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A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

The Purist

Copyright © 2018 by M. Crane Hana

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2018

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at

Printed in the USA

First Edition

August, 2018

eBook ISBN: 978-1-949340-35-8

Print ISBN: 978-1-949340-45-7

Warning: This book contains sexually explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers.

The Purist

M. Crane Hana

Table of Contents


About the Author

For Badger, Aggy, Lorna, Eve, and the Four Patricias

Chapter One


In the distance, a series of chords eased into a lively tune: the Witch-Queen’s daughter playing with growing confidence on her new girwood harp.

On the other side of the night-shrouded garden, Eridan Sydall, Master-Singer of all Lonhra, reeled homeward dizzy from wine and compliments. He’d only made the tall harp. By the time the princess grew into it, she’d be a Master in her own right.

Seeking his and Sfassa’s guest apartment, Eridan followed tiled paths and stairs between lush teal grass plumes, tall blue trees, and golden-glowing suncrystals on bronze pillars. The garden screened most of the Witch-Queen’s low palace on three sides. To the east, where the garden sloped down, Eridan glimpsed the lights of Throng, a sprawling tropical city where no building rose more than three stories from the rich soil.

Just when he thought himself completely lost, Eridan spotted two half-familiar palm trees on the north end of a terrace. A bronze bracket on one tree supported the Master-Singer’s banner, its black and dark red fabric rippling languidly in the night breeze. A suncrystal lamp hung from a bracket on the other tree. From the banner, lamplight picked out flashes of the silver emblems of his rank—harp, waves, and seven stars.

He navigated another short path through a dimmer courtyard, then pushed open a carved wooden door. Inside, the dark suite smelled of exotic flowers, clean-scrubbed tile still faintly damp, and a whisper of Sfassa’s musky-sweet scent.

Of course, she wasn’t back from the queen’s library yet. Eridan grinned, recalling the flustered archivists when they discovered the Master-Singer’s excessively tall, brawny barbarian wife was an avid scholar in her own right. Once convinced of Eridan’s safety in the palace, Sfassa spent her free time scribbling notes and comparing old folklore texts.

Eridan’s smile faltered as he noted the darkness in the suite. There should have been two ceramic lamps caging suncrystals, one in the salon where he stood, one over the arch leading to the kitchen and the bedchamber.

Cold, sharp metal touched the right side of his neck. The front door closed quietly behind him.

Eridan tensed. He had a knife at his belt and enough skill to use it in tight quarters. Instead, he breathed acrid chemical fumes, and his scream died in his throat. His muscles stiffened, locked in taut tremors. Something was horribly wrong in his brain, even his internal voice broken by pulses of static.

“Master-Singer, the silence-drug won’t kill you.” His assailant plucked the knife from his pocket and hauled his body back against her chest. “Go too long without the antidote and you’ll never write or babble more than nonsense again. Much less sing to the wrong ears. Don’t fight it. The faster your heart beats, the faster the drug will settle in your throat and brain. My sisters and I won’t kill you, you ugly little man. You’re to watch while we butcher your mongrel whore in front of you.”

Eridan slowed his breath, but he couldn’t calm his brain. If this was the infamous silence-drug he had half an hour at most. Who directed the attack? Who would know the two things he feared most to lose? Half the world, he thought next, cravenly regretting the last several centuries of being professionally obstinate.

The assassin didn’t speak again. Through the fog settling over his thoughts, Eridan tried to place the others by the sounds of their soft breaths and minute shifts of posture. They ranged around the door. Past the single window looking out on the garden, a soft rustle told him more people waited under the arch to the bedchamber.

The fog lifted a little. Eridan used the moment to aim his memory back a scant handful of hours. Had Sfassa been wearing her spears this evening? When she wasn’t in full armor, she wore a spear harness with the long leaf-shaped steel blades of her kori-spears jutting up like deadly feathers. Sfassa lived within arm’s reach of her weapons and felt naked without them.

The silence-drug worked differently on Eridan’s body than on the people it was meant for. His thoughts cleared enough to count his attackers from their breathing patterns. Five or six other people in the room, not counting the woman who restrained him.

The knife lost, he needed a distraction. He could move his right hand just enough to slip into the hip pocket of his own cotton robe. His fingers gripped the cool rounded shape of a glazed porcelain gourd-style flute, its tiny proportions meant for a Sirrithani child but just right for him. The young heir of Throng had formally traded it to him this morning for the girwood harp he’d crafted for her.

Gripping the eggshell-thin ceramic bulb, Eridan slowly flexed his wrist out of the pocket. He guessed the assassins used some kind of spell or artifact to let them see in the dark. He didn’t want them looking too closely at him.

Breathe and think. Sfassa would walk up to their door, probably with a satchel of notebooks in hand. Would she notice the lamps out? Would she scent the drug and Eridan’s fear?

Out in the garden beyond the banner, Sfassa called a happy farewell to someone. Her footsteps slapped closer and closer to the main door.

Now. Eridan opened his fingers. The little flute plummeted straight down onto the tiles and shattered noisily. Eridan heard a faint ping and a ripping sound at the same time.

His captor bit back a curse as she dragged him into the kitchen. Steel cut a fraction deeper into his neck. “You little Dana pest,” she whispered, lifting another drugged cloth to Eridan’s face.

Sfassa hurtled through the salon window in a crash of broken wood and ripped silk mesh, bringing some of the outer light with her. She howled as she dove low into the dim salon, avoiding the blades slicing where her throat should be. Light glinted against Sfassa’s feathery short mop of white hair. More faint silver sleeked along her bare body and shone off her spears. She’d stripped outside and weighted her dress with something.

She came up like a storm-surge, swinging her dress in a long, low arc. Two assassins fell with their legs wrapped in its tangle. She decapitated another with one spear, then stepped back and stomped down hard on two throats.

Their metal gorgets crushed before Sfassa’s considerable weight broke their necks. The remaining attackers paused. The one holding Eridan gave a frustrated hiss and dropped the second drugged cloth.

“I’ve the night-sight, too, dog-bitches, and I can smell you,” Sfassa growled in her low, burring voice. With another metallic ping she pulled her second kori-spear from the scabbard on her back. During the messy, grunting chaos Eridan struggled to stay upright, keep breathing, and remember his own name.

“She’s good. No matter. They’ll wear her down and gut her where she stands,” the assassin gloated softly in his ear. “Every blade but this one is poisoned.”

“I’m harder to kill than you think,” Sfassa snarled, swinging her head side to side, then orienting on the whisper. Someone gurgled their final breath behind her.

Eridan reached for the bare hand splayed across his chest, then wrenched back the woman’s little finger until it dislocated. She yelled as her arm swung wide. He ducked. His ear stung from the knife. Sfassa’s spear hammered into the assassin’s chest inches over his head, cleaving sternum and driving straight through heart, spine, and the tiled wall behind. The assassin choked and slumped, her slack fingers letting her knife bounce off Eridan’s shoulder and clang on the floor.

Sfassa gasped out, “Eridan? Little bard? Are you hurt?”

Eridan couldn’t answer. Shouts and running footsteps came through the garden, and he prayed it wasn’t more assassins. He stopped fighting gravity and let himself slide down the dead assassin’s legs, to sit on the now-filthy floor.

How many Master-Singers had been in enough battles to know the aftermath by scent alone?

You married Snowdancer, a wry part of himself warned.

Some of the blood smelled…wrong. Too familiar, even to his stunted nose.

Sfassa set down her right-hand spear, then found the salon lamp and unshielded it. Warm golden light spilled out over blood, steel, and slumped bodies. So much blood. Sfassa stood over the lamp, her strong body naked save for her harness and the shredded blue rags between it and her shoulders. Though she still held the left-hand spear ready, she smiled in sudden relief at Eridan.

“Well, love, I was expecting something like this since you sang heart back into those landcaste serfs outside Autanqa. But in the palace itself? And against me?”

Eridan forced out a single noise of sheer horror.

The first of the queen’s guards burst in through the door just as Sfassa looked down. Blood sheeted over her dark-bronze hips like a new skirt. Pink-gray intestines and pale yellow fat bulged from the long diagonal slash across her upper belly.

She rolled her eyes as if at a trifling setback. Said something filthy in a barbarian dialect, dropped her spear, and held her insides within the cut. Sfassa looked back up at Eridan, her next quip and fierce grin fading as her gaze tracked along his shaking body and frozen face. Her tall, whisker-fringed ears went flat against her skull.

She screamed, “Guards! Healers! Quickly, bring earthwitches! The Master-Singer’s been silenced!”

I can’t lose Sfassa. I can’t lose my voice. Please don’t make me choose between them!

Chapter Two


Ayundami didn’t need to practice invisibility anymore.

The Chief Adept of Illarhun tucked her long black staff into the crook of her left elbow, leaned on a retaining wall, and listened. Two female gardeners planted night blooming vines ten feet above her in a raised indoor garden. Several thousand sorcerers gathered beyond Ayundami, out in the vast throne room. Their massed chatter sounded like sea-birds squabbling on a cliff.

“For the love of Thaea, these people are making idiots of themselves, camping out here day after day. They keep trampling the ground cover!” groused the younger gardener.

Ayundami listened to the cadres of more-vocal sorcerers coalescing again around their Tower affiliations: bankers from Goldfang, teleporters from Gatefang, Great House historians from Housefang. They’d soon have to choose between divided loyalties.

The gigantic chamber was only a quarter section of Eastfang Tower’s ground floor. Sixteen black columns rose in the shapes of trees, their upper branches and canopies soaring two hundred feet into a vault starred with thousands of inlaid white suncrystals. At the distant western end of the hall, an open door admitted a long bar of sunset light, glowing ruddy gold on the glittering black tiles. Waist-high walls surrounded square pits glowing orange and scarlet from the magma far below.

“Ah, leave off, Neri. They’re sorcerers used to getting their own way, and their Lady just lit up Eastfang again. They’re all waiting to see what it means,” said the older gardener to her younger colleague.

Four immense suncrystal chandeliers, carved as knots of white-glowing flowers, hung a hundred feet over the floor. Directly under each lamp, four raised gardens were enclosed in twelve-foot-high retaining walls. Rustic stone staircases climbed the walls and ran under stone archways to islands of moist earth planted with lush trees and grassy banks.

Great House nobles had set up tents and tables on the three other islands and were entertaining delegations of sorcerers. The next island sported the red and white banners and shell insignia of Omiesh, all the way from the Southlands. They shared it with a delegation from Hosardu in the Northlands, their banners red wheatsheaves on a golden ground.

An alliance to watch, Ayundami thought sourly.

“What do you think it means?” asked the younger gardener.

“Two hundred seventy years ago, my crew was first in here with the Chief Adept, trying to make something of the gardens after the seals broke on Eastfang. Back then, the garden islands were all dead, dust everywhere, the lamps and firepits dark, with Herself asleep down below for the last four thousand years. Since her last Consorts died.” Ayundami glimpsed the dull silver flash overhead as the woman gestured proudly with her hand trowel. Some loose bits of clipped hedge fluttered down around Ayundami; the Adept shook her head to knock them loose before someone noticed them apparently floating in midair.

“I heard Eastfang glowed bright green then, all two thousand feet of it. The whole city shook,” said the younger gardener.

“It did. I saw a green light bloom in the firepit closest to the throne and rise until it was a green star hovering over the floor. Then the Northwarden stepped out.”

Between the gardens and their flanking pillars, the smooth black floor turned to inlaid blue lapis tiles bordering a mosaic map of three continents and hundreds of island chains. The map of Lonhra was nearly hidden at the moment, by a sea of sorcerers wearing every green shade from apprentices’ pale frost-green to the deeper emerald of Masters and lower Adepts.

Ayundami remembered the day the Northwarden woke, oh, yes.

“What did she look like? I’ve heard she can appear as anyone or anything she chooses.”

“Neri, get your gossip straight. The Northwarden can only shapeshift after she’s met and bound herself to one of her newest mortal Consorts. Back then, just awakened? She just looked like a barefoot girl of nineteen, trying on a queen’s black robes. Too young to be the Demon of the North, even with her white skin and glowing green-fire eyes. I wanted to put a blanket over her shoulders. Shivering and crying, she was. Our poor Lady.”

“Well, to her mind, she woke up the day after her wife died.”

“Not just died, Neri. Rumors said the last Lady Consort died from a slow poison, incurable.” The older gardener’s voice dropped lower in outrage. “And everyone knows the last Lord Consort was murdered in the door to this hall, twelve years before that.”

“Atlani aristos. Swordcaste,” hissed the younger gardener, and Ayundami didn’t need to watch to know the woman looked at the island claimed by Omiesh and Hosardu.

She really needed to break up that little party. It looked like incipient civil war. Didn’t those swordcaste nobles understand? Their four-thousand-year spree of flaunting Settlement Law was over. Push a few hundred sorcerers, and some of those would make deals with the nobles. Push the Northwarden? Cities became craters.

Ayundami’s skin crawled at a new presence coiling invisibly through the vast hall. Still invisible, she canted her head out of the shadow cast by the retaining wall, and glared over the crowd toward the empty throne on its dais at the eastern wall.

Three identical black stone seats, carved in plain shapes, shared wide armrests and tall backs each rising to equal points. Across the center armrests and chair, a long black sword had gathered dust for the centuries since the Northwarden’s last appearance.

The older gardener muttered, “She looked around at the ruined hall and burst into fresh tears. They turned the tiles white with frost where they fell. She carried a long black chain with a black pendant on its end, the black set with glowing white gems.”

“Darksplinter. The Citykiller.” The younger gardener sounded half-worshipful, half-worried.

“Like her, it can be anything it chooses, but it’s always deepest black and opal white. She walked up the hall to the throne. She spoke to the Chief Adept, but I didn’t hear what they said.”

Ayundami reined in a snort of laughter. She remembered a hissed argument best left out of the history books.

“Darksplinter turned into a long black sword, and the Northwarden put it across the throne. Then she vanished in a flash of green light. No one’s seen her since. It’s not right. The Lady of Illarhun should be here governing this rabble.”

Yes, she should be, Ayundami thought. Not gallivanting around who knows where, and certainly not without her damn sword.

The sword became somehow blacker, the non-color of an abyss. Darkness gathered around the central throne, thickened, then brightened into a slender person sitting there. White hands turned palm up to support the black sword lying across them. In a white face under a long cloud of black hair, two eyes opened like green stars.

A cold, precise, and timbreless voice answered in Ayundami’s mind, That statue is no more or less Darksplinter than my avatars are of me. Nevertheless, we had a disagreement, it and I. I honestly thought an icon of Darksplinter would make a better deterrent for you lot.

The strongest of the Adepts sensed the Northwarden’s return first. Ayundami watched them shiver, drop conversations, look around nervously, then focus with dawning fear on the throne. After centuries of trying to herd them herself Ayundami enjoyed their reaction.

The reason I begin to like you, Ayundami born to House Coralcrest of the Tame Seas,” said the Northwarden.

Ayundami dropped her invisibility, stepped away from the garden wall, flipped her hood back from her head, and rapped her black wooden staff thrice on the tiles. She altered the structure of the surrounding air to amplify the sharp sounds into louder bursts, like a rifle’s discharge. By the third rap, half the audience looked torn between watching the Chief Adept and the Northwarden.

The Chief Adept said into the growing silence, “Well, how long are you back for now? A week? Another century? You could write us, you know. I’ve made sure the post still runs.”

Ayundami knew she looked out of place in the glittering crowd—an elderly woman standing at a prim parade rest. Her body was age thickened but strong, her short curly hair shocking silver against her brown-black skin. She wore an Adept’s long coat dyed greenish black, and yellow dragonhide boots still caked with dried red mud. She gripped her unadorned black staff with both hands, standing upright with unshaking military precision. Her own gaze never wavered from the figure on the central throne.

The Northwarden stood in the guise of a tall young Sirrithani woman, gripping the sword hilt in her right hand. As she paced down the five steps of the dais, her bare feet left fading trails of white frost on the mosaics. As she passed over them, pinpoints of green light flickered from inlaid black gems set amid the tiles.

She wore a black velvet robe four thousand years out of fashion, its thick fabric clinging to her slim frame from fingertip to throat. The sword shifted into a glowing white opal sphere on a black chain, swinging just above the map. The opal flared and faded, pushing shadows across the mosaic map. The ornate chain links were the same matte black as the woman’s straight, knee-length hair. Her hands, feet, and oval face gleamed like the pendulum at its dimmest. Sometimes her face was smooth and young. Sometimes ancient. Sometimes the flesh was translucent, stretched over brighter-glowing bones and snarling teeth. Her eye sockets were always pits of seething green radiance, waxing and waning along with the opal. The pendulum circled and oscillated, never settling. Sorcerers and aristocrats pulled back from her, none daring to be within twenty feet of her.

She paused several times at different spots on the map. At the last pause, her feet resting somewhere on the western Southlands, her eyes darkened to a duller green light, and her skull disappeared under youthful skin. She turned to face her Chief Adept, who had walked fearlessly to meet her. The Northwarden’s husky voice echoed with unsettling minor chords. “Ayundami. My sorcerers. Atlani of the Great Houses.” Her glowing eyes brightened to a sunny green gold, as she looked at the silent, kneeling gardeners. “Honored Landcaste. Thank you for restoring the Hall of Stars.”

Ayundami’s higher, harsher words cut over hers, “Have you come back to rule, Mistress, or are you just dallying here for a few days? Where were you?”

The Northwarden of Lonhra cocked her head, smiling at Ayundami. “Off east in the Blackgrass. They’re not afraid of me there. I have a place by every fire, and they ask nothing of me but stories and songs.”

“In other words, they enable your sulking.”

“I am not sulking.” The Northwarden hefted the opal pendant in explanation. “Darksplinter and I are having an argument.”

“The same one as two hundred and seventy years ago? About whether to trust us, your loyal servants, with finding your next two Consorts?”

The Northwarden’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, I already know exactly who they are and where each of them lives. And I’ve known for over half a century.”

The crowd hissed, almost like one giant greedy beast. Ayundami felt the end of a long, tense peace, her life’s work unraveling because of one paranoid immortal.

The Northwarden gestured at the crowd with her free hand. “I am not paranoid. Darksplinter agrees with you. It thinks the Consorts should be here, and I should trust to their strengths and wisdom. But I’ve watched too many of my dear ones harassed, exploited, and yes, murdered by people who tried to use them to control me. I’m not playing that game anymore. The Triple Throne remains empty. I will not bring the Lady and Lord Consorts here, and our children shall be reared far from Illarhun and the swordcaste Great Houses.”

“But the new bloodlines!” blurted a Housefang sorcerer in bright emerald green. “We rely on your children to re-stoke sorcery in our lines and in the Great Houses.”

“Daunestil of Housefang, I leave those decisions to my children, or possibly their children. Without Ayundami barring your flight, how many of you would have sold yourselves to the Great Houses long ago?”

Well. Nothing to do but have it out in the open, Ayundami thought. The only thing worse than being Chief Adept while the Northwarden slept, apparently, was being so when the demon woke and declared feud against a third of the settled world.

“Are we at war against the Great Houses?” she asked into the deeper, horrified silence.

“Not yet. As long as mortals remember I wrote the Settlement Laws sixty five thousand years ago, and I will enforce them,” said the Northwarden. Darksplinter’s delicate chain became a supple black cable looping over her wrist. The opal glowed brighter. When the blaze faded, the pendant had changed itself into a skull-sized black weight studded with vicious spikes, each one tipped with pinpoints of searing green light.

Ayundami stood her ground. “I know you’re angry and afraid, Mistress. But sorcerers didn’t kill your last Consorts.”

The Northwarden set the weapon swinging in lazy arcs as she paced closer to Ayundami. “They didn’t protect them either. My King Ranul was assassinated on the threshold of this hall. My Queen Safahie took years to die from a poison I could neither name nor counter. My sorcerers never unearthed the insurrection. Or they were in league with it.”

The weapon passed six inches from the Chief Adept’s knees. She didn’t look down. “It was a dangerous time, Mistress.”

The Northwarden snarled, showing her fangs with a lifted lip. “Our daughter was barely nineteen. Safahie died, I fell asleep, and we left Gani alone amid a pit of Great House vipers!”

“Ganika se’tha Illarhun wasn’t alone. Her older half brothers stood by her. She grew up to rule as Chief Adept of her era.”

The Northwarden swayed indecisively, pulling the weapon back to her in closer arcs. “I can’t trust anyone now.”

“You have great-great-grandchildren still alive, powerful sorcerers all. Enlist them.”

The Northwarden’s black weapon folded upon itself, shifting back into the white pendulum. “Traitor,” she muttered at it.

“Darksplinter might say as much to you. Four millennia asleep, then the moment you wake, you hide for two centuries? Irresponsible and foolish. The world won’t go away because you wish it.”

The Northwarden’s eyes turned black, with only glints of emerald light at their centers. “When I found my new Consorts, I wanted to give them normal lives. Not this madness.”

With another resounding clang, the Chief Adept slammed the end of her staff down onto the floor, heedless of the ancient mosaics. “No one harnessed to you is ever going to be normal! You know what would have really helped? Staying here when you woke up, instead of running away. You are one of the great Powers of the world. You could act like it.”

“A Power? You don’t know what I am. I’m beginning to remember, and I don’t like it,” the Northwarden whispered.

The Adept groaned and rubbed her forehead. “I don’t care who you were. You need to focus on who you are now. Do your Consorts know you? Love you?”

The Northwarden stumbled back one step. She hunched her shoulders as if to avoid a blow. “One does. You need know nothing more. None of you.”

“I am not a rebel! My predecessors and I held this world together while you slept. How much more loyalty do I need to prove? Or anyone in this hall? As greedy as they are, the Atlani and tradecaste folk here are loyal to you.” Ayundami gave the Hosardu and Omiesh delegations a withering side-glance. Judging by the nervous flutter of silken sleeves and robes, they’d seen the look.

The Northwarden’s hand shook. The opal and its chain fell, striking the floor with a clang rattling the entire chamber. “Every day of your lives and every breath would still not be enough to prove it,” she whispered into the trembling aftershocks, her eyes fading to pale green once more.

The Chief Adept merely rocked on her muddy heels, and leaned a little heavier on the staff. “Very well, don’t trust me. Keep moping like a lovelorn girl. Even Darksplinter is irked at you. You might at least put on another face and go terrify some deserving mortals. I’ve heard enough rumors one queen or another poisoned her way to a throne, and mistreats her people. The queen of Danessa is still rehashing the same bloody little civil war her ancestress fought when you were last awake. The queen of Demuaira is desperate for a proper heir, since her only child has run off to play Master-Singer and marry some barbarian girl. I’m sure Jade Coast still has its outlaw problem.”

The Northwarden extended her left hand, and the black chain leapt off the floor to twine through her fingers. “I’ve followed the Great Houses’ antics while I lingered in the Blackgrass. You know how traders gossip, no secret ever uttered near them is safe. Neither Hosardu nor Danessa have stepped outside their declared borders, or committed obvious land-crimes. As long as House Sydall doesn’t play with its nastier toys, Demuaira can quietly rot away. The Dana race is dying. Their Academy and their Master-Singer are two of the last ways they feel important. I have learned to pity the Dana, but I do not care about them. I will step in when those relics are dust in their catacombs. For now, I must keep my Consorts safe.”

In the firepits, volcanic light shifted from its ominous red glare to a lighter orange, flickering to mimic a wood fire, as the Northwarden continued in a softer tone. “I made this chamber first for Hal and Romi, and kept it alive for every pair of Consorts since. We used to set up tents and lamps in the gardens, and host parties on winter nights. Or we kicked everybody else out, and played scandalous games on that.” The Northwarden hooked her chin toward the tall, wide black throne looming against the eastern wall of the chamber. She gave a long sigh faltering on the edge of a sob. “You’re right. I can’t be here. I’m going back to the Blackgrass and the Sonnaroi tribes.”

Ayundami held back an audible groan. Teenagers were all the same, immortal or not. “Just don’t be away for too long, eh? I’m not getting any younger, and none of my apprentices are ready to deal with you.”

“The Sonnaroi accept me no matter what body I show up in.”

“The Sonnaroi are impossible to shock. They’ve had a million years to get used to you. And they gave birth to Halaman.”

The Northwarden laughed, the first unsullied joy the Chief Adept had seen from her mistress. “I don’t trust you yet, but I think I like you, Ayundami. Will you rule the sorcerers a little longer for me?”

“Hmmph. You’re not quite as terrifying as the old stories say. That will charm some people and worry others. You may have another hundred years among the Sonnaroi. Then I’ll start sending the worst of my apprentices to embarrass you.”

“Thank you for your permission and fair warning,” the younger woman said with a mocking curtsey. “Am I terrifying now?”

Her voice changed to a thunderous growl. She vanished before the last word was out, replaced by a ten-foot-high, thirty-five-foot-long beast with blazing green eyes. Its four-legged body was shaggy with black fur, and thickly armored with large black scales covering the skull, chest and shoulders. The long, tapering tail lashed like a hurricane wind, the barbs at the tip tracing runnels of green fire in the air. Frost spilled out from the beast’s nostrils and mouth, until the mosaic floor crusted with white ice and crackled from the cold. The beast lowered its huge, horn-spiked muzzle to the Chief Adept’s eye level. Startled curses and cries came from the crowd, as they stumbled back from the beast.

“Well, Ayundami?” the creature rumbled, deep voice thrumming with eerie chorded resonance. “I have a thousand aspects. You have seen the princess of the North. But I am also Grandfather to the Sonnaroi. I made Lonhra safe for mortals long before your kin were even created, or the Dana made Landfall with their proud star-steel ships. I am this, and far worse. Am I charming now? Am I beautiful?”

“You have your good points, Master,” said the Chief Adept, not moving as the billowing frost crept close to her boots.

“As do you. Don’t give me cause to doubt—” The beast’s black head swung suddenly around to face south, its nostrils flaring again. It gave a volcanic growl, then a whimpered “No!”

“Master?” Ayundami prudently stepped back. When a creature this powerful put back its ears, something dire was at work in the world.

The Northwarden became a Sirrithani woman again, her face too blank to show rage or fear. She gave Ayundami a swift glance, shook back her hair, and brought the gathered chain to her lips. In another flash of seething green light, she was gone.

Chapter Three


Waking didn’t come all at once. Eridan floated up from the bottom of a dark pool, into light and sound. His senses were so disordered he tasted the light. Even with closed eyes, sounds were haloed in swirling colors.

Smell worked properly. Amid the chaos, he caught one familiar body scent. Someone he knew and loved. A sturdy face swam out of jumbled memory—bronze brown under short shaggy white hair, white eyebrows quirked, full lips twitching in a stifled grin. Deep blue eyes, the color the clock bells shimmered just now. Big, clever hands gripped on the girwood hafts of short spears with long patterned-steel blades. A name: Sfassa.

A woman he loved. One in danger, if he read the stress and illness souring her normal scent. But still alive.

Her name was Sfassa, and his was Eridan. The clock bell tolled evening hours, too many to be day.

Something was very wrong with his brain, but it was trying to put itself to rights. If he didn’t fight it, everything would eventually make sense again.

Even one leap of logic was too much for him, and he slept.

Upon the next waking, not wanting to taste the fierce garlic gleam of lamplight, Eridan kept his eyes shut. Sound worked now, voices unaccompanied by drifts of pure color.

“You must go, Sfassa. You’ve only two choices, and this must be done soon if you want to salvage anything. Better done and you gone, before he even wakes,” said a half-familiar male voice.

“No!” hissed Sfassa. “I’ve lied to him enough. No longer. This is half his doing too. He needs to be awake for it.”

Another woman’s voice, lighter than Sfassa’s rich burr, cut in. “He’s pure Dana. My healers say it makes him stronger against the silence-drug. But who knows if he will ever speak again, much less sing.”

“He’ll sing,” said Sfassa. “He’s a tough little thing. Even so, I won’t leave him alone in a strange city without me. He was already attacked!”

“They were after you, spear-lass,” said the man. Something about his deep tones reminded Eridan of red cliffs and conifer forests, the taste of beer, and sheaves of harvest grain. He set the association aside, hoping his brain would recall it later. He’d seen this person before. He remembered the man’s face and height, burly shoulders, and a clinging scent of scorched metal.

Brinta Vale in the Northlands, Eridan’s mind supplied with vague context. A treaty and a harvest. A smith had pulled Eridan out of danger and vanished just as quickly. Three years before Eridan met Sfassa. And this smith person knew her?

Eridan cautiously opened his eyes. The yellow lamplight didn’t carry a blast of garlic this time. No extra colors haloed his vision. He was in a clean, white tiled hospice room with only one other bed.

Sfassa’s big body crowded a bed made for a Sirrithani not much larger than Eridan. She was nude, half propped up on pillows, her entire midsection wrapped in layers of white gauze oozing teal and brown herbal poultices. Her two kori-spears rested by her left side atop the blue coverlet. She watched Eridan with a hunter’s intensity. When she saw his eyes were open, she flinched back, a guilty look on her sweet broad face. The look vanished, replaced by naked hope.

Eridan didn’t smell infection from her, just the heavy aroma of torn and healing flesh. But even in the lowered light, he could see the dark hollows around Sfassa’s eyes, and the paler tinge to her brown skin.

“Erk,” he tried aloud.

“Easy, Master-Singer,” said the not-Sfassa female voice.

Two other people came into view, a tall Sirrithani woman with red-brown skin and black hair to her waist, and the familiar smith. Rallamat. Witch-Queen of Throng, Eridan’s mind supplied about the woman. His memory skittered around the smith’s name, insisting “Hirkke” was not quite correct, but not offering any alternative. The man was just as squat and strong looking as Eridan remembered, with weather-beaten light-brown skin the same color as his shaggy hair. His eyes were a nearly luminous silvery green, vivid in Eridan’s patchy memories. The smith had a short, ragged beard. He scratched his chin with one black-gloved hand.

Eridan remembered those very same gauntlets. No. Gloves wore out, far sooner than a Sirrithani’s eight-hundred-year span. But there was the same acid-burned spot near the top edge of the right hand, and the same pulled thread dangling half an inch away from the broken part of the thumb seam.

Fifty-year-old gloves, looking exactly the same?

“M-melon,” Eridan said out loud. “Garrr—” he tried again.

“Sssh,” said the Witch-Queen. “Any clear sound is a good sign. Your brain is remembering what sounds fit where. Give it time. You understand me, Master-Singer?”

Eridan tried to nod assent, but the motion ended up being a full head roll. The whole room spun around him.

“Get him lucid, Sfassa. Soon.” said the smith.

“Me? I’m stuck in a bed, Hralo Hirkkeni Fifthmaster. And I’m not going anywhere without my husband!” she snarled weakly.

Eridan tried a questioning noise without words, which worked better. The others focused back on him.

“Your wife is a mighty warrior, Master-Singer,” said the Witch-Queen, bending over to check his eyes. “But even she is up against her limits, between the wound, the poison, and the sorcery.”

Sfassa groaned exasperation. “It was not sorcery!”

The Witch-Queen stood up, her hands on her hips, as she half turned to glare at Sfassa. Eridan was momentarily dazzled by the complex blue patterns woven into the queen’s cream linen shift. He remembered her sitting at a loom, with a similar cloth piece half done, while a smaller copy of herself plinked away on a toy lap-harp nearby.

The clever princess, his mind offered. The one with the big blue harp he’d made.

“I know the scent of earthwitchery, my girl! The spell winding over and between your bones is like nothing I’ve ever seen, but it reeks somewhat of the Illarhun Adepts I’ve met. It’s powerful sorcery, shapeshifting another being and having it last so long. What was it you asked for? Strength? Height? Beauty? And what did you offer in return? Sorcerers give nothing for free.”

“Now, just a minute, missy,” the smith told the Witch-Queen. “I’ve known Sfassa since she was a babe among her backlands tribe, and she’s never been anything but—”

The queen was one of the twenty strongest earthwitches on Lonhra, noted Eridan’s brain. This Hralo person wasn’t scared of her at all.

“That would explain some things,” Sfassa said in a small voice, as if in wondering memory. But Eridan had known her for fifty years, and knew the swiftly hidden glint of mischief in her downcast eyes.

What are you hiding, my love?

Sfassa began, “In the Northlands, near a caravan, I heard Eridan from afar and loved him for his voice.”

The smith gave a cut-short laugh. “Then you saw he was no taller than a water barrel and no wider than a stick of firewood, with skin and hair the same dull washed-out tan, with ridiculous tiny too-white eyes, and no decent claws or fangs…”

Sfassa narrowed her eyes at the smith, though Eridan knew she was holding back laughter. “And beautiful, when he sang and played. But I knew he’d not look at me as I was, so I bargained with a wizard of my own people, to change my body just enough to count. It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt. But worth it, when I sang to Eridan across half a caravan, his song answered mine, and we met at the central fire pit.”

“Which everyone knows, from every stupidly romantic song he’s written since,” said the Witch-Queen, tilting her head as she looked at Sfassa. Eridan felt the pressure of an earthwitch’s regard reverberating silently through the room, though his Dana mind and body resisted. What was she reading from Sfassa?

“Oh, my, that kind of backlands tribe?” The Witch-Queen looked impressed. “And one of your tribal wizards was responsible?”

“Sfassa’s folk can boast of mighty earthwitches and sorcerers, even if the rest of the world doesn’t remember it,” said the smith, ambling around the room. “I know the one who helped Sfassa.”

“I only let you into this chamber after the Snowdancer was awake enough to vouch for you,” the Witch-Queen said to the smith. “How does an acetic Southlands Ahadruan smith-monk know of sorcerers or the Snowdancer’s people?”

“Some of the best meteoritic iron on Lonhra comes from the Starfell plain west of Illarhun. Once I met up with some of Sfassa’s kin, and offered proper respect in return for their help finding heavy black rocks, I saw Sfassa, a white-haired little thing with endless questions.”

The smith was within six feet of Eridan when Sfassa growled low in her throat, all laughter gone. She’d show her fangs next. When she slid her brown hand over the haft of a kori, Eridan guessed she’d skip fangs and launch the spear.

“And the sorcerer?” asked the Witch-Queen. “They tend not to come into my city, but I can have her sent for.”

The smith backed himself into a corner farthest from Eridan, and now lounged nonchalantly against the tiled wall. “Her name was Harilka.”

The Witch-Queen groaned and put her head in her hands. “Harilka is merely a veil name, a cover identity for any Adept who needs it. Not the Chief Adept. At least Ayundami has always done her work out in the open to our faces. So you met up with one of the concealed Illarhun Adepts, one powerful enough to shapeshift the Snowdancer. For fifty years. And it might have lasted her natural life, but for the attack.”

“And now she and he—” The smith gestured in Eridan’s direction. “Have a choice to make. Sfassa, tell him.”

“He may not be conscious enough to understand,” said the Witch-Queen, moving to a table in a corner by Sfassa. She bent, retrieving a dark brown wax tablet in a frame of pale golden wood, and a matching wooden stylus. “If he can’t speak, maybe he can write?”

Chapter Four


Eridan hitched up, half sitting in the bed, belatedly realizing he was as naked as Sfassa under his rich blue sheet. No help for it. He left the sheet pooled over his hips, as the Witch-Queen put the tablet in his lap and gently wrapped his right hand over the stylus.

The stylus felt instantly natural in the place between his forefingers and thumb. He steadied the tablet with his left hand. He wrote in neat, careful Sirrithani characters, their looping intricate ideograms announcing his birth name, rank, ancient family, and city, before he ended the formal signature with the proud and defiant symbol for “Dana.” The pale golden lines that cut through the soft, dark wax were not his writing. Just scrawls careening above and below a proper horizontal line. He tried angular Dana script next. More scrawls. He knew he’d written perfectly. Not the aimless scribbles mocking him now. He looked up at the Witch-Queen, who peered into his eyes, then shook her head.

“Without being able to read his mind, I can’t tell how much he understands.”

“Sunset!” Eridan swore, meaning something else entirely. The shock was brutal as cold water. Eridan needed letters and symbols, as well as his voice. He’d accept mute or rambling the rest of his life, as long as he could write!

“It’s the silence-drug, lad, it plays with those parts of your mind. A foul invention,” said the smith, his distant stare looking through Eridan to something else. “But other expression may not be so damaged. Rallamat, does your daughter have any small string instuments the size of the tablet? Flutes are out. I don’t think the Master-Singer has much breath to spare.”

The Witch-Queen’s long, whisker fringed ears actually perked up. “We can do even better. Stay, smith. I’m not done with you yet.”

When the hospice door closed and locked with a rumble of multiple tumblers, Sfassa heaved sideways and stuck her tongue out at Hralo. “You’re enjoying my setbacks, old meddler.”

“Fountain help us all, you’re not a child in dapple-fur anymore. Don’t blame me for your poor planning,” he grunted.

“Wasn’t expecting poison and a gut wound,” she said, grimacing. “Or this.”

Eridan still marveled over a traveling smith being so informal with the Witch-Queen of Throng, with apparent impunity. Ahadruans used little ceremony among themselves. The man knew Sfassa. No one knew Sfassa. She’d been frustratingly opaque about her origins to everyone, including Eridan.

The smith knew, and Eridan meant to have it out of him. Not fair. Even the Witch-Queen had learned something Eridan and most of the world hadn’t!

“Mast,” he said to the smith, then tried again with a mightly effort. “Porridge. Ring!” Eridan glared at the man’s hands for added measure.

Sfassa started laughing, then yelped and coughed, settling back into her bed. “He’s noticed your gloves.”

“What about them? I wear them everywhere. Ahadruans don’t like touching people accidentally, it’s rude.”

“They’re the same gloves from Brinta.” Sfassa snickered, still wincing.

Wait. Sfassa had been in Brinta, the same time as the smith? Eridan would have remembered that!

The smith looked down at his hands. “Why shouldn’t they be?”

“Their wear patterns are too alike.”

Eridan was smugly proud of his smart, dangerous wife.

“So? I have a maker I like. And I wear them the same way, so the same areas fray first.”

Sfassa closed her eyes and smirked up at the ceiling. “Good try, meddler. Try again. Admit it. You’ve been sloppy.”

“You were an insufferable child and you are an insufferable woman,” said the smith, more weary than insulting. “And yet, I helped you find your shapeshifting spell decades ago. I crafted your damn spears from Starfell iron and baneflower charcoal. Now, I’m here, trying to keep you and yours alive. In a city where I’m very much not wanted, mind you.”

“Fifthmaster, I thank you. Eridan is more important than I am. You must get him safely home!”

“Consider it done. You are both priceless, if separately and equally irritating,” said the smith. “But have you considered his home city may not be safe for him, after all? With you not there?”

Eridan shifted in the bed, wanting nothing more than to be curled up with Sfassa, and…

Wait. Where was Sfassa going without him?

Noise out in the hall pulled Eridan’s attention away from the two people bickering inside. The hospice door opened to frame the Witch-Queen and her small copy. The daughter carried a child-sized guitar of blue-stained wood and golden-shell frets. The instrument was as gaudily carved and painted as nearly every artifact and utensil in this city.

While Queen Rallamat stalked across the room to lay a hand on Sfassa’s forehead, the crown princess stopped in the open doorway, staring fiercely at the smith. Her thin brown fingers strained sallow on the guitar neck.

“Why are you here?” she asked in a light clear voice.

The smith stood up from his lounging spot against the wall, and gave her a deep, reverent bow. “Only to protect the spear-lass, because I knew her of old in the far North. And because the Master-Singer is dear to Sfassa, I must look after him too. I mean no harm to you, your city, or your people, Princess Riharisunet se’tha Rallamat.”

The ten-year-old princess nodded. “Stay oath-bound to your word, and we have no quarrel.”

The Witch-Queen chuckled. “He’s an itinerant smith, Riha. I don’t think we need to worry about wars or riots from him. Unlike a damned baroness out at Autanqua.”

The princess gave her mother a dour look, then crossed to Eridan’s bed and held out the guitar. “Mother told me you needed strings, ones making as many different sounds as possible. Will this do?”

Eridan heaved himself a little more upright. He took the little guitar from her without dropping it.

The girl moved to stand at his side—between Eridan and the smith. “Play scales? With my harp, you said it was the best way to start.”

The old Master-Singer, his kinswoman Leya Sydall, had started him the same way on every instrument she’d pushed at him. Eridan tucked himself around the gaudy guitar, and let loose aimless scales and chords, rising, falling, sharpening and dulling as the old memories surfaced. Not quite as old as speech, but burned deep into his mind.

And apparently, not subject to the silence-drug.

“Can you understand me?” asked the princess. “Count the Houseless Numbers down from eleven with me, in notes.”

Eridan glanced up at her challenge and her conspiratorial grin. Many Sirr children her age could barely count. While she chanted the numbers, he struck eleven notes descending on one scale, then back up seven notes on a different scale, then back down to five. Without looking at the strings.

“Three, then two,” finished the princess. “Can you speak or curse with a guitar? I heard a bard down at the harbor last year, who made her guitar sound almost like a drunk bargewoman.”

“When did you get loose to hear such things, Riha!” groaned the Witch-Queen.

Eridan remembered his own childhood adventures and late-night musical mischief with other students at Demuaira’s Academy. First, he made the strings yowl, then launched into an approximation of profanity. He’d stored up many curses, starting from the moment he’d felt the assassin’s knife across his throat.

Judging from the Witch-Queen’s scandalized expression, some of them were understandable.

To Sfassa’s and the girl’s laughter, Eridan unleashed every bit of his ire and fear in pure, wordless sound. When he wound down, letting his hands rest, he turned to see the chortling smith doubled over against the far wall.

Eridan tried for notes verging close to “Smith” and “Fifthmaster.”

The man looked up, with grudging admiration first at Eridan, then at the smiling princess. “Remind me to never cross you before or after you take the throne, Princess. There are three earthwitches in the world who might be your equal when you’re full grown, and your Lady Mother isn’t one of them.”

The Witch-Queen lifted her chin proudly. “You think her father and I don’t know it already? We’re looking forward to retiring and growing lilies in about twenty years.”

The smith ignored her. “So. We’ve found a voice for the voiceless! Sfassa,” the smith’s voice settled back into a warning tone. “We’ve not much time.”

Sfassa audibly gulped, drawing Eridan’s gaze. “I wasn’t honest with you, little love, and now we’re both paying for it.”

Go on, he told her with the guitar.

“I wasn’t born Sirrithani, but Sonnaroi. And now I’m with child,” she said.

Chapter Five


On the same autumn morning Eridan turned seven years old, the Master-Singer Leya Sydall came back to the city of Demuaira.

From his forbidden vantage point of a wide-silled window high up in the palace, Eridan spied on the city below. The Master-Singer’s barge glided to rest by the eastern docks. The city still fell under cliff shadow, so Eridan had to squint at the dark cloth fluttering on its pole above the prow. When the sun climbed high enough, the fabric would glow somber red. He knew it from its twin hung in the throne room—silver harp on a red field, a black band at the base embroidered with Demuaira’s silver waves, another black band at the top studded with the seven silver stars of the Dana colonies. Dozens of attendants carried trunks and baskets off the vessel. A slim, short person in bright green met a taller, hulking figure at the top of the gangplank. The bigger person seemed oddly misshapen.

Ah. It was two people. A tall Sirrithani, probably a giant Southlander, carrying on his? her? shoulders a lightweight wicker chair facing forward. The chair held a much-tinier person swaddled in the same rich, deep red of the banner.

The latter would be Leya, the Master-Singer, Eridan’s great-great-aunt who’d lived in the far-off rival city of Danessa for most of her thirteen hundred years. According to Eridan’s mother Queen Moravet, this was somehow the deepest possible insult to Demuaira.

At seven, Eridan had already learned whole lists of insults against Demuaira, its queen, and its status as the last Pure Dana city on the planet. Most days, he figured himself near-first on those lists. He snuck books out of the palace library, if only the ones with engraved diagrams and pictures. He constantly dirtied or tore his clothes, so often he’d taken to hiding fresh clothing around his usual Palace haunts. He’d been born a boy instead of a girl, a proper princess-heir.

He clutched his latest experiment close to his chest. It was a simple reed flute he’d made all by himself. Every finger hole but one was perfect. He heard the way their precision resonated when he blew the notes. The lowest note was breathy and sour, and got worse when he tried to re-bore the hole wider. He was deemed too young to take music and crafting lessons down at the Demuaira Academy. All the teachers were afraid of his mother anyway.

The Master-Singer might show him what he’d done wrong, if he could speak to her privately. He’d fix this flute, or start over. He still had one length of hollow reed left, from the dozen he’d filched from the gardeners last autumn. Eleven tries, eleven failures, and now he was so close to having a flute of his very own, sized for his tiny fingers.

“Scamp! Where are you now? Don’t let Queen Moravet catch you being late to court, today of all days!” a worried female voice called out.

Eridan stowed the flute carefully inside his still-immaculate dark red jacket, and scrambled off the windowsill just in time to look innocently up at his latest Sirrithani nursemaid.

“There you are, little scamp. And mostly clean, for a wonder. Up, up, no time to wait on your short legs!” His nursemaid scooped him up until he rode giggling on her right shoulder, while she ran down the servants’ staircase. Her big hand was steady on his legs, locking him in place. Like most Sirrithani, Kallen towered above the purebred Dana adults living in the Palace. Eridan himself barely stood past her lower thigh.

Kallen had been a servant of Sydall Palace long enough to let Eridan down before they turned down the hallway leading to the throne room. He was too old to be carried like a baby, certainly in front of the queen. Eridan tried the old game of sliding down his nurse’s trousered leg and catching at the loose cloth at the last moment. He dangled there, swinging back and forth a few inches off the ground, until Kallen plucked him off.

“Scamp,” she warned. “No playing today.”

He made an impudent face up at her, then schooled it back to the bland mask he’d learned to wear in court.

“Better. Wait. The windowsill was dusty.” Kallen spat into a white kerchief and wiped his forehead clean.

In the hallway, austere red-plastered walls framed frescos of famed Sydall Queens and Master-Singers. All of them slim, imperious tan-haired, bronze-skinned women with strong, wide mouths. Their painted slate-colored eyes seemed to follow Eridan in mute accusation. In the portraits, some of the women toyed with complicated, angular golden tools or jewelry. When he was a baby, he’d thought the women and their odd jewels pretty. Now, he recognized those artifacts as part of the Sydall Deathcache, the ancient weapons keeping Sirrithani barbarians from overrunning Demuaira. He knew the queens’ faces from looking in his own silvered-glass mirror.

He’d best not let his mother glimpse the new flute today.

An hour later, Aunt Leya and her two attendants were still nowhere to be seen.

Eridan’s feet hurt in their stiff new slippers. The jacket collar made the back of his neck itch. A dozen old Pure Dana courtiers and their taller hybrid descendants stood at attention on both sides of the throne dais. The queen of Demuaira waited behind Eridan, simmering in quiet fury.

Moravet Sydall sat on the plain red-purple granite throne as easily as if it was an overstuffed library couch, but her thin fingers clenched on Eridan’s shoulder. He didn’t dare lean against the throne’s armrests, much less his mother’s linen-robed knee or intricate knee-high cloth boots.

The silence was as taut as a harp string ready to break. The huge double doors flew open so hard their steel-bound wood bounced off the door jambs with multiple hollow clangs. One old courtier clutched at her chest, wheezing.

A man said, “Sorry.” Then he gave the kind of explosive laughter Eridan had only heard from the Sirrithani riverboat sailors down at the docks, on the two occasions he’d snuck down to the lower city.

A feminine chuckle answered, self-assured and hearty, in another unfamiliar voice. Then a thin, raspy giggle like silver sistrums ended in, “Oh, dear, Moravet, I didn’t know you’d summoned everyone,” as the throne room door opened. Now, Eridan saw them clearly—a diminutive figure sitting in her own moving throne, strapped to the impossibly wide shoulders of a Sirrithani man taller than anyone Eridan had ever seen. So tall, his passenger’s red-mantled head nearly brushed the eleven-foot-high door lintel. So wide he turned sideways to sidle through the door. The giant wore rustic-looking armor made of odd bluish wood tiles knotted together with cords. From his left side, in a belt-scabbard heavy enough to be part of an ox harness, swung a sword nearly as tall as the queen of Demuaira. His long white-blond hair and beard were both braided with barbarian ornaments in dull gold and carved rock crystal beads. His forehead, cheeks, and exposed arms were covered by matching silky-looking short fur.

“This is everyone?” The green-coated woman standing next to him was small only in comparison. She still towered a foot or more over the tallest Dana courtier. She had no fur on her face or arms, but displayed the tan hair and thin, clever face of a Sydall. Her blue-gray eyes were the right color but too large, wide irised with almost no white. Her tall, whisker-fringed ears were pure Sirrithani, not the short, bare-skinned, delicate points of a Dana’s ears. She looked at the assembled court with a puzzled expression. “This hall can hold hundreds.”

“We are a few dozen in number now,” said the queen of Demuaira with icy precision.

“And really old,” said the giant as he looked at the elderly courtiers, his own fringed ears flicking back against the sides of his skull. A Sirrithani gesture, it seemed to mean confusion or dismay. Dana ears couldn’t twitch so well, a fact Eridan sometimes mourned.

His passenger whacked him on the head with a rolled-up reed paper scroll. “What have we said about disrespecting your elders, Onxa?”

“Not to even think it, Grandmother Leya,” he rumbled. “Sorry, all.”

The Master-Singer pushed the red fabric back from her forehead, and looked around the court. Her age-seamed expression shifted between embarrassed discomfort and a quickly hidden glee.

"There's no need for this much ceremony, Moravet."

The silence was implacable, and lasted for ten of Eridan’s heartbeats.

“What did you think I’d do, Leya? The Master-Singer has come home to us at last, my own blood-kin, and I’d not greet her in state?” Moravet Sydall’s voice was calm, but her long fingernails dug deeper into Eridan’s shoulder. He was finally glad of the itchy, hot, padded jacket. “Her and her…entourage?”

“Oh, we’re not the entourage, Queen Sydall,” chirped the green-coated Sirrithani woman. “We’re family.”

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