Chapter 1 The Veil

Kalil tucked up her skirts and waded into the Opeta River, gripping a stake fixed to the end of the fishing seine that her father played out from the basket on the shore. She couldn't hear his voice above the sound of the rapids and she glanced at him now and then to catch his signal. When she reached the right place he raised his right fist with the thumb up. She shoved the stake down between two large stones. The net hung down into the current with a line of bladders keeping it from sinking. Stones fastened along the bottom kept it vertical. Her father secured the other end to a post on the bank then turned back toward the village to fetch buckets for their catch.

Kalil wiggled her toes then lifted her feet and moved in place to keep her legs from going numb in the cold water. Something sharp pierced the bottom of her foot.

She ducked down and felt around, nearly cutting her finger when she found the blade caught between two stones. She pried it loose and saw a slender piece of dark green obsidian, nearly perfect except for the broken tip.

Her Saadenan grandmother had told stories about Saint Neril. Not far from here the bully Geran threw one of Neril's knife blades into the river. Could this be the blade of Neril that had killed the huge snake that hung in the council house in the village?

The men of the council claimed that Theodorn the Great had killed the serpent. They denied stories that cast doubt on their legends, but Senna, the village healer, openly wore a green stone shaped like a spear leaf on a leather thong around her neck.

Kalil cradled the blade in her palm and examined it. The dull surface of the exposed haft suggested that the blade had been buried in the bottom of the river for many years. She slipped it into the pouch that held the fire stone her uncle had given her on her last birthday. It would remain her secret.

She heard her father's shout from the shore and quickly turned back to the business at hand. As the fourth of Vagan's seven daughters she helped him with the seine and other tasks that would have been assigned to a brother if she had one. While her sisters learned to cook and sew and run a household, Kalil helped her father fish and farm and tend to the hounds that guarded the ford that crossed the river.

After jerking the picket from the bed of the river she walked toward her father as he reeled in the other end of the bulging net. Vagan emptied the wriggling silver fish into the buckets. "This is enough to dry for a week or more of meals this coming winter," he said. "You are almost as good as a son Kalil."

"Almost as good!" She felt a flick of annoyance. She knew that she was as strong and fast and smart as any boy her age in the village, but she also knew that Vagan couldn't give a greater compliment.

She helped her father carry the buckets of fish to their house on the edge of the village of Rubble Ford. "Run along now and play with your friends until I call you," he said as she handed the buckets to her mother.

"Why can't Kalil help us smoke the fish?" her youngest sister, Benil, whined.

"She worked while you were playing with your friends this morning," their mother said.

Benil usually got her way and Kalil hurried away before her sister's whining changed her mother's mind. She didn't want to play, she wanted to examine the great snake in the council hall and see if she could find clue that she had found the knife that killed it.

She hid in the bushes near the rear of the council house and waited while the chief and his council finished their meeting. She could hear Joden, the chief's slow son, yelling at some children who were teasing him in the village square.

Perhaps she should go and rescue him as she usually did. She started to stand but then she saw the council house door swing open. She ducked down again and waited while the five men left the building and locked the door. The chief looked toward the square and frowned before hurrying off. She heard his voice raised in rebuke of the bullies who teased his son and felt relieved of worry about Joden.

When the other council members moved off Kalil scurried across to the council house and removed the loose slat from the cellar window. She slid into the low cellar, caught halfway when her hips wouldn't quite fit through the gap, but she wriggled free and dropped to the floor of the cellar. She made her way to the ladder that led up into the closet where the members of the men's cult kept their robes and staffs.

She waited for a moment after opening the closet door a little, making sure that none of the council members lingered in the meeting hall where the great serpent hung behind the chief's bench. The light of late afternoon lit the polished stone eyes of the snake, making it seem almost alive.

Kalil crossed the room and stood on the bench. The serpent still smelled faintly of the oil brush mixed in tufa that had been used to stuff it after Neril had killed it sixty years before.

Her grandmother had told Kalil that Neril had used her knife to cut through the tendon that connected the snake's jaws. Kalil traced the line of tiny stitches that marked the edges of the huge jaws. She couldn't say for certain that the blade from the river had made the cut, but when she touched the pouch and felt the shape of the blade she felt convinced.

She wished she could wear the blade openly, but even Senna had courted trouble by wearing the spear leaf symbol. When Drumon, the chief, had suggested that she should remove the necklace, Senna had walked out of the village and made camp in the forest. She refused to return until Drumon and other members of the council went out with offerings and apologized.

Kalil smiled at the memory. Drumon had been forced to back down, but she didn't like Senna. The old woman always seemed to watch her from the eye holes in her veil.

Kalil's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of her mother's voice calling her name. She touched the polished black stones that had been placed in the eye sockets of the serpent. Turning away from the serpent she whispered a prayer. "Let me never wear the veil of shame to cover the Mark of Marekla."

She hurried from the hall and opened the closet filled with musty robes and made her way to the window of the cellar. After pushing aside the slat she tried to wriggle out of the window. For a few minutes she stuck halfway in and halfway out. Finally she worked her way free and stooped in the concealing bushes, gasping from her efforts.

It had been easy to slide through the window until the past few months when a growth spurt made her hips swell and her shoulders broaden. She began to make a circuit of the foundation, looking for another way to enter when she next visited the serpent.

She heard her mother calling her again and started running. As she turned the corner she ran into Senna. The old woman fell back and grabbed Kalil's arm. She twisted and tried to get away, but Senna would not release her. She looked at Kalil with eyes like fiery pits in the veil that covered her face.

"You will soon come of age. I will speak to your mother about the rites," Senna muttered.

Two days after Senna's warning, Kalil woke to cramping in her middle. She wanted to conceal the evidence, but she had never lied to her mother. After using the privy she entered the common room where her mother, Tama, prepared breakfast, she lingered by the door, waiting until her father had gone out to the animal shed.

"Mother, my middle hurts," she muttered.

Her mother turned and frowned at her. "What ails you Kalil?" she asked.

Kalil moved into the corner under the window. Reluctantly she showed her mother the cloth in her hand. When Tama saw the stain, she smiled. "There is nothing to fear. I told you this day would come." She reached out, took Kalil in her arms and hugged her.

"Today you take the fist step to becoming a woman. You must fast from food and drink until the sign no longer appears, then you must go to Senna for the rites of womanhood. Soon you will be old enough to choose a husband."

Kalil wondered which of the boys of the village she would consider marrying. They all seemed too much like their fathers. Even her friend Doteren had begun say that the women's stories about Neril were silly. He bragged that the mighty hero, Theodorn, had slain the serpent.

She found it difficult to fast, especially when she helped her father along the river bank. The water rippling at her feet made her mouth seem even drier and several times she found her hand at her mouth cupped full of water and only remembered her fast when the water touched her lips.

Kalil felt light headed and confused by the time the fast ended . It had been less than three days, but the thought of food had become a distant. The fear of meeting with Senna almost kept her from telling her mother.

"How are you?" Tama asked and Kalil could not lie.

"I've finished."

Her mother did not need to ask what she meant. "There is nothing to fear Kalil. We must take a gift to Senna. I have prepared a basket of fruit and a package of smoked fish."

Children gathered to stare at them as they walked along the path that seemed to lead past every door and window. Women peeked out of their doors and smiled. At mid morning most of the men were gone to work the fields or to hunt and fish. Kalil felt grateful to be spared their curious stares.

Some of the women who watched her while she passed through the village wore veils down to their chins. Kalil averted her face from them and made the sign of scissored fingers with her right hand. Few women in Rubble Ford were still required to cover their faces. Those with Saadenan ancestors had no need to hide. Kalil's mother and older sisters went bare faced and Kalil expected to share their good fortune. Her nose was high and narrow, and her hair black but surely her wild curls would exempt her from the need to veil her face.

Senna waited at the door of her house, her expression hidden beneath her veil. The old woman accepted the offering and shut the door in Tama's face. Then she led Kalil into the herb- hung sweat room behind her home.

"Take wood from the pile near the door and build a fire, then sit on the bench," Senna directed.

Kalil uncovered the coals in the fire pit and added a few sticks of tallow wood. As soon as the flames began to spring up, she took sticks of split wood and fed the fire. While she worked, Senna filled a large pot with water and herbs.

She set it over the fire and Kalil put larger pieces of wood in the fire to keep it burning. Fragrant steam curled up from the surface of the pot and began to fill the sweat room. Kalil sat on the bench made from peeled log and felt the warm damp air swirl around her. No one would tell her what happened when a girl became a woman and she felt scared.

She watched the medicine woman move around through the steam. She flinched when the healer dropped the veil from her face and loomed over Kalil with a hand lamp held close to her face. Her high, narrow nose jutted like a beak from a net of wrinkles that surrounded her beady eyes and narrow lips.

Senna moved away and Kalil relaxed while she listened to the healer mumble. Soon her clothing grew damp and her face dripped sweat.

Kalil tried to keep track of everything the medicine woman told her, but she felt faint from fasting and the steam that rose around her. She had difficulty breathing and she feared she would faint and fall forward into the steaming cauldron.

Senna lifted a bucket of cold water and poured it like a shower of liquid ice over Kalil's overheated skin. Suddenly, she came wide awake and shivered.

"Dry yourself, then join me in the other room," Senna told Kalil as she handed her a towel.

Kalil removed her wet clothing and wrapped herself in the towel. When she ducked out of the low entrance to the sweat room and entered the small robing room. Senna held up a beautiful embroidered gown. Kalil recognized her mother's handiwork. She held up her arms and Senna lowered the gown over her head then tied the laces that closed the neck.

"Sit here," Senna directed.

Kalil sat down on the low stool and Senna handed her a cup of cool nuka juice. Kalil accepted the cup and sipped it slowly. It flowed down her throat and she felt a shock from the astringent sweet liquid after days of fasting. It seemed to flow from her middle into her limbs and head.

Senna gave her a few bites of plain matla. Kalil knew she would have to wait to eat more until that evening and the feast her mother prepared to celebrate her status as a woman of the clan.

She stood and thanked Senna, but the healer put her hand on Kalil's arm and restrained her. "I haven't finished. Now I must bestow the veil."

Kalil begin to shake. Only the ugliest girls were required to wear the veil. Every child knew that. "None of my sisters had to hide their faces when they became women," she protested.

"Your sisters did not bear the mark of Marekla," Senna muttered. "You must have known this day would come. Be still."

Kalil bowed her head but Senna lifted it with a strong, bony finger under her chin and glared at her. The keen, dark eyes seemed to pin her in her place and Kalil knew it would be useless to protest. Senna had the authority to make this decision and there could be no appeal.

First Senna tied a fresh veil around her own face, then she took another out of the intricately carved box where they were kept. Kalil stood in miserable silence as the old woman put the veil over her head and adjusted it until the two holes cut for the eyes were in the right place. The bottom of the veil reached down to Kalil's chin but hung loose enough for her to eat while wearing it.

A soft knock came at the door and Senna moved silently over to open to Kalil's mother. The happy, expectant smile on Tama's face faded as soon as she saw her daughter. Tama raised her hand toward the white square of the veil. Kalil's eyes shone bright with tears through the holes in the veil.

Senna reached out and took Tama's hand. "She must wear it for her own protection. When I was a girl, all the women of Rubble Ford wore the veil. Then the Saadenans came and made themselves one with our people. Only a few girls in this generation have been chosen to wear the veil. She must wear it, or become food for the demon."

Kalil's mother bowed her head to hide her tears. Kalil put her hand around the pouch she still wore around her neck. She felt the pointed end of her Blade of Neril through the thin leather, reminding her that there were worse ordeals than wearing a veil. She lifted her head and took her mother's hand. From now until the day she married, if any man would marry her, no man, not even her father, could see her face.

As they passed through the town several urchins began to follow them. They chanted a rude song that Kalil recognized as one she herself had sung in childish ignorance.

Hide the face,

Hide disgrace,

Drive the demon

From our place

Tama threatened them with her fist and took a step toward them. They laughed and ran away, but soon they returned, a few steps behind, but singing even louder. By the time the two women reached their isolated house near the river, it seemed all the children of the village had joined in the mob.

Only days before many of them had been Kalil's friends. She caught sight of Joden lumbering along among the smaller children, grinning as he repeated their rhyme. She wondered if he knew who he mocked. Surely, the presence of her mother should have warned him.

Then Doteren joined the unruly crew and for once she had reason to be grateful to him. He saw the look on her mother's face and turned back to the gang of harassing children. "You'll get no welcome at the new woman's feast if you make her cry," he warned.

At first his kindness surprised Kalil, then she saw him looking toward the wall where her younger sister, Fedil, sat. Kalil saw the grateful look Fedil gave Doteren and understood. In another year or so when Fedil became a woman, he would doubtless be repaid for his courage.

Her father, Vagan, tried to hide his dismay when he saw the mask she wore, but her sisters revealed their opinions in their efforts at sympathy.

"I don't think you are so ugly that you have to be veiled," Benil, her youngest sister, said to comfort her.

Kalil hadn't really thought much about her looks before this day. No one in Rubble Ford owned a mirror, but she had seen her reflection in puddles after rain. Until now there had been no sign that her face should be hidden.

Senna had mentioned other reasons when she insisted she should wear the veil, but the sympathetic looks from her family affirmed that it nothing less than a homely face had brought this shame on her.

At the feast to celebrate her womanhood the neighbors assured her that the veil made no difference, but those who came to share the feast did not linger as they had when other girls were feted.

Her father went to settle the animals and let the hounds out to guard the ford after her younger sisters had been sent to bed. Her mother tried to reassure her. "It is said that the priests of Orqu seek maidens who bear the mark of Marekla. Remember that Neril herself barely escaped their awful ritual."

Kalil nodded, but she thought the old stories about the cult of Orqu were exaggerated. It hadn't been the Orquians who had taken Neril captive. It had been Carnat, who had been a pawn in the hands of the witch Ayarlan.

Every young girl of Rubble Ford grew up with warnings not to wander lest the priests of the demon steal her and use her in unspeakable rites. Kalil dismissed the stories as myths meant to keep girls close to their homes.

Because she had a father with no sons, she had often been called on to help him with his tasks and had more freedom than most girls. That ended when she began to wear the veil. Her father hired Doteren to help him with the farm and fishing.

When the dogs who guarded the ford gave warning of strangers she hid herself. In former years the Mareklan merchants had been welcomed by the entire village. Now, there were rumors that they abducted maidens who bore the mark of Marekla.

A few months later Drumon the clan chief and Senna visited Kalil's parents. After murmuring too low for her to hear for several minutes, Vagan asked Kalil to join them in the common room. "Senna has asked that you become her apprentice. You will continue to live at home, but you will learn her secrets."

Drumon stepped forward. "What other future have you?"

Kalil looked from her mother to her father and they nodded. She had feared Senna since her early childhood, but now it seemed far better to spend her days in something useful than staying in the house all day while her sisters displayed their superior skills. She had a knack for cooking, but in a house with three others nearly as skilled, she felt unneeded. As soon as she began to wear the veil she could no longer leave the village. As the healer's apprentice she would be free to search for herbs in the fields and forest.

"I will do as you suggest," she told Drumon. "As you say, what other choice do I have."

She entered Senna's service reluctantly, but soon she found that she enjoyed learning the secrets the old woman shared with her. She learned new uses for familiar herbs and substances. One day the old woman surprised her with a compliment. 'I have watched you since your childhood, Kalil. I knew what must happen to you when you became a woman, and I saw that you were quick and loved to learn. I could not ask for a better apprentice."

Her knack for cooking extended to a knack for making remedies and curing sickness. Soon the villagers sought her out whenever sickness weakened a family member.

It took some time before Joden adjusted to her new situation. At first he kept his distance, suspicious of her veil. At last he approached her to ask her to mend a tunic he had torn because he feared his mother's sharp tongue.

After that, he often visited her, but his attitude had changed. Instead of seeing her as a mentor and protector, he treated her as a servant. It made her furious to see the expression of condescension on his stupid face whenever he talked to her.

As first Fedil and then Benil were put through the rites of womanhood and began to wear the embroidered dress that marked their new status as young women, but neither of them wore a veil. Kalil provided matlas for their feasts. The flat rounds of griddle- baked bread were eaten at every meal, plain or wrapped around meat or fruit and everyone in Rubble Ford said Kalil made the best matlas.

Kalil adjusted to her new life as time went on. She particularly liked searching for new remedies to help her neighbors heal from wounds and illness. She tried to dismiss the silly taunts from ignorant children who mocked her as she walked through the village, but each jibe reminded her that she had a face too ugly to be seen by others.

Doteren patiently continued his attentions to Fedil and one day he approached her father. When he left the house he saw Kalil going toward the river to fetch water for Senna. "Wish me joy! Your father has agreed that I may marry Fedil."

"But she is younger than I," Kalil said. "She may not marry until my future is settled."

"Yes, but as soon as you are married, our wedding will take place."

She shook her head, bewildered. The time since her coming of age had passed with no mention of her marrying. On the other hand, Senna had begun to press her to become her assistant. If she accepted Senna's offer, it would be the same as if she married.

"You should move to the Healer's House," Fedil urged her. "What man would marry a veiled woman?"

Kalil put her off. "You are young yet. Have patience."

She noticed that Doteren began to spend a lot of time with his cousin Joden. The friendship puzzled her, but she ignored it until the day that they came to her home together. Doteren did not speak, but his eyes prompted Joden as he stuttered out a reluctant offer to marry Kalil.

Fedil's face wore a smug little smile as she listened and she winked at Doteren as Joden finished his awkward proposal.

Kalil did not need to hide her own expression of reluctance. The veil, for once had its uses. How could she marry Joden? He had the mind of a child. Over the years she had often helped him and protected him from the jeers of other children, but to think of him as a husband and the father of her children seemed impossible.

She tried to think of a kind way to dismiss the offer, but in the end she simply asked him to wait until she made up her mind. Her mother excused herself to tend to clearing away the snacks that had been offered to the visitors and her father showed the two young men to the door. As soon as Fedil and Kalil were alone Fedil began to plead and threaten.

"It makes no sense for you to delay your answer. What other choice do you have. Joden is the only young man in the village who could be convinced to marry you."

Senna soon heard of the proposal and she laughed at the idea. "Surely you would be far better off to become my assistant before your father agrees to Joden's offer."

Two days after Joden had stuttered out his request for her hand, the widower, Raderen came to her home and requested to speak to her father. He hardly glanced at Kalil and at first she thought he might have other business to discuss, but when he left, Vagan asked Kalil to come with him while he settled the animals.

In the dim light of the musty shed he watched while she calmed a fractious corum. When she had successfully quieted the animal and brought water to the guard dogs, he finally spoke.

"Raderen has joined the ranks of your suitors Kalil."

"Raderen wants to marry me?" Kalil exclaimed, surprised. "He is as old as you."

"He has noticed your skill as a matla maker and wants to marry you and take you to Taleeka," Vagan said. "It would not be the first time he has taken a veiled wife from the village and gone to the city to further his schemes."

"You don't like him, do you?" Kalil asked.

Vagan shook his head. "He has influence with Drumon, but that is no asset as far as I'm concerned. Since returning to Rubble Ford, Raderen has provided several conflicting versions of the death of his last wife. I would be a poor father if I allowed you to settle for someone with his history."

"Would you prefer that I marry Joden?" Kalil asked.

Vagan shook his head. "I am troubled by both of your suitors. If there were other men applying for your hand in marriage I wouldn't consider either suit, but I doubt there will be others. Senna has been pressing me to convince you to become her assistant. It would bring honor on our family if you become the healer when Senna dies."

"Must I make the choice now?" she asked.

"With both the chief's son and his closest crony seeking your hand in marriage, matters will soon come to a head. I leave the choice to you."

Kalil nodded. "I know that most fathers would welcome any opportunity to marry off an ugly daughter."

Her father flinched at her words, but he did not deny them.

When Raderen and Joden returned the next day to find out which of them had earned Vagan's approval he turned them both away without an answer. Soon after a messenger appeared with a summons for him to appear before the council that evening.

Kalil watched her father leave the house after the family finished their meal. She knew his errand. She wanted more time but tomorrow she must choose.

Vagan had not returned when the hour late grew and Kalil lay in her bed and listened to the sounds of the house as her two younger sisters slept beside her. Her mother hummed a quiet hymn as she mended by the dying fire in the common room.

The sounds of her father's boots on the rocks near the gate brought Kalil upright in her bed. Her heart beat faster as she listened to her mother's greeting. "You were late coming home Vagan. Why were you summoned to the council?"

"Drumon has decided Kalil must choose between Joden and Raderen. He says it is past time for her to leave our hearth and make a home of her own. While she is in our home the elders will not permit any man to marry one of her younger sisters."

Kalil heard her father leave the house to see to the guard dogs who would keep strangers from using the ford. She quietly rose from her bed and began to gather her possessions into a pack. As soon as her parents slept she would leave. "Where are you going Kalil?" Her mother asked from the doorway. "Would you leave us like this with no farewell?"

"I heard Father, and I won't choose either Raderen or Joden. If I stay, I'll have no choice but to marry a man I don't want."

"Joden has been your friend since childhood. He loves you," her mother said quietly.

"I don't respect Joden as a wife should respect her husband. He has the mind of a child. Would you have asked your other daughters to accept him?"

"Joden may be too simple for you, but Raderen is clever," Tama said. "If he takes you to Taleeka as he plans, your skill in cooking and your cleverness with numbers would help him become even more successful than he is."

"Raderen is a miser," Kalil protested. "He took Zennal to the city and returned much richer but without the girl he married. What happened to her? Where are the other girls he married? Would the same thing happen to me?"

"There another choice," her mother said. "You are valued by Senna. Many prefer your skills as a healer."

Kalil looked toward her sisters who slept soundly. "I have been trying to make a choice, but none of them is what I want. If I become the village healer, I will never be allowed to marry."

"You will not wed, and yet you want to marry," her mother murmured with a tiny smile. "I can see you hardly know your mind."

"For the sake of my sisters I must leave Rubble Ford. You could prevent me. All you have to do is alert Drumon to my plans."

"I will not betray you Kalil," her mother promised. "If you go to a city, you can find shelter in one of the clan hostels of my family. The one in Taleeka is near the eastern gate. In Zedekla it is on the street of the flower merchants. There is a banner of blue and gold marking the gate."

"Thank you mother," Kalil said. She reached out her hands and pressed Tama's fingers with gratitude.

"Remember Kalil, you will only be safe if you always wear your veil," Tama warned her. "Sleep now. I'll lift the latch after your father comes in." Tama gathered her daughter into her arms and hugged her. "Stop by the hearth when you go. I'll leave some things that will ease your way as a matla maker."

"You know what I intend to do?" Kalil asked.

"I know the way your mind works," Tama said. "You think you should reap the reward of your talent rather than give the profits of your labor to a greedy man,"

Kalil hugged her mother again, trying in vain to put all her love and anxiety into that final embrace. She rested her face against the plump arms that had raised her, smelling for perhaps the last time the mixture of scents that identified her mother. Tears brightened Kalil's eyes beneath the veil when she finally let go of her mother and returned to her bed.

She heard her father return to the house. The murmur of her parents' voices lulled her and she slept. Some inner signal woke her when the house grew quiet. For a moment she struggled with herself. Would it be better to stay in the well known precincts of the village and marry Joden?

She fought off the lure of the safe and familiar and rose from her cot. After dressing she shrugged into her pack. Her grandmother had given her a spindle made of corum horn and she stuck it in her sash to use as a weapon. When she stopped near the hearth to look for the package her mother had promised, she saw a crock of leaven packed with other ingredients for matlas.

For generations the leaven had been passed from mother to daughter, usually on the eve of a wedding. Holding back tears, she packed the crock beside the bags of spices and meal her mother had left out for her.

Squaring her shoulders, she quietly left the house and stood for a moment on the doorstep. Only the familiar sound of rushing water from the Opeta river broke the silence. She opened the gate in the tall wall that surrounded the family compound. Four sets of glowing eyes turned toward her. After a low whine from the leader of the pack the guard dogs caught her familiar scent and stood alert but quiet when she stepped out of the courtyard. The gate fastened from the inside and the latch would fall into place when she pulled it shut behind her.

She stepped through and closed the gate. The bar thudded back into place. To return to the comfort of the hearth, she would need to ring the gate bell and wake her father. After another hesitation, she turned toward the sound of the river and made her way to the ford that gave the village its name.

She paused to hitch the skirt of her gown and secured it under her sash so that it fell to her knees. Tucking her buskins into a belt pouch, she started across the river. There were twenty- seven stones from one side to the other and she counted carefully to avoid falling when she reached the opposite shore.

At last she counted the twenty- seventh step and knew that the next step should carry her down to the soft soil of the bank. If she had miscounted, she could fall into the rapids thrashing below the ford. She said a brief prayer before she extended her foot and took the last step.

Her foot sank into the cold sand of the river bank and water swirled ankle high but she rocked forward and stood with both feet on the bank. Then she turned for one last look at the village. The dark houses were hardly visible against the deep gloom of the surrounding forest.

"May the Radiance bless my family," she prayed. She turned and set her face to the west and the wooded hills that stood between Rubble Ford and the great city of Zedekla. The white stones that marked the edges of the path shone faintly in the starlight as she made her way up from the river.

The damp veil clung against her face making it difficult to breathe. She lifted it away from her mouth and nose to take a deep, refreshing breath. She remembered the way she felt about wearing the veil when Senna first fastened it in place. No one would know if she discarded it. After a moment of hesitation, she ripped the veil away.

The breeze felt cool and welcome against her naked cheeks. She twisted the veil until it curled into a knot then tied the ends together and lifted one of the white stones that lined the path. After burying the hated symbol of her isolation and ugliness she replaced the rock and smoothed the dirt around. A sense of freedom filled her with the baring of her face. She vowed that she would never veil her face again.

Chapter 2 The Journey

Kalil stood and hurried along the track. It should be hours yet before her father and sisters woke and discovered she had left her home. How soon after would word spread to the council? She felt certain that Raderen would insist that she be tracked and recovered. The road curved to the south and dawn already lit the eastern sky with a pale pink glow when she felt overcome with weariness. How could she evade those who would pursue her without leaving the trail and becoming lost?

Once again she raised her hands in prayer. When she lowered them, she saw a caravan of men coming up the path toward her. They wore the distinctive capes and staffs of Mareklan Merchants. An impulse that she connected with her prayer for help caused her to fall in behind them after the last of them passed by her.

She felt a moment of panic when she realized they were headed back toward Rubble Ford, then the leader left the track and started up a trail she hadn't noticed in the dark. It led upward at an angle, making frequent cutbacks up the steep slope. Kalil struggled to keep the Mareklans in sight.

She stumbled over the hem of her long gown and he weight of her pack. Her breath grew ragged with the strain of trying to keep up. Suddenly the men in front of her came to a halt. They lowered their staffs and dropped their packs at their feet. Kalil stopped and tried to catch her breath before they broke their rest and started up again.

Their leader looked back at her. "Do you come from Rubble Ford?" he asked.

When she nodded, he held up his hand. "We would have stopped you from following if we had not seen the mark of Marekla and knew you were of the blood of Irilik. Have you not heard that we are dangerous when we are tracked along our secret ways? We will rest for a time. Do not follow us any longer unless you are willing to go to Marekla and never return."

"I will be lost in the wilderness if you leave me here," she said.

"When you reach the top of the pass that cradles the moon, you will be able to see the road to Zedekla. The way is difficult but you are young and strong or you would not have kept up with us this far," he replied.

Kalil said nothing more. For a moment she felt tempted to ask them to take her to Marekla, but Neril had chosen freedom from that hidden city, and so would she. She sank to her haunches and drank from her water skin. While she reached into her pack to find something to eat, the Mareklans rose and disappeared into the forest.

Her long hours on the path from Rubble Ford and up the trail following the Mareklans had left her weak with weariness. Looking around, she saw a thick tree with large branches that split and formed a saddle several feet above the ground. She clambered into the fork of the tree and arranged her cloak and pack to support her while she rested.

The pale crescent moon lay cradled like a shining, swaddled infant in the notch between two peaks on the horizon. The forked tip of a tall nop tree near the pass seemed to reach toward the moon and she marked its location. It would guide her even when the moon had risen. She took off her broad brimmed peasant hat and relaxed into the fork of the tree.

She raised her hands and prayed her gratitude. The murmuring of the wind in a nearby grove of nop trees lulled her.

Several hours later she woke and saw the sun midway up the sky. She reached for her waterskin and took a drink of the stale water. The sound of a stream nearby enticed her to leave the tree and refill her waterskin with fresh, cool water. She climbed down from her perch in and stretched to relieve her cramped muscles. Her eyes were caught by the fresh tracks of large paws near the base of the tree. The yellow wirra that had left the spoor might easily have reached her. She uttered a rapid prayer of fervent gratitude.

The stream issued from a spring covered with the bright green leaves of her favorite water herb. After gathering a supply of herbs and refilling her waterskin she washed her face and feet in the refreshing water.

After eating a matla wrapped around a handful of water leaf, she made her way warily away from the territory of the wirra made her way through high mountain meadows rich with grass and flowers. By late afternoon the pass seemed no nearer. The mountains that framed it were larger than she had assumed. Finally, as the sun began to set between the cradling peaks, she found a sheltered niche in the rocky face of a cliff and curled up in her shawl for the night.

As soon as she woke, she sought out a clear pool and quickly took off the plain work dress she had slept in. Soap leaf grew near the pool and she gingerly washed all over with the foaming pulp of several leaves before wading into the chilly water and rinsing herself clean.

A raptor hung overhead on the rising air and she laughed up at the bird. Old Senna would have been shocked. Kalil ducked herself in the water again before wading out and turning to wash out her dress. She dressed in the only other dress she owned and draped the damp clothing over a bush while she considered breakfast. She decided to prepare a fresh batch of matlas for the journey ahead.

She found a flat stone suitable to make a griddle. After carrying dry grass and branches to the stone she focused the sun on the tinder with her fire stone. When the fire burned steadily, she added larger sticks, then covered the whole with damp leaves. While the sticks burned into coals, she mixed her meal and spices with a portion of the leaven, setting the soft dough aside to rise when it turned glossy with kneading.

A dish full of water rested on the coals and she dropped herbs into it when it began to steam. Soon the fragrance of cala rose and filled the air around her.

After pushing the cup from the center of the damped fire with a forked stick, she brushed the coals from the stone with a whisk of branches. Then she quickly tore lumps of dough from the larger mound and formed them into flat cakes to spread on her improvised griddle. Soon the enticing scent of hot cala blended with the smell of the baking matlas.

While she waited for the matlas to bake, she considered the remark the Mareklan leader had made. He said she bore the mark of Marekla, a familiar phrase, but what did that mean? She knew her face wasn't pretty like those of her five sisters. They had small round noses with dimples in their cheeks. Her mouth was wide beneath a narrow, high nose. Instead of the dark amber eyes of her sisters, she had large, dark eyes, but she knew of no mark on her smooth cheeks or high brow.

Her thoughts were diverted by the signs that the first of the matlas were ready to be turned. She lifted them with a forked stick and turned them over to bake on both sides. The mystery of the mark of Marekla still puzzled her, but she had work to finish before she started off again.

When the griddle stone began to cool, she raised her hands and blessed the day and the food she had prepared. She lifted the first matla to her mouth closed her eyes to savor the first fragrant bite.

"Please let me share your food," a man said.

The sound of the voice startled her and Kalil jumped to her feet and whirled around. A oung man stood several feet away, his hands extended in front of him in supplication. From boots to cap his clothing bore the mark of quality and his speech formal. But more than his fine speech or the luxury of his dress, there was something familiar about the elegant lines of his bone structure. Then she noticed his eyes.

They stared beyond her without focus. Compassion welled up in her. The beautiful young man could not see. She put down her cup and rushed to his side, stopping him just before he walked into a thorn bush.

"You are welcome to share my food. I have plenty for both of us."

She took his hand, guiding him to sit beside her. After handing him the cup and putting a matla in his other hand, she finished the matla she had started eating.

He drank and ate avidly as she offered him more servings. At last he seemed sated after finishing three cups of cala, two of water and six matlas, greatly reducing the supply she had planned would last until she reached Zedekla.

"That is the best meal I've ever eaten," he sighed as he patted his middle with contentment.

"They say that hunger is the best spice," Kalil said. "How long has it been since you last had anything to eat?" She noticed that his legs were scratched and his clothing gave signs of falls and scuffs.

"My cousin invited me to join him while he hunted. I can't see to hunt, but I enjoy the fresh air of the mountains. Somehow I became separated from the hunting party three days ago. Though I stayed near the camp called out, no one came. Finally I tried to make my way to a village."

"How have you survived?" she asked, remembering the wirra tracks that she had seen near her first refuge.

"Not very well. I tried to go toward Zedekla, using the direction of the sun to set my course, but it is a slow way to proceed when there are so many trees and hillsides to cut off my sense of the sun's heat on my face."

The young man hesitated, then he spoke again. "I'm afraid my companions deliberately abandoned me. I'm Nerik, crown prince of Zedekla and some feel that a blind man should not be king. What is your name that I may thank you?"

"I'm Kalil, a peasant from the eastern hills."

He nodded, then extended his hand and touched her fingers with a gentle gesture of thanks. "You saved my life Kalil. The scent of your cooking guided me. You are an answer to the prayers I have uttered almost constantly since becoming lost. I need a guide to take me to Zedekla. Have you a father, or brother, or husband who might help me?"

"No. I'm alone. We are far from any villages. I'm going to Zedekla to make my fortune cooking matlas."

"I can assure you of your success if what I ate is any indication. Would you lead me to the city?"

She sensed the blind prince would not welcome pity and kept her tone matter of fact. "If you're to come with me, we must start soon if we hope to reach the pass by sundown. I should see the road to Zedekla from the summit of the mountain pass."

She quickly rolled her dress and other supplies and packed them. At the last minute she put the dab of dough she had set aside into the leaven crock to freshen it. Then she stood and faced the pass.

Nerik followed close behind her. "Please keep talking or make noise so I can follow you," he said. She started singing to avoid spilling all her secrets into his sympathetic ears.

Although now and then she had to take his hand to lead him through the rougher places, His sense of hearing seemed to compensate for his loss of sight. They rested briefly in the shade of a tree at noon and Kalil shared her journey meat. When they started again, the land rose steeply.

"Be careful," she warned him. "The ground is rocky. I think I should take your hand until we reach the top of the pass." Her voice reflected her fatigue as she helped him climb a series of ledges. When they reached the top of the pass, she could trace path of the road below from the rows of trees that lined it.

It lay like a spider's thread near the winding course of a river. The plain spread beneath them like a quilt of green crops. At the line where hazy green met the blue of the sky lay a thread of gold that marked the distant glistening edge of the Western Sea.

"What is it?" Nerik asked when she stopped.

"We've reached the top of the pass and I can see the road to Zedekla. I think I can see the sea from here. It will take us another day to descend to the plain. We don't have much daylight left. Stay here while I look for a camping place."

A fork in a tree or a niche in a rock had been sufficient for her alone, but the night air at this height grew chill and she wanted something better for the prince. She finally found a campsite that met her needs. An ancient watchtower perched on a ledge near the path. It had no roof but the stone walls offered protection from wild beasts and a shield for the fire she planned to make. It would be best if those who had abandoned the prince did not see the flame.

She returned to Nerik and guided him to the tower. He placed his hand on the lintel of the low door and fingered the symbols etched in the worn stone. "The legionnaires of Saadena erected this tower six hundred years ago," he said.

"I thought tales of Saadenan imperial power were myths. My mother's people were Saadenan refugees who settled in Rubble Ford during the reign of the witch Ayarlan. My grandmother was just a child when they left the city but she told me it was a dry and dreary place. How could it have been the seat of an empire?" Kalil asked.

"Have you heard of Marnat who stole the Scroll of Prophecy and History?" Nerik asked

"The scroll found by Saint Neril?"

"Yes. Some say that Marnat's wickedness caused the Radiance to change the face of the land and separate the rivers that formed the great Comor. Tell me, did you see any sign of such a river when you looked out from the top of the pass?" Nerik asked.

Kalil turned from the door of the tower and gazed over the darkening plain. To the north she saw a gleam of several lakes that caught the silver light of the evening sky. "Yes, there may have been a river to the north. Only a few lakes remain."

"Sometimes it is difficult to separate reality from legend," Nerik said. "I have heard the histories and genealogies of my family, and the stories of Neril and Tharek seem incredible. But what could be stranger than this adventure of mine? Abandoned in the wilderness and near death, when I turned to prayer, an angel of mercy saved me."

"I am no angel," Kalil scoffed.

"Sergon told me that an angel is one who serves the will of the Radiance."

"You know Sergon?! Surely not the same Sergon Neril saved when she slayed the great serpent?"

"He is the same," Nerik assured her. "He is my mother's great- grandfather and he is the Seer of the Radiance."

Kalil's mouth fell open in astonishment. To be in the company of a prince of Zedekla had been a wonder. To find that his ancestors included both Neril and Sergon had been amazing, but to be on familiar terms with one of the legendary Seers of the Radiance fell well beyond her comprehension.

Nerik felt his way into the tower and groped around the walls. "This will make a good camping place," he said to his suddenly silent companion. "I have a fire striking rod to start a fire if you can gather some wood."

Kalil found a dead tree and broke off enough wood to keep their fire going until morning. As the night darkened and a cold wind whistled around the tower, their shelter remained warm. The crackling fire and the ease of Nerik's conversation melted Kalil's reserve and soon she was laughing and telling him some of the stories she had heard as a child.

"In Rubble Ford the men of the council worship the hero chief who slew the great serpent," she told him. "The beast is filled with sand and stones and hangs on the wall over the bench of the chief. It still retains the odor of oil brush. Of course the women know the serpent was slain by Saint Neril."

"I thought that Rubble Ford is an outpost of Mareklans," Nerik said.

"Long ago it may have been. Over time, my ancestors began to resent their loss of freedom to make treks as their kinsman did. Without more than cursory contact with their cousins, many of them began to diverge from the true faith of their fathers. Totems and magic began to replace the worship of the Radiance. When Saadenans came and began to intermarry with my people we learned how far we had wandered from the truth. Even now most of the men belong to a cult that follows superstition. My father is a good, wise man, but his belief in the Radiance and the mission of Neril have kept him from gaining a voice in our village leadership. Some say that the ghost of Theodorn has cursed him for his apostasy from the male cult by giving him only daughters."

"How could a man count himself accursed if he has daughters such as you? Nerik muttered.

"I did not say my father felt accursed," she responded tartly. "His only sorrow is in me. I am marked in a way that makes me ineligible for a good marriage."

"Is that why you have traveled so far from home to seek your fortune in the city?" he asked.

"I had to choose to marry either a simpleton or an evil man. I could have become assistant to the village healer, but that would have meant giving up any chance to marry."

"I can see that you had no choice but to flee," he said with a smile. "You would not wed, and yet you want to marry."

She stared at him for a moment as she heard the echo of her mother's words. "You may mock me, but I stand by my decision. I will go to Zedekla and find my fortune there."

"If the matlas you fed me are any indication, you will find your fortune in Zedekla. Nothing is more welcome than someone with a better way of making matlas or a new recipe for sweetmeat. There are wealthy men and women in the city who started with less that what you offer," Nerik said.

He yawned and Kalil realized how long they had been talking in the comfort of their cozy camping place. "It is late," she said. "I will damp the fire and we must try to sleep."

She felt it would be unseemly to share such a close shelter with the prince. When he settled down in the long grass near the walls and fell asleep she rose and took her extra dress from her pack. Slipping through the door of the tower, she huddled near the entrance and wrapped her stole and extra dress around her for warmth.

Something tickled her ankle and she reached down carefully, afraid that she might encounter a scorpion's sting. Instead, she felt the slick smooth skin of a little snake winding itself around the warmth of her ankle. From the shape of its head when she touched it she could tell it was not a viper that could poison with its bite.

"You are cold like me," she murmured with a smile. "I will keep you warm tonight."

She slipped the tiny serpent into an empty belt pouch and fastened the neck of the pouch loosely before she nestled it under her arm. By the time she woke it would likely have found its way to freedom.

She woke to the sensation of the snake climbing up her arm and she marveled as she took it in her hand and looked at its brilliant green in the morning light. "You would fool anyone into thinking you a grass viper with that color," she muttered as she let the little animal coil around her fingers and slide from hand to hand.

"Who are you talking to?" Nerik asked from the door of the tower.

"I've gained a friend. Last night a small snake tried to warm himself around my ankle, and this morning he is twining around my fingers instead of taking the chance to slip away."

"Perhaps you should accept his offer of friendship," Nerik said. "May I hold him?"

Kalil held up the snake and let it sense the prince's fingers with its flicking tongue. After a moment, it slid off her hand and coiled up Nerik's arm like an elegant enameled bracelet. A rounded lump midway down its length marked the remains of a recent meal.

Nerik smiled and reached over with his free hand to lightly stroke the brilliant green scales. "I sense that you have found a friend."

"It would be better to leave it here where it can find its natural prey," Kalil said, but when she slipped the snake from Nerik's arm and held it close to the ground, it recoiled and crawled up her sleeve, poking its head above her collar but otherwise inaccessible. "It seems to want to stay," she said with a giggle as the forked tongue tickled her neck.

"In some stories snakes are associated with evil, but in the annals of Tharek it mentions that a serpent such as this once saved his life. Perhaps we should accept it as a sign of favor," Nerik said.

Willing to follow his suggestion she decided to leave the snake undisturbed. It seemed unwilling to leave the shelter of her neckline and even though Nerik could not see, she hardly thought it proper to disrobe merely to be rid of it.

The hearth where they had laid their fire lay flat on the ground like a griddle. She made a new batch of dough and brushed away the still glowing coals of the fire.

Soon the air filled with the scent of baking matlas and after they had eaten the first few, she prepared enough to save for the journey that still lay ahead.

The remains of the old Saadenan road were still evident through the grass and low foliage of the western side of the pass and they made swift progress downward during the day. By late afternoon they reached the foothills that edged the plain.

"The Saadenans built their watch towers about a day's march from each other," Nerik said. "Perhaps we can find another tower to make our camp tonight."

They discovered the remains of another tower, but the walls had crumbled. Most of the shaped stones had been carried away. It rose barely high enough to shield the glow of their fire from possible observers on the plain below, but Kalil could not discover any better shelter after scouting for some distance around the track.

As soon as she leaned over to lay the fire, she felt the snake slip away into the grass and felt a sense of loss. Soon the fire warmed the night as they ate a meal of matlas and cala with dried meat.

"By noon tomorrow we will reach the plain and the pilgrim road," Kalil said. "From there it should be easier to travel."

"It may not be wise for me to travel on the main track, especially if there is a conspiracy against me." Nerik said. "You will be in danger if you continue to help me."

"I will not abandon you now," Kalil insisted. "If you are willing to let me make a few changes to your clothing, I think we can travel quite safely. I have reasons of my own for entering Zedekla in disguise. One of my suitors may try to track me."

Nerik smiled. "There are times that I truly wish that I could see. You must be a beauty to have such avid suitors."

Kalil shook her head, then realized that he could not see her silent denial. "I had to wear a veil to hide my face when I lived in Rubble Ford. No pretty girl is required to bear such shame. Raderen only wanted me because of my skills and Doteren, Joden's cousin, who courted my younger sister bullied Joden into his proposal."

Nerik did not try to reassure her. She felt grateful for his silence. He had no way of knowing what she looked like. It would be futile to contradict her words.

She slipped outside the barrier of stones and left him to find a sleeping place. With her chin on her knees, she began to indulge in a spate of self pity. A tickling sensation at her ankles brought her out of her brooding and she felt the familiar sensation of the little snake as it wound itself around her leg. Her fingers quickly identified the familiar narrow wedge of the head. It seemed unlikely that the snake had returned, but even more unlikely that it was another of the same size and species. It settled around her knee, and she felt a measure of comfort from its presence.

She raised her hands and invoked the Radiance in blessing on the days ahead. With the possibility of pursuit by Raderen for her, and the likelihood of danger for Nerik, they would need a special help from heaven to evade their enemies.

When morning came, Kalil woke again to the sensation of the little snake as it slithered up her sleeve to its now familiar perch under her collar. She stood and stretched. The sky over the plain below shone fair, but dark clouds hovered over the mountains in the east moving slowly westward. The wind carried the scent of rain. The day gave every sign of becoming stormy.

Once again she invoked the Radiance. She had never before been in the habit of praying almost constantly, but she had never before been so aware of the need for help from powers beyond herself.

Nerik's voice joined her murmured prayer and she felt relief that he had joined in her plea. As soon as she lowered her hands, she turned to her pack. "Rain is threatening. We should leave as soon as possible. You must wear my peasant hat and my extra gown. I will wear your tunic and cap."

She ripped the feathers and trim from the cap before dulling the bright color with dust. When Nerik had pulled the gown over his head, he handed her the tunic. She hated to destroy the beauty of the garment, but surely he had others just as fine. Made of sturdy dark blue fabric, it had torn and become soiled from his lengthy wanderings. She used her knife to remove the braid and trim before taking off her gown and pulling the tunic over her head.

After tying a sash around her waist, she attached the assorted belt pouches that contained everything from extra matlas to the coiled braid and trimming she had removed from his cap and tunic. He handed her the chains and jewels he had been wearing and she tucked them into her pack.

She pondered his feet. His long feet would not fit into her buskins, but his boots had become scuffed and dulled. If no one looked too closely, they should pass as peasant wear.

She mixed a paste of flour and water and daubed it on his hair beneath the hat. Then she rubbed it into the skin of his face and neck until he looked pale and aged. She stood back and giggled at the effect of her handiwork.

"Anyone who sees us will think you an aged dame with a servant to lead you on your way," she chuckled.

She stuffed her wild black curls into his cap and picked up a stick from the side of the road. It still had a few branches clinging to its length, but she broke them off and prepared to start out down the track. "Come Granny, we will be late to market."

Nerik laughed as he stood and took her arm. "Be more respectful of your elders, child," he whined in an shivery falsetto.

"We must be careful not to betray the truth," she warned him. "When I signal you that there are others on the road, lower your head and bend your knees so that you shuffle."

They met no one until they came to the pilgrim road, but soon they were almost constantly in sight of some traveler or village. A troop of pilgrims passed them headed toward Timora and they parted and made way for the elderly blind woman and her guide with murmurs of sympathy.

The storm held off and only a few scattered showers caught them in the open. They stopped to take a quick meal at a pilgrim inn at midday and Nerik paid the host with a coin small enough to leave no undue memory of the pair.

That night Kalil found an inn with private rooms. She settled Nerik in a room and took her pace outside his door, huddled in her shawl. At least the roof of the inn provided more protection than she had enjoyed for several nights, but she slept uneasily, waking at every movement in the passageway.

They were still several leagues from the city when the sun began to set the following day, Knowing that Nerik had money to pay their fare, Kalil did not hesitate to seek out another inn when they came to a village.

After settling Nerik and watching until he slept, Kalil squatted outside the door and fell into a light sleep. She hardly noticed when her snake slithered away to hunt. The sound of thunder woke her in the night and a blue flash of light presaged another rumble. She shivered and tucked her arms more firmly around her knees. They had been fortunate to find the inn with such weather in the offing.

The voices of travelers greeting the inn keeper woke Kalil. She stood and stretched, feeling the effects of her night of uneasy sleep. She knocked on the door of the room and heard Nerik stirring within. When he opened the door for her, she saw her little green snake curled around Nerik's hand with the telltale bulge of a recent meal half way down its length. "It seems my pet has mixed loyalties."

"He slithered up my fingers when I woke up. I doubt he has any intention of leaving us. Perhaps we should give him a name."

"Theodorn!" Kalil said with a chuckle. "We will name him Theodorn. You remember what I told you about the council of Rubble Ford. He is credited with killing the serpent that hangs in the council hall."

"But Neril and her companions killed the serpent," Nerik said.

"Therefore, Theodorn could not have killed the serpent," Kalil said. "Now he is a serpent."

Nerik shook his head. "I fail to see what you find amusing."

Kalil giggled as she set to work repairing his disguise, rubbing the paste of flour over his skin and into his hairline. Her fingers seemed to act without her will, lingering on the firm column of his neck and she quickly drew away from him, afraid that he might guess the way she felt. He was a handsome prince and she an ugly peasant. She could spare no time for impossible dreams.

"Come, we must hurry," she said. "We can gain the city by nightfall if nothing interferes."

As the hours passed and they met others traveling to or from the city, Kalil's efforts at disguising the prince seemed to have been successful. Few of the people they passed gave them a second glance.

They finally entered the gates of the city of Zedekla at nightfall when the watchmen were preparing to close the tall gates that would keep wild beasts and bandits from the city streets.

"We have come through the East Gate near the river," Nerik said as he lifted his face to test the air and the sounds around them. "I know my way from here. Come, follow me to the palace and receive a reward for your service."

"You no longer need my help," Kalil said. "I will find a place in the clan house of my mother. Goodbye Nerik."

Kalil felt tears begin to well from her eyes and run down her cheeks. Before he could urge her to come with him, she turned and ran down the nearest alley. The fading fragrance of flowers led her to the street of the flower sellers where her mother had told her she would find a clan hostel.

Chapter 3 The Matla Maker

The gold and blue banner at the door of Bira Clan hostel showed dimly in the moonlight. Kalil recognized the sign of a yellow wirra with its paw raised from similar image on a pendant her mother wore.

When she pulled the lever that rang the bell, the gate keeper peered out through a small window to look her over, then he opened the gate far enough to let her enter.

"You are too late to share the evening meal," he said, "but you will find the young men's dormitory at the top of the left- hand stairway over the bathing room."

Kalil pulled the cap from her head, releasing her cloud of curly black hair that tumbled to below her shoulders. "I thought it unwise to travel as a maiden alone."

The watchman chuckled and gestured toward a set of stairs to the right. "You will do well in Zedekla, young woman. Just remember to show the same care in the streets of the city."

The Kalil found an empty cot and chest near the end of the wide room provided for maidens. The watchman had mentioned a men's bathing room. She took her one remaining dress and slipped out of the room and down the stairs to find the women's bath.

A painted flower marked the door of the women's bathing room. A running stream supplied the pool in the middle of the room with a constant supply of fresh water. When Kalil took off her tunic and stepped into the pool she found that it cool, but not as chilly as the pond where she had taken her first bath.

A brief thought of Nerik teased her mind, but she quickly banished the thought of watching for him. He represented an ideal, a dream that would guide her future standards for what a man could be. His courage in the face of betrayal and abandonment, his humor and reverence, the way his mouth quirked when he found something amusing in what she said..

Kalil ducked under the water again and tried to wash away the thoughts that tantalized her mind. She would work hard and find success. She would be friendly and enthusiastic and someday a worthy man would see beyond her ugly features and discover something to be valued.

When she waded out of the bathing pool, she found a pile of clean worn cloths with which to dry herself. It felt good to dress in fresh clothing and feel clean after days of travel under the constant fear that she would be discovered or that Nerik's enemies would find them.

When she woke the next morning to a scream of fright, she sat upright and saw a crowd of girls around her cot. They were standing well back, but several of them pointed to her arm. She looked down and saw her little snake. Theodorn, waved his narrow head and flicked his forked tongue at the frightened girls.

"I will fetch Balga, the steward, to kill it," one of the girls volunteered. "Stay still or it will strike you."

"It is nothing to fear," Kalil said. She reached down and coaxed Theodorn onto her other hand and showed her awe struck audience how he slid from one of her hands to the other, weaving through her fingers like a self- propelled shuttle in a loom.

Several of the girls held up their hands with the fingers scissored as if to ward off the magic she made. "I am neither a witch nor a magician," Kalil said. "This is a harmless little animal that will do nothing more than keep the mice from our room."

"Is it poisonous?" one girl asked.

"It is not a viper. It has no venom," Kalil explained. "It takes its prey by coiling around it and then swallowing it whole. As you can see, none of you is likely to be eaten."

Some of the braver girls ventured closer. One of them even put out her finger to stroke the smooth, cool texture of the little reptile's scales.

Another girl kept her distance and still held her hand toward Kalil with the fingers scissored. "The snake is a sign of evil. We cannot trust anyone who is familiar with a serpent."

"You speak nonsense, Remina," another girl protested. "The arms of the city of Zedekla show a snake coiled around the sword staff of Tharek. The Radiance sent a serpent to help the hero."

"If it bothers you, I will keep it out of sight." Kalil assured them.

"It is pretty, like a piece of cunning jewelry," one girl cooed, edging close and daring to touch the narrow wedge of Theodorn's head.

Everyone laughed with either relief or delight when the snake abruptly flipped its head away from her tentative touch and recoiled down beneath the covering of the cot and out of sight. The girl who had tried to touch it blushed with chagrin. "It seems almost afraid of me. How strange."

Theodorn remained out of sight but Kalil could feel him coiled around her knee. His appearance had the effect of acquainting her with all the other maidens and they stayed to introduce themselves. They all had some Saadenen ancestry, but the exodus from Saadena that had taken place between the death of Neril and the return of the Scroll of Prophecy and History had introduced Saadenans to many other lands.

Like Kalil, most of the girls were of mixed ancestry, but Bira Clan hostel had been founded those who had come to Zedekla as single youths and maidens to make their way by engaging in some enterprise. There were weavers and potters, smiths and seamstresses, along with others who had no particular skill but were building dowries by working as servants or flower sellers.

"If you need something to do, you can come with me and sell flowers through the streets," one girl offered.

"I make matlas," Kalil said.

"Then you must ask Magin to assign you to a corner," another girl said. "He is the one who keeps order among the matla makers. It seems that every girl who comes up to Zedekla from a village in the country fancies that she can make a fortune selling matlas."

"Do you have a griddle?" another girl asked.

Kalil shook her head. She began to wonder if she had been a fool to think she could come to Zedekla and have success simply because the people of Rubble Ford had praised her skill.

"There is a griddle in the store room. A girl from Talka left it behind when she found a man to marry," another girl volunteered.

"You must also have meal and leaven and a loud voice to advertise your wares."

"I have all that," Kalil said. "Now you must give me space to get out of my cot or I will never make my fortune in the city."

By the time she had eaten breakfast in the common dining room, she had been introduced to most of the young men and women who lived in the hostel. With a memory honed by her apprenticeship with Senna, she retained most of their names.

Balga, the steward, showed her the griddle. It consisted of a round piece of slate, polished to a gleaming finish and mounted over a fire stand on slender bronze legs that folded. "What will you charge me for the rent of this griddle?" she asked Balga.

"We will settle it later," he said. "Not many are able to compete with the other matla sellers in Zedekla. Some of them resort to giving away free samples to attract a clientele. They give away so much that they are in debt to their suppliers before they ever make a profit. Now that you have a griddle, you must go to Magin and apply for a corner. He has a shop not far from the palace. Just stay on the main road when you get back to the east gate and you will see his sign of three gold enas over a copper yida on the right side of the street."

Leaving the griddle at the hostel, Kalil set forth to find Magin's shop. The streets were crowded and it seemed the other girls had told the truth when they told her that matla makers stood on nearly every corner. They ranged from youth to old age, tall to tiny, round to gaunt in clothing of varied design that marked origins from throughout Okishdu. She thought one tiny woman a child until she turned and Kalil saw her wrinkled face.

She glanced from side to side searching for the symbol Balga had described. The gate of the palace loomed ahead and she began to fear that she had passed Magin's shop. A gust of breeze sprang up and she heard the sound of ringing overhead. Looking up, she saw the sign she had been looking for. Three brass circles, as large as dinner plates, were embossed to resemble enas with the head of Zedekla's king. The copper yida under them rang against the brazen circles when the wind blew.

The door under the device stood open and Kalil looked inside. The walls of Magin's shop were hung with odds and ends that ranged from old swords to modern trinkets of Jaman brass. When Kalil entered the narrow door, she gazed around with fascination.

"Are you here to buy?" a voice screeched.

Kalil whirled toward the voice and chuckled. Magin's face reminded her of Senna, but he instead of wearing a dark gown he wore a tunic of bright zylka cloth and gemmed chains. A tasseled cap of fur hid the top of his head where a green bird clutched the tassel and studied Kalil with a beady eye.

"You clever bird," she exclaimed. "How did you teach it to talk?" she asked the old man.

"How did you know the bird talked to you? Did the others warn you?" he replied in a husky voice

"No one told me about your bird," Kalil replied. "But when I heard the question, it came from somewhat higher than your mouth."

"You are a clever maid," Magin chuckled. "Why have you come to my shop?"

"Do you assign the corners for matla makers," she asked. "I have a griddle, meal, leaven and spices to make savory matlas fit for a prince."

"And you are someone fresh and pretty to please the eye of jaundiced customers," the old man said

"You need not try to flatter me. I am clever, but I know as well as anyone that I am plain.

Magin shrugged, "I am surprised at your response. I will assign you a corner, but within the week you must show a profit or another will be given your place."

"What rent should I pay for the privilege?" she asked.

"Just wear a few of my prettier baubles in your hair and tell those who ask where you found them," he told her.

"Surely that is not enough to make a profit for you," Kalil protested.

"I make different arrangements according to what I think will bring me the most profit," Magin said. "I want you to make your matlas on the northwest corner of the square where the goldsmiths have their shops."

Kalil returned to the hostel with a handful of pretty trinkets of Jaman brass with glass inserts. When Balga found out which corner Magin had assigned to her he whistled. "He has taken a liking to you."

Kalil frowned. "I don't think he fancies me."

"I meant nothing evil," Balga assured her. "Magin is not a lecher. He keeps order in the city better than a squad of royal guards. Few things escape his notice. If he trusts you with the corner on the goldsmith's square, then I will expect that you will soon be able to pay your board and bed."

After getting directions to the corner, Kalil mixed a large batch of matla dough using all of her remaining meal, and put it in a dampened sack. She put a piece of the dough back into the leaven crock and added some water. It took only a moment to arrange the baubles Magin had loaned her. With the griddle folded and slung from her shoulder on one side and her sack of dough and a sling of wood for fuel suspended from the other, she made her way through the crowded streets of Zedekla, following the steward's directions until she found the corner of the gold smith's square.

The griddle included a striking stone to set fire to the tallow wood in the fire pot. After a few false starts, she had a nice fire going. The griddle resembled the tripod stove her mother used at home in Rubble Ford and soon the subtle spicy odor of her baking matlas filled the air.

By midday a steady stream of customers purchased every matla as soon as she lifted it from the griddle. Her matlas were golden and crusty outside and soft inside with a fragrance from the ingredients that brought the buyers back for more. Some of the women asked her about the baubles and she told them about Magin's shop.

"He sells only cheap, Jaman trinkets," one man said scornfully when he overheard Kalil.

She looked at him and saw the insignia of a goldsmith on his tunic. "You are a goldsmith," Kalil said. "Magin does not compete with you. If a woman develops a taste for gilt and glitter from the pretty things in Magin's shop, soon enough they will tarnish and she will come to you to purchase something lasting."

Laughter greeted her quick response. A clever comment from a pretty woman was as much valued as a tasty matla on the streets of Zedekla. Kalil ran out of dough and was forced to damp her fire and fold her griddle before the last customer in line had been satisfied. "I'll be back again tomorrow," she promised them.

She had collected more coins than her money pouch would hold and she turned into a street where millers sold their wares. She had used up the last of her supply of meal from Rubble Ford and it would be far safer to return to the hostel carrying meal than money.

Her folded griddle marked her as a matla seller and some of the millers tried to convince her to purchase meals of other grains or courser grind than those she knew. She shook her head and held out for the finest treva meal. Pinching it between her fingers to test the moisture and lifting it to her nose to detect any rancid odor, she finally nodded in satisfaction.

She bargained for the meal as she had seen others do and soon settled on a price. Before she left the shop with a bag large enough to supply her for another couple of days, she turned to the miller. "I will soon be one of your most valued customers if you serve me well."

"I believe you. An hour before you entered my shop I heard of your success in goldsmith's square."

She returned to the hostel before any of the other tenants and sought out Balga. "Today I used up my dough before I could satisfy all my customers. Is there some girl up from the country who could be an apprentice for me? I will pay her a tenth of what I earn before I take out the costs of meal and wood and my payment for this griddle."

The steward shook his head and chuckled. "I had expected you to enjoy some success when I heard that Magin gave you that corner on the goldsmith's square, but this exceeds my expectation. I have never heard of a matla maker with an apprentice. How do you plan to employ her?"

"I will set her to work making more dough before I leave hostel," Kalil said. "When the dough is ready, she can bring it to me along with more wood for my fire pot. That way, I will not have to disappoint those who are waiting for matlas. What should I pay you for my board here?"

"If your matlas are as fine as your success today forecasts, I will count your bill settled if you make them for our evening meal one day each week," As for the griddle, it cost me nothing. When you want a better one, you can leave this one here for another maiden to use."

When the other maidens and young men returned to the hostel at the end of their labors, most of them had already heard some version of Kalil's success, usually from rival matla makers. "It is said that she put a curse on the other matla makers," one young man muttered to a credulous companion. "Maga's matla's failed to rise and Ria's fire pot would not light."

Both the gossip and the man who listened to him turned toward Kalil and superstitiously scissored their fingers to ward against her magic.

One of the residents approached the steward. "The new girl uses magic. You must ask her to leave."

Balga frowned, but he said nothing to the gossip. When everyone had assembled for the evening meal in the common room, he waited until they had eaten their fill of the savory matlas that were stacked in perfect golden rounds near every plate.

When the last crumb of matla with minced vegetables and meat had been consumed, Balga strode to the front of the room and clapped his hands. "There is a serious matter before us," he announced. "Last night a young woman came to our hostel. Today I have heard that she must be put out on the streets. Is there anyone here who can tell me why I should do so?"

"She has put a curse on the other matla makers," a young man called out.

"There is a magic spell on the matlas she makes," another gullible youth shouted.

"Men buy her matlas because she flirts with them," a girl said.

"Is there anyone here who has seen Kalil at work?" the steward asked.

"I am the goldsmith's apprentice, Mulak," a young man stated. He stood and walked to the front of the room. "You speak of curses like foolish Jamans. You who have ancestors who knew Saint Neril should know there is no such thing as an evil curse. Accusations of magic and curses were rebuked by Irilik and all the prophets who followed him."

"Then why has she been accused?" Balga prompted Mulak.

"It is the last refuge of a fool to blame his fate on luck or curses instead of recognizing the role of chance and the better skills of another. Did Ria's fire pot fail to light? She buys wet wood from scoundrels. Did Maga's matlas lay flat and lumpen, and half scorched? They have always been so. I saw Kalil preparing her matlas. There is nothing evil in what she does."

The young man sat down and the maiden next to him patted his shoulder in approval, but an air of suspicion remained and Kalil felt chagrined by their distrust and frightened by the power of rumor to threaten all she had. Balga looked around and seemed to change the subject. "Have you enjoyed the meal you just ate?" There were nods and a few signed by patting their stomachs.

"Kalil prepared the matlas," the steward stated. "She has agreed to cook an evening meal for us once a week in return for her board and bed in the hostel. Now which of you still feels we should drive her away?"

Uneasy laughter greeted his question. Those who had been most avid against Kalil were scorned for their folly. Kalil stood and walked to the front of the room. She looked around, gazing into the eyes of everyone she had met that morning and lingering on those who had falsely accused her until they turned away.

"You have seen the power of rumor and how it works for ill," she said. "I would be your friend, but I cannot do so if there is distrust between us. If you have anything against me, do not gossip with others, but come to me and I will listen to what you have to say."

"What about the snake you keep?" Remina asked. "I fear it will get loose in the night and crawl into my cot."

"If you can prove that my snake ever bothers you in your bed, I will give you a golden ena," Kalil responded, flashing one of the coins she had converted with the steward for a pile of smaller coins.

Remina had a reputation for excessive fears and superstitions and a murmur of suppressed chuckles greeted Kalil's response.

Before she could go up to her room after dinner, Balga told Kalil he needed to speak to her. She entered his office and saw his serious face. "You are fortunate you found protectors among us today Kalil, but you are still in danger."

"Danger from silly rumors spread by jealous rivals?" she said.

"Yes they were rumors, but they were rumors of witchcraft and magic. Twenty- five years ago the cult of Orqu nearly succeeded in killing prince Talek and his new bride. The mob burned out their temple and felt themselves to be heroes. Since then there is nothing worse for anyone than to be accused as a witch or a demon worshiper. Men and women have been mobbed and taken outside the wall to be stoned. A few have died before the violence stopped. I feel you should have some men go with you tomorrow in case you meet with trouble."

Kalil considered his advice, then shook her head. "Who would you send? Many of the men living here in the clan house were willing to turn on me tonight. You and Mulak defused their suspicions, but I would be wary of the others acting as my guards. They might turn and end up leading the superstitious gossips who have wronged me."

"At least I can pray for you," Balga sighed.

It had been a long and tiring day for Kalil. Her shoulders ached from carrying the heavy sack of meal along with the folded stone and metal griddle and her heart still ached from being attacked so unfairly by the whispers of the mob. The other girls still seemed reserved around her.

Only one of them seemed warmly disposed. Kalil recognized Mira, the girl who had applauded Mulak for his defense of Kalil. Mira followed her to her cot and stopped to talk.

"Balga told me you wanted to find an apprentice to learn your craft and help you satisfy your customers," Mira said. When Kalil nodded. Mira continued. "I have been working as a servant for a courtier's family. They are quarrelsome and stingy and twice now I have been cheated of my wages. Balga said you had inquired about a girl fresh from the country, but I am strong and willing to learn what you have to teach me."

"I would be happy to have your help," Kalil assured her. "I noticed that you were unwilling to believe the rumors about me. I can use you as soon as you gain your release from your current employers."

"There is no problem there," Mira replied. "I told them I would return to work for them when they sent me my last month's wages. It has been five days since I left them and they have already employed another girl."

"Then we will begin tomorrow," Kalil said. "Meet me in the kitchen in the morning and I will teach you how to make the dough I use. There are some things about my methods that I want to keep in confidence. I think that I can trust you with my secrets." While Kalil spoke to Mira, Theodorn slithered from his habitual perch beneath her collar and glided down to curl around Mira's hand. Instead of being startled or frightened, Mira raised her hand and repeated Kalil's gesture from the day before, letting the little creature play the shuttle through her fingers.

"I am surprised that he isn't slimy," Mira said. "He's like a piece of zylka cloth on my skin, dry and smooth." She gently put the hand with Theodorn wound around it on Kalil's cot and the little reptile slithered onto the floor and over to the wall.

"I just hope he knows enough to avoid Remina's bed," Mira giggled as Theodorn flicked his tiny tail and disappeared through a mouse hole.

Mira met Kalil in the hostel kitchen early the next morning. "I used half of my meal and leaven to make matlas for the hostel yesterday," Kalil explained as she measured half of the remaining meal into the bowl. "There are three secrets to making the matlas I produce. First you must buy the freshest treva meal. I will take you to the miller with me tomorrow and show you how to make certain of buying the best. Next add leaven from the crock in proportion to the meal. I have doubled the size of the leaven I saved because I anticipated we will be using a great deal more in the future. Here is a packet of spices I add to the meal. It is a blend of my own and in time I will show you how to prepare it. You must add as many pinches as you add cups of meal. I know it seems like very little, but it is more of an essence in the steam than a flavor in the matla when it's done. Add one third as much warm water as meal and knead it until it is glossy."

As she spoke, she demonstrated what she meant and when the dough was ready to be kneaded, she handed half of it to Mira. "Some matla makers skimp on the leaven or do not knead the dough long enough. They soon find themselves among the unfortunate like Maga, with lumpen, doughy matlas."

Mira worked away at kneading the dough but it stuck to her fingers and the table long after Kalil had made her portion into a glossy coherent ball. Kalil watched her new friend wrestle with the stringy mass.

"There is something alive about the leaven and it expresses itself in a good lump of dough. You must understand and respect it. Work your hands like this," she demonstrated. "Don't be so dogged when you knead. It is much like meditation. When you stop trying, you will succeed."

Mira did not quite understand what Kalil meant, but she imitated her gestures and thought about how pleased Mulak would be when she told him of her apprenticeship with Kalil. As Kalil had indicated, when she stopped fighting the dough, it seemed to respond, loosening from her fingers and gathering itself into the same kind of glossy ball that Kalil had achieved.

"Very good," Kalil said. Her comment gratified Mira and she blushed with pleasure at the praise. "After I go, use the rest of the leaven in the crock to mix with the rest of the meal in the sack. Save a handful of the dough in the leaven crock with an equal amount of water and meal stirred together. After you have kneaded it, put the dough in a moist sack and bring it to me"

Kalil loaded herself with the griddle, wood and dough and started off for the corner of the goldsmith's plaza. When she neared the corner two women blocked her way.

"You are the witch who cursed us yesterday," one of them yelled in a piercing voice. Her crony, a bedraggled creature with red eyes, held up her dirty hands and made scissoring motions at Kalil.

A crowd quickly gathered to watch the fun. Kalil looked around and saw no one she knew. They were a rough and rowdy group of malcontents and some of them were already mimicking the red- eyed woman's gestures. Kalil prayed silently for some way to save herself from being cast out of the city or even stoned. She felt the tickle of Theodorn at her neck and raised her head to keep him from peering out and adding further fuel to the confrontation. Her eyes lit on a carved relief on the balcony of a building across the street. It showed a contest of arms and she had an inspiration.

"Some say I cursed their fires and their dough," Kalil said in a loud voice that carried to the edges of the crowd. There were murmurs of assent. "I will light the fires for the three of us and share my dough into three pieces. Whichever of us is first to sell all of the matlas we can make for a yida a piece, will decide my fate."

Even some beggars scorned to take a yida. The two rival matla sellers were still dubious, but the crowd roared their approval. The other griddles were much like the one that Kalil used, but she noticed that they were dirty and crusted with burns. If she were to be entirely fair, she would offer to clean them, but in doing so she would only offer her enemies another insult.

She leaned down to the blowsy woman's fire pot first and quickly got a fire started. When she turned to the other woman's griddle, she found no tallow wood inside the pot and had to split her own supply in half to start the fire. Finally she lit her own fire and took up her bag of dough to divide it equally.

"Just give each of us two hands' full," the blowsy woman snarled. "My griddle is already smoking."

Kalil quickly shared out the requested amount and turned from the others to make her matlas. She smelled scorched dough and heard a whine of anger, but she paid no attention to the others. As soon as hse finished her first batch of matlas she lifted them from her griddle and served them to eager hands for a yida each.

Before she realized it, she had worked her way through every last dab of her allotment of dough. Only then did she turn toward the other women. She found one of them arguing with a child, trying to force him to take a scorched misshapen matla from her apron. He turned and ran crying to his mother. The other woman had a pile of pale, still doughy, matlas on the ground near her griddle.

"I have sold all my matlas," Kalil challenged. "Can you say the same?"

"You used magic!" the blowsy woman screamed.

"She used skill," another voice proclaimed. Magin stepped into the space between the other matla makers.

"I have waited for you to show your hand Maga," Magin said to the blowsy woman who had consistently scorched her matlas. "I refuse to act on rumor, but now I have first hand evidence of your evil ways. The only thing worse than a witch is a slanderous gossip. Go back to Tagara and hope the husband you deserted is still willing to take you back. As for you, Ria, you were nearly as bad as Maga, listening to her fables about others and spreading her tales. You have no family, so I will give you a pilgrim's robe and send you to Timora. I hope you will find forgiveness for your sins with sufficient prayer."

The crowd laughed and cheered at the humiliation of the gossips, until Magin turned on them. "Go home and think how you were prepared to follow the will of these evil scandal- mongers. You bear the same blame as Maga and Ria. You were willing to listen to their slander. Some of you have blood on your hands from the last woman you banished and stoned."

Soon the street emptied. Magin turned to Kalil. "You are as clever as I suspected. When I heard of their gossip, I suspected they might waylay you, but I decided to wait and watch and see what happened. What made you think of having a contest with them?"

Kalil pointed to the carved relief over Magin's head. He turned and stared then chuckled, then he shook his head.

"Unfortunately you have used up most of your dough in this confrontation and the burghers you served yesterday will expect you at your regular place as you promised."

Just then Mira hurried up with a sling of wood suspended from one shoulder and a sack of dough from the other. "Am I late?" she asked.

"Who is this?" Magin asked.

"She is my apprentice. She brought another batch of dough," Kalil explained.

"One day in the city and you have an apprentice," Magin chuckled. "What will you do when you've been here a week? Go. Your customers are waiting."

Kalil found that Magin had not exaggerated. A line of people waited by her corner at gold smith's square. Some of them were whispering and exclaiming in horror and surprise as the news of Kalil's confrontation reached them. Ignoring their sympathetic looks and murmured offers of assistance, too little and too late. She set up her griddle and started the fire. The bag of dough that Mira had brought would have to serve. When she had used it all she planned to fold her griddle, no matter how many customers remained.

She found it hard to be lighthearted and responsive with the memory of her recent confrontation on her mind, but Mira's dimpled smiles and eagerness to learn how to cook matlas seemed to charm the waiting crowd. She soon showed that she could take the right amount of dough to roll and flatten onto the griddle and she watched Kalil for a while to learn how to judge the right moment when the matlas should be turned and when to serve them.

When Kalil offered Mira a chance to make the matlas from start to finish she soon produced matlas that were nearly as good as those made by Kalil. After observing Mira for a few minutes, Kalil felt confident that her apprentice could continue without supervision.

"Keep the griddle clean and the fire fed," she said. "I'm going to the millers. We've used up the meal I purchased yesterday and we'll need more if we keep up this pace."

The miller greeted her with mutters of sympathy. He wanted to stay in her good graces and she found bargaining with him no joy. Having Magin as her champion would be profitable. "I remember how much you charged me yesterday for this same kind of meal," she finally said. "I will pay the same today. I want neither your contempt nor your sympathy to interfere with our business with each other."

By the time she returned to the corner of the goldsmith's square she found that Mira had used up the last of the dough she had brought and had begun to fold up the griddle. "Well done," Kalil said. "Lets go home."

All along the way back to the hostel they were greeted by those who had learned about the contest and its outcome. "You would think I am some kind of heroine." Kalil sighed when they finally entered the hostel.

"In a way you are," Mira said. "Matla makers are regarded by many as little better than shants. Women like Maga and Ria lower the reputation of all who share their craft. You have changed things. I've watched the way your customers talk to you. They are respectful of you. They don't try to flirt or make assignations."

"I wonder why," Kalil remarked ironically, with a gesture toward her face.

"It is because you treat your occupation as one worthy of respect," Mira said. "Instead of trading insults with Maga and Ria, you found a way to demonstrate your skill."

Kalil smiled, then sighed. She felt tired and her stomach rumbled with hunger. In the press of making matlas for others, she had taken none to eat for herself. "Come to the kitchen with me. I must find something to eat before I swoon, and we should prepare for tomorrow. Afterwards, I only want to bathe and sleep for an hour or two before the evening meal when we will doubtless be treated to an exaggerated account of everything that happened today."

They entered the kitchen and Kalil lifted the leaven crock down from the shelf. Before she could open it, Mira gasped and cried, "I have ruined us. I forgot to set dough aside for the leaven and we have used up every single scrap of the dough I made."

Kalil felt the knot of hunger in her middle turn to a knot of pain. She wanted to weep. Instead she took Mira in her arms and patted her back. "Don't worry. There must be some way we can get some leaven."

"But it won't be the same," Mira sobbed. "You said it took three things, the right meal, the right spices and the right leaven."

"It also takes skill," Kalil muttered. "I proved that with Maga and Ria."

The mention of their names opened her memory to something else. "I only used six handfuls of dough in my contest with them. Maga grew impatient and insisted on using less dough so it would be over sooner."

Kalil lifted the dough sack that she had carried with her all day and peered inside. Several lumps of dough clung to the sides. She gave a quick word of praise to the Radiance. "There is enough dough left to start another batch of leaven. I think we should start two crocks and never use all of it."

When they had finished their preparations in the kitchen, they headed for the bathing room. Just outside the door Kalil stopped and shook her head. "What is wrong?" Mira asked.

"I just remembered, I have nothing to change into except an old tunic that I would rather not wear."

Mira studied her thoughtfully. "You are taller than I am, and bigger on top, but I have several gowns that were given to me by my employer in lieu of wages. They don't fit me well at all. If you like, I could give you one of them."

"I would like that," Kalil said.

While Kalil bathed, Mira fetched a gown and left it on a hook just inside the bathing room. When Kalil tried it on she felt surprised and gratified. The gown was of excellent cloth and well designed. It fell in a graceful line from her shoulders to her ankles and looked just as well with her sash as without it.

When she left the bathing room and Mira saw her they both broke out in giggles. "I am a successful woman now," Kalil said. "I should be able to afford a few extra gowns. If the others are like this, I will give you an ena for all of them."

"That is far too generous," Mira protested. "I got them in lieu of less than half an ena in wages."

"You were underpaid," Kalil insisted. "I will pay you an ena or not take the gowns, not even this one."

Mira could not argue and they went upstairs to make the exchange. When Kalil lifted her old gown to decide if she should discard it, a little wedge shaped head poked out of the sleeve and darted here and there as if confused.

"I think you have affronted Theodorn," Mira said. She lifted up her hand to the snake and he quickly transferred himself to her fingers. As if to prove her statement, he refused to go to Kalil when she held out her hand. Instead he extended himself to full length until only one coil at the end of his body remained around Mira's wrist, then he dropped to the floor and slithered away.

"He seems to be bigger," Mira said. "How fast do snakes grow?"

"He has been eating a lot of mice," Kalil said. "I have no idea of how big he will get."

Kalil stretched out on her cot and tried to rest for an hour or so before the evening meal, but her mind refused to stop running through the events of the day. Had Magin only used her in some plot of his own to make sure he kept order. Had he expected to find her outside the city gates on the verge of being stoned before he came to the rescue? Finally she fell into an uneasy doze.

That evening, as she had expected, the same people who had condemned her the night before braggged about her victory over Ria and Maga. She glanced from Mira to Mulak to Balga. There were only three people she could trust in the hostel. The others were like ramble weeds she had seen in the autumn in Rubble Ford, blowing hither and thither with every wind of rumor and popular opinion. Even so, they had decided to be pleasant and she would be grateful. Three good friends, who she could count on, were more than she had ever had, including her mother and father.

Within a week, Magin granted Mira the right to set up a griddle on the opposite corner to Kalil and they changed their arrangement to simple profit sharing. Some said skill made them so successful. Some credited the secret ingredients that tempted even the abstemious to indulge in one more matla.

Some thought their success as matla makers came because they were pretty, cheerful and always ready to make a joke or laugh at a tale told by a customer.

Chapter 4 The Queen of Zedekla

On the third day of Kalil's fourth week in the city, kilted guards with shining spears surrounded her before she could set up her griddle at the corner of the goldsmith's square. Mira ran across the square to ask the cause of the arrest, but the faces of the guards were stony and they maintained silence as they marched Kalil away in a fence of blades.

Some of the townspeople followed in protest, some in curiosity, but all of them were shut out by the slamming of tall bronze doors when the guards led her within the walls of the magistrate's compound. Kalil trembled with anger and fear. She directed her anger at a clumsy guard who had stepped on her foot as he nudged her along the street. Her fear came when she saw the dark robed figure waiting for her in the courtyard beyond the doors.

"Leave us!" a woman's voice directed from beneath a veil that completely covered her face. The guards bowed and retreated leaving Kalil alone with the mysterious figure. When the woman spoke her voice had the force of authority that Kalil had only heard used by men and Senna, her old mentor.

Her fear turned to awe when the cowled robe and mask were lifted and set aside, revealing a lovely woman wearing a gold circlet on her shining smooth hair and a robe of green, girdled in gold. "Why did you have me arrested?" Kalil asked with a trembling voice.

"I'm sorry if I caused you fear or embarrassment when I ordered that you be brought here," the woman said, gesturing for Kalil to take a seat on a carved bench and seating herself nearby. "I couldn't approach you on the street any more than I could visit you in your clan hostel. I am Serina, Nerik's mother and I wish to reward you for saving his life."

"I need no reward," Kalil protested. "He helped me as much as I helped him. If I had tried to enter the city alone I have no doubt I would have been troubled by men who assumed I am willing to barter more than my matlas. Nerik owes me nothing!" Kalil emphasized with a gesture of dismissal.

"You could demand an erod of gold if you wished to claim a reward," the queen said.

"I would not know what to do with an erod of gold," Kalil replied. "I have been fortunate since I came to Zedekla and I have a growing business, but there are thieves in the city who would soon find that I had a such a fortune. In time I am sure I will accumulate more than an erod, but by then I will know what to do with it."

Instead of being angered at Kalil's insolence, the queen smiled. "You are as my son described you. I have heard rumors that you are the best matla maker in Zedekla. Could you exchange that noble position for the thankless tasks imposed on a royal consort?"

Kalil shook her head and scowled. "Why are you jeering at me? I know that many think that matla makers are little better than shants, but I have been honorable in everything I have done. I do not deserve your taunts."

"If I have offended you, I beg your pardon," Serina said with an expression of sincerity that won Kalil's grudging trust. "I meant no disrespect for you or your vocation. I had you brought here because I needed to find out what kind of person you are. I do not joke about my son's happiness and health."

"Is there something wrong with Nerik?" Kalil asked the queen.

"He has decided you are the woman he will marry," Serina said. "We tried without success to change his mind. I sent spies out to find evidence to prove to him that you were completely unsuitable. Instead, we heard of your virtues. I finally decided to test you for greed. You rejected the reward I offered you, even though most would say you truly earned it."

"I cannot marry Nerik!"

Serina frowned. "Because he is blind?"

Kalil stood and glared at the queen. "How can you say that?" she demanded. "His lack of sight is a small handicap compared to the greatness of his soul and the beauty of his person. I would choose him above all men if I were selfish enough, but how can you think I would burden him with an ugly peasant like me?"

The queen responded with a gentle gesture for Kalil to sit down again. "Everything you say convinces me that my son chose wisely. Consider this, Kalil. Nerik could have died alone in the wilderness. His cousin and the others who were hunting with him say they lost him."

"How would they benefit if he had died?" Kalil asked.

"His cousin, Zanuk, might have been named the heir if my son had not returned. Nerik is our only son. If Nerik dies, there are several claimants to the throne, including the husbands of two of his sisters. The struggle over the throne could mean civil war in Zedekla."

"Then you must keep Nerik safe," Kalil said.

"He does not wish to live as a prisoner," Serina replied. "But unless he has someone who can be trusted, living as his constant companion, that will be his lot. He will have to have a guard with him night and day. If you marry him, he will have your devotion to stand between him and those who wish to destroy him. You could use your eyes to watch for other schemes by those who want to remove him from the succession."

Kalil recognized sincerity in Serina's eyes, but she shook her head. "I will not shame Nerik by becoming his wife. He does not know what I look like, but others will see my face and scorn him for having such an ugly wife."

"You are not ugly," Serina protested.

"I am counted plain among the girls of a small village. I would appear ugly among the beauties of the court. I have seen them through the veils of their palanquins as they pass through the streets on their errands. Surely there is one among them who would make a worthy bride for Nerik?"

Serina shook her head. "Unfortunately, the young women of the court live only for idle pleasures and flattery. Because he cannot see them, Nerik cannot flatter them. They think he is stupid and unworthy of their notice. They have heard the whispers that another will replace him as crown prince and they flatter Zanuk to earn his approval. I would not have such a woman marry my son."

Kalil looked down at her hands which she twisted on her lap. "Even if Nerik could see, he is too honest to engage in mere flattery. Although he assumed I must be lovely when he heard that I had an avid suitor, he did not know the truth about Raderen," she said.

Serina smiled, "I like you Kalil. If I can find a way for you to appear to be as beautiful as the ladies of the court, would you consent to marry Nerik?"

"Only if he asked me himself," Kalil answered. "Meanwhile, is there some way I could visit with him?"

"He is waiting even now for my decision," Serina said. "His father said he would leave this matter to the two of us. Wait here and I will bring my son to you."

Moments later Nerik stood in the door of the magistrate's hall, his noble head high, a slight smile on his face as he looked toward Kalil. He had been handsome when covered with scrapes and tears. Dressed in princely robes he nearly shone. Kalil felt contempt for the vain beauties who were so soul blind that they couldn't appreciate him.

"Kalil?" he asked, his voice finding resonance in her heart.

"I am here Nerik," she answered.

"I hear you are a successful matla maker," he said.

"Yes, I am very successful," she said. "I have plans to move my business from a street corner into a small shop."

"Are you happy that you came to Zedekla?"

"I have come to love the city, especially at dawn and dusk when the sky reflects the sea," she heard her own words and stuttered an apology. "I'm s- sorry, Nerik. I forgot you couldn't see such things."

He smiled. "I think you should always say just what you mean. I have enough of those who treat me like an invalid. I need someone like you who is forthright and honest to help me see the truth that some conceal from me."

He said nothing about the betrothal his mother had offered and Kalil felt relieved that she did not have to tell him why she would not marry him.

"What happened to Theodorn?" he asked.

"I'm surprised you remember my little companion," she confessed. "He is doing very well indeed. A steady diet of mice has made him so big that I no longer dare wear him around my collar. He is as long as my arm and growing daily."

"I am sorry you were brought here in such an abrupt way," Nerik said. "I would like to see you again. Can you think of a place where we could visit as friends?"

Kalil considered the city she had become familiar with in the weeks since she had first entered Zedekla's gates. At first it had seemed that there could be no quiet refuge free from the teeming crowds who swarmed the city streets from dawn until dusk. But she had discovered an overgrown garden near the walls of the royal palace one day when she had leaned against the wall to remove a stone from her sandal. Old stone and wattles had shifted, revealing a small opening she could barely fit through. Curiosity led her to slip inside when she felt sure no one observed her.

She found an abandoned garden, cool and quiet, its entrance into the palace blocked, its exit into the street hidden by vines. For a moment she hesitated telling Nerik that she had invaded the palace complex, but it seemed to be the only possible place for them to meet unless she wanted to be led by guards again.

"I have been visiting the palace at intervals for several weeks now," Kalil confessed. "Near the base of the tallest tower on the northern wall there is a small garden. I seem to be the only one who knows of its existence. There is a door from the palace into the garden, but it seems rusted shut. I could visit with you there if you won't resent my trespass."

"Could you meet me there at dusk five days from now?" Nerik asked.

"Yes, I will meet you, but now I must ask you to let me go. I am certain that the gossips in the city will already be spreading rumors that I have committed some awful crime. I have customers who were expecting me to provide them with their lunch when your mother had me arrested. If I am absent from my post for much longer, even my friends will assume the worst."

"Bring some matlas when you come to meet me," Nerik said with a grin.

Kalil took Nerik's hand in a gesture of farewell. His touch left her trembling and tears flooded her eyes as they said goodbye. Soon after Nerik returned to the inner court of the magistrate's hall, one of the guards returned and led Kalil back through the gate.

Mira waited outside with both of their griddles near her feet. When she saw the captain of the guards bow to Kalil and give her a small salute, her jaw dropped in astonishment. As soon as the bronze gates had closed again, she rushed forward.

"Why did they take you?" she asked.

"I have a royal client who wanted to sample my matlas," Kalil answered. "I agreed to bring him a regular supply."

"I feared that someone had falsely accused you of stealing or some other crime," Mira said. "If royalty wants your matlas, why don't they come to the goldsmith's square and let everyone see that you have their patronage."

"It would only mean we would draw curious crowds and displace our regular customers, and what would we do if the royals changed their minds?" Kalil asked.

Mira shook her head at such a casual dismissal of royal favor. "Perhaps when we set up the shop they will visit us and ensure our success."

"Speaking of the shop, do you think we should offer a variety of other food and different types of matlas?" Kalil's question diverted Mira's attention from the prospect of royal visits and they walked back to the goldsmith's square in a lively discussion of the virtues of various recipes.

"People are willing to make a quick midday meal of plain matlas," Mira said, "but if we hope to serve dinner, we will have to offer more. I thought we could serve minced meat and vegetables wrapped in matlas like you prepare for the hostel every week."

"We should do that at least," Kalil agreed. "But I think we should also make sweet matlas with honey and nuts."

Mira grinned. "Perhaps you should convince me by making a few samples."

They arrived at their usual posts and found the crowds increased by those who were curious about Kalil's arrest. Mira spread the tale about the mysterious royal patron and soon the gossip had turned from conjecture about Kalil's crimes to speculation on the identity of her customer.

When they returned to the hostel that afternoon they saw Balga talking to a familiar figure. Magin wasn't wearing a bird on his head, but no other man in Zedekla dressed in such flamboyant fashion. As soon as he saw Kalil, the shopkeeper turned away from the steward. "I must speak to you," he said. "Is there somewhere private where we won't be overheard?"

"At this time of day most of the hostel is empty," she said. "I'm sure that Mira and Balga will honor our request to be left alone in the dining hall."

Balga nodded, and after a brief worried frown, so did Mira. They departed together toward the kitchen. As soon as they were out of sight Magin turned to Kalil.

"You have friends in high places," he said.

"I have a friend," she acknowledged.

"I doubt that all they want of you is your matlas," he warned her. "You must be careful of yourself. There are courtiers and others of greater rank who have no conscience when it comes to common people. Just before you visited me to ask for a corner, a pretty girl fresh from the country accepted the attentions of one of those shameless degenerates. The man who hoped to marry her found her outside city walls where she had been abandoned by the villain."

"Is Zanuk the name of the rogue?" Kalil asked.

"Is he your royal 'customer'," Magin demanded.

"I am familiar with his crimes in other directions," Kalil said. "But I have never met him, nor did I know that he is immoral as well as being a conspirator against the rightful heir."

"So you know of the conspiracy against Nerik," Magin mused. "I underestimated you. How did the court learn of your matlas?"

"They were provided with samples," Kalil said. Magin might be playing a double game and she felt she had already said too much.

"As long as all the men in the palace want are your matlas, you should be safe," Magin said. "Tell me if you are ever pressed to provide more. Now what is this I hear of your plans for a shop?"

"As you must know, Mira and I are already overwhelmed with customers at midday." Kalil said. Magin nodded.

"We have almost saved enough money to purchase the lease on a shop near the corner you assigned me. We plan to expand our menu to include a number of different foods as well as different types of matlas and serve dinner as well as lunch."

"An ambitious plan," he said. "If it were another girl, I would not encourage her, but won't you be too busy with only the two of you?"

"Perhaps you can help me," Kalil said. "I know very little about the skills of other matla makers, but I have noticed that some of them are elderly or ailing. Surely they would do better to work inside a shop with a steady income. I have hesitated to approach them because I don't want to employ another Maga or Ria. Could you recommend someone?"

Magin stood and bowed to her. "I have admired many things about you Kalil, but this will put me in your debt. I have been worried about several women who are barely keeping themselves alive. They are good workers, but they no longer attract the clients who want a pretty face and a charming line of patter. I will introduce you to two of them. They are honest, and once they were among the best matla makers in Zedekla."

By the time Kalil slipped away to meet Nerik five days later she had signed the lease for the shop and her plans were well underway. It would take almost every yida of what she and Mira could supply from their profits, but contracts had been let for carpenters to provide tables and benches and she had purchased two large slate griddles to be installed over permanent hearths.

The quiet street that led to the garden seemed busier than usual with several deliveries to nearby shops and she had to wait until near dark before she could slip through the hole in the wall and enter the garden. Gloom settled over the tangled vines and overgrown bushes close under the tower and she wondered if Nerik had forgotten that he had asked to meet her. A hand fell on her shoulder and she jumped in fear.

"It seems I have waited for you for hours," Nerik said.

"I had to wait until the street cleared," Kalil said. "I wouldn't want anyone to suspect that we are meeting."

"My mother and father know," Nerik said.

"There are some who would use this to your disadvantage," Kalil warned. "I have heard that Zanuk is conspiring against you. If he found that you were consorting with such as I, he would surely cause a scandal. Why is that villain allowed to stay in the palace?"

"He is my cousin," Nerik replied. "His father is Inrek, my father's twin. His mother is the granddaughter of Carnat, my father's grandfather."

"That is a rather close connection," Kalil said in surprise. "Even in Rubble Ford such a marriage would have been prevented. But surely there is a place for him in his father's house."

"His father keeps the forests along the border with Tedaka. They have a large family, and most of them are content with the simple life their parents chose to lead. Zanuk despises his home. He came to Zedekla as boy. My parents thought we could be companions since I have no brothers."

Kalil remembered Magin's fears and she cringed a little under Nerik's hand. "Do you share his interests?"

"You spent almost five days with me," Nerik said. "Did I ever threaten your virtue?"

"No. You treated me with honor and discretion."

"We have tried to keep Zanuk from abusing his position in the palace, but there are too many opportunities for him to exercise his charms on credulous maidens," Nerik said.

"He should be banished."

"My father believes it is better to keep his enemies under his eyes until they commit a crime that can be proven. We have many rumors about Zanuk's activities, but no solid evidence. We cannot punish him on the basis of gossip and innuendo."

Kalil had experienced the danger of rumor for herself and would not have another suffer in the same way, but she decided to do what she could to gather evidence of Zanuk's misdeeds. Magin seemed to know about his reputation. "Have you heard of a man named Magin?" she asked Nerik.

Nerik nodded. "He has influence in the city. He can be a valuable friend."

"I have found him so," Kalil admitted. "He has encouraged me to set up a shop. Soon I will be a proprietor and not merely a matla seller on a corner."

"It seems that the ambitious suitor you rejected is at least insightful," Nerik said. "I wonder what he would think if he saw what you have accomplished in so little time."

Kalil shuddered and shook her head. "Raderen had only his own profit in mind. I have no doubt that he would have exploited me without mercy."

The reminder of Raderen made her want to turn into Nerik's arms and seek comfort in his presence. It would be so easy to promise to marry him and gain the sure protection of his rank. She shook her head against the temptation and stood. "It is growing late, and the streets of Zedekla can be dangerous after the curfew has been called. I must go."

"Will you meet me here again in another ten days?" he asked.

"I will meet you," she promised.

The next day Kalil stopped by Magin's shop. He had promised to introduce her to the two women he had recommended to become helpers in her shop, and she wanted to find out the name of the maiden Zanuk had despoiled.

Delida and Farnil were both widows who had raised families on the proceeds of their matla stands, but the years of constant competition for the favor of the crowd had overwhelmed them. "I could go and live with my son and his wife," Delida said, "but they are only newly married and a young couple should have their privacy. My daughters both live far away with their husbands' families. I fear I would be less than a servant in the homes of their mothers- in- law."

Farnil had a more desperate story. She had lost both of her children to an unruly crowd who had mobbed them as demon worshipers on the basis of a rumor spread by a jealous suitor. "The men directly responsible paid on the gallows under the king's justice," Farnil said. "But that did not bring back my children. Now I am too old to compete with younger matla makers. Magin has been generous, but my debt to him grows greater every day."

"I will pay you a wage and provide housing for you above the shop," Kalil said. "Magin recommended you, and if you meet my requirements, you should be able to set aside enough to provide for your old age, if I do not fail."

Farnil smiled, her weary face lighting for the first time since Kalil had met her. "Magin recommended you to us as well, and I doubt you will fail."

Kalil didn't feel nearly so confident. She had underestimated the amount of work that setting up the shop would involve. Her supplies of meal and wood would have to be more than tripled, and she could not insure that the Zedeklans who had patronized her corner stand would be willing to pay the additional amount that a shop would need to charge to cover all the expenses.

She lingered after Farnil and Delida left Magin's shop and he noticed her worried expression. "Are you having problems with the shop?"

"None that I shouldn't have anticipated. I'm worried about Zanuk and his presence in the palace. I have heard from a reliable source that they cannot do anything about him until they have more than rumors to go on."

Magin nodded.

"Could I question the girl?" Kalil said. "Perhaps she would be willing to witness against him."

"Her betrothed has taken her away from Zedekla," Magin said. "I suspect they were bribed to leave the city before she could be questioned."

"If they had more courage, they would have volunteered to testify against him," Kalil protested. "How could a man accept money from the very man who dishonored his betrothed?"

"They are simple people, unwilling to set themselves against the powerful," Magin said. "It is generally believed that Nerik will be displaced in favor of one of the other contestants for the throne."

"But Queen Serina and King Talek would never choose another over their own son!" Kalil said.

"Many people are convinced that no one will be willing to marry Nerik because he is blind,. If he does not marry, then one of the others is bound to become the successor to Talek's throne. There are rumors that the prince has fallen in love with an ugly woman from the country."

"What would happen if the rumor proved to be true?" Kalil asked.

"The people are easily aroused to mockery and rebellion," Magin replied. "The bride of Nerik, if he marries, must win the favor of the crowd. In the very least, she should be a beauty, but the beauties of the court are fickle and will not settle for one or another of the contestants for the throne until they have assurance of which will be king."

His words reminded Kalil of what she had heard from Queen Serina, but Serina had not told her that Nerik must marry a beauty. It seemed to spell the doom of her hopes and dreams. She should have known better than to agree to meet with Nerik. He thought of her as a friend and a heroine for helping him return to Zedekla, but her heart had been engaged. Perhaps it would be better if she did not see him again.

Mira felt more optimistic about the likely success of the shop than Kalil who fought her unhappiness over her resolve to end any further contact with Nerik. In spite of her worries about suppliers and customers, the tables and benches were ready and the griddles set up the day before the shop opened for business.

"You are missing something," Mulak said when he came to look around the shop with an enthusiastic Mira clinging to his arm.

Kalil looked around. "The bins are full of meal, the storehouses stacked with wood and other supplies. What have I forgotten?" she asked.

"You need a sign," Mira said.

Kalil shook her head in disgust at her failure to remember such a simple thing. The Jaman baubles that had become her trademark jingled with the movement. "I can't think of any symbol we can use that is not already some other shopkeeper's trademark."

Mira giggled and Mulak took his hand from behind his back. "Anyone who knows you will recognize that this is your shop as soon as they see this sign," he said. He set down the box he held and invited her to look inside. It contained two bright brass baubles inset with multi- hued glass and hung with dainty pipes of brass and silver that would ring when the wind blew. The baubles were ten times the size of the ones that she wore in her hair and they were fitted with loops to fit over a hook above the door.

"Where did you get these?" she marveled. "They are perfect in every detail."

"Don't forget that his master is one of Zedekla's finest goldsmiths," Mira said. "Mulak is his senior apprentice and this took him only a day or so."

"Not quite a day or so," Mulak demurred. "I have been working on them in my spare time since Mira first told me of your plans."

"Is that why we haven't seen much of you lately?" Kalil asked.

"He has been working long hours on some mysterious project for the goldsmith," Mira said. "I have tried to get him to tell me what is taking so much time, but he has been sworn to secrecy."

"Yes," Mulak said with his hand on his heart. "I am perishing with work and hunger. I hardly have time to eat with all I do."

"I know how to thank you for the sign you made," Kalil said with a grin. "From henceforth you will get one free meal a day at our shop."

"You will ruin us with your generosity," Mira playfully chided her. "You must have seen how much Mulak can eat!"

Mulak fetched a ladder and hung the trademark of the shop high enough to be seen from far down the street. Delida came toward the shop with a pile of cloths to put in the kitchen. She frowned up at the shining, jingling symbol. "I hope no one will mistake the nature of our business when they see those baubles," she said. "In my youth a shant hung huge bracelets over her door."

"Only a fool would mistake this for a den of vice when they get near enough to smell your matlas," Mulak assured her. The old woman blushed with pleasure and hurried into the shop.

Kalil's fears of losing her customers proved baseless. From the moment in the morning when she opened the door to a line of hungry patrons, until night fell and zole horns near the palace sounded curfew, customers filled every bench.

Delida and Farnil both proved their worth. Delida's leaven worked better with the honey and nut matlas than the one Kalil had brought from Rubble Ford. Farnil had a sure hand with the minced meat and vegetables that made them a popular filling for the matlas Kalil made. At midday Kalil directed Mira to set up both of their portable griddles to handle the extra demand. Many customers were not able to find a place at the tables, but they seemed content to carry their matlas out of the shop and consume them in the lanes nearby.

Magin stopped by not long after they finally closed the door. He knew the way into the shop from an alley in the rear and he watched the four women work together in the small cooking space. "You remind me of a quartet of dancers. I should have invested in buying a shop for Kalil when she first came to Zedekla. Now all the profit will be yours."

"You old scoundrel," Delida laughed. "You have done very well for yourself by getting rid of two dependents and having copies of your famous baubles hanging above the door of one of the busiest shops in town."

Magin acknowledged her hit with a nod. "Not only that, I had vendors selling fresh nuka juice and cala outside the shop. Your success is a success for me. Do you think you could fit a few more women in? Pelad and Veranina are eager to come and help."

Kalil looked at Delida and Farnil and both women nodded. "Send them to me tomorrow," Kalil agreed. "I feel that my feet are ready to drop off tonight and I have been so busy all day that I had no time to do anything but cook and take money. I must buy more meal tomorrow and I think it best if one of us handles the purchase personally to make sure we are not fobbed off with inferior supplies."

"Pelad would be able to help you with that," Delida said. "She is as sharp as you could ask for, but the same keen eye that intimidated millers who tried to fool her with chalk and stale flour has made her unpopular with the crowd. They like a friendly woman when they purchase a matla."

"Veranina has a deft hand with dough, and she could take over much of the mixing and kneading for us," Farnil said.

Mira gave a sigh of relief. She had learned to knead under Kalil's patient tutelage, but she preferred to cook and serve.

Kalil took one last look around the shop. The griddles were clean, the floor swept and all prepared for the morning when the whole mad process would begin again. "Magin, I am suffering from an excess of earnings. I am reluctant to carry our money through the street this late at night, but I fear that a thief might break into the shop and steal our profits if I leave it here."

"I will be your banker," he volunteered. "I have two sturdy henchmen waiting outside to guard me back to my own shop. Why don't you two young ladies join me as far as your hostel and Delida and Farnil can lock up after we leave." He reached for both of the heavy money pouches but Kalil held one back.

"I should keep enough aside to pay our suppliers."

"From henceforth your purchases will be made with credit vouchers. No reputable merchant will hesitate to accept your credit. My men will come by to collect your cash every evening."

"I felt sorry you came too late to enjoy a meal," Kalil said. "But you planned this. You knew we were going to succeed."

"From the first day I met you I knew you had the soul of a merchant," Magin said cryptically. "Come, we should leave before Delida and Farnil fall asleep on the tables."

The addition of two more workers should have made the kitchen overcrowded, but Pelad usually spent most of the day away from the shop contacting suppliers and Veranina kept well back near the storage area where she sat tirelessly mixing and kneading. As a result, there was less crossing of paths between the griddles. Within a couple of days the women had a settled routine that provided a steady supply of tasty matlas with a minimum of distraction. When Kalil received a message that Magin wanted to see her, she felt no qualms at leaving the other women to carry on while she went to her benefactor's shop.

Magin's bird gave a shrill whistle when he saw her enter the shop. She laughed and held out a bit of matla.

"I wanted to tell you that your profits have amounted to a full erod," Magin said. "Have you considered leasing a larger shop?"

Kalil stared at Magin for a moment without speaking. She remembered the reward Serina had offered her and her own defiant reply. She had never dreamed that only a few weeks after Serina had made the offer, she would make such an amount from her own efforts. Of course the profits would have to be shared with others, but at such a rate, it would not be long before she had an erod for herself.

"Kalil?" Magin questioned.

Kalil shook her head and tried to recall what he had asked her. "A larger shop?" she finally answered. "I think we should wait until Mira is more confident and then open another shop. Do you have any other matla makers you would like us to hire?"

Magin laughed and shook his head. "I could always find employees who would serve you well, but that is not my purpose in recommending a larger shop. Have you never looked beyond being a matla maker? Most young women dream of marrying. If you have a larger shop with a few more employees, you can make a good profit without working all day long."

Kalil shook her head. She had abandoned any dreams of marriage. Once she had believed that she could use Nerik as her model and find another like him. Now she knew there would never be another she could love with her whole heart. It would be a cheat to try and marry a man she could not swear to love. "I might consider making more ambitious plans, but not for the purpose of marriage," she demurred. "Thank you for the guidance you have provided. I doubt I would have such success without your help."

She turned and walked out of his shop. By now the peak serving time would have passed at the matla shop. She decided to stop by the hostel and check on a crock of leaven she had set to ferment. Balga nodded at her from his office where he looked over a list. She stopped at the door. "I guess I should move out of the hostel now that I no longer have the time to provide a meal each week," she said.

"You are welcome to stay for a fee," he reminded her. "As long as you wear Mira's second- hand gowns, I doubt you will feel above staying here among other working girls. I predict that soon enough you will want the privacy of a home of your own."

She chuckled and whirled so the skirt of her blue gown flew out from her feet. "I have hardly had time to find a dressmaker, let alone another place to live. As you guessed, I enjoy the presence of others in the room where I sleep. I grew up sleeping with a lot of sisters. I don't know how I would bear sleeping alone. How much do you think I should pay to continue boarding here?"

He named a lower amount than she had expected. "I will also pay you for the griddle," she volunteered. She had not turned all of her profits over to Magin and she promptly paid three yats, worth a fourth of an ena, when he named the price.

Just as she turned to leave the hostel, she saw a long green shape slither across the floor toward her. Theodorn looped himself around her feet and she leaned to pick him up. It had been nearly a week since she had last seen him and his sudden appearance surprised her.

She leaned over to put him down on the ground again after letting him wind around her arm, but he recoiled and slithered up her arm and under her collar. "Very well," she said. "I will risk taking you with me."

When she reached the shop, she found her five partners standing in a circle near the door. "I thought I would find you ready to lock up," she said.

"We are all invited to the juggler's camp outside the walls to watch a performance," Mira said. "We were waiting for you and Mulak."

"How will you come back inside the walls when the performance is over," Kalil asked, unconsciously excluding herself from their plans with her question.

"Veranina has a friend in the gate guards," Delida tittered.

The others shared her amusement, but Veranina snorted with disdain, "Garchak was a friend of my husband. He enjoys looking after me now and then."

Mulak soon came for them but Kalil declined his invitation. "I have some things to check on in the shop and I brought this crock of leaven that needs to be stored."

"Take care, Kalil," Mira whispered, looking around at the dark street that lay mostly in shadows.

The women set out for the main street with Mulak following behind like a patient shepherd. He was a good man and Kalil was happy for Mira. It would not be long before the young woman realized she had enough for a generous dowry.

When she entered the dark shop she reached to light a lamp and found it empty of oil. She knew her way in the narrow shop and soon she located the store room and opened the door. She found space for the crock by using her fingers. "This is what Nerik must do all the time," she whispered to herself. She shut the door to the storeroom with a faint creak and stood thinking about him.

He would be waiting for her at the garden tomorrow, but she would have to disappoint him. She could see no way that their further association would be good for him. Surely there must be some lovely innocent not yet tainted by the cynicism of the court who would recognize his true worth and agree to marry him.

The air of the shop remained warm and a little stale from the smell of cooking. Kalil dragged her fingers through her hair, releasing the baubles and letting the air cool her scalp. Unrestrained it curled wildly, forming a cloud around her face.

She felt a subtle change in the atmosphere of the shop. She stood utterly still and tried to listen for the sound that had alerted her senses. She started and began to scream when a hand clutched her around the shoulders from behind. The point of a knife pressed against her side and she fell silent.

"Where are the other girls?" a slurred voice asked her querulously. "I want goods to match your sign."

"This is not the kind of place you think it is," she hissed. "This is a matla shop. You must be a stranger to Zedekla."

"Not a stranger at all, I've lived here for years," he muttered. "I've just been keeping quiet while scandal dies. Come out into the light where I can see you while I take my pleasure."

He pushed her toward the end of the shop and with the point of a knife at her ribs, Kalil knew better than to struggle. When they reached the back door, he pulled it open and shoved her through.

Desperate to know what to do, Kalil felt something slither down her arm and curl around her hand. For a moment, while her assailant fumbled to turn her around, he dropped the point of the knife from her ribs and she shoved Theodorn into his face. Little light shone in the alley, but it proved sufficient for him to see the bright green snake that gaped at him from inches away in the hands of a woman half hidden by her mane of wild hair.

"What are you?" he cried, leaping backward and dropping his knife so that he could raise both hands in the scissoring motions of warding.

Kalil shook her thick black curls into her face and glared at him between the waves, scowling with a hateful grimace. "I am the witch Senna Rubble," she improvised. "You have made a deadly mistake. Do you like my little viper? Come closer and taste of his fangs."

The man shrieked and backed away with his fingers scissoring frantically. As soon as he reached the entrance of the alley, he turned and ran.

Kalil leaned against the wall of the alley, her heart beating wildly. She caught only a glimpse of her attacker's face, but it confirmed her suspicion. He could have been Nerik's brother if he had one. But the man who had sneaked into her shop wore the marks of his degraded soul on his face. Some might have thought him handsome, but Kalil had a better measure in her memories of Nerik. "If that is Zanuk, he is not only evil, but also rather stupid, someone else must be running his schemes," she muttered to herself.

She returned to the shop and secured all the doors. When the four old women who slept in the quarters above the shop returned they had to clearly say their names before she would let them in.

Mira and Mulak were with them and she welcomed their company on her walk back to the hostel. As soon as she entered the entrance of the dormitory, Theodorn slid down her arm and dropped to the floor. "I thought you no longer carried Theodorn around with you," Mira said.

"He knew I needed him tonight," Kalil answered cryptically. She told none of the others about the incident in the shop, but she warned the women who stayed there that they must never neglect to lock the doors.

She wanted to tell Magin that she had evidence against Zanuk from her own experience, but there had been no witnesses to his attack and he had dashed away before anything happened other than obscure threats that a magistrate might find insufficient to the purpose of arresting a member of the royal family.

Delida had warned them that there might be some who would mistake the sign of the brass baubles as a signal for something other than an innocent matla shop. By his own admission, Zanuk had avoided going into the city for some time. It seemed likely he had made a mistake when he saw the baubles.

She felt confused by her own rationalizing of the villain's actions. She needed to talk to someone level headed and trustworthy. Zanuk's actions affected no one more than his cousin Nerik. She had resolved not to see the prince again, but she needed his counsel.

Perhaps Nerik would ask his mother what she should do. The Queen had seemed distant at first, but after her initial suspicion of Kalil's motives, she had proven to have a sharp intelligence. In spite of the great gulf that separated her from Serina, Kalil felt she could trust the queen's advice.

Chapter 5 The Mask

After the initial novelty of the matla shop's opening, the merely curious found other places to go. A steady stream of customers came throughout the day, but the real crush came at mid- day and an hour before dusk when shopkeepers and others stopped by for a nourishing meal. The steady pressure of serving and cooking slowed down as the hour neared for Kalil to meet Nerik in the garden near the northern tower. She had no problem leaving the shop in the competent hands of her helpers.

Theodorn lay coiled quietly in a pouch fastened to her sash. Kalil planned to use him to demonstrate how she had frightened Zanuk away before he could hurt her. This time she did not have to wait to enter the garden. When she slipped inside she saw Nerik waiting on the bench. He rose as soon as she entered the garden.

"I feared you would not come," Nerik said. "But this evening you are early."

"For a while I thought it would be best for both of us if I stayed away," she said.

"I will not press you for anything more than friendship. I value your mind and insights enough to be patient."

"You would be better served to find a woman who matches your rank."

He chuckled and shook his head. "I have a mother and sisters to spare if all I wanted was a woman of my rank to talk to."

"You know what I mean. It is important for you to find a wife and marry."

"There are arrangements being made," he answered vaguely. "But until I have the woman I need, there is no reason for us to end our meetings."

Theodorn slid of the pouch he had been sleeping in and slithered across to Nerik. Kalil didn't realize what had happened until Nerik laughed softly and held up his hand with the snake between his fingers. "I doubt you make a habit of collecting snakes. Surely this is the same creature who adopted you when we met."

"It is Theodorn," she acknowledged. "I brought him along this evening for a purpose. A man accosted me in my shop last night. He held a knife to my side and I believe he would have ravished me if Theodorn had not made an appearance. The strange thing is that I haven't taken him with me in some time, but yesterday he seemed to volunteer to come with me."

Nerik lifted the snake and seemed to stare at him with his sightless eyes. "I am grateful to you little one. From the beginning I thought you were more than just a nuisance." Then he turned to Kalil with such a grim expression on his face that she nearly backed away from him.

"Did you recognize him?" he asked.

"I had never seen him before, but I think it must have been your cousin, Zanuk."

Nerik nodded. "It is like him. Why did he come to your shop, and why were you alone?"

"I had some leaven to put away and my partners were all on their way to watch some jugglers. It is kikely my fault that the door of the shop remained unlocked. He entered, thinking to find some entertainment."

"He must be charged for the crime," Nerik said. "At last we have a witness."

"I doubt my testimony would do much good," she admitted ruefully. "He seemed drunk or drugged and he claimed that he misunderstood the sign above the door. He came into the shop expecting to find something more to his taste than matlas. Theodorn scared him away by before he could do anything to me."

"He held a knife against your side," Nerik said.

"He didn't cut me. He dropped the knife to ward against me when I told him I was a witch, but I left it in the alley and in the morning I couldn't find it."

Nerik shook his head and frowned, but he smiled when Theodorn slithered up his arm and wrapped himself loosely around his neck. "I have always known that Zanuk is a superstitious man, but how could you have known the perfect means to save yourself?"

"Theodorn prompted my action. He coiled around my hand just at the moment that Zanuk relaxed his grip on the knife so he could turn me around and see my face. I showed him Theodorn instead."

"It should be sufficient witness that you felt the knife and saw it drop from his hands," Nerik persisted.

"I suspect that Zanuk is only a pawn of other, more clever men. He truly is a credulous fool. If we put him on trial on my evidence, those who support him will either desert him and find another tool for their purposes, or they will find some way to make me seem a shant. There were only two of us in the shop last night. It is his word against mine, and even though I count you my friend, what influence could you bring to bear to stop the rumors that would spread. I predict an effort to dismiss the effects of my testimony by introducing false witnesses who would swear that our shop is a place of ill repute. We are matla makers, six women without husbands in a shop with baubles hung above the door. Rumor would quickly ruin us."

"It wouldn't be the first time that Zanuk's cronies used lies and innuendo to blacken the names of the innocents he ruined," Nerik said. "That is why he has gone unpunished for so long. If I had not taken vows of upholding justice, I could easily arrange a simple solution to the problem. Why is it that evil and lies so often win the battles between right and wrong?"

"We can only trust that right will win the war," Kalil said. "Meanwhile, I will use whatever resources I command to fight him. If I had been ravished, there would be ample evidence of his nature, but I am glad I did not have to make that sacrifice."

"Thank the Radiance you were spared!" Nerik said. "You say there are now six women working in your shop. When we last talked, you were still selling matlas on a corner."

"My partner Mira and I had so many customers that it seemed a good idea to open the shop. I confess that I worried that I had overreached myself and that our street customers would fail to patronize the shop. We expanded our menu to include a greater variety of matlas and other foods. Instead of losing customers, we have been so busy that I had to take on additional help."

"Are you certain they are reliable?" Nerik asked. "A woman with a dubious past could jeopardize your business. With men like Zanuk on the prowl, your reputations would all be ruined."

"Magin helped me find some women who were honest and hard working. We started out with two, but it soon became evident we needed more help. If it were not for the extra help, I would never be able to get away and visit you. Ironically, Magin suggested I should expand the shop further so that I would have the leisure to marry if I chose."

Nerik remained silent for a moment. "Have you met someone you would like to marry?" he finally asked.

"None of the men I have met in Zedekla tempt me to give up my freedom," she truthfully answered. She met Nerik before coming to the city.

They talked for a long time until she realized that her hand had linked with his somehow and the contact tempted her to want far more. She pulled her hand away and stood. "I must leave," she said.

"Promise me that you will come again," he pleaded.

"I will."

He stood and reached for her hand. She reluctantly reached out and he put a long metal object in her palm and pressed her fingers around it. "Next time you come the wall will have been repaired and our privacy will be guarded by a locked gate. This is the key."

"Goodbye Nerik," she murmured before slipping through the broken wall and hurrying back to the hostel.

In the weeks that followed her visits with Nerik were the highpoint of her life. He listened patiently to her concerns and often had good advice to share. One evening when she opened the new gate and entered the garden she found that it had been refurbished and planted with fragrant flowers. Night blossoms yielded their delicious fragrance to the air.

"Who planned all this?" she asked him.

"I did," he said. "I choose the plants for fragrance but one of my sisters who has a gift for gardening guided my other choices. If you take my hands you will find evidence that I dug the holes and handled most of the planting myself."

"It is lovely," she sighed. "I would like to add some favorites of my own."

"Bring them with you next time you visit," he invited. "This garden is for both of us."

She missed the garden her mother had kept in Rubble Ford, and there were certain herbs she couldn't find in the market. She had a few seeds that might thrive in this sheltered place.

As time went on there were no further rumors about Zanuk. It seemed that those who used him were holding him in check. Growing herbs for use in her matlas became her only real excuse for continuing to see Nerik. She knew she should stop the visits but she indulged herself in the pleasure of his presence.

They spoke of their families and he shared his disappointment in the men his two older sisters had married. "Both of my sisters are lovely women and worthy of men who value them for themselves alone. I believe Lella's husband Perwen is merely a little weak and easily persuaded by flatterers. He is Janakan, one of King Otagun's sons. Janana's husband, Dosik, presented himself as a Taleekan councilor's son. Lately we have discovered he lied from the first, but we haven't discovered who his parents are. It seems that his entire aim in courting my sister was to put himself in line for the succession."

"I thought you wanted the throne for yourself," Kalil said.

He shook his head and chuckled ruefully. "If it were not for the other claimants, I would be happy to give over my standing as Talek's heir. Unfortunately, the three leading contenders all seem to be pawns of powerful enemies of my father, or they are scoundrels in their own right. It seems that both of my older sisters are seen as little more than pawns to use in the game of advancement and advantage."

Kalil knew a little of how he felt. Fedil had been so eager to settle her own future that she had pushed Kalil toward settling for marriage with either a scoundrel or a fool. It seemed she and Nerik could share all their troubles and concerns with one another and if she could never expect to have him as a husband, she knew she would never have a better friend.

She always found him waiting for her when she opened the gate, but one evening she found the garden empty. She lifted a lamp from the wall to check on her seedlings. After pulling a few weeds and gathering some fragrant night blossoms to put in her pillow, she sat down on the bench and covered her lamp.

Alone in the darkness, she began to worry. Had something happened to Nerik? Were Zanuk and his cronies already in control? Her mind swarmed with fears.

She stood up from the bench to pace back and forth. She faced the wall of the tower when she saw a slit of light appear. Queen Serina stood in the opened doorway.

"Where is Nerik? What happened to him?" Kalil demanded, imagining the worst.

"He is waiting for you," Serina said. "Before you see him, I have a gift for you."

The queen opened the door far enough for Kalil to see an exquisitely carved box of striped nonyo wood extended in her hand. Kalil reached for the box and opened it. She saw what she took to be a pearly pale piece of zylka cloth folded within. At first she thought it might be a scarf and reached out to touch it. It felt stiff and heavier than fabric.

"What is it?" she asked Serina.

"It is a wonderful mask that I commissioned for you. I brought one of my mirrors. Put the mask on your face and look in the mirror"

Kalil picked up the mask and saw a fine mesh of gold enameled with delicate color. Sliding it onto her face so that the holes for nostrils, mouth and eyes matched her features, she felt it settle in place almost like cool liquid. It curved under her chin just slightly and met her hairline and the edges of her ears. She touched it and felt it like a second skin on her face.

When she glanced in the mirror, she gasped. The mask gave her face a look of pale and delicate nobility, almost like Serina, but more haughty and cold. In the mask, she looked as lovely as any of the noble beauties she had seen being carried about the streets of Zedekla in their flower covered palanquins.

"Do you consider yourself worthy of marriage to my son now that your face is veiled and concealed behind this mask?" Serina asked with a hint of irony in her voice.

Kalil tried to smile with joy, but she found the mask too stiff for her to express emotion. She had sworn she would never again wear a veil, but this mask would make her a beauty to all other eyes. Finally she made a short, stiff reply.

"I would not shame him when others see me with him," she said with a lisp that so perfectly imitated the affected speech of courtiers that Kalil wanted to laugh. But with the mask in place she could not laugh any more than she could smile.

Serina nodded with a shadow of sadness in her eyes. "I will bring him to you and let him ask the question he has reserved until now."

She touched Kalil's hand with a gesture of reassurance before returning to the palace. Moments later Nerik stepped through the door into the garden. "Kalil?" he asked in a low, hopeful voice.

"I am here by the fountain Nerik,," she answered, love swelling in her heart as she watched him walk toward her.

"What is wrong with your voice?" he asked.

She reached up and slipped off the golden mask and laid it in the little box, then she slid the box into one of her belt pouches. She held out her hand to his and drew him closer. For several minutes they strolled together and she wanted to ask him what he thought about the mask. Did he know of the subterfuge his mother had provided?

Nerik stopped and turned to Kalil. "I cannot wait any longer. Do I have reason to hope that you will consent to marry me and take on the burden of marriage to a blind man?" The note of uncertainty in his voice melted her last resistance.

"Oh, my love, it is not your handicap but my own that made me doubt the wisdom of marrying you. By some magic, your mother has given me a mask that transforms me from a peasant to a princess. I will marry you if you will have me,"

He reached up to touch her cheek and ran his sensitive finger tips over the warm soft skin of her face. "Never wear the mask when you are alone with me," he said.

"If you want I will remove it when we are alone, but I will never remove it where others can see us," she vowed. "It is only the knowledge that I am transformed by the mask that gives me the courage to marry you."

Nerik sat on the bench and Kalil sat close beside him within the circle of his arm. Finally he spoke, "We should announce our wedding as soon as possible. There are many who will want to meet you and there are preparations to make before we can be wed. I would willingly stay here alone with you all night, but my parents are waiting to hear your answer."

"Go and tell your parents I will marry you," Kalil said. "I think your mother already knew my answer."

Nerik stood and entered the palace. As soon as he left the garden, Kalil took the mask from its box and smoothed it over her face. She would never be able to smile or laugh, or talk like herself while she wore it, but those were small losses compared to the gift she gained. She would live with her love and guard him from those with evil intentions.

Nerik returned with his mother. Almost as soon as Serina came into the garden, she began to talk about plans for the wedding.

"Of course, Kalil, you will move into the palace immediately and be housed with my younger daughters until your marriage. There will be lessons in court etiquette and sessions with the robe maker. You will be very busy in the next two months before the wedding."

"I am willing to move into the palace and learn proper etiquette," Kalil agreed, "But it would be unwise for me to suddenly disappear. There is unrest in the city. When your guards took me into custody there were many who blamed the palace. We should not risk aiding those who are trying to start trouble."

"I fear for you safety if anyone learns that you are betrothed to Nerik," Serina said.

"I will tell my friends at the clan hostel that I have found the private house I have been saving for. It will not seem unusual if I keep the location a secret, in fact, it is a common thing for honest women to conceal their place of residence to avoid trouble. I will live in the palace beginning tomorrow night, and I will begin to spend only the morning hours in my shop in the market."

"What if someone from the court recognizes you?" Serina asked.

"None who see me in the mask will recognize me in my daily life," she assured the queen. "I believe I can be of greater service to the royal family if I know the thoughts of the common people."

Serina waited a moment to marshal her arguments. On further consideration, she recognized the wisdom of Kalil's plan. Agents had told her husband, KingTalek, that rebellion had been growing in the city. being fomented in the city. The source of the disturbance remained unknown. The disappearance of a popular young woman like Kalil, who had already spent time in the custody of royal guards, might be the spark that ignited a revolt.

Finally Serina nodded."We will ready an apartment for you in the hall of women, but you will still maintain a presence in the marketplace. However, even with the mask, the coincidence of your name might ruin your ploy."

Nerik had been silently listening to the discussion. "In ancient script the symbol for Kal is similar in meaning to the symbol for Jar. If Kalil takes the name of Jaril, with Jarila as the royal form when we marry, it will mean the same, but provide a different sound to help with her disguise."

"Jaril," Serina said, testing the name and slowly nodding. "What do you think Kalil?"

"It sounds rather grand," Kalil said hesitantly.

"I thought you wanted more grandeur," the queen said wryly. "It will fit the facade you are wearing."

Kalil wondered why Serina seemed so critical of her desire to appear worthy of Nerik. She didn't really like the sound of the name Nerik had chosen for her, but she had no suggestions of her own to offer. Finally she nodded. "I will answer to the name Jaril when I wear the mask."

Serina left them alone and Kalil turned to Nerik. He reached up and touched her face, then dropped his hand. "Remember, never wear your mask when we are alone together."

She slipped off the mask and put it in the carved box. Then she smiled as Nerik's hand reached out to touch her cheek again. He traced the contours of her eyes and lips and chin. His fingers moved over her skin as if he were memorizing every feature. She wanted to stay, but she had many things to arrange and little time to do it.

"I must go now and make the changes I agreed on," she said.

They stood and Nerik walked beside her to the gate in the garden wall. After checking to make sure the lane outside the garden remained empty, Kalil turned to him to say goodbye then quickly ducked through the opening.

Joy filled her heart as she hurried through the streets to the clan hostel. Balga hurried over to her when she entered.

"Where have you been?" He asked. "Mira came back an hour ago and seemed to think you would be here."

"I've decided it is time to end my dependence on you," Kalil said. "I found a place near the harbor and I can move in immediately. It is part of a family home so you need have no further concern for me. They told me to return tomorrow evening so I must make my farewells now."

Balga smiled. "It seems you realized that there are some advantages to having a home of your own now that you are successful. Will you be getting a few new dresses as well?"

Kalil nodded. She could hardly tell him that none of the dresses she would be fitted for at the palace would come from her own savings. She should let her friends come to their own conclusions about the changes she would have to make once she agreed to marry Nerik.

The number of residents of the clan house varied according to season and time of festival. Only fifteen of those assembled in the common room that night were permanent residents. Mulak and Mira looked up when Kalil entered the room.

"You tempt fate when you stay away from the hostel so late at night," Mira said and Mulak nodded.

Kalil sat at the table next to them. "Today I found a private room in the house of a respectable family."

Mira raised her brows. "You never mentioned that you planned to move away."

Kalil nodded. "I should have told you first of all, but I made the decision suddenly when the situation became available."

"Is there some particular reason that made you decide to move away?" Mulak asked.

Kalil looked around and saw the curious faces that were waited for her answer. She impulsively named something that had hardly bothered her. "The snoring from the men's dormitory has cut into my rest." Mira had often complained of the noise and the others began to laugh at her jest.

"Of course, you will leave us immediately," Mulak teased her. "Will you become a benefactor now that you have grown so successful?" She saw that most of the others did not quite believe her. There were winks and shoulders shaken by silent laughter.

Most of the tenants expressed the desire to move out of the hostel now and then. But the companionship of peers and the low cost of the accommodations more than offset the inconvenience of sharing a sleeping room with as many as twenty other young people.

The donations of well to do members of the clan maintained the clan house and under the guidance of Balga, the young people who stayed there were usually a decent, hardworking group. After her initial experience with the rumors that had come from Maga and Ria, Kalil had become friendly with most of them. She would truly miss them when she left.

"There have been rumors of rebellion in the city," Balga said. "I have decided to set up my cot in front of the stairs until the unrest dies down."

The next morning Mira watched as Kalil quickly secured her few belongings in her pack. Theodorn slid out of a crevice beneath the wainscoting and wound himself around her ankle. She knelt to lift the snake and let him slide into a pouch tied at her waist.

"You were serious when you said you were be leaving us," Mira said. "Is there some reason you made such a quick decision?"

Kalil adjusted the straps of her pack over her shoulders as she pondered how much she could share with her friend. She decided that a version of the truth is always best, even if edited.

"A young man of good family has been courting me," she finally said. "I really didn't think he cared so much for me, but last night he asked me to marry him."

"Oh Kalil, this is wonderful news," Mira rejoiced. "When will we meet him?"

"Unfortunately his family has a high position, and you know how some people feel about matla makers," Kalil said with a little frown, leaving Mira to make her own conclusions.

Mira frowned. "It is a pity that you are marrying someone who has a snobbish family." Then she laughed. "You could probably buy the house you're going to share with them."

Kalil nearly choked on the idea of purchasing Zedekla's palace and decided it would be best to divert Mira. "I have limited time to spend in the shop while I prepare for my marriage, but Magin has more women to recommend as helpers and you have learned to manage things. From now on I'll just be there in the morning."

"This will be a surprise to Delida and Farnil, let alone Veranina and Pelad," Mira said. "Are you certain you want to give up all you have accomplished?"

"I know you would do anything for Mulak," Kalil said. "Would you balk at giving up the matla shop?"

Mira shook her head. "I should have known that if you plan to marry, you are in love. It just seems strange that you have never mentioned the man you have accepted. This explains your absences some afternoons and evenings. I doubt I would be able to keep such a thing to myself. I always wondered why you were so oblivious to all the men who flirted with you."

"They were joking," Kalil insisted. "I am not a fool to have my head turned by a tease."

"I would like to know what is different about the man you chose. He must be a prince among men to earn your favor."

Kalil nodded with a smile that made Mira wonder. "He truly is a noble man. I'm surprised that you and Mulak haven't made plans to marry."

Mira looked down. "We cannot. He became affianced to a girl from his village before his parents would agree to let him seek his fortune in Zedekla. She loves another, but neither of them can be free to marry another until Mulak purchases a release from her parents."

"Now that you are my partner, you could give him the amount needed so you could marry," Kalil said.

"I never considered such a thing," Mira admitted. "Are we really so well off?"

"When I visited with Magin several weeks ago, he said that between us we had more than an erod."

"But the shop belongs to you," Mira said.

"You have invested almost as much as I have. I doubt that Mulak's potential in- laws would ask more than you could loan him."

"He might be too proud to borrow from me," Mira confessed.

"Ask him if he would rather have you waste your money on gowns and baubles than on something that could let you start your life together," Kalil counseled.

"Perhaps I would be wise to spend something on myself to make him more eager to be with me," Mira answered.

Kalil laughed. "I have seen the way Mulak looks at you. You have no need for extra adornment."

"You only say that because you are without vanity," Mira said. "I doubt you have spent a coin on clothing or personal items beyond the need of replacement and cleanliness since I sold you my extra dresses."

"I don't care to spend money on a hopeless cause," Kalil said with a grimace. Her hand went to the small box in her belt pouch which contained the magical mask that could transform her plain features into beauty. When she wore the mask, she would be worthy of the fine clothing Serina planned for her. "It is enough that the man I love, loves me," she murmured.

Mira tried to coax her into giving more details about her betrothal as they walked toward the matla shop, but Kalil resisted. She had already dangerously skirted the boundaries beyond which she dare not venture.

The four older women were already at their posts preparing for the opening of the shop within the hour. Kalil clapped her hands as soon as she entered and all of them looked up in surprise. "I have received a proposal of marriage and my future in- laws won't favor having me so publicly involved in this business. I will be here in the mornings for some time to come until I marry, but I trust that you will do just as well without me in the afternoons."

After initial shock, they all gave her a sign of their approval, Veranina cheered and Pelad actually smiled. Delida and Farnil rushed forward to hug her. "I've always wondered if the men of Zedekla were blind to let a girl like you go unmarried!" Delida said.

Throughout the morning each of the older women took an opportunity to give her some advice.

"Don't let your mother- in- law overwhelm you," Pelad counseled. "She's a woman just like any other. Treat her with respect, but follow your own best intuition."

Kalil thought of Serina and the minor disagreement they had engaged in the night before. If anyone could overwhelm a prospective bride, it must be the queen with her regal air and beauty. In retrospect Kalil had gained her own way against the queen's initial plan.

"Never let your husband see other women alone, even if he claims it is only business," Veranina said.

"He will never see another woman without me," Kalil could safely promise.

Delida cornered her when she brought a new batch of dough up to the griddle. "If he has sisters, make friends with them. They will defend you if he wavers."

Kalil made note of the advice. Nerik had several sisters and she would share apartments with the younger ones until she married. Although she knew Nerik had a loyal heart, a friendly family would ease her life in the palace.

Finally Farnil followed her when she stepped out the rear door to empty a pot of washing water in the gutter that ran through the alley. "No matter how tempted you may be to shade the truth for the sake of peace between you, never tell your husband a lie. It will provide a fertile ground for misunderstanding."

Kalil pulled the old woman into her arms and hugged her. "I have come to love all of you like a family. If it were not for my beloved, I would happily stay here with you. None of you have been resentful of my cutting back my hours."

"You have given us a decent occupation and changed our lives," Farnil said. "How can any of us resent your good fortune? I'm only unhappy that his family is so high that they won't come and let us celebrate your betrothal together."

Kalil wanted to tell her the truth. It had been convenient to let them believe that her future in- laws were snobs, but now she saw the result of such a seemingly simple misdirection. It gave an ironic emphasis to her friend's good counsel against lying.

Near midday, Kalil made a round of the other women. Without disturbing the flow of their labor, she bid them each goodbye. Even though she intended to return to the shop the next morning, this day would mark a change in her life that would probably lead to a complete withdrawal from her friends in time.

She left the shop by the back alley to avoid questions from the customers. With her pack on her back and all her belt pouches hung from her sash, it would be evident that she meant more than an errand to the millers.

Hurrying toward the palace, Kalil took advantage of all she had learned about byways and shortcuts in her months in the city. When she entered the garden shortly after noon, Nerik met her. She had hardly shut the door when he swept her into his arms and pulled her close.

She closed her eyes to match the darkness he always knew. The experience made her appreciate how blindness could enhance his other senses. He finally released her after a lingering embrace. "I wanted time with you before my mother came to take you away from me. She promised to leave us alone together for a little while."

A knock at the door of the tower warned them that their time alone had ended. Kalil took the mask from her pouch and smoothed it over her face. "Welcome mother," Nerik said.

Serina stepped into the garden and looked from Kalil to Nerik with a slight smile on her face. "When I courted your father in Timora, we seldom had a moment alone. You should count yourself fortunate for any time you have together. Come Kalil. It is time for the ordeal to begin."

"I thought you would want to bathe and change before you met anyone from the palace," Serina explained as she led Kalil to the bathing room.

Kalil looked down at the pale red gown that had been her best dress since she had purchased it from Mira. Next to the delicate gown worn by Serina, it looked dowdy. The pouches attached to her sash were of plain leather, not like the dainty pockets of embroidered velvet that hung from Serina's golden belt.

She had always been careful to take her baths in privacy, even if it sometimes meant going to the bathing room after others had retired, but Serina did not leave the room when Kalil began to take off her clothing. She could cover her plain, sunburned face with the mask, but her arms, muscled from hard work and tanned from the elbow down; her hands, rough and red with short, broken nails from her vocation; her feet, callused from walking in buskins and sandals instead of soft slippers, all seemed to shriek of her peasant origin. Kalil tucked the packet with her fire jewel and the stone she cherished as a blade of Neril into one of her pouches while she turned her back to the queen. Last of all, she took off the mask she had put on when Serina entered the garden.

"What is the string you are wearing around your waist?" Serina asked when Kalil took off her last piece of clothing.

"It is a sign of my virtue and no one may touch it but my husband," Kalil said with a lift of her head and a challenging stare more defensive than angry.

"It is similar to a custom of my people," Serina remarked. "Not the farm couple who raised me, but the Mareklans of my father's line."

The answer confused Kalil. She silently waded into the water and accepted Serina's help to rub the callouses from her feet and hands with a pumice stone. Serina continued talking as she washed Kalil's wild mane of black curls, then ran her hands through the damp tresses with a light dressing of pale scented oil that tamed the curls into gentle waves.

"My adoptive parents were treated as laughing stocks by the people of Zedekla when I arrived from the country on a wagon pulled by a team of dalas," Serina said. "My mother had dressed me in the best she could provide, but she had no idea of city fashion and covered every dress with ruffles and bows.

"You were a peasant?" Kalil asked. It seemed such a strange idea that she felt she had misheard Serina.

"How do you think I became so expert at removing calluses?" Serina asked with a smile. "After I married, a mob of demon worshipers burned our nuptial house and Talek and I were sent on a hike that lasted more than a week. We went from Zedekla to Marekla to the forests near Tedaka where we rescued my husband's twin brother."

"I might have heard about some of this if I had not lived in village so remote that we seldom hear what happens in places like Zedekla," Kalil confessed.

"Is it true that you were raised in Rubble Ford where Neril was saved from being married to the chief's son in exchange for the serpent she had killed?" Serina asked while filing and buffing Kalil's ragged fingernails until they were neat and regular.

"Yes, I grew up in Rubble Ford," Kalil reluctantly admitted.

"Then you are also of the blood of Marekla," Serina said. "Is it true that the women in your village all wear veils?"

"Only a few of us were required to wear veils." Kalil shut her eyes tight to hold back tears as she remembered the humiliation of being forced to wear a veil.. Even if Serina had been brought from the country, she clearly had the ancestry required to make her eligible to be chosen as a bride for a prince. Kalil knew that her only qualifications were Nerik's puzzling devotion and the accident of having met and rescued him.

When she finished bathing Serina helped Kalil put on clean white under clothing and a light gown of pale blue zylka cloth. She took her to a polished silver mirror that hung on the clothing room wall. "Look at yourself Kalil. See what you are!"

Kalil began to raise her eyes to see the two women reflected in the mirror, but her tears rose and blurred her sight until she could only see a blurry image of her wavy black hair and her sun tanned face next to the shining smooth hair of Serina and her pale, delicate features.

"I know what I am, Serina, and that is why I must wear the mask," Kalil said with a small, sad voice.

Serina shook her head. What more could she do to show Kalil how much alike they were. If anything, Kalil was lovelier. Her wide, white smile, her vibrant expression when she saw Nerik, the purity of her profile, her lithe, confident stride, were all part of it. What had happened to the girl to make her think herself ugly?

"If I had time to work with you, I could convince you that you need not wear a mask," Serina said. "As it is, we must begin immediately to introduce you to the court. It will help depress the expectations of those who covet Nerik's rightful place as heir."

She handed the carved box to Kalil and waited while she smoothed the enameled gold mask over her face like a second skin. Perhaps she had been foolish to give Kalil the mask. Kalil's insistence on veiling her true face puzzled and saddened the queen.

The mask had been modeled on a cast of Serina's own face, idealized by an artist with the signs of two decades of aging removed. It would not have fit so well if they had not shared similar muscles and bones that had been the mark of Mareklan maidens through the centuries.

Chapter 6 Distress

After Serina finished helping Kalil dress, she led her up to the chambers that her daughters shared. "I will leave you now, Kalil. In a few minutes you will meet your future sisters and their tutor. Meanwhile, I will send my hair dresser in to you."

The servant coiled and smoothed Kalil's hair, taming her curls and fastening them in place with a shining fillet of gold across her brow. When Nerik's sisters entered the room with their tutor she stood and held out her hands to them in welcome, but they stopped at the doorway and stared. There were three princesses, two who were so much alike that she knew she would have trouble remembering which was which, and a cute little girl with dark red curls whose eyes grew round with awe and a touch of fear as she gazed at Kalil.

"Are you the maiden Nerik is going to marry?" one of the twins asked.

Kalil nodded.

"Mother said you were going to learn some things from our tutor, Danen. Don't you know how to read?" the little one asked.

"I read," Kalil stated. She wanted to smile and reassure them all, but the mask resisted her smile. She walked toward them with her hands extended. "Will you tell me your names?"

"I'm Nala," the little one said. "Those two are Calila and Fayala. Don't worry if you can't keep them straight. I'm about the only one who can."

The mask kept Kalil from laughing and possibly offending the child. "Come, you can watch while I discover what I need to know."

Kalil's studies with Senna had required a good memory and the knowledge of many things that few other girls in Rubble Ford bothered to learn. Her experiences in setting up a business had sharpened her knowledge of numbers and people. As Danen questioned her to find out her deficiencies, he ranged over a number of subjects.

Finally he shook his head and smiled. "In truth, you have an amazing mind. You seem a little limited in your knowledge of the history of Zedekla, but so do many who have lived here all their lives. Have you been to Timora and studied the sacred scrolls?"

Kalil shook her head gently lest she strain the mask. "I have traveled very little. I hope to visit Timora after I am wed."

The tutor nodded. "I will find some books for you to read, but there is little more you need from me."

"Next you need to talk to our governess about comportment," Nala announced.

The little princess took her hand and led her to a wide room where various arrangements of furniture cluttered the floor. A grey- haired woman with a face that curiously resembled Senna stood and bowed her head to each of them in turn. Kalil noticed the subtle difference in the degree to which she lowered her chin in each instance. To the twins she gave the deepest inclination, to Nala a shade less, and to Kalil, the least of all.

Kalil neatly matched the same degree of deference in her return nod. "I am Jaril, Prince Nerik's betrothed," she said with the lisp the mask imposed.

The old woman immediately responded with a deeper nod, "Please forgive me. I am Petilla, second cousin to Tomak, the king's father. I am in charge of teaching court manners to the princesses."

"I need your help as well," Kalil confessed. "I grew up in the country and have no idea of how to act in the presence of royalty."

"How very charming of you to claim such ignorance," Petilla said. "It is already evident that you have the elegance required for success. Most green girls wrinkle their faces with pouts and grins. A serene expression is the desired aim of all my teaching."

The expressions of the princesses expressed that their lessons with Petilla were not a pleasure. For two hours they paraded about from one setting to another within the room. Pillows were set up to represent ambassadors and uncles, servants and suitors. In the world Petilla ruled, there proper behavior existed for every degree of person. "Do not neglect the most humble of your subjects," she directed. "To smile at a prince and ignore a humble petitioner may someday result in your ruin."

"That seems a little extreme," one of the twins said. "What about the degrees of inclining your head that you taught us?"

"Only in greeting and saying farewell should you give indication of your consciousness of rank," Petilla said. "It is best to be reserved with everyone. Take the example of Jaril. She clearly knows how to keep her face from showing her moods. I am certain that even were she to be surprised or frightened, her face would be as still as a perfect statue."

Petilla clearly meant her comment as high praise, but Kalil regretted the burden of the mask. She had first thought it flowed over her face like cool liquid, but now it stifled her. She thought of an excuse to be alone so she could take it off.

"I believe I am expected to meet the rest of the court this evening," she said. "I must rest and change my clothing for the night ahead."

Nala shot her a look of gratitude as Petilla hurriedly called her comportment lesson to a close. The three princesses left the presence of the governess with staid and quiet steps, but as soon as they were beyond the door where she could see them, they began to skip.

"I am surprised your parents make you spend so much time with her," Kalil said.

"She has nowhere else to go and my parents feel an obligation to care for her," one of the twins confessed. "She is too proud to accept charity and the only thing she knows really well are the manners of the court."

"You are good to let her keep you for so long. I'm certain that as a child I would have found an excuse to escape her instruction," Kalil told them.

"Sometimes we do," Nala admitted. "But we thought you might need to know some of the things she teaches."

One of the twins giggled and her sister nodded. "It seems we were wrong."

"You give me more credit than I deserve," Kalil said. "I know almost nothing about how to go on in such a place as this. For example, I have forgotten where my room is. Could you guide me back?"

Nala took her hand and soon they were back in the quarters they shared. Kalil thanked the three of them and entered her room.

She had looked forward to a nap behind locked doors with her mask removed so her skin could breathe. Instead she found four robing women waiting for her with bolts of cloth. Remembering Petilla's instructions, she held back a petulant impulse to set them on their way and patiently endured an hour of fittings. They had brought a few gowns that were nearly finished and as soon as they knew her measurements, two of the women began to make the alterations needed.

By the time they finished, the hair dresser came to prepare her hair again. It took over an hour of combing and braiding to tame the rebellious mass of curls into a decorous coif that framed her face like a work of art. Kalil managed to keep from crying out when one of the elaborate combs holding her hair pressed into her scalp, but her breath came hard when the hair dresser finally finished and left the room.

She had hardly moved for hours and her body ached with the strain of holding still. She felt as tired as she ever had as a matla maker. Kalil dared not disturb the work of all the servitors by trying to remove the mask and she could not lie down lest she crease the lovely gown.

At last Serina came to lead her to the small dining room where she would be introduced to King Talek for the first time. After looking her up and down, the queen nodded. "You are like a work of art, my dear. You are ready to meet the most critical judge." Serina made one last adjustment to the embroidered brocade of Kalil's gown. Befitting a royal fiancee, embroidery of silver vines and leaves scattered with moonstones and other pale jewels covered the white gown. A circlet of silver, set with one large, perfect pearl, bound Kalil's dark hair. The mask on her face rivaled the pearl in creamy luster

"I am a work of art, thanks to you and all you've done for me," Kalil murmured.

"Done to you, don't you mean," Serina said with an ironic smile. "I can see that my hair dresser outdid herself. I hope she did not pierce your skin with those awful combs. I should have warned her not to use them. They were a gift from my mother- in- law's foster father King Tagun, but I never wear them."

"She wouldn't need to use them to dress your hair," Kalil replied. "I have never been able to subdue my wild curls without a struggle."

Serina took Kalil by the hand as they walked down the corridor together. The queen yearned to protect this lovely, vulnerable girl her son had chosen, but it seemed that Kalil could not recognize her beauty. She remained as blind as Nerik in her own way.

Nerik's father, Talek, ruler of Zedekla and all the country around from the sea to the barrier range, rose when they entered the room and walked toward them. A handsome man near the prime of his life, he made a fit consort for Serina. He smiled warmly and extended his hands to lead them to the table, then seated them on either side of him. Talek leaned close to Serina and murmured, "She looks like you did when we first met. It would be interesting to find out how she came to have Mareklan blood."

"Rubble Ford," Serina whispered so quietly that none but Talek heard her.

Nerik sat next to Kalil at the long oval table. It seemed that only the immediate familyhad been invited. On the other side of Nerik sat a lovely young matron who must be one of his older sisters.

"This is my sister, Janana," Nerik said. "The woman across from you is Lella, another sister. I believe you've already met the twins and Nala."

"Our husbands wanted to meet you as well," Lella said. "Nerik insisted that you be introduced to us one at a time."

"If he had admitted Dosik and Perwen, doubtless Zanuk would have insisted on coming," Janana said. "It is good for once to be with family. It seems we never eat alone with only our family at our home." A narrow furrow above her brows spoke of a secret sorrow.

Lella nodded her agreement. Kalil remembered Nerik's comments about their husbands and she felt compassion for both of the women. Two servants entered with platters of food and set them down on the table. Pitchers of cold nuka juice and spiced cala stood at either end of the serving surface. When everything had been placed, Talek gave a signal and the servants withdrew. Kalil heard the click of a lock shortly after they closed the door.

"Will you say the invocation for us Nerik?" Talek requested.

Nerik stood and raised his hands. After a moment of hesitation he spoke: "We come before the Radiance with joy in our hearts and praise the bounty with which we are blessed. The children of Irilik beseech the guidance of the spirit of truth and light. Protect us from those with evil intent and let us be filled with the hope for Yasa Dom."

When he finished praying everyone at the table touched of their right hands to their foreheads. Now Kalil understood why only the family had gathered and the servants were excluded. The holy name was spoken only by those who were initiated into the higher priesthood, like her own father. Whatever fables and fatuous rituals had muddied the cult of Rubble Ford's leaders, her father belonged to a lineage of priests that still retained the true knowledge transferred through the ages.

Nerik took his seat and the platters were passed. They were full of good things, savory and sweet and Kalil felt ravenous. She had been so eager to come to the palace that she had once again skipped her midday meal. Many of the foods were unfamiliar to her and she decided to start with a small sample of each before committing herself to a larger serving. With her plate less than half full, she lifted the first bite to her mouth and discovered another limitation of the mask. The morsel of food barely fit through the decorously small opening that the mask made of her mouth.

Nerik's sisters were friendly and kept asking her questions. Between the limitations on eating imposed by the mask, and the need to answer promptly and politely, she had hardly eaten half of the food on her plate before the meal came to an end.

"I admire your self- control," Lella commended her. "I always over eat at our family gatherings."

Kalil felt like both laughing and crying at what Lella's compliment to her self restraint. If she had not been limited by the mask, she could have eaten several plates full of the delicious food still left on the platters. She led an active life and had never found it necessary to deny her appetite. Even Serina had eaten a plate full of food and no one could accuse the queen of lacking refinement.

Talek rose from the table and led them from the room after unlocking the door. Almost immediately they were joined by the husbands of Nerik's older sisters. Both stared at Kalil with such arrogant antipathy that she felt stunned by their enmity. She instinctively moved closer to Nerik and Talek who were walking together just behind her.

She turned her head toward Serina and avoided the eyes of the men she now recognized as her enemies. What might they do to prevent her from marrying Nerik if they ever found her alone? She resolved that she would guard every moment while she remained in the palace. She would make certain that a lock with an exclusive key secured her room.

She thought of the many ways they might find to harm her. As hungry as she felt, she would not have accepted an offer of food or a drink without knowing its source. A shiver of fear ran through her, but for the first time in hours she felt glad for the mask. The gold enameled mesh hid fear as well as joy and sorrow.

Servants opened the tall doors that led to the great audience hall. The glow of the setting sun through the windows at the end of the room reflected off a thousand gems adorning the courtiers and councilors assembled to meet her. The mask hid her blushes when she felt the weight of their scrutiny. The heat of their bodies warmed the air and filled it with the mingled odor of stale sweat and too much scent.

"Come, my dear," Nerik said as he took Kalil's arm. "It is time to announce our betrothal."

Kilted guards marched beside the royal family as they passed through the crowd to the dais at the end of the room. A long bench extended along the top of the dais, but King Talek and his queen stood on the top step with Nerik and Kalil between them. Silence fell over the room. There had been rumors about the possibility of Nerik's betrothal, but there were always rumors rife throughout the court.

"This is Jaril, the betrothed of Nerik," Talek stated in a voice that somehow penetrated to the furthest corner of the room. An expectant silence followed his announcement as the crowd waited for him to say more, but Talek turned to his queen and led her to the bench to sit down.

Nerik and his sisters sat down on the bench nearest to Talek according to their age. Perwen, the husband of Nerik's oldest sister sat next to Serina, Dosik took his seat next to Perwen. Serina guided Kalil with her eyes and she sat last of all.

First came a mutter, then a few murmurs, then a subdued roar of gossip and speculation filled the room. The leading courtiers and councilors began to form a line. One by one they advanced up the steps and introduced themselves. Kalil saw a few genuine, honest smiles on the faces greeting her. More often she saw hints of cynicism and antagonism. She had learned from Petilla to barely nod her head to all but the few who were now her peers in the court. As the betrothed of the heir, she ranked above everyone but Talek, Serina and Nerik.

Her complete lack of facial expression left all her emotion to show in her eyes and to these strangers had no clue to her feelings. Not everyone who walked up the dais to meet her had been in the room when the ordeal began. Across the room a trio entered with a loud burst of titters and laughs that drew all eyes. A glance identified Zanuk with a woman hanging on each of his arms.

At first he seemed to ignore the dais while he circled the room with his two simpering toadies engaging small groups of courtiers in gossip. Kalil could not follow his movements with her eyes, but the sound of shrill giggles and smothered laughter marked his passage around the room as surely as if she had watched him.

Finally he pushed ahead of the others who had waited a long time to meet her and walked up the dais toward her. When he stood before her and looked directly at her for the first time. His insolent smile faded and he stared.

At first she feared that he had somehow recognized her, but his first words disabused her. "You have broken my heart with your glance," he muttered. "You cannot bestow this treasure on a blind man!"

His urgent words were spoken so softly that even Dosik did not overhear what Zanuk said, even though he leaned so far that he almost tumbled from the bench. "Thank you for your compliments," Kalil said in a clear, carrying lisp. She turned her head away from him quite deliberately and lifted her hand to the next courtier in line.

At first Zanuk refused to give way, but Dosik grasped his hand and hauled on him forcing Zanuk to move on. He made a perfunctory pass age along the reception line, ignoring Nerik completely. Instead of rejoining the two women who were waiting for him at the base of the dais, Zanuk walked to the base of a nearby pillar and took a post that gave him an unimpeded view of Kalil.

The line of courtiers gradually dwindled. Dosik took advantage of a pause to turn to Kalil. "It seems you've made a conquest of Zanuk. Take advantage of it while you can. He has a remarkably short attention span."

She did not answer him. Instead, she reached for the hand of the next man in line and this time she stared. She easily pictured a brilliantly colored bird perched on his head, but he wore no hat and his dress so differed from his usual garish clothing that at first Kalil thought she must be mistaken. Why would Magin be here in the palace wearing a subdued tunic of dull grey with the tiniest possible badges of rank?

"I am Farek, the king's grandfather," he announced as if he were unaware of her surprise. The tiny wink he gave her belied his polite address.

"I greet you with deepest respect," Jaril replied, bowing her head low in deference to him. Other than Nerik and Serina, he wore the only familiar face in the room, with the unfortunate exception of Zanuk.

As had every other person but Zanuk, he passed along the line to Dosik without lingering. There were other faces who greeted her, friendly, curious, or fiendish with barely hidden hate, but after the twin surprises of meeting Zanuk, who clearly did not recognize her, and Magin/Farek who did, Kalil found that she could only nod and make a polite response that never varied no matter what words were said to her.

One woman gave Kalil a curious look after asking quite plainly where she came from only to receive the answer: "Thank you, I am gratified."

The last few courtiers were left with the impression that the prince' s lovely fiancee was as stupid as she was pretty. It made for interesting conversation in the knots of gossiping antagonists and sycophants who clustered around the room according to their allegiance. Zanuk's partisans were sure he had some secret arrangement with Jaril. Why else would he so boldly stand and stare at her. Otherwise they would have to admit he had no intelligence to so antagonize his royal aunt and uncle.

The zole horns at the gate of the palace had long since blown the curfew when King Talek stood to indicate that the gathering had concluded. Once again marching guards escorted the royal party as they left the room.

When they reached the hallway, Talek and Serina bade farewell to their older daughters and their spouses who had quarters outside the palace. As soon as the doors closed behind them, Talek signaled Serina and they returned to the small dining room where the evening had begun.

Kalil saw Magin/Farek waiting for them within. He sat at the table eating a large bowl of soup and similar bowls were set out around the table.

"These grand parades of pomp always make me hungry," he said.

"You've been through quite a few in your time," Talek said. "I understand the royal progress of Tomak and Carila from Janaka to Timora took nearly two weeks to complete."

"There is no comparison," Farek protested. "There were friends to talk to along the way. I doubt that one room has ever been filled with more rancor and false ambition than what we saw here tonight. None could doubt that Kalil would make Nerik a wonderful wife, if looks were all that mattered."

"Jaril," Nala said in her childish lisp.

"What?" the old man asked.

"Her name is Jaril, not Kalil," the child repeated.

"Oh? Well yes, but it means the same in the old language," he muttered with a wave of his hand.

"I did not realize you were in Zedekla, grandfather, " Talek said.

"Oh, I come and go. You know how it is with me since Ranila went to join the blessed. I wander like old Sergon and Kemila and come up now and then to surprise my descendants with a visit."

While he spoke, he shoved a large bowl of soup toward Kalil. She gratefully lifted the spoon and began to sip the hearty contents of the bowl. No one had disturbed her with questions while Farek held them rapt with tales of his adventures.

"I found a bird that could talk in the jungles south of Timora and if you are very good, I will show it to you," he promised Nala.

"It is always good to see you," Talek said. "You will be staying here with us tonight so that they can visit you in the morning?" he said in a voice that made it more of a statement than a request.

"I will stay here tonight," Farek said with a nod.

To Kalil's surprise, Nala turned and threw her arms around her. "I like you Jaril. Even if your face seems like a statue, I think you are nice."

"I think she's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," one of the twins said. "And her face doesn't look frozen. It has exactly the right expression for a princess. I just wish I could stop grinning long enough to achieve that look."

Kalil tried to smile her reassurance to Nala, but the mask defeated her will. Instead, she hugged the small girl back and whispered, "I'd rather have you like me than be beautiful." She wished she could take off the mask, but she had made her decision. Only Serina, and Farek/Magin, would ever know the plain face she hid behind its delicate disguise.

"I think Jaril must be tired too," Nala said as she noticed a glitter of tears in Kalil's eyes.

"She will go up to her room soon enough," Serina said. "There are some things we need to talk about as adults. Now go upstairs with your sisters and I will come later and hear you say your prayers."

As soon as the twins had taken their little sister away and the doors were once again locked against intruders, Talek turned to Kalil. "You have had a long and wearying evening, but we must warn you about the danger you might overlook. My nephew Zanuk made everyone aware of his admiration for you. There will be gossip if you give him the slightest encouragement."

Nerik turned toward his father. "Jaril has every reason to avoid Zanuk. You need have no fear that she disgrace us."

"I thought she never met him before tonight," Serina said with surprise

"I met him, briefly and violently, one night," Kalil told them. "Fortunately I scared him away before he hurt me, but no evidence of a crime remained and I knew my word would be doubted because of our difference in rank. Nerik is the only one I told about Zanuk's assault."

"I would have listened," Farek said.

"But you were not available to listen to her complaint about Zanuk," Talek said with a nod of deference to his grandfather.

"I knew of one person I could utterly trust, and that is Nerik," Kalil explained. "After tonight I know of others I can trust."

Farek favored her with another flickering wink to let her know that he understood her previous reservations. He must know that she could not afford to confide completely in him until she fully understood where his loyalties lay. She no longer wondered if he had set her up as a scapegoat to draw out the worst in Maga and Ria. On the other hand, how much had he known about her relationship to Nerik? The summons to the magistrate's hall had certainly not been a private affair and as Magin, Farek had sources of information that she could only estimate.

Serina hid a delicate yawn behind her hand. "I think it is time to end this conversation. I would like to go up and oversee Nala's prayers before she falls asleep."

Talek stood and Nerik helped Farek to his feet. For a moment the three men stood together like a picture of youth, prime and aging of one man.

"Good night, my dear," they all said at once like echoes of each other. Giddy with fatigue and all the new experiences of what had proven to be a very long day, Kalil began to giggle.

Serina led Kalil through the door of the room after slipping the latch from its clip. A tall guard stood on post outside the door and he followed them as they made their way to the chambers Kalil shared with the other royal maidens. There were two guards standing at the entrance to the chambers. Kalil appreciated the display of arms they made with their spears and the shining Janakan swords at their sides, the practical answer to the threat of sedition posed by the various contestants for Nerik's right to the succession.

Leaving her personal guard with the others, Serina preceded Kalil into the hallway and stopped at the room where Nala lay staring toward the door. As soon as she saw her mother, she slipped from her bed and went to the prayer stool under a lamp of the Radiance. While her mother waited, she said her prayers, then she crossed the room back to her bed. Kalil remembered how her mother had done much the same thing for her in her childhood. She liked to find these small similarities between Nerik's family and her own. Perhaps they were not so small after all.

After leaning over the bed and tucking the coverlet over her youngest daughter, Serina led Kalil into her own suite of rooms. A maid servant waited to help her undress, but Serina dismissed the servant and locked the door after her.

"I thought of your plans to continue your life as a matla maker when I chose these rooms," Serina said. "Follow me and I will show you a secret way of returning to the garden."

She pressed a crosspiece on one of the panels of the inside wall and the wall swivelled open, revealing a steep staircase that led down through the narrow space between the rooms.

"My husband and his brother discovered this passage when they were boys and used these rooms," the queen explained when they reached a long corridor. "If you go to the end of this corridor, there is a door that opens into the lower room of the northern tower. As you saw, the tower is not in use, but Nerik has made sure that locks were installed in both the door and the gate. You have the key that fits both of them."

Kalil nodded and Serina led her back to her bedroom. "As long as the doors at both ends are locked, you should be secure here. Remember to lock up behind me."

Kalil locked the door with one hand and lifted off the golden mask with the other in the same moment. She wiped the interior of the mask with a scrap of worn scroll cloth and put it away in the carved box. Next she took the combs from her hair, starting with the one that dug into her skull.

She disarranged the smooth coils and quickly undid the braids, running her fingers through her hair until it once again sprang free in wild disarray. Finally, she unclasped the jeweled belt that had cinched her waist all evening.

With her hair unbound and loose, her face free of the mask and her waist unconstrained by the rigid belt, she whirled around, ignoring the aches in her back to experience the sensation of a breeze blowing the zylka cloth gown against her body.

She spun to a stop, feeling dizzy with more than the effects of her turning. A white gown of translucent zylka cloth lay her bed and she lifted the heavier gown over her head and carried it to the chest near the window. The thin, soft fabric of the night gown seemed little more than a nod to propriety. A heavier robe hung from a peg near the door and Kalil pulled it on before she knelt on her prayer stool and considered the day just past.

In less than a day she had come to hate the mask but she could not face the scrutiny of the court without it. To marry Nerik, and be his companion she would be willing to pay a far greater price. She liked Nerik's sisters, especially Nala, and the king and queen were both warm and gracious toward her, in spite of Serina's curious insistence that she did not really need the mask. To discover that Magin and Farek, a man of Neril's generation were the same person had been the greatest surprise of all. It comforted her to know that she had more than one true friend in court.

On the other hand, she had underestimated the intrigue and division among the courtiers. She had wondered why the king tolerated maneuvering against Nerik, but after seeing the assembled courtiers and councilors this evening, she realized they were not really under control. They all had some reason for being associated with the palace, but it would be nearly impossible to determine which of them were loyal, and which ready to engage in sedition to promote their own advantage.

She calmed her mind and raised her hands to pray. "I come before the Radiance in gratitude and praise for all that has been granted me. As a child of Irilik I invoke the blessings of Yasa Dom and await his coming." Other phrases of thanks and invocation followed after a period of meditation.

She finally rose and walked to her bed. Slipping off the robe, she slid under the covers and closed her eyes. The night lamp guttered and died and the room grew dark, but Kalil felt safe and calm. She had set her foot on the path of becoming Nerik's bride and she would not turn back.

The next morning Kalil rose early and dressed in the dress she had worn on her trek from Rubble Ford. She unlatched the hidden panel and hurried down the long, narrow flight of stairs, briefly wondering what story the queen would tell to cover her absence if someone wanted to speak to her.

After checking to make sure that no one saw her leave the garden, Kalil made her way to the matla shop, back tracking and using shortcuts that would make it difficult for anyone to follow her.

There were already knots of people gathered to gossip. One of her acquaintances hailed her and she stopped to talk. There were rumors that a bride had been chosen for Prince Nerik. One of the market women laughed and said, "I understand they imported an impoverished princess from Sedana. Who else would consent to marry a blind man?"

Kalil could not let the comment go unchallenged. "At least she won't be one of those snobbish women of the court. Except for Queen Serina and her daughters, the court ladies are nothing more than mirror addicts. I hear that none of them would marry Nerik because he couldn't flatter them."

"I suppose you are a regular guest of the royal family," the woman sneered. "Do they have you over especially to serve them their matlas?"

"I hope we won't be burdened with an ugly spinster who couldn't find another mate among the royals," someone said.

The remark assured Kalil that she had chosen the right course when she had accepted the mask from Serina. Bidding the others a good day, even the shrew who had cut so close to the truth, she entered the square of the goldsmiths.

The goldsmiths' shops were already open, their grilled windows lifted to display the glowing products of their masters. Kalil usually passed by without looking at the jewelry and gold displayed, but her eyes were drawn to a little statue, a tiny dala with its sturdy legs spread in characteristic resistance. It reminded her of Nala. This would be a perfect gift for the little princess.

She stepped into the shop and recognized the master goldsmith as Mulak's employer. "How much will you charge me for the dala?" she asked.

"It is gold," he said, glancing at the brass baubles that she always wore in her hair.

"Yes, none could mistake it for anything other than the product of a fine goldsmith," she acknowledged.

"I see you have an eye for fine things," the smith said with a smile. "If you continue as successful as you have been so far, you will soon be able to buy many pretty things, but shouldn't you be saving for your dowry?" he asked, indicating that Mulak had shared her good news with his master.

"I want to purchase the dala as a gift for my groom's little sister," Kalil told him.

His brows rose, but he named a price of three enas. "I heard you were marrying up, but you must be marrying very well indeed to buy such a gift for a child."

"I will pay you two enas," Kalil responded, surprising him that she would pay even so much. If she would spend this much on a trifle, what might she spend when she had married and could afford to patronize his shop regularly? Her counter offer was low, but he nodded. After all, as he had heard her say herself, an appreciation for glitter and glow, even when expended on baubles, could lead to purchases of more valuable things.

He wrapped the tiny dala in soft bacal wool and packed it a small carved wooden box. When she handed him a credit slip with the price marked on it, he looked at Magin's name and again his brows rose. "You have a banker?"

She smiled impishly. "It seemed safer than carrying around all my profits."

He nodded approvingly and handed her the box. She paused before putting it into a belt pouch after noticing that a mark on the top of the box resembled the design on the box that held her golden mask.

"What is this device carved into the lid of the box?" Kalil asked,

"That is the special mark reserved for my use. These boxes are brought to me from Tedaka by Mareklan merchants. They are costly, but just as a precious jewel deserves a lovely setting, a lovely piece of jewelry deserves a special container."

Kalil realized that the gold smith or possibly Mulak had probably created the mask she would wear when she pretended to be a princess. The mask seemed almost magic in its ability to transform her from a plain, course- skinned peasant into a beauty. Perhaps the goldsmith had a secret that, like the leaven she used for her matlas, came near enough magic for most mortals. She thanked the smith and hurried from his shop.

Her impulsive purchase for Nala made her late coming to the matla shop. She relieved Mira at the till and greeted their first customers. She didn't notice the dark figure that lurked in the shadow of a nearby market stall.

Chapter 7 Enemies

Raderen stared across the lane at the matla shop with growing fury and frustration as he watched the woman taking payments from the steady line of customers. He had been searching the land for a veiled woman and only identified the woman in the shop as Kalil because of a chance remark from a woman he had met in Tagara two weeks before. Maga told him about her reasons for leaving Zedekla where he had known her before. "The witch, Kalil, cursed my griddle her friends drove me from the city," the slattern claimed.

The profitable matla shop across the way should have been his. Kalil had stolen his plan to use her skills in the city. From the evidence he saw, he would have made a tidy sum by putting her to work until he made contact with the men who had purchased his other wives for generous prices.

For the sake of ensuring his right to marry Kalil he became a fugitive. Instead of gaining her hand, he had been locked in the cave- like cell that passed for a jail in Rubble Ford. It should have been the morning of his triumph, the day he took Kalil to wife. He had expected to gain his objective of winning her hand by eliminating the only other suitor.

Joden had lived long enough to tell his father that Raderen had given him the toxic mushrooms. Instead of the expected marriage to Kalil, the village assembled for a quick trial and execution. The chief and his council pontificated and pondered the crime while Raderen dug through the rear wall of the cell. His guard had been napping and did not notice the escape.

He had planned to abduct Kalil from her home near the river before making his final exit from Rubble Ford, but when he slipped through the edges of the forest and hid in the shadows of her father's barn, he heard her parents discussing her sudden departure in the middle of the night. He hurried across the ford, leaping from stone to stone before the guard woke and sounded the alarm.

At first he thought Kalil's track would be easy to follow. Only one road led from Rubble Ford to Taleeka. A veiled woman alone would be noticed by everyone she passed and he anticipated an early capture. She could not call out for help after he caught her. No one would notice the gag on her mouth beneath the veil. He had prepared a counterfeit marriage contract to use if anyone questioned his actions. All his careful planning came to naught. Days passed while he had searched for her along the road to Taleeka and in the city itself.

He finally realized that she must have chosen another city, but no one could recall her passing on the road to Zedekla. Turning north, he searched towns and cities from Janaka to Jama, but she had eluded him.

Finally growing discouraged with the quest when he could not find Kalil in Jama, he had started for Zedekla to find Bildug and offer his services to the cult of Orqu. Then he had seen Maga laboring away in her husband's inn in Tagara and learned from her that Kalil had come to Zedekla and already successful on her own. The news sent him rushing from the inn without finishing his food.

It had taken a few days to reach Zedekla, and a few more days while he searched the streets for a veiled matla maker. Once he found out that she owned matla shop on goldsmiths square he had waited for her to appear. The gown she wore helped him identify her.

She owed him for the trouble she had caused him. With the counterfeit marriage contract accepted, he would control all she owned. Then, when he had what he wanted of her, he would turn another profit by selling her to Bildug. She had brought it on herself. After all, when he had enough money to marry for more than mere profit, it would be to someone better than a country wench.

It would be foolish to accost her at the shop when there were so many people around to hear her cries, but he felt certain that he could find someone who would help him capture her. He lingered near the shop until one of the customers left, then he followed him and reached out to stop him. "I'm no stranger to Zedekla, but it has been years since I last visited. I saw you coming from the matla shop. Would you recommend it?"

"You could not do better than eat there," the man assured him.

"What about the pretty young proprietor," Raderen said with a nudge of complicity. "Is she available?"

The man he had accosted frowned at Raderen and muttered, "You would be well advised to leave her alone. She lives at the Bera clan hostel, and they are protective of their maidens. She is not the kind of woman for what you have in mind." He sneered at the avid expression in Raderen's eyes, pulled away from the hand that grasped his shoulder and hurried on his way.

Raderen found his way to the hostel and examined the wall of the compound. Built of solid stone, it loomed above the for two man heights before any windows appeared in the thick wall. He would have to find an assistant to his schemes inside.

He knocked on the gate of the hostel and examined the steward who answered. He recognized the type, stolid and self- righteous, and likely beyond being bribed. Perhaps he would be vulnerable to a legal claim.

"What do you want?" Balga asked. He held the door half open in a gesture of distrust.

"I am looking for a runaway. She had ties with Bera Clan and I thought she might take refuge here," Raderen said.

"What is her name?" the steward asked.

"Kalil," Raderen replied. He saw the widened eyes at the mention of the name and hoped his ploy would bear fruit.

"She does not live here," Balga said.

Raderen made a gesture with his thumb that clearly offered a bribe. The door slammed in his face.

Raderen determined to return to the goldsmiths square and keep watch on the matla shop, but as he turned away, a man came out of the hostel. The yellow tint of his complexion reminded Raderen of docil addicts he had known. He followed the man to the southern section of Zedekla across the river.

The man looked back at Raderen and stopped before entering the back door of an inn that harbored a docil shop. "You have been following me."

Raderen nodded. "I want access to the hostel when night falls. Could you tell me who the night watchman is?" Once again Raderen made the gesture for a bribe, but this time his offer found a target.

The man looked from the alley to Raderen, indecision in his face. Finally some weakness in his soul won the battle with his conscience and he nodded. "I am the night watchman. What do you want me to do?"

"Put this powder in the cala for the meal this evening. I swear it is nothing more harmful than a simple sleeping potion. Then, when the others are asleep, leave the latch off the hook and go your way. When you return to the hostel, you will find another ena tucked above the door."

The watchman quickly accepted the coin without asking why Raderen wanted access to the hostel, or telling him that many of the young people who lived there did not take their evening meal with cala, most preferring nuka juice or water in this season.

That evening when Balga finished his meal he felt overcome with a wave of dizziness and fatigue. He could barely summon strength to set up his cot at the foot of the stairs after the maidens went up to their dormitory. As soon as he lay down, he fell into a profound sleep. He did not see the night watchman slip the latch of the door before leaving for a night of pleasure.

Raderen entered the clan house and brushed past Balga on his way to the sleeping room. The girls were not as profoundly affected by the sleeping potion as the steward since many of them did not drink the cala the watchman had dosed. Raderen entered the room and began to study their faces, looking for Kalil.

Mira woke while he leaned over her in the darkness and she began to scream with terror. With an agility belying his years, he jumped from the window of the dormitory onto the roof of another building. While he tried to find a way down, some of the young men, led by Mulak, rushed into the maiden's dormitory and followed his example, leaping to the roof behind him and trying to close off his escape.

Just as Mulak closed in on him, Raderen tripped over a chimney near the edge of the roof and fell to a heap of filthy straw below. It broke his fall, and covered him with dala dung. None of the young men were quite willing to follow his example and they began to look for another way down. Raderen took advantage of their hesitation and scurried away down the alley.

The lamps were lit in the hostel and a search made, but other than the absence of the night watchman, nothing seemed to be missing. Balga woozily remembered the stranger who had offered him a bribe for information about Kalil. Magin should hear of this, and the night watchman would be dismissed as soon as he returned.

Meanwhile, Kalil had spent another afternoon and evening at the palace. She slipped into her chambers through the hidden corridor and assumed the golden mask before dressing in one of her simpler gowns and going down to the women's baths. Serina had arranged for her to have exclusive use of the bathing room just after noon.

She returned to her room and summoned a servant with a lever built into the wall. The servant brought a tray of food and took a message to the hair dresser. For most purposes, Kalil felt confident in taking care of herself, but she welcomed the skill of others in fighting her abundant curly hair into a decorous coif.

When the hair dresser finally appeared, Kalil had finished her meal and she sat patiently while the woman braided and coiled her hair. "No combs," she said when the woman reached for the box.

"I won't be able to do my best work if I can't use the combs," the hair dresser said.

"What you can do without them will have to suffice," Kalil said, unwilling to spend another evening under torture for the sake of her appearance. Spending the rest of the day and evening sweltering under the mask seemed bad enough.

Her chill, reserved expression seemed to convince the hair dresser that there could be no use in arguing the point. She completed her work and Kalil studied the effect. If she could have laughed, she would have. Her hair looked quite amazing, rising up from her pate in an intricate tower of coiled braids held in place with jeweled netting. Magin's bird would have made a perfect accessory for the mound. The thought of Magin reminded Kalil that she had a mystery to solve. How had Farek become a presence in the city, accepted by all as a canny trader and banker without being recognized as one of its former kings?

Nerik had explained to her that Zedeklan royalty usually retired to Timora to study and worship as soon as the heir and his wife produced an heir of their own, thus assuring the succession. Surely there were those old enough to remember when Farek had been king. She tried to calculate the years and realized that it had been nearly fifty years since the ascension to the throne of Tomak, Talek's father. That would mean that Magin was at least ninety years old.

She revised her belief that there were those who might recognize him. If he had begun his activities in the city after his wife died it seemed unlikely that anyone would identify the eccentric shop keeper with his bird and colorful clothing as the grave and dignified Farek.

She wanted to speak to him alone, but with her morning dedicated to the matla shop, and her afternoons and evening spent in the company of the royal family, she wondered when she would have a chance to meet with him.

Nala came to take her to her lessons for the afternoon and Kalil remembered the gift she had purchased for the princess. She held out the box and watched the child's eyes grow round with surprise. "I saw this in a gold smith's shop and thought that you would like it," Kalil explained.

Nala took the box and carefully unwrapped the tiny gold figure. "It's a dala! It will just fit the scene I have been working on, but none of the other characters are gold."

"I would like to see your scene," Kalil said.

"Come with me." The child took Kalil's hand and instead of leading her into her own room, she guided her down the stairs and along the wide corridor that led to various reception rooms. She turned into a room that must be a library. Kalil had never seen so many tablets and scrolls. Nala led her to a wide table set between two windows. Tiny figures and buildings dotted the surface. Mountains made of folded and painted scroll cloth provided a backdrop.

"These soldiers and Marekla merchants belong to my grandfather," Nala said. "He left them here for us, but we are very careful when we play with them. His grandmother bought them from Neril. The scenery and these other figures were made by Nerik and me. He made them, and I painted them. Sometimes my sisters helped. Can you see what the scene is?"

Kalil looked around at the display, first seeing only a rather chaotic mix of various people, then she nodded. "It is an abridged version of the history of Zedekla."

"How did you know?" Nala asked. "Yesterday you couldn't answer all the questions Danen asked you."

"But I listened to the questions your tutor asked, and the answers you gave when I had to admit I did not know," Kalil said. "I still have much to learn, but I think this little dala would fit with this tiny wagon with the bride on top. Isn't that your mother when she came to Zedekla to be married?"

Nala nodded and began to point out other significant scenes. Before she finished describing the scene depicting the fight between Tomak and Zadan, her twin sisters entered the room with Petilla. "Look what Jaril gave me," Nala said, pointing to the little golden dala that had already been placed in front of Serina's bridal wagon.

"You should keep it safe," Petilla said.

"I am certain that the dala is not nearly as valuable as the relics of Neril," Kalil said. "Surely it will be safe here."

"There is something about gold that turns men into thieves," Petilla cautioned.

"Why don't you paint the dala," one of the twins suggested. "It looks so perfect there that it would be a shame to lock it up in a jewel chest."

"May I take a little time from our lessons to paint the dala?" Nala asked the governess.

Petilla nodded and Nala hurried away. She soon returned with her paints and soon covered the gold with a coat of dull brown. Nala studied the effect. "It looks better now that it matches the other things."

"It is always best to fit into our surroundings," Petilla agreed. "Let this be a lesson for all of you."

She led them from the library to the room that had contained the various furniture settings the day before. Today the floor had been cleared and there were two musicians waiting with a fylk harp and a drum. "Today you will begin to learn to dance. The queen made the request this morning.

Kalil had been forbidden to dance in Rubble Ford after Senna put her under the veil. The next few hours passed quickly. The twins were already well along in their instruction and they helped Nala and Kalil learn the steps to an assortment of dances. Kalil felt sorry when the session ended and it was time go to her room and prepare for the evening ahead.

Once again the family ate dinner together in the small dining room, this time without the presence of Nerik's older sisters. Apparently Janana and Lella usually spent the evening with their own households. At one point in the meal someone knocked at the door of the dining room, but Talek ignored it.

When they left the dining room they found Zanuk lounging against the wall. His eyes never wavered from Jaril's face as he insolently questioned the king. "Why am I shut out of the dining room? Surely I have as much right as anyone to share a family meal."

"If you wish, you may come with us to the small assembly room," Serina intervened. "We have invited a few of our favored friends to watch a troupe of Kumnoran dancers."

"He never wanted to spend the evening with us before," one of the twins muttered.

"Why didn't you invite me to eat with you last night?" Zanuk demanded. "My parents would be disappointed to hear how you have cast me out."

Kalil could tell that all his protestations were addressed to her face, the part of her that she had come to call 'Jaril', as if it were not really part of her. If she had not already taken an accurate measure of his degenerate soul, and if she were indeed the arrogant beauty that the mask made her appear, she might have felt some sympathy for him. Instead she felt that his presence must end her enjoyment of the evening.

Once again, Zanuk's behaved rudely. Knowing that Nerik could not see his constant focus on Jaril, he watched her throughout the evening. With no cause to worry about her loyalty to their son, Serina and Talek pointedly ignored his ill- mannered attempt to flirt with her.

Kalil's fear that Zanuk's presence would ruin the evening proved false. As long as she did not look at him, she could not see the dog- like hunger in his eyes. The dance troupe made it easy to ignore Zanuk. They were dressed in traditional fringed kilts and horned caps with bells and disks of gold sewn to their bright felt vests with intricate embroidery that somehow resembled both flowers and words. She had been told that Kumnorans were proudly illiterate, relying on their memories and scorning scrolls and tablets. Could it be that the symbols in their art had some meaning that others failed to see?

Two men played on instruments that she had never seen before, like drums, but made of dimpled bronze and played with rounded sticks. The third instrumentalist played a zole horn, but smaller and more curved than the great zole horns used for signaling.

When the dancers began to pace around the floor, Kalil no longer thought about the instruments as anything but background for the dance. When she had been isolated in Rubble Ford her only window on the outside world had been her uncle Bagin. He had told her about the magic of Kumnoran dance, but as she grew and Bagin never came again, she began to think of his stories as mere fables meant only to entertain a credulous child.

Now she saw the truth of what he had told her. The least movement of the dancers made an intriguing counterpoint to the music. The rhythm built gradually and the eight dancers became two separate sets each with perfectly coordinated movements, then they split again to become four pairs that were as mirror images to each other. They separated and became a narrowing corridor, and another dancer leaped through the apex and began to spin and kick with such amazing prowess that all the watchers gasped. As if she had been the spark to light the fire in the other dancers, they followed her in individual displays, each a marvel of athletic skill and artistic brilliance. Kalil felt her pulse pound and her breath catch in her throat in response to the performance.

Nerik took her hand in his and his finger felt for her pulse. "You feel it just as I do," he murmured. "I love the sound of Kumnoran dance."

She had never before really felt pity for him, but to only know the part of something like this seemed a true deprivation. Her glance passed over Zanuk and she saw that he had remained completely unmoved by the dancers. He still stared at her, but with just the slightest hint of boredom in his expression.

Nerik at least could feel the rhythm and heard the music in his soul but Zanuk remained deaf and blind to any beauty but what he deigned worthy of his jaded tastes. She averted her eyes from him again and soon forgot him in the excitement of the dance.

As the dance wound down to a less frenetic pace, other dancers joined the troupe and Kalil realized that Talek and Serina had slipped away for a moment and returned in fringed kilts and felt vests. Their friends applauded their appearance but the royal couple laughed. They knew they were far less talented than the least of the troupe, but they wanted to taste the glory of being more than mere spectators.

Even so, it soon became evident that they had often danced like this before. Their steps were sure and skilled, even though they waited until the dance had slowed to take part. Kalil watched them and wanted to stand and join the dance. Her hand in Nerik's clenched slightly in time with the music and he gave a low chuckle. "I feel it too. If there were no others here to see me stumble, I would rise with you and join the dance."

"Someday we will dance together," she promised him softly. It seemed unlikely that anyone could see what she had said through the immobility of the mask.

The cadence of the dance increased again and then it ended suddenly with an exultant shout from the dancers. Nerik laughed, even though he could not see his parents as they staggered from the floor, exhausted by their turn at the dance, but gazing at each other with love and life in their laughing faces.

Kalil could not laugh, but she felt the same joy in her heart, remembering her promise to dance with her beloved. Nerik stood, and guided by his father's voice, he walked over to talk to him. A hand fell on Kalil's shoulder and she shivered at the insinuating fingers that slid up her neck and cradled her nape.

"You are just as bored of this childish display as I am," Zanuk murmured from close behind her, sending a quiver of revulsion down her back. "Somehow I will find a way for us to be together Jaril." He made the sound of her borrowed name sound like a curse in her ears.

She would have protested her disinterest in his further attentions, but he slid away silently and left the room, more like the snakes he feared than a true man. Talek turned and watch Zanuk's exit. Leaving Serina's side, the king walked over to Kalil. "I saw Zanuk talking to you," he said.

"He seems to think I am as big a fool as he is," she murmured. "Please never leave me alone with him again."

"It is as I feared. He fancies himself in love with you. We must take care to protect you from his unwanted attentions while you are in the palace. But what of the times when you are in the city, how can we guard you then?"

"I doubt he will ever bother me in the streets of Zedekla," Kalil said, remembering her last experience with Zanuk in the alley behind the matla shop. "He is certain I am a witch."

"That could be dangerous if the rumor spreads," Talek said. "We have done whatever we can to prevent the stoning of supposed witches and demon worshipers, but there have been several innocent men and women who were mobbed and some of them were killed. We closed the pyramid to Orqu's priests, but we have not been able to banish evil from our realm. I sometimes think the Liar thrives in the dark more than when we had some way to label those who listened to his vile whispers."

"I have already been accused of witchcraft and narrowly escaped a mob," Kalil revealed. "Fortunately, you have an ally in the city. He helped turn the tide against those who had accused me."

"Magin?" Talek asked. When she nodded, he smiled. "I have tried to invite him to the palace so that I can meet him. He has always evaded me. Once I even went to his shop, but although I am certain someone listened to my knock, they would not open the door."

"Of course you came with a parade of royal guards," she said.

"Yes, a king cannot walk abroad in the city without his guards," he admitted. "Sometimes I wonder if I am not as much a prisoner of my rank as any beggar in the streets. Doubtless you have already found that you had more freedom as a matla maker than you do as the intended bride of Nerik."

"There are constraints in every level of society," Kalil acknowledged. "Some are trapped where they were born. Others find a way to supersede their limitations." She thought of the man she would always call Magin in her mind, even when they met as fellow members of the royal family. If he had not consented to meet with Talek at the palace or in his shop as Magin, it meant he valued the secret of his second identity and she could not tell Talek what she knew.

Serina joined them with Nerik at her side. Her face still glowed from the dance. Something seemed familiar about her flushed, happy face, but Kalil still considered the puzzle of Magin and she did not follow up on the impression. "I think this has been a much nicer evening than last night," Kalil said to the queen.

"Such nights as this are rare," Serina admitted. "Most of the courtiers would feel the same as Zanuk about our antics with the dancers. I can't see how he stays aloof while such music plays. I was so happy when Farek told us he could arrange to have the dancers come. I'll never understand how he knew them, but he is an amazing man. It is hard to believe that he is old enough to be Talek's grandfather."

Talek and Serina walked to the door and all their guests followed to say goodnight and thank their hosts for the unusual evening. The dancers had departed and the room grew quiet. For the first time in too long, Kalil found herself alone with Nerik. "Do you know who Magin is?" she asked.

He smiled and nodded. "He is my sight. I told him about you when he visited me a few weeks after I returned to Zedekla."

"Then you have known nearly everything that happened to me in the past few months," she said, not quite comfortable with the idea.

"He tells me what I need to know, but he didn't tell me about the accusation of witchcraft that nearly got you stoned. I think he must have known how frustrated I would have been to know that you had been in danger. You said he helped turn the crowd against the mob. Did anyone else help save you?"

"I challenged my accusers to a duel of matla making," Kalil said with the nearest thing to a chuckle she could manage through the mask. It came out rather like an affected titter and she wondered if it would not be better to forgo any attempt at laughter.

Alone with each other for a precious moment, she wanted to lean into Nerik but she realized that the mask had another disadvantage. Until they were married, they would not be able to share a kiss. The rules were those she had set herself. The two months until they were wed began to seem like a long, long time.

Kalil and Serina parted from Talek and his son and a quartet of sturdy guards surrounded them as they climbed the stairs to the upper chambers where Kalil had her rooms. "You will always be double guarded when it is possible that Zanuk might be lingering somewhere to accost you," Serina explained. "He has quarters outside the palace, but sometimes he stays here in his old room. The guard captain reported that Zanuk chose to stay tonight."

The thought of Zanuk waylaying her again, even though this time it would be from infatuation instead of mere animal appetite, made Kalil value every guard who surrounded them. Serina sent two of them ahead into Kalil's room to inspect it for intruders. While Kalil waited for their report, Serina stepped into Nala's room where she once again heard her smallest child's prayers.

"Are you certain it is wise to continue going into the city?" Serina asked when she returned from tucking Nala into her bed. "You have no one to watch after you and make sure you are protected when you are on the streets and in your shop."

"I have friends and I'm not some innocent up from the country with no idea of how to find my way to safety when I'm threatened," Kalil assured the queen.

They said good night to each other and Kalil locked the doors and checked the latch to her hidden panel door to make certain she would be undisturbed, then she peeled off the mask and cleaned it. Her hair felt constrained and heavy, but there were no combs digging into her scalp. Her dress and over robe were loose and comfortable. The dainty slippers on her feet fit so well that wearing them felt better than going barefoot. With no one to distract her from her meal until she had eaten what she wanted, she had not suffered thirst or hunger. With the exception of Zanuk's flirtation, it had been one of the nicest evenings of her life.

She undressed, meditated and prayed, then crept into the great soft bed. When she turned toward the window, she could see the starry sky and a crescent of moon. There were many things for her to consider, but they failed under the twin forces of weariness and comfort and she slept.

She woke to a rosy dawn and quickly prepared to return to the market. Theodorn had vanished. Doubtless the palace had mice enough to keep him happy. He only seemed to appear when she had a need for him. She felt reassured that he had gone his own concerns this morning.

Chapter 8 Ambush

Kalil entered the matla shop that morning and received a vivid account of the excitement at the hostel. "The night watchman has been dismissed," Mira said. "He finally returned to the hostel this morning and he stank of docil root. Balga thinks the intruder may have been looking for you. A man came to the gate yesterday and claimed that you were a runaway."

"Did Balga say what he looked like?" Kalil asked. She doubted it could have been her father. If he had come to Zedekla to look for her she must meet him and tell him all that had happened, including her betrothal to the prince. It could have been Drumon, eager to retrieve her as a bride for Joden, but what if it were Raderen? A shiver of fear ran up her spine. The intrusion and drugging of the night watchman seemed more like something Raderen would do.

"I must go and tell Magin about this," she told Mira. "I should be back before the shop gets really busy."

"Perhaps you should stay away from the shop until the mystery is solved," Mira said. "You can come back when there is no longer any danger."

Kalil nodded. "I agree."

She hurried away from the shop, following her usual practice of cutting through alleys and avoiding the same ways she had taken before. She neared the dark pyramid of ancient stones that had once been used by the cult of Orqu and hurried her steps. She felt a sense of being pursued. The sound of footsteps in the narrow alleys made her want to run.

Raderen staggered to a halt and cuaght his breath. He had not anticipated that he would have his chance to capture Kalil so soon and the adventures of the night before had wearied him. Reeking from dala dung, he had been forced to find his way to the beach and wash in the sea. There would be too many to notice his state if he returned to his inn without some attempt to clean himself.

He had tried to wash his clothing in the surf, but the stink still persisted and he sneaked back to the inn in nothing but his loin cloth which he discarded as soon as he had slipped into his room. It galled him to lose the use of everything he had been wearing and he put another mark against Kalil.

She ducked into an alley and he ran to grab her when a door suddenly opened in the house ahead of them. To all appearances the house had been abandoned. At the last minute Raderen recognized the house as the one where he had sold his previous wives. "Catch her. She has escaped from me!" he called to the two men who had come out of the house.

They turned and easily caught Kalil in their arms. Raderen followed them as they dragged her into the house and shut the door. Bildug stood in the room beyond the door, his pallid ancient face shining waxen in the lamps that lit the room.

"I have brought you more meat for the demon," Raderen claimed.

"The girl ran into our arms," one of the men who captured Kalil said.

"She had just escaped. I would have caught her, but you saved me the trouble," Raderen said. "See, I have the marriage contract that gave her to me."

Kalil turned and spat at Raderen, "He lies, I never married him, and even if I did, a wife is not an object to be bought and sold."

"Gag her and bind her and put her in the cage," Bildug ordered the men who had captured her. "I will pay you the usual fee, Raderen. We seldom get maidens of Mareklan blood anymore. She is worth the price you ask, if she is indeed a maiden."

"I know your requirements," Raderen said. "She is a maiden, though her father gave her to me for a wife. I meet my needs in other ways."

"You have served me well," Bildug approved. "When we begin the ceremony that will mark the change of kings at the dark of the moon, her blood will renew the altar of Orqu. I am prepared to make you initiate to the cult. Are you prepared to wear the token of fealty?"

Bildug held up his hand to Raderen. Kalil saw the missing finger and suddenly recognized her captor. The stories of Neril had mentioned the beginnings of Bildug's foul interference with those who honored the Radiance. Gagged and bound, she could do nothing but watch as Raderen stared at the hand. "N- no, I cannot give my finger for the cult or I will be recognized. Do you think that the men who sell me their daughters for wives would agree if they knew their destiny? When I have ceased to serve you as I have, I will welcome the initiation and serve in other ways."

Bildug stared at Raderen with fanatic eyes, then he nodded. "If you are to truly serve, you must wear the mark of Orqu. We will put it where no others will see it. Bargak, bring your dagger. Raderen, take off your boot."

One of the demon's dogs held Raderen's mouth to muffle his cry of pain as another sliced off the middle toe of his right foot. He swooned and fell on the floor as two other men dragged from the room.

She stumbled and lurched as they forced her through a long dark corridor. It seemed to lead down a steep incline until at last they came to a halt and lit a lamp. A narrow cage fitted with poles like a litter stood in the middle of a low, dank room. Her captors ripped away her sash and took the belt pouches, then they shoved her into the cage.

"She will have to be fed and given docil," one of the men said. "Untie her hands and mouth, then lock the cage. No one will hear her screams in here."

They clamped down the lid of the cage and left the room, leaving Kalil alone with only the lamp. There were grilled openings high on the wall and Kalil suspected she might be watched. She had a plan for trying to escape, but she needed darkness before she dared to try it. Bildug had spoken of his plot against the king. He must be deep in league with one of the claimants to the throne. She had to free herself and warn Talek.

A noise of something scratching broke the silence of the chamber. The thought of rats gnawing at her made her snarl with fear and she grabbed the sides of the cage and rattled them.

Behind one of the openings high on the wall, Bildug had opened a port covered with a grill and showed his favorite acolyte the victim in the cage below. "She will be perfect for our purposes," the Orquian whispered.

Zanuk stared through the grill at the girl below. He saw a peasant, her clothing common and unkempt, her wild hair swirling around a face distorted by a scowl as she shook the bars of her cage. He thought he recognized her from a night he preferred to forget.

"I have seen her before, she is a witch. Can you be certain she will not use her magic to get away?"

Bildug stared at the young man he had chosen to lead Zedekla. Zanuk made a perfect pawn, stupid and vain. But he was also superstitious. Bildug decided to play on that superstition. "She is a powerful sorceress, but I have made warding marks on her cage and she will not get loose. If we do not rid ourselves of her, she will eventually overcome our plans."

"Kill this one now and choose a different girl to sacrifice," Zanuk urged.

"She is the one we must use for the sacrifice," Bildug said. "We are reasonably certain that she is a maiden, and any who knows what to look for can see that she is of Mareklan descent."

The priest saw doubt in Zanuk's eyes. "Of course we must not let a sorceress escape, especially an ugly one. If you can find an amenable maiden who meets our requirements, bring her to us and we will kill this witch before she interferes with the magic of our rituals. Perhaps you can lure one of the princesses away from her guards, but you must do it soon. In two days we will celebrate the Ascent of Orqu. I have sent my servants throughout the city to pay rabble to assemble at the foot of the eastern face of the pyramid. The ancient altar will be ready for the sacrifice. I have armed and instructed my guards."

"What must I do?" Zanuk asked.

"Be ready. Within two days, you will be King of Zedekla."

"When you take the royal family, keep Nerik's bride for me," Zanuk said.

"We will keep the bride for you," Bildug assured him. They exchanged the secret signs of the cult and Bildug slid the grill shut with another scraping sound. Kalil realized that the noise came from the wall and not from the floor. She stared upward, but nothing remained for her to see.

The lamp guttered and went out and Kalil reached into her neckline and drew forth her totem pouch. The obsidian blade she found in the river still held an edge and she searched with her fingers for the binding that kept the bars of the cage in place. If she could cut through the bindings of two of the bars, there might be enough room for her to slide out of the cage.

The abduction of Kalil had been observed. One of Magin's young runners saw the crime and hurried to his master's shop. "The girl you had us watch for has been taken captive by men in that house next to the old pyramid," the child said as soon as Magin appeared.

"Go tell those who watch the house to come to me," Magin said. Soon a line of urchins lined up in front of him. "Who will tell me what is happening in the old cobbler's shop," he said, holding up a handful of yidas ready to toss.

"Seven men went in and only two came out this past day," a boy who had been posted in the back alley said. Magin tossed him some yidas.

"I have counted forty who went in and did not come out in this past week," another boy volunteered for another few yidas.

"I delivered five bags of meal and a barrel of salted fish last week," a larger boy said. He took an ena from his belt pouch and displayed it for everyone. Magin tossed him a few yidas and he seemed as happy as any to get the token of Magin's approval. All them had been rescued from the streets by Magin and all of them would have carried out the tasks he gave them happily. The yidas were nearly useless, but for every ten they collected, he gave them a bigger coin worth twenty in exchange.

"I followed a man from the cobbler's shop to the house where Zanuk lives," a boy said. "He wore a dull gray hooded cloak and I could not see his face."

"Do you think the cobbler's shop has room for more than fifty men?" Magin asked.

The boys shook their heads.

"There is a mystery to be solved. Now go and keep watch again. If you are asked to do errands by the men in the shop, bring word to me. If you hear rumors, tell them to me."

The boys gave him a salute of right thumb to brow and scattered. Magin quickly locked his shop and scurried to a back room that had a carpet on the floor which revealed a trapdoor when he kicked it aside.

A narrow flight of stairs leading to a passageway lay under the trapdoor. He scurried down the stairs and pulled the trapdoor closed behind him. He had built this passage when he first realized the impossibility of knowing the temper of his people without a means of visiting them in disguise.

The corridor led to the furthest corner of the palace larder. He stowed his eccentric clothing in a barrel near the door and straightened the reserved grey tunic that he wore beneath all the frills and chains. For a few moments he waited to make certain no one remained in the larder beyond, then he stepped through the door and pushed it shut. From this side it appeared to be nothing more than a large dresser with a few shallow drawers and shelves.

Years of seeing Farek come and go through the nether regions of the palace had inured the staff to his presence. He passed unremarked through the servants' domain without drawing any particular notice except from one new maid who seemed flustered when he passed her and opened one of the narrow doors that gave onto the passageways the servants used to serve the upper regions of the palace.

Only certain servants had keys for the passages leading to the royal living quarters, and even then, further locks protected the quarters where the princesses and Jaril slept. Farek had keys to every room, but he turned and took the stairs that led to Nerik's apartment.

The prince studied with a tutor in his sitting room when he heard the patterned knock of Farek on the panel near his wardrobe in the other room. "I have enjoyed our discussion, Dolmek, but I have other business to consider now," Nerik said.

"Your father wanted me to instruct you on this subject. I will not go until I am satisfied that you understand the way the economic welfare of Zedekla affects all of Okishdu," the tutor insisted.

"I have dismissed you, Dolmek. I may be blind, but I am a man, not a child. If you wish to continue as my teacher, you will go."

Dolmek stood and gathered his scrolls and scribing tools with reluctance. If he expected further payment from the prince's brother- in- law, Dosik, he would need more information about Nerik's activities. Nerik escorted him through the door and shut it in his face before he could make any more protests. Dolmek leaned over to hear, but the thick, well set door defeated his effort to eavesdrop.

He tried pushing the door ajar, but it had been latched shut. At least he could report that the prince privately entertained visitors who came through the servant's entrance. Perhaps a woman visited the prince. Such gossip could ruin the coming nuptials. He hurried off to report to his patron through the same intermediary who had recruited him.

As soon as Nerik unlatched the panel, Farek pushed his way into the room. "Kalil has been abducted by Orquians."

"We must rescue her! How long ago did they take her?"

"She has been gone for less than an hour. I don't believe they planned the abduction," Farek said. "She seems to have stumbled into them on her way to see me. If Kalil is alive, and I cannot bear to think she's not, she will be taken to the victim's chamber to be prepared for the ritual. It seems I made a mistake in my treatment of the Orquians. The information I have gained so far indicates that the cultists are gathering and many of them are already within the pyramid. If we attack the temple by force of arms, the priests might kill Kalil and any others they have taken to be used as victims.

"I have worried about her," Nerik admitted, "But she insisted she must be allowed the freedom of the streets. Is she in immediate danger"

"I suspect that they will try to stage a public sacrifice, and it will be connected with a coup against your father. Some of my informants told me that there are bribes being spread among the more disreputable denizens of the southern part of the city. As near as I can estimate, they plan to work their evil in two days."

"Is there anything I can do to help with her rescue?" Nerik asked.

"Have you studied the model of the pyramid that your grandfather prepared after the cult tried to abduct your father and mother?" Farek asked.

"I have been adding to it for the past few years," Nerik said. "There are old passages that link the palace with the pyramid. Apparently the cultists have secret passages of their own if they have gained access without being noticed."

"They dug a tunnel into the pyramid through the cellars of an old shop. I have been keeping track of them, but until now, nothing but rumor alerted me that they might be planning to repeat their old misdeeds. We must try to rescue Kalil quietly before we risk arresting Bildug."

"We must not risk Kalil," Nerik insisted. "I will go and rescue her alone."

"You might be the best person for the purpose," Farek said. "If you know the passage ways and tunnels that lead into the pyramid, you can find your way without using a lamp. Can you do it?"

"I must do it."

"I will tell your parents what happened," Farek said. "Come, at this hour Talek will be meeting with the council."

"Perhaps it would be best if you talked to them alone after I leave. I have an idea that might work to defeat the cult in a way they will not expect. Meanwhile, you and father must unmask the traitors who are conspiring in this treason.

Farek hesitated, but he respected Nerik's insight and intelligence. "I will tell your father that you are rescuing your bride and he must rescue his throne."

After Talek left through the panel, Nerik went to the chest of toys he had discarded long ago but which he hoped to keep for children of his own. He remembered a wooly hat made of corum manes. It had been horned, but one of the horns had already come loose. He wrenched off the loose horn and soon twisted off the other one as well. He tucked the helmet under his arm and ducked into the passageway Farek had used. He had no trouble reaching the furthest reaches of the dungeon, long unused, where he would find the passage that linked the palace to the dark pyramid.

He could only hope that the cultists had not discovered the link, but he could feel dust thick on the floor beneath his feet. He hoped it indicated that it had not been disturbed since he had last explored it several years before.

Kalil kept sawing away at the bindings of her cage, but the angle made it difficult to handle the blade. She had cut her fingers when desperation made her careless and now the blade grew slippery with blood and sweat. She feared that the blade would slip from her fingers and out of reach. It galled her that Raderen had received a prize when he had nothing to do with the abduction.

At last she knew what had happened to the girls he had taken from Rubble Ford as his wives. All three of them had worn the veil. There must be some connection, but her thoughts were focused on getting out of the cage and she had no leisure to consider the link.

The bindings of the first bar fell away and she felt a moment of exultation. She could be free if she continued working. Let it be before the demon's dogs returned, but she would still have to find her way to freedom. She had no doubt that she was somewhere in the depths of the dark pyramid.

She located the next binding and began to slice away at the hardened leather thongs. A soft noise somewhere in the room startled her. Had her captors returned? The blade fell from her fingers and hit the floor with a clicking sound of stone on stone. She tried to reach for it and felt the point of it just at the end of her finger. She pressed her hand against the bars, trying to reach just a little further, but even when she wrenched herself into position, she could only touch the blade with the tip of her finger. She bowed her head and muttered a fervent prayer that somehow she would win her way free and warn Nerik's family in time.

"Kalil, are you here?" the whispered question came through the darkness like a shaft of hope. It must be a result of her extreme stress, but she thought she heard Nerik's voice.

"I am caged and doomed to death, there is no hope," she reminded herself aloud. Then she felt a rush of air and gentle hands on her shoulders lifted her to stand. She gasped and a hand covered her mouth quickly and gently.

"Be silent, beloved," Nerik said in quiet tones, his breath brushed her cheek as he warned her. "Come, I will lead you to freedom."

Stunned with surprise, but crying with relief, she took the hand he offered her and stepped out of the cage. "Wait a moment, I must find my blade. I dropped it while I tried to cut through the bindings of the bars."

She quickly located the blade and restored it to her totem pouch, then she stood and followed him. She lost track of time as they crawled through rough passages that bruised her knees and hands. Now and then something brushed against her face or slithered over her hand. At last she saw a slight glow in the air ahead of them.

"Where are we?" Kalil asked him.

"This tunnel comes up in an alley near the goldsmiths square," he told her. "Do you see light ahead?"

"I can see a dim light ahead," she said.

"It is dawn. We have spent the night coming through the maze of drains and tunnels that runs beneath the city. Wait in your shop until the sun is up and tell your assistants you won't be working with them for a week or so, then return to the palace. Give me your dress and wear my hooded cloak so that you won't be recognized by the priests of Orqu if they are in the street when you pass by."

"The Orquians planned to sacrifice me. They have a plot to overthrow your father's rule."

"Can you tell me when they planned to make the sacrifice?" Nerik asked.

"Bildug spoke of holding it at the dark of the moon," Kalil answered.

"That fits with what Farek determined from his spies. We have only one day to defeat them. As soon as you have changed your dress, go and tell Farek what you have learned," Nerik pulled her close and she noticed that he only used one of his arms. The held a strange object that she took to be a ball of hair.

After she removed her dress and put on the robe he surprised her by putting on the dress and securing the hairy hat on his head. She gave a little pained laugh at the sight of him with the bushy ball of hair curling wildly around his face.

In the dim light she could see that with the dress and helmet of hair, he bore an eerie resemblance to her. He stood taller with broader shoulders, and strained the seams of her gown where he was hard and flat and she was soft and curved, but there was something so like the few times she had seen her own dim reflection that Kalil gasped. "What are you doing?"

"I will return and get into the cage where they confined you. Tell my father and Farek to send hecklers to the square at the foot of the dark temple, but do not try to interfere with the ceremony otherwise"

Kalil opened her mouth to argue with him but she reconsidered. Nerik had succeeded in rescuing her. If he thought he could defeat the evil of the Orquians she would support him. "I will spread word among my friends at the matla shop that something amusing will happen at the temple of Orqu when the ritual is held."

He reached out and touched her face. "Thank you for trusting me," he said.

"Take this," she whispered, removing her precious blade of Neril from the pouch hung from her neck and pressing it into his hand. He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it before he turned back the way they had come and disappeared into the darkness.

Kalil waited in her shop until Mira and Delida came down to start the fires under the griddles. "You are here early," Mira said in surprise. "I worried when you did not return yesterday."

"It is because I trust you that I leave you so much to yourselves," she said truthfully.

"Your cloak is beautiful," Delida said, "But I am surprised that you wore it to the shop."

"I only came this morning to tell you that my fiancé's family wants me to spend the next week with them making wedding plans."

Delida nodded. "I thought it would come to this."

"I'm sorry to leave you with so much work," Kalil said.

Mira laughed and hugged Kalil. "You seem to think you have burdened us with your plans to marry, but we are all happy for you. Yesterday afternoon Magin sent us a new helper. She is crippled and unable to work as a matla maker on the streets, but both Veranina and Pelad know her and approve of the addition. You need not fear that we will fail without your guidance. We can muddle by for a week or so until you can be with us again. Now go and plan your wedding."

"I need to speak to you about another matter," Kalil said. "Have you heard any rumors about a sacrifice at the dark pyramid."

"There are always rumors about such matters," Mira said.

"There are always rumors, but the gossip has been different lately," Delida said. "In years before, the mobs were always ready to storm the pyramid and seek out the demon's dogs. Now they seem to have another enemy. There are whispers that Talek will give his power to a blind man when there are better prospects for the throne. Some even hint that they would be better off with an Orquian in power than remain under the domination of the priests of the Radiance."

Mira expressed shock. "You cannot mean that the rabble are in favor of turning out the king and queen in favor of another claimant to the throne."

"The decent people of Zedekla honor the Radiance and the rightful ruler and his son and heir, but they cower behind their shutters and locked doors when civil war threatens," Delida said. "There has been a great deal of money spread among the worst dregs of the city. I have heard that they look to the dark of the moon for something to happen."

Kalil nodded. "I have heard the same rumor. Magin will try to turn the tide, but I ask your help. I would do it myself if not for my duties. Today when you serve your matlas, spread the rumor that something amusing will happen at the dark pyramid tomorrow evening. To those you can trust, say they must come and heckle the dark priests."

"Heckling is hardly what is called for when the Orquians make a sacrifice," Delida said. "I remember a horrible night in Jama when I witnessed one of their rituals. They only killed a dala but teir words an actions made it seem terrible." She shuddered at the memory.

"If your friends come to the pyramid to heckle, it could turn the tide against Orquians." Kalil assured them. "Mira, you can bring Mulak and the others from the hostel. The man who provided the victim for the sacrifice is the same coward who bribed the watchman and drugged Balga the other night."

A quirk at the corner of Mira's mouth betrayed the beginning of a smile. "If that clumsy fool is part of this evil combination, they deserve to be laughed out of town. What will become of the victim? Is there some plan to rescue her?"

"Believe me," Kalil assured her. "The priests of Orqu will regret the day they returned to Zedekla and tried to put their puppet on the throne."

Kalil pulled the hood up to hide her face and hurried out of the shop. Avoiding the path she had taken before, she made a wide detour of the abandoned shop where the Orquians had taken her captive. Somewhere beneath the city Nerik made his way back to the room where she had been held. Would he succeed in disguising himself from the men who had captured her? Had they returned to the room, found the cage empty and take him captive?

The questions battered at her mind, but she remembered how he had appeared when she came to her lowest ebb, just as she had turned from desperation to murmuring a prayer. She stopped in a quiet corner of an alley where none could see her and raised her hands.

She prayed for Nerik's triumph over their enemies. "Let Nerik show Zedekla that they have a prince who deserves to be a king," she begged.

A calm descended on her spirit. She still hurried and looked to make certain that no one followed, but she no longer feared for Nerik.

She found Farek waiting for her in the garden. He still wore the fine gray tunic with its restrained decoration that helped her remember that he had once been king. "I see that Nerik found you and gave you his cloak. But where is he?"

"He returned to the cage where I they held me and will be the victim for the sacrifice."

"The young fool!" Farek muttered. "How could he hope to deceive them?"

"He brought along a helmet of corum wool that I'm sad to say looks a lot like my hair," Kalil said. "He put on my dress to complete the illusion."

"He is a man!" Farek protested. "Surely they won't mistake him for a maid."

"They kept me close confined within a cage. It had poles and I suspect they will carry it like a litter to the staging area for the sacrifice. When they realize that they have been fooled, Nerik may accomplish the purpose of his mad scheme. He wants you to set hecklers in the crowd that will gather at the site of the sacrifice at the dark of the moon."

"It is a mad scheme, but it might work. Where have you been since he rescued you?"

"Nerik led me to the area near the goldsmith's square. He told me to go to my shop and tell them I would be gone for a week or so to make wedding preparations."

Farek nodded. "Your friends at the shop were worried about you. I sent another helper for the shop, but I could hardly assure them you were safe when I had no idea what had become of you after you were taken."

"Nerik told me you had learned of my abduction."

"I have been watching over you these past few months. Nerik told me how you saved him and how he had come to love you. I knew I had to keep you safe."

"Did you also ensure my success by giving me a prime corner to sell my matlas and charging me nothing for the privilege except to wear the baubles in my hair?"

Farek shook his head. "I gave you that corner some time before I heard about you from Nerik. From the first time I met you I felt you were capable of being successful. If you had been bad at what you do, or shy and retiring, you would have been overwhelmed and soon have been a failure. The few baubles you wore in your hair have been quite profitable to me. Haven't you noticed how many women in the city have begun to imitate the style you set?"

"We have more important things to discuss than my success," Kalil reminded him. "Who is behind the attempt to overthrow the throne? Bildug must have allies in the palace or he would never think to turn the tide against King Talek with nothing more than a display of fanatic zeal."

Farek nodded. "I have been considering the problem for some time. I thought about the original act in the attempt to overset the rightful heir. The men who abandoned Nerik during the hunt included Zanuk. I am sorry to say that to some extent I am responsible for Zanuk."

"How can you blame yourself?" Kalil asked.

"I did not demand that his mother and father annul their marriage as soon as I learned it had taken place. You are from the countryside, did your father keep a herd?"

Kalil nodded.

"Then you know the dangers of breeding too closely," Farek said.

"Yes, if there are weaknesses, they often become more marked. Some out breeding is necessary to keep the breed strong."

"Zanuk's parents are cousins from a common Grandparent, Carnat," Farek explained.

Kalil nodded. "It is not uncommon for first cousins to marry in a small community, but they are forbidden to have the same clan name."

"I had a twin brother who rebelled. When he realized he would not gain the throne, he joined a juggler's troupe and vanished from our knowledge. Have you heard the story of the Fraud Prince?"

"You mean Zadan, the thief who pretended to be the prince of Zedekla to earn the hand of Caril?"

"Yes. I have reason to believe my twin brother fathered Zadan. The names, the close resemblance between Zadan and my son Turek, seemed to prove the relationship, but there is no way of proving it. Carine, Zanuk's mother, is the daughter of Zadan and Carnat's daughter Carlan."

Kalil grimaced with a country woman's distaste for such radical inbreeding. "Are there any others who share your suspicions?"

"Perhaps Tomak has some suspicion of the truth, but he is so grateful that his wayward son married a woman of character, that he seems to have ignored the other problems it might cause. Fortunately, most of the children of the union have turned out well. They are happy with their lot and have been assets to their parents. Zanuk is the exception, and I fear he proves the need for a rule against such marriages."

"It must be hard for you to see such evil in your family," Kalil said.

"I believe that those who were with Zanuk on the hunt are behind the coming trouble. Inrek, Zanuk's father, had a servant named Fremek. Over the years he has risen in the ranks of those who serve the royal family until now he is only surpassed in authority by the steward. If something were to happen to Arnak, the steward, Fremek would be given the keys that open all the servant passages that lead to every room but the royal quarters where you and Nerik are staying."

"Fremek was a member of the hunting party?" Kalil guessed.

"Yes, as well as Parsemik, who stands one place away from ultimate responsibility for the royal guards. The final member of the party was Dolmek, the man who has been Nerik's teacher for the past five years."

"Something must be done!" Kalil said.

"I have taken charge of the situation, I can assure you," Farek said. "Otherwise, I would not be here with you in the garden talking about it. Fremek is suffering from a severe headache and purge. He is confined to his room on orders of the palace healer. I doubt the good doctor suspects that his patient is suffering from the same poison he had intended for his superior, the steward."

"And what of the other two men?" Kalil asked.

"I have alerted the captain of the guard of the ambitions of his next in command. Barakan discovered that Parsemik misled a contingent of the guards to believe that their schedule had been changed. He took a number of guard tunics and prepared to distribute them to Orquian traitors who would stand in for the contingent he deceived. Barakan has straightened out the entire affair and Parsemik is now confined to his quarters for some small infraction. Nothing has been told him about the evidence against him. Otherwise, he might find some way to warn his confederates. As for Dolmek, I believe he is playing a double game. He has been seen much in the company of Janana's husband, Dosik. His task must have been to lure Nerik into danger, but Nerik has accomplished that for himself."

"We can't simply wait for the Orquians to make their sacrifice," Kalil said. "Surely with the loyalty of the guard assured, we can make an assault on the pyramid."

"Would you counter Nerik's plans?" Farek asked her.

Kalil shook her head. "Perhaps all we can do now is to encourage hecklers to assemble at the pyramid to view the outcome of his plans."

"You must not venture into the city again," Farek warned her. "Even with the hooded cloak, you might be recognized and Nerik's scheme would come to naught. I will go and summon my army of urchins and they will recruit others to the cause."

"The hardest thing for me is knowing that Nerik is risking his life and I will be safely guarded in the palace," Kalil said.

"If I can be certain of your safety, I will find a way for you to watch when Nerik usurps the dark mystery of Bildug's ritual. He has an unusual sense of humor. If I were a Jaman, I would put my gold on Nerik's scheme to humiliate the Orquians."

Kalil nodded but she resolved to pray sincerely. Reason contested the outcome. Surely only the Radiance could help a blind man confined in a cage to defeat the schemes of a horde of thugs?

Chapter 9 Prisoner

Farek left the garden to resume his role as Magin and Kalil went into the palace and made her way to her room. She felt dirty and tired from her ordeal, and she really wanted to bathe and rest for several hours before facing anyone else. Nothing could be gained by fretting about Nerik, but she knelt at her prayer stool and prayed for a long time.

It would be risky to go down to the women's bathing room so early, but she took the risk in order to be clean. She slipped the mask onto her face and bound her hair after putting on one of her plainest gowns.

She found the bathing room empty and she turned the latch on the door, failing to notice that it worked from either side. Alone, she removed the mask and waded into the bathing pool. After scrubbing herself and rinsing several times, she finally felt clean and wound herself with one of the wide, soft towels stacked on a shelf near the pool.

"Who are you? What are you doing in our bath?" the child's voice made Kalil whirl to look toward the door.

"I- I am Kalil."

"Jaril!" Nala said. "Why is your face different?"

Kalil touched her face. The mask sat in its box on the bench halfway across the clothing room. "How did you recognize me?"

"At first I thought you were a stranger," Nala said. "Then you said your name and I remembered the name from the other night. Why is your face all tan and friendly?"

Kalil decided to trust the child. "I have a secret to share with you. When I'm Jaril, I wear a golden mask." She walked over to the bench and lifted the mask from the box. When she smoothed it over her features and turned to show Nala, the child reached out to touch it, but quickly drew her hand away and frowned.

"Why do you wear that on your face?"

"Nerik needs a beautiful bride or some will say he is not worthy to be king," Kalil answered.

Nala stared at Kalil, then she nodded. "You look very beautiful when you wear the mask, but you don't look friendly. Does it hurt?"

Kalil shook her head. "The mask is tiring and sometimes hot, but not painful. I would do anything to help Nerik. Even if the mask hurt me, I would wear it. The worst thing about it is that I can't smile or laugh when I wear it."

Nala nodded. "I don't think you can look surprised or sad either."

"No. I can't look surprised or sad, happy or mad. But sometimes that's an advantage. Remember the other night when I had to meet all the people in the court?"

Nala giggled. "I wondered how you kept your face so straight when people were so rude. Sometimes I wish that I could hide behind a mask. Can I try it on?"

Kalil removed her mask and Nala lifted it onto her own face and looked into the polished silver mirror. Both of them laughed. "I guess you will have to wait until you're grown before you try to wear my mask," Kalil said. She began to put it back into the box, then she remembered that at any minute someone else might surprise them and she put the mask on her face again.

"Remember, Nala, the mask is a secret. Only a few people know that I wear it."

"Does mother know?" Nala asked.

"Yes, she gave it to me," Kalil said. "I wouldn't marry Nerik when I was plain. Your mother gave me the mask and now we can wed."

"Farek knows, doesn't he?" the child said.

Kalil nodded. "He knows, as does your father and Nerik, but you are the only other person who knows what I really look like and it is a secret you must keep. Promise to keep it to yourself."

"I promise I will keep the secret of the mask," Nala vowed, her hand aloft in symbol of her oath. "But sometimes can we visit when you aren't wearing it?"

"I would enjoy having a friend who knows my secret so I don't always have to wear the mask. You can call me Kalil when I don't wear the mask."

"I like you better as Kalil," the child said wistfully.

"I have to dress now and go up to my room to rest. I have been busy all night long and the next few days will require all our courage and strength. Have your parents said anything to you?"

"They said I must always be careful of strangers. I thought you might be dangerous."

"I am surprised to see you here alone."

"There are a couple of guards standing outside the doors, but they can't come into the bathing room. I wanted to see if I left my blue sash in the robing room."

"You should hurry, or they will think something has happened to you. Remember, keep my secret," Kalil reminded her.

Nala hurried into the robing room and returned without her sash. "I'll see you later, Kalil, I mean Jaril," the child giggled and left the room.

Kalil dressed and left the bathing room. Much to her surprise, two guards followed her as well and only left her when she entered the quarters she shared with the princesses. She felt relieved to see the evidence that every effort had been made to keep the princesses safe. She would gladly take risks it if she could help Nerik. The list of enemies might be longer and the treachery go deeper than Farek suspected. What if one or two of the guards who manned the doors to the princesses' quarters were traitors? What could a child like Nala do against them?

It had been a long eventful night and she fell asleep as soon as she lay down. Her dreams were haunted by the fears and mysteries that still remained unsolved.

She woke to the sound of someone knocking at her door. She rolled from her bed and pulled a robe over her sleeping gown before walking across the room. "What do you want?"

"It is Serina, Farek told us you were in the palace. We are having a conference in the little council room. We need you there."

"I will dress and come as soon as I can," Kalil said.

"May I please come in and talk to you?" Serina asked.

Kalil had not put on her mask, but something in the tone of Serina's voice made her decide to open the door without waiting. The queen entered and looked around the room. "I thought I might find Nala here," she said.

"How long has she been missing?" Kalil asked.

"Her guards returned with her after she had spent an unusually long time looking for her sash in the bathing room. It has been several hours since anyone else has seen her."

A sharp stab of fear for the child sent Kalil hurrying to her chest and in a moment she had pulled on one of her old gowns. "I will go in search of her. You say that the last anyone saw of her was when she came up to the women's quarters. Has anyone come in or out since then, other than me?"

"A serving woman brought fresh bedding. She left a few minutes ago after changing all the sheets."

"I thought the servants used the servant passageways for such things," Kalil said.

"Farek denied access to the servant passages to everyone. He locked the corridors and secured the keys. All servants must pass between the guards."

"What did the woman look like? Did the guards say?"

Serina shook her head. "There are so many servants and the ones who change the beds and do the laundry all dress the same."

Kalil hurried out of her room. In her old dress with her hair wild around her face, she looked a stranger. The guards tried to stop her. "Let her pass," Serina cried from the corridor behind.

Freed, Kalil raced down the stairs. She was still unfamiliar with most of the palace and she had never been in the lower regions, but she had a keen sense of smell recognized the odor of wet laundry. She ran, careening around corners and throwing open doors. At last she came to the room where vast stone tubs set over ovens were filled with steaming water. Most of the women in the room glanced up in surprise, but at the end of the room, barely visible through the steam, a woman saw her abrupt entrance and turned to run. She had a large clump of laundry in her arms, but anything could have been concealed within the folds.

Kalil did not stop and ask for help. The woman's actions betrayed her guilt. Hiking up her skirts, Kalil leaped onto the rim of one of the stone tubs then leaped to the next edge and then again, somehow keeping her balance over the boiling water until she had reached the other end of the laundry room. Shrieks and cries followed her wild progress.

She dashed to the corridor where the woman had disappeared but the double doors slammed in her face before she could reach them. Intent on reaching her goal, Kalil did not halt or plead for help, she hit the doors full on with her shoulder and fell through them when they abruptly gave way.

The woman threw down the clump of fabric and escaped down the hall. Kalil reached out toward it, almost afraid to see what she would find. The size and shape of the clump seemed to bear out her worst fears. Then it began to shake and a loud moan issued from one end.

Kalil pulled back the edge of a sheet and saw Nala, her little face pale except for a lump on her brow. Her dark, sparkling eyes were wide open and alert. "Kalil! What happened to me?"

"What do you remember?" Kalil asked her.

"I went up to my room to look for my sash," the child said. "I thought it might be in the twins' room, but a moment later something hit my head and I fell."

"Did you see anyone?" Kalil asked.

Nala started to shake her head, but a flash of pain closed her eyes and she put her hand to her forehead and opened her eyes with surprise when she felt the lump. "I didn't see who hit me," she said in a tiny, sad voice.

"Kalil!?" Serina's voice betrayed her fear that rescue had come too late.

"She'll be fine with a poultice of sera leaves and some rest," Kalil assured the queen. "I have a small bundle of remedies in my pack. Why don't you carry her up to her room."

Serina hurried forward and tenderly lifted her youngest child into her arms. Others offered to assist. "Nala is not a heavy burden, and I need to have her in my arms," she said.

"Do you know where the twins are?" Kalil asked as she walked beside Serina, skirting the laundresses who stared after them and fell into eager gossip as soon as they left the room.

"They are with their father in the council room. We thought they were old enough to hear what must be said, but we wanted to spare Nala. We should have trusted her to understand."

"She already knew that extra guards had been set and that she had to be careful not to wander off alone," Kalil assured the queen. "Why don't you send for Talek and the others to meet us in Nala's room. I think the sight of what has happened will emphasize the need for care."

Serina nodded and summoned one of her guards who had waited just outside the laundry. After giving him the message for the king, she carried Nala to her room, keeping her steps even and gliding to prevent the jostling that made her little girl moan with pain.

Kalil hurried ahead and the guards at the door looked at each other with raised brows, but neither tried to prevent the peasant from entering the women's quarters with the Queen following close behind with her daughter cradled in her arms. Kalil left Serina and hurried to fetch her pouch of remedies.

By the time Kalil entered Nala's room with the poultice, the other members of the royal family had gathered. The twins and Talek looked at her with surprise, but they followed Serina's lead and accpted the unknown woman into their family discussion. Farek quickly understood the situation and provided an explanation for the presence of Kalil.

"This is Kalil of Rubble Ford. She is utterly trustworthy and I felt that there should be someone who could look after the princesses in the current crisis."

Talek's brows rose. He realized immediately that this must be the girl who had saved Nerik's life and led him home when he had been abandoned. He stepped forward and held out his hand. "Welcome Kalil. We are grateful you acted so quickly. What made you suspect the woman who took the bedding, and how did you guess where she would go?"

"I must put this poultice on Nala's brow and give her something for her pain, then I can talk to you."

The twins gave a little gasp of surprise at the brusque ways of the countrywoman who attended their little sister. They were used to seeing courtiers and others making much of every request that Talek made, but this woman had refused to stop and accept his hand or even talk to him until she finished tending to Nala. It took only a short time for Kalil to place the poultice on the lump on Nala's head and give her a dose of selan to ease the ache. While she took care of the child, none of the others, from Farek to their mother, seemed to question her right to be in the family gathering.

"Where is Jaril," one of the twins asked.

"I am Jaril," Kalil answered. She had hoped to keep her identity from all but Serina and Nerik, but she had seen the flash of recognition in Talek's eyes when Farek had introduced her.

"But you are nothing like Jaril," one of the girls proclaimed.

At the same time her twin sister said, "Of course you are, I see it now."

"When Kalil is presented as the bride of Nerik, she prefers to wear a mask," Serina explained. "Now that all of you know who she is, it will be easier for us to explain what is taking place."

"Kalil is an unusual young woman," Talek said. "She rescued Nerik when his companions abandoned him in the mountains. She came from the country to be a matla maker in the city. Recently she agreed to marry Nerik, but only if she could wear a mask. She feared his enemies might think her unworthy to marry the prince."

"I think she looks better without the mask," Nala muttered from the bed.

"Yes, she looks friendly, but not as pretty," one of the twins frankly stated. "With the mask she never shows her feelings. I wondered at her self control."

"In any case, it is Jaril in her golden mask that all the court have accepted as Nerik's bride, and what has begun must continue for his sake," Kalil said.

"Kalil has continued her presence in the city because if she suddenly disappeared it could inflame an already unstable situation," Farek explained. "Yesterday demon dogs abducted her. They wanted to use her as a sacrifice to Orqu on the altar of the dark pyramid."

"I thought the pyramid is sealed," one of the twins said.

"The Orquians have dug a new entrance into the pyramid from an abandoned shop nearby," Farek told her. "Fortunately the someone saw the abduction. Nerik found a way to rescue her."

He turned to Kalil. "I think you should tell the rest of it."

"They confined me in a cage in the depths of the pyramid, and I lost hope of being rescued. My captors talked of replacing Talek with another ruler. They did not say who they plan to place on the throne. The sacrifice and revolt are planned for the dark of the moon, tomorrow when the sun goes down. I tried to cut my way out of the cage, but the blade I used slipped from my fingers and I could not retrieve it. At the moment of my greatest despair, Nerik came. He opened the cage and led me to freedom, then he returned to take my place in the victim cage."

Talek covered his eyes with his hand and slumped against the back of his seat. Serina shook her head while tears flowed from her eyes. The twins simply stared at Kalil in wonder and horror.

"Will Nerik die?" a small voice asked from the bed.

"Nerik intends to humiliate the Orquians," Farek said. "Their power comes from mystery and fear. Before turning back to take Kalil's place, Nerik told her to send hecklers to infiltrate the crowd that will gather at the base of the pyramid. Meanwhile, we have identified many of those who are conspiring to overthrow the rightful king. I made a mistake in thinking that once we had isolated the principals, we need not fear their underlings. The person who took Nala was not recognized by anyone, but she, or he, seemed to know the palace well."

"Could it be someone who lived in the palace long ago?" Kalil asked them. "Not necessarily a servant, but a courtier ?"

"We may know soon enough," Farek said. "A woman rushed from the other end of the corridor leading from the laundry and the palace guards arrested her. They are holding her until we can interrogate her."

"I would like to suggest something other than an interrogation," Kalil said. "I could be confined with the woman and represent myself as another rebel against the throne."

"It is too dangerous!" Talek protested. "If Nerik to risked his own life to keep you safe, how can I subject you to sharing a cell with a traitor. You chased the woman when she had Nala. She would recognize you."

"She saw me across the laundry through steam. I doubt she saw more than the color of my dress and my wild mop of hair. If I wore a different dress and confined my hair beneath a scarf, I doubt she would suspect that I am the woman who pursued her. She is bound to recognize any of you. What other alternative do you have? Surely you can arrange for supervision of the cell."

"She is right, you know," Farek said. "The woman who abducted Nala risked passing the guards and acted when we had put our other suspects out of action. Who is she acting for, or is she carrying out some plot of her own?"

The twins had silently observed the argument, too well trained to interrupt their elders. Finally one of them spoke up. "This reminds me of the adventures of Caril and your fight with the Orquians when Father rescued you, mother."

Serina chuckled wearily. "It seems adventures plague Zedekla's brides. I agree with Kalil. We can keep watch on her to make certain she suffers no harm from the woman."

Talek nodded reluctantly. "We should have known that no member of the royal family is safe from threat. This woman might provide the names of others who are working against us."

Within the hour Kalil entered a low cell. A woman sat on the end of a long bench built against the wall. After the guard shut and locked the door Kalil sat on the opposite end of the bench and huddled into herself.

A slice of sunlight from a narrow window fell across the floor of the room like a golden blade. To all appearances it was the only break in the solid walls except for the low door. Kalil knew otherwise. Some of the stones were penetrated by narrow cracks so natural appearing that nothing betrayed that the stones were only a finger width in thickness and the cracks were carved grill slits behind which Farek and the captain of the guard kept watch.

Kalil did not speak. She waited for the other woman to grow curious about her presence in the cell. Finally a husky voice asked: "What did you do to offend our precious king."

Kalil maintained her silence and finally the other woman spoke again. "Which claimant to the throne did you support?"

"Zanuk promised me gold if I supported his claim," Kalil improvised. She felt no guilt at blaming Nerik's cousin for sedition.

"Zanuk is a fool. You'd do better to support another's claims," the woman said "If you are looking for reward, I can promise you freedom and a prize if you will aid my efforts to be free."

"There is no escape from this cell," Kalil muttered.

"My son will make you a duchess if you help me now," the woman promised.

"Zedekla has queens and princesses, but I never heard of a Zedeklan duchess."

"That is one of the many things Dosik will change."

"Your son is Dosik, the king's son- in- law?" Kalil scoffed. "If that is so, why are you dressed in servant's clothing."

"I will pretend to be whatever I must to triumph over Talek and Serina," the woman scowled. "I should have been queen of Zedekla. I have waited many years for my revenge."

"Are you in league with the Orquians in this enterprise?" Kalil asked. "Zanuk has the support of Bildug and his cult."

"Bildug is a greater fool than the boy he uses as his tool, and you will be a fool if you don't agree to help me with my scheme."

"What must I do?" Kalil asked.

"Men always underestimate women. You seem young and strong. We will pretend to fight, then when the guard comes to quiet our noise, we will turn on him. I have discovered that one of the boards on this bench is loose. As soon as I have worked it free, I will hide it by the door. I doubt that more than one guard will be sent in to quiet us. It should be easy enough to overcome him."

"What will we do then? I have no idea of how to get out of this maze."

"I have several allies in the palace," the woman said. "They will lead us to safety."

"I think we should follow a different plan," Kalil suggested. "If the guard comes in and finds us fighting, surely he will call another to help him. You are old enough to pretend illness. I could call for help, and when the guard comes, I will ambush him while he is leaning over you."

The woman nodded. "Yes, Talek's men are soft and unwary. Dosik has identified those few who are willing to try for something better. None of them were given guard duty in the dungeon or we would already be free."

"What did you do to be confined here?" Kalil asked.

"I bungled an attempt to abduct the youngest princess," the woman said. "The others will be taken away by their governess, a dupe who thinks she is taking them to a special performance of a juggling troupe."

"I don't understand why you are taking all the princesses," Kalil said. "Wouldn't it be more efficient to direct your attacks at the king and queen?"

"My son will make certain that Nerik dies," the woman assured her. "That will leave the choice of heir to Talek. If we have his daughters, he will be forced to meet our demands. Attack the weakest point. That is the way to win."

"But won't the guards who go everywhere with the princesses prevent the abduction?" Kalil asked.

"They are among those that we control," the woman said.

"I will help you get free if you will promise me that you will remember me," Kalil finally agreed. "You have a subtle mind."

Confident that Farek had been listening and would properly instruct the guard, Kalil proceeded to follow the woman's directions. When the moans and cries from the bench grew loud, she cried out for the guard to come. A young man opened the door and stared across the room at the apparently suffering woman on the bench. He turned his back to Kalil and leaned over the woman. Hoping that the guard had been primed for her attack, Kalil brought the board down, hitting it against the wall just before it would have hit his head. He jerked and fell back, seemingly senseless.

The woman stood and walked toward Kalil, taking her hand and leaning near. "Thank you, my dear. It is a pity that you heard too much."

A knife flashed in her hand and she struck toward Kalil. A booted foot caught her in the back as the young guard kicked upwards. The woman fell and rolled like a cat, coming quickly to her feet, but other guards had rushed through the door and surrounded her. A guard wrenched the knife from her hand before she could use it on herself.

"We have heard enough," Farek said as he entered the room with the guard captain. "I have a few questions to ask, but I doubt we will get much further information out of her."

A moment later Talek ducked to clear the low door and looked around. His eyes fell on the woman who writhed in the hands of the guards and after staring at her briefly he shook his head. "I wondered what had become of you Dariya. I thought it seemed strange that someone as resourceful as you would vanish without a trace."

She made no reply except to spit at him. "I think we can leave her in this room," Talek said. "I will personally supervise her meals and anything else she wants." He turned to the guard captain and held out his hand for the key.

As soon as the door closed on the woman, Farek, Talek and Kalil left the dungeons and returned to the family quarters. Serina and her daughters were patiently sewing and reading while they waited for word to come.

When the door opened, Serina stood. "What did you learn?" she asked.

"The woman who abducted Nala is Dariya," Talek said. "She visited here frequently years ago. Has Petilla offered to take the twins to a juggling exhibition?"

"I gave word to the guards to let no one but the three of you into the room, but Petilla did send a message offering to take them. I can hardly believe she is among our enemies."

Talek shook his head. "Petilla is only a dupe, but the guards who would have escorted the girls are in Dosik's camp."

"Dosik?" Serina's brows rose. "What have Dosik and Petilla to do with Dariya?"

"Dariya is Dosik's mother," Talek said. "We know who some of his cronies are, but it seems they planned to take advantage of the disruption caused by the Orquians to work their own scheme. We have learned that the palace guards we counted on to protect us are riddled with traitors."

"We cannot give in to fear and suspicion," Farek cautioned. "Dariya has implicated Dosik in treachery, but we have no certain evidence against Zanuk and Perwen. One of them seems to be allied with Bildug in his scheme. How do you plan to deal with Janana when she finds that her husband is a traitor?"

"She will make the choice," Serina said. "If Dosik is a traitor, he must be banished from Zedekla. Janana might choose to follow her husband into exile."

Talek hugged his wife and nodded. "I should have recognized Dosik as Dariya's son. He has the same cleft in his chin and a way of insinuating himself that is very like her. As soon as she revealed who she had enlisted in her cause, we arrested them. The guards who betrayed us must be executed."

"It seems unfair that the worst traitors have the choice of leaving Zedekla instead of being parted from their heads," Kalil murmured.

"The crisis will come tomorrow night," Talek said. "It all hinges on Nerik. If he fails, then Perwen might well be king when I retire to Timora."

"What about our husbands?" one of the twins said. "Any of your other daughters might be more successful in finding a worthy husband than Janana and Lella have been."

Serina ruffled the girl's hair and nodded with approval. "We have not exhausted our alternatives, but let us pray that Nerik will succeed."

Farek held higher rank in the priesthood than Talek, but Talek had the right to lead the prayer for the safety of his son. As he raised his hands and spoke the words of supplication, each of the others said a silent prayer in their hearts.

Chapter 10 The Victim

Nerik waited in the cage, praying for wisdom and preparing his mind for whatever might happen in the hours ahead. He knew it would be folly to eat or drink anything offered by the priests of Orqu. He must be in full possession of his mind and body when the moment came.

When Nerik finally sensed the presence of a guard and felt the pressure of a wineskin against his hand, he grabbed it and wrenched off the stopper, then he squeezed the flexible skin and a gush of wine spurted from the opening. The guard cursed and struck at him, but the close set bars of the cage deflected the blow.

He meted out the same treatment to a bowl of soup and a folded matla stuffed with meat and cheese. Squeaking rats coursed across the floor to grab the morsels and the guard began to hop about and swear.

Bildug entered the room and asked for a report. "She is like a wild animal. We dare not take her from the cage to prepare her for the sacrifice."

"Very well, feed her nothing and leave her alone in the dark. It doesn't really matter if she is dressed in the robes of sacrifice. I have other means to enhance the effect of the ritual. The old device known as the 'voice of Orqu' is still in place near the altar. I expect the priests from Orenon to arrive before nightfall to assist me on the platform. The other priests will take up stations facing the crowd and lead them in responses to the ritual."

"I can't carry this cage alone."

"I'll send another priest to help you. When I give the signal, bring the cage to the door at the rear of the platform of the altar. Set the victim on her feet and bring her forward for the sacrifice. No doubt her hours of hunger and thirst will have subdued her. I will have the ax of Angar in my right hand and the stone dagger of Biknag in my left. Fasten the victim to the altar with her head suspended over the blood trough. I will turn and make the sacrifice in two successive strokes, one for the throat, the other for the heart."

After Bildug departed, the guard left Nerik alone. After reviewing his own plans for the ritual, he spent the long hours thinking of Kalil and his family and praying that his scheme would not be foiled.

Sunset gilded the edges of heavy purple clouds that roiled across the sky. Robed and hooded figures began to surround the crowd that filled the square in front of the dark pyramid. Two hundred of the king's loyal guards with swords at their waists and spears held close at their sides were waiting in alleys out of sight of the square for the king to give his signal.

Farek led Nerik's parents and Kalil through a tunnel to a shop with a screened balcony that faced the pyramid across the square. Kalil stood with Talek and Serina. All three had dressed in dull, hooded robes that concealed their identities from the crowd below. Here and there among the anonymous rabble recruited by the priests of Orqu, Kalil thought she recognized some of the customers of the matla shop. Had they come to participate in the ritual or to heckle? The numbers of each contingent might determine what would happen when Nerik made his appearance. Twilight faded and darkness swallowed the city of Zedekla. To the west, zole horns sounded curfew.

Suddenly torches flickered to life on the lowest tier of the pyramid. A line of fire ascended toward the heights, bursting into a great flame as it reached the level of the altar. The flame and smoke cleared to reveal the snarling visage of Orqu painted on a banner behind the altar.

A dark figure appeared in the midst of the fire and a voice rolled through the square like thunder, "Behold the power of the Demon!"

Bildug saw the lifted faces of the crowd beneath him. More than a thousand people filled the square below, enough to batter through the palace gates once he incited them.

"The day has come to give Orqu his place and sweep his enemies from the city of Zedekla," Bildug shouted again. "The day has come to make a fit sacrifice."

"A sacrifice, a sacrifice," the first rank of the crowd cried in response.

Pillars of flame shot up around Bildug and brilliant smoke of scarlet and gold rose into the night. The silence of fear and awe filled the crowd in the square as they gazed up at the priest's awful fire- lit figure. Even though she had been warned of some of the effects, Kalil felt her skin contract with fear as if an icy wind swept over her.

Bildug raised his arms, a glittering ax held in one hand, a dagger in the other. Kalil's breath caught in her throat. Behind him, two dark priests struggled forward from a cavity carrying the cage. They opened the top and lifted a limp figure to stand unsteadily between them.

Kalil stifled a cry. Nerik seemed so weak and listless with his hands held in front of him, his shoulders bowed.

Suddenly he flung his arms wide, unbalancing the guards on either side of him. He grasped their robes and yanked them against each other. While they staggered, surprised, he grabbed their heads and knocked them together like ripe melons. Suddenly full of vibrant life and strength, Nerik lifted one of the unconscious priests into the cage and secured the top. Kalil gave a gurgle of relieved laughter and heard her humor echoed by others in the crowd below.

Unaware of Nerik's antics, Bildug looked down into the square and frowned. He gestured for his assistants to bring the victim forward.

"Beware the wrath of Orqu, ruler of the underworld," he warned through the device that amplified his voice.

"Beware the wrath of Orqu," the priests below repeated, but they were facing the crowd and could not see the reason for the laughter.

Nerik danced forward in a parody of a mincing maiden. He reached out and tapped Bildug on the shoulder then grasped his arms as he turned. The high priest of Orqu found himself engaged in a struggle for the weapons in his hands.

The scattered laughter of the crowd spread until it filled the square and the sound of it ascended to the platform where Bildug struggled to release the hold of his intended victim. The youth, for surely it could not be a maiden, turned the struggle into a farcical dance around the small platform of the altar. Bildug loomed large, but he was very old.

The priest that Nerik had not fastened into the cage staggered to his feet and stumbled forward to aid his chief. Still dizzy, he lurched into the altar and fell against the base of the tripod lamp that illuminated Nerik and Bildug. His fumbling attempt to rise tipped over the tripod and the burning contents spilled over his robes. The greasy garments ignited and the priest threw off the burning robes. Dressed only in his filthy loincloth he leaped and danced to avoid the bright coals scattered at his feet.

His screams were swallowed by the rise of hilarity among the crowd. As the flames guttered down, leaving the platform dark, Nerik dragged Bildug to the altar and crushed his arms against the rough edges of the ancient stone, forcing him to drop the ax and the dagger. Sprawled on the alter, the elderly Orquian struggled to rise and grasp the man who had spoiled his triumph.

Nerik jumped backwards and seemed to disappear. Bildug lurched after him but missed his aim and tipped over a vat of oil. When it splashed onto the coals scattered over the platform, flame flared up again. The groggy guard in the cage tipped it over before lurching up. He lost his footing on the slick surface and grabbed Bildug. They began to grapple to stay on their feet. The laughter of the crowd increased when the flames blazed and they saw the two priests tottering about on the platform in a parody of a dance.

"Fool, let go of me. Find the fiend who attacked me," Bildug roared, and the sound boomed through the device that magnified the sound. The crowd laughed and clapped and urged the demon's priests to dance a little faster.

Kalil anxiously scanned the lower tiers of the pyramid, fearing that she might see Nerik's broken body sprawled from a fall, then nature joined in the finale of the performance and a shaft of lightning blazed from the sky and struck the altar, throwing Bildug and his acolyte back and blinding them with a dazzling shock of light. Thunder roared, followed by a brief, hard rain that wiped the last flame from the altar platform. Bildug lurched away and scrambled down the side of the pyramid. Kalil gave a sigh of relief. The brilliant glare of lightning had thrown the pyramid into sharp relief and she saw no sign that Nerik had fallen.

Zanuk had come to see the sacrifice from the safety of another balcony across the square. He had been prepared to step forward and show himself at the moment when the 'voice of Orqu' would name his right to rule. Instead, he watched in horror while the hideous witch, uglier, if possible, than when he had last seen her, made a mockery of the ritual. He quaked with fear as he ducked into the shelter of the shop he had appropriated for his viewing place and hurried away from the square where the crowd still laughed and jeered.

The sorceress had disappeared in the few moments of darkness. Did she know his identity and where he lived? Zanuk stumbled and lurched from the door of one supporter to another, but all of them preferred to keep their doors closed rather than give him shelter. Terror pursued him to his house as he fled from his imagined enemies.

Talek and Serina returned to the palace with Farek and Kalil. The hilarity that filled the crowd had sparked a spontaneous celebration. Boisterous groups roamed the streets paying little attention to the loyal palace guards who surrounded the dark pyramid and began their search for the scattered priests. Bildug had been sentenced to death more than twenty years before. The time had come for him to meet justice for his crimes.

The royal family gathered in the small council hall to wait for Nerik to return. Even Nala reclined on a bench chest with a bandage wrapped around her head. The captain of the guard had come and gone. Bildug had escaped, but fifty of his priests had been taken into custody. The hours of the night passed and the princesses finally went up to bed under the guard of a picked set of faithful men at arms.

Talek and Serina played a listless game of droka as the night wore on. Nerik returned to the palace near dawn. His anxious parents and a happy sweetheart greeted him but all of them were too weary to do more than quietly rejoice in his triumph over the Orquian plot.

Knowing that he must be hungry, Kalil made sure to ply him with plenty of food and drink between answering the many questions that were asked.

"How did you dare challenge him like that?" Serina asked before they parted to go to their rooms and rest.

"I studied the models prepared when grandfather sealed the pyramid, and I have often explored the passages beneath the city at night," Nerik said. "I had nothing to lose, and much to gain if I could make Bildug and his demon seem ridiculous."

His parents exchanged a startled glance. For several years he had been given to long naps. They had hired Dolmek to fill the prince's afternoon hours with instruction when they grew worried at the amount of time their son spent sleeping.

Farek clasped Nerik's shoulder. "I will walk to your room with you. Kalil has told me much of what I want to know, but you can complete the picture."

In the days that followed the farcical failure of Bildug's scheme Farek scoured the city for any sign of the Orquian. He trusted his army of urchins far more than he relied on the palace guard. Too many members of the royal guard had been implicated in some aspect of the plots against Nerik.

He sorted through confessions and other evidence. It seemed that Senna's husband, Perwen had been guilty of nothing but a fondness for flattery and Petilla had been duped by others. Dosik presented a more difficult problem. Dariya maintained silence while her plans fell into shards and with several plots active against the prince and his parents it became difficult to separate the strands of intrigue.

Dolmek and the guards assigned to watch the princesses when they went into the city were implicated in Dariya's scheme but none of the conspirators had direct contact with her son.

"We will need to examine Dosik," Talek said after reviewing Farek's evidence.

The king thought longingly of the Stone of Truth which he had delivered to Marekla and his father- in- law Makon on advice of Sergon. A tangle of conflicting evidence and possible perjury would soon melt before the test of the Stone. He would have to trust his own judgment when he questioned his son- in- law.

Dosik entered the small council room and found his wife's father sitting alone on the small dais at the head of the room. The window behind the king made him a dark silhouette against a glaring light and Dosik couln't read Talek's expression. Dosik looked around to see if he could find a place to sit down, but Talek gave a sign for the guard to shut the door and leave them alone without inviting Dosik to sit.

Talek studied the young man who stood before him and nearly sighed with weariness that so much time had passed since he had been so young. Now that he knew the relationship between Dariya and Dosik, he wondered how he had ever ignored it. Not only the cleft of Dosik's chin, but the wide, open brow that somehow gave the illusion of honesty to the dark eyes, were like Dariya's. He remembered all the deceit and manipulation the woman had used to try and trap him. He had nearly asked Dariya to marry him when he thought he had lost Serina to another man. When he noticed her theft of a priceless antique he had veered from offering her his hand.

Dosik grew nervous as the silence persisted. He had taken a stance with his hands linked behind his back and his feet spread, but even this bold posture could not protect him from flinching when Talek finally cleared his throat with a soft cough.

"Who is your mother?"

Dosik thought of repeating the lie Dariya had instructed him to give from his early youth. Then he thought it might be better to tell the truth. Surely the king would not be questioning him if he were not suspicious.

"My mother is named Dariya. As you might have guessed, my father is not a councilor of Taleeka."

"Why did you lie?"

"I wanted to marry Janana. I doubted you would look with favor on a youth who did not know the identity of his father, so I endowed myself with a worthy set of parents."

"Why did you encourage Dolmek to abduct the prince?"

Dosik's eyes widened in a credible impression of shock and for several seconds he remained silent, then he stuttered with his urgent reply. "I- I had n- no idea of any such thing. I did not encourage any plot. I despised Dolmek but my mother taught me to be polite to anyone with influence, however I dislike them."

"When did you last see your mother?" Talek asked.

"She visited me a week ago and brought sweetmeats from her shop in Talava. I invited her to stay with us overnight, but she has never wanted me to tell Janana the truth of my ancestry and would not linger."

"What did your mother tell you about Zedekla?"

"She has always spoken of how close she came to marrying Zedekla's heir, and I'll admit she set up my meeting with Janana, but I love my wife and family and I am content with what small influence I have."

"I have received reports that you spoke against Nerik," Talek said.

"I can't deny that I sometimes boasted among my friends that I would be more fit than Nerik to be king, but I knew that Perwen had a better chance if it came down to a choice. He is, after all, the son of a king and the husband of the oldest princess."

"I saw your face when you were introduced to Jaril, the prince's intended bride. You stared at her with such arrogance that I could have you put to question for that alone."

"I thought her cold and haughty and I merely returned the glance she gave me when we met," Dosik answered. "Janana ducks her head and smiles whenever she sees me. Serina smiles like a mother. It galled me to have a lovely woman look at me as if I were a worm."

Talek hid his smile. He had felt something of the same emotion when confronted with Jaril's mask. He liked her better as Kalil with her hair wild around her lively, laughing face. He could hardly blame Dosik for sharing some of the same feelings.

"You know what took place in the city last night." Talek stated.

Dosik nodded. "I have heard from others what took place, but I feel uncomfortable in crowds. When I heard the first rumors of a disturbance in the city, I closed my gate. Janana and our household stayed behind barred doors until you summoned me."

"So you had no idea that your mother intended to put you on the throne with the use of abduction and blackmail?" Talek asked.

The look of astonished chagrin on Dosik's face confirmed his innocence. Talek knew he had received his answer even before Dosik began to protest. Then, before the first words tumbled out of his mouth, Dosik dropped his head and groaned. "She hinted that I would gain the throne. That's all she ever talked about when we were alone together, but I am happy where I am. I can only think that you will exile me for even listening to what she urged and not reporting her for treason."

"What should be done with her?" Talek asked.

"It is a hard question. Except for my mother and her ambition I would have never met Janana, and my wife is the light of my life. If you will give me the parole of Dariya, I will keep her in close custody and make certain that she never again meddles in your reign," Dosik promised.

"Are you aware that she abducted Janana's little sister, Nala after hitting her over the head?" Talek asked.

"I guess you would have told me this immediately if the child had not been rescued," Dosik said.

"I wanted you to understand how dangerous your mother is. Years ago I let her slip away from the palace without pursuit and punishment for her crimes. This tangle is the result of my misplaced kindness. If I give you her parole, you must never let her leave your home. If she is seen outside the walls of your residence, she will be arrested and will pay the price that will be demanded of those who were only her pawns. Men will die for treason because of the poison Dariya spread."

"Why are you prepared to let her live?" Dosik asked.

"The others gave an oath of loyalty to me. Her loyalty has always been to herself, and then to you. They sold their loyalty and must pay the penalty of betrayal."

"I will keep her under house arrest," Dosik promised. "Janana will have to know the truth, and I hope her affection for me will weather this disaster. I now give you my oath that I will keep Dariya away from any further mischief and I will support your rightful heir with my life."

Talek stood and turned enough to reveal his solemn face. "Go home and prepare your wife and your home for your mother to be quartered there. She must be watched both night and day and the window in her room must be fitted with close set bars. Tell her that if she ever leaves, you will be held forfeit for the parole and your own head will be taken."

Dosik bowed, then he turned and made his way to the home he shared with Talek's daughter. How had such a soft and winsome girl come from such a grim and regal man? How would she react when he told her the truth about Dariya. His courage nearly failed him as he thought of years of loneliness ahead with none but his ambitious mother to share the dreary days. His steps lagged, then he saw Janana standing in the gateway to their home, her brow furrowed with worry about his late return.

She saw him and started forward smiling with relief. He held up his hand to stop her, then held it out to take her by the hand. "Come, I must tell you a truth that may shatter your heart," he murmured.

She followed, numbed by fear, imagining every sort of disaster. He had been summoned to the palace. Did he bringing word that one of her sisters had died, or Nerik, her beloved younger brother?

He waited until the servants had obeyed his command and left them alone together in the gather room of their home. "Janana, my heart, I have been lying to you since we met. I am not the son of a Taleekan councilor and his wife."

Her face broke into a smile and she laughed. "Is that all? I suspected you were trying to impress me from the first, but I soon discovered that you had never even visited the council palace in Taleeka. I liked you well enough then to overlook your faults. I know you well enough now to believe that you are better than you think."

"It is not what I told you that makes me falter, but what I haven't told you," he said. "My mother never told me about my father, but my mother is the sweetmeat seller who visited with us this past week."

"I suspected it. I could see it in her eyes when she looked at you. But there is nothing dishonorable in selling sweetmeats, and I noticed a widow bracelet on her arm. You must ask her to come and visit us and perhaps I can persuade her to tell you something about your father."

Dosik felt almost overcome by her kindness but the hard knot of his message still had to be told. "My mother conspired to put me on the throne. She abducted Nala and bribed servants to kill Nerik."

Janana leaped to her feet. "Nala!"

"She is all right," Dosik assured her, "As for my mother, Dariya, your father has given me her parole. I must keep her here, a captive, for the rest of her life, or pay the forfeit of my life."

Janana paced the room, her eyes wide with emotion. Dosik wanted to go to her and give her comfort. Finally he spoke. "You are not required to stay here. I can imagine your distaste for sharing your home with an enemy."

"Oh, my love, I cannot leave you!" she wailed. He gathered her into his arms.

Several hours later Dosik returned to the palace with his wife. Talek and Serina immediately granted his request to see them. As soon as the queen entered the room where they waited she could see that Janana had been crying. She wanted to go to her, but Janana clung to her husband's arm and there seemed almost a palpable shell around the two of them as if they had erected a wall between themselves and the rest of the family. Would Janana be strong enough to act the jailer for her mother- in- law? Should they burden either of the young people with a woman so wily and determined?

While Serina yearned toward Janana, Talek addressed the matter directly. "What have you decided?"

"In a week we will have things ready to take custody of Dosik's mother," Janana said. "Could we ask the captain of the guards to recommend a few good men to stand guard?"

"We will provide the guards you need and the labor and materials to prepare your house," Talek answered. "We have more than enough furnishings stored in attics and unused bedrooms to provide a comfortable room for her. We need to warn you about Dariya. Do not let yourselves fall victim to her charm."

Dosik nodded warily. "I know just how persuasive she can be."

"I will send my steward to you tomorrow," Talek promised.

After the couple left the room Serina looked at Talek and sighed, "What will come of this?"

"Janana seems determined to stay with Dosik even though he will be responsible for his mother and give himself for her crimes if she breaks parole."

"Yes, and I admire our daughter more than ever before. I am proud of her, and I dread what she faces. Remember my mother, Lissa?"

Talek made a grimace. "How could I forget her. Every time I see your brothers and what they have made of themselves, I am reminded of what might have happened if we hadn't found them in that hut where Lissa lay addicted and uncaring of their welfare."

"I have always wondered if I could not have done something for her," Serina confessed. "I wanted to take my brothers to safety and I ignored her need. When we saw the wine and docil she hid, unaware that we could see them, I only wanted to flee. I wish I had to waited to see if she still lived. I admired my father for being willing to acknowledge their marriage bond and accept responsibility for her. I certainly showed her no pity."

"She made the choice to abandon you when you were an infant," Talek said.

"Makon never told us what happened after he returned to the village," Serina mused sadly. "Did she die? Or did she regain her senses and go in search of her children."

"I should have told you these years past, but I felt it would distress you," Talek admitted. "Makon found Lissa when he returned to the village. She demanded payment for the boys we rescued."

"Compared to Lissa, Dariya is a better mother," Serina said.

"Did she bribe our servants and sow dissension and distrust for Dosik's sake or for her own ambition?" Talek asked.

Serina stared toward the window where the star filled sky met the dark edge of the western sea. A shiver passed over her skin as she considered the depth of ambition and revenge that drove Dariya. "I fear the real victims of her treason are Dosik and Janana."

Talek nodded and stood. He extended his hand to Serina and helped her to her feet. They had been fortunate in their children. Some might pity them for having a blind son, but he could see in ways that other men had never tried to see. "Perhaps Dosik's burden will be the making of his character."

Chapter 11 Infatuation

Farek felt his age in every joint as he rose from his bed. A chronic ache in his lower back had plagued him these past years. He straightened his spine before crossing to the prayer stool in the corner of the room. For a long time he knelt with his eyes closed considering the events of the past few days.

Finally he raised his hands and prayed for calm and strength. He had succeeded in his self- appointed task of preparing Nerik to be a king. The prince had proved himself dramatically three days past when he wielded the weapon of ridicule that destroyed Bildug's attempt to overset the throne.

Farek chuckled at the memory of the absurd performance on the altar platform. Nerik could not have planned the final moments when Bildug danced around the platform grappling with his nearly naked, hopping, screaming minion, nor the shaft of lightning that had ended the event, but he had already ruined the awful mood of the intended sacrifice. The fickle mob craved sensation, responding as readily to humor as to violence. The mob needed to be attended to. Zedekla's wealth drew both the best and the worst people in Okishdu to try their fortune in the city's busy streets.

Dressed in his motley Magin clothing, Farek made his way from the guest room in the palace through the passageways that led into his shop. "I'm too old for this," he muttered as he felt the dankness of the tunnels seep into his joints. For seven years since Ranila's death he had guided his great- grandson's growth. He wondered how much Talek suspected about the relationship between his son and his grandfather.

He hadn't intended to keep it a secret at first, but Zanuk had come to live in the palace only a few months after Farek had decided to establish himself in the city in the guise of Magin. He had watched Zanuk impinge on every lesson the prince received from tutors in various skills. Perhaps he should not have been surprised that most of the hired teachers gave more of their attention to Zanuk than the prince, but Farek had determined that Zanuk would not intrude on his instruction.

At first he only had a suspicion that Zanuk utterly lacked moral sense, but soon Farek detected the boy in several obvious lies. He had been tempted to advise Talek to banish him back to his parent's home on the Tedakan frontier, but Zanuk had already gathered a circle of flatterers who openly advocated that he should be named as heir.

Lately it had become evident that he sold his potential influence like a commodity to the highest bidder, had it been Zanuk or one of the other potential heirs that the Orquians hoped to elevate? And if it were Zanuk, did he an active conspire with Bildug, or only act a hapless tool.

Farek lifted his sassy bird to his shoulder and transformed to Magin as he opened the door of his shop. He found an older boy who had only recently joined his crew of urchins waiting outside the door. "What brings you so early Talot?"

"You told us to look for Bildug," the boy said with a grin. "I have found him."

Magin opened the door wider and beckoned the boy to come in. He quickly shut the door again. If Talot had seen Bildug, then Bildug or one of his cronies might well have seen Talot.

"Where did you see him?" Magin asked.

"There is a house in the butcher's district where a widow used to live," Talot said. "When her clothing and goods were carried away, some of us sneaked in the windows and looked to see if anything had been left behind."

Magin had tried to train the boys to other ways, but he had no time to give a lecture. "What did you see?"

"When the other boys found nothing worth their while they left the house, but I saw a keg of sweetmeat in the larder and when I went to fetch it I saw Bildug napping in a corner."

"If we find him you will have two enas for your trouble," Magin promised.

"Be careful, old man," Talot warned. "Bildug is a mean one and he always seems to get away. Don't tell anyone I told you where he is."

"I will keep your secret."

The boy slipped away and Magin pondered what he should do. He would need a force of picked men to apprehend the demon's dogs who had attempted to sacrifice Kalil, but he had reason to suspect that there were traitors in the palace. Had Bildug been in league with Dariya all along? He finally decided to check and see if the youth's story were true. Better that than to reveal his connection to the palace.

Terrified, Zanuk stayed in his house behind locked doors. Bildug had disappeared after the ritual of sacrifice that had turned into a farce. The people of Zedekla smiled or laughed aloud when they discussed the fumbling priests and their victorious victim. Daily arrests were made and Zanuk expected at any time to hear the summons sounded at his door.

He bore no blame for the failure of the scheme. He had tried to warn Bildug to kill the sorceress and choose another victim for the sacrifice, but the arrogant priest had insisted on using her. By now Zanuk could have been married to Jaril and ruling Zedekla were it not for Bildug's stupidity. He spent the hours with hardly any food and little sleep, waiting for his own part in the scheme to be discovered.

He left orders with his servants to admit no one. Daran, his valet, reported on the rumors of the market place. "They have arrested everyone who took part in the treason except Bildug and five of his priests. It is said that Dosik's mother, a sweetmeat seller from Talava, conspired with the Orquians."

"They do not suspect Perwen or any other?" Zanuk asked.

Daran shook head. "I heard that the conspirators will be whipped and marked on their left cheeks as traitors. All will be exiled from Zedekla except for those who were oath- bound to the king. There will be an execution soon, but Talek is too dainty to do it in the square in front of the palace," the valet sneered. "The miscreants will be taken to the dead ground south of the city and lose their heads."

Zanuk unconsciously reached for his cheek, then drew his fingers down to touch his neck. Which punishment would he receive? Would Talek forget that Zanuk had insisted on taking a liege oath. It had been a dramatic ceremony and Zanuk had not really thought of the consequences at the time. Would it be any better to wander the land as an acknowledged traitor with the tattoo of a traitor on his cheek? He shuddered at the thought.

As the days passed and gossip turned to the coming nuptials of Prince Nerik, Zanuk's infatuation for Jaril began to work on him. Anger and resentment that a blind man would possess such a jewel for his bride began to overcome his fear. Surely she could not be happy with a man who could not see her perfect face.

One morning just after dawn, Zanuk woke from a dream of Jaril and tossed back his covers. He rose and stalked to the window that gave a view of Zedekla's palace. He knew Jaril stayed in a room near those quartering the princesses. He could see the windows of their rooms from here. A figure stood on a balcony in front of one of the windows of the women's quarters. Zanuk squinted, but he could not see the features of the woman. What if it were Jaril, startled from her own sleep by a dream of him. Doubt fled. It must be her. His dream had been too vivid not to be shared by the object of his passion.

When Daran entered the room, he found his master staring toward the palace. He moved behind Zanuk so he could see what fascinated his master. He smiled when he saw the familiar figure of Petilla basking in the first light of the sun. The old governess spent every morning on the balcony outside the window of her room dressed in her night gown, unaware that every apprentice and servant who kept early hours could see her.

"Is she not lovely," Zanuk murmured. "I dreamed of her last night. Then when dawn came, I saw her looking toward my house."

Daran opened his mouth to enlighten Zanuk, but then he smirked. It would be delicious gossip to share with other servants. He knew that Zanuk thought the slender figure was Jaril. Why bother to stir his wrath with the truth that an elderly governess had drawn his notice?

Zanuk stayed at his window staring toward the palace until the feminine figure stepped back from her balcony and disappeared within her room. He turned a dazed face toward Daran who hept busy tidying the room. "I must see her again at close hand."

"It's about time you left the house," Daran muttered to himself. "I will prepare your court clothing," he said more loudly to his master.

"I will wait until tomorrow to decide," Zanuk said, wavering between his eagerness to see Jaril and his fear that he might be taken into custody. "If she is on the balcony tomorrow morning, I will take that as a sign that I should go."

"Oh, I am certain she will be there," Daran said, keeping laughter from his voice. He finished the last few tasks in silence then hurried to the kitchen to share the joke.

"Where is Cousin Zanuk?" Lella asked as she surveyed the formal dining hall that evening. "I haven't seen him at court for days."

"He keeps to his own house lately," Serina said.

"It is like losing a rock that has been lodged in one's sandal," Talek murmured to his wife. "He must have been involved in Bildug's plot, but so far we have no proof. It may be wise to send him back to the mountains. Inrek should know how to discipline his son."

"We should keep him close at hand with Bildug still at large." Serina said. "I assume you've set someone to watch his house."

"Have you heard the rumors Keela is spreading?" Talek asked.

"She seems lost without Zanuk to follow and fawn over, her voice is loud enough for everyone to hear." Serina watched as the councilor's daughter leaned across the table and accosted the woman opposite.

"Have you heard that a witch put a toad spell on Zanuk?" Keela's voice carried through the hall.

"I doubt he stays away from court because of a spell," the other woman said. "Perhaps he is ill."

"Tomorrow afternoon several of us should go and find out what is troubling him," Janana suggested.

"I'll go," Keela said. She turned toward the head of the table. "What about you, Jaril? I think Zanuk would be especially happy to see you." She rolled her eyes and simpered.

"I think it would be a good idea for his family to visit him," Serina said, in an attempt to diffuse the innuendos.

It seemed her ploy had worked and Keela turned to another scandal. "I heard that the matla maker who opened the shop near the goldsmith's square has vanished. Some say she is the witch that Bildug tried to sacrifice."

Kalil felt grateful for the mask that concealed her surprise. The time had come for her to make an appearance at the matla shop before the rumor spread. Her days in the palace had been productive, but she feared her friends might suffer if the gossip spread.

When the meal finally concluded and the royal family made their exit from the room, Talek suggested they should meet in the small council hall. This time Perwen and Dosik were included along with their wives.

When everyone had found a seat, Talek stood and faced them. "We have cleared everyone here of conspiracy in the recent trouble. Perwen, do you have anything to add?"

Perwen shook his head and grasped his wife's hand. "I am sorry that I ever gave you cause to suspect me. Some fools urged me to become the figure head of a rebellion, but though I once deceived myself that you might choose me instead of Nerik, I now acknowledge that he should be named the heir. In truth, I could never face my father if I turned traitor."

"I am grateful that you shared the names of the men Bildug sent to you," Talek said. "They yielded up the evidence of yet others involved in the treacherous scheme. Bildug is still at large, and we have no certain evidence against Zanuk, but I am uneasy about my nephew. Have you learned anything from Dariya, Dosik?"

"My mother claims that she never dealt with the Demon's dogs, but she continues to insist that it is my destiny to rule Zedekla," Dosik said. "I keep our contact minimal."

"Dariya never talks to anyone but Dosik," Janana added. "She sits silently in her room unless he visits her. She turns her back to me."

"I think the idea of taking all the women to visit Zanuk might lull him into becoming careless," Talek said. "Until we can be certain he is Bildug's willing tool, it will be unwise to move against him."

"Where is Farek this evening?" Lella asked.

"I have no idea where my grandfather is," Talek said. I haven't seen him in days. He comes and goes. He is not responsible to me for what he does."

Kalil felt a shiver of apprehension. If Magin had been missing for several days, it might mean trouble.

Kalil led a double life in the palace. In the morning she acted as the maid who attended the princesses and watched over them. The other servants resented what they saw as her sudden rise. Petilla complained. "That woman will have a bad influence on Nala with her coarse manners," the governess complained to Serina.

The queen listened tolerantly, then tried to put the governess at ease. "You will soon be restored to teaching my daughters every morning, but for now, it is important to have a younger, stronger woman to oversee their safety."

Petilla fumed silently and left the Queen's chamber. At least she still had the afternoons to teach the girls, but she missed the opportunity to instruct her new favorite, Jaril.

In the afternoon Kalil left the princesses in the care of Petilla and spent hours with robe makers and others who prepared her trousseau and robes for the wedding. Petilla petitioned her to join the lessons she gave the princesses. "You are the epitome of what a princess should be," the governess simpered.

It amused Nala and the twins when they saw Petilla rebuke Kalil for her manners, only to turn to 'Jaril' as a pattern of comportment, but they never betrayed her secret.

On the morning of the visit to Zanuk, Petilla had even more reason to complain. "Where is that lazy maid? How will the princesses get dressed without her help?"

Since all of them had helped each other and were already standing demurely waiting for their mother and Jaril, her carping was clearly nothing more than bad humor.

Kalil had no desire to visit Zanuk, she despised the man and had never forgotten the night he had tried to assault her. She should be safe with Serina and her daughters. The mask and her clothing were carefully prepared. This formal visit to Zanuk would take her outside of the walls of the palace for the first time in her guise as a royal princess.

Would her friends from the matla shop recognize her? She stood in silence with the princesses and Queen Serina waiting for the importunate Keela to join them. A row of loyal palace guards stood alert on either side of the three palanquins in which the ladies would ride. The queen had dressed in a simple morning robe of dark- blue zylka cloth with bright wirra hide facings. Jaril and the princesses wore various colors, but all of their gowns were simple and relatively unadorned. A cap of rose velvet embroidered with gold confined Jaril's hair and matched her dusty rose robe with cream facings.

Finally Keela appeared with the excuse that her maid had not waked her in time. She wore ornate court clothing with earrings hanging to her shoulders and her hair piled high dressed with combs and wrought silver flowers. Necklaces piled one on another filled the low cut bodice of her gown.

Keela waited until Serina took her place in the second of the palanquins, then clutched at Jaril's arm. "Come and ride with me," she begged as she pulled Jaril toward the leading palanquin. Jaril glanced toward the queen.

Serina frowned at first, then she touched her lips with her finger and smiled. Jaril nodded. No matter what the gossip said, she would keep her silence. But Keela had no plans to trick Jaril into speaking. She remained silent except for occasional comments on the city as they passed through the streets.

For the second morning Zanuk had waked at dawn and watched the woman on the balcony. His imagination provided the features that distance obscured. When he received word of the impending visit he felt certain that Jaril's influence had inspired the decision.

He warned his servants to prepare for the royal presence and dressed himself with care. He stood in an opening of the tower that marked his house and watched the street for the first sight of the royal palanquins. Would Jaril give him some sign that she had shared his dreams and the mystical union that seemed to reach between the two of them while they slept?

A surge of people entered the street and he heard them shouting praise for the queen and for Jaril. He had no doubt that many of those most eager to praise the royal family had been among the mob gathered by Bildug not many days past.

The first palanquin turned the corner. Zanuk recognized Jaril. He ignored the glittering figure of Keela.

Hurrying from the tower in time to greet his guests personally, Zanuk watched with eager anticipation as the women stepped from their conveyances and walking toward him.

As befitted her station, Queen Serina came first, flanked by her twin daughters. Nala and Jaril followed with Keela who winked at Zanuk as if they shared a secret.

Her presumption made Zanuk scowl and Jaril stopped for a moment while Nala and Keela continued forward, following Serina and the twins into Zanuk's house.

Had he finally recognized her? Would he find a way to take revenge? Her fear dispersed when he stepped forward and offered his hand. "Have you dreamed of me?" he murmured.

Jaril remembered the nightmares about his assault that had wakened her and she impulsively answered, "Yes, your image often troubles me." She barely touched his offered hand, then dropped it immediately and walked into the house to join the others.

Zanuk had been prepared to take the least sign from Jaril as a confirmation of his hopes and her answer thrilled him. He hurried after her and ushered the women into his gather room. Serina declined his offer of refreshment.

"We have noticed that you have seldom come to court since the events at the dark pyramid," Serina said. She watched his face to see his reaction but his joy at Jaril's answer filled his thoughts and he ignored the queen.

Kalil resented his fawning attention. His behavior insulted the Queen and the other women.

Keela tried in vain to gain his notice. Finally she pouted and stood, ready to leave. "I think we can see that Zanuk is not sick or suffering from lack of anything we can provide."

Serina stood and Zanuk finally acknowledged her. He looked earnestly a Kalil. "I am sorry you must leave. I will come to the palace tomorrow."

Keela displayed her disapproval when the visit concluded by pulling Nala into the lead palanquin rather than share space with her rival. Kalil noticed that they were taking a different route on the homeward leg of the journey. She glanced toward the crowd that stood in front of her matla shop and saw the faces of her friends and associates staring at her. They gave no sign of recognition and she relaxed back into the seat she shared with Serina.

All along the path of their circuit of the city they were cheered and showered with fragrant petals. "You have won the hearts of the people," Serina said.

"It is the gold mask of Jaril that they see. I am only the face that props it up," Kalil said. "If they could see my real face they would laugh."

"I have seen your face Kalil," Serina sighed with resignation. "But whatever you think of yourself, I know you will cherish Nerik and serve him with honor and virtue when you marry. There is no doubt that he loves you."

Because she knew Serina spoke the truth about Nerik's love for her, Kalil felt better about the popularity of the mask. It really didn't matter what anyone else thought about her true appearance Kalil assured herself as she nodded to the cheering throng.

Zanuk felt restless as the afternoon drew on. His servant prepared his midday meal before leaving the house to purchase supplies. Left alone, he became too lost in thought to eat. The failure of Bildug's plot had left him with little recourse. He must have Jaril, but he could think of no way to obtain his desire.

He ignored the faint sound of someone scratching at the rear door of his house. Finally he heard an urgent hissing "Zanuk, let me in, you fool!" Zanuk glanced around before he opened the door just a little with his foot braced against it.

Bildug, his appearance changed to that of a beggar with streaks of dirt and a ragged cloak hanging over his bent back, forced Zanuk aside as he pushed the door wide enough to enter. "I saw that the princess Jaril visited you today and I have a scheme to trap Nerik," Bildug said.

Elated, Zanuk grasped the mutilated hand of his mentor. "What is your plan?"

"Surely the prince would be willing to do almost anything to keep her safe," Bildug said. "If we can lure her away from the palace, we can take him when he follows her."

"You will not harm her!" Zanuk insisted.

"Of course she will be safe, and she will be yours," Bildug assured him. "Now we must think of how we can get her in our power. Meanwhile, I see you have set a place for me to eat. I am nearly famished. For days I've only eaten beggar's fare."

Bildug called for wine and when Zanuk lifted the flagon, his hand knocked against the cup. The ring he wore clanged on the rim.

"What is this?" Bildug asked. He snatched up Zanuk's hand and stared at the symbol engraved in the blue stone set in a braided gold bezel. "This is not the sign of the demon."

"My father gave it to me. Nerik wears one much like it. I have no idea what it means, but my father said that if I am ever in trouble, I should send him the ring."

"If Nerik has one like it, the princess Jaril has probably noticed it," Bildug said. She seems the type to enjoy jewelry. I wonder where they found such a woman. She looks as if her face is carved from marble."

"She is perfect in every way," Zanuk protested. "I have reason to believe she returns my feelings."

"I wish you joy of her," Bildug muttered. "I have heard that Nerik will be traveling into the countryside with his brother- in- law Perwen to find a nuptial house."

Zanuk stiffened. "Properly I should have been asked to prepare a place for the bridal couple to retire after the ceremony. However, because Nerik is blind, tradition will be ignored. It's just another way in which my rightful position as heir has been eroded and dismissed."

"Rumor reports that your visitors encouraged you to return to the court," Bildug said.

"The queen invited me to return," Zanuk boasted.

"Go to the palace tomorrow and keep your eyes and ears alert for the information we need to set a trap for Nerik. We need to know when he will be gone from the palace and who goes with him. I expect the prince will be too well guarded for us to take him until we can lure him away from his cadre of guards."

Bildug pushed the last bit of food onto a matla and ran it around on his plate to catch every morsel of gravy. "You seem to believe that Jaril has affection for you. It would be well for her if you are not merely indulging in self- deception. Otherwise, she will share the fate of the other members of the royal family."

Before Zanuk could ask any more questions about Bildug's plans, the Orquian stood and stared toward the door. "Someone is coming. You must hide me."

"Follow me," Zanuk said. He wondered if after eating his meal Bildug would demand his bed. If he stayed, it would be a hungry, crowded night. Bildug smelled like the beggar he portrayed. The habit of filthiness was one aspect of being an Orquian that Zanuk could not favor.

When his valet came to help him dress the following morning he once again found Zanuk gazing toward the palace and the distant woman on the balcony. "I will see her close again today," Zanuk murmured and Daran covered his smirk.

Zanuk dressed carefully for his return to court. The valet offered him a tunic draped with ribbons of gilt and glass beading that he had recently purchased from a Jaman tailor, but Zanuk remembered the way Queen Serina and Jaril had outshone Keela in her ornate jewelry. He chose a well made tunic of subtle gray with silver facings and his valet felt surprised and not a little pleased to see that Zanuk finally showed an increase of good taste. He compromised the impression with a last minute decision to wear a large pendant hung on a triple chain and a gilt sword belt with multicolored stones. There was no sword in the decorated sheath, prudence had banned swords for all but the royal family and their guards. Zanuck called for a litter and set out for the palace.

The women of the court were still in seclusion when he arrived. He had no choice but to mingle with the group of guards and friends who stayed near Nerik. When Perwen entered and drew Nerik aside, Zanuk edged his way around a standing screen and tried to hear what passed between them.

His efforts proved fruitless but a few minutes later when Nerik turned from talking to Perwen and made a general announcement, his words delighted Zanuk. "I would like to invite any of you who wish to come to join Perwen and me in two days when we set forth to look at a nuptial house for my bride. Tradition demands that the bride and groom should not be able to see the place where they will dwell following the wedding, but I am free to help with the choice because I'm blind."

There were genial chuckles at Nerik's self deprecating comment and Zanuk could not understand how his cousin could abide the laughter of his inferiors. He vowed that when he became king he would have the head of any who dared to laugh at him.

He mingled with the men who had spoken to Nerik and Perwen to volunteer to accompany them. After the recent attempt on the throne, a large group of loyal men prepared to join the venture.

Most of them were suspicious of Zanuk's motives, but a cousin of Perwen, recently arrived from Janaka and not quite current with Zanuk's position in the court, reacted well to a compliment on his elaborate mustache and began to answer Zanuk's questions.

Zanuk lingered past the midday meal, still hoping to see Jaril, but it came time to return home and change into something more suited to the evening assembly of courtiers. Surely Jaril would attend and he could speak to her again.

When Zanuk returned to his house and went to the room in the tower where he had hidden Bildug, the Orquian greeted him coldly. "I have hidden here all day with nothing to eat. Bring me food and drink and tell me what you learned."

Caught in the trap of harboring the Orquian, Zanuk resented the old man's demands. As he prepared food and drink he considered the injustice of his position. It had been apparent to him from the first that he should be Talek's heir. The idea of settling for a blind man, or a man with no more connection to the royal line than marriage to a princess galled Zanuk. He was doubly royal, with connections to both the Zedeklan kings and the ancient Elianin lineage of Saadena

His chin went up in unconscious arrogance when he thought of his royal forebears. When he returned to Bildug with the wine and the food he wore an expression so like the mask of Jaril that the priest gave a harsh laugh.

"Have you learned anything today, or are you still savoring the privilege of mingling with the royals again?"

"In two days Nerik will be going with Perwen and a number of other men to Talava for the night. He plans to return the next day and we could set an ambush then."

"I have only a few men to use for the task of putting you on the throne," Bildug said. "Most of my men were captured or scattered when that fiend ruined the ritual. If we can mislead princess Jaril to come into our hands, we can use her as a lure to take Nerik."

"I do not like to involve Jaril," Zanuk said.

"Once we have Nerik, you can have his bride," Bildug said. "We will have Talek's daughters for our altars."

Chapter 12 Trapped

The next morning Kalil told Queen Serina that she planned to spend a few hours with her friends in the matla shop. "I'm worried about Farek's absence. My friends can tell me if Magin has been seen around the city. I'm curious about their opinion of Nerik's chosen bride and whether they recognized me in the mask."

Serina hesitated, then nodded. "It has been good of you to stay with Nala and the twins while we faced this crisis, but you are free to go if you have pressing matters. The girls will spend the morning with me. I enjoy keeping them company. I have turned too much of their care over to Petilla."

Kalil changed from the servant's dress she wore while acting as Nala's nursery maid in the palace and put on the rather weathered dress she had worn when she fled Rubble Ford. She slipped down the narrow flight of stairs and waited in the garden until the lane outside cleared. Perhaps she should ask Nerik to show her how to go directly from the palace to the goldsmiths' square, but if the route involved a detour through the dark pyramid, she would prefer the route she already knew.

"Kalil, we've missed your cheerful face!" Baslak, a long time customer, greeted her when she stepped into the goldsmiths' square. "Have you heard of all the excitement that has been going on since you left?"

"I have heard a few things, but I am certain I will learn the full story from you," she replied. She could count on the chronic gossip to deliver the most spectacular version of whatever rumors were going around.

"It seems the Orquians made a mistake in the victim they chose to initiate their rebellion against Talek," Baslak confided. "They captured a powerful sorceress instead of some innocent country girl. She put a spell on Bildug that made him invisible and turned Zanuk into a toad."

"You may have heard that I will soon be married," Kalil said. "My future husband is a close friend of prince Nerik. It seems that the 'victim' is not a woman at all, but Nerik dressed in a wig and a gown to make the Orquians look ridiculous. Did you not wonder how the victim managed to disarm both of the demons' dogs before wresting the ax and knife from Bildug?"

Baslak's eyes grew round with mixed horror and delight. "I would never have guessed. Nerik, you say? What about Zanuk and Bildug?"

"Zanuk only acts like a toad, as he always has, but no treason has been proved against him. He looks as he ever did, a silly fop. As for Bildug, he is lying low but most of his priests have met the executioner at the dead ground south of the city. Now keep this confidential."

The last phrase sent Baslak away with an avid look in his face. He had hardly taken five steps before he met a friend and pulled him aside to pass on his new secrets.

Satisfied with the rumor she had started, entirely true, but spiced with enough sensation to keep it going for a while, Kalil turned into the matla shop. Customers already filled the benches, waiting the first serving of hot, fragrant matlas. The new woman Magin had found to replace Kalil moved among them with a pot of hot cala to fill their cups. After a few minutes of observation, Kalil had to admit that Mira managed the shop as well as she could have done, perhaps better. Few of the matlas failed the test of perfect form and color that would send them flying into a box reserved for distribution to the poor.

Kalil decided to help serve. She slipped into the task as if she had never been away, bantering with customers and now and then inserting a little useful gossip. With the end of breakfast, there were only a few customers in the shop and Kalil signaled to Mira that she wanted to speak to her. She moved toward the back of the shop where the older women could hear what she had to say.

"I have noticed that there are very few matlas in the beggar's box," Kalil said. "You women are making a practice of perfection. You have grown so skilled that were we to give only the imperfect products to those less fortunate, we would give less than our share. I would like you to put every tenth matla in the beggar's box, regardless of its shape or size. Take it from my share of profits."

"Would you deny the rest of us the blessings of charity?" Delida challenged with a mock scowl. "We will share the burden of the beggar's box just as we have shared the bounty of the shop."

"I agree," Mira said. "What do the rest of you think? Show hands if you would like to follow Delida's plan and deprive Kalil of being the only one who gives. Don't forget, the beggar's box is shared with pilgrims as well as those who are hungry for other reasons."

All hands went up, even the new woman smiled and signed her willingness to make the sacrifice. Kalil smiled with gratitude and hugged each of them in turn. Delida put the next, perfect, matla into the box that would be taken to the shrine before noon.

"It is unfortunate that you were kept busy with your other duties," Mira said as she flattened several rounds of dough onto one of the griddles. "We saw the princess who will marry Prince Nerik. She seems overly proud, but with good reason. I have never before seen a woman so fair. She rode with Queen Serina and they were like two perfect roses."

"She seemed familiar," Veranina said. "but it is probably because she looks so much like Queen Serina, I have certainly seen no other who could compare with her. Our prince is fortunate,"

"Lady Keela rode in another litter and looked as gaudy as a fornong flower," Pelad giggled. "She had necklaces and earrings in plenty, but compared to the elegance of the Queen and Jaril, she looked foolish,"

Nila, the new woman nodded as she circled back to put a pile of fresh matlas on her serving tray. "There are those who say that Zanuk holds the heart of the princess, but she doesn't look the type to sacrifice station for love. Whether he's blind or not, she'll marry the future king. If that sorceress from the sacrifice truly turned Zanuk into a toad, it will be all the more reason for Jaril to prefer a title."

Kalil could only hope that her own version of events would cycle through the matla shop. With Baslak busy relaying the gossip she had shared with him, it should soon spread throughout the city that Nerik had vanquished the Orquians.

"Have you seen anything of Magin lately?" she asked Mira.

"Oh you know Magin, he comes and goes. I haven't seen him for several days, but his runners come around for the money as usual."

"It has been more pleasure than you could guess working with you this morning," Kalil said, but I still have many things to do before my wedding day."

"It's a pity you can't share the event with us," Mira said. "I hope your husband is a better man than his arrogant parents, who won't accept you as you are."

"He is better than most people," Kalil equivocated. "He has a position close to the king and I keep my relationship secret for purposes of security. Just think what use Bildug might have made of me if he knew the truth."

She cut so close to the facts that she could almost feel the cage and hear the scrabbling rats. Would the others guess what she meant?

"It's a pity that the prince did not choose someone like you instead of that frozen- faced princess that he plans to marry," Pelad said. "If someone high in the court could choose you, then why not the highest?"

Her comment brought about another attack of criticism of the 'haughty' Jaril. And Kalil left the shop with the conviction that they would vigorously challenge any rumor that she was the woman behind the mask.

She decided to visit Magin's shop before returning to the palace, but unless took a long way around, her path would lead her past the dark pyramid. She could not forget the surprise of walking straight into the arms of the Orquians. What had become of Raderen? Did she run too much of a risk with Bildug and Raderen still on the loose?

She abruptly changed her path from the alley that would lead her past the house next to the pyramid to a narrow alley, hardly wide enough for one person to pass. It should lead her behind Magin's shop. The overhanging eaves of the houses and shops on either side made the alley so dark that Kalil had stepped on someone before she saw him.

She jumped back, afraid that some miscreant from the night of the attempted sacrifice had been wounded and crawled into the alley to die. A low groan told her that whoever she had stepped on still lived. Fear prodded her to run, but she resisted the temptation to flee and bent over the body to see if she could render aid. Her hand went automatically to her healer's pouch while she felt for a pulse.

The pulse fluttered weakly, but once again the person groaned. She felt for fractures or bleeding wounds. Kalil used her fire stone and a bit of lint to make a small torch so she could examine the wounded man. When she turned the light on the huddled shape she gasped with surprise. Although swollen bruises distorted his features she recognized Farek dressed in the motley robes of Magin. The bright robes were stained with blood and hanging from his back in shreds. She bent over him again and dripped an herbal stimulant into his gaping mouth. His eyes fluttered open. He seemed dazed and disoriented.

"Can you stand and walk with help?" she asked him.

"Kalil- " the muttered sound of her name came low and hoarse, but he recognized her. He struggled to his feet and she supported him.

"The back of your shop is only a few more steps." She took most of his weight in her arms and encouraged him toward the door. "Don't try to talk until I have a chance to examine you and give you something to eat and drink."

"Puzzle lock," he gasped when she asked for the key. He put his hand forward, the fingers shaking as he reached for the intricate latch. The lock gave way at last and the door swung open. She led him to a cluttered bench chest not far from the back door and shoved a few boxes off of it to make space for him.. The musky smell inside the shop reassured her as she reached up and opened the shutters on the window. It seemed unlikely that anyone had been inside for several days. She need not fear an ambush while she treated his wounds.

Once she had removed the tattered robes she could see the bruises and wounds on his chest. They were colorful, but the cuts were crusted shut with no sign of active bleeding. She set a pot of water to boil and she soon had poultices prepared. She offered him a dose of selan but he turned his head away. "Not since Neril," he vowed.

"I guess I'll have to call you Farek now ," she chuckled. "No ordinary Zedeklan would turn their back on something that would ease their pain. At least take some nuka juice."

She helped him swallow most of a cup of juice before he pushed her hand away. "Enough for now," Farek said. "One of the new boys tricked me. Bildug beat me and threatened that I would suffer more if I didn't pay him off. I doubt he knows who I really am, or I would not have survived. He left me in the alley and said he would return. If I don't show him the means to enter my shop he threatened to burn it and attack my urchins."

"Perhaps this means that 'Magin' should disappear. If I had not found you, I fear that you would not have lasted much longer. How long did you lie there?"

"It has been a day or so," Farek said. "I am an old man. Bildug is only a few years younger than me, but it makes a difference."

"You must not stay here if he plans to burn your shop. I need help to carry you out of here. Where is your trapdoor?"

"You knew I had a trapdoor?" Farek asked.

"I'm beginning to think that a trap door of some kind is as necessary to Zedekla's royals as a crown to most kings."

"If I live long enough to do so, I will make certain you and Nerik share my secrets," Farek murmured. "The door is beneath the carpet in the middle of the shop. You will come up in the lower regions of the palace. Take these keys, they will allow you to enter my apartment. "

"Please rest now," Kalil told him. "I will be back with help as soon as possible."

She ducked down through the door and found only one passage leading toward the palace. Her experience with Nerik after he had rescued her from the cage had taught her that a web of tunnels and drains extended under the city. Some of them were dry, but most were ankle deep in liquid.

She soon made her way to Farek's room and scandalized Petilla who happened to be passing when Kalil hurried from the room. "I can't question the behavior of a man like Farek," Petilla sneered, "but no decent woman would be seen leaving the quarters of a man."

"Have you seen Nerik?" Kalil asked, too eager to find help to consider the impact of her question.

Petilla swept away with a grunt of disgust and Kalil went in search for someone less inclined to think the worst. In a short time a passing guard told her she could find Nerik with his father and the captain of the guard in the small council room. When Kalil rushed in and asked for help they did not argue with her.

Kalil led the three men up to Farek's room and showed them the way to the passageway. Nerik went first and Kalil brought up the rear, pulling the panel closed behind her in case a curious servant tried to investigate.

Farek lay still and pale on the bench chest when they reached the shop, but a quick examination showed that his breath came easy and his pulse had strengthened. Kalil woke him gently and told him that help had arrived. Nerik and the captain picked up Farek between them while Talek took a quick inventory of the shop. "I've heard of Magin of course, but I never imagined he is my grandfather," the king muttered.

"There is a chest under the food cabinet. It has meal on the top, but you'll discover it is filled with gold when you lift it," Nirek said.

"What do you know about this?" Talek asked his son as he struggled to lift the heavy chest.

"Farek has been my teacher since shortly after Zanuk came to Zedekla," Nerik said.

Kalil quickly surveyed the rest of the shop and found Magin's bird scratching weakly at the floor of its cage. "Poor thing," she muttered as she poured some water in his dish and offered him a handful of seeds. She picked up his cage and hurried after the others who were already going down through the trap door.

When they were back in Farek's room, Kalil checked him and found that several of his wounds had begun to bleed after the necessary jostling to return him to the palace. "I'll tend to these," she said. "I'll fetch some bandages and materials for some poultices. Meanwhile, try to keep him quiet. He might tell you where Bildug laid the ambush, but I doubt the demon's dog would stay anywhere for very long."

"We must find a way to protect Farek's urchins," Nerik said. "I doubt the shop is worth much, but the children have come to depend on Magin. He stood between decency and a life of beggary or crime. Most of them distrust authority and would not think to ask for charity at the Shrine."

While Kalil tended to Farek, Talek and his son drew to the side with the captain of the guard to discuss what could be done. The odor of smoke drifted through the window and Talek stood and looked over the city.

"We should have set a guard to watch the shop. We might have caught the arsonists in action."

Kalil pulled the coverlet over Farek and stood. Even from here she could see the pall of smoke. "Surely something must be done about the fire. The shops and houses are built close in that section of the city. It is not far from the palace and if it grows, even we will be in danger."

"Come to the window and you will see what is being done," Talek invited her.

Kalil could see a bustle of activity in the neighborhood surrounding the blazing shop. The houses were close, but they were made of stone. On every roof near the shop people poured buckets of water over the wooden tiles.

"Don't you subscribe to a district fund for your shop?" Talek asked Kalil.

"Yes, but I never thought to inquire what they used it for," she said.

Farek made a choking sound that turned out to be a chuckle. Kalil turned and shushed him. "Please be quiet. In the morning we can decide what must be done. I doubt your urchins are in danger. It is one thing to torch a shop, quite another to catch an army of unruly children."

Farek nodded and closed his eyes. With his wounds dressed and a comfortable bed beneath him, he welcomed the release of sleep.

"As long as Bildug is at large, we cannot let down our guard," Talek said. "There must be some way to lure him out."

"If he is in league with Zanuk, I believe I know a way," Kalil said. "Zanuk has made no secret that he is infatuated with Jaril. When I went to my room for my medicines I found this message."

She handed Talek the elaborately folded missive. The bright red paper edged with gold contained a poem. "Sweeter than the night blossom, still as the moon, watch again at dawn and be with me soon. Z."

"This is Zanuk's writing," Talek said when he finished reading the verse. "To think I provided tutors for the boy so that he could write such drivel to a woman already promised to another. What does he mean by this reference to watching at dawn?"

"I have no idea, but it seems he thinks I have been leading him on somehow. I imagine that this will not be the last message I receive. What should I do?'

"We cannot risk your safety," the guard captain said. "Perhaps another woman could disguise herself to pass as Jaril."

"Should another risk her life for my sake?" Kalil said.

"I fear she will take matters into her own hands," the guard captain said to Talek.

"I think we should trust her," Talek said, nodding to Kalil.

"But Farek's decision to act on his own brought about his current injuries," the captain reminded his king.

"I won't argue with you," Kalil said. "If I receive any other messages from Zanuk you will be informed, but while others are in danger I cannot be kept in isolated in safety." With that final word, she left the room.

"I believe the aim is to take custody of Nerik. If Zanuk could get Jaril to come to him, he might send a message to Nerik and my son would do anything to rescue her."

"It is true that I would give my life to save Kalil," Nerik said. "Tomorrow I planned to go upriver to Talava to select a nuptial house. I cannot leave the city now."

"Set forth, but do not go to Talava," Talek suggested. "Circle to the north and come back to the palace by way of the beach. We need the men you were taking with you to help capture Bildug. I believe that Zanuk is his tool. If we can take one, we will probably take the other. If Zanuk makes a move to abduct Jaril tomorrow, we will be ready."

Early the next morning Kalil stood just inside the window and watched Nerik and his friends leave from the palace . As far as she knew, they would not return for two days. A woman standing on a neighboring balcony caught her eye and she recognized Petilla dressed in a flowing white gown. The old woman stood facing the sun with her hands raised to welcome the warmth of the dawn.

Kalil turned her gaze toward the city and saw the tower that marked Zanuk's house. A figure stood in the window of an upper room. From this distance she could not be certain it was Zanuk, anymore than he could be certain that the woman on the balcony was not Jaril.

She might have enjoyed the irony if it had not convinced the traitor that he received the sign that he had asked for. Today Zanuk would probably move against Nerik. Kalil felt desperate to let the prince know what she had seen.

She dressed in her peasant clothing and hurried from the palace. The prince and his men were on foot. It could not be long before she caught up with them. Several hours into the countryside she realized that they had left the road. Villagers and peasants along the way had not seen the royal party pass.

She could only think that Bildug had been hiding a large group of men and had taken Nerik prisoner. Heartsick, she turned back to the city. She tried to find Talek to tell him about her fears for Nerik's safety but she ran into Petilla while she sought the king and the old woman began to scold her so viciously that she took refuge in her room. She shut the door behind her and began to select a gown. A long green shape slithered across the floor and coiled around her ankle.

"What are you doing here Theodorn?" she muttered. She picked him up and he slid down around her waist and into the slightly opened neck of one of her belt pouches. Then she noticed the silver ring on the dressing table. She recognized it as something she had seen Nerik wear and she picked it up and saw a small roll of scroll cloth tucked inside.

She unrolled it with shaking fingers. "Jaril, I saw your signal at dawn. I have Nerik. Tell no one but come alone to the small garden near the western tower.

Kalil stopped only to put a long elegant court robe over her peasant dress and fit the mask on her face then quickly pulled her hair under a cap embroidered to match her robe. She hurried out of her room and toward the small garden at the base of the west tower the twin of the garden that gave her access to the town, but instead of being virtually abandoned as the other had been, pruned trees and hedges of flowering bushes filled the space.

She glanced around and walked a little way into the garden. Suddenly a heavy cloak fell over her head. She tried to struggle, but a sharp blow on her temple sent her into darkness just as someone lifted her off her feet.

When she came back to consciousness still slumped in the brawny arms of her captor, she heard a voice she recognized. "Take her to the river and be quick about it," Zanuk said. At the thought that they might mean to drop her in the river she almost began to struggle, then Zanuk urged, "Do not hurt her."

Soon she heard the cry of sea birds. A fold of the cloak that had been thrown over her head worked loose and she saw the edge of a barge such as the river traders used. She saw the lower parts of Zanuk's legs as he leaped aboard.

"Hand her over to me and then return to my house and tell Bildug that I have succeeded," Zanuk said. The barge swung in the current and Zanuk stumbled as he reached out to take her. Kalil feared that any moment she would fall into the river before Zanuk had a secure grip on her.

When Zanuk had her firmly in his arms, he carried her to the cabin of the barge and laid her on a cot. She listened for his footsteps as he crossed the space and opened a small port hole, freshening the stale air of the space. He crossed to her again and began to pull the cloak away from her face. She blinked and opened her eyes, forced to give up her pretense of unconsciousness by one of the few flaws of the mask. When her eyes were closed the openings in the metal fabric revealed that it was not her skin.

"You are awake my love," Zanuk crooned. "Soon we will be together as we were meant to be. I am taking you to a place where we will both be safe from King Talek's guards. We will draw first the blind prince, and then his fool of a father into our net with you as bait. Bildug has promised that you will not be harmed."

Kalil seethed with anger and fear, but the mask gave her the appearance of haughty indifference to her plight. Zanuk, gazing at her faint smile, fell on his knees next to her cot.

"I knew you would come to me when I saw you at dawn. I am sorry for the need to use violence, but someone might have heard you if you cried out. I have arranged for food and drink with the captain of the barge. Be patient, I will soon return."

Kalil feared being left alone with Zanuk, but when he returned with the tray he seemed eager to please her, offering delicacies and watching her face for any sign of displeasure. The food smelled delicious. She doubted Zanuk would drug her when he seemed to think that she approved his plan. She took nibbles of the food.

It would do no good to fast when she might need all her strength to get away and summon help when the barge docked. Although she had been raised at the edge of a river, the Opeta ran so wild that children were not encouraged to learn to swim.

At last she felt a slight shock go through the boat and Zanuk jumped up from the bench. "Be still my love. I must confine you, but I will not bind your hands and feet. Trust me. No harm will come to you."

He led her from the boat to a rude hut that had been hastily constructed. Fresh bark still hung from the boards but clay had been applied to the cracks and the simple but sturdy latch would be difficult to break. Zanuk did not follow her inside. She needed solitude to consider what she must do. She had been a fool to leave her room without telling anyone about the note. She had crumpled it in her pocket.

As the afternoon passed, the tiny space inside the hut grew stifling hot. She needed to think of some way to escape and warn Nerik of Zanuk's plot, but the mask added to the feelings of exhaustion that seemed to cloud her mind. Kalil took off the robe and cap then swept the mask from her face and folded it into one of the belt pouches at her waist. She stood in front of the one tiny air shaft and ran her fingers through her hair in an effort to gain some small measure of comfort.

She could feel the heat of her cheeks and knew her face grew red. She heard the door open behind her and smelled the acrid scent Zanuk preferred. She reached in her pocket for the mask, forgetting that her wild mane of curly hair would have to be concealed as well. She heard a cry of wordless fear and turned to see Zanuk, his face white with terror as he stared at her.

"What have you done with Princess Jaril, witch?" he asked in a quavering voice.

For a moment she felt confused. Then she remembered his fearful reaction to their previous encounter in the matla shop and suddenly she knew what to do. She put her hand to the pouch and let Theodorn wind around her hand and arm. Laughing harshly, she lifted the snake to dangle before Zanuk's eyes. He lurched backward, scissoring his fingers wildly to forestall a curse.

"I sent your precious princess back to the palace, and if you want to survive this hour, you will run back to the forest where you were born. I've been watching you, Zanuk. If you ever lift your hand against the royal house of Zedekla again, I will destroy you. Now go before my patience ends," she screeched.

"Do not harm Jaril!" Zanuk cried.

"If she remains true to Nerik, I will spare her," Kalil promised.

Zanuk stumbled backwards out of the hut as Kalil moved toward him with the snake held high in front of her. Theodorn swung his head back and forth and gaped his mouth, making a convincing threat. Zanuk seemed unable to remove his gaze from the bright green reptile. As soon as they were out of the hut, Zanuk whirled and ran into the woods beside the river. Kalil could hear him crashing through the undergrowth for some time after she lost sight of him.

She wondered if she should flee in the opposite direction, but she didn't know the countryside. If Zanuk's accomplices returned they would soon discover her tracks and follow her. Bildug could be expected to come and check on the progress of his scheme. With a prayer for wisdom and strength still on her lips, Kalil examined the latch of the hut and found that it could be disabled by carving away a small piece toward the back and still give the appearance of being locked. Nerik had returned her obsidian blade and she carefully shaved away at the knob that would engage the latch. She tested it to make certain she would not be locked helplessly inside again, then she went into the hut and poked a few holes in the clay between the boards. Before long she had a view of all the approaches.

Several hours had passed when she recognized the voice of Raderen, still acting the toady to the Orquians. She slipped her royal robe over her peasant dress and put the mask on her face. She had just finished covering her hair with the embroidered cap when she heard the door unlatch.

"So, the trap is baited, but where is Zanuk," Bildug asked.

"He went to find something for me to eat," Kalil lisped through the mask.

Bildug slammed the door in her face and began to grumble. She peered through the holes in the hut as night drew down and Bildug and his men made camp nearby but Raderen and Bildug sat together on the rude bench just outside the hut and talked about their plot to capture Nerik.

"Have you sent the message to the palace?" Raderen asked.

"It should be in Talek's hands this evening," Bildug said. "When Nerik returns from his hunt for a nuptial house tomorrow morning, he will receive our message and come to find his bride. I am uneasy about Zanuk. If he doesn't return it would be best to rid ourselves of the woman."

"Better to keep her," Raderen replied. "She will make a suitable sacrifice to Orqu when we capture the royals."

Chapter 13 Retribution

Nerik and his companions had circled back to the beach beyond the palace when Perwen noticed the barge docked near the palace, but downstream and concealed from the royal pier. "Is there some reason for a barge to be there?" he asked Nerik.

"Is anyone on board?" Nerik asked.

"There is one man, but he's standing with his back to us and staring at the palace. I would swear that it is Zanuk," Perwen said.

"Have the men take cover. You must watch and tell me what happens."

The party of men settled into concealment near the docks along the river. It had been several hours since they had left the road at a deserted stretch and had circled back toward Zedekla. At first they welcomed the chance to rest, then they began to suffer from the flies that buzzed around them.

A man appeared with someone slung over his shoulder. The head and upper body were covered, but the skirts betrayed the identity of the victim. Perwen saw Zanuk's face. "Zanuk has just taken a woman onto the barge. She is unconscious and covered by a cloak so I can't be sure that it is Jaril."

"We should take him now and rescue Jaril," Nerik said. "He has demonstrated what he is."

"But Bildug would go free," Perwen reminded him. "We must cross the bridge to reach that side of the river and by then they could cast off and evade us. I suggest that we should let them start out, then some of us can get a boat and the others take the river bank until we find out where they are going. If Bildug is there, we will take the lot."

"I will go with the boat," Nerik said. "The captain should be willing to take most of us. You lead the rest along the bank."

"We will have to wait to follow until we know if the barge is going up river or along the coast," Perwen cautioned.

Nerik knew he should heed Perwen's counsel, but Kalil might be wounded. He prayed that Zanuk's infatuation and Kalil's resourcefulness would combine to keep her safe.

He waited anxiously until Perwen gave the signal. "They've cast off and the barge has turned to go upstream. It is a ten man galley and we must consider the crew as antagonists. It might be better to get reinforcements from the palace before we follow them."

"I will go for a boat, you can get reinforcements," Nerik said. "I want no further delay in following the barge. They could turn off into a tributary and we would never find them."

As soon as the barge had passed under the bridge between the south bank and the palace, Nerik and Perwen led their parties out of hiding and crossed the bridge. While Perwen went to the palace to find reinforcements, Nerik followed the pathway to the royal dock and when he heard the sound of waves against a hull and sailors responding to orders, he hailed the captain.

"Did you see the boat that passed only a few minutes ago?"

"The ten- man galley?"

"Yes, we must follow it. How long will it take you to cast off?"

"I just returned from hauling a load of nop logs from Virdana and the deck is dirty. As soon as we clean it we could cast off," the captain said. "If you don't mind walking on bark and litter, I can cast off immediately."

"We must leave as soon as possible. If necessary, I will man a broom and clean the deck myself," Nerik replied.

"No need for you to sweep, your Grace," the captain protested. "Just board your men and we will follow your quarry."

Someone guided Nerik to a bench near the bow and he sat next to one of his friends, Forga, who kept him posted about the proceedings. He could feel the change of motion on the deck as the boat cast off and turned upriver. They passed along the busy area near the docks and under the upper bridges. At last they were beyond the city and the sounds made by crowds of busy people were replaced by the sound of the bow of the boat as it plowed through the water of the river Com.

"Can you see the other boat?" Nerik asked Forga.

"We are following far enough behind that we lose sight of them now and then, but that is only prudent. If Zanuk discovers that we are in pursuit, he might throw his captive overboard."

"Where is the next major tributary?" Nerik asked. "It seems likely that Zanuk intends to meet Bildug close to Zedekla but in a relatively secluded place."

"I will ask the captain to come over and speak to you," Forga said.

Nerik repeated his concerns to the captain and a few moments of silence passed while the man considered his answer. "Earlier this week when we went upriver, we passed the entrance of the Nagan tributary. The same boat we are pursuing now followed close behind us. It turned north at the Nagan. The Nagan ends at a waterfall and there is no village between the Com river and the falls. The land on either side of the branch is poor and supports little other than scrubby trees.

"It sounds ideal for the building of a hideout," Nerik said. "Draw close enough to keep the boat in sight, but when you near the branch, hang back enough to let them turn if that is what they intend, then follow them."

"I'm afraid we might run aground in the Nagan. You would make better time if I put you ashore and you went overland," the captain said. "I saw another group of men cross the bridge with you. Do they intend to follow?"

"They were going to get reinforcements, then come up the bank."

"I'll drop anchor by the outlet of the Nagan and wait for them while you and your men go on ahead."

Nerik nodded. He would follow the captain's recommendations, but he hoped he had not misplaced his trust. He could hear the orders given and the creaking of the boat when they changed course and edged against the bank. Forga touched his shoulder and he stood. "A gangway has been set between the boat and the shore. Would you rather walk or be carried?"

"Whichever you think best," Nerik answered. "This is no time for me to worry about my dignity."

"The bank is marshy and uneven and you are likely to stumble if you try to walk. Wait here for a moment and I'll bring someone to help me carry you."

When they finally reached firm ground his attendants released him. "How does it look from here on?" he asked his friends.

"The Nagan is running high but there is still a width of silted bank that we should be able to walk along," Forga said. "I'll go ahead and warn you if there are any pitfalls."

"I would have been less trouble if I had stayed on the boat," Nerik said, "but I must know what has become of Jaril."

"If you could see the way this land looks you would realize that most of us are under a handicap. The scrub grass is dense and grows so near the edge of the water that we can't see very far ahead."

"What if the boat we are following returns while we are on the bank?" Nerik asked.

"A good question. Perhaps we should give up this easy path and walk up in the scrub. If we do, you will have to hold on to me."

They climbed to the bank above the small river and found that it covered with scrubby forest. Nerik could make his way with little assistance. Now and then Forga muttered directions.

"Hold," Forga said when they had been walking for nearly an hour. "I see the top of the boat, it is coming back downriver. Wait here."

When Forga returned he reported that he saw no sign of Zanuk on the boat. "I believe we are on the right track, but we will need to use extra caution from now on."

They walked slowly with frequent stops while the others scouted ahead. One of the men returned at a run. "I've found the place where Jaril is being kept. I saw Zanuk outside a rude hut. He seems to be waiting for someone. He is alone."

"The five of us could easily take him," Nerik said.

"But if we do, we might lose our chance to capture Bildug," Forga cautioned. "I suggest we wait here for reinforcements." He turned to the scout. "Return and keep watch on the hut. If Bildug and his cronies show up, come back and warn us."

The scout returned from studying the hut only moments after Perwen and his men arrived. There were over fifty men including palace guards. "Bildug and his men are at the hideout, but Zanuk is nowhere in evidence."

"We could wait until Zanuk returns and take them all," Perwen said.

"It will soon grow dark and it might be more difficult to see our way," Forga counseled.

"I feel we should take them now," Nerik said. "We know Zanuk and where he is likely to go to ground, and if we don't catch him in the net now, sooner or later he will be found. Bildug is the greater threat."

"We have enough men to surround the camp and close on them like a net," Perwen said. "I will take twenty five men to the north. Forga, you take the rest to the east and post them at intervals. What shall be our signal to close in on them?"

"I'll bark like a cory in distress when I no longer hear you moving," Nerik said.

The men set out to take up their positions as the sun began to set. Nerik stood by himself while the others walked away. They were stealthy, but the sound of footsteps stopped and Nerik knew the time had come to make the signal. The bleating bark of a cory trilled from his throat, carrying through the evening air.

Nerik heard the sound of Forga's men moving again for a brief time. Then he heard thuds and cries and someone crashed through the scrub toward him. He rushed forward to intercept them and grabbed them in his arms. He immediately recognized the scent and form of Kalil, but she could not see who had captured her and she fought like a wirra to get free.

"Kalil, you are safe!" he cried. Her struggles stopped and she slumped in his arms, then turned to hold on to him.

"How are you free so soon?" he asked her. They could still hear shouting from the direction of the hut.

"I did not expect the rescue and I had fixed my lock to open. As soon as it grew dark enough, I slipped away. When I heard the first shouts, I thought they had discovered my escape and would come after me."

"Wait here with me until the others finish capturing Bildug and his men. I should have known that you would find a way to escape. But what of Zanuk?"

"I frightened him away. I removed my mask. Fortunately Theodorn made an appearance. Zanuk is deathly afraid of serpents."

"I knew he was no ordinary snake," Nerik said. "Where is he now?"

"Here in my pouch," Kalil said. She reached into the pouch and found it empty. "He is gone. When the miscreants are captured, we should return and search the hut for him."

"Perhaps he has served his purpose," Nerik said. "When the serpent helped Tharek it only stayed until his need had passed."

He felt the motion of Kalil's cheek against his own when she nodded. "In truth, I thought he had already gone before he came to me this afternoon just as I read Zanuk's message."

"Tell me what happened," Nerik said.

"Zanuk sent me a ring like the one you wear along with a note that begged me to meet him. I feared that they already held you captive. When I went to the west garden to meet him I wore my mask and royal robes. I had hardly come into the garden when a cloak covered my head and something hit me."

Nerik made a low, angry sound in his throat when she described her capture. "Zanuk will not escape the consequences of this treachery," he vowed.

Nerik heard a sudden increase in the crackling sound of fire. "I think someone torched the hut where you were being held," he said. A frantic voice shouted for Jaril.

"Jaril is here with me!" Nerik called out. He turned to her. "They thought that you were trapped inside the hut," Nerik said. "We must show them you are safe."

"You go ahead and tell them I am coming. I must restore my mask and robes. Otherwise they won't recognize me."

While he ran toward the sound of the crackling blaze to stop anyone from going into the fire, she hastily smoothed the gold mask on her face and draped the robes over her dress. When she entered the fire brightened clearing where the hut still blazed she saw Bildug and his men roped and tied together, but Kalil quickly realized that one of them in addition to Zanuk had escaped. "Where is Raderen?" she asked.

"Who is Raderen?" Perwen countered.

"He is in league with Bildug and over the past few years he has been a source of maidens for their sacrifices."

"Search the scrub and find him," Perwen ordered. Kalil and Nerik stook waiting while the search continued. The burning hut had been reduced to flaring coals when Nerik told Perwen to end the search. "We must return to Zedekla with our captives. Leave some men here to douse the embers and continue the search, but I doubt we will find our quarry."

Perwen gave the signal to call them back then turned to Nerik. "We captured the barge that brought Zanuk and Jaril up the Nagan. It is waiting at the river along with the royal boat for us to return to Zedekla."

"Send a party ahead and have them bring the smaller ship back here to pick up the rebels and Jaril," Nerik said. "She is weary from her adventures and we can't risk losing Bildug in the darkness."

Perwen gave the orders, then turned to Kalil. "How did you get free? I feared for your life when Bildug tossed a burning brand from the fire into the hut just before we captured him."

"I disabled the lock," she explained. "As soon as it grew dark and their backs were turned, I slipped away."

"I would not have expected it of you," Perwen admitted.

"Is there something we can sit on?" Nerik asked. "Jaril needs to rest.

Perwen looked around, then nodded. "There is a large rock behind a bush over there. Jaril can show you. I think the two of you deserve a little time alone together."

Ten men were left to guard the bound prisoners with two of them posted on either side of Bildug. Nerik and Kalil settled on the rock and relaxed while the main group of guards under Perwen's lead departed for the boats. They listened bemused when Bildug began to bargain with his guards.

"I offer you more than you could ever have as mere servants of Zedekla's king. I am the High Priest of Orqu, and I hold Okishdu in my palm."

One of his guards began to laugh. "Yes, you are the great and terrible Bildug, the clown of the dark pyramid. Where are your dark minions. If Orqu means to save you, let him come. See, there is our prince and his intended bride. Let Orqu rain down fire and smite them so that he may prove his potency!"

Bildug might have hoped that Raderen, the one man of his group to escape, would overhear the guard and take action, but Raderen would not return. He had been returning from relieving himself when he saw the king's men coming from the scrub trees and closing in on the camp fire. Rather than risk capture by warning the others, he had dropped to the earth and crept away. While the others were fighting, he made his escape.

The woman in the hut had seen his face and could describe him. Kalil might offer evidence since she had somehow escaped from being sacrificed. His thoughts were confused but he continued going north. Perhaps he could evade the order for his arrest. Jama offered refuge to fugitives who could afford to pay the price. The money pouch with his reward for Kalil jingled at his waist.

His foot still hurt and he cursed the whim of Bildug to mark him as a member of the cult by cutting off his toe. It crippled him enough to make him stumble in the dark and he fell face forward and rolled. Before he could rise he heard men beating the bushes searching for him.

Raderen huddled closer to the ground and hid his face. The searcher passed him by and at length Raderen got up and stumbled on. Surely Orqu had given him a sign of favor. Bildug would be executed, and with him most of the higher ranking members of the cult. Orqu had let them all be taken, he alone had escaped. There would be a need for leadership with Bildug gone. Dark dreams of power filled Raderen's mind as he fled the scene.

Back in the camp Kalil and Nerik waited for the boat to come. She gave a weary sigh and wished that she could move her mouth and yawn, but the mask denied her even that small luxury.

"Did Zanuk hurt you?" Nerik asked.

"No, in fact he apologized for the knock on my head. I believe he still thinks that 'Jaril' favors him. He probably loved that chimera as much as he ever loved anyone except himself. Did you know that he fancied I had signaled him each morning from my balcony? Old Petilla, your sisters' governess, wakes and welcomes dawn while still in her nightdress every morning. From what he said to me, he is convinced that Jaril shared his feelings."

"How did you frighten him away if he loves you so much?"

"To relieve the heat of my confinement I took off my robe and my mask and removed the cap that covered my hair. Zanuk must have remembered me from the night he tried to assault me. I thrust Theodorn into his face and said I had transported Jaril back to the palace with my magic and I would destroy her if she ever proved untrue to you. I threatened his life if he stayed. He ran away so fast he didn't bother to lock me in again. I fixed the lock to open when I needed to escape."

"Why didn't you leave then instead of waiting until Bildug and his men came?" Nerik asked her.

"I thought it would be better to leave when night had come than to try and make my way with the risk of running into them. They valued me as bait to draw you into their trap. I decided I would be relatively safe until nightfall when I would take advantage of the damaged lock."

Nerik chuckled and gathered her close. He removed her cap and ran his fingers through the vibrant mass of curls that reached below her shoulders, then he traced the contours of her face. "I wish we were alone so you could remove the mask," he whispered. "Zanuk is welcome to love the chimera, but I love the woman who frightens and repels him. Truly you are a woman of many faces. Not just the mask and the sweet warm face that I like to feel under my fingers, but a stern and sturdy termagant who faces down danger and banishes traitors. What other faces will you show as time goes by?"

Kalil didn't know if he felt the tears that ran down her mask when he had traced the line of her profile and touched her face. They came unbidden and kept pouring from her eyes from an emotion so overwhelming that it could not be expressed in mere words. Certainly she felt gratitude and wonder for the blessing of being loved by such a man as this. She wanted all of the danger and threat to be over and neatly tucked away, but there were too many loose ends. Zanuk might someday realize that his fear of the 'sorceress' had been based in mere superstition. On that day he would have to know that the woman he had accosted in a matla shop had married his cousin. As for Raderen, where had he gone? Had he recognized her and decided to bide his time?

As long as she dwelled on troubles and mysteries, what of Farek? He had been injured and his shop burned. His army of urchins might be fearful and hiding after seeing the apparent destruction of their protector.

"Kalil, you must speak to me," Nerik urged. "You have gone silent and I can feel your tears. What is troubling you?"

It all spilled out, her fears of being recognized by Zanuk and Raderen, her worries for Farek and the urchins he had helped. Nerik listened patiently, not trying to offer false comfort or denying the seriousness of her concerns. Finally, when the last of her worries had been aired, he pulled her a little closer and chuckled.

"Thank you my dear," he said.

"Why are you thanking me for wetting your tunic with my tears and troubling you with all my fears?"

"You have no idea of what it is to be a blind man in a world of people who fancy you have no understanding of the world around you. My mother and father have tried not to cosset me too much, and I am grateful that they thought me worthy to become my father's heir, but do you realize that they have never really trusted me enough to ask my advice or trouble me with their concerns?"

"Farek believes in you," Kalil reminded him.

"Yes, he believed I could be taught and he challenged me, but even he has never done as you have done. I must rely on you to be my eyes, but if you won't tell me what you see or what you think about, even when it troubles you, how can I make decisions for my people?"

One of the guards on the river bank called out, "The boat is coming."

"Load the prisoners first," Nerik called. "We will ride on deck."

He helped Kalil confine her hair under the cap. In only a few moments she could face the curious stares of others.

The prisoners were confined in the small hold where Neril had been kept on the trip upriver. Bildug complained of the crowded conditions , but his threats and posturing held no force now that so many had seen him humiliated on the dark pyramid in the moment he had expected to give him power over the fickle mob.

Kalil sat near the bow of the ship with Nerik and soon the gentle motion of the ship overcame her last effort to stay awake and share the short voyage home. She fell asleep with her head on Nerik's shoulder. The night hid the curious emptiness of the eyes of her mask from others.

When they neared the city a cry went up and Nerik gently shook Kalil awake. She blinked and looked around. They had passed under the first of the five bridges that spanned the Com River. People lined the river bank on either side, shouting welcome to the prince and his bride.

"I guess the other boat brought news of our adventures," Nerik said. He turned his face from side to side and waved his hand. "Tonight the people love us. I wonder how long they will feel this loyalty. There will be an execution of these traitors as soon as they are tried, and then we will have a grand wedding with feasting for the crowd, but what other entertainments can we offer? I don't want to live a life filled with danger or pomp just to satisfy the fickle citizens of Zedekla."

"Most of them are worthy of respect," Kalil assured him. "They deserve good rulers who will protect their interests and leave them room to find success with honest enterprise. If we do that, we will not need to offer them constant sensation."

"You remind me that you have lived among them. Your friends will miss you when you marry me and live within the palace," Nerik said.

"Perhaps I should keep a presence in the city," she said. "My associates at the Matla shop accept my need to curtail the hours I spend with them. Farek knew that the royal family is insulated from the people and found a way to mingle with them. If I were like other brides of royalty, I could accept the formal strictures of palace life, but I am not like your mother who is forced to go abroad in the city under guard like a prisoner. I have two faces and even my friends, who know me well, did not recognize me when I went masked and gowned and riding in a palanquin."

"With Raderen still on the loose you could be in danger," Nerik said. "It would not be wise for you to go into the city until he is captured."

"Raderen will probably stay well away from Zedekla," Kalil countered. "When we were in the hut at the camp you thanked me for trusting you with my worries and concerns. Would you offer me less in return? You said I would be your eyes, but you would blind me to most of what I can see if I do not have the opportunity to mix with your other subjects in the disguise of my own face."

The sound of a zole horn warned that they were nearing the royal dock and Nerik could not give her an answer. He stood with her and they braced each other against the small lurch that followed when the boat docked and the gangplank extended.

Nerik welcomed Kalil's guiding arm when they walked together across the narrow bridging walkway and met his parents on the dock. "We have captured Bildug and most of his men. Unfortunately, two of them escaped. Zanuk is unquestionably in league with Bildug but he left before we surrounded and captured the gang." Nerik reported to his father.

"Ordinarily we would hold the prisoners until a trial could be arranged, but for Bildug I have decided to make an exception," Talek said. "As soon as the prisoners are escorted from the hold, they will be taken to the dead ground and tried. For those whose crime deserve the extreme punishment, execution will follow immediately. Bildug may have hidden allies among the palace guard."

Nerik nodded. "We are ready to give our testimony. Jaril is the one who knows most about their plot. Bring palanquins for us. It has been a long day, but we are eager to see the end of this conspiracy."

The dead ground stretched along the beach south of the river. Murky puddles marked the face of the whitened ground with graying crystals growing at their edges. Torches flared at the edges of the gallows yard and a covered platform for the judges had been erected recently. Normally judgment was made in the city and then the criminals were transported to the dead ground for punishment and burial, but the recent crop of traitors and oath breakers called for a more efficient system. It would be difficult for a miscreant to bribe a guard to let him or her escape under the very eyes of the court that sentenced them.

The people of the city assembled in the darkness surrounding the waste. When King Talek held up his hand they fell silent. They had already cheered the return of the prince and his bride until their throats were raw

The trial took little time. The defendants had no one willing to defend them. Bildug himself had already been declared guilty in absentia for other crimes. Most of the men were hung, but there were tales of men who had survived the gallows. For Bildug, nothing would suffice but certain death. Talek took the bronze execution sword from the hands of the waiting servant and walked toward Bildug who stood in the grip of two guards in the center of the execution circle. As the king approached, Bildug pulled his head round and shouted at the crowd. "Rise up and fell this unjust king! Would you be led by a blind man when I offered you a life of ease and wealth unfettered by the foolish superstitions that have bound your fathers. I have taken oaths from many of you. Stand forth and rescue me!"

No one answered his pleas. Failing rescue from those who had forsworn themselves, he fell to his knees and began to plead and bargain with the king for his life. Talek paid no heed to his vain words. He brought the sword down on the bowed neck of his enemy and turned away to return to his family. "I do not think this will be the end of the Orquian cancer, but for now, this particular tumor is excised."

His grim humor did not alleviate the impact of the act. The watching crowd gave a few ragged cheers, but midnight neared and no one wanted to linger on the gallows ground when the torches dimmed and darkened. Soon everyone had departed from the grisly place of execution. In the morning carrion birds would come.

Chapter 14 Renewal

The late night did not mean a late start the following morning. Nala woke Kalil by bouncing on her bed and asking questions about her adventures the day before. "We were sent to bed before you returned last night. This morning no one will tell me what happened."

"The villains are vanquished, and the kingdom is saved," Kalil muttered wearily. She tried to close her eyes again but Nala gave a little gulp of disappointment and stood up to leave.

"You are just like the others. Petilla is full of silly rumors. She actually told us that Jaril eloped with Zanuk yesterday. Mother stayed in the little council room with Father almost all day long. Even Nerik is too busy to talk to me."

Kalil opened her eyes and rose on one elbow. "Wait until I dress, then we'll go and find your mother. You must understand that we were all up very late and most of us had a long and trying day, but I think your questions deserve answers."

Nala retreated to the hallway while Kalil rose and dressed. The prayer stool in the corner beckoned her. The aftermath of yesterday's events might take as much strength to face as the events themselves. She knelt and calmed herself then prayed for wisdom and courage. A mutter of urgent voices came through her door as she ended her prayer.

She slipped the golden mask over her features and left her room. As she had expected, Petilla stood outside her room, scolding Nala for lagging. "I am taking Nala to her mother," Jaril said.

Petilla immediately relented. Her head went down in such a deep bow that Kalil felt repelled by her groveling attitude. Fortunately her mask concealed scorn as easily as it shuttered merriment.

Nala grasped her hand and they went in search of Serina. Two guards joined them when they left the women's quarters, such an ordinary precaution that Kalil hardly heeded their presence. Serina and Talek were probably in the sunny small dining room where they usually shared their breakfast.

The presence of a matched set of guards at the door affirmed her belief. When they saw Jaril approach with Nala one of them gave a patterned knock on the door of the room and before long it opened.

The events of the past few days had hollowed Talek's cheeks and left shadows under his eyes. He lifted Nala in his arms and hugged her. "I forget sometimes how nice it is to see you, little one. Come in and share our breakfast. Where are the twins?"

"Petilla has them practicing comportment already. She said you wouldn't want to see us this morning."

Talek addressed one of the guards. "Please go and fetch my other daughters and their governess and bring them to us immediately."

Serina invited Kalil and Nala to take seats at the table and served them a selection of matlas and round breads with assorted fillings. Kalil feel hungry at first but her appetite returned as she eating.

Fresh nuka juice and hot cala helped wash down the tiny bites the mask required.. Soon she cleaned her plate and took another serving. She felt ready to face any questions Nala might ask.

When Petilla and the twins were ushered into the room the governess launched into a reproach of Nala. "Believe me, your majesties, I had nothing to do with this child's inportunities. I knew you would not want to be bothered with the children this morning, but she escaped me while I set lessons for the other girls and disturbed the sleep of dear Jaril. The lady's kind heart forced her to bring the child to see you. I will take her away with me now and I can assure you that I will keep her from bothering you any further."

"Did I ever issue orders that my children should be kept from me?" Serina asked.

"I assumed that you would want what is proper," Petilla protested. "They are young and they should not be exposed to disturbing events such as what transpired last night."

"Petilla, you have served us well," Talek said. He meant his opening phrase to soften the blow of what would follow but Petilla took it as an affirmation of her actions.

"I will continue as I have begun," she assured the King. "Your daughters will be given the advantage of all my understanding of the ways of courtly behavior."

"My daughters need to spend more time with others who can broaden their understanding rather than limit their behavior." Talek said.

At first Petilla did not understand the import of his words, then her face fell and she knelt and clasped his legs. "Oh, I know that your faces are turned against me because of that dreadful maid, Kalil. I know that you are grateful to her for saving Nala, but she is rough and course. Her very face and voice betray what she is. Do not listen to her lies. Do not set me aside because I am growing old."

Her wails rose higher when he gently pried her hands loose from his knees. "Kalil has not spoken against you Petilla. You have done your best, but now it is enough. It is time for others to take on the task of training our daughters."

"I have longed to have a greater say in what is taught them," Serina said. " Your background in courtly life impressed me so much that I turned the raising of my older daughters over to you. The time is long since past when I should have assumed the care and teaching of Nala and the twins."

"What will I do? Where will I go?" Petilla whimpered.

"We have learned that Janana is expecting a child," Talek said. "As you know, she is burdened by the presence of Dosik's mother and could use a helping hand. She is fond of you and would welcome your help."

"I will go, but I should warn you about Kalil. You are nursing a viper in your bosom. I would never have told this to you with Jaril present if you had not driven me to do so. I saw the maid and your son, Prince Nerik consorting with each other."

"When did you see this happen?" Talek asked.

"I watched them meeting in the abandoned garden near the old tower. There is a view of the garden from my balcony. You should not tolerate her presence and the things she might teach your children."

"It is well you told us this. We will see that the problem is addressed," Serina assured her. "Meanwhile, you should pack your things and prepare to move to Janana's house. We will see you established there before the morning ends."

"I will go," Petilla said with a pathetic wail. When she shut the door behind her with a slam Talek chuckled ruefully.

"It is just as well she reported on how she could spy on Nerik and the woman he loves from her balcony. I will make sure that no other has the same opportunity."

"Petilla must have been nearly hanging by her heels to see the garden from anywhere in the palace," Serina observed.

"Mother, does this mean we don't need lessons in comportment anymore?" Nala asked hopefully.

"You have learned all the rules, it is time you learned to exercise them," Serina replied. "From now on you and the twins will spend your mornings with me. I will oversee your learning along with your tutor. Jaril will join us when she can, but she has other duties to perform which will only grow more urgent after she marries."

"Mother, I think it is time for you to stop calling us 'the twins,' I am Calila and that is Fayala. I know it is easy to confuse us, and we haven't made it easy for anyone to tell us apart. But we will help you. I will wear green or yellow."

"I will wear red or blue," Fayala volunteered. "We were not very nice to poor Petilla. She is old and easily confused."

Serina held out her arms and the two girls rushed to hug her. When the queen looked up at her husband from between the glossy heads of her daughters there were tears in her eyes.

"It is easy to lose touch with even the most intimate of our associates and family when we get caught up in the proprieties imposed by others," Talek said. "In an effort to provide a place for Petilla, we let her dominate our family life and set rules that weakened us."

Kalil walked to the window where she had a view of the courtyard below. She watched Petilla set forth with only a small pouch, not willing to stay where she felt unwelcome, and for a moment she wondered if they would see the proud old woman again.

A triple knock announced that Nerik waited outside the door. Talek sprang up to welcome his son. "We left orders with your valet to let you sleep."

Nerik lifted his head and seemed to scan the room. "Kalil? Or should I say, Jaril? There is a subtle difference in your scent when you wear the mask. My sisters are here too. Fayala is by the window and Calila is standing by mother. Nala! All of you are here."

Talek chuckled and cuffed his son's shoulder. "So you are able to tell the twins apart. I should have guessed your senses would detect what we overlooked."

"I confess I already knew that everyone is here," Nerik said. "I dreamed about Kalil. When I went up to the women's quarters to find her, I met Petilla who gave me a rather confusing lecture about my duties and what I owed Jaril since she no longer had a hope of being rescued from this misalliance by Zanuk."

"Did she tell you she had spied on our meetings in the garden," Kalil asked.

"So that's what she meant!" Nerik shook his head and grinned. "I understand from what she said that she is being banished to Janana's house. Is it a kindness to send her to my sister?"

"Janana is fond of her," Serina assured him. "Everything came to a head this morning, but Janana had already asked if I could spare Petilla to help her. After what we learned about the way the traitors used her, I happily released her from our service, but Janana's request answered my problem of what to do with her."

"It is almost easier to deal with an outright enemy like Bildug than someone who has claims on your obligation through family ties, such as Zanuk or Petilla," Talek said.

Another knock at the door surprised all of them. Talek leaped to his feet and hurried to the door. As soon as it opened, Farek limped into the room and turned to close the door.

"I had hoped to speak to Kalil and Nerik alone," he said. "Perhaps I should return when the family has gone about their business."

"I planned to take my daughters upstairs for their lessons soon," Serina said.

"I have a meeting with the council in an hour or so," Talek said. "But I think anything you need to share with my son and his bride should be shared with me as well.

Farek nodded and settled wearily into a chair. Serina stood and summoned her daughters to leave the room with her. Talek dropped the latch on the door when it closed.

"I think you are wise to stay Talek," Farek said. "There have been too many different schemes going on without your knowledge. I count myself responsible for one of them at least. I intended to act for the best, but when you welcomed Zanuk to your court and I saw the way the prince's tutors favored his cousin, I took matters into my own hands."

"Why didn't you come to me and tell me what I had overlooked?" Talek asked.

"Do you remember how you and your brother were raised?" Farek asked. "I saw Tomak, my own son, favor Inrek and promote him as the heir. I tried to counsel your father, but he had been raised with brothers who were all of sturdy character. He could not see that by favoring Inrek he encouraged the very tendencies that should have been schooled. Inrek acted impulsively but Tomak saw him as courageous and daring. Fortunately, right prevailed and you became the king. I feared that you favored Zanuk and I saw his flaws. I did not try to counsel you, but acted directly to foster Nerik's talents and encourage his self confidence."

"I never really favored Zanuk," Talek said. "I recognized his vanity and willfulness from the first days after he joined us. Perhaps others misjudged my motives for letting him continue in court. Serina has just acknowledged the folly of trusting Petilla to raise her daughters, it seems I also erred."

"Good men helped me train my sons," Farek said. "I had the Stone of Truth to test them. You have not had the advantage of such an instrument, but even with my advantages one of my sons took a crooked path."

Talek shook his head. "I have been remiss and you have done both Nerik and me a great favor by teaching him. The tutors I provided were seldom more than toadies who lacked the intelligence to see Nerik's worth and encourage his development. I kept so busy ruling my state, that I failed to govern my family."

"The girls have an excellent tutor," Kalil said.

"He came from Janaka with the recommendation of King Okagun. The men who chose Nerik's tutors encouraged me to dismiss him and appoint one of their candidates. I only kept him because I did not like to go against Okagun's recommendation," Talek admitted.

"I'm considering returning to Timora and taking my place again as a member of the council of high priests," Farek said. "The people of Zedekla believe that Magin died when his shop burned. Now that Nerik has Kalil to act as his eyes in the city, there is no longer a need for Magin."

Talek nodded, but Nerik shook his head. "I think you must return from the ashes as Magin and let the urchins you protected see that you could not be destroyed by treachery and arson. With Bildug dead, there will be a vacuum that will either be filled by another bully or by someone with a better aim."

"I am old and tired," Farek said. "There must be someone else to take my place."

"You need not continue once you have made your reappearance," Kalil said. "You can rely on allies who will take over your mission. I would like to nominate Balga, the steward of Bera Clan Hostel."

"He is a good man," Magin agreed. "But he has other responsibilities."

"He could do the same things you have done with the urchins, but surely you know of others you could trust," Kalil said.

"You would be one I would choose if you were not so busy learning to be a queen," Farek admitted.

"I will not be able to take over your role, but I could recommend any of the women who work in my matla shop," Kalil said. "Perhaps a man would be the best choice for such a post. Young boys with no family often respond better to the guidance of a father figure. If Balga can't do what you need, what about the men you use to collect the money for the bank you have been running?"

"They are merely some of my urchins who have grown to manhood in the years that I lived as Magin," Farek said.

"Even after you disappeared they continued with your business. Either they are cheating those of us who trusted you, or they are behaving in a manner that makes them worthy of becoming your replacements. You must learn if they kept your trust."

Farek nodded. "In either case it seems I must return as Magin for a while. What do you think Talek?"

"As your grandson, I would urge you to stay in bed until you recover fully from your wounds. As the king, I think you should appear in Zedekla at least for a few days until you find someone to replace you."

"How and when he should appear is another thing we need to consider," Nerik said. "There is a drain connecting the dark pyramid and the goldsmiths' square. We can reach it from the dungeons. If Magin shows up eating his breakfast in the matla shop, just as if the fire and his reported death had never happened, I think it would have an interesting effect on those who benefit from his absence."

"It could be dangerous for you grandfather," Talek said.

"I like the idea," Farek said. "I would eat a hearty breakfast of nut and honey matlas at Kalil's shop, then take a gentle amble through the city in the morning and make a visit with the steward of Bera Clan, all discreetly observed from a distance by a few of your loyal palace guards. I should be up to doing it tomorrow morning. The longer I wait, the more damage my absence will have done."

"And what of you, Kalil?" Nerik asked.

"If you are willing, I would like to accompany 'Magin' in the morning. If I intend to maintain a presence in the city, I could benefit from sharing his prestige. In any event, it means one of us will be by his side to help him if he needs it, and after all, I am the one who cared for his injuries. I know better than any other what he might need if he grows weak."

Neither Nerik nor Talek could come up with a convincing argument against her idea. "Serina will never forgive me if anything happens to either of you," the king said.

Kalil stood and helped Farek to his feet. Now that her own course had been set she turned to chide Farek. "If you are going to gad about Zedekla tomorrow morning, I want you to stay in your room and be quiet for the rest of the day. I have some herbs that you must take and your poultices should be changed. If there is any sign of infection I will have to ask you to delay your reappearance until I'm satisfied that you are well."

Talek opened the door and let them exit together, the straight young woman bracing the bent old man. When they turned a corner and were no longer in sight, Talek turned back to Nerik. "You found quite a woman when you went hunting my son. The conspirators who hoped to lose you would be most astonished to know what their treachery accomplished."

After she had settled Farek and satisfied herself that his wounds were on the mend, Kalil returned to the women's quarters where Serina helped her daughters learn to dance. They spent an hour or so in pleasant revels and Kalil answered Nala's questions about the previous day's adventures.

Kalil had learned to dance in her childhood, and many of the steps she knew were similar to Serina's instructions. There were differences that both instructed and amused the young princesses. True to their earlier promise, Fayala wore a blue sash and Calila a green ribbon in her hair. Now that they were not deliberately attempting to confuse, it proved quite simple for their mother to tell the two of them apart. Fayala giggled with her hand up to her mouth while Calila laughed outright, then blushed as if in error. Their long years of training under Petilla had not quite eradicated their youthful enthusiasm and the presence of Kalil, even in the mask of 'Jaril', and the attention of their mother, quickly melted their reserve.

At midday the family dined together. Janana and Dosik joined them. "Thank you so much for letting Petilla come to me," Janana said. "I am pleased that she seems to get along well with Dariya."

Talek looked up and met Serina's eyes. Had it been wise to provide Dariya with a possible ally? Serina shook her head with such a slight gesture that only her husband realized she meant to reassure him. After all, what harm could the two women do under the close guard that Dosik promised?

Serina and Kalil spent the afternoon planning for the coming wedding; the tunics and dresses, the flowers and food for special guests and the feast that would be set out for all Zedekla. Serina had learned that she could count on Kalil for sound advice and night fell before they set aside the lists and proposals from various merchants and prospective sponsors of contests and events that would be supplementary to the royal provisions.

"I envy you getting out tomorrow," Serina sighed when they were on their way toward the family quarters. "I sometimes yearn for a day spent as an ordinary woman with no need to act the queen."

The evening passed quietly. Most of the courtiers stayed home. Those who had flirted with the idea of Zanuk's ascension to the throne were fearful of being judged for indiscretions and those who had always supported the prince recognized the strain the king had suffered.

Keela sidled up to Jaril as she stood quietly listening to the chatter of the few courtiers who had come to court that evening. "I am surprised to see you here. I had been told that you favored Zanuk and had eloped with him. Now Zanuk is nowhere to be found and you are hailed as a heroine. I wish you would count me as your friend and tell me what happened."

The mask again proved its worth, hiding the impatience and disgust Jaril felt for this silly woman who delighted in spreading evil gossip. She simply stared at Keela without speaking until the young woman shrugged and moved away.

Kalil walked away from the palace the next morning in her guise as matla maker. She had visited Farek and approved him for his planned appearance as Magin. While she left the palace through the northern garden gate, Nerik led his great grandfather through the maze of passageways and drains that would bring him to the goldsmiths' square in secret.

Kalil lifted her face and blessed the feeling of the wind on her skin. She felt a jolt near her hip and looked down to see a grimy boy snatching at her belt pouch. She grabbed his hand. "What would Magin say if he knew you'd turned to thievery?"

"Magin's dead and Talot pays us to bring him whatever we can take," the boy whined.

"Magin's not dead and Talot is a traitor. Did you know that he led Magin into ambush by Bildug?"

"Magin may still be alive but he is weak." the boy scowled.

"I will tell Magin what you think of him when I see him," Kalil replied. "Now go and tell the others that Talot is a traitor."

She arrived at the matla shop before the shop opened. She knocked at the door in pattern that warned the old women in the quarters above the shop before she unlocked the door to enter. After opening the shutters she lit fires in the wood set under the griddles. A pan of dough sat on the counter ready to be rolled and pressed.

A cry of delight came from the stairwell and Kalil turned to greet her friends. "We had not looked to see you again so soon," Delida said.

"I expect a guest to visit us this morning and I want everything ready when he comes."

"Could it be the man you are to marry?" Farnil suggested with a wink.

"No, it is Magin."

Veranina shook her head. "Have you not heard? Magin is dead, his shop burned and robbed. The urchins have begun to run wild again. A youth named Talot has appointed himself as their leader. One of them came to the shop yesterday afternoon and demanded that we pay them a tenth of all we gain in order to keep them from burning us out as well."

"Are none of the urchins still keeping to what Magin taught them?" Kalil asked.

"Most of the children Magin helped are in hiding from the bullies. The older boys the banker hired as his runners try to keep order, but their efforts are doomed. Even with the death of Bildug, it seems that evil is triumphant in the alleys of Zedekla." Pelad said.

A knock at the rear door of the shop warned Kalil that Farek had arrived and ready to perform his role as Magin. She hurried to open the door and ushered the old man into the shop. He wore an even more gorgeous version of his motley robes, no doubt with the help of Serina and the leavings of the

robe makers. The bright bird perched as jaunty as ever on his cap.

"Magin!" Veranina cried when she recognized him. The other women crowded close around, each exclaiming gladly at his appearance among them. "I have come here for the matlas, not to be fawned over by the matla makers," he protested.

When the first customers entered and realized that Magin had already been favored with the best seat and the first matlas, they were astonished and pleased. Baslak, the gossip, could hardly wait to finish his breakfast before rushing out of the matla shop to spread the news.

As Magin had hoped and predicted, those who he had benefited greeted his sudden appearance with joy. Those who had conspired against him knew fear. Soon the urchins who had been hiding from Talot and his gang surrounded him. They escorted him through the streets with Kalil by his side. When they came to Bera Clan Hostel, they waited outside while he talked to Balga.

Balga greeted the old man with joy. "When I heard that you had died when your shop burned I feared that the peace that should prevail when the prince is married would be marred. The royal family can put their guards on every corner, but if there are thieves and burglars lurking in the alleys, there is chaos."

"I have come to ask a favor of you Balga," Magin said. "Someone lured me into ambush and I might have died. Fortunately Kalil found me and helped me back to health, but I am growing too old to continue this game. I have watched you and approve of you. Would you consider becoming my associate and taking over for me when I leave for Timora to live out my life in prayer and peace?"

"I'm not a young man myself," Balga said. "Perhaps you should choose a successor who would last longer in the role."

"Kalil recommended you, and I trust her judgment. If it were not for the high rank of the man she is planning to marry, I would train her to take my place."

Balga stood and paced. Finally he turned and faced Magin and Kalil. "If you think I can do it, I will try."

"I have purchased a new shop," Magin said. "You may choose to continue here and combine your responsibilities as steward with your duties as my associate, but in time you will probably need to find a replacement for your post and move into my shop when I leave for Timora. Come with me and I will show you the new shop."

The three of them set forth again, this time surrounded with an even greater gathering.

Magin led them to a building not far from Kalil's matla shop. The first floor had been stocked with an assortment of goods. The upstairs quarters were well furnished with a comfortable bed, a bench chest and several other amenities that were more than adequate for a bachelor.

While Magin and Balga discussed their arrangement, Kalil excused herself and returned to the matla shop. Noon came and the patronage picked up. The near miraculous return of Magin prevailed as the main topic of discussion and conjecture. The results of his return were already noticeable in the demeanor of the less fortunate citizens of the city. Their protector had returned. They would not go hungry or fall prey to bullies.

Kalil considered the good that Farek had wrought with his presence in the city. He might feel too old and frail to continue. He longed to do the holy work of prayer and study in Timora, but could he have found a better way to serve the Radiance? She glanced around her at the women he had brought to her shop, women who might have grown discouraged and fallen into hunger and illness without the opportunity he had proved for them with her help.

The return of Magin seemed a miracle to the traitor who had betrayed him to Bildug. Talot had greeted the first rumors of Magin's return with skepticism, but after viewing the familiar figure striding along the main street with Kalil and Balga on either side and surrounded with a virtual army of joyful urchins, Talot scurried back to his hideout and gathered all he had in a small bundle. Soon the very boys who had turned to him as their leader would come in search of him. The same lack of loyalty that turned them away from Magin, would turn them against him. At the crossroads he tossed a yida and chose the road to Jama.

Chapter 15 Marriage

Visitors seldom came to Rubble Ford, especially since the Mareklans had taken to crossing the Opeta upriver at Talka. When two palanquins and four runners appeared at the opposite side of the river in the middle of the morning, the ford hounds began to bark and the entire village except for the veiled women, assembled to watch Drumon bargain for crossing rights, his favorite duty as village chief.

He seemed a little disappointed when the visitors accepted his first toll demand. One of the palanquin bearers stayed with their conveyances on the opposite bank while the others followed Drumon and the runners across the ford, another surprise for the villagers who had expected them to merely pass on through.

"We are seeking the family of Vagan and his wife Tama of Bera Clan," the lead runner announced when they had crossed the ford.

"I am Vagan, and this is my wife," Kalil's father stated, pushing ahead of Drumon to face the visitors.

"I represent Magin, a Zedeklan banker. I bring you a message from your daughter. We must confer in private."

"I knew Kalil would get in trouble," Drumon said to the villagers. "Doubtless it is serious and these men have come to arrest Vagan for her crimes."

"Rubble Ford is not in the domain of Talek, the King of Zedekla," Vagan said to reassure his wife. "I doubt they would come so far without a purpose." He turned back to the seven men and gestured toward the gate nearby.

"Please come with me, this is our home."

"I protest," Drumon said, blocking the progress of the visitors. "I am chief and I have a right to hear what they have to say to you."

Vagan usually avoided confrontation, but he remembered how Drumon had forced him to offer Kalil the choice she could not make and the sad events that followed.

"You are the one who sponsored Raderen as a husband for Kalil," Vagan said with quiet intensity that rose in volume as he continued and raised his hand. "Your own son died because of your double dealing. I have authority of my own that I have never cared to exercise against you until now Drumon. By the Radiance, stand aside."

Whether in shock that Vagan had turned on him, or in genuine respect for Vagan's authority, Drumon scuttled out of the way and the party from Zedekla followed Vagan and Tama into their home.

The visitors were offered seats on the benches surrounding the hearth. When Tama had poured steaming cala and provided a plate of warm matlas, their leader finally spoke about his errand.

"Your daughter is marrying someone high in the court of Zedekla within the next week and we were hired to convey you to the city by the banker, Magin."

"Do you know Kalil?" Tama asked.

"Oh, yes. She is well known to any who savor a well made matla. I can see where she learned her skill," the envoy said.

"What do you know about the man Kalil will marry?" Vagan asked.

"You can probably understand that the difference between a matla maker, even one who owns her own shop, and someone from the courtier class is wide," the envoy began.

"Kalil owns her own shop!" Tama exclaimed with delight. "It has only been a few months since she left Rubble Ford."

"She is wise beyond her years as well as lovely," one of the other runners said. Tama looked surprised by his comment. After all, her daughter had worn a veil for seven years. She turned to Vagan who raised his shoulders in bewilderment.

"Kalil's husband comes from a lofty social position. It would seem scandalous to some if he married a matla maker, so the wedding will be conducted in private with only a few chosen guests coming from the family and close friends of the bride. Since Kalil could hardly include her friends, who are merely apprentices and matla makers like herself, she decided that her family should be there."

"We will go!" Tama quickly said. "Are our daughters invited as well?"

"We brought only two palanquins and our time is limited," the envoy said. "Kalil suggested that your younger daughters might be able to stay with one of their married sister while you are away."

"I'm unsure about the wisdom of leaving them here alone," Vagan said.

"I'm certain it won't be a problem," Tama quickly assured him. "I doubt that Fedil would be willing to leave Doteren, and Benil has no ambition to leave the village. We can bring gifts for them from Zedekla."

The envoy saw that Kalil's mother would bear no objections to seeing her daughter's marriage. He addressed himself to her. "We must leave Rubble Ford before nightfall. We have set up a camp on the road a few hours from here and it would be best if we passed the night there."

"I will have no time to make preparations," Vagan objected.

"Make use of Doteren," Tama said. "The boy is always underfoot and asking to help you. I'm certain he thinks to gain a share of our steading from marrying Fedil. Give him a chance to prove himself. I'll call him in."

Before Vagan could stop her, she went out of the house and opened the gate. "Doteren, stop gaping and come in here!" she called.

The young man promptly appeared at the gate and ducked into the house. He looked around at the guests with an alert expression that convinced Vagan that Doteren would do whatever he asked.

"We will be going to Zedekla for a week or so," Vagan said, glancing up at the envoy and receiving a nod. "I need someone to look after my flocks and the ford hounds while I am gone. I hold you to the oath you swore before me when I accepted your betrothal to Fedil. When we return to Rubble Ford, you will give me a report of your stewardship."

Doteren raised his hand to repeat his oath. When he finished, Vagan nodded. "Go out now and tell Fedil and Benil to come in to us."

The envoy looked around and raised an eyebrow if more people came into the room, it would be very crowded. "Perhaps we should leave now and wait on the other side of the river while you talk to your daughters and prepare to join us."

Just as he spoke, Benil hurried into the room and stopped short. "I heard that strangers had come to Rubble Ford while we were gathering herbs, but I doubted they all would be here in our own house." Benil flashed a dimpled smile that she shared equally with all the men.

"Behave yourself Benil," her mother chided gently with a fond smile for her youngest daughter. "They were just leaving to wait for your father and me on the far side of the river. Kalil is getting married to a wealthy man in Zedekla and we are going to attend her wedding. We will leave within the hour."

"But I have nothing to wear for such an occasion. It will take days to prepare suitable clothing!" the girl cried.

"Only your father and I are invited. You and Fedil will stay in Rubble Ford with your older sisters."

Benil pouted, but the Zedeklans were preparing to leave the house with her father and she recognized the tone of voice her mother used. There would be no changing her mind. "I am surprised that Kalil is getting married. I thought she fled Rubble Ford to avoid that fate."

"She fled from the choice of grooms, and events proved her right in refusing Raderen," Tama said. "You should be happy that she found a husband to please her."

"I am surprised that she found a man she could please," Benil sulked. "She had reason to veil her face."

"Kalil is lovely!" one of the visitors protested. "The man she is marrying is considered to be very fortunate."

"I'm afraid that she discarded her veil," Tama said. "We should be happy she found a good man before the dogs of the demon found her."

"I'm old enough to know that the tales of the demon's dogs were only for scaring little girls and making them stay close to home," Benil scoffed.

"The cult of Orqu is all too real," Tama reproved her. "Fortunately, they don't seem to favor those who look like Saadenans such as you and your sisters except for Kalil. Did you really think that she wore the veil because she is ugly?"

"But the other children say- - ," Benil started to protest.

"I thought you were past thinking childish thoughts, my dear. It seems you discarded as fable that which is true and kept the false and malicious. Kalil is marrying into wealth and in time she may invite her sisters to visit her in the city. I hope you will merit her hospitality by then." Tama turned to bid the visitors farewell and promised that she would hurry with her preparations to join them.

After the men had left the house, tears sparkled in Benil's eyes and Tama relented. "Come, I want you to help me choose the dresses I should wear. I am certain to require more when we get to Zedekla. We set a dowry aside for Kalil, but I think it would be better used for new clothing when we arrive in the city."

"You won't need new clothing," Benil protested. "You always look nice."

"I look well enough for Rubble Ford, but there is a great difference between what looks nice for a country matron, and the clothing Kalil's in- laws will wear. I will bring you city gowns when we return and you will see what I mean."

Enticed by the thought of new clothing, Benil eagerly began to help her mother pack a few of her dresses and some provisions for the trip.

Fedil arrived when they had nearly finished packing. Doteren must have told her the essentials of what had happened because there were no more complaints or questions. The family gathered together and the sisters asked their parents to tell Kalil that they sent their love and best wishes for her coming marriage. Fedil glanced at Benil and they hurried into the room they once shared with their sister. When they returned they each carried a small but significant token that they hoped would not be despised by a woman who lived among the wealth and variety of Zedekla.

Benil had a talent for sewing and she had just finished a belt pouch of soft white suede, embroidered with tiny flowers. Fedil brought a little box she had carved that she had intended to give to Doteren.

When Tama and Vagan walked from their gate with packs on their backs, Drumon waited to waylay them while the rest of the village gathered to watch the confrontation. "I refuse you permission to leave Rubble Ford," Drumon said. "If anyone leaves the village and goes to Zedekla, it will be me."

"Do you really want to force the issue?" Vagan challenged.

"I don't understand what you mean," Drumon said. "I am chief of this clan and high priest of the god- hero Theodorn. You have no authority but the claim of being a priest of an old discredited cult."

At first Vagan hesitated. Why had this confrontation come just as he must leave the village. He had always been a humble man, unwilling to confront others even when they were wrong, but he could no longer tolerate this blasphemy.

He seemed to grow taller as he straightened his back and turned to address the villagers who had gathered near the ford. Even the veiled women were present, lurking on the edges of the crowd in the shadows of the eaves.

"Drumon has repudiated the Radiance. He let Raderen take the maidens of this village to be sacrificed to the demon. I have learned that all of Raderen's wives were killed on the altars of Orqu. Did you know that intended the same fate for my daughter Kalil?"

There were mutters and murmurs of shock. Doteren stepped forward and stood by Vagan's side. "Raderen murdered Drumon's son then escaped from justice. Why did the chief leave him in the charge of a sleeping guard in a decaying cell?"

"Choose now whether you will follow Drumon and the likes of Raderen, or return to the god of your fathers and honor the Radiance. If you choose Drumon, I and all my family will leave today and never return to Rubble Ford," Vagan said.

"I stand with Vagan for the Radiance!" Doteren shouted. Senna summoned the veiled women and they walked to stand behind Doteren. One by one the other women of the village moved forward and stood by Vagan with their children. Their husbands followed.

At last only five men and one woman stood beside Drumon. The woman was Drumon's old mother. The men were all old except Drumon's son- in- law.

"The people have chosen against you Drumon," Vagan said. "You may leave Rubble Ford or stay, but you are no longer chief. You have no son to inherit your chiefdom."

Drumon uttered a roar of anger and charged at Vagan, but he tripped and sprawled at Senna's feet. The old woman turned to Vagan. "We must have a chief."

"You are the oldest of anyone in the village. You must serve as leader until I return, then the village will choose a chief. I must leave now and go to Zedekla with Tama. Our escort is waiting. Kalil, whom most of you scorned, is marrying a member of Zedekla's royal court."

This came as a shocking surprise to most of the waiting people but Senna slowly nodded. Drumon and his pathetic band of aging followers did not even have the dignity of retaining the villagers' notice as they turned to one another and began to gossip and speculate about the fate of Raderen's wives and the coming marriage of Kalil.

"Do you think my parents will come?" Kalil asked Serina on the eve of her wedding. "It took me less time to reach Zedekla. I guided Nerik and we were delayed by a storm.

Serina smiled and clasped Kalil's hands between her own. "The journey takes a few days more when you go by the usual roads. Farek assured us that he chose a persuasive man to act as his envoy and the runners and palanquin bearers will ensure that they arrive fresh and ready to celebrate with you."

"They believe I am marrying someone of wealth and rank, but what will they think when they realize I might someday be queen?" Kalil said. "If anyone knows my worth, it is my parents. They won't be fooled by a mask."

"That is what I'm counting on," Serina said with a smile. "Now go to your room and sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day. You will be married at noon. After the ceremony there will be feasting and then you and Nerik must don your disguises and make your way to the nuptial house."

Kalil turned from the window that gave her a view of the city and the road to the east. Once Serina her alone she prayed and climbed into her bed. Tomorrow she would no longer have this room in the women's quarters. Her new clothing, her few familiar belongings from Rubble Ford, all would be packed and carried away to the quarters she would share with Nerik once they had completed their nuptial seclusion.

The guest rooms of the palace were full. Just one suite remained unoccupied. What would Vagan and Tama think when they were shown to the palace, if they even deigned to come. Serina seemed certain that they would not miss such an event, but the queen's foster mother and father had arrived two days earlier with her brothers and their families.

A zole horn sounded curfew and the noises of the city dwindled as the night drew down. In spite of her worries, Kalil slept. Anxiety about her parents colored her dreams and she had disturbing nightmares that featured Drumon and Raderen. She woke near midnight and slipped from her bed to stare out over the moonlit city. The white Shrine where she would be wed at noon seemed to shimmer under the stars and even the dark pyramid seemed somehow diminished to nothing but a hollow shell of old wickedness, mocked and vanquished by her beloved.

Reassured, she returned to her bed and thought of Nerik and his courage and resourcefulness. She went to sleep with a smile and the dreams that followed were sweet and full of promise.

She woke to sunlight on her eyelids from the east facing window and the sound of someone knocking at her door. She recognized the patterned knock as Serina's and she slipped a robe over her nightgown and opened the door.

"Your mother is here. They camped just east of the city last night and rose at dawn. She would like to come up and see you."

"And my father?" Kalil asked.

"He is below with the king and Nerik. Do you want to wait and see both of your parents together?'

"No, I will see father later. Please send mother up as soon as you can."

"Do you think you should put on your mask?" Serina asked.

Kalil hesitated, then she shook her head. "She should know what I look like without the veil ."

She paced the room while she waited for her mother. Finally Serina's knock came and Tama entered. At first there were no real words exchanged, just glad cries and embraces. Finally Tama put Kalil from her and gazed at her. "We were told you were marrying high in the city. When our palanquins delivered us to the shop of a banker named Magin, we were impressed with the residence and proud that you had done so well, but as soon as the bearers and runners were dismissed, we were given cloaks and hoods and brought to the palace, only to find that it is not a courtier you are marrying, but the prince himself. Why is there such a need for secrecy?"

"You must know I could not marry so high unless I used a subterfuge," Kalil explained. "I rescued Nerik from an evil design of his enemies and he decided he loved me."

"Yes, I heard the story while you still slept. Surely his family is grateful to you. I have met the queen's foster parents at breakfast. They are fine people, but they are no more grand than your father and I."

"I knew that Nerik needed a bride who would not shame him. I resisted marrying him at first, but then his mother gave me a gift that removed all my reservations. Come, I will show you."

Kalil turned her back to her mother and took the mask from its box. With a practiced movement she smoothed it over her face in little more than an instant, then turned.

"Do you see? With this mask I am beautiful enough to marry a prince!" Kalil said in the stiff little voice the mask imposed.

"I see that you are wearing a veil that covers your own lovely features," Tama murmured.

"You see me with a mother's fond eyes and to you I am beautiful, but in this mask I am Jaril, the bride of a prince. I have gathered enough evidence of the difference between Kalil and Jaril to know that I dare not dismiss the illusion."

"Only a fool would fail to realize that you are the same, mask or not," Tama said.

"The worst danger to Nerik comes from just such fools," Kalil assured her mother. "I am able to walk abroad in the city as Kalil and no one questions that I am a different person from the princess Jaril."

"What does Nerik think of the mask?"

"He doesn't like it, but that is because he is blind and sees past appearances to the heart of things. I have promised him that I will not wear it when we are alone."

"Then I already love and admire him. I only met him for a moment, but I can understand why you are willing to make such a sacrifice to marry him. It must be worse than wearing a veil to have that thing on your face."

Kalil had come to accept the discomfort and inconvenience of wearing the mask, but how could her mother equate it to the dreaded veil that Senna had forced her to wear since her childhood? The mask made her appear to be beautiful. The veil had marked her as ugly.

"I brought you some gifts from your sisters. They send you their love and good wishes," Tama said. She unrolled the small packages and Kalil exclaimed over their thoughtfulness. She decided to use the elegant little belt pouch from Benil as part of her bridal costume and she set it apart for the purpose.

In a few minutes more the hair dressers and robing maids made their appearance and Kalil said farewell to her mother. She would have to wait until after her wedding to see her father. What would shy, retiring Vagan make of his new relatives? There had been very little time to talk to her mother and she had not wanted to mention Drumon or Senna, but she wanted to know what they thought of her marriage.

After the hair dresser brushed and braided her hair and piled it in an elaborate structure other servants encased her in layers of fine white zylka cloth with flashing gems set in gold at her throat and arms and ears, She once again became Jaril, the distant, dignified princess, worthy to become a queen. Somehow it did not seem nearly so important that she be regal and cool as it once had, but her feet were set in the path of her deception. What would such as Petilla and Keela and even her friend Mira think if she discarded the mask and laughed with the joy of marrying Nerik.

Doubtless they would share the same emotions that had made Zanuk scream with fright and flee from her. Her mother loved her, whatever her face might be, and Nerik could hardly appreciate the difference. But the rest of the world would judge her harshly if she ever forgot the mask. The robing women lifted the veiled headdress and placed it over her face and she waited for the coming ceremony.

Kings and councilors, ambassadors and envoys were in the first ranks of the crowds that filled the square in front of the Shrine. The wedding of a Zedeklan crown prince had unusual import and the previous intrigue and excitement had added to the fame of the romance between Nerik and Jaril.

Some speculated that Sergon might perform the marriage, but his great age discouraged the rumors. Surely the ancient seer would keep close to his home in Timora, in spite of the stories of his appearances in unexpected places with unaccountable speed.

Serina led Jaril through the passage between the palace and the shrine. Serina remembered her own wedding and smiled at the way her fate had been designed. Would her son and his bride both experience the joy of the ceremony, or had Jaril become so inhibited by her fears of public opinion to truly rejoice. She could not know what went on behind the mask, but it would be a mistake to think that a young woman as full of vivid life as Kalil would be swallowed up in the chimera of a mere appliance.

The queen returned to her place on the pavilion erected over the gate of the palace leaving Jaril to enter the inner room where two people waited in silence. An old man in priestly robes stood at the end of the altar. An equally old woman stood beside him as witness. Were they Tomak and his wife Caril as she expected? A whisper of fabric alerted her that someone had entered the room from the other side. Farek led Nerik and the contrast between her friend and the priest at the altar told Jaril that they could not be father and son. Her heart beat faster at the thought that the Seers of Okishdu had honored Nerik by coming to his wedding.

As soon as Kalil realized that Sergon himself would preside at their wedding, she grasped Nerik's hands across the altar and listened carefully to every word the seer said. When the vows were made and the ceremony concluded with her name change to Jarila, Sergon paused for a moment, then continued.

"Today I have witnessed the beginning of the fulfillment of Neril's prophecy. Your seed will bring to pass the end of the Children of Marek and the beginning of the joining."

Kemila, the Seeress finished with a few words of her own. "Your child will wander and learn and be welcome in the hidden places. Through him, the sons of Irilik will find a home."

Kalil knew the stories of the first prophet, Irilik, and those saints and heroes who had followed in the centuries since he lived. The words of the seers seemed ominous yet promising, but mostly she realized that they promised her a son.

Nerik's face seemed to glow even in the subdued lighting of the room. He took her hand and raised her from her knees. "Come, my beloved, it is time to greet our people."

The doors of the wedding room were opened and they walked out onto the balcony. Kalil lifted the veil and revealed her masked face. A moment of silence passed when the people recognized the wraithlike couple who stood just behind their prince and his lovely bride. Then a wave of cheers and shouts erupted and traveled like thunder back and forth between the buildings surrounding the square.

Those who had doubted that Sergon had the strength to travel to Zedekla were among the loudest as they cheered. Those who had feared that a blind man would make a poor king were reassured by the apparent benediction of this holy couple who had witnessed so much.

Vagan couldn't say anything, let alone join the general jubilation. He knew that the woman standing by the side of Nerik must be his daughter. How had he ever thought that the veil she had worn for years hid an imperfect face? His wife and his other daughters were lovely, but this woman had an almost eerie perfection.

After the crowds dispersed to several different squares to eat and drink a feast provided by their king, the families of the bride and groom gathered together, Vagan kept glancing toward his daughter, wary of the cool reserved face of Jarila. Whenever she looked toward him he wanted her to give him just one small smile to show that she had forgiven him for asking her to make an impossible choice. Every time their eyes met, he saw only the same faint smile that remained too remote to reassure him.

Even when she came to him and grasped his hands, the expression on her face seemed to mock the words of love and welcome that she spoke. He knew he deserved her disdain. For years he had let Drumon prevail. Would he return to Rubble Ford and find the old order restored and the people once again cowering before the threats of a few bullies? If so, he would take up his courage again to rebuke them. His heart ached with the admission that he had lost this precious daughter who had once laughed and shared with him. Now she seemed a lovely and remote cipher. He did not see that Jarila turned the same still face to others.

At last the feast ended and the time came for the bridal couple to escape to their nuptial house. There would be no fear of Orquians or other mischief. Farek himself had chosen the place that Nerik and Kalil would share for the required period of isolation. Kalil let others remove the elaborate robes and filmy under dress, the jewels and headdress. Then, alone, she removed the mask and dressed in one of her sturdy, plain dresses. Nerik joined her and they followed Farek through a basement room of the palace. Instead of leading them through the streets, he led them through the same passage that they had used to humiliate Bildug.

The passage had been extended past the alley that led up near the back of the matla shop. Farek led them up a flight of new laid stairs and opened a door. Kalil looked around at the rooms lit by the mellow light of late afternoon through lowered shutters. She recognized this place. Farek had brought them inside a handsome house that faced the matla shop across the square of the goldsmiths. He led them upstairs and showed them the rooms furnished for their comfort.

"You will be as isolated as if Perwen had truly found a place for you out in the country," Farek assured them. "No one will guess that the prince and his bride are staying here in the heart of the city."

"I'm sure we are well supplied," Kalil said wistfully while looking through the shutters and watching the festivity in the square below. She could see her friends and customers all celebrating with songs and dances. How long into the night would the feasting go on?

"I did not bother much with food," Farek chuckled. "There is a matla shop across the way, and one of the proprietors is a friend of mine. I'm sure she will provide both of you with more than enough until your nuptial week is over."

Kalil grinned. "How long have you been planning this, old rascal?"

"I purchased this house some time ago with the thought that someday my protege from Rubble Ford might want to expand into better quarters. It has been vacant for a month or more. What do you think? Can I convince her to make the move?"

"I notice that you have had the passages below extended to give us private access to the palace. Just how much of a warren of passageways runs under this city?"

"Not nearly as much as you might think from your recent experience," Farek admitted. "As Magin I needed a way to get from the palace to my shop. This passageway between the goldsmiths' square past the pyramid and the palace is based on an ancient drain. Do not try to use it after a sudden downpour or you could be trapped."

"Thank you Magin, my friend, and Farek, dear ancestor," Nerik said. "Now go and leave us alone to enjoy our solitude."

Farek nodded and let himself out of the house. Kalil could not help but notice that he tried to conceal a limp. He locked the panel that hid the stairwell and they heard his footsteps fading down the passageway. He had been a valiant friend to both of them, but how much longer could he go on?

Nerik seemed to sense her dejection. "Farek once told me that he misses his wife Ranila. He knows that someday he will be with her, but not until his duties here are all fulfilled. Perhaps the time is near when he will have his greatest desire. If it comes, remember, it is what he wants."

"But it will break my heart to see him go."

"Yes, even now I sense that he is weakening and I am torn. I want to pray for him to stay and recover from all his wounds. Instead, I pray for him to be blessed as the Radiance sees fit."

The house had an old fashioned bathing room without the modern valves that most newer houses boasted. Running water kept the pool refreshed and a cauldron provided a supply of hot water to ameliorate the cold.

Every reasonable comfort had been provided and several days passed before Kalil ventured forth. Finally, even Nerik admitted that the scent of fresh made matlas from the shop across the way became too tempting and he dispatched Kalil to bring a new supply.

She used the passageway and hurried to the exit in the alleyway behind the shop. A narrow aperture gave her a view of the alley. An apprentice and his master were having words and several minutes passed before they moved into their own shop to finish the discussion. Kalil hurried up the narrow stairs and dropped the rounded stone back into place.

She entered the shop late in the morning, after the early rush and before midday began. "Look who is here!" Mira cried out. "I never know when she will come around."

At first Kalil thought her friend addressed the other women, then she recognized the familiar faces of the couple sitting on one of the benches near the griddle in the middle of the shop.

"Mother, Father!" she cried. "Have you come here often?"

"No," Tama said. "I had a thought that we might find you here today."

"Kalil?" Vagan asked uncertainly.

"Yes, Father, this is really me," Kalil settled between them and turned to her mother. "Didn't you tell him?"

"She said something about a mask, but it seemed so real," he said. "I thought that she spoke figuratively when she said you wore a mask to make you seem royal. I never guessed that she meant just what she said. I am so glad to see you smile. I had begun to think you hated me."

"I could never hate you Father," she assured him. "I know how hard you tried to keep the council from decreeing that I must marry either Joden or Raderen. You must tell me all the news of Rubble Ford."

Kalil did not return with the matlas for more than an hour, but Nerik did not question her delay. When she began to apologize he held up his hand to stop her. "I must trust you Kalil. If I begin to doubt your love and loyalty, then I am truly blind. However, I would like to know what kept you so long."

She proceeded to tell him all she had learned from her parents while he began to eat the fresh warm matlas. The murder of Joden had shocked and sorrowed her. Vagan's challenge to Drumon's authority made her want to cheer. Her voice seemed to dance with the fervor of her emotions. Nerik finished the matlas long before she finished her account. He settled beside her and rested the fingers of his right hand on her cheek.

She thought she already loved him as much as possible, but his generous spirit warmed her heart. She recognized something in the expression on his face and realized that she had often seen it on Vagan's face while her mother spoke. It was simple fondness, the basic element that kept love from going stale. She turned her head and kissed his hand, content.

Next book: Valley of Betrayal