As Simon surveyed the expanse of the roof-world, a flirt of gray appeared again at the edge of his vision. Turning swiftly, he saw the hindquarters of a small soot-colored cat disappear into a hole at the roof's edge. He crawled across the slates to investigate. When he was close enough to observe the hole, he dropped back down onto his stomach, balancing his chin onto the back of his hands. There was no sign of movement now. A cat on the roof, he thought. Well, someone might as well live up here besides flies and pigeons—I suppose he eats those scrabbling roof rats. Simon, despite having seen only its tail and back legs thus far, felt a sudden affinity with this outlaw roof cat. Like him, the cat knew the secret passages, the angles and crannies, and went where it would without leave. Like himself, this gray hunter made its way without the concern or charity of others.... Even Simon knew that this was a terrible exaggeration of his own situation, but he rather liked the comparison. For example, hadn't he crept unsuspected onto this same rooftop four days ago, the day after Elysiamansa, to watch the mustering out of the Erkynguard? Rachel the Dragon, irritated by his infatuation with everything except maintenance of the household, which she felt was his true—and neglected—duty, had earlier forbidden him to go down and join the crowd at the main gate. Ruben the Bear, the hump-shouldered, slab-muscled master of the castle smithy, had told Simon that the Erkynguard was going to Falshire, up the River Ymstrecca to the east of Erchester. The wool merchants' guild there was causing trouble, Ruben had explained to the youth as he dropped a red-hot horseshoe into a bucket of water. Waving away the hissing steam, Ruben had then tried to describe the complicated situation: it seemed that the drought had caused such distress that the sheep of Falshire's farmers—their main livelihood—must now be appropriated by the crown to feed the starving, dispossessed masses crowding into Erchester. The wool merchants, crying that this would ruin them—that they, too, would be made to starve—were swarming in the streets, inflaming the local folk against the unpopular edict. So Simon had climbed secretly onto the chapel roof Tiasday-last to watch the Erkynguard ride out, several hundred well-armed foot soldiers and a dozen knights under the command of Earl Fengbald, whose fief Falshire was. As Fengbald rode out at the front of the Guard, helmed and corseleted, splendid in his red tunic and silver-stitched eagle, several of the more cynical in the watching crowd suggested the Earl was taking so many soldiers for fear that his Falshire subjects would not recognize him, owing to his extended absences. Others suggested he might fear that they would recognize him—Fengbald had not exactly been tireless in the interests of his hereditary domain. Simon thought back warmly on Fengbald's impressive helmet, a gleaming silver casque crested with a pair of spreading wings. Rachel and the others are right, he thought suddenly. Here I am daydreaming again. Fengbald and his noble friends will never know if I live or die. I must make something of myself. I don't want to be a child forever, do I? He scratched at a slate tile with a piece of gravel, trying to draw an eagle. Besides, I would probably look foolish in armor... wouldn't I? The memory of the soldiers of the Erkynguard marching so proudly out the great Nearulagh Gate touched him in sore spots, but it warmed him, too; he kicked his feet lazily as he watched the cat's cave for sign of its denizen. It was an hour past noon before a suspicious nose appeared at the front of the hole. By this time Simon was riding a stallion through the gates of Falshire, flowers raining down from the windows above. Tugged back to attention by the sudden movement, he held his breath as the nose was followed by the rest of the beast: a small, short-furred gray cat with a patch of white running from right eye to chin. The youth stayed stock-still as the cat—a mere half a fathom from his own position—took momentary fright at something and arched its back, eyes narrowing. Simon feared it had seen him, but as he remained motionless it suddenly moved forward, bounding out of the shadow of the roof's upcurved edge and into the broad path of the sun's passage. As Simon watched, delighted, the gray catling found a loose piece of flint and batted it skittering across the tiles, following to hook it with an agile paw and begin the game anew. He watched the roof cat's antics for some time, until a particularly ridiculous pratfall—the catling had skidded to a stop with both front paws on the slate chip, tumbled head over heels into a crack between the tiles, then lay there with its tail wriggling in exasperation—forced him to reveal his position. His long-suppressed snort of laughter broke forth; the little beast leaped tumbling into the air, landed, and bolted for its hole with no more than a brief glance in Simon's direction. This scrambling exit convulsed him again. "Scatter, cat!" he called after the vanished creature. "Scatter, you catter! Scatter-scatter!" As he was crawling toward the hole-mouth to sing a little song of shared outlook on roofs and stones and solitude to the gray cat—who he was somehow certain would be listening—something else caught his eye. He put his hands on the roof edge and poked his head up to look. The beginnings of a breeze traced subtle designs through his hair. Away to the southeast, far beyond the limits of Erchester and the headlands above the Kynslagh, a deep gray mark was smeared across the clear Marris sky, as if a dirty thumb had been dragged across a newly-painted wall. The wind shredded the dark smudge even as he watched, but darker billows were rising from below, a turbulent darkness too thick for any wind to diffuse. A regular black cloud was mounting upward on the eastern horizon. It took him a long, puzzled moment before he realized that what he was seeing was smoke, a dense plume of it besmirching the pale, clean sky. Falshire was burning.
10 King Hemlock Two DAYS later, on the morning of Marris' last day, Simon was going down to breakfast with the other scullions when he was brought up short by a heavy black hand on his shoulder. For an unreal, terrifying moment his thoughts skipped back to his throne room dream, and the ponderous dancing of the malachite kings. This hand, though, proved to be wearing a cracked, fingerless black glove. Neither was its owner made of dark stone—although as Simon stared up in surprise at the face of Inch, it did seem that God had somehow neglected to provide enough living stuff while this Inch-person was being made, and that last-minute substitutions of some inert, imperturbable matter had been necessary. Inch leaned down until his whiskered face was very close to Simon's; even his breath seemed to smell more of stone than of wine or onions or anything ordinary. "Doctor wants to see you." He rolled his eyes from side to side. "Right away, like." The other scullions had scattered past Simon and the hulking Inch with curious looks and continued on their way. Simon, trying to squirm out from underneath the weighty hand, watched them go despairingly. "Very well. I'll be right there," he said, and with a wiggle tugged free. "Just let me get a crust of bread that I can eat as I go." He trotted on down the corridor toward the servants' eating room, stealing a backward glance; Inch was still standing in the same place, following his retreat with the tranquil eyes of a bull in a meadow. When he emerged in a short while with a heel of bread and a wedge of chewy white cheese, he was dismayed to find that Inch had waited for him. The large man fell into step alongside as he headed toward Morgenes' chambers. Simon offered him some food, trying to smile as he did so, but Inch only stared at it incuriously and said nothing. As they walked across the dry-rutted open ground of the Middle Bailey, threading through the flocks of writing-priests making their daily pilgrimages between the Chancelry and the Hall of Archives, Inch cleared his throat as if to speak. Simon, who felt so uncomfortable around this person that even silence made him nervous, looked up expectantly. "Why..." Inch at last began, "... why do you take my place?" He did not turn his waxy eyes away from the priest-clogged pathway before them. It was Simon's heart that now took on the qualities of stone: cold, heavy, and burdensome. He was sorry for this farm animal that thought itself a man, but frightened by him, too. "I... I haven't taken your place." His protestations sounded false even to his own ears. "Doesn't the doctor still have you in to help out with carrying things, and setting things up? He is teaching me to do other things, things that are very different." They walked on in silence. At last Morgenes' chambers were in view, crouched in choking ivy like the nest of a small but resourceful beast. When they were perhaps ten paces away, Inch's hand clutched Simon's shoulder once more. "Before you came," Inch said, his wide, round face moving down toward Simon's like a basket being lowered from an upstairs window, "... before you came, I was his helper. I was going to be next." He frowned, pushing his lower lip out and knitting his single bar of eyebrow into a steeper angle, but his eyes were still mild and sad. "Doctor Inch, I would have been." He focused his gaze on Simon, who half-feared he would be crumpled beneath the weight of the paw on his collarbone. "I don't like you, little kitchen boy." Turning him loose, Inch shuffled away, the back of his head barely visible above the mountainous rise of his bowed shoulders. Simon, rubbing his neck, felt a little sick. Morgenes was ushering a trio of young priests out of his chambers. They were conspiciously—and somewhat shockingly, as far as Simon was concerned—drunk. "They came for my contribution to the All Fool's Day celebration," Morgenes said as he shut the door behind the trio, who had already burst into ragged song. "Hold this ladder, Simon." A bucket of red paint was perched on the ladder's topmost step, and when the doctor reached it he fished out a brush that had fallen in and began daubing strange characters above the doorframe—angular symbols, each one a tiny, puzzling picture. They looked to Simon a little like the ancient writings contained in some of Morgenes' books. "What are those for?" he asked. The furiously painting doctor did not reply, Simon took his hand off the rung to scratch his ankle and the ladder began to sway ominously. Morgenes had to grasp the door lintel to keep from toppling. "No, no, no!" he barked, trying to keep the ebb and flow of the paint from overtopping the bucket's edge. "You know better, Simon. The rule is: all questions written out! But wait until I'm down from here—if I fall off and die, there'll be no one to answer you." Morgenes went back to his painting, sputtering quietly to himself. "Sorry, Doctor," Simon said, a touch indignantly, "I just forgot." A few moments passed with no other sounds than the whiskery swish of Morgenes' brush. "Will I always have to write down my questions? I can't hope to write as fast as I think up things I want to know about." "That," said Morgenes, squinting at his last stroke, "was the general idea behind the rule. You, boy, devise questions like God makes flies and poor people—in droves. I am an old man, and prefer to set my own pace." "But," Simon's voice took on a despairing tone, "I shall be writing the rest of my days!" "I can think of many less worthwhile ways you might spend your life," Morgenes responded, beetling down the ladder. He turned to survey the complete effect, the arch of strange letters all along the top of the door frame. "For instance," he said, casting a sharp, knowing eye over to Simon, "you might forge a letter and join Breyugar's guardsmen, then spend your time having little bits of you hacked off by men with swords." Curses, thought Simon, caught like a rat. "So you... heard, did you?" he asked at last. The doctor nodded, retaining his tight, angry smile. Usires save me, but he has such eyes! Simon thought. Like needles. He has a stare worse than Rachel's dragon-voice. The doctor continued to watch him. Simon's gaze dropped to the floor. At last, in a sullen voice that sounded years younger than he would have preferred, Simon said it. "I'm sorry." Now the doctor, as if a restraining cord had been cut, began to pace. "If I'd had any idea of what you were going to use that letter for..." he fumed. "What were you thinking of? And why, why did you feel you had to lie to me!?" Somewhere deep inside, a part of Simon was pleased to see the doctor upset—a part that enjoyed the attention. Another part, however, felt ashamed. Somewhere else inside him—how many Simons were there?—was a calm, interested observer who waited to see which part would speak for all. Morgenes' pacing was beginning to make him nervous. "Besides," he called to the old man, "why should you care? It's my life, isn't it? A kitchen boy's stupid life! They didn't want me, anyway..." he finished in a mutter. "And you should be grateful!" Morgenes said sharply. "Grateful that they don't want you. What kind of life is it? Sitting around the barracks playing dice with know-nothing louts during time of peace; getting hacked, arrow-pierced and stallion-stamped in time of war. You don't know, you stupid boy—to be a simple kern while all of these high-living, peasant-cudgeling knights are on the battlefield is no better than being a shuttlecock at the Lady's Day games." He whirled to face Simon. "Do you know what Fengbald and his knights did at Falshire?" The youth did not answer. "They put the entire wool district to the torch, that's what they did. Burned women and children along with the rest—just because they didn't want to give up their sheep. Fengbald had the sheep-dipping vats filled with hot oil and scalded the leaders of the wool merchants' guild to death. Six hundred of Earl Fengbald's own subjects slaughtered, and he and his men marched back to the castle singing! And this is the company you wish to join!?" Simon was truly angry, now. He felt his face getting hot, and was terrified that he might burst into tears. The dispassionate observer-Simon had disappeared entirely. "So?" he shouted. "What does it matter to anyone!?" Morgenes' apparent surprise at this unusual outburst made him feel worse. "What is to become of me?" he asked, and slapped at his thighs in frustration. "There is no glory in the scullery, no glory among the chambermaids... and no glory here in a dark room filled with stupid… books!" The hurt look on the old man's face burst the straining dikes at last; Simon fled in tears to the far part of the doctor's chamber to huddle sobbing on the sea-chest, his face pressed against the cold stone wall. Outside, somewhere, the three young priests were singing hymns in distracted, drunken harmony. The little doctor was at his side in a moment, patting with an awkward hand at the youth's shoulder. "Now, boy, now..." he said bewilderedly, "what is all this talk of glory? Have you caught the sickness, too? Curse me for a blind beggar, I should have seen. This fever has cankered even your simple heart, hasn't it, Simon? I'm sorry. It takes a strong will or practiced eye to see through the glitter to the rotten core." He patted Simon's arm again. Simon had no idea what the doctor was talking about, but the tone of Morgenes' voice was soothing. Despite himself, he felt his anger begin to slip away—but the feeling of what seemed like weakness that followed made him sit up and shake off" the doctor's hand. He wiped his wet face roughly with his jerkin sleeve. "I don't know why you're sorry. Doctor," he began, trying to keep his voice from shaking. "/ am sorry... for acting like a child." He stood up, and the little man's eyes followed him as he crossed the room to the long table, where he stood drawing a finger across a scatter of open books. "I have lied to you, and I have made a fool of myself," he said, not looking up. "Please forgive the stupidity of a kitchen boy, Doctor... a kitchen boy who thought he could be more than that." In the silence that followed this brave speech, Simon heard Morgenes make a strange sound—was he actually crying? But a moment later it became all too clear; Morgenes was chuckling—no, laughing, trying to muffle it behind his billowing sleeve. Simon whirled, ears burning like coals. Morgenes caught his eye for a moment, then looked away, shoulders heaving. "Oh, lad... oh, lad," he wheezed at last, putting a restraining hand out toward the outraged Simon, "don't go! Don't be angry. You would be wasted on the field of battle! You should be a great lord, and win the victories at treaty-table that always outweigh victories of the field—or an escritor of the Church, and wheedle the eternal souls of the rich and dissolute." Morgenes snickered again, and chewed on his beard until the fit passed. Simon stood stone-still, face a-frown, unsure if he was being paid compliment or insult. Finally the doctor regained his composure; he vaulted to his feet and made his way to the ale butt. A long swallow completed the calming procedure, and he turned to the youth with a smile. "Ah, Simon, bless you! Don't let the clanking and boasting of King Elias' goodfellows and bravos impress you so much. You have a keen wit—well, sometimes, anyway—and you have gifts you know nothing about yet. Leam what you can from me, young hawk, and those others you find who can also teach you. Who knows what your fate will be? There are many kinds of glory." He upended the butt for another frothy mouthful. After a moment's careful inspection of Morgenes, to make sure that the last speech was not just another tease, Simon at last permitted himself a shy grin. He liked being called "young hawk." "Very well, then. And I am sorry that I told you a lie. But if I have keen wit, why will you not show me anything important?" "Like what?" Morgenes asked, his smile fading. "Oh, I don't know. Magic... or something." "Magic!" Morgenes hissed. "Is that all you think about, boy? Do you think I am some hedge-wizard, some cheap-cloth court conjuror, that I should show you tricks?" Simon said nothing. "I am still angry with you for lying to me," the doctor added. "Why should I reward you?" "I will do any chores you want, at any hour," Simon said. "I'll even wash the ceiling." "Here now," Morgenes responded, "I will not be bullied. I tell you what, boy: leave off this endless fascination with magic and I will answer all your other questions for a month entire, and you shall not have to write down a one! How's that, hey?" Simon squinted, but said nothing. "Well then, I shall let you read my manuscript on the life of Prester John!" the doctor offered. "I remember you asked about that once or twice." Simon squinted harder. "If you'll teach me magic," he suggested, "I'll bring you one of Judith's pies every week, and a barrel of Stanshire Dark from the larder." "There now!" Morgenes barked triumphantly. "See?! Do you see, boy? So convinced are you that magical tricks will bring you power and good luck that you are quite willing to steal to bribe me into teaching you! No, Simon, I cannot make bargains with you over this." Simon was angry again, but took a deep breath and pinched his arm. "Why are you so set against it, Doctor?" he asked when he felt calmer. "Because I am a scullion?" Morgenes smiled. "Even if you still labor in the scullery, Simon-lad, you are no scullion. You are my apprentice. No, there is no deficiency in you—except for your age and immaturity. You simply do not comprehend what you are asking." Simon slumped onto a stool. "I don't understand," he murmured. "Exactly." Morgenes downed another gulp of ale. "What you call 'magic' is really only the action of things of nature, elemental forces much like fire and wind. They respond to natural laws—but those laws are very hard to leam and understand. Many may never be understood." "But why don't you teach me the laws'?" "For the same reason I wouldn't give a burning torch to an infant sitting on a pile of straw. The infant—and no insult is meant, Simon—is not prepared for the responsibility. Only those who have studied many years in many other subjects and disciplines can begin to master the Art that fascinates you so. Even then they are not necessarily fit to wield any power." The old man drank again, wiped his lips and smiled. "By the time most of us are capable of using the Art, we are old enough to know better. It is too dangerous for the young, Simon." "But..." "If you say: 'But Pryrates...' I shall kick you," Morgenes said. "I told you once, he is a madman—or as good as. He sees only the power to be gained from wielding the Art, and ignores the consequences. Ask me about the consequences, Simon." He asked dully: "What about the con..." "You cannot exert force without paying for it, Simon. If you steal a pie, someone else goes hungry. If you ride a horse too fast, the horse dies. If you use the Art to open doors, Simon, you have little choice of houseguests." Simon, disappointed, glared around the dusty room. "Why do you have those signs painted over your door, Doctor?" he asked at last. "So no one else's houseguests come a-visiting me." Morgenes stooped to put his flagon down, and as he did so something gold and shining fell out of the collar of his gray robe, tumbling down to dangle swinging on its chain. The doctor seemed not to notice. "I should send you back, now. But remember this lesson, Simon, one fit for kings... or the sons of kings. Nothing is without cost. There is a price to all power, and it is not always obvious. Promise me you will remember that." "I promise, Doctor." Simon, feeling the effects of the earlier crying and shouting, was as lightheaded as if he had run a race. "What is that thing?" he asked, bending forward to watch the golden object pendulum back and forth. Morgenes held it out on his palm, giving Simon a brief look. "It's a feather," the doctor said shortly. As he dropped the gleaming thing back into his robe, Simon saw that the quill end of the golden feather was attached to a writing scroll carved of pearly white stone. "No, ifs a pen," he said wonderingly, "—a quill pen, isn't it?" "Very well, it's a pen." Morgenes growled. "Now if you have nothing better to do than interrogate me about my personal ornaments, be off with you! And don't forget your promise! Remember!" Wandering back to the servants' quarters across the hedged courtyard gardens, Simon wondered at the events of a strange morning. The doctor had found out about the letter, but didn't punish him, or throw him out, never to return. However, he had also refused to teach Simon anything about magic. And why had his assertion about the quill-pendant irritated the old man so?