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Wheel of the Infinite

The Wheel of the Infinite Cover Hardback: Avon Eos, July 2000.
Paperback: HarperCollins Eos, December 2001.
Design by Amy Halperin, cover by Donato Giancola.

A black storm is spreading across the Wheel of the Infinite. Every night the Voices of the Ancestors--the Wheel's constructors and caretakers--brush the darkness away and repair the damage with brightly colored sands and potent magic. Each morning the storm reappears, bigger and darker than before, unraveling the beautiful and orderly patterns.

With chaos in the wind, a woman with a shadowy past has returned to Duvalpore. A murderer and traitor--an exile disgraced, hated, and feared, and haunted by her own guilty conscience--Maskelle has been summoned back to help put the world right. Once she was the most enigmatic of the Voices, until cursed by her own actions. Now, in the company of Rian--a skilled and dangerously alluring swordsman--she must confront dread enemies old and new, and a cold, stalking malevolence unlike any she has ever encountered. For if Maskelle cannot unearth the cause of the Wheel's accelerating disintegration--if she cannot free herself from the ghosts of the past and focus on the catastrophe to come--the world will plunge headlong into the terrifying abyss toward which it is recklessly hurtling. And all that is, ever was, and will be will end.

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Audiobook: narrated by Lisa Reneé Pitts. Tantor Audio, Amazon, Audible, iTunes.

Chapter One

Maskelle had been asking the Ancestors to stop the rain three days running now and as usual, they weren't listening.

She stood on a little hill, surrounded by the heavy jungle that lined either side of the river of mud that had once been the road, and watched the wagons crawl painfully by. They were wooden and brightly painted but the roofs hadn't been tarred in too long and she knew it was hardly any drier inside them than out. One of the oxen, straining to keep the wheels moving forward against the tide of mud, moaned loudly. I sympathize, Maskelle thought.

Rastim, leader of the little troupe, stumbled up the hill toward her, his boots squelching and his clothes a sodden mess. He paused a short distance from her and said, "O Great Protectress, why is it we're going to Duvalpore?"

Maskelle leaned on her staff. "Because I said so."

"Oh." Rastim contemplated the wagons thoughtfully, then looked down at his shirt where the downpour was making the cheap dyes of the embroidery run, and sighed heavily.

Maskelle would have promised him better, if she made promises.

He glanced at her, brows lifted. "So, there's no chance of just stopping and drowning here, say?"

"No, I think we'll keep moving for now and drown a little further up the road."

"Ah." He nodded. "Then can you come and take another look at Killia's poppet? She thinks she's worse."

Maskelle rolled her eyes to the Ancestors. Rastim was an Ariaden and they never believed in giving bad news without a lot of preamble, no matter how urgent it was. She started down the hill and plunged back into the mud river.

Killia's wagon was painted with geometric designs in bright red and yellow, now splattered with dirt from the long journey. Maskelle caught the handhold at the back and stepped up onto the running board, which barely cleared the soupy mud. She knocked on the shutter and it was immediately cranked upward. Killia extended a hand to help her in and Maskelle discovered she needed it, her light cotton robes were so drenched that they added an unexpected amount to her weight. She sat on the bench just inside the entrance so she could wring them out a bit and wait for her eyes to adjust to the dark interior.

Various wooden bowls caught the leaks from the roof, but there were still puddles on the lacquered floor. Overhead, cooking pots banged into empty cage lamps and the bags that held costumes and drapes for the scenery, bundled up to keep them out of the water. Killia's daughter was huddled in one of the two narrow bunks under a mound of damp blankets. Maskelle leaned over and burrowed in the blankets until she touched warm skin. Too warm. She swore under her breath.

"Bad?" Killia asked. She was a tiny woman with the pale skin of the Ariaden and long dark hair caught back by a number of clips and ribbons. Her face had the perfection of a porcelain doll's and to Maskelle she looked hardly more than a child herself, but her eyes were old.

Maskelle shook her head. The priesthood took oaths to the truth, but she had broken all her oaths long ago and Killia had enough to worry about. "I'll have to go down to the river for some more ivibrae -- the real river, not the one under the wagon."

Killia smiled briefly at the feeble joke. "Ivibrae for lung rot?"

"Ivibrae is good for any fever, not just lung rot. The girl doesn't have lung rot," Maskelle told her, and thought, Not yet, anyway.

Killia didn't look reassured. Maskelle gathered her sodden robes and jumped down off the wagon bed.

Rastim had been walking behind it and the spray of mud as she landed splattered both of them. They eyed each other in mutual understanding; it had been one of those days. She said, "Camp in the Sare if you can make it before dark. If you're not there, I'll look for you along the road."

He swept her a theatrical bow. "Yes, O Great Protectress."

"You're welcome, Rastim," Maskelle said, and splashed toward the heavy dark wall of the jungle.

* * *

Two hours later Maskelle wasn't so sanguine herself. The thick clouds made the night fall faster under the jungle canopy and though the broad-leaf palms protected her from heavy rain the going was still laboriously slow. She reached the river while the jungle was still a deep green cave, dripping and quiet. She stood on the bank to watch the swollen waters. The river was running high and drunk on its own power, gray with mud and crested with foam. It was the source of wild magic, especially as bloated with rain and powerful as it was now; it would be a channel for any dark influence that wanted to use it.

It was none of her business. Maskelle shook her head. Keep telling yourself that. The ivibrae proved annoyingly elusive; usually it grew at the very edge of the treeline above the river, but there were no patches to be found in the usual spots and she found herself having to slide dangerously down the muddy bank. By the time she had picked a quantity and scrambled back up to more solid ground, the green cavern had become a pitch black hole.

She decided to make her way along the river until she was at the right point to strike out for the road again. She stumbled along, barefoot because no pair of sandals would have lasted half a day in this mess, her patched robes tied up to keep her from tripping, a bundle of stinking ivibrae crammed under her belt, and covered with mud from feet to nose. Her braids kept falling into her eyes and some were fraying apart, revealing how much grey was mixed in with the dark strands. Smiling, she wondered what the court of Kushor-An at Duvalpore would have thought of her now. Not much, not much, she chuckled to herself. Rastim was right, their luck was so bad it was beginning to be funny. Perhaps it was the Ancestors, tired of her importunities at last, willing to drown the whole of the Great Road just to inconvenience her poor self. Maskelle smiled at the thought. Add hubris to the list of crimes, if it wasn't there already.

The twilight had deepened into night now and the river was a menacing roar to her right; she saw a flicker of light ahead along the bank. Staggering toward it, sodden and chilled, she hoped that it was a river traders' outpost and that there might be such a thing as a cup of warm tea before she had to walk back through the jungle to the road. Or maybe a half-bottle of rice wine. I'm getting old, she thought sourly. But that was nothing new. As she drew closer to the light she could hear raucous voices, a great many raucous voices.

She was close enough now for the lamps lit along the balconies to show her the outline of the place. It perched on the edge of the bank, wooden and ramshackle, half of it hanging out over the rushing river and supported by heavy log pilings. Several small boats were tied up under it, and splintered wood, rope, torn sail and the wreckage of fishtraps were caught among them and the pilings. The windows glowed with light and many people moved about inside. It's a traders' outpost true enough, she thought, but it doesn't belong to river traders, not any longer. Raiders and river pirates must be using it for the night, though they couldn't have been here long -- Imperial patrols would periodically sweep the river banks to clear them out. She hadn't seen any boat traffic on the river, but had put that down to the rain and rough water. She let out her breath in resignation.

Raiders were as vicious as the moray, the small lizards that hunted the river in packs. Not only drunken laughter came from the inhabitants of the outpost -- there were shrieks, thumps, crashes, even roars, like a menagerie. Common sense told her to head into the jungle so she could get back to make the posset for Killia's girl and retire to her own cold supper and damp bed. But this kind of thing had been her business, in one way or another, for many long years, and old habits died hard. There was a crash as a body came flying through the latticework of one of the windows over the dock. That decided her; this she had to see.

She walked up the rickety steps to the nearest doorway and elbowed her way inside. The place was full of river trash, as filthy and muddy as Maskelle herself, except river trash were usually filthy and muddy by choice. Their clothes were tattered rags or pillaged finery, like the torn silk trousers and vest of the one lying unconscious on the floor. They stunk of uncured leather, unwashed person, and rice liquor, and the bad light reflected off sweat-slickened skin and wild dirty hair. They packed the rickety wooden gallery that ran along this floor and even staggered around in drunken battle on the lower level, which was awash in dirty water as the rising river encroached on it. Every one of them was yelling like the mad. The resemblance to the Court at Duvalpore is striking, Maskelle thought, watching them ironically. She winced from the din and considered leaving; the place was so smoky from the badly-tended lamps that she couldn't see what was happening anyway.

Swearing under her breath, she looked toward the far end of the gallery where there was a raised platform for the upper level loading deck. The giant pulleys and tangled ropes of the old cargo crane hung heavily over it, the arm suspended out over the lower floor, designed to raise bales through the wide doors that opened over the river in the wall behind the deck, swing them inside the building and lower them down to the large area below. Several people seemed to be standing and talking there in almost a sane manner. She started toward them, trying to peer through the smoke and shadow. Frustration made her will it a little too hard, for her view abruptly cleared. Ah, so they've caught someone.

The prisoner's arms were stretched up over his head, his wrists bound to one of the supports for the crane. One of the raiders came toward him and he jerked up his legs and kicked his captor in the stomach, sending him flying backward. Not quite helpless, she thought, amused. Two other rivermen dived at him, grabbing his legs and lashing him to the lower part of the frame.

He was probably a traveller trapped and caught somewhere along the river. That was why the Ancestors had guided her steps here.

So I'm not too disobedient to make use of, she grumbled to herself, making her way down the crowded gallery and clearing a path with occasional sharp pokes with her staff. The raiders were beginning to point and nudge each other, her presence finally penetrating the haze of liquor and bloodlust. Because of the tattered state of her clothes and her staff, they would think her a travelling nun. Unless they could read the Koshan symbols in the silver embedded in the wood, and she doubted that was a possibility. Maskelle looked around thoughtfully. She didn't think she could kill all of them and she had taken an oath not to do that sort of thing anymore, but she thought she could manage a distraction.

One of the rivermen standing on the platform was holding a sword, a real one, not one of the long knives the other raiders were armed with. The greasy light reflected off the dark etching on the wavy blade and Maskelle frowned a little. That was a siri. The brightwork on the hilt wasn't much tarnished yet so it must have come from the prisoner. It meant he wasn't native to the river country; several of the southern provinces used the siri and it wasn't common here in the heart of the lowlands.

The Kushorit, the main stock of the Celestial Empire, also tended to be small, dark-skinned and compactly built, and the prisoner was tall, light, rangy lean, and sharp-featured. Maskelle was an aberration herself, having outer reaches blood in her family and being tall and long-limbed because of it. He was about ten or fifteen years younger than Maskelle, which, she was uncomfortably aware, still made him a man grown. He wore a sleeveless shirt and leather leggings, torn and dirty from what had obviously been a hard battle, and the blue and red designs stamped into his leather swordbelt and buskins had faded from long exposure to the sun. His hair was shaggy brown with streaks of blond and one long tightly-braided lock hung past his shoulder.

The river raiders wore assorted scraps of leather or lacquered armor and tattered silk finery. The woman who seemed to be the leader had a battered helmet with a crest shaped into the head of a killing bird, obviously taken off some wealthy victim. She was big and muscular, an old knife scar slashing across already harsh features. She strode to the edge of the platform and glared down at Maskelle. "What do you want here, Sister?"

Yes, you're so terribly dangerous, Maskelle thought, smiling indulgently. I tremble, really I do. Dangling over the platform, the ropes to control the crane were worn and tangled and it looked like the counterweight, a leather sack of iron ingots, was the only thing that was keeping the massive wooden arm from collapsing. That will do nicely. She leaned on her staff. "I come to offer blessing, my child."

The woman stared, then grinned back at her companions. "We're unbelievers here, Sister; we'd curdle your blessing."

"Not this blessing. It's just what your sort deserve." Maskelle felt a dark surge of power under her feet as she spoke. The river was restless with more than floodwater tonight; it called to her, sensing a kinship. "But I want something in exchange for it."

"What's that?"

"Release that man." The prisoner was watching her warily, without any show of hope, almost as if he didn't recognize her as a Koshan. He didn't look badly hurt, however, just bruised and beaten.

"Oh, so you want him for yourself, Sister?" the leader said. The others laughed and grinned at each other.

If you don't consider the source, it's not a bad idea, Maskelle thought. He was handsome, in an exotic way, which was probably why the raiders had saved him to amuse themselves with rather than killing him immediately. The Koshans only demanded abstinence from initiates during the first three years of instruction, but it was a common misconception that all members of the Order were celibate.

Before Maskelle could answer, the prisoner said, "She doesn't need a club to get company. Some women don't." He spoke in Kushorit, the common language of the Empire, but lightly accented

Maskelle frowned; she should be able to tell what province he was from by that accent, but she couldn't place it. She had been too long from her native land, perhaps, too long among the soft voices of Ariad. The fact that he knew Kushorit was no real clue; it was a common language throughout the provinces too, spoken by traders, scholars, diplomats.

The leader crossed the stained planks and stepped close to her captive. She grabbed a handful of his hair and jerked his head back. "So you don't like my face?" she said softly.

I wager she didn't do that before he was more securely bound. Maskelle tended to find male bullies merely amusing, but for some reason the female ones always stirred her to rage. Careful, careful, she reminded herself. The darkness in the river was so uncontrolled, so near, so willing to be tapped that it was hard to resist the temptation.

Voice slightly constricted from the pressure the leader was putting on his neck, he still said, "Your face I could ignore; it's your personality and your breath that turn my stomach."

This time she placed the accent; he was from the Sintane. It was a province far on the outer rim, known for fine figured goldwork and weaving. He was a long way from home. The Sintane didn't have deserters or mercenaries like the other provinces; they had outcasts. She looked at the sword the raider was holding. The hilt might be horn or bone, and the ring between the blade and the hilt seemed to be plain silver, all of which told her nothing. The Sitanese sometimes carved family totems into the hilts of siri, and the ring was often an elaborate piece of jeweler's art. Maskelle said, "You must be terribly afraid of him."

One of the raiders gave a short bark of laughter and the leader released her grip on her captive to face Maskelle. "What are you saying?"

"If you aren't afraid, then cut him loose and let him fight your men. If you call them men."

The leader came to the edge of the platform and pushed her face close to Maskelle's. She growled, "I should feed you to the moray, Koshan bitch."

Seen at close range her scar was an ugly puckered fissure across a face webbed with fine lines and darkened with ingrained dirt. The woman was bigger than Maskelle, much younger, all hard muscle, but Maskelle felt no fear; her blood was singing with the urge to kill. She rocked forward on the balls of her feet, looked into the other woman's glaring eyes, and said with utter seriousness, "The moray would choke." Even that was almost too much; if she said one more word the dam would break and her rage would find an outlet whether she willed it or not. Physical threats always made her lose her temper; in all the years, that had never changed.

The raider blinked, suddenly uncertain, perhaps sensing the danger but not wise enough to realize just what the source was. She stepped back slowly, fingering the hilt of her knife. Maskelle waited, smiling, but the woman shook her head and laughed. "Do as she says. Let him fight." She gestured to the men behind her.

Maskelle took a deep breath that the others probably read as relief. It was part disappointment, part attempt to hold on to her suddenly tenuous self-control.

One of the raiders stepped forward, drawing his long belt knife. The prisoner tensed and Maskelle held her breath; if they changed their minds now there was nothing she could do about it. But the raider slashed the man's bonds and stepped quickly back. The prisoner freed himself from the rest of the ropes, looked around at the raiders, and with admirable self-possession, stretched and rubbed his neck. He caught Maskelle's eye and she flicked a glance at the gallery railing behind her, wondering if he would pick up on the hint. She needed the raiders' attention to be away from the cargo doors and the crane.

He didn't nod, didn't indicate that he had seen her signal, but he suddenly dropped to the platform and kicked the kneecap of the raider who held the captured siri. The man collapsed with a shriek, his leg giving way with a crack that Maskelle couldn't tell if she had heard or imagined. The prisoner came to his feet, taking the sword easily from the raider's shaking hand, ducked a deadly swipe from a bori club as he passed Maskelle and vaulted over the gallery railing.

She leaned over it in time to see him catch an old net that hung over the side and swing down to drop into the water covering the lower floor.

The gallery audience roared, the leader and her lieutenants shouting and cursing as they ran for the railing.

Down on the floor below the waving mass of combatants broke into little whirling eddies. In the instant of stillness she saw several rivermen with knives or bori clubs surrounding the one man armed with a sword. The blade flashed and the rivermen scattered.

Perhaps it was the rivermen who were trapped now and not the traveller. Bemused, Maskelle watched the leaping, dodging figures. It was like a game, or an entertainment so primitive it looked like violence to eyes long accustomed to the sophistication of Ariaden or kiradi theater. The prisoner wasn't wielding that blade with deadly intent yet; the plank floor below was awash in dirty water as the rising river encroached on the lower level of the outpost, but not high enough to conceal the dead bodies that would surely be sprawled there if he was. Maskelle knew if he killed some of them that would only fire the others to more fury; it was all or nothing. She was a little surprised that he recognized that as well. The crowd pressed in again, trying to rush him, but their nerve failed and they splashed away.

"Well, Sister, where's our blessing?" the leader demanded, trying to recover her control of the situation.

Maskelle tried to decide just which invocation would annoy the Ancestors the most. The Great Opening, the signal part of the Year Rite, would get their attention and hearing the words of it on her lips should elicit the quickest response. She turned away from the railing and stepped up onto the platform, clearing her mind.

As Maskelle faced the room and lifted her staff above her head the raiders' leader called out, "Attend to the nun, you bastards!" She grinned derisively around at her companions. "She's going to give us a blessing!"

Some of the raiders turned toward this new diversion but most were too occupied by the fighting to listen. A man almost too drunk to stand on his feet staggered up on the platform muttering, "Kill the Koshan bitch--"

Maskelle swung her staff down and around, slamming him in the chest and sending him crashing backward off the platform. That got their attention.

The shouts and drunken roaring died away. Into the relative quiet Maskelle said, "I am the Voice of the Adversary."

She hadn't spoken loudly but her words carried across the room. There were gasps and outcries, proving that some of the raiders at least were among the devout. One quick thinker turned and dived out the nearest window. The leader stared around, baffled and angry.

Maskelle spoke the first words of the Great Opening. This was too much presumption for the myriad forces of the Infinite to ignore. All the lamps in this half of the chamber flickered and died.

In the sudden darkness Maskelle swung around to the cargo doors and with the end of her staff threw the latch up.

The doors swung open and wind-driven rain rushed in. There were shrieks and shouts as the rivermen began to panic, shoving and pushing. Maskelle stepped quickly to the crane's counterweight, drawing the little knife she used for cutting fruit. It was too small for the job but she slashed at the half-rotted ropes until suddenly the counterweight dropped.

The reaction was more violent than she had anticipated. The counterweight smashed right through the floorboards, knocking her backwards. The arm swung and toppled, taking the railing, part of the gallery, and a dozen yelling rivermen with it.

"I meant to do that," Maskelle muttered to herself, stumbling to her feet. The raiders must think the post was under attack by hostile river spirits. They were pouring out the door Maskelle had entered by, blocking it, fighting and snarling like rats. Then a figure tore away from the other panicked, shoving bodies and charged toward her, bori club upraised.

It was the leader. Maskelle met her with the end of her staff, catching the woman a hard blow in the stomach and shoving her away. She staggered back but didn't fall; she must have some sort of leather or lacquered wood chest armor under her silk vest. Maskelle couldn't see much in the half-light but she assumed the razor-edge of the heavy wooden club was aimed toward her. She kept the staff pointed at the leader, braced to move. The other woman shuffled to the side, trying to get past her guard.

Then Maskelle saw that the ropes still attached to the broken crane arm and hanging over the gallery were jerking and twitching; it had to be the rivermen who had gone over the rail with the crane, still trapped in them. Then a head popped up over the edge.

She knew who it was. The trapped traveller had had hair cropped at his shoulders while the river raiders either shaved their heads to avoid lice or grew wild waist-length manes. Grinning, Maskelle angled sideways, making poking motions with the staff, as if she meant to try to break for the door across the gallery. Her opponent, thinking to catch her between herself and the packed door, obligingly stepped backward, closer to the edge.

The traveller hauled himself further up and when the raider stepped back into reach, he swung his sheathed sword around and struck the back of her knees. The woman toppled backwards with a choked-off cry.

Maskelle turned immediately for the cargo doors, using her staff to trip a flailing, foul-smelling shadow that tried to stop her. Rain and wind poured in, drenching the boards under her feet. She found the ropes for the winch but they didn't move when she tugged on them. The other counterweight must be broken, damn it, she thought, and tossed her staff out, hoping it struck the dock, not the river. She grabbed the heavy rope and swung out after it, getting a confused view of the river below, with what little light there was from the cloud-covered moon reflecting off the angry surface. She hoped the traveller had the sense to follow her.

She scrambled down the rope, not quite so agile as a monkey, wishing she was ten years younger. The raiders must have had the outpost longer than she had initially thought, or it had been abandoned before they had ever found it; the rope was beginning to rot, so soft in most places her grasping fingers went right through the strands. But her feet thumped down on the dock before she knew it.

Cursing, she felt around on the scarred wood, feeling holes and splinters, but not her staff. There were shouts from above and the lamps were flaring back to life inside the outpost. She stood, the wet wind tearing at her hair, took two steps toward the bank and fell flat on her face. She had tripped over her staff.

"Thank you for nothing, Ancient Lineage," she muttered, her own abbreviated version of the proper Thanksgiving. She grabbed up the staff, staggered back to her feet, and ran for the bank.

Once in the bush she slowed, knowing a fall would only make more noise, though the rain covered most of the sound of her passing. When she had gone some distance she stopped and crouched in the dark shelter of a dripping tana bush. She heard the thrashing of several people fighting their way through the foliage near her. The raiders wouldn't stay long in the jungle; it was a different realm than the river and they would fear it. Superstitious idiots, she thought, squatting in the mud. It was the river that would harbor the evil spirits tonight.

The raiders following her thrashed away and she started to stand. Someone touched her shoulder lightly, a caution not to move; she froze where she was and an instant later heard one more passage through the bush. There was nothing but the rain after that and the tingle of shock through Maskelle's skin and the hackles rising on the back of her neck. Someone crouched in the mud next to her; the air was alive with the warmth and breath of a living body. How she could have missed it before, she couldn't think. No thanks for the warning, she thought sourly to the Ancestors. In the thirty years of her apprenticeship and mastery as Their Servant, they had seldom been around when she wanted them. She wished she could say that was the reason she had turned on them in the end, but that was a lie she wouldn't tell herself. Experimentally, she whispered, "Are they gone?"

There was the briefest pause, then he said, "They are now."

Maskelle didn't move and for a moment neither did he. Then a great glop of water from the tana bush struck the back of her neck and she twitched. He flinched, stood suddenly and was gone, though this time she heard him brush against the leaves as he passed.

She shook her head and got to her feet, her knees protesting the movement. He must have climbed out the cargo hatch behind her and followed her into the jungle. He had returned her favor with the warning, anyway. She slogged away further into the bush, wondering why a Sitanese swordsman had travelled this far into the Celestial Empire. The problem tickled her brain all the long way back to the road.

She came out of the jungle just where the road broadened out into the Sare. The Ancestors, perverse as usual, had now seen fit to grant her prayers about the rain and it had slackened to a bare drizzle. It was too dark to see much of the Sare now, but morning light would reveal a broad green plain, cut from the jungle in a perfect square, the grasses as clipped and civilized as any park in Duvalpore.

In the center of the plain was a massive rectangular baray, a reservoir of water bordered by broad stone walks. In the center of the baray stood a temple of the Koshan Order, reached by a stone bridge, its conical towers meant to resemble the Mountain of the Infinite, a symbolic meaning in every element of its design, every portal, every inch of carving. Lamps glowed from its many windows and lined the galleries and bridges. To the west of the baray there were three groups of less orderly lights, the campfires and torches of travellers camping here in the safety of the shadow of the temple and the patrols of its guards. In the glow of one campfire she recognized Rastim's wagon and felt her heart unclench a little. She hated to leave the troupe, even though she knew they had been caring for themselves long before she had ever met them. I've failed others before. Perhaps that's why.

She found most of them huddled damply in the wagons, with Rastim trying to keep the fire lit and Old Mali grumbling while she stirred the supper. Voices called greetings from the wagons and Rastim watched her with ill-disguised relief as Maskelle walked up to sniff suspiciously at the cooking pot. Old Mali grumbled something inaudible. From the lumps bobbing in the stew they had arrived in time to buy some pork from the priests' servants to add to the rice and there was taro root baking in the coals. "Boiling water?" she asked.

Old Mali wrapped a rag around one calloused hand and fetched a steaming kettle out of the coals. "Knew you'd be back," she muttered.

"There was doubt?" Maskelle asked, taking a seat on one of the woven straw mats laid out on the mud. It squished unpleasantly under her.

"Just Gardick again," Rastim said and gestured disparagingly. "Nothing."

"Hmph." Maskelle took the ivibrae and ground it up with the mortar and pestle used for cooking. Together, and muttering curses at each other, she and Old Mali got the stuff strained into a pottery cup. Old Mali carried it off to Killia's wagon, leaving Maskelle and Rastim to stare at each other tiredly.

"So we'll be there in two days, will we?" he asked.

"Yes." She flexed her hands in the firelight. Her back hurt from the damp and she felt old. More than a half decade over twice twenty years wasn't that old for the Ariaden or the Kushorit. But it was old for a Court Lady and her hands were almost as calloused as Old Mali's.

"And there'll be good crowds to perform for?" Rastim was uneasy.

"Oh, yes." Though "good" was a matter of perspective. "The best of the best. And generous, too."

"Ah." Rastim nodded, looking out over the dark wet plain beyond the boundary of firelight and wagons. "And the audience with the great priest?"

"He'll speak to you." Maskelle was taking the Ariaden to Duvalpore to see the Celestial One, the highest religious office in the Celestial Empire.

"Two days. If the rain doesn't slow us down."

"It won't," she said, knowing it was true, a Word whispered in her ear by the Ancestors. They were good for something, occasionally.


Old Mali came back from Killia's wagon, a stooped figure on stumpy legs, and thumped her chest and nodded. From long acquaintance with Old Mali Maskelle took this to mean that Killia's daughter had drunk the posset and it had already relieved some of the congestion in her lungs. With luck, it would help the fever too.

Maskelle stood and eased the kinks in her back. She wasn't hungry anymore, even for tea, even for rice wine. And she didn't want to answer all the same questions from the others, once the smell of supper permeated the wagons and they began to creep out. She nodded to them and limped toward her wagon. It stood slightly apart the way she liked it, the two oxen unharnessed and dozing over fodder. Old Mali drove it for her during the day, and had opened the light wooden side panels when the rain had stopped, so the interior could air out. Maskelle paused at the dropped tailgate, looking into the dark. She could see the temple from here.

The massive domed spire was black against the lighter shade of the sky, the moon shape of the portal below it barely visible; male and female phallic symbols woven together. The detail of the terraced carvings were entirely lost in shadow. They had passed small sanctuaries along the way, but this was the first time in too many years that she had been so close to a true temple.

She moved away from the wagon, one of the oxen snuffling at her as she drifted past. The temple was calling to her, not the stone shell, but what it represented, and the power that likeness gave it.

She walked through the sodden grass, until she came to the edge of the baray and stepped up onto the stone bank. The Koshan priests had the custody of the temples, but they were only static forms. It was the End of Year rite that remade the universe in its own image, and that was only performed by the Voices of the Ancestors. The End of Decade rites were even more crucial.

This year would be the End of a Hundred Years rite.

Maskelle lifted her staff, holding it above her head. An echo whispered through her, a reflection from the Infinite through the structure of the temple. After all these years, it still knew her. "I helped another stranger tonight," she whispered. "I didn't kill anyone to do it. Not intentionally, at least. Is that enough for you?"

A slow wave of darkness climbed the temple wall, the lamps in the windows winking out one by one.

She lowered the staff and let out her breath. No, it wasn't enough. And now they will all know you're back. Oh, the delight in the power never died, that was the curse, and her true punishment, whatever the priests had decreed. She shook her head at her own folly and turned back to the camp.

She reached the wagon and climbed up the back steps, closing the panels that faced the campsite. She sat on the still damp wooden floor, looking out at the temple and the silver surface of the baray in the distance.

She was facing the right direction for an illusion of privacy, though voices from the other campsites, oddly distorted over the plain, came to her occasionally. The night breeze was chilly on her wet clothes, the drying mud itchy on her legs. And someone was watching her. She knew it by the way the oxen, caught in the firelight from behind the wagon, cocked their ears. She found his outline in the dark finally, about twenty feet away, sitting on his heels just out of reach of the light. She might have walked within ten feet of him on the way to the baray. Again, the shock of being so taken by surprise was like ice on her skin. She waited until it drained away then, quietly, she said, "Come here."

The breeze moved the short grass. He stood up and came toward the wagon.

Her staff, as much a part of her as her hands or feet, lay on the wooden bench of the wagon. He stopped just out of arm's reach. Her arm's reach. She was within easy range of his sword.

He stood in the shadow where the wagon blocked the firelight, but the moonlight was strong. The heavy siri rested easily on one lean hip.

Maskelle stretched out her foot, her toes finding the staff where it lay on the rough planks and gradually easing it towards her hand.

"What did you do?" he said.

He couldn't be asking her what she thought he was asking her; after a moment she realized he meant the lamps in the temple. "I'm a Voice of the Ancestors." That was still strictly true, if it didn't actually answer the question. "What were you doing in the outpost?"

"Getting killed. Did it look like anything else?"

Instead of taking the bait, she said, "That's a fine way to say thank you."

"I was going up river and walked into them."

"That's still not 'thank you.'" Though it could well be the truth. If he had come up the Western Road from the Sintane, he could have crossed the river at the fords at Takis. But why move along the bank instead of going on to the Great Road? Well, the Great Road has regular patrols, the river doesn't, not in the rainy season.

He didn't take the bait, either. He said, "You're a wizard?"


Silence, while the damp breeze made the water in the baray lap against the stone banks and the temple cattle lowed in the distance. Why did she suspect it was the silence of disbelief? Almost against her will, she added, "I receive the Ancestors' Will, when they have any, and translate it for others. In return, They allow me to manipulate the power of the Infinite." An enormous simplification of the process, but she didn't think he wanted an hours-long philosophy debate.

More silence. The disbelief was so thick it was practically dripping off the wagon. Finally, he said, "Are all the Koshan priests wizards?"

Ancestors help me, Maskelle swore under her breath, then gave in. "To some extent. But none of the others are like me."

He didn't make any response. He was standing with his arms folded, but she had seen how fast he could move. Annoyed, she said, "If you don't believe me, you can ask the priests at the temple."

He jerked his head toward the camp. "Those priests?"

"What?" She sat up, startled, and the staff thumped loudly on the wagon bed.

He stepped back as Maskelle grabbed her staff and stood up. She could already hear the bells on the priests' sistrum. Another moment, then he turned and walked -- strolled, Maskelle thought, a brow lifted ironically -- into the dark. She could hear his steps on the wet grass. Not magic then and no power about it. Just skill at moving quietly.

Voices from behind the wagon recalled her to the current problem. Swearing under her breath, she dragged her wet robes off the bench and clambered down to the ground.

There were three Koshan priests standing near the fire, their cobalt blue robes caught up to keep them out of the mud, and a young acolyte with a sistrum behind them. Beyond the priests, half-surrounding the wagons, was a group of temple guards mounted on the small, sturdy horses of the lower plains. The guards wore dark silk overrobes sewn with chainmail and breastplates of tightly braided plates of lacquered iron, their crested helmets fitted with masks to make them faceless and terrifying.

Old Mali was still crouching stubbornly by the cooking pot but the others were hiding in the wagons, peering anxiously out. Their eyes followed Maskelle as she crossed the campsite. Rastim was standing before the lead priest, in an attitude of abject fear. Damn over-dramatic Ariaden, Maskelle thought. Shaking her head in resignation, she approached the tableau.

The priest's eyes flicked over her dismissively as she moved around the fire, then came back to her in growing astonishment as he saw her staff. The light was catching the old traces of silver left in the carved letters of the sacred text. The sparks jumped from word to word as the text wound up the length of the fine smooth wood like a snake around a pappas tree. The letters were worn down from years of handling, but they could still be read. Until they faded from sight, the staff would still have power. Not unlike me, Maskelle thought.

The priest was young and fine-featured, but the shaven scalp under the hood of his robe was marked with colored designs of the first rank. The men with him were older but not so high in honor. He stared hard at her, looking for what was left of her tatoo, but her hair had grown over it, obscuring all but the border of the design at her hairline. The staff told him that her rank was Voice, but not which Voice. He wet his lips, and said, "You shame us, lady. You should shelter in the temple."

She leaned on the staff, mud and all. She hadn't ever really expected to arrive in secret. "Thank you for the offer, my son, but I can't."

His eyes narrowed, alert for insult. He said, "You have a reason for refusing our shelter?"

"I'm forbidden the temples," Maskelle said, watching his eyes.

He stared at her, frowning, and his gaze swept over her, seeing for the first time past the worn robes. He would have trouble estimating her age, she knew. Country people always thought her younger, city people used to courtiers who spent all their time lying in the shade and rubbing oils and creams into their skin always thought her older. His eyes went to the staff again. But there are only so many Voices, she thought. And the chance was he would know where all the others were.

She watched with interest as the blood drained from his face. "You...." He did not step back from her, though the tension in his body told her he wanted to. He drew in a breath and said coldly, "So the rumors were true. You've been summoned by the Celestial One."

"Rumors fly fast." She smiled.

A muscle jumped in his cheek. "I have something to show you."

Maskelle lifted her brows. She hadn't expected that response. "You know there are very few rituals I'm allowed to perform."

He turned away without answering, his attendants hastily parting for him. Maskelle followed, baffled and trying -- successfully, she hoped -- not to show it. What does he want? If this is a trap.... If this is a trap, he's mad.

The priest led her through the dark, crossing through the muddy flats with no concern for his robes, one of the guards hurrying forward with a lamp to light the way. After a moment she realized he was leading her toward the temple's outbuildings, the stables, storehouses, and the quarters for the monks and servants that stood near the end of the causeway that crossed the baray to the temple. He turned through a narrow gate in a stone wall, pausing only to disperse the guards with a wave. Only his priest attendants followed Maskelle through the gate.

It was a courtyard, the few lamps hanging from hooks along the walls illuminating muddy ground and more gates leading off into the rambling structure that loomed over them in the dark. Two guards stood outside one of the gates, and one quickly reached to pull it open as the priest strode toward it.

Inside was a warm close room, the damp air smelling strongly of goat and the ground littered with straw. The other priests had remained outside but the one guard with the lamp had followed them in. The head priest took it away from him and held it high over the occupant of the wooden pen.

Maskelle took a deep breath, despite the smell. "It's a goat." The man is mad.

It was an ordinary brown goat, staring up at them with opaque brown eyes. The goat turned its head and bleated, and Maskelle saw then what was hanging out of its side. It was the rear half of a moray lizard. She stepped closer and leaned down, swallowing a curse. The moray were about a foot long, with tough gray green hides and a ridge of distinctive spines along their backs, to complement their sharp teeth and clawed feet. This was distinctively a moray, or at least the back six inches of one. It was stuck against the goat's side as if it had grown there, the two back legs dangling, the spiny tail hanging limply. Baffled, she looked up at the priest, who was watching her with a grim lack of expression that was impossible to read. She said, "It's strange, but such things happen. Animals born with strange limbs or...." Other, completely different animals hanging out of their bodies. No, she didn't think she had heard of that before. She forged on anyway, "They aren't always omens, though people think...."

He was shaking his head. He pointed toward a stone block set back against the wall of the stall, and angled the lamp so the light fell more fully on it. Hanging out of the stone was the front half of the lizard.

Maskelle wet her lips, feeling a coldness in the pit of her stomach. She said, "All right, that one is, uh....odd." The front half of the moray hung limply out of the stone, its front legs and the wicked oblong head like some bizarre decoration. The stone itself was a square block with cracked mortar on the sides, as if it had been broken out of a wall.

"Could this be the result of your curse?" the priest asked.

Maskelle lifted a brow, but she found the bluntness rather refreshing. "A dark power, following in my wake, you mean? It's possible. When did it happen?"

"Six days ago."

She shook her head, a little surprised. "I wasn't in this province yet. We've been travelling hard."

He turned away, the shadows falling over the monstrosity in the rock as the lamp was withdrawn.

Maskelle followed him out into the relatively fresh air of the court, where the other priests still waited outside. One of them must have realized she wasn't just an ordinary, albeit eccentric, Voice travelling the Great Road and told his fellows; the tension emanating from them was palpable now. He stopped and eyed her narrowly. The lead priest said, "When I saw you, I had hoped for an easy answer."

She resisted the impulse to say something philosophical about easy answers. She didn't suppose him to have any more patience with such platitudes than she did. Instead, she said, "If it's an omen, it's a frightening one. I'll tell the Celestial One of it when I see him."

"If it is a dark power...."

It would be simpler if it was a byproduct of her curse, a wandering dark power that corrupted whatever it touched, following in her wake. "If it's a dark power, I'll deal with it. I haven't been with the Adversary for seven years, but He does take care of His own."

There was a stifled noise of shock and fear from one of the other priests. The lead priest glanced back at them, frowning. He turned back to her and she could see him recalling what she was, despite everything. He hesitated, then said, "I offer you our hospitality.... The guest house...."

His companions were badly startled, but evidently their fear of her was still an abstraction, whereas their fear of him was firmly founded, and they made no open protest. She smiled, badly tempted, and she knew she hadn't quite left the desire to cause chaos behind. She shook her head. "No, we both know how that would end."

He misunderstood and his gray eyes turned angry. Maskelle sighed. She had forgotten what it was like to deal with the young of the well-born. She said, gently, "You can stand bond for every one in your temple, but you aren't their conscience, and I don't have the time to waste in fighting."

He still watched her grimly, no sign of any bend in that stiff spine. Then he stepped back and gave her a full sixth degree bow, only one degree less than the rank actually due her. He turned away and his retinue followed with less grace, one of them sneaking her an abbreviated bow behind the backs of the others.

Maskelle walked slowly through the dark, back to the wagons where Rastim and Old Mali waited for her by the fire. Rastim let out his breath in relief when he saw her and Old Mali grunted in eloquent comment. "Trouble?" Rastim asked her.

She nodded and leaned her cheek against the staff. Trouble. She had known it would happen, but perhaps she hadn't thought it would be so soon. Maybe I am too old for this, she thought. Too old for war, too mean-tempered for peace.

"Should we move on tonight?" Rastim sounded worried.

Maskelle looked around. A few other members of the troupe had broken cover. Firac with his two young sons, who worked the apparatus on the largest of the puppets, and Therasa and Doria, who played the speaking women's parts. The travel had been difficult and their oxen weren't in the best of shape. The idea of the troupe with their old rickety wagons engaged in a running battle with temple guards was a grim joke. She shook her head. "No, we'll stay the night."

Rastim's shoulders slumped a little in relief.

"They won't attack this close to the temple precincts, anyway," she added, only partly joking.

Rastim gave her a sour look.

end of chapter 1

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