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Rites of Passage

April, 2014
Set after Holy Places, and before Houses of the Dead


Ilias, Giliead, and their older sister Irissa walked down the waterfront of Cineth's harbor. It was a busy place, with men hauling casks of water and big dusty red amphorae of olive oil and wine, and traders hawking their wares. The sun was bright and the breeze cool, and Ilias was enjoying the day, despite the fact that Giliead was trying very hard to start a fight with Irissa.

"When are you going to buy a husband?" Giliead asked her, apparently determined to be as obnoxious as possible. "After this harvest, you could have anybody in town."

Irissa snorted derisively. "I don't want anybody in town."

Ilias had heard her say this before, and was just as glad to hear it again. He said, "You should wait to marry somebody for love, like Karima did." Karima was Giliead and Irissa's mother. She was younger than their father Ranior, and had been wealthy enough to take her pick of husbands, but it was obvious she had chosen with her heart.

Giliead kicked at a piling, determined not to be deterred from the argument. "Irissa never talks to anybody, how will she know if she's in love or not?"

Ilias gave him a sour look, but he knew why Giliead was in such a bad mood. They had just heard in the market plaza that Menander, the Chosen Vessel for the Uplands, had left on a hunt, heading up into the eastern hills to follow a rumor of a curseling seen near one of the isolated villages. Again, Giliead had been left behind.

Giliead was the Chosen Vessel for Cineth, gifted at birth by the god that watched over the city; the gift gave him the ability to smell curses and see the traces they left in air, earth, and water. But he was nearly seventeen seasons old now, and he had never yet been on a wizard hunt. Menander, much older and far more experienced than Giliead, should have been letting him help protect both Cineth's territory and the Uplands. The god of each area guarded its territory as well as it could, but wizards and their curselings were adept at slipping through the boundaries to do as much damage as possible, and it was the Vessels who had to stop them. But so far, all Menander's teaching had been theoretical. Now that Giliead was older, it was beginning to chafe.

"I'd rather buy a galley than a husband," Irissa said, eyeing the row of ships. Most of the those docked along here were fishermen or merchants with one or two sails, the canvas every shade of purple, red, blue, and other lucky colors, with the stylized eyes painted on their bows so the ships could find their way home. "Maybe we could try trading with the Chaens."

Ilias grinned at her. "You just want an excuse to travel." He hadn't been around the farm during the past winter season much himself; he had been working at hauling cargo, staying overnight in the city with Andrien relatives. This season he had made enough extra money to buy copper earrings for himself and a second set as a gift for Giliead, and a matching armlet for Irissa.

"What's wrong with wanting to travel?" Irissa waved toward the ships. "Mother and father can take care of our land. There's plenty of time before I have to worry about it."

Ilias knew that Irissa didn't have many real friends except for them, and the people of Andrien village. There weren't any single men her own age she had much to do with. Thinking of some of the spectacular mistakes he had seen other women their age make in the husband-choosing area, he said, "Waiting to pick the right person is better."

Irissa evidently appreciated the support. "That's right." She flung her arms in the air in frustration. "I should just marry Ilias. Save us all a lot of trouble."

Over the past season or so, Ilias had been privately thinking that that would be a wonderful idea, but the fact that Irissa had brought it up, even as a joke, struck him so much that he couldn't reply. He had lived at Andrien House with them for more than ten seasons, but he wasn't Giliead and Irissa's brother by blood. It was apparent from their looks; Ilias was inland Syprian, short, stocky, and blond, and Giliead and Irissa were both olive-skinned, with straight chestnut hair. Giliead was a couple of seasons the younger but he was already taller than both Ilias and Irissa, broad-shouldered and strong.

Unimpressed, Giliead said, "It would be cheaper. And after that thing with the trader's daughter, mother will be lucky to get more than three chickens and a diseased goat for him-- Ow!"

He made a retaliatory grab for Ilias, who had punched him in the back. To forestall further violence, Irissa slung an arm around Ilias' neck, throwing her weight on him to make him stagger out of reach.

Instead of pursuing them both, Giliead turned away and shaded his eyes to look out over the harbor. Ilias followed his gaze, trying to see what was so interesting. There was only one ship coming in, a merchant with black and white square designs painted on the hull and a single red sail. A dark-clothed man holding the tiller shouted orders as others scrambled to take in sails. "Hisian," Giliead said, as if he wasn't aware he had spoken aloud.

Ilias had spotted the bare prow too. Hisian ships never had eyes, so they were just dead soulless wood, like a raft or a dinghy. It was stupid to put to sea on a ship like that, especially for the long distance down the coast from the nearest Hisian port. Still leaning comfortably on Irissa, he said, "Let's watch the Portmaster search her."

Irissa nodded, but added, "I bet they didn't bring any women. They aren't that stupid anymore."

Hisians treated their women like slaves or worse, so Syprians rescued them whenever possible. There were several women who had been Hisian living in Cineth now, known by their skin, which was the color of bleached parchment, and the tribal scarring on cheeks and forehead. The woman who ran one of the smaller provisioners on the harbor front had been a Hisian once.

They started down toward the stone piers, where the ship was being awkwardly brought into dock. Someone else must have shared Giliead's suspicious interest in the newcomer; Ilias saw a patrol galley appear at the mouth of the harbor, the three rows of oars working as it followed the Hisian in.

They reached the slip as the ship was still tying off. Giliead and Irissa's father Ranior was there, waiting with the Portmaster Hadria, an older woman with gray woven through her dark hair. The men who would search the ship for her stood around by the pilings, speculating on what they would find.

When Hadria went to talk to a cargo factor, Giliead asked Ranior, "Will the Hisians agree to the search?"

Ranior nodded. "Hadria said they seem to be reasonable." He glanced at Giliead, his smile turning concerned. Ranior was tall and olive-skinned like Giliead, his red-brown hair almost all gray now, though he still wore it long like a younger man. "Why? What's wrong?"

His eyes still on the ship, Giliead shook his head, his face a little bewildered. "I don't know. It just gives me a strange feeling."

Ilias tried to see what Giliead saw. "You mean a strange feeling like it's a trick to get into the harbor, or a strange feeling like something...else?" He found himself not wanting to say "cursed" aloud.

"I don't know," Giliead said again, sounding annoyed now. "It's not a curse, not on the ship. That I'd be able to see. Or I should be able to see it." He shrugged, almost angrily. "I can't tell if this is a real feeling or I'm just imagining it."

"Maybe Gil should go aboard." Irissa looked at Ranior hopefully. Ilias was fairly sure that meant that Irissa thought she should go aboard and that Giliead would be a good excuse, but he couldn't blame her; he wanted to see the foreign ship too.

But Ranior's expression was serious. "I'll talk to Hadria." He added, still watching Giliead, "Don't say what you're looking for, don't even imply it, not with a look, not with a word. Not unless you're certain."

Giliead hesitated, a flicker of unease crossing his face, then he nodded. "I understand."

Hadria agreed to let them go aboard with the searchers, probably thinking Ranior wanted to see the ship for himself. But once Ilias stood with Irissa on the deck, he admitted to some disappointment. The ship was just an ordinary merchant, her shallow hull stuffed with bales of fur, some millstones, and other goods. There was no cabin on the deck for shelter, just a section of tarp to rig up as protection from the sun. The small crew were mostly young boys, and the dark-clothed shipmaster was a lean old man, his tribal scars so puckered from age and weather they were nearly impossible to read. He stood beside the mast, weary and resigned, and the young crew mostly huddled nervously near the water casks. They all wore dark colors, as Hisians usually did, and had already stripped to the waist to prove they weren't trying to conceal any female captives. They looked like what they said they were; a family of merchant Hisians coming along the coast to trade for wine and olive oil.

His expression of mild interest fixed, Giliead wandered around the deck as the Portmaster's assistants climbed through the cargo. The Hisians barely noticed him, and were more occupied with trying desperately not to look at Irissa. They treated their own women like dirt and then killed each other for looking at them; they seemed slow to get the idea that with Syprians, it was all right to look, just not to be rude about it.

The youngest, scrawniest boy snuck a glance at Irissa, then accidentally made eye contact with Ilias. He twitched and hunkered down closer to the deck in terror. Ilias was highly conscious of the need to keep from betraying the fact that Giliead was looking for curses, and in trying to keep his face blank, he felt he probably looked far more forbidding than he meant to. He tried to relax, telling Irissa in a low voice, "Doesn't look like anything's wrong."

"No," she agreed reluctantly. "Gil needs to go with Menander, to get some real experience." Frustrated, she added, "Sometimes it doesn't seem as if Menander remembers that Gil is a Chosen Vessel at all."

Ilias knew reading the Journals and listening to Menander's stories was all well and good, but Giliead needed to work with a real Vessel, to see a hunt for himself, and to help with it. Yet now he found himself wanting to argue with Irissa that Menander was right, that putting it off was best. "Some Vessels just travel alone."

Irissa pointed out bluntly, "Yes. Usually the ones who die quickly."

Ilias didn't have an answer for that. The Journals had shown it over and over again, that Chosen Vessels who hunted alone tended to come to their ends far more quickly than those who didn't. Though it was risky either way, and usually the companions died faster than the Vessels. Ilias had meant to be Giliead's companion as long as he could remember, but with Menander putting off Giliead's training, it had been easy to pretend it was never going to happen, that their lives would be normal.

He looked away, even more uncomfortable now. Something in Ranior's face when he had told Giliead not to even hint that the ship might be cursed had made Ilias uneasy. That Giliead might be wrong and innocent people die, or be given curse marks and ostracized.

Chosen Vessels were supposed to prevent that, it was the whole point of having them. Hisians didn't have Vessels, and accused each other of being wizards constantly, and killed each other like animals.

In the Poets' stories, it all seemed so simple. Except Ilias already knew nothing was simple.

"Harbormaster, I hope there's no trouble," someone said, and Ilias looked up to see a man he had taken as part of the crew addressing Hadria. "I've been on the ship since Ancyra, and these are good people." He was young, with a tangle of dark hair cut at the shoulders. Under the coating of sweat and grime, he wasn't as pale as the other Hisians, but he was dressed like them with a black wrap around his waist. Ilias squinted at him, trying to decide if he was Syprian or not. It was hard to tell, but his Syrnaic had an inland accent and he had spoken to Hadria first. The Hisian shipmaster had kept trying to talk to Ranior, who had just eyed him silently until the man forced himself to speak to Hadria.

"Are you a trader?" Hadria asked him.

He smiled, answering the question she hadn't asked. "My name is Delphian, from Syrneth. I'm a poet." ***

The arrival of a new poet was an event, especially one from Syrneth, which was the largest city-state in the Syrnai and the home of the matriarch who ruled over the loose confederation of cities. Halian, who was currently lawgiver with his wife Erinni, had invited Delphian to perform the next night. Ranior was a friend of Halian's and so the Andrien family got an invitation to the lawgiver's house to watch.

Despite Giliead's position, and Ranior's former status as lawgiver, the Andriens didn't usually see much of the more prominent families in the city. Ilias knew them by sight, the way most people in Cineth knew each other by sight, but Karima had always preferred the company of people from Andrien village, or her friends and relations from nearby farms. Ranior had a large acquaintance from all through Cineth's society, but most were as eccentric as he was. When Giliead had been Chosen by the god, it had isolated the Andrien family to some extent; people were afraid of wizards and curses, and some of that fear carried over to those who fought wizards and curses.

They reached the plaza before sunset and entered the lawgiver's house, finding the lamps already lit along the broad portico that framed the atrium. A dozen or so dining sets, low tables surrounded by cushioned benches, had been set out under the portico. Ilias had been a little nervous at the idea of going to a formal dinner at the lawgiver's house, though he would rather have died than admit it. He was a ward of Andrien, but his birth family, the Finan, were much further down on the social scale. But Erinni's large family was already there, along with a few of the more important heads of household in the city and their husbands and families. They all stood around talking and laughing, and children played among the tables, and he didn't feel unpleasantly conspicuous.

Karima had made them all wear their good clothes, and Ilias thought that Irissa looked the best. She wore a dark blue dress and a purple stole with gold painted designs, and a necklace of braided leather and silver beads, with polished bluestones.

Oblivious to his sister's beauty, Giliead commented, "The food smells good."

"We could get the same at home," Irissa said, her tone bored. "Better, in fact. Ignias has the best recipe for duck sauce I've ever--"

Giliead eyed her in annoyance. "Could you just enjoy yourself for once?"

Irissa's lips thinned. "We're not here to enjoy ourselves. Mother wants us here so I can look for a worthless husband and so women with more money than the merchants and cargo-haulers can get a look at Ilias."

Frustrated, Ilias contemplated the darkening sky. To hear them talk you would think he was the biggest slut in Cineth. But one thing everyone was right about was that he had honed his flirting abilities over the past season. He hadn't tried applying them to Irissa, but maybe that had been a mistake. He gave her a half-smile. "I thought you were going to marry me."

Irissa tried an aloof stare, but couldn't keep her face straight and started to smile. Giliead then ruined it by saying, "When you say 'mother' do you actually mean our mother? Because I don't know what house you've been living in but--"

Irissa turned to him impatiently. "Well, you're a lost cause, since Chosen Vessels don't marry."

"I didn't realize you were the Chosen Vessel," someone said. It was the new poet Delphian. Dressed in a dark red shirt and dyed leather, his hair braided and clean, he looked more like a traveling Syprian poet and less like a Hisian seaman. He had been given a room in the lawgiver's guesthouse, and Erinni must have paid for his new clothes as part of the reward for his performance. Delphian carried a battered leather case slung over one shoulder, and Ilias remembered he had had it on the Hisian ship; it looked incongruous now next to his good clothes.

Giliead regarded him uncomfortably. "Yes, I'm the Chosen Vessel."

Delphian didn't seem to take Giliead's reticence for rudeness. "What poet did you choose to tell your stories? Perhaps it's someone I know."

"I haven't chosen a poet yet." Giliead looked away, still distant, though the cause was more obvious now. "I haven't killed any wizards, so there aren't any stories to tell."

Delphian smiled, shrugging it off as no consequence. "You're young yet."

Giliead's mouth tightened. "I'm older than I look."

Ilias knew there was no good way out of this conversation. Hoping to change the subject, he asked Delphian, "Have you told stories for other Chosen Vessels?"

"Once, for a Vessel called Lydae, from the Bistrai Island." Delphian's lips twisted as he tried to suppress a wince. "She was killed, and I told that story."

Ilias willed his expression to stay noncommittal. It was like praising water over the bodies of the drowned, but Ilias supposed there were few others Delphian could talk to who might understand. Everybody seemed to know Chosen Vessels died often; few of them seemed to realize that Chosen Vessels had families and friends. Irissa didn't react either, and just said, "The Bistrai Island, is that where you come from? You're a long way from home."

"I was born there, but I've been living in Syrneth."

"How did Lydae die?" Giliead asked, watching him sharply.

Delphian hesitated, looking as if he wished he hadn't spoken. "On her first hunt." He gave Ilias and Irissa an apologetic look. "Excuse me, I think Erinni needs to speak with me."

As he walked away, Irissa took a deep breath. "I hope no one asks for that story."

"That would be all we need," Ilias agreed, his jaw set. "Then people could come right out and say 'why isn't your brother dead yet?'"

Irissa frowned at him. "I don't think he meant that."

"He didn't mean it, but..." Ilias shrugged, giving in. He didn't know what he was trying to say.

The dinner was uneventful, and afterward Delphian stood to speak. Everyone moved to arrange themselves in more comfortable positions on the couches, or put cushions down on the tile floor to sit on. Ilias, Giliead, and Irissa went to sprawl on the grass in the atrium with some of the children and other young people, though they sat at a distance from the others.

The battered case Delphian carried was explained when he opened it and drew out a cloth-swaddled object, carefully unwrapping it to reveal a panpipe. The pipes gleamed white, and seemed finely carved, and he obviously prized it. Ilias heard Giliead groan faintly, and grinned to himself. Old style poets tended to accompany themselves with an instrument, which Giliead thought was dead boring. Ilias didn't mind it, though he did prefer Bythia's unaccompanied style.

The story Delphian told turned out to be an old one, about the Isle of Storms just off the coast. The island was far enough out to sea to be out of the god's reach, and it had been wizard-haunted off and on for ages. Their curses had trapped mist and clouds around it, to make it easier to draw ships to ruin, and even though the wizards who had done that were long dead, the clouds lingered. But what had always caught Ilias' imagination were the stories of how there had been a great city there once, built inside the rock of the island itself and under the sea around it.

When the poem was done, and the rest of the audience called out appreciation and approval, Ilias rolled over on his side to regard Giliead and Irissa. Giliead sprawled face down, pretending to be unconscious. Irissa hadn't gone quite that far, but she didn't look rapt with enthusiasm either.

Ilias said, "He wasn't very good, was he?"

Irissa nodded absently. "I thought he spoke well enough, but something was lacking."

Giliead lifted his head. "I would rather have heard Bythia." He looked around, his expression sour. "But everyone else seemed to enjoy it."

The rest of the guests were getting up, milling around, talking, and the servers were bringing out warmed wine.

"Let's go." Irissa pushed to her feet, suddenly impatient. "Where's mother?"

Ilias suspected Irissa wanted to avoid attention from the young men of good families now wandering around the atrium. That was fine with him. "I'll go look."

He made his way through the crowd on the portico, dodging cushions and tables, slipping between people. Everyone was talking about Delphian's performance, as if it had been the best poem they had ever heard; Ilias thought they must have had too much wine. He saw Erinni, still sitting at her couch, with some of the other heads of families, but Karima wasn't there. He ducked into the indoor dining room, finding it empty except for a couple of children playing on the floor, then went through the interior door to the receiving room.

The curtains that closed it off from the open portico were partly drawn, but a couple of oil lamps were lit, and it was enough light to see Ranior standing with Delphian. Ranior's shoulders were tense, and he held Delphian's panpipe as if examining the workmanship, but from his face his mind wasn't on it. He's angry, Ilias thought. Delphian's expression was placating; maybe he had asked for a favor, for Ranior to speak to Halian or Erinni. People sometimes sought Ranior out for that, and it never pleased him.

"I'll take my leave," Delphian said, with a gracious nod, "I should speak to the other guests." He took the panpipe back and turned for the doorway, pushing the curtain aside to step out onto the portico.

Ilias went to Ranior's side, but Ranior still stared after Delphian. Ilias asked, "Did he want something?"

Ranior blinked, then smiled in a preoccupied way. He patted Ilias absently on the shoulder. "It was nothing. Go on."

It took Ilias longer to get back, because he got roped into moving the tables off the portico to make room for the dancing. Once he escaped that and reached the atrium again, Karima was already there, standing aside with Irissa.

Giliead stood a few paces away, arms folded, and from everyone's expressions it was clear there was an argument in progress. Ilias moved to Giliead's side in time to hear Karima say in exasperation, "Of course you don't have to choose one tonight, but you need to get to know these boys."

Irissa gritted her teeth. "I already know them."

"You don't. You've hardly spoken to any of them since last summer." Karima sighed. "Irissa, I'm not asking you to do anything you don't want. But an alliance with a town family would help us, it would help Erinni and Halian, it would help every other family we're allied with. I'm just asking you not to disregard all these boys just because of how they behaved as children."

Irissa seemed unaffected, but the words hit Ilias hard. He hadn't seriously thought he had much chance of becoming Irissa's first husband, but... Maybe he had taken it more seriously than he had realized. You were stupid to get your hopes up, he told himself. If Irissa married him, it wouldn't cost the family anything, but it wouldn't bring them anything, either. No new alliance with another family, no interest in anyone else's farming or trading concerns. It would be a waste of both of them. And his prospects, as a ward of the family and not a real son of the house, weren't nearly as good as Irissa's.

"That's one thing I don't have to worry about," Giliead muttered, sounding bitterly pleased about it.

"Lucky you," Ilias said, bitter but not pleased. He needed some time, or he was just going to say things he would regret later. "I'm going down to the docks, see if I can find Macritus. I'll go back with them."

"What? Are you sure--" Giliead called after him, but Ilias was already heading for the door.

***

Ilias ended up riding back to Andrien in a wagon with Macritus and Selias, who had been in town buying supplies for both Andrien village and the house. The two men had sampled too much of the wine part of their cargo with the merchants, and were now moving more slowly than usual and were glad of the extra help. Macritus had lost the lower part of his arm in a long ago battle, before Ilias had even come to Andrien, so once they arrived at the village Ilias stayed to help them unload. By that time it was late into the night, and they all three agreed that no one at Andrien House would be pleased to be woken just to take in amphorae that could be just as easily delivered the next morning. Ilias ended up on a pallet on Macritus' porch, lulled to sleep by the sound of the sea.

Ilias woke to a gray cloudy dawn and a sharp salty wind off the water. Standing up to yawn and stretch, he looked down the hill toward the fishing beach, between the houses and huts. The breakers rushed up the sand, white-capped and rough. The sky threatened rain, and it was obviously not going to be a good fishing day. It didn't make him feel any less depressed, but he thought he could at least keep his problems to himself now.

Ilias smelled porridge cooking and decided to go up to Andrien House for breakfast before he got to work.

He borrowed the blanket he had slept in, wrapping it around his shoulders as he started the walk up the hill path. He followed it up through the stands of trees, then to the more level ground of the orchards and pastures, through the large vegetable garden and across to the house.

The farmyard was quiet under the gray sky, the big flat-roofed two-story stone house not showing much sign of life. Ilias heard someone moving around in the cowshed as he passed it, but didn't stop to see who it was. He went up the steps and through the open front door, through the painted foyer and into the atrium, heading toward Giliead's room to see if he was awake yet. Ilias needed a bath and a change of clothes, but he thought he might as well put that off until they had finished moving the amphorae.

Then Ranior stepped out of the doorway into the receiving room. He demanded sharply, "Where have you been?"

Ilias stopped short, startled. "I was down at the village, with Macritus--"

Ranior's shirt was rumpled and some of his braids were coming undone, as if he had dressed in a hurry, as if he had barely slept. "Don't lie to me."

Ilias stared, felt his jaw drop. "I'm not-- Why would you think--"

"Where's Irissa?" Ranior took a step forward.

"I don't know, she didn't come back with us. I thought she was here." Ilias' heart started to pound. If something had happened to her... "Is she missing?"

But Ranior just stared at him as if Ilias was an enemy, was someone he hated. Ranior said, "I know you've been sleeping with her."

It was as shocking as a slap to the face. Ilias fell back a step. "No! No, Ranior, I haven't." Guilt made him flush hot then cold. He had been thinking about it all the time, they just hadn't done it. How could he know that? Ilias must have been looking at her too much. He lived with her, how could he not look at her? And they flirted, it was innocent... It wasn't innocent, but it wasn't anything else, either. He stepped forward. "I swear--"

The back-handed blow knocked him sideways. Ilias didn't know he had been struck until his shoulder hit the floor.

Ranior loomed over him, shouting, "Don't lie to me, you useless little motherless bastard! We should never have taken you in, after your own people threw you away. Your mother's mad, do you think we'd let you breed with our heir?"

"Ranior!" Giliead stood in the doorway to the dining room, shocked and incredulous. "What is..." Then his face changed, his expression turned horrified.

Ranior rounded on him. His voice low and even, he said, "You stay out of this."

Giliead took a step forward. "Ranior, listen to me--"



Ranior strode toward him, and the sudden punch he threw caught Giliead in the chin. Giliead staggered backward as Ranior hit him again, then he fell over the little table.

Ilias shoved to his feet, sick with horror. "No, stop! He didn't do anything, it's me!"

Ranior turned, grabbed up the iron brazier from the floor, scattering ash and dead coals. "Get out, now."

Ilias stumbled, then bolted for the front door. He made it through the foyer and to the front portico before Ranior caught the back of his shirt. Ilias jerked sideways to free himself but his foot caught the edge of the first step and he sprawled face-first on the dusty ground below the porch. Breathing hard, he rolled over. Ranior stood over him and lifted the brazier.

Then Irissa leapt on him from behind and sent him staggering forward. Ranior dropped the brazier as she wound strong arms around his neck.

Ilias struggled to his feet. His first impulse was to run, but Irissa shouted for help, her clear voice ringing out over the yard, and he couldn't leave her. He felt hollow, numb, he couldn't make himself think.

Ranior grabbed Irissa's arms and dragged her off, and tossed her away as if she was a rag doll. She hit the ground and rolled, as Ranior turned back to Ilias. Then Giliead slammed out of the house and leapt off the porch to tackle Ranior to the ground.

Ilias went to Irissa, grabbed her arm to pull her to her feet. He still wanted to run, and he had no idea what to do. Then Irissa clutched his arm, and he realized Ranior wasn't moving.

Giliead shoved himself up and pushed Ranior onto his back. Ranior was limp, his eyes rolled back in his head.

A crash sounded across the yard and Ilias looked up. Macritus and Cylides had just dropped a two-wheeled handcart of amphorae and were running toward them. Confused herdsmen were coming out of the shed.

Then Karima appeared in the doorway of the house, staring in incomprehension. She still wore a bed robe and her hair was down. Sabiras and some of the kitchen workers appeared behind her. After a shocked moment, Karima flung herself forward and dropped to her knees beside Ranior. Giliead pushed to his feet to give her room. She cupped Ranior's face, bewildered. "What happened?"

Ilias shook his head. He wanted to run away, to lie, go somewhere and pretend this had never happened, that he hadn't been here. He said, "Giliead didn't-- It was an accident."

Irissa began, "There's something wrong with him, he's ill, it's--"

"It's a curse." Giliead's voice was flat, but it silenced everyone.

Leaning over Ranior, Karima froze. She stared up at Giliead. "No. Giliead--"

Ilias couldn't speak. Cursed. The word burned the shock away into sick horror. There were murmurs from the others, in dread and disbelief.

Giliead's gaze was on Karima. "I can see it. The air around him is..." His voice hardened. "I can see it."

Sabiras came down the steps, shaking her head helplessly. "But how could this happen..."

"Send for Menander," Karima snapped. "And someone help me."

Macritus jerked his head at two of the herdsmen, and they bolted for the barn to get the horses. Menander is on a hunt, Ilias remembered, trying to make his brain work again. The men would have to ride to Cineth, then Halian would have to send a courier to the Uplands. If Menander was on the track of a curseling, he would have to finish it off before he could come to Cineth.

Cylides stepped forward first and leaned down to help Karima lift Ranior. Cylides had a curse-mark branded into his cheek, from something that had happened years ago, Ilias had never known what. It meant he had been touched by a curse and survived, and marked forever. Ranior had given him shelter in Andrien village, when the rest of Cineth had ostracized him. Giliead leaned down to take Ranior's feet and Ilias realized he should be helping, that the others might be afraid to touch Ranior now. But then Gamias, the chief herdsman, moved forward to help and Ilias ended up just following as they carried Ranior back into the house.

They took him to the atrium's portico and put him on the couch there. Sabiras hurried to get water and a blanket, and Karima sat next to Ranior, brushing the hair off his forehead. Her voice tightly controlled, she said, "Giliead, are you certain?"

Ilias thought, Maybe he's wrong, maybe he just wants him to be cursed, so it would explain-- But with absolute conviction, Giliead said, "Yes."

"How did this happen?" Irissa sounded ill. She hugged herself, and Ilias realized she was shivering. "How could Ranior be cursed? He was fine on the way back home last night."

Giliead told her, "It has to be something that took time to work on him. If it had been something immediate, the god would have heard it and told me." He turned back to Karima. His voice was firm, his face hard, no doubt, no hesitation. "It was something that came on the Hisian ship. There was something about it, I couldn't tell what it was."

Karima's face was drawn, but she watched Giliead intently. "Then you think it's Delphian."

Giliead nodded.

Macritus protested, "Dozens of strangers, travelers and traders, have passed through the city in the last few days--"

"And Delphian hasn't been out here," Irissa said, baffled. "Ranior never spoke to Delphian alone."

"But he did," Ilias said, startled to realize it. "At the lawgiver's house, after Delphian performed the poem."

Giliead focused on him. He asked sharply, "You saw this? When?"

"When I was looking for Karima. I found Ranior in the receiving room, talking to Delphian."

Everyone else stared, trying to understand. Frowning, Sabiras said, "That's not much to go on, is it? It could be innocent."

"Was it innocent, Ilias?" Giliead's gaze seemed to hold Ilias frozen. "What was the first thing you thought when you saw them? Not the second, not the third, but the first?"

Ilias wet his lips. Part of him didn't believe it was a curse, part of him was certain this was all his fault, that he had driven Ranior to this... He tried to force that aside, to be objective, the way the Chosen Vessels' Journals instructed. "I thought Delphian wanted something from him. A favor, something. They weren't just talking. I thought Ranior was annoyed at him. But then Delphian took the panpipe back and went away--"

Giliead said, "Ranior was holding the panpipe?"

"Yes." The others stirred uneasily. Everyone knew that curses could be left on objects, passing the curse to anyone who touched them. It was one of the ways that wizards slipped curses past a god's boundaries. Ilias felt his heart sink. "That's it, then. That was how he did it?"

Giliead let his breath out. "I'll have to see the panpipe to be sure. The curse wasn't showing on it last night, but... Now that it's been used on someone, it might be visible."

Karima touched Ranior's hand. Ilias hadn't thought she could look any worse, but her face might have been etched in stone. She looked like she was dying.

His voice thick, Macritus said, "Delphian can't be a wizard. Surely the god would have known."

"If Delphian was careful," Giliead said, still certain. "There are ways to make the curses almost silent. Something like this, carried on the panpipe, that didn't work until later..."

"You can't accuse him in front of others, even if--" Cylides said, sounding desperate. Cylides knew better than anyone just how serious an accusation like this was. "If you're wrong--"

"I won't accuse him, I'll bring the god to him," Giliead said quietly. "If it's not him, he'll come to no harm."

Cylides nodded, reassured. It was only sense, and it quieted all objections.

Irissa said, "We'll go now," and no one argued with her.

As they walked toward the waiting horses, Giliead said, "It was a curse, Ilias. It made him say things that weren't true."

"I know it was a curse," Ilias said. His heart was like a lump of ice in his chest. Giliead didn't know what the curse had really done. The only thing they knew for certain was that it had made Ranior sick and angry.

"If it's not Delphian--" Irissa started to say.

"It's him," Giliead said.

***

But when they reached Cineth, Delphian had already fled.

While Macritus and the others waited outside, they met Halian and Erinni in the lawgiver's house. The sudden arrival of the Chosen Vessel, with Ilias, Irissa, Macritus and two other men from the farm, plus Erinni's orders to search the city for Delphian, meant that suspicions were already spreading, despite Giliead's best intentions. The Hisian ship had left early that morning, despite the bad weather, and Halian had sent a patrol galley after it. It didn't seem likely that Delphian had been aboard, but they would have to bring the Hisians back to make certain they hadn't been cursed too.

People started to gather worriedly in the plaza. There had been no mistake; Giliead had looked at the room Delphian had used in the lawgiver's guest quarters, and seen curse trails, invisible to anyone but a Chosen Vessel.

"Something must have changed, he's leaving traces now. It means whatever curse he's carrying is stronger," Giliead had told them, and backed them out of the room.

Now the men and women who had been sent to search the city were coming back with reports, and Halian told Giliead grimly, "He borrowed a horse from Belia's stable, before dawn, and told her he was going to visit a farmstead down the coastal road."

Erinni came back from the portico, wrapping a shawl around her shoulders. "We've sent riders after Menander, but it'll take some time to find him. He must be nearly to the eastern hills by now."

Giliead nodded. An ugly bruise marked his jaw where Ranior's fist had landed. Ilias' jaw and cheekbone ached, a counterpoint to the stiffness in his shoulder and back. Giliead said, "When Menander gets here, send him after me. He'll be able to follow the trail."

Halian frowned. "After you? What do you mean?"

"I have to follow Delphian now." Giliead's voice hardened. "I have to catch him before he does this to someone else."

"I'm going with you," Ilias said. It sounded as if he meant to be heroic, but he knew it was more for his benefit than Giliead's. Ilias thought if he stayed behind, not knowing what was happening, it would kill him. Just knowing Delphian was out there, free, was near to killing him now.

"So am I," Irissa added. Giliead took a sharp breath, and she cut him off, sharp and bitter, "He's my father. It's my right."

There was one thing Ilias was certain about. "Gil, it's your first time, you shouldn't go alone."

"If you try, we'll just follow you." Irissa made it sound grimly final.

Giliead's expression was an odd combination of guilt, anger, and relief. He doesn't want to go alone, Ilias thought, he wants us with him, and somehow that eased some of the pain. Halian and Erinni both spoke at once, trying to object.

Then Ilias heard hoof beats in the street, and Cylides' voice called out, "Gil, are you in there?"

Irissa froze, staring toward the doorway. Ilias met Giliead's gaze. Cylides never came into town. Because of the curse-mark, people here didn't speak to him, barely acknowledged his existence. Karima would never send him as a messenger unless it was urgent.

Then Irissa pushed past them and ran out into the street, and they hurried after her.

Outside, Cylides was just swinging down off a horse, a mare from the Andrien stable. The crowd had backed away from him, but was still lingering close enough to listen. His face was covered with dust from the road, and streaked with tears. Irissa stopped in front of him, and said, almost calmly, "Ranior died."

"Yes." Cylides took a breath, looked from her to Giliead, then to Ilias. "Not long after you left. He never woke. It was quiet."

Irissa's jaw set, and she blinked once, then controlled it. She turned to Giliead, hard as stone. "We're going with you. You can't stop us."

Giliead said, quietly, "I won't try to stop you."

***

Giliead picked up Delphian's curse traces at the stable where he had borrowed a horse, and saw that they led out of the city toward the hills, not the coastal road. They rode all day, and camped that night high in the hills, pushing themselves and the horses until it was too dark to travel. They found a spot sheltered by trees and a big rock, and built a small fire. Macritus and Cylides had offered to come with them, but Giliead had sent them home. Karima would need someone to help her at the house, and both men had been close to Ranior for a long time.

After they camped, Ilias made himself eat some dried meat and bread, travel rations hastily collected before they had left. Giliead and Irissa just sat and stared at the fire.

Ilias knew Giliead had been waiting for this moment all his life, his first wizard hunt. Well, it was finally here, and happening in the most terrible way possible. Ilias hadn't thought they had had any illusions about what a Chosen Vessel's life was like -- a wizard had tried to kill Giliead when he was a boy, had been ready to kill Ilias, Irissa, Karima, everyone in the house. It had killed a friend of Ranior's, who had been helping to guard them. After that, Ilias had counted them all as somewhat experienced. Now he was starting to realize how foolish that had been.

And he was still wondering about the panpipe, had been wondering about it on the long ride. Now he said, "Delphian didn't curse everyone at the party, did he? They all thought he told such a wonderful poem, everybody but us. What if the poem was a curse?"

Staring bleakly at the fire, Giliead stirred. "I don't think it worked like that. That would have been too obvious. Maybe the curse just made his poem more...attractive, to everyone who was listening. Like the wizards who make themselves beautiful, to lure people in."

That seemed a likely curse for a mediocre poet to want. "It wouldn't work on you, because you're a Chosen Vessel. But why didn't it work on me and Irissa?"

"You were sitting next to me," Giliead said, then his expression froze. He added, "It couldn't have been a very strong curse."

There was an old unfunny joke, 'Never sit next to a Chosen Vessel.' This didn't happen because of you, Ilias wanted to say, but couldn't. Denying it aloud would sound like Ilias believe the opposite and was trying to convince himself otherwise.

"Why did he choose Ranior?" Irissa poked at the fire with a stick. "Why not Erinni, Bythia, Halian..." She had wept while they were riding, quietly, without any noise, the tears streaming down her face. Now in the firelight her nose was red and her eyes looked bruised.

"Something must have made Ranior suspicious." Giliead's voice was slow and thoughtful. "Delphian said he came from Syrneth, and Ranior's been there several times. Maybe Delphian said something about it that Ranior knew was wrong."

"Maybe it was because he was your father," Ilias said. He realized a moment later, when Giliead's shoulders tensed, that it was a mistake. But it was said now and there was no way to take it back. He rubbed his eyes, and said helplessly, "He knew you were the Chosen Vessel. Maybe Ranior was supposed to go mad and kill you."

Giliead didn't say anything. Irissa shook her head, and said bleakly, "It's not your fault, Giliead. Ranior knew the risks. He was Menander's friend long before you were Chosen. Ranior could have left us, let his family buy him out of the marriage, and gone to live somewhere else. He stayed because he wanted to be with us."

Ilias wasn't sure that made things any better.

***

The rain started before dawn the next morning. It would have been devastating if they had been trying to follow Delphian by his horse's tracks, but it didn't disturb the signs the curse had left. It led them further up into the hills, and in the afternoon they reached an isolated farmstead. It was just one rambling wooden house and several outbuildings, with pens and a poorly maintained garden patch.

"He went there," Giliead said, frowning at the ground as they reined in in the muddy yard. "But I don't think he's there now."

They swung down off the horses, tied them at the trough, and went to the door of the house.

It stood partly open and Giliead pushed in first, stepping sideways to give the others room to enter. Ilias pulled his hood back, shedding rainwater as he shook his head vigorously.

"Who are you?" someone called out. "What do you want here?"

Ilias looked up at the man suddenly looming over him. He lifted his chin, facing him aggressively. "To get out of the rain, what does it look like we want?"

Irissa shoved past Ilias, yanked her hood back and fixed the man with an angry glare. "Who are you?"

He stepped back, chagrinned. A woman's presence meant that they were respectable travelers. "Sorry, didn't see you there. We're careful of strangers here."

If Delphian had been here, they hadn't been careful enough. Ilias knew isolated communities should be wary of men traveling alone, men who weren't the traders or hunters they were accustomed to seeing. But Delphian might have used curses to ease his way.

Giliead scanned the room. There was a step up to a raised stone floor, and a fire in a center hearth banishing the damp. A half-dozen or so people sat around it on couches or stools, in various states of dampness, all staring at the newcomers. A couple of children played on the floor, and Ilias could smell wet wool and leather, and meat cooking in olive oil.

A woman, with sun-faded blond hair and a gold wrap still damp from the rain came forward, eyeing them appraisingly. She asked Irissa, "Your husbands?"

"Brothers," Irissa corrected. She threw a look back at Giliead. "Anything?"

"He's been in here," Giliead said, his voice flat.

Irissa turned to the woman. "We're looking for a poet called Delphian. He may be using another name. He was traveling from Cineth, on horseback."

The woman smiled, and someone in the back laughed. "Oh, he's been here, though he didn't have a horse. He called himself Verites, and said there might be someone after him. He said he warmed the wrong bed, down in Cineth."

Giliead stepped forward. "Did any of you touch him?" They stared, uncomprehending, and he said, "I'm Giliead of Andrien, Chosen Vessel of Cineth." His voice turned to ice. "Did any of you touch him?"

The woman stepped back, shaken. "No, not... No. He traded a poem for food, and a room to sleep in. He told us not to tell--"

"What room?"

The others scattered out of the way as she led them to a door at the back of the house. Curious faces peered out at them from the little thatched outbuildings as the woman led them to one on the edge of the yard.

She reached for the door, and Irissa caught the back of her robe and yanked her back. The woman stumbled, staring, startled at Irissa's determined strength. Giliead stepped up to the door, as Ilias reached for an arrow. But Giliead shook his head. "I don't think he's in there."

Giliead kicked the door and it slammed open. Ilias peered past him to see a little room, with a low bed piled with red and gold woven blankets, a basin and brazier on the floor. The brazier still had hot coals, steaming gently in the damp air. "He knew we were coming." Giliead frowned. "Maybe he can feel us now, too."

Ilias exchanged a worried look with Irissa. He hoped Giliead was wrong about that. She shook her head and let the woman go. "Get back inside," Irissa told her. There was an unspoken I'll deal with you later, in her voice.

Backing away, the woman said, "We didn't know. I swear we didn't know."

As she hurried back into the main house, Giliead walked to the edge of the yard to survey the wet fields. Ilias put in, "He has to be making for the forest. It's the only cover."

Giliead nodded. He turned to Irissa, looking down at her, regretful and serious. "We're close, and he must know it," he told her. "You have to stay behind now."

Irissa started to speak, and he added, "If it goes wrong, you're all mother will have left. The village, everyone on the farm, the ones like Cylides who have nowhere else to go. All of it will depend on you as heir."

She winced. After a moment, she said reluctantly, "All right, yes, you're right." She added, "What about Ilias?"

"I'm expendable," Ilias said impatiently.

Giliead rounded on him so fast, Ilias skipped back a step. "That's not funny," Giliead snapped.

It hadn't been a joke. But Giliead couldn't do this alone, and Ilias didn't think he wanted to. Ilias just stared him down, until Giliead said, "We're wasting time."

***

Ilias and Giliead walked up hill in the failing light, the rain lessening to a light drizzle. They had left the horses behind, since they could move faster through the dense forest without them. They didn't find Delphian's horse, but found the spot where he had hidden it, not far from the farmstead in a wet copse of trees. There had been horse dung and tracks in the high grass, though the dung had smelled odd. Ilias wasn't sure why Delphian had bothered to hide the horse. To throw off pursuit, perhaps, but revealing that he was a poet had identified him more surely than the horse would have. Though maybe the strange smell of the dung meant the animal was ill, and he had thought the farmers would refuse to have it in their pen. Whatever the reason, the tracks only confirmed what the curse trail was telling Giliead.

It was deep twilight when Giliead stopped, and said, "There."

Ilias saw it a heartbeat later. On the forested slope above the meadow, branches thrashed, barely visible in the dark. Something moved through the trees, something large, about half again as tall as Giliead. Ilias still couldn't hear anything out of the ordinary, but the night had taken on a weird hushed quality he didn't like. It felt like the forest was holding its collective breath, avoiding the attention of the creature passing through the trees. Ilias whispered, "It's not him. It's a curseling. He must have sent it after us."

Giliead nocked an arrow, frowning uncertainly into the dark. "I don't know. There's something about this that doesn't--"

Then the shape broke out of the forest and headed toward them. Ilias tensed, gauging the distance, trying to get a good look at the shadowy creature-- "It's not a curseling, it's a man on horseback. It has to be Delphian." He felt a flush of embarrassment, mistaking a horseman for a curseling. It didn't reflect well on his ability to help Giliead.

But as the form moved closer, he made out more detail. He caught the gleam of metal and realized the rider wore armor. A helm and chest piece maybe, and metal bracers and shin guards, barely discernible in the bad light. "Wait, maybe it's not Delphian." Unless Delphian had stolen the armor in Cineth and no one had noticed the theft.

Giliead just shook his head. He lifted the bow again. Raising his voice to a shout, he hailed the rider, "Stop there! Who are you?"

The approaching figure continued toward them and Ilias couldn't hear hoof beats, just the soft pad of something striking the grass. Giliead drew the bow, aiming toward the man. He shouted again, "Speak, or I'll shoot!"

The wind changed and Ilias caught the smell of decay on the breeze, heavy and sickly sweet. An instinctive fear crept right up out of the wet ground and into Ilias' bones, and he felt the skin on the back of his neck prickle. Since Ranior had been cursed, Ilias had felt nothing but numb despair and bitter anger; now he felt afraid. "Shoot him, Gil," he said quietly.

Giliead let the arrow fly.

It struck the man square in the chest, the force of the powerful bow driving the arrow through the chest piece. The man jerked with an impact that should have knocked him off the horse. Then he surged forward, urging the horse into a charge.

The cold chill settled into Ilias' stomach. He said under his breath, "At least now we're sure it's a curseling." He drew his sword and tossed the scabbard aside.

Giliead nocked and fired another arrow, just as the curseling drew a short sword. And again, the arrow rocked him but didn't knock him off the horse.

Giliead dropped the bow and drew his sword. Then the curseling was on them and Giliead dodged one way, Ilias the other. Giliead used his sword like a club, swinging it up to unseat the curseling. A man would have been flung to the ground, but this creature took the blow, swayed and was past them, leaving Giliead staggering with the force of his own momentum.

The curseling reined in and turned to come at them again. Giliead hefted the sword, making it look as if he meant to cast it. Knowing it was a ruse, Ilias backed away to give him room.

Unfortunately, the curseling must have realized it was a ruse as well. The beast made an abrupt turn and bore down on Ilias. He had a heartbeat to decide whether to dive out of the way or try to cut the curseling off the horse. He went for the cut, and stepped sideways and swung his sword up for a two-handed blow. The curseling's short sword chopped down; it met his blade with all the power of the unnatural creature wielding it and the beast bearing down on him. Metal rang, jarred Ilias' arm to the bone and sent his blade flying. The force of the charge should have carried the creature well past him, but the curseling reined in with superhuman strength. As Ilias spun away, a hand seized him by the hair and the back of his shirt.

His feet left the ground and with stunning force he slammed head-first into the hot sweating side of the animal. Leather scraped his chest as the curseling dragged him up over the saddlebow. The air was knocked right out of his lungs and everything went dark.

Hanging head down, Ilias came to only a few heartbeats later, saw branches fly by and knew they had just entered the forest; under the trees it was dark as the inside of barrel. Ilias' first dazed thought was Great. Giliead is going to kill me.

The curseling had one hand still knotted painfully in his hair, the other holding the reins. Even jolting like this, Ilias could tell the creature under him wasn't a normal horse, at least not anymore; the smell was foul, like rotted meat. It plunged through the dark forest as if this was an open field in broad daylight, and its breath came in low growls. Ilias reached up under his shirt, managed to grip the hilt of the knife tucked through his belt and pull it free.

He could feel the armor plate on the curseling's leg, and it felt more like bone than metal. Maybe that's how he got the armor, maybe a curse grew it on him. That wasn't a pleasant thought. Ilias knew he had one chance and instinct told him to lift the knife and drive it into the ribcage of the sweating beast instead of the rider.

It screamed and jolted sideways. The curseling let go of Ilias to grab the reins with both hands. Ilias shoved up and catapulted himself free, hit the ground and shoulder-rolled to his feet. He staggered and caught his balance, braced to move; it was so dark he could barely see the damn thing. He heard the beast plunge and scream, heard branches break as it moved further away.

Ilias tried to pace it but the creature was so fast he lost it within moments. It'll go back for Gil, he thought, turning back toward the open fields.

Running as fast as he could in the dark, Ilias re-traced their path, ducking half-seen branches and dodging trees. After only a few moments he heard something big moving through the forest toward him. Something big on two legs. Ilias slid to a halt and called cautiously, "Gil?"

"Ilias?" Dead leaves crunched underfoot as Giliead burst out of the brush. He grabbed Ilias by the shoulders. "You-- I--"

"I couldn't help it, he caught me, and that horse is cursed too, it's not-- Wait, listen."

They both froze and faintly, in the distance, Ilias heard branches crashing in a rhythmic beat -- the curseling heading back towards open ground. Giliead swore, letting Ilias go. "Come on!"

Ilias plunged after him and they ran, barreling through the trees. They burst out of the brush and into the moonlight of the open meadow.

The curseling emerged from the trees down toward the end of the meadow, and reined in when he saw them.

"Now what?" Ilias asked, breathing hard.

"We need to get him off the damn thing, whatever it is," Giliead muttered, studying the creature silhouetted in the dim light.

"I stabbed it. It can feel pain." Ilias scanned the field, looking for his dropped sword, and spotted the moonlit gleam of the blade where it lay in the grass about thirty paces away.

"That helps." Giliead started forward, lifting his sword. "Stay with me this time."

"Really?" Ilias snapped. "I thought I'd stake myself out in the middle of the field like a stalking goat." He wasn't incredibly pleased with himself for his mistake either.

Giliead spared a moment to throw him an angry glare, then turned it on the waiting curseling. "We need to get him to charge us."

Ilias didn't think that was going to be a problem.

With a yell, Giliead plunged forward, Ilias with him. The curseling took the bait and spurred his mount forward. Giliead lifted the sword as if he meant to try another useless throw. Then at the last moment Ilias slid to a halt, waving and shouting to distract the rider and Giliead swerved in front of the horse, almost under its hooves.

The curseling tried to rein in but too late; the horse slammed right into the sword and shrieked in pain. It reared back and dumped its rider, and fell with a thump. The rider rolled to his feet, his shortsword ready. Ilias had been right; his armor was bone, and seemed fused to his body.

Ilias ran back a few paces and snatched up his own weapon. He returned to Giliead's side, watching the armored curseling warily. Giliead was breathing hard, still holding the much reduced stump of the sword, his hands covered with the animal's blood. He said, "You were right. That isn't a horse, not anymore."

Ilias threw a glance at the creature, which lay unmoving in the grass. The pale moon glinted off a set of gleaming fangs in a distended snout. He held out his sword to Giliead. Giliead dropped what was left of his weapon and took it.

The curseling watched them, though the bone helmet covered his face and Ilias couldn't see much detail.

"Delphian," Giliead said the name evenly. "You're not a wizard. But you know a wizard, don't you? He gave you something, something that affects anything it touches. Your body, that horse. My father."

"It was a gift." Beyond a doubt, it was Delphian's voice, hoarse but clearly recognizable. "It wasn't meant to do this. It makes me the greatest poet of this age."

The bone-carved panpipe, Ilias thought. "But where is..." He trailed off. The bone armor.

Giliead seemed to know already. He said, "Was it last night that it started to change, to cling to you, to grow over you--"

Delphian snarled, "You did that. You made it do that. Just being near a Chosen Vessel--"

Giliead ignored that. "Why did you use it on Ranior? Did he suspect you? Did he know--"

"It was a bargain, when the wizard gave it to me." Admitting it made Delphian seem to shrink. He crumpled, sinking to the ground. "If I ever came across a Chosen Vessel, I was to let someone close to him hold it. He didn't say what it would do next." He looked up at Giliead, and Ilias saw the helmet was fused to his face, that blood leaked from under it. "Please..."

Giliead stepped in, spun into the sword stroke and put all his weight behind it. The blade connected with flesh and bone and drove through it.

Ilias stepped back as Delphian collapsed and his severed head rolled away.

Giliead stood there for a long moment, then he tossed the sword down. He said, wearily, "Well, that's done."

Ilias nodded. It didn't change anything, and it didn't help. He didn't feel any relief, or pleasure in Delphian's death. He felt tired, and sorry for the horse.

***

Giliead had to keep Delphian's head, to take back to show the god and the people of Cineth, but they had to dispose of the rest of the body, to make certain the curse didn't linger here. No one at the farmstead would help them, so Irissa spit at their feet and took shovels out of their shed, daring them to stop her. She, Ilias, and Giliead dug a shallow hollow in the field and piled brush on it to burn Delphian and the horse's corpse. It took the rest of the night, and it wasn't until dawn, when they were shoveling in the last of the dirt over the charred remnants, that Giliead broke down.

He dropped the shovel, sat down on the ground, and wept, harsh broken sobs that made Ilias' heart twist. He sat next to Giliead and leaned against his side. Irissa dropped her shovel and settled next to them. She didn't cry, she just looked sick and weary.

This is it, Ilias thought. This is what it's going to be like, the rest of his life, the rest of our lives. They had been lucky up to this point, astonishingly lucky. And he understood why Menander had put off taking Giliead on hunts. Menander had loved Giliead too well, perhaps, and had been trying to delay this moment as long as he could.

If Ilias had any sense, he would get up now and walk into the woods, trick some farmer woman into marrying him, and spend his life digging fields and fathering babies. Happy, but not safe. Never safe, and knowing too much about what was waiting out there in the dark, just beyond the god's limited boundary. And how clever it was at slipping through that boundary.

Looking at Irissa, he knew it was the same for her as well, why she hadn't wanted to look for a husband among the young men of Cineth. She couldn't bring a brother-in-law into the Chosen Vessel's house, to be another potential victim and hostage to fate.

The thought that Irissa might turn to Ilias eventually out of desperation, because they both ran the same risk, was bleak past bearing.

Irissa avoided his eyes, and they sat there until Giliead quieted and wiped his face awkwardly on his arm. Irissa said, "We should go. Mother will be worried."

Giliead nodded, gripped Ilias's arm once, hard. They got to their feet to walk back down the hills to Cineth.


end


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