Tarrin Kael

Firestaff Collection

Book Four

The Shadow Realm©

by James Galloway (aka Fel)

 

 

Link of Contents

 

Title    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    10    11    12    13    14    15    16    17    18    19    20    Epilogue    End of The Shadow Realm

 


To:    Title            EoF

 Prologue

 

      "Come back here, boy!"

      The shout rumbled across the small meadow deep in a forest so pristine, so dense, so remote that it had not known the footsteps of mankind in a thousand years.  The clearing stood at the end of a shallow valley nestled at the top of a rather large hill, a cleft at its top that concealed the clearing from any who did not already know of its existence.  It held a small log cabin, little more than two rooms and a loft, with a small vegetable patch tended at its back and a well several paces to the right of the small cabin's raised front porch.  The porch held a pair of rocking chairs, a small table, and hanging from the side of it was a rack of drying meat.  It was a small home, a cozy home, and most important of all, it was an isolated home.

      Very few knew of the valley's existence.  The few that did were either the friends of the occupant, or they were dead.  The owner of that small cabin in the forest was a small yet powerfully built female, short and lithe, yet her every muscle rippled with her movements as she jogged off the porch to chase down a toddler.  This female was not human, though she appeared very close to a human.  She had human features and a human build, tall for a woman but short for her age and her species.  That was the extent of the resemblence, however, for the female had a long furred tail sprouting from the back of her untanned, rather ragged breeches.  Her arms and legs were covered with short, thick black fur to just above the elbows and knees, and instead of human ears, a pair of triangular cat's ears poked out of an unruly mane of short, curly black hair.  Her hands and feet were not hands and feet at all, they were curious crosses between human appendages and animal paws, oversized for her frame and hiding very long, very sharp, very deadly claws.  Despite these obvious indications that she was not human, a human would have considered to be rather handsome. She had sharp, drawn features, with pronounced cheekbones and a sharp chin, giving her face a fox-like quality.  Bright green eyes, with pupils vertically slitted like a cat's eyes, stared out under a bouncing array of bangs and slender eyebrows, eyes that would chill most people who looked into them.  There was an ominous quality about those eyes, as if the woman looked at others as enemies, or as prey, a predatory gaze that even put members of her own race on edge and uncomfortable.  There was more hiding within those eyes, an old, haunted pain that had only recently begun to heal, an old wound that had only recently been repaired.

      Her name was Mist, and she was a Were-cat, one of a magical race of beings blessed with the ability to transform into the shape of a common housecat.  She had come to that small shallow valley on the top of the hill to raise her son, to provide him with shelter and protection from the dangers of what the humans called the Frontier, though there was no danger any longer.  Mist defended her territory with a ferocity and savagery that gave the Were-cats a very bad reputation among Fae-da'Nar, the loose association of wood-dwelling beings, often killing invaders without any warning or any quarter.  Mist did not mark the edges of her territory, fearing that it would attract Were-wolves or migrating Centaurs looking to harass her, so many of the Woodkin who wandered into her territory did so with no idea that they had just meandered into a very deadly place.  It got so bad that the closest Druid to the valley, an eldery human woman named Ne'Vanne, marked Mist's boundaries clearly and made it clear that any who entered did so at their own peril, and did so without her approval.  The Druids of the Heartwood held great power over the Woodkin, and a statement like that would be enough to dissuade even the most hateful Were-wolf or Centaur to leave the Were-cat alone.

      Then again, once the boundaries had been marked, they left her alone anyway.  They all knew Mist, and they all knew her reputation.  If Were-cats had a very bad reputation among Fae-da'Nar, Mist had a very bad reputation even among the Were-cats.  She was feral, a term for a Were-kin whose animals instincts had come to dominate their thinking, Were-kin who no longer trusted strangers.  They were like rabid wild animals, vicious, unpredictable, and very violent.  Mist had been one of the most feral Were-kin ever known, so feral that she did not even trust her own kind, so feral that there were only a very, very few who could even get close enough to speak to her.  When the boundaries were marked with Mist's name, every Woodkin within fifty longspans moved even further away.

      But few knew that she had managed to conquer some portions of her feral nature.  Much of the reason she had been feral was tied up with her history, a history when a Were-kin hunter wounded her with silver and left her barren.  Still carrying the powerful instincts to reproduce and care for children, yet left incapable of doing so, it sent Mist spiralling down into a black void of hatred and frustration, which inevitably caused her to turn feral.  Mist blamed the humans for her condition, and for nearly three hundred years she remained thus, scarred both physically and mentally, unable to forgive, unable to forget, and unable to trust.

      But that all changed when she met Tarrin.  He had been much like her, a feral Were-cat who had been scarred by the actions of the humans, betrayed by the very ones who had promised to care for him, who had been turned Were by the orders of the very Sorcerers who had promised to take care of him.  He too was a Sorcerer, and he had magical powers of healing.  He had used those powers on Mist, healing what the Druids could not heal, restoring her body to its rightful condition.  The restoration of her body had done much to restore her mind, because it finally allowed her to put her wounding behind her, and it restored her ability to bear young.

      That was why it happened.  Tarrin had restored Mist's body, but he was the only male around.  Mist desperately wanted a child of her own, and that meant that she had to trust him, trust him in a way she never thought she'd ever trust another again, to mate with him and leave herself exposed to attack.  She found herself at war within, as her feral fear warred against her powerful urge to follow her instincts, but in the end, it was Tarrin himself that allowed her to face herself.  He had been wounded at the time, and what at first started as a thought that she could control a wounded mate became the realization that he would not hurt her, because he wasn't like that.

      When she realized that he wasn't going to hurt her, that he had healed her because he cared about her, and that he was willing to mate with her--something that he would not have done because of the lingering traces of human morality within him--because it was what she needed instead of what he wanted, it broke the wall she had built around herself.  She opened up to him, put her complete trust in him, and for the first time in centuries, she found peace within herself.  She took him for mate, something she could not have done with any other male, even to this day.  She had found a friend that day, had finally found someone she could trust.

      He had changed her life so much.  His gentle words had caused her to reconcile with her bond-daughter, Kimmie, whom she had found half-crazy and nearly dead after being bitten by a Were-cat and changed from human to Were.  Mist was just as feral then, but the instincts to nurture and raise young had briefly overwhelmed her fear, and she had taken the turned human as a child.  It had been a very nervous time for both of them, for Mist feared the very child she had taken, and would have killed her the instant that she felt that Kimmie was a threat.  Somehow, the turned Were-cat had sensed this, and had exhibited almost supernatural self-control and the ability to read Mist's moods, and that kept her alive.  Kimmie had stayed with her bond-mother, even after she released Kimmie to the world, staying with her and giving her the only companionship she had had during the entire time she had been feral.  But after he mated with her, Tarrin showed her that Kimmie had stayed with her because she loved her and cared about her, and that had been a revelation to the feral female.  She had had a long talk with her daughter after she left Tarrin, after she knew she was pregnant, and had come to accept her daughter completely.

      It was a happy time for Mist now.  She still did not trust any strangers, but she had come to accept four Were-cats who had been there for her when she was feral, or had been there for her since.  Tarrin and Kimmie, of course, and also Triana, the eldest of the Were-cats and the undisputed ruler of their kind.  The last was Jesmind, another of Tarrin's acquaintances who had started visiting not long ago.  She didn't completely trust Ne'Vanne, but the human was a Druid, so that status allowed Mist to treat her amiably and respectfully when she came to visit.  She had even reached a point where she would allow other Were-cats to visit her cabin, but the visits were usually very brief and somewhat strained.  Most of the Were-cats either still feared Mist or didn't like her, and most of the visits were simple requests for a night's sleeping and a meal.  The only other Were-cat that visited with any regularity was Shayle, one of Triana's daughters, and Mist had started developing a genuine fondness for her.  She was still feral, and that ferality made her fear Shayle, but with a little work and some understanding from Shayle, Mist felt she may even be able to accept her as a friend.

      The only one who had never seen Mist's nasty side was Eron, her son.  She caught up to him and grabbed him and picked him up, then momentarily forgot that she was angry with him for knocking over the dishrack.  Mist's entire life revolved around her son, her precious son, the most valuable gift she had ever received.  She had named her son after Tarrin's father to honor him, just another way to honor him, and she could never touch his son, or hold him or scold him or think about him, without having warm thoughts about his father and the joy she had brought into her life.  She turned him around and stared into his green eyes, which were a little fearful, but then he giggled and threw his paws around her neck and hugged her.

      He was about eight months old now, but was the same comparable age as a three year old human, and he was the same size as a three year old human.  That was normal for Were-cat cubs, growing to adulthood in about ten years.  Such a short time to have with her son, but she would cherish every moment of it.  He looked like a miniature version of his father, with the same cheekbones and strong jaw and expressive eyes.  He had his father's hair as well, blond as corn silk and thick enough to be unmanagable, and it was almost inevitable that he would end up with black fur.  Both his parents had black fur, and a child's fur almost always took after one of the parents.  He was a little Tarrin, healthy and happy and growing stronger every day.  He was an energetic, precocious child, always getting into trouble and trying to give his mother gray hair.

      She gazed at him lovingly, then put on her scowl.  "I told you not to climb on the counter, cub!" she said sharply.  "Now go back in there and pick up every single piece of the plate you just broke!"

      "Yes, Mama," he said, his pronunciation a bit skewed.  He had started talking about three months ago, and was learning at what a human would consider to be an inhuman rate.  But that was normal for Were-cats, whose minds matured as rapidly as their bodies.  He could speak in complete sentences now, building quite a vocabulary which included some of the more colorful words that no human would teach her cubs, but were perfectly acceptable for a Were-cat to teach a Were-cat cub.  There were many things Were-cats taught their children that would have mortified a human female.

      "Now scoot!" she barked, setting him on the ground and swatting him on the backside with the side of her foot.  She was about to follow him in, but the wind changed, and it carried to her a scent that she had not scented in quite a while, a scent that made her ears pick up.  Were-cats had incredible senses, sharp eyesight, acute hearing, sensitive touch and taste, and a sense of smell so delicate that they could track by scent and detect the approach of others from longspans away, if the wind blew the right way.  The scent was Triana's, and she was close by.  She was also alone.

      Mist felt a bit elated about that.  It had been almost two months since she'd seen Triana, who stopped in regularly to check up on Eron.  Mist had been a bit lonely since Kimmie had left last month, left to answer the call of Fae-da'Nar to help the humans fight the Goblinoids that had invaded Sulasia.  They had been called at Tarrin's behest, and that had been enough for Kimmie.

      It was quite a situation.  Mist adored Tarrin utterly, for he had been the one who had made her life so wonderful.  She would do absolutely anything for him, would always be there for him--at least after she released Eron as an adult, her duty to their cub came first--and would always love him in a powerful way.  Tarrin had been her mate once, and she fully intended to chase him down and take him for mate again.  Then Jesmind arrived with her daughter, Tarrin's daughter, which was quite a surprise to Mist and Kimmie.  They talked, got to know each other, and Mist had found that she liked Triana's hot-tempered eldest child.  Their talks eventually came around to Tarrin, and Mist found out that Jesmind was in love with him.  Not the distracted love Were-cats exhibited, but the powerful, binding love that was common in humans.  That caused not a little bit of animosity to rise up, but then they realized that neither could ever claim him forever, and neither was about to back down, either.  Were-cat behavior and instincts would permit an extended mating, but over time the mates got to wearing on each other, and they had to part before they killed each other.  Jesmind wanted Tarrin, but so did Mist.  And then she realized that Kimmie did too.  Mist's quiet, clever daughter harbored an almost childish crush on the enigmatic male, a male who had been turned just like her, a male, she admitted to them, with whom she felt more comfortable than with any other male.  Kimmie's infatuation with Tarrin was partly her identifying with him, and partly because of what she had done for Mist.  She could see that, and could understand it.

      And so, a deal was struck.  All three of them wanted Tarrin for mate, but there was only one of him.  So they decided to let Tarrin decide for himself.  Tarrin would choose his first mate, and when time forced them apart, one of the others would be allowed the chance to take him for mate, until they grew weary of one another and parted, and so on and so on.  They would share him by turns, not interfering with one another, but defending their rights to him from the other females.  Peculiarites of the race caused there to be seven females for every male, so the competition for males was fierce among the females.  Their little circle of three was not the first time a group of females had laid a collective claim over a male.  Some females had even taken a male for mate simultaneously, sharing him between them.

      Mist couldn't think of Tarrin without thinking of Triana.  She appeared at the edge of the clearing and paced towards the smaller female with that resolute gait of hers, like she owned every grain of soil beneath her feet.  Triana was the tallest, oldest, and most powerful of the Were-cats, a thousand years old and possessing Druidic powers that rivalled the most powerful of the Druids.  She was an intimidating, imposing figure, whose beauty was overlooked because of the stony, emotionless expression that was usually on her handsome face.  Her tawny hair matched the color of her fur, a rarity among Were-cats, blowing in the wind as she approached the smaller female.  Triana looked grim and serious, but Mist knew that it was a front to intimidate others.  Triana spoke her mind, was brutally honest, and absolutely expected everyone around her to obey her.  And they did.  Even complete strangers could feel the aura of absolute power that enshrouded the Were-cat matron, a sense of invincibility that thoroughly intimidated everyone around her into doing her bidding.  Triana spoke, and kings and queens jumped at her command.  Literally.

      "Triana," Mist said, taking the much taller female's paw warmly when she reached her.  "It's been a while.  Where have you been?"

      "Suld," she replied in her customary brusque voice, not bothering to go through frilly greetings.  She was like that.  "Where's Eron?"

      "Being punished," she replied.  "How did the fighting go?  Is Kimmie alright?"

      "We won the fight," she replied evenly.  "Kimmie's fine, but she's not going to be coming back for a while."

      "Why?"

      "I'll tell you inside," she said.  "I'm tired, and I'd like to sit down."

      "I have some venison drying, if you're hungry," Mist offered as they started for the cabin.  "I'm afraid I don't have much else to offer right now."

      "I'll Conjure us something suitable, Mist," she stated.

      They entered Mist's small cabin, which consisted of a small common room and two bedrooms in the back.  One had been Mist's with room for Eron's cradle, and the other was Kimmie's.  Kimmie's room was empty now, but Mist had been thinking of letting Eron sleep in her room by himself.  Mist's room was small and her bed was smaller, and Eron was getting a little big to share it with her.  Eron was dutifully picking up the small shards of one of Mist's plates, almost finished, and he knew better than to stop even to greet Triana before he was done.  Triana sat down at the small, ramshackle table and immediately Conjured up a large meal of roasted pork, boiled potatos, a large loaf of warm, dark bread, and bowls of a thick vegetable stew.

      Eron finished, throwing the last bits of crockery into a wastebin Mist kept beside the door, and then ambled over to the table and held his arms out to Triana.  She reached down and picked him up, holding him out so she could look at him.  "He's getting bigger every day," she said.  "How are you, Eron?"

      "Tee-wana," he bubbled.  Eron had always had trouble pronouncing her name, and that was customarily the closest he got.  "Did you bring me a present?"

      "Not this time, cub," she told him.  "Maybe next time.  Now sit yourself down and eat."  She hoisted him over to the empty chair beside her, and then stared at him until he picked up a spoon and started feeding himself.  He wasn't very graceful, but his Were nature gave him more dexterity than a human as old as he appeared, so he didn't make too much of a mess.

      "What happened in Suld, Triana?" Mist pressed.  "Why isn't Kimmie coming home?"

      "She's on a journey with Tarrin," she replied, then she very thoroughly went over everything that happened at Suld. "They had to leave almost as soon as the smoke cleared," she sighed.  "They don't have much time, and they're going to run into enough trouble on the seas as it is."

      "I can understand why they left, but why did Kimmie go?"

      "I wanted another Were-cat with Tarrin," Triana told her.  "Jesmind couldn't go because of Jasana, and Kimmie had already arranged to take lessons in magic from a human Wizard that travels with Tarrin, so I picked her."

      Mist looked at her, then laughed.  "Clever girl!" she said.  "Is Tarrin that attached to Jesmind, Triana?"

      "I've not seen two Were-cats closer than those two," she replied.  "They're almost as sappy as humans."  She snorted.  "It can't be good for them.  I also picked Kimmie because she has it for Tarrin.  I can smell it all over her.  I'm hoping that she educates him about the more necessary aspects of our kind."

      "What a thing to say," Mist murmured, though she was happy to hear it.

      "Jesmind can't be hogging Tarrin to herself," Triana grunted.  "When she starts getting tired of him, she'll spoil him for all the other females.  She keeps forgetting that he was born human, and he still thinks like they do.  If he ups and decides to think of Jesmind as a wife, he won't touch another female.  And Jesmind would be the sort to lead him on, just so he wouldn't be mated to another female when she decides she wants him again."  She blew out her breath.  "She's always been a little selfish."

      "Well, Triana, we talked about him, when she was here," she disclosed.  "She agreed not to interfere if me or Kimmie went after him."

      "She meant it at the time, Mist," Triana sighed.  "But after getting him for mate, she's been acting like they'll never get tired of each other.  I think this time apart will be good for her, show her that she will push him away eventually.  I just want Tarrin to be ready for when that happens.  If I'm lucky, Kimmie will seduce him and show him that there is life after Jesmind."  She snorted, then chuckled.  "She won't be able to resist.  Jesmind will be too far away to do anything about it, and Jesmind knows it's going to happen."

      "I think Tarrin is stronger than you think, Triana," Mist said defensively.  "He may have been born human, but he understands his instincts.  Better than many Were-cats."

      "I know how strong he is, but you know how humans get when it comes to love.  I know my son better than anyone else, but even I'm not sure how he's going to handle it the first time he and Jesmind have a fight, and he tries to kill her.  That's about the time any other Were-cat pair would know it's time to separate, but with him, I'm not sure.  The way they look at each other, I'm afraid they may try to stay together, and one of them will end up hurting the other."

      Mist hesitated.  She remembered the story she'd heard of him from when he was at the Tower, about when he nearly killed his birth mother.  That had almost driven him mad.  But he'd come so far since then!  She had seen it in him during the single night they had been mates, a strength that could rise up and conquer any obstacle.  "I think he'll be alright."

      "I think so too," Triana grunted.  "I don't want to intefere with this.  I want Tarrin to get seduced, I want him to realize that it's alright.  It'll help him understand the nature of mates.  I know Jesmind didn't tell him that when she let him leave, she gave him up.  He thinks he's still mates with her, but he's not. He's a free male, fair game, and I'm confident that Kimmie's going to teach him that."  She looked at Mist.  "I want him to learn about being mates from someone other than my very selfishly motivated daughter.  I want him to learn that it's alright to love Jesmind, so long as it doesn't interfere with his ability to take other mates.  Love may be love, but instincts are stronger, and there aren't enough males around for him to only be willing to be mates with one female.  Kimmie will show him that it's alright to love Jesmind, yet still be able to mate with other females."

      "He took me for mate."

      "You didn't give him much choice," she said with a very slight smile.  "But he did, and that's a good sign.  He needs to learn the difference between love and mates.  He can love Jesmind and be mates with Kimmie at the same time.  He'll have to learn it eventually, so better now than later."  She looked at the table absently.  "And if he knows he can be mates with a female after he leaves Jesmind, it'll make things easier for him.  He does love my daughter, Mist.  It'll hurt him when they split up, so it'll be good for him to see that there are other females out there, and it'll be good for him to know that the hurt doesn't last long.  He can love her and still be a devoted mate to another female, and when he splits up with that female, he can go back to Jesmind."

      "True," Mist agreed.  "If one of us doesn't steal him away from her."

      Triana glanced at her. "I rather doubt that, but don't worry, Mist.  He cares for you.  If you took him for mate, he'd be a devoted mate to you.  Once he realizes how Kimmie feels about him, he'll be a good mate for her as well."

      "That's fine with us.  Me and Jesmind and Kimmie, we kind of agreed to share him.  As long as we keep him away from the other females, it's alright."

      Triana looked at her, then laughed.  "That explains a great deal right there," she said.  "I was wondering why Jesmind wasn't so against Kimmie going."

      "She will be in a while."

      "I think her magnanimous mood left her as soon as the ship pulled out and she realized that Tarrin was going to be alone on that ship with Kimmie," Triana agreed.

      "Excuse me if I sound even more biased than you, but I hope Kimmie gets him."

      "She will.  A male trapped on a ship with a willing female?  Come on, Mist!  What do you think is going to happen?"

      Mist laughed.  "Kimmie has her prey cornered."

      "That she does.  The sooner Tarrin bows to the inevitable, the better it will be for everyone."

      There was a sound at the door, and then to both of their surprise, someone knocked upon it.  Mist stood up immediately and moved to grab Eron, but Triana calmed her with a paw and moved to answer the door.  She opened it, and Mist saw beyond her a human female, a little tall for a human, lithe and voluptuous.  She was a very pretty woman, with a lovely face, a pretty body garbed in a strange garment that looked all shimmery...like stars spun into silk.  Her scent was a human one, but there was something strange about it, something unusual that Mist had never scented before...almost like stone.  But it was her hair and eyes that got Mist's attention.  Her hair was striped, and the colors were absolutely bizarre.  Colors like green, and blue, and even purple.  And her eyes!  She must have been victim to some kind of strange magical accident, for she had no white or pupils, only a strange glowing amber radiance that emanated from her eye sockets.  But she seemed perfectly able to see, for she smiled when she looked up at Triana.  The Were-cat matron seemed taken aback by this strange visitor, stepping back in surprise and giving the woman enough room to simply invite herself into Mist's house.

      Mist saw that she was barefoot.  But it was only one more oddity about this strange woman.

      "Triana," the woman nodded with a rich, strong contralto voice.  "You're looking well."

      "What are you doing here?" the matron gasped, staring at the woman in shock.

      "I can go anywhere I want now, Triana," she smiled.  "And I wanted to come and see Tarrin's son.  Is that so wrong?"

      Mist's son had climbed down from his chair and ran past Mist, towards the woman.  Mist had to strangle the impulse to snatch her son away from the strange stripe-haired woman, but something deep inside her told her that this woman was not an enemy.  There was just something about her that calmed Mist, and allowed her to kneel down and embrace the child lovingly.  "Eron," she said with a radiant smile.  "You're getting so big!"

      "Shining lady," he bubbled, looking up at her adoringly.  "You came!"

      "Of course I came," she said with a chiding smile.  "Did you think I'd forget about you?"

      "How do you know my son?" Mist demanded, the sense of peace she was feeling dissolving away in a wave of fear and anger.  How did this woman know her son?

      "Eron and I are very good friends, aren't we, Eron?" she asked him.

      "Yah, Mama.  She visits my dreams, and we play games and she tells me stories!  And you came!"

      "I promised you I'd come, little one," she reminded him.  "I always keep my promises."

      "Who are you?" Mist demanded, suddenly confused.

      "Who I am doesn't matter, Mist," she said seriously, standing up.  "I am a friend of Tarrin's.  That is all you need know.  While he's gone, I decided to watch over his family for him, and I take my job seriously.  You and Eron are part of his family, so I have come to meet you."  She looked at Triana, who paused and then nodded imperceptibly.  "I came here to give you a gift, Mist," she announced, reaching into the bodice of her dress, and then withdrawing two strange necklaces.  The amulet at the end of the black steel chain was also black, and she recognized it as the symbol that Tarrin wore around his neck.  "These are for you.  You and Eron."

      "Why should I take them?" she demanded hotly.

      "Because I say you'll take them," Triana ordered flatly.  "Trust me, Mist.  You won't be disappointed."

      "What are they?"

      "Insurance," the woman with the strange eyes and hair replied cryptically.  "These are special necklaces, Mist.  They are magical, and Tarrin would want you to have them."

      "Magical?" she asked suspiciously.

      "Yes," she replied.  "As long as you wear them, nobody can track you down using magic.  And they'll allow you to shapeshift without losing your clothes, just like the way Tarrin's amulet does for him."

      That piqued her curiosity.  The annoying part about shapeshifing was that the clothes didn't change with you, and you had to leave them behind.  Nudity didn't bother Were-cats, for they were part animal and had little concept of human modesty, but a naked Were-cat walking down the street of a human city did attract attention.

      "These are safe?" Mist asked Triana.

      "Safe enough," she replied with a nod.

      "Just to warn you, Mist.  Once you put it on, it won't come off.  It won't allow itself to get lost, and it won't allow itself to be stolen.  If you want to take it off, you'll need Tarrin to do it for you.  Does that bother you?"

      Mist considered it, but she had made care to mention that Tarrin could remove the amulet.  She looked at the woman suspiciously.  She was a stranger, and Mist feared her if only because of that...but Triana seemed to know her and trust her.  And she was a close friend of Tarrin's, from the way she talked.  Mist trusted Tarrin, and she found that if she was sure she was close to him, she would trust her if only because she trusted him.  "How do I know you're not lying?" she asked.

      "Look into my eyes, Mist, and then ask that question again."

      Mist did indeed look into those strange eyes.  She looked deeper, and deeper, and then she saw something.  Something...strange.  The sense of peace she'd felt when the woman entered her house intensified, and she realized that it came from the woman's love for Tarrin, and her love for his family.  Mist simply knew right then and there that this woman was not an enemy, that she had genuine care for and interest in Mist and her son.  That she was there as a friend.

      Mist's hostile posture melted away, and she actually blushed slightly.  "I, I'm sorry," she apologized.  "I'll accept your gift, lady."

      "That will never do," the woman said.  "Call me Mother, child.  All my closest friends do."

      "Mother," she corrected herself immediately, feeling a strange compulsion to please this strange woman.

      She took the amulets, and felt how warm they were.  One of them had a short chain, obviously meant for Eron, and she looked at them.  They looked just like Tarrin's amulet.

      "Put it on, Mist," she prompted.  "I won't feel safe about leaving until you do."

      Obeying out of impulse, she took the amulet meant for her and put the chain around her neck, then settled it on her chest.  It seemed suddenly hot, then cold, and then it got heavy for a split second...and then it simply felt like it belonged there.  She wrapped her paw around it for a moment, surprised at what she felt, then she bent down and helped Eron put on his.

      "Aww, you're leaving, shining lady?" Eron pouted.

      "I'll always visit your dreams, little cubling," she smiled sweetly.  "But it costs me much to come and visit this way.  It's much easier to do it the other way."

      "Who are you?" Mist asked, almost plaintively.

      "You already know that answer, Mist," she replied cryptically, looking at Triana.  "How long are you staying?"

      "A few hours," she replied.  "I need to get back to Suld.  Jesmind needs constant defusing."

      "I've noticed," the woman laughed.

      "How is Tarrin doing?"

      "He's doing fine."

      "Has Kimmie seduced him yet?"

      The woman looked at her, and then laughed.  "No, but Tarrin is fully aware that she's interested," she replied.  "He's resisting her out of respect for Jesmind, but I doubt it will last long.  Tarrin understands his instincts, Triana.  He knows when it's not healthy to deny them."

      "Good," she snorted.

      "Well, I hate to come and go, but it's time for me to go back," she sighed.  "We'll talk later, Triana?"

      "If you wish," she replied respectfully.

      "I do wish it," she assured with a nod.  "Goodbye, Mist.  It was nice to meet you."

      And with that, she knelt and gave Eron another hug, kissed him on the cheek, then stood and walked towards the open door.

      "But who are you?" Mist asked a final time, but got no answer.  The woman stepped out the door and closed it behind her.  "Triana, who is that woman?" she demanded.

      "Mist, you wouldn't believe me if I told you," the matron said seriously.  "She's a friend.  A very unusual friend.  Let's just leave it at that."

      "She's the shining lady, Mama," Eron told her, as if that explained everything.

      The shining lady.  Mist looked at the closed door, thoroughly convinced that something very weird, very unique, had just happened.  But she had no idea what it was.  She just had a feeling.

      She reached up and put her paw around the amulet, felt the strange energy that emanated from it, and then it just hit her.  She gasped, her eyes widening in shock, and she turned to Triana with pleading eyes.  "It wasn't--"

      "It was," she said with a simple nod.  "Feel very lucky, Mist.  You were just visited by a Goddess."

      Mist gaped at her.

      Triana laughed.  "I told you that you wouldn't believe it if I told you," she chided her. "Now let's eat.  I have to get back to Suld by nightfall, or Jesmind may get pecky and kill somebody."

 


To:       Title                EoF

Chapter 1

 

      It was a fine day to be out.

      The day was sunny, cloudless, and delightfully warm.  The winds blew stiffly over the expanse of open ocean, which was rolling with small waves that barely rocked the ship as its bow cut through them on a westward course.  The sails were full of wind, pushing the ship along at a pace that few ships on the seas could match, the speed and grace of the technologically superior Wikuni clippers.  Everyone on board the rather large, elaborately painted and decorated clipper ship was busy with work, as sailors minded the sails and rigging to keep them adjusted for maximum speed, and officers stood on the deck studying the sails with hawkish eyes, issuing commands to the sailors above every time the wind so much as fluttered.   The Queen had demanded full sail and best speed to Wikuna, and the proud crew of the Royal ship, a ship that did nothing but carry the monarch, would prove to their queen that they were the best sailors on the twenty seas.

      Tarrin looked down at them from the crow's nest, a tiny barrel nailed to the top of the center mast, the highest point on the ship, and marvelled at the skill of the Wikuni sailors to handle a ship with so much rigging.  The ship constantly had to slow down to prevent from breaking its formation with the squadron of fully armed military vessels that escorted the Royal clipper, ships that formed a very tight, overlapping defensive ring that kept the Queen's vessel firmly within its center.  They had no need for a lookout when they were surrounded by friendly ships, so the crow's nest had been empty and available, and Tarrin couldn't resist climbing up and getting a good look around.  He raised his face to the sky, staring up at the cloudless, blue expanse, which was broken in half by the ghostly band of white that ran from the eastern horizon to the western horizon. Those were the Skybands, wearing their ghostly veil during the day, only to cast it away and shine down on the land with its brilliant bands of color during the night, colored light that, when combined with the light of any of the four moons, was enough even for humans to see well enough to move around.  It never truly got dark on Sennadar unless the night sky was covered with thick clouds.  They looked just as far away as ever, but they were narrower than what he was used to seeing.  The Skybands appeared narrower and narrower as one moved towards the equator.  He'd never been on the equator before, but Keritanima said that they looked like a knife's edge in the sky.  Where his mother was from, the great northern kingdom of Ungardt, the Skybands took up almost half the sky.  Then again, that was so far north that the sun sometimes didn't rise during the winter and didn't set during the summer.

      It was a beautiful day.  He looked down at the the deck, absently scratching at the fur on his arm.  Tarrin was not human, though he had been born so.  He was a Were-cat now, a magically imbued being with the power to shapechange into the form of a common housecat.  The circumstances that caused him to be turned were very complicated, and things seemed even more complicated now.  The Were-cat who had bitten him, the fiery female Jesmind, was now the mother of his child, and the people who had sent her after him, the katzh-dashi, were now his allies again.  He never dreamed he'd go back to the Tower after what they did to him, but he had.  Time had mellowed him, had given him a chance to heal those wounds, though not completely.  Tarrin had been Were for nearly two years now, and had come to accept it, even desire it.  Where most Were-kin were not so obvious, the Were-cats were.  Unable to take the full human form without pain, Were-cats took a natural form that was almost human, but not quite.  He still looked human, but he had very inhuman features, such as his tail, or his cat ears, or the fur that covered his arms to just above the elbows and his legs to just above the knees, and the fact that he stood head and shoulders over most humans and Wikuni.  His hands weren't quite hands, they were hybrids between human hands and cat's paws, and his feet were elongated and thicker than a human foot, forcing him to stand on his toes, with the balls of his feet rather wide.  His feet were much more unusual looking than his paws--or his hands, as a human would think of them--but they gave him great balance and stability.  Each paw and foot also held very long, very sharp, and extremely wicked claws, the natural weapons of a Were-cat.  Tufts of fur grew on the outsides of his wrists and forearms and around his ankles, what were called fetlocks, a visible sign of an age that had been forced upon him.

      They were all a little afraid of him, the Wikuni sailors.  He could smell it on them.  Tarrin's senses were exceptional, and he could smell fear, track people by scent, and could often smell it when people were lying to him.  His sense of smell was the most acute sense he possessed, and like all Were-cats, he depended on it, was guided by it, and it formed the foundation of his perception of the world.  Where humans would identify things by their names, or how they looked, Tarrin did so by their scent.  He couldn't blame them for being afraid of him, after what had happened lately.

      Tarrin had been feeling...annoyed.  That was a good word for it.  It had started out as depression, as he had just been forced to leave his mate and daughters behind in Suld, but that had eased over the journey.  He knew it would, because he talked to them every day using magic.  Talking to them every day made them seem not so far away, and had eased his sense of loneliness.  He also had his blood sisters, Keritanima and Allia, to provide him with the companionship he needed to take his mind off Jesmind, and his friends Azakar, Dar, Miranda, Camara Tal, and Phandebrass were there to talk to him when he felt unsettled.  Whenever he felt troubled, however, he immediately sought out Dolanna.  The petite, sober, wise Sorceress had never failed to calm him, and her gentle wisdom comforted him many times in the past, as it would do so many times in the future.  Tarrin held Dolanna in the highest respect, so much so that he deferred to her authority, something he did not do for anyone else on the ship, not even Keritanima.  In his mind, Dolanna was the dominant, was the stronger of them.  It wasn't true in a physical sense, nor was it true in a magical sense.  Tarrin could break Dolanna over his knee.  But she had been the one to help guide him through the traumatizing time after he'd been bitten and turned, and that caused him to see her as a mother figure, a person whose interaction with him caused him to perceive her as dominant over him.

      Tarrin's very simple outlook on life boiled down to that one concept...dominance.  In his mind, he was the dominant, for he was larger, stronger, and faster than almost everyone else.  In his mind, that was all that was necessary for others to obey him.  And when they didn't, he perceived it as a direct challenge, one that could not go unanswered.  The only being on the ship that Tarrin even came close to viewing as a respectable rival was Szath, Keritanima's massive Vendari bodyguard, but Tarrin didn't bother fighting him to establish the pecking order between them.  Szath was Keritanima's servant, and deferred to her in all things.  Since Szath submitted to someone who was submissive to him, Tarrin saw himself as dominant over the Vendari.  He was glad he woudln't have to fight him over that, though.  Tarrin didn't back down from any challenge, but Szath was big...big, and fast.  A fight between them would be evenly matched, with the outcome uncertain.

      The only real hole in his ordered little concept of the ship was Kimmie.  The female Were-cat, who had come along to tutor under Phandebrass, was causing Tarrin certain discomfort.  It wasn't her fault, that was true enough, but it was getting to be very inconvenient.  Kimmie was a female, and she also rather liked him.  That much was a given, for she'd said as much.  She'd also admitted that she'd like to take him for mate, but wouldn't do so as long as he was mates with Jesmind.  She had even promised Jesmind that she wouldn't touch him during the journey.  If she made it so clear, why was she--

      He snorted.  Females.  Kimmie must have forgotten her promise, because she had it all over her scent.  She was bandy.  Tarrin was part cat, and that gave him the instincts of his animal brother as well as the senses.  When cats were interested in each other, it showed up in their scents.  Kimmie's scent was absolutely radiating her availability.  That wasn't unusual in Were-cat females, and Kimmie had no control over it.  She couldn't smell it on herself, so she may not even be aware that she was doing it.  But she was, and it was getting to him.  Tarrin loved Jesmind, she was his mate, and the idea of dallying with Kimmie seemed...wrong.  Oh, there was interest there--real interest--and that made it worse.  Tarrin did find Kimmie to be attractive, and she knew it.  Tarrin may love Jesmind, but he had the instincts of an animal within him, and no healthy male animal was going to ignore a willing female.

      That formed a fundamental aspect of Were-cat society.  There were seven females for every male, and the Were-cat nature, being so powerfully grounded in the instincts of the cat, made it impossible for mates to form lasting bonds.  Females took males for mate for a while, until their need to be alone overwhelmed their desire for companionship, and the mates parted.  It always happened, and Tarrin knew that it would happen to him and Jesmind despite how much they loved each other.  Not even love could overwhelm the instincts, and cats were independent creatures.  Females had to share the few males around, and competition for males was fierce, even for males who were already mates with a female.  Mate stealing was an honorable and practiced custom, a custom of attempting to seduce a male away from another female.  It created alot of friction in Were-cat society, but Were-cats thrived in the competitive atmosphere, ensuring that the crafty female, or the strong one, would hold onto her mate and succeed in reproducing.  A female worked to find a male, then catch him, then she worked hard to keep the other females away from him.  Males were rather appreciative of the custom, for males rarely went without companionship for very long.  They were careful to show interest in all females and not show favoritism; even if a female hated a male, she may take him for mate if she was desperate, and that would make the mating a very nervous one.  A few males did have favorites, however.  All females knew that Thean was owned by Triana, and that Thean adored her.  He would be mates with other females, but if Triana showed up to claim him, he would leave them.

      He had come up into the crow's nest to avoid Kimmie for a while, to clear his head and think.  It wasn't Kimmie's fault, but she wouldn't leave him alone.  She would almost seem to go out of her way to track him down and talk to him, or ask him about things, and that closeness made him more than aware that her scent was trying to bait him into making advances.  Female Were-cats were usually very direct about getting mates, but Kimmie wasn't being direct like she should be.  Was she trying to suppress her interest, or simply trying to get Tarrin to touch her, thereby keeping the promise she made to Jesmind?  He wished he knew.  If Kimmie came flat out and asked, he'd know...and he didn't know how he'd answer.

      It was the combination of Kimmie's distracting him and his separation from his family that had been making him short tempered.  Tarrin was feral, meaning that he had an automatic suspicion of and distrust for people he didn't know.  That had softened greatly when he was with his mate and daughter, but now that he was away from them, outside of the comfortable confines of the Tower and back out in the cold, harsh world, it had begun to creep back into his personality.  Wikuni sailors that had seemed friendly on the first couple of days began to look more and more threatening, as the old feral sense of paranoia had begun to reestablish itself in his mind.  There had been a time when Tarrin couldn't control that fear, control that sense of danger from anyone he didn't know, and it caused him to shut himself away from strangers.  Now, however, he understood his feral nature, and had learned to overcome the fear to the point to where he could tolerate the presence of strangers around him.  He wouldn't turn his back on them, and he wasn't very cordial or friendly when he talked to them, but he refused to allow their presence to interfere with his daily life the way it used to.  With him being lonely for his family, annoyed over Kimmie, and wary around strangers, it created a situation nearly as explosive as gunpowder.  On two separate occasions so far, Tarrin had struck at unknown sailors that had gotten too close to him.  The blows hadn't been to kill--Tarrin could kill with a single swipe of his paw if he so wished it--more like warnings to stay away from him.  Keritanima and Dolanna had to go around to all the sailors and explain that this Were-cat was not was friendly and personable as the female, and to stay out of his way, and also to automatically obey any command he gave them, no matter what it was or how crazy it seemed.  They made it clear to the sailors that their lives depended on that obedience.

      Tarrin's behavior had been very disappointing for his sisters.  They had seen him be so calm in the Tower, so mellow, almost like the way he'd been before they fled from it the first time, but they simply did not understand.  Once a Were-cat was feral, they would never be anything other than feral.  The degree of the feral nature could change, as could its symptoms depending on the surroundings, but it never went away.  Tarrin knew he would live the rest of his life in fear of strangers, unable to trust anyone he did not know, not in the slightest manner.  Now that he was out of the comforting surroundings of the Tower, away from the calming influence of his mate and daughters, the old mannerisms were returning, and returning quickly.

      He looked down to the deck and saw Phandebrass and Kimmie near the bow.  Phandebrass was a human Wizard, thin, tall, and his age was somewhat indeterminate.  He had hair that was partially white and partially dark, which had to be the result of some kind of magical spell, for it had been white before that, with a narrow face that seemed young but held eyes that looked ancient.  He wore a simple gray robe with mystical symbols embroidered into it and a ridiculous conical hat.  He was an addled man, given to rambling on when he talked and speaking of things that nobody else could understand, but Tarrin respected him.  He was flaky and erratic, a bit annoying at times, but he was a very good Wizard, and he was exceptionally intelligent despite his rather befuddled demeanor.  Tarrin would trust his life in Phandebrass if it came down to it.  Phandebrass' little pets, two red-scaled drakes, sat on a rope coil beside their master, watching him.  Chopstick and Turnkey had become the ship's mascots.  They were curious little creatures, fearless and bold, and were rather friendly and affectionate.  Tarrin had not liked them when he first met them, but he had grown quite fond of them, to the point where they commonly slept with him at night, all curled up in a bundle of scales and fur on a bed that was so small he was forced to sleep upon it in his cat form.  Phandebrass was explaining something to Kimmie, waving his arms in an animated fashion as the female Were-cat nodded with an intent look on her face.  Kimime had come to learn magic from Phandebrass, and he had begun her education.

      He shifted his gaze, to where Keritanima, Miranda, and Szath were near the sterncastle.  Keritanima was a Wikuni, the queen of Wikuna, a bipedal being that resembled a mixture between a human and a fox.  She had a human body, but had a fox-like head, complete with a muzzle.  She had reddish fur with white on her front, black tufts of fur on her ears and the tip of her tail, and amber eyes that gave people the creeps when she stared at them.  Tarrin thought that she was rather cute, for her fox features were flavored with human appearance, making her look more like a human woman with fox features rather than a fox walking on two legs.  All Wikuni were like that, resembling animals, but not all of them were foxes.  Most of the sailors on the ship were varieties of cats, dogs, and other carnivorous mammals, like badgers or wolves.  There were some bird Wikuni and some reptillian Wikuni as well, but they weren't as common as the mammal Wikuni.  Keritanima was sitting on a cushioned chair, reading from a book in her lap, as Miranda sat beside her in a similar chair and kept her eyes on her knitting as she conversed with her employer and friend.  Keritanima was very smart, easily the smartest of them all, but she didn't advertise that.  Keritanima--or Kerri, as he called her--was a woman of deep mysteries, a result of a lifetime of hiding her true self from those around her.  She was born a princess, but had no desire to take the throne, given the rather bloody and deadly environment of Wikuni politics.  She had thrown all her energies into escaping from her gilded prison and running away, and that caused her to submerge herself in other personalities.  Keritanima was the best actress he'd ever seen, able to fool anyone and everyone into believing that she was the person she pretended to be.  She had used her vast knowledge of political chicanery to succeed in escaping from her father, only to have him capture her and drag her back to Wikuna.  Tarrin still wasn't sure what happened there, but he did know that Keritanima had somehow managed to get her father abdicated from the throne and take it herself.  She didn't want it, but she had done it anyway, probably for no reason other than to get rid of her father.  Her Royal Majesty's resources had been incredibly useful during the battle for Suld.  Since she commanded the armies of one of the prominent nations on Sennadar, she was able to supply troops, materials, and even the deadly muskets and cannons that only the Wikuni knew how to make, to the defense of Suld.  When she wasn't acting like a queen, Keritanima was an engaging young woman, funny and endearing, with a good sense of humor and a vibrant nature that made people like her.

      Miranda was a mink Wikuni, almost criminally cute and innocent looking, yet Tarrin knew that the Miranda hiding under that deceptive facade was as worldly and seedy as a veteran sailor.  Everything about Miranda was feminine, from her voluptuous frame to her long blond hair and silky white fur, to her wide, cheeky face with a cute little button nose on the end of a short muzzle and round ears poking out of her blond hair.  Miranda was Keritana's maid, a member of her council of advisors, and also was the head of her intelligence service.  Miranda had served Keritanima faithfully and well for a very long time, since the time when she was a princess trying to stay alive long enough to run away so she wouldn't have to take the throne, and they were very close.  Tarrin liked Miranda very much, for she was smart, quiet, observant, and often saw to the core of the matter.  She had been trained by Keritanima, so she had some of Kerri's quirks, but she was much bawdier than her more uptight employer.  Miranda was attractive, sexy, and desirable, and she knew it.  She used them as weapons to get what she wanted from men, and that made her an incredibly effective spy.  Few men could think rationally when Miranda gave them her cheeky grin and fluttered her eyelashes at them, even human men.  Miranda's beauty and desirability crossed racial lines.  Tarrin knew alot more about Miranda than she did herself, like the fact that she was an Avatar, a mortal who had within her the power of the god who had touched her.  Tarrin had discovered that Miranda had literally been created to be Keritanima's companion, a woman with a mind to keep up with the vastly intelligent Wikuni princess, and a stalwart companion to be with her through all the hard times.  One of the Wikuni gods had put her hand on Miranda before she was born, made her what she was, even though Miranda herself had no idea that she was blessed in that manner.  Miranda supernatural nature had been what had attracted him to her at first, for the god who had touched her was a god of the sky and the moons, and Tarrin, like all Were-kin, had an unusual affinity for the moons that probably explained all the wild stories about how Were-kin always changed into monsters when the largest moon, Domammon, was full.  Miranda sang to him the same way that the moons sang to him, and it had a very calming effect on him and caused him to be very attracted to her.

      They were good friends, but they all knew that they took a second seat to Allia.  She was sitting with Dolanna and Dar near the bow, not far from Phandebrass and Kimmie, the petite katzh-dashi instructing them in some magic.  Allia was Selani, a race of warriors that lived in the eastern desert, and she was, simply put, the most breathtakingly beautiful woman alive.  No one could look at Allia and not be moved by her appearance.  She had creamy brown skin and ethereal features, sharp and alluring, with large eyes that were the color of the sea.  Her hair was a silver-white color, caused by the bleaching of the sun over generations, which often covered up the tips of her pointed ears.  Allia looked human from a distance, but when one got close to her, they saw that she obviously was not.  She was unnaturally tall for a woman--at least to a human--as tall as a human man, and had much sharper and more defined features than a human.  That sharpness of appearance was that made her so lovely, a bone structure that no human woman could possess that accented everything about her that was pleasing to the eye and made her so attractive.  The pointed ears were one of the big giveaways that she wasn't just a thin Mahuut, a race of brown-skinned humans, as did the fact that she only had four fingers on her hands instead of five.   This day she was wearing a loose, baggy shirt that concealed her very tight, busty torso, silky skin wrapping steel-toned muscle, yet possessed of enough bosom to make most women envious of her.  She wore a pair of tight leather breeches that accented her long, shapely legs and alluring hips, pants that made every male eye move with her as she passed.  She was beautiful, but Allia was a warrior, a proud warrior from a race of warriors, her entire life bound up in her honor.  Few outside the Selani understood the Selani, so they all did not understand Allia.  Most found her cold and arrogant, maybe even a little conceited, but they didn't understand Selani ways.  Allia was a warrior, and a good one, and she was also a woman who held tremendous honor among her people.  Allia was actually a very modest and self-effacing woman, but she was proud of who she was and what she had attained, and it showed in her manner and her speech.  Allia didn't talk very much, but when she did, everyone around her listened to her.  Allia was a wise woman, kind and loving, and she was Tarrin's best friend.  The love he held for Allia was so intense that it defied rational explanations, but it was a platonic love.  She would always be his closest, most intimate friend, willing to tell her things he wouldn't tell another living soul, not even his mate, Jesmind, because he knew they would go no further.  Allia's love for him was just as strong, and it formed the basis of a bond of friendship that could never be broken.  No matter what either of them did, or how far they fell from grace, they would always love one another and respect one another.

      He wondered what Dolanna was teaching them.  Dolanna was a human woman, very short and petite, yet with a figure proportionate with her size that made her attractive.  She was a handsome woman, not beautiful or cute like Allia or Miranda, with pleasing features and dark, expressive eyes and a thick mane of long, dark hair.  Dolanna was the undisputed leader of their group, the one all of them respected and trusted, for she was very wise, very learned, and had travelled for so long that she knew someone almost everywhere and was never caught off guard by the dangers of the road.  Dolanna was a calm woman, able to take what was thrown at her without getting too ruffled, and always with an idea for how to get out of a bad situation.  Tarrin adored Dolanna, respected her as much as his parents or bond-mother, and looked up to her.  She was the only one on the ship outside of Keritanima or Allia who could berate him or chide him for doing wrong and expect to live through it.  There was an aire of calm that always surrounded the woman, who was from the southern kingdom of Sharadar on the distant continent of Arathorn, a sense of assuredness that calmed everyone around her.  She was a careful, thorough woman with an eye for detail and an answer for every question .  He enjoyed her company, for she never failed to make him feel safe.

      He smiled as Dar touched the Weave, and wove an Illusion of a Troll for some reason.  Dar was a very young man, an Arkisian, with swarthy, dark skin and features that promised that he would be a handsome man when he was fully grown.  He wore this day a simple white linen shirt, his brown doublet laying on the deck before him, and a pair of black trousers, with leather shoes.  He was about sixteen now, just starting to shave, but despite his young years he was a very accomplished Sorcerer.  He had been Tarrin's roommate when he was at the Tower to learn,and had become a good friend.  Dar was a dreamer and an artist, with an almost amazing affinity for weaving Illusions.  But he was also a smart, worldly young man who was the son of very successful merchants, and because of that, had a very broad education that dipped into many different aspects of history, society, culture, and politics.  He was intimidated by the august personas around him, and rarely spoke, but when he was alone with Tarrin or Kerri or Allia, he was much more open and affable.  Tarrin liked Dar very much, for he was an honest young man with a very mellow nature.

      There was a sudden shout, and Tarrin looked almost straight down, to where Azakar and Camara Tal were sparring.  The Amazon had returned to wearing her halter and tripa skirt, and the ensemble showed much more skin than they concealed.  Camara Tal was a very tall woman, with copper-colored skin and hair as black as pitch, tall and buxom and sleekly muscular.  She was a very handsome woman, with a sharp-cheeked face, large, dark eyes under elegantly sloped eyebrows, and a sharp chin and narrow nose and a pair of pouting lips that drove men crazy.  She also had a scar on her cheek, the only mar on her coppery skin, a scar that she had told him once was something that her goddess wouldn't allow her to remove.  A reminder of some past event or transgression, though Camara Tal had never told him the specifics.  She was a Priestess of the goddess of the Amazons, but had been a warrior before the calling of the religious order.  She prided herself on her ability to fight, and was checking to see how improved Azakar had become under his tutelage with the Vendari.  Camara Tal reminded him alot of his own mother, Elke, a gruff, direct, no-nonsense kind of woman who didn't play around, yet held great capacity for love and friendship within her.  Once one got past her rather unfriendly front, they found a warm, caring woman beneath, and a stalwart friend.  Tarrin had been learning the spells of the Priests from her during the mornings, chants in some arcane language that nobody spoke anymore, a language that was used universally among all Priests, no matter what god they served.   They used the same spells as well, the Goddess had told him, part of a rule that the Elder Gods had made concerning the gods granting their power to mortals.  Tarrin found them difficult to learn, for the language they used made very little sense to him.  It was more a memorization of obscure words and sounds than any kind of language he had heard.  Tarrin had a strong affinity for languages, being able to speak six languages fluently, so it bothered him a great deal that he couldn't decipher this odd languages that all Priests used to chant their spells, yet none of them seemed able to speak outside of spellcasting.

      She was really pressing Azakar.  Azakar was an oddity, a human that was so unbelievably tall that he was even taller than Tarrin.  He had to be ten spans tall--a Wikuni would call him eight feet tall...strange term, that--an absolute monster of a human that was as strong as three men yet moved with the speed and agility of a panther.  Even decked out in his plate armor, so heavy that an average man couldn't even lift it, let alone wear it, he still moved with speed and precision, though there was a great deal of clanking and squeaking involved when he did move.  Azakar had been caught up with Keritanima when she had been separated from the others, and had taken lessons in fighting from the Vendari bodyguards that usually protected the queen, but could not come to Suld with her this time.  Tarrin had seen him fight during the short war in Suld, and he had to admit that he had come a very long way.  Binter and Sisska had taught him new techniques, but they had also taught him what was most important for a warrior, patience.  Azakar, or Zak to his friends, had learned how to not lose his head in a fight, to be controlled and calm and force the opponent to make mistakes that would allow him to defeat him.  He watched as Camara Tal and Azakar daned around each other for long moments, then the Amazon lowered her sword meaningfully, a signal to stop.  The human sheathed his weapon and took off his large visored helmet, baring a rather handsome face with a strong jaw and a slightly wide nose and full lips.  Azakar was a Mahuut, a race of humans from the southern continent of Valkar, with dark brown skin and coal black hair that had curly waves in it, and slightly smallish dark eyes, eyes that seemed hooded and defensive most of the time.  Azakar kept his hair very short on top and on the sides, but had rolling black waves of hair cascading down onto his shoulders in the back.  Azakar had been a slave at one time, and though he couldn't see them, Tarrin knew that his back and the backs of his arms were covered in a multitude of criss-crossing scars, scars gained at the business end of a whip.  Those scars defined much of Azakar's personality, for he was a haunted, defensive man, nervous around strangers and very quiet.  He never tried to bring attention to himself, which was very hard considering his great size.  But he opened up when around friends, showing that he was a considerate, friendly man who had come through his slavery surprisingly well, not allowing it to change him too much on the inside, though it had hardened him on the outside.  If he'd been a Were-cat, Tarrin would have considered him to be feral.  He certainly had the traits.

      A strange group, very diverse, but that diversity had proved to be an advantage so far.  What one could not do, another could.  They had Dolanna and Phandebrass' education, Keritanima and Miranda's intelligence and cunning, Camara Tal's, Allia's, and Azakar's martial skill and bravery, Keritanima's resources and contacts, and Tarrin had many unique attributes that made him useful.  Firstly, he was a Were-cat, and his nature granted him several magical and quasi-magical abilities that made him exceptionally hard to kill.  Were-kin could only be truly harmed by silver, magic, and weapons of nature, such as fire or acid or being struck by unworked, natural objects, or falling from a height.  Wounds inflicted by a non-magical sword healed over as soon as the weapon was withdrawn, which only managed to anger the Were-cat struck by it.  His Were nature gave him inhuman strength, a strength proportionate to a cat of the same size.  Cats were deceptively powerful creatures, and it gave him the strength of six men, a raw power few humans could challenge.  He also had the senses of a cat, and had the power to shapeshift into cat form.  The gifts of his Were nature were primarily defensive, keeping him alive and allowing him to detect foes, but his magical powers were most definitely an offensive weapon.  Tarrin was a Sorcerer, a very rare kind of Sorcerer called a sui'kun.  He was a Weavespinner, a Sorcerer that could weave spells that normal Sorcerers could not even dream to be able to do alone.  Tarrin's power was staggering, eclipsing every magician of any order around him, a huge power that few could withstand when he used it in anger.  If that weren't bad enough, his Were nature had stopped his aging, rendering him all but immortal.  That distinction was important, because it allowed him to transcend a law set forth by the Elder Gods that no mortal would be able to use more than one form of magic.  Tarrin was a Sorcerer, but he was also a Druid, a being with mystical ties to the energy generated by living things, an energy called the All.  He could use that energy to create Druidic magic, which was very versatile and clever, capable of some things Sorcery either could not accomplish, or he had yet to figure out a spell to accomplish it.  He had learned very recently that he could also use Priest magic, which was the reason he'd been taking lessons in Priest spells from Camara Tal, but it was still new and rather uncomfortable.  The Goddess had already told him that she would grant no Priest spell to him that had a corresponding spell in Sorcery.  Since Sorcery was very versatile in its own right, that covered virtually all Priest spells he had learned so far.

      Tarrin was an almost undefeatable, unkillable opponent, and that was the only reason he was still alive.  He and his friends were on a very important mission, a quest to find an ancient artifact that was called the Firestaff.  It was an object that could turn a mortal into a god, if he held it on a certain day and at a certain time, the brief time in which it activated every five thousand years.  Half the world knew of the Firestaff, and almost all of them were either searching for it or had sent agents to retrieve it for them, so Tarrin and his friends had encountered stiff competition, competition that had often turned violent.  From the very beginning, one group in particular, called the ki'zadun, had known of Tarrin, and had continually tried to kill him almost from the very day he left his home village of Aldreth, before he knew anything about the Firestaff.  They knew he was the destined Mi'Shara, a term for the one who had the best chance of finding and winning the Firestaff, and they knew he was in the hands of their enemies, the katzh-dashi.  So they tried to kill him to deprive the order of Sorcerers from gaining his aid in the search.  It did not in any way mean that he was the only one who could get it, but the ancient books that spoke of it said that of all beings, he had the best chance of succeeding.  Even he could fail, and if he did, it would fall to some other who had a lesser chance than him, but may have better luck.

      It was why they were on the sea.  The Firestaff had revealed itself to the world during the battle at Suld, a battle between the ki'zadun and half of the kingdoms and races in the West, a battle to prevent the ki'zadun from finding and destroying the icon of the Goddess of magic, the Goddess who maintained the Weave.  It was an attack aimed at destroying Sorcery and killing almost all Sorcerers in one fell swoop by destroying the physical manifestation of the Goddess, which was also her link to the physical world.  Without the icon, the Goddess could not give magic to the world, and it would cause the Weave to tear.  That would kill any Sorcerer with even a modicum of ability, and would conveniently destroy the one order of magic that posed the greatest threat to their own bid to find the Firestaff.  It had been a very involved plan, a very clever plan, and a very thorough plan.  And it had come so close to succeeding that it still made the fur on Tarrin's tail ruffle with goosebumps.  Had it not been for the warning he had received from Jegojah, once a Doomwalker under the control of the ki'zadun, they would not have known about it, and they would have won at Suld.

      The Firestaff had revealed itself, and now virtually any Wizard, Priest, Sorcerer, and Druid knew in a general sense what direction in which the Firestaff lay in relation to where they had beeen standing that instant that the Firestaff had activated.  Tarrin had no doubt that many of them were now on ships, sailing towards the direction of the Firestaff, hoping to get lucky and find it before anyone else.  It was a race on the open sea, but Tarrin and his friends had a fundamental advantage in this race, for they had discovered very specific directions to follow that would take them to where it was hidden.  The directions also held warnings, warnings that no ship with sails could reach the Firestaff, so they were sailing to Wikuna to take a very experimental ship that was propelled by a paddlewheel that was turned by a contraption called a steam engine.  It could move over the ocean without sails, and would suit their needs.

      That advantage made him optomistic about all this.  They may find where the Firestaff is, but they wouldn't be able to physically reach it.  But Tarrin's group could, meaning that the only hairy part would be getting the Firestaff back out.  They'd have to run a gauntlet of enemies to get away with the prize.

      He was hungry.  Kimmie looked intent on her magical lessons, and it was about time for Keritanima's lessons as well.  Kerri had crossed over during the battle at Suld, had become a Weavespinner herself, and that meant that there had been some pretty significant changes in her magic.  Sorcery was much a function of the body as it was a magical power, and the crossing over changed the body.  It rendered the Sorcerer invulnerable to any kind of heat or fire.  Keritanima could stroll through a volcano and swim in the lava now, and the worst it would do is burn the dress off her body.  But that physical change affected her magical powers, and she had temporarily lost them until she adjusted to the changes her body had undergone.  Despite not being able to use magic, Tarrin had begun teaching her the basics of Weavespinner magic, fully confident that she'd be able to use it when she did regain her powers.

      In return for the lessons in magic, Keritanima had been teaching him the Wikuni language.  Tarrin had used that as an excuse to experiment a bit with Priest magic, using a spell that caused him to remember with perfect clarity everything that was said during the spell's duration.  It was how Dolanna learned Sha'Kar in a matter of a couple of rides.  Now Tarrin was using it to learn Wikuni at an accellerated rate, and so far, it had been working.  In six short days, he had gone from totally ignorant to being able to form sentences in Wikuni and understanding some of the more obscure grammar rules.  He'd been working on his vocabulary the last few days, doubling or tripling the number of words he knew every day.  At the rate he was going while using the magic to assist him, he'd be competent enough to understand almost everything everyone said when they got to Wikuna.  The Priest spell augmented natural ability, and Tarrin's natural affinity for language made the spell that much more effective when he used it.

      It seemed like cheating, though.  He had learned Sulasian and Ungardt as a baby, from his parents.  One was Sulasian, the other Ungardt.  He learned Arakite from Karn Rocksplitter, the village smith in Aldreth, who taught it to him during long hours over the forge when Tarrin had briefly worked there to help Karn after his apprentice broke both his arms in a very bad accident.  He learned Selani from Allia while they were at the Tower together, the Selani woman wanting to be able to speak to him in her native tongue, a language in which she could express herself more easily.  He learned the dead language of Sha'Kar from scrolls that he, Keritanima, and Allia had stolen from forgotten vaults in the Cathedral of Karas in Suld.  And he'd learned Sharadi from a Selani named Denai while crossing the Desert of Swirling Sands.  Now he was learning Wikuni, but he was doing it in a matter of days, and that seemed...cheap.  Things gained easily weren't valued as much, his mother would say.  He was learning Wikuni with almost no effort, and he wondered if the language would hold in his mind long after the magic that helped place it there faded away.  Cheating or not, he enjoyed it.  Tarrin loved languages, loved to learn them, loved to speak them.  It was a special gift, something that had nothing to do with Sorcery or being a Were-cat or anything, something he enjoyed.  Where some knitted or collected ancient coins or carved or painted, Tarrin learned languages.

      He felt better.  Kimmie's scent had been flushed out of his nose, including the inviting smell of her availability, replaced by the clean smell of the salty ocean and the smell of the wood and rope and paint that surrounded him, as well as a few lingering scents of some those who had recently occupied the crow's nest before him.  He felt ready to go back down there and endure it for a while, while he taught Keritanima about Weavespinner ways and she taught him the Wikuni language.  He enjoyed the lessons, both teaching and learning, just enjoyed spending time with Keritanima.  She had been separated from him when they had left Suld to seek out the Book of Ages, an ancient tome of knowledge that held information vital to their mission, had been taken back to Wikuna to face her father for running away.  Tarrin had missed her desperately during the time she was gone, and it got worse when he himself had been separated from the others after getting the Book of Ages, forced to get back to Suld on foot while the rest of them went back by ship.  That had been a journey of nearly two thousand leagues, and it had taken him nearly a year.  A year with no one but Sarraya for company at first, and then later the companionship of Var and Denai, two Selani he'd met while crossing the Desert of Swirling Sands.

      Var and Denai.  He had to chuckle at the thought of them.  They'd been coming to Suld with the other Selani to help, but he hadn't seen them there.  He'd honestly forgotten about them in all the chaos, but when he did realize that he hadn't seen them, he asked his bond-mother Triana to find out what happened to them.  Triana had circulated the word through the Druids, and one of them had finally responded two days ago.  She had contacted him the day after and told him that his suspicions were correct.  Denai was pregnant, and according to Selani custom, the expecting mother and the father of the child could not fight, to protect the interests of the child.  They had gotten but two days from Suld when they were forced by their clan chief to leave the West, to return to the desert before Denai got too big to travel.  They had been forced to turn around almost within sight of their destination.

      Fate was sometimes cruel that way.

      But he was happy to hear it.  Var and Denai were young, and very much in love.  The child would be loved, nurtured, and would grow up happy.  That was the best thing that could happen for a child.

      Climbing up onto the edge of the crow's nest, Tarrin vaulted out into open air and snagged a rope.   He dropped down onto a mast spar, startling the two Wikuni who were trying to secure it with ropes, then almost immediately stepped off of it and dropped twenty spans to another rope, using it to break his fall.  Tarrin had the agility and dexterity of a cat, and had an absolute fearlessness concerning heights.  He used the rigging and the masts and spars and jibs to execute a controlled descent to the deck, moving with a speed and grace that made all the sailors stop what they were doing and watch the Were-cat seemingly fall through the rigging and land easily on the deck so far below.  He landed right beside the mizzenmast, not far from the sterncastle, and within spans of Keritanima's chair.

      "It's about time," Keritanima said without looking up from her book.  Szath turned to stare at him, with his boxy, scaly green snout and black, soulless eyes, and shifted to get out of Tarrin's way as he approached.  Tarrin didn't really like Szath, for he was a bit stiff and not too smart.  He hoped that Binter and Sisska would rejoin them when they got to Wikuna.  He liked those two.  "I thought you were going to forget about me."

      "How could I do something like that?" he asked simply, looking around.  He spotted a barrel tied against the sterncastle, an empty one that had once held water.  He untied it and dragged it over to face the two Wikuni females, then seated himself atop it easily.  "Where did you want to start, Kerri?  My lessons, or yours?"

      "I'll go first today," she said with a toothy grin, showing off that muzzle full of sharp teeth, closing her book and setting it on the deck beside her. "I've come to discover that the person going last gives a longer lesson.  I'd rather spend more time learning than teaching."  Kerri didn't actually give that lesson by herself.  Miranda helped out quite a bit, since she spoke Wikuni as well.  She didn't look up from her knitting, pausing to brush her thick blond hair from her face, pushing it back up into the little poof that hung over her face, yet didn't droop down to touch it.  She parted her hair to the side, tucking the long bangs up over the round, furry ear that poked up through her hair, giving her that poof of hair in front.

      Tarrin cast the Priest spell that enhanced his ability to learn, and then they began.  Keritanima concentrated on vocabulary, expanding the number of words that Tarrin understood.  Tarrin could speak Wikuni as it was, albeit slowly and not without a little prior preparation, so she was working on the more uncommon words that still managed to find their way into everyday speech.  The way things were going, Tarrin was going to be fluent by the time they reached Wikuna, which would be in about twelve days, by Keritanima's estimation.

      After his lesson was over, he became the teacher.  This day, he concentrated on the Weavespinner's ability to join his consciousness with the Weave and leave his mortal body.  It was something that all Weavespinners could do, and it allowed one to perform some pretty clever tricks, such as weaving spells from great distances, or looking out into the physical world from the strands of the Weave.  Tarrin took great pains to explain the metamagical geography and the rules of the Weave, for they were completely unlike anything Keritanima had ever experienced before.  The Weave was its own world, its own domain, and it had its own set of laws.  The most obvious one, and the one that caused Tarrin so much trouble, was that the geography of the Weave did not correspond to the geography of the real world.  A Sorcerer may have to travel vast distances through the Weave to look on the other side of a door, for instance, and that was why using the Weave in that manner was better used for looking across a continent rather than across a city.  Joining the Weave took energy, and a Sorcerer could tire himself out much more by spying through the Weave than he would by simply going and looking for himself.

      "You haven't taught me how to do this yet," Keritanima complained.  "You keep talking about what I can and can't do when I do it, but when are you going to teach me how to do it?"

      "You already know how to do it," he replied calmly.  "You've done it once before, when you crossed over.  When you regain your powers, you'll find yourself joining the Weave even when you don't mean to, and the Weave will respond to you even when you don't think it can."

      "What do you mean?"

      "When you crossed over, you became bound to the Weave," he explained.  "It's much closer to you now.  It's why Weavespinner magic doesn't require drawing power.  The Weave responds to your desire, not the force you exert against it.  The Weave will react to you whenever you're highly emotional, because it senses your feelings.  Sometimes it doesn't do anything you notice, but sometimes it does.  When I get like that, sometimes I hear echoes in the Weave, memories of past events still reverberating along the strands.  More than once, the knowledge of what I need, what got me so worked up in the first place, came to me through echoes when I needed it.  But don't think that's going to happen all the time," he cautioned immediately.

      "Can I find these echoes?"

      "You can look for them, but more often than not, they find you," he replied.  "And when you do find them, what you get is broken and incomplete.  The Weave has all the knowledge any of us ever knew trapped in it, but it's not coherent.  More often than not, what you hear leaves behind more questions than answers."

      "You just had to go and ruin a good idea," she muttered with a snort.

      "That's just one of the things you can find when you're inside the Weave," he told her.  "There are also currents of magical power that flow through the strands.  Some of them are strong, and a few times I almost got pulled away by them.  Every once in a while, you'll find yourself in a nexus, a point where some magical device draws energy from the Weave to power itself.  Those try to drag you into them, so avoid them."

      "What would happen if you did get pulled in?"

      "I have no idea.  Odds are, your consciousness would become part of the magical item you'd just been pulled into.  You'd be a living magic item."

      Keritanima shuddered.  "I think I'd like to keep the body I have right now, thank you," she said.

      "That's about it as far as danger is concerned.  The Weave is actually a pretty safe place.  It's easy to get lost, but you can always return to your body any time you want just by willing it.  It's also easy to find the Heart.  All you do is sense which way the magic flows, and follow it.  All magic flows back to the Heart."

      "I, I remember that place," the Wikuni said with reverence.  "I could feel the Goddess there, like really there.  And there were glowing threads in the blackness, as well as thousands of glittering stars.  Those stars seemed so close I could touch them."

      "You could," he replied.  "The stars represent every Sorcerer alive, and each of us has one there.  When you see a star go out, that means the Sorcerer it represented died.  When one appears, a new Sorcerer has been born.  You can use a Sorcerer's star to find the Sorcerer in the real world.  Remember the first time I used a projection to talk to you?" he asked, and she nodded in reply.  "Well, I couldn't find you physically through the Weave, so I used your star to locate you.  It guided me to you."

      "Then why did you tell me to touch the Weave?"

      "So I could find you more easily," he replied.  "It was the second time I'd ever done it, if you recall."

      "Oh yeah," she mused.  "I tell you, brother, I just can't wait until I get my powers back and I can practice all this.  It sounds so much more exciting than boring old Sorcery."

      "It's just an aspect of Sorcery, Kerri," he replied.  "And don't worry, it's been a while since you lost your powers.  You should be getting them back any time now.  You been practicing?"

      "Every night," she assured him.  "I can feel the Weave now, but I still can't weave spells."

      "Then you're close," he told her.  "Just remember that the Weave is going to seem slippery at first.  The flows will resist you until you get the hang of it.  When you have that down, I'll show you how to weave spells without that resistance."

      "Why not show me how first?"

      "Because you have to know the basics before I can teach you the advanced concepts, Kerri," he chided her.

      "I hate it when you get smug," she snorted.

      "I could say the same thing about you," he teased.  Chopstick, one of Phandebrass' pet drakes, flapped over and dropped itself in Tarrin's lap.  He stroked the creature's iridescent reddish scales gently, and it nuzzled its scaly head against his stomach in contentment.  It was a very clever little animal, and looked just like the pictures of dragons he'd seen in so many books.  Only it was the size of a small dog, when a dragon was supposed to be the size of a large house.  It even had small black horns that swept back over its head, jutting out over each little yellow, reptillian eye.  Its muzzle was narrow, and filled with a mouthful of needle-like teeth.  Tarrin rather liked the two drakes, because they were affectionate and didn't make too much of a nuisance of themselves.  Turnkey was more mischievious than Chopstick, given to playing games of hide and seek with Phandebrass at the most inopportune times.  Chopstick was a spoiled little drake, always wanting someone to pay attention to it.  Usually it bothered Allia for attention, for both drakes seemed to really like his Selani sister, but when she or Phandebrass were too busy for it, it came to Tarrin.  Tarrin didn't mind at all.  The little drakes were companions for Phandebrass, and now for the entire group, but they had proven that they could be very useful in fights.  Both of them were very small, but they were utterly fearless, and they were fast and agile enough to distract enemies and give their human and non-human friends an easy shot against the distracted foe.

      A bell rang on the sterncastle, signifying that dinner would be ready within the hour, and Keritanima clapped her hands.  "It's about time!" she announced.  "I wonder what they're cooking tonight."

      "I hope it's not fish," Miranda said, making a face.  "I'm getting tired of fish."

      "I thought all Wikuni loved fish," Tarrin mused.

      "There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, Tarrin," she told him with a wink.  "I saw them bring some sides of beef on board when we laid over at the Stormhavens.  I hope we're having that tonight.  They'll have to cook it soon, or it'll go bad."

      "They already did, Miranda," Keritanima told her.  "It's been gone for a week now."

      "You had to go and ruin a good idea, didn't you?" she accused.  Then she batted her eyelashes at Tarrin and gave him that quirky grin that warned him she was about to try to sweet-talk something out of him.  "You love me, don't you, Tarrin?" she asked in a little-girl voice.  "Do you love me enough to make me some steak?"

      Tarrin looked at her, watched her wink one more time, then he chuckled ruefully.  "You could ask, Miranda.  If you keep flirting with me, I may take you up on it.  Then you'd be in real trouble."

      "Bah.  A girl shouldn't flirt if she wasn't ready for the consequences," she said dismissively.  Tarrin often forgot that Miranda was actually a very bad girl, nothing like the rather straight-laced Keritanima.  She had often had to seduce information out of targets, and it was something she did not entirely object to doing.  She had even confided that she enjoyed it, given that her mark was handsome.  "It's an empty threat, anyway.  I know you wouldn't be serious about me," she grinned.

      "Well, you never know, Miranda.  You are cute, even to a Were-cat."

      "And you'd break me in half if we tried," she teased.  "Entirely accidental, of course, but you know how wild things can get when--"

      "I think we get the idea," Keritanima cut her off, the fur on her cheeks ruffling slightly, her form of a blush.  Keritanima was bold, but Miranda often seemed to get the best of her friend and employer.  Talking about such things wouldn't bother Keritanima if they were talking about strangers.  To Keritanima, it would be the same as her brother sleeping with her best friend, something not entirely pleasant to think about.

      "Well, will you, Tarrin?  I've been dying for steak all week."

      Tarin had to think about that a minute.  The Wikuni used some different standards for measuring things, like distances, or time.  A Wikuni week was a period of seven days, when the West used the terms ride or tenday to describe a period of ten days.  They also used weird terms called feet and miles for expressing distances, where the West used span and longspan.  The length of a foot was different than the length of a span; a foot was longer than a span by a small amount, but those small amounts added up when talking of large lengths.  Tarrin was nine and a quarter spans tall, but Keritanima had told him that in her measurements, he was seven and three-quarters feet in height.  Azakar was ten spans tall, but Keritanima said in her measurements, he was just a shade over eight feet in height.  The monstrous Szath was well over twelve spans tall, nearly thirteen, but Keritanima told him that he was ten feet in height.

      Tarrin wondered how those terms came to be used, and how their distances were set.  It was something he'd have to study one of these days.

      "Well, I guess so, but let's not make it common knowledge," he told her.  One of Tarrin's abilities was called Conjuring, and it was an aspect of his Druidic magic.  It was what Miranda was asking of him.  It was a catch-all term for three forms of conjuration magic, Conjuring, Creating, and Summoning.  They were simple tricks, something any Druid could do.  Conjuring was bringing to a place an object that existed elsewhere, but not a specific one.  The magic tended to grab the closest object that fit the Druid's parameters when the spell was used, regardless of who owned it beforehand.  Creating was just that, creating something from nothingness, often used when Conjuring an item would deprive someone of something valuable or when something with specific dimensions or qualities was desired, and Summoning was causing a specific object to appear.  Druids used the tricks to conjure food and drink, conjure gold and other valuable items, and generally to conjure anything they needed.  Druids never went hungry and were rarely left without something they needed.  Tarrin preferred Creating rather than Conjuring, for he never was very comfortable with the idea that the food he was Conjuring was being stolen off the plates of innocent people.  It required more energy than Conjuring, but he was willing to make that sacrifice knowing he didn't just steal the food out of a child's mouth.  "I'll have people asking me for menus."

      Keritanima chuckled, and Miranda grinned at him.  "You're such a good friend," she told him.  "What did we do without him, Kerri?"

      "Oh, just deposed my father and took the throne of Wikuna," she teased, winking at him.

      "And you didn't want the throne," Tarrin chided.

      "I still don't, but I'm safer on it than off it," she replied honestly.

      "How is the new system working?"

      "I'm not entirely sure yet," she answered.  "The nobles seem to be accepting it, but on the other hand, Jervis told me that they've been real secretive lately.  I have the feeling that they're up to something, so I had Jervis find out what it is."

      Keritanima was the queen of Wikuna, having taken the throne from her father, Damon Eram, with deceit, chicanery, and political cunning.  In other words, like any Wikuni monarch would gain the throne.  But since Keritanima didn't really want the throne, she had changed the system of government into something she called a republic, where the people generally governed themselves.  Keritanima was still the head of the government and had tremendous power, but not the absolute power she had had as the sole ruler.  The nobles, secure in their dominion over the commoners, had had a fit when Keritanima had effectively stripped them of all their power and made them little more than rich commoners.  But when Keritanima threatened to turn them into poor commoners, they all bit their tongues and decided to cooperate.  But Keritanima had said that the Wikuni nobles were hard to repress for very long, and this secrecy probably collaberated her worries.  No doubt they were up to something, taking advantage of Keritanima's absence to deal with the crisis at Suld.  She had left the subject king of the Vendari that lived in Wikuna in charge in her place, and it struck Tarrin as odd that the nobles would be insane enough to try anything against him.  Sashka was a Vendari, and they had very, very strict and regimented laws and customs, and though he was governing the Wikuni in Keritanima's stead, he would still act with the same severity of action.  If the Wikuni nobles tried anything, it was entirely possible the Sashka would summon the Vendari army and crush the nobles in a massive war of absolute destruction.  That was the Vendari way.  And it was not something that any Wikuni--human, Aeradalla, Fae-da'Nar or just about anything with intelligence--would want to have happen to them.  The Vendari were the most feared and respected race on Sennadar, because their size and power made them almost invincible warriors.

      Chopstick gave a little growling hiss, demanding more attention, and Tarrin dutifully began to pet the little drake again.  "You are getting so spoiled, Chopstick," Tarrin chuckled, using a claw to scratch delicately under his little horns, something he really liked.

      "You should get your own drake, Tarrin," Keritanima told him.  "You have a way with them."

      "I don't need my own drake when I have Chopstick and Turnkey," he replied easily.  "Besides, they'd get jealous."

      Chopstick chirped in agreement.  The drakes were very smart, and understood quite a bit of Sulasian.  They were much more intelligent than a common housepet.

      "Well, Phandebrass has been trying to breed drakes," Miranda said.

      "Both of them are males," Tarrin said in confusion.

      "I know, but we have drakes in Wikuna," she told him.  "They're unbelievably expensive, but you can buy one in Wikuna.  I think Phandebrass is thinking of buying a female."

      "He'd better be careful," Keritanima snorted.  "Drakes have very aggressive mating habits.  Chopstick and Turnkey would fight one another for the rights to her, and the fact that they're brothers wouldn't matter.  Drakes sometimes get killed in duels over females."

      "Then he should get two," Miranda said calmly, biting apart the yarn and then holding up what she'd been knitting.  It was a tasselled shawl, and it looked to be finished.  "Ah, there we are," she said with a smile.  "That looks nice."

      "Who's that for?" Keritanima asked curiously.

      "Oh, nobody," she replied.  Miranda knitted just for the sake of knitting.  "I'm sure somebody will want it."

      "It'll go nice with my new party gown, as soon as I change the color," she hinted.

      "You'd change the color of your gown for my shawl?" Miranda asked with a slightly mischevious smile.

      "You," Keritanima laughed.  "The shawl!"

      Miranda handed it to her friend without a word, then dropped her knitting gear into the leather satchel she carried with her everywhere she went.  "I've had about enough of knitting for a while," she announced.  "I think I'll start doing needlepoint again.  Or maybe crochet."

      Keritanima threw the shawl over her shoulders, and Tarrin saw that Miranda had knitted it to fit her perfectly.  Obviously, Miranda had an owner in mind for it since she started it.  "I'll get an ivory hoop for the ends, and it'll sit perfectly," Keritanima mused.  "Just over my neckline."

      "She's fishing," Miranda whispered to Tarrin.

      "I am not!  Well, not really," she amended.

      "Oh?  And just who is she fishing for?" Tarrin asked.

      "Rallix," Miranda replied with a cheeky grin.  "The badger that runs the trading company she owns under one of her other identities."

      "Kerri told me about that," he told her.  "Just be careful, Kerri.  Workers get nervous when the boss starts flirting with them."

      "He knows who I am, Tarrin," Keritanima said with a face.  "It turns out that he knew the whole time," she said in a voice that made it clear that the idea of that still mystified her.  "I'm not out to get him, Tarrin.  Not yet, anyway.  I'm just testing the waters, that's all."

      "She's already picked out the rings," Miranda laughed.

      Keritanima's face fur ruffled so badly it looked like she'd been attacked by a pack of licking puppies.  "Well, a girl should be ready for any eventuality, shouldn't she?" she said defensively.

      Tarrin smiled.  It was a very good thing that Keritanima had started noticing a man.  He'd been worried about her that way, worried that her bad childhood had hardened her to any kind of intimate contact with others.  It was a very healthy thing if she'd started noticing a man.

      "Want me to kidnap him, Miranda?" he offered.  "We can persuade him that marrying our friend here is the only way he'll live to see tomorrow."

      "Tarrin!" Keritanima gasped in shock.  "You leave him alone!  I'll get him in my own way, in my own time!"

      "You can't rush these things, Tarrin," Miranda chided him.

      "I'm not too familiar with Wikuni mating habits."

      "It's not a mating habit,"Keritanima said sharply.

      "Do you want to marry him?" Tarrin asked bluntly.

      "Well...maybe."

      "And that means that you want to mate with him?"

      Her fur ruffled furiously.

      "Then it's a mating habit," he said in a calm, logical manner.  "Some animals are just more complicated than others."

      "Not like those Were-cat females," Keritanima sniped in reply.  "Always ready to rip off their clothes!"

      "They're a bit more honest about what they want than other races," Tarrin replied calmly, taking no offense.  "At least with a Were-cat female, you know exactly where you stand with her, and exactly what she wants.  There's none of this flirting and deceit and silly games that seems to go on with humans and Wikuni."

      "Were-cats have no romance in them!" Keritanima accused.  "None at all!"

      "We're part animal, Kerri.  Romance is an alien concept to us," he agreed without batting an eye.

      Keritanima snarled slightly.  She wasn't used to losing arguments, especially when the points she was making helped the other side.  "Well, it's not right," she growled.

      "For you.  It works for us, though.  And that's all that really matters."

      "Well, our way works for us," she declared.

      "And that's all that matters for you.  Don't compare your culture with mine.  They're apples and pears."  He turned to Miranda.  "Explain this to me, Miranda."

      "Well, Kerri has to attract Rallix's attention first," she began.  "She'll do that with low-cut dresses and little hints in her conversation.  When she has his interest, she has to show him that she's the only woman for him, and that all other women are worthless.  That won't be too hard for Kerri, she's good at making people think the way she wants them to.  Then she cleverly guides him into believing that he chased her the entire time, and then dupes him into asking her to marry him, while he thinks he started it the whole time.  So he won't think she's too forward, you understand.  At least not until after they're married, and he can't do anything about it," Miranda added with a wink.

      "You make it sound so deceitful," Keritanima snapped at her friend.

      "Deception seems to be a Wikuni requirement," Tarrin said dryly.  "Where some races find size or attractiveness or ability desirable, I guess Wikuni see deception and glibness as good traits in a mate."

      Miranda laughed.  "I think you're right, Tarrin," she agreed.

      It all seemed a bit silly to Tarrin, but to each race its own customs and culture.  He wasn't one to pass judgement on them because their ways weren't as simple and uncomplicated as his kind's were.

      "When does the quest for the prize begin?" he asked.

      Probably the minute the gangplank hits the wharf in Wikuna," Miranda laughed.  "Kerri wants his ring on her finger before we leave for Vendaka.  That gives her about two weeks."

      "You can force a man to marry you in two weeks?" Tarrin asked her in surprise.

      "I'm not going to force him," she said challengingly.

      "You call that testing the waters?" Tarrin asked with a laugh.

      "She just didn't want you to think that she was a hussy, Tarrin.  It's not becoming for a Wikuni lady to seem too aggressive."

      "But she's a queen.  She's supposed to be aggressive," Tarrin scoffed.

      "Then people would think that she's a titled hussy," Miranda told him.  "Women aren't supposed to seem too willing, Tarrin.  Not in Wikuni society.  They have to play hard to get, even when they're playing it against a man they want to get them."

      "What a waste of time," Tarrin grunted.

      "It makes the victory that much sweeter," Keritanima grinned at him.

      "I doubt it'll take that long," Miranda said with a smile.  "Rallix is smitten with our cunning little queen here.  I'll bet fifty gold marks that he'll fall all over her as soon as he sees her flirting with him."

      "I'll take you up on that, Miranda," Keritanima said confidently.  "I'm a good judge of people, and I haven't seen that in him.  Not that I don't want him to do it, but I'm not going to be that optomisitic."

      "It's your money," Miranda shrugged.  "Or mine now, as it were."

      "Don't count your gold yet, Miranda," Keritanima said smugly.

      The bell rang again, and then Keritanima stood up. "I'm going to go wash up for dinner.  See you there," she said, then she sauntered away, her fox tail swaying back and forth behind her with her stride.

      "That's the easiest fifty marks I've ever made," Miranda laughed after Keritanima went below decks.

      "What is this Rallix like?" Tarrin asked.

      "A good man," she said sincerely.  "Smart, well educated, and very loyal and dependable.  He's known about Kerri for a long time, but kept her secret and kept working for her.  Kerri doesn't understand why, not really.  She thinks he did it because he was making a fortune at her trading company.  But I've looked into his eyes when he's looking at her, so I know that that's not the reason at all."

      "He loves her," Tarrin surmised.

      "You bet," she said with that cheeky grin.  "He's devoted to her, and he's absolutely loyal to her.  He doesn't even skim off the top.  Rallix wouldn't have given away Kerri, not even after a week on the rack.  He'll be a good husband for her, because he won't be quite so pliable once they're on even ground."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "He's that strong?"

      "He's like steel, Tarrin," she winked.  "Kerri's going to have quite a shock waiting for her when she does marry him.  She'll be up against someone just as strong as she is."

      "That's good.  If Kerri could knuckle under her mate, she wouldn't respect him."

      "I know.  Now then, let's get moving before they ring the bell a third time," she announced.  Tarrin stood up with her, putting Chopstick up on his shoulder, and they walked towards the stairs.  "I think I'd like a nice porterhouse, tender, well aged, and cooked to where it's still pink in the middle," she told him.  "Do you do baked potatos?"

      "For you, Miranda, I'll do a banquet."

      "You're such a good friend," she gushed, leaning on his arm girlishly.

      "Flirt."

      "I have to stay in practice, you know," she said with a teasing giggle.


To:       Title               EoF

Chapter 2

 

      Life aboard a sailing vessel was one of routine.

      Even for the passengers, the days turned into a procession of regular events that made the days blur together, which both made Tarrin feel like time was flying by, even as each individual day seemed to drag out endlessly.  Breakfast some hour past sunrise, then for Tarrin, it was long, involved discussion and debate with Camara Tal.  The Amazon had decided that simply teaching him the spells of Priest magic wasn't enough.  She grilled him on his knowledge of theology, philosophy, and history, and she surprised him with the depth and bredth of her knowledge.  Tarrin had never pegged the fiery Amazon as a scholar, but she proved to him that she was easily as well educated as Phandebrass, especially in the realm of multipantheonic theology.  Camara Tal knew the name of every god, Elder, Younger, and those not accepted by the organized pantheon, which were called cult gods.  She knew most of the beliefs and goals of the religious orders of all those gods, even things Tarrin was surprised an outsider would know, like certain ceremonies they performed.  She grilled him about his beliefs in his goddess, even going so far as to ask questions about what she expected of him as a Priest, something even he didn't know.

      While Camara Tal and Tarrin argued over finer points of philosophy, the others had their routines as well.  Azakar would sit with Dar and play stones or chess.  Dolanna would learn the finer arts of needlework or knitting from Miranda, and Allia would usually spend that time in the company of Keritanima, who had gone back to reading books, or going over reports brought in to her by the priest on board the ship, who received them via magic from Jervis or the sashka.  Phandebrass and Kimmie would be off by themselves, and they appeared in the most unusual places.  One rainy morning, the entire ship was rocked by an explosion in the bilges, and when sailors went to investigate, the found the pair of them in there setting fire to water.  That little stunt caused the entire fleet of ships to come to a halt, but then again, it probably was for the best, for the rain intensified into a rather nasty storm.  The ships all dropped their sea anchors and rode it out, then continued on that afternoon.

      At noon precisely, they had lunch, and then they all changed their activities.  Tarrin sat down to teach Keritanima Sorcery and be taught Wikuni by her and Miranda in return, as Allia, Camara Tal and Azakar sparred on the widest part of the deck.  Camara Tal had first done it to see if Azakar had improved, but now she was the student as Azakar taught her some of the forms and techniques the Vendari had taught to him.  Allia had watched at first, but she realized that sparring with the likes of the Amazon and the Mahuut would improve her own forms.  Basicly, that meant that the two of them suffered as Allia's target dummies as the Selani gave herself a workout.  The two of them were good, but they just couldn't match the Selani's blazing, inhuman speed.  Kimmie and Phandebrass continued their morning session into the afternoon, often changing locations.

      At an hour before sunset, dinner was placed, and they took the evening meal with the ship's captain, a leopard Wikuni with a chunk missing from his right ear who called himself Karlin, Admiral Torm, and the Wikuni priest aboard, a willowy mammallian Wikuni that looked something like a cross between a squirrel and a chipmunk, with golden fur.  Keritanima told him that he was called a prairie dog, whatever that was.  It was some kind of animal indiginous to Wikuna.  Whatever he was, he was a quiet, observant fellow named Velton, modest and discreet, and someone with whom Tarrin didn't mind sharing company.  Given his more aggressive behavior since taking ship, that was saying that the Wikuni priest was almost a friend.

      After dinner, they all generally wound down, drinking whatever was available and sitting up on deck to watch the sunset, sharing company.  It was important for them to do so, since they had been separated in one way or another for a very long time.  Tarrin needed to reacclimate himself to the others, and those who had been separated from him for so long needed time to readjust to him.  Especially Azakar.  The Mahuut didn't quite know what to make of Tarrin now, or what to do about him or how to act around him.  Tarrin was many things, even to those with him, but Azakar seemed to have the most trouble understanding what had happened and how Tarrin had changed.  When Tarrin had been separated from Azakar, Miranda, and Keritanima, he had been a much different person.  Young, afraid, and on the edge.  His behavior was erratic then, but only to an untrained observer.  Now he was gruff, quiet, brooding, given to not speaking unless he had a reason to do so, and more than a little mean.  That probably set Azakar off the most, for despite his huge size and impressive fighting ability, Azakar was actually a very gentle and caring person.  Tarrin's vicious nature seemed to disturb Azakar, where the others had had time to get used to it.

      Just after sunset, every evening, Tarrin found someplace quiet and talked to Jesmind and Jasana.  They talked of very unimportant things, more like listening to Jesmind fume and rant and rail about this or that, venting her frustration.  There was little for him to say to them after the fifth day, after he'd described the ship and the sea and the things he saw for the tenth time.  Speaking to Jesmind made him a little less lonely, but he had yet to mention the fact that he was having trouble with Kimmie.  He was very evasive about it, because Jesmind asked after her almost every night.  He wouldn't lie to her, but he'd learned many ways to misdirect the truth when necessary, and he knew his mate.  He knew how to deflect her, distract her, make her forget what she was asking.

      Little had changed in Suld since they'd left, nearly twenty days before.  Jesmind and Jasana stayed on the Tower grounds with Jenna most of the time, as his sister continued to write her book and teach Jula about Sorcery.  Jula had regained her powers already, and had just begun the practical exercises to learn Weavespinner magic.  Since the ship was moving, and Tarrin couldn't enter the Weave unless he was stationary, he was missing out on quite a bit of what Jenna was teaching his bond-daughter.  He would have liked to have been there for that.  Triana too remained in the Tower, to watch over Jesmind and Jasana and, to his surprise, to get to know his parents and Jenna intimately.  Triana had adopted Tarrin, and now she was coming to know the other side of his family.  His mother and father were planning to return to Aldreth, but had delayed that at Triana's request, so they could get to know each other.  Tarrin imagined that Triana was very impressed with his parents.  They were very strong, very admirable people.

      After his nightly talk with Jesmind, Tarrin spent special time with Allia, usually in his cabin but sometimes walking around on deck, to reinforce the powerful bond they shared.  They didn't have to speak or do anything, or even interact with one another.  They only had to be in the same room together, and be alone.  That was all either of them needed.  It was their time to speak to each other of things they didn't tell any of the others, not even Keritanima, where Tarrin told his sister the whole truth about anything she wanted to know.  Tarrin held no secrets from Allia, just as she held no secrets from him.  After Tarrin finished telling her about what happened to him, Allia told him about what happened to her after they parted, things even of the most intimate nature, personal observations and such that would offend all the others, even Keritanima.  Allia was like that sometimes.

      Everything else may change, but the powerful bond between Tarrin and Allia would always remain.

      After spending time with Allia, Tarrin went to bed.  It was a bed he now shared with the two drakes, curled up with them on top of the covers in his cat form, because the bed was too small for his tall body.  Tarrin liked sleeping with the drakes, because they were cozily warm all the time, and Tarrin liked heat.  They would sleep through the night, and then when the sun came up, the cycle would repeat itself again.

      It was a day, much like any other.  Tarrin had just finished teaching Keritanima about the intricacies of Weavespinner magic, teaching her techniques for controlling the magic, trying to jar her powers back.  She'd yet to regain her powers, though he could sense in her that she was very close to them.  Any day now--any time now, for that matter--she was going to realign herself and find her magic again, and it was what Tarrin was waiting to happen.  He couldn't really teach her anything else until she regained her powers, so his tutoring lately had only been various exercises and observations, trying to help her regain her powers more quickly.  But he couldn't go too far, because Sorcery was still a very private affair, even Weavespinner magic.  Keritanima's method of using her magic was her own, and trying to teach her his own methods would interfere with her ability.  He could only tell her what to do; the method of going about doing it would be uniquely her own.  The only thing that they would share would be generalalities defined by the laws of Sorcery, laws by which they had to operate.

      He heard her growl as she closed her eyes and raised her muzzle. "I can feel it right there," she growled in a low tone.  "I can sense it.  Why can't I use it, dammit!  It's getting frustrating!"

      "Relax," he told her.  "You can't do it if you're agitated."

      "Then that's the problem," Miranda winked at him.  "She's been agitated ever since you started teaching her.  She's too impatient, she wants it all right now.  If you'd just relax and let things happen yourself, Kerri, you'd have been using magic again days ago."

      "Like you know anything," Keritanima huffed at her in irritation.

      "Kerri," Tarrin chided.  "Calm down."

      "Don't tell me to calm down!"

      "Someday you'll learn not to order me around, Kerri.  You know I'm not going to obey you," he said evenly, adjusting himself on the stool that a sailor had brought for him.  Since many Wikuni had tails, much of their furniture either didn't have backs or had split backs, making it easy on the tail to use the seat.  "Remember the exercises in mental discipline that Allia taught us?"

      "Of course I do," she replied.  "I--oh, I see," she said with a sudden toothy grin.  "That might work.  If I can use the meditation trick to focus myself, I might be able to regain my magic."  She glanced at him.  "That's a clever idea, brother.  I'm surprised you thought of it."

      "You do so much for my self-esteem, Kerri," he said in a dry drawl.  "Try that tonight.  Meditation will do more than focus yourself, it will calm you down.  Miranda may be right, sister.  I tried to push it when it happened to me, and I got so wrapped up in trying to use my magic again that I didn't sense that I could do it all along.  I think you're falling into the same trap I did."

      "Maybe," she acceded after a moment.

      "I say, hello there, Tarrin," Phandebrass greeted as he led Kimmie towards the stairway below decks.  "How go the lessons?"

      "Fairly well," he replied.  "Though we're more or less circling until Kerri regains her powers."

      "Well, well, good luck, your Majesty," he said with a smile.  "How are the language lessons going?" he asked her.

      "It's scary," she told him.  "That spell he uses lets him memorize everything.  He's fluent already, all he needs is to expand his vocabulary.  It's Dolanna all over again."

      "Well, my dear, Dolanna is a very clever woman, she is.  I think I might try to develop a spell to duplicate that effect," he mused to himself, looking up.  "To think that I could go into a library and remember everything I read!  I say, what a wonderful thing that would be, it would!"  He looked at them.  "I say, how are the lessons going?"

      Tarrin suppressed a chuckle.  Whenever Phandebrass was heavy into his magic, he tended to get extremely absent-minded, even forgetting things he'd just said.  It looked like he was in one of those states at the moment.  "Kimmie, you'd better take him down below before he forgets we're on a ship," Tarrin told the female.

      "We're already on the way," she said with a light smile.

      "Now I see why he irritates Camara Tal so much," Keritanima said with a giggle as Kimmie led him below decks.

      "That's not what irritates Camara," Tarrin replied.  "What irritates Camara is how his studies overwhelm reality.  Did I tell you that he tried to stop a Demon and ask it questions during the battle in Suld?"

      "He didn't!" Keritanima gasped with a laugh.

      "Oh yes he did.  Camara told me about it.  Tried to stop it in its tracks and ask it all sorts of questions.  Camara said that if she'd been beside him, she would have brained him herself."

      "Phandebrass puts learning above almost everything.  Even his own safety," Miranda surmised in a calm voice.  "He must be either terribly brave or completely crazy."

      "I think he's a little bit of both," Tarrin said, glancing back to the stairs below.  The wind had shifted, and Kimmie's scent, left on the deck, was touching his nose, tickling at him.  Her scent caused all sorts of impulses to rise up in him any time he scented it now, impulses he both wanted to satisfy and actively tried to ignore.  He put his paw over his nose in irritation, letting his own scent and the scents left behind on his paw drown out that smell.

      "You know, I think Kimmie's the most unusual Were-cat I've ever met," Keritanima said.  "She seems almost human."

      "She was turned, like me.  But the turning didn't seem to change her all that much," Tarrin told her.  "But don't let her personality fool you, Kerri.  She's just as much a Were-cat as me."

      "I've noticed.  I've also noticed that you've been avoiding her lately," she said slyly.

      Tarrin growled lightly in his throat, glaring at his sister.  He had a feeling where this was going to go.  "I think you should mind your own business," he warned.

      "You are my business, brother," she said mildly.  "And I have a nose too, if you recall.  I've been noticing a change in Kimmie's scent lately, and now that I've seen how you react to it, I know what it is."

      "Well, what is it?" Miranda asked.

      "She's either in heat or she's playing for him," she replied with a glance to where the female had gone below decks.  "You'd better not let Jesmind find out.  She'll kill both of you."

      Tarrin snorted, putting his chin in his paw.  "I think she doesn't realize she's doing it," he replied.  "She doesn't act like she's after me, so I think it's unconscious."

      "And that means you're not going to do anything about it."

      "I don't plan to," he replied.

      "You should.  Every time Kimmie goes by, you suddenly get very short-tempered."

      "I can't argue about that," he admitted.  "But it would be cheating on Jesmind."

      "Cheating or not, if you kill one of my sailors in a tiff, we're going to have a very nasty fight, brother," she warned.

      "I can keep a handle on things.  I've gone through this before."

      "I know, Allia told me about it," she said.  "With Jula."

      He nodded.  "I didn't have much trouble with her.  I shouldn't have much trouble with Kimmie."

      "There's a difference here, brother," Keritanima said mildly.  "You didn't like Jula at the time.  You do like Kimmie."

      "True, but it doesn't matter."

      "We'll see," Keritanima said absently.

      The rest of the day went on more or less as usual, except whenever Kimmie was close to him.  Telling Keritanima about it seemed to make it stay at the forefront of his mind, and he found himself thinking about Kimmie whenever his mind wasn't actively engaged with something else.  More than once, he caught himself thinking of some way to get her alone, and he had to crush all those impulses and keep himself occupied to stop it.  But those thoughts rekindled any time he came across Kimmie's scent.

      That was the problem.  They'd been on the ship for twenty days, so Kimmie's scent was everywhere.  The rain washed her scent out of the exposed deck, but Phandebrass' habit of moving around meant that she put her scent back down all over everything very quickly afterwards.  Below decks, her scent was mingled with all the other scents layered on the floor and walls and furniture, but Kimmie's scent was the first one he noticed, and he realized that he was actively looking for it.  There were few places on the ship he could go to get away from her scent.  The crow's nest, his room, and Allia's room.  That was it.  Kimmie had been in everyone else's rooms, even Keritanima's.

      Keritanima had been right.  He had been getting short-tempered whenever Kimmie passed.  It was a combination of her and the resurgence of the feral aspects of his personality.  Surrounded by strangers and trapped on a ship with an available female, he wasn't surprised he'd been so contrary lately.  It got worse when she was close, when he started resisting the call of his instincts.  That was a very fast way for a Were-cat way to get unpredictable, as the instincts warred with the human will.  So far, Tarrin's will had won out, but the instincts only had to win once.  And he knew that.

      He pondered the problem through dinner, as Kimmie's proximity and her alluring scent dominated his mind, picking at his food without much enthusiasm.  He listened as Phandebrass prattled on about some kind of magical spell that he and Kimmie had been developing as part of her training, a spell that supposedly would cause any book that contained magical Wizard spells to glow when they came within the spell's area of effect.

      "So, how is the training going, Kimmie?" Dar asked.

      "Pretty well,"she replied with a cute little smile.  "I've already tripled the size of my spellbook, and Master Phandebrass taught me some things that allowed me to understand some of the spells I already had, but couldn't cast."

      "I say, for a self-taught dabbler, she has considerable potential," Phandebrass praised.  "I think she could learn some of the greatest secrets of the art if she applies herself."

      "It'll be a ways before I get there," she chuckled wryly.  "I looked through Master Phandebrass' spellbook.  I think I could only understand about ten of them."

      "You were looking through one of my advanced books, my dear," he chided her.  "If you did understand ten of them, then you do have potential, you do.  I say, I couldn't possibly keep all my spells in one book, I couldn't.  Why, it would be so big that I wouldn't be able to carry it!"

      "No need to brag, Master Phandebrass," Kimmie teased.  "You're offending my one little spellbook, you know."

      "Give yourself time, my dear," he assured her.  "I say, you'll have a spellbook collection just as large as mine, you will."

      Tarrin excused himself after that, and went up on deck.  After leaving the dining room, his appetite returned, and he Conjured the meal he'd left sitting on the table and finished it sitting at the bow, looking out over the sea.  It was a bit before sunset, and the ships were still plying their way westward before a strong tailwind.  The wind was very warm and muggy, and some threatening clouds were gathering ahead of them, threatening to swallow up the sun before it reached the horizon.  There was a small island just to the right, some distance away, but it was large enough to support a colony of seagulls.  Some of them were circling over the ship, cawing and crying, looking for a meal.  Birds followed ships to partake of the scraps that were thrown overboard from time to time.  Tarrin looked at the island, just being eclipsed by a clipper sailing alongside, and saw that it was carpeted with green.  It was too far away to see much else, though.  He'd never heard of an island out here, so odds were it was uninhabited.

      Admiral Torm wandered over and looked off the rail just beside him.  Tarrin wasn't sure about Admiral Torm.  He was a sober fellow, not much of a sense of humor, all business and all leader.  He was respected by his men, and from what Tarrin had heard, the man had a very, very impressive reputation.

      "Ah, Twinfluke," he mused aloud.  "We'll be in Wikuna in six days, with Kikalli's favor."

      "That's the name of that island?" Tarrin asked, standing up.

      "Aye," he replied.  "So named because of the whales that tend to gather around it."

      "That would be a nice place to live if you didn't want to be disturbed."

      "You wouldn't live there long," Torm told him.  "It's populated by some pretty unfriendly animals, and some of them are rather rare."

      "Like what?"

      "Like a bird-like animal that can turn a man to stone if you touch its tailfeathers," he answered.  "I think they're called Cockatrices.  There are also a fair number of wild drakes, and it's also the island where the last of the Minotaurs were exiled some five hundred years ago.  From what I've heard, there are some of them still living on the island."

      "Minotaur?  I've never heard of that."

      "It's a creature with a man's body but the head of a bull," he replied.  "They're not very smart, they're pretty rough customers, and they're very unfriendly.  They were rounded up and exiled off Wikuna when we tried to bring them into the kingdom, but they just couldn't obey the law.  It was decided it was more humane to move them than to kill them all off."

      "And they still live there on that island?"

      Torm nodded.  "We don't know how many there are, because we won't land there.  But some sailors see them on the shores as they pass, often enough to know they're still alive.  I'm glad of that."

      "Why?"

      "It's a crime to kill off an entire species just because you don't get along with them," he replied.  "They may have lost their home range, but killing them all would have been wrong.  Wikuna has made some bad decisions in its time, but at least in that respect, it made a good one.  They seem to be doing well on the island, so maybe it all turned out for the best.  If they're happy there, then it turned out even better."

      "I guess," Tarrin said in agreement.

      The crying of the birds began to intensify, and Tarrin looked up at them.  They seemed to be getting very agitated.  Tarrin lifted his nose and tested the air, but found no scent that would seem threatening to him.  Birds had good vision, so it had to be something they could see that was making them upset, or perhaps a change in the wind or the air.

      "That's odd," Torm noted, looking up.  "Seagulls don't act like that unless there's a predator about."

      Tarrin saw it coming over the ship that now blocked the view of the island.  A little cloud of smaller blue birds, all swarming around something in its center.  From the looks of it, they were attacking whatever they kept surrounded, pecking at it and scratching at it with their claws.

      Those weren't birds!  They were drakes!

      Tarrin watched in surprise as a large pack of blue-scaled drakes attacked whatever was in the middle of their group, flying closer and closer to the ship as the seagulls overhead scattered  They weren't pecking at it, as he first thought, they were biting it, and there were weird little flashes of bluish light now and again.  They came closer and closer to their ship, until he could make out what they were attacking.

      It was another drake!

      Tarrin and Torm watched as the victim of the assault, a blue-scaled drake just like all the others, tried to stay aloft, but was being bitten on the wings and having the membranes torn by the claws of its attackers.  It was smaller than the other drakes, and it was being pretty well thoroughly thrashed by them.  It managed to stay aloft until one of the largest drakes managed to bite it on the wingjoint, and he distinctly heard it squeal in pain and suddenly spin down on the same side that the drake had bitten it.  The attackers gave chase, coming shockingly close to the ship, only spans away, and continued to pursue the victim until it fell into the water.  They circled over it for a moment as it weakly tried to swim, keep its head above water as the water around became stained pink with its blood, then they all banked and flew back towards the island.

      "I've never seen that before," Torm said.  "I wonder what made them attack that other one like that."

      Tarrin was leaning over the rail, looking at the drake as the ship passed it by.  It was obviously going to drown, and its body sank deeper and deeper into the water as its attempts to stay afloat became weaker.  On an implulse, Tarrin wove together a short weave of Water and caused the water surrounding the drake to become solid, to give it something against which to push.  Then he brought his water cage up to the side of the ship and then, after making sure the other drakes were gone and wouldn't see what was happening, raised it up on a column of water to where he could reach it.  The drake looked terrified by whatever was happening to it, but it was too weak and tired to struggle.  Its terror didn't improve when a creature with a predatory scent reached down into the water with wickedly clawed paws and grabbed it, then pulled it free of the watery prison.

      Tarrin was rather partial to drakes.  Chopstick and Turnkey were very beloved companions for him, and he couldn't stand to see another drake die.  Even if it was a wild one.

      He gathered the drake up in his paws, knelt, and set it on the deck, as it hissed threatening at him and tried to bite him.  The other drakes had torn it up pretty effectively, and he could see countless tears in its beautiful, blue scaled hide.  They were so blue that they almost shined.  It did bite him when he put a pair of fingers on the base of its long neck, turning its head to take a bite out the paw holding it down, but its small jaws had trouble getting much of a grip on his thick paw, and the lower teeth couldn't even penetrate the pad on his palm.  The pain it caused was barely even an annoyance, but the pressure he exerted against it did cause it to stop thrashing, beating its shredded wings against the deck.

      "Calm down," he chided the drake in a gentle voice.  He thought about using Sorcerer's healing, but the discomfort it caused would make the drake think he was attacking it somehow.  It wasn't something to use on a wild animal.  So he instead reached within, through the Cat, and touched the vast, endless energy of the All.  His intent was to heal, and the image was that of the little drake in perfect health.  The All responded to him, sending its energy through him and into the drake through his fingers.  The warm, gentle energy suffused the little animal, causing its natural healing processes to accelerate dramatically.  Torm watched with wide eyes as the many tears and bite wounds on the drake smoothed over, as the holes in the membranes of its wings mended before his eyes, and the animal suddenly stopped struggling and yielded to the Were-cat.

      When he was done, he pulled his fingers away, resting his arm on his knee, and looked down at the drake.  It was about the same size as Chopstick and Turnkey, maybe just a shade smaller than them, with the same appearance.  It had the ridges on its back, and the little backswept horns on its head, but its muzzle was a bit more boxed and a little shorter, and it was a little leaner than the two red-scaled drakes.  Its scent was a little different than the red-scaled drakes, probably a result of a different environment.  It seemed to lay there for a moment, then got up to its feet hesitantly, shaking its head and shivering its wings.  "There now," Tarrin cooed to it in a gentle voice.  "All better.  You can go ahead and fly home now."

      "I've never seen a drake so close before," Torm said, looking at it.  "Not even the two that Wizard owns gets this close to me.  It's very pretty, isn't it?" he asked, leaning down to get a better look.

      And then the blue flashes he saw became very clear to Tarrin.  The little drake hissed, then Tarrin sensed a sudden release of magical energy.  A small arc of electricity, like a miniature bolt of lightning, emanated from the little blue drake's body and struck Torm in the chest as he leaned down.  Torm was knocked backwards and crashed to the deck, his swearing telling Tarrin that he was alright.  A little singed, but alright.

      "Wow," Tarrin said in appreciation.  Now that was a defense mechanism!  "Calmly, little one," he said in a soothing voice, not moving.  "We're not going to hurt you."

      The little drake looked up at him, blinking, its front paws fidgeting and its claws scrabbling on the deck.  Then, to Tarrin's surprise, the little drake ambled forward and rubbed the side of its head against his ankle, chirping pleasantly.  Just like Chopstick and Turnkey did when they were in an affectionate mood.

      It liked him!  The drake either liked him because he'd healed it, or it could tell that he was a Druid.  Most wild animals wouldn't bother Druids, because the sense of the All that surrounded them put the animal at ease.  No wild animal saw a Druid as an enemy.  Tarrin reached down and rubbed the scales on its back, mindful of the little ridges and spines, then patted it on the head.

      "Ouch," Torm grunted from the deck.

      Tarrin looked back and saw that the Wikuni was sitting up, with a little scorch mark on the chest of his resplendent red uniform coat.  "That was interesting," Tarrin told him.  "I've never seen a drake do that before."

      "Me either," Torm agreed.

      "You alright?"

      "I will be in a minute.  All my fur is standing on end."

      "It must have thought you were going to attack it when you leaned down.  I wouldn't do that again if I were you."

      "I'm not planning on it, no," Torm agreed mildly.  "That's quite a trick, though.  I'll bet that's how it hunts.  It shocks birds out of the sky and lets the fall kill them."

      "That would be an effective tactic," Tarrin agreed, looking down at the drake.  "Alright now, little one," he told it.  "You're better now.  You should be going home now."  The drake made no move to turn and fly away.  Instead, it reared up on its hind legs and put its front paws on his knee, begging for attention.  "You're welcome," he chuckled to it, petting it on the head gently.  When he stood up, the drake did turn around and jump into the air, flapping its wings, but it did little more than gain altitude, turn around, and land on his shoulder.

      Tarrin was a bit surprised.  It seemed to be in no hurry to go home, but it had to leave soon, or the island would be too far away for it to get back.  He reached up and took hold of the drake, holding it gently, then set it on the rail.  "You need to start back, little one, or you'll be too far away to reach the island," he warned it.  "Now go on.  Before we get too far away."

      It looked at him quizzically.

      "Go on now," he ordered.  "Back home.  Go home!"  He made a shooing motion with his paws, and the drake reacted to that, vaulting up into the air and flapping its leathery wings, back towards the island.  Tarrin watched it go with a slight smile, happy that he'd had a chance to help someone for a change.  "Phandebrass is going to kill me," he chuckled.

      "Why?"

      "A drake that can shoot lightning?  He would have loved to have studied it.  If he would have survived," he added with a laugh.  "Did it burn you?"

      "Not really," he replied, getting up and putting a furry hand to his chest.  "It would have if it would have hit my fur.  The coat took the burn for me.  I've never been shocked like that before.  It didn't burn, but it certainly wasn't pleasant."

      "I can imagine it wasn't," Tarrin agreed mildly.  "I'd better be going, Torm.  I have an appointment to keep."

      "I need to change coats," the admiral noted, looking down.

      The rest of the day went by as all the days did, but the next morning was anything if not ordinary.  Tarrin had woken up to some shouting bleeding down from the deck above, but hadn't paid much attention to it.  He dressed and went out on deck to find Camara Tal, but found all the sailors on the deck, looking up into the rigging.  Some of them were rubbing arms or shoulders, and there were little burn marks on a few of them.  Keritanima was standing by the foremast with Miranda, watching Phandebrass crawling through the rigging as Chopstick and Turnkey fluttered about the mainmast, circling the crow's nest.

      "What's going on?" he asked Dar, who was standing not far from the sterncastle.

      "There's a little animal up there in the rigging," Dar replied.  "It attacked a few of the sailors, and now Phandebrass is trying to catch it."

      Tarrin looked up, seeing that the thin Wizard was on the rope ladder leading to the crow's nest, a rope in his teeth and his ridiculous conical hat gripped in one hand.  His hair had gone all white again, Tarrin noticed, and the Wizard had trouble with getting his feet tangled in his robes as he tried to climb up the rigging.

      He stopped as a little streak suddenly shot out of the crow's nest, towards the bow, then dove down through the rigging with Chopstick and Turnkey in hot pursuit.  Tarrin didn't get a good look at it, since it was behind the sails on the foremast, but when it dropped under the lowest sail and pulled out of its dive, he realized that the flying thing was a little blue blur.

      It was the drake!

      It flew right at him then pulled up and landed on his shoulder, its claws tearing his shirt and drawing blood from the speed of the landing.  It chirped in his ear and licked him on the side of the face with that reptillian tongue, then suddenly hissed threateningly as Chopstick and Turnkey flew towards him.

      "Land!" Tarrin called, holding his paws out.  That was a command that both the drakes knew, and they obediently flapped down to the deck and stayed where they were.  He reached up and took hold of the blue drake, bringing it down to his chest and looked down at it.  It looked up at him with eyes as blue as its scales, vertically slitted, reminding him irrationally of Kimmie's eyes.  "I told you to go home, little one," he chided the drake in a stern voice.

      It looked up at him unashamedly, then it gave that chirping sound and rubbed the side of its head against his chest.

      Tarrin blew out his breath in a snort as Dar looked at the drake in surprise.  "How does it know you, Tarrin?" he asked.

      "I met it last night, when we passed by that island.  I guess it decided to follow the ship," he replied.

      "I say, you got it!" Phandebrass' voice called from overhead.  The thin Wizard shimmied down a rope and got back on the deck, putting his hat back on as he ambled over quickly.  "I say, it's a rare blue!" he gasped.  "A Blue!"

      "Rare?"  Tarrin asked.  "There was a whole pack of them flying around out here last night."

      "I missed it?" he asked in a crestfallen voice.  "I say, we need to turn the ship around, we do!  I really must see this!"

      "Dream on, Wizard," Camara Tal scoffed as she appraoched, with all his other friends converging on him.  "It certainly seems to like you, Tarrin," she noted.

      Tarrin told them what happened the night before, about the attack and his saving it.  "I let it go, but I guess it just flew far enough away to convince me it left, then turned around."

      "Drakes are like that, lad," Phandebrass said.  "When they find someone they like, they stay with them.  This drake is attached to you, and there's nothing you can do short of attacking it to make it leave, there isn't.  You're stuck with it."

      "I wouldn't attack it!" Tarrin said in a sudden voice.

      "Then you should give her a name," Phandebrass grinned.  "I say, what luck!  I can study a blue!"

      "Her?" Dar asked.

      "I say, certainly!" Phandebrass said confidently.  "See the smaller horns, and the different proportions of the ridge-spine pattern?  Those are the markings of a female."

      "Why would the other drakes attack this one?" Allia asked Phandebrass curiously.

      "Any number of reasons, my dear," he replied.  "I say, she may have been an intruder in the territory of another pack, she might.  Drakes are social animals, they are, and live in packs in the wild.  Or she may have tried to win leadership of her pack, and lost.  Losers are chased out of the territory.  Sometimes they're killed."

      "They certainly tried to kill her," Tarrin mused.  "Even chased her halfway out to sea."

      "Then she must have nearly won," Phandebrass said.  "The pack leader certainly didn't want her coming back to challenge again, so he was making sure of her, he was."

      "Well, brother, it looks like you have a new pet," Keritanima grinned at him.  "Care to introduce us?"

      "I say, that's a bad idea," Phandebrass warned.  "She's a wild drake, Tarrin.  You'll need to domesticate her and train her.  She may like you, but she'll be aggressive towards everyone else, she will."

      "We noticed," Camara Tal said.

      "I say, take her below decks, to your cabin, and I'll come by in a few minutes and tell you what to do," Phandebrass said.  "Raising a drake isn't easy, my boy.  You'll need some help, you will."

      Tarrin wasn't entirely sure about this.  He'd never had a pet before, not even a dog, because his father was allergic to dogs.  The Kael farm was one of the rare few that didn't have dogs on the farm, and the few cats there were were restricted to the barn to control the rodents, because the small flock of sheep they'd kept on the farm didn't like them.  He took the little blue drake down to his cabin and sat down on the bed, stroking it absently, considering the situation.  If it was true, and he couldn't make the drake go away, he was more or less stuck with her.  He did like drakes, though, and if he was going to have a pet, then a drake seemed a sensible choice.  He wasn't sure how much the drake was going to affect his life, because Chopstick and Turnkey seemed to more or less take care of themselves.  So long as they were fed regularly and someone paid attention to them every so often, they didn't seem to need anything special.  On those terms, Tarrin wouldn't mind at all to take care of the drake.

      Phandebrass knocked on the door, then entered immediately afterward.  To his surprise, Kimmie filed in behind him.  That made him inwardly groan; now he'd have to scour her scent out of his room or he'd get no peace at night.  But he put on a brave face and greeted her as amicably as he could.  She smiled at him and sat down on the stool in front of the desk, and the Wizard stood before him.  "I say, very good.  The first thing you need to do is domesticate her, you do.  She's a wild drake, and she'll need to learn that everyone isn't going to attack her."

      "How do we do that?"

      "Carefully," Phandebrass grinned.  "She's a blue, and they have magical powers, so we have to be cautious.  I trained my drakes to behave by slowly introducing them to people, being nice to the people and such to show that the person was my friend.  Drakes are clever creatures, my boy, she'll understand that your friends are her friends.  Once you have her acclimated, she'll start relaxing around strangers.  While you're taming her, you'll have to teach her what you want her to know, you will."

      "Like what?"

      "Like housebreaking her, but that will actually be an easy task, it will," he replied.  "Drakes prefer to bury their waste, or expel it while flying, but they'll never soil what they consider their den.  You have to convince her that this is her den, then leave the window open for her so she can leave to relieve herself.  I say, you'll also have to teach her not to chew," he continued.  "Drakes chew on things to keep their teeth sharp.  I have chew toys for my drakes in my cabin.  Leather works best, it does.  Get yourself a piece of ragged leather and reprimand her whenever she chews on anything other than that chew toy."

      "How do you reprimand a drake?"

      "An angry tone," he replied.  "Drakes are smart, my boy.  She'll learn what your voice sounds like when you're in certain moods, and she'll respond to it.  But don't ever hit a drake as punishment.  She'll think you're attacking her, she will, and she'll either run away or attack in kind, or both."

      "Alright.  What else should I know?"

      "That's basicly it, my boy," he replied.  "As far as basics go.  But drakes are smart little devils, and they're easy to train.  Training her in certain things and to do some tasks would be a very good idea, it would.  As you've seen, Chopstick and Turnkey have been trained how to attack enemies.  I've also trained them to fetch certain things, and they also know how to find certain things that I need.  They also know a good variety of commands for their own good, to keep them out of trouble and out of harm's way.  Such as the land command I saw you use.  It's a good idea to have a well trained drake if she's going to go out in public with you, it is."  He looked at the drake longingly.  "I can't wait until she's tame," he said in an excited tone.  "I'll teach you how to teach her commands, and I can study her abilities."

      "One thing at a time, Phandebrass," Tarrin said, scratching the drake between the horns, right where Turnkey and Chopstick liked to be scratched.  She too seemed to like being scratched there, leaning into his claw.

      "I say, you need to give her a name," the Wizard told him.  "You should always call her by her name."

      "I think Sapphire would be a good name," Kimmie offered.  "She has the same color as a sapphire."

      "It's as good a name as any," Tarrin shrugged.  "So her name is Sapphire."

      "Very good then.  Stay with her in the cabin for the rest of the day, and make sure to open the window.  She'll learn that this is her den, and she'll also get used to you.  Just keep visitors on this side of the room until tomorrow."

      "What should I feed her?"

      "Drakes eat anything, but they can be finicky, they can," he replied.  "Table scraps work best.  She'll tell you what she does and doesn't like.  Oh, and make sure she always has fresh water in a bowl somewhere.  Drakes drink alot of water, they do."

      "Alright," he nodded.  "Anything else?"

      "Not that I can think of at the moment, no," he replied.  "As soon as I remember something else, I'll run down here and tell you, I will."

      "So, just sit in here with her all day?"

      "Just so," Phandebrass nodded.  "I say, you may want to get a book or something."

      "I can have visitors, so could you go find Camara Tal and ask her to come to my room?" he asked.

      "I say, I'd be happy to, my boy," he replied with a smile.

      Phandebrass turned around and took of his cap, then replaced it on his head for some strange reason.  "I'll send Camara down here for you, my boy," he promised.  "I say, coming, Kimmie?"

      "In a bit," she replied.

      "See you in a bit, then," he replied, nodding to her.  Then he let himself out.

      "What do you want, Kimmie?" he asked her.

      "To know why you've been avoiding me," she replied bluntly, putting her elbows on her knees and leaning towards him.

      "I didn't realize I was avoiding you on purpose, Kimmie," he said blandly.  "You've been busy, and I've been busy.  That's all."

      "That's not all, and don't deny it," she countered.  "Am I upsetting you, Tarrin?  If so, tell me so, and I'll fix whatever it is I'm doing that annoys you."

      He snorted.  "There's nothing you can do, Kimmie," he told her directly.

      She looked at him, then she blinked.  Then she laughed.  "Is that all that's bothering you?" she asked with a sudden grin.  "Why didn't you say so!"

      "What are you talking about?"

      "Do you really think Jesmind is going to care if we go to bed together?" she asked easily.  "I thought you knew females better than that!"

      "What are you talking about?"

      "Tarrin," she chided.  "Love is love, but sex is just that.  Sex.  Jesmind isn't going to give a flip of her hair if we go to bed, so long as your love for her doesn't change."

      "Maybe, but I wouldn't feel right if I did," he told her.  "It would be like cheating on her."

      "If I'm bothering you this much after only a couple of rides, what do you think it's going to be like in a month, Tarrin?" she asked bluntly.  "And I wasn't even trying for you.  But now that you've made your interest clear, I will be trying for you.  It'll only get worse."

      "That's a cheap shot, Kimmie!"

      "That's one way of putting it," she teased with a wink.  "I told you a long time ago that I'm interested in you, Tarrin.  Now that I have you all to myself and I know that you're interested in me too, do you really think I'm going to pass up the chance?"

      "But what about Jesmind?"

      "What about her?" Kimmie mirrored.  "I don't really care what your feelings are for Jesmind, Tarrin.  What matters is now.  And right now, you're a male, I'm a female, and we're attracted to one another.  Just let instinct run its course."

      "You're an evil woman, Kimmie," he accused.

      "I know," she replied with a wicked little smile.  "If you feel all that worried about what Jesmind thinks, tell her," she offered.  "Tell her everything.  Even tell her that I'm going to try to lure you now, I don't mind.  Because she knows that you can't ignore instinct.  She knows it's in my instincts to lure a male I find attractive, especially when I know he's interested.  Tell her anything you want to tell her.  I think you'll be surprised what she tells you."

      "What do you mean?"

      "Odds are, after shouting at you a while to make herself feel better, she'll tell you to take me for mate," she said calmly, leaning against the desk.  "Just make sure that you stress how it would feel like cheating if you did," she added with a chuckle.  "That'll remind her that you're still in her thoughts."

      "So, you're telling me to ask my mate if I can dump her and take another," he said in a dangerous tone.

      "Not at all.  There's no rule that says you can only have one mate at a time, Tarrin," she replied calmly.  "I don't want you to give up Jesmind.  I'm just asking to take up with you, and I'll gladly step aside when we get back to Suld.  Jesmind can't be here to attend to your physical needs," she said with a surprising leer.  Tarrin never expected that kind of behavior out of Kimmie.  "I'll be happy to take care of it for you," she finished with a wink.

      Tarrin was taken aback.  In just a short moment, Kimmie had gone from her usual demure, conservative self to the epitomy of a hot and bothered Were-cat female.  Kimmie really was just like all the other females, just as she had told him a while ago.  Tarrin had never seen this side of Kimmie before, and he was startled by it.  But in reality, he shouldn't have been too surprised.  Despite being turned, her instincts and her blood were just as hot as any other female's.

      "I, I don't know, Kimmie," he told her.

      "Just talk to Jesmind, Tarrin," she told him.  "Because if you don't, I'm going to make your life a living hell," she finished with a seductive smile.

      "You are a witch," he said, but in a teasing tone.

      "No, I just have you where I want you," she replied.  "It's a buyer's market, Tarrin.  And you're the merchandise."

      "I really hate females sometimes," he grunted, patting Sapphire on the head gently.

      "Then we're doing things right," Kimmie retorted with a grin.  "Oh, Tarrin, by the way."

      "What?"

      "I can smell it all over you," she said bluntly.

      To Tarrin's intense pique, he blushed.

      "Talk to Jesmind.  I'm sure Triana told you that it's highly offensive to a female when she can smell a male's interest, but the male won't have anything to do with her.  You don't want to insult me, do you?"

      "Do you know that you are a witch?"

      "I think you just said that," she said with a teasing grin.  "I'll see you later."

      She sauntered out of the room, her gait and stance proclaiming her victory, and Tarrin had to suppress the urge to throw something at the door behind her.  Tarrin felt a little foolish and not a little uncomfortable with the situation now, since Kimmie knew he was interested in her.  What made it worse was that she was right on most counts.  He was interested, she was interested, and they both knew it.  The instincts were going to drive him to mate with her.  And since she knew, she would come after him shamelessly.  The only surprising part of it was Kimmie's change in personality, becoming bold and forward.  That was pattern female behavior concerning males, but it was unusual when it came from Kimmie, because of her mild disposition and her human-like outward personality.  He realized that he'd been judging her by past conversations, when she carefully chose her words to foster his interest in her without being obvious about it.  It just showed that Kimmie knew when to be discreet, and she knew when to be direct.  That was unusual in a female.  Most wouldn't be able to be discreet if their lives depended on it.

      He would have to talk to Jesmind, and soon.  He wouldn't touch Kimmie without at least letting her know, and he had the feeling that he'd better do it before Kimmie started getting to him.  More than she already had gotten to him, actually.

      Tarrin brooded about Kimmie for the rest of that day and most of the next, taking turns between lessons and the drake, but his mind wasn't really on either.  Or at least part of his lessons.  Sapphire seemed perfectly at ease when Camara Tal came into the room and sat down with him to continue teaching him about Priest magic, but when Keritanima and Miranda came to visit him after lunch, the blue drake almost immediately attacked them.  Tarrin had to use Sorcery to restrain the animal as she launched up off the bed with lightning crackling around her body.  Tarrin realized quickly after that that it was because of Torm.  The drake had thought Torm was attacking her, and now she associated Wikuni scents with enemies.  Camara Tal was human, so her scent was completely different.  When Camara Tal came in and showed she wasn't an enemy, the drake accepted her easily.

      Tarrin saw that it would take a long time to break Sapphire of that, unless he cheated.  The easiest way to do that would be to talk to Triana.  He knew the Druidic spells for talking to animals, but they were for talking to normal animals.  Drakes weren't what many would call normal animals, so he wasn't sure if the spells would work on her.  And if they did, he wasn't sure if they'd hurt her, or him, or both of them because they weren't entirely compatible with her.  All he had to do was talk to Sapphire and assure her that Wikuni weren't enemies, that it was just a misunderstanding, but before he tried, he wanted to make sure it would be alright.

      All in all, however, given that he'd only had the drake for two days, he was rather pleased with her.  She was a constant companion, she didn't really cause too much trouble, and she was very affectionate.  Sapphire's presence had been enough to keep him from talking to Jesmind about Kimmie the night before, since he was content to let her distract him.  He'd already found out from Phandebrass what drakes would eat, and it only took a while and a little Conjuring to determine Sapphire's likes and dislikes.  The only thing so far he had bad to say about her was that she was a little bit too energetic sometimes.  She knocked over the washstand and almost broke a wing chasing a small flying insect through the cabin, intent on catching and eating it.  Drakes were social animals and hunted in packs, hunting animals their size or larger, but an individual drake would hunt anything smaller than itself, even insects.  At least she didn't use her electrical ability to try to catch the insect, she could have set fire to the cabin.

      Tarrin stayed in the cabin the first day out of necessity, but stayed another day both to keep Sapphire separated from the Wikuni and avoid Kimmie.  Just thinking about her raised all sorts of instinctual urges in him, the kinds of urges that were extremely hard to suppress.  He still had his lesson with Camara Tal, but since Keritanima couldn't come into his room, he instead spent the free time between lunch and dinner reading from a book Camara Tal had lent him, a book on multipantheonic history and philosophy.  It described all ten Elder Gods and all forty-five Younger Gods, as well as the six established deities that were defined as Cult Gods.  There were quite a few of them, and Tarrin saw the general lines in which they operated.  The Elder Gods were gods of natural forces.  There were a few Younger Gods that also represented natural forces, but the book said that they were subject to the Elder God whose sphere of influence overlapped their own.  Those Younger Gods tended to represent and aspect of a sphere of influence, like Chulali, a Mahuut goddess of the jungle, and Talon, an Arathorn god of the forest and birds.  Both were subject to Leia, the Elder goddess of nature.  Vykar the Ravager, god of storms, was subject to T'Kya, Elder Goddess of weather.  Those Younger Gods that didn't represent a natural force instead represented a human condition, pursuit, or position.  Ragya was the god of disease.  Endar and K'tar were gods of war, Endar representing the dark aspects of war such as bloodlust and killing, while K'Tar represented the purity of the concept, the testing of man against man in honorable combat.  Denthar was the god of knowledge, and Sheniia was the goddess of peace, mercy, and healing.  A Younger God represented an aspect of human culture, but they could also be a patron god to a kingdom or nation.  The Sulasian patron god, Karas, was the god of law and justice.  The Ungardt patron god, Dalstaad, was the god of strength and power, and to a minor degree, another god of war.  The Younger Gods that weren't gods of nature didn't answer to any specific Elder God, but instead attended to their own devices.  They still had to obey the Elder Gods, but didn't have a specific one looking over their shoulder.

      Tarrin had almost immediately looked up Val.  It turned out that he was considered a Younger God.  He was the god of darkness, but was also called the god of evil, and was also considered a god of discord, feeding off conflict.  The book said that he was known as the Forgotten God, whose imprisonment by Spyder some five thousand years ago had caused him to be forgotten by all but the sages and historians.

      Were they wrong.  The worship of Val was alive and well among the ki'zadun, the very organization that Val created to further his own ends.

      Tarrin had never really thought much about the hierarchy of the gods.  After all, he had his goddess, and the rest of them just didn't seem to be very important.  But Camara Tal did think it to be important that he understand how the gods functioned in the world, and to understand their orders in order to better get along with them.

      So many gods.  Sixty of them, and those were only the human gods.  The Wikuni had gods of their own, ten of them, and the Vendari had three gods they revered.  The Aeradalla had a god of their own, as did the Selani.  And he was pretty sure that the various races of the Goblinoids, Fae-da'Nar, and other sentient beings he'd never heard of before also had their own gods.  Quite a few gods, all trying to work together in what they'd probably consider to be a confined space.  Contending with one another, competing for worshippers and territory, all jockeying for power through their orders, which constantly strove to convert others to their god's worship.

      Tarrin got so involved in the book that he almost forgot about dinner, but Sapphire wasn't about to let herself go without something to eat.  She bit at the ends of his fingers in agitation as the sunlight began to creep across the cabin, as the sun lowered towards the western horizon.  He looked up and realized he'd been reading from the book since just after noon.  He wasn't quite ready to take the drake outside just yet, so he Conjured a meal for both of them, wolfed it down, and then decided it would be a good time to see if Triana was with Jesmind.

      As Sapphire gnawed on a chunk of roasted beef, complete with bone, Tarrin put his paw around his amulet and called out to Jesmind.  She answered almost immediately, her voice tart.  "You call later and later, and now you call before sunset," she accused.  "Make up your mind!"

      "You're testy today," he told her by way of greeting.  "What's the matter?"

      "Your daughter has been changing the color of the walls!" she shot at him.  Whenever Jasana did something magical and it was something naughty, she became his daughter.  When she was behaving, she was their daughter.  "Then she changed that cat you gave her into a goldfish!  And we won't even discuss what she did this morning!"

      Tarrin almost laughed, but knew it would only set Jesmind off.  "She's your daughter too, Jesmind.  Punish her."

      "I already did, but you know how much good punishing her does."

      "Almost none," he admitted.

      "Damn right.  She got both our stubbornness."

      "Is everything back to normal?"

      "Somewhat.  The cat won't come anywhere near anything more than a saucer of water, but Triana said it'll calm down after a while."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "I need to talk to Triana, Jesmind.  Is she around?"

      "She's in Jasana's room," she replied.  "Why, what's the matter?"

      "Nothing serious.  I sorta ended up getting stuck with a pet of my own, and I need Triana's help learning a spell to talk to it.  It's kind of unusual."

      "What is it?"

      "A drake."

      There was a pause.  "Like those two little flying lizards the Wizard has?"

      "Just like them, except this one is a different color."

      "Oh.  I kind of liked them.  Is it cute?"

      "I think she is," he replied.

      "Why do you need to talk to Triana?  Doesn't that Wizard know how to take care of drakes?"

      "He already told me what I need to do, but the drake thinks Wikuni are enemies, and keeps attacking them.  I need to be able to talk to her, so I can convince her that Wikuni aren't enemies."

      "That could be a problem, given you're on a Wikuni ship and you're going to the Wikuni homeland," she agreed with a slight chuckle.  "Mother, Tarrin needs to talk to you for a bit.  Tarrin, how are we going to do this?  Do I have to tell you what she says in reply?"

      "Don't you know your own mother, Jesmind?" Tarrin chided.  "She's got her own ways to talk to me."

      Almost on cue, a swirling bluish circle of energy spun out of nothingness before the bed, in the direction he was facing.  Tarrin had seen something like it before, and knew that an image of Triana would appear in its center when it was fully formed.  Sapphire, on the other hand, didn't quite know what to make of it.  At first she hissed at it, then sniffed at the air, flicking out that forked tongue.  When she found no scent to go along with the strange light, she flitted from the desk, where her water bowl was, to the bed and settled down on Tarrin's lap.  Obviously, she accepted it as some kind of natural phenomenon.  The blue circle of glowing, swirling energy grew to the size of a large mirror, then colors formed in its center and expanded.  They changed size and shape and contracted, slowly forming a clear image of Jasana's bedroom.  Jasana was sitting on the bed in her nightshirt, pulling a tangle out of the tip of her tail.  Triana sat sedately on the edge of the bed, looking at him with that stony expression.

      "Cub," she said with a nod of her head.

      "Papa!" Jasana said happily, bouncing up and looking at him.  Tarrin's mood improved vastly when he looked at his cub, looking just as happy and energetic as ever.  Her strawberry blond hair had been tied back behind her head, and the white furred cat ears that poked up from the tied hair looked a bit larger than usual, since the hair that surrounded them was pulled down.  Jasana's hair was as thick and springy as her parents'.  "Is that really you, Papa?"

      "Of course it's me, cub," he replied with a bright smile.  "Your grandmother is using a spell that lets us see each other."

      "You're looking a bit drawn, cub," Triana noted sharply as Jesmind sat down on the other side of Jasana and looked at him.  Jesmind looked as lovely as ever, but she had an unfriendly expression on her face.  That softened considerably when she looked at him, replaced by a loving smile.

      "I'm doing well enough, mother," he replied absently.  "I need a bit of help."

      "What with?"

      "Well, as you can see, I have this new little friend," he said, pointing at the drake.  "I need to talk to her to break her of a fairly bad habit.  Do you know a spell you could teach me to let me talk to her?"

      "What is that, Papa?" Jasana asked, leaning over her grandmother's leg and peering close to the viewing spell.  "It looks like a big lizard someone painted."

      "It's a drake, cub," he told her.  "A blue drake.  Remember the drakes that Phandebrass has?"

      "I never got to pet them," she pouted in reply.

      "They don't really like strangers, cub," he told her.

      "Sathon didn't teach you the spell to talk to animals?" Triana asked in surprise.  "It's a basic Druid spell."

      "He did, but this is a rather special animal, mother," he replied.  "She's not what you'd consider a natural animal.  I wasn't sure if the spell would work, or if it would cause her harm, so I wanted to make sure of things with you before I tried."

      "You can use the spell on a drake, Tarrin," she assured him.  "At least you were wise enough to check with me before trying."

      "I don't want to hurt her, mother."

      She nodded, then seemed to study him carefully.  "You do look a little stressed, cub.  What's wrong?"

      "Just the situation, mother," he replied carefully, glancing at Jesmind.  "I'll be happy when we're back on dry land."

      Triana was quiet a moment.  "Just bed her, cub," she announced bluntly, taking Tarrin aback.

      "What?" Jesmind demanded.  "Tarrin, is Kimmie causing you trouble?"

      "Well, not trouble," he said quickly.  "We're just starting to--"

      "Drop it, cub," Triana said flatly.  "You can't lie to me, and I'm not blind.  If Kimmie's interested, bed her."

      "Mother!" he gasped.

      "Stop thinking like a human, Tarrin," she ordered.  "You're not Jesmind's exclusive property, no matter what you may think."  Jesmind glared at Triana, but said nothing.  "After all, cub, it's just sex."

      That seemed to strike at the core of his dilemma, caught between the Were-cat's casual attitude towards that kind of thing, and his human association with fidelity as part of a relationship.  He blew out his breath and gave Triana a helpless look, then avoided Jesmind's eyes.  "It feels like cheating," he admitted.

      "There's no such thing among Were-cats, cub," she chided him.  "A female gets exclusive rights to a male only as long as she can keep him.  When Jesmind let you leave, she let you go, and when she did that, she gave up her claim on you.  Kimmie knows that, and that means that if she knows you're interested, she'll come after you with everything she's got.  If she does that, you'll bed her whether you want to or not.  It's best to do it willingly, so you don't have any guilt over it afterward."

      "Jesmind may have had to let me leave, but I never said I was leaving her," he explained to his bond-mother.  "It just doesn't seem right to me, mother.  It just doesn't."

      Triana looked at Jesmind expectantly.  Jesmind seemed to be ready to challenge her mother's will, but that defiance died as soon as Triana's expression turned ominous.

      "Alright!" Jesmind snapped at her mother.  "Tarrin, I--damnit, I don't want to do this!"

      "You'd rather leave Tarrin in pain?" Triana asked archly.  "I knew you were selfish, cub, but this even surprises me!"

      "Gramma, what's wrong?" Jasana asked in a small voice.

      "You're learning how not to treat a mate, little cub," Traina told her firmly.  "Your mother is putting her desires over your father's needs.  She's being very selfish and stubborn, and her selfishness is going to make your father sick, because he won't do what he needs to do unless your mother tells him it's alright."

      Jesmind averted her gaze from her mother.  "If I let him go, he may not come back," she protested weakly.

      "Are you sure you know him at all, you foolish cub?" Triana bored into her.  "Don't you trust him, or do you just think you're not woman enough to keep him?"

      That hit a nerve.  Jesmind raised her gaze and looked at her mother challengingly.

      "Papa won't leave us, Mama," Jasana said assuringly.  "He promised to come back."

      "Alright," Jesmind growled.  "Tarrin--I can't believe I'm saying this!  Tarrin, if Kimmie's after you, go ahead.  But don't get too friendly with her!" she warned in an ugly tone.  "And tell her that me and her are going to talk about this when you get back!"

      "It's not her fault, Jesmind," Tarrin said defensively.  "It's my fault.  I made it worse when she cornered me about why I've been avoiding her and dragged the truth out of me.  She said she'd be after me.  She even told me to tell you that, and that she'd be happy to step aside when we got back to Suld."

      "Oh, sure she says that now," Jesmind snapped.  "Just like she said she wouldn't touch you!"

      "She never did," he told her.  "I told you, it's my fault."

      "You're a male, cub," Triana told her mildly.  "A male trapped on a ship with a female that has interest in you.  There's nothing either of you could do about it."

      "You did this on purpose, didn't you!" Jesmind suddenly accused.  "You knew Kimmie had it for him, didn't you!  That's why you sent her!"

      "That's why," Triana admitted shamelessly.  "Tarrin needs to learn what it's like to be with another female.  It'll make things easier for both of you when you do finally part ways."

      "I can't believe it!  My own mother engineers a plan to steal my mate!" she shouted, standing up.

      "I didn't allow anyone to steal anything," Triana said calmly.  "Gods, woman!  If you don't trust Tarrin enough to be a Were-cat male, then you should go find a human!"

      "What does that mean?" Jesmind snapped.

      "It means that of all people, I thought you, an elder female, would understand the nature of our kind," she replied bluntly.  "Isn't it you that taught Tarrin the difference between emotion and sex?  Weren't you secretly seducing him even when you were supposed to be killing him?"

      That made Jesmind blush furiously, sitting back down and assuming a meek posture.

      "Didn't think I knew about that, did you?" Triana challenged mockingly.  "The point is, daughter, don't give yourself rights and then deny them to Tarrin.  If it were another male in the Tower that had your eye, you wouldn't think twice about bedding him.  And don't deny it."

      Jesmind blew out her breath, then nodded silently.  That stung Tarrin a little bit, but in that moment he began to understand what Triana was trying to get across to him.  To both of them, for that matter.  "If I got this jealous every time Thean took another female for mate, all my hair would be white and my fur would fall out," she said in an accusing tone.  "Both of you had better learn how to deal with knowing the other is with someone else.  Part of this is to teach both of you that there is life after you break up."

      Both Tarrin and Jesmind were uncomfortably silent, and Tarrin just looked at Jasana.  His daughter was listening attentively, and didn't seem to understand the emotion involved in Triana's words.

      "So, Tarrin," Triana said.  "If Kimmie interests you, take her.  She won't say no.  I guarantee it.  And Jesmind," she said sharply.  "Learn to trust Tarrin.  He loves you, and when he comes back, he'll be yours again.  Until then, let him learn what it's like to be mates with some female other than you.  Let him learn the same thing you learned when you were his age."

      "I don't like it," Jesmind growled.

      "I don't like it either," Tarrin agreed.  "It still feels like cheating."

      "There is no such thing, cub, and if you say that one more time, I'm going to come over there and educate you personally," she warned.

      "Yes, mother," Tarrin said meekly.

      "Good," she said with a snort.  "Now then, this spell is starting to get a bit heavy, so I'm going to end it.  I'll talk to you later, cub," she told him, looking at him.  "And don't get the idea that I'm not going to check up on you.  If I find out you're resisting your instincts out of some kind of loyalty to Jesmind, I'll be cross with you.  Loyalty to a mate is in your head and heart, not between your legs."

      Tarrin sighed. "Yes, mother," he said.

      "Alright then.  I'll talk to you in a few days."

      And then she ended the spell without another word from anyone.

      Tarrin sat there a long moment, stroking Sapphire's scales, considering the spoken and unspoken lessons Triana had given him.  That it was alright to have interest in other females, that it was natural for a Were-cat.  And that he could love Jesmind and be mates with Kimmie.  Kimmie had said it, but he hadn't really thought it possible until Triana said it and he saw Jesmind admit that if she found a male she found interesting, she would take him for mate in his absence.  Were-cat culture didn't associate sex with fidelity to a mate as human culture did, and that was probably his hardest problem to overcome.  It would be virutally impossible, given the number of females to males and the power of the instincts.  Cats were not pair-bonding creatures, and that heavily affected the human flavor of their makeup.

      It wouldn't be the same.  Then again, it wasn't supposed to.  Kimmie was not Jesmind.  Kimmie was her own female, unique and different, as all Were-cats were.  But perhaps, that was the lesson Triana wanted him to learn.

      Either way, he'd have to get it overwith.  He wasn't ready for a relationship with Kimmie, but he doubted if she would object if he proposed a single night's encounter.  If Kimmie started coming after him, waggling her tail in his face and putting even more into her scent than she had been already, he'd not be a pleasant person to know if he resisted her.

      If it had been anyone but Kimmie, he wouldn't have been surprised.  But even the blue-eyed, very unusual Were-cat proved that, as she had told him a while ago, she was just as hot-blooded as any other female.

      But that could wait until tomorrow.  As long as he stayed away from Kimmie, he'd be just fine.  Looking down on the little ridges and spines on Sapphire's back, he dredged up the spell that Sathon had taught him, the spell for communicating with animals.  It was a spell of intent more than image, for it was hard to form the spell's effect in a visual manner.  When he had the series of cascading meanings and intents arranged in his mind--it was a surprisingly complicated spell--he reached within, through the Cat, and came into contact with the endless energy of the All.  It saw into his mind, read his intent and looked at his image, and then responded to what it found there.  It came as a sudden expansion of self, surprisingly enough to him, and his awareness of the little drake in his lap increased dramatically.

      He realized why immediately.  Drakes were animals, with no concept of language that he would understand.  So the entirety of their communication, with each other and themselves, came in the forms of images, emotions, memories of scents and sounds, and impulses.  The spell literally opened a window into the drake's mind and allowed him to read into that multitude of various concepts that formed the core of the animal's thought, read into it and translate it into words he understood.  The spell would also take his words and transform them in the drake's mind into the form that she would understand.  Thus allowing them to talk with one another.

      Another surprise was the complexity of the mind that could see now.  Phandebrass was so correct when he said that drakes were very smart.  Sapphire was a very intelligent little animal, capable of emotions and comprehension that went beyond what most animals could understand.  But despite that intelligence, she was still an animal, still governed by instinct and impulse.

      "I know you can understand this," he said aloud.  That caused the drake to crane her neck, to look up at him with clear surprise showing in her eyes.  "I think you know what I am, so it shouldn't be too much of a shock."

      You are an Earthbrother, came the reply.  I could sense it in you.

      "That's right," he agreed.  "I'm using Earth magic so we can talk, so we can come to some understandings."

      What is there to understand?  You please me, and you care for me.  I will stay with you.

      "I'm glad to have you, but there are some things you have to learn if you want to stay with me and not cause trouble for yourself and those around you, Sapphire."

      What does that word mean?

      "It has no true meaning, but it's a word that people will associate with you.  It's called a name.  When someone thinks of you, they will think of that word."

      A name.  What a strange concept.  My scent is who I am.

      "Yes, but few of those around me can smell that, Sapphire.  They're much different from you."

      Truly, it seems.  How alien.

      "You should get used to it.  When you hear that word, people are either trying to communicate to you, or they're speaking about you to another."

      Strange, but understandable.

      "I'm glad you agree.  Now, the first thing.  The furred ones, like the one you shocked the night we met.  They're not enemies."

      It attacked me.

      "No, it wanted to look at you.  It had no meaning to hurt you.  It was a mistake.  The furry ones that all smell the same, they're not all your enemies, Sapphire, but I won't tell you that all of them are friends.  You should approach each one separately.  Don't think all of that species are enemies, but don't assume that all of them are friends either."

      I understand.  It is so among my kind as well.  Some are friendly, some are not.  The learning takes time.

      "Good.  That goes for the hairless ones, like the dark female that's spent the last couple of mornings with me.  Approach each one as neither friend or enemy, until it proves itself one way or the other."

      Her scent pleases me.  She smells of spices. She is of the same kind as the dark tall one and the dark short one and the short pale one?

      "The species is very diverse," he replied.  "There are many kinds within the kind.  Just as you are blue, but the other two of your kind that live with us are red."

      Ah.  They are cousins to one another.

      "Something like that."  He stroked her side gently.  "There are some things you'll need to learn, Sapphire, actions that you'll need to perform when I say certain words.  They're not meant to degrade you, but you do need to know them for when I understand something you may not, things that deal with the beings around you."

      You are pack-leader.  I will obey, in all things.

      "I'm glad you feel that way.  If I may ask, why were the others attacking you?"

      My pack was killed by the stone-makers.  I survived.  The pack attacking me was claiming the territory of my former pack.

      "I'm sorry to hear that."

      I am alive, I am here, and I am content.  That is all that matters.

      Tarrin understood that mentality.  It came from her instincts.  "I can't speak to you like this all the time," he told her.  "Most of the time, I'll be trying to speak to you with the words that ones like me use."

      The funny sounds?

      "Those," he affirmed.  "In time, you'll come to understand that they are different, and they have certain meaning.  Like the sound Sapphire meaning you."

      A strange way to communicate.  Where are the scent-marks, the language of stance and set?

      "We don't use those forms," he told her.  "There is some information that passes along in the language of the bodies of our kinds, but mostly we communicate using the sounds."

      If that is how it must be, then that is how it will be, she said diffidently.  I will learn.

      "Good.  I hope you'll be happy here."

      You are kind to me.  You feed me, and you share your territory with me.  Why would I not be content?

      "Why indeed?" Tarrin chuckled in reply.

 

      After the conversation, Tarrin felt comfortable with leaving the room with Sapphire.  For as long as he could maintain the spell, he taught her the names and appearances of his sisters and his close friends, those she should not fear, explained some of the intrinsic dangers the ship may pose, things her animal mind wouldn't understand any other way, and taught her nearly as many commands as Phandebrass had taught Chopstick and Turnkey.  She was very intelligent and she learned quickly, and it didn't take long to teach her everything she'd need to know to keep her safe up on deck.  By the next morning, Sapphire knew where it was safe to perch and where it wasn't safe, not to get around the cannons, to avoid the Wikuni sailors and not interfere with their tasks, and who among the people on the ship she could approach without fear.  If course, it had taken some convincing to prove to her that Keritanima and Miranda weren't enemies, but in the end she accepted the fact for what it was.

      Tarrin learned that she may be obedient, seeing him as the dominant, but she certainly had a stubborn mind.  She was very headstrong.

      When he came up on deck with Sapphire the next morning, he could tell immediately that the sailors were nervous about her, and wouldn't take their eyes off of her.  She had zapped quite a few of them the morning he had accepted her, and they weren't exactly going to be very forgiving about it.  Sapphire could sense their hostility, and was hostile to them in kind.  She didn't attack them, but she made sure to hiss at any Wikuni that got close to her.  That made them afraid, and that seemed to satisfy the drake in a most effective manner.  She was almost smug by the time he found a nice stool and sat down near the bow, waiting for Camara Tal.

      What he got instead was Kimmie.  He scented her long before he saw her, and her scent was almost intoxicating in its allure.  Kimmie had been true to word, somehow being able to put her attraction for him into her scent, then broadcasting it to him in a way that almost no male could resist.  She plopped down on a rope coil against the bulwark, wearing one of her usual peasant dresses, a dress that wasn't laced up quite as tightly in front as usual.  The result was that quite a bit of Kimmie's rather impressive cleavage was peeking out from that neckline, a calculated effort to remind him that Kimmie was very much a woman.

      "Well, I'm glad to see you come out of hiding," she said with a smile.  "Did you talk to Jesmind?"

      "I did," he replied evenly, looking down at her.

      "And what did she say?"

      "What could she say?" he challenged.

      "Knowing Jesmind, she probably had quite a bit to say," she said mildly, but her eyes were dancing with mirth.  "But let's skip over all the cursing and the ranting and the raging and get down to the part of her tirade that matters.  Did she tell you yes or no?"

      "It was something like a yes under protest," he replied blanly.  "Triana was there, so she couldn't say as much as she wanted."

      "Triana?  Why was she there?"

      "Following up on what she started," he replied, giving her a slightly accusing look.  "Triana sent you with me specifically hoping we'd get together."

      "She did?  That's surprising, considering you're her daughter's mate."

      "I think Triana wants me to learn some things I can't learn with Jesmind," he told her.  "I think I've already learned some of them."

      "Like what?"

      "Like not confusing love for attraction, I think," he replied.

      "I went through the same thing.  I was all but ready to marry the first mate I had after turning Were.  I was devastated when he rejected me," she said with a little sigh.  "Maybe Triana doesn't want to see you go through the same thing."

      "Maybe.  I can't say I feel very comfortable with it, Kimmie," he admitted.  "I mean, yes, I find you attractive, but I can't help feeling like I'm betraying Jesmind."

      "Tarrin," she sighed in exasperation.  "I'm not asking you to turn your back on Jesmind.  I told you that!  I don't want anything from you other than a good time and a little fun.  You and I are friends, Tarrin.  Good friends.  I told you a while ago that we could be good friends and mates at the same time.  The mating won't interfere with our friendship unless you let it."  She reached up and put her paw on his knee.  "What you have with Jesmind, I respect that, Tarrin.  I'm not asking for that.  I just want your attention and your companionship.  That's why Were-cats usually mate.  For attention and companionship.  Not for love."

      Tarrin was silent a moment, then looked down at her.  She smiled.  "Now, can you give me attention?"

      "I'd be hard pressed not to right now."

      She grinned.  "Can you give me companionship?"

      "What do you mean by that?"

      "Can you be my friend, Tarrin?"

      "I'm already your friend."

      "Then we'll be a good match," she assured him.  "You can go right on loving Jesmind, so long as you don't let her interfere with what we'll have."

      "I'll try."

      "And I'd appreciate it if you didn't shout out her name while we're making love," she told him boldly.  "That really annoys a girl, you know."

      Tarrin looked at her, then laughed helplessly.  He'd always thought he understood what it meant to be mates with a female.  At that moment, he realized how wrong he'd been.


To:       Title               EoF

Chapter 3

 

      Tarrin had two new females in his life, and both changed his daily routines dramatically.

      That wasn't to say that it was a bad thing.  After abandoning certain misgivings and surrendering to the instincts of it, Tarrin found that he could enjoy time together with Kimmie.  She was actually quite an affectionate female, comfortable with him in ways he didn't think a female would be comfortable with a male after such a short time.  There was no love there, not like with Jesmind, but Kimmie had been so right when she explained things to him.  That they could be good friends and mates at the same time.  Tarrin liked Kimmie, and Kimmie liked Tarrin.  He was attracted to her, she was attracted to him.  It allowed them to share a physical relationship, and to his surprise, it really didn't interfere with their friendship, nor did it change how he felt about Jesmind.  He had been born human, and had been a very naive and young boy when he was turned, long before he could gain any kind of carnal experience.  That sheltered background and its teachings were scrambled by the instincts, warping many of his concepts by jumbling human-taught morality with the pragmatic, nonchalant approach of the Cat.  Jesmind had done absolutely nothing to untangle his conceptions, since it suited her designs to keep him as he was.  Triana had done much to try to show him, but really hadn't broken through to him.  Tarrin knew that to a Were-cat, sex was a casual affair, but he had never really managed to drive that point home in his own mind.  The one woman outside of Jesmind at that time had been Mist, and he'd been very uncomfortable with the idea of a casual mating even then.  He'd only done it for her, not for himself.  In a single day, Kimmie had completely rewritten the book of the complicated levels of relationships between Were-cats.  Kimmie was his friend, first and foremost, just as clever and funny and wickedly smart as ever, and she acted in no way different towards him.  At least in public.  When she got him alone and she was in the mood, however, it was like she transformed into a completely different woman.  But even during those times, she was still Kimmie, just a Kimmie showing a side of herself to him he had not experienced before.  And after their ardor was satisfied, she went right back to being Kimmie again.

      It was most definitely the strangest relationship in which Tarrin had ever found himself, and he found himself completely mystified by Kimmie after they agreed to become mates and she led him back down to his cabin.  Even though both of them were turned, Kimmie showed that she had adjusted to the peculiarities of Were-cat culture much more easily than he had.  Or, more to the point, she had been taught better than him.  He was shocked that Kimmie could literally see him as two different people; as Tarrin, her friend, and as Tarrin, her lover.  She seemed perfectly capable of separating the two sides of their relationship in her mind, something that Tarrin found a little more difficult.

      Sapphire certainly didn't help.  The little drake had completely taken over his life, it seemed, and her promise to be obedient went only as far as when he was watching her.  It was almost like she was testing him, seeing how far she could push his authority, seeing how much power she held in their relationship.  She wasn't vicious or destructive, just stubborn, often resisting his commands or intentionally pestering him when he was busy with something else.  But despite the trouble she caused him at first, he found her presence to be very comforting, and was more than happy they'd found each other.

      Tarrin settled into his two new relationships over the days as they got closer and closer to the mysterious continent of Wikuna, a continent that his sister Keritanima ruled.  That idea still hadn't quite sunk in, even after all that time.  To think that his sister Kerri actually ruled an entire continent!  He couldn't even imagine having that much power.  Even if he could imagine it, he was absolutely positive that he didn't want it.  He saw the long hours that Keritanima worked, even out in the middle of the ocean, constantly going over reports or making decisions, decisions that affected the lives of everyone under her rule.  That was a dreadful responsibility, and it was not something that Tarrin wanted.  It reminded him of the vision he'd had of her, standing on a mound of skulls, crying.  Maybe that was what the vision meant.  That the duties of her station had changed her, saddened her somehow.  They had certainly taken over her life.  She was just as talkative and irreverent as ever, but he could sense the change in her.  She wasn't the carefree, spontaneous girl he'd known in the Tower.  She was different now, more methodical, maybe a little more ruthless.  She was more mature.

      In the five days since consenting to take Kimmie for mate, his routine had changed.  Kimmie slept in his cabin now, but hadn't officially moved in.  She came to him after he finished his time with Allia, then left before breakfast.  She didn't hide the fact that they were lovers, but it was almost as if she wouldn't allow herself to take up residence with him, like it was some kind of violation of the strange rules females had concerning males and other females.  After breakfast, he spent his time with Camara Tal, then with Keritanima and Miranda after lunch, but this was where Sapphire had usurped his schedule.  She interrupted them constantly with demands for attention, demands for food, torturing the Wikuni sailors by chasing them around the deck, and being a general nuisance to the ship.  She had integrated herself with Chopstick and Turnkey, taking over the social hierarchy by winning a pretty nasty little fight with Chopstick, who was the dominate between the two males.  This didn't surprise Tarrin, because Sapphire had been a wild drake, where the males had not.  She was smaller than them--if not by more than a shade--but she was faster, stronger, and more experienced in fighting other drakes than they were.  She ruled the other drakes, and she and the two males would often tear around the ship in endless games of chase, or harass the sailors whenever Sapphire felt bored.  The rest of Tarrin's schedule was generally unchanged, though he did spend slightly less time with Allia at night.  He found it hard to concentrate on Allia when he knew that Kimmie was waiting for her to leave.  Allia, the blessedly understanding woman she was, took it all in stride.  Allia was his most intimate friend, and she better than anyone understood the power the instincts had over a Were-cat.

      The morning was shaping up to be just like any other morning.  Kimmie was sitting on the bed trying to sort out her dress--a bed that now fit him, after he used a combination of Sorcery and Druidic magic to alter its dimensions to fit his frame, as Chopstick, Turnkey, and Sapphire growled and snapped at each other as they fought over a piece of long rawhide leather Tarrin kept in the cabin to serve as a chew toy.  Kimmie had had issues with the drakes at first, finding their presence disturbing, but had gotten used to them.  They didn't sleep in his bed now, sleeping in a cushioned basket Tarrin had placed on the desk, but they did still sleep in the room at night.  Now they curled up with Sapphire instead of him.

      Or, more to the point, they didn't start in the bed.  But they usually ended up there, nestled in the folds of the blankets between or on top of the two Were-cats.  Tarrin thought that that was what irritated Kimmie more than anything else, rolling over and getting jabbed by the small, sharp little ridges and spines that grew from the backbones of the drakes.

      "I know there's an arm in here somewhere," Kimmie growled to herself, holding up the crumpled mass of cloth.  "The trick is going to be finding it."

      "You should be more careful when you take it off," Tarrin suggested.  "I'm getting tired of stepping on buttons."

      "Maybe I should take it off in my cabin and come over here in a robe," she countered.

      "That would work," he agreed.  "Or just bring some clothes in here."

      "No, I won't do that," she said.  "I'm not mates with you, Tarrin.  We're just mates."

      "Someday I may actually understand the difference."

      "You already do.  Hey!" Kimmie snapped irritably when Chopstick bit the end of her tail.  Kimmie snapped it around her body quickly and forcefully enough to drag the drake along with it, pulling it out of bed.  It dropped to the floor and spat out a mouthful of orange-brown tabby fur, then chirped a couple of times and jumped back up onto the bed.  "You bite my tail again, and I'll start biting you, you little creep!" Kimmie threatened the drake.

      "He likes you, Kimmie," Tarrin said soothingly.

      "That's the problem," she growled.  "They'd be alot less annoying if they didn't like me."  She stood up as she solved the mystery knot into which her dress had become tied, then pulled the garment over her head.  It was missing a few buttons on the front, thanks to Kimmie's impatience to undo them.  She settled the brown wool dress into place, at least mostly, not bothering to thread her tail through the hole cut into the back of the dress for it.  She would only wear it back to her own cabin, where she would wash up and change into something new.  "I heard from one of the sailors last night that we should see the coastline of Wikuna today," she told him.  "And then we'll travel north for a couple of days."

      "We turned northwest not long after passing Twinfluke Island," Tarrin recalled.  "We can't be too far from the city."

      "I'll be glad to get off this ship," Kimmie complained.  "I've never liked them.  Something inside me objects to putting myself at the mercy of someone else, where I can't control my fate.  But at least this one is spacious, compared to other ships.  Once I was on a ship from Tor to Arkis, and the cabin I had was so cramped that I couldn't even lay down on the floor without my ears hitting one wall and my toes hitting the other.  I gave up the cabin and slept up on deck with the sailors.  At least there, I could stretch out."  She chuckled.  "And I'm not even tall for our kind.  I'd have loved to have seen someone like you or Triana in that cabin."

      "I doubt I'd have been able to get in through the door," Tarrin said mildly.

      "Probably," she smiled in agreement.  "What do you think Wikuna is going to be like?"

      "I'm not sure."

      "Do you know that only a handful of outsiders have ever been there?  At least recorded visitors, anyway," she amended.  "From what I've read, Wikuna's cities are cleaner, better organized, and more advanced than cities in the West.  They've even built large, extensive sewer systems, and even have running water in some parts of their larger cities."

      "You know something, Kimmie?"

      "What?"

      "You talk too much," he said bluntly, handing her a glass of water.

      "Call it a personality flaw," she teased, then drained the glass.  "You don't have to answer me, you know.  Just let me prattle on."

      "You're getting to be as bad as Phandebrass."

      "I could never be that bad," Kimmie laughed.  "I'm really fond of him, but he just talks and talks and talks.  Sometimes he talks so much he forgets what he was talking about."

      "That sounds like Phandebrass, all right," Tarrin agreed.

      "But you know something?  If you listen to him, you'd be surprised what you can learn.  I think that man has forgotten more than you or I have ever learned.  I learn more about alot of things by listening to him ramble than I do when he's trying to teach me."

      "I think that's the problem.  He's learned so much, maybe his brain can't hold it all.  It all just leaks out his mouth."

      Kimmie gave him a look, then she laughed delightedly.  "It's a pretty bizarre image, but it does make sense.  In a twisted sort of way, that is."

      "Phandebrass is a twisted sort of person."

      "No argument there."  She tied her hair behind her neck with a bit of leather thong. "I'll see you at lunch?"

      "If you remember to show up," he chided.

      "Blame Phandebrass for that.  He gets so wrapped up in teaching me, and I get so wrapped up in his lessons, I forget what time it is.  And he certainly won't remember."

      "Try."

      "I will, I promise."  She rose up on her toes, but still had to pull his head down.  Kimmie was much shorter than him.  She gave him a quick, intimate kiss, then adjusted the bosom of her dress.  "Alright, see you later," she said in farewell, then opened the door to his cabin and filed out.

      Tarrin watched her leave, and couldn't help but be surprised how different she had made his life, and also how much it hadn't changed.  He had no idea why he'd stressed so much over her.

      Just as he was reaching for the door to close it, he felt a shift in the Weave.  That made him smile; Keritanima had finally figured it out.  That information was proceeded almost immediately by a scream from Keritanima's cabin, a squeal of delight.  Her cabin door was at the end of the companionway, about twenty spans from his door, and the large, surprisingly ornate door opened almost immediately.  Keritanima ran out of her cabin, and her eyes locked on him as soon as she looked up from the floor.  "I did it!" she cried out happily as he stepped into the companionway.  "Tarrin, I got my powers back!"  She jumped up into his arms and hugged him tightly.  "I did, didn't I?"

      "It's just like before, Kerri," he assured her.  "Once you do it once, you can do it again."

      She glanced over her own shoulder, back to her cabin door, and he felt her will push against the Weave.  It responded to her, although it was very resistant, and it finally gave up a flow of Air that she wove into a simple spell to close the door.  "I can do it!" she said with a laugh, but then she blew out her breath.  "But why is the Weave fighting with me?"

      "I told you that it would happen," he reminded her.  "I'll teach you a way to get around that later, but for now, I want you to go up on deck and practice, practice, practice.  As soon as you're used to the new way to use Sorcery, I'll teach you how to weave without that resistance."

      "As you command, Master," she teased as he let her back down onto the deck.

      "Go," he ordered, pointing towards the stairs imperiously.

      "I want to eat first."

      "Have them bring you food.  Go."

      "Alright," she acceded.

      Tarrin took up a place near the mainmast as he watched Keritanima sitting by the bow, weaving spells continuously, weaving many of the spells she knew to see how different it was to weave them without drawing in the power first.  He watched her without much interest, just keeping an eye on her mainly, as he recited spell prayers back to Camara Tal.  "Pay attention," she ordered.  "You just mispronounced thalimasticia.  You almost ended up setting your hair on fire."

      "Sorry," he apologized.  "It still annoys me that I can't figure out this language," he fretted.  "It doesn't seem to have any kind of pattern at all."

      "Sages and Priests have been trying since there were sages or Priests," Camara Tal told him calmly.  "It works.  That's all I know, and that's really all I care about.  Now, recite the spell that changes stone into mud."

      "I'll never use it."

      "I didn't ask if you were ever going to use it.  I told you to recite it."

      "Alright," Tarrin growled softly, recalling the words of the spell, then repeating them back to her.

      "Good.  Now, recite the spell that neutralizes active poison."  Tarrin recited that one absently, watching as Keritanima Transmuted a coil or rope into stone.  "Alright, recite the spell that causes someone to see you as a friend."  Tarrin repeated it mechanically, watching as Keritanima Transmuted the petrified rope coil into water, then scurried out of the way as it splooshed to the deck.  "Good.  Now cut off your hair and sing the drunken sailor song."

      Tarrin stared at her flatly.  "Why don't you try to cut off my hair, Camara?" he challenged.

      "Just making sure you were still paying attention," she said with a wolfish grin.  "I don't like it when my students are looking somewhere else."

      "I'm trying to keep an eye on my student, Camara," he explained.  "I'm sure she'll be alright, but I can't help making sure."

      "This is my time, Tarrin," she asserted.  "You're mine until lunch.  Now forget Keritanima and recite the spell that lets you use a pool of water to view a distant area."

      Camara Tal ensured that his attention didn't wander for the rest of her lesson, using barbs, harsh tones, and even poking him whenever his attention wandered to Keritanima.  The bell rang announcing lunch, and to his surprise, Kimmie and Phandebrass actually managed to show up.  They all sat in the dining room and ate together.  The dining room was actually a pretty interesting room.  It was above Keritanima's cabin, and had the same large windows across the back wall, showing the sea and the ships trailing the Queen's vessel.  It also showed a darkening sky, as it looked that the ship was about to sail into some bad weather.  The chefs had prepared a main dish with something called rice, some kind of boiled grain, upon which was smothered a rich tangy sauce with meat and various vegetables.  They also had the usual soup, bread, fresh fruit (where they got it was something Tarrin had yet to figure out) and a desert called bread pudding.

      "You're still alive," Camara Tal noted as Kimmie led Phandebrass into the dining room.

      "Not for lack of trying," Kimmie grinned as she sat down beside Tarrin.  "I saw the Queen using magic.  Did you get your powers back, your Majesty?"

      "How many times have I told you not to call me that in private?" Keritanima demanded.  "My name is Keritanima, but you can call me Kerri."

      "Sorry.  Old habit," she said mildly.

      "Say it," Keritanima prompted between spoonfuls of the rice dish.

      "Kerri," Kimmie obliged with a light smile.

      "If I hear you call me your Majesty when we're not in public one more time, I'm going to turn your fur green."

      "Temper, temper," Kimmie teased.

      "Were-cats don't have the right to tease other people about their tempers," Keritanima pointed out.

      "Maybe not.  But who's going to gainsay me?" Kimmie asked with an innocent look.

      Keritanima looked at her, then laughed.  "You're probably the most interesting Were-cat I've ever met, Kimmie.  I don't think any of them have a sense of humor."

      "Were-cats have a sense of humor, Kerri.  It's just not the same as most other people's," Kimmie said calmly, picking up a spoon with an oversized handle.  "I was turned, so I have a better understanding of the nuances of human personality.  Wikuni may not be human, but they're similar enough," she added.

      "That's almost an insult," Keritanima grinned.

      "Centuries of contact between two peoples can cause them to act similarly," Dolanna observed.  "Besides, Keritanima, the Wikuni truly are not that much different from the human race.  Your society and culture is indeed similar to some human cultures, especially in the West."

      "I say, that's an interesting observation," Phandebrass said.  "I should study it, I should."

      "How would we be similar?" Keritanima asked, a bit tartly.

      "Your culture is very similar to the kingdoms of the West," Dolanna told her.  "The Wikuni personality is dominated by greed, which is a common human trait.  And you wear clothes," she added with a smile.

      "Wear clothes?  How is that a commonality?"

      "Think about it, Kerri," Dar told her.  "All Wikuni are covered in fur, or feathers.  Why do you need to wear clothes?"

      "Because we'd be naked if we didn't," Keritanima said.

      "Yes, but since you have fur, who's going to see it?" Camara Tal pressed.  "I'd just see some fur-covered curves.  Not anything that would matter."

      "We're not that covered, Camara Tal," Keritanima said.

      "Yes, you can see the important parts," Miranda said with a grin at Keritanima.  "A woman's nipples aren't covered in fur, or else she couldn't nurse.  And neither is--"

      "That's about far enough.  Tarrin wears clothes," Keritanima interrupted.

      "That's a practice mainly for your benefit, Kerri," Kimmie smiled.  "When we're alone, it doesn't matter if we wear clothes or not."

      "Of course it's not for you two.  I've seen you sneaking into Tarrin's cabin lately," Keritanima winked.

      "I'm talking about all Were-cats, Kerri," Kimmie said, unperturbed.  "Were-cats have learned to wear clothes as a nod towards strange human customs, and it's a practice that's more or less caught on.  But some Were-cats won't wear clothes when they're not in human lands."

      "Which ones?" Tarrin asked curiously.

      "Shirazi is one you'd know," she replied.  "She says it doesn't feel right to hunt wearing clothes."

      "We're drifting off the point here," Camara Tal said.  "What it comes down to, Kerri, is that the Wikuni don't need to wear clothes, but they do.  That shows a similarity between humans and Wikuni."

      "Well, alright, I'll give you that," Kerri admitted.  "Maybe there are some similarities between us and the humans."

      "Maybe we should give up clothes," Miranda chuckled.  "It would save me a fortune on my wardrobe."

      "You're welcome to give them up any time you feel like it, Miranda," Keritanima told her acidly.

      "It would be a liberating experience, I think," Miranda mused.

      "I wouldn't want to be jiggling in the wind, that's for sure," Keritanima grunted.

      The tone of her comment caused everyone at the table to laugh.

      "Jiggling isn't for the weak," Kimmie said with a grin.  "It took me a long time to get used to that part of Were-cat culture."

      "Jiggling?"

      "Nudity," she replied.

      "I keep forgetting you're like Tarrin," Keritanima admitted.  "You're alot different from the other Were-cats I've met."

      "I'm more or less unique," she replied.  "I managed to keep most of my human mannerisms after I was turned.  It drives the others crazy," she laughed.

      "I saw how they acted towards you," Allia said, finally speaking.  "It was almost dishonorable."

      "I'm used to it.  I'm the black sheep among the Were-cats.  Triana respects me, Jesmind likes me, and Mist loves me.  That's all I really care about."

      There was a rumble of thunder.  "Well, looks like we'll be staying below decks the rest of the day," Keritanima said, looking out the large windows.

      They finished up lunch, and then Tarrin went with Keritanima when she went back to her cabins.  To his surprise, Dolanna, Allia, and Dar also came along.  "We need to learn about your powers, so we can better understand them," Dolanna had told him by way of explanation as she seated herself on the bed with Allia, and Dar sat on the cushioned chair in front of the desk.

      "Well, I guess it won't matter much," he said.  "Kerri's not the kind to get distracted.  I think she actually does better when people watch."

      "Our sister likes the attention," Allia pointed out with a slight smile.

      "You mean she's a ham," Dar laughed.

      "I'm a Queen.  I'm supposed to thrive under pressure," Keritanima said tartly.

      "You should have been born a performer, Keritanima," Dolanna told her.

      "And miss out on all this luxury?  No thank you," Keritanima replied.

      Tarrin was confident that Keritanima was fully used to Weavespinner ways, so he sat her down and explained, in fine detail, the give and take nature of true Weavespinner magic, that in order to have the magic obey her, she had to give back to the Weave.  "You make it sound like a religious experience," Keritanima accused.

      "It is a religious experience, Kerri," he said firmly.  "Using Sorcery is a way we worship the Goddess.  You have to show her your love when you use her power.  When you do that, the power will obey you completely.  If you don't, it fights you and makes Sorcery much more demanding."

      "I've never been all that religious."

      "Do you love the Goddess?" Tarrin asked bluntly.

      "Well, yes, of course," she replied after a moment.  "She's proved she'll be there for me."

      "Then that's all it takes.  Will it kill you to show it, Kerri?  That's all it takes."

      "It seems so alien."

      "No, it's you not wanting to show any weakness, not even to the Goddess," Tarrin said flatly.  "Love is not a weakness, Kerri.  It's probably the greatest strength you could ever possess."

      "Where I come from, Tarrin, love is a liability," she said sharply.  "Excuse me if I don't go all gushy on command."

      Tarrin put his paws on her shoulders.  "I've told you what to do, sister," he said in a reasonable tone.  "Actually, I can't teach you any more about this.  It's something you have to do for yourself.  It's up to you to find your own harmony.  And until you learn how to weave without resistance, I won't teach you anything else."

      "That sounds like a threat," Keritanima said dangerously.

      "It's reality.  I won't teach you anything else until you learn how to use Weavespinner magic the right way, because the spells Weavespinners use that regular Sorcerers don't are too demanding.  You won't be able to use them unless you can weave without resistance.  And I can't train you in joining the Weave because we have to stop before we can do that.  So I hate to tell you this, sister, but you've only got one option in front of you."

      "I hate it when you're right," Keritanima growled at him, her eyes flashing.  "Alright, I'll humiliate myself for the Goddess' benefit.  What choice do I have?"

      "Love is not humiliation, Keritanima," Dolanna said gently.  "To think it so dishonors the love you have for your brother and sister."

      "That's different," Keritanima said quickly.  "They're my friends.  They're here."

      "Is not the Goddess always with you?" Allia asked.  "Does she not comfort you?  Did she not bring you peace of mind when you were taken from us?  It is dishonorable to the Goddess to think she would see your love as you humiliating yourself.  She is not like that, and you know it.  You are just too arrogant to allow yourself to place yourself below another."

      "That's cruel, sister," Keritanima said in a quavering tone.

      "You get nothing but the truth from me, sister," Allia said calmly.  "I still love you despite the fact that you are arrogant.  Just as I love Tarrin despite the fact that he is not the same man I knew when I branded him."

      Tarrin forgot sometimes just how observant and wise his sister was.  She had seen right to the core of the matter.  Allia knew Tarrin and Keritanima probably even better than they knew themselves.  She was quiet and inobtrusive, but she proved again and again how she always knew exactly what to say when it mattered.

      "Well, now that I've been dressed down by my own sister in front of Dolanna and Dar, I guess I can get started," Keritanima said in a hurt tone.

      "Arrogance is not a bad trait in a monarch, Keritanima," Dolanna said calmly.  "Actually, it is a job requirement.  We do not think less of you for it."

      "I don't think you're arrogant, Kerri.  I always thought of it as confidence," Dar assured her.  "I've wished sometimes I could be more like you."

      "Well, someone appreciates me," Keritanima said with a toothy grin, though her eyes were still a little injured.  "Alright, brother, exactly how do I do this?"

      Tarrin instructed Keritanima in how she would have to use the power, just as Spyder had instructed him.  "Sorcery isn't magic, Kerri.  It's art.  You have to breathe life into your spells the same way an artist breathes life into a sculpture, or a painting.  You have to devote yourself to it like an artist would, and that passion, that love, is what makes the Weave respond.  Artists love their work.  You have to love to use Sorcery, and love the Goddess that gives you that honor.  When you learn to do it, it will be just like anything else in Sorcery.  You do it once, and then you can do it again.  But it's also like other parts of Sorcery.  You may be able to do it again, but it takes practice to master it."

      "I, I think I'm starting to understand," Keritanima said. "I've always had a passion for Sorcery.  All I have to do is show it.  Sort of."

      "Partially.  Remember, the love you have for the Goddess has to be there.  Give that love to the Goddess, and the Weave will respond to it.  The passion and love you have for Sorcery makes the Weave yours to command."

      "Now that makes more sense," Keritanima said confidently, closing her eyes.

      It took her a surprisingly short amount of time.  She failed several times at first, and then the Weave suddenly opened up to her favorably, and flows pulled from the stands quickly and easily.  She opened her eyes and gave him a startled look.

      "Was that so hard?" he asked in a gentle voice.

      "It was, was beautiful!" she said in wonder.

      "It is, isn't it?" he agreed.  "Every time you use your power, you tell the Goddess how much you love her.  And she replies by showing the love she has for you.  You can't ignore that, no matter what you're doing.  It never stops feeling good."

      "I never thought it would feel like that," she said, a tear forming in her eye.  "I loved the Goddess, but it never felt so, intimate as it just did."

      "I know," he told her.  "Now, do it again.  And again, and again, and again.  It takes practice to master, and I'll have to show you some techniques to make you weave spells faster and more efficiently.  Your speed is abysmal, and you have about as much control as a newborn kitten."

      "Well excuse me," she said, then she laughed.

      Tarrin watched over her as she practiced, as rain started pattering against her windows and the ship began to rock in the storm.  She managed to get a firm grip on the concept of give and take, removing the resistance the Weave had to her.  She listened intently as Tarrin taught her the things Spyder taught him, about how to weave spells with blinding speed, about how to maximize control and efficiency for the best results.  "My big problem was always pulling out too much power," he admitted.  "I still do it sometimes when I'm excited, but when you overcharge a weave, it can make it less effective.  No more, no less.  That's how I was taught, and that's what you have to learn."

      "Taught?  Taught by who?" Keritanima demanded.

      Tarrin blinked.  He didn't realize he'd said that.  "Well, I guess there'd be no harm in telling you now," he said to himself.  "She only said not to tell you while we were learning, and to protect you.  You've crossed over, so it can't hurt."

      "Who, Tarrin?  Who would know how to teach you anything?"

      Dolanna suddenly went pale. "Spyder!" she gasped.  "She still lives?"

      "She's still around, Dolanna," Tarrin nodded.  "She came to me and Jenna when we were at the Tower and trained us, or at least partially.  She gave us some instruction, said she'd be back, and never did come back.  I still wonder what happened to her."

      "Who is this Spyder?" Keritanima asked.

      "She's the Guardian," Dolanna replied.  "She defends the last open gateway between our world and the other dimensions.  That gateway is across the great bay on Sharadar's southern side, in an inaccessible place between two impassible mountain ranges and defended on the sea by an impassible reef.  A place we have always called Haven."

      "Sounds like a serious duty," Keritanima said.

      "It is.  She is the oldest of the katzh-dashi, but she has not been seen in five thousand years."

      "They wouldn't miss her, that's for sure," Tarrin chuckled.  "She's Urzani, the ancestors of the Sha'Kar.  She actually looks alot like Allia," Tarrin remembered.  "She could be your great-great-great-great aunt, sister."

      "I would not find being related to someone like that a bad thing, brother," Allia said mildly.

      "She made me swear not to tell anyone what she was doing, because she was afraid Kerri may try to do some of it and get herself killed," Tarrin told them.  "Now that Kerri's not in any danger anymore, I guess it's alright."

      "You were trained by an Ancient," Dolanna said reverently, in Sharadi.  "The old ways aren't dead after all!"

      "They're not dead," he assured her in Sulasian.  "Spyder taught Jenna alot of history, and Jenna's been writing it down.  Jenna's going to teach the katzh-dashi what they've forgotten.  That's why she's still in Suld.  It's what the Goddess wants of her."

      "She is blessed."

      "I know," Tarrin agreed.

      There was a strange scratching at the door.  Dar got up and went over and opened it, and Sapphire ambled into the room.  She flapped her wings and got into the air, then flew up and landed on Tarrin's shoulder.  "I wondered where you got off to," Tarrin told her, reaching up and petting her on the head.  "You're dry, so you found some place to hide from the rain," he noted.

      "She's probably hiding from Phandebrass," Camara Tal grunted.  "I've noticed him trying to sneak up on her on deck while you've been with Kerri.  She doesn't seem to like him.  I guess that means she's smarter than she looks."

      "He can try.  He won't like what happens to him, but he can try," Tarrin shrugged.  "He should ask Torm how it feels to end up on Sapphire's bad side."

      "I've never seen an animal with magical powers before," Dar noted.  "Only sentient beings."

      "Is it magical?" Camara Tal asked.  "There are some fish in the waters off our islands that can shock you.  I'm sure they're not magical, because they're stupid as stumps."

      "It's magical.  I can sense it," Tarrin replied.  "This kind of drake has some kind of innate magical ability, something so much a part of them that their instincts have adapted to using the magic.  I can feel it when the power builds up in her.  When she shocks someone, she has to recharge that power."

      "I didn't know that.  So, you can drain her?" Keritanima asked.

      "She recharges very fast if she completely drains herself," he told her.  "She can shock again in a matter of minutes, but it's not very strong.  When she's fully charged, she can shock someone with some pretty impressive power, enough to paralyze them for a few minutes at the very least.  Maybe even kill, if she hits someone in the right place."

      "How do you know that?" Dar asked.

      "Experimentation," he said with a short smile.  "I had her shock me when she was fully charged.  It was a pretty unpleasant experience."

      "Why in the twenty seas did you do that?" Keritanima demanded.

      "To see what she could do," he replied.  "She can't really hurt me, sister.  My body resisted most of the magic, but it was still enough to make my fur all stand on end."

      "Is she charged now?" Keritanima asked.

      "You should know that, Kerri," he chided.  "Can't you feel it?"

      "Uh, no."

      "Then you're not paying attention," he told her.  "Close your eyes and just feel.  You should be able to sense it, even from over there.  Her power is magical, so you should be able to feel it, the same as you can sense the Weave."

      Keritanima was quiet a long moment, then she opened her eyes. "I think I can feel it, but you're interfering," she told him.  "All I can really sense is you."

      "You do interfere with the Weave, Tarrin," Dolanna agreed.  "You are probably throwing off Keritanima's attempts."

      "Fine then," he said, picking Sapphire up from his shoulder and setting her on the desk.  "Stay right there, Sapphire," he told her, holding his paw out palm up towards her.  She understood both the spoken and the gestured command--he'd taught her commands by paw gesture, in case he wanted her to obey him quietly--and sat down sedately on the desk and waited.  Keritanima closed her eyes again, and smiled.  "I can feel her now," she announced.  "I don't know what her limits are, but she's really charged.  That's a lot of magic, brother."

      "She's fully charged," he nodded in agreement.  "Surprising that something without any kind of training can have so much magical potential."  He waved to the drake, and she jumped into the air and landed in his paws.  He cradled her to his stomach, scratching her between the horns delicately with a claw.

      "Tarrin, I wanted to ask you something."

      "What?"

      "Has the Weave been getting...well, thinner?" she asked.  "I can see the strands all the time now, just like you said I would, and there seem to be fewer and fewer of them.  Like the Weave is thinning out."

      Tarrin glanced at her, then nodded.  "As we move away from Suld, it becomes thinner," he confirmed.  "That means it takes longer for us to use magic.  Didn't you notice that when you were at home?"

      "Of course I did, but I guess I never thought about the reason for it," she replied.  "I had alot on my mind, you know."

      "I've noticed that," Dar said.  "That it takes longer to weave spells.  It's like the magic's sluggish."

      "It is the fact that it takes longer for you to draw the same amount of power," Dolanna told him.  "These thin areas in the Weave are not uncommon.  They exist in the areas far removed from large Conduits.  That is why the katzh-dashi built the Towers in Suld and Abrodar, young one.  To be in the area where our powers are at their strongest."

      "Are there any holes in the Weave?" Dar asked.  "Places where you can't use Sorcery at all?"

      "I have never found one, but some of the Lorefinders speculate that such a place may exist," she replied.  "If there are any, however, they would be very, very small areas.  Even halfway across the world from the Heart, there are strands.  Very few of them, but they do exist."

      There was a brightness at the windows.  Tarrin looked, and saw shafts of sunlight penetrating the breaking storm.  He noticed that the ship wasn't rocking as severely as before, either.  "Looks like the storm is over," Tarrin noticed.

      The ship then seemed to list to the side, and the view from the window began to change.  The five ships behind theirs were sliding off to the left.  "We're turning," Keritanima said, which explained to Tarrin what that meant.  "We must be within--"

      "Land ho!" a thin voice managed to reach them in the cabin, shouted from the decks above.  "Thalin's Point off the port bow!"

      Keritanima's eyes brightened, and she stood up quickly.  "Well, everyone, why don't we go up on deck and let you get your first look at my homeland?" she offered.

      "We'll be in Wikuna in three days, if the wind holds," Miranda realized.  "I didn't realize we were so far north."

      They all left Keritanima's cabin and went up on deck.  The deck was still wet, and the water was cold on Tarrin's pads as he stepped into it.  Tarrin wasn't the only one to take special precautions because of the rain; Miranda's tail was so long and bushy that the end of it occasionally hit the ground when she walked, so she made a special point of keeping it up high enough to keep it dry.  They moved to the port rail, not far from the sterncastle, and Tarrin looked to the west, to Wikuna.  He couldn't see much, just a strip of green past the four ships protecting their port flank, but the importance of it wasn't lost to him.  There it was, a new continent.  The land of Wikuna.  He'd heard Keritanima describe it many times, but he found himself actually looking forward to seeing their cities and finding out what it was like there.  Few outlanders had ever seen Wikuna, because the Wikuni were usually very careful about keeping others out of their ports.  It was a well known policy of the Wikuni that they would attack any ship that approached their coastline, because of their very long war with the Zakkites.  Zakkites would sometimes capture non-Zakkite ships and try to sail them to Wikuna, so the Wikuni solved the problem by simply attacking anything that wasn't a clipper or raker.  Tarrin had heard much about life on Wikuna, and now he was curious to see how much of it was Keritanima's boasting.

      "That's Thalin's Point," Keritanima announced.  "It's a hook of land that extends out from the coast.  The land on the other side of it is used mainly for farming."

      "Wikuni farm?" Dar chuckled.  "I thought that doing anything on land was too tedious for your people."

      Keritanima ignored that.  "We're about three days from Wikuna," she told them, "if the wind holds.  I need to talk to Jervis.  They're supposed to have that prototype in the harbor and ready for us to go as soon as we get there."

      "We're not staying long?" Dar asked.

      "We don't have much time," Keritanima replied.  "We have to be off Vendaka at the summer solstice.  I'm not sure how fast that new ship is going to go, so I want as much time as possible."

      "How long would it take a clipper to sail from Wikuna to Vendaka?" Dolanna asked.

      "About seven or eight days," she replied.  "I'm guessing that this new ship will take twice as long, probably two weeks.  The solstice is three weeks away, so we should be in position when we need to be there, as long as we don't dilly-dally around."

      "I was hoping to look around for a day or two," Dar sighed.

      "We'll be in port for at least a day, Dar," Keritanima told him.  "I'll have to go over some things with sashka and talk to Jervis about some things in person, and I would like to sleep at least one night in a bed that doesn't sway."

      "Too bad.  I guess you'll have to go after Rallix when you come home," Miranda teased.

      Keritanima shot a nasty look at her friend, then cleared her throat.  "I think I'd like to go back to my lessons now," she said primly.  "Since you're not a Sorcerer, why don't you go somewhere else?"

      "Well, tou-chy," Miranda said with a cheeky grin.  "Tarrin, could I bother you for a little magicking?"

      "What do you need, Miranda?" Tarrin asked.

      "Yarn.  A new knitting needle too, I broke one of my good ones."

      "I thought you were moving on to crochet."

      "I need the yard for crochet, but I broke my knitting needle and I'd like a new one, just in case I have a relapse," she said.

      Without much effort or thought, Tarrin Conjured a very large ball of yarn and a new knitting needle, exactly like the ones he'd seen her use, and then handed them to her.  "Why thank you," she said.  "I'll see all of you later," she said, then sauntered off.

      "I think I will go to the galley," Allia said.  "I find myself hungry."

      "You just had to mention food, didn't you?" Dar complained.  "I'll go with you.  Don't you two do anything major until we get back," he told Tarrin, then the pair of dark-skinned beings hurried towards the stairwell below decks.

      "May as well stay up here," Keritanima told Tarrin.  "I'll dry us off a place."

      Tarrin worked with Keritanima over the rest of the day as Dolanna, Dar, and Allia observed, refining her technique and giving her plenty of time to practice.  She proved to be a very quick student, and her speed and efficiency increased almost every time she wove a spell.  What was probably more important, with her experience came the ability to see what Tarrin was doing when he wove spells, something that she had not been able to do very effectively beforehand.  She got used to the speed at which Tarrin wove spells after she started working at the same speed, and that allowed her to begin to see what he was doing.  That meant that he could start teaching her some of the weaves that only Weavespinners could use, spells that required more power than most Sorcerers could safely manipulate.

      The very first thing he taught her was how to summon Elementals.  But before teaching her the spells, he trained her in Elemental etiquette, reinforcing to her the fact that the same Elemental spirit was going to answer her call again and again and again, so it was imperative that she treat her Elemental with respect.  If she angered her Elemental, it may disobey her, or even attack her out of irritation.  Fortunately, however, it was very hard to anger an Elemental that much.  They gained power by being summoned, and were willing to endure the period of servitude necessary to gain that power in exchange.  Elementals could not be harmed in any way, even if their forms were destroyed, since their animating force was an energy not of their world, and therefore could not be harmed while it was on their world.  That was why Elementals were so willing to fight on a Sorcerer's behalf, because it knew that even if its material form were destroyed, it would suffer no real injury.

      "Alright, I understand," Keritanima pressed.  "Show me the spell."

      "The spell is woven the exact same way for all four Elemental types," he told her.  "The only difference is the Sphere you use.  It's a two flow spell, but it's fairly complicated, and its patterns change depending on how much energy you want to grant the Elemental when you make its material form.  So pay attention."  Tarrin had never summoned a Water Elemental before, so he decided to use that as his example, and also to find himself a Water spirit.  "I've never summoned a Water Elemental before, so I'll do that.  It will let you see how to introduce yourself to the Elemental."

      Tarrin turned and looked over the rail, then began.  He wove the spell slowly to his seeming, but at a speed that would let Keritanima see what he was doing.  He wove the spell very loosely, making it very spacious, and held it in that state for a long moment to let Keritanima look over the spell's design.  "See it?"

      "I see it," she affirmed.  "It is complicated."

      He nodded, snapping it down and then releasing it into the ocean.  He felt the spell take form, and felt the link between the spell and that other place where the spirits of the Elementals lived open.  He felt something come through, and then felt the weave fully activate.

      An amorphous mass of water suddenly rose up from the relatively choppy surface of the sea, a column of water that came up over the level of the rail.  It expanded and widened a little, but was still a pillar of rotating water, but two reddish spots appeared near its top.  Eyes.  Tarrin felt the Elemental connect with him, and then looked at it calmly as the others stared at the creature in fascination.  "I'm Tarrin," he said aloud.  "I thank you for answering my call.  I didn't summon you for any specific task, though.  I needed to show my student the right way to weave the spell, and how to treat her Elementals with honor and respect."

      That made the Elemental warm to him very quickly.  It communicated its understanding, was a little pleased that it would have to perform no tasks.  It then asked a most curious question.  Why after so long were the Elementals being invited back to this world?

      "Because the magic that summoned you has only just been rediscovered," he answered it aloud.

      It understood that, and then asked if it should do anything.

      "No, you've already done what I needed you to do.  Thank you for your service.  You can go back home now."

      He released his side of the spell, and felt the Elemental's spirit return to where it came from.  The pillar of water shuddered, the two glowing spots vanished, and then the pillar of water simply fell back into the sea.

      "That was amazing!" Keritanima said.  "I could almost feel something passing between you and it!"

      "There was.  The Elemental will be linked to you by your thoughts," he told her.  "It can communicate with you like that, from any distance.  It's almost like the telepathy that Shiika has.  Alright, your turn.  Let's start with an Air Elemental.  I want you to make it just like I did, but replace the Water flow with Air."

      "Alright."  Keritanima's brow furrowed as she began repeating the spell.  Tarrin knew Keritanima's amazing ability to remember things she saw almost perfectly would mean that she would be able to duplicate the spell, and after a little practice, she would have it completely memorized.  She wove the spell very loosely, moving much slower than she was capable of weaving to make sure she was doing it right.  He didn't blame her; it was a very, very complicated spell, but the fact that it was only a two-flow spell made the risk of a Wildstrike more remote.  Spells with one or two flows fizzled almost all the time if they failed.  Only complicated spells with three or more flows tended to explode in a Wildstrike.  The more flows used, the more the chance increased, Dolanna had taught him so long ago.  Keritanima finished, and held it in its loose state easily as Tarrin studied the weaving she had done.  He found it an almost perfect copy of his own spell.  He did point out the few mistakes she'd made, and she corrected them quickly.

      "Alright, it's ready," Tarrin announced.  "Go ahead."

      Keritanima snapped it down, then relased it.  It was a little different sensation because he didn't do it himself, but he could feel the spell activate, feel it breach into that other dimension where the Elementals lived.  The air over them suddenly gusted and swirled, and two glowing reddish spots appeared over them, looking down.  Keritanima wilted slightly after the spell took form, but that wasn't something to be surpised about.  Summoning an Elemental was hard work, and she'd been using her magic steadily all day.  Summoning the Elemental had taken the remainder of her strength.

      "It worked!" Keritanima squealed in happiness, then she composed herself.  "I'm Keritanima," she introduced.  "Thank you for answering me."  Tarrin could sense the communication going on between them.  "No, I don't have any service for you to do.  I'm sorry.  I summoned you because I just learned the spell, and had to practice it.  I know it seems like a silly reason, but it's better to know I can do the spell now, when it's not vital, than when my tail depends on it working."  She paused, seeming to listen.  "No, I'll be alright, I'm just a litle tired.  Thank you for asking.  It seems that the spell was a complete success, so you can go back home now.  Sorry to drag you away for no reason."

      "You didn't drag it away, Kerri," Tarrin told her.  "It responded willingly.  It wouldn't mind if you summoned it over and over and over, most likely as long as you warned it you were going to do so."

      She looked at the Elemental, and then she nodded.  "Oh, I understand.  Well, I don't think I need to practice to the point of summoning you again.  Thank you for coming.  You can go home now."

      With a sudden gust of wind, the glowing eyes disappeared, and then the wind returned to normal.  "How was that?" Keritanima asked him with bright eyes.

      "Not bad," he complemented.  "You were polite, you answered its questions, and you showed some consideration for its feelings.  It probably went home not regretting answering you, and that's what you were aiming for."

      "Good.  I'm suddenly tired," she complained, leaning against the mizzenmast.

      "It's a demanding spell, Kerri, and you've been using magic all day.  I figured that it would wear you out.  That's why we did this last."

      "Smart thinking.  Let's go below, so I can sit down for a while.  And could someone tell someone to bring me some warm bread and a glass of wine?"

      Tarrin spent the rest of the day more or less by himself, staring out over towards the drifting coastline of Wikuna, as it appeared over the horizon then retreated back out of sight.  They passed a surprising number of smaller vessels, rakers and even some barges and fishing boats, the Wikuni plying trade with themselves or fishing up the evening meal.   All the other ships stayed well out of the way of the squadron of clippers, often dropping anchor and raising sails to remain stationary as the formation sailed by, either out of respect or because of some kind of rule of seafaring which Tarrin didn't know.  The lessons had gone well, but Tarrin was a little unsettled by Dolanna.  She had watched it all, and had a very, very intent look on her face.  She was learning about magic that she couldn't use, and he was worried that she was going to try to use it.  If that happened, she was going to cross over the line, and either end up being da'shar herself or getting Consumed.  Summoning an Elemental took a tremendous amount of energy, even though it wasn't a spell of High Sorcery, and it also required a command over the Weave and a control of the flows that only someone with a great deal of experience could manage.  Only Weavespinners could use the spell, it was one of the many spells reserved for the upper tier of the magical order.

      He thought about that a moment.  Dolanna certainly could managed to ascend to da'shar.  She was a very, very experienced Sorceress, and was capable of many things that most other katzh-dashi would consider impossible.  Dolanna's ability to weave blindly had awed him for quite some time, because it was something that everyone else said was impossible.  She had tremendous skill, and she also happened to be a very strong Sorceress as well.  Dolanna was small, but her magical powers were formidable, comparable to the powers of those present on the Council.  Dolanna could be on the Council.  If there ever was a candidate for da'shar, he could think of nobody better qualified than Dolanna.

      But Dolanna had been a skilled and strong Sorceress for a long time.  So had many on the Council.  It made him wonder why nobody had ever become da'shar before, why every single person who had faced the test since the Breaking had been Consumed.  What made things different now?  Why the change?

      You are the reason for that, kitten, the Goddess told him.  Remember when Spyder and Jenna told you about the sui'kun?  About how the realms of magical ability increase with each new birth of a sui'kun?

      "Yes, I remember that."

      Well, kitten, you represent the resurgence of the high orders of magic, she told him.  When you were born, the realms of the Weavespinners were reopened, among other things.  Before you were born, no Sorcerer could face the test and become a Weavespinner, because the entrance into the Weave was blocked.  If they can't reach the Heart before the moment of destruction, they fail. So they would fail, despite instinctively understanding what must be done to save themselves.  They would seek me out, but the door to reach me was closed.  When you were born, that door was reopened.

      "That must have been hard for you," he realized soberly.

      It was, kitten, harder than you will ever know, she told him sadly.  But thankfully, I won't lose any more.  You were the first new Weavespinner in a thousand years, but in just two short years since your powers were awakened, there are now four of you.  And there are many who are primed and ready to face the test, like Dolanna, she affirmed.  A great many, because they had so much time to train and practice and grow, and they have always been exceedingly careful to never allow themselves in a position where they may lose control.  In time, I will goad them into the test.

      "Should I do anything with Dolanna?" he asked.  "I think she's going to try something foolish."

      Leave her alone, kitten.  She must make her own choices.

      "That sounds ominous."

      That depends on how you see the situation, she replied.  Don't you think Dolanna is ready to face the test?

      "If anyone is, she is," he said after a moment.  "I don't know of any Sorcerer more skilled than Dolanna.  Others may have more raw power than her, but she's so experienced, it's almost scary."

      That's because when others were sitting in the Towers reading books and playing politics, Dolanna was out in the world, the Goddess told him.  You always learn fastest by doing, and Dolanna has been out there doing since before you were born.  Any time I needed a skilled, intelligent, courageous Sorcerer to perform a task, Dolanna was always on my short list of candidates.  But don't you dare tell her that, she warned.  She doesn't know how many times she's been acting directly on my orders, even when she didn't realize it.

      "I won't," he said.  "She's going to do it, isn't she?  Try to use the magic I taught Kerri."

      I won't tell you that, kitten, but I would suggest that you don't sleep too soundly tonight, she said plainly.

      "I understand.  I'll be there for her in case anything happens."

      I appreciate that.  I have to go now, kitten.  Be well.  I love you.

      "I love you too, Mother," he nodded, and then he felt her retreat from him.  He sighed and looked over the rail, out to sea, not reacting when Sapphire landed lightly on his shoulder from behind.  "Well, little girl, it looks like I may have a problem tonight," he told her in a low tone as she rubbed her head against his neck.

      She chirped in reply, then clambored down his arm and goaded him into holding her to his chest.  He scratched her between the horns delicately with the tip of his claw and stared out towards the coastline of Wikuna.  He was more than a little worried now.

 

      It happened around midnight, as the ship stood motionless in a period of dead calm.  Tarrin had been standing on the deck, staring up at the moon, with Sapphire on his shoulder and Kimmie standing quietly beside him.  He hadn't told her what was going on, why he was so nervous, so she simply accepted things as they were and kept him company.  He'd been admiring the moon when he felt that now familiar surge in the Weave, the surge of it finding a portal into the real world that presented no resistance to it.

      Just as he had feared, Dolanna had tried to use Weavespinner magic, and now faced being Consumed as a result.

      "Stay here," Tarrin told Kimmie, reaching up and taking hold of Sapphire and then quite deliberately placing her in Kimmie's paws.  "Stay with Kimmie," he ordered her in a tone that would brook no disobedience, and then he hurried towards the stairs below decks.  He literally jumped down the very steep flight of stairs, rushing towards Dolanna's cabin door as Keritanima opened her door at the end of the companionway, her face unsettled.  Tarrin grabbed the latch of Dolanna's door, but found it locked.  Not put off by that, he sank his claws into the wood frame of the door and ripped it off its hinges, getting it jammed in the doorframe, so he simply put a fist against it and shattered it like a china plate.  He could sense the power reaching a crescendo in Dolanna--she was right on the verge of it, he had to get to her quickly and explain what to do!  The shattering of the door released blazing light into the companionway, light emanating from Dolanna's body as Magelight writhed and swirled around her form.  She had her eyes closed, and instead of screaming in pain or convulsing, she had her arms crossed her chest and had the most incredible look of absolute concentration on her face.  Goddess, what a woman!  She was actually not panicking!  Tarrin was taken aback by that, more than he would have been surprised to see her in pain or in terror, as he himself had been, and then he realized that she was already forming the bridge into the Weave.

      Dolanna knew what to do!

      For the first time, he had a chance to see the actual process of crossing over, of ascendance into a new realm of power, up close and rationally enough to understand what was happening.  He felt Dolanna's power form the bridge into the Weave, and then felt her consciousness retreat from her mortal form.  That left her body behind, a body immobilized without its consciousness to guide it, then felt her escape into the Weave, drawn to the Heart like a tossed stone falling to the bottom of the pond.  She left his range of senses, but it was but a heartbeat before the Magelight surrounding her suddenly shivered, then absolutely froze, as the power within her reached its maximum potential...and then simply stopped.  It then seemed to quiver, and then blazed forth ten times brighter, casting blinding light into the companionway, a light of searing heat that didn't burn the deck, yet burned away Dolanna's clothes, leaving nothing behind but the amulet around her neck.  Tarrin realized that she had found the Heart, and now the communion with the Goddess had shown her what to do, as she reached back to her mortal form and used the power built up inside her.  The Magelight coalesced quickly, forming the concave star around her small body as he felt the power within suddenly begin to take shape, to form, to be woven.  He read the flows of the weave, realized that it was the spell of Transmutation that would render Dolanna invulnerable to the heat that the power within her was generating.  He sensed her weave it, a spell of such stunning complexity that not even Keritanima could have woven it with that one look at it, and then it was released.  Tarrin sensed it sweep through Dolanna's small, slim body, altering the very nature of her, transforming her, though showing no outward sign of doing so.

      As Tarrin watched, the amulet around Dolanna's neck changed, growing the leg-like extensions from the center star that made the center of the amulet resemble a spider, flowing outward and connecting to the triangles that surrounded it.

      And then it was over.  The bright light that enveloped Dolanna simply disappeared as Dolanna's consciousness was flung back into her body.  Dolanna gave only a slight sigh, and then crumpled bonelessly to the deck.

      She had done it, and done it without any assistance!

      Tarrin stared at her in awe for a moment, then came to his senses and rushed into the cabin.  He scooped up her small body carefully, gently, then set her on the bed as Allia, then Dar, and then Keritanima rushed into the room, stepping carefully over what was left of the door with their bare feet.  All of them had obviously been in bed, for Keritanima was wearing a silk nightgown, Dar a pair of hastily pulled-on trousers not buttoned up in the front, and Allia nothing but a cloak thrown over her shoulders, a cloak she didn't exactly bother to pull around her.  That made Dar militant about keeping his eyes away from that side of the room.  "Tarrin, what happened?" Allia asked first, since she was the first to arrive.

      "Dolanna tried to use the Weavespinner magic I taught Kerri," he answered.  "She overstepped her abilities, and ended up crossing over."

      "You mean she's like you now?" Dar asked.

      Tarrin nodded.  "I swear, I think she planned it," he growled, absently weaving a spell that reassembled the door, and then set it back in a repaired doorframe.  "You should have seen the look on her face.  I think she did it on purpose."

      "She tried to cross over by herself?" Keritanima said in shock.

      "Well, she did do it, so maybe she knew what she was doing after all," Dar noted.

      Keritanima swore.  "She asked me all sorts of questions about when it happened to me," she said in a tone that made it clear she realized the ulterior motive behind them.  "How it felt, what I saw, what I did to save myself.  I never dreamed she'd use what I told her to try it herself!"

      "Don't be too mad at her, Kerri," Tarrin said, looking down at her.  "I think she was ready.  And after all, it was her choice."

      Keritanima blinked, then chuckled ruefully.  "I guess so.  But then again, if anyone could have done it, it's Dolanna.  She's about five times better than almost every Sorcerer I've ever met."

      "It was foolish," Allia said, "but her courage shows her honor."

      "Sometimes courage and foolishness are the same thing," Keritanima mused.

      "And she didn't tell you because she thought you may tell her no," Dar reasoned.  "She was determined to try, and as my mother always says, it's always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission."

      "You have a very wise mother, Dar," Keritanima told him.

      "I'm sure she'll be thrilled to know that the Queen of Wikuna thinks she's wise," Dar answered dryly.

      "Was that an insult or a compliment?"

      "You figure it out," he teased.

      "Children, if you're going to fight, do it outside," Tarrin ordered, pointing to the door. "Right now, Dolanna needs rest.  So stop disturbing her."

      "Will she be alright, Tarrin?" Dar asked.

      "She'll be fine, Dar, but she does need to rest," he answered.  "She'll sleep like a log for quite a while, but when she wakes up, she'll be just fine."

      "Looks like you picked up a new student, Tarrin," Keritanima chuckled.

      "I think we should all go back to bed," Allia said.  "It looks like Tarrin will stay with Dolanna for now."

      "I was planning on it," he agreed.

      "Wake me when you tire, brother.  I will sit with her next," Allia told him.

      Tarrin was about to say something, but he sensed a presence seem to enter the room.  His ears picked up and and he looked around, but saw nothing, smelled nothing, heard nothing.  But he could feel that presence clearly.  It was there, but it was like it was just outside the boundaries of his senses.  He was about to say something, but felt another presence join the first.  Both were close, very close, and both of them seemed strangely familiar to him.  Like he knew who they were.

      Tarrin realigned his thinking, shaking off the Cat-induced need to see or hear or smell, and expanded his senses into the Weave.  When he did that, when the strand that crossed through the cabin came into the forefront of his vision rather than being a faint ghostly mirage dominated by the solidity of the real world, he sensed clearly that the presences he felt were within the strands.  And they were very familiar to him for he got a clear assessment of them.  It was Jenna and Jula.

      Tarrin smiled slightly.  "You can stop hiding, Jenna," he called towards the strand.  "I can feel you in there.  Come out."

      Dar looked a bit startled when flows pulled from the strand, coming from the inside, and then they wove together into a very detailed Illusion.  The Illusion blurred slightly as it came into focus, then it stabilized to show the image of Jula, wearing a frilly blue nightshirt with lace around the collar.  She looked rather sleepy, and her dark hair was unkempt and standing up at the top of her head.  "Tarrin," she said woodenly, rubbing her eyes.  "I didn't think you'd ferret me out that fast."

      "You too, Jula," Tarrin ordered.

      Another Illusion wove itself out of the strand, and then solidified into the image of Jula.  She wasn't wearing anything at all; obviously, both of them had come right from bed.  "Father," she smiled.  "We tried whispering, but it seems that it won't reach this far.  Now I understand why the Ancients used the amulets."

      "I take it you felt it, all the way over there?" he asked.

      "We were in the Heart," Jenna told him.  "We saw it all from that side, and decided to track Dolanna back using her star."

      "Dolanna just appeared in the center of the Heart, and the eyes of the Goddesss seemed to wake up," Jula told him.  "They seemed to commune for a moment, then Dolanna vanished.  We realized what happened pretty quickly."

      "You were in the Heart, but you're both obviously in bed?" he asked curiously.

      "Well," Jenna said with a blush, "we were talking about something."

      "What?"

      "Girl things," Jenna told him with sudden heat and a furious blush.  "Butt out of it, Tarrin!"

      "Alright, alright," Tarrin said in a mollifiying tone.

      "Is she going to be alright?" Jula asked.

      "She'll be fine," Tarrin told her.

      "Why did you have her cross over?" Jenna asked.

      "I didn't.  Dolanna did this on her own."

      "We certainly didn't know she had this on her mind," Keritanima grunted.  "If I did, I would have stopped her.  If she would have failed, she would have blown this ship out of the water!"

      "That's right, always assume the worst, Kerri," Jenna teased.

      "You don't have to pay for this ship!" Keritanima snapped at her.  "And let's not even talk about the sailors I may have lost!  I can buy another ship, but I can't replace their lives!"

      "Calm down, Kerri, you're going to disturb Dolanna," Tarrin told her.

      "I think we all should go back to bed," Allia announced.  "What has happened has happened.  It is wasteful to stand around talking about it now."

      "Yah, and this is not easy," Jula grunted, putting an illusory paw to her illusory head.  "I never realized this could tire you out so fast."

      "Weaving through the Weave itself isn't easy, Jula," Tarrin told her.

      "It makes me wonder why you just didn't do that at Suld," Dar noted.  "When you had that Circle going.  To get the men out of range, I mean."

      "I couldn't, Dar," Jenna told him evenly.  "Weaving through the Weave itself is a Weavespinner trick.  I can't use it in a Circle, because I can only use Sorcery and High Sorcery in a Circle.  That's why the Ancients didn't simply abandon Sorcery after they crossed over.  They had to keep their skills up, in case they ever had to Circle."

      "I didn't know that," Dar admitted.

      "Well, now you do," she said with a grin and a wink.  "And I need to go.  This really is tiring, and I had a long day already."  She looked at Tarrin.  "You need to come to the Heart occasionally," she accused.

      "We're still moving, Jenna," he replied.  "You know I can't do that unless we're stationary."

      "You are now."

      "And at any time, the wind could pick up and move us," he said.  "You think I'm going to risk getting my body pulled out of the strand while I'm in the Weave?  I don't know what would happen, but I'm sure it wouldn't be good."

      "Alright, I'll accept that excuse," she teased.  "But please, do come visit as soon as you stop, alright?"

      "I will," he promised. "And I'll bring along Kerri."

      "The more the merrier," Jenna smiled.  "See ya."  And then her Illusion dissipated like smoke.

      "Be careful, father," Jula told him seriously.  "And please, talk to Jesmind.  She's going nuts because you forgot to talk to her today.  She thinks you've forgotten all about her.  I've never seen her this loopy before."  She grimaced.  "I can still hear her in the other room.  She ran out of things to throw about an hour ago, so now she's clawing up the walls."

      "I'll calm her down," he assured her with a nod.  "How are you two getting along?"

      "Well enough," she replied.  "She's not my best friend, but I think she's starting to get used to me.  I better go, before I get too tired to find my way back.  Talk to you later, father."

      And then her Illusion too dissipated.

      Tarrin chuckled in spite of himself.  He'd been so worried about Dolanna that he completely forgot to talk to Jesmind that night.  She went that crazy because of one missed appointment?  He'd hate to see what happened if he missed two in a row.

      "What's your problem, Dar?" Keritanima asked.

      "I never realized Jula was--" he said, then he blushed.  "She didn't have any clothes on."

      "You've seen naked girls in the baths all the time!" Keritanima almost shouted at him.

      "Those were girls," Dar said.  "That was a woman.  And she looked a little like Tiella does when she's nude," he added with a little squirm.

      "Oh, so that's how it is?" Keritanima suddenly grinned.  "I knew you and Tiella were friends, but I didn't realize you were staring at her that hard in the baths," she teased.

      "Yeah, and you don't get all fuzzy in the face when someone mentions Rallix, do you?" Dar countered.

      The fur on Keritanima's face did start to ruffle slightly, then she glared at the young Arkisian.  "How would you like to spend the rest of the trip in the brig?" Keritanima threatened in an ugly tone.

      "How would you like it if I told Rallix all about how you feel when we get to Wikuna?" Dar retorted.

      That was the wrong thing to say.  Keritanima balled up her fist and socked Dar in the shoulder.  Keritanima was slender, but she was rather tall compared to a human female, and her lithe body harbored surprisingly toned muscle.  Keritanima exercised every day and kept herself in very good shape, so her punch was more than enough to stagger Dar back, wincing and holding his arm.  "How would you like a bloody nose?" Keritanima snapped, holding up her fist.

      "Children!" Tarrin barked.  "Take it outside!"

      Keritanima and Dar glared at each other, but they obeyed Tarrin and filed out of the room.  Tarrin looked at Allia, who had a slightly disappointed look on her face, shaking her head, making her silvery hair sway.  "Some day, those two will show the dignity of age," she told him in Selani.

      "Not any time soon," Tarrin chuckled.  "Actually, I rather like them like that.  Them and Phandebrass make me feel young."

      She gave him a mysterious smile, then pulled the cloak back onto one of her shoulders absently.  "I'll see you in the morning, deshida.  Remember, if you get tired, come wake me, and I'll sit with Dolanna.  She's my friend too."

      "I will," he promised.  "Do me a favor before you go back to bed?"

      "Certainly."

      "Go up on deck and tell Kimmie I'll be busy here tonight.  And tell Sapphire to come find me.  She'll understand it."

      "I will," she promised, opening the door.  Keritanima and Dar were still arguing out in the companionway, but doing it in hushed tones.  "See you in the morning."

      Tarrin settled Dolanna into the bed, pulling the covers over her and putting a pillow under her head.  About the time he was done, there was a scratching on the door.  Tarrin opened it and let in Sapphire, then remembered to open the porthole of the cabin so Sapphire could get out.  He Conjured a bowl of water and a little food for her, then shifted into cat form and jumped up onto Dolanna's bed.  He settled himself down at the foot of it, tucking his paws under himself and closing his eyes.  There was little to do now but wait, and that was time best spent resting.  Dolanna really didn't need anyone to sit with her, but as many times as she'd sat with him when he was wounded or sick, he felt it was only right to be with her now, when she was the one incapacitated.

      Sapphire vaulted up onto the bed and settled in beside him.  She knew he was a shapeshifter, knew he was Were, actually without him having to tell her.  She was an animal, and therefore could sense Tarrin's magical nature.  She knew that the black cat was Tarrin, and cuddled up beside him and wrapped her long, whiplike tail around both of them.  Tarrin accepted her presence, felt the strange heat that always seemed to radiate from her body, and found it pleasing.  He drifted off to sleep, knowing he'd have plenty to think about and consider in the morning.


To:       Title               EoF

Chapter 4

 

      The first thing Tarrin did when he woke up in the morning was talk to Jesmind.  He didn't do it the night before because Jula said she was in a tiff, and he didn't want to talk to her when she was so angry.  Waiting until morning had proven to be a bad choice.  Her anger had only festered over the night, and when he did contact her in the morning, she absolutely let him have it.  She raged at him for nearly half an hour, accusing him of everything from betraying her trust to throwing her away in favor of Kimmie, and doing so in a very derogatory manner.  Calling him a "tail-chaser," a term for a male only interested in the female in front of him, was the least of the things she hurled at him over that period.  Tarrin endured the tirade stoically, knowing that it was the fear talking in her, the fear that maybe he did favor Kimmie over her.  Yelling at him was a way to see if he still wanted her, if he was willing to put up with all that and still want to be with her.  In the end, after she yelled herself out, he calmly explained the emergency that kept him from contacting her, gave her a few moments to feel utterly foolish and embarassed, then accepted the rather chagrined apology with a certain amount of dignity.  He tried very hard not to laugh, and managed to hold out until after he broke contact with her.

      All in all, it went rather well, he thought.  It was a bit long, but the result was worth the wait.  Jesmind felt a little foolish for going off the handle as she did, peace was restored to the family left behind in Suld, and what was more important, Tarrin established the fact that there may be days when he couldn't talk to her, because of fast-moving events or other problems that may arise.  And if that did happen, he would contact her as soon as he could and explain what had caused him to miss the appointment.  He decided to go around the table after that, as it were, talking to Jasana, Jula, Jenna, and Triana in turn, catching up on the little things that had little importance to anyone but him, matters of family.  Jasana in particular had quite alot to say, but most of it was about the Tower, about how the Keeper kept trying to be her friend, about this thing or that, this new doll or what happened the day before when she and Jula went down to get something to eat from the kitchens.  Jula told him all about her lessons, how she was learning the spells of Weavespinner magic, and how she was learning more and more about joining the Weave.  Jenna told him about the lessons from the other side, telling him that Jula was an excellent student, and seemed to have a particular knack for joining the Weave.  Jula had a much more refined and dependable sense of the Weave in relation to the real world, able to find her way to physical locations through the Weave much better than Jenna could.  Tarrin wasn't sure why, but then again, some Sorcerers had knacks for certain things.  Like Tarrin's sensitivity to the whispers and echos of the Weave, and Dolanna's trick of being able to weave blindly, and Dar's uncanny aptitude for Illusions.  Jula had found her niche, her area of natural aptitude, and Tarrin was glad that she was developing it to the best of her ability.

      Once that was out of the way, Tarrin and Allia sat together in Dolanna's cabin and waited for her to wake up.  They passed the time playing stones as he told her more detailed stories of Var and Denai, eating the lunch that Keritanima's cooks brought to them, and waving off the day's lesson with Keritanima in favor of staying with Dolanna.  After they got tired of stones, Tarrin brought in Sapphire and allowed the drake to get acquainted with Allia.  Just like the males, Sapphire seemed to take an immediately liking to the Selani, and became nearly as sappy and adoring over her as Chopstick and Turnkey were.

      Tarrin pondered again over Dolanna as Allia played with the drake, watching his friend sleep.  Had the Goddess done this?  She'd seemed so certain about things, about Dolanna trying Weavespinner magic, and what was more important, her crossing over with almost no difficulty.  Tarrin had never seen such a look of concentration on Dolanna's face as he had last night.  It was as if Dolanna knew exactly what to do, like she had studied and trained for the event all her life.  And it had gone so smoothly for her.  Tarrin knew that it had to be excruciatingly painful, but that didn't seem to bother Dolanna at all.  That look of concentration had never wavered, not in the slightest.  Spyder had said that the Goddess goaded any Sorcerer she felt was ready to try to cross over, forced the test upon them.  Had the Goddess goaded Dolanna?

      Spyder.  Where was she?  She had said she'd be back for another lesson, but then simply vanished.  He hadn't seen her, and Jenna hadn't seen her.  What happened to her?  What had been so important that she abandoned Suld, abandoned protecting the Goddess herself, in their hour of greatest need?  Whatever it was, it had to be something huge, something absolutely cataclysmic.  That was what it would take to keep Tarrin from defending the Goddess.  But Spyder was so old, so strange, so different.  Maybe she didn't come because she didn't want to come, didn't help because she felt that they didn't need her help.

      Then again, he remembered some of the things that he'd heard about Spyder.  That she was the Guardian, the being responsible for defending the last gate into Sennadar.  But they also called her the Aleax, a term that meant that she was some kind of direct mortal agent at the service of the Elder Gods.  All the Elder Gods.  Did one of the other Elder Gods usurp Spyder and send her on a mission?  That was possible.  She was also supposedly the assassin of the gods, a mortal sent to kill other mortals that committed some kind of hideous transgression against the gods.  Or something like that.  He'd only heard that story once, and it had been a very long time ago.  Tarrin's memory wasn't the best in the world about things when he heard them when he was in a bad mood.  Any one of those things could be the reason Spyder hadn't returned, hadn't continued the lessons or helped defend Suld or the Goddess.  He figured he could ask the Goddess, but he had the feeling that any answer he did get wouldn't give him satisfaction.

      "You're quiet, brother," Allia noted in Selani, getting distracted from the game of "flick Sapphire on the snout with a finger before getting bitten," and getting bitten as a reward for her inattention.  She hissed and chided the drake in Selani, batting her on the side of the snout, but the drake looked entirely unashamed of her sneak attack.

      "Just thinking about a few things," he replied.  "That's all.  You're bleeding."

      "Your pet plays rough," she noted.  "The price of looking away, I guess."

      "She has a mouthful of very sharp little teeth, sister.  You have to pay attention."

      "I noticed."

      The door opened, and Dar and Azakar looked in from the companionway. "Is Dolanna awake yet?" Azakar asked in his deep bass voice.

      "Not yet, but she's stirred a couple of times," Tarrin replied.  "She should be waking up soon."

      Azakar nodded.  "Do you want something from the galley?  I'm on my way down there."

      "Whatever they have laying around would be alright with me," Tarrin told him.  "I missed lunch."

      "I noticed," the Mahuut said.  "Anything for you, Allia?"

      "No thank you, Zak," she replied with a grateful nod.  "I ate before coming to sit with Dolanna."

      The pattern of Dolanna's breathing changed, a sure sign that she was either waking up or coming out of her deep, almost coma-like slumber.  Tarrin's ears picked up and turned towards the bed behind him, and he turned and looked just in time to hear her sigh and see her open her dark, expressive eyes.  "Well," she said in a weak voice, in Sharadi.  "I should have expected to see you when I woke up."

      "That's right," Tarrin told her.  "What in the world made you decide to go and do that, Dolanna?  You had to know what was going to happen!"

      "That was why I did it," she replied unblinkingly.  "I felt that if Keritanima could achieve a new level of power, when she doesn't have even a fraction of the training I do, I could do it as well.  And I was right," she added with a tad bit of uncharacteristic smugness in her tone."

      "Could you speak in some language I understand, Dolanna?" Dar asked.

      "I am sorry, Dar," she called to him.  "I only just awoke, and I tend to speak in my native language when not fully awake.  As we all do."

      "That's the truth.  How do you feel?"

      "Weak, tired, hungry, and very sleepy," she replied.  "Could I trouble someone for a bite to eat and a glass of water?" she asked, moving to sit up.

      "I wouldn't do that unless you're ready to compromise your modesty, Dolanna," Tarrin warned.  "I put you in the bed, but I didn't dress you."

      "So I feel," she said with a weary smile.

      "I'll bring something for you, Dolanna," Azakar offered.  "Would you like some hot spiced wine?"

      "Please," she answered.  "And a nightshirt, at the least."

      "I'm afraid I can't help you there, Dolanna," Azakar said with a slight smile, then he left for the galley.

      Dar glanced towards the Mahuut.  "Uh, I'll go help him, so you have a chance to get dressed, Dolanna," Dar said.

      "Thank you, Dar," she nodded, and he scurried after the huge dark-skinned Knight.  Allia dug a nightgown out of Dolanna's chest, and the petite Sorceress pulled down her covers and sat up to allow Allia to help her into it fearlessly.  Tarrin and Dolanna were too close, too strongly befriended for him to think of her as a human, and as such didn't even think of averting his eyes.  Dolanna, who understood Tarrin better than anyone but probably Allia and Keritanima, showed no aversion to exposing herself to the Were-cat.  Allia helped her into her nightgown as Tarrin propped up some pillows on the bed so she could sit up to eat, then they put her back into the bed and drew up her covers for her.  "Such attention," she smiled.  "I should play sick more often."

      "You would have more if Keritanima was not using that magic mirror of hers to talk to that rabbit, Jervis," Allia said.  "She has been speaking to him since before lunch, and I think she is still doing so."

      Jervis was Keritanima's head of intelligence, and she talked to him quite often, either directly using that magic mirror or through reports.  The Wikuni nobles had been up to something, and Keritanima had told Jervis to find out what it was.  If she was still talking to him, he must have found out, and they were planning the counterstroke to deal with it.

      "She has a large kingdom to manage, Allia," Dolanna said dismissively.  "I am not disappointed that she is not here.  I know she would be if she had the time."

      "Probably," Tarrin agreed.  "Alright, now tell me.  How did you know what to do?"

      "I did not," she admitted.  "But I listened to Keritanima describe it, explain how it felt and seemed to her.  I knew what to expect, and when it did begin, I realized what it was I had to do.  It seemed as if I had done something I had known how to do since I was born, but had forgotten until that moment."  Her eyes became distant a moment as she tapped her finger on her cheek in thought.  "Perhaps Sorcerers have instincts concerning the magic, just as humans and Were-cats have instincts concerning the species," she proposed.  "It is, after all, an innate ability.  Something we possess from birth.  Maybe a set of instincts concerning the magic comes with the power."

      "Maybe," Tarrin agreed.

      "It was, indescribable," she said in wonder.  "That other place, we can return there again and again, can we not?"

      "It's called the Heart," he told her.  "And it's part of what I'll teach you about the change in your powers."

      "I am starting to feel very left out," Allia said with a half-smile.  "First my brother, then my sister, and now my mentor.  You have done something I feel I will not do for many years."

      "If you practiced more often, you would not be so far behind," Dolanna said accusingly.

      "I can use my power, but I often do not see the need for it," she said dismissively.  "Selani do not do what is not needful.  When I need to use my power, I will use it.  When I do not need to use my power, I will not."

      "Practicing is a needful thing," Dolanna told her firmly.  "With practice and study, Allia, you could become a very strong Sorceress.  It is a crime to ignore your talent."

      "I will not become dependent on my magic," Allia asserted.

      "I am not asking you to do so.  I am only asking that you live up to your full potential," Dolanna countered.  "You have much potential, Allia.  You are easily as strong as most katzh-dashi in the Tower."

      "Let's save the arguing for another time," Tarrin interrupted.

      "We are not arguing," Dolanna and Allia said in unison.

      "Yes you are," he said bluntly.  "It's the same argument you had with me, Dolanna, and it's the same argument you two have been having for the last two years.  The only reason you're arguing out loud with Allia now is because you can't use it on me anymore.  I think you two can go at least the rest of the day without fighting about it, can't you?"

      "I will try, though seeing a great talent wasted burns at me," Dolanna said.

      "I will not speak of the matter again today," Allia assured him.

      "Good.  Where is that food at?" he asked irritably.

      After making sure that Dolanna ate a good hearty meal and he put her back to bed, Tarrin left her to sleep comfortably on her own and wandered back up on deck with Allia and Dar.  Azakar still seemed uncomfortable around Tarrin, and he was starting to get a little annoyed at that.  He needed to take Azakar aside and explain some things to him...this silly habit of trying to avoid him was getting old.  It seemed worse that the Knight seemed capable of treating him courteously when necessary, but he wouldn't willingly spend time around the Were-cat.  They waited a considerable amount of time for Keritanima to come out from her cabin, and when she finally did near sunset, she looked livid.  Miranda and Szath trailed behind her a a modest distance, a clear sign that Keritanima was furious.  If even Miranda didn't want to get close to Keritanima, it had to be bad.

      "What troubles you, sister?" Allia asked.

      "I--You--They--Oooohhhhhhhh!!!" she growled in Selani, stamping a foot on the ground.  "I'm going to kill all of them!  I mean it this time!!!"

      "What's wrong?" Tarrin asked.

      "My father escaped from his insane asylum two weeks ago, and Jervis found out someone from one of the noble houses helped him!" she snapped hotly.  "Now they're going to try to return him to the throne!"

      "You should have killed him," Allia said in a calm tone.

      "I wanted him to suffer for everything he did to me and our homeland," she growled in reply.  "I can't believe that they did that!  I made it a crime punishable by death with no trial if anyone aided my father!"

      "Then punishing them will be a simple affair," Allia reasoned.

      "I don't know which house did it!" she raged.  "I know at least one house was involved, but even Jervis can't find out which one!  And they can't find my father!"

      "Someone has to have seen him," Tarrin said.

      "Not yet," Keritanima grunted.  "But the worse news is that I just can't leave Wikuna until I get this under control.  If my father regains the throne while we're away, the ships that may be escorting us in the steamship may turn around and fire on us!  It just won't be safe to do anything until I find my father and put him back in his cell."

      "Kerri, we have a schedule," Tarrin reminded her.

      "I know that!" she snapped at him in a very nasty tone.

      "How can your father get back the throne if the Vendari support you?" Tarrin asked curiously.

      "By force," she replied.  "But the navy will be split over it, Tarrin, and we may end up with escorting ships loyal to my father.  The last thing we need right now is a civil war in Wikuna."

      "What are you going to do?"

      "The simplest thing possible," she replied. "It starts and ends with my father.  If I can get him, I can stop anything from happening before it goes too far.  That's what it's going to take.  I already have Jervis and his men taking the city apart looking for him, and they have orders to bring him in dead or alive."

      "Dead would be the wiser choice," Tarrin told her.

      "Oh, he's going to die now," she hissed.  "Whether it's at the end of a musket or the end of a rope is the question.  I spared his life once.  I won't do it again."  Keritanima was almost shivering with fury. "Excuse me, I think I'll go back to my cabin and throw things for a while," she said in a tightly controlled voice.

      "Have fun," Tarrin told her, and the fox Wikuni stalked off in a tizzy.

      They watched her leave.  "Are you worried?" Allia asked curiously.

      "Not really," Tarrin replied absently.  "I have confidence in Kerri.  She'll fix everything."

      "Truly."

 

      Dolanna was well enough to move by that evening, but she didn't reappear on deck until the next day.  She looked as weak as he knew she felt.  She sat down in a chair that Keritanima had brought up for her, and spent most of the day in it, watching the coastline of Wikuna drift in and out of sight on a cloudless, glorious summer day, or reading a book, or listening carefully and intently as Tarrin taught Keritanima more of the spells he'd learned from Spyder.  Camara Tal drifted by occasionally to check on the Sorceress, and there was a stretch where the small Sorceress played hostess to all three drakes.

      That day was full of mystery.  Keritanima had some kind of plan, he realized when he looked her in the eyes, but she hadn't told him what it was yet.  Phandebrass and Kimmie had disappeared again, and nobody on the ship could find them.  Admiral Torm had even had the ship searched from crow's nest to the bilges, for his memory of what happened the last time those two had vanished for a long period of time was fresh in his mind.  The last thing he wanted was for the white-haired Wizard to wander into the powder magazine and accidentally blow the ship sky high.  But there was no sign of them.  It created quite a stir on board, among the sailors as well as the passengers, and Tarrin pondered for quite a while about what happened to them, long enough to get curious about it himself.  So around sunset, as the others went to dinner, Tarrin decided to track them down, or at least find where they had been last.  He started at Phandebrass' cabin and then tracked the man's scent, which wasn't easy given its age and the number of scents both under and over it.  But there was enough there to follow, even if he had to move very slowly to make sure he wasn't following an old trail, or lose the scent completely.  Step by careful step, Tarrin crept along the companionway, up the stairs, out onto the deck, down the other set of stairs leading to the sailor's portion of the below deck area, and into the galley.  Tarrin had to work around the cooks, who stared at him like he had lost his mind as he literally crawled along on all fours on the deck, following the scent trail carefully as it meandered around the galley.  Kimmie's scent joined his at that point, and he gave up following Phandebrass' scent for following Kimmie's, for hers was a much different scent, and was much easier to follow.  He followed the trail of both of them along a passageway and into one of the small holds near the bow of the ship, not far from the door marked with the large red letters that he knew was the powder magazine.  Just knowing that Phandebrass was that close to the magazine made Tarrin's fur stand on end.  The hold was one of the cargo holds, with four rows of stacked crates lashed to pinions nailed into the deck at regular intervals.  There was no light in the hold, but the light coming in from the companionway was more than enough for Tarrin's light-sensitive eyes as he entered the hold in pursuit of Phandebrass and Kimmie.

      This was where the mystery deepened.  Their scents entered the hold, but they did not leave.  Tarrin triple checked this fact, thinking that they may have tracked directly back over their own scents, but they had not.  Tarrin followed their scents between two stacks of boxes, and then it simply stopped.  He checked the boxes for their scent, then the walls, and even the low-beamed ceiling, thinking that maybe Phandebrass taught Kimmie some kind of spell that caused them to defy gravity.  But there was no trace of their scents anywhere.

      Tarrin realized that he'd done all that creeping about for nothing.  Standing erect and muttering to himself, the wove together the Mind weave that would sweep out and locate any mind similar to his own, responding to the spell and revealing its location to him.  Kimmie was a Were-cat, just like him, and he would get a response from her mind.  And then the mystery deepened even more.

      According to the spell, Kimmie could not be more than six or seven spans from where he stood.  She was literally right on top of him, so close he should have heard her heart beating.  How could this be?  She was in the room, but she was nowhere to be found!  There was no scent, no sight of her, but the spell wasn't woven wrong, and it couldn't lie.  Kimmie was in the room.  Somewhere.

      Tarrin kept the spell going, moving towards it slowly, cautiously now as his suspicious mind began to consider the possibility of foul play.  But he smelled no blood, and no Wikuni on the ship could hurt Kimmie.  He stepped in the direction of the spell, having to climb over a stack of boxes and into another small pathway between where they were lashed to the deck, sensing the spell's information.  According to the spell, he should be able to reach out and touch Kimmie.  She was that close to him.  But still, there was no sign of her.

      Wait...not quite.  He wasn't reading the spell correctly.  Figuratively speaking, he was within reach of her, but his confusion over what he was sensing was keeping him from reading its outcome properly.  In a figurative sense, he was within reach of Kimmie, but the spell said that she was below him.  She wasn't right on top of him, he was on top of her!

      He looked down at the deck.  It was a standard stretch of deck, wooden boards, and he tried to remember if there was another deck below that one, or if it was the bilges.

      That was when he saw it.  It was a tiny speck of motion against the deck, up against one of the wooden crates lashed to the deck in the hold.  It was a slight motion, like the movement of a small insect, but Tarrin's very sensitive eyes, which were extrememely keyed to detecting motion, picked it up in the gloom.  It was a strange motion, a rhythmic kind of swaying, and it was not a way that your standard insect moved.  Tarrin split his attention to weave together a spell to create a small, softly glowing ball of light over this paw, and then he knelt and lowered it towards the motion.

      He was almost bowled over.  That tiny motion was Phandebrass!

      He had shrunk himself!  He was the size of a large bug, not even two fingers tall!  And as soon as he lowered the light down, the indescribably minute form of Kimmie darted out from between two crates on the other side, jumping up and down and waving her arms frantically.  She too was exceptionally tiny, so small that he couldn't even hear the sounds coming out of her mouth.  Given that her lungs and her vocal chords were just as tiny as she was, it was no surprise he couldn't hear any sounds she made.

      "What in the nine hells happened to you two?" he asked in a quiet tone, unsure whether a loud voice would hurt them.

      Tarrin couldn't understand the response, but the sudden ugly look that Kimmie shot in Phandebrass' direction explained everything.  He suppressed the urge to chuckle.  "I take it you can't get back to normal?" he asked.  Kimmie shook her head vigorously, pointing at Phandebrass with the claws on her paws out.  That was not a good sign.  Kimmie was livid, and he realized that he'd better do something to fix this before Kimmie lost her composure and decided to take her frustration out on her mentor.  "Calm down," he told her, looking at her as he raised his awareness into the Weave, then stared down at her with eyes more attuned to magic than to light.  He could see the spell, a Wizard spell, infusing the both of them, causing them to be the size they were.  He could tell that, like most Wizard spells, it was operational only as long as it was intact.  If he broke the spell, the magic that changed their sizes would be disrupted, and they would return to normal.  Wizard magic was like that; where Transmutation was permanent--one of the very few forms of permanent magic a Sorcerer could employ--some transformation spells that were used in Wizardry were permanent only so long as the magic that fueled them was uninterrupted.  This was probably one of them.

      "I can break the spell," he told them.  "Both of you, move out into the middle of the aisle."  It took them a few moments to trek out into the center of the aisle, quite a walk for the two of them, and then Tarrin stood up and backed up step.  He looked down at them, not looking at them, but at the magical spell that was causing them to be that size.  He couldn't attack the spell directly--it was a different form of magic, after all--but he could attack the link that connected the spell to the source of its power, that other place from which Wizard magic flowed.  Spyder had specifically taught him how to do it, how to defeat Wizard spells already cast as well as how to prevent them from casting any spells in the first place.  He rose a little higher into the Weave, and once he felt comfortable, he exerted his will against it, causing the Weave itself to pull away from the Wizard spell causing the two of them to be so small.  The spell seemed to shudder, resisting the removal of its power, and it actively tried to seek to reestablish that contact.  But when the Weave was pulled away from it, the spell could not reach far enough to regain its power.  It shuddered as the link it had with that other place was broken, and then the spell dissolved.

      In a sudden shimmer, the two exceedingly tiny forms blurred, and then were replaced by two normal-sized figures.  Tarrin returned his conscsiousness to the real world and stood up as Kimmie shook herself, almost as if she were shaking off water, and then glared at Phandebrass.  "Don't ever do that to me again!" she shouted at him.

      "I say, I have no idea what went wrong," Phandebrass said absently.  "That's never happened before, it hasn't.  The spell should have ended hours ago.  I say, I've never seen a spell manage to hang on beyond its duration like that, I haven't.  How odd.  I really must study this!"

      "Graaoooh!" Kimmie shouted, sounding like either an attempt to say something that ended in a growl, or a growl that tried to end in some kind of word.  Whatever it was, it was certainly an unusual sound.  Phandebrass ambled away, not even paying attention to either of them.  "If I could duplicate the effect, I could make any spell permanent, I could!  What a discovery!  I say, I really must study this."  He then pattered out of the hold, turning in the wrong direction and walking into a wall with an audible thud, before reappearing in the doorway going in the other direction.

      "I'm going to kill him!" Kimmie raged, holding her paws out with claws extended.  "I'll skin him and use his hide to upholster my chair!"

      "Calm down, Kimmie," Tarrin said, then the situation got the best of him.  Kimmie glared death at him as he began to laugh helplessly, so hard he actually got tears in his eyes.  "How long were you stuck like that?" he managed to ask.

      "All day!" Kimmie replied in a furious tone.  "We thought about trying to get up on deck, but then I realized that someone would come looking for us, and our scent trails ended in here.  You almost stepped on me, Tarrin!" she accused.

      "I couldn't see you," he told her.

      "How did you find us?" she asked.  "Once you got in here, that is."

      "I used a spell to locate you.  It took me a while to make sense of what it was telling me, though.  I couldn't see what it was saying, because I didn't think it was possible."  He suppressed the urge to laugh again. "While I was trying to make sense of it, I saw Phandebrass moving."

      "At least he was good for something!" Kimmie hissed.

      "You looked cute like that, Kimmie.  Almost like a little doll," he teased.

      "Oh, shut up!" she snapped at him, then stalked out of the room with his laughter chasing her.

      Kimmie didn't speak to Phandebrass until they reached Wikuna, but the mage probably never noticed.  He spent the next two days with his nose buried in this book or that, trying to discover the reason why the spell didn't expire when it was supposed to do so.  The two days that they travelled went by quickly for Tarrin, as he continued his lessons with Camara Tal and also trained Keritanima in Weavespinner magic.  He had a new pupil now, and Dolanna watched on, even taking notes in a blank book she had gotten from somewhere as he showed Keritanima new spells, and taught her more and more about joining the Weave and using it for various tasks.

      It started getting apparent that they were close to their destination early in the morning on the third day, as Tarrin got up before dawn and decided to walk around to watch the sunrise.  The sailors were all on deck, tacking to the wind and executing a turn that would bring them on a heading for the mainland.  All the sailors seemed a little anxious but excited, probably happy that another voyage was about to come to a peaceful and unexciting end.  The only time a true sailor was happier than when he put out to sea was when he was about to come into port.  The drinking and the carousing and the ladies were all waiting for them at port, and that was almost as exciting as the open sea for a sailor.  Tarrin moved towards the bow as the sun came up behind them, illuminating a coastline that was getting closer and closer, and the first signs that they were approaching a city were becoming apparent.  He could see towers and a large coastal fortress.

      And he saw smoke.

      Tarrin peered into the gloom, unsure of what he was seeing.  He waited long moments as the light became brighter and brighter, and then, when the edge of the sun began coming over the horizon, illuminating the sky above the land before travelling down to touch the land itself, he was sure of it.  There were three distinct columns of thick smoke rising up from a very large city.  One was coming from deep in the city, one was coming from the docks, and the third was coming from just behind one of the coastal fortresses that stood on a rise just before the shallow, bay-like harbor of the city, on the south side.  There were three of those fortresses, one on each side of the island that split the entrance of the harbor, and the third that stood on the island itself.  They'd built walls out from the island and sides facing it to narrow those entrances even more, making getting into the harbor while being attacked by the cannons in those fortresses a very risky proposition.

      This was serious.  One column of smoke, Tarrin would explain away as a fire.  But three?  That was no coincidence.  Keritanima said that the noble houses were up to something...this could quite possibly be it.  Tarrin wasn't the only one to notice the smoke, as the sailors stopped chattering animatedly and became more sober, more grim.  They all stopped what they were doing and paused to stare at the smoke, and they were probably thinking the same thing that Tarrin was thinking.  What was going on?

      Torm began shouting orders at the men in Wikuni, and Tarrin, who was now completely fluent in Wikuni, could undertand them.  He rode them about having a voyage to complete, and they'd find out what was going on when they got there, and to get back to work.  They did so, but now there was a jerkiness to their usually smooth actions, as they tried to watch the smoke and do their jobs at the same time.  One Wikuni, a dog-like Wikuni, nearly fell out of the rigging in his inattention to his duties.

      They sailed closer and closer, and the ships surrounding the Queen's ship tightened their formation, moving into a much more defensive posture.  The sun rose from the eastern horizon and cast the morning light on the city before them, which seemed almost ominous now.  Tarrin's suspicious nature automatically assumed the worst, that this was indeed some kind of attempt by the nobility to dethrone Keritanima.  It didn't seem to make much sense to him, though.  The Vendari supported Keritanima, and that literally meant that there was no way they were going to take the throne from her.  They couldn't defeat the Vendari, not even if they had all the Wikuni on their side.  So why cause trouble?  They must realize that the Vendari were just going to march out and crush them!

      Tarrin blinked, shifting his thinking from the big picture to the core of the matter.  He remembered what Keritanima said about her father and the danger he posed, that it started and ended with him.  Well, the same could be said of Keritanima.  If the nobility could kill her, they wouldn't have to fight the Vendari for the throne.  If they already had Damon Eram, Keritanima's father, and they killed Keritanima, they could just trot him out and let him reclaim his throne.  Then things could go back to the way they wanted them.

      Tarrin held out an arm, stopping a sailor in his tracks as he rushed towards the lines running from the bowsprit.  "I think you should go wake up her Majesty," Tarrin told the Wikuni seriously, a short ferret-like Wikuni with a long, narrow snout and a pink button-nose on the end.  "Tell her to come see me, and don't take no for an answer."

      "Me, wake up her Majesty?" the man said in a nervous, high-pitched, nasal tone. "I don't have a deathwish!"

      "You can get killed by her for waking her up, or you can be killed by me for not obeying me," Tarrin said in an ominous tone, showing the Wikuni his claws in a very direct manner.  "Make your choice."

      The man blanched at the sight of those claws, which were nearly as long as the Wikuni's fingers, then nodded emphatically.  "Go wake up her Majesty, yes sir!  I'll go right now!"

      "Do that," Tarrin growled, feeling his feral instincts rise up even at the same time that his need to assert his dominance strengthened.  The little rodent rushed away, literally running for the stairs below decks, and Tarrin gave him no more mind as he turned back towards the coast, watching the smoke carefully.

      Keritanima, Miranda, and Szath joined him several moments later, and Tarrin didn't really have to say anything to her.  Keritanima took one look at the smoke, and her eyes flashed dangerously.  "I'll have someone's head for this," she growled in a deadly tone.

      "I'm sure they want yours too," Tarrin told her.  "Did Jervis say anything about this?"

      "No, he didn't," she replied.  "But I'll go find out what's going on from him right now," she announced. "Stay here, Miranda.  If you see anything happening, come tell me."

      "Alright," Miranda acknowledged as Keritanima and Szath hurried back to her cabin.

      Tarrin and Miranda watched the smoke as they approached, getting closer and closer to the city.  They watched in relative silence, only answering questions as the others came up on deck after realizing that something was going on.  Camara Tal, who had a background in military matters, seemed to understand the danger immediately.  "If they took that fortress, they're going to fire on us as we pass it," she told them, pointing to the approaching fort standing on the rise over the inlet to the harbor.

      That made things more nervous, and they waited in almost grim anticipation as they got within what he thought was the range of the fortress.  And there was no firing.  They got closer and closer, then passed by it as they entered the harbor, and still no firing.  They were close enough to see that the smoke was coming from the back of the fortress, but on the outside.  Someone had indeed assaulted the fortress during the night, but they had been repelled.  That made Tarrin breathe a sigh of relief.

      They pulled in to the quay with no difficulty, a quay where a very large complement of Vendari warriors and three carriages were waiting for them.  As soon as the hawsers were tied down, the Vendari warriors marched out and flanked where the gangplank would be lowered.

      Tarrin, still standing at the bow, stopped worrying about the situation long enough to look at the capital city of Wikuna.  It was indeeed a very large city, bigger than Suld, and its buidings were made of wattle-and daub or red brick.  Occasionally, there was a building made of wood, and the larger buildings were made of a strange stone that looked like whitewash.  Those were the new buildings, the old ones were obviously made with defense in mind, large, ominous constructions of gray stone interspersed with the newer, less war-minded buildings.  There were more old buildings than new, but the old buildings seemed to blur together with one another and making the new buildings stand out.  In the center of the city was a hint of gold, and when he looked closely he saw that it was some kind of building that stood higher than the others, with some sort of gold-painted face that made it stand out.  They drifted into the harbor, forced to enter the harbor single-file with half of the escorting ships ahead and half behind, which was jam packed with ships and wharves extending out into the dark water.  Some of those crane-like constructions he remembered from Den Gauche were also here, loading and unloading huge amounts of cargo from ships with their ropes and their nets.  The formation around them opened to let the Royal ship out, dropping anchors and letting Keritanima's ship pass.  They then turned towards the far side of the harbor, moving towards an empy wharf at the extreme southern side of the harbor, the wharf closest to the coastal fortress they had passed.  The ship drifted in, threw out its lines, and men on the dock tied them to huge hawsers on the dock.  The quay to which they had tied themselves was made of stone also, but it was the strangest stone he had ever seen.  They were made of long, long blocks of it, cut thin, and it didn't look like any stone he had ever seen.  He didn't see any Wikuni close by, but then again, they had landed at what had to be a private wharf, with no buildings standing at the end of it as they did for the wharves he could see further down the line.  There were Wikuni on those other wharves, dock workers loading or unloading ships, sailors on the ships themselves or moving to or from them, and well-dressed men and women standing at the feet of the docks or among the workers, either supervising or observing them.  This was the strength of the Wikuni, the trade and commerce that financed their massive fleets, and Tarrin paused to watch it in action.  Sapphire flapped up from the side of the ship and landed on his shoulder, and he petted her absently as he watched the mighty Wikuni economy in operation, going on despite the smoke rising from the north side of the harbor, just behind the buildings facing the water, and the smoke rising from the coastal fortress and the area deep inside the city's heart.

      Keritanima gathered them all together, and then they left the ship quickly and without ceremony.  She didn't explain what was going on, and Tarrin couldn't tell if she was happy or angry as she got in the first carriage with Miranda.  Tarrin squeezed into the second carriage with Allia, Kimmie, and Camara Tal, and Dar, Dolanna, Phandebrass, and Azakar packed into the last one.  The carriage had lavish cushions, covered with red velvet, but the roof was way too close to his head.  He banged his head into that roof more than once as he tried to scrunch his legs so Camara Tal, who sat opposite him, would have enough room for her own.  The carriage was never designed for such a large person.  Tarrin only wondered how much fun Azakar was having in the other carriage.

      "I wonder what's going on," Camara Tal speculated.  "Kerri looked mad enough to bite the hooves off a horse."

      "I think something happened last night concerning her father," Tarrin replied.  "Something certainly happened, that's for sure."

      "Since that fortress didn't open up on us, I guess Kerri's forces won that fight," Camara Tal reasoned.

      "I hate Wikuni politics," Kimmie grunted.  "They're so murky."

      "As clear as pitch," Tarrin agreed.

      "The core of the matter is Keritanima," Allia said.  "We need that ship she can give us, and we cannot use it if she does not have the throne."

      "That's the short of it there," Camara Tal agreed, patting Sapphire on the flank when the little drake jumped onto her lap.

      Tarrin had to duck down to look out the window, as they travelled up streets made of either cobblestone, brick, or that same strange white stone that he'd seen on the docks, stone laid down in such large blocks that it must have taken ten horses to pull the wagon carrying it.  Some of them were as wide as the street itself!  The streets paved with that white stone were perfectly flat and smooth, very easy to disseminate from the rough cobblestone or brick streets they travelled.  How did they get such huge blocks of stone to the street and make it so flat?  There were many Wikuni on the street, going about their daily business, pausing to watch the procession pass by as small children chased after the carriages and the Vendari escorting it.  They were dressed very much like they dressed in the West, dresses, doublets, tunics, and breeches.  The architecture was also similar to Sulasian or Shacčan architecture, so much so that if they'd put humans on the streets instead of Wikuni, he would have thought he was still on Sennadar.  The city smelled alot better than any city he'd ever been in; the putrid miasma of garbage, waste, and decay that permeated the cities he'd visited was very much reduced here.  There was still hints of it, but all in all, it had to be the cleanest city he'd ever visited.  There weren't piles of trash lining the streets as there were in other cities.  The streets were clean and neat, and people filed to and fro in an orderly fashion.  Wikuni wearing blue uniforms of some sort stood on a raised podium in the center of the busiest intersections, blowing a whistle and directing the many wagons that passed him by on the two crossing streets with hand gestures.

      As cities went, Wikuna was impressive.  Not for its size or its wealth, but for its orderly appearance.  Everything was clean, efficient, and well maintained.  People didn't stagger down the streets drunk--at least not where they were now--and everything seemed to be organized.  Sulasia could take some serious lessons from the Wikuni about how to run a city.

      They turned a corner, and after banging his head against the ceiling for the fifth time, Tarrin irritably leaned down as far as he could and put his head out the window to gaze up at the Royal Palace.  It stood within a large ornate fence, where Wikuni wearing the red uniforms of the military stood with muskets to their shoulders in defense of the main gate.  The Wikuni crest was on the gate, seemed to have been inlaid directly into the gate to become a part of it, a lion and a dragon done in etched silver facing one another across a brass chevron.  Tarrin looked at the dragon on the crest and then looked at Sapphire on Camara Tal's lap, and he saw the similarities immediately.  Sapphire was a perfect replica of a dragon, though she was much, much smaller.  Tarrin looked past the fence and to the palace itself.  It was absolutely massive, but it was not a castle-like building, as he always imagined it would appear.  It looked more like some kind of immense mansion, obviously hundreds and hundreds of years old, with a massive dome made of what looked like gold rising up from its center.  Tarrin realized that it was the same gold building he'd seen while approaching on the ship, since it stood on a hill in the center of the city, stood at the highest point in the city.  It was a truly immense building, much larger than any one family would ever need, but Tarrin knew that it was much more than that.  It also served as a central hub of the Wikuni government, populated by servants, courtiers, messengers, politicians, and the men and women that made the Wikuni system work.  It was a testament to the position of monarch, not the monarch him or herself, the home of this or that noble family that happened to hold the throne at any one time for over a thousand years.

      The carriages went around the building, to a side entrance, and then they stopped.  The Vendari marched off towards the back of the huge building as an absolute horde of servants rushed out of a pair of elaborately decorated double doors, two of them unrolling a red carpet out to Keritanima's carriage, which had stopped directly in front of the doors.  Tarrin recognized Jervis as one of the Wikuni at the front of that procession, in his dumpy waistcoat that had the gold chain hanging from the pocket of the vest he wore beneath it, looking as frumpy and innocently harmless as ever.  Tarrin opened the door of his carriage as Keritanima was helped out of her own, ignoring the hot looks from the Wikuni coachmen, one of which was trying to tell him in broken Sulasian to wait in the coach until the Queen was inside.  Tarrin snorted and waved a paw negligibly at the Wikuni, then stepped down onto Wikuni soil and padded towards Keritanima as all the servants bowed or curtsied to her.  All the servants and courtiers looked at Tarrin with looks of shock on their faces, either at his appearance or the fact that he wasn't obeying the commonly understood protocols and customs that surrounded dealing with the Wikuni monarch.

      "Tarrin, you're supposed to wait in your carriage!" Keritanima admonished him.

      "Make me," he replied bluntly.

      "Don't embarass me here!" she hissed at him in Selani.  "I am a Queen, if you don't recall!"

      "Then you should have gotten me a carriage large enough to keep me from banging my head on the ceiling," he replied.  "If I banged my head one more time, I was going to break a hole in the ceiling."

      Keritanima looked at him, then chuckled.  "Alright, I think we can fling in the face of tradition this one time," she conceded.  "Jervis, I'm sure you remember Tarrin."

      "Of course," he replied in his nasal voice.  "You weren't quite so tall the last time we met, Tarrin."

      "Just wait another two years, Jervis.  You'll be surprised."

      The rabbit Wikuni looked at him, then grinned in a mischievious manner.  "I have little doubt," he agreed.  "I really must complain to you about how you changed our little princess here.  When she came back home, she was completely different.  She caused no end of trouble for us."

      "That's my sister," Tarrin said without blinking.  "If she wasn't causing trouble, I'd think she was sick or something."

      "Tarrin!" Keritanima protested in a petulant tone.  "Do you have anything to report, Jervis?"

      "Quite a bit, actually, but it's best left for the council chamber, your Majesty," he said with a slightly smug smile.

      "Is it good news?"

      "It is excellent news, your Majesty."

      "Then let's get to it as soon as we see to the comfort of my guests," she said.  "Bring them in and give them the best rooms you can find," she told the chamberlain.

      "Of course, your Majesty.  Only the best," he said with a deep bow.

      "Alright then.  Let's stop standing around out here," she called.

      Tarrin was led into the cavernous building after the chamberlain gave sharp commands to the servants as to where the guests would be staying.  Sapphire fluttered up and landed on his shoulder to the surprise of the small bear Wikuni, a rotund female, that was leading him.  She wore the livery of the Palace servants, with the lion and dragon crest emblazoned on the front of her black maid's dress.  She led him along hallway after hallway, all of them carpeted adn with painting and tapestries and stands and tables holding sculptures or suits of armor or racks with ceremonial weapons hanging from them.  The lavishness of the interior was as obvious as the exterior, everything about the place trying to overwhelm the visitor with the wealth and power of the Wikuni empire.  Tarrin wasn't very impressed by things and objects--except works of beautiful art--mainly because he could make anything he wanted.  It was strength and personal power and ability that Tarrin respected, not titles or wealth or ancestry.  The Palace, to him, was a gaudily overdecorated waste of space that was mildly interesting to look at, but was ultimately a hollow thing trying to intimidate rather than impress or please.  The whole place had a coldness about it, a sense that those objects displayed were a collection of booty rather than an attempt to please the eye, and the sense of the place was one of ruthlessness, mirroring those who had lived, worked, and plotted within the confines of the building.

      There was no soul in the place.  That was what it was.  It lacked that sense of soul that many old buildings possessed, a warmth of welcome.  In fact, the place seemed hostile, somehow, as if the souls of all those who had met their end in this place, or whose ends were manufactured by the scheming that was rampant here, were trapped inside the building, screaming out their fury and despair for any who would take the time to listen to them.  It did not feel like a home; it felt more like some kind of military fortress, grim and foreboding, or maybe even a mausoleum.  Tarrin did not like this Palace, not a bit, and it was all he could do not to tell Keritanima that he was going to stay out in the city until it was time to leave.

      The room to which Tarrin was shown was suitably stupendous.  It obviously was a very special kind of room reserved for the most distinguished guests, and he felt lost within it inside two seconds.  It was just as over-decorated as the passageways, every finger of wall covered by paintings, tapestries, or shields displaying crests or coat-of-arms, and there were many dainty stands and tables holding strange abstract sculptures that consisted of strange asymmetrical or geometric shapes, bizarre art that teased at the back of his mind.  The floor was covered by a massive blue rug that took up the entirety of the floor, thick and shaggy, and Tarrin's claws caught on it no less than three times as he moved through that first room.  It was an apartment, a cluster of five rooms with entry only through that first room, furnished with chairs and couches and resembling a parlor.  Beyond it was another sitting room, obviously meant for the private use of the occupant, with only a single couch and a pair of cushioned chairs surrounding a low table set before a large fireplace.  There were three doors leading from that room.  One went to a large bathroom with a tub made of stone set on a pedestal of sorts, and some strange stone-like objects for which Tarrin had no description.  One resembled a washstand on a narrow pedestal, with strange knobs flanking an obvious spigot, all done in brass polished to a brilliant shine.  One vaguely resembled a seat, but it was actually a bowl filled with water, with a small lever set against the side.  Tarrin looked at it in curiosity, then recalled the descriptions that Keritanima had given him of the Palace, and the technological advances of her people.  The basin-like thing was a sink, and the small knobs would allow running water to flow from the spigot, a place to wash his face or paws.  The bowl was a toilet, something like a privy that stood alone, and it too had running water.  If he flipped the handle, water would flow into the bowl and carry away the waste down a drain.  The tub too had handles and a spigot looming over one end, so that the bathtub could be filled.  He looked down into it, and saw a hole in the bottom where the water drained out, as well as a small piece of cork that was meant to be placed into the hole to stop it up and allow the tub to fill up.

      The second door, the one directly across from the door leading into the outer parlor, opened into a grand bedroom, filled with all sorts of furniture.  The bed itself was absolutely monstrous, more than large enough to fit his tall frame, a full four-poster bed with curtains drawn around it.  There were dresser chests and armoires and footchests and chairs scattered throughout the room, more than enough to hold enough clothes for ten people and seat five, and there was a large oval mirror that had to be nine spans high and five spans across at its widest point.  It was set directly into the wall.  The room had a large window filled with many panes of very clear, well-made glass, and the morning sun was streaming into it, casting sunbeams down onto another thick, shaggy, softly cushioning blue carpet.  That room had two smaller rooms leading off each side of it, and he realized that they were closets, places to store even more clothing, or gear.

      The third door from the inner parlor led into what had to be some kind of working room.  It had a large desk squarely in the center of it, and there were strange rectangular pieces of furniture behind it that had many drawers. He opened them, and found them to be too small for clothing.  He opened them randomly until he found one that was stocked with many neat pieces of paper.  The desk also had drawers on one side, and one of them held an inkpot and writing quills.  The desk had an oil lamp atop it, for the room had no windows.  At least that room had no carpet, only a wooden floor that was polished until it nearly shined.

      Tarrin wandered back into the outer parlor, feeling a little lost.  It was way too much space.  He would really only use one room, and occasionally use the room with the bathtub in it.  What was he supposed to do with the others?  He'd have to go through two rooms just to get to the two he intended to use.

      Sapphire flew around the apartment a little while, then landed on his shoulder and barked her displeasure with the arrangements.  "I completely agree," he told her absently.  "I'm not even sure if I can open that window for you."

      She chirped a few times, a sound that he had learned meant that she was hungry or thirsty.  He Conjured a bowl, then went into the bathing room and held it under the spigot in the sink.  He turned one of the knobs gently, and he was surprised and a little impressed when clean, clear water poured forth from it.  Running water!  How did they make it pour out of the pipes like that?  They had to have something pushing the water, but what?  He'd have to ask Keritanima.  He set the bowl on the table in the inner parlor, then Conjured Sapphire a few large chunks of raw mutton on a large platter.  Sapphire seemed to really like mutton.  She landed on the table, her claws scratching up the highly polished finish of the top of the table, and started eating.

      Tarrin watched her eat for a few moments, then wandered back into the bedroom and looked out the window.  They were on the fourth floor, overlooking the east side of the city, towards the harbor.  He could see the harbor clearly, since nothing impeded the view from the Palace, see the many Wikuni clippers and rakers, the smaller, shallow-draft ships they used for short-distance trade or defense.  Keritanima had talked about the rakers, just as she had described the clippers, fast, maneuverable ships that could engage ships much larger than itself because it was very hard to hit.  They also had one of their massive battleships in the harbor, a ship that looked vaguely like a galleon, but was nearly three times larger.  They were largest ships afloat, three hundred spans long and a hundred spans wide at amidships, with five masts.  Its side had three rows of gunport after gunport, making coming to broadside against a ship like that absolute suicide.  The battleships were slow, but that much concentrated firepower in one place made its speed a moot point.

      He glanced into the inner parlor, seeing that Sapphire was still eating.  So many advancements.  Gunpowder, running water, cast iron, steam engines, pens that carried their own ink, those strange huge stones that were set into the quay and the road.  The Wikuni were indeed far ahead of the West, even further ahead of kingdoms like Yar Arak.  He realized that if the Wikuni ever went to war with the rest of the world, they would actually stand a good chance of winning.  They ruled the oceans, and could land whenever and wherever they pleased.  Their homeland was untouchable, allowing them to strike at any place and at any time of their choosing.  It would not be a war in the traditional sense, he knew. The Wikuni weren't really interested in anything but trade, but if there was a war, they would strangle seaborne trade, sink anything not Wikuni afloat, and slowly choke off the trade that enriched all nations.  But it wouldn't come to a war, because the Wikuni were traders, and war was bad for business.  No nation on Sennadar with the exception of Zakkar had any issues with the Wikuni, and the Zakkites had shown over the hundred years that they had been skirmishing with the Wikuni at sea that they couldn't defeat the mighty Wikuna Navy.

      They were much different from the humans, and yet they were not.  The Wikuni weren't human, but they had based their society around things that humans would easily understand.  It was almost as if they had copied the humans somehow, and then realized that they could do it better.  Maybe because where the many types of humans fought with one another, the Wikuni were united, working towards a common purpose.  If the humans weren't so busy tearing down one another's cities, if they would actually work together, maybe they too could prosper as much as the Wikuni had.

      Sapphire flapped over and landed on his shoulder, and she looked out the window as well.  He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do now.  Were they going to come for him when Keritanima was ready?  She was the queen here, and that meant that she couldn't act the same way she did when they were more or less alone.  She had her image to protect.  He'd already seen that it was going to make her act differently.  The rooms were nice, but they were...uncomfortable.  Too grand, too large, and too sterile.  They didn't tell him that he couldn't leave the rooms, and he realized that he really didn't want to wait in them.

      "Want to get out of here?" he asked Sapphire.  She chirped emphatically, agreeing with him, and then he nodded and turned around.  "Alright then, let's go look around."

      He left the apartment, and started to wander aimlessly through the halls of the Wikuni Palace.  It was as grand everywhere as it had been in the parts he had seen, almost garishly and lavishl decorated with art or displays from all over the world.  They even had a strange suit of armor that looked to be made of wicker, of all things.  He'd never seen anything like it before, but the sword at the belt of that display told him that it was armor from the Far East, since it looked much like his own sword.  The same gentle curve, and after drawing it, he saw that it had the same chisel tip and elegantly constructed blade.  It was much smaller than his sword, meant for a human to wield it in either one or two hands, where his own was obviously meant to be a two-handed weapon for a human.  He replaced the sword carefully and continued on, wandering up and down staircases, passing many Wikuni in the hallways, and looking into any open doors that he encountered, but never leaving the passageways.  The Wikuni he passed were from everything between the two opposites of Wikuni society.  He passed servants in their livery, and also occasionally passed a rough-dressed Wikuni that had to be a common worker or peasant, in the Palace for some unknown reason.  To a man, every Wikuni that looked as if he didn't belong in the Palace was awestruck at it, and also looked terrified to be there.  He also passed any number of haughty, richly dressed Wikuni men and woman in their outrageously expensive clothes, jewels dripping from them like water, and haughty, almost sneering expressions that said that they believed that they were about ten rungs up the ladder over everyone else.  Tarrin didn't like nobles, because his concept of respect and power were diametrically opposed to what they though respect and power were supposed to be.  He found the lot of them to be arrogant and weak, and those two traits were very dangerous ones when combined in the face of a Were-cat.  Were-cats respected strength and wisdom, and those were traits that few nobles had in any abundance.

      But the nobles he passed in the halls didn't bother him overmuch.  They stared up at him in curiosity, as he could tell that they were trying to decide if he was some strange kind of Wikuni or not.  They also stared at the drake on his shoulder with open greed, obviously considering his companion to be some kind of exotic pet.  One Wikuni lady, a wolf Wikuni wearing a gown with a neckline low enough to leave little to the imagination, even went so far as to try to buy Sapphire from him, using badly mangled, broken Sulasian to do so.  They didn't think he knew Wikuni, and in a moment of cunning, he realized that that could be an advantage, so he played along with her.  He declined her offer, and then managed to meander around until he found a door that led outside.

      The door opened into a garden of sorts, not as large or grand as the one in the Tower, but still rather nice.  It had gravel paths around clusters of small trees or carefully laid out patterns of different colored flowers, and there was a strange place in the middle that had no flowers at all, but rather six very large stones seemingly randomly dropped in an area of sand that was carefully combed so that the lines made by the rake swirled around the stones and filled the voids between them.  The designs in the sand were abstract, but he could tell that they had some kind of meaning.  Tarrin squatted down at the edge of the sand, surrounded by strange bricks that were molded into semicircles that formed a border with the sand, finger tapping on his chin as he studied the designs in the sand and tried to puzzle out the hidden meaning concealed there.

      "I never realized you had the soul of an artist, Tarrin," Miranda's voice reached him.  He looked up and saw her walking towards him, and to his surprise, she had an old friend marching behind her.  Sisska looked just as he remembered, with her boxy snout and her black eyes, wearing the kilt and the leather bandolier over her torso.  She carried her axe negligently in one hand, a large weapon against which few could stand.  Tarrin stood up and took Sisska's scaled, clawed hand when she reached him, genuinely happy to see her.

      "Her Majesty said you had grown.  She did not exaggerate," Sisska said by way of greeting.

      "You're looking well, Sisska," he told her.  "How are your eggs?"

      "They are in the keeping of the clan, as is proper," she replied.  "Raising the hatchlings is a task of the clan, not of the parents.  They will be raised in the Vendari tradition."

      "Well, it's good to have you back.  I didn't like Szath very much."

      "He is a fine warrior, with much honor."

      "He's also as smart as a box of rocks," Tarrin grunted.  "I think the only reason he's still alive is because he is so big and powerful."

      "Such things do not matter as much to us as they do to you," she told him with a level gaze.

      "I guess not.  Is Binter here too?"

      "He defends the Queen."

      "I take it you came out here for a reason?" he asked Miranda.

      "Do I need a reason to come out into the garden?"

      "When I'm here, I'd say yes," he replied.

      She gave him her cheeky grin.  "Actually, Kerri's looking for you.  I figured you'd find your way out here, so I decided to save the messenger that would come find you from a very bad experience."

      "You're so considerate," he said dryly.

      "When did the dragon-kin come to be with you, Tarrin?" Sisska asked.

      "On the journey from Suld," he replied. "I'll tell you about it while we're walking."

      Tarrin told Sisska about what happened with the drake as Miranda led them along the halls of the Palace.  Sisska seemed impressed by that, and he just had to ask why.  "There are drakes in Vendaka," she replied.  "They are colored gold, however.  It is a very high honor if a drake befriends you, Tarrin.  Drakes are creatures of honor and dignity, and they do not choose their companions lightly."

      "Then how do you explain Chopstick and Turnkey?"

      "They chose wisely," Sisska said adamantly.  "I did not have much time to come to know the mage Phandebrass, but from what I have heard, he has a good heart and a kind soul.  Do not let what you see on the outside cloud the truth within, Tarrin.  It is a bad practice."

      Tarrin nodded in agreement.  He happened to agree with her.  Phandebrass may seem a little odd, but he was actually a good friend and a good person.  "Maybe they saw what was there when nobody else did," he offered.

      "Drakes know," she said simply.

      Miranda led him to a huge hall deep in the bowels of the Palace, a huge place with buntings hanging from vaulted walls, a domed ceiling from which hung several chandeliers, and at the far end was a raised platform about two spans high.  It had a huge throne on it, and a banner with the crest of Wikuna hung from the wall behind it.  Keritanima sat on that throne, wearing her royal robes, and the large numbers of Wikuni nobles gathered in the hall told him that this was a formal audience.  Tarrin looked around, and saw the Vendari lining the walls, as well as a complement of armed Wikuni that surrounded the dais; those had to be the Royal Guard he'd heard about.  Binter and Azakar stood at either side and slightly behind the throne, ready to defend the Royal Person from any attack.  Binter had that massive, ugly war hammer with him, the head of it on the floor between his feet and the handle propped lightly with one hand.  Keritanima looked almost smug on that throne, and as Miranda led him closer, through the crowd of nobles, to the front, he saw why.

      There was a Wikuni chained by the wrists kneeling at the front of the crowd, that was a respectable distance from the prisoner, flanked by two Royal Guardsmen who both had swords drawn.  He was a tall Wikuni, a lion, but his fur was scraggly and dirty and there was some dried blood in his mane.  He wore a red waistcoat and black trousers, and they were dirty, bloody, and rather the worse for wear.  Tarrin looked at him and realized that this was Damon Eram, Keritanima's father, and the cause of alot of irritation she'd felt as they came into the city.  Keritanima had been talking when they came in, asking Damon Eram who had helped him escape.

      "I had no help, traitor," he spat.  "A crazy man couldn't escape from there, but a sane man could easily."

      "Your mental condition went out the window the minute you tried to lead an armed party into the south fort and take it over, father," she said coldly.  "You could be as sane as a cold stone right now, and it wouldn't help you.  The punishment for treason doesn't make any allowances."

      "Treason?  Me?" he screamed.  "You were the one that used your foul magic to make everything think I was crazy!  You're the one that bull-rushed the noble houses into dethroning me!  But I know that they're not very happy with that decision now, witch!" he laughed.  "If I would have taken over that fort and sunk your ship, they wouldn't have executed me for assassination, they would have put the rightful king back on the throne!"

      "You engineered your own destruction, father, not me," Keritanima said with flashing eyes.  "Your need to punish me unhinged you.  I can see now that it was a temporary insanity.  Fortunately for me, your act of treason has made any kind of contest for the throne a moot point.  You have committed high treason against the crown, father," she said in a nasty voice.  "If you would have made a legal challenge, I'm sure you would have had a decent chance of abdicating me and regaining the throne, and I would have honored a legal decision without a fight.  Doesn't it eat at you, father?" she said in a teasing tone. "To know that if you'd not bowed to your anger, again, you would have probably regained the crown?  That temper of yours cost you the throne, and now it's going to cost you a whole lot more."

      "Don't play with me, witch.  Just be done with it," he hissed.

      "Before I do that, I think you deserve to know who it was that turned on you, father," she said with a bright grin.  "I don't want you to go on to your final reward without knowing the truth.  Shan," she called.

      Tarrin looked as a door opened on the side, and a Royal Guardsman escorted a young female Wikuni into the hall.  She was a mink Wikuni, like Miranda, but her features were much sharper, and her eyes looked haunted.  Tarrin remembered the description of this woman; this was Jenawalani, one of Keritanima's sisters.

      "Jenawalani!" Damon Eram shouted angrily. "You did this?  Two of my daughters betraying me?"

      "I'm not a traitor," Jenawalani said in a haughty tone.  "I'm the Baroness of Wildwater.  I'm not an Eram anymore, and I'm not your daughter anymore.  I am loyal to my Queen."

      "Of anyone on this earth, I'd have thought you would be the last to side with Keritanima!"

      "Things change, Damon," Jenawalani said calmly, crossing her arms between her breasts.  "I'll never be Queen.  I made a vow.  And I knew that if you got back the throne, the first thing you'd do is have me killed to keep your plot a secret, or to keep me from trying to do to you what you did to Sabakimara.  I'm doing nothing more than what you were going to do to me.  I just did it first."

      "You witch!" Damon Eram raged at her.  "I'll make sure you don't survive to enjoy your victory, Jenawalani!"

      "You can't touch me, father," Jenawalani hissed at him.  "I knew everything, and I told Keritanima everything.  I told her that House Bell was the one that freed you, and them and House Koramon were the ones behind the attacks.  After all, I was right there in your planning sessions, wasn't I?" she added with a little smirk.

      Damon Eram glared viciously at the mink.

      "So you see, Damon, you are of absolutely no more use to me," Keritanima told him coldly.  "House Bell and Koramon have both already been punished for what they did.  I hear that there's nobody left."  That explained to Tarrin why there were three plumes of smoke.   While Damon Eram, House Bell, and House Koramon were attacking the south fort, Keritanima's forces were attacking their home bases.  "In gratitude for Jenawalani's faithful service, I'm giving her all the assets of House Bell and House Koramon and granting her a noble charter.  She's the matron of a new noble house, father, the house Chan, which, I'll admit, probably has more material worth than house Eram now.  So in the end, you get nothing, and the children of the house of Eram prosper.  I'm the queen, Veranika will be the matron of House Eram as soon as she finishes school, and Jenawalani will be the new matron of House Chan.  And you get an unmarked grave."

      Damon Eram gave out an indecipherable shout, and then struggled against his chains.

      "You're the one who taught us the value of betrayal, father," Jenawalani said viciously.  "You taught us well, didn't you?"

      Damon Eram spat in Jenawalani's direction.

      "Temper, temper," Keritanima teased.  "I hereby decree that since you were caught in the act of high treason, that there is no need for trial.  Do the noble houses assembled acclimate this fact?"  There was a rumble of agreement.  "Good.  So, as being found guilty of high treason by acclimation of the noble houses and decree of the crown, I hereby sentence you to death by hanging, to be carried out immediately.  Furthermore, your body will be buried in an unmarked grave, so that not even your body can be found to serve as a reminder of what you once were.  It's a criminal's fate, father.  Perfect for you, given what you did to our kingdom while you occupied the throne.  Take him away," she commanded.

      Screaming and kicking, Damon Eram was dragged from the audience hall, and there was silence as his screams died away.  "Well then, now that that's settled, I'd like all of you to greet Jenawalani Chan, the new matron of the new noble house of Chan.  Welcome back, sister," Keritanima said with a mysterious smile.

      "It's good to be home, your Majesty, though I'll miss Wildwater," she replied with a nod.

      "What just happened, Miranda?" Tarrin asked quietly.

      "Well, I'll just elaborate on what you just saw," she replied as Keritanima read something a servant handed to her, and the nobles swarmed around Jenawalani.  "When Keritanima took the throne, she forced her sisters to vow to abdicate their titles and never be queen.  Instead of turning them out, Kerri gave Jenawalani a small barony in a remote part of our kingdom and sent Veranika to a merchant's school so she could be the matron of House Eram.  Well, from what I've heard so far, Mardal Koramon and Pleris Bell concocted a scheme to free Damon Eram and overthrow Kerri, and they enlisted the aid of Jenawalani, because she was a princess.  She knows alot of things that many nobles don't, about the Palace and the way things work where the nobles can't see them.  Instead of siding with them, however, she accepted their offer and then immediately contacted Jervis.  Jervis didn't tell Kerri what he was doing, because he wanted her reactions to be genuine, and that was important to keep house Bell and house Koramon believing that Kerri didn't know what they were up to.  Jenawalani told Jervis everything, and Jervis arranged the little trap that caught Kerri's father earlier today."

      "I thought Jenawalani hated Kerri," Tarrin said.

      "She did, but I think she realized that she was safer with Kerri on the throne than her father.  You heard what she said, and she was right.  Damon wouldn't have blinked when he would have ordered his daughter killed.  He assassinated Sabakimara, his eldest daughter, though everyone believed that Jenawalani did it."

      "He killed his own daughter?" Tarrin gasped.

      "Without shedding a tear," Miranda said bluntly.  "Because she was getting to be too dangerous.  Damon Eram took the throne by killing his own father.  He didn't want history to repeat itself."

      Tarrin was shocked.  Damon Eram was absolutely heartless!  If there was ever a man that deserved to die, it was Damon Eram.  "And people call me a monster," Tarrin declared.

      "There are monsters, and then there are monsters, Tarrin.  Now I'm sure you understand completely why Kerri ran away."

      He did.  "Completely," he agreed.  "Hanging isn't good enough for him.  I wonder if Kerri would let me do it."

      "No, in our society, being hanged is a criminal's death," she told him.  "When Kerri ordered him hanged, she was taking away any shred of what little honor Damon Eram had or may have had with the nobles.  He's going to die a criminal, not a king."

      "That's suitable," Tarrin said with a nod.  "The man deserves far worse, though."

      "Pain wouldn't have mattered to him," she said.  "This is the best way.  Trust me."

      "It matters to me."

      "You're a savage," she teased.

      "Then I'm a savage."

      "Well, that about settles that," Miranda said with a smile.  "Now that Keritanima's destroyed two noble houses for treason, both of them very rich and powerful, the rest won't even think of trying.  In just a little bit, the only man in Wikuna that could challenge her throne will be buried in an unmarked grave.  Kerri has the Vendari as allies, and Jenawalani's house, which is probably fourth or fifth in the new line of influence, will be just one of the top four or five houses that are Keritanima's allies.  I'd say that Kerri's position is now totally secure."

      "Good.  Then nothing's standing in our way now."

      "Not a thing," Miranda said with a cheeky grin.  "At least from this side.  Out there on the ocean, though, who's to say what's going to get in our way?"


To:       Title                EoF

Chapter 5

 

      The demise of Damon Eram--or just Damon, since Keritanima had stripped him of his noble name--was carried out in complete anonymity.  Tarrin was one of the people Keritanima had asked to witness the execution, as well as the heads of the twenty-eight remaining noble houses.  Damon, to his credit, didn't blubber or beg or snivel.  He accepted his fate with a quiet dignity that seemed strange after Tarrin had seen the infuriated, angry Wikuni in the throne room.  After the sentence was carried out, the body was carted off and buried in an unmarked grave.  That was the end of Damon, and nobody outside the thirty witnesses, eight guards, and four executioners knew that the former king of Wikuna was dead.

      Tarrin's humanity thought it a bit ruthless that Keritanima would order her own father put to death, but the human in him couldn't argue with the very long list of crimes that Damon Eram had committed on the throne.  The simple fact that he had killed one of his daughters, and attempted to kill Keritanima, was all even the human in him needed to justify the act.  Damon Eram was an evil, ruthless man, and it was a service to the entire world that he be removed from it.  Keritanima obviously had no love for her father, and Tarrin couldn't blame her.  If his parents never showed him any love, never supported him, and then tried to kill him, he'd probably hate them too.

      The execution of her father didn't show at all on Keritanima's face.  She returned to the throne room with the witnesses, ordered that a feast and ball be held that night to celebrate her return, and then she ended the audience.  Tarrin walked back in the general direction of his room with a servant guiding him, lost in thought about what he'd seen.  He'd witnessed the worst of the Wikuni society in action, the infamous political chicanery that was famous throughout the civilized world.  It really was as bad as people believed, but Tarrin could see an end to it in Keritanima.  She was slowly but inexorably taking hold of things, either eliminating or wooing the opposition.  She was using the same general tactics she had learned from her father and trying to use them to institute an alternative form of government, and he saw the paradox there.  She had to have a lighter hand if she wanted people to embrace her new system, but she couldn't use a lighter hand against those who were using heavy hands against her.  Keritanima was caught in a nasty little trap, being forced to ram a system that promoted peace and cooperation down the throats of the very people who were eventually going to be responsible for its maintenance.

      The key here, he saw, were the commoners.  If Keritanima wanted her new form of government to succeed, she had to bring the common man to her side.  He was pretty sure that she probably had their support--the commoners were wildly loyal to Keritanima--but she had to get out there and tell them that she needed their help.  The nobles would resist Keritanima, but if the commoners that worked for them stopped buying their goods, or stopped working for them, the nobles would buckle in short order.  The way to get at the rich was to take away the luxuries and comforts that they had grown to depend upon.  A rich man was a formidable opponent, but make him dress himself, cook for himself, and clean his palatial estate by himself, and he was a rich man on his knees.

      Tarrin himself didn't entirely understand Keritanima's new system, and, like the Vendari, it would not suit him if he were inside it.  Tarrin's instincts would make trying to operate in this Republic almost impossible for him.  Then again, Tarrin knew he wouldn't operate well in any system where he had to bow to the authority of someone he didn't respect.  Were-cats were never meant for organized society.

      After returning to his room, he set Sapphire down by her water bowl, then sat down and decided that a surprise talk with Jesmind would be a good idea.  She'd told him to tell her when he reached Wikuna, and besides, she was still a little peeved over his missed appointment.  She'd appreciate him contacting her.  He took hold of his amulet and called her name, and then waited.  And waited, and waited a little longer.  He called her name again, a little louder this time, and then got a rather muffled reply through the amulet.

      "What's the matter with you?" Tarrin asked.

      "I was asleep," she said, a little blearily.  There was a pause, and she spoke more clearly. "Is there something wrong?"

      "No, not at all.  You wanted me to let you know as soon as I got to Wikuna.  Well, we're here."

      "That's good.  Did you have any trouble?"

      "Not since the last time I talked to you," he chuckled.  "Kerri stuck me in these apartments that makes the one you have there look like a broom closet.  I'm almost lost in here, love.  It's too much space for one person."

      "What about Kimmie?"

      "What about her?" he asked.  "She's not living with me, Jesmind.  She just comes around whenever she wants attention, that's all."

      "Oh.  Ohhhh, alright," she said in a much happier tone.  "You didn't tell me that."

      "You kept getting bitchy every time I tried to bring it up," he countered.

      "Well excuse me," she chuckled.  "She was always in the room when you were about to stop talking to me.  I thought she moved in."

      "That's because she was coming into the room, Jesmind," he said patiently.

      "Alright, I understand now.  So how have you been?"

      "Same as always, Jesmind," he told her.  "I'm not sure how long we're going to be here in Wikuna.  We have to be somewhere else very soon, so I doubt we'll be here longer than a couple of days.  What's been happening over there?"

      "Not much more than usual," she replied.  "Jenna and Jula still spend almost all day together, and I'm trying to keep your daughter out of trouble.  That's starting to get harder and harder, because she's started using her magic whenever the mood hits her."

      "You need to stop her from doing that, love," he said seriously.

      "I know, but your sister isn't helping," she grunted.  "She's teaching Jasana magic, then sending her home and telling her not to do magic unless she's there with her.  That's like telling the sun not to shine.  Jasana tries to use magic any time she doesn't think I'm paying attention.  It's good that it always makes that light, because she hasn't learned how to hide it the way you and Jenna and Jula do.  I see that light, and I know what's going on."

      "I'll have a talk with Jenna.  She should know better than that," he said.

      "I'd appreciate it."  There was a sigh.  "I miss you, beloved.  When will you be coming back?"

      "I have no idea yet, Jesmind," he replied.  "I miss you too."

      "You have Kimmie," she said dangerously.

      "Kimmie and me are mates, Jesmind.  You're my love.  I enjoy the time with Kimmie, I won't deny it, but I still miss you."

      "Well, it's good to know where a girl stands," Jesmind said with an almost kittenish quality to her voice.  "Uh oh, mother's calling me.  I'd better go see what she wants.  I'll talk to you later, alright, Tarrin?"

      "Tonight?"

      "Tonight is fine with me.  Just do me a favor and talk to Jenna for me, alright?"

      "I will," he promised.  He felt her break the contact from her side, probably by taking her paw off the amulet.  He did need to talk to Jenna, but he felt that the best way to do that would be through the Weave.  It would also be a good chance to teach Keritanima about joining the Weave, since he wasn't sure how long they were going to be stationary.

      Then again, he wasn't sure if he was going to be able to drag Keritanima away from her queenly duties to give her a lesson.  She'd all but vanished again, whisked away to some other place doing whatever it was that queens did.  He couldn't blame her for doing what she needed to do for the country she ruled, but in a way, it made him feel just a little different towards her.  The fact that she was a queen had never really impacted him until right then, when he wanted to see Keritanima, but realized that it wasn't as easy as walking into her bedroom anymore.  He'd have to wait for her schedule to clear, whenever that would be.  He wasn't even sure how to get in touch with her through the normal, proper means.

      But Tarrin never really did things the normal way.  Putting a paw to his amulet, he called her name, and then waited patiently.  He figured she'd have to chase people away to reply to him.  His patience was justified a few minutes later.  "What is it, Tarrin?  Are you alright?"

      "I'm fine.  I need to go talk to Jenna, and I figured we could use it as a lesson, if you have the time.  Are you available?"

      There was a rueful laugh from the other side.  "Brother dear, I'm not going to be available until sometime next year," she told him.  "Of course, I don't have that much time, so in reality, I'm not going to be available until tomorrow morning.  I'll make it a point to put some time aside for us tomorrow morning, alright?"

      "That's fine with me, sister."

      "I'm glad you're going to give me some sail here, Tarrin.  I know my studies are important, but this is too."

      "I know that, Kerri.  You have alot of work to catch up on."

      "You have no idea," she drawled.  "Tomorrow after breakfast.  Deal?"

      "Deal."

      "See you then.  And don't forget Dolanna."

      "I won't," he said, then let go of the amulet.  That was easy enough.  He still had to go see Jenna, but at least now he could do it quickly.

      There wasn't a strand that ran though his room, so Tarrin had to pause long enough to make one, joining it to two very distant strands and threading it right across his bed.  He sat down atop the bed, so the strand passed directly through his chest, and then closed his eyes and started the process to separate his consciousness from his body and send it into the Weave.  It only took him a moment, for it was something at which he was experienced, and in a short time he was free of himself and hurtling through the black background and dazzling light that made up the Weave as seen from within.

      As always, he ended up in the Heart.  A Weavespinner didn't have to go right to the Heart when they joined the Weave, but Tarrin always felt drawn there, like water flowing downhill.  It had to be because of the presence of the Goddess.  He looked up into those eyes that loomed over the Heart, the eyes of the Goddess staring down into her domain unblinkingly, and felt a surge of love and faith flow through him at the sight of them.  They seemed to shift, to move, and then they smiled down on him in a loving benediction that made him tingle.  He basked in that gaze for longer than was entirely necessary, then bent to the task at hand.

      Finding Jenna was a very simple affair.  Her star blazed in the Heart, easy to pick out among the others.  He used it to track her physical body back to its location relative to the Weave--it was very close to the Heart--and prepared to journey to her.

      There is an easier way, my kitten, the Goddess intoned, showing him an exceptionally complicated spell by placing the images of the flows directly in his mind.  Simply touch her star and weave that spell, then speak to her.  She will hear it.

      Tarrin didn't answer, for he realized that the Goddess had told him that from afar, and didn't intend to reply.  He reached out and put a single finger to Jenna's star, and felt its vitality and warmth.  The star was a reflection of the soul it represented, and touching Jenna's star told him much about the inner strength of his sister.  He could sense the resolute nature of the star, the stalwart adamance about it that was slightly surprising.  Jenna was a Kael, and that meant that she was stubborn and mule-headed, but her star showed that she was dogged and determined, clamping onto a goal and not letting go until she achieved it.  It showed her warmth and compassion, traits that Tarrin often lacked, and it showed her gentle nature.  Jenna was a nurturer in spirit, giving to those around her and making them better than before she came to know them.  That quality would make her an outstanding teacher.

      "Jenna," he called, his voice resonating through the Heart, to race out into the infinite blackness where the strands crossed the black sky.

      There was a shiver through the star, and Tarrin could hear her reply clearly as Jenna bridged into the Weave.  "Tarrin?" her voice called from her star, obviously shocked.  "Where in the blazes are you?  I can hear you inside my head!"

      "I'm using your star to talk to you," he told her.  "I'm in the Heart."

      "You have got to show me that trick," she said immediately.  "Wait there a minute, I'm coming."

      Tarrin drifted back into the empty area at the center of the Heart, directly beneath the eyes of the Goddess, and he waited.  He only had to wait a scant moment, as Jenna's mind-conjured form simply appeared not far from him.  The image of self projected in the Heart was not how the body appeared, but how the Sorcerer conceived of his or herself.  The image of Jenna he faced was not his sister as he knew her, it was his sister as an adult, with long, dark hair and generous curves garbed in a gown that looked made of spider silk.  Jenna was still a young lady, barely more than a girl, but she obviously thought of herself as an adult. Then again, with Jenna, that was probably not far off the mark.  The knowledge that Spyder had imparted to her had matured her beyond her years, so it was probably appropriate that her self-image was that of a full adult rather than a child.

      Jenna looked at him, then smiled.  "You're consistent, I'll give you that," she told him.  "Jula appears in her human form when she projects.  You're the shorter you, but it's still you."

      "I've been Were alot longer than she has," he told her.

      "That may be why," she agreed.  "Alright, show me how you did it."

      He did so, showing her the spell that the Goddess had taught to him not moments before.  "Anything you have to teach me?" he asked curiously.

      "Not yet," she replied.  "I'll be done with the book in about another month or so.  I'll let you Summon a copy when I'm finished, so you can read it.  Have you seen Spyder?"

      "No, have you?"

      "Not since the last time she taught us," Jenna fretted.

      "How is Jula doing?"

      "She's learning fast," she replied.  "I'm starting to really reach to teach her new spells.  I was kind of hoping you'd have learned more through the echoes in the Weave."

      "Not lately.  They usually don't come to me until I need them, and there's not been anything going on that really needs me to use magic."

      "Then go put yourself in danger," she winked.  "I need to learn new spells!"

      "Experiment," he told her.  "It's not like you can Consume yourself or anything."

      "I could still generate a Wildstrike," she objected.

      "True, but it'll only hurt for a few moments.  Sometimes you have to suffer to advance."

      "I'd rather let you do the suffering and me doing the advancing," she laughed.

      "I love you too," he said dryly.

      Jenna was about to say something, but she suddenly whirled around and looked behind her.  At about the same time, Tarrin sensed...something.  He wasn't sure what it was, where it was, where it came from, or where it went.  All he did know was that something had been there just a split-second before.

      "What was that?" they asked one another in unison.  Jenna laughed and Tarrin gave a slight face of irritation.  "Have you ever sensed anything like that before, Jenna?" he asked.

      "A couple of times," she replied.  "I was hoping you could tell me about it."

      "I've never felt it before," he answered her.  "Maybe we should ask the Goddess."

      "I did.  She won't answer me," she replied.  "This is either something she won't tell us about, or something we're supposed to find out on our own."

      "Any idea what it is?"

      "No idea at all," she grunted.  "That was only the third time, and it's never here long enough for me to get any kind of a sense of it at all.  Well, if you're here, then you're not moving.  Are you there yet?"

      "We're there," he told her.

      "What's it like?  Wikuna, I mean."

      Tarrin described what he remembered of the city, then told her about the Palace and some of its technolgical luxuries.  "I don't like this place, Jenna," he said.  "The place is cold.  Almost as if all the evil that's been done in here has seeped into the walls.  If it were haunted by a thousand ghosts, I wouldn't be surprised."

      "Ghosts aren't evil, Tarrin, they're just confused," Jenna corrected him absently.  "I wonder how they make the water flow through the pipes.  They have to have some kind of massive wellpump."

      "When did you learn about ghosts?" he asked.

      "It was part of what Spyder taught me," she replied.  "There are such things as ghosts, but most of them aren't evil like the stories say.  Most of them don't even realize they're dead."

      "You really need to sit down with me and tell me about it all," he told her.

      "You'll be able to read it all when I finish the book," she assured him.  "Oh, I should tell you now."

      "What?"

      "The Keeper is ill," she said.  "I don't know what it is, but whatever it is, Sorcery can't heal it."

      "Sorcery can't cure disease, Jenna."

      "I know, but it came on too quickly for it to be natural," she said.

      "Get a Priest.  They can cure diseases."

      "We've already tried that."

      "Then get a stronger Priest," he amended.  "A High Priest can bring someone back from the deathbed."

      "And where do we find one?" Jenna asked, a bit tartly.  "Just about all the high-ranking Priests that were in Suld were part of the conspiracy in the Cathedral, so we can't use them.  Most of them are dead, and the rest were stripped of their magic by Karas.  The ones that still have magic are getting it from another god."

      "Val," Tarrin realized.  The Goddess and Spyder said that magic grew stronger with each new Weavespinner.  Before, Val couldn't grant magic spells to his Priests, they had to serve another deity while surreptitiously serving Val.  If the resurgence of lost magical powers and the strengthening of magic as a whole applied to Val as well, despite the fact that he was a god, then maybe now he could grant magical spells to his followers.

      Tarrin hedged.  "I, I think I might be able to do it," he said finally.  There was no love lost between him and the Council, and the very memory of the Keeper was still enough to make him snarl in hatred.  But the Keeper was the Keeper, and the Tower needed stability at the moment.  If that meant swallowing his almost overpowering urge to ram the Keeper's teeth down her throat, then he'd do it to protect his family.  "I'm no High Priest, but I may be able to fast-talk the Goddess into granting the spell for me, if there's nobody else available."

      I hope you realize that I can hear every word you say, the Goddess said whimsically.  Tarrin flushed slightly.  In fact, he had forgotten about that.  It was easy to forget about that.  It's a good idea, kitten but Priest magic is not Sorcery.  You have to be there and make physical contact for the spell to work properly.  You're in Wikuna, and the Keeper is in Suld.

      "Then Jenna can do it," he said impulsively.  "She's just as strong as I am."

      She's also human, the Goddess answered simply.  Where you can bend the rules because of what you are, it would break them if I granted high-order Priest magic to Jenna.

      "Then Jula," he reasoned.  "Since it's a one-time deal, I'm sure you can bend the rules for her the way you do for me."

      Jula doesn't have the magical training necessary to cast the spell, kitten.  It's a good idea, though, she assured him.  If Jula trained with some Priests, she may be able to do it.  But it would take too long.

      "Then what should we do?" Jenna asked.

      Nothing.  In this, I want the two of you to do nothing.  Do you understand me?

      "Yes, Mother," they said in unison.

      "Mother, what was that presence we sensed a few minutes ago?" Tarrin asked bluntly.

      Something you'll have to discover for yourself, my kitten, she answered, and then her sense of nearness retreated away from them.

      "Well, you were right about that," Tarrin grunted to Jenna.

      Jenna looked over her shoulder.  "Um, Tarrin, I think Jasana is tugging my hair," she said uncertainly.  "She's doing something that's getting my attention, that's for sure."

      "It scares her when we join the Weave," he told her.  "I wouldn't do it around her.  It upsets her."

      "I'll--ow!--remember that," she said, wincing.  "She is pulling my hair!"

      "Then you'd better go back," he said.  "I wanted to tell you to stop training Jasana and then just sending her home," he told her.  "She keeps trying to use magic at home when she knows she's not supposed to do magic without one of us there.  You have to teach her, but start being heavy-handed.  If Jesmind tells you she used magic the night before, deny her her lesson for that day.  That'll make her get back in line very fast.  Jasana's fascinated with magic, and when she finds out that the price of disobedience is losing the chance to learn magic, she should behave."

      "That's pretty underhanded, Tarrin," Jenna chuckled.

      "When you're dealing with Jasana, you have to be as conniving as she is," he told her plainly.

      "No lie there," Jenna laughed, then she winced again.  "Is that all you needed to say?  If not, then give me the rest before your daughter rips all the hair out of my head."

      "No, that's it," he said.  "I'm bringing Kerri to the Heart tomorrow morning.  Want to make it a double lesson?"

      "Sure," she replied.  "Me and Jula will be here.  I'd better go, I think I just lost my bangs," she growled.

      "Remember, be tough," he told her.

      "Tough.  Got it," she nodded.  "See you tomorrow."  Then her image dissolved.

      Tarrin returned to his own body as well, having accomplished Jesmind's request in a timely fashion.  And found himself almost immediately bored.  He had nothing to do.  Yawning, he shifted into his cat form and curled up on the bed.  Whenever a cat had nothing else to do, it slept.

 

      "Absolutely not!" Tarrin roared, throwing the ridiculously gaudy costume aside.

      Keritanima stared at him evenly.  She had come to his room not long before sunset, and it was the first time he'd seen her since the throne room.  He'd eaten lunch with the others, but Keritanima had not been there, as she did whatever it was that she had to do with her government.  But she had found the time to drop by his room before the grand feast and party she'd ordered and give him the most frilly-looking blue doublet and hose--hose, of all things!-- for him to wear.  Tarrin did not like such ridiculous looking clothing, and there was no way he was going to wear it.  "You are not going to come to the ball and feast wearing that, brother," she warned in a dangerous tone.  "You look like a peasant."

      "I am a peasant!" he told her flatly.  "Don't forget that, Kerri!  I'm a simple village farmboy, no matter what I look like right now.  I'm not going to wear that stupid doublet and hose.  And that's final."

      "Yes you are," she said in a deadly tone, reaching down and picking up the doublet.  "You aren't about to go in there in front of all the noble houses looking like a clodhopper, Tarrin.  I know you don't care what people think about you, but your appearance is going to reflect on me."  She thrust the doublet back at him imperiously.

      Without blinking, staring right into her eyes, Tarrin sank his claws into the doublet and ripped it in half.  He tossed the two remnants of the doublet to each side and glared at the smaller Wikuni, daring her to say a word.

      Just as cooly, Keritanima wove a weave of Air and picked up the pieces, then used the weave of mending that Tarrin had taught her to repair the garment.

      "Don't make me burn it out of your hands, Kerri," Tarrin warned.  "I'm not going to wear it, and you should know better than to push me."

      "I don't care what you think, Tarrin," she warned.  "If you don't wear something nice, you're not going to attend.  That's final!"

      "Then so be it," he said bluntly, turning his back on her and shifting into his cat form.  He heard Keritanima growl furiously as he jumped up onto the bed and curled up atop it.  He closed his eyes and ignored Keritanima as she shouted at him, but was honestly surprised when the Wikuni grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and hauled him off the bed.  Tarrin wasn't a kitten, so her grip on him was decidedly painful as his skin stretched and the Wikuni's short, sharp little claws dug into him.  He opened his eyes and glared at her, but her amber eyes didn't waver as she glared right back at him.  He couldn't shapeshift while she had hold of a good part of the back of his neck, but he could make his displeasure known with magic.  "Why do you always have to be so childish!" she shouted at him as he deepened his connection to the Weave, preparing to weave a pretty unpleasant spell to make her let him go.  "I swear, brother, I want to wring your neck!"

      Keritanima's voice got too hostile, and her hold on him was a bit too aggressive.  Keritanima yelped in considerable pain as a bright blue flash illuminated the room, and she dropped him from a nerveless hand as Sapphire's magical lightning scoured motor control out of her body.  Keritanima flopped over backwards as Tarrin shapeshifted back to his natural form, then let Sapphire land on his shoulder.  She chirped softly at him and rubbed her head against his neck, making sure he wasn't hurt.  Almost mothering him.  Tarrin hadn't seen such a display of protectiveness out of the drake before, at least not on his behalf.

      "I...hate...that...drake," Keritanima slurred, trying without much success to move.  She did move, but she had very little control over her actions, moving in erratic, jerky movements.  Sapphire had been carrying a full charge, and she had let Keritanima have it with all of it.

      "Be lucky it was her.  I would have done something much worse," Tarrin said flatly.  "I don't care if you're my sister or not, Kerri.  That hurt, and I'm sure you know how I react when people hurt me.  Don't ever grab me like that again."

      "I, I didn't know it hurt you," she slurred, getting a little more control back.  "I'm sorry."

      "I accept the apology, but don't come in here and boss me around, sister.  I'm not one of your servants, and I'm not one of your subjects."

      "I'm used to bossing people around," she said in a clearer voice, managing to sit up.

      "Get over it," Tarrin said flatly.  "You may be a queen, but that doesn't put you over me.  If you want to order me around, then roll up your sleeves and make me obey you.  It's the only way it's going to happen."

      Keritanima looked at him, then laughed.  "Dolanna warned me, but I didn't want to listen," she admitted.  "I was so used to bossing you around back in the Tower, I guess it became second nature."

      "It was only practical to do what you wanted then, since I knew you understood what was going on alot better than I did, and you were better suited for dealing with it.  Things aren't like that anymore, deshaida."

      "So I see.  Well, I won't force you to wear the doublet, but you absolutely will not come to the ball wearing those rags.  You look like a homeless vagabond!"

      "Would a new linen shirt and a pair of new leather trousers offend your sense of style?"

      "Yes, but I think it's as far as I'm going to move you, so I'll live with it."

      "You're right."

      "And you need to take a bath!" she ordered.  "You still smell like a ship!"

      "The salt smell permeated the clothes," he realized, sniffing at his shirt.  "I'd gotten used to it.  Actually, I kinda like it."

      "So do I, but you need to smell as neatly as you appear.  So, take a bath, wash your hair, get some new clothes, and I'll have a servant come get you in about an hour.  Alright?"

      "That's fine with me," he agreed.

      "Alright then.  Imagine, Keritanima-Chan Eram, Queen of Wikuna, having to fight with someone in her own Palace!" she sighed.  "If the nobles found out, I'd never live it down!"

      "If they tease you over it, just point them out to me, and I'll kill them," he offered.

      Keritanima laughed.  "Sometimes I wish it was that easy," she told him, heading towards the inner parlor.  She'd left her Royal Guard outside the entrance to the apartments.  "I'll see you in a while.  I have to get ready myself."

      Tarrin let her go, still a little annoyed with her, then chided Sapphire softly as she hissed towards the open doorway.  He set her down and Conjured new, clean, undamaged clothing, trousers that weren't shredded around the ankles from the claws on his feet, a shirt that didn't have holes in it from the claws on his paws, and then joined the adventure of figuring out how the bathtub worked.  It still mystified him that they had managed to put running water in an upper-floor room of a large building situated on a hill.  How did they keep the water pressure going to make the water flow out of the spigot?  There had to be something pushing the water, but how could they do it without using horses, or men, or a water wheel of gigantic proportions?  He took off his clothes and put a paw in the flow of the water, still amazed that there was hot water flowing out of it.  How did they heat the water without magic?  Or did they use magic?  There were a few Priest spells that would cause a heating effect, one in particular jumped to mind, a spell that heated metal.  There was another spell, much more advanced, that caused a lesser spell's effect to be rendered permanent.  Was that how they did it?  Did they use magic that heated the water, then make it permanent?  If so, they must be able to control the temperature.  The water flowing over his paw was hot, but it wasn't boiling.  Not that it would have bothered him if it was boiling.  He just couldn't imagine how they were doing it.  But then again, Tarrin had never learned much about mechanics and physics and science.  Most of his learning had been warfare and hunting and swordplay.

      He watched the tub fill up with water, then he stopped the water's flow.  Then he let some of it out for good measure, recalling that his body would displace the water and raise the water level.  He didn't want to have to clean up a small pool of water off the bathroom floor.  It steamed lazily in the contained air of the bathroom, raising the temperature of the room, and Tarrin found it to his liking.  He tentatively put a foot in the bath, feeling the strange sensation of hot water soaking into the fur on his toes.  Tarrin didn't like getting his fur wet, but this was a special occasion.  He did need a bath.  He stepped into it then slowly sank down into the water, watching the fetlocks on his ankles floating and drifting in the comfortably hot water, feeling its heat work into him and relax muscles that he didn't realize were tensed.  The bathtub was monstrously oversized, almost large enough for a small human to swim in it, but for Tarrin it was almost perfect.  They'd probably made it so large to amaze the royal guest housed in the room, to overwhelm him with the grandeur of the place.

      Tarrin blinked.  Maybe the bathtub wasn't oversized.  He took the fact that everything was usually too small for him for granted, but he realized right then that the furniture was a little larger than normal, the chairs were a little sturdier than normal, despite being garishly over-decorated, the bed was absolutely huge, even the pedestal upon which the sink rested was very high for a Wikuni-sized person.  The Wikuni were allied to the Vendari that lived on the continent...did they furnish these rooms with an eye on making an oversized Vendari feel comfortable?  If they did that, they would have made all the furniture much larger.  Or maybe they'd reinforced things for a Vendari but still made it usable by smaller beings.  That was a possibility.  After all, they'd only have to make the bed and the bathtub truly large to accommodate a Vendari, since they, like him, were probably used to the undersized furniture they encountered when dealing with the smaller folk.

      Either way, the bathtub was large enough for him, and that was all that mattered.  He laid all the way back until only his head and neck were out of the water, enjoying the sensation of being surrounded by hot water.  Sapphire flapped over and landed on the lip of the tub, sniffing at the water curiously.  She looked at him with those blue-blue eyes, and the question was obvious within them.  What was he doing?  "It's a bath, Sapphire," he told her.  "I'm cleaning up."

      She tilted her head quizzically at him.

      "Nevermind," he said absently, reaching behind him and unbinding his braid.  He combed it out and then washed his hair, rinsing out quite a bit of sea salt and travel dust.  He felt the heavy weight of it, all that hair soaking up the water and tugging at his head, and he paused to remember how Mist looked with short hair.  Then he remembered what Triana said, as well as Kimmie, that a Were-cat could actively control how long they wanted their hair to be.  He'd never really given it much thought up until that point, when he felt the great weight of his hair and he wondered how it would feel to not have it pulling the back of his head down all the time.

      What would it hurt?  If he failed, it would just grow back.  Tarrin rose up and sat on the lip of the tub, then twisted his hair together to gather it up and squeeze the majority of the water out of it.  Then he Conjured two mirrors and hung them in midair with Sorcery so he could see what he was doing.  Once he had the mirrors set where he could see clearly, he used a slight weave of cutting Air to slice the gathered hair in twain, just below the base of the hairline on the back of his head.  He could feel his scalp immediately start to itch, the signal that the hair was about to beging to grow at that astronomical rate that would return it to its former length within moments.  He closed his eyes and willed his hair not to grow, forming an image of himself with a hairstyle something like his father's, with just the small tail of hair at the back of the head, just reaching the shoulders, and the short hair on the sides and in front.  He felt his scalp continue to itch, but he felt no hair growing yet.  He realized that it was still itching because his self-image had always been with the long hair, with the braid, and seeing himself with short hair seemed almost unnatural.  It wasn't how he currently appeared or how he wanted to appear, the Were-flavored body wanted to mold itself into the self-image maintained by the mind.  As a shapeshifter, that self-image was critical for returning to the natural form, so it was branded into his deep subconscious.

      Tarrin opened his eyes, and was surprised to see his hair short.  It had grown just a little, to match the image of self he had pictured in his mind, and in that moment he could see his father in him.  His hair looked like his father's hair, almost perfectly, right down to the shaggy, uneven bangs and the shoulder-length tail of hair on the back of his head.  Father kept it because his neck easily sunburned.  His head felt weird, too light, and he looked very funny.  Father's hairstyle didn't suit him.  He willed his hair to grow out just a little more, to where the bangs were even and just over his eyes, and longer on the sides to conceal the smooth skin where human ears would have been.  Those patches of bare skin upset some humans, for some reason, so he was in a habit of keeping them hidden.  It felt quite right to have the bangs there, since he kept short bangs, but it still felt funny in the back.  He looked at himself in the mirrors, and wasn't entirely displeased with the slightly longer hair.  His black-furred ears looked a little strange popping up over the freed hair, since the braid kept his hair more or less flat, and his hair began to try to poof up as it began to dry out.  Like all Were-cats, Tarrin's hair was incredibly thick, so thick that it had a tendency to stand up on the top of his head.

      "What do you think, Sapphire?" he asked absently, turning his head this way and that to look at his hair.  "Is it me?"

      The drake looked at him and gave a noncommital chirp.

      It was certainly less of a burden like that.  Lighter, and it would be easier to wash.  And, if he didn't like it, he could just make it grow back out any time he wanted.  He did make it grow out a little more, not liking how it felt when it moved around free with every turn of his head.  He gathered it up at the back of his head and Conjured a thong to tie it.  It wasn't a braid, it was a tail, and it made him go right back to looking much as he did before he cut off the braid.  He looked at it in the mirror and decided he liked it.  Maybe not as much as having the braid, but he'd try it and see.

      That left a five-span long mass of hair left over.  Tarrin picked it up where he tied it to cut it off, looking at it.  All that hair had been connected to the back of his head not a few moments ago.  He remembered Phandebrass' warning for him not to leave such things laying around, that they could be used against him in magical spells, so he incinerated the mass of hair with a quick weave, reducing it to fine, powdery ash.  He picked up the ash with a weave of Air and deposited it in the sink, then washed it down the drain.

      Feeling clean and relaxed, Tarrin climbed out of the tub and dried off, then dressed in the new clothing he would wear to the feast.  They felt very nice against his skin and fur, and they smelled much better than the old clothes, though they lacked that sea smell that Tarrin did rather like.  Sapphire jumped up onto his shoulder and flipped the new tail of hair with her snout a couple of times as he was lacing the front of the new shirt.  Then she bit it.

      "Sapphire!" Tarrin chided as she clamped onto the tail of hair and pulled at it.  "Do you mind?"

      Obviously, she didn't mind at all.  She kept biting at it, sawing her teeth back and forth, and then he felt his hair come free of its bindings.  Sapphire pulled away, and he looked down and saw that she had the leather thong he'd used between a single clawed forepaw and her maw, pulling at it with a clawed finger as her teeth tried to sever it again.  He forgot that he gave Sapphire leather rawhide to chew on, and she had smelled the leather thong and thought it to be a new chew toy.

      Grumbling, Tarrin Conjured a silk cord and used that to tie his hair.  Sapphire sniffed at it curiously, but this one, she decided, wasn't worth biting.  "If you chew up my new pants, we're going to fight, little girl," he warned as he left the bathroom.

      Tarrin passed the time between getting ready and the knock on the door in tedium.  When it finally did come, Tarirn was both relieved and a little anxious.  Tarrin didn't like strangers, and he was about to go into a huge crowd of them.  Some of them weren't going to be friendly, either.  He decided the best thing to do would be go to the ball, eat, hang around long enough to satisfy Kerri, then quietly leave.

      The servant sent to fetch him was a wolf Wikuni female that looked surprisingly like Audrey, the Were-wolf female that he'd come to meet on the march to Suld.  Almost exactly the same.  She had the same narrow snout and gray-white coloring, wearing a white gown with the Royal Crest emblazoned on the front in red, and her black hair done in a multitude of little curls than hung over her amber eyes.  Audrey was a little taller than this female, which made this female taller than the average Wikuni female, and Audrey was a Were-wolf, who were a very sleek and powerful breed.  This female was slender, but she had the same softness that human females exhibited.  This one probably did not do any real work.  "Um, Master Tarrin?" she asked hesitantly.  He could smell her fear, and that caused his predatory nature to rise up, staring down at the smaller female.

      "Let's go," he said bluntly, stepping out into the hallway and forcing her to back up, eyes widening.

      "Um, are you bringing the drake?"

      "Is it here?  Am I carrying it out into the hall?" he asked.

      "Um, yes, but, um, you may want to leave it in your rooms, sir," she said meekly.

      "If she bites anyone, they obviously deserved it," Tarrin told the little servant with a stare that made her flinch away from him.

      "I, um, yes, Master Tarrin," she acquiesced, then started down the hallway.

      Tarrin fell into step behind her, having to go slow.  "What's got you so nervous?" he asked her directly.

      "Um, well, um, we were warned to be polite to you, that you were, um, well, sort of not very nice," she answered honestly.  Tarrin admired that honesty, even if her words did seem rather cowardly.  "They said to always tell you the truth," she added quickly, obviously fearing that she insulted him.   She was visibly trembling, and the fear-smell emanated from her as if she'd doused a bucket of it over herself.  She was terrified of him!  Tarrin wondered why they would send her, when Kerri knew that if the servant she sent showed fear, it would irritate him?

      "Kerri knows me to well," Tarrin chuckled to himself.  "What's your name?"

      "Amber, my Lord," she replied.

      Fitting name, he reasoned, given her eyes.  "Calm down, girl.  I won't hurt you unless I have a reason to.  Do you plan to give me a reason?"

      "No!" she squeaked.

      "Then you have nothing to worry about," he told her calmly.  "Why did Kerri send you?"

      "Her Majesty didn't, Master Tarrin.  I was sent by the Master of Servants."

      In other words, the servant that was supposed to come and get him was too afraid after Kerri warned him about Tarrin's peculiarities, so he sent her, someone he could bully into doing it for him.  At least she had the courage to do her duty, even if she was afraid of him.  Tarrin could respect that.  "From now on, if anyone ever has to come and get me or bring anything to me, you're going to do it, Amber," he told her.  "At least you have the courage to face me.  That's more than can be said for some of the spineless cowards Kerri has working for her."

      "Um, yes, Master Tarrin," she said in a slightly quavering voice.  Amber, it seemed, wasn't quite so enthusiastic about her new appointment.

      Amber led him down hallways, up and down stairs, and down more hallways, each more gaudily decorated than the last, until he again stood in the throne room.  It had festive buntings hanging on the walls between the numerous decorations designed to impress the onlooker with the splendor of the Wikuni kingdom, and the grand open space was filled with so many Wikuni that the floor was very crowded.  Almost all of them were very richly dressed in expensive gowns or extravagant doublets, and jewels dripped from them all like water.  Each of them did his or her very best to impress everyone else, and exhibit his grandeur, wealth, and importance.  They talked in groups, large and small, and a veritable army of servants scurried between them holding trays carrying food or drink.  The dais on the far end of the throne room was empty at the moment, and since there were no tables within the hall, the meal would be taken in another chamber.  It had to be a pretty huge one, to hold tables for what looked to be nearly three hundred guests.

      Amber led him through the throng, and each group stopped talking when Tarrin passed them, only to fire up into heated whispers after he went by.  His ears could pick up some of the whispering, which was all wild rumor.  Some said he was Keritanima's lover, some said he was a wild monster from the West she had tamed as another formidable bodyguard, some even said he was some kind of missing link between Wikuni and other races, since he was half animal.  The most annoying rumor, however, was the scornful tone used when they called him a Sorcerer.  Tarrin often forgot that Sorcery was not a very welcome profession outside of Sulasia.  Most other kingdoms feared or hated Sorcerers, blaming them for the Breaking and just about any other misfortune they may have befell in the thousand years since then.

      It wasn't hard to make out Keritanima's group.  Three Vendari and Azakar made them stand out on the floor, near the dais.  Keritanima was there, wearing her Royal robes and crown in a formal sense, and Binter and Sisska stood at each side of her, as they always did.  Azakar stood by Binter, wearing his armor.  Miranda stood beside Sisska, wearing an off-white, nearly cream colored gown that cleverly matched the color of her fur and made it hard to tell where neckline ended and fur-clad cleavage began.  All the others were there, and they were all wearing finery.  Allia wore a white robe, of all things, that did make her look good, since it was belted around her very sleek waist.  Dolanna wore her best gown, a deep blue gown that accented her dark hair, and Phandebrass was wearing a silk robe that didn't have any burn marks or stains on it, as well as that same ridiculous pointed hat of which he was so fond.  For Phandebrass, that was pretty remarkable.  Camara Tal still wore a tripa skirt, but it was new and black, a new color for her, and she wore a breastplate with an eagle etched into its front and a new swordbelt with the magical sword that she had inherited from Faalken on it.  Dar wore a new silk robe that was dark brown, and he looked very comfortable in the social situation.  Dar was from a wealthy family in Arkis, so he was probably used to things like this.  Kimmie was also wearing a gown, altered for her tail, and Tarrin was quite taken by how pretty she looked in it.  It was lavender, a strange color that did go well with her hair but also made her striped orange tabby fur stand out on her paws.  It wasn't quite clashing, but it was close.  Then again, few colors were going to go well with orange and yellow, so Kimmie had chosen a color that went with her hair and put long sleeves on to hide as much of her fur as she could.

      "Um, your Majesty, Master Tarrin," Amber said with a deep curtsy.

      Keritanima looked at Tarrin expectantly, but he just stood there until Dar elbowed him in the side.  "You're supposed to bow!" he whispered to the Were-cat under his breath.

      He forgot about that part.  He gave Keritanima a bow, a slight one but still graceful, and she nodded her head in acknowledgement, relief evident on her face.  "Whatever did you do to your hair?" Keritanima asked him curiously.

      "I decided to try it without all the weight," he answered.

      "Well, what do you think so far?" Keritanima asked with a sudden grin.

      "It's weird," he replied, putting a paw to the back of his head.

      "I imagine it would feel that way," Keritanima agreed.  "Did you have to bring that little monster with you?"

      "She protects me from you, Kerri," Tarrin said bluntly.

      Dar had to stifle a laugh, and even Dolanna looked about ready to smile.

      Tarrin glanced at Amber, who was nervously waiting to be dismissed.  "I want you to send this one any time you send for me," Tarrin said, pointing at the servant.

      "You like her, eh?" Keritanima asked.

      "She has more guts than the one you originally sent," he replied.

      "You didn't kill him, did you?" Keritanima asked in concern, a question that made Amber flinch.

      "He never showed up.  He must have pawned it off on her.  She did show up, and she was even honest with me."

      "What's your name, girl?" Keritanima asked her.

      "Amber, your Majesty," she replied with a curtsy so deep she almost fell over.

      "I like sevants with courage, and you're obviously loyal, if you were willing to face him on my orders," she said, grinning at Tarrin.  "Don't let him scare you, girl.  He's all bluster and fanfare, but deep inside he's just a big pussycat."

      Amber's muzzle fur ruffled slightly, and she glanced at Tarrin.

      "If Tarrin wants you, then he's got you," she said grandly.  "You'll serve Tarrin as a page until we leave, and then you'll take up a place on my personal staff.  I think that's suitable reward for standing up to the big bully."

      "Th-Thank you, your Majesty," Amber said, curtsying again.

      "Now go take the rest of the day off," Keritanima ordered.  "You deserve it."

      Amber curtsied about ten times as she backed away from their group, stammering and stuttering, until she was swallowed up by the crowd.

      "She was honest with you how?" Dar asked curiously.

      "She said I wasn't very nice," he replied.

      "That's honest," Dar laughed.

      "I don't understand why she's so nervous.  She's alot braver than most of these sheep."

      "Those sheep have others to stand between themselves and danger," Dolanna said sagely.  "Ones like Amber have nothing but themselves."

      "Well, do you like your rooms, Tarrin?" Keritanima asked.

      "It's too big," he answered.

      "So are mine," Allia agreed.  "I do not know what to do with all that space."

      "Why did you put us in there?" Tarrin asked her.

      "Well, I like my rooms," Dar said defensively.  "I've never had so much space to myself before."

      "I could grow very attached to the baths," Dolanna agreed.

      "I say, you really must send me to your civil engineers," Phandebrass said brightly.  "I am completely amazed by how advanced your water system is.  Well, running water, hot and cold, and even a sewer system!  I've never seen the like!"

      "And what are those stones that I've seen out there?" Dar asked.  "Those huge ones that they've been putting down on the streets?  How do they move them without breaking everything?"

      "Those aren't stones when they start out, Dar," Keritanima grinned.  "It's the newest invention from the Ministry of Science.  It's a mixture of crushed limestone, sand, gravel, and some other ingredients I'm not quite sure about.  They call it concrete."

      "How do they move it?"

      "It starts out as a liquid," she explained patiently.  "They mix all the ingredients together with water, pour it into a mold, then simply wait for it to dry.  When it does, it's as strong as just about any kind of stone."

      "That's almost unbelievable," Camara Tal said calmly.  "Liquid stone?"

      "I've seen them do it," Keritanima told her.  "It looks like gray mud when they start out.  They pour it out onto the street in a mold, smooth it out with flat boards, then just rope off the area and let it dry.  They've been tearing up the streets here in the city, installing a better sewer system underneath them while they've got them ripped up, then covering it with new concrete streets.  It's been going fairly well," she said with a toothy grin.  "They started on the largest and most travelled streets and then they're working their way down.  The city's master engineer wrote me a report saying they'd be done in about four years."

      "Liquid stone," Tarrin mused.  "That's almost better than magic."

      "How do they think these things up?" Dar asked curiously.

      "I have an entire university full of people who do nothing but think things up," Keritanima told him seriously.  "Wikuna's edge has always been the fact that we're one step ahead of the rest of the world.  We have faster ships, better weapons, and a stronger economy.  Well, the rest of the world is going to catch up to us, so we spend a lot of money researching new ideas.  The steam engine, concrete, cast iron, and something that's caught on over in Sennadar, printing presses and cooking stoves, they're all products of Wikuna's state-funded science department."

      "You told me the Tellurians invented the stoves," Dar accused.

      "They developed the idea, but it was our cast-iron technology that made them cheap to produce," Keritanima replied calmly.  "They were riveting together hand-worked iron plates to make the stoves before we bought the idea from them.  Now we just cast the pieces, assemble them, then sell them.  If there's anyone in the world that gives us a run for our money in technology, it's the Tellurians.  If they were a larger, better funded kingdom, they could probably pass us by.  Tellurians are probably the most creative people I've ever seen.  That's why over half of my Science Department are Tellurians," she admitted with a grin.

      Tarrin recalled that clever little writing pen that had all the ink inside it, the one Miranda was so fond of using.  She had said that it was a Tellurian design.

      "I say, my countrymen are rather bright," Phandebrass said with a mild smile.

      "You're Tellurian?" Camara Tal asked with a scoff.

      "I say, isn't it obvious?" he asked, slightly offended.

      "I certainly hope he's not an example of the race," the Amazon said to Keritanima, jerking her thumb at the mage.

      "Master Phandebrass certainly displays the intelligence of the Tellurian people," Keritanima said with diplomatic aplomb.

      "Too bad it's so warped," Camara Tal grunted, crossing her arms across her ceremonial breastplate.

      A Wikuni stepped into the grand main entrance to the hall and rang a large brass bell.  "Ah, there's dinner," Keritanima said brightly, obviiously heading off another argument between Phandebrass and Camara Tal.  "Shall we eat?"

      "Capital idea," Phandebrass said, adjusting the ridiculous pointed hat he wore.

      They were led to an immense chamber not far from the throne hall, nearly twice as large, and filled with table after table.  There had to be a hundred of them in the hall, all of them circular with six chairs place under them and the silk-covered tables set with the finest gold-chased china from the Far East.  Even the cutlery was made of gold, Tarrin could smell as he and his friends were led to the head table, on a small raised dais at the far end of the room.  They all waited as the Queen was seated, then were allowed to take their own seats.  Keritanima's table was twice the size of all the others, but only had nine places, giving the three extra diners at the Queen's table much more space.  They were all seated except Binter and Sisska, who stood to each side of the Queen's chair defensively.  Tarrin sat at Keritanima's left, and Allia to her right, as Miranda, Phandebrass, Dar, Camara Tal, Dolanna, and Azakar took the remaining seats.  Both Tarrin and Azakar gave the chairs a nervous look, for they didn't look all that sturdy.  They were heavily padded, made of cherrywood, and had designs embroidered on the cushions tacked to the backs.  Tarrin gave Azakar a slightly amused look, as they both hovered there and waited for the other to sit down, to see if the chair broke.  Tarrin weighed less than Azakar, so he decided to try it first, carefully lowering himself down until his full weight was placed on the chair.  It did seem to squeak a bit, but remained whole.

      "You're not that fat, Tarrin," Keritanima chided him.

      "I don't trust furniture made for little people," Tarrin told her absently as Azakar gingerly seated himself in the chair.  It squealed a bit in protest, but accepted his full weight without breaking.

      Dinner was served immediately after the Queen was comfortable, and it was a very large, very long meal.  They served it in courses, one dish at a time, and some of the foods were things that Tarrin had never seen before.  The first course was a thick soup made of small sea creatures that Keritanima called shrimp, with cream and small bits of some kind of fish.  Tarrin didn't like it very well, it was too heavily spiced, but Sapphire seemed to be very partial to it, so he gave the rest to her.  The second course was a weird creature that looked like some kind of mutated scorpion, cherry-red and angry looking.  Keritanima called it a lobster, a sea animal that was abundant in Wikuna's chilly coastal waters, and she showed them how to extract the white meat from the hard shell with small, delicate forks and a tool that looked like a steel version of the pincer that was on the lobster's body.  Tarrin dispensed with the shell-cracker and simply split the thing open with his claws, using the tips like an awl to puncture the shell and cause it to split.  Then it was just a simple matter of digging out the good parts.  The third dish they served was grilled fish steaks, some kind of reddish-meat fish that was actually quite savory.

      Tarrin looked around briefly, and saw that most of the nobles were watching him, their expressions slightly unpleasant.  He glanced at them only briefly before going back to his fish steak, feeding a part of it to Sapphire, who seemed to like it as much as he did.

      By then, Allia was looking a little displeased.  "What's wrong?" Tarrin asked.

      "These things, they're all from the sea," she said in Selani.  "They all taste funny, metallic in a way.  I don't like them."

      "Don't worry, sister," Keritanima assured her. "It won't all be seafood."

      "I hope not."

      The fourth dish made Allia much happier.  It was a vegetable dish, bean chutes, mushrooms, large brown things, and strips of some kind of fleshy plant cooked in a rich, tangy sauce and served over a strange grain-like food that Keritanima called rice.  Tarrin had never seen any of the vegetables except the beans and mushrooms before, but he had to admit that they were quite good.  The rice itself was tasteless, but he found that when it was mixed with the sauce, it was very good.  The fifth dish was obviously prepared with Tarrin in mind, for it was beef steaks, not roasted, but grilled over an open flame.  The difference wasn't a very big one, but it made a world of difference in the way that it tasted.  The steaks were served with a potato, something with which Tarrin was more than familiar, one baked instead of boiled.  Tarrin had always found potatos to be bland, but if one heaped enough butter on them, they became almost edible.  Even with his heightened sense of taste, he still found potatos to be rather bland.  But it didn't take as much butter as it did when he was human to make it tolerable.  Tarrin set the bone of his steak, with plenty of meat still on it, on the table in front of Sapphire, setting it on a small saucer that had been part of the set table.  The drake sank her teeth into it happily, and to his surprise, her small, sharp little teeth seemed to have no trouble grinding down the bone as well as the meat.  Just like a raccoon, she used her forepaws to hold the bone down and even used them to hold the bone off the plate as she ate.  He saw that her forepaws had remarkable dexterity, and since her duke claw could serve as an opposable thumb, it gave her alot of gripping power.  Sapphire used her forepaws like hands, and she seemed to be quite adept at it.  That was unusual, since he'd never seen Chopstick or Turnkey do what Sapphire was doing now.  Their forepaws had the same shape, but they'd either never bothered or had never learned how to grip things as she had.

      The last dish was dessert, and it was, quite simply, the most delicious kind of sweet he had ever tasted.  It was some kind of sweetbread or cake served with a hot sweet liquid poured over it, a liquid that was thick, sticky, and tasted both sweet and buttery at the same time.  The sweetbread was good enough by itself, but the topping made it absolutely marvelous.

      "What is this, Kerri?" Dar asked, shoveling a spoonful so large that it almost didn't fit into his mouth.

      "It's called bread pudding," she replied.  "The other nobles think it's scandalous that I like it," she added with a coy smile.  "It's not something nobles eat."

      "Why not?"

      "Because it used to be made of stale bread," she replied.  "It was an old commoner's dessert, thought up so the bread wouldn't go to waste.  My cooks redid the recipe a bit, though.  I have to admit, I think they did a good job."

      "Jesmind would absolutely die over this," Tarrin mused.  "She loves sweets."

      "You'll have to make her some," Keritanima told him.

      "What is this honey-like stuff they pour on top?" Dar asked.

      "Caramel," she replied.  "It's a confection from Sharadar."

      Dolanna nodded.  "It is actually not that hard to make," she added.  "It is just a matter of the right amounts of butter, honey, salt, and spice."

      "Sounds like alot of what the Wikuni use didn't come from Wikuna," Tarrin noted.

      "If we find something good, we borrow it," Keritanima shrugged.

      "I say, an advantage when you're a society of global traders.  There isn't much your people haven't seen," Phandebrass said.

      "Good point there," Miranda agreed.

      Sapphire snapped the last of the bone into a managable mouthful, then crunched it into her mouth and swallowed it.  She eyed Tarrin's dessert hungrily, but he put a paw between her and the plate.  "Don't even think about it," he warned her.

      "At least she has table manners," Keritanima said, looking at the drake, who hissed slightly and glared back in return.

      "Be nice," Tarrin chided the drake.  Sapphire did nothing but snort and look longingly at the dessert sitting on Miranda's plate.

      "You want this?" Miranda asked her, pointing at the bread pudding.

      "Don't give her that," Tarrin warned.  "If she eats that, she's going to be flying around the room all night.  Drakes and sweets are not a good combination."

      "What's the harm in giving her a little bit?"

      "Tell you what, Miranda.  If you want to feed it to her, fine.  But you have to take her home with you tonight and try to get her to go to sleep."

      "Ah, well, when you put it like that, I guess I can see your point," she grinned.  "At least now I know how to get back at you if you annoy me," she added with a wink.

      "And I'll just send her to your room and let you deal with her," he warned.  "Just ask Kerri how much of a handful she can be."

      "Don't remind me," Keritanima growled.

      "What did she do?" Dar asked.

      Miranda giggled.  "She shocked Kerri," the mink replied.  "Never argue with Tarrin when she's with him.  She tends to zap anyone that raises her voice to him."

      Dar gave Keritanima a broad smile.  "I guess we should thank Kerri for showing us that."

      "Like you'd ever argue with Tarrin," Keritanima shot back.

      A Wikuni servant scurried up to the table and whispered in Keritanima's ear.  It was very soft, very quick, but Tarrin had very sharp hearing.  The servant told Keritanima that Rallix had only just arrived, and that he sent his apologies for being so late.  He saw her eyes light up, then her fur on her face ruffle, and then she nodded exuberantly.  "Thank you very much.  We're almost done here, so ask him to join us in the ballroom," she commanded.

      "At once, your Majesty," the servant said with a bow, then hurried away.

      "Well, I'm about finished here," Keritanima said firmly.  "Shall we go to the ballroom?  I have my best musicians here tonight, and we're sure to have a good time."

      The ballroom was just as large as the dining room had been, decorated with ten massive chandeliers that hung from thick chains from the ceiling. Small crystal teardrops were suspended from the candleholders, and they caught and refracted the light into rainbow cascades that made each look like glittering stars were hanging in the air.  This was a chamber near the outside, since it had a line of huge windows lining the far side, which offered a spectacular view of the harbor from a balcony that ran the length of the ballroom along the outside of those windows.  Huge works of art and tapestries hung from the other walls, depicting scenes of dancing and lone figures, and the far corner held a dais upon which sat ten Wikuni holding various musical instruments.  The floor was made of a reddish wood cut into large squares, the grains opposing one another to give the place a lanceboard appearance, but the wood was so deeply polished that it literally glowed in the light of the candles above it.  The room was large, brightly lit, warmly decorated, and seemed a very nice place.  It was the first room he'd visited in the Palace that had any sense of warmth, of soul within it.  It was one of the few places in the Palace where Wikuni had a good time.

      There were already about twenty Wikuni in the ballroom outside the musicians, and it took him all of a heartbeat to figure out which one was Rallix.  Miranda had described him to Tarrin very precisely, and he saw that Miranda hadn't missed a thing.  Rallix was a tall, rather thin Wikuni, a badger Wikuni, with brownish fur with dark stripes, and a black stripe over his eyes that looked like a mask.  He had a narrow muzzle and a badger nose at the end of it, but his expression was one of cool control.  He wore a black waistcoat with tails over a white linen shirt, his bushy badger tail splitting the tails, and a pair of black trousers with a red sash or some kind of adornment around his waist.  The red stood out against the black and white, but it was more of a fashion statement than any kind of glaring fashion mistake.  Tarrin saw that Rallix wore shoes--not all Wikuni did--black leather shoes polished to a shine.  He was handsome, in the Wikuni fashion, but it was the intelligence in his dark eyes that caught Tarrin's attention.

      More than that.  Tarrin looked at Rallix, and looked at him harder.  There was something about him, something unusual.  Something that made Tarrin look right at him as soon as he came into the room, something that made him stand out to such a degree that it was blatant.  It didn't seem to be something that anyone else noticed, because the others didn't seem to be taking notice of Rallix, although Dolanna's gaze did linger on him for a moment before moving on.  Tarrin puzzled over it, for it wasn't a bad sense, it wasn't a feeling of danger, and he hadn't even caught the man's scent yet.  There was just something about him that seemed....different.  Tarrin glanced away from him as he considered it, and his eyes locked on Miranda's luxuriantly furred tail as she walked in front of him.  Then he glanced at Kimmie--

      Kimmie.  Of course!  Kimmie and Phandebrass both had that same sense of presence about them that Rallix did!

      Rallix was a Wizard!

      Did Keritanima know?  Was Rallix a serious student, or was he simply a dabbler, as Kimmie had been before tutoring with Phandebrass?  If he was as smart as Keritanima boasted, he certainly could be a good Wizard.  When did he find time to study, since he was so busy running that trading company that Keritanima had told him about?

      Tarrin put his thoughts aside as Keritanima stopped in front of him.  Rallix bowed gracefully to her, sweeping an arm before him, then rose up and kissed her hand.  "I was quite flattered to receive your invitation, your Majesty," he said in a soft voice, but Tarrin could sense the power within it.  "It took me completely by surprise, I must admit.  I also must apologize for being so late, but there was a very big emergency at the trading company I run."

      "Oh?  What happened?" Keritanima asked, the fur on her cheeks trying to rise up as Rallix's hand remained on hers.  Tarrin could see that Keritanima was smitten.  He decided that that was a good thing, and he'd see to it that Rallix was equally smitten with her.  Even if he had to smite Rallix himself.

      "We had a ship fire, your Majesty," he answered.  "There was very little damage, but you know the kind of chaos such a thing can cause.  I simply could not leave until things were settled down.  I do hope you'll forgive me."

      "Oh, that's alright, Master Rallix," she said demurely.  "I know all about that kind of thing.  You're here now, and that's all that matters, isn't it?"

      That seemed to take Rallix by surprise.  He gave Keritanima a very speculative, searching look, then seemed to realize that he was still holding onto her hand.  He let go of her with a surprising amount of grace about the whole thing.  "Yes, well, I'm happy to be here, your Majesty," he said quickly.  "My duties don't give me much time for dancing."

      "I'll have to have a long talk with your employer about that," Keritanima said with a very faint grin.  "Where is she now?"

      "Still at her country estate, I'm afraid," he said carefully, in a very low voice.  Tarrin realized that Keritanima was asking about something more than what her words said.  Keritanima was actually Rallix's boss, so it had to be about someone else.  "From what I hear, she's been very quiet and reserved lately."

      "I'm glad to hear that.  I heard that she'd sailed to Sennadar, though."

      "Something she decided it would be best people believed, your Majesty.  She did intend to take the journey, but didn't feel well enough to undertake it not long after setting sail, so she was returned home.  Her sabatical to her country estate has done wonders for her health.  She sends her best regards to you."  He leaned in close.  "Why did you send me that invitation, your Majesty?" he asked.

      "Do I need a reason to send you an invitation, Rallix?" she asked with a surprisingly disarming smile.

      "Given that we don't know one another, I'd say yes," he answered truthfully.  "I had no idea your Majesty even knew I existed."

      Keritanima seemed to ignore that.  "It's common custom for the sitting monarch to begin the first dance.  I needed a good dance partner, so of course I thought of you right away.  So," she said, holding out her arm expectantly.

      "Of course, your Majesty," he said after a brief delay.

      Tarrin watched as Keritanima and Rallix stepped out onto the empty floor, even as some of the guests filed into the ballroom.  That seemed to be a cue for the musicians, who took up their instruments and began a lively song.  He watched Keritanima and Rallix dance, a stately dance despite the energy of the song, one that involved a great deal of spinning about.  Rallix, Tarrin saw, was an excellent dancer, leading Keritanima in graceful spin after spin as they stepped across the floor.  He also saw that they weren't talking.  If Keritanima called up Rallix to both fish for him and catch up on her trading company, talking while dancing would be a good way to do it, but not with every eye fixed on them.  They'd wait until the others joined them.

      After the song ended, couples stepped out onto the floor and joined the Queen and her partner as another began.  Kimmie elbowed him in the ribs and offered her paw to him, and seeing no reason not to do it, he took it and led her out onto the floor as Sapphire left his shoulder to fly around near the ceiling to explore the vast room.  Both of them had only seen Keritanima and Rallix perform that particular dance, which was being danced again, but their Were-cat grace and agility allowed them to copy it with perfection, and shame everyone on the floor with their grace and poise.

      "That has to be Rallix," Kimmie noted, looking over at them.  "I didn't understand a word they were saying but I do think I heard her use that name.  She didn't even introduce us."

      "She's a little distracted," Tarrin replied, glancing around and speaking in low tones.  "Rallix is her business partner, but--"

      "The scent she's laying down right says he's alot more than that," Kimmie finished.

      "About that.  Just don't repeat that."

      "You just said it out loud."

      "On a crowded dance floor among people who speak Sulasian as a second language, if they speak it at all," he told her.

      "You need to teach me Wikuni," Kimmie chuckled.

      "I need to teach you Sha'Kar," he told her.

      "Phandebrass is working on that," she replied.  "He's trying to adapt that spell you used to learn Wikuni and make a Wizard spell that does the same thing.  If he succeeds, I can learn it in a matter of days."

      "Is he making any progress?"

      "Some," she sighed.  "He accidentally scrambled his memory a few times.  He taught me a counterspell specifically to restore lost memory, and I've had to use it on him a few times."

      "He didn't hurt himself, did he?"

      "Not permanently," she chuckled.  "There was a period there for a few days when he couldn't remember his own name, but he's recovered."

      "I think I remember that," Tarrin said.  "That was right after he shrunk you two."

      "Don't bring that up," she said in a pained voice.

      "It could be worse.  He could be experimenting on you."

      "After the shrinking incident, he knows better than to experiment on me," Kimmie grunted.  "I may seem like a sweet little girl, but I can just as nasty as Jesmind when I'm annoyed."

      "I doubt anyone could be as nasty as Jesmind when she's annoyed," Tarrin chuckled.  "Except maybe her mother."

      "Well, maybe not that bad," Kimmie agreed with a laugh.

      The song completed, Tarrin escorted Kimmie off the floor just as a slower song began, one that was almost stately.  It was a different kind of dance they were doing now, some kind of group-oriented dance where a long line of males faced a long line of females.  They bowed or curtsied, and as one, the lines moved forward.  Grasping hands, each pair made slow, cautious steps, turning a circle in one direction, and then the other way.

      "I just noticed something," Kimmie said.

      "What?"

      "Not all Wikuni have tails," she observed.  "Look at that cat Wikuni over there.  She has a tail. But that one over there doesn't," she finished, pointing to another Wikuni, a male.

      Tarrin looked closely at the Wikuni female, wearing a black dress that matched her black fur, and he realized that he knew that Wikuni.  It was that female pirate, the one whose ship they had destroyed.  Sheba.  Keritanima had mentioned in passing that Sheba wasn't a pirate anymore, that she was back in her noble house.  Tarrin didn't really care about Sheba one way or the other, but his human morals were a little outraged that Sheba had never been punished for all the damage she had done to the kingdoms of the West.   she had terrorized the shipping lanes in the Sea of Storms for six years, sinking several dozen ships and killing a great many people.  And yet there she stood, smiling and dancing in the court of the Queen of Wikuna.

      Dar was right.  The Wikuni were completely hypocritical.  Decrying piracy, but doing nothing about it as long as it didn't affect them.  If a human raider had ever attacked a Wikuni tradesman, he had no doubt that the Wikuni fleet would hunt down and destroy the interloper without mercy.  And yet they had allowed Sheba to run wild over the Sea of Storms for six years, because she didn't attack Wikuni ships, and her father happened to be a noble.

      Tarrin looked away from her.  He was getting a little worked up, and he didn't want to embarass Keritanima.

      "What's got your hackles up, Tarrin?" Kimmie asked.

      "An old score," Tarrin told her shortly.  "I'm going to go step outside a moment.  I need some fresh air."

      "Alright.  I'll take Sapphire over to the punch bowl and see how many Wikuni we can mortify," she grinned, reaching up and taking Sapphire off his shoulder.  "Come on, let's go get something to drink," she told the drake.  Sapphire liked Kimmie, so she didn't object in the slightest to being picked up and carried away.

      Stepping through one of the open windows as he had seen several Wikuni do, Tarrin stepped out onto the balcony outside the ballroom.  It was a very wide balcony with slate squares making up its floor, and an elegant carved marble handrail protecting people from falling over the edge.  He put his paws on that rail and looked down on the city of Wikuna, at the many lights winking from below, then looked up at the sky.  It was a brilliant, cloudless night, with only one of the four moons out, the Red Moon Vala.  The White Moon was new, and the Twin Moons had yet to rise.  The Skybands in Wikuna were very wide, much wider than he was used to seeing, taking up about a third of the sky.  Wikuna was pretty far north, Keritanima had told him, and was subject to some pretty fierce winters.

      Something on the ground below caught his eye.  Tarrin leaned over the rail, looking down to see two uniformed Wikuni guards marching on patrol along the outside edge of the building.  They wore those red-coated uniforms with the gold buttons and the white bandoliers that held their gunpowder and musket balls, their white trousers, and they carried their muskets, with long knife-like attachments at the ends of the barrels that turned the weapons into pretty formidable hand-held weapons.  They marched along smartly, but they weren't stiff or uncaring about their duty, looking this way and that and keeping an eye on things.  Keritanima had good guards.  Tarrin leaned over a little more, sending his tail out behind him to counter-balance himself as he watched the two Wikuni, both canines of some sort, march under where Tarrin was and then continue on.

      Something struck his tail on its top and then slammed it into the ground.  Tarrin felt the pain, but it wasn't enough to make him yelp or jump, even when whatever had struck it down landed on top of it.  It was a boot, and the boot ground into his tail as it tried to apply full pressure, tried to break bone.  Tarrin turned his head to look, and saw a rather tall, portly rodent-like Wikuni, looking vaguely like a badger but much heavier in build, with solid brown fur.  He was decked out in tremendous splendor, a brocade doublet of a midnight blue color and hose that looked like they were made of silk, with gold and jewels hanging from any available area.  He had a Wikuni female on each arm, a canine Wikuni on his left and a strange honey-furred mammalian Wikuni whose type was unknown to him on his right.  She had a boxed snout with a black dog-like nose, small round ears, and large brown eyes.  He looked right at Tarrin as he removed his boot from Tarrin's tail, his expression amused.  "Excuse, please," he said in broken Sulasian.  "Saw did not."

      He flowed past Tarrin grandly.  "I don't see what her Majesty sees in that creature," he said to his lady-friends in Wikuni.  "If it had proper fur, it wouldn't be quite so repulsive as those bald humans she's surrounded herself with.  And that one with white hair!  She may be pretty, but she looks like a wild animal!  Did you see the way she stared at me?"

      Tarrin chanted inwardly that he did not want to embarass Keritanima.  He did not want to embarass Keritanima.

      "It's probably as stupid as it is ugly," the male added to the other lady.

      That did it.  The badger-like Wikuni squealed in shock when Tarrin's claws hooked into his finery from behind, getting a paw full of doublet and gold chains, then hauled him off his feet literally by the scruff of his neck.  Tarrin turned as the two Wikuni females screamed in fear, whipping the male over the rail so fast he swayed in Tarrin's grip and letting his feet dangle over the fifteen or so span gulf between the balcony and the grass-covered lawn with its slate walkway running along the wall of the Palace.

      "The next time you insult someone," Tarrin hissed at the male, in perfect Wikuni, "make sure it doesn't speak the language."

      Then Tarrin let the Wikuni go.  He screamed delightfully as he dropped to the ground, a cry that was cut short when he hit the walkway below.  Tarrin brushed his paws together as if cleaning dirt off of them as he looked down at the male, who lay on the walkway with one leg sticking out at an unnatural angle.  The two females ran to the rail and peered over it, beginning to cry and make hysterical sounds.

      "Do either of you want to step on my tail?" Tarrin challenged, bringing his tail around and presenting it to them garishly.

      The females gaped at him in terror, then turned and fled back into the ballroom.

      Snorting, Tarrin turned back around and looked down, watching the male try to get to a sitting position.  The two guards that had passed by a moment before trotted back over and saw the man laying there, then set their muskets down and helped him sit up.  The male blubbered something and pointed up at the balcony, and his eyes went wide when he saw Tarrin standing there looking down at them, his expression very ominous.

      Then he realized it was pointless to stand there.  He'd already educated the Wikuni, and they wouldn't get the male to where they could set his leg so long as he stood there watching them.  He turned, then paused when he saw quite a few Wikuni lining the windows, staring out at him.

      It happened almost at the same time.  Tarrin felt something hot go under his chin at an angle, up through the side of his mouth and out his cheek, so fast he didn't even have time to register the pain, even as a loud thunderclap cracked across the balcony.  Tarrin staggered slightly as his tongue registered the fact that there was a hole in his cheek, and several of his teeth were missing.  The flash of pain struck him just a moment later, but it was not a pain that would incapacitate him.  He had felt much worse.  The pain dulled almost as fast as it struck him, as his body repaired the damage done to his face and mouth with efficient speed.  Whatever had wounded him was neither magical nor silver, so it did not do him a true injury.  Tarrin's mouth itched as new teeth replaced the ones lost, and he spent that time turning back around and looking from where the thunderclap had come.

      It was down on the walkway.  The badger-like Wikuni he'd tossed was still sitting on the path, but he had a smoking musket in his hands.  The two guards looked shocked and amazed that the Wikuni would dare to shoot at someone right where everyone could see him do it, and were so stunned that they didn't stop the Wikuni as he tossed the musket aside with burning eyes and reached for the other one.

      That was going too far.  The man had shot him.  There were no rules now.  Feeling a fury rise up in him, a fury he hadn't felt in months, he grabbed the marble rail with both paws.   Tarrin's muscles flexed, and the sound of tearing stone heralded the sight of the Were-cat breaking away a sizable chunk of the masonry, a good two spans of polished rail and two support columns still attached to it.  The badger-like Wikuni raised the musket from his seated position and took aim at Tarrin, who raised the heavy stone over his head and prepared to hurl it down at the Wikuni.  The two guards gave out cries of alarm and dove aside wisely as Tarrin flung the rail at the Wikuni, even as the Wikuni fired the second musket.

      The musket ball struck Tarrin in the lower abdomen, on the far right, penetrating flesh and flying upward.  It passed between his lowest ribs and exited his back.  It was a glancing blow, something even a human could have survived.  The piece of stone was much better aimed, hitting the Wikuni squarely in the chest, crushing the musket and his upraised arms in the process.  A fountain of blood exploded from his mouth as he was smashed to the walkway by a quarter ton of heavy marble, and when the marble settled on top of him, he didn't move.

      He was very dead.

      Tarrin had to actively resist the urge to go down there and take the Wikuni's head off to make sure of him.  He hadn't felt an explosion of rage like that in a very long time, and it was almost frightening.  He clenched his paws into fists, fists that shook with a need to dish out more punishment, and Tarrin had to forcibly take hold of himself and try to relax.  The man was dead, the reason for getting angry was gone.  He'd started it by insulting him and stomping on his tail, and he sealed his own fate when he took the musket from the guard and shot him.  Closing his eyes, he centered himself, thinking about the people he loved.  Jesmind, Jasana, his sisters, Janette, his parents, his friends.  He recalled peaceful times, happy times, and that helped calm him down quickly.

      When he opened his eyes, Keritanima was hurrying out onto the balcony with  Binter and Sisska attending her.  "Can't you keep out of trouble for one night?" she demanded hotly.  "What did you do?" She looked over the rail, then growled loudly.  "Tarrin!  What did you do that for?"

      "He shot me," Tarrin said in a hiss.

      "And what reason did you give him to shoot you?" she shouted.

      "I threw him over the rail."

      "Why did you do that?" she snapped.

      "He tried to break my tail, and insulted me."

      "You killed a man over an insult?" she said in fury.

      "I killed him because he shot me.  Twice," Tarrin said in a dangerously low tone.  "He brought it on himself.  He intentionally stomped on my tail and tried to break it.  I paid him back in kind for it.  He shot me with a musket, so I paid him back in kind for it."

      "You there, what happened?" Keritanima shouted at the guards below in Wikuni.

      "We didn't see it all, my Lady," the guard replied, not recognizing Keritanima as the Queen.  "We saw this one laying on the ground, and that one up there watching.  We tried to help the man, but he grabbed my musket and shot at that one up there.  Then that one up there tore out the rail and threw it down on this one while this one down here got the other musket and took another shot at that one up there."

      Keritanima growled in her throat.  "Tarrin, what am I going to do with you?" she asked in frustration.  "I asked you to behave!  This is how you honor that request?"

      "He started it!" Tarrin shot back.

      "It doesn't matter who started it!" she shouted at him with sudden heat.  "Could you, for once in your life, have the wisdom to simply let an insult pass?  Did what that man think of you mean so much that you had to kill him over it?"

      "If someone had put a boot on your tail and ground it down into the floor, trying to break it, would you be so forgiving?" he countered.

      "How do you know he did that?" she accused.

      "I'm not stupid, Kerri," he snorted.  "When someone raises a foot to step on a tail that's in the air over his knees, he's going out of his way."

      Keritanima glared at him a minute, then sighed.  "Go back to your room, Tarrin," she ordered.  "I'll straighten this out, somehow."

      "Kerri--"

      "Just go," she ordered, pointing towards one of the open windows.

      Snorting, Tarrin went past her and into the ballroom.  Every eye was on him, and they parted before him as he marched deliberately through their ranks, eyes speculative or fearful.  Sapphire landed on his shoulder as he passed through the assembled Wikuni, then made his way to the door.  He was a little regretful he'd caused Keritanima trouble, but he didn't feel a thing for the man who tried to kill him.  He got what he deserved.


To:       Title                EoF

Chapter 6

 

      Tarrin paced back and forth in his apartments, replaying the events over and over in his mind.  Every time he did so, however, it only made him angry.  Why did people have to be that way?  Why did they have to be so cruel?  Tarrin wasn't like that.  Surely, he had a mean streak in him, and he was a bit vicious, but he didn't go out of his way to hurt other people like that Wikuni had done.  Nobody ever got hurt at the end of Tarrin's claws unless there was a reason for it.  The other man was to blame, and yet Tarrin seemed to be the one getting into the trouble.

      Didn't Keritanima warn all of them not to do such things around him?  Didn't Keritanima know by now that Tarrin did not tolerate it when people behaved towards him like that?  Whatever Keritanima thought, he saw no blame in it on himself.  The other man started it, Tarrin responded in kind.  The man tried to kill him, so Tarrin simply responded in kind.  It was that simple.  He hadn't gone looking for a fight, and by all rights the other man should have left well enough alone when he got his leg broken.  His pride had caused him to try to kill Tarrin, and it cost him his life.

      Stupid, stupid, stupid!  Why did people have to be so stupid!  Was he not large enough and mean-looking enough to prevent people from doing exactly what the man did?  What kind of insanity possessed people like that?

      The more he thought about it, the angrier he became.  So angry, in fact, that Sapphire seemed to sense his hostility and decided to spend a little time in the bathing room, away from him.  He paced back and forth and back and forth, and kept getting just a little more angry with each step.

      So much for looking forward to his visit to Wikuna.  He was ready to leave, and he was sure that Keritanima was busily stepping up her schedule to get him out of her Palace as quickly as possible.  He had little doubt that his action was going to cause Keritanima problems.  He'd heard all about how cunning and devious the Wikuni nobles were.  One of them would figure out some way to turn it to their advantage.

      How did he keep getting into these things?  It was frustrating!  Tarrin turned just as his anger got the best of him in the outer parlor, bringing his fist down on the back of one of the deep chairs sitting on the carpet, shattering the wood in its back and sending down and bits of fluff flying as the cushioned back was torn open.

      "I'm sure that was an expensive chair," Kimmie's voice called from the outer door.  Tarrin whirled around to see her standing there, half in half out, her paw on the door handle.  "Should I come back later?"

      "What do you want?" he demanded.

      "Do I need a reason to come to your room now?" she asked pointedly.  "Actually, since Kerri sent you to your room, I figured you may want to talk to someone, or at the very least, have someone to yell at.  I can do either, you know."

      Tarrin snorted, crossing his arms and turning his back to her.  "I wouldn't be good company at the moment."

      "That's a matter of opinion," Kimmie said lightly, stepping inside and closing the door.  "I've dealt with Mist in her less than friendly moments.  I think I can deal with yours."

      Tarrin glanced at her, but her expression and her scent both were mysterious.  He had no idea what she was thinking, what she was feeling.  Usually, the scent gave one or both away.  "Now then, should we stand here in silence, or would you rather go into the other room and sit down in silence?  Shoot, we could even go into your room and lay down on the bed in silence, or hang from the ceiling in silence, or climb the walls in silence, or hover in mid-air in silence, or--"

      "I get the point," Tarrin snapped, interrupting her.

      "There, see, you just spoke.  That wasn't hard at all, was it?" she asked with a disarmingly warm smile.  "You think you can do it again, or do I need to go fetch some treats from the kitchen and entice you?"  She waved a paw. "I've gotten speak.  I just need sit up, lay down, fetch, play dead, and heel, and I'll have you completely trained."

      Tarrin glared at her, but she seemed to be oblivious to it.  Then again, after so long with Mist, Tarrin realized that he wasn't going to ruffle Kimmie.  It would take something pretty spectacular to ruffle Kimmie.

      "You take alot of chances, Kimmie," Tarrin warned.

      "Of course I do," she smiled in reply.  "Now, since we've gotten you past the 'I'm not talking' phase, we can talk about it."  She looked him up and down.  "There's blood on your shirt, you know," she told him.

      "I can smell it," he said shortly.

      "Well, there's half the problem," she snorted.  "Let's get that shirt off of you.  The blood smell probably isn't doing your temper much good."

      He did try to resist when Kimmie grabbed his paw and started dragging him towards the next room, but her grip was surprisingly strong, and she totally ignored his attempt to pull away.  "Why do you always have to be so contrary?" she complained.  "I swear, Tarrin, you're as bad as Mist!  Do you take the other side just to give yourself an excuse to argue with people or what?"

      "You could leave me alone and save yourself the aggravation," he said.

      "Right, and deal with you stalking around in a tiff for the next three days.  Spare me," she said with a drawl.  She dragged him through the inner parlor and into the bedroom, then let go of his paw and grabbed the tail of his shirt with both paws.  He tried to push his shirt down, so Kimmie decided to opt for the convenience of simply ripping it off him.  "You're a complete baby sometimes!" Kimmie accused.  "So wrapped up in your temper tantrum that you even refuse help!"

      "I didn't ask for you to come in here, you know!" Tarrin shouted in reply.

      "As a matter of fact, you did," she said with a grin.  "You could throw me out if you really wanted to.  I know it, you know it.  You're just putting up a fight because you're not sure if I'll really sit here and talk with you.  You're thinking that if I stay no matter how much you fight about it, I'm not joking or playing with you.  It's a test of trust."

      Tarrin blinked in surprise.

      "You're feral, Tarrin," she chided him.  "You and Mist are alot alike.  All the things I've seen in her, I see in you.  I understand every aspect of it, and I can read you like a book.  Right now, you're feeling a bit sheepish because I can read right through you, and not a little nervous about it, thinking that there are things about you too dark for me to see.  Well, think about it, Tarrin.  Mist is my bond-mother.  Do you really think I haven't already seen it all?"

      Tarrin was quite honestly taken aback, because Kimmie had yet to be wrong.

      "Now then, we can stop being silly, sit down, and you can talk about it," she said in a mild voice.  "I guarantee you, Tarrin, you'll feel better after you talk it through."

      Tarrin was impressed.  It was easy to forget how smart Kimmie was, when comparing her to minds like Keritanima or Phandebrass.  She was inobtrusive, quiet, and modest, alot like Allia, now that he thought about it.  Rarely if ever bringing attention to herself.  Considering the life she must have had with Mist, he completely understood her behaving that way.  He knuckled under to her demands, sat down with her on the bed and did just as she asked.  He talked.  He voiced his frustration and irritation over the whole situation, about how he just didn't understand why some people had to be such jerks, and admitting that he was a little irritated with himself that he had embarassed and disappointed Keritanima.  Kimmie simply sat there and listened attentively, letting him talk out the whole problem until he began to repeat himself.

      "Well, the first thing you have to do is not blame yourself," she told him.  "Keritanima understands you, no matter what you may think.  If you killed the man, you certainly had a good reason for doing it.  You don't just go around and kill people for no reason."

      "I know, but I let her down, Kimmie," Tarrin sighed.  "She asked me to her big party, introduced us to Rallix, or she would have if I haven't have messed things up, showed us to her friends and court, and I ruined it for her.  I really tried to control myself, Kimmie.  After he tried to break my tail, I let him go on without doing anything about it, but when that Wikuni insulted Keritanima, insulted Allia, then called me stupid, he just took it too far."

      "As far as I'm concerned, Tarrin, you didn't do anything wrong," Kimmie told him calmly.  "Then again, I'm a Were-cat.  I'd have probably thrown him over the rail myself if he'd tried to break my tail.  You lasted alot longer than I would have."

      "I can't see you throwing anyone over a rail, Kimmie," Tarrin chuckled.  "You're too good-natured."

      "You've never seen me angry," she smiled.  "I assure you, Tarrin, I have just as vile a temper as any other Were-cat.  It just takes a little more to set me off, that's all."

      "I can't imagine you being angry.  It's just not you."

      "Well, I'll take that as a compliment," she said with bright eyes.  "And I don't think you should worry too much about Keritanima.  She knows you pretty well, and she'll get over it.  Who knows, maybe it was actually a blessing in disguise."

      "How so?" Tarrin asked.

      "Well, now if any of the nobles annoy her, she can just insinuate you into the conversation.  Oh, say, how she may invite you and them to a special private party, in a nice empty room with a stout door."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "She'd probably do something like that," he agreed.

      Kimmie leaned back on her paws on the bed, looking up at him.  "Feel better now?"

      "I hate to admit it, but yes," he told her.

      "Good."   The texture of her scent changed in a most appealing manner.  "Well, now that you're not going to stalk around in a tiff for the next three days, I think we could find something else to do for the rest of the night," she said in a purring tone.

      "So, the true motive is revealed," Tarrin said with a laugh.

      "It's just a fringe benefit, since I'm still trying to help you forget about what happened tonight," she said with a teasing smile, but her eyes were hungry.  "Now shut up and kiss me."

      Kimmie had done much to improve his mood before, but now she strove to make sure he forgot all about it.  And she did a good job.  The altercation during the party was the last thing on his mind after just a few moments.

      After a very busy night, the two of them napped until sunrise, when Kimmie's stirring woke him up.  Kimmie yawned and sat up, forcing him to roll free of her, and he kept his head on the pillow and looked up at her contentedly. "Morning," she greeted with a smile.  "I'm going to have to talk to Kerri about these rooms.  I definitely got cheated in the bed department.  The bed I have is too soft."

      "This one isn't exactly firm, Kimmie."

      "If you don't tie a board across your back, you sink into my bed and threaten to get suffocated," she complained.  "I have to sleep on it in cat form.  It's like sleeping on a blanket thrown over quicksand."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "You know, this is the first time you've spent the whole night?"

      "I've stayed with you til dawn before," she protested.

      "Only after coming in after midnight," he pointed out.  "I forgot how nice it is to sleep a full night with a female."

      "Well, I'll just have to spend nights with you from now on," she offered.  "And not just when we're feeling frisky."

      "I don't mind," he assured her.  "But Jesmind probably won't like it too much."

      "So, you want me to move in?" she asked pointedly.

      "You may as well," he shrugged.  "I didn't understand why you didn't move in at first."

      "You didn't ask," she said bluntly.  "I know you love Jesmind, so I wasn't going to impose myself on you any more than necessary.  But if you want me to move in, I'll be more than happy to do it."

      "That may be a moot point here," Tarrin said.  "I doubt we'll be here in two days."

      "Me too," she said. "The solstice is only twelve days away.  And I heard that it'll take us ten to get to Vendaka.  We absolutely have to leave by tomorrow, or we'll miss our chance."  She looked behind his head.  "I don't like your hair like that," she told him.  "You looked better with the braid."

      "I was just trying it out," he said defensively.  "If it bothers you, I'll grow it back."

      "I don't know why, but it does," she said.  "It's almost as if a part of you that's supposed to be there is missing."

      "That's how it felt at first," Tarrin agreed.

      Kimmie yawned, then stretched languidly.  Tarrin paused to admire her form, her mixture of sleek Were tautness combined with a curious she-softness common among the humans.  Kimmie was alot different from Jesmind, who was definitely muscular, or Mist, who was a powerfully built little Were-cat, but she was still a very beautiful, very desirable Were-cat female.  At least to him, anyway, since some males may not appreciate her more human-like body when they were used to seeing muscular definition and washboard stomachs on females.  "Enjoying the show?" she asked shamelessly, looking down at him.

      "I'd enjoy it more if you'd turn a little this way," he told her with a leer.  "I want to get the full view."

      Kimmie laughed, then turned and shook her chest in a manner that waggled the objects of his attention in his face.  "There, are you happy now?" she asked.

      "I will be in a little while," he said in a husky voice, pulling her down into an embrace.

      "Ah, there's nothing better than smelling desire in a male," Kimmie sighed as Tarrin kissed and nibbled lightly at her neck.

      It was well past dawn when Tarrin and Kimmie finally got out of bed, washed up, and dressed.  The first thing he did, at Kimmie's behest, was cause his hair to regrow, and Kimmie indulged both of them by taking on her human hands and braiding his hair for him.  Afterward, he Conjured a new shirt to wear, someone knocked on the outer door.  Tarrin moved into the outer parlor as Kimmie opened it, and he saw the wolf Wikuni Amber standing there, looking a trifle nervous.  She now wore a white silk dress, very fancy, very expensive, with the Royal Crest embroidered in a much smaller design than the torso-covering one on her last dress, the crest resting right over her heart.  This had to be the dress of a Royal Servant, the maids, pages, butlers, and attendants that directly served the Queen herself.  Keritanima said she was taking the girl onto her personal staff.

      "What is it?" Kimmie asked her.

      "Is Lord Tarrin here, Mistress?" she asked in broken Sulasian.

      Kimmie moved aside and pointed in his general direction.  "Lord Tarrin," she said with a curtsy in Wikuni.  "Her Majesty asks that you join her for breakfast."

      "Just me, or is it a general invitation?" he asked.

      "I know that the others that arrived with her Majesty were also invited, so it must be a general invitation, Lord Tarrin," she answered.

      "Don't call me that," he said sharply.  "I'm no Lord."

      "Begging your pardon, Lord Tarrin, you're wrong.  I personally witnessed her Majesty bestowing the title of Margrave to you earlier today."

      "What's a Margrave?" Tarrin asked curiously.

      "It's something of a honorary title, my Lord," she replied.  "It grants the recepient with the title and privileges of the nobility, but without granting lands.  You're a landless noble of sorts, but it's a somewhat high rank.  Only her Majesty, a Duke, and an Earl outrank you."

      Tarrin snorted.  "Alright.  Give me a few minutes to finish dressing, and you can take us there."

      "Of course, my Lord," she said with another curtsy, stepping just inside the door and waiting with her hands crossed over her lower stomach.

      "What's going on?" Kimmie asked.

      "She's taking us to a breakfast with Kerri," he replied.

      "I hope it's formal dress," Kimmie said, grabbing the skirts of the dress she had on, the same one from last night.

      "It's your fault for not bringing your clothes."

      "You wouldn't let me out of bed," Kimmie challenged.  "It's your fault."

      Without blinking, Tarrin Summoned every single stitch of clothing that Kimmie owned, making them appear in neatly folded piles around Kimmie's feet.  "You'll have to get the other things, but I'm sure you can find whatever you want to wear in there somewhere."

      "These are mine," Kimmie said in surprise, holding up one of her plain peasant dresses.  "How did you do that?"

      "I'm a Druid, Kimmie," he told her absently.  "And I've touched just about every piece of clothing you have with you."

      "Ah, yes, you can only summon what you've touched," she chuckled, recalling that rule.  "I'll have to let you put your paws on my spellbooks.  That way I can never lose them."  She held up the dress.  "Think this is too rustic?"

      "I don't think you have to worry about impressing Kerri," he told her.  "Amber said that all of us were invited to this breakfast, so it must be a family affair."

      "Family affair," Kimmie chuckled, reaching behind her and starting to undo buttons.

      Seeing a woman in need, Amber stepped up and helped Kimmie unbutton her dress.  "Would you like to retire to the bedchamber, mistress?" Amber asked her in Wikuni.

      "She doesn't speak the language, Amber," Tarrin warned her.  "She wants to know if you want to undress in the bedroom, Kimmie," he told her.

      "Whyever for?  The clothes are right here," she objected.

      "The lady prefers to change here, Amber," Tarrin relayed.  "I assure you, you're not going to be uncovering anything I haven't already seen.  The lady doesn't consider me a compromise of her modesty."

      Amber's face fur ruffled slightly as she nodded.  The wolf Wikuni proved to be an efficient maid, helping Kimmie out of the fancy dress quickly and not having much to do other than carefully hang up her fancy dress as the Were-cat female dressed in something much less expensive and much less remarkable.  Kimmie smoothed the wool skirts of her simple peasant dress with her paws as her tail slashed back and forth several times in rapid succession, a trick every Were-cat used to flatten the clothes down to the base of the tail.

      "There, that's better," she said.  "I felt like I was about to fall out of that dress."

      "It had a good view, at least," Tarrin told her.

      "Maybe I should lower the neckline of my other dresses," she mused with a sly look and a wink in his direction.

      "If you take it off, I'll see much more."

      "But then everyone else will see too."

      "So?"

      "It doesn't bother me, but you know how it tends to stop traffic," she said with a teasing smile.  "As much as I like parading around naked for you, Tarrin, we have to keep the local customs in mind, you know.  As soon as we visit a place where everyone goes naked, I'll be happy to do it for you."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "Are we ready to go now?"

      "I think so, unless I've got something hanging out," she said, turning unnaturally far, twisting her back like a pretzel, and looking down at her lower back and bottom.  Amber gave a rather wild look at Kimmie as she turned on herself to inspect the back of her skirts.  Tarrin sometimes forgot that Were-cats had a much wider range of motion than other races.

      "We're ready to go, Amber," Tarrin told the maid as Kimmie untwisted herself.

      The wolf Wikuni led them to a small, cozy little dining room on the fifth floor, that had a huge window overlooking the harbor.  It lacked the overwhelming decorations of most of the other rooms, with rich wood panelling covering the walls that happened to have nothing covering it up.  Keritanima sat facing the window at a large circular table, with Binter and Sisska standing at either side of her chair.  All the others were there, but to Tarrin's surprise, Rallix was also present, seated at the Queen's right.  Tarrin took one look at the badger and saw his discomfort.

      "It's about time," Keritanima said, looking at them.  "This explains why my page couldn't find you, Kimmie," she added.

      "You should have known where to look for me, your Majesty," the Were-cat female said patiently.

      "I should have at that," she chuckled.  "Sit down, please.  Now that you're here, we can eat."  She glancd at Rallix.  "Oh, Tarrin, Kimmie, may I present Rallix.  Rallix, this is Tarrin Kael and Kimmie, Phandebrass' student."

      The badger stood and bowed to them as Tarrin and Kimmie approached, then held out his hand and shook Tarrin's paw.  That close to him, Tarrin could smell Keritanima all over him, and it wasn't just his clothes.  Her scent was plastered all over him.  Tarrin leaned in a little closer and analyzed that latent scent, making Rallix distinctly uncomfortable when he realized that the large, imposing Were-cat male was actually smelling him.  "Uh, a pleasure," Rallix said nervously.

      "What are you doing, Tarrin?" Keritanima demanded.

      "You should have cleaned him up a little better, Kerri," Tarrin said pointedly.

      Kimmie glanced at him, then she too leaned in and took a whiff of Rallix's fur.  Then she laughed.  "Soap gets that out every time," she told the Queen with a sly smile.

      The fur on Keritanima's face literally stood on end.  She glared at the two Were-cats viciously, then laughed in spite of herself.  "Alright, you caught me.  I've been a naughty little queen.  Now sit down so we can eat."  Tarrin and Kimmie sat down between Allia and Dolanna as Keritanima regained her composure.  "Soap, you say?" she asked Kimmie conversationally.  "We don't use soap often.  It makes the fur dry and flaky and hard to manage."

      "Soap washes out almost any smell," Kimmie told her confidently.

      "I never smelled anything."

      "The hardest scent to make out is your own," Tarrin told her calmly.  "Since it's always in your nose, it's almost impossible to make it out on something else."

      "What are you talking about?" Dar asked.

      "If you have to ask, then you're too young," Camara Tal said bluntly.

      Dar looked at the fox Wikuni.  "Kerri!" he suddenly gasped.

      Keritanima laughed.  "Shut up, Dar," she called at him.  "Now, first things first.  Rallix here has graciously accepted my offer of marriage."

      "She didn't waste any time," Tarrin told Allia.

      "Not a moment," Allia agreed.

      "Seeing as how I threatened to throw him in the dungeon if he refused, I think he made the right choice, don't you?"

      "Her Majesty is quite an effective bully," Rallix said mildly, still looking a little wild-eyed.

      "What happened to all that talk of courtship and stuff?" Dar asked.

      "That was when I thought we had all sorts of time," Keritanima grunted.  "Truth is, we're going to be very busy for a long time, so I decided to take what I can get right now and worry about what I'm missing when I have the time to reflect on it.  Besides, marrying Rallix is going to put him in the Palace and under the protection of the Royal Guard.  When I invited him to the ball last night, I all but put a big target on his back.  This way I can protect him."

      "You're going to cause a row," Tarrin warned.

      "I caused that last night," she shrugged.  "I revealed the fact that I'm actually Lizelle Sailmender, and I incorporated her assets into my own.  Since Rallix and Lizelle have had a working relationship for such a long time, it probably won't shock anyone when they receive the invitations to my reception tonight.  They'll all think that Rallix wooed the young and impressionable daughter of the King without knowing who she was."

      Rallix visibly winced.

      "Tonight?"  Tarrin asked.  "You really aren't wasting any time, are you?"

      "It's not going to be a state function," she said quickly.  "At least not the first time.  We'll have a big state wedding, but that will come later.  Tonight will be a simple ceremony with a priest of Kikalli, just to make it legal under the law.  Oh, yes.  Binter, would you ask sashka to come see me?  I want to arrange a Vendari bodyguard for Rallix."

      "Immediately, your Majesty," Binter said in his bass voice, then he turned and marched out of the room, being careful not to slam the door behind him.

      "I say, you don't have to sit there in silence, my boy," Phandebrass told Rallix with a grin.  "We're all family here.  A somewhat strange family, to be sure, but we're a family, we are."

      "You're getting out easy, Rallix," Dar grinned.  "Kerri had all sorts of nasty plans for you."

      "Her Majesty laid out my options rather clearly, Lord Dar," Rallix said in that same mild tone.  "Or lack of them," he added with a slight smile.  "She made it all sound like a business arrangement.  At least that was beforehand."

      "Yes, well," Keritanima said with a smug little smile.  "I can now say happily that I completely understand what I've been missing, Tarrin.  I should have married Rallix years ago."

      "Who says you have to marry?" Tarrin asked her.

      "Well, things work a little different around here," she told him.  "Rallix won't think he's getting a spoiled bride, since he's the one who spoiled me."

      Rallix stared directly at his plate.

      "Since no one else has said it, allow me to congratulate you, Kerri," Dolanna said with a warm smile.

      "Yes, hear hear, congratulations," Phandebrass agreed.

      Tarrin glanced at Miranda, who had a mysterious smile on her face.  She looked at him, then gave him a sly wink.  "The first rule around here is speak your mind, Rallix," Tarrin told him.  "That being said, just what did Kerri do?"

      "Well, as I said, she made it sound like a business arrangement," he answered.  "She called me into her study after the ball and explained that she needed to marry me to secure her position, protect me, and protect our merchant company.  She made it sound as if it would be a marriage on paper, and promised that she could have it annulled at any time.  Under those conditions, I agreed.  That's when she made it clear that she did not think of it as a business arrangement," he said with his face fur ruffling.  "I admit, I do have rather fond feelings for her Majesty, but I had no idea she felt that way."

      Dar laughed.  "You got his name on the contract without revealing the whole deal!" he proclaimed.  "Kerri, that's awful!"

      "I am a Wikuni," she said smugly.  "I out-bargained him, plain and simple.  To put it bluntly, I swindled him out of his socks."  She put a hand on his arm fondly.  "I think he'll get over it.   He's already found out how affectionate I can be, and I know he likes me.  He'll get used to it.  He'd better, because he's mine now," she added with a victorious look.

      "Her Majesty is an effective bully," Rallix repeated.

      "You already said that, and I'd appreciate it if you called me by my name," Keritanima told him.  "I'll go crazy if I hear nothing but 'your Majesty' for the next fifty years."

      "Yes, Keritanima," he said with a slight smile.

      "Kerri!" she shouted at him.

      "That seems a bit too personal, Keritanima."

      She glared at him.  "I'd think that'd be a moot point by now, Rallix!"

      Tarrin looked at Rallix, and realized that he was playing with her.  He wasn't as stuffy as he seemed, he noted.  Keritanima had got the better of him, and now he was making her pay for it.  Tarrin screened out all the other scents in the room and concentrated on his, and found that his scent became quite agreeable whenever he looked at Keritanima.  The amount of information that could be passed along by a scent was considerable, and it was enough for Tarrin to understand that Rallix felt more than fondness for Keritanima.  Keritanima had told him all about Rallix, and how he had kept working for her even after he'd learned who she was.  Rallix could have made alot of money by turning her in, or by taking over the business after Keritanima ran away from her father, when Lizelle wouldn't be around anymore to see to the business.  Rallix had had any number of opportunities to turn her in or sabotage her or take over what was hers, but he did not.  He had been loyal to Keritanima through it all, and that loyalty was based on more than a simple ethical position.  Rallix himself may not know it, but he loved Keritanima, very much so, and it was that love that had kept him so faithful to Keritanima's interests.

      Tarrin looked at Rallix, then looked at Keritanima.  They were both intelligent, headstrong, and stubborn.  Once he got used to the idea of being married to her, Rallix wouldn't be intimidated by her position or her crown.  That was going to be a very lively relationship.

      Dar laughed again.  "It's a good thing you got it on paper.  He may have ran away."

      "You're just jealous because I got mine," Keritanima said with a nasty smile.  "What did Tiella say when you asked her out?"

      Dar glared at Keritanima.

      "That is enough, both of you," Dolanna said mildly.  "If this is the main part of the business you needed to tend here, may I ask when we are leaving?"

      "Tomorrow morning," she replied.  "I've cleared my desk of all the important things, and sashka can handle the rest, with Rallix's help."

      "Me?" he said in surprise.

      "Of course you, silly," she told him.  "You're a fantastic businessman, Rallix, and running the government is alot like running a business.  After sashka gives you some background information, I'm sure that you'll do just fine in your new position as Minister of State."

      "You never mentioned this, your Majesty," he said in a business-like tone.  "Who is going to look after our business interests?"

      "Didn't you hire Veldo last year?  Veldo is an excellent administrator, Rallix.  He'll do just fine running Twenty Seas as long as you go over there from time to time and help him with the important issues, the same way I used to come over and clear the in-box of all the important things."

      "That was different, your Majesty--"

      "Kerri!" she snapped at him.

      "Kerri," he corrected calmly.  "You own the company.  You had to sign off on those decisions."

      "And now you own the company with me," she reminded him.  "You have the authority to sign off on anything you want, Rallix.  It's not like I never trusted you to make important decisions, you know."

      "Oh.  I didn't consider that."  He paused.  "Since you've absorbed the Twenty Seas under your true name, have you considered something?"

      "What?"

      "Well, before you changed the law, the nobility didn't have to pay taxes.  Since you can prove that you were the true owner of the Twenty Seas operating under an assumed name, you should be able to recover all the taxes you paid retroactively, since past law is still binding on legal issues dealing with that time frame.  It would be an impressive amount, your--ah, Kerri.  Five years, given the profits we made?  I doubt the Royal Treasury could cover the refund."

      Keritanima laughed.  "Are you trying to get me to break the Royal Bank, Rallix?"

      "It's more of the state paying back what it legally owes to you, Kerri.  Besides, with that much operating capital, I could put some of the noble merchant companies out of business," he said, his ears seeming to twitch slightly.

      "I see you're still out to put everyone else under," Keritanima laughed.  "Alright, I'll have a barrister look into it.  You realize that I'll be paying myself, don't you?"

      "At least it will be money going from government control to personal control," he said.  "You won't have to account for it under the new legal system."

      "I don't account for it now," she chided.  "The Royal Treasury won't go under Parliament control until after both houses are seated.  Legally, every copper bit in the treasury still belongs to me.  Since the nobles keep dragging their feet, they're forcing me to handle the kingdom's economics."

      "You should not have given that power to this new Parliament, Kerri," Rallix told her.

      "Four hundred minds are better than one, Rallix," she told him.  "It may look a little chancy now, but trust me.  In fifty years, we'll be better off for it.  In fifty years, our economy is going to be so large and complicated that we'll need a group of educated Wikuni watching over it."

      "I hope so."

      "Is it alot of money?" Dar asked.

      "The treasury?" Keritanima asked.  "The last time it was audited, I think there was about eighty million nobles available."

      "Woah," Dar said.  "And that's all yours?"

      "Master Dar, you're looking at the richest woman in the world," Rallix told him mildly.  "Now that she's absorbed all her assets listed under her assumed name, her combined worth is greater than many kingdoms, and that's before taking the money in the treasury into account."

      "The money in the treasury is actually Wikuna's money, Dar," Keritanima told him.  "You saw all those street projects out there when we rode in from the docks?  I pay for all that out of the treasury.  I also maintain a very large, very expensive navy and fund alot of additional projects, like the Ministry of Science and the Intelligence Service."

      "I knew that, but in Arkis, the Emperor doesn't actually own the treasury.  If he tried to take all the money, the kaisra would revolt."

      Tarrin knew that term.  Kaisra was an Arakite term meaning nobility, but in Arkis it referred to the assorted noble houses.

      "I'm sure that if I emptied out the treasury, the noble houses here would revolt too," Keritanima chuckled.  "Paying for the kingdom is the monarch's responsibility."

      "So your system is alot like ours."

      "For now.  When I finally manage to get the new system working, the treasury will be controlled by Parliament.  It will be their job to pay for everything."

      "You're giving the money to this Parliament?"

      "No, I'm giving them the ability to propose spending ideas," she explained.  "Actually, the final authority when it comes to making spending decisions will be mine, but they'll have to approve those ideas."

      "But you just said that Parliament is going to control the treasury," Dar said in confusion.

      "It works like this, Dar.  Either I or an agent I authorize will prepare an operating budget for the kingdom for the year.  The Parliament will look at it and either approve it or disapprove it, and they can also change certain things, remove some things, or add some things.  If they change things, I have to approve the changes.  So in reality, it will take both them and me to pass a budget.  This way, I get valuable input from Parliament about some things, but they can't slip anything by me, since I have to sign off on the budget as well."

      "Strange system," Dar grunted.

      "Wikuna is getting too large for the monarch to make all the decisions," Keritanima said.  "Yar Arak and Nyr have beauracracies to help the Emperors, and the other kingdoms are too small to be that burdened by their sizes.  This system is going to work very well as we grow, because it involves everyone in the decision making process, not just a king or queen, and it delegates authority in a way that allows small sections of the kingdom to run themselves without too much supervision."

      "Wise, Kerri," Dolanna said.  "You made a system that allows you to listen to many different viewpoints."

      "Exactly," Keritanima nodded.  "I'll have no end of suggestions about things.  Some will be good, some bad.  It'll be up to me to weed out the bad from the good. It also delegates alot of my authority without me actually having to give up that power, so I can control alot of what goes on without having to do things personally."

      "A job is only as good as the man you place to perform it," Rallix said sagely.

      "So I'll just have to find good people.  Like you," Keritanima said with a smile, touching him on the forearm.  "Where is that food?" she complained.

      The food did arrive a few moments later, and they enjoyed a good breakfast together.  They mainly spent it listening to Phandebrass talk, which wasn't unusual, as he filled in the others on his progress for converting the Priest spell of learning into a Wizard spell.  It came down to a half hour dissertation on the forces of Wizard magic when a simple yes or no would have answered the question.  Tarrin watched Keritanima and Rallix as he ate, saw how they were acting towards one another.  Keritanima was perfectly comfortable, but Rallix was still a bit scattered, and wasn't quite sure how to act or what to do.  Keritanima had twisted him around her little finger.  For a moment, Tarrin felt a little sorry for him.  The meal was interrupted about halfway through by Binter's return, leading a huge Vendari with a notch taken out of his crest, who came in and said something to Keritanima, having to bend far over to reach that far down.  Keritanima nodded and said something to him in a quiet tone, and he left.

      After the meal, Keritanima beckoned Tarrin and Allia to walk with her and Rallix, as four Royal Guardsmen moved ahead, four lurked behind, and Binter and Sisska moving along with them.  "I'm sure you're waiting for me to yell at you over what happened last night, Tarrin," Keritanima told him.  "Well, after getting to the bottom of things, I realized that you didn't do anything that wasn't given to you first, so I'm not that angry.  At least not anymore."

      "I'm sorry I embarassed you in front of your subjects, Kerri," he apologized.

      "Eh, it's no big deal," she said with a wave of a paw.  "I care more about our friendship than I do about their respect.  They'd all like to stick a dagger in my back anyway, so let's forget about them."

      "Well, it was certainly, unexpected, to hear that you and Rallix have become betrothed," Allia broke the subject.  "Why did you not tell me about this, deshaida?  I am a little upset about it."

      "I'm sorry, but it wasn't sure it was going to work, so I didn't want to say anything until I knew or not," she said with a toothy grin.  "Knowing you, if I told you I wanted to ask Rallix for marriage, you would have put a dagger to his throat and forced a promise out of him."

      "Probably," Allia admitted.

      "I asked you two out here so you could inspect him to your heart's content."

      "Inspect me?" Rallix asked in a little concern.

      "Of course.  Tarrin and Allia are my brother and sister, Rallix, you know that," she told him.  "They have a say in my life.  They'll look you over, and if they like you, they'll let you live to see the wedding."

      Rallix shuddered visibly.  "Let me live?" he asked in a nervous voice.

      "She is teasing you, Rallix," Allia told him calmly.  "I would not kill you.  I would mark you and drive you away from her, but I would not kill you."

      "I would," Tarrin snorted.

      "We know you would," Keritanima grinned.

      "I have heard all I need to hear from Kerri," Allia said diffidently.  "There is no need for inspection.  I trust the judgement of a sister."

      "Tarrin's already looked you over," Keritanima told Rallix with a grin.  "He may look big and mean, but he's got quite a nose and quite a mind.  I could see him figuring you out while we were eating, and it's pretty apparent he's already made his decisions about you.  Haven't you, Tarrin?" she asked.

      Tarrin nodded.

      "Well?"

      "He loves you," Tarrin said bluntly, glancing down at her.  "He doesn't quite understand that yet, but it will come to him in time.  He'll be a good mate."

      "Just couldn't say it diplomatically, could you?" Keritanima said archly as Rallix almost missed a step.

      "If you don't understand your feelings, there's nothing wrong with someone else pointing them out to you."

      "You don't have a romantic bone in your body," Keritanima fussed.

      "You should know by now that if you ask me a question, you're going to get an answer.  If you're not ready for the answer, don't ask the question."

      "I figured that out," Keritanima chuckled.

      "You do not have to go through with it, Rallix," Allia told him.  "Keritanima would not force you to marry her."

      "Yes she would," Tarrin disagreed.

      "Tarrin!" Keritanima snapped.  "Don't listen to him, Rallix," she said quickly.  "Tarrin loves to dwell on my faults."

      "Actually, Lady Allia, I have to admit that I'm not entirely against the idea," he said quietly.  "I am rather fond of her Majesty, and I can't argue the merits of the arguments she made to go through with the marriage.  I must admit, I'm rather surprised that she seems to like me so much.  And, well, this may seem a bit offensive to you, my Lady--"

      "You can't offend Allia, Rallix," Keritanima chuckled.  "She's a Selani.  They're alot more worldly than we are."

      "Yes, well," he said, clearing his throat.  "Actually, her Majesty's biggest club is an obscure law dealing with Royal chastity," he said, looking very uncomfortable.  "Since we--ah, since we slept together, I'm now technically guilty of high treason.  She didn't reveal that until after we--ah, after it was over."

      "You mean that when she seduced you, she put a legal noose around your neck?" Tarrin asked.

      Rallix nodded, his facial fur standing on end to have to talk about such things.  "Her Majesty threatened to invoke that law, should I refuse her.  The penalty for deflowering a Royal Lady is quite severe," he said, clearing his throat again.

      "Kerri, you blackmailed him into marrying you?" Allia asked in surprise.

      "Well, you're the one who always talks about equal measures of sugar and the strap.  I laid out the sugar before I showed him the strap," she said sheepishly.

      Tarrin stared at Keritanima, then he laughed loudly.  Even Allia laughed, displaying the fact that she did indeed have a sense of humor.  A Selani would find that situation to be very funny.  "Sister, I knew you were cunning, but that is almost deplorable!" Allia told her, then she laughed again.  "But it was an honorable trap, since you would not be forcing Rallix to do anything he is not already inclined to do."

      "Excuse me?" Rallix asked in confusion.

      "Selani adore romantic games," Tarrin told him absently.  "Prospective mates will challenge each over other the silliest things to demonstrate their strength or their intelligence or their courage.  Keritanima played a game with you, a game of deception, a game you lost.  Since she was baiting her trap with something you wanted, it means that a Selani wouldn't consider what Kerri did to be dishonorable.  She's not forcing you to do anything you really don't want to do.  It would be the same as a Selani male kidnapping his love interest.  The female is given an opportunity to escape, though it may not seem apparent to her.  If she doesn't escape, then she obviously wanted to go in the first place."

      "Just so," Allia agreed.  "You were inclined to marry her, or you would never have slept with her.  As I understand Wikuni, anyway.  Why is that humans and Wikuni put so much on the taking of a lover?"

      "They're just backwards, sister," Tarrin replied.  "At least the Arkisians and Arakites are more progressive."

      "In other words, when I allowed her Majesty to seduce me, I sealed my own fate," Rallix mused.

      "The bait she used was herself," Tarrin chuckled.  "The one thing you couldn't resist.  A clever trap."

      "Thank you," Keritanima said shamelessly.  "I worked quite a while to make it.  Are you proud of me?"

      "Quite," Allia agreed with a smile.  "If you are half of what Kerri says you are, you will be a fine husband," she told Rallix.  "The husband of a sister is my brother.  It would honor me to speak of you thusly."

      "The honor is mine, Lady Allia," Rallix said with a light smile.  "Acceptance by a Selani is the highest honor one like myself could hope to achieve."

      "At least he can sweet-talk," Tarrin chuckled.

      "Hush," both Allia and Keritanima told him.

      Tarrin, Allia, Keritanima, and Rallix spent the rest of the morning together in Keritanima's new apartments as Binter and Sisska stood quiet, vigilent guard over the room.  They were huge, grand, and decorated in Keritanima's own style, a style of simplistic taste.  There were only a few works of art, two tapestries, and three sculptures, but all of them were beautiful and powerful pieces, invoking great emotion.  Keritanima did appreciate finery, so her furniture was all obvious antique, made of a dark wood that was highly polished, and was graceful and elegant in design.  The motiff of her outer parlor was blue, with the upholstery of the chairs and couch a deep yet soft-seeming blue, with a tapestry depicting the night sky over Wikuna hanging from the wall.  They sat in that parlor on those comfortable chairs and did nothing but talk, giving Tarrin and Allia a chance to come to know Rallix's mind.  They talked of their journey and their mission, of what had happened in Suld, and even listened as Rallix voiced his reservations and opinions about the new governmental system that Keritanima was trying to institutute.  Then Keritanima took her turn defending her system, explaining to Rallix how it was supposed to work in detail.

      "There, that is the problem," Rallix said as he listened to her explain the concept of Parliament as a governing body.  "This is why the common man hasn't become so supportive, your Majesty."

      "We're in private, Rallix," she chided.  "You can call me by my name here."

      "I'm sorry, Kerita--uh, Kerri," he said.  "The system as you describe it does make sense, and I can see the potential of it.  But the common man, someone without my education, he's not going to understand the system by the documents you've distributed to the Mayor and the papers.  You need to explain things, not send out a sheaf of papers with new rules.  If you explain things in simple terms, as you did for me, you'll gain a great deal more support from the common man."

      "Kerri sometimes believes that all can understand what she understands," Allia said mildly.  "She cannot conceive of someone not being able to understand what is very simple to her."

      "I've noticed that about her," Rallix agreed, looking at her calmly.  "Usually, she doesn't bother to explain.  It's not going to work in this instance, Kerri.  You're trying to change a fundamental cornerstone of our society, so if you want people to embrace it, you need to explain it."

      "I guess I should have at that," she admitted, tapping on her muzzle with a finger.  "I did try to explain how it would improve the lot of the common man."

      "Your statement and speech wasn't very clear on that, Kerri," he told her.  "I read it from the Examiner."

      "What is this examiner?" Allia asked.

      "A newspaper," Rallix told her.  "A printed journal of events," he explained when he saw Allia's blank look.  "They pay people to go out and find information that people would find interesting, and then they print it on paper and sell it."

      "It's a new idea that's just catching on," Keritanima told them.  "Someone invented a machine that makes it very fast and easy to mass produce printed pages, and change those printed pages quickly.  The Examiner was the first of these 'news-papers' to appear, about a year ago.  I have to admit, they're making a killing.  People actually pay to read the news."

      "What you should do is print a detailed explanation of your system and distribute it the same way they do with newspapers," Rallix told her.  "The nobility is already starting to realize that if they attack you and your ideas in the press, they can lie through their teeth and have people believe them as long as they do it first.  People are starting to take what they read in the newspapers as inviolate truth.  It won't be long before one of the nobles gets the idea of printing a pamphlet decrying the system and handing it out all over the kingdom."

      "That's a good point.  If I write this thing, how long would it take to get it printed?" she asked.

      "I know the owner of the Wikuna Herald, a new newspaper.  If I bring him the article you write and the gold to cover his expenses, he'll print it and hand it out.  I could have it on the streets the day after you hand me what you want printed."

      "Don't you love modern technology?" Keritanima laughed, looking at Tarrin and Allia.  "I'm going to resort to using propaganda against myself.  Ironic, isn't it?"

      "You just lost me, Kerri," Tarrin said.

      "I told you a while ago, what I'm doing is akin to overthrowing myself, Tarrin.  Now I'm going to convince people that me overthrowing myself is actually a good idea.  Using selective information to present a single view in favor of any other is called propaganda."

      "I just do not understand Wikuni politics," Allia said with a shake of her head.

      "That's a good thing," Keritanima grinned.  "If you did, it would stain your honor."  She clapped her hands together and rubbed them.  "Well, if I'm going to do this before I leave, I'd better get started."

      "That would be a good idea," Tarrin agreed.

      "Seeing as how we're getting married later tonight, I'd like to get this out of the way," she added as she stood up.  "Now, if the Ministry of Science could invent something that makes writing faster and easier," she grunted.  "Binter, could you go find Miranda for me?"

      "At once, your Majesty," Binter said with a bow, marching from the room.

      "Well, you're going to be busy, so we'll leave you to it," Tarrin told her.

      "What are you going to be doing for the rest of the day?" she asked.

      "I'm not sure," he replied.

      "I wanted to go down into the city and see their wonders," Allia told him.  "Would you go with me, brother?"

      "That's a good idea," Tarrin agreed.  "I'd like to go see Wikuna for myself."

      "I'll send a guide--"

      "No guides," Allia said.  "No guards, no fanfare.  I wish to walk the streets as any other."

      "You're a Selani, sister.  You're not going to just walk around unnoticed," Keritanima chuckled.

      "Perhaps, but I would prefer to go on our own rather than be escorted."

      "Well, I seriously doubt that there's a single living thing in Wikuna that could threaten either of you, so you have my blessing," she grinned.  "Just be back before sunset, alright?  You don't want to miss our wedding, do you?"

      Rallix fidgeted a bit.  Sleeping with Keritanima was one thing, but now he had to pay for it, and the cost still hadn't settled with him quite yet.

      "Just call to us when you want us to return," Allia said, touching her amulet meaningfully.

      The mention of Sorcery reminded him that he was going to take Keritanima into the Weave.  He sat back down, and Keritanima looked at him strangely as he used Sorcery to spin out two new strands, anchoring them to the same strand he'd used to anchor the new strand in his room.  "I forgot," he grunted.  "This is going to be our one and only chance to do this, Kerri.  We'll be on the move again tomorrow."

      "Oh, right!" she said brightly.  "Writing that article can wait!"  She rushed over to where he had put the strands, on the floor between her chair and his, grabbing a pillow off the nearby couch, dropping it on the floor, then sitting on it.

      "What are you doing, Kerri?" Rallix asked.

      "Kerri is Tarrin's student in magic," Allia answered for her.  "He is going to train her in an aspect of Sorcery that can only be done when they are stationary.  While we are waiting, would you like to play a game of stones?" Allia offered.

      "What kind of Sorcery?" he asked curiously.

      "A very old kind," Tarrin said.  "And no, you can't do it."

      "I'm rather sure I couldn't," he said mildly.

      "I know your type, Rallix.  Trust me, you can't do it, and you can't make a spell that copies it either."

      "Make a spell?" Keritanima asked quickly.

      "How did you know that I once dabbled in Wizardry?" Rallix asked in surprise.

      "It leaves a mark on you," Tarrin told him.  "I sensed it in you the moment I met you."

      "You learned Wizardry?" Keritanima asked in surprise.  "Rallix, that's forbidden by law!"

      "I was in Sennadar at the time, your Majesty," Rallix said with a smile.  "The law doesn't apply there.  So long as I don't actively practice magic on Wikuni soil, it's perfectly legal."

      "When were you in Sennadar long enough to learn magic?" Keritanima asked curiously.

      "When I got out of primary school, I signed on with House Plantan as a sailor," he told her.  "They saw I wasn't much of a sailor, but I had a nose for business, so when we reached our destination, Dala Zah in Yar Arak, they put me on at their trade consulate so I could learn about the merchant business.  I learned magic from one of the local Wizards.  He thought it a grandly funny thing that a Wikuni was willing to learn magic, but back then, I often didn't consider the consequences before jumping head first into things."

      "That sounds alot like someone we know," Tarrin told Allia with a smile.

      "Yes, it does, does it not?" she agreed.

      "I spent two years there.  Long enough to learn some very simple spells, little more than cantrips, but it was enough to satisfy my curiosity.  I reached the end of my contract with Plantan and didn't extend, so I was returned to Wikuna.  I still have my spellbook," he said with a distant smile.  "Sometimes, when I feel nostalgic, I take it out and read it."

      "You were born on the wrong continent, Rallix," Tarrin said.

      "Sometimes I have to agree with you," Rallix sighed.  "I was always fascinated by magic.  It's a pity the priesthoods of Wikuna managed to get the laws against other forms of magic passed."

      "I've already started undoing those laws, Rallix," Keritanima said, patting the floor beside her impatiently.  "Hurry up, Tarrin!  I already have a long day ahead of me, and my night will probably be even longer," she said with a look at Rallix.  The badger cleared his throat and pulled at the neck of his tunic.

      "Alright," Tarrin said, sitting down beside her.  "This isn't that hard.  All you have to do is relax and do what you did the first time, Kerri."

      "I don't remember much about that," she warned him.

      "You do, you just don't realize it," he added.  "First you do what you always do when working with Sorcery.  Calm down, clear your mind, and concentrate on what you're doing.  When you do that, you'll feel the Weave above you.  You just rise up into it, that's all.  That's how I imagine it, myself."

      "That's it?"

      "More or less.  The currents of the Weave will pick you up as soon as you join with it, and carry you to the Heart.  So don't get panicky when you feel yourself being carried away."

      "Do you always start there?"

      "At first, yes," he answered.  "When you have more experience, you can hold your position and go wherever you want.  But I haven't done very much of that."

      "Why not?"

      "Well, mainly because you have to be stationary when you do this," he told her.  "We've been on a ship the last month, and there was too much going on at the Tower for me to explore the Weave very much."

      "Those are good reasons," Keritanima chuckled.

      "Pardon my curiosity, but exactly what are you going to do?" Rallix asked.

      "They are going to join with the Weave," Allia answered him.  "Certain Sorcerers have the ability to join their minds to it, and it gives them a period of expanded consciousness."

      "Ah.  Interesting," Rallix hummed.

      "It's more like an alternate consciousness," Tarrin clarified.  "While we're joined, we'll be completely unresponsive.  We won't hear or see or smell, but we can feel.  If there's an emergency and you need us to return, just pull our hair.  We'll feel the pain and return."

      Tarrin waited for Keritanima in the Heart, and it only took her about ten minutes to arrive.  He allowed her a little time to marvel over the place, then he began her education.  He explained things as best he could, given his limited knowledge, then taught her the same spell he'd taught Jenna, using a Sorcerer's star to speak directly to his or her mind.  Tarrin used that spell to talk to Dolanna, to tell her to find a strand and attempt to join the Weave.  She arrived not long after that, and then Tarrin repeated his lesson for Dolanna, who already seemed to have a much firmer grip on the information that Keritanima did.  Tarrin described the Heart and the Goddess, then explained how the strands worked when travelling through them from the inside.  He stressed that Weave geography didn't correspond to the geography of the real world, and it usually required help from another Sorcerer or some kind of landmark or beacon to allow a Sorcerer to find something in the real world through the Weave.  He taught them spells for looking into the real world from the Weave, a form of completely undetectable spying, and taught them how he projected into the real world through the Weave, using an Illusion and then pushing his consciousness into the matrix of the weave to allow him to use it like a borrowed body.

      "It's not a real body, though," he warned them.  "When you move your arm, you're not really moving your arm, you're changing the weave to alter the image.  It takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, it does feel like you're moving your arm."

      "Understandable," Dolanna agreed.  "I remember when I saw you doing it that you did not walk.  The projection simply changed positions, sliding along the floor."

      "I remember that," Keritanima agreed.

      "You can weave spells through a projection, but it's very hard," he told them.  "You're literally weaving over a distance between your physical body and the projection.  The further it is, the harder it is."

      "You explained that already," Keritanima said.  "I want to try this."

      "So do I," Dolanna agreed.  Then she looked at him.  "Tarrin, are you shorter?"

      "The image here is an image of self generated by my subconscious," he explained.  "In the Heart, I don't appear as I really am, I appear the way my mind perceives me to be.  I guess my mind hasn't reconciled the fact that I'm so tall yet.  I'm not the only one that appears differently.  Jenna appears as an adult, and Jula appears as she looked when she was human."

      "Ah.  Interesting," Dolanna mused.  "Do I look the same?"

      "Both of you look exactly as you do in reality," he told them.

      "Then I guess we don't have any identity issues," Keritanima laughed.

      "Alright then, let's go visit Jasana," he said, giving Keritanima a rather cool look.  "I want to see my daughter."  He turned and looked at all the many stars, and it only took him a moment to find Jasana's star.  It was one of the brightest ones, a visible marker of her tremendous power.  He wove the spell to talk to her and reached out and put his paw on her star, feeling its power and vibrance pulsing into his paw.  "Jasana," he called.

      There was a pause.  "Papa?" her voice came through the star.  "I can hear you talking inside my head!"

      "I'm using a spell to talk to you, cub," he said gently.  "Are you alone?"

      "No, papa," she replied.  "Mama and gramma are here, and so is Aunt Jenna and Jula."

      "That's fine.  Where are you?"

      "We're in our rooms," she answered.

      "Tell them we're coming to see them," he told her.  "We'll be there in just a minute, alright?"

      "Alright, papa," she answered excitedly.

      Tarrin felt back between her star and her physical body, until he knew which way to go to reach them through the Weave.  He paused and then explained what he did to Keritanima and Dolanna, teaching them how to use the star of a Sorcerer to find his or her physical body, then he taught them the specifics of weaving the projection they would occupy, and exactly how to go about animating it.  Then he led them away from the Heart, rising up and entering a Conduit, following that into a smaller strand, then another, then yet another, hurtling through the Weave against the flow of the magical currents.  He entered a small feeder strand and moved along it slowly until the sense of Jasana was right before him.  He paused and waited for the other two to join him, and when they did so, they were both looking rather amazed.  "It's incredible!" she said, looking around. "We're inside the strand.  In the magic!"

      "Can't you feel it flowing around you?" Tarrin asked, motioning with a paw at the river of soft radiance in which they were submerged, which did reduce visibility, making anything more than twenty spans away hazy and indistinct, like looking into a fog.  The boundary of the strand was cleary distinguishable as a black wall at the edge of the radiance, a physical boundary that would hinder any travel through it.  Tarrin had never really paused to look around at the interior of a strand before, understanding its nature without having to look at it with his spectral eyes.  He could sense much more than he could see anyway, feeling the flow of the power, the gentle eddies and currents even with in the flow, and the occasional pulses and flickers of alien magic that travelled through the Weave.

      "It's beautiful," Dolanna said in Sharadi, looking around.  "We went so fast, I didn't get the chance to appreciate it before."

      "Yes, it is, isn't it?" Tarrin agreed.  "Alright, first you look out and get an idea of where you're going, then you weave the Illusion and then enter its weaving just like a strand.  That will allow you to join with the spell.  Ready?"

      "Ready," they both said.

      Tarrin wove the Illusion of himself as he truly appeared, and then pushed himself into the Illusion.  He opened his spectral eyes to see that they were all in the apartments he had in the Tower, sitting or standing in the parlor with its three couches surrounding the tea table, all set before the fireplace.  Jesmind and Jasana were sitting on one couch, Triana standing behind it, and Jenna and Jula sitting on one of the others.  He focused on his mate and daughter and smiled.  Jasana squealed in delight and tried to jump up to hug him, but Jesmind put her paws around her daughter quickly.  "It's not really your father, cub," she warned.  "If you try to hug him, you'll pass right through.  It's just an Illusion."

      "Aww," Jasana said with a pout.

      "I'm sorry, cub, but this is the best I can do," he smiled at her, feeling his powerful love for the little girl flow through him at the sight of her.  Seeing Jesmind had as strong an effect, reminding him again how much he loved his fiery, tempermental mate.  "Believe me, I'd give a great deal to be able to touch you right now," he said longingly, looking into her eyes.

      "I feel the same way," she answered from her heart, gazing into his eyes.

      Tarrin sensed the building of other spells, and then images of Dolanna and Keritanima appeared on either side of him.  They were motionless, still, until he felt their minds join to the weaves, and then the Illusions became animate.  Their eyes opened, and they looked around the room in wonder.

      "Amazing!" Dolanna breathed, turning to look around.  They both, it seemed, caught onto the trick of simulating motion immediately.  In reality, it was very much like moving a physical body.

      "You're about six hours late," Jenna said critically.  "It's midafternoon here."

      "It's still morning here," he told her.  "I forgot about the time difference.  We should have made it clear whose morning we'd use to meet," he told her.

      Jenna chuckled.  "I guess so," she agreed.

      "You're looking well, father," Jula said with a gentle smile.  "How are things going there?"

      "Rather well," he replied.  "We'll be leaving for Vendaka tomorrow, so this will be the only chance I have to do this.  I can't project like this when the ship is moving."

      "Why not?" Jesmind asked.

      "Because we have to be in physical contact with a strand," Jenna answered her.  "If we're moving, then we'll move out of contact with the strand, and I don't know what would happen to us if that happened."

      "Exactly," Tarrin agreed.  "Mother," he greeted Triana.  "You're looking well."

      "Not for Jesmind's trying to make me go bald," she said sourly.  "Sometimes I think I should have killed her when she was younger.  I'd have saved myself alot of headache."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "I'm rather glad you didn't, mother," he told her.  "She may be a handful, but she's my handful."

      "Then you come deal with her," Triana said as Jesmind gave him a glorious smile.

      "I'd love to, but as you know, things can't be that way at the moment," he sighed.

      "How are the lessons going?" Jenna asked Dolanna.

      "I was there to observe as Tarrin trained Keritanima, so there is little he has had to repeat for me," she answered.  "This is our first excursion into the Weave, and it will be our last for some time."

      "Travelling doesn't make for good teaching," Jula said sagely.

      "Actually, since we are on a ship, we have plenty of time for teaching," Dolanna told her.  "But since the ship moves, it restricts what we can learn."  Dolanna wiped her brow.  "Tarrin, you were right.  This is demanding."

      "I'm starting to feel it myself," Keritanima agreed.

      "It takes practice," he told them.  "Why don't the two of you go on back?  You need to rest.  Trust me, as soon as you go back to your bodies, you'll feel twice as tired as you do now."

      "What motivation," Keritanima grunted.

      "He's right, Kerri," Jula said, then seemed to blush when she realized she'd used the contraction that only Keritanima's friends used.  "I almost collapsed when you saw me do it back when Dolanna crossed over.  It's a good thing I was already in bed."

      "Uh, Tarrin, you didn't teach us how to stop this."

      "Just pull out of the Illusion and go back into the Weave," Jenna told them.  "It's as simple as that.  Rejoin the Weave, and when you're there, just will to return to your body.  And you'll go back, almost immediately."

      "Oh.  I think I can do that," Keritanima grinned.  "See you all later."  And then her Illusion dissipated.  Tarrin felt her consciousness hurtle back into the distance, as she returned to her body.

      "It was good to see you again," Dolanna said with a smile, then her Illusion too wavered and vanished, and her mind rejoined her body in Wikuna.

      Tarrin remained behind, however.  He caused his projection to kneel before his mate and daughter, looking at them with yearning eyes.  If only he could touch them!  But as he was, they were insubstantial to him as he was to them.  Jasana put her paw out as if to touch him, then she flinched when her paw passed through his head, disappearing into the Illusion.  "That's scary, papa," she complained.

      "I warned you, cub," Jesmind said softly, gazing into his eyes.  "When are you coming home to me, beloved?" she asked.

      "I don't know yet, my mate," he answered, resisting the urge to reach a paw out to her.  "Is Jasana behaving herself now?"  Tarrin talked to both Jesmind and Jasana every night, but he was leery to bring up such things when both of them could hear, so he hadn't had a chance to ask about that quite yet.

      "Jenna's cracked down on her," Jesmind said with a wan smile.  "If she misbehaves, she gets no lessons."

      "It's not fair," Jasana complained.  "I'm supposed to practice, aren't I?"

      "Not without supervision, cub," Jenna told her sharply.

      "How is it with you and Kimmie?" Triana asked directly.

      Was she trying to start a fight?  Tarrin gave her a sharp look, then blew out his breath and answered.  "Well enough," he answered.

      "Well, if you had to be with another female, I'm just glad it was Kimmie," Jesmind said, and that surprised Tarrin.  He looked at her, and saw that she was being sincere.  "At least she understands you."

      "Jesmind's stopped looking at the situation with her hormones and saw it with her eyes," Triana told Tarrin calmly.

      "Well, then I guess I can tell you that I told her she can move in with me," he said cautiously.

      "That's the way it should be, Tarrin," Jesmind said calmly.

      "You're awfully calm about it now, my mate," he said.

      "I saw your eyes, Tarrin," she told him simply, but with powerful emotion.  "When you looked at me, I saw that when you come back, you'll come back to me.  I don't have any cause to be jealous of Kimmie anymore, beloved.  Because I know that given the choice between her and me, you'll choose me."

      "You knew that all along."

      "Knowing with the mind isn't the same as knowing with the heart, cub," Triana said sagely.  "Even I get a bit irrational right after Thean leaves me, but I get over it."

      "Is he still here?" he asked.

      Triana nodded.  "We'll be together for at least a year," she answered.  "It's been a few years since the last time, so we'll be able to stay together for quite a while."

      "That's good to hear, mother," Tarrin told her, then he felt a twinge.  "I'd better get back.  I promised Allia I'd go with her today, and I don't want to wear myself out and back out of a promise."

      "Then you'd better go.  But please, talk to me a little earlier than usual, alright?" Jesmind asked.  "I'm getting tired of staying up into the middle of the night to talk to you, and Jasana gets surly in the morning because she's staying up so late."

      "It's the time difference," he chuckled.  "I'll try to talk to you a little earlier, alright?"

      "Thank you," she said with a grateful smile.

      "Why didn't you say something?"

      "Because you try not to mess with a good thing, beloved," Jesmind answered.

      "You're going, papa?" Jasana asked.

      "Afraid so, cub," he told her with a solemn nod.  "I'll talk to you tonight, though, alright?"

      "It's not the same."

      "I know, but we have to take what we can get.  You be good, and we'll talk tonight, alright?"

      "Alright, papa."

      He stood and looked to Jenna and Jula.  "You two keep it up.  You know where to find me if you want to talk."

      "Can I talk to you later tonight, father?" Jula asked.

      "You can talk to me now."

      "I'd, uh, I'd rather speak to you alone, if that's alright with you," she said hedgingly, glancing at the others.

      "That's fine with me, Jula," he replied.

      "Can I use the Weave?"

      "You can talk to me any way you want," he assured her.  "I'm sure Jenna's taught you everything you need to know to join the Weave without her there to hold your paw."

      "That's right," Jenna assured him.

      "Then you come and talk to me in a few hours, alright?" he told her.  "I should be back from my trip with Allia by then."

      "Alright, father," Jula said with a nod and a relieved look.

      "I'll see all of you later," Tarrin said, looking at Triana.  "Can I talk to you privately later tonight, mother?" he asked.

      "Any time, cub," she nodded.  "I'll look in on you until you're not busy."

      "Fair enough," he replied.  He wasn't sure how she was going to do that, but then again, Triana knew so much Druidic magic she surely had some kind of way to do it.

      "All this secrecy," Jenna laughed.  "I'm tempted to ask if I can talk to you privately, Tarrin."

      "I have my reasons, Jenna," he said calmly.  "I'll talk to all of you later."

      With that and one last look at his daughter and mate, Tarrin withdrew from the Illusion and returned to his own body.  He opened his eyes to see Keritanima pacing back and forth, a hand on her stomach, a little out of breath.  Sisska mirrored her movements, ready to catch her if needs be, but she looked like she was going to be alright.  Tarrin regained his feet gracefully, pondering what Jula might want to need to talk to him alone, and his own impending conversation with Triana.  Tarrin's motivation to talk to her alone was important, because he wanted to hear from her how his mate and daughter were really doing.  Triana would give it to him straight.  He also wanted to catch up on how Jula's education in the things she needed to know to pass the test of Fae-da'Nar was going.  Triana was continuing her education, and he knew that Jula hadn't yet been tested for acceptance.  It was starting to run into some time, so he was worried about how things were going in that department.  That was something he didn't want to discuss in front of Jula, or even Jesmind.  It wasn't any of Jesmind's business, and it may upset or rattle Jula to hear the truth of her progress from Triana, in case Triana had something bad to say.  Tarrin had come to learn that Jula was a very anxious woman, nervous, a little high-strung, and not a little neurotic.  If she heard something bad from Triana, she would obsess over it, the way she'd obsessed over her fear that the Goddess had rejected her.  Given everything that she had to learn from Triana and Jenna, it was best that she be kept as calm as possible.

      "I never dreamed that could be so exhausting!" Keritanima told him breathlessly, leaning against the back of a chair.  "My respect for your power just went up several notches, deshida."

      "You just wove and maintained a spell over a thousand leagues, sister," Tarrin told her mildly. "Did you think it was going to be easy?"

      She looked at him, then laughed.  "I guess not," she admitted.  "Will it always be that tiring?"

      "It doesn't get easy, but it will get less difficult," he answered.  "You're still maturing into your full power as a Weavespinner.  When you top out, it should be a little easier.  But will always be tiring, even for me and Jenna.  We can just do it a little longer than you."

      "Not if I have anything to say about it," she grinned.

      "We'll see," Tarrin said mildly, turning to look at Allia.  "Are you ready to go?"

      "I am ready," she said with a smile.

      Refusing offers of guides, guards, even servants to discreetly follow behind them, Tarrin and Allia left the Royal Palace and wandered the streets of Wikuna.  To say that they stood out was an understatement, for there were only a scant handful of non-Wikuni on the entire continent.  A being like a Selani attracted a great deal of attention as she wandered aimlessly with Tarrin, who looked more like a deformed Wikuni to them than anything else, wandered streets and talked about absolutely nothing of importance.  They rekindled the powerful bonds that held them together, a selfless, giving love that they shared, a loving friendship so deep that it defied rational explanation.  Every once in a while, they just needed time to themselves, to renew those ties, and the walking of the streets of Wikuna was a perfect opportunity.

      Of course, there was much to do.  They visited the docks and watched the cranes loading and unloading ships, then they walked up a grand avenue that had a strip of green grass and planted trees splitting it in half.  They found workers paving the road with that liquid stone that Keritanima described, and paused to watch them pour it out of wheelbarrels caked with the stuff, pouring it into molds bounded by wooden boards, then smooth it flat with long-handled tools.  Tarrin managed to get close enough to put his finger into the residue in the wheelbarrel, and he used that little sample to use Sorcery on it to discern its ingredients.  Powdered limestone, water, sand, fine gravel, a little lye, and some chalk.  That was it.  Strange to believe that this goopy liquid would dry out and harden into stone, and from the looks of some of the other paved areas, with the heavy wagons crossing them, a very hard stone.

      After that, they sat at a sidewalk cafe and ate things that neither of them could identify, for Tarrin could read the menu, but the food listed were things he'd never heard of before.  Then they walked along the central part of the city, and found a small Wikuni boy hawking some of those "news-papers" of which Keritanima and Rallix had spoken.  On an impulse, Tarrin bought one, and then he and Allia sat on a bench in front of a large fountain that sprayed water from eight different spouts up at one another, where they collided in the air and cascaded back down into the center.  Tarrin thought that it would be interesting to see what the Wikuni felt was important, and that would be as easy as reading the inforamtion in the newspaper.  They had to sell the papers, and that meant that there had to be something on it interesting enough to a Wikuni for them to pay for them.  Allia looked at the blocky script printed on the page, strange printing that looked very sterile.  Tarrin still had a little trouble reading Wikuni, because the written language had a great many sharp letters that all looked the same, where only an apostrophe, dot, or a very slight difference in the shape of the letter distinguished from all the others that had the same shape.

      "What does it say?" Allia asked in Selani.  Whenever they were alone or wanted to speak privately, they spoke in Selani.

      "Give me a minute, I'm trying to translate a language I'm not good at reading through three languages here," he answered shortly.

      "Three?  Why three?"

      "How would you translate something you read in Sha'Kar into Sulasian?" he asked.

      "I'd--oh," she said, her brows furrowing slightly.  "I see.  You translate it into you native tongue first, then translate again."

      "I'll make a linguist of you yet," he told her with a smile, perusing the paper.  "Alot of it deals with trading," he told her.  "How much something costs for the day.  Gold, silver, copper, and things like honey, tea, sugar--whatever sugar is--livestock, wool, cotton, and a bunch of others.  Half of this thing is some kind of trader's guide."

      "What about the other half?"

      "I'm getting there.  Alright, this part here is all gossip," he said, pointing at a column.  "About the nobles.  This part here talks about some duchess getting drunk at a party and saying very nasty things about some countess.  It's a bunch of drivel."  He turned the paper over.  "Ah, well, there's my mistake," he chuckled.

      "What?"

      "I was reading the second page first," he admitted.  "This is the front page."

      "What does it say?"

      "Give me a minute," he said, scanning the page.  "Now this is more like news.  The story at the top, with the big headline, is about how the city watch found three bodies in an alley yesterday morning.  The headline reads 'Boscany Strangler Strikes Again.'  I guess this is a recurring problem," he mused.  "Over here is a story about the war in Suld," he said.  "It's--wait, it's not very nice.  It's ripping up Keritanima for sending over Wikuni troops.  But then again, the article is complaining about the cost more than the lives that were lost.  That's compassionate," he snorted.  "The person who wrote it calls it, let's see, 'a foolish little war in a foolish little kingdom beneath our notice.  That Queen Keritanima-Chan Eram would dedicate resources and manpower to fight for such colloquial bumpkins degrades the honor of the kingdom and the reserves of our own treasury.'"  He frowned.  "Colloquial.  It seems that all Wikuni are as arrogant as Kerri is."

      "Given the wonders we've seen here, they do have some small reason to feel that way, brother," Allia said sagely.  "They have advanced beyond your people, so they naturally feel themselves superior."

      "Every musket in Wikuna would be useless against a single Sorcerer that knows how to weave a Ward that would stop their musket balls," he scoffed.  "They advanced with technology, we advanced with magic.  I'd say that that evens us out."  He read the bottom of the page.  "Here's something about the new system.  It says that construction on the building that's going to house that Parliament thing was delayed again because of sabotage.  Do you really understand Kerri's system, Allia?" he asked honestly.

      "I can comprehend it, but I feel it to be silly and redundant," she answered.

      "I just don't understand it.  I guess it's the Cat in me.  I can't fathom any kind of system that seems so restrictive."

      "It's her kingdom.  If she wants to run it into the ground, that's her decision.  It's not our place to interfere."

      "Eh, who knows, maybe it will actually work for them," Tarrin shrugged.  "Wikuni are weird to begin with.  A weird system may be just what they need."

      "An interesting viewpoint," Allia said with a laugh.

      After finishing with the printed newspaper, they set out again.  They walked along both cobblestone and new concrete streets, looking at the mixture of old and new architectures that gave the city its unique appearance.  From old, fortress-looking buildings with fences, arrow slits instead of windows, and battlements to the newer plaster-faced buildings, with their slate roofs and their dark wooden beams interrupting the continuity of white on their outside.  All Wikuni seemed to like fences or walls, fencing in a little extra land with their homes to serve as gardens or lawns.  Those areas seemed to be generally in the back of the houses, with the front of the house facing the street and the back, with the fence or wall, facing the street on the other side.  Some wider blocks had houses facing the streets on both sides, with the lawn or garden sandwiched between them.  Space seemed to be at a priority in Wikuna, with the smaller houses having very little, and in some cases absolutely none, of the fenced in area with the house.

      They wandered into one of the poorer sections of the city, and it was here where the differences between rich and poor in Wikuni society were so prevalent.  The buildings were all run down and in poor repair, and the people who lived in them were all very thin, wearing dirty, torn clothes, and looked very tired and despondent.  The worst were the children, unnaturally thin children wearing clothes that usually didn't fit them, playing with whatever was available, able even in their misery to find some escape from the harshness of their existence with a child's game or a wandering imagination.  Tarrin had never heard of poverty in Wikuna, had never heard anyone talk about it.  Yet here it was, glaring at them with dull eyes, the dark underside of the shining veneer that the Wikuni wanted everyone to believe was their greatness.

      "So now we know that the Wikuni aren't any better than anyone else," Tarrin growled as they moved out of the poor neighborhood and into an area with slighty better buildings.  "It reminds me of what we saw in Dala Yar Arak.  It was so infuriating to see the humans so poor, so hungry.  I couldn't believe that the other humans would just leave them like that, that they didn't care.  Now we see that the Wikuni are the same way.  They're much more human than your people, sister."

      "My people shun contact with the humans," she told him.  "I see now that that's a good policy to keep.  It seems that contact with other races has affected my distant cousins."

      They walked on until midafternoon, and then they both decided to return to the Palace.  Tarrin returned to his apartments to find that Kimmie had taken over the study room, her spellbooks sitting on the desk and any number of strange vials, bottles, beakers, and vials holding all sorts of weird things standing on the cabinet and on a shelf that she had brought in.  Kimmie knew they were leaving in the morning...why bring everything out like that?  Kimmie and Sapphire were nowhere to be found; odds were, Sapphire was with Kimmie, and Kimmie was probably with Phandebrass.

      As he returned to the inner parlor, there was a strange twinge in the air.  Tarrin sensed it and realized that it was Druidic magic, the beginnings of a spell.  It was Triana.  He sat down on the couch and waited for her spell to find him, and when it did, that familiar swirling circle of energy appeared before him, then sharpened into a visible image of her.  She was standing in Jesmind's parlor.

      "How did you know I was here?" he asked curiously.

      She gave him a slight smile, which for her was a very big display of emotion.  "I once held your bond, cub," she told him.  "Since I'm a Druid, that means that I can still access it without actively holding it.  I keep track of all my children that way."

      Tarrin looked at her, then laughed.  "You don't cut any of us off your apron strings, do you?"

      "The kind of children I have?" she scoffed.  "I have to watch them every minute, or they get themselves in trouble.  Jesmind is bad enough, but you don't know Nikki or Shayle or Laren.  They're all just as bad."

      "And now you have me.  It must be enough to give you gray hair."

      Triana looked at him, then laughed.  "Some things are worth the trouble, cub," she said with a wolfish smile.  "What did you want to talk about?"

      Tarrin and Triana talked for quite a while about Jula.  Where she was, what she needed, and when she'd be ready.  Tarrin was pleased to learn that Jula was coming along very well, that Triana was beginning to teach her the laws and customs necessary for acceptance.  She'd put it off because of Jula's instability, working to solidify her sanity before working with her on fitting in in Woodkin society.  Triana said in no uncertain terms that Jula was completely stable now, that she had found her balance and was no longer in any danger of going mad.  That pleased Tarrin, though he had already suspected it given his interaction wtih her when he was in Suld.  He could tell that she had achieved some stability in her struggle against her instincts.

      After that, they shifted to his family.  Tarrin heard all about what Jesmind was up to through her mother's eyes, about how she was dealing with him being gone and granting his attentions to Kimmie.  That was important to Tarrin, because he wanted to make sure that her brave talk in front of him wasn't just a front.  But Triana assured him that Jesmind really had come to accept the situation--"coming back to her proper Were senses," Triana had called it--and was alright with what was going on.  Jesmind's love for him was very strong, and Triana told him that such powerful emotion clouded the Were-cat outlook about such things.  "I go through the same thing every time Thean leaves," she admitted.  "I go through a period of intense jealousy and anger, but it fades as I come back to my senses.  Thean relates it to the human female's period of irrationality when she's in heat.  He calls it my period."  She smirked slightly.  "Then again, he's not around to experience it, so he can make fun of it all he wants.  I usually retreat from everyone for a while after we split up, so I don't kill someone I'd regret killing later."

      It was very strange to hear Triana admit to weakness.  She was the oldest of them, and she was almost mythical in his mind as the pinnacle of Were, a solid foundation to which he attached his life.  But in its own way, it was more than understandable that she would admit to weakness.  She was the one that had told him time and again that certain aspects of Were mentality affected them all, from the very youngest to the very oldest.  That Triana herself suffered some of those same things made her feel much more mortal, and allowed him to relate to her as a true kindred spirit.

      "Does Thean feel the same way?" Tarrin asked.

      She shook her head.  "Males and females have different instincts, cub," she reminded him.  "He doesn't like splitting with me, but he doesn't suffer irrational episodes.  Males have it easy," she complained.  "Males don't have an instinctual impulse to hold onto a mate.  Females do.  My episodes and Jesmind's, they're instinctual, not emotional."

      "I didn't know that."

      "Emotion does make them worse," she told him.  "But that's the base of them.  It has to do with the hybrid instincts of human and cat.  Both human and cat females strive to find a mate.  The human female tries to hold onto him, where the cat loses interest in him after he impregnates her.  In that situation, we're governed much more by our human instincts than our cat ones.  Remember, in a given situation, if one set of instincts reacts but one does not, we'll still be affected by the instincts that react.  It's only when the instincts directly oppose one another that they cancel out."

      "I figured you'd have an answer," he chuckled.  "How is Jasana handling things?  She's always herself when I talk to her, but you never know with her."

      "She's doing fine," she replied.  "She's clinging to the promise you made to come back, so as far as she's concerned, you'll be back any day now.  She asks if you've come back every morning when she wakes up.  It's really starting to irritate Jesmind."  She glanced to her right.  "How is Kimmie?"

      "She's alright.  Busy learning about magic from Phandebrass."

      "That's not what I mean," she said sharply.

      "What do you mean then?"

      "Is she feeling alright?  Has she been exhausting herself with her magical training?  That can't be good for her right now."

      "That's a strange question, mother," he said calmly.

      She glanced at him.  "You don't know, do you?" she asked.  "Then again, she probably doesn't know either."

      "Know what?"

      She looked right at him.  "Tarrin, Kimmie is pregnant."

      She couldn't have produced a more profound reaction if she'd hit him in the back of the head with a sledgehammer.  He gaped at Triana for a long moment, then cleared his throat.  "Preg--how did you--there's--I don't--mother!" he finally said indignantly.

      She laughed.  "You can't hide anything from me, cub," she told him with amused eyes.  "She's been pregant for a few days now."

      "How do you know these things?" he demanded.

      "I took Kimmie's bond just before she left, then released it and took Jula's bond from her again," she said simply.  "I don't let anyone close to my family go around where I can't keep an eye on them."

      He was stunned, completely flabbergasted.  "Why shouldn't she exhaust herself?" he asked.  "She's a Were-cat, mother!  She won't even start slowing down until she's ready to deliver!"

      "She's a Were-cat," she affirmed.  "She's also a turned Were-cat, and a turned Were-cat has never carried a child before.  The sire of  the cub is a turned male, and though your other two cubs came out alright, I have no idea how it's going to work with a turned female.  She's also a magician, and since we're magical beings, there's no telling how her magical training is going to affect the child.  That baby won't have any kind of resistance to the magical forces that infuse Kimmie when she's working her magic.  I honestly have no idea how it's going to affect her, or the baby, and since this is uncharted territory, I have no idea if her status as a turned Were-cat is going to cause any unforseen complications.  So I want you to tell her to go easier for a while, cub.  She can still learn magic, but she can't exhaust herself, and she can't let anyone use magical spells on her unless you do it, because Sorcery won't affect the baby.  Let's not take any chances."

      "Why won't Sorcery affect the baby?" he asked curiously.

      "Because Sorcery affects what the Sorcerer wants it to affect," she told him.  "You know she's pregnant.  Any spell you use on her, you'll tailor to work around that little complication.  Do you understand me?"

      He mulled it over, then nodded.  "I understand, mother.  I can do that."

      "Good.  Congratulations, cub.  You gave Jesmind a cub, Mist a cub, and now Kimmie a cub.  Since they're your three chosen females, it's only fitting that they all share a bond with you through the children you gave them."

      Tarrin stared at his paws, not sure what he should feel.  Another child!  Three children!  Three!  First Jasana, then Eron, and now Kimmie was going to give him another cub.  He felt blessed, embarassed--that coming from his human side--and strangely proud all at the same time.  A sudden wave of intense protectiveness rose up in him as well, the need to defend mate and child from harm establishing itself in his mind.  He was ecstatic that Kimmie was pregnant, but the enormity of what they were doing hit him.  They were sailing off into the unknown, into danger, and Kimmie had to go with him!  Not really, but Kimmie would refuse to be left behind--he knew her too well--and Tarrin really didn't want to let her out of his sight.

      Tarrin looked up at his bond-mother and blew out his breath.  "This is going to cause some problems, but all in all, it's good news, mother," he told her.

      "A new life is always good news," Triana said calmly.  "I'm glad you asked to talk to me, because I was going to contact you anyway."

      "I guess so," he chuckled humorlessly, absorbing it all.  Kimmie, pregnant!  "Does Jesmind know?"

      "Not yet," she answered.  "I'll tell her, if you want me to."

      "I--it's only fair," he said.  "Go ahead."

      "I'd better get going, cub," she told him.  "There are things I need to do, and this spell is starting to weigh on me."

      "Alright," he said.  "Thanks, mother."

      "Any time, cub.  I love you."

      "I love you too."

      And then the image of her vanished as the spell was cancelled.  Tarrin leaned back on the couch and mulled it over.  Kimmie was pregnant.  She was a Were-cat, meaning that it wouldn't even slow her down until the cub was almost ready to be delivered.  Were-cat females only carried for six months, not the nine normal for human females, and they were born with much more strength and mobility than a human infant.  A Were-cat infant could crawl within days of being born.  Another sign of the accelerated beginning a Were-cat cub received over its human counterpart.  She wouldn't start showing it for about two months, and then her waist would slowly begin to expand.  But they were heading off into danger, and Tarrin was very wary of bringing Kimmie with him.  Then again, he was wary of leaving her behind.  He'd not been ther for the births of his other two cubs, and a part of him wanted to be a part of this child's life from its birth.  Kimmie was a turned female, and that meant that she'd probably be much more amenable to the idea of allowing him to remain with her until she gave birth to the cub.

      Triana's warning did worry him a little.  Kimmie was a turned female, and that was uncharted territory.  Tarrin was a turned male, and his two cubs had turned out alright.  He could only hope that a turned female would produce a healthy cub.  But this was a turned female giving birth to a cub sired by a turned male.  It was double jeopardy.

      Kimmie seemed to know when to make an entrance.  She came into the apartments and called out his name as Sapphire flew into the room and landed on his lap, rubbing her head against his paw fondly.  Tarrin looked at her as she came into the parlor and she stopped dead at the strange look he gave her.  "What?" she asked curiously.

      Tarrin stood up so quickly that he displaced Sapphire and approached her.  He didn't say a word.  She was wearing a dress, meaning that he couldn't put his paw on her bare belly from the top, so he expedited the matter by grabbing her skirts and lifting them as he bent down.  "Tarrin!" Kimmie squealed with a giggle, but she made no attempt to stop him as he put his paw under her skirt.  She seemed a bit disappointed when he placed his palm on her belly instead of somewhere else, her expression turning curious as Tarrin wove a spell of Mind and sent it inside of her, seeking.

      It was there.  It was a completely unformed entity, little more than biological processes, but it was separate and unique, differing from the signature of its host.

      Kimmie was definitely, certainly, and thoroughly pregnant.

      He leaned in and tested her scent.  It wasn't there, at least not yet.  The signs would become apparent after the baby grew a little, began making changes to Kimmie's body chemistry to suit its needs.

      "Tarrin, if you're going to play games, at least explain the rules to me," Kimmie protested.  "What are you doing?"

      Tarrin looked down at her, then leaned in and gave her a very delicate, very gentle, very intimate kiss.  She seemed a little breathless for a second, putting a paw on his shoulder and looking up into his eyes in confusion.

      "I have news for you, Kimmie," he told her gently.  "I think you may like it."

      "News?  What news?  Is this why you stuck your paw up my--"  Her eyes widened visibly, and she put a paw on her belly, over his own, with the dress' material separating them.  "You mean--"

      "Yes," he told her with a smile.  "Kimmie, you're pregnant."

      She gave a squeal and actually jumped up and down, forcing him to remove his paw before it tore her dress.  She jumped into his arms and kissed him exuberantly, all over his face, digging her claws into his back to the point where she drew blood.  "I'm so happy!" she said excitedly as she kissed him.  "I can't believe it!  Are you serious?  How did you know?  How long have I been pregnant?"

      "Triana told me," he told her.  "She said you've been pregnant a few days."

      "So we conceived on the ship coming here," she laughed.  "Probably that last night.  That was a wild night," she said with a bright, naughty smile.

      "Triana told me to tell you that she wants you to take it easy with the magic," he told her.  "She said that since we're both turned, she's not sure about how the pregnancy is going to go.  And since you work with magic, she doesn't want anyone casting any spells on you except for me, or you exhausting yourself with magical study while you're pregnant.  She said it may affect the baby."

      "I can still study?" she asked quickly.

      "She said you can still study, but don't overdo it.  No exhausting yourself or exposing yourself to strong concentrations of magic.  And don't you dare let Phandebrass cast any more magical spells on you!" he said adamantly.

      "He won't, I guarantee you of that," she laughed, kissing him again.  "We're going to have a baby, Tarrin," she said gently, touching his face with a paw.  "You couldn't have given me anything in the whole world to make me happier than I am right now."

      Tarrin held her for long moments, letting her continue to celebrate by kissing him.  Everything else was forgotten, everything else didn't matter.  For that long, sweet moment, there was nothing but the joy of knowing that Kimmie was pregnant.  That they were going to have a baby.


To:       Title                EoF

Chapter 7

 

      It was a very calm, quiet, happy night.

      The sun would be coming up soon.  Tarrin lay on the huge, oversized bed he shared with Kimmie, arm draped protectively over her as he watched her sleep.  He couldn't help but stare at her in wonder.  She was pregnant.  She was going to have a baby, their baby.  Although he had two other children by two other females, this was his first opportunity to be there with the female during her pregnancy.  He hadn't even known about Jesmind being pregnant, and when he made Mist pregnant, he knew that the circumstances of their meeting and his mission wouldn't permit him to be there with her.  If she allowed him to remain at all.  Females usually forced a male away after they became pregnant, part of the cat instincts working within them, and Mist was very much dominated by her cat instincts.

      He already felt more intimate with Kimmie, closer.  If anything, then because of the child they were bringing into the world.  He liked her, she liked him.  They were both turned, so he was sure she would be able to tolerate his more human-grounded concepts, just as he expected her to be more human in her approach to dealing with him, but he was pretty sure that she knew that he wouldn't be like human males.  He wouldn't see her as an invalid or delicate, because she was a Were-cat female.  Her pregnancy would have no effect on her until days before she was ready to deliver, when her body began preparing for the event.  She'd be as mobile and capable as ever until then.  Of course, there would be some changes in his behavior, he knew that.  He felt wildly protective over Kimmie already, and her pregnancy wouldn't even show for two or three months.  She was more than capable, but that didn't mean that he'd like it if she intentionally went into a dangerous situation.  He'd allow her her studies and let her travel with him, but he wouldn't let her fight.  And deep down, he had the feeling that Kimmie would be just as reluctant to fight as he would be to allow her to do so.  Were-cats didn't get pregnant very often, and when they did, the instincts of protecting the unborn cub were exceptionally powerful within them.  It was why Jesmind left him, it was why Mist returned to the Frontier.  They were doing everything they could to put themselves out of potential harm.  Kimmie wouldn't have that same opportunity, but Tarrin would make sure that she was the safest being on the face of the planet.

      They hadn't told the others yet, but they knew something was going on.  They'd attended Keritanima's rather unorthodox wedding the night before, which had been little more than a priest, Keritanima, Rallix, and all Keritanima's friends and siblings gathering in her apartment for a ceremony that lasted about five minutes.  It was quick, clean, and easy, a simple exchanging of vows and rings that made their marriage legal under the law.  Tarrin felt that it was almost too sterile, too unemotional, but he realized that this was a wedding of convenience, a marriage of necessity, not a marriage of love.  That marriage, the official state wedding, would take place after Keritanima returned.  It would be Kerri's chance to shine, her chance to have the kind of wedding any girl from her social background wanted, with all the emotional trimmings to make it a day she would never forget.  Until then, though, she seemed content with her unofficial ownership of Rallix.  They'd seen how wildly happy Kimmie was after the ceremony was over, saw that even Tarrin was happy, almost talkative and outgoing.  For the grim, brooding Were-cat, that was almost unheard of.  Five separate times, Allia asked him if he was feeling well.  But Tarrin couldn't help it.  He just couldn't stop smiling, just couldn't stop being happy over it.  It was all both of them could manage not to tell all of them, but both of them wanted to do it after the wedding, so as not to take anything away from the already skeletal feeling of Keritanima's wedding ceremony.  For all it was worth, that night belonged to Keritanima, and neither Tarrin nor Kimmie would steal her thunder.

      But there were receptions, and there were receptions.  Keritanima's inner circle had their own reception of congratulations and a strange fizzy wine called champagne, then Keritanima and Rallix attended the other reception, the one for which the invitations had been sent out.  That one was attended by a group of confused and mystified nobles, who were invited to a party when they had no idea what the occasion was.  Tarrin thought it odd for Keritanima to wed in secret then have a public reception, then Dolanna explained to him that in order for people to leave Rallix alone, they had to know that he was Keritanima's husband.  So Keritanima was broadcasting that fact, using the reception as a perfect vehicle for spreading the news.  Rallix had become a target as soon as the Queen took interest in him, inviting him to her ball, and that target grew larger when Keritanima revealed her alternate identity and absorbed all her assets under her true name.  They would know that a wise, shrewd, observant man like Rallix would know the truth, and he'd become an inviting target for others to use against Keritanima.  So Keritanima simply put him completely out of reach.  Rallix had a Vendari bodyguard now, which happened to be Szath, and Dolanna explained that now Rallix had all the protections and distinctions allowed him under the laws that governed and protected the royal family.  Rallix was now unassailable, or at least so out of reach that any attempts to abduct or kill him would be months in the planning, for the penalty if the perpetrator failed would be the most severe possible.

      It had to be a culture shock for the quiet, efficient man.  He'd gone from running a lucrative business in relative anonymity to being in the highest levels of the Wikuni government and society.  He was given the official title of Duke of Wikuna, but wouldn't ever be called king.  If Keritanima died, he wouldn't be in line for the throne.

      After the reception--they didn't attend the stuffy noble one--they had a very long, very honest talk.  Tarrin and Kimmie said what was in their hearts, brought everything out into the open so they could know one another's mind, done in preparation for the baby.  Kimmie wasn't shocked to know that Tarrin didn't love her romantically, but he was a little shocked to hear that Kimmie did.  Kimmie admitted that she had had a crush on him that started after he healed Mist, a crush that had bloomed into something more, but she was quick to tell him that she didn't expect him to feel for her the same way she felt for him.  Unlike many females, Kimmie's crush was realized when she persuaded Triana to let her come with him, and she managed to catch her male.  Kimmie explained that she was quite content with his attentions and his friendship, and that not only did she know where his heart lay, she was quite willing to take what he would give to her and be happy with it.  She knew that he belonged to Jesmind, but, as she said, "I'm happy to borrow you from her for a while."  That they were going to have a baby together made her even more ecstatic about the whole thing.

      That took Tarrin a little mulling to rationalize.  It felt, wrong, that Kimmie loved him, but he didn't love her in return.  It was like violating her trust, or hurting someone he did like a great deal, and did love in a platonic manner.  But she was patient and tender in explaining how she felt to him, that it was alright for him to love Jesmind and be with her, that she understood, that she was happy being his friend.  Unlike many relationships, since Kimmie could consumate her feelings with him, it seemed to be all she wanted or needed.  She had him for now, and though she knew he didn't love her the same way she loved him, it still seemed to be enough for her.

      She had to talk for quite a while to ease Tarrin's concerns about that.  It did change the way he looked at her a little, but he couldn't forget who she was.  She was one of his best friends, someone that knew him better than he knew himself, someone who could read him like a book, someone he could entrust with his deepest secrets and be sure they would go no further.  He could tell that she wasn't talking just to calm him, she was speaking sincerely from her heart, so when she said she was more than happy with the relationship they had, he believed her.  He still felt a little guilty over it, but if it made her happy, he'd go right on going they way they were going.

      After he swallowed that and understood it, he realized that it really wouldn't change their relationship a great deal.  They'd still be tender lovers, they'd still have their talks, and they'd still be best friends.  It did change how he saw her a little bit, it made him understand some of the things she did a little better, but he knew it wouldn't change them where it mattered.  He would be a little more attentive to her, more sensitive to her needs, but the core of their relationship wouldn't change.

      Kimmie sighed in her sleep, rolling over on her back.  Tarrin put his paw under his head to prop it up and looked down at her, smiling gently.  He reached down with his other paw and brushed her dark hair from her face, which made one of her reddish-furred ears to twitch reflexively.  He admired her for a long moment, reminding himself yet again how pretty Kimmie was, and he felt at that moment to be a very lucky Were-cat.  He had Jesmind's love, and he had beautiful, engaging, interesting females like Kimmie and Mist seeking him out as well.  It felt strange to him to have multiple females interested in him, and for the first time ever, he accepted that fact gladly, even revelled in it a little bit, letting the dirty-minded rascal in him shine through for the first time.  Even human males enjoyed attention from more than one female.

      He just couldn't resist.  He slipped his paw under the blanket and put his palm against Kimmie's flat, surprisingly soft belly.  He knew he wasn't going to feel anything, he wouldn't for months, but just knowing that the baby was in there was enough to make him try anyway.  He wondered what it would look like.  Would it be a boy, or a girl?  Would it be tall, short, thin, stocky?  Would it have Kimmie's fur or his?  Her hair, or his?  Would the baby have blue eyes, or green?  Usually that would be a given, but Kimmie was a unique female, and that put many of the things that were generally taken for granted in Were-cat infants in question when it would be Kimmie's baby.  Triana seemed worried that the baby may have unforseen problems, but Tarrin was pretty sure that Triana was just being over-anxious.  The Were-cat traits had bred true for Tarrin, and he had little doubt that they would breed true for Kimmie, even if Tarrin was the father.

      He wasn't sure what the baby would look like, but that didn't matter.  He'd love it, the same as he loved Jasana, and would love Eron when he met him.  Tarrin's children were everything to him, and this new child would never want for attention from its father.  As soon as all this unpleasant business with the Firestaff was finished, he'd return to Aldreth, go home, and would always be there for his children.  He'd never have to leave them again, never have to abandon a mate and child in service to another again.  He'd be free, free to live his life, free to raise his children in peace.

      And for the mothers...well, there were three of them, but his heart was large enough for them all.  He loved Jesmind, loved her desperately.  His compassion for Mist was still strong, and if they were together again, he felt that it too could be something more.  And Kimmie...well, that was a delicate situation.  He really liked her, she was one of his best friends, and that seemed to be enough for both of them.

      Kimmie stirred as Tarrin caressed her belly, her tail wrapping around one of his shins, and she opened his eyes.  She looked over at him and smiled gloriously, putting her paw over his.  "Morning," she said.  "Can't sleep?"

      "I slept some," he replied.  "I'm just, you know."

      "I can see that," she said with that same smile.  "And you have no idea how wonderful it feels."

      "Kimmie, about last night--"

      "Don't start that again, Tarrin," she told him seriously, gripping his paw.  "You know how I feel now.  Does it have to change things?  You understood things last night, so please don't dwell on it anymore." She sat up and took his paw between hers, holding it to her breast.  "I love you, but I know your heart belongs to Jesmind.  I don't mind that, Tarrin.  In a way, it makes me very happy, because you're happy.  Can you understand that?"

      "I, I guess so," he admitted.

      "This may sound a little corny, but I don't mind being the mistress.  Honestly."

      Tarrin looked at her, and couldn't suppress a chuckle.

      "I know it sounds funny," she said with a crooked grin, "but it's the truth.  You and me, we're friends.  Good friends."

      "Best friends," he told her honestly.

      "Best friends," she smiled.  "But look at this as a Were-cat, Tarrin.  Don't you think I can be happy being your mate?  When you're with me, I know your attention is on me.  I don't need you to love me to be happy with that.  I have you, and I know you like me.  I don't need you to love me back to be happy with what I have now.  Please understand that."

      "I just don't want to hurt you, Kimmie."

      "There's no way you could hurt me, Tarrin," she smiled.  "I know that may sound hard to believe, but it's true.  When you go back to Jesmind, I'll be just fine.  I know I can't keep you, the same way Jesmind can't keep you.  I'm not jealous.  Well, not too jealous," she admitted.  "But it's no different than how she feels.  And besides, you'd better get used to it."

      "Why?"

      "Mist, silly," she smiled.  "Mist loves you too.  You're going to be passed around between the three of us, Tarrin.  You'll always have a mate that loves you.  Won't that make the mating that much sweeter?"

      He was silent, mulling over that concept.

      "And the three of us will probably be a little happier knowing that you're going to be with females who care about you.  We know you're not like most males, that you have special needs.  We'll make sure you're always happy."  She kissed his paw intimately.  "And that's why I'm more than happy, Tarrin.  I know you'll always honor my love for you, even if you don't feel the same way, because that's the kind of male you are.   You won't use me and then throw me away, and you'll always care about me, even if you don't feel the same way I do.  My time with you will always be about me, not about any baggage you bring to the relationship.  I'll be sure you're always with a good female who loves you, and that you'll be happy when I'm not the lucky girl being your mate at the moment.  That's all that matters to me."

      At that moment, he felt incredibly blessed to have Kimmie with him.  He knew she was speaking the truth, and it made him very happy she was there.  He put his other paw on her cheek, and she leaned against it with closed eyes.

      "I'll do my best to honor those feelings, Kimmie," he promised.  "You'll never get a cold shoulder from me.  You'll always feel wanted when I'm with you."

      "Then what more does a girl need?" she asked with a winsome smile, pulling him into a deep, intimate kiss.

      Kimmie's kiss effectively scattered his attention, to the point where he didn't sense the shifting of the magical forces within the room.  So it was with a bit of surprise that he opened his eyes and saw a projected image of Jula standing at the foot of the bed.  Jula was blushing furiously, though she wasn't looking away.

      "Oh, Goddess, I'm so sorry," she said quickly, hastily.  "I'll go back and leave you two alone."

      Tarrin looked at her steadily, but Kimmie was laughing.  "At least you got here before we went any further," Kimmie told her.  "Ten minutes later, and you'd really have cause to be embarassed."

      Jula turned almost purple.  "I'm sorry.  I should have called ahead before just showing up."

      "Well, you're here now, so you may as well stay," Tarrin told her.  "What did you want to talk about?"

      Jula looked at Kimmie, then sighed.  "Well, this concerns Kimmie too, so I should just tell you both."

      "What is it?" Kimmie asked.

      "I heard something from Triana yesterday morning," she said, hedging a bit.  "Uh, well, there's no easy way to say it.  Kimmie, you're pregnant."

      "I know that, Jula," she said with a glorious smile.  "I found out last night."

      "That's a relief," Jula said sincerely.  "I wasn't sure if mother was going to tell you, but I thought you should know."

      "She told us yesterday," Tarrin told her.

      "Good, so I'm not really betraying her trust," Jula said with an explosive sigh or relief.  "She said it in passing, and I don't think she realized I heard her, but I just couldn't sit on that kind of information.  I just had to tell you two."

      "It's nice that you care that much, Jula," Kimmie told her honestly.

      "Tarrin's been good to me, better than he ever had to be, so I want to be good to him," she answered truthfully.

      "I appreciate you looking out for us," Tarrin said.  "Does Jesmind know?"

      "Not yet, at least as far as I know.  Triana hasn't been here since this morning, and I haven't told her, so there's nobody there to tell her yet."

      "I'm not sure how she's going to react to that news," Tarrin grunted.  "She'll either be happy or furious."

      "I don't think she's that mean, Tarrin," Jula said.  "Jesmind may talk rough and act rough, but she's a sweetheart once you get past her bark.  I think she'll be happy about it, at least after she gets over a bout of intense jealousy."

      "You may be right," Tarrin chuckled.  "At least I hope so."

      "If anything, it just gives Jasana and Eron another playmate," Kimmie smiled.

      Sapphire flapped into the room through the open door and landed on the bed, sitting on Tarrin's lap and looking up at him expectantly.  It was breakfast time for her, and she wanted food.  "Well, another demanding little female is making her presence felt, so I'd better go, Jula," Tarrin told his bond-daughter, scratching the drake between the horns.  "Sapphire has her 'I'm hungry' look."

      "Alright.  This spell is starting to wear on me, anyway.  I'll talk to you later, father.  Be well."

      "You too," he nodded, and then her Illusion dissipated.

      "Well, what do you want, Sapphire?" Kimmie asked the drake, picking her up and holding her over her head.  "I'm in a good mood, so I'll make Tarrin conjure you a feast that will stuff you so full you won't even be able to fly."

      "Talk about ulterior motives," Tarrin chuckled as he slipped out of bed.  He fed Sapphire and refilled her water bowl, then returned to the bed and cuddled up to his mate.  "You know, they'll be knocking on the door and telling us we have to get ready to go any minute now," he told her as the sun just began to stain the eastern horizon, visible out the window that faced the bed.

      "Well, that gives us a few minutes then, doesn't it?" Kimmie asked with a hungry smile, dragging him down with her.

      "Pregnancy hasn't done anything to curb your sex drive," Tarrin teased.

      "Some things you do just for fun," she said with a wicked little laugh, then silenced him with a passionate kiss.

      Fortunately, nobody knocked on their door until they were both up, dressed, and Kimmie was nearly finished packing away her magical equipment.  But then again, Tarrin realized that Keritanima was a married woman now, and she'd probably used this one and only night with Rallix to have as much intimate fun as she possibly could.  That meant that if she had gotten any sleep at all over the night, it was only a few minute's worth.  That wouldn't make her too motivated to get out of bed this morning.  And that meant that the official order to leave was going to be late.  When that knock finally did come, it was Amber who delivered it, stepping just inside the door after Tarrin opened it to see who it was.  She curtsied to him deeply.  "Lord Tarrin, her Majesty requests that you and your Lady pack your belongings.  She's running late, and you don't have much time to reach the ship before it has to sail on the morning tides."

      "We're one step ahead of you, Amber," he told her with a calm look.  "We'll be done in a few minutes."

      "Very good, Lord Tarrin.  I'll send porters for your things."

      "Are we eating here or on the ship?"

      "I think you'll be taking your breakfast on board, Lord Tarrin," she answered.  "Her Majesty ordered her travelling gear packed and sent to the ship immediately, and I didn't see any preparations for breakfast in the kitchen earlier."

      "I figured as much," he grunted.  "Kimmie, are you ready yet?" he shouted into the inner parlor.

      "Almost!" she shouted back.  "Give me a few more minutes!"

      "Do you know where Queen Keritanima is right now?" Tarrin asked curiously.

      "When I left her, she was in her private rooms," Amber answered.  "She was conferring with the king of the Vendari."

      Preparing him for her leaving, Tarrin realized.  "Alright, send your porters.  We'll be ready by the time they get here."

      "As you wish, my Lord," she said with a curtsy, then she scurried out.

      Tarrin went into the study and helped Kimmie pack away her vials and bottles, seeing that she used a special leather satchel for them that had loops in it to keep them from banging around inside.  Kimmie really didn't have very much, only her spellbooks, two satchels and a small box filled her her magical equipment, and a pack for her clothes.  Tarrin himself only had a small pack for clothes and small personal effects, since he simply Conjured anything he needed and kept his weapons in the elsewhere.

      "What do you do with all this stuff?" he asked curiously, holding up a small vial of strange green liquid.

      "We use them as spell components for the more complicated spells," she answered.  "These things have to be there when you cast the spell, or it won't work right."

      "Strange."

      "Be lucky you're a Sorcerer and a Druid, Tarrin.  They don't require material components, or chanting, or somatics."

      "What are somatics?"

      "Precise gestures," she replied.  "Some spells require you to stand a certain way, or even move your feet in a particular manner.  If you don't do it right, the spell either fizzles or goes wild."

      "That sounds like an awful lot to remember."

      "Now you understand why it takes so long to study Wizard magic," she said with a teasing smile.  "It's certainly not for the easily confused, that's for sure."

      "I've never seen Phandebrass do any of those things," he noted.

      "You've only seen Phandebrass use battle magic," she told him.  "Combat spells are specifically designed to be fast and easy to cast.  Most other spells aren't quite that easy."

      "You're probably right," he agreed, closing the satchel.  "Is this it?"

      "Yes, that's it," she answered, picking up the small box.  "Help me carry it into the receiving room?"

      "Which room is that?"

      "The first one you step in when you get into the apartment, silly," she laughed, waggling her tail at him as she walked away.

      "Well excuse me," he drawled.  "I didn't realize it had a fancy name.  I've been calling it a parlor."

      By the time they had all their things in the outer parlor--or receiving room, as Kimmie called it--five burly Wikuni arrived with Amber.  They looked a little relieved when they saw only two packs, two satchels, and a small box to carry away, and did so with quick, quiet efficiency.  "If you'll follow me please," Amber said with a curtsy.  "Her Majesty is waiting for us."

      "We can't keep Kerri waiting," Tarrin said absently.

      "You know, I'm going to miss that bathroom," Kimmie sighed as they followed Amber out of the room, Sapphire riding on Tarrin's shoulder.  "The first thing I'm going to do when we get back to the West is figure out how to put running water in my house."

      "You're never in it," Tarrin reminded her.

      "True, but it would be there on those rare occasions that I am," she chuckled.

      "Where is your den, anyway?" he asked.

      "Actually, right now, I don't really have one," she said.  "I did have a place not far from Mist's territory, but she moved, and I just let my den go back to the forest.  Ever since then, I've either stayed with her or been on the move."

      "There's lots of empty territory around Aldreth," he told her.

      "Yes, there is," she smiled.  "Quite a bit."

      Amber led them to a large antechamber on the ground floor, where everyone else except Miranda and Phandebrass had arrived.  Keritanima and Rallix stood hand in hand with Binter, Sisska, and Szath standing behind them protectively, and Dolanna and Camara Tal were talking about something on the far side of the room.  Allia and Dar were talking with Azakar, who for once wasn't wearing his armor, dressed instead in a blue tunic and black trousers, with new half-boots on his large feet.

      "Where is Phandebrass?" Tarrin asked as he reached Keritanima.

      "Fussing with the porters over his stuff," Keritanima growled.  "He's being a bit ridiculous about it, telling them not to drop anything and having a hissy fit every time one of his boxes dips even and inch low."

      "Phandebrass isn't playing, your Majesty," Kimmie told her seriously.  "If those porters drop the wrong box, what's inside could very well explode.  Some of the compounds we work with are very unstable."

      "Well, I need to remodel anyway," Keritanima said absently, glancing towards one of the doorways leading out of the chamber.

      "You look tired, Rallix," Tarrin said to the badger Wikuni.

      Rallix chuckled humorlessly.  "Her Majesty kept us up all night," he answered.

      "You knew it was coming," she said to him archly.

      "Yes, but the morning after always makes one wonder if the night was worth it."

      "Excuse me?" Keritanima said in a very dangerous tone.

      "I feel like I have a hangover, your Majesty," Rallix said quickly.  "I'm just comparing how I feel now to that, that's all."

      "Oh.  Well, if you say it like that, then it's alright," she said to him calmly.

      "You probably do have a hangover," Tarrin told him.  "You two drank alot of wine.  Where is Miranda?"

      "She went back to the apartment for something.  She'll be right back."  Keritanima fidgeted a bit with the ring that was now on her finger.  It was a surprisingly plain ring, a simple gold band with no stones or adornment.  Keritanima was a queen and was used to finery, but deep down inside she was actually someone who very much loved simple things.  She could have had any ring she wanted, as expensive as she could make it, but she had chosen something that made a statement for what it represented to her instead of how many diamonds it had on it.  The ring was a symbol of her union with Rallix, and it mirrored the simplicity of that state.  Keritanima could be very artistic sometimes.  "It's going to take me a while to get used to this," she admitted.  "After it rubs the fur off my finger, it probably won't itch as much."

      "Is that how you wore your jewelry before you came to Suld?" Tarrin asked.

      "I didn't keep it on long enough for it to rub off the fur," she answered.  "I wore alot of jewelry, or the Brat did, but it changed so often that it didn't have a chance for me to get used to it."

      "Married life seems to suit you, sister," Tarrin told her.

      "It'll suit me a bloody lot better when I get back home," she growled.  "One night with Rallix seemed like enough when it was ahead of me.  Now that it's behind me, I want to postpone the journey another day."

      "We can't do that," Tarrin told her.

      "I know, she groaned.

      "Then take him with you," Kimmie said sagely.  "We have to stop in Vendaka anyway.  We'll drop him off there, and he can catch another ship back to Wikuna."

      "I'd love to, but Rallix has alot of work to do here," Keritanima sighed.  "He's now in charge of my efforts to educate the commoners about the benefits of the new system.  Given his talents, they'll be ready for it by the time I come back."

      "Her Majesty is a bit optomistic," Rallix said in a mild tone.

      "We'll see."

      Miranda returned with her shoulder back slung over one shoulder, and Chopstick riding on the other.  Turnkey flapped into the room and immediately sought out Allia, and Phandebrass ambled in, his expression rather unfriendly.  "I say, your Majesty, those clouts you sent to move my things are about as graceful as a stone golem!" he complained.  "They nearly dropped my case of nitrates!"

      "Is that bad?" Keritanima asked Kimmie.

      "That's very bad," Kimmie answered honestly.

      "I say, they should be more careful, if they want to live to get my things to the ship, they do!" he added.  "Are we ready to leave?"

      "I think we are," Keritanima said.  "We'll be taking my personal ship to Vendaka.  The steamship was moved there last month, where they finished getting it ready for us.  As far as the reports I'm getting go, it'll be ready to sail when we arrive.  I was told that the compartments on the steamship are very cramped, so we may have to double up," she warned.  "So enjoy those big cabins on my ship as long as you can."

      "I'm staying with Tarrin now," Kimmie told her calmly.  "So if someone wants my cabin, they can have it.  Mine had a pretty big window."

      "Ah, so that's why you two have been almost sickeningly happy," Keritanima said with a grin.

      "No, there's another reason for that," Kimmie winked.  "We'll tell you about it when we set sail."

      "Ah, a mystery.  I adore mysteries," Keritanima said brightly, rubbing her hands together.  "Don't tell me now.  Let me figure it out on my own."

      "If you want," Kimmie told her with a shrug.

      Since everyone was ready to go, they wasted no time.  They filed out onto the grounds, and then were driven down to the docks in large, comfortable carriages.  After they arrived, the ship in which they'd travelled to Wikuna suddenly bustled with activity, as sailors and workers rushed to prepare the ship to sail as soon as the Queen gave the order.  Keritanima led them along the dock, then up the gangplank and onto the ship.  All of their gear was sitting in neatly stacked piles on the deck, the morning sun shining down on them, with about twenty uniformed servants standing around it.  Tarrin recognized a couple of them; they were the same porters who had collected their belongings.

      With sharp commands, Keritanima ordered the porters to deliver the luggage to specific rooms, telling the porters who was going to stay where.  Keritanima gave Tarrin the same cabin he'd used on the journey over, and he found that to be more than satisfactory.  It was large enough for both Tarrin and Kimmie.  Keritanima kept them on deck until all the porters were done, and then she dismissed them with a kind word for the excellent service.  They filed off the ship quickly, and then she ordered the captain to prepare to set sail for Vendaka, that they'd be weighing anchor as soon as Rallix and Szath disembarked.  After she said that, she told all of them to go to their cabins and wait, for cooks would deliver a large breakfast to them, since none of them had yet had a chance to eat.  "By the time you finish unpacking, breakfast should be waiting for you," Keritanima told them with a smile, albeit a strained one.  It was strained because she then turned to Rallix, took his hand, and led him some distance away.  Tarrin, and all of them, for that matter, intentionally didn't look in that direction.  They gave Keritanima a little privacy to say goodbye to her new husband.

      It was an understandably long time before Keritanima padded over to them, where they were all literally standing with their backs to where she and Rallix had been standing.  She sniffled a bit, looked rather sad, but also looked a little annoyed.  That was Keritanima, alright.  Tarrin turned to look, and saw that Rallix and Szath were already down the gangplank, standing on the dock with the porters and the Royal Guard that had escorted them down from the Palace.  Rallix didn't look very pleased that he and Keritanima were being separated either.  That said something for how Rallix felt.

      The gangplank was raised, and Tarrin felt the ship begin to move as he and Kimmie went to their cabin.  The cabin had been cleaned scrupulously while the ship had been docked, with new linens on the bed and a fresh coat of paint on the walls.  After Sapphire landed on the bed and curled up contentedly, familiar with the room and comfortable in it, they unpacked what few clothes Tarrin had, and then he helped Kimmie unpack her many dresses and the few pairs of trousers she kept, just in case.  Kimmie's moving in felt more to Tarrin like she was taking over his living space, and for a moment he had the irrational sense that she was some kind of invader.  But that passed when he realized that she was just using the space that he wasn't using at all, and hadn't used in the first place.  Kimmie only unpacked her clothes, and one of her two satchels and box were stowed in the tiny closet by the bed.  The other satchel, the one that held her three spellbooks, was set by the bed carefully.  She sat down on the bed and bounced on it a few times, then flopped down on her back, startling Sapphire.  "Travelling with you feels almost the same as when I did alone, except you have nicer, richer friends," she chuckled.  "I could get used to all this pampering."  She looked up at him.  "There's something strange I noticed."

      "What?"

      "Keritanima doesn't really have many servants, and that's very odd given her station," she replied.  "Unless she keeps them hidden.  Every time I've seen her, the only servant around her is Miranda.  Most monarchs are attended by a small army of maids, butlers, valets, pages, and generic lackeys."

      "Miranda is Kerri's maid, and she's also the only one that she'll allow close to her," he answered.  "Kerri is a very nervous person, Kimmie.  She was comfortable here because this ship is an enclosed area.  I could smell it all over her when she was in the Palace.  She was expecting an attack to come at any moment."

      "She did smell a little uptight," Kimmie agreed, then she snorted in the peculiar way that all Were-cats seemed to do.  "Miranda's alot more than a maid," she announced.  "I can feel something strange when I'm around her.  It's almost like her very presence is, well, disarming.  I feel strangely comfortable when I'm around her.  It's...it's like she sings to me."

      Tarrin had forgotten about that, mainly because he was around Miranda so much that he'd gotten used to the sense of her.  Kimmie couldn't help but notice it, because she was a Were-cat too.  She'd probably noticed it months ago, but hadn't said anything to him for some reason.  "She has that effect on people," Tarrin said carefully.  He knew why she radiated that sense, but he didn't want Kimmie to know.  That was a private matter, so private that even Miranda didn't know.  "I've never met a single person that didn't immediately like Miranda."

      "I noticed that too," Kimmie nodded.

      There was a knock on the door, and then it opened.  Azakar and Dar were outside, holding large trays in their hands, and two of the Wikuni cooks were standing behind them in the narrow companionway.  "Can we come in and eat with you, Tarrin?" Dar asked politely.

      "Sure," he answered, waving them in.  They put their trays down on the table in Tarrin's room, and then the two cooks did the same.  They bowed gracefully and then left without saying a word.  The trays were filled with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, a bowl of porridge, and a small loaf of dark bread with a small pot of butter for it.  Tarrin's mouth watered at the smell of it, and he had to shoo Sapphire away from the table before she decided to try to steal something for herself.

      "Why aren't you eating in your rooms?" Kimmie asked them curiously as she broke her loaf of bread in half.

      "Well, it's been a while since we've talked with you two," Dar said.  "We're just being sociable, that's all."

      Tarrin looked at them, the analyzed their scents.  Dar was being sociable, but Azakar's reluctance at being there was obvious in his scent.  Azakar hadn't really felt comfortable around Tarrin since they're been reunited.  Tarrin understood the reasoning behind it, and really couldn't blame the big Mahuut.  He'd come around once he realized that though Tarrin may seem much crueler and more mean-spirited than he was when Azakar had been kidnapped with Keritanima, he was still the same Were-cat Azakar had once known.  In a way, Tarrin was glad Azakar felt that way.  It told him that Wikuna hadn't changed his big friend, that he was still gentle, kind, and compassionate.  That Azakar had lived as a slave and a gladiator for so long and had never lost those qualities said volumes about Azakar's moral fiber and the strength of his will.

      "And, to be honest, I just had to ask what's going on," Dar added.  "At the reception, I almost thought you were drunk, Tarrin.  And Kimmie was being just as giddy.  What, did the two of you find some catnip in the garden?"

      Kimmie laughed, putting a paw over her mouth so as not to lose her mouthful of bread.  "You could say that," she said after she swallowed.  "Should we tell them, Tarrin?"

      "May as well," he shrugged.  "They'll find out sooner or later.  In a couple of months, you wouldn't be able to hide it anyway."

      "True enough," she said with a smile at him.  "I'm pregnant, Dar," Kimmie said calmly.

      "Really?" Dar said, as Azakar finally broke his silence, saying "that's wonderful!"  The Mahuut looked at Tarrin, then averted his eyes and reached for his fork again.

      "We just found out yesterday," Tarrin said.  "We didn't want to reveal it at Keritanima's wedding.  We didn't want to take anything away from her."

      "That was kind of you," Azakar said to him in a hesitant voice.  "Congratulations."

      "Yes, congratulations," Dar smiled.  "How far along are you, Kimmie?"

      "Days," she replied.  "Triana's the one that told us I'm pregnant, but Tarrin confirmed it with a spell."

      "Triana?  How on earth did she know when she's in Suld--or was--and we're here?"

      "Triana has a very long arm, Dar," Tarrin chuckled.

      "I would say so!" Dar exclaimed in agreement.  "It must feel like she's always looking over your shoulder."

      "Actually, I feel rather safe knowing that Triana is always watching me," he replied honestly.  "If I ever get into serious trouble, she's always there for me."  He chuckled.  "I really need to learn how she can travel halfway across the world in a few hours."

      "It must be handy," Dar agreed.  "So, did Triana tell you if it's a boy or girl?"

      "No, she didn't," Kimmie said, "and I don't want her to.  I want it to be a surprise."

      "I guess that means that you don't want me to peek," Tarrin noted.

      "Absolutely not!" she said adamantly, staring right at him.  "If you know, you'll find some way to blab, so you keep your spying spells out of my belly!"

      "Yes, Kimmie," Tarrin said mildly, going back to his eggs.

      The ship slid out of the harbor on the receding tide, a rather strong one, since it was the tide governed by the Twin Moons, and the ship raised all its sails and turned south.  The wind blew from the west, out from the land, forcing the ship to quarter the wind as the crew crowded every finger of sail they could manage on its five masts.  The air was warm and muggy, and there was a dark bank of clouds creeping in from the west, the wind obviously a forerunner of a storm system preparing to move in from the interior of the Wikuni homeland.  Tarrin gave Kimmie a kiss after breakfast and let her go to her studies with Phandebrass, warning her not to overexert herself.  Sapphire resumed her rulership of Chopstick and Turnkey as the three drakes flew up into the rigging, and Tarrin decided to spend the day at the rail watching the land go by, and keeping an eye on that weather system.

      Dar and Azakar spread the word, so he had a procession of friends come up to him and congratulate him over the day.  Allia was a bit put out with him that she didn't tell her immediately, but when he explained that he didn't want to take anything away from Keritanima's day, she understood his reasoning.  He was rather happy that they didn't dwell on it, they simply congratulated him, interrupted Kimmie's lessons when she and Phandebrass came up on deck and concentrated more on her.  He watched as she laughed and bantered with the others, patting her belly and making some comment that Tarrin didn't hear.  He was glad that it was Kimmie that was getting the attention.  She deserved it.  After all, she was the one who was pregnant, after all.

      Miranda took Kimmie aside after lunch, and the two of them disappeared for a while.  He hadn't really talked to Miranda much since they'd been reunited, since his attention had always been taken up by other things, other people.  He did know that Miranda was rather fond of Kimmie, and that the two of them did talk quite a bit.  He knew that because Kimmie told him all about all the talks she had with Miranda.  Kimmie and Miranda seemed to be fast friends, the same way Kimmie and Jula had been in the Tower.  Kimmie had once been a human female, so she had a need about her to be around other women.  She lacked that isolationist attitude prevelant in most other Were-cat females.  In many ways, Kimmie was most certainly not a normal Were-cat.

      Azakar came up on deck about midafternoon, as Tarrin finished another of his lessons with Camara Tal over Priest magic.  Azakar looked a little uncomfortable for some reason, and that became more apparent when he came over to the rail where Tarrin was standing and looked over the sea, towards the land still visible to the west.  The cloudbank was now almost directly overhead, and Tarrin could see that it was raining at the coastline.  They'd get wet in about half an hour.  Azakar's scent was hard to make out since the wind was so brisk, but it was obvious that he looked a little worried over something.

      "Tarrin," he finally said.  "I wanted to apologize."

      "For what?" he asked calmly.

      "I've been avoiding you," he said.  "I'm sure you know that."

      "I know.  And I know why."

      Azakar bowed his head.  "I was wrong about that," he admitted.  "I thought you'd become completely--you know.  Keritanima explained all that to me, and when I saw how you were back in Suld, I thought you'd gone completely feral.  I was actually afraid of you."

      "It's an understandable reaction, Zak," he said gently. "I know how you are, and I don't blame you for acting the way you did.  I'm actually rather glad you did, because it told me that though I've changed, you didn't.  Wikuna is a hard place, and you managed to stay just the way you are despite everything they could throw at you.  I'm very proud of you for that."

      Azakar flushed, looking at the rail.  "It wasn't really that hard," he admitted.  "Kerri more or less protected me from most of that kind of thing."

      "Well, either way, I think now you see that I may be hard and unforgiving, but not when it concerns friends.  Go talk to Dolanna.  She can explain it all alot better than I can."

      "I'll do that," he promised.

      "And I want you to do something for me."

      "What?"

      "As you know, Kimmie is pregnant," he began.  "She's a Were-cat female, Zak, so she doesn't need to be coddled or waited on.  But she's devoted to her magic, and that may make her extend herself in ways that she doesn't need to be extending herself."

      "What do you mean?"

      Tarrin explained Triana's rather vague warnings about Kimmie being exposed to too much magic.  "Triana's not entirely sure how this pregnancy is going to go, because Kimmie is turned, and I'm turned, and we're both magicians.  Were-cats are very magical creatures, and she's afraid that exposing a baby with such an unknown factor in its parents to so much magical energy may be harmful."

      "That's not an unreasonable fear," Azakar said after a moment.

      "I know, that's why I agree with Triana," he affirmed.  "So I want you to keep an eye on Kimmie.  Don't follow her around or coddle her or wait on her, but do make sure that Phandebrass doesn't push her into things she shouldn't be doing, and make sure she doesn't push herself too hard.  If you think she's overexerting herself, don't try to stop her, just let me know.  I'd really appreciate it."

      "I can do that, Tarrin," he said with a nod and a smile.  "Actually, I'm rather glad I have something to do.  With Binter and Sisska back, Kerri doesn't really need me to be her bodyguard like she did when she only had Szath.  Outside of training with them and Camara Tal, I really don't have much to do."

      "Well, watching Kimmie won't consume all your spare time," Tarrin chuckled.  "She's got a level head on her shoulders, and I really don't think she's going to push herself too hard.  Were-cat females are extremely protective over their babies, and that includes when they're pregnant.  Her instincts are going to keep her from going too far, but sometimes instincts can't stop us when we're really focused on something."

      "The way Kimmie focuses on her studies."

      "Exactly," Tarrin nodded.  "So just do me a favor and keep an eye on her."

      "I'll do that.  And if it looks like we may run into some danger, I'll make sure I'm always somewhere close to her.  She may be a Were-cat female, but I think you won't mind if I make sure nothing gets close enough to her to do her any harm."

      "Zak, you just read my mind," Tarrin chuckled.  "And I would very much appreciate that.  Thank you for offering."

      "I'm a Knight, Tarrin.  I'm not happy unless I have someone to protect," he smiled.

      "Then feel free to protect away.  But don't step on Kimmie's toes."

      "I can protect Kimmie without having to follow her around like a puppy," Azakar told him confidently.  "She'll never know I'm there unless something endangers her.  Then it won't get a finger closer."

      "Zak, you're a good man," Tarrin said, patting him gently on the shoulder.  "I'm glad you're here."

      "I'm just doing what I can, Tarrin," he said modestly.  "With the likes of you and Kerri and Phandebrass around, we unmagical people have to fit in where we can."

      "You're just as important as any of us, Zak.  Even me," Tarrin told him seriously.  "Don't forget that."

      "I'll try not to," he smiled as the first sprinkles of rain began to fall.

 

      The weather reamined rainy for several days as the ship trekked southward, the sailors working through the rain to keep the wet sails catching the wind.  Their diligence paid off as the ship sped towards its destination, and Keritanima was happy to estimate that they were going to arrive in Vendaka a full day early.  Tarrin spent those rainy days in quiet rest and relaxation, feeling a calmness that he hadn't felt since before he'd been turned.  They were completely safe skirting the coast of Wikuna, with only two military clippers and a vessel called a schooner escorting them, and his days weren't filled with learning or exercises or stress.  It was almost like a holiday, and he took full advantage of it by lounging around and doing nothing of any importance whatsoever.  He almost got bored after a few days, but every time he started feeling unsettled, he reminded himself that everything would be an unknown once they got on the new ship, and he may not have time to just lay around and do nothing.  So he took complete advantage of the lull to rest up and enjoy his free time.

      He had plenty of company during those days.  He rekindled his friendship with Miranda by having breakfast with her every morning, and he caught up on all the things that went on in Wikuna and the Tower before he arrived, getting the whole picture from the mink.  She didn't leave anything out, especially those part too embarassing for Keritanima to repeat.  He played stones with Azakar a few times a day, as well as playing chess with Sisska or Binter, and there was always his time with Allia.  Tarrin talked to Jesmind and Jenna and Jula and Jasana right after lunch, a lunch usually shared with Azakar and Camara Tal, who were just finishing their sparring about that time, and then he went on to give Dolanna and Keritanima their lessons in Sorcery.  Dar sat in when Tarrin taught Dolanna and Keritanima about Weavespinner magic, as he taught his former teacher the spells to summon Elementals, and guided her as she did in fact summon her first Elemental, a Water Elemental.  His teaching of his sister and mentor didn't really seem like work, because they were both so dedicated to the craft and easy to teach.  It felt more like an informal gathering of friends, when they just happened to talk about Sorcery.  The time after those lessons belonged to Allia, as they spent their time together, and the

      The nights belonged exclusively to Kimmie.  Now that he knew how she felt about him, he did his best to honor those feelings by paying her a great deal of attention and being very responsive to her needs.  They started off as great friends, but Kimmie's trust in him and devotion to him only increased day after day, as she saw how he had responded to her admission, and saw that he was being everything that she imagined he would be.  Though he didn't love her the way he loved Jesmind, he did care for her a great deal, and he'd do what was needed to make her happy.  And besides, it wasn't like it was a serious chore.  Kimmie was easy to please, and he liked pleasing her.  She wasn't as demanding as Jesmind, and certainly wasn't nearly as tempermental.  Kimmie was a very mellow, laid-back Were-cat, and that attitude made her easy to please.  All she really wanted from him was his attention, and he gave it all to her.  Tarrin couldn't help but feel closer and closer to Kimmie as the days passed, and though his love for Jesmind didn't waver in the slightest, he found himself starting to think of Kimmie in many of the same ways he thought of Jesmind.  Kimmie was a good mate, and he enjoyed his time with her.  Living with her was just as easy as he thought it would be, requiring very little adjustment for either of them, and he found the time with her to be both enjoyable and rewarding.

      Of course, he simply couldn't forget about the baby.  Every time he looked at her, it was always on the forefront of his mind.  Kimmie was carrying his child, and he couldn't suppress the wave of pride and joy that brought to him.  Tarrin wasn't sure how Jesmind was going to take it, but he didn't intend to let Kimmie get very far away once they returned.  He would return to Jesmind and be her mate, as he promised, but he didn't want Kimmie going very far.  He wanted to be there for the baby, wanted to be involved in its life, he wanted the chance with this new cub that he didn't get with Eron or Jasana.

      The time just flew by, so it seemed like it was only a couple of days when the ship turned southwest, following the coastline, and the rains only got harder.  Keritanima explained that it was the monsoon season in the southern marches of Wikuna, when it would rain for months at a time, but it also happened to be the end of the season, so the rain was expected to break before long.  It didn't break when the forests and grasslands visible off the ship's rail became dense jungle, and the temperature of the air got higher and higher as they neared the equator.  The interior of the ship became very hot and very stuffy, so much so that even the heat-dwelling among them like Camara Tal and Dar began to complain.  Miranda, who was both from a cold climate and had a full coat of fur, suffered the most, resorting to having Keritanima use Sorcery to keep their cabin cool and the air dry.  Kimmie was a Were-cat, and cats liked heat, so the heat didn't really bother her.  Tarrin was immune to heat, so it didn't bother him at all, but everyone else did seem to be quite uncomfortable.

      The rain was as heavy as ever when they reached their destination on a very unpleasant late afternoon nine days after leaving Wikuna.  Vendaka was the seat of the Vendari political power base, a large town made of very large, strange dome-like buildings that were covered with what looked to be moss.  Tarrin understood the value of the dome buildings immediately, for the water simply cascaded off of them.  The Royal ship passed through a very large concentration of other military vessels, defending the harbor town, it seemed, and then dropped anchor in a shallow bay that formed the harbor of the city, though it wasn't much of a harbor.  The water was so shallow that Keritanima's ship had to drop anchor almost a longspan from the shore.

      It dropped anchor beside the strangest ship Tarrin had ever seen.  It was a very large ship, the size of a clipper, but it was much wider across the beam than a clipper.  It had two large metal pipes protruding from either side of the sterncastle, both of which had smoke wafting from them.  It had masts and sails, two masts to be exact, but the dominating feature was the huge circular construction that jutted out from the ship's port side.  It was covered with metal halfway down, and within that cover the paddlewheel of the prototype ship was visible descending into the water.  The ship was painted in a dark blue, with black trim, and it didn't look to have any gunports, or any cannons at all.  The thing didn't look very sleek or fast, but then again, they weren't using it because of its speed or grace.  They were using it because it could move against the wind.

      Tarrin looked over the ship, absently moving the shield of Air he was using to protect himself from the rain with him as he moved down the ship's rail, studying the vessel.  Its decks were filled with Wikuni, and to his surprise, a swarthy-skinned man with white hair, a human, was standing on the deck with a cloak thrown over his shoulders despite the heat, shouting in Wikuni and pointing with his hand at something.  He shouted even louder, and Tarrin could make out his words.  "No, no, no, you slack-jawed fluffbrain!" he bellowed at a rodent Wikuni of some sort.  "Put that over there, and for the gods' sake, get that gunpowder off this ship!  Which of you mental giants had the brainstorm to think this ship was armed?  Do you want to blow us sky high?"

      A human?  What was a human doing in Wikuna?  And what was he doing giving orders to the Wikuni?  Tarrin puzzled over that for a moment, then he remembered that Keritanima said that she had Tellurians working for her in the Ministry of Science.  This had to be one of those Tellurians.  If Phandebrass was Tellurian and he had white hair, then maybe white hair wasn't uncommon there.  But Phandebrass was rather pale, where this fellow was dark, almost as dark as Azakar.  He looked Arakite, except for the hair, at least from that distance.  So.  Phandebrass' unusual appearance suddenly didn't seem quite that unusual, and it must not have had anything to do with magic.

      Tarrin crossed his arms and watched the human bully the Wikuni for a few moments longer, then Keritanima joined him at the rail.  She too was protecting  herself from the rain with Sorcery, and their two shields of Air touched and almost disrupted one another.  Both of them quickly and effortlessly adjusted the spells so they wouldn't interact.  "It looks bigger than the plans said," Keritanima said without greeting or fanfare.  "I see Donovan is already at it."

      "Who?"

      "Donovan Thale," she said, pointing.  "The Tellurian.  He's a Priest of Dragor, you know."

      Dragor was the Younger God of creativity and innovation.  If this Donovan was an inventor, it only made sense.  "Worshipping Dragor is the state religion in Telluria," she told him.  "Either Dragor makes them so creative, or they're so creative that no other god would do."

      "I see he has white hair," Tarrin noted.  "But he's dark, where Phandebrass is lighter."

      "They come in all shades in Telluria.  It's a melting pot of sorts, because it's on the southern edge of the Nyrian landmass, right where Nyr and Arathorn meet, and right across a channel sits the northernmost tip of Valkar.  So they have all kinds there.  But the white hair, that's something of a status symbol among them.  Tellurians say if you're born with white hair, you're favored in the eyes of Dragor, because Dragor had white hair when he was mortal.  It's so important that people not born with white hair bleach it.  So in a way, it's a custom.  You can always tell a visitor in Telluria because he doesn't have white hair."

      "Phandebrass must be favored then.  His hair is natural."

      "He better be, as much trouble as he gets himself into," Keritanima snorted.  "If he wasn't, he'd be dead fifty times over."  She sighed.  "Well, we'd better get ready to move over there."

      "We're not going to the city?"

      "That's Vendaka, Tarrin," she said bluntly.  "Only a fool sets foot there if he doesn't know the customs.  That's one place where the smallest misstep or misspoken word can kill you.  I'd rather not lose anyone, so we're not going to land."

      "That's hard to believe."

      "Believe it," she told him.  "Binter and Sisska only seem cultured because they operate under certain very strict rules I set down.  An average Vendari would kill someone not Vendari over the slightest insult, whether real or imagined.  Just imagine an entire city full of people like you," she said, slapping him lightly on the chest with the back of her paw.  "The Wikuni have the sense not to go there unless absolutely necessary.  We don't even have any trade enclaves.  If we need something from the Vendari, they bring it to the dock there, and sailors load it after the Vendari leave."

      "They're part of your kingdom, yet you don't interact with them?"

      "They interact with us," she told him.  "And part of the agreements between the crown and Vendaka is that we honor their borders.  The only thing we really ask of them is that they help us in battle from time to time, and for the Vendari, that's all the compensation they need.  Vendari love to fight."

      "That's a strange situation.  One-sided, and all the benefits fall on your side."

      "Not really.  The Vendari are protected by our navy, and believe me, the Zakkites would be all over this place if it weren't for us.  The Zakkites have been trying to wipe out the Vendari for centuries.  It's almost like a holy war for them."  Tarrin didn't think that odd, considering that he knew the origins of the Vendari.  The Zakkites created the Vendari to be warriors, and they had done too good a job.  Tarrin guessed that ever since the Vendari turned on their former creators, the Zakkites had been trying to eradicate their past mistakes, and avenge the damage the Vendari caused after they rebelled.  "It just burns them up that the Vendari thrive here, and they can't get at them.  Why did you think all these ships are here, Tarrin?" she asked.

      "I thought you ordered them down here."

      "These are the ships that are always here," she explained.  "The Zakkites do try to slip in from time to time, so we keep a pretty formidable fleet down here to run them off."

      "Ah, now I understand," Tarrin nodded.  "That ship isn't armed, is it?"

      "Not with cannons," she grinned.  "But I think you and me and Dolanna and Camara Tal could be considered weapons, don't you?"

      Tarrin gave her a stern look.  "Are we going to be escorted?  You know we're going to run into trouble."

      "I'm not that dumb, my brother," she grinned.  "We'll have four clippers with us, for as long as they can sail.  But when we get to where the wind is against us, we'll be on our own."

      "By that time, it's not going to matter," Tarrin shrugged.  "Nobody will be able to follow us."

      "Exactly."

      "I think four ships is pretty intimdating," Tarrin said in contentment.

      "Quite," Keritanima agreed.  "Well, it's time to spread the word.  Go pack, brother.  We'll be transferring to the other ship as soon as I get word to Donovan."

      Tarrin didn't leave with Keritanima, looking over the ship some more.  That was the ship that would carry them for forty days, then be the one that would allow them to sail behind the wind.  The thought of that still excited him a little bit, but also made him a little nervous.  That poem had said that it would take all three of them to pull this off.  They needed Keritanima to get there, Allia to find it, and they needed Tarrin to get them there once Allia did.  He wasn't sure exactly what it meant, but that was the closest explanations any of them had managed to comprehend.  The poem had been quite vague, and there were lines of it that nobody understood even now.  But the Goddess had confirmed what they'd managed to decipher, and quite honestly, that was enough.  They were now where they were supposed to be to start, and they knew which direction to go and for how long.  Forty days on a southwest heading, which would slowly shift as they followed the constellation, as it turned on the heavenly wheel.  It would cause them to go more and more south as the days passed, keeping the constellation firmly in front of the bow.  That was why they didn't just sail as soon as they got onto the ship, because of that alteration of course.  Tarrin knew that a good astronomer with complete charts could probably navigate the course without having to leave at the summer solstice, but there would be a good margin of error there, and this was no time for error.  From the way it sounded to him from the poem, what they were looking for would be very hard to find, so they had to be exactly right the first time.  With all that competition out there, sailing around in circles would be a very bad idea.  Besides, there was another time constraint hanging over their heads, that being the day that the Firestaff would be activated.  Tarrin didn't know what day that was, but it had to be soon.  The Firestaff had awakened and revealed itself to the world, and to Tarrin, that meant that the day of its complete activation had to be very close.

      Actually, Tarrin would be overjoyed if that day came and went while they were still out to sea, still trying to get it.  It meant that the day passed without anyone finding it, and then they could all just go home and not worry about it anymore.  But that was a pipe dream, and he knew it.  The Goddess wouldn't have sent him if things were going to be that easy.  No, there had to be enough time for someone to have a reasonable chance to figure out where it was and how to get to it, even without the advantages that Tarrin had.  If only Tarrin and his friends could get to it, then there was no real need to go after it in the first place.

      But they were that much closer.  The ship represented that, another major landmark on the long, twisting, crooked road down which the Goddess had sent him.  There had been quite a few twists and turns on that road, and more than a fair share of shocks and surprises.  But all in all, looking back on it, given the bad and the good, he was glad he did it.  He'd seen so much, learned so much, and had had the chance to make such great and lasting friends.  He'd stood at the top of the world and flown with the angels, he'd moved the world with his footsteps, he'd faced the spawns of the Abyss and seen that miracles did in fact happen.  It had only been some couple of months over two years since the fateful day that Dolanna and Faalken had led him out of Aldreth, but it seemed a lifetime.  Alot of it was spent in fear or pain or misery, but now things looked much better than they did then.  All in all, he was content with the way things had turned out so far.

      If anything, he'd have some wild tales to tell his children and grandchildren.

      More smoke began issuing up from the twin metal pipes on the ship, like the chimney of a fireplace, and there was a strange rhythmic metalling banging coming from it.  The ship shuddered visibly, and then there was a loud pop, which even vibrated the water lapping at the steamship's hull.  And then the smoke began to thin and the metallic sounds ceased.  The human, Donovan Thane, swore sulfurously and rushed out of sight, probably going down to see what had just happened.

      Whatever it was, Tarrin hoped it was a good thing.  That contraption suddenly looked quite ominous to him, an unknown thing with dangers he couldn't imagine.  Keritanima said that the steam engines had a bad habit of exploding.  Tarrin certainly didn't want that to happen while they were on the ship in which the steam engine was contained.  That would not be a very pleasant experience, to say the least.

      It didn't take Tarrin and Kimmie long to pack their things, since they'd only really unpacked the clothes.  Keritanima sent a sailor to tell them to be ready to transfer over to the steamship at the top of the hour, so they spent the time waiting up on deck, Tarrin shielding them both from the rain, as he and Kimmie looked at the ship and Tarrin listened politely as Kimmie described the progress Phandebrass had been making on his memory spell, stroking Sapphire's scales as she was held in the female Were-cat's arms.  "I think he's almost got it," Kimmie announced after telling him about the session they'd had the day before.  "He cast it on himself and read a Wikuni book until the spell expired.  Though he doesn't speak the language, he was able to perfectly copy the writing on the first ten pages, what he was able to read before the spell ended, and he retained the memory of it.  He says he can't get it out of his head, since he doesn't understand what the words mean.  He said it's like a piece of art that's so engaging that it haunts you for days," she chuckled.

      "It does sound like he did it.  Too bad he can't use it on you."

      "Why not?" she protested.  "The spell is safe now!"

      "Triana said no spells cast on you unless I cast them.  As soon as Phandebrass teaches me how to use Wizard magic and then teaches me the spell, I'll be happy to do it for you."

      Kimmie glared at him.  "Then how am I going to learn Sha'Kar?" she demanded.

      "Hold on."  He raised his head.  "Mother, can I cast the memory spell on someone else?"

      Yes, you can, came her mental response.  A Sorcerer can only cast it on himself, but a Priest can cast it on another.

      "There, that settles that," he told her.  "I can cast the same spell I used to learn Wikuni on you, so you can learn Sha'Kar."

      "Who were you asking?  Triana?"

      "The Goddess," he replied calmly.

      "You have her at your beck and call now?" Kimmie asked.

      "No, it's more like she seems to know when I'm about to ask her a question, so she comes to me and answers it.  Sometimes I wonder how she knows," he mused to himself.

      "She is a god, Tarrin," Kimmie chuckled.  "If she didn't know, she wouldn't be a very good god, would she?"

      "You have a point," he acceded.

      Not long after that, sailors packed their belongings in a longboat and ferried it over to the steamship, and then longboats were brought up for the passengers.  Keritanima and Miranda were the first ones to board the longboats, with Binter and Sisska attending them.  Tarrin, Kimmie, Azakar, and Allia boarded the next one, and Camara Tal, Dar, Phandebrass, and Azakar boarded the last.  Boarding the longboats was almost fun for Tarrin and Kimmie, since they had to climb down a ladder to the boat.  The boat rocked alarmingly as Tarrin put a foot down in it, but in a few moments it became almost enjoyable to feel the boat sway as Kimmie, Dolanna, and Allia joined them.  Four burly Wikuni manned the ship's oars, and then they pushed off from the Royal vessel and rowed for the steamship anchored not far away.  Sapphire flew over them, turning circles in the air so as not to get too far ahead, but then Chopstick and Turnkey interrupted her waiting circle and distracted the blue drake into a game of airborne chase.  The three drakes zipped off into the rain happily, quickly travelling out of sight.  Tarrin wasn't worried, however.  Sapphire could find her way back once she caught the two red drakes.

      As Tarrin climbed up onto the deck of the steamship, he saw Keritanima was standing on the deck with Miranda beside her, talking to the Tellurian, Donovan Thale.  That close to him, Tarrin saw that he was a world different from Phandebrass.  For one, he filled out his cloak.  Donovan Thale was a burly, muscular man with a barrel chest and remarkably thick legs, not very tall, built like a treestump.  He looked a little older than Phandebrass but still had a youthful way about him.  He had swarthy brown skin and white hair, looking a little like Allia in that regard, but now that he was closer he could see that Donovan Thale dyed his hair white.  It wasn't natural.  The roots of his shortly cropped hair were black, and that made him look more like an Arakite.  His features had the same sharp quality about them that Arakites did; Tarrin felt that this man had an Arakite for a parent, or at the very least a grandparent.  Around his neck, under his cloak, he saw that the man wore a steel amulet.  The amulet was under his shirt, so he couldn't see the design on it, but it reminded him of the amulet that Camara Tal wore.  All Priests wore such amulets, which had the holy symbol of their gods upon them; in fact, the vast majority of their Priest magic wouldn't function unless they were wearing the amulet.  Tarrin's amulet was radically different from theirs, but the premise was exactly the same.  Without his amulet, he wouldn't be able to use any Priest magic except for a few of the simplest spells.

      Tarrin bent down and helped Kimmie the rest of the way up, who smiled at him in thanks.  He patted her fondly on the bottom as she passed, and she responded by slithering her tail across his torso in a sensual manner.  He reached down and helped Dolanna up the ladder, but his small friend only gave him a smile and warned him not to be quite so friendly with her posterior.  That made Tarrin laugh, and he moved as if to do the same to her as she went by, which made her hurry up a few steps to get out of range.  He helped Allia up, not that she needed any help, and then rejoined his mate as she walked around the deck of the ship.

      It looked alot different from a regular ship.  There were only two masts and much less rigging, so the air above them looked strangely empty.  The thing smelled of smoke and wood and coal, which was understandable, but the simple fact that he could smell it with all the decks being saturated with water and rain still falling heavily told him how pervasive the smell was.  When they got out of the rain, it would be an overwhelming scent, drowning out everything else.  The deck space wasn't empty, it was filled with rows of barrels and boxes, many of them with waterproof canvas tarps thrown over them and tied down.  Keritanima said that there wasn't much free space on the ship, and she was obviously right if they had to store equipment and supplies up on the deck.  Another thing he noticed was how few Wikuni sailors there were.  On the Royal ship, there had to be fifty of them.  But over here, he only saw nine Wikuni on the deck.  But that really didn't mean anything, since the whole crew may not be on board, and that didn't count the Wikuni below decks working on that mechanical contraption that was supposed to propel the ship.  He looked up between the two pipes and saw that the top of the sterncastle was covered over, with many windows along its walls, and that the wheelhouse was inside it.  That, he saw, was a good idea.  The steersman wouldn't have to stand out in the pouring rain, which often made the job a miserable one when the weather was bad.

      "Ah, here you are," Keritanima said as Tarrin and Kimmie wandered over in their general direction as they looked at the ship. "Donovan, this is Tarrin and Kimmie.  Tarrin, Kimmie, may I present Donovan Thale, the man who designed this ship."

      "Not really the ship, just the engine," he said modestly, nodding to them.

      "Don't be modest, Donovan," Keritanima smiled.  "Who else is with you?"

      "My whole team," he replied.  "We're not letting her go out without us here to see how she performs."

      "I thought you said you tested it," Keritanima said flintily.

      "We did, your Majesty, but not under operating conditions," he replied.  "We ran the engine for twelve straight hours, and she did fine.  But you'll be running it for days, non-stop.  She'll hold up, though," he said quickly, "but since we didn't do that, we want to be here to see if we can't improve her design with the next ship we build."

      "And since they'll be right here, if it breaks down, we have the people we need available to fix it," Miranda added.

      "True," Keritanima agreed with a nod.  "When will we be ready to leave?"

      "We're still loading the supplies, so it won't be until tomorrow morning at the very earliest, your Majesty," Donovan replied.  "But since this is a first for all of us, I'd like to doublecheck everything one more time, so I'd like to leave no sooner than tomorrow afternoon."

      "We'll be leaving tomorrow night, after sunset," she told him.  "That gives you a full day and some spare hours to make sure everything's ready before hand."

      "Yes, your Majesty," he replied calmly.  "Everything will be ready.  You have my guarantee of that, even if I have to step on a few necks to do it."

      "Step away, Donovan.  This journey has the highest priority.  Until we leave, you'll be speaking with my voice."

      "Thank you, your Majesty.  I've been having trouble getting supplies from the other ships and the Vendari.  They keep sending the wrong things.  One fool loaded four barrels of gunpowder in the hold!"

      "Don't all Wikuni ships carry cannons?" Kimmie asked curiously.

      "This ship can't use gunpowder, my Lady," Donovan answered her.  "The steam engine uses a fire to make the steam, and there's always a chance that the fire may get out of control and set off the gunpowder.  I'll be able to design some ships that can carry gunpowder later, but since this is the very first ship of its kind, we don't want to take any chances."

      "A wise precaution," Keritanima assured him.  "The other ships will do the fighting for us if it comes down to it."

      "We thought that too, your Majesty," Donovan nodded.

      A rare reptillian Wikuni, tall and scaly, with a thick, meaty tail, was the one that showed Tarrin and Kimmie to their cabin.  Keritanima's warnings had been correct, for the cabin was very small and very cramped.  It had only a single bed, but at least Keritanima had thought ahead to have a bed installed large enough for him.  It had a large chest at the foot of the bed, which was almost against the opposite wall, and only about seven spans of floor between the bed and the door.  The cabin was not designed for extended stays, that much was for sure.  The place was clean and sterile, but at least the ceiling was high enough to keep Tarrin's head from hitting the low beams that served as the deck of the level above.  It had a window, a small round porthole, over the bed, that had a view of the coastline.  Kimmie opened the chest and looked inside, then chuckled.  "Enough room for our clothes, but not much else," she said.  "I'll have to leave my equipment with Phandebrass."

      "I'd hate to see how much room he'll have when he gets all his things in his cabin," Tarrin noted as he sat down on the bed.  "He may end up sleeping up on deck."

      "As long as he can get from the bed to the door, I think he'll be alright," Kimmie chuckled, reaching down and grabbing his paw.  "Let's go look around.  I want to see this steam engine thing."

      Tarrin and Kimmie joined their other friends in an informal tour of the ship by the man Donovan.  He showed them the steering deck and some of the mecahnical gadgets that would tell the men in the engine room how fast they wanted the ship to go, and then he showed them the engine room.  It took up the entire back half of the ship, forcing everything into the bow.  It was comprised of a huge metal tank of some sort that had a multitude of pipes and metal things running all over it.  Tarrin could see what looked like huge gears that ran from the massive contraption to a heavy shaft that extended out of the wall.  That had to go to the paddlewheel, he realized.  He couldn't make sense of much of anything he saw, but the ten Wikuni and four humans that were in the engine room did seem to know what was going on.  There were levers and dials and wheels and handles scattered along the pipes, set into the equipment, jutting out of walls and the floor, attached to the many pipes that crawled all over the gigantic chamber.  There was a huge door on the far side that led into the other hold that was in the bow, and Tarrin could see that it was filled almost to overflowing with a strange black rock.  Coal.  The smell of the place was certainly unusual, with the wood and tar mixing with the multitudes of copper pipes all over everywhere, and the sweat and fur of the Wikuni and the humans mixing with a riot of other smells he just couldn't identify, because he'd never scented them before.

      "It looks like a convulsing spider," Dar said honestly, which made everyone laugh.

      "I guess it does at that," Donovan chuckled.  "Alright, here's how it works.  We burn coal in that boiler right there, and it boils the water in that big tank right there," he explained, pointing to the indicated components.  "The steam collects in the boiler until it builds up alot of pressure.  Once it does, we open a valve that lets some of the steam escape.  The steam goes through these pipes to the engine itself, where its pressure causes those gears to turn."  He pointed to the gears.  "That area over there allows us to engage different gears to make the paddlewheel outside turn slower or faster, no matter how fast the gears coming out of the steam drive turn.  Leonin calls it a 'gear-force transmission junction,' but that's too long, so we call it the transmission area.  The steam drives the gears and enters these pipes over here, then it collects in that tank over there, what we call a condenser, where seawater flows through pipes inside it to cool the steam back into water.  Once the water collects in the bottom, gravity causes it to drain back into the boiler through those pipes over there.  Some of the steam is bled off to run water pumps that keeps the seawater in the condenser cool."

      "It's all self-contained?" Keritanima asked.

      Donovan nodded.  "We can't use seawater in the boiler because of the salt, and the fact that the water has to be very clean.  So we boiled water and collected the steam back into pure water and injected it into the system.  The same water gets boiled and recondensed back into water over and over again.  It's the most efficient way to go about it, seeing as how fresh water isn't easy to find on the open sea."

      "What happens if you spring a leak?"

      "We'll lose some water no matter what, your Majesty, because some of the steam drives the water pumps and the whistle," he told her.  "We have some barrels of spare water in case of an emergency, and if all else fails, we installed a smaller boiler over there where we can boil the salt out of seawater and use it.  It also doubles as a fresh-water maker, since the water it makes is drinkable.  But we're not going to rely on it quite yet."

      "It all sounds pretty complicated," Dar said.

      "It is until you've been down here a while," Donovan told the youthful Arkisian.

      "I say, you really have to show me the step-by-step procedure," Phandebrass told his countrymen with bright eyes.

      "You'll have to get her Majesty's approval," Donovan told him seriously.  "She funded this project, so she owns the rights to it."

      "You can look, but you will not touch anything," Keritanima told him hotly.  "Do you understand me?  Touch just one control, and I'll have you thrown overboard!"

      "I say, your Majesty, I understand that this is a delicate device, I do," Phandebrass assured her.  "Why, they're working with steam under pressure.  One wrong move, and the whole thing will blow itself up!"

      "You should know about blowing yourself up," Camara Tal grunted.

      Phandebrass ignored that.  "I say, I must get myself a new book.  I'll have to write all this down," he mused to himself.  "I wonder if magic could improve the operation of it."

      "Not unless you know a way to set a fire in the boiler we don't have to feed," Donovan grunted.  "Half the ship is taken up by the engine, and the other half with the coal.  It doesn't leave much room for anything else."

      "It is most impressive," Dolanna said. " More impressive because it does not use magic anywhere in its design."

      "Magic is a strong and respectable force, ma'am, but you'd be surprised what you can do with a little steel, a little creativity, and alot of sweat."

      "Indeed," Dolanna agreed with a nod.

      "Well, that about finishes the tour, your Majesty.  The rest of the ship is like any other."

      "Why do you have sails when you have this thing?" Dar asked curiously.

      "This engine is still experimental," Donovan told him.  "In case it breaks down, the sails make sure the ship isn't dead in the water."

      "A smart precaution," Miranda mused.

      "When you're dealing with a prototype, you have to plan for breakdowns," Donovan told her with a nod.  "It's the nature of the beast, as they say."

      "I hope there won't be too many, Donovan.  We're depending on your ship like we've never depended on anything else."

      "We'll get you to your destination, your Majesty, even if I have to get the whole crew down here and turn the gears by hand."

      "Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Keritanima said with a smile.

      "Let's hope, your Majesty."

 

      The next day, the day they were to depart, was filled with bustling activity, at least for everyone else.  The activity was taken on with a furious pace, for there had been a break in the rain, a rare break, and the skies remained cloudy and threatening to rain again at any moment.  That gave the workers a certain amount of motivation to get as much done as they could before they started getting wet.

      Tarrin and Kimmie rose with the sun, though Tarrin's back was a little cramped.  The bed was long enough, but it wasn't very wide, and that made him sleep pushed up against the outer wall.  Tarrin dealt with that by expanding the bed a good two spans with magic, until it took up over half of the small cabin.  He also made a small, narrow stand for Sapphire's little bed, which Phandebrass had given to him, since the drake didn't like the idea of sleeping on the floor, since she ended up in bed with them.  Drakes liked to sleep high up, where their ability to fly would allow them to simply escape a predator by jumping out of the nest and catching themselves before they hit the ground.  They were sacrificing some open space, but as long as they had enough room to open the door, it didn't really concern him.  The only things they'd really be doing in the cabin were dressing and sleeping anyway, it was too small for anything else.  Kimmie certainly seemed to prefer losing some space to having to worry about rolling out of the bed as it had been.

      Tarrin and Kimmie let everyone else go about their bustling, as Phandebrass, Dolanna, and Dar attached themselves to the scientists that had made the engine so they could learn about it, as Camara Tal, Azakar, Binter, and Sisska helped out the crew by stowing things and doing the heavy labor sometimes necessary on a ship, where their combined strength could accomplish things that took ten to twelve Wikuni to accomplish, and as Keritanima and Miranda talked with held long council sessions with some Wikuni and Vendari brought from other ships and the shore, organizing what would go on after she left, and organizing the roles of the four ships that would accompany them.  They watched it all go by as Tarrin used the memory spell on Kimmie and used the entire day to do nothing but teach her Sha'Kar, both spoken and written.  Every time he taught her a word, he showed her its written form.  In that one day, Kimmie absorbed a staggering amount of the language, because they devoted an entire sunlight day to the task.  Nearly fifteen hours, breaking only to eat or to stretch and relieve themselves.  Since it was the day of the summer solstice and they were literally right on the equator, it made it the longest day of the year, and they used every minute of it to get Kimmie up with the others.

      The skies remained heavy and ominous most of the day, but to everyone's surprise, they began to clear out about an hour before sunset.  The clouds disappeared with a nearly frightening speed, almost racing out of the sky and disappearing over the eastern horizon.  They cleared out in time for the sun to shine down on the ship not long before it set, casting hot light that almost immediately began to evaporate the water pooled on the deck and clinging to the masts and rigging.  The hot air became almost unbearably muggy as the sun dried out the ship, for the air was strangely still.  There was no wind to pick up the humidity and blow it away.  Sailors began stripping off their clothes as the sunlit minutes passed, until nearly everyone on the ship was wearing as little as they could possibly get away with wearing.  It was worst for the Wikuni, whose pelts trapped the heat and made them all look absolutely miserable.  Except for Keritanima and Miranda, of course, with Keritanima using Sorcery to keep the air around her cool and comfortable.  Keritanima was immune to the heat, but Miranda was not, so she was doing it strictly for Miranda's comfort.  That said a great deal about how Keritanima felt about her maid.

      The heat did cause a slight row, and that came from Camara Tal.  Deciding that her leather haltar, as skimpy as it was, was simply too hot, she simply took it off.  That didn't bother Tarrin or any of the people who knew Camara Tal, since exposing her breasts was not considered a violation of modesty in Amazon society.  For that matter, complete nudity wasn't really a violation of modesty in Amazon society, given that Amazons didn't wear anything under their tripas, and the kilt-like skirts were so short that a stiff breeze exposed everything that most human women fought so hard to conceal.  The only violation of modesty in Amazon society was touching.  Looking was just fine, but one did not touch an Amazon in any sensitive area unless it was explicitely allowed.  It didn't bother any of Camara Tal's friends, nor did it really bother the Wikuni, but it did upset the Tellurians quite a bit, who gawked at her and tried their best to ignore the fact that there was a half-naked woman parading around on the deck.  The fact that she was such a stunningly attractive woman, with appealingly large but not oversized breasts that had not sagged a finger during her life, made ignoring her a very difficult thing to do.

      Kimmie found the entire thing to be quite amusing.  They would pause in their involved teaching session to watch Camara Tal pace up and down the deck with a grim expression, anxiously waiting for them to set sail, and watch the eleven Tellurians on the ship scatter before her like mice before a cat, averting their eyes as she passed but stealing glances at her whenever they could, when they didn't think she was paying attention.  They wanted to look, but they didn't want her to know that they were looking.  That was what amused Kimmie so much.

      As much fun as the uptightness of the humans was, it bowed to their lessons.  By the time sunset came, as the wind suddenly picked up and the sailors hurriedly made the ship ready to leave, Kimmie had managed to grasp the fundamental structure of the language, the basic rules of grammar, and had learned all of the most commonly used words and the most common verbs, and had begun to learn the conjugation of verbs for dealing with various locative and temporal states.  Tarrin figured that in five days, if he taught her from sunrise to sunset, Kimmie would be fluent in both spoken and written Sha'Kar.

      "I've never seen a language where every sentence ends in the verb," Kimmie told him.  "Torian and Sulasian are nothing like this."

      "When did you learn Torian?" he asked.

      "Tarrin, I am Torian," she grinned.  "Remember?"

      "Oh, I forgot," he admitted.  "Sha'Kar is a pretty complicated language, Kimmie."

      "I noticed.  But it's very musical."

      "I know."

      They kept going right until sunset, when the smell of burning coal began to permeate everything, and the two chimney pipes--Donovan called them smokestacks--began to belch forth boiling clouds of black smoke.  They were heating up the boiler, getting the ship ready to start moving.  Keritanima came up on deck with Miranda, and they talked to Donovan for a long moment.  Donovan was the ship's captain as well as the head scientist, so Keritanima was probably telling him when they were going to leave.

      Sapphire landed on his shoulder with a chirp and a little nuzzle, breathing hard.  She and Chopstick and Turnkey had been flying around almost all day, even flew out to the coast of Vendaka for a short time to investigate the thick jungle, and she looked a little tired.  She hadn't done that much heavy flying for a long time.  He chided her softly about wearing herself out and put her in his lap, massaging her back just between her wings, something she very much loved for him to do after she'd been flying a while.  She laid down limply in his lap and allowed him to do whatever he wanted, enjoying the attention immensely.

      Keritanima and Miranda came over to them, the Queen of Wikuna sitting on a rope bale with a flop, not looking very queenly.  She looked a little tense, and he realized that their impending departure was wearing on her.  It didn't take him long to figure out why.  "The sooner we leave, the sooner we get back, Kerri," he told her.  "Rallix is going to be there waiting for you when you get back, you know that."

      "I didn't think I'd miss him this much," she admitted.  "And I'm worried about him.  Is he doing alright?  Are they causing him any problems?  Is he getting the hang of the job I asked him to do?  It's frustrating not being able to be there to help him."

      "Then talk to him.  That always helps me when I miss Jesmind."

      "How?  He's not a Sorcerer, Tarrin."

      "Talk to the priest on the ship and have him contact the Palace.  Have Jervis give Rallix an amulet," he said, holding up his own. "I know Jervis must have a couple of them laying around somewhere.  As long as he has the amulet, you can talk to him.  The magic of the spell comes from your amulet, not from his.  You can use your amulet to talk to anyone with his own amulet.  I've used it to talk to Ariana and Shiika, and they're not Sorcerers either."

      "I didn't know they could do that!" she gasped.  "What a great idea!  I'll go send the message immediately!"  She jumped up, collected her skirts, then literally ran across the deck, seeking out the bear Wikuni that served as the ship's Priest.  No Wikuni ship, not even a prototype like the steamship, sailed without a priest of Kikalli aboard.

      Miranda gave Tarrin a very grateful look. "Thank you for that," she said.  "Kerri's been getting snappy lately."

      "I should have realized she was missing Rallix.  She's a good actress to hide it for so long."

      "She's one of the best actresses in the world," Miranda winked.  "I have to say, you two look very happy.  What have you been up to over here all day?"

      "Teaching me Sha'Kar," Kimmie told her.

      "That's it?  I thought you were whispering secrets or something," she winked.  "I did see you two watching Camara Tal."

      "We were watching the Tellurians run away from her," Tarrin chuckled.  "I didn't realize Tellurians were so priggish."

      "If I were a human man, I'd be intimidated no matter what race I was if I saw those heading in my direction," she said with a naughty little smile.  "Didn't you notice that every man that talks to Camara for the first time talks to her chest?"

      Kimmie laughed delightedly, and Tarrin had to smile.  Miranda was right.  Camara Tal was certainly well endowed in that department, and even Tarrin had to admire her chest from time to time, just for its perfection.  "She'd better keep them in the haltar, or they'll be hanging down to her navel by the time she's sixty," Kimmie said with a sly grin.

      "She's a Priestess, Kimmie," Tarrin said mildly.  "I'm sure she knows some kind of spell for, well, bounciness."

      "You mean firmness," Miranda grinned.  "Well, as much fun as it is to stand here and gossip about Camara Tal's breasts, I'm getting hot again.  I'm going to go back to Kerri and stay in her cooling spell.  I'll see you later," she said with a wave.

      "I really like her," Kimmie told him as they watched her leave.  "She's very funny."

      "Alot more than that," Tarrin agreed.

      "You're right there.  Alright, explain to me why there are four separate forms of the same verb again.  I don't understand that."

      The sun set and the stars came out as Tarrin and Kimmie continued their lesson.  The ship began to throb and rumble under them as he continued teaching her Sha'Kar, as they tried to ignore what was going on to finish the lesson, reach a good place to stop.  All his friends came up on deck, gathering around Keritanima near the bow, and Tarrin and Kimmie stopped their lesson and joined them.  They looked up where Keritanima pointed towards the southwest horizon.  "There it is.  The Diamond Crown," she announced.  "And it's fully above the horizon.  We made it."

      "Thank the Goddess," Dolanna sighed in relief.

      Tarrin didn't see the constellation, but he was confident that Keritanima did.  "And now we sail southwest," Tarrin mused.

      "Forty days," Camara Tal added, putting a hand on his forearm.  That told him how much she liked him, for Amazons didn't often touch others.  "Let's all pray it's an uneventful trip."

      "Amen," Tarrin agreed, patting her hand.

      They all stood there for a long moment in silence, pondering the events that had brought them to Vendaka.  They were on the ship, and the Diamond Crown was now visible.  They were ready to go, ready to sail to where the Firestaff was located, ready to embark on the last leg of their long journey.  Not all of them were there to give thanks for that moment, and those absences pained Tarrin greatly.  Faalken, solid, dependable, funny Faalken, such a good friend, gone.  Never to stand by Dolanna's side again.  Sarraya, returned to her colony so she could rest and recover her strength.  They'd see her again, but it would be after it was all over.  She'd miss the most exciting part of the journey, when they faced this guardian and claimed the Firestaff.

      Either way, it would be good to see her again, because to Tarrin, seeing her again meant that it would all be over.  The next time he saw Sarraya, the Firestaff would be safely hidden away and wouldn't pose a danger to anyone.  He'd be free to return to Jesmind and Jasana, keep Kimmie close to him so he could be there for the birth of their child, and start a new life for himself far away from the craziness that had so altered his life.  Soon, it would all be over, and he would have his life back.

      The ship's anchor raised, and then there was a strange rushing sound.  Tarrin realized that it was the paddlewheel attached to the side of the ship, beginning to turn. The sound of the water beaten by the wheel was audible to them, and then the ship began to slowly move forward.  They were under way, under way for the hiding place of the Firestaff, under way on the last leg of their long, arduous journey.  Soon, now, very soon, they'd have the Firestaff, and his life would be his own again.

      Soon.


To:       Title                EoF

Chapter 8

 

      It took Tarrin a while to get used to the novelty and difference of the mechanical ship.  There were many things different about it, only a few of which the others could appreciate.  Those problems were really annoying at first, but time and a little ingenuity solved them and made them either no problem at all or nothing to really worry about.

      The first was the smell.  The smell of the coal and the smoke was always in his nose, causing him and Kimmie and Keritanima as well to sneeze quite a bit and have trouble with breathing.  The smell was pervasive and insidious, and it irritated his nose quite a bit.  The wind sometimes blew down and from astern, blowing the smoke across the deck and giving everyone the same problems they had.  Tarrin's answer to that some days after they began to was erect a Ward over the deck the penetrated down as far as his cabin within the ship, that kept out the smoke and blocked the smell from entering.  Kimmie and Keritanima both kissed him liberally for that, but nobody was as relieved about the clear air and the ability to breathe without sneezing or choking as Tarrin was.

      The second problem had been the sound.  The steam engine wasn't quiet, and its rhythmic thrumming went on and on and on.  It was audible everywhere on the ship, to a faint thrumming on deck to a deafaning cacophony when one was inside the engine room.  It was so loud down there that the Tellurians and their Wikuni companions had to put cotton in their ears to avoid being deafened by the sound after prolonged exposure.  It really bothered Tarrin at first, making it hard for him to sleep for the first few nights, but then he began to grow accustomed to its sound.  Tarrin learned to stay out of the bowels of the ship, where his exceptional hearing made the sound painful to him, staying on the deck and the one level below it where the galley and his cabin were located.  He wouldn't go any deeper into the ship than that, and everyone learned not to ask him to do so. It became less and less of a problem as the ship travelled southwest over the days, until it became a part of the background noise that Tarrin learned to ignore.  The only time he took notice of it was when it changed or when it stopped, as they shut down the steam engine occasionally to grease gears or check something, or to inspect the pipes, which were too hot to inspect while the steam was going through them.  The stoppages when the steam engine was shut down usually only lasted a few hours, and then they were on their way again.

      The third problem was the rolling of the ship.  Despite its great weight, the ship wasn't balanced in the water very well, for a great deal of its weight was in the bow, in the form of the huge quantities of coal that had been loaded for the journey.  That made the ship unstable in the water, and it had a tendency to rock excessively back and forth in the wind or the waves.  That caused seasickness, even among the Wikuni, until hard decisions were made.  Some of the coal was jettisoned into the water, for they'd packed the hold to the rafters to make absolutely sure they had enough for the trip.  They didn't do this until after Donovan went over the amount of coal the engine had been using for the first six days of the journey and deemed it safe to drop some of their weight.  The rest of the coal was smoothed out and distributed equally through the hold, and that helped balance the ship and make it much more stable.  The ship did still tend to wallow a bit, but that was because it was a little shallower in the keel than a clipper, and shallow-drafted ships were more prone to the rocking action of the waves and wind.

      The fourth problem was the cramped conditions.  Nobody could really do anything about that, but Tarrin didn't think that anyone realized how crowded the ship was until about the fifth day. The ship had twenty engineers on board to deal with the steam engine, and also had twenty-three sailors on board to help with the rigging and to maintain the ship as needed.  Add to that the twelve of them who were strictly passengers, and that was quite a few people.  The ship was big, but so much of it was taken up by the steam engine and the supplies that it left very little space left over for the people.  There were always at least twenty people on deck, some of them working in the rigging or on the deck, but there were always people around.  It was hard to find privacy on the ship, because the cabins were so small that one got claustraphobic after only a few hours in one.  The air was hot, the climate was hot, and the boiler under the ship radiated its heat all through the insides of the ship and even made the darkest, coolest hole hot.  And since it was so hot, the cabins below were almost unbearably stuffy.  Even in the pounding, pouring rain, there were people on deck, just sitting in the rain because it was better than sweating to death below decks.

      The ship had its share of problems, but Tarrin had to admit one thing.  It was fast.  The paddlewheel didn't stop turning, and it pushed the ship steadily on their course, sometimes having to slow down for their escorting ships when the wind slacked and robbed them of propulsion.  The steamship more than easily kept up with the clippers, sometimes outrunning them and having to slow down so they could catch up, and that seemed to irk the men on those clippers to no end.  Tarrin could see it in their faces when they tied up with the steamship when it made one of its brief stops for inspection or repair.  They had expected the outlandish contraption to fail, and now that it was outperforming their precious clippers, they were getting resentful.

      Sometimes Tarrin would stand at the rail and just watch the paddlewheel turn, amazed that such a strange looking amalgamation of iron tanks, pipes, gears, and rods, maintained with liberally applied grease and a whole lot of careful attention, made the wheel turn, and turn so steadily.  It just whooshed right along, merrily churning the water and pushing the ship forward.  It was almost as amazing as magic, that a group of men and Wikuni had come together and designed something that could move such a large ship using nothing more than boiling water.  It was pretty remarkable, and they'd done it without magic.  It just went to show that there were no limits to the breadth of their ingenuity and inspired creativity.

      One could stand and watch what looked like a waterwheel for only so long, but fortunately, Tarrin had other things to do.  He kept working with Kimmie, teaching her Sha'kar for half a day, and in twelve short days she had achieved a level of fluency that satisfied him.  Which meant that she was as fluent as he was, both in written and spoken Sha'Kar.  She even had his accent, though that was perfectly understandable, given he was her instructor.

      Very little happened during that time, as they all got used to the crowded ship and its unusual noises and smells, as it steamed steadily southwest, turning gradually more and more southward as the constellation above them shifted by the slightest of degrees each night.  Keritanima had them going towards the brightest star in the constellation, which served as the tip of the crown's formation, the middle of it.  Keritanima figured that they couldn't go wrong if they steered by the constellation's center.  More than that, they saw no other ships for those twelve days, having the very empty ocean on the southwest of Wikuna all to themselves.

      That changed on the thirteenth day, when the formation of five ships came across a blasted hulk of another vessel.  It had been attacked and partially burned, the rains putting the fire out before the fire sank the ship, a western galleon.  It was a wreck, with two of its three masts fallen and charred wood decks buckled and torn.  There were bodies on the ship, Allia told them as she looked at the ship with her superior vision, and that was reason enough for the ships to stop and send a search party over to the ship to inspect it.

      Tarrin, who felt remarkably bored that morning, decided that he was going to go to the ship himself, regardless of what anyone else thought.  So he used Sorcery to pick himself up off the deck on a platform of Air and float over to the ship.  He probably startled half the Wikuni on the escorting clippers with his magical display, but he really didn't care.  He set his feet down on the blasted ruin, and felt immediately that it had been caused by magic.  The residue of the spells was still within the wood, and they were strong.  The ship was attacked by magic, and the scattered bodies, many of them burned beyond recognition, told him that the attack came from above.  Magical attack from above, that was classic Zakkite tactics.  He knelt and put his fingers to the deck, relying on good old fashioned woodlore taught to him by his father to detect that the fires had burned about two days ago.

      The first of the Wikuni arrived, climbing up onto the deck using grappling hooks and ropes, and he told the officer in charge of his findings.  The officer, a tiger Wikuni, nodded and pointed to one of the bodies.  "That's the uniform of a Shacčan naval officer," he said.  "But what a Shacčan galleon is doing all the way out here is beyond me."

      Tarrin knew why, but he figured there was no reason to tell him.

      "I doubt there's anyone alive.  Zakkites take survivors for slaves," the officer told him.  "But let's look around anyway.  Sometimes someone does manage to hide."

      Tarrin helped the squad of six Wikuni search the ship.  It was carrying no cargo, another oddity to the Wikuni, but they did find the captain's log in his cabin, and there was also a small chest with an impressive amount of gold.  In another cabin, they found what Tarrin recognized immediately as spellbooks hidden under a pile of old clothes under a cot, which wouldn't have been found if Tarrin hadn't felt the presence of a magical spell that had been cast to hide the books from magical detection.  There were five of them, and as he looked through them, he saw that they were quite full.  Tarrin claimed the spellbooks as his own, putting them in an empty chest and telling the Wikuni that it would be dangerous for them to even touch the magical objects.  They gave him a wary look and nodded in agreement, not willing to fight the imtimidating Were-cat over something he obviously intended to keep.

      They completed their search, even searching the bilges, then they collected up everything that the Wikuni intended to salvage from the vessel and began loading it into the longboat they'd used to ferry over.  Tarrin took the chest back to the steamship himself, and found himself facing five angry female faces.  Keritanima, Allia, Kimmie, Dolanna, and Camara Tal all glared at him when his spell deposited him softly on the deck with the chest by his feet, and he stared at them all calmly.  "What?"

      "How dare you go off on your own unescorted!" Camara Tal managed to say first, cutting the others off.  "How am I supposed to keep you alive if you run off whenever the mood hits you?"

      "I wasn't in any danger," he told her calmly.

      "That's not the point!" Camara Tal shouted at him, then started swearing sulfurously in her native tongue.

      "The point, dear one, is that we need you," Dolanna told him flintily as Camara Tal continued to swear.  "You are too important to just wander off, as Camara Tal put it.  We are not saying you cannot go, but we would appreciate it if you would let us know first.  It will save us a great deal of gray hair."

      "I don't see why you're so angry," he told them.

      "You explain it to him!" Camara Tal told Keritanima, then she stalked off.

      "She's touchy," Tarrin grunted as he watched her walk away.

      "You forget, she is here to protect you, Tarrin," Dolanna told him.  "It is her duty to keep you alive.  Just because you have been apart from her from a long time does not change that."

      "She didn't act this way at Suld," he said challengingly.  "She didn't have anything to say when I joined the battle."

      "That was a different situation," Keritanima growled at him.  "Don't you dare try to compare them."

      "You were wrong, my brother," Allia told her.  "The next time you wish to go off alone, ask."

      "Alright, alright," he sighed, though he still didn't see what the problem was.  "I'll ask from now on."

      "Good."

      Though he got off relatively easy with his sisters and friends, he didn't get away quite as easily with Kimmie.  She gave him the cold shoulder for the rest of the day, and even refused to talk to him that night as they got ready to go to bed.  That frustrated Tarrin to no end, frustrated and aggravated him, and he found it to be a very brutal and effective means of punishing him.  She had shut him out, turned him away, and all he could feel when he looked at her was guilt over something he did that she didn't like, and frustration that she wouldn't talk to him.  He wanted to talk about it, work it out, but she wouldn't even acknowledge him!  Kimmie knew him better than he knew himself, and he had to admit, she'd found the one and only way to get under his skin, something that even he was surprised was so effective.  It got so bad that he finally grabbed her by the arms and made her look at him.  "I said I was sorry!" he told her adamantly.

      "You didn't mean it," she hissed at him.  "What if there would have been something very dangerous on that ship?  What if it had been burned by survivors of a plague, and there you go flitting over there to catch that disease?  Don't you realize that you're too important to go racing off like that?  Did you see Keritanima in that longboat that went over to investigate the ship?  Allia?  Dolanna?  Phandebrass?  If you'd gotten yourself killed, what would we have done without you?  Would you have deprived your cub to be of knowing its father?"

      If anything, that got him.  He dropped his eyes and blew out his breath, finally understanding why they were all so upset.  He guessed that maybe it was a little rash.  He was bored, and he didn't think things all the way through.  "Alright, I'm sorry," he said contritely.  "I shouldn't have done it."

      "You're right.  You shouldn't have," she said calmly, staring into his eyes.  She pushed his paws off of her arms and rubbed her arm gingerly.  "Now you have to make it up to me."

      "I think I can do some of that right now," he said, turning and picking up the chest he'd taken from the ship, which had been sitting on the other chest at the foot of their bed.  "I found these over on the ship.  When I saw them, I figured you may be able to use them."

      Kimmie gave him a suspicious look as she took the chest, then set it down on the deck and knelt in front of it.  She opened it, and her eyes widened when she saw the leather-bound tomes within.  She picked one up and opened it, and saw that it was written in a strange, glyphic language that Wizards seemed able to read.  "This is a spellbook!" she gasped, looking at it.  "I, I don't know this spell!"

      "They're all spellbooks," he told her.  "I thought you might want them."

      "Might want--Tarrin, you've given me a treasure!" she told him happily, gazing up into his eyes.  "These look like the spellbooks of an accomplished Wizard!"

      She put the book down reverently and carefully, then vaulted up into his arms and kissed him exuberantly on the lips.  "Well, you're doing a good job of making up," she grinned as she pulled away enough to look at him.  "But I'm not ready to forgive you quite yet."

      Tarrin ran a paw down her back meaningfully. "Maybe I can find some other way to make it up to you," he purred.

      "Now you're getting the idea," she giggled breathlessly, then kissed him again, this time quite seriously.

      Kimmie was absolutely overjoyed that he brought her the spellbooks.  Even Phandebrass was impressed by them, as she showed them to her mentor, for the books contained several spells that even he didn't have.  And Phandebrass collected magical spells the way a forest floor collected dead leaves in the autumn.  She spent the next three days with Phandebrass as they deciphered the spells and learned how they worked, and she allowed her mentor to copy the spells into his own books.  But she kept the spellbooks, copying some of the spells she knew into those books and using them as her primary spellbooks instead of her old ones.  Tarrin asked after that one night as he watched her carefully writing in one of the new books, doing so on a very small table and chair Tarrin conjured for her, that took up almost the entirety of the available space in the cabin.

      "It's easier to copy a few spells in here than it would be to copy a few dozen into my old books," she told him patiently.  "I will copy the spells so I'll have more than one set of spellbooks, but for now, this will do."      

      "Why keep more than one set?"

      "These books represent everything I know as a Wizard, Tarrin," she said patiently.  "If they get lost or stolen, I'll lose everything.  Any mage with even half a clue keeps a copy of his spellbooks in a safe place.  Just in case the unthinkable happens."

      "Oh.  That makes sense."

      "I'm so glad you agree," she drawled, then returned to her careful work.

      They saw no other ships over those three days, but the formation was closer and the lookouts were being very alert.  It was well known now on all five ships that Zakkites had attacked the ship they'd paused to inspect, and they weren't going to let their ancient rivals on the sea get the drop on them.  On the fourth day, they did see a plume of smoke appear on the eastern horizon, but no one on any of the ships thought even for a second about changing course to investigate.  That far out to see, the smoke could only be coming from a ship.

      The day after that, they encountered their first live ship.  It was an old, battered caravel, with a few patches in its sails, merrily making its way due west, and was looking to come close to crossing their path as it approached them.  Keritanima went up to the steering deck as the formation around the steamship tightened noticably, as the four clippers moved into a very defensive posture around the unarmed ship that was carrying their queen.  Tarrin and Dar happened to be on deck playing stones when the call of the sighting came out, and the clippers tightened up around the steamship.  They put the game on hold and went to the rail to get a look for themselves, and saw the old ship with its patched sails and a few patches in its hull.  The old ship had seen some action recently.

      Tarrin and Dar watched as the ship slowed as it threatened to cross the path of the clippers, then ran up a white flag.  That meant that they were either surrendering or they were attempting a parlay.  Tarrin looked up at the steering deck, curious about this turn of events.  What would Keritanima do?  Would she attack the ship, which was probably a rival seeking the Firestaff?  Would she stop to talk to them?  Or would she simply pass them by?

      It didn't take him long to find out.  He wasn't quite sure how they knew the order, but the four ships surrounding them opened their formation a little, enough for the steamship to put on a little more speed, and they sailed right by the halted vessel, the sailors upon it gawking at the steamship in shock and awe.  They'd never seen such a thing before.  Keritanima had obviously decided to pass the other ship by without talking to them.  All things being as they were, Tarrin felt that Keritanima made the wise choice.  That fellow was sailing west, not southwest.  He was going in the wrong direction.

      Later that day, it suddenly seemed like it wasn't a very good idea.  Allia came to Tarrin right before dinner and told him that the ship they'd passed earlier in the day was following them.  Tarrin knew about Allia's incredible eyesight, so he didn't doubt her in the slightest, but that seemed a bit odd.  With all that firepower, what in the blazes could that caravel's captain be thinking?  Didn't he realize that if he irrititated Keritanima, she'd send one of her clippers to sink him?  But how could he know that?  As far as the captain of that ship was concerned, he saw a quartet of Wikuni military vessels escorting some kind of bizarre new ship.  Maybe he was curious, and was following along a while to see where they were going, or get a better look at the steamship.  Or maybe he was taking orders from a mage, who thought that the Wikuni knew where they were going.  If that was the case, then Tarrin would be the first to sink them.  He didn't want any company tagging along when they reached their destination.

      All his speculation turned out to be moot, however.  By morning, the caravel was so far behind that it didn't matter anymore.  The steamship hadn't stopped during the night, continuing its steady course just south of southwest, and in the darkness the caravel wouldn't even be able to see the smoke plumes from the smokestacks to guide it as it tried to follow the faster vessels.  Keritanima's boasting about the speed of the steamship turned out to be a critical asset to them now, since they could easily outrun any ship that tried to follow them.

      The sighting of the attacked galleon and the encounter with the caravel galvanized the Wikuni and the Tellurians even more.  They realized now that they were sailing on a crowded ocean, and they had to be ready for anything.  The lookouts were doubled, and they scanned the seas and the skies both at all times during day and night.  The ship no longer stopped for periodic inspections of the steam engine, running at all times to keep the ship moving, keep the ship from becoming a target.  Tarrin saw that the cannons on the accompanying ships were being cleaned and inspected and the materials they used to fire were brought up from below decks, ready to be loaded and fired at a moment's notice.  At night, the gunpowder was taken back below decks, why Tarrin wasn't sure, but he was sure it hadn't been taken very far.

      Things got a little quiet and a bit tense on the ship after the two encounters.  The sailors weren't quite as talkative as they were before, and the engineers working on the steam engine were all business, spending almost all their waking hours tending the invention carefully, even as it operated.  The tension, added to the heat and the intermittent rain, made many of the sailors short-tempered, and there were a few fights on board the ship that caused a momentary distraction for everyone else.  They kept it running continuously for two days, and the five ships hurried towards the southwest, towards their ultimate goal.  At sunset on the second day, however, everyone knew that something was wrong when a sudden grinding sound rattled the ship, so loud and strong that the deck beneath their feet vibrated with the sound.  The ship began to slow very quickly, so quickly that the ship trailing behind had to execute a sharp turn and drop its sea anchor to avoid ramming the stern of the steamship as it drifted to a relative halt on the choppy seas.  As if the halt wasn't bad enough, the cloudy skies opened up on the ship almost as soon as it drifted to a halt, sending pounding rain down onto the deck and irritating people who were already nervous and flustered.

      Tarrin decided that the best thing to do in a situation like that was sleep it away.  He and Kimmie retired to their cabin and went to bed early.

 

      It was approaching morning, a few hours before sunrise.  Tarrin had awakened to relieve himself, and didn't feel like going back to sleep quite yet.  He instead laid in bed beside Kimmie and watched her sleep, pondering doing something he promised her he wouldn't do.  Though she wanted to keep the sex of the child a secret, that missing information had been eating at Tarrin over the last few days, up to where the need to know was reaching a fever pitch.  Just like any cat, or Were-cat, once Tarrin's curiosity was piqued, it was almost impossible to deny satisfying it.  He would have done it days ago if not for the promise he made to  Kimmie not to do exactly what he was considering doing.  Promises were not things taken lightly among Were-cats.  To break a promise was to lie, and lying to another Were-cat was a cardinal sin.  It was so much of a transgression that him lying to Jesmind was what put her on him and made her try to kill him.  Oh, there were little white lies, the kinds of lies that a Were-cat wouldn't find offensive, for they were spoken when the speaker honestly believed he was doing the right thing.  But this was much different than saying something not quite the truth to avoid a fight, or trying to hedge in a vain attempt to hide information from Triana.  This was a promise.

      Sort of.  He hadn't explicitly told Kimmie he wouldn't do it.  She had simply told him not to do it, and he had agreed with her.  If he did do it, he could raise that as a valid argument against Kimmie, but there would be consequences.  Kimmie had proved that she could get to him, get to him in ways that Jesmind could not.  That silent treatment was a torture, worse than anything Jesmind had ever done to him, and he didn't want to face the next few rides with nothing but Kimmie's back for company.

      That was the punishment he would face if he did it.  He'd satisfy his curiosity, but he'd infuriate his mate in the process.  But his curiosity was so strong that he seriously weighed those two things against one another, trying to decide which one was the lesser of the two evils.  To leave his curiosity unsatisfied or get the silent treatment from Kimmie.  He was going to have to suffer through one of them.

      The Cat finally barged into his debate, quite effectively settling the argument.  It saw a good thing here, a receptive female that kept it quite happy.  It saw no reason to jeopardize a good mating, so it buried his curiosity beneath an instinctual impulse to protect his unborn child.  He shouldn't do anything to upset or aggravate Kimmie until after she gave birth to the cub.

      And that ended that.  Blowing out his breath, he put his paw on Kimmie's bare belly, wondering at what was going on in there.  He was sure that Triana could give him a day by day accounting of what went on inside a female after she conceived, but she wasn't there, and he wasn't going to peek.  It was well within his power to find out, but the consequences for doing so were a bit more than he was willing to endure, for those consequences also affected their baby.

      His paw made Kimmie stir, mumbling something in her sleep, rolling over on her side.  Tarrin admired her silhouette, her feminine curves, and marvelled at how different she was from Jesmind.  Jesmind had all those same curves, but everything in between them was hard, chiselled muscle.  Kimmie was a female with softness in her, a deceptive softness given that she was a Were-cat and was stronger than three human men, but it was the same she-softness of the human women, something that Tarrin, having been turned, found quite appealing.  Her differences from Jesmind were more than physical, though.  Jesmind was fiery, tempermental, bullish, stubborn, and overbearing, where Kimmie was much more mellow, wiling to give and take with Tarrin without fighting with him over the smallest detail, as Jesmind did.  Jesmind made him fight for absolutely everything, always testing the boundaries of their relationship, always pushing him.  Kimmie just let things be and found happiness in whatever happened to be in front of her at the moment, but Tarrin had already discovered that when he riled Kimmie, she could be a steel-willed, as adamant as Jesmind was.  The difference was that Jesmind was like that all the time, where Kimmie only did it when she found reason to oppose Tarrin's decisions, which she only did when she thought he was wrong.  Jesmind would challenge him, even when she knew he was right.  Two very different females with almost diametrically opposed personalities, and he had feelings for them both.

      It was more than just friendship now.  Tarrin could admit that.  Tarrin still loved Jesmind, loved her with all his heart, but he'd begun to feel the stirrings of something maybe a little bit more than friendship for  Kimmie.  He loved her as friend, and she was a very good friend, but knowing that she loved him was starting to affect how he thought of her.  He honored her feelings by trying to be what she wanted him to be, and it made her deleriously happy.  And he was happy to make her happy.  He was starting to go out of his way to please her, was starting to think of her in many of the ways that he thought about Jesmind.  He knew that the baby had alot to do with that, that he was beginning to lavish attention on her to keep her from leaving him when they got back.  And he knew deep in his heart that if he had to choose between Kimmie and Jesmind, he would choose Jesmind.  That made him feel a little guilty, because Kimmie would be getting the short end of the deal.  But on the other hand, she herself had told him that she entered the relationship fully understanding where his loyalties lay.  She had been willing to give him up when they returned, and that made him realize how strong she was.  Jesmind wouldn't step aside, not for anyone.  Jesmind would probably come after Kimmie if she thought that Tarrin's loyalties were changing, getting Tarrin back by simply killing off the competition.  Kimmie showed tremendous strength by admitting her love for him, then turning around and telling him that she was willing to let him go.  He found a powerful new respect for his new mate after understanding that.

      If anything, Tarrin decided, reaching down and sliding his paw along her bare hip and admiring her, he was glad Triana sent her with him.  That wise old Were-cat matron, it bothered him how she was always right.  Once, just once, he wanted Triana to be wrong about something, and he wanted to be there to see it.  For as long as he'd known her, he had never known her to be wrong about anything yet.  Maybe living for a thousand years made her alot wiser and more observant than most other people, but she couldn't possibly be right all the time, no matter how well she thought she knew him.  Tarrin made that promise to himself as he slid his paw along Kimmie's waist and along her ribs, feeling her smooth, silky skin.  He was going to see Triana wrong about something, even if he had to lie about it.  He just wanted to see the look on her face.  He'd have hell to pay for it, but that was a consequence he was willing to endure.

      "Tarrin," Kimmie said sleepily, pausing to yawn, "either let me go back to sleep or put your paw back on my butt and give me a reason to wake up."

      "Sorry.  I was just admiring how beautiful you are, Kimmie," he told her, setting his paw firmly on her waist and laying back down.

      "It's not that I don't like hearing you say I'm beautiful, but you can admire me in the morning," she said with another yawn.  "Unless, of course, you had something else on your mind?"

      "Not really," he answered truthfully.

      "Alright then.  We can do that in the morning too.  Good night," she said firmly, then she scooted her back up against him and put her head back down on the pillow, pausing to grab his paw and pull on it, making him drape his arm protectively over her before sighing and immediately returning to sleep.  Were-cats could do that, just go right to sleep so long as their minds weren't occupied with something.  Tarrin put his nose in Kimmie's hair and let her scent wash over him, then closed his eyes.

      Then opened them again.  He rose up over Kimmie as he felt something....tug at him.  There wasn't a good explanation for what he was feeling.  It was coming from the Weave.  He closed his eyes and concentrated on that sensation, trying to understand what it was.  It was a tugging, alright, but it wasn't tugging at him, it was tugging at the strands.  It was faint, but it was definitely moving in his direction, whatever it was that was causing the tugging.  He was sure that there was something causing it, because he knew of no natural force within the Weave that would cause a sensation like that.  Or at least nothing he had ever experienced.  Besides, this didn't feel natural, didn't feel like it was a natural phenomenon.  No, this was something external exerting force against the Weave...and it felt oddly familiar.

      For long moments, Tarrin kept his eyes closed and kept his attention focused on the Weave, as the sensation moved closer and closer.  As it approached, he got a clearer sense of it, and managed to discern that it was indeed an outside force exerting itself against the Weave.  The tugging sensation was being caused by a strong outflow of magical energy, strong enough to cause an eddy current in the Weave itself that interfered with the magical flow through the strands.  That was where the tugging feeling was coming from, from the magical current.  Whatever it was, it was strong, and it was moving towards him steadily.

      He waited a while longer, keeping his attention on the sensation.  He was so focused on it that he didn't feel Kimmie roll over on her back and look up at him in irritation, reaching up and shaking his shoulder to get his attention.  It was getting closer and closer, and as it approached, the sense of it seemed to divide.  There wasn't one of those things, there were several of them.  As they got nearer, he managed to separate them enough to count them, and realized that there were nine.  Nine, but they were so close to one another that they'd felt like a single magical force from a distance.  They were close enough now to make out the kind of magic it was, too.

      It was Wizard magic.  Powerful Wizard magic.  Nine separate Wizard spells, moving towards him, spells so strong that they had had an affect on the magical currents in the strands.  What kind of spells were they?  As strong as they were, they had to be really big ones, high-order magic, the kind of magic a Wizard would cast to move a mountain.

      Or move a ship!

      Gasping, his eyes snapping open so fast it made Kimmie flinch, Tarrin realized what he was feeling.  There was only one explanation for what he was feeling.  Nine powerful spells moving towards him on the open ocean?  Those were the magical spells that powered Zakkite Skyships!  That was why they felt familiar, because he'd seen them and felt them before!

      Tarrin swore sulfurously as he literally jumped over Kimmie and out of bed.  "Tarrin, what's wrong?" she asked in concern, sitting up.

      "Kimmie, stay here!" he said as he moved towards the door.  "There are Zakkites Skyships moving towards us!"

      "Like bloody hell I'm going to stay here!" she snapped, quickly rolling out of bed and rushing after him as he opened the door.  She paused just long enough to snatch up the belt she wore with her dresses, that had small pouches holding the material components for her Wizard spells.  She whipped it around her waist, and Tarrin paused to think that she looked a bit silly wearing nothing but a leather belt.  Then again, Tarrin wasn't wearing anything at all, and neither of them really felt like they had the time to get dressed.

      Tarrin ran to the end of the companionway and banged loudly on Keritanima's door.  "Get up!" he shouted through the door.  "Get up right now!"

      "Tarrin, I'm going to kill you!" Keritanima's voice blasted through the door.

      "Get up!" he shouted.  "There are Zakkites moving this way!"

      That made every door in the companionway open, almost all at once.  All his friends were in various states of undress, from Camara Tal standing in her doorway completely nude to Dolanna's frilly nightdress, but none of them looked very sleepy.  Keritanima flung her door open, wearing a silk robe, and her expression was one of grim sobriety.  "Are you sure?" she asked.

      "I haven't seen them, but I can feel them coming.  Can't you feel the pull in the Weave?"

      "I can," Dolanna said after a moment.  "It is very strong.  Given we are on the open sea, it is only logical to assume that that could only be Zakkites."

      "You're, you're right," Keritanima agreed, her eyes going distant for a moment.  "That has to be a trio of Zakkite Triads.  I count nine.  Am I right?"

      "Nine," Dolanna agreed.

      "Nine," Tarrin nodded.

      "Bloody hells," Camara Tal growled.  "Let me get my sword."

      "Quickly, all of you," Dolanna ordered down the companionway in a strong voice.  "We do not have much time.  Come above with whatever you can find, quickly!"

      "A pitched battle with Zakkites.  Not my idea of a good way to start the day," Dar grumbled as he hurried back into his room.

      "If we do this right, it won't be as much a fight as the Zakkites think it will," Tarrin said, getting an idea.  "How high up do Zakkites usually fly their ships, Kerri?"

      "About a hundred feet--er, about a hundred and thirty spans or so," she replied.

      "What would happen to one of those ships if it fell back to the ocean from that height?"

      "It would crack like an egg," she told him immediately.  She looked at him, then laughed.  "Tarrin, can we do that?"

      "It won't be easy, and it's going to take all three of us," he replied, "but we can."

      "Do what?" Kimmie asked.

      "Disrupt magic," Dolanna told her with a nod.  "Yes, we could do that, but you are talking about disrupting an area of nearly a square span, dear one, and maintaining it for quite some time."

      "Like I said, it won't be easy," he grunted.  "I couldn't do it by myself, but we'll save ourselves a whole lot of headaches and save quite a few of Kerri's sailors if we do."

      "Explain this to me, Tarrin," Kimmie commanded as Tarrin rushed away from Keritanima's door with Keritanima following behind, rushing towards the stairs that led to the deck above.

      "Sorcerers can disrupt Wizard magic," he told her.  "You know that."

      "You're going to try to disrupt the magic that makes the skyships fly?" Kimmie asked, seeing the point of the matter.

      "Not just that magic, but all Wizard magic," Keritanima told her.  "The Zakkite Wizards won't be able to throw spells at my ships as long as we block them."

      "With luck, the drop is going to do all the damage for us," Dolanna added.  "So it is important that we ensure that their ships are airborne when we do this."

      They burst out on deck, which was sheeted with water, and rain fell heavily from the sky driven by a rather stiff wind.  The thick clouds concealed the moons and the Skybands, and made the night black as pitch.  The rain reduced that already poor visibility even more.  Tarrin could barely make out the lanterns on the clippers that were tied up with the steamship, ropes holding them together to ensure the ships didn't drift apart during the night.  They would need light, and alot of it, if they were going to make sure that the Zakkite ships were indeed damaged or destroyed by the fall.  "Kerri, go tell your men to signal the other ships to ready their cannons, but do it quietly," Dolanna told the Wikuni queen quickly.  "We must be ready for them, but we do not want to know we are ready."

      "We'll make it a big surprise," Keritanima grinned, and then she ran through the rain to the steep staircase that led up to the steering deck, and climbed up as the officer in charge of the dog watch saluted her sharply before she even got up to the deck.  The others reached the deck looking as unprepared as Tarrin was.  Dar wore nothing but smallclothes, doing his best not to look at Kimmie, Allia, or Camara Tal too much.  Allia had grabbed her shirt and her short swords, the linen shirt she wore under her very long desert top not quite long enough to conceal the fact that she hadn't managed to put on anything else.  Camara Tal had grabbed her swordbelt, and that meant that she also had her tripa, for the garment was actually attached to the swordbelt.  So Allia had nothing on from the waist down, and Camara Tal had nothing on from the waist up.  They were both armed, however, as Allia and Dar moved towards Dolanna, who was wearing her sheer silk nightgown and a frown, moving towards her so they could Circle with her if she needed them.  Phandebrass was wearing a long nightshirt that left his skinny, knobby knees bare, but had managed to find the time to put on that ridiculous conical hat.  He also had his belt around his waist, for like Kimmie, Phandebrass kept his spell components in the many small pouches tied to his leather belt.  Binter and Sisska stood near Miranda, the two Vendari wearing nothing at all-ithough it didn't matter all that much, given that the reptillian nature of Vendari physiology made them both appear genderless, protecting the little mink Wikuni, wearing a robe that was tied so loosely that it threatened to compromise her modesty at any moment.  She had a dagger in her hand, just as Binter had his hammer and Sisska had her axe, knowing that she could do little to help but ready to do whatever was needed of her.  Azakar was by far the most prepared-looking of them all, for he had managed to get on his breeches and his breastplate both, but his feet were bare as he moved up behind Kimmie and took a defensive position nearby, sword in hand and eyes scanning the black, rainy skies.

      "How far are they away?" Kimmie asked Tarrin seriously.

      Tarrin closed his eyes and bridged into the Weave, so the energy of their magic would be more clear to him.  He could sense their coming clearly, so clearly that he could discern both a direction and a distance.  "They're about two longspans away, moving towards us from over here," he said, pointing off the port side of the ship.  "They're all gathered together, but their ships are starting to spread out."

      "They are preparing to surround us," Dolanna realized.  "How do they know we are here?"

      "Magic, since they're Zakkites," Camara Tal grunted.  "They don't do anything without using a damned spell."  She spat.  "That's why they can't beat us.  Can't do for themselves, and it shows.  As soon as they lose their magic, they're helpess weaklings."

      "Let us hope that remains true," Dolanna told her.  "How fast are they moving, Tarrin?"

      Tarrin was silent a moment as he gauged the nearing of the sensation.  "They'll be here in a few minutes."

      "Long enough for us to put on some clothes?" Dar asked.

      "Dar, you were never this shy in the baths," Allia told him with a slight smile.

      "That was the baths," he said with a slight blush.

      "Put your moral outrage back in its box until this is over, boy," Camara Tal ordered him blunty, raising her sword.  "I seriously doubt the Zakkites are going to be kind enough to stop and give us a chance to get dressed so we can meet them."

      Tarrin tuned them out, gauging their distance more and more accurately.  It was important for him to do so, for what he was about to do was going to be very exhausting, and that meant that it was going to have a limited range.  What was most important was that they had to let the Zakkites get as close as possible, let them begin fanning out to silenty encircle the Wikuni ships and let them think that they had the element of surprise.  If they thought they'd been detected, they would attack with their magical spells, and that may start before all their ships were close enough for Tarrin to affect them.  So they had to be close, very close, just one step away from initiating their attack.

      Tarrin explained that to the others as he monitored the approach of the Zakkites, and Dolanna nodded. "Then let us move off the open deck," she said.  "Move among the lashed crates, so we are not so obvious.  If they see us dressed as we are now, they will be certain they have been detected," she said with a slight smile.

      Tarrin felt that a wise move, so they all scattered among the crates and barrels that were lashed into groups on the top of the deck supplies they needed but had no room to store anywhere else.  Tarrin knelt between a line of barrels and a line of stacked wooden crates.  Kimmie was just behind him and Azakar just behind her, looming over her bare back with his imposing size.

      "Tarrin, the other ships are getting ready," Keritanima's voice came over his amulet.  "What do you want us to do now?"

      "Wait," he said, putting a paw to his amulet.  "Let them come in, let them think they have surprise on their side.  I need them to be close enough so only one of us can disable them all in one blow, and since I'm the strongest, I'll take care of that.  So let me strike first.  What I want you and Dolanna to do is light up the sea, bright enough for us to see several longspans in any direction, so your ships can see what they're shooting at.  It's going to take both of you to make that much light, so get down here and Circle with Dolanna, Allia, and Dar."

      "I need to be up here so I can relay orders."

      "Tell Donovan to tell the others ships to hold their fire until you light up the sky, then fire at anything that looks like it's still a threat."

      "I'll tell the other ships.  Give me a minute, and I'll be ready.  When do you want us to light up the sky?"

      "After I disrupt their magic."

      "I thought that would be the best time," she said with a chuckle.  "So, we're going to pull their pants down, then yell and get everyone around to stare at their bare butts."

      "Something like that," he agreed, unable to supress a slight smile at the image that conjured in his mind.

      They waited in tense silence for long moments, hearing the feverish preparations taking place on the other ships, even as they tried to keep things quiet.  The other clippers put out most of their lanterns, making it look like they were sleeping the rainy night away.  Tarrin's attention was focused on the Zakkite ships, however, sensing them as they approached, and sensing also that they were both spreading out and slowing down.  They were moving to surround the Wikuni ships, and they were aware that even in the pounding rain and the blinding darkness, the movements of their ships may give them away before they were ready to strike.  Motion was much easier to see than shapes, and though their ships were painted black, there would still be some visible shifting in the background as they moved that a sharp-eyed lookout would be able to detect.  All in all, Tarrin had to respect their tactics.  They had obviously done this before, and they knew what they were doing.  As long as they caught their prey off guard, victory for them was all but assured.

      But this time they were not dealing with the average ship's crew.  They were dealing with magic-users just as experienced and capable as they were.  The Zakkites were going to be in for a very, very nasty shock.

      They waited quietly for another couple of minutes, as the Zakkite ships moved closer and closer.  He could sense their magic distinctly now, could feel the flow of magic from that other place from where Wizard magic came, through the Weave, and into each of the ships.  He could even sense a precise location, and realized that what he was feeling wasn't a magical spell, it was a magical device.  The devices that powered the ships' magical flight.  Closer and closer they came, the furthest away only about half a longspan out, but that was still too far.  He wanted them all within three hundred spans; that would be just outside the extreme range of their attack spells, but close enough for him to do something about them.  He had the feeling that they wouldn't begin their assault until all their ships were within striking distance, to attempt to cripple and eliminate the four very formidable Wikuni clippers as quickly as possible.  Even Zakkites tread very lightly around the Wikuni, as five hundred years of consistent losses on the sea against the seafaring empire had proved.  They would treat the Wikuni with very high respect, respect for their very real chance of turning the tables on their attackers if they could get their cannons firing against the Zakkites, and that respect would demand that their ambush be as damaging as possible when they made the initial assault.  Tarrin intended to use that against them, let them set up, which also put them right where Tarrin could get at them.

      "Tarrin, I think I can see them," Kimmie whispered in his ear as she looked over the water barrels.  "I see something moving out there, something in the air, and it's big."

      "Just another couple of moments," he said to her.  "The lead ship is only a few hundred spans away from us."

      "Tarrin, Allia can see them," Dolanna told him through the amulet.  "Are you ready?"

      "Just another moment," he replied, putting his paw on his amulet.  He ignored the leading ships, concentrating instead on the last three.  They were about five hundred spans out, and that was too far.  Tarrin waited in tense silence as his heartbeat ticked away the time, as the three ships he was watching crept closer and closer, seeming to take forever.  He cast his senses about and realized that the other six ships had turned, were moving to surround the cluster of five stationary targets, leaving the three at the end to fill the hole they vacated and complete the trap.

      That was when he would strike, just as they were about to enter the ring.  The others wouldn't attack until they were in position, so he had to strike before they got into position and attacked.  He started tamping his feet on the deck, an instinctual signal to Kimmie that the hunter was about to pounce, and she raised her paw over the crates and hissed audibly for everyone to get ready.  Azakar thumped the hilt of his sword on the deck quickly, and that seemed to have the effect that Kimmie's barely audible and undecipherable voice did not.  Everyone got very quiet, and Tarrin felt Keritanima, Dar, Allia, and Dolanna join in a Circle several rows of crates behind them.

      Tarrin reached out and made a deeper connection to the Weave, beginning to get it ready.  He would have to use High Sorcery to affect such a large area, and the glow would give him away.  So he primed the Weave by saturating the two strands close enough for him to use, pooling up the power and making sure that it would only be a split second between him touching High Sorcery and being able to immediately draw in that prepared energy and use it.  He already had the weave he was going to use in his mind, going over the weaving of it again and again until he was sure he could get it woven and released before the Zakkites could react to his magical light, which would give away the fact that the Zakkites were the ones that had fallen into the trap.

      The three ships began to separate from one another, moving to fill in the empty side of the ring.  Almost.  Almost....

      Now!

      Tarrin stood up and opened himself to the power of the Weave, drew in the power of High Sorcery, and the Weave responded to him.  His paws exploded in Magelight, a light that seemed brilliant in the murky, rainy darkness, a light that immediately drew every eye to his position.  Tarrin sucked up that energy he had prepared like water pouring into a glass, and he began using it even before it was finished flowing into him.  The weave necessary to disrupt Wizard magic swept out of him in a blisteringly fast wave, the flows wrapping and weaving and twisting into the proper spell so quickly that any who could perceive them would have trouble keeping up with what he was doing.  He did his teacher proud by weaving a spell designed to affect a massive area in a shockingly short amount of time, so attuned and in touch with the power of the Weave was he, so attuned to his Goddess.  Her power flowed through him effortlessly, and it obeyed his every command as the six flows of the power of Interdiction, the power to disrupt Wizard magic, formed in a huge globe nearly a thousand spans across with the steamship forming its center.  Tarrin didn't have the time to look over the huge spell before releasing it, for every second counted.  He could only release it and hope that he had woven it right.  If he did not, it would either fizzle or explode in a Wildstrike, which itself would be just as dangerous to the steamship as the Zakkites were.  The bigger the spell, the more unpredictable and potentially destructive a Wildstrike it could create would be.

      The spell was true, however, because Tarrin felt it take hold around them.  He felt the Weave react to that spell, as the strands within its area of effect suddenly stopped conducting the energy that fueled Wizard magic, swallowing it up and denying its release into the physical world.  Almost at the same time, the Circle that Keritanima was leading did its part, creating a globe of blazing light directly over the steamship, so brilliant, so bright, that it illuminated the sea for almost a longspan in every direction, an incandescent beacon that blinded almost everyone with its brightness, blinded eyes that had become accustomed to the dark gloom.

      Tarrin winced from the light, but his Were-cat eyes quickly adjusted to the change in brightness, allowing him to see what happened next.  The nine black ships, floating in the air, suddenly all shuddered, then as one, they literally dropped out of the sky like massive stones.  They had been about a hundred and fifty spans above the sea, high enough to clear the masts and rigging of the ships below them, but all of them were about fifty to a hundred spans away from the ships.  They all plummeted towards the choppy sea, and Tarrin, as well as many on the silent Wikuni ships, could hear the collective shrieking of the men on board those vessels as they fell out of the sky.

      Those screams were cut brutally short as the Zakkite skyships hit the water.  They didn't all hit at once, they struck one after another as the ones closer to the sea hit first, sending huge blasts of water away from them and into the sky, blasts of water that sprayed over the four Wikuni clippers that encircled the unarmed steamship at the center of their formation.  The cries of the men were replaced by the deafening roar of those splashes, and the sound of snapping and tearing wood as the nine ships were slammed into the water, were exposed to stresses that their wooden constructions had never been designed to withstand.  Masts tore from decks, hulls split, keels snapped like twigs as the nine ships impacted the water.  Tarrin had been looking to the port, looking towards the three ships that had filled the gap, and his eyes focused on only one of them in the chaos of flying water and shuddering vessels.  That vessel struck the water almost perfectly flat on its keel, and it after the geyser of water cleared out of the way, he saw that the ship had broken in half almost perfectly amidships.  The two halves tore away from one another in a squeal of grinding and tearing wood and snapping ropes, and both halves began to sink almost immediately.

      "Merciful Sheniia," Kimmie whispered as she watched the ship Tarrin was watching, watched as stunned men jumped from its two halves, as men flounded in the water, seeking out floating debris.  There was a sudden loud boom, the report of a cannon, and then another, and then they came quickly as the Wikuni cannons opened up on the ships, blowing massive holes in the ones that hadn't been shattered by the fall, making sure they would soon be joining the broken ones on the bottom of the sea.  The firing only lasted a few moments, as it became clear that the few ships that had survived the fall intact had been burst open at the seams by the impact, and they were quickly beginning to sink.  The Wikuni gunners ceased fire without orders, because quite literally, they were firing on doomed ships.  They all stopped and watched as ship after ship slipped under the waves.

      In a matter of ten minutes, it was over.  The last of the Zakkite skyships slipped beneath the waves, leaving the seas surrounding the five Wikuni vessels littered with debris, bodies, and the men who had survived the fall, who were clinging nervelessly to whatever they could find.  They were all stunned, absolutely senseless after the harrowing fall and impact with the water, or they were struck dumb with disbelief that their trap had been turned back on them with such a devastating effect.  Keritanima ended the spell of light and broke the Circle, sending Dar and Allia back below so they could either return to bed or get dressed.  Camara Tal, seeing that neither her sword nor her healing spells would be needed, also went back below decks, muttering in displeasure, but the relief of not having a battle showed on her face.  Any warrior was pleased when it turned out that they didn't have to fight, even seasoned veterans like Camara Tal.  Tarrin's father had always told him that the favorite saying of the men in the army, even the Rangers, was that the best kind of battle was the one that was avoided.

      "I'd say your plan worked, Tarrin," Azakar said calmly, laying the flat of his sword on his shoulder.  "Are the Wizards still being blocked?" he asked, sheathing his weapon.  It was apparent that it wasn't going to be needed.

      Tarrin nodded.

      "Then if Camara Tal is right, they're helpless," he surmised.  "It'll just be a matter of picking them up."

      "No, it won't," Kimmie said with a sigh.  "As soon as Tarrin drops the spell, they'll get their magic back.  We can't afford that.  We can't take prisoners, Zak.  Not now.  And especially not Zakkites."

      Azakar looked at Kimmie with surprise, stunned that the gentle Were-cat who was so amiable would say something so ruthless.  "But they'll die if we leave them out there!" he protested.

      "They won't be helpless, Zak," Kimmie told him.  "Some of those men swimming around out there are Wizards.  They'll have magic that will help them save themselves."

      "But what about the slaves?" Azakar said loudly.  "They didn't ask to be here, and the Wizards aren't going to save them!  Are we going to leave innocent men out there to die?  Are we?" he demanded with a shout.

      "We are," Tarrin said in a low voice, his tail slashing behind him as he looked over his shoulder at the Mahuut.

      "That's cruel!" Azakar said accusingly.

      "I'm not known for my sentimentality, Zak," he replied in a cool tone, narrowing his eyes at his fellow Knight.

      "We can't just leave innocent men out there to die!" Azakar shouted.

      "I'll give you a choice, Zak," Tarrin told him, turning around halfway.  "We either leave them behind, or I'll kill them all right now."

      Azakar gaped at him in horror.

      "This is not a game, Zak, and we don't have time to be chivilrous, or even nice.  Those men will threaten us reaching our goal, and I won't let anything stand in our way."

      "But leaving them out there, that's cruel!  That's evil!"

      Tarrin raised a glowing paw, lightning crackling around his fingers.  "Then I'll make sure they don't suffer very long," he said in a deadly serious voice.

      "No!" Azakar said, reaching for Tarrin's paw, but the Were-cat pulled back out of his reach too quickly for him.  "Tarrin, we can't do this!  Kimmie, tell him we can't leave those men to die!"

      "Zak, sometimes you're too much a dreamer," Kimmie sighed, looking up at him with compassionate eyes.  "Tarrin is right, Zak.  This is a war, my big friend, and sometimes in a war we have to do things we don't like."

      "Well, I'm not going to be a party to murder!" Azakar shouted.

      "Then choose, Azakar.  It's up to you, because to be completely honest, I don't care either way."

      Azakar looked at him with disbelieving eyes, shock apparent on his face.  "I, I won't let you kill them," Azakar stated defiantly.

      "Then we leave them behind," Tarrin said, turning his back on the Mahuut.

      "I said I won't let you kill them," Azakar said hotly, drawing his sword.

      Tarrin stopped dead.  "Don't go any further, Zak," he warned in a deceptively soft voice, not looking at the Knight.  "If you use that sword against me, you won't live to resheathe it."

      Before things could deteriorate any further, Kimmie put herself between the two towering males, putting a paw on Azakar's chest and pushing him away.  "Zak, are you insane?" Kimmie demanded in a surprised voice.

      "I'm not going to let him kill them," Azakar said with a snarl.

      "He's not.  I am," Keritanima said in a strong voice from behind the Mahuut.  Azakar turned and looked at the Wikuni Queen, whose eyes were hard and her posture stiff.  The bearing of a monarch, not the young woman they all knew.  "We take no prisoners, Zak.  None.  We can't afford the risk."

      "I can't believe any of you!" Azakar hissed at her.  "You're going to condemn innocent men to death because it's not convenient for you?"

      "You have a choice, Zak," Keritanima told him in a level voice.  "You can see the little picture, or you can see the big picture.  We can pick up the survivors and save a few dozen lives.  And if we do, we put at risk the lives of every single person on these ships, and even more than that, every single person you know and love.  We put the lives of everyone in my kingdom at risk, in Suld at risk, bloody hells, we put everyone in the world at risk.  You forget what we're doing out here.  We run the risk of letting someone else beat us to the Firestaff, and having them use it.  You know what's going to happen if that happens.  Are you willing to risk that, Zak?  Are you ready to put my life on the line?  Miranda's?  Dolanna's?  Everyone you know and love?  Are those few dozen lives worth risking the safety of the entire world?"

      Azakar lowered his sword and his head, his eyes haunted.

      "That's right.  It's not an easy thing to face, is it?" Keritanima asked with a quavering voice.  "Do you think I enjoy abandoning men to the sea?  I don't, I assure you.  If anyone understands, if anyone wouldn't want to see it happen, it's a Wikuni.  But I'm going to do it because the risk I'd take if I saved them is just too terrible to contemplate.  Those men are going to die.  That's a fact that you can't change.  They can die here and now, or they can die when we fail and unleash ultimate horror on the world.  The only question is how many other innocent people are going to die with them."

      Keritanima looked stern, but Tarrin could see the tears forming in her eyes.  "So make your choice, Zak.  Because I simply can't stand here and talk about this anymore."

      With a hanging head, Azakar dropped his sword to the deck.

      "Donovan, pass this order," Keritanima told the Tellurian as he approached her, speaking in a voice almost trembling as she tried to control it.  "Pick up no survivors, and discourage them from approaching the ships.  We'll weigh anchor and go under sail until the steam engine is fixed.  We are leaving this place.  We have to get away from those Zakkites before Tarrin can lower his spell of disruption, and I won't have him kill himself maintaining the spell while we lounge around here."  She sniffled.  "Now if you'll excuse me, I'd really like to be alone right now," Keritanima said with teary eyes, turning and running towards the stairs leading below decks.

      Tarrin sighed.  That couldn't have been easy for her.  The memory of the dream came back to him, of Keritanima standing on a mound of skulls, weeping.  Now he understood the meaning of it.  Keritanima had no qualms about destroying the guilty, but when it came to sacrificing the innocent, it was a different story.  It was something that, as a queen, she occasionally was forced to do, but it was never easy for her.  And if it did become easy, then she would be no better than her father was.  Tarrin looked towards Miranda, and they shared a knowing look, then the mink ran after her friend and employer.  Miranda understood.  The dream had been a warning, he felt, a warning to not allow Keritanima to dwell on what had happened.  Miranda would know what to do.

      Tarrin felt the weight of the spell begin to take its toll on him.  It had taken High Sorcery to create, and he couldn't let go of High Sorcery until he ended it.  His paws still glowed with Magelight, and they would remain so until he could safely end the spell.  But as Keritanima pointed out to Azakar, he couldn't do that so long as they were close to the surviving Zakkites.

      "I hate this," Azakar finally said, his head still hung low.

      Tarrin reached down and picked up his sword, then wiped the water off of it and resheathed it for him.  "So do I, Zak," he said honestly.  "I know you think I'm a monster, but maybe now you understand me a little better.  I don't do what I do because I like it.  I do what I do because I know what will happen if we fail.  In this case, my gentle friend, the ends justify the means.  We must succeed, no matter what."

      "No matter the cost?" he said in a quiet, plaintive voice.

      Tarrin bowed his head himself, a wave of emptiness flowing through him, and there was no sound but the sound of the rain on the deck.  "Some of us have already paid that price," he told the Mahuut.  "Thank your gods you weren't one of them."  Then he padded slowly, statefully, towards the stairs to return to the cabin, to get out of the pounding rain.


To:       Title                EoF

Chapter 9

 

      As always, whenever someone confronted Tarrin about what he had become, it caused him to undergo a period of depression afterwards.  Tarrin knew what he was, but he didn't revel in it the way some people thought he did.  He had been like Azakar once, gentle and caring, but the Cat, time, betrayal, and the danger of his mission had changed him.  He knew that it changed him, he knew that if the Tarrin that had been could see himself now, he would be horrified.  But in the end, there was nothing he could do about it.  And since it was a situation he couldn't change, he didn't dwell on it.  That was forced upon him by the Cat, but in a way, he was glad of it.

      He wouldn't have been able to be very depressed even if he tried, because of Kimmie.  She stayed with him the entire day, using careful, gentle words and sincere affection, humor and compassion, to prevent him from falling back in that black pit of nearly psychotic self-torture.  She lavished the same kind of attention on him that he had been lavishing on her, making him feel like the most important person in the world.  Kimmie did indeed know him better than he knew himself, and her previous experience dealing with Mist had made her almost invincible in her battle to keep him from brooding.

      Things were rather tense on the vessel after the surprisingly swift victory over the Zakkites, and Tarrin was only a part of it.  Phandebrass and four of the Tellurian engineers had somehow--nobody knew how--managed to salvage some of the magical equipment from the lone Zakkite ship that had not sunk as the five Wikuni vessels prepared to get under way.  It took so long because the steampship's sails hadn't been unfurled since they started out, and the sailors needed a little extra time to set the rigging to support the sails.  Phandebrass and his fellow Tellurians had left in a longboat--Keritanima was furious that the sailors had helped the mage lower it--and had somehow managed to get over to the ship without any of the Zakkites in the sea challenging him or trying to climb into his boat.  They then boarded the badly listing ship, which would sink at any moment, and had managed to get out just as it did sink with several enemy spellbooks and other strange things thrown into a sack.  What was most surprising of all was that the mage had somehow pulled up the magical device that allowed the skyships to fly, pulled it off the deck, tied a rope to it, tied the rope to the longboat, and then let the ship sink with the device still aboard.  The longboat very nearly sank when the rope kept it from falling into the deep, and Phandebrass and two of the Tellurians that were helping him had to bail frantically as the other two rowed desperately to get the longboat back to where they could tie it to a Wikuni vessel and keep it from going under.

      After he got back, Keritanima let him have it.  But it was just the kind of thing that Phandebrass would do, and they all knew it.  Whenever Phandebrass found something that intrigued him, he would go to almost any lengths to study it or research it, even at tremendous personal risk.  He was almost crazy that way.  He had been curious about how the Zakkites made their ships fly, for no mage outside Zakkar had ever been aboard one of their legendary skyships.  Tarrin had seen their flying device before, and had described it to the Wizard long ago, during one of their many talks.  Phandebrass knew exactly what to look for, so when they boarded the sinking ship, he knew exactly what to do.  He had had the Tellurians go about tearing the device out of the deck as he recovered any magical equipment he thought may be useful or interesting to study.

      And so, those were the circumstances that caused a flying device from a Zakkite skyship to be lashed down onto the spare deck space on the steamship.

      Phandebrass was deleriously happy about it, so happy in fact that he handed over all the spellbooks and magical knicknacks to Kimmie for her to study as he worked on the flying device.  It was a large metal contraption that had a floor and two pillars, and from the pillars there were chains with manacles on the ends.  Tarrin had seen that device before, when he had destroyed the Zakkites long ago when they were on the Star of Jerod, seen a Wyvern locked into those manacles just before destroying the ship with Sorcery.  It was very large, so large in fact that it should have sunk the longboat like a stone as soon as the rope that tied the two together had snapped taut.  How the longboat managed to stay afloat was an absolute mystery, and only enhanced Phandebrass unusual reputation among his friends.  The Wizard was wild and scattered, but he seemed to have this absolutely amazing luck that allowed him to slither through any situation unscathed.  That mystical luck had saved the Wizard once again.

      The steam engine was repaired at about noontime the next day, as Keritanima took Tarrin down into the engine room so Donovan could show him the part that had broken.  Tarrin used Druidic magic to Conjure a replacement, and once it was installed, they were under steam once again and moving at good speed towards their destination.

      Those days were filled with magical uncertainty.  It turned out that it wasn't the spells of the Zakkites that made them so devastating in an attack on other ships, it was their magical objects.  Phandebrass had recovered nine separate little wooden sticks that Kimmie called wands, sticks that had been magically imbued with the power to invoke a magical spell upon command.  It was the same spell over and over again, and each of the little wand devices could only invoke the spell so many times before its magical supply was exhuasted.  Tarrin could feel that magical power stored inside the little sticks.  What made everyone so nervous was when Kimmie worked on unlocking the means of activating each wand.  Magical balls of fire or raking blasts of lightning or pale beams of magical energy would fly across the deck at random intervals as Kimmie succeeded in discovering the method of activating each wand, then began studying them to determine their function.  While she was doing that, Phandebrass was absolutely attached to his flying machine, never moving more than twenty spans from it as he measured it, studied it, experimented on it, even tried to cut the tip off one of the tapered pillars to learn what the device had been made from.  His experimentations had noticable effects on the device, and on the ship to which it had been attached.  On one occasion, the entire ship suddenly lifted about two spans off the surface of the water for about three heartbeats, then dropped back down, shaking up the entire ship and everything in it.  An infuriated Donovan ran out from the engine room and actually slapped Phandebrass across the face because his little stunt had broken a part in the steam engine.  Tarrin was summoned to Conjure a replacement part, and after about three hours, the ship was again under way.

      That had been the last straw.  Keritanima threatened to throw the device over the side if Phandebrass did any more experimenting.  She told him he could study it, but no more magic.  Phandebrass looked indignant and terrified that his precious captured device would be thrown overboard, so he promised to behave.

      The destruction of nine Zakkite ships had done much to thin out the crowds on the sea.  Or more to the point, the nine Zakkite ships had done the thinning, and the Wikuni formation was reaping the rewards of that sweep.  They encountered no vessels for a long ten day stretch, but on that tenth day, Allia's eagle eyes had spotted exactly what none of them wanted to see.  Another Zakkite Triad had appeared on the northwestern horizon, and they were moving southwest, towards them.  But Keritanima seemed unconcerned.  Zakkite ships were fearsome in battle, but they didn't fly everywhere they went.  And when they were on the sea, they were slower than Wikuni vessels.  The common Wikuni tactic for dealing with Zakkites was to flee from them if outnumbered and send out the call, and every Wikuni ship in the vicinity would converge in a central location then turn around and attempt to chase down the Zakkites with superior numbers.  The Zakkites were familiar with this tactic, so it turned into a game of cat and mouse on the high seas, as the Zakkites tried to sink lone Wikuni vessels before reinforcements could arrive.

      Though Keritanima said that the Wikuni were faster, those three Zakkite ships did not disappear from the horizon for long.  They would reappear at irregular intervals, looking as if they had put on every square finger of sail in an attempt to keep up with their quarry.  The Zakkites' ability to keep up unnerved the Wikuni sailors on the steamship, and the lack of space and brutal heat only made them even more short-tempered.  The occasional fights that been going on before became more common, and had even spread to the clippers.  The famous discipline of the Wikuni Navy was starting to break down.

      The morale of the men got worse and worse as each day passed.  Tarrin heard them muttering constantly under their breaths about the insane mission the Queen had pushed on them, mutter about other sailors they didn't like, complain about the steamship's bad conditions, and voice their discontent.  The mood got darker and darker as they moved ever southwestward, slowly turning more and more south as they kept the Diamond Crown firmly at the bow.

      The insidious nature of it hadn't been apparent to Tarrin until he began seeing discord among his friends.  The sniping between Camara Tal and Phandebrass began to get ugly, and Azakar glared at Tarrin every opportunity he got.  Tarrin and the Mahuut hadn't really talked or reconciled since the fight over the Zakkite survivors, and Tarrin's behavior had seemed to rankle the Knight as time went by, festering like an infection.  Dar and Keritanima started fighting like siblings, arguing over the least little thing, and their arguments got longer and more vicious every time.  Keritanima seemed consumed by her need to wrangle with Dar, but one fact kept Keritanima focused, kept them all focused.  They had left Vendaka a month before, and the instructions said that they were supposed to travel for only forty.  They were getting very close to their destination, and that knowledge kept all of them rational.  They only had about ten days to go, and then they were going to be there.  That helped alleviate some of the stress, and the air had even begun to cool as they moved deeper into the southern hemisphere, away from the tropical heat of the equator.  It was still hot, but it wasn't as brutally hot as it had been, going from unbearable to merely uncomfortable.

      So it was understandable that there was a tremendous amount of tension on the ship when they sighted their first land in more than thirty days.  It was a small island, little more than a volcanic peak jutting out of the water, with smoke issuing forth lazily from the volcanic cone.  The whole thing was a mass of black stone, coastlines that rose out of the sea as steeply as the side of a mountain, as waves pounded frothily against the steep black rocks.  The disappointment that it wasn't an inhabitable island, that there would be no respite from the diet of hard tack and salted meat that was the staple of a sailor, made the Wikuni even more irritable.

      The night after the island passed by was quite momentous.  Tarrin was awakened by Sapphire biting at his ear, but there was also a scraping at the door, very faint, very muffled.  Had Tarrin not had his nose buried in Kimmie's hair, he would have smelled the Wikuni outside the door.  His keen eyes made out that they had stuck something very thin, like a knifeblade, through the doorframe to try to throw the latch.  They were trying to get in.  But why?  Tarrin crept over Kimmie and slinked up to the door silently, pausing to listen.  The similarity of the situation struck him, as he recalled creeping up to a door in the Tower to listen to men that tried to break into his room.  Those men had been trying to kill him.  What did these men want?

      "Careful, ya clumsy oaf!" one of them hissed.  "That beast has ears, ya know!"

      "Why're we doin' this, Clem?" another asked. "Ye've seen that monster, and ye heard the stories!"

      "We can't convince her Majesty to turn us around and take us home unless we got collateral, Vin," a third voice said. "I like her Majesty, but this insanity has gone on long enough.  We just had the bad luck to draw these two.  You got that silver knife handy?"

      "Aye, but I hope we don't have to use it.  Goin' home is good and all, but that big furry one saved us from the Zakkites.  It ain't right to pay him back by killin' 'im."

      "Ain't nobody here wants bloodshed, Vin," the one called Clem assured him.  "We just want her Majesty to turn us around."

      "We'll be hanged fer sure."

      "Better to hang at home than die out here," the third one whose name was unknown said immediately.

      Tarrin was stunned.  They were going to mutiny!  He knew that they were unhappy, but to mutiny, it was unbelievable!  That one was right, they would be hanged.  But they sounded like they'd rather hang than keep going!

      It was irrational!  Why would they want to go home, when certain death was waiting for them?  Not only were they going to mutiny, they were going to mutiny on the ship that carried their queen.  That would be as good as high treason against the Crown!  And there were more than these three.  they said that they got the bad luck of drawing Tarrin.  That meant that other mutineers were going to try to take some of the others hostage, the ones closest to Keritanima.  They'd never get anywhere near Miranda, so that left Dar, Allia, Dolanna, and Camara Tal.  They'd die quickly trying to take Allia or Camara Tal, and though Dolanna wouldn't kill them, they'd fare just as badly against her.  Dar was the only one they'd have a chance of taking, but the young Arkisian's Sorcery was much stronger now.  He would be no easy mark either.

      Weaving blindly, Tarrin sent a weave of Air across the door and released it.  He felt it collapse around the three mutineers, enfold them in itself, and quite effectively paralyze them by encasing them in sheaths of solid Air that only gave enough for them to breathe.  "Kimmie," Tarrin called quickly, then put his paw on his amulet.  "Kerri."

      "You woke me up!" came a bleary response.

      "You'd better get up.  Three of your men just tried to take me hostage.  And from the sound of it, there are more."

      "What?"

      "Just get up and get Binter and Sisska out into the companionway.  Allia will kill whoever comes after her, you know that, and we need these men alive to find out what's going on."

      Tarrin ignored any reply, shifting his attention.  "Dar."

      "I'm up, Tarrin.  I was about to come get you.  Do you know that two of Kerri's sailors just broke into my room?  They tried to tie me up!"

      "Are you alright?"

      "I'm fine.  All those nights sleeping in the same room with you has turned me into a light sleeper," he chuckled.

      "Did you kill them?"

      "No, I just tied them up with Sorcery.  We need to tell Kerri about this."

      "Three of them just tried to do the same to me," he informed his young friend.  "I think we all need to get out there and break up this little rebellion."

      Tarrin tried raising Allia, but he got no reply.  The sudden sound of combat that roared up the companionway explained why.  There were shouts of fury, then sudden groans of consternation, then shrieks of agony.  Tarrin opened the door to hear sudden confused shouting, and when he looked out, he saw about fifteen of the Wikuni sailors in the companionway, all holding knives or cutlasses or starwheel pistols.  They looked shocked and frightened, and Tarrin saw why.  Allia was standing in her doorway with her two shortswords in her hands.  She was nude, and there was blood spattered all over her.  She looked furious.  And in all the world, there was nothing worse than an infuriated Selani.  The sailors in the companionway saw her, saw that she had caught the men trying to sneak into her cabin, and dealt with them in a manner that was quite final.

      One fellow had enough of a mind to level his pistol at Tarrin's sister.  Tarrin's protective instincts roared to the forefront, but the man fired before he could stop him.  Allia seemed unphased by that act, and Tarrin saw why when the small lead ball struck something in front of Allia, ricocheted into the wall beside her.  Allia has woven a shield of Air to protect her against the pistol.  Wise Allia, even prepared in a moment of fury!

      The man may have had the time to fire the pistol, but he didn't have time for anything else.  Tarrin was on him a mere heartbeat later, his wicked claws ripping the life out of the dog Wikuni before the loud bang of the pistol had a chance to fade from the cramped passage.  The attack on Allia had sent Tarrin right into a blind rage, and his rage caused him to savage his unfortunate victim in exclusion of turning on the others.  That moment of fury gave the Wikuni sailors a chance to flee from the Were-cat, whose attention was focused on shredding the body of the one who had fired on his sisters into pieces as small as he could possibly make them.

      It was about to turn into a very ugly slaughter, as Camara Tal came out of her room, this time in a breastplate as well as her tripa, sword drawn and ready.  Binter and Sisska stepped out into the passage with Keritanima just behind, and Phandebrass and Azakar too had come out of their rooms ready to do battle.  Tarrin roared in fury as he reduced the Wikuni who had attacked Allia to a mangled pile of quivering gore, then turned and moved to attack the fleeing Wikuni, who were running up the passageway towards Keritanima, Binter, and Sisska.  Tarrin's room was the first one passed after coming down the stairs, and Allia's was the second.  That put Tarrin between the Wikuni sailors and the only way out of the companionway.  Only the three Wikuni sailors that Tarrin immobilized with his magic were on the other side of him, the only ones with a chance to survive the Were-cat's fury.

      Then Kimmie was there.  She rushed in front of him and put her arms out wide, looking squarely into his eyes.  "He's dead, Tarrin," she said softly.  "The one that tried to hurt Allia is dead.  Let it go.  Let it go."

      The Cat looked at her, recognized her as mate and friend, and saw that she was moving to defend the enemies behind.  The Cat paused to consider this.  The Cat knew that mate was wise and knowing about things that the Cat did not understand, and the Cat deferred to her wisdom.  So if mate protected the enemies, perhaps they were not enemies.  She had her back to them, and they were not attacking her.  That helped the Cat make that decision, and gain more respect for mate.  Mate was strong of heart to challenge the Cat when it was angry, when mate knew fully well that she was the weaker of them and could not stop it if it decided not to listen to her.  Mate was a good female, and the cub she would bear him would have her strength of heart as well as his physical power.  A fine cub.

      Easily and gently, the Cat receeded back into Tarrin's mind, allowing his conscious to regain control over himself.

      Tarrin put a paw to his forehead, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs.  As always, he was a little disoriented and unsure what had happened, but he did know that he'd been in a rage, and that he'd only been like that a few quick moments.  He looked and saw Kimmie standing between him and the dozen or so terrified Wikuni sailors behind her, arms out and her expression resolute.  She was protecting them from him!  She didn't protect all of them, for he could smell the blood and flesh of a Wikuni all over him.  He'd killed at least one of them.

      It came back to him quickly, because he'd only been in his rage a moment.  One had shot at Allia with a pistol, so he had dealt with the man in a suitable manner.  He looked at the others, saw them all standing woodenly, turning around to face Keritanima.  They turned and just stood there.

      Tarrin sensed it after clearing his head.  Keritanima was using Sorcery, a Mind weave, on them.  Because Keritanima was Wikuni, she could affect other Wikuni with Mind weaves.  She was using one now to control all of them, to keep them from panicking.

      "Just what in the bloody blazes is going on around here!" Camara Tal snapped, brandishing her sword.

      "A mutiny, it seems," Phandebrass answered her.

      "I didn't ask you, you clod!" Camara Tal shouted at him, raising her sword in Phandebrass' direction.

      "Now see here, I've been very nice to you up until now, but I've grown tired of your incessant picking," the mage said grimly, pulling one of the captured wands out of the belt over his nightshirt.  "If you don't like me this much, I think we should do something about it, we should."

      "Cease, both of you!" Dolanna said, but it fell on deaf ears.  Camara Tal stalked up towards Phandebrass with her sword levelled at him, and Phandebrass pointed his captured wand at her threateningly.

      Then they both simply stopped.  Their eyes glazed over as Tarrin felt Dolanna do the same thing to them that Keritanima did to the Wikuni.

      "What is going on around here?" Dar asked, looking at Tarrin fearfully.  "Camara and Phandebrass like each other!  They just argue because they enjoy it!"

      Tarrin looked at Camara Tal and Phandebrass in surprise, but Dolanna closed her eyes and bade at them.  They stiffly obeyed her, coming up to her and kneeling before her, so Dolanna could put her hands on each of their heads without having to strain herself to reach up so far.  Dolanna's expression became searching for a long moment, then her eyes snapped open in surprise.  "Goddess!" she gasped.  "It is magic doing this!"

      "What?" Kimmie asked, turning to face the diminutive Sorceress.

      "It is very faint, very subtle," she said.  "But there is a magical influence provoking this animosity."

      Keritanima beckoned to one of the sailors, and he marched up to her and stood stock still.  Keritanima put her hands on either side of the ram Wikuni's face, under his horns, her expression one of concentration.  Then she opened her eyes.  "There is something there," she agreed.  "It's affecting his mind, irritating his anger and influencing him."

      "We are close to our goal.  Perhaps this is but the first of its defenses," Allia said sagely.  "A magic that causes discord in whoever attempts to reach it, so that they turn on one another."

      "I never felt a thing," Tarrin said.

      "Me either," Kimmie agreed.

      "Neither did I, but it must be so," Allia added.  "For a while now, I have felt that the tension on the ship was uncharacteristic for the Wikuni.  They are just not like this.  Not normally."

      "So we have magic that affects humans and Wikuni, but not Were-cats and Selani," Dolanna mused.  "There must be something about your races that renders you immune."

      "You haven't shown any changes, Dolanna," Tarrin told her.  "Neither have Binter or Sisska."

      "I have felt certain, stirrings," she admitted.  "But it was nothing that I could not control."

      "I guess our training makes us resistant," Keritanima said.

      "It didn't make you resistant," Tarrin told her bluntly.  "You and Dar have been fighting like two angry hornets for days now."

      "The question is, what are we going to do about it?" Kimmie asked pointedly.

      That made them all silent for a moment.  "There's nothing I can do," Tarrin said simply.  "If I can't even sense it or see it, then there's not much I can do to stop it."

      "We'll need to discover what this magic is and exactly how it affects us," Dolanna offered to Keritanima.

      "I think we could design a counterspell, but we need to do it quickly, before the sailors on the clippers start firing on one another," Keritanima agreed.

      "Binter, Sisska, have you felt anything unusual lately?" Tarrin asked the Vendari.

      "No," he answered.  "Only an increased awareness of the hostility around us."

      "What have you been feeling, Dar?" Dolanna asked.

      "Homesick," he replied after a moment.  "So strong that all I wanted to do was go home.  I thought Tarrin and Kerri were the one keeping us from going home.  I know better than to be nasty to Tarrin, so I guess I was taking it out on Kerri."

      "Dar's training as a Sorcerer made him more resistant to the effects of the magic," Dolanna surmised.   "Kerri?"

      "Homesick," she agreed.  "But I thought it was because I wanted to get home to Rallix."

      "The sailors mutinied because they wanted to go home," Tarrin said.  "I heard them talk.  They were willing to get hanged, so long as it was done back at Wikuna."

      "I think that is how the magic affects the mind," Dolanna said.  "It provokes a sense of homesickness.  Actually, that is quite clever.  If it was a magic that made one not want to continue forward, that would be much more noticable than a feeling of homesickness."

      "What about you, Miranda?" Dolanna asked.  "Have you felt anything unusual?"

      "No, not really," Miranda said.  "I guess I feel home is wherever Kerri is," she said with a charming grin.

      Tarrin looked at her, not sure about that.  Miranda wasn't entirely a Wikuni, she was an Avatar, and that extra granted to her by her gods was probably insulating her from the magic's effect.  Of course, nobody knew that but Tarrin, and he wasn't about to say anything.  As long as Miranda had a rational explanation for not being affected by the magic, there was no reason for him to say anything.

      Dolanna and Keritanima seemed to accept that explanation.  Sapphire flapped out of the room and landed on Tarrin's shoulder, rubbing her head against the side of his neck affectionately.  "Well, the magic hasn't affected the drakes either," Kimmie chuckled.  "Maybe it's targeted at humans and Wikuni.  After all, who else would have the ships or nautical expertise to get this far?  Selani and Vendari don't sail, and the Were-kin wouldn't care to do what we're doing.  I don't know of any other races intelligent enough to sail ships."

      "The Aeradalla, but they wouldn't bother building a ship," Tarrin said.  "If they can't fly there, they don't go there."

      "Well, I think we know how the magic is affecting us," Dolanna said.  "Now we try to counter it."

      They did that for the rest of the day.  Keritanima didn't punish anyone for the mutiny attempt, but she did order everyone, even the Wikuni on the other ships, to go to their quarters and rest.  She explained that there was a magical force affecting them all, and that it was imperative for everyone to rest and remain calm until the magicians among them could come up with a way to counter the magic.  Keritanima and Dolanna didn't restrict their efforts to themselves, they summoned the Priests of the other four ships and the Priest on the steamship, they released Camara Tal and Phandebrass and had them join them, they even brought in Dar, Allia, Kimmie, and Tarrin, and then they all put their heads together and discussed the matter, and tried to find a way for those among them to find a way to counter the magical influence.

      By nightfall, they had a solution, but they also had a serious problem.  Keritanima had engineered a Mind weave to protect from the magic, but it was not something that a Priest could duplicate.  Any Sorcerer could cast the spell, but the fact that it was a Mind weave meant that only Dolanna and Keritanima could use it on the humans and Wikuni on the ship.  For Dolanna, this wasn't a daunting proposition, for there were only fifteen humans for her to protect.  But Keritanima would be responsible for protecting over two hundred Wikuni, and she would have to cast the spell at least three times a day.  Mind weaves weren't permenant, but their effects did linger beyond the expiration of the spell, how long they lasted depending entirely on the mental toughness and willpower of the mind being affected.  Keritanima wouldn't be able to protect every Wikuni on all five ships, and Dolanna and Keritanima both reasoned that the closer they came to the source of that magic, the stronger its effects would become.  The better conditions and higher level of discipline on the military clippers hadn't caused any dangerous problems on the clippers, but as they got closer to the source of the magic, they too would be affected.  And the other four ships were carrying cannons.  If the crews on board those ships began to get affected by the magic, they could start firing on one another, or even the steamship.

      Keritanima and Dolanna cast the counterspell on the men on the steamship, one after another, as the men waited in line to receive their magical protection from the ship's magicians.  The Wikuni sailors looked very sheepish and quite nervous that the Queen herself would be personally using magic on them, an act that made them very proud and very ashamed.  Proud that the Queen would do such a thing for them, and ashamed that they had not resisted the magic better and had actually attempted to mutiny against her.

      The captains of the four clippers were outraged by Keritanima's solution.  "Absolutely not!" Captain Jalis shouted, a burly bobcat Wikuni with a scar marring the fur on the right side of his face.  "Your Majesty, your ship is unarmed!  If you send us back, you'll have no protection!"

      "Captain, you fail to see the point," Keritanima said cooly.  "This magic affects Wikuni and humans.  If we continue on alone, I seriously doubt that we're going to run into any opposition.  We got in this far because of the discipline of our navy.  Do you think these rag-tag vessels carrying these mages will have the same discipline to breach this magic this far?  Their crews would have turned on one another long before now.  Think about it.  Why haven't we seen any more ships since the Zakkites? It's because this magical effect is making them avoid this area."

      "I will not gamble her Majesty's life on maybes!" he said adamantly.

      "Are you a loyal servant of the Crown?" Keritanima asked calmly.

      "Of course!" he said proudly.

      "Then accept my orders," she told him.  "I want your ships to turn around and see if you can't sink those Zakkites tailing us.  Once you do, anchor somewhere outside the magical effect and wait for us.  I'll have our Priest contact yours at regular intervals, so you'll be constantly appraised of our progress and situation. If you feel that we're getting in over our head, then you can come in after us.  But only one ship, and manned by only your most disciplined veteran sailors.  A strong will resists the effect of the magic."

      "I will obey her Majesty, but I refuse to allow you to go in there without some kind of protection.  You must at least take on a few cannon, so your ship can fight if needs be."

      "I'll talk to Donovan," she promised him.  "If he says it's safe to carry the gunpowder, then I'll agree to that."

      "You also need a capable ship captain, not that human engineer," he said doggedly.  "So, I request transfer to your ship, so a real Wikuni captain can establish some better discipline and leadership to the crew."

      Keritanima blinked, then smiled.  "I don't think that's an unreasonable request," she agreed.  "Very well, permission granted.  Welcome aboard, Captain."

      Jalis nodded with a satisfied look, then sat back down.

      The other ship captains looked more than pleased by Jalis' requests and Keritanima's assent, and were much less resistant to Keritanima's orders thereafter.  They still grumbled and protested, but Keritanima was the queen, and they had to obey her.  They felt much better that a very capable captain like Jalis, one of the fleet's best, would be taking command of the queen's ship, and were willing to agree to Keritanima's commands.

      The next morning, things were readied.  Donovan did agree to taking on some gunpowder, so five cannons were brought over and set on the deck, and enough powder and shot to use them were also brought on.  Jalis transferred to the steamship with his personal effects, and immediately took control of the vessel.  Wisely, the first thing he did was talk to the Tellurian engineers and come to an understanding about the revolutionary new steam engine, learning about its limits and its abilities, learning as much about his ship as he could.  That was a smart thing for a captain to do.  The next thing he did was transfer out almost the entirety of the Wikuni crew, breaking them up and sending them to other ships.  Jalis didn't want a group that had mutinied once to stay on the vessel, so he asked the other ships to send their very best sailors to man the ship that would be carrying the queen alone into untold dangers.  The other four ships responded in tremendous fashion, sending Jalis a group of very experienced-looking Wikuni to man the ship and operate the cannons.  The men that replaced the old crew looked confident and very professional, and even Donovan looked relieved to see them aboard.  Jalis didn't waste any time taking full control of the vessel, but he didn't alienate the engineers in the process, showing that he had good leadership qualities.  Donovan took the new crew with Jalis that morning and explained the differences of the steamship over a clipper, and trained them in the unique duties they would be expected to perform.  The men learned quickly and devoted themselves to their tasks, and that was why both Jalis and Donovan announced to the queen that the ship would be ready to steam ahead the next morning.

      The next morning, they left their four escorts behind and steamed south-southwest alone, sailing into a bank of dark clouds that threatened rain.  The ship's attitude problems were gone, as the new sailors went about their duties with quiet efficiency.  They didn't grumble and complain as the last crew had.  They did their jobs and did them well, doing their duty for Queen and country, with the Queen herself watching on in approval.  This crew was probably the best of the best on those four clippers, and they showed it as they kept the steamship running in proper order as they moved towards their ultimate destination.

      There was a little excessive quiet.  Now that the business of finding a solution was done, both Camara Tal and Phandebrass looked a little embarassed that they had been affected by the magic.  Camara Tal especially looked rather contrite, for her warrior's pride was stung that she had been so easily influenced.  They both avoided talking to everyone for most of the day, until Camara Tal and Phandebrass met at the starbord rail and had a long, quiet talk.  Camara Tal wasn't the only one that was apologetic.  Azakar approached Tarrin as he and Allia were playing chess, and took Tarrin aside and quietly and earnestly apologized to him for his behavior.  Tarrin understood that it was the magic that had caused it, so he made sure to tell Azakar that he had nothing to apologize for, that Tarrin understood that it wasn't Azakar doing it.

      Keritanima seemed to have been right about one thing, and that was how alone they were.  The four clippers keeping the Zakkites off their stern had left them virtually alone on the ocean.  They saw nothing the first day nor the second, but there was little time to look for anything on that second day.

      The bank of clouds was a storm, and a very violent one.  The rain was very heavy and driving, blowing straight from the bow and slashing into everyone, propelled by the powerful wind.  Lightning flashed and thunder boomed, the lightning raking the two masts of the steamship with multiple hits, even striking the two smokestacks several times.  It was more than the average sea squall, it was an impressive storm that made the seas high, forced the steamship to batton down its hatches and wallow in the high, strong waves for nearly a full day.  Everyone inside was thrown about like rag dolls for most of the day, Tarrin thanking the Goddess that the Wikuni had experience enough to nail all the furniture to the decks.  The thrashing of the ship on the waves would have sent the furniture flying in every direction.  The ship managed to breach the far side of the storm at nearly sunset that day, and everyone came out of their hiding places to discover that almost everything that had been lashed onto the deck was gone, washed overboard, and the foremast had been split by the power of the wind.  The only thing left was Phandebrass' flying device, a fact that made the Wizard almost religiously thankful, and the heavy cannons that had literally been bolted down to the deck.  The supplies they'd lost on deck had mainly been parts and supplies for the steam engine, but Tarrin promised to Conjure whatever Donovan needed to keep the engine going.  So the supplies had not been a critical loss.  If anything, they gave everyone alot more room, and the sailors, engineers, and passengers actually seemed happier with the increased amount of living space afterward.  In more than one way, it was more of a blessing than a curse.

      The morning of the third day the ship found itself steaming into clear sailing, the skies ahead clear and a brilliant blue, except for the narrow white line that was the Skybands that was almost directly overhead, pointing out east and west to the men and women on the ship below.  The rain was over, but the wind was still quite brisk, a constant strong gust that blew from the bow, making the Wikuni flag on the mast snap and stand almost straight out in the breeze.  What got Tarrin's attention was that the air was dry and much, much cooler than the air they'd passed through just a few days before.  This air was pleasant during the day, and would probably be pleasantly cool at night, since there was no humidity in it to trap the day's heating.  Tarrin was standing on the deck with Allia and Dar after breakfast, as Tarrin had let Kimmie go on to her studies as she continued to study the spellbooks Phandebrass had recovered from the Zakkites, and Phandebrass continued to study the flying device.  He had his drakes with him, happily studying every square finger of the device with a piece of glass that magnified what one saw when looking through it.

      "Strong wind," Dar said, pulling his robe a little.  He, Tarrin, and Allia were standing at the bow, staring straight ahead as the steamship made good time even against the wind.

      "I think this is the wind the poem spoke of," Allia said calmly, her white hair whipping in the wind.  "It said that the Firestaff is behind the wind.  The wind has been blowing in from ahead for two straight days now.  I would say that we are getting very close."

      "Well, if we're going to go on what that poem says, it's almost your turn, Allia," Tarrin told her.  "Kerri got us here, now you have to find behind the wind.  Whatever that means."

      "If you need my eyes, they should be where I can see the most," she said, pointing to the crow's nest above and behind them.

      "I guess," Dar said.  "Just make sure you tell Captain Jalis."

      "Who better to serve as lookout than a Selani?" Allia asked with calm assurance, then she patted them both on the shoulder in farewell and walked towards the sterncastle.

      "You think this really is the wind the poem talked about, Tarrin?" Dar asked.

      "I think it's a good bet," Tarrin said in agreement with Allia.  "The wind has been blowing from the same direction for two days now, like she said.  And since it's been coming from straight ahead, no ship moving with sails could keep moving forward in it."

      Tarrin put his paws on the rail and looked over the bow, considering.  And feeling just a little anxious.  If this was the wind that the poem spoke about, then that meant that they were very close to their destination now.  If they had indeed reached the wind, as soon as the got behind it, they would be there.  It felt strange to think that, for things to be so close to being over.  He'd been at it for so long, the very thought that it may soon be ending seemed very strange to him.  It was almost as if he'd been doing it his entire life, and now that part of his life was about to come to an end.  There was a poignant sadness to it in a way, but that didn't last long when he considered the idea that he'd soon have his life to himself.  No more running around and doing the bidding of the Goddess.  He'd still obey her, but she'd promised him that there would be no more after this.  All they had to do was find the Firestaff and wrest it away from this fabled guardian, then hide the damned thing until after that special day came and went.

      The only part of it he'd regret would be the breakup that was sure to come.  They were a very diverse group, and they lived in places scattered all over the world.  Tarrin would return to Aldreth, and Allia would return to the desert.  Keritanima, Miranda, Binter, and Sisska would return to Wikuna.  Dar would probably go back to the Tower with Dolanna, and Azakar would return to the Knights.  Phandebrass would go who knew where, and Camara Tal would return to the Isles of Amazar, her home.  Whether or not she went back with Koran Dar was the hot question among them at the moment.  Kimmie would come back with him to Alrdreth, whether she wanted to or not, and he'd make sure that she set up her new territory within easy walking distance of the secluded meadow in which he intended to build his homestead.  They were all his friends, his dear friends, and he didn't want them to leave, to break up.  But that was going to happen sooner or later.  Tarrin would be happy to take control of his own life, but he'd regret leaving all of his friends behind to do so.

      "The poem said twenty stone of coal and wood would get us behind the wind," Dar mused, breaking him out of his reverie.  "If this is the wind, then it certainly seems to fit."

      "It also makes it sound like the wind won't last forever," Tarrin added.  "Then again, as strong as it is, it wouldn't have to last very long to push almost any sailing ship away."

      "Does it feel like magic to you, Tarrin?" Dar asked curiously.

      Tarrin paused to assense the area around him.  "No, not at all," he replied in a curious tone.  "That means it's either natural, or it's another kind of magic that I can't sense, like the magic that affected everyone."

      Sapphire landed on his shoulder suddenly.  Had Tarrin not gotten used to her surprise landings, he would have been startled by it.  He reached up and scratched between her horns affectionately, and she replied by rubbing her head against the side of his neck.

      "It's kind of hard to imagine Sorcerers making a spell that can do something like this," Dar said, shielding his eyes from the wind.

      "Jenna would know," Tarrin said.  "Since Spyder gave her all that knowledge, she should know if the Sorcerers ever made something like this."

      "I wonder what it would be like to know all that," Dar sighed.

      "Jenna's writing it all down.  When she's done, we'll be able to read it."

      "That's good.  Sometimes I think--"

      Dar cut himself short as Tarrin felt a sudden violent realignment of the Weave.  It was a Weavequake, and a powerful one.  The magic of the Weave was disrupted by the shift, the strands trembling and quivering as the flow of magic within them began to stop flowing, to cease and stand absolutely still.  Then the magic flared, roared from the Heart like a dam, flooding into the strands and expanding them all, making very strand in the Weave just a little stronger, just a little richer.  Tarrin's sense of the Weave expanded and contracted with the Weave, and its tremors flowed through him, causing him not a little discomfort.  Even Dar, who was not a Weavespinner, felt it, gasped and winced as the Weave's strands shifted and reset themselves.

      The wind, which had been blowing strongly from the bow, just stopped.  Then it picked back up as strongly as it did before.

      Tarrin and Dar weren't the only ones affected by the Weavequake.  Sapphire squealed in pain, her claws sinking into Tarrin's shoulder as she endured the pain of it.  Sapphire was a magical creature, and she too was subject to the effects of a Weavequake.

      Then it was over.  Tarrin took Sapphire off his shoulder and held her closely, tightly, stroking her scales and calming her as she trembled in his grasp.  "Tarrin, what was that!" Dar asked breathlessly, rubbing his temples.

      Tarrin knew exactly what it was.  "That, Dar, was the next sui'kun," he said quietly.  "The sixth Weavespinner was just born.  What you felt was the Weave reorganizing itself to take that into account."

      "Really?" Dar asked with wide eyes. "That's incredible!  But why did we feel it when we didn't feel it when Jasana was born?"

      "I'm not entirely sure, but I think it's because the Weave is alot stronger now than it was when Jasana's birth affected it," he answered.  "When the seventh is born, it should cause another Weavequake, and it will be even stronger."

      "What happens when all seven are born?" Dar asked.

      "The Weave will be restored," Tarrin told him.  "Completely.  We'll have the same magical power in the Weave that the Ancients did back in the Age of Power."

      "Wow," Dar said breathlessly.

      "Are you alright, Sapphire?" Tarrin asked her gently, stroking her scales.

      The drake looked up at him and chirped, then laid her head against his chest.

      "My poor little baby," he said compassionately, putting his huge paw over her protectively.  "Let's get you back in the cabin and in your bed, alright?  You need to rest."

      Tarrin Conjured his drake a large meal, then put Sapphire in her bed and let her rest after she ate.  He found out after coming back up that Chopstick and Turnkey were also affected, and Phandebrass had to pause in his research on the flying device to tend to his two drakes, making sure they were alright, comforting them through their period of fear, then giving them a good meal and setting them down to rest and recover from their ordeal.  After that, Tarrin gathered with Allia, Dolanna, Dar, and Keritanima and explained what had happened, and they were visited by Jenna and Jula in their projected Illusions while he was explaining what happened to them.  "Tarrin, Tarrin, did you feel that!" Jenna said in excitement even as her Illusion solidified.

      "Of course we did," Tarrin told her.  "Did the Goddess tell you where the baby is?"

      "No, should we ask?" she replied.

      "You'd better," Tarrin told her.  "If someone kills that baby, its effect on the Weave will be removed.  Protecting the new sui'kun is the most important thing you can do right now."

      "Good point," Jula agreed.  "Maybe you should ask, father.  The Goddess always seems to talk to you."

      "This is important, Jula.  Right now, she'd probably tell any Sorcerer who asked where the baby is."

      There is no need for worry, my children, the voice of the Goddess touched Tarrin.  From the sudden surprised expressions on the faces of Dar, Dolanna, Allia, and Keritanima, it was not a personal contact.  The Goddess was speaking to all of them.  The baby was born to a Sorceress at the Tower in Sharadar.  They understand what the baby is, and they will protect him very carefully.  The baby is quite safe.

      "That's a relief," Jenna sighed as the sense of the Goddess retreated from them.

      "What changes can we expect from this?" Dolanna asked.

      "Every time another sui'kun is born, it increases our power a little," Jenna answered her.  "What it does for the other orders is returns an aspect of their magic that they lost after the Breaking.  You'll have to have Master Phandebrass and Mistress Camara Tal to research it and find out what they regained.  But as for us, you'll all find that your powers are stronger than they were before."

      "Our limits cannot change," Allia said uncertainly.  "That was taught to us in the Initiate."

      "In this respect, they can," Jenna told her.  "I'm not telling you to go out and try to move mountains, but you should see an increase in the amount of magic you can handle.  That means you can work with some stronger spells than you could before."

      "We will explore your new limits," Dolanna told Allia and Dar.  "As Tarrin will help Keritanima and myself explore ours."

      "You mean Tarrin's even stronger now too?" Dar asked.

      "No," Jenna told him.  "Sui'kun are a little different.  The reason Tarrin could do things none of you thought was possible two years ago is because he exists outside of those restrictions, just like I do.  We're not affected as much by the change in the magic as you will be.  We will have a little bit more strength, but it won't really be enough to make it matter."

      Jula looked at Tarrin.  "Where are you now, father?"

      "Allia thinks we've reached the edge of the wind," Tarrin answered her.  "For two days now we've had a strong headwind, and yesterday we came through a pretty strong storm."

      "Well, be careful, father," Jula said.  "Jesmind is just starting to calm down now.  I don't want her getting all worked up again."

      "How has she been?" he asked.  "She always tries to put on a good face when we talk."

      "She's actually been in a pretty good mood," she answered.  "Triana told her about Kimmie, and surprisingly enough, she was happy about it.  Strange, seeing as how Jesmind has been planning how to kill her when you two come back," she chuckled.

      "Even Jesmind has to feel happy about a baby," Tarrin chuckled, a little surprised.  Tarrin hadn't told Jesmind about Kimmie being pregnant yet.  If Jesmind already knew, why didn't she say anything?  He had to ask her about that.

      "Jasana?"

      "Fine," she smiled.  "She's looking forward to seeing this new baby.  She seems to think that Kimmie already had it."

      "You'd better break her of that notion."

      "I'll try, but Jasana can be very stubborn about things," Jula said with a slashing gesture of her paw.  "When she makes up her mind about something, she's decided that she's right, and everyone else has to be wrong.  Even if you tell her straight that she's wrong, she won't believe it unless you can prove it to her."

      "That sounds about like her," Tarrin chuckled.

      "Is it a boy or a girl?  Jesmind wants to know."

      "I don't know, and Kimmie won't let me find out," Tarrin told her.  "She wants it to be a surprise."

      "She's a strange woman," Jula mused.

      "Well, we'd better get back," Jenna said.  "Me and Jula are sitting at a dinner table with your parents, Triana, Jesmind, Jasana, Thean, and Sevren.  Odds are, they're looking at us funny right about now."

      "Be careful, you two," Tarrin said.

      "And please do not tell people where we are," Dolanna warned them.  "The ki'zadun may still have eyes and ears in the Tower.  Do not make it easy for them to discover where we are."

      "We'll be discreet, Dolanna," Jenna nodded.  "See you later, brother, everyone."

      "Good luck, father, and be careful," Jula added, and then their Illusions wavered and vanished.

      "Well, that's good news," Dar said.  "At least the new sui'kun is safe."

      "Sharadar is the one place where the baby would be completely safe," Dolanna nodded in agreement.  "The katzh-dashi have run the nation for thousands of years."

      "I have always meant to ask how that works," Allia said to her.  "Do they help the king?"

      "The Keeper of the Tower in Abrodar is the king," Dolanna told her calmly.  "Or queen, in this case.  The current Keeper and queen of Sharadar is Alexis Firehair, a very powerful Sorceress.  She is an example of how hard work and devotion can raise one from the lowest gutter to the highest pinnacle of the mountain."

      "Why is that?" Dar asked curiously.

      "Alexis Firehair was once a street urchin in Darrigon," she answered.  "A kingdom south of Sharadar.  She was a beggar and a thief before the Tower found her and discovered that she was a potentially powerful Sorcerer.  She rose through the ranks at the Tower in Abrodar more quickly than anyone has ever done so before.  She went from a mischevious Initiate that got in trouble about three times a day to the Queen of Sharadar in fifty-three years.  That is positively meteoric in the way that katzh-dashi reckon time."

      "A living rags to riches story," Dar said with a grin.  "I thought those were just bedtime tales."

      "Alexis is not one you would want to tell stories about to your children," Dolanna smiled.  "She never lost her rough edges.  She is a very beautiful woman with a tongue sharper than a razor, and a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush.  She is quite a unique person."

      "You know her personally?" Allia asked.

      Dolanna nodded.  "We went through the Initiate together.  Alexis got me in trouble almost every day," she said with a wistful, distant smile.

      "Dolanna?  You got in trouble when you were younger?" Dar said in shock, then he laughed.

      "I was once as precocious as any youth, Dar," she said mildly.  "Alexis always managed to provoke me.  She and I were the scourge of the Tower of Abrodar," she said with twinkling eyes.  "Of course, that was seventy years ago.  I have mellowed much since then."

      "It is hard to imagine you as a troublemaker, Dolanna," Allia said with a smile.

      "We all change, dear one," Dolanna said with a mysterious smile.  "Time cannot help but change us."

 

      The new sui'kun had changed the Weave, had restored magic to the Priests and Wizards, had incresased the power of the katzh-dashi, and Tarrin discovered to his surprise that it had much greater far-reaching effects.  And those effects were personified in Sapphire.

      The change in the Weave, Tarrin realized after noticing Sapphire, affected almost any creature with magical abilities.  Sapphire's electrical powers almost tripled in power, so much so that the little drake had a hard time controlling her magical powers.  Lightning would crackle and dance around her whenever she built up too great of a charge, and Tarrin could tell that the little drake was trying her hardest to keep her magic under control.  Not only did Sapphire's magical abilities increase, Tarrin could tell that something fundamental had changed inside of her.  Her eyes seemed much more lucid, almost sentient, and she seemed to pay a great deal more attention to him and Kimmie when they talked at night, or whenever she was with him.  It was almost like she could understand them, or was trying to do so.

      Sapphire's alteration kept Tarrin's attention the rest of that day and all the next, as the ship continued to sail directly into the headwind, a wind that got stronger and stronger as the ship moved ever closer to its goal.  He tended his little drake carefully as she recovered her strength, then tried to figure out how to help her get her powers back under control when it became apparent to him that her magical abilities had grown tremendously as a result of the birth of the new sui'kun.  Her magical abilities were worrisome, but it was her change in personality that worried Tarrin more than anything else.  Whatever had happened to Sapphire had had a distinct effect on her mind, almost as if the increase in magical power had expanded her consciousness.  Tarrin considered using the Druidic spell to speak to her directly, but that didn't seem to be necessary, or needed quite yet.  Though she was acting different, she was still Sapphire, and she still seemed more than content to be near him.  She just seemed more attentive to what was going on around her, much less like an animal and much more like a sentient being.

      The dawn of the third day convinced Tarrin beyond any doubt that they had been penetrating the wind of the poem, for the ship moved into an area with a vastly, radically depoluated concentration of strands.  The number of strands dropped as if they had crossed a line, as if they had walked out of a forest and onto a grassy plain with only a few trees breaking up the landscape.  The effect on Tarrin was quite noticable, as the power that surrounded him dropped dramatically, and that actually made him feel listless and tired.  The few strands that penetrated into the empty area dropped more and more as the ship moved during the morning, until Tarrin, standing at the bow, looked ahead of them and saw nothing.  It was a massive region with absolutely no strands at all, a void of sorts, a place that Dolanna had speculated may exist but had never seen.  Within that void, as soon as they got some distance from the last of the strands, no Sorcery and no Wizard or Priest magic would function.  Only Druidic magic would function within the area, because it did not depend on the Weave.

      The magic influencing the minds of the humans and Wikuni had been the first defense.  The wind was the second defense, a defense still actively pushing against the bow, and this, this magical void, it had to be the third line of defense.  It had to be here to prevent any ship that used magic to get this far against the wind would have to continue without that help.  And go a very long way, for Tarrin could see nothing ahead of them, nothing but empty sea all the way to the horizon.  It told Tarrin that if the wind was indeed not natural, the magic that had created it had to be on the other side of the void.  Weather magic was as temporary as any other Sorcery, but its effects were not so temporary.  Wind created by Sorcery would continue to move after the spell was ended, for magic could not completely overwhelm or nullify basic natural laws.  One of those laws was that when you moved something, if it was large enough, its momentum would make it continue to move.  The spell that could create such a powerful wind may not be permanent, but the air it was moving got everything it needed from the spell when the spell pushed it.  The wind continued of its own volition, being helped along by the air pushing at it from behind, until the resistance o the air around it that was not moving finally broke the wind up and nullified it.  That storm they'd encountered a few days ago had to be the boundary where the cooler, drier wind finally died out and impacted the hot, muggy air blocking its progress, and those two colliding airmasses were generating storms.  That storm they'd passed through was probably stationary, and had probably been in that same spot, raining away, as long as the wind had been blowing.  A stationary, perpetual thunderstorm, and a pretty rough one at that.  That may not have been one of the designed obstacles to cross, but it surely served as a damn effective one.  More than once, Tarrin thought that the steamship was going to founder.

      Tarrin was standing on the deck, feeling tired, as the ship moved into that magical void, an emptiness that only Tarrin, Keritanima, and Dolanna could see, an emptiness that unnerved the Were-cat.  He had never felt anything like it, and the emptiness around him felt like an emptiness within him as well.  He was sui'kun, he was attached to the Weave in a myriad of ways, only some of them he understood or was even aware existed.  Now he was moving into an area where his connection to the Weave would be stretched, maybe even severed temporarily, and that made him feel both curiously defenseless and almost yearning.  He was being pulled away from the gentle presence of the Goddess, and that scared him more than the though of not being able to use Sorcery until they got to the other side.  The Goddess' presence in his soul had been a constant thing since he'd accepted her, and now he felt that connection to her fading as the steamship moved deeper and deeper into the void.

      Tarrin got more and more unsettled as the ship moved deeper into the void, and he realized that he was getting short-tempered and a little paranoid as well.  The loss of his magic was nothing compared to the loss of the sense of the Goddess, and without that he felt alone and vulnerable.  Alone was something that the Cat could handle, but vulnerability was not a healthy emotion in one such as he.  Everyone around him suddenly began to seem much more threatening, more dangerous, and his feral fears began to rise up in him with each ominous human or Wikuni face he viewed.  His feral nature hadn't been any kind of problem for a long time because Keritanima had carefully told her crew and the engineers about Tarrin, and exactly how to act around him to keep him calm.  They all obeyed Keritanima's rules, even the new crew, never talking to him unless he spoke to them first, never being impolite or untruthful in response if he did speak to them, never approaching him, giving him a cushion of personal space that they could not enter, and if they had to pass him on deck or enter his personal space because of the confines of the surrounding environment, to make very sure that Tarrin knew that they were there, by clearing their throats or whistling or speaking as if talking to themselves or another.  They did a good job of keeping out of Tarrin's hair and preventing his feral distrust of strangers to become an issue that put their lives at risk.  But with the change in the Weave before and the entering of the void now, Tarrin felt his ferality begin to claw its way into the forefront of his mind, and he realized that the best thing, the safest thing, for him to do right then was go to his cabin and wait things out.

      He did just that, joining Sapphire in the small, cramped cabin to try to regain his composure.  He ended up taking a nap with her in cat form, curling up with her in the bed as the drake continued to rest comfortably after her ordeal.  The time had done well for her so far, as she had managed to regain control of her power any time except when she was almost at a full magical charge.  Sapphire alleviated the problem by burning off the excess charge when it got too much for her to control, which was happening about once every two hours or so.  But every time she did so, she went longer and longer every time as the charge rebuilt in her.  She would have full control of her magical powers very soon.

      That was why the sailors had been periodically seeing a bolt of lightning flash out from the port side.

      It took them nearly a full day to breach the void.  Tarrin had spent the entire time in his cabin, sleeping, but he felt it as the sense of the Goddess began to get stronger, and that awakened him.  He opened his eyes and jumped off the bed, shifting back to his natural form, and feeling the proximity of a few strands.  They were pretty far away, but they were ahead of them.  That meant that they were coming out of the void.

      The return of that feeling reduced his anxiety by a great amount, and he felt composed enough to go back up on deck and look around.  He was greeted by a brilliant sunset to the west, painting the sky red as the sun began to sink below the horizon, and looked ahead though the stiff wind, a wind that was even stronger now, whistling through the ropes in the rigging and threatening to tear the flag off the mast.  His eyes watered from the strong wind, but his layered vision could make out several strands, and he had a sense that there were many more behind them, beyond his perception.

      They had crossed the void.  That was one more barrier successfully breached, and one step closer to their ultimate goal.  They hadn't quite got there yet, because the wind was still pushing at them.  They had not passed behind that wind yet, and he wouldn't feel that they were very close until they did.  The poem said that they had to get behind the wind before the next thing happened, the thing that Allia needed to do.  Whatever that was.  The poem said that Allia would find behind the wind.  That seemed a little odd, but they were all convinced that it was a metaphor, or a generalization.  Now that they had experienced some of the defenses set in their path to protect the Firestaff, Tarrin felt that the passage meant just what it said.  After they got past whatever was causing the wind, Allia would be able to see their destination.  Then it would be up to Tarrin to get them there, according to the poem.

      Tarrin was joined at the bow by Allia and Dolanna, as they shielded their eyes and looked ahead.  "Do you see something, dear one?" Dolanna asked.

      "I see a few strands ahead," Tarrin replied.  "We're coming out of this magical void."

      "Good.  I have felt decidedly uncomfortable since entering it."

      I never realized how much the magic is a part of me until it was taken away," Allia said quietly.  "I should pay more attention to my studies."

      "You should," Dolanna agreed emphatically.

      "Phandebrass has been trying to study the void, but since his magical spells will not function, he is not having much luck," Allia told Tarrin with a smile.  "How is Sapphire?"

      "She's doing alright," Tarrin replied.  "Why do you ask?"

      "Chopstick and Turnkey have been very listless since we entered the void.  I think it affected them."

      That seemed strange.  The birth of the new sui'kun had had very little effect on the two red drakes.  They didn't seem to have any magical abilities either.  So why would entering a magical void cause them distress?  It didn't seem to affect Sapphire very much...but then again, she'd slept almost through the entire thing.  Tarrin wasn't even sure if the void affected her lightning magic, since he'd slept through it right along with her.  "Strange," he gave voice to his musings.  "I wouldn't think that it would affect them."

      "All drakes are magical creatures, dear one," Dolanna told him.  "Even though Chopstick and Turnkey do not exhibit their magical natures as dramatically as Sapphire does, magic is still in their blood.  The void could not help but affect them in the same manner it affected us."

      "True, but like you said, it's hard to imagine those two as being magical beings," Tarrin said.  "Sapphire's personality changed with the new sui'kun's birth, where Chopstick and Turnkey are still Chopstick and Turnkey."

      "Sapphire's magic is stronger than theirs, so it is not a stretch of logic to assume that such a thing would have a stronger effect on her than it did on them," Dolanna told him.

      "Good point.  I wonder if--"

      Tarrin stopped dead and flinched as the wind suddenly seemed to double in power, howling over the ship and threatening to drag Dolanna's robe right off of her.  Tarrin put a paw around his mentor's wrist to keep her from blowing away, then turned his back on the wind and sheltered the diminutive Sorceress from it as Allia huddled beside her.  The steamship seemed to struggle to continue forward for a long moment, as the sound of the engine screaming became audible over the wind, as the engine battled the wind for mastery of the ship's direction of movement.  The engine raced, pushing the ship inexorably forward finger by finger, span by span, as Tarrin, Allia, and Dolanna staggered carefully to the closest shelter, huddling behind the foremast as the patched mast creaked and groaned very loudly and very alarmingly as the wind assaulted it.

      "I think we have just discovered the wind in the poem!" Dolanna shouted over the howling gale.

      "If the wind is blowing so hard, why are there not large waves to go with it?" Allia asked keenly, looking over the rail.  "The sea is still as choppy as it was before we entered this!"

      "It may not be very wide," Tarrin shouted in reply.  "There has to be alot of wind to create high seas!"

      "No, Tarrin, Allia, the wind is blowing down!" Dolanna shouted, pointing.  "Look at the water!"

      Tarrin looked, and saw immediately what she meant.  The water around them was flat, more than that, it was depressed, at a lower level than the water around it.  The steamship had slipped down into the bottom of that very shallow, very wide depression, and had just started trying to climb up the other side.  The wind changed direction, from blowing in their faces to blowing over the bow at an angle, and then it was blowing from directly above, threatening to push the ship under the waves.  The ship slid down alarmingly as the wind drove it downward, but the powerful steam engine was keeping the ship moving, climbing it up the shallow embankment of pure water on the far side of the strange phenomenon.  Tarrin put his claws into the mast and his two friends hung onto him as the wind suddenly lost its direction, seeming to swirl wildly and randomly around them, trying to pick them up or slide them laterally or push them down, often all at the same time.

      The steamship, her engine driving as hard as it could, finally pulled the ship up out of the depression on the far side.  And as soon as the keel tilted level with the water at the top, the wind simply stopped.  Not stopped, Tarrin realized, looking behind them, over the sterncastle.  The wind was stationary, what had happened was the ship passed through it!

      They had done it!  The steamship had managed to penetrate the wind!  The air was breezy, but it wasn't the powerful wind they'd faced the last few days, and what was most important, it was blowing gently from the stern.  The focus of that weather phenomenon made the wind blow outwards, leaving the air inside it relatively calm by comparison.

      "All stop!  All stop, before the boiler explodes!" Donovan screamed as he came from the bridge, rushing towards the stairs leading to the engine room.  The Tellurian disappeared below decks, and scant seconds later, they all heard the whining, overworked engine begin to quiet down quickly but not explosively, as the engineers below did whatever it was that they did to bring the engine to a halt.  After that kind of a stress, Tarrin thought it only smart that they shut the engine down and check it out before running it any more.

      "Crew on deck!" Captain Jalis shouted from the bridge.  "Prepare to drop sea anchor and secure for inspection!"

      "I think we have just passed the first test," Dolanna said quietly, looking towards the bow.  "We have passed behind the wind, just as the poem required.  Now we must find behind the wind," she said, looking at Allia.  "The poem says that it is your task, dear one."

      "Maybe not," Tarrin said, frowning.  "Something doesn't fit here."

      "What?"

      "The poem said that the steamship would let us reach behind the wind.  Well, not only did we reach it, we just passed through it.  It said that it would take the champion to pass behind the wind.  Did I miss something here?"

      "Maybe, but maybe not," Dolanna said.  "The poem references behind the wind with every line.  I think it is a unifying phrase, like the use of twenty, a means to keep the poem sounding like a poem.  And I get the feeling that this is a large area, Tarrin.  We are behind the wind, but we still have a great deal of sea in front of us," she said sagely.  "I think that the poem stated that the steamship would let us reach behind the wind.  If you think about it, dear one, we have reached behind the wind.  There the wind is, and we have reached the sea behind it.  So, we have fulfilled the first part of the poem's instructions."

      "So, you think the place where the Firestaff is is out there somewhere, and we'll have to look for it," Tarrin reasoned, looking out over the bow.  "But the poem calls everything on this side of the wind behind the wind, so we still have to find our goal and get there."

      "Precisely," she nodded. 

      "That still doesn't explain why we need to pass behind the wind when we're already here."

      "I think the part about the champion means that we will need you to overcome some obstacle that will stand between us and our destination," she told him.  "Often, when one speaks of overcoming a challenge, they are said to pass the test.  Perhaps that is the context the poem uses."

      "That does make sense, deshida," Allia agreed.

      "Either way, whether we misread the poem or it is right or wrong, it does not change the fact that now we must find our destination," she told them.  "We have reached an important landmark, my dear ones.  But we still have far to go."

      "Very far," Tarrin said quietly, looking out over the ocean.  "Very far indeed."


To:       Title                EoF

Chapter 10

 

      The hope that they were coming out of the void faded quickly after the ship started moving under the power of its sails early the next morning, as they got closer to the strands that Tarrin had sensed.  The fact was, they were strands, but they were not strands.  They were the strangest strands Tarrin had ever assensed, because they were closed.  They were strands, and they did have magical power flowing trhough them, but the strands seemed to be sealed off somehow, resisting Tarrin's every attempt to look into them or draw their power out of them.  He couldn't even sense how strong the magic that flowed within them was, he could only go by the metaphysical dimensions of the strands to get a rough estimate of them.  They were fairly large strands, and that meant that they probably could move a good deal of magical energy.  He could see them, but he could do nothing else with them or to them.  It was almost like they didn't exist as anything but an Illusion.

      Quite clearly, they had encountered something that none of them had ever seen before, magic on a level not seen in the world since the Breaking.  Tarrin was still separated from the Goddess, so he didn't think she could explain the strands to him.  They rose up out of the sea and stretched into the sky, beyond his ability to see the Weave, for that aspect of his augmented vision had a range more limited than his normal sight.  Since the strands were closed off in that unusual way, and they were in the general vicinity of the wind, Tarrin reasoned that those closed strands were somehow feeding the magical effect that created the wind, granting them the magic to operate even within this area of magical emptiness.

      Beyond the strands was more magical emptiness.  But now Tarrin did not hide in his cabin, for the realization that they had passed the first of the poem's listed obstacles made all of them edgy and anxious.  All twelve of them were up on deck, Azakar wearing his armor and Camara Tal her breastplate, ready for any possible surprises.  Dar and Dolanna and Allia dispensed with their lessons that day, Allia up in the crow's nest so her eagle eyes could spy things on the horizon that nobody else would be capable of seeing.  Miranda helped with a spyglass borrowed from Captain Jalis, standing on the roof of the sterncastle that covered the ship's wheel and scanning the seas with the spyglass.  Tarrin and Keritanima stood in the bow with Binter and Sisska in quiet, vigilent attendance, standing there as if waiting for something to appear on the horizon any minute now, but not quite sure what it was.  Phandebrass and Kimmie were the only ones that seemed relatively unphased by their situation, as Kimmie sat on a chair Tarrin conjured for her, just beside him, with one of the captured spellbooks in her lap, as Phandebrass continued his research on the Zakkite flying device.  Sapphire felt well enough to come out of the cabin, sitting on a jib low in the rigging with Chopstick and Turnkey perched up there with her.  The sailors working in the rigging worked around the three little drakes, though they didn't really have to go far out of their way, since the three drakes weren't perched in a place that had much traffic.

      It was quite a change from what they had endured before.  The wind blowing from behind was cool and dry, and it was just strong enough to push the ship at a fair pace without being so strong that it threatened to break the already damaged foremast.  It was a big change from the stifling heat on the other side of the storm, almost as if they had somehow sailed directly from the tropics to the northern marches.  But the Skybands above told them that they were still relatively close to the equator, for they were still a knife-edge across the sky.  Only now they leaned into the northern sky, when Tarrin was so used to seeing them hovering just inside the southern section of the sky.  Keritanima explained that long ago by telling him that the Skybands were a heavenly body, like the moons, and they seemed to sit right on the equator.  When one was in the northern hemisphere, they looked to be in the southern sky.  When one was in the southern hemisphere, they appeared to rest in the northern sky.  As they continued to move south, further and further away from the equator, the Skybands would expand in size, creeping ever deeper into the northen sky as their inside edge remained somewhat stationary.

      The constant wind blowing into their faces before made it hard to enjoy the change in temperature, but now it was quite pleasant.  The sailors and engineers especially seemed to enjoy the cooler air, the engineers sneaking out of the engine room to get a breath of fresh cool air before returning to the hot confines of the hold.  The steam engine had ruptured a few pipes in the attempt to breach the wind barrier, but Donovan had told Keritanima that morning that they had plenty of spare pipe stored in a corner of the engine room, and they'd be back under steam by suppertime.  Until then, the ship would continue on under sail, and also enjoy much calmer seas than they had endured while sailing up into the wind.

      They were all wary and observant that day, but they stood guard against empty sea.  None of them felt foolish in the slightest, for they were in uncharted territory, and they'd already managed to get past several insidious magical obstacles.  Anything could happen when one was dealing with ancient magic, still functioning after thousands of years, and so delicate and subtle that not even Tarrin could sense it.  The Ancients had hidden the Firestaff for a reason, and they'd done a very good job protecting it thus far.  The protections were so effective, in fact, that Tarrin didn't quite understand why the Goddess wasn't willing to leave the artifact where it was.  Only a steamship could have breached that wind, and only the Wikuni and the Tellurians had the technology to do it.

      But maybe that was the point.  The Wikuni and the Tellurians did have the capability to breach the first of the known barriers.  If a king like Damon Eram was still on the throne in Wikuna, who was to say how close he would come to getting his hands on the Firestaff?  The Wikuni's gunpowder was very fearsome, and if they could bring it to bear against the mythical guardian of the Firestaff, they could very well kill it and walk away with the Firestaff with only minimal losses.  Keritanima's steamship proved that if someone was clever enough and resourceful enough, they could very well penetrate the carefully designed obstacles the Ancients created and retrieve what was never meant to be retrieved.  The Ancients relied on magic, but in this modern age, what was circumventing their magical defenses was technology. Something the Ancients could not have taken into account when they hid the Firestaff those thousands of years ago and designed the magical defenses to protect it from being reclaimed.  Without the technology of the steam engine, the Firestaff may very well be unreachable.  But they did have it, and they had used it to get where they were now.  If they did it, then anyone with the knowledge they possessed would be able to do it as well.

      Times had changed.  Perhaps that was why the gods were so worried now, worried that the advancement of the peoples of the world made the forbidden object not quite so forbidden anymore.

      They stood there for almost the entire day, waiting for Allia to call out at any minute that she had seen something, but it never came.  The magical void kept Tarrin from talking to Jesmind or Jasana, which made him a little more edgy, since Jesmind always went nuts when Tarrin didn't talk to her when he said he would.  Nobody really got anything done that day except for Kimmie.

      The ship dropped anchor and raised it sails at sunset, not wanting to continue moving in dangerous, unknown waters in the dark, and they all shared a rather quiet, anxious meal.  Nobody really felt like talking, mainly because they all shared the same feeling of expectant nervousness.  None of them knew what was going to happen next, and that made them not quite as talkative as usual.

      Almost.  Kimmie had remained quiet during dinner, but she became quite animated when they got back to the cabin.  She talked away as Tarrin put Sapphire down in her bed and made sure she had enough food and water for the night, then continued to talk away as they undressed for bed.  She talked about the spellbooks she'd been studying, telling him all about the many spells in them, spells that she and Phandebrass both had never seen before.  The Zakkites were a kingdom of magicians, and their spellbooks reflected their very heavy use of magic in their daily lives.  They had spells for almost everything, from dusting the furniture to cleaning the dishes, spells for battle and spells for daily life.  They even had a spell for the physical gratification of a lonely wife, though Kimmie used terms much less delicate or modest than that.

      "I wonder who would waste time making a spell like that," Tarrin snorted as he shrugged out of his shirt.

      "Well, I guess the men are always sailing around on ships looking for boats to sink.  That must make their wives rather lonely," Kimmie said with a mischevious grin.  "That, or a woman designed it who couldn't find, you know, a good man."

      "Magical debauchery.  Now I've seen everything."

      Kimmie giggled as she pulled her dress over her head, slashing her tail a few times to settle the fur disturbed when the tail was pulled through the hole cut in the back of the dress to accomodate it.  She turned sideways to hang her dress up, and Tarrin saw that her belly was just as flat and sleek as it had always been.  It had nearly been two months now since she conceived, but there had been no physical signs of it quite yet.  She did eat much more than normal now, and did start to have cravings for certain foods, but since Tarrin was a Druid, he could Conjure anything she wanted at any time.  "It just goes to show, Tarrin.  Humans are funny creatures."

      "I know," he agreed, laying on his side on the bed, watching her.  "It's even stranger to think that we used to be human."

      "Seems like it isn't possible, doesn't it?" she agreed with a smile and a nod, putting a paw on her belly.  "I wish this cub would start getting fat.  I'm starting to worry that something's wrong."

      "Should you be showing yet?  I'm not that familiar with Were-cat pregnancy."

      "I should just start to get thick around the middle about now," she told him.  "But since Triana's worried about it, I guess it makes me nervous too.  The cub's in there, I can feel it more now than ever.  It just isn't growing fast yet."

      "Is it moving yet?"

      "I think it is, but the feelings are so slight that sometimes I'm not sure if it's that or just gas," she said with a laugh.  She came over and sat down on the bed and started brushing her hair, one of her nightly rituals.  Tarrin reached around her and put a paw on her belly, trying to see if he could feel anything moving around in there.  When he put a paw on her, he felt that she was starting to develop a little expansion in her belly.  It was hard to see because her sides had expanded a proportional amount, hiding it from his eyes.  "You are a little thicker, Kimmie," he told her.

      "I know, but I'm not sure if it's as much as I'm supposed to be.  That's what worries me," she fretted, putting the brush through her hair again.  "I hope you'll still like me when I get fat and ugly," she told him.

      "You're not going to be fat, Kimmie," he said sternly.  "You'll be pregnant.  There's a difference."

      "I'm going to feel fat, and that will make me feel ugly," she complained.  "What would you want with a fat mate?"

      "Do I have much of a selection right now?" he asked with a slight smile.  Kimmie whipped her head around to glare at him, but when she saw his smile, she laughed ruefully.  "I thought you were a sexy Were-cat before, and I still think you're a sexy Were-cat now.  Even when you start getting round, I'll still think you're sexy."

      "What a sweet thing to say," she purred, leaning down to kiss him before returning to brushing her hair.  "Even if I don't believe you."

      "Why say that?"

      "You say it now, but I'm not fat yet," she told him.  "When I'm fat, we'll see how sexy you think I am."

      "You're such an optomist, Kimmie," Tarrin chuckled, caressing her belly.  "Besides, you're fun to have around, even if we're not making love.  I'll keep you just for your wonderfully bright outlook on life," he drawled.

      Kimmie looked at him, then laughed delightedly.  "I never realized we graduated out of a purely physical relationship."

      "Who's lying now?" he told her with a pat on her belly.  "You know that's not true."

      "Well, maybe," she hedged with a charming smile.  "I guess I'm just a girl trying to keep her man interested in her."

      Her proximity was starting to get to him, and leaning back the way he was, staring at her bare hip and the peek of her bare round bottom, the sleekness of her back, the glance of the swell of her breast when she moved the right way, smelling her closeness, made him want her.  "I'd say you're doing a very good job," he told her, leaning forward enough to kiss her on her hip, grabbing her tail and giving it a slight tug, squeezing it gently.

      She shivered at that, and Tarrin scented the change in the texture of her scent that never failed to entice him.  She sniffed at the air audibly, then turned and looked down at him with hungry eyes.  "Why brush my hair when I'm just going to muss it up?" she asked breathlessly, tossing the brush to the floor and climbing into bed with him with a great deal of kissing and giggling.

      Kimmie proved to be a delightful distraction to a serious, mentally draining day, and her ardor hadn't diminished when they woke up the next morning.  Tarrin felt a little more relaxed and ready to deal with another day of nervous anticipation after Kimmie effectively burned up all his nervous energy.  Allia had once said in a naughty tone that a little rolling in the sheets did much for one's temper, and Tarrin had to admit that she was right.  He seemed much less high-strung than his friends, joining them on the deck for a breakfast of a bowl of ham stew passed out to them by the ship's cooks.  The dining room had been taken over temporarily as a safe place to store the gunpowder, so everyone, even the Captain, was either eating in their cabins or on deck.

      "You're in a good mood," Keritanima noted as he took a bowl from Binter with a nod of thanks.

      "Kimmie was feeling frisky this morning," Tarrin replied with a slight smile.

      "If only I had Rallix here to be similarly entertained," Keritanima grunted in a sour tone.

      "You could have brought him along," Tarrin told her.

      "Yes, but I didn't want to put him at risk.  This is dangerous, brother."

      "True," Tarrin agreed.

      "I wish we'd get out of this void," Keritanima growled.  "I can't even talk to him right now."

      "You had him get an amulet?" Tarrin asked.

      "Yah, it was a good idea.  I'm glad you mentioned it," she answered.  "It's alot easier being apart when we can talk to each other."

      "Maybe I should look into those spells your Priests use," Camara Tal said.  "It would be nice to be able to talk to my husbands right now."

      "Which one?" Dar asked.

      "Are you asking me which is my favorite, Dar?" the Amazon asked.

      "I think I already know which one that is," the young Arkisian said with a smile.

      "Oh?  And which would that be?" Camara Tal asked archly.

      "Koran Dar," he answered.

      "Koran Tal!" she corrected him hotly.

      "That's all the proof I need right there," Dar grinned.

      "You just like him because his former house name happens to be the same as yours," the Amazon told him.

      "No, I like him because I've seen you pawing him when you didn't think anyone was looking," Dar told her with a mishevious grin.

      "It's a woman's right to paw her husband," Camara Tal said bluntly.  "I paw all my husbands."

      "But you certainly seemed to be enjoying it with him," the Arkisian pressed.

      "I've made no secret of that fact that I do fancy him, Dar," she admitted.  "He is certainly the most handsome of my husbands.  But he's the one I want to father my children.  Our children would be strong and good additions to our house."

      "You choose which husband fathers your children?" Allia asked curiously.

      "Of course," she replied.  "We are a small nation with few people, so we're very careful to breed only with the best men to maintain the strengths of our bloodline.  Koran Tal is the prime man in my harem, so he is the one I've chosen to father my children."

      "No wonder you're so hot on him coming home with you," Miranda noted in a serious tone.  "If you can't have any children except with him, it makes it hard to produce heirs if he's not there."

      "Not can't, exactly," Camara Tal elaborated.  "More like won't.  Koran is a special man, and the children he will give me will be special.  I won't settle for anything less than him.  And I'm not getting any younger," she growled.  "Women my age back home have four children by now, and here I am, still childless."

      "He certainly seems stubborn about going back," Keritanima said.  "I've talked with him a few times.  He likes you, Camara, he really does, but he just can't see himself going back to Amazar."

      "I'm going to change that," she promised with a grim look.

      After the meal, Allia returned to the crow's nest as the ship started moving again under the power of the steam engine.  She didn't stay up there long, however, as the wind blew the smoke back into the rigging, causing her to drop out of the rigging as quickly as she could, choking and coughing once the smokestacks started belching forth copious amounts of the black smoke.  She had to settle for standing on the top of the sterncastle with Miranda, sharing the spyglass with her as she sought to find their destination, as the poem hinted she had to do.  On the deck below, all Allia's friends except for Tarrin, Binter, and Sisska paced nervously back and forth or stared worryingly out to sea, as Tarrin and Binter locked horns once again over the chessboard.  Tarrin had yet to defeat either of the Vendari in chess, and he was bound and determined to do just that before they got where they were going.  Sisska was much better at chess than Binter, but Binter was no slouch.  Binter had been trained by his mate, and much of the genius Tarrin faced in Sisska was beginning to blossom in Binter's game play.  Tarrin figured to defeat Sisska's apprentice, and then go after the mistress of the chessboard herself.

      Unfortunately, reality did not live up to Tarrin's ambitions that day.  Binter defeated him convincingly three times, then he was crushed by Sisska later that afternoon.  He sought solace with Kimmie and Sapphire that night, setting a chessboard on the bed and studying it as Kimmie read from one of the capture spellbooks.  She finally looked up as Tarrin recreated the board as he remembered it and tried to figure out where he went wrong, how Binter had beaten him in the last game they played.  "Tarrin, what are you doing?" she asked.

      "Trying to figure out how Binter beat me," he replied, rubbing a finger along his chin as he studied the pieces.  "I don't see where I'm messing it up."

      "If you could, you wouldn't be losing," she said impishly.

      Tarrin snorted at her, flicking his ears in mild irritation as he looked at the chess board.

      "You know what?  I think you're getting into this to keep yourself from thinking about the serious things," she told him with a smile.

      "Probably," he agreed.  "It's alot easier to think about this than worry about things we don't know about.  All we can do is wait and see.  Until then, I guess this is good enough," he said, motioning at the chessboard with a paw.

      Sapphire hopped over to the bed and sniffed at the ivory chess pieces on her side of the board.  Tarrin smiled down at her, scratching her between the horns.  "I should teach you to play, little one," he told her.

      "I don't think she'd be a good partner.  But you could teach me," Kimmie offered, setting the spellbook in the chair behind her as she stood up.  "I need a break from this for a while."

      Sapphire watched in strange fascination as Tarrin explained the rules of the game to his mate, showing her how each piece moved, and the rules that governed its movement.  "Alright, so this one can only take another piece diagonally, but it can't move in any direction but forward unless it's taking another piece," she reasoned, holding up a pawn.  "What happens if you move it all the way to the other side of the board?"

      "It becomes a queen," he explained with a raised eyebrow.  "That's a pretty strange question."

      "I couldn't figure out what would happen if it couldn't move anywhere," she replied.  "I guess that's a pretty suitable reward, if you can get a pawn all the way over without losing it."

      "That's the general idea," Tarrin told her.

      The ship stopped again that night, Jalis unwilling to move in uncharted waters in the dark, but Tarrin and Kimmie hardly noticed.  Kimmie proved to be a fast learner, and her education and training as a Wizard gave her a very logical mind.  That logical reasoning made her a dangerously talented chess player, and she very nearly beat him after their fifth game.  Tarrin admitted that he wasn't paying much attention to the game, his attention diverted by Sapphire and her strange intent expression as she looked at the pieces.  She even jumped up onto Tarrin's shoulder so she could get a better look at the board.

      Tarrin had lost track of the game at that point, as he studied his pet more carefully.  Did she understand what was going on?  Had the birth of the new sui'kun affected more than her lightning magic?  Had it made her smarter?

      After recovering himself and defeating Kimmie for the fifth time, she begged off the rematch to go to the galley and get them all something to drink.  Tarrin reset the board and then quite deliberately put Sapphire in front of it.  She looked up at him curiously, her forked tongue flicking out to test the air between them.  Her reptillian eyes were locked on his cat's eyes, as he tried to fathom the mind of the animal.

      "Alright, Sapphire," he said in a low tone, feeling his suspicions rise even higher.  "I get a very strange feeling that you know exactly what I'm saying.  Don't you?"

      She didn't react, but she did blink, her attention remaining eerily fixed on his eyes.

      "Maybe not exactly what I'm saying," he amended to himself.  "But I do think you're aware of what's going on.  More than even I realized."

      Her gaze didn't waver.  Tarrin suspected that he could prove it, and he went about it by reaching down and moving one of the pawns on the board.  It was a poor starting move, something he would not have done against a learned player, but he wasn't intending on playing a game.  At least not in seriousness.  He motioned over the board with his paw, looking at Sapphire.  "I think you know what to do, little one," he urged.

      Sapphire stood up, walked to the edge of the board, and then grabbed the king's knight in her teeth.  She pulled it over the pawns, then set it down where it would be allowed to move.

      Sapphire had known how the knight moves, and knew it could jump over other pieces.

      Tarrin moved out his own knight to defend the pawn he had moved earlier, and Sapphire knocked over the king, queen, and both of her biships to grab the queen's pawn in her teeth and push it out two squares.  Again, a legal move.  He set the pieces back up and responded by moving his king's pawn, and then she picked up the queen's bishop and knocked over the queen and the pawns in the middle of the board to put the bishop in a position where it was defended by the knight she'd placed earlier.  Again, a legal move, and this time she had set the piece in a position that made one sacrifice to take the piece.  Her moves didn't have any kind of unifying theme behind them, Tarrin realized, but two things were clear.  Sapphire had learned the rules governing the movement of the pieces by watching Tarrin and Kimmie, and she had remembered them well enough to apply them in this little test.  He didn't think she had a grasp of the underlying strategy of the game, but it was clear to him that Sapphire had learned something that an animal should not be capable of understanding.

      Amazing.  Sapphire was smarter! 

      "Sapphire!" Tarrin said in wonder, reaching over and stroking her head gently.  "I'm impressed, little one!"  He laughed and reached over the board, picking her up and then holding her at arm's length over his head.  "I'm going to see if I can't teach you the Sulasian tongue, by beautiful little drake," he cooed to her.  "You may not be able to speak it, but it would be incredible if you could understand it."

      She chirped fondly to him as he cuddled her to his chest, stroking her smooth scales gently.

      Kimmie returned with a bottle of wine and a pair of glasses.  She looked at him cuddling the drake, then raised an eyebrow and gave him a quirky smile.  "Should I leave you two alone?" she asked.

      "I have to show you this, Kimmie," he said immediately, putting Sapphire back down on her side of the chessboard.  "Alright now, Sapphire, try not to knock everything over this time."  He reached over and moved his pawn up another square, then motioned to the drake.

      Sapphire padded back and forth as she looked at the board, then moved her queen's knight out of the back row in her jaws, setting it delicately down on the board without knocking over the pieces.

      "She must have seen me do that," Kimmie said, setting the wine and glasses down on the tiny table that held Sapphire's bed.

      "Kimmie, she's made all the moves on her side of the board," Tarrin told his mate immediately, moving out his queen to threaten her queen's knight.  Sapphire looked at the board, and then she grabbed the king in her teeth and moved it beside the rook, then moved the rook to the opposite side of the king.

      Sapphire had castled!

      "She moved two at once," Kimmie said curiously.  "Isn't that that that fortress move?"

      "Castle," he said, staring intently at his drake.  Tarrin moved his queen out and took the queen's knight, and Sapphire, being careful not to knock over the pieces by craning her neck over the board, grabbed his queen and pulled it off the board, then moved one of her pawns into the square it occupied.  She understood that well enough!

      "Did she just take your queen?" Kimmie asked in wonder.

      "She did, and it was a legal move," Tarrin told her with a broad smile.  "Kimmie, Sapphire was affected by the birth of the sixth sui'kun alot more than we thought.  She's smarter now.  Just look at what she's learned, just by watching us!  Can you imagine what else she's learned while she's watched us, or watched the crew or our friends?  She sits up in the rigging and does nothing but watch us, ever since the birth."

      "I'll be dipped in hogfat," Kimmie said in wonder, then she laughed.  "Sapphire, you little sneak!"

      The drake actually looked a little contrite.  But she seemed calm, as if it had been her intention to show them that she was smarter than they thought.

      "I'm going to teach her Sulasian," Tarrin told her.  "Want to help?"

      "Why not?" Kimmie laughed.  "But we really should teach her a much more elegant language, like Torian."

      "You're biased."

      "So are you," she grinned.  "Want to compromise and teach her something else?"

      "No, let's stick with what everyone around here commonly speaks."

      "Then we should teach her Wikuni."

      "Ah, no.  Right now, I think Sulasian will be enough for her to handle.  Besides, it'll be good practice for us.  Teaching her will be like teaching an infant.  We need to learn that, for when your baby comes."

      "Well, when you say it that way, it sounds like a good idea," she said with a gentle smile.  "But you know it's going to take a while, and we'll be very busy soon enough."

      "I forgot about that," he said with a brooding frown. "Well, we could cheat, I suppose."

      "Use magic on her?  Well, that may work, but she's an animal, Tarrin.  It may not be healthy.  Besides, you'll have to wait until we get out of this magical void."

      Tarrin reached over the board and picked up his drake, scratching her between her horns in the way that she so loved, which made her chirp contentedly and lean her head against his chest.  "My little Sapphire is a smart little drake," he cooed to her.  "Then again, maybe I should talk to her a little more maturely," he chuckled.

      "She may be smarter, but it's unformed intelligence," Kimmie reminded him.  "You teach an infant with baby talk, and besides, she likes it when you pay attention to her that way."

      "She does at that," Tarrin agreed, cuddling the drake to his chest.

      "You know, I suddenly feel a bit embarassed," Kimmie laughed.  "She's been in this cabin with us since we left Wikuna.  She's overheard all our secrets, and she's probably been watching us when we make love.  I feel violated," she winked.

      "Like a Were-cat female could ever feel violated," Tarrin scoffed.  "As to the secrets, well, I don't think she remembers things she overheard before the birth quite the same way she does now, and even if she does remember, I doubt she'd go off and blab them to the ship.  Even if we teach her Sulasian, the shape of her mouth won't let her speak it very well.  She'd be very hard to understand."

      "Maybe.  We'll see," she said, picking up the chessboard and setting it on the floor after putting the pieces in a small canvas pouch.  "But if Wikuni sailors start coming up and pulling on my tail, I'll know who to blame."

      Kimmie found it very pleasurable when Tarrin pulled gently on her tail.  He wasn't quite sure why she did, but then again, Jesmind liked it when he bit her neck.  He guessed that every Were-cat was different in their own ways, and that included what they found pleasurable and what they didn't.

      "You never know, Kimmie," Tarrin said with a sly smile.  "Maybe I did it."

      "You'd better not!" Kimmie shouted playfully, jumping into the bed and pinning him down beneath her, forcing Sapphire to scramble out of Tarrin's lap to avoid getting crushed.  "I'd have to punish you," she told him with a grin.  "And it wouldn't be the good kind of punishment, either."

      "I can live with that, as long as I get the good punishment afterwards."

      "Flirt," she teased, leaning down and kissing him on the tip of his nose.  "Now behave yourself, and we'll drink this bottle of wine, have a nice long chat about all the things we love to talk about, and then get some sleep."

      "Hmm....behave, or misbehave.  Behave, or misbehave," he said with mock seriousness, rolling his eyes from side to side as if choosing between two things he could see.  "Can't I do both?"

      "No!" she laughed, slapping him playfully on the shoulder before letting him up.

      Tarrin did behave, and they drank the bottle of wine, talked about Sapphire, as well as how anxious everyone was and how tense things seemed with them being so close to their destination, and then about anything else that came to mind, like chess or what was happening in Suld or how Mist and Eron were doing, anything at all.  Tarrin enjoyed the talks he had with Kimmie, because she was an engaging, intelligent woman who was patient enough to be able to do it and smart enough to always challenge his mind.  They talked well into the night, as Sapphire laid in her bed with her eyes open, watching the two of them attentively, and then they went to bed.  But the conversation didn't stop with that, as they continued to talk as Kimmie let Tarrin brush her hair, then brush her fur, and they continued to talk as Kimmie undid Tarrin's braid, brushed out the dust, and then rebraided it for him, and even continued on as they blew out the lantern and settled in for the night.  They talked until the warm, inviting bed overwhelmed their desire to talk, causing both of them to drift off in the middle of a discussion about how strange Wikuni society had seemed to them for the short time they'd been there.

      The next morning, Tarrin was not quite as occupied as everyone else, because he had something to distract him from the seriousness of their position.  He came up on deck with Sapphire and started teaching her Sulasian, showing her objects and telling her the words they represented.  She paid careful attention to him throughout the morning, as Allia and Miranda stood on the roof of the sterncastle and continued to search for their unknown destination, seeming to absorb what he was trying to teach.  He would teach her the words for various small objects, then test her by laying the objects out on the deck and speaking one of the words and having her identify the object.  She began to get the hang of the instruction quickly, and by lunchtime, she had learned about two hundred words.  She was learning at a very high rate of speed, so quickly that Tarrin was a little intimidated.

      What he was doing invariably attracted a crowd of his friends, and they were amazed that the drake was as smart as she was.  Phandebrass especially seemed astounded by it, and he nearly got himself thrown overboard when he asked Tarrin if he could dissect Sapphire's brain to find out how it had changed.  Tarrin treated his drake to a very sumptuous lunch for her hard work, and continued with her in the afternoon, this time with help.  Azakar and Camara Tal, still dressed in their armor and breastplate, came over after lunch and helped out, actually getting in the way at first as they just threw words at the drake, but after Tarrin calmed them down and organized things, they did help out quite a bit.  He did start riding them when Azakar started teaching Sapphire words in Arakite, and Camara Tal started teaching her Amazon.  He didn't want to confuse the drake overly at first, and trying to teach her three languages at once would confuse her.

      By sunset, Sapphire had quite a vocabulary.  She knew the words for almost everything one could see on the deck, and everything one could carry on his person.  She had learned the names of all his friends, and had even come to understand the concept of racial groups.  She could tell the difference between a Wikuni and a human, an Amazon and an Arakite, a Selani and a Were-cat.  He knew that because he would tell her the word for a race, and the drake would fly over and land on the shoulder of a member of that race briefly, then fly back to him.  Tarrin was very happy with the progress the drake had made that day, and as the sun set over the western horizon, he treated her again to a large plate of veal, one of her favorite meats.

      But all thoughts of the drake vanished when Allia's voice called out over the deck.  "I see something!" she cried quickly, patting Miranda's shoulder and pointing her in the direction she was looking.  Tarrin looked up at the pair quickly, then looked in the direction that Allia was pointing, almost directly off the starbord side, just a little angled towards the bow.  All he could see was empty ocean, even after he rushed up to the rail and put his paws over his eyes to try to screen out the light of the setting sun.  Tarrin wondered how she could see looking into the sunlight.  He looked up at her again, and saw that she was wearing one of the Selani visors.  Where did she get it?  She said she'd broken hers!  He saw that she had to hold it over her face to keep it from slipping off her nose, and when he took a better look at it, he realized that it was the one he used in the desert.  She had taken his visor!  No wonder he couldn't find it anywhere!

      In five steps and one bounding leap, Tarrin was on the roof of the sterncastle as an excited Allia pointed to what she saw.  "Right there, Tarrin!" she said in Selani.  "It's right there, but I have no idea what it is!"

      "What do you see, sister?"

      "Here, you look," she said, taking off the visor and handing it to him.  "Miranda, give Tarrin the spyglass," she ordered the mink in Sulasian.

      Tarrin donned the visor and held the spyglass up to his eyes.  At first he saw nothing but a blur, but Miranda showed him how to focus the image.  He scanned the glass back and forth slowly, until he finally saw what Allia had seen.  And it made little sense.

      It was a tiny spot of blackness on the horizon.  There was no form or shape to the darkness, but it was very discernable with the red of the sky backlighting it.  It was a tiny spot of black sandwiched between the red sky and the dark blue sea.

      And it was tiny looking through the spyglass!  Tarrin felt very awed and impressed at his sister's vision, to see something so tiny at such a distance, with the sun in her face!  No wonder the poem said they'd need Allia to find what they were looking for...only a Selani, or perhaps an Aeradalla, would ever have spotted that!

      "It's not much, sister, but it's definitely something," he told her in Selani.  "I can't make anything out.  Can you?"

      "No, just the darkness," Allia replied.  "Almost as if night had taken over that one little patch of sea.  If it wasn't sunset, I would never have seen it," she admitted.  "The sky is highlighting the darkness."

      "It is at that, or I wouldn't have seen it either," he agreed.  "Even with this thing," he added, handing the spyglass back to Miranda.

      "What did you see, Tarrin?  I can't find it," Miranda asked.

      "It's a patch of black," he told her.  "I can't make anything out, and neither can Allia.  Maybe it's a mountain of black stone, like that volcano island that we passed a while ago."  He handed Miranda the spyglass and the visor, then carefully pointed her in the direction she needed to look.  "Move slowly, now," he told her.  "It's very small."

      "I think--I see it!" she said happily.  "You're right, it's like a black spot on the horizon."

      "What do you see?" Keritanima called from the deck.

      "It's not much, sister, but there's definitely something out there," Tarrin called down to her.  "Just a speck on the horizon."

      "More like a smudge than a speck," Miranda agreed.  "But even I can see it.  Kikalli's winds, Allia, you have some eyes," Miranda told her with a smile.  "I would never have seen that if it hadn't been pointed out to me.  It's just too small."

      "Well then, that settles that," Keritanima said bluntly.  "Jalis!  We need to turn starbord!  Allia, call out when the bow is pointing at what you see!"

      "Aye, your Majesty!" Jalis shouted from the steering deck. "Helm, come to starbord, but do it gently," Tarrin heard the bobcat order his steersman from under his feet.  "Listen for the Selani's call,and when you hear it, call out the compass reading and set that course."

      "Aye, cap'n," the pilot acknowledged.

      The entire ship waited silently as the steamship slowly began to turn starbord.  They all watched Allia as she slowly turned her body to keep herself facing what she saw on the horizon, and Keritanima began to pace nervously.  Tarrin looked towards the horizon, but the sun was blinding him and he wouldn't have been able to see anything anyway, for Miranda had the spyglass and Allia had the visor.  Tarrin did get a general sense of how close they were by watching Allia's body.  He figured that when Allia's shoulders were set squarely with the bow, they were more or less there.

      She shufled more and more towards the bow of the ship, until her shoulders finally squared up.  A moment later, she called out, a sound everyone on the ship, even the Tellurian engineers that had come up from the bowels of the engine room when word was passed down to them, heard.  "Now!" she shouted.

      "Bearing two-five-three!  Setting course, two hundred fifty three degrees, cap'n!" the Wikuni pilot reported.

      "Very good, son," the captain said in a calm voice.  "Let's steam for as long as we can, then set the sea anchor and wait out the night."

      "Aye, Cap'n," the junior officer with him on the steering deck acknowledged.

      "Well, brother, we're almost there," Allia told him as she took off the visor.  "Now we know where we're going.  We just have to reach it."

      "I know," he said soberly.  "We're another step closer.  The only question is how big the hole is going to be we'll have to step over to get there.  Remember, the poem said we still have one more step to go."

      "Then we'll conquer that obstacle when we reach it," she said simply.  "I've come to find out that when we are together, there is almost nothing we can't do."

      "I hope you're right, Allia," he said fervently.  "Goddess, I hope you're right."

 

      Nobody slept well that night.  Now that their destination was no longer an unknown, everyone was antsy and restless, Tarrin the worst of them.  They were almost there.   Almost there!  Tarrin paced back and forth on the deck, constantly looking over the bow, unable to sleep, unable to even sit still for more than a few moments.  The night was crisp, cool, and clear, but Tarrin hardly noticed it.  Everything they had been working towards for two years had almost reached its conclusion.  Everything Tarrin had done, everything he had gained, everything he had sacrificed, it was all leading up to this.

      Nobody knew what to expect.  They had all sat down and had a long talk after dinner, discussing what the next day may bring.  The only absolutes they had were that there was one more obstacle to overcome, and there was a guardian that would be defending the Firestaff once they reached where they were going.  Outside of that, nobody could offer much more than imagined problems.  The problem was, though they knew where they were going, they had no idea what they would find once they got there.  They didn't know if it was a small speck of an island, or a huge semi-continent.  They didn't know if they would immediatley find the Firestaff, or if they would have to spend days, rides, maybe even months searching the land for it.  If the Firestaff was even on land.  Miranda brought up that rather chilling scenario, that the Firestaff was indeed hidden under the ocean, and it would force them to find some way to counter the killing water to get it.  They didn't know if the Firestaff rested within the void, or if the void would end before they got there.  That was the one thing they all fervently hoped would come to pass.  None of them wanted to have to face down the guardian without the power of magic to aid them.  As it was, Tarrin was the only member of the group with access to magic, and it was his Druidic magic, the weaker of his two magical abilities.

      The night passed for Tarrin in an almost feverish whirlwind of mental supposition, as he tried to imagine every possible thing that may stand in their way, imagine every kind of guardian he could think up, and think of ways to defeat them both with and without his Sorcery.  The not knowing was what aggravated him the most, he realized after half a night of thinking about what may be.  If he only knew what to expect!  But that was the one thing that he didn't have, the one thing the poem didn't reveal.

      But it could have been worse.  They could have not found the poem, and if that were the case, there was no telling where they'd be.  They may be searching old ruins in Sharadar, or scouring the inner regions of Wikuna.  They may be invading Zakkar, or attempting to find the stronghold of the ki'zadun to take the information they had amassed about the Firestaff by force.  They didn't know what was coming, but he could only thank the Goddess that they had gotten the information that they did have.  Without that poem, the Zakkites may very well be in the lead in this most important of all races.  They may have been able to figure out a way to get around the obstacles the Ancients had set down to deter people from doing exactly what they were doing, and with a little luck, they very well may have gotten to the Firestaff first.

      That would have been a disaster of monumental proportions.  Tarrin didn't know when it would activate, but he wasn't going to take any chances.  It could be tomorrow, it could be next ride, it could be next month, it could be next year.  Whenever it was, he was going to make sure nobody else had it when that day came.

      Tarrin was joined on deck by the others, one by one, well before dawn.  Keritanima was the first to abandon the attempt to sleep, about two hours before dawn, coming up with a blanket wrapped around her, but she was wearing the same dress she'd had on the night before.  Keritanima changed her dress every day, so it was clear to him she hadn't even tried to go to sleep.  But instead of pacing on the open deck, she'd been pacing in the privacy of her cabin.  Dolanna came up almost immediately after Keritanima, looking a little tired and drawn.  Not a few minutes later, Allia came up with Miranda, Binter and Sisska, and Camara Tal.  Dar came up with Azakar and Phandebrass about a half hour later, the three of them carrying large trays with hot pastries just out of the oven in the galley, and Kimmie joined them with Sapphire riding on her shoulder not long after that.  They shared the slight meal, for nobody felt like eating much, and then waited in anxious, almost tense silence for the sun to rise and Jalis to give the command to get under way.

      It was the longest sunrise in Tarrin's life.  They watched the false dawn come and go, then watched as the sky began to transition from the darkness to the pink hues of sunrise, until the very tip of the sun appeared on the eastern horizon.  Tarrin wasn't the only one trying to will the sun to come up, but the resistant heavenly body almost seemed to be moving backwards to the Were-cat as he got more and more impatient.

      "Why isn't Jalis giving the order yet?" Dar demanded in irritation.  "It's light!"

      "They have to wait until the sun comes all the way up, Dar," Keritanima told him.  "There may be reefs around, so the lookouts need enough light to see into the water."

      "What is a reef?" Allia asked.

      "A shoal of rock just under the surface," Dolanna answered for the Wikuni.  "Since these are uncharted waters, the captain is going to be careful.  We do not want to hit a reef and founder this close to our destination.  It would make the Goddess fairly angry with us."

      "Slightly," Keritanima agreed.  "Just keep your pants on, Dar.  We'll be moving in a little bit."

      After about a half an hour, they did get under way.  Jalis intended to go at half speed at first, but Keritanima personally told him that he could put them under full steam or he could get out and swim.  After a short and heated argument, where the captain actually backtalked his queen, Jalis knuckled under when Keritanima threatened to execute him on the spot if he didn't obey her commands immediately.  Jalis reluctantly ordered full speed, and the smokestacks billowed smoke as the ship surged forward with two men looking out on the bow and three from the foremast, low enough to where the smoke of the engine didn't choke them to death.

      Though he'd stayed up all night, Tarrin didn't feel in the least bit tired or sleepy.  He stood watch along with the others, with Allia standing on the sterncastle with the spyglass, watching.  She wasn't the only one who could see, however.  Tarrin stood at the bow and watched as the tiny black dot they'd seen last night grew larger and larger, becoming visible to Camara Tal not long after sunrise, and visible to the others as they moved towards it.  It was still an utter black against the horizon, without feature or form or texture, a darkness that loomed ahead of them and grew inexorably larger as time flowed by.

      "I don't get it," Keritanima growled about an hour before noon.  The blackness was visible to everyone now, a dark half-circle just inside the horizon, getting larger by the moment as they approached it, and it made all the sailors nervous.  The most obvious thing about it was that it didn't look like land or any sort of natural feature.  It looked ominously magical, and that was enough to unnerve the average superstitious sailor.  "We're closer now.  Why can't Allia make anything out yet?"

      "I'm not sure, Kerri," Tarrin replied, looking at the blackness before them.  "Maybe it is magic, like some of the sailors have been whispering.  I wouldn't discount anything at this point."

      The darkness got larger and larger, and as they approached it, it made the sailors more and more edgy.  Tarrin was getting very anxious himself, but not because of the strangeness of what they were seeing.  He was certain now that the blackness was magical, because it couldn't be very much further, and by now Allia should have been close enough to make out features.  But she still saw nothing but featureless, empty black, and its lack of dimension made it hard to determine just how large it was or how far away they were.  It was like a shadow looming before them, a shadow of inky black, the object casting it hidden from them.

      It grew and grew and grew as they steamed towards it.  By lunch, it consumed a good portion of the sky before them, and it became apparent as they neared it that it had a definite shape.  It was semi-circular, with defined edges, but nothing within that border was discernable through the inky blackness.

      "That just has to be magical," Tarrin growled to Camara Tal as they stood at the bow and stared at the blackness, which now extended out to the sides far enough to make Tarrin have to move his eyes to look from one edge to the other.

      "I'm more worried about how far away it is," Camara Tal answered, gripping the hilt of her scabbarded sword.  "It's like a big piece of darkness torn away from the night, and it has no depth.  It could be a few leagues ahead, or a few hundred.  There's no way to tell until we get to it."

      "That's a scary thought," Tarrin grunted.  "It may be a thousand longspans across.  We may be hundreds of leagues away, but we're seeing it now because it's so big."

      "Possible, but if that were so, I think it would have to be made by a god," Camara Tal told him.  That much magical power?  No mortal could do it."

      "We may be dealing with something the gods left behind to protect the Firestaff, Camara."

      "I know, but that seems a little--"

      "Ahoy!" one of the lookouts in the rigging screamed.  "Rocks ahead, Cap'n!  It looks like a reef!"

      "Aye," Jalis shouted from the window of the steering deck.  "Should we reduce speed?"

      "Aye, sir!  They're about a mile ahead!"

      "Aye," he acknowledged.  Tarrin didn't hear him give the order to slow, but he felt the ship start to decelerate.  Tarrin moved up to the rail and peered ahead, and he saw the rocks.  They just barely made it over the surface of the relatively calm water, a slight disturbance in the small, gentle waves in the very clear water.  Tarrin looked more and more closely, and then he scanned his eyes to one side, realizing something rather significant.

      The reef extended as far as he could see to the north.

      He looked south, and again, the reef extended as far as he could see to the south.

      "It's continuous," Camara Tal said sourly, scanning the reef with her eyes.  "I don't see a break in it anywhere."

      "Allia!" Tarrin shouted.  "Can you see a hole in it?"

      "No, brother!" she shouted back to him.  "It goes as far as I can see in both directions!"

      The ship came to a gentle stop just in front of the reef.  It sat just under the water, a strange corrugated jumble of stones that looked covered with sea creatures.  The top of the reef wasn't level, and knobs and protrusions rose out of the water, lapped by the gentle action of the waves.  Tarrin saw a strange star-shaped creature that was almost five spans across creeping over the surface of one of those jutting rocks, the water lapping against it gently as it slithered over the wet surface of the dark grayish stone.  All of them gathered at the bow and took turns looking over the rail, down at the reef.  It rose out of the water about fifty spans in front of them, but it rose up from the ocean bottom in a gentle incline, which put part of the reef beneath the ship.  The water was very clear, and it let them look down into the water at an angle to see the part of the reef the sunlight could touch.

      Keritanima came up to the bow rail and leaned over it, looking at the rocks about fifty spans ahead.  "Damn," she muttered.  "I knew this was going too easy."

      "We need to find a passage through it," Tarrin said.

      "Maybe we could have Sapphire fly out and see if she can see a break in the reef," Kimmie offered.  "You said you could use Druidic magic to talk to her."

      "I could, but I don't want her going too far," Tarrin said.  "Since we don't know what's out here, I don't want some creature to swoop down on her when she's busy looking at the reef and eat her."

      "I know one thing," Keritanima said grimly.  "We're close to land."

      "How do you know that?" Dar asked.

      "That's how," she said, pointing towards the blackness ahead.  Tarrin squinted as he peered ahead, for at first he didn't see anything.  But then he saw white flecks in the blackness, and once his eyes focused on them, he saw that they were birds.  Seagulls.  "Birds.  Those are seagulls, Dar, and they're too close to the water's surface to be migrating.  They're feeding, and that means there has to be land nearby where they can land and rest."

      "I didn't see those," Dar grunted, looking at the darkness.

      "Do you think we're close?" Camara Tal asked.

      "I have no idea, but I do know that we can't be too far away for those birds to die of exhaustion before they fly back," she answered.  "With this tailwind pushing them back towards the darkness, they could come out a long way."  She snorted.  "But let's worry about one thing at a time.  We have to get past this reef."

      "Anyone have any bright ideas?" Tarrin asked.

      "What else can we do, brother?" Allia asked.  "We must find an opening."

      "I say, that's rather narrow thinking," Phandebrass said.  "We have three options, we do.  We can find a way around it, we can try to go over it, or try to go through it, we can."

      "And just how would we go over it?" Keritanima asked.  "Or through it?"

      "Over it would be easy, it would," he said. "We just make a wave that carries the ship over the top."

      "And what happens if the ship bottoms out on the reef in the process?" the Wikuni asked sharply.

      "Well, we just don't do that," Phandebrass replied.

      Keritanima growled audibly and glared at him.  "We should rephrase.  Anyone have any ideas that work?"

      "Without magic, our options are rather limited," Dolanna said, leaning over the rail and looking down.

      Jalis came over to them and saluted the queen sharply.  "The lookouts can't find a break in it, your Majesty.  Before I just pick a direction and start moving, I thought you may want to decide which direction we go in."

      "How far does this reef go?" Dar asked.  "No, I mean how far do they usually go?"

      "There's a reef in Valkar that extends for over a thousand miles," Jalis told him.  "It makes the northern marches of the west coast of the continent unreachable.  I've seen reefs as short as a few feet, and as long as a thousand miles, lad.  There's just no telling until we find its edge, or find a hole in it."

      "How long is a mile again, Kerri?" Dar asked.

      "He means about three hundred leagues or so," Keritanima answered.

      Dar whistled.  "That'll take us days to cross, if it's really that long."

      Tarrin looked down at the reef, considering.  It looked natural, and it probably was, but he had the sneaking suspicion that this was another obstacle deliberately set down to hinder anyone from reaching the Firestaff.  If Jalis was right and there was no way to tell how long it would take them to go around it, it would mean that they would lose precious time.  Days, maybe even rides of time lost as they searched for a channel through the reef, or its end.

      Tarrin looked at the reef, tuning out his friends as they debated what to do.  Could this be the test the poem talked about?  Where twenty may try, but only one would succeed?  Of course, that reference of twenty was probably a metaphor, or just thrown in there to keep the structure of the poem consistent.  If there was a one to reference, now was a good time.  Of the eight magic-users in their group, only Tarrin had access to any form of magic at all.  He was the only one left that could do anything about this challenge from a magical standpoint.

      But what could he do?  Triana and Sathon had never taught him spells to pick up ships and carry them over a reef.  Even if he tried, he seriously doubted he'd live long enough to get the spell going.  Doing something like that would take an incredibly powerful Druid to accomplish, someone like Triana.  Tarrin knew already that he just didn't have the power to use Druidic magic to move the ship over the reef.

      But as Phandebrass said, he was thinking narrow.  The problem presented was an obstacle preventing the ship from moving forward.  The two most common means of dealing with an obstacle that hindered progress were to either avoid the obstacle, or remove the obstacle.  Tarrin couldn't avoid the obstacle, meaning he couldn't pick up the ship and get it over the reef, but he might be able to remove the obstacle.  that would mean moving the reef, or at the very least, opening a hole in it wide and deep enough for the ship to pass through safely.

      That may be possible.  Tarrin mulled over how he may go about that using Druidic magic.  He could part the stone using Druidic magic, that was an option.  Part it like opening drapes.  He could cut the stone, or he could use Druidic magic to pulverize it, change it into sand and let the ocean carry the sand away.  He could try to use the ocean itself to ram the reef and break a hole in it as well, but that would take a whole lot of power, and he doubted he'd have the ability to use a spell like that.

      Other than that, he couldn't really think of other ways to open the reef, at least not things that he would be able to do.  There were any number of easy ways to open the reef that would get him killed in the process.  He needed a way to affect a large amount of stone, yet do it in such a way that it made it a very easy spell to cast.  Tarrin crossed his arms and glanced at a bit of motion, seeing a lynx Wikuni sitting on the barrel of one of the cannons lashed to the deck, staring at the reef--

      --cannons.  Cannons!

      "Kerri," he said quickly, "how much gunpowder do we have on board?"

      "About--that won't work, brother," she warned.  "That's the first thing I thought of."

      "What won't work?" Dar asked.

      "Using the gunpowder to blow a hole in the reef," she answered.  "The problem is that the reef is under water, and we don't have any way to ignite the kegs if they're under water.  Just putting the kegs on top of the reef won't be enough, because they won't blow out a deep enough hole for the keel to get through."  She grunted.  "Besides, I don't think we have enough gunpowder in the first place.  Donovan only let them bring on four kegs.  That's enough to fire these cannons about five times each."

      "Can you conjure gunpowder, Tarrin?" Kimmie asked.

      "Easily," he answered.

      "Tarrin, we're in a void," Keritanima told him.  "We can't use magic, remember?"

      "We can't use Sorcery," he said sharply.  "Or Priest or Wizard magic.  You forget, sister dear, I also happen to be a Druid."

      Keritanima looked at him, then she laughed brightly.  "I completely forgot!  You can use Druidic magic in this void?"

      "Yes," he assured her.  "The All is everywhere.  Nothing can block Druidic magic.  The only thing I need to know if the kegs will explode.  Will they explode if they're under water, Kerri?"

      "I really don't know," she said with a sudden laugh.  "But we'll find out, won't we?"

      Tarrin thought it would be as easy as wedging the kegs into the reef, but Keritanima disabused him of that notion quickly.  The first thing she did was send two sailors over to the reef in a longboat to see how thick the reef was on its far side.  Then she had them take careful measurements of the reef's thickness at various depths, a task that required them to dive into the water with long poles that stuck up out of the water, as men on the ship gauged the distance between the poles visually.  After she had the thickness of the reef, she sat down with a piece of paper and did some mathematical calculations.  Tarrin didn't understand what she was doing, and she wouldn't answer him while she was doing it.

      After about an hour, she finally finished what she was doing and pulled Tarrin aside.  "We don't have enough gunpowder," she announced.  "We'll need at least three more kegs."

      "It took you three hours to figure that out?" Tarrin asked, a bit impudently.

      "Would you rather have just stuck the kegs in the rocks and blown them up, then merrily rip the bottom out of my ship as we tried to squeeze through a hole that wasn't big enough?" she countered sharply.

      "It would have worked," he protested.  "We just have to keep doing it until we have a big enough hole."

      "And it would take three times as long as my way," she snapped.  "My way, we spend a little time now to avoid wasting alot of time later.  I know how much gunpowder we need and where to put it.  We can blow a hole big enough for the ship in about two hours, where you'd have us out here tossing kegs of gunpowder over the rail for days!"

      "Two hours?" Tarrin asked.

      "Two hours," she said.  "We should have a hole open by sunset.  We can slip through it and anchor to the reef overnight, and set out in the morning."

      "Well, if you say two hours, then I guess we'll trust you, Kerri," he acceded.

      "Thank you," she said with an edge in her voice, stalking away.

      Keritanima issued her orders, and her sailors carried them out quickly.  The steamship backed up until it was about a quarter of a longspan off from the reef, then dropped its anchor.  After that, a longboat set out with a single keg of gunpowder aboard, and two of her best swimmers, the same two that did the measuring of the reef with the poles, pulled the keg overboard.  They tied lead weights to it, then slipped beneath the waves to place it where Keritanima had told them to place it.  They were down for a very long time, and for a moment Tarrin thought they drowned, but then both of them surfaced, and then were pulled back aboard the longboat.  As the four sailors that had ferried them over rowed back towards the steamship, Keritanima pulled Tarrin to the bow and told him what to do.

      "They put the keg about twenty spans down," she told him.  "They were supposed to wedge it in a crevice in the side of the reef.  Can you find it and blow it up from here, or do you need to get closer?"

      "I can do it from here," he said, peering into the water.  He really didn't need to see it, for the All would do his aiming for him.  But a good look at the keg would help him immensely.  Druidic magic was heavily keyed to images, and the sharper and more detailed--and more accurate--his image, the better chance the spell would work as he desired.  He already knew exactly how to use the magic to blow up the keg.  Gunpowder exploded when exposed to fire, so all he had to do was create a lick of flame inside the kegs.  The kegs were waterproof, which would keep the water from dousing the flame, but that was a moot point.  Tarrin had seen gunpowder explode before, when Keritanima had hit the powder magazine of Sheba's pirate ship with her magic.  That created an explosion that blew the pirate ship into a thousand little pieces.  The instant the fire touched the gunpowder, it would cause the whole keg to explode.  The water wouldn't really do anything except muffle the sound of the explosion.

      "Not yet!" Keritanima said quickly.  "Let my men get the longboat back over here and tie it to the steamship.  That's a pretty big keg, and it should make quite a shockwave.  I don't want them getting hurt."

      Tarrin nodded, and as he waited for the longboat to row back over.  After about five minutes, the longboat was aside the steamship, tying a rope to the anchor chain and waving up to the sailors above that they were ready.

      Tarrin stood by the bow, closed his eyes, and began.  He reached within, through the Cat, and made a connection to the endless power of the All.  It felt warm and comforting to him, welcoming him and offering to him its power.  Tarrin had already worked out how he was going to perform this task, and so his image and his intent were already prominent in his mind.  He would do it in two stages.  The first was a spell not of image but of intent, and that intent was to be able to see in his mind's eye an image of where the gunpowder keg was.  The All responded to his request, showing him an image of the keg, with its lead weights tied around its girth, stuck in a wide crevice in the reef about twenty or so spans deep, with the sunlight shining on it in scillinting waves as the surface of the water refracted the sunlight penetrating it.  Once he had that image, he distanced himself from the All and then touched it again; a Druid couldn't cast successive spells on one touch of the All, for the All would contaminate the spell cast beforehand with the new image and intent the Druid used.  The new spell would conflict with the image and intent which had created the first one, causing unpredictable and often deadly results.  It was the Druidic version of a Wildstrike.  Sarraya had been very careful to drill that into him.  To keep the mind clear of everything but the image and the intent while actively touching the All.  Stray thoughts introduced variables into the formula, and the All was notorious about interpreting those unwanted thoughts or images in ways that were often quite deadly for the Druid and everyone around him.  Once he felt the All touch him through the Cat, he pushed the image of the keg into the forefront of his mind, and then formed the intent that a small flame come to life within the interior of the keg.  The All responded to him, seeing his image and reading his intent, then carrying out his desire.

      The effect was immediate and dramatic.  A white geyser of water erupted from the surface of the water, hurling bits of rock out the column of water, and a dull boom rocked the ship.  Spraying seawater, like rain, and small bits of the reef stone pattered onto the deck of the steamship, as well as a few fish and sea animals that looked like aquatic scorpions.

      "Nice," Kimmie mused, wiping the water off her face.

      "I say, that was interesting," Phandebrass said in agreement.  "I wonder if I could design a spell that would duplicate the effect.  I could call it Phandebrass' Amazing Detonation, I could."

      "Is that it?" Tarrin asked.

      Keritanima shook her head.  "Now my divers go see how much damage it did, and when they're done, they'll set another keg.  It's going to take us a while to blow a hole through that, brother.  It may look narrow at the surface, but it's actually pretty thick thirty spans down."

      They waited as the longboat rowed back over to the reef, rowing out into water that had become cloudy with the explosion stirring up the sand and sediment in the reef, and then the two divers slipped over the side of the boat and disappeared into the water.  They were down only a moment before they broached the surface of the water and scrambled back into the boat quickly, one of them screaming loud enough for them to hear him all the way over at the steamship.

      "What's the matter?" Tarrin asked.  They all looked to Allia, who went over to the rail and looked at the longboat.

      "The screaming one had something take a bite out of his leg," she reported.  "I see dark shapes circling the longboat in the water.  There, one of them just broke the surface," she said, pointing.

      Tarrin looked, and picked out a dark fish fin sliding back under the waves.  "Shark," Keritanima said in concern.  "They better get him over here quickly, so we can bandage his leg."

      "The explosion must have riled them," Azakar noted, then he flushed slightly and closed his mouth.

      "And attracted them to us," Camara Tal added, pointing.  "Is it just me, or are there several dozen over there?"

      Tarrin looked, and he had to agree.  There was an absolute swarm of the dangerous fish circling the longboat as the sailors frantically rowed for the steamship, and there were many more gathering in the murky water near where the keg was detonated.

      "Alright, Kerri, what do we do now?" Tarrin asked, a little acidly.

      "Give me a minute," she said, her brows furrowing as the thought.

      The sharks complicated things.  Without being able to send divers down to assess their progress, and also to place the kegs so they did the most damage, Tarrin figured that they would have to do things the way he first thought they would, simply try to blow a big enough hole in the reef by piling the kegs on the top.  Tarrin wasn't sure that was going to work now, mainly because Keritanima didn't think it would.  He had learned to trust Keritanima's judgement in these kinds of things, for she was rarely wrong.  Keritanima's moment turned into an extended silence, broken only when the injured sailor was brought back aboard and tended, his leg showing a rather nasty bite made by somthing with very wide jaws.  Keritanima herself bandaged the wound, apologizing to the sailor for sending him out there to nearly get his leg ripped off.  The sailor seemed flabbergasted that the queen of Wikuna would bother to take the time to even check on his condition, let alone be the one to bandage his wound.  And even apologize to him!

      "Alright, I'm stumped," Keritanima admitted after she finished with the sailor.  "I'm not sending another man down there, not now that we know this area is infested with sharks.  Anyone have any ideas?"

      "How about if we fill a longboat with gunpowder, take it over there, and then sink it?" Dar proposed.  "Tarrin can blow it up, and we can hope there's enough powder in the kegs to break a hole in the reef."

      "Would that work?" Camara Tal asked.  "You're the expert on gunpowder, Kerri."

      Keritanima drummed her fingers against her muzzle.  "I think it would, but it would have to be one big keg," she said.  "If Tarrin only blows up one, the others may not explode underwater.  I've never seen or heard of anyone trying to do this underwater before, so I just can't say for certain."

      "I can Conjure as big a keg as you need, Kerri," Tarrin told her.  "I can make a barrel bigger than a longboat."

      "Alright, then, conjure us an iron barrel the same size as that, and then fill it with gunpowder," she prompted, pointing at one of the large water barrels that had been lashed to the deck to free space below.  "That should be a good start."

      Tarrin did so, and then they lowered the barrel into the longboat.  It was too heavy for the boat to carry the standard complement of six, so only three sailors ferried the keg over.  Keritanima shouted at them from the bow so they positioned themselves in the general vicinity of where the first barrel was set and detonated, and then they struggled considerably in their task as they heaved it over the side, very nearly capsizing the longboat in the process.  The iron barrel sank like a stone, and the longboat rowed back to the steamship.  Keritanima ordered them to go behind the steamship, for this explosion would be much larger than the last, and the steamship would protect the boat from the wave the detonation would create.

      Once a sailor at the stern shouted that the longboat was tied up and secure, Keritanima looked to Tarrin.  "Alright, brother, it's your turn," she told him.

      Tarrin reached within, through the Cat, and came into contact with the All.  He did the same thing he did the first time, first getting an image of the barrel, then turn around and using that image as an aiming aid to set fire to the gunpowder inside the barrel.

      The water did nothing to muffle the sound of the detonation.  An earsplitting BOOM shuddered the ship, the shockwave of it actually pushing the ship back as a column of water rocketed into the air, sending huge boulders of reef stone flying in every direction.  The ship pulled its anchor chain taut as a huge wave generated by the explosion slammed into the ship, making it rock dangerously and throwing almost everyone down to the deck as the ship bucked like a wild horse.

      They all stayed down on the deck as the last of the water and bits of reef stone rained down on them, and then there was a strange silence, the only sound being the water lapping against the ship.  Then Keritanima laughed.  "My, that was a big one!" she said cheerfully.  "Can we do it again?"

      Tarrin looked at her, then chuckled ruefully.  "Children and their toys," he told her as they all picked themselves up from the deck.

      "Alright, crewman, tell the longboat to row over there and see if that blew a hole in the reef!" Keritanima shouted at the crewman that had been at the stern.

      "Aye, your Majesty!" he replied with a salute, then leaned over the rail and relayed the queen's instructions to the longboat.

      They waited as the longboat rowed over, and the three men inside probed the churned, murky water with long poles.  Encasing the gunpowder in an iron barrel seemed to have made the explosion much more powerful than using wood, despite the barrel they used being larger, and as they watched they realized that the iron-encased gunpowder had done massive damage to the reef.  A huge hole had been blown out of it, nearly twenty spans wide, and it looked to pierce the reef's wall all the way to the other side.

      "It's jagged, your Majesty!" one of the sailors shouted up after they rowed back to the ship.  "It's roughly twenty feet wide and thirty feet deep, but it does go all the way through the reef.  The problem is that it's narrow on the far side and wide on the near side!"

      "Very good, crewman!" Keritanima said with a smug, victorious smile at Tarrin.  "Prepare to load another barrel!"

      "That's not big enough?" Tarrin asked.

      "Tarrin, we need about fifty feet of width to clear it safely, and the ship draws about twenty-five feet at the keel," she answered.  "We need to widen the hole.  I figure we'll have it blown out wide enough with three or four more barrels."

      "You're the boss," he said absently.

      "That's right, and don't forget it," she winked at him.

      Keritanima's solution did work.  The crewman loaded another powder-filled iron barrel Tarrin Conjured, and then she had them drop it on the far side, where the opening was at its narrowest.  The explosion of the barrel was no less spectacular than the first, and after the men probed the murky water with their poles, they announced that the hole was more or less evenly wide on both sides.  Keritanima had Tarrin Conjure three more barrels, and they were successively dropped into the hole at the near side, the middle, and the far side successively, which systematically widened the breach even more and dug out its bottom.  The five barrel bombs blew a huge, gaping hole in the reef, more than large enough for the ship to traverse safely.

      "Alright, Mr. Donovan, give me your slowest speed," Jalis ordered the engineer from his sterncastle window at the Tellurian, who had come up on deck to check on the progress.  "And keep your men right where they can stop the engine at a moment's notice.  This is going to be a tricky piece of navigation."

      "Aye, Cap'n Jalis," Donovan replied.  "We'll creep through as slow as you please."

      Sailors lined the rails with long poles as the steamship very carefully, very slowly set its bow into the hole the explosions created, ready to push the ship away from the jagged rocks should it drift too closely to them.  The destruction of a portion of the reef created a backcurrent in the water, as water flowed from far side of the reef to the near side, forcing Jalis to have the engineers increase the ship's speed.  The ship nosed into the opening, then the new current pushed the ship back out.  They tried again, this time gradually increasing speed once the steersman had the ship solidly in the center of the narrow channel to overcome the resistance of the pushing current.  Tarrin watched with Dar and Camara Tal as the ship slowly traversed the dangerous opening, Jalis taking no chances with the ship as the men lining the rails kept their poles ready to push off the reef should the current draw the ship towards it.  A man at the bow threw a weighted line into the water and called out the depth every few seconds, quickly reeling the line back in then tossing it out again as soon as he had the lead weight in his hand.

      Jalis' patience paid off, as the stern of the ship cleared the reef, and the ship once again was surrounded by nothing but water.  All the sailors gave out a cheer when the captain announced they were clear, clapping each other on the back and putting their long poles away.  Tarrin looked back to the reef, seeing the surface of the water eddy as the currents beneath flowed through the new opening.  The sun would be setting very soon, so the captain ordered the anchor dropped, preparing to wait out the night and set out again in the morning.

      "Well, that's that," Camara Tal noted, looking back with Tarrin.  "The question is, what next?"

      "That's a good question.  I wish I knew the answer," Tarrin grunted.

 

      It was another night of anxiousness, but it wasn't quite as bad as it had been the night before.  The restless night caught up with almost everyone, and everyone, even Tarrin, had very little trouble sleeping that night.  Getting past the reef relaxed everyone, for Tarrin was sure that the reef was the last obstacle the poem mentioned.  They had cleared all the challenges, and now there was nothing between them and that strange blackness ahead, the place that all of them were absolutely convinced held the Firestaff, nothing but seemingly empty ocean.  Tarrin felt that the hardest parts had been put behind them, and now it would be a simple matter of sailing up to the darkness and passing through it to see what was on the other side.

      The morning's mood was quite a change from the morning before.  Everyone had been quiet and sober and serious the day before, but the mood among Tarrin's friends now was one of exuberance and enthusiasm.  Tarrin wasn't the only one that felt that they'd cleared the majority of the obstacles, and though all of them knew that there could be more challenges ahead--the poem mentioned nothing about the mind-affecting magic, or the storm--they felt that they could overcome them.  They all knew they weren't there yet, but for the moment, at least, all of them were celebrating penetrating the reef.

      The reef had quite a surprise for them the next morning.  Tarrin heard the sailors whispering about it when he went up on deck and got something to eat, so he went to look.  Needless to say, he was quite surprised when he looked back.

      The hole in the reef was gone.

      It was like someone had come along behind them and put all the rock back into the reef wall, leaving it intact and again representing a barrier to anyone that wished to cross it.  Tarrin was a bit shocked to see that, for it had to have been a magical effect, but he felt nothing.  He wasn't sure how it could be done, since only Druidic magic worked in the void.  Was there a Druid nearby that was so powerful that they could do something like that?

      Though it was a strange and obviously magical phenomenon, none of the sailors seemed all that worried about it.  After all, their queen had gotten them through it once before, so they could simply do the same thing again when they left and get through it again.  What worked once would easily work again.

      The happy mood evaporated after the ship got moving, and the blackness before them began to loom.  It loomed more, and more, and more, the darkness expanding to take up more and more of the sky before them, growing larger and larger.  By midmorning, the darkness swallowed up almost the entirety of the horizon before them, a daunting sight to say the least.  They still had no idea how far away it was, what it was, or what would happen when they reached it.  The sailors got more and more worried as the darkness seemed to tower over them, rising high into the sky and consuming the entire view ahead.  It was like sailing into oblivion.

      Just before lunch, Allia gave the call that they all had been waiting for.  "I can see its border now!" she announced loudly from the roof of the sterncastle.  "I can see where the darkness touches the water!"

      "How far away is it?" Keritanima asked loudly.

      "It is a good way inside the horizon," she called back.  "It took me a while to understand what I was seeing.  If we keep at this speed, we will reach it in about three hours."

      "Jalis, are we moving at full speed?" Keritanima shouted.

      "No, your Majesty, we're moving at three-quarters right now," Jalis called back.  "Donovan wanted us to slow a little so he could do something."

      "Well, tell him it's over," she ordered.  "I want full speed!"

      "Yes, your Majesty, full speed," Jalis acknowledged.

      The ship sped up a little after the order was given, and they all watched and waited.

      The darkness expanded even more as they approached it, as sailors moved jerkily and had trouble keeping their attention on what they were doing, as Camara Tal sharpened her dagger in preparation, the Amazon going down to change out of her leather haltar and coming back up with her breastplate on.  Azakar did the same, going down and changing into his armor.  Kimmie and Phandebrass went down and studied their spells, even though they couldn't cast them, and Dolanna, Allia, Dar, and Keritanima grouped together unconsciously, should they suddenly find themselves in a need to Circle. Miranda, Binter, and Sisska seemed the only ones unmoved by the situation, the mink Wikuni sitting sedately on a folding canvas chair near the bow, knitting away as Binter and Sisska stood silent vigil over the queen and her maid.

      After two hours, the darkness was a tangible, discernable wall.  It rose up to dominate the sky before them, and Tarrin could see its edge where it bordered the sea.  It was a wall of massive proportions, and as they neared it, he could sense its power.  It was a tangible thing, he could feel, but what surprised him most was that it was Sorcery.

      It was a Ward!

      As they got closer and closer, he could make out its construction.  It was definitely a Ward, the weaving of a Ward was unique, one of unfathomably complicated weaving.  Tarrin couldn't make out a tenth of it, and the tenth he could make out he couldn't understand.  Its construction was so vast, so complicated, so intricately detailed that he didn't think any mortal mind could have managed to weave a spell so unbelievably complex.  Was this another spell of the Goddess?  He didn't sense her unique signature in the weaving.  There was a precise exactness in the weaves the Goddess wove herself that seemed to be missing from this one, but he couldn't imagine anyone other than the Goddess doing something like that.  It was so big, so complicated, Tarrin couldn't even pick its weaving apart enough to understand just what the Ward was designed to defend against.  It had to have a purpose, a thing it was designed to prevent from passing through it.  It was the fundamental operation of a Ward.

      Keritanima and Dolanna began to get a sense of it as they got closer and closer, Keritanima's eyes widening and Dolanna putting her hand over her mouth.  "Tarrin, is that Sorcery?" Dolanna asked in wonder.  "I can--it is unbelievable!"

      "It's a Ward," he said with a nod.

      "Well, one thing's for sure, it looks like the void's going to end right at that wall of darkness," Keritanima said.

      Tarrin nodded.  It was hard to sense through the Ward, because of its magic, but he could indeed sense strands on its far side.  The Ward marked the border of the void.

      "How did they make it black?" Dar asked.  "Wards are supposed to be invisible to the eye."

      "I have no idea," Tarrin said.  "I can't understand a fraction of what I'm seeing.  It's just too complicated."

      About a half an hour later, they reached the edge of the darkness.  It was indeed a titanic wall of utter darkness rising up out of the sea.  It loomed over the steamship like a Giant looming over a mouse, the sun preparing to pass behind it and leave the steamship in shadow.  Jalis ordered the ship to stop about half a longspan from the edge of it, and all the sailors stared at it with wild eyes, many of them with shaking hands.  Tarrin had to admit, it did look quite intimidating and frightening.  They couldn't see through it, so they had no idea what was on the other side.  It could be empty ocean, or a coastline could be lurking mere longspans on the other side of that wall of darkness.

      "Amazing," Dolanna said.  "We know it is shaped like a dome because we could see it as we approached.  But this close, it looks like a flat wall."

      "Well, the water is passing through it," Keritanima said, pointing to where the waves disappeared into the darkness.  "That's a start."

      "What are we going to do now?" Dar asked.

      "We can't try to go through it until we know what the Ward was designed to stop, and what steps it takes," Dolanna said.  "If that is a killing Ward, the last thing we want to do is sail through it."

      "Good point," Dar said, paling slightly.

      "Well, Tarrin, feel like a little ride?" Keritanima asked.

      "What do you mean?"

      "You, me, and Dolanna are going over there in a longboat," she told him.  "I think between the three of us, we can figure out what the Ward does."

      "It's a start," he mirrored her former words.

      The longboat was lowered, but not after a heated fight between Jalis and Keritanima.  Jalis wasn't about to let the queen run off into an unknown, dangerous situation, but Keritanima wasn't about to stay behind.  Jalis was almost treasonous, threatening to put Keritanima in irons for her own good, then Keritanima countered by telling him that if he tried that, he'd be swimming home.  Jalis lost in the end, simply because Keritanima pulled rank on him, but he did manage to get her to agree to take a full crew armed with muskets as a precaution.  Binter also accompanied them, his huge hammer in his hands and ready to defend the queen from whatever may jump out of the darkness to attack them.

      The longboat rowed up to the wall of darkness carefully, slowly, and then the sailors pulled in the oars and dropped a sea anchor to try to keep the ship stationary.  All three of the Weavespinners leaned towards the Ward, an inky wall of ultimate blackness, and they tried to understand what it was and what it did.  That much closer to it, Tarrin could make out its weaving much better, but it was still an unbelievably complicated, multi-layered weave of stunning proportions, and its function was hidden within its mind-boggling complexity.  After nearly a half an hour of quiet, intense study, Tarrin blew out his breath and leaned back. "It's just too big," he sighed.  "I can see its weaving, but I can't make out what it's supposed to do."

      "Me either," Keritanima growled.

      "Nor can I, so I guess now it comes time for experimentation."  Dolanna picked up an oar and pushed it towards the Ward, but it passed through.  "So, it does not stop objects," she noted, setting the oar down and reaching out with her bare hand.

      Before Tarrin could react, Dolanna reached out and tried to touch the Ward.

      His heart about leaped out of his chest when he saw that, but to his ultimate relief, her hand touched the Ward as if it were a solid object.  She laid the palm of her hand against it and pushed, which only made the longboat drift backwards.

      "It looks like it's designed to act as a physical barrier to living things," Dolanna said.  "Or perhaps certain living things.  The birds we saw earlier may be able to pierce the Ward, but it obviously will repel a human."

      "Let's see," Keritanima said, reaching out with her hand.  It too struck the Ward as if it were a solid object.  "It's amazing," she whispered.  "I can feel the power of it under my hand!  It's incredible!"

      Tarrin reached out as well, his paw reaching out and making contact--

      --then it passed through!  White light erupted from the blackness around Tarrin's wrist as his paw passed through the Ward, and he felt an blasting surge of magical power assault him, like white-hot steel placed into his paw.  The power of the Weave conducted through the Ward, entering him, filling him to his capacity in the blink of an eye.  Magelight exploded around his body in a blinding flash, startling two of the sailors so badly that they fell overboard.  Tarrin felt paralyzed by the contact, unable to move, unable to do anything but try to fight back against the onslaught of magical energy that sought to fill him.  At that moment, he realized that even a sui'kun could be destroyed by the power of the Weave, as its power sought to fill him to such a capacity that the energy reacted with itself and destroyed him.  Clamping his jaws, biting off the tip of his tongue, Tarrin set a foot against the side of the lonboat and tried to pull away, but the Ward had his paw in a vice-like grip, like the hand of a Giant holding onto him, and he couldn't move it.

      The power became pain, a pain he had not felt since that day in the desert when Spyder had provoked him into crossing over.  He could feel the power, feel its heat, and though the heat did him no harm, the power itself was starting to infuse his every cell, his every tiniest part.  Tarrin's flesh and skin and fur began to glow with the same light as the aura that surrounded him as the power flowed into him like water, and he the vessel.

      Fight back! the voice of the Goddess reached him, though it was distant, fuzzy in his struggles.  Fight back, kitten!  If you don't master it, it will destroy you!

      Tarrin clenched his eyes shut and tried to center himself.  Fight back.  He had to resist the power, or take control of what was trying to send it into him.  It was like a fight between Sorcerers, as one tried to overcharge the other and force him to let go of the Weave or be Consumed.  His adversary was the stronger opponent, and that made Tarrin go on the defensive.  He used every trick he'd learned from Spyder and through trial and error, channeling the flow of the power into a weave, a weave of pure, unmitigated power, and then he focused it in his free paw and drove it into the Ward, even as his free paw drove into the blackness.  Tarrin used the power against itself, channeling what was flowing into him into an eruption of all seven flows, flows that radiated out from his paw.  They flailed into the matrix of flows that made up the Ward, and whenever a flow made contact with a flow from the same Sphere, the two flows cancelled one another out.  The Ward was attacking the integrity of Tarrin's body, so Tarrin retaliated by using the power of the Ward to fuel a spell that would attack the integrity of the Ward.  Tarrin's spell slashed through the weave that made up the Ward as the flows Tarrin fed back into the Ward caused the weaving of it to unravel, as Tarrin's spell actively attacked it.  It happened quickly, too quickly to follow, but Tarrin realized that he'd done serious damage to the integrity of the Ward around his paws, enough that he felt the vice-like grip on his paw loosen.  Tarrin was about to jerk both his paws out of the Ward, but he felt the power roaring into him suddenly ease, becoming a trickle that he could easily control.

      The weave of the Ward actively altered, right around his paws.  The black surface of the Ward shimmered like ripples on the surface of a pond, radiating outward.  The ripples intensified, and then the Ward's blackness broke up, going from a featureless, intimidating wall to a barrier of black mist, its edge defined but its appearance looking intangible.  The size of the disturbance was rather impressive, nearly a hundred spans high and a hundred spans wide, and Tarrin could sense that the dimensions of the disturbance were similar under the water.  It was a circular area of change.

      "Tarrin, what just happened?" Dolanna asked fearfully, reaching out as if to touch him, but not sure if she should.

      Tarrin was panting to recover his breath.  Goddess, that was close!  He'd never been...manhandled like that before!  Spyder's attacks seemed gentle compared to what he'd just experienced!  Tarrin's attention was taken up by the Ward, and he ignored Dolanna as he tried to understand what had just happened.  The Ward's weaving had changed, its fundamental nature altered, but he didn't do it.  The Ward had changed itself after Tarrin nearly disrupted that parts of it he was touching, and changed itself over a wide area.  Tarrin had done something to trigger this, a programmed response of some sort.

      But what did he do?

      Keritanima reached towards the misty barrier, but this time her hand penetrated into it.  Her eyes widened and she jerked her hand out.  "It felt like ants crawling all over me!" she said.

      "Tarrin, whatever you did, it has altered the Ward so we can pass through it," Dolanna said in surprise, putting her own hand in.

      Pass through it.  Pass.  Tarrin looked at her, sweat forming on his brow as he maintained control over the Ward as it still tried to fill him with power, the urgency of the flow becoming stronger and stronger every moment.  The poem said only one in twenty could allow them to pass beyond the Weave.  The reef wasn't the last challenge.  This was!

      "It's starting to fight back again, Dolanna," he said in sudden concern.  "I think this is what the poem was talking about.  The Ward reacted to me when I touched it, and I had to fight it for control.  I think I accidentally opened a hole in it when I managed to overcome its attack, but I don't know how long it's going to last."

      Though his train of thought was scattered, and it showed in how his words bounced around from subject to subject, Dolanna seemed to follow him.  "This is why we needed you," she realized.  "Only you could conquer the Ward and grant us entry."

      "Speaking of entry, we'd better do some entering quickly," Keritanima said urgently. "If it's starting to resist Tarrin, we can't waste any time."

      "That is dangerous, Kerri," Dolanna said.  "We do not know what is on the other side."

      "We just have to show a little faith that the Goddess isn't leading us astray," she said with an impish smile, standing up in the boat and looking back to the steamship.  "Tarrin opened the Ward!" she screamed at the top of her lungs.  "Get the steamship through, and do it now!  He can't hold it open for very long!"

      Tarrin heard no reply, as he devoted more and more attention to the Ward, and how it was trying to overcome whatever it had done to itself.  Tarrin could feel the weave try to realign itself the way it had been before, and he realized he had to actively put his paw in to stop that.  He didn't know what he was doing, but he drew from the Weave through the Ward, using it to make indirect contact to the strands beyond the Ward, and quickly wove together a monstrous weave of pure Divine.  He wedged that into the matrix of the Ward, locking the flows in place like nailing a wedge under a door to keep it open.  The flows of the Ward resisted Tarrin's attempt to stop them, but the flows did indeed stop trying to rearrange themselves back into their prior organization, which would cause the Ward to attack him again.

      "Tell them to hurry," Tarrin said through gritted teeth.  "I can't hold it open much longer!"

      Tarrin struggled to hold the Ward in its current state as the steamship's engine roared to life, audible to them, and it started surging forwards.  Tarrin didn't look, didn't think of anything but maintaining his spell, struggling to hold the Ward open as the resistance it posed grew stronger and stronger with each passing moment.  Tarrin's paws began to itch and got progressively colder as he kept the wedge in the Ward, prevented it from closing on itself and rearrange back to its former state.  "Where are they?" Tarrin hissed, his tail sticking straight out as his body strained, almost as if he were trying to hold the breach open with his bare paws.

      "They're passing us right now, Tarrin," Keritanima told him.  "Throw down a rope and pull us through behind you!" Keritanima shouted.

      Tarrin was losing.  The edges of the altered Ward were beginning to collapse as the force exerted against him became stronger than what he could resist.  Tarrin retracted his holding weave of Divine, pulled it down to make it more concentrated, and though he couldn't see it, the men on the ship did.  They saw the misty hole suddenly shrink visibly, the top of it just over the top of the mast as the bow and amidships passed into the black swirling mist.  Tarrin was forced to give more and more ground to the inexorable pressure being exerted against his weaving, being exerted against him, and sweat rolled profusely from his brow as he struggled to retreat to a position where his Divine weave could set itself and hold its position against the closing hole.  Tarrin felt the longboat suddenly yank forwards, and the cold sensation passed through his body as the longboat was pulled through the breach.  It lasted a long moment, and then he felt warmth on his paws, spreading up his arms, and then across his body.  Tarrin felt the tip of his tail come free of the Ward, and when he lost contact with it, his Divine weave was crushed by the pressure of the Ward.  From the outside, the effect was startlingly abrupt.  With a sudden snap, the misty black of the Ward shuddered back into featureless black, and the hole Tarrin opened closed.

      Tarrin opened his eyes, letting go of the Weave and feeling his body throb a bit from the effort.  From the inside, the blackness wasn't there, and he looked up into a clear, beautiful sky.  He realized that the blackness was an Illusion, an Illusion that was only visible from the outside.  The area inside the Ward was not a void; in fact, there was such a concentration of strands that it made his ears buzz slightly.  The place had the same feel as the Tower of Six Spires, that same sense of magic charging the very air itself, but here it was even stronger.  The power of the Weave litereally saturated the air, and there were so many strands that the ghostly sight of them almost threatened to overwhelm his vision, hide the physical objects that were behind them.  It took him a moment to adjust himself to it, to remind himself to ignore the ghostly images of the strands and concentrate on the solid things behind them, things that became more easy to see and sharper as he tuned the strands out of his vision.  There were birds soaring on the gentle wind before them, he could see, soaring over something that made his heart leap to see.

      It was an island.  A very large island, with the towering cone of a volcano raising up from its north side.  They were very far away from it, but even from that distance, he could see the green of the grass and the trees, could see that it was a lush, beautiful place.  It looked to be about thirty longspans across or so, and its distance put it a few hours' travel away by steamship.

      "We, we made it," Tarrin said in relief, looking at Keritanima. But instead of seeing joy or relief on her face, she looked frightened.  "Kerri, what's wrong?"

      "Tarrin?  Hold on," she said, raising a hand.  She caused a ball of light to appear over her hand, and she held it up to him.  "We made it, didn't we?"

      "If course we did!" he told her.  "We're inside the Ward, Kerri, and there's an island in front of us!"

      "How can you see it?" she asked, peering in that direction. "Tarrin, it's as black as pitch in here!"

      "No it's not," he protested.  He looked to the steamship, seeing that they were lighting lanterns, and he heard them calling out to the longboat fearfully.  What was wrong with them?  It was broad daylight, why on earth did they need to light lanterns?  "It's the middle of the day!"

      "Alright, one of us lying," Keritanima said sharply.  "I can't see my hand in front of my face!"

      "Well, everything's as clear as day to me," he told her.

      "Amazing," Dolanna said.  "Tarrin, you can see?"

      "It's broad daylight, Dolanna," he told her.

      "I can barely see you with Kerri's light," Dolanna told him, squinting in his direction.  "It is like the air itself is swallowing up the light.  I cannot see the steamship at all, but I can hear them talking."

      "It has to be some kind of magical spell put on us by the Ward when we passed through it," Keritanima said.  "Let's get back the ship and see who's been affected, and try to come up with a way to counter it."  She looked around. "Tarrin, I can't see the steamship.  Could you guide us back to it?"

      "Alright," he said, shifting to Wikuni to adress the four rather nervous sailors in the ship.  "Alright men, set your oars.  The steamship is just a little starbord of us, about three hundred spans away."

      "A little more than hundred fifty feet," Keritanima translated for the Wikuni.

      "Let's go nice and slow," Tarrin told them.  "Just keep calm and row steady, and we'll be there in just a few minutes."

      "Aye, sir," one of them said in a shaky voice.  "You heard the man, set oars," he ordered his fellow sailors.

      The sailors rowed carefully, and Tarrin looked around.  The island looked inviting, but this magical effect on the others was a bit disconcerting.  Why hadn't he been affected?  Had anyone else managed to avoid the spell's effect?  Tarrin was a little surprised that it had done that, that it could affect everyone who passed through it, but there was no magical spell or effect that could not be countered or removed.  They would just have to figure out what caused it and engineer a remedy.  And now that they were out of the void, that meant that all of them, even Kimmie, Phandebrass, and Camara Tal, could bend their magic to the task.  He was confident that this problem was an easy one to overcome.

      Tarrin guided them to the ship, looking at the island.  He didn't feel anxious or worried anymore, at least not yet.  For a long moment, he simply revelled in the fact that they'd made it.  He was sure of it.  Somewhere on that island, the Firestaff was laying, waiting for them to come and claim it.

      All they had to do now was find it.

      "Well, my friends, I think we are here," Dolanna chuckled.  "You said there was an island, Tarrin?"

      "Yes, a couple of hours ahead."

      "Then that is probably our destination," she nodded.

      "Well, my friends, let me be the first to welcome us to the end of our journey," Keritanima said with a slight smile.  "It won't be long now."

      "Indeed," Dolanna agreed.

      "Since I can't see my hand in front of my face, I think we could give this place a fitting name.  Let's call it the Shadow Realm."

      Tarrin stood up and grabbed a dangling rope from the winch that had lowered the longboat, looking at Keritanima.  If anything, he realized, it was a fitting name.  An island protected by a dome of darkness, that cast shadow over the eyes of those who managed to pass through, making day seem like night to them.  "It fits," Tarrin agreed.

      Soon, their journey would be over, Tarrin realized with a sigh.  Somewhere in here the Firestaff was hidden, and all they had to do was find it.

      Somewhere in the Shadow Realm.


To:       Title                EoF

Chapter 11

 

      The magic affecting the people on the ship did more to unnerve the Wikuni sailors than anything that had happened thus far.  Tarrin had never seen a group of men more frightened and nervous than he saw that day, after they had brought up the longboat holding the queen.  They stumbled around blindly, banging into things, and every time someone did it made everyone else even more anxious.  He understood that their inability to see was the cause, that beings like Wikuni were so dependent on their sight that when it was taken away from them, it caused them to nearly panic.  They couldn't see their own muzzles unless they had a lantern, and Keritanima and Dolanna told him that the light was swallowed up by the air, barely lighting anything outside of arm's reach.

      Tarrin thought it slightly odd that they would be carrying around lanterns, candles, and torches in the middle of the day, but to them, it wasn't day, it was night.

      Unlike the mind-affecting magic that caused the attempted mutiny, this particular magical effect got everyone but Kimmie, Binter, and Sisska.  Allia was similarly affected by the magic-induced darkness, as were all the humans and Wikuni.  All of them had little doubt it that Tarrin and Kimmie were immune because they were Were, but nobody seemed to understand why the Vendari were also immune to the megical effect.  The drakes weren't affected by it either, but then again, they were animals, even if Sapphire had exhibited more than animal intelligence lately.  It fell to the Were-cats and the Vendari to clear the deck of most of the loose objects, clearing paths for the terrified Wikuni sailors and Tellurian engineers, who had been forced out of the engine room by the total darkness below.

      Then again, they weren't going to be needed.  Jalis dropped the anchor, and Keritanima didn't argue with him when he told her adamantly that he wasn't going to move the ship until they figured out what was going on, and if they could find a way to fix it.  Even if four people on board could see, nobody else could, and the two Were-cats and two Vendari couldn't run the ship by themselves.

      After Keritanima and Jalis made rounds to try to calm everyone down, giving the men double rations for dinner and sending them below to rest and stay out from underfoot, Keritanima gathered all of them together, even the bear Wikuni that served as the ship's Priest and Jalis, and they tried to figure out what was causing the darkness.  The Wikuni Priest, Orlen, and Phandebrass cast a series of magical spells to try to discern the source of the magic, but their attempts failed.  Dolanna and Keritanima couldn't sense the magic, which made it on par with the magic that had caused the mutiny.  Tarrin couldn't sense much of anything with the powerful background magic that permeated the entire region within the magical Ward, a background noise that drowned out anything that wasn't stronger than the background itself.  That meant to him that the magic had to be very subtle, very delicate, the same way that the mind-affecting magic that had caused the mutiny had been.  Tarrin suspected that that was why Dolanna and Keritanima couldn't sense it either, but since they didn't have as much experience in using the senses to probe the Weave as he did, they discounted their own abilities and felt that they failed to sense anything.

      "I say, if we can't detect its source, we need to figure out how it's affecting us," Phandebrass said clinically, scratching the beginnings of a white beard.  "If we can't block it from affecting us, we need to counter what it's doing, we do."

      "It must be a mental effect," the Wikuni Priest, Orlen, reasoned in a deep bass voice.  "If the Vendari and Master Tarrin and Mistress Kimmie can see, then it can't be a physical spell."

      "Agreed," Dolanna added, "but what kind of mental effect?  There are a variety of possible approaches to create this.  Illusion, Phantasm, Enchantment, or even Necromancy."

      "What are those last two?" Dar asked.

      "Enchantment is something Sorcerers cannot easily do," Dolanna explained to him.  "It is a mental magic that affects mood or personality, but in strong cases, it can affect thoughts.  It is the Wizard's form of Mind weaves.  If an Enchantment is making us think that it is this dark, then our minds will not believe what our eyes tell us."

      "Necromancy is a forbidden form of Wizard magic, dealing with negative energy," Camara Tal explained.  "It's been forbidden for centuries.  Necromancy can do anything Wizardry can do, and a whole lot more."

      "Then why is it forbidden?"

      "Because it delves into the realms of the dead," Phandebrass answered the Arkisian.  "Necromancy was the magic that raised all the dead in Suld and caused them to fight against us, it was.  I say, most people don't like the idea of someone coming along and stealing the bodies of their departed loved ones to use as servants, they don't, so Necromancy is hated by almost everyone.  In some kingdoms, it is death to practice it, it is."

      "I don't see how it's different from Wizardry."

      "Wizardry draws positive energy," Kimmie said simply.  "Necromancy draws negative energy.  There is no spell in Necromancy that is directly helpful or beneficial.  All Necromantic spells are destructive, because negative energy can't be used for beneficial ends."

      "I say, good explanation, Kimmie."

      "Thank you," she said to her teacher with a smile.

      "I think I understand," Dar said.  "Necromancy sounds creepy."

      "It's not for the faint of heart," Phandebrass told him.  "I've studied Necromancy.  I can even cast a few of its spells, but I won't go too far.  Necromancy subverts the soul and turns the casters evil.  I've gone as far as I could go without suffering those effects."

      "Why in the blazes did you do something so foolish!" Camara Tal snapped at him.

      "I wanted to learn about Necromancy, I did," he told her.  "So I tracked down a Necromancer and apprenticed to him.  He was a sinister fellow, he was, totally enslaved by his power.  But he was a good teacher."

      "You are crazy," Camara Tal told him bluntly.

      "We digress," Dolanna reminded them.  "We may be able to discern the type of magic it is if we can discover why the Were-cats and the Vendari are immune.  There has to be a reason for it."

      "Well then, we must ask what makes them different from us, we do," Phandebrass said.

      "Well, they're both part animal," Dar said.

      "So are the Wikuni," Keritanima told him immediately.  "That's not the reason, or the Wikuni would be immune too."

      "Were-cats are magical beings," Phandebrass reasoned aloud.

      "But the Vendari are not," Orlen countered him.

      "I remember something that Tarrin told me long ago," Allia injected.  "That the Were-cats and the Vendari originated from magical beginnings."

      Tarrin remembered telling her that, and nodded.  "The Were-cats were magically evolved from common cats," he affirmed.  "The Vendari are a race that was created by the Wizards of Zakkar."

      "Well, that is a common denominator," Phandebrass mused.  "But the magic of that creation is ancient.  It couldn't be strong enough to counter this magic, it couldn't."

      "You miss the point," Dolanna said.  "The Vendari and Were-cats are not completely natural."

      "Neither are the Wikuni," Keritanima countered.  "If we really are descended from the Sha'Kar, then we should look like Allia," she said, pointing at the Selani."  Then Keritanima's eyes brightened.  "But we did originate from the Sha'Kar," she said quickly.  "I think that's the commonality here."

      "What?" several asked at once.

      "The Vendari and the Were-cats aren't descended from the four original races," she explained.  "They were created later.  If this magic really was set down by the Ancients that hid the Firestaff some five thousand years ago, maybe it's only attacking the people it was designed to attack.  Think about it, when the Ancients hid the Firestaff, the Vendari didn't exist, and if the Were-cats did, they probably would never have considered them a threat.  Were-cats aren't the kinds to seek the Firestaff, because they'd have no interest in it."  She winked at Tarrin.  "The humans are one of the first four races.  They existed back then.  So did the Sha'Kar.  And the Selani and the Wikuni are descended from the Sha'Kar."

      "Excellent.  You just explained us right back to where we began, Kerri," Dolanna smiled.  "We need to determine how the magic is affecting us to counter it.  I do not doubt that you are right, but it does not help us figure out how the magic works."

      "Actually, it does," Keritanima said smugly.  "If the Ancients laid this down, then it's Sorcery.  And Sorcerers can't affect others with Mind weaves outside their own race."  She looked at Tarrin.  "And if it's Sorcery, then it can be blocked, by a Ward.  Think you're up to challenging the Ancients, brother?"

      "You assume that the magic is active, Kerri," Dolanna chided her.  "The effect could have been placed on us already, and now we only suffer the weave's lingering effects.  If that is so, no Ward can block what has already been laid down."

      "Not a Ward to stop Sorcery, Dolanna, a Ward that totally nullifies all magic," Keritanima corrected.  "I think it is an after-effect, or we'd sense the active magic.  If we can eliminate the effect once, then we can see if it re-establishes itself or it just goes away."

      Tarrin considered that, and he saw where she was going.  The Ward they'd penetrated had been unbelievably complicated, and there was quite a good chance that crossing through it had been what had caused this magical influence.  It may have had safeguards within safeguards within safeguards.  The Ancients had went to all the trouble to hide the Firestaff all the way out here, it wasn't a stretch to think that they had taken exorbatant precautions to safeguard the island upon which it had been placed.  Striking blind anyone who did penetrate the Ward in some way was a good tactic.

      "We can try it.  There would be very little chance of anything bad coming of it," Dolanna nodded.  "Tarrin, do you think you can do as we ask?"

      "Dolanna, you could do that," he told her.

      "Yes, but I would like you to place the Ward over me, and I cannot create it from the inside," she told him.  "It would block my power as soon as I wove it, and I would not have time to set it before it disrupted itself."

      "Good point," he said, stepping back.  "Alright, everyone get clear of Dolanna," Tarrin ordered.

      They cleared away from the small Sharadite Sorceress, and Tarrin made contact with the Weave.  He was astounded at how rich it was, how easily the power came to him, almost as if it were eager to please him.  He had no trouble at all weaving a Ward that absolutely defeated all magic that either tried to cross it or existed within it.  Such Wards were very hard to make, for instead of it affecting on things on a border, they affected everything within them as well.  Such Wards could only be made with High Sorcery if they were much larger than a broom closet in volume.  Tarrin didn't have to resort to High Sorcery for this task, building the Ward just large enough to affect his small mentor, and then setting it so it would only last a moment.

      Dolanna gave out a slight gasp and blinked, then shielded her eyes.  "It worked," she announced.  "It is daylight again.  Now then," she said, stepping forward, removing herself from the effect of the Ward.  She looked around, and nodded.  "I can still see," she announced.  "The Ward removed the effect.  You were right, Kerri, it was a lingering effect, not an active spell."

      Tarrin took hold of the Weave again and recharged the Ward so it would last longer.  "Alright, Kerri, you try," Tarrin told her.

      Keritanima stepped into the Ward's boundary, then she too blinked and squinted.  "It works alright," she chuckled, stepping out.

      "Well, let us line up and step through," Dolanna told them.

      One by one, the magicians crossed through the Ward, and regained their ability to see.  They all blinked and tried to adjust their eyes to the light, standing in a group to give themselves that moment.  Tarrin called over Miranda from where she, Binter, and Sisska were nearby, and she passed through the Ward and regained her ability to see as well.

      "Alright, we found the answer," Keritanima said.  "Let's clear everyone up and get moving."

      Keritanima was both right and wrong.  The Ward cleared the vision of the magicians.  It also cleared the vision of Miranda and Azakar.  But it did not clear the vision of the Wikuni sailors after they left the Ward.  It let them see while they were within it, but as soon as they stepped out, they were again affected.  Only the Wikuni Priest, Orlen, had regained his vision.  Jalis, his crew, and the Tellurian engineers all were unaffected by Keritanima's solution, and that baffled the Wikuni queen to no end.  She grumbled and began to pace, muttering to herself as she tried to come up with a way to solve the problem.

      "I don't get it," Dar said.  "Why would the Ward restore our sight, but not anyone else's?"

      "The question you should ask is what makes us different from everyone else," Camara Tal told him.

      "I say, I do see one common denominator, if we exclude a couple of stray elements," Phandebrass said.  "It restored our sight, and we're all magicians in one way or another.  It didn't work on the sailors or the engineers, because they're not magicians.  But it did work on Azakar and Miranda, and that is where my theory goes astray, it does."

      "Azakar is a Knight," Camara Tal grunted.  "That means he has Karas' favor.  In a way, he is a magician, mage," she explained.  "Knights can't cast spells, but they do have the favor of their god, and that gives then certain magical advantages."

      "Like what?"

      "I don't know, because I've never seen them," Camara Tal said.  "I just know that they do.  Back before the Breaking, Knights could cast spells.  They can't do it now, but I guess that ability gives them just enough magical ability to make the spell Tarrin used work on them."

      Tarrin glanced at Camara Tal.  He didn't know that, and he'd never heard anything about it from Darvon or Faalken.  Maybe they didn't talk about it because they were lost abilities.  Maybe they didn't know themselves.  Camara Tal was a student of military history, and Amazar was very close to the land of Sharadar, the one place where the lore of the ancient world hadn't been lost in the Breaking.  She'd probably read more in the Cathedral of Knowledge, the legendary library in Abrodar, than Tarrin had ever known in his life.  She probably read about that in Abrodar.

      "But that doesn't explain Miranda, it doesn't," Phandebrass said, looking at the mink.

      "I guess I'm just lucky, Phandebrass," she said with a cheeky grin.  "That, or maybe Kerri's rubbed off on me a little."

      Tarrin knew why it affected her, and it wasn't something he wanted the others to find out.  Miranda was an Avatar, and that link to the goddess that had made her gave her whatever it was that let the Ward affect her.

      "Maybe Miranda has some magical potential we didn't know about," Tarrin said carefully.  "That could be it.  Want to study Wizardry with Phandebrass and Kimmie, Miranda?"

      She smiled at him.  "I'm busy enough as it is, Tarrin," she declined with a chuckle.

      "I say, I didn't consider that," Phandebrass said.  "You sure you wouldn't like to try, my dear?  It wouldn't be hard to test you."

      Tarrin almost sighed in relief.  Phandebrass' attention had been deflected.  If the doddering Wizard had really gotten a stick up his craw about finding out, he would find out.  He was relentless that way.  Tarrin's quick thinking and focused that dangerous obsessive curiosity on another tack, and Miranda's secret was relatively safe.

      "Maybe later, Phandebrass," Miranda said with a cheeky grin.  "For now, let's worry about the important things."

      And there were important things.  Jalis and Keritanima could be heard screaming at each other a few moments later, as Keritanima tried to get the captain to move the ship forward, but the captain absolutely refused to weigh anchor, screaming that the engineers couldn't see to run the engine, and it was too dangerous for his sailors to try to use the sails.  There was no easy solution, because Tarrin couldn't make a Ward to cover the entire ship.  It was just too large to try a Ward like that, since it was such a demanding spell in the first place.  But Phandebrass came up with a solution that pleased both sides in the altercation.  Tarrin couldn't create a Ward to cover the entire ship, but he could make a Ward to cover a large area.  So Phandebrass dragged him down to the engine room and had him set the Ward there.  It took alot out of Tarrin to do that, but when he was finished, he had set a Ward that made the entire engine room a place where they could see, and had set it so that it would last nearly a whole day.  That would be more than enough time for the ship to reach the island.

      The ship weighed anchor under steam and started towards the island, with Allia and Miranda on the lookout for any hidden dangers in the water.  Keritanima, Tarrin, Dolanna, and Camara Tal grouped together at the bow and decided that they would land at the extreme southern tip of the island and sweep methodically from south to north.  It was a huge island, heavily vegetated with what looked like thick forest, so it was going to take them a very long time to check the island thoroughly.  Tarrin seriously doubted that he'd be able to sense the Firestaff's location until they were rather close to it, because of the powerful background magic that clouded his ability to sense magical energy.  That too almost seemed designed, as if it had been set that way to prevent someone from landing on the island and quickly determining the Firestaff's location.  If that were the case, then Tarrin realized that there were going to be more adversaries than the mythical guardian.  The entire island may be populated with creatures placed there to make getting the Firestaff as difficult as possible.

      That was not a very pleasant thought.  They'd come a long way, and the last thing Tarrin wanted to endure was putting his friends in danger.  But then again, they all knew, even expected, to literally have to fight their way to the Firestaff.  It wasn't going to be a surprise for anyone if their initial landing on the island wasn't immediately challenged by some fell beast or monster.  The Ancients had gone to some extreme measures to protect that ancient artifact, at least what they'd seen so far, so it was no stretch to assume that they had left behind something other than magical defenses.  If Tarrin were hiding it and had unlimited resources, he'd seed the island with all sorts of nasty creatures, making sure to put enough there to where they could breed and keep up their numbers.  If he could think of it, he was absolutely positive that the Ancients thought of it first.

      It took them about four hours to reach the southern tip of the island.  It was carpeted with forest, a deciduous forest that reminded him of home, trees standing almost right up the waterline, where a very narrow sand beach separated sea from tree.  Tarrin was surprised that the seeping of the saltwater into the ground hadn't killed the trees so close to the shore, but they seemed quite healthy.  Allia and Miranda guided them into a small, shallow cove, and the ship dropped anchor and killed the fire in the boiler to stop the smoke.  They may be in hostile territory, so they had to keep a low profile.  Tarrin, Allia, and Miranda scanned all the visible shoreline for denizens, creatures, monsters, enemies, or even animals, and outside of some birds and various rodents, a few wild cat-like animals about the size of a housecat, and one small deer-like mammal, they saw nothing.  Certainly nothing that looked dangerous.  That bolstered Tarrin just a bit; if such small animals could live and thrive on the island, then there couldn't be an overpopulation of large, highly aggressive animals or monsters preying on them.  That certainly didn't mean that they weren't there, but it did mean that there wouldn't be one hiding behind every tree.  Unless it was a herbivore, of course.  He'd seen a herbivorous creature on the plains of Saranam that looked like a sloth, but was almost the size of a small cottage, and had claws on its paws that had to be as long as broadswords.  Tarrin certainly wouldn't want to have to fight something like that.

      At this point, Jalis and Keritanima had another fight.  Jalis was a loyal subject, but when he heard Keritanima ordering longboats for her and her companions, Jalis exploded.  He threatened to lock Keritanima in a closet, because he absolutely was not going to let his Queen wander around on hostile, alien soil without every sailor on the ship escorting her for her own safety.  Keritanima countered that they couldn't see their hands in front of their faces, so they wouldn't be much more than a hindrance to her party anyway.  Jalis wasn't quite so ready to admit defeat, and while the longboats were lowered and prepared, the two of them fought like children.  Tarrin was of a mind that this wasn't a good time to go.  It was nearly dark, and though he and Kimmie would be comfortable in the night, some of the others wouldn't.  They were there, and Tarrin found that he could wait one more night before starting out.  It was the safest course of action.  But he decided not to tell Keritanima that until she finished her fight.  Kerri got cranky when people interrupted her fun.

      "It's nearly sunset, your Majesty!" Jalis bellowed at her.  "Or at least I think it is!  Very soon now, it's going to be dark even for you!  I'm not going to let you blunder around out there in the dark!"

      "So, you're conceding that I don't need an army," she said with a sudden toothy grin.

      Jalis' expression grew dark and grimly contrite at his verbal blunder, then he regathered himself.  "You do need an army!  There's no telling what kind of monsters are roaming around out there!"