Kingdoms Of The Night

 
 

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Kingdoms Of The Night

CHAPTER ONE: 
THE MAD CHARIOTEER

Who shall ever read this, heed me: I am Lord Amalric Emilie Antero of Orissa. Know that this journal and its bearer are under the protection of my family and myself. If you deliver them speedily and safely to my agents you will be paid two thousand gold coins. But beware - my generosity is double-edged. Do not harm or delay my


 
  servants in their mission, or the consequences to you, your family and descendants will be most severe. All this I swear on this sixth day of the Month of Frosts in the fifteenth year of The Time Of The Lizard.

* * *

My dearest nephew, Hermias. I write to you from the Far Kingdoms - the real Far Kingdoms, not the false rune of Irayas Janos Greycloak and I found nearly fifty years ago. I should have realized we were wrong: the wonders of those distant kingdoms that so enthralled us then pale in this realm of miracles and magic.

 Poor Janos. He betrayed all he loved and sold his very soul for the truths he believed resided there. And it all turned out to be a monumental lie.

The old Janos - the Janos who was once my friend - would have laughed at his self-delusion.


 

 


"The best jests of the gods," he would have said, "are those that reveal you as an ass. The man who believes himself wise walks in darkness. Only someone who knows he's truly a fool can see the light."

He would also have been glad, I realize now, because our very victory in finding the Far Kingdoms held the seeds of his destruction. For after that, what else was left of value for Janos to discover? If only he could be here now to glory in how much we missed the mark.

That said, I should tell you that in all likelihood as you read these words I will be dead.

Do not grieve. My life has been long, for the most part fortunate and spiced with much incident and achievement. It amazes me that after all that has happened since we last embraced there is spark enough to guide this pen.


 

 

At an age when most men survey all empty ground for a suitable grave, I set out for my last great adventure. I crossed the Forbidden Sea of the East to the unknown Far Shore, dared uncharted rivers, desolate wastelands and frozen mountain peaks. I've seen dreams shattered, mended, then imperiled anew. Few men or women have been gifted with a life such as mine. And now that I've been granted experiences and adventures that would easily overflow another full span, I can say if the gods don't love me at least they haven't ignored me.

But I must not ramble. This is not a journal of reflection like the first.

I write to warn, not to edify.

We are in great danger from forces I am just beginning to understand. Soon my enemies will come for me. And if I should fail in my last task, another must follow to pick up the fallen banner.


 

 

That is the purpose of this journal.

Although I must write in haste I will spare no detail so wiser eyes may see what I did not. Study these ink spatterings closely, my dear nephew. And seek the counsel of our bravest and most perceptive friends.

Tell them the end of history is rushing upon us. And if I die it is they who must stop that Mad Charioteer.

* * *

It began in the Month of Flowers. All around my villa blossoms were bursting through the earth, filling the air with their essence. Gentle winds played sweet music on the garden chimes and from my study window I could see a pair of lovers strolling the grassy fields, birds bursting from cover in front of their


 

 

wandering feet. Just beyond them was the meadow where there were colts at play. But all that beauty was lost to me. I sat before an unseasonable fire, toasting my bones, a rug pulled over my skinny old man's legs, nursing a cup of brandy and damning what little life I had left for a prison. I pined for Omerye - my life's mate who made everything worth while. She'd been dead a year and in one corner of the garden I could see the small tomb with her flute-playing likeness carved into its face.

I'd never expected to outlive her. This doubled the shock of the quickness of her death. One moment she was my lively Omerye - full of laughter and music and wisdom the next a corpse. We made love the night before she died. I'm grateful of that. Despite our age our passion for one another was as deep as ever. She fell asleep in my arms. That night I dreamed we were young again, wandering the wilderness together in search of new horizons.

The next morning I awoke early thinking I heard her pipes. The music had the dawn's cheer to it, the refreshing chill of morning air.


 

 


But I found the Dark Seeker had come and gone. Omerye lay pale and cold beside me, her pipes nowhere in sight.

I'd known such tragedy before - I lost my first wife and daughter to the plague. But I was young then. There were days enough for hope to still live. As I sat in the study I thought of the treasures Greycloak and I found in the Far Kingdoms and all the marvels I brought back from those once-mythical shores. The greatest treasure of all was Omerye - court piper for King Domas himself. It was she who healed me - she who made my days worthwhile.

There is a land I know of, where it is not only acceptable but considered admirable to take one's own life. There are priests who make an honorable profit assisting them at their task. They ply their customers with an elixir that brings on the happiest of memories. A basin of warm, perfumed liquid is provided and a spell cast so all pain is pleasure. The sorrowing one - who sees clearly that his best


 
  course is lay down the burden and close the final door - takes up a sacred knife, summons the Seeker, then slits his veins.

I was considering this recourse when Quatervals came to collect me. Imagine what a morose, self-pitying sight I made. He groaned as if to say "Not again, my Lord!"

Quatervals was head of my household guard - tall, ruddy-cheeked and bursting with muscular good health. A former Frontier Scout recruited from one of the hill tribes outside Orissa, he was an able soldier who'd risen through the ranks to lieutenant. But troubles at home had forced him to desert, since his tribe believed blood feud the highest duty and justice. Unfortunately, when matters had been settled to his satisfaction, and his enemies interred, he had the moral rectitude to return to his unit.

He was headed for the executioner's block when his plight came to my attention. I'd rescued him from that fate for motives I occasionally regretted and he joined my service as chief of my guard. He was


 
  good at his job and the only complaint I had was he sometimes didn't treat me with the respect a man of my position is occasionally fool enough and weak enough to believe he deserves.

When Quatervals saw me his face darkened, his brows arched and his bearded smile of greeting turned to a grimace.

"You're not dressed, my Lord," he admonished. "We have to hurry or we'll be late for the ceremony."

"I'm not going," I said. "Send my apologies and tell them I'm ill." I did my best to look wan - touching my forehead as if testing for fever, then sighing as if I'd confirmed my worst fears. "You don't look sick to me," he said. He glanced at the brandy, then at the half-empty crystal carafe. "Feelin' sorry for yourself again, are you my Lord? Te-Date knows what you've got to complain about. You're richer than any man has a right to be. Prince of the greatest merchant empire in Orissa's history. Beloved and honored by all. Well, almost all. There's some that's got sense enough to see you're as common a


 
  mortal as the rest of us."

"Meaning you?" I said.

"Meaning me, my Lord," he replied. "Who else would care enough about such a cranky old man to keep an assassin from doing us all a good turn?"

"Don't be impertinent," I snapped. "I know when I'm sick or not."

He said: "My Lord - if you wanted a polite liar for chief of your guards you shouldn't have hired the likes of me."

Despite my foul mood, I had to bury a smile. Quatervals' fellow tribesmen were a fierce, independent lot noted for always speaking the unvarnished truth. They wouldn't lie for any reason - even when polite society demanded. A woman asking Quatervals' opinion of a new hair style or a dinner host wondering over the quality of the meal he served, had better be certain of both. For if one is ugly and the other tasteless Quatervals could be counted on to point out those unpleasant facts.

"The only thing that ails you, my Lord," he went on, "is a bad case of the mopes. You need fresh air, sunlight and the company of others. So, stir your stumps, Lord Antero, because that's exactly what awaits you."

"So now you're a skilled physician, as well as a swordsman," I said. "I want to be left alone, dammit! I'm old. I have the right."

"Sorry, my Lord," Quatervals replied. "But I've got a grandmother twenty years your senior and she's been up four hours by now chasin' the goats in for their milking. You're not feeble. But you will be soon if you don't quit acting like it."

I was getting angry, still clutching my specialness - my sorrow - to my bosom. But Quatervals beat my bad temper to the finish.

"Besides, this is a ship launching, my Lord," he prodded. "Your family and employees have been planning the ceremony for weeks. You not only agreed to attend but promised you'd do the honors of blessing the ship."

"I changed my mind," I said.

Quatervals grimaced. "That'd not only be rude, my Lord, but bad luck as well. What if something happened to that ship later on? Jumped by pirates or sunk by storm? It'd practically be your fault for givin' it a bad start."

"You don't actually believe that superstitious nonsense," I growled.

Quatervals shrugged his hefty shoulders. "I'm a landsman, not a sailor," he said. "But whenever I've been to sea I got down on my knees fast as any old salt when the winds blew fierce. That's when the gods really make themselves known." He laughed. "But you'd know more about that than the likes of me, sir," he said. "You're the famous Lord Amalric Antero. Slayer of demons. Rescuer of maidens. The greatest adventurer the world has known." Then his look turned mournful. "What a pity," he said. "That such a man should dry up like dust and blow away.'

"Oh, very well," I said. "I'll go... if only to shut you up. But it'll be on your head if I catch a chill and die."

"I'll chance it, my Lord," he laughed. "Now stir your bones so your man can get you dressed." With that he exited.

I drained my brandy and slammed the cup down. That son of a poxed whore! I'd teach him! But as my blood boiled I realized that once again I'd fallen prey to his game. The famous Lord Antero, indeed! Quatervals ought to apply to the Evocators' Guild for a license. Look how he'd turned self-pity into anger and anger into a renewed interest in life - if only to contemplate how pleasant it would be to toast his bones.

I laughed and called for my man servant. I had to hurry or I'd miss the launching. I looked out my window and saw the lovers had disappeared. My eyes were still keen enough, however, to make out the place where the tall grass shadowed into a fragrant bed. I saw the grass moving in a steady rhythm.

Perhaps it would be a lucky day after all.

* * *

In my youth it had been a pleasant if lengthy trip from my villa to Orissa. I was always invigorated by the ride through the countryside, past sleepy farms, through cool woods and across musical brooks. But the city has burst its old limits and tumbled to within a mile or so of my door. Only a few of the farms remain and the woods have been gouged for timber to construct the homes and buildings that line the crowded streets. As much as I love our city, I am not so blind as to call her a thing of beauty. It's grown in a haphazard fashion from the age when the first Orissan judged the best place to build his fishing hovel was upwind from where he gutted his catch to the present, where any bare spot that you can cram a stick and brick into is considered a prime building location. Land was so scarce that in some places towering tenements had been hurled up to such heights that they leaned crazily over the street, casting everything into shadow. These buildings reminded me of the crowded squalor of old Lycanth - the city that had been our arch enemy for generations until my sister, Rali, slew the evil Archons who ruled it and reduced it to rubble and ashes.

My bleak mood crept dangerously close again when I thought of Rali. Now there was a hero we'd never see the likes of again. I'd admired my older sister since I was a toddler. If truth be told, my exploits were puny things beside hers. She'd been a warrior's warrior.

Commander of the all woman Maranon Guard. Rali had pursued the last Archon of Lycanth to very ends of the earth in what had to be the greatest voyage in history. She'd caught and killed him and rescued Orissa from destruction. Rali had also been blessed - or cursed by some lights - with magical talents that rivaled our best Evocators.

She'd gone missing on an expedition twenty years before. Every day since I'd awakened half-expecting news of her return. Then the ugly truth would dawn and I'd realize once again she must be dead.

It seemed all my contemporaries were gone. I'd outlived friends and enemies alike. Perhaps that's why I felt so useless. It seemed long past the hour for me to shuffle off and leave the world for the next generation to do with as they pleased.

The carriage jolted as it hit a rut, shaking me out of my joust with villainous Regret. I'd long complained to the Council of Magistrates the roads were falling into disrepair. Their condition was not only uncomfortable and dangerous but an eater of profits as well. Goods and wagons were damaged daily while the Magistrates fought their private wars for more prestigious offices and who would get the best seats at public ceremonies.

"It's not us but the Evocators," the Chief Magistrate said. "We paid good city coin for spells to protect our streets from wear. The last they cast they vowed was good for ten years or more. But that was less than a year ago and just look at the state of our roads!"

The Chief Evocator replied it was the Magistrates' fault for building with materials so poor not a spell in history could preserve them. This earned a bitter retort from the Chief Magistrate, who retaliated in kind and back and forth it went with nothing being done while the roads and bridges crumbled around us.

So far the Magistrates held the upper hand in the blaming game. For although few trust a Magistrate, everyone is wary of a wizard.

Adding to the poor public view of the Evocators was a rash of apparent failures in the past year. The gift of magical knowledge I'd brought back from Irayas had blossomed mightily. We commanded the weather that nurtured our crops, the purity of the streams, woods and fields that gave us fish, flesh and fowl and even the great plagues that once ravaged us at will, plagues that had killed my own Deoce and Emilie.

But in recent months cracks had appeared in the protective walls. There'd been sick cattle in the countryside. The last grain harvest had been afflicted with a voracious beetle. And in the marketplace the witches had been treating a mysterious outbreak of skin infections. In my own household an entire storeroom of meat had to be destroyed because somehow it had spoiled. Even in the old days the most common spell cast by the Evocator assigned to the Butchers' Guild would have prevented such a thing.

Naturally the Evocators were given the direwolf's share of the blame. There had been much public discussion at how lazy, greedy and thieving our wizards had become. Although I didn't think on it much - the incidents, after all, were fairly minor - when I heard such talk I quickly put the rumor monger straight. In my youth the Evocators were the sworn enemies of the Anteros. Their graft was enormous, their secrecy impenetrable and some of them had even plotted with Prince Raveline of Irayas against our city. My own brother, Halab, was a victim of their evil. In my lifetime I had seen all that change. The doors of knowledge at the Evocators' Palace were open to all with talent, and the wizards now take an oath to work only for the public good. Obviously - human nature being as it is - all hearts were not pure. But the ideals had been hoisted higher.

My thoughts were on matters such as these as my carriage passed the hill where the Evocators' Palace sits. It had once been contained behind forbidding walls at the summit. Since then it had grown as much as the city around it. Buildings and gardens sprawled down terraced hillsides. Even in the day the magicians' workshops gave off a magical glow and the air - heavy with the scent of sulfur - buzzed and tingled with energy. I could see a group of fresh-faced acolytes being marched up the hill to their classrooms by a stern Master Evocator. Although I have no talent for magic I knew the books they study well. They contained the wisdom of Janos Greycloak, or at least what wisdom I could remember and repeat.

His theories - his search for the keys to all natural law - had turned wizardry on its head. For the first time in history magic was tested and examined for cause and effect. There were even a few young wizards, I was told, who wondered if Greycloak's ultimate guess was correct, that magical energy and common energy were the same. In sorcery a thing can be changed from one form to another, can be transported, duplicated, protected, or destroyed. Greycloak speculated identical forces ruled the falling weight, the rushing stream, the twitching compass needle and the fiery hearth, as well as the very light that allowed one to see such commonplace marvels. He wondered if all things - both of this world and spiritual - might be built of identical grains of something, whatever that substance might be, and the behavior of that stuff had a single motivator. Find that motivator, he said, and all things will be possible. The search for such a thing was Greycloak's greatest goal. He thought he was close on its heels when we reached the Far Kingdoms. I think he would have caught it if it hadn't turned in its tracks and killed him first.

My carriage turned toward the river docks and I was swept through the neighborhood where I'd once pursued the fair Melina - she who was a witch of the flesh and my young, lustful soul. It had a been a dank and dangerous place then, with rotting tenements whose walls concealed pleasure palaces Orissa is unlikely to see again. There was no erotic fantasy ever dreamed of that wasn't once satisfied by Melina and her courtesan sisters.

The tenements had been torn down and replaced by fashionable apartments. The street had been broadened, beautified with plantings and fountains, and it was lined with expensive taverns, clothiers' saloons and shops a glitter with trinkets for children of the rich. If the likes of Melina and her procurer, Leego, had appeared there, they'd soon be rousted from the street by a burly watch officer.

I suppose it's an improvement over the wretchedness of the neighborhood's past. But whenever I pass over those daily-scoured cobbles, along the gardened avenue, I regret the loss of that tawdry jewel.

We swept around the bend and I could see the docks and waterfront warehouses ahead. People in worker's clothes with toil-etched faces, callused hands and hard musculature made way for my carriage. Some of them called my name in greeting. Others turned to their children to explain who I was.

It is my vanity to believe I am a fair man, known for honest wages for honest work. I am wealthy, but not ostentatious. I'm generous, charitable and sympathetic to the troubles of working men and women. But there are others who can claim the same and to be honest, all merchants are at heart thieves. We steal a man's time for his labor, a woman's purse for our goods and a voyager's dreams for our commerce.

So I'm not as good as I like to think. But I did one fine thing in my life and I don't mean the great expeditions I shared with Janos. Or even the blessings I brought back for my people. It is the reason I am looked upon with fondness by the people I passed that day. It was I who forced the others of my class to free the slaves of Orissa. Some of my kind hate me for it to this day. I cherish that hatred.

Just before the docks we turned down the river, making for the yard where my new ship was waiting to be launched.

Between the docks and the yard the broad grassy banks of the river sprang free, running nearly a mile along the course of a park marked only by paths where families, couples and solitary dreamers strolled. The park made a sharp point where retaining walls kept the river back when it was fat with showers and rising snow.

The Month of Flowers that year was rich with both and I could see the sleek, overfed river moving swiftly past the point. A spray misted up from where the water punished the rock for being stubborn. The mist from that battle which the rock must someday lose sprayed over my carriage as I went by. The rich smell roused the river rat in me and I felt my senses perk up, my nose twitching with curiosity. I saw a ship with storm-tattered sails limping for the docks and wondered the same wonders that so captivated me when I was a boy playing on those same banks.

The ship was old, ill-painted; hull and sails rimed with salt. But old as it was it rode the river with authority. It was a ship that had seen every sea, every sunset, every storm. I could almost smell its tarry breath and feel the worn, firm planks under my feet. I imagined horizons fleeing before me, the pitching deck, the cracking sails, the barefooted seamen swarming up the masts.

By the gods, I love to wander! It was what separated Janos and me. He was a seeker, I a rover. He was obsessed with reaching his goal. I am at my happiest between one gate and the next. Odd, when I think of it. Greycloak was a rough spirit who'd trod hard paths and knew the ways of the wild shore. I was raised in luxury and had known not a care until I set out with him for the Far Kingdoms. It was then that I was afflicted with this malady. Its symptoms are a racing pulse a chilly spine, and a sudden, uncontrollable distaste for your surroundings. It comes without warning. The sight of a deep sea merchantman can fire it, or a long-distance caravan bringing its goods to market. Small things can be equally as dangerous: A sound, a smell, the feel of old leather can summon memories of a place and time when there nothing existed but the beckoning road.

From across the water I heard the pilot's mate call the mark and I had to heave back a sob from the need to be going. I thought - your travels are done, Amalric Antero. There'll be no more adventuring. You're too old, my friend. Too damned old.

Quatervals shouted for the crowd to make way and my matched blacks drew my creaking carcass into the yard where the Anteros had gathered with our friends and employees for the blessing and the feast.

Strolling musicians serenaded the celebrants. Enormous roasts turned on spits over fires made of alder. There were tables of food everywhere and scores of servants ducked in and out of the crowd bearing trays of liquid refreshment. Everyone was costumed in their best, which in that month meant the most glorious colors to compliment the flowers springing up all over Orissa. The smells and sounds and colors infused me until I was almost looking forward to the remainder of the day.

So many milled around to greet me that I exited with difficulty. My son, Cligus, broad-shouldered his way through to help. He was dressed in his finest uniform with three heavy chains of gold slung from his neck to call him general, lest someone miss the gleaming badges of rank on his shoulders and breast plate.

"Father Antero!" he cried in his booming, crowd-pleasing voice as he bounded forward to take my arm. "We feared you might not be well and be unable to honor us with your presence." I glanced at Quatervals who gave me a sardonic grin, shrugged and turned away. I shook off my son's hand, suddenly irritable.

"Sick?" I said. "What makes you think I'm sick? Why, I've never felt better in my life." My son beamed, patting me affectionately and announced to the crowd: "Did you hear that? Father Antero says he's never felt better in his life.

"We should all take inspiration from his words. By the gods, a man is only as old as he acts! And there's the proof standing before us, my friends. The great Lord Antero, knocking on the doors of seventy, and still feeling alert and vigorous."

He embraced me. It was all I could do not to draw away from his rich man's musk and humiliate him in front of the others.

I loved my son. I truly did. But in adulthood he had formed habits that grated on my sense of rightness. Cligus was in his forties and had made his mark in the military. I didn't know if he was a good soldier, although he'd had his victories. He had crafted a public face he believed would make all love him: a magnificent speaking voice, an arsenal of pleasing phrases and a willingness to boast of his abilities and deeds. Also, it seemed to me he overused the Antero name; calling me Father Antero when others were present, as if he believed the name itself trumpeted honor. The result was some feared him, some respected him, but from what I could gather few liked him. His own father, I'm ashamed to admit, hovered near the edges of that final crowd.

Feeling like a traitor to my only child - fruit of my happy marriage to Omerye - I turned my sourness to a smile and took his arm again. Cligus beamed with pleasure.

"It's good to see you, my son," I said. Then I raised my voice so the others could hear. "Now, shall we get these festivities started? There's a ship that needs blessing, food that needs eating and a whole river of drink to be drunk."

My remarks were greeted with much cheering and loud praises for the merry Lord Antero. Now where do you suppose Cligus had learned his manner?

As we made our way to the blessing platform, Cligus leaned close to me. "Your promised we'd talk soon, father," he whispered. "About my future and the future of our family."

Cligus was alluding to the status of my estate. He and others in my family had been after me for many months to name my successor as head of the Antero's commercial empire. As my only child Cligus naturally saw himself filling that role - dismissing the rights of any rival among my many nephews, nieces and cousins. I was not so certain he was the wisest choice and had been delaying the decision. The delay had become a sore point. In a way, I suppose, he was caught in a cycle of my making. The more I delayed the more he feared, and the more he feared the more his nervousness led him to do or say the wrong thing. Although I knew I wasn't ready to face the issue yet, I forced certainty into my response: "I've not forgotten my promise of a meeting," I said, "It's near the very top of my list." "When would it be convenient?" he pressed. "Seeing you look so well gives me hope that appointment might be soon."

Suspicion tangled its roots with guilt and I snapped back: "When I'm ready, by the gods, and not a moment before."

Cligus flushed. "I'm sorry, father," he said. "I didn't mean to overstep my bounds." I saw Omerye in his eyes and the stubborn tilt of chin and regretted my outburst.

I squeezed his arm, saying, "Pay no attention to my temper, son. I've much on my mind." He took heart from this. "Then we will talk soon?"

"You have my word on it," I said.

The platform loomed up near the riverbank, decked with bunting, streamers and huge, extravagantly decorated maps of our far-flung trading routes. Framing the platform was an enormous pavilion blazing with color, which hid the new ship and its cradle from view until it was time for the unveiling.

As I climbed the steps of the platform a handsome young man beamed down.

"Uncle Amalric!" he said with honest pleasure. He grabbed a cup of cold, spiced wine from a passing server and offered it to me. "If you drink it quickly," he said, "I can get you another." He laughed. "I happen to be well connected to the fellow who's paying for all this."

"There's a good nephew," I said as I took the cup from Hermias. I hoisted it up. "Just to let the gods know we're serious," I drank and the wine stoked my cheer at seeing him.

"Now, this is the proper way to greet a fellow," I joked to Cligus. "A cup of wine to light the panoply."

I was instantly sorry for my silly little jest. Cligus glowered, taking offense where if implied at all it was by accident.

"Do you really think it's good for you, father?" he said. "Wine, so early?"

I pretended I didn't hear - one of the few benefits of age - and merely smiled and took another deep drink.

Cligus gave Hermias a look that needed no words to sum up his feelings. He thought the young man was an opportunist of the worst sort who pandered to the more foolish desires of his elderly father. Hermias pointedly glared back. I was surprised to see loathing in his look and wondered what Cligus had done to earn it.

My son had cause to see him as his rival. Hermias was in his middle twenties, grandson of my late brother, Porcemus. Since he'd first come to my attention, Hermias better matched my own view of the child Omerye and I should have produced. He was intelligent, honest and aware high-birth made him no better a man than any other. He didn't have the same flair for the traders' art I had at his age but he labored hard to make up for it, working every position, no matter how low, as he climbed in my esteem as well as my organization. Adding coin to the growing heap in his bowl, was the fact that he'd recently returned from his Finding - a long and difficult maiden trading voyage whose jump off point had been Jeypur - that distant and most barbaric of ports. From all accounts it had been a great success.

If any should doubt the ways of the gods are twisted, consider this: Porcemus was the laziest, most cowardly and unpleasant of all my father's many children. As the oldest it was he who expected to take over the business from Paphos Karima Antero. But my father, that canny old devil, had seen a spark in me - a wastrel if there ever was one - that he nurtured with more care and understanding than I can ever claim to have done in my dealings with Cligus. My father had not only backed my expeditions to the Far Kingdoms but had skipped over all my kin - to Porcemus' special displeasure - to name me head of the family. I had only been a year or so younger than Hermias. Now I was in my father's position. Actually it was a little worse. He was forced to choose one son over another. I was contemplating picking a nephew - and a great-nephew at that - over my own son. Mind you I'd never hinted at my thinking, and at the time of this launching, despite speculation by others, it was only a vague possibility.

Guilt and feelings of duty toward Cligus kept me closer to his path than Hermias'.

I finished my cup and looked for the promised other. Hermias caught my glance at a passing tray of brimming wine cups and plucked one off.

"There's thirsty winds ahead, Uncle," he said. "And it's my professional observation that you've only got one sail raised flying."

"Then by all means," I said. "Let's hoist the other." I reached out to trade my empty cup for its more bounteous sister.

But just as I did, Cligus blurted, "Please, Hermias. Don't encourage him!"

Without thinking he thrust out a hand to block Hermias. Instead he knocked the cup from Hermias' grasp and wine spilled down the front of my tunic.

"Look what you've done, Cligus!" Hermias said, wiping at the stain with his own sleeve. "Since when did you become your father's conscience? A man doesn't need a son to judge his limits."

Again I marked Hermias' distaste for my son. There was more boiling under the surface of his remarks than competition for my favor.

"It wouldn't have happened," Cligus blustered, "if you hadn't tried to interfere. It's my place to serve my father. Not yours."

Then he looked quickly around seemed relieved when he saw no one had been close enough to witness the incident.

"Gentlemen," I chided, not wanting a stupid argument spoil the day after I'd gone to so much effort to rouse myself to enjoy. "There's no harm in a little wine, be it inside.... " and I scrubbed at my tunic "... or out."

Hermias chortled, his good temper restored. But now Cligus was stricken with remorse. Whether from his actions or for being so revealing about his dislike for Hermias I couldn't say.

"Please forgive me, father," he said. "Shall I send Quatervals back for a fresh tunic?" "Don't worry yourself," I said, although I noted it was Quatervals he volunteered, not himself. "It's not the first time I've had wine spilled on me. Although when it happened last I was in a rather low tavern and the fellow didn't spill it but hurled it into my eyes. Then he came at me with a knife."

"What happened?" Hermias asked, although he knew the answer, since the tale was a variation I'd told in many forms over the years.

"He killed me," I said.

Hermias chuckled at his favorite uncle's tired jest, and Cligus recovered poise enough to make perfunctory noises of appreciation.

Another voice broke in. "Hells an' green hells! Could that' be me master, lads? Drunk ag'in with wine stains on 'is tunic?"

The day brightened considerably as I turned to embrace Kele, my most trusted ship's captain and a woman I was honored to call friend. Kele was short and sturdy like her father, L'ur - who'd captained for me since the days of my expeditions to the Far Kingdoms. He'd died some years before but although I missed him, his daughter did her able best to fill the void.

Kele clapped me on the back. "Heard you was dead, or worse, M'Lord," she said.

"What could be worse than dead?" I asked.

"Eatin' cold porridge 'n wet bread," she said. "Please to see for meself 'twas all tavern lies."

I saw Quatervals watching from a distance. I flushed, even though he was too far away to hear. But it didn't keep me from repeating the tale I'd tossed into Cligus' lap.

"Lies is right," I said. "Why, I've never felt better in my life."

Kele was friend enough to know it was a falsehood - and, more importantly, to ignore it. As she chatted on, giving me a quick update on the fortunes of mutual friends and enemies, I thought what a godsend she'd been. She was a bit over forty summers - near Cligus' age - and had wide experience from her voyages. Many a pirate had felt the keenness of her blade and many a cheating trader had knuckled under the hammer of her business sense. When Hermias had made his Finding it was Kele I chose to captain his ship. If his greenness had gotten him into danger I knew Kele would pull him out.

As she talked, however, I sensed tension. I saw her glancing between Hermias and Cligus. Worry bit her brow. I'd woven my way through too many fog-shrouded passages with her not to suspect something unpleasant lurked ahead. Were those waves I heard beating on rocky shoals?

The crowd stirred and the black, symbol-studded carriage of the Chief Evocator entered the yard. All was a hush as his footmen ran to set up the golden steps and open the ornate door. The man who exited was tall and skeletal. His face was long, fierce - made longer and fiercer still by his jutting dark beard. His robes were blue-black, edged with gold, and as he stepped down everyone inched away in dread.

Palmeras' head rose and his glowing eyes flew over the crowd like a hawk. When they struck me they stopped, glowing brighter still.

"Antero, you old dog!" he thundered. "Who does a wizard have to curse around here to get a drink?"

It was time for the blessing to begin.

* * *

Palmeras was one of the new breed of Orissan Evocators, as much politician as sorcerer. He was middle-aged - young for a man in his position - and his influence stretched beyond the wizards' palace on the hill. If it weren't for the instinctive uneasiness Evocators create in most of us he would have been one of the most popular men in the city.

As his assistants made ready for the ceremony and with me at his side to bolster his image as a man of the people, Palmeras strolled through the crowd spreading his charm. Worker or high-born, he treated everyone as if they were important. He had an affinity for remembering personal detail - congratulating a grizzled carpenter for just becoming a grandfather or praising a noble lady for the good taste she displayed in the new garden she'd created at her country home.

Moments before all was ready he grabbed us both another drink and drew me aside. He glanced over at Cligus and Hermias, who were jammed together at the edge of the crowd, each ostentatiously ignoring the other.

"Such a remarkable display of kinsmanship," he said, dryly. "Warms the heart to its very core."

I sighed. "I expect you have more on your mind than a ship launching," I said. "Other than his deep regard for an old and dear friend, why else would the Chief Evocator attend such an ordinary occasion?"

Palmeras laughed. "Such cynical suspicion is unworthy of you, Amalric."

"But accurate," I said.

"Yes," he said. "But unworthy just the same."

"The subject, I presume," I said, "is when am I going to let loose the reins of the family business and name my son to replace me."

"You overshot your presumption, my friend," Palmeras said. "Most of us think you're wavering between your son and your nephew. And that is the reason for delay."

"Not so," I said. "If I had to make an announcement tomorrow I'd be proclaiming Cligus as my sole heir."

Palmeras gave me a mocking grin. He said: "We'll really hear this tomorrow? Good! May I alert my aides for news? Or is this just between old friends?"

I laughed. "Speaking of overshooting a presumption. I distinctly said if I were going to make an announcement tomorrow."

Palmeras turned serious. "Then it really is true," he said. "Hermias is a candidate." "I didn't say that."

"You don't need to," Palmeras said. "The whole city is abuzz with it, my friend. Whether you like it or not your very delay has people believing Cligus has lost your favor and Hermias will be your successor."

I remained stubborn. My hair may have turned from deep red to white but I hadn't lost my contrary nature. "They can believe what they like," I said. "It won't affect my thinking."

"As a favor to your fellow Orissans," Palmeras said, "do something soon. Our friends on the Council of Magistrates are worried. It is unsettling to commerce and politics to have such uncertainty from the city's leading family."

"Oh?" I said. "If that's how they feel, why didn't they come to me themselves? You are their emissary, are you not?"

"If the Chief of Magistrates approached you," he said, "it would only heighten the rumors." He studied my face a moment to see if I was in pace with him. I was. He continued. "No one has the temerity to tell Amalric Antero what he should decide, much less the timing of it. However, I'm sure you can appreciate how unsettling the delay has become. Much power sways before the winds of your house, my dear friend. There is scrambling going on as we speak. Even here! Look at the faces around us - studying your son and nephew, wondering which will wear the crown."

I glanced about. There was no mistaking the looks Cligus and Hermias were getting. In a few places I saw enough naked ambition to turn my stomach.

Seeing my reaction, Palmeras said. "I'll tell the Magistrates you won't delay much longer," he said. I nodded and Palmeras went on. "They'll be relieved. These are anxious times. No one trusts their leaders the way they once did. I can't say I blame them. Spells gone wrong or too weak. Public facilities deteriorating. Why, you should see the state of the Grand Amphitheater. Shocking! Simply shocking. And of late, it seems even our trade abroad is suffering."

Palmeras was touching on a recent concern of mine. There hadn't been a successful expedition opening new trading opportunities for two or three years. Not only had most been turned back by hostile conditions in the unexplored lands, but a few had failed to return at all. And it seemed to me when I looked at a map of the known world that in places things had even been pinched back slightly and once-known territories had been lost.

This only heightened my concern about Cligus. If new discoveries were to be made and lost territory regained, was he the Antero to do it? He only had his diplomatic success not long ago at Jeypur to show he might.

Despite his youth or perhaps because of it, Hermias impressed me as someone who would set a firm course and not turn back if adversity threatened.

"Out of curiosity," I said. "And with the understanding that nothing I say indicates my thinking..."

"Understood," Palmeras said.

"Who is most favored by the public? Cligus? Or Hermias?"

Palmeras mused, then said: "Of the two, Hermias has the largest and warmest following. His house and the neighborhood around it fairly swarms with his supporters. Each morning people seeking his favor line the street to his door. But don't think your son doesn't have his constituency. Although it's mostly among the military - and even then his most fervent backing comes from his own officers and men."

"Interesting," I said. "Although this is hardly a popularity contest... if it's a contest at all."

Palmeras laughed. "The businessman as complete autocrat," he said. "I like that description of your profession, although I imagine your fellow merchants would cringe."

"It's easier to rid yourself of a merchant than a king," I said. "If the quality of my goods is poor, my prices unfair, you have only to turn to my competitors."

"How true," he said. "But what that also means is... if Cligus fails... that is the end of the Anteros."

He looked at me, attempting an unassuming face. But there is no blunting a wizard's sharp gaze and I felt suitably chastened. He'd steered a course identical to my own thinking and fears.

A young Evocator sounded the gong that all was in readiness, saving me from a response. We hastened to our positions for the ceremony.

The speech I gave was not one of my better efforts so I won't repeat it, except to say it ran along the usual road of such addresses. I thanked everyone for coming and talked at length about the symbolism heavy in such an occasion... new ship, new ventures, rebirth and other such inspirational blatherings. Experienced as I am at public functions, and despite my reputation as a phrase-maker, I fear I was mired by an awareness that each word was being examined in a glaring light. Those who supported Cligus and those who favored Hermias and those who were merely curious looked for deeper meaning in my every word. So I obfuscated wherever I could and the result made not much sense at all.

Then horns sounded, gongs rang and Evocators passed through the crowd swinging smoking pots of thrice-blessed incense. Eight white-robed Evocators carried an idol of Te-Date up the steps of the platform and set it down center stage. Over in the cattle pen two white oxen bellowed as they were led out for the sacrifice. Before their fear could sour our luck an Evocator blew magical herbs in their faces, calming them. They were bled, killed and the best cuts were taken from their carcasses.

Eight strong young acolytes mounted the platform bearing an idol of Te-Date - the protector of ships and travelers. One hand was stretched out, iron palm up for the offering, while the other held a large chalice. With drums pounding and chanters singing the furnace in the idol's belly was fired and smoke and flame boiled from his lips.

Palmeras and I stepped to the idol, flanked by four other wizards who carried big trenchers of sacrificial meat and a cask of blood from the slain oxen.

The Chief Evocator was an excellent showman and he put his best dramatic efforts into the business at hand. He threw back his robes so they billowed in the breeze off the river and his arms shot up above his head as he addressed the heavens.

"O great Te-Date," he intoned, his magically amplified voice thundering over all of us, "once again we gather before you to seek thy blessing. Your kindness to travelers and seekers everywhere is legend. For long centuries you have especially blessed the people of Orissa, who live by the river and trade peacefully and honorably with the world. Our caravans and ships have carried your exalted name into the wilderness where it lights the savage darkness and shows us the way. Today a new daughter of Orissa is born. She bears our dreams and our fortunes.

"We beseech thee, O Lord Te-Date, to raise thy splendid shield to protect her from any misfortune."

Palmeras whipped his wand from his sleeve and flourished it high. The other Evocators bowed their heads low to help concentrate and guide his power.

Lightning cracked from the wand's tip.

The wizards stepped forward with their offers.

The crowd gasped as the idol stirred into life. The god's iron hands reached out and the wizards quickly tumbled flesh into one palm, then filled the chalice from the cask of blood. Te-Date's mouth opened, fire bursting out, and the hand bearing the meat tilted it through metal lips. The smell of scorched flesh filled the air. The other hand jerked upward, spilling the blood into Te-Date's fiery maw. The godform became still and the crowd groaned in satisfaction. Te-Date had accepted our offerings.

More flourishes from Palmeras and black smoke spewed from the idol, billowing thicker and thicker until it became a dense cloud hanging over the godform's head. Sparkling lights danced in the smoke, which swirled and columned upward into a funnel.

"Behold, O Great Te-Date," Palmeras roared. "Gaze upon thy daughter. We pray you find her fair."

The smoke shot toward the huge cloth pavilion that hid the ship. It hovered over it for an instant, then a hole opened and the smoke hissed through. Palmeras thrust upward with his hands and the tent quivered from the magical force of the smoke inside. Then stakes burst, lines ripped free and the giant tent lifted up and up until we could glimpse the bright painted timbers of the new ship.

Palmeras shouted: "Away!" And the pavilion filled like a sail and was swept off to the side, completely baring the vessel.

I've seen many such a thing before - although I must admit Palmeras' unveiling was easily the most spectacular - and I knew what to expect. Still, I caught my breath. There are few things as moving as a newly born ship.

Palmeras whispered to me. "Quick, what's to be her name? I forgot to ask."

The naming of a new ship is always important and those of us who can claim parentage - and even those who can't - spend long hours considering and discussing the options. Like a human child, the ship's birth-name seems to affect its future. Ask at any dockside tavern and you'll hear many a tale of ships with awkward names or unlucky names that came to misfortune. Some are even true. A large list had been presented to me, all, as I'd requested, of water-dwelling birds. I'd reduced the list to my favorites: Shearwater, Petrel, Tern and... Ibis. I'd seen whole flocks of that graceful, heron-like creature fishing a marvelous lake in a distant land I'd once visited. The Ibis, with the subtle beauty of its black and white plumage, is worshipped in that land and once you've seen one with its spear-like beak stalking the shallows on its long, slender legs, or soaring on the midday breeze, you understand why. So that is the name I chose and that name is the name I whispered -

"Ibis."

"Quite fitting," he said and turned back - his position as Chief Evocator forgotten for the moment - to gawk like the rest of us.

The Ibis was a lovely thing to look upon. She didn't have the efficient carnivore lines of a ship of war, nor was she as fast. She was a shallow-drafted merchantman - ninety feet long and twenty abeam - built to take any seas and carry people as well as cargo in comfort. When she was completely rigged for sea she'd carry a single mast, but just now there were flag poles mounted for the ceremony, flying colorful banners. There was a quarterdeck at her stern with the wheel, a maindeck forward, then the small-decked forecastle where the sailors would sleep. There were big cabins in the stern whose interiors would be lit by large, square, many-paned windows.

This was a ship ideally suited for exploring new seas to win new friends for Orissa and customers for the Anteros. Besides her sails she could be powered by six large sweeps. She'd roll some at sea, but with her shallow draft and maneuverability she could sail up rivers, or hug any coast line, and still have grace enough to impress a savage king. Although she could carry twenty five men and women with ease, she'd need no more than six or seven to crew her. I like my ships to have a bit of flair so I had her painted in bright, eye-pleasing colors that at the same time did not detract from the bright skies and sparkling seas she'd soon sail. The only decoration still missing was the figurehead, which required not only much artistry but magic as well. It wouldn't be finished for some days yet. The family who had created such masterpieces for several generations was notoriously precise - some said picky - and besides it was bad luck to mount a figurehead until the ship sailed.

Someone shifted at my side, and I noticed Kele inching forward to sneak a better look. As an excuse for joining us she had the green and cold ceramic flask that held the blessing potion. At the right moment I was supposed to break it against the side and officially launch the ship and name it.

"I'd trade my left tit to command her," she whispered.

I smiled, as taken by the craft as she, and slipped the flask from her grasp. Palmeras nodded, signaling me to get ready.

The ship sat in a cradle, a frame made of wood that would collapse when she was launched. She was held in place by thick-beamed shores angled up to steady her. And the whole elaborate contraption rested on freshly tallowed ways she'd ride down into the river.

Palmeras raised his wand and a hush fell over the crowd. But the sudden stillness let another voice carry loudly through.

"Damn you!" I heard my son roar. "How dare you take the word of a stranger over your own blood?"

We all jolted to see Cligus nose-to-nose with Hermias. Both of them were so absorbed in their confrontation they didn't notice that all eyes were on them.

"This is not the time to continue such a discussion," my nephew said.

"I'll not have you spread your filthy slander," Cligus said.

My son's hand went to his dirk. But Hermias beat him to it, his own hand shooting out to grasp Cligus' wrist.

I recovered and found my voice. "Stop it, you two! Remember who you are!"

My words jolted them to awareness and they turned, flushing in embarrassment. I let my glare sweep over the crowd, putting all my authority into it, and I saw the looks fall away and return guiltily to the business at hand. So much anger was in that glare that even Palmeras quickly dissolved his "I told you, so" look into one of complete disinterest.

I raised my hand and the musicians caterwauled into what quickly smoothed out into stirring music of the sea.

Still angry, I braced to hurl the flask. But then I hesitated as the ship seemed to speak out to me; beg me not to let such emotion soil her luck.

"I'll make it up to you," I promised under my breath.

I flung the flask and it crashed against the ship's timbers. The heady scent of the blessing potion cleansed the air.

"Before all who witness," I declared, "I name thee Ibis. And may all your Tradewinds be Fair!"

Palmeras gestured with wand and the air crackled with the force of the spell he cast. The ship tilted forward, the cradle collapsed and the Ibis slid smoothly along the ways to enter the water as royally as any princess slipping into her bath.

There was much cheering and music. Men and women pressed around me to congratulate the Anteros for the newest addition to their fleet. The merry making began in earnest then. Roasts sputtered on their spits, wine flowed and couples, young and old, danced.

Cligus melted into the crowd and disappeared to sulk at home, I supposed. Hermias found a moment to come to me and apologize.

I waved him down. "I don't have to tell you that you acted the fool," I said. "Just as you don't need for me to admonish you and say that I shall be angry at your behavior for some time. If you are the man I hope you are, you'll know you deserve it and suffer in silence."

Hermias blushed and bowed his head. He was wise enough not to speak.

"But I would like to know what you and my son were quarreling over that was so important."

Hermias shook his head. "I'll not say. Please don't press me on it, Uncle Amalric. I'd hate to earn your further wrath by refusing. Refuse, however, I must."

I could see there was no point in demanding an answer. He was an Antero, after all, and no one can match our stubbornness.

So I called for Quatervals and my carriage and headed home.

The day had left me in an even deeper quandary than before. I couldn't delay much longer. But the incident at the launching did nothing to grease the ways for me.

* * *

I repaired to my villa garden to listen to fountain play beneath my mother's shrine. She'd died when I was a boy and I had little but my child's imaginings to remind me what she was like. And that was mixed up with the gentle myths my sister Rali told.

Isn't it odd to think an old man might still want his mother's comfort and advice? Odd or not, this is what I wished for. And then a different light pierced the facets of that wish and I found myself mourning for Rali, my strong warrior sister whose common sense had been invaluable to me for many years. A final turn dredged up Omerye's face and the memory of her flute which used to charm reason out of any mess I'd made of things.

I was Lord Amalric Antero, a man whose wealth and good fortune was the envy of many. But I had no one to lean on when weakness threatened.

No one I could trust to help.

Outside the villa walls I heard a horse trot up. Then a stranger's voice hallooed the house. I rose from the stone bench and went to the grated window in the garden wall.

It was a woman. Despite my age, my eyes are sharp and I could see her clear.

She was young, fair of skin and form, but with a commanding presence. She sat tall and easy in the saddle of a fine gray. She wore a hunter's tunic of forest green over a tight-fitting black body stocking that showed off shapely, but muscular limbs. Her hair was dark, cut short, and on her head was perched a jaunty hat with a long feather of green to match her tunic. A simple chain of silver or white gold gleamed about her neck. Small studs of a similar metal winked at her ears and as she waited for a response to her hailing I saw her draw off elbow-length riding gloves, revealing a pair of wide silver bracelets on each wrist.

Impatient, she slapped the gloves against the saddle, then dismounted. On foot she was not so tall as her high-split limbs had made her first appear. She moved with a wiry grace, full of energy and purpose. And I noted that her high boots were expensive if well-worn from travel. About her narrow waist was a sturdy, large-buckled belt which bore a slim dirk in a scabbard on one side and what looked to be a leather wand case on the other.

She hallooed the house again. A servant came out and although I couldn't hear the conversation I gathered the young woman was asking for me. The servant shook his head, no, the master was not available. He was resting and had given orders not to be disturbed.

This was true. But curiosity overcame weariness and I hastened to send someone to tell the servant I'd changed my mind, and please show her ladyship in.

When she strode into the garden, a large purse of well-worn leather slung over one shoulder, I was not disappointed. She was a dark-eyed beauty and close up there was no mistaking her royal bearing. Only a slight bump at the bridge of her nose - hinting of an unset break suffered in some adventure - marred her chiseled perfection.

But I was too old to be dazzled by such things so it was not her looks that impressed me. Her eyes glittered with an intelligence that was so familiar I could almost say its name. I'd never met her but somehow felt I'd known her long ago. And she was far too young for the number of years my mind was leaping over. She smiled, white teeth glittering against her dark features, and once again I was reminded of someone I once knew.

A double jolt struck me when she spoke and I heard the rich timber of her voice. It was feminine, but deep and firm, and I felt an old ghost trying to roust itself from the tangles of my memory.

"Good evening, Lord Antero," she said, bowing.

"Good evening, my Lady," I said. "Thank you for gracing an old man's day. Please bless me further by revealing your name and what I might do to assist you."

She drew a breath and firmed her nerves, as if this were a task she'd long awaited but was now hesitant to perform.

But when she answered her voice was steady and strong.

"I am Janela Kether Greycloak," she said. "Great grand daughter of Janos Greycloak - the man you were once proud to call friend."

I was rocked by her announcement - left gasping with amazement. For there was no doubt from the look of her and the sound of her that what she said was true.

But what came next struck harder still.

"As for the second question, my Lord," she said. "I've come to ask you to accompany me to the real Far Kingdoms."

I sputtered. "What do you mean?"

"You and my great grandfather were wrong, my Lord," she said. "The Far Kingdoms have yet to be found.

"And only I know how to find them."

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Last Revised: January 29, 2011