Part 4

by Shane Carlson (

    Author’s Note: I have discovered to my dismay that one of my favorite authors, the inestimable Terry Pratchett, has a country named “Howanda” in his hugely enjoyable Discworld series. I had named the nation to the south of my own Velledore as “Howonda,” but to avoid any confusion, I ask my readers to note that I have renamed it “Hosh Konda” and will use that name henceforth (with apologies to Mr. Pratchett).

    Additionally, I have various notes, family trees, maps and such that I have been creating to help me write the story. I have decided to make these available on a separate web site, which I am in the process of constructing. There isn’t much there yet, but it can be seen at (Be prepared to be amazed and astounded by my superior web site building skills, which, you will undoubtedly note, stand head and shoulders above the rest.)

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    This story is posted for the exclusive enjoyment of readers of the Nifty Archive. While you are free to make a personal copy, no copy of this manuscript may be published, copied, posted to another web site, or otherwise disseminated without express permission from the author, who retains copyright.

    The contents of this story are fictional. Any resemblance of characters to persons living or deceased is strictly coincidental. Certain characters may engage in sexual acts which may or may not be legal in the state or country in which a reader may reside. Any reader with objections to graphic descriptions of sexual encounters between males who may or may not have reached the legal age of consent, or whose local, regional, state or national jurisprudence prohibits such descriptions, should not read further.  

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    The dome of the sky rose above, its endless blue cut here and there by pale white streaks of wispy clouds. The great oval of the earth flowed past below, its white shrouded form marked by jagged peaks dipping suddenly into dark crevasses and surging out into rocky plateaus below which throngs of mountain pines sprung out of snowy slopes. It was a wild, white world that slid past his vision; yet, the glint of sun and shadow made it a thousand hues of white. From the ivory frost barely clinging to a sheer cliff down into the icy blue of a shadowy vale up over the muddy cream revealed by a snow slide, the Eddya Mountains reared up into the vast northern sky.

    Here, the southern mountain slopes were dominated by armies of majestic trees, all pines that, at this elevation, ruled unopposed over their domain, each a respectful distance from the other. Although covered in snow, occasional patches of green and brown were revealed as if they sought to assert their dominance by shaking off their white oppressor. Southward, further down the slopes—much further down—they grew thicker and wilder and grudgingly began sharing their space with great oaks. Northward, they became smaller and more stunted until finally giving way to the sheer mountain tops, arrayed in a jagged display like the toothy grin of some impossible monster about to consume the world.

    Above that wild landscape a hawk soared in the sky, now coasting, now stroking its powerful wings, all the while feeling the energetic rush of cold mountain air slip past its airborne form. Not deigning to rise as high as the peaks themselves, that noble bird contented itself with wheeling over the pines spread below, knowing that its lunch was more likely among those trees than in the desolate reaches above.

    But the hawk was of two minds—literally of two minds. The hawk mind was there, certainly, but another, human mind slipped around and under and through that avian consciousness. This was no easy task, for the mind of a hawk, as noble and fierce a creature as it might be, was in essence a simple and tightly woven affair, with little room for visitors. The two minds struggled. The hawk wanted to follow its instinct, stay where it was, and catch a juicy fox. The human wanted that bird of prey to soar higher, just above the timberline, to an area of deep shadow between the peaks.

    Hungry, the avian mind said. Fly, see, kill, eat.

    Higher, the human commanded. Higher.

    Maryk, the owner of the human mind, wanted to tell the bird that it could capture its lunch just as soon as it had noted whether the mountain pass above was open enough to negotiate. Maryk knew from experience, however, that the hawk would never understand such a complicated concept. It could only understand being overcome by human will. These mindlinks were always thus: the mighty struggle between the instinct of the bird and the will of the human.

    Higher, Maryk commanded again. Higher.

    The bird at last obeyed, although Maryk could detect an almost childish sense of exasperation in the creature. Winging upward, the vista of the approaching mountain tops filled his mind with the spectacular clarity of the hawk’s vision. Maryk suspected that most birds of prey, including his beloved Taisha, were blessed with such visual acumen, and he felt twice blessed to be able to join with her and see what she saw. To see out of those extraordinary orbs was to see wide and deep and clear, in a way no human could possibly imagine.

    And the color! A hawk saw color the same way a human saw depth; it was simply another dimension to that bird’s amazing sight. It could determine from the white hue of a patch of snow if a buckmouse’s burrow lay beneath. It could know to avoid a particular stretch of icy blue stream from the purplish tinge of dreaded icesnakes lurking below. Far before another bird actually became visible as a bird, even for a hawk’s vision, Taisha had determined who and what the bird was from the colors of its feathers.

    The strength and acuity of her vision was endlessly astounding, deep and complex. But, Maryk knew, that highly complex ability was focused solely on the animal’s instinct, which was the hunt. Whether the hunt was for food, or for cover, or for a mate, all of that visual prowess was fed into and focused on that main objective. And it was precisely that main objective that he had to fight every time he linked with her.

    It was worth it, though. Oh, so worth it! The beauty of the hawk’s mind, its clarity of purpose, was endlessly seductive.Seeing with it; flying with it; being with it. It was an addictive thrill to link with that simple barbarity. All the baggage he carried, all his troublesome emotions, the mental chatter, the uncertainty—it was all swept away in the hawk’s singular desire to hunt.

    It was a known risk for him and his bond-siblings to become one with their birds of prey, be they hawk or falcon. Every time they did so, they lost a little of their humanity. Every time they linked, the raw, instinctual power of their animal’s single purpose of mind seeped into the human one. That animal purpose slowly chipped away at the complex, human bundle of intellect and emotion until, eventually, all that remained was the desire to hunt. When that happened, the link became permanent, the hawk mind melding with and absorbing the human one. The hawk would then fly away, wild and free forever. And their humans would be found staring sightless, their expressions fixed in a wild grin that expressed their animality unleashed. It was an expression that non-initiates found deeply disturbing, the grin of a wild animal just before it captured its prey.

    It was an expression that Maryk could well understand, however. He felt that desire every time he linked with Taisha. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to release the link, to push that animal desire away. He needed recovery time afterwards, to reassemble the bits of his humanity that had been scattered by the joy of the wild hunt.

    He thought of Wilmar, who he had found weeks ago sitting calmly against the trunk of an ash, a few leaves of red and orange clinging to its nearly bare branches. Wilmar had been dead for several days, but he still sat there peacefully, except for his face with its wild grin that seemed to shout with the joy of eternal freedom.

    Wilmar had been old for a bond-sibling, in his mid forties. He and his hawk had been bonded over twenty years when Wilmar finally succumbed to the wild hunt, much longer than the average of ten to fifteen years. The White Bond extended the lives of the hawks, and at the same time shortened the lives of the humans. Maryk had loved Wilmar, as much as he could love anyone besides Taisha. Both Maryk and Wilmar had been blessed with the royal sigil: the Blue-Tailed Mountain Hawk. Maryk had bonded with Taisha, a female, while Wilmar had bonded with Duvo, a male.

    During mating season, Maryk and Wilmar had made wild, passionate love of an intensity unknowable to non-initiates. Driven by the raw need of their bond-mates, Maryk remembered well the last time they had lain together, their hawks circling above them, Taisha screaming her defiance and need, Duvo shrieking back as he relentlessly pursued her. Linked with Taisha, Maryk had lain on his back, his neck cramped uncomfortably against the bole of a tree but too far gone to notice it. Wilmar, similarly linked with Duvo, lay on top of him, grabbing and licking and biting all over his chest and neck. Like Taisha above him, Maryk had resisted mightily, beating and spitting at Wilmar. But, like Duvo above, Wilmar had been relentless, holding Maryk down ruthlessly, nearly choking him, as his engorged organ sought entrance between Maryk’s legs.

    While their hawks mated above, Maryk had finally given in, his legs splayed wide as Wilmar thrust in him. It was a feeling of purest ecstasy, feeling Taisha’s heat being satisfied by Duvo while Wilmar pounded inside him. Maryk had grabbed each of Wilmar’s powerful buttocks, forcing Wilmar deeper with each thrust. Wilmar had wrapped himself around Maryk’s torso, squeezing him so tightly that Maryk nearly couldn’t breathe. The closeness of their contact allowed Wilmar’s rippled abdomen to rub Maryk’s aroused manhood as his clenching manring was filled with Wilmar’s heated tool. Their lips had met, teeth clacking unnoticed in their urgency, tongues driven into each other’s mouths. Maryk had wanted to take all of Wilmar, raising his ass to allow deeper penetration, all while he sucked on Wilmar’s prowling tongue.

    All four animals had achieved release at the same time, the hawks shrieking above and the men grunting below. Wilmar had shuddered uncontrollably as he pushed deep into Maryk with a last few battering thrusts. Maryk had felt Wilmar’s explosion inside him as spurt after spurt erupted, all while Wilmar held him too tightly to breathe. The stimulation of the magic spot inside him combined with the rubbing made Maryk explode as well, moaning all the while, and both of them felt Maryk’s warm spunk shoot between their chests.

    Maryk had released his link then, expecting Wilmar to do the same, as they had done before, so that they could lay together for a while, luxuriating in each other’s strength and warmth. But Wilmar had remained linked, his eyes clenched, his expression one of animal lust. Wilmar had remained hard, and began thrusting in Maryk again. Maryk started trying to resist, to force Wilmar to release the link, but Wilmar’s animal passion overcame him and he allowed Wilmar to continue. Maryk had not dared to link with Taisha again, even though he had desperately wanted to. He knew that Wilmar did not want to come back and that he, Maryk, was the only thing that could bring his friend and lover back to the human world. But right then, being this close to Wilmar while the man was so close to losing his humanity was a thrill, as close to linking as possible without actually doing so.

    And so they had coupled again, Maryk’s flesh rising up once more, Wilmar pummeling that hidden place until Maryk screamed with pleasure. It had been the most intense human passion Maryk had ever felt. After they had both achieved release again, Maryk forced Wilmar to release the link, shaking him, begging with him until he did so. Wilmar had returned, dazed, disoriented, crying and blubbering like a lost little boy. Maryk had held him for hours, wiping his tears and smoothing his hair until he finally slept. Maryk had shed his own tears then, knowing that he soon would lose his lovely Wilmar to the call of the wild.

    Sex meant nothing to Taisha, of course, except when she was in heat, and she had noticed Maryk’s distraction, taking advantage of it by flying lower to get some lunch. Maryk snapped back into focus and warred with her once more, eventually forcing her to rise higher again. At last he saw what he was looking for: the rocky, craggy pass between two, enormous jagged peaks. Too narrow and far above the timberline, it was useless for an army, or even a company, to attempt to pass. But it was perfect for a lone mountain man to sneak through undetected so that he could spy on the enemy.

    For the enemy lay on the other side of that pass: Torghast, that forsaken waste of icy tundra rolling all the way to the top of the world. At least it was rumored to do so, since no Velledorian had ever ventured that far, nor would want to. A land of ice and frost and snow, the wind blew constantly on the other side of the Eddya Mountains, making the blizzards of high winter on the southern slopes seem but a child’s cough compared to the raging, monstrous gales that wracked the north.

    And yet Maryk knew Velledore desperately needed information about what was going on up there. With that wild autumn assault nearly two months before, Torghast had suddenly reared its head as a terrible enemy, one that had used evil magic to attack Velledore. His Queen and country had to know: Were the Torghasti tribes gathering? Why had they suddenly united? How had its magic become so powerful? There were many more questions than answers, and Maryk needed to try to find out some of those answers.

    Looking through Taisha’s eyes, Maryk saw that the pass looked navigable, if rough. The late autumn and early winter snows had not been sufficient to make it impassable, which it would certainly become when high winter struck with its mighty blizzards coming over the tops of the mountains. Additionally, he saw no signs of Torghasti raiders in the area. There were no Velledorian mountain holds in this remote and wild region, and so the tribal raiding parties had no reason to come here. Maryk knew this; it was why he had decided to come this way. He sought no confrontation, only to slip in and out as quietly and quickly as possible.

    He lessened his control on Taisha, and she gleefully swooped down the slopes, hawk eyes carefully scanning the terrain, looking for a treat. Maryk knew he should let go now, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to fly free with her; he felt her need becoming his need. Sometimes, it was difficult knowing where he stopped and she began. With their minds so closely linked, he felt a hawk himself, a ruthless, proud predator, unfettered by petty human concerns. He felt the hunt within him, becoming him. He knew if he didn’t let go soon, he would become the hunt.

    And never return.

    Taisha had reached the first significant groves of pine trees below the timberline and scanned the area carefully. He felt her awareness, her complete knowledge that the sky, her domain, was above and around her, that the trees, things to land and rest on, were below her, as was the cold, white material which was useless except as a cover for her treats. Her treats liked to think they could hide in the white, but the silly things didn’t seem to realize that their white looked completely different from the white around them. She looked around carefully. Helplessly caught up in her hunt, Maryk looked on as well.

    There! Her sharp eyes caught the slight motion far below and locked on her target. Maryk knew along with her that it was exactly what she wanted—a fat, juicy fox! The thrill of the hunt grew stronger in her, and Maryk was drawn in even more. She began flying in wide circles that grew tighter with each arc as she homed in on the snowy pelt of the little creature below her. With each arc, the intensity of her instinct grew and grew, until it burned like divine fire. It was a fire that consumed Maryk’s will as he gave in to her need.

    Suddenly, as she prepared for her final dive, Maryk knew.

    Desperately awakened from his submissive torpor, he slammed in his control of the hawk and ordered her away from the fox. Taisha shrieked in fury as she fought him, but her cries warned the fox, who disappeared under cover. Furious at being thwarted, Taisha unleashed pure animal rage at him. Shaken to his core, Maryk let go of the link.

    Gasping for breath, shaking uncontrollably, he slumped where he sat under a tree. He kept his eyes clenched shut and forced himself to take deep, even breaths. It was always difficult coming back to his body after flying with Taisha. This was doubly true when her avian rage nearly expelled his consciousness from her form. Although she could not actually reject him, she could make the visit extremely unpleasant, and she had just done so, interrupting her hunt like that! Now that he no longer was controlling her, her rage had quickly turned into mere disgruntlement, and even this faded away as she winged up to circle above the trees once more and begin the hunt anew. Her rage was sharp, but short lived; she was, after all, a wild animal and held no truck with lingering emotions.

    Maryk’s breathing had evened out and he sat up straight against the knobby bark of the pine. He kept his eyes closed, however, for he knew he still was not ready to face his human eyesight. Seeing through his own eyes provided such a pale, washed-out version of the world, a wholly strange and pathetic thing compared to the sparkling depth and color revealed to a hawk.

    Breathing through his nose reminded him of the one, single human physical ability that was superior to a bird of prey: smell. A hawk’s sense of smell was a poor thing, merely an evolutionary afterthought to bolster its sense of sight with the two key things absolutely vital to the survival of the species: smoke and hatchlings. Its sense of smell really only existed when it was asleep; it needed to be able to smell smoke so it could wake up and fly away, and a female needed to smell her younglings so she could know they were safe and in the nest.

    Maryk focused on this one superior ability, as he often did to help him get reacquainted with his body. He breathed deep the mountain air, cold and fresh with the scent of pine. He emptied his mind and slowly became human again. It had always been difficult, and was becoming more difficult as he got older.

    He shuddered slightly at how close it had been just a few moments ago. He knew better than to remain linked with Taisha when she was set on her hunt—that was the most dangerously seductive time for a bond-sibling. But, no matter how lost in the hunt he became, there was always some element of his humanity that pulled him back, that forced him to let go of the link and return to himself. Usually, it was his sense of duty—duty to his Queen, to his fellow bond-siblings, to his nation, and, most of all, to his Wild Woman—the White Lady—who he worshipped above all the Daughters. The Wild Woman had given him his special gift, as She had given to all the bond-siblings, and to none else.. Her gift enabled them to bond with their birds: the White Bond.

    His sense of duty usually allowed him to pull out of the link before Taisha got too caught up in the hunt, when her mind became sharp and hot and seared away his human desire. When duty wasn’t enough, his love for Wilmar had pulled him back from the brink a few times, although, now that Wilmar was gone, this safety net had fallen through. Besides duty and love, only one other trait had ever pulled him back, and that only one time before. He was almost embarrassed to admit it to himself, but, seeing that it had just saved his life, he supposed he would have to embrace it.

    Maryk Dellaturyn was a sentimental fool.

    That fox was a mother. Through Taisha’s eyes, Maryk had seen the rodent the fox held in her mouth as she trotted back to her den to feed her hungry pups. Maryk simply could not bear the thought of leaving the fox cubs to die. He knew it was a major point of separation between him and Taisha. The hawk, naturally, could care less about such things; there was only the hunt and then food in her belly. Once before, he had known the impending victim (a deermouse!) had been pregnant and had forced Taisha off of it, much to her raging displeasure.

    With the fox, it had been more than the rodent that had alerted him. It had been his gift—that special awareness of life he had that he could not explain. He could look at any woman and know if she was with child. He could look at any man and know if he was in pain.

    He had been told it was rare for men to have this gift. Women were blessed with it far more often, and women so blessed were eligible to become priests of the Good Mother. The White Clergy, the most exalted among the Eight Clergies, was the only one closed to men. Thus, the rare man who had the “White Gift” (although the White Daughters disapproved of that term in reference to men) was denied any access to train and use his gift.

    He corrected himself: had been denied access. It was all because of (in his opinion) Velledore’s most glorious Queen, Amyla the Great, that men were able to receive the blessing of the White Bond. After Queen Amyla defeated the heretics and won the civil war over a hundred years ago, she established the Queensguard and bullied the immensely grateful White Clergy into allowing eligible Queen’s Guardsmen—men and women—to receive the Bondspell and become Bond-Siblings. This had been the storied beginning of the elite of the elite: the Bond Corps of the Queensguard. The bond-siblings numbered less than thirty and routinely took the most dangerous assignments. They were indispensable tools for surveillance and reconnaissance.

    Even now, Maryk tipped his head in deference to Queen Amyla Samoryn, called the Great.

    Maryk felt Taisha’s exultation as she swooped down and snagged some hapless creature. He felt this in a special place in his mind that held the bond, although it was not so much a place as it was an awareness. He always knew where Taisha was and what she was doing, although he could only control her and see through her when he formally made the link. At all other times she was a slight buzz somewhere in the back of his mind as she went about her wild business; he knew that the bond to him would keep her nearby.

    Even that tiny surge of avian thrill in the back of his mind was enough to make his manhood rise. The thrill of the hunt usually expressed itself sexually in humans, civilized creatures that they were. Humans had bred most of their wildness out of themselves over the ages, with the result that their advanced mind could not process the simple barbarity of a wild animal’s primal urge. When linked, the strength of emotion caused by that primality, the sheer exultation, usually could express itself in only one way. Among the men, Maryk knew, that expression included spurts of white spunk, which quite often occurred spontaneously during the link, without any assistance from a helping hand (or mouth or... what-have-you). This was especially true when the men were young and inexperienced, and, of course, horny.

    Maryk did not know personally how the women dealt with the sexual urges. It had seemed impolite to ask, and, besides his general preference for men, as the bond-mate to a female bird, Maryk had always been on the receiving end. Halden said the women were just as horny, and he should know since he was married to one of them. Halden was that rare male bond-sibling who only liked sleeping with women, or at least claimed this, although he didn’t seem to care who was under him when his stud gyrfalcon was chasing a female. The White Clergy didn’t speak of it, but Maryk had noticed that the men in the Bond Corps had a definite proclivity toward members of their own sex.

    He suspected that it was the same for female bond-siblings, although it was difficult to say for sure since they were extremely rare. There were only three women in the Bond Corps, out of a total of thirty siblings. Women with the White Gift went into the White Clergy where they could fully train their gift and know the secrets of the White Lady. It was a rare, tough, rough-and-tumble sort of woman who actively chose the Queensguard and the White Bond.

    Though he felt Taisha’s hunting thrill, the unpleasant circumstances of his recent link breakage were enough to quell his lust. Besides, he didn’t feel like going to the trouble of peeling away his furs and leathers to get to his manhood. Maybe later, when they reached the pass. He would scout around a bit with Taisha, make his camp, and have a good, long, personal session. He could pretend that Wilmar was there, filling him up. The air was thinner up there, anyway, and this tended to heighten the climax.

    Thinking about this, Maryk felt himself growing within the confines of his fur-lined trousers. Smiling to himself, he stood up, collected his gear, and started up toward the pass. Better get started now, before he got himself too distracted.

    Taisha sensed him moving and gave a cry from where she rent her catch a short distance away. Maryk sent soothing thoughts through the man-bird awareness: Finish eating. Catch up.

    Satisfied, Taisha returned to her meal.

    Though he felt better now, worry remained in the back of his mind. It was getting harder and harder to come back to himself. He was finding his humanity an increasingly undesirable place to dwell.

    How much longer could he hold on?

    He looked up at the snowy mountain pass above him, and, eyes narrowing, thought of Velledore’s cold enemy on the other side.

    It would have to be long enough.

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    Patches of fog rolled through the cold morning air as a pale dawn sullenly forced its way through a leaden sky. The night’s pounding rain had let off, but the citizens of Vel Tama knew what those low-hanging clouds promised, and early risers scurried here and there to reach their destination before the next torrent was unleashed.

    Among those early risers was a tall, sandy-haired youth who strode through the streets of the New City, easily dodging the sparse, early morning traffic as he made his way to the Samoryn Bridge. The damp heightened the chill in the air, and he used one hand to clutch his cloak about him as he peered through the swirling fog that was thicker here, thinner there. His other hand rested at his side, safely under the cloak’s flap, holding a small bundle.

    The bundle was why he was up and about so early—early even for a baker boy who was accustomed to waking with the dawn. He had a lot of walking to do today and needed as much time as possible in which to get it done. He had thus woken in the pre-dawn hour, although the clouds kept it as dark as midnight, and gently nudged the sleeping redhead curled up against him. Olwyn liked to tease Havym about his supposed laziness, but the truth was that Havym had already sold his third tray of scones by the time Olwyn’s grandmother had shouted at him enough times to make him grudgingly consider the idea of getting out of bed.

    The nudging had done no good, of course: Olwyn had lain there like a rock, although a rock was never so cute. Havym had wanted to tell his friend that he would return to the inn after he had finished his business with the Black Temple—return to the inn to collect Olwyn and then head to the Guardhouse so that Olwyn could declare for him. But Havym knew from unfortunate experience what a dreadful grump Olwyn could be upon waking, and decided not to risk it.

    As long as his visit to the Black Temple was reasonably brief, he should have plenty of time to go back to the inn, gather up Olwyn and make it to the Queen’s Guardhouse well before sundown. It was well-known that any commoner could apply for admission to the Queensguard at any time between sunup and sundown on any day. Except Eightday, of course. And that was precisely the reason for Havym’s rush: tomorrow was the holy day of rest and he would not be able to apply. Being an impetuous lad of sixteen, he was far too impatient to even consider the notion of waiting two whole days to get on with his life.

    He had kept walking and the mighty Samoryn Bridge loomed impressively out of the fog, its majestic stone arches disappearing into the mist as they marched across the water to Suardhaya, one of the four islands of the Old City. Even fog-shrouded as it was, the wide bridge was truly impressive, and Havym found himself walking a bit taller as he prepared to step across its flagstones, as did every citizen of Vel Tama.

    Hailed as one of the greatest engineering achievements in history, the Samoryn Bridge was certainly the longest bridge ever built anywhere in the entire continent. It had taken forty years during the reigns of two queens to finish its construction. It was beautiful as well, much more lovely to behold than the older, utilitarian Queen’s Bridge to the west. Circular parapets stood out from each arch, and in the center of each parapet was a life-size marble sculpture of an important historical or religious event. Havym quickly was approaching the first two, on either side of him. On the left was Queen Doryna I winning her bet with the Gray Girl, which allowed victory over the Trashkkouz invaders. On the right was Queen Haelhya’s rapture as she received the Light of the White Lady. There were sixteen such impressive sculptures placed at the sides of each of the eight massive arches of the bridge.

    Standing to the side of each sculpture, and at both entrance drawbridges, were a pair of the soldier-priests of the Red Sister, overseeing the sanctity of their environs. Garbed in ceremonial red cloaks covering their forms from neck to ankle, they stared impassively from behind the faceplates of their red and gold painted helmets. Of each pair, one faced the bridge, and the other faced the water, standing as silent sentinels ready to protect the interests of the Eight and their divinely-ordered queendom.

    The Red Guard had always watched over the bridge, as they did in many other strategic locations throughout the city, and Havym barely noticed them. They certainly did not appear to notice him, or, for that matter, any of the scattered pedestrians, carts and carriages of the light morning traffic scurrying by. But Havym knew that beneath those voluminous cloaks were honed physiques wearing red-lacquered armor, a longsword, and, most likely, a fearsome weapon called a Red Star, a six-sided mace with six spikes on each side. Only one time had Havym ever seen a Red Star’s use, and then only its ghastly results. Like all good citizens of Velledore, Havym knew that one did not cross a Red Guard for any reason.

    The bridge was the gift of Queen Amyla Samoryn to the people of Vel Tama. It connected the teeming masses of the New City with the religious, commercial and government centers of the stately Old City. For hundreds of years, the only access into the walls of the Old City had been by the Queen’s Bridge at the city’s western edge, but Amyla the Great had changed all that by ordering the construction of this mighty artery from the heart of the New City straight into the heart of the Old.

    As impressed as he was by the grandeur of the sculpted stone beneath and around him as he walked across the bridge, Havym would have preferred not to have come this way at all. It seemed, however, that he had little choice in the matter. The bundle he carried held his father’s Gifts to the Judges of the Dead, and he needed to bring them directly to the Black Temple on the holy island of Velleya itself.

    He was a bit perplexed as to why it had been deemed necessary that his father’s Gifts be brought all the way to the main temple on Velleya Island, when there was a perfectly good local temple not five minutes away from his and his father’s abode in the New City. Indeed, it was to that local temple that his father’s body had been taken the previous evening. At the time, Havym had been much too distraught to gather up his father’s Gifts, which was a common enough occurrence, and had intended to do so later when he could be clear-headed about the matter, and choose the best gift from among his father’s meager belongings for each Judge.

    But the Black Priest had insisted he take his father’s Gifts to the main temple on Velleya, and Havym was hardly going to argue about it, especially since the priest had intimated that he and his father were in some way blessed by the request. Havym did not doubt this, since he had never in his life been inside any of the temples that surrounded the White Plaza. Those temples were for nobles, wealthy merchants and pilgrims journeying from afar to witness the divine magnificence of the Eight’s most important center of worship in the northern continent.

    The priest had even given him an impressive-looking octagonal disk, palm-sized, and made of shiny, polished obsidian. Give this to the gate attendant, the priest had said, being careful to state clearly that Havym was to give the disk to the person at the gate to the Black Temple, and not to the Black Daughter Herself, who was sometimes called the Gatekeeper. It had actually been an attempt at humor on the priest’s part, however weak. Adherents of the Black were known for their strange temperament—it wasn’t called black humor for nothing. But the man had wasted his efforts. Although wily, Havym was young and unsophisticated. He was wholly uninterested in the subject of death and could care less about how many names men had ascribed to death’s caretaker. He spent as much time thinking about the Black Daughter as he did about girls in general, which was to say not very often.

    All he knew was that he had been given a very pretty and obviously valuable religious artifact which guaranteed him—a rough-looking, poorly-dressed youth just one step removed from street urchin—unquestioned access into the rich and fabulous world of the noble temples on the holy island itself. At the time it had seemed an incredible blessing.

    Now, however, as he strode toward that very destination, he reconsidered its attractiveness. He now intended to join the Queensguard, and even the thought of all the walking he was going to have to do made his feet feel sore.

    He had spent the night at the Inn of the Laughing Queen, Berta’s establishment in Queensbridge, the oldest part of the New City. Queensbridge was, naturally enough, the area around the foot of the Queen’s Bridge, that other main artery from New to Old at the city’s western edge. It would have been so much faster to have used the Queen’s Bridge to come to the Black Temple, but he could not go to the temple without his father’s Gifts, which were of course in his room toward the Samoryn Bridge. Thus, he had to walk all the way from Queensbridge to his room, get his father’s gifts, walk the rest of the way to the Samoryn Bridge and then all the way to the Black Temple. After he was finished at the temple, he had to walk all the way across the main island of Tama over to the Queen’s Bridge and back to the Laughing Queen to get Olwyn, then turn around and walk back through Queensbridge, over the Queen’s Bridge, over Queen Street, and then finally to the Queen’s Guard House in the Citadel.

    Havym felt short of breath just thinking about it. Not for the first time, Havym irritably considered that the word “queen” was surely the most overused word in this ill-connected city. Couldn’t they build another bridge somewhere?

    Underneath his youthful irritation, however, was a deeper worry that was threatening to turn into a full-blown fear.

    Why did they want him to go to the main temple? He had never heard of the deceased going to one temple and their Gifts to another. Had they taken his father’s body to the main temple? Why would they take a penniless baker to receive his last rites at the temple for the rich and noble? These questions had neither been asked nor answered. There had only been the assumption that Havym would surely show up to ensure the smooth passage of his father to the Final Embrace of the Good Mother.

    This was certainly a logical assumption, since Havym would never dream of denying this to his father—or to anyone, for that matter—no matter how difficult their relationship had been. Havym felt uneasy about it, though.

    He knew a little about the rumors. The rumors about him.

    He knew that it was whispered that his father was from Hosh Konda and that his mother was a palace woman—maybe even a noble—and that they had had a wild, illicit affair of which he was the result. The diplomatic relations of Velledore to its southern neighbor had always been difficult at best. Havym was old enough to remember the great parade and week-long festival that had been given when Velledore won their last war with Hosh Konda. Velledorians called Kondans barbarians, blasphemers, heretics, and a host of other unpleasant names. Havym knew he had a Kondan look to him, with his hair color and height.

    Did the Black Temple have a deeper, more sinister purpose, one related to Havym’s mysterious origins? The thought made him shiver slightly, and he clutched his cloak about him, even as his quick stride made its lower flaps swirl about his legs.

    He knew he had no choice, however. If the Black Priests wanted his father’s gifts to be deposited at the main temple, then that was where they had to go. He also knew he was probably getting himself worked up over nothing. The clergies taught that all were born innocent in the world under the light of the Good Mother and Her Seven Daughters, and that only the actions of each individual over the course of their life determined their status in the eyes of the goddesses. Havym knew he was no angel, but he had always been properly respectful and surely would not be judged for the sins of his parents.

    With this reassuring thought, he picked up his pace even more, almost jogging across the bridge. He knew the return trip would find the busy streets of the city—Old and New—thronged with traffic. Even this miserable weather would not slow down the business of the capital city of one of the most powerful nations in the world.

    The bridge alighted on the island of Suardhaya into a broad thoroughfare that cut across its length. Larger Velleya just to the west was called the holy island, but Suardhaya was in fact the only island dedicated entirely to the affairs of the Eight. About a mile in length and half a mile in width, Suardhaya was home to the various halls of the Eight Clergies, including, notably, the Blue Halls of healing and learning and the Red Halls of discipline. Velleya, about three times larger than Suardhaya, had all of the main temples in its northern half, but its southern half was devoted to commerce, resting as it did around the Great Harbor.

    Being focused on religion, the broad avenue through Suardhaya was lined end-to-end with verdant parks and gardens filled with lovely trees, bushes, flower beds, fountains, and statuary all thriving around pleasantly burbling brooks besides which meandered quaint little strolling paths. Even at this early hour, Havym could see a few figures walking in quiet contemplation along those manicured paths.

    The high walls of the various Halls lined the sides of the parks, and Havym could see them dimly through the trees and fog. The only Hall he had ever been to was the Blue Hall of Healing. It was by far the largest on Suardhaya, ministering as it did to all who sought cures for their ills. Healing was a gift of the Blue Daughter, and payment was never required, although donations were always accepted. Some whispered that the larger the donation, the better the chance of recovery, but this was a whisper Havym did not personally agree with: he had seen first hand how many times the Blue Healers had pulled his father back from the Black Sister’s door, and he and his father had never been able to give very much.

    Thoughts of his father kept coming back to him as he made his journey to the Black Temple, and he fiercely gripped the bundle at his side. A difficult, bitter man, Havym’s father had nevertheless done his best to raise a fractious boy all alone. Havym didn’t know if he could honestly say that he had loved his adoptive father, but he had always respected the man’s fierce sense of pride and independence. It had been a pity he had never remarried, since motherless households were frowned upon in matriarchal Velledore, but Havym suspected that it had been that very pride and independence that was partly the cause of his sustained widowhood. That and his deep love for his wife. And, his boundless despair at her untimely passing.

    Well, it was all over, now. Havym picked up his speed even more, nearly running past the stately parks of Suardhaya. Soon, he would be relieved of his last duty to his father and then he could get on with his own life, on his own terms. Even if it meant a lot of walking!

    The boulevard terminated at the Suardhaya Bridge, a much older and smaller structure than the massive Samoryn Bridge. Suardhaya and Velleya had been connected to each other for well over 400 years before Amyla the Great had carved her new pathway from the White Plaza all the way to the Samoryn Gate. A woman of enormous influence, both during her lifetime and in history, Amyla had cowed the Eight Clergies into allowing their private backyard of Suardhaya to become a major thoroughfare, accessible to all.

    Before Amyla, there had only been a narrow road, little more than a footpath, hugging next to the wall around Velleya that led to the Suardhaya Bridge. There had been no road leading directly from the bridge to the White Plaza. This had been because of the White Temple itself. That large and grand complex of structures stood in the way of direct access.

    Amyla had been forced to use every bit of her influence with the White Clergy to get them to agree to allow Samoryn Way to be built through the middle of the Temple grounds. She had succeeded in the end, as she usually did. The White Clergy had insisted on a high wall surrounding the road so that the sanctity of the Temple would remain inviolate, and so that people and petitioners would continue to use the main entrance on the White Plaza. Tunnels would be built below Samoryn Way allowing the White Clergy and their guests and servants to access the west and east sides of the Temple grounds. Amyla had readily agreed to this.

    One would have thought she would have been content at that. She had gotten what she wanted: a new, grand boulevard bearing her name that allowed all men and women, high and low, to come feast their eyes on the magnificence that was the heart of Velledore. She, of course, had taken even that a step further. Rather than merely building two high walls on either side of Samoryn Way for its length through the White Temple grounds, Amyla had commissioned hundreds of artists and sculptors to create an astounding progression of bas-relief sculptures for the entire length of both walls.

    The end result was hailed as among the most beautiful and awe-inspiring art ever created. The two walls marched for half a mile from the Suardhaya Bridge to the White Plaza, each twenty feet in height and separated by an even hundred paces. Made of hard, pure white travertine, the walls were faced with Edyssian marble mined from a remote valley in the Eddya Mountains that was the exclusive source of that most rare and expensive rock. The marble featured thin veins of a glassy, opaque substance that tended to capture light and cast it back in a rainbow of colors. That brilliant stretch of wall-lined road had earned the nickname the Shining Path.

    The beauty of the sparkling walls themselves was enough to overwhelm, but carved into that material were monumental depictions of two very important stories.

    Walking from the Suardhaya Bridge to the White Plaza, looking to the right, one could witness the Story of Creation writ twenty feet high and extending for half a mile. Beginning with the Creator Velya birthing the universe all the way to the Gray Girl stealing the secret of fire and giving it to humankind, one could witness this powerful story rendered in low relief marble that sparkled with light.

    Similarly, walking from the White Plaza to the Suardhaya Bridge, one could witness the Progression of the Dead as they met each Judge of the Dead on their way to the Final Embrace of the Good Mother. It began with a terrifying scene of the First Judge, the Black Daughter, condemning damned souls and casting them into Hell. It ended with a transcendent representation of pure souls achieving the final ecstasy of the White Lady’s embrace.

    It was into this Shining Path that Havym now entered. As had happened the few previous times he had come this way, he found himself slowing down, despite his hurry, and gazing in awe at the towering walls and their sculptures. The scenes demanded reverence, and he walked silently and slowly as he watched creation unfold.

    His favorite scenes had always been the ones with the Gray Sister. He felt he could identify with that tricky goddess who was the patron of sailors, gamblers and thieves. He remembered the first time he had ever seen that particular part of the wall showing the Gray Girl duping her solemn sisters into teaching humans how to think for themselves. He had only been five years old, and it had occurred during that most holy of holidays, White Night. His parents—for his mother had still been alive then—had taken him on the holy candlelit procession from the Samoryn Plaza to the White Plaza. Upon seeing that hilarious depiction of the consternation of goddesses, the young Havym had burst out in childish glee, all during a progression noted for its reverent silence.

    His scandalized parents had tried to shush him, but he would have none of it, pointing at the naughty Gray Girl and laughing out loud. He had received a mighty spanking later. A few months after that, the burr plague swept through the city and took his mother away.

    As he walked by that point in the story where he had performed his childish outburst, Havym felt a pang of sadness. Now both parents were gone.

    To his irritation, he found himself snuffling. Rubbing his suddenly wet eyes to thwart any tears that might dare embarrass him, he took off down the Shining Path, eyes fixed straight ahead, not deigning to pay any more attention to the sculpted walls. He had embarrassed himself enough last night when he had cried like a baby at the Laughing Queen, and done so in front of the entire kitchen staff. He didn’t have a da or ma anymore, and he needed to start acting more adultlike.

    Quickly after that, although to his mind the entire journey had taken forever, Havym strode into the White Plaza.

    Its expanse of polished limestone paving stones was as broad as ever, and the gigantic statue of the Good Mother was as impressive as ever, but Havym was now fixed on his purpose and headed straight over to the Black Temple.

    He darted by the large statue of the Black Sister and walked the final fifty paces to the Black Gate, where he stopped for a moment, both to catch his breath and to compose himself. The Black Temple was, contrary to its name, largely constructed of white limestone and marble, as were all the temples around the White Plaza. Black-colored materials were used, however, to dress the white stone wherever architecturally feasible and pleasing to the eye. As well, the majority of marble used in the temple’s construction featured swirls and skeins of black, like dark currents in a white-capped sea. All of the gateways and doorways were octagonal and made of polished obsidian. Here and there a low building was made entirely of black marble, or fine ebony wood imported from southern lands created complex, octagonal designs and architectural flourishes.

    The overall result was a holy, white palace skillfully balanced with ebon tones to convey the gravity of the Black Daughter’s purpose. Her sign of the octagon had been used everywhere, from the eight-sided main building directly ahead, to the high eight-sided frame of the gate, to the eight-sided badges colored in black and gold fastened to the breasts of the eight large guards standing on either side of the gate entrance.

    All of the temples around the Plaza were similarly built in white stone dressed with materials appropriately colored for each Sister, with the buildings and designs based as much as possible on that Sister’s sign. Parallel, wavy lines abounded in the Yellow Sister’s temple; squares dominated the Green Sister’s buildings; hexagons were evident in the Red Sister’s complex, and so on.

    Havym reached in his pocket and fingered the disk of obsidian the Black Priest had given him the previous evening. Give this to the gate attendant, the little man had said. As far as Havym knew, gate guards were not the same as attendants, so he ignored the hulking presence of the men and women to either side of him and walked through the gate. To his relief, no guard made any sign of having even noticed him, so he proceeded a few more steps to a small building just inside the gate. The building was merely a covered shelter, albeit a shelter made of polished marble, in which stood a serene, plump woman dressed in fine robes of black velvet.

    The woman, who had been watching Havym since he had appeared in front of the gate, spoke as he approached, “Skarvya’s blessings be upon you, my son. In what manner may the Children of the Gatekeeper ease your burden?”

    Havym had always been unnerved not only by their dreadfully formal way of talking, but also by the Children of the Daughters’ constant naming of their goddesses. He knew they were supposed to do that, but it still seemed strange to want to bring their attention onto you. This was doubly true of the Black Sister whose attention was something to be avoided—not invited!

    He gulped and fumbled in his cloak, producing the burlap covered bundle of his father’s Gifts and the obsidian disk. Holding both forward, he said, “I brought my da’s Gifts here, like what the priest told me to. An’ he told me to give this to you.”

    The priest leaned forward to accept the disk. Quickly running her chubby fingers over its shiny surface, she looked at Havym and smiled, “Skarvya smiles on the dutiful son. Know you, my child, the Goddess is well-pleased with your attendance this morning.” She snapped her fingers. “Child Devyrra will conduct the Ritual of Conciliation for you and your dear, departed father. Pray hold on to the token, and offer it to her, whom you shall see forthwith.”

    A man appeared, and Havym felt his eyes widen before he could get himself under control.

    The man was incredibly handsome. Blond, blue-eyed, square-jawed, he smiled an entrancing smile at Havym. At least, Havym found the smile entrancing, although he knew the fellow was probably just being polite.

    The priest continued, “This man will now take you to Child Devyrra. Skarvya is ready to accept your burden, my child. Hold on to the Gifts of your father but for a moment longer. Soon, you will allow him to release the last of his earthly bonds, and he shall truly begin his journey to the Final Embrace of Velya, where he may join in eternal bliss with his beloved wife. Go now, my son, and know that your devotion has been noted. Today your light shines in the eyes of the Goddesses.”

    Dumbfounded in equal measure by the gravity of her noble speech and by the astonishing sight of the handsome man, Havym could barely nod his head. The priest handed him back the obsidian disk, and his suddenly slippery fingers nearly dropped it.

    The priest nodded to the guide, who smiled at Havym again. Despite himself, Havym felt his heart flutter at that captivating grin.

    “If it would please you to follow me,” the man said. He had smooth, honeyed tones that seemed to make promises even when there were none to be made.

    Havym could only nod, gulping while he did so.

    The man led the way down the broad path to the temple stairs and up past huge octagonal pillars supporting a wide portico over the entrance to the temple itself. Havym followed dutifully behind.

    As much as Havym had intended to take in the magnificence of the Black Temple, he found himself mightily distracted by an even more magnificent sight. His guide wore a black uniform that consisted of a tight-fitting vest covered by a short cloak that fluttered around his waist as he walked. Below that waist-high cloak, he wore snug breeches which did little to hide his powerful buttocks as he strode purposefully forward. Havym could not keep his eyes off those beautifully rounded muscles as they flexed and curved fetchingly with each stride. Especially as the man climbed the stairs!

    Torn between his admiration of the man’s nicely honed form and of the somber opulence of the temple around him, Havym followed his guide through the entrance and into a vast vestibule. Havym did not know where he would be taken, but he found himself disappointed that his guide did not lead him into the legendary main hall of the temple itself. He could see the giant octagonal arch of the doorframe just across the vestibule. The doors stood open and he caught a glimpse of the towering space beyond.

    Instead, his guide went to the side through a smaller doorway and then along various hallways, turning several times, until Havym knew he was lost, although he found the thought of being lost with his beautiful guide rather pleasant.

    The guide was not lost, however, and this became evident when the man stopped beside a pair of impressively large doors. He turned to Havym and said, “Child Devyrra awaits you inside. I will wait here while you perform the Ritual of Conciliation. When you are finished, I will lead you back to the main gate.”

    He proffered another of his disarming smiles, and Havym could only mumble in response.

    The guide opened the doors and Havym walked unsteadily through them, forcing himself to look ahead, and not back at the handsome face remaining in the hall. The doors closed.

    Havym stood in a large room in the shape of, naturally, an octagon. In the high center of each wall blazed an oil lamp from which flowed the heady smell of incense. In the center of the room rose a chest-high, octagonal altar of black marble, around which were arrayed eight, thin stands of the same height. Each eight-sided stand stood precisely three paces away from each altar’s edge. On top of each stand was a gleaming bowl of onyx.

    A person, Child Devyrra, stood next to the altar, but Havym barely noticed her, for his eyes had widened in shock as he focused at what lay on top of the altar.

    There was a body stretched out across that surface of shiny, black marble. The body was his father.

    Blinking his eyes, Havym looked at his da as the little man seemed to be simply resting there, a peaceful expression on his pale face. A swath of fine, black velvet had been carefully arranged around him to make it look like he had just been tucked into bed. Havym took a few halting steps forward, then stopped, gaping.

    “Skarvya’s blessing be upon you, Havym Ollyns, dutiful son of Borovyn Ollyns.”

    The robed figure stepped forward. A thin woman of medium height, she had a narrow, severe face topped by long, iron gray hair styled in an intricate bun capped by fine, black netting. She could have had an almost grandmotherly air about her, but this impression was lessened by her pinched expression and completely dispelled by her eyes, which were dark and unreadable.

    “Skarvya smiles upon the dutiful son,” she continued. “A father’s life well-lived is evidenced in the actions of his child. Know you, the Judges of the Dead are well pleased in your attendance this morning. Their light shines upon you and the performance of your filial duty. Have you the Gifts of your father?”

    Havym nodded his head, and carefully held out the bundle containing the Gifts. In doing so, he also held forward the obsidian disk.

    The priest noted this, saying, “Ah, the token. Pray step forward. You may return it to me, now.”

    As Havym did this, she continued, “I am Devyrra, and will guide you through the Ritual of Conciliation. Are you prepared to aid your father’s spirit in his final conciliation with the Judges of the Dead?”

    Havym nodded his head again. At this, the priest’s lips tightened and she looked at him severely.

    “Speak up, child,” she said. “The Judges would hear your words spoken in this place, for here and now is the only chance of the deceased, your father, to have the truths of his life laid out by another. And who better than his son, who loved and was loved by him? The Judges see all, and know his life in full, yet the light of your love may sway them to an acceptance which might otherwise be denied. Your presentation of his Gifts may conciliate the one Judge who would otherwise deny your father passage to the Final Embrace. Speak, child, and let the Judges know the truth of your love and the light of your father’s life. Answer me now: Are you prepared to aid your father’s spirit in his final conciliation with the Judges of the Dead?”

    Havym didn’t hesitate. “Yes!” he cried.

    The priest nodded in a satisfied manner. “It is well, then,” she said. “Pray step forward, and we shall begin.”

    Havym followed her to stand between the bowl in front of his father’s head and the one just to the left. Havym was of course familiar with the ritual they were about to perform, as was every Velledorian. As far as Havym knew, every one in the world knew of this important ceremony whereby one close to the deceased laid out their Gifts to provide the Goddesses evidence of a life lived well and with devotion. The Gifts were just that: tokens of divine devotion.

    Havym had even participated in the ceremony once before. It had been with his mother, but he had only been five years old and his memories of that distressful time were sketchy. One thing he did remember was that his mother’s ritual had not taken place in such a finely appointed chamber as the one in which he now stood. It was part of the reason he was acting so foolishly: his discomfort in these strange and rich surroundings so far above his station. In the back of his mind he still wondered strongly why his father warranted such special treatment, but he was afraid to ask, especially with the solemn ceremony about to begin.

    Devyrra picked up a tray with two small bowls upon it. One bowl contained a fragrant oil from which a subtle yet heady aroma arose. The other contained a potpourri of fresh flower petals in a variety of types and colors.

    Looking at the large, gleaming bowl of onyx sitting across from his father’s left shoulder, Devyrra intoned, “Skarvya the Black judges thee, Borovyn Ollyns. The First Judge would know thine respect for the dead as for the living. What proof have thee? What proof?”

    Havym had run over this whole procedure in his mind many times. Now that the ceremony had officially begun, he found himself in familiar territory, and his sense of unease lessened. He reached into the bundle and withdrew a tiny wood carving of a bird, which he placed gently in the bowl.

    “I have this carving done by my da’s da, which my da kept all these years,” he said. “I saw da holding it many a time when he thought about his own da.”

    Devyrra scattered some petals and sprinkled the fragrant oil over the little carving, and said. “The First Judge accepts thine evidence. Fear not! She will judge thee fairly.”

    She moved to the next bowl to the left, and said, “Minsya the Gray judges thee, Borovyn Ollyns. The Second Judge would know thine choices for thine own. What proof have thee? What proof?”

    Here, Havym hesitated ever so slightly. What he was about to do was probably risky, but it had seemed right when he first thought of it. His father had been an inveterate dicer, a habit which Havym had picked up. All gamblers everywhere offered up prayers to the Gray Girl to give them the luck of the throw. The Gray Sister was the goddess of crossroads and of thresholds. She ruled possibilities, and the choices people made which led to possibilities. Every time his father had tossed a die, he had made a choice. Havym could think of no better gift for the Gray Girl, and he knew the Black Priest could say nothing about it.

    Mustering his confidence, he placed his father’s favorite die into the bowl, a large, seven-sided piece the man had carved himself. “My da made lots of choices with this,” Havym said, “Some he was happy with and some not so happy, but he enjoyed every one of them.”

    Devyrra, professional that she was, remained completely expressionless as she sprinkled the petals and oil, and said, “The Second Judge accepts thine evidence. Fear not! She will judge thee fairly.”

    At the next bowl, she said, “Orenya the Red judges thee, Borovyn Ollyns. The Third Judge would know thine discipline in thyself as in others. What proof have thee? What proof?”

    Havym placed a piece of red ribbon in the bowl, and said, “The Red Magister gave this to my da when he said Tor Givellhassyn sold him that bad grain two seasons ago. My da’s got more red ribbons, because he never let nobody sell him wrong.”

    Devyrra anointed the gift, gave the ritual answer and moved to the next bowl across from his father’s feet, where she said, “Tardya the Brown judges thee, Borovyn Ollyns. The Fourth Judge would know thine life for thine own. What proof have thee? What proof?”

    Havym reached into the bundle and pulled out a gold coin. Furtively, he gave it one last squeeze before he placed it in the bowl. The gold was a fortune for a poor baker, and one that his father had been saving a very long time for precisely this occasion. Havym knew he would not likely be holding gold again until he, too, made plans for his own Death Gifts. Still, there was nothing the Brown Sister liked better than gold.

    Repressing a sigh, he said, “This coin shows my da always got paid for his work. He never let nobody get nothing for free, unless it was White Night or somebody’s birthday, of course. He always took pride in his work and got fair ...”

    He broke off, because his mind had drawn a terrifying blank on the special word Olwyn had taught him—the word the Brown Sister was known to favor. Havym silently cursed himself as he tried to remember it, while the Black Priest looked on impassively. He knew she would be no help because she could only say the ritual words until the ceremony was over.

    What was it? Common? Patience? Sensation? Com-sensation? Compa-pensation? Compensation? That was it!

    He rushed the words out, “My da always took pride in his work and got fair compensation.”

    The petals and oil were sprinkled, and Devyrra gave the ritual acceptance. She had looked exactly the same, but Havym’s sharp ears thought they had detected a lighter quality to her voice. By the time she intoned the next ritual question, however, any hint of levity was gone.

    “Fernya the Green judges thee, Borovyn Ollyns. The Fifth Judge would know thine beauty in thyself as in others. What proof have thee? What proof?”

    Havym placed a whistle, carved from wood, in the bowl. “My da’s hobby was carving bits of wood, like his da did, and like I like to do, too,” he said. “My da could whistle a merry tune, both with this whistle that he made, and with just normal whistling. He weren’t never no dancer, but he always liked to strike a lively beat.”

    That should satisfy the goddess of both music and handicraft. Devyrra anointed the gift and said the ritual words, and moved on to the next bowl.

    She said, “Shaya the Blue judges thee, Borovyn Ollyns. The Sixth Judge would know thine truth in thyself as in others. What proof have thee? What proof?”

    Havym was particularly pleased with choosing these final three gifts himself from among his father’s belongings. They were exactly the sort of offerings that were guaranteed to tickle the Goddess’ fancy and smooth the way toward final ecstasy.

    Into the bowl he placed a piece of bread wrapped in oilcloth. Confidently, he said, “This here bread is bread I baked myself. And the reason I can bake it so good is because my da taught me how. He was a good da and taught me just about everything I know.” This was sure to appease the goddess of wisdom and learning.

    Devyrra anointed the bread and moved to the next bowl, saying, “Amalya the Yellow judges thee, Borovyn Ollyns. The Seventh Judge would know thine love for thyself as for others. What proof have thee? What proof?”

    Into the bowl Havym placed a lock of brown hair, carefully tied around the middle with a bit of yellow ribbon. He said, “This hair is my ma’s hair, which my da has kept all these years. He loved my ma very much, and prayed for her always.” Havym suspected that the goddess of love and family would melt at such devotion.

    The lock of hair was anointed and the ritual words spoken. Devyrra then moved on to the last bowl, just across from his father’s head.

    She intoned, “Velya the White judges thee, Borovyn Ollyns. The Eighth Judge would know thine joy for life. What proof have thee? What proof?”

    This would be the final gift to the last judge, and then the ceremony would be over. Even though She was the last Judge of the Dead, the Good Mother was the first goddess. Havym had been taught that She was the creator who begat her Seven Daughters to deal with the messy affairs of humans. Havym knew he had a surefire winner for the White Lady. It was exactly the sort of gift she was known to love, the kind of gift she for which she would open her arms wide.

    Proudly, Havym placed a few soft, downy feathers into the bowl across from his father’s head. “These are from a tiny, little wild bird that we found in an alley,” he said. “The poor little thing got a hurt wing, and me and my da wrapped his little wing up and gave him bits of grain until his wing got better and he could fly away.”

    It that didn’t win over the Wild Woman, nothing would. The Good Mother was the goddess of all life, but especially of the wild things, the earth and air and fire. She ruled over animals. She was the glory of life.

    Devyrra sprinkled flower petals and fragrant oil over the feathers, saying, “The Eighth Judge accepts thine evidence. Fear not! She will judge thee fairly. O Judges of the Dead, judge this man fairly that he may receive his due. Let each of Thee know the light of his life, and let him pass on to the Final Embrace of Velya the White, the Good Mother, and know eternal happiness for all time.”

    Devyrra set down the tray and said, “Well done, child. A most revealing set of Gifts. Know you the Judges are well pleased with your offerings. These gifts will be given due consideration when your father is Judged.”

    She led the way to the door, and continued, “The Ritual of Conciliation is ended. You have performed your familial duty, and performed it well. Today your light shines for the goddesses, and they have noted your devotion. Live well your life, Havym Ollyns.”

    She opened the door, and the handsome guide standing outside snapped to attention. Looking at the guide, she said, “The Ritual is ended. Pray take Master Ollyns to the gate.” She turned to go back inside the altar room.

    It had ended so quickly and now he was being ushered out. But he still had his earlier question in his mind and Havym could stand it no longer.

    “Wait!” he cried.

    The guide and the priest stopped and turned toward him, both in poses of polite attention.

    “I... I have a question, if it please you,” Havym said.

    “Pray ask your question, child,” Devyrra replied.

    Trying not to wither under their stares, Havym said, “Why... I mean to say... Well, when my ma passed on, they didn’t take her to this fine temple, and me and my da never come here neither. And, I was just wondering why you brought my da here.”

    Devyrra nodded her head, once and slowly. With a ghost of a smile around her lips, she answered, “The Black Temple is open to all, my child. It sometimes seems that many denizens of the New City have forgotten this. Of course, we have temples there to serve our children across the river, but once on a while, we like to offer a reminder that we perform ceremonies here as well, in the main Temple on the holy island. If it would please you, let your friends and neighbors know: The White Plaza and its Temples are for all the citizens of the world, and not just for the nobility of the islands. Pass well your life, Havym Ollyns.”

    With that, she turned and closed the door behind her.

    Dumbfounded, Havym turned toward the guide. This proved to be a mistake, for Havym was already impressed and unsettled by her explanation. Looking on the manly beauty before him only impressed and unsettled him further.

    The guide smiled, to devastating effect, and said, “If it would please you to follow me.”

    His fine form started off down the hallway, and Havym followed, once again eyeing the man’s splendid bottom, even as his mind considered what he had just learned. The White Plaza and its Temples are for all the citizens of the world. This was something Havym had been taught, but it was true that he had forgotten it, just as had most of the New City. He was glad that he had gotten himself worked up over nothing. He was also glad that his da had been able to be part of such splendor, for a short while, even if the man had not been in a condition to fully appreciate it.

    Havym was especially pleased with how well the Ritual had gone. He had detected that the Black Priest’s barely discerned enthusiasm had been genuine, and that, indeed, the goddesses were smiling on his da. His father had been a good man, if difficult, who surely deserved to join his wife in the Final Embrace. Havym felt certain that this would be so.

    This provided a sense of closure and, for the first time in days, Havym began to feel like his normal self. He let out a deep, tension-releasing sigh.

    The guide slowed down and looked behind him. “Your pardon, good sir?”

    Havym looked at that chiseled face, and said, “Sorry, I didn’t say anything. I was just ... admiring the view.”

    The guide nodded and continued walking.

    Soon enough, they were approaching the main gate, and the guide slowed down to walk beside Havym.

    Smiling beguilingly, the man said, “It has been my pleasure to guide you, Master Ollyns.”

    Havym decided that two could play that game, and offered his best smile to the guide. Olwyn had always fallen for that one, and many sailors had seemed fond of it as well.

    Havym replied, still smiling, “And it has been my pleasure to follow you.”

    The guide had seemed poised to turn around and return to the temple, but, at Havym’s comment, he hesitated, eyes narrowing slightly as he looked at Havym. He asked, “And what will you do now, young master? Will you be following your father’s path?”

    Inwardly, Havym exulted. His smile had seemed to have done the trick. He replied, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t want to be a baker for the rest of my life. I have decided to join the Queensguard!”

    The guide looked at the skinny youth before him, and raised an eyebrow. “Do not have high hopes, good sir. The Queensguard accepts less than one in a hundred. It is well that your parents passed on a skill to you.”

    Havym bristled at the guide’s tone. “I’ve a good eye and a sharp mind. I think I’ve got a good chance with the Guard!” he said.

    Smiling wryly, the guide nodded his head in what he thought was a polite manner. “Indeed,” he said. ”May the Eight smile on you and fortune favor you, sir. Skarvya’s blessing be upon you. Pass well your life, Havym Ollyns.”

    The guide turned around and walked away.

    Although irritated at the man’s dismissive attitude, Havym could not resist the opportunity to admire his muscular backside one last time. Even though he had been splendid to look at, Havym decided the guide’s personality seriously detracted from his appeal. And his eyes! So blue, and yet so cold. Well, what did you expect from a Black Priest, or apprentice, or whatever the guide was, for he surely was not much older than Havym, despite his declarations of “young master” and “young sir.”

    As the guide’s form disappeared into the shadows under the portico, Havym turned around and walked through the gate and into the White Plaza. To his pleasant surprise the thick cloud cover had seemed to lighten. It had not rained yet, and there were even some hints of sunshine to the east, as if the sun was determined to shove its way through the obtrusive gray.

    The plaza was thronged with morning traffic. Drivers called out as their carts and carriages moved carefully through innumerable pedestrians. A wide space suddenly materialized through the crowds as a squad of six Red Soldier-Priests marched across the Plaza. Most people walked purposefully from one point to another, but many stood and gawked at the impressive statue of the Good Mother or the smaller statues of Her Daughters.

    Havym realized that it was still early. He had not spent very much time at all in the Black Temple. He had better than nine hours before the sun would set, far and away more than enough time to get Olwyn and apply at the Queen’s Guard House. He considered that he was on Velleya Island, in the Old City, where he never came, except sometimes on White Night during the procession. Velleya and Tama curved at their southern bits to form the huge Great Harbor.

    Havym’s mind followed this concept to its irresistible conclusion: Where there was a harbor, there were ships. Where there were ships, there were sailors. Where there were sailors, there were dice games.

    Havym automatically felt in his pocket where he normally kept his dice pouch, but then realized, to his irritation, that he had not brought it with him. The fact that he had forgotten his dice was a testament to how much his father’s passing had affected him, not to mention how much he had gotten himself worked up over going to the main Black Temple.

    Ah well. He didn’t need his own dice to participate in someone else’s game. It might even give him an advantage with his opponents thinking him some sort of novice.

    Havym knew he was no novice to the rattle and throw. He usually liked to loiter around the Tarridell Harbor, at the base of the Samoryn Bridge in the New City. He never took the time to come all the way into the Old City to the Great Harbor itself. Indeed, he usually did not have enough time to do so.

    Now was his opportunity to play with the big boys.

    Besides, Havym knew Olwyn took his lessons every morning from the private tutor Berta had hired, although Havym shook his head at the astonishing concept of having enough money to hire a private tutor. Olwyn would not be available until after noon, which was at least three hours away.

    His course decided, Havym headed off to the harbor, whistling a merry tune.

~           ~           ~           ~

    After closing the door, Devyrra strode past the body of the boy’s father to an alcove in the far wall, inside which she pulled a cord. Soon, her attendants would clear away her altar room, and the body would be taken to the crematorium, as would the perishable gifts. The single, valuable gift—the gold piece—would be consecrated and cleansed, then sent to the treasury, where its value would be assessed and divvied up among the Eight Clergies.

    Devyrra always found it refreshing to perform the Ritual of Conciliation with those less fortunate than her normal class of clientele. She never failed to marvel at their ingenuity and resourcefulness. She couldn’t help but think that the typical inhabitant of the New City held a closer relationship with their goddesses than did those of the Old City, despite their good upbringing and wealth.

    All of the boy’s gifts had been marvels, but even her hard heart had softened at the final three gifts to the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Judges. The bread symbolizing the knowledge of the father passed on to the son; the lock of hair symbolizing the eternal love of a man for his wife; and, the piece-de-resistance, soft feathers from a common city bird the boy and his father had saved, symbolizing their respect for all life.

    Devyrra shook her head in appreciation at the boy’s sheer genius. The uneducated bumpkin had a deep and natural capacity for allegory, choosing symbolic gifts of such power and meaning.

    Other people, rich or poor, were rarely so subtle. When giving to the Eighth Judge—the Good Mother, and possibly the most important gift—a poor person would usually offer something like bit of white yarn darned into a crude circle. True, such a gift showed their deep respect for the Good Mother, a respect to be treasured, but it did not necessarily touch upon the individual’s respect for all life.

    Rich people were even worse. They thought a symbol of the Good Mother wrought in some precious metal would do for their gift. It was so typical of them to think they could buy their way through Judgement. While the Clergies certainly appreciated the gifts of the affluent—these gifts measured no small part of the Clergies’ wealth—they certainly did not begin to show proof of what the Good Mother craved: a respect for all living things.

    This remarkable peasant, however, had struck to the heart of each Judge’s desire with his symbolic gifts. Devyrra strongly suspected that, even now, the boy’s father was speeding his way through Judgement and would soon the know the ecstasy of the Final Embrace.

    Devyrra was pleased that she had been able to witness the boy herself. Usually, she had to pass these matters on to her underlings, for she was one of the most senior priests of the Black Clergy and had little time for Assessments. If she did do an Assessment, it was usually with a candidate from the nobility whose parents had paid a pretty sum to try buy their talentless offspring into some worthwhile activity. These were unfortunate, for the offspring was rarely suitable and the sums were rarely refundable, as well as being a waste of Devyrra’s time. But, to use a priest of lower rank might offend the nobility, and that would never do.

    Rare were the potential candidates who popped out of the woodwork in such a seemingly spontaneous fashion as this boy had. After reading the excited message of her priest at the Tarridell Temple, Devyrra had decided to Assess the boy herself. Thus far, he looked very promising, although that whole bit with the offering of the die did place a seed of doubt in the back of her mind. Well, she would know soon enough.

    She looked once more at the body of the boy’s father resting peacefully on the altar. She would need to find out who his real parents were, if possible, for it was clear that homely little peasant had no blood relation to his tall and handsome son. It was also clear the boy was a mongrel: his fine nose, high forehead and prominent cheekbones spoke of good Velledorian blood, but his hair, eyes, jaw and height indicated the taint of Hosh Konda.

    Devyrra guessed a Velledorian mother, possibly a noblewoman, and some blasphemous barbarian of a father from that miserable excuse of a nation to the south.

    Very interesting.

    She approached one of the walls and touched at a certain spot well above her head. There was a click, and a portion of the wall moved inward, revealing a narrow doorway, which she opened, slipped through, and closed behind her.

    She strode quickly through her apartments to her personal shrine. A circular room, it had an eight-pointed star inscribed in the marble floor that she ignored as she went to a large alcove in front of the star’s north point. She lit two candles on either side of a shelf in the alcove, and leaned down to open a cupboard, from which she withdrew a large bowl of onyx, a twin of the ones that had received the gifts. She placed the bowl between the two candles, and began humming a wordless tune.

    Still humming, she withdrew from her pocket the obsidian disk the boy had given her, and held it just above the bowl. She changed the pitch of her humming and turned the disk over and around.

    After doing this for a short while, she began to grow concerned that the boy had not had the disk long enough to register his psychic imprint. She tried humming high, and then low. She tried humming fast, and then slow. All the while she turned the disk over and over in her hands.

    Just as she began to despair, she thought she detected something. Quickly she modulated the pitch of her hum. Yes! There was definitely something there. She began humming as low as she possibly could—and with a much higher volume than was usually necessary—and the disk finally began to vibrate in mutual resonance.

    Despite herself, she found her heart beating faster, and she had not even started the spell yet. This was just the preparatory work.

    She placed the disk in the center of the bowl and said the words of the spell, casting her hands in mystical symbols over the top of the bowl as she did so. At the end of the spell, she hummed the tone and pitch that resonated with the disk. She stood back and eagerly watched the disk.

    Curly tendrils began to rise from it. If smoke were the light of a rainbow, then that was the substance that appeared above the bowl. Curling and shifting, it shimmered and oozed out of the disk, until the entire alcove was filled with a hundred twisty colors.

    Devyrra’s eyes widened at the sheer amount of color. It filled the entire alcove and was starting to spread into the larger room. Any amount of color was cause for excitement. Usually, the bowl was barely filled with any light at all.

    To have this amount of color spoke of power.

    Carefully, Devyrra surveyed the colors in front of her, for she had pulled back to ensure she could see everything. The colors had at last stopped flowing out of the disk, and the alcove was a dazzling array of swirling colors, with some tendrils poking out into the main room.

    They would not last long, and she quickly scanned, categorized and catalogued. All too soon, the colors faded away.

    Devyrra stepped back into the alcove and looked at the small pile of fine ash now in the bowl.

    The potential of the boy was quite astonishing. Whether or not he was suitable for the Black was another matter. She pursed her lips in thought.

    After a moment’s careful consideration, she decided that he was too rich a treasure to pass up. It would be difficult, but not impossible. If he did not join the Black, then he most assuredly would be joining another, and she was fairly certain which one that would be. All that power going to them did not bear thinking about.

    There was, however, the unfortunate truth that he was not entirely suited to the Black, and would need some bending. Devyrra considered how to set things in motion.

    It was clear the boy was tickled by the goddess. This had been obvious from the way he mooned over her assistant, Dreysham. That was probably the best way to set the trap.

    She chided herself. That was an ugly way of thinking. It would not be a trap. It would be an introduction. She was sure she could convince Dreysham to make the introduction as pleasant as possible.

    For it was obvious that she could not let a gem such as this slip through her fingers.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The end of Part 4. To be continued in Part 5