Wheel of the Infinite
Hardback: Avon Eos, July 2000.
Paperback: HarperCollins Eos, December 2001.
Design by Amy Halperin, cover by Donato Giancola.
A black storm is spreading across the Wheel of the Infinite. Every night the Voices of the Ancestors--the Wheel's constructors and caretakers--brush the darkness away and repair the damage with brightly colored sands and potent magic. Each morning the storm reappears, bigger and darker than before, unraveling the beautiful and orderly patterns.
With chaos in the wind, a woman with a shadowy past has returned to Duvalpore. A murderer and traitor--an exile disgraced, hated, and feared, and haunted by her own guilty conscience--Maskelle has been summoned back to help put the world right. Once she was the most enigmatic of the Voices, until cursed by her own actions. Now, in the company of Rian--a skilled and dangerously alluring swordsman--she must confront dread enemies old and new, and a cold, stalking malevolence unlike any she has ever encountered. For if Maskelle cannot unearth the cause of the Wheel's accelerating disintegration--if she cannot free herself from the ghosts of the past and focus on the catastrophe to come--the world will plunge headlong into the terrifying abyss toward which it is recklessly hurtling. And all that is, ever was, and will be will end.
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Maskelle had been asking the Ancestors to stop the rain three
days running now and as usual, they weren't listening.
She stood on a little hill, surrounded by the heavy jungle
that lined either side of the river of mud that had once been the
road, and watched the wagons crawl painfully by. They were wooden
and brightly painted but the roofs hadn't been tarred in too long
and she knew it was hardly any drier inside them than out. One of
the oxen, straining to keep the wheels moving forward against the
tide of mud, moaned loudly. I sympathize, Maskelle thought.
Rastim, leader of the little troupe, stumbled up the hill
toward her, his boots squelching and his clothes a sodden mess.
He paused a short distance from her and said, "O Great
Protectress, why is it we're going to Duvalpore?"
Maskelle leaned on her staff. "Because I said so."
"Oh." Rastim contemplated the wagons thoughtfully, then
looked down at his shirt where the downpour was making the cheap
dyes of the embroidery run, and sighed heavily.
Maskelle would have promised him better, if she made
He glanced at her, brows lifted. "So, there's no chance of
just stopping and drowning here, say?"
"No, I think we'll keep moving for now and drown a little
further up the road."
"Ah." He nodded. "Then can you come and take another look
at Killia's poppet? She thinks she's worse."
Maskelle rolled her eyes to the Ancestors. Rastim was an
Ariaden and they never believed in giving bad news without a lot
of preamble, no matter how urgent it was. She started down the
hill and plunged back into the mud river.
Killia's wagon was painted with geometric designs in bright
red and yellow, now splattered with dirt from the long journey.
Maskelle caught the handhold at the back and stepped up onto the
running board, which barely cleared the soupy mud. She knocked on
the shutter and it was immediately cranked upward. Killia
extended a hand to help her in and Maskelle discovered she needed
it, her light cotton robes were so drenched that they added an
unexpected amount to her weight. She sat on the bench just inside
the entrance so she could wring them out a bit and wait for her
eyes to adjust to the dark interior.
Various wooden bowls caught the leaks from the roof, but
there were still puddles on the lacquered floor. Overhead,
cooking pots banged into empty cage lamps and the bags that held
costumes and drapes for the scenery, bundled up to keep them out
of the water. Killia's daughter was huddled in one of the two
narrow bunks under a mound of damp blankets. Maskelle leaned over
and burrowed in the blankets until she touched warm skin. Too
warm. She swore under her breath.
"Bad?" Killia asked. She was a tiny woman with the pale skin
of the Ariaden and long dark hair caught back by a number of clips
and ribbons. Her face had the perfection of a porcelain doll's
and to Maskelle she looked hardly more than a child herself, but
her eyes were old.
Maskelle shook her head. The priesthood took oaths to the
truth, but she had broken all her oaths long ago and Killia had
enough to worry about. "I'll have to go down to the river for
some more ivibrae -- the real river, not the one under the wagon."
Killia smiled briefly at the feeble joke. "Ivibrae for lung
"Ivibrae is good for any fever, not just lung rot. The girl
doesn't have lung rot," Maskelle told her, and thought, Not yet,
Killia didn't look reassured. Maskelle gathered her sodden
robes and jumped down off the wagon bed.
Rastim had been walking behind it and the spray of mud as she
landed splattered both of them. They eyed each other in mutual
understanding; it had been one of those days. She said, "Camp in
the Sare if you can make it before dark. If you're not there,
I'll look for you along the road."
He swept her a theatrical bow. "Yes, O Great Protectress."
"You're welcome, Rastim," Maskelle said, and splashed toward
the heavy dark wall of the jungle.
* * *
Two hours later Maskelle wasn't so sanguine herself. The
thick clouds made the night fall faster under the jungle canopy
and though the broad-leaf palms protected her from heavy rain the
going was still laboriously slow. She reached the river while the
jungle was still a deep green cave, dripping and quiet. She stood
on the bank to watch the swollen waters. The river was running
high and drunk on its own power, gray with mud and crested with
foam. It was the source of wild magic, especially as bloated with
rain and powerful as it was now; it would be a channel for any
dark influence that wanted to use it.
It was none of her business. Maskelle shook her head. Keep
telling yourself that. The ivibrae proved annoyingly elusive;
usually it grew at the very edge of the treeline above the river,
but there were no patches to be found in the usual spots and she
found herself having to slide dangerously down the muddy bank. By
the time she had picked a quantity and scrambled back up to more
solid ground, the green cavern had become a pitch black hole.
She decided to make her way along the river until she was at
the right point to strike out for the road again. She stumbled
along, barefoot because no pair of sandals would have lasted half
a day in this mess, her patched robes tied up to keep her from
tripping, a bundle of stinking ivibrae crammed under her belt, and
covered with mud from feet to nose. Her braids kept falling into
her eyes and some were fraying apart, revealing how much grey was
mixed in with the dark strands. Smiling, she wondered what the
court of Kushor-An at Duvalpore would have thought of her now.
Not much, not much, she chuckled to herself. Rastim was right,
their luck was so bad it was beginning to be funny. Perhaps it
was the Ancestors, tired of her importunities at last, willing to
drown the whole of the Great Road just to inconvenience her poor
self. Maskelle smiled at the thought. Add hubris to the list of
crimes, if it wasn't there already.
The twilight had deepened into night now and the river was a
menacing roar to her right; she saw a flicker of light ahead along
the bank. Staggering toward it, sodden and chilled, she hoped
that it was a river traders' outpost and that there might be such
a thing as a cup of warm tea before she had to walk back through
the jungle to the road. Or maybe a half-bottle of rice wine. I'm
getting old, she thought sourly. But that was nothing new. As
she drew closer to the light she could hear raucous voices, a
great many raucous voices.
She was close enough now for the lamps lit along the
balconies to show her the outline of the place. It perched on the
edge of the bank, wooden and ramshackle, half of it hanging out
over the rushing river and supported by heavy log pilings.
Several small boats were tied up under it, and splintered wood,
rope, torn sail and the wreckage of fishtraps were caught among
them and the pilings. The windows glowed with light and many
people moved about inside. It's a traders' outpost true enough,
she thought, but it doesn't belong to river traders, not any
longer. Raiders and river pirates must be using it for the night,
though they couldn't have been here long -- Imperial patrols would
periodically sweep the river banks to clear them out. She hadn't
seen any boat traffic on the river, but had put that down to the
rain and rough water. She let out her breath in resignation.
Raiders were as vicious as the moray, the small lizards that
hunted the river in packs. Not only drunken laughter came from
the inhabitants of the outpost -- there were shrieks, thumps,
crashes, even roars, like a menagerie. Common sense told her to
head into the jungle so she could get back to make the posset for
Killia's girl and retire to her own cold supper and damp bed. But
this kind of thing had been her business, in one way or another,
for many long years, and old habits died hard. There was a crash
as a body came flying through the latticework of one of the
windows over the dock. That decided her; this she had to see.
She walked up the rickety steps to the nearest doorway and
elbowed her way inside. The place was full of river trash, as
filthy and muddy as Maskelle herself, except river trash were
usually filthy and muddy by choice. Their clothes were tattered
rags or pillaged finery, like the torn silk trousers and vest of
the one lying unconscious on the floor. They stunk of uncured
leather, unwashed person, and rice liquor, and the bad light
reflected off sweat-slickened skin and wild dirty hair. They
packed the rickety wooden gallery that ran along this floor and
even staggered around in drunken battle on the lower level, which
was awash in dirty water as the rising river encroached on it.
Every one of them was yelling like the mad. The resemblance to
the Court at Duvalpore is striking, Maskelle thought, watching
them ironically. She winced from the din and considered leaving;
the place was so smoky from the badly-tended lamps that she
couldn't see what was happening anyway.
Swearing under her breath, she looked toward the far end of
the gallery where there was a raised platform for the upper level
loading deck. The giant pulleys and tangled ropes of the old
cargo crane hung heavily over it, the arm suspended out over the
lower floor, designed to raise bales through the wide doors that
opened over the river in the wall behind the deck, swing them
inside the building and lower them down to the large area below.
Several people seemed to be standing and talking there in almost a
sane manner. She started toward them, trying to peer through the
smoke and shadow. Frustration made her will it a little too hard,
for her view abruptly cleared. Ah, so they've caught someone.
The prisoner's arms were stretched up over his head, his
wrists bound to one of the supports for the crane. One of the
raiders came toward him and he jerked up his legs and kicked his
captor in the stomach, sending him flying backward. Not quite
helpless, she thought, amused. Two other rivermen dived at him,
grabbing his legs and lashing him to the lower part of the frame.
He was probably a traveller trapped and caught somewhere
along the river. That was why the Ancestors had guided her steps
So I'm not too disobedient to make use of, she grumbled to
herself, making her way down the crowded gallery and clearing a
path with occasional sharp pokes with her staff. The raiders were
beginning to point and nudge each other, her presence finally
penetrating the haze of liquor and bloodlust. Because of the
tattered state of her clothes and her staff, they would think her
a travelling nun. Unless they could read the Koshan symbols in
the silver embedded in the wood, and she doubted that was a
possibility. Maskelle looked around thoughtfully. She didn't
think she could kill all of them and she had taken an oath not to
do that sort of thing anymore, but she thought she could manage a
One of the rivermen standing on the platform was holding a
sword, a real one, not one of the long knives the other raiders
were armed with. The greasy light reflected off the dark etching
on the wavy blade and Maskelle frowned a little. That was a siri.
The brightwork on the hilt wasn't much tarnished yet so it must
have come from the prisoner. It meant he wasn't native to the
river country; several of the southern provinces used the siri and
it wasn't common here in the heart of the lowlands.
The Kushorit, the main stock of the Celestial Empire, also tended to be small, dark-skinned and compactly built,
and the prisoner was tall, light, rangy lean, and sharp-featured. Maskelle was an aberration
herself, having outer reaches blood in her family and being tall
and long-limbed because of it. He was about ten or fifteen years
younger than Maskelle, which, she was uncomfortably aware, still
made him a man grown. He wore a sleeveless shirt and leather
leggings, torn and dirty from what had obviously been a hard
battle, and the blue and red designs stamped into his leather
swordbelt and buskins had faded from long exposure to the sun.
His hair was shaggy brown with streaks of blond and one long
tightly-braided lock hung past his shoulder.
The river raiders wore assorted scraps of leather or
lacquered armor and tattered silk finery. The woman who seemed to
be the leader had a battered helmet with a crest shaped into the
head of a killing bird, obviously taken off some wealthy victim.
She was big and muscular, an old knife scar slashing across
already harsh features. She strode to the edge of the platform
and glared down at Maskelle. "What do you want here, Sister?"
Yes, you're so terribly dangerous, Maskelle thought, smiling
indulgently. I tremble, really I do. Dangling over the platform,
the ropes to control the crane were worn and tangled and it looked
like the counterweight, a leather sack of iron ingots, was the
only thing that was keeping the massive wooden arm from
collapsing. That will do nicely. She leaned on her staff. "I
come to offer blessing, my child."
The woman stared, then grinned back at her companions.
"We're unbelievers here, Sister; we'd curdle your blessing."
"Not this blessing. It's just what your sort deserve."
Maskelle felt a dark surge of power under her feet as she spoke.
The river was restless with more than floodwater tonight; it
called to her, sensing a kinship. "But I want something in
exchange for it."
"Release that man." The prisoner was watching her warily,
without any show of hope, almost as if he didn't recognize her as
a Koshan. He didn't look badly hurt, however, just bruised and
"Oh, so you want him for yourself, Sister?" the leader said.
The others laughed and grinned at each other.
If you don't consider the source, it's not a bad idea,
Maskelle thought. He was handsome, in an exotic way, which was
probably why the raiders had saved him to amuse themselves with
rather than killing him immediately. The Koshans only demanded
abstinence from initiates during the first three years of
instruction, but it was a common misconception that all members of
the Order were celibate.
Before Maskelle could answer, the prisoner said, "She doesn't
need a club to get company. Some women don't." He spoke in
Kushorit, the common language of the Empire, but lightly accented
Maskelle frowned; she should be able to tell what province he
was from by that accent, but she couldn't place it. She had been
too long from her native land, perhaps, too long among the soft
voices of Ariad. The fact that he knew Kushorit was no real clue;
it was a common language throughout the provinces too, spoken by
traders, scholars, diplomats.
The leader crossed the stained planks and stepped close to
her captive. She grabbed a handful of his hair and jerked his
head back. "So you don't like my face?" she said softly.
I wager she didn't do that before he was more securely bound.
Maskelle tended to find male bullies merely amusing, but for some
reason the female ones always stirred her to rage. Careful,
careful, she reminded herself. The darkness in the river was so
uncontrolled, so near, so willing to be tapped that it was hard to
resist the temptation.
Voice slightly constricted from the pressure the leader was
putting on his neck, he still said, "Your face I could ignore;
it's your personality and your breath that turn my stomach."
This time she placed the accent; he was from the Sintane. It
was a province far on the outer rim, known for fine figured
goldwork and weaving. He was a long way from home. The Sintane
didn't have deserters or mercenaries like the other provinces;
they had outcasts. She looked at the sword the raider was
holding. The hilt might be horn or bone, and the ring between the
blade and the hilt seemed to be plain silver, all of which told
her nothing. The Sitanese sometimes carved family totems into the
hilts of siri, and the ring was often an elaborate piece of
jeweler's art. Maskelle said, "You must be terribly afraid of
One of the raiders gave a short bark of laughter and the
leader released her grip on her captive to face Maskelle. "What
are you saying?"
"If you aren't afraid, then cut him loose and let him fight
your men. If you call them men."
The leader came to the edge of the platform and pushed her
face close to Maskelle's. She growled, "I should feed you to the
moray, Koshan bitch."
Seen at close range her scar was an ugly puckered fissure
across a face webbed with fine lines and darkened with ingrained
dirt. The woman was bigger than Maskelle, much younger, all hard
muscle, but Maskelle felt no fear; her blood was singing with the
urge to kill. She rocked forward on the balls of her feet, looked
into the other woman's glaring eyes, and said with utter
seriousness, "The moray would choke." Even that was almost too
much; if she said one more word the dam would break and her rage
would find an outlet whether she willed it or not. Physical
threats always made her lose her temper; in all the years, that
had never changed.
The raider blinked, suddenly uncertain, perhaps sensing the
danger but not wise enough to realize just what the source was.
She stepped back slowly, fingering the hilt of her knife.
Maskelle waited, smiling, but the woman shook her head and
laughed. "Do as she says. Let him fight." She gestured to the
men behind her.
Maskelle took a deep breath that the others probably read as
relief. It was part disappointment, part attempt to hold on to
her suddenly tenuous self-control.
One of the raiders stepped forward, drawing his long belt
knife. The prisoner tensed and Maskelle held her breath; if they
changed their minds now there was nothing she could do about it.
But the raider slashed the man's bonds and stepped quickly back.
The prisoner freed himself from the rest of the ropes, looked
around at the raiders, and with admirable self-possession,
stretched and rubbed his neck. He caught Maskelle's eye and she
flicked a glance at the gallery railing behind her, wondering if
he would pick up on the hint. She needed the raiders' attention
to be away from the cargo doors and the crane.
He didn't nod, didn't indicate that he had seen her signal,
but he suddenly dropped to the platform and kicked the kneecap of
the raider who held the captured siri. The man collapsed with a
shriek, his leg giving way with a crack that Maskelle couldn't
tell if she had heard or imagined. The prisoner came to his feet,
taking the sword easily from the raider's shaking hand, ducked a
deadly swipe from a bori club as he passed Maskelle and vaulted
over the gallery railing.
She leaned over it in time to see him catch an old net that
hung over the side and swing down to drop into the water covering
the lower floor.
The gallery audience roared, the leader and her lieutenants
shouting and cursing as they ran for the railing.
Down on the floor below the waving mass of combatants broke
into little whirling eddies. In the instant of stillness she saw
several rivermen with knives or bori clubs surrounding the one man
armed with a sword. The blade flashed and the rivermen scattered.
Perhaps it was the rivermen who were trapped now and not the
traveller. Bemused, Maskelle watched the leaping, dodging
figures. It was like a game, or an entertainment so primitive it
looked like violence to eyes long accustomed to the sophistication
of Ariaden or kiradi theater. The prisoner wasn't wielding that
blade with deadly intent yet; the plank floor below was awash in
dirty water as the rising river encroached on the lower level of
the outpost, but not high enough to conceal the dead bodies that
would surely be sprawled there if he was. Maskelle knew if he
killed some of them that would only fire the others to more fury;
it was all or nothing. She was a little surprised that he
recognized that as well. The crowd pressed in again, trying to
rush him, but their nerve failed and they splashed away.
"Well, Sister, where's our blessing?" the leader demanded,
trying to recover her control of the situation.
Maskelle tried to decide just which invocation would annoy
the Ancestors the most. The Great Opening, the signal part of the
Year Rite, would get their attention and hearing the words of it
on her lips should elicit the quickest response. She turned away
from the railing and stepped up onto the platform, clearing her
As Maskelle faced the room and lifted her staff above her
head the raiders' leader called out, "Attend to the nun, you
bastards!" She grinned derisively around at her companions.
"She's going to give us a blessing!"
Some of the raiders turned toward this new diversion but most
were too occupied by the fighting to listen. A man almost too
drunk to stand on his feet staggered up on the platform muttering,
"Kill the Koshan bitch--"
Maskelle swung her staff down and around, slamming him in the
chest and sending him crashing backward off the platform. That
got their attention.
The shouts and drunken roaring died away. Into the relative
quiet Maskelle said, "I am the Voice of the Adversary."
She hadn't spoken loudly but her words carried across the
room. There were gasps and outcries, proving that some of the
raiders at least were among the devout. One quick thinker turned
and dived out the nearest window. The leader stared around,
baffled and angry.
Maskelle spoke the first words of the Great Opening. This
was too much presumption for the myriad forces of the Infinite to
ignore. All the lamps in this half of the chamber flickered and
In the sudden darkness Maskelle swung around to the cargo
doors and with the end of her staff threw the latch up.
The doors swung open and wind-driven rain rushed in. There
were shrieks and shouts as the rivermen began to panic, shoving
and pushing. Maskelle stepped quickly to the crane's
counterweight, drawing the little knife she used for cutting
fruit. It was too small for the job but she slashed at the half-rotted ropes until suddenly the counterweight dropped.
The reaction was more violent than she had anticipated. The
counterweight smashed right through the floorboards, knocking her
backwards. The arm swung and toppled, taking the railing, part of
the gallery, and a dozen yelling rivermen with it.
"I meant to do that," Maskelle muttered to herself, stumbling
to her feet. The raiders must think the post was under attack by
hostile river spirits. They were pouring out the door Maskelle
had entered by, blocking it, fighting and snarling like rats.
Then a figure tore away from the other panicked, shoving bodies
and charged toward her, bori club upraised.
It was the leader. Maskelle met her with the end of her
staff, catching the woman a hard blow in the stomach and shoving
her away. She staggered back but didn't fall; she must have some
sort of leather or lacquered wood chest armor under her silk vest.
Maskelle couldn't see much in the half-light but she assumed the
razor-edge of the heavy wooden club was aimed toward her. She
kept the staff pointed at the leader, braced to move. The other
woman shuffled to the side, trying to get past her guard.
Then Maskelle saw that the ropes still attached to the broken
crane arm and hanging over the gallery were jerking and twitching;
it had to be the rivermen who had gone over the rail with the
crane, still trapped in them. Then a head popped up over the
She knew who it was. The trapped traveller had had hair
cropped at his shoulders while the river raiders either shaved
their heads to avoid lice or grew wild waist-length manes.
Grinning, Maskelle angled sideways, making poking motions with the
staff, as if she meant to try to break for the door across the
gallery. Her opponent, thinking to catch her between herself and
the packed door, obligingly stepped backward, closer to the edge.
The traveller hauled himself further up and when the raider
stepped back into reach, he swung his sheathed sword around and
struck the back of her knees. The woman toppled backwards with a
Maskelle turned immediately for the cargo doors, using her
staff to trip a flailing, foul-smelling shadow that tried to stop
her. Rain and wind poured in, drenching the boards under her
feet. She found the ropes for the winch but they didn't move when
she tugged on them. The other counterweight must be broken, damn
it, she thought, and tossed her staff out, hoping it struck the
dock, not the river. She grabbed the heavy rope and swung out
after it, getting a confused view of the river below, with what
little light there was from the cloud-covered moon reflecting off
the angry surface. She hoped the traveller had the sense to
She scrambled down the rope, not quite so agile as a monkey,
wishing she was ten years younger. The raiders must have had the
outpost longer than she had initially thought, or it had been
abandoned before they had ever found it; the rope was beginning to
rot, so soft in most places her grasping fingers went right
through the strands. But her feet thumped down on the dock before
she knew it.
Cursing, she felt around on the scarred wood, feeling holes
and splinters, but not her staff. There were shouts from above
and the lamps were flaring back to life inside the outpost. She
stood, the wet wind tearing at her hair, took two steps toward the
bank and fell flat on her face. She had tripped over her staff.
"Thank you for nothing, Ancient Lineage," she muttered, her
own abbreviated version of the proper Thanksgiving. She grabbed
up the staff, staggered back to her feet, and ran for the bank.
Once in the bush she slowed, knowing a fall would only make
more noise, though the rain covered most of the sound of her
passing. When she had gone some distance she stopped and crouched
in the dark shelter of a dripping tana bush. She heard the
thrashing of several people fighting their way through the foliage
near her. The raiders wouldn't stay long in the jungle; it was a
different realm than the river and they would fear it.
Superstitious idiots, she thought, squatting in the mud. It was
the river that would harbor the evil spirits tonight.
The raiders following her thrashed away and she started to
stand. Someone touched her shoulder lightly, a caution not to
move; she froze where she was and an instant later heard one more
passage through the bush. There was nothing but the rain after
that and the tingle of shock through Maskelle's skin and the
hackles rising on the back of her neck. Someone crouched in the
mud next to her; the air was alive with the warmth and breath of a
living body. How she could have missed it before, she couldn't
think. No thanks for the warning, she thought sourly to the
Ancestors. In the thirty years of her apprenticeship and mastery
as Their Servant, they had seldom been around when she wanted
them. She wished she could say that was the reason she had turned
on them in the end, but that was a lie she wouldn't tell herself.
Experimentally, she whispered, "Are they gone?"
There was the briefest pause, then he said, "They are now."
Maskelle didn't move and for a moment neither did he. Then a
great glop of water from the tana bush struck the back of her neck
and she twitched. He flinched, stood suddenly and was gone,
though this time she heard him brush against the leaves as he
She shook her head and got to her feet, her knees protesting
the movement. He must have climbed out the cargo hatch behind her
and followed her into the jungle. He had returned her favor with
the warning, anyway. She slogged away further into the bush,
wondering why a Sitanese swordsman had travelled this far into the
Celestial Empire. The problem tickled her brain all the long way
back to the road.
She came out of the jungle just where the road broadened out
into the Sare. The Ancestors, perverse as usual, had now seen fit
to grant her prayers about the rain and it had slackened to a bare
drizzle. It was too dark to see much of the Sare now, but morning
light would reveal a broad green plain, cut from the jungle in a
perfect square, the grasses as clipped and civilized as any park
In the center of the plain was a massive rectangular baray, a
reservoir of water bordered by broad stone walks. In the center
of the baray stood a temple of the Koshan Order, reached by a
stone bridge, its conical towers meant to resemble the Mountain of
the Infinite, a symbolic meaning in every element of its design,
every portal, every inch of carving. Lamps glowed from its many
windows and lined the galleries and bridges. To the west of the
baray there were three groups of less orderly lights, the
campfires and torches of travellers camping here in the safety of
the shadow of the temple and the patrols of its guards. In the
glow of one campfire she recognized Rastim's wagon and felt her
heart unclench a little. She hated to leave the troupe, even
though she knew they had been caring for themselves long before
she had ever met them. I've failed others before. Perhaps that's
She found most of them huddled damply in the wagons, with
Rastim trying to keep the fire lit and Old Mali grumbling while
she stirred the supper. Voices called greetings from the wagons
and Rastim watched her with ill-disguised relief as Maskelle
walked up to sniff suspiciously at the cooking pot. Old Mali
grumbled something inaudible. From the lumps bobbing in the stew
they had arrived in time to buy some pork from the priests'
servants to add to the rice and there was taro root baking in the
coals. "Boiling water?" she asked.
Old Mali wrapped a rag around one calloused hand and fetched
a steaming kettle out of the coals. "Knew you'd be back," she
"There was doubt?" Maskelle asked, taking a seat on one of
the woven straw mats laid out on the mud. It squished
unpleasantly under her.
"Just Gardick again," Rastim said and gestured disparagingly.
"Hmph." Maskelle took the ivibrae and ground it up with the
mortar and pestle used for cooking. Together, and muttering
curses at each other, she and Old Mali got the stuff strained into
a pottery cup. Old Mali carried it off to Killia's wagon, leaving
Maskelle and Rastim to stare at each other tiredly.
"So we'll be there in two days, will we?" he asked.
"Yes." She flexed her hands in the firelight. Her back hurt
from the damp and she felt old. More than a half decade over
twice twenty years wasn't that old for the Ariaden or the
Kushorit. But it was old for a Court Lady and her hands were
almost as calloused as Old Mali's.
"And there'll be good crowds to perform for?" Rastim was
"Oh, yes." Though "good" was a matter of perspective. "The
best of the best. And generous, too."
"Ah." Rastim nodded, looking out over the dark wet plain
beyond the boundary of firelight and wagons. "And the audience
with the great priest?"
"He'll speak to you." Maskelle was taking the Ariaden to
Duvalpore to see the Celestial One, the highest religious office
in the Celestial Empire.
"Two days. If the rain doesn't slow us down."
"It won't," she said, knowing it was true, a Word whispered
in her ear by the Ancestors. They were good for something,
Old Mali came back from Killia's wagon, a stooped figure on
stumpy legs, and thumped her chest and nodded. From long
acquaintance with Old Mali Maskelle took this to mean that
Killia's daughter had drunk the posset and it had already relieved
some of the congestion in her lungs. With luck, it would help
the fever too.
Maskelle stood and eased the kinks in her back. She wasn't
hungry anymore, even for tea, even for rice wine. And she didn't
want to answer all the same questions from the others, once the
smell of supper permeated the wagons and they began to creep out.
She nodded to them and limped toward her wagon. It stood slightly
apart the way she liked it, the two oxen unharnessed and dozing
over fodder. Old Mali drove it for her during the day, and had
opened the light wooden side panels when the rain had stopped, so
the interior could air out. Maskelle paused at the dropped
tailgate, looking into the dark. She could see the temple from
The massive domed spire was black against the lighter shade
of the sky, the moon shape of the portal below it barely visible;
male and female phallic symbols woven together. The detail of the
terraced carvings were entirely lost in shadow. They had passed
small sanctuaries along the way, but this was the first time in
too many years that she had been so close to a true temple.
She moved away from the wagon, one of the oxen snuffling at
her as she drifted past. The temple was calling to her, not the
stone shell, but what it represented, and the power that likeness
She walked through the sodden grass, until she came to the
edge of the baray and stepped up onto the stone bank. The Koshan
priests had the custody of the temples, but they were only static
forms. It was the End of Year rite that remade the universe in
its own image, and that was only performed by the Voices of the
Ancestors. The End of Decade rites were even more crucial.
This year would be the End of a Hundred Years rite.
Maskelle lifted her staff, holding it above her head. An
echo whispered through her, a reflection from the Infinite through
the structure of the temple. After all these years, it still knew
her. "I helped another stranger tonight," she whispered. "I
didn't kill anyone to do it. Not intentionally, at least. Is
that enough for you?"
A slow wave of darkness climbed the temple wall, the lamps in
the windows winking out one by one.
She lowered the staff and let out her breath. No, it wasn't
enough. And now they will all know you're back. Oh, the delight
in the power never died, that was the curse, and her true
punishment, whatever the priests had decreed. She shook her head
at her own folly and turned back to the camp.
She reached the wagon and climbed up the back steps, closing
the panels that faced the campsite. She sat on the still damp
wooden floor, looking out at the temple and the silver surface of
the baray in the distance.
She was facing the right direction for an illusion of
privacy, though voices from the other campsites, oddly distorted
over the plain, came to her occasionally. The night breeze was
chilly on her wet clothes, the drying mud itchy on her legs. And
someone was watching her. She knew it by the way the oxen, caught
in the firelight from behind the wagon, cocked their ears. She
found his outline in the dark finally, about twenty feet away,
sitting on his heels just out of reach of the light. She might
have walked within ten feet of him on the way to the baray.
Again, the shock of being so taken by surprise was like ice on her
skin. She waited until it drained away then, quietly, she said,
The breeze moved the short grass. He stood up and came
toward the wagon.
Her staff, as much a part of her as her hands or feet, lay on
the wooden bench of the wagon. He stopped just out of arm's
reach. Her arm's reach. She was within easy range of his sword.
He stood in the shadow where the wagon blocked the firelight,
but the moonlight was strong. The heavy siri rested easily on one
Maskelle stretched out her foot, her toes finding the staff
where it lay on the rough planks and gradually easing it towards
"What did you do?" he said.
He couldn't be asking her what she thought he was asking her;
after a moment she realized he meant the lamps in the temple.
"I'm a Voice of the Ancestors." That was still strictly true, if
it didn't actually answer the question. "What were you doing in
"Getting killed. Did it look like anything else?"
Instead of taking the bait, she said, "That's a fine way to
say thank you."
"I was going up river and walked into them."
"That's still not 'thank you.'" Though it could well be the
truth. If he had come up the Western Road from the Sintane, he
could have crossed the river at the fords at Takis. But why move
along the bank instead of going on to the Great Road? Well, the
Great Road has regular patrols, the river doesn't, not in the
He didn't take the bait, either. He said, "You're a wizard?"
Silence, while the damp breeze made the water in the baray
lap against the stone banks and the temple cattle lowed in the
distance. Why did she suspect it was the silence of disbelief?
Almost against her will, she added, "I receive the Ancestors'
Will, when they have any, and translate it for others. In return,
They allow me to manipulate the power of the Infinite." An
enormous simplification of the process, but she didn't think he
wanted an hours-long philosophy debate.
More silence. The disbelief was so thick it was practically
dripping off the wagon. Finally, he said, "Are all the Koshan
Ancestors help me, Maskelle swore under her breath, then gave
in. "To some extent. But none of the others are like me."
He didn't make any response. He was standing with his arms
folded, but she had seen how fast he could move. Annoyed, she
said, "If you don't believe me, you can ask the priests at the
He jerked his head toward the camp. "Those priests?"
"What?" She sat up, startled, and the staff thumped loudly
on the wagon bed.
He stepped back as Maskelle grabbed her staff and stood up.
She could already hear the bells on the priests' sistrum. Another
moment, then he turned and walked -- strolled, Maskelle thought, a
brow lifted ironically -- into the dark. She could hear his steps
on the wet grass. Not magic then and no power about it. Just
skill at moving quietly.
Voices from behind the wagon recalled her to the current
problem. Swearing under her breath, she dragged her wet robes off
the bench and clambered down to the ground.
There were three Koshan priests standing near the fire, their
cobalt blue robes caught up to keep them out of the mud, and a
young acolyte with a sistrum behind them. Beyond the priests,
half-surrounding the wagons, was a group of temple guards mounted
on the small, sturdy horses of the lower plains. The guards wore
dark silk overrobes sewn with chainmail and breastplates of
tightly braided plates of lacquered iron, their crested helmets
fitted with masks to make them faceless and terrifying.
Old Mali was still crouching stubbornly by the cooking pot
but the others were hiding in the wagons, peering anxiously out.
Their eyes followed Maskelle as she crossed the campsite. Rastim
was standing before the lead priest, in an attitude of abject
fear. Damn over-dramatic Ariaden, Maskelle thought. Shaking her
head in resignation, she approached the tableau.
The priest's eyes flicked over her dismissively as she moved
around the fire, then came back to her in growing astonishment as
he saw her staff. The light was catching the old traces of silver
left in the carved letters of the sacred text. The sparks jumped
from word to word as the text wound up the length of the fine
smooth wood like a snake around a pappas tree. The letters were
worn down from years of handling, but they could still be read.
Until they faded from sight, the staff would still have power.
Not unlike me, Maskelle thought.
The priest was young and fine-featured, but the shaven scalp
under the hood of his robe was marked with colored designs of the
first rank. The men with him were older but not so high in honor.
He stared hard at her, looking for what was left of her tatoo, but
her hair had grown over it, obscuring all but the border of the
design at her hairline. The staff told him that her rank was
Voice, but not which Voice. He wet his lips, and said, "You shame
us, lady. You should shelter in the temple."
She leaned on the staff, mud and all. She hadn't ever really
expected to arrive in secret. "Thank you for the offer, my son,
but I can't."
His eyes narrowed, alert for insult. He said, "You have a
reason for refusing our shelter?"
"I'm forbidden the temples," Maskelle said, watching his
He stared at her, frowning, and his gaze swept over her,
seeing for the first time past the worn robes. He would have
trouble estimating her age, she knew. Country people always
thought her younger, city people used to courtiers who spent all
their time lying in the shade and rubbing oils and creams into
their skin always thought her older. His eyes went to the staff
again. But there are only so many Voices, she thought. And the
chance was he would know where all the others were.
She watched with interest as the blood drained from his face.
"You...." He did not step back from her, though the tension in
his body told her he wanted to. He drew in a breath and said
coldly, "So the rumors were true. You've been summoned by the
"Rumors fly fast." She smiled.
A muscle jumped in his cheek. "I have something to show
Maskelle lifted her brows. She hadn't expected that
response. "You know there are very few rituals I'm allowed to
He turned away without answering, his attendants hastily
parting for him. Maskelle followed, baffled and trying --
successfully, she hoped -- not to show it. What does he want? If
this is a trap.... If this is a trap, he's mad.
The priest led her through the dark, crossing through the
muddy flats with no concern for his robes, one of the guards
hurrying forward with a lamp to light the way. After a moment she
realized he was leading her toward the temple's outbuildings, the
stables, storehouses, and the quarters for the monks and servants
that stood near the end of the causeway that crossed the baray to
the temple. He turned through a narrow gate in a stone wall,
pausing only to disperse the guards with a wave. Only his priest
attendants followed Maskelle through the gate.
It was a courtyard, the few lamps hanging from hooks along
the walls illuminating muddy ground and more gates leading off
into the rambling structure that loomed over them in the dark.
Two guards stood outside one of the gates, and one quickly reached
to pull it open as the priest strode toward it.
Inside was a warm close room, the damp air smelling strongly
of goat and the ground littered with straw. The other priests had
remained outside but the one guard with the lamp had followed them
in. The head priest took it away from him and held it high over
the occupant of the wooden pen.
Maskelle took a deep breath, despite the smell. "It's a
goat." The man is mad.
It was an ordinary brown goat, staring up at them with opaque
brown eyes. The goat turned its head and bleated, and Maskelle
saw then what was hanging out of its side. It was the rear half
of a moray lizard. She stepped closer and leaned down, swallowing
a curse. The moray were about a foot long, with tough gray green
hides and a ridge of distinctive spines along their backs, to
complement their sharp teeth and clawed feet. This was
distinctively a moray, or at least the back six inches of one. It
was stuck against the goat's side as if it had grown there, the
two back legs dangling, the spiny tail hanging limply. Baffled,
she looked up at the priest, who was watching her with a grim lack
of expression that was impossible to read. She said, "It's
strange, but such things happen. Animals born with strange limbs
or...." Other, completely different animals hanging out of their
bodies. No, she didn't think she had heard of that before. She
forged on anyway, "They aren't always omens, though people
He was shaking his head. He pointed toward a stone block set
back against the wall of the stall, and angled the lamp so the
light fell more fully on it. Hanging out of the stone was the
front half of the lizard.
Maskelle wet her lips, feeling a coldness in the pit of her
stomach. She said, "All right, that one is, uh....odd." The
front half of the moray hung limply out of the stone, its front
legs and the wicked oblong head like some bizarre decoration. The
stone itself was a square block with cracked mortar on the sides,
as if it had been broken out of a wall.
"Could this be the result of your curse?" the priest asked.
Maskelle lifted a brow, but she found the bluntness rather
refreshing. "A dark power, following in my wake, you mean? It's
possible. When did it happen?"
"Six days ago."
She shook her head, a little surprised. "I wasn't in this
province yet. We've been travelling hard."
He turned away, the shadows falling over the monstrosity in
the rock as the lamp was withdrawn.
Maskelle followed him out into the relatively fresh air of
the court, where the other priests still waited outside. One of
them must have realized she wasn't just an ordinary, albeit
eccentric, Voice travelling the Great Road and told his fellows;
the tension emanating from them was palpable now. He stopped and
eyed her narrowly. The lead priest said, "When I saw you, I had
hoped for an easy answer."
She resisted the impulse to say something philosophical about
easy answers. She didn't suppose him to have any more patience
with such platitudes than she did. Instead, she said, "If it's an
omen, it's a frightening one. I'll tell the Celestial One of it
when I see him."
"If it is a dark power...."
It would be simpler if it was a byproduct of her curse, a
wandering dark power that corrupted whatever it touched, following
in her wake. "If it's a dark power, I'll deal with it. I haven't
been with the Adversary for seven years, but He does take care of
There was a stifled noise of shock and fear from one of the
other priests. The lead priest glanced back at them, frowning.
He turned back to her and she could see him recalling what she
was, despite everything. He hesitated, then said, "I offer you
our hospitality.... The guest house...."
His companions were badly startled, but evidently their fear
of her was still an abstraction, whereas their fear of him was
firmly founded, and they made no open protest. She smiled, badly
tempted, and she knew she hadn't quite left the desire to cause
chaos behind. She shook her head. "No, we both know how that
He misunderstood and his gray eyes turned angry. Maskelle
sighed. She had forgotten what it was like to deal with the young
of the well-born. She said, gently, "You can stand bond for every
one in your temple, but you aren't their conscience, and I don't
have the time to waste in fighting."
He still watched her grimly, no sign of any bend in that
stiff spine. Then he stepped back and gave her a full sixth
degree bow, only one degree less than the rank actually due her.
He turned away and his retinue followed with less grace, one of
them sneaking her an abbreviated bow behind the backs of the
Maskelle walked slowly through the dark, back to the wagons
where Rastim and Old Mali waited for her by the fire. Rastim let
out his breath in relief when he saw her and Old Mali grunted in
eloquent comment. "Trouble?" Rastim asked her.
She nodded and leaned her cheek against the staff. Trouble.
She had known it would happen, but perhaps she hadn't thought it
would be so soon. Maybe I am too old for this, she thought. Too
old for war, too mean-tempered for peace.
"Should we move on tonight?" Rastim sounded worried.
Maskelle looked around. A few other members of the troupe
had broken cover. Firac with his two young sons, who worked the
apparatus on the largest of the puppets, and Therasa and Doria,
who played the speaking women's parts. The travel had been
difficult and their oxen weren't in the best of shape. The idea
of the troupe with their old rickety wagons engaged in a running
battle with temple guards was a grim joke. She shook her head.
"No, we'll stay the night."
Rastim's shoulders slumped a little in relief.
"They won't attack this close to the temple precincts,
anyway," she added, only partly joking.
Rastim gave her a sour look.
end of chapter 1
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