned down so his face filled her whole field of vision. “These are the High King’s soldiers, see Missy? And if you fuss, they’ll take you straight to the castle dungeons rather than the nice city jail, so just you up and hand over my gold!”

Habie made a face, then reached into her shirt and pulled out the leather pouch. With a wistful look, she surrendered it to Allred. The guards set her down, putting up their weapons but holding her fast. As they sheathed their swords, however, one snagged the left shoulder of her tunic. The light fabric was no match for steel, and the tunic tore—just a bit, so her left shoulder was exposed. She winced. The clothes on her back were about all she had come away with when her last family had turned her out; she had nothing with which she could replace a damaged garment.

She winced a second time as a gentle hand touched her shoulder. Then she looked, her eyes traveling from hand to arm to shoulder to face. Standing over her was the lone woman attired as a civilian: a full-blooded Carotian noble by the look of her. For a moment, as her eyes met the woman’s, Habie wished she had a mirror. She felt a change come over her whole face. She suspected what the woman saw was the expression of a child of the streets who has gone begging and found a door that opens not on charity, graceless and grudging, but on the welcoming home she has sought all her life. The woman smiled back as if she grasped the direction of Habie’s thoughts and understood them. It was as if she somehow understood that, for Habie, the road to that door might somehow begin here before her with this moment of shared communion and was content that it should be so.

Oh my goddess! She felt the realization hit her like a tidal wave. She yanked her mind free of the other woman’s the way she might have yanked her hand free at the sense it had just wandered carelessly into an open flame. Her mind! She just let me wander into her mind. No fussing about with permission, no kicking me out. She just left the door open for me to come and go as I liked.

She gulped in something that felt like either recognition or denial, or like the two duking it out for supremacy. And she’s… No! It can’t be… And she felt recognition and denial still banging away at each other, only now they seemed to have upped the ante tenfold.

Odd place for a tear,” the woman commented. She frowned thoughtfully, shot Habie a quick glance that might, Habie thought, have been telling her to put her money on recognition. Her voice gave nothing away, but it struck Habie that that voice was kind in the way it could only be if gentleness and mercy formed an essential part of her nature. “May I see?” Bemused, Habie nodded. Then the woman did a curious thing: she widened the tear slightly and nodded once as if satisfied on some point that she and the other humans had been debating. She gestured to the others to look.

A hush stole over the room. Suddenly, all around the two women, people were kneeling and bowing their heads, making signs of blessing and murmuring prayers of thanks to the Pantheon. Of the men, only the nobleman who had intercepted Habie remained on his feet, but there was about him the same sense of awestruck reverence that had taken the rest in its grip.

The nobleman waited a beat as if to give the moment its due, then tilted Habie’s chin up—not roughly, as if he suspected her of lying or worse, but carefully, as though he liked her and just wanted her to meet his eyes so she could see that for herself. And she looked. If there was a spell here, it was one the man and woman cast by virtue of their mere presence—and in that moment, she became utterly ensnared. “Looks like it won’t be the dungeons or the city jail for you, little one.” His face had never lost its spark of amusement, but his voice, like the woman’s, was kind.

What, then?” she demanded, shrugging away from them both. She made the mistake of listening to their words instead of their tone of voice. Had there been a spell here, its edges were unraveling. Here comes a flogging, she thought without emotion. Ah, well, wouldn’t be the first… But her head snapped up in surprise at the next voice she heard.

You mind your tone, girl,” growled Allred. “This is the High King and Queen over the entire Carotian Union you’re talking to.”

Yeah, so? A lot of good they’ve ever done me!” Defiance personified, no matter the cost. The last thread snapped, and that was it for any sense of ensorcelment. She tried to back away from everyone at once and met nothing but a wall of guards.

It’s all right,” Avador, the King, assured the merchant. He had not taken his eyes from the Habie’s face; his voice was still kind despite her deliberate affront. “I read a hard life in this one, a life of preparation that has often seemed to her naught but senseless pain.”

Don’t be frightened,” soothed the woman, whom Habie now understood to be Ariane, the High Queen. She stooped so she and Habie were more nearly eye-to-eye but made no attempt to touch her again. “You have been marked for service by Minissa herself.”

What?” Habie exclaimed.

Look at your shoulder.”

Squinting and crossing her eyes, Habie could just make out a dark brown patch in the fur on her left shoulder. It was shaped like the head of a great stag. “Where did this come from?” she fumed. “What is it? What’s it mean? Get it off me! Here, I don’t worship your gods. I don’t worship my gods!” She waited a moment for someone to do something about it, and then, since no one did, she spat on her fingers and tried to rub it off, as if it were a smudge of dirt.

No need to worship any gods, if they need you,” Avador said congenially. “You’d best come with us.”

She looked sullen. “I’ve just been caught scrobbling this gentleman’s money. Don’t tell me you’re not going to attend to that first.” The defiance in her posture, though, hid a moment of self-doubt. Was it possible she had spent half her 18 years escaping detection not because of her skill but because of the intervention of some goddess she’d never had anything to do with? What if it’s true and she’s decided to cash in all those favors at once like so many poker chips??!! Wait a bit, though... Can’t I make them take me to jail? A long enough hitch in the nick would wipe the slate clean and keep me from doing whatever service they had in mind for me, right?! Right? RIGHT??!! This last came out as a desperate mental scream.

Her brashness, however, did little to faze the High King, and she hid the sudden fit of nerves well enough that he did not remark on it. “Oh, I think Allred will forbear to press charges for now,” he said amiably. “If you returned everything you -er- scrobbled?”

Feeling less contrite than resigned to her fate, she pulled from an inside pocket the jeweled ring she had palmed when she had returned Allred’s gold to him. The merchant snatched it away, shaking his head and looking heavenward in mute appeal.

No one ever asked Minissa what she sought when she scoured the cosmos in search of the perfect questor, nor could she have easily put her thoughts into words. There were times when her fellow deities wondered what was in her mind, or simply if she had lost it, when she visited the Stag of Minissa on some unsuspecting creature who had never heard of the Union, or of the Pantheon, of the Ethic or the Art or the Disciplines. But they had never asked, and she had never offered to explain, and her Chosen had never failed to acquit themselves. And the more they studied this stranger from a strange world, the more those misgivings vanished into the mists...


Mosaia, Lord Clear Water, was a man of such virtue that his brother knights often made sport of his piety. “What will happen if you miss your prayers once?” they teased. “Will your hair fall out?” Or, “Would being with a woman one time deprive you of your strength?” They were generally good-natured about it, as they might not have been with a commander who had erected his wall of piety as a barrier to distance himself from his fellow man. Mosaia had many fine qualities—compassion, swift judgment in the field, a keen intellect, a sense of humor—so his men found him easy to admire. He also had the strength of a small giant: though he had what many would have referred to as a long fuse, no one in his right mind wanted to be on the receiving end of his wrath if that fuse ever burned to the point of ignition.

He took it all in stride.

He loved the lore of living things. Sometimes, when he would retreat to the woodlands to commune with the Divine, the very trees would incline their branches toward him, and small woodland creatures would hop up and look on in adoration. Had Mosaia done any of his praying or meditating in a Carotian woodland, the dryads themselves might have popped out of their trees to converse with him, and the woodland creatures might actually have spoken—things they would not have done for every Carotian who came their way.

Though the exigencies of his homeland had brought him young to the battlefield, Mosaia had always been happiest when he was studying the arts of peace in tandem with the arts of war. He loved poetry, philosophy, and the contemplation of the mysteries of the universe. He saw in chivalry an all-embracing ideal for which all men should strive rather than a sterile code of conduct. He had developed a reputation for fairness on those occasions when he had been forced to discipline his men or to serve as judge in his father’s baronial court.

But now, Mosaia himself had a problem that begged advice, and no one to whom he could easily turn. A strange brown mark like the head of a stag, had appeared on his left shoulder. No warning, just—poof! There it was one morning when he awoke. Use of the Black Arts was rare on Falidia and its practitioners vigorously prosecuted when they were found out, but his initial action was to take refuge in prayer (and vigorous scrubbing) as the one defense he knew against magic. When neither failed to excise the mark, he became sufficiently alarmed to seek help.

Being a knight in holy orders, as were his father and most of the knights in the barony, he sought out the family’s house priest: a jovial, canny, and ridiculously knowledgeable older man named Brother Paulus. The priest examined the mark thoughtfully, saying, “I can’t picture anyone trying to cast a spell on you, my boy—unless it were maybe a love spell.” He clapped Mosaia on the shoulder when the younger man colored—an older brother telling a younger his teasing is only meant in good fun. If women still escaped Mosaia’s notice, it had been some years since he had escaped theirs.

Brother Paulus led Mosaia to his library. He made a great show of ascertaining that no one was hiding under the tables or in the study nooks and that they were not otherwise being observed, all of which puzzled Mosaia. He understood the reason for the display of secrecy, however, as Paulus slipped a hand behind one of the numerous dividers that separated one bookshelf from the next. A soft click and Paulus was carefully swinging open a concealed panel.

Inside was not a single volume or even a sparse collection but an entire library—everything from small monographs to huge, weighty tomes bound in velvet and lettered in gold. While Paulus pulled out several of the largest volumes, Mosaia cocked his head in an effort to read some of the other titles. A bemused frown on his face, he reached a tentative hand to touch a spine here, a cover there. The titles whose languages he could read told him this was a collection of works on the theology and symbologies of cultures not his own. A few described the faiths of the diverse cultures of Falidia itself, but most dealt with those of the worlds beyond the system to which the small, relative backwater of Falidia belonged.

You just appreciate that I’m showing you these at all, young Mosaia,” Paulus scolded congenially as he paged through one tome after another. “If our Pontifical College had a less scholarly bent, I reckon I could be burned at the stake for having so much as handled some of this material, and let’s not even discuss all the dark and dangerous days and nights I spent coming by most of it.” He reached over and tapped the spine of a book lettered in an alphabet Mosaia could not begin to comprehend. “See this one here? It describes a culture that worships no deity at all but only Primordial Chaos. That one next to it discusses the veneration of what we would call Hellspawn; its companion volume there discusses the opposite, the society that acknowledges no godhead but lives by a simple ethic finer than the code of law espoused by our greatest leaders. One or two of them talk about cultures that hold no good higher than the Law. It’s all very interesting to read about, not that I can imagine trying to live in some of these places!” he chuckled. “Well, I knew all of this would come in handy one day, and for more than my own intellectual curiosity...”

He tried various “hart” and “deer” entries without success, but when he tried “stag,” he was rewarded. In a volume bearing the curious name Sidereal Singularities and the Societies They Shape, he found the information they sought. A detailed chapter on the Carotian Union described not only the celestial messenger called the Stag of Minissa but the mark that bore its name; included in the section were several photographs of the mark as it appeared on the skin or fur of a number of animals, each with a different color or texture.

`The Pantheon of gods worshiped in this system,’” Paulus read, “`is said to indicate those they single out for special favor by marking them physically at birth or later...’ Hmm... `typically appears on the left shoulder... the rarest of all these marks... not unknown in races outside those in the Union...’ Ah, here we are! `The Stag of Minissa is less a mark of favor than a means of pointing out those few chosen to go on a quest of great moment to the Carotians and their near kin, the Erebites and Thalacians.’ Well now! I always knew you would save the world one day, my boy, but I expected the world you saved would be Falidia! It looks like our Great Lord in Heaven may have other plans for you, though He chooses to work them through an agent with whose name we are unfamiliar!”

Minissa,” he went on, flipping back a few pages, “seems to be a nature goddess of some sort. The entry says that in the past the parties chosen by her have done all sorts of marvelous things—unearthed long-lost relics that were the key to timely knowledge that saved empires, felled malign beasts that were ravaging entire worlds, freed prisoners from spells so baneful they could have enslaved a whole race.” He grunted. “What an interesting collection of domains these deities have: life and death, mercy and justice, wisdom and scholarship...”

The great dualities of life,” Mosaia murmured, peering over the priest’s shoulder. He touched a hand to a photograph of a high meadow at whose center stood an ancient, shaggy tree of immense girth. It may have been a trick of the light, but a soft glow seemed to emanate from the leaves. By a sense beyond the physical, he thought he could hear the music of harps. He felt an odd sensation in his breast, and it was not one of offense at these concepts so at variance with his own beliefs. In his mind’s eye, he was glimpsing a pool of living brilliance through the trees near his front door. He recognized a tiny spark of hope struggling to break free—indeed, let it break free—that the brilliance might be more than a trick of the moonlight, that if he approached, he would find nestled among their branches not moon shadows, but an elven queen, and among their roots a shimmering trail of fairy dust.

But the edifice of practicality that contained that small spark had been long in the building; its walls were thick and very high. He shook off the vision. “What else does it say?” he asked, taking some effort to cloak himself in his preferred veneer of prosaic calm.

Paulus grinned, but his regard was that of one who sees through the artifice of a small child. “Not too much more about the Stag of Minissa. The system itself certainly is strangely configured: three worlds similar to ours in climate and atmosphere. Well, that’s not strange at all, but it seems they share a single orbit, like points on an equilateral triangle, around a double primary. Its inhabitants are said to be—hmmm... interesting!—powerful workers of magic.” He grinned whimsically. “Well, I should hope so—I don’t see what else could hold such a configuration together!”

Mosaia backed at the overt mention of magic and caught himself making the sign against the evil eye. He immediately flashed Paulus a sheepish grin. A lifetime of conditioning would not be an easy thing to undo! He felt that small spark of hope again struggling to break free. “Magic?” he asked, advancing one more argument. “On a world whose deities embody such noble concepts?”

Paulus looked thoughtful as he scanned the entry. “To read this, I would say that their magic is what we might call the benevolent arts of the spirit world. I see nothing here that suggests they treat with the Fiend or bend nature in any way that our own good God would censure.”

And this is where this Stag of Minissa tells you I must go?” He heard doubt in his voice yet could not deny that deep inside him that little spark was tugging ever more insistently at his heart.

He sucked his cheeks. “`Must?’ Obedience is a virtue, Mosaia, but I think neither their Minissa nor our Heavenly Father is best pleased if we obey from of a sense of obligation that has no love to motivate it, be we priest or page or knight-errant.”

Mosaia laughed, but it was a mirthless sound. “And when was the last chance I had to ride on errantry with the countryside at war since I was small enough to hide in the skirts of your cassock?”

Paulus scratched what was left of the hair on his head. “Well, my boy, those wars may have deprived you of your chance to ride on errantry, but at least some good’s come of them—as far as you’re concerned, at any rate. The last peace accords declared the city of Waterford a neutral zone and set up a body to oversee Falidia’s contact with other worlds. The Carotian Union has no representative there, and never will while the church keeps its stranglehold on the collective mind of the civilized world. However, if I’m not mistaken, there is an office there for the Independent Trading Worlds, of which the Union—” He indicated one of the footnotes. “—is a founding member. They may not be able to tell you the exact nature of the task for which Minissa marked you, but they can certainly put you in touch with those who can and see you safely aboard the next vessel bound for those parts.”

The spark of hope gave its strongest tug yet. Mosaia got the strong sense that it was actually communicating with him, saying something along the lines of Look at the way the forces of the universe are allying with one another to ease your path, you great oaf! A mighty river beckoned to him, as near as it was vast; the speed and strength of its current would sweep him away if he took but a single step forward.

He had been raised with the axiom that smooth and straight lay the path to perdition while the road to Paradise was strewn with obstacles. Still, try as he might, he could not believe that the path that would lead him to the Carotian Union, however smooth, was the path of evil. He looked for a moment as if he would take that step: something in him longed to respond to the way those visions of rivers and paths were reaching out to embrace him. Again, he shook himself free of the vision, and for a reason far more worthy than any he had yet given, and infinitely more fundamental to his nature. “But—why me? Why anyone from Falidia at all, but why me? I am no one of any great remark, I serve my father, I serve our one good God, I—”

Paulus burst out laughing. “Don’t use that protest with me, Mosaia—I’ve known you too long! You are a worthy knight and your father’s heir in more than body and a loyal servant of the Church. But if you keep to yourself the idea that we should not profane the Mysteries of another people just because those Mysteries have forms dissimilar to our own, I know you think it. You simply don’t profess it aloud because you fear to bring dishonor to the Clear Water name by being branded a heretic. An open mind about such things is a precious rare commodity on this world, Mosaia. We would have been at peace long ago, if the Pontifex Maximus acknowledged that the light that illumines all of Creation is one. I shudder for the day he tries to excommunicate the entire population of one of the few worlds with whom we’ve established cordial trading relations! No, Mosaia, if this Minissa has no other virtue to her name, then I think well of her that she must value such a mind as yours to have chosen you. I wish more thought as you did!”

Another short laugh as mirthless as the last. “More probably do, but like me, they fear a black mark from the local pontifex. And how could a pontifex—how could anyone with a brain in his head or faith in his heart—justify such an action? The roots of our own faith are polytheistic if we go back far enough. And do we not revere as heroes men who have come to our aid from the Tribes, heroes who worshiped an All-Mother rather than an All-Father, or the many spirits of wood and river?” Sensing his brow had furrowed with frustration, he reached a hand up to smooth it: this was a debate he had had a score of times with many score fools. If fruitless argument had eventually taught him the wisdom to keep his own counsel—at least, till he was sure he had obtained a hearing—he had never lost sight of those beliefs. Those beliefs, as well as the hope that there was a spirit world with which men could interact and live to tell the tale, had come to possess a special, sheltered place in his heart

Paulus’s face broke into a broad smile. “‘Hold on to what you must do even if it is a long way from here,’” he said in a bemused sort of way.

Mosaia knew a quote when he heard one, though he had not heard this particular one pass the priest’s lips before. “Is this a bit of outworld scripture you’re quoting to speed me on my way?”

Paulus chuckled. “Not at all. Really, Mosaia, you must broaden your horizons! It’s from a blessing used by one of the Tribes:


Hold on to what is good, even if it is a handful of earth.

Hold on to what you believe even if it is a tree that stands

by itself.

Hold on to what you must do even if it is a long way from here.

Hold on to life even when it is easier letting go.

Hold on to my hand even when I have gone away from you.’


Whatever its source, whatever its wording, go with the greatest blessing this foolish old man can bestow on you.”

Warmed by the priest’s words, Mosaia touched a hand to the book they had been reading; it lay open to the page that listed at least a score of marvelous deeds achieved by those Minissa had called. What use, he wondered, could she have for a knight from an area so remote? But the thought of accepting a call even to an unknown task from a benevolent deity many worlds away evoked in him a little thrill of excitement rather than fear. “A fool’s errand, some would say,” he mused, deliberately trading on Paulus’s humble characterization of himself. “Well, perhaps in this Carotian Union their gods require fools rather than knights to achieve the great deeds of their times.” He smiled reflectively. He felt a gleam come to his eye and knew that, as hope finally won out over doubt, that gleam moved outward until it encompassed his whole face.


OK,” Habie said once they were out in the street and she was satisfied they were heading in the general direction of the palace rather than the jail. “I’ll bite, as long as you’re tossing out the bait.”

Minissa has chosen you for a quest,” Ariane explained, “one vital to the survival of the Union. Whoever accepts this task and succeeds at it will become the sort of hero whose deeds live on in legend and history for generations.”

The chortle she hooted out was bigger than she was. “That’s a laugh! Me save the Union? Me become a hero? What, were her ‘holy messengers’ like this Stag of Minissa playing hooky or taking a day off or something?”

Ariane gave her a tolerant half-smile. “Yes, yes, no, and neither are we.”

It took Habie a moment to come up with a rebuttal as she tried to connect the Queen’s answers with her own questions. “So, I get to do it all by myself?” she tried with as much challenge as curiosity.

No, not unless you want to scamper off ahead of the rest.”

Oh, so is it all street kids doing your dirty work for you? Is that it? Round us all up and send us packing, conveniently blame the choice of participants on one of your goddesses, and if we all go belly up and don’t come back, it’s that many less mouths for the State’s dole queues come the start of the month?”

Ariane flashed the smile of a person who has gotten the point of a joke everyone else is missing but does not want to advertise the fact, but it was Avador who spoke. “Yes, Habie,” he said smoothly, “it’s a new plan we’re trying out to ease the public relief. The economists devised it, the priests sanctioned it, and the best sorcerers in the Union put it into effect. It’s our job—Ari’s and mine—to run around `discovering’ people marked with the Stag and to see them bundled off on a quest we made up one day when things were a little slow in the ruling-the-kingdom department. It’s only one of several economic initiatives we have in the works. May I ask you as a citizen in the street and one of our first test subjects what you think of it?”

Ariane had gone up a few points in Habie’s estimation when she had not come unglued at Habie’s attempts to undermine what she as Queen undoubtedly held sacred, but Avador’s speech stopped her in her tracks. She had never heard a human, let alone a king, deadpan before. She slanted her eyes up at him, but his expression was so inscrutable she was forced to feel around inside his head a little to see if he was mocking her. Like Ariane, he seemed to be leaving the door open, doing nothing to block the intrusion and certainly not taking offense. He wasn’t mocking, she decided from the quick scan. He was only needling her, something he only seemed to do to people he liked—or wanted to like.

She wrinkled her small face in thought as she made the assessment: reaching for his mind had been more reflex than anything else, as it had been earlier with the Queen. Hadn’t she heard somewhere that the humans had rules about mentalic interaction, that breaching a mind uninvited was a more serious crime in their society than physical assault? Briefly, she wished she had at some point made friends with a priestess of Eliannes, or someone in her own society who could have helped her refine her use of the mindtouch.

While she was grappling with all of this, Ariane stepped in with, “My own sister, Mistra, was chosen—chosen first, in fact, before any of you. Her native facility with the Art excels even mine, and if you insist on acting like such a vainglorious snob when you meet her, she may just turn you into a toad.”

Here was something she could deal with. “Vainglorious? Snob? Me?”

Intolerance and bigotry can work in both directions, Habie.”

Strike number two between the eyes. “Well,” she recouped weakly, “who says I’m going anywhere, anyway? I told you I don’t subscribe to your gods—yours or anyone’s.”

Well, you’re not losing any love on these people,” observed Avador.

No,” she admitted. “And I guess not losing love works in both directions, too.” She flicked a mischievous glance at Ariane, who smiled in a way that accorded her the point.

Ah, so neither are they losing love on you?” the King interpreted aloud. And immediately gasped and put a hand to his heart.

Oh, swell, thought Habie. Just let loose on someone who’s voluntarily opened his mind and heart to you. Well, nothing for it…

She grabbed his free hand in both of hers and arced the message directly to his mind. Sorry, sorry, sooooo sorry. She bolstered her words with as much emotional force as she could throw behind them. At the same time, she reached… OK, not done this with a human before, but the principle must be the same, here goes… A sense of embracing something in the King and pulling it into her own heart. And then of simply releasing it to the Ether…

Not realizing she had closed her eyes, she opened them and found she was staring directly into the King’s. I didn’t mean to hit you with that, she panted and realized she had spoken no words aloud.

I deserved it, the King replied. I’m far too glib, in the mindscape of out; it’s one of my worst faults.

She heard his voice distinctly but didn’t see his lips move. Sensing quite clearly that he had taken no offense and was utterly unruffled by this conversation going on in both their minds, she “said” cannily, Hey! I thought this was our trick.

You mean the Lemurians alone? The healing bit? Yeah, probably. The telepathic link? It’s more of a Discipline for the Carotians, but it’s our best expression of the Art on Ereb. Our healing technique couldn’t be managed without it, though it’s not the same as yours.

The remark—I know you didn’t mean anything by it. I shouldn’t have…

Hey, there are things you joke about that become almost sacrilege when someone else says them. See, there’s something for you to catalogue. Even High Kings can be complete idiots. The mental equivalent of a sigh. I’m sorry, kuchika. Sorry for the pain that’s been your life.

Kuchika? she sent back.

He nodded. There were some things I wanted to impart to you this way so if you had still had any doubt over my sincerity or my Queen’s, doubts that you thought pretty speeches and courtly manners—or fast talking—could hide, better to keep the communion going since you’d initiated it!

She had a clear sense that a third presence, a feminine one, had entered the mindlink and that she was as safe with the two as she had been with the one. But kuchika?! That’s what you’d call a little sister you had very special feelings for. You don’t want to call me that!

A wash of mental laughter. As a matter of fact, I only have two younger brothers and have always wanted to have someone to bestow that nickname on. If you’re not ready for it now, and if you go on this quest and return safely having done your best to rescue our lost prince, we’ll have formal papers drawn up admitting you to whichever royal household you’d like.

The warmth that suffused her at the realization he was serious struck her as a good time to withdraw gently from the bond. As she pulled away, she thought she heard a comment from Ariane directed to Avador in the same sort of cordially needling tone, something to the effect of him having someone to practice on already if he’d just look around.

As they resumed their stroll, Avador inquired, “Habie, have you had any formal training in the Lemurian empathic contact?”

She sensed he had wanted to phrase that differently but was not about to stray into territory where he had already hit a nerve. Looking down, she shook her head. “I’ve read some, but for a kid like me to even approach a priest or a family member to ask for training—they’d have sent me to get beaten for the presumption, and that’s only if they didn’t want the fun of doing it themselves. But those books, and other kids in the same situation as me—we practiced on each other some.”

Because, you know, Habie, you have got to have more sheer power than I’ve ever felt in the mind of a Lemurian.”

And you’re getting that assessment from the man widely recognized as the finest mentalic healer in the known quadrant,” Ariane added. “He has the talent and the finesse to pull off the trickiest healing of the gravest injuries, but his raw mentalic strength means he can break magically or psionically-placed blocks and pull off each and every one of his little tricks on a complete psi-null.”

Habie felt her eyes pop.

I wish there were time to give you even the most rudimentary training here, but your first stop will be the enchanted wood of Tuhl the Sage, and his response to a request to hone your skills will most definitely not be to have you beaten.” She flashed a wry grin. “In fact, if he heard of that reaction, he’d find a way to show those foolish Lemurians the error of their ways. And he wouldn’t even have to leave the wood to do it.” The wry grin changed to one Habie might have called malevolent had it appeared on a face less kind, noble, and beautiful. “I know The Carotian Charter outlines how autonomously the three different societies will typically function, but I may just drop a word or two in Mom and Dad’s ears at dinner tonight in the hope that by the time the quest concludes you will find a Lemurian Quarter significantly changed, Habie. Unless you’d like to tell them yourself, of course.”

Habie was still putting two and two together to figure out that “Mom and Dad,” for Ariane, worked out to the King and Queen of Caros. “You’re inviting me to dinner? With your family?”

Of course. You are our very special guest, Habie.”

Huh. OK, well, then I guess you’d better tell me about what I’m signing on for.”

That’s why we got questor-spotting duty,” Avador said with a chuckle. “We can’t tell you all the steps from A to Z, but we can between us tell you more about what is known about this quest than anyone else in the city.”

OK, spill. If this quest has Carotian royalty in it, then you’ve got all the hocus-pocus stuff you could ever want. What does your Minissa need me for?”

Ariane flashed her an inscrutable half-smile. “When one of the Pantheon manifests, she—or he—typically tell us no story but our own.”

Huh?”

She means we’re not clear on the specifics, Habie,” said Avador. “That you’re marked with the Stag shows you were chosen, but you might be in a better position to say why than we are.”

To read the annals of other quests,” Ariane put in, “and, believe me, I’ve read quite a few since Minissa scooped up my sister—the questors themselves didn’t always know what they had to contribute till the moment came when what they had hidden inside spilled forth.”

You mean she picks a whole bunch of real unremarkable people who don’t do anything in particular, because she knows that when the monsters attack—wham!—they’ll turn into the heroes she needs?”

Ariane’s smile widened. “You’re not at all unremarkable, Habie.”

Wondering why simple kindness and truth unpolluted by craft should be so hard to bear, Habie looked away. “Yeah, I’m a completely remarkable thief. I’m draffing incredible! If Minissa needs the enemy distracted by someone making a spectacle of botching a simple robbery in broad daylight, I’m her woman.”

Ariane and Avador exchanged a look. Avador drew to a halt, turned to Habie and rested a hand on her shoulder. It was a show of amiability, and it allowed him to stop her for a moment, but there was more. His normal barriers back in place, he signaled her that he was ready to drop them if she again needed a little peek around the corners of his soul.. They had now reached one of the small parks that bordered the marketplace. The crowds thinned considerably here, and it would be easier for the masses to keep a respectful distance while he and Ariane took the moment he felt they needed to communicate with Habie in private.

You’re a savvy young lady, my darling,” he said agreeably, “so I won’t hand you a pile of drek. We caught you so easily only because we knew exactly where to look.”

She blinked twice in astonishment—once at the way his sincerity was not feigned, a second time at his words. She cocked an appreciative eyebrow at his use of the local slang. She had expected to be reprimanded for using it herself in front of the Queen, not to be matched with such nonchalance. “How?” she asked, conscious that the note of challenge was slipping away.

Minissa told me,” replied Ariane, casually slipping her hand into Avador’s and signing to their entourage to halt.

Habie heard herself say, “That’s silly,” but she regretted the thought even as the words left her lips. Something in the Queen’s earlier remark about the gods manifesting had hinted at this, but she had not at that point been prepared to wrap her mind around the concept of deific visitation. She wasn’t sure she was prepared now! But her ideas about preparation and visitations slid by the wayside as a sudden golden warmth suffused her. She gasped at the sudden sense of connection she felt with the King and Queen.

Her lack of training left her with no explanation for the way she seemed suddenly to have entered both their minds at once. Ariane had stayed briefly and on the periphery while she had communicated this way with Avador. The only thing that made sense was that both the King and Queen had had enough experience with the mindtouch that they were the ones facilitating this link. They were letting her probe, welcoming her in as if they were inviting her to dinner in the most lavish room in the palace and treating her as an honored guest. She had the strangest sense that what she was perceiving about them both represented the essential truth of their being. So many Lemurians had one face that they showed to the world, a pleasant facade that hid insides that were all dark and twisty. The lavish room into which Ariane and Avador had welcomed her was nothing they had fancied up just to impress her while they let the rest of their palace fall into ruin. The image told her that the face they presented to the world accurately reflected what lay within, that all the grace and splendor and beauty she perceived with her physical eyes completely matched their inward reality.

More surprising, they were not probing back: she had no sense that they felt it was their right to pull from her mind by force what they had willingly shared of themselves. But they could! she thought in amazement as she took in the enormity of the power arrayed before her. That someone might possess the power to undermine a will—to blot out a life with no more effort than she would use to crush a gnat!—and not use it was incomprehensible to her. Yet here inside these two living minds stood her proof

Minissa told you?” she asked at last, and her voice sounded weak in her own ears. Words that had sounded so clever and a bearing that had seemed so cagey a moment ago seemed suddenly vain and shallow.

Ariane smiled kindly and slipped from the link with infinite care. “The Holy Ones have honored me with visitations from time to time.” Her voice had the quality of music coming from a place beyond the grief and woe of this life, and for a moment, the light of the divine shone in her face.

Habie was drawn in by the beauty that was more than physical, but she could only bear it for an instant. She dropped her eyes less from fear of the radiance burning her than from a sense that she was profaning it merely by looking. “What is it we’re supposed to do?” she asked haltingly.

You go to find a prince who was lost many centuries ago.”

The brassiness she had spent a lifetime developing could not be gotten rid of so easily, but she kept from her voice what harshness she could. “Well—isn’t there already enough royalty to go around and then some?”

Not quite enough of the right kind,” said Avador. “This one is the only one who can unite Thalas before it descends into civil war.”

So? Thalas is a whole ‘nother world.”

He exchanged a look with his wife that said, You don’t know the half of it. Aloud, he said, “Ari, would you oblige me?”

She gave him the sort of smile that said she enjoyed obliging him anytime, anywhere. Kneeling so Habie could see what she was doing, she put her hands together. When she separated them, between them lay an image like a tiny, perfect hologram of their star system.

Habie’s eyes widened, and her mouth formed into a little “o” of wonder. All trace of the wall she usually maintained between herself and the outside world—the one that had been getting shakier by the minute this past half hour—vanished. “Is this us?” she asked, pointing to the greenest of the three small worlds.

Avador followed Ariane’s example and crouched so he was not speaking down to Habie in any sense of the word. “Uh-huh.” He pointed. “Us, Ereb, and Thalas here.” He eyed her closely. “We fought a war, you know, I’d say a year or two before you were born.”

I’ve—heard stories,” she said quietly, shivering. An image came to her mind of a grave and a storm and a Lemurian woman about her own age with a spectre like a death fetch hovering just beyond her shoulder. She thought from time to time she saw true clan-banding in her mother’s fur, that she could, if she tried, identify a house—a noble one, at that—in the wash of greens and tans. It was the only clear picture she had ever had of her mother. Yet it’s safe with them. They’ve both seen it, and yet my secret is safe. How can I know that?

Yes—well,” he tripped over his tongue a little in his effort to curb his curiosity over the image she had projected—what a fascinating story this youngster must have! “Right. Thalas made war on Caros and Ereb, Ariane and I became overnight heroes by winning the war single-handedly—double-handedly, I should say.” He exchanged a grin with Ariane. “It’s what the bards say, if not the history books, eh?”

I wouldn’t know,” Habie grumbled under her breath.

Anyway, we thought the Pantheon might like it if, rather than turning the Thalacians into our slaves, we united with them under a single government—that’s the two of us, our Council, the Nonacle, and so on—and treated them as equals.”

And so far it’s worked on paper,” Ariane continued. “But the spirit of mistrust fostered by the sort of monarchy that would declare a war of conquest on its peaceful sister-worlds—it’s never quite gone away. The—” She paled for a fraction of a second and swallowed, Habie caught a stab of pain from her as if the Queen attached some horrific memory to this episode for all she and Avador had come out of it with the highest offices in the land. “The king who declared the war and his son, the heir to the throne, were both killed in that conflict. After them, the line of succession got a little muddled.”

To tell you the truth,” said Avador, “the place was a shambles when we got hold of it.”

Ariane flashed him an amused grin and went on. “After them, no one was really interested in having a king. The Toths were tyrants of the worst kind, and for a while the princes and petty barons seemed content to have their authority back.”

Too content! Do you have any idea what a coalition government is, Habie?”

She gave him a look that scathed. “I’m uneducated, not stupid.”

He chuckled. “What you are, little one, is a piece of work! All right. Ereb and Caros have been worlds united under their own monarchs since the Exodus—getting the hang of dealing with a High King and Queen did not require a lot of imagination from them, or a lot of effort. Thalas was another story—still is, really.”

Their coalition of princes and petty barons isn’t working well,” offered Ariane.

Let me guess,” Habie said dryly. “Once these heavyweights got their power back, they didn’t want to give any of it up again “Exactly. And the Thalacian royal line that sprang from the Exodus has been so badly mangled through the centuries that there is no single living person whose claim all will acknowledge.”

Habie took three seconds to put three and three together. “You mean this quest of yours is one where we’re gonna go wake the dead?” Her expression was hard to read—she might have been simultaneously repelled and drawn by the idea. She settled on being drawn and gave them a perky smile. “Lethal!”

Well, it’s not exactly bringing the dead to life,” said Avador. “It’s more like -um-”

Bringing the living to life?” Ariane suggested with a wry grin

Yeah, OK, I can live with that,” Habie assured them.

Listen first. You know the humans here—what most people in-system and out just call the Carotians—came from another world.” A large globe appeared in her array, this one larger than the other three and orbiting the suns along a track perpendicular to their orbital plane.

Yeah, every Lemurian knows that us and the Tigroids were here first, just like the Aranyaka on Ereb and the Inygwees on Thalas.”

Queen Thalacia, the first Thalacian queen, established her line after the Exodus, but it was broken in the sixth generation. All of the histories say that both the ruling king and his heir were killed in a palace coup, the king by poison and the heir by—dark magic. But last year, when the problems on Thalas were coming to a head, people all over the Union began having visions, visions of a prince lying on a bier in a peaceful forest.” She shrugged so the image wobbled a little. “Somewhere.”

Habie had become engrossed in the story some time ago; the guards, who had formed a loose protective circle around the trio, were now leaning in, rapt. A few had even dropped to their knees in a show of reverence. Habie heard actual awe come to Avador’s voice as he took up the tale and his voice fell to a whisper. It took on that quality Ariane’s had from time to time of being possessed not by man but by god. “We went, Ari and I, to Thalas, guided in space by a star and on the ground by a sheet of living flame. Castle Toth was abandoned after the war, pronounced desecrated ground by the priests and not beyond their abilities to cleanse. Ghosts walk there now, but it is not an empty place. There at Castle Toth, in a vault whose door was so hidden by design and debris that only the hand of the gods could have led us to it, was a small book, only about so big.” He outlined a space the size of a thin journal. “It was the journal of the mage who was supposed to have killed the heir, along with his testimonial about the part he had played. And it was not the story written in the history books or sung by the bards, but something completely—other.” He nodded to Ariane as if to say, “Let the real expert on magic explain it for you.”

You see, Habie,” Ariane said, taking her cue from her husband. , “his explanation was that he had cast his spell not to harm the prince but to help him. He said that a third party, a mage easily his equal and possibly the equal of the prince himself, had cast the baneful spell, the spell that should have killed. His sworn testimony was that he fired his protective spell an instant after the assassin-mage fired the one that would have killed the Prince but that the effect was—well, the effect was that, when the smoke cleared, both the Prince and the assassin were gone, and he had some explaining to do. Soon after we discovered the journal, my sister came zipping in from the outworlds saying that Minissa had claimed her. She herself, with the help of some tools we have only in the palace here on Caros, divined this story without talking to anyone, without probing anyone’s mind, without anything but the guidance of Minissa herself. She saw the quest unfold and looked into a place not in this universe—the place where the Lost Prince of Thalas came to his final rest in an enchanted sleep.”

And the long and short of it,” concluded Avador, “is that if we—you—find Prince Eliander, then Thalas will unite behind him and survive. And if you fail—if all of you so much as refuse to go—Thalas will be destroyed.” He sighed. “And right behind Thalas will be Caros and Ereb.”

Habie shook off the images that had unfolded in her mind as she heard all this. “Huh?”

Avador poked a finger into the image Ariane was projecting and flicked away the larger planet, the one-time human home-world, as if it were a domino. Nothing happened. Then he did the same to Thalas. The other two planets struggled to reorient their orbits in light of the sudden change in the gravitational forces. Then they wobbled a little. Then their orbits started to decay. Finally, they went crashing into the sun. “The gods gave our people a chance to save themselves when Thalybdenos was destroyed,” he narrated. “If Thalas goes, there will be no second chance for us, and we’ll take your people, the Tigroids, the Aranyaka, the Inygwees—everybody—with us.”

Habie’s jaw looked like it would drop in horror, but just before it opened, she managed to scrape enough bricks together to put a portion of her wall back up. “Wait a minute! Hold it! You’re trying to trick me, forcing the two planets to sun dive with more magic or telepathy or something. Do it over again. Do it right!”

Ariane gave Habie an inscrutable smile, reset the image so all four planets orbited the binary sun, and nodded to her to try. When the girl had three times gotten the same results Avador had, Ariane brought the enigmatic smile back and said, “Magic, you see, is the entire point.”