The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LXXIV - Faith Restored

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

“Prince Phil! Prince Phil, you are needed, highness!” The voice of a crewman shouted through the cabin door with muffled intensity. Phil, having woken an hour before and unable to sleep though he firmly kept his eyes shut against the world, rose to the call of duty and ran his paws across his face, frowning at the unpleasant texture of his unwashed fur. With precious little water, and no fresh uniforms due to the sinking of the Burning Spear, he’d been forced to don what could be found in the remnants of their fleet. Malger, while taller, had proven to be the most close size match and thus Phil squirmed into an extra set of the archduke’s flashy raiment. Rupert, who helped him into the outfit, was likewise limited in what he could use for a replacement uniform and so remained in the ragged remnants of his armour.

“A moment!” He replied toward the door. Beneath them the deck lifted with a brackish wave. Phil’s ears flopped behind his head, even as Rupert crossed the cabin and opened the door. Beyond stood one of the Whalish sailors, his face appearing white even beneath layers of grime. “What is the situation?” Phil asked, wondering what new devilry could have come upon them. The Marzac fleet was broken and its remnants forced into retreat. What more could that ill-omened place do?

“A bright light on the horizon, highness!”

Phil’s ears lifted. “Light? Where?”

“Toward Marzac, highness. And...” the crewman swallowed and turned his head to one side staring across the lamp-lit deck. “Reishel lost contact with the mages.”

Phil took a deep breath and hopped forward a step. “Take me to him.”

The crewman led him onto the shadowed deck. To the north a faint line of orange limned the horizon over the Iron King’s bow. Phil plucked at the garish satin and silk of his new wardrobe while he followed the sailor. Rupert stalked heavily at his side, the gorilla’s naked feet making little noise on the freshly scrubbed deck of the captured Pyralian warship. To either side the shadows of Whalish ships, under oar and sail, spotted the gleaming black waves of the sea. “Is that the light you speak of?”

“No,” the sailor replied. “It was bright and reached into the sky. Over there.” The crewman, Chellar Phil remembered, pointed to nearly the centre of the orange smear. It was hard to see, but it looked as if the entire sky was occluded by smoke. Another wave smacked the side of the ship. The smaller ships surrounding them bobbed and buckled but held.

Phil grimaced and turned from side to side, “Where’s...” he broke off as Reishel, the chief mage reassigned to the King from the Singing Bird, came up the stair moving quickly enough to warrant a blocking shift of the guards stationed at its head. The young mage was breathing heavily and sweating from some exertion. Phil stood as tall as he could and said, “Reishel! What is happening?”

“After that flash of light from Marzac shortly after high hour, a powerful disturbance rushed past. All of the mana flows have been shifted in ways I don’t understand. My spells were disrupted, even ones that have been unchanged for years. I’ve just finished checking on them, but they’re all gone.”

“And your link to the other mages?”

Reishel shook his head. “Broken. It will take some time to reestablish. But there’s more. The Pyralians.”

“What of them?” Phil asked as another wave rocked the ship.

“They’re demanding parlay.”

Phil twitched an ear and hopped a step closer, one paw securing his belt. “Finally speaking?” The deck pitched with the wave. They were growing more frequent. “What have they said? Have they asked for anyone in particular?”

The man cast a glance over his shoulder, “They’re asking for whomever commands the ship, your highness.” Reishel turned his head and jerked his chin toward the forward cabins where the previous command crew of the King had been secured. “They have. The ones down in the lower hold are asking questions too. They’ve stopped all attempts to get out of the hold or breach the lower hull, at any rate.”

A pair of sentries stood to either side of the narrow gangway leading to the forward quarters where the huge ship’s officers and visiting nobles normally slept. The quintet of five cabins had been re-tasked as a makeshift brig to hold the surviving members of the Iron King’s Pyralian command staff and a few soldiers subdued during the securing of the main deck. There were a few other night watch lingering nearby, confused and alarmed by the signs on the horizon and by the change in the behaviour of their captives. As he approached, Phil saw the Sutthaivasse royal, Malger, emerging from a nearby companionway leading to the lower deck crew areas and first tier of oars. Once more the man hid under the magical veil of his illusion amulet. Spying Phil and his retinue Malger made his way over, only pausing to steady himself when another high wave buffeted the ship’s hull.

Sketching a bow Malger did not smile, “It’s over, Phil.” He said quietly, so low over the noise of the boat and sea only Phil’s tall, acute ears could hear his voice. Phil blinked at the enigmatic statement, both ears backing briefly before resuming their usual upright poise. He ignored the sting from his recently battle-pierced ear. “Marzac may have fallen.”

Whatever the captive Pyralians had to say was completely cast from Phil’s thoughts at the enigmatic mainlander’s statement. He reached up a paw to Malger’s arm to draw him closer. “May have?? How come you to know this?” he hissed before another swell rocked the Iron King. Shouts echoed from the smaller ships tossed by the waves. Phil had to be steadied by Rupert’s gentle hand. The rabbit nodded his thanks and then let the fop go before staring in horror at the churning sea. “Turn us into the waves!” he shouted. Like a giant ripple, the waves rose and crashed time after time from the north.

As the helmsman and oarsmen set to work, Phil turned to the mage. “Reishel, reestablish contact with the other ships. Especially Aramaes. I want to know what the last of the Marzac fleet is doing.”

Reishel bowed his head. “At once, your highness.” He turned on his boots and walked toward the ship’s stern.

“And tell the Pyralians I’ll parlay with them come the dawn!” Phil shouted at his back. He spun to Malger and his ears folded back an inch. “And you, go back below deck. Once this squall is past I will ask you what you mean.”

Malger’s human visage twisted into a simple grin. He inclined sinuously, betraying his musteline shape. “Of course, your highness. I will speak with you again soon.” And with that he departed for his stateroom.

Another heavy wave struck the hull, foam sloshing over the deck as the ship rocked in its turn. Phil tensed, claws digging into the hard wood of the deck, then hopped toward the aft deck to aid the helmsmen. On the horizon, the land of Marzac glowed a burnished bronze.

“Dost they need anything Dazheen?” Hanaman asked as he gently laid her against the lumpy pillow on her bed. He had led a group of Magyars who’d stayed up to watch for them into the place where Cenziga once stood and brought her and Grastalko back to the wagons. Dazheen’s body ached in every corner. Her ears throbbed with the stomping of boots and hooves. The only thing on her body that did not hurt was her ruined eyes which felt nothing at all.

“I dost need rest,” she replied with as much warmth as her exhaustion allowed. She heard several of the men trundling out of the wagon. Bryone’s dainty steps backed out of their way. She reached for her quilts with one hand, and Hanaman drew them over her chest to snuggle at the nap of her neck. She sighed and her wrinkled face stretched into a gap-toothed smile. “I thank thee.”

She heard the men shuffle out, except for Hanaman who lingered over her side. Was he staring at her? Indecision had never been one of his faults, so she knew him to be carefully thinking. When his momentary pause came to its end, his voice was muted that Bryone might not overhear. “The mountain be no more?”

“Aye,” she replied. “‘Tis gone forever.”

“And thy cards?”


Hanaman took one deep breath and half-turned where he stood. “I wilt check on thee in the morning, Dazheen. Rest well.” His boots retreated out the wagon and joined the milling of men and Assingh outside.

Bryone stirred from her place and asked, “Art there anything thou needest of me?”

“See that Grastalko art tended, then take thy rest.”

Dazheen could hear the hopefulness in her aide’s breath as she wished her a good rest and departed. The old seer let her smile fade as she sought the surcease of pleasant and well-deserved slumber. She had not understood the nature of their enemy, the one that had thoroughly turned the lives of her fellow Magyars upside down and killed three of them. But he was gone beyond the veil of death now, and that was solace enough.

Her body trembled and her breath drew tight. After the mountain had torn through the last of her cards, she’d no longer felt them the way she had since being blinded. They’d been a presence in her mind, something tangible that mocked her. Their absence had been a surprise, and then a comfort. Yet now, she could feel it again, denuded and weak, but present.

“Hello, Dazheen,” a quiet voice intoned. The voice she knew as well. The man from the cards, the Marquis!

She trembled beneath her quilt. “Do not be afraid,” he said, and for the first time, his voice did not mock or threat. It was not humble but neither was it arrogant. “Even if I wished, I could do you no harm. I am dead, and soon I will be taken to what awaits me in recompense for my deeds in this life. Because of you, I have hope that perhaps I will not be judged so harshly as I might deserve.”

“Why dost thee come to me?” Dazheen asked, feeling her fear of this man ebb. Though she could hear his voice move about her bedchamber, she could hear the sound of no footfall. Was he truly a bavol-engro now?

“To thank you for not giving up no matter what I did. If not for that, we would all have been destroyed.” His voice moved from near her head toward her feet. The Marquis seemed to be turned away from her. “I wanted to make sure you knew that your sacrifices were never in vain.”

Dazheen pursed her lips. She was no longer afraid of this spirit. It lacked the malice she’d come to expect. There was, almost, a measure of kindness to it. “I dost know. Art thou asking for forgiveness?”

“I ask for nothing you are not willing to give.” The Marquis’s voice became even more remote. “And now I must go. I am being called beyond. Goodbye, Dazheen, my dear friend.” And with that, the presence left her. Alone, Dazheen pondered his words in her heart. She would miss him.

As was customary, Kashin prayed by himself. He still bore the black tunic, breeches, and cloak that signalled his mourning for his master, the late Patriarch Akabaieth. Though he was now in the service of the new Patriarch Geshter, the man he’d freed from the evil influence of Marzac with the use of the short ceremonial sword he kept buckled at his side, he could not yet take up the green of the Yeshuel.

Before the blessed yew on which their saviour was slain, Kashin knelt and offered supplication for the man who he’d sworn to protect and failed. His heart assured him that Akabaieth was with Eli in Paradise, but still he would pray; and it was prayer as much for his own soul as Akabaieth’s.

Day was dawning in Yesulam, and soon he would need to attend the Questioners. They had nearly finished their Questioning of the implicated Bishops and their allies in the city. Not a one of them had been corrupted by Marzac, which meant their cooperation had been willing and thus far more culpable than Geshter’s. The two Bishops most principally aligned with Jothay, Temasah of Abeaf and Rott of Marilyth, had already been stricken of their positions. Rott had been sent to a remote monastery in Kitchlande to spend the remainder of his life, and Temasah had been sent with missionaries to Rukilia. They had been assigned a strict regimen of penance and prayer and both had made vows of silence. Rott, as old as he was, might not even survive the voyage across the world. Temasah, if not killed by the inhabitants of the jungle, would have many long years to repent for his crime.

It brought Kashin no solace. Vengeance never could.

He sighed, eyes firmly fixed on the yew, letting that thought drift away on the repeated words of prayer. A strange white light glinted off the yew and his muscles tightened. The sword was in his right hand, his only hand, a moment later, and he spun onto his feet facing the newcomer. The visage was pearly white, glowing with a soft warmth. The golden eyes met him with a grandfatherly regard. Long pointed ears kept the white hair from spilling over ancient cheeks. Kashin’s jaw dropped. He had not seen this creature in nearly a year. “Qan-af-årael!”

“Kashin of the Yeshuel,” the ancient one replied with only a slight nod. “Have you cleansed the Ecclesia of Marzac’s taint?”

Kashin sucked in his breath and lowered the sword. “How did you come here, Qan-af-årael? Why are you glowing?”

“I have died in battle against the forces of Marzac. But my death was not in vain. The power in Marzac is no more. What of the Ecclesia?”

Kashin sucked in his breath. Marzac was defeated? Then the Patriarch’s killer must have been defeated too. He lowered his eyes and sighed. “I am doing what I can. The Patriarch is free, but we still scour the ranks of the priests to find any more allies of Marzac.”

Qan-af-årael smiled to him and stepped closer, his footfall making no sound. A long arm draped in white damask reached for his shoulder. “You have done all that I asked and more. Know this and be at peace. The hand that you lost to Marzac’s fire, did wield the blade that stayed Marzac’s author.”

“The hand I lost?” Kashin frowned as he pondered the riddle. His eyes widened and he laughed, a sharp sound that felt unnatural in the private chapel. “Nemgas! You knew, didn’t you? About Cenziga.”

Qan-af-årael nodded. “I did not fully understand, but I knew you would be brought there. I would have warned you if I could, but it was not my place to do so. All the rest was up to you.”

“But what am I to do now?” Kashin asked him. He looked the spectre up and down and suppressed a shudder. “You are dead and can guide no man anymore.”

The ancient Åelf’s smile faded, but did not disappear. “You will do as you have always done, Kashin. You will protect that which matters most.” Qan-af-årael inclined his head once, and with almost a whisper, said, “I bid you farewell, Kashin of the Yeshuel. My time is past. This world is now in your hands.”

And then he was gone. Kashin stared for several seconds, running his tongue behind his teeth as he pondered those words. Slowly, his gaze returned to the yew. A lightness danced in his heart even though so much weighed it down. “What matters most. Amen.” He knelt once, made the sign of the tree, and left to attend to his duties.

The orange flame on the horizon faded within the hour, but the sea churned for another three before returning to a placid calm. Phil battled his body’s call to sleep for the Iron King’s sake, shouting orders and keeping watch lest the smaller vessels be dashed against their hull by the larger swells. No storm clouds besmirched the starry sky, but the sea heaved as if in the midst of a tempest.

When it finally settled, Phil felt immense relief that no ship had been overwhelmed, though three of the smaller drom were now crippled and they spent a half hour moving crews to the sturdier dromonai.

The source of the squall seemed to be Marzac, but the exact reason wasn’t clear. Reishel had still not been able to establish his mind link to Aramaes, though the mages in the nearer vessels were all in communication again. The prisoners remained quiet, and with the sea mimicking them, Phil decided it was time to return to the Sutt heir for their promised conversation. But first to the senior officer, he said, “Captain of the watch, have your men prepare the galley board on the forecastle. We’ll treat with the Pyralian captain and whomever he identifies as his first officer after the observance of dawn.”

“At once, your highness,” the man replied, saluting him with practised regimen.

Phil turned to ask Rupert to bring the foppish Malger to his cabin when he saw the archduke climb to the deck and stretch his limbs. His eyes regarded the night dark sky limned by a faint line of blue on the eastern horizon. They lowered to the rabbit hopping toward him and his lips curled into a smile. “I see the squall has passed.”

Phil nodded and drew up to the marten disguised as a man. “It has indeed. But there is much we still do not know. Such as how you know that Marzac may have fallen.” The rabbit’s eyes spied the dim gleam of a pendant dangling form Malger’s neck. The polished crescent seemed to drink in the light as if all the world were falling into it. “Does Nocturna tell you these things?”

Malger did not even glance at the pendant draped over his neck. “She tells me many things, and I witness many things, Prince. But the how of it is not for the ears of any and all. Has the fall of Marzac had any effect on the tainted?” With one hand the archduke swept a gesture toward the dark hallway a few paces away. Phil glanced at the short passageway and chewed his lower lip thoughtfully.

“I intend to treat with the Pyralian captain after dawn.” Phil stretched slightly and scratched one of his ears, suddenly desperate for a proper bath. “Malger, would you join us for this parlay? As a Pyralian of royal status you may have considerable more weight in this discourse than I.”

Malger sketched a brief bow, “As you wish, highness.” He turned to pace Phil along the deck toward the aft castle. “Whales and Pyralia have ever been on amicable terms. You think to improve that through parlay?”

Phil shook his head, “Not through parlay with a mere ship’s captain, Malger. If, as you say, Marzac’s dark touch has been raised from these men then I will return them to their home without demands.”

“If not?”

“Return them to the brig or, if they try to fight, gift them to the Merai.” Phil stopped and glanced aside at Malger. “I saw Merai fighting Merai in that battle, but none of their kind attempted to contact us, nor did they course our shadow. They arrived with your fleet.”

The illusion-masked royal nodded, “Despite Pyralia’s very official denouncement of magecraft or any treating with the incorporeal it seems to be a rather strong cottage industry throughout the kingdom. When I learned of your plight I sought what mages I could secure. Having travelled with the young mage Murikeer, and lived in Metamor, I came to understand the powerful advantages of magecraft.” Malger stroked his chin with his fingertips, “The response I received was quite surprising when I openly asked for practitioners. One of them claimed to be descended from a Merai prince.” He chuckled drily, “True or not, she did have communication with the Merai living in the coastal waters, and no little bit of social status. She convinced them to aid us against the Marzac fleet attacking Whales.”

Phil stopped at the door to his cabin and glanced eastward to where the sky was becoming ever more blue. “Why?” he asked quietly, “Help, I mean?”

Malger grasped Phil’s shoulder reassuringly and smiled, “I know you, Prince. Not directly, no, but I saw a good bit of you over the years in Metamor. You’re a good man, and Whales will be strong under your crown. All I know of Marzac is its notorious history. The Merai were having their own problems, and it was they who convinced me that some foul taint was why Marzac attacked, so I had my father’s firebreakers hauled out of their dry racks and put to sea. That was three days before we found you embattled.”

Phil chuffed in surprise and cocked an ear curiously, “Three days? By oar, to cross that expanse of ocean? And what are these firebreakers?”

“Our Merai allies had their beasts, whales and monstrous cuttlefish, tow us.” Malger glanced at the shadowed ships pacing them on the water, “As for the firebreakers, none survived that battle. They had a spindle mangonel mounted amidships. My father’s shipwrights designed them to strike devastating blows from beyond the range of your projectors.”

Phil recalled seeing one of those ships shortly before it was destroyed by fire. “My father always did expect that your sire would turn his attention westward one day.”

“My sire always did expect that he would wear the crown of King, as well.” Malger grunted with a shake of his head, “We saw where that folly led him.”

“Aye.” Phil touched Malger’s arm and drew him toward the captain’s cabin. “Now, this thing with your patron goddess, I would like to learn more.” He led toward the cabin and Malger followed while Rupert moved to place his considerable bulk outside the door. “Such as, do all faithful receive such clear insight?"

“No, we do not. Often times we receive nothing more than riddles or other nebulous warnings and omens such as your dream about waves.” Malger explained as he closed the door. Phil crossed to the captains’ desk and sat in the massive chair. Malger leaned his hip against the edge of the desk.

“Yes, my dream of waves. And then a wave comes from the clear blue sea travelling toward a storm rather than away from it but some voice in my head warns me to turn into it. What, by the mysteries of the deep, do you know about that?” Phil groused, scowling at the garishly clad royal son. The man wore deep forest green silk today, trimmed with lace and decorated with mother-of-pearl.

Malger chuckled, the light of the cabin’s single lamp gleaming in his all-too-human eyes, “I touched your dream, yes, and told you what the mages in my fleet intended to do. That is what I do, one of the things that has kept me alive when every murderer with a guild coin is out to stop my heart, it is why Nocturna chose me to be one of her own.”

“You comport directly with her?” Phil tilted his head dubiously.

Malger’s gaze dropped to the desk and he traced a navigational line on one of the charts fastened down by clips. “No.” Malger lied, “I am merely of her faith, owing to my rare ability to touch the dreams of others if I turn my effort to it. That was how I knew you were among your fleets.”

“I cannot say I find a lot of comfort in knowing that you can pick through my dreams.”

“Not easily, Prince, rest assured. If I am not already in another’s dreams, a creation of their own sleeping numen, then it is extremely difficult to find their dream and harder still to involve myself in it sufficiently enough to have any impact. And then there is the need for you to be sleeping, and dreaming, for me to even have a chance to put my effort into communicating with you. As with Nocturna, I cannot simply warn you flatly of impending danger, you would forget it within moments of waking.”

“Thus that unpleasantly vivid dream?”

Malger nodded slowly, “And, by narrow luck, the captain of the Dromon that limped into the port of Suttaivasse had been in some contact with you. An inspection of the ranks you conducted left a few bits of your fur upon his uniform. One of my mages used that, and the concerted effort of half a dozen others supporting him, to warn you.”

“Who was that captain?”

“Devashil was his name. Currently he commands the Wrath of Ill Fortune, one of my longboats. Our original intention was that he make contact with you before you engaged the Marzac host.”

“Interesting name for a warship.” Phil said ruefully and smiled, “I wish to extend a commendation to him for bringing message of our plight to favourable ears. As well all of your sailors and mages who aided us.”

“They’re only escorts, highness, not intended for the tasks the Whalish Navy has held as its own demesne these last decades. Sutthaivasse has no intentions that Whales fall in their charge. Once we make the Marzac Isles and learn, for once and true, what has become of that accursed place I will have them return along the coast to safe harbor.”

Phil rubbed his jaw and nodded at the archduke, “That would probably best be wise, as they’re hardly worthy of weathering any strong storms. Only together did we keep as many afloat as we did during the squall. Another and we will lose many more. But the Marzac Isles have ever been a place of infractions peoples and safe harbor for pirates. Perhaps Whales and Sutthaivasse can come to an agreement about who would be better at patrolling the dangerous waters there.”

Malger moved across to sit upon the stool he had commandeered for himself, “We’ve a few moments before—”

The archduke’s thought was interrupted by the shouting of Reishel outside. Rupert opened the door, and the mage gasped for breath as he crossed the threshold. It looked as if he’d just run the full length of the Iron King five times.

“Reishel!” Phil said in his firmest voice. “What news?”

“Word from Aramaes, your highness.” Reishel called when he caught his breath. “We just reestablished contact. The fleeing ships have cut sail and heaved to! They’re flying white pennants!”

“When did they raise pennants?” Phil waved for him to approach. Crossing quickly to the table, Reishel knuckled his brow and briefly dropped to one knee before standing.

“In the night, Aramaes knows not when, but he reports there was a powerful disturbance shortly after the turning of the high hour. He saw the same tower of light we did, only he reports that the land of Marzac was alight with fire.”

“So we know it came from Marzac,” Phil mused. He glanced at Malger briefly but did not share his sudden thought. “What other news of the Marzac fleet?”

“The entire host has cast their sea anchors and cut sail, or shipped oars. Stoshal’s line was among them before they realized it. None have attacked, and signal surrender at discretion.”

Phil nodded with a faint smile pulling at his muzzle, whiskers flicking forward briefly. “Very well, and thank you, Reishel. Advise Aramaes to accept the terms of surrender and escort the remnants of Marzac northward, putting in at the nearest suitable harbour.”

The mage lowered his head to Phil and departed to attend to his orders. When the door shut behind him, Malger smiled in relief. “It seems that your prisoners are not the only ones who are having a change of heart.”

“Let us hope that this truly means the taint of Marzac has been lifted from them. Now, what were you saying?”

Malger leaned in closer and spread his hands over the table. “Merely that we’ve a few moments before we need attend the observance of dawn. We should not let this time go to waste. Let us, Prince, play at the Game of Thrones and find a treaty favourable for all.”

“One that will bring us peace for many years,” Phil replied, glad to know that at long last Whales had an ally for a neighbour.

“I’m sorry I had you woken up, but this is too important,” Duke Thomas said as he stared at all around the circular table in his council chambers. “And most of you already know what’s happened. At midnight, Kyia appeared to Master Lidaman and I and told us that those we sent six months ago have defeated Marzac and broken its power. And then she left to defend Metamor from its power rolling back. Lothanasa Raven says that Rickkter has woken, which means the Marquis is dead. And from what I’ve heard my daughter tell me, that power Kyia warned us of has passed and done very frightening things. Malisa?”

Assembled around the table were his daughter, his Steward Thalberg, his spymaster Andwyn, Master Lidaman, and his attache Copernicus. Malisa folded her hands around a cup of steaming tea. “All the charms I’ve cast were destroyed when the magical surge drove through the Valley. It headed north faster than our eyes could follow. I’ve confirmed with Rois, Pascal, and Saroth that all of their active spells have been broken as well. Everything can be recast easily enough, but we depend on a great deal of defensive magic here. I sent a messenger bird north to Nestorius instructing him to recast all of Outpost’s defences. But the Keep and its peculiar properties appear to be unharmed.”

“The old lion is going to be casting spells for days,” Copernicus pointed out. The giant lizard was dressed very warmly and had very strong coffee simmering in front of him just to keep him awake. “I’ve seen how much we have at Outpost.”

“After the reports we’ve had from the scouts,” Thomas pointed out, “I’m not very worried about an invasion. I’m more worried about an exodus. Thalberg, please explain.”

The alligator sat nearest the hearth yet still huddled into his thick red robes. “Several of our guests declined to entrust themselves entirely to our protection. What guards they left to the midnight watch all witnessed themselves being changed by the curse, and then changing back again. The curse did not take anyone, but for a moment they all saw what it could do to them. I’ve tried to keep this from your vassals, but already Lord Calephas of Giftum has learned, and I fear Baron Pedain of Komley has as well. I’ve done what little I can to appease them, but I’m afraid if I don’t keep my thumb on them, and even if I do, they’re all going to flee Metamor before your wedding and set us back to where we were before the Assault.”

Thomas nodded, letting the news sink in before returning his gaze to his adopted daughter. “Malisa, do you think they are more vulnerable to the curse now than they were before?”

Malisa took a quick sip of her tea. “After meeting with Saroth, I also spoke with Kurt Schanalein. He saw himself becoming a boy and all the nuns change too. I studied him for a few minutes, but I couldn’t detect even a hint of the Curse on him.”

“Round up all the mages who can be spared.” Thomas said, voice and mind moving quick. The news of Marzac’s defeat was joyous, but this magical wave threatened to undo his kingdom. “I will pay them extra to spend some time this morning examining each of my vassals and their men to make sure of this.”

“We’ll have to hurry,” Thalberg grunted. “Not everyone will wait. It won’t be long before they’ll all know. Once one of them leaves, they all will.”

“Lord Calephas is already instructing his men to ready his coach,” Andwyn added quietly. “But he will not be leaving for some time.”

Copernicus narrowed his yellow eyes. “Why ever not?”

The bat folded his wings against his side and sighed with an air of satisfaction. “I took the liberty of dosing his ale with a mild laxative once I learned he knew.”

Thomas turned on the bat. “You poisoned one of my vassals!”

“Not poisoned. A laxative will cause him only mild discomfort for a few hours and keep him here. Besides, he has a history of this malodorous ailment. He will not suspect us.”

Thomas glowered at the bat and shook a hoof-like hand at him. “Don’t ever do that again unless I give you authorization.”

Andwyn nodded his head. “As you wish, your grace. I will confirm what Thalberg says. Only Baron Pedain knows. He makes a lovely woman, although the guard who saw what he became didn’t have to heart to tell him the truth. Thankfully, Pedain was asleep at the time.”

“It won’t stay with just them,” Thalberg pointed out.

“Yes, we know. Malisa, can you gather enough mages?”

She nodded. “In an hour I’ll have enough to examine all our non-cursed vassals and their retinues.”

“Good. Is there anything else we can do to keep them here,” he glared at the bat, “without medicinal aid?”

Lidaman pursed his lips and said, “Give them lots of money.”

“I don’t have lots of money,” Thomas replied, though a bit irritated because he knew bribery was probably his safest course of action. “And I don’t dare threaten them or they’ll break their vows to me. Metamor is hated enough as is without being seen as a beastly band of tyrants.”

But the youthful financier smiled. “You do have lots of money, your grace. In fact, you have their money. They pay you taxes every few months. Forgive them some.”

Thomas shook his head. “We need that money to pay our troops.”

“If they leave before your wedding, you may not ever again have taxes from them,” Lidaman pointed out. The boy leaned forward and tapped his fingers into one palm. “A garret in the hand is better than three in the ledger, but not thirty. Besides, you have other things to consider. The merchants. We don’t have many right now because it is winter. Those who did come are mostly from the Valley and already cursed. If your vassals flee, many of the merchants will too.”

“I always thought merchants would go anywhere they thought they could turn a profit,” Thalberg groused.

“Not if it means they can’t leave,” Lidaman pointed out. “I know many foreign merchants who were trapped here after Three Gates. Most moved their families here in the end, but it was not an easy transition for any of them. Your bride’s wedding gown is made from cloth bought from one such merchant.”

“Urseil cloth, yes, I know,” Thomas snorted much like the horse he appeared to be. “What if money isn’t enough? You just said that money wouldn’t be enough to bring merchants here if they’re afraid of the Curse.”

Lidaman nodded and folded his hands together. “Offer the money after you’ve had your mages examine them and assured them that there is no danger. They’ll be set somewhat at ease, and the money will mollify the rest.”

“Or,” Andwyn suggested in a quiet voice, “perhaps not money, but more favourable agreements? We could send more of our forces to protect their interests.”

Thomas drummed his fingers on the table, long tail flicking back and forth irritably. “I don’t like either of these suggestions. But I’m having trouble thinking of a better one.”

“You could grant them pride of place at the wedding and banquet” Copernicus suggested. “Most of them love being shown honour.”

“If I displace any of the cursed vassals, they’ll resent me,” the horse lord sighed, feeling strangely helpless. He was trying to hold water in his hands, and with his thick hooflike fingers, it was even harder. “I don’t think any will betray me, but I do not need to create anymore divisions between my cursed and uncursed lands. That will lead to civil war.”

Malisa counted off her fingers. “We cannot hold them by force of arms. We cannot grant them special honours without creating resentment here. We cannot use chicanery to keep them here. All we can do is examine them and assure them that the Curse will not claim them and offer them a short reprieve on their taxes in recompense for risk. Can we even be sure that the Curse won’t claim them, or that the magical surge won’t happen again?”

Thomas shrugged. “How would any of us know? Only mages can tell us that. What of Misha’s sister, Elizabeth? She’s been of great help to us in the past.”

“It took her two days to reach us last time she visited,” Thalberg pointed out, yellow eyes studying the Duke closely. The one time Elizabeth Brightleaf had visited Metamor had been to free Thomas from the magical halter that had made him want to be nothing more than a normal horse. The holes in his hooves and nails where she’d shod him were healing but still visible. “The wedding will be over by then.”

“Can’t we contact her?”

Andwyn shook his head. “Only Misha and Jessica can do that. Jessica is a thousand leagues away, and Misha is currently at Glen Avery. He’ll return today, but not until midday, and then he’ll be preparing for his annual party this evening.”

“If we can send birds to Nestorius, we can send birds to Misha!” Thomas neighed. “Bring him here with all possible haste. In the meantime, this is what we shall do. Malisa, as soon as we finish, gather all the mages you can and offer your services to our vassals. Thalberg, instruct your staff to be exceedingly courteous to them and make sure they have no other cause to complain. Copernicus, find George and have him station extra guards in the diplomatic wing to keep fights from breaking out. Andwyn, keep your ear to my vassals and inform Malisa and I if any of them begin readying to depart. Master Lidaman, you will stay with me. We need to discuss what financial inducements we can make. I fear I may ask for your assistance in that regard.”

“I am at your disposal, your grace,” Lidaman replied with an honest smile. “What is mine is yours.”

Thomas took a deep breath and favoured his advisors and friends with an equine whinny. “Thank you all. Together I know we’ll get through this. Now, let’s do what we can to stop the bleeding.”

As one, they nodded, bowed to their liege, and left to attend to assigned tasks. It was going to be a very long morning.

Sir Czestadt leaned out the window in his office overlooking the practice fields for the Driheli in Stuthgansk. The noonday sun stayed behind the clouds though still brought a hearty warmth to the air. Several knights ran their horses about the course, but few wore anything more than the most basic of mail shirts. Dust kicked up in their wake, dirty and brown. Ostlers and squires were quick to attend to the droppings left behind.

He’d thought returning home would heal his wounds. The Driheli had been nothing but rapturous to see his return, and all were gathering for the Yule celebrations, even those in the lands at the very limit of the Driheli’s reach. When not in prayer, Czestadt had watched the practices from his office and ridden those fields until his horse tired of it. He couldn’t quite bring himself to use his Kankoran-gifted abilities to control swords, but he had practised with blades in both hands.

Yet all of it only reminded him of what he’d lost because of Jothay’s evil blade. And ironically, a dead visage of Jothay had given him the clue he’d needed to understand that and what he was doing now. He heard footsteps come to his door. With a long sigh the Knight Templar called, “Enter!”

In stepped Sir Petriz of Vasks. The man who’d once been Czestadt’s squire knelt and said, “You wished to speak with me, Master Templar?”

“I am not well, Sir Petriz. I haven’t been well since I entered Yesulam all those months ago.” He ran one finger down the pink scar that began under his right eye. “This is not cause. I don’t feel anything here anymore.”

“What Jothay did?” Petriz asked, eyes narrowing at his leader’s disquiet. “Does that still hurt?”

“It’s over.” Czestadt turned to face his second and sighed. “Jothay visited me this morning.”

Petriz’s face went white. “But he’s dead!”

“And he still is. But now the evil that bound him is also dead.”

Petriz relaxed, nodded slowly, and sighed. “Good. Eli’s will has been done.”

“But my faith in the Ecclesia is still wounded, Sir Petriz. The only ones I know I can trust are those three Questioners. For now at least. This is a wound that will take a long time to heal.”

The younger knight put his hand on Czestadt’s shoulder. “We can see our way through this together, Master Templar. But if the others should hear you speak thus, their faith will be shaken too.”

Czestadt nodded and rested his hand on Petriz’s arm. “I know. That is why I am going to announce my retirement from the Driheli with the advent of the new year.”

“No!” Petriz snapped, eyes darkening with worry. “No, don’t do that! We need you here.”

“Sir Petriz, you know it is for the best.” Czestadt smiled sadly. “Until this wound heals, I will be a detriment to the Driheli. Our enemies will know my weakness and strike. Many more will die. That I will not allow. As I am the problem, I will remove myself. I will seek to join the Yesbearn that I might protect the Questioners.”

Petriz swallowed and lowered his eyes. “And what of the Driheli? None of us can lead them as you can.”

“True,” Czestadt said, favouring his former squire with a warm smile. “But we don’t need somebody to lead them as I can. I cannot lead the Driheli as my predecessor did. Nor should my successor be expected to lead them as I do. He will lead them as his judgement directs. And there is only one amongst my knights whose judgement I trust.”

“Who is that?” Petriz asked, his voice quivering slightly as if he were afraid of the answer.

Czestadt shook his head. The answer was obvious to him, but Petriz was ever humble. “In this troubled and uncertain time, I could only ever appoint a knight who truly believes and lives the code of knighthood to which all Driheli are called. That knight is you, Sir Petriz. And on the new year, I will announce my decision.”

Petriz lowered his head and his arm dropped to his side. “Me? But... very well, Master Templar. I will trust your judgement in this, as I always have.”

Czestadt’s smile widened. “And what was one of the first lessons I taught you?”

“To look up.” Petriz lifted his eyes, took a deep breath that stretched the links in his mail shirt, and then returned the smile. “I will always remember it. But what of your squire, Hevsky?”

“He will be ready to take his place amongst the knights soon. I entrust him to your care to complete his training.”

Petriz nodded slowly and licked his lips. “I will not disappoint you, Sir Czestadt.”

“You never have,” Sir Czestadt grabbed him by the shoulders and drew him into a tight embrace. “From the day I first saw you on the street until now, you have never once disappointed me, Sir Petriz. I’ve never known a finer knight than you. Would that I could have been your squire. Karol and Hevsky and all who come after them will be blessed to have you as a teacher. Now, go be with the others. I must attend to a few things and then I shall join you on the practice field. I want to race our steeds one last time.”

Petriz laughed and hugged him back. “I will look for you. No matter where you must go, it will always be a happy day when you come to Stuthgansk.”

“That will not be my choice, but that is how I wish it.” They broke apart and Czestadt bowed to Petriz. “Now go. I will be with you soon, you who will be Templar.”

Sir Petriz stood taller, bowed in return, and departed. It was done. And for the first time in months, Sir Czestadt of Stuthgansk, the Volka wie Stuth, felt peace in his heart.

“All scholastic inquests must begin with a clear understanding of several principles.” The stolid, measured voice of Kehthaek carried through the vaulted chamber. Sitting at writing desks were three dozen black-robed Questioners, the red cross on their chests catching the lamplight. All eyes focussed on the new Grand Questioner, ears attentive to his words, and pens furiously writing down his every thought.

Kehthaek reclined on several pillows, a sop to his age more than luxury. “These principles reside in, as the great Eli is three, three sets of three. First the virtues, faith, hope and charity. Then the faculties, memory, intellect, and will. And lastly the methods, question, arguments, and commentary. A mastery of each is necessary for the true fulfilment of the office of Questioner for which Eli has called you.

“In brief, we sketch them. A fuller treatment will come once you possess a firm grasp of the basics. Faith is the belief in things unseen and the assent to the truth of revealed knowledge. Hope is the trust in Eli’s promises despite adversity in this life, and thus, it is also an acknowledgement of the divine power to overcome those adversities. Charity is the ability to recognize Yahshua in each person you meet and to treat them as Eli commanded.”

Kehthaek smiled as he warmed to his subject. For now he stayed with topics that each Questioner would understand. But from there he would build their minds and souls in the proper comportment for priests of their special vocation. “Memory is the repository of all experiential knowledge. From this well, the intellect draws forth sensory objects for scrutiny. It is from the intellect that we develop intellectual objects which we shall later classify under the headings of science or wisdom. The Will is that part of our subjective self that directs the intellect to action.

“The methods dictate how we are to fulfill our obligations as Questioners. We must first Question that which we are presented with, making use of our memory and intellect to discern truth from falsehood. This method of discernment we call Arguments, for we should not dismiss what we have been told until through the means of reason we can ascertain truth. And this is Commentary, the intellectual action of presenting the reasons for which something is or is not true.”

Ah, how he wished he’d been allowed to do this before. Already he could see lines of consternation in the eyes of the older Questioners, and impatience in those of the younger. He lowered his face, betraying none of his pleasure. “Before we begin to delve deeper into these concepts, let us meditate upon the virtues as we pray the noon office.”

And with him, all heads bowed and tongues chanted in harmonious prayer.

Though Felsah did not smile, his hand caressed Rakka. The dog had once protected Mizrahek, the previous Grand Questioner who had already set sail for a monastery in the remote, high passes of the Darkündlicht mountains. But now Rakka stayed with Felsah and adored him with canine eagerness.

“You see,” Felsah said to the dozen Questioners sitting in a circle around him and the dog, “we can never forget that all creatures are loved by Eli. Though Rakka here has no immortal soul to lose, he is still precious in Eli’s sight. And Eli gave him and other animals to us to teach us valuable lessons. These may be charity, humility, prudence, responsibility, or even simple austerity. Now come, each of you, touch this gift of Eli, not just with your hands, but with your heart.”

The twelve gathered around him neared. Rakka lifted his ears, eyes widening and leaned his head forward to sniff at those in front of him. Several Questioners drew back their hands, afraid, but some allowed the dog to sniff, and then to lick their fingers. Felsah nodded and let his hand rest on the dog’s back, steadying him. “Good, good. Now, I want each of you to go into the city this day. There are many strays wandering the streets in the lower quarters. Find one and coax it to you. Unless it is owned already, bring it back here and we shall find a place to kennel them.”

One of the other priests, one only a few years his senior and obviously resentful for having been placed under Felsah’s tutelage, flinched back from Rakka’s dusty fur and scowled. “Why bring them back? They’ll just foul the temple.”

“And you will clean up after them as you would yourself,” Felsah replied with patience. “Mizrahek often did such a kindness for this animal; so can you.”

“But why do this at all?” another younger Questioner asked. This one had a severe frown, much like the one Akaleth often wore.

“Because kindness is one of the most powerful tools any can ever use. A surprising kindness can do more to disarm those you Question, then any whip or screw. A kindness like I have done to this dog changed a Rebuilder’s murderous hatred into respect, and did far more to loosen his tongue than anything else I could have done. I am not asking you to adopt a dog for the sake of the dog, although they will be well cared for here, but for your own sakes. Both to inflame the virtue of charity in your hearts, and to improve your abilities as Questioners. Now go.”

The twelve climbed to their feet and left the room. Felsah watched them go as he pet the dog. Rakka nudged at his other hand with his nose. Felsah smiled freely and scratched the pleasant dog behind his ears. He wondered how many of the twelve would think to bring some food for the strays they found. He’d give them a couple nights of failure and getting bitten before telling them his secrets. It was better they learn from a dog than from a man, even if he looked like a fox, with a very big axe.

Felsah laughed and wondered what Madog was doing.

“Do not lie to me,” the Questioner postulant declared to the other Questioner postulant who was pretending to be the subject of a Questioning. Akaleth and the other postulants sat cross-legged on the floor in a circle around them and watched, carefully listening to the exchange. Felsah had given both men a bit of information about the case and had instructed them to play their parts as authentically as possible. It had taken a few days to convince them that they would not be sinning by doing so, but now that they believed him, he could teach them through experience how to better fulfill their role as Questioners.

“I’m not lying!” the one being Questioned declared hotly. “I’m telling you the truth!”

“We know that you have been making illicit translations of the Canticles and perverting their meaning!”

“But I haven’t done that at all!”

Akaleth held up one hand and coughed. Both postulants turned to him, their faces still writ with anger. If he didn’t put a stop to it sooner he feared both young hotheads would come to fisticuffs. “You have forgotten one of the lessons I told you.”

“What is that, Father Akaleth?” the Questioning postulant asked. Akaleth recalled his name to be Yonas, and the one being Questioned Mousuf. Both had the bronzed skin and dark hair common to the Holy Land, just as Akaleth did.

“Yonas, you must never forget that what you are told, or what you think before beginning a Questioning, may not be the truth. Not that you were lied to, but that those who instructed you were mistaken, or had incomplete information. That is the purpose behind a Questioning, to learn what is true. If during your Questioning you discover that what you thought to be the case is inaccurate, discard it and accept what is true. Otherwise you will never be able to Question properly.”

Mousuf looked relieved, but Yonas’s face narrowed. “But how will I know the truth when everyone lies to Questioners?”

“Be charitable,” Akaleth said, his face set in a thin line. How long had it taken him to learn that lesson? His wounds from Zagrosek’s torture had long since healed, though his back sported even more scars than his father had given him. “You Question them not because they are guilty, although you may learn that they are during your Questioning, but because they know things that you wish to learn. It is your job to obtain that information. Thus, you must be willing to be charitable. They may be telling you the truth.”

One of the other postulants raised his hand and at Akaleth’s nod asked, “But how are we to know when they speak truth and when they lie?”

“First, you must have clarity. Any prejudices you have will only prevent you from thinking dispassionately, which is fundamental in your task. Once those are gone, you can compare what those you Question tell you, and what you have learned prior to Questioning. What do we know about the truth? It is incomparable. If you have two conflicting accounts, then you know both of them cannot be true, or at least, they cannot both be accurate in every detail. Compare them, and find what does not contrast. What is incomparable? Only the truth should fall out of the sieve of your minds.”

“So you wish us to practice charity, clarity, and incomparability?” Yonas asked, the anger fading from his face.

Akaleth nodded. He rather liked the sound of those three together. He’d have to think on them more. “Very good, Yonas. Now, continue with the lesson, and remember them!” As the postulants resumed, Akaleth reached his hand into his sleeve and rubbed around his wrist where once the whip had been. He sighed, relieved that Eli had at long last taken it from him.

Several times while they flew through the smoke-filled air, Charles pondered whether he should revert to flesh. Even in his two-legged form, he still weighed a few hundred pounds as granite. Guernef’s thigh was scarred where the fiery wood had pierced it only two days before, and the rat could see that scar pulling and tearing as the great Nauh-kaee flew south to find the Whalish fleet. If Charles were flesh, perhaps Guernef wouldn’t risk injuring himself.

And then the rat remembered that as flesh, he needed to breath. Guernef seemed to be able to keep a bubble of pure air around him as he flew, but smoke from the explosion still buffeted the rat from time to time. He didn’t want to think what that could do to his fleshy form. The few times those hot ashes had managed to strike Guernef’s flanks they’d smoldered his fur and feathers. Better to stay granite and hope that his friend’s wound didn’t open again.

But after a few hours of flight in which they watched the sea wash in and out of the inlet the collapse of Marzac had created, winds in the upper air began to break apart the smoke. The rat lifted his eyes and marvelled at the stars, so still in their quiet but bright regard for mankind. Hard to believe that only hours before they had spun like so much lace. And now, with the eastern horizon brightening with the promise of a new dawn, the rat wondered how their friends fared.

“Look,” Guernef chided him. “Ships.”

Charles leaned forward and stared past the Nauh-kaee’s shoulder at the sea below. The great wings spread on either side of him, while his tail bounced in the air next to Guernef’s. But below them he could see a few dozen vessels. They were a mixed group. He recognized several Whalish dromonai as well as their support craft. But there were others too, caravels, several galleass, and others he didn’t recognize. Many of them were flying white pinions. Was this the Marzac fleet Vigoreaux had spoken of?

“Let’s move in closer. Whalish vessels always have mages. Can you contact them and warn them we’re coming?”

Guernef’s head bobbed as he turned his wings. The air rushed over his back. He felt the vine burrowing its roots even deeper in his stony flesh. “I will let you hear our words in your mind. Now hold tight.”

The rat tightened his claws in the Nauh-kaee’s neck feathers and pressed his legs more closely around his middle. Below them the ships slowly grew in size. The rat felt delight stir inside when he could make out individuals moving across the decks. And then several looked up and began to scatter or draw their bows. Guernef beat his wings and circled them.

Guernef’s voice resounded in the rat’s mind. {Men of Whales. We come seeking your aid.}

{Who are you?} A man’s voice called back. The rat blinked, as the tone felt familiar to him.

{We are Guernef of the Nauh-kaee, and Charles Matthias of Metamor, come to seek your assistance on behalf of our friends trapped in the desolation left by Marzac’s destruction.}

{Charles Matthias of Metamor?} The voice seemed to ponder that for a moment. {Ah, the rat! What by all the gods are you doing down here? I have not heard from you since we escaped from Arabarb.} The rat’s ears lifted and he blinked. {You knew me then. It is I, Aramaes! Never mind how you came here. Just land where I show you and we’ll discuss the rest face to face.}

The rat laughed a bit. He remembered the mage Aramaes. A good man who’d been proficient in the creation of charms to keep rats off the ship. He wondered if he still served under Captain Ptomamus, the man with the unfortunate allergy to rat fur.

“You best return to your fleshy form ere we land,” Guernef advised.

The rat nodded, seeing the wisdom in that. As Guernef circled lower and lower toward the largest of the dromonai, the rat enjoy the feel of the cool sea air whipping through his fur.

The sky overhead was a deep shade of indigo splashed with dawning blue when Phil and Malger climbed onto the forecastle deck. A large table, the galley board, was affixed to the deck and spread with a cloth of deep blue linen. Pewter plates and cutlery were laid out and the last two bottles of Port from the captain’s liquor cabinet stood beside pewter chalices. Folding chairs were scrounged from below deck and the Captain’s cabin and Phil sat upon one of the latter ornate constructs. Malger sat to his right and Rupert stood behind them while the prisoners were brought up from the cabins below.

In the lead was a man of aristocratic air and physique; well toned bordering on a slight softness given to one who issues orders and does not exert himself terribly often. He was approaching middle age but the unshaven, unkempt scruff of beard covering his strong jaw did not show any graying. Striking blue eyes took in Phil and Rupert at a glance and went wide in surprise causing the man to stop half way up the steep stair from the main deck. The man behind him was likewise brought to a blind halt while on the deck below one of the Whalish sailors gave a curt order for them to keep climbing.

“What devilry is this?” the leader grumbled irritably, moving again at the insistent poke from the butt of the soldier’s spear. “Has the world gone wholly over to demons?”

Phil bridled slightly but held his retort, only the backing of his tall ears indicating the degree of his irritation. Rupert flexed the thick arms folded across his chest causing the poorly mended orange of his uniform to creak in protest. Malger leaned forward without rising.

“How many demons do you see?” The illusion-clad marten asked sharply with a glance over the deck, “I see none but mortals who have sacrificed much to preserve your lives. They are your conquerors, sailor, be their form perhaps different from any you have seen before. You demand parlay, and he has shown the forbearance to hear your words, so speak wisely or swim.”

The bearded men shuffled toward the chairs set across the table from Phil and after a few moments settled into him. The second man was thin to the point of emaciation. His gaze was intense and direct, full of wrath at being the captive instead of the captor. Both looked, and smelled, as if they had not bathed since Marzac’s touch found them. Phil steepled his paws before his nose, whiskers twitching and ears swiveling forward alertly. “Please, we are all persons of station here, so let us conduct ourselves accordingly. Who are you, sirs?”

The speaker’s attention shifted from Malger to Phil with a beetling of his brow. Despite being seated in the previous Captain’s own deck chair centred across the table from them, with Malger at his right and a bodyguard behind him the man had not expected Phil to speak, let alone command the parley. The man’s jaw muscles jumped and clenched for several seconds while he came to grips with the oddness of being addressed by an animal. “I am Darius, of Ershorn.” He tilted his head to the man seated at his own side, “Gregor, of Brekaris.”

“Of what houses, gentlemen?” Phil lowered his hands to the tabletop but did not make any reach for the unopened bottles sitting between them. “That we would know to whom we should send our couriers detailing your fates.”

The one who named himself Darius rolled his shoulders in stubborn pride, “I would know with what beasts we treat, and under whose flag we now find ourselves.”

Phil chuffed irritably, “As you demand. I am Phillip Tenomides, Prince of Whales.”

“I am Malger dae ross Sutt, Arch Duke of Western Pyralia.” Malger intoned blandly, worrying the tip of one finger lazily as if bored of the interview.

“Sutt? That line is broken.” The man named Gregor hissed angrily. “Many paid with blood and gold to stop the disease that was Sutt, a decade gone now!”

“Blood and gold invested wisely, Gregor of Brekaris. I am not my sire, but it is to Prince Phil you owe the debt of your lives.” Malger made a short wave toward Phil with one hand.

Before Gregor could continue a hateful diatribe accounting the evils of Malger’s sire Darius raised a hand and forestalled him with a curt slicing motion. “As it may, Duke.” He eyed Malger dubiously and then Phil, weighing their words. “Regardless, this ship and its crew are in your hands.” With a resigned sigh and a slump of weary shoulders Darius seemed to shrink upon himself slightly. “Say on then. I am of House Egland, and Gregor is of…”

“House La’Dorine, last of my own line.” Gregor growled, never taking his eyes off of Malger. “Falshon Sutt…”

“Enough, Gregor!” Darius snapped, “Your grievances are not for this table, it is the lives of our crew we treat for, not past wrongs.” Gregor’s mouth worked wordlessly for a few more seconds before he fell into a sullen silence. Darius looked back to Phil, “What are your intentions for the crew?”

“The taint upon you does seem to appear to be lifted, and if…”

“Taint?” Darius interrupted with a scowl.

Phil nodded, “You sailed too closely to the shores of Chateau Marzac. A dark radiance has spread from that accursed place and captures the minds of those who venture too closely, turning them to its own dark ends. Under that taint you commanded an armada of similarly turned vessels and sought to destroy Whales.”

Darius shrank even further into himself, “I recall something of these crimes, but only in fitful flashes of poor memory. My last clear recollection was…” he thought for a moment, “We encountered a Whalish Drom and a Tournemire carrack engaging a merchant vessel and pursued them toward the horn of Marzac. After that, everything becomes a nightmarish fog.” He rubbed his dirty face with both hands, torn with anguish. “What crimes have we conducted under this taint you claim? What other empires have we set ourselves against?”

“You have committed no crimes of your own free will, Darius. This is not a tribunal of judgment.” Phil waved a placating hand quickly to forestall the man’s spiralling descent into crushing guilt. “As I said, the taint of Marzac did this to you. Nor are you gentlemen alone in being liberated from Marzac’s dark touch. The last of the fleet surrendered to our forces a few hours past and they too shall not be held account for the crimes committed.”

Phil lowered his paws to the table and offered both men his firmest smile. “But for now, go below and attend to your men, let them know that they will receive pardons dependent upon their behavior until we make port in Whales.”

Darius levered himself to his feet and saluted smartly, “Until you return us to Pyralian custody we are your men, Prince Phil of Whales, rabbit or man or… whatever you are. You still know honour.”

“If your men accede to Whalish orders, Captain Darius, have them take oar alongside the men of Whales and make all due speed eastward.”

“It shall be done.” Darius, with Gregor close at his heels, made his way toward the stair. Malger stood quickly and moved to join them.

“Darius, if I might ask, do you have a brother?”

Gregor gave Malger a hard glare but said nothing when Darius came to a stop at the head of the stair, skirting around the Pyralian captain and continuing to make his way toward the nearest companionway. Members of the Whalish watch accompanied him. “I did, Duke. He perished when the Patriarch made an ill considered pilgrimage to the demon-touched kingdom of Metamor.”

Malger came to stand at the railing and gave the man a level stare. “Do you see any demons aboard this ship, Darius? What of the white rabbit you just saluted and commended for honor?”

Darius scowled and tipped his head, “I cannot say what is demon or not, I dare not trust what I see after… what has happened.”

“Whales sent a diplomatic envoy to Metamor years ago, to establish treaties of trade and knowledge. When war came to Metamor that man stayed, fighting alongside people in a land foreign to his home. He suffered the same fate as they.” Malger explained slowly, looking down to the deck a few steps down from the forecastle.

Vexed, Darius sighed heavily and waited for Malger’s point to be made. “Their fate?”

“Cursed. Changed, some becoming a mixture of man and animal, and suffering greatly for it.”

“And yonder prince was that diplomat, and in that war he was changed?”

“For the honor you complimented he has been forever changed. Would you still label him as a demon?”

Darius shook his head, clutching the top posts of the stair with both hands and leaning forward wearily. “No, Duke, I cannot.” He pushed himself back upright and turned to meet Malger’s gaze. “Why do you ask of my brother? He is deceased, as I said.”

Malger shook his head slowly, never taking his eyes from the Darius’ gaze. “He lives, though like Phil he has been changed by the curse that still lingers upon the kingdom.”

Darius frowned, “You have seen him? Seen him since the Patriarch’s murder?” He paused and swallowed heavily, “He was not party to that, I pray?”

“I have, I know him well.” Malger smiled reassuringly, “And he was not. The death of the Patriarch weighed heavily upon him, and still does, but he has found a purpose to continue. He can never return to Yesulam, because of Metamor’s touch, but he is still a person of honor and strength.”

Darius scrutinized Malger closely for several seconds, “How be it you are not touched, if Phil and my brother were?”

Raising a hand Malger grasped the sailor’s shoulder firmly, “I was, Captain Egland, I was.” He dropped his hand and turned toward the table, “Your men will need your wisdom and leadership below, Darius. When you have seen to their needs we can continue our conversation.” He paused and looked back over his shoulder, “Oh, and have your men release the stores. Many of us would sorely like to make use of some soap.”

Darius’s confusion turned to mild laughter and he nodded. “It will be done. I fear we may not have enough for all in its need.”

As the brother to the elk Yacoub departed for the hold, Malger heard the mage Reishel accost Phil in frantic voice. “Your highness! Word from Aramaes! I scarcely believe what he told me, but he said you would know of whom he spoke.”

Curious, Malger came behind the white rabbit who leaned back on his haunches to hear the harried and exhausted mage’s report. “What is it, Reishel?”

“Only minutes ago, two creatures landed on board the Burning Hand. One of them is a great white gryphon named Guernef. The other says he knows you, your Highness. A man in the shape of a brown rat calling himself Charles Matthias.”

Malger blinked in surprise. Not even Nocturna had warned him of this! Prince Phil looked as if he’d been punched in the gut. His ears folded behind his head and his speech came in ragged gasps. “Charles? What is he doing here?”

“Aramaes says that a group of Metamorians and their allies are trapped on what is left of the Marzac peninsula. And he says that it is they who defeated Marzac. They come seeking our aid.”

Phil jumped a foot in the air in his excitement. “Then give it! Captain Whiett! Change our course! We head north to Marzac. North to Marzac!” Malger smiled and shook his head. Just how many Keepers were involved here anyway?

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

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