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To Beth Fleisher
My once and future editor

Chapter One

The guard standing beside the four steps to King Venkatna's throne was probably bored beneath the smooth faceplate of his battlesuit. The armor's black-and-yellow striping which made the soldier look like a giant bumblebee.

Memory danced in the mind of Nils Hansen: Shill, Hansen's sideman in battered armor with black and yellow stripes, strikes home and crows his triumph. A hostile warrior turns. The arc springing from the enemy's right gauntlet rips Shill's legs off at the knees.

Shill topples. The air is full of the stench of burned meat. Hansen screams as his own arc lashes out in a deadly curve. . . .

To the folk here in the Open Lands of Northworld, that event had occurred more than a century ago. Duration no longer mattered to Nils Hansen. The dead of ages crowded in on him, and he shivered in the warm hall.

The craggy trader who stood before the throne claimed his name was Grey. "Your majesty," he said, "the device I offer you—the Web, the folk who sold it to me called it—can change the whole course of your reign."

Venkatna's father had built a new palace on the outskirts of Frekka. Rooms surrounding courtyards within the palace complex provided space for the West Kingdom's growing bureaucracy. Previously, the court offices had been scattered within the Old City over a number of buildings which dated from long before Frekka became the kingdom's capital.

Before Nils Hansen made Frekka the capital of the West Kingdom.

The city continued to expand. Already shanties and a stockyard lapped the exterior walls of the palace, and the king was erecting additional barracks for his army nearby.

"We are not displeased with the present course of our reign, Grey," King Venkatna said. The coolness of his voice left uncertain whether he believed the trader's statement was merely unfortunately worded—or was a subtle curse.

Venkatna was a tall man, but willowy rather than massive. His dark eyes glinted with a determination just short of fanaticism. His father had replaced the old linen diadem of the West Kingdom with a circlet of gold, but Venkatna himself affected a jeweled platinum helix which added timeless majesty to his thirty-two years.

"Forgive me, your majesty," said Grey. He bowed so low that his forehead almost touched the ground. "The course of your reign is already splendid. This device, this Web, has the capacity to build from that splendor into an era which will live in memory for all time."

The petitioner who crowded against Hansen's right side appeared to be a rural lordling. He wore imported finery for this court appearance: hose, a jerkin, and a peaked cap. The garments were dyed three shades of green which should have been mutually exclusive. His belt was of aurochs leather, while his boots were cut from the hide of giant peccaries. The materials had reacted in wildly different fashions to the russet stain applied during the tanning process.

He nudged Hansen and whispered, "I think those roofbeams up there are stone."

Hansen glanced upward at the coffered dome over the audience hall. The lower band of decoration, ten meters above the inlaid floor, was mosaic. The portraits and vine tendrils running higher to the lens of clear glass at the peak of the vault were painters' work which tried to mimic the stiffness of the mosaics.

"Concrete, I'd guess, under the stucco," Hansen murmured back. "But very impressive, I agree."

"The Web shapes the course of events," explained the trader at the front of the hall. "There is any number of ways that—dice can fall, let us say."

Grey's left hand came from beneath his cloak with a pair of six-sided dice between his thumb and bony forefinger. "This device thrusts possibilities to one side or the other of the event curve. The Web doesn't make things happen, your majesty, but it encourages the occurrence of possible events that you choose."

Grey dropped the dice. They clicked and chittered repeatedly on the stone floor before coming to rest, five pips and one, in front of the throne.

"Can you see?" whispered Hansen's neighbor. He craned his neck, pointlessly given that there were several rows of restive petitioners standing ahead of him.

"No," Hansen said.

Not quite a lie. He couldn't see, but he felt the Matrix warping to a particular result.

A five-meter semicircle was marked on the floor with white tesserae which stood out brilliantly from the mottled gray marble of the remainder of the room. The white band was a deadline, literally. Except for the highest members of Venkatna's court—with permission—and Queen Esme herself, anyone who stepped across the boundary would be killed by the guard.

"I'm Salles of Peace Rock," the stranger said, offering his arm to shake. "Are you here to get your district's tribute reduced too?"

"Now, your majesty," the trader said. "Throw the dice yourself while your chamberlain here sits within the Web and controls the fall to come up six each time."

"I'll throw them, my dear," said Queen Esme. She rose from the top step of the throne where she regularly sat, leaning against the leg of her husband.

Though the seat was one of highest honor, it cannot have been particularly comfortable. Esme moved stiffly in her garments of silk brocade. The wimple which framed her face also concealed the gray of her hair, but the queen looked very old. She was her husband's senior by a dozen years; a casual observer might have thought her Venkatna's mother rather than his wife.

"No," said Hansen. "My name's Hansen and I'm from far away. Just visiting the court I've heard so much about."

He locked his grip with that of Salles. A warrior's salute, forearm to forearm; either man's hand grasping the other near the elbow. The calluses on Salles' joints had been rubbed by years of exercise wearing a battlesuit.

Hansen remembered: locked together with a better-armed warrior named Zieborn. Sweat in Hansen's eyes, his muscles straining, and his skin rubbed raw by the inner surface of his shoddy battlesuit. Zieborn's blazing, blue-white arc edging inexorably toward Hansen's face. . . .

"N-n-n . . . ," Hansen whispered inaudibly.

Zieborn's face afterward. Tongue protruding. Hair and moustache out straight with the ends still smoldering from Hansen's fatal bolt.

"What's that?" Salles asked in puzzlement. He released Hansen's arm and stepped back.

"I wish you luck," Hansen said.

"Hope your namesake hears you," Salles muttered. "The god Hansen is a warrior's friend. We'll have need of him at Peace Rock if something isn't done about these new demands. My neighbors and I, we've about run out of patience with these slave-bailiffs the king's sending around."

The chamberlain wore cloth-of-gold and a scarlet sash of office, but he was a slave himself. Slaves made suitable instruments for the will of a powerful monarch like Venkatna. Slaves knew that their wealth and influence depended solely on their master—and that if the king were overthrown, they would not long survive him.

A minor noble like Salles had a tendency to think that he was every bit as good as the next man, even a king. Particularly when he'd locked down the chest plate of his battlesuit and a live arc quivered from his gauntlet. . . .

The chamberlain gingerly took the position to which Grey directed him in the center of the Web. The device was a framework of thin wires with wide gaps between them. It was not so much a structure as the silvery sketch of a structure.

Within the tracery were two couches of bare wood. The chamberlain lay down on one of them.

"It's cold," he objected in surprise and pique.

"Concentrate on the dice," the trader ordered. His voice was suddenly as harsh as an ice fall. "That they should fall as a six."

Queen Esme knelt and threw the dice before her. "Three and . . . three!" she called.

The chamberlain screamed. He sat bolt upright on the bench. His complexion had gone pale and his cheeks had drawn in.

"It's cold!" he cried. He squeezed his temples. "It's like frozen rock in my, in my . . ."

"Boardman," said Venkatna in a thin voice, "if you no longer choose to carry out the duties I give my chamberlain, I will find another place for you."

The chamberlain lay back down. His whole body trembled.

"Throw the dice again, my dear," the king said. "Six is not a fall to be remarked."

The chamberlain moaned as the dice clicked, first against each other, then onto the floor. "Four and two," Esme said. Her voice was a melodious contralto.

"And again, I think," Venkatna remarked judiciously. "Though I don't see that a toy which turns dice in the air will make my reign—"

"Six!" called Esme. "And—"

The front rank of petitioners gave out a collective gasp. Whispered comments rose and rebounded from the vaulting like distant surf.

"The second die fell on top of the first," Esme said in a controlled tone that was loud enough to be heard over the babble of lesser folk. "It is also a six."

Boardman lay on the bench breathing hoarsely. His face was ashen except for the trickle of blood from his bitten lip.

"With the right operators, your majesty," said Grey. "Two operators, that would be—this device can impose peace over the whole of your domains. Your peace, so that you never need to worry about internal dissent when you face enemies across your borders."

Queen Esme gave the dice to her husband and seated herself again beneath him. Venkatna stared at the dice in his palm. His free hand stroked the back of Esme's neck.

"How will I find the operators?" the king said as if to the ivory cubes which clicked softly as they rolled against his callused palm.

"By searching," said the trader. "You are a great king, your majesty. Somewhere you will find the right two slaves to make you the greatest king who will ever live on Northworld."

Venkatna looked up. "Eh?" he said.

"An old name for the Earth, your majesty," the trader explained. Grey was turning slowly. "We use it occasionally where I came from."

The crowd of petitioners shuffled. The ranks between Hansen and the front parted as though Grey had drawn a weapon.

Hansen met the trader's gaze. Grey had only one eye. It glittered, pale and as threatening as the arc ripping from a battlesuit.

He smiled, and Hansen smiled . . . and the trader faced back to the king.

"Is the Web to your satisfaction, your majesty?" Grey asked from behind the screen of petitioners who had crowded back as soon as the trader's cold eye had been shifted in another direction.

"My, my . . . ," Salles muttered. "I don't mind telling you, Hansen, I'd watch my back around that boy. Besides, one-eyed men remind me of North the War God. He's nobody even a warrior wants to think on much."

King Venkatna nodded curtly. "Boardman," he ordered. "See to it that Master Grey here is paid his price." He paused, then repeated, "Boardman?"

Two lesser functionaries were lifting the chamberlain's recumbent body from the bench, being careful not to touch the tracery of wires. A line of drool and blood trailed from Boardman's chin.

"I'll see, to it, y-your majesty," volunteered one of the servants between gasps caused by nervousness and the chamberlain's weight.

"You've got that right, Lord Salles," Hansen muttered. "North can be a bad man to know. . . ."

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