Masques (Sianim #1)

Chapter 2

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Aralorn breathed in ragged gasps and rubbed a shaky hand across the wetness on her cheeks. Sweating, and still half caught in her nightmare, she covered her ears with her hands to shut out the soft, seductive voice of the ae'Magi.

She observed the still-dark sky, wishing that she wouldn't have to try to sleep again. Every time she closed her eyes, all she could see was the Magician's fine-boned hand holding the ornate silver dagger he used to butcher his sacrifices. The spells that he used to increase his magnetism kept his victims, usually children, from objecting so they stood quietly between his hands. One brown-eyed boy was so caught by the spell that he smiled as the ae'Magi drew his knife.

The ae'Magi killed them without passion or pleasure. To Aralorn, life and death were passionate things, and to rob them of emotion made them seem meaningless.

She sat up abruptly and wiped again at her wet cheeks. The horse stood nearby, dozing with one hind foot cocked and his Roman nose lowered almost to knee level. Near Sheen, Wolf lay still. Only the glitter of his eyes in the darkness showed that he was awake as promised. His gaze was focused in the darkness of the trees. She knew that he must have heard her when she woke up, so his inattention was deliberate; her distrust had hurt him badly last night.

She spoke softly, knowing that he would listen, whether he appeared to do so or not. "I didn't really think that you were the ae'Magi," she said. When he made no reply, she pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them.

Aralorn thought hard for a moment, trying to put into words the feelings that had made her distrust him. When she spoke, her voice was muffled behind her knees. "It's just that place – it … twists everything. There is so much magic in the castle that I could almost see it. Almost every thought that I had was distorted in one way or another. He loves it, you know – the deception."

She shuddered slightly and continued. "I'd see him drink the blood of a newborn baby and I'd find myself thinking how beautifully the light of the sacrificial fire colored his hair. It's plaguing scary not to know whether your feelings are your own or only the result of a spell." Her hands tightened on her legs until the knuckles turned white.

"I have never been so frightened in my entire life. I always thought that I was strong-willed, but even with my mother's blood to help me resist the spells, I couldn't block the feeling that I wanted to please him, to make him want me," Her voice died to a whisper at the last.

She leaned on one cheek, turning her head to look at him. "I might have been able to block it toward the last – when I knew what the spells were and how he worked them – but I couldn't because I had to act as if the spell were having its effect on me. Sometimes I think … that maybe I didn't want, to block the spell because it made me feel so much better …" She knew that she would have bruises in the morning from gripping her arms so hard.

She took a shuddering breath and concealed her face once more against her knees before continuing in a whisper, "I thought that once I left that everything would be back to normal, but it isn't. I can't get him out of my mind. I see his face every time I close my eyes."

Slowly Wolf stood up and left his place. He sat down and leaned against her. She loosed her grip on her legs and ran a hand in the thick pelt. Although usually aloof, Wolf occasionally chose to act like a dog would. A cold nose worked its way under her arm and his warm, wet tongue licked at her chin until she squealed and pulled away with a quavering laugh, wiping at her face with her sleeves.

The Wolf smiled, as wolves do, and rolled over against her on his back. She rubbed his stomach (something that he didn't allow in public) and one back leg snapped rapidly back and forth as she caught just the right spot.

After he felt he had cheered her up he said, "Don't worry about it, Lady. I know that living in that place for any length of time will twist your thoughts and feelings until what you feel and what he wants you to feel are tangled together in a knot that would baffle a sage." His voice was gentler than she had ever heard it, sounding like velvet on gravel. "Time will help."

"I know," replied Aralorn softly, still rubbing his stomach, and then she continued in a lighter tone, "but I'm not looking forward to the next decade or so."

Wolf rolled over with his improbable quickness and nipped her lightly on the hand in response to her quip. He tacitly agreed with her unspoken decision that the discussion was too serious.

Aralorn tilted her head to the side, a slow grin twisting her lips. "So you want to fight, do you?" She tackled him and began a wrestling match that left them both flat on the ground and panting.

"Will you be able to sleep now?" he asked, rather hoarsely, even for him.

She nodded and rolled over until she was on the bedding, unwilling to use enough energy to get up and walk. She mumbled a "goodnight" that lost most of its consonants. He touched his nose to her cheek and woofed softly before curling up against her.

In the end, it was the stallion that woke them both. His high-pitched whistle split the early dawn. Aralorn leapt to her feet and had the bed rolled up almost before she opened her eyes. Bridling and saddling the horse took somewhat longer, as the obstinate beast wouldn't stand still. As she worked she kept an eye on the Wolf as he stared into the darkness. At his signal she left what was not already attached to the saddle and mounted the stallion, who was already trotting. Although not built for speed, Sheen managed a very credible gallop as he followed the Wolf's lead. The Uriah were close enough behind them that they could hear the howls the beasts made when they found their camp.

Aralorn had fought the Uriah before, and she knew that they were faster than any horse she'd seen. They were too close behind and gaining fast. She drew her unusually slender sword from its sheath on the saddle and slowed the stallion in preparation for facing the creatures.

Noticing that Sheen was slowing, the Wolf darted back and nipped at the stallion's heels, nimbly dodging the war-trained horse's well-placed kick. "No," he snarled. "You don't stand a chance against the number that we have behind us. If you keep going I can lure them away." With that the Wolf began to veer off, but Aralorn guided Sheen to block his path.

She shook her head and shouted over the sounds of the Uriah, "It's me that they want. They won't follow you, and even if they did it would mean that you would have to face them alone. Together we might stand a chance."

"You know better than that, Lady." His tones rang with impatience. "Against two or three maybe, but there are many more than that. You needn't worry about me; I can keep ahead of them on my own." Here the Wolf paused a moment, as if he were choosing his words carefully. "They will follow me if given a choice between the two of us."

"What do you mean by that?" Then before he could answer she said, "Cursed obscure Wolf. Never mind. We don't have time to argue." It was getting difficult to talk and keep Sheen from bolting as the howls grew nearer.

He flashed his fangs at her in a mock smile as only a wolf can do. "Lady, this isn't the first time I've dealt with them, nor will it be the last."

She didn't want to leave him. If she hadn't known he was no ordinary wolf she wouldn't have even considered leaving. But, against this many Uriah she would be more of a hindrance than a help. She heard the wails of the Uriah increase exponentially as they sighted their prey.

"Right," she said abruptly. "I'll see you in Sianim. But, plague it, Wolf, take care not to let them ruin your fur coat." With that she turned Sheen in the original direction and urged him on.

The Wolf stayed in the path of the Uriah and watched with yellow eyes as they came closer. When the tone of their calls changed and became even more frantic, he knew that they had recognized him, and he broke into a swift run, leading them away from the path taken by his companions. Aralorn, looking back, saw that the Wolf had been correct; all of the grotesque, humanoid forms followed the Wolf's trail.

Aralorn traveled during the dark and slept or at least tried to during the day – not because it was safer that way, but because she couldn't stand to wake from her nightmares alone in the dark. Sometimes she traveled for miles without seeing anything.

On the evening of the third day she left the forested mountains behind for the gentler hills and valleys of the lowlands. Traveling was faster there, and it was only another day until she caught sight of Sianim.

The fortressed city stood on the lop of an artificial plateau in the middle of a large valley. Nothing but grass was allowed to grow within a half mile of the hill, and even that was kept short. The plateau itself was steep-sided, and the road that led to the only gate into the city was narrow and walled so that only three people could ride side by side through it. Although it was good for defense, the narrow path made it a nightmare to get large groups of soldiers in and out of Sianim.

The origins of the city were shrouded in the dust of ages past: even the oldest known manuscripts mentioned it as a thriving city. Originally the city had been a center of trade, but the small armies hired by the merchants to accompany their wagon trams drew mercenaries from all over. People looking for groups of mercenaries to hire began to go to Sianim, Gradually the mercenaries themselves became the center of Sianim's economy. A school for training in the arts of war was founded, and as one event led to another Sianim became a city of professional warriors.

Mercenaries of Sianim were some of the finest fighters in the world. With the only other military school at Jetaine, which had the minor drawback of allowing no foreign males entrance within its walls. Sianim had little competition. In addition to training its own mercenary troops, Sianim also trained fighters for various kingdoms and principalities for a healthy fee. The elite guard for most of the rulers were Sianim-trained.

Because politics and war go hand in hand, Sianim also had a spy network that would have amazed an outsider. It was run by a slender, short, academician – several decades past his first youth but by no means ancient. It was to his small office tucked away in the rabbit warren of the government building that Aralorn went, after stabling Sheen.

She slipped through the worn door without knocking, for if the Spymaster had wanted privacy the door would have been locked. She closed the door, sat on a ratty-looking chair and waited patiently for Ren to acknowledge her.

He was reading aloud from a collection of poems by Thyre. Thyre wasn't one of her favorites; he reached too hard for his rhyme. Usually she fished a book from Ren's impressive library and read until he decided to question her, but today she just sat quietly listening. Since Thyre was notoriously long-winded, she had plenty of time to rest.

When Ren finished she was dozing peacefully, but she was edgy enough that the soft sound the book made as Ren stuffed it into one of the many bookcases made her jump. He offered her a glass he filled from the bottle on his desk.

Aralorn accepted it, but sipped cautiously. Bottles on Ren's desk could contain anything from water to Wyth, a liquor more affectionately known as Dragonslayer. This time it was fehlta juice, only a mildly alcoholic drink, but she set it down on a rickety table anyway. She had the rueful feeling that it would be a long time before she would take anything that could cloud her thoughts.

When Ren finally spoke he sounded almost nervous to her sensitive ears. "I trust that everything went smoothly as usual, hmm? Got in, got out, came here."

"Yes. I – " He cut her off before she could speak.

"Did you talk to him about the assassination attempt?" Ren sat down on the three-legged stool behind his desk.

"No, the – "

"Good," he said breaking in once again before she could continue. "I would hate to have him upset with us, or think that we were spying on him – although I doubt that he would mind. I'm sure he would have understood that we gather information whenever we can. I trust that you were either able to put a halt to the assassins or discovered that the rumor I sent you to investigate was just a rumor."

That he was babbling didn't bother her; he always talked like that. He once told her that it distracted people, and they said things that they wouldn't normally have said – just to get him to shut up. She used the technique herself upon occasion and found it effective.

What did bother her was that he wasn't listening. Usually he listened carefully to everything she said and then quizzed her for hours about what she'd heard and seen. It just wasn't like him to gloss over anything or stop anyone from speaking. He never, not ever, interrupted. The bright, black, beady eyes shifted restlessly … as if he were embarrassed. She had never seen him embarrassed before, so it look her a while to identify the emotion that brought a red tinge to his face. Ren was ashamed that he had sent her to spy on the ae'Magi – the same Ren who had sent her to spy on his own brother!

None of her disquiet showed on her face; she'd been a spy too long to display her emotions unless she wanted to. She didn't want to heed the intuition that was hinting that something was awry. She wanted to give her report with no more than the usual lies. (Not even Ren knew that she could alter her shape. Shapeshifters were not wholeheartedly approved, even when you found someone who actually believed in them.)

She wanted to ignore the insistent disquiet, but she couldn't. While he talked she carefully edited what she was going to tell him, waiting with apparent good humor as he drifted from topic to topic until he got around to asking her about her mission.

Aralorn gave him a brief description of her method of entry; incorrect, of course. Someday Ren would find out just how poor she was at picking locks and would be deeply disappointed. She rattled on at length about the various heads of stale at the gatherings the ae'Magi had held – obligingly going into as much detail as she could when Ren requested it. Evidently, he was only upset about her spying on the ae'Magi. She hedged when he asked her about Myr, saying only that she'd seen him talk with the Magician, but hadn't been near enough to hear what was said. Time enough to inform Ren of the young king's interesting talent after she found out what was making the Spymaster act so far out of character.

To distract him from Myr, Aralorn continued to the main reason for her mission and said with some caution, "I couldn't gather any information on the assassination attempt. If there is one, it doesn't originate from within the castle. I did get the impression that if there is such an attempt, the ae'Magi would be perfectly capable of handling it without need for our aid."

She paused, to give herself time to choose just the right words. "I left early, I know. But, I felt so uncomfortable." What an understatement! "I thought that I had better get out before he figured out who I was and took offense. He is very powerful as well as popular. If it were widely known that Sianim spied upon the ae'Magi, half of the world would be angry at us."

"Ah, yes, I quite understand." Ren nodded and picked up another book – his habitual method of dismissal.

If she needed confirmation that something was awry, she had it then. Ren would never, ever accept discomfort as a reason for leaving an assignment early. She should have been at the ae'Magi's castle at least another se'nnight. Impassive-faced, she exited the room.

Alone, Ren relaxed and rubbed his hands together with great satisfaction. If that performance didn't cause Aralorn to start thinking, then nothing would. He needed her to be suspicious and questioning, but also cautious. He couldn't afford to come out and warn her; the ae'Magi had his own ways of learning things … and if anyone would be subject to the Archmage's watchful eye, it would be the Spymaster of Sianim.

ARALORN'S FEET WERE SILENT ON THE YELLOW STONE OF THE steps; she was deep in thought as she wandered down the cobble street. She absently waved at acquaintances, though she didn't stop to talk. She shivered a little, though it was warm enough out. Why was he acting as if he'd never had a suspicious thought about the ae'Magi? Ren was suspicious of everybody.

She found the dormitory where she stored her few possessions more by chance than design and retreated through the halls to her room.

It was musty after her prolonged absence and in desperate need of dusting. There were only a few pieces of worn furniture placed here or there, but the room was small enough that it seemed cluttered. She sneezed once; then, ignoring the much-abused chair, she sat on the rough stone floor that was unrelieved by carpet or fur.

Never before had Ren seemed worried about where he sent her to spy. He cared little for politics, leaving that to the statesmen to whom he gave selected bits of information. Instead he thirsted for knowledge the way that some men thirst for food or sex. It was from him that she had gleaned many of the folk stories she collected.

He was no respecter of persons, not ever. When she had protested her assignment with the Sorcerer, he had laughed at her and quoted her his favorite saying: "He who does no wrong need not fear perusal." He used it so often and said it with such pride that she suspected that he had made it up himself.

When he sent her to the castle he'd made it clear that although nominally she was investigating the "assassination attempt," her main objective would be to gather information on Geoffrey ae'Magi. Why else would he send his most successful agent to spy on the castle when a simple note of warning would have done the same thing?

All of which led her back to her original question: why was Ren troubled about it now?

She sat for a while and came to no brilliant conclusions; but it was better than worrying about the Wolf – though she did some of that as well. Fretting about one was about as useful as fretting about the other – so she, being egalitarian at heart, gave equal time to each.

Finally, tired in mind and body, she stripped off her clothes and threw them on the floor. She stretched out carefully, slowly working each muscle until it was relatively limber. She pulled off the top covering of her cot, careful to take most of the dust with it. Then she collapsed onto the top of the bed and slept.

The nightmare came back. It wasn't as bad as it had been the first few days, but it was bad enough. She was only half awake when she touched the wall that her cot sat against and thought for a minute that she was back in the cage. She reacted as if she had touched something hot, rolling quickly away from it and landing with a thump, fully awake and surrounded by a cloud of dust from the blanket, on the floor.

She sneezed several times, swore, and wiped her watering eyes. Laughing, she thought that she should be glad that the Wolf wasn't here to see her make a fool of herself. It was obvious that she wasn't going to get any more sleep for a while, so she lit a small lamp and dressed, pulling on her practice garments – knee-length leather boots, loose breeches and tunic.

THE NICE THING ABOUT BEING HOME IN SIANIM WAS THAT EVEN in the busy summer season there were always people in the practice arenas willing to go a few rounds; mercenaries tended to keep strange hours. She strapped on sword and daggers and slipped out the window and onto the narrow ledge just below.

Gingerly she traversed the narrow pathway until it was possible to drop onto the roof of the building next door. From there it was only a short jump to the ground. It would have been easier to exit by normal means, but she took practice where she-could get it.

Outside, the street torches were already lit for the night, but people were still wandering around. There was a friendly brawl going on at one of the pubs with bystanders betting on the outcome.

She took a deep breath of air. The smell of Sianim was a fusion of sweat, horse, dust and … freedom.

Aralorn had grown up stifled by the restraints placed on women of the high aristocracy, even outcasts. Reth might have outlawed slavery, but women of high estate were surrounded by a collar of rules strong enough to confine any drudge. If it hadn't been for her father she might have been forced into the traditional useless role.

The Lyon of Lambshold was an unusual man. When his illegitimate daughter came to him and stated her objections to the constant needlepoint and etiquette lessons that his wife imposed on his daughters, he taught her to ride like a man. He also taught her to fight with sword and staff. When she left home, he sent her off with his favorite warhorse.

She had tried Jetaine, but found that the women there were enslaved to their hatred of men even more than women on the outside were enslaved to their social position. Aralorn had never hated men, she just hadn't wanted to sit and simper all her life. She'd often wondered what it would have been like for her if she'd been born a merchant's daughter, or someone who had to work for a living instead of an aristocrat who was expected to be an art object.

The thought of herself as an art object made her snicker. Even before she'd become battle-scarred she'd been short, plain, and too willing to speak her own mind.

The two men who had been following her were getting close enough to be bothersome. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed them slink behind a cart she'd just passed. Her left hand went automatically to her sword. Her right already held a dagger.

One of the thugs said to the other in a stage whisper meant to carry to her, "Runyons! She saw us again. I told you to change those shoes. They make too much noise."

She laughed and spun around to face them. "'Struth! You're getting better, though. This time I honestly thought that you were just a couple of thieves."

The second one pushed the first sideways with a playful punch. "See, Kai? I told you that we'd do better blending in with the environment. Who pays attention to a couple of hog-lovers in this place?"

Kai twitched one eyebrow upward, managing despite the muck to look aristocratic. "However, if you had worn the shoes I told you to …" He let his voice trail off and flashed the snapping grin that made him look more like his twin, Talor. With practiced case he slipped out of his assumed character and flung an arm around Aralorn's neck. "Well, my dear, it looks like I have you at my mercy." Or at least that's what he meant to say. Actually, thought Aralorn, the last word sounded more like "eyah" than "mercy."

She turned to Talor and with a straight face remarked, "I need to bathe in muck more often. It seems to work better than throwing him on the ground and making him look silly like I did the last time he tried to kiss me, don't you think?"

Talor assumed a serious demeanor, but before he could say whatever he intended to, Kai broke in. "Tell me. Lady, what villain gave you that perfume? Surely it must be cursed. Let me slay him for you that you may once again be your sweet-smelling self."

She laughed. "The funny thing is that I had almost gotten use to smelling like this. I was going to go to the practice ring but I think that I'll head to the baths first. Interested in a little fun?" Kai brightened comically until she added, "In the ring, of course."

Kai bowed low. "To my sorrow I have a previous engagement." He slanted her a grin. "Do you remember that redhead in the thirty-second?"

"Uhm-hmm," She raised an eyebrow, shook her head and then in an exaggeratedly sorrowful tone commented, "Poor girl, doomed to a broken heart." Then she grinned and said, "Have a good time, Kai." He waved and sauntered away.

Aralorn looked at Talor and inquired, "Does he really have a date with Sera?"

He laughed. "Probably not, but he will. Especially if he remembers to clean up first. He just doesn't like being beaten by a woman. The whole squad ribbed him about it for two weeks the last time you beat him. I, on the other hand, have no pride and, after you rid yourself of the unfair advantage you now hold" – he grabbed his nose with a hand to show her what he meant – "I will await you at the Hawk and Hound when you get back from the baths."

"Done." She gave him a mock salute and headed for the baths, grinning.

IN ONE OF THE SPARRING RINGS THE HAWK AND HOUND TAVERN provided, they faced each other warily with the body-length staffs held lightly in their hands. Normally they were evenly matched, Talor being a better fighter than his brother, but Aralorn was still stiff. They fought together often, because no one else wanted to face them with staves.

Because they were sparring, they played with variations on training dances, and rather than hitting for body shots they tried to hit a small metal plate, which dangled from a belt. Normally there would be a third to call shots fair or foul and to award points at the sound of wood striking metal, but she and Talor were veterans and cared more for the sport than for the winning or losing. The ring that they had chosen was in the basement of the tavern, so they had no spectators. By mutual consent they stopped for a bit to rest before they proceeded out of the standard patterns.

"So, what was that smell anyway? It seems somewhat familiar but I just can't place it. Something tike a cross between an outhouse and a pig barn." Talor's voice was somewhat unsteady because he was stretching out as he talked.

Aralorn leaned, unashamedly panting, against one of the waist high walls that surrounded the ring; she'd recovered most of her normal strength on the ride home, but not all. She started to think up a reason for the moat smell, but decided that there was no harm in letting him know what she'd been doing. It would go no farther than his brother, and both Kai and Talor knew when to keep their mouths shut.

"Well," she said, "unless you've been visiting the Magician's castle lately it probably wouldn't be too familiar. I wish the ae'Magi smelled as pure as his moat …." Conditioned reflexes were the only thing that brought her staff up to deflect his from her face. The sheer force of the blow numbed her hands, as she hadn't been holding the staff in a proper grip.

She ducked underneath his arm to come to the center of the arena and give herself some room for maneuvering. The move also gave her a chance to talk. "What are you doing?"

Talor's face twisted with wrath as he came after her. "How dare you! How can you be so disrespectful of the ae'Magi? You ungrateful witch!" Even as he swung he proceeded to call her, methodically, every foul name she'd heard. It was his rage that saved her, interfering with the timing and precision of his attacks. Time and time again she was able to block or turn aside his furious blows.

This unchecked anger was unlike him; a good warrior strives above all for control. It was also far too sudden. Since when had Talor become a devotee of the Archmage? She knew something was terribly wrong, but his ruthless barrage left no more time for speculation or analysis. She cleared her mind and concentrated on slaying alive.

Finally, one of his swings caught her hard behind the back of her knees and she fell backward, letting his staff carry her legs up with it. She turned the fall into a roll, going over backward on her shoulders and coming up on her feet. As soon as her feet touched the floor, she automatically raised her staff to guard position, trying to protect her face and torso.

The roll had forced her to take her eyes from her opponent, and she barely saw the flicker of movement as his staff came under her defenses. Rather than the standard sweep-strike, Talor had chosen to thrust. The end of the staff caught her low in the chest and drove the breath out of her body. Without the protective padding she wore, it would have broken ribs. Had his staff struck just a few finger-widths higher it would have been fatal, padding nr not.

She twisted frantically to the side, trying to dive out of striking range. It was a desperate maneuver, exposing her vulnerable back to her opponent, and after the blow she'd just received she knew she was moving far too slowly. Even as she moved, she waited for his strike – knowing that there was no way for her to evade the impact of the metal-shod staff that would shatter bone like kindling.

The blow didn't come. She completed the diving roll and snapped to her feet, staff poised and lungs working desperately for air.

Talor stood in the middle of the ring, leaning against the staff. He shook his head like a wet dog and then looked up at her in dazed bewilderment. "What has happened to me?" He whispered the words. "Are you all right, Aralorn?"

"Fine." She gasped the word out, her diaphragm not operating quite correctly yet. "Don't … worry about it. No harm done, and I … needed a workout. Your stick work has improved, but you're still a little slow on your returns …. Watch your hands. You hold on too tightly when you're mad, and it makes it easier for your opponent to force you to drop your staff." As she got her breath back she made heir tone more baiting, trying to get him to forget what had happened. If she were correct about the cause, then it would do him more harm than good to worry about it.

He took the refuge she offered. "You need to pay more attention to the opponent's eyes. You watch the body too much, and that doesn't give you much advance warning. If you'd been watching more closely you could have avoided that last hit."

She dropped her staff and waved her hands out in the traditional surrender and said, "Okay, you beat me. My reputation is in tatters. Just do me one favor and don't tell your brother about it. Last time you beat me, he challenged me, and then I had to put up with his sulks for a week."

"I had to go out on maneuvers with him and he sulked for almost a month. Okay, I won't tell him. Besides" – here he struck up an obviously false pose and looked down his nose at her – "it ill becomes a man to brag about beating a woman."

For all of his humor Aralorn could tell that he was feeling uncomfortable, and she wasn't feeling much better. The wild idea that she'd been toying with as an explanation was becoming more and more reasonable. Talor reacted to her unflattering observation about the ae'Magi the same way that she would have reacted to it when she had been in the Magician's castle had she not had the benefit of unorthodox heritage. Somehow, the ae'Magi had increased the area of effect of his charisma spell greatly.

Talor excused himself as fast as he could, before the awkwardness grew further. When she turned to watch him leave she noticed the Wolf lying just inside the doorway, his head on his front paws. Talor stooped and patted him on the back, which Wolf answered with a small movement of his tail, but his clear yellow eyes never wavered from Aralorn's face.

Aralorn waited until Talor was gone before dropping exhausted to the floor and patting the space beside her in invitation. The Wolf obligingly got up and trolled over and resumed his relaxed pose, substituting Aralorn's shins for his chinrest.

They sat like that for a while, Aralorn running her hand through the thick fur – separating the coarse dark hair from the softer, lighter-colored undercoat. When her breathing had returned almost to normal, she broke the silence.

"It's good to have you back," she commented. "I take it that they didn't kill you."

"I think that is a safe assumption to make, yes." His voice was more noncommittal than it usually was.

She gave him a half-hearted grin.

"How long have you been here?" she asked.

"Long enough to see you put your foot in it and almost let that clumsy young fool remove you from his life."

She obligingly rose to his bail. "Clumsy! I'll have you know that he is the second best staffsman in Sianim."

"You being the first?" Amusement touched his voice.

She cuffed him lightly. "And you know it, too!"

"It looked to me as if he had you beaten. You might have to step into second place." He paused and said in a quieter voice, "Finally noticed that people are a bit touchy concerning the ae'Magi, have you?"

She looked at him, startled. "Has it been going on for a long time? I hadn't noticed anything."

He grunted an affirmative. "I noticed it starting about a year ago, but it seems to have gotten much more intense."

"It must be some sort of variation of the spells that he had at his castle, but I didn't think that anyone could create a spell of this magnitude alone." Aralorn's tone was questioning.

"He's not doing it alone," replied the Wolf. "He started small. The villages near the Magician's castle have quite a few people who are strong in magic. The side effect of having groups of young, virile magicians apprenticing at the castle for several hundred generations." His tone was ironic. "The adults that he couldn't subdue he killed, because they were not suitable for his purposes. But the children …"

Aralorn shuddered, and rubbed her arms as if chilled.

"I perceive that you've seen what he does with the children." Wolf's tone gentled. "Apparently he's found some way to use them to increase his abilities. Fifteen years ago, in the village, if you made a negative remark about the ae'Magi, their reaction would be somewhat like Talor's. Now the streets are empty of all but old men and women. He needs still more prey. Sianim, I think, is merely getting the backlash of the main focus."

"What is the main focus?" she asked.

"Where is magic at its strongest? Where do many of the common villagers have the ability to work charms? Where has magic nourished, protected by strong rulers from the persecution that magic-users were subject to after the great wars?"

"Reth," she answered.

"Reth," he agreed.

"Crud," she said.

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