Over The Hills And A Great Way Off

Title: Over The Hills And A Great Way Off
Author: Camile_Sinensis
Author’s email: teapot@doramail.com
Website: http://red-shellac.livejournal.com/
Characters: Starring Caeru, Cal, Pellaz, and a noisy and intrusive Original Character. Supporting roles by Tharmifex, Ashmael, Velaxis and other members of the Hegemony, plus An Innkeeper of Kyme and Various Other Hara Of That Town.
Spoilers: The story takes place just after the end of “Shades”, so the gentle reader is assumed to have a working knowledge of all the shit that has gone down up until then.

Over The Hills And A Great Way Off

“I lost somebody once, I know how it is…” – Caeru Meveny, “The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit”

Chapter 1

“I assure you, Tiahaar, the package is on board. I myself saw to its loading, and I have been keeping a close eye on it throughout the journey. A very close eye indeed! It will be found any minute now, I’m sure. There is absolutely no need to worry.”

The Captain forced a weak smile, which was obviously intended to reassure Ashmael, but which had precisely the opposite effect. A long and interesting career in both the Gelaming army and as a member of the Hegemony had led Ashmael to the conviction that any announcement regarding the lack of need for worry was an indication that worry was almost certainly exactly what was called for.

Ashmael gave a dissatisfied grunt, which the Captain took as permission to leave, and he hurried back to his ship, the Despina, which was currently moored at the harbour edge, tight ropes wrapped around stanchions holding her firm against the stone sides, while her white sails were neatly furled and stowed in the masts above. Her crew were currently swarming over and beneath the decks, like so many busy ants, searching for the missing cargo. The Captain shouted some choice insults at them as he approached, with the presumed intention of motivating them to increase their efforts, although Ashmael found himself wondering exactly how casting aspersions upon the dimensions of a har’s male aspect would spur him on to greater things.

The Captain and his crew were, of course, not Gelaming. No Gelaming would resort to such base and unproductive methods. If the Despina and her crew were Gelaming, their best efforts would be assured by their own desire to elevate their personal spirituality and work for the common good of the city of Immanion and the entire Gelaming tribe. It was a wonder, Ashmael occasionally thought, that any of these object examples of selfless virtue ever stooped to anything so coarse as actually being paid.

He realised that there was nothing for it but to wait until the ship’s crew located what he had come for. The ship was a good-sized vessel, but not so large that searching it would take forever. He sighed heavily and sat down upon a capstan, pushing his hair out of his eyes and squinting at the ship, as if staring at it would speed up the process.

It was a beautiful morning, although beautiful mornings were entirely commonplace in Immanion, so this one did not announce itself as being in any way outstanding, rather it stood modestly in line with all its predecessors and contributed to the general air of loveliness in and around the city in a manner that was somehow self-effacing yet inviting of open-mouthed admiration. It was a very Gelaming morning.

The only unusual thing about the morning was its short-lived duration. It had not been morning for any great length of time and the air still carried the coolness bequeathed to it by the recently-departed night, although that would change as the sun rose higher over the hills surrounding the city to the landward side. The city itself had not yet fully awoken from its slumber; shops and stalls and businesses still awaited their proprietors and customers; sleepy hara were still rising from their beds, or not, depending upon temperament and an unusual peace lay over the harbour, normally a busy, bustling area during the daytime, full of comings and goings and noise and activity.

Ashmael was used to early starts. What he was not used to was inactivity and frustration. He found himself fighting the urge to storm onto the ship and conduct a full search himself, methodically working through each cabin and deck, opening cupboards and wardrobes, tossing aside cushions and furniture, shouting orders to fearful crew members. He sighed. It would do no good. For a start, he had no idea exactly what he would be looking for.

He hunched forward on his makeshift stool, and looked out across the harbour. The sun reflected off the water, adding more brightness to the day, but not to Ashmael’s perception of it. He had been sent specifically by the Tigron to collect this particular item – he had been personally entrusted with the job, which meant that it was important. Tigron Pellaz did not send his top General on petty errands. It was therefore vital that the mission be carried out successfully, and the current missing status of the item he had been sent to collect did not bode well for a good outcome.

The water in the harbour lay flat and calm. The sea-breezes which would later cool and refresh the citizens of Immanion were absent, and the wide, encircling embrace of the stone walls protected the inner harbour from the flexing muscles of the open ocean, but there was just enough movement on the surface to scatter the sun’s rays in a pattern of random sparkles. Ashmael blinked, raising a hand to shield his eyes against the glare. Past the harbour was the open sea, although this was a gentle and tame version, enclosed as it was in the wide bay which formed a natural refuge. The water was azure, shading to a darker blue as it deepened further out. A smattering of small sail boats rode the smooth waves, some heading towards the harbour with cargo to discharge, some merely sailing ahead of the wind for the sheer pleasure of it.

On the other side of the bay it was possible to make out a few taverns and restaurants laid out on the shore. These were popular places – Ashmael himself frequented them regularly – because they offered the diners a spectacular view of the city of Immanion across the bay. Behind the shore restaurants were the mobile dunes and high, waving grasses, some taller than Ashmael himself, where all manner of creatures lived; lively geckos, shy sand rats with tufted tails and huge. iridescent beetles which, improbably, could take to the air on whirring wings and fly in slow motion across the water and sand.

This was the scene that presented itself to anyhar who decided to take an early morning stroll down at Immanion harbour. It was an entrancing sight, as befitted the foremost of Wraeththu cities, a sight to make the heart lift a little and the soul that bit more glad to be alive on such a fine morning. A sight that was completely hidden from Ashmael’s view as he looked up and found himself staring at the worn and rather frayed fabric of the trousers covering the backside of the har who was standing directly in front of him.

Ashmael started a little at the sight. He had not heard the har approach, and he had not seen anyhar else in the immediate vicinity the last time he had looked. The har’s rather inadequately covered rear was only inches from his face. He could have reached out and touched it if he had wanted to. Which – upon examining the state of the clothing – Ashmael decided he did not particularly want to do.

He waited for the har to move on, which he did not. It was impossible that he was unaware of Ashmael sitting on the capstan directly behind him. It was one thing to stand and admire the view. It was quite another to position yourself rudely in front of somehar else, wind blowing through the holes in your breeches for all to see. Ashmael was not a har widely known for his patience, and after a few seconds he decided that he’d had enough of this particular view.

“Excuse me,” he said, enunciating the words clearly.

The har turned round and blinked at Ashmael, as if he was utterly astonished to find him sitting there. He had a thin, delicate-looking face with bright eyes which were partially concealed by an unruly mop of brown curly hair which cascaded past his shoulders. He might have been considered rather attractive if the hair had been brushed and his clothing had not been so untidy and he’d been a little less skinny. A great grin slowly worked its way across his face as he studied Ashmael with interest.

“Of course I do!” he announced. “Whatever heinous crime it is that you have committed, whatever sin you have stained yourself with, I excuse you of all of it. A fine-looking har like yourself – how could I not! I bestow upon you every absolution known to Wraeththukind. Would you like some fried cake?”

Ashmael was momentarily thrown by this, but recovered admirably.

“I don’t need your absolution – I’m not the one blocking the view. And no, I wouldn’t.”

“Suit yourself.” The har rummaged in a twist of crumpled paper he was carrying, and produced a small golden-brown sphere, glistening with sugar crystals. He took a bite of it with obvious relish.

“Theresh a har selling them jusht along the way”, he said, through mouthfuls of cake, spraying sugary crumbs over Ashmael, “They’re delishish.”

“No doubt.” said Ashmael, frowning at the debris on his sleeve, then pointedly brushing it off. To his annoyance, the enticing smell of the sugar-cake wafted its way over, making his stomach rumble and reminding him that he’d been up since before dawn, with breakfast only a distant memory.

The har was not Gelaming, of that Ashmael was sure. His lack of social graces and his untidy appearance were wholly at odds with the prevailing aura of elegance and refinement which was the hallmark of Immanions’s permanent residents, but it was not uncommon to encounter creatures such as this down at the harbour. Immanion was a busy port, with ships arriving from all parts of the world daily, carefully vetted by Gelaming security to ensure that no potential enemy or troublemaker could enter. Ashmael found himself wondering how this particular har had made it through. With any luck, his stay would be short-lived, and he would be leaving on the next ship out.

He turned himself away, not far enough to constitute a deliberate snub, but enough to signal that he considered the conversation to be over. The har, however, had other ideas and took a couple of steps forward so that he was once again directly in front of Ashmael.

“Is it not just the most lovely morning imaginable?” he continued cheerfully, oblivious to Ashmael’s lack of enthusiasm. “They told me Immanion was beautiful, but I never realised it would be quite such a delight to the eye. And the food is excellent too, are you sure I can’t tempt you?”

He brandished the half-eaten sugar-cake at Ashmael, who had the foresight to pull himself back in time to avoid a repeat of the previous incident.

Ashmael did not reply, hoping that the har would get the message and leave, but it appeared that his tormentor was not particularly attuned to the nuances of non-verbal communication, because he continued on breezily.

“And what would a fine-looking har like yourself be doing down here at this time of day?” He raised his eyebrows encouragingly.

“Waiting.” Ashmael said tersely.

“”Waiting? Why, what a remarkable co-incidence. As it happens, I’m waiting too.”

The har looked at Ashmael expectantly, obviously hoping that he would be forthcoming with details as to what, or who he was waiting for. Ashmael again said nothing, but the har seemed to be quite unable to take hints, and simply ploughed on with his one-sided conversation.

“You see, the thing is, I don’t exactly know who it is I’m waiting for. Never met him before. All I know is that he’s apparently a very good-looking individual. Tall. Fair-haired. Not dissimilar to yourself, I would imagine. Though from my admittedly limited experience of the delightful hara of Immanion, it would seem that identifying a har on the basis of his physical loveliness alone could be quite the task!”

Ashmael noticed that the har was standing barely half a stride from the edge of the quay. He wondered how strong a push he would have to give to send him toppling backwards and into the water below. Not particularly strong, he calculated. The har was of smaller than average height and bird-like in appearance. He did not look as if strenuous exercise was a regular part of his lifestyle. He dismissed the idea regretfully. Tempting as it was, it would not do to cause an incident when here was here on an important and clandestine mission. And besides, there were regulations against polluting the harbour water.

There was a sudden commotion over in the direction of the Despina and Ashmael turned to see the Captain running towards him, waving his hands agitatedly. Ashmael’s slight twinge of alarm was tempered with a rather greater feeling of relief that he now had an excuse to end this unwanted encounter and escape from the har and his prattle.

The Captain rushed up, slightly out of breath.

“Ah, I see you’ve met.”

“Met?”

Ashmael had a brief twinge of non-comprehension, followed by an inkling of suspicion, followed almost immediately by a heart-sinking moment of epiphany.

“I don’t know how he got off the ship,” The Captain said apologetically, glaring at the grinning har standing next to Ashmael, “The crew were supposed to be guarding him. We had him… contained.”

“I was getting a little peckish,” the har explained, indicating his bag of cakes. “Not that the food on your charming vessel has not been of the utmost quality, but there’s a limit to the number of those dry biscuit things a har can consume before he starts dreaming of something a little more tempting. Without the weevils.”

“There were no weevils!” The Captain glared at the har.

“Quite right. What am I thinking? The cockroaches ate all the weevils. Oh and I do apologise for the incident with the bucket, Captain. I’m a simple har, not used to the sophisticated ways of Almagabra, and I didn’t realise that was not it’s primary function. I’m sure it’ll wash out.”

“This is…him?” Ashmael asked, feeling that the morning, which had already begun badly, was not going to be improving noticeably any time soon.

The Captain nodded, mopping his face with a handkerchief.

“This is your delivery, General. He’s your responsibility now, Tiahaar. I’ll leave him in your capable hands. If you’d just sign this form here…”

Ashmael took the offered pen and paper, and inscribed his signature at the bottom of the document.

The Captain smiled, as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

“Thank you Tiahaar, it has been a great honour to do business with the Gelaming Hegemony. If at any time in the future you have need of a vessel… well, there are a great many others I can recommend to you.”

He gave Ashmael a quick salute, and then turned and walked back towards his ship.

“You are who I’m supposed to collect?” Ashmael looked suspiciously at the har. “You’re not exactly what I was expecting!”

“Now it’s funny thing you should say that, because it’s a remark quite a number of hara have made to me before. I can’t imagine why.”

“Can’t you now? Well, ignorance is bliss, I suppose”

“Oh not at all! I wouldn’t have you remain in ignorance a minute longer!”

“That’s not what I…”

“Since it seems we are going to be comrades in arms, allow me to introduce myself. I am Shadrall Chervil har Shalimar”

The har executed an ungainly curtsy, and looked at Ashmael expectantly.

“Your turn. It’s the done thing, I believe.”

Ashmael refused to be drawn.

“I’m your escort,” he said

“And very grateful I am for your company too, but you must surely have a name. Unless Your Escort is your name, in which case I apologise profusely, and ask what in the name of the Dehara your parents were thinking.”

A very small twitch manifested itself at the corner of Ashmael’s mouth.

“I am General Ashmael Aldebaran, leader of the Gelaming military and Hegemony representative, since you ask. Where on earth did they find you, I wonder?”

“That sounds terribly important, General Ashmael. And in answer to your question, it was in a small settlement in Thaine, up in the northern parts, where I was enjoying a brief sojourn, being not long departed from my previous place of residence in the nearby region…”

“It was a rhetorical question. I don’t need to know. Now come on.” Without a further word, Ashmael set off in the direction of the main centre of the city.

“Rhetorical. Yes. Absolutely. I’ll look that one up later. Where is that we are going then, General Ashmael?”

Shadrall obediently followed along after Ashmael, occasionally breaking into a trot to keep up with the General’s long, ground-covering stride.

“I’m to take you to Phaonica, where you will, in due course, be given an audience with the Tigron”

“The Tigron! A fortunate day indeed. May the Dehara continue to smile indulgently upon me and fiddle with the laws of probability when nohar is looking. And where is this Phaonica to which we’re headed?”

Ashmael stopped, and pointed upwards. Shadrall followed his finger, past the closely-packed houses of the city before them, and toward the skyline. A hill rose in the centre of Immanion, with a scattering of trees and buildings and neat, enclosed gardens on its lower reaches, but these faded swiftly from attention as the eye was drawn inexorably upwards to the great white palace atop the hill; silhouetted against the clear morning sky, blushing faintly pink in the early sunlight, its turrets and towers pointing skywards like fingers.

Shadrall’s mouth dropped open.

“By the seventeen invisible Dehara of the imminent apocalypse! Now there’s something you don’t see every day!”

“You do if you live in Immanion,” Ashmael said, trying not to look smug at the other har’s amazement. It was a reaction he had observed many times in visitors to Immanion. No matter how far the city’s fame spread, and the legends of its beauty, seeing Phaonica for the first time was always a breath-taking experience.

“Well I suppose it’s something I shall just have to get used to, then, now that I am a citizen of this fair city.”

“There are a lot of things you will have to get used to.” Ashmael told him

“Absolutely. And they would be?”

“Dressing properly for a start Are those the best clothes you’ve got?”

“These are the only clothes I’ve got. Am I detecting something in the way of criticism here, General Ashmael?”

“And you don’t need to curtsy, either.”

“No? I was told that was the done thing in Immanion. I imagined all the Gelaming went around curtsying to each other all day long. Up and down and up and down.”

“You were told wrong. We’re a very egalitarian society.”

“Of course you are. I can tell that just by looking at the Tigron’s magnificent palace.” He gazed up wonderingly at the great, gleaming edifice on the hill.

“Does the Tigron really live in that place?”

“Of course he does. There wouldn’t be much point to it otherwise.”

“Well it makes a fine decorative addition to the city, I’ll give it that. It just seems somewhat of a stiff climb. Up the hill and all. If I was the Tigron I think I’d probably have put my palace on that bit of ground over there, which is nice and flat, and quite handy for the marketplace too, which is a fine thing.”

“Well you’re not, which is just as well for Almagabra. But don’t worry, we’re not walking all the way.”

“I’m very glad to hear it, General. It wasn’t a walk I was looking forward to, I don’t mind admitting that. I’m delighted to hear there is an alternative. I expect you have some sort of system of ropes and pulleys, to winch the Tigron up and down?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“That’s what I would have, if I was Tigron, and I lived in that fine palace up there. I’d have an entire regiment of the finest hara whose job it would be to pull on the ropes – they’d have their own special uniforms and everything – and I’d get myself a pair wings to strap on, and I’d descend upon Immanion from above, to the accompaniment of heavenly choirs singing my praises. I’ve always had a hankering for my own heavenly choir. Can you not see it now, General?”

“I can see you ending up in the section of Immanion Infirmary that deals with imbalances of the mind. Are you sure you haven’t just escaped from there?”

“Not unless it’s located in Captain Ondaline’s fine, weevil-infested brig.”

“I’ll refrain from asking what you did to end up in the brig.”

“You’re a wise har, General Ashmael, I can tell that. Well, let’s not just stand here all day correcting the flaws in this fine city’s architecture and transport systems. I’m eager to begin my mission. Lead on, General Ashmael. Take me to your Tigron!”

Chapter 2

With Ashmael in the lead, the two hara left behind the harbour which was already starting to fill up with small boats and hara thronging along the quayside saying their farewells to departing friends, or eagerly awaiting new arrivals. He led the way down an enclosed alley with cargo-storage buildings on either side. At the far end of the narrow street, two patient horses stood tied up to a wooden railing.

As they approached, Shadrall’s held back, eyeing the creatures with suspicion.

“Are those your animals, General Ashmael?”

“Yes they are. What are you looking so worried about – you were the one who didn’t want to walk.”

“That’s very true, General, but I was hoping for a bit more in the way those modern conveniences that I’ve heard so much about. Magic floating things. The Gelaming are quite famous for their magic floating things, you know.”

“We only use them when absolutely necessary. Horses are perfectly good for most transport. That one’s yours. Don’t worry – they’re well trained.”

“I’m not worried at all. Well not much. Alright maybe a little. Do they bite, by any chance General?”

“No. They’re horses. Get on.”

“Horses have teeth,” Shadrall pointed out. He approached the mount he had been assigned and regarded it with some trepidation. It blinked its lugubrious eyes at him in response. Shadrall reached out a tentative hand in the direction of the creature’s nose. The horse tilted back its head suddenly, and snorted through flared nostrils. Shadrall snatched the hand back immediately.

“I don’t think he likes me very much,” he said

“Horses do not have opinions. Or if they do, they involve things like oats and running about. They’re not that smart. Just get on. It can’t bite you if you’re behind its head, can it?”

Faced with this unassailable logic, Shadrall had no choice but to comply. He gingerly approached the horse and, lifting his leg inelegantly, put one foot in the stirrup.

“Other foot.” Ashmael said. “If you do it that way, you’ll end up facing backwards.”

“That might not be such a bad outcome, I’m thinking.” Shadrall muttered. He removed his foot and tried again with the other leg. After some minutes of ineffectual hauling and scrabbling, he felt Ashmael’s hands placed firmly on his bony rear end, and a strong push propelled him up into the saddle.

“Careful there, General Ashmael – we’ve only just been introduced!” He peered down nervously, clutching at the horse’s mane like a drowning har holding on to a piece of flotsam.

“It’s higher up that I was expecting.”

Ashmael’s exasperated expulsion of air sounded not unlike the horse.

“Have you ever actually been on a horse before?”

“Yes of course I have. Only it wasn’t so much of a horse. More of a pony. With very large ears. Anyway, it was a lot closer to the ground than your fine beasts, General Ashmael.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter, just…hang on, and the horse will do the rest.”

“Very reassuring to know, General. Are you sure there aren’t any magic floating things at our disposal?”

“Quite sure.”

Ashmael swung himself up into the saddle in one practiced movement, and taking the reins in his hands, urged his own mount forward. The second horse, with Shadrall still clinging worriedly to its mane, followed on without any command from its rider, as promised.

The two horses clip-clopped out of the alleyway and into a wide street where hara were busily going about their daily affairs, some making their way along the street with single-minded determination, others strolling in a more relaxed fashion, stopping occasionally to look at the racks of colourful and gaudy goods on display in the shops and stalls. Awnings were being rolled down, buckets of water thrown on dusty pavements to clean them, street furniture brought out, signs displayed, arguments begun. The whole bustle of city life unfolded before them.

After a while, Shadrall seemed to forget his fear, and craned his neck this way and that to watch the comings and goings of the population of Immanion, which seemed to fascinate him greatly. Hara in the street looked up at him curiously, and he waved back at them, grinning cheerfully.

“Don’t do that,” Ashmael said.

“Whyever not?”

“We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. Your presence here is supposed to be a secret.”

“Ah. Right. I see your point there, General. Incognito is what I am. Undercover. Swathed in a cloak of invisibility. Speaking of which, I once knew a har who owned such a thing.”

“Did you now?”

“Indeed, although most of the hara to whom I recount this tale have a difficult time believing it.”

“I can’t imagine why.”

“No, neither can I But I can tell that you’re an open-minded har, General. I imagine that you’ve seen many an unusual thing in your time. Leader of the Gelaming military, eh?”

“Amongst other things.”

“So you’d have been in charge of those fine Gelaming hara who had me arrested not two weeks back?”

“Not personally. Sometimes the Tigron takes charge of these things himself.”

“Well that’s very reassuring to know, General Ashmael. I mean, if a har’s going to be arrested and imprisoned and tortured, it’s nice to be able to say that the Tigron himself had taken a personal interest in his detainment.”

“I very much doubt that you were tortured, Tiahaar.”

“Perhaps not. But I wasn’t to know that, was I? They could have been readying the thumbscrews and hot irons behind the scenes for all I knew.”

“The Gelaming do not use thumbscrews.”

“I’m sure you don’t, General. Dehara forefend! I can see that you’re a har of principle. A fine, upstanding citizen of this brave new Wraeththu world of ours. But who knows where the Tigron stands on the subject of thumbscrews? He could be very keen on thumbscrews. Very keen indeed. The power, you see. It corrupts. It can drive a har mad. Or so I hear.”

“I can assure you, Tiahaar, that Tigron Pellaz has not succumbed to the corrupting nature of power, he is a just and wise ruler whose sanity is not in question. Although I’m beginning to think that ten minutes in your company could push him over the edge.”

Shadrall laughed, a strange honking sound which was surprisingly loud coming from his thin frame, and which caused a few heads to turn and stare at him.

“And they say the Gelaming have no sense of humour. I can’t think where that notion arose from. I can see we’re going to get along famously!”

“Tragically, our burgeoning relationship will come to an end when I deliver you to the Tigron.”

“What a great pity! A sad loss. We could have had some fun together, you and me, General. You are, if I may say so, a very fine-looking har. And I’ve been at sea for a good while!”

A strange grimace twisted up the left side of Shadrall’s face, giving him an odd, slightly disfigured appearance. Ashmael realised it was intended to be a wink. A passing har who saw this put his hand over his face to stifle a laugh as he continued on his way.

“I think, Tiahaar, that it would be better if we took the back road.”

“Whatever you say, General Ashmael – I bow to your superior wisdom. I’m sure this sort of thing’s why they made you a General.”

Ashmael gave a light tug on the reins, and his horse turned down a narrow side street, with Shadrall’s mount following obediently after it. There were fewer hara down here; in fact the street was almost deserted.

“What were you doing to get yourself arrested?” Ashmael asked, guiding his mount over to the shaded side of the street in order to avoid the increasing heat of the sun.

“Well, that the thing. Nothing at all. I was just sitting there, minding my own business. Very strange, it was.” Shadrall looked genuinely perplexed

“Now, I’ve been arrested before…”

“…really? You amaze me.”

“… and it usually involves some degree of public disorder, but on the day in question I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to become disorderly – it was still early – when all of a sudden these two imposing hara appeared as if from nowhere, and they came up to me and said; “Are you Shadrall Chervil har Shalimar?”

“Of course, I told them that I was not – no point in looking for trouble, it finds a har easily enough on its own in my experience – but I could see they didn’t believe me. So there I was, debating with myself whether to offer to buy these two fine specimens a drink and distract them that way, or whether to make a quick exit out the nearest windows, when one of them leaned over – well, loomed over to be precise, and said: “Shadrall Chervil har Shalimar, we come bearing an important message from the Tigron of Immanion.”.

“Well that doesn’t happen to a har every day of the week, now does it? His friend did a bit of looming too, and announced that they were of the Gelaming tribe, as if I couldn’t possibly have guessed at this point, what with the bad-smell expressions, the general aura of magnificence and superiority, and the mention of the Tigron. That one was a dead giveaway, in case you’re interested.”

“It was looking more and more as if the old window-exit was completely out of the question, so I invited my unexpected companions to sit down, which they declined to do, probably because it would interfere with the looming, and then they informed me that the Tigron had an important mission for me, and I was to travel to Immanion immediately.”

“Naturally I was flattered that the Tigron himself thought so highly of me, and told our looming friends as much, however I explained to them that I had other commitments at present, and that the Tigron would simply have to find another har to satisfy his needs, and I suggested that Tiahaar Loom might be a suitable candidate, being as he was such a fine-looking har and all, and to be fair, he was no bad looker at all – perhaps not in your league, General Ashmael, but certainly quite awe-inspiring in that impressive Gelaming sort of way – however this did not go down terribly well, and Tiahaar Loom informed me – very politely, if you construe a veiled threat on your life and general well-being to be polite – that I really had no choice in the matter.”

“The window was looking more and more attractive by the minute, but then I thought to myself; “Shadrall, you’ve always wanted to see Immanion, and it’s not everyhar that is given the opportunity. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of hara are never allowed anywhere near the place. It’s highly exclusive, is Immanion. I like that in a place. Except when it’s me being excluded, of course. So I gave the Loom duo my best smile and told them that I would be delighted beyond the capability of words to express to serve the Tigron in any way I could. Except for that one where you have do both in and out at the same time – what do they call it? Double Flower. Tricky, that. Could do yourself an injury if you’re not careful.”

“They told me that there was a vessel leaving that evening on the high tide, and that I was to go down the quay and make myself known to the Captain, and he would give me passage to Immanion. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was to tell nohar where I was going, or who had sent for me, and that I was to keep a low profile during the voyage. They said that I would be met at Immanion by a very distinguished har – that would be you, now, General. Distinguished. That’s how your fellow Gelaming see you. I imagine you’re very pleased to hear that. – who would take me to the Tigron.”

“They mentioned in passing a very considerable sum of money, which was to be paid to me, half upon my arrival in Immanion, the other half upon successful completion of my mission, but I was not interested in the money. No indeed. . There is no fortune large enough to bribe this har, but I was intrigued by now, General Ashmael. The thought of seeing the legendary city of Immanion! What har could resist? Of course, if you happen to have this remuneration on your person at this time, I wouldn’t refuse. A har does have expenses, you know.”

Ashmael sighed and rummaged in his pocket. He produced a purse filled with coins, and handed it over to Shadrall.

“Why thank you General! It’s a pleasure to be solvent again. Anyway, as I was saying, I had a yearning to see Immanion in all its glory before I make my final exit from this life and return as a slug or something – I’m thinking I wouldn’t appreciate the glories of Immanion as a slug – so despite the implied arm-twist, I agreed to take up the offer of employment, and I did indeed go down to the quay and make myself known to the Captain, and after three days at sea, I found myself fetched up here in your splendid city. And the rest you know. Which is more than I do, frankly, since Tiahaar Loom was not forthcoming about the exact nature of my mission for the Tigron, other than to reassure me that neither double nor single flowerings would be required, which was quite the relief to hear”

Ashmael grinned. “You may change your mind when you see the Tigron.”

“I have heard that he’s a fine-looking har.”

“They both are.”

“Both?”

“We are doubly-blessed with Tigrons here in Immanion. Not to mention the Tigrina.”

“Is that so? No messing about with one paltry ruler for the Gelaming! No wonder all the other tribes are in awe. And which of these mighty Tigrons will I be working for?”

“It was Tigron Pellaz who instructed me to escort you to Phaonica. That’s not unusual – he takes on most of the responsibility for ruling Almagabra. It also appears that whatever he has in mind
for you is also a personal project of his. I’m afraid I cannot enlighten you as to its nature. I’m as much in the dark as you are, Tiahaar.”

“Perhaps he needs a third Tigron? If that’s the case, I will be more than happy to shoulder the burden.”

“I think that is extremely unlikely. You must have some particular skill that no other har in Immanion possesses, otherwise Pell would not have gone to all the trouble of having you brought here. What is it that you usually do anyway?” Ashmael asked, curiosity getting the better of him.

“Oh, this and that. You know.”

“No, I don’t. That’s why I asked.”

Shadrall did not reply. Instead he began rummaging in the pockets of his creased clothing, pulling out various small, unidentifiable objects, balls of fluff, the remains of the fried cakes wrapped in paper, and what appeared to be a half-eaten fruit of some description.”

“I was keeping that for later,” he said, by way of explanation.

Eventually his hand appeared to light upon what he was seeking, and he drew out of his pocket a small, tattered piece of card which he handed to Ashmael, stretching across rather cautiously, still holding on tightly to the horse’s mane with his other hand.

Ashmael took the card and examined it.

It was about the size of the palm of his hand, dog-eared and stained. It bore some awkward calligraphy, done in a shaky hand in slightly smudged violet ink. Around the outside of the card was a curlicued border, and in the centre, four simple lines.

Shadrall har Shalimar

Thief

Liar

Escapologist

Ashmael stared at the card.

“Escapologist?”

“Yes. It’s a bit of a side-line for me. I do the occasional performance at harlings’ hatch-day celebrations. The little ones love it. I’m also available for blood-bondings, funerals and feybraihas.”

“I am having difficulty believing that all this is some elaborate plan for Loki’s hatch-day, not least because it was two months ago.”

“In that case perhaps this is not the particular skill which the Tigron wishes to make use of. I’m usually freelance when it comes to the other stuff, but I have been known to take the odd commission when I’m a little embarrassed, financially speaking.”

Ashmael studied the card again, before handing it back to Shadrall, unconsciously wiping his hand on his on his cloak afterward.

“I really can’t imagine what on earth Pell is up to, but as Tigron he doesn’t have to explain himself.”

“That’s an excellent position for a har to find himself in.” Shadrall said, replacing the card in his pocket. He shifted himself in the saddle, and relaxed a little as he became more used to the mode of transport.

They had begun the ascent of the hill up towards Phaonica, and already they could see over the rooftops of the houses clustered down at the waterfront. The sea was clearly visible from here too, a vivid splash of peacock blue between the city and the horizon.. Down at the harbour, they could see the white sails of the Despina as she sat peacefully at anchor, awaiting the wind and the tide to take her on her next journey.

The road they had taken was lined with trees; tall Ailanthus and delicate, pink-flowered Tamarisk, whose feathery leaves cast a diffuse shade on the ground below. The trees were large, mature specimens which looked as if they had been there for a hundred years, although Immanion itself was little more than half that age. Invisible cicadas chirped industriously in the canopy above.

Away from the bustle of the main city, the houses were packed less tightly together, leaving space for gardens and trees and small squares with fountains and carved statues. This was obviously a well-to-do area of Immanion made desirable by its proximity to the palace, and by the magnificent views afforded by its hillside location.

The two hara rode on, their horses with heads down plodding steadily up the hill. Phaonica hid itself from their view, concealing her beauty behind the trees, veiled and mysterious, but occasionally there would be revealed a tantalising glimpse through a gap in the foliage; a flash of white, a flag-topped turret.

Finally, with a flourish, as they rounded one last bend in the road, the last veil flew off and Phaonica lay exposed before them. The main entrance to the palace was a grand affair – a long, sweeping path guarded by stone lions, serious of countenance, led to a cascade of marble steps. Terraced gardens encircled the whole affair, filled with exotic plants from all corners of the world which somehow had been persuaded to grow together in harmony here in Almagabra. A discreet gardener or two, surreptitiously manicuring a shrub or snipping a flower-head just past its prime was the only clue that this display of botanical abundance owed more to artifice than to nature.

Shadrall was entranced. He laughed with almost child-like delight, looking around in wonder at the sight before him.

“When I was very small,” he said “they told me stories of places such as this, and I saw them in my mind as clearly as we are seeing this now, but when I said I would visit them one day, they shook their heads and told me it was all fantasy and make-believe, which was a disappointing thing for a child to learn, but I was ever the optimist, and never gave up hope, and here now I finally see that the things they told me about were true, even if they didn’t know it at the time. It’s a wonder to behold! Are there any of those little creatures about the place, General? The flying ones?”

“Birds?” asked Ashmael, slightly puzzled. “Of course – they’re all over the place,”

“No, not birds. The little homunculuses with the gauzy wings and the little magic sticks and the sparkling trails.”

Ashmael rolled his eyes. “No.” he said firmly. “There is nothing like that here, I can assure you.”

“Perhaps you just haven’t seen them yet, General. I’ll keep a look out, myself, just in case.”

“Let me know if you spot any then.”

“I’ll do that, General, I certainly will. That’s an impressive set of stairs ahead – are horses any good on stairs? They strike me as having altogether a surplus of legs for that sort of thing.”

“No, they’re not, but we’re not going that way. That is the main entrance, where the Great and the Good can enjoy the luxury of their own self-importance as they come and go. Since your presence is supposed to be as unobtrusive as possible, we will take another route.”

“The palace has a back door? That’s useful to know!”

“The palace has quite a number of entrances and exits, not all of them known to everyhar who resides there.”

“It was a wise har who built the place, in that case.”

“Well he certainly knew things we mere mortals didn’t, that’s for sure. Come on, this way. Follow me.”

With a small tug on the reins, Ashmael guided his horse down a side-path. Shadrall’s mount took the same way without any instruction from its rider, who remained alert for the possible flutter of gossamer wings. Gravel crunched under the animals’ hooves as they walked steadily on, passing statues of strange beasts frozen in heraldic postures. The smooth white walls of the palace seemed impregnable and monolithic from this close; the palace no longer a fantasy of architectural folly, but solid and earthbound, its bones and foundations showing.

Eventually they came to an archway guarded by solid wooden doors, which were already flung open as if expecting visitors. Ashmael turned his horse in through the gateway, followed diligently by the other beast, and they found themselves in an inner courtyard, paved with smooth cobbles and surrounded by stalls and outhouses. It was obviously a stables – there was a pungent smell of horse manure in the air, and several hara were engaged in the important task of removing large quantities of the stuff in heavily-loaded barrows.

Here, the vastness of Phaonica filled most of the sky, blotting out the sun and leaving the courtyard in cool shade for which both riders were grateful after their long, uphill trek in the early heat of the day.

In the centre of the courtyard were two saddled but riderless horses, who had obviously had an even more energetic morning. They were both lathered and white with sweat, and their flanks steamed, the vapour rising incongruously into the warm air. They were being were being led away by grooms toward the stalls, and Ashmael could hear the ringing clatter of metal-shod hooves echoing around the courtyard, magnified by the high walls of the palace which surrounded them.

The dismounted riders of the horses stood at the far end of the courtyard, orbited by agitated grooms and other serving staff, whom they ignored. One was tall; the other one less so. Ashmael grinned as he recognized them. He reined his horse to a stop, and turned to Shadrall.

“You stay here for a minute.”

“Are we there yet? You know, I was rather hoping to reacquaint myself with the ground beneath my feet, General. This creature I’m riding has been most cooperative, I’ll say that for it, but it has a peculiar gait that just doesn’t seem to agree with certain parts of my anatomy.”

“The grooms will help you dismount.” Ashmael raised a hand, and one of the attendants in question came forward quickly. “In the meantime, I’d better explain your presence here. Don’t move, I’ll be back in a minute.”

He rode forward a short distance, then stopped and dismounted in front of the two hara. The taller of the two greeted him cheerfully.

“Good morning Ash – Are the peasants revolting this fine morning, or is this you just getting back from last night’s revelries?”

Ashmael grinned, showing his even, white teeth.

“Neither, I’m pleased to relate. Immanion is peaceful and I live a life of unimpeachable propriety, as you know. I’ve just spent the better part of the morning collecting something for Pell. I never knew a har could have so little fun down in the harbour quarter!”

Cal stifled a laugh. “I’m sure you know all the different types of fun to be had down there, General. Or, at least, that’s what the inscriptions on the walls of the washrooms of the Serpent Sapphire tell me!”

Ashmael affected indignation. “It’s all lies! Well, some of it… well… What were you doing in a place like that anyway – answer me that, Tigron!”

“I wasn’t!” Cal insisted with feigned innocence. “I heard about it from Rue”

“You did no such thing!” his companion complained. “General, your exploits are known throughout Immanion, so it’s no good denying it.”

“You should follow the example of our lovely Tigrina,” Cal said, “and not get found out.”

“Cal!”

“Well I do try, “Ashmael said, “But it’s hard when your every move is watched by the adoring populace of Immanion.”

“Very true.” Cal looked suitably tragic. “I know how you suffer, Ash. We all do. Why, only this morning the Tigrina and I were forced to get out of bed before noon so we could go for a ride along the shore undisturbed.”

“And they say the Royal house lives a life of ease and privilege. They scarcely know the half of it! How was the ride, anyway?”

“Wonderful. Except that Rue couldn’t see where he was going because his hair kept blowing in his face. I don’t know why you insist on having it all styled beforehand, Rue. You should just tie it back.”

“It was fine when I started.” Rue said, rearranging his windswept locks, to no great avail. He sighed with irritation. “Get me a brush!” he ordered a hovering servant, who immediately produced a pearl-handled hairbrush and handed it to the Tigrina, who began to drag it through his tangled hair.

“And what about you, Ash? What were you collecting for Pell?”

“You haven’t heard?”

“I don’t know. I might have. Is this what he and Thar have been so tight about recently?”

“That would be my guess. That’s the…er… delivery, over there.”

Ashmael pointed in the direction of Shadrall, who, with assistance had managed to dismount from his horse, and was now engaged in an energetic, if one-sided, conversation with a harried-looking groom he had ensnared. Cal studied Shadrall with interest, taking in his worn clothing and untidy appearance, so at odds with that of the typical elegant Gelaming har. Caeru continued to attend to his hair, brushing it forward over his face to extract the knots and tangles, and muttering slightly to himself, apparently uninterested in the newcomer.

“He’s not what you’d call an impressive specimen,” Cal said. “Are you sure you got the right har?”

“Quite sure. That’s him alright.

“It’s true what they say – they’ll let anyone into Immanion these days.”

“And who is responsible for that, Tigron Cal?”

“A bit of democratization has done the place a world of good. Oh well, haul him over Ash, let’s give him the third degree.”

“You’ll be wasting your time,” Ashmael said, “He knows nothing. Or if he does, he hides it well.”

Ashmael strode back across the courtyard and headed towards Shadrall and his victim. When he saw Ashmael approaching, the groom signalled to him furiously, his expression that of a drowning har who has just caught a glimpse of a boat on the horizon.

“… and that’s why you should never wear yellow sandals in Maudrah, – General, there you are! Now wouldn’t you say that Ranael here is a fine-looking har? Only the best for Phaonica. Although it’s a bit of an unfortunate occupation he finds himself in at present.” Shadrall indicated the overflowing barrow which Ranael had been wheeling.

“That would account for the magnificence of the roses, I’m thinking”

“Almost certainly. Ranael, is it? You can go now.” The relieved groom fled instantly.

“Now I’m taking you to meet some very important hara.” Ashmael reached across and rearranged Shadrall’s untidy clothing, attempting to make him look a little more presentable. He was not noticeable successful.

“I didn’t expect them to be here, I thought we’d have time to get you cleaned up and briefed first, but you might as well be introduced to them now.”

Shadrall made a show of looking impressed. “Important hara, is it? Why then I’ll have to be on my best behaviour, or so it seems. Doesn’t do to misbehave in the presence of important hara now, does it General?”

Ashmael glared at him. “No,” he said firmly, “No it does not. Now come on…”

He grabbed Shadrall by the sleeve and dragged him across the courtyard in the direction of the Tigron, who was watching the proceedings with interest, and the Tigrina, who was still occupied with his hair.

Ashmael gave Shadrall a rough shove to position him directly in front of Cal.

“You are in the presence of Tigron Calanthe har Aralis,” he told him.

Shadrall gave a small, theatrical bow.

“I am charmed, delighted and overwhelmed with joy and gratitude to make your acquaintance,, Tigron Calanthe har Aralis.”

Cal raised one eyebrow, but said nothing.

“And this,” Ashmael continued, gesturing toward Caeru who was pushing back the last strands of hair from his face, “is The Tigri….”

Ashmael never completed his sentence, Caeru froze, staring at the newcomer with an expression of utter astonishment on his face. Ignoring his companions’ protests, he elbowed both Cal and Ashmael roughly out of the way and placed himself directly in front of Shadrall, his chin tilted upwards and his pretty features slowly turning a livid shade of pink which both Cal and Ashmael recognised as a sign of alarming things to come.

The Tigrina glared ferociously at Shadrall.

“Where the fuck have you been!?”

Chapter 3

Shadrall’s jaw dropped open, and stayed dropped. His open mouth worked a bit, like a landed fish gasping for air, but for once he was absolutely speechless.

“Don’t just stand there gaping at me like that!”

Shadrall looked nervously from right to left, as if seeking an escape route. Seeing none, he smiled sheepishly at the Tigrina.

Rue…angel …what a surprise. Fancy meeting you here!”

“Don’t you dare call me angel!”

“Do I take it that you know this har?” Cal asked, watching this unexpected drama unfold with interest.

Rue snorted fiercely.

“Oh yes, I know him alright! The last time I saw him, he said he was just going out to the market stall to buy some bread and he’d be back in ten minutes.”

Shadrall affixed his most winning smile to his face. “It’s true,” he said, “that’s exactly what I intended to do, most certainly it was…”

“That,” said Rue, icicles dripping from every word, “was thirty years ago!

Shadrall’s shoulder sagged. “I got… distracted.” he said

The Tigrina drew in a deep breath ready for another tirade, but then his anger suddenly left him, and he exhaled shakily and gave a small twist of a smile.

“Oh, you….you…” He laughed crazily. “I don’t know whether to slap you or kiss you!”

A slow grin crept across Shadrall’s face.

“Then let me make that decision for you.”

Before either Ashmael or Cal could stop him, he grabbed hold of the Tigrina, wrapped his arms tightly around him, and dipped him backwards in an ostentatious embrace, sharing breath with him. Cal fully expected Caeru to object noisily, but to his surprise the embrace continued… and continued a little longer. Cal cleared his throat. Ashmael shuffled his feet in embarrassment. A bird flew overhead and cawed noisily.

Finally the Tigrina disentangled himself and stood upright. There was a sudden loud smack as his hand came into contact forcibly with the other har’s face.

“Ow!”

“Serves you right!”

Shadrall rubbed his jaw, where the reddened imprint of Caeru’s hand was plainly in evidence, and looked at the Tigrina plaintively.

“Oh come on, angel, don’t be like…”

“I told you not to…..General!”

Ashmael was caught off-guard as the Tigrina spun round and demanded his attention.

“Yes Tigrina?”

“You saw that. This har assaulted me! Arrest him!”

“What?”

“You heard! Arrest him! Take him into custody!”

Ashmael sighed and rolled his eyes. He took hold of Shadrall’s arm with great deliberation, and held it firmly. . The Tigrina was not appeased.

“No, that won’t do. Lock him up! Over there.” Caeru pointed to a stall on the far side of the courtyard which was used for stabling the horses. It had a grilled barrier over the top half of the doorway, and the large padlock hanging from the side indicated that it could be rendered secure without much trouble.

Ashmael looked at the Tigrina, then at Cal, who distanced himself from all responsibility with a shake of his head.

“Do it!” demanded Caeru. “I am the Tigrina of Immanion, and I have given you an order!” He stamped his foot for effect, and Ashmael sighed again.

Upon hearing this, the object of the Tigrina’s displeasure turned to Cal, blinking in surprise

Tigrina. Of. Immanion?” he mouthed silently, eyes wide.

Call nodded once in confirmation.

“You mean…you… and him…and him… and you…?”

Cal nodded again. Shadrall produced a few incoherent sounds,, but before any more discussion could take place, he found himself seized professionally by Ashmael and escorted off in the direction of the horse-stall. He squawked a little in indignation, but the General had decided that he was not going to argue with the Tigrina when he was in one of his moods, and as many hara before had discovered, there was little point in arguing with The General.

Caeru watched them with a look of satisfaction on his face.

“Ah… mind telling me what that was all about?” Cal still looked amused, but he was obviously curious about the Tigrina’s unexpected reaction to the newcomer.

Caeru simply shrugged. “You’ll see” he said, mysteriously.

“The key, General,” he shouted over to Ashmael, who was busy locking up the stall, “Bring me the key!”

Ashmael fastened the heavy padlock and removed the key, leaving the prisoner staring pathetically from behind the bars, for all the world like a caged rodent. The General returned to Cal and Caeru, and presented the key to the Tigrina with a heavy flourish.

Caeru took it, smiling sweetly. “Good,” he said. “Now, let’s go and tell Pell about our new arrival, shall we?”

“”What – we’re just going to leave him in there?” Cal asked

“He isn’t going anywhere, is he General Ashmael?”

“It doesn’t look like it Tigrina.”

“There, you see. He’s perfectly safe.”

“It’s not exactly the way we normally treat guests.”

“He’s not a guest, he’s a… What is he, exactly, Ashmael?”

“He’s Pell’s secret delivery, and I trust you’ll have a good explanation for this.”

“Oh don’t worry, General, I shall absolve you of all responsibility. You can tell the Tigron that it was all my doing.”

“”If Pell is taking such a personal interest in this har, is it a good idea to interfere?” Cal asked, frowning.

“”I’m sure he’ll understand,”

“You think so?”

“I do. In fact, I think we should go and inform him right now. Come along – you too, General.”

Caeru set off at a smart pace across the cobbles of the courtyard, toward the open door which gave entrance into the palace itself. Cal and Ashmael followed him.

“Pellaz was quite insistent that the har be brought to him immediately on his arrival,” said Ashmael, as they reached the door. He handed his riding gloves to a nearby servant.

“Oh, you’re always such a stickler for following orders, Ashmael.” Caeru said.

“A good General would do nothing less. It’s a big thing in the military, following orders. Or so I hear.”

The three hara stopped in their tracks and turned around. Cal and Ashmael stared in astonishment, but the Tigrina was shaking with laughter.

Shadrall stood to attention with his hands behind his back, a lock of brown curls straying across his eyes. He grinned at the trio with pride.

Ashmael glared. He was not used to his prisoners reappearing thirty seconds after he’d locked them up.

“Would you care to explain yourself, Tiahaar?”

“My pleasure. This would be the “escapologist” thing you were enquiring about earlier, General.”

“I locked you up!”

“I know. I escaped.”

“It’s this little trick he does,” Rue explained. “He was always doing it in Ferelithia, weren’t you Shad?”

“Every opportunity I had. And those were quite numerous.”

“He must have taken the key from you, Ash.” Cal said, looking highly amused by the whole situation.

“No he didn’t. I gave it to the Tigrina, remember? ”

“I might have done.” Shadrall said, with dignity. “I might have stolen and then put it back. I might have instantly made a copy of it using wax and toenail clippings and horsehair and one of those pointy objects you use for telling you which way is up.”

Both Cal and Ashmael looked blank.

“He means a compass,” Rue told them. “And they don’t tell you which way is up, Shad, they tell you which way is North. It’s different.”

“I never could get the hang of those things,” Shadrall said

“I know! There are three days we spent wandering round in circles outside Parlithia that I will never get back again.

“It’s not the arriving, Rue, it’s the getting there. Although by the look of things, you have definitely arrived. And you too, Tigron Calanthe har Aralis. By the way, I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced – you must excuse my manners, I was a little taken from the rear by being unexpectedly reunited with the lovely Rue after all these years – allow me to introduce myself – I am Shadrall Chevalleraine Chervil har Shalimar

Caeru looked at him in surprise. “Shad – you never told me that was your full name…”

“Ah well, “ Shadrall sighed theatrically “It’s a long story. You see, there was this beautiful, aristocratic har I met while in Cordagne, and we had a torrid, tumultuous affair, but it was an illicit liaison, doomed to failure. He had a jealous consort, and a family with a noble reputation to maintain, and they couldn’t accept a common har like myself, and so one night I kissed my sweet Chevalleraine as he lay sleeping, and departed never to return, but I vowed I would keep his name, and now it is the only thing I have left of him – ah, it is painful to recall, such bitter memories …” He raised one hand to his face, and his shoulders sagged.

The Tigrina regarded him sceptically.

“You never mentioned any of this before, in all the time we were together.”

Shadrall looked up, his brown curls bobbing. “It must have slipped my mind.” he said.

“You just made that name up, didn’t you?”

“Not at all!”

“Liar”

“It was on the back of a bottle of wine. Inexpensive, but pleasantly fruity…”

Cal stifled a laugh.

“I’m sure you two have lots of catching up to do,” he said “But perhaps we’d better get Tiahaar Shadrall har Whatever settled in first.”

They entered the palace and found themselves in a high atrium lit from above by sunlight filtering through coloured glass panels in the room, giving the place a rather surreal, underwater feel. Wide marble columns surrounded a small pool in the centre of the floor in which ornamental fish swam lazily. There was a high aviary at one end, full of small twittering birds flitting ceaselessly from branch to branch, their bright plumage echoing the colours from the glass.

Shadrall looked around, open-mouthed.

“If this is the tradeshar’s entrance,” he said, “I can hardly imagine what the main way in is like.”

“Oh, it’s much grander,” said Rue, without any trace of irony

“But sometimes we pine for the simple life, so we come down here and slum it a bit” Cal said

“It’s a wretched life you lead, Tigron Calanthe har Aralis,” Shadrall informed him, “forced into this sort of destitution.”

“We will need to find you some nice rooms,” Rue said. “Cal, are the Ambassadorial Suites on the first floor currently occupied?”

Cal rolled his eyes. “How should I know? I’m not the housekeeper, Rue.”

“Palace-keeper.” Shadrall corrected him.

“What?”

“You would have a palace-keeper in a palace, I’m thinking.”

Cal gave him a strange look. “Yes. Of course. What else?”

“We have a lot of palace-keepers, Shad,” Rue told him, patting his hand gently.

“Well it’s a big palace. I would imagine it takes a lot of keeping.”

“We’re actually quite full up at the moment – we have a lot of guests arriving for the Grand Alliance Ball in three days time. We may have to put you in the servants’ quarters.”

“ That’s quite alright, I’m not really an Ambassadorial Suite sort of har. In fact, I’m not really an any-sort-of-suite har, I’m more of a spare-corner-of-your-room sort of har. Or your servants’ room. Whatever you’ve got.”

“Anywhere with a bathtub will be fine.” Ashmael said dryly.

“Don’t be rude, Ashmael. You know what it’s like when you’re travelling…” Rue studied Shadrall for a moment. “When did you last have a bath, Shad?”

“As in total immersion in water?”

“Yes.”

He thought about it for a moment.

“I fell in a duck pond last week, does that count?”

“I don’t think so . Perhaps a bit of remedial grooming might be order before Pell sees you.”

“That would be Tigron Pellaz that I’ve been hearing so much about?”

Rue smiled. “Yes. You’ll love him, Shad. Everyhar does. You just can’t help it, he has that effect on hara.”

“I’m sure I will. Any har you speak well of must be a noble creature indeed.”

“Yes he is. Now come on, let’s go and find somewhere for you to stay and get you some new clothes.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of some breakfast too?”

“Of course! We have everything you could possible want here. “

“It certainly seems that way. You’ve had a remarkable upturn in your fortunes, Rue, if you don’t mind my saying so. How exactly did events transpire that you became the Tigrina of Immanion?”

“Oh… it’s a long story. I’ll tell you all about it later. First things first – I want to hear what you’ve been doing all this time. Thirty years! I can hardly believe it. It seems like yesterday.”

Rue slipped his arm through Shadrall’s and steered him along one of Phaonica’s many corridors.

“It’s alright General, I’ll look after him now,” he said to Ashmael, “You may inform Tigron Pellaz of our guest’s arrival.”

Ashmael inclined his head a fraction “Whatever you say, Tigrina.

**************************

“… and it turns out he’s an old friend of Rue’s. From Ferelithia. What are the chances of that?”

Cal was perched somewhat precariously on the heavy wooden desk in Pell’s office. The polished surface was strewn with papers, some stacked in piles, others scattered in disorganization. Behind the desk, Pellaz was sitting in an imposing carved chair, studying the document in his hand, and pretending to listen to Cal’s account of the morning’s events.

“I’ve no idea. Did Ash manage to bring him in without attracting too much attention?”

“As far as I know. Did he ever mention him to you?”

“Who, Ash?”

“No, Rue.”

“Why would he?”

Cal shrugged. “Well, I just thought he might have told you about him. They seem to know each pretty well. I got the impression they might have been quite… close”

Pell looked up at him wearily. “And…?”

“Didn’t Rue ever tell you about his time in Ferelithia?”

“Not really, no”

“Weren’t you curious?”

“No.”

“So you don’t know anything about what he did before he was Tigrina?”

“He sang in bars.”

“No, I mean about his personal life”

“I didn’t ask.”

“Obviously.”

“Cal, if you are trying to make some point here, then please just do it without all this psychological fishing. I haven’t got time for it, and you’re not very good at it anyway!

“Oh, like that is it?” Cal smirked, not even attempting to sound wounded. “I was just wondering how you felt about Rue’s ex-lover turning up in Immanion, that’s all.”

“He’s here to do a job for us. What do you mean Rue’s ex-lover?”

“Job? What sort of job? Can’t the mighty Gelaming take care of their own business now?” Weren’t you listing to anything I was saying?”

“It’s complicated. He has certain… skills. Of course I was listening – you said he was an old friend of Rue’s, that’s all!”

“ Yes, but there are friends, and there are friends. And what would these particular skills be?”

“You saw his card.”

“The Gelaming need an escapologist? That’s new!

“No, the Gelaming do not need an escapologist, they need somehar who can… retrieve something for them”

“Hah! they need a thief!”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

Cal’s eyes widened. “Really? You’re not kidding?”

Pell looked faintly embarrassed.

“No, as it happens, I’m not.”

“But why? Surely the Gelaming are quite capable of doing their own retrieving. I mean, they could simply ask for the object in question. Most tribes are only too happy to oblige us – I think it’s something to do with our spiritual power. And the army. Good old Ash. Or failing that, there are ways of travelling to difficult locations. Oh come on Pell, if there’s dirty work to be done, I’m your har – you know that! I have special abilities!

Cal raised one eyebrow suggestively and Pell suppressed a smile.

“Yes, Cal, I know all about your special abilities. Even the ones that enable you to transport yourself around willy-nilly. But that sort of thing…. leaves a trace. Sensitive hara can detect it. We just prefer that this be done the old-fashioned way.”

Cal gave a sigh of frustration. “And what do I get to do? Spend another afternoon in the company of the charming ambassador from Maudrah?”

“Welcome to the real world.”

“It’s not my world”

Pell leaned forward and touched his arm sympathetically. “I know it’s not easy to adapt…”

“Do you really? How nice to know. That makes me feel so much better!”

There was a moment’s uncomfortable silence. Then Cal jumped down from the desk, his good humour seemingly restored.

“Well at least we have the excitement of a new guest in Phaonica. I expect Rue will organise some sort of celebration.”

“I would think Rue would have quite enough to organise at the moment with the Grand Alliance Ball.”

“You know Rue. He can always fit another party in. And I’m sure he’s dying for you to meet his old lov…friend.”

“There’ll be plenty of opportunity for that at the Hegemony meeting.”

“Oh come on, Pell – don’t you want to see him – aren’t you curious?”

“No.”

“Liar.”

“Cal, I am far too busy to spend time contemplating the cosmic significance of a minor coincidence. I’m sure it will be very nice for Rue to have his old friend here for a couple of days, but I have rather too much to do to give him an official inspection.”

“Would you be quite so dismissive if some of my old lovers turned in Immanion?”

Pell looked at him coldly. “That would be entirely different.”

“I thought you’d welcome them into our hearts and into our bed, in best Gelaming tradition.”

“We’d need a very large bed to accommodate all your past conquests, Cal.”

“Ouch! A little catty today, aren’t we?”

“You were the one who brought the subject up, I think you’ll find.”

“Can I help it if I’m irresistible?”

An unexpected smile crossed Pell’s face.

“No, I suppose not. Can you give me a hand to put these files away – I’m due at the High Nayati shortly for a consecration ceremony and I’m already running late and I need to get changed”

“Of course.” Cal busied himself stacking papers. “And what stunning outfit are you going to dazzle the populace with today?”

“Whatever the servants pick out.”

“What about the black silk with the red trim. You look ravishing in that! In fact, I might ravish you on the spot!”

“I might let you”

“Really?”

“I only said might…”

“Pell, you’re such a tease!”

“And you know you love it.”

Cal leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead.

“Yes,” he said, “yes, I do.”

Chapter 4

Towards late afternoon, after the ceremony in the High Nayati had been concluded. Pell arrived at the modest first floor room in Phaonica with what was, for him, very little formality. The servant knocked on the door for him, and when it was answered, announced his name and left without any further fanfare, allowing Pellaz to enter and stare around curiously, sweeping past the surprised-looking har left holding the open door.

Shadrall had been given a single room in the servants’ quarters, on the floor below the Royal Apartments, to the rear of the palace. The room was pleasant and well-furnished, with a window looking out over the vegetable gardens below, but unremarkable. Either it had been previously unused or the former occupant had erased all trace of his presence in the form of personal objects and possessions. To Pellaz, the room had a rather forlorn air compared with the sumptuously decorated areas of the palace that he was more familiar with.

Shadrall peered outside to check that there were no more unexpected Tigrons waiting to have themselves introduced, then he shut the door.

“Tigron Pellaz har Aralis,” He gave a small, respectful bob of his head, his self-abasement undermined a little by the unabashed grin on his face. “Here’s an unexpected honour. Won’t you come in?”

The two hara studied each other with interest. Pellaz was unsurprised by what he saw – the other har’s appearance matched his description in every respect, from the profusion of unkempt hair to the clothing which had obviously seen better days. He noticed that Shadrall was inspecting him with equal curiosity. Pellaz was used to that. He was used to the stares and the looks, and he knew what attracted them. He was not vain, but he knew the effect his appearance had on other hara. Sometimes he caught a passing glimpse of himself in a mirror, and for a moment he saw it too, that almost palpable aura of power and seductiveness. Some hara acquired their charisma from the position of power they occupied, but Pellaz did not need the trappings of Tigronship to lend him glamour. The quality was innate in him. It was what Thiede had seen which had moved him to take Pellaz and remake him as Tigron. It was what Cal had seen that had caused him to steal Pellaz away from his human life, and spend thirty years unable to let go of his dream.

Shadrall’s stare continued past the point of awe and into what could only be described as fascinated scrutiny. Pellaz began to feel a little uncomfortable, as if he were some sort of scientific specimen being studied under a microscope. It was not a feeling he was accustomed to, and he did not enjoy it.

“You are,” Shadrall took a small step backwards, as if trying to find an angle from which to better appreciate the sight, “if you don’t mind my saying so, Tigron Pellaz, a very fine-looking har indeed!”

Pellaz had been flattered by many compliments in his life; his hair had been compared to ebony ravens’ wings, his eyes to dark pools, his body to a gazelle. If he felt a little underwhelmed by Shadrall’s poesy, then as Tigron he had the good manners not to show it.

“Thank you.” he said stiffly. “Do you mind if I take a seat?”

“Of course not! Take the entire room if you wish! It’s a very nice room, isn’t it?” Shadrall looked around him in satisfaction. Pellaz followed his gaze, thinking perhaps that he might have missed some feature of the room which rendered it in some way particularly pleasing. There was nothing. The room remained as plain as when he had entered.

“I’m sorry there wasn’t anything better available, but we are hosting an important inter-tribal gathering in a few days time, and Phaonica is rather full at the moment.”

“Oh don’t apologise, Tigron Pellaz. This is quite the nicest room in any palace I’ve ever stayed in, and I’m not saying that just because I’m not being required to share it with three Mojagian mercenaries with personal hygiene issues.”

It slowly dawned on Pellaz that the har was not being facaetious in any way. He also wondered briefly exactly what the har considered to be poor personal hygiene, given the state of his own clothing, then decided he did not want to pursue that line of thought any further.

He sat down in the room’s solitary chair, and Shadrall sat opposite him on the bed, cross-legged, leaning towards him eagerly. Pellaz leaned back, perhaps in an unconscious effort to put distance between them.

“So you’re the har from Thaine.” he said, lacing his fingers together and resting them on his lap.

“I was up until three days ago. Now I’m the har from Immanion. It’s amazing how a har’s fortune can change in such a short space of time. Thank you for the retainer, by the way – most generous, and a big improvement on thumbscrews when it comes to securing loyalty.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t quite follow…”

“That’s alright, Tigron Pellaz. I know you Gelaming like to play down the thumbscrews, and who can blame you? I won’t mention them again, I promise.”

“Tiahaar, we do not use thumbscrews.”

“That’s exactly what General Ashmael said. I’m impressed by the consistency here. Getting your story straight is important!”

Pellaz realised that this conversation was not progressing in quite the direction he had intended, and he attempted to steer it back on course.

“We have been watching you for some time, Tiahaar,” he informed Shadrall

“Ah well, you do that, don’t you, you Gelaming?”

“Do what?”

“Watch hara. You have little invisible flying things that follow hara around. Sometimes you can see them, just out of the corner of your eye, if you look quickly enough. And everyhar has one of these following him around, watching him.”

“ No we don’t. And no they don’t.”

“I find that oddly disappointing. Then how do you watch everyhar?”

“We don’t watch everyhar – just you.”

“I find that oddly disturbing.”

“Not that you’ve been particularly easy to keep track of.”

“I find that quite comforting.”

“We contacted a number of your former employers and victims…”

“Victims is a bit of a loaded word, Tigron Pellaz. I prefer “clients.”.”

“I’m sure you do. They all professed themselves quite impressed by your skill in circumventing security precautions.”

“That’s a major part of good, honest thief-craft, yes. ”

“And your ability to escape detection.”

“The one is of little use without the other, Tigron Pellaz.”

“Quite. Escaping detection is an important part of the mission we wish you undertake for us. We really do not want any of this to get out. If you are caught, we will deny all knowledge of you. Discretion is everything.”

“I won’t be caught. I don’t get caught.”

“We caught you.”

“No you didn’t. I handed myself in, there’s a difference.”

“If you say so.”

“I do, Tigron Pellaz, because it’s an important distinction in my line of work. Though I can see how it might not be such a crucial aspect of Tigroning for a living. By the by, these former employers that you interviewed… Did any of them employ the phrase “slipperier than a polished eel in a puddle of oil”? Because it if they did, I’ve a good idea who that was and I’ll be having stern words with him the next time I see him.””

“I don’t know, I didn’t interview them personally. Now, as to your mission, you’ll be fully briefed at the Hegemony meeting tomorrow morning at the Hegalion. I would have scheduled it for today but there’s so much else going on at the moment… nevertheless, we need to get this project completed as soon as possible.”

“Project. Yes. Good word for it. Not like “robbery” for example. Robbery is a bit of a loaded word. I definitely prefer “project.”.”

Pellaz remained patient and continued. “I expect you’re wondering why we have engaged the services of somehar like you. And why we wish to keep this… assignment a secret.”

“No, not at all. You see, here’s the thing, Tigron Pellaz, I just do the job and get paid. I don’t actually care why righteous tribes and individuals want to involve themselves in activities of dubious legality, And make no mistake, Tigron Pellaz, the fine hara who offer me gainful employment do indeed consider themselves to be righteous and good – just as I’m sure you Gelaming do. And perhaps my own modest part in this is to allow them to maintain their self-image, I don’t know. I don’t get paid to wonder. If its wondering you want, it’ll cost you extra.”

“Let us mutually agree, then, that wondering will be both unnecessary and unpaid for.”

“Absolutely. It’s good to know we’re both on the same wavelength.”

Pell was silent for a few moments. He studied Shadrall, sitting on the bed.

“I’m informed that you have a prior acquaintance with the Tigrina.” he said.

“If by that you mean that I knew him back in Ferelithia, then your informant is quite correct.“ Imagine that – My Rue – my sweet little Rue from Ferelithia, Tigrina of Immanion! There’s an unexpected turn-up.”

“He’s not “your Rue”.”

“He’s not particularly sweet either. I’m wondering where he acquired a backhand like that!” Shadrall rubbed his jaw reflectively. “But at least we both agree on the Ferelithia bit. What a marvellous place it is – or at least it was thirty years ago, it may have changed at bit, I haven’t been back in a while, but I like to think it’s still the same seething cauldron of irresponsible, juvenile behaviour, overbearingly loud music and casual rooning that Rue and I knew and loved. Would I be right in assuming that this particular snippet of information came as much of a surprise to you as it did to me?”

“We were unaware of this particular aspect of your past.” Pellaz admitted.

“It would seem to me that your investigations weren’t quite as thorough as you imagined then. Perhaps you might want to look into those little invisible flying things after all.”

“We’ll certainly be reviewing our procedures.”

“You could have just asked Rue. The tales he could tell, Tigron Pellaz! The adventures we had! I’m surprised he’s never mentioned me actually. Surprised and hurt. Cut to the quick. Traumatised. Crushed like the delicate flower I…”

“He never mentioned you, Tiahaar. Perhaps he had forgotten about you.”

Shadrall produced a fairly convincing impression of har who was quite uncrushed and untraumatised.

“Yes, I expect you’re right, Tigron Pellaz. In all the excitement of being Tigrina of Immanion it’s only natural that he would forget all about a lowly har such as myself. It’s a good thing I’ve washed up here in Immanion in that case, to remind him of all those things that have slipped his mind. It’s no bad thing to keep a hold of your past, there are important things there that you might need later on, if only to remind you not to do them again. Experience, I think they call it. One day I’m going to listen to its tiny voice berating me from within. Do you have a tiny voice berating you from within, Tigron Pellaz?”

Shadrall leaned towards Pell, with the inviting air of a confessional priest. Pell could not decide if the har was deliberately mocking him, or if he was actually as ingenuous as he appeared. He suspected the former, but resolved not to react to his games. Experience had taught him to keep his private thoughts and opinions to himself – a Tigron must be above that; everyhar expected him to be fair and impartial and not let his own emotions colour his judgement. In the beginning he had found that a difficult thing to do; had found it burdensome that he should be expected to do this, but gradually he had accepted it as one of the demands of his position. There was no reason for this har’s unexpected connection with Caeru to affect the purpose of his employment by the Gelaming., and Pellaz intended to see that his attention was kept on the important matters in hand.

“If there’s anything you need in the meantime, just let the serving hara know and they will bring you whatever you want. Food, clothes… ” Pell pursed his lips a little “…perfumes. Soap.”

“That’s most generous of you, Tigron Pellaz. Gelaming hospitality is quite overwhelming. Is there anything in particular I should wear to this Hegemony meeting tomorrow? I like to go for the cultural assimilation whenever I can. It can be quite embarrassing if you’re not acquainted with those small but important details of local customs, and you find you’ve turned up to a Hegemony meeting in a shirt and breeches and everyhar else is dressed in a pink leather thong and intimately-inserted jewellery.”

Pellaz counted to three inwardly.

“Plain clothing will suffice, Tiahaar. This is not a formal assembly of the Hegemony – it will be a private meeting, in keeping with the nature of this business.”

“Will General Ashmael be there, by any chance?”

“Yes he will. Why do you ask?”

“He’s a fine-looking har, is the General. Perhaps not quite as awe-inspiring as yourself, although from the point of view of a har such as myself, that’s a bit like saying that rubies are not quite as lovely as diamonds, when for the most part your options are limited to those bits of shiny purple stone that look a bit like glass but aren’t.”

“I’m really not following you, Tiahaar.”

“I’ll admit to having lost the thrust of the conversation myself a little. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened, to be perfectly honest.”

“How fascinating. To reiterate, General Ashmael will be in attendance at the meeting tomorrow, as will all the other members of the Hegemony. The majority of them are unaware of the details of your particular skills, and how we intend to make use of them, and may be a little sceptical as to your suitability, so you will need to convince them that you are capable of doing what we require of you.”

“Don’t you worry about that, Tigron Pellaz, I will win them over and have them eating out of my hand with my beauty, wit, charm and irresistible arunic charisma.”

“I’d prefer if you just stick to the facts, thank you.”

“That’s would be a novel approach for me, but I’m willing to give it a try.”

“Good.” Pellaz rose from his chair, indicating that the audience was at an end. He stood there for a moment, as if trying to come to a decision.

“How well did you know the Tigrina?” he asked, “back in Ferelithia?”

Shadrall make an expansive gesture with both hands.

“We were the closest companions imaginable! Inseparable we were. We did everything together.” he said

“Did you live together?”

“Indeed we did. On those occasions when we had somewhere to live, that is. I remember one place we stayed – up a flight of stairs, it was, but there was an ornately-carved wardrobe stuck half-way up the stairs – I’m not entirely sure if the previous owners had been trying to bring it up or get it down – and you had to climb over the top of it, or underneath if you were feeling brave, – it was quite a substantial piece of furniture, let me tell you – so it wasn’t entirely the best place in the world to set up residence, especially when the rest of Rue’s musical friends arrived to practice their art accompanied by their instruments, and as I recall we were obliged to leave after a fairly short residence there after an unfortunate incident involving a minor ritual sacrifice,, but there were always friends ready to take us in. It’s a very friendly place, Ferelithia. Full of the most creative and unusual hara. I should imagine Immanion is much the same.”

“I very much doubt it. Well, it’s been interesting to make your acquaintance, Tiahaar, but if you will excuse me now, I have duties to attend to.”

“Of course you do, what with being an important Tigron and all. It’s very remiss of me to be keeping you here. Don’t you worry about me, I can amuse myself easily enough. I thought I’d maybe spend some time with Rue, catching up. He can entrance me with tales of his charmed and gilded life as the famous Tigrina, and I can tell him about the weevils onboard the Despina. It can’t fail to amuse.”

“The Tigrina will also be occupied for the rest of the day.” Pell told him. “I’m afraid you’ve caught us at a particularly busy time. I’m sure the palace staff will be able to provide you with any type of diversion you require though.”

“I’m sure they will, they look an athletic lot. Very healthy tribe, the Gelaming. Or so I’ve heard”

Pellaz paused at the door with his hand resting on the handle. . “Don’t be late for the Hegemony meeting tomorrow,” he said, “Chancellor Tharmifex is very keen on punctuality.”

“I’ll be there on the dot, Tigron Pellaz! I can hardly wait. I’m itching with the anticipation of it all!”

“It’s a committee meeting, Tiahaar, I would try to calm your excitement a bit.”

“That all depends on how you look at things, Tigron Pellaz. To you, it’s just another committee meeting. To me, it’s the dawn of another great adventure!”

“You may change your mind once you’ve heard one of Chancellor Tharmifex’s speeches.”

Without another word, Pellaz left the room, leaving Shadrall still sitting cross-legged on the bed grinning to himself.

Chapter 5

The Hegalion was a large and impressive building. Being impressive was one of its official functions. Its darkly polished exterior radiated gravitas and patrician authority. Classical columns rose gracefully at both the front and rear, and properly-proportioned doors and windows graced its walls in a regular array. It was every inch the embodiment of Gelaming dignity. The contrast with the bright, fairytale-castle confection of turrets and spires that was Phaonica was very noticeable, The Hegalion made a statement, and what it said was : “Here is where the real business of Government is done. Forget that frivolous palace on the hill with its figurehead of a Tigron, this is the centre of power in Immanion.”

The message was not lost on Pellaz. Not now, or in the thirty years since he had become Tigron. He had arrived in Immanion to a city already prepared and waiting for him; he had had no say in its design or layout. His palace was given unto him, fully furnished and staffed, clothes and jewels were brought to him, vast suites of rooms put as his disposal, and in this solemn official building his administration awaited him patiently, ready to do his bidding. Or not.

Pell tried not to look glum as he walked through the great, carved wooden doors of the main entrance to the Hegalion, but it was difficult. This was not a place which held fond memories for him – too often he had had to struggle and fight against recalcitrant members of the Hegemony either intent on pushing their own agenda, or simply digging their heels in for the sake of it. He knew some of them still resented him a little, even after all these years, and he sometimes found himself thinking that he could not really blame them for that. His only qualification for leadership had been that Thiede had proclaimed him so. Since none of the Hegemony had dared criticize or speak out against Thiede, all the resentment and backbiting had been redirected in the Tigron’s direction. He knew that in the years since his coronation he had earned the respect of the Hegemony by his own efforts, but some days it still felt like an uphill struggle to gain their cooperation. He had a feeling today was going to be one of those days.

Cal did not suffer in the same way. He had arrived in Immanion in a whirlwind of romantic reputation and revolutionary regime-change. He was the iconoclast, the mover and shaker, and the Hegemony were all in awe of him, to a har. Or possibly just terrified of him. Either way, for reasons Pell had never been able work out, Cal had a permanent escape clause which allowed him to avoid both the Hegemony’s censure, and participating in the very activities which might possibly attract it.

A small part of Pell always wanted to complain bitterly every time Cal managed to successfully sidestep the political responsibilities and intrigues that came with the position of Tigron, but he knew that would be childish. He and Cal were different people with different ways of dealing with things. Their lives had taken very different paths, and it was unrealistic to expect that Cal would be the same sort of Tigron that Pell had been. He brought his own strengths and experiences to the position, and the two of them complemented each other very well.

It’s still not fair, Pell thought sulkily, as he removed and handed his outer clothing to a waiting servant who had appeared with well-oiled efficiency the moment the Tigron had entered the Hegalion’s entrance chamber.

The chamber was high-ceilinged and imposing, decorated with polished black marble and elegant wall tapestries. Various works of art – sculptures and paintings by famous Wraeththu artists – were tastefully displayed at intervals along its length. The light filtering in through the tall arched windows was augmented by three great chandeliers overhead. At the far end was the entrance into the main debating chamber where the Hegemony met on a daily basis to discuss the issues of the day, which could be of greater or lesser importance depending upon events afoot in Almagabra and beyond.

The Debating Chamber had a public gallery, where ordinary citizens of Immanion could view the proceedings and ensure that their rulers were doing their jobs properly. It was for this reason, Pell knew, that this morning’s ad-hoc meeting was not being held in the main chamber, but in one of the smaller, private meeting rooms off to the side. There were some things that the ordinary hara of the city would never be privy to, and this was one of them.

Pell made his way down a corridor and entered a room of rather more understated proportions than the imposing public chambers, but richly furnished none the less. Early morning sunlight slanted in through the windows, making the polished wood gleam and lending the place a bright, airy aspect.

Most of the Hegemony were present, seated around a large table. At the head of the table was Tharmifex Calvel, the Hegemony Chancellor, and next to him were two empty seats. Pell looked around the room and spotted a head of curly brown hair half way down the table. The owner of the hair waved cheerfully to him, producing a few muttered comments among the assembled dignitaries. Pell ignored him and sat down next to Chancellor Tharmifex.

As Pell settled himself comfortably in his chair, the door opened again and Cal entered, slightly breathless, as if he had been rushing. His hair was untidy, and his shirt looked as if had been recently retrieved from under his bed. Or perhaps from under someone else’s bed. He squeezed his way into the chair next to Pell, which somehow seemed a little too small to contain his lanky body.

“Good morning, Tiahaara,” He addressed the assembled Hegemony with a degree of cheerfulness which Pell considered rather suspect given his consort’s well-documented lack of enthusiasm for politics.

“You’re late.” he said, more disapprovingly than he intended.

Cal refused to be chastened. “ I saw you enter not a minute before me,” he said “So don’t pretend that you’ve been here hours waiting for me.”

Pell was about to dispute Cal’s interpretation of events, but Chancellor Tharmifex interrupted their exchange

“Tiahaara,” – Pellaz never ceased to marvel at the Chancellor’s skill in imbuing the word with the exact degree of disapproval required to make of it a rebuke rather than an honorific – “If we could get on… I have a very full schedule today.”

“Of course, Chancellor.”

Both Tigron’s answered simultaneously, and Pell felt his heart sink slightly as he realised that they sounded like naughty harlings called to account by a stern schoolmaster.

“Is the Tigrina not gracing us with his presence this morning?” asked Tharmifex, in a manner which suggested that experience had led him not to expect a positive response.

“I think it’s a bit early for Rue.” Cal replied.

“It is that!” Shadrall agreed from the other end of the table. “He’s not what you’d call a morning person, our lovely Rue. Never has been. Why, I remember one time…”

“Thank you, Tiahaar, I’m sure it’s a fascinating story, but we mustn’t waste Chancellor Tharmifex’s time.” Pell cut him off dead before he could launch into another of his monologues, but Shadrall remained unabashed.

“Of course not! The Chancellor is a very busy har, I’m sure. No afternoon chats for him!” He winked exaggeratedly at Pellaz and grinned. Pell did not reciprocate.

Chancellor Tharmifex rose to his feet ,cleared his throat, and addressed the gathering.

“For those of you who haven’t been formally introduced,” he began “This is Tiahaar Shadrall Chevalleraine Chervil har Shalimar har Cordagne har Keltoid har Kalamah har Kakahaar har Kamagrian har Gelaming.”

He looked carefully down at the piece of paper he was holding.

“…apparently.” .

Cal began to laugh, then thought better of it when he saw the look on Pell’s face

“You appear to have gained something in the way of names since yesterday,” he said.

“Well it seemed to be the done thing around here, Tigron Calanthe har Aralis har Gelaming. When in Immanion, as they say. Also, if you’ll notice there, I took the liberty of making myself an honorary member of your very fine tribe. But my friends call me Shadrall, and I consider all you splendid, upstanding hara here to be the very best of personal friends now. What exactly is it that we’re supposed to do when we’re in Immanion anyway?”

“Behave with a degree of decorum.” Pell said

“Oh I can do that alright!”

The Chancellor silenced them both with a stony look and continued.

“Tiahaar Shadrall has come to our attention because it appears that he possesses certain skills which could prove useful to us.”

“What sort of skills?” The question came from Eyra Fiumara, the Hegemony’s chief Listener. He was leaning forward on his elbows onto the mahogany table, his chin propped up in his hands, staring at Shadrall with unabashed curiosity rather as a scientist might study an unusual specimen in a laboratory.

“Tiahaar Shadrall is very experienced in the art of removing objects from their locations.” Chancellor Tharmifex informed him.

Eyra snorted. “I can do that!” He picked up a glass paperweight which was lying in front of him on the table and put it down again a short distance away.

“Ah, but can you do it without anyhar noticing?” Shadrall grinned and extended his closed fist towards Eyra. He opened the fingers to reveal a shining and bejewelled metal circle attached to a chain. Eyra looked at it for a second, puzzled, then realization dawned, and his hand moved towards his neck, then down under his clothing, searching for something. It became apparent that whatever he was looking for was not there.

Shadrall’s grin widened, and he tossed the object towards Eyra. It landed on the table with a clatter, and Eyra retrieved it with a scowl and re-fastened it around his neck.

“It’s a trick, “ he grumbled patting the pendant reassuringly. “Anyhar can do that – all you have to do is transport the thing through the otherlanes.”

“Can you do that?” Cal asked him.

Eyra was forced to admit that he could not.

“But you’re a very sensitive har,” Cal continued. “You can tell when there is movement or disturbance in the otherlanes. Have you felt anything like that in this room?”

Again Eyra had to concede that he had not.

“I don’t know what these otherlanes are that you keep going on about,” Shadrall said “It’s simply a matter of being somewhat dextrous. And quick. And possibly a little conniving into the bargain.”

“I’d suggest that everyone present check their pockets before they leave,” Pell said darkly.

“Well, it appears at least that we have some confirmation of Tiahaar Shadrall’s professional expertise,” Tharmifex noted.

“You mean he’s a thief,” Eyra was still obviously not in the best of humour after his recent encounter with Shadrall’s professional expertise.

“That I am! That is the very word for it! I steal stuff. I take it away. I liberate it. I remove it from its previous owners. I relocate it. I redistribute its intrinsic value.”

“We are aware of what it means.” Tharmifex said flatly.

“Ah, well, you see, you’re not. Not really. Oh, you know the word, but you don’t know the deed! The artistry of it all! The elegance, the dexterity, the knack, the know-how – the sheer magnificent genius!”

“Magnificent genius aside, all we want to know is – are you capable of… liberating a certain object for us?”

“Yes I am”

“And you would be able to do this without alerting the owner to its disappearance?”

“There would be the skill in it, yes.”

“Good. That’s all we need to know.”

“I couldn’t be happier for you in that case, Chancellor Tharmifex, but aren’t you forgetting something?”

“Such as?”

“Well that may be all you need to know, but it’s certainly not the limits of my requirement for knowledge.”

The Chancellor looked serious. “We find that it is better with sensitive issues if information is not too widely disseminated.” he said.

Shadrall gave a disarming smile. “I can understand that, Chancellor, truly I can. I’m an old hand at keeping things under my hat, as you might suspect, but in this case I do think there’s one very vital piece of information which will be very much in need of dissemination.”

“Which would be?”

“The thing I’m supposed to steal. I mean relocate.”

There was a slightly awkward pause, during which the various members of the Hegemony took turns to look at each other expectantly. Before any indication as to the nature of his intended target could be revealed, Shadrall raised one finger in the air and uttered a small exclamation.”

“I know!” he cried. “It’s the Legendary Singing Jewel of the Oolopades, isn’t it?”

“The what?”

“Oh come, you must have heard of it, Chancellor!”

The Chancellor stared at him blankly.

A laugh came from the end of the table, where Ashmael had been watching the proceedings with growing amusement.

“I think you’ll find that there’s more Legend than Jewel to that story, Thar” he said, grinning.

“Nonsense!” Shadrall wagged his extended digit at Ashmael. “I met a har who had actually seen it. Er.. heard it. Well, he knew someone who’d been to Oolopade…”

“And what does this Legendary Singing Jewel actually do?” Tharmifex asked patiently.

“It sings. What do you think it does – tap-dances? Or is it that it bestows otherworldly powers upon the bearer, turning them into mighty Dehara… Or maybe its just worth an unconscionable amount of money, which seems a rather more useful attribute, don’t you think?”

“We have no need of financial gain,” Tharmifex said, sounding suitably indignant that such a thing would even be considered.

“Everyhar can be doing with a few extra spinners here and there, Chancellor, that much is sure. “Although -”, Shadrall looked around the room, admiring the elegant furnishings and decorations “ – I don’t think the Gelaming are facing imminent ruin any time soon.”

“The Gelaming are more concerned with the spiritual than with the material.” Eyra told him, clasping his hands together and nodding his head thoughtfully. Others around the table adopted the same gesture.

“Of course you are, Tiahaara. Anyhar can see that! Spiritual it is! And if its holy relics you’re after, I’m the very har to get them for you.”

“I can hardly wait to find out what this one is going to entail.” Ashmael said, folding his arms and leaning back comfortably in his chair

“Don’t encourage him, Ash.” Pell shot Ashmael a warning look, but it was a futile gesture as Shadrall proved yet again that encouragement was not a necessary requirement for him to hold forth on a subject dear to his heart.

“No doubt as the most enlightened and spiritual tribe of all Wraeththu-kind,” he began, emphasising the importance of his words with a suitably dramatic tone, “The Gelaming must be in search of the most divine and spiritual relic of them all!”

He lowered his voice a little, as if taking them all into his confidence.

“A physical relic of the greatest Dehar of all. A part of the body of the Aghama himself, left behind on Earth from those hallowed and ancient days when he walked among us!”

“This is going to be good,” Ashmael remarked to nohar in particular. Pell glared at him, but he took no notice of the Tigron.

“Exactly which particular part of the Aghama’s body are we talking about here?” Ashmael asked

Shadrall leaned over the table towards Ashmael and lowered his voice still further.

“His toenail.” he whispered.

Ashmael laughed. Cal too, could be heard emitting some strange, stifled noises. Pell merely sighed and shook his head.

“And how, “ asked Ashmael, “Did this most sacred of items come to be in the possession of such unworthy specimens as we Earthly hara?”

Shadrall sat up straight and cast his gaze upwards, as if receiving wisdom from on high.

“It is said,” he began with a display of reverence which Ashmael could not tell if it was real or faked, “that In The Beginning, the Aghama was among us as a har of flesh and blood, and that he performed many great deeds, and that he liked to involve himself in the affairs of his people.”

“Well that much is true enough.” Ashmael’s dry comment earned him another glare from Pellaz.

“And it is said that one day he was walking the dry deserts of the Earth, involving himself in important events, and it was a hot day and he was only wearing sandals, and lo, he came upon a lowly rock, and didn’t see it lying there, and tripped over the damn thing, causing his divine toenail to become detached from his divine toe.”

“It could have happened!” Ashmael agreed seriously. He cast a glance at the other members of the Hegemony who were all looking somewhat stunned.. “Let’s not dismiss it entirely out of hand, Tiahaara!”

“And he cursed the rock, for impeding his progress, and causing him to hop about on one foot into the bargain, and he turned the rock into a giant statue of a seahorse – or was it a sea-lion, I can never remember that part – but anyway, he turned it into a giant… thing, and all the hara came from miles around to see this wonder, and they constructed a magnificent city on that very spot to honour the Aghama, during the building of which a most fortunate young har discovered The Toenail, and it was taken from the earth and preserved in a casket of gold and placed upon the great seahorse altar and worshipped daily by the fortunate citizens.”

“And where is this city, exactly?” Ashmael enquired

“Nohar knows.”

Ashmael raised one eyebrow, a gesture which gave him a rather raffish look.

“Really. How odd. You’d think a magnificent city with a giant seahorse statue would be a difficult thing to misplace.”

“Unfortunately the city was abandoned after only a few years.”

“And why was that, then? You’d have thought that the Sacred Toenail of The Aghama would have ensured the place’s fortune.”

“I expect it did, in a manner of speaking, but as I told you, it was a dry desert, and there wasn’t any water for miles around, which is a bit of a constraint when you’re trying to start a new civilization.”

“I can imagine. But what about The Toenail? Was it lost too?”

“Happily, no. By great good fortune, it was rescued and it passed through the hands of several tribes, until it ended up in the possession of a fine har from Haddassah whose company I had the pleasure of enjoying on a number of occasions.”

“What a relief to know that such an important artefact is safe!”

“Safe it is! Locked securely away and guarded night and day.”

“Safe from the clutches of unscrupulous thieves and vagabonds who might try to steal it away?”

“I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that, General…”

“Tiahaara, if you please!” Tharmifex interrupted them irritably, giving Ashmael a martyred, must you? look

“My apologies, Chancellor,” Ashmael attempted to look repentant, and was noticeably unsuccessful.

“Tiahaar Shadrall, the item we wish you to… acquire for us is none of these things.” Tharmifex continued, fixing the unfortunate Shadrall with a stare that had been known to reduce junior members of the Hegemony to tearful fragility, “It is neither gold nor jewels, nor magical totem. Some might say it has no intrinsic value, and yet it contains the most valuable thing a har can possibly possess, a treasure beyond price.”

Shadrall smiled winningly.

“Would it tarnish my reputation in any way if I was to admit that I have no idea what you’re talking about, Chancellor?” he said. “In fact, I find I’m still floundering somewhere around “magical totem”. Could you possibly go over that one more time? As slowly as you like.”

Tharmifex admitted defeat.

“It’s a book. We want you to steal a book.”

Chapter 6

“Oh! A book, is it? Why didn’t you say so! Marvellous things, books! I read one once. And would you believe hara just leave them lying around, all over the place, so I find it’s no difficult thing to lay my hands on them at all!”

“Not this one.” Tharmifex shook his head. “It’s kept very safe.”

“And why would that be, I wonder? What can be so important between the covers of a book for it to be hidden away from prying eyes?”

“Information. Knowledge.”

“Knowledge being power, and all that? Am I right, Chancellor”

“You are not quite as half-witted as you appear to be, Tiahaar.”

Shadrall looked pleased at this unexpected compliment.. “No, you’re right there, Chancellor, but I very nearly am, so it’s just as well always to assume the worst!”

“I usually do, Tiahaar, and I am rarely disappointed.”

“It’s easy to see why they made you Chancellor, Chancellor!”

“Believe me Tiahaar, there are days when I would gladly abdicate the position. This being one of them.”

You don’t mean that, I’m sure! I can tell by the jovial twinkle in your eye that you’re enjoying yourself as much as anyhar here this morning!”

Tharmifex’s expression remained resolutely stony, while beside him Cal pretended to have a coughing fit.

“Well now,” Shadrall went on, “Having established the vital fact of what exactly it is I’m supposed to be stealing, the only thing we need to be worrying ourselves about now is the where. Of course, I’d be interested to know the why of it too, but it’s been my experience that hara are far less forthcoming about that question than the other two, and who can blame them?”

“The book is in a library,” Tharmifex said

“A library? You don’t say! Whoever would have thought of looking for a book in a place like that?”

Tharmifex tapped his fingers on the polished table. “We usually find that Hegemony meetings proceed quite admirably without the addition of sarcasm, Tiahaar.”

“Of course they do. Quite right, Chancellor. We’ll have none of that here! Perish the thought! But you have to admit, it’s a fine strategy.”

“What is? Discouraging sarcasm?”

“No. Keeping a book in a library.”

“And how do you come to that conclusion?”

“Well, Chancellor – you look like a well-educated har, if I may say so. Well read, even. I’m edging towards the opinion that you’re the owner of no small number of books yourself. Would I be right in that assumption?”

“You would.”

“And have you ever thought to yourself “Why, I’d like to have a thumb through that exquisite volume of erotic poetry I brought back from my last trip to Ferike”, and gone into your magnificent and well-appointed library, and completely failed to find the blasted thing!

“All my books are catalogued in alpha-chronological order.”

“And still you can’t put your hand on the very one you’re looking for”

“Sometimes,” Tharmifex admitted grudgingly.

“And that, Chancellor, is the reason why the very best place to hide a book is in a library!”

“Doubtless there is some truth to what you say, Tiahaar, but this particular book is not among the general collection – it is too important for that. It has been sequestered in a secret place, with considerable security precautions in place around it.”

Shadrall closed his eyes briefly, a strange, almost reverent look descending upon his normally animated features.

“By Arhuani’s purple petalled phallus,” he sighed “It’s almost as if they want the thing to be stolen!”

“Your reasoning behind that statement being?…”

“They might as well have put a big sign up saying “Attention All Thieves – Important And Valuable Object Ahoy. Please Do Not Steal.”

“Well that’s an interesting way of looking at it, certainly.”

“And while there is no pleasure to be had in merely walking down rows of bookshelves till you come to section Ka to Kr, and slipping something into your pocket, the challenge, Chancellor, of defeating those security precautions – it’s enough to arouse a har quite noticeably! Why, it’s a wonder they don’t have hara queuing up for the opportunity!”

“It is fortunate for all concerned that not everyhar finds the prospect quite so stimulating as you,” Eyra remarked, producing a small ripple of amusement around the table.

“It’s fortunate, then that the Dehara created every one of us so unique then, and gifted us with our own particular talents.”

Eyra smiled humourlessly at him and his hand drifted unconsciously towards his pockets, as if to check their contents.

“As far as we are aware,” Chancellor Tharmifex said, “you are the only har in the queue to steal the book, so you should be able to proceed without hindrance – at least from other potential thieves. How the Suhl react will obviously depend upon your skill and discretion.”

“Skill and discretion I have in abundance, Chancellor. I am a walking advertisement for both these singular qualities. The Suhl, you say? Am I right in thinking that you’ve dropped an important clue there as to the whereabouts of the book? I’m an observant har, and I notice these sort of things.”

The Chancellor’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly.

“Quite so. The book in question resides in the Great Library of Kyme, in Alba Suhl.”

“Alba Suhl…” Shadrall scratched his head and bit thoughtfully on his lower lip.

“Is there a problem with that?”

“No, not at all, Chancellor. Alba Suhl, is it? Lovely place. Or so I’m led to believe.”

“Do you know anything of the Suhl?” Pellaz had been watching the proceedings silently, appearing wrapped in his own thoughts. His question was directed at Shadrall.

“Why, yes, since you bring the matter up, Tigron Pellaz. I’m a bit of an expert on the habits and customs of the Suhl.”

“Really? How convenient. You’ve been to the place then?”

“No, I’ve never had the pleasure.”

“And exactly how do you come to be an expert on the habits and customs of somewhere you’ve never been?”

“I did meet a har who had travelled there. What a creature! Such loveliness! Hair of ebony blackness and eyes so dark you could lose yourself in them and think you’d been struck blind, and be filled with gratitude for the affliction. Not unlike yourself, Tigron Pellaz.”

Pellaz showed no sign of being flattered by the comparison.

“So your entire knowledge of the place comes from second-hand gossip?”

“That’s a little dismissive, if I may say so, Tigron Pellaz. You must understand that in my line of work, I’m always on the lookout for information. Intelligence, you might say. You never know when a small fact here or a snippet of local knowledge there will come in handy. So you see, I file all these facts away in the absorbent sponge that is the steel trap of my mind, rather in the way that Chancellor Tharmifex hoards his books, although a tad less alpha-chronologically, if I’m being perfectly honest.”

“And what exactly does your sponge of a mind tell you about the Suhl?”

“A mysterious and reserved tribe, Tigron Pellaz. Slow to anger, but very big on the whole revenge thing if you annoy them enough. In fact, they have probably raised revenge to an art form in itself, and they don’t take much in the way of annoying either, all of which is making me feel rather nervous given the subject under discussion here. They’re very spiritual tribe, too. Almost as spiritual as the Gelaming, if such as thing could be possible. It is said that they worship the Aghama in the form of a herbal infusion, and they also worship Finnool, the Dehar of Precipitation.”

“Is that so?”

“Very much so. And it is widely known that Finnool is a munificent Dehar, a Dehar of almost preternatural generosity, a Dehar of abundance and plenty, and there is no place on this earth where his generosity is more copiously in evidence than Alba Suhl. That reminds me – “ he looked at Chancellor Tharmifex anxiously

“If I’m to travel there, I will be provided with waterproof clothing, won’t I?”

“I’m sure something can be arranged.” Tharmifex said patiently.

Shadrall beamed happily. “It’s all in the preparation, Tigron Pellaz,”

“If you say so.”

“I do! Constantly! And I’m usually told to be quiet, but what can you do?”

“I truly have no idea, Tiahaar”.

“They say it’s a magnificent place, the Great Library at Kyme,” Shadrall continued “One of the seventeen wonders of the world.”

“That many?” Cal affected great seriousness. “We’re doing well, aren’t we? Humans only managed seven.”

“Oh I expect there are even more if you’re prepared to look for them. Wonders abound in this world of ours. I expect you’ve seen many of them yourself, Cal. You have the look of a har who’s seen a bit of the world.”

“Perhaps.”

“And here we are in the most wondrous place of all – the fabled city of Immanion! Ah, the stories that are told of this place, by hara who yearn to see it for themselves. And doesn’t it surpass all expectations? Isn’t it awe-inspiring? Don’t you wake up every day giving thanks to every Dehar in existence just for the privilege of being here?”

“You get over that, after a while.” Cal told him

“I’m sure if I lived here a thousand years I would never get over the sublimeness of it all!”

“You must be exhausted from being in a permanent state of awe and rapture.”

“And were I not already gifted with the embarrassment of riches that is Immanion, here I am now soon to be travelling to the mystic isle of Alba Suhl, to see the Great Library at Kyme, it’s magnificent towers and spires rising through the mist into the sky and…”

“Actually, “ Tharmifex corrected him “most of it is underground, so there isn’t much in the way of rising towers, magnificent or otherwise.”

“… it’s magnificent… tunnels and… stuff, descending into the very Stygian depths of the earth. Tell me, Chancellor, why would they want to put it underground, of all places? Does that not strike you as being just a little eccentric?”

“After this morning, I doubt anything could strike me as being particularly eccentric, Tiahaar.”

There was a snort from the end of the table. An elegant and fashionably-dressed har leant forward and spoke to Shadrall directly.

“It’s to prevent vagabonds such as yourself from making off with their precious books.”

Shadrall blinked several times. “Is that so? Well in that case I’m afraid it is a strategy which is doomed to ignominious failure, for there no protection given by subterranean location that cannot be overcome by a bit of ingenuity, and that, if I may state with all due modesty, is something which I possess in abundance. Vagabond?

The har laughed. “You must admit, you do have a bit of roguish air about you.”

“Must I now? As it transpires, there have been many attempts to get me to admit to a wide variety of offences, with what can only be described as a marked lack of success. I’m of the opinion that your effort will be numbered among them.”

“I’m sure Tiahaar Chrysm did not mean any offence,” Tharmifex said.

“Of course not. You’ve got to be a lot more inventive than that if you really want to offend someone!”

“I imagine you have quite a bit of expertise in that as well.”

“Now you’re getting the hang of it, Tiahaar Chrysm!”

Chrysm sighed and waved one hand in a languorous gesture.. “I try. But I can only aspire to your level of achievement.”

“True, but keep at it, Tiahaar. Practice makes perfect, and I’m sure there’s a lot of opportunity for practice here in Immanion.”

“Tiahaar Chrysm is not here to improve his verbal skills,” Tharmifex tapped the table irritably with his pen to interrupt them. “He has some valuable information to impart to us”

“Impart away, I’m all ears!”

“As it happens, Tiahaar Chrysm has actually paid a visit to the Great Library at Kyme, and thus is familiar with the layout of the place.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say familiar exactly, Thar…”

“You’ve been there. It’s more than the rest of us have.”

“You’ve been to Kyme?”

“Yes, I was there as part of a delegation last year. We were on an artistic goodwill mission.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered one of those before.”

“You haven’t been in Immanion long.”

“True enough. Did you encounter much artistic goodwill?”

“Not really, the Sulh are pretty philistine, if you ask me, but we did manage to make some inroads with the delegates from one of the Eastern tribes that we’ve been trying to get on board for a while.”

“Ah.”

“And, of course, I managed to get on quite friendly terms with The High Codexia.”

“Of course. How friendly, exactly?”

“Not that friendly. The Sulh are a bit reserved, too. Rather pathological if you ask me. But he did show me around the Library.”

“Well I suppose it’s the second best thing you could have hoped for”

“You haven’t been in Immanion long.”

“So you keep telling me. Did you see this famous book we’re all so interested in?”

“I think so.”

“You think so?”

“Well,” – Chrysm frowned a little, as if struggling to recall the exact events – “He took to me to his office. It’s on the second floor.”

“I thought you said it was all underground.”

“A lot of it is, where the books are stored, but there is quite an elegant building above that.”

“Magnificent towers?” asked Shadrall hopefully

“I’m afraid not. But nice brickwork.”

“I don’t much care for brickwork, myself.”

Chrysm shrugged. “Sedu for courses…”

“That doesn’t rhyme.”

“What?”

“Horses. It doesn’t matter. Tell me about his office.”

“I suppose it could be reached by the main stairway, but we went up a small back stair and came out at the far end of the corridor. The Codexia’s office is actually around the corner – I suppose it must be in North wing, or something, but it isn’t far. It has his name on the door.”

“Handy. If you know his name.”

“Malakess har Sulh.”

“Oh that High Codexia!”

“Quite. Anyway, we went in, and he offered me a seat and a glass of wine. He said he had some business to attend to, but it wouldn’t take long. I accepted the glass of wine, but I wandered over to the window to have a look out. You get a really good view of Kyme from there, the Library is right in the centre of the town.”

“Is it as captivating and lovely a place as it is rumoured to be?”

“No. It’s a bit dirty, actually.”

“Not like Immanion then?”

“Not at all. Of course, it wasn’t built by Wraeththu-kind. It’s an old human settlement.”

“Not everyhar can afford to build their cities from scratch. Sometimes a bit of recycling is called for. I’m sure it has its charms, nonetheless.”

“Oh I wouldn’t deny it. Some of the old human buildings are worth preserving. In fact, I could see a particularly fine example from my vantage point by the window. I was about to ask Malakess what it was, as he had left his desk at this point and come over to join me, or so I believed, but as it turned out he was more interested in a book sitting on the windowsill. I hadn’t actually noticed it – well, the room was full of books, as you might expect, and it wasn’t exactly what you’d call tidy either. I wouldn’t have paid any attention to it, but there was something about the way he snatched it up… he seemed anxious, and yet at the same time, anxious to conceal that anxiety, if that makes sense.”

“Perfect sense.”

“So he picked up the book, casually, as if he was just tidying up. Which would have been a good idea, frankly, and I asked him about the building in the distance, but he didn’t answer, just made some sort of umming and ah-ing noises, as if he had something else on his mind, and then he went back to his desk and opened the top right drawer and put it in, then he closed the drawer and locked it and took the key and put it in his pocket. And then he seemed to relax, and he said “What was that you were you saying, Tiahaar Chrysm?”, and I asked him about the building again, and got a long and rather tedious lecture on human architecture. Turns out the place is an old warehouse that’s been converted into some sort of religious retreat.”

“Fascinating. What about the book?”

“What about it?”

“What did it look like?”

“Nothing special. Black leather cover. Fairly thin. Book-shaped. Looked quite well-thumbed, but I didn’t get to see inside at all.”

“No, I’m not surprised.”

“Funny thing is, I would never have noticed it if he’d just left it lying there.”

“People often reveal things through their efforts to conceal them. So now we know where the book is kept. Does Tiahaar Codexia keep his office locked?”

Chrysm thought for a moment.

“Yes, “ he said “I’m sure he does. I’m sure I remember him unlocking it before we went in and locking it again after we left. Is that a problem?”

“Not at all! It all adds to the fun and enjoyment.”

“They also have some pretty hefty doors at the front of the building which are locked at night, and gates as well, you’ll be thrilled to hear.”

“I am indeed, but I won’t be doing any of that furtive stuff, sneaking around after dark.”

“You like to work regular hours then?”

“I do indeed, Tiahaar Chrysm. Nothing says “suspicious-looking individual, up to no good” more than a bit of crepuscular lurking, don’t you think? And besides, I need my beauty sleep. Feel free to voice your disagreement with that statement any time you like.”

“We have had a plan of the Library drawn up, to assist you.” Tharmifex informed him, rummaging among his papers.

“Oh, there’s no need for that, Chancellor. I’m used to working on an… ad hoc basis, as it were. And Tiahaar Espionage’s description of the place was so vivid I feel like I’ve been to the place already.”

“I’m not a spy!” Chrysm was indignant.

“Of course you are. And a very fine one too. I never doubted for a minute that the Gelaming would have the best agents in Wraeththudom. Tell me, do you ever get that thing where that tune plays in your head.. you know… Dun-Dunnn Daaaaah…!

“No, of course not!”

“Oh well. I’ll teach you it if you like. Adds a sense of drama to the proceedings.”

Chrysm shook his head in disbelief. “You’re a complete idiot! Thar – how can we trust a mission of this importance to this.. person. It’s all going to go horribly wrong, I can just feel it. This is a very sensitive issue, we don’t want to end up looking foolish – or worse.”

“I am well aware of the implications, thank you We have considered all the possibilities here, and decided that this is our only option. I’ll grant that Tiahaar Shadrall is quite an… unusual… individual, but we do feel that he is qualified for the task. We have collected considerable information about his previous activities.”

Tharmifex gave Shadrall a long, meaningful stare, but Shadrall affected innocence.

“Unusual. I like that. I don’t think I’ve ever been called that before. Although you’d be surprised at some of the things I have been called, Chancellor.”

“No, I don’t think I would. Now, Tiahaara, if we’re all quite finished here, I have another meeting in five minutes. Tiahaar Shadrall, supplies and provisions are being prepared for you. You’ll be leaving for Alba Suhl tomorrow morning.. Tigron Pellaz – I will see you in the debating chamber this afternoon, yes? Tigron Calanthe… No doubt you can see to it that Tiahaar Shadrall is extended the finest hospitality Phaonica can offer. You might want to wake the Tigrina up at some point. Now, if you will excuse me, the Ambassador from Garridan does not like to be kept waiting…”

Tharmifex handed his papers to a clerk, and left the room in a dignified sweep of heavy velvet, accompanied by his slightly flustered aide.

Shadrall nodded his head appreciatively.

“I like that Chancellor Tharmifex, “ he said “he’s a har after my own heart.”

Cal rose from his chair and stretched. “No, he isn’t.” he said. “Trust me, he really isn’t! What’s on your agenda for the rest of the morning, Pell?” He looked at his consort expectantly.

“I’m presiding over the consecration of a new temple.”

“Sounds thrilling!”

“You can come with me, if you like. I’m sure your presence would be most appreciated”

“What? Not likely… I mean, you heard what Thar said – I’m to keep our guest amused and – what was it? – extend the finest hospitality Phaonica can offer. That’s a full-time job, Pell. I mean, I wish I could come with you and listen to those speeches – I love a good speech, you know me – but duty calls. What’s a har to do?”

“Don’t work too hard then,” Pell said sourly

The assembled hara began to file out of the room, to the accompaniment of the scraping of chairs and low, whispered conversations, often punctuated with suspicious glances at Shadrall. Shadrall appeared not to notice any of these, and latched himself onto Cal as he left.

“Hospitality? Well that sounds very convivial indeed, Calanthe. You don’t mind me calling you Calanthe do you? I think now we’ve become such close and regular acquaintances that I might drop the “Tigron”. What do you think?”

“Cal,” said Cal. “Just “Cal” is fine.”

“Cal it is then! Oh look – there’s Rue!”

Shadrall shot one hand in the air and waved enthusiastically. He succeeded in attracting the attention of The Tigrina, who had apparently been waiting outside the chamber. He had waylaid Pellaz as he was leaving, and was now engaged in some earnest conversation with him. The Tigrina gave a bright smile when he saw Cal and Shadrall, and beckoned them both over. The fought their way through the throng, and joined the other two hara.

“Good morning, fair Tigrina, and what a lovely morning it is, made all the lovelier by your loveliest of lovely presences!”

Rue laughed. “I’m glad you think so, Shad. Although it’s a bit on the early side. My first appointment isn’t till nearer lunch time, but I had an idea and I thought I’d come and check with you first. What are you doing for dinner tonight?”

Shadrall looked thoughtful. “Well, I would have to check my diary – I have a very full social calendar, as you might imagine, and there’s a distinct possibility that I might be cutting my toenails or picking detritus out of my bellybutton – can anyone explain to me why hara have those anyway? – but there’s nothing so important that it can’t be postponed in favour of an evening spent in your exquisite company my dear!”

“Excellent. I’m inviting everyone round for dinner at my private apartments. Pell – that means you too. And Cal. And Loki. And Terez and Raven. The whole family – I want them all to meet you. You will come, won’t you Pell?”

He looked at Pellaz rather anxiously. For a moment, Pell hesitated, and seemed about to refuse, but then he relented.

“Yes, I’ll be there, Rue. I may be a little late, though, I have appointments for most of the day.”

Rue sighed. “I know. So have I. We never seem to do anything but work.”

“Where are you going today?”

Rue shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t checked. Vel knows though…” he indicated a tall and elegant har with very long white hair who was standing a little way off from the group, observing the comings and goings patiently.”

“What would you do without Velaxis to organize your life for you?” Cal asked, shaking his head a little.

“I don’t even want to think about it.” Rue said, shuddering a little. “Now, Cal – I want you to dress up properly this evening. I know it’s a family affair, but I do want you to make an effort. You’ll do that, won’t you Cal?”

“Of course, Rue. Anything for you.”

Shadrall’s attention was drawn towards the exotic presence of Velaxis, and he stared at him with open admiration.

“Now that,” he said to Pellaz, “Is a very fine-looking har indeed!”

Pellaz looked at Velaxis, taking in the other har’s implacable air of impenetrability and adamantine beauty.

“Yes he is.” he said. “He’s also Rue’s closest friend, so I’m sure you will want to get know him better.”

“I certainly would! But I would imagine a har like that has many admirers.”

“As far as I am aware, Velaxis is not romantically involved with any other hara.”

“Really? Well there’s a thing. Do you think he would welcome advances then?”

“I’m sure nothing would delight him more.”

“In that case, I feel it is my duty to rescue him from a life of wistful solitude and abstinence.”

“Exceptionally noble of you.”

“It’s the Gelaming way, nobility. Just being here in Immanion, I feel it soaking into me. Like a particularly fine brandy into a fruit cake.”

“An apt analogy.”

“I have a way with words, Tigron Pellaz.”

“Yes indeed. So does Velaxis. I’m sure you’ll get on splendidly.”

“No time like the present!”

Shadrall trotted eagerly over towards Velaxis, attempting – and failing – to smooth down his unruly hair as he went.

“… and tell Loki he can stay up late if he’s good. Pell – where’s Shad going?” Rue demanded of Pell, frowning a little.

“I think,” Pell said, “he is going to pay Velaxis a compliment.”

Cal stared at Pell. “He’s what?

Rue looked anxiously towards Shadrall.

“Oh dear.” he said

The trio watched as Shadrall approached Velaxis, full of his usual good cheer. The distance was too far for them to hear what was said, but it wasn’t difficult to infer Shadrall’s opening line. Having delivered it, he stood there awaiting Velaxis’ gracious and flattered response.

Velaxis did respond. Cal would have put some money on it being a very short reply, in words of few syllables, but from where they were standing, the Royal threesome were able to see that his reply was lengthy and detailed, delivered with some precision, and as it continued, the confident smile on Shadrall’s face transformed gradually to a frozen rictus.

Finally, Velaxis appeared to have finished, and he turned to leave, casually treading on Shadrall’s left foot with the sharp heel of his boot as he did so. Shadrall’s frozen smile was altered comically to a silent howl of pain.

“Oh dear.” Rue repeated himself rather unnecessarily, while Cal snorted in amusement. Pell’s expression remained impassive.

Shadrall limped back over to the trio.

“Shad! What were you thinking?” Rue scolded him.

For once, Shadrall appeared to be at a loss for words. Eventually he found the wherewithal to express himself.

“That Velaxis. He’s a very … unusual… har.”

“You have no idea” Cal said caustically

“Velaxis is quite charming once you get to know him,” Rue said “I hope you didn’t upset him, Shad.”

“Me? Upset him? Rue, sweetheart, an entire tribe of bloodthirsty Varrs intent upon world domination and the crushing of all civilization couldn’t even remotely trouble that har!”

Pellaz looked up at the arched window where the sun could already be seen starting its daily climb towards its zenith.

“Well, pleasant as this little chat has been,” he said, “ I’m afraid I cannot stand here all day. Some of us have duties to attend to. Rue, you may expect me this evening, but I won’t mind if you start without me if I am held up.”

“We will do no such thing, Pell. You are the guest of honour.”

“I thought that was me!” Shadrall complained

“You are the guest of honour too. I am The Tigrina, and I can have as many guests of honour as I please.”

“I’m glad to see that there are some advantages to the position. It could be such a grind otherwise. All that extending of hospitality.” Shadrall looked at Cal hopefully.

Cal took the hint. “Come on then,” he sighed, “Let’s go and see what the magnificent palace of Phaonica can offer in the way of hospitality at this time in the morning.”

“Breakfast,” Shadrall clasped his hands together in a decisive fashion “Would be a very good start indeed. And I’m wondering if there would be any of that very pleasant wine that the staff saw fit to ply me with last night.”

“That’s your idea of breakfast, is it?”

“Not normally, but I always think you should get it while you can, because you may not be getting it later. And that doesn’t just apply to the wine, if you get my drift.” He winked heavily at Cal.

“How does it feel to be the responsible one, Cal?” Rue said, laughing.

“Not at all what I’m used to. Come on – “ he prodded Shadrall with a bony forefinger “Breakfast awaits. The wineless version. As it happens, I know a very nice little place not far from here which opens early. Or closes very late, I’ve never been quite sure.”

The three made their way leisurely back along the main corridor and eventually spilled out through the front doors of the Hegalion and into the bright sunshine. The air was warm and full of the scent from the luxurious swathes of startlingly pink blossoms which grew all around.

“And after breakfast, I’ll give you the grand tour of Phaonica.”

“I am looking forward to it as a blushing and unsullied virgin looks forward to his Feybraiha night!”

“I don’t think it’s going to be quite that memorable!”

“Why Cal, you sell your lovely palace short! Look at it! Is it not the most spectacularly amazing palace in the entire world?”

Shadrall gestured with a flourish towards Phaonica, atop its hill looking down over the city. In truth, it was difficult not be entranced. The delicate towers and turrets topped by an assortment of domes and cupolas gleamed brightly in the sun. It seemed to be constructed not from heavy stone, but rather of lace and air and spun sugar and cloud.

“It is beautiful,” Rue said, rather wistfully. “Everyhar else in Immanion gets to see it like this, in all its glory – except us.”

“Ah, but we get to see behind the glory,” Shadrall corrected him. “The inside. The shaded salons and the whispering galleries. The intrigue…”

“We don’t have any intrigue. Pell doesn’t like it.”

“I’m sure I can help you with that, Rue. Fostering intrigue is just one of my many talents. Come on Cal, don’t be a laggard – I’m starving. If I’m not to have wine, do you think there’s any chance of a nice big bunch of grapes? The black ones, not the green ones, I’m not so fond of those. I swallow the pips, myself – saves all that social embarrassment of spitting them out and that, but there was this har I knew once who swore that one took root in his intestines, and one day he woke up to find a vine growing out of his…”

“This way,” said Cal firmly, steering Shadrall down a narrow side street. “I’m sure they’ll have whatever you want here, just don’t overdo it – we’ve got a long day ahead of us!”

Chapter 7

“Well – what do you think?”

With a flourish, Cal threw open the great doors and encouraged Shadrall through them.

“I think,” Shadrall put his hand on the door post for support, breathing heavily, “That it is a very, very long way up, Cal.”

“It was only six flights of stairs. That’s nothing!”

“And the hill. That magnificent hill upon which this magnificent palace is situated. Don’t forget that. I don’t know how you manage it, Cal, you must be as fit as a flea to make your way up and down that blasted hill every day.”

Cal grinned at him, seeming to enjoy the other har’s physical discomfort.

“I don’t do it every day. We have transport.”

“Oh do you now, that’s nice to know, after the event. And what form does this transport take? More of those not-entirely-comfortable horses? I think I’d almost rather walk.”

“Something like that,” Cal said mysteriously. “You’ll find out tomorrow.”

“I am overwhelmed with eagerness. If I was a horse myself, I’d be champing at the bit and doing that pawing the ground with the foot thing. ” He removed his hand from the door, straightened his back and took several deep breaths. “Right, I think imminent expiration from lack of oxygen has been narrowly averted. What new wonders spread themselves before us now? What secret and privy part of Phaonica lies revealed?”

“Behold the Grand Ballroom.”

Shadrall peered at the vast room before them, taking in the sumptuous furnishings, the gold leaf, the elegant marble columns and the frescoed walls.

“Oh it’s Grand alright, I’ll give it that. Of all the ballrooms I’ve ever seen, this is definitely the grandest.”

“And how many have you seen?”

“As of today, precisely one.”

“Well that’s it, I’m afraid – you’re completely spoilt as far as ballrooms go now. You’ll spend the rest of your life travelling the world, visiting ballrooms, and they’ll all be a wretched disappointment. None of them will ever match up to Phaonica’s mighty ballroom.”

“You may very well be right, Cal – I see now my entire ballroom-future laid out before me; an endless futile search to reclaim the thrill of that very first ballroom. Little did I know as I stood there in Phaonica, that fateful day, that the Dehara of Brocade Upholstery had cursed me for all eternity.”

“They are a vengeful bunch, those fabric-based Dehara.”

“Well wouldn’t you be – they must work their fingers to the bone in this place. The curtains alone probably have an entire pantheon slaving night and day just to get them to hang straight. Do Dehara have fingers?”

“Oh yes!”

“You sound very sure.”

Cal smiled enigmatically.

“I’m sure the Gelaming know much more about these sort things than we ordinary mortals. I would expect nothing less from a tribe with the very best ballroom in existence. Do you actually have balls here?”

“Yes we do. And other state functions. Banquets, receptions, parties. We do a lot of entertaining. All part of the job.”

“It’s a fine life you have, being Tigron of Immanion. Fortune has smiled upon you, Cal.”

“It has. And it has also occasionally spat in my face and kicked me in the ouana-lim”

Shadrall laughed aloud. “I find that hard to believe. You’ve a charmed air about you, Cal. The Dehara love you, I can tell.”

Cal pulled a wry face. “Not always. Now, have you had enough ballroom for one day? Would you care to see the art gallery? It’s only another two flights of stairs, and there are some particularly fine masterpieces in the collection. The very cream of Wraeththu artistic expression. Or so I’m told.”

“To be perfectly frank with you Cal, I’m of the opinion that there’s only so much astounding beauty and breath-taking magnificence- not to mention stairs – that a har can take in one day, before being driven quite mad with it all, and I believe I may well be approaching that point very soon, so if it’s all the same to you, I think I will give the masterpieces a miss for today.”

“Very wise. I’ve had enough as well. Consider yourself well and truly hospitalitised.”

“Speaking of which, now we’ve both discharged our duty and can faithfully report the same to Chancellor Tharmifex with clear consciences, would there be any chance of maybe just a small glass of that excellent wine? All this admiration has made me thirsty, and I would say that sufficient time has elapsed that we will not be accused of the heinous crime of drinking the stuff for breakfast.”

A lazy grin spread over Cal’s face. “Pell will kill me if he finds out. But – as it happens – I have a bottle or two in my private apartments.”

“Would there be a lot of stairs involved in getting to these private apartments of yours?”

“Two flights. But down all the way.”

“That’ll do for me! Lead on, Tigron Cal!”

They left the magnificent, empty opulence of the ballroom to its own thoughts. Cal pulled the heavy doors closed behind them, and they swung easily into place without a sound, despite their obvious mass. They made their way along Phaonica’s seemingly endless corridors and passageways, the hard metal-tipped heels of Cal’s boots making a rhythmic clicking on the marble floors, while Shadrall followed behind him, his soft leather moccasins making no sound at all.

Eventually they came to yet another imposing set of doors, which opened silently and seemingly of their own accord as pair approached.

“Magic doors!” Shadrall exclaimed, touching one of the doors cautiously with his fingers.

“No, well-trained servants.” Cal indicated the two hara standing silently to attention behind each door.

“Good morning Erlan, good morning Parvael.”

The two servants acknowledged Cal’s greeting with a brief nod of their heads, but did not reply. They closed the doors behind Cal and Shadrall and stood awaiting further duties.

“One for each door! That’s what I call style. Do they say anything?”

“Yes, but only under torture. I’m joking, don’t look so worried!”

“I should hope so! Do they stand there all day, waiting for you to go in and out? You could have some fun with that!”

“The novelty wears off pretty quickly.”

“So you tried it then?”

“I might have.”

“Hah! I knew it! Well, I must say, this is a very nice home you have here Cal. Very cosy. By Phaonican standards, that is. Lovely corbels! Possibly just a tiny bit smaller than I would have expected for the Tigron of Immanion, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“It was originally Pell’s aide’s living quarters it was converted when I moved here. Pell’s apartments are next door. They’re more Tigron-sized, I think you’ll find.”

“I’m sure they are. Your Pellaz doesn’t seem like a har who’d accept any less than six reception rooms. Not one for slumming it, I imagine. I suppose the Tigrina’s apartments are on the other side?”

“No, his apartments are in the opposite wing.”

“And why would that be?”

“Oh, it’s just the way things worked out.”

“Cal, in my admittedly short time here in Immanion, I have observed that the way things usually turn out is exactly as the Tigrons wish them to turn out.”

“Well, let’s just say that there was a time when Rue and Pell didn’t actually have the need to be living in close proximity to each other, and by the time they did, Rue didn’t want to move. Can’t say I blame him, if you ask me, he’s got the best rooms in the palace. We usually end up there, more often than not. You’ll see for yourself tonight when we go for dinner. Now, make yourself comfortable and I’ll go and see if I can find us a bottle of something suitable for mid-morning.”

Shadrall found himself in a bright, sunlit room decorated in the opulent style favoured by the Gelaming. Tasselled silk cushions lay scattered upon the seats, artfully arranged to give an impression of randomness and intricate mosaics decorated much of the walls in rich shades of gold and brown and black.

He wandered casually around the room, inspecting its contents. He paused in front of a carved wooden table displaying a small figurine of the Dehar Aruhani, cast from a dark metal. He touched the figure gently with one inquisitive forefinger, whereupon it immediately fell over with a loud clatter. With a quick, furtive glance around the room he picked it up and stood it upright on the table again.

At that point, Cal reappeared, triumphantly clutching a bottle in his hand.

“I managed to get one myself. I don’t know why it takes 3 househara to serve a bottle of wine, but apparently it does.

“Ridiculous,” agreed Shadrall. “Most people find two is quite sufficient”

Cal poured two large glasses of wine, one of which he handed to Shadrall.

“Welcome to Immanion.” he said, raising his glass, “May your time here be every bit as life-enhancing as mine has been.”

Shadrall raised his own glass and clinked it against Cal’s.

“Here’s to you, Tigron Cal. May your sikras never shrivel and you bed never be empty.”

He took a large gulp of wine and sloshed it noisily around in his mouth before swallowing it with obvious relish.

“Another feather in the cap of the Gelaming. Not content with being the leading lights in the world of ballrooms, they also have the most excellent of wines. I bet it’s made from real grapes and everything!”

“What else would wine be… No, don’t tell me, I don’t think I want to know.”

“Now Cal, don’t be disparaging good old Mojagian Sprut. It’s surprising what can be made from a few root peelings and some fermented milk.”

“True. It’s very surprising indeed. I can’t remember the last time I was quite so surprised.”

“It’s a bit of an acquired taste, I’ll concede that, however it does make the time spent in the company of a Mojag pass rather more agreeably. Or quickly. Which amounts to the same thing. Ah, but this I could get used to…”

He took another gulp of wine, and flopped down on a large sofa, settling himself comfortably amidst a pile of multi-coloured cushions with a sigh of contentment.

“It’s quite the lifestyle you have here, Cal – the wine, the palace, the food, the clothes…”

“Yes. I was going to mention that. I take it they presented you with clothing when you arrived here?”

“Oh they did! Their generosity knew no bounds! I was overwhelmed by an abundance of goodwill and garments. I don’t think I have ever possessed quite such an extensive wardrobe in my life before.”

“I’m sure you haven’t – but I don’t think they intended you to wear them all at the same time.”

Shadrall looked down at himself with an air of surprise, as if he was seeing his superfluity of garments for the first time.

“Oh this isn’t all of them, not by a very long way, Cal.” he announced cheerfully, tugging at one of the many brightly-coloured scarves draped around his neck. “I was just attempting to show my appreciation, and to fit in with the local customs and traditions, as it were. We Gelaming have certain standards to maintain – other tribes look up to us, and it wouldn’t do to give the impression that we were vagabonds or anything of that nature, would it? Do you think I’ve possibly overdone it just a bit?”

“Perhaps just a bit. Why don’t you go and see Rue this afternoon, and get him to sort you out. He’ll soon have you in touch with your inner Gelaming – he has an eye for style and fashion.”

“He does indeed! He was always the fashionable one, was Rue. Back in Ferelithia, everyone wanted to look like him, to dress like him, to be like him but, of course, the imitations were never a patch on the original.”

“What was he like?” Cal asked, curious. “Back in Ferelithia?”

“He was a star! A legend! The most celebrated har in the whole of the city! Well – he believed he was, and that’s what counts, isn’t it?”

“Of course..”

“He used to say to me, though; ‘Shad, one day I’m going to be famous throughout the whole world, and every har will recognize me, wherever I go’.”.

There was a reflective silence.

“He wasn’t wrong about that, was he?” Shadrall sighed.

“No, he certainly wasn’t.”

“So how in the name of Aruhani’s eleven erogenous zones did he come to be Tigrina of Immanion?”

“That, “ said Cal, swirling his wine in its glass, “is a very long story, and one which I’m sure Rue will be glad to tell you himself.”

“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, that’s for sure. A lot can happen in… how long would it be now?”

“Thirty years. At least.”

“That long? It’s hard to believe!”

“I have trouble myself. So where have you been all this time?”

“Oh, places. Around. You know.”

“Not really. Describe them”

“This place and that…”

“I’m none the wiser. Do you actually know where you’ve been?”

Shadrall sighed. “Not really, no. I’m fairly certain I was in Thaine for most of it, but I may have meandered into Ferike at one point. It’s difficult to say. Geography, you see, never was my strong point. Besides, they keep moving the edges about. Or they did, until the Gelaming – I mean, until we Gelaming – put a stop to that.”

“What about Alba Suhl – have ever been there before.”

“Did you not hear me telling Tigron Pellaz that I’d never been there in my life before?”

“Yes, I did. Doesn’t mean I believe you though.”

“Ah, there’s no putting one over on you, Cal, is there? Well, the truth of it is, I did spend a part of my formative years there, and very pleasant it was too, apart from all the social upheaval and violent death and all that, although I wouldn’t want you to think I was complaining, because by all accounts there were worse places to be.”

“I wouldn’t disagree with you on that.”

“However, I decided I needed to broaden my horizons, see a bit more of the world and all its wonders, which is when I made my way over to Cordagne, intending to head south because I had heard the weather was a good deal better down there, but I got a bit lost – geography, you know – and I ended up… well, I’m not entirely sure, but there was a good deal of snow about the place.” He twirled his glass by the stem, admiring the ruby liquid within.

“There’s been many a time when I’ve thought about returning to dear old Alba Suhl, but…”

“The weather hasn’t improved any?”

“It may have done, for all I know. It certainly couldn’t have got any worse. No, I just… haven’t been able to find the place again. It’s the – “

“ – geography. Yes, quite.”

“It’s a fair old way from Almagabra though, of that I’m certain. I hope the Chancellor is not in any hurry for his book.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Cal told him with a smirk “We Gelaming have ways and means of getting to places quickly.”

“Do you? I mean, have we? And what would these ways and means be?”

“It’s a little tricky to explain.”

“Do you best.”

“I’ll try. As you know, we Gelaming are a very advanced tribe,”

“But modest with it. Not ones to brag. ”

“Of course not. We have virtue coming out of our ears.”

“That sound extremely messy, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“Possibly not quite the turn of phrase I was aiming for, but anyway, due to our advanced and spiritual nature, we have the ability to travel through other dimensions – through what we call The Otherlanes.”

“We do? I’m impressed by our talents.”

“So are most of the other tribes. It’s a useful ability to have.”

“That would certainly explain the Gelaming’s reputation for appearing out of nowhere like the avenging angels that I’m sure they don’t want to resemble in the slightest. Unfortunately, I’ve only been Gelaming myself for somewhat less than a day and half, and have yet to master this particular skill.”

Cal gave him a friendly pat on the knee. “It’s alright, you won’t have to. It’s all taken care of.”

“Well I don’t mind how I travel just so long as it doesn’t involve sitting on one of those horses again. Not that I have anything against them personally, you understand. Magnificent beasts. Would stuff a sofa with one any day. It’s just that my backside isn’t used to taking quite such a beating. Not in the cause of travel, anyway. And there are some places a har simply shouldn’t have blisters, if you get my meaning.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

“But it will be pleasant to see dear old Alba Suhl again after all this time. Have you ever been there yourself, Cal?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“It would do you good to visit the place. I mean, Almagabra’s very lovely indeed, don’t get me wrong, but travel broadens the mind. And gets you out of the house, too. Or palace, in your case. It’s a most interesting world we live in, and life is too short to spend it stuck in the one place, however lovely that place might be.”

“My travelling days are over.” Cal said, shaking his head. “I have travelled enough for one lifetime. It’s time for me to settle down.”

“I’m sure you don’t mean that, Cal. You’re an adventurous har yourself – I can tell that, I have a sort of seventh sense about these things. I’m sure you have a few stories you could tell!” He nudged Cal rather drunkenly in the ribs. “It’s alright, you know – you can share them with me – I can keep a secret. I won’t go telling your lovely Pellaz about your wild and wicked past. I’m sure you’re a reformed character nowadays anyhow.”

“Pell knows all about my past,” Cal said primly.

“Well that probably explains the permanent look of disapproval he wears.”

“He doesn’t! Not permanently. It’s only semi-permanent.” he gave a sudden laugh, then looked down at his empty glass.

“I knew it was a bad idea to drink wine at this time in the morning. The Hegemony’s spies will be falling over themselves to report this latest indiscretion.”

Shadrall looked alarmed. “The Hegemony have spies?”

“Oh yes, but we have spies spying on their spies, so that’s alright.”

“Aghama protect us! The intrigue! Who would have thought such a thing from the spiritually-inclined Gelaming!”

“The Aghama has spies too.”

“Does he indeed? I thought he was all-seeing? Why would he need spies?”

“He likes to delegate.”

“A sensible and pragmatic attitude to take. That’s my sort of deity!. Still, I’m glad to know that the Aghama’s all-seeing eye isn’t always turned my way. In my line of work, a bit of invisibility is a useful thing. The trick of being unnoticeable. The ability to vanish at a moment’s notice.”

At this, Shadrall’s arm described a decisive and dramatic flourish in the air, as if he was a magician performing a disappearing act.

Cal looked at him expectantly.

“You’re still here.” he said.

“I didn’t mean literally. Although, come to think of it, that would be a useful skill to have too. I meant more in a sort of metaphysical way. Taking oneself out of the picture, as it were. Avoiding attention. Some hara, Cal – and I’m sure you’ve met a few in your time – are just naturally the centre of everything. They are the instigators of great events, and they are the bearers of glamour and charisma and when they enter a room, all eyes turn towards them. It seems to be rather the norm here in Immanion, which must get a bit exhausting at times, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“However, some hara, like myself, can pass wholly unnoticed while these towering titans of allure practice their bewitchery and dazzle those in the immediate vicinity.

He was thoughtful for a moment.

“Rue was always good at that. We made a fine team.”

“He still is. He practices his bewitchery on the entire population of Immanion, much to their pleasure. You were a professional partnership too, then?”

“Well, not so much, Rue wasn’t really what you’d call a professional, in my profession – more a sort of gifted amateur, but he was always willing to help out when the need arose. A true friend, and a useful strategy. I miss that.”

“You haven’t had another… partner… since?”

“He’s a hard act to follow, is Rue.”

“Yes indeed. Pell thinks so.”

Shadrall looked at Cal carefully.

“And what would be the mighty Pellaz’s thoughts on the matter, exactly?”

“He thinks Rue is more popular with the hara of Immanion than he is. Actually, Rue is more popular than Pell, but that’s hardly surprising. It’s his job. Waving and smiling. Looking beautiful.”

“And possibly our Pellaz experiences a touch of the emerald-eyed monster?”

Cal laughed. “No. He has more important things to worry about.”

“Of course he does. He has an empire to run, after all.”

“It’s not an empire Who told you that? It’s an alliance. A confederation.”

“And is it voluntary, membership of this alliance?”

“Yes of course it is. Mostly.”

“No hands were dirtied in the making of this Empire, is that it? Well, as long as you are happy with the things that are done in your name, then that’s alright.”

“They’re not done in my name!”

“You’re the Tigron.”

“I’m a Tigron.”

“Hair-splitting just a fraction, don’t you think?”

“Not really. Anyway, I’ve only been Tigron for a short time compared with Pell and Rue.”

“And does Rue have much say in Gelaming foreign policy?”

Cal gave a non-committal shrug. “More than he used to, I suppose.”

“So it’s all on Pellaz’s head.”

“No. It had nothing to do with him.”

“He’s the Tigron. And I don’t think he can hide behind the indefinite article with as much confidence as you can, Cal.”

“It’s not like that. There’s the Hegemony. And Thiede.”

“I’ve heard of him. Where is he?”

“Gone.”

“Gone where?”

“Just…gone.”

“Pellaz had him horribly murdered!”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Pell has never had anyhar murdered, horribly or otherwise.”

“And how would you know that? Seeing as you missed out on a good thirty year’s worth of his Tigronship yourself. There could have been a lot of horrible murderings going on during that time for all you know.”

“Well there wasn’t, I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

“That’s not what they say in the far distant reaches of Thaine, and beyond.”

“And what do they say in the far distant reaches of Thaine? And beyond”

“They say that the Gelaming are a bunch of interfering, pious, do-gooders who won’t let honest hara live their lives they way they want to, and who are determined to impose their own ways on every other tribe, by force or trickery if necessary. Oh – and that they’ll take aruna with anything that moves.”

“Not – “ he raised one finger imperiously to silence Cal whose mouth was already open to register his disagreement – “- that I believe a word of it. Well, maybe the bit about aruna.. I’m hoping to confirm that personally during my stay in Immanion. The truth is, we Gelaming are simply misunderstood. I’m sure our motives are pure, even if our methods are a bit suspect.”

“Our methods are perfectly acceptable, I’ll have you know.”

“Now Cal, how can you say that when your very own consort and fellow Tigron has secretly engaged the services of a notorious and infamous thief in order to steal an item of some considerable value from an innocent tribe going about their own business in a remote and somewhat dismal corner of the world?”

“Innocent? There are a number of words I would use to describe the Sulh,” Cal said, “But “innocent” is not among them. They are a devious tribe, given to subterfuge”

“My personal experience leads me to the conclusion that you are not wrong in that respect.” Shadrall nodded seriously, as if pondering on things of a weighty and philosophical nature. “In fact, it’s my opinion that there’s not an innocent har alive – myself, yourself, and your delightful Pellaz included.”

“He was once,” Cal said wistfully.

“I’ll take your word for it. Is it a tragic tale of paradise lost, corruption of the spirit and disillusionment of the heart?”

“Yes it is, since you ask. And no, I’m not going to tell you about it.”

“In time, I could weasel it out of you. You know I could.”

“In that case it’s just as well you’re leaving tomorrow then, isn’t it?”

“Such a shame to be leaving Phaonica so soon, I was just getting to know the place, but I confess to feeling a tingle of excitement at the thought of a new adventure just over the horizon. In fact, I may even be having a frisson as well. When was the last time you had a frisson, Cal?”

“I think I’m having one now. That’s what a couple of glasses of wine before lunch will do to you.”

Shadrall picked the wine bottle up from the table, and turned it this way and that, peering through the darkened glass to inspect the contents. Finding it to be empty, he turned it upside down. A single droplet of red liquid appeared at the neck of the bottle, hung there for a second, then dripped onto one of the bright silk cushions, leaving a small stain the colour of blood. Shadrall gave an embarrassed cough.

“I’m sure it’ll come out,” he said hopefully, rubbing at the mark with his finger and spreading it further. “I hope that wasn’t your favourite cushion.”

“I try not have favourites,” Cal told him, “It makes the other cushions jealous.”

“Hah. I like a har with a sense of humour! Well, you’ve been a marvellous host, Cal, but I’m not one to outstay my welcome. I’m thinking I might take in a few of the sights of Immanion this afternoon, since I’m headed for Alba Sulh tomorrow.”

“You’re not supposed to leave Phaonica”

“I won’t let on if you don’t.”

Cal gave a dry laugh. “Let me put it this way. You won’t be allowed to leave Phaonica”

“Guards on the door, eh?”

“Not even necessary.”

“Ah well, I was thinking I would just slip out the back way. You’d be surprised how often somehar leaves a handy window open.”

This only seemed to amuse Cal further.

“Fine, have it your way. Just be sure you’re back in time for Rue’s dinner tonight. He’ll be very upset if you’re unavoidably detained.”

“Oh, I’ll be back long before then. This dinner party – “ Shadrall’s normally cheerful expression was replaced by one of slight trepidation. “ – is it a formal sort of affair, do you think?”

“Not at all. Just family and friends. ”

“Well that’s a relief, I’m not so good at the etiquette and the formality and stuff, but I’m looking forward to meeting all these fine hara.”

He stood up and carefully placed the empty wine bottle back on the table, watching it with apprehension for a moment, as if he expected it to do something unpredictable.

A servant swept noiselessly into the room and plucked the bottle from the table. When he caught sight of the wine-stained cushion, he tutted in irritation.

Shadrall adjusted his collection of multi-coloured scarves and ribbons around his neck. He appeared to have arranged them such that each one lay next to another of a violently clashing hue. When he was satisfied, he thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his breeches.

“Now, which would be the best way to take me back to where we entered your lovely palace?”

“Just turn left when you leave my apartments and head for the main stairs If you get lost, ask one of the serving staff. There’s plenty of them about.”

“A ball of string is what we need in this place. Except if everyhar had one, we’d all have to have different colours otherwise we’d get mixed up and end up where we didn’t want to go”

Cal had a brief vision of Phaonica as a tangled basket of multi-coloured yarns, filled with confused residents searching for their living quarters.

He accompanied Shadrall to the door, where the same two servants were either still in place since earlier, or had, miraculously, appeared just as Cal and his guest arrived there. The doors were opened again with the same choreographed efficiency.

“Well it has been a most agreeable morning, Tigron Cal. Yes, even our little bit of official business down at the Hegalion I’m looking forward to seeing you again tonight. And Tigron Pellaz, too. Always a pleasure. But I mustn’t be keeping you from your official duties any longer. You’ll have important things to attend to.”

“So I’m told, although I suspect half the things I’m ambushed with could just as easily be taken care of by the administrative staff. But I enjoyed playing truant with a bottle of wine for once – it made me feel wicked and decadent again.”

“We all need a bit of wickedness occasionally. It keeps the mind from atrophying. And possibly some other parts of the anatomy too.”

“I knew there was a good reason for it. Feel free to explore Phaonica at your leisure. It’s a big palace – it should keep you busy. Try not to break any of the priceless artefacts.”

“I’ll try not to. I’m very careful, usually. That one particular vase had a bit of a wobbly plinth – bit of a let-down that, you don’t expect wobbly plinths from the Gelaming – but they found all the bits, and I’m sure it can be repaired.”

With that, Shadrall raised an imaginary hat, and made his exit from Cal’s apartments. The doors swung closed again, guided by the patient servants, leaving Cal alone in the silent hall.

When the doors closed behind him, Shadrall did not turn left as Cal had instructed. Instead, he took off in the opposite direction, making his way along the corridor, pausing occasionally to marvel at a particularly impressive column or frieze. It wasn’t long until he came to what was – even by Phaonica’s standards – a magnificent and lavish area. The corridor widened into a cool atrium with a fountain and pool in the centre Pillars of polished, sparkling stone formed a ceremonial guard around the area, and at the far end a flesh-and-blood guard comprising of two bored-looking hara stood silent and still.

When they saw Shadrall, they gave him a suspicious look, but he doffed his imaginary cap again, and they looked away, deliberately ignoring him.

Shadrall grinned to himself and began running his hands over the wall, humming tunelessly under his breath. The stone felt cold and hard to his exploring fingers. No flaw or imperfection marked its surface; no roughness or unevenness. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine it to be a vertical expanse of water, petrified into immobility, with nothing of its liquid nature remaining except the frictionless surface.

He put his ear to the stone, held his breath and listened. He could hear his own heartbeat, but also other small, tantalizing sounds joining together to form a complex rhythm. Phaonica’s own heartbeat. The sounds of footsteps and breathing and words and music and laughter and passion, transmitted through the very fabric of the palace.

The bored guards continued to ignore him. Casually, he moved further along the atrium until he came to a vast set of doors which made those giving entry into the ballroom, or even Cal’s apartments, seem insignificant in comparison. They were carved from the darkest of ebony wood, and polished as smooth as the stone around them, but when Shadrall laid his hand carefully upon the surface, it felt warm, as if the wood was still in some way alive.

The doors were inlaid with semi-precious gems and stones, worked into geometric patterns. In the centre of each door the wood had been carved into a recognizable figure – a large letter P, entwined with and overlaid by a letter A.

Shadrall reached up his hand, and found that he could just touch the curling bottom tail of the letter A. He could see nothing that resembled a locking mechanism on the doors, but judged that there was no possibility that they would open to a casual push.

There was no sound from within. Pellaz har Aralis himself was no doubt still about his public duties, and not in residence, but it struck Shadrall as unusual that the normal bustle of serving staff attending to the daily business of housekeeping and cleaning was also absent. He smiled to himself; an excited, child-like smile.

He removed his hand from the door, conscientiously brushing away an invisible speck of dust, then padded silently away, across the atrium and down the corridor on the other side, totally unnoticed by the two hara across from him.

Chapter 8

Caeru swept through the largest reception room in his apartments in a state of some agitation. In his wake, a resigned-looking servant followed, clutching a brace of polished candlesticks and a feather duster.

“I want this place cleaned properly, Lurien, we might retire here later. Or perhaps we’ll use the red sitting room, it’s more intimate. What do you think?”

The Tigrina did not wait for a reply. He swerved purposefully and retraced his steps, out of the reception room, across the hallway and into a smaller room on the other side. The servant trotted dutifully after him. He was used to his master’s ways, having been in the Tigrina’s service for many years. Caeru enjoyed entertaining on a regular basis, but he liked everything to be just so, and it was not unknown for his plans for an evening to be revised a number of times prior to the actual event.

Today, however he had been particularly fussy, and even the long-suffering Lurien was beginning to weary of his master’s constant changes of heart when it came to which room to use, what aperitif to offer his guests upon their arrival, what wine to serve with dinner and what style of table linen would best complement the food.

Privately, Lurien thought that the Tigrina perhaps did not have quite enough to occupy his mind, and could do with a pastime that did not involve eating, drinking or gossiping, but he was fond of his master none the less, and did his best to satisfy all his demands. It was an honour, after all, to work for the Tigrina of Immanion, and when he was not in a flap about trivial matters he was a considerate and thoughtful employer.

“Yes, I think this would be better. Unless we remain out on the terrace – the weather is still warm in the evenings, and it is more agreeable outdoors than in. Have this room properly aired anyway, just in case. My goodness, look at the time! They’ll be here soon. Is everything ready for dinner?”

“Of course.” Lurien assured him, “Everything has been attended to, as you instructed. The staff are quite used to preparing and serving food, you know.”

Caeru either did not notice the mild rebuke in Lurien’s words, or was too distracted to reprimand him for it.

“Yes, but this is a special occasion, Lurien. I’m entertaining a very old friend that I haven’t seen in years. I want him to feel… special.”

“I’m sure he will, “ Lurien said. “Nohar could fail to feel anything other than exceptional when the Tigrina lavishes his hospitality upon him.”

Caeru looked pleased. “I do try,” he said. “It’s important to keep up standards. Oh – the guest are arriving! I hear voices. Run and make sure they know in the kitchens!”

“Everything is in hand, Tigrina,” Lurien tried not to let his amusement show, and departed in the direction of the kitchens to share the news of the arrival with the rest of the staff.

Caeru patted his hair, tidying some imagined imperfection, then went out to greet his guests.

In the elegant entrance hall, more servants were fussing around two hara – both dark-haired, one dark-skinned – removing impedimenta and offering flowers and scented oils.

“Terez, Raven. How marvellous that you could come. And on time, too.”

Terez and Raven exchanged a private look, but both kept a completely straight face.

“We come every week, Rue.” Raven said, waving away one of the more enthusiastic serving hara who was attempting to attach a large red hibiscus flower to his long dark braids. “Is this really necessary? We usually manage quite well without.”

“I wanted to make it a little special this evening,” Caeru explained. “A very old friend of mine has recently arrived in Immanion, and I want to you all to meet him.”

“Where is he then, this friend of yours?” Terez asked.

“Oh he’s not here yet.”

“Not late, I hope,” Raven said dryly.

“No, he just – “

“Of course I’m not.!” At the sound of the unfamiliar voice, Terez and Raven turned around and found a newcomer in their midst.

“ Would I be late for dinner with the most lovely and desirable Tigrina in the whole of Immanion? I hope you don’t mind, Rue but the door was open and…”

“Shad! You’re supposed to be announced. I always have my guests announced. Oh well, never mind. You look lovely! Have you done something with your hair?”

“I brushed it.” Shadrall told him, with some pride.

“So you did. Well done. We’ll make a Gelaming of you yet. Shadrall, this is Terez and Raven. Terez is Pell’s brother, and Raven is his chesnari. Terez, Raven, this is Shadrall, an old friend of mine from Ferelithia.”

Terez and Raven both gave small, formal bows. Shadrall appeared a little nonplussed, but copied the gesture himself a few times, looking hopefully at Rue, who signalled his approval by smiling graciously.

“Come along. We’re dining on the terrace.” Rue shepherded his guests along the hallway. He indicated to the servants to dispose of the flowers and perfumes.

“I wouldn’t want to spoil my appetite anyway,” Shadrall said, as he dropped a large purple bloom back into the basket held by a stoic househar.

“Pell said he might be a little late,” Rue continued, as they made their way through his apartments. “But I think we’ll wait for him, don’t you? We can have some chilled wine while we wait, it’ll be very refreshing, it’s been such a warm day today…”

They passed through one final room, and then through the open full-length windows at its far end, and out onto the terrace. Terez and Raven made straight for their favourite seats, but Shadrall halted, looking all around him, his face a picture of wonder and delight.

“Well now – would you look at that? “

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Rue said, trying to look blasé, but finding himself smiling almost as broadly as Shadrall at the other har’s excitement.

The Tigrina’s terrace was a wide and spacious area furnished with an eclectic mixture of seats, potted plants and small statuettes. Vines and creeping foliage grew overhead, providing shade during the heat of the day, and perfume from night-blossoms after dark. A balustrade of carved stone marked its furthest edge, and beyond that, the hanging gardens of Phaonica tumbled down in lush tiers, studded with exotic blooms of all hues and colours and bearing the scent of moist green foliage into the air. Somewhere nearby, the sound of running water could be heard.

Beyond the gardens, Immanion itself lay spread below, with its neatly tiled roofs and minarettes clearly visible from this vantage point. It was early evening, and already a few winking lights could be seen among the buildings. Beyond the city was the sea; calm and smooth, relaxing after the activity of the day. The sun was low, but not yet set. It sat on the surface of the water, a neon red ball reflecting a long trail in the mirror surface. Above, the sky had abandoned its uniform daytime blue and had dressed itself for the evening in an array of purple, orange and gold. The panorama of city and sea and sky seemed to fill the entire world, as if nothing else could possibly exist alongside such splendour.

Raven turned his head and looked solemnly at the magnificent sunset blazing behind him.

“How quickly we come to take such gifts for granted.”

He stared at the scene, the fire of the departing sun reflecting in his dark eyes, obscuring his expression.

“I have travelled from one end of Thaine to another – possibly – ” Shadrall said, still gazing in awe at the view, “and I have never seen anything so spectacular.. Apart from yourself, of course. Rue you are a fortunate har, but if anyhar deserves this, it’s you.”

“How did you manage to get the best apartments in Phaonica anyway?” Terez enquired.

Rue shrugged. “It was Thiede’s decision. I had no choice in the matter. I went where I was told to go.” Then he smiled. “But I do like it here.”

“Thiede must have had a soft spot for you.” Raven said.

“You won’t be moving nearer to Pell’s apartments then?” asked Terez

“No, why should…”

There was a slight commotion at the back of the terrace, and a small harling, no more than two years old, ran out from inside to join the group of adults, pursued by a rather harried-looking attendant, with Cal bringing up the rear.

“Loki!” Caeru cried in delight. The harling laughed, and ran straight to the Tigrina, throwing himself into Caeru’s welcoming and almost suffocating embrace.

“Pick me up!” Loki demanded.

“I can’t, you’re getting too big! But you can sit on my knee.”

Caeru sat down in one of the chairs, and Loki obligingly climbed up onto his knee, settling himself down happily. Caeru hugged him tightly. Although Loki was only two years old, being a Wraeththu harling he was considerably larger and more mature than a human child of a similar age.

The attendant arrived, somewhat out of breath.

“I’m sorry, Tiahaara, he ran off. He wanted to say goodnight to everyhar before he goes to bed.”

“That’s alright, we wanted to say goodnight too.” Caeru gave Loki a soft kiss on the cheek, and the harling giggled.

“What a handsome child and no mistake!” Shadrall beamed at Loki with benign paternalism..

“Who are you?” Loki asked, with childish directness.

“I,” Shadrall informed him grandly , “Am the High Ptangpoo of Wob, known throughout the length and breadth of Almagabra for my exceptional magical skills and breathtaking beauty.”

“Anyhar can do magic,” said Loki, unimpressed.

“A cynic eh? Well, can anyhar do this?”

Shadrall knelt down in front of Loki, and reached up behind the child’s left ear, as if to retrieve something from there. He brought his hand forward and held it, fist tightly closed, in front of Loki’s face.

“What’s in there?” Loki asked.

Shadrall opened his hand, and a small silver coin was revealed.

“I don’t need money,” Loki told him.

“Don’t you now? You’re a very fortunate har indeed then, Loki. Have a look in your pocket – maybe you’ll find something you need in there.”

Loki looked confused. “My pocket’s empty. Renn takes everything out at night.”

“Are you sure? Have a look.”

Loki screwed his face up as if thinking very hard for a moment, then shoved his hand into the side pocket of his night-garments. A look of surprise appeared on his face, and he brought out a model of a horse, brightly coloured and with soft fur for a mane and tail.

“It’s a sedu!” he cried. He looked at Shadrall suspiciously “How did that get there?”

“Magic. I told you.”

“That’s not magic,” Loki insisted “Magic is when you move the world and summon the Dehara with your will alone. My hostling can do real magic.”

“Can he now? I didn’t realise he was so accomplished.” Shadrall addressed these words directly to Rue, who looked slightly embarrassed.

“I’m not Loki’s hostling,” he said.

“Oh.”

“Pellaz is my hostling,” Loki told him. “Pellaz is the Tigron. And Cal is my father. He’s the Tigron too. And Rue is my Hura.” He looked very pleased at himself at being able to recite this information correctly.

“Well I can certainly see the resemblance between you and your father. You’re the spitting image of each other. Cal – you never told me you had a family.”

Cal ruffled Loki’s hair affectionately. “Am I not allowed to have a few secrets?”

“I just didn’t take you for the domestic type. You’ll be telling me you knit next.”

“I’m starting lessons next week.”

Loki looked at him in surprise.

“Are you?”

Cal laughed. “No, I’m just being silly.”

“Why did you say you were, then?” Loki said crossly, obviously feeling that Cal had no business announcing his knitting lessons if he had no intention of taking them.

Shadrall gently pressed the tip of the child’s nose with his finger tip. “Loki, sometimes hara say things that just aren’t true. They simply make things up. All manner of things! It’s a dreadful, dreadful habit, and one that I’m sure that you will never get into.”

“Not me!” Loki assured him.

“Splendid! That’s what we like to hear!”

“Can I keep the sedu?”

“Of course you can. Put it down deep in your pocket, and Renn won’t find it.”

Loki looked dubious.

“It’s quite big.” he said

“Loki, there’s nothing so big that it can’t be hidden with a bit of guile. In fact, the bigger it is, the easier it is to hide, because nohar expects you to try.”

Loki blinked up at Shadrall, his child’s eyes wide and without comprehension. The attendant seized the opportunity and took hold of his hand, giving it a gentle tug. He hopped down from Caeru’s lap, and executed a rather wobbly curtsy.

“Goodnight, Tiahaara,” he said, with great formality.

“Goodnight Loki.” Rue said, touching his cheek.

Loki looked up at Shadrall, his small face serious..

“I’m going to be Tigron one day.”

“And what a marvellous day that will be! You’ll be the best Tigron that has ever been, of that there’s no doubt!”

Loki smiled with pleasure and skipped off, the attendant still clutching him firmly by the hand.

Shadrall waved to him as left.

“Aren’t they a delight, the little ones? Out of the mouths of babes, and all that…”

“Some hara still find them strange,” Cal said

“Strange? Why would that be?”

“The way we have them. The way they grow up so quickly.”

“That’s only because hara like you and me, Cal – and, I dare say, the rest of the illustrious company here – we used to be humans. Now, you ask one of the second generation hara what his feelings are on the matter, and you will get an entirely different answer. If anything, they think that the human method of reproduction is the peculiar one.”

“Why, I met a very pleasant young har once, to whom I was obliged to break the news about where humans come from. His education had been severely neglected upon that subject. He was dealing with it well, until I got to the part where the infant has to climb back up the mother’s leg and into the pouch, and then he didn’t look so rosy-cheeked, if you take my meaning.”

“I don’t actually think that’s what happens.” Raven said.

“No? Ah well, maybe you’re right – it’s been a very long time, I don’t really remember the details terribly well myself.”

Cal pulled a mock-horrified face.

“I’m not surprised the poor har was traumatized. I could do with a drink myself after visualizing that.”

“Would you like a glass of wine?” Rue asked him, remembering his role as host.

“That would be most appreciated.”

Rue glanced in the direction of the long windows, and immediately Lurien appeared bearing a tray full of long-stemmed glasses filled with pale liquid.

“So do you intend to have your own harlings, then?” Raven asked Shadrall, taking a glass from the tray.

“I can think of nothing that would give me greater pleasure. Except perhaps an all-night roon fest with the entire staff of one of those houses of penance that the Hassadah are so famous for. But harlings are a big responsibility, and my lifestyle is a little on the peripatetic side. Harlings need stability and permanence and parents with a sense of responsibility. And enormous wealth. Exactly what you are providing young Loki with. He’s a fortunate harling, may the sun continue to shine on his chubby countenance and the Dehara facilitate his remarkably trouble-free and conventional upbringing.”

Shadrall raised his glass in salute, and emptied half the contents down his throat in one gulp.

“And will Loki’s charming hostling be joining us this evening?” he asked Rue.

“Pell said he might be a bit late – he has official duties to perform – but I’m sure he won’t be much longer.”

“It’s a shame he wasn’t here to wish the little one goodnight. Work is just work, but family is precious. You can miss such a lot if you’re not careful, and never have the opportunity to regain those times.”

“And you’d be an expert on such matters, I suppose?” Cal said, sounding rather defensive.

“Not at all. But it’s a well-known fact. However I can see that you are a doting parent, Cal. An example to all Wraeththu-kind. You and Pellaz must be such an inspiration to everyhar when it comes to a stable and harmonious family life.”

“I think perhaps we should be seated at the table now,” Rue interrupted Shadrall’s panegyric hastily. “Pell will be here soon, the ritual finishes before sunset. Bring your glasses, Lurien will serve us more wine in a moment.”

The group rose from their seats and took themselves over to sit at the table which had been set out at the end of the terrace, overlooking the gardens. It was laid with an abundance of damask napery, glittering crystal and polished silverware. A large candelabra graced its centre, set with a cascade of ivory candles, already lit and casting a soft pool of light over in the table in the rapidly encroaching twilight.

Cal pulled a chair out and with a wave of his hand invited Shadrall to sit, as if he were a lowly serving har rather than the Tigron.

“I see you got some advice from Rue then,” he said “About the clothes.”

“Is it that obvious?”

“Yes it is. But I’m not criticizing. Far from it – I like it. It’s definitely an improvement. Very stylish”

Shadrall visibly swelled. “I’m particularly taken with the colour, myself. Rue says it matches my eyes. ” He fingered the edge of the dark green silk brocade fabric. “There are some skilled and talented hara here in Immanion indeed – it’s a work of art you could hang on the walls of Phaonica itself. If I wasn’t wearing it, of course.”

Cal leaned towards him for a closer look. Despite the intricate workmanship, the fabric was light and flowing, rendering it suitable for Immanion’s warm climate. The shift was open at the neck, and as Cal admired the delicate detail, he noticed something gleaming around Shadrall’s neck. He inspected it with interest. It was heavy, twisted chain upon which there hung a golden lion’s head, wrought with great skill and attention to detail. Every hair upon the creature’s head was clearly visible, and its eyes were two brilliant yellow topazes set into the metal.

“That’s a very striking piece of jewellery you’re wearing too.”

“It is, isn’t it?”

“Where did you get it?”

“Well as it happens, I purchased it from a very fine-looking har I met in Immanion this very afternoon.”

“Really? What was his name?”

“Wait now – what did he say it was… Nawtaraylahar. Yes, that was it. Beautiful creature. He used to be the consort of a high-ranking Phylarch in Gimrah, but he was kidnapped and brought to Immanion by a marauding tribe from the north. He has turned his hand to metalwork in order to earn the money to return home – or put a contract out on the kidnappers, I can’t remember which it was.”

“I’m not surprised.” Cal lifted the pendant and inspected it closely.

“The odd thing is,” he said, “Pell has one exactly like this.”

“Does he indeed? What an amazing coincidence.”

“Yes. He keeps it in a locked jewellery chest. In his locked apartments. In his locked and guarded apartments.”

“Very perspicacious of him. Your Pellaz is a very sensible har. No wonder he’s such a fine Tigron. However, if I may say so, Cal, those guards are not what you might call watchful. Of course, it’s perfectly understandable – the very last thing they’ll be thinking is that anyhar is going to enter Tigron Pellaz’s own private apartments and rummage through the contents of his jewellery chest. Not that anyhar did, you understand. It would be quite unthinkable. Or unethical. Or possibly both.”

Call grinned. “I think it’s just as well you’re leaving tomorrow. You could get yourself into a lot of trouble round here.”

“And what are they going to do? Lock me up?”

“Worse. They will make you repent of your wicked ways.”

“I don’t go in for repenting much. It hasn’t got a lot to recommend it, to my way of thinking And my ways aren’t wicked! They’re just a bit questionable, that’s all. Ah, yes, thank you that’s very kind…”

Shadrall offered up his empty glass to Lurien, who was making his way around the table with a bottle.

“Is the food any good round here?” he asked Cal “I’m a little peckish, I must admit.”

“It’s the best in Immanion. Would you expect any less?”

“Of course not! Bring it on!” He unfolded one of the crisp napkins and tucked it in at his neck, hiding the pendant.

“Pell!” All heads turned in the direction of the palace as Pellaz appeared through the tall windows, and made his way over to join them. Rue stood up to greet his consort, a warm smile on his face.

“I hope I haven’t kept everyhar waiting, “ he said, sitting down in the empty chair next to Cal. “Rue, I didn’t bother changing, I hope that’s alright.”

“Of course it is. We want to see you, not your clothes.”

“We had the pleasure of meeting your son earlier,” Shadrall told him.

Pellaz gave him a strange look.

“He means Loki,” Rue said quickly.

“Beautiful child. You must be very proud.”

“Yes, I suppose so. Rue, the representative from the Emunah was making noises about an official visit from the Gelaming again. I really don’t have the time – perhaps we could send you, nearer Shadetide. We have to butter them up, I suppose, they do control the main sea-route from the Jaddayoth to Almagabra.”

“Of course.” said Rue “Whatever you think best. I don’t mind. Personally I find Oriole to be one of the more pleasant Wraeththu cities. Everything’s so clean and fresh there.”

Cal pulled a face. “Rue, everywhere you go is clean and fresh, because they spruce it up for you coming. They have hara out with the paint pots and the polish for weeks beforehand. Everyhar likes to make a good impression on The Tigrina. Now, if you were to go incognito, I doubt you’d find Oriole quite so neat and tidy. It might be a bit of a shock to your refined sensibilities.”

“I wasn’t always The Tigrina,” Rue said, with a touch of indignation. “I do know about how ordinary hara live, having lived that way myself once. You’d probably be quite shocked yourself, Cal!”

“Oh really? Do tell!”

“Later, perhaps. Let’s eat now. Lurien is going to be terribly cross with us if we keep him waiting any longer.”

At a brief nod from the Tigrina, Lurien beckoned a small army of serving hara forth, bearing plates and dishes of steaming food from which tempting and spicy aromas wafted into the evening air.

As Cal had promised, the food in Phaonica was second to none. Several courses arrived in orderly succession, presided over by the efficient Lurien, each one more delicious than the next. The wine flowed with equal abundance, carefully chosen to compliment the food, and dispensed into fine crystal goblet which rang with a musical note when touched together.

By the time the dishes had been cleared, and the final tray of sweetmeats brought, it was completely dark, and the terrace was lit by the candles on the table, and rows of coloured lanterns hung from the trees and plants, and along the balustrade.

The air was warm and still, and filled with an intoxicating perfume from the tiny star-shaped flowers which had opened themselves to lure in the giddy moths with their musk. All around, night-insects chirped and sang, calling to others of their kind. The night air was alive with the desire of every living thing to procreate.

Shadrall pushed his chair back from the table, and stretched his legs out. He removed the now rather stained napkin from around his neck, dropped it on the table in front of him, and sighed with contentment.

“That was the finest meal I have ever had the pleasure of consuming.”

“It wasn’t bad,” Cal agreed. “But it was rather spoilt for me by the fact that the vegetables were arranged facing north to south. I really wanted my vegetables facing east to west. Is that so much to ask?” he placed a hand to his forehead, palm outwards and feigned tragedy.

“You shouldn’t joke about things like that,” Rue said. “I remember when I came here first, and they kept asking me what colour I wanted my nails painted, and what cosmetics I wanted. In the end I told them to paint every one a different colour and draw blue freckles on my cheeks. I was too embarrassed to go out that day.”

“It must have taken a bit of getting used to, all this palace stuff, after how we lived in Ferelithia.”

“Yes, “ said Rue, a trace of wistfulness in his voice, “It was certainly a big upheaval.”

“So how did you two meet each other in Ferelithia anyway?” Cal asked

Shadrall folded his hands together in a businesslike fashion.

“Curious that you should ask that, Cal. It’s a long story…”

“I’m not in any hurry to go anywhere.” Cal swiped another glass of wine from a passing servant and took a sip. He looked at Shadrall expectantly. Beside him, he heard Pellaz sigh heavily, but he took no notice

“Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Ferelithia…?”

“Yes, I have, as a matter of fact, but only on an official trip”

“Then you’ll not be familiar with the more… bohemian parts of the city, would you say?”

“Probably not, no. Do continue”

“Well I’m sure even an important and respectable har such as yourself has heard of the Spider’s Web?”

Cal tilted his head and raised one eyebrow quizzically.

“I’ve heard stories. I’ve also heard that it doesn’t actually exist.”

“Of course it exists! I mean, naturally enough, the patrons are not too keen on the fine, upstanding law-enforcement agencies of Ferelithia finding out about it, so it has to alter it’s location occasionally, but if you go down a certain street, at a certain time of day, and ask for a certain har, you’ll be sent in the right direction. Or so I hear”

“Really?”

“If it’s not true, then I’m the Tigron of Immanion. But anyway, as I was saying… The Spider’s Web is a noble and democratic institution. They’ll let anyone in, even a Tigron. Assuming you can prove your worth.” At this point in the conversation, Shadrall turned and looked around cautiously, squinting his eyes suspiciously at the bushes before turning back to his audience and continuing in a lowered tone

“Why, I myself am a member of this respectable and venerable society. And I would be obliged, Tiahaara, if you would keep that particular piece of information under your hats, so to speak. You never know who might be listening.” He pressed one finger knowingly to the side of his nose. Cal nodded seriously and did the same. Pell sighed irritably again.

“Anyway, one evening, I decided to myself that I was overdue for a bit of recreation. So I dressed myself up a bit for the occasion, and I stood in front of the mirror and thought to myself, “Shadrall, you’re a fine-looking har! Without a doubt the loveliest hara in Ferelithia will be falling over themselves tonight to get into your bed!” , and with that, I took myself off down a certain street at a certain time, and within no time at all I was enjoying all the delights that Ferelithia has to offer, or, rather, all the delights that the fine, upstanding law-enforcement agencies of Ferelithia have seen fit to deprive their good citizens of.”

“I wasn’t aware that anything was illegal in Ferelithia.”

Shadrall looked in surprise at Pellaz, since he was not in the habit of either addressing Shadrall directly, or evincing an interest in Shadrall’s histories.

“I mean, the place is not exactly renowned for its sense of responsibility and respectability”

“Ah, you know the good old city then?”

“I’ve been there.”

Pell flashed a brief glance at Caeru, who smiled distantly then stared down into his wine glass.

“Well it’s true that there is no finer place on Earth for having a good time, however there are always a few killjoys wherever you go, and some years back – I don’t know if the fine City Phylarch had a particularly bad hangover that day or what happened – but they decided to make a few of the local stimulants off-limits.”

“Hara don’t get hangovers”

“They do if they try hard enough. Trust me on that one.”

“So what exactly were they serving at the Spider’s Web that you couldn’t get anywhere else?” asked Cal curiously.

Shadrall shook his head and shrugged. “You know, I’m not really sure. You just turn up, and somehar says: Here, take this, and…” he made an expressive gesture with his hands.

“Not exactly the careful type, are you?”

“You miss out on an awful lot in life that way, Cal!”

“I’m sure. What happened then?”

“Well, there I was, fully enhanced by… whatever, and enjoying every minute of it, when I realized that we had a new member that evening!”

“There couldn’t have been very many hara there for you to notice that”

“Quite the contrary, my dear Calanthe. The place was positively heaving! So were some of the hara, actually, but I put that down to an over fondness for the local liquor. It’s wonderful stuff and all, but sometimes it just doesn’t sit very easily with the…”

“…whatever.”

“You’ve tried it?”

“I have been spared the experience, so far.”

“Here’s to your continued good fortune. Now, as I was saying, the place was lively, as always, but you can spot a new member very quickly if you know what to look for. You see, Cal, in order to become a fully-fledged member of the Spider’s Web, you have to prove your worth. Perform a little initiation ceremony, as it were.”

“And what form would this “little initiation ceremony” take, exactly”

“Oh, anything you like! This is not an organization which is hidebound by rules and regulations. A bit of creativity is what they’re looking for! And our new member that evening was certainly being creative!”

“Was he now?” Cal looked at Rue, who blinked back at him innocently, and took another sip of his drink.

“Now by this time I was feeling a little… creative myself, so I set off to see what all the commotion was about, all the time fighting off the attentions of amorous hara who were entranced by my physical beauty and abundant charm. Upon my arrival at the scene, I witnessed the loveliest vision of harishness that anyhar has ever set eyes upon! Ah, he was a beauty and no mistake! Hair the colour of spun gold, and skin of the most delicate, porcelain hue imaginable. To be fair, I didn’t actually have to do much imagining, because I could see every inch of it, being as how he was stark naked!”

Cal choked on a mouthful of wine.

“Careful there, Cal. Now, any other day of the week, this in itself would have been enough to attract anyhar’s attention – I’m sure you’ll agree with me there. However this was not the only thing which caused me to stop and stare. Believe it or not, it can be quite difficult to get the attention of a roomful of excitable hara intent upon a little recreation and enjoyment, but our gorgeous friend was having no such trouble, since he was standing on top of a table giving us all a rousing version of that classic song “The Night I Rooned Twelve Hara” with a rose stuck in his…”

“SHAD!”

Cal roared with laughter.

“Is this true?” he asked the indignant Caeru between gasps for air

“Of course it isn’t!”

“Ah, now, don’t be modest Rue. That was the finest performance the regulars had seen for many a day! Don’t be bashful. Well after all that, naturally, I couldn’t resist approaching this wonderful creature and asking his name”

“And he told you?”

“Well, no, not told exactly. You see, I was getting a little… excitable… myself at this point, and the management for some reason felt it incumbent upon them to request me to leave. I have no idea why. But they did provide me with an escort to the door – lovely hara, not a one of them under seven feet tall, and they did throw me out in a most gentle and professional manner. And so there I was, somehow having managed to end up lying on the ground, and what do I see but the fine, upstanding law-enforcement agencies of Ferelithia approaching yours truly!

“By the Aghama’s purple pyjamas!”, I though “I’m in trouble now! Then the fine, upstanding law-enforcement hara came over to me and asked me if I could walk.

“Of course I can”, I replied to them “I have four legs like any other har!” At which point they congratulated me on my wisdom, and left to arrest some other miscreant”

Shadrall paused and looked thoughtful.

“Actually, having thought about it in the intervening years, I think it’s possible I may have imagined that particular part in its entirety. Be that as it may, I crawled home and found the har I was sharing a room with in bed with the pot-har from across the street, so I ended up sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs with the cat, who wasn’t entirely pleased about this turn of events, let me tell you.”

“In the morning, I had a bath, because strangely enough I was all covered in mud, and found a name written on my… body. It said Cru, which I thought was not at all a fitting name for the beauteous creature I had encountered the previous evening, but miraculously, as I meditated more upon the memory of his naked loveliness, it was as if a flower came into full bloom and I gazed in awe and wonder at the name “Caeru”, adorning my most intimate harish parts.”

“Well, the next thing I had to do was go out and see a friend of mine and ask if I could borrow some money, because for some unfathomable reason I seemed to be entirely without. As I was passing the location of the Spider’s Web, who should I see coming out but the lovely Rue here – fully clothed now, you’ll be thankful to hear – and I hailed him like the close and intimate friend I now considered him to be. We spoke for a while, and then went and had breakfast together, which was not entirely an easy thing to accomplish seeing as how it was four o’clock in the afternoon, but you never know what you can achieve until you set your mind to it.”

And that, my dear companions, is how I came to be a personal friend of Rue from Ferelithia, or as he is known today, Tigrina Caeru Meveny har Aralis har Gelaming. Ah, Rue, sweetheart – how in the name of the sixteen artichokes of the apocalypse are you ever going to fit that onto a card?”

”Shadrall, that is the biggest load of…” Rue waggled an accusing finger in front of Shadrall’s face

“Rue my angel, are you implying that every last word of that is not the most truthful of truths? My heart is pierced!” He thumped himself on his bony chest, and coughed slightly for effect.

“It won’t be the only thing that’s pierced when I’m finished with you!”

“Ah, now don’t be so crotchety, it doesn’t suit you. Besides,” he continued slyly “It’s not all untrue, is it?”

“It might as well be!”

“Oh come on now – we had some fun times at the Spider’s Web.”

“Maybe”

“And you did entertain us with your lovely singing voice on that one occasion, as I seem to recall…”

“Perhaps”

“And you weren’t exactly what we could call clothed at the time, were you?”

“Well neither were you, and you were the one having inappropriately intimate relations with the flower arrangements!”

“I think we’ve heard quite enough for one evening.” Pell interrupted the discussion, looking less than amused.

“Tiahaar, what you must understand is that Rue is now an important public figure, not only in Almagabra, but across the entire continent. While we are delighted to learn of the pleasant time you spent in his company before he became Tigrina, I would be obliged if you would refrain from spreading such unfounded gossip in future.”

“Pell, he didn’t mean any harm” Rue touched his arm gently.

“Not a bit of it!” proclaimed Shadrall, apparently unfazed by Pell’s stern lecture. “Why I would be the very first to defend the honour of the Tigrina of Immanion!”

“No doubt.”

“Rue and I are like that.” He crossed his fingers tightly together and held them up for Pell’s inspection.

“Really.”

“Partners in crime”

“Ah…figuratively rather than literally, I hope” Cal muttered

“Well now, there was this one occasion….”

“If you will excuse us, it’s getting rather late “

Terez and Raven rose from the table simultaneously, after apparently conferring privately for a moment.

“Of course. Thank you so much for coming, it’s always lovely to have your company for the evening.”

“May you encounter good fortune in your visit to Alba Suhl, Tiahaar.” Terez said, making a protective gesture in the air with his hand, which seemed to owe as much to habit as a desire to ward off misfortune.

“Luck? I won’t need luck! Skill’s the thing, and I have it by the bucketload! Along with my abundant charm and good looks, how can I fail?”

Raven shook his head, but said nothing as he ushered Terez away.

“Lurien will show you out,” Rue called after the retreating pair.

“They know the way,”

“I know, Pell, but it’s good manners.”

Pell shifted in his seat. “Perhaps I should be leaving too. I have an early start in the morning.”

“Oh not just yet, Pell. Stay a bit longer. You know you’ll only go back to your apartments and do more paperwork, and it’s such a lovely evening out here.”

“If I lived in Phaonica,” Shadrall said, “I think I would spend my whole life in this little part of it.” He rose from the table and wandered over to the far side of the terrace, where strings of gaily coloured lanterns glowed. He leaned on the top of the balustrade and looked down to where the city lay, sprinkled with random points of coloured light.. It seemed as though the lamps from the Tigrina’s terrace had come loose and spilled down into the velvety darkness below. The moon had risen – a fat crescent glowing in the inky blackness of the sky, and below it, one brilliant star, refusing to be outshone by its celestial companion.

“I know what you mean,” Rue materialised beside him, and leant forward on the balustrade too, unconsciously echoing Shadrall’s posture. “It’s so perfect, it just doesn’t seem real at times. I think maybe one day I will wake up and find that the last thirty years have all been a dream, and I’ll be back in Ferelithia, and the rent will be overdue, and the roof will be leaking, and there’ll be no bread, and the har that was supposed to go out and buy some will have actually come back with it!”

“I’m never going to hear the end of that, am I?”

“No, you’re not!”

“Pell – come and have a look at this!” He beckoned behind him, still staring down at the city below.

Pellaz came over to join the two.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Look – down there.” Rue pointed downwards, rather vaguely, and at first Pell could not see what it was he was indicating, but then he saw the movement of the lights below, which was not random. They formed a pattern, a long, sinuous line travelling with purpose, the lights spaced at regular intervals. In the distance was the faint sound of music, rhythmic and intriguing.

“It’s the Smoketide celebrations. It begins today – I’d forgotten. That’s the parade! They’re going to the main square – look, you can see it there, that’s what all those lights are. It’ll be decorated too, and there’ll be music, and performers. Can we go down, Pell?”

He turned and looked hopefully at his consort.

“I don’t think so, Rue. It’s late. And anyway, by the time we get down there it’ll be half over anyway. And then if you show up, you know what will happen…”

Rue’s excitement dissolved. “I suppose you’re right. You know, for all that Phaonica is a wonderful, magical place to live, sometimes it’s just a bit inconvenient! Sometimes, I just feel so… isolated, up here. Everyhar else is having fun down there, and we’re stuck up here looking down at it.”

“You should get yourself a little place in the city,” Shadrall said. “Just like we had in Ferelithia. Of course, it doesn’t have to have a leaky roof, and the mice would be an optional extra too, but you’d be able to pop out for a quick Smoketide celebration any time you liked!”

“That’s hardly practical, Tiahaar,” Pellaz said, “For the Tigrina of Immanion”

“I’m sure you’re right, Tigron Pellaz, but a har can dream.” Shadrall put his arm around Rue’s waist, and pulled him close.

“Remember all the things we used to dream about in Ferelithia? All the things we were going to do?”

“ I do. They weren’t all that practical either, I seem to recall. You had some peculiar ideas, Shad. Attaching a pair of giant elephant ears to the building was never going to work.”

“But we’d never have lost our way home again! And you might have got your bread after all.”

“Shad, there are no giant elephant ears in the world big enough to keep you from wandering off when you feel inclined to do so.”

“Rue my petal, life is just too short stay in one place. Even taking into account our good fortune in having so many additional years available to us as hara, may the Aghama get his just rewards in whatever Wraeththu heaven exists for that one!”

He manipulated the Tigrina around to face him, and snaked his other arm around him too, pulling him close, so that they were standing face to face, bodies pressed together. Rue smiled at him, and wrapped his arms around him in turn.

Pell regarded the pair stonily. “I think I’ve had enough for one evening.” He turned his back on them and retraced his steps to the table, currently abandoned by all but Cal.

“Are you coming?”

Cal shook his head. “Not yet. I think I may have another glass of wine. As always, the Tigrina serves nothing but the best.”

“Well, enjoy your wretchedness, all of you. No doubt I will see you all at some point tomorrow morning. Your departure for Alba Suhl is scheduled for before sunrise, Tiahaar Shadrall. Try not to be late.”

Servants manifested out of nowhere to escort the Tigron to the door.

“Goodnight, Pell.” Rue called after him. He remained with Shadrall, making no effort to remove the other har’s arms from around his body.

Cal picked up his glass from the table and walked over to join them, with just a suggestion of unsteadiness in his walk.

“The Hegemony are keen on early starts – I’ve never been able to work out why. Things proceed regardless of timetables and itineraries. However it is best to travel the otherlanes with a clear head,”

“Sounds like excellent advice, Cal, and if I was the sort of har who had enough sense to take advice, that would be exactly the sort of advice I would take!”

“You will be careful, won’t you?” Rue said anxiously.

“Careful? Careful’s my middle name! Along with the rest. It’s a bit of a mouthful, I know.”

“I don’t want you getting into any trouble.”

“It is, my love, entirely too late to be worrying about that.”

“I mean with the Sulh. They’re a strange tribe, and known for their magic and their temperament. Isn’t that right, Cal?”

“In my experience, yes.”

“Don’t worry, rosepetal. With my talent and the assistance of the mighty Gelaming, what can possibly go wrong? Cheer up – it could be worse. We could all be dead!”

“Shad, you’re an idiot!” The Tigrina’s affectionate tone belied his words. He laid his head onto Shadrall’s shoulder, and Shadrall stroked his hair, rather as if he was petting a cat.

“One other piece of advice,” Cal said, finishing his remaining wine and setting the glass down on the balustrade.

“And what would that be?”

“Make the most of your night in Immanion! I think that would be my cue to leave. Goodnight to you both. Have fun. Thank you for a lovely evening Rue.”

“I’ll see you in the morning, then.” Shadrall called after him.

Cal was already half way across the terrace, but his voice was still clearly audible.

“… maybe.”

Chapter 9

Immanion at night was an altogether different city. Gone was the airy brightness of it’s daytime façade and in its place was a world of dark shadows and private, hidden spaces. Above the skyline, Phaonica floated like a ghost, the occasional silent-winged bird circling its towers.

As he made his way on foot through the darkened streets, Cal could still hear the sounds of revelries floating up from the main square; the voices of hara, laughing and singing, and the insistent drum-beat still urging those remaining to dance on into the night, but down the narrow side streets and alleyways nothing stirred, apart from the occasional covert cat intent upon its own nocturnal affairs.

Cal remembered another night when he had found himself prowling the streets of Immanion. Two years ago, he had come to this city, finally at his journey’s end. Determined and fearful; decades of agony and regret behind him, an unknown future ahead of him. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

Suppose he were to turn the next corner and by some strange chance encounter his previous self? What would he say to that debased creature? What would he tell him of his life-to-come that would steel his resolve and convince him that he must pursue his goal to the last, at whatever cost? How would he convince him that it would all be worth it? Perhaps, having listened, that Cal would merely laugh in his face, turn, and walk away from Immanion without a backward glance.

Rue was right. It was a good thing that no-har had the means by which to change his past.

The corner was duly turned and Cal was startled to see a tall har approaching him through the gloom. Fortunately for him, it was not some ghostly apparition of his own self from another, alternative universe, but merely one of Immanion’s residents out for an evening stroll. Cal had been in many a town, city and dismal, mud-encrusted collection of dwellings where such a thing would have been an unthinkable risk to life and limb, but the citizens of Immanion were untroubled by such worries. If it was not entirely the earthly paradise that its founder had dreamed of, then it was certainly the nearest thing to it that mortal hara might expect in this life.

Cal knew this part of Immanion well. This was Thandrello, home to some of the city’s most illustrious residents. The sprawling villas and their landscaped surrounds hinted at wealth and luxury, but had the good manners not to flaunt it.

The lights were still on in the large house as he approached, which he took to be a good sign; it seemed to indicate that the owner had not yet retired for the night. No doubt he would not be expecting visitors at this late hour, but that could not be helped.

The house-har who responded to his knock on the door was obviously not pleased to be disturbed, but his demeanour changed instantly the moment he recognised Cal. Cal could not make up his mind if this sort of fame – or notoriety – was a good thing or not. While he could hardly claim that his previous life had been blissfully anonymous, he had still had the freedom to go wherever he pleased at a moment’s notice without comment or explanation. Sometimes it was useful to have all the privileges of being Tigron – the fawning, the opening of doors, both literal and metaphorical, and the endless, ever-present army of serving staff anticipating his every whim. Other times, it felt more of a hindrance than a help, like a heavy rope tied around his neck, dragging behind him wherever he went. Tonight was one of those times.

He was escorted inside and through to a large but comfortable-looking room, furnished not with the sort ostentatious flourishes and decoration found in Phaonica, but rather with the ordinary items of everyday living; a discarded item of clothing, a cup sitting on a low table; a pile of books stacked rather precariously on a side table, and a large armchair in which sat a har going through a pile of papers.

At the house-hara’s discreet cough to announce their entrance, the har looked up. He seemed remarkably unsurprised by the identity of his midnight visitor.

“It’s a bit late for social visits, Tiahaar. Couldn’t it wait until the morning?”

“Not really, no. I apologise for disturbing you, Chancellor, but I need to talk to you now.”

Tharmifex sighed and put aside his paperwork.

“We’re not on duty now, Cal. Sit down. Would you like a drink, or have you already had quite enough already?”

“How can you tell?”

“I’m an old friend of Ashmael’s remember.”

“In that case I’ll have one anyway, knowing that nothing could possibly shock you.”

Cal deposited himself into a chair, while Tharmifex indicated to his house-har, who brought over two small glasses and a decanter. Tharmifex poured a very small quantity of wine into each glass. The Chancellor was not known for his generosity with refreshments.

“And what brings you to Thandrello at this hour of the night? Were you attending the Smoketide festivities in the square?”

“No, I’ve been having dinner with Rue all evening. And his old acquaintance.”

“Tiahaar Shadrall.”

“Yes.”

“In which case your desire for oblivion is quite understandable.”

“It wasn’t so bad. I’ve had worse evenings.”

“Obviously I’ve led a sheltered life compared with you, Cal. I have rarely had a worse morning.”

“Oh come on Thar, I know he’s a bit talkative, but that’s hardly a crime.”

“The word “talkative” does not do Tiahaar Shadrall justice. Somewhere, a donkey is missing a set of rear limbs.”

We were getting along very well at dinner.”

“Were you indeed. Kindred spirits, perhaps?”

“I’d hardly go so far as to say that. He’s not your typical Gelaming agent, though, I’ll say that for him. What is he doing here?”

“You were at the Hegemony meeting this morning. It was all discussed there.”

“I know, but… It just all seems a bit odd.”

“In what way?”

“In every way. This is not how the Gelaming do things, Thar.”

“The Gelaming take whatever action they deem the most appropriate.”

“And this is the most appropriate thing they can come up with?”

“Expediency, Cal. Learn the ways of it. You’ll need it here.”

“I’ve had a number of lessons in that over the past couple of years, thank you. I’m sure I’ll soon be as accomplished as the rest of my fellow Hegemons. What do you think of him, Thar? Do you trust him?”

Tharmifex said nothing.

“You don’t, do you?”

“It doesn’t really matter what I think.”

“That’s rubbish! You’re the Chancellor of the Hegemony. You have more influence than any har in Immanion, even Pell – don’t look at me like that Thar, you know it’s true.”

“You’ve picked the wrong har to manipulate with flattery, Cal. I admit that Tiahaar Shadrall is not exactly what I was expecting – although why I should have expected anything better given his history, I don’t know, but a decision was reached, and plans were put in place, and it is too late to alter them now, so we shall just have to make do with the raw material that we have been given.”

“That sounds positively reckless for you, Thar.”

“I assure you Cal, it is not. I am not a reckless har. If I did not believe that the potential benefits of this plan outweigh the risks, I would not have given my support to Pellaz.”

“Is that what it comes down to, then? A balance-sheet of pros and cons? Add them all up and see which side wins.”

“That, Cal, is how most decisions are made. I can understand how this might be a difficult concept for you to grasp, seeing as how your entire life has been a testimony to the power of allowing your heart to rule your head , but that is not a luxury shared by everyhar.”

“Pardon me for being made of flesh and blood. I’ll try to be more drone-like from now on. Do you think your pet thief is going to be impressed by the Gelaming cost-benefit analysis method of building a better future?”

“We think he’s going to be impressed by the hard cash he was offered. We don’t expect him to do it out of altruism.”

“I’m pleased to hear that the Gelaming have a least one foot in the real world.”

“You still talk of the Gelaming as though we were the enemy or the opposition, Cal. You’re one of us now. You have been for some time now. When are you going to accept that?”

Cal was indignant. “You may be surprised to hear this Thar, but I was actually doing my bit for Gelaming solidarity earlier. I was explaining to him only this afternoon that the Gelaming have only the purest motives and highest standards when it comes to thieving. Can you believe it? Me! Spouting Gelaming propaganda! I’m surprised the world didn’t stop spinning on its axis there and then.”

Tharmifex seemed almost amused, although it was notoriously difficult to tell with the Chancellor. “The propaganda may well even be true,” he said.

Cal stared morosely at the two untouched glasses of wine on the table in front of him.

“I used to be just like him.”

“You were never that bad, believe me.” Tharmifex said., with a not-entirely successful attempt at sounding reassuring. Cal appeared not to have heard and continued his lament.

“I saw right through the Gelaming’s glib sanctimoniousness. Saw them for the hypocrites and manipulators that they were. And now? Now I’m the one defending them! I’ve been assimilated. Neutered. Handed my wings and halo and told to polish them. How could that have happened to me?”

“Perhaps you’ve just learned that the world is not as black and white as you once saw it.”

“You mean there is no such thing as wrong and right? No difference?”

“I didn’t say that.” Tharmifex put aside the pile of papers that was still sitting on his lap and leaned closer to Cal.

“There are different ways of doing good in this life.” he said. “ For you, it has been through big, world-shaking events which have had a far-reaching effect. But there are other ways of working towards the same goal. Smaller actions, less certain of outcome, less profound in their overall significance, but important none the less. Sometimes the usefulness of these actions may not be apparent at the time, but are only revealed later. Sometimes subtlety, rather than the grand gesture, is called for.”

“I don’t think I’m very good at subtlety.” Cal said. “Most hara would not pick subtlety as my defining characteristic if asked to describe me.”

“I think you underestimate yourself, Cal.”

“I know I’m out of my depth when it comes to politics.”

“ You don’t try very hard in that sphere, that’s your problem. But you have different abilities, Cal. Abilities that no other har has. It is these abilities that make you unique and allow you to influence events for the better if you choose to. ”

“So why aren’t I the one being dispatched to Alba Suhl?” Cal was aware of the rather plaintive note in his voice which made him sound like a petulant harling prevented from indulging in some unwisely hedonistic pursuit by a sensible adult, a feeling which was not dispersed by the Chancellor’s reproving gaze.

“As far as I know, your special abilities do not include larceny.”

“I’m sure I’d manage. How hard can it be?”

“I expect you would. But suppose you got caught? That would be embarrassing!”

“And Dehara forbid the mighty Gelaming suffer the agonies of embarrassment. So you’re just going to send this har off to Alba Sulh without a care, and hope he steals this book and brings it back?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“Did it ever occur to you that he might steal the Sedu?” Cal said, half-joking

“The thought had entered my mind, yes.” There was no humour in the Chancellor’s reply.

“I should go with him.” Cal said. Tharmifex stared at him.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Shadrall. I’ll go with him and keep an eye on him. Make sure he only steals what he’s supposed to steal.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m not. I’m perfectly serious. You’d be insane to send this har off by himself, if this mission is as important as you and Pell seem to think it is.”

Tharmifex rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Cal, I thought you got all this out of your system two years ago,”

“Got what out of my system?”

“This… need to be some sort of action hero.”

“Is that how you see me?”

“Is that how you see yourself?”

“It’s not a matter of getting anything out of my system. This har can’t be trusted. You as good as said so yourself.”

“Don’t put words in my mouth, Cal. My opinion of Tiahaar Shadrall’s trustworthiness aside, if I thought he needed an escort I would send Velaxis with him.”

“Yes, but you can’t because Velaxis is busy twisting arms and bullying every tribal leader in the Jaddayoth and beyond to make sure they turn up for the Grand Alliance Ball as they’re told”

“Velaxis is exercising his diplomatic skills, which is something you should attempt more often Cal.”

“I’ll leave it to the expert. And if you’ve considered sending Velaxis with him, then I know you think he needs to be kept under observation. Pell thinks so too.”

“Does he now? He has not said anything along those lines to me.”

“He hasn’t had time. Shadrall only arrived yesterday. Pell went to see him yesterday afternoon, and he talked to me about it later. He doesn’t trust him either. We discussed the possibility of me going with him, but it was only an idea, however now that I’m aware that you share Pell’s reservations, I think it’s something that should be considered seriously.”

For once, Cal found himself grateful for Gelaming scruples. He knew that Tharmifex had the ability to investigate his mind and see the lie within; he also knew that the Chancellor would do no such thing. He felt almost guilty at deceiving Tharmifex – he was a good and decent har, and Cal had a great deal of respect for him, but he had betrayed the trust of good and decent hara before without a qualm and would probably do so again.

He wondered why it had suddenly become so important to him that he should accompany Shadrall on his trip – when he had voiced the suggestion it had been on a sudden impulse, only half serious, but once the words were out of his mouth he found that he wanted this opportunity to escape from Immanion; wanted the excitement that it offered, the prospect of freedom and escape. Wanted it enough to lie

If I were truly Gelaming, he thought, I would be full of remorse at this point. Possibly even plagued with guilt. I would feel the urge to confess that I had made the whole thing up about discussing this with Pell. I would be examining my conscience and not liking what I saw.

He examined his conscience. It did not displease him.

“I should discuss this with Pell,” Tharmifex said, a tinge of doubt in his voice.

“It’s too late. He’s gone to bed. I’ll speak with him in the morning and tell him that you agree with his decision.”

For a moment, as Tharmifex’s dark and unblinking gaze drilled into him, Cal wondered if he’d pushed his luck too far. While the Chancellor was known to be a fine example of Gelaming rectitude, he was not a fool, as many hara had discovered to their cost. Years of experience in the political arena had given him a finely-tuned instinct for detecting prevarication, and Cal found his confidence ebbing under that impassive stare.

He held his breath and waited for the inevitable awkward questions, to which he was already constructing more or less plausible answers in his mind, when there was the sound of a door opening behind him, and Cal looked round to see a strikingly beautiful har standing in the doorway. His eyes flicked briefly towards Cal, then he turned his attention to Tharmifex.”

“Will you be coming to bed soon? Or do you have more business to attend to?”

“I may be a little while yet. You go. Don’t wait up for me.”

The har gave a small, resigned smile and left, closing the door behind him. Cal recognised him as Ryander, Tharmifex’s chesnari. Apart from his name, Cal knew nothing about him. He was never seen in public with Tharmifex, and did not involve himself with the political life of Immanion in any way.

Pell had told him, only half-jokingly, that his sole function was to inform visitors that the Chancellor was not at home whenever Tharmifex wished to avoid entertaining unwelcome guests, which had amused Cal at the time, but in retrospect he could see that Tharmifex’s decision to keep his relationship as unobtrusive as possible was a wise one. Having seen what had befallen those whose lives had become hostage to Thiede’s schemes – Pellaz, Caeru, Cal himself, and others – Tharmifex had taken steps to avoid that fate himself. For that piece of foresight alone, Cal felt his respect for the Chancellor increase several notches.

Pell did not see it that way. Perhaps Tharmifex’s life seemed to him too tame in comparison with his own tumultuous experiences, lacking the fire and the passion that had both fuelled and blighted his own desires.

Everyhar in Immanion knew Cal and Pell’s history. Such public ownership of what should, by rights, be intensely private was part of what Cal disliked about being Tigron. Their story was a legend; a testament to the enduring and unconquerable power of love. Sometimes Cal felt trapped by that legend, unable to live up to the fantasy. He found himself wondering more and more frequently if fantasy was a good basis for a relationship. Perhaps a bit of reality would be better, if the reality was a having a har at home who waited up for you, and shared your name and your bed.

Cal’s was disturbed from his ruminations by Tharmifex who returned briskly to the matter in hand.

“Cal, I know you sometimes find life in Immanion a little…dull, shall we say. Particularly when you are not being summoned by Thiede to perform some world-shaking deeds.”

“You make it sound like I enjoy the prospect of imminent death and destruction.”

“That’s not what I said. I’m merely asking you to examine your motives.”

“My motives are wanting to ensure that this rather unusual plan that you and Pell seem to have come up with has a chance of success. Isn’t that part of my function as Tigron?”

“Perhaps. But being Tigron also means accepting responsibility and everything that goes with it.”

“Have I behaved irresponsibly since I arrived in Immanion?”

“No.” Tharmifex was forced to concede the point, and Cal pressed his advantage home.

“I’m not going to run off, Thar, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I didn’t…”

“You know, sometimes I think you and Pell are just waiting for me to do something wrong, just so you can say “I told you so.”.”

“That’s hardly fair.”

“I know you’d probably both prefer somehar a bit more reliable and predictable as Tigron, somehar you can control more easily, but that’s not who I am, so you might as well get used to the idea.”

Tharmifex sighed deeply and closed his eyes for a few seconds. Then he opened them and looked at Cal wearily.

“You know that if you go, you cannot use your ability to travel through the otherlanes at all.”

“Of course,” Cal buried his elation, but he heard the surrender in those words. Tharmifex had already conceded defeat, he was simply going through the motions of doing things correctly.

“And you will have to leave the Sedu some distance from the city and walk the rest of the way.”

“I’ve walked before.”

“I’m not convinced about this Cal, not at all, but if Pell thinks it’s necessary, then I suppose I must go along with it. Is Tiahaar Shadrall aware of this plan as yet?”

“No, but I’m sure it’ll be a nice surprise for him.”

“You are not under any circumstances to allow that har to influence you to behave inappropriately.”

“Nohar can influence me to do anything I don’t want to do, you know that Thar.”

“That is precisely my point, Cal. Now I suggest that you go home and get a good night’s sleep since you will be leaving early. No doubt you will see Pell at some point and you can tell him that I have agreed to your going. I will arrange all the necessary equipment for you for to take.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me until you’re back in Immanion. Now, if you don’t mind Cal, it is very late and we both have an early start.”

Cal took the hint and stood up to go. A part of him was still surprised at having got away with such a blatant lie, and he congratulated himself inwardly on his skill. Then he remembered the departed Ryander, and wondered how much his luck owed to his own efforts and how much to the Chancellor’s thoughts of a har lying waiting for him in a warm bed. Either way, he felt pleased with himself. Now all he had to do was convince Pell.

Chapter 10

Pellaz woke early the next morning, as he usually did. His bedchamber was dark and cool, but the silence he usually awoke to was broken by the sound of Cal’s breathing; not loud enough to be properly termed snores, not quiet enough for Pell to continue sleeping. He lay there for a while, listening to the regular whistling, undecided as to whether it was soothing or irritating.

Eventually he decided that he’d had enough, and elbowed his consort in the ribs.

There was a short silence, followed by a grunt of protest.

“You were snoring.” Pell said

“I don’t snore. It must have been you.”

“I was awake”

“So was I. There must be someone else snoring in this room. Call the servants and have him found. Rue, is that you?”

Pell laughed. “Rue is in his own bed. As I expected you to be. What were you thinking of, turning up here in the middle of the night?”

“I was thinking,” Cal turned over and propped himself up on one elbow, “that it had been too long since I last made my beautiful consort swoon with ecstasy as I pleasured him with my legendary arunic skills.”

“Very thoughtful of you.”

“I am consideration incarnate. And did you swoon?”

“I think so. Yes – I’m quite sure of it. Several times, actually.”

“Then my efforts were not in vain. The legend lives on.”

“In your own mind.”

With a deft flick, Pell removed the bed covers entirely, leaving Cal naked to the elements.

“I wasn’t ready for that!” he complained, “You are a cruel and heartless tyrant Pellaz!”

“So the rumour goes. Go and bathe yourself – that’ll wake you up.”

Cal groaned, rose from the bed, stretched ostentatiously and padded across the marble-tiled floor towards Pell’s large and elegant bath-chamber.

“And don’t make a mess”

“That’s what we have servants for.” Cal’s voice sounded distant and echoey from inside the bathroom.

Presently Pell heard the sound of running water, and splashing noises.

Don’t sing, he thought, and as if on cue, Cal’s voice floated out of the bathroom, committing a felonious assault on a song currently popular in Immanion.

Pell lay back on the bed and smiled fondly. The song continued in its death throes, and presently gave up the struggle and expired totally in a crescendo of off-key warbling.

The noises ceased, and a few minutes later Cal came back into the bedroom, towelling his head vigorously.

“You put it out of its misery then?”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“Can’t hear you, I’ve got water in my ears” he shook his head. “That’s better. What were you saying?”

“Rue doesn’t really have much competition, does he?”

“I thought I was in fine voice this morning!”

“As good as I’ve ever heard you.”

“I can do naked singing as well as the next har!”

Pell groaned. “Don’t remind me of that!” he growled, and threw a pillow at Cal.

“Now, now. You should be pleased for Rue that his old… friend remembers him so fondly. Have you seen my trousers anywhere?”

“I don’t think he’s the sort of har Rue should be associating himself with. How should I know where they are?”

“A lot of hara said that about me at one time, if you remember. You were the one tearing them off with your teeth last night.”

“That’s different. Oh. Right. Have you tried looking under the bed?”

“I don’t see how. Ah… here they are!”

“Rue doesn’t need that sort of person in his life any more. He has other things to occupy himself with.”

Cal finished dressing and looked down at Pell thoughtfully.

“You know what you’re problem is?”

“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

“You’re jealous.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Yes you are!” Cal hooted, the look on his consort’s face telling him that he had scored a direct hit. “You thought you owned him, body and soul, and now this other har turns up out of the blue, with a history with Rue that you know nothing about, and it’s obvious that Rue still has feelings for him, and you, my darling, do not like it one bit!”

“That is one of the stupidest things I have ever heard you say, and you’ve said some astoundingly stupid things in your time, Cal!”

“Deny it all you wish. It doesn’t change anything.”

“I have no wish to listen to your half-baked theories on my psychological state.” Pell scowled and threw another pillow at him, which Cal caught neatly and tossed back at him.

“Suit yourself.”

“Well, at least we’ll be rid of him today.” Pell said, rising from the bed, his long black hair flowing over his naked body like spilt ink. Cal found that he could not tear his eyes away, even as he spoke.

“About that. That’s what I wanted to talk to you last night. Before we… got distracted.”

“About Shadrall?”

“Yes.” Cal hesitated slightly. “I went to see Tharmifex last night. After dinner.”

“I bet he was really pleased about that.”

“He made an effort to be polite. Besides, I’m the Tigron, he couldn’t exactly throw me out.”

“Oh I expect he could if he really felt like it. What made you go and see Thar?”

“I was just in the neighbourhood.”

“Yes, it’s easy to find yourself in Thandrello on the way from Rue’s apartments to here. It happens to me all the time.”

“I went out for a walk. Rue was quite generous with the wine at dinner, and I wanted to clear my head a bit. I saw the lights were still on when I passed his house, so I went in. Naturally enough the topic of conversation turned to Rue’s old friend.”

“It’s all anyhar seems to be talking about these days. What did Thar have to say? He didn’t look terribly happy at yesterday’s meeting.”

“No, he wasn’t. He has quite a number of reservations about Shadrall.”

“That doesn’t surprise me.”

He thinks I should go with Shadrall, to Alba Suhl.”

“What? Why would he suggest something like that?”

“You know Thar. He’s nothing if not cautious.”

“Yes he is, and I can’t see how he thinks sending you to Alba Suhl along with Shadrall will improve matters.”

“Thanks for that vote of confidence.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I think he’s right. About somehar going with Shadrall, I mean. You know nothing about this har, Pell – he could quite easily take your money, your book and your Sedu and vanish, never to be seen again “

“It’s a chance we’ll have to take.”

“You could improve the odds a bit by sending a chaperone with him.”

“Why didn’t Thar talk to me about this yesterday, if it was bothering him so much?”

“He was busy. By the time I got to his place last night it was late. He was considering coming to have a word with you, but I said you’d already retired for the evening and I’d speak to you this morning. I’m perfectly happy to go.”

“Yes, I bet you are. This wouldn’t have anything to do with the various delegates and ambassadors you’re supposed to be meeting before the Ball, would it?”

“How can you say such a thing, Pell?”

“Because I know you too well.”

Pell was silent for a moment.

“Alright. We’ll send somehar with him. But it won’t be you, Cal.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re too… too….”

“Untrustworthy?”

“No, stop trying to twist what I say before I’ve even said it! The whole point of this plan is to be as discreet and unnoticeable as possible. We can’t have you gallivanting about and drawing attention to it.”

“I won’t be gallivanting. Just keeping an eye on things, and making sure that your pet thief actually remembers to return to Immanion with your prize.”

“It’s out of the question. We’ll send Velaxis.”

“He’s busy with the guest list for the Grand Alliance Ball.”

“I’m sure he’ll manage. He’s very competent.”

“Even Velaxis can’t be in two places at once.”

“There is no other possible way to explain his intimate involvement with every aspect of Immanion’s political life. “

“Pell, either this thing is important or it isn’t, and if it is, we need to do whatever it takes to ensure it is successful”

Pell sat down heavily on the bed again. “Well I can’t say I was happy about this whole idea, right from the beginning. And I can’t say that Tiahaar Shadrall fills me with confidence…”

“So it’s settled then?”

“No, it isn’t!” Pell scowled and remained silent for a while, considering.

“You are not to go into the library at all, is that clear?”

“Of course.”

“I’m serious, Cal. If the Suhl suspect that they’ve been infiltrated by the Gelaming, it could cause a lot of difficulty later.”

“I understand that.”

“All that is required is that you get the idiot there and get him back, without anyhar noticing.”

“Then that’s exactly what I’ll do.”

“And it has to be done by the day after tomorrow. No later. That is quite crucial, Cal, and the only reason I’m considering sending you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, of course.”

“You mustn’t let anyhar know, or even suspect, that you are Gelaming.”

“Apparently I’m not exactly a walking advertisement for Gelaming virtues, so it shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“There’s very little chance of anyhar mistaking Tiahaar Shadrall for a Gelaming at least.”

“I’m sure he’ll blend in with the natives very well.”

“I don’t know what that says about the Suhl.”

There was the lightest of taps on the bedroom door, which opened without waiting for Pell’s assent, and two serving hara glided noiselessly in carrying bundles of clothing which they began unfolding and smoothing.

“Don’t try to contact Immanion or myself while you are in Kyme,” Pell continued “If you do run into any major problems, return home immediately.”

“Don’t worry, I can cope. I won’t have time to let Loki know I’m going away, but tell him I won’t be gone long.”

“I’m sure he’ll survive a couple of days without you.”

The serving hara approached Pellaz, deferential but determined. He stood up, without actually acknowledging their presence and they began to dress him; first in an assortment of fine, soft undergarments cut from pale silk, then in the rich and heavy robes which announced his status to the world. While one of the servants was adjusting the endless and intricate fastenings of these, the other began to braid and knot his hair, working it into an efficient yet elaborate style, held in place by jewelled pins and clips.

Cal watched the whole complicated process with fascination. His own servants had given up trying to subject him to this daily ritual, and generally left him to dress himself of a morning.

“The casual look for breakfast, I see.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m meeting the representatives from the Kalamah this morning. They would be insulted if I didn’t make an effort. That reminds me, Ariel, can you get me the necklace – the one with the lion-head amulet. It’s in the top right drawer of the armoire”

Ariel bowed his head in acknowledgement, and went to fetch the item as directed.

“Don’t wear that one,” Cal said hastily. “It doesn’t suit you. You have much nicer pieces than that. Why not wear the onyx pendant that you like. It matches your eyes.”

“Don’t be silly, Cal. This was a personal gift from their Phylarch. I have to wear it. There’ll be a diplomatic incident if I don’t!”

“Well perhaps you could wear something similar, and they won’t notice.”

“What are you talking about – of course they’d notice. It was a specially commissioned piece – it’s completely unique. Ah, thank you Ariel.”

Ariel returned bearing a heavy golden chain with an amulet attached. His companion lifted Pell’s hair, and he fastened it carefully around the Tigron’s neck. The lion-head lay in the hollow of his throat, it’s yellow topaz eyes glittering.

“There.” Pell raised his hand and adjusted the pendant. “I’m sorry if I look hideous, but such is a Tigron’s lot in life.”

“You don’t look hideous. You could never look anything other than ravishing. And the lion isn’t as bad as I thought it was.”

“Then I can go to my assignation with a clear conscience.”

“You’re not coming to see us off then?”

Pell shook his head. “I haven’t the time. Tharmifex will see to all that. He’ll have some things to give Tiahaar Shadrall – make sure our friend doesn’t lose them. You’d better get going – it’s almost sunrise. You don’t want to hold everything up. Remember what I told you.”

“Your words are engraved on my heart, dearest.”

“Out!”

“Going!”

“I expect to see you back here within two days.”

“Shall we synchronise our time-pieces?”

“Go!”

“Gone.”

Cal departed, leaving Pell to continue his preparations, surrounded by the still-fussing servants.

Chapter 11

It was already dawn by the time Cal arrived at the rear courtyard, but the sun was still hidden behind the hills which lay to the east of Immanion, so that Phaonica and the city lay cool and shaded, awaiting the heat of the day to begin. Even as the year approached the harvest season of Smoketide, and the sun’s summer strength began to mellow and wane, the days were still warm and golden. Immanion lay upon the western coast of a land which had nurtured some of the earliest of human civilizations; a benign and forgiving environment plagued with neither disease nor danger, or the harsh rigours of the more northerly climate.

Occasionally, at the height of summer, Immanion’s Tigrina had been known to lie upon a couch, tended to by solicitous, fan-waving servants and complain dreadfully of the enervating effects of the heat, but for the most part Immanion’s population enjoyed its warm and pleasant weather, and also enjoyed a warm feeling of superiority when they considered the locations of other Wraeththu cities.

Tharmifex and Shadrall were already waiting when Cal arrived, somewhat out of breath. Some grooms were about, busying themselves cleaning out the stables and attending to the saddlery and equipment. In the corner of the courtyard were two statuesque white horses, which stood very still and needed no grooms to hold or guide them.

Tharmifex was carrying a small pack, and he did not look particularly pleased.

“You’re late.” he told Cal. “I thought perhaps you’d changed your mind. Or slept in.”

Before Tharmifex had a chance to scold him further, he was interrupted.

“The Chancellor informs me that I’m to have the pleasure of your company on my trip!”

The previous evening’s refreshments and the early hour had obviously not dented Shadrall’s customary enthusiasm He grinned broadly at Cal, and bounced up and down a little, almost as if he was performing a small dance to himself in an attempt to contain his impatience. He was dressed in a long, thick oilskin garment which covered most of his body from the neck down to almost his ankles, with a large-brimmed hat pulled down firmly over his ears It looked rather incongruous next to the loose and lightweight clothing worn by everyhar else present.

“May I say that I cannot imagine a more entertaining and lively companion to while away the long hours with.”

“Thank you,” said Cal, unable to stop himself staring at the outlandish garb. Tharmifex noticed his curiosity.

“The weather in Alba Suhl may be a little inclement. The summers are known to be brief. Here.”
He handed Cal the pack he was carrying. “You may need this. There’s also a small quantity of what passes for currency in Alba Suhl. I thought I ought perhaps to entrust that to your safekeeping, Cal.”

“And I have something for you, too, Tiahaar,” He turned to Shadrall, and handed him a rectangular object.

Shadrall took it, and studied it carefully, turning it over and around to examine both sides.

“It’s a book”, he said.

“Yes it is. When you… remove… the other book from the library, you are to put this one in its place. Hopefully that will prevent anyhar from realizing that the original has been taken – a least for a while. We have made it as similar as we can to the original, by Tiahaar Chrysm’s description. Obviously, it does not contain the same valuable information, but unless anyhar opens it and looks closely, that will not be immediately apparent.”

Shadrall gave the book a little pat.

“It’s a decoy, is what it is! Chancellor, you’re a very intelligent har. Intelligent and cunning. And you’ve the makings of a fine thief yourself. Cunning is a very important thing for a thief to have. Perhaps you’ve missed your calling, Chancellor.”

“I don’t think so, Tiahaar.”

“A little cunning goes a long way in politics anyway, eh Thar?” Cal couldn’t resist teasing.

Tharmifex pretended not to hear.

“You will be taken by the Sedu to a location a short distance from Kyme. You will travel the rest of the way on foot. You will speak to as few hara as possible, and you will stay out of trouble.”

“Ha. There’s a first time for everything, I suppose. Now where is this mysterious magical rabbit-hole we’re supposed to be travelling down? Cal has explained everything to me.”

“There is no magical anything, Tiahaar. You will be taken to your destination by Sedu.”

“And what is that?”

Tharmifex pointed to the two patient stallions in the corner of the courtyard.

Shadrall’s face fell noticeably.

“You’ll pardon me, Chancellor, but are you indicating those two creatures over there, by any chance?

“I am. They are Sedu.”

“Chancellor, you might call it a Sedu, but where I come from, that is what is technically know as a horse.”

“This form is merely a projection from another dimension.”

“Is it now? That’s truly fascinating. Projecting from another dimension, in the form of a horse Could they not, perhaps, project in the form of a comfortable armchair? Or even a three-legged stool – I’m not a demanding har by any means.”

“I don’t choose the form, Tiahaar. Most hara seem to manage quite adequately.”

“I’ve never been what you might call a member of the herd, Chancellor. Ah well, if it’s to be another day of pain and suffering, we might as well get it over with. I’m going to need a bit of a hand up, by the way.”

“It’s all taken care of.”

The three hara made their way over to the Sedu, which stood like statues, solid and unmoving, not a muscle twitching. The grooms brought out a mounting block for Shadrall, and he was able to climb up and straddle the Sedu without too much difficulty.

“A very ingenious invention,” he informed Cal, as the grooms fitted his feet into the stirrups, “although on reflection, I think maybe I preferred General Ashmael’s method. Ask him to demonstrate it on you someday.”

Once both Cal and Shadrall were mounted the grooms opened the wooden gates, and together they rode out. A warm wind blew up from the lazy blue ocean below, carrying with it the scent of every leaf and flower it had passed along the way. Shadrall removed his hat, and balanced it on the pommel of saddle, where it swung rather precariously. His thick curls seemed pleased to be released from their captivity, and celebrated their new-found freedom by straying in front of his eyes.

“We’re going to have to pick up a little speed, “ Cal said.

“Whatever you think best, Cal. You’re the expert. I expect that’s why they sent you with me. To keep me on the straight and narrow.”

“Hold on as tight as you can, and try not be alarmed by anything you see or hear.”

Cal pressed his heels lightly into the Sedu’s flanks, and the animal broke into a smooth canter, its muscles flexing under its skin like oiled machinery, its metal-shod hooves ringing on the hard-baked earth below. The other Sedu did likewise, with Shadrall on its back clinging determinedly to both saddle and hat.

“You’ve no need to worry about me, Cal,” he shouted, “I’ve seen many an odd thing in my time. I’m a har of some considerable experience and there’s very little that can…”

From the point of view of the indifferent grooms closing the courtyard gates, the two Sedu simply vanished into thin air. They did not even bother to watch; they had seen it many times before, it was a common occurrence

From the point of view of the har mounted on the second Sedu, the world quite unexpectedly folded itself inside out without bothering to ask permission, did a triple somersault with a full twist, stretched like an elastic band into the middle of eternity and then snapped back with an audible twang, depositing him suddenly somewhere that wasn’t where he’d been a second ago, that wasn’t the warm sunshine of an early autumn morning in Almagabra, wasn’t in the lee of a great white palace, and wasn’t at all what he was expecting.

Cal watched from a short distance away as the following Sedu broke through from the otherlanes in a rush of freezing air and frost crystals and pounding hooves, and a long drawn-out scream of consternation which gradually turned into a loud whoop of pleasure and delight, coupled with a few references to some of the Aghama’s more unusual arunic proclivities.

Cal grinned to himself, and urged his mount over to where the other Sedu had come to a halt and was standing calmly, paying no attention to the har on its back who was sprawled forward over its neck, clutching tightly both to its mane and to a rather battered hat, laughing hysterically.

“Cal that was the most fun I’ve had since the incident with the harness and the Hienema from Ferike. Can we do it again?”

Cal found himself laughing too, and not entirely because of the euphoria brought about by travelling through the otherlanes.

“No. Well, not until we return to Immanion”

“I’ll be counting the seconds. You Gelaming are full of surprises. Here’s the rest of us miserable sinners thinking you spend all your time being noble and advanced and, frankly, a bit dull, when all along you’re having the greatest of fun! No wonder you keep this secret, Cal. If it was known and got about, everyhar would want to join the Gelaming tribe.”

“We have to have some secrets. How would we maintain our mystique otherwise. Come on – get yourself down, we have to leave the Sedu here and walk the rest of the way.”

Shadrall sighed, and slid inelegantly from the Sedu’s back, landing with a soft thud as his feet hit the ground. Cal dismounted too, and slapped his mount on the rump. The two animals turned and walked off purposefully in the direction of a nearby woody thicket.

“Won’t they get lost? Or stolen?” Shadrall asked, watching them go.

“No. They know what they’re doing.”

“I’m glad someone does. Now which way is Kyme?”

“Somewhere over there, I believe.” Cal extended an arm and pointed, but if there was a city on the horizon, it was impossible to tell, since everything around was obscured by a grey, damp drizzle.”

Cal looked up at the leaden skies above.

“It appears to be raining,” he said

Shadrall punched his hat back into shape and placed it on his head.

“Well, it’s not rain as such,” he said, “Rain carries with it the implication of water travelling in a downward manner. This isn’t exactly doing that. It isn’t exactly travelling in any direction, its just sort of… hanging there. Being wet. I don’t think you could call it rain. It’s more a sort of low-flying cloud. Which is about to come in for an emergency landing.”

Cal opened the pack which Tharmifex had given to him and extracted a garment similar to the one which Shadrall was wearing it, along with a hat. He put them on, and inspected himself as best he could.

“I look ridiculous.”

“No you don’t! You look like a Suhl. And so do I. We’re incognito, Cal. Invisible and undetectable. Nohar would ever guess that we are two of Immanion’s most devastatingly lovely hara. Pull the hat down a bit further, Cal, you’re in need of more disguise than me, I’m thinking.”

“Better?”

“Much. Now you just follow me, and do what I do, and everyhar will take you for a native. I know the customs and ways of the Suhl.”

“How long is it since you were last here?” Cal asked Shadrall

“Oh… I forget. A number of years. Possibly decades. But it can’t have changed that much. The weather is still the same, that’s for sure. I seem to recall it was like this the day I left.”

“And why did you leave?”

“Oh, no particular reason.”

“I find that hard to believe. What did you do, get caught stealing?

“Cal, I’m insulted and mortified. Caught stealing? I’ve never been caught, thank you very much! No, as it happens, I lived a most serene and happy life here in the old country.”

“You’re not from Kyme, by any chance, are you? Please tell me that we’re not going to roll into town and be confronted by a decades-old warrant for your arrest?”

“Calm yourself, Cal, I’ve never been to Kyme – and I’m never likely to get their either if we stand around here all day getting wet. Over that way, you say? Do you have special Gelaming magical abilities that tell you this?”

“No, I have a map from Chancellor Tharmifex.”

“I like that Chancellor Tharmifex. He’s a very impressive har. Do you think it would be worth my while making advances? Is he fond of flowers?”

“No and no. Come on.”

The two set off across the field. The grass was thick and ankle deep, heavy with rain, and walking on it was difficult. Within a short space of time, Cal found that his shoes and the bottom of his long oilskin were soaked. Already he found himself missing the warmth of Almagabra.

He kept an eye on the horizon. There seemed to be some dark shapes, just visible through the low mist which could have been buildings. He decided to keep going in that direction, and hope that the Chancellor’s map was accurate.

Once, the knowledge of how to find a place – this place – would have been common, but so much had been lost in the fall of human civilisation. It was said that there were cities and towns which had been separated and isolated for years, whose Wraeththu inhabitants knew nothing of the great events that had been played out in distant lands; Immanion, the tribes of Jaddayoth, Megalithica, the Varrs, Ponclast… All this unknown and unheard of.

Alba Suhl was such a place. Here, only the day to day events of the lives of ordinary hara were important; only things that happened here were real. The Gelaming were trying to break through the reserve of this mysterious tribe, and persuade them to join the alliance which they wished to form across the whole world, but it was a difficult task. The Suhl viewed them with suspicion, and distrusted their motives, as had many other tribes before them.

“I was surprised not to see your lovely Pellaz there to send you off this morning.” Shadrall said, in a conversational tone.

“He had another appointment. With some bigwig from the Kalamah.” Cal paused for a moment.

“You put it back.”

“I what?”

“The pendant. The one you stole from Pell’s apartments. The one you were wearing last night at dinner. The one that was back in the armoire this morning when Pell sent the servant to fetch it – which is just as well, let me tell you, there would have been a diplomatic incident otherwise.”

Shadrall looked up at him from underneath the dripping brim of his hat. “Oh that pendant.”

“Was there another one that you stole?”

“Not at all!”

“Why did you put it back?”

“Why would I not?”

“Because when people – when thieves – steal things, it’s usually with the intention of keeping them.”

“Ah, well you see, Cal, my intentions differ from those of the common-or-garden thief, yes they do. And besides, I have no use for baubles. What am I going to do with the confounded thing? I can hardly sell a piece of the Tigron’s own private jewellery collection and cause a diplomatic incident, now can I? And it’s not as if I want to carry it around with me everywhere I go, great heavy lump of metal like that.”

“So let me get this straight. You’re a thief who breaks into people’s private apartments, and puts things back. That’s a very unique take on the profession, I must say.”

“If I was to be perfectly honest with you, Cal, I have not actually returned every item that has come into my possession by way of larceny. I admit that many a loaf of bread and bottle of wine has gone down my throat rather than back to its rightful owner – a har needs a little sustenance now and again. And I do find that small offerings of jewellery are the way to many a har’s heart, and bed, if you get my drift. So I’m perhaps not the most noble of creatures on the planet, but when I have the urge to practice my profession, I find that the challenge of actually returning the thing can be more satisfying than taking it in the first place.”

“And why is that?”

“Because, Cal, a shifty-looking har hanging around in the vicinity of valuables the one time might just be chance, but on the second occasion, those that are guarding the valuables are beginning to get a bit more suspicious and watchful. Which makes it all the more enjoyable to fool them.”

“It’s all just a game to you, isn’t it?”

“Not at all, I take my profession very seriously indeed. There’s a reason the Gelaming sought me out in person, instead of employing some petty criminal from Immanion.”

“There are no petty criminals in Immanion.”

“They’re all big-time?”

“Immanion, my larcenous friend, is a crime-free paradise. Everyhar is an upstanding citizen, spiritually enlightened and free from the urge to pilfer”

“And so it should be! How could a Tigron exist anywhere else? I’m thinking I should warn you though, Cal, that Kyme is unlikely to be quite so spotless. The Suhl have the own ideas as to what constitutes acceptable standards of behaviour.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve been in worse places, I can assure you.”

“ Have you indeed. Name one.”

“What?”

“Tell me one of the places you’ve been. Who knows, perhaps I’ve passed through it myself in my travels, and we can have an enjoyable time reminiscing about it.”

“Too many to choose from . Our brave new Wraeththu world has an abundance of the lacklustre. There was a one particularly vile and wretched town in Thaine called Fallsend, which I will be more than pleased never to see again.”

“Fallsend? Never heard of it. It sounds disgusting anyway, you’re well off out of it Cal. I’m sure Kyme will be much more to your liking. Well, now – would you look at that. Is that what I think it is?”

Shadrall stopped and looked down at his feet. The grass had become patchy, and there were bald, blackened areas over the ground where no plants grew. He scuffed at one of these with his shoe, causing some pieces of black material to break away.

“You recognise that, don’t you Cal?”

“I do indeed, although it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one. It’s a road. The road to Kyme, if I’m not mistaken.”

“They still have their uses then, these old human roads.”

“Not for walking or riding on.”

“It’s slightly less wet than the grass. Let us be grateful for that, at least.”

The two hara continued their journey along the crumbling remains of tar and concrete. To judge from its width, Kyme must have been a town of some importance in the days before the fall of humankind, but with its subsequent defection to harish civilisation, it had drawn in upon itself, becoming smaller and more self-contained, at it must have been in its beginnings.

As they walked through the outskirts of the town, they passed a number of buildings, empty and crumbling. Rather than demolish these, it was common practice to leave them simply to return to nature in the fullness of time. One day, all that would be left of these buildings would be small irregularities in the landscape, but it was indicative of how rapid had been the cataclysm that had destroyed humanity that their abandoned roads and dwellings still stood as monuments and reminders to a vanished species.

Eventually they came to an archway which seemed to mark a boundary; . behind was the remains of the old world, in the processes of being sloughed off like so much dead skin; ahead was the living flesh of the new. Yet Kyme was not like Immanion, created whole and fresh from out of nothing. It revealed its origins in every street and every building. No longer obscured by the gloom, tall spires could be seen, rising dark and stern against the greyness of the sky.,

The roads were kept in good repair here, and the houses lived in, but the damp lay over everything like an indelible stain. The creeping plants that clung tenacious to ancient brick and mortar were heavy and dripping; there was an almost oppressive air about the place, as if the ghosts of all its former inhabitants still lingered down narrow alleyways, plotting revenge for their dispossession.

Shadrall showed no signs of being oppressed. He gazed around wide-eyed at the houses and shops they passed, oddly irregular of shape and form, and occasionally separated by narrow alleys, pointing out their unusual features to an unimpressed Cal, and he lifted his dripping hat to each har they passed. He was rewarded by suspicious scowls and feet hurrying away. Eventually Cal lost patience with him.

“For Ag’s sake, just behave, will you.”

“I was only being polite.”

“Well that’s obviously not what passes for polite in this part of the world, so just keep you head down and don’t draw attention to yourself. Now let’s try and find ourselves somewhere to stay. An inexpensive hotel would be best.”

“The Chancellor was not altogether generous with his remunerations, I take it?”

“If you mean he didn’t provide us with the means to stay at the most expensive place in town and throw money around like the visiting Gelaming we’re not supposed to be, then yes.”

“Thrift is an admirable virtue, but I dare say I could put my professional skills to good use if we’re a bit strapped.”

“No.” Cal said firmly. “Absolutely not. You are here to steal one thing, and one thing only.”

“It was only a thought. Do you think that place there looks promising?”

Shadrall indicated a building with a rather eccentric lean and alarming overhang. From the wooden beams hung a painted sign, not executed with any great sophistication, which offered rooms and food, and below that a crudely drawn image of a winged reptilian beast, rising up upon its rear quarters.

“I think it looks dry, which is surprisingly important to my sense of general well-being at the moment.”

“I would have to agree with you on that point, Cal. Let us investigate the possibility of making this our headquarters. Before we do – might I make a suggestion?”

“Is there any way of preventing you from doing so?”

“None whatsoever. Many have tried and failed. My suggestion is that you keep your hat on, and you let me do the talking. Now – “ Shadrall raised a hand to silence Cal’s objection. “ – I know what you’re thinking, but if we’re going to be unobtrusive, then frankly – and I say this kindly and with a great deal of affection, Cal – you are not the har to be fronting our operation. Many things you are, Calanthe har Aralis, but unobtrusive is not one of them, particularly not in a place like this, where the Sedu would have more chance of getting rooned than some of the hara, if you take my meaning.”

“That is an image which I am banishing from my mind with the greatest possible haste.”

“Very wise. I’m wishing I hadn’t thought of it myself. Ugh. Now, hat on, Cal, keep your head down, follow me and just agree with everything I say.”

“Am I going to regret this?”

“Very possibly, but don’t let that deter you!”

“I’ll try not to.”

“A wise outlook on life. Now, let us see what the fleshpots of Kyme have to offer two mysterious travellers from out of town!”

Chapter 12

Shadrall pushed open the door and the two of them stepped into a gloomy entrance hall. There was a small window at the front, looking out onto the street, but the dull nature of the day and the dirt-encrusted nature of the glass ensured that very little natural daylight entered. To compensate for this, a couple of oil lamps burned on the reception desk, behind which a har stood, writing laboriously in a large book which lay in front of him. When he heard Shadrall and Cal enter, he looked up at them, with an expression which was not entirely welcoming

“Good morning!” Shadrall greeted the har with enthusiasm.

“It’s afternoon.” The har replied.

“Is it now? Why, we must have lost all track of time. It’s amazing what a walk around this fascinating town will do.”

“Why would you want to go for a walk on a day like this?”

“Well it was more a matter of necessity than of recreation. We’re just newly arrived in Kyme.”

“ Are you? You’ll be looking for a room then, I suppose?”

“Exactly. And I said to myself when I saw your delightfully artistic sign outside, that looks like a most refined and yet reasonably-priced establishment.”

“It’s a gryphon. Rampant”

“Is it now? It looks more like a dragon to me.”

“It is definitely a gryphon. This is the Rampant Gryphon If it was a dragon, this would be the Rampant Dragon, but it isn’t.”

“If you say so. I bow to your superior knowledge of mythical beasties and their attitudes. And does the Rampant Gryphon have a vacant room at all?”

The har looked down at his book. He flicked through a few stained pages which were noticeably free of written entries, and frowned slightly.

“I think I’ve got a room available,” he said eventually

“Marvellous. We’ll take it.”

The har looked up at Shadrall, giving him a careful, all-over inspection, as if to check for any defects or flaws which would make him an unsuitable candidate to occupy a room at the Rampant Gryphon..

“Are you here for the Smoketide Festival?” he asked, scratching something illegible in his book with a bent-nibbed pen.

“Yes, we are, now that you happen to mention it. Smoketide. My favourite time of the year.”

“You’re too early then.” The har looked triumphant.

“Is that so? But wasn’t Smoketide three days ago?”

“Yes it was. But the harvest isn’t in yet. It won’t be in for another week yet. Or longer, if this weather keeps up. Just because the Gelaming do their harvesting early down in their tropical country doesn’t mean the rest of us can keep up with them.”

“Well it’s not actually tropical – it’s more sort of sub-tropical, possibly verging on the temperate.”

The har glared at him with intense blue eyes which were set just fractionally too close together for his face to conform to the accepted standards of beauty.

“You’re not Gelaming, by any chance, are you?” he demanded

“Aruhani’s knickers, no! Allow me to introduce myself. I am Chamois Chemise har Cordagne, and this – “ he indicated Cal behind him, who was busily keeping the collar of his oilskin pulled up, and his hat pulled down, “ – is my chesnari, Khal-an-Theii”

The har put his pen down on the desk and crossed his arms in front of himself in a belligerent fashion, giving Shadrall a sceptical look.

“You don’t sound as if you’re from Cordagne.”

“Very true. And very perceptive of you notice – you must have an ear for that sort of thing; not many hara are quite so talented as yourself in that respect. The truth of the matter is that when I was as yet a young harling, I was kidnapped by a tribe of travelling performers, who taught me a wide variety of skills involving balancing and juggling, and took me far and wide across the half the world, where I met many an interesting tribe and incidentally lost my distinctive Cordagne inflection along the way.”

The har looked slightly doubtful. He stood for a moment, processing this information, balancing the unlikeliness of Shadrall’s tale against the probability of anyhar bothering to invent such a story. Eventually he uncrossed his arms and picked up his pen again, and began scratching the names into his book.

“Not that I’ve got anything against the Gelaming…” he said, rubbing at a smudge on the page and making it worse in the process,

“Of course not,”

“… I just wouldn’t let any of them stay here.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. I mean – why is that, exactly?”

The har gave Shadrall a sour look.

“You can’t trust them.”

“So I hear.”

“They strut around like they own the place. They say they just want to bring enlightenment to the rest of us, but they have plans.”

“Plans?”

“Oh yes. They’re up to something. They’re not the saintly and perfect creatures they would like us all to believe they are.”

“Indeed not. They are thieves and vagabonds, just like the rest of us!”

A flicker of confusion passed over the har’s face, and his scowl returned. Plainly he was unused to dealing with such weighty philosophical matter.

“Yes. Well, anyway, they’re not welcome here.” He handed Shadrall a large and rather rusty key. “There you go. Up the stairs and turn right. Turn it to the left twice, then back to the right. You have to kick the bottom of the door after you’ve unlocked it or it won’t open. The bathroom’s at the end of the corridor, don’t use it after midnight.. There’ll be an extra charge if you bring anyhar else back.”

Shadrall smiled sweetly and grasped Cal’s arm in a possessive manner.

“Don’t worry. My chesnari and I are very devoted to each other. Aren’t we, my dear?”

“Are you now? Well keep the noise down and clean up after yourselves. Will you be wanting food later?”

“We’d quite like food now, actually.”

“We don’t serve food till later.”

“Later will be fine then.”

“How long are you staying for?”

“Oh, just the two nights.”

“You’ll miss the Smoketide festival then.”

“It’s a tragedy, isn’t it? But alas we have prior obligations. Could you perhaps recommend anything else for us to do in Kyme while we’re here?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, places to visit, historical buildings, centres of learning, that sort of thing.”

The har thought for a bit.

“There’s the Black Church – that’s quite popular with visitors.”

“Really? What is it?”

“It’s a church. An old human religious temple.”

“I see.”

“And it’s black.”

“I’m not entirely surprised to learn that, given the name.”

“There’s also the Academy, but that’s a little way out. You could hire a carriage, I suppose…”

The har looked at Shadrall and Cal with an expression which suggested that he didn’t think they were the type of hara to be hiring carriages.”

“We’ll probably be confining ourselves to the more central areas.”

“Well there’s the Library…”

“Really? A library? Is it far from here?”

“No, not really. It’s open to the public, but you would have to know one of the Codexiae to be shown around.”

The har’s expression told them that he definitely didn’t think they were the type of hara to be on nodding terms with any of the Codexiae.

“Perhaps we could find our own way round. I hear the books are all arranged in alpha-chronological order. How would we go about getting there?”

“Head toward the tall spire in the centre of town. The Library is on the left, a few streets down, as you approach from this side.”

“Thank you, I’m sure we’ll be able to find it with no bother from your description….I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get your name.”

“Stoat. ” said the har.

“What an… unusual… name.”

“I chose it myself.”

“It has that ring about it, yes. Well, thank you for all your assistance Stoat, you’ve been most accommodating. Hasn’t he, Khal?”

Shadrall gave Cal’s arm an affection squeeze. Cal made an exasperated sound and extricated himself from Shadrall’s grasp. He removed his hat and ran his fingers though his damp hair, causing it to stick up in rough spikes.

Stoat stared at him.

“You know,” he said, “I could do a reduced rate for you if invite me up later…”

Shadrall appeared to think about this for a moment, then sighed regretfully.

“I’m sorry – much though we’d love the pleasure of the company of such a fine-looking har as yourself, Khal here gets insanely jealous if another har so much as looks at me. He could easily run amok.”

“Yes,” said Cal, glaring at Shadrall, “I could. It’s been known to happen.”

“So we’ll just go upstairs and dry off a bit, and perhaps you’ll let us know when dinner is being served. Now if you’ll excuse us…”

Shadrall pushed Cal towards a narrow stairway which led off the reception hall. They ascended the stairs, which creaked ominously under the double burden. The ceiling was low, and Cal was obliged to keep his head down at certain points to avoid colliding with it.

If anything, it was even darker in the upstairs corridor they found themselves in than it had been downstairs, but eventually they found their room, inserted the key, turned it left then right, kicked the bottom of the door and gained access to a small and sparsely-furnished room.

“Well this is nice!” Shadrall said, looking around at the room. The wallpaper was brown with age, and the pattern on the curtains and bedspread had faded beyond recognition. A worn rug with some unidentifiable stains lay over the wooden floorboards.

“No it isn’t. Our friend Stoat is as big a thief as you, charging money for this place, but it’ll have to do.”

Cal removed his oilskin and laid it across a chair. He walked over to the window, rubbed at the steamed-up glass and looked down into the street below. There was nohar to be seen. The weak drizzle appeared to have done some exercise and taken its vitamins and had built itself up into a rather more muscular downpour.

Shadrall sat down on the room’s solitary bed. The springs gave a metallic twang of protest
He bounced several times, eliciting more alarming noises from the ancient frame.

“Don’t do that!”

Shadrall bounced again, and grinned at Cal

“It’s probably some sort of warning system,” he said “In case we bring another har up here.”

“You couldn’t get another har in here” Cal wandered disconsolately over from the window and lay down on the bed, arms behind his head, to the accompaniment of yet more twangs. His feet dangled over the bottom edge.

“How did it come to this?” he sighed dramatically. “There I was, just yesterday, Tigron of all I surveyed, nice palace to live in, doting consorts, good weather, full-sized bed, and now here I am in a thoroughly wretched hole of a hotel, in the world’s wettest town, sharing a room the size of my left shoe with a har who can’t even remember his own name.”

“I most certainly can! I can remember dozens of them! Now don’t be so grumpy, Cal. There are worse places you could be. What about that one you were telling me about earlier – Fallsend? It sounds far worse than Kyme.”

“Oh it was, I can assure you.”

“See, you feel better already, just knowing that you’re not there. What was it like?”

“Vile. I didn’t get to see much of it. I spent most of my time indoors.”

“That doesn’t strike me as being at all like you. I see you more as the rugged, outdoor type of har.””

“It was part of the job.”

“And what job in particular was that?”

“I was working as a Kanene in a musenda.”

Shadrall exploded into his strange, honking laugh, and lay down on the bed beside Cal.

“That’s excellent, Cal. Very creative. You’re really getting the hang of it, you’ll be a better liar than me soon.”

“Actually, it’s true.”

“You can’t be serious?”

“Deadly. I wish it was otherwise.”

“And how in the name of Aruhani’s eternal fecundity did you come to be in that noble profession?”

“I found myself a little down on my luck, and it was the only option available to me at the time.”

“Well nohar can say you lack initiative, Cal. I admire your work ethic, but if it had been me – and I’ve had my own experiences of the luck running dry over the years, as you can probably imagine – I’d have been tempted away from that sort of honest labour. Sometimes, a bit of good old fashioned dishonesty is the only way.”

“Oh, I’d already done my fair share of the stealing and the conning and general criminality – I just needed a place to hole up for a while, and the Musenda seemed like a good choice. Or a less bad choice, let’s say. Or at least somewhere the Gelaming weren’t likely to be much in evidence.”

“That’s always a good point to take into consideration. Tell me, is it true about the more unusual services they offer in these sort of places?”

“Yes it is. Would you like me to demonstrate?”

“I appreciate the offer, Cal, but…”

“As you’re a personal acquaintance, I’ll give you a reduced rate, but don’t tell everyhar, or they’ll all be wanting it.”

“Hah. You’ve a wicked sense of humour. I hope. But great Dancing Dehara, you’ve got some tales to tell, Cal. Does your sweet and lovely Pellaz know about all this?”

“Yes, of course he does.”

“And he’s entirely untroubled by the rich and interesting history of his consorts?”

“Why wouldn’t he be?”

“It’s just that he seemed a little perturbed when I related to him the story of Rue’s adventures in the Spider’s Web the other night. He appeared to think it was a little unseemly.”

“I don’t think he really knew anything about Rue’s time in Ferelithia up until you described it so colourfully.”

“After thirty years? My, but he’s not a har afflicted with much in the way of curiosity, is he?”

Cal simply shrugged, and the bed gave an answering twang.

“So how did you end up in Ferelithia?”

“Well, let me see – After I left Alba Suhl – quite voluntarily, of course – I found myself inadvertently travelling northwards. It wasn’t a terribly good time for a har to find himself on his own, as I’m sure you remember, Cal, so I decided to throw in my lot with a small tribe I encountered, and as it so happened, not long after that we acquired some new members, and Rue was among them.”

“That wasn’t what you said the other night.”

“Wasn’t it? I lose track sometimes…”

“Yes, I bet you do.”

“We soon became friends. I told him all about my original intentions of heading southwards, and we came to the conclusion that Ferelithia sounded like a pleasant place to head for. It had a bit of a reputation even then. Unfortunately for us, the rest of the tribe didn’t want to relocate, so Rue and I set off by ourselves one morning, while the rest of the tribe were still asleep. It was a fair old walk, let me tell you.”

“You walked all the way to Ferelithia?”

“Indeed we did. We didn’t have the spectacular good fortune to be provided with Sedu, so it was the only option available to us.”

“And how long did that take you?”

Shadrall knitted his brows together in deep thought.

“I’m not terribly sure,” he said. “It was quite some time. It was winter when we set off, and in due course it became Spring, and then Summer, and I’m pretty sure that Autumn arrived on cue toward the end of it all, but by that time we were considerably farther south, so it was difficult to say. We just kept walking. It’s easy enough. All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other, every day, and keep doing it for as long as it take.”

“We passed through many pleasant enough places, but we didn’t stay. When you have a goal – an ambition – you have to just keep on going until you get there, or you never will. I kept telling Rue about how wonderful it would be in Ferelithia. I described it to him in great detail, the twinkling golden streets and the lights and the music and the dancing and the singing and the beautiful hara. I would tell him about these things whenever he got discouraged, which can happen quite easily when you have a long way to go.”

“Eventually, one fine and auspicious day, we reached our destination. I remember it as if it was yesterday. We’d been following the coast for some time, and we were walking along the high cliffs, looking down at the sea, when we came to place where the edge dropped away, and there, down in the bay, lay Ferelithia – a wonderfully welcoming sprawl of white buildings and clean-swept streets, surrounded by the grassy hills on the one side and the magnificent blue ocean on the other. It was quite a sight, I can tell you.”

“So we descended the path down from the cliff-tops and found ourselves in Ferelithia. Which, you would have thought, would have been the end of our troubles, but in fact was only the beginning of them. You see, when you’ve been travelling for the best part of a year, and on foot, it’s not the best way to maintain an elegant appearance. To be blunt, we were a little on the unkempt side, which did not endear us greatly to any prospective employers. Plus there was the fact that Rue was not entirely keen on making a career in sweeping or dish-washing, and who can blame him? It was not exactly the scenario I had promised him during the course of our long journey. To have come so far and then spent the rest of his life as pot-har would, I think, have been a little anticlimactic.”

“Fortunately, I was able to use my professional skills to keep us fed, but we still found ourselves in need of a place to stay. Then, one day, we were out enjoying a drink in a café – well, Rue was enjoying a drink out front, I was out the back seeing if they’d left any food in an accessible spot, when we heard a most unholy racket! It was coming from inside the establishment, and after close inspection, we discovered that it was actually supposed to be music, because there was a small band of hara industriously hammering away at various instruments, with rather more enthusiasm than skill, to be honest, which in itself was producing an acceptable enough din, but unfortunately there was one har in particular who had decided that his contribution to this artistic endeavour would be to add a vocal accompaniment.”

“I won’t call it singing. I won’t actually call it anything at all, because I’ve heard amorous cats producing a more melodious sound, and at that point I turned to Rue and I said. “What an abomination! Why, you could do better than that!” Which was very true. Rue had quite the lovely singing voice, I had been treated to it on a number of occasions as we travelled, and it was like having liquid honey poured into your ears. Only less sticky.”

“Rue obviously agreed with me, because he got that look on his face – ah, I can see you’re familiar with it Cal – and he walked right up to our band of would-be virtuosos, and tapped their caterwauling leader on his shoulder and announced: “I can do better than that.”.”

“Naturally, hilarity ensued. However, it appeared that the other musicians were not entirely deaf to the shortcomings of their vocalist, so they let Rue have a turn, and it was as if the clouds of discordancy parted and a ray of harmony shone down upon the place.”

“To cut a long story short, they offered Rue a job as a singer. The erstwhile vocalist was not enormously pleased, but he soon got himself another job as a scribe, which I think was the best possible use for his vocal talents, and a great relief to the good hara of Ferelithia.”

“And thus by happy chance we found ourselves a way of making a living. The Dehar of Music smiled upon Rue and his fellow artistes, and their performances came to be much appreciated in Ferelithia. It’s a very attractive place for a har wishing to enjoy all the pleasurable activities the Dehara have been good enough to bless us with. “

“And did you perform along with Rue?” Cal asked

“No, the musical gift is one which, alas, has not been bestowed upon me, and I have never found myself in a position where hara have been willing to part with money to hear me play. Although there have been a few who have offered a financial incentive for me to stop. But I am blessed with a modest talent for persuasion, if I do say so myself, so I was appointed as representative of Rue and his companions, and armed with only my native charm and seduction I was able to secure positions of regular employment for them at various local entertainment houses.”

“It was a good life – there was no need to rise early, which appealed to Rue, as you can imagine, and the little ensemble soon acquired a degree of fame, if not fortune – the hara who own the entertainment houses are a tight-fisted lot, let me tell you! We soon made lots of new friends, and despite the parsimoniousness of our employers, found ourselves with enough money to rent a small room and pay for the other necessities of life, such as food, drink, clothes, shoes and jewellery.”

“Sounds like one long party.”

“You’re not wrong there, Cal. After the hardships we had endured during our long walk south, it was like living in paradise. Rue loved it there. He had everything he wanted. I can scarcely imagine what powers of persuasion your lovely Pellaz must have exercised in order to persuade him to leave.”

A silence fell upon the room; an empty hole which Cal realised he had become accustomed to having filled by Shadrall’s endless inconsequential monologues. Faced with this sudden void, Cal found that he did not have any words to fill the empty space.

“It has not escaped my attention, you know.”

Shadrall’s voice, when he finally spoke, lacked something that had been there before, but Cal could not quite work out what it was.

“What hasn’t?” he asked, but he knew the answer already.

“The way your lovely Pellaz treats Rue.”

Cal closed his eyes and sighed deeply. “You don’t know the whole story,” he said “What did Rue tell you?”

“He told me of an unexpected child, now grown, in prison for crimes against his father. He told me that Pellaz is not to blame, and that Pellaz is loving consort to him, and in both these things he was lying. I know this because being an expert at lying myself, I have learned to recognise it in others.”

“I wouldn’t say Pell is entirely guilt-free, no, but there were… extenuating circumstances.”

“There always are Cal, it’s the only way we can live with ourselves.”

Cal rolled onto his side, propped himself up on one elbow and looked at Shadrall, who was lying on his back with his hands folded neatly across his chest, brown curls spread across the lumpy pillow.

“You don’t like Pell, do you?”

“Is there a reason why I should?”

“No. But most hara do.”

“That is not a reason, and I am not most hara”

“I suppose not.”

“What do you see in him, Cal?”

“What sort of question is that?”

“One voiced in the usual interrogative manner, designed to elicit a response which will enlighten me as to the attraction of the lovely Pellaz. Perhaps you will mention his undoubted physical charms, and I will be forced to agree with you there, although I may leave unvoiced the opinion that a har’s worth is measured more by his actions than his appearance – an unpopular stance these days, I know – and that ugliness, unlike beauty, is rather more than skin deep.”

“Really? Well in that case, noticing the slightly disapproving look upon your face, and detecting with my phenomenal Gelaming mind powers more than a hint of the ripe odour of hypocrisy oozing from your barely-concealed thoughts, I’d feel obliged to point out that Pellaz has sacrificed a great deal for the benefit of our kind, and as the leader of the Gelaming tribe has worked tirelessly and for the most part thanklessly to protect Wraeththu and steer our race towards a better future.”

“That being so, in the face of such blatant Gelaming propaganda and bland encomium, I would slyly suggest that our presence here in Alba Suhl on a mission of dubious legitimacy sanctioned by the great Pellaz himself would tend to paint a less glowing picture of the great Gelaming leader, and while you were chewing over that one, I would further knock you off-balance by wondering innocently what other secrets Pellaz keeps to himself that he doesn’t want anyhar to know about. I would note, in passing, that even a Tigron tells lies on occasion.”

“It’s a good thing we’re not having this conversation then, isn’t it!” Cal snapped. There was a slightly awkward pause, then he flopped back down onto his back again and stared up at the ceiling.

“I know Pell isn’t perfect. Though there was a time when I thought he was. And I loved him for that. For being a perfect thing in an imperfect world. But that was a very long time ago. He’s changed. I’ve changed. The world’s changed.”

“And do you love him still?”

“Of course I do.”

Cal continued to stare stubbornly at the ceiling, its cracks and imperfections forming shapes like continents on a map. If he studied them hard enough, he could imagine them drifting apart. There was large brown stain directly over the bed, which looked like damp. The building was old, and in need of constant repair, but the human technology which had kept it from succumbing to the natural forces of entropy was no longer available. If it was to survive, it would need to be maintained by different methods.

The sterling efforts of the fungus which was consuming the ceiling were also being augmented by the insect larvae burrowing through rafters and the rodents gnawing through walls. There was a faint but noticeable smell in the room, familiar, yet something Cal hadn’t smelt in a while; the odour of decay. It was all the more obvious to him because such a thing was not found anywhere in Phaonica. He lived in a bubble, where nothing had a past, and nothing was disintegrating. Except, perhaps, himself. Out here in the real world, in places like Kyme, it was different. He knew that, of course. He had spent years travelling, encountering places and circumstances far worse than a shabby hotel room. But it seemed to him that in the short time he had lived in Immanion, he had somehow forgotten something important about the world outside its privileged bounds.

“In that case I hope Pellaz appreciates your loyalty and devotion, and returns it to you a hundredfold.”

There was a sound of voices from the street below; hara laughing, in spite of the rain. The windows were of ancient glass, thin and brittle, and the sound penetrated with ease.

“Do you really have phenomenal Gelaming mind-powers?” Shadrall enquired, his bright tone returning as easily as it had vanished.

“Yes. I do. So you’d better be careful, or I might rummage around in your head and find all your hidden secrets.”

“Oh I will, don’t worry! But I’ve had practice with being careful. The Suhl are very keen on the phenomenal mind-powers too, you know.”

“Yes, I know. It’s not just the Suhl, though. All hara have untapped mental abilities. They just don’t develop them to their full extent. The Gelaming want to help them do that If hara understood that, they wouldn’t be so suspicious and resentful.”

“Cal, I don’t know how to break this to you, but it is not a failure of understanding on the part of other tribes which causes them to reject the Gelaming. They understand perfectly well what the Gelaming are offering. They just don’t want it. And who can blame them? Sometimes hara do develop their abilities, and it does them no good at all.”

“How do you work that out?”

“Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s very difficult to persuade him to go back in. Have you never wished that you could unlearn something, Cal, or un-know or undo something?”

“To return to a state of grace and innocence before the fall? More than you can possibly imagine. But to do that would be to erase the Cal that I am now, and replace him with somehar else entirely. What are we if not the sum of everything we have learned and known and done?”

“You’re getting a bit deep for me there, Cal. I prefer to avoid existential dilemmas in the first place, rather than wrestle with them. And beside, I can’t philosophise on an empty stomach, and that’s the truth.”

As if on cue, Shadrall’s innards produced a series of rather alarmingly loud grumbles.

“There,” he said, “I told you. I wonder if our friend Stoat has decided to allow his guests to have dinner yet.”

“I doubt it, but we can always try to persuade him.”

“We’re a persuasive pair, Cal, you must admit.”

“And besides, there’s two of us, and only one of him.”

“So you’ll hold him down in an arm lock while I explain to him the error of his ways in a thoughtful and improving Gelaming manner?”

“That’s how it usually works.” Cal rose from the bed fluidly, to the accompaniment of a small concerto of twangs. “Come on, if we can’t persuade our host to feed us, and least we can get a drink. Anything’s better than staying in this room.”

“Now that sounds like a good plan, Cal. I could do with something hot, or intoxicating, or both.”

“Try not to get too drunk.”

“I have no intentions of getting drunk, Cal, I just want to loosen up my thought processes a bit.”

“Most hara call that getting drunk.”

“Well I don’t – I call it preparation. I need to formulate a plan.”

“I thought you already had one.”

“I had an outline, Cal. It’s not the same thing. Now I am actually here in Alba Suhl, I need to work out the details. I will use the ancient power of intoxicating liquor to open myself up to the Dehara of Felonious Practices, and let them enter my mind and fill it with inspiration. It’s a great tradition here in Alba Suhl. Come on then – the liquor and the Dehara await, and neither of them are known for their patience. Let us commence the sacred ritual, for tomorrow we plunder the Great Library of Alba Suhl!”

Chapter 13

The next day, the heavy drizzle had vanished, dispatched for duties somewhere else by the Dehar of Precipitation, to be replaced by a fine, if blustery early Autumn day. Summer’s spirit was still all around, from the climbing roses, heavy with drooping bunches of flowers and their great mass of shiny green foliage which hung on every house and garden wall, to the untidy displays of marigolds, larkspurs and cornflowers in pots and gardens; bright, ephemeral things, destined for one short season of glory only, their fate already sealed by the shortening of the days. In spite of the warm sunshine, there was an edge to the air; a hint of the ice to come in later months. Summers in Alba Suhl were short, their presence brief, unlike Almagabra’s endless warm and languid days.

Shadrall and Cal had risen late, and after persuading the reluctant Stoat to provide them with breakfast – which turned out to be little more than some hard, toasted bread, they left the hotel to explore Kyme on foot.

The oilskins of the previous day were abandoned. The two made their way along the narrow streets, any chill kept at bay by the brisk walk. Above them, in the strip of sky visible between the houses, small fluffy clouds could be seen moving rapidly, propelled along by the fresh breeze.

The wind reached down to the streets below, chasing one or two early fallen leaves along the street, and interfering with Shadrall’s recalcitrant hair, moving it across his face and occasionally lifting it into the air.

Shadrall pushed it back from his face, an unconscious gesture which he had performed so many times he was no longer aware of doing it. He grabbed hold of Cal’s sleeve to bring him to a halt, and pointed down a narrow alleyway on their right.

“That way, I think.”

Cal appeared dubious. “We’re supposed to be heading for the Black Church. I don’t see a Black Church down there. In fact, I don’t see a church of any colour.”

“I know, but I need to go shopping first.”

“Shopping?”

“Yes – you must have heard of it. It’s what the servants do, to bring you clothes and food and all the other stuff that makes a Tigron’s life so much fun.”

“Don’t be sarcastic, of course I know what it is, I just fail to see why we need to do it right now.”

“I thought I would buy Rue a souvenir.”

“A souvenir? What on earth for?”

“Oh, no particular reason. I just like buying presents. You should get something for Pellaz, to show him how much you care. Come on, this way. It won’t take long.”

He steered Cal down the alley. It was so narrow that they had to walk in single file, and Cal found that he could have easily touched the wall on either side of him without stretching his arms to their full extent. There was an indented gutter down the middle of paving, down which yesterday’s rainwater was being channelled away. Cal made sure to keep his feet to either side of this.

Despite the bright sunshine and flowers, Kyme had an air of melancholy about it, as if there were a hidden darkness beneath its placid surface. The narrow alley seemed the natural haunt of ghosts and restless spirits; a tiny, undisturbed backwater where the past still clung tenaciously, unaware of what lay outwith this claustrophobic space. Cal could imagine foul and dirty deeds being done in this alley. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine himself being the one doing them.

Eventually the pair reached the end of the alley, where it connected discreetly to an unexpectedly wide street filled with a cornucopia of stalls and barrows and shops, and hara milling around examining goods, haggling, buying, selling, arguing and gossiping.

“This is what we want!” Shadrall said, his eyes lighting up with glee at the sight. He forced his way through the crowded throng, followed by a slightly bemused Cal.

The market stalls offered all manner of trinkets and exotic items. Many were hand-crafted; earrings and necklaces, small carved boxes, inlaid with different coloured wood, candles and incense, small bottles of inky glass filled with perfumed oil, brightly coloured scarves, hung from the canopies and fluttering in the breeze like pennants. Some stalls were selling clothing; knitted and felted hats, cottons and linens and silks dyed in random patterns, shoes and belts with ornate buckles. There were stalls offering items of food; hot savouries and pastries which filled the air with their mouth-watering aromas. Other stalls displayed a selection of oddly random objects; old curios and seemingly purposeless artefacts; the scavengings from the remains of the human world.

Shadrall browsed through the goods on display with practised efficiency. He ran his fingers over a display of rings, touching every one in turn, while the stall-holder eyed him suspiciously. He picked up a silver ring set with a large cut glass stone, slipped it onto the middle finger of his right hand, and held it up to the light, turning his hand this way and that, admiring its beauty and searching for flaws. The sun caught the facets on the stone and sparked shards of light. Shadrall sighed, removed the ring and replaced in the tray next to the others, much to the stall-holder’s disgust.

He continued in this way for some time, working his way down one side of the street. Cal became increasingly frustrated as Shadrall moved from stall to stall, failing to find anything that suited him.

“What exactly are you looking for?” Cal asked, peering at a pile of twigs and dried leaves which filled a large wicker basket sitting in pride of place in the middle of a stall in front of a rather bored-looking har with multi-coloured hair. “And what on earth is this?”

The har behind the stall noticed his interest.

“It is a love potion!” he announced to Cal, sliding off his stool and advancing with predatory zeal.

“Is it really?” Cal picked up a small handful of the dried vegetation and let it run through his fingers. It looked like something that might have been swept up from the floor of their hotel. Assuming the hotel floor had ever been swept.

“Very much so. It is my own secret recipe – a mixture of herbs from the East, a tincture of the extract of a rare plant only found growing on the slopes of a certain mountain in Roselane, and the ground bones of animals sacrificed to Aruhani at the full moon.”

“Lovely,” said Cal, wiping his hand on his shirt. “What are you supposed to do with it? Feed it to your intended victim?”

The har looked vaguely offended.

“Of course not. You burn a small quantity during the moon’s first quarter, and recite a special invocation, asking the Dehara to ensure that your beloved thinks only of you, and nohar else. It works equally well if you have a chesnari who is prone to stray, or if you have somehar in mind who has, as yet, failed to notice your charms.”

“I’m sure it’s wonderful stuff, “ Cal said, “But unfortunately I have taken a vow of celibacy, and am even now on my way to join a mysterious religious order where I will spend the next five years meditating alone in a cell and writing poetry, so I’m afraid it’s of no use to me.”

Disappointment showed on the stall-holder’s face.

“That is a great loss to us all, Tiahaar,”

“Very true, but our loss is the poetry world’s gain,” Shadrall appeared at Cal’s elbow and ushered him away from the stall-holder, who returned to his stool with a disgruntled expression.

“Not bad,” Shadrall nodded his approval, grinning. “I think you’ve the makings of a half-decent liar, Cal.”

“I don’t know what came over me. It must be catching.”

“Indeed it is. The poetry was a nice touch, by the way. Always think big. It’s not just aruna where size matters, you know. People never question a really big lie. It’s the little ones that cause the trouble. They get away from you. Like a string of beads that breaks and some of them roll under the chair, or fall into little crevices in the floor boards, so when you restring your necklace it never looks quite right.”

“I’ll remember that. The next time the necklace of my life snaps and the beads of existence roll under the chair of randomness.”

“That’s the spirit. Oh, look at that!”

Shadrall darted away with sudden speed, leaving Cal standing unexpectedly by himself in the crowd. Cal muttered his annoyance to himself and followed the trail of irritated hara Shadrall had elbowed aside. By the time he caught up with him, Shadrall was already fingering through the collection of gaudy trinkets displayed on the next stall.

“It’s the very thing. Rue will love it, don’t you think?”

Cal examined the item that Shadrall was holding up for his inspection. It was a butterfly, cleverly fashioned from some feathers, clipped and cut to shape and dyed to resemble the pattern of the insect’s wings. It was mounted on a small piece of coiled wire, so that the slightest movement, from a passing breeze, or even the imperceptible unsteadiness of the hand holding it, set the thing trembling and quivering as if it were alive.

“I’m sure it’s just what he’s always wanted.” Cal said, stroking the butterfly’s wing with the tip of one finger, feeling its feathery softness.

“Is it for somehar special?” the stall-keeper asked

“It is for the most special har in all Wraeththudom,” Shadrall declared. The stall-keeper smiled indulgently.

“Your chesnari.” he said. It was a statement rather than a question.

“Not exactly,” There was a hint of regret in Shadrall’s voice.

“Then who knows what a gift from the heart may achieve. And what about you, Tiahaar?” The stall-keeper turned to Cal, who looked somewhat taken aback.

“I’m not his chesnari! Dear Ag, no!”

“I didn’t suppose that you were. I was just wondering if you would like to buy a small token of your affection for somehar you care about?”

“Not really, no.”

“Ah, I see, you have no chesnari either. Never mind, you can always buy something for yourself. What about this?”

The stall-keeper rummaged among his wares and produced a silver cloak pin with two hearts enclosed within a circle on its front side, which he showed to Cal.”

“I don’t want a brooch, thanks.” Cal said

“But this is no ordinary brooch – look.” He performed a series of twists on the pin, unclipped a small chain at the back, and the brooch divided neatly into two parts, one heart and one half-circle in each.”

“Very clever,” said Cal

“That’s not all – have a closer look.” The har handed both parts to Cal, and he examined it more closely. Up close, he could see that there was writing engraved upon the hearts

“A circle has no start or end
Like love it’s whole and true
And if you’re worth my heart and soul
I’ll give them both to you”

“That’s beautiful!” Shadrall said, wiping an imaginary tear from the corner of his eye as he peered over Cal’s shoulder.

“It’s a Bonding Heart,” the stall-keeper explained. “You keep it until you find a har who is worthy of your heart, and then you give him half of it.”

“What happens if you never find such a har?” Shadrall asked.

“Then you just clip it back together and wear it yourself.” The stall-keeper clicked the two halves together again, and pinned the brooch onto Cal’s coat. “There! It looks lovely”

“We’ll take it.” Shadrall said, without waiting for Cal’s objection.

“Excellent choice,” the stall-keeper said. “Now, can I interest you in an ocarina?”

“Probably not, no.” Shadrall reached over and picked up a round object from the stall, about the size of a small gourd, and turned it round in his hands. It was a glazed ceramic sphere, its smooth surface inscribed with various marks and sigils. Shadrall turned it over and looked at the underside. There was a round hole about two fingers width in diameter, showing the sphere to be hollow inside.

“It is a garden protective.” The stall-keeper told him. “The symbols are wards and spells to repel molluscs.”

Shadrall looked at him blankly.

“It stops the snails eating your cabbages.”

“Ah. Right. Don’t have any snails myself. Or cabbages for that matter.” He put the snail-scarer back down on the table, and looked at the rest of the stall-keeper’s wares, his eyes coming to rest on a glass object which he reached over and picked up.

“I see you are a connoisseur,” The stall-keeper said, nodding approvingly

“Mmmm…” Shadrall acknowledged him briefly, but his attention was focused on the glass object. It was somewhat smaller than the snail-scarer, although similar in shape, transparent and shining, for all the world like an oversized drop of water. Shadrall let it rest in his upturned palm, his fingers lightly curled around it. He weighed it up and down in his hand, testing its solidness.

“Finest Elhmenian crystal. It comes with its own stand, too.” The stall-keeper showed Shadrall a small piece of turned wood, with a concave depression in the top, into which the crystal sphere was obviously designed to fit.

“That’s alright, I won’t be needing that.” Shadrall held the crystal sphere up at arm’s length in front of Cal, staring into its depths. Cal found he could see through it, or into it; it contained a perfect inverted image of Shadrall, arm outstretched.

“We’ll take it.” Shadrall announced. “All of them, in fact. How much is that?”

The stall-keeper mentioned a figure, rather hesitantly, as if he expected Shadrall to demur, but Shadrall merely smiled and looked at Cal expectantly.

“Fine. My friend is paying. The Cha… arming friend who organised our trip to Kyme entrusted the money to him.”

Cal sighed, and began digging in his pockets.

“You are visitors to Kyme then?” the stall-keeper asked, as he began wrapping the items

“Yes we are. We are members of a little-known religious order whose mission is to travel the world and write poetry about the wonderful things we encounter.”

“I see.”

“I myself intend to compose an epic poem in praise of the Great Library here in Kyme.”

“A worthy subject, Tiahaar.”

“I don’t suppose you could give us directions to it? While the metaphysical essence of the Library will form the basis of my inspiration, I should like to actually see the place, so I can get the description just so. There’s nothing worse, let me tell you, than spending eighty two verses describing the elegant flying buttresses of your chosen subject, only to discover it doesn’t have any.”

“I can imagine. As it happens, you’re not that far from the Library. If you continue down the main street here, and take a left turn just at the end, then a right, you will see a large building in front of you. That is the Great Library.”

“Down the main street, left then right. The Great Library of Kyme – what an awesome sight! Yes, I think I can work that in somewhere. What do you think, Kaal-Amahti ?”

Cal looked perplexed for a second before realisation dawned.

“Magnificent.” he said, “The rhythm, the meter, the imagery. It’s like I’m there already!”

“And will you be composing a poem in honour of the Great Library too, Tiahaar?” the stall-keeper asked

“No,” said Cal, “Buildings don’t do that much for me.” He deposited a collection of coins into the stall-keeper’s outstretched hand.

“What a pity.”

“The Muse moves Kaal-Amahti in different ways,” Shadrall said. “ He is famous for his magnificent odes to the joys of the Arunic arts. Hara come from all over to experience his couplets. You may well have heard some of them yourself, they are quite famous.”

“I… don’t believe I know of any such things.”

“Come now, Kaal, let this fine-looking har hear some of your work. Don’t be shy now!”

The stall-keeper looked at Cal expectantly. Cal glared at Shadrall with an expression which promised physical pain at some unspecified later date. Seeing no other option, he cleared his throat, adopted a heroic stance, and began to recite:

“There once was a har known as Treasure
Who could give quite astonishing pleasure
He’d perform double flower
For over an hour
And roon himself too for good measure”

“Bravo!” Shadrall gave an enthusiastic burst of applause. Cal acknowledged the ovation with a curtsy. The stall-keeper smiled weakly.

“That was… different. Well, I hope you enjoy your visit to Kyme, Tiahaara.” He handed Shadrall a bag containing their purchases.

“We’re having the most wonderful time already, I can’t imagine ever wanting to leave! Thank you, Tiahaar – come along Kaal, let us proceed to the Great Library while the Muse is active. I feel a quatrain coming on.”

Shadrall gave the stall-keeper a polite bow, and Cal dragged him away by the elbow into the crowds still thronging around the market stalls.

“That was a performance to be proud of, Cal!”

“You are a bad influence. I can’t believe I did that.”

“I’m thinking you’re not a har who needs much influencing in the general direction of badness.”

“Hah. I was a paragon of virtue until you showed up in Immanion.”

“Don’t fight it, Cal. It’s your intrinsic nature reasserting itself. You’ve been tamed by the Gelaming for too long, and now the wild Cal is beginning to emerge again, like a werewolf at the full moon. That’s what you are, Cal – a were-har. That was just you having a little bit of a howl to yourself there.”

“I hope not. Or if I am, I hope I can manage something a bit more threatening than spouting bad poetry.”

“Poetry can be dangerous stuff in the wrong hands!”

“Obviously. Come on – let’s find this wretched library before you get us into any more trouble.”

“Me? I wasn’t the one spouting the bad poetry. Where did you learn that thing anyway? And you a Tigron of Immanion too!”

They followed the stall-keeper’s directions down to the end of the main street, where the crowds and the stalls thinned out. A left turn took them down what appeared to be a residential street, where they could hear the sounds of a musical instrument coming from one of the houses; hesitant scales rather inexpertly played, and voices, insistent, but the words themselves inaudible. Turning right, they found themselves on a wide avenue lined with trees, whose leaves were just beginning to lose their green summer vigour, and take on a hint of melancholy brown in anticipation of the Autumn to come.

At the far end of this street sat an elderly building, larger than those around it, but possessed of a modest and unassuming aspect none the less. Like all buildings in Kyme, it had an air of antiquity about it; ivy crawled over its dark walls, clinging to the crumbling mortar with obdurate tenacity, as if that tight, invasive embrace was all that kept it from disintegration. Only the very uppermost parts were free from slow suffocation by greenery. It sat back a little from the road, a low wall and a pair of ancient yews on either side of the gate protecting its privacy.

“That must be it,” Cal said.

“I find myself just a tad disappointed,” Shadrall looked at the building, scratching his ear absent-mindedly

“Why is that?”

“It’s the Great Library. I was expecting something a bit… Greater.”

“This is Kyme, not Immanion. If it’s Great you want, you should have gone to the Great Library in Immanion.”

“Immanion has a Great Library too?”

“Of course. Everything in Immanion is Great. Including the Library.”

“Do the Gelaming not allow any other tribe a bit of Greatness? Frankly, I’m a bit worried by this monopolistic attitude of theirs.”

Cal grinned. “Its not in the Gelaming nature to be second-best at anything.”

“That’s more or less the opinion I have formed. Still, this Library here must have something in the way of Greatness about it, or we wouldn’t be here, would we?”

“I expect not. Besides, it’s not the building itself wherein the Greatness lies – it’s the knowledge contained therein.”

“Very well put, Cal.”

“Apparently it has extensive cellars and underground passages where much of the collection of books is stored. It conceals its Greatness and presents a modest façade to the world. It has a mystery which lies hidden beneath the surface.”

“Which is not something you could say about Immanion.”

“You noticed that?”

“I did. In fact, if I was going to make the tiniest criticism of Immanion, it might be that it does lack a little in the way of subtlety.”

“Thiede was not always the subtlest of hara. Well, not when it came to architecture, anyway.”

“So it was quite intentional then?”

“Oh yes. Thiede designed Immanion. He created it in all its glory. In many ways, it’s his monument.”

“And then Pellaz had him horribly murdered.”

Cal made an irritated sound. “No, Pell did not have him horribly murdered, how often do I have to tell you?”

“I’m not entirely sure. So our friend Thiede just upped and left of his own accord then?”

“Not exactly.”

“Then what did happen to him? Exactly?”

“I banished him to another dimension.”

Shadrall blinked in surprise. “Is that a fact?”

“Yes it is.”

“Is that something you’re in the habit of doing? Banishing people to other dimensions?”

“No, that was my first time, actually. And my last”

“I’m glad to hear it, because it doesn’t sound like you at all, Cal. Banishing. Also, it strikes me as just a tad ungrateful, after all the building work. Could you not just have asked him to be a little more subtle in future?”

Cal gave a short, humourless laugh.

“I’ll try that next time,” he said

“I’d recommend it. A little subtlety on your own part wouldn’t go amiss. All that banishing will not make you many friends in the long run Cal, take it from me, now, are we going to go into this Library or not?”

“It’s what we’re here for.”

They passed in single file through the main gate at the front, observed only by the silent, ancient yew trees. Up close, the Library revealed itself to be a rather more impressive affair. It had an air of patient civic duty about it, as if it had seen long years of service to a succession of communities. What its original function had been, whether Library or other municipal building, Cal could not tell, but it did not have the look of a home or dwelling place.

The front doors were closed, but not locked, as Cal found when he took hold of the worn brass handle and turned it. He felt almost disappointed.

“It looks like we’re not going to be needing your skills after all,” he said to Shadrall, as they entered into the building’s large vestibule.

“Patience, Cal, patience. All things in due course.”

Once inside, they found themselves in a surprisingly bright space. The windows were large, and arched, and there was a skylight somewhere at the top of the main stairs which cast a watery light down their length. The vestibule was a wide, high-ceilinged area into which the echoes of their footsteps were swallowed up. The space was filled with many glass display cases, filled with various treasures; old jewellery, plates, figurines, and – incongruously – some garishly-coloured human artefacts, once cheap, throwaway objects, now revered antiques.

Surprisingly enough, there were no books. Nor were there any other hara to be seen in the place. Cal felt strangely nervous, as if he had no right to be there. He half-expected an irate Librarian or Codexia to descend upon them at any minute and demand an explanation for their intrusion into this sanctuary.

If Shadrall felt ill at ease, he did not show it. He inspected the display cases with interest, peering this way and that to get a better look at their contents. He rubbed at the glass with his fingers, succeeding in obscuring the view rather more with streaks left by his efforts. Cal sighed and went over to prevent further vandalism.

“You’re not supposed to touch.” He said

“Why ever not? It’s a public Library. I am a member of the public. Everything in this building is here for my benefit and elucidation”

“They wouldn’t put things in glass cases if they wanted hara like you coming along and touching them.” Cal pointed out.

Shadrall breathed heavily onto the glass of the display case, leaving a round, fogged patch on its surface. He buffed at it with the edge of his sleeve, in an unsuccessful attempt to remove the streaks on the glass.

“Look at that!” he said, his forefinger pressing on the glass, indicating a small hemisphere of dull rock which had been carefully cut open to reveal a hidden world of baroque crystalline beauty – a hollow space filled with faceted points of amethyst quartz growing towards the centre.

“Do you think Rue would like that?”

“What? No! Don’t even think about it!”

“How can thinking about it hurt?”

“Because in your case, thinking about it would lead to doing it.”

“Cal, are you seriously suggesting that I would steal this lovely object, from this locked display case? Surely not!” Shadrall gently stroked the brass keyhole set into the wooden frame. He made a quick movement with his hand, which may have concealed a small object, although Cal could not see clearly, his eyes seemed to blur for just a second, and in any case the gesture was too swift for him to follow, but the next moment the display case door swung open slightly. The geode lay just inside the open door, glittering temptingly.

“Stop that. Don’t you dare. Put it back the way you found it. How did you do that anyway?”

Shadrall laughed – an odd, unrecognisable sound, quiet yet focused, quite unlike his usual bray. His expression was slightly wild, his eyes a little too bright and a little too wide.

“I asked it nicely,” he said, staring at the keyhole with an intensity that made Cal feel unsettled.

“Well ask it to close up again. Nicely.”

Shadrall gave a half-smile, and again there was the quick gesture of his hand. The glass rippled. Or something rippled. Cal thought he almost caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye, but it was gone, or it had never been in the first place, and the display case was locked again, and Shadrall was standing looking at it with his normal expression securely in place, leaving Cal with only the memory of something like a feather or a butterfly wing brushing across his thoughts.

“What was that?” he demanded.

“It was a geode. It’s a lovely thing, don’t you think?”

“Don’t be arch with me, you know perfectly well what I mean. What did you do there?”

“I unlocked the case.”

How did you unlock the case?”

“It’s difficult to explain.”

“Try hard.”

Shadrall gave a disarming smile.

“It’s a lock.” he said by way of explanation. “It has a mechanism inside, and you move the mechanism by turning a key around.”

“I’m aware of how locks work.”

“I don’t have a key, so I do it the other way round.”

“This explanation is still only achieving one-and-a-half on a scale of ten.”

“If you haven’t got a key to turn, you have to turn everything else.”

“The lock?”

“The lock. The case. The library. Kyme. Alba Suhl. Almagabra too. And the rest.”

“The rest?”

“The universe.”

“You move the entire universe?”

“It’s not as difficult as you’re making it sound, Cal. It doesn’t have to move far. It’s a big universe, and a small lock.”

“ Well that’s a relief to know. Does this have anything to do with moving through the Otherlanes?”

“Oh goodness me no! Not at all. That’s scary stuff, that is, I’ll leave that to you Gelaming. No, I stay right here, thank you very much! “

“And the entire universe does a tiny little pirouette because you ask it nicely?”

Shadrall’s grin returned in triumph.

“Exactly so, Cal! You’ve some rare intelligence there, I must say. Most hara have the greatest of difficulty in understanding when I explain it to them. Which is why I never explain to them. That, and the possibility of being arrested for it, of course.”

“I can see how that might be a problem.”

“It certainly was for the good hara of Besel.”

“What did you do to them?”

“Nothing! Not a thing!

“Problems generally do not arise from nothing, I have found.”

Shadrall slumped, rather uncharacteristically. “It was what they wanted.” he said “It was what they asked for.”

“What was?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Cal emitted a short, surprised laugh, which came out sounding unnaturally loud in the hushed library.

You don’t want to talk? That’s a first! It must be something really appalling.”

“No it isn’t. It was just an… unfortunate set of circumstances. A misunderstanding. It could have happened to anyhar.”

“I doubt that. Come on – out with it. What happened in Besel? Where exactly is Besel?”

“Oh, it’s not too far from here, actually. A few days ride would get you there. If you wanted to visit the place. Which I don’t recommend, by the way.”

“It’s in Alba Suhl?”

Shadrall nodded. “Yes. Did I not tell you that I spent some of my formative years here?”

“Yes, you did, but I took that with the large shovelful of seasoning which I usually apply to your version of your personal history.”

“Well it’s true. I was incepted here, as it happens. In Besel.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Oh, a fair few years. I’m sure they’ve forgotten all about me now.”

“You hope!”

“You’re particularly cutting with that tongue of yours today, Calanthe. I don’t think it suits you particularly well.”

Cal grinned. “Nonsense, it’s one of my best features, everyhar says so. And stop avoiding the question.”

“What question?”

“What happened in Besel?”

Shadrall sighed. “As you know Cal, hara are fortunate enough to be gifted with special abilities not common amongst humankind. Back in the early days, it was a time of much excitement as we discovered these new toys. You must recall yourself what it was like.”

“A little. “ Cal’s expression was guarded.

“Well, as it happens, I was fortunate enough myself to be in possession of a particular talent, as you’ve just seen demonstrated. Oh, back then I had nothing like the skill I have now, but it was apparent to the leaders of our small tribe that my ability could come in useful, and so they encouraged me to develop it by various means”

“Caste training?”

“Something along those lines. It involved aruna, which was pleasant, and sitting alone in a small room for hours on end staring at the floor until I went cross-eyed, which wasn’t, but little by little I exercised my peculiar psychic muscle and built it into – well, if not quite a bulging biceps of paranormal power, then at least into a modestly firm and wiry flexor digitorum with which to prod my enquiring mental finger into the obliging gap in the universe.”

“At first, the tribal leaders were delighted with my progress, for did it not indicate the superior and wondrous nature of their own teaching, and purely incidentally allow them access to things which might well have remained beyond their reach otherwise. Oh yes, they were happy to make use of my ability if it meant increasing our tribe’s fortune and providing us with an advantage over lesser tribes. But after a time they began to grow a little less encouraging, for it occurred to them that if I was able to pry into the secrets of our rival tribes, there was a very good chance that I would be able to do exactly the same to them. Not that I did, of course!”

“Of course not!”

“Then, as time went by, other hara of the tribe began to grow suspicious of my abilities. Things would go missing – just vanish, without explanation, and there would be talk. And looks, of an accusatory nature. And fingers pointing and heads turning.”

“Now, the thing is, Cal, had I been responsible for removing even half the stuff that I was supposed to have spirited away, I would have been sitting on a haul of not only some spectacular size, but also of profound uselessness. I mean, what would I want with an orrery? However, when faced with the choice between acknowledging that they may, in fact, have lost that rather rusty old knife through their own carelessness, or believing that an unfairly-advantaged har of dubious morality and strange ability may have stolen it away, I discovered that hara are very much more inclined to go with the latter explanation, what with it being entirely more fun, and having the benefit of relieving the accuser of any blame in the matter into the bargain.”

“So it was that I came to be the tribe’s favourite scapegoat, not only for missing objects, but for any other misfortune which befell any of them. To be honest with you, Cal. I was disappointed. For had I not simply been doing what they had asked of me? I hadn’t had any desire to spend all those hours staring at the floor, it had been the tribe’s leaders who encouraged me, and now they too turned on me and demanded that I cease and desist my wicked ways.”

“Since I didn’t have any wicked ways to cease and desist, I was at a bit of a loss, let me tell you. And the unfortunate thing is, Cal, that once you’ve become something, there’s no way to unbecome it again. People may say that they want something of you – want you to be a certain thing – but when you are that thing, they change their minds, and say that they want you to be something different after all. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in, which you’ll know if you’ve ever had that experience.”

“Occasionally.” Cal pulled a grim face.

At this point, a har with long hair in fastidious braids glided past them. He gave them a quick, suspicious glance, but continued on his way without challenging them.

Cal felt strangely guilty, as if he had no business being stood in the vestibule of a Great Library listening to tales of long-ago misfortune, and he fought the urge to flee, but Shadrall appeared to experience no such misgivings, and he smiled widely at the passing har, who completely ignored him.

“That must be one of the Codexiae,” he informed Cal.

“No doubt. Don’t draw attention to yourself – he might throw us out.”

“Why would he do that? This is a public Library. We are The Public. There’s no law against us being here. Look – what did I tell you? More Public! It must be the busy period.”

Shadrall pointed toward a pair of solemn-looking hara who had entered the Library and were making their way across the vestibule with purpose.

“We’ve every right to be here. Show a bit of confidence. Shoulders back, head up! Now, here – hold this.”

Shadrall removed the leather bag which was slung over his shoulder and gave it to Cal, who took hold of it hesitantly. Shadrall began undoing the buckles which held the straps closed.

“So what happened in Besel?” Cal asked, watching curiously as Shadrall tugged at the fastenings. “After they decided they didn’t like your special skills after all?”

“Hmm? Oh, eventually I left. Well – when I say “left”, I mean “was chased out of town by an angry mob.”.”

“That’s always unpleasant.”

“You find that too? Yes, it was all quite embarrassing. Pitchforks and burning torches and revolting peasants and all that. The usual stuff.”

“I’m sorry,” said Cal “I shouldn’t have been so inquisitive, it was obviously none of my business.”

Shadrall looked up in surprise.

“Sorry? What for? I’m not.”

“You got evicted from your home by a superstitious rabble. Most hara would be a little upset by that.”

“Well, perhaps, but you see, it was the start of a great adventure for me. If I hadn’t been chased out of Besel, I would never have gone to Cordagne, and if I hadn’t gone to Cordagne, I wouldn’t have got lost and gone north, and if I hadn’t gone north I wouldn’t have met Rue, and if I hadn’t met Rue I wouldn’t have gone to Ferelithia, and if I hadn’t gone to Ferelithia with Rue, Rue wouldn’t have become Tigrina, and I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you now.”

“I’m not sure that entirely makes sense, but as long as you’re happy…”

“Oh I am! As happy as a fully employed kanene in a well-run Musenda. Ah, here it is…”

Shadrall produced the crystal sphere from the depths of the bag, and held it up, examining its perfection with awe. His upside-down image stared back at Cal from its vitreous depths.

“What can you see?” asked Cal “Is it a portal into the future?”

“Absolutely. This crystal holds the key to what will happen in the next few minutes.”

“Is that all? I was hoping for something a bit more long term.”

Shadrall cupped both his hands round the crystal ball and peered into it, crossing his eyes slightly and weaving his head.

“It says that you will return to Immanion, live with the lovely Pellaz for many years, and die of exquisite boredom.”

“Liar.”

“Not always. Right – I want you to do something now Cal.”

“This sounds intriguing. Does it have anything to do with your Plan?”

“It does indeed. I want some distraction out of you, Cal. I want you approach to our friend The Codexia over there and dazzle him with your glamour.”

“My what?”

“You glamour. You have it, Cal. It drips from your every orifice and pore. It sheds from you like dead skin flakes do from an ordinary har. You have so much of it that you’ll even manage to bewitch the Public too, I’m sure.” Shadrall nodded in the direction of the two hara, who were standing at the far end of the vestibule reading some notices pinned to the wall.

“I’m not sure I’m understanding any of this.” Cal said, puzzled.

Shadrall sighed. “It’s very simple, Cal. Just attract the attention of the Codexia, and the Public, so that they’re looking in our general direction.

“You want them to notice us?”

“Yes, I do.”

“How will that help you steal a book?”

“Just trust me on this one, Cal. I know what I’m doing. Almost certainly. Now go on – do your stuff. Glamour, Cal, glamour!”

Cal shook his head in exasperation, but turned and walked towards the centre of the vestibule. He adopted a slow, deliberate stride, undulating his hips, running his hand self-consciously through his short hair as he went. He favoured the Codexia with what he fondly imagined was his most enticing come hither look , and alerted by some sixth sense to this sledgehammer entrapment, the Codexia looked up from his cataloguing and stared at Cal. The tip of his tongue flicked over his bottom lip. Cal rewarded him with an enigmatic smile and another display of seductive strutting. The Codexia continued to stare. Over at the other side of the vestibule, the two members of the Public also turned their heads in Cal’s direction.

Cal was used to being stared at, and he was also used to finding himself in situations fraught with potential embarrassment. He was not used to courting the latter quite so assiduously, though. He glanced back at Shadrall, who was still standing by the display case and exchanged his seductive pout momentarily for a ferocious glare. Shadrall responded by raising his left thumb in an encouraging gesture. He was still holding the crystal ball in the other hand, cradling it carefully as if it was an object of great value and rarity. At that very moment, with Cal, the Codexia and the members of the Public watching him closely, he drew his arm backward, then forwards again in an elegant, underarm throw As his arm reached its furthest extension his fingers uncurled from the crystal ball and released it in the direction of the glass display case containing the geode.

The crystal ball left Shadrall’s hand, rising upwards in a perfectly described arc, catching a rainbow glint of light as it passed through a beam of sun streaming in from the window on the opposite wall. As it reached the topmost point of it’s trajectory, it appeared to pause and hang motionless in the air. The moment of equilibrium between gravity and upward force could only have lasted a fraction of a second, but to Cal, watching in horror, it seemed like the ball remained frozen at that point for an interminable length of time, and in his mind he could see himself dashing forward to catch it, stretching out his arm, snatching it from the air and falling to the floor in a heap with the crystal sphere safely in his grasp, but his body refused to respond, the nerve impulses between his brain and muscles were sluggish and unresponsive and before he could initiate the response, the moment passed, leaden gravity triumphed over the crystal ball’s desire for flight and the inevitable downward acceleration began.

Cal could only stand and watch helplessly. A second later, the interplay of physical forces reached their pre-ordained conclusion and the crystal ball hit the display case with the most tremendous crash, sending shards of glass, wood, porcelain and finest Elhmenian crystal everywhere and shattering both the case and the respectful hush of the Library into a million jagged pieces.

Chapter 14

For a few stunned seconds nothing at all happened. The reverberations of the crash seemed to echo around the room, and in Cal’s ears, replaying itself over and over again. Then the Codexia recovered himself and grabbed a wooden-handled brass hand-bell which sat in a small alcove in the wall. He began ringing it furiously. It’s harsh metallic clang succeeded in destroying the stillness of the Library even more thoroughly than the destruction of the display case had..

Cal stared at the wreckage on the floor, his mind unwilling to make the leap from what he had thought was the sensible, straightforward progression of events a few minutes ago, to this sudden and unexpected complication.

While he was still rapidly recalibrating, two large hara arrived in a rush, summoned by the urgent noise of the bell. The Codexia pointed at Shadrall, who was still standing next to the remains of the display case, looking totally unperturbed by the excitement.

“Him! Him!” the Codexia shouted, with the inarticulacy of outrage,. “It was him!” Get him!”

The hara charged with dealing with this breach of Library security regarded Shadrall cautiously, attempting to decide if he was likely to engage in some other heinous act of destruction. He gave them a disarming smile.

“It was me!” he said. “I did it. Everyhar saw.”

“Arrest him!” shouted the Codexia.

Shadrall made no attempt to plead innocence or forestall his capture.

“You heard what the Codexia said. Arrest me!” He held out his arms, the better to be apprehended.

The hara looked at each other, thought things over, then came to a decision. They each took hold one of Shadrall’s arms, rather tentatively, and led him over to the Codexia. It was obvious that dealing with members of the public who had run amok in the library was not a common part of their day-to-day duties, and had Shadrall put up any sort of resistance, he could have freed himself easily enough, but he allowed himself to be escorted towards the Codexia, who was by now fuming with the sort of righteous wrath that only a public office-holder who has just seen his orderly administration defiled by disorderly conduct can muster.

The Codexia crossed his arms in front of his chest and glared at Shadrall. It was a glare that had been perfected by long years of hushing into silence over-ebullient hara who might have dared to raise their voices above a whisper whilst in the hallowed portals of the Library, and practice had sharpened it to a keenness that could slice to the bone.

Many years of ignoring just such looks had, however, given Shadrall the edge when it came to this sort of contest. He merely smiled with beatific unconcern at the Codexia.

“Exactly what do you think you were doing?” thundered the Codexia, peering down his thin nose at Shadrall.

At this point, Cal decided that some remedial intervention was in order.

“I’m terribly sorry, Codexia, “ he said, summoning up his most ingratiating look, “It was an accident.”

A small quiver seemed to flow through the Codexia’s entire body, his eyes bulged visibly and his long, heavy braids swung with menace.

“It was no accident!” he said, “I saw it quite clearly. As did these two witnesses – “

He indicated the two Members of the Public, who were by now watching the proceedings with interest. They nodded in agreement, and tutted disapprovingly to themselves.

“This har deliberately destroyed a valuable exhibit!”

“Yes I did,” said Shadrall, with a noticeable lack of contrition. “You are absolutely correct, Codexia. Your powers of observation are remarkable.”

“Be quiet!” The Codexia turned to Cal and demanded of him suspiciously: “And what is your part in all this?”

“Me?” Cal did not even have to feign indignation.

“Yes, you. You are obviously this har’s accomplice.”

“I can assure you, Codexia…”

“Cahhle-har-Breize is my Spiritual Guide.” Shadrall interrupted. The Codexia fixed him with a piercing stare, as if trying to extract the truth from him by sheer force of will alone while behind his back, Cal made a wringing motion with both hands around an imaginary neck.

“Explain yourself, Tiahaar,” The Codexia demanded

“With pleasure. I am an artist. I have come to Kyme on a journey of personal discovery, to release the artistic freedom within my inner soul, and give expression to the creativity which bubbles up within me, like a fermenting lump of dough that a baker has left in the corner of the kitchen while he went upstairs for a bit of afternoon aruna with the har from across the street.”

“What does that have to do with all this?” The Codexia gestured angrily at the pile of broken glass

“I’m glad you asked that, Codexia. This is a conceptual art work.”

“It is no such thing! It is a travesty.”

Shadrall looked pained. “How cruel is the lot of the true artist, never to be understood by his public until years after his death!. Codexia, this is one of my greatest works! Hara will be clamouring to visit your Library from now on to view this piece. Its true meaning is obvious to those who have eyes to see. The crystal ball represents the tyranny of the Gelaming. The glass is the fragile soul of Wraeththu-kind, and the display artefacts are the enlightened library employees who have been released from their cruel imprisonment by the artist’s sacrifice.”

But you see – “ he leaned forward a little, as if taking the Codexia into his confidence, “ – not all hara are as artistically developed as you and I. Few can appreciate the true complexity of my work. Some would see this merely as a wanton act of vandalism, and this is why I travel with my own Spiritual Adviser.”

“I’m afraid you will have to explain that a little more clearly, Tiahaar.”

“Gladly. Cahhle-har-Breize here is my intermediary. My connection with the world of ordinary hara. When the artistic spirit moves me, I am forced to do as it commands. Helpless in the face of my insistent muse am I! We Artists are like that, you know. Sometimes, as you can see, this results in… well, in a little tension between the world of art and the world of mundane living. It is Cahhle-har-Breize’s responsibility to absolve me, spiritually, from the repercussions of this conflict. And also to make restitution for any destructive element attributable to my creative outburst.”

“I see. Your friend will be paying for the damage then, I assume?”

“That he will. And for any future damage which may be caused by my colleagues.”

“Your colleagues?”

“Yes indeed. You see, Codexia, I am a member of a secret artistic collective. In fact, we are so secret that we don’t even know ourselves who the other members are, so it’s no good trying to torture me to reveal names. Our purpose is to travel the world using our art to protest against the injustice of existence. Wherever there is complacency and oppression, you will find us there, projectile in hand, ready to smash the system. Or window, or display case, as necessary.”

The Codexia’s eyes narrowed, and he scanned the Library vestibule as if he expected an ornament-wielding anarchist to be lurking behind every exhibit.

“There will be no repeat of any such incidents, I can assure you,” he said “There is no oppression in Kyme. As you are shortly about to find out when I have you locked up until your friend has taken care of the debt incurred by your action. There will also be a fine to pay for breaking Library regulations.”

“Only to be expected.”

“And forms to complete.”

“Kyme is renowned for its administrative efficiency…”

“This will take some time, Tiahaar.”

“… and thoroughness. Efficiency is nothing without thoroughness.”

“I’m afraid you will have to be detained for the duration, until the correct procedures have been followed.”

“Couldn’t I just pay the fine now and have done with it?” Cal asked, attempting to salvage the situation.

“Don’t be silly, Cahhle,” Shadrall chided him, “We must do things the correct way. The Suhl way. It’s only proper. Isn’t that right, Codexia?”

“We will certainly not be cutting any corners, if that’s what you mean.” The Codexia gave Cal another of his stern, silence-inducing looks.“

“I’m afraid your artist friend here will be required to accompany me to the Department of Public Detention for now.” he said. “You, in the meantime, can apply to pay his fines and secure his release. You will need to visit the office of the Under-Scrivener, who will forward your petition to the Vice-Archon.”

“And how long is that likely to take?” asked Cal

“Assuming you get to the Under-Scrivener’s office before midday – which you will, if you hurry – the paperwork should be processed in no more than twenty four hours.”

“Twenty-four hours?” Cal looked aghast. Shadrall, however, showed no signs of distress at this news.

“It looks like I’m in for a short holiday at the Vice-Archon’s pleasure,” he said brightly. “What we artists are prepared to suffer, eh?”

“Your suffering may last longer than you expect!” Cal hissed.

“It’s all for the best, I’m sure!”

Cal turned to the Codexia, deliberately ignoring Shadrall. “How do I get to the Under-Scrivener’s office?” he asked.

“It is on the other side of Kyme from the library. You can walk, but that will take you some time. I suggest instead that you pay for a carriage to take you there if you want to lodge your petition before midday.”

“Fine,” said Cal “I’ll do that.”

“In the meantime,” The Codexia continued, “I shall escort your friend to the Department of Detention. You may visit him there once you have completed all the necessary administrative requirements.”

“And where is the Department of Detention? Don’t tell me, let me guess – it’s on the other other side of Kyme.”

The Codexia did not smile.

“Actually,” he said “It is right next door to the Library.”

“They take forgetting to return books seriously around here!” Shadrall said, earning him a glare from both Cal and The Codexia.

“I should hurry, if I were you, Tiahaar,” The Codexia said to Cal. “The Under-Scrivener is known to enjoy a lengthy midday repast, which begins rather earlier than most, and finishes somewhat later. And as for you – “ he scowled at Shadrall as if he were a particularly nasty piece of street-detritus into which he had accidentally stepped – “You will follow me. No, it’s alright –“ he waved away the two hara who had originally apprehended Shadrall “I think I can manage this one on my own.”

“I’ll come quietly,” Shadrall said

This way, “ The Codexia seized Shadrall by the shoulders and steered him away from his trajectory towards the front door.

Shadrall gave Cal a backwards valedictorian wave as he was propelled away. The Codexia paused and looked back at the remains of the display case. He snorted with irritation.

“Have that mess swept up,” he instructed the guards

“Bits of broken glass do not represent the tyranny of the Gelaming,” he said to no-one in particular as he followed after Shadrall. “We have paintings in the Gallery which do that!”

*********

By the time Cal made it back to the Department of Detention it was late afternoon, and Cal was not in a good mood. He was shown through to a collection of small rooms at the back of the building by a morose-looking har with a wide white streak down the centre of his otherwise jet-black hair.

At the very end of the row was a small cell with metal bars across the front, allowing for the observation of the occupant. Shadrall was lying on the single bunk, his hands behind his head, legs stretched out in front of him, one crossed over the other. He looked pleased with himself, and the world at large, a mood and sentiment which Cal did not share.

Shadrall looked up when he heard Cal approaching and smiled, though he did not get up from the bed. The har with the white-streaked hair followed Cal as far Shadrall’s cell, gestured dismissively at the prisoner within, then without a word returned to his position at the front of the building, leaving Cal alone with Shadrall.

“Back already are you?” Shadrall didn’t sound particularly surprised.

“What do you mean “already?”. I’ve spent all afternoon filling in forms and bribing petty officials on your behalf, while you’ve been lying here with your feet up, apparently.”

“There’s no point in stressing if you don’t have to, that’s what I always say. You had a fun time at the Under-Scrivener’s office then, I take it?”

“No, I did not. The Under-Scrivener was looking forward to his lunch, and as such was not at all pleased to see some idiot from out of town show up, bringing a pile of paperwork his way.”

Shadrall grimaced in sympathy. “Bureaucrats, eh? But what can you do?”

“Avoid getting into trouble in the first place? Or would that simply prove too difficult for you?”

“I wouldn’t so much say it was a matter of difficulty in that direction, more a matter of the ease with which the opposite direction beckons and then seduces me. You know exactly what I mean Cal, you’re a born troublemaker yourself.”

“That’s neither here nor there. You’re the one in trouble at the moment.”

“Your turn will come, I’m sure, if not here then some other place. No need for a crystal ball to see that.”

“Thank you for your vote of confidence.”

“You’re welcome. So what happened after the Under-Scrivener had done his under-scrivening?”

“After several hours waiting for the necessary papers to be prepared – a period of time which I spent most profitably counting the tiles on the floor of the charming ante-room they confined me to; 256 in total, I’m quite sure of that, I checked at least eight times – I was dispatched off to see the Vice-Archon, who was no more thrilled to see me than the Under-Scrivener had been, although he did allow me to abase myself in his presence and humbly beg his forgiveness for interrupting his afternoon nap.”

“It’s the power, you know. It goes to their heads. Did I not tell you? Put a har in a position of power and before you know it he’s invading Megalithica.”

“I don’t think the Vice-Archon of Kyme has any intentions of invading Megalithica.”

“I know. I wasn’t talking about him. I was being subtle.”

“No you weren’t.”

“Damn. I’ll do better next time.”

“No you won’t. Anyway, by the time the Vice-Archon got around to signing the release for you, it was late afternoon. Apparently the rules state that the release certificate cannot be issued on the same day that the release edict is signed, which means that I have to go back and collect the certificate tomorrow, and you are stuck in here till then.”

“Excellent.”

“I feel rather as if I’m sticking my head in a noose and yelling “tighter” here, but I have to ask – in what way is it excellent that you are to spend the next twenty-four hours under detention?”

“Well the food’s not bad for a start. They did bring me a most excellent lunch – I could quite recommend a bit of civic disobedience to anyhar who finds himself without the wherewithal to procure a meal. Did you get something yourself, by the way, Cal?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“That’s a pity. I’d have kept you some if I’d known.”

“I’m touched by your generosity.”

“It’s the least I could do. I have to say, this is not at all a bad prison, as prisons go.”

“You’ve had some experience, I take it?”

“Not as much as some hara would like.”

“I don’t doubt that for a minute, if your behaviour this morning was anything to go by. What on earth made you throw that crystal-ball through the glass case? What were you thinking?”

Shadrall swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up, stretching himself, with his arms raised and his hands clasped behind his head. He padded over to the front of the cell and pressed himself up against the bars, his face close to Cal’s Leaning in close, he gave Cal a meaningful look.

“Trust me, Cal. I know what I’m doing.”

“And what are you doing?”

Shadrall rummaged in the pockets of his shapeless garment, and produced a stack of coloured cards. They were well-thumbed, but the illustrations on them were still distinct; bright and garish in primary hues. He spread them out in front of Cal, illustrated sides down.

“Pick a card,” he said.

“What?”

“You heard.”

“This is hardly the time for ridiculous games.”

“It’s not a game, it’s a… what-do-you-call-it..”

“I don’t call it anything, you’re the one who started it.”

“Just pick a card.”

Cal made an exasperated sound, but pulled one of the cards from the pile.

“Now, look at it, but don’t tell me what it is.”

Cal did as he was instructed.

“Now put it back in the pile.”

When the card had been replaced, Shadrall gave the pile a brisk shuffle, then tapped them against the metal bars to tidy them into a neat stack again.

“There – you see?” he said

Cal stared at him.

“See what? Aren’t you supposed to tell me what my card was?”

“I’ve no idea what your card was, you didn’t show it to me, remember?. What do you think I am – a mind-reader or something? I’ll leave that sort of stuff to you Gelaming.”

“Then what in the name of Aruhani’s arse was all that in aid of?”

“Careful with the blaspheming there, Cal, we don’t want to get ourselves in any more trouble. It might be an idea to keep the Dehara on our side.”

Shadrall took the cards and replaced them in his right pocket. Then from his left withdrew a small leather pouch which he waved enticingly in front of Cal.

“What the…?” Cal’s hand went to his own pocket, and, unsurprisingly, came away empty. “Give me that back!” He snatched the leather pouch from Shadrall.

“So you’re a pick-pocket. That’s nothing I didn’t know.”

“Cal, you’re missing the point. Why was I able to relieve you of the money that the formidable Chancellor Tharmifex endowed you with?”

“Because you asked the universe very nicely?”

“Not at all. The universe played no part in this. It washed it hands of the whole affair, and stayed on the sidelines. It may possibly have had a small flutter on the outcome, because I imagine even the universe gets bored from time to time and there’s nothing like a little financial interest to make things more entertaining, but apart from that, it let me get on with this one using nothing but my own skill, charm and the mighty power of legerdemain.”

“Whatever the explanation is going to be, just make it quick.”

“Sleight of hand, Cal. Distraction. You were so busy thinking about the card trick, you didn’t pay any attention to your pockets. You see, if I don’t want you to see what’s happening over there, I make sure something more interesting is happening over here.”

“And this is your rationale for causing a ruckus in the Great Library and getting yourself arrested when we’re supposed to be keeping our heads down and staying out of sight?”

“Yes it is. Don’t you worry your pretty head about it, Cal – all will become apparent in due course once I’m released.”

“Pell is not going to be pleased about this.”

Shadrall sighed with disappointment.

“Just listen to yourself, Calanthe. What does it matter what the lovely Pellaz thinks? He’s not here, and even if he was you’re not his lapdog.

Cal gave him an unpleasant look. “You’re putting a lot of trust in the ability of these bars to keep me on the other side from you.” he said, with deliberate menace.

“Well they look sturdy enough to keep a Gelaming at bay!”

“What about a Varr?”

Shadrall thought about this for a second. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Have you got one handy, and we could try them out?”

“I used to be with the Varrs.” Cal said, watching for Shadrall’s reaction, and feeling rather pleased at the other har’s aghast expression.

“Great galloping Aghama, is this another of your secret and intriguing past lives, Cal?”

Cal’s laughed dryly

“It’s not much of a secret.” he said

“Well it came as an unexpected and slightly unpleasant surprise to me, I’ll give you that much. I notice that you don’t deny that it’s intriguing though.”

Cal gave a dismissive shrug of his shoulders. “Perhaps it was. It didn’t seem like it at the time.”

“I suppose these sort of things never do. But you know, I haven’t heard anyhar mention the Varrs in a long time. Apart from the occasional hostling who’s trying to terrify a harling into behaving himself. Whatever happened to them?”

“The Gelaming happened to them.”

“Ah. Of course. It all makes sense now.”

“It was an ideological clash of epic proportions. The Varrs with their vast military might and ruthless cruelty The Gelaming with their peaceful determination to bring enlightenment and harmony to everyhar. Whether they wanted it or not. It was no contest. The Varrs were totally wiped out.”

“That would certainly explain why we haven’t heard about them in a while. To be honest, I’m not quite seeing the enlightenment and harmony inherent in a bit of genocide here, though.”

“Perhaps not so much wiped out as assimilated. New name, new ideology, new leaders…”

“You Gelaming can be quite the ruthless ones yourselves at times.”

“Don’t blame me – I wasn’t Gelaming at the time.”

“You were on the other side?”

“I was more a sort of a neutral and disinterested bystander.”

“That’s encouraging to hear. I didn’t really take your for the Varrish sort.”

“Think again. Before that I was Uigenna. And that is a secret.”

“Now you’re scaring me, Cal.”

“Good. Perhaps you’ll behave yourself from now on.”

“Oh I will! Absolutely no doubt about it!”

“Good. I expect you to be a model citizen from now on. Apart from stealing the book – you have special dispensation to revert to type for that. We need to concentrate on what we’re here for.”

“I know, but don’t you worry, Cal – I have it all worked out. When I get out of here tomorrow, I will continue with my well-thought-out plan for getting our hands on the High Codexia’s private publication. Now, in the meantime, while I am unavoidably detained, there are several items I would like you to procure for me, Cal – I’m sure you can easily lay your hands upon them in a town such as Kyme.”

Cal sighed. “Very well. Give me a list – I’ll see what I can do.”

“I knew I could rely on you!” Shadrall raised a hand and began counting off on his fingers

“We’ll need a red candle. It doesn’t matter what size it is – although try not to get one of those novelty ones in the shape of an ouana-lim – that’s pushing the boundaries of good taste just a little in my opinion – but it has to be red. We need a small pot of Kohl, or other eye make-up. We need a bottle of Doffle – it’s a liquor they distil locally, made from those little purple fruits you see growing wild. We need a copy of the local news-sheet – today’s or tomorrows. Or the day after’s, if it’s that sort of publication. And last but not least we need a leather collar of about the size to fit a smallish-to- medium-sized dog – the sort of dog that you could take for exercise in the rougher neighbourhoods without feeling embarrassed, but not the sort of dog that would frighten nervous harlings. “

“Do we need the dog as well?”

“No, just the collar. If you have to buy the dog as well, try and sell it to recoup some of the costs, I’m sure The Chancellor will thank you for it. Have you got all that now?”

“Yes, I think so. What on earth do you want with those?”

“All will become apparent in due course, Calanthe. Have faith, and trust in my amazing and slightly supernatural skills.”

“They haven’t been much in evidence so far”

“They have been working hard behind the scenes, trust me Cal.”

“That’s my evening’s entertainment taken care of I suppose. What do you intend to do?”

Shadrall walked back to his bed and sat down on it heavily.

“Hear that?”

“What?”

“Precisely. Not a boing or a twang. The sweet sound of interior-sprung silence, music to the ears after last night’s nocturnal cacophony. Have a good night’s sleep is what I intend to do, just me and my lovely bed.” He bounced up and down on the bunk several times, and gave the mattress an affectionate pat.

“I feel like I’m intruding on an intimate relationship” said Cal. “Shall I leave you two alone?”

“No need for jealousy, Cal. While this fine piece of municipal furniture may have the edge on you in comfort it can’t compete with you on looks.”

“The day I’m chosen for comfort over looks is the day I give up aruna entirely. Perhaps I should get myself arrested too.”

“I’m afraid we need you to remain at large and dangerous in order to complete your mission of acquisition. But don’t worry – I’ll be thinking of you, all alone in that charming little room of Stoat’s”

“Who says I’ll be alone?”

“I didn’t think Stoat was your type.”

“He’s not, but I have all of Kyme to choose from.”

“You’ll be too busy for that, Cal.”

“I’m never too busy for that.”

“And never short of volunteers either, I imagine.”

“True. I am fine-looking har, after all.”

“You’re not much troubled by false modesty, are you Cal? I like that in a har.”

“Nice to know you approve of something about me.”

“Cal, I approve of a lot of things about you, and I’m not just saying that because you’re strikingly good-looking, rich, famous and powerful.”

“I’m not famous. Well, not here in Kyme.”

“Give it time.”

Cal laughed. “Fortunately we won’t be here long enough for my reputation to become established. We need to be back in Immanion tomorrow, so I hope this plan of yours is successful”

“Oh it will be, have no fear. Now off you go and attend to your errands. I shall spend the night in deep meditation, communing with my mattress, the better to pull off my daring scheme tomorrow!”

Chapter 15

Despite Stoat’s denial, there was a palpable air of festivity abroad in Kyme. Rather than delaying the Smoketide festival, it seemed that the populace was more than keen to enjoy the late fruits of summer and take advantage of the last warm days before they vanished altogether. Pennants and coloured flags were being hung from the windows of buildings, and wreaths constructed from golden straw decorated many a door. The harvest was bountiful, and the hara were grateful, and several times on his way to the Vice-Archon’s offices the next morning Cal was offered a mug of some aromatic golden beverage, redolent of fruits and spices, which, to judge from its effects on the imbibers, was a singularly potent brew. He declined the offers, deciding that the day’s work would require a clear head and a sober attitude.

Acquiring the necessary paperwork from the Vice-Archon’s office to secure Shadrall’s release took longer than he expected. While he waited in a selection of ante-rooms throughout the morning and into the afternoon, he had time to ponder on the notion that, although Wraeththu-kind had discarded many of humanity’s less pleasing traits, a love of bureaucracy was not among these. He made a mental note to invest some time in streamlining Immanion’s administration when he returned home.

Eventually every document was signed, every form filled, every ticket stamped, every official reimbursed for his trouble, and he had the required papers for Shadrall’s discharge. He expected to receive a lecture, or at least a stern exhortation not break the law of the land in such a cavalier fashion again, but his application was processed without comment or censure, leading Cal to suspect that the true purpose of Kyme’s legislative organisation was not to deliver law and order, but rather to provide gainful employment for a good number of hara, and add to the city’s coffers.

He now felt familiar enough with the city and its layout to walk back to the Department of Detention, taking a few short-cuts though one or two of many narrow alleys that threaded their way through the city like secret tunnels. He used the tall spire that dominated the city’s centre as a landmark, but it was surprisingly difficult to keep it in his sights – the buildings were high and set close together, and turning down a side street could easily obscure both the tower and the dark needle that surmounted it and plunge him into a strange netherworld of encroaching walls, worn and twisted with age. It reminded him yet again of how unlike Immanion Kyme was – Immanion with its wide, spacious boulevards , sprawling villas, and always visible, – Phaonica, ivory and pearl against the unforgiving blue of the sky.

Eventually he turned one more corner and recognised the dignified presence of the Library, with the rather more modest and unassuming Department of Detention to its rear. As he passed the Library’s front gates, he noticed that today there were two sturdy hara standing on either side of the door, watchful and suspicious, no doubt on the alert for any outlaw artists or poets who might be even now preparing to launch an insurgent crystal ball through unsuspecting glass.

They glared at him as he walked past, causing Cal to wonder briefly if his image had been posted to public notice boards all over the city, identifying him as a dangerous criminal. He hoped that they had managed to capture a flattering likeness if that was so. He’d been Wanted before, and he considered it important to be Wanted with a bit of flair.

The Department of Detention was unguarded except for the har with the black and white hair who was seated at the front desk sorting through a large box of papers with great concentration. He did not even look up when Cal entered. Cal waited patiently for a minute or so, but then decided that he’d used up enough patience for one day, and coughed loudly to attract the har’s attention.

The har looked up. His expression was not altogether one of unalloyed joy to see Cal again.

“Oh it’s you.” he said.

“Yes it is.” Cal imbued these words with as much forced enthusiasm as he could muster, but the skunk-streaked har seemed impervious to his sarcasm.

“Have you got the Release Certificate?”

Cal triumphantly laid the papers on the desk. The har didn’t even look at them.

“Okay. You know where he is. I’ll be down to let him out in a moment.” he returned to his box of papers, resuming his careful enumeration of each one.

Cal sighed and headed for the cells at the back of the building. As with the previous day, the rest of them were completely unoccupied, and the building was filled with a dull, absorbent silence, overlayed with the scent of some cleansing agent; sour and astringent.

Shadrall was lying on the bunk with his arms behind his head, his eyes closed. At first Cal wondered if he was asleep, but then he spoke and proved otherwise.

“And about time too. There’s only so much meditating a har can do before he completely loses the will to live.” Shadrall opened one eye and grinned at Cal.

“How did you know it was me?” Cal asked

“Our friend Skunk back there shuffles rather more. A dispirited, I’ve-worked-in-a-detention-centre-for-the-best-part-of-ten-years-and-hated-every-minute-of-it sort of walk. You, on the other hand, have a confident walk, Cal. A walk that say “I am wealthy, good-looking, Tigron of Immanion, and carrying a collar to fit a medium-sized dog, a candle, a newspaper and bottle of Doffle.

“Don’t forget the pot of Kohl.”

“Easily missed – it’s quite small”

“Don’t knock it – it took me two hours to get that.”

“You had a busy evening then?”

“Yes, and a busy morning and afternoon too – if you count bribing officials as a productive activity.

“I do! It doesn’t come much more productive, trust me on that one, Cal.”

“Fortunately for you, my productivity rate was high and I have managed to secure your Release Note which Skunk is even now not bothering to process with any degree of enthusiasm.”

“Ah, don’t worry, he’ll get round to it. There’s no hurry.”

“I though you’d be eager to get out of here and get on with your mission.”

“Well, eager to get out of here I certainly am, but there’s no need for me to be setting off on any missions.”

Cal looked puzzled. “I thought that was what we were here for.”

“Oh it is, Cal, but it’s all taken care of. Done and dusted. Mission – as they say – accomplished.”

“Shad, you are making less sense than you usually do, and for a har who usually makes no sense whatsoever, that is quite an achievement. What are you talking about?”

In reply, Shadrall reached down into his pocket and produced a small, black volume with embossed gold lettering on the front.

“That’s the replica that Chancellor Tharmifex gave you.” Cal said

Shadrall shook his head and wagged one finger, a slow grin spreading across his face.

“No it isn’t.”

Cal gave him a long, hard look.

“There’s something I’m missing here, isn’t there.” he said “I’d like an explanation. Now. Or I’ll squeeze it out of your thoughts like juice out of a grapefruit using my phenomenal Gelaming mind powers.”

“Calanthe, that is not at all a comforting image, I think your inner Uigenna is starting to show.”

“My inner Uigenna could do a lot more than that if you don’t start explaining.”

Shadrall slipped the book carefully back into his pocket. He exuded smugness from every pore.

“Cal,” he said, as if explaining a simple problem to an even simpler harling “What is keeping me behind these bars, here in this lovely jail?”

Cal stared at the metal box attached to the front of the bars. Nothing was visible except the hole all the way through; the locking mechanism inside remained hidden.

“Hmm.” said Cal, raising one eyebrow.

“The spinner has dropped, I see.”

“So you’re telling me…”

Shadrall pushed the metal-barred door. It swung open slightly, without resistance. He looked up at Cal with expectation, as if he thought he deserved praise most fulsome for his cleverness.

Cal pulled and pushed at the door, moving it backward and forward. It could not in any way be described as locked.

“Why, “ he said slowly, imitating Shadrall’s previous tone, “are you still in this jail then? In fact, why did you spend all night here?”

“I showed you yesterday.”

“No you didn’t, all you showed me was some idiotic card trick.”

“Sleight of hand, Cal. What did you see when you passed the Library this morning?”

“Two guards on the door.”

“Which door?”

“The front door.”

“And what about the back door?”

“What back door?”

Shadrall threw back his head and emitted the energetic stream of honks that passed for a laugh.

“The back door that nobody was watching, because they were all flapping about in the vestibule where that heinous act of terror was committed earlier. Also, the back stairs up to the second floor, where the High Codexia’s office is – with his name on the front, exactly as Tiahaar Chrysm described – which was also bereft of staff, because they were all down in the vestibule clearing up the mess and eyeing innocent passers-by with great suspicion.”

“You broke into the High Codexia’s office?”

“Of course I did – it’s what we came here for, after all. And a most pleasant and well-appointed office it is too. Lovely view over Kyme. Of course it was dark by this time, so I missed the best of it. But I consoled myself with a drop from the High Codexia’s private cellar – it’s nice to see the Sulh keeping up that fine tradition of the Great and the Good not denying themselves the finer things in life. They can hold their own with the Gelaming any day, I’m sure.”

“So you broke out of the jail, broke into the High Codexia’s office, stole his wine and stole his book?”

“Cal, I’m detecting a hint of censure here, as if you are somehow surprised by this turn of events. What nuance of the word “thief” have you failed to grasp during our short but satisfying acquaintance?”

“None at all. I’m just cataloguing it all in my mind for future reference. Do continue.”

“Well there’s not much more to tell, really. The book was exactly where Tiahaar Chrysm said it would be – what a phenomenal memory that har has, I must congratulate him on our return to Immanion – so I replaced it with the Chancellor’s surrogate, enjoyed one last mouthful of what really was a most excellent vintage while sitting on the High Codexia’s fine, leather-upholstered chair at his sturdy, polished desk, then departed back down the back stairs and back to this lovely jail for the sort of peaceful night’s sleep only achieved by those of the clearest and most virginal of consciences.”

“You came back and locked yourself in again?”

“It would have looked very suspicious otherwise. I’m always careful to provide myself with an alibi on these occasions, Cal. And a word of thanks for supplying yourself with one too wouldn’t go amiss.”

“Me?”

“Naturally. I could hardly leave you defenceless and naked, you being my accomplice and all that. You have the perfect alibi yourself, Cal – you spent the whole evening shopping in Kyme, and there are many shopkeepers and stall-holders who can attest to that. As, I’m sure, can the authorities’ henchmen who were no doubt sent to follow you. Did you manage to get a bottle of Doffle, by the way? I’m thinking I might need a drop of refreshment once I get out of here.”

“You mean I spent all evening collecting a pile of junk – “ Cal brandished his bulging knapsack at Shadrall “ – for nothing?”

“Not at all! That’s a fine collection of very useful articles you have yourself there. Well – apart from the dog-collar. Unless you get yourself a dog, of course. They make very good companions, I hear. Very loyal. Slightly smelly.”

Cal leaned forward and planted his forehead on the bars several times.

“You,” he laughed, “should be locked up. If you weren’t already. You should be locked up again. You are a menace to society and to all right-thinking hara.”

“Is that such a bad thing?”

“Only because it used to be my job.”

“I’m sure there’s still a position vacant if you want to apply. There are never enough of us for all the work that needs doing.”

There was a sound from the other side of the corridor, a door opening followed by a sort of weary shuffling and the har from the front desk make his appearance, all striped hair and lassitude.

“Our monochrome friend has finally decided to join us. I think it’s time to tidy up the loose ends.” Shadrall pushed the door of the cell shut, and a faint click was heard from inside the lock. He tested it once or twice by pushing and tugging. It remained firmly closed. He gave Cal a meaningful look, and Cal smiled briefly in return.

“Right, you can go now, I suppose,” The desk har fumbled with a large collection of keys, examining several closely, with excruciating slowness, before finally inserting one into the lock and turning it. The lock snicked and the door opened.

“Ah, freedom, how I missed you!” exclaimed Shadrall, bursting forth from the cell and seizing the desk-har’s hand in gratitude. The desk-har looked faintly disgusted, and shook Shadrall off, as if he were something sticky and unpleasant.

Shadrall struck a melodramatic pose, his hand pressed against his forehead.

“It is impossible to convey the full horror of being deprived of liberty until one has experienced it.” he said in a quavering voice, “But thanks to the good people of Kyme, I have learned my lesson, and henceforth I will live an unimpeachably law-abiding life.”

“What my friend means – “ Cal said, pushing Shadrall down the corridor as the other har continued to declaim loudly the many benefits of the justice system of Kyme, “ – is that he will behave himself and not cause any more trouble.”

“That’s what everyhar says,” grumbled the desk-har, whole plainly did not share Shadrall’s belief in the power of custodial rehabilitation. “Enjoy the rest of your stay in Kyme.”

“Oh we shall!”

“We’re not staying long,” Cal said “Thank you for your hospitality.” He propelled Shadrall out of the building, and the two stood on the steps outside for a moment, blinking as their eyes accustomed to the brightness after the gloom of the cells.

Shadrall inhaled deeply, and hummed with satisfaction, evidently well-pleased with himself.

“I think that could be considered to be one of my more successful ventures.” he said, “We should celebrate!”

“We should return to Immanion.”

“What on earth for?”

“Pell is expecting us back.”

Shadrall made a face. “Is that all you ever think about? Your precious Pell? Don’t you want to see a bit of Kyme?”

“I’ve seen it.”

“Oh? What is it like?”

“Dark alleyways and sinister waiting rooms.”

“Very intriguing. I want to see it for myself – I’ve spent all my time in prison so far.”

“No you haven’t.”

“You’re right. But there’s more than one sort of prison.” He tapped the side of his head with his index finger. “A prison can be in the mind. A prison can be a palace, and a palace can be a prison. Come on, Cal – we’ve got time for a quick bit of sightseeing. We might never be here again! We’ll never be here again at this moment, as we are now, that’s for sure. Make the most of it, Cal. The rest of your life is waiting for you in Immanion – it’ s not changing and it’s not going anywhere. Give it the slip, just for a while.”

Shadrall bounded down the steps, hopping occasionally on one foot, as if performing a dance. Cal pause for a second, considered his options, then slung his knapsack onto his back and followed him down the steps, along the street, and back in the direction of the centre of the town.

To Cal’s surprise, Shadrall didn’t immediately head towards Kyme’s market place with its bustle of stalls and vendors. Instead, he turned left at the end of the street and up a road which led away from the densely-packed shops and houses. The road began to climb a hill, becoming steeper and more inclined, and forcing Cal’s breathing to quicken its pace as he sought to keep up with Shadrall who was prancing ahead of him, apparently oblivious to the gradient, led onward as if led by some unheard call.

The road was rough beneath Cal’s feet; cobblestones with deep gaps between them where the rain, over many years, had washed away the earth and surrounding material. Some of the stones were missing entirely. There was little sign that this road was being kept in good repair, or mended on a regular basis, unlike the main thoroughfare into the town.

By the time they reached the top, Cal was breathing heavily, but the rush of oxygen through his veins gave him a sort of savage energy, and he felt like he wanted to keep on ascending the hill, making demands of his body that had not been made in some time. The road came to and end, however, at a set of ornate, wrought iron gates attached to a fence made of slightly rusted iron railings. The gates were open and on the other side was grass and trees and open space.

Shadrall had stopped at the gates and was waiting for Cal to catch up with him. As usual, he looked highly pleased with himself for no discernible reason.

“What’s this?” asked Cal, “I thought you wanted to see Kyme.”

“This is Kyme. Well, a part of it.”

“It doesn’t look like a very interesting part.”

“Of course it is. It’s the old temple gardens.”

“How did you know it was here?”

“There was a map on the wall of the High Codexia’s office. I like maps. It’s like having the world shrunk so you can put it in your pocket. Apparently there’s a viewpoint here from where you can see the whole of Kyme.”

“Indeed. In that case we might as well take a look now we’ve come all the way up here.”

“I thought you’d be used to hills. Phaonica, and all that.”

“Tigrons don’t walk, remember?”

They walked through the gates together. The grass underfoot was short, but it did not have the lush, verdant texture of a well-manicured lawn, rather it was a low scrub, a wild, returned-to-nature pasture, given no artificial care, and needing none. Along the way they walked were lines of old trees, their trunks gnarled and bark peeling. Their placement was too regular to have occurred naturally, but like the grass, they had the look of something that was used to taking care of itself. Some of the trees bore a few fruits; round, reddened globes nestling like unexpected treasure among the leaves. Already it seemed to Cal that in the short time they had been in Kyme, the trees had become noticeably browner. It was the turn of the year; the world, for so long held motionless on the cusp of summer was now poised to resumed its headlong rush towards the long silence of winter waiting for it at the end of its annual journey.

They continued their trek over the lumpy and resistant turf. Not far ahead, Cal could see what appeared to be a smooth, paved area set in the open acres of grass. It looked like metal, or concrete, or some other relic of human industry that had miraculously survived the collapse of the society that had given it birth, and then, as they drew nearer, it seemed to become a great mirror, its impossibly smooth and shiny surface reflecting the overcast sky and the few patches of blue still visible. Finally Cal recognised it for what it was; a small ornamental pond contained within a low wall of crumbling brick and stone. An old fountain stood in the centre of it, from which no water had played in a very long time. Green verdigris streaked its surface, and the circle of nymphs bearing upturned shells waited in vain for them to be filled. There was no wind – surprisingly for such an exposed spot – and the surface was glassy and flawless

Reaching the edge of the pond, Cal looked down at it. He could not see past the surface into its depths. Instead, he saw a reflection of himself; a halo of bright hair, his face dark, eyes shadowed.

Shadrall gave the pond only the most cursory of glances. Instead he pointed to the untidy sprawl of buildings which lay all around the hill on whose brow they stood. Kyme encircled and surrounded them; they stood on an island, cut off from the rest of the world by a sea of buildings and houses.

“Look!” he said, gesticulating randomly at nowhere in particular. “You can see the Library from here.”

Cal looked, but he could not make out which particular building was the Library. He could see the tall, pointed spire, and some other large buildings which he assumed he must have passed at some point in his travels, but he could not recognise them from this angle. Kyme looked different from above, It’s hidden places laid bare, laid out before them exactly like the map in the High Codexia’s office. From here, an observer could see everything simultaneously, there were no surprises, no secrets.

If the Gelaming ruled this place, they would erect a great palace on this hill, Cal thought, to keep an eye on those down below. The people of Kyme, – both humans and hara – appeared to have chosen to keep their streets and alleyways unobserved.

Cal found himself shivering slightly. The day had grown overcast. Dark clouds had formed to obscure the sun, roiling ominously across the sky. A breeze had picked up, a harbinger of a change in the weather, arriving ahead of what was to come.

Shadrall looked up from the streets and houses below and stared at the darkening horizon, as if there were something behind the cloud, just beyond his vision.

“Winter’s coming.” he said. He turned to look across the sparse grassland all around.

“They’ll burn fires here soon, on this heath. When the days grow short as Shadetide approaches, Great blazing things, to keep the darkness at bay, and appease the old, angry Gods who steal the light. That’s how they are – the Suhl. You see them as a petty, insular tribe – and you, with your inner Uigenna and your outer Varr and your phenomenal Gelaming mind powers, you mock them – but they have not forgotten who they are, the Suhl. There are old things here, Cal. Things that will not die. Things that remain. The Suhl are more suited to be the guardians of old knowledge than the Gelaming. The Gelaming do not look back, only forward; they build over the past – obliterate it, replace it with their shining new palaces and cities. There is no past left for them to return to.”

“And is there a past here for you?”

“Oh, there’s a past alright. Only I can’t return to it. Things stay the same, but people change. It’s all one way, Cal. Time and distance. You can’t go back. You can only go forward. Perhaps we are all Gelaming after all.”

“That sounds very deep and philosophical – and quite unlike you.”

“Ah well, prison will do that to a har, Cal. Make him sombre and lacking in gaiety. Speaking of which, are you ready to return to your future, or would you like to stay in your cheerful past a little longer?”

“Pell’s expecting us.”

“So you said. They’re celebrating Smoketide here tonight.”

“Are they now? And how do they do that?”

“In the traditional way. By getting wildly intoxicated and behaving very badly indeed.”

“I see. Tell me more about the intoxication.”

“They have a particularly lethal local brew which is in copious supply at this time of year.”

“I think I was offered some of it today.”

“And you didn’t try it? Cal, I’m disappointed in you!”

“I was tempted, I must admit.”

“Temptation should always be given in to. Here – try this. Its what you might call the raw ingredient.”

Shadrall reached up as far as he could into the lower branches of one of the ancient trees which grew around the pond, and pulled from it one of the few fruits it bore. It was round and red, with a skin as glossy as the surface of the pond. He held it out to Cal.

“Bite?”

Cal grinned slowly. He took the apple, and sank his teeth into, exposing its white flesh, and tart juice. Shadrall watched him with approval.

Cal felt something wet on his cheek, and wiped it away with the back of his hand, thinking it to be apple juice, but it was immediately replaced by another droplet. He looked up, and several more large drops of water hit his face, one in the eye, causing him to squint. The sky was almost black. The pond’s surface was no longer smooth, but decorated with a pattern of rings, each one spreading outwards, then vanishing, only to be replaced by another moments later.

Shadrall studied the regular constellation of circles appearing and disappearing on the surface of the pool, almost hypnotized by its motion.

“Old Gods.” he said. “What happens to them? What happens to old Gods when those who created them no longer need them? Where do they go to die?”

Cal swallowed a mouthful of apple. “I have no idea,” he said, “but if we stay here we’re going to get soaked. We should have brought our oilskins.”

Shadrall tore his gaze away from the pond. “You can’t plan for everything,” he said

“I don’t plan on standing in the rain. Come on, let’s go – at least it’s all downhill on the way back.”

The dark cloud overhead gave a warning rumble. Shadrall pulled his thin overshirt tighter around his body.

“Sounds like a plan to me. Come on – I’ll race you to the bottom!”

He sprinted off across the grass in the direction of the main gates. Cal was momentarily taken by surprise by his sudden departure. He took another bite of the apple then ran to catch him up.

Chapter 16

It was considerably later when the two hara finally returned to the Rampant Gryphon. Cal was not actually sure what time it was – he suspected that midnight had come and gone, however the large clock tower in the centre of Kyme had mercifully ceased its duties after striking ten, the better for the good and sober citizens of Kyme to get a restful night’s sleep. The not-so-good and not-so-sober citizens of Kyme – and by this time both Cal and Shadrall could rightfully number themselves amongst this elite – were obliged after that time to make their own estimation of what point of the evening – or morning – had been reached, and organise their homecoming accordingly.

Cal was equally hazy on the precise number of drinking establishments and places of entertainment that he had visited during the course of the evening as Shadrall sought, with great enthusiasm, to introduce him to the cultural life of the Suhl. At this point, he was convinced that it seemed to consist of drinking large quantities of a beverage which possibly had a part-time job removing elderly paintwork in its free moments, being regaled by music of an impressively loud and raucous nature – the lyrics to which for some reason always seemed to be concerned with the amusing failings of the Gelaming, the inarguable superiority of the Suhl, or occasionally for double-points, both – and fending off amorous advances from hara in various stages of inebriation ranging from the gently unselfconscious to the completely unconscious.

Fortunately the thunderstorm of earlier had moved on, leaving the streets of Kyme washed clean, and bringing a new freshness to the air that made Cal shiver slightly as he and Shadrall picked their way through the odd labyrinth of tight streets and alleyways that comprised the town’s central area. Eventually they came to a street which Cal thought he recognised, although it was difficult for him to be certain, since the dark was unrelieved by any form of street lighting, the moon had set, and he was about as intoxicated as it is possible for a har to get and still be in with a reasonable chance of not waking up in a ditch on the opposite side of town to his abode the next day.

“I think this is it,” he told Shadrall.

“How can you be sure? It all looks the same at night. Actually, it all looks the same during the day too – would it kill them to invest in some street signs?”

Cal waved an unsteady finger. “Look. It’s the Rampant Lizard.”

“Gryphon. It’s a Rampant Gryphon we’re looking for.”

“Yes, but it looks like a lizard.”

“More like a dragon.”

“A dragon is a lizard.”

“No it’s not, lizards don’t have wings.”

“Flying lizards do.”

Shadrall wandered over to the sign and squinted up at it.

“Ah yes, I think you’re right. I recognise it now. How could we possibly mistake the artist’s unique style and vision, which announces with such confidence to the world – “I cannot draw, and furthermore I can’t tell the difference between a gryphon and a lizard.”

“Dragon. And why does it have five legs?”

“I think that’s the drink, Cal.”

“It should stick to water in future then. And so should I.”

“Very sage advice. Come on then, in we go. Oh. You’re right. It does have five legs….”

Shadrall pushed Cal up the worn steps and in through the front door, which creaked ominously as it admitted them. Inside, it was utterly lightless. The blackness was all-pervasive, and neither har could see anything at all. Shadrall took a step forward and promptly fell over some unseen object, landing in a heap of the floor with a thump and a flurry of inventive expletives.

“Not so loud. You’ll wake Stoat up.”

In reply, Shadrall invoked the retribution of several minor local Dehara.

Cal laughed out loud and held his hand out in front of him in the dark. An eerie bluish ball of light formed in the air illuminating the surroundings with its cold radiance and revealing Shadrall sitting on the floor rubbing his shins and watching Cal with interest.

“That’s a clever trick.”

“Phenomenal Gelaming mind powers. Didn’t I tell you?”

“You did indeed, curse me for the unbeliever that I am. Lead on then, O bearer of the floating blue ball of Gelamingness.”

Shadrall scrambled to his feet none-too-elegantly, and together he and Cal stumbled their way up the narrow stairway, the blue ball of light floating ahead of them and lighting their way. Unable to resist the temptation, Shadrall reached out and poked a finger into its iridescent nothingness. It felt simultaneously cold and as if a sudden tongue of flame had licked its way up his arm to his elbow.

“Is it dangerous?” he asked.

“Extremely.”

Shadrall scowled. “Now you tell me!”

“Would it have stopped you if I’d told you earlier?”

“Of course not.”

“That’s what I thought. Don’t worry – it’s perfectly safe.”

“It’s true what they say about the Gelaming – you can’t trust them an inch.”

The blue ball reached the top of the stairs and floated ahead of them along the narrow corridor until it reached the door to their room, where it stopped obediently and waited while the correct minor violence was applied to the correct corner and entrance was gained, whereupon it glided silently inside and floated up to the ceiling to park itself neatly over the bed, casting its cold blue light over the room.

There were a number of candles in the room – thick, ivory-coloured cylinders decorated with knobbly excrescences of guttered wax melted and re-solidified into intriguing semi-organic shapes. With a suddenness which took Shadrall by surprise they all spontaneously flared into life adding a brighter, yellower glow to the room.

Shadrall raised both his eyebrows.

“Phenomenal Gelaming… thing?”

Cal nodded, looking inordinately pleased with himself. “Good, isn’t it?”

“Well I’m glad to see it has its uses. Don’t you like the blue ball then? Does it not match the décor?” Shadrall looked up at the strange blue sphere, which responded by winking out of existence.

“Too much effort,” Cal said He flopped down on the bed, accompanied by its customary symphony of twangs and complaints. “A har can’t be phenomenaling all night.”

In the candle-light, with the eerie blue glow from the floating sphere extinguished, the small room looked almost cosy, although nothing could compensate for the ever-present odour of mildew and mouse-droppings. The blankets on the bed were arranged in an untidy heap and it was plain that neither Cal nor the proprietor had gone to any effort to restore order to the room after the previous night. Cal removed his boots by rubbing and pushing one leg against the other and they dropped to the floor in turn, each with a heavy thud. He squirmed a bit on the bed, trying to find a less lumpy area. The frame gave tongue discordantly yet again.

Shadrall sighed.

“Where’s your bag?” he asked.

“On the floor.” Cal indicated with his foot.

Shadrall lifted the knapsack and rummaged in it for a few seconds, eventually producing from its depths the newspaper that had been on Cal’s list of items.

“Move over a bit,” he ordered Cal. Cal duly wriggled to the edge of the bed. Shadrall lifted the lumpy pillow and shoved the newspaper down between the frame and the metal headrest.

“Try it now.”

Cal bucked his hips slightly. The twang from the bedframe was noticeably more muted.

“Not bad,” he said. “Any more tricks up your sleeve?”

“It’s a distinct possibility.” Again Shadrall delved into Cal’s bag, this time returning with a dark, stoppered bottle.

“There are hara who would say that were are not actually in any great need of more intoxicating liquor at this point.” Cal said, eyeing the bottle warily.

“I make it a habit to ignore those sort.” Shadrall gave the cork a tug, and it came free from the bottle with a satisfying pop. He took a swig from the bottle, wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve, and handed it to Cal, who squinted at it dubiously.

“What exactly is it?”

“Not entirely sure. It’s made from those little purple fruits you see growing about the place. They’re reputed to have some hallucinogenic properties.”

“Great. Just what we need.”

“If you don’t want any….”

“I didn’t say that!” Cal seized the bottle and took a large gulp from it. The potent liquid filled his mouth with its curious, almost medicinal flavour, peppering his tongue with sharp bursts of acidity which to Cal’s surprise translated themselves almost instantly to bright flashes of light before his eyes. He swallowed, feeling the liquid burn as it invaded his innards, leaving behind a thick, furred coating on his teeth. He lay back on the bed, his head swimming a little.

“I don’t think I’ll be wanting any more of that,” he said, handing the bottle back to Shadrall.

“Perhaps you’re right.” Shadrall re-stoppered the bottle, with a hint of regret.

“Is that stuff actually legal?”

“I don’t think so. Is that important.”

“Not at this stage, no.”

Shadrall put the bottle down on the scratched side table and stretched himself out on the bed beside Cal in slow motion, as if he was unsure if his limbs would behave themselves and go where he put them.

“It’s also reputed to have some aphrodisiac properties.” he said.

Cal sighed. “Be gentle with me then.”

“Not that we need any artificial assistance in that respect!”

“Two fine specimens of rampant harish priapism like ourselves? I should think not!”

There was a brief silence.

“Did you spend the night with him? Rue, I mean. Back at Phaonica.” Cal rolled onto his side and faced Shadrall, studying him with interest.

“Yes I did, as a matter of fact.”

“And did you…”

“….spend the whole night discussing Gelaming foreign policy? Yes, we did.”

“… You did?”

“No, don’t be ridiculous. We spent the whole night rooning each other senseless.” Shadrall’s face split into a wide grin. “It was just like the old days!”

“Rue is a very desirable har,” Cal said, his voice sounding a little slurred.

“You’ve noticed?”

“Of course I have. And he’s very knowledgeable when it comes to the fine arts of aruna.”

“You have personal experience?”

“Of course I do. He’s my consort.”

“And how does that work?”

“What do you mean?”

“You, and him. And Pellaz.”

Cal shrugged. “We’re hara. We have options.”

“I don’t mean physically.”

“We’re hara. We’re supposed to be above all that.”

Shadrall’s laugh was caustic. “Of course you are. You Gelaming are so advanced and sophisticated when it comes to that sort of thing. Particularly the Tigrons, who are an exemplary model of emotional maturity and perfection, showing the rest of us plebs how it’s done.”

“And exactly how is this any of your business?”

“It’s my business because I am a friend of Rue’s. I care about him.”

“I can see that.”

“And your lovely – lovely – Pellaz. Doesn’t.”

Cal snorted. “You’ve been in Immanion for five minutes! You know nothing about our lives! How do you presume to know what Pell feels, or thinks?”

“Because it drips from him, oozes from him, trails behind him everywhere he goes, like a bad smell.”

“Is that another one of your talents? Divining people’s emotions by sense of smell?”

“I know a lie when I see one. Lies don’t have to be words. Does he lie to you, Cal? Does he treat you as carelessly as he does Rue? Does he tell you he loves you, and then cast you aside when he’s bored with you? Does he take your devotion for granted? Does he want you only for as long as it pleases him, until some other har comes along to take your place?”

There was an awkward silence, during which the sound of the rain could be heard pattering against the thin glass of the windows. Outside, a dog barked, and was chided into silence.

When Shadrall spoke again, there was defeat in his voice.

“It’s not that I mind that Rue has found somehar else, you know. It’s not that I think I am a better har than Pellaz – the Dehara only know that I am no catch, and Pellaz har Aralis is superior to me in every respect imaginable. It’s not that I think I could ever be worthy of Rue. But I want him to be happy. If you believe nothing else I tell you, you can believe that. And he deserves to be happy. He does. He deserves better than that.”

Cal studied Shadrall’s face. In the soft light from the candles, his eyes seemed unnaturally bright, and he stared up at the stained ceiling, blinking a little.

“If you care for Rue that much,” Cal asked, “Why did you leave?”

“Because – “

Cal could see the muscles of the other har’s throat working as he swallowed involuntarily, and his eyes closed as if he was in pain.

“ – because if I’d stayed one minute more – just one – I would never have left again. I would have stayed with Rue in a lovely little house in Ferelithia, and probably had a few lovely harlings and happy, peaceful, lovely, settled life. And I wasn’t ready for that, Cal. There’s too much world out there. Too many places and things and hara. Too many locks that need unlocking. Too many lies that need telling. So I left. I walked out the door, and down the street, past the stall that sold fresh bread, kept on walking and never looked back once, wretched, miserable coward that I am.”

“I knew Rue would be alright. He didn’t need me. He had lots of friends, and a wonderful life, and I didn’t mean as much to him as he… I didn’t break his heart, Cal. I left that for another har to do.”

“If you’d still been in Ferelithia when Pell arrived…”

“…it wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference. Some hara think fate is a fragile thing, Cal. They think a butterfly’s wings flapping in Megalithica can cause the rise or fall of civilisation in Almagabra, but I don’t. I think fate is a herd of stampeding rhinoceroses, thundering down on you, with a murderous glint in its nasty little eyes. You can’t divert it, or change its course, and it will trample all over anyhar who gets in its way, not to mention giving you a poke up the rear with the pointy horns occasionally. All you can do is run, and hope you stay just ahead of it, and don’t trip and fall.”

“I used to think that,” Cal said softly, “I ran, for the longest time. Farther and faster than you can imagine. But it didn’t do any good.”

“And now that you’ve stopped running – can you still feel the prod of those horns?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps. All I know is that you have to have a destination in mind, or you’ll never stop running. The trick is not to be running away from something, but running towards something else.”

“And what do you do when you get there and you find that you’re not needed ?”

Cal exhaled noisily. “I don’t know. Why are you asking me?”

“You seem to be the one with all the profound and insightful answers.”

“Well I’m sorry – I don’t have any answers at all, never mind profound and insightful ones. And if you’re asking me what you should do about Rue, then I can’t help you. You need to work that one out for yourself.”

“He’s your consort.”

“I know, but it’s complicated Everything in Immanion is complicated. Why can’t it be simple, just for once?”

“Who cut him?”

“What?”

“Rue. There are scars on his body. I saw them the other night. They weren’t there the last time I saw him naked.”

Cal rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “There was an… accident.” he said

Shadrall snorted. “That’s a pathetic lie, even from you, Cal. You don’t get scars like that by accident. ”

“If you’re thinking it was Pell, you’re quite wrong.”

“Whoever it was, I’ll kill him!”

His usual joking manner was entirely absent from this statement.

“Actually,” Cal said, deliberately keeping his tone light and conversational, “If there’s any killing needing done, I’ll be the har doing it. I have previous experience.”

Silence again, then Shadrall’s laugh, bordering slightly on the hysterical.

“I might have known! I can’t do anything for him, can I? I can’t even make useless threats. I can’t compete with you or Pellaz, can I Cal?”

“I’m not sure you would want to.”

Shadrall turned to look at him, as if seeing him properly for the first time.

“You’re right. I don’t think I’d like to be you, Cal.”

“Not many hara would.”

“I thought we were alike, you and I, but we’re not. I’m just a coward and a petty thief, but you’ve a dark thing inside you, Cal. Something dangerous. They’re afraid of you, aren’t they? The Gelaming.”

“Yes. They are. And they should be. You’re not a killer, Shad, anyhar can see that, but I’ve killed a far better har than the vile creature who mutilated Rue. I’ve abandoned hara to die, I’ve lied, cheated, betrayed, and abused the trust of those who put their faith in me. I make your petty misdemeanours look like the inconsequential escapades that they really are.”

“Inconsequential. Yes. That would be me.”

“I didn’t mean you were inconsequential.”

“Oh there’s nothing wrong with inconsequentialness. I think it happens to be one of my better features. And it does keep a har out of a great deal of trouble, there is that to be said for it. I dare say there are times you might have appreciated a bit of it yourself, from what you’ve told me – that’s quite some Curriculum Vitae you have, Cal. Very impressive. If a little terrifying. Still, I suppose nohar is perfect, not even a Gelaming. Particularly not the Gelaming in my experience. Although they do try to convince otherwise. Now the Mojag, they don’t bother with that sort of thing. They’re very upfront about being a bunch of thugs and troublemakers. You know where you are with the Mojag. I’m not sure you can say the same about the Gelaming. Are you really so sure that you belong with them?”

Cal exhaled noisily, as if trying to expel some inner affliction that had taken root deep within his body.

“I don’t know. It’s not just about Pell. I always believed – or wanted to believe – that there was something better than the shitty existence we had. Human society was a failure. The early Wraeththu tribes – well…. We were like animals, let off the leash. No-one to answer to, no responsibilities. We did exactly as we pleased, and look where it got us. We took what we wanted, and it still wasn’t enough, we were still left empty and without meaning. Immanion seemed like the answer to all our prayers, the promised land, and I wanted it so much, Shad, not just for myself, but for everyhar. Perhaps it would have been better if it had remained a dream . Some expectations are just too high. Sometimes the reality is too different from the dream.”

“That’s how it goes, Cal. With love, or with legendary cities. You may want it more than anything and it is still not the right thing for you. That’s what fantasy is for – for when reality doesn’t measure up to expectations and is altogether a bit of a disappointment. Which happens more than most hara are willing to admit to.”

“Did you ever tell him?”

“Who? What?”

“Rue. Did you ever tell him how you felt about him?”

“Don’t change the subject. Anyway, do you think he would have believed me?”

“That’s not the point.”

“It’s a fairly large sub-section of the point, I’m pretty sure. Besides, why ruin a perfectly good fantasy life? I could lie to myself whenever I wanted. The last thing I needed was anyhar ruining things by telling me the truth.”

“How can you be sure what the truth was?”

“Cal, for a bloodthirsty murdering Uigenna with a sideline in domestic abuse you can be quite charmingly naïve at times. Your lovely Pellaz, he of the soulful dark eyes, the waterfall of glorious hair, the exquisite features and shimmering aura of power and magnificence, he is what hara dream of, alone in their beds and in the still, private spaces in their heads. If I ever caught Rue daydreaming, with that far-away expression on his face, and with his beautiful blue eyes all misty with desire and longing, I knew it was not my face that lived behind his eyes. I knew it was not any of the hara of Ferelithia. It was nohar at all – it was a fantasy. A fantasy of a har like a storm-cloud, dark and all-powerful. A fantasy that one day unaccountably became a reality. I couldn’t compete with that. Not with your Pellaz. Not even when he was only a fantasy.”

Shadrall turned his head to look at Cal, and gave a rather wan smile.

“But I’m not in any way embittered by the experience, as you can plainly see.”

“I don’t think you give yourself enough credit. You’re….” Cal adopted a libidinous expression and touched one of Shadrall’s tangled curls that lay spread on the soiled pillowcase, “… a fine-looking har, you know.”

Shadrall wrinkled his nose. “I’m a rather ordinary-looking har.” he said

“There’s no such thing. And besides, you have one thing that Pell doesn’t”

“And what would that be?”

“You’re here, and he isn’t.”

Cal leant over and pressed his lips deliberately onto Shadrall’s, feeling the delicate softness of skin against skin, and the warm breath of the other har flowing into him, full of sparkling flashes more potent than anything from the bottle he had drunk from earlier. There was the taste of summer, of golden hair stirred in the breeze, of apples and regret, and the sound of laughter in the distance, fading.

“This would be the aphrodisiac part of it, I’m thinking?”

Cal could feel Shadrall’s lips moving under his own. He looked down, and stared directly into the other har’s eyes. They were dark, pupils widened in the dim light, and surrounded by unexpectedly long and curling lashes

“If you like,” he said, pushing the tangled thicket of hair back from Shadrall’s face and running one finger down into the hollow of his throat

“What’s not to like?”

“Can you just be quiet? Just for once? Is that even possible?”

“I…”

“Don’t speak!”

Cal pushed his mouth against Shadrall’s, more forcefully this time, hard enough to deny any possibility of speech. He felt Shadrall’s swirling thoughts enter his own mind, wayward and tinged with the twist of intoxication. He waited for the dialogue to continue mentally – hara often communicated this way during aruna, words spoken directly in the mind, but Shadrall’s thoughts were mute, devoid of the organisation of language; a collage of images and scents and wordless sounds that Cal found almost impossible to follow.

He gave up trying, and concentrated instead on the body beneath him. He peeled away the various layers of clothing until he reached the naked skin beneath, thin and pale in the almost-dark, with intriguing shadows and angles thrown into relief by the candle-light.

Cal felt his own body respond in kind. It felt like an eternity since he had last experienced aruna, although it was only two nights since he had spread Pellaz out upon his vast, kingly bed in his high-ceilinged bed-chamber in Phaonica, and pinned him to the sheets in a tangle of sweat and hair and limbs and loud, animal cries that made a mocking lie of the unbending, regal image of Tigron Pellaz, ruler of Immanion, cold consort of the Tigrina, unwilling hostling to another har’s child; distant and unreachable.

Cal was skilled when it came to the art of Aruna, and sometimes cruel and cynical with his expertise, taunting, and taking his partner to the very farthest reaches, only to abandon him there. A part of him enjoyed this power he exercised over others. In his mind, he replayed how Pell’s body had responded to his touch; all arched back and a slick of glistening wetness between his thighs as he found the hidden centres deep within his body. He remembered making him wait, denying him release and consummation until it became impossible to keep the lightning bottled any longer, and a single, shared climax engulfed them both. He could still hear Pell’s screams in his head, half tremulous pleading, half animal fury. Aruna was not just a matter of touching the right place, in the right way, at the right time. It was much more. It was alchemy, wonder and magic.

He slid two fingers into Shadrall, pushing deep into his body, meeting no resistance. Rather, he could feel the soft, wet flutterings of Shadrall’s soume-lam grasping and sucking at his fingers, eager for more. In response, his own body had become entirely male, his ouana-lim achieving an impressively hard erection, which he was constantly aware of against his belly, hot and insistent.

Shadrall squirmed beneath him, and Cal considered drawing things out and tormenting him, but his own physical need was clawing at him from the inside, and he could not deny it any longer. He drove himself fiercely into Shadrall’s body, hearing the other har’s sharply indrawn breath, followed by a sibilant hiss of either pain or pleasure, Cal could not tell from his thoughts which were still a tangle of disconnected images, but the eagerness with which his hips rose to engulf Cal’s ouana-lim suggested that his entry was not unwelcome, so Cal repeated the procedure several times, each time more forcefully than the last.

Tremors seemed to run through Shadrall’s thin frame, as if he were possessed of a seizure, and about to launch into a series of convulsions. Cal belatedly wondered if this had been one of his better ideas. A small part of his brain reminded him that he had no idea of this har’s level of ability. He was not a Tigron, or a high-caste Gelaming, he was merely an ordinary har who was almost certainly unused to aruna at this level. Feeling an unaccustomed niggle of responsible attitude, Cal attempted to mesh his thoughts with Shadrall’s and bring some order to the chaos swirling in his mind.

… and found himself sucked into a giddy vortex where only the centre was still and unmoving. He steadied himself and reached out with his mind to examine this phenomenon. He and Shadrall were the centre – tiny, insignificant motes of consciousness – while all around them something moved, or attempted to move, with inexorable slowness. Small snatches of moving images appeared randomly and briefly amidst the confusion; a child, wide-eyed, solemn of face, a sunny hillside, an empty room, a har with bright, corn-coloured hair – Cal thought he recognised himself for a moment, then he was not so sure. A dark storm cloud on the horizon. A golden key. A lock without a keyhole.

The universe did a very tiny pirouette.

Cal had – rather strangely – forgotten all about his ouana-lim, buried deep within Shadrall’s body, but it had not forgotten about him, and reasserted its authority by snaking out a long, hidden tendril to connect with the hidden, dancing universe, sending a current of intense energy along its length. Cal abandoned his nascent responsible attitude without so much as a backward glance, and pounded Shadrall mercilessly into the complaining bed, scarcely hearing either his own or Shadrall’s howls as his orgasm tore at his body. He could feel the rush of warm liquid gushing from him, filling the other har with its burning fire and visions.

Gradually his heart rate slowed to less critical levels, the vivid images in his head fading, his own thoughts separating from those of the oblivious Shadrall. At the very last, he was left with the scent of flowers, the sound of the ocean, and the feeling of soft, golden hair, slipping through his fingers.

There was silence, followed by one loud, resentful twang from the bed.

“No-har asked for your opinion!” Shadrall grumbled, moving his limbs cautiously, one at a time, checking to see that their function was intact.

“Does that usually happen?” he asked, eyeing Cal suspiciously.

Cal lay on his back, exhausted and languid He waved one hand dismissively.

“What, the bed? Yes – all the time. You should have been here last night.”

“No. I mean…”

“I don’t know. I thought it was you.”

“You’re the Tigron!”

“Its not all it’s cracked up to be. And I wouldn’t worry about it. Things like that happen all the time during aruna.”

“That’s what I’m worried about.”

“You learn to enjoy it after a while.”

“That’s what they said about Sprut.”

“I cannot believe I have just had my arunic prowess compared to curdled milk.”

“Oh it was better than that! A lot better. I’d take aruna with you over a glass of Sprut any day.”

“Thank you. I think I’ll add that to my collection of testimonials.”

“I can’t remember the last time I experienced such prowess. Well, actually, I can – it was some years ago in Thaine, and involved a travelling troop of dancers, but there were thirteen of them, and some of them were peculiarly double-jointed, so it’s hardly a fair contest.”

Shadrall investigated a damp area on the bed-sheet with his fingers, prodding and rubbing at it . He held his hand up to his face, examining the trace of shimmering iridescence on his fingertips.

“Do you think we should clean up the mess?”

“No.”

They lay in silence for a few minutes. One of the candles flickered and expired, leaving a hole in the room’s light, a thin thread of twisting smoke, and the smell of hot wax.

Cal turned his head to look at Shadrall.

“You never had a relationship with any aristocratic har from Cordagne, did you?”

“How do you know?”

“Rue told me.”

“He could be lying”

Cal snorted.

“Rue is a terrible liar.”

“I know. You can always tell. He does that thing…”

“…scratches the side of his nose.”

“Don’t tell him that you know about that.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it!”

There was a distant, sonorous peal from outside, followed in measured succession by five more. Cal groaned.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“That depends on what you think it is. If you think it’s the Dehar Miyacala summoning the dead with his mighty finger-cymbals of judgement, then you’re probably wrong. If you’re thinking it’s the clock tower in the main square, you’re probably onto something.”

“I can’t believe it’s that late!”

“It’s not late at all. It’s quite extraordinarily early. Funny how it never seems quite as bad when you approach it from this end.”

“ You think so? Perhaps we should get up.”

“Perhaps. We could return to Immanion, all grumpy and sleepless and out of sorts, and get a telling off from the lovely Pellaz for being late. Or we could have a few hours sleep and return to Immanion all fresh and sparkling and full of elation, and get a telling off from the lovely Pellaz for being late. I know which one I’m doing.”

Shadrall tugged at the thin blanket, pulling it up to his ears, and rolled over onto his side. Cal muttered something under his breath, but made no move to rise.

“You were wrong, you know.” Shadrall’s rather muffled voice came from under the blanket.

“About what?”

“About your Pellaz. About him not being here. You were wrong. He’s here. He’s always here.”

Cal continued to stare blankly at the ceiling

“I know.”

The rest of the candles extinguished themselves simultaneously, leaving the room in complete darkness.

Chapter 17

High above the palace grounds, in his opulent rooms filled with vases full of fresh-cut flowers, and the windows thrown wide to let in the warm summer breeze of the late afternoon, the Tigron noticed first the faint, crackling hum in the air, the slight tension in the aether that presaged a supernatural event, followed almost instantly by a silent implosion and a yell of delight metamorphosing into a loud and honking laugh which shredded his nerves like rusted metal even from this distance.

The air relaxed, but Pellaz remained tense. Scowling, he walked over to the open window and looked down. Two Sedu stood on the neatly manicured lawns, patient and impassive, almost indistinguishable from the carved stone statues which graced Phaonica’s walks and gardens. Each one bore upon its back a har dressed in inappropriately heavy clothing and dripping, large-brimmed hats. One of the hara was gesticulating excitedly, his windmilling arms describing the mechanics of his recent journey through the Otherlanes. The other har merely reclined lazily in the saddle, watching his companion with amusement.

You’re late.

Pell’s mind-touch was tight and direct. Cal’s head tilted upwards very slightly toward the direction of the open windows above, but it was too far for eye-contact, and there was no answering reply within Pell’s mind.

Pell reflected that it was a good thing he was able to channel and shield his thoughts with accuracy, otherwise the serving hara discretely busying themselves about his residence would be enjoying some unexpectedly frank and forthright language from their normally serene Tigron.

He debated with himself whether or not to wait for Cal to put in an appearance and explain his missing twenty four hours. This was normally how he dealt with things. Pellaz did not seek out either friend or foe to demand an explanation of them; he was Tigron, he expected the world to come to him, deferential and apologetic, seeking his forgiveness and approval. This, however, was Cal. There would be little in way of deference, and slight chance of apology. Pell let out his breath in an audible hiss, the better to communicate his displeasure to the world. Two of the serving hara exchanged looks, then continued about their tasks in studied unobtrusiveness.

Pell paid no heed to his serving staff, much to their relief. He left his apartments and made his way through the palace – along corridors, down stairways, through arches and pillars, past statues held in frozen, heroic poses and walls adorned with friezes and silken tapestries. He no longer saw these things, they were part of the fabric of his daily life, and as such had long since become invisible.

Rather than take the main staircase, Pellaz made a detour down a small back corridor more normally used by the serving hara for getting quickly from one part of the palace to another. The servants fondly imagined that their Tigron knew nothing of this shortcut, and occasionally used it for assignations of a romantic nature, or even smuggling a favoured partner into the palace after dark, but after thirty years, Pellaz knew Phaonica as well as he knew himself. Perhaps better. He hurried along the narrow passage, ignoring the sudden shuffling of hidden feet and the low, muffled warnings behind doors which travelled before him like a bow-wave.

Eventually he came to the atrium at the rear of palace which gave off the stables, serving as both a reception hall and disrobing room. Cal and Shadrall were already being divested of their redundant outerwear by the ubiquitous servants, laughing and joking together. When they saw him approaching, their cheerfulness vanished abruptly.

“We’re late,” said Cal, obviously deciding upon the attack-as-the-best-form-of-defence gambit.

“Yes, you are,” Pell did not bother to disguise his irritation. He turned to Shadrall.

“Did you get it?”

Shadrall beamed proudly.

“If you’re referring to the book…”

“What else would I be referring to, Tiahaar? I didn’t send you all the way to Alba Suhl to pick up a lampshade.”

Shadrall’s grin ceased its upward trajectory, and halted at its zenith briefly before starting its slow decent.

“True, but they had some nice ones there. If you’d said, I could have got you one.”

“The book? Now – if you don’t mind?”

Shadrall produced the volume from his pocket and handed it to Pellaz, who took it from him quickly, without looking at it.

“You got in and out without anyhar noticing? And you left the decoy in its place?”

“Yes, and yes. It was a flawless and perfectly-executed operation. We were a credit to the Gelaming’s high standard of wrongdoing and criminality – as professional as you could wish. Isn’t that right, Cal?”

Cal said nothing.

“In that case, why are you a day late?”

“Ah, well…. circumstances… you know.”

“No, I don’t, but I intend to find out. You are to report to Chancellor Tharmifex, and give him a detailed account of your activities in Kyme. All of them. I want every movement accounted for.”

“Of course! I can’t think of anything nicer than sitting down for a long chat with the enticing Chancellor. Such a fine-looking har, don’t you think? Does he like Doffle by any chance?”

“He’ll be in his office at the Hegalion until sundown Make sure you have completed your debriefing by then. Rue is expecting you to attend tonight.”

“Is he? That’s marvellous.”

“I don’t mind if you miss it.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world! Can’t disappoint Rue now, can I?”

Pellaz glared at him. Shadrall wilted a little.

“I’ll be off to see the Chancellor then, shall I?”

“Yes you will. Right now.”

Shadrall took his leave, with a parting wink to Cal, leaving the two Tigrons standing alone in the atrium. Cal briefly toyed with the idea of pleading exhaustion from his trip to escape the lecture he could feel brewing from Pell, but realised that there was no way of avoiding it. He knew that look on Pell’s face all too well.

“You were supposed to be back yesterday.” Pell folded his arms belligerently, “We agreed.”

“Yes, but…”

“But what? Why can I never trust you, Cal?”

“That’s hardly fair. It was only one extra day.”

“That’s not the point I just never know with you, Cal. I never know whether you’re going to vanish for months – or years – on end. I never know if I can rely on you to be there when I need you.”

“Oh, I see. That’s it, is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Poor abandoned Pell, left all on his own. It always has to be about you, doesn’t it Pell? I’d have thought you’d have been glad of a bit freedom. You know how you like to enjoy yourself when I’m away. You could have conceived another harling…”

Cal knew the minute the words were out of his mouth that he had gone too far. The look on Pell’s face only confirmed this.

“I’m sorry – “ he said, hastily “I didn’t mean that. I’m an idiot at times – you know me. I’m sorry I was late. I didn’t mean to worry you.”

Pell’s face remained stony and impassive, although he refrained from responding in kind to Cal’s barbs, much to Cal’s relief.

“I needed you back on time because it’s the Grand Alliance Ball tonight. You remember that? Immanion is full of bigwigs and grandees from all over Almagabra and Jaddayoth, and they will all be expecting to meet the Tigrons of Immanion. Both of them.”

“Oh. That.”

“You’d forgotten all about it, hadn’t you?”

“No! Okay – yes. It’s a form of self-defence by my brain, to protect me from going mad.”

“Rue is going mad organising everything. He’s determined that… he… will attend.”

“Shadrall?”

“Yes. I don’t like the idea at all, myself – it’s a disaster waiting to happen, if you ask me – but Rue is quite determined, and it will only cause a huge row if I say anything.”

“I’ll keep him out of trouble – don’t worry.”

“Like you did in Kyme?”

Cal crossed his fingers behind his back.

“Yes, exactly like that.”

“I’ll be interested to hear your version of events.”

“There’s nothing much to tell, really.”

“I doubt that very much. You look as if you’ve spent the night in a ditch.”

“There’s a hotel-owning har in Kyme who wouldn’t be very happy to hear you say that. However close to the truth it may be.”

“Well, go and get yourself cleaned up. I want you to make a good impression tonight, Cal. I know you have little interest in such things, but the Alliance of Tribes that we are trying to form is important. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do. I’ll see you later.”

Without another word, Pell departed once again, his long robes trailing majestically behind him. Cal watched him go, trying to reconcile in his mind this haughty creature with the untainted innocent he had found in the wilderness so many years ago. He failed.

*************************

Instead of following Pellaz into the heart of Phaonica, Cal left the palace by the back door, out through the stables again and into the gardens. The sun was still high, but the shadows had begun to stretch as evening approached. It was warm, but without the energy-sapping fierceness of the last few months. Compared with the chill and damp of Alba Suhl, Almagabra was paradise. To return to this after Kyme’s autumnal bite was like travelling back in time, returning to summer; cheating winter’s oncoming grasp. Cal knew it was only delaying the inevitable. Even Immanion had its winters, benign though they were.

The great white walls of Phaonica reflected back the sun’s rays, making everything brighter and more intense. Atop the highest point of the palace, the Tigron’s personal standard fluttered. Beside it flew another pennant. Cal’s emblem.

I have my own flag, he thought, with a flash of irritation. My own flag! Utterly ridiculous. I am not the sort of har who has his own flag. I didn’t ask to have my very own flag!

He entertained for a moment the pleasing fantasy of sprinting up Phaonica’s endless staircases, right to the very top of the palace, seizing the flag and casting down; watching it fall, fluttering, to the ground below, eventually to be defaecated on by a passing Sedu. The image cheered him momentarily, but Phaonica’s blank, impassive presence crushed any such thoughts of rebellion. It was too real, too solid. From the streets of Immanion the palace might look as if it were a floating castle made of nothing more substantial than the occasional cloud which floated over its ivory turrets, but here, its massive structure could not maintain the illusion. High above his head, arched windows pierced the walls, attempting to render them less monolithic, but the fretted stonework within the arches had the appearance of bars; the leaded window panes were reminiscent of a cage. Cal could not maintain his brief lightness of mood. He continued along the path, with its border of nodding flowers and lush greenery. Phaonica had never looked so much like a prison.

Cal decided against returning to his own apartments. Instead, he took the shortcut which he knew would bring him quickest to the Tigrina’s living quarters. He expected to find Rue in a state of high agitation, fussing about the evening’s coming social event, but instead the Tigrina seemed relaxed, and pleased to see him. He was ushered in and installed in a chair on the terrace, with a supply of cold and refreshing drinks and enticing morsels of food placed beside him. He took a handful of the tiny delicacies and shoved them in his mouth, realising that he was hungry. He had not eaten since the previous evening in Kyme – their host at the Rampant Griffon had deemed their rising too late for breakfast time and too early for dinner time.

Rue watched him eat. The Tigrina looked happy and relaxed, his long golden hair falling naturally about his face and his flawless ivory skin slightly flushed with a tinge of pink, whether from the excitement at seeing him, or the sun’s rays, Cal could not tell. It suited him, anyway, Cal thought. Some hara looked their most seductive when they were pale and tragic, but Rue was not one of them. Crying made his nose red and his face blotchy. Cal hated it when he cried.

“Did you have a pleasant time in Kyme?” Rue asked, perching on the edge of his seat opposite.

Cal’s mouth was full, so he could only nod.

“Mmmmf. Yes.”

“Pell was expecting you back yesterday. He’s not pleased.”

“I know. We got… delayed.”

“Did this delay involve finding the most entertaining places in Kyme, singing, dancing and the consumption of an unwise quantity of wine and liquor?”

“It might have.”

Rue laughed. “I thought as much. It’s alright. I won’t tell. I bet you had fine time!”

“What I can remember of it, yes.”

“The Suhl aren’t as staid as their reputation suggests, then?”

“I never believed for a moment that they were.”

“That’s good to know. We’re hoping to lure some of their leaders to Immanion at some point. I shall entertain them accordingly.”

“You mean you will flatter them and flirt with them and dazzle them with your charm and beauty.”

“Is that so wrong of me?” Rue asked, wide-eyed and disingenuous Cal laughed.

“One piece of advice. If they offer you any Doffle, politely refuse.”

“I shall heed the obvious voice of experience. I hope you’re not in too delicate a state for this evenings event?”

“It wouldn’t matter if I was. Pell has decreed that I must go, so to the ball I shall go.”

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. We’re not serving Doffle.”

“I’m feeling more positive about it already.

“Shad will have a wonderful time too – he loves parties.”

“I’d noticed that.”

“Where is he anyway – I haven’t seen him since he got back.”

“Pell sent him off to see Thar, who is no doubt quizzing him on every aspect of our trip, including what we had for breakfast. The answer to that being nothing at all, if you’re interested.” Cal took another handful of dainties.

“Well I hope he doesn’t keep him too long.”

“I think once Shadrall gets started on one of his tales, it will be the Chancellor who is eager to bring the proceedings to a close.” Cal hesitated for a moment. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to let him loose at the Grand Ball tonight?”

Rue looked affronted. “What do mean? Are you saying my friends are not good enough to mix with the mighty tribal leaders of Almagabra?”

“No, I was thinking more about Pell.”

“You think Pell is not good enough to mix with the mighty tribal leaders of Almagabra?”

“Don’t be silly. I mean there might be some… friction… between Pell and Shadrall.

Rue blinked at him. “Friction? What on earth makes you say that?”

Cal grimaced. “Well, they don’t exactly get on, do they?”

“Of course they do! What nonsense you do come out with at times, Cal. Shadrall really likes Pell, I can tell. And Pell… well, even if Pell hasn’t quite taken to Shad yet, tonight will give them an opportunity to get to know each other better!”

Cal wondered whether he should attempt to enlighten Rue, but he knew it would be to no avail. Rue had a particular talent for not seeing what was under his nose, at times, or at any rate convincing himself that things were not as they actually were. No doubt it had stood him in good stead during his long years of tribulation here in Immanion

“I expect Pell will be kept quite busy tonight, meeting all those guests” he said, attempting to disperse any plans Rue might have for Pell and Shadrall to enjoy a long bonding session before they could materialise.

Rue was having none of it.

“All the more reason for him to find time to talk to someone a bit more entertaining!” he said briskly. “You know how boring Pell finds these events. It’s up to you and me and Shadrall to keep him amused tonight. And I’m sure that you and Shad have some interesting tales to tell about your trip to Kyme.”

“It was quite dull actually,”

“Cal, I don’t believe that for one minute. Kyme is an ancient city, full of mystery and intrigue. Tell me about the places you saw.”

“The Detention Centre was quite pleasant, in its own way.”

Rue’s large blue eyes widened a fraction more. “I think perhaps that’s one bit you should leave out when it comes to telling Pell your tale.”

“If I leave out all the interesting bits, there won’t be much left.”

“I’m beginning to think it was a bit of a mistake sending you off with Shad, wasn’t it?”

“Not at all!

Rue’s sigh was wistful. “You know, I almost envy you, Cal. You have such an exciting life.”

“No I don’t!”

“You’re just back from being arrested in Kyme. How is that not exciting?”

“I wasn’t the one who got arrested. I was the one paying the fines and filling in the forms.”

“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. But you still get to go places and do things that the rest of us can only dream of.”

“So being Tigrina of Immanion isn’t a big enough thrill for you? I’m sure there are plenty of hara who would change places with you.”

“I didn’t say that. I’m very fortunate, I know. I should be more grateful. I have a lovely life here in Immanion. But it’s not the same… You’ve done all these marvellous things – travelled to different dimensions, been given amazing powers by Thiede…”

“…. worked as a kanene in a musenda….”

“Mmmm. I’d consider leaving that bit out when you write your autobiography, if I were you.”

“Never! It’d be the highlight of the whole book!”

They looked at each for a second, then laughed together.

“You really should write your life-story Cal, it’s quite remarkable what you’ve seen and done.”

“That implies that my life-story is finished, or at least the interesting bits are.” Cal made a face
“ “….and he lived happily ever after…”.”

“Don’t you want to live happily ever after?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s better than either of the alternatives.”

“I expect you’re right.”

“Of course I am – now come on, finish your larks’ tongues, or whatever they are, and go and get yourself ready for the Ball. You’ve only got a few hours.”

“It only usually takes me a few minutes.”

“I know. But this is a special occasion. Everyhar who is anyhar will be there tonight. The cream of Immanion’s celebrities and stars. Don’t make me send Velaxis to make sure you’re on time. I will if I have to!”

“You can be a cruel and vicious har at times, Caeru.”

“It’s for your own good, Cal.”

“That’ what they keep telling me. Very well then, I shall go and preen myself into a state of unparalleled gorgeousness.”

“That’s better. You’ll enjoy it so much more if you’re in the right frame of mind.”

“I hope so. Until tonight then, Tigrina.”

Cal stood up, bowed formally, and departed, leaving Rue laughing quietly to himself.

Chapter 18

Evening had come to Immanion and with it a fat yellow moon low on the horizon, peering in through the leaded windows of the great Ballroom as if trying to see what wonders had been wrought within. It would not have been disappointed.

The quiet opulence of its daytime existence had been replaced with a vibrant hum of anticipation and possibility. The place had taken on an entirely different atmosphere to its sleepy, diurnal state. At the Tigrina’s instructions, the high rafters had been festooned with garlands of ripe seed-heads and sparkling crystal berries and fruits, invoking the Dehara of the season to bestow their approval on the event. The great chandeliers which hung from the ceiling were festive with coloured ribbons and spangles which caught the light and cast rainbow reflections randomly around the hall. Lamps burned in all the windows, lighting up the hall within and giving an unaccustomed and intriguing view of the interior from without.

No less magnificent than the hall were the hara who congregated there. If the hall was dressed in all its finery for the occasion, then the guests had taken care not to be outdone in that respect. The Ballroom was a dizzying sea of colour; hara in gauzy silks of every imaginable hue, bedecked with jewels which added their own ostentatious glitter to the already magnificent setting. An invitation to an official ball at Phaonica was a very important event indeed, and an opportunity for the recipient to indulge his most decadent side when it came to dress, and being hara, that side was very decadent indeed!

At the far end of the room was an ensemble of musicians, the most talented in all Immanion, naturally, who were playing selections of well-known popular pieces interspersed with new compositions which The Tigrina had commissioned especially for the event. As he made his official entrance, surrounded by servants and courtiers, Pellaz was sure he caught a snatch of the song Cal had been harming in the shower a few days ago, but the sudden ripple that ran round the room, the strange, sussurating hiss of several hundred hara dressed in acres of expensive fabric simultaneously turning to stare and bow or curtsy drove the thought from his mind.

He smiled, with as much sincerity as he could muster as these sort of events, and raised a regal hand to acknowledge his public and indicate that everyhar should just continue about his business as usual. The assembled throng continued to stare. Pell sighed and sat down in the large chair which had been prepared for him Only after several minutes was the crowd’s curiosity satisfied, and gradually it resumed its previous thrum of conversation and drinking. At this point, Cal arrived at his side with the nonchalant air of a cat arriving home after three nights abroad without explanation. Few, if any, of the guests noticed him. He took a seat next to Pell, and a servant spontaneously manifested, bearing a tray of violet crystal glasses containing sparkling wine. Cal removed a glass from the tray with a practised sweep, and took an appreciative gulp. He reached across and grabbed another one from the departing servant and shoved it into Pell hand.

“Here. Drink this.”

“No thank you.”

“Oh go on – it might loosen you up a bit. Can’t have you pooping the party.”

“I beg your pardon? I have no intention of pooping the party, to use your colourful but crude expression.”

“Oh but you will. You are a party-pooper extraordinaire. Nohar can poop like you. However I forbid you to poop tonight. I want to see you let down your hair and get outrageously drunk. Well – slightly drunk. Okay, mildly tipsy at least. I won’t settle for any less than that.”

Cal clinked his glass against Pell’s. Pell sighed and took a very small sip of the wine. It was very cold and sharp, and the tiny bubbles burst on his tongue like a swarm of biting insects.

“Where’s Rue?” he asked, “ I was expecting him to be here…”

Cal looked around the seething mass of bodies within the ballroom, trying to locate The Tigrina Usually he would descend upon Pell the moment he arrived, but he was currently nowhere to be seen.

“He’ll have been here since the guests started arriving. You know he likes to speak to them all personally.”

“Catch up on the gossip, you mean.”

“He does have a way of disarming people and getting them to let their guard down.”

“He’s worth a thousand Listeners. Oh look – there he is!”

Cal pointed in the direction of the spacious dance floor in the centre of the Ballroom. Usually it was crowded with dancers, but at present the majority of hara were standing to the side looking inward at the small space which had opened up in the centre of the floor. In this space, two hara were locked in a curiously mannered embrace, performing a series of complicated dance manoeuvres.

The Tigrina was dressed all in red, and his extravagant mane of hair had been lifted and teased, and decorated with jewelled ebony combs. He had a red rose clenched firmly between his teeth. His partner, perhaps in acknowledgement of the futility of trying to outshine the Tigrina’s beauty, was attired in more sober shades of copper and rust, but it was plain that the coiffures of Phaonica had been allowed to exercise their creativity upon his hair, enhancing the exuberant brown curls with a variety of feathers, ribbons, and other unusual ornaments

His right arm encircled Caeru’s waist, pulling him close, while his other hand was entwined tightly with the Tigrina’s, both their arms thrust forward at a rakish angle. The music had a staccato, syncopated rhythm and the two hara strutted confidently in time with it, their bodies moving together as they executed a sequence of dips and turns and twirls.

Pell looked over to where Cal had pointed.

“What on earth does he think he is doing?”

“Dancing, by the look of it.”

“Making a exhibition of himself, you mean.”

The music crescendoed to one last triumphant cadence. Supported with studied casualness by Shadrall on one arm alone, Caeru arched over backwards until the ends of his long hair brushed the polished wood floor, then gave a final flourish in the air with his hand. There was a second’s silence, then applause from the gathered crowd. Caeru straightened himself up, removed the rose and gave a little bow to acknowledge the acclaim, tidying his hair back from his face and smiling demurely.

He looked up and noticed Cal watching, and gave a small wave of his fingers in response. As the music struck up again and the dance floor filled, he made his way over toward the Tigron’s table, pulling Shadrall along by the hand. His progress was greatly hampered by the numerous hara surrounding him who wished either to congratulate him on his skill on the dance floor, or simply exchange a few stammering words with the legendary Tigrina of Immanion, but eventually he fought his way through the crowds and arrived at the Tigron’s table in a rush of scent and enthusiasm.

A servant immediately pulled a chair out for the Tigrina to sit, which he did. After waiting for a second or so to see if the same consideration would be offered to himself, and finding that it was not, Shadrall claimed his own seat, and squeezed himself in next to the Tigrina.

“That was very exhilarating,” Cal told him, “I didn’t know you could dance like that.”

“Oh, I haven’t done that for years. It was just for fun.”

“You certainly know how to impress the guests. Doesn’t he, Pell?”

Pellaz said nothing.

Caeru looked around the table, and bestowed an alluring smile on those present. Most of the Hegemony were there, including Ashmael, Tharmifex and Chrysm, plus a few favoured dignitaries whom the Gelaming particularly wished to impress

“It’s so nice that you were all able to come,” he said, “I do hope you are having an enjoyable evening.” He saved his most bewitching glance for the dark-haired har opposite him.

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced, Tiahaar.”

“This is Khulikah har Nagini” Pell informed him.

“Oh, the magical and elusive Nagini tribe! We’re heard so much about you – all of it quite fascinating, I assure you. I’m so pleased that you’ve decided to honour us with your presence here in Immanion, Tiahaar.”

The har pressed his hands together, his long, brown fingers pointing upwards, and bowed his head respectfully to the Tigrina.

“The honour is ours.” he said, his voice accented with a musical undulation of tone that was unfamiliar to Caeru’s ears.

His companion sitting next to him signified his agreement by performing the same gesture. They were both dressed in rich shades of gold, orange and cyclamen, which contrasted strikingly with their dark skin. On his left arm, Khulikah wore a gold ornament in the shape of a snake, which encircled his wrist then extended its coils up his forearm. The snake’s head lay on the back of his hand, its green jewel eyes bright and unblinking.

“We are hoping that after the honourable Nagini ambassadors have spent some time here in Immanion and learned a little of the Gelaming’s goals and intentions that they will consider joining the Confederation of Tribes. We feel that they have a great deal to offer, and it will be a very beneficial move for all concerned.” Pellaz said.

Khulikah inclined his head gracefully. “We were not originally convinced that this Confederation of Tribes would be a good thing,” he said, “And indeed there were those among us who mistrusted the Gelaming’s motives, however we have received reassurances from some very respected hara of The Suhl, whose opinions we value greatly, that you have the best interests of all of Wraeththu-kind at heart, and therefore we are prepared to consider forming an alliance with Almagabra, if that proves to be the case.”

“I was able persuade Malakess har Suhl to speak on our behalf during my trip to Alba Suhl a while back,” Chrysm said, sounding rather pleased with himself.

“Ah, the High Codexia!” Shadrall tugged at his chair to pull himself in closer to the gathering.

“You know him?” Khulikah asked.

“In a manner of speaking. I’ve availed myself of his hospitality, you might say.”

“As you can see, “ said Chrysm, waving a half-empty wine glass expansively, if rather dangerously, in the general direction of the dancing throng, “There are representatives from all the major tribes from Jaddayoth to Alba Suhl and beyond.

Khulikah gazed around the crowded ballroom. “It would appear so.” he said. “Is the delegate from Freyhella here?”

“No.” said Pell.

There was a noticeable lull in the conversation.

“How was your visit to Kyme, anyway, Shadrall?” Ashmael enquired brightly.

“Very productive indeed, General. And may I say that particular shade of pink suits you very well. If I’d known you favoured bold florals I’d have brought you a little something from the markets in Kyme. Most exotic, they were.”

“It’s only an orchid,” Ashmael said, fiddling with the flower attached to his black silk shirt. “Everyhar is given one. So tell us about Kyme…”

“A truly magnificent city, General! Filled with hara of the most estimable quality. Why, Tigron Calanthe and myself here were fortunate enough while there to meet up with a noble aristocrat – Stohaht har Suhl, who invited us to stay in his ancient family home. What a place! Its great stone battlements and towers, decorated with heraldic motifs and representations of fantastical beasts. At night, the ghosts of Tiahaar Stohaht’s ancestors walked the corridors, casting an eerie blue light, and we lay in bed listening to their clanking and groaning. I was given one of the very best chambers, the ceiling of which was painted as if by the most imaginative of artists. This room could only be accessed by a magic spell which …”

“That’s not what you told me earlier, Tiahaar.” Chancellor Tharmifex interrupted his tale before it could gather further momentum.

Shadrall looked puzzled. “Was it not? I lose track, sometimes, Chancellor.

“That would be somewhat of an understatement, I think.”

“You may be right. I’m thinking I should possibly have some sort of card index system. Cross-referencing and all that. I take it you’ll not be wanting to hear about our adventures with the Society of Travelling Celibate Poets?”

“No, we won’t.”

“I quite understand, Chancellor. Hearing about all these exciting experiences must make life in Immanion seem dull in comparison. You’re looking very fetching, tonight, Chancellor, by the way. Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a very fine-looking har?”

If Tharmifex considered himself in any way flattered by this remark, he failed to reveal it. “Yes,” he said, in a matter-of-fact tone, “They did.”

“I’m delighted to hear it, Chancellor!”

“I had him arrested.”

Shadrall’s eyes grew wider. “Is that so? Whatever for, if I might be so bold as to ask?”

“Divulging State secrets.”

Shadrall’s perplexed expression held its place for just a moment, then melted into his customary grin, garnished with a brief honk of a laugh.

“That’s very good. I like that. You’ve the makings of a very good liar in you, Chancellor. Tigron Calanthe was all for bringing you back a special potion of herbs from the markets in Kyme, to increase your prospects of finding a nice har to become better acquainted with, but I can see that you’ve no need of such artificial aids, and could surely charm a har into bed with that tongue of yours. Useful things, tongues, when it comes to the bit. In bed and out. Now don’t look at me like that Rue – I brought you back a present – you didn’t think I’d forget you, did you? I’ll give it to you later when I’ve had a chance to unpack.

“The Tigrina has everything he needs.” Pellaz said stiffly.

Shadrall looked up and caught Caeru’s eye. His smile softened, and the Tigrina returned it, before looking down at the table.

“No he doesn’t.”

Caeru stood up, and the circling servants descended to pull his chair back.

“Come on, Shad,” he said, “I think it’s time for another dance.”

“Yes indeed! This one of my favourite tunes!”

“It can’t be – it was written for the occasion, this is its first performance.”

“Well it’s going to be one of my favourites, I can feel it my water!”

“Try not to make quite such an exhibition of yourself this time,” said Pell. “We don’t want the rest of the tribes of Almagabra and beyond getting the wrong idea.”

“The dance is the very essence of life itself,” Khulikah said, “The Tigrina is filled with the love of life, and the celebration of existence. It is a gift from the Dehar Nagarana.”

“Of course, “ Pellaz replied, with a respectful tilt of his head. Khulikah looked at him, his kohl-lined eyes distant and dark.

“What is given freely cannot be stolen, what is withheld can never be taken. Some things are yours alone to bestow, Tigron Pellaz.”

Pellaz tried to think of a reply to this Delphic statement, but none came, so he turned his attention to watch Caeru and Shadrall make their way to the dance-floor where they began a suitably sedate swaying surrounded by a mass of bodies.

“Would you like to dance, Pell?” Cal asked

Pellaz continued to watch the dancers. Their movements were exactly synchronised, like a flock of wheeling birds, or a shoal of fish darting suddenly away to avoid danger. He tried to imagine, for a moment, how strange this scene would appear without the presence of the music. The rhythmic beat was like a disease that infected every one of them and controlled their movements; remove it and the dancers would be free to go their own way, and in their own time, but the magic of belonging to something greater than the sum of its parts would be lost.

“Not now,” he said.

Cal gave a resigned shrug.

“What about you, Ash? Will you rescue a poor wallflower?”

“I don’t know, “ said Ashmael, “I’m not used to being second choice, you know. I have my reputation to think of.”

“I doubt if there is anything even I can do to rehabilitate your reputation, Ash.”

“Oh well, when you ask so nicely…”

“I know, I have charms that even Aruhani himself would be hard-pressed to resist.” He held out his arm for Ashmael to take.

“Well if it’s good enough for Aruhani, I’d be a fool to decline.”

Ashmael took hold of Cal’s proffered arm, and together they left to join the dancers on the floor, leaving Pellaz and Khulikah to watch them depart in silence.

***************

Pell was not aware of how much time had passed; as with most of these official functions, the hours had seemed to drag interminably, one bland encounter after another, one sipped-and-discarded drink after another, one instantly-forgotten face after another, but as with all parties, eventually there came a time when the music slowed, shoes were discarded and the conversation became more relaxed and informal.

For Pellaz, this was the time to slip away and let the guests entertain themselves for a while. The Grand Ballroom had large glass doors at the far end, which had been opened to admit the cool evening air into the interior, and to allow guests to seek sanctuary in the quiet and dark outside, away from the noise and activity of the party.

A wide flight of stone steps led down from the open doors onto a spacious terrace populated by some statues, frozen and silvery in the moonlight. Stone benches were randomly spaced along the sides, offering resting places for weary party-goers, or couples desiring privacy.

The terrace was mostly empty as Pell slowly descended the stairs. The outside air was refreshing after the indoor heat and scent of many hundreds of harish bodies and when he reached the bottom of the stairs Pell continued on to the far end of the terrace, where he leaned against a stone balustrade, enjoying the coolness of the night breeze lifting his hair from his hot skin. The terrace was not illuminated – the only lighting came from the moon, now cold and white and high in the sky, appearing smaller and more remote, as if it had deliberately distanced itself from harish affairs as it tracked its fathomless course across the night sky.

Overhanging branches and leaves of trees growing on the other sides of the balustrades cast pools of darkness around the edges. Pell kept himself to the shadows, enjoying the feeling of anonymity – something he rarely experienced as Tigron. He found it difficult to remember what it was like to be an ordinary har, unnoticeable in a crowd. Cal laughed when he said this, and told him that he had never been unnoticeable, and a small part of Pell knew that was true, and thrilled at the light of desire, or awe, that burned within Cal’s eyes when he said this, but sometimes he wished to be free of the constant scrutiny that came with being Tigron; to return to the short period in his life when he had been only Pellaz and nothing more; before Thiede had remade him as something else entirely.

From the open doors at the top of the stairs, music drifted from the brightly-lit interior of the Ballroom, accompanied by occasional bursts of laughter and cheering. The ball had been a great success, the distinguished guests would return to their respective tribes feeling warmly well-disposed towards the Gelaming and their rulers, and the wheels of diplomacy would grind slightly closer towards their ultimate goal, or at least Pell hoped so.

On the other side of the terrace, from the far side which ran around the outer side of the Ballroom, two hara appeared, walking slowly, hand in hand and very close. Pellaz could hear their voices, and he froze, pressing himself further back into his shadowed corner, attempting further concealment behind the stiff limbs of a statue of two naked hara locked together in an agony of arunic immobility.

Caeru and Shadrall walked straight past him, so close that he could smell Caeru’s perfume, familiar and evocative; so close that he could have stretched out his hand and touched either one of them, but he did not. In the dark, with his long hair the colour of the night sky and his eyes as dark as those of the unseeing statue hara, and his thoughts concealed and hidden and buried deep under the control he had worked so hard for so many years to perfect, he was invisible to them. They sat down on a stone bench only a few steps away, and Pellaz found himself holding his breath. Both hara had their backs to him, but he could hear their every word.

I’ve had such a wonderful evening,” Rue was saying, his voice simultaneously full of contentment and longing. “I can’t think of the last time I had such a lovely time. I don’t want it to end. I wish tonight could go on forever.”

He laid his head on Shadrall’s shoulder, and Shadrall gently slipped an arm around his waist.

“If you see a shooting star,” he said, “and you make a wish, then your wish will come true.”

“Will there be any shooting stars tonight?”

“There might. It’s a bit late in the year, but there’s a small shower just before Smoketide, and if we’re lucky there might be a few latecomers.”

“Where should I look?”

“Over there.”

“Where?”

Shadrall pointed up into the night sky. “In that constellation there.”

“”It all looks the same,” Rue complained, “How can you tell where to look?”

“Of course it doesn’t all look the same! It’s full of pictures!”

Rue raised his head and tilted it to the side, squinting up at the night sky.

“No it isn’t. It’s full of little white dots.”

“Ach, you’re as blind as a cat, Rue.”

“Bat. Blind as a bat. Cats have very good eyesight.”

“Not if it’s a blind cat.”

“True enough. So where are all these pictures, then?”

“They’re everywhere, you just have to look.”

Shadrall took Rue’s hand and raised his arm up, uncurling his index finger so that it pointed skyward along with his own. He moved slightly closer and peered along their extended arms, aligning them with a particular point.

“Look up there,” he said “Where your finger is pointing. See that bright star?”

“No. Maybe. Oh – yes! There it is! I see it!”

“That’s the eye of the monster.”

“What? Don’t be silly. What monster?”

“The monster that the hero killed, in order to save the beautiful prince. Or maybe it was a princess – it’s a very old story. They had princesses in the old days.”

“I know that, I’m not some silly little second-generation har.”

“It’s called Algol. Or it was. Maybe the Gelaming have changed it now. They’ve changed everything else.”

“I don’t think even the Gelaming have time to change all the names of all the stars in the sky. There’s an awful lot of them.”

“You’re right there. Now, that’s the monster’s head – the hero cut it off, and he’s holding it by the hair. The monster has snakes for hair, by the way.”

“Like the Colurastes”

“Yes, only worse. Much worse. If you look up a bit, you can see his curved sword, and his arms and legs. He’s sort of lying on his back a bit.”

“Why is he doing that?”

“Because it’s the only way the stars would fit the picture.”

“That makes sense.”

“Of course it does.”

“Is this another one of your made-up stories, Shad?”

“Of course not! It’s not my made-up story, it was made up by the human tribe who lived here a very long time ago.”

“Here, in Almagabra?”

“Yes, they were quite an inventive tribe, for humans. They were good at making up stories. And then they would sit here at night – perhaps in this very spot – and look up at the sky. The same sky we’re looking at now. And they would see pictures in the stars of the people and gods from their stories.”

“Instead of just lots of little dots.”

“Yes. Clever, isn’t it.”

“I suppose so. But what about the shooting stars? What are they supposed to be pictures of?”

“Oh they’re not pictures of anything – they move about too much. And you can only see them at certain times of the year.”

“Why is that?”

“Because the Earth moves. The Earth doesn’t like to stay in the same place all the time, and I can’t say I blame it. The Earth goes off on a lovely little trip all the way around the Sun and back, and no doubt sees some wonderful sights along the way, but the shooting stars stay in the same place, so you only see them when you get back to place you started from.”

“I see.”

“No you don’t.”

“Yes I do – don’t you dare mock me, Shad. I’m quite capable of understanding the fact that the Earth goes around the Sun.”

“Of course you are. My apologies, Tigrina.”

“Oh stop it! So where are they then – these shooting stars?”

They looked up into the inky blackness of the heavens. White points of light were scattered across it in profusion. It looked like a black velvet curtain which had been pierced in scores of places, allowing the light behind the curtain to shine through, giving a tantalising glimpse of another realm beyond, but all the pinpricks of light were fixed and unmoving. The two hara stared for several minutes. No blaze of fiery, self-immolating glory streaked the sky.

“Perhaps we’re a little too late this year.” Shadrall said at last.

“Does that mean we have to wait until next year then?”

“Yes. But don’t worry. They’ll still be here when we get back. They’ve been here for a long time, they’re not going anywhere. We’re the ones who are leaving.”

“That’s what you said when we moved to Ferelithia.”

“Yes. That was a fair old trip, wasn’t it?”

Rue giggled. “At least we don’t have to walk this time.”

“Quite right too. The Tigrina of Immanion should never have to walk anywhere. He’s much too illustrious.”

“Do you think I’ve changed, Shad?”

“In what way?”

“Have I become very grand and important?”

“Rue, of course you haven’t changed. You were always very grand and important.”

“Shad!”

“Well it’s true! You were never a nobody, Rue. Never destined to be a nobody. You haven’t changed – only your circumstances.”

“I still find it hard to believe. I still wake up some mornings and wonder where I am, why my bedroom is so huge, and full of such lovely things. Thirty years, and it still catches me unawares at times. Do you think I’ll ever get used to it?”

“Give it time.”

“Another thirty years?”

“That sounds about right. It takes as long to undo things as it does to do them in the first place.”

Rue wrapped his arms around himself and shivered, although the night was not cold.

“I hope not.” he said. He stood up and walked over to the edge of the terrace and looked down into the blackness beyond. The Ballroom was in the eastern wing of the palace, and faced the surrounding hills. There were no city lights visible from here, only darkness, and the occasional rustle of leaves stirring in the night breeze.

Shadrall came up behind him and put his arms around him, warming him with his own body heat.

“And would you live these last thirty years the same again? Or would you do it all different?”

Rue stared down into the dark, his eyes clouded and thoughtful

“That’s not a choice that is ours to make, and perhaps it’s just as well”

From the Ballroom came a sudden peal of raucous laughter, followed by several voices raised in rather off-key song. Both Caeru and Shadrall turned to find out what was going on. Pell could see their faces clearly, pale in the light from the moon overhead and the glow spilling from the open doors at the top of the stairs. Some minor personal celebration was obviously being observed within, and servants duly arrived bearing wine for the participants to toast the occasion.

Shadrall leaned back on the balustrade and rolled his eyes dramatically.

“Ah, Rue – let me take you away from all this! This is no place for a har like yourself – this life of… unimaginable luxury, wealth and good fortune. Who can be doing with that?”

“Well, when you put it like that..”

“Why should you suffer this way when there’s leaky roofs to be slept under, stale bread to eat, and arrest to be avoided on a regular basis?”

“Sounds tempting. Where’s the catch?”

“There isn’t one. All this and more can be yours. It’s all out there waiting for you. It hasn’t gone anywhere in the last thirty years.” He took Rue’s hand in his own, and gave him a twisted smile

“We were going to walk around the world together, you and me.”

Rue patted his cheek gently. “Sometimes you have to settle for a ride around the park, Shad.”

Shadrall pulled Rue in close and pressed his lips gently to his forehead.

“I know. It’s a very nice park. You deserve it.”

Behind his statue, Pellaz debated with himself whether to break cover from his hiding place and risk revealing that he had been eavesdropping for some considerable time, pretend that he had somehow only just arrived, and that his interest in the sculpted depiction of aruna was the only thing of interest to him, or remain hidden and hope that Caeru and Shadrall eventually went away. Before he could make a decision, another option arose in the form of a tall har with long white hair who floated regally down the stairs from the Ballroom, for all the world as if he were a member of the royal family instead of a servant of the Hegemony and bore down upon the Tigrina with an accusatory stare..

“Rue. There you are. What are you doing hiding out here?”

“I’m not hiding, Vel – I’m taking a well-deserved rest.”

“Of course you are. However it’s time to return to the Imperial salt mines I’m afraid. There is a har from Thaine who is celebrating some sort of inconsequential milestone that is apparently important to those from Thaine, and whose life will be incomplete unless he is personally congratulated upon this momentous event by the Tigrina himself. It is his life-long ambition, or so I hear. Yes – another one. Tedious, isn’t it? Now come along, straighten your tiara and be the Tigrina – that’s it. Remember to ask him about his family.

“I know what to do, Vel, you don’t have to lecture me. And it’s not a tiara, it is a ceremonial diadem symbolising the bounty of the harvest. I’m sorry Shad – do you mind? – I have to go in, duty calls.”

Shadrall raised his hand in a cheerful salute.

“Don’t you worry,” he said “You go and do your Tigrina-ing. It wouldn’t do to let your fans down now, would it? I think I’ll just stay out here a bit longer, get a bit of air. Helps clear the head, you know.”

“So does drinking water instead of wine,” said Velaxis acidly.

Shadrall grinned at him. “Ah, Velaxis,” he said. “You are truly the har of my dreams. Those would be the sort of dreams that I wake up from screaming in abject terror and cowering under the blankets.”

“Really? Tiahaar Chrysm apparently experiences that as well. Perhaps you two should get together some time. Now if you’ll excuse us, Tiahaar…”

Shadrall watched as Caeru and Velaxis ascended the stairs, the latter chivvying his charge onwards, the former adjusting his hair and head-dress into a suitably regal configuration. He shook his head and smiled to himself, then turned back towards the darkened far end of the terrace, intending to resume his sky-watching. He found to his surprise that his way was blocked. A har stood between him and the end balustrade, although how he had got there was a mystery to Shadrall – he would surely have seen him walking past. The har was in shadow, and at first Shadrall did not recognise him, but then he moved forward a little into the light, and he was unmistakeable.

It was Pellaz har Aralis.

Chapter 19

Pell wasn’t sure what made him step from the shadows at that moment. He knew that once Caeru and Velaxis had left, Shadrall would have been unlikely to stay long, and then he could have made his escape without him being any the wiser. However once the Tigrina had departed, it seemed to him that there was no reason to maintain any pretence. This was his palace, after all. He could hide himself away in any part of it that he chose, and it was not for anyhar else to question or criticize him for it.

Shadrall blinked at him in surprise for a few seconds, then gave one of his accustomed smiles, which on this occasion failed to reach his eyes.

“Tigron Pellaz,” he said “What a pleasant surprise. You’ve just missed the Tigrina, he was out here just a moment ago with Velaxis.”

“Yes, I know.”

“He’s quite the unique har, Velaxis, isn’t he?”

“He performs his duties for the Hegemony very efficiently.”

“Rue is fond of him. I can tell.”

“Rue’s choice of friends and acquaintances can be rather questionable at times.”

“I don’t think…Oh! Look at that! Look at it! Look!”

Shadrall pointed up at the night sky, barely able to contain his excitement. Pellaz turned around and looked up, but saw nothing except the constant and unwinking constellations.

“What?” he asked

“A shooting-star! Did you see it?”

“No, I didn’t see anything.”

“It went “whoosh”, right across the sky. Just over a bit from that bright star.”

“The monster’s eye?”

“Yes, that one.” Shadrall looked at Pellaz, his enthusiasm suddenly vanished as swiftly as the meteor. “You heard me telling Rue about that? Tell me, Tigron Pellaz, exactly how long have you been lurking in the shadows?”

“I haven’t been “lurking” as you put it. And as for how long I’ve been here – I fail to see how it concerns you.”

“Do you now? Well, I suppose you get that way after a while. When you’re a Tigron.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Most hara consider eavesdropping to be a tad impolite.”

“Do they? Well most hara consider coming into somehar’s home, accepting their hospitality and then insulting them to be a tad impolite too.”

“Is that right? Well I suppose we’re even then, Tigron Pellaz.”

“Phaonica is my home. I own it, every block and stone. Is there any reason I may not wander through it at will and stand anywhere I like?”

“I suppose not.”

Pellaz gazed up at the sky again. The stars were hard and bright, unusual for Immanion, where the temperate climate usually wrapped the city in a warm, enveloping atmosphere through which the stars twinkled prettily. It seemed that tonight would bring an unexpected chill, heralding the start of autumn.

“I don’t think you should be filling his head full of nonsense.” Pell said.

“Who, Rue?”

“I don’t think even you would have the nerve to attempt to seduce Velaxis with fairy stories.”

“Seduce? Nonsense? You’ve lost me there, Tigron Pellaz”

“What is it you want from Rue?”

“I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it. I’d quite like a new pair of socks – the old ones are getting rather holey – but I know he doesn’t knit. I hear that Tigron Cal is taking lessons, though, so perhaps I’ll ask him instead.”

“Tiahaar, your constant attempts at humour are not as entertaining as you obviously believe them to be. In fact, they are rather tiresome.”

“Tiresome? I’m wounded. Cut to the quick. Alright then, Tigron Pellaz har Aralis, I’ll tell you what I want from Rue. Nothing at all. Except his friendship.”

“You’ll forgive me if I find that a little hard to believe.”

“Will I now? You obviously don’t know me very well. Why do you find it so hard to believe?”

“Rue is a very rich and powerful har. I don’t have to spell out the very obvious advantages of being one of his close associates. You are not the first har to try to worm his way into his affections, and I doubt if you’ll be the last.”

“I don’t have to do any “worming”, Tigron Pellaz. I had Rue’s affection long before he became Tigrina. Long before he met you, in fact.”

“I’m aware of your history. I’m also aware that you have given not a single thought to Rue in the last thirty years, and it is only now that you discover that he is the Tigrina of Immanion that you suddenly remember what a close friend he is of yours.”

“Is that what you think?”

“That is exactly what I think, Tiahaar.”

“Well you think wrong, Pellaz har Aralis. You’re wrong about me not thinking once about him in thirty years, and you’re wrong about me being after his power and his money.”

Pellaz sighed. “I see. You have no interest in money at all, is that right?”

“Absolutely!”

“How much would it take for you to leave Immanion now, and never return?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Money. The stuff you have no interest in. I am offering you it, and believe me, Tiahaar, I have a lot of it to offer. How much do you want?”

“You’re offering me money?”

“Yes.”

“As in a bribe?”

“Let’s call it an incentive.”

Shadrall’s eyes slowly widened with a mixture of incredulity and delight.

“Ah, no-no-no no, Tigron Pellaz har Aralis, let’s not. Let’s not call it that at all. Let’s call it exactly what it is, and what it is, Tigron Pellaz, is a big, fat bribe. The Tigron of Immanion is offering me a bribe! The saintly leader of the pious Gelaming – those fine examples of how to live a pure and sinless life – is offering me, a petty criminal with holes in his socks and a stolen fork in his back pocket, a dirty bribe. Oh, the irony! It’s killing me! Is it killing you too, Pellaz har Aralis? Or are you used to it by now?”

Pellaz remained stoney-faced, refusing to be drawn. “Do you want the money or not? And why are you stealing the cutlery?”

“No. I don’t. I don’t want your money. And I’m stealing the cutlery because it was used by Tigron Pellaz har Aralis of Immanion himself. It still has some of his spit on it. I can sell it at the market for at least a couple of spinners.”

“I don’t understand you.”

“That much is blindingly obvious.”

Pellaz looked at Shadrall with a mixture of pity and contempt.. “You don’t belong here, you know.”
he told him.

“No fork-stealers allowed in Immanion, is that it?” Shadrall wrinkled his nose in disgust. “What about Uigenna murderers, Tigron Pellaz? I hear their career prospects are quite good round here.”

Pellaz blanched visibly, his skin paler than the marble statues in the moonlight.

“I’m led to believe that’s a bit of a state secret, though.” Shadrall goaded him. “Are you going to have me arrested for revealing it? Like Chancellor Tharmifex’s secret admirer? Or will just running me out of town be sufficient?”

“I could do either of those. I am Tigron, after all.”

“Yes, you are. And it would make a good story in the Immanion Enquirer, wouldn’t it? I can see the headlines now – “Tigron P Persecutes Innocent Suhl – Intrigue At The Palace; special report on pages 3,4 6,9 10 and 11”

“You are not innocent, and I doubt very much if you’re even a Suhl.”

“It doesn’t matter. I don’t need to be. You, on the other hand… It wouldn’t do for the details of our professional relationship to come out, would it?”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Absolutely! Well spotted! A gold star for you there, Tigron Pellaz. It’s good to see that you have no trouble at all identifying a threat, even if you’re a bit shaky with the bribes. And why should I not? I need all the advantage I can get here. You’re the Tigron with the phenomenal Gelaming mind powers; I’m only a part-time escapologist. How am I doing, by the way? Have I escaped from your clutches yet? Slippery as a polished eel, that’s me. Now hear this and hear it well, Tigron Pellaz har Aralis, – I have no intentions of leaving Immanion. I like it here, it suits me very well. Very well indeed. I like the company – well, for the most part, anyway – I like the climate and most of all I like the impressive absence of anything remotely resembling morals. I think you’ll be seeing a lot more of me in future.”

“If you think you can somehow persuade Rue to reciprocate your feelings, you’re wrong.”

“Who said this had anything to do with Rue?”

Pellaz laughed humourlessly. “You’re not as good a liar as you think you are, Tiahaar.”

“Rue is entirely free to make up his own mind about things.”

“Yes he is. And he already has.”

“Meaning what?”

“Rue is my consort, Tiahaar. We are blood-bonded. He belongs to me.”

Belongs to you? So you own him, do you? Like you own your mighty palace? Every block and every stone. And the ugly rumours that your bonding with Rue was nothing more than a political smokescreen to hide your obsession with a Uigenna murderer are quite unfounded?”

“Rue entered into our bonding freely, of his own will. You can ask him. He won’t deny it.”

“I don’t doubt it. But know this, Tigron Pellaz har Aralis. Rue may belong to you, you may own him body and soul, you may have claimed him with the blood of your bonding, put your mark upon him, sealed your union and his fate and tied him to you for all eternity, but you don’t know him, Pellaz har Aralis; you don’t know how he likes to be touched, how he likes to be taken; you don’t know how to do the right things at the right time, in the right way, for the right reason, you don’t know to make him cry out, or be quiet, and you don’t know how to hold him afterwards, and you don’t know any of these things because you’ve never bothered to find out, because you don’t know him, Pellaz har Aralis, and you don’t love him.”

“And you may have him now, but I had him first, the very first time, and that will always be with him. Always. You can no more take that from him than you can take back his inception. So think on that, Pellaz har Aralis, when you’re in his bed, admiring his pretty face and his scarred body, and he’s staring up at the ceiling again while you’re busy owning him like you own your palace and you’re city and your world.. I’ll be there. I’ll always be there.”

“Have you quite finished?”

“No. No I haven’t. You hired me as a thief, Tigron Pellaz. Be careful you don’t get more than you bargained for. Perhaps I’ll steal him from you. You never know. Nothing’s safe in this life, you know. You can turn around one day, and the thing you thought you owned is gone, never to return. How would it feel, Tigron Pellaz, to have the thing you value most in this life, above all else, taken from you? You think it couldn’t happen?”

“I think, Tiahaar, that the world you inhabit has only the most tenuous connection with reality.”

“And that comfortable assertion allows you to dismiss me entirely.”

“A har’s integrity is defined by his own actions. If others find you lacking in that respect, the solution might lie within yourself, Tiahaar.”

“How very Gelaming. Now I know why you all ride Sedu – they’re the only horses that are high enough for you.

A voice from the top of the stairs interrupted them. Velaxis had reappeared from the Ballroom and called down imperiously to Shadrall:

“Tiahaar. The Tigrina requests your presence inside. With a degree of alacrity.”

Shadrall simply looked at him. Velaxis tutted with irritation.

“Now. If not sooner.”

“Ah, right. Why didn’t you say so in the first place, Velaxis. A degree of electricity indeed! How do you Gelaming expect to take over the world if nohar can understand a word you say? If you’ll excuse me, Tigron Pellaz – “ he turned to Pell and inclined his head stiffly – “It’s been a most charming and elucidating conversation, but it appears I must now take my leave. Thank you for your hospitality, it was everything I expected and more.”

Without waiting for a reply, he bounded up the stairs toward the visibly impatient Velaxis. Pellaz watched him go in silence, his eyes dark and impenetrable. High above in the starry heavens, a bright streak of light flashed across the sky. It blazed fiercely for the briefest of moments before it died, unnoticed and unremarked upon by either har.

Chapter 20

It occurred to Cal about halfway to his destination that there was a certain irony in him creeping about Phaonica in the small hours with a bag of belongings, packed and slung over his shoulder, for it was a position he had found himself in quite a number of times before, although not one he had expected to rediscover here in the heart of Immanion. He remembered leaving his first home, accompanied by Seel, sure and certain in the knowledge that what they felt for either other was enough to sustain them through the ordeal ahead, sure that it would last forever. He remembered slipping away from Saltrock, desperate to escape from Seel. He remembered taking advantage of the hospitality of a small human family living in the desert, and stealing their favoured son, their jewel, vanishing before dawn with the trusting, innocent Pellaz at his heels, following him, not knowing where he would lead.

He remembered fleeing from the angry parents of deflowered virgins, from the irate owner of a disreputable musenda, from scores of awkward situations that he dealt with by the simple expedient of not being around any more to experience the aftermath. He very deliberately did not remember the last time he had left Saltrock. Mostly he remembered leaving Forever; the first time not looking back at the drawn curtains in the upstairs bedroom window; the next time, riding away to his fate. The last time, taken there on Thiede’s sufferance; the hall, the stairs, the darkened room. His life was a series of departures. Even Phaonica could not hold him. For a while he would remain, restless within its walls like some caged animal, and then a har would come and tell him things to disrupt his cosy, crushing domesticity, and another path would open up before him, leading him away.

You’ve got a lot to answer for, Thiede.

He projected the thought unshielded, but there was no reply, which was unsurprising, since the subject of his accusation was not present within this reality. Thiede could contact him if he so wished, or use one of his agents to do so, but Cal knew that was unlikely to happen unless there was a crisis. Part of him almost wished that there was.

You showed me another world, another realm. How can you expect me to be content with this one now?

He would have to be content. There was no other option. He was not a God, like Thiede. He was a har of flesh and blood, and this was all there was for him. This life. This palace. This cosy domesticity.

You are an ungrateful wretch, Calanthe, he told himself. You have everything you have ever wanted. Wealth. Influence. The chance to change things for the better. A home. A child. Pellaz.

His own history was a testament to how easily such things could be discarded. Nothing was safe, nothing was certain.

The long palace corridors were dark, but not completely. A faint bluish glow permeated the walls, just enough to allow him to find his way. The glow travelled with him, keeping pace with his careful, padding footsteps, fading gradually behind him. Ahead was darkness which would not be illuminated until he arrived there.

The palace was quiet now. The party in the Grand Ballroom had continued on until the early hours, but eventually the music had ceased, the conversation ended and all the contented guests had departed for their places of residence leaving peace to descend once more upon Phaonica. Cal had no doubt that an army of servants were even now engaged in clearing up the mess, but they would be going about their tasks in silence in order not to disturb their slumbering Tigrons and Tigrina.

Cal was not entirely certain where he was going. Phaonica was vast and labyrinthine and there were parts of it he had never explored. He had, after all, only been here for two years. It might take a lifetime to discover every hidden room, open every door, walk down every corridor. The crudely-drawn map he held in his hand showed the direction he was supposed to take, the various turnings to left and to right, but it was a rough-and-ready plan with little attention to scale or detail, and difficult to make out in the low light anyway, so he relied as much upon instinct to guide him.

He reached the end of the corridor, which terminated in what appeared to be a cupboard door. He opened it and found inside, instead of the brooms and dustpans he was expecting, a narrow spiral staircase twirling its way upwards. There was a rope attached to the wall to serve as a handrail, held in place at intervals by metal rings. From here, it was impossible to see how far up the staircase went. The map gave no indication of how far he would have to climb. Cal sighed, grasped the rope and began to ascend the awkward-shaped stairs, one determined foot after another.

He passed nothing which could be described as a window on his way up. The inside of the stairwell was smooth and featureless, cut from the same stone as the rest of Phaonica, put together with the same care, and polished with the same precision, even though Cal was quite certain that few, if any hara ever ventured here. It was airless and claustrophobic in here; the door at the bottom had closed itself without fuss after him. The steady, circular motion of the climb and the oxygen demand on his body began to make him feel a little dizzy. He thought of Phaonica as it appeared from the lower reaches of Immanion; all high towers reaching skyward, so that har had to tilt his head to see their full height. He hoped this was not one of those towers.

Abruptly he reached another door, identical to the one he had entered through below. He paused for a moment on the top step to regain his breath, then seized the round, polished handle and turned it firmly.

The door opened inward, and he found himself in a round room without windows. The glow from the walls here was brighter than it had been in either the corridors or the stair tower and he could make out various objects within the room; chairs and tables and ornaments. Paintings in heavy, gilded frames propped up against the walls. What appeared to be either an instrument of torture, or a hat-stand. Rugs and fabrics in untidy heaps over boxes and chests. It was obviously a store-room of some description, home to Phaonica’s unwanted clutter and discarded treasures.

One of the elegant, carved wooden chairs had been cleared of objects, and in it sat a familiar figure whose face broke into a broad grin when he saw Cal. He raised an imaginary hat from atop his brown curls.

“Good evening to you, Calanthe. Or is it good morning? Looks like we’re going to be enjoying another one from the wrong end again – is there no end to our wickedness? You got my note?”

“Obviously.” Cal found he was still panting a little from the climb.

“And you had no trouble finding the place? I thought not. I’m rather good at drawing maps, even if I do say so myself.”

Cal closed the door behind him and edged his way into the room, past the piles of junk and clutter.

“No you’re not. That scrawl you call a map was about as much use as a Kamagrian at a Feybraiha.”

“Never mind that, you’re here now.”

Cal looked round curiously at the room.

“Where exactly is “here”?”

“Phaonica. The Tigrons’ palace. You must have heard of it – very famous place.”

“Sometimes, Shadrall, the desire to put my hands around your neck and squeeze very, very tightly becomes almost overwhelming.”

“I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt on that one, Cal, and assume it is a humorous aside.”

“Keep thinking that. How on earth did you find this place? I’ve never been here before. I didn’t even know it existed.”

“Ah well, I was doing a little exploring the other day, before we set off on our enjoyable trip to Kyme – you did say to make myself at home, after all – and what should I find but this interesting little room, hidden away at the end of a dark corridor and up a none-too-encouraging stair. So naturally I thought to myself – why would a place like Phaonica have a room like this?”

“Even a palace needs a junk room.”

“You’re right there, Cal. Although I must say, you get a much better quality of junk in Phaonica than you do anywhere else I’ve visited.”

He picked up a small metal box sitting on top of a pile of books on the table beside him, noisily blew the dust off it and brought it up close to his face to examine it, turning it this way and that, so that the coloured stones embedded in its surface glinted in the low light. Apparently satisfied, he stowed the box carefully in the battered-looking bag at his side.

“You weren’t using it anyway,” he said, by way of explanation. Cal shook his head in amusement.

“So what are we doing here in this dingy little room, in the dead of night? Apart from the stealing the knick-knacks?”

“Leaving.”

“Leaving?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Shadrall sighed, and stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing one foot over the other. His boots were the same worn, brown ones he had been wearing when he arrived in Immanion.

“It’s a lovely place, Immanion,” he said, “Quite beautiful. Really it is. And Phaonica is a marvel. Truly the most spectacular palace I’ve ever had the privilege of living in. I can’t imagine there is anywhere in the world to compare to it.”

“But?”

Shadrall gave a small shrug of his shoulders.

“It’s not really me. I don’t belong here, Cal.”

“That’s not what you were saying earlier. I distinctly heard you telling the Ambassador from Ehlmen that you were going to be living here indefinitely.”

“What part of “compulsive liar” are you still not appreciating the full nuance of, Cal?”

“So that’s it – you’re leaving. Without a word? What about Rue?”

“What about him?”

“You don’t care about Rue, is that it? This would be another compulsive liar bit coming on, if I’m not mistaken.”

“You’re a fast learner, Cal, I’ll give you that.”

“You can’t just leave – you can’t just walk out the door. You already did that to him once.”

“Having behaved immorally once does not preclude the possibility of doing it again, in fact some might say it rather increases the odds. I’m thinking you might have some personal experience in that department, Cal.”

“Don’t change the subject, this is not about me.”

“Well what do you suggest I do?”

“You could at least say good-bye.”

“What, and have him all weeping and wailing and – “ – Shadrall’s voice rose half an octave – “Oh, Shadrall!” – and his nose going all red and me feeling terrible and him feeling worse and all that emoting and stuff…” he shuddered. “I don’t think so.”

“That’s just plain cowardice.”

“It is. That’s exactly what it is, Cal. You’ve nailed it with spectacular precision. It’s another of my specialities. Perhaps I should have it put on my card along with the rest – Thief, Liar, Escapologist, Coward. It would get a bit crowded if I was to list all my flaws though, don’t you think?”

“Fine. Leave then. Go. I take it you left him a note? Again.”

“Of course. I do have standards of caddish behaviour that I like to uphold.” He stared down at his boots, and wiggled his toes back and forth.

“I had been thinking of asking him to go with me.” he said

“Oh. Were you?”

“Mmmm. I had a little speech. In my head. It went something along the lines of “… let me take you away from all this….” – or did I already do that one? Anyway, there was this whole romantic scene, in my head, and there was an “Oh, Shadrall!”, and one little perfect crystalline teardrop, and no red nose, and violins playing in the background – can’t you just hear that crescendo? – and then the invisible camera pulls out to see me and Rue walking off into the sunset – very, very spectacular sunset, by the way – hand in hand together. Bluebirds and rose petals falling from the sky. Well – the bluebirds weren’t falling from the sky, they were managing to stay up there – it’s the wings, you know. But the rose petals were falling. It was lovely.”

“It sounds it. Why didn’t you?”

“Why didn’t I what?”

“Ask him.”

There was silence. Shadrall continued to stare at his feet as if he could will them to move, but they remained resolutely still.

“This palace,” he said at last, “this life… it’s not for me. But Rue… It’s everything he ever dreamed of. He’s happy here. Or happier than I could ever make him. He wouldn’t leave. Not even if… And perhaps there is a har who, if he said to Rue – “leave all this behind, leave everything and come with me and live in the gutter and the mud” – Rue would leave without a backward glance, but we both know that har isn’t me. We both know who that har is. And fortunately for Rue, that har isn’t going to be doing the asking, and so Rue will live happily-ish ever after in his magical palace, where he belongs, and I get to keep my lovely little fantasy in my head, where it belongs, but you…”

“Me?”

“You, Cal. You don’t belong here either.”

Cal sighed, and perched himself precariously on the edge of the table next to Shadrall.

“You sound very sure of that.”

“I am.”

“It’s the Tigron’s palace. I’m the Tigron.”

“You’re a Tigron They’ve got a spare. They’ll never miss you.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.”

Cal shrugged. “Some of them would be glad to see the back of me, I know that.”

“Come with me, then.”

“What, walk off into the spectacular sunset with you?”

“Why not?”

“Do I have to hold your hand?”

“Not necessarily. We could settle for some hot and vigorous rooning.”

“I’ll have to think about it.”

“You’ve already thought about it, Cal, or you wouldn’t be here. You got my note. Your bag’s packed. What other reason is there?”

Cal ran his fingers through his hair; a nervous, unconscious gesture.

“It’s not that simple.”

Shadrall studied him with the air of a student healer confronted with a particularly unpleasant and mysterious rash.

“What are you here for, Cal?”

“I got your note…”

“No, I mean here. In Immanion.”

Cal shook his head. “It was my dream. My fantasy. I heard this rumour, about a city – years ago. I thought it was just an invention, something that the first hara had made up to convince themselves that there was a better life somewhere, even as they scrabbled and struggled to live in the filth and the wreckage of what was left of the human cities. Then I found out it was real, and I thought that if I could get there it would somehow make everything better; offer some sort of redemption.”

“And is it everything you hoped it would be?”

Cal’s laugh had a hollow ring to it..

“No. What I didn’t realise, for a long time, was that although I wanted Immanion, Immanion didn’t want me. Or hara like me. And then Pell became Tigron of Immanion, of all things to happen, and it all became very complicated after that.”

“And your lovely Pellaz – did he live up to your expectations?”

It took Cal several seconds to reply, and when he did, his voice was carefully controlled.

“No. But then I think my expectations were unrealistic. I wanted Pell to be something that nohar could be. I wanted him to be perfect. It’s not his fault that he isn’t – it’s my fault for deluding myself that he was. If I was to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I lived up to Pell’s expectations either.”

“No?”

“No. I think he was looking for somehar a bit more perfect himself. Somehar noble. I think he found him, actually, and it wasn’t me.”

“So what is there to keep you in Immanion? Why not come away with me? The adventures we could have, Cal – you and me, together. The sights we’d see, the stories we’d have to tell. Can you not see that big, shiny, red apple of temptation right in front of your face?”

“I can see it, and I can smell it and taste it. I know the life you’re describing, Shad, because I’ve lived it, and I miss it – I won’t lie to you – although I hated a lot of it at the time, and I hated the world and everyhar in it, and hated myself more than anything, there are days – most days – when I wake up in my vast bed in my even vaster bedroom and wish I was waking up in a gutter somewhere, or next to somehar whose name I’ve forgotten, or never knew in the first place, or just waking up not knowing was the day was going to bring, not having it all planned out for me, one minute after another.”

Shadrall nodded sympathetically. “It is the very essence of a living hell, I concur with you on that. And life is too short to spend most of it in purgatory. Even though it’s a good deal longer than it used to be. Which may be a bit of a mixed blessing in certain circumstances, when you come to think about it.”

“Perhaps it is. If I was still human I’d be at the stage of my life where it’d be less about discovering myself and more about discovering my favourite armchair. But still – I’m not the same person I was when I first became har. I can’t keep doing the same things. I can’t go back. We all have to stop running away from things and from people eventually, even you, Shad.”

Shadrall looked down at his bulging pack .lying on the floor by his feet. He gave a disconsolate prod with one foot.

“I’m not much one for dealing with responsibilities, I’ll give you that. But I don’t think I’ve any overwhelming need to invite that sort of thing into my life. I suppose it takes a big thing like becoming Tigron to make you grow up and take a hold of all those weighty responsibilities.”

“It’s not so bad,” Cal said “There are compensations. There’s Loki…”

“He’s a lovely child. The spitting image of you.”

“Yes, he is. I have another son.”

“You do?”

“Yes. I abandoned him when he was just a harling. It felt like I had no other choice at the time, and it was for his own good, and maybe there was some truth in that, and maybe it was just another case of me deluding myself, but I do know that it’s the one thing I perhaps regret more than anything else.”

“I can understand that. Have you seen him since?”

“Oh yes. I’ve managed to forge a relationship with him, but that only serves to highlight how much I missed. I don’t intend to make the same mistake with Loki. Not this time. So, no, I won’t be leaving with you Shadrall. Tempting though it is.”

As he spoke, Cal realised that he had only made this decision in the last few minutes. The packed bag stared up at him accusingly from the floor, taunting him with visions of freedom and the open road. He ignored it.

“That’s decidedly noble of you, Cal.”

“Not really. Call it enlightened self-interest if you like. I know what I’d be giving up, I know what I’d be gaining. I’ve just done the sums and weighed the odds and come to the right decision for me. I’m not leaving. Not this time. You don’t have to leave either, you know. You don’t have to keep doing the same thing, time and time again. It’s your life – you can choose to live it differently if you want.”

“You think so?”

“Yes, I do. Things change, Shad. People change. We’ve been through perhaps the biggest change of all, you and I and all the other first-generation hara. If we can deal with that, we can deal with anything. Think of it as another step along the road away from our human origins”

“You think I should stay here in Immanion?”

“Yes, I do. Stop running away. Try not to think of it as giving something up, but gaining something. Something new. A new start, a new chapter in your life.”

Shadrall picked up one of the books from the table in front of him and turned it over in his hands, absent-mindedly, as if unsure whether to open it or not.

“I never thought of it that way,” he said, “Perhaps I’ve just been leaving for so long that I’d forgotten there was an alternative.”

“There are always alternatives, Shad. Immanion could be one for you. Imagine how your life could be if you stayed here. With Rue.”

“And how,” Shadrall said, replacing the book carefully on top of the pile, “would that work?”

“We’re hara. We have options, remember?”

“Options. Yes.”

“It’s not a case of either-or, Shad. I’ve found that out for myself, and it’s not a particularly easy thing to learn, or to come to terms with, but it’s true. If you want something badly enough – enough to make compromises – then it can work.”

“I have Options?”

“Yes you do.”

“And one of those Options is staying here in Immanion?”

“Yes it is. Imagine it. Imagine what it could be like.”

“I’m imagining it now, Cal.”

“And how does it look?”

Shadrall looked up at him and smiled beatifically.

“Wonderful. Sunshine and blue skies, and all the Doffle I can drink. Imported specially.”

“And Rue?”

“He’s there too. Only it’s not a sunset this time, it’s a lovely sunrise. On the beach. And we’re doing that thing where you run towards each other with your arms outstretched, in slow motion, and then it cuts away coyly to the euphemistic crashing waves.”

Cal grinned. “You see? It can be like that. It’s up to you, Shad. It’s your choice. You can make it happen”

“It is indeed, Cal. I can’t believe I never realised before. A life here in Immanion. It sounds perfect.”

“I’m glad I’ve been able to convince you. Ag knows I could have done with somehar to tell me these things at certain points in my life.”

Shadrall smiled and shook his head, causing his curls to dance.

“You’re a marvel, Cal, truly you are. I’ve travelled from one end of… Thaine…to another, and I can honestly say I’ve never met anyhar quite like you.”

“Thank you. The feeling’s mutual.”

“The Gelaming are fortunate to have you as their Tigron, Cal. You have the wisdom that comes from experience of life. I’m lucky to have made your acquaintance, you’ve changed my outlook on many things.”

“I just don’t want you to make the same mistakes I’ve made.”

“And I’m really going to miss you, Cal.”

“What?”

Shadrall stood up and took Cal’s hand. He shook it very formally, and executed a small bow. Cal extracted his hand from Shadrall’s damp grasp crossly

“I thought you were going to stay in Immanion!”

“At what point did I intimate that intention? Cal – it was a lovely speech, truly it was. Even better than the imaginary one I gave Rue. And believe me when I say that I am quite sincere in my admiration for you, and my conviction that what you are doing is absolutely the right thing, and that what I am about to do is cowardly, self-defeating and stupid. But…”

“But?”

Shadrall gave a helpless shrug of his shoulders and smiled weakly

“Still not ready.”

Cal picked up his hand again, and gripped it gently.

“Maybe someday.”

“Maybe. I have to go now.”

“Watch those stairs on the way down.”

Shadrall’s grin slowly reappeared.

“I’m not going down the stairs.”

“You’re not?”

“I’m thinking I’ll leave discreetly – don’t want to attract the attention of those fine-looking guards at the front entrance.” He patted his back pocket with a wink. There was a metallic jingle, and two silver teaspoons fell to the ground with a clatter. He picked them up and returned them to the pocket without embarrassment.

“And what are you going to do? Fly out of the window? Oh, wait – there isn’t one.”

“Of course there isn’t. Not in this room. But here’s the thing, Cal – why would a place like Phaonica have a room like this? Think about it. ”

He held up his hand to silence any possible suggestion from Cal, then turned around and walked over to the end of the room. The walls were decorated with plaster panels, echoing the more ornate marble interior of the grander parts of the palace. Shadrall placed his outstretched hand onto one of the panels and stroked with wall carefully, his fingers playing delicately over the featureless surface.

Quite unexpectedly, there was a tiny, almost inaudible click, and the wall moved. Shadrall gave an exclamation of delight.

“See that? If you just push just there… Look – here’s a little secret door that you’d never guess was there at all. Isn’t that something?”

Curious at this unexpectedly-revealed facet of the unassuming little room, Cal went over to join Shadrall. The panel had swung back to expose a hole deep into the wall. He could not see how far back it went, because there was no light within; no ambient blue glow, only darkness, but his senses told him that it led somewhere, and it was not just a shallow cupboard.

“How exactly did you know about this?” he asked Shadrall, who was standing with his arms folded proudly across his chest admiring the hole.

“I told you. I had a bit of a look round Phaonica the other day, after I left your apartments.”

“You had a very good look round Phaonica by all accounts.” Cal stuck his head forward and into the dark hole. There was a slight suggestion of the movement of cool air.

“I won’t deny it. It’s a habit that’s stood me in good stead, and I don’t intend to abandon it any time soon. Am I to understand that you were previously unaware of this exit?”

Cal frowned. “I have better things to do with my time than go poking around in attics. Where does it go?” he leaned a bit further into the hole.

“Out. It comes out just beyond the back of the palace.”

“I wonder if Pell knows about this.”

“I’d bet several full place settings that he doesn’t. And that he doesn’t know about the other ones either.”

“The other ones?”

Shadrall touched his finger to the side of his nose firmly, his expression comically serious.

“You might want to go and look for them yourself one day, Cal. When you haven’t got anything better to do, that is. ”

“Perhaps I will. I wonder what they’re for, these hidden passages.”

“I would say that it’s perfectly obvious what they’re for, but then maybe that’s just me. There may even be others that I didn’t find, who knows?”

Cal stepped back from the hole and straightened himself up.

“Things are not always as straightforward as they appear.” he observed

Shadrall adjusted his pack over his shoulder and stepped through the entrance and into the hole. He stretched out his arms and touched both sides of the passageway, as if measuring it for size, and sniffed the air, testing it for unseen clues.

“Phaonica is full of hidden places after all.” he said. “Who’d have thought? What do you suppose he had in mind with that, the har who built this place?”

“I don’t know, I’ll ask him the next time I see him.”

“I’m thinking he must have been a har after my own heart.” Shadrall said, his voice sounding strangely muffled and distant.

“You may very well be right about that.” Cal said, trying not to laugh. “Perhaps I’ll ask him to explain how the Universe can do a little pirouette, while I’m at it. I’m sure you’d be fascinated to learn the secret. Or perhaps you’d prefer it to remain a mystery?”

But he was already speaking only to himself.

Chapter 21

Pellaz strode purposefully along the main corridor that lead from his apartments to the Tigrina’s. He felt no need for stealth or silence, nor did he feel any compunction about rousing the Tigrina’s staff in the middle of the night. If the Tigron of Immanion chose to be abroad at this time in Phaonica, then the rest of its inhabitants would simply be required to accommodate him, and that was all there was to it.

He was still dressed in his finery from the Ball earlier that evening. He had remained until it officially ended, because his duties as Tigron required as much, but after that he had retired to his own apartments while the usual informal coda to such events had continued convivially for some time. He had not gone to bed immediately, which was not unusual for him, but he had refused his servants attempts to undress him, or their offers of food or drink, and had sat in his study for some time, pretending to go through various documents.

The conversation with Shadrall preyed on his mind, though he did his best to dismiss it. He refused to feel guilty about overhearing some conversation, which had been innocent enough in itself. It was not as if he had intentionally spied upon them. His conscience was clear as far as that was concerned. The offer of money he had made to Shadrall was perhaps a different matter.

A bribe. Was that what it was? He could hardly deny it, although he sought, for his own peace of mind at least, to put a more positive spin on it. Best to know whether the har had been simply after Rue’s wealth or not. Best to know now rather than later.

It was unworthy of you, Pellaz. He could almost hear Thiede’s voice in his ears; imagine his stern look, his disapproval and his disappointment.

The Tigron of Immanion could not stoop to bribing petty criminals for his own gain. But where did the line lie? How far was it permissible to go? At what point did the ends cease to justify the means, and the pursuit of the greater good through evil means became in itself the exercise of evil? When do you become the very thing that you abhor? It was a problem that Thiede himself had struggled with, and failed to resolve.

There is no line, Pell thought to himself, No defining point where one thing becomes another, only a continuum. At the furthest points alone lies certainty. In between, only doubt. Only once you have passed beyond a certain point do you recognise its significance.

The thought did not cheer him. He tried to banish all thought of Shadrall from his mind, but found he could not. The har’s parting shot repeated itself constantly in his head, over and over again:

“How would it feel, Tigron Pellaz, to have the thing you value most in this life, above all else, taken from you?”

What had he meant by that? It seemed an empty threat; the har was in no position to take anything from Pellaz, yet it troubled him, for reasons he was unable to articulate.

Engrossed as he was in his own thoughts, he did not notice the shadowy figure approaching him along the corridor. It was dark – the palace’s strange, supernatural night-time glow was barely enough to see by, and the moon had long since set, leaving the high, arched windows which stretched along one side of the corridor lightless and blind, like so many empty eye-sockets staring down.

He was not expecting any other person to be walking the corridors at this time, but his sixth sense warned him just in time before he collided with the other har, who seemed equally preoccupied. .

“Cal! What are you doing prowling about at this time of night?”

Cal started guiltily.

“Pell! I might ask you the same thing.”

“I’m not prowling. I’m the Tigron, for Ag’s sake, I can do what I like in this palace!”

“So am I. And so can I. I just felt like a walk.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“It’s surprisingly popular, I’m discovering.”

“Don’t be facaetious. I’ve just been to Rue’s apartments.”

“I bet he wasn’t pleased to be woken up at this time.”

“He wasn’t there.”

“Perhaps he felt like a walk too. It’s all the rage.”

“According to his staff, he returned after the Ball, spent a short time alone in his bedroom, and then left again, and hasn’t been seen since.”

“Well perhaps one of the guests at the Ball caught his eye. I did see him looking at that Khulikah quite a lot.”

Pell shook his head. “Even if that was the case, they would still have gone back to Rue’s apartments. You know what he’s like.”

“Territorial and lazy, in equal measure. But why are you out looking for him at this unDeharly hour?”

Pell’s face set into an evasive expression. “I was worried,” he said.

“Worried? Why? This is Phaonica, nothing can…” Cal’s voice trailed off and there was an uncomfortable silence.

“Alright,” Cal said, “Let’s go back to Rue’s apartments – he’ll probably be back there already, and if not, we’ll just wait for him. Perhaps he’s left a note, or something.”

“What makes you say that?” Pell said.

“I don’t know. It’s what people do. Come on.”

Together they made their way back to the Tigrina’s rooms, where the serving staff were none-too-pleased to be roused from their beds yet again, and told the two Tigrons that, no, the Tigrina had not returned, and no, he had not left a note or any other form of communication indicating his intentions.

“Make us some coffee then, Lurien,” Pell said, “ and we’ll wait for him.”

The long-suffering Lurien sighed, tightened the belt around his night-robe, and set off in the direction of the kitchens. Cal and Pell went through to Caeru’s private sitting room and made themselves comfortable. The room was cosy and pleasant, lit by warm yellow lamps, but it had a strangely empty feel to it. Caeru was not the tidiest of hara, and frequently left belongings strewn about the place, but the serving staff had obviously tidied the room prior to retiring for the night, and everything was in its proper place.

Cal sat down in one of the large, over-stuffed armchairs. He set the bag he had been carrying down at his feet, then casually kicked it around the side of the chair, where it was partially hidden from view.

Pellaz sat down in the chair opposite him, a frown upon his face. Cal sighed to himself. He recognised that expression, and it rarely led to an evening of laughter and merriment.

Pell pulled something out of his pocket. It was a piece of paper, folded in half. He unfolded it, and smoothed the centre crease with his hand three times.

“I got this,” he said. “It was left on my pillow.”

“What is it?” Cal asked

“It’s a note.” Pell held the piece of paper between his thumb and forefinger, as if he were afraid he might catch something unpleasant from it. “From Tiahaar Shadrall. Informing me of his departure from Immanion.”

“Really?” said Cal, wincing a little at his own disingenuousness.

“He says that he is returning to Alba Suhl.” Pell stared at the piece of paper, as if he expected it to spontaneously combust. “I think Rue might have gone with him.”

Cal managed just in time to censor another surprised “really?”.

“What makes you think that?” he asked

Pell looked at him, but said nothing. He didn’t have to.

“Rue wouldn’t leave,” Cal assured him.

“How do you know?”

“Pell, he’s been here for thirty years, and I’m not blind or deaf – I realise that it has not all been blissful happiness, but if he was going to leave he would have done it a long time ago. Why would he leave now, when his life has changed for the better?”

“He couldn’t leave. And I know there were times he thought about it, and I know that he attempted it at least one time, but Thiede would not permit it..”

“If Thiede’s edict was all that was keeping him here, he could have left two years ago.”

“Perhaps he was just waiting for the right circumstances.” Pell looked down at the piece of paper in his hands, and turned it over twice.

“I won’t do what Thiede did,” he said. “I won’t force him to stay.”

“Pell,” Cal inched forward until he was perched on the edge of the chair. He leaned toward Pellaz. “Do you want Rue to stay?”

“Of course I do. He is the Tigrina. He has a very important part to play in the Gelaming…”

“Pell!”

Pell took a deep breath and held it for a few second before exhaling heavily

“Yes, I want him to stay.”

“Then why don’t you tell him that?”

“I will. At the right time. If he hasn’t already gone.”

“Rue hasn’t gone anywhere.”

“You sound very sure of that.”

“I’m good at divining these sort of things. I have these phenomenal Gelaming mind-powers. So have you, come to think of it – why don’t you just contact him by mind-touch?”

“I’ve tried. He’s not responding.”

“That doesn’t mean anything. He could be fast asleep in some lucky har’s bed for all we know.”

“I offered him money, to leave. Shadrall, that is.” Pell looked at the piece of paper again. “But he refused. He said he was going to take from me the thing I valued most. What do you suppose he meant by that?”

“I don’t know. Exactly how attached to the cutlery are you?”

“Am I a bad ruler, Cal?”

“What? No, of course not. You’re the best Tigron Immanion has.”

Cal looked at Pell’s face and saw the doubt written there. He felt a sudden rush of sympathy.

“You do the best you can,” he said “It’s all any of us can do.”

“I’m not sure that’s enough. Not when the whole of Wraeththu society is at stake.”

“It’s not all down to you, Pell, There are actually other hara in the world.”

“I was so certain that I was doing the right thing,” he folded the note in his hands closed again. “But now I’m not so sure.”

There was a sudden sound of voices from outside the room, and then the door open and in walked the Tigrina, followed by Lurien bearing a tray with two steaming mugs of coffee.”

“What are you two doing here?” asked Rue, “Do you know what time it is? Oh, coffee! Just what I need. Thank you Lurien.” He took one of the mugs. Lurien handed the other one to Pellaz then tucked the tray under his arm.

“I’ll fetch some more,” he said.

“Where have you been, Rue?” Pell asked, “We’ve been looking for you.”

“I was down at the lake. The one in the informal gardens. It looks strange at this hour – there’s a mist hanging low over it, and the wading birds are all standing very still.”

“What were you doing down there?”

“Thinking. Waiting. Waiting for somehar who never turned up.”

“Shadrall?”

Rue nodded.

Cal sighed heavily.

“Rue,” he said, “I think there’s something you should know. Shadrall…”

“… is gone. Yes, I know. He left me a note. A note! One day, somehar will have the courage to tell me to my face that they’re leaving, and not leave a note.”

Pell studied the floor intently and said nothing.

“He told me to meet him at the lake, because he wanted to say goodbye. I’ve been there for over two hours. He never showed up. Typical.”

Caeru looked at the piece of paper that Pell was still clutching in his hand.

“I see you got one too.” he said.

“Yes. I found it on my pillow, along with a dog-collar, and a red candle in the shape of… something or other.”

“What does it say?” Cal asked, curious.

Pell opened the note again and studied it for a few moments before reading it aloud:

“Pellaz har Aralis,

I have decided that you are not the sort of har in whose employment I wish to remain. I hereby terminate our contract. I am taking the book back to Alba Suhl to return it to its rightful owners. I may be a petty thief, but I do have some standards.

PS, I am keeping the money I got for the job. My standards aren’t that high.”

“He’s taken the book?” Cal said in dismay

“Apparently. But it doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?”

“The book isn’t important.”

“We went all the way to Alba Suhl to steal this important book. And now suddenly it isn’t important any more?”

“It was never important. It was just a decoy. A ruse. A pretext.”

“Are you serious?”

“Perfectly serious.”

“Why did we steal it then?”

“So you could put the other one in its place.”

“And why did we want to do that?”

“What time is it?”

Cal glanced at the window, where the sky was beginning to show the first signs of shedding its impenetrable darkness for an inky blue.

“It must be nearly six by now. What has that got to do with it?”

“In approximately eight hours time, there will be an attempt to assassinate the High Codexia of Kyme, in his own office, by a dissident group of Garridan hara who disapprove of his efforts to bring other tribes under the aegis of the Gelaming in the Federation of Tribes. The book you left in the High Codexia’s office contains a protective ward – a type of energy – which will deflect their attack and safeguard the High Codexia.”

Cal stared at him, blinking.

“And how do you know this?”

“We have hara who have particular skills that allow them to perceive events like this before they occur.”

“They can see the future?”

“Yes, in a way. What you have to understand is that there are certain important points in the fabric of reality. Points at which the entire course of future events can be swayed. These points…resonate, shall we say, allowing our trained hara to detect them. What we don’t always know is what exactly the event is going to be. It took us a great deal of time and effort to discover what exactly was going to occur around this resonant point, and what the potential outcome would be. Suffice to say that the High Codexia’s assassination would not be advantageous for the future of Wraeththu-kind. Or for the High Codexia, for that matter. Once we knew what we were dealing with, we had to act.”

“You’re beginning to sound frighteningly like Thiede.”

Pell’s mouth twisted in a wry smile. “Thiede wasn’t always wrong, Cal.”

“So you had me go all the way to Kyme under false pretences? Rue, did you know about this?” Cal demanded of the Tigrina, but Caeru simply shook his head, his wide eyes registering his own surprise at this unexpected revelation.

“I think you’ll find that it was you yourself who insisted on going to Kyme. And it wasn’t false pretences – we just wanted to keep the true purpose as confidential as possible. If it got out that we have the ability to alter the course of events, however obliquely, it would not help our cause. We couldn’t take the risk of our agent being caught and telling everything. Petty thieving is one thing. Influencing future events is quite another. The decoy book was Tharmifex’s idea – he didn’t trust our absent friend Shadrall to carry out the plan in a more straightforward manner, and I think he was quite correct in his assessment.”

“So you and Thar cooked all this up between you? I take it that’s why you’ve been spending so much time with him in those “committee meetings” lately? Tell me, does this sort of thing go on a lot?”

Pell shrugged. “We do what we have to. What we can. ” he said. “The Gelaming are not wholly trusted by most of the other tribes. You may have noticed that on your trip to Kyme. They resent the fact that we have superior skills and powers. They are suspicious of our intentions. If we were to offer our assistance directly, in many cases it would be refused, out of pride as much as anything else. So we help in a more indirect manner. Sometimes it’s the only way.”

“Even if it means you get no recognition or thanks for your efforts – just more complaints from ungrateful tribes.”

“Cal, it’s not about getting a pat on the back or adulation from the masses. We do these things not because we hope to gain some advantage, but because it is the right thing to do,. I expect that sounds pompous and self-congratulatory, but there it is.”

Cal stared at Pellaz for a moment, as if he had suddenly materialised without warning from the Otherlanes. Then, quite unexpectedly, he leant over and kissed him gently on the cheek.

“No it doesn’t”. he said

“What was that for?” Pell asked in surprise.

“For failing to live up to my expectations. Or down.”

“Is that a compliment? I can’t tell.”

“Yes it is. Try not to look so shocked.”

“I’m just not used to getting them from you, Cal.”

“Well get used to it – there’ll be more of them in future, I’m sure. And you know what else?”

“I hardly dare imagine”

“I have a present for you. From Kyme.”

“Really? What is it?”

“Half a brooch.”

“Only half? Don’t I deserve a whole one?”

“No. Half is all you need. Trust me. Just this once, okay? ”

Pell smiled. “ Half a brooch is better than no brooch, I suppose.” he said “At least it isn’t another candle.”

“I got a present too,” Rue said. He reached into the folds of his robes and produced a replica of a butterfly, made from painted feathers. It sat in the outstretched palm of his hand, quivering gently as if alive.

“He left it on my pillow, along with the note.”

“That’s where I found my note too,” Pell said. “I’d like to know how he got into my bedroom. My apartments are guarded, and none of my staff report seeing anyhar. I think that there needs to be a review of palace security.”

“I wouldn’t bother,” Cal said, “It wouldn’t help. Did he take anything?”

“Only the book. Which was in a locked chest. Inside a locked cupboard. Inside my guarded apartments.”

“Well, look on the bright side. Your thief-selecting abilities are second to none. I thought you said the book wasn’t important?”

“That depends on your definition of important, I suppose.”

“What definition are we using here, precisely?”

“It’s not our definition that matters. Things can have different levels of importance, to different people. What might seem trivial to one person may have great significance to another.”

“ Stop being evasive. What exactly was in that book?”

“The High Codexia’s hand-written collection of his own poems on the subject of love. ”

“Really? How… unexpected. Were they any good?”

“No. They were very, very bad. There are good reasons why some things are kept out of sight, Cal.”

Cal snorted in amusement. “Oh well. I expect he’ll be glad to get it back in due course.”

“That won’t be any time soon – it’s a long walk to Alba Suhl.”

“It’s not the destination that’s important, it’s the journey.”

“Very profound.”

“It’s my inner Gelaming starting to show.”

“I didn’t know you had one.”

“Oh yes. It has already conquered my inner Uigenna and my inner Varr, and now it’s looking round hopefully to see if I’ve got an inner Suhl or an inner Nagini that it can assimilate too. When it’s finished doing that it’s going to go and take over the world.”

“Somehow I think you’ll always be more than a match for your inner Gelaming, Cal.”

“Is that bad?”

Pell smiled at him. “No.” he said.

“We like your inner Cal the way he is,” Rue said. He glanced out the window, where the first pale traces of dawn could be seen beginning to lighten the sky.

“I didn’t realise it was so late,” he said. “It’ll soon be daybreak.”

“It’s not late, it’s early,” Cal told him. His eyes met Rue’s, and they exchanged a smile.

“I don’t think there’s any point in going back to bed,” said Pell. “Rue, do you think Lurien could be persuaded to produce some more coffee, and possibly even breakfast? All this skulduggery and intrigue has made me ravenous.”

“I’m sure he can. I expect the entire palace staff are up now anyway, what with all this excitement. Shall we go out onto the terrace? I haven’t seen a sunrise in a long time.”

“That sounds like an excellent idea.” said Cal “Lead the way!”

Rue and Cal drifted off in the direction of the terrace. Pell rose from his chair to follow them out of the room. As he stood up, he caught sight of the bulging bag lying at the side of Cal’s chair, half-hidden from view. He stared at it thoughtfully for a few moments, then followed his consorts outside.

Chapter 22

It was cool and still out on the terrace. The blue trumpets of Morning Glory were yet to open, and overhead the leafy canopy of creepers and vines had a damp freshness to it which it would lose later in the heat of the day. The pre-dawn light washed everything in subtle shades of grey and sepia, like an old, faded photograph. All the vibrant colours patiently awaited the sun’s direct rays to reveal themselves in all their splendour. To Caeru, it seemed like his familiar terrace of noisy family meals and gatherings had been stolen away and replaced with this strange facsimile which looked superficially identical, but was somehow different.

“Listen.” he said. “It’s so quiet.”

They sat in silence for a moment, listening. No breeze stirred the overhead leaves, no footsteps or voices came from within the Palace, no clatter of horse’s hooves, no shouts no cries, no snatches of music came from far-below Immanion. Even the sea’s constant and ever-present heartbeat seemed to have ceased.

“It’s so peaceful. It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that the rest of the world is still in turmoil. Assassination attempts! What do they hope to achieve by that?”

“I don’t think it’s about achieving an end in itself. Sometimes an act of destruction is the only way hara can express their anger.”

“What have they got to be angry about?”

“I don’t know. There’s always something. Perhaps it’s justified, perhaps not.”

“There is no justification for attempting to assassinate an innocent Codexia – however much poetry he writes.” Rue turned to Pellaz, a worried look on his face. “Will it work? Your protective ward?”

“Yes,” said Pell, “It will.”

“You sound very certain,” Call said.

“I am. We spent a great deal of time and effort constructing it. We have learned a great deal about manipulating the energies of the universe here in Immanion, things that no other tribes can begin to understand as yet, so, yes, it’s a foregone conclusion. The would-be assassins have no chance.”

“No wonder they hate us,” Cal said dryly.

“Do they hate us in Kyme?” Rue asked. “Really?”

“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say hate – we’re a good source of material for ribald songs, if nothing else – but we’re certainly not the most popular tribe in town. Although I’m sure if the charismatic and illustrious Tigrina were to pay them a visit, they’d soon change their tune.”

“Perhaps I will, soon. The ball last night was a great success. And I know that hara are always terribly deferential and ingratiating to me whether they approve of the Gelaming or not, but I did feel that there was some genuine goodwill beginning to form towards us last night.”

“The Tigrina will conquer by charm where force has failed!” Cal said

“We have never used force.” Pell sounded slightly tetchy.

“Technically, no.”

“We could have handled things differently in Kyme, you know. We could have gone in with all guns blazing, metaphorically speaking, and put a stop to the Garridan insurgents’ schemes quite publicly without any trouble. But we didn’t. We chose to take another route because…”

“…because you’re learning.” Cal smiled and squeezed Pell’s hand. “You’re learning that you can’t ride roughshod over everyhar else’s feelings, and that you can’t force them to follow your path, even if it’s for their own good. It’s the mark of a good ruler that he can learn from past mistakes.”

“I hope so,” said Pell, “I would also like to prevent others from making the same mistakes that we – that I – have.”

“You can’t,” Rue told him gently. “You have to let them make their own mistakes. I know it’s difficult to watch someone wilfully following a self-destructive path, but you can’t make their decisions for them, and you can’t be responsible for their choices.”

The rulers of Immanion sat down at a low table, and watched as the serving staff busied about preparing for breakfast, some bleary-eyed and stifling yawns. Already the magical stillness of the transition from night to day had begun to dissipate; the sky had become noticeably paler and the slightest of breezes had begun to disturb the calmness of the air. Rue set the feather butterfly down on the table and watched as its delicate painted wings trembled.

“He bought it in the market in Kyme,” Cal said, staring at the butterfly and marvelling at its astonishing evocation of life. “He insisted we go there. He told the stall-keeper it was for the most special har in all Wraeththudom.” He looked up at Rue with an apologetic air.

Rue smiled at him and laid his hand on his arm.

“It’s alright Cal. I’m not sad. I knew he wouldn’t stay. It’s not in him. Leaving is just what he does, he can’t help it. He’ll be back some day, though, when you least expect him.” He stared across the terrace, his blue eyes misted. In the distance, Immanion was beginning to emerge from its night time slumber ready for the new day.

“I’m sorry,” said Pell, surprised to find that he actually meant it. “I know he was important to you.”

Rue nodded, but said nothing.

“He told me something,” Pell said cautiously, “About how you and he came to be together.”

“What did he tell you?”

“He said that he was your first. After your inception. That he was the first har you ever took aruna with.”

Rue burst out laughing.

“And you believed him? Oh Pell! You know what a dreadful liar he is!”

“He’s a very convincing liar,”

“Yes he is.”

“So if it wasn’t him, who was it?” Cal asked. “I mean, I had Wraxilan, which is quite an impressive boast, and Pell had me, which… well, modesty forbids me from saying anything else. What about you, Rue? Who was your first? Anyhar legendary?”

Rue shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said

Cal laughed, and attempted to disguise it as a cough. “You don’t know? How can you not know? Even you’re not that absent-minded, Rue!”

Rue gave a small, embarrassed shrug. “I was blindfolded,” he explained, “and there were a lot of them…”

The was a moment’s uncomfortable silence while Cal processed this information.

“Shit. I’m sorry Rue.”

“Oh don’t look so stricken Cal – you know what it was like back then. That sort of thing happened all the time. It’s no big deal.”

“I know, but…”

Rue clasped his hands together in his lap, and stared at them with unusual interest.

“Afterwards – “ he began hesitantly, “After they had gone, he came to the room where they had left me, and he untied my hands, and took the blindfold off. The first thing I saw was a great mass of curly hair, and this huge smile. So I smiled back. How could I not? And he said to me: “Well aren’t you the pretty one?” Rue’s face lit up in remembrance, his eyes shining.

“He said: “It’s not supposed to be like that. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. Let me show you what it’s supposed to be like.” And he did.”

He looked at Pell shyly. “So you see, it wasn’t really a lie after all. About him being my first. Just a different sort of truth.”

Pell cupped his hand around the steaming mug of coffee which Lurien had deposited in front of him, but he did not pick it up. He stared at the curls of vapour as if there was some ineffable certainty to be divined from their endless reconfiguration.

“There are many different truths,” he said. “The trick is knowing which one to choose.” He looked up at Rue.

“I thought you might have gone with him. When he left. Did you want to?”

Rue tilted his head and smiled at him, sympathy in his eyes.

“No, of course not. Don’t be silly, Pell. Why would I want to leave Immanion? It’s beautiful here, the sun shines and the roof of Phaonica doesn’t leak when it rains. I don’t care for all that walking either, and besides – where would I keep all my shoes?”

There was a slight butterfly flicker at the very edge of Pell’s mind which he identified as Cal’s touch, and then into his mind, fully formed came an image of a huge, glorious technicolour sunset animated by swooping bluebirds and falling rose-petals, into which two hara were walking away, hand in hand. As Pell watched, the viewpoint pulled back to reveal a caravan of several hundred more hara following behind bearing clothes, shoes, jewels and every imaginable paraphernalia of palace life.

With an enormous effort of will, Pell contained his urge to laugh out loud.

Just you wait, he sent to Cal, The next time you’re making a speech in the Hegemony I’ll send you a little visualisation or two…

That implies that there is a possibility of me making a speech in the Hegemony.

Don’t be so sure. The Chancellor and I have plans…

Pell turned and caught Cal’s eye. A knowing look passed between them, and they both smiled simultaneously.

There was an unexpected darkening of the sky, a rush of wings and a sudden commotion above them as a flock of small birds swooped in and landed on the arched rails of the pergolas, twittering excitedly to each other, crossing and re-crossing forked tails.

Rue looked up at them in wonder.

“Where did you all come from?” he asked

“A long way away,” Pell said, watching the birds, every one of which seemed to be in constant motion, heads, wings, tails and feathers rippling like water. “They’re flying south for the winter. Almagabra is just a stopping-place for them. They still have further to go.”

“How do they do that?” Rue continued to watch the small birds as they squabbled and agitated for the best spots among the creepers and struts. “How do they know where they’re going? How do they know when it’s the right time to go? How do they find the way?”

“No-har knows. It’s one of life’s mysteries.” Pell stretched out his hand, his index finger extended, and one of the birds flew down from the canopy and perched on it. It cocked its small head to the side and looked at him, eyes bright, trusting and fearless.

Rue’s mouth opened with delight. He reached out and gently stroked the bird’s head, marvelling at the perfection of its plumage; the white breast and the glossy, blue-black wings and back; the twin streamers of the tail feathers. And the ruddy, chestnut throat, its rich colour clearly visible up close.

“They’re so small – so fragile. How can they fly all that way? What makes them do it?”

Pell reached out with his mind-touch He could just sense the bird’s small spark of sentience, a tiny thing, almost lost in the vastness of the great ocean of life that surrounded it, yet bright and full of determination. He opened his mind and let the bird’s consciousness merge with his own.

Skies and flight; the ever-present flock; danger, from above and from below. And above all, a need; a desire; a hunger. To be gone. To be somewhere else. To be not here.

Pell raised his hand, and the bird flew off to rejoin its companions, becoming once again a part of something greater than itself. The flock chittered and bobbed excitedly, as if holding a conversation among themselves. At some point, by some method of communication that even Pell could not detect, they must have come to a decision, because as one the entire flock spread their wings and took instantly to the sky, leaving behind no straggler taken unaware by the agreement.

The dark cloud of birds swooped and circled in the sky overhead, each sudden change of direction executed instantly and with precision. They performed one last intricate manoeuvre, almost as if they were performing for their audience, then pivoted, swung, and were suddenly gone, just as though they had never been there aall.

The End

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1 Comment

  1. Gingerspark said,

    January 17, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    You rock Camile!
    But you already know I think that… 😉


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