"I shall attend a dinner party tonight,” said the Narcissus of the Void, regarding her reflection in her mirror. “You will attend me, and taste each dish I am offered.”

“Thank you, lady,” said Gard. She knit her brows in annoyance.

“You big fool, you’ll taste my food to see whether it’s been poisoned,” she said. “Really, sometimes I wonder whether we’ll ever be able to wash the stink of the forest off you.”

“Who would poison you, lady?” asked Gard.

“Nearly anyone on the council,” she said with a sigh. “It is good to win to the highest seat, but after that it’s nothing but a struggle to stay there. Now, I’ll be dining with Magister Naryath, and I wish to impress him. Gatta’s has a bottle of Sulemian wine in its window, just one; go down and buy it, and have it ready when I come back this afternoon. Have my black gown with the pearls laid out, and the green slippers. And a bath drawn; I like a bath, when I’ve been to Blood Entertainments.”

“I will not be required to escort you, lady?”

“No. Lord Vergoin’s taking me. We’ll use Grattur and Engrattur. I can’t send them for the wine, of course. Imbecile demons. You do have that much in your favor, Icicle, you aren’t quite as stupid as the others. Something to do with being a hybrid, no doubt. Ah! There’s Vergoin.”

They heard Grattur and Engrattur roaring forth the ceremonial challenge, with a great clashing of blades, and Vergoin’s easy reply. A moment later he entered the bedchamber, smiling.

“Dread beauty, I have arrived,” he said. “You won’t want to miss the first match; Agoleth is going up against three fighters from the Convent.”

“No!” exclaimed Lady Pirihine. “Icicle, fasten this clasp. Agoleth? Oh, they’ll cut him to ribbons! We must see. The Sulemian wine, Icicle; forget it at your peril.”

She departed with Vergoin, and Grattur and Engrattur marched proudly behind them.

G ard, a little sullenly, took gold from her household store and went down through the tunnels to the wine-merchant’s stall. There he purchased the bottle of Sulemian wine, with its lead seals and golden lettering. He wondered whether the wine had come from any land the scholar Copperlimb had visited, and whether he might taste the sunlight of a long-ago autumn, if he were to drink it.

Useless to wonder; useless to look thoughtfully at the mouths of certain tunnels as he passed them. He had learned enough to know that they led upward, and opened in sunlight on a trail that wound down between glaciers. But they were guarded at their far ends by bound demons, who suffered none to pass save those who were equally bound, and so trusted to come back. Some three or four times each year a caravan went out, to return with luxuries for the masters.

It was by no means useless to plan, however. Gard had begun to compile a list in his head, of needful things he might acquire without arousing suspicion: thick boots proof against the snows, and warm clothing. Weapons he had in plenty, but he lacked knowledge. He meant, in time, to get acquainted with the caravan leaders and learn what paths led down to the lands below, where cities were. He meant, in time, to strike up a friendship with the demons who guarded the tunnels, and see if he might make them unconscious with gifts of drugs or drink. If I ever get out of here…

Just now there was nothing to do but return to Lady Pirihine’s apartments, and do his best to get the jam-spots out of her morning gown, and lay out the dinner gown she had requested, with her pearls and her green slippers.

He sat and meditated afterward. In his deep concentration Gard saw again the stag, leading him through the deep wood, and across the dancing green. The music had fallen silent. It seemed to Gard that this time, as he passed the couple on the edge, that the woman turned her face to him, seeming to see him.

H e had not been long in the place of soaring lights when there came a flash, red light broken and shattered, and a sense of alarm. His attention was drawn down to a knot of darkness, where a white thing sped; a worm, screaming and spitting fire as it came, trailing a long ribbon of bloodstained silk. It was closely pursued by a second worm, and by a pair of blue lights moaning and lamenting…

Coming back to himself, Gard heard the door flung open. He jumped to his feet and looked into the bedchamber as the Narcissus of the Void entered, and her afternoon gown had indeed been splattered with blood. Vergoin followed her, his face dark with anger.

“I don’t care!” Lady Pirihine was saying. “This was a brand new gown! Look where the lace is stained! Those stains will never come out.”

“There will be talk, madam,” said Vergoin. “It will be wondered whether one so unable to govern her temper is worthy of governing at all. He was a useful slave!”

“A slave is a slave,” said Lady Pirihine, “How dare you! Icicle! What do you think you’re doing, lurking there? You’d better have got me that wine!”

“I did, lady. Shall I draw the bath, now?”

“Do it!”

He attended her in her bath, marveling how the ugly look in her eyes was able to render quite charmless the beauty of her little pointed breasts and lush flanks. He helped her from the tub and into her black gown, and clasped the pearls about her throat and eased the green slippers on her feet, as Vergoin paced to and fro muttering.

They were still in a foul temper when, carefully bearing the Sulemian wine, he followed them out into the corridor. Grattur and Engrattur stood to attention to either side of the door. Gard was amazed to see their silver eyes streamed with tears.

There was little time to wonder about this, for Lady Pirihine minced away down the hall, refusing Vergoin’s arm. He strode after her angrily. Gard must needs hurry after them, an awkward third to their party. Everyone was out of breath, and Lady Pirihine somewhat red-faced, when they arrived at last at the apartments of Magister Naryath.

M agister Naryath was tall, and portly, and affected a golden mask and the tone of an indulgent father.

“Little Pirihine! You are adorable, as always, but never more so than when you wear your hair in that charming fashion. Lord Vergoin, you are well met. I trust my poor table will not too gravely disappoint you.”

“You must be joking,” said Lady Pirihine. “Vergoin’s been a slave, after all. I should imagine he’s grateful for any scrap he gets.”

Vergoin looked at her with venom. Magister Naryath fluttered his hands.

“Sweet Pirihine, we are all your slaves,” he said. “Come now, children, don’t quarrel. See where my table is set in your honor, with lilies of gold! Pray be seated.”

“As you wish. I have brought a gift, dear Uncle Naryath,” said Lady Pirihine. Gard bowed and offered forth the Sulemian wine. Magister Naryath waved a hand and his demoness, a lithe creature who communicated by signing, came forth in silence. She received the bottle, gestured her thanks, and took it to the sideboard.

“How very kind of you, my child,” said Magister Naryath.

“Oh, it’s only a bottle of Sulemian,” said Lady Pirihine, as Gard seated her. “Perhaps we’ll just drink it ourselves, you and I, and not let Vergoin have any. Shall we? He’s been so rude and cross with me, he really doesn’t deserve better.”

“So is good counsel rewarded,” said Vergoin.

“I’m certain good fare will restore your customary affability,” said Magister Naryath, as the demoness set the first of the dishes on the table. “Do try these, both of you! The eggs of sea-dragons, gathered from the cliffs in far Salesh and pickled in wine of Dalith. I have found the flavor exquisite.”

The Narcissus of the Void clapped her hands. She dipped up a spoonful. “How delightful! Where’s my big faithful Icicle? He shall have some. He never gets cross with me, do you, Icicle?”

Gard bent and allowed her to feed him from her spoon. The sea-dragon eggs looked like grapes. They tasted like fish, which startled him, but did not seem poisoned. Magister Naryath gestured with his little finger, and the demoness brought another spoon and carried away the one from which Gard had tasted.

“Let Uncle Naryath make peace between you, my dears,” said the mage. “What causes little Pirihine to frown so?”

“A stupid slave got blood on my dress,” said Lady Pirihine, pouting in what she imagined was an enchanting manner. “We had been to the Blood Entertainments, you know, and we had just the loveliest time—it was Agoleth the Unlucky, and he was pitted against three of the deadliest bitches from the Convent.”

“Oh, how amusing that must have been!” said Magister Naryath.

“It was. They killed him by inches and then tossed his head back and forth like a ball. We laughed and laughed. I really was having the best time,” said Lady Pirihine, allowing a little tremble into her voice, at the unfairness of it all. “And after it was over, of course I wanted to go down and claim his testicles. That’s traditional, after all.”

“An old and honored custom,” agreed Magister Naryath.

“And we went down to that pit under the arena, and Vergoin should have held my train up off the sand, but he didn’t, not that it mattered much because the stupid slave carrying away Agoleth’s arms and legs tripped in the sand and all the parts went flying, and Agoleth’s nasty old hand struck me right in the face, and his nasty old stumps got blood all over my best afternoon gown!”

“And so she had the slave killed on the spot,” said Vergoin sourly.

“Well, I would have too,” said Magister Naryath, leaning forward to pat Lady Pirihine’s hand.

“He was a useful slave,” said Vergoin, raising his voice. “He was Magister Hoptriot’s assistant. Hoptriot will be offended, and, by the way, do you think he’s going to lower himself to stitch up the fighters now? Triphammer won’t be easy to replace.”

“Oh, who cares?” said Lady Pirihine, with a toss of her head. “Nobody but you. Let’s have some wine. Icicle, open the bottle.”

Gard looked at her blankly. Triphammer had been killed?

Not such a bad life. Best thing, really. Food and a bed, just as well, not so bad. What’s so terrible, really, about being a slave?...

“Slave, your mistress has given you a command!” said Magister Naryath, and, hoping to distract his guests from their quarrel, rose in his seat and struck Gard in the face.

He could not strike back, he could not roar his wrath and sorrow; Gard only looked at Magister Naryath, and wished him dead.

Magister Naryath gasped and shrank back; sweat boiled and ran from under his golden mask. A wine-goblet shattered on the table. The Sulemian wine burst its seals, spurted like blood on the cloth. Pirihine’s eyes were round with astonishment.

Vergoin was on his feet at once. “Peace! Gard, this is sad news for you, I know. Go into the kitchen, calm your mind a moment.”

Gard turned from the table and went. The kitchen was small and dark, with Magister Naryath’s demoness finding her way principally by touch. She was readying the main course as he entered, and looked at him in wonder. She pointed at him, ran her fingers down her cheeks as though following tear-tracks and then turned her palms out in inquiry. Why do you weep? No Translator appeared for her, strangely.

“My friend has been killed,” said Gard. “For nothing.”

She put her arms around him. He leaned his face into her shoulder and wept out his sorrow and his wrath. All the while, there was quiet urgent conversation coming from the outer room. Gard caught the words “… natural ability” and “…stupid as a brick, but what power! If we could train him to work elementary spells…”

At last he lifted his face. “Thank you,” he said. She signed, That’s all right.

“Can’t you speak?”

A negation, a gesture at her throat: I was made without a voice. He likes silent women.

Gard shook his head. He looked at the dish she was preparing. “Is your master planning on poisoning my mistress?”

She shook her head.

“What a pity.”

She laughed at that. He had never seen anyone sign laughter before, and was diverted.

"I have made a decision, dear Icicle,” said the Narcissus of the Void. She looked up at him in her mirror, and her eyes were wide and her expression was one of childlike gravity. These past few days, in fact, she had played the little girl: all gaiety, laughter, and lisping talk, and many times she had asked for his assistance in opening some perfume vial or buttoning up some garment.

He only looked at her, now, and waited for her to speak. “I have never known a slave like you,” she said, as though shyly. “You are so big, and strong, and yet so very clever! And Lord Vergoin feels that you might have it in you—if you were carefully trained, of course— to become a mage! Yes, just like one of us! Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

“Yes, lady,” said Gard. He waited to hear what else she would say.

“And so I said at once that I thought that was a wonderful idea. It has made me so proud to have an undefeated champion in my service, and if it turned out you were a natural mage too—why, I just think I’d scream, I’d be so very, very pleased with you.” She turned and gave him a winsome smile.

“Really, lady?” said Gard, his face as blank as a wall.

“Yes.” Lady Pirihine turned all the way around on her dressing-table stool and drew her legs up, and leaned forward conspiratorially. “Now, I’m going to tell you a secret. You mustn’t tell the slaves, because—well, if everything goes as we hope, you won’t be a slave anymore, will you? And they’d all be jealous of you.

“You must have heard the story, haven’t you, of how the great families came to live here under the mountain?” She put her hand on his arm. Gard thought of telling her that he had heard the story from Triphammer, but he held his tongue and only nodded.

“And you may have heard that we’re all trapped here—the mages and their children, and their children’s children, forever. But it’s not exactly true.”

“No, lady?”

“No. You see, my own grandfather was the greatest mage of them all. Grand Magister Porlilon, that was his title. All the other mages were jealous of his power; that was why they so traitorously murdered him. But, just before he was killed, he was working on a spell of terrific power. It would have broken the mountain and freed us all, if he had lived to perform it.

“All this while, my family have preserved his workbook, with his last great spell written therein. Alas! We were none of us his equal. I’m a weak little thing on my own, the last of my great line. The other mages have studied it, and thrown their hands up in despair. It would take a truly great mage to make that spell work. They know they haven’t such power.

“But you—you, dear Icicle, have such strength! So you will be trained. You will become a mage. If you are good enough, you will be made free! And perhaps you will be able to work Porlilon’s last spell. Oh, such power you might have! Wouldn’t you like that?”

“Yes, lady,” said Gard. “I would like power very much.”

  • Back To About House of The Stag

  • About the Work of Kage Baker

  • About The Author

  • To Mail The Author:[E-Mail]