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Chapter 1

The imp skittered sideways. Although it stood upright on its hind legs, it was no bigger than a mouse and looked much like one, with a round little body, and four thin legs and a long naked tail—except that it was bright red and quite naked. It had little beady black eyes, large round ears, and a pointed muzzle from which sharp little teeth peeked. Those sharp teeth and equally sharp, overlarge, claws on stick-thin front and rear limbs, from which a sick yellow-green slime oozed, curbed any desire to laugh in the one to whom the imp was squeaking. It might be small—but size was no measure of how deadly a thing was, especially Underhill. Most especially when the thing was Unseleighe.


Pasgen Peblig Rodrig Silverhair frowned and moved a finger just as the imp leapt toward him, and the creature squalled and made a convulsive movement to retreat. It was held suspended midair, its struggles quickly subdued as if a heavy, invisible blanket had been wrapped around it.


If anything, the creature looked more comical than before, hanging helpless as it was, squirming and writhing. However there was another, more pressing reason not to laugh than the imp's poisoned claws, which in any case had been neutralized for now. It carried a summons from Prince Vidal Dhu.


Pasgen did not frown, but he was—perturbed. Prince Vidal Dhu. Vidal summoning him. For the past four years Vidal had been hanging between life and death, saved from perishing of iron poisoning only by his healers, who, themselves constrained by blood oaths, died draining the poison out of his blood. Now it seemed that Vidal had at last recovered enough to emerge from hiding. And he should not have been able to find Pasgen.


"So Prince Vidal wants me," Pasgen murmured. "How interesting." His frown grew blacker, and he raised his eyes to stare at the little monster. "How did you find me?"


The imp squeaked "Let me go. Let me go. Prince Vidal will punish you if you harm me."


The invisible blanket tightened around it. It tried to struggle, could not. The power that held it tightened more. A despairing squeal contained the word "Token."


"Give it to me," Pasgen said, the edge of command in his voice.


The creature's mouth opened and it disgorged a small, coiled object, wet with slime. An immaterial hand slid through the field that englobed the imp, seized what it had vomited and carried it toward Pasgen. As it approached, he could sense the drumming beat issuing from it, a drumming that perfectly matched the beating of his own heart.


Another gesture with one finger and the imp was dead, crushed to a formless lump of red, mottled and streaked with green-yellow gore. The force that held it then carried the mess outside to be consumed by the things that scavenged Pasgen's gardens. Its death had been quick, too quick for the creature even to squall. Pasgen could not allow anything that knew the location of his private domain to live, but all the years of Vidal's training had not been able to teach him to enjoy pain. He could be vicious when necessary, but he was never cruel just for amusement.


Cleaned and dried by other invisible forces, the brown scrap was clearly preserved skin attached to a thin layer of flesh. His own skin and flesh, Pasgen knew, from the vibration of congruence. He stared at it, appalled. He had always been careful about hair clippings and nail parings, making sure to burn them. And all the while Vidal Dhu had his skin and flesh. When and how had Vidal obtained so powerful a token? More important, was this the only one the Black Prince had? And now what was he supposed to do with it?


Pasgen held out his hand and the scrap of brown leather was laid upon it. Pasgen closed his hand. He was immediately aware of a feeling of constriction. He opened his hand again; it was trembling. If he could not close his hand on the thing without feeling choked, what would happen to him if he tried to destroy it? Had Vidal known he would kill the imp? Had Vidal hoped he would kill himself too, unaware of the token?


Nonsense, he told himself. He had not been aware of any sense of confinement when the token was inside the imp. Most likely it was only because he knew he was closing his hand over it that he felt closed in. Nonetheless panic still rose in him at the thought the token might fall into anyone else's hands. Yet if he could not test its properties himself, who could he trust to touch it?


That question was answered before it was quite complete in Pasgen's mind, and the answer calmed and simultaneously raised a new wave of panic in him. His twin sister Rhoslyn could be trusted to know about the token and to test its effect on him, but if Vidal had a token from him, it was all too likely that the prince had one or more from Rhoslyn also. He had to warn her—not that he knew what good a warning would do . . . or would it be worse if she knew?


Pasgen rose from the stark white chair on which he had been sitting, his hand held carefully in front of him . . . and stood irresolute—a condition that had not afflicted him for many, many years. Should he go to Rhoslyn at once or should he first go to Caer Mordwyn and discover what Vidal wanted?


What Vidal wanted. Pasgen brought his skittering thoughts to bear on that. The fact that Vidal was able to want anything was another shock. Pasgen cursed softly, his eyes on the token lest it fall to the floor. He had been inexcusably careless, assuming as the years passed that Vidal would die or remain a near-inanimate hulk.


Pasgen himself had recovered in two years from the wound he had received in the battle waged against his half-brother and half-sister and their Seleighe allies. But he had only been scraped by a passing elf-shot; not exactly harmless, but nowhere near as deadly as Cold Iron to one of the Sidhe. Vidal had been shot with a bullet from FitzRoy's mysterious gun.


Well, FitzRoy was dead. He would shoot no one again. Pasgen's lips twisted. And if someone had to be shot by a mortal, Vidal surely deserved it more than anyone else. Unfortunately it seemed that Vidal had survived with enough mind and will to demand his presence . . .


Or was it unfortunate?


The idea that had come to Pasgen seemed to lift an enormous weight from his heart, and it removed his indecision. He would go to Rhoslyn, warn her about the token, and leave his with her—obviously he could not carry it with him to Caer Mordwyn. It would be safe with Rhoslyn; more to the point, it would be safe being guarded by the creatures his sister had set about her to ensure her own safety. Pasgen shuddered gently as he thought of the big-eyed, childlike girl constructs with their wire-thin fingers that could be gentle as a butterfly or cut right through flesh and bone. They guarded Rhoslyn's domain every bit as efficiently as his own burly male guardians—better, perhaps, because invaders were prone to underestimate them.


He looked down at the scrap of skin and flesh in his hand and went to the black lacquer desk under the window. The top was glass-smooth, the surface clear except for the low gold-wire stand holding three thin gold pens. No design marred the perfect surface of the drawers on each side of the kneehole. Only absolutely plain pulls—octagonal bars of pure shining gold—were fastened to the face of each drawer.


Pasgen opened the middle drawer on the left-hand side of the desk with his free hand. It held a variety of boxes of different sizes and materials. He removed a small tortoise-shell square from the front of the drawer, struggled for a while to open it single-handed, and then, grimacing—because he was reluctant to have even his near-mindless and totally enslaved servants in the vicinity of that token—moved away and summoned an invisible servant to separate top and bottom.


He bade the servant clean the box and then dismissed it. After a moment, he drew a deep breath, deposited the token inside the box, and closed it. For a while he stood with his eyes closed, just breathing deeply and evenly. Finally he opened his eyes and looked around at the white leather chairs and settles, the black-framed chairs for visitors (not that he ever had any), the black lacquer side tables and low, central table, the black and white tiled floor.


All were clear and bright. No fog or dullness, as if he were peering out through some obstruction, obscured his view. It had been his too-active imagination, after all. He uttered a deep sigh, tucked the box into the bosom of his doublet, and left the house.


Usually Pasgen took his time when he crossed the garden and park in his domain. The beautiful, symmetrical order of the flower beds, the hedges, the trees with their ordered branches and precisely placed leaves always soothed him. There was so much disorder in his life, in his mind, in his heart, that the rigid and mathematical precision of the place was a balm to his spirit.


Today Pasgen merely hurried down the lavender graveled path that branched off the main way, which led to a stark but plainly marked Gate. That Gate had six exits, all equally unpleasant; two of those six could be fatal. It was a trap for the unwary, a clever way of disposing of any who thought to spy upon him or worse, and make a quick getaway. The side path took several turns and even crossed the kitchen garden before it petered out. A few steps beyond the little square that seemed the termination of the path, two slender white-barked saplings stood about two feet apart, exactly like similarly paired birch trees all along the path. Pasgen stepped between them, and was gone.


He emerged in a narrow alley that led to a quiet back street from which one could hear the sounds of a busy market. The alley was empty, as it had always been since Pasgen cast an aversion spell on it. The two doors that had once opened into the alley were boarded up. The street beyond the alley was not always empty; only a little of the aversion spell leaked into it, but people using it had a tendency not to linger and those whose houses backed on it tended to use their front doors. Today the street as well as the alley was empty, and Pasgen strode toward the sound of the market.


It was not large, an open area perhaps three or four streets square, but then the merchants were diminutive, the tallest coming only to Pasgen's elbow, so each booth did not take up much space. The customers, however, were of all sizes, many of them Sidhe, and a few even larger folk, which made the market seem very crowded. Pasgen did not mind at all. He slowed his pace to a shopping stroll and was soon indistinguishable from the many other Sidhe. Seleighe, or Unseleighe? There was no telling. Anyone who came here was careful to make his—or her—costume as neutral as possible.


He even stopped at a booth displaying a wide variety of amulets. Most were simply small carved figures of everything and anything, even of every religious symbol—the Christian cross, the Moslem crescent, the Hebrew six-pointed star, and the symbols of every pagan god Pasgen knew . . . and a number that he did not recognize. Curiously, he touched the cross.


"Fine work," the little brown merchant said. "Won't burst if you put a spell on it. Sold a lot of them. Seem to like love spells they do. Seen them glow a little with a love spell."


The little man had an inordinately long and pointed nose that drooped a bit toward his long and slightly upturned chin. His ears were too large, the lobes hanging a bit below his chin and his hair was thin and scraggly. Pasgen shook his head but smiled and took up four anonymous-looking ovals, a wooden rose, a ceramic coiled serpent with lifted head, a leaping horse of bone, and a glass Sidhe head, with open eyes and mouth, that clearly split apart just behind the pointed ears to hold something small.


"How much?" Pasgen asked, reaching for his purse. He spoke in the common trade-tongue used in every marketplace Underhill that was not large enough to have a universal translating spell.


"Gold I have, master," the gnome replied in the same language. "Bespell for me an amulet and you will have paid."


"Or overpaid," Pasgen said, still smiling, but with his voice turned hard. "What kind of spell?"


"Sleep. That should be easy enough for you, master."


It was easy. Pasgen looked down at the table, saw several more charming or frightening figures. "For what I have in my hand, one use," he said. "If you want an amulet that will always bring sleep . . ." Suddenly he realized that very few Sidhe were capable of creating such a spell. To do so would mark him in the gnome's memory. He shook his head. "I cannot do that," he said, "but for five uses . . ." He narrowed his eyes as if considering what he had offered. "Yes, for five uses, I will take these—" he marked the amulets with his finger "—as well as what I have in my hand."


The gnome protested and bargained. Pasgen allowed himself to be divested of three of the amulets he had marked because to fail to chaffer would also mark him as unusual; however, he was growing impatient and finally made as if to throw down the amulets he was holding and walk away. That brought the gnome to heel and he accepted Pasgen's last offer of the five-times spell for the handful of amulets.


"Which shall I bespell for you?" Pasgen asked, about to pick up any amulet the gnome indicated.


Instead the little brown creature pulled a box from under the counter and opened it. Inside was a very plain oval, lightly inscribed with a small tree entwined with a clinging vine. When Pasgen picked up the amulet, it was blood warm in his hand, but it was the material of which it was made, not magic that warmed it. He bent his head and began to murmur. He could see the gnome straining to listen but ignored him. He doubted the creature could make his harsh and scratchy voice sound the liquid vowels and sweet tones of the elven-mage-tongue.


"So." Now Pasgen was in a hurry, and he dropped the amulet back in its box. "You can give the amulet to the person you want to wear it all the time, or you can lay it on that person's forehead or breast at the time you want the person to sleep. Then, to invoke, you say 'Minnau ymbil' and when you want the person to wake, you say 'Deffro deffroi.'"


"And to whom do I complain if the spell doesn't work?" the gnome growled as Pasgen picked up the amulets for which he had bargained.


Pasgen started to turn away, but then hesitated and said, "Cry for justice to Vidal Dhu at Caer Mordwyn."


"Vidal Dhu is dead," the gnome protested. "You know we are between the Bright Court and the Dark and we had that news from both sides."


"Oh, no," Pasgen said, with a lifted eyebrow. "Then I give you a gift, along with the price of the amulets. I assure you he is alive and well and will be holding court at Caer Mordwyn ere long—but the spell will work. Never fear it."


And he slipped away, weaving skillfully among the booths and the customers. Actually he made two rounds of the market in random fits and starts until he began to move into less crowded areas and finally slipped behind a booth displaying very small gardening implements. There he waited rather patiently, considering his urge to continue to his goal, but he neither heard nor felt any magic. Finally he took out the amulet of the snake and sang to it the spell that opened a small, one-passage Gate.


Clutching the amulet in his hand, he walked away from the market into the narrow streets of the town. The houses were hardly higher than his head and after some random turns and crossings, he could see that no one was following him. Then he walked directly out of town until the open ground that faced him blended into a formless mist. He invoked the Gate and stepped through, although if he had not known that he had passed through a Gate, he could easily have believed he was still in Gnome Hold.


Here, however, the mists were not formless. They swirled and twisted, retreating from him and then billowing toward him as if an erratic wind blew. Only there was no wind. Pasgen set out into the chaos with a steady step. As he went, he turned his head sharply to sniff in a wisp of mist that was passing his shoulder. A sharp scent, but not unpleasant.


A little later, he stuck out his tongue to taste a cloud that had formed directly in front of him—and that was sweet, decidedly sweet. Pasgen smiled and began to draw into himself some of the energy Rhoslyn might have used to create a construct. By the time he came to the Gate he had sensed at about the middle of this Unformed land, he had restored all the power he had used to create the gnome's amulet and build his Gate.


The Gate in the Unformed land took him to another busy hold, the next to a dead elfhame. Pasgen did not linger nor leave the Gate. He turned his back on the crumbling hall and averted his eyes from the encroaching "garden" of viciously snapping "plants" and putrescent flowers. Fortunately, this Gate had three unused settings. Quickly, he willed a new terminus in another Unformed domain where he built another Gate that, at long last, deposited him at the edge of Rhoslyn's holding.


As always he sighed, mingled exasperation and appreciation, because the scene before him was both untidy and, somehow satisfying. There were no long, perfect vistas; the view was broken by little ponds around which there were patches of trees, then meadows cropped smooth by dainty sheep. Sheep? What were sheep doing in an Unseleighe domain? When the Dark Court wanted mutton, they engaged in a riotous hunt on mortal flocks, left grazing injudiciously too near a Stone Circle, a Standing Stone, a Barrow, or some other passage into Underhill. Pasgen shook his head. Not that they often did such a thing, at least, not for the meat. Venison, boar, and pheasant were more like to grace the tables of elvenkind. Or peacock and antelope, had anyone a taste for the exotic.


Beyond was a patch of woodland from which emerged a babbling brook following a wavering course over stones of every size and shape. He sighed again as he invoked the minor spell that would in effect give him seven-league boots and take him in three steps to Rhoslyn's castle. A castle . . . Again he shook his head. It was a mortal child's dream, that place; a fairy-tale castle with pretty towers and turrets and bright flags snapping in the nonexistent breeze.


His last step took him to the drawbridge over the moat—the shining, clear moat in which one could see large, bright-colored fish swimming. That was new. The moat used to look like a moat in mortal lands, or one in Unseleighe Underhill—muddy, green with algae, and clogged with razor-sharp swamp grass. It had never held golden fish with trailing fins before. Those were Seleighe things. If Vidal saw . . . If Vidal had a token and found Rhoslyn's domain and saw what looked too much like a Bright Court palace, he would tear it apart and break Rhoslyn's heart.


Pasgen swallowed hard, clenched his jaw, and reminded himself that—that was then, this is now. Vidal would do no such thing. Pasgen knew he had been close to matching Vidal's power before the disaster, and he had spent his years in learning new magic and finding new sources of power, while Vidal had been lying insensate, unable to learn or do anything. Vidal could do nothing to harm Rhoslyn that he, himself, could not counter . . . unless Vidal had also spent the years in growing stronger. And how could he? Surely the time had passed in weakness and pain.


As Pasgen set his foot on the first step of the portico that enclosed the castle door, it opened and two of Rhoslyn's constructs barred the way, standing and watching him. He was surprised. All of Rhoslyn's constructs knew him and all had been instructed to let him pass without hindrance.


"Who are you?" one of the constructs asked. "What do you want here?"


"I am Pasgen Peblig Rodrig Silverhair," he replied. "I am Lady Rhoslyn's brother and I have free passage into the lady's home. Are you new-made that you do not know me?"


It was impossible to tell one of Rhoslyn's constructs from another, except by the ribbons around their necks. They all looked like starveling girl children with huge eyes and small mouths. But those pursed lips could open wide as a lion's maw and show teeth that were as long and pointed as any wolf's. And the long, thin fingers on their sticklike arms . . . Pasgen had seen those fingers slice up an ogre as if he were a cheese.


For a long moment the constructs stared at each other in silence and Pasgen began to debate in his mind whether he could destroy them before they wounded him . . . and what his sister might do to him if he destroyed her toys.


Then Rhoslyn was there, stepping out of a shadow as if she had been conjured.


"Pasgen," she said, and looked at her constructs. "What ails you? Do you not know my brother?"


"Yes, lady," the girl with the yellow ribbon whispered, flexing her hands, "but this one is not the same. He has two hearts."


As Denoriel passed through the door to Aleneil's house, he wondered whether Elfhame Avalon was not just a bit too open to passersby. Elfhame Logres was open too—the gardens, woods, and meadows, but the palace Llachar Lle had defenses. Even his own apartment inside the palace had a door that would exclude any who had not been sealed into its memory.


Of course with the Academicia in Avalon where most of the Magus Majors lived and worked, an inimical intruder would not last long. Not to mention what King Oberon and Queen Titania could do should anyone be foolish enough to invade the place . . .


Denoriel found himself smiling, and relaxed; he was being foolishly protective. Surely he did not need to be concerned for the safety of his precious sister and Avalon. He was still smiling when Aleneil stepped from the doorway of her solar. She smiled at him, and then laughed aloud.


"I guessed you would be coming here as soon as Mwynwen told you, but so quickly . . ." She frowned anxiously. "Oh, you didn't make a Gate, did you?"


"No, no. I will go strictly by the rules. I remember all too well what happened two years ago when I carelessly tried to light a candle. I have no desire at all to feel again as if every vein in my body is afire." He grinned at her. "Miralys brought me by his own sweet ways without regard to Gates or other Passages."


"Ah." Aleneil turned and led the way into her solar. "I suppose the elvensteeds use magic, but it is something completely unlike our own."


"I think," Denoriel replied, having had quite some time to actually think about such things and great need to actually do so, "that it is more that they are like otters that slice through the water of magic, and we are the poor ducks, paddling furiously across the top of it and doing as much splashing and churning as getting anywhere."


That made Aleneil laugh. "Oh, please. A swan at least! Well, thanks to Miralys, then. He must have felt your need."


He gave her a comical little bow.


She smiled at her brother as he sat in his favorite chair, fingering the mother-of-pearl design inset into the arm, but she still felt concerned. The blue-green pattern of the cushions no longer picked up gold highlights from his hair; that was pure silver now. And there were small lines graven by pain and tension around the emerald eyes with their catlike pupils, and around his well-shaped mouth.


"Are you sure you are well enough?" Aleneil asked. "I know Mwynwen must have said you were, and I suppose Treowth also approved, but—"


His lips thinned. "I hope they are right. As I said, I do not enjoy being afire. But four years, Aleneil . . . eight long seasons. I am beginning to think I would rather not exist than be imprisoned and powerless for much longer." He saw the distress on her face and reached forward toward the settle to pat her arm and smile. "I am sure Mwynwen erred on the side of caution rather than optimism."


"Unless your endless complaints wore down even Mwynwen's patience," Aleneil said, but she was smiling again.


"And you do not give Treowth proper credit," Denoriel said, grinning. "I know he is more concerned for his reputation and his skill in magic than for the welfare of any people, but it would reflect ill on him if his magic killed me."


Aleneil laughed aloud, making a gesture that waked a peculiar, invisible movement in the air. By the time she spoke again, a small table had appeared beside Denoriel's chair bearing a flagon of his favorite wine and a delicate glass.


"So, what is permitted you now?"


"Passive magic. I may go through a Gate and visit the mortal world, so I want to see Elizabeth—and Harry wants me to see her. He worries about her . . ." He hesitated and then continued. "I don't think Mwynwen likes his concern with Elizabeth. I think she fears he will want to return to the World Above and she does not want to tell him that he cannot, not really. Oh, for a few hours, even a day or two, but not to live. The elf-shot still poisons him and she must drain it every few weeks. I hope if I see the child and can assure him of her health and safety he will be more content."


"You think he will believe you more readily than me? I have been visiting her regularly all this time and telling him that she is safe and happy. She has a most loving governess in Katherine Champernowne. Blanche Parry is now chief of the maids and a close companion."


Aleneil caught her brother's look of sudden concentration, and felt both alarmed and pleased. This was the first time in four mortal years that Denoriel had shown interest in the child they had all worked so hard to save.


"Does Elizabeth know what Blanche is?" Denoriel asked. "As a babe Elizabeth could see through illusion. Can she still do that?"


Aleneil sighed, for she had not been able to get as near to the child as she would have liked. "If she can, she does not speak of it. She is a strange, self-possessed, most unchildlike child and says very little . . . but I think she does know what Blanche is and values her accordingly. She has other safeguards too. Dunstan is still groom of her chamber. Likely in a few years the office will be given to some high-born nonentity, but the whole household depends on Dunstan. He will retain his authority if not his title."


"Remind me to tell him that Lord Denno will assure him his salary if he be superceded."


Aleneil smiled. "I think that just, but not necessary. He is besotted of the child, and so are Ladbroke and Tolliver, who keep her stable. None would overlook any danger to her and all of them swear that there has been no intrusion from Underhill in all this time."


He nodded briskly. "Good enough. Still, I need to become reacquainted with her. She liked me well enough when she was a babe, but nothing compared with what she felt for Harry. If your FarSeeing is true—and I have never known it not to be—you and I will be with her when she is crowned, so she must get to know me."


"Crowned." Aleneil's smile turned to a frown. "My brother, you must never forget that is only one of the Seeings. There are two others. One is only dull and disgusting, but the other is of the dull-haired queen with the swollen belly. We all feel it. The Great Evil will grow inside her. If that comes to pass, I do not know if Underhill will survive. We must keep Elizabeth safe and in the line of succession. We must."


But now Denoriel straightened unconsciously in his chair, looking more like his old self—and a knight—than he had in many a season. And when he spoke, it was with all of the old certainty. "If we must, sister dear, then depend upon it. We will."


 


 


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