"But we don't have a completed survey for the route to Pandah," said a civilian named Baumo. "I'm sure it seems simple to people who don't have to do the work, but most of the residents in that direction are Grass People and don't speak a proper language!"


            Cashel didn't know what Baumo's title was or what he did beyond–it seemed–make surveys. Indeed, Cashel didn't know what most of the government officials here at the meeting did; so far as he was concerned, they all sort of blurred together.


            It wasn't that he couldn't have learned: inside of two days, he'd know the personality of every sheep in a flock of ten tens or more. But he was interested in sheep and not a bit interested in palace officials, no matter how important they were; and officials weren't his job.


            "Well, surely there'll be enough food to supply one regiment," said Admiral Zettin. "I don't think we'll need more troops than that. There can't be more than a thousand or so of the pirates and they're disgusting perverts, after all. What we can't afford to do is wait!"


            The meeting was in one of the bigger conference rooms and involved far more people than Cashel could count on both hands. Besides the important folk sitting at the table, there were all sorts of clerks and runners standing against the walls waiting for somebody to ask them or tell them something.


            A bunch of people started talking, none of them seeming to agree with Zettin but none of them saying the same thing either. Garric hadn't arrived yet and Tenoctris didn't want to get into the business of the black men, the Last as she called them, till he did. Sharina was letting Zettin talk about his notion of attacking Pandah where Cashel'd been a long time ago. It wasn't the same place since the Change, it seemed.


            Sharina sat in the middle of one long side, listening to the argument but not running things the way Cashel knew she could do if she wanted to. She was letting folks talk to keep them occupied while she waited for Garric and the real business.


            Cashel let the smile spread across his lips. Sharina was so smart, and so beautiful; and she loved him, which he'd never dreamed could be when they were growing up together in Barca's Hamlet.


            Tenoctris sat to Sharina's left, reading books and scrolls she took out of the satchel which held the things she wanted as a wizard. She didn't even pretend to care about Pandah. Mostly she'd put each book back when she'd looked at it but now and again she'd lay one on the table with a bamboo splint for a place marker.


            When it was a scroll Tenoctris wanted to mark, she weighted it open with whatever came to hand, generally a codex. One time, though, she'd whispered to Sharina, who handed over the Pewle knife she wore hidden beneath her outer tunic.


            The big knife appearing in Princess Sharina's hand made a lot of eyes bug out. One of Lord Tadai's clerks even started to say something, but the soldier standing next to him clapped a hand to the fellow's mouth and hustled him out of the room. From the look on Tadai's face when he turned to see the disturbance, the clerk was lucky somebody other than his chief had taken care of the business.


            Cashel glanced at the gleaming knife. The blade was sharpened on one edge; you could hammer on the wide backstrap if you had to. The seal hunters of Pewle Island used their knives for whatever work came to hand: chopping wood, fixing dinner–or gutting an enemy with a quick upward slash. Pewlemen were often hired as mercenaries, because they weren't afraid of anything. They had no more mercy than the cold seas where they hunted seals in flimsy woodskins.


            Sharina'd gotten her knife from an old hermit named Nonnus. He'd died to save her life, and maybe died also to make up for some of the things he'd done when he was a soldier. If Sharina wanted to carry the knife to remember Nonnus… well, Cashel figured he'd earned the memory, and there'd been times it was good that Sharina had a big blade.


            Cashel looked around the room, his quarterstaff upright beside him. He stood behind Sharina and Tenoctris, not because he really had to worry about somebody bumping them in this gathering but because that was his proper place. Sharina'd told him he could have a seat at the table–that he could be Lord Cashel or Duke Cashel if he wanted… but what did a shepherd from Haft know about being a duke?


            What Cashel knew was putting himself between trouble and things that couldn't handle trouble themselves. Once that'd meant sheep. Now it was people, especially Sharina and Tenoctris, and there was no work that could better satisfy him.


            A couple soldiers were arguing about whether cavalry could get to Pandah quicker or if the ground was too wet since mostly the Grass People lived in swamps. Baumo was saying something about fodder and horses needing grain. It was all really important to them… and it wasn't anything to do with the real business of the kingdom as Sharina and Tenoctris saw it, and therefore as Cashel saw it too. It was just words, till Garric arrived and–


            The door of the Council Chamber opened. "Prince Garric and Lady Liane bos-Benliman!" cried the fellow in command of the guards in the hallway outside, but Garric was already striding into the room. He looked worn but steadfast and really hard–much like the staff in Cashel's hand. He still wore the breeches he'd ridden back in, sopping with foam from the horses' shoulders.


            Liane was behind him, quiet and perfectly composed the way she always looked in public. From her expression she could've come straight from the library, but the left half of her travelling skirt was soaked black too. She'd ridden just as hard as Garric–but side-saddle, of course.


            "Milords," Garric said. He nodded across the table to Tenoctris as he drew out an empty chair, handing Liane into it. She sat but then scooted it a little back from the table to show everybody that she was the Prince's aide, not his equal.


            "Tenoctris?" Garric said as he slid into the remaining chair. "Just who are these Last that you're concerned about?"


            "If you please, your highness," said Admiral Zettin, sitting at Sharina's left. "Perhaps before we get to that we can conclude–"


            "Be silent!" Garric shouted, his chair crashing backward as he shot to his feet again. It was like thunder after the lightning. "Zettin, that you insult me is neither here nor there; but that you insult the woman to whom the kingdom's owed its survival throughout this long crisis, that is unacceptable! Apologize at once to Lady Tenoctris or leave my court."


            For an instant Cashel, watching from across the table, could scarcely recognize the friend he'd known all his life. Garric's face had flushed and the skin was tight-stretched over the bone. He's like an old knife, worn to where there's almost nothing left but sharpness….


            "Your highness," said Sharina in the stunned silence, "I apologize for my aide. His enthusiasm on the kingdom's behalf sometimes gets the better of him. Lady Tenoctris, will you please proceed?"


            "Right," Garric muttered. He smiled wryly and sat back down. Liane had tipped his chair upright. Zettin hadn't spoken, and none of the flunkies along the wall had dared to move.


            "The Last are men of a day not yet come," Tenoctris said, smoothing the margin of an opened scroll for a moment. "They're able to enter the Land on which we live since the Change; and unless they're stopped, the world will surely be lost for all save their kind."


            She looked up, beaming at everybody she could see from where she sat. Tenoctris really was a cheerful person, a pleasure to be around; even though quite a lot of what she had to say was stuff nobody wanted to hear.


            Zettin was opening and closing his mouth, looking like he'd just been punched in the pit of his stomach. Sharina'd been watching Tenoctris on her right with an expression of consciously polite attention, but she glanced over her shoulder at Zettin on the other side. She tapped two fingers toward him in a signal to be quiet.


            Cashel beamed. My! but Sharina was a wonder. The way she'n Garric had taken back control of the meeting was as smooth as if they'd practiced it every day for a year.


            It was too bad for Lord Zettin, who seemed to be a decent enough fellow. But he was pushy, too, and that meant he was going to run into folks who knew how to push back. Here in the palace you didn't get your skull cracked by a quarterstaff, but from the way Zettin looked right now he might've preferred that to the way Garric and Sharina'd hung him out to dry.


            "Where are they coming from?" Garric said. "Because if they're going to pop out of any body of water, I'd rather go to their base and choke the raids off at the source."


            "I don't think we can go to where the Last are coming from," Tenoctris said, "because I don't believe that's a place on our world. Though I'm guessing."


            She grimaced and let her finger waver over the books she'd spread before her. "There's nothing very clear, you see," she said. "I'd meant to read you the passages I've marked, but only a few of you–"


            She looked across the table at Liane and nodded. Liane blushed slightly and lowered her eyes.


            "–would understand the way I'm putting references together and coming to where I am. And of course, I may be completely wrong."


            "I doubt it," Garric said. "You haven't been in the past. But go on."


            Tenoctris hadn't been fishing for a compliment; she really was that modest about the things she did. It was the only subject Cashel could think of where the old woman was likely to be wrong.


            Tenoctris gave an embarrassed smile. "They're coming to a place far to the south, on what used to be the island of Shengy," she went on. She pulled a slender roll of vellum from her satchel and undid the ribbon that tied it closed. "I suppose it's still Shengy, even if it's not an island any more…."


            She'd let her voice trail off. Looking up while her fingers spread the fine white parchment on top of the books already covering the table, she resumed forcefully, "I'm going to show you that place. It's not that I doubt you'll believe my description, but perhaps you'll better understand what I feel."


            She gave a tiny laugh. "Which isn't panic," she said. "But it'd be fair to call it great concern."


            The vellum was already marked with a star having as many points as a hand and two fingers, seven. Tenoctris had drawn the figure in brown cuttlefish ink, but then she'd gone around the edges and written words of power in bright vermilion with a brush.


            "Wizardry?" muttered somebody behind Cashel.


            Garric looked up sharply. "Yes, wizardry," he said. "I'll swear on my hope for mankind that all Tenoctris' actions will benefit those opposed to evil, but I won't require anyone to watch a wizard work if he doesn't want to. Anyone who chooses can leave the room now. That includes–"


            He looked over his shoulder at the underlings at the wall behind him. His lips smiled but the expression didn't go much deeper than that.


            "–the juniors present. On my leave, whether or not the head of your bureau stays."


            A clerk, and then another clerk and the boy who was Lord Zettin's aide, slipped out the door as quietly as they could. None of the important people at the table got up, but the plump old soldier who commanded the Valles garrison closed his eyes and leaned his face onto his hands.


            "Go on, Tenoctris," Garric said quietly as the door closed behind the boy.


            "Yes," said the old wizard. She'd taken books from the table to hold down three corners of the vellum; the Pewle knife weighted the last. She tapped a bamboo splint against the figure and began, "Bor phor barbo, bar phor baie…."


            Cashel made sure Tenoctris was well set, then resumed looking around the room. He'd never figured watching somebody else work was a good way to get his own job done.


            "Mozo cheine alcheine…," Tenoctris said. Her wand bobbed from each word written around her figure to the next, though Cashel didn't guess she was reading them off the parchment. Some must be upside down, after all.


            There hadn't been so much as a hedge wizard in the borough while Cashel was growing up. Conjurers had come through during the Sheep Fair, but they were just more entertainment like the jugglers and the troupe of mummers who acted out plays on a stage they folded out on top of their wagon.


            What Tenoctris did was different but it wasn't scary. Other wizards had tried to kill Cashel or do worse, but he hadn't found them scary either. They were trouble, that was all, and at least so far Cashel'd managed to deal with whatever trouble came looking for him and the folk he watched out for.


            "… kolchoi pertharo…," Tenoctris chanted.


            The light in the big room was changing, though Cashel couldn't say exactly how. It wasn't brighter or dimmer, just kinda flat. For a moment he thought the horses and lions carved into the frieze at the top of the walls were moving, but that was probably just the way the shadows twitched.


            "Basaoth!" Tenoctris cried. People all over the room blurted things. One clerk made a sound like a toad shrieking in the spring rain.


            The Council Room had–well, Cashel didn't know what it'd done. He wasn't in Valles any more, he was hanging in the air looking down at a crater whose black walls sloped up from an icy wasteland that stretched out of sight in all directions.


            The bowl of the crater was covered with ice too, but there was movement in the middle of it. For a moment Cashel didn't understand how big what he was seeing was, but then it seemed–he didn't feel that he was moving–that he was rushing downward. From close up he saw that the specks quivering in the center of the ice lens were the Last, a double handful of them, and that they were dancing in a circle. The crater's wall was a distant horizon all around.


            "Oh-h-h…," somebody murmured. The sound didn't come from any direction. Maybe it wasn't even a sound, just the frightened thoughts of almost everyone watching.


            The Last paced widdershins in a stately form, each gesturing with his shield and drawn sword at exactly the same time. It was like there was only one of them and the rest were mirrors. As they stepped and slowly pirouetted, blurs in the air within their circle congealed into another pair of the Last. The newcomers joined the dance, spreading the circle slightly; and as they danced, more appeared.


            Cashel couldn't tell how long it went on. He was conscious of the sky growing brighter and dimmer, but that didn't touch him the way the passage of time should've.


            Every time the Last completed the circuit of their dance they paused, faced south, and lifted sword and shield toward the white star blazing on the horizon. It was higher in their sky than it'd been in Valles, but Cashel knew it for the interloper he'd noticed in the south before the Last attacked from the pool.


            The dance went on. The circle had spread to the crater walls. Still the Last wheeled, and more of their kind appeared in the center of the lens. A second round of dancers was forming; and another, and more than Cashel could count on both hands.


            The Last filled the vast bowl; and still they danced, and still more appeared. There was no end to them, none. They spilled out of the crater in lines marching northward, more and more and no end….


            The bamboo wand dropped from Tenoctris' hand. It made a tiny patter on the vellum, no sound at all really, but the Council Room was back in focus and Cashel bent quickly to catch the wizard as she fell toward the littered table.


            It was like holding a bird in his hand. Tenoctris weighed nothing; she was just a nervous fluttering of breath. She'd worn herself out doing this, showing others what she saw herself. Showing what all mankind had to fear.


            "When will it end?" said Baumo, the fellow who worried about surveys. Sweat beaded on his forehead now and his cheeks were pasty. "When will they stop?"


            "When we stop them, Master Baumo," said Garric. His face was tight again, but his voice was normal. "Which we will, on our lives."


            He smiled, though most of the people in the room didn't understand that he'd made a joke.


About Eric Flint

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