Everything looked equally bland and unpromising the next morning. The one thought that cemented itself firmly in Morgan's head overnight was that they were going to have to dive in and get firmly entangled in court politics. If the foe were real and had made their first move last night, the only place to go looking for the markers in this probable power game was the brightly colored sluggish morass that was, at the moment, clinging to the boots of royalty. Cleaned and dressed in their finest, Morgan and Seth set out for the city keep, and the royal court.

Morgan's finest clothes were simply cut and functional, but they fit him and his personality perfectly. He wore a calm but strikingly pure blue shirt with onyx buttons and cuffed long sleeves, and black pants without frill or decoration tucked neatly into equally black, well polished, calf-high boots. His belt was black leather worked with ample sliver and had a small purse, black doe skin gloves, and ceremonial dagger hanging from it. His cloak was hooded and made of heavy silk, jet black with a foggy gray lining. Turned open from his chest so it hung down his back nearly to the floor, the cloak had the insignia of his various arts skillfully worked into collar and hem in a tiny continuous line, like piping. The aotahe was functional during high ritual magic but it was also formal wear suitable for occasions of state. An aotahe gives no indication of the rank or power of the wearer, and when closed around the body and properly energized, render the wearer nearly invulnerable. Two traits that make it an excellent garment for meeting with strangers and dealing in intrigue.

Seth was another matter entirely. While he had mostly the same black on black pants and boots, he was wearing two belts. The first was the same one he'd worn nearly every day since they'd met. It, and the two plain scabbards which hung from it, were freshly cleaned and oiled but the well worn scabbards and grips spoke plainly. The second was the restraint, turned backward so the metal bar with its cuffs and chain were nestled in the small of his back, temporarily bound close to the belt along with a small bundle. Two inch wide white cloth strips ran up the out-step of each boot from just above the ankle to just below the knee, held in place by loops built into the boots for that purpose. Those strips had the skill marks which each boot covered embroidered on them. His shirt was a bright blood-crimson. Instead of the expected skill patches on the front, back, and sleeves, Seth's entire inking was painted and dyed into the fabric in remarkable detail, the only difference being what was set in Seth's white skin in red was set on the red shirt in white. His head band was the exact same crimson color as his shirt. Not only was the effect striking, perhaps bordering on the majestic, it was functional. When a slave wears a red shirt or vest it is a warning that he is a bodyguard, a killer, and he is on duty.

Morgan noticed that Seth's crowd-parting effect was magnified by his crimson shirt. When Morgan's aotahe was added in to the equation the way it never really was at the college, the people on the crowded central city streets virtually rolled away from them like a strong ocean wave. When they reached the keep Morgan presented his properly countersigned orders and was admitted to the outer court without incident. In short order he got himself onto the court schedule. The time slot was not ideal, being late in the afternoon. He would have a long time to stew in his own apprehension, but at least it would not take days to complete his business.

* * *

The outer court is really a series of small parties, buffets, and lesser halls where the courtiers listen, and occasionally talk something more than pleasantries to further their various machinations. Morgan was somewhat disappointed that their entrance hadn't drawn more of a reaction. In the streets the crowd had boiled away from them as they passed, in the halls they weren't even noticed.

Seth moved in close behind Morgan and softly said “remember the landslide.”

“Unimpressed, even as it buried them”, Morgan put on a game-face. “Thank you Seth.”

They selected a rather large outer hall to wait in. The room was near the kitchens and so had a large buffet along one wall. One corner sported musicians keeping a continuous flow of gentle melodies in the air. It was a pleasant room, just large enough to prevent the intimate moments that make for intrigue, and the people in it seemed to be less into the court and more into the food. It would be possible, and perhaps even pleasant, to spend the bulk of the day there without much difficulty or danger.

Seth peeled away from Morgan as they entered and took up an obtrusively unobtrusive position near the musicians while Morgan raided the buffet. Morgan spent the bulk of the morning gorging himself on fresh fruit and talking at length about absolutely nothing with whomever was handy. Seth had a better time standing next to the wall and watching the people go by. He listened intently to everybody within earshot, without seeming to be aware of anything happening around him at all. He'd become an expert at “standing around” over the last twenty years.

Halfway between breakfast and lunch the musician yielded his spot to an apprentice. The apprentice began a very old, but once popular ballad, whispering the words to himself to keep the melody on pace. He got to the bridge of the piece and found himself lost for the correct phrase. He made several abortive attempts at the bridge instead of simply playing past the mistake. Seth took pity on the young man and whispered the correct string of notes to him.

“What?” He had been concentrating and had missed Seth's words.

Seth repeated the unlikely combination of notes.

“That doesn't make sense.”

With his pretense broken, Seth closed the distance between them. “The ballad you were playing, lord, was written for the Syriene Harp, a fixed-tone harp cannot play the original as written, so those notes are used to give the same feeling.”

“Please show me.” The young man gestured to an old Syriene sitting in a case against the wall.

“As you wish, lord.” Seth carefully took the instrument out of its case. The harp was not old, it was ancient. A finer harp Seth had never seen. He looked to the apprentice again and saw past the apprenticeship to the young lordling of high station beneath it. Always dangerous ground. “I hope I can do some justice to such a fine instrument lord.”

Seth sat carefully, managing the harp and his sheathed swords masterfully so that the hilts would not touch, and possibly mar, the ancient wood. He made sure he could see Morgan clearly from his seat then turned the bulk of his attention to the instrument. The lever, which defined the difference between a plain harp and a Syriene, moved smoothly as he cocked it and tucked the harp under his arm. He braced the harp with his leg and chin and then played a simple chord, squeezing the lever under his right arm, listening to the strings change their pitch as the lever moved every other bridge, teaching him the true and the rate of the harp. He found his fingering, and then addressed the young lordling again.

“This is the original scoring lord. The original progressions rely on the lever to bend the notes in order to change keys.”

Seth set out on the piece, reading the sheet music out of his memory as he played. The melody was powerful and haunting, and he played it with intensity. Without thinking he presented the piece to the hall, playing much louder than the previous background airs. The bodyguard part of his mind kept an eye to Morgan's safety but the rest of him failed to notice, or more precisely care, that he had attracted an audience. The melody was one of longing and loss, the bending chords crying out of the harp.

The last notes faded into the silent room and Seth finally noticed his audience, bent his head further over the harp and started to blush. He had previously only played for Lady Korane.

It was the young lord who rescued him from his audience. “I see,” he continued the original conversation, heading it off into the less intriguing technical aspects of music, “so the notes” he plucked out the notes Seth had whispered to him with more discord and difficulty than necessary “are intended to mimic the changes of the lever.” He continued on with similar observations, rhetorical questions and poorly executed musical fragments.

The crowd was instantly driven away.

Without lifting his head Seth whispered “Thank you lord.”

“No problem, where did you learn to play like that?”

“I was about to ask the same thing.” Morgan looked down at Seth and raised his eyebrow at him when he looked up. “You know Liane is going to be angry that you haven't played for her. Sometimes she drives Mieka crazy trying to make him play.”

Seth began to carefully put the ancient harp back into its case.

“Is he yours?” The apprentice bard looked to Morgan. “I don't suppose you'd consider selling him?”

“No,” Morgan looked at the young man again and caught the nobility there and added “lord,” just a hair late “he means too much to me to part with.” Morgan placed his hand on Seth possessively.

“Would you at least loan him to me long enough for him to play for some of my teachers?”

“I don't know that I can commit to that right now, where might I find you later?”

“I'll be at the festival this evening on the east patio playing with the other musicians.”

Morgan paused to think. “I think that I will be able to make that.”

“Very good, I'll look for you there.”

Morgan bowed slightly and motioned for Seth to follow. They left the room after a quick stop by the buffet to load down Morgan's plate and refill his cup.

* * *

When they found a secluded spot Morgan handed Seth the plate and cup. “I figured you'd be hungry by now.”

Morgan gave him time to wolf down some of the food and then said “you know I have spent hours talking to all sorts of nobility and I haven't learned a single thing about anything, weather included.”

“Well,” Seth said around a piece of melon, “two separate contingents from the north west are here to ask for troops to quell some recent wildings in their territories. Each of them is prepared to accuse the other of over taxing the land and causing the problems. To hear them speak of it they each think they are themselves blameless.”

Seth paused for a chunk of hearty bread. “Several, five I think, of the groups who came and went quickly are trying to bid at least one of their daughters in a royal betrothal, but I couldn't quite figure out what member of the royal family was the intended victim.” He grinned around a piece of cheese. “Any number of people were speculating as to who you are, but none of them seemed to take more than average interest in you.”

Morgan looked appraisingly at Seth, a habit he seemed to have picked up since meeting the man, “how did you find out all of that?”

Seth gestured vaguely at himself with another piece of fruit “nobles tend to ignore the furnishings, I just stood there and listened to whatever I could.”

That seemed kind of weak to Morgan, “that doesn't sound too smart for the masters of intrigue that are supposed to be at court.”

“None of them knew I'm not imprinted, if they had I probably wouldn't have heard a thing. You ever try to talk to a slave other than me? A free man couldn't get an unvarnished word out of a typical slave to save his life. What the slaves know amongst themselves is a different story, but what slaves know is unlikely to get out to the hands of the free.”


“It's just the way things are. When you're compelled to serve someone by overwhelming duress you kind of develop a habit of being a little less than, well, helpful, when you have the luxury of discretion. Besides it's dangerous. Think what would happen when whoever you crossed up finds out it was you that wrecked his plans. That imprinting wont even let you try to defend yourself.”

“Good point. So would you be able to find out what the slaves around here know?”

“Probably, but now isn't the time, they'll all be working as hard as they can under their orders. Tonight, when the parties have started to run their course, is when the gossip will start to flow.”

Seth handed the plate and cup back to Morgan, wiped his hands on his pants, and put himself back into character.

“I just hope I can get the hang of this in time.”

Seth gave Morgan a gentle sort of full-body shove by way of reassurance, the kind you might get from a very big dog, and then they were back out of their alcove and back in the game.

* * *

The afternoon session before the king was less than spellbinding. It opened with round one of the wilding issue, wherein both parties maintained that they were not responsible for the overtaxing of the land that caused the region to soften and let in creatures from the margins. The two seneschals and several geomancers were called and testified to the proper use of the lands under their care. To Morgan it sounded like a typical example of the way things just happen sometimes and the only people who seemed to feel that any kind of mismanagement or duplicity was involved were the minor nobles. The king agreed that some degree of outside assistance was in order and that an appropriately vague number of hunters and soldiers really ought to be dispatched to help hunt down the creatures that were escaping into the good people's territory from the rents in the local fabric of the realm.

The marriage issue that Seth had heard tell of made no appearance that Morgan could discern but no doubt it was stewing just under the surface somewhere.

Seth was implacable as always, but Morgan was uncomfortable standing there next to him. Seth was unarmed and locked in irons. The key, really more of a wrench than a key, was a burden on Morgan's mind and in his pouch. He still wanted to reach over and start unscrewing the chuck that held the manacles shut. He hadn't enjoyed the experience of putting them on him. The fact that Seth seemed to have no problem with them at all, or maybe even felt proud to wear them, just jarred Morgan somehow.

Standing there silently with nothing to do wasn't helping, and it just went on and on for a couple of hours. Finally it got to be his turn and Morgan experienced a sudden twisting of dread in his stomach when he heard his name.

“Morgan of Queens College, son of Whaelin of the Iron Mountains, Magus of the First Order, here before the court this day on a matter of fealty; Come forward and be recognized.”

Even as he began moving Morgan wondered for a moment if the long-winded announcements of the herald were intended to give a chance for stage fright to increase, or decrease. Seth, carrying Morgan's tribute, moved smoothly in behind him as he made the long walk out into the middle of the floor.

When he had placed his name on the docket the herald had given him a quick lecture on how to move, where to go, when to kneel and stand, and when to leave the royal presence. The man had described the tiny ceremony by wrote, nearly making a single monotone word out of the several sentences. After the short meeting Seth had helped Morgan work out a script of what they would do and say.

Morgan walked down the middle of the hall and stopped at the spot where the carpet conveniently changed to indicate that people in his position should stop. He announced himself to the court using only “I am Morgan, son of Whaelin.” It would have been considered boastful to add his rank. He then went down onto his left knee and waited. Seth stopped two paces back from Morgan and remained standing, seemingly oblivious to the entire situation. The court doesn't normally recognize a slave unless that slave is claiming some action under the Tenets of Rule, so kneeling or otherwise demanding attention would be unacceptable.

The herald went next. “Will any here speak for this man.” Having no patron at court Morgan would remain silent until the herald bade him speak for himself. At least that is the way it was supposed to happen. Somewhere near the back of the hall someone began to move purposefully out of the crowd. Morgan could hear them coming and wanted to turn and look to see who it was nearly more than anything, but was bound to stay where he was and remain silent.

Seth knew that whoever was coming would add nothing to Morgan's simple cause, but could cost Morgan dearly or at least tend to bind him to whomever it was in the mind of court and king. He wished he had his blades in his hands instead of Morgan's tribute. If he were armed he might be able to intimidate the interloper. Lost for any other option to protect Morgan, Seth spoke. “My Lord's King,” he couldn't place the king relative to himself, a slave, so he spoke from his role as Morgan's property. He could easily be put to the lash, or worse, for addressing the court, but one or two well phrased sentences could and would put the lie to whatever the approaching stranger might have to say, so he pressed ahead despite the risk. “My master has come alone, at short notice, and in great haste to appear before this court. It is his great sorrow that he can call on no one here to speak his cause.”

The court was struck silent, waiting for the royal response to Seth's breach of protocol. The approaching footsteps faltered slightly and then proceeded on to some other destination as if they had never been headed toward the throne. Seth struggled not to grin at his victory and was determined not to flinch at whatever would follow.

The king, semi-permanently bored at the normal flow of court, sat staring at the men before him. The reason for the slave's intercession had not been lost to him, nor was the precise and effective nature of his action. It was probably unplanned but since the kneeling man was a Magus it could have been the result of compulsion. An interesting puzzle, or at least distraction, that the king decided to pursue.

The king leaned forward in his throne addressed Seth directly. “Would you speak for this man?”

Seth swallowed hard, “My lord's king, that would not be my place.”

“That would be for me to decide.”

Seth bowed his head in silent acquiescence.

“Morgan, son of Whaelin, rise.” Morgan did so and remained silent. “What assurances can you give us about this man you bring into our presence?”

It was an odd question but one he took to heart. What could he say about Seth and how could he make his words and feelings count in front of all these people. Morgan looked about himself for answers. When he turned and looked at Seth things clicked into place. Seth trusted him. Even more Seth liked him and was willing to sacrifice himself for him. The manacles and the key in his pouch were a symbol of Seth's trust in him, something with the strength of a pledge. It was something like a pledge that Morgan wanted to return in front of all these witnesses.

Morgan's eyes and mind sought, and found, the bar where criminals would be brought to stand before the kings justice. As he expected it was ensorceled. Anybody in contact with that length of cold iron would speak true, or feel pain in proportion to his falsehoods. It wouldn't compel a man to speak but it would insure that the words he did speak were true to his best knowledge.

Morgan slipped off his right glove as he approached the bar. He didn't mount the small platform but stopped next to it and reached out to rest his hand on the end of the bar. Murmurs rippled through the crowd even as the ensorcelment poured into Morgan's mind. He'd been under harsher transient compulsions as a matter of course during ritual magic and had usually had to simultaneously carry out complex activities to boot. Speaking his mind under the bar wouldn't be a problem.

Standing there, glowing faintly under the truth spell, Morgan picked his words carefully. There were, after all, things he most certainly didn't want to reveal.

“Your Majesty. This, my man Seth, is under no compulsion that would prevent him speaking freely to this court under the Tenets, as is provided by the rules of imprinting.” A true statement that could be made about any imprinted slave, and more importantly, any unimprinted person. “I have given him no instructions about what he may or should say about me. He is free to speak his mind without fear of any kind of retribution by me or mine. Moreover I have entrusted my safety to his steel and I trust his words that much and more. I will stand by his words and trust them with my life.” Finished, Morgan lifted his hand from the bar, breaking the spell.

He was, of course, free to go back on his word if he chose. The bar did not compel obedience. It did however, tell the court that when he spoke his words he believed them to be true. The king and court were duly impressed. There probably weren't four other people in the room that could say likewise at the bar about anybody in their own lives including, or especially precluding, their closest family. Morgan himself was surprised that he felt that strongly for Seth.

The king turned to look at Seth. “Well, speak.”

“Uh, your Majesty.” Seth hadn't thought out anything to say, and was embarrassed to be speaking, he paused often to consider his words. “My lord Morgan is a good man of common birth. I have only known him for about two months and in that time I have seen him to be a good and loyal friend who inspires the same in others. He is uncle by courtesy to the daughter of his companions, a beautiful child which he obviously loves as his own. He has been both just and fair to those who have sought to harm him. I serve him with pleasure and what will is mine.”

“That is a fine endorsement.” The king settled back in the throne. “What of his allegiances?”

“I have never heard him speak of politics and I do not keep his council there your Majesty. His tribute is sincere and genuine.” Seth advanced and knelt at the base of the throne so that he would not have to simply drop the heavy object to the floor. He began unwrapping it with more dexterity than might be expected of a man in rigid manacles. This was the only part of the ceremony that Seth had expected to participate in, and he had practiced with the package before hand. Inside the bundle was an iron ingot.

Seth did know how to tell a story, that much went with his musical training. He told the king and court the story of Morgan's awakening to power. How he felt and halted a cave-in while moving ore at the bottom of one of the mines his family had worked for generations. He nearly made the audience feel what it would be like to hold a mountain together inside their untrained adolescent mind, paralyzed for fear of loosing the collapse. Waiting for someone to notice and then waiting again for aid. Seth had prized some details out of Morgan during some odd moments of conversation while they had waited for the faculty council to act. What details he didn't have he embellished. He gave special treatment to the people whose lives were saved when Morgan prevented the mine collapse and the physical ordeal that went along with the mental awakening. Finally he worked his way back to the iron ingot.

“When Whaelin heard that his son would go to Queens College to study the arts he gave him a gift. This weight of iron is the piece of ore he held for a day and a night, smelted and cast by his father, so that he would never forget his origins or what his power could mean to others. This is the thing my master has chosen to surrender to the court in tribute.”

Completely out of things to say Seth bowed his head to a smattering of applause. The king, a man of middle years, rose and went to the bundle. He lifted the ingot, surprised at its weight, and carried it back to a small table next to the throne; it was an unprecedented action.

“We are honored to receive such a gift.”

The herald called Morgan before the throne where he offered, and the king accepted, a simple oath of fealty to kingdom, crown, and king and theywere dismissed from the royal presence. When they left the hall they discovered they were celebrities. Word seemed to flow through the court faster than they could walk.

Imperatively casual invitations to parties and meetings began to filter their way in toward Morgan and Seth. Morgan was tempted to bolt from the court in his best attempt at never being seen again. He resisted the urge, thinking that he should at least make an attempt to keep the tentative date he had made with the young lordling. Seth agreed. There was something like a hint of commitment there and there was no way to know who they might be snubbing if they ran out on it.

* * *

It didn't prove difficult to find the youth and his masters, they were providing entertainment at one of the central gatherings. The master musicians were anyway. At first the masters were “politely interested” in the alleged talent and knowledge of the slave that their apprentice had so diligently found. Seth, however, quickly captivated their actual interest.

Apparently Lady Korane had possessed a taste for some very old and unique compositions. Mostly things she had found in her researches. Many of the pieces Seth knew had never been played publicly, having come from the more private musings of some distracted mage or otherwise obscure, deceased scholar. Not only did Seth remember the complete pieces and their origins and know enough to discuss them intelligently; he was a good enough musician to do them justice.

Seth ended up playing several complete compositions and a good number of exemplary fragments over the course of the evening. He kind of bloomed to the attention, getting over this shyness to perform in record time. Morgan stood close by the entire time, partly out of pride and partly to protect his interests. The musicians seemed ready to abduct Seth and try to drain him of his knowledge. Morgan made sure that they were satisfied with the pages of notes they took.

As the evening wore into night, Morgan caught a look from Seth and called him away from the group. Morgan and Seth split up shortly after they left the musicians. Seth set out into the slave community to gather intelligence. Morgan was fairly tired and headed into the keep to find someplace to relax.

Deep in the keep, not quite far enough to get lost, Morgan realized that he was being overtaken.

He stopped suddenly and turned.

Coming toward him down a hall was an apparently middle-aged woman wearing an aotahe. She stopped a minimally respectful distance in front of Morgan and he was tempted to shrug his aotahe forward over his shoulders.

“Greetings Magus, I am Teila Ja, astrologer to the keep of Queens Landing.”

“Greetings.” Morgan clearly didn't need to introduce himself to the woman, and he had nothing else to say to her.

“I would speak to you.”

Morgan waited.

“In a more... private location. Would you do me the honor of accompanying me to my observatory?”

Morgan had no intention to follow this strange practitioner anywhere.

“I offer you keth'yetal by way of assurance that my intent is not malicious.”

That deeply disturbed Morgan but changed his mind about following her. The mind hold was easily accomplished and Morgan's grip on her magical centers was complete. She could not act against him mentally and should he die with that hold on her mind she would be stripped of her power and possibly her sanity or her life. Keth'yetal. The complete surrender of a vanquished mage. Once established, if he so chose he could effortlessly hold her power for the rest of her life.

Morgan strongly suspected he would not like anything she had to say. Whatever could make someone willingly offer keth'yetal, be it knowledge, person, or thing, didn't promise comfort. It was, however, an irresistible draw.

After some time they arrived on a wide flat roof. There were a few spires in the keep that were taller, but that wouldn't matter to a powerful astrologer. Inscribed on the roof's special slate surface was the largest astrolabe Morgan had ever seen. Easily three hundred curves and perhaps twice as many line segments had been etched into the slate using chalk and force of will. At least seven obvious wards of protection, divination, and control were superscribed around the astrolabe itself.

Teila closed her aotahe about herself and energized it. An act that Morgan's hold allowed him to watch, and abort if he so chose. She crossed the protections and each one was cataloged and detailed directly into his mind. Finally she touched the astrolabe so that Morgan could appreciate its structure and inherently nonthreatening nature.

Realizing that he should follow, and knowing that nothing could or would harm him within the epic construct, Morgan closed his own aotahe and followed. The spells worked for him the same as they had for her. Once inside Morgan released the keth'yetal. If Teila wanted to harm him she would choose someplace other than this. The construct, clearly a work of decades, would be shattered by any kind of combat inside its perimeter. Her offer had clearly been to get him here and let him know that no threat was intended. Even if that hadn't been the case the 'yetal was too ugly an entanglement and he wanted to be free of it as soon as possible.

She bowed slightly to him in recognition of his gesture.

“How much do you know about astrology?”

“Why did you offer me 'yetal?”

“I don't like games and I needed to speak to you with some urgency.”

“There are better ways.”

“Name one. You will be gone from here in a day, possibly never to return. You still live in that cesspit of lies” a reference to the less savory generic reputation attributable to any large gathering of mages, let alone a school, “so there was no way you would have followed me here short of a royal order or intrigue-majure. The former was not available and I didn't have time for the latter. In any case neither would have gotten you here alone and unobserved. What I have to say I think only you should hear.”

Morgan took the allotted moment to think about that and found himself in agreement with her logic except for one thing. “How did you know I would release you.”

“Call it faith.”

He wondered what in, but decided not to ask, ceding the conversation to her lead.

She nodded a little too knowingly. “Back to my question, what do you know about astrology?”

“Just the basics, I've read Rassalos.”

“So, basically, nothing.”

Morgan eyed her.

“Rassalos' work was aimed at the casually curious, but it doesn't address the technical elements with much merit.”

“So why do they teach it?”


Morgan knew exactly how that went, he'd been teaching several texts that weren't worth the velum to copy.

Teila took a deep breath and started in. “Creation,” the word made Morgan flinch visibly, “dictates that this realm is shaped much like a disk. Mean sea level describes a plane parallel to the roughly circular faces of the disk. Approximately one fourth the volume of the disk is below sea level and the remainder is of course above. I call the disk roughly circular because the outermost edge of the disk is not accessible due to the wilding effect at the margins.”

Morgan was a little insulted that Teila started at such a simplistic level. Everybody in the realm knew this much if not more.

“The realm grows in response to the pressure caused by the occupation of the lands and seas by sentient beings. Outside the limits of the realm lie the elemental plains; the layers of reality just above pure chaos where mixtures of the prime material and life energies mingle and the sentient forces of physicality commonly called `elementals' are born and live.

“It is precisely because life energies can and do propagate both forward and backward through time, an effect called temporal diffusion, that the realm can grow, and occasionally shrink or otherwise respond, to the needs and actions of its inhabitants.

“There are many side effects to this design that are radically different from the naturally occurring realities at the higher levels of order.”

Morgan was beginning to wonder how he had gotten himself signed up for this lecture. The material was neither new nor terribly interesting to him.

Realizing she was loosing her audience Teila tried to cut to the chase.

“Since the sky is, in fact, an illusion here, it was functionally decorated in an approximation of the sky one might see in an organic realm. I say `functional' because unlike other realms the stars and planets in our sky are not real independent objects, they are plotted points representing the forces which are or will be effecting the realm's structure.”

Teila energized the astrolabe and various points of light in the sky around them were suddenly brought much closer. Morgan realized that he could all but reach up and touch them.

“What most people don't fully appreciate is that the sky appears differently from different vantage points across the realm. The prime markers are constellations that are fixed and common to the night sky the world over.” Dim lines appeared connecting the elements of these constellations. “These markers make navigation and astrology possible by giving fixed points to measure other things against.”

“Local markers,” another set of constellations were marked out, “are each visible to specific geographical areas. On average about twenty of these can be seen from any given point in the realm. If you knew them all you would be able to figure out where you were, anywhere in the realm, to within fifty miles. The rest are all `plots' that can be read and used for divination.

“A new global plot might appear in the sky perhaps once every decade, it will last between thirty years and four centuries, and will typically represent things or events of continental scope. A truly local plot like a shooting star may last only a few seconds, hours, or days and might represent something as small as a family or even a person. Things like speed and geographical visibility are used to determine the scope and urgency of the information.”

Morgan, not normally this impatient, was getting tired of the lecture. “I hope you are getting to the point, I've had a long day.”

“Certainly,” Morgan felt a sudden chill, “in the last three months six new plots have appeared at global scope.”

The six plots floated down from the cluster and became suspended at waist level in the space between them. They were an interesting group. Each appeared to be a small solid globe of different texture and composition. `Planets' by the common reckoning. Beyond that they were meaningless to Morgan.

“First this one appeared alone, moving in a decidedly strange way, its course shifting oddly hour by hour like it were being hammered by unseen forces. Then these two showed up on two successive nights, they are moving in complement to one another. Later these three come all at once. Which nights each of these showed up varies all over the realm, but the order and the pattern was the same.

“Where this first one will go nobody can tell for sure, but the remaining five are all on separate orbits to the same point. Here. The center of The Cradle. Different plotting from different locations has them all arriving simultaneously, but the exact date varies between one month and three years from now, depending on where the plot is taken.

“In short these six strangers are, by the rules of astrology, impossible. That means that the realm is in great danger. A danger that threatens the actual structure of the realm.”

Morgan looked pointedly at the planets, feeling queasy at the possibility that he and Seth might have something to do with the `pair'. “What does the king think of all this?”

“He doesn't know. Nobody knows except myself and some of my fellows spread across the realm.”

“Why not?”

“Because everything we have been able to get out of these strangers says that if anything disrupts whatever is happening things will probably get worse, and all politicians ever do is meddle and disrupt.”

“So why tell me?”

“Because, as near as I can figure, that” she pointed to the lone planet, “is you.”

The lone planet, not one of the pair. If what she was saying was true whatever was happening didn't have Seth pinned up in the heavens. At least not separate from him.

“How do you know that's me?”

“I saw your hand on the Bar today. I also saw it there when I did a scrying of the first planet.”

“What did you see for the others?”

“Nothing, absolutely nothing. Just a blurring fog. None of my fellows even got the one image of you I received. Whatever it is, its outside our power to divine.”

“So I've got some destiny and you can't tell me a thing about it?”

“No, not a destiny per se. Destiny, big `d', comes from far off in the future. It is presaged by years, or even centuries of portents and omens and so on. It has structure. Purpose. You are not destined to anything. You are caught. Tangled in something that is new, immediate, and unforeseen. The happenings of the moment.”

“How is that not destiny?”

“It just isn't. It's catastrophe... or not. Destiny includes outcome, this is just something very important that will happen and change everything or fizzle away without lasting impact, there is no sense of outcome here. Who can say what this thing is, but it is most certainly not destiny. Win, loose, or draw, whatever is going to happen involves you, and its important, and it doesn't tie in with anything else in this world.”

“What am I supposed to do about it?”

“I have no idea.”

“Why did you tell me?”

“Because I thought I should, its the only reason I could come up with for having seen you there.”

“This is sure going to help me sleep...”

“Maybe that's the whole reason I was supposed to tell you. Who knows. I can tell you that the answer is not up there.” Teila gestured skyward.

Morgan's feeling of dread was steadily growing and a second, more powerful, sickening and trapped feeling was quickly overtaking everything. With a sudden sagging snap something was inside his head. It felt like a tiny fist was clenching itself around an equally tiny part of is brain. Morgan reached for the wards around the astrolabe and then dug into the earth below him. He tapped a flow of the energy that comprised a fundamental feature of the realm and poured it into the wards providing just enough protection to keep himself sane. The tiny fist didn't notice at all. After it finished, another appeared and began to close. Morgan flailed out seeking the source of the invasions but there was no power flowing to him from any source he could find.

The plucking and clutching feeling accelerated until it felt like someone was using a microscopic melon-baller to scoop his brain away one piece at a time. A thundering wave of blinding panic overtook him. Needing to escape, to be rescued, Morgan desperately needed to run, but he knew he couldn't. He knew he was trapped. It wasn't until he heard his own name called out from the core of that desperate need that he realized that these feelings were not actually his own.


He was feeling Seth through the collar. It took almost everything he had, but he wrest his mind out of the grip of the band. Focusing on the band itself he could barely stand the forces it was emitting. When he had first used it he had willed it to amplify whatever it could. Before him Tor, more than once, and however many people he had taken it to, had probably done likewise. All piled up the spell was wound unbelievably tight. He pushed against it, commanding it toward silence.

When he had the spell back to manageable proportions, the keening wail of tearing distress was reduced from a mind-destroying avalanche to a simple, total imperative. He had to reach Seth immediately. Whatever was happening to him had to be stopped.

Knowing full well that if he hadn't been in the circle and under the discipline of the aotahe the back-blast of Seth's torment alone would have crushed his mind like a bug under a cart wheel, Morgan didn't hesitate to go to Seth.

Morgan dispatched the astrolabe and its wards without a thought, and stepped from the circle. He all but glided across the slate surface. When he reached the granite wall, he vanished.

He hadn't even known he had the talent for stone-walking. He had sent himself out looking for the shortest path to Seth and the stone had answered. The stones of the castle had once been part of a single mountain. They remembered being one, and each knew the faces that had rested against one another. Morgan's apparition appeared and vanished repeatedly throughout the keep, sometimes near a wall and sometimes in the middle of a room. Some rooms were visited more than once as he skipped, each stone a heartbeat, along the path through that onetime mountain from the stone of his first touch to the stone where Seth lay wracked in pain.

Partway there he finally felt his own pain. The skin on his left wrist was beginning to sear from the heated steel band. Remembering how he hadn't been able to get it off his wrist last time he didn't stop to try. As he passed through a flagstone in a small garden somewhere, he simply left the band behind, buried in the heart of the rock.

As soon as he arrived he knelt, sweeping his aotahe over Seth. Barley a touch of prev told him everything. There was no attack. The collar was suddenly taking hold. Instead of growing slowly over the course of weeks, the complete invasion was happening in seconds, tearing his mind and body as it went.

Morgan watched in horror as the individual tendrils reached out and blossomed. Sometimes they would collide with one of their peers, both would recoil and then try again. He tried everything he could think of to stop them but he couldn't. The collar fed from Seth's own life force, it was his energy. There was no difference between one and the other. Stranger, and worse still, the only pathway he could find to Seth was through the collar itself. Fortunately it wasn't searing hot the way the band had been. At a complete loss for anything else to do Morgan pulled Seth's head up against his chest and tried to hold it there so Seth wouldn't open his skull on the pavement as powerful spasms tore through his body.

The thing that frightened Morgan the most was that between wracking breaths Seth was making tiny, vague, barely audible whimpering noises.

* * *

After a few of the longest minutes of Morgan's life Seth was finally still. Frightened to look, Morgan forced himself to vrec. The spell had changed. The tiny fuzz balls were all huge, grown into a near solid interlocked mass of super-fine cottony tendrils. As he probed one he could feel Seth all through it. It was a totally different thing than before but it was also the same as it had always been.

Morgan let out a howl from the center of his being, screaming at the heavens in guilt and shame. This, what the collar's spell was now, was what he thought it had always been, each bundle bonded to Seth's body and mind. What it had been before was nothing. If he'd known what he was doing, what he'd been looking at; he could have just cut the spell free. The pathetic little anchors hadn't been large or deep enough to have threatened Seth in the slightest. The whole spell would have probably died at the first cut. Only now was the spell permanent.

After a time Morgan found his way far enough out of his guilt and self-directed fury to realize they were not alone. A slave, an older man, was standing near them. He was at attention or something.

Still cradling Seth's head against his bruised chest Morgan asked the man “What are you doing here?”

“I witnessed the incident my lord.”


“I have remained here as I am required sir.”

Morgan didn't really know all that much about it, but he figured that there must be something in the imprinting holding the man there. “What happened?”

“We were talking my lord when he collapsed, then you arrived.”

Not a terribly useful answer. Morgan was about to dismiss the man but changed his mind. “What were you talking about?”

“Those collars my lord.”

Having heard Tor's stories about trying to get anything useful out of a slave, and not eager for a game of twenty questions, Morgan tried to phrase his next more usefully. “Tell me, starting at the beginning of the conversation and to the best of your recollection and ability, everything that was said on or near the subject of the collar.”

The man thought for a moment. “Well into a different conversation I asked this man what crime he had committed. He said he had committed no crime. I asked why then he was wearing that kind of collar. He asked what I meant. I told him that those collars were only for the most dangerous of men and usually they didn't live very long with them. He asked me to tell him what I could about the collars. I began to tell him the story of the only other person I had ever encountered who had one. I met the man when I was very young. He had...”

“Skip the details of the story, when did you notice he was having problems?”

“While I was telling him how that man had described having his handler take over and control his body, I noticed that this man was kind of wide-eyed. I stopped and asked him if he was all right. He started pulling at the collar like he was trying to take it off. I tried to calm his struggles and tell him it wouldn't do him any good, that it would kill him before it let him go, that I had seen that other man die trying to remove his collar. After a while he stopped struggling, the fight just went out of him and he sat down. I reassured him that he would be all right, that it was probably like the imprint, once he got used to it, it probably wouldn't really be that bad. A few moments later he began kind of shaking and then having a fit. Right about then you arrived and proceeded...”

Morgan cut him off. “That's enough.” Blinking back tears Morgan tried to figure out what to do next. He had to get rid of this stranger and then do... something. “I am this man's owner. You have done well in your report and you may now go about your business. Your part in this is over.”

“Yes lord.” The man bowed deeply and left.

The key words kept circling around in Morgan's mind. “The fight just went out of him.”

Morgan whispered to Seth. “Is that what happened? Did you just give up? Is that why it suddenly got hold of you?”

For just a moment a fist of impotent anger formed in him and he wanted to hit Seth, “You're the strongest person I've ever met. You wouldn't give up to anything!” And then it faded. “What did he say to you? What did you feel? why did you give up?” He began trembling and rocking back and forth a little. Afraid to move. Afraid to let go long enough even to go get help. Seth's eyes were open and unseeing. His entire body was slack and nearly lifeless.

“I'm sorry I wasn't here.

“I should have told you.

“You were winning. If I'd told you what I knew this wouldn't have happened.

“If I'd stayed with you you'd be okay.

“I'm sorry Seth.

“Do you hear me? I'm sorry”

That was all Morgan had left in him, guilt and sorrow. He just kept whispering “I'm sorry” to his friend over and over, at a loss for any other thoughts or feelings.