Squatting, silent as cotton wool, Simon strained to locate those who spoke. He seemed to hear two voices; as he concentrated the birdlings peeped quietly in his hands. He balanced the nest carefully for a moment in the crook of his elbow while he pulled off his hat—more woe to him if Father Dreosan should catch him hatted in the chapel!—then slid the soft brim down over the top of the nest. The chicks went promptly silent, as if night had fallen. Parting the edges of the hanging with trembling care he leaned his head out. The voices were rising from the aisle below the altar. Their tone seemed unaltered: he had not been heard.
Only a few torches were lit. The vast roof of the chapel was almost entirely painted in shadow, the shining windows of the dome seeming to float in a nighttime sky, holes in the darkness through which the lines of Heaven could be seen. His foundlings capped and delicately cradled, Simon crept forward on noiseless feet to the rail of the choir loft. Positioning himself at the shadowy end nearest the staircase descending to the chapel proper, he poked his face between the carved rails of the balustrade, one cheek against the martyrdom of Saint Tunath, the other rubbing the birth of Saint Pelippa of the Island.
"... And you, with your God-be-cursed complaining!" one of the voices railed. "I have grown unutterably tired of it." Simon could not see the speaker's face; his back was to the loft, and he wore a high-collared cloak. His companion, however—slumped across from him on a pew-bench—was quite visible; Simon recognized him at once.
"People who are told things they do not want to hear often call such tidings 'complaining,' brother," said the one on the bench, and waved a slim-fingered left hand wearily. "I warn you about the priest out of love for the kingdom." There was a moment's silence. "And in memory of the affection we once shared."
"You may say anything, anything you wish to!" the first man barked, his anger sounding strangely like pain, "but the Chair is mine by law and our father's wish. Nothing you think, say, or do can change that!"
Josua Lackhand, as Simon had often heard the King's younger son called, pushed himself stiffly up from the bench. His pearl-gray tunic and hose bore subtle patterns of red and white; he wore his brown hair cropped close to his face and high upon his forehead. Where his right hand should have been, a capped cylinder of black leather protruded from his sleeve.
"I do not want the Dragonbone Chair—believe that, Elias," he hissed. His words were soft-spoken, but they flew to Simon's hiding place like arrows. "I merely warn you against the priest Pryrates, a man with... unhealthy interests. Do not bring him here, Elias. He is a dangerous man—believe me, for I know him of old from the Usirean seminary in Nabban. The monks there shunned him like a plague carrier. And yet you continue to give him your ear, as though he were trustworthy as Duke Isgrimnur or old Sir Fluiren. Fool! He will be the ruin of our house." He composed himself. "I seek only to offer a word of heartfelt advice to you. Please believe me. I have no designs on the throne."
"Then leave the castle!" Elias growled, and turned his back on his brother, arms crossed on his chest. "Go, and let me prepare to rule as a man should—free of your complaints and manipulation."
The older prince had the same high brow and hawklike nose, but was far more powerfully built than Josua; he looked like a man who could break necks with his hands. His hair, like his riding boots and tunic, was black. His cloak and hose were a travel-stained green.
"We are both our father's sons, 0 King-to-be..." Josua's smile was mocking. "The crown is yours by right. The griefs we bear against each other need not worry you. Your soon-to-be-royal self will be quite safe—my word on that. But," his voice gained force, "I will not, do you hear me, will not be ordered out of my sire's house by anyone. Not even you, Elias."
His brother turned and stared; as their eyes met it seemed to Simon a flash of swords.
"Griefs we bear against each other?" Elias snarled, and there was something broken and agonized in his voice. "What grief can you bear against me? Your hand?" He walked away from Josua a few steps, and stood with his back to his brother, his words thick with bitterness. "The loss of a hand. Because of you, I stand a widower, and my daughter half an orphan. Do not speak to me of grief!" Josua seemed to hold his breath for a time before replying. "Your pain... your pain is known to me, brother," he said at last. "Do you not know, I would have given not just my right hand, but my life...!" Elias whirled, reaching a hand to his throat, and pulled something glittering from out of his tunic. Simon gaped between the railings. It was not a knife, but something soft and yielding, like a swatch of shimmering cloth. Elias held it before his brother's startled face for a sneering moment, then threw it to the floor, pivoted on his heel and stalked away up the aisle. Josua stood motionless for a long moment, then bent, like a man in a dream, to pick up the bright object—a woman's silver scarf. As he stared, its gleam cupped in his hand, a grimace of pain or rage twisted his face. Simon breathed in and out several times before Josua at last tucked the thing into the breast of his shirt and followed his brother out of the chapel. A lengthy interval had passed before Simon felt safe to creep down from his spying-place and make his way to the chapel's main door. He felt as though he had witnessed a strange puppet show, a Usires Play enacted for him alone. The world suddenly seemed less stable, less trustworthy, if the princes of Erkynland, heirs to all of Osten Ard, could shout and brawl like drunken soldiers. Peering into the hall, Simon was startled by a sudden movement: a figure in a brown jerkin hurrying away up the corridor—a small figure, a youth of perhaps Simon's age or less. The stranger nicked a glance backward—a brief glimpse of startled eyes—and then was gone around the corner. Simon did not recognize him. Could this person have been spying on the princes, too? Simon shook his head, feeling as confused and stupid as a sun-struck ox. He pulled his hat off the nest, bringing daylight and chirping life back to the birds. Again he shook his head. It had been an unsettling morning.
4 Cricket Cage MORGENES was rattling about his workshop, deeply engaged in a search for a missing book. He waved Simon permission to find a cage for the young birds, then went back to his hunt, toppling piles of manuscripts and folios like a blind giant in a city of fragile towers. Finding a home for the nestlings was more difficult than Simon had expected: there were plenty of cages, but none seemed quite right. Some had bars so widely spaced that they seemed built for pigs or bears; others were already crammed full of strange objects, none of which resembled animals in the least. Finally he found one that seemed suitable beneath a roll of shiny cloth. It was knee-high and bell-shaped, made of tightly twisted river reeds, empty but for a layer of sand on the bottom; there was a small door on the side held closely by a twist of rope. Simon worried the knot loose and opened it. "Stop! Stop that this instant!" "What?!" Simon leaped back. The doctor hopped past him and pushed the cage door shut with his foot. "Sorry to alarm you, boy," Morgenes panted, "but I should have thought before sending you off to dig and muck about. This is no good for your purposes, I'm afraid." "But why not?" Simon leaned forward, squinting, but could see nothing extraordinary. "Well, my grub, stand here for a bit and don't touch, and I'll show you. Silly of me not to have remembered." Morgenes cast about for a moment until he found a long-ignored basket of dried fruit. He blew the dust off a fig as he walked to the cage. "Now observe carefully." He opened the door and tossed in the fruit; it landed in the sand on the cage bottom. "Yes?" asked Simon, puzzled. "Wait," whispered the doctor. No sooner had the word passed his lips than something began to happen. At first it seemed that the air in the cage was shimmering; it quickly became apparent that the sand itself was shifting, eddying delicately around the fig. Suddenly—so suddenly that Simon jumped backward with a surprised grunt—a great toothy mouth opened in the sand, gulping the fruit as swiftly as a carp might break the surface of a pond to take a mosquito. There was a brief ripple along the sand, and then the cage was still again, as innocent-seeming as before. "What's under there?" Simon gasped. Morgenes laughed. "That's it!" He seemed very pleased. "That's the beastie itself! There is no sand: it's just a masquerade, so to speak. The whole thing at the bottom of the cage is one clever animal. Lovely, isn't it?" "I suppose so," said Simon, without much conviction. "Where does it come from?" "Nascadu, out in the desert countries. You can see why I didn't want you poking about in there—I don't think your feathered orphans would have had a very happy time of it, either." Morgenes shut the cage door again, binding it closed with a leather thong, and placed it on a high shelf. Having climbed onto his table to accomplish this, he then continued along its great length, stepping expertly over the litter until he found what he wanted and hopped down. This container, made of thin strips of wood, held no suspicious sand. "Cage for crickets," the doctor explained, and helped the youth move the birds into their new home. A small dish of water was placed within; from somewhere else Morgenes even produced a tiny sack of seeds, which he scattered on the cage floor. "Are they old enough for that?" Simon wondered. The doctor waved a careless hand. "Not to worry," he said. "Good for their teeth." Simon promised his birds that he would be back soon with something more suitable, and followed the doctor across the workshop. "Well, young Simon, charmer of finch and swallow," Morgenes smiled, "what can I do for you this cold forenoon? It seems to me that we had not completed your just and honorable frog transaction the other day when we were forced to stop." "Yes, and I was hoping..." "And I believe there was another thing, too?" "What?" Simon thought hard. "A little matter of a floor in need of sweeping? A broom, lone and lorn, aching in its twiggy heart to be put to use?" Simon nodded glumly. He had hoped an apprenticeship might start on a more auspicious note. "Ah. A small aversion to menial labor?" The doctor cocked an eyebrow. "Understandable but misplaced. One should treasure those humdrum tasks that keep the body occupied but leave the mind and heart unfettered. Well, we shall strive to help you through your first day in service. I have thought of a wonderful arrangement." He did a funny little jig-step. "I talk, you work. Good, eh?" Simon shrugged. "Do you have a broom? I forgot mine." Morgenes poked around behind the door, producing at last an object so worn and cobwebby it was scarcely recognizable as a tool for sweeping, "Now," the doctor said, presenting it to him with as much dignity as if it were the king's own standard, "what do you want me to talk to you about?" "About the sea-raiders and their black iron, and the Sithi... and our castle, of course. And King John." "Ah, yes." He nodded thoughtfully. "A longish list, but if we are not once again interrupted by that cloth-headed sluggard Inch, I might be able to whittle it down a bit. Set to, boy, set to—let the dust fly! By the by, where exactly in the story was I...?" "Oh, the Rimmersmen had come, and the Sithi were retreating, and the Rimmersmen had iron swords and they were chopping people up, and killing everyone, killing the Sithi with black iron..." "Hmmm," said Morgenes dryly, "it comes back to me now. Hmm. Well, truth be told, the northern raiders were not killing quite everybody; neither were their expansions and assaults quite so relentless as I may have made them sound. They were many years in the north before they ever crossed the Frostmarch—even then they ran into a major obstacle: the men of Hernystir." "Yes, but the Sithi-folk...!" Simon was impatient. He knew all about the Hernystiri—had met many people from that pagan western land. "You said that the little people had to flee from the iron swords!" "Not little people, Simon, I... oh, my!" The doctor slumped down onto a pile of leather-bound books and pulled at his sparse chinwhiskers." I can see that I must give this story in greater depth. Are you expected back for the midday meal?" "No," Simon lied promptly. An uninterrupted story from the doctor seemed a fair bargain for one of Rachel's fabled thrashings. "Good. Well, then, let us find ourselves some bread and onions... and perhaps a noggin of something to drink—talking is such thirsty work—then I shall endeavor to turn dross to purest Metal Absolute: in short, to teach you something." When they had provisioned themselves, the doctor once more took a seat. "Well and well, Simon—oh, and don't be bashful about wielding that broom while you eat. The young are so flexible!—now, correct me please if I misspeak. The day today is Drorsday, the fifteenth—sixteenth?—no, fifteenth of Novander. And the year is 1164, is it not?" "I think so." "Excellent. Do put that over on the stool, will you? So, the eleven-hundred and sixty-fourth year since what? Do you know?" Morgenes leaned forward. Simon pulled a sour face. The doctor knew he was a mooncalf and was testing him. How was a scullion supposed to know about such things? He continued to sweep in silence. After some moments he looked up. The doctor was chewing, staring at him intently over a crusty chunk of dark bread. What sharp blue eyes the old man has! Simon turned away again. "Well, then?" the doctor said around a mouthful. "Since what?" "I don't know," Simon muttered, hating the sound of his own resentful voice. "So be it. You don't know—or you think you don't. Do you listen to the proclamations when the crier reads them?" "Sometimes. When I'm at Market. Otherwise Rachel tells me what they say." "And what comes at the end? They read the date at the end, do you remember?—and mind that crystal um, boy, you sweep like a man shaving his worst enemy. What does it say at the end?" Simon, nettled with shame, was about to throw the broom down and leave when suddenly a phrase floated up from the depths of his memory, bringing with it market-sounds—the wind-snapping of pennants and awnings—and the clean smell of spring grass strewn underfoot. "Since the Founding." He was sure. He heard it as though he were standing on Main Row. "Excellent!" The doctor lifted his jar as if in salute and knocked back a long swallow. "Now, the 'Founding' of what? Don't worry," he continued as Simon began to shake his head, "I'll tell you. I don't expect young men these days—raised as they are on apocryphal errantry and derring-do—to know much of the real substance of events." The doctor shook his own head, mock-sadly. "The Nabbanai Imperium was founded—or declared to be founded—eleven-hundred and sixty-whatever-it-was years ago, by Tiyagaris, the first Imperator. At that time the legions of Nabban ruled all the countries of Men north and south, on both sides of the River Gleniwent." "But—but Nabban is small!" Simon was astonished. "It's just a small part of King John's kingdom!" "That, young man," Morgenes said, "is what we call 'history.' Empires have a tendency to decline; kingdoms to collapse. Given a thousand years or so, anything can happen—actually, Nabban's zenith lasted considerably less than that. What I was getting to, however, is that Nabban once ruled Men, and Men lived side by side with the Sithi-folk. The king of the Sithi reigned here in Asu'a—the Hayholt, as we call it. The Eri-king—'eri' is an old word for Sitha—refused humans the right to enter his people's lands except by special grant, and the humans—more than a little afraid of the Sithi—obeyed." "What are Sithi? You said they're not the Little Folk." Morgenes smiled. "I appreciate your interest, lad—especially when I haven't put in killing or maiming once yet today!—but I would appreciate it even more if you were not so shy with the broom. Dance with her, boy, dance with her! Look, clean that off, if you will." Morgenes trotted over to the wall and pointed to a patch of soot several cubits in diameter. It looked very much like a footprint. Simon decided not to ask, and instead set to sweeping it loose from the white-plastered stone. "Ahhhh, many thanks to you. I've been wanting to get that down for months—since last year's Harrow's Eve, as a matter of fact. Now, where in the name of the Lesser Vistrils was I... ? Oh, your questions. The Sithi? Well, they were here first, and perhaps will be here when we're gone. When we're all gone. They are as different from us as Man is from the Animal—but somewhat similar, too...." The doctor stopped to consider. "To be fair, Man and Animal both live a similarly brief span of years in Osten Ard, and this is not true of Sithi and Man. If the Fair Folk are not actually deathless, they are certainly much longer-lived than any mortal man, even our nonagenarian king. It could be they do not die at all, except by choice or violence—perhaps if you are a Sitha, violence itself might be a choice...." Morgenes trailed off. Simon was staring at him open-mouthed. "Oh, shut that jaw, boy, you look like Inch. It's my privilege to wander in thought a little bit. Would you rather go back and listen to the Mistress of Chambermaids?" Simon's mouth closed, and he resumed sweeping the soot off the wall. He had changed the original footprint shape to something resembling a sheep; he stopped from time to time to eye it appraisingly. An itch of boredom made itself known at the back of his neck: he liked the doctor, and would rather be here than anywhere else—but the old man did go on so! Maybe if he swept a little more of the top part away it would look like a dog...? His stomach growled quietly. Morgenes went on to explain, in what Simon thought was perhaps unnecessary detail, about the era of peace between the subjects of the ageless Eri-king and those of the upstart human Imperators. "... so, Sithi and Man found a sort of balance," the old man said. "They even traded together a little..." Simon's stomach rumbled loudly. The doctor smiled a tiny smile and put back the last onion, which he had just lifted from the table. "Men brought spices and dyes from the Southern Islands, or precious stones from the Grianspog Mountains in Hernystir; in return they received beautiful things from the Eri-king's coffers, objects of cunning and mysterious workmanship." Simon's patience was at an end. "But what about the shipmen, the Rimmersmen? What about the iron swords?" He looked about for something to gnaw on. The last onion? He sidled cautiously over. Morgenes was facing the window; while he gazed out at the gray noontide, Simon pocketed the papery brown thing and hurried back to the wall-spot. Much diminished in size, the splotch now looked like a serpent. Morgenes continued without turning away from the window. "I suppose there has been quite a bit of peaceful-times-and-people in my history today." He wagged his head, walking back to his seat. "Peace will soon give way—never fear." He shook his head again, and a lock of thin hair settled across his wrinkled forehead. Simon gnawed furtively at his onion. "Nabban's golden age lasted a little over four centuries, until the earliest coming of the Rimmersmen to Osten Ard. The Nabbanai Imperium had begun to turn in on itself. Tiyagaris' line had finally died out, and every new Imperator who seized power was another cast of the dice cup; some were good men who tried to hold the realm together. Others, like Crexis the Goat, were worse than any northern reavers. And some, like Enfortis, were just weak. "During Enfortis' reign the iron-wielders came. Nabban decided to withdraw from the north altogether. They fell back across the river Gleniwent so quickly that many of the northern frontier out-posts found themselves entirely deserted, left behind to join the oncoming Rimmersmen or die. "Hmmm… Am I boring you, boy?" Simon, leaning against the wall, jerked himself upright to face Morgenes' knowing smile. "No, Doctor, no! I was just closing my eyes to listen better. Go on!" Actually, all of these names, names, names were making him a bit drowsy... and he wished the doctor would hurry along to the parts with battles in them. But he did like to be the only one in the entire castle to whom Morgenes was speaking. The chambermaids didn't know anything about these kind of things... men things. What did maids or serving girls know about armies, and flags, and swords...? "Simon?" "Oh! Yes? Go on!" He whirled to sweep off the last of the wall-blot as the doctor resumed. The wall was clean. Had he finished without knowing? "So I will try and make the story a little briefer, lad. As I was saying, Nabban withdrew its armies from the north, becoming for the first time purely a southern empire. It was just the beginning of the end, of course; as time passed, the Imperium folded itself up just like a blanket, smaller and smaller until today they are nothing more than a duchy—a peninsula with its few attendant islands. What in the name of Paldir's Arrow are you doing?" Simon was contorting himself like a hound trying to scratch a difficult spot. Yes, there was the last of the wall dirt: a snake-shaped smear across the back of his shirt. He had leaned against it. He turned sheepishly to Morgenes, but the doctor only laughed and continued. "Without the Imperial garrisons, Simon, the north was in chaos. The shipmen had captured the northernmost part of the Frostmarch, naming their new home Rimmersgard. Not content with that, the Rimmersmen were fanning out southward, sweeping all before them in a bloody advance. Put those folios in a stack against the wall, will you? "They robbed and ruined other Men, making captives of many, but the Sithi they deemed evil creatures; with fire and cold iron they hunted the Fair Folk to their death everywhere... careful with that one, there's a good lad." "Over here. Doctor?" "Yes—but. Bones of Anaxos, don't drop them! Set them down! If you knew the terrible midnight hours I spent rolling dice in an Utanyeat graveyard to get my hands on them...! There! Much better. "Now the people of Hernystir—a proud, fierce people whom even the Nabbanai Imperators never really conquered—were not at all willing to bend their necks to Rimmersgard. They were horrified by what the northerners were doing to the Sithi. The Hernystiri had been of all Men the closest to Fair Folk—there is still visible today the mark of an ancient trade road between this castle and the Taig at Hernysadharc. The lord of Hernystir and the Eri-king made a desperate compact, and for a while held the northern tide at bay.