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On this tab, I've placed the prologue and two chapters of Tapestry of Enchantment.  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


Peri put aside the huge tome in which her story of the Quest for the Lost Prince of Thalas was taking shape and considered her fingers. Ten, she thought. Eight fingers, two opposable thumbs. It doesn’t make sense. She held up her left hand and, on the theory that the human harpers she knew only used three fingers and the thumb, caused her pinky to phase out. Giggling outrageously, she compared left and right hand, flipping them palm outward and back several times in rapid succession. “That’s better,” she finally murmured in satisfaction.
      “What’s better?” came the voice of the old sage. “What are you doing, young Peri? What are you about?”
      She had advanced to flipping her hands back and forth in opposition now: thumbs right, thumbs left, thumbs right, thumbs left... “I’m thinking about the number nine,” she said complacently.
      “Hmph,” said Tuhl, seating himself on the log next to hers and staring at the scene that remained floating in the air above the fire. In that scene, the questors were still milling about the wooded interspace that separated the first leg of their journey from the second: an odd group, to say the least. “Nine?” he prompted after a moment.
      “Yes. Do you know my people call it simply ‘the Unity’?”
      He chuffed a bit. She had learned long ago that sound represented laughter. “Tuhl knows the ninety and nine meanings of every number in creation, and what those numbers are called by every race in this corner of the cosmos.”
      “Oh, yes, I forgot. You know everything.” The remark was neither as awestruck nor as sour as it once might have been.
      “And well for you I do, young one.” His eyes twinkled. “But why nine? Why now?”
      “Well, Torreb remarked early on in the quest he was surprised at the number of questors being seven rather than nine. The human folk of the Union have no special name for the number nine, but he indicated the number held some spiritual significance to their faith, akin to our concept of the Unity.”
      “That is so. The largest single-digit number has profound significance for many cultures, no matter their system of counting or the base they use. The Unity, the Oneness, the Many-in-One, the One-as-Many: in many symbologies that number means the unity of many and the strength that is found in being unified. What made you think of that?”
      “Well, as the questors ended their first adventure, they really found that they
were nine.”
      Tuhl’s eyes shifted as if he were counting. “Ah, yes. I see.” He chuffed a bit more and grinned.
      “Seven picked by the Divine directly,” Peri enumerated, “one given as a gift by you. And one, well,
acquired along the way—by accident or Providence or Divine Will, or sheer dumb luck.”
      Tuhl swirled his staff through the image that hung suspended above the flames; it swirled like bright smoke. The figures lost their discrete edges, and the hues defining them ran together—a watercolor exposed too soon to its final wash. “Acquired,” he mused, making the chuffing sound she had come to take for amused laughter. “Yes, you might say they
acquired Anthraticus.” Bright eyes snapped up to impale her. “Have you decided how you planned to describe this acquisition in your Chronicles? As accident or Providence or Divine Will, or sheer dumb luck, or something entirely other?”
      “Oh, well, I—” She fumbled a little with the words, tore back through her pages of notes. “I hadn’t worked it out yet,” she confessed finally. She felt no shame in the admission.
      “Ah,” he said with a sagacious nod, as if he thought more of her for not trying to jump to a conclusion—one he had demanded she make without analyzing the evidence, at that.
      “I mean, there seems to be evidence on both sides. And, well,
my people believe both fate and free will exist, but the extent to which each influences any individual event is a Mystery.”
      He nodded again. “The humans would tell you the
Book of Life and the Book of Wisdom say just that—that it is a Mystery not to be deciphered on this side of the grave, even by sentient creatures of great insight. See? You and they are not so very different!”
      “No,” she agreed with a wistful sigh. “No so very different, not now. As for Anthraticus’ appearance being an accident, I truly believe there
are no accidents. And yet...”
      “Speak your thought.”
      “Well, Mistra released her consort because the High Queen had assured her any not marked with the Stag would surely die if they attempted the Quest of the Lost Prince. Goddess bless! She suffered the Nonacle to shatter the consort bond!”
      “‘As bad as that was, I wish this were that good,’” he mused, recalling the vision they had just watched in which Mistra compared the loss of one consort to death and another to forcible termination of the bond.
      “Yes. Yet Anthraticus passed the second Portal and lived, and I have never seen the mark of the Stag upon him at all, though the others bear the mark as a trophy of honor.”
      “Mistra,” he said after a moment’s thought, “has more than once made the observation that the test of the Lesser Worlds is to learn the Will of their Creator and to prosecute it with a high heart, while the test of the Later Worlds is possession of complete knowledge of that same Will.” He grinned. “She and Mosaia had many long talks about that one, believe me! He would tell her the men of his world would go to their graves blithely doing the Will of their Lord if they could know it with such clarity as the Pantheon often gives. And she would answer that complete certitude in that sense was not the boon his folk imagined it to be. `When people claim,’ she said to him on a time, `that they would exert their utmost endeavor if only the Pantheon or the One or whatever they call it would divulge its Will, they envision that Will as being consonant with their own, or at least not contrary to it. The true test of faith for our people lies not in the search for that Will but in its glad prosecution, though the doing of that Will break your own heart.’”
      “She does not look very heartbroken these days.”
      “She persevered in the prosecution of that Will,” he said, “though at times she thought her heart lay dead in her breast. And in the prosecution, she came to understand.”
      “Understand what?”
      He raised his staff again and swirled it through the smoke above their small fire. She watched as a shape like a cream-colored trapezoid formed. “Can you tell me what this is?”
      She frowned. Obviously, he was leading up to one of his Lessons, which could assume any one of a myriad obscure shapes. She had learned to play along. “Of course not. It could be any one of a dozen things.”
      “Such as?”
      “Oh, by the Lady, Tuhl, I don’t know! It could be the side of an eggshell or the petal of a flower or the Royal Thalacian Opera House seen from a great distance above, or just a pretty geometric shape.”
      He raised his staff again and a second trapezoid, the mirror image of the first, sprang up a small distance away. “And now?”
      “A butterfly with a very fat middle,” she said drily.
      A third gesture, and an entire circle of the shapes appeared; now the ground upon which they sat took on the hue of an emerald sparkling in the sun.
      “Ah!” She felt the spark of recognition come. “A snowflower from Dantos I.” She frowned, counted the number of trapezoids in the circle. “No, wait a bit. They have ten petals, not twelve.” She cocked her head; he had engaged her interest now, and she was making a serious attempt to find the solution to the puzzle. “Except for the colors, it could be the rosette used by some of the clergy to symbolize the Pantheon.”
      “As the athletes competing in the Games might say, you are in the ball park.” A final gesture and the resolution of the image hovering above them improved. Now the cream of the trapezoids and the green of the ground were broken by discrete, identifiable features: a fountain here, a balcony there.
      She burst out laughing. “That’s an aerial view of Holy Hill!”
      He chuffed. “So irreverent you are.”
      “Irreverent? I’ve heard Caros’ highest royalty use the phrase. It isn’t
my fault they collected all their holiest temples and crowned the same hill with them. Such excess invites such epithets.”
      “It will be
Tuhl’s fault if you do not understand the point he is trying to make.”
      She sobered, pondered. “You’re saying doing the Will of the Divine is like this? If we don’t understand the reason for what’s being asked of us, it’s because we see only the first small shape and don’t know what to make of it? Or even if all the pieces of the puzzle lie before us, we may still not know what to make of
them ? Is that it?”
      He nodded.
      “And that maybe—maybe if we
did see, our hearts would not break at all?”
      He nodded again. “What Mistra came to understand was just so, that contingent beings do not always see the end in the beginning, or the whole pattern in the smallest fragment. Contravening the Will of the Pantheon serves no one, and if one contravenes enough in one’s life, one will never
see the pattern, or the reason one sacrifice or another was required in the first place. Yet if one endures with patience, if one is obedient to Their commands even when he looks around and believes himself forsaken by Them—especially when he looks around and believes himself forsaken by Them—the most glorious of designs will come to full fruition.”
      She took a moment to collect herself, found within herself the strength to address the Guardian of the Orb of Caros as if he were an equal, or as if their difference were one of degree rather than station. “I do not like it that good people suffer from doing the right thing.” She quirked him a smile. “Is that short-sighted of me?”
      He gave her a benevolent smile in return. “It shows you have a kind heart.”
      She perked up a little at that.
      “But, yes, it also shows you are short-sighted—ah, ah, ah!” He held up a hand to forestall her when she would have taken umbrage. “But no more than is reasonable for any of us,” he amended, cackling a bit as she struggled not to look like a deflated balloon. “In the case of the truly great ones,” he went on in a more philosophical tone, “those tests bring suffering
as great, for they suffer not only that they might be tested and perfected like the rest of us: they suffer that sentientkind might live. They take on themselves the burdens of a harsh universe that their fellow beings may be set free. They consent even to be shackled that the rest of us might know release from bondage.” He rose. “Come. The first Portal took the adventurers to a different world; the second took them to—well, it is a place more easily visualized in the Well of Eliannes.”
 





CHAPTER 1
 
Where Are We?
Anthraticus

  “Those who journey in the garden land of knowledge, because they see the end in the beginning, see peace in war and friendliness in anger. Such is the state of the wayfarers in this Valley, but the people of the Valleys above this see the end and the beginning as one; nay, they see neither beginning nor end, and witness neither ‘first’ nor ‘last.’”

—The Book of Life

       
     

  The eight questors for the Lost Prince of Thalas stood gaping at the inadvertently-acquired ninth member of their party. Prior to their trip to planet Astra, none of them had ever seen a spragon, a creature like a small coatl with butterfly wings and a telescoping neck. The sight of a spragon drunk, giggling, hiccoughing, and using Deneth’s pack as a portable hostel struck most of them so silly that their first response after the initial shock was to burst out laughing.
      “How did he get through the Portal unharmed?” asked a befuddled Mistra, who alone refused to find humor in the situation.
      “Getting through the Portal” was, in fact, a slight misrepresentation of their circumstances. The questors had learned early on that the path to the Prince’s plane of incarceration was littered with Portals which magically gated them through space. When they stepped through the Portal on Astra, they found themselves in a quiet wood that seemed disconnected from any other reality. Within the wood stood a second Portal—the egress from what they had now dubbed “the interspace,” and the entry to the next stop on their journey. Even before they crossed the threshold of the Portal leading to that first interspace, Deneth, with his strange bardic magic, had discovered that these tranquil spots were places of refuge and respite, places to mend, places where restoration that had eluded them in the outside world simply happened on its own. Only his discovery had allowed them to save the life of their comrade Alla, who had expended much of her life energy performing a risky ritual at the end of their last adventure. The ritual had accomplished its purpose, allowing them to make a final elixir that would heal Anthraticus’ ailing kin, but it had nearly cost the aranyaka her life.
     

Deneth tried, out of respect for Mistra’s sobriety, to still his mirth. He failed miserably. “Well, he settled in my pack, and I guess the packs are sort of magical. Maybe it protected him.”


      “And his system is obviously more than adequately cushioned against physical shock,” Mosaia, their de facto knight-protector, chuckled. He poked Anthraticus in the ribs. The dragon doubled over, giggling more loudly and begging him to stop tickling. “What did you do, Deneth? Force some of the local shrubbery down his throat?”
      “No. It was only wine, I swear. Just little bitty thimblefuls.” He rummaged in his pack and came up with the thimble Anthraticus been using as a glass and a bottle they had previously dubbed the Bottomless Bottle of Brandy for the spell of plenitude Mistra had placed on it during their last adventure. It now stood nearly empty.
      “I didn’t mean for the spell to keep replenishing it once we took care of the dragons on Astra,” Mistra explained with a chagrined look.
      “And a good thing,” the bard said dryly. His look of consternation—the spragon must have continued to imbibe while Deneth got swept up in their frenetic efforts to cure Alla—was wasted on the others. No one was frowning accusation; in fact, the discovery triggered a resurgence of good-natured laughter.
      “Is it safe to take him through the other half of the Portal?” asked Mistra, still the only one among them who seemed inclined to treat the matter seriously. “I mean, we can’t take him the rest of the way if it’s going to kill him.”
      “We can’t just leave him here,” Habie protested. “Wherever here is.”
      “Yeah,” Deneth said sourly. “He’d have no one to play his jokes on. Die of terminal lack of mirth, no doubt.”
      T’Cru nuzzled the dragon. “What say, cousin? Will you risk another trip in Deneth’s pack?”
      Anthraticus flashed his toothy grin at the Tigroid and proceeded to pass out.
      T’Cru bowed Tigroid-fashion to Alla. “Lady, I would trust your judgment.”
      Alla, fully recovered from her ordeal, settled herself next to the spragon and stroked his underbelly. “My only fear is the Universe permitted him to pass the Portal and live because it was an honest mistake—the first half of the Portal, anyway.”
      “He was,” pontificated Mosaia’s sword, which they had grudgingly unsheathed so it could contribute to the discussion, “just curling up in the closest place to hand, to... er, I believe the human term would be ‘to sleep it off.’”
      “Now that we know he’s here, is that knowledge a danger to him?”
      “You are seriously asking my advice?”
      “Much as I hate to admit it.” said Mosaia. “You are, after all, a sentient construct of goodly magic.”
      The sword could not truly locomote, but something about the aura around it said it was preening. “I was forged at the dawn of time by—”
      “Ereb himself,” they chorused.
      “And Phino,” said Deneth, as if he were repeating the most boring of litanies.
      “And Strephel,” chortled Habie.
      “The point is,” Mosaia cut in before anyone could launch into the rest of the sword’s lineage, “you were forged by members of the Pantheon whose goodly influence now seems to permeate these Portals and interspaces. You may be in the best position to judge of all of us.”
      The sword considered. “Well, then, I tend to think not, from what I know of Minissa, though she is only cousin to the gods who forged me. Ereb, of course, would hardly consider it just that we abandon him here in this nether world, pleasant though it is to you organics. Whether he can continue on safely after our next adventure I cannot say: we may have to leave him in whatever place we find ourselves next.”
      “I agree,” said Mistra. “I just wish he were coherent enough to decide for himself.”
      “In the field,” said Mosaia, “we wish for many things, but we fight with whatever means we have to hand.”
      “Maybe a few words from Torreb before we go, then?” Habie suggested. “You know—prayers, or a blessing from Minissa or one of the others, or all of them, or something...?” Her voice trailed off as she took in the amused or astounded looks the request garnered, not for its peculiarity, but for its peculiarity coming from her. “Well, it’s their Portal and their quest,” the diminutive thief retorted, though no one had maligned the suggestion. “Can’t we ask them to be nice to a poor little drunken, well-meaning spritely dragon?”
      At that remark, Torreb laughed for no reason but heart’s ease. “Habie, you’ll be asking to take holy orders before the quest is over.”
      “Me? Puh-leez!”
      In the end, the priest incanted a blessing and begged the gods for pity, and they passed the egress Portal. Anthraticus, once again curled up inside Deneth’s pack, seemed none the worse for wear when they looked in on him, although he was still sound asleep. They breathed a collective sigh of relief and set about preparing to make the next leg of the journey.
      They found themselves in yet another wood, pretty but pathless and featureless. Everyone knew they needed to look to the Portal Stone for direction, but when Deneth first looked up to ask Mistra why she was taking such a long time extracting the locator device from her pack, they discovered she had disappeared.  
      Relief was, in fact, Mistra’s first reaction to the news that Anthraticus had made the passage safely, but fury and grief quickly displaced it. Both smote her in a wave she had not seen coming, a wave of such magnitude she could neither avoid it nor fight her way clear. Its very inexorability left her with few options: she could not quiet the outburst that threatened to burst forth, she could only refuse to burden her friends with its onslaught. She slipped quietly away, plunging into the forest before the worst of the violent sobbing took her, fleeing with the sense she could outdistance the pain if only she could run fast enough.
      Images flashed before her eyes. They obscured her vision and dizzied her so her knees buckled before she had gone more than a dozen meters. She stumbled, sank to her knees, and threw her arms across her face to blot out the scene that pushed its way violently to the forefront of waking memory. She did not succeed: when she lowered her arms, she stood no longer in a quiet forest but in a secret chamber in the palace in Caros City, surrounded by a sea of faces in which few were familiar.
      “Minissa has elected you to the quest,” Ariane intoned in a voice like a death knell.
      “Fine,” said Mistra. “We’ll be off in the morning, then.”
      “She designated you, Mistra—not your consort.”
      A beat of silence, then: “What?” None of the small cluster of dignitaries, great folk and high from all over the Carotian Union, moved to contradict the woman who was Mistra’s sister—and their own High Queen. Nor did any attempt to answer Mistra’s outburst. She waited the space of three heartbeats anyway just to give them the chance: no one was going to like what she had to say next if she did not get a response to that simple query, least of all her. Still, no one spoke. Her next words tore into the silence, daring it to persist. “But if I try to run off alone, he’ll follow me!”
      “Then he will die.” In making this statement, Ariane had not wanted for compassion; she sought only to make absolutely clear Mistra’s position—and her consort’s.
      “He won’t believe that. He’ll come after me.”
      “It is a choice he must make, or else you must make the choice for him. Minissa did not visit him with the mark of the Stag. If he follows you, he will die.”
      Mistra never knew how much time passed before she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. The secret chamber faded. Through tears that still partially obscured her vision, she saw Mosaia. A question was in his eyes, as were concern and compassion. “Princess?” he asked. “Mistra?”
      “They lied to me!” she sobbed. Her heart felt ripped in two; her mind could barely compass the enormity of the injustice that had been done her. “Anthraticus passed the first Portal and lived, and no goddess of any race marked him for this quest or any other. They lied!”
      She caught the nuance as he took her in his arms. He did not understand the exact nature of her problem, nor had he great experience with women, of holding them to express affection or to comfort them when they sorrowed, yet he acted: it was enough that she grieved. She found something inexpressibly sweet about the gesture—it lacked consciousness of self to such an extent that it became a completely selfless act. The knight acting so on her behalf coupled with his strong, reassuring presence dispelled half her heartache on the spot.
      “Ah, your consort,” he said after taking a moment to piece it together. “I see. You think he might have come after all, if Anthraticus has not come to harm.”
      She nodded, knowing with her face buried in his broad chest, he could do no more than feel the movement.
      “Oh, dear,” he said with more consternation than rancor.
      She felt him stroke her hair as he rocked her gently, letting the sobs run their course. She felt a second nuance: her tacit acceptance of his comfort was bolstering his confidence. “It was all for nothing,” she said once she could speak again. “The fiction of my death, the hours of planning, the creation of the replicant, the severing of the bond by the Nonacle...” And the ache in my psyche that throbs like an open wound.
      “You don’t really think they lied, do you, lady?” He tilted her chin up so her eyes met his, and she offered no resistance. His voice and manner were infinitely gentle. “Your own good gods and priests and loremasters, those whose praises you sing? Anthraticus came with us by accident, and who knows what else we will meet on the road that may kill us all, marked with the Stag or not? Your consort was learned and resourceful by all accounts, but not invulnerable, for all that. I think we must count it a mercy of your gods that Anthraticus took no harm from his passage of the Portal. A deliberate attempt by someone who bore not the mark of the Stag might have resulted in disaster.”
      Something in his words made sense to her so she nodded, but she could not bring herself to pull away from the sheltering circle of his arms. “I said on the day I accepted my fate I would enter this valley of despair with pain as my steed and denial as my mantle. I think I was just finding my seat and getting my cloak adjusted when we realized Anthraticus had come with us! I think I’ve already blundered too far into that valley to turn back, yet my steed of pain has suddenly grown so great and wild I think I shall be thrown to the ground and trampled.” She flashed him a rueful smile. “The well from which I draw my meager strength seems to have run dry; to whom can I look to replenish it?”
      He smiled kindly down at her. “To your own self, which I think is a greater wellspring than you know. And to your loving companions. And to—well, a knight of my persuasion should say to your faith, I suppose. But how can one person exhort another to faith at a time like this? My heart tells me it would sound like nought but empty platitudes. How does one who has never known the pleasure of love counsel one who is grieving its loss? Yet you are courageous and high-hearted, Mistra, or your Minissa would not have elected you to the quest. Can you think that in the moment she elected you, she also decided you had attained perfection and could go to your grave with no further tests of your faith? Yet, can you believe she would test you beyond your capacity to endure? It is to the strong the harshest tests are given, that they may grow ever greater in the sight of God. It is only our own imperfections that make us feel as weak as newborn kittens while the storm buffets us; did we not need the test to grow, we would be as secure in the storm as a globe of imperishable crystal anchored to the bottom of the sea.”
      She could only stare for a moment: she was used to men of war being prosaic, and he was giving her poetry as beautiful, as deeply moving as any ode written by any master bard who ever set pen to paper. She was also used to men of war having about as much true insight as the glue with which her pointe shoes were stiffened. However Mosaia had learned the letter of his Law, its spirit had gone straight to his heart! She crooked her mouth into what felt like the wriest of smiles. “I would have said this particular test should have held me for at least a few months, but...” She sighed. “You are very wise. I feel like I’m courting disaster, Mosaia—disaster and madness. You may have just thrown me the rope I needed before I went toppling over the edge. It should have been my rope, one I spun for myself.” Another crooked smile. “Grief seems to have blunted the edge of my rope-making skills. I keep thinking I’m working with the best hemp when what I really have in my hands is something as insubstantial as a butterfly’s cocoon. In your hands, the rope has substance and weight—and a pleasing form.”
      “Then please catch it and hold on with all your might,” he said, smiling as though he found amusement in the metaphor. “The party cannot bear to be deprived of your company just yet.”
      She rested her head on his shoulder once more, content in his warmth and solidity, in the sense of his great spirit enfolding hers like a quilt of eiderdown, in their companionable silence. Perhaps this is the real test, she thought, that in my hour of trial I learn to find comfort in the words of a stranger, an outworlder who knows nothing of the Greater Mysteries as we understand them in the Union. I am not encumbered by despair and lost love but by pride...
      She could have rested content in his arms for long hours but for the urgent shouts of their companions calling to them to return.  
      Mistra and Mosaia returned to the spot where the rest of the party had remained assembled. The other six were standing motionless and rapt; it took the returning pair mere seconds to join in the display of mute reverence. Mosaia even partially drew the sword so it could share in the experience. For once, the loquacious blade found nothing to say.
      Before them, living and breathing, stood the Stag of Minissa.
      He said nothing but regarded each of them in turn with his great, solemn eyes. He made no sign, although he may have been indicating approval for completion of their first task and sizing them up for their readiness to go on to the next. Only when a curious Anthraticus, still recovering from his bout with Deneth’s brandy, fluttered shakily from his perch in the trees and landed on the Stag’s antlers did the vestige of a grin appear on the great beast’s mouth. The little spragon snaked his long neck down so he could look the Stag in the eye, cocking his head one way and the other as if to ask what manner of being the stately creature was. His purchase, however, proved tenuous; the act of tilting his head caused his grip to falter. He did not go crashing to the ground—his claws still clung loosely to the Stag’s antler—but instead looped 180º so he came to rest hanging upside down staring the Stag full in the face. He looked appalled for a moment, as it struck him that this was a divine creature whose antler he was using for his gymnastics. He tried to recoup by covering the grimace with his broad, silly grin. The Stag merely flashed a cervine smile of amusement. With a toss of his mighty head, he sent Anthraticus the other 180º around the circle so he landed upright. The spragon now perching on his great rack like a hood ornament, he beckoned to the others to follow.
      As the Stag led them along, the forest thinned. Now, rather than picking their way through closely spaced trees and dense underbrush in a line, they could walk several abreast. A respectful, almost reverent hush had fallen over them when the Stag had appeared, and they walked now in silence. Even Mistra’s pained resentment abated in the face of the Stag’s majestic grace.
      As they walked, surrounded by the whisper of the wind in the trees and the chirps and squeaks of woodland creatures who came to pay homage to the Stag, Mistra pulled the Portal Stone from her pack. To her surprise, it lay dormant in her hand. She nudged Mosaia, who frowned thoughtfully.
      “Too far?” he whispered.
      She gave a thoughtful shrug as if to say his was a reasonable supposition. “A guide?” she asked him quietly with a nod in the Stag’s direction. He, too, shrugged thoughtfully, for exactly the same reason. “The gift of a benevolent God—or Pantheon—to those lost in the wilderness.” He may have meant that as remark or question; whichever, a look of understanding passed between them before they moved on.
      The sun had just begun to wester when they came to the edge of the trees. Ahead lay a grassy plain broken by a hill so broad they could only guess at its diameter from where they stood. Its slope was gentle, but it reached so high above them the midday sun would soon be hidden from their sight. Deneth gave a low whistle.
      “Over it or around it,” he mused aloud. “Either way, it looks like a long walk.”
      They drew to a halt, waiting for the Stag to continue on, but the Stag turned to face them. He fixed his gaze on Deneth. It took a moment for Deneth to register that the Stag was communicating with him. He cocked his head and frowned, as if trying to catch some nuance of sound just on the edge of hearing. The others felt a crackling in the air around them, as though the atmosphere were being charged with electricity. The tension mounted till the sense of anticipation became so strong they felt they must prepare to fight or flee, or else go mad from their inability to defuse the pressure that threatened to overwhelm them.
      And then it was gone, like the snapping of an elastic band stretched suddenly beyond its limit. They stood dazzled, as if the sun for a moment shone directly into their eyes. When the world righted itself, they noticed simultaneously that they could breathe again—and that the Stag had vanished. Mistra pulled out the Stone again, hopeful that it would now direct them, but it still lay quiescent. She sighed audibly. “Now what?” she asked. She meant it rhetorically, but, while the others seemed at a loss, Alla noticed the distracted, distant look that Deneth still wore.
      “I think,” she said to him, “that the Stag has left us in your hands.”  
      Deneth heard Alla speaking to him as if from a great distance. He contemplated the words that seemed to swoop down on him from the very Ether, the tune and lyrics he had seen revealed to him as if through a dense fog. He had never thought of the Ether as a physical place, but the odd sensation came to him that these words, this great music, had been composed on the Day of Creation, then anchored here in this spot to await his arrival, as if, in all the cosmos, his mind alone could perceive them.
      As he forced himself back from that place between one reality and the next, he forced his brow to smooth a little; he shifted his focus so his companions would know that wherever he had been, he had returned to them. “I think so, too,” he replied. “Phino knows why! I feel as though the Stag gave me a puzzle with all the pieces but with no directions and no clue as to what sort of puzzle it might be.”
      “Did he speak to you?” Habie asked, a rare note of awe in her voice.
      “Yes. I suppose he did. Here.” He touched his brow absently to indicate a telepathic contact of some sort. “He told me—” He stopped himself, looking from face to face to reassure himself these people would not try to haul him off to the nearest asylum for what he was about to say. Whatever reassurances he needed, he must have found, for he plunged ahead after a moment of intense scrutiny. “He told me to sing the stones asunder, to move rock and grass with but a phrase.”
      “Our bard waxes poetic,” Torreb said with a benign grin.
      “Not this time. Those were his exact words. I wonder... The right musical tones can produce enough sympathetic vibrations to shatter certain substances, like glass.” He regarded the hill, assessing the odds that such a structure would be made of glass and deciding it wasn’t the way to bet.
      “What kinds of notes would it take to shatter a great big pile of dirt?” asked Habie, her voice skeptical.
      “I heard music,” he said, running over the melody in his mind but thinking it would take more than his voice to move mountains with it. “When I was...” He waved his hand vaguely to indicate “out there.”
      “If you heard it—” Mistra waved her hand to indicate the same nebulous place. “—then maybe you must look less to physical science for an answer and more to the magic of your own soul.”
      A further moment of thought, and he brightened. “Of course!” He unslung his pack and pulled from it the lute that had been Tuhl’s gift to him.
      “Tuhl said it would give you powers over the elements!” she exclaimed.
      He cocked an eyebrow first at her, then at the hill. “Elements?” He inflected it so she could see the picture the word brought to his mind and understand it more to do with spring breezes and dancing brooks than with a hill the size of Thalas City.
      Mistra bit her lip and gave him a helpless little shrug, but Habie said, “Hey, why start at the bottom and work your way up when you can start at the very top?”
      “Top,” he muttered, glaring briefly at her. “Right.” He directed his attention to the lute but did not position it. He had played it since Tuhl had presented it to him, but only to entertain: he had not yet taken it up thinking to invoke any of its powers. Having the continuation of the quest depend on his doing so was a little frightening—the lute actually felt different now that he was planning to call on its magic—but it was also a little thrilling!
      He touched a tentative finger to the lowest of its 14 courses. Plucking the tandem strings produced a tone of such compelling purity he felt his heart might break from the sheer beauty of it. Looking up, he saw the enraptured expressions on the faces of his friends and knew the spell was drawing them in. He felt suddenly acutely aware of his own shortcomings; he felt as if he might be defiling something holy with his meager skill and tainted hands. He was tempted to put the instrument away, to throw it away, or at least to hand it over to someone like Torreb or Mosaia, men who had long ago dedicated their lives to the Divine. But in the instant before he would have yielded to the impulse to put the lute from him forever, he felt a gentle touch on his arm. He looked up to see Mistra smiling encouragement. He heard echoing through his mind something she had said to him once upon a time: that when she heard his music, she could see into the magnificence of his soul. Worldly she might be, but in some ways, he thought she was even purer in spirit than the two who had taken holy orders: her stalwart belief in him meant more. If she thought that, if Tuhl had entrusted him with the lute’s keeping, then perhaps he did dare play it. Seen in that light, perhaps he dared not refuse!
      He cradled the lute tenderly a moment, then positioned it and proceeded to play. As he sought to reproduce the melody and words he heard in the Ether, it struck him how akin the tune was to one he had learned in the days of his apprenticeship—an old Thalacian work song about the cutting and laying of brick, about the building of a mighty edifice by the humble efforts of many, each doing his own small share.
      He framed the piece fully in his own mind, then lifted his voice and began to play in earnest.
      As the sight of the Stag had held the little company rapt, now the sound of Deneth’s music riveted them. His voice—a sweet, resonant tenor that would have stood on its own merits in the greatest concert halls in the galaxy—blended with the magic of word and melody to make the very dust motes around them vibrate with joy. If his voice seemed loud in his own ears, he knew it also sounded more true than he could ever recall it having sounded in his life. Lute, voice, and song of the very Ether rose to the Home of Homes and rivaled in grandeur the music Phino made for the One on the Day of Creation.  
      Deneth was just finishing the last phrase, the final strains of the lute feathering off into silence, when the ground quaked. The tremor was so violent none but T’Cru kept his footing. It felt as if the ground might break asunder at any moment and swallow them whole. So they were surprised to see the ground open not at their feet, but in the side of the hill: about halfway to its summit, a horizontal cleft straight enough to have been cut with a laser was forming. From it issued a light bright and rosy: first a seam, then a thread, then a ribbon, till it became a veritable river. Paler than the light of the sun it was, yet it dazzled them more than any sun’s rays could have at noon on a bright summer’s day. The air shuddered as though a huge gong had been struck. As the sound faded, the cleft stopped widening. Now they could see that above them lay no mere fissure. The light issued from the heart of the hill itself; its entire crest was lifting into the air! No trick of levitation, this. Rather, the crest of the hill perched on a thick column so it looked like a gigantic bumbershoot, or like a tree being thrust out of the ground by its own tap root.
      All of them save Deneth looked on, gaping, but the bard, with the self-assured air of one who had not only made this happen but had intended it to happen all along, said, “Well, it’s a much shorter climb now. Come on.” He ignored the several histrionically murderous glares his friends aimed at him and led the way.
      They ascended the lower half of the hill to find themselves looking down and across a wide bowl-shaped field. The only object in all that immensity of tall grass was the column that supported the top half of the hill. Whether by design or chance, it did indeed resemble the bole of a huge tree.
      “The Hollow Hills,” Mosaia mused. It came out in a voice no greater than a whisper, but in that whisper awe resonated. He found Mistra, Alla, and Deneth staring at him, their looks somewhere between amused and accusing. “You’ve caught me out,” he admitted with a grin. “We do have legends of Faerie where I come from, and of the Hollow Hills that are said to be the entrances to that world.” Although the women accepted the explanation, he stared Deneth down and still got a skeptical “R-I-I-I-I-ght...” from the bard as he turned away.
      They descended and crossed the field till they stood under the column, a trunk-like structure of massive girth. Only once, in the Meadow under which lay the Orb of Caros, had any of them seen a bole of such diameter. Holding hands (and paws and claws) the eight of them could not have encircled it. Not a living creature could be seen either in the “tree” or upon the plain. They were at a loss over how they should proceed till Habie, on a whim, rubbed her hand against the column. Her original intent had been to see whether it felt like a tree, since it looked like but could not reasonably be one. Her expression changed from one of idle curiosity to interest quickly. “Here, Alla,” she said. “Feel this. It’s like it’s singing to me. Someone like you could probably tell its entire family history,” she added with a grin.
      With an indulgent smile, Alla, too, touched the column and found Habie’s assessment to be quite accurate. She nodded to the others, who variously touched and sniffed and listened. Even Mosaia, who thought of himself as the prosaic and citified man of war, was soon exulting in the joy of life and growth the tree—they supposed they must call it that now—emanated.
      Their period of respectful silence drew to a halt as another tremor shook the ground. However, just as they were looking at one another as if to say, “Oh, no, not again,” and bracing themselves to keep from falling should the tremor escalate, what had seemed the start of a quake became no more than a steady vibration. The rumbling resolved itself into a discrete sound: the pounding of many hooves. They looked all around the field several times before they discovered the source of the disturbance. There, down the side of the bowl opposite the one they had descended, came galloping six of the most splendid horses any of them had ever seen. Their coats glistened with the sheen and hue of precious metals and gemstones. A large stallion colored like ebony shot with gold and silver ran at the head of the line. Behind him galloped two blood mares, one the color of lilacs in spring, one the deep blue of sapphires in starlight; two smaller stallions in shades of topaz and garnet, and one smaller mare (or perhaps a large pony) of translucent aquamarine shot with platinum. Zigzagging toward the adventurers in an unbroken file, the horses thundered down the incline, then made a sharp turn and headed straight for the tree. They veered off just as it seemed they would either collide with the tree head-on or trample the small party. As the questors watched in amazement, the horses circled several times, then came to an abrupt halt almost nose-to-tail. A beat, and they pivoted with military precision to face the questors.
      The company considered the horses as they stood in a neat line, stamping occasionally but otherwise standing as if at attention and awaiting orders. “By all that is holy!” gasped Mosaia. “What magnificent creatures! I have never seen their like.” He reached out a hand to the ebony stallion. The gesture was tentative, almost shy, so amazed was he, but the stallion trotted forward and nuzzled Mosaia’s hand as if the paladin were a long lost friend. Mosaia’s touch became more confident, and he made the sort of soft cooing sounds one makes to babies, or to animals whose fear one is trying to ease. Turning back to the others, he said, “Do you suppose they have been, um, sent? Sent to bear us to the Portal?”
      Mistra ran a hand along the flank of the sapphire mare, a knowing grin on her face. “Our clerics are served by horses very like these.”
      “But none so, well, magnificent, as Mosaia said,” Torreb added. “Their true colors are evident only in starlight, though they are still the finest steeds in the Union, truly beautiful even by day. Perhaps these are more pure-blooded forebears.” He frowned. “Forebears,” he repeated. “Odd I should say that.”
      “Why?”
      He shrugged. “Well, they could as easily be a race co-existing in time with our own, couldn’t they?” He sounded only marginally convinced.
      Mistra spoke softly to her mare for a moment, communing with her, divining, and, in fact, asking her permission to ride. The mare whinnied and nodded her shapely head, whereupon Mistra sprang lightly onto her back. Mistra had just been getting reacquainted with her own horse, a Tobiano Pinto mare named Windwalker, when destiny and the quest had claimed her. Rather than finding her seat and cantering the mare about the dell, however, she sat with her head bowed in concentration.
      “Having a private conversation there, Mistra?” Deneth hazarded after a moment of this.
      The sorceress shook her head as if awakening from a trance and gave them all a rueful smile. “I was just trying to find out something about them and their intent. This one is a little mum on the subject of where they came from, but she says she and the others will make it their business to keep their riders seated. So even those of us with little riding experience should be safe riding bareback.”
      “We don’t get saddles if we ask nicely?” Torreb asked with a nervous laugh.
      “No.” Pointed but not ill-humored.
      “You said ‘a little mum’?” Deneth prompted.
      Mistra looked heavenward as if trying to figure out how best to translate something for which she simply didn’t have the vocabulary. “What she communicated—they speak in images, not words—is something like ‘We were There, but now we are Here, and we have been commanded to bear you to Another Place before we return There.’ ‘There’ seems to be synonymous with ‘Home,’ but whether that’s someplace in the material world or not, I can’t quite pick up. It’s very pretty, though—green and peaceful, a bit like what I saw of the Home of Homes on my Dreamquest.”
      Torreb’s eyes lit. “Then perhaps they are like Minissa’s Unicorns and live at once with one foot—one hoof—in the spirit world and one in the material.”
      Deneth looked thoughtful. “Well,” he said, “it’s been a while since I’ve ridden bareback, but...” He approached the topaz stallion and mounted with an easy grace that belied his words. He and Mistra cantered around the dell for a few minutes while the others chose their animals (or while their animals chose them). Torreb felt at ease with the other stallion, but he and Mosaia had to all but bribe Habie to get her near the smallest mare, and then were obliged to assist her to mount. Habie only became comfortable after the pony itself shut its doe-like eyes and attempted to communicate on its own behalf.
      “That’s deeply weird,” she commented as she relaxed into a reasonable posture for riding.
      “What?” asked T’Cru, who was finding comfort himself in the novelty of the horses not shying from him.
      “I don’t think I’ve ever felt around in the mind or heart or wherever of an animal. It’s almost like she knew I was an empath and was designing images just for me. They were all—y’know, horsey, like oats and hot mashes and rolling on springy grass and stuff. But it was like she knew that wouldn’t mean much to me, so I saw the horsey stuff, but I felt more like hot meals and safe harbor for the night and no one trying to beat on me and take advantage.” She screwed her small face up in thought. She took some gentle instruction from the others and was soon trotting around the bole of the tree with greater and greater confidence.
      At last, all of them were settled except Alla. The lavender mare had indicated Alla should mount, but the shape-changer looked uncomfortable. “I have never liked the idea of one creature using another for transportation,” she confessed solemnly. The matter clearly carried great weight to her, to the point of violating principle and ethic.
      “Lady Alla,” said Mosaia, “I believe these good beasts have been sent to us by some divinity—my God or your Minissa. Surely it would an affront to either not to make use of them.”
      “Could you shape-shift to your feline form and run alongside us?” Mistra suggested. Although she did not share the aranyaka’s concern over this particular use of beasts, as a true daughter of Minissa she understood it on a more fundamental level than the others.
      “My dear Princess,” said T’Cru, “I think I shall have trouble keeping pace with these creatures, and I am in my natural form. What of that, Alla? Does it not require a measure of strength and energy to maintain your alternate shapes?”
      “Yes,” Alla agreed. “I’m sure I could never keep up.” She seemed on the verge of tears.
      “Well, who says we have to run all the way?” Habie offered. “We can go at
      your pace.” But Alla’s attention had been captured, as had the lavender mare’s, by some other Presence that had just manifested in the dell. The mare looked from one to the other of the questors, finally settling on Mistra as the one whose ability to commune with this Presence was the most profound. Drawn by the mare’s gaze, Mistra nudged her own horse closer and placed a hand on the mare’s brow. Again, she bowed her head and concentrated. As she did so, Alla looked up, rapt, as though she were listening to something at once deep and mysterious and heartbreaking in its sheer blinding beauty. Light came to her eyes, and tears. Minutes passed. Finally she nodded as if in assent to some command issued for her ears alone. She bowed, not to the mare but to the other Presence, one the others could sense but not see or hear. Smiling apologetically at the others, she mounted.
      “What did you see, Alla?” Deneth asked as they set off. But Alla could only look beatific, and Mistra kept to herself the opinion that Minissa had come among them.
 





CHAPTER 2
 
When Are We?
Mosaia

  “One righteous act is endowed with a potency that can so elevate the dust as to cause it to pass beyond the heaven of heavens. It can tear every bond asunder, and hath the power to restore the force that hath spent itself and vanished...” 

The Book of Life

       
     

  The horses knew their business. Once over the lip of the bowl, they turned southwest across a vast heath. They ran with such great speed that, had the terrain been rockier, sparks might have flown from their hooves. T’Cru had doubted his ability to keep up, but whatever magic propelled the horses swept him up in its tide; he kept abreast of the leader with no more exertion than he would have used had he been chasing butterflies in one of the pleasant meads of Caros.
      Presently, a cluster of hills appeared in the distance, a rough circle of them with a taller summit amidmost. They made for this landmark, but Mosaia reined in abruptly when the formation still lay a league or so ahead of them. “By God and all His angels in Heaven!” Mosaia breathed. “That is a familiar place!” For a moment, all he could do was stare.
      “What is it, Mosaia?” asked Mistra, drawing up alongside him.
      He shook his head, obviously hoping when he focused again, the view would have changed. He even looked back, considering the distance they had covered and the time in which they had covered it: the hollow hill had disappeared completely from view in the first hour of their ride. At their current speed, they would easily reach the circle of hills and the town he knew must lay beneath them by nightfall. “There is a village that nestles within the arms of those hills, I think.”
      “Do you know it?”
      “More to the point,” said Deneth, “is there a good inn?”
      “Oh, an excellent one,” replied Mosaia, his tone dry. “One of the best on Falidia to this day.”
      “Have we, by any chance,” queried Torreb, “stumbled onto your ancestral home?”
      Mosaia nodded. “‘Twill be difficult to explain another hasty departure to my family and prospective bride.” His eyes flickered with amusement. “Or, rather, it would if...” He trailed off, surprised he should make the surmise before these other folk who were so used to the workings of magic.
      “So you do have a past,” Deneth chuckled.
      “Not yet, I don’t.” He seemed to take some pleasure in the discomfiture the remark caused the bard.
      Anthraticus at this point fluttered up out of Deneth’s hood, where he had been sleeping off his affliction for most of the afternoon, and came to rest on the paladin’s head, the easier to address them all. “I believe he means,” the spragon offered, “he may have no present. You—we—must have traveled across time as well as space.”
      Once they got over the shock of the spragon’s lucidity, they found themselves sobered by the thought. They had expected magical interplanetary travel, but the possibility of travel in time had only just occurred to them. From Mistra’s visions alone had they received a glimmer that they might journey across eons as well as parsecs. What next? They asked as a collective unspoken question. Mistra pulled out the Portal Stone again, sighing in resignation when it lit brightly as she held it facing the ring of hills.
      “I have a doomed feeling about this,” Deneth muttered as they exchanged uncomfortable glances. “Too bad that thing doesn’t have a calendar attached to it.”
      Anthraticus sprang into the air and came to rest on Deneth’s shoulder, exclaiming, “Gadzooks, man! Did you learn nothing of the Stone’s lore when you cast the spell I taught you at it?”
      “He learned how we might save Alla’s life,” Torreb said pointedly. “You were indisposed for that part.”
      “Did I miss something?” asked Deneth. “Like that it functions as a chronometer?”
      “Perhaps, perhaps!” the spragon chirped.
      He sucked in his cheeks. He had meant the comment to be as rhetorical as it was sarcastic, but he could play along in the face of the little coatl’s suggestion. “OK.” He held his hand out to Mistra, who surrendered the Stone, then reoriented his horse so he sat facing the cluster of hills. He looked at the Stone a moment as if expecting it to morph into a calendar.
      “Try holding it here,” Mistra suggested, touching a point between his brows. “It’s a contact that facilitates the Sight.”
      His gave her a look that said thank you, we do have a counterculture on Thalas that teaches all about things like energy nexi and the Third Eye . But, to everyone’s surprise, he thanked her without cracking wise and did as she suggested. The others waited while he divined what he could. It took a few minutes, during which Anthraticus snaked his head over and pressed his ear to the Stone, as if he might learn something by listening.
      “If this fails,” Mosaia said quietly, “I may be able to glean a better idea of the time period by seeing the exact state of development of the town. Our lands lie just to the west, and I know something of the history of the area.”
      But the Stone saved Mosaia the trouble of digging more deeply into his memory. In less than a minute, it began to throb with a faint blue light. Deneth’s concentration deepened. A few minutes more and the light dimmed. He lowered the Stone, frowning and shaking his head. “I’m getting something, but it doesn’t make sense to me. It confirms that this is Falidia and the town is called Waterford, and the Clear Water lands are off that way somewhere, but the date isn’t in Galactic Standard, or in any planetary scale that I know of.”
      “Perhaps neither exists as yet,” Mosaia suggested. “Tell us anyway.” “E.E. 760?”
      He arched an eyebrow. “We are deep in the past. The date makes sense to me, Deneth, though it is a frame of reference naught but scholars even on Falidia would recognize. The calendar Falidia keeps in our era—the one that corresponds to Galactic Standard—dates from this year. We are come on the threshold of a new era.”
      “What happened?” asked Alla. “Was there a revolution?”
      He looked troubled. “Unfortunately, my knowledge of Falidian history will avail us little more. The events leading to this new epoch are shrouded in mystery.” He lowered his voice and looked around, as if the grass itself might be listening. “It is my private opinion, after having studied the matter, that the authorities of the time, secular or religious or both working in concert, obscured the facts purposely. The practice of magic existed on Falidia once—it may have even been commonplace, though I doubt as commonplace or worked with such ease as on Caros and Ereb, but the Falidians of the day saw it as magic nonetheless. The church of the time, such as it was, accepted its use; it may even have been sanctioned, or somehow bound up with the dominant faith, as it is in the Union. But that dominant faith differed widely from ours, for this part of Falidia at least seemed to believe in a multiplicity of gods—only a few, and, like your Pantheon, benevolent. This era that is so shrouded in mystery is what we now call the Dark Time, the Era of the Emari.”
      “Ah,” said Deneth. “E.E.”
      “Yes. It was a dynasty of sorts, a loose theocracy whose heads were the prophet Emar and His descendants. In 760, a new prophet arose—the One Whose teachings on monotheism and conduct form the foundations of the mainstream religion in my land today—and a new era began. But known only to a few who have sought, I think, is the fact that a ban on all magic use arose from incidents that occurred at that time. One must search the church archives in my time very thoroughly to find even that much. And I came to believe that what arose was not a simple ban but a total disappearance of magic—you might say mana, for like you, my forebears drew their power from the very elements—as if something had stripped the very ability of your Orbs at home to mediate all of your special abilities.” He saw Mistra pale at the thought. “Believe me, lady, by the time this happened, what you revere as the Art had degenerated into something utterly malign. We know from open records at the beginning of the period that magic began as it seems to have on Caros and Ereb and that mages saw it as their duty to act for the common weal, actions certainly in consonance with the teachings of the Prophet Emar. But by the end of the age, usurpers had taken over much of the direction of the church in the great centers of thought, wresting the reins of authority from the hands of the Prophet’s family itself. Its most powerful practitioners used it for dark and evil designs, often seeking to undermine the Emari themselves, and the Prophet’s family had begun to dwindle.” He shuddered as if the sun had suddenly gone behind a cloud. “It does no credit to a good man of the church to find such things in his faith’s history.”
      “You smell of shame, if I may be so bold,” remarked T’Cru.
      Deneth quirked an eyebrow at the paladin. “How would such a thing dishonor you? Ask Mistra here. She’s had intrigue in her family in the last quarter century, not millennia go, and she doesn’t agonize over it.”
      Mistra snapped her eyes around toward Deneth, then softened and let the tension drain from her posture. Still, she drew breath raggedly. “The blackest magician Caros ever produced nearly saw my sister assassinated,” she explained for the benefit those who did not know the story. “My own cousin aided him. Stripped of their powers by the Nonacle, they found a way to regenerate those powers, a way that would be anathema to the rest of us. My cousin died in battle with my father when he tried to take the throne. The mage came to serve the last Thalacian king, the one who started the war. He almost undid both my sister and the High King, threatening them with torture, with magical compulsions so Thalas could unite the system and two royal bloodlines by force. My sister would have committed ritual suicide before she let that happen, had Avador not gotten them free.” She sighed. “The Toths gave him safe harbor, used him, conspired with him—but we produced him.” She rolled her eyes upward, as if drawing tearful strength from the Ether. “For all Caros is an idealized, peaceful society, we do get—well, miscreants from time to time, throwbacks from a more savage time.”
      Taking in Mistra’s sudden show of introspection, Deneth flashed her a rueful grin that widened to include first Mosaia, then the rest of the party.“Sorry, Mistra, all of you. I was trying to make Mosaia feel less wretchedabout Falidia’s past, not open old wounds between Mistra’s folk and mine.” He touched Mistra’s hand lightly and waited till she gave a small nod of acceptance. Something—his words, the sincerity in his voice—made her smile up at him shyly. Reading what only her eyes said, he found himself brightening at the thought he had destroyed nothing between them with his misdirected ire. “Go on, Mose,” he encouraged once the moment had run its course. “You’re doing well for ‘knowing little that could help us.’”
      “There’s not much more to say,” Mosaia continued. “The histories indicate some intrigue between a practitioner of the Black Arts and a daughter of one of the noble families. I think he tried to bring her within his sphere of influence but some agency thwarted her somehow. It must have been quite a plot to have provoked the reaction it did.”
      “Taking the mana from the very land,” Torreb mused, knitting his brow.
      “According to some very obscure, restricted texts,” Mosaia reminded him.
      Torreb perked up. “But don’t you practice a form of magic in your clerical arts?” he asked. “And haven’t we heard you refer to, well, to witches whom you believe traffic with your god of evil?”
      “The Fiend is no god as either of us understands the term,” he corrected the priest, “but, yes, he is believed to be the source of their power—a mediator, if you will. The powers of our priests and holy knights come directly from the Father in Heaven, without mana, without mediation—at least, in our day.”
      “If there were a source for the magical powers of your ancestors,” reasoned Torreb, “that may mean they were what we would call physical magicians: they couldn’t just shape the Ether with a thought. They would need objects and incantations.” He brightened at the thought of a new area of learning he could explore. “How very interesting! But, er–” He broke off as he saw the indulgent smiles his friends cast him, a sort of collective “There goes Torreb again” look. “That could be good strategic information, couldn’t it, Mosaia? From a practical point of view, I mean, if this Black Magician—however powerful—still needs the trappings of physical magic to work his spells. And if we are to defeat him.”
      Alla’s eyes twinkled. “Are you suggesting our little band proves the downfall of this dark worker of magic, that Falidian history would be changed but for our intervention? Such hubris!” But she meant it humorously, and the others laughed.  
      As they approached the town at an easy walk, Mosaia pointed out the features that had tipped him off as to the place’s identity: the tall hill upon which the University of Waterford stood in his day, the cramped configuration of what even in his day was extant as “the old city,” the curve of the river (and ford) that gave the town its name, the general contour of the rolling hills that lay to the west of the city—hills in which he had grown up. In his time, most of the city extended outward onto the plains and rolling green country that surrounded the current village. The University of Waterford alone had been built on and around the tor that served as the city’s geographical (and, later, intellectual) heart, as the tor constituted a discrete part of the landscape where the seat of learning could be kept separate from the hustle and bustle of the town. Later, he told them, an entire sub-section of the city would arise between the University and the old city—a colony unto itself where students and artists, teachers and philosophers might be heard debating the great tides of history at any hour of the day or night.
      “That is an area from which the most radical, forward-looking thought reaches out to my poor, benighted land,” he told them. “So great a force have the people in that quarter become, though their numbers are not great, that the church dares not move to silence them. If revolution comes to Falidia in my day, it will start not with good barons like my father striving to mete justice, but with students and scholars and scientists who dared to dream and were left to do so in peace.” As the words left his mouth, he looked more thoughtful than any of his companions had ever seen him, and they suddenly saw him in a new light. Where most assumed he would be the first to uphold the status quo, they could now see him as a shining beacon poised on the cusp of social change.  
      When they reached the town of Waterford, they found the inn—the one Mosaia had described for them, the one he counted on being there—had, indeed, already been built. Time, of course, had barely touched it, so it looked far less worn than the soldiers’ retreat he remembered from his era, but it lacked for neither atmosphere nor the quality he had promised. Waterford itself turned out to be a cozy little nook nestled at the foot of the hills.
      As Tuhl had promised, their packs had been magically re-supplied with contents suitable to their changed surroundings, including, significantly, ample amounts of the local coinage. They found enough in their purses to secure for them pleasant rooms for the night, the use of a private dining room, and an excellent supper. If the weight of those purses also invited the interest of the few unsavory-looking characters who loitered in the dark corners of the tavern, one look at T’Cru’s fangs and claws or at the Retributor strapped to Mosaia’s back served as all the encouragement they needed to look elsewhere for prey. A thick curtain separated their private dining room from the common area of the tavern. They did not try to eavesdrop, but they kept catching snatches of conversation through the barrier or whenever one of them went to alert the innkeeper to the need for more food or wine. Little of the local gossip sounded good. Patrons were complaining about the way the number of hedge wizards in the area had dwindled sharply in the last fortnight. From the tone the complaints took and from what little Mosaia had been able to tell them, the companions drew a picture of a society in which these itinerant country magicians and their skills were integral to daily life. They were not only benign practitioners but supremely useful ones: they painted signs, shod horses with shoes that would magically resist wear, took in mending by the basketful, even aided priests in the upkeep of their parishes. Where formerly they had numbered in the hundreds, now they had vanished virtually overnight. Whether their powers had deserted them or they had simply left the area, no one knew. Rumors suggested they had somehow lost the ability to draw their magic from the soil here and so had moved on to find greener, more mana-laden pastures elsewhere. Some few visitors in the common room favored the darker idea that the wizards had been driven out or even killed by someone who wanted to harvest their abilities. The companions, when they questioned visitors to the common room, found all of those ideas to be at best hearsay and at worst idle speculation.
      What seemed to be neither rumor nor speculation was that a very small number of mages had suddenly attained tremendous power, and that these few were neither benign nor useful to anyone but themselves. Worse, their leader, Sigurd, once a surreptitious practitioner of the dark arts, now practiced them openly. A long-time resident of the province, he had gone so far as to make demands that the local barons acknowledge his authority and treat him as equal and fellow ruler. If hubris motivated the demand, underpinning that hubris lay remarkable, terrifying power: according to those few mundanes he had allowed to see him work his dark wonders, his powers excelled those of the rest of the remaining mages combined. None sitting in the common room that night voiced the thought that Sigurd would be using any of this tremendous power to advance the common weal. Any who were able, in fact, were making provision to flee; those who had not the means to flee were busy fortifying the defenses of their homes. The few witnesses Sigurd had released had spread the word that the mage was making plans to strike down every other power in the province.
      “And I’ve found another interesting connection for you, Mose,” said Deneth as he brought a fresh flask of wine to their table. “Someone called Gwynddolyn seems to have attracted this Sigurd’s dark affections.” He did his histrionic best with the last two words.
      “And my connection to her would be what?” asked the paladin.
      “Not much. Only her family name, that’s all.”
      “Gwynddolyn Clear Water?”
      “Youngest daughter of your ancestral House.” The bard made a theatrical bow.
      “Then this Sigurd—”
      “I reckon we’ve found both your dark wizard and the member of the noble house he tried to—how did you put it?—bring within his sphere of influence.”
      “Then if our job here is to save her,” reasoned Torreb, “you’ll be saving not a stranger but one of your own forebears.” He frowned. “So if we don’t save her, perhaps you will cease to exist.”
      “Oh, I don’t know,” said Deneth. “Maybe we’ll just learn that Sigurd is one of Mosaia’s forebears, rather than someone noble like him and his dad.”
      “Deneth, please,” Mosaia cautioned, although he looked unsure whether to smile or frown at his friend for voicing the thought.
      “I think that unlikely in the extreme,” Torreb chuckled as he uncorked an excellent port the innkeeper had unearthed for them. “’Tis said that true love and evil cannot abide in the same heart, so what can this mage really feel for the poor girl? Although perhaps I’m speaking out of turn—I myself am woefully inexperienced in such matters and have at best an academic’s grasp of the whole notion of love.”
      “And Mosaia’s less inexperienced than he let on,” said Deneth, deliberately staying mute on the point that it required somewhat less than true love to get a relationship consummated. “Come on, Mose, give—what’s this about a bride you left at the altar?”
      “Prospective bride, Deneth,” Mosaia replied. It was obviously a matter of some weight that he make that distinction. “She is my fiancee by virtue of an arranged betrothal. It is the custom among the noble families here—at least, it will be. The quest forced me to put off the ceremony.”
      “The girl from the castle next door?” quipped Mistra.
      He laughed in spite of himself at her apt turn of phrase. “Something like that. If we were to climb the tor here, on a clear day we could make out my ancestral home on the one hand and her castle on the other—or, could, if it’s been built yet. House Bright Star has a somewhat shorter history in this province than House Clear Water.”
      “You put off your wedding?” asked Torreb, an unspoken note of tragedy in his voice.
      “Yes. We hadn’t set an exact date, but everyone expected us to marry well before the next harvest.”
      “Wouldn’t the warm weather normally be a time of battles?” asked Deneth.
      He smiled wistfully. “My father reached an accord with the surrounding baronies this year past. Everyone thought a summer wedding would be a nice symbolic gesture to honor the fact that we are at peace.”
      Torreb ploughed ahead, showing a better grasp of the romantic than a mere academic should have possessed. “Why aren’t you pining?” The fact that the marriage was one of convenience rather than a love match seemed not to have sunk in.
      He shrugged. “Well, I do not know her well—less well, I would say, than I know Anthraticus here as our most recent addition to the party. Certainly less well than I know the rest of you already, although we did know each other as children.”
      “I can just see it!” Deneth chuckled. “You used to use your toy sword to rescue her dollies from whatever mortal danger her big brothers put them in. Am I right?” This brought a chorus of laughter.
      “Sorry, Mose, but this sounds real dumb,” Habie decided. “I mean, suppose she’s a complete twit or she’s insane or ugly or something?”
      “She is none of those things,” he returned blandly, although he gave her a small smile for the dose of perspective.
      Torreb still seemed to want to hear the match had something beyond convenience to commend it, and said so.
      “She has—our parents’ wishes.” He smiled wanly, as if he knew how lame this might sound to a less provincial group.
      “And quite right, too,” T’Cru said lazily from his spot on the hearth rug. “Humans and other two-legs have the oddest ideas about romance entering into it.”
      “Well, you must know something about her you can tell us,” Deneth pressed. “Come on, give. Is she pretty?”
      “Pretty?” Habie chortled, whapping Deneth on the shoulder. “Who cares? Is she rich?”
      “As a matter of fact, her father, like mine, is a ruling baron,” said Mosaia, “so I expect her dowry will be substantial. But she is quite comely, really. Here.” He pulled from his pack a holograph, which ran an image of a petite, buxom, blue-eyed blonde plucking several sprays of lilacs and braiding them into her hair, then smiling brightly at the camera. “It doesn’t do her justice,” he added, though the others “ooh”ed and “aah”ed appreciatively. He regarded the image as if to refresh his memory. When he spoke, fondness colored his voice, but it was more the fondness of a child for a well-loved pet than of a suitor for his betrothed. “Her skin is like new cream, her hair like the wind on waves of amber wheat, her eyes the blue of berries in spring—”
      “Sounds fine if you’re hungry for lunch,” Habie said in a loud aside to Deneth.
      “—her figure...” He stopped, abashed, realizing there were women and a priest present.
      “Not athletic?” Mistra suggested good-naturedly.
      “Curvaceous?” Deneth tried. “Makes you think of melons and pears rather than bananas, to keep with your description of the rest of her?”
      Mosaia nodded rather shyly. “The men in my command tell me what a lucky rascal I am. They encourage me to be more—forward? At least, those suggest it who have taken no holy vows as I have,” he added hastily. He was aware of several solicitous smiles. He suddenly found his wine glass to be of immense interest.
      “We do shelter our women on Falidia,” he finally went on, “overly so, I think, sometimes. My Johanna is very unworldly. She would think ill of no one. If she were forced to fight to defend what she held dear, she would have the will, but in terms of practicalities, I think she would be lost, and I sometimes wonder if a thought beyond the keeping of our future home ever enters her sweet mind.” He sighed. “She will make me a good Falidian wife, I know. She is skilled in all we deem the feminine arts—use of the needle, the loom, the cookstove. Still, now that I have met the likes of you ladies and the noble and erudite Dr. Roarke, I wonder if I shall ever be content as I once would have been. Truly, this quest is fraught with more perils than the danger to mere life and limb!”
      “Ah,” said Mistra, resting her head on her stacked fists, “you’re treading the most dangerous ground of all, Mosaia. You’ve begun asking questions that have no black and white answers.” Her eyes twinkled.
      “Well,” Deneth pointed out, “we all thought we were on paths other than the one we landed on, Mosaia. You were on your way to an altar of convenience, Mistra was about to marry a man of her own choosing, T’Cru was learning to rule the Tigroids, Habie was merrily stuffing her pockets with other people’s belongings, I’m still pretty sure Minissa meant this bloody mark for someone else. Habie’s turned honest, Mistra’s resigned herself to having love wrenched from her very soul, I still don’t think Minissa intended me for this quest, but I’ve found you clowns fun to hang out and solve problems and split heads with. You, though—maybe you’ll come to the end of your road and find Johanna is what you wanted and needed all along.”
      Habie guffawed. “And if not, you know you’re the sort that has women falling all over him. It’s not like you’ll lack for choice. Hell, I’d fall all over you if I reached higher than the bottom of your sword harness!”
      The image of the two of them as a couple lifted the pall of pensiveness that had threatened. Habie’s raucous laughter proved infectious; Mosaia refilled his glass, passed the wine around again, and proposed a toast to new friends and inopportunely diverted life paths.  
      The humans in the party had a difficult time convincing the innkeeper (and the beasts) that the beasts should stay inside the inn for the night. T’Cru wanted to curl up in the stable or prowl the woods that lined the hills, and Anthraticus wanted to roost in the trees, but the humans advised against this on the grounds that they would either frighten the locals or invite capture by some enterprising woodsman. The innkeeper, on the other hand, was appalled at the prospect of having either stay in the inn proper. But T’Cru spoke to him—first civilly, then regally, and, when that didn’t work, growled (regally) and allowed the fur on his back to rise the slightest, most tasteful bit. To the Tigroid, choosing to spend the night outside was a much different matter than being forced to stay outside because he had been barred from the inn! It was at that point (and after some gold had surreptitiously changed hands) that the innkeeper saw reason, although he went away muttering something under his breath about “people of the Tribes and their strange ways with animals.”
      Once they had settled that, the companions ambled into the common room to mingle with the locals and see what further news they could pick up. Deneth fell in with the troupe of musicians seated on the small stage; when he had dropped enough clues about his vocation that they guessed it, they invited him to join them.
      “What’s your instrument?” asked one.
      Habie’s ears pricked up at the question: unless she missed her guess, there was money to be made here. “He plays anything,” she assured them. She kept mum on something she had heard Mistra once claim: that Deneth’s compositions were changing the very nature of music on the faces of the Three Worlds. He was that good at what he did!
      Deneth looked modest but did not deny the claim.
      “I’d like to see the color of your money on that one,” said a fellow with a lap harp.
      Habie pulled out her purse and jingled it in front of his face. “It’s the prettiest shade of yellow—all sparkly-like.”
      “Gold?”
      “Gold.”
      “Anything?”
      “Anything.”
      “A wager?”
      “Lots of them, if you’re game.”
      The harper laughed. “You’re suggesting he run a gauntlet of our instruments? For money?”
      “He would say something stupid like money and art don’t compare and shouldn’t mix, but—yup.”
      The harper exchanged glances with his fellow musicians, all of whom either looked thoughtful or nodded with varying degrees of enthusiasm. “All right, then, Missy—”
      “Habie. And this is Deneth bent Elias.”
      “All right, then, Habie and Deneth bent Elias. If you’ll put up your pouch of shiny coins, we’ll see if he gets so much as a sound out of them all, or makes sweet music, or sends these nice patrons screaming into the night with their fingers in their ears because of his caterwauling.”
      Habie came back with, “Don’t be daft, he’ll outplay the lot of you.” Surveying the assortment of instruments— everything from the harp and viol to a set of Uileann pipes—she mouthed surreptitiously, “Right, Deneth?” She did not truly doubt, but found herself reassured when he mouthed back “Hey, it’s me.” Rather than ask for the exact color of their money, Habie did a quick assessment of the group. She guessed they held no professional standing but represented that much more congenial entity, a loose confederation of musicians from all walks of life drawn together by their common interest in music. Judging from their garb, some came from wealthy houses and some could have been not much more than street musicians. She suggested a betting structure that would have them start with a small ante that would double each time Deneth successfully played an instrument. If he struck out three times in a row, she would concede their entire purse to be distributed to the group at large: the gold inside would easily cover the all of the bets if he made it through the score or so of instruments arrayed before him. At this show of fair play, the richest members of the group said they would cover all bets should any individuals not be able to meet their obligations.
      “To make it fair,” she added, “I’ll just pick what comes next based on what I think looks like the next hardest thing.”
      “How’s that fair?” asked a woman with a penny whistle.
      “I’ve got no musical training like my friend here. I’ll just be guessing.” That was what she said. What she planned was to start with the least affluent-looking musician and work her way up to the richest. Fair was fair, after all.
      Now Deneth took over, running through the first seven instruments Habie designated in rapid succession. That got him through the less well-off people and well into the middle class, through most of the woodwinds and to the first instrument that used a bow. He faltered a little while he placed his fingers on the bow, made a truly horrendous sound with one pass of the bow across the strings, and stopped.
      “You know, a bowed instrument is much harder than a woodwind,” he remarked, “even one with a reed or a slide-y bit. What say we make this a little more interesting?”
      The gamba player agreed eagerly to advance the wager by two factors, then looked completely crestfallen when Deneth’s initial attempt—a sound like cats being scorched alive in boiling oil—resolved into a spritely folk melody played without fault.
      The musicians realized at this point they had fallen for the great-granddaddy of all cons. They had him continue to run their gauntlet for the novelty of hearing one man play like a master on such a wide variety of instruments; in the end, they surrendered the money without begrudging him his win. They came out on the right end of the wager in one way—the longer the contest went on, the more interested the patrons became, and the more interested they became, the more drinks and snacks they bought and the more tips ended up in the group’s tip jar (which rarely netted more than would buy them beer and pretzels). The contest over, Deneth pulled out his lute and joined them. Their style of music was close enough to that with which he had grown up that he was soon playing with them as though they had been making music together all their lives. News had spread, and the common room now had people hanging from the rafters.
      Her work accomplished and her purse twice as heavy as it had been, Habie moved on to greener pastures: she hustled the others into a game of poker. Her skill soon had the locals interested in cards as well as music, so, as her friends dropped out one by one as their cash reserves ran low, she did not lack for opponents. And no one in the common room left that night with anything near the number of valuables he had come in with, and no one turned in but with a good thought for what a memorable night this evening had become. The innkeeper, while not happy to see his best customers shorn of their money by strangers, brightened considerably when he realized the strangers had provided his regulars with some welcome diversion from the oppressive gloom that had settled on the district.
      Only Mistra had become restless early on. She watched the contest with amused interest, listened to the music once Deneth joined the ensemble, and played a few hands of poker (the only ones during which Habie’s pile of valuables shrank noticeably), then bade the others good night.  
      Deneth, who had been performing at the time Mistra called it a night, had noted her departure, wondered at it, but ultimately decided not to interfere. He played out the set, finished off his wine, and sat in on a few hands of Habie’s cutthroat poker game. Only then, when he knew she had taken some badly needed time to be alone, did he go upstairs. He was not surprised when he returned to his room to find a note on his door:
      Borrowed the lute. Hope you don’t mind.
      Mistra had signed not with her name or initial but with the Murzik, the formal character that would begin her name had it been written in Old High Thalybdenocian. He decided to interpret the note as an invitation, or at least as permission to approach.
      When he came to her door, he found it closed but unlocked. To his surprise, when he stopped to listen, he heard her not strumming diffidently as a beginner might, but plucking out a complex accompaniment to her own voice—a meltingly sweet, light lyric soprano. That a voice so beautiful could be singing so mournful a tune smote his heart. He put his hand to the door, listened, then thought better of making his presence known when he recognized the words as phrases from the epic poem The Rainbow Warriors. It was one he had long ago fallen in love with for both the poetry of its composition and its subject matter. The story spoke of conflict, of good opposing ultimate evil, but it was colored with the tenderness of love that dared find expression in a landscape of fear, with courage that defied insurmountable odds, with the mixture of bitter and sweet that motivated the choice of life for a princess’ people and lifemate over life and love for herself.
      “Melora poured water from the sacred spring
      Into the basin blessed to receive it
      Passed her hand over it, blew on it
      Gently, till the image of her lover appeared.
      He was in Flight.
      She said,
      `Seek not to find me again in this life
      Be not grieved that I chose thy life above my
      own.
      My first duty is to my people.
      But I choose for thee to have life
      as well as they.
      Go thou, therefore.
      Remember me not in bitterness, but in love,
      And know that I shall be beside thee always.’”  
      His heart clenched, and a tear came unbidden to his eye at both the poignancy of the lyrics and the sweetness of the execution. It was his favorite passage; he had tackled the daunting task of memorizing it years ago in bardic college. It had had a strange effect on him. He could not say he had truly chosen to learn it; it had been more like a compulsion had seized him to draw all that startling beauty inside him. He thought of the lay as blue—not “the blues,” but blue. He had seen the exact shade in his mind’s eye the first time he read it: it was the color of the shadow cast at dawn by a glacier while the aurora borealis danced overhead. That is to say, it was a color that could never have existed in the physical world, but he thought—just maybe—it existed somewhere beyond. Hearing Mistra sing it had a similar strange effect. Because of its sheer length, very few had tried to learn it by heart, and those who did chanted it. Now he was hearing a complete non-bard singing it. He had occasionally speculated, always keeping the thought to himself, that something about Mistra transcended the mortal; now he wondered briefly if he was about to enter the presence not of a human, but of an angel.
      He opened the door and slipped inside.
      She had extinguished all the lamps, but a fire laid on the hearth cast a warm glow so shades of bright copper seemed to play tag with the shadows. The effect dazzled his eyes and it took him a moment to locate Mistra. When he finally sighted on her, he found her curled up on the window seat, her back propped against the pane of the open window. She might have been unaware of him; even after she strummed the final solemn arpeggios and allowed the strings to resonate away to silence, she continued to stare out the window at the stars.
      “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to touch a bard’s instrument without his consent?” he asked quietly after a moment of stillness. He could think of no gentler way to announce his presence. He stuck his hands in his pockets and tried to look nonchalant when she fixed him with a stare whose import he had difficulty interpreting in the dim, lambent light. Between the silence and the stare, he felt she was regarding him as stranger or intruder rather than friend. He gave her an amiable and, he hoped, winning smile. “There might be any manner of booby traps on it that you wouldn’t even know how to look for, let alone defuse,” he felt compelled to add under the intensity of that gaze. To his relief, her lips parted in a grin, and he knew they were OK again.
      “I altered my energy field to resonate with the lute’s,” she said simply. “It effectively, um, thinks I’m you.”
      “The more fool it!” He said it with a friendly leer.
      “Well—wasn’t it trapped?”
      “Yes.” He shrugged. “It would only have given you a little shock. I would have desensitized it for you if I had known you played that well. Of the lot of us, you’re the one I’m absolutely sure I could trust with an instrument of that caliber.”
      “Thanks. I’m sorry I took it without asking your leave. I just—” She shrugged; he suspected she was at a loss to put her feelings into words after having poured them into the music. She proffered the instrument to him as if in apology.
      “Hey, you don’t need to explain.” He took the lute, pushed himself up on the window ledge, and plucked a little. He knew he gave the impression his fingers had some special way of communicating with the strings without the intervention of his conscious mind, and that that alone often dazzled his listeners. Mistra did not seem dazzled, but he knew she was listening intently, appreciating his art in a way few could. She leaned her head against the window casement so she looked at him only obliquely. The light breeze ruffled her hair. He had rarely seen it loose before. It cascaded to her waist, catching the red glow of the firelight so it looked like a river of molten gold. It surprised him that he could take that all in and still go on as he had started, comforting a friend rather than letting desire crest and consume him. “Bards are bards because we have to make our music and our rhymes, as if they were bouncing around our hearts clamoring to be given voice. We—I—would feel like something inside me had died if I couldn’t play my instruments and sing. You don’t have to explain to me what it feels like only to need to.” He regarded her a moment and knew somehow she had absorbed his words and the sentiments behind them and let them go straight to her heart. “Um– I’ve only heard The Rainbow Warriors recited or chanted before, never sung. Where did you come by the music?”
      “I wrote it.” She waved her hand vaguely, as if indicating another time, another place. “Once upon a time.”
      He arched both eyebrows, impressed. “You moved me to tears, with—well, with everything. The melody, the chord structure, your voice. You sing like an angel. It’s more than a pretty voice. It’s haunting, almost, did you know...” He trailed off, realizing he was rambling, set down the lute, and touched her hand. “Mistra, what is it? What’s wrong?”
      He felt her hand close tightly on his, saw the tears glistening on her cheeks. He knew she was trying to hold them back still, though he didn’t fully understand why. Compassion welled in his heart then, and he held his arms out to her. She came as if she had only been waiting for the invitation, finally letting the tears flow once he enfolded her, then sobbing convulsively and clutching at him so he felt he had become her only anchor in a stormy sea. He cradled her head on his shoulder.
      He knew less of his people’s mysticism than a five-year-old Carotian child, but he supposed good intentions and the sense of connection they had felt since the day they met must count for something. Stroking her loose hair, he reached out in thought and let the Ether guide him till it drew his fingers to the psi points at the base of her skull. With very little encouragement on his part, they opened to let loose a torrent of psychic pain whose magnitude he had barely guessed before this. Waves of anger, of bitter resentment, of sorrow so profound he almost buckled under its weight swept him. For the first time, he could visualize the site the Nonacle had ruptured so she might preserve for her consort the fiction of her death. It looked like an amputated limb whose scab had been ripped off forcibly every time it started to heal. It felt like some sadistic power was lobbing salt at it every few seconds. He heard an involuntary groan, but only in focusing intently did he realize that he, rather than she, was its source.  
      Mistra felt his hand travel to the psi points at the base of her skull. Despite his imperfect touch, her pain was such that it flowed out readily, as if he sought to puncture with a blunt knife a balloon filled to the breaking point with water. The pain, though a trickle compared to what she had been keeping dammed up, flowed out with such force it wedged the points open, or he was too willing to assume the burden, or—
      She gave up trying to mar with intellect what Deneth offered with such greatness of heart. She sobbed a bit more but relaxed very gradually as she felt the pain diminish. There were layers upon layers there from her severed consortium. If her pain were like an onion, she thought giddily, this would be like having him peel away the skin and not much more, but—oh, the blessed relief of having even that much of it stripped away!
      How can a psychic wound be so raw? His thought echoed in her mind. He seemed to know she heard, for he spoke his next words aloud. “You said before that as bad as losing one consort to an abrupt and fiery death was, you wished this were that good. I think I must have assumed you were exaggerating!”
      She shook her head glumly.
      “I feel,” he said, sounding like he was choosing his words with infinite care, “like the bonding site has never sealed over. You’re leaking no vital fluids as you would be if a limb were suddenly amputated, but the wound itself is staying fresh. Is it the tal-yosha?”
      She laughed wanly, marveling once again at his insight. “There’s a reason the phenomenon is called that—‘hunger of the soul’— rather than simple hunger of the body, or even hunger of the mind. I told you before, it’s not simply a compulsion to unite physically with a man; it’s a yearning of everything not of the body to find a life’s mate. My mind and body aren’t rationally looking for a bond-mate, but the ruptured site where the Nonacle severed the bond won’t seal over because my psyche has to stay prepared, just in case Mr. Right comes along.” Another laugh that was more of a grunt of self-derision. “And I think that’s the grim truth.”
      He made a few more soothing noises and held her closer. A sense of decision came to his manner, as if he were saying, “I can do better than this.” A moment later, he shifted his hand to a contact that would bleed the pain off much more directly. Knowing where he was going, she forgot her own pain long enough to do the moral thing.
      “That site,” she whispered, catching his hand. “You’ll experience it much more directly. You’ll be overwhelmed.”
      “Don’t worry about me. I feel the pain as I draw it off, but it dissipates easily. It’s not my pain, after all.”
      She met his eyes, endured his mental query, finally relented and let him touch his first two fingers to the contact over her heart. She giggled, only partially in relief at the sudden diminution of the psychic pain: he had noted only with detachment the pleasant contours that lay but a hair’s breadth away from his fingertips, then commented silently on the fact that he was only noting and not acting. He seemed to think the reaction showed how thoroughly he had doomed himself!
      He continued with the Discipline for a few more minutes. As she felt more confident in both his mastery of the technique and his ability to handle the pain, she gave herself over to his ministrations. She knew she had been resisting, but she did not realize till that instant of utter surrender how much she had been holding back so he would not be crushed under the weight of the psychic agony. The pain flowed freely out of her now, a torrent where it had been a stream. We’ll never make the center of the onion, she thought with a sense of drowsy euphoria, but I think he’s peeling enough away that I can sauté it up with some mushrooms and have the beginnings of a lovely omelet...  
      Abruptly, Deneth became so overwhelmed he was forced to break the contact. It was not a voluntary act; it was more akin to jerking one’s fingers away from an open flame they have unconsciously strayed too near. He actually found himself blowing on his fingers a little as if he had been burned. He gasped, fearful the reflex would have hurt her, but he looked into her eyes and saw there only peace and understanding. She jerked, too, but settled back immediately. For her, the abrupt breaking of the contact was no worse than being yanked from a state of deep slumber to one of complete awareness, then discovering her surroundings were safe and she had no cause for alarm.
      “Sorry,” he said, waggling his fingers as if they still stung. “I guess I reached my saturation point without warning.”
      She stretched in her lithe, feline way. “I can’t believe you’re apologizing,” she chuckled, then grew suddenly diffident. “Of course, if you do feel you have something to make up to me, there is one other thing you could do.”
      “Oh?” He arched his eyebrows outrageously several times but refrained from uttering any of the double entendres her suggestion brought to mind. Something about the sudden change in her manner cued him that this was not the time to respond in kind, however innocently.
      She lowered her voice and pressed a little closer, as if what she was about to say amounted to the disclosure of a shameful secret. “I’ve been having horrible nightmares since the night I had that first vision of—him.” She had no need to expound on who “he” was. The mage Syndycyr—a man who, like their Lost Prince, existed outside the flow of normal space-time, who had developed an intense interest in Mistra and in the quest even before they had embarked—had appeared to them as a group the day the last of them had come to Tuhl’s wood. Though he had made only one attack many days ago, as they set out, Deneth himself agreed with Mosaia’s earlier phrasing, that the mage was somehow dogging their footsteps. The bard shuddered, more on Mistra’s behalf than his own. Now he knew why that feeling of vague dread had pursued him. “And not just nightmares,” she went on. “They’re almost like full-out psychic attacks. I visualize myself standing on a storm-swept plain fighting off these dark, winged monstrosities, and however many I kill or fend off, more keep coming. I’ve kept it to myself, but truly I haven’t gotten a decent night’s sleep since before we left Caros.”
      His brow lined in concern. “What is it you know I can do for you that you’re afraid to ask me for directly?” he asked, brushing a stray hair from her face, an infinitely tender gesture. “A Sleep of Peace?” He said it very solicitously; the mental contact required for the ritual was so intimate he knew this couldn’t be an easy request for her to make of anyone, let alone a Thalacian. With the Discipline he had been using, the healer only allowed his subject to cast off negative emotions. With a Sleep of Peace, the healer actually insinuated his consciousness into his subject’s.
      She dropped her eyes and nodded.
      He tilted her chin up so her eyes met his. “Say no more, and look no farther.” Smiling fondly, he kissed her on the nose and set her on her feet. “If you’ve never had a Sleep of Peace sung to you by a ranking bard of the Emerald Brotherhood, you haven’t lived—slept, I guess I should say. Not to mention that the companionship couldn’t be better.”
      “Ah,” she said drily, “once I’ve had it from a bard, I’ll never go back? Is that what you’re saying?”
      Seeing from the comment that she had gotten past the brief bout of vulnerability, he laughed, making no effort to conceal the earthiness of the sound. “In no uncertain terms. Come along.” He took her hand in one of his and grasped the neck of the lute in the other, then led her to the bed. “You sleep in that?” he asked of the short robe she wore. It was more a poet’s shirt than a robe, frilly the way nightgowns were, but cut modestly enough to be worn to a garden party.
      She flashed him a smile, and this time she made it overtly seductive. “When I sleep in anything.”
      “Don’t feel compelled on my account,” he rejoindered, doing his best to keep a straight face. “A Sleep of Peace will work much better if we get you as comfortable as possible before we start.” He made a little feint toward the laces at the shirt’s neckline.
      She swatted him lightly but laughed as she did so.
      He raised his hands in a show of jovial concession. Abruptly, though, his manner changed. “Sorry,” he said, rubbing his brow in a way that said he was struggling to frame his thoughts. He flashed her a wan smile. “Poetic, tragic beauty isn’t something you can expect a bard to resist for too long.”
      “Maybe my outsides only look so good because you’ve been prowling around my insides,” she said kindly.
      “You know I think your outsides always look pretty good, but—yes. I, on the other hand, must look grim indeed by the same token.”
      She poked him in the ribs, as if to upbraid him for angling so outrageously for a compliment. “I told you before: when I hear your music I see into the greatness of your soul”
      “Mistra, I—” he began, then stopped, discomfited by the way she kept taking his glib tongue and tying it in knots.
      “Ssh.” She put a finger to her lips, but her eyes twinkled. “Sleep of Peace.” She got herself to the bed, but it was Deneth who tucked her in, and with as much tenderness as ever any mother tucked in her newborn babe. She curled up on her left side, whereupon he retuned the lute to the odd open tuning he used for his version of the Sleep of Peace. He had created his own tuning and his own arrangement, one that would allow him to play the accompaniment he used with one hand while contacting the psi points over her temple with the other. Propping himself against the headboard, he began to chant softly as he plucked out the opening arpeggios.
      He felt her remaining tension ease almost immediately. As he sang, he wove into the images he was projecting all the things he knew she loved: ballet, unicorns, flowers in spring, the fresh smell of a meadow after a sudden storm, the rampant ki-rin that formed the central image of her personal sigil, the hidden falls with its rainbow that he knew without her having told him formed an integral part of her Dreamquest name. When he felt certain that she not only slept but dreamed peacefully, he removed his hand from her temple. He rose, pulled a chair up to the bed, retuned the lute more conventionally, and dug into his vast repertory of music and rhyme. And there he stayed, playing for Mistra, singing softly, and keeping away the evils of the night.  
      The others disturbed Deneth so many times throughout the rest of the evening inquiring after Mistra’s well-being that he finally hung out a note. It read:
      Mistra’s OK. I’m spending the night, and I wish it
      were what all of you think, but it’s not, so get lost.
       
      However, at about midnight, someone chose to disregard the note and knocked anyway. Deneth’s initial inclination was to ignore it, but whoever it was continued to hammer at the door—not heavily, but so insistently Deneth feared the noise would wake Mistra. Furious at the thought that all his hard work might suddenly be rendered useless, Deneth finally rose and stomped to the door, intent on clobbering whoever he found.
      “I should have known,” he said a bit sourly when the unwelcome guest turned out to be Mosaia. However, he couldn’t keep from cracking a smile at the paladin’s poorly-concealed attempt to look surreptitiously past him. Deneth stepped back, opening the door enough that Mosaia could peer in and see what he would. The look of relief on Mosaia’s face at the sight of the lute (rather than Mistra, he guessed) in Deneth’s hands and of Mistra asleep in bed (alone and clothed) amused him more than he supposed was fair.
      “She’s sleeping,” he explained quietly. “She was upset and having trouble settling down. There’s a ritual we have at home that can help. It’s best performed by a bard, though Torreb might tell you differently.”
      “Nightmares?” Mosaia asked.
      Deneth nodded.
      “I thought as much. I’ve been aware of her groaning in her sleep, being wakeful, ever since we met. I sleep rather lightly when I’m in the field.”
      “And you never said anything about it? Never asked her? Never offered to help?” He stepped out into the hall, truly irritated with the paladin but afraid their conversation would wake Mistra. “For the love of Thalybdenos, Mosaia, you’re the paladin, the one besides Torreb who has the pure motives and the power to heal. What’s the matter with you?”
      Mosaia seemed at a loss: he was unused to being the recipient of a reprimand! He shrugged, a gesture of helplessness rather than dismissal. His brow lined with concern. “I wanted to do all of those things; I simply didn’t know how. She was functioning, to all appearances; she never asked for my help or Torreb’s, not that I know of; and if she has a—well, a special friend in the company, it is you, not I.” He frowned. “You mean you weren’t aware till now?”
      Deneth shook his head. “I’m a heavy sleeper. The only thing I tune in to that will wake me is physical danger—to myself. Years of training in the streets of Thalas City will do that to you! Mistra and me—it’s not what you think. It’s just what you said: she’s a very special friend.” He grinned. “Not that I don’t enjoy giving the impression there’s more between us.”
      “Well, that’s, er, understandable.”
      “It is?” He had been expecting the paladin to call it something like “reprehensible” or “childish.”
      “Well, er, she is most comely.”
      “Comely. Uh-huh.” He folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall. “I thought you fellows weren’t supposed to notice such things, especially those of you who were engaged.” He kept his face neutral, but mirth flickered in his eyes. This paladin-baiting had possibilities!
      The hint of a blush came to Mosaia’s cheeks. “I’m a man, Deneth, not a saint. I realize my innocence in that area amuses you, but it certainly doesn’t exist because I’m immune to temptation. It is a choice.”
      He considered a witty rejoinder but opted for honesty. “It amuses me less than you think, Mosaia,” he said with a kind smile. He cast his eyes heavenward, again searching for the words. “She came up here to be by herself because she’s in such profound pain. I helped her with that, a little.” He shook his head and summarized for him the story about the consort bond ruptured by the Nonacle and how ragged it left her psyche—how like an open wound, or even akin to a battlefield amputation. “I thought she was being poetic about the extent to which she hurt,” he said. “Now I wonder that she could find a way, poetic or not, to describe it at all.”
      “It may be worse than you think.”
      “Oh?”
      “When she ran off into the wood when we first arrived, she was attempting again to distance herself from us while she grieved. She likes not inflicting her grief on others, I think. When Anthraticus arrived here safe and whole, she suddenly believed everything she had been told about her consort not surviving if he pursued her amounted to a blatant lie. Like you, I did what I could to offer comfort, but then the rest of you called, and the Stag had already appeared, and then there was the hill and the tree and the horses, and the ride, and the shock that this is my own world, my own country. She had no time—”
      A sudden muffled groan issuing from Mistra’s room cut him off. “Oh, bloody draffing drek!” Deneth swore. “I shouldn’t have left her.” He pushed open the door and rushed to her bedside, Mosaia on his heels. They saw that, while she still slept, Mistra had begun to thrash and moan.
      “What devilry is this?” Mosaia demanded. He took her hand, meaning to wake her, but Deneth restrained him.
      “No. Better to help her work it out in the dream, or she’ll keep being haunted by whatever is troubling her.”
      “But how?”
      “Watch.” He touched a slightly different set of contacts than those he had used to get her to sleep. Mistra settled down almost immediately, but she continued to breathe heavily, and strange words escaped her lips. Deneth concentrated deeply for about a minute, after which he slumped, flashed Mosaia a disgruntled look, and shook his head. “Maybe you’re right. This is more than I can help her to set straight by myself.”
      “What is it? You could see into her very dreams?”
      He nodded, and his expression grew grim. “Yes. She’s fighting some sort of strange, evil phantoms. She tried to describe them to me earlier. I didn’t know then that she meant they truly had substance, but that’s exactly what she was trying to tell me. It’s not a simple nightmare; it really is a full-out attack. What she’s mumbling are fragments of some spells—short, powerful ones like Words of Command—she’s using to try to fend the creatures off. A word of advice for you, mate: if you ever hear of a Carotian this powerful using words or signs or knickknacks to work her magic, or doing anything beyond pointing and concentrating, you know she’s about to pop several major gaskets.”
      “What are the creatures? Demons?”
      “Yes.”
      He considered. “Perhaps our nemesis is only restricted physically—it is he who troubles her hours of sleep, is it not?”
      “The best I can say is these things bothering her felt the way Syndycyr’s castle looked, but, yes—that’s the way I’d bet.”
      “In the Dreaming, the veils between the worlds are thin indeed.”
      Deneth gave him an odd look. “More stories of Faerie you didn’t want to
      admit to?”
      He shook his head. “I had that from a shaman of one of the Tribes I encountered once while on retreat in the wilderness. The Otherworld is a place where you not only encounter your ancestors but a place where your spirit can be set free to wander all the worlds of what your folk call the One.”
      He didn’t quibble over the fact that, while some Thalacians swore by the deities of the Pantheon as a matter of habit, it was really Mistra’s and Torreb’s folk who owned the concept of a Supreme Being. “But you believe,” he ventured.
      Mosaia nodded. “I think I do, despite my conventional Falidian upbringing.”
      “Yeah, well—I’m not sure I don’t. Despite my conventional Thalacian upbringing.” He grinned, thinking he suddenly wanted very much to buy Mosaia a drink and share the ways in which they were both less cultural stereotypes archetypes —than he had been thinking. For now, though, he frowned, gazing at Mistra with pity (and growing alarm) as her thrashing worsened. He took her hand and kissed it, then gently stroked her brow. “Oh, Mistra,” he sighed, his heart aching. He wondered if Torreb knew anything about healing that reached beyond the physical. Even if he did, Deneth thought it likely the priest would rush in and start taking notes rather than being any real help.
      Mosaia merely looked thoughtful, as if someone had set him an elegant chess problem that lay just at the limit of his abilities to solve. “These techniques you have for joining minds—could I do it?”
      “Oh, sure, with a little guidance.”
      “And these phantasms—truly evil, not just poor dumb creatures doing their master’s bidding?”
      “I’d say so, but really—what’s the difference if the effect is the same?” “I can banish many powerful evil creatures, where I would have limited effect against those acting with no ill intent. Perhaps between us...?”
      Deneth jumped on the idea. “I’d get us into her mindscape and then let you add your skills into the mix?”
      “Yes, that was what I was—”
      “Mosaia, that’s brilliant! We’ll make a complete pagan of you yet! Here— interlace your fingers with mine and touch here and here. And don’t be too drekked out by anything you see or hear.”
      Together, they probed again for the contacts.  
      Mosaia, unused to mentalic contact, wanted to protest he was not easily “drekked out” by unusual experiences, but before he could speak, he felt himself being swept off into the psychic maelstrom. The room swam before his eyes; he retained an awareness of his body, but it seemed to be floating, sitting on the cusp between the edges of this reality and one he had only seen in dreams and moments of fervent prayer. As he attended to his surroundings, he saw the room blur, then darken, then go utterly blank. Slowly, a different scene replaced it. Before him sat a grassy plane, and above it, a stormy sky. The grass bent before the onslaught of the wind; the air smelled of rain. The plain stood deserted but for a lone figure. Lone? he thought. So, but not so, for around his own solid frame swirled demented shapes born of nightmares and the Abyss. Talons they had, and leathery bat’s wings and fangs. Their eyes, when he could see them, were colored in lurid shades of green and yellow, shot with veins of blood red. Still, they appeared insubstantial even in this place where substance had limited meaning: they phased in and out of their material forms like ghosts, as if they were donning and discarding clothing, though their menace never abated. He would have turned away in horror but for the inspiration of the lone figure standing her ground in the face of the attack. A sword gleamed in one hand; from the other leapt a glorious white light. His suspicions about the motives or nature of any of his companions had left him long ago, but he thought if he had still harbored any doubts about Mistra’s essential purity of spirit, this one sight would have dispelled them forever: he saw that light as Holiness Incarnate. Still, for all its splendor, it was like a candle guttering in the wind. Even supported by her not inconsiderable skill with the sword, she could muster only enough power to defend, not enough to defeat or even discourage her attackers.
      “OK, Mosaia,” he heard Deneth’s voice, and suddenly the bard stood beside him on the grassy plain. He was having to shout above the rising wind. “You’re on.”
      Mosaia reacted as Deneth flourished the lute and began to play. He’s encouraging me in his own brusque way, he thought. He truly believes I can help her! Deneth’s absorption in his music served as further affirmation of his utter conviction that Mosaia could find a way to do what needed to be done. Deneth had put him in charge and was using his own skills only to bolster whatever talents Mosaia chose to employ.
      He felt rage build in his heart then. Rather than quelling it, he let it blaze forth—rage at so fierce an attack on so gentle a woman, alone, unaided, in what should have been her few quiet hours of sleep. He prepared to wade in to defend her, looked down to see he was now arrayed in his field armor. It showed no wear but shone brightly; his old sword appeared in his hand, and he saw his warhorse grazing so near at hand a mere whistle would summon him. But before he went charging to Mistra’s rescue, he stopped to consider. It may have been his own thought, or Deneth’s, or some synthesis of the two; it may have been his own common sense rebelling. Whichever, he had a sudden clear sense that she must fight this battle herself or risk its recurrence. I’m here in a support role only, he thought, and, How can I best serve her?
      Tentatively, he let his mind reach out to Mistra’s. He felt Deneth’s mind there beside him, not guiding as a child might assist his blind grandfather but ensuring, like a lantern-bearer, that his steps did not falter. Closer he came, and closer... He felt the connection the way he might hear a key snick in the lock for which it had been made. For a moment, he lost his sense of purpose as his mind wandered helter-skelter through the vast panorama into which he had just stumbled, a panorama in which he would willingly lose himself for long hours. Was that not the light of the Divine he saw hovering in the distance, and was it not brighter and more radiantly lovely than the soul of man had a right to be? God the Father must have accorded her a great portion on the day He sent her soul forth from the Void...
      He felt a sudden sharp sense of admonition from the bard that he had just trespassed where it was not meet for an outsider to go without invitation. Of course , he thought. What was I thinking? Oriented once more, he came to grips with the problem. I am in her mind already, he thought. Is it possible I can arc one of my own banishment spells directly to her mind. Yet she is enchantress, not cleric. Will such spells avail her? A nudge from Deneth and he recalled that, though she denigrated her own powers, she had been consecrated priestess as an infant. All the children of the royal houses were. It could work.
      Taking a deep breath, he began to murmur the words of one of the most powerful banishment spells he had ever had come to him in his hours of prayer. And he sensed what he could only call bounceback. He could actually sense her mind recognizing it, absorbing it, embracing it. He watched as she shook her head a little in bemusement, moved her eyes as if she were following words on a page and making sure she had them memorized, then turned to him and smiled a smile that spoke volumes.
      Mosaia watched, fascinated, as she lowered her sword and chanted the words—haltingly at first, as if she spoke a language for which her vocal apparatus was unsuited, then with greater conviction. She took the symbol of the Tree from her wristband and inscribed the proper figure in the air before her. A living brilliance issued from the symbol. As he continued to watch, that brilliance disappeared, not so much retreating or dissipating but flowing into her upturned palm. Seconds later, her entire body began to glow with the same soft, pure, holy light. It pulsed, throbbed, reached out with arms of effulgent glory to smite her foes from the very sky. One by one they fell, emitting wails— not only of pain, but of the dread of souls being consigned to the Abyss. The pace accelerated. Now entire waves of the Hell-spawned creatures were dropping from the air around her. For long minutes, they would attack and fall, attack and fall, and always as individuals. It was as if, while mean and singleminded, they were too stupid to realize their ranks were being decimated. He thought vaguely their master must have created them with an inborn sense of their own invulnerability: even if some of their number fell, the horde would go on. What need strategy or adaptability when they could overwhelm with sheer force of numbers? But now, that limitless, ever-replenishing number was declining rapidly. Finally, he noted what must be the dawning realization that their ranks had been severely depleted. They rallied for one last feeble assault. Mosaia thought he saw confusion on their faces, but he also saw grim determination. Where the demons had been attacking piecemeal before, this group dived as one. The leading half met the ever-widening nimbus of light that surrounded Mistra like a halo, made a horrible sound like a thousand mosquitoes being fried, and vanished. Mistra, a look of grim satisfaction on her face, slashed two from the sky with her sword. The rest fled.
      Mosaia felt his vision cloud again. The next moment, he found himself back in Mistra’s room. Deneth was easing him down onto a chair. He looked up and nodded a weary thanks. He had rarely felt so spent after a day’s pitched battle! He looked over at Mistra. She was resting peacefully now, and for that, he felt an immense sense of relief sweep him. Deneth again took up his lute and began singing and playing quietly. Under the spell of such music, Mosaia laid his head back, first shutting his eyes and then simply dropping off where he sat. As he did so, he had the odd sensation that, if he chose, he could still see into not only Mistra’s mind but Deneth’s.  
      “Deneth?” Mosaia asked when he roused a short time later.
      “Yo.”
      “Do your folk also have the potential to form these deep spiritual bonds like consortium? And do your women also undergo the tal-yosha?”
      Deneth thought about that for a moment while he strummed and plucked. “I reckon,” he said finally, “Thalacians must have the same capacity to bond— we, the Erebites, and the Carotians were all one people in the beginning, you know. Do we do it? No. Mysticism and magic are so bound up on our worlds that when we began to deny the one as being unbecoming a warrior race, we lost out on the other completely. All the lore about these bonds has been all but lost. Our women miss the tal-yosha, and I guess none of them would tell you that was a bad thing! But the union of man and woman has become a thing of the body. That’s all most of us are willing to share, anyway. The melding of mind or spirit or heart Mistra would tell you about—or Torreb, going by what he’s gleaned from his books!—no, it’s not the Thalacian way.”
      “More of that rejection of things unbecoming a warrior race?”
      “Exactly. And yet, since the Carotians and Erebites decided to make nice and not enslave us after we lost the war—since they’re bent on seeing us reunited as a people—there are at least a few of us who are starting to reassess.”
      “You?”
      “I’d have said no, till I met up with you lot.” He chuckled in mild self-derision. “But you accept magic—at least bardic magic—when you were raised to abjure it.”
      “I am what I am, Mose, and magic that requires some physical component—” He lifted the lute slightly, “—seems marginally more acceptable to my countrymen. Or maybe it’s that we’re acceptable.” He grunted. “Let my mates Bradys or Kort tell you sometime about what it takes to make a man acceptable on my world! As to the bonding, I’d have said it was one more of those polite fictions and codifications the Carotians like to embrace as born mystics—you know, a bond for every relationship and a term to sanction every degree of intimacy. I’d like to hate all of you for making it so I can’t say that anymore, especially not after poking around in Mistra’s mind!” He turned his sight inward for a moment. “But how do you rationalize hate of being shown truth? I’ve started to think—and on some days since I hooked up with you people, my thinking is changing about every ten seconds—that, on Thalas, we deny ourselves those bonds and all the mysticism that goes with them because they would let Thalacians get too close. But now I also think in denying ourselves the bonds that could incur that pain, we have lost much that could be making us a better people and a less barbarous society.” And he thought it odd that he could share such intimate feelings with a man he had known less than a month, whose societal norms were so at odds with his own.
      Mosaia, for his part, was as surprised to hear such sentiments coming from Deneth’s lips as Deneth was. Beneath his veneer of brashness beat a great and poetic heart. But I should have known that, he thought, or how could he make music of such power the very earth obeys him? Surely his own gods have favored him! “I, too, have reassessed. Consortium does not exist on my world, nor, to my knowledge, does this hungering for a life partner—at least, not as the true physical or psychic need Mistra describes. Chastity is a vow we paladins take very seriously, yet I have long thought physical innocence does not necessarily connote purity of mind or heart, and I think the one without the other is a meaningless exercise. I could also conceive of circumstances where one would be technically no longer innocent and yet still be chaste. You may laugh to hear this from a holy knight who has consented to an arranged marriage with a woman I barely know, whose culture has no analogue for consortium, but I think that to unite physically with a woman and not open oneself up to the greater possibilities of intimacy of the spirit is a kind of perversion in itself, and not what the Almighty intended to come of the act.” He grinned diffidently— he had exchanged fewer words on the subject with fellow paladins he had known since childhood. “I guess I have more in common with the Carotians than I expected to, on that point! But I see your point about the pain of letting someone get that close. I think it cannot be an easy thing. Yet I also think the rewards could be very great.”
      Deneth nodded agreement, and a thoughtful frown came to his face. He found himself looking at Mosaia with new eyes as he suspected the knight was looking at him. “It’s always seemed to me that people who choose that path tend to revel in their own morality. It’s like they’re wearing the psychic equivalent of a banner that says ‘Don’t tread on me,’ or relying on a rote set of laws without ever having given thought to what motivated them in the first place. Don’t let this get around, but what you’ve said… I think you understand without ever having been with a woman more than I’ve grasped in an adulthood peppered with experience. You’ve a poetic soul for a fighting man, Mose.” Smitten with the sudden realization that he and the paladin could actually become great friends, he grinned. “Here’s another tidbit of mysticism for you: not all the bonds people from our stock form are meant to be for the purpose of solidifying the unions of bondmates. Some are just meant to seal extremely deep friendships.”
      “Really?” he asked, interested.
      He nodded. “Of course, on Thalas, things are usually a bit more straightforward. You drink and brawl with your mates, you bed your women, and anyone who doesn’t stick a knife in your ribs you get to call friend.”
      “And now?”
      He chortled. “I think I’ve quit believing what once seemed so simple and straightforward. If the Carotians and Erebites go overboard with this stuff, at least they’re trying to honor the right things.”
      “I couldn’t agree more.” Rallying, he rose to go but was forced to catch himself on the bedpost when he staggered.
      Deneth came immediately to his feet to help him. “You need sleep, mate,” he chuckled. To his glance at Mistra, Deneth went on, “I’ll stay with her. I think I can handle anything else that comes up.”
      “Call me if you can’t.”
      “I will. Mosaia?” he called as the paladin opened the door.
      “Thank you. For helping her.”
      “Thank you for showing me how.”
      “I was wrong to chew you out.”
      He grinned. “No, where you were wrong was in threatening to make a pagan of me.”
      He shrugged innocently. “A man has to have his dreams.”