Chapter 1 – rewrite

CHAPTER 1

1.

I am leaving, son. It is in your hands now. May the Gods smile upon you.

There was only that… and then there was nothing.

The young man who had been sprawled atop the still-made bed of the ornate bedchamber, fast asleep, sat up rather more quickly than he had intended; the movement made his head swim.

It had been… it had been…

There was nothing. There was a void.

It had been his father’s voice, his father’s Pattern, that had roused him – but now, awake, he cast about for it to make reply and he could find nothing at all. He couldn’t even call to mind the Pattern incised in his own father’s ch’ia stone, something he had lived with all of his life. It was as though it had never been. As though his father had never existed at all.

Now very wide awake, but with a fierce headache gathering at his temples, he swung his feet off the bed. He noted, with a small frown, that he was still fully dressed – that the only thing he seemed to have paused to accomplish before falling onto the bed had been to shed his cloak and to remove his boots. The boots had been flung just far enough from the bed to tangle with his stocking feet as he took a step towards the half-closed curtains which hid the double doors which opened out onto the balcony. He stumbled, swore softly, reached out blindly to fumble for the door handle.

Air. He needed air.

He didn’t know what hour it was that he had crept back into the Keep, but it had been late – very late. Dawn was close – pale Asturias, the smaller of the two moons, had long set and it was now only the last-quarter sliver of the green-tinged Argones which still hung low in the sky. The sea, stretching out to the southern horizon, shimmered with a barely perceptible greenish light – and there, off to the east, the edge of it showed against a heaven only just beginning to be painted with the promise of dawn.

Everyone dies at dawn, the young man thought, ludicrously, snatching at a pain he knew was still coming, still not quite understood, not accepted. He glanced down at his hands, clutching at the stone balustrade, and realised that his fingers were locked around the stone, his knuckles showing white. He was vaguely aware that this ought to… well… almost hurt. He was conscious of the fact that there was a chill in the morning air, that the faintest of  sea breezes was plucking at the wide sleeves of his shirt, that the cold flags of the balcony’s stone floor were shooting cold stabs into the soles of his feet through the thin fabric of the dark stockings he had worn out into Colgarma the night before. But the truth of it was that he could hardly feel any of these discomforts. It was as though he had stepped into a painting, into an illusion where none of the physical things mattered to him, not any more – he was not really present, not really here, not really himself. All thought had stopped. Only the emptiness remained.

That, and the guilt. The last thing that lay between him and his father was now an outright disobedience, a lie, a flagrant disregard for both the lessons he should already have learned and for his father’s explicit command not to attempt to repeat the experience that had led to those lessons having to be learned in the first place.

He had chosen to disobey that command. He had made that decision with cold deliberation, operating on the principle that what his father didn’t know couldn’t hurt either of them.

The last time he had gone out incognito into the warrens of the city – the first time he had attempted this – he had been about a month shy of his fifteenth birthday, green as could be, and yes, despite his own opinions on  the matter, utterly unable to take care of himself. The latter had been painfully proved to him – some of the riffraff in one of the inns had very quickly discovered the true identity of the attempting-to-be-nondescript kid in the corner, and had been none too pleased at having him interloping there. It would probably have come to nothing, even then; the Colgarma thugs knew that if they had seriously threatened a Clan boy, retaliation from the Keep would have been immediate, and severe. But the boy had panicked anyway, and reached out to the first Pattern that came into his head – his father’s – yelping for help.

And help had come, but far too quickly for it to have been sent only when the boy had called for it. It had not occurred to him to wonder about that until later, after he had been humiliated for his transgressions in front of the entire family and probably half his Clan. Later, when he realised that there had been insult and injury, that his father had known all about his daring expedition and had sent Clan bodyguards who were to watch over him without his knowledge… and very much with the hope that their assistance would never be required.

His father had not been so much punishing him for sneaking out of the Keep, for trawling the sleazy inns for information and inspiration while incognito, for having put himself into danger (which, of course, was always going to be mitigated as soon as his Clan status was discovered anyway). His father had been punishing him for being incapable of enough skill at any or all of these things to have been caught. Arrogance and courage and passion and curiosity were fine, in a Clan Heir. Incompetence was not.

Well, that had been over three years back. Much had changed in that time.

Bedridden by a stubborn and recurring illness which left him weak and bored and frustrated, the old Lord had sent for the estate accounts and had pored over them with his Seneschal far more closely than he had been usually wont to do. There had been a discrepancy, which the Seneschal had tried to investigate at the source, right there on the family estate. But the pilfering which seemed to have caused the imbalance in the accounts seemed to have originated not at the estate itself (that made sense, too much supervision would have made that impossible there) but rather at the family quarters at Colgarma Keep, in the city. Outraged but unable to undertake the travel himself, the head of the Clan had sent his heir into Colgarma, on his own, to find the identity of the person who appeared to be earning himself a nice sideline of profit by selling off Clan family wine on the cheap to the down-town Colgarma swillshops – and to put a stop to it.

Yes, the heir in question had once promised he would never again go incognito and alone into Colgarma’s stewpots. But since the stewpots were where the wine was ending up, he had figured that he was older now, and wiser, and better at taking care of himself anyway, and the best – if not the only – place where he could begin to get at the truth of things was by going straight to the place where the stolen wine was actually surfacing. Those self-same disreputable inns where he had once come to such a sorry pass when he was just a boy.

He had not, naturally, informed his father of this decision.

Nor anyone else.

Eighteen years old, and invincible. He was no longer that child who had screamed for back-up as soon as things got rough. He was older than that, now. Better than that. He needed nobody’s help any more.

So he had gone – against advice, against his own father’s explicit instructions, against all common sense.

He had overheard much of interest. Nothing, granted, that directly pertained to the problem he had gone out to solve – but other things, which he would have brought to his father as treasures. Eventually.

Except… except that now…

The balcony was shared by several rooms of the family complex at the Keep, and now another door was flung open and a young woman with tumbled hair and bleary eyes took a few stumbling steps out onto the balcony, wincing as her bare feet touched the cold stone slabs. She came out tying the sash of a house-gown around her, and approached the motionless youth at the parapet. He had not even turned his head in her direction, his gaze frozen on the sea that stretched out before him. She touched him on the shoulder, softly, afraid of his expression, and then came the gentle probe at his Pattern as she reached out to him in Contact.

What is it? Your distress is loud, brother, when it could wake me from sleep. Tone down, or else we’ll have all the Clans here to investigate!

Her brother transferred his glazed stare from the sea onto her.

She did not know. Not yet. Not directly.

What is it? she asked again, seriously alarmed now.

And then she finally caught it from his mind, before he recovered himself enough to speak. Her hands flew to her mouth, as though she were trying to hold back a strangled cry which turned into a sob as her eyes filled with tears.

“He used to play with us, when we were really young, Mirella and me – he actually shed everything, the persona of the stern head of Clan, and romped with us like he was a child himself – we would ask him to pretend to be things, and he did, he always did…”

“He never did with me,” the youth said softly.

“He was older – and you were – ”

“Yes, the heir… but it mattered, when I did something that he was proud of – it mattered, when he would walk past me and just drop a hand on my shoulder, and tighten his fingers, and I knew he approved and I was ten feet tall – or even if he just looked at me across a crowded room, and gave me a nod, just a nod, something I barely noticed and I’m sure nobody else even saw…”

After a frozen moment, the girl reached out for one of her brother’s hands with both of her own, lifting it gently off the stone parapet, and sank to one knee before him, bowing over the hand she held until her lips barely rested on his knuckles.

“Long life and fair reign, Lord Avigor,” she said in a deep, soft voice.

This gesture finally brought the youth to his senses. He started violently, slammed a barrier on the anguish he was broadcasting, and even managed a lopsided smile at the golden head bent over his hand.

“Get up, Alleth,” he said softly. “A sister does not kneel to a brother.”

Alleth rose, still holding his hand, and looked at him with eyes still brimming. “She does when he has just become the Lord of her Clan. Rainald, Lord Avigor.” She gave his hand a light squeeze. “You’ll do. That’s why he chose you; he knew. He had a healthy dose of precog in his Gift. Don’t be afraid, you’ll do fine. Your sister, too, has some of her Father’s Gift.”

Rainald closed his eyes briefly. “Oh, you don’t know how much of a disappointment…”

“Are you speaking of yourself? Seriously?” Alleth gave the hand she held a little squeeze. “You, whose mother cherished you all your days – whose father was so proud…”

“There are things I did – that I should have done – that I…” Rainald broke off, and narrowed his eyes at his sister. “Wait. You have precog? I never knew that. My own sister, and I never knew that.” He shivered suddenly and looked away at the ocean again. Up until that moment it had been truly personal – it had been between him, the son, and the father who had left him. But now Alleth’s gesture had brought home the realities that were to follow. The name had sounded odd, terrifying – his father had been Lord Avigor. But he owned the title now, and there was a sudden sense of the yawning gap of what his father had been and what he himself, an untried 18-year-old youth, could be expected to be. “How little I know!” he murmured, astonished and a little afraid. “And how much there is to live up to!”

Alleth watched him, half-smiling, and then reached out to pull him into a brief, sharp hug. “You’ve just said exactly the right thing. Anyone who does not have those sentiments is not fit to govern. You will be Avigor’s Lord in times of sore trial, my brother, but you will get the Clan through. They love you, you fool. Don’t you know that?” She propelled him towards the door of his room. “Go back to bed. Sleep, if you can. Tomorrow is going to be a very long day.”

They held one another’s eyes for a moment, both pairs far too bright in the dim moonlight, and then Alleth sighed and brought her hand to her lips, as though there was something she had been about to say but had thought better of it.

“I shall miss him,” she said instead, simply, and turned back to her own bedchamber door, her head bowed in sorrow.

Rainald Avigor stood alone out on the balcony for a little while longer, unable to take his eyes off the eastern horizon and the colours that the dawn was painting on the sky. When he finally sighed deeply and turned back into his own room his feet were numb from the cold; he stumbled as he closed the doors to the balcony and leaned his head on the cool surface.

Father, I feel so helpless… It was only now, now that his father was no longer there to hear those words, that Rainald could even imagine saying them. Always he had tried to be everything that he had been expected to be, to live up to expectations – the only son born to the Lord of Avigor and the heir to the Clan. His father had loved him – he knew that – but his father had never been other than the Lord of his Clan. His father had been the white-haired Elder, guiding, watching, stern and sometimes cruel…but always just, and always wise, and perhaps that was where the love had been hiding all along. Rainald tried to imagine a world without his father in it and, for an instant, utterly failed to succeed – it seemed like a completely impossible idea. But it was reality, now. Gone. He was gone. How I shall miss you.

Go to bed, Rainald, came the gentle, melancholy touch of his sister.

Staggering, almost blind from exhaustion and sorrow, he managed to find his way to his bed and collapsed on it, burying his head in his hands and finally allowing the tears to come, crying softly for the Pattern that had gone from his head and the presence that was gone from his side. He cried, knowing this would be the only chance he would get to cry for his Father’s death; that, from now on, the only face he could show in public would be a strong one, and nobody must be allowed to suspect that there was a weakness inside. Before, he had had to hide the weakness from only one man – his father, the old Lord. From this moment on he was the Lord, and he would have to hide the weakness… from everybody else, and for as long as he knew how. He cried for all the tears he would never again be allowed to shed.

Whether or not he actually got any sleep, Rainald wasn’t sure. But when the light which crept between his half-drawn curtains was fully day, he made himself get up and made himself presentable with hands that trembled with exhaustion. Alleth joined him at his hurried breakfast, offering no more than the support of her presence.

At what was only just barely the polite time for calls, a footman announced the Lords Lammuir and Catallin. Both were elder statesmen of Clan and Lord Lammuir, in particular, had been one of the late Lord Avigor’s closest friends.

“Show them in,” Rainald said, putting down his linen napkin and pushing his chair back as he came to his feet.

The two Lords entered the breakfast room , bowing to Alleth and then turning to Rainald. Days ago he might have been the boy, the Heir – but they greeted him as an equal now, complete with the socially appropriate bow and the knight’s handshake, clasping one another’s forearm at the elbow for an instant. But those were the formalities – that done, Lord Lammuir reached out to draw the young Lord Avigor into a sorrowful, kinsman’s embrace.

“We heard early this morning, Rainald. I am so sorry. We shall miss his wisdom in Council… but I know that he has left us a worthy successor. Your confirmation will be held sooner than you anticipate, though, cousin.” Rainald’s mother, Lord Avigor’s second wife, was half-sister to Lord Lammuir, which made Rainald, in fact, Lammuir’s nephew. “We have heard some disturbing news from Cavaril, and High Council is being convened within a sevenday. Catallin was already here, in residence, and the others have been summoned…”

“It’s about the vessel, isn’t it. The one that crashed from the sky…” The words were out before Rainald could stop them. Their effect was nothing short of electrifying. He tried not to turn to look but he could feel the weight of Alleth’s astonished stare on his shoulders; the two Lords’ eyes had narrowed and both were staring at him with surprise and, in Catallin’s case, not a little suspicion.

“Where did you hear that?” asked Lord Lammuir sharply.

“I… have my sources,” said Rainald faintly, dropping his gaze to the floor for a moment before lifting his eyes once more to meet Lammuir’s.

This was the thing that he had brought home the night before. Nothing about the purloined Avigor wine, or about the identity of the thief – but this, a conversation overheard in an ale-house on the wharf. It stank of fish and cheap wine (not from Avigor’s vineyards, this particular swill) and the filth of the harbor.

Clan Carlin serving men, from Cavaril, being… companionable… with some locals, at a trestle table by the window. They had been getting drunk fast, or at least some of their number were, and Rainald had at first been simply amused at the way things were deteriorating over there with tongues being loosened by the wine. But then one of the Cavaril men, after assuring the rest that his gossip was far better than the usual Clan gossip – and then the conversation had taken a dramatic turn.

The voices were there in his head again, uncouth and unexpected in these surroundings, as clear as if he could hear them being spoken right beside him once more.

“There’s a whole lot of… of people there!”

Laughter rippled around the table.

“So? Nothing now about that! Clan houses are always teeming. What with intermarriage and fostering, they’re all kin to everyone else!” one of the men said, his lip curled in faint disdain, and signaled for another pitcher of wine.

“Theesh… these… aren’t Clan!”

“Who, then?”

“People from… from… from…”

“Where, man?”

“People from the shtarsh… starsh… sht…”

His companions looked at each other again.

“You’re drunk, Hal,” said one of them matter-of-factly, getting up. “Come on. We’d better get you back before we have to carry you too far.”

He tossed a coin on the table for payment and then two of their number helped Hal up and supported him under his arms. He swayed, looked at them both in turn wildly.

“But it’s true!” he babbled, his speech fast and slurred, his eyes full of tears. He was obviously drunk, but Rainald was convinced beyond any doubt that the man was telling the truth. “This thing crashed down from the sky, and there were people on it… we… my own village helped… I hear they’re going to call council… and they…”

Even convinced of the truth of the matter, Rainald might have been inclined to think that he might have simply managed to misunderstand, or misconstrue. But there were the small matters of Clan protocol.  When the Clan families were in their country fiefs, they seldom sent servants to Colgarma alone unless it was someone trusted, and highly placed in the Household. This man in the wharfside inn was obviously no such thing. By his own account he didn’t even live in the Clan Keep, he lived in some far-flung village. He was a country yokel, and if a country yokel was here from Cavaril he had been hauled there by one of his superiors for a reason – which implied that it was quite  possible that Lord Carlin himself was in Colgarma as well.

And that in turn meant that news of Council… had not been entirely unexpected to Rainald.

But it was fresh news. Too fresh to have leaked outside the carefully guarded minds of the Lords themselves. Too fresh to be released to the Clan in general.

What was so important about these survivors…?

“I dare say the news has probably found its way out already,” Lord Catallin said, his voice a little barbed, but he wasn’t going to take it further than that. A sharp glance at Lord Lammuir, however, indicated that he was far from done with the matter of how Rainald had found himself in possession of what Catallin had thought to be a closely guarded secret. Catallin gave Alleth another small courtly bow, and said, “If you will all excuse me… I have some preparations to attend to.”

Lammuir sighed, shelving the matter for the moment. “This will be your first High Council, Rainald,” he murmured. “You might have hoped for a calmer introduction to your new position…”

And his words were to prove prophetic over the next few days. A courier brought a letter from Lord Carlin, conveying his condolences – but he was about the only one who did not appear in person. A number of the other Clan Lords came in to pay their respects, and many other Clan kin streamed in to offer condolences. Rainald left the social side of things to his sister, not without a certain guilty sense of relief that it was not his own direct responsibility.

On the morning of the Council meeting, he actually went so far as to offer an apology as he took his leave, in a breather between callers, of his sister.

“I’m sorry, sieri, to have to leave you to cope with the onslaught all by yourself, but…”

“I’ll survive, Rainald. You’re other paths to tread now. Go, and good luck.”

“Father didn’t believe in luck,” said Rainald, wistfully recalling what now seemed a golden age.

“He made his own. Do likewise. Now will you go? I’m not going to be the one they blame if you stagger into your first High Council late.”

Rainald moved towards the door, but his sister’s soft voice stopped him before he could leave. “Colors, Rainald.”

He glanced down at his garments ruefully. “I really don’t have time to change, but I suppose I’d better. Making a good first impression is bound to be important.” He vanished down the corridor and into his room. About a quarter of an hour later he re-emerged clad in black boots into which he had tucked black trousers, and a silver tunic top belted in black. A black cloak held at the throat with his diamond Pattern-stone, the ch’ia, completed the outfit.

He moved towards the chamber in which the High Council met, deep in Colgarma Keep at a purposeful pace, but he suddenly found himself hesitating in front of the huge double doors as he came to them.

He had never set foot in this room before.

2.

He had every right to be here, now. He was Avigor’s Lord. But he knew – he knew­ – that it was going to be a long, long time before anybody within would look at him when that name was called and not see his father’s face instead. An eighteen-year-old in High Council, he thought to himself. Unheard of. They’ll never let me forget it. Could you not have waited to hand this thing over until I was, oh, I don’t know,, twenty five… or thirty… or forty… and they believed I was ready for it… Oh, what am I doing here?…

But then he pulled himself together, squared his jaw, lifted his chin, and pushed the doors apart. They opened, as was usual in the keep, into a small anteroom. A ceremonially-clothed steward stood up to greet him.

“Lord Rainald Avigor,” said Rainald, as he had heard that he must identify himself and be announced into the Hall. The steward gave him a small formal bow and motioned him forward.

A second set of double doors was opened and his name called out into a high, echoing room. Rainald entered and walked towards the chair under the Avigor banner with supreme confidence, not an ounce of which he felt. Lammuir, Carlin, and D’Alleara were there already. Lord Lammuir smiled at him warmly, and the other two nodded, grave and unsmiling, appraising him from top to toe and then back again. At least he wasn’t last.

He crossed to the table with light, springy steps and an easy lithe grace he wasn’t aware he possessed. Lord D’Alleara, whose own youth was a good few years gone, frowned at the young man darkly.

Even as Rainald seated himself in his place, the door opened again announcing the entrance of Lord Rimmuz, and, before he was even halfway across to the table, another call ushered in the Lords Acharmi, Catallin, Ramer, Mykonas and Dow more or less at once. Lords De Skari and De la Gyeras arrived together some ten minutes later. Rainald Avigor was a telepath, like all in this room – but that was far from necessary to convince him that he was probably the subject of most if not all of the pockets of murmured conversation that had sprung up around the table.

When the last two Lords had taken their places, a short expectant silence fell – and then Lord Lammuir, confirming all Rainald’s suspicions, cleared his throat and suggested that, before they got on with the matter in hand, they duly confirm the young Lord Avigor in his position as the Head of that Clan. Rainald could all but hear the muttering and see the shaking of some aged heads – but his father had cleared the way for this, and High Council’s confirmation was no more than a formality. After everything necessary to complete that formality had been done, Lammuir cleared his throat again.

“And now, Lord Carlin,” he said, “can you fill us in on the evens in Cavaril? In full, please, because some of us know bits and pieces that we cannot in truth connect without the backbone.” He glanced at Rainald as he spoke, still trying to puzzle out how it was that he, Rainald, had known such reasonably well guarded secret information. Rainald stifled a smile. If any of these men only knew that it had been blurted in the middle of a third-rate inn in lower Colgarma; and, had it not sounded like utter nonsense and been dismissed as such, the entire city would have been buzzing with it by now.

He suddenly realized that Lord Carlin had begun to speak, and started to pay attention.

“…Only then that one of the villagers came to me in Cavaril and told me how these people had seemingly crashed, and how, would I punish them if they had done wrong, they had helped them, and these people were now some at the Healer’s and some in their own homes. I, of course, went immediately to investigate. I had suspected the Healer, Lilia, of having vestiges of a Gift for a long time; well, she proved it – she exhibited this quite amazing ability to understand them, although they spoke a thoroughly incomprehensible language. She mentioned that one of them ‘kept saying’ how he through he was dreaming, and that we were all no more then a figment of his imagination!” A ripple of laughter swept the Hall. Lord Carlin, content at the effect of his narrative, nodded and continued. “Well, my Lords, to cut a long story short, I told the village they were responsible for these people until further notice, and took the precaution of removing these.” He tossed a metal object on the table. Everyone leaned forward to get a closer look; Lammuir finally took it, examined it, and passed it down the table for everyone to see. Catallin, after having scrutinized it, glanced up at Lord Carlin.

“Well,” he said, “what are they?”

“I’m not altogether sure,” said Carlin thoughtfully. “Weapons, certainly, but nothing like we have ever seen. One went off, triggered by some dolt by accident or mistake, and it but through two villagers and an unconscious new arrival… by a beam of light of some sort… cut right through as if they were wax thrown into the fire. I wanted no repeats.”

A murmur of assent arose, and De le Gyeras, who had been holding the thing, pushed it rather hurriedly away from him.

“What are we to do with these people?” asked Carlin finally.

“You told the villagers they were in change of them?” said Acharmi.

“Yes,” said Catallin.

“Did the survivors see you?”
“Hardly. Most of them are unconscious, or as close to that as makes little difference.”

“How many?” somebody asked, from the far side of the table.

“Enough,” Carlin said, a little grimly. “Enough of them to matter. To make a difference. I’ve seen plenty of bodies – not all made it, not all by far, but enough did.”

“Are they Gifted?” asked Catallin suddenly.

Carlin hesitated. “N-no. That is, I have seen no evidence in favor of that.”

“Well, then,” said Catallin, leaning back in his chair, “Let ‘further notice’ never arrive. They will stay with the village. By the time they learn the structure of society of Castala, they will have lived too long amongst that ilk to aspire to a higher social position. And these,” he indicated the weapon on the table, “these we will destroy.”

“Why would they want to aspire to a higher social position?” asked Mykonas.

“Would you really be satisfied, Lord Mykonas, living a hand-to-mouth existence of the land with the likes of Clan hovering before your eyes and out of your reach?”

“Well… no, but then I’ve never known different. Who knows what they were…”

“When? A lifetime ago? They have crashed on a different world. They had better live according to its rules.”

“They’re strange,” said Carlin.

Catallin whipped around, narrowing his eyes. “How do you mean, strange?”

“Well, for a start, they all wore trousers when we found them… even the women.” He paused. “Then,” he continued, “more than half of their women wear their hair short… and I don’t mean what our women would consider short. I mean very short, shorter than even some of our men wear.”

“For a woman to cut her hair so, it would only mean she’d committed a terrible crime and was thus done to for shame – even then, it would be others who’d shear her, and not herself! Is this normal with them?” asked Acharmi, puzzled and mildly shocked.

“It seems so,” said Carlin. “Our own villagers avert their eyes when they look at their women. Even after they dressed them in decent clothes.”

“They seem to be too… different, as you say,” said Lammuir gravely. “Will they fit in anywhere on Castala, at all?”

“Well, they’re perfectly free to come to lower Colgarma and rot there for all I care,” said Catallin. “Any woman who has the gall to walk around in public flaunting hair of shame is nobody I would care to have an acquaintance with anyway.”

Lammuir rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “Oh, leave them,” he said. “They will pick up the social customs as they pick up the language. We’ll see how they behave then. Until that time, leave them. Just keep extending that ‘further notice’ of yours, Carlin. Oh, and by the by, what about that so-called Gifted healer of yours? What did you say her name was? Lilia?”

“Yes, that’s right. She’s too good a Healer not to be without some empathic abilities – and I’d say hers were quite extensive. Also, when she’s telling a story,  a sequence of events,  sometimes she can flash a particularly vivid picture of what she’s talking about straight into your subconscious. That’s why I went to her to get the facts. I knew I’d get more from her then from a village yokel who can’t open his mouth for more than a yes or a no. They’re really ridiculous teachers of language, if you think about it. Their vocabulary is what one might call… limited.”

“Is she aware of this? Your… Lilia?”

Carlin thought for a moment, cupping his chin in his hand. “I don’t think so. If she is, then she is amongst other things an excellent liar.”

“Low-level Gifts amongst the yokels?” asked Ramer, appalled.

“How low-level is low-level?” asked Catallin.

“Lower than Clan threshold, I’d say,” said Carlin. “Well below that.”

“Burn her out,” said Lammuir shortly.

“But that would probably render her useless as a healer, in the very best event,” protested Carlin, spreading his arms.

“If it does, I’ll get you another healer. Zarog’s Hells, man, we have all the healers we want, and the best ones are Clan anyway. We’re trying to protect Clan and what we stand for! We can’t have this kind of thing. She’d pass it onto her children, and in a generation or two we’d have complete anarchy!” growled Catallin.

Rainald was a little appalled at the apparent callousness with which the Lords could order a Gifted person ‘burned out,’ even if she wasn’t Clan – but he held his peace. He was still taking the measure of each Lord, keeping his own counsel until at least their second meeting. They thought him a presumptuous young pipsqueak as it was; he didn’t want to compound the impression by speaking ‘out of turn’  in their very first meeting.

Catallin, with his lean, wiry build and grizzled hair, looked like a dangerous wolf. His grey eyes were cold and flint-hard, and every word he spoke was a lash. When he had taken over the leadership of his Clan, he had sworn, as had all the rest of the Clan, to hold his heritage to his best ability. Well, he was holding; and the Gods help anyone who so much as came near.

Lammuir seemed to be the resident neutral force, even if he did appear to be leaning very much towards the conservative view. Carlin was a ditherer; Mykonas, as far as Rainald could see, was terminally slow. D’Alleara was very silent; he was watching everyone with his small, bright eyes and offering no help to either side of the argument – an opportunist who would join the winning side when one became obvious. Ramer was staunchly conservative.

Acharmi was a wise old owl. Rainald knew him well; the Acharmi Clan was one of the minor houses, and very much connected to Avigor. Rainald had met the old Lord many times at the Avigor country domain, always a welcome guest of his father’s. Acharmi was just about the only lord, apart from Lammuir, who had had a smile and a warm greeting for him in this Hall. Rainald had a suspicion that Acharmi and the old Lord Avigor had been allies in Council; and he determined to keep it so. More than anything Avigor and Acharmi were the neutral balancing force to the radically conservative Clans. As for the rest of them, Rimmuz, Dow, De Skari, De la Gyeras… he did not have enough information, nor enough time. He determined he should study them, and determine his own position and his odds.

And that was that, other than for some other and fairly minor matters. Lammuir, as the oldest now that the old Lord of Avigor had gone, closed the Council, and the Lords began to prepare to leave. Several, including Lammuir and Acharmi, came up to Rainald to renew, or make, the acquaintance of the new Lord Avigor. There were tears in Acharmi’s eyes as he looked at his friend’s son.

“Ay, you look like him, Gods grant him peace. He was a presence, Rainald… I mean, Lord Avigor. Hard to call you that, son; I’ve known you all my life as this high. Well, long life and fair reign, Lord Avigor. Good luck.”

“You were silent today,” said Lammuir, patting his young cousin paternally on the shoulder.

“I wasn’t the only one,” retorted Rainald.

“Fair blow,” laughed Lammuir. “Carlin did hold a monologue for most of the Council. You’ve been taking mental notes on us, haven’t you, nephew?”

Now Rainald chuckled. “Indeed, foster-father. Yes, I think I have a reasonably full picture of the High Council. And I think that you are probably a leading force in it.”

“Your father was.”

“That I know. I’ll try to follow suit. But I’ll need a good few years before I can convince the Council that a Lord does not have to be defined as being over half a century to be a force in the Council.”

“You’ve got your job cut out if you want to go that way.”

Rainald turned towards the new speaker. It was Lord Dow, who smiled, offering a handshake.

“I am twice your years,” Dow continued, “but to most of the Council forty is still in the flower of one’s youth. Most of the ideas I put forward in Council get quietly shelved – I dare say they’ll blow off the cobwebs when my hair turns the obligatory white. Until then, I’m a nonentity. It’s going to take a strong man to make a dent.”

“I know it’s going to be hard to fill my father’s shoes. They do not fit me all that well,” Rainald admitted frankly.

“Yours will be the youngest Household in all the Clans,” said Dow as they began walking out of the Hall. “Forgive me, but are you married yet?”

“Gods no!” laughed Rainald.

“Betrothed?”

“No, Lord Dow. Have you got a candidate, by any chance?”

“As a matter of fact, yes; but that is not why I asked. I have an eight-year old daughter whom I wish to foster somewhere next year. Have you any plans in that regard?”

“There are not all that many children in Macha at this time, but I think that there are enough for me to be able to accept a Foster-child. My mother will be in Foster-parentage, though, since I cannot myself yet provide a foster mother. And your candidate?”

“A young cousin… a half-sister of young Goran Rimmuz, and a foster-sister of Gilden Lammuir. Her name is Liara Rimmuz-De Skari. Her relationship to me is totally incomprehensible, but we are cousins in some degree. Anyway, she is fifteen this summer, just coming of age. Pretty as a picture. No harm in letting you know early –I dare say you will be hounded by many a guardian, my young Lord.”

“I’ll think about it,” smiled Rainald.

“Do that. A wedding this winter sounds very nice indeed. Well, I must away. I was very nice meeting you, Lord Avigor. I hope I see you again soon.”

“Do videnya, Lord Dow.”

They took cordial leave of one another, and Rainald finally made for his own apartment. Alleth, the tide of condolence calls temporarily stemmed, was in her room, playing the cithre softly. She rose, laying the instrument aside as her brother entered.

“Don’t stop,” he pleaded, and collapsed into a chair, throwing an arm over his eyes. Silently, Alleth obliged.

“How was it, Lord Avigor?” she asked.

“Oh, don’t you start. Alleth, for pity’s sake, I’m the youngest there by some forty years, excepting Lord Dow who’s only twice my age. A comparative youngster! Alleth, Alleth, I’ll need to grow up, nay, to grow old, faster than I would have wished…”

She pushed the cithre away and began to knead the tension out of his shoulders. “They’ll just have to grow younger,” she said, very seriously.

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