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The mirror was a mistake.
I had the mirror installed in my cubicle at work, because my desk had its back turned to the front door. Every time I heard the whoosh of air and the hiss of the hydraulic door arm, I had to turn to crane my head to see who it was. Often the entrant was simply an employee or a doctor, and I wasted much time straining my neck only to jump at shadows.
Installing a mirror, I thought, would be a way to curb the false alarms. I could see who was coming in the door behind me, and keep an eye over my shoulder. It seemed to do the trick for a few days, and since it was winter, I had few worries about reflections of sunlight getting in my eyes.
No, the trouble was that I started seeing things in the mirror. I began to imagine I had seen faces there, close to the surface of the glass, watching me. They could not have been reflections. The faces were near enough that I could see pores, could see stubble and stringy hair, could see a burst blood vessel in one eye. Any human-sized face near enough to the mirror to make a reflection that detailed would have easily been visible.
When I turned to examine the faces, or when I gave any recognition that I had seen them, they would draw back quickly. The surface of the mirror would seem to ripple and the face would disappear. It put me oddly in mind of the aquarium in our lobby. When someone reached a hand through with the net to retrieve some forgotten object, or some careless patient's litter, the mirrored surface of the water showed only a continuation of the artificial sea-life backdrop. The intruding hand broke the plane of reflection and insinuated itself into the aquarium, net in hand, like a fourth-dimensional intruder exuding himself into the undersea world.
And then the hand would with draw, leaving only mirror. The faces disappeared like that.
In fact, I noticed once with alarm, they were near enough to the mirror to breathe a haze of vapor on the glass. I could even wipe the vapor with one finger; it was real. My finger left an oily streak through the condensation.
There were two faces, particularly. One was a sneering face with a stubbled chin, one prominent crooked tooth, and a cast eye. His hair was stringy and lank, and he looked unclean. His one straight eye was restless, roaming, examining every detail; the cast eye always looked straight at me, as if paralyzed and unseeing.
The other face was that of a woman, or so I presumed her to be: a fleshy, jowly face, with an faint and unseemly mustache of pale hair on her lip. Her face was made up elaborately, even comically, in a caricature of what might pass for fashion in the more daring quarters of Elizabethan England. Her hair was obviously a styled colonial wig, perched atop a mass of her own limp gray hairs. She wore no jewelry save one piece: an earring that dangled from her left earlobe, the size of a large coin, but polished smooth and silvery on both sides.
I moved the mirror. The faces persisted. Eventually I discarded it entirely.
Then the faces began to watch me at home, in the bathroom, from the glass surface of picture frames, from reflections on the surface of the water.
As one might imagine, it became difficult to concentrate on my life. I've never been too enamored of mirrors or of what they show of me. I'm none too athletic: out of shape and heavyset, especially for a hobbyist actor, and I've been on the operating table more times by the age of thirty-five than I care to recall. I'm neither tall nor short, nor exceptionally handsome or charming. I keep mirrors not for vanity but for function. For fun, I act; I must be aware how I present myself to an audience.
It was also difficult to enjoy my other hobbies. Writing was nerve-wracking because it always seemed someone was watching me from the other side of the screen. Though I loved to write and read stories about transformations, I couldn't concentrate. Even my guitar and piano bore reflections: on the mahogany surface, on the keys. Every reflective surface I could find was taken down, covered up, or papered over. I found myself wanting to leave the house less, where the faces could follow me.
One of my online friends called me, questioning where I had been. I made some brief but unenlightening excuse; it wouldn't do to be thought of as borderline psychotic or paranoid.
But then it happened: the faces finally came out of the mirror to talk to me.
They were in my apartment when I came home.
That is to say, I arrived home, cleaned the apartment, made some dinner, and was settling down to eat near the computer when I saw them, sitting together on the sofa: a man and woman, in unusual costume.
I dropped my plate of stroganoff and backed toward the kitchen.
"Do not be alarmed," the woman said in a courtly voice, rising to her feet. Her flowing, storm-blue skirts rustled. She looked to be young, certainly no more than twenty, but had a maturity of bearing that suggested she was no mere coquette. Her hair was a silky cascade of faintest golden-white, and her eyes were an astonishing color of purple. The woman's middle was bound in by an elaborately laced corset, that somehow captured the vibrant-yet-smoky blue color of an oncoming rain squall. The fabric seemed to be the sky itself; I could see clouds swirling in it. "Do not trouble yourself to offer us hospitality," she said. "We do not require that service of you."
"Who are you?" I stammered. "What are you doing in my house?"
"We have been watching you," the woman said, and gave a tinkling laugh. "Surely you have seen us." She winked, and in that movement I saw a flash of silver at her left ear: it was the coin I had seen before, the flashing earring worn by the face in the mirror.
"You?" I asked stupidly. "You've been watching me? In the mirrors?"
"Every bit as intelligent as we suspected," the man on the sofa grunted. I glanced at him.
He was dressed in finest black, trimmed with gold and white threads. Accenting the outfit, at the collar and cuffs, and in the form of a wrap tossed above one shoulder, was a moving, weaving pattern of animal hides: now striped like a zebra, the stripes swirling and chasing each other; then burning to an orange pattern of tiger stripes, which coalesced into leopard's spots, then like a cheetah's, then into a pattern of feathers like the breast of a falcon. He too looked young, perhaps thirty; his face was more lined than hers, as if he had seen hard weather in his time. This man's eyes were golden, like those of a bird of prey, and his hair jet black.
The woman's gaze never faltered from my face. "You have an interest in Shape," she said. "We have been studying you."
"Studying me? You mean you've seen my writing?" I asked. Those stories were private. At first there was an acute embarrassment, because many of the stories were personal, and some were no more than fantasies, but the two before me contrived to seem neither judging nor disapproving.
"Yes," she said. "We particularly liked the one with all the birds," she said, and paused, as if remembering. "Birds, yes? Which one was that?"
"Going South," I suggested. "The one about the prisoner who tries to escape?"
"Yes, about the prisoner," she agreed. "A great many birds in it, though of course we didn't follow all of the references to your culture. Perhaps you could explain them one day?"
The woman looked serious, but I had to laugh nervously. "Yeah, uh... who are you? How did you get in here?"
"We entered your room through a mirror, of course," she said patiently. "How else?"
"A magic mirror?"
Her youthful face creased with puzzlement or impatience. "We don't know that word. You seem to use it a lot. We wonder if you know what it means."
"It means anything that can't happen," I said. "Imaginary things."
"Things that can't happen," she said slowly, as if trying to understand. "But imaginary things can happen, if you know how to make them."
"We're wasting our time with this one," the man said abruptly, getting to his feet and adjusting his animal wrap. "Let's go talk to one of the others on the list. There are plenty of other Shapers to choose from."
"List?" I asked blankly. "Shapers? What are you — do you mean the Transformation Stories List?"
She smiled warmly, nodding. "You write stories about Shape?" she asked, as if in confirmation.
"Yes," I said, hesitantly.
The young woman nodded again in satisfaction. "We think that means you may have an aptitude for Shaping, and we have contrived to find you and your friends because we believe we could expand your talents for it, teach you things you may want to know."
"We?" I repeated. "We who? Who are you?"
"We come from Drndwyn," she said. "The Foundry is looking for apprentice Shapers, and we believe that you and your friends may possess more talent than the typical peasant. Peasant?" she asked, as if searching for the right word. "Yeoman, perhaps. We are uncertain of the appropriate terminology for your world."
"Your talent cannot express itself here fully," the man in the animal print said shortly, as if explaining the obvious to a child. "That's why you try to write about it. Makes sense."
"So we're asking you to come with us," the woman went on. "You cannot imagine how much we need your help."
"Come with you to... Dirndle?" I asked. "Leave here?"
"We are from Drndwyn," she said, ever patient. "And while you would come with us, you would not leave."
The man saw my look of blank incomprehension, and interrupted briskly before I could ask the obvious question. "You won't come with us in body," he said. "In spirit only. Your spirit would reside in a body there, while a spirit would be sent here to occupy yours."
"Body exchange?" I asked. "I guess I could handle that, but if someone's going to be using my body, they'd better know about—"
"They'll know," the man burst out. "They'll know! Shards and dust, are you thick? Your spirit goes!"
"He's unfamiliar with the properties of platinum," she admonished her companion. To me, "The spirit will come here and adopt your body, and your personality, and your knowledge," she explained. "It will live your life as you would: neither better than you would, nor worse. Your spirit and your talent for Shaping would come to our world."
"But wouldn't I lose my personality?" I asked. "And my knowledge? What use is that?"
"Knowledge?" the man snorted contemptuously, and gestured at my apartment. "Knowledge of this? Oh, yes, very useful, I'm sure."
"You keep your personality," she said. "And your knowledge and intelligence."
"Such as it is," the man said under his breath.
She ignored it. "In exchange, you would be given a body in our world. We would apprentice you to an important Master Shaper, and you would learn to harness your talent in defense of our world against an enemy that perhaps you cannot yet understand."
The man said nothing to this obvious opening line, but I could read it in his face: if you ever do understand, his expression said.
"In that case," I said slowly, "why? What's my motivation? Why should I go?"
"You would be satisfied," she said simply. "Your talent for Shape would find its natural expression. You would have meaning there, and importance. A voice in the world. Although I'm sure," she said, with a faint smile, "that you are important among your own friends and family, in your little way, here."
They seemed to be goading me to accept their offer. I wasn't yet convinced.
"If you're the ones I saw in my mirror," I said, "why do you now look different? You appear nothing like the other faces I saw. The man had a cast eye," I remembered aloud, "and a crooked tooth. And he had stringy long hair. The woman was older, perhaps sixty, and she had a wig and gray hair. She looked nothing like you."
Her smile was unreadable. "We have been fooled by our Enemy before," she said. "You may have been its agent, planted here as a decoy for us. It were better if the Enemy knew not that it was we who were looking for you."
"And who are you?" I demanded.
"We are Gayle, the Queen of Drndwyn and Shaper of the Foundry," the woman said, holding out one elegant hand for me. I took it, unsure what I was supposed to do with it. Eventually I shook it.
Gayle examined her hand afterward, shaking it, as if committing the gesture to memory. "A nodding of hands," she mused. "A signal of agreement, of concord?"
"And of mutual trust," I said. "When you shake hands with your enemy, you know he hasn't got a weapon in his own."
"Curious," she said. "And will you also shake the hand of Lamard, the Principal Shaper of the Foundry?"
The man, Lamard, extended his hand to me hesitantly. I took it and, looking him in the eye, shook it. I regretted having mentioned anything about mutual trust.
"So very excellent," Gayle murmured. "We may take this as a sign of trust and concord? You will join us?"
"I'm not sure I believe any of it yet," I said. "But I'm an actor. I'm good at improvising."
"An actor," Queen Gayle repeated. "One who performs actions? This word is unfamiliar to us."
"We perform plays," I said. "Actors pretend to be that which they are not, in order to tell stories. The audience watches the play so they might understand the story."
"The actors lie?" she asked. "And they audience must believe them?"
"The audience chooses to believe them," I corrected her cautiously. "They know it's a lie, but they accept the performance for the sake of the story."
"And you ... lie well?" she asked, disinterestedly.
"Fairly well," I said, trying to be modest.
"You must show us this acting sometime, then," Gayle said. "After we are secure from war, perhaps, there will be leisure to exchange cultural pleasantries."
Lamard, the one the woman had called the Principal Shaper, had crossed his arms and was studying my ceiling with obvious impatience. "If I might suggest it, Your Majesty, our need is considerably more urgent than this. Should we not recruit this one and proceed to the next? Well done, I say, yes, but shall we move along?"
"Tut," she said to him, not unkindly. "You move too quickly. Everything must be done in its own time." Gayle turned to me, and those startling purple irises glowed with mirth. "We very much look forward to seeing you in Drndwyn," she said, extending her hand to try another handshake. "Do you agree to join with us?"
I paused, and took it. "I suppose I do."
"Do not suppose," she warned me. "Suppose nothing."
"All right," I said, and shook the offered hand. "As long as nobody's going to miss me here, then I do join you."
"You shall not regret it," Gayle purred. "Lamard?"
"Yes, yes," the Shaper said, fumbling about in his capacious pockets. He withdrew a pouch full of glittering powder, and took a handful over to my plate glass front window. He tapped the glass and listened ferociously to the tone, then grunted and withdrew another pouch of powder. He spit into his hand, made a paste of the powder, and mixed a pinch of the other substance in.
With a grand gesture, he smeared the paste across my window...
...and it turned into a portal. I could see through it, foggily: cloudy half-shapes, mystical blues, spectral things moving fluidly through the landscape.
"This is your world?" I asked.
"This is no world," Lamard said. "Step through this portal and you will be in a body on the far side. Through the glass, you see what the body sees. This," he added, gesturing at the incomprehensible patterns in the glass, "this is the body dreaming. When you step through you will be asleep, dreaming this dream. We will wake you on the far side."
"What kind of body is it?" I asked.
"It's..." He examined the two pouches in his hands, as if trying to remember which was which, and how much he had used. Lamard shook his head, as if to clear away an irrelevant distraction. "It's unimportant," he said. "If you aren't happy with it, we'll shape it into something more to your liking. Just go."
"Aren't you going first?" I asked.
Lamard looked at me as if I were an idiot.
"Not through this portal, Corey," Gayle said. "This portal is for you, only. We will go the way we came."
"Ah. Right," I said, and braced myself to face the portal. I wasn't sure what I was hoping would happen, but I had to admit I was deeply intrigued by the idea of belonging to a society of Shapers where I could learn to be anything I wanted. The power, the knowledge that I could attain there... who knew? I might be able to return and make something new of myself here, when this was all over.
I stepped through the plate glass window. I didn't feel the cold glass, I didn't bump the windowsill with my knees. I simply felt myself falling down deep into a cottony, all-enveloping darkness.
Someone shook me awake. It was dark. My head felt sticky and slow from the clinging tentacles of wine and sleep, but something was clearly wrong. I was on a rough stone floor strewn with fragrant, musty hay, and I was wearing a jerkin of rougher leather. There was straw in my hair, in my collar, itching. I could hear rats rustling nearby.
"Wake up," the voice said again, and it sounded unforgiving. "Come on, ain't got all day. Use your legs."
I tried to sit up and discovered for the first time that my arms were tied. I shifted on the stone floor, trying to get leverage, and sat up. Something was in my mouth, wrapped around it, kept me from speaking. The light here was dim and orange, reflecting erratically from stone walls and iron bars, and the light looked and smelled like a distant cooking fire. Something was slow-roasting over it, something that smelled of salt and grease. I wasn't sure I wanted to know what it was being cooked.
"If I'm gonna carry you out," the jailer said, standing over me with a large iron mattock on one hand, "you're gonna hafta be cold first."
I mumbled something at him through the handkerchief, struggled, and stood up. I had no shoes, just rags wrapped around my lower legs and feet. I felt smaller and lighter, and there was a gnawing hunger in my belly. And there was this pervasive smell that probably came from my clothing: rotten food and sweat and grime.
The jailer stood a full head over me, heavy and imposing. He had a thick double-chin, raspy with stubble, and a dark leather hood that came down to the bridge of his nose like an executioner's hood. He was immensely fat, but his bulk was covered in such a way by sturdy plates of molded leather armor that it suggested he considered his weight a weapon to be used in combat. His armor was certainly scarred, and there was obvious power in those meaty arms.
He shoved me with one hand. "Go on, urchin," he said, oozing a little froth from one corner of his mouth. "Move them chicken legs."
I thought about standing my ground against him, demanding to see the Queen, but only for a moment. He could easily crush me. Where was Gayle, the elegant queen in the storm-sky dress? Where was Lamard, the Shaper? How had I ended up here in what appeared to be a dungeon hewn from rough stone?
Who was I?
The jailer pushed me out of the small cell where I had been sleeping. My legs felt knotted and cramped, as if I had been long confined. Hair dangled in my face. Was I female? I didn't think so, and even if I were, this didn't seem to be the best time to appreciate it. It might be interesting to try a change of shape or gender, I thought, but this was certainly not the ideal circumstances for it.
He led me down a small corridor, past a hearth where two equally unpleasant jailers sat watch over a joint turning on a spit. The hall resonated with the occasional listless chain, or a moan, or the scuttle of tiny paws. The whole place stank of urine and decay.
Stumbling in the direction he pushed me, just past the hearth, I came to a door. It was heavy, and padlocked twice, and barred; it was banded with iron. Nailed into its surface were reflective pendants, not unlike the earring of Gayle, but crude imitations of it: shiny and metallic and round, though these were undoubtedly iron or steel or nickel, rather than silver.
"Open that door," the jailer taunted, as the idle guards looked on and snickered to each other. "Go on. Fancy yourself a Shaper, do you? Open it. Melt it with your mirror. Go on!" he grunted, and kicked me in the back.
I flew into the door and hit against it. My head bounced off the oak, and for a moment I saw nothing but white, and heard a ringing in my ears.
"Shaper, are you?" the jailer was saying, as I came to on the floor. "Shape this, then."
This new voice rang in the corridor. I looked up dizzily to see a figure in sweeping steel-blue robes standing over me. The hems were trimmed with intertwined threads of gold and silver, and a reflective disc of silver hung from the cuff of each sleeve. A sigil hung from a belt at his waist, something with the symbol of an anvil wrapped in flames. The breeze of his passage stirred more pleasant scents into the hallway, temporarily carrying with it an exotic aroma of spice and salts. Near the hearth, the two guards rose to their feet, but not in violence or defense: they came to an uneasy, undisciplined stance of attention. Their faces betrayed their discomfort.
But the jailer's fat face merely seemed sullen and defiant. "Tried to get away," he muttered darkly. "Criminal, this one is. Well-known fact, that is. Ask anyone."
"Yes, a dangerous criminal. Both hands tied, and gagged, and half-starved," the newcomer said in a voice so low it was almost a purr. He seemed to turn his gaze to the two soldiers at attention, casually identifying each. "And... let us see, yes. Barov the jailer, just arrived from Ebella. We have rules in Drndwyn, Barov. You've heard of them? Excellent. Beside you is Tundros the jailer, recently of the Bramdon Guards, just moved into our service. You have a wife, it seems. Quite pretty.
"And Stark the Warden," the gray-robed man said softly, turning his eyes on the fat man. "Rose to the ranks in the Wars, did we? You were once a man of discipline and courage. How is it you have come to kicking prisoners in the back?"
"Tried to escape," Stark said, his voice oily but his tiny eyes murderous.
"Indeed. It is very likely he would have overpowered the three of you, tied as he was, then absconded with the keys, unlocked the door behind his back, and made away on his heels," the robed man said dryly. "Do you recall why we summoned him?"
Stark looked down at me, his expression a cross between bitterness, guilt, violence, and the shame of being reprimanded. "Foundry wants him."
"Foundry wants him what?"
"The Foundry wants him, Master Oleu," Stark the Warden said grudgingly.
"And the Foundry is here," the man said pleasantly. His voice was honey, with an undercurrent of arsenic. "Cut his bonds."
The warden looked furious, but he was trapped. I sensed that he dared not raise his voice against the Foundry man, nor reveal his hatred of him. Quickly he drew a knife from a sheath at his belt and stabbed them at the knots around my wrists. My hands came free, and my shoulders instantly cramped when I tried to flex the muscles. A warm trickle of blood cooled in the air, from the place where his knife had nicked me.
Master Oleu didn't help me to my feet. He didn't seem concerned about my cramping shoulders or the lingering stiffness in my legs. From what I could see of him, in the shadows, he had eyes of a blue so pale they seemed almost luminous. He had a handsome face, with crow's feet by his eyes and lines at his mouth as if he were accustomed to smiling, but at the moment, his eyes were icy and unforgiving.
"There," the Warden said petulantly, sheathing his knife. "Take the urchin, if you want him. I'm quit of him."
"Just a moment," Oleu said. "Your knife, please."
The Warden faltered for a moment, then handed it across, hilt-first.
"Ah," Oleu said, turning the blade over in his hands. "Blood. One might have suspected as much. One last cut, for revenge?"
Stark was silent, sullen.
"Look," Oleu said, showing me the knife and my blood on it. "Measure it. The time may come when you will get it back."
Now Stark's eyes upon me showed the faintest flicker of fear. Perhaps he knew of the transaction of the Queen, that had sent me here to learn how to be a Shaper?
Master Oleu's face was stony. "You will get the blade back some day, Warden," he said in a warning tone of voice, and added as a vicious afterthought, "and instead keep the arm that wielded it. That you may retain, for the moment."
And he raised one of his robed arms and draped it around my shoulders. The fragrance of sandalwood and lemon balm from his robes surrounded me in a cloud, and Master Oleu led me away from the dungeon.
As Master Oleu led me through a maze of corridors I would never dare to retrace, I noticed that his demeanor changed. The cold fury had left him, and he became warm, solicitous, and considerate. He asked if I were well; he offered to bandage my bleeding arm with a strip from his cloth belt. Master Oleu seemed genuinely charming.
"The soldiers have been idle since the wars," Oleu said dismissively, laughing. "They know nothing but violence on its own terms. One must put on a facade for them. They're good men, and they did great services for the world in helping Queen Gayle's father establish the Foundry, but their horizons are limited."
"It was a good facade," I managed. He had freed me from the gag in my mouth, and now I was trying to clear my tongue of the taste of sweaty, moldy burlap. In the dark corridors, wherever we were, my new body's voice echoed back to me oddly.
"Men such as he consider themselves experts at bluff and bluster," Master Oleu said. "They stand down for little else."
"He seemed as if he didn't like you," I ventured, listening to my own voice. Was I put into the body of a teenager?
"He doesn't like any Shapers," Master Oleu said smoothly, directing me to ascend a staircase. "As well one might guess from the Wars. We have not always been at peace with the common man. The Four Lands have often warred, and Shapers have always been at the center of them. Most people are still taught to hate and despise us." He looked at me, and his laugh-lines vanished in a moment of sorrowful sincerity. "Shapers have not been kind to the land, or to the people."
"And so people like Stark want to put the boot in, when they get the chance?"
"Put the boot in?"
"Kick a Shaper once they have him helpless on the ground," I suggested. We reached the top of the stairs and he gestured to the left. I went that way obediently.
"Yes, just so," Master Oleu nodded. "Although few Shapers are rendered so easily helpless. It is highly recommended that you make amends with Warden Stark. He may prove a useful ally to you."
"Why?" I asked bluntly. "He obviously hates Shapers, and for all he knows, I have a grudge against him."
"All the more reason," Oleu said. "A little charm, a little contrition. He'll fear you for a time, but if you attempt to befriend him, he'll have little enough reason to seek another opportunity to put a knife into you."
"Aren't I a Shaper?"
He smiled tolerantly. "Hardly. That takes skill, knowledge, cunning, and a certain amount of talent. With luck, some day you may be a Shaper. Rather say that for now, Stark will not plot against you because he has a much greater fear of me."
I hesitated. "And so you're here to teach me?"
"That remains to be seen," Master Oleu said, and again he smiled with his whole face. It was a genuine, heartfelt expression that would have been all the more convincing had I not seen the icy fury in his eyes, below in the dungeons. He held out the palm of one hand, indicating a door ahead where two guards in a dull, frosted blue armor stood at attention. "We are assembling the apprentices. Before noon the Masters will send for you, and one of them will choose you."
"Apprentices?" I asked. "As in plural?"
"Yes," Oleu said, still smiling. "Enter: you may find you have friends waiting for you there."
The guards acknowledged Master Oleu with the barest of nods as he pushed open the door and ushered me in. There were two additional guards on the inside, wearing the same armor: links of chain armor, beneath plates of a frosted metal that gleamed a dull orange in the light of a galaxy of candles. It took me a moment to understand. They seemed to use mirrors and reflections for their magic; perhaps their armor was designed to have no reflections, out of some limitation of power, or superstition. The door guards all wore a sash of the same shifting, swirling storm blue that I had seen in Gayle's dress, and they were armed with heavy swords of a matte blue.
Master Oleu gestured, showing me the interior of the room. The chambers appeared to be a luxuriously appointed sitting room, as a monarch might have outside his apartments, a place in which to receive visitors. In the light of a hundred candles I could see walls of hewn stone, blanketed by elaborate tapestries, and a museum of shapeless furniture draped in heavy canvas as if to protected it against dust and time. Around the room were about a dozen people, most evidently dressed like me, with dirty faces and shabby rags, both men and women. They were thin and underfed, but they did not have the hopeless look of the downtrodden. Instead they looked excited, confused, curious, and somewhat cautious at the introduction of another new face.
"I'm sure you will find some friends here," Master Oleu said pleasantly. "Someone will come for you, to take you before the Foundry, where a Master will speak for you."
As he left, Master Oleu said something in a low voice to the two inside guards. Then he left, his robes swishing around the doorjamb, and they closed the door behind him.
For a moment, I studied the two stony-faced guards, wondering what Oleu might have instructed them, but they stared straight ahead, dutiful and impassive, revealing nothing. These were not the dirty wardens of the dungeons below, in scarred leather, scruffy and unshaven. They had the look of an elite soldiery, disciplined and battle-hardened.
I turned, then, to examine the group. They were examining me warily. One young woman gestured my way, beckoning me to come to where she was seated cross-legged on a thick, woven wool rug.
"Are you from the List?" she said in a low voice. Her lips were twitching in a hesitant smile.
The young woman patted the woven carpet beside her, indicating I should sit. She was perhaps no more than sixteen, and she had slender, clean-lined limbs and though she was thin, she had the suggestion of a budding figure. If she had the advantages of a modern world, our soaps and attire and nutrition, she might be an above-average beauty, but no more. Her hair was an unclean, muddy brown, and her complexion not especially clear. She wore a shapeless thigh-length dress of an unclean gray wool, belted at the waist with a length of cord. I wondered, not for the first time, how I might look; I had never seen my own face.
"We're all from the List, too," she said. "There are some Lurkers here that I've never really met, but all of us belong to the TSA. You know what that is, right?"
I nodded. "Transfor-"
She had heard enough, and held up a dirty hand. "Quiet, the guards might be listening. It's enough that you know that much. If you never need to identify yourself to one of us, we have a password."
"A password?" I asked, perplexed. "Why all the cloak and dagger?"
"The password is the last name of the man who founded the List," she whispered. "I won't say it. You know who that was?"
I nodded, and at her silent prompting, I said, "Hassan."
"Yes," she said, breathing a sigh of relief. She extended her small, dirty hand toward me. "What's your List handle?"
"Fish," I said, taking her hand and shaking it.
She broke out into a wide smile. "Good to see you arrived! I'm Jon Buck."
I shook me head, bemused, and glanced over Jon's body. "Nice choice," I said. "I guess I ended up in this."
"All things considered, I'd be happy to trade with you," she said. "This doesn't look like a good world to be a woman in."
"I'll take your word for it," I said. "Look, what's with all the secrecy?"
"Didn't anybody call you?" she asked intently.
"No," I said. "Not many people from the List know my number. Why would they call?"
"I don't check it often."
She glanced at the guards and lowered her voice again. "Somebody's been taking people from the List. We didn't know it at first — most of them were being replaced with duplicates."
"Yes," I nodded. "They said they would replace me, too."
"But some of them were kidnapped," she said seriously. "Someone on the List captured a recording of it happening. BD left a headset running while it was happening, and some other List members heard the whole thing."
"Why didn't someone post it to the List?" I asked, alarmed. "Some kind of warning?"
"They were looking for List members. They might have been watching the List traffic too," she said. "Not many people found out about it in time."
I thought about it. "Kidnapped?"
"Yes, we think so."
"Was he replaced with a duplicate, too?"
"I'm not sure," she said. "I didn't hear."
Something about it bothered me; it didn't make sense. "But if you knew that they were kidnapping people, why did you bother to come here?" I asked. "I mean, if they're just abducting us, why would you bother to come?"
Jon rubbed her face wearily. "I didn't hear about it until I was already here, talking with other Listies."
"That still means someone here was forewarned," I said, looking around the crowd. "Who?"
"Shadow heard about it," Jon said. "He was warning as many people as he could, until they came and got him." Jon looked at me curiously. "So what are you doing here? Were you recruited by the man with the pet wolf, too?"
"Pet wolf? No, I didn't see anybody like that," I said. "A queen named Gayle and someone she called a Shaper. Named... I don't remember, started with an L."
"Lamard," she said, nodding. "Wearing an animal-print wrap? Some people saw him, too. I saw a woman in green with leaves in her hair, wearing a hawk on her wrist. She was very convincing," she said. "I thought it was... you know, the opportunity of a lifetime. To learn to be a Shaper, she said."
"Yeah. I know exactly how you feel. I guess I was taken in, too. What are they going to do with us?"
"They come in every few hours and take away some of us. They say they're taking us to the Foundry, to be chosen by the Master Shapers, but nobody ever comes back. We don't really know." Jon's dirty feminine face had an expression of distinct unease, as if she would have preferred to run, or hide, but there was nowhere in this room to do either.
"That's what Master Oleu told me, as well," I said, frowning. "You'd think they wouldn't bother keeping up the facade, if it was all just a big lie."
"Maybe." Jon didn't sound convinced.
"So who else is here?" I asked, glancing around again. The other Listies sat in knots on the canvas-draped furniture, on a big four-poster bed, on a settee, in clusters around the edges of the carpet. Candlelight suffused the room with a complex web of dancing shadows, and tainted the air with a faint, oily smoke.
"Well, we think BD is here," Jon said. "Someone talked to a someone who heard from someone else that he was here early on, hours ago. Maybe yesterday, whatever day it is now. They come and take us out in twos and threes, bring more in. All I know is what I heard other people saying."
"Like a giant game of Operator," I said. "News straight from the mouth of a friend of a friend of a friend."
"Yes, like that, times three."
"Xodiac was around, somewhere. I think he got chosen already. Bard's over there," Jon said. She held up one hand against her belly and pointed, hiding the hand where my body would block view of her gesture from the guards. "Daniel, I think. And maybe Lance. Someone said that Rabbit was here, too, but I didn't meet him. It's hard to tell the rumor apart from the reality right now."
I nodded, and allowed myself what I hoped was an ironic smile. "So what was it like, finding out that you have the body of a woman over here?"
"Not bad," Jon said, smiling herself, "but not good, either. I was in a jail cell. Apparently I was locked up for prostitution," she said with distaste.
"Damn," I said. "Sorry to hear it. I never found out what it was I did. They just said I was dangerous."
Under the impassive gaze of the armed guards, Jon and I circulated around the room to meet the rest of the group. Most of them seemed bemused and a little distraught to find that they had actually entered a world where their deepest dreams and worst nightmares could be realized, sometimes at the same time.
I learned a very little by comparing my recruitment with that of the others. Bard had been approached by a woman in gold silk with a unicorn at her side.
"She said something about a Cabal," Bard explained. Bard had likewise been assigned the body of a slender woman, this one about twenty, with dark skin and a deformed hip. Her hair was black and fine, and her eyes a curious color of gold. On both her biceps was a grotesque scar, as of a burn, or of a branding. Bard's attire was similarly bedraggled to that of many of us, but in her case, there were wide, wicked slashes through the back of her baggy shirt, reminiscent of the marks of a whip. "I remember, because I asked if she could tell me more about them. She said it was a group of Shapers that had tried to destroy the alliance of the Foundry, about five years ago. Everyone said the Cabal was beaten, but now they're not so sure. It might be them, again."
"What makes them so powerful?" I asked.
"She didn't say, exactly," Bard explained with a delicate shrug. "Evidently there was one from each of the Four Lands."
"What does that mean?"
Again, Bard shrugged. "I don't know. But for what it's worth..."
"Four Kingdoms," I sighed. "All right, at least it's something."
Xodiac had not yet been chosen. He was sitting on the edge of the wide mattress, wrapped in a shawl. The body he had been given was that of an old man, who looked to be seventy. Xodiac had furred boots and a furred cap, and a linen smock. His eyes were dim with cataracts; his mouth and hands both betrayed the tremor of age.
"Xod, you don't look good," I said, trying to sound lighthearted. "I'm surprised they gave you a body that was so..."
"Old," Xodiac said. "The word you're looking for is old."
"All right," I said in an if-you-say-so voice.
"And don't patronize me," he said irritably. "You get a young body, and I get this? I'm old. Hell."
"Maybe there's something they can do," I suggested. "Get you a different body, maybe?"
"Maybe." Xodiac bundled himself deeper into the shawl. "I asked them what kind of body I'd get. They didn't say. I'll bet they knew," he added sourly.
"Xodiac, you don't sound like yourself," I said. "You're not usually this..."
"Old," he said again, firmly. "And I know I'm not myself, damn you. That's obvious."
"They've got to do something," I assured him. "They want apprentices, don't they? Apprentices, not antiquarians."
He gave me a lopsided grin that showed missing teeth. "Maybe so. We'll see, won't we?"
"Meanwhile, is there anything interesting I should know?" I asked. "Bard said there was a Cabal. Four Kingdoms. Anything you can add?"
Xodiac considered the matter, absently rubbing one wrist. "They take their mirrors seriously. That's how this guy ended up in prison," he said, gesturing at the elderly body he wore. "He broke a mirror. Got locked up. I never heard the straight story about why he broke it, but the guards made a hell of an objection when the Shapers came to get me."
A gentle knock sounded at the door, and the guards allowed in a shapely chambermaid. Her clean complexion, exaggerated figure, and cascading platinum hair immediately contrasted with our ragged, ill-clad appearances. She wore a clingy gray dress and sandals, and wore an apron belted about her waist; behind her was a small army of similarly-dressed young women, but she was obviously their leader.
We perked up at her entrance, seeing that something was happening at last. She looked us over with some distaste, then issued instructions to her army of maids. "This is the last of them," she said. "The Foundry wants the remainder to be taken away and bathed before they are brought before the Forge. Bring them to the baths and see they are cleaned. Metricia, be sure that these apartments are cleaned afterward. And," she added, looking at our shabby clothing with a sniff, "give them clean linen to wear."
"Yes, mum," an adolescent maid said, bobbing a curtsey.
"Apprentices-to-be," the chambermaid called to us in a clear, ringing voice. "Accompany my maids to the baths. You will be shown the way, bathed, and given clean attire. Afterward you will be taken to the Forge, where the Masters of the Foundry will conduct your examination.
"I strongly urge you not to run," she added, a peculiar twisting smile on her lips. "The bodies you reside in are wanted for various crimes. Those crimes will not be pardoned until you are Chosen. I'm sure Warden Stark would dearly love to see some of you again, but the feeling may not be mutual."
There were some ironic laughs and mutters among us.
"Very well," she said, with another ironic smile, and turned to the guards. "You two, in the van. The two outside bring up the rear."
The guards visibly hesitated, but she clapped her hands sharply. "Now. The Foundry is waiting."
"Yes, ma'am," one of the guards said politely, and nudged his companion, not so politely.
Accompanied by guards, we wended our way through the dark corridors again, this time up another two flights of cramped stairs. One of the maids helped Xodiac navigate the steps; I stayed in the lead, where I could casually listen to anything that the guards, or the chambermaid, might say.
We were now three flights up from the dungeons where I had begun, and the corridors here were certainly in better order: the halls were wider, the stones were hewn more smoothly, and there were columns of ornamented granite. The floors were decorated with a series of carpets woven in an elaborate tapestry depicting historical scenes that went by far too quickly to interpret or appreciate. Best of all, there was a pleasant scent of smoke and spice, and the air seemed cleaner, more breathable.
Our parade turned down a side passage, where the breeze was far more pronounced; the wind blew straight toward us, toying with our hair. The air was noticeably warmer.
We finally reached the source of the wind and heat, and it startled us all: all but the guards and the maids, for whom this was simply another feature of their domain. At the end of a hall, there was a branch in the shape of a T: to the left, there was a mirror at least two stories tall, made of polished metal, and it showed nothing more than a blustery sky filled with storm clouds which boiled endlessly. The wind blew stiffly from this mirror, constantly, making it difficult to stand. Opposite this mirror was another of even greater height, but tilted at a forty-five degree angle to fill the hall; and this mirror showed a scene of smoking, crackling lava and flames, a massive prairie of crusting, roiling magma.
The wind-mirror blew directly into the flame-mirror, giving it valuable oxygen; and the flame-mirror, so angled, fried the air above it. Above the lava, waves of heat distortion shimmered and rose up through a grate in the ceiling. Was this their furnace? I wondered. Are they heating this complex with mirrors?
The third branch of the T intersection was another staircase. They led us up these stairs, which opened into a huge grotto of carved stone and columns and steaming water. It was a giant public bath, tiled with white and green and blue ceramics in the shapes of swirling shoals of fish. On the surface of the water were masses of soapy bubbles, filling the air with a strange fragrance. Skylights in the walls above let in natural sunlight from somewhere, creating shafts of sun through the steam. The water steamed, presumably from the heat of the lava furnace below it.
"Disrobe," the chambermaid instructed us.
"All of us?" Bard asked dubiously.
She gave us a chilly look. "Is there a problem? Do they not bathe in your world?"
"Not all together," I said. "Men and women, together...?"
The chambermaid's expression was as stony as the ceramic. "Disrobe," she said again. "I haven't time for the objections of the uncivilized." She gestured, and the maids began dutifully removing their clothing.
"What are they doing?" Jon asked, startled.
"They will bathe you and make you presentable," the chambermaid said curtly. "The Foundry is gracious enough to consider you as apprentices; the least you could do is scrape off some of the grime."
We weren't given any alternative, and there didn't seem to be any division between men's baths and women's, so we all stripped off our unfamiliar clothes and piled into the steaming water.
"Take these rags to the fire," the chambermaid directed her maids, wrinkling her nose.
Some of the young ladies who were still dressed carried our filthy rags down the stairs with distaste, presumably to throw them into the lava plains. The others, having laid their skirts aside, joined us in the hot water, most of them wearing only a slip.
It was terribly embarrassing to have these maids assisting us in bathing. For one thing, I had never experienced a public bath, and there were men and women alike here. For another, these were young women attending me, but I was younger still. From the look of my body, I may have been only fourteen; and while the young woman tending me could only have been twenty-five, younger than I had once been she treated me as one would a child. She obviously was not taking me seriously as a male. And I was competent to bathe myself. I knew how it was done. I didn't require help. But still, I couldn't quite bring myself to ask this woman, her slip soaked to transparency and clinging to her skin, to leave me alone.
I couldn't really allow myself to look at her. My body was fourteen again, and very eager to look, and I was eternally glad that the layer of soapy bubbles disguised my body's desire for her. To cover up my embarrassment and confusion, I looked around the baths, taking in the figures that I saw.
There appeared to be several races here, with which I was unfamiliar. Less than half of us, and about half the maids, appeared to be a race that I instinctively categorized as "white," but it didn't precisely conform to what I knew. Those people had pale skin and light-colored hair: blondes and light browns and pale orange, all warm colors, but their eyes were invariably cool: violet or blue or green. Most were fit and muscular, and of average height. Jon was one of these.
I revised my mental categorization of white, and decided instead to call them Warm, after their hair.
Bard was an example of a racial group I counted in my head as Hot, because I imagined the race was accustomed to living in warmer climates: their skin was dusky and a very dark yellow, like that of Middle Easterners, and with wavy dark-colored hair. The Hots all had light-colored eyes, yellow and gray and orange and occasionally blue or lavender, and they were much leaner and more rangy of build than the Warms.
A similar group had skin that seemed to be a golden brown, and dark hair that at first I took for black, but in the sunlight appeared to be dark blues and dark greens. Like the Warms, their eyes were colorful and bright. I might have been one of these, but as I couldn't see my own eyes, I didn't know for certain. I called us the Natives, since we seemed to be more sun-tanned than the others.
And Xodiac was from the last group, the most numerous after the Warms: skin more reddish in tone, and hair more inclined to blacks, grays, and dark green; their eyes were dark brown or green. The few examples I saw here to study seemed to vary more in height and build. I called them the Woods, since the red-green coloration reminded me vaguely of a forest.
I filed this away for future reference and let the maid assist me with finishing my bath.
Now there were several women on the edges of the pool, holding up robes and linens for us. "Dress," the chambermaid commanded us. "You are clean enough. The Masters of the Foundry are waiting, and there is only so much soap can do, for some of you."
They dressed us, first in a bleached thigh-length linen tunic of indifferent fit, simple belt, sandals, and a heavy robe of a warm, velvety orange.
"Orange is the color of apprentices," she announced. "As glass and iron glow orange when they are being shaped, so too do apprentices. If you master the craft of Shaping you may graduate to red, and to the gray."
We examined each other, in our new robes, wearing unfamiliar faces. I saw Jon, boyishly slender in her orange robes, and Bard — the orange strangely flattering on her. Xodiac was last to dress, and irritable about having to leave the comfortable, steaming pool.
"This way," the chambermaid directed, and led us around the edge of the pool to a different exit.
With rustling robes we followed the chambermaid through more halls, these more spacious and warmer than the ones we had left behind. Occasionally in an alcove there would stand a stone statue, presumably to some famous Shaper or soldier or monarch. We passed other people, too, going about their business; we looked at them curiously, and they watched us right back, in both awe and suspicion.
I knew when we had arrived at the correct hall: it fairly sparkled with round, silvery charms, of the kind I had seen earlier. They didn't appear to be an official designation, for while the Queen had worn one as an earring, the door to the dungeons had a cheaper version there as well. Were they some kind of superstition, or ward, like nailing a horseshoe over the door?
At the end of this final hallway was the Forge.
It gave a first impression of a massive multi-sided room, a dodecagon or better, with corridors branching off in every direction. The center of room, ringed with pillars, consisted of a sunken layer, and another layer sunk below that, like an amphitheater. Light was everywhere, light of all kinds, reds and flashing yellows, cool blues, all coming from the various doorways. Around the amphitheater were half a dozen men, dressed in steel-blue robes as had Master Oleu. They had, as he did, the sigil of the Foundry on their belts; some were twenty years of age, but most were nearer to forty or fifty.
The doors around the perimeter of the Foundry led not into other rooms of this castle complex, but as far as I could tell, into other worlds completely. To my right, a hall branched off into the fire-lit tunnels of a mining shaft; to the left, another hall opened onto a snowy plain seemingly atop a cloud-wreathed peak. Another led into a museum of riches and art. Two halls were utilitarian stone, like the one through which we had entered.
After a moment I realized that these were not rounded tunnels, but mirrors: they were oval frames of wood that, somehow, vanished into strange places.
The Masters were watching us carefully.
"Thank you, Iolande," one of them said, rising to his feet. It was Master Oleu. He brushed idly at a flick of invisible dust on his robes. "Leave them here."
Though Iolande was commanding to her army of servants, and imperious with the guards, dipped her head and curtseyed with respect, and silently left the room. The four guards accompanied her.
Master Oleu surveyed us for a moment. "Very well," he said. "Since our esteemed Principal is not here to lead the Foundry, it falls upon one of us to complete these examinations. Shall we-"
"Oh, I'm here," said a woman, adjusting her robes near a column. "Yes, by all means, let us finish this up. Tedious, this is. The Forge is always so drafty, and Master Wexrtyn's mirrors always smell like sweat." She flounced down into the center of the amphitheater and sat primly on the first row of seats, crossing her legs.
"Master Shaper," Oleu said in a level tone, "you are a woman."
"Yes," the woman smiled, pleased. "Do you like it? I've been working on the form. The last one was a trifle too tall, I fancy, and the knees! Oh, the knees were a disaster. How do you think I've managed on this one?" she asked, caressing one of her silken legs. Her robes must have been crafted differently from the other Masters, I noticed; the others didn't show so much at the thigh, or at the collar, and their robes were heavier and hung differently. If this Master had been seeking the perfect female form, she had come very close: silken hair such a pale blond that it seemed luminescent, eyes of an unnatural sea green, and pale, milky skin.
Master Oleu's gaze didn't shift. "Master Lamard, the rules of the Foundry are clear. As Principal Shaper you wrote most of them yourself. Women are not permitted to lead our discussions. If you would care to retire to adjust your form-"
Lamard? I thought. Lamard was a man — Principal Shaper of the Foundry, Gayle had called him. When I saw Lamard he was a keen intellect with little tolerance for time-wasting, a dark-haired man with golden eyes and a shifting wrap of animal print. This was Lamard? She didn't even act like him! Could it be simply that they shared a common name? No, because this woman was also Principal Shaper.
"I told you that my researches were pressing," she said dismissively, examining one of her hands. "And yet you insisted upon calling this meeting anyway. Almost as if you were trying to exclude me. Oh dear, do you think this wrist is adequate?"
"The question is whether you are adequate," said another Master, glowering from his seat and flexing his hands together. He was perhaps forty, with a neatly trimmed beard of gold and gray and murderous red-violet eyes. He had powerful shoulders and he continued to exercise his hands against each other as if he wished to break something, or make something, or both. "You are not. You persist in attending our meetings in the shape of your latest creation, when you attend them at all. Balls of a goat! You waste my time, Master Shaper. I too have pressing researches."
"Ah, yes, Master Wexrtyn, that elusive platinum alloy," she yawned lazily. "Tiresome. But you have been working on it for years, you say, and you are no closer now than you were before. Surely the few minutes it would take me to change wouldn't be sufficient-"
Another Master, his robe more richly embroidered than that of the others, said in a languid voice, "I would rather not spend more time in this chilly hall than is required. Let us press on so we may shorten our time here, and where Master Wexrtyn may return to chasing phantoms."
"Chasing phantoms, am I?" Wexrtyn growled. "My bonded servants do more hard work in a day than you've ever seen in your life, Master Kureon. If platinum is ever to yield up its secrets, it will take hard work, not sensuousness, and not sycophants!"
"Masters of the Foundry," Master Oleu said suavely, "we have rules in order for the purpose of debate. These are not they. Shall we conclude the Examination?"
Wexrtyn glared across the amphitheater at Kureon and Lamard, but subsided, wringing his hands. "Very well. Let us waste no more time. Since Master Lamard-" he spat the title with derision- "is inadequate, I nominate Master Oleu. Again."
"Seconded." Two or three of the other Masters mumbled an assent.
Master Oleu inclined his head in acceptance. "The final seven apprentices-to-be are before us. Masters, pose your questions."
Bard was called first to stand in the lowest part of the amphitheater, the seven Masters making a sparse half-ring around her, examining her, evaluating her. Nervous, Bard played with the belt of her robes.
"We choose our apprentices with care," Master Oleu said gently. "Our tradition is to select by inquiry. We will ask you questions, which you will answer directly and without prevarication. A Master may ask you to elaborate, if he wishes. Do you understand?"
Master Kureon smoothed the lapels of his richly embroidered gown, and lazily toyed with a ring on one hand. "Why did you choose to leave the comforts of your world to come here?"
"Because I am tired of the world," Bard said simply. "Tired of dreams that can never be fulfilled. I'm ready to borrow a musket and start blowing away my boss, and then random members of the public, very slowly."
"What comfort do you most regret leaving behind?" Kureon asked curiously.
Bard gave it some thought. "The computer to write down my dreams."
Master Kureon looked dissatisfied, and sat back. "I will yield the balance of my questions."
Master Wexrtyn spoke next, and he was very still and intent. "This... 'boss' of yours. I do not follow your idiom but I gather you are not happy with him. Why did you continue to work for him?"
"In my world, working yielded money; money paid for useful things like shelter and food, and the computer that I mentioned. And, the ownership of the company recently changed," Bard added darkly, "and the new boss came in. I was looking for something else to switch to. I just hadn't found it yet."
"But though it made you unhappy to remain, you stayed," Wexrtyn persisted. "Was this from duty to your boss, or fear of the consequences of leaving?"
"I guess fear of the consequences of leaving," Bard said thoughtfully.
Master Wexrtyn nodded gravely. "I am satisfied."
Another Master spoke, this one tall and imposing, broad-shouldered and darkly complected. He followed up on Wexrtyn's line of questioning, with a scornful sneer to his mouth. "Why did you not become your own boss? Why did you persist in following?"
"I had tried to be my own boss," Bard said. "I learned I don't have the right personality to meet people and make contacts to support my own business."
The tall Master harrumphed.
Master Oleu looked up from idle contemplation of her fingernails. "Master Tzcheon, do you yield?"
"I yield," the tall Master said sourly.
Lamard turned her gaze upon Bard. "If you could give only one, would you rather give the world truth, or beauty?"
"Truth," Bard said.
Lamard shook her head. "I yield my questions. Next?"
Master Oleu, leading the floor, asked his question next. "Would you rather be leader of the servants, or servant of the leaders?"
Bard considered this carefully. Master Oleu's question had seemed very casual, but it seemed to all of us that there was another meaning hidden in it, an unspoken question. "Leader of the servants," Bard said at last.
"Ah," Oleu said, with a faint smile. "Yield. Masters Irsio, Varacid? Have you questions?"
When the two Masters declined, Oleu nodded at Master Wexrtyn. "You are the only Master to claim satisfaction. Will you have this one as your apprentice?"
Wexrtyn rose to his feet and addressed Bard, who stood her ground anxiously. "There is fear in you," Wexrtyn said, "and hard work. But there is no fear of hard work. I will teach you, and you will see enough of both."
From the look on her face, Bard didn't appear very happy with that statement. "I ended up in a woman's body," Bard said. "I'll work as hard as I can. But you needn't teach me how to be afraid; I'd rather learn something more useful."
Master Wexrtyn smiled at her coldly. "Fear can be useful, too. Come with me." He raised one robed arm and placed it around Bard's shoulders. She glanced backward at the rest of us as he led her through a mirror into the flame-lit mine shafts. As soon as they had passed its border, the Master turned to make a gesture, and the mirror winked out. Now that frame was empty: it showed only bare wall.
Another of us was called to the center of the dwindling half-circle. This one I didn't know; he was a man of medium height, possibly forty years of age, with a number of scars on his body as if from years of soldiery or brawling. He had golden skin, midnight-blue hair, and frosty blue eyes, and his wet hair was tied back in a ponytail at his collar.
"Master Irsio," Oleu called. "You may begin the examination."
The Master he had addressed had a peculiar pair of spectacles; they looked nothing like the ones from our world. In fact, he was the only person I had seen here wearing them. It surprised me to see the bare lenses, given how superstitious this world seemed to be about reflections. Master Irsio seemed no more than twenty, but he spoke with a clear voice and a steady maturity that suggested his appearance alone was not to be relied upon.
"Young man," he began in a professorial tone, "be so good as to tell the Foundry your name and position."
"I'm Sarah," the young man said, embarrassed. "I don't really have a position. I'm a — I mean, I used to work as a flight attendant." When Master Irsio merely raised his eyebrows, she continued, "That is, I served as hostess aboard an airplane. We traveled from place to place. Mostly it was centered around San Jose. We'd fly to another city, Portland, Las Vegas, whatever, and we'd take care of the passengers, we'd stay the night there, and next trip we'd fly back."
"I imagine you saw many interesting things," Irsio said calmly. It occurred to me that, as yet, he still hadn't asked a question, but Sarah responded as though he had.
"That was the best part about traveling," Sarah said with a smile. "I got to see St. Louis, I got to see the Grand Canyon."
"And yet here you are."
Sarah nodded. "I thought there would be more travel, more excitement. But there's always the riders... I mean, the passengers of the plane. People can be so demanding. I don't like being surrounded by people all day."
"You prefer solitude," Master Irsio concluded.
"I guess you could say that."
Irsio nodded. "I am satisfied."
Master Tzcheon rose to his feet in disbelief. "You're satisfied with that? You asked no questions at all! What have you learned?"
Master Irsio smiled mysteriously, and said nothing. With a sigh of exasperation, Tzcheon sat back down.
The last Master, the one called Varacid, spoke. He was a dark, heavyset master, with a balding pate and shabby robes. "There are many travelers such as you?"
Sarah nodded. "Yes."
Varacid grunted. "I yield."
What? I took another look at him. He had asked one question only, and it was singularly unenlightening. But the next Master was speaking, so I turned my gaze away.
Lamard, the Master in the shape of a lovely woman, raised her head and asked her question: "If you could give only one, would you give the world truth or beauty?"
"Beauty," Sarah said without hesitation.
"Ah. I yield my questions," Master Lamard said, and went back to her intimate study of her fingernails.
Something seemed unusual about Lamard, as if she were only asking questions to fulfill the minimum of her duty. Bard had answered Truth, and Sarah had said Beauty; neither answer had interested her in the least.
Master Kureon, in his fancifully decorated robes, stood. "With so many exotic things to see and to do, why did you come here to our world? Had you exhausted the sights of your world so easily?"
"There was more to see on Earth than I possibly had time for," Sarah said sadly. "But the flights were long, and I had almost no time to myself. I was away from my family, I didn't have as much time to read as I liked, I didn't have much energy left over to live my life."
"Ah, your work as a hostess interfered?" Kureon said shrewdly. "All work, and no play?"
"Yes," Sarah said. "It was all work and no play, and it made me a very dull girl."
"A girl?" Kureon asked. "And here you are a man."
Sarah nodded, and blushed again. "It's not exactly what I expected. I'm not sure I like it."
Master Kureon's expression clouded over. "I yield my questions, then."
"No questions," Master Oleu demurred. "Master Irsio, will you choose this apprentice?"
Irsio nodded. "I will. He seems eager to explore; I will train him to explore faster and further." The two of them vanished into another mirror, which winked out.
And then there were five Masters, and five of us. Another examination proceeded, another person I had not yet met. This one was Charlene, a woman from the List who now, like Sarah before her, inhabited the body of a young man. Unlike Sarah, Charlene professed to enjoy the opportunity. Master Kureon was delighted to hear that Charlene was eager to try most anything this world had to offer.
It occurred to me as I listened to the questions that Master Kureon was something of an aesthete; the questions he asked were very sensory. He asked about sights and sounds and comforts, things which could be sensed. Kureon lost interest in Sarah when he found that Sarah was unhappy in a male body; he grew excited to hear that Charlene was enjoying himself. Naturally, he chose Charlene, and they left together through another mirror.
Master Tzcheon was more difficult to read, but it seemed to me that he had little tolerance for self-imposed limitations. He seemed to be looking for someone driven, someone haunted by failure and obsessed with the struggle toward perfection. He selected an apprentice named Dana on the basis that he had taught himself to speak two languages and play three instruments.
Lamard seemed uninterested in the entire procedure, and asked the same question of everyone out of habit. She didn't appear to take any concern for the answers, nor did she profess satisfaction with any candidate. I got the strongest feeling as if she wished for the meeting to be over, and she wasn't bothering to conceal her boredom.
Master Oleu, charming as always, asked very balanced philosophical questions, dichotomies of thought, but he too seemed unhappy, as if none of the prospective candidates offered anything like as thorough an answer as he sought.
Only Master Varacid was difficult to discern: he was the most unclean of the Masters, by far; his robes were frayed and his appearance disheveled. He asked no questions at all of anyone, save of Sarah, and of Xodiac.
When it was Xodiac's turn, Master Varacid finally grew impatient enough to ask a question. "You truly do come of another world?" he asked bluntly.
"Yes," Xodiac nodded.
"Good enough for me," Varacid declared. "I'm satisfied. Oleu, Lamard?"
Master Lamard stirred herself again. "If you could give only one, would you give the world truth or beauty?"
Xodiac's rheumy eyes narrowed, and he scrutinized the female Shaper carefully. "Either?" he guessed.
Lamard yawned. "I yield."
Oleu shook his head, indicating he had no questions, and Varacid grunted in satisfaction. "Good. I wasn't going to be the only Shaper left without an off-world apprentice," he grumbled. "You, come with me. We'll see if we can do something about that arthritis."
Then there were two: Masters Oleu and Lamard, and me and Jon.
Master Lamard tossed her mane of pale blond hair behind her shoulder and gazed at Jon's female form. "If you could give only one, would you give the world truth or beauty?"
Jon shrugged. "You can't have one without the other."
And this time, Lamard smiled. "You interest me," she said. "I will take you as my apprentice. But first, we simply must do something about that body. That skin! A disaster, truly. The eyes are acceptable, just barely, but the rest will simply have to go."
"Will you make me male again?" Jon asked hopefully. "Please? I don't think I want to be a woman in your world."
Master Lamard laughed delightedly as she led Jon away. "Male? You? I think not. You're just lucky I'm letting you be humanoid. I have the loveliest mirror with the most adorable little-" and they were gone, their mirror vanishing behind them.
I was left with Master Oleu, alone.
"I suppose you're stuck with me?" I said wryly.
Oleu looked me over. "Actually, an apprentice was acquired through other means," he said absently, studying my acquired form as if it held some abstract interest for him. "This detail was merely omitted before the Foundry. The Masters who have already chosen their apprentices are not allowed to supervise the remainder of the Examination, or make note of which Apprentices are chosen by whom.
"Wexrtyn was looking for a laborer for his mines, of course; he always does. Hard work and moral rectitude and fear!" he said in a mocking tone. "And, of course, Irsio chose the wanderer. Anyone could have foreseen that. Varacid cares for nothing but acquisition, and if all the other Shapers were to have an apprentice recruited from another world, then he too must have one. Obvious choices, all of them. Lamard-" Master Oleu shook his head. "It has been a long time since she showed any interest at all in Foundry meetings. She'll likely be deposed soon, but the votes aren't quite together yet."
Master Oleu had been thinking aloud, but then he looked at me again. "Sadly, the Foundry knows of no use for you, has no real learning. You shall be sent to the Queen. You may have heard that she is an honorary Shaper; in her case, the title stems from heredity, not talent. She had no concept of Shaping, nor would she benefit from it. She is of the Golden Mirror," he added bitterly.
"The guards will take you to Queen Gayle," Master Oleu said, "alone. My apprentice is new and she requires careful observation. You may consider yourself very lucky."
"Lucky?" I demanded. "I'm being pawned off like a hot potato?"
Oleu gave me a chilly smile, barely tolerant. "Lucky, yes. It is fortunate that you were not questioned by the Foundry, that they did not discover your hobby. You are an actor, are you not? You are one who acts: who lies and deceives. The Foundry would not have treated you kindly."
"How did you know that?" I asked.
"Go," Oleu said, banishing me to the door with one imperious gesture. "The guards will take you to her."
Queen Gayle was not what I expected.
She sat at the head of the audience chamber casually, as if she spent a great deal of time here and was visibly bored by the grandness of it all. A balcony ran around three edges of the chamber, where archers and soldiers lounged in the shadows. Rows of benches lay before the dais, where a few petitioners sat patiently, hoping the Queen might some day deign to address their grievances. Behind the throne a partition of dark grape-colored curtains hung, decorated with what must have been the royal coat of arms. Just off the dais on the left stood a small cluster of mirrors, all in a half-circle and visible from a central point, as the mirrors in a dressing room might be. And on the dais, on a large throne central to a line of royal seats, sat the Queen.
The woman I had seen in my apartment had been perhaps twenty, yet mature, with hair of golden-white and eyes of purple. She had worn a flowing gown seemingly painted with the colors of clouds, that swirled and danced in the fabric as if alive. Gayle, as I remembered her, was elegant and regal and well-spoken. And the woman from the mirror, which may also have been Gayle, had been an old crone. The Queen was neither of them.
She did have white-blonde hair, which was elaborately coiffed and primped, with a tiara of opalescent pearls, but this woman was closer to thirty-five, and beginning to show signs of age beneath the layers of concealing makeup. It's true that her eyes were purple, though somehow less alive; and her gown was indeed a dull mouse-colored gray, but there the superficial similarities ended.
Queen Gayle was in an audience hall, hunched sideways in her throne with her knees up over the arm, reading a rather thin and well-worn book. She had none of the poise or bearing I recalled. At the side of the throne stood an officer of the court, a sallow man of sixty with a long white mustache that made him look like Fu Manchu, and golden robes sewn with triangular patches and patterns. It was his gesture that prompted the guards to escort me to the foot of the dais.
Fu Manchu thanked the guards with a mere nod of the head, and waved them away. He bowed to his queen. "Queen Gayle, your apprentice has been chosen?"
Gayle glanced up from her book with a petulant look. "I don't want an apprentice. What a bother."
"My Queen," Fu Manchu said politely, "the Masters of the Foundry have found an apprentice for you, to replace the Shapers that have recently been attacked. Your father would have wanted the Foundry strengthened."
"Who cares what that old bat wanted?" she pouted, and buried her nose again in her book. "He's dead and I'm Queen, and I don't want any stupid apprentice. I don't even remember asking for an apprentice."
I looked closely at Gayle. Although in some ways she resembled the queen I had met, this woman was at once older and younger than she: older in body, younger in mind. Gayle, it struck me, was like the oldest-looking teenager I had ever seen.
"It is a courtesy," the sallow man said. "You are an honorary Shaper. Your apprentice is here to learn to make mirrors."
"Oh, good," she said, showing some animation at last. "Can he make me another mirror for the audience chamber? I need one that shows me the back of my gown. It is so hard to do up these buttons."
"He must be trained first."
"Oh," she said, and slumped down into her book. "Fine. Make me do all the work. All I want is another mirror."
I glanced to the left of the throne, where there were a number of mirrors. At first I hadn't taken any notice of them, since they seemed ordinary enough to me: their reflections merely showed the audience chamber, as mirrors do. But these mirrors showed the chamber from different angles: from above, from the corners, from the balcony overhead, as if each mirror were positioned like a security camera in strategic places. Many of the mirrors even showed reflections of the other mirrors, which showed reflections of reflections, and reflections of reflections of reflections, descending into an infinite depth. On the left side of the audience chamber, there were no petitioners near the mirrors; most of them didn't even look in that direction.
"The chambermaid can help you with your dresses," he said with a tight smile. "That is why you have servants."
"I want to do it myself," she said, still petulant.
"The mirrors frighten your servants," he said. "Most of your subjects are afraid of reflections. It is a long-standing superstition."
"Seneschal," she said, sitting up again, "I don't remember ordering anybody to get me an apprentice. I don't want any old apprentice. All I want is a mirror so I can do up my own buttons myself."
"Nevertheless," the Seneschal said smoothly, "this is a courtesy that must be observed. You are not required to train him, my Queen."
"I wouldn't know how," she said, playing idly with her lip. "Fine. I'll have a dumb old apprentice. You don't suppose we could make him a captain instead?" she asked, brightly.
"Another?" the Seneschal asked, with great weariness, it seemed to me.
A captain? I thought. This wasn't what I had signed up for. But there didn't seem to be a polite way to interrupt.
"I like captains," Gayle said, sticking out her chin. "They're all so dashing and romantic, you know. All the best poets agree." She waggled the thin volume of poetry at him.
"As well I know," the Seneschal said, passing a hand over his eyes. "Very well. We shall make him a captain."
Gayle was regarding me idly, as if I were a bit player to her starring role. "Do we have any wars we could send him off to?" she asked.
"No wars, your Grace," the Seneschal said, contriving to sound gravely disappointed. "There are garrisons which must be manned. Those Shapers who do secretly ambush your kingdom with mirrors must be defended against."
"No wars?" she sighed theatrically. "Fine. But everybody knows that a captain should fight in wars. And then he returns home and wins the fair princess. Perhaps we could arrange some single combat. Do we have any giants?"
This was sounding worse and worse. I stepped forward and cleared my throat, but the guards beside me grabbed my arms and pulled me back a step. One of them shushed me menacingly.
"None extant, my Queen."
"Can we have some made? In a mirror, I mean. Something suitably vicious. And it can capture a princess, which he shall rescue, and then there should be a great big wedding. Not with the smelly giant," she added in clarification. "With the princess."
"I shall ask the Shapers to look into it, my Queen," the Seneschal purred, bowing to hide how his lips were twitching sardonically. "But first, I shall summon the chambermaid. We must see to your new captain."
He rang a bell with a velvet pull, while Gayle returned to her book of poetry, lounging on the throne like an insolent teenager.
The chambermaid entered the audience chamber and surveyed the petitioners haughtily: here, if anywhere, was the master of servants and servant of masters of whom Oleu had asked. She and the Seneschal exchanged a brief look, but not so briefly that I didn't catch some significance of it. I got the strange feeling that the chambermaid had been waiting somewhere nearby, like a jack-in-the-box, anticipating this summons; or perhaps the Seneschal had hoped it would be she, specifically, that responded.
"Take this apprentice to the Principal Shaper," the Seneschal commanded her. "The Queen has commanded that he be made a captain."
"A very dashing one," the Queen reminded the Seneschal.
He gritted his teeth. "You heard the command of the Queen, Iolande."
She curtseyed respectfully, but without a trace of submission. "Yes, Lord Seneschal."
"Make sure he gets some very handsome armor," the Queen said absently.
"What kind, your Grace?" Iolande the chambermaid asked politely.
Queen Gayle made a vague gesture in the air with one hand. "The kind with the, you know. The swirls. And things for the shoulders, that go..." She traced another shape in the air. "What's that word the poets use? Scintillating. It must do that." Gayle paused. "What is scintillating?"
"Perhaps your Grace would like to choose the armor yourself," the Seneschal murmured. "I'm sure these petitioners would have no objections if you were to handle this important issue yourself, while I remained behind."
"I think I will," Gayle said, standing up straight and tossing her slim volume of poetry aside negligently. It slid across the stone floor and under a bench, forgotten. "Appearances are so important to a captain's career, you know."
"I do," the Seneschal said, with an oily smirk.
"Then it's settled," Gayle said. She gestured at the petitioners, making a face. "And see that they get their alms or their loaves or their mules, or whatever it is they need. I'm sure it's something simple. I shall freshen up," she decided, and it occurred to me that this was probably the most momentous decision she had made today. "And I shall be along directly. Hurry along, now, and meet with Lamard. He'll know what scintillating armor ought to like."
The Queen turned away from us and vanished into a partition in the purple drapery, and the Seneschal bowed us out of the room.
"Interesting," I muttered to myself, following along behind the chambermaid.
"You must forgive Gayle," Iolande said briskly. "The royal families are often thus. It is said that this is caused by the Golden Mirror. It preserves them, it protects them against mirrors. Anyone who looks into a Golden Mirror is forever immune to any mirror. Gayle was only a child of two years old when she was taken to the Golden Mirror by her father, the king before her, who defeated the Four Lands in battle and established the Foundry."
"So how can she be a Shaper, if she's immune to magic?" I asked.
"Magic? Is that your word for mirrors?" Iolande's stride never faltered, but she hesitated in voice, as if uncertain how much to say. "Some say the Golden Mirror addles their brains. It locks them, it slows their development. Our Queen is much like a surly teenager, ever rebellious and disinterested. We despair that she will ever be mature enough to rule."
"And so the Seneschal rules in her name," I guessed.
Iolande shrugged. "Someone must. If there were no ruler, the dregs of the Four Lands would descend, scraps of defeated kingdoms and soldiers of fortune. Even, some say, the remnants of the Cabal."
"The Cabal? That group of Shapers? I heard they were destroyed. You mean they're back?"
"One does hear that rumor often enough," the chambermaid said lightly. "But it is a rumor, only. The Cabal was destroyed by King Poul. Nothing of it remains."
Iolande led me down a chilly hallway. A cold draft seemed to be coming from here, and a blend of exciting and exotic scents: pine forests, dry sage, brimstone, acacia, sandalwood.
At the end of the hallway was a door that glimmered in the lamplight. Where other doors in this complex were adorned with tiny mirrors, presumably wards against hostile mirrors, this door was a mirror: a large reflective surface of a deep, lustrous blue metal. Deep within its glossy surface I could see a vision of the very hallway in which we stood, could see the matting on the stone floor, the chambermaid's reflection, and my own. And behind us-
The mirror's reflection seemed to show there was something standing behind us, a ghostly figure in armor and helmet of sooty black, wearing tattered robes, bearing a scythe.
I turned. There was nothing there.
"Unnerving, isn't it?" the chambermaid asked. "Lamard won't tell anybody what it is. Is the Knight really there? Is it just a projection? A guardian? He won't say. That's not surprising," she continued in a softer, more conspiratorial tone. "Most Shapers don't like to share their formulas with the others. And Lamard is the best, they say."
With the confidence of one long accustomed to Lamard's unusual mirror-door, she grasped the door handle and pushed it open.
The Forge, the meeting room of the Foundry, had been impressive. Lamard's room was astonishing.
For one thing, I couldn't tell where Master Lamard's actual physical room ended and where the mirrors began. At first I believed this was the foyer for a larger mansion of separate apartments, but it became clear that some of the halls were themselves mirrors, cunningly placed into the walls; and in those mirrors were other rooms, perhaps real or imagined, in this world or in some other. A set of three windows high above threw variegated shafts of sunlight and moonlight into the room, for one window depicted the sun in a clear blue sky, the other the sky at sunset, and the third the moon.
This was no empty room, no hollow amphitheater of columns where sober men in robes discussed theory. Master Lamard's chamber was magnificent; it soared with line and grace, with majestic columns like great granite oaks holding up the corners of the room, and a dome overhead that looked directly up into the swirling chaos of a snowy sky. There was nothing in the room that was not breathtakingly beautiful. The furniture was exquisite, hand-carved wood draped with velvet, and it perfectly suited the sweep and splendor of the chamber.
"I only clean this room," Iolande mentioned in passing. She beckoned me to a short hallway nestled at the base of one of the oak-tree columns. We passed through it into a candlelit workroom, lined with shelves and mirrors and works in progress. This room, though bare by comparison, showed Lamard's aesthetic sensibilities; everything was in order, and even the working spaces had a certain pleasing contour about it. It was pleasantly warm and humid here, though it was difficult to say where the heat might be coming from.
Here we found Master Lamard, wearing flowing robes of translucent fog-colored silk, standing over a reclining figure such as I had never expected or imagined I would see in person: a beautiful, female humanoid cat - or was she a felinoid human? - with spotted fur of a snowy gray, and white, flowing hair upon her head. She goggled up at the Shaper with obvious perplexity, examining her hand-paws. Beside her on a nest of pillows, her tail lashed in confusion.
"Ah, Iolande," Master Lamard said, spying the chambermaid. "I'm afraid I already have one apprentice. Do you like her? I've been making some much-needed improvements."
I looked at the leopard-girl, my mouth hanging open. "Jon?"
She looked back up at me, her eyes registering both hurt and surprise and a certain what-the-hell-happened quality. "Yes?"
"Jon? Is that her name? So peremptory, so unlovely," Master Lamard said, clicking her tongue. She looked firmly over at her new apprentice. "Do change it to something more suitable, would you?"
Without waiting for Jon's answer, Master Lamard returned her gaze to the chambermaid. "And why have you brought such an untidy boy into my chambers? He endangers the décor, you know. Perhaps if I made a few improvements-"
"He is the servant of the Queen," Iolande said, with a certain smugness. "She wishes to make him a captain."
"Surely she wouldn't object if I made a few minor alterations, first," Lamard said, eyeing me with distaste. "She's a busy woman..."
"Oh yes, very busy," said a crisp voice. We turned and saw Queen Gayle in the doorway to the workroom, fluttering a handheld fan into her face. "Very busy, sitting in that boring old audience chamber. More peasants today. Go ahead, ask me how many!"
Master Lamard and the chambermaid gave her identical, frozen smiles. It seemed to me they were both eager to pretend their previous conversation hadn't happened. With a peremptory gesture, Lamard commanded Jon from the room, inviting Jon to make herself acquainted with the extent of her chambers. "My Queen, it is good to see you here. You are looking as lovely as ever," Lamard said suavely, as Jon was leaving. "You wished to make arrangements for your apprentice to be a captain, yes?"
Gayle pouted at Lamard, as if trying to find something objectionable, and seeing nothing. "I'd better still be lovely," she groused.
"You are, your Grace, you are," Master Lamard said effusively. "As lovely as could be expected for a woman without the advantages of my mirrors. Every man's desire, I'm sure."
"Am I?" the Queen asked, turning to me.
"Oh," I stammered. "Yes. Very pretty."
The petulant Queen sniffed with satisfaction. "Good."
"Now to your apprentice?" Lamard said, gesturing at me. "I could easily make some minor improvements to the aesthetic-"
"No," Gayle said, tapping her lip with one finger. "I've changed my mind. I mean, I haven't changed my mind exactly, but I've remembered something. Long ago I promised Iolande that I'd make her a captain, but something came up, and she was made a chambermaid instead. Don't you think we should keep that promise to her?"
"My Queen?" the chambermaid asked, shocked. "That was years ago, there's no need-"
"I'm the Queen," Gayle said, sticking out her chin defiantly. "Ask anyone. So I'm going to keep my promise. Master Lamard, make Iolande a captain of something. Captain of the cavalry, perhaps. Horses are always good."
"If I might suggest it, my Queen, we do require a captain for the Engineering Corps in Achlad."
"Engineering?" she asked blankly.
"Gayle," the chambermaid blurted. "I mean, My Queen-"
"Catapults and sappers, your Elegance," Lamard said.
"Oh, those," Gayle said without a trace of understanding. "Yes, whatever you think best. Make sure she's a bold and strapping captain, with armor that does the scintillating."
The Master smiled tolerantly. "I have just the mirror."
I looked back and forth between them and the chambermaid, who was trembling with fright or anger. "I have served you well," Iolande said in a quavering voice. "Loyally, for years. You cannot simply-"
But Master Lamard had a mirror in her pocket, and she produced it with a flourish: a plane of gleaming gemstone, possibly ruby, about the size and thickness of a saucer. She mumbled a few words that I couldn't catch. There was a moment where I thought I heard Iolande take in a breath, as if about to let out a scream, and then all at once she seemed to sparkle brightly, gleaming like the ruby, and vanished down to the pinprick size of a will-o-the-wisp. This new star hung in the air where Iolande had stood a moment ago, shedding ruby light throughout the laborium, then it drifted into the ruby.
Iolande's likeness swam to the surface of the ruby mirror, wavering as if in deep water, and as unreal as an optical illusion. And here in the room with us, her hollow clothing dropped to the ground, empty.
A chill ran down my spine. "What did you do to her?" I demanded.
Master Lamard glanced at the ruby mirror in her hand. "Oh, I've captured her for the time being," she said, as if the matter were unimportant. She glanced over again at me, and I took a step back from the mirror. "My Queen, it occurs to me that you are one chambermaid short, or perhaps one captain too many."
"Yes," Gayle said. She bent over to examine the floating likeness of Iolande in the mirror, apparently unafraid of the mirror's terrible power. Gayle tapped the ruby, but the image of Iolande remained inert, insensate. "What do you suggest? Perhaps we could take one of the captains and make him a chambermaid?"
"It would be simpler to use this one here," Master Lamard said. "He could make an adequate substitute."
"He's male," the Queen said, looking at me as if I were a rack of lamb. "And he's so common. Him, a chambermaid?"
"Form is fluid." Lamard turned aside to a tall, floor-length oval mirror draped in black velvet, and raised its cover. The mirror, made of some silvery metal I couldn't identify, depicted a perfect duplicate of Iolande - clear complexion, platinum hair, exaggerated proportions - but nude. The figure was somehow an idealized version of the Iolande I had seen, perfected, unblemished, untouched by bruise or scrape or soil or sweat or cellulite. Master Lamard gestured at the frozen form with one delicately manicured hand. "This is the mirror that I used to give Iolande her form, years ago. I kept it, should any further need arise. I'll simply recreate her. It shouldn't take but a moment."
"Very good, Lamard," the Queen said dismissively. "Whatever you think is best. I'm off to the baths, I should think. Good heavens, but all this queening is tiresome." She left the room in a rustle of mouse-colored robes.
"All right, wait a minute," I said loudly, once the queen was out of earshot. "You're going to turn me into a chambermaid? Like her?" I pointed at the floating, zombie-like Shape of Iolande in the floor mirror. "I didn't come here to get turned into some sexy servant. I was told I would be allowed to learn how to be a Shaper, whatever that is."
"And what would you do with such training?" Master Lamard sighed. "Waste it, no doubt, on frivolous alterations. Treat it as a toy. Yes, from your writing I believe it's safe to predict that you'd become obsessed with personal changes and disregard your real calling."
"Hold it. You know my writing?"
"Of course I do. I'm the one who decided to recruit you and your friends from your world. Why would I not know your writing?"
"And based on that, you're going to simply decide to-"
"You chose to come," Master Lamard said emphatically, "because you were told we needed help. And we do. Shapers unknown, possibly remnants of the Cabal, attack our lands and destroy our Shapers. We are targets. This is... this must be a precursor to war. We must replenish our ranks."
"Why, so we can be targets, too?" I demanded.
Master Lamard waved away that objection. "You represent no danger. Our unseen enemy won't strike at you until you pose a threat. Didn't it occur to you to wonder why I didn't apprentice all of you myself? I could, you know; I am the Principal Shaper of the Foundry. None of the Shapers know more than I. But what do you call a legion of followers under one leader?"
"An army?" I guessed.
"Or a conspiracy. And so you and your friends were separated, sent to various Masters. So long as your loyalties appear varied, so long as our enemies consider you mere servants to a disorganized body of discontented ditherers, you will be safe."
"Safe," I said heatedly, "and stupid."
"Those qualities are not incompatible."
"So why make me into the chambermaid?" I asked. "No offense, but your world isn't exactly NOW headquarters."
Master Lamard cocked her head at me, as if trying to divine the meaning of my Earth reference. "Iolande is known; she is a fixture. Therefore, she is practically invisible. She can be everywhere, and yet nobody will see her, or regard her in any way."
"There's got to be a better way," I retorted. "I gotta say, boobs like that are not invisible."
"And," Master Lamard said frostily, staring at me with glittering eyes, "Iolande had allies."
That stopped me cold. "Who were they?"
"If I knew," Master Lamard said stiffly, "I would not require your participation."
I considered it carefully. "You arranged to send her away, didn't you?" I asked. "You disposed of her. Everybody in that audience chamber is going to remember me coming in, me getting turned into a captain and sent away. And here, secretly-"
"Yes, yes," Lamard said, rolling her eyes toward the ceiling with impatience. "You've managed to acquire some limited insight. Don't let it go to your head."
Again, I had a revelation. This Lamard was much more like the one who had recruited me, cold and aloof and disdainful, and wholly unlike the aesthetically obsessed dreamer I had met in the Forge. "You're the one, aren't you?" I asked. "You recruited me. You came to my apartment. You and the Queen."
"That would be impossible," Lamard said. "The Queen is protected by the Golden Mirror. She is immune to all mirrors; she cannot travel to your world. Please do try to think harder."
"Then who was it?" I asked.
The look that Master Lamard returned was icy. "The time has come," she intoned, "for you to take up your duties. This mirror, as you can see, is made of a silver alloy, almost pure, but tinted and shaped according to formula. We use pure metals for this kind of thing. When you are brought before a pure metal mirror, certain of your physical traits are exposed onto it, imprinting it. We can then impose those traits on others. This was the body I crafted for Iolande," she said.
"How did you make it?" If he were going to talk about Shaping, then I was prepared to listen carefully.
"The Shape in the mirror is linked to the shape of the mirror," Lamard said. "Use the right proportion of metals, the right shape for the surface, the right tints, the right frame, and you can create a Shape of anything. If," she added, "if you know the proper formula.
"I have been researching Aesthetics for so long, I happened to strike upon certain formula transformations. I know many formulas which render up mirrors that depict only beautiful bodies. Any Shaper could make a mirror that showed Iolande's body, identical to this one, if they made the mirror identically to mine."
"Like a recipe for a cake," I said.
"Indeed." Lamard's eyes glittered.
"So how did the ruby mirror work? Did you make your own rubies?"
"With gemstone, the mirror's focus is adjusted by changing the cut and clarity," Lamard said. "But gemstones are used primarily to incise and excise abstract qualities, rather than to impose or expose physical ones. A gemstone mirror could contain Beauty, or Hatred, or Innocence, or Pain, but not a body such as the one you see in the silver, here."
"But - but the ruby mirror - you trapped the chambermaid in it-"
Master Lamard gave me that frosty smile again. "That is a secret I do not propose to explain. No Master knows my formulas. I do not share them, and I will not, so long as I have hidden enemies. You," she said, putting one hand on my shoulder, "you will be my hidden ally."
With that, she placed me before the silvery mirror, where I stood trembling, waiting.
Master Lamard approached the mirror obliquely, and draped one long, elegant arm across the top of the frame. She stroked the mirror's upper frame with her fingertips, murmuring soft words under her breath.
I began to feel as if I were as transparent as a sheet of glass. The light reflected from the surface of the mirror burned through me, filling every corner of me. My body curved and distorted according to the pattern the mirror imposed upon me. I could see dusty shafts of the light from the mirror as they reached out their fingertips to probe my vanishing body, shafts of light in the shape of Iolande's form. It called to mind a stained glass window throwing colored patterns on the floor, but I was the floor, and I was taking on those patterns myself.
My body shifted. The room seemed to become colder as I lost mass, as my body expanded and retracted under the power imposed by the mirror. I could feel my chest burst into rounded breasts, could feel a tingle down my back as the chambermaid's platinum hair spilled down it. My balance changed; my hips swelled.
I was now Iolande, trapped in the rags that my previous adolescent form had worn.
Lamard mumbled some more words in the direction of the mirror, and the shafts of light faded. "There," she said with a winning smile. "That's ever so much better. I'm sure you'll appreciate these aesthetic changes that I've made, in time. But the Queen did command you to become her chambermaid, so I suggest you learn your duties as quickly as possible."
"But-" I cleared my throat, but Iolande's voice didn't sound any better. "How am I supposed to know what to do?"
"You are an actor, are you not?" Master Lamard asked bluntly. "Then act. That is why you were chosen."
"You knew?" I goggled at her.
"Naturally," she smiled. For a moment she dropped the mask of the charismatic daydreamer, and said, "Master Oleu saw to it that you were examined last, by the Foundry."
"He said that was because I was known to be an actor - a liar." In a moment the answer had come to me. "He knew the Queen would try to make me a captain, send me away to war, didn't he?"
"Whatever his reasons, his cooperation was fortuitous. Your talents for deception and performance were most useful as the Queen's chambermaid, not as an apprentice or a common laborer crafting mirrors or cutting gemstones." Again, the smile: "I suggest you dress. Iolande was kind enough to leave her clothes empty for you."
I picked up Iolande's discarded gray dress and apron. What else was there to do?
"I can't get these hooks," Rachel said. "I need fingers for that, not paws."
"You're a cat, right?" I asked irritably, holding my arms over my head to keep my long, platinum hair off my back. "Use your claws. Cats are supposed to be pretty good with their claws."
"Try it sometime," Rachel grumbled. "Besides, I don't want to scratch you." She dropped her paws and chuffed in frustration. "Forget it."
I let my hair down across my bust, pulling it clear of my back, and had another try myself. The top buttonhooks were just out of my reach, between my shoulder blades, and it took great contortions to even get my fingertips on them.
"There," Rachel said. "I think you've got it."
The hook slipped over the button at last, and I breathed a sigh of relief - as big a sigh that I could manage, that is, in this corset and snug-fitting dress. "I feel like I'm hyperventilating," I said. "Not enough room to breathe in this. How did she ever get any work done?"
The snow-leopard-girl shrugged expressively. "She seemed like she was more like the woman in charge of the servants," Rachel guessed. "She sure did order the guards around, no problem."
"Head of the household staff, possibly," I mused. "Probably something like that."
"At least you get clothing," Rachel said, and her feline muzzle twitched into a tooth-baring smile. "I get to wear jewelry."
"I'm surprised they have any, honestly. I thought they didn't like reflections." I picked up Iolande's apron and turned it this way and that, trying to figure out which way to put it on.
Rachel gestured at her fine belt of filigreed gold and fiery orange opals, and the matching necklace. "I guess these don't count."
I looked at her again only briefly, not wanting to take my concentration away from tying on this unfamiliar apron. She had managed to escape that period of disorientation, imbalance, and clumsiness I had experienced when I had first been given Iolande's body, but nevertheless she seemed ill at ease. I could tell; her tail was slashing the air, slowly and rhythmically. "Why'd you pick the name Rachel?"
The leopard-girl shrugged, and one ear flicked. "It was the name of one of my characters. Besides, you heard her - my Master says that Jon isn't a very pretty name."
We were in one of Master Lamard's exquisitely designed rooms. This one had the appearance of an undersea dome. The floor was sand; the furniture was shaped coral. Over and around us, the dome filtered down a shifting palette of sunlight through ocean waves. Fish swam, and seaweed curled lazily in the current. Beyond the dome were strange structures, encrusted with barnacles and mussels, that suggested archways around a plaza.
"I normally would have considered myself Jean, now that I'm female," Rachel explained. "I don't know. It just doesn't feel right."
I smoothed the apron. "How do I look? Do I look like her?"
"Everything except for this," Rachel said, holding up a bright silvery disc. "It looks like an earring."
Nervously, I felt my earlobe. "But I'm not pierced."
"That will not be your ward," said Master Lamard, coming into the room. "I will send you another."
"My ward?" I asked.
"We use small mirrors to ward off hostile Shapes," Master Lamard told us. "Sometimes nickel, sometimes platinum, or silver - even iron. No one kind of ward is proof against all Shapes, of course, so sometimes you will see many. Some say the legends are true, that a particular platinum allow is proof against any Shape at all, from any type of mirror, large or small, near or far. If any do know how such a mirror is made," Lamard said, her lips twitching into a half-smile, "they aren't sharing their secret.
"Of course, if such a mirror could be made, it would certainly be platinum," she carried on, as if lecturing. "That is the nature of the metal. It has strong elements of Truth in it. That is why a platinum mirror is said to show only a reflection of one's true self. But platinum, like Truth, is difficult to alloy properly."
I listened to her lecture impatiently. "So what you're telling me is that you're sending me out there without any protection whatsoever?"
"For the moment, that is the best solution. Iolande safely wore this ward, but before I send you out upon your new duties, I must ascertain that it is what it appears to be." She smiled faintly. "My apprentice will test it instead."
"Oh, great," Rachel muttered.
Master Lamard ignored that. She handed me a roll of paper upon which was sketched a rudimentary map of the complex. Not all of it, I noted as I read it - there were large gaps missing, where only generic labels were written in: Dungeons in one part of the map, High Stair at another. A separate line was drawn in red ink showing how to get from Lamard's own quarters, through the hallways, up a long curved passageway marked as Second Helix, and to the abode of Master Wexrtyn.
"Memorize the route," Lamard instructed me. "Iolande would know it well, so you may not keep the map. Your first task is to visit Master Wexrtyn. He has been manufacturing the mirrors that the Apprentices will use as living quarters. Wexrtyn will give them to you; bring them to me. They will be large and heavy, and undoubtedly Wexrtyn will insist upon sending teamsters with you."
"Teamsters?" I asked. "You mean spies?"
Master Lamard nodded gravely. "Yes, very likely both. He will be curious about the dispensation of his mirrors, about the Apprentices the other Shapers took, and so he will pretend to be solicitous of the heavy load you are asked to carry. Allow him to be, and accept the help he gives you.
"I will supply you with a new ward, one I make myself so I am certain no other hand has tainted it or perverted its use. I will send someone to find you, and present it to you."
"My ear isn't pierced."
"That isn't necessary. Now study the map. My apprentice has some errands to do."
Master Lamard left me in her entry hall, with the soaring oak-tree columns and snowy dome overhead. Rachel tagged along behind her, glancing back over her shoulder at me and essaying a little wave. I tried to find a comfortable way to sit in Iolande's dress, but the knees were bound snugly together in the skirts, and the sandals left my feet cold and exposed. Placing the map on my own lap didn't help much, because I had to stare down past my bosom to read it, and that was an endless distraction that I didn't really need at the moment.
I didn't mind being a woman so much, I realized, but the circumstances were less than ideal. It seemed as if I wouldn't be allowed the opportunity to enjoy it. Perhaps Master Lamard was right; I probably wouldn't have been very responsible had I been taught all about mirrors right away.
Still, I was learning a little.
The route wasn't difficult to learn, especially for an actor who had memorization training. I tried to remember as much about the rest of the castle complex as I could, and then sought back in my memory for impressions of Iolande. She was imperious and haughty, disdainful of dirt and clutter, and somewhat aloof. The chambermaid had stood erect, with great dignity and poise; I tried to copy the stance. And she had had a straight-faced ironic twist to her humor, I had noticed. That wouldn't be hard to replicate, as it was my own natural state.
When I felt I had learned enough, I tucked the map under the velvet cushions of the bench. With luck I would be back to study it again. I straightened my apron, got into character, and left Lamard's chambers.
Nobody seemed to take notice of me at all as I passed through the corridors, wearing Iolande's body. I tried to be casual, observant, and aloof all at once, maintaining the mask of Iolande's character, but I could still take note of the faces of passers-by.
There was an odd assortment of people in the halls. They were dressed warmly, I noticed: wool and heavy linen, trimmed with fur. Their attire varied in apparent expense, from primitive and dull brown, to exquisite and colorful. I thought I saw servants and cooks, soldiers and smiths, and what might have been idle nobility. They walked singly, and in knots, and none of them gave me a second glance, or even seemed concerned to see me.
That settles it, I decided. I'm a lower servant in the Queen's household, high enough to command her personal attention, high enough to command an army of lesser maids, but low enough that few people even bothered to notice me.
Occasionally I saw an Apprentice, though none I recognized. These were in the orange robes I knew, but there was an added difference. Almost without fail, they were more handsome, more healthy, and more exotic than the usual muddle of citizenry. And the Apprentices commanded a wide berth in the halls. Unconsciously, it seemed, the common people avoided the orange-robed figures. Perhaps it was because they exuded such health and vitality peculiar to the upper class, or perhaps it was because they were demonstrably more fit, better fed, and healthier. Some of the Apprentices sported tails, or exotic ears, or a complexion of stripes, based on his or her Master's preferences, but many were human. About half were women, which I thought odd, given the Shapers' rules against women leading meetings in the Forge.
I never saw any Masters. Or, I amended mentally, I never observed any that I recognized. Given the ease with which Master Lamard assigned me a new body, there could have been several, in disguise.
But that way lay paranoia, I reminded myself. Justifiable, perhaps, given the circumstances, yet out of character. Iolande would not be concerned; she was a servant of the Queen and, therefore, presumably untouchable, I hoped. I would just have to play the part.
It wasn't easy.
As I passed through the corridors, seeing any number of dangerous-looking and bedraggled men, brawny laborers, scarred mercenaries, soldiers in armor, broad-shouldered men with massive biceps, I couldn't help but notice that their eyes drifted automatically to my body. Most glanced away when they realized I was attired as a servant of the household, but the gaze of some would linger, taking in my every curve. I felt hideously exposed in this snug gray dress; there was definitely too much visible thigh. This had never been part of my imagination, before: I had never written of the horrible, sinking realization that in this skirt, there was virtually nothing protecting my feminine virtue but a single layer of undergarments - hardly anything at all, to strong men like these, who were undoubtedly accustomed to taking whatever they wanted. Only my status as a member of the Queen's staff, and what probably passed for laws in this world, would save me.
Preoccupied with my own newfound fears, I didn't realize at first that the air ahead was growing colder. I did notice that a greater number of the people around me had bundled up in furs and woolens, but it wasn't until my teeth began to chatter that I noted the chill, gusty air. Up ahead, the corridor was bright with gray daylight.
Was this the course I had memorized? I resisted the urge to pause and collect my thoughts; Iolande knew the complex too well to have become lost. Nevertheless, the wide hallway led outside through a pair of massive wooden doors to a wide stone balcony.
It was a ninety degree arc, rimmed with battlements, made of thick, sturdy stones. To the left, the populace drifted through another pair of wooden doors, back to the safety and warmth of the castle. To the right-
The view dropped down into a breathtaking precipice of a thousand feet or more, a glacier-lined gorge between two peaks. A perpetual cloud haze hung in the air, disguising the apices of the mountains, cloaking the valley floor. From a vast distance came the sound of a rumbling river. This balcony appeared to be just above the tree line, for on the opposite side of the valley, tall evergreens blanketed the slopes in dark majesty, fading to bare rock and patches of ice at about this elevation.
Forgetting my impersonation for the moment, I looked back up the mountain on my side. Above me, wedged into a natural chimney in the rock, were the stone walls of the upper floors of the complex. I counted three further stories before it became difficult to discern the stonework from the natural rock. From what I could see here, many of the interior tunnels had been burrowed directly from the rock itself. Below, I could see another balcony similar to this, perhaps fifty feet down, and another dimly beyond that.
By now I could neither ignore nor control my shivering, and my teeth were beginning to chatter. Snow was accumulating in my hair. I joined the throng that had wisely returned to the interior, grateful for any comfort of warmth it could provide.
What was this place? Why had they built it in so remote a location? Who had constructed it? I had no answers.
The tunnel dipped sharply downward for some way, descending into warmer air. I saw the source: twin mirrors, each radiating great heat, sat at the lowest point of the hall before it began to ascend again in a great semi-circle. Some of the travelers stood here, talking idly and trading gossip, warming themselves for the journey ahead. None of the travelers looked into the mirrors themselves, I noticed; again, it seemed to be an unconscious behavior. Hoping not to draw attention to myself, I examined one as I went by. It depicted a roiling, glowing red cauldron of magma, and it was from this that the heat exuded.
One traveler slurped greedily at a spicy kebab, sucking the last juices from the stick, while his companion licked his fingers from his own meal. They turned to leave and, in unison, discarded their sticks into the magma. I could see them splash and instantly incinerate.
So the lava-mirror was used for refuse as well as heat, I noted.
From here the tunnel spiraled up to the next level, where there was a market of sorts: merchants occupied stalls in a vast indoor plaza, selling foodstuffs from the valleys below, roasted meats, dried and wrinkled fruits, bolts of cloth, cookwares, and various other things. I saw tailors and tinkers, weavers, fletchers, and a barber. Their races were a broad mix of types, much as I had observed among the Apprentices.
A less-populated quarter of the plaza showed a variety of mirrors, each man-height. There were five in all, and through them I saw five different places. I tried to absorb as many details as I could in passing, and I had the impression of a snowy mountain gate, a wooden stockade in a deep forest, several tents in a desert bazaar, somewhere along the docks at a seaport, and an alpine town in a lush river valley.
Grand Central Station, apparently. And yet few except the most jaded travelers loitered anywhere near the mirrors.
An Apprentice approached me diffidently, wearing robes of not of orange, but of brown. He had a lofty expression, and there was a disdainful arch to his eyebrows; he was tall, dark-haired and sun-browned, and his eyes were a startling, fiery orange. This young man wore his Apprenticeship as if it were a stormtrooper's riot gear, both to intimidate and protect him from the credulous masses, and yet he wasn't entirely certain how to broach a conversation with me. Perhaps it was because Iolande was well-known to be the head of the Queen's personal servants.
"My pardon. You may remember me? I am Apt Solud, apprentice of Master Varacid," he said, jingling a leather purse in his hand. "My Master believes you are on an errand to dispense the mirrors which the new Apprentices shall use as their living quarters?"
I regarded him coolly, ignoring the constant jingling of his purse. How would Iolande handle this? Well, she certainly wasn't cowed by guards, or by Apprentices, and seemed to have little tolerance for foolishness. Would she speak brusquely to an Apprentice? I didn't know - but Apt Solud did appear to be questioning me politely, as an equal, rather than issuing commands. He must not be certain I'll cooperate.
What the hell. I put my hands on my hips. "Is this leading somewhere?"
"My Master would be most appreciative to know," Solud said, with a greasy smile, "if you were to put him in the way of any unusual or exotic mirrors that might be in that collection. He does so love things which are unusual and beautiful." He looked me over lingeringly, and added, "As do I."
"Do you see any mirrors on me, Apt Solud?" I asked him, raising one eyebrow. "You're staring hard enough, I'm sure you would have seen them by now."
His smile grew fainter, as my response threw him off his stride. "Indeed. But surely you must be reporting to Master Wexrtyn now, to obtain the remainder. His furnaces have already produced dozens of mirrors for all the new acquisitions. These mirrors you are about to obtain surely must be for the last few Apprentices yet unboarded? Surely there must be one or two mirrors of exceptional quality and design among them."
"I'm no judge of mirrors," I said flatly. "Why don't you ask him yourself?"
Solud shook his head. "I wouldn't trouble him with such a trifle."
"Then why trouble me with it?" I asked.
His fiery orange eyes darted to the side for a moment as he struggled to think of a diplomatic answer. Whatever it was he was about to say, he never got the chance. A hand descended around his shoulders, clad in the steel-blue robes of a Shaper, and there, without warning, was Master Oleu.
"Has your Master taken to accosting the serving staff, Solud?" Master Oleu said sweetly. A cloud of spiced scent enveloped us. There was a tiny undercurrent of iron in his voice, and the Apt cringed. "Iolande has errands for the Foundry. And you choose to divert her from her duties, why?"
"Apologies, Master Oleu," the Apt said in a sick voice. "Call it idle curiosity."
"And the purse? One must presume you were about to buy Iolande a hot mint cheta to drink on this cold morning."
"Y-yes, Master Oleu."
"Which is odd," Master Oleu went on, "because observe her. Hands on hips, defiant. She appears not to have time for your ministrations. Oh dear dear, she must be busy. Work calls her. Had that not occurred to you?"
The Apt's eyes again darted this way and that as he sought a way out. "I was late in coming to that realization, Master Shaper."
"So it seems. You have arrived upon it now. Go back to your studies." Oleu gave a pleasant little smile. "Your Master will be pleased to know that you are working hard."
Apt Solud vanished into the crowd with a sullen swirl of robes.
"The Masters are curious," Oleu said idly to me. "More than curious: avid. They are to be given samples of Master Wexrtyn's mirrorcraft to study. Yes, ostensibly their Apprentices will be housed in those mirrors, but in reality they will take Wexrtyn's mirrors in the hopes of discovering their secrets."
"Wexrtyn would be wise to provide them only with mirrors they could already have made themselves," I observed.
"He would," Oleu sniffed. "But nobody has accused Wexrtyn of wisdom. Dedication, fortitude, and persistence, yes. And every Shaper has a little ego in him."
"You don't say?" I asked archly, looking directly at him. I hoped fervently that this was what he would have expected of Iolande. This character would be much easier to play if I had been given a script.
Master Oleu laughed wryly. "Indeed, yes. Some have more ego than others," he said. With an odd cast to his expression, he observed, "and some have two."
I didn't know how to respond to that.
"This is keeping you from your duties," he said, as if realizing. "Go. And expect more Masters to interfere."
I nodded at him. "I will, Master Oleu."
He returned the nod, then his eyes flickered right, startled. "You have lost your ward."
I simply nodded. "It's being replaced by Master-"
"Don't say his name," Oleu murmured, his eyes half-lidded. He looked pleased. "It's safer if you don't say the name."
"Yes, Master Oleu," I agreed. "And as I do have duties..."
"Then you shall be left to them. Do not disregard Apt Solud; his Master is persistent when he is on the scent of something new and rare for his collection."
He bowed his head ironically to me, smirking, and I left him standing there in the market plaza.
It had been an odd route, I realized, as I followed a corridor. Lamard's map had taken me outside in wintry weather, and then back in through the market square. The Master Shaper had been so confident in his predictions of Master Wexrtyn's likely response; had Lamard not foreseen the interest of the other Masters? Had he sent me this way deliberately? And had Master Oleu been waiting here in the market to deflect attention from my passage? Was there something he had wanted me to see, or was this Iolande's usual path?
The tunnel plunged deeper into the mountain, and it grew uncomfortably warm. Faintly, from far ahead, I heard the ringing sound of hammers. It sounded like a competition of dueling blacksmiths. On the air was the scent of sulfur, and coal, and sweat, and here the walls were cruder, more roughly hewn, than the neat flagstones and tiled walls that had come before. Dust and broken chips of stone littered the floor. The light here was redder, more ominous. Perhaps it was my imagination but I could almost hear the mountain groaning as its innards were worked with hammer and pick.
There was an iron gate, almost like that of a cell. It stood open, but the lock was sturdy. Beyond it, rows of teeth descended from the roof - a portcullis, probably. With the sturdy wrought iron and the reddish glow and the sulfurous stench, this an entrance it was very nearly as threatening as the ghostly visage in Master Lamard's door.
Soon I came to a wide staging area full of tools. Wooden tracks were set into the floor, and on them were mining carts, some half-filled with mine tailings and slag. A muscular Apprentice in dirty orange robes sat on an upturned cart, hands on his knees, catching his breath. There was a rope harness wound around his torso.
"Is Master Wexrtyn in?" I asked the Apprentice.
"Where else would he be?" was the muttered reply, accompanied by a jerk of the thumb: down the tunnel.
I continued down the tunnel, careful in my sandals not to stub my toe on the uneven ground. The shaft dipped and turned unevenly, following the traces of a glittering seam of metal in one wall, and it split when the seam did. To the left was an unlit tunnel, and to the right it descended sharply again.
For some short time I followed the tracks, guessing as I passed other open passages, until I came to an open room. It was large, and propped by beams and columns. Several Apprentices labored with axe heads, carving out the gleaming silvery metal from the walls. Their robes were tattered and frayed, and the orange was muted with dust. They worked with axe heads only, though there were handles close by. An Apt stood nearby, in robes of brown and barely soiled, calling out orders imperiously to the others.
"If you want to unlock the secrets of Shape, you start with understanding the metal!" he shouted to an Apprentice. "How do you expect to gain a glimmer of understanding if you don't put your back into this?"
The Apprentice who bore the Apt's wrath was a dull-faced and listless worker, hands barely contriving to make the motions of digging. He must be at the point of exhaustion; his hands barely gripped the axe handle, and he sat crumpled in a heap, working from a sitting position. Beside him was a pail, almost completely empty. Despite the red-faced Apt's exhortations, he dug neither faster nor slower.
"I said dig!" the Apt cried, punching the Apprentice on the back of the shoulder.
The Apprentice, his eyes glazed, took virtually no notice. I felt my heart crawl into my throat with sympathy for the poor student; he was so obviously at the limits of his endurance. Is this what would happen to Bard, here?
The Apt's patience ran out. In a somewhat theatrical display of temper, he commanded the Apprentice to rise, and the Apprentice did so, letting the pickaxe drop clumsily from his fingers. For a moment, they stood there opposite one another, the dirty and bedraggled Apprentice at attention, and the stern Apt with a face full of fury.
"You will not work? Then pay the price for your indolence!" the Apt snarled, and drew a palm-sized mirror from his pocket. He waved it at the Apprentice, beginning at the toes, and-
The Apprentice's feet changed, becoming thick, doughy, and dark. His legs bloated and ran together, his arms bulged and merged with his sides. In seconds his entire body had become a shapeless brown mass, grainy in texture, faceless, barely human-shaped.
The human-shaped blob steamed slightly, then toppled over stiffly, as if it weighed nothing at all.
On the Apt's face was a sardonic smile. "Bread," he said. "It's mealtime. You have twenty minutes to eat, then back to work."
Around the room, the Apprentices looked fearfully on the human loaf that lay face-down on the mine floor. One of them touched the loaf fearfully, then tore out a piece of bread. In seconds, apparently ravenous from exertion, the remaining Apprentices fell to devouring the meal, tearing the former Apprentice to bits.
The Apt noticed me, and his eyes dropped guiltily. He slipped the mirror back into his pocket. "Just a little discipline, miss," he said brusquely. "Come this way."
I hardly knew what to say. There was a terrible fear of the power of the mirror the Apt had demonstrated, and sympathy for the plight of the Apprentices who labored here like slaves. Building upon that was outrage at his callousness, and a desire to strongly object to what I had just seen.
He seemed to know that I was uncomfortable with what I had witnessed, and he spoke to me more gently than he had with his labor crew. Once we were out of earshot of the feeding Apprentices, he murmured to me, "You must be here for the last of the mirrors. Wexrtyn should be in the smithy. Follow me."
The Apt led me to a mirror that showed the massive, square interior of a well-designed foundry. There were huge furnaces for smelting ores, and wood for manufacturing mirror frames, and carts full of raw ores, and ingots of many kinds of metal. A neat line of baskets and bushels and barrels, each labeled carefully, filled shelves at one wall. Brown-robed Apts laborered at the forges, hammering at glowing red metal.
"Let me open the mirror," he offered, and rubbed the top of the frame with one hand, as I had seen Lamard do. "We usually keep it closed. Safety, you know."
"Can't another Shaper come along to open it?" I asked.
He looked surprised at the question. "No. Every mirror has a key, a picture or a word you think of while you open it. Without the key, nobody can open or close it."
The Apt ducked into the mirror and stepped into the smithy, and I followed him. It was very warm here among the furnaces, and the sound of hammers assaulted me the moment I entered. All around was the focused chaos that comes from ten individual laborers each hard at work on his own project, each project at a different stage of development. Mirrors were being crafted here, everywhere, most of gleaming metals, some of glass.
Master Wexrtyn saw my entrance and strode up immediately, welcoming me. "Excellent, Iolande. You're here. The mirrors, I expect? They are done, and ahead of schedule, I might add. Lamard's request was too lenient; we could have done it in half the time."
"You certainly do work your Apprentices hard enough," I said, trying to keep a frosty note out of my voice, and mostly succeeding.
Master Wexrtyn was older than I had suspected, closer to fifty than to forty, but still powerful of build. He had a bushy salt-and-sand beard and odd, red-violet eyes. His hands were large and spotted with burns and scars; he was obviously no stranger to hard work, himself. Here in his own domain he wore a leather apron instead of his blue Shaper's robes.
Wexrtyn scowled. "I know you don't approve of my methods. But for centuries, Shapers have been at each others' throats. Our biggest incentive to work was fear: fear that some other Shaper would learn more about mirrors, craft more mirrors, discover more secrets than we. And don't you realize the Cabal may still be out there? Who do you think is responsible for all these disappearances and deaths? My Apprentices won't be permitted to treat Shaping like a nursery school full of rhymes and books and ... and ... fluffy rabbits. They're going to learn to like getting their hands dirty."
I didn't bat an eyelash. I didn't want to give him the satisfaction. This wasn't me trying to play the part of Iolande; this was personal.
His expression softened. "Come on," he said gruffly, as if I had embarrassed him. "Follow me. The Foundry is waiting for my mirrors."
Wexrtyn turned away and led me out of the smithy, past a line of forges. Standing beside one was a familiar Apprentice in dirty orange robes. He was busy with scrub brush and sand, scouring out a large steel mold. It was man-sized in height, and lumpy. And it smelled of fresh bread.
I stopped in my tracks. "What-?"
Master Wexrtyn turned to me with a cunning look. "Thought I turned my Apprentices to bread, did you? Certainly not - waste of material. But with the right mirror, you can make two things change places."
The Apprentice cleaning the breadpan smirked. "Puts some righteous fear into 'em, though."
Wexrtyn nodded. "Absolutely. Most Apprentices, even the ones with a tiny amount of Talent, drop out in the first few months. They haven't the temperament or the precision, or they cannot bear the burden of hard work." He punched his fist into his opposite hand as emphasis. "My smithy is a crucible. In it we burn away the Apprentices likely to fail and are left with pure, unalloyed Shaper material."
"And what happens to the ones that are burned away?" I asked.
"Other Masters may make something of them," Wexrtyn said. His massive shoulders lifted in an indifferent shrug. "Even slag can be useful."
I didn't nod. I didn't wish to give him any sign that I agreed with this philosophy.
"What are you waiting for?" Wexrtyn asked, with a note of suspicion in his voice. "The mirrors are done. I've placed them in the racks. Go fetch them. I'll see you have an Apprentice to pull the cart."
Obviously since this was the last load, Iolande should already know where the prepared mirrors would be kept. I thought quickly. "With your permission, Master Wexrtyn, I would like you to turn them over to me personally. The other Shapers of the Foundry are taking a great interest in the mirrors, asking to whom they will be delivered."
Wexrtyn's graying blond beard split into a crooked grin. "Great interest, eh?"
I nodded. "One Master sent his Apt to bribe me, asking if there were any mirrors among them that were strange or exotic."
"Master Varacid, I'll wager," Wexrtyn grunted. "The collector seeks another addition to his museum. Very well, I'll not have it be rumored that you came into my smithy unsupervised and took mirrors of your own accord."
He turned on his heel without a word, and I followed him, leaving the Apprentice behind to finish his task.
A rack of vertical slots along one wall held several man-sized mirrors draped in canvas, and Wexrtyn directed me to them. "These are the mirrors for the remaining Apprentices," he said. "Oh - yes, I nearly forgot. The one on the far end with the red ribbon attached to the cloth is for Varacid. I've been holding it aside."
"Very well," I said. "I'll find his Apt and let him know."
Wexrtyn shook his head. "No. Let Varacid send his Apts to you. They will ask: why is this mirror marked? You will tell them it is for Lamard. The Apts will ask that you turn it over to Varacid instead. You will dither, and they will offer money. You will express doubt, and they will offer more. I suggest you hold out for at least ten crests. They might go as high as twelve, if Varacid is desparate."
"Ten crests," I repeated with a nod of understanding. What the hell was a crest?
"The mirrors only cost me four crests to make," Wexrtyn confided. "I volunteered my smithy for the job because there's always someone like Varacid to slip a few coins under the table to pay for them. Whatever price you can secure over four crests, we will split."
"Yes, Master Wexrtyn," I said.
"Now for someone to haul the load," he said thoughtfully. The Master clapped his huge hands together sharply, and an Apt in red robes came up to him quickly. "Get me my newest Apprentice, and a harness."
Newest Apprentice? I tried to make my glance casual as I followed the Apt's departure with my eyes. The Apt ducked through the mirror entrance through which we had come - from here, I could not see the mirror in the mine shaft, only the circular opening suspended in space and the orange fire-lit rock walls beyond.
I looked on for a minute or two, while Wexrtyn commandeered some Apts to transfer the mirrors to a chariot-like cart. The chariot was slotted, as the storage racks had been, to keep the mirrors from banging together, and leather straps with notches and buckles held them each in place.
The Apt returned with a familiar, limping figure: a slender young woman of perhaps twenty, with dark skin and golden eyes. It was Bard. Her deformed hip had not been corrected, and it evidently caused her some pain; the grotesque branding I had noticed before on her shoulder, the mark of the slave, was invisible under layers of rock dust. Her long, fine hair was gray, and her eyes were red. The robe she had worn, the orange of the Apprentice, was already frayed; the sleeves had been torn off, and the bottom hem trimmed to knee-length. She limped along after the Apt, shaking with exhaustion.
"What?" she asked the Apt hoarsely. "What is it? I was digging! I was doing my best, I only just started here-"
"Fit her to the harness," Master Wexrtyn instructed his Apt, who nodded and led Bard into an adjoining room. The Master watched them take the terrified Bard, then turned to me. "She'll not haul much on an empty stomach," he said roughly. "Feed her well."
"Feed her?" I asked him, surprised.
Master Wexrtyn seemed suddenly embarrassed. He dug into a leather pouch and produced a curious wooden coin, which he gave to me. "This should suffice. And don't give me that look. I'm not a monster. When my Apprentices work hard, I treat them well."
I pocketed the wooden coin, resisting the temptation to examine it carefully. Later, outside, I might take a closer look.
There was a clattering of hooves on stone, and I looked to see the source of the sound. There it was: Bard was being led back over to the cart.
But it wasn't the same Bard. From the waist up she looked similar - dark skin, golden eyes, and a long mane of fine black hair - but she was somehow less slender, more muscular, healthier and cleaner. The patina of dust was gone, and her hair shone. Bard's upper body was bulkier, more exaggerated, as if she had just gone on a twenty-second workout plan. Only the orange Apprentice robe remained now in disrepair. Below the waist-
Below the waist, Bard's hips rounded obscenely into a horse's powerful hindquarters, complete with a swishing black tail. Her legs tapered down to tiny hooves. Bard tottered on these, as the Apts helped her along.
Bard was wearing a harness around her chest. The Apts were buckling it on her gleefully, even as they led her to the cart.
"Apprentice, this is Iolande, the Queen's handmaiden," Wexrtyn said sternly. "You are to follow her and haul this cart where she directs. Haul them gently, for they are glass. Be alert and attentive while I place you under Iolande's command, and perhaps we might find something more suitable for you than digging."
Bard nodded her head - numb with shock, I supposed.
I put on a haughty expression as Bard was harnessed to the cart. "Come," I commanded, leading her back to the place where the mirror had deposited us. Beside it was another, and in its surface I could see the Shape of the mines. I could only hope that the way in was also the way out - it was the only route I knew.
And Bard followed along behind me with the cart.
Once we were in the relatively deserted corridors outside Wexrtyn's mines, I encouraged Bard to stop and rest. "We can wait a few minutes here so you can catch your breath," I told her. "It isn't easy to be shapeshifted as you might have thought."
"No, it isn't," Bard agreed ruefully, and then looked more closely at me. "Why do you say that?"
"Easy," I said, and flashed her a quick grin. "I'm not Iolande. I'm Fish. Apparently we're in the same boat."
I took a few moments to explain the situation, how I had been asked to impersonate Iolande, the chambermaid. "And since I haven't got the foggiest idea where to find the other Masters," I concluded, "I'm heading straight back to Lamard, quick as I can. Those were my orders."
Bard was staring at herself in bemusement. "You know, this isn't exactly the way I'd imagined this working out. Physically - well, maybe. I hadn't really counted on being a draft animal myself, though."
"And I hadn't counted on being a medieval French maid," I said wryly. "It's what we got stuck with. You should see Rachel."
"Jon. Lamard's apprentice."
"Jon - Rachel? It sounds bad already," Bard said, laughing.
"We can talk about it later, maybe. First-" I felt in my apron pocket for the coin. "Are you hungry?"
"Famished. They - there was bread, but -"
"I know about the bread. I'm not surprised you wouldn't eat it."
Bard looked horrified. "One of the senior Apprentices took out a mirror and he turned one of the workers into - just waved the mirror at him -"
I shook my head. "It's all an illusion. Smoke and mirrors. They baked a loaf of bread shaped like a man, and they used mirrors to make them change places. If they offer you any more bread like that, I'd say eat it - don't starve yourself over it."
"What kind of a monster is Wexrtyn?" Bard asked me. She sounded sick.
"Strict," I said. "But fair, as far as I can tell. Come on, I'll buy you something to eat."
I pulled out the coin that Wexrtyn had given me. It was certainly an unusual medium of currency: it was only a bit of carved wood, engraved with a crest on the face and an alchemical sigil on the reverse. The coin was heavy and dense, and appeared to be cut from a thin branch. Bark still clung to the outer ring.
"I guess it makes sense," I said. "They use metals and glass and gems for mirrors. They probably wouldn't waste them on coins."
"But wood?" Bard asked. "That's easy to counterfeit. Give me a carving knife and I'll make my own money."
"There must be something odd about the wood," I suggested. "Maybe it's a tree that takes a hundred years to grow a foot."
We tapped the coin on the cart and listened ferociously to the tone produced. We tapped it on the stone walls. We smelled it, we felt it. Nothing seemed unusual, except that it was heavier than most wood, for the size.
Then Bard tried tapping the coin against the iron rings of her harness, where it stuck. "That's weird," she said.
"Glue?" I asked. "Something sticky?"
"I think it's magnetic," she said, puzzled, testing it a few times.
"Magnetic wood? That would certainly be hard to counterfeit. Here, let me try."
I played with the coin and the harness rings for a moment, before we both realized that I was tapping at Bard's breasts with a piece of wood. Neither one of us had noticed the oddity about it, but suddenly we both drew back and appraised each other.
"Sorry," I said, embarrassed. "I'll stop."
"This is getting too weird," Bard said, sounding shaken.
"Yeah," I agreed. "I'll stick to playing with my own chest from now on."
We were reluctant to give up the coin at the market stalls, but at least it produced a spicy kebab for me, and for Bard, a large rounded boule of bread, filled with some potato soup. I ate quickly, scanning the crowd for red- and brown-robed Apts, hoping no Masters would interfere with this delivery while we were eating. I felt sorry for Bard, because I wasn't even comfortable unfastening the harness - someone might too easily make off with the mirror-cart, heavy as it was.
Bard gobbled up the soup, and devoured the bread bowl as well. She must have been much more hungry than tired, because she didn't even complain about having to stand in the harness while she ate, cradling the bread-bowl in her hands.
"They worked us very hard," she explained between bites in a low voice. "No explanations or anything, just pointed us at a seam and told us to dig. Most of their tools were pretty broken, also. They had just pieces, like the head to a pickaxe, and handles, but nothing to hold them together. You know that little wedge of metal that goes in the handle, that keeps it in one piece? They didn't have any. The tools kept falling apart."
"I saw that," I said. "They were scrabbling at the walls with the tool heads."
"I found a flat piece of rock and jammed it in there, hammered it in with an axe head, and made mine work."
"You shimmed it," I nodded.
Bard finished eating the rest of her bowl. "I was going to show the others what I'd done, and how to fix their tools, but the Apts dragged me away to a different cavern. This place had decent tools, not like the other. They told us to dig but they didn't tell us what we were digging for."
"Sounds like Master Wexrtyn expects his Apprentices to work smarter and work harder."
"Just like Scrooge McDuck," Bard nodded.
"I'll take your word for it," I grinned.
"Thanks. At least, I hope that's what it means. Working smarter, I can do. Working harder, in this body..." She smiled. "Well, perhaps now that they've fixed me up with a little muscle and stamina, that might not be so difficult."
"You're sure?" I asked. "I mean, you'll be okay hauling these mirrors?"
"Oh, I think so," she said, and patted her absurdly rounded equine flank. "I've got a lot of miles left in these."
"Good," I said. "Because I won't be much help, I'm afraid."
"Not to worry."
"Then let's go."
Acting as Iolande, I made sure Bard saw where I discarded my kebab stick, into the lava-mirror. Then I led her, as confidently as I could, back down the ramp to the floor below.
"It's a bit tricky on this slope," she said, holding the shafts of the chariot. Her biceps bulged. "The cart wants to come down on top of me, and I don't quite have my balance."
"Take your time," I said. "Master Wexrtyn wants the mirrors to arrive intact."
Bard's unusual shape attracted many a lingering look from among the stream of merchants, laborers, residents, nobles, and servants along the ramp. Some stared in horror and clutched their silver wards. One nudged his companion and muttered something under his breath, and the both laughed crudely, making her blush. Nearly all of them gave us a much wider berth than one would expect for a cart - certainly more than was necessary in this expansive corridor.
We descended the ramp to the U-bend, where it dipped and ascended again. The twin lava mirrors here baked the air, which swirled upward behind us and ahead, and glacial chill from outside sank down into the depression and skulked at our feet.
"Let me get warm here," Bard said, rubbing her hands. "It's getting colder as we go down."
"It'll get colder yet," I said.
After resting for a short time, we climbed up the other side, and out onto the balcony overlooking the alpine pass. The fog had lifted since I had first come this way, and shafts of sunlight were visible in the cloud layer overhead. The icy peaks gleamed in the filtered light. We still could not see the sky. All around us the air sparkled with ice crystals: not snow, but frozen vapor, dancing in the updrafts.
"My God," Bard said. She came to a stop in the middle of the large balcony, staring at the scenery. "This place is amazing."
"We don't have time," I said, tugging her elbow. It was like trying to pull a bus. Bard's altered form was much heavier, much more muscular and denser than Iolande's lightweight body, and I had no muscles.
"I've never seen the outside," Bard protested.
"The mirrors just spent a few minutes getting n-nice and warm," I said. My teeth were already beginning to chatter. "And n-now they're getting c-cold."
"Oh," she said, and made a smacking gesture against her forehead. "Stupid. Yes, let's go in. I can look at the scenery on the way back."
We went back in through the doors on the right, and now the corridors were more familiar. Yes, these were the ones - wide halls, lined with columns of ornamental granite. Bard's hooves, and the wheels of the cart, ceased to clatter and thunder over stone and instead rumbled quietly over squares of carpet down the center of each passageway.
Then we turned into a chilly corridor, and there was the blue-metallic door. In it were the reflections of Iolande the chambermaid, Bard the horse-girl, the chariot laden with mirrors, and the spectral knight bearing his scythe.
It seemed to me he was standing just behind my reflection, that if I reached out behind me, I might grasp his tattered robes.
"What is that?" Bard asked, frowning at it.
"I have no idea," I said, and remembered Iolande's words to me: "Unnerving, isn't it?"
"Iolande?" A maid had come into the chilly corridor where Bard and I stood. She was dressed as the other maids I had seen, in a snug-fitting gray dress, much as mine was. This one gave me a brief curtsy. "Ma'am," she said politely.
I inclined my head at her. Since I didn't have the faintest idea what her name was, or how to respond, I simply said, "Yes?"
She held out one small hand. "I've been looking for you. Someone gave this to me to give to you. It's your new ward."
I took the small silvery disc from her. It had a clasping hook, as an earring might. On both sides it was a polished silver, with no ornament.
"Thank you," I said.
The maid curtseyed again, and started away again, out into the hallways, away from Lamard's door.
"Who was it from?" I asked.
"A Master, of course," she said, her brow crinkling in puzzlement. "Nobody else makes wards."
She had already turned away and left Bard and me alone in the corridor before I thought to ask which Master it had been. I looked at the silvery disc in my hand, hooked as for an earring. Bard craned her neck to see the ward in my hand, and I showed it to her, turning it over.
"Your ear isn't pierced," she said.
"Master Lamard said it didn't matter," I said. Experimentally, I touched the thing to my ear. The hook passed painlessly through the lobe and clasped itself with a snick of metal.
"Very clever," Bard said approvingly.
I grinned at her, and tugged the ward. "And hopefully sterile."
Bard examined the ward on my ear. "So why didn't Master Lamard simply hand it over personally?"
"How should I know?" I asked. "Everybody in this whole fortress seems to have some kind of secret motives."
We opened the door and took our burden inside.
"Now that's much shapelier, I'm sure you'll agree. And I think just a touch of sheen to your coat. Ah, perfect."
Master Lamard was back to her usual self. There was no trace of the calculating schemer I had sometimes noticed, evidently during those times when he felt like nobody but me might be looking. Instead, Lamard was every inch the whimsical aesthete, grooming Bard's horse-girl form with mirrors of gemstone and metal, changing her physique, beautifying her hair and face, and eliminating the unsightly slavery brand from her shoulder.
The exaggerated roundness of Bard's hips was gone, and her waist looked more human-normal - but the equine flanks remained, scaled to fit. She retained the tail, and her hooves were larger, more properly proportioned. One of her legs now had a fetching white sock.
"Actually, Master Lamard, I was beginning to like the muscles," Bard said, running her hands over her slender arms. "If I'm going to be expected to carry all these heavy loads around, they might come in handy."
"But my dear, I haven't taken your strength away at all," Lamard assured her. "That would take a different mirror entirely."
"This gemstone mirror," Master Lamard said, holding up a palm-sized mirror of flawless topaz, "contains Beauty. With it, I can incise Beauty into any living thing, or excise Beauty from it. But it needn't remove Strength."
"But that's..." Bard stopped to assemble her thoughts. "Muscles have a strength based on the area of the cross-section. Or something like that. It's why you can't have an ant the size of a horse."
Lamard yawned. "Is that what things are like in your world? How pedestrian."
"You mean you can have an ant the size of a horse?" Bard demanded.
"Goodness, no," Lamard said, offended. "An ant? In this room? It'd never go."
I tried to get things back on track. We had become distracted by Master Lamard's endless desire to creatively improve and beautify everything in her domain. "Master, we have brought the mirrors from Master Wexrtyn. For the Apprentices."
"Yes, yes," she said. "I saw the hideous things. That wood frame will have to be sanded and refinished before I let any Apprentice of mine step through it. I'm sure Master Wexrtyn's Apts mean well, but they know nothing about line."
"You said I was to bring them back to you," I prompted her. How was I supposed to know where the other Masters would be located? How was I to deliver them, without a map?
"So deliver my Apprentice's mirror and have done, chambermaid," she said breezily. She produced a comb from the pockets of her satiny robes, perched upon the divan, and began combing out her platinum hair.
Evidently Lamard was in no mood to play along. "Unload the mirror," I nodded to Bard. "I doubt I could lift it."
Bard's muscles were as strong as ever, despite their apparent reduction. She hefted one mirror out of its slot in the cart with a grunt, and set it against one wall. Lamard glanced over once, and snorted. "Canvas," she said in a disgusted tone, looking at the cloth draped over the mirror. "I'm sure he does it only to offend me. Velvet would have been much more appropriate."
"We'll leave you to beautify it, then," I said, nodding my head to her. "Bard, let me hook you back up to the cart. We'd better get going."
"You know the way?" Bard asked.
"Of course she does," Lamard said. She extended her arms, and kicked one calf out, in a long, languid stretch. "I'm sure my Apprentice has found my first surprise by now. Perhaps it's time to see how she's doing."
"I'm sure she's well, Master Lamard," I said. If she insisted upon treating me like Iolande the chambermaid, then I would play the part.
She rose to her feet, stretching again. "Oh, and I do think you'll be interested to see our new captain before he goes off to battle," she said. Lamard dipped one hand into a pocket and produced the ruby mirror I had seen before. The body of the previous chambermaid no longer floated in its depths; now it was a bold and strapping man of forty, with a short beard. And scintillating armor.
"Is that..." Bard asked.
"Yes," Master Lamard agreed, too swiftly for Bard to finish her sentence. "It's the Queen's new captain. I'm about to send him to the very edge of the Four Lands, where his sword arm is sure to get a great deal of exercise."
"How do you send him?" Bard wanted to know.
"One simply aims the ruby mirror at a glass mirror showing the proper destination. The ruby mirror incises the body into the glass, and the glass exports him to the location. It couldn't be easier." Master Lamard yawned again, theatrically. "Oh, this conversation does weary one."
"Don't mind if we excuse ourselves, then," I said snidely. Obviously this was our hint to leave.
Bard and I found our way out of Master Lamard's labyrinth of exquisite decoration. Neither of us had the least idea which way to go once we left her rooms, and we were trying to decide which way might lead back to the Foundry. We were both completely turned around in this new location, and neither of us had any surprising insights as to direction.
My friend obviously had questions about Lamard's odd behavior, because her eyebrows were arched at me as we left the Master's chambers. I didn't feel we were far enough away to risk any further explanations just yet.
"Which way to the Foundry?" Bard asked, adjusting the harness across her chest and shoulders. It was looser now than it had been, because of the improvements Lamard had made to Bard's physique.
"I'm not sure," I said, peering in both directions. Neither one of them looked particularly familiar. "I think we'll want to deliver these to the Foundry. That seems like the most logical way to get these mirrors into the hands of the Masters."
As I stood there, I felt an odd tingling in my legs. For an instant, I felt strangely hollow, and my thighs felt warm and heavy, and my muscles felt like runny clay. There was a strange slipping sensation, as if my legs were merely stockings and somebody was putting them on.
Then, quite without my approval, I stepped out into the hallway and turned to the left. My legs continued to walk me down the corridor. Bard pulled the mirror cart after me. "You think it's this way?"
"I don't know," I said, puzzled and a little frightened. I could not stop my legs from walking. "My feet seem to think it's this way."
"Your legs are walking by themselves?" Bard asked.
"Yes. It's - no, there, I can walk again," I said. The weird sensation that someone else was wearing my legs was now fading. I had control of them again. "That was bizarre. For a minute there, it was like somebody else was inside me, as if I were a puppet."
"And whoever the puppeteer is," Bard concluded, "thinks you should go this way."
I nodded. "Well, it's something, at least. I suppose we could go this way and see if anything looks familiar."
"And if nothing does?"
"Then we can stop at the next unfamiliar intersection," I said. "Perhaps the puppeteer might give us another hint."
It must have been the new ward, Bard and I decided: my feet led me straight to Master Kureon's laborium. At every turn where I expressed hesitation, at every unfamiliar intersection, my legs took on that sparkling, hollow quality - as if my legs had suddenly gone to sleep - and my feet led the way.
Bard was my eyes and ears, drinking in the sights of the commoners and citizens around us, taking in all the detail. I encouraged her to ask questions of me, to point out oddities aloud; and while in the character of Iolande the chambermaid I usually dismissed her questions as too common to bother, it occasionally afforded me the opportunity to stop and do some sightseeing of my own.
There were plenty of servants in the halls, we noticed: cooks and maids and soldiers of the fortress. Oddly, we saw more men than women. Was this a military outpost, staffed with males? Were the genders balanced differently on this world as on our own? We didn't have a ready answer, and nobody we could safely trust to ask.
The entrance Master Kureon's laborium was lined, ostentatiously I thought, with carpets and tapestries and plates and candelabras and paintings. There was a certain aesthetic harmony to the collection, but it was obvious even to an outsider that the goods represented here were from vastly different cultures - or possibly from one culture, across a wide span of time. The ceramic plates were ancient, and their glazes black and gold, depicting angular, stylized figures and sharp-edged runes. The tapestries were green and red, and they flowed with an asymmetric beauty and natural lines, like the branches of trees, swirling fractally into smaller forms, weaving letters and symbols among the leaves.
Bard noticed it too. "He's showing off his collection," she muttered.
I nodded, trying to remember what I had guessed about Master Kureon. He had been the aesthete, I remembered; his questions were about sense and experience. "He's very widely traveled," I supposed aloud.
There was no threatening Shape on Master Kureon's door, like the spectral knight reflected on the door of Master Lamard. His was a simple pair of oak doors strapped with bands of iron. Perhaps, I mused, the display of wealth from all the Four Lands - and the power that must represent - was sufficient.
Was there a protocol? I wondered. Do I knock?
No, I decided. I am here on orders of the Queen, and of the Master Shaper of the Foundry. Knocking would be a sign of weakness.
I pulled the double doors open and held it for Bard and she pulled the mirror-laden cart inside. Immediately, there wafted from the room the most mouth-watering scents: honey, lemon, cinnamon, garlic and wine, blended together with the succulent aroma of roast lamb. Bard's nose wrinkled and she looked worried - the smell of roasted meat didn't seem to agree with her - but immediately my stomach growled a reminder that one spicy kebab would not be enough to keep a body warm in this cold fortress.
Master Kureon's chambers were astonishing. There were no mirrors on display, no glasswork to be seen in the entrance hall, which stretched left and right before me into two grand wings of his mansionl. Instead the walls were decorated with relics and artwork seemingly from all corners of this world, and possibly from several others as well. I distinctly recognized Greek pottery, and Persian weaving, and Chinese ceramic, and Roman statuary.
Unlike Lamard's room, which overwhelmed the eye with a surfeit of beauteous objects in every direction, covering every wall, Master Kureon had decorated with taste and restraint. Kureon did not live in a hall of sweeping marble, but instead a richly appointed drawing room with wood-paneled walls and inset alcoves for displaying his most precious treasures. The overall effect was a pleasantly rich tone of brown, gold, and red, reminding me somewhat of Victorian London.
An Apprentice in orange came through a paneled oak door. His face brightened when he saw us. "Ah, the mirrors! Just a moment, I'll go tell Master Kureon."
"Don't interrupt your meal," I admonished him. "Just tell us where we should leave the mirror."
"Meal?" the Apprentice asked blankly. "Oh, you mean the lamb. That's hardly more than an appetizer. Most of us don't even bother to show up for the first three courses." He gave a condescending laugh. "This lamb was only made by the sous chef. It's hardly worth sitting down to supper unless the master chef has his hand in. The real meal hasn't even begun." His eyes widened, as if a thought struck him. "You mean you like the smell of this? Ugh, you can have my portion."
The Apprentice ducked away through the oak doors, and I shared a glance with Bard.
"Pretty snobby," Bard said quietly.
"I guess you can get used to anything," I suggested. "Even to finery."
After a moment, the Apprentice returned. "Master Kureon is at supper with the Earl of Stockade," he reported. With a jealous curl to his lip, he added, "Probably showing off his new otherworld Apprentice." ' "Ah, yes," I said, remembering. "That would be Charlie."
The Apprentice snorted. "Yeah, him. I'll show your horse where to deliver the mirror - is she tame?" He looked at Bard curiously.
"Certainly not," Bard said indignantly. "I am nobody's horse. I'm my own."
I grinned at the Apprentice. "She's one of the otherworld apprentices your Master loves so much. I'd be very courteous to her, if you know what's good for you."
The Apprentice stared at me, trembling. "She's... she's a-"
"Yes," Bard said flatly.
"But she's so... beautiful," the Apprentice stammered.
"Master Lamard helped me out a bit, there," Bard admitted.
The Apprentice looked pale. "Lamard? The Master Shaper personally Shaped you?"
"Yeah," I drawled. "Why, don't you have connections with Lamard?"
He couldn't take my needling any longer - or the loss of ego. Bard, in what seemed to be the body of a lowly laborer, had more status as an otherworlder and friend of Lamard than he himself had. "Follow me," he said abruptly. "I will take you to where the mirror is to go."
"Go," I gestured at Bard.
"And ma'am," the Apprentice said to me, as if in afterthought, "Master Kureon wishes to speak with you before you go. He is in the dining hall with the Earl," he said, and pointed to another door in the room beyond.
I nodded. "Bring Master Wexrtyn's apprentice back to me quickly," I said, contriving to sound impatient. "I have other deliveries to make besides this one. The otherworld Apprentices shouldn't be kept waiting."
The Apprentice left, acting suitably like a whipped dog, and I strode forward into the next room and toward the indicated door. I took some passing note of this room - dominated by paintings, it seemed to me, like Jefferson's portrait hall in Monticello - and followed the scent of lamb into Master Kureon's dining hall.
It was magnificent, as I had come to expect of Kureon's furnishings: black walnut furniture trimmed with a golden oak, dominated by two huge chandeliers alight by candles, and spacious enough to seat fifty. Full service in glossy black ceramic dishes was spread out along the table, and a few Apprentices clustered here and there, sampling the preliminary courses. The ceramic dishes caught the candlelight in dozens of gleaming halos.
Interesting, I thought: Master Kureon has no fear of reflections. His dishware was polished to a high shine. Oval mirrors depicting the beauty of faraway places hung high on every wall.
Kureon's Apprentices wore the customary orange, though they eschewed the seemingly traditional robes and instead wore elaborate and detailed doublets, sparkling with silver threads and shining wards. Most wore breeches or pantaloons, stitched in carefully pleasing patterns. Master Kureon himself sat at the center of the long table, his back to a set of double doors. His robes were finest, his embroidery most meticulous, and his chair richly covered in black velvet. At his elbow was a decanter of wine.
Across from Kureon was a man dressed in an unfamiliar manner. He wore no furs or warm woolens, as many here in the fortress did. Instead, he wore stitched red leather that matched his rust-colored skin. His attire gave the impression of a ceremonial armor, with wide padded shoulders; there was not a nick or scar upon the leather. The man's dark green hair was pulled back into a ponytail and draped down his back. Strapped over each shoulder and to the opposite hip were bandoliers of a greenish suede, decorated with squarish black runes. From here, I could not see his face, but I had the impression of a well-trimmed greenish beard on his jaw.
As I entered the hall, a steward to my right announced my assumed identity in a resonant voice: "Iolande, handmaiden of the queen!"
It might have been my imagination: the Apprentices to my left fell quiet for a moment, assessing my arrival, but Master Kureon and his dinner guest immediately began to speak more loudly.
"I tell you, Master Kureon," Kureon's guest said, thumping the table with one fist, "if the glassmakers continue to construct trade routes out of thin air, where will the merchants of Bramdon get their wares to sell? What will happen to the markets of Stockade? What will we trade?"
"My dear Earl," Kureon said loudly, taking a sip of wine, "her Elegance the Queen assures me that the merchant caravans would never ignore a market such as Stockade."
"That isn't the point, Master Shaper," the Earl growled. "Every caravan from Achlad and from the Bay comes through Stockade. And from Stockade we sell abroad, to the whole of Bramdon. We are the central markets. Our merchants have bought and sold there for centuries."
"And merchants will continue to do so," Kureon said. Apparently his goblet had suddenly become very interesting, because he was now inspecting it absently.
"Not when the sea rats down in Ebella can unload their ships right from the wharf and haul them through a mirror, straight into the halls of the Alcazar," the Earl said. "They could undercut our prices - blind me, they could charge a crest less than my merchants and pocket the difference!"
Master Kureon feigned a small yawn. "As your merchants have been pocketing the difference for centuries, yes," he said in a disinterested tone. "Buying salted fish on the docks at fifteen crests a barrel and charging us forty for the privilege, I'm sure."
"There are expenses in moving merchandise."
"Those expenses do not apply to mirrors, my dear Earl."
The Earl leaned forward, hunching toward the table. His red leather creaked. "Ah," he said craftily. "Perhaps not now. But mirrors cost money too."
There was a heavy silence. Master Kureon's eyes flickered over to me, once. I had the distinct impression that somebody had forgotten his line. Then Master Kureon glanced over in my direction, as if noticing me for the first time. "Thank you for reporting promptly, Iolande," he said. "I'm sure you've met Slighe, Earl of Bramdon. He is joining me here from Stockade. My Lord, this is Iolande, maid of the Queen's own chambers."
It seemed like a casual introduction, but something about it was too canned, too prepared. My actor's instincts came to attention, clamoring for me to pay attention to the subtext.
"Madam," said Earl Slighe gruffly. His eyes probed me for a moment, inexpertly, but I had already made up my mind: something wasn't right.
"I was just discussing with the Earl the knotty problem of trade from Stockade," Master Kureon said, toying with a ring he wore on one finger. "He is understandably concerned that the glass mirrors of the Foundry will enable craftsmen to trade directly with their customers without passing through the hands of the merchant caravans."
"Indeed," Slighe said. His face became stony and unfriendly. "Naturally the traders seek recompense for the service they provide, considering the danger and expense of hauling produce up the mountain passes to the Alcazar. A fair price only, that is all we ask."
"And I was just telling the Earl there is no need for this expense," Master Kureon said smoothly. "Now that the Foundry is able to create glass mirrors that will transport goods throughout the Four Lands, we may enjoy our exotic fruits and spices and fish at much lower prices. And fresher, too," he added with a beatific smile, while beside him, the Earl attempted to make his face a mask.
Somebody's lying, I thought.
"I'm sure the Queen will be delighted to hear it," I said with a smile.
"Yes, I'm quite positive on the matter," Kureon said, stifling another yawn. "But to more important matters. You have delivered the mirror from Master Wexrtyn's workshop?"
I nodded. "It is being unloaded now."
"Very good," Kureon said, and waved a lazy hand to the end of the table where the Apprentices sat. "Charlie, do follow the chambermaid and see where your rooms have been installed."
An Apprentice stood - it was Charlie, the man I had seen in the chambers of the Forge. He was hurriedly finishing a mouthful of lamb. "Yes, Master Kureon."
"That is all," Master Kureon said to me, waving me away.
What had that been all about? I wasn't certain, and my thoughts dwelled on the strange conversation as I led Charlie back to Master Kureon's grand Victorian entry hall. It was too obviously a performance. The conversation seemed to have been staged for my personal benefit. I had been announced, and their debate had begun immediately. What remained was an impression that whatever the Earl of Bramdon wanted, Kureon was reluctant to provide - Master Kureon espoused the virtues of the Queen's own arguments, at least aloud. And I felt that was odd, because as a perpetual teenager Queen Gayle didn't strike me as the kind of woman to make good arguments.
Charlie and I waited awkwardly in the entrance hall; Bard had not returned with the cart, and I could not otherwise lead him to his mirror without a guide. I could sense that Charlie was watching me intently, hoping to learn something about this place, this strange fortress in a new world, but I had nothing to reveal.
After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, Charlie spoke. "May I ask you a question?"
"One of Master Kureon's servants helped direct the unloading of your mirror," I assured him, without waiting for his question. "When he returns, I will let him show you where it was taken."
Charlie shook his head. "It's not that, that's not my question." He hesitated, then asked, "Are you a woman?"
What? I arched an eyebrow at him, keeping my face masked with difficulty. "Yes, I am. Why do you ask?"
Charlie didn't look at his feet, or show signs of embarrassment. "It's just ... you know, everybody in this world seems to change shape whenever they want, mirrors everywhere. I know some of Master Kureon's other Apprentices are really women in the bodies of men. That's what I am," he explained to me.
I nodded and pretended I hadn't known it. I had already seen Charlie confess this in the Examination before the Foundry - though, of course, I had been wearing a different body then.
"Anyway," Charlie said, "I was just watching you and thinking that there was something wrong. You didn't stand right for a woman, I thought, and I wondered if maybe you had recently been changed."
He seemed sincere enough, I thought, and I decided I would confess my secret to him. After all, there were no mirrors in Kureon's entrance hall, so I concluded we weren't being spied upon. Without changing my body language or drawing nearer to him, I murmured, "Yes, you're right. I'm not Iolande."
Charlie's face took on an expression that mixed puzzlement, curiosity, and satisfaction. "I thought so. Something wasn't right."
"Did anybody else notice, do you think?" I asked quietly.
"I doubt it," Charlie said with a shrug. "I'm really a woman, inside, so I guess I noticed more quickly."
"You said there were others."
"Bress got transformed into a man quite a while ago," Charlie explained. "He's pretty masculine, now. It does sort of take over your thinking, so I'm told. And Javara had his back to you when you entered - he was pretty intent on his food." Charlie looked me over, a woman in a man's body appreciating a man in a woman's body. "Why did you come and not the real maid?"
"She couldn't be here," I said. "I got sent instead." I wasn't sure how much I could safely explain about where Iolande was sent.
"Ah," Charlie nodded. "Some other duty? With all these mirrors around, you probably pass off the duty of Head Maid whenever you need to, right?"
"I wouldn't know," I said with a quick smile. There was still nobody in the room, and I decided to risk it. "I'm not even from this world. I'm from the List, like you."
Charlie's eyes widened. "You're from Earth?"
I nodded. "I'm not sure how many people are supposed to know," I admitted. "So keep it under your hat, okay? Pretend I'm Iolande, don't let on. This might just be for a couple of days, I don't know."
Charlie agreed thoughtfully. "That must be difficult for you, having to impersonate a woman. And kind of fun, too?"
"I'll let you know when I get to the fun part," I said sarcastically.
He chuckled, and I couldn't help noticing that he was very handsome when he smiled. His grin lit up his eyes in a way I found inexplicably charming. Then his brow furrowed again. "Wait, how long have you been... you know? Since we all got taken to the Foundry to meet up with them?"
"I was there," I said. Charlie seemed to agree with my unspoken desire not to mention my impersonation aloud again. "But it was after that. I saw you get chosen."
"After that," Charlie said. "So you were there, weren't you. Let's see, Bard was chosen first, so you're not him. And Sarah was next, but she's a woman."
"Process of elimination?" I grinned.
"Yeah," Charlie said, returning the grin. "Now I just have to remember who was left in the room after I got picked."
"That'd be a good test of memory."
"I was a lurker on the List. I think I knew most all of ... of them," Charlie said.
A door opened and Bard returned with her cart, just behind the Apprentice who had directed her. He had a sour look on his face which mysteriously vanished the moment he saw Charlie in the room - I knew he didn't like Charlie, since Charlie was an exotic new acquisition.
"Thanks for showing me the way, Dundall," Bard said politely, adjusting her harness.
Dundall the Apprentice bowed his head in her direction, equally polite. "Any time, Apprentice Bard."
"A touching reconciliation," I said sharply, slipping back into Iolande's imperious character, "but I haven't the time. Apprentice Dundall, take Apprentice Charlie to his new mirror and show him the way. I still have mirrors to deliver for Apprentices Dana, Xodiac, and Jon."
Dundall nodded to me, evidently striving to appear curt and efficient. Behind his shoulder I saw Charlie's mouth move: Dana, Xodiac and Jon - that would leave -
I nodded to Charlie politely. "Welcome to our world, Apprentice Charlie," I said. "Perhaps someday I will have leisure to return and you can give me some tips for improvement."
Charlie caught on quickly. "I would be happy to, Iolande," he said. "When both of our duties permit."
"Come on," I told Bard. "The Masters are waiting."
We left Master Kureon's chambers, the mirror-laden cart trundling along after us. When his corridors were well behind us, I asked Bard, "You hauled that cart all the way through Kureon's quarters?"
"You would rather I left it behind?" Bard countered.
"Good point. At least you and... what's his name, spoiled rich kid?"
"Yeah, him. At least you made up. I saw you looking into his big brown eyes."
"Made up, hell," Bard said indignantly. "I was polite to him and maintained eye contact, because it was the only way I could keep his hands off my tail."
I laughed all the way to our next delivery.
Just as they had before, my feet seemed to know the way to our next delivery. I wasn't even certain how, or why, but at every intersection when I came to a stop, my tingling legs took over. It was as if they were not under my own control, temporarily - I could feel them, dim and distant, as if they had fallen asleep, but they were not mine to command.
"How do you suppose they know where we're going?" I asked Bard, when there seemed to be nobody nearby. We were near a dark and forgotten corridor. Most of the torches had guttered out, and the remaining light was inconstant. The floor underfoot was sandy, gritty.
"It must be your earring," Bard said.
"My ward?" I asked, touching it with one hand. "Master Lamard did give it to me. Perhaps he knew I'd need guidance."
"Guidance?" the horse-girl asked with distaste. "More like hypnosis. You have no idea how harmful that thing might be. It could make you walk off that snowy balcony up there, right off into the valley below."
"It could," I admitted. "But it hasn't. So far it's been nothing but helpful."
"So you think," Bard countered.
I nodded. "Yes. But what else can we do? Do we have any choice right now but to rely upon it?"
She spread her hands. "Not really."
"Well, then," I said with finality. "We don't have a choice."
"Which way from here?"
I stepped into the intersection, and once again, my feet took over. "This way, I suppose," I said as I was carried along.
Bard pulled the cart after me. It was two mirrors lighter now, but she had been hauling it for an hour. Still, her strength showed no sign of flagging. Whatever Wexrtyn's and Lamard's mirrors had done to her certainly kept her on her feet.
There were no further turns - but there were no further signs we were approaching a Master's chambers. The hall was bare, and it terminated in a simple oak door. I felt distinctly uneasy. Had we come the right direction?
"Where's the advertising?" I muttered.
"The what?" Bard asked.
"The ostentation. The showmanship. The other Masters decorated their halls in tribute to their genius, to impress and frighten visitors. Where's the elaborate décor?"
Bard shrugged. "There's a door."
We opened it and stepped into the room beyond, through a wall of warm air. My first impression was that somebody had turned up the heat by about fifty degrees. The air here practically sizzled, and I felt my breath catch, and sweat beaded almost instantly on my brow. Bard panted beside me, similarly afflicted.
And the second thing I noticed was that we had stepped into a very elaborate attic of sorts: expensive tables piled atop one another, with chairs stashed between the layers; expensive carpets rolled and stowed in disarray; statuary, plates, tapestries, candleholders, fine cloth, and wood carvings were everywhere. The eye could not take it all in. I saw an exquisite jewelry box of hand-polished mahogany, its drawers stuffed full of jars of sand. Beneath where a fraying antique dress was hung, I noticed a sheaf of rumpled and water-stained pages bound together with twine. There would be enough room to tow the cart through the room, I saw, but barely; the wide aisles overflowed with antiques and knickknacks.
"The collection," I said quietly, understanding. Master Wexrtyn had mentioned that Varacid was a collector.
A familiar Apprentice strolled down one of the wandering aisles, his brown robes swirling around him. I recognized him from the markets, up on the floors above: it was Apt Solud, who had tried to bribe me for information about the mirrors.
"Ah, Iolande, you have come to us with gifts," he said, beaming. Solud gazed at the canvas-cloaked mirrors in the cart with undisguised longing. "I trust you were not put off by the little interruption from Master Oleu. He does so like to interfere with the legitimate business of the marketplace."
It occurred to me belatedly that I hadn't warned Bard I was about to sell a mirror to Solud. Ah, well, at least her surprise will seem natural.
But I wasn't prepared to simply offer the mirror for a price. It would seem crude. And if Solud wanted to try to seduce me into turning it over, try to persuade me, then I would let him make the first move.
"It is the nature of Masters to interfere," I said dismissively. "I am a servant, so I only serve."
"Only a servant?" Solud said. He tried unsuccessfully to raise his eyebrow; it was an expression he seemed to be practicing. "Everyone in the Alcazar knows you have the Queen's ear. And, if I might say it about Her Elegance, she has been known to listen to you."
"Occasionally," I said dryly.
"I notice that you are uncomfortably warm," Solud said, suddenly solicitous. "Achlad can strike some people that way. Would you care for some refreshment? I'm sure it is difficult work to delivery such heavy mirrors so great a distance, to so many demanding Masters."
Again Solud mentioned the mirrors, I noticed. And again he inserted into the same breath his unspoken request: first it was business, then it was a demand.
I let the hint dangle. "I'm sure we would love some refreshment," I agreed.
Solud stood aside in the aisle and held out one arm in invitation, directing us further into Master Varacid's collection. "Please," he said. "Come this way."
"Why is it so warm here?" Bard asked. She was beginning to sweat and seemed quite uncomfortable in the heat.
"You are in Achlad, the desert lands," Solud said expansively. "Birthplace of mirrors. The first mirrors, and the most powerful, have always been glass. Achlad has an abundance of sand but, alas, a dearth of water and farmland. But when you have sand..." Solud smiled and clasped his hands together. "In a mirror, almost anything can be found."
"In a glass mirror?" Bard asked.
Solud sniffed disdainfully. "Glass is superior as a medium for Shaping," he said. "All reputable Masters agree there is nothing a metal mirror can do that a glass mirror cannot do better. A metal mirror can show a man; a glass mirror can show an entire village. A metal mirror can take the Shape of a bird in flight; in a glass mirror you can capture the entire sky."
I knew a rehearsed line when I heard one. I made a mental note: somebody here feels insecure about his power, probably Varacid himself. Is that why he surrounds himself with trophies? I wondered.
"Master Wexrtyn works in metal," Bard ventured. "His Apprentices used this mirror to change me into a horse-girl. Can glass mirrors do that?"
I know Bard probably meant the question as an innocent inquiry into the capabilities of mirrors in general, but Solud took it as a taunt. "A glass mirror could locate an entire herd of horse-girls such as you," he said stiffly. "An entire vast plain filled with horse-girls, if one but knew the correct formula. One could have as many horse-girls as one wanted."
"But can it transform me?" Bard asked.
Solud halted in his tracks, his eyes hardening. "There would be no need," he grated. "None. We would have as many of you as one could desire."
Ah. Make that very insecure, I thought to myself.
The Apt turned brusquely and led us down the aisle, between towering heaps of assorted relics and antiques. "As you crossed the threshold into my Master's chambers," he said, "you passed through a mirror. It took you hundreds of miles from the Alcazar, away from Drndwyn, to the heart of Achlad where my Master has his glassworks.
"Can your Master's metal mirrors do that?" he asked pointedly, looking over his shoulder at Bard.
"He has glass mirrors," Bard said.
"Bits and scraps of knowledge about glass have leaked out of Achlad over the centuries," Solud said. "He's no craftsman of glass: Wexrtyn the Ham-handed is a dabbler, at best. His glass mirrors are the crudest sort, his frames inelegant. He cannot home to Shape glass mirrors in a smithy, with a hammer. The deepest secrets of glass will elude him. The Shapers of Achlad will keep those forever."
I said nothing. It sounded like so much propaganda, which Solud evidently believed slavishly. He himself was an Achan, from what I could gather: brown-skinned, dark-haired, with orange eyes. If Achlad were a desert country, then Solud's complexion certainly fit the climate. And there was something slightly excessive about the Apt's denouncement of Master Wexrtyn's mirrorcraft. Wasn't this the same Solud who only an hour ago had tried to bribe me for one of these same mirrors?
Apt Solud led us through the tottering stacks of antiques and collectibles, most of which appeared to be nothing more than bargain-basement furniture and rather unexceptional art. He paused periodically to wax effusive on the history and quality of several pieces, their age, their great value, how they represented a mark of progress in the history of Shaping.
"These sands and tincts," Solud said, gesturing at a cabinet stuffed haphazardly with ceramic jars, "belonged once to Adept Arvero of the Cabal. My Master obtained them when he was very young, just after Adept Arvero was killed in the First Battle of Kade."
"Adept Arvero?" Bard asked.
"One of the greatest Shapers the Three Lands have ever seen," Solud said. He quickly went on to add, "Mad, of course. Quite dangerous, and undoubtedly he would have destroyed himself with greed and ambition if the others of the Cabal had not first turned against him. But the Adept was a genius in his own way, seeing patterns where no one else would, extracting formulas, finding worlds unseen by any other. All his supplies have been left exactly as they are."
"Was he a Master of glass?"
"Of everything, mirrors of all kinds," the Apt said fervently. "He was of the Cabal. There were Masters from each of the Three Lands, and they shared their secrets. There were Shapers of metal, Shapers of gem, and Shapers of glass. Together the Cabal learned more in a generation than all other Shapers learned in ten centuries of intolerable fumbling."
Bard coughed politely. "I thought there were Four Lands."
I nodded inwardly. A good question, but one Iolande could never have asked. Sometimes this disguise was terribly inconvenient.
Apt Solud scowled. "There were always three: Achlad in the desert, Bramdon in the hills, and Drndwyn in the peaks. We did battle in the valleys between, in the lowlands round the Bay. The fields were trampled one way and then another as each of the Three Lands sought supremacy.
"King Poul of Drndwyn changed all that, a few years before I was born: thirty years ago, I think. He set out to capture the Shapers of his enemies, but rather than use their craft against their homelands, he withheld their power. Without gemstone mirrors, Bramdon could not muster its forces to full strength; without glass, Achlad could not feed its troops. We were conquered by mere force, not by mirrors.
"And Poul created the Foundry, in the image of the Cabal. He bade the Shapers to share their knowledge, as the Cabal did, to strengthen ourselves and defeat our common foe.
"Now the wars are ceased, and they tell us there are Four Lands, to include the lowlands of Ebella." Apt Solud sounded as if he didn't quite believe in it, as one might not believe in ghosts or gods or trickle-down economics. "Scattered farmers. Sailors of no land. Minor lordlings who boast of ten generations and call it history. Our Fourth Land," he said bitterly.
By now we were in a larger hall, something that might once have soared like Master Lamard's oak-tree columned entryway. It had a double row of pear-shaped sandstone columns, each carved with shapes of wheat and cattail and reeds, olive branches, and intertwined with birds. They reached high to a pair of joists that held aloft a vaulted ceiling. But this room, like the others, was cluttered. On the left the pillars secured a wide netting which contained yet more of Master Varacid's collection; on the right, a few larger pieces of furniture - including a few discreetly covered mirrors - blocked the multiple arches from incoming sunlight. From outside, the brightness of day could only enter the room in irregular shafts that speared between the stacked tables and cabinets.
"This way," Apt Solud said, and we followed.
There was one archway unblocked. It led out onto a tree-lined veranda. Under our feet, beneath curls of sand, a pattern of tiles decorated the balcony. All around the perimeter, were healthy olive trees beneath towering palms. Beyond the tree-lined railing were a few low, rounded buildings of adobe and sandstone, then a parched desert swept into the distance to a line of crumpled brown hills. In the other direction we could see nothing but trackless dunes.
In the center of the plaza there were two figures, standing in the shadow of a canvas stretched taut between the palms. One was Master Varacid, whom I had seen before; he was the Master in tattered, rumpled robes with the sour disposition. Even with his dark Achan skin, his scowl, balding pate and unkempt hair gave him the look of P.T. Barnum, lightly toasted to a golden brown.
He wielded a glittering mirror in each hand; several others lay conveniently on a battered side table. From here they seemed to shine with the brilliance of metal. Gold and silver, possibly. One might have been copper, another brass.
The figure opposite him was also familiar, although considerably changed since I had seen him last. He was now many years younger than he had been only hours before, taller and straighter, and much healthier of complexion, I could tell it was Xodiac. Gone was the elderly stoop; Xodiac's posture was strong and erect. His hair, once thinning and gray, was a full and wavy dark green.
But at the same time, it was not Xodiac as I knew him at all.
His torso was lean and covered in a coarse, dun-colored fur, with a ruff of white on his chest. His arms were semi-humanoid, but strangely altered, as if they were too long in the forearm and too short in the humerus. Xodiac's hands had long, clawed fingers, and they hung down farther than a man's would. His orange Apprentice robes were untied, and parted open; beneath them, Xodiac clearly was no longer entirely human. Beginning at his navel, his skin was plated in large, grayish scales, though not like any reptile I had ever seen. His legs were oddly twisted, one longer than the other, and he stood before Master Varacid on tiptoe - one leg digitigrade, like a dog's, and the other plantigrade, like a bear's.
It was all wrong, too. The colors were mismatched, and the seams between the various parts of Xodiac's transformed body were uneven. As we looked on, Master Varacid waved one handheld brass mirror at Xodiac's feet and both suddenly become striped and golden, like a tiger's.
"Curses and dust," Varacid muttered, shaking the brass mirror. He glared at it venomously, as if the mirror were to blame for Xodiac's disfigurement. "How in the name of the Last Sunset does Lamard get them looking so even?"
"Master!" Solud exclaimed in a profoundly shocked tone. "You're - metal mirrors? What abomination have you wrought?"
"Abomination, yes, thank you," Xodiac murmured dryly under his breath, even as Varacid wheeled on his offended Apt.
"Are you questioning me, boy?" Varacid asked acidly.
Solud's righteous indignation burned in him like a torch. "You have always said that glass mirrors are superior, Master. That nothing a metal mirror could do couldn't be bested by glass."
"Apt," Varacid said, his eyes glittering, "you don't know the first thing about value, do you?"
"Shut that yapping hole, boy," Master Varacid said. He brandished a metal mirror in each fist; in one, a doglike animal that might have been a dingo, and in the other an armor-plated armadillo that I recognized as a pangolin. "I'm looking for a suitable test subject and you might suddenly find yourself extremely collectible."
There was some meaning there I missed, but Solud obviously caught it. "Master, I apologize for my offense, but I merely inquire-"
"What mirrorcraft are you learning, boy?" Varacid's lips twitched into an ironic smile, and he corrected himself. "That is, what mirrorcraft do I attempt in vain to teach you?"
"Glass, Master. Glass is superior to all-"
"And what do I tell you? One mirror is sufficient for all purposes?"
"No, Master," Solud said, and recited: "A Shaper who puts his future into one glass has but one future."
"Always the right mirror for the job, yes?"
"Well, boy," Master Varacid said slowly, menacingly, "why not a metal mirror? When metal is the right tool for the job?"
Solud stammered for an answer, but Varacid didn't let him finish.
"You brought Iolande?" Varacid demanded, looking at me and the cart. "And this, this creature, who created the mirror that made her?"
"I didn't think to inquire-"
"What did you think to do? Anything? Anything at all? Evidently not. No, don't explain yourself, Apt, just stand aside." Master Varacid tossed the two metal mirrors on his side table in disgust. He turned to me with a certain grudging charm. "Iolande," he said. "I must apologize for the atrocious behavior of my student. Award him the robes of an Apt and suddenly he thinks he's learned al there is to know. These are Wexrtyn's mirrors, I presume?"
I nodded. "Yes, Master Varacid. I have come down here directly with yours."
He grunted ungraciously. "And the one marked in red. That is for Lamard, I presume?"
"Yes," I said, nodding again. "Master Wexrtyn asked me to set it aside for her."
"Her?" Varacid asked after a pause.
"For Master Lamard," I explained.
"Oh. Her. Yes, Master Lamard has been spending a great deal of time female lately. He's fortunate he's in Drndwyn; in Achlad, he'd be thrown into the harem of the Emir.
"And which is mine?" Varacid asked. He walked around the cart, examining the canvas-covered mirrors without apparent interest. "Was a special mirror designated for my collection?"
"I'm afraid Master Wexrtyn didn't mention any such thing," I said with a straight face.
Bard looked at me quizzically; she knew full well we had just delivered Lamard's mirror. I gave her a quick I'll-tell-you-later look that both the men missed.
"I'm to be given a mirror in common with all the other Masters? Unacceptable. Master Wexrtyn knows I do not accept the commonplace." He gestured at Xodiac, who was watching the conversation curiously and soaking up as much information as he could. "Don't you see my new Apprentice still requires some improvement? I have acquired some metal mirrors, ancient mirrors crafted by Arvero himself. I have learned to use some of them. Nobody has seen figures from Arvero's mirrors in three decades. My new Apprentice will be absolutely unique."
"I am that," Xodiac admitted, "but that's not the first adjective that springs to mind."
"This form is called a..." Varacid's brow creased, and he turned to Xodiac. "What did you say it was again? He said it was called a..."
"Mess," Xodiac supplied helpfully.
Varacid waved one hand irritably. "A work in progress, my boy. We will soon have it to specification. But the name, the name?"
"A dragote," Xodiac said. "It's my preferred Shape back home - well, it would be, if we had mirrors like this. Half coyote, half-"
The Master nodded. "Half dragon, yes. I know of no beast that precisely matches that description, in any mirror yet made. Fire-breathing, flying lizard the size of a barn, with impervious scales and claws? And a long neck, you said."
"Yes, that's right."
"The coyote sounds very similar to the desert dogs here in Achlad," Varacid said to me. "You've seen an ubech, yes? Small and lean, wiry, cunning? They run in packs at the edges of the city, scavenging, raiding stores."
I shook my head. "I'm afraid not."
"And there's certainly nothing like his 'dragon' native to the Four Lands," Varacid went on. "We'll just have to make do."
"There might be something similar enough," Xodiac agreed. "Maybe you could make a mirror that shows a dragon, or something close?"
Master Varacid shook his head, making his jowls jiggle, and he harrumphed. "No, no, out of the question," he said with a quick darting glance at me. "Create a mirror with a monster in it? No, no. Those have been banned by the Queen as conducive to mirror-warfare. Nobody shall make any such mirror."
I was quick enough to spot the loophole in that, but Bard was quicker. "What about a mirror that already exists?" she asked. "A mirror from your collection, perhaps?"
Master Varacid gave Bard a careful, studious look. Her question had taken him momentarily by surprise, but now he seemed to be reappraising her intelligence. Bard was not simply beautiful and strong.
"And where do you come from, my girl?" the Shaper asked at long last.
"I'm Master Wexrtyn's new Apprentice," Bard said, and tried a curtsey in her robes. It looked awkward, with those legs, with hooves, and tied to a cart.
Varacid's expression grew troubled. I could see the wheels turning. "And already Wexrtyn has mastered metalcraft to produce such results? Impossible. But evidently true." He looked up with sudden decision at Solud. "Boy - Apt!"
Solud snapped to alertness, dismissing the look of chastisement he had worn. "Yes, Master!"
"Earn those robes," Varacid said. "Come, I'm assigning you to learn everything you can about metals. Find the notes from Shaper Thule's smithy. They should be wrapped in sheepskin, possibly concealed in one of the second century ceramics."
Solud looked at his Master blankly. "I - I don't know where-"
"The vases. The blue vases."
Impatiently, Varacid grasped him by the elbow. "There's no time, boy," he said urgently, leading him from the plaza. "I'll show you. Give us just a moment, Iolande," he called over his shoulder at me as he disappeared into the cool shadows of the archway. "I'll return in a moment to discuss my new mirror."
That left Xodiac alone with me and Bard.
Xodiac looked Bard up and down, taking in the perfection of her melded half-human, half-horse figure. "Bard? Is that still you?"
She nodded. "Yes."
"I thought so," Xodiac said wryly. "I thought I remembered Master Wexrtyn choosing you. I think you got the better deal."
Bard laughed ruefully. "I don't know if I'd say that. Wexrtyn is quite a taskmaster."
"But at least he's good with mirrors," Xodiac countered. "Look at you! You look... well, so much better than I do, honestly. This is a mishmash of shapes. I'm not a dragote, I'm a goulash."
I laughed at that, and Xodiac gave me a suspicious look. "What?" he asked. "You have goulash here, too?"
"Don't worry, Doug," I told him. "I'm not really Iolande. I'm Corey. The real Iolande couldn't make it, so I was sent in her place."
"Couldn't make it?" Xodiac asked. He studied my face. "Why not?"
"I don't know if I can explain it," I said. The memory of Iolande trapped in Lamard's ruby gem still gave me the cold shivers. I explained, briefly, how Lamard had trapped her in it, and how her empty clothing had fallen to the floor. "But I don't understand why," I finished. "The Queen said something about a promise she had made to make Iolande a captain, and she asked Lamard to send her off to war."
Xodiac's usual cheerful mien faded, and he looked unsettled. "And these are the good guys?"
"So we think," Bard said.
"I'm told that Iolande has allies," I said. "Lamard wants me to pretend to be Iolande until they can ferret out who those allies might be."
"Well, good luck," Xodiac said. "Sounds like you'll need it. Me, I'd rather be here learning about Shaping. Not as if I'm likely to learn much from Master Very Sad, there. Seems like an incompetent compared to-" he gestured with a paw at the exquisite work Master Wexrtyn had done on Bard.
"My Master had help," Bard said. "It wasn't very pretty at first, either. Master Lamard did all the beautifying."
"Besides," I put in, "it's not as if Master Varacid is completely hopeless. He's from Achlad, so he specializes in glass; that's mostly used for transportation. If you want to perfect your transformation, you'll need to learn about metal and gemstone. Like Master Wexrtyn, who creates Shapes in metal mirrors. I suppose that means he's from Drndwyn."
Xodiac stared at me. So did Bard.
"What?" I asked.
"Where did you learn that?" he asked. "Varacid hasn't taught me anything useful like that yet."
"I've been hanging around Masters all day," I said, spreading my hands. "I've been picking up things here and there."
"Well, if you pick up anything useful, be sure to tell me," Xodiac said.
"Same here!" Bard exclaimed. "All I'm learning so far is how to pull a cart. So far, there isn't much to it."
"If I learn anything important," I promised, "I'll find some way to keep you informed. I don't know how."
"Please do," Bard said. "I'm not learning much else, digging in the mines. At least out here, delivering mirrors, I'm learning my way around."
"Your way around?" Xodiac asked blankly.
"Around the fortress," I explained. "The place where we came in. I believe they call it the Alcazar. It's off in the mountains." I waved one hand at the horizon, but in truth, I had no idea which direction it lay.
"Look sharp," Bard said. "Your Master is coming back."
Bard's hearing must have been sharpened, for it was several long seconds before we detected the sound of Varacid's footsteps in the corridor nearest us. He emerged onto the veranda moments later, without Solud, still grumbling irritably to himself.
"Learned all there is to know about glass, has he?" Varacid muttered. "Thirty years at the furnace, me. Thirty years to learn the secrets of centuries..."
"No respect for their Masters," I agreed contritely, sketching a curtsey.
Master Varacid looked up sharply, and one hand dipped swiftly into a pocket of his shabby robes. For a moment, so fierce was his expression, I feared what he might produce. But upon recognizing us - remembering that he had company - his defensive expression relaxed. His hand emerged from his pocket, empty. "You have a mirror for my new Apprentice," he said gruffly. "A common one?"
I nodded. "And a special one especially for Lamard."
"A special work, a tribute for the Principal Shaper," Varacid guessed, looking over the red-flagged mirror with barely disguised avarice. "Master Wexrtyn may be attempting to curry favor. Has Lamard been told of his gift?"
I shook my head. "I said nothing to-" I paused, and remembered that Lamard wasn't originally female- "him of the matter."
Varacid ran his fingers along the canvas shroud. "Presumably he wouldn't notice if it were diverted," he said softly.
"Possibly not," I said, and contrived to sound uncertain. "Provided Master Wexrtyn meant this special mirror as a surprise."
"No doubt he did, no doubt," Varacid said. He patted the frame through the canvas. "And yet Master Lamard is skilled with glass. What could he hope to learn from a mirror such as this? Very little." He gave an ironic laugh. "Wexrtyn presumes to teach the Principal Shaper how glass is to be made."
"I'm sure even Master Lamard would learn a few new tricks, if given one of your finest mirrors," I said encouragingly. A little flattery never hurt.
"Oh, yes, yes," Varacid said. He didn't sound convinced, but managed to puff himself up with importance. "Yes, we Shapers from Achlad still cling to many secrets not known to the common dabbler like Wexrtyn. Although Master Lamard is very cunning with Shapes, in his own way." He looked at me sidelong. "I don't suppose you could let me have this mirror?"
I smiled at him. He was definitely interested, as Wexrtyn had promised he would be. "But Master Shaper, your own mirrors must be far superior," I protested. "What could you learn?"
"Wexrtyn's technique, possibly," Varacid mused, running his hands along the canvas again. "I could learn the extent of his skill. If this is the finest mirror he can produce, I might divine from it the limits of his knowledge. I could make it worth your while," he suggested. "Would four crests compensate you suitably?"
I hesitated, as if considering the risks. "I don't know, Master Varacid," I said. "There would certainly be some danger if it were discovered. Master Wexrtyn was most explicit."
"One gift would serve as well as another," Varacid said, impatience creeping into his voice. "You might say the red ribbon came unattached. A mistake was made. Regrettable. I would be gracious enough to return it, of course, should it be necessary. After I learned its secrets. Six crests?"
"Excuse me," Bard said pointedly. "Wexrtyn is my Master. If you are planning to bribe the chambermaid to divert his gift to Lamard-"
"What terrible manners have I," Varacid said. "Surely I meant six crests for each of you. After all, you bore the burden of transporting it here, and-"
"Ten," I announced with finality. "Each. You are asking me to betray a Shaper of the Foundry?"
Varacid looked as if he could spit. Then, as before, his expression cleared and he seemed almost pleased with himself. "Very well. Ten crests each, if that is your price to betray a Shaper. I shall remember that figure, should I ever need another favor of you."
I bowed my head gravely, in agreement. I didn't like the sound of it.
"And should you betray me," Varacid purred, "my Apprentice will vouch to the terms of the bribe." He gave a stern look to Xodiac, who nodded hastily - insincerely, I hoped. "It was most imprudent to conduct this business before witnesses."
I thought fast. It sounded as if I were being set up. "Yes," I agreed. "And Master Oleu will vouch for the terms as well."
Varacid halted in mid-gloat. "Oleu?"
"He apprehended your Apt in the act of bribing me," I said. "In the market square. With dozens of witnesses. Yes," I said, enjoying Varacid's horrified look, "most imprudent, I'm sure you'll concede."
The Shaper's stunned expression turned into a stormy scowl.
I gave him my best winning smile. "That was twenty crests, I believe?"
We were several silent minutes out of Master Varacid's corridor. Upon exiting his rooms we were back in the drafty, cool halls of the fortress where we had begun. The chill was palpable compared to the arid, baked heat of Achlad. Then Bard spoke.
"Do I dare ask what that was all about?" she wanted to know. "Selling Master Lamard's mirror to that scruffy junk peddler?"
"Hush," I said with a smile. "We're eight crests richer."
"Eight? He paid us twenty. Ten each."
"We owe four to Master Wexrtyn. He said any profit over four crests, we'd split."
Bard's puzzled expression was classic. I wish I could've framed it. "He knew?"
I nodded. "Wexrtyn guessed that Master Varacid would send his Apts to bribe me. No doubt that mirror with the red ribbon was the one intended for Varacid all along."
"Is everybody in this place so deceitful?"
That made me laugh. "We haven't met them all yet," I said, and then added, "but signs point to yes. I just feel sorry for Xodiac."
"Why? He'll be happy. He's going to get something close to the shape he's always wanted."
"No, he's going to be a show piece. Look at how Varacid treats all his other treasures: locked in his rooms, jumbled togther, put on display."
The horse-girl shook her head, looking at me in disbelief. "I don't know how you do it."
"Laugh. Carry on with this charade. Persevere." She took her hands from the mirror-cart's leather harness and looked at them, as if seeking an explanation. "We've only been here a few hours. We got carried away from home, stripped, changed, put into this confusing..." She stalled, and tried again. "I can't believe I'm here. With this body. Female? And hooves? And..."
"It's pretty weird," I agreed.
"It's more than weird," Bard said emphatically. "It's dizzying. I feel like any minute I'll start freaking out. I need a score card to keep track of what's going on. But you don't."
Finally I understood what she was getting at. I chuckled ruefully. "I'm an actor, Bard," I said. "It's what I do. I don't have a script to go on, and I'm not familiar with the author. All I've got is adrenaline. But goes against all my being to break character. Later, maybe. When I'm alone, when I can put up my feet. Right now I don't have time to think about it."
We came to another intersection, sparsely lit with torches, and again I paused. My feet tingled in a now-familiar way, and took a few confident steps in the direction of a shallow, curving ramp that spiraled down into darkness. My feet came to a stop at the top of the descent.
"I guess we go down," I said.
"This isn't like the other ramp," Bard said. "The one that led out onto the balcony, with all the snow. That one was busy. It's like nobody uses this one."
"We haven't been led astray yet," I said, and shrugged. "Come on."
Bard crossed her arms and planted her feet. "It's too dark. I won't be able to see my feet. Uh, hooves."
There were torches set into brackets here, half-spent but still smelling of petroleum; it seemed that nobody had been here for years. There was a thin layer of dust on the flat, carved flagstones, unspoiled by footprints. This hallway had been suddenly and permanently abandoned, it seemed. The torches had been doused and left to hang in their sconces.
I removed a dormant torch, and lit it against a burning light in the intersection; and I took a second torch for luck and left it in Bard's cart.
"I'll go in front," I offered, stepping to the head of the ramp.
"Are you sure?" Bard asked. She gestured toward my feet, and I looked.
I was standing among a wide scattering of silver wards. They clinked gently under my sandals.
"I guess somebody really wants to keep bad magic out of this corridor," I said, trying to sound light-hearted.
"Or in," said Bard, ominously.
"We have to go down," I said. "What choice do we have? We really don't even know where we're going."
"If we turn around and go back, I mean. Where would we go? We have no instructions, no map, not even a list of Masters to deliver to." I looked at Bard, then back down into the darkness again. "Besides, all the Masters have decorated their corridors in Sinister Nouveau. I think it's meant to frighten away curious peasants. Would you want people banging on your door all day asking you for some magic?" I used Iolande's voice to mock the sound and cadence of Apt Solud's speech. "'Could you drop me off at the Alcazar? I need to visit Aunt Mable. Could you make me less ugly and stupid? Could you make a mirror with a pony in it?' You know, that kind of thing."
Bard giggled. "Okay, I guess you have a point."
"You're sure?" I asked. "Come on, I'd let you convince me not to stay. I don't like it much either."
Bard shook her head, tossing her hair about her shoulders. "You were right. This is just to frighten us away. Let's go."
I held the torch above my head for better light - in vain, because the blackness of the room swallowed the torchlight without a glimmer of return. Gesturing for Bard to follow slowly behind me, I stepped down the ramp.
On both sides of the incline, darkness dropped away into nothingness. There were no rails. We had about four yards of cut stone to maneuver in, and little margin for error. The stone was clean and the mortar seemed much newer, much whiter than the cement used in other parts of the fortress. Fortunately, though the air was humid, there was no moss to interfere with our footing. In fact, there were also no insects: no gnats, no lazy moths fluttering fatly at the torchlight. Even the air had a deadly stillness. No rats scuttled in the distance.
We would soon discover why.
As we gingerly descended into the artificial night, shapes rose to meet us. Walls began to close in, defining themselves with jittery shadows. Great unhewn walls of rock they were, shaped of cooled magma, as if someone had melted a great candle of rock and dribbled it slowly down the gallery wall over the course of eons.
"It looks like the throat of a volcano," I said, and wished I hadn't. My voice - Iolande's - echoed back to me a hundred times, fainter and fainter.
The ramp turned sharply to avoid a carved column as wide around its middle as a sequoia. Its base was lost in darkness. We craned our necks up but could not make out the top, either.
"What's it holding up?" I whispered.
"A mountain," Bard whispered back.
Silently, Bard pointed out the crack in the column. It was crumbling, slowly, as if under incredible weight, and it bore the unmistakable signs of having been hastily, desperately mortared. A steel band encompassed its girth.
After several more minutes we reached the floor. It was littered with ornamental stone blocks that might once have been part of an entablature, from the façade of some imposing edifice, but they appear to have fallen out of place and been dropped from a great height. The floor, covered with a layer of fine, powdered dust, was tiled but uneven. A fissure ran across the floor, big enough to stick one's hand in.
Bard and I left the base of the ramp and noticed, for the first time, that it appeared to be a temporary scaffold of improvised materials. The ramp itself was stone, but it was supported by a mixture of metal beams, wooden struts, brick, and whatever else would come to hand. This was not part of the room's original design, it seemed clear. I guessed that this might once have been a great hall, but when it became unstable, it was abandoned. Since that time, presumably, some other tenant had moved in - perhaps the Master for whom we were delivering.
We chose a direction at random, where the tiled floor seemed smoothest, and set off. I was thankful for the dust on the floor, which showed our tracks; without it, I doubted we would be able to find our way back to the ramp in the dark, even with a torch.
In the orange light of its flames, I could see ahead that the floor became rougher and thicker. I knelt down in my gray dress to examine what appeared to be a bed of cooled lava that had boiled over from somewhere and poured out over the tiled floor in a wave. Now its volcanic shell remained in the form of a plain of jagged, crystalline spikes. We could not take the cart this way.
I rose to my feet and looked to both sides. Where had this lava come from? Was this why the room was abandoned? Was there a way around?
To my right I thought I could make out a wall, its stones burst open and scattered; it was from there that the lava had poured, now a frozen flow of rock fifteen feet high. An ancient doorway near there had collapsed and half-filled with melted stone. Nobody had evacuated that way, surely.
Carefully I stepped out onto the volcanic shards and advanced a few paces, studying the wall. It led to a post-and-lintel entry some twenty feet high and thirty across. I could dimly see that the lava had flowed into this exit, too, blocking it. Whatever had happened here must have been cataclysmic: columns crumbling, lava bursting into the room, scattering the citizens and throwing them into a panic. They must have crowded away from the lava, attempted to flee through any available exit. Some may have been incinerated by the molten rock. Others would have collapsed from the heat and foul fumes.
But I saw no corpses. Those would have been removed later, I reasoned, when the ramp was built and the columns patched. Valuables had probably been removed as well.
What had happened?
I took a few steps to my left, lifting my feet high over the jagged stones so I wouldn't stumble. There, in the torchlight, I saw them: three figures, carved from stone in the most minute and excruciating detail.
The figure that first caught my eye held a frozen stance of urgency and strength, back bent, shoulder shifted as if to bear a weight, and hands extended. His robes swung out behind him as if in a whirl of action, captured as this curl of rock. Both the man's hands were at shoulder height, palms upward and fingers curled, as if he were holding up a heavy weight. On his face was a look of astonishment.
Every detail was exquisite. I could see where the sculptor had carved the lines of the fabric in his robes, the prints on his palm, the pores in his skin. Cords of strain stood out in his throat. A stone disc hung from one ear, like a ward. An amulet hung from a chain against his breast, and even the smallest links were carved individually.
This was no sculpture.
I felt a chill come over me, and I examined his stance further. From the pose, it seemed as if he had been caught by surprise from behind. Something had toppled - during the inflow of lava, perhaps, as the room was destroyed? - and he had spun to catch it before it crushed him. In that very instant, he had become stone. Now he stood, struggling eternally against a weight that was no longer there.
What had it been? Why had he become stone? What had surprised him so?
The second of the two figures was half-turned, as if to flee. A palm-sized mirror, now stone, lay in his frozen grasp. His mouth was open as if to scream in horror or pain, and his hair remained in a petrified wave like a woman in a shampoo commercial shaking her head. A sword blade emerged from his chest, and I saw with some nausea that the blade had cut down through one shoulder, all the way through the clavicle. The sword and its handle hung from his back.
The last shape was of a man on his knees, bent low as if in supplication, desperation, or pain. His palms were flat on the floor and his face was hidden by the folds of his robe. It was only by his hands that I felt certain the figure had once been male at all. By one hand, there was a beetle - a stone beetle, frozen in the same instant. No wonder there were no living creatures down here; they had all been turned to stone.
It was impossible to determine their race; I was not familiar enough with the men of this world to know where these Masters had come from, or even whether they were Masters or Apprentices. They were robed men only, identical in silhouette to the only robed people I had seen so far. They were Shapers. But who were they?
I turned to Bard, framing that question, preparing to ask-
-Bard stood still and silent, frozen in stone. Her chestnut flanks were gray and lifeless. The orange robes of the Apprentice hung in motionless marble folds. Bard's eyes were wide and blank.
Without thinking about the possible danger, I took several steps in her direction, stumbling over the sharp rocks. Perhaps it was a trick of the light. . .
As I reached her side and saw that she had indeed become nothing more than stone, I heard a voice murmur out to me.
"Welcome to the Colonnade," Master Oleu said.
There he was, his steel-blue robes a mere gray in the torchlight. His hands were folded together and he seemed as calm and collected as if he were attending a particularly dull meeting in the Forge.
"What happened to her?" I demanded heatedly. "Why did she turn to stone?"
Oleu ignored my question. Instead, he addressed the three stone statues of the robed men and held out one arm in a grand, ironic introduction. From his robes came the familiar scents of sandalwood, salt, and cloves. "Behold," he said. "All that remains of the Cabal."
I planted my feet on the ground, and my hands on my hips. "What did you do to her?"
"Nothing at all," Master Oleu said with infuriating patience. "The Colonnade is protected against intruders by several mirrors. You see, since it is the final resting place of the Cabal, it would not do to simply allow people to recover the bodies. Do you not suppose that some unscrupulous Shaper might return the Cabal to its previous living state?"
That caught me off guard, but only for a moment. Master Oleu had a smooth tongue, and he always seemed to have reasons for what he did, reasons that seemed sound. "There's a mirror here? Who operated that mirror, you?"
"Operate?" he asked, as if tasting the word. "No one. The mirror was opened - and open it remains. All who are exposed to it become stone."
"All?" I demanded. "Why not me?"
Master Oleu smiled beatifically. "You wear a ward, do you not?"
"I do. And so did Bard. So did that Master, there," I said in bitter tones, pointing at one statue.
"Then you must remember to take a moment to appreciate the foresight of the Shaper who supplied your ward," Oleu said with a certain self-satisfaction. "You are obviously wearing one again, yes?"
My hand came up to my earlobe where the silver disc dangled. "Why was Bard affected, then?" I asked.
"Her wards were insufficient," Master Oleu said. "Our understanding of mirrors marches on. Mirrors that were once dangerous threats become commonplace household items as their secrets become widely known. And as those secrets disperse, those mirrors are added to the formula when wards are crafted. Her ward simply did not include the power of this mirror."
"But mine did."
"It seems so."
I thought about it for a moment. "All this to protect the statues of the Cabal. Someone must think that whatever was done to them can be undone."
"It can be," Master Oleu assured me. "Your world is barbaric and believes that criminals should be put to death. But even here, death is irreversible; we choose instead to lock away our most deadly foes, sometimes in a state like this - living statues, as good as dead, but should the day come when they can be restored-"
"Restored? The Cabal? Why?"
"That surprises you?" Oleu said, gently mocking. "Forgiveness is unknown to you? Faith? Trust? Redemption?"
"We have those things on our world, too," I said, and came to a halt. "You know who I am?"
"Of course. You've been busy confessing your brand-new assumed identity to everyone in the Alcazar, after all."
"Wait, you've been watching me?"
"You have been inconsistent in your performance. It took very little, here, to startle you into confession."
"Very little?" I cried. "You turned one of my friends into a statue, and that's very little?"
Master Oleu's voice was soothing. "It can be undone, rest assured. What is more important at this time is your impersonation of Iolande. It was most unfortunate that you chose to antagonize Master Varacid, but it was inevitable that you would eventually choose to seize control of your own destiny."
"How do you know that?" I wanted to know. "Varacid wouldn't have told you. Have you been watching me?" A sudden intuitive flash came to me, and suddenly I knew. "The ward! You've been watching me through this ward!"
Master Oleu raised one hand to his mouth, as if concealing a smile.
"That's what it's all been about," I breathed, understanding. "You saw I had no ward, so you knew I wasn't Iolande. You arranged for a ward to be delivered to me. I assumed it was from Lamard. Ever since then, somebody has been mysteriously guiding my steps around the Alcazar, showing me which way to go." I looked right at him. "And leading me here to you."
"You are quick to adapt to the ways of our world," Oleu said quietly. "Alas, not quick enough."
"Well, now I know," I said with some heat. "I don't like being manipulated. You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to take off this ward and pitch it off the mountainside!"
"And then what?" Master Oleu said. He seemed to come to life, speaking with greater intensity and animation. His voice, once lazy, was now passionate and deadly. "Then what? Whom do you trust to provide a replacement? Do you walk around the Alcazar unprotected from hostile magic, like your friend? Do you openly proclaim your vulnerability? Do you suppose you can persist in your impersonation of Iolande without assistance? Have you already learned every corridor, every chamber, as well as she knew them?"
"You have been watching," I accused him. "It's you that has been guiding my steps, hasn't it?"
"Indeed," Oleu purred. "Even you must admit there are benefits to supervision. Unless you feel you are ready to declare your independence?"
"Ready?" I shot back. "I'm ready to tell everybody you've been using me as a pawn!"
"A pawn," Oleu said thoughtfully. "A minor piece in a game of strategy, yes? But pawns have value, my dear - pawns are targets. You would proclaim yourself a pawn, and in so doing, you would proclaim your value. Not a wise move."
"At least I'd have a move," I retorted. "Instead of being pushed around."
"That would be better?" Master Oleu countered quickly. "Has it never seemed to you that the safest place to be in a game of chess is off the board? There, at least, you cannot be taken."
I could not think of an answer to that.
"And whom would you tell? The Queen?" Oleu laughed, with the same hateful undertones I had heard before, when he had mocked Gayle in the chambers of the Foundry. "She wears the crown, but she is no queen. She exerts no true authority over the kingdom.
"Would you tell the Seneschal?" he went on. "An opportunistic schemer.
"Would you tell the Foundry? A fractious body of discontented old men. Yes, by all means, find someone to tell." Master Oleu sounded bitterly dissatisfied with my answer.
"I'll find someone," I declared.
"And what will you say?" he asked. "That you are a traitor and a spy, betrayed by other traitors and spies? Yes, surely that would acquit you well. That confession could hardly fail to gain you their sympathy."
A name occurred to me, there in the dark. The comment about old men had made me think of it. "Then I'll tell Master Lamard," I said.
Master Oleu looked amused, and this time he didn't bother to disguise it. "Who do you think ordered Master Lamard to craft your ward?"
My mouth fell open. "You did?"
He smiled at me.
Several questions surfaced in my mind and I grabbed at one. "Why are you giving orders to the Principal Shaper of the Foundry?"
But Master Oleu shook his head. "If you were in a position to know the answer to that," he said, "we would never have recruited you."
"Then why did you bring me here?" I insisted. "You obviously guided me here. Why am I in this dark hole? This can't be your laboratory."
"You are correct," Oleu said, nodding gravely. "It is not. It was important that you see the Colonnade, and the Cabal. Especially the Cabal. Here, perhaps, you will be most receptive to a warning."
"You have been free with your identity. Be less so."
"Why?" I asked. "I'm only introducing myself to my friends."
"So you believe," Master Oleu said sternly. "Have you not already seen how easy it is to change one's shape? Can you not appreciate how simply your friends can be impersonated? You, of all people? You have seen mirrors at work today."
"Oh!" I exclaimed, the light dawning. "You suspect that one of my friends might have been impersonated. Duplicated. I don't see what use that would be, but-"
"There would be uses," Master Oleu promised me. "There would be many uses. Arm yourself with more caution in the future. Be certain to whom you are speaking."
"Why would anyone want to impersonate any of my friends? We just got here!"
"They are on the board," Master Oleu said simply. "Those pieces are in play. They have value. And pawns, as you know, may become queens."
That made a certain sense, but something about this conversation nagged at me. Something was wrong, and I couldn't put my finger on it. "Suppose you're right. Why here, of all places?"
"It is the most private room of the Alcazar," Oleu said. His voice was hushed. "Even if a Master knew the proper formula to make a glass mirror that showed this room, he would hesitate to make it, and fear to look into it. Why?"
I wracked my brain for an answer. "Because of the turn-to-stone mirror," I guessed.
"Precisely. None dare come to this room. The entrance is scattered with wards. Lamplights do not light the torches, maids do not sweep or dust. Masters do not visit; they do not have wards powerful enough to protect them against the mirror here."
"Because whoever made this mirror kept the formula secret," I mused.
"Yes. The Masters may crave to know how it was made, but they cannot come near it. They do not even know where the mirror is placed. They would wander in the dark with torches and come upon it by accident before they realized it was there, and by then they would be in its power."
"But you have come here," I pointed out. Oleu watched me struggle with the logic involved. I said, "You haven't been turned to stone. You must have a ward like mine. And you ordered my ward made. And Lamard made it, but she might not know what it was for.
"That means you made that mirror," I concluded. "You must know its secret, its formula. You alone know how to defeat it."
Master Oleu watched me, a smile playing on his lips.
"That means you made the mirror," I said again, trying to capture a thought. "You defeated the Cabal. You turned them to-" I caught my breath. "You could undo it."
Oleu suddenly laughed aloud, holding one hand to his mouth. "Oh, dear. No, that was well reasoned, but the mirror that persists here, the mirror that was crafted to protect the fossilized forms of the Cabal, that is not the same mirror which entrapped them. That happened years ago, of course.
"Mirrors, you have been told, are activated by a Shaper who knows its secret. It may be a song, a word, an image held in the mind. With that secret, the mirror may be opened or closed, all its effects produced or removed. Without it the mirror is often useless.
"A mirror was made," Master Oleu explained, pacing slowly toward the statues of the Cabal, "of great size and magnificence. Ten feet in height it was, and said to be very powerful. Few can agree what that power was said to have been, but that is irrelevant: its power, secretly, was to turn men to stone.
"The mirror was liberated by members of the Cabal and brought here to the Colonnade. It had been crafted by Arvero, one of their own, but they betrayed him and slew him. The Cabal hoped to use it to seize control of the kingdom, for this was once the audience hall of King Poul.
"And as they brought in the mirror at night, their porters - suspicious men, the Cabal never traveled far in person without armed guards - stumbled on the tiles and the mirror pitched forward toward the stones.
"This Shaper," Oleu announced, gesturing at the Master frozen as if lifting a heavy weight, "was Adept Ivis. He was a Master of water, as are many from Ebella, and he turned to see the mirror falling upon him, so quickly that he was able to catch the frame and save it from shattering.
"And at the very instant the mirror fell, the guards - some say they had grown tired of taking orders from the Cabal, and were prepared at any minute to rebel - turned upon their masters. They drew their swords to slay the Cabal.
"That one is Adept Kommalt," Oleu said, indicating the sword-skewered Shaper. "He was stabbed in the back, as you can see. And there on the floor, cowering, is Adept Laucid."
I held up a hand. "Wait. Four members of the Cabal? Apt Solud said there were three."
"The Cabal had one member from each land," said Master Oleu, his voice heavy with contempt. "Apt Solud can only count as high as three lands: but in truth, there have always been four."
"Ebella, the battlefield," I agreed. "The land nobody counted because it was merely the place between the Three where the wars were fought."
"And so for decades, many people assume that the Cabal was three enemy Shapers," Oleu said. "They were sometimes called the Three Sons of the Heavens, by the superstitious. As a number, three has always been traditional in our lands."
"But there were four. A fourth member of the Cabal. Surely they used that to their advantage."
"Indeed they did," Master Oleu nodded. "After all, the safest place to be in a game of chess-"
"-is off the board," I finished. "Nobody even knows you're playing."
"But what happened, then?" I asked. "The porters, guards or whatever they were, they lost their grip on the mirror - accidentally or otherwise. Then they turned on the Cabal. One of them grabs at the mirror to keep it from shattering. How were they turned to stone?"
"By the mirror itself, they say," Oleu said quietly. "It is said that Adept Arvero suspected his co-conspirators of plotting against him. And so he crafted the mirror, and impressed it with the secret activation: that the mirror would open if anyone holding it conjured the mental picture of breaking glass."
"Which was the last thing that Adept What's-His-Name thought of as he turned to catch it, I suppose," I said. "That activated the mirror, and everyone before it was caught in the effect. Those behind it - the guards, I suppose, and the porters - no change."
"That is the story, as it is told," said Master Oleu.
"Which means they were caught entirely by luck," I said. "That doesn't sound very probable to me."
"Nor to many others."
"No kidding! First of all, if the mirror was activated by the image of breaking glass, then why didn't it turn on when the porters were carrying it? You'd think at some point they'd be worried about dropping it and breaking it. They'd think of breaking glass, surely?"
"They were not Shapers. They had no power over it."
"All right, then how did Adept Arvero know what the other guy would be thinking at the moment a mirror was falling on him?"
"They knew each other well, perhaps."
I shook my head. "Not good enough. How did Arvero know that the Cabal wouldn't try to use it before they got to the Colonnade? They would easily have found out that the mirror's purpose wasn't what it seemed. And if nobody else alive knew the secret, and the Cabal was dead, how did - well, whoever cleaned up the mess - how did they get it out of the room without getting hurt? Did they just shatter it, or what?"
Master Oleu spread his hands. "That is why many believe the Cabal has not been defeated. The story of their defeat is possible - but not plausible. We believe it still exists, in whole or in part."
"I can see why they think that," I said dryly. "I just got here a few hours ago, and I don't believe it."
"Do you not?" Oleu asked, folding his hands together again.
"No way. That's no way to tell a story. Too much coincidence, the audience doesn't believe it."
Oleu gave me a thin smile. "One might almost say, it is laden with such coincidence that it must be true. If it were a lie, if it were a story to cover up the truth, who would be so foolish to invent it?"
To that, I had no good answer. Because I was feeling testy, I just said instead, "So you brought me here to fill me in on the Cabal? And to warn me, yes. Anything else? Or can we get to the part where my friend stops being a statue?"
"You are concerned for her," Oleu said, nodding. "This is good to see, but it would not do to appear overly friendly, not where you might be seen."
I was tired of lectures. I put my hands on my unfamiliarly rounded hips.
Master Oleu took note of my stance. "It is time this meeting were ended. Come, you will see where the stone mirror is placed."
He gestured for me to follow, but I made no move to leave. "And you'll un-stone Bard?"
Oleu shook his head gravely. "No. You will."
The mirror commanded a view of the statues of the Cabal, tucked discreetly against one wall. In the meager torchlight, I could not discern whether the mirror were metal, gem, or glass; the Shape that floated in its surface was dark as pitch. I was reminded again, forcibly, that these mirrors were not the familiar reflectors of my own world. The mirror returned no light from the torch, cast no glint which would alert anyone to its presence.
Its frame cunningly resembled hewn rock. As it was set against the wall, at first I took this mirror for a shadowy alcove and dismissed it entirely.
"Cleverly hidden," I said. "It looks like one thing, but is really another."
Master Oleu said nothing.
"So do I get to change her back?" I asked sarcastically. "Or do I have to answer some riddle first?"
"Have you been to the rooms of Master Lamard?" Oleu asked me.
"Yes," I said. "Big entry hall. Tall oak trees. And there was a dome overhead, I think it had snow."
"There were three mirrors on the right, in a pattern we refer to as triptych," Oleu said. "Do you remember what they are?"
I thought back to Master Lamard's chambers, and tried to assemble a picture of it in my mind. "I remember shafts of sunlight and moonlight," I said slowly. "There were mirrors up there that showed the sky, at different times of day. One sunset, one daytime, and-" I hesitated. "One moon?"
"You remember it well. Picture it, imagine how it would have looked six hours ago."
I worked it out in my head. "The noonday sun would have been at morning. The sunset would have been at noon, probably. And the moon - I don't know, sometime around evening. Three suns."
Master Oleu looked at me, watching me.
"Three suns," I repeated. "Three Sons of Heaven?"
His lips twitched. "Very good."
I frowned. "Master Lamard is in the Cabal?"
Oleu didn't answer. Instead, he raised one hand and gestured toward the mirror. "Now touch the frame. Close the mirror. It impresses its character upon your friend; make it stop."
Without understanding, my mind churning with impossible questions, I touched the top frame of the mirror with one hand, as I had seen Lamard do. The stone was rough under my fingertips, gritty and cold. But there was something deeper there, some presence, some pool of power I could feel flowing. I pushed my mind against the flow, feeling it splay out around, the way water from a hose will spray through one's fingers. With some concentration I found I could stop up the flow entirely.
The mirror beneath my hand felt changed, still, a well of untapped potential energy. Just below its surface, the power remained, caught behind the veil like water behind a dam.
Master Oleu watched me wisely. "Once you have closed the mirror, express its character out of your friend's body. Return the flow to the mirror."
I wasn't sure how, but I could sense that the power contained in the mirror was incomplete. Some of it remained free, no doubt in Bard's body. I concentrated again and the mirror's grasp on her loosened; the power flowed back in, broke free of Bard and bubbled back into the mirror. I could feel, more than see, that Bard was now extricated from its magic.
"And that is all," Master Oleu said softly. "You have had your first lesson as a Shaper."
I saw him turning away, as if to disappear into the dark. "Oh no," I said, "you're not going to disappear now! What is that business with the three suns in Lamard's room? How is it that you know the secret that activates this mirror? Why are you helping me? Why did you make me change Bard back to normal?"
Faintly, I heard Bard's voice. "Corey? Are you there? Where did you go?"
Master Oleu smiled again, gently. "Your questions must wait. Your friend is calling."
And he made a brief gesture, and vanished, almost exactly as if he had suddenly dwindled to a speck and twinkled out of existence.
I watched the spot where he had been, but he did not reappear. After a moment, I turned to follow the sound of Bard's voice as she called out for me to return, obviously unaware what had just happened to her. As I crossed the uneven lava-shard floor toward where she had remained behind, I was glad I hadn't asked the one question that nagged me the most as I restored Bard's shape to her.
A moment ago I had felt the mirror's palpable incompleteness, as some of its power had caught Bard in its grip, turning her body to stone. I had returned that power to the mirror, refilling it, restoring her to living flesh.
So why had the mirror still not seemed full? Who else had been here to visit the statues of the Cabal? Who else had the mirror caught, and where were they now?
"He just vanished?" Bard said.
"Yes. He made some gesture - like sign language, almost - and then he vanished."
We had ascended the ramp rapidly, and silently, and were now in the disused corridors around it. Bard seemed to be back to her normal self, at least physically; mentally, she was still recuperating from having been turned to stone. So far, she wasn't ready to discuss what it had been like, and I hadn't pressed the issue. To keep her mind off of her recent experience, I helped her remove the cart's harness and explained the entire conversation to her as best as I could, covering all the details and my various suspicions.
"I didn't think they had magic spells here," Bard reflected.
"Nor I. Perhaps Oleu came from a different world, where magic spells do work."
"That doesn't explain why they would work here," Bard objected. "Did you see the mirror he came in through?"
"No, but they don't glint or catch the light, the way ours do," I said. "It could've been out there in the dark."
Bard was thinking hard. "I doubt it. A mirror that leads right into the heart of your lair? Who would be stupid enough to leave something like that out in the open, where anybody could get at it?"
"They wouldn't be able to operate it," I pointed out. "Even if they could get their hands on it - they'd have to bypass the stone mirror first."
"But maybe they could figure out how it was made, and duplicate it. No, I think that gesture was like you said: sign language. He had a mirror that showed the floor of the Colonnade, and he was gesturing to some ally. The ally watched the mirror carefully, and when Oleu made the signal, the ally transported him out of there." Bard rubbed her face with her fingertips, trying to dispel the lingering sensations of having been a statue. She still seemed very disturbed.
I shook my head in negation. "No, Oleu said that no Master would dare make a mirror that showed the Colonnade. Apparently the stone mirror's power could reach through another mirror, and affect anybody on the other side."
"Oleu dared," Bard said simply. "He was protected. And he knew how to make a ward that protected you. Whoever his ally is must have a ward just like it."
"Why bother?" I asked. "It must be a terribly dull replacement for a television set, watching a dark room with nothing in it."
"Well, I guess somebody has to keep an eye on the Cabal statues, so they don't get restored. If anybody tried to visit the Colonnade, naturally they'd need light, and that would be very easy to spot."
I shrugged. "I suppose you're right. But it still bothers me, that whole Three Sons of the Heavens thing. Lamard had mirrors in his chambers depicting three aspects of the sky: two suns and a moon. What does that mean? Is Lamard trying to very slyly advertise that he's in the Cabal?"
"I've been thinking about that, ever since Xodiac made that crack about goulash," Bard said. "And there's something wrong with it. Son, and sun."
"And a moon," I said, not understanding.
"No," Bard said. "Two words that sound alike but are spelled the same. There's a word for it-"
"Homonym," I immediately supplied. I always had a good memory for words and lines; it helped with my acting.
"-in English," Bard finished. "But why are we speaking English? Why do they speak English?"
I was stunned. "I hadn't thought about that. Maybe their world was originally colonized by people from Earth?"
"English-speaking people from Earth? Possibly. But language would change over the years, and theirs hasn't. We have a few words they don't recognize, a few idioms, but we understand them perfectly."
"I see what you mean," I said. "If they had colonized this world from Earth a few hundred years ago, they'd sound like something out of Shakespeare. Or Canterbury Tales."
"Or Beowulf," Bard agreed.
"But we didn't travel here," I realized aloud. "We exchanged places with natives. This body, my body, was originally a boy about thirteen or so. Obviously he spoke the proper language, and now I'm inhabiting his brain, so I speak it. We just don't notice it's not English."
"Perhaps it is. Why else would son and sun be homonyms?"
I tried to recall the conversation. "He said they were sometimes called Three Sons of the Heavens. I just assumed he meant offspring. My English-hearing brain got confused. But whatever it was he said, it was the right image, because the mirror sure opened."
"Thank goodness," Bard breathed fervently.
I clambered back to my feet, feeling the unusual way this body's weight shifted as I did so. "All right," I said, dusting off my skirt, "are we ready to continue? I don't know if we're going to get any farther on this, just thinking about it."
Bard got back onto her hooves. "Sure," she said. "Let's finish these deliveries. All things being equal, I'd rather be learning about Shaping right now."
"By the way," I asked wryly, as Bard untangled the harness and slipped it over her shoulders, "how did you arrive at this conclusion by thinking about goulash?"
The horse-girl gave me a grin. "It's not an English word. It got me thinking."
"Always thinking," I laughed, and nudged her with an elbow. "I think you'll make a good Shaper."
"I hope so!" she agreed.
Master Oleu must have been watching our progress, because at each unfamiliar intersection, my feet led the way unerringly to our next delivery. This one took us to a well-lighted hall near where we had had our baths. The warm, dry air blew through the corridors from the nearby lava-field mirror, that felt as if it must be just around the corner somewhere.
This Master made no attempt to conceal the nature of his entrance: a square hung at the end of a bare, undecorated hallway, the bottom edge of its frame sufficiently close to the ground that Bard's cart would roll right into it. And it was obviously a mirror; beyond it lay nothing that could have existed up in these cloud-wreathed alpine mountains.
Through the mirror lay a square plaza of stone, of benches and arches, overlooking the swaying treetops of a sun-drenched pine forest. Craggy hills loomed beyond the trees, brown and imposing, hardly a trace of snow on their peaks.
It wasn't the deserts of Achlad. And it wasn't anywhere in the mountains.
"Shall we?" I asked, extending a hand toward the mirror.
"Where is it?" Bard asked.
"Bramdon, I'd guess," I said. "It's said to be hilly country."
She shrugged. "You're the one who's had the geography lesson."
I entered the mirror, with Bard close behind me. As we passed the surface and entered the world beyond, warm air enclosed us, filled with the fragrant tangy scents of sage and pine. Birds twittered from the trees surrounding the plaza, and life seemed to be everywhere.
The stone plaza, we discovered, lay exposed to the forest on three sides and looked down upon the trees from a great height. Gentle winds swirled and gusted playfully in the treetops, wafting across the plaza, bringing faraway fragrances. Arched windows ringed the three sides, and rows of benches adorned what seemed to be a beautiful outdoor meeting space.
"A temple?" Bard asked herself softly. "No, there's no symbology. A lecture hall?"
A theater, I thought to myself. But I'm glad I didn't say it.
Over the fourth wall of the plaza, directly behind us, a balcony loomed. Several archers gave us a look of cursory suspicion and, after one of them hailed and waved to me, returned to their doldrums. Below the lip of the balcony I could see the short, arched hallway through which we had entered; there were no other visible ways to leave the plaza, or to descend to the forest floor.
"Where is your Master?" I called up to the archers. "We have a mirror to deliver, from the Foundry!"
It was a safe enough introduction, I thought: I couldn't know the Master's name, and didn't dare guess at gender. Most of the Masters I had seen thus far had been men, it was true, but I didn't want to risk the assumption that all would be.
The archers regarded me curiously, as if I were asking something in some strange, foreign ton7gue. One of them pointed the tip of his bow toward something on my right, and there I saw that a staircase - hidden behind a bench - descended directly through the floor and into the depths of the building. What's more, a smiling figure was ascending the steps.
It was a woman, wearing the brown robes of an Apt, though they were crafted from fine, flowing, figure-hugging silk, open in a deep V at her collar to show a black silk blouse beneath. She smiled warmly at us, her expression slightly bemused by Bard's half-equine appearance. The woman must have been a product of mirrors, because she was more beautiful than any common citizen I had seen in the Alcazar, with flawless skin the color of coffee; her hair was a cascade of mahogany waves, and her eyes were a curious shade of gold. I felt an immediate pang of - lust? No, it was jealousy.
"Iolande," she said, in her rich, rolling contralto. "It's good to see you. You visit my Master's chambers far too infrequently. He misses you, you know."
She knows me? This could be trouble, I thought.
I decided to strike out in the direction of irony, judging that it was rarely unsuitable, and nodded my head to her. "Please accept my apology," I said sardonically. "The Queen's demands are many."
"What is this time?" the woman asked, with obviously feigned interest. "A book of verses from beyond the sea? A new mirror for her boudoir?"
"A new captain," I said, contriving to sound as if I were conveying a state secret. "Most romantic, don't you think?"
The woman opened her mouth in an O of pretended surprise and fanned herself with her fingers. "My word," she exclaimed. "Can it be true?"
"Naturally. She decided to dispose of the Apprentice that the Foundry assigned to her," I explained.
She looked crestfallen. "I was hoping you'd say she finally rid herself of the Seneschal."
"If only," I said. Then, as if returning briskly to business, I gestured to Bard. "Master Wexrtyn has kindly consented to provide a mirror for your own Master's new Apprentice."
She fanned herself again with her fingers and rolled her eyes. "Boring."
"I could always sell it to Master Varacid," I suggested with a grin.
"Very well," she said, as if she found the whole matter tiresome. "I'll summon the Apprentice and make him take it away. I'm afraid your cart wouldn't make it down the stairs in any case," she noted.
Summon the Apprentice? One Apprentice was going to carry away a full-sized floor mirror? I held my tongue.
The young woman stepped to the edge of one arched windowsill, her hair and robes dancing in the breeze. She cast her gaze out and down, put two fingers to her mouth, and whistled shrilly. "Bryan!" she called. After a pause, she whistled again.
Bryan? I resisted the temptation to look at Bard for confirmation.
Evidently satisfied, she turned from the window. "He will be up in a moment," the woman smiled at us.
"Will one be enough to carry these mirrors?" Bard asked. "Or does your Apprentice have some form that is - oh."
She didn't need to finish her question. Just as Bard was framing her inquiry, a leathery form of brown and orange darted up the wall, clambered past the window arches, and looked at us from over the top of them. It had a semi-humanoid head with a lipless, protruding snout and bulging eyes; the creature's underbelly was vivid, fiery orange but its dorsal surface was reddish brown. Somehow it gripped the stones with its wide, webbed forefeet - but it was long, longer than a man was tall. Its body could be seen through the window, where a second set of legs clung to the cracks, and a third set below that.
"Yes, Ioanna?" the thing asked in a husky voice. It glanced at me, at Bard, and the cart, and a tongue flickered out, tasting the air. "This is a delivery?"
Ioanna nodded to the giant creature. "Yes, Bryan. Master Wexrtyn has been courteous enough to give us a mirror that he thinks would be sufficient for your apartments. We could modify it," she said doubtfully, "but it might be better to melt it down and spin out the sands."
Almost more quickly than the eye could follow, the thing slipped over the wall, six legs grabbing at convenient handholds, and sped across the stones toward us. It reared up its forward section and brought its head to human height. A haze of heat distortion surrounded it, and there was a distinct sulfurous smell. "Are you a new Apprentice as well?" the creature asked Bard. Its tongue flickered again. "I don't recognize you, I'm afraid."
"I'm Bard," the horse-girl said. "Did she call you Bryan? Are you BD?"
It clucked rapidly in the back of its throat, evidently laughing. "I think I am. Welcome to the neighborhood."
They shook hands - one dainty female human hand, one leathery reptilian. Ioanna watched the gesture with interest, much as Lamard had. "Interesting. That must be your custom," Ioanna observed. "While you become reacquainted, I will go below and inform Master Hannis that we are receiving Master Wexrtyn's gift."
She disappeared down the staircase, and Bard and Bryan sized up the new forms of the other.
"How long have you been here?" Bard asked curiously.
"Weeks," Bryan replied. "They scared me to death when they first showed up. They practically kidnapped me, and I think I screamed bloody murder. But Hannis has apologized. He's really very reasonable. He's a chess player - well, a game they call Triad, amounts to a similar thing. Master Hannis thought I was too valuable to fall into the hands of the Cabal, so as soon as he heard I might be on the block for recruitment, he insisted I be contacted at once. At any moment, the Cabal could have found me and - you've heard about them, right?"
"A little," Bard said evasively. "But first, what are you? You look like some kind of amphibian, but you're too warm!"
"A salamander," Bryan said proudly, and he did that gargling, clucking laugh in the back of his throat again. "A fire lizard, or something very close in shape, if not in biology. I'm not sure what rules of biology apply to me, now. I do know it's a lot easier handling hot metal and glass when you have fireproof hands and feet!"
"I'll bet," Bard said. "Master Wexrtyn started me off digging metal ores in a mineshaft. Want to trade places?"
"Maybe later," the salamander chuckled. "I'm still having fun being this!"
"I thought you'd say something like that," Bard said ruefully.
I noticed a slight, awkward pause in the conversation, and the two seemed to be silently appraising each other. Bryan's amphibian expression was difficult to read, but it seemed like suspicion.
"You know, now that we're in a new world and away from the List," Bryan said thoughtfully, "mind telling me how Mythic Journeys ended?"
It was a story Bard had written. I recognized the title from the List email traffic, but importantly, I recognized the intent: Bryan was confirming Bard's identity, asking a question only she could answer.
But Bard shook her head. "Badly. The ending didn't live up to what I'd hoped it would be. It needs a prologue to set up the ending when Stephan offers the other centaur immortality." She hesitated for a moment, studying Bryan's alien face, thinking of a question to ask in return. "Are you glad you finished your Circe dragon story?"
The salamander looked disgusted and pushed Bard's shoulder, hard. "Shut up."
"Yeah," Bard said, laughing. "It's you!"
"That was a rotten question," Bryan grumbled. "You know I'm never going to finish that story."
Bard glanced at me idly, a questioning expression in her eyes. I ignored her and pretended to be very busy unbuckling one of the mirrors from the cart. Master Oleu's warning was too fresh in my mind to risk exposing my identity now. Bryan and Bard might be satisfied with their exchange of passwords, but both seemed to me too slender. How long had the Foundry been fighting the Cabal? Thirty years? How many of those years had they been watching us, wondering if we had the proper Talent to assist them in their battle?
Master Lamard had said mirrors were made by some kind of alchemical formula. With the right formula, technique, and materials, one Master could duplicate the efforts of another. But Iolande had said, before she was diminished into a ruby will-o-the-wisp and entrapped in Lamard's mirror, that Masters guarded their formulas jealously.
Somebody had come to recruit me - somebody who had a secret formula for a mirror that looked in on me. Evidently they had mirrors that looked in on the rest of my friends from the Transformation Stories List. Or, I corrected myself mentally, they wanted me to think they had such mirrors.
Bryan and Bard were talking busily about their experiences in the new world, disregarding my presence for the moment. I felt myself wondering whether either of them was who he claimed to be. They had asked each other suitable passwords; I knew neither answer to be true. Were they trying to convince each other they were real? Or was somebody trying to convince me they were both real?
It's true - I didn't entirely trust Master Oleu. Nevertheless, his advice was sound. I had been incautious in dropping my guard. I resolved to be more wary.
After a few moments of their conversation, from which I most deliberately absented myself, Master Hannis arrived. He was somewhere in his indefinable mid-thirties, with several days' stubble. His robes were silk, as were those of his Apt Ioanna, but periwinkle blue; and beneath them he wore the same black silk blouse. It seemed eminently practical and comfortable attire for the climate and season. Master Hannis was not a Bramdan, however; I had come to recognize the natives of Bramdon as having mahogany skin, and dark hair of black or brown. His skin, like Iolande's, was pale, and his hair was a wave of icy platinum captured in a ponytail.
Our eyes met, and he smiled broadly. Beaming, he opened his arms wide and embraced me.
"Iolande!" he cried. "Ioanna tells me that the Queen has been keeping you busy. Too busy to visit us here at the Temple?"
I did not allow myself to be startled for long. I didn't dare. Reciprocating his embrace and putting on a warm smile of my own, I apologized. "Regretfully," I said, picking my words carefully, "she's still allowed to tell me what to do. It's the whole crown thing."
Master Hannis laughed expressively. "No doubt. Well, perhaps something will be done about it. I understand that the Earl has left Stockade to visit her. Is the old dog finally going to propose marriage to her?"
"If by marriage, you mean the Earl is trying to secure favored trade agreements, then yes," I joked. "But I have heard nothing of marriage, yet."
He raised his eyebrows, amused. "Who knows? Perhaps that's precisely what the Earl did mean."
Without pausing for me to consider an appropriate reply, Hannis turned to introduce me to Bryan. "This is my new Apprentice, Bryan," he said expansively. "A strange name, I'll grant you, but his Talent shows much promise. I imposed a new form on him from my metal mirrors, one I made myself. Formula of my own devising. I hear Master Varacid is beside himself, trying to come up with a way to replicate it in glass. Can you imagine, a glass mirror showing a whole herd of fire-lizards like this one? The Foundry would have no need for human apprentices to run the forges!"
"Bryan," I said with a nod to him, exaggerating my pronunciation.
"Apprentice, this is Iolande, my sister, and the Queen's chambermaid," Hannis went on. "She may seem like a servant, but she has a very special place in the Queen's heart. Iolande once saved her life, you know."
Saved Gayle's life? I feared that my look of surprise was a fraction of a second too long, too obvious, but I turned it into a look of shocked modesty. "Don't tell him that!" I protested.
"A good word never hurt," Hannis said blandly. "Bryan has come here from another world."
"Yes," I said, nodding. "I brought many such Apprentices before the Foundry. Was he of the same world as they?"
Hannis nodded. "Master Lamard unwisely let it be known that he had discovered the mirror in which many potentially talented Apprentices might be found: one in particular, the Principal Shaper confessed, that collected information and studied the sciences of their world as a mere hobby."
Bard, who had been standing to one side near Bryan, spoke. "And you suspected the Cabal might come into this information instead," she guessed. "So you had to acquire him before anyone else did."
"Very good, Apprentice," Hannis said approvingly. "That was it precisely." He regarded me with a blank stare for a moment, a look that meant nothing. Master Hannis might have been searching in his mind for some recollection. With a start, he announced, "Ah! I believe I have completed my next move in Triad. Come below, Iolande, and I'll compose my move to Oleu and Lamard."
"What shall I do with the mirror, Hannis?" Bryan asked.
"Do you require an apartment?" Hannis asked him, amused. "I thought you were content to sleep in the banked coals of the forge."
"It's nice and warm there," Bryan agreed. "But I might need an apartment for something later, when I get a new form."
"Well-reasoned," Hannis said. "Provided, of course, that the mirror Master Wexrtyn provided is suitable, and not a hazard. You have seen the mirror, have you not?" he asked, looking directly at me. "Or has it been safely covered in canvas?"
"Master Wexrtyn's Apts loaded it themselves into the cart," I said. "They have been draped with canvas since I saw them."
"Then the mirrors might remain open," Hannis mused. "A trap, perhaps? An open mirror ready to impose a Shape upon whoever removes the canvas? No, I suspect Master Wexrtyn of many deficiencies, but strategy is not one of them. He has a certain low cunning, and that is all."
The leathery fire-lizard looked thoughtful. "They were sending us glass mirrors. Wouldn't it have been easier to send an open mirror in glass? They could be spying and listening in on us now. They could have been listening to everything Iolande and Bard said, on every one of their deliveries."
I shivered. I had been more incautious than I realized. Would Master Wexrtyn's Apts have loaded a mirror onto my cart for the purpose of spying on a chambermaid? It was certainly possible, if Master Lamard were so keen to have me impersonate that very chambermaid to learn her secrets directly.
Despite my alarm, Master Hannis's casual answer was reassuring. "If they could hear us, then certainly we could hear them," he said. "Do you? I do not. And naturally, any such mirror would lead straight to the Master responsible: he or his lackeys would have to be at the mirror's destination side, always listening. After all, the mirror is here. It cannot be opened from the other side." The Master Shaper shrugged indifferently. "Take the mirror below. We will inspect it, of course, before we use it. It may yet be a danger."
Bryan nodded. With his upper two arms and one middle arm, he gripped the canvas-bound mirror and hefted it easily from the cart. Balancing on his other three legs he climbed through one of the windows and disappeared down the side of the wall.
I turned to Bard. "Remain here with the mirrors," I said imperiously, trying to sound as Iolande might. "I will return in a moment."
The horse-girl nodded calmly - but she did eye the archers on the wall.
Master Hannis led me down the stairs from the surface of the building he called the Temple. It was, indeed, shaped like a Mayan ziggurat, square layer stacked upon layer, but much wider across the base. Each tier had ample space for open-air squares, theater seating, a bazaar - empty of sellers but equipped with market stalls, and strategic defensive positions for archers. Bramdon appeared to be a nervous place to live.
"The local lordlings are getting restless," Hannis noted in passing. "Markets are drying up as glass mirrors export trade directly to the customers. Caravans make fewer local stops."
"The Earl said as much," I said. I suspected it was safe to say, since Hannis already appeared to know how mirrors had affected the markets. "I must say, that's a good choice of form for your new Apprentice."
He nodded absently, leading me down another sheltered flight of stairs to a lower tier. Trees loomed higher and higher on our left as we descended toward the forest floor layer by layer. "The males reproduce by dividing," he said. "I crafted it from the lizards who lose a tail and grow one anew. The females are few, but they rule the male drones and mate with them occasionally, mixing their seed with the males, who then clone."
"How very strange," I said. "And, I suspect, not as much fun."
Hannis came to a pause at an archway where two attentive guards stood, and he looked back at me curiously. "It's certainly less fun for the males," he said. "And the females aren't required to bear young. I would think you might find that an improvement."
"One female with ten male mates?" I asked archly. "It's bad enough picking up one person's socks, let alone ten."
At that, he laughed again. Master Hannis had a very expressive, genuine laugh. It seemed very open and heartfelt. "All right, I grant you that," he said, wiping a tear from his eye. "Sometimes it's hard to remember that you're a chambermaid."
I didn't know what to make of that comment but he didn't appear to expect an answer. Instead, he ducked into the archway where the guards stood watching the forest against incursions. We disappeared into an angular, trapezoidal corridor that seemed cool and dark compared to the sun-lit surface. The walls were of carved stone, closely cut to fit, and decorated with square geometric patterns. Overhead, the ends of beams were exposed, and these were capped with florid golden animal masks.
"I dislike having too many mercenaries at hand," Hannis said, "as well you can understand. Every little lordling in Bramdon has a valley to himself, strategically isolated from the valleys beside him. Few of them can see far beyond the next vale, far enough to see that they might be stronger united than divided. Of course, their divisions are useful and can be exploited, but it means that most of the soldiers-for-hire are always alert for a better offer. Loyalty means little to them."
"Why don't you use a mirror on them?" I asked curiously. "Couldn't you make them more loyal to you?"
"We've been over this, and over this," Hannis said with some asperity. "I can make a gemstone mirror with Loyalty in it. I have, even, but it wasn't easy getting a gemstone Shaper to trust me with the secret, or finding a secret about metal mirrors he desired in return. Such a mirror will only enhance or reduce a man's existing loyalties. I haven't found a formula to incise a specific loyalty to a specific leader. Yes, I could incise my guards with Loyalty. But if they were loyal to the enemy before, a mirror would only make them more so; and if I remove Loyalty from them, it removes all their loyalty, to anyone. Believe me this time, it is easier to first find men who are loyal - and then, of course, the gemstone mirror would have no purpose, yes?"
We had come to the door of a sunlit room. All the angles were wrong here in the Temple, all the rooms slightly wider at the base than at the ceiling as they conformed to the sloping, pyramidal shape of the exterior walls. It appeared to be a study of sorts, containing a writing desk piled with correspondence, a leather divan with several books piled at its feet, and a large map spread over a wide table and pinned down at the corners with hand mirrors, books, even a glass of wine. A square-framed mirror lay against one wall, and in its image I saw the doors of a cabinet.
Draperies framed a tall, narrow window, catching the sunlight in their translucent blue silk, wafting in the breeze. A narrow shaft of sunlight angled into the room, falling across what appeared to be a gaming table. Immediately I saw why Bryan had called it Triad.
The board was triangular, and divided into four equal triangular sections: white, blue, orange, and green. Each region was subdivided into smaller equilateral sections. The board itself was not flat; the triangular spaces in the white area changed in elevation like mountains, and the green area rolled like hills. The orange region was largely flat and featureless. The blue area lay between them all.
Pieces dotted the board: white, orange, and green. There were no blue pieces. Had blue already lost? No, the game was called Triad - three players. Master Hannis had stated he was playing the game against Master Lamard and Master Oleu.
I assumed I was already supposed to know something about the game. Iolande had apparently been the courier, delivering moves in duplicate to the two opposing players. So I simply glanced over at the board with mild interest and asked, "Who's winning?"
Master Hannis blew out an exasperated breath. "Master Lamard has no strategy whatever. He puts his pieces into play arbitrarily. I suspect he's trying to achieve some grand symmetry on the playing field. He's playing Achlad, you see, and he's captured a wedge of the battlefield." He pointed at one of the blue regions that was dotted with orange pieces. "He shows no interest in pursuing me into Drndwyn. I'm ready when he does, but all he does is consolidate. But look," he said with an ironic twist to his voice, "he controls a third of the battlefield. What a pretty wedge shape. How aesthetic.
"Master Oleu is playing Bramdon. He's much more dangerous. I've captured a wedge of Bramdon, here," he said, pointing. "I have a third of the board, myself. That leaves Oleu only one way out. But he can easily lurk in those hills until the Last Sunset, because I can never root him out of Bramdon if I can't draw off Lamard on my right flank. He simply refuses to capture this final wedge." Hannis pointed out a blue trapezoid of the outer rim that contained few pieces of any color.
"You have your move?" I asked.
Hannis nodded. Brushing his robes behind him, he seated himself at the writing desk and found paper. I found myself studying the accoutrements in his study with more interest than the board - chess had never fascinated me. History was my favorite subject, after theater. What kind of a land was this? I asked. It can produce a game such as this, it can produce paper and printed books, and yet it appeared feudal and warlike in many ways. Perhaps they simply copied technology they had seen on other worlds.
"Master Lamard captured my Caravan," Hannis said idly. "I really need to respond to that in kind, but it would pull me out of position. But one of his pawns is exposed." He wrote out two notes and sealed each of them with wax, then presented them to me. I slipped them in the pocket of my apron.
"So," he said with a wicked grin, "What's this about a new captain? Is Gayle still reading that tired book of verses?"
I laughed. "What else?"
Master Hannis laughed again and shook his head, making his platinum ponytail dance. His silvery hair made him look so much older, but his face was young and unlined. He might even be considered attractive, I admitted grudgingly. For a man.
"Just think," Hannis said, still chuckling to himself, "if Gayle had bothered to keep her promise to you, you could have been a captain, too."
I pretended to consider it. "I don't know. I think I'd look pretty good in scintillating armor. All the best poets agree that captains have scintillating armor," I said, trying to use Iolande's voice to sound as vacuous as Gayle.
"Don't even suggest it!" he said, amused. He folded his hands on the table. "Admit it. You may not have liked it at first, but you've been much more useful as the Queen's chambermaid. I'm sure she was grateful when you saved her life, but what good would you have been as a captain?" He gestured at the board. "Sent off to fight some war because Gayle grew up gorged on bad poetry?
"And," he went on, "that's one reason why you, of all people, should remember there's no mirror to effectively compel Loyalty. If there had been such a mirror, the Cabal would certainly have used it on you. And where would you be now? They certainly wouldn't have let you push that mirror over onto dear old Adept Arvero."
I want to say that my jaw dropped open and remained open for a full minute before I recovered my composure. That would be suitably dramatic. By now it must be obvious that I don't break character easily, not when I'm on my guard.
Instead, I said, "Haven't somebody invented a mirror for that yet? What have you been studying all this time?"
"History, mainly," Hannis said in a bored voice. "I've been combing all the records I can, trying to reconstruct the stories of the old Masters. All the legends, all the strange things they were said to have done. Most people assume they were false, but if those stories were true, then those Masters had access to materials and techniques that we have yet to re-discover." He seemed agitated, and rose from the desk during this speech to pace.
"Like the Platinum Mirror?" I asked wryly.
"Yes," he said shortly. "Master Wexrtyn isn't completely crazy. It did exist, I think. The legends don't agree on what it did, precisely. Platinum has strong forces of Truth in it, and some legends say it would show a man exactly as he truly was. Some say it compelled men to speak only truth. Others say it had the ability to neutralize any Shape imposed by any mirror. But it did exist. It must have."
"You will have to tell me why," I said, "another time. The other Masters will wonder why it is taking so long to make these deliveries. And Master Wexrtyn will want his Apprentice back."
Hannis turned from his pacing, briskly, and gave me a knowledgeable look. "Yes," he said. "Very prudent. Let's get you back to your route."
Then, unexpectedly, he slipped his blue silk Shaper's robes from his shoulders and strode toward the square-framed mirror. Master Hannis caressed the frame to open the mirror, then reached through its surface and opened the cabinet doors.
Clever, I thought. His cabinet was hidden behind a mirror - much better than a key. None but a Shaper could open it, and not even then unless they knew the correct mental key.
Master Hannis hung up his steel-blue robes inside the cabinet on a hook, and drew out robes of Apprentice orange. After quickly tying on the robe, he selected pair of handheld mirrors with well-worn wooden frames: one of sparkling blue gemstone, the other a gleaming brass. Then he consulted a chart that looked, to my eye, suspiciously like a calendar. He mumbled to himself for a moment, seeking out a particular section of the calendar, and tapped it with his finger.
"I'll be just a moment," Hannis said wryly, cocking an eyebrow at me. "I have to change."
He passed the mirrors over himself with practiced ease. In a few moments his body had completely changed.
Master Hannis smiled at the results, then put the mirrors back into the cabinet. "There," she said with satisfaction. "Now we look like sisters again. Shall we go?"
Master Hannis had turned into Ioanna the Apprentice.
"The fire-lizards are a matriarchal society," Ioanna explained as we retraced our steps up to the pinnacle of the ziggurat. "The new clones tend to impress upon the first female they see. It's how their society keeps order. Master Hannis created them that way. Naturally," she said with a certain smugness, "my Master trusts me to watch over his Apprentices, even though I'm only an Apt. He has his mind on other things."
I nodded shrewdly as we ascended a set of stairs. I couldn't help but find myself curious: was Ioanna impersonating Master Hannis, or was Ioanna a convenient fiction created by Hannis? Taking on the identity of one of his own Apts would give him great freedom. He could have the entire run of the Alcazar, and nobody would suspect a Master was in their presence. Hannis, in that form, could monitor his Apprentices directly, and more importantly - since loyalty seemed to be a pressing issue with him - he needn't entrust anyone to rule the Apprentices. The fire-lizard form he had given Bryan obeyed the first woman it saw, which was Ioanna - who was, secretly, Hannis himself.
It made a certain sense. In these uncertain days, where Masters were under attack from all sides, it would help to maintain an identity as a Master as little as possible. Perhaps Hannis only donned the blue robes for ceremonial purposes.
And, I observed, he hadn't participated in the usual method of selection the Foundry agreed to adopt. He had found his own Apprentice, rather than entrust the selection to Master Lamard. It suggested two things to my actor's mind, as I struggled to sort out the motivations of the people around me. Either it suggested that Master Lamard could not be trusted, or it suggested that Master Hannis had a difficult time trusting anyone.
Or, I had to admit, both.
Was Master Hannis the fiction, and Ioanna the real identity? I doubted it: not when Masters found themselves the targets of unknown hostile Shapers. Assuming the blue robes would only make one a target for the next attack.
Attack. As I listened with one ear to Ioanna's gossipy prattle, I considered the parchment in my pocket, the Triad move that Master Hannis had written. Master Lamard has taken my Caravan, he had said. Now I need to respond to that in kind.
We achieved the summit of the Temple, where we found Bard had struck up a conversation with the archers. Bryan had not returned. I greeted her again, somewhat distractedly, and Bard immediately seemed to sense there was something wrong. She returned to the cart and began to buckle the harness back on around her torso.
"You really should visit more often," Ioanna said, embracing me. "We miss you, you know."
"I'm sure I'll be back before long with Master Lamard's and Master Oleu's moves," I assured her.
"Before that, I hope," she gushed. "It was wonderful to see you again! And it was nice to meet you as well - Bard?"
The horse-girl nodded.
Ioanna looked at me critically and adjusted my apron. "That's better. Come back soon! I have to go see how the Apprentice is doing."
With a cheery wave, she disappeared down the steps of the Temple. The archers watched us indolently until we finally left.
Our next delivery was on a lower level of the Alcazar, down another spiral ramp, and along a long gallery of windows overlooking snow-swept battlements. On the battlements below, soldiers patrolled in their gray woolen cloaks, watching over the silent, snow-shrouded valley of towering evergreens, while above them in the gallery, protected from the cold by leaded windows, we walked in comfort. The gallery was a popular route, it seemed, and the wide hallway teemed with well-dressed citizens, chatting idly about local affairs, their servants in attendance. Lining the right-hand wall were a number of works of art and sculpture, shown to good advantage in the natural light amidst the columns and white bearskin carpeting. One or two artisans stood near their works, speaking with wealthy patrons.
"-oh, but Gayle must consider marriage to Earl Slighe," said one noblewoman in a blue gown trimmed with white fur. She was standing up ahead in a small knot of expensively attired nobles before a painting of the Earl, and she was speaking loudly and with a certain dramatic flair that suggested she wanted her opinions to be heard by all. In the portrait, the Earl sat sternly in his red leather armor with a sword across his knees. "He is so much more handsome than the Emir of Achlad. I always did fancy the Bramdans, you know, the green hair." She batted a hand at another companion, a seasoned noble with green hair and a tanned face.
"And younger, too," said her companion, a vapid-looking young noblewoman in peach-colored velvet.
"Yes," the blue-gowned woman gushed. "But never the Harbormaster at Ebella. Can you imagine it? I could never consider marrying a common laborer at the docks."
The Bramdan companion raised one of his eyebrows slyly. "Ah, one never knows," he said suggestively. "The men of Ebella are men of the sea. Passionate and unpredictable, you know. And they learn many exotic things. Techniques," he added with a certain wicked savor.
"And how would you know about the men of Ebella?" the blue-gowned noblewoman asked archly.
"I wasn't always a baron," the man said. "At one time I was the promised bride of the Earl's firstborn son. Then my elder brother Rahn was killed in a skirmish with Baron Rundfall's men, and I took up the burden of being eldest son instead."
"Didn't you have a younger brother as well?" asked the woman in peach.
"Not any more," he smirked, just as we were passing. "A younger sister, yes."
"Such a shame," the blue-gowned woman sighed theatrically. "So many noble families these days prefer to have sons. So much more dashing, so much better for leading the men into battle," she said with relish. "I suppose there must be daughters too. I just wish I didn't have to be one."
"You should speak to Master Venlin about that," suggested the green-bearded baron.
"Oh, I wouldn't dare!" she exclaimed in a profoundly shocked voice. "Master Venlin wants there to be more daughters in the world, not less. Can you imagine what he'd say if-"
We passed out of the Gallery, each musing on the conversation we had heard. "Sounds like Queen Gayle is in the center of a soap opera," Bard commented. "Three kings around her, each who wants her hand in marriage?"
The hallway was not deserted, so I maintained my impersonation of Iolande as I replied, "I do not know what a soap opera is. And perhaps king is the wrong term: Bramdon is ruled by an Earl, for example."
"Still, the point remains," Bard said thoughtfully. "If everybody is so keen on having sons, why is Gayle a Queen? Couldn't they just make her male?"
I smiled faintly. "The Queen is of the Golden Mirror," I explained. "She was taken before it at the age of two and exposed to a special mirror. It protects her forever against the effects of all other mirrors. She cannot now be changed."
"And I suppose all the other kingdoms made sure to have sons," Bard said, "knowing that Gayle would always remain a woman. I wonder why they didn't change her into a boy before then. That would have been the perfect time."
We continued on, passing by crowds of citizens on their errands. When the crowds had thinned and we had some privacy, Bard murmured in a low voice, "Do you think the Golden Mirror would protect Gayle against that stone mirror in the Colonnade?"
"I don't know," I murmured back.
"She could have a mirror that looked into that room," Bard said. "She could walk around down there, or dance naked around the statues of the Cabal. That is, if a Golden Mirror really does work as advertised."
"Good point," I said. Like Bard, I didn't know what to think.
"By the way," she asked, "I never got a chance to ask you. Did you like the flowers I sent, when you were in the hospital?"
It was such a non sequitur that I paused before answering it. Having just visited Bryan, and confirmed his identity through a password, I could see why Bard would ask me such a thing. Like the question she had asked of Bryan, this one had a twist in the tail. Had I even known Bard at that time in my life? Were we friends by then, friends enough to receive flowers? Nevertheless, I had my answer.
"That surprises me," I said slowly in reply, "because I wasn't allowed to have flowers in the hospital after my transplant. Too much risk of infection from plants."
Bard nodded thoughtfully, and I hoped she was satisfied with my response. Whether she was or not, her question alone wasn't enough to prove to me that she was likewise real.
I prepared to pause at an intersection just past the Gallery, and without any noticeable delay my own feet took over, turning me to the right - deeper into the mountain, away from the battlements overlooking the valley.
This Master's corridor was decorated much as the temple of Master Hannis had: repeating patterns of squared-off lines etched into stone walls, decorated above and below with fanciful hieroglyphics. It reminded me of an M.C. Escher mural, somehow: exaggerated, symbolic shapes that flowed from one image into the next, defying the viewer to pinpoint the moment of change. The first image was of a man bowing before a king, a circle between them. Then an army marched through tall grass - or, if you squinted your eyes just so, it was a field of wheat. Then the wheat seemed to become a raging fire, then the ocean. The ocean swirled into great waves, which became the ribs of a giant beast as it lay dead. The glyphs went on and on.
We had no time to study them. Four guards stood watch in the hallway, wearing the same non-reflective blue armor I had seen on the Queen's soldiers. Between them, before the door, stood two brown-robed Apts, who studied us carefully as we neared.
"Who are you?" one of the Apts said, stepping forward. He was agitated, and the strain sounded in his voice. He was frightened.
"Iolande, the Queen's chambermaid," I said, puzzled. "What is this?"
"And what are those?" the Apt said, with something like triumph. "Mirrors? You are bearing mirrors? Aha!"
The other Apt, a handsome dark-haired young man in an elaborately embroidered brown tunic woven with golden thread, put his hand on his companion's shoulder. "Relax, Aehms," he murmured. "Iolande isn't the attacker."
Attacker? Bard and I exchanged a nervous look.
"You don't know it's her!" the Apt shouted, his eyes wild. "Someone else could be impersonating her!"
"Someone could," the well-dressed Apt said in a bored voice. "But I know of nobody who could impersonate her," he finished, gesturing toward Bard. "Only one Shaper has a mirror anything close that one, to my knowledge. Who is your Master?" he asked Bard politely.
"Master Wexrtyn," Bard replied.
"Then I am satisfied," the Apt said. "Let them pass."
"No!" Aehms cried. "I am here to protect Master Tzcheon from any further incursions, and you are letting in suspected killers with mirrors?"
"They are only suspected killers because you suspect them, Aehms," the other Apt said, infuriatingly calm. "You probably suspect them of being the Cabal as well. As for me, I've seen them. They have been delivering mirrors to all the new Apprentices today." He offered a hand to me. "I am Javara."
"I should have known you," I said, nodding my head to him. I took a moment to recall when I had heard the name. "You were having your meal when we delivered the mirrors to Master Kureon's new apprentice. Your back was to the door."
Javara smiled faintly. "Yes. I happened to be down here when the attacks came several minutes ago. The guards found me in the hall and asked that I helped to stand guard over this exit. We're trying to keep panic out of the Gallery. They wanted the door guarded by Shapers, lest the attacker make another attempt."
Closing the barn door after the horses have escaped, I thought to myself.
"Could they have not used a mirror to escape?" Bard asked.
"Certainly," Javara said. "But in doing so, they would have left that mirror behind. A mirror cannot transport itself."
"Who was attacked?" I asked. "Were they after Master Tzcheon?"
"They were," Aehms declared stoutly. "But as befitting the loyalty my Master instills in his students, his least Apprentice intercepted the attack. He was killed, but the attack was thwarted."
"Who was the Apprentice?" I asked, feeling a chill down my back.
"Dana, I think," Aehms said. "That is the same the other students have been saying. I never met him. I only saw his body. They say the killer was a man with yellow eyes, who wore an animal print belt that changed from one pattern to another. They say he killed him with a single mirror in his hand!"
Beside him, Javara yawned. "A thrilling adventure," he said in a bored voice. "Just like this one. Arriving too late to be of any assistance and seeing only the aftermath."
Aehms began to turn red, and seemed on the verge of launching into a tirade against the Apt who dared speak so dismissively about his Master's peril. I had no interest in hearing it, so I interrupted. "I must speak with Master Tzcheon, then," I said firmly.
"Why?" Javara said. "If your mirror is for Dana, I'm afraid it is no longer needed."
"We will erect it by the fountain," Aehms said, sticking out his chin. "It will stand forever in memory of the-"
"A moment ago, you decided those mirrors were hostile," Javara murmured. "Now you plan to place them in the square?" He turned back to me. "There seems to be little use for your mirror."
I drew myself up. "If there has been an attack, the Queen will be most interested to hear about it," I announced, trying to sound important. Then I deflated somewhat, and added, "She's getting bored of reading poetry."
One of the guards beside us choked back a laugh. Aehms scowled at him, saying bitterly, "And she wishes to hear about excitement and adventure, I suppose."
"She won't hear about it from you, Master Lately Arriving," Javara said mockingly. "Iolande, do not tell the Queen that we obstructed you."
They stood aside and let us pass.
Master Tzcheon was an imposing figure something over six feet in height, with swept-back black hair that fell down to the nape of his neck, glittering green eyes, and reddish-brown skin that marked him as a Bramdan. His face was clean-shaven, showing to advantage a square jaw and a strong chin. Tzcheon's physique was quite amazing, especially for a class of person I mentally classified as "wizard." His shoulders were broad, and all his muscles well-defined. In lieu of the shapeless steel-blue robes he had worn in the Forge, the Shaper wore instead a pair of billowing silken trousers, and a snug silk blouse of the same color that adhered to his muscular frame and left his massive biceps bare.
When we found him, he was standing by a large slate at the head of a large, open-air amphitheater. The land and trees around reminded us instantly of Bramdon, of the dry heat of the hills where Master Hannis had his temple.
Tzcheon was lecturing to his shell-shocked students. The seating seemed oddly empty, as if many of the students had not attended. Those few in the stands huddled together in fearful knots, some sobbing, some whispering to one another. A very few seemed able to put the death of Dana out of their minds and concentrate on the lecture.
"And therefore," Tzcheon boomed, drawing an equation in chalk, "you must appreciate the alchemathical transformation of metal mirror Avus into its component gemstone mirrors Bedas, Gamus, and Deltus."
He finished the equations with a flourish and surveyed his students, tossing the chalk from one hand to the other. "Now because of the transformation of the first node, the Gamus mirror becomes... what?"
An Apprentice raised his hand timidly.
"Raise your hand, boy, raise it," Tzcheon barked at him. "This is a very simple example! Do not show fear! Either you know the answer or you do not."
"I was wondering if I could write a letter home, to tell my family I am unharmed," the student trembled.
Master Tzcheon's expression didn't twitch. "You may. If you can tell me from these equations what the Gamus mirror will hold."
The student looked at the chalkboard, his lips moving silently. "Courage?"
"Adequate," Tzcheon said approvingly. "More specifically, it contains the Courage of a Lion, because Avus mirror contains a lion. If you apply your alchemathy to understanding the various transformation of nodes, it becomes possible to convert a mirror of one type to one or more mirrors of another. As Shapers such as myself, foremost and acknowledged Master of alchemathical transformations, and Master Lamard - who has been of some use, I admit - we may one day understand fully how to reproduce mirrors by design instead of by trial and error. Yes?"
Now he was looking up at us. He showed no signs of impatience - perhaps he felt such an emotion was beneath his perfection to display - but there was certainly an air of urgency, of command.
"I have come with the mirror for Dana the Apprentice," I said, "on orders of the Queen. Do you still require this mirror?"
Tzcheon considered the question for only a moment. "We have no need of it. Thank Master Wexrtyn for his labors and return the mirror to him. I will compensate him for its construction."
"What message should I give the Queen?" I asked.
"Tell the Queen that all is well," he said flatly. "I am lecturing. All is normal. There is nothing to fear."
"Master Tzcheon, one of your Apprentices is dead," I said, more forcefully. "What shall I tell the Queen?"
"I have already sent for the Seneschal," Tzcheon boomed. "He will tell the Queen all that is necessary for her to hear."
"Will he?" Bard muttered under her breath.
Tzcheon's hearing must have been as exquisite as the rest of him, because he said loudly, "Yes, Apprentice, he will."
Somehow I doubted that.
As left his lecture hall, we could hear Master Tzcheon's voice for some time. Beneath it, we could hear the sound of his students in the stands, sobbing quietly to themselves.
"Greek," Bard said thoughtfully, from behind me.
"Greek?" I asked.
"Avus, bedas, gamus, and deltus," she said. "The names of the mirrors in the experiment. Almost surely evolved from Greek."
"Alpha, beta, gamma, delta," I recited. "And all the rest I can't remember. Yes, I think you're right. Either that, or it's the biggest coincidence in the world."
We were several minutes away from Master Tzcheon's chambers, heading away from the Gallery. Along the walls, ceramic tiles of various colors and shapes depicted various mountain scenes. The towers of the Alcazar were clearly visible in several. The valleys below were filled with marching armies in golden armor, or possibly with fields of wheat; it was difficult to discern from the low resolution of the tiles.
"I'm not sure the Greeks even had mirrors. Let alone mirrors like these," Bard said. I heard as she adjusted the harness against her shoulders, wincing. "This thing is getting a little awkward to haul around. It's starting to chafe. Can you help me with this?"
"Absolutely," I said, and turned to help her.
Quickly, Bard slipped her hand forward to the side of my face and clapped one hand over my ear. With her other hand, she made a shushing gesture.
I put my hand up to cover hers. "My ward?"
"He's watching," Bard mouthed silently.
"Good thinking," I whispered, nodding. I didn't know if Master Oleu would be able to monitor us with Bard's hand over the ward, but it was certainly worth a try.
Bard pointed back in the direction of Tzcheon's chambers. "We know he didn't do it," she said silently, exaggerating the movement of her lips.
"Who?" I asked. "Tzcheon?"
She shook her head. "Oleu."
"How do we know?"
Her next sentence took several repetitions before I could read her lips, but she said, "Oleu led us there to deliver a mirror. For Dana."
And Dana was dead, I realized, and I indicated my understanding. If Oleu had known about Dana's death, would he have led us to Tzcheon? Would he have been able to lead me there, if he was at that moment elsewhere committing murder? Or was Oleu a better actor than I gave him credit for, and was using us to establish his alibi?
A previous unspoken thought recurred. Was this the real Bard? Would the real Bard have gone out of her way to try to convince me that Oleu was innocent?
Our next delivery took us outside the Alcazar - not through a mirror, but out into the cold mountain air.
With the Gallery far behind us, but the battlements occasionally in view through the occasional window, we found a massive oaken door, banded with iron and chained like a drawbridge.
The guards were deep in conversation with a familiar man in golden robes sewn from triangular patches, a man about sixty with a Fu Manchu mustache. It was the Seneschal, speaking in low tones with the door sergeant.
"Absolutely certain," the soldier was saying. He was a hard-weathered man of forty with almost colorless gray eyes and a vicious scar through one lip. "These doors remain closed except at my command, and unless they are opened, there is no way to-"
"Yes, yes," the Seneschal said irritably, waving one liver-spotted hand. "Doors and mirrors. I'm sure the gate is very safe. That is what I shall tell Her Elegance, yes? I shall tell her that it is very safe?"
The sergeant was unimpressed by the mention of Queen Gayle. "Whoever the attacker was, he did not enter or leave this way. He must have departed through a mirror."
"Whose?" the Seneschal asked pointedly. "Whence? Where is he now?"
"He must have had allies, your Serenity," the sergeant suggested.
"Yes," the Seneschal said with emphasis. "He must."
The guard noticed me and Bard, and the cart, and inclined his head toward me politely. Seeing this, the Seneschal turned to address me, putting his hands together and smiling behind his mustache.
"Ah, Iolande, so good to see you," the Seneschal said. His gaze passed up and down my body, and I felt acutely exposed in Iolande's figure-hugging maid uniform. Dirty old man, I thought to myself.
"I see you have changed your ward," the Seneschal observed idly. "Prudence suits you. In these troubled times we must have the most modern protections available, yes?"
"Indeed," I said gravely.
His suspicious look was disconcerting. I had a gnawing sensation in the pit of my stomach, which I tried to ignore. The Seneschal's voice dropped to a purr. "I wonder," he mused aloud, "if that new ward would protect you against the mirrors of the gates?"
I let him probe me with another look. "Do I look as if I'm dressed for a murder?" I asked him archly.
"She's right," the gate sergeant said. "It's too cold to be outside these gates for any time. There's frost in the air. She couldn't have passed these gates without freezing to death, ward or no ward. And I certainly didn't open the gate for her."
"That only proves," the Seneschal said, his eyes narrowing, "that she murdered the Apprentice and escaped another way."
"Is that why I arrived to deliver a mirror to him?" I asked the Seneschal innocently. "You may ask the Masters. I've been delivering mirrors all day."
The Seneschal's look grew harder. "Very suspicious, I find it," he said slowly, studying first me, then Bard. "You acquire a new ward, then an assassin murders an Apprentice right at his Master's feet and vanishes into thin air? And all this while you are - delivering mirrors?" he cried suddenly, striding toward the cart. He put his hands on one of the canvas-draped mirrors. "Where do these mirrors go? Who made them? Where did you get them? The truth, I want the truth: the assassin used these very mirrors to escape, didn't he?"
I simply looked back at him, shaking my head minutely. "That's absurd, your Serenity," I said. "If I may speak so boldly."
"Absurd?" he asked, standing taller, as if offended.
"It is ridiculous," I said. "Haven't I served the Queen loyally for years? Why would I lead assassins in the gates, and let them escape again?"
The Seneschal held his stance stiffly for a few seconds, then his suspicions seemed to subside, deflating him. "I serve the crown, too, Iolande," he said in a quiet, deadly voice. "And I do not take kindly to those who do not."
"Then catch them, good Seneschal," I suggested. "Master Tzcheon is waiting for you to arrive even now to discuss the matter."
With a final searching look at me, he gestured to the guards. "Let her through. I assume she is delivering to Master Quistad?"
"Yes," I said. In truth, I had no idea what the Master's name might be. I wondered if his question might not have been a trap - I was beginning to see traps everywhere.
The Seneschal's eyes flickered to the cart, and his lips moved, as if he were counting the mirrors. Then he strode away, golden robes rustling.
"All right, you heard the Seneschal," the gate sergeant said crisply. He drew something from a pouch on his belt that at first I took for a pocketwatch, but which appeared instead to be a small mirror. He held it to his mouth and spoke into it, briefly; I could not catch the words.
Chains creaked and rattled through their rings, unwinding from winches turned by the soldiers. The drawbridge descended away from us, folding onto the floor beyond. It covered the entire floor between this gate and a pair of double doors beyond it.
Bard pulled the cart, and I followed her into the vestibule. The air was noticeably cooler. "Multiple doors?" she guessed. "Like an airlock?"
I couldn't answer her - Iolande would not have known what an airlock was. In any case, the rattling of chains would have drowned out any possible response. The doors ahead of us were being drawn open, slowly. Somewhere in the walls we heard the slithering of cables.
"They said there were mirrors in the gates?" Bard asked, looking around. "I don't see them. I bet they're below the drawbridge. Make a mirror that turns people into frogs, stick it on the outside of the drawbridge. Try to invade the place, and you run into the mirror. Makes it hard to break the door down."
"And lower the drawbridge," I finished, just loudly enough to barely be heard under the rattling of chains and cables, "and the lowered gate blocks the mirror. Or mirrors. Very ingenious."
"Probably more mirrors behind these doors, too," Bard said softly, as we stepped forward into the next antechamber.
The third gate opened, this one drawn up into the ceiling not unlike a garage door. Cold alpine air rushed beneath the door, throwing a glacial chill around my ankles. I began to shiver uncontrollably.
When the gate was raised, more guards greeted us. At a command from the squad leader, two of them doffed their heavy blue woolen cloaks and draped them around our shoulders. Then the gates were closed in reverse order, outside gate first. It couldn't be done any other way, I realized; closing either of the inner doors first would expose the mirrors to the guards posted outside.
I stood for a moment, shivering, clutching the guard's military cloak around my shoulders. Bard wrapped her own cloak around her, awkwardly: the harness straps were still inconveniently attached to the cart. Our breath spun away in great, frosty drifts. I glanced around at our surroundings, getting my bearings, and waited for my legs to decide where to take me. I had no idea why we had come this way.
We stood on a broad, wide bridge that crossed a narrow valley of snow-capped firs. Behind us, the stones of the Alcazar seemed built right into the side of the mountain; further towers of the fortress could be seen up the mountainside, nestled in the vertical crotch between two adjoining rock faces, climbing the crevices like a chimney.
The stone bridge had battlements on both sides, watched by catapults. Over the edge was a dizzying hundred-yard drop into the valley, where a river thundered along in a haze of mist, its banks a dazzling array of icicles and crystals frozen in the act of splashing down the mountain. Snow, dry and airy, tinkled down among us.
On the far side of the valley, the bridge widened still further. Against the far wall was a second set of gates, which vanished into the mountains opposite. The bridge's shape reminded me somehow of a fist with a pointing finger, spanning the valley: the bridge was the finger, where we now stood, which led into the Alcazar. In the center of that fist stood an A-shaped building with steep, sloping sides, possibly a guard house.
My feet began to tingle, as if the blood were rushing from them, and I felt myself begin walking across the bridge. Keeping the surprise from my face, I called over to Bard to come along. Powdery snow crunched under my sandals - I could barely feel my bare calves and feet, now.
I walked - or rather, my puppeteer caused me to walk - toward the A-frame structure. Guards stood at their posts here as well, though in different livery: these were dark-skinned Achans, and they wore armor the color of burnished copper. Both were tall, and stood very straight; their features were chiseled and perfect. I could not help but to admire their handsome faces, since it seemed with Iolande's senses I had a much greater appreciation for beauty than I had had before.
The guards admitted us without a second look, and we entered the A-frame. We spent a few moments brushing hair from our shoulders. I shook snowflakes from my hair.
Inside the A-frame was larger than the outside, and warmer. Snow brushed from our cloaks had turned to droplets of water even before they hit the tiles at our feet. The room was dimly lit from within only by candles, but the gauzy curtains at windows overhead shone with sunlight.
"Feels like we're back in the desert," Bard commented, and I nodded agreement.
We stood at the edge of a large rotunda, a dome soaring over our heads. Rounded windows graced an upper balcony, and through these, shafts of sunlight pierced the gloom. Tiles decorated the floor, colorful but well-worn with centuries of footsteps. On the lower level, four doors were placed at each of the compass points; and between each of them, an alcove held a statue of a Shaper.
"Which way?" Bard whispered. Her voice echoed back from the marble walls.
I was prepared to wait for my feet to indicate the direction, but a voice interrupted. "Aha! Iolande, it is good of you to come," the voice said. A man in Shaper's robes crossed the darkened rotunda, extending one hand in greeting. The man - Quistad, the gate sergeant had called him - was perhaps a very lean and fit fifty, golden brown of complexion, with a pleasantly lined face and long, windstrewn hair of dark auburn.
A handshake? Here? I stared at Master Quistad's proffered palm. Undeterred, he offered it to Bard instead, and she shook it.
"A new greeting I have learned," he said off-handedly to me. "It is called shaking hands. I don't believe I have met this new Apprentice?"
"You can call me Bard, for now," the horse-girl said politely. "I'm not sure it really fits any more."
"You are from the other world," Quistad said astutely. "You know how to shake hands. I learned it from my own new Apprentice," he explained.
"Perhaps you might demonstrate it another time," I said. "I still have mirrors to deliver."
"Ah! The very thing I wanted!" he said with a certain wicked satisfaction. "An inferior mirror made by Master Wexrtyn's least talented Apts. That increases my prestige immensely, you know."
"I'm sure it does," I said dryly, noting the touch of ironic wit in Quistad's voice.
Quistad beckoned us to follow him through one of the passages, chattering over his shoulder at us the whole time. "Just leave the cart in the rotunda. We have more important things to discuss than mirrors. My Apprentice tells me there was a message while I was away. There has been another murder at the Alcazar?"
"Yes," I said. "The message is unfortunately correct. We were just speaking with the Seneschal about it. Naturally, he suspects everybody."
"Of course," Quistad laughed. "Come this way, we'll visit the board. I trust you've seen Master Hannis? Excellent. He has a new Apprentice as well, I hear. Kidnapped, did you hear? Well, perhaps now his Apprentice has agreed to stay of his own accord. Sometimes we must do what we must - we must stand and face that which confronts us.
"Poor Master Tzcheon," Quistad carried on. "I suppose somebody will have to take responsibility for his Apts and Apprentices. Have the Masters agreed to meet over it yet, to discuss how his students will be re-distributed?"
"Master Quistad, it was not Master Tzcheon who was murdered," I assured him. "It was an Apprentice, evidently. He interposed himself between Tzcheon and the assassin. An Apprentice is dead, not the Master."
"Ah," he said, and I detected a tiny note of disappointment which was soon gone. "A talented Shaper, Tzcheon. No other Master I know can speak at such great lengths about how little he knows about gemstone." Again, there was that touch of irony.
Quistad continued to talk. "I assume the messenger was simply mistaken amid all the confusion, guards rushing out into the Gallery, Apprentices crying, Tzcheon shouting at everyone and trying to lecture."
"You sound as if you were there," Bard observed.
"Tzcheon always lectures," Quistad said, turning back and tipping Bard a wink. "It allows him unlimited time to absorb the perfect brilliance of his favorite orator: himself."
Chuckling at his own private joke, Quistad led us into a large, paper-cluttered study. A few mirrors lay half-buried in the mess of parchment, documents, books, diaries, maps, pots of tinct, bags of sand, polishing cloths, and woodworking tools.
On one table stood a game of Triad, in progress. It was a familiar layout, I realized as I drew nearer. It seemed to be an exact duplicate of the game of Triad being played between Masters Hannis, Lamard, and Oleu.
"Which move did Hannis make?" Quistad asked. He held out one hand impatiently. "Did he respond to the Caravan gambit? I suspected Lamard might try to complete that wedge. I suppose Hannis was tempted to retaliate." Master Quistad snapped his fingers impatiently, glowering at me impressively. "The move, child, the move! Did Hannis not give it to you?"
Unsure what else to do, I drew the sealed move from my apron pocket and handed it over. Quistad broke the seal and scanned the page quickly.
"Ah, Master Hannis, you should not have responded to Lamard's enticement. It gains Lamard nothing, but it allows Master Oleu to seize the initiative on your left flank." He sighed and returned the page to me. "Master Hannis is quite brilliant at Triad, you know, but occasionally he allows himself to be pulled out of position."
"How good a player is Master Lamard?" I asked curiously, tucking the page back into my pocket.
"Barely adequate," Quistad sniffed. "Clumsy, obvious, lacking in grace and elegance. And yet he brings an unpredictable defiance to his game, disarranging plans on all sides. Alone, I suspect Master Hannis might play Master Oleu to a standstill. It is the eternal distraction of Master Lamard, on his right, that keeps him from focusing on his most dangerous opponent. Should you ever learn to play Triad, child, do not underestimate Master Oleu's end game."
A newcomer entered the room abruptly, coming to a precipitous halt when he observed his Master had company. This was a young man, perhaps twenty, with skin so dark it appeared black - almost invisible in the dim light. He had brown robes, as if he were an Apt, and long, bone-white hair that fell to his shoulders. Something odd about his eyes made me look twice, and I realized that he hadn't black skin, but a thin, fine black fur. His face was not entirely human, either, for there was the suggestion of something bestial about him that I couldn't readily identify.
"Like it, Iolande?" the young man said to me. "It's new. We traded a formula for a slate glass filter with Master Kureon, for a metal mirror."
"Because the trade of information is the lifeblood of the Foundry," Master Quistad said. This time there wasn't a trace of irony. "Besides, I suspect that Kureon already had that formula, but he didn't know how to use it properly."
The Apt grinned a mouthful of sharp white teeth. "He should pull himself away from the dinner tables and the dancing girls, then. Who's this with you, Iolande? That's a great mirror, whoever made that."
Obviously the young Apt knew me, at least distantly. I realized with dismay that I had no idea how to introduce him to Bard, or vice-versa, because I didn't know the protocols, and I didn't even know the new Apt's name.
Master Quistad interceded too quickly for my hesitation to register. "Bard, may I introduce my Apt, whom you may once have recognized in your own world. Bard, this is Wolf."
"Shadow Wolf," the Apt corrected him, as he and Bard shook hands. "By the way, the Emir wants to speak to you on the mirror in the Atrium."
"Indeed," Quistad said. "I will speak to him immediately. Meanwhile, we received Master Hannis's latest move. Right Scout forward six, take Lamard's vanguard Knight, then left three."
Shadow Wolf stepped over to the board, studying it. "That puts his scout within striking distance of Master Oleu. And vice-versa." He picked up a handful of discarded pages beside the board and shuffled through them. "This is the second time that Hannis has retreated from Lamard into Oleu's defenses. I wonder if Oleu will respond this time."
"Master Oleu would be a fool not to take that Scout," Quistad judged. "You may exchange pleasantries with your friend. Iolande, come with me. The Emir will want confirmation of the details of this vicious attack."
As I left the cluttered study, I could hear Shadow Wolf explaining to Bard the precepts of the game of Triad.
"He seems to have picked up quite a bit in a short time," I commented, as I strode swiftly after him through the halls.
"Wolf has been with me for nearly six weeks," Quistad reminded me over one shoulder.
Six weeks? Aloud, I said, "Has it been that long?"
"Forty days since the day I invited him to come to Achlad," Quistad said confidently. "His unique talents made him perfectly suited to the task I set before him. As a hobby, he gathers information and sifts through it. I felt him a natural choice.
"Of course, Foundry rules encourage Masters to select from the pool of candidates provided by the Principal Shaper. But in these untrusting times, I have always found it best to choose for myself."
"And so you invited him," I said, trying to keep inflection from my voice.
"Invited, yes," Quistad said pleasantly. "We will call it an invitation. I had to acquire him swiftly; he agreed that he would have more power and opportunity here than in his own world - well, he agreed once he regained consciousness. I suppose that is an invitation, of sorts."
We had come to a very great hall, twice as tall as it was wide or long, filled with tall, pear-shaped sandstone pillars that held aloft criss-crossing stone beams and supports at different elevations. The beams held up no roof, but a network of canvas and cotton sails that caught the breeze and filtered light. Most strikingly, water cascaded from above in showers, vitalizing a virtual jungle of swaying palms, vines, creepers, and irises. A pool among the fronds bore several lilypads and lotus flowers on its dark, rippling surface.
The outer walls of the atrium consisted of pillars, through which I could see sun-lit passages and open-air balconies. A few mirrors stood idly at hand, opposite the greenery. A red-striped cotton fabric like a tent awning flapped overhead, shielding the mirrors from the heat of the desert just outside.
In one mirror sat the Shape a man in golden silk and pearls, decorated with filigree of some hammered blood-red metal that I didn't recognize. This, I guessed, was the Emir, the leader of Achlad: somewhere around fifty and starting to balloon at the waist, and desperately trying to maintain his claim on thirty. His beard and his thinning hair was oiled and dark. The Emir sat on a magnificent stone-carved throne bestrewn with silk pillows, reflectively turning an hourglass over and over in his hand. Occasionally his gaze would penetrate the mirror. At his feet sat two impossibly lovely dark-skinned Achlan women, clad in breathable and revealing translucent silk, caressing his calves.
"Master Quistad," the Emir boomed, when he saw the Master Shaper approaching. "Is Master Tzcheon dead?"
"I'm afraid not, O Rinchan," Quistad said dryly. "He lives, and lectures still. Only his Apprentice was murdered."
"The Emirate of Achlad expresses our sympathy for your loss," he smirked. "You owe me five crests."
"Not yet, good Emir," Quistad said swiftly. "We wagered which Master would be killed next. Dana was no Master. If he is the next Master to fall, Tzcheon may yet disappoint you."
"I see the Queen's servant behind you," the Emir said with a grunt. "Does she confirm this report?"
"I do," I said. "I visited Master Tzcheon a short time ago. He does live. And lecture."
"What news of the emissary from Bramdon?" Emir Rinchan asked of me. "The Earl sent his man to talk terms with the Queen, did he not? He is trying to secure a treaty to ban the use of Achlad's good glass mirrors for trade, is he not?"
"The Earl himself came," I said. "I happened to observe him at luncheon with Master Kureon."
"And did they discuss trade?" the Emir pressed.
I had been wondering all day why the conversation between Master Kureon and the Earl had bothered me. It had seemed so staged, so transparently deliberate. I had been meant to hear it, but why? Was I now being tested on what I had heard?
From what I had heard, the Earl had only talked about trade. I knew almost nothing else about the man. I decided to venture some sarcasm. "Does the Earl ever speak of anything other than trade?" I drawled.
It worked: the Emir laughed. "And Master Kureon's response?"
"He seemed sincerely noncommittal," I said, "or perhaps insincerely committed. He said nothing at all, and it took him quite some time to finish."
"How very typical of the man," the Emir said, his deep voice rich with dark humor. The twinkle faded from his brown eyes, and he became serious. "Master Quistad, I am told the Foundry wishes to exchange knowledge of interlinked glass mirrors, for the secret of irrigating fields with metal mirrors."
"This is so," Master Quistad said, nodding deeply.
"We cannot afford to give up every ancient secret of the Achlan Shapers!" the Emir thundered. "We invented Shaping, we were carving new worlds out of glass when the Bramdans were still living in huts and counting on their toes!"
A voice from off one side of the mirror, probably a vizier, said, "But your Eminence, we must have water. We cannot-"
The Emir's pleasant, laughing face turned murderous. "Shatters and shards, that is enough! We have too few Shapers to craft mirrors of farmland, too few Shapers to operate them, to replace them. From the sands of the desert we extract our mirrors, and the desert winds scour the mirrors, seeking to reclaim them. We must have the secrets of metal."
Again, the vizier spoke: "Rinchan, O my Emir, we have few enough secrets remaining to trade, except-"
"A Shaper now, are you?" the Emir grunted. He calmed himself visibly, and addressed Master Quistad again. "Achlad grows. Its people are hungry. We must have more land that can be farmed. And for that, we must trade secrets with your Foundry."
"Yes, Emir," Master Quistad said. An ironic smile played around his lips. "Well spotted."
The Emir glared through the mirror. "Then you must provide secrets of glass," he said, his voice beginning to sound desperate. Wheedling. "You are a Master of glass, you are acknowledged as one of the best-"
"The best!" In an instant, Quistad's voice went from pleasant, mocking irony to rage. "I am the Master of glass in the Foundry, none other! Varacid, what does he know? Wexrtyn, a clumsy laborer."
A tight smile appeared on Rinchan's fat face. Now it was Quistad who had lost his temper, as his ego was provoked. "Then surely," the Emir murmured, "surely you have some secrets of glass that even Master Lamard would be willing to trade for."
"I am seeking that very thing," Master Quistad said irritably. He took a shuddering breath, spread his hands and closed his eyes. In a moment, he was again serene and ironic. "My new Apt is combing all the old stories and records. We know Master Khozion's laboratory was in the Brown Hills. We know the Brown Hills have mines of copper oxide and gold. We know he purchased metallic salts, and we know what kinds. We know he extracted his sands from dunes at the foot of the Brown Hills. We know everything but the proper balance of ingredients, and the shape of his mirror. All the mirrors he ever made contained these materials; he had no others."
"And Master Khozion's work was exemplary," the vizier's voice said unnecessarily.
The Emir shot a withering look off-camera. "Very well," he said to Master Quistad. "You will inform me when you have secrets that can be traded. The wealth of Achlad's history, and the legacy of our forefathers will not be given away. I am Emir of Achlad, Master Quistad, never forget that."
Quistad smiled, and through his teeth he said in a low voice, "And I have a mirror that looks out a mere arm's reach from your heart."
The Emir hadn't heard. But I saw the look on Quistad's face as he turned away from the mirror.
"Kings," he said to me with a dismissive shrug. "It really is depressing how often they think they rule the world."
Bard and I returned back from the rotunda, through Quistad's mirror, to the snow-swept bridge. We made the trek in silence, and handed over our borrowed cloaks to the soldiers at the gates. I wasn't certain what I could say to Bard about the whole event, because suspicion was still fresh in my mind. Everybody here seemed to be deceiving everybody else, and forms could be changed at the drop of a hat. Was this really Bard? How did Bard know that Iolande was really me?
Once we were safely inside the Alcazar again, watching from a safe distance away as the guards sealed up the entry gates, I got my answer.
"You know," Bard said, as the center doors swung closed toward the center, and the drawbridge was pulled up into place, "this reminds me of Mystery Science Theater."
I smiled faintly, and hummed under my breath. "In the not-too-distant future. . ."
Bard grinned at me. Perhaps it wasn't proof - but it was good enough.
As my feet guided me unerringly through each twist and turn of the fortress to our next delivery, and when there were no listeners or guards around, no passing citizens, I explained to Bard what I had seen. I tried to describe the Emir of Achlad to her, giving my impression of a descendant of a once-great family of scholars and inventors and despots, now enthroned over a kingdom crumbling in power, lacking the leverage to continue to provide for his people.
And when we were amid crowds - and they seemed more populous, here, in the lower elevations, dressed less for the cold and more like farmers visiting the big city - Bard tried to explain the rules of Triad to me, and how they differed from chess.
"I'm going to ask Master Wexrtyn if I can get a set," Bard said enthusiastically, adding under her voice, "and even if he says no, I'll get one anyway. Or make one. I'll find people to practice against."
"Your friend has learned a great deal about our world in his time here," I observed in a prim voice. I could not be more obvious about Shadow Wolf's name, because were passing through a wide, pillared hall packed with booths and awnings and shops that proclaimed itself to be the Arcade. From somewhere within the maze of the Arcade, we heard the ring of a blacksmith's hammer and the roar of bellows; we saw butchers with great racks of meat and fowl hanging up to sell; we saw baskets of grain and bushels of unspun wool. The market above, in the upper levels, had been where the finished goods were sold: utensils and woven cloth and foodstuffs; here the raw materials were brought through the lower gates and sold. Merchants from above haggled with the farmers from below, exchanging crests for produce.
"You could say that," Bard said with a hint of sarcasm. "He's learned how not to trust people."
"How so?" I asked. "I thought you and he were friends, from the same world."
"He's not sure it's really me," Bard said. "For that matter, I'm not sure it's really him. But he wouldn't really tell me what he's been working on since he arrived. It sounds as if he's looking through piles of old data, sifting through information, looking for correspondences. Surely his Master had done that already, wouldn't you think? I know I would, if I thought there were secret formulas that could be deduced from all those old documents."
"Perhaps his Master is using the experience as a lesson," I suggested. "Many of the Masters surely do not teach lessons in the same way you might expect on your world. Surely you have seen this already from Master Wexrtyn."
Bard blew a breath between her lips. "Yes, I have. Not that I'm learning anything about Shaping by hauling around a cart." She considered the matter for a moment, twisting a lock of her coal-black hair around one finger. "Although I suppose there's something to be said for knowing the big picture. All his other Apprentices already know this world, except for me. I have to start from the very beginning."
"You see?" I asked, and smiled at her more broadly. "To the Masters, everything is a lesson."
The noise and bustle of the Arcade dwindled behind us. My feet drew us down a passage whose walls were decorated with maps: hand-drawn maps framed in wood, maps etched into the walls, maps inlaid into the floor with ceramic tiles, large and small. I recognized none of them, but Bard caught my elbow and gestured to one large and ancient map that had been burned into a wide sheet of wood.
"The Triad game," Bard said quietly.
Indeed it was: a large range of high mountains in the southwest, their caps depicted stylistically with snow, which gradually become rows of low, rocky hills in the north. The western side of the map was dominated by featureless plains that I presumed to be desert; and in the south, a great bight was taken from the map where the bays and harbors of Ebella must be.
"Good eye," I said, and opened the Master's door to allow Bard through with the cart.
This Master seemed to have a passion for wood. The room was built of it: wooden planks for the floor, paneling on the walls, wooden furniture everywhere. Great nets hung from the walls, some of them holding bundles of books in disarray, giving the chambers a decidedly nautical air. From the ceiling, lanterns hung on hooks. More maps adorned the walls, these seemingly enlargements of the Ebellan Bight and areas along the coast. A number of mysterious lines had been drawn across the map in red ink, the purpose of which we couldn't guess.
Bard reached out quickly and grabbed at my arm, as if losing her balance. I knew how she felt. Something about the room was making me queasy and unstable, and it wasn't the sudden, sweltering heat.
"It's just the current. You get used to it after a few hours." A humanoid griffin appeared in one doorway, holding onto the frame casually. He was easily six feet in height, with an eagle's head, and very muscular and leonine from the shoulders down. Very muscular, I noted with a distinctly female fascination - and clad only in fur. I didn't allow my gaze to linger, but he was clearly bare. A vast pair of wings was tucked about his shoulders like a shroud as he slipped through the narrow entry.
"It's somewhat cramped in here," the griffin man explained to us. He let his wings unfurl somewhat, very carefully. "It's much roomier on deck."
"On deck?" Bard asked. "We're on a boat?"
"A barge, Master Irsio says," the griffin explained, and pointed at the swaying lanterns. "I'd call it a houseboat. We're standing in port at the moment. Standing? I don't know the right words. I was a flight attendant, not a sailor."
"You must be Sarah," I smiled at the griffin.
The griffin cleared his throat uncomfortably. "More or less. The Master wants me known as Sarad, now. He says it's more appropriate. I remember you," Sarad said. "You were the maid who brought us to the baths."
I nodded. "And you might recognize this young woman as well," I suggested. "I brought her, as well."
Sarad peered closely at Bard. "I recognize the face, but the hooves and tail don't ring a bell."
"Believe me, I'm still getting used to them myself," Bard said in a game voice, but with a queasy face. She was holding tightly to the arms of the cart. "I don't think I really like this swaying deck. I can't seem to keep my balance."
"You'll get used to it," Sarad assured her.
"You've got big cat feet," Bard said. "I've got little horse hooves."
Sarad looked surprised. "Oh, I hadn't thought of that. Ma'am," he said, cocking his head and turning his eagle eyes upon me, "please don't stare. I'm not really comfortable in this body yet, so don't get any funny ideas."
"I apologize," I said, trying to find a safe place for my gaze. It was disconcerting to see that deadly yellow stare fixed upon me, but even more uncomfortable was the realization that inhabiting a form like Iolande's was beginning to affect my judgment and perhaps my sexuality. Sarad was very handsome as a male, well-proportioned in every way. "Your Master gave you a very appealing form to look upon," I said by way of apology.
"I wish it had been a female form," Sarad grumbled. "I can't get used to being a man. And he doesn't want me wearing clothing. Says it'll help me get used to the whole thing. He's still waiting for me to fly - I don't know if he understands that we didn't actually fly on an airplane, we rode in it."
"Why didn't he make you a woman?" Bard asked curiously.
"Why didn't Wexrtyn make you a man?" Sarad retorted. "Master Irsio says that if I can get used to the idea of changing my form at will with mirrors, it opens up a whole world for exploration. This was a good form for traveling, he said: fierce and strong and agile. I don't feel agile. I feel big and clumsy."
"Try hooves," Bard said simply.
"What are you doing here, by the way?" Sarad asked. "And what's with the cart?"
"My goodness," I said lightly. "You really are eagle-eyed."
"We're delivering mirrors from Master Wexrtyn to all the new Apprentices," Bard explained. "Where is Irsio?"
Master Irsio was in a cabin on deck, seated at a desk with a basin of glowing, sparkling water before him. He was young and handsome, and his skin was tanned a golden brown. He had short, close-cut hair of a deep, intriguing violet, matching his lavender-gray eyes. Irsio alone among all the Masters and citizens I had seen wore spectacles. Given the culture's taboo against reflections, it seemed an unusual choice.
The basin on the desk drew my immediate attention, however: it was speaking.
". . . as Achlad continues to rely on mirrors, our fishing boats won't be able to sell their harvests. If Achlad opens up mirrors to the sea-"
That voice was drowned out by a hubbub of arguments, thin and watery, as several men shouted for supremacy.
"Let them sail!" one voice boomed. "Let them master wind and current and woodcraft! And if they ever do, let those sons of-"
Master Irsio calmly drew a silvery cloth over the basin, muffling the voices almost to silence, and adjusted his spectacles to take in his griffinoid Apprentice. "Yes, Sarad? I presume we have visitors."
"Master Irsio, you must know Iolande, the Queen's chambermaid," Sarad said politely, half-bowing. He extended one arm, and one wing, toward his Master. "And this is Master Wexrtyn's newest Apprentice, a guy I knew from the List named Bard."
"A guy," Master Irsio said to himself, amused.
"Once, yes," Bard said. "Maybe I'll try it again someday, if I get the chance."
"They are bringing me a mirror," Sarad explained. We could not haul the cart up the gangway to the deck, so we had unharnessed Bard and left it behind.
"I suggest you unload it," Master Irsio said placidly. "After all, you have the muscles, now."
"Actually," Sarad objected, "Bard's Master made her quite strong, she's capable of-"
"It seems to me that you are not adjusting well to your condition," Master Irsio said, still maddeningly calm. "You have the strength now. This is part of your role. It would certainly benefit you to use them. I feel it would help you adjust."
Sarad's expression wasn't readable, but his voice was. "Very well, Master," he said coldly. "I'll go lift heavy things. Will I have time later to talk with my friends?"
"I assume so," Irsio said complacently. "Since it seems you are too bitter and self-absorbed to do any real learning for the present."
The griffin-man turned and closed the cabin door behind him, too hard. The door jamb creaked against its nails from the force.
"He hasn't become accustomed to his new status as a male," Irsio said to us. "I expect there will be a period of adjustment. When I first became a man, I was unhappy with my state, but I grew to adapt. It consoles me to think that I have many more opportunities to lead, and to be followed, than I ever had before as a woman."
"And you have adapted well, Master Irsio," I said with a smile.
He returned the smile, briefly. "I'm afraid I have to call upon your help as an eyewitness," Irsio said. "I watch many things with my mirrors, and I can hear many conversations, but I cannot report on the recent attack on Master Tzcheon's newest Apprentice. Were you present?"
I shook my head. "I spoke with Tzcheon about it, a few minutes afterward," I said. "Bard and I were delivering a mirror for Dana which now, it seems, Tzcheon doesn't need."
"And we spoke to the Seneschal," Bard put in.
"The Harbormaster wishes to hear confirmation of the attack," Irsio said. "I hope you do not object to telling him personally."
"Not at all."
"I don't believe you have ever met Harbormaster Marren," Irsio said, drawing back the silvery cloth from the basin. Light from the waters shone onto the ceiling like a shimmering movie projector, and a garbled, quavering voice came forth, droning on about prevailing winds. "He is a decent sort, a man with horizons less limited than others. Marren does his best with his resources, trying to please the citizens of Ebella, who before King Poul had never known government except as an occupying force. To them, freedom was something only available on the high seas. Only there could they escape mirrors. Glass mirrors focus on places, you see, not people."
"So a Shaper could only make a mirror that focused on a patch of open sea," Bard concluded. "And wait for a boat to sail past."
"Well said, Apprentice Bard," Irsio said. "Has your Master told you about these?" He caressed the side of the coppery basin, causing the water on the surface to ripple. On the ceiling, the image of parliamentary hubbub distorted identically in projection.
Bard shook her head. "I haven't even seen one yet."
"That is not surprising," Master Irsio said, still caressing the bowl. "These are new. Many in Ebella dabble in them, for it is easy enough to understand in principle, and every household has a bowl for mixing and baking. It is much more difficult to master - less difficult now that the wars have ceased, of course. Now the craft flourishes. Truth be told, for every incompetent dabbler in glass mirrors, there are ten in water; but for every Master of water, there are only two of glass."
"What is the advantage of water, then?" Bard asked.
"Glass mirrors focus on places. Metal mirrors focus on the physical form," Master Irsio said. "But a mirror of water, made in a basin of metal, focuses on people. Wherever they go, whatever they see and hear, I can perceive in this bowl."
"Anybody? You can spy on anyone with that?" Bard demanded.
"No, alas," Irsio said. "As with glass, where a single mirror focuses on a single location, so a single basin can only be made to focus in a single person."
"How do you know which person it is?" Bard asked, and I thought: good question.
"You listen to them, obviously," Irsio said, smiling beatifically. "They have no secrets from you. Sooner or later you are bound to hear that person's name called. Of course, it takes some modest amount of skill to produce a basin that is fixed to a person in your own world. There is no guarantee that the person is anywhere within a hundred days' ride. You may craft a mirror that looks into another world entirely, which is of little use - unless, like me, you enjoy exploring those worlds."
"But with proper skill, you can see through the water, and look out through that person's eyes?"
"Correct, Apprentice. And so that is why I am able to introduce you to the Harbormaster, though he is far from here, in Windward Bay. I have a basin here that shows a man in his employment, a dockmaster in Windward Bay." Irsio smiled. "To tell the truth, I made the mirror first, then I arranged for him to become dockmaster. Much easier doing it that way than the other way around."
Irsio rose from his seat behind the desk and waved me to stand beside him. "Allow me to prepare the Harbormaster for your arrival," he said. Without any further explanation, he leaned forward and placed his face into the water of the basin.
Bard stepped forward. "Won't he drown?"
"I don't think so," I said hesitantly.
A voice came forth from the bowl, louder and more prominent than the others: middle-aged and strong, flavored with the raspy, alcoholic quality of a man who had nothing but a bottle to keep him warm during his long nights at sea. "Harbormaster Marren, I must claim precedence," the voice said.
The hubbub of voices died away, and a single man spoke. "Master Irsio, you grace us with your presence. Have you been following our discussion? We are drafting a letter to the Queen to request a ban on mirrors used for farming and fishing."
"That would cause thousands in Achlad to starve, even if such a law could be enforced," said the voice. It certainly was not Irsio's quiet, calm tones. "I have with me Iolande, the Queen's handmaiden, to speak to you of the latest attack on the Foundry."
In the watery background, the voices stirred again in whispers, but the Harbormaster's voice sounded above them all. "Bring her to the basin," he said. "I wish to hear the news."
"At once, Harbormaster," Irsio said. He leaned up from the basin, and his face was entirely dry. Not a drop of water clung to his hair, or to the lenses of his spectacles. "You see how it is done?" he said to me.
I nodded uncertainly, and he stepped aside to allow me access. I couldn't help but take a deep breath as I dipped my face toward the basin. The image below the water rippled and swirled as I brought my face nearer, and just below the water there seemed to be a large wooden room, like a court, or like the House of Commons -
When my face touched the water I couldn't feel its wetness. Instead there was a great rushing warmth, a thudding heartbeat, and a thousand sensory impressions waved over me all at once, disorienting me.
I blinked my eyes and found myself standing in a wooden hall. Tall judicial benches, lined with faces of dark-haired men, towered on the left and right, and the squarish floor between them held a large map of the Bight, a podium, and a desk. The men at the benches were weathered and tough, not unfriendly but unsettled. All of them stared down at me with expressions of mingled horror and doubt.
At the podium stood a man in snug brown leather trousers and a simple white cottony blouse decorated with red threads. My first impression of him was of an elderly pirate who had retired with his wealth, but I saw in a moment that he wasn't hold, simply worn down by a life of hard labor: stout and muscular and fit, with very large calloused hands. Marren's beard was a stormy blue in color, and his hair was thinning in front.
"Welcome," the Harbormaster said to me. "You are Iolande?"
I nodded uncertainly. "Yes, I am," I said - and mine was the gravelly voice, roughened by whiskey and rum. I glanced down awkwardly and saw this was not my body. It wasn't even Iolande's. I was a man again, or at least inhabiting one.
"Master Irsio spoke of an attack," he prompted me. Behind the benches, the faces leaned forward with interest.
"Yes," I said, clearing my new voice. It felt awkward to be male again, even after only half a day as a woman. I felt somehow thick and benumbed, my joints stiffened with bulky muscles. "An assassin attacked Master Tzcheon's newest Apprentice, Dana. Dana threw himself before his Master to protect him, it is said, though I was told this by an Apprentice more loyal than wise."
"And Master Tzcheon himself?" the Harbormaster asked gently, clasping his hands together.
"Alive," I reported, "at least when I last saw him, lecturing to his students."
"Escaped, they say," I said.
The men in the galleries leaned back and muttered among themselves. The Harbormaster watched them with a practiced eye. "You can see my people are nervous, Iolande," he said to me. "Only by the grace of the Foundry do we exist as a country. Only because King Poul interceded and halted the wars do we have our freedom. The attacks on the Foundry are an attack on us, Iolande, and you must tell the Queen that we are very keen to see them stopped.
"What has she done?" the Harbormaster asked, earnest and soft.
"The Queen? She has done nothing," I said, and the galleries groaned. "But I have not spoken to her since learning of the attacks. The Seneschal was sent."
"Sent? The Queen sent the Seneschal?" someone in the gallery shouted down, hope in his eyes.
"No, the Seneschal was sent - summoned, I should say, by Tzcheon himself."
The man sat back in his chair, hope dying from his expression. "So still she disregards her father's creation the Foundry, still she sits idle reading poetry while our liberties are assaulted?"
I spread my hands helplessly - not my hands, for these were large and male, with yellowing nails and scars. "I cannot say," I said. "We have not spoken. I have been attending to the Foundry's new Apprentices."
The Harbormaster bowed his head. "At every attack, my dockmasters and I aspire to hear better news," he said gruffly. "We hope to hear the Queen is bestirred to defend us against the horrors these attackers unleash against us. We hope she has the decency to take an interest." He pounded one fist into his palm emphatically.
"I'm sorry," I said, as sincerely as I could. "I don't know what else to say."
I felt the world rushing away from me, felt a sudden chill, as if a wind were blowing me away. The Harbormaster swirled into a blur of woodwork and paneling, and the parliamentary chambers washed away.
Master Irsio was helping me back to my feet, pulling me away from the basin by my shoulders. I was back in the cabin again.
I patted myself, almost involuntarily, trying to make sure I was still me. I felt normal again, after having temporarily possessed the body of the dockmaster at Windward Bay - well, almost normal. My hands patted female flesh that was not exactly my own, but which I had grown accustomed to. Back in Iolande's body I felt light, airy, flexible; I felt attractive again, and strangely pleased by it. Odd how quickly I had adjusted to this new Shape. I had become more attached to it than I had realized.
"Extracting oneself from a basin takes some practice," Master Irsio said, watching me recover my equilibrium. "One must develop the presence of mind not to lose contact with one's old body completely. A true Master of the glass can exfuse himself into a subject so delicately that the subject isn't aware of his presence at all."
In my self-inventory, I had touched the ward at my earlobe. "Why doesn't my ward protect me from that mirror?" I asked.
Irsio looked troubled. "Few wards can. It is one reason why the Cabal is so greatly feared."
"You mean they could just take over anybody?" Bard asked, worried. "Just leap into their body and possess them?"
"Only with the right basin," Irsio said. "Mirrorcraft has only recently discovered alchemathical means to create a glass mirror depicting a particular location, and that was after ten centuries of study, remember. We are less understanding of metal and gemstone. Water mirrors are an entirely new craft, by comparison. Nobody yet knows the formula to create a specific basin for any one specific person. In that, we are safe."
"So they can't just create a basin that shows Iolande, here, for example," Bard suggested thoughtfully. "And use it to take control of her - I don't know, to assassinate the Queen, or something."
Master Irsio shook his head. "That would be unlikely, unless such a Shaper were far more advanced in his alchemathy than we know."
I thought I could see where Bard was going with this. It explained how I had been guided around the Alcazar, how someone was able to take command of my legs and direct me to each Master. Someone, somewhere, was sitting beside a basin and watching through my eyes, listening through my ears. And steering me in any direction he wanted.
Was he commanding me now? I could not say. I felt no telltale tingling in my limbs, usually a sign that I was no longer in command of them.
But Irsio seemed confident that nobody could have simply crafted a basin attuned to me, picked the formula that said Corey, out of billions or trillions of possible combinations. It would take knowledge so advanced, to choose a particular person and craft a basin-
-but perhaps they had crafted the basin first, I thought, suddenly sick with apprehension. They had made the basin and found me in it, and brought me to their world as an impostor for Iolande. Is that what had happened? Is that why I was here now?
Master Irsio watched as I toyed with my skirt nervously, running my palms over my thighs. Misinterpreting my anxiety, Irsio said, "Many people do find it very disconcerting, the first time they exfuse into a basin, particularly one attuned to a target of the opposite sex. Rest assured, there are no lingering after-effects to worry about."
"That's very reassuring," I said, grateful for an opportunity to put a false name to my uneasiness, something Irsio would believe. "It felt very strange to find myself a man. His body felt so old, so inflexible. Too many muscles, and. . . things."
"And things, yes," Irsio said, with an amused nod. "If you like, the next time you are called upon to speak to the Harbormaster, I can make Dockmaster Nelligan into a woman. Would that make you feel more at ease?"
"You can do that?" I asked.
Irsio's expression turned flat. "I am a Shaper, Iolande. It is quite simple."
"How?" Bard asked.
"When the water is pure," Irsio said, "the subject is himself. But add a few ingredients. . ." Irsio turned to a rack on the wall that held blown glass jars that I had initially taken for spices. He selected one that held a rust-brown substance and held it up to the lantern.
"Simply dissolve the right combination of powders into the water, with the proper unguents and salts and herbs, and the subject changes into whatever you can concoct," Irsio continued. "It works at any distance, bypasses any ward we know of, and it can be reversed in a twinkle of an eye."
Bard was frowning. "But water evaporates. What happens when the water disappears?"
"That is a problem," Irsio admitted. "Often the basin is sealed, otherwise the transformation grows stronger and stronger as the formula becomes more concentrated."
"Couldn't you make a basin the size of a swimming pool?" Bard asked.
Irsio shrugged. "There would be little advantage to it. All mirrors are proportionate in scales: a large mirror of a certain formula has the same function as a small mirror of the same design, but the larger mirror would require much work, many more materials, much more time. And, of course, to create the proper concentration of ingredients, one would need barrels of powder, buckets of herbs, rather than just a pinch of each."
"That's how he's doing it," Bard said.
"I think you're right," I sighed heavily.
We were in the halls outside Master Irsio's quarters, finding our way back to the main passage. My feet seemed to be under my own control, for the moment, but I could not help a certain apprehension, and so I was playing with my ward self-consciously.
"They probably made your basin first," Bard decided in a quiet voice. "They saw you were an actor, and since that was just what they needed, they invited you to come along. Maybe at the same time they found the Transformation Stories List, found the rest of us."
"So the Cabal just happened to find an actor with talent for Shaping?" I asked bitterly. "Seems pretty improbable to me."
"I didn't say it was the Cabal," Bard said softly. "It may well be the enemies of the Cabal, for all we know. If I were a secret conspiracy, I certainly wouldn't seek out people with talent for Shaping."
I thought about it, still in a sour mood. "Maybe that was a coincidence."
"Then why did they seek out all the rest of us?" Bard asked reasonably.
"To create an army."
"They don't need an army," Bard said. "They can create mirrors with horrible monsters. You saw what Bryan became: some kind of fire-resistant salamander lizard. And Sarad, the griffin. And Xodiac. You can see how stringently they observe the rule prohibiting them from creating dangerous beasts."
"And Rachel, too," I said, thinking of the felinoid form she had been given.
"The Masters of the Foundry appear to be thinking defensively," Bard said. "They're looking for ways to protect themselves. I wonder what form Dana was wearing when he defended Tzcheon from that assassin."
That hadn't occurred to me.
"I don't think they brought us here as gladiators, though," Bard mused aloud. "Not to fight against one another. Shaping talent wouldn't be required for that."
"Do you ever stop thinking?" I asked wryly.
"Not really," Bard smiled back.
"So tell me this," I said, glancing around the corridor. We were alone - as alone as we could be, with an unknown mirror and an unknown Shaper possibly watching over us. "Whoever it is, they make a basin with me in it. They see some value in bringing me here. How did they come to recruit me?"
"Node transformation," Bard said. "I think that's what Master Tzcheon called it. They made a basin depicting you in it, then they calculated what kind of glass mirror it would take to observe you. From that, I assume they made glass mirrors showing the rest of us."
"Or vice-versa," I pointed out. "They found us first in glass mirrors, and later chose one of us as their little actor." I couldn't keep the anger out of my voice.
"One of us?" Bard asked. Her tail flickered. "You're not the only actor from the List, you know."
I rubbed my face with my hands - my hands? They were mine, now. "I don't think I can deal with this much longer," I said. "We're going to need to get all the Listies together, somehow, and figure out what to do."
"We can certainly try," Bard said. "Later, perhaps, after know our way around. There's probably Listies here we haven't even met, yet."
We descended another spiral ramp to what appeared to be lowest level of the Alcazar. There were many citizens here, of all kinds, coming and going from within a snowy mountain gate - the very gate I had seen reflected in a mirror, high above at the market.
Just inside the gate were mirrors, lined up as if in a funhouse. This appeared to be a major transportation hub, with mirrors directing to every corner of the Four Lands. In times of strife, I assumed the gates could be sealed and access closed off from these mirrors, but for the moment there was a continuous stream of traffic.
A multitude of glass mirrors held a multitude of landscapes. By now, I recognized the alpine slopes of Drndwyn and the sturdy stone constructions they preferred, the almost Bavarian architecture of the evergreen valleys, and the deep snow everywhere. More mirrors went to places in Drndwyn's mountains than to any other one Land. Second in number were mirrors to markets and towns in Bramdon, nestled among the sunny labyrinth of pine forests and rugged hills. Again I saw the large wooden fortress: this must be the Stockade, from which Earl Slighe must rule. Several mirrors showed the docks of Ebella, in various states of storm and sky: some drenched with rain, some swept by wind and high, white-crested waves; a few showed gray skies and calm seas. A very small number of mirrors showed the distant deserts of Achlad, mostly civilized areas of tall, sun-drenched adobe walls and fluttering tents, bazaars filled with man and beast, and the haze of heat distortion over everything.
Two mirrors, those most used, depicted the market square at the upper levels of the Alcazar. I recognized the banks of mirrors there, and the vendor where only a few hours ago, Bard and I had eaten our soup and kebabs. I fancied I could hear and smell the roasting meat through the mirror, but the Shape of the market was only a vision.
Bard watched me carefully to see where I might lead, and I waited for the telltale tingle as my legs were taken over by the unseen Shaper watching us. A few long moments passed, awkwardly, as crowds of citizens made their way around us.
"The Shaper must be busy," I suggested to Bard.
"Probably on an important phone call," she replied.
Then my legs took over, and we started toward a mirror which depicted the market, and the stall with the kebabs. I fumbled in my apron pocket for the profit Bard and I had made, and realized I was starving. It had been a long day, and the food looked very inviting.
"Apex Market," a bored guard announced. "Step through the mirror and clear the way by the count of five. One crest for passage - oh, it's you, Iolande. Go on through. Is she with you?"
"Will the cart fit through that mirror?" Bard asked nervously.
"Mirrors this big will fit anything through," the guard recited, as if it were a litany he repeated many times a day. "At least that's what you Shaper people tell me. Why, don't you know?"
"She's new here," I admonished the guard. "Invited by the Foundry personally. She's a student of Master Wexrtyn."
"Had a cousin who tried to learn Shaping from that man," the guard said uncomfortably. "He works his Apprentices hard, I hear. Wants to make them strong, I'll bet."
"Would you like to see how strong he makes them?" I asked, arching an eyebrow. "Or are you going to let us through without further delay?"
The guard swallowed and stood aside. Nobody in their right mind in this world crossed a Shaper, I had noticed - almost nobody, I amended, thinking of Dana.
I stepped forward and into the mirror.
There was a moment, an interminable instant, that felt like falling in all directions at once. And then I was stumbling out the other side in the Apex Market. Bard followed right behind, cart and all.
"That was fun," Bard said, shaken. "Let's not do that again soon, okay?"
"Come on, let's get something to eat," I suggested. "It feels like hours since we-"
A shape loomed up before us, accompanied by a sour reek of sweat and oiled leather. It was Stark, the jailer from the dungeons, the first man I had met in this world. He seemed oddly smaller to me now: I was a full-grown woman instead of a young boy, and Stark was no taller than I was. He was still meaty and powerful beneath the layers of leather and fat, but his was a power that was physical only. As Iolande, I was a favorite of the Queen, known by the Masters, consorting with leaders all around the Four Lands, and Stark was simply a fat bully lurking in the bowels of the Alcazar.
"I hear what you been taking mirrors around," Stark said with a grunt, eyeing Bard and the cart.
"As I told the Seneschal earlier," I said smoothly, "I am at the command of the Foundry. These mirrors were made by Master Wexrtyn. You may speak to him, if you wish."
Stark almost visibly flinched at the names I mentioned. "No, no," he said, backtracking. "I just heard you tooken a mirror to Quistad. Seneschal said so."
"Master Quistad," I said sternly, enjoying the look of apology on his face.
"Master Quistad," Stark corrected himself. "He ain't picked an Apprentice. Everybody says so."
"I'm surprised you hadn't heard," I said gaily. "I'm sure the Foundry advises you assiduously of their every move. I'm sure they invite you to their private meetings, yes?"
Stark scowled at me, but he didn't say a word.
"Master Quistad arranged for an Apprentice his own way," I said. I wasn't entirely sure of the details, so I left it as vague as possible. "I don't know what concern that is of yours."
"There was an attack," Stark said, sullenly. "Master almost got kilt. All of a sudden we got these new Apprentices coming in, taking prisoners and making 'em into Shapers, and someone gets kilt. By who, that's what I wanna know."
"Oh dear," I said. "Looking for more prisoners to kick?"
"Keeping an eye on the criminals, that's my job," Stark said. "Appointed by the King hisself, I was."
"Then you're doing a very poor job," I observed with a smirk. "There are no prisoners here in the Market."
He jabbed a stubby finger at Bard. "That one, that's a runaway slave," he declared stoutly. "Ran away clear from Achlad, she did. Now she's a Shaper, they say. Well, I say once a criminal, always a criminal. All these new Apprentices, I'm watching 'em."
"Very commendable," I murmured. "Such dedication. I shall mention it to the Queen."
Stark looked at me, startled. "Truly?"
"Oh yes," I said. "Perhaps I shall recommend she promote you to captain."
The jailer's complexion turned the color of old oatmeal, and he stammered an apology as he backed away from us, bowing repeatedly.
"That's him gone," I whispered aside to Bard, who was watching in admiration. "And I got some of my payback. Shall we get something to eat?"
We had only two mirrors remaining - therefore, we decided, only one more Master to visit, since one mirror destined for Tzcheon's deceased Apprentice was unclaimed. That assumption was quite logical, but unfortunately wrong.
We found Master Ynrchy in the upper levels of the Alcazar, in what appeared to be more recently excavated halls. The stones of the floors were less well worn, and there remained dust and chips of rock in the corners. I made a mental note to instruct the maids to attend to the halls here.
His chambers were the only rooms we had seen so far that did not vanish through a mirror into some distant location. The doorway was simple block-cut stone, shored and beamed with thick wooden struts, and the door itself was utilitarian.
Inside, Ynrchy kept a Frankenstein's laboratory of books, notes, chemicals, mirrors, tubes and vases, crucibles, devices and tools that I had never expected to see outside a Bernie Wrightson illustration.
Master Ynrchy was old - seventy years old, perhaps more, and somewhat frail. It was possible to see in his aged frame the power he had had as a younger man, from the large hands and the wide shoulders, the thick corded neck. Now in his latter years, his back was stooped and his jaw trembled, and his hair was white and wispy. In his old eyes, however, there was no trace of hesitation or uncertainty as he welcomed us into the room.
"Come in, come in," he said. "Welcome, new Apprentice, I am Master Ynrchy. Some call me mad. Don't mind the scattered apparatus. I have been seeking the source of life, and one tends to get rather distracted."
"The source of life? Is that all?" I drawled. "I'm surprised it has taken you this long."
Ynrchy craned his neck to look at me, fixing his stare upon me. "It has eluded Shapers since the beginning," he said. "In all the history of Shaping, gemstone and metal have affected only living things. Clothing is not altered; weapons cannot be made or unmade. The land itself is immune. But glass, ah! Glass affects everything." He raised a gnarled finger and gave us a toothy smile, and said it again. "Glass affects everything!"
"I've been meaning to ask someone something," Bard said. "If glass can transport everything, why can't you hear sound through them?"
"Variations in design," Ynrchy said expansively. "Filtering elements, you might say. Certain mirrors transport sound by design - when they're properly opened, of course. Other mirrors transport heat without sound, or air without wind."
"It doesn't work that way," Bard, half-protesting. "At least, it doesn't in our world. Normally, I would say those are all aspects of the same thing. Sound is a compression wave carried through the air. You can't transmit heat through a mirror without allowing the molecules to-"
Master Ynrchy waved her into silence. "I assure you, it is possible, and not only is it possible, it has been done. You have been visiting Masters today, true? And you have traveled through mirrors to them. Was there no wind at the mirror? No howling gale, no storm transported from Ebella to the Alcazar?"
"No," Bard admitted. "But those mirrors didn't transport air-"
"And yet as you stepped through, you breathed, true?" Ynrchy said. "Your breath was not snatched away? The mirror blocks air, as you say, but it does not block breath."
Bard opened her mouth to say something, but she shut it again.
"Bless me, where do they get these Apprentices?" Ynrchy muttered to himself. "The secrets of mirrorcraft won't be solved by saying thus-and-so cannot be done, cannot be, cannot be thus-and-so. They simply are what they are. Do you know why I am seeking the source of life?"
"Because you want to know why certain mirrors affect only living things?" Bard asked.
Ynrchy looked crestfallen. "Ah. Did I explain that part? One does get distracted. But yes, if we can solve the alchemathy, if we can extrapolate from the known into the unknown, we will be able to create mirrors like no Shaper has seen before."
"What mirrors?" I asked.
"And how do you plan to accomplish that?" Bard asked.
"Imagine a mirror that contains Perfection," Master Ynrchy said, casting his hands up as if describing a world of the future. "Such a mirror could bestow Perfection upon any living thing, yes -on anything at all. And suppose that we had a formula, a formula that was not perfect, no, it was flawed in some fundamental way. Could we not use the mirror to perfect the formula? Could we not incise Perfection unto our imperfect formula, thereby furthering our knowledge?"
"I suppose so," Bard said. "So how do you make this Perfection mirror in the first place?"
"Ah," Ynrchy said, deflating somewhat. "That does remain rather elusive, I admit. At the moment, Perfection is difficult to achieve even for living things, despite what Master Tzcheon would have you hear about his gemstones. No, at the moment, gemstones can only enhance qualities that already exist in a body. And if the body is imperfect, a gemstone mirror cannot make it less so."
"Wisdom, then," Bard said. "Knowledge, experience. Can't you make yourself a better Shaper by using a mirror?"
Ynrchy sighed. "Some say that is possible. I have never seen it done. There are stories only, stories that tell of mirrors the Cabal was said to have done. A mirror that incised Talent, yes, in theory it could make one's intuitive genius greater, at the cost of making one's capacity for mistakes correspondingly larger as well."
"How does this relate to your current study?" I asked, curious.
The aged Master brightened, and beckoned us to come further into his laboratory. "Come this way, I will show you. One mistake commonly made in alchemathy is complexity. Formulas too complex, too many nodes to calculate, too many combinations. The Shaper introduces imperfections into the glass caused by errors in measuring, variations in the shape of the mirror. I strive to eliminate error and test our alchemathical assumptions systematically."
He led us into a still larger room, almost as cluttered as the first, though most of the disorganization was confined to a few tables near the door. The remainder of the room was dominated by a forge. Ingots of pure metal lay in neat stacks, close at hand. One wall was covered with shelves and cubbyholes, and in each were carefully labeled jars of ingredients. A set of precision scales sat on the table beside a stack of pages. A neat rack, like a vertical filing system, was crammed to capacity with small, hand-held mirrors. Master Ynrchy selected one and showed it to us.
"A very simple physical form," Ynrchy said. "An earthworm. Hardly a life form on the scale of a man, but captured in a mirror. With the proper alchemathy, we transformulate the proper basin." He selected another mirror from the same rack, but this was a dish so shallow it might one day aspire to be a saucer. "Note the minute curvature," the Master said. "And yet this functions as a basin, and with it, one might exfuse one's consciousness into that of an earthworm."
"How long do earthworms live?" I asked, a little disgusted by the idea of crawling around in the dirt.
"Ah! Not long, it is true," Ynrchy said. "With vermin the danger is always that while you are making your calculations and crafting the appropriate basin, the creature itself will already have died before you can test it. But the theory is sound."
Bard held up her hand to forestall further lecturing. She had been thinking again, I thought to myself with amusement. "Just a minute," she said. "Every basin that could be made is tied to a living thing? A large percentage of those formulas should link up to people or creatures that died centuries ago, or even to some that haven't been born yet. How do you know if the basin you made goes to a creature living in the present?"
"You have a questioning mind," Ynrchy said sharply. "You doubt what you have been told. You cling to your own personal logic in defiance of the world around you. That is what superstitious peasants of our world do: they say, I do not understand mirrors, therefore I must fear them and doubt them. Your logic, your skepticism, it may be of some use to you in your own world, but here, we accept that mirrors can and do work. We therefore commit ourselves to understanding how and why."
Bard broke into the first genuine smile I had seen on her face in some time, and the worried lines in her brow smoothed out. "You know, it's been a long time since somebody accused me of being superstitious. I'm usually the one who has to explain the science to everybody else."
"You're adaptable," I said dryly.
"I hope so," she said fervently. "It's not easy when everything you ever learned about physics gets turned inside out."
"It occurred to me that all mirrors that focus on the living are nevertheless crafted from the non-living," the old Shaper went on doggedly, ignoring our exchange of looks. "From metals and ores, and from water itself, and so on. I began to wonder if one might devise a way to craft a mirror from living things - but, of course, they cease to become living when they are thrown in the furnace. But there have been some promising results."
"You . . . living things into the furnace?" I stammered in disbelief.
He waved an arthritic hand at me, negligently. "All contingencies must be examined," Ynrchy wheezed. He tottered across the floor where a large canvas draped shapelessly over something man-sized. "Examined, and tested, and calculated, and confirmed. Seizing the reins of mirrorcraft requires a certain ruthless dedication to science. How else could I have made my new Apprentice?"
With a grip stronger than I would have given him credit for, he grasped at the canvas and pulled it to the floor. Beneath stood the figure of a man etched in lustrous blue metal, carved in perfect three-dimensional detail by forces unknown. It stood at attention, idle, waiting.
"What - what is that?" Bard whispered. "A golem?"
A voice across the laboratory answered us. "I think it's tungsten, possibly tungsten carbide. It's certainly more durable than anything I can test with the materials at hand." A figure approached us across the floor, limping slightly; he was a dark-haired Ebellan man something less than twenty-five, with eyes of vivid blue, wearing apprentice orange.
"It's harder than quartz, and harder than steel," the young man went on, "and somewhere below corundum and diamond. But the temperature resistance - I've walked through molten lava in that thing, poured acid on my hands, and mercury; held red-hot sheets of metal - unbelievable." He held out one hand to Bard. "Are you also from Earth? I'm Cubist."
"Really? You don't look a thing like you used to," Bard said, taking his hand and shaking it. "I'm Bard. I've changed a bit, too."
Cubist raised an eyebrow, looking over Bard's half-woman, half-horse physique. "You can say that again. You didn't waste any time getting started on the mirrors here, did you?"
Bard laughed nervously. "It wasn't my idea, honest. It just sort of happened. What about you, though? Why haven't you used a mirror to turn into something more interesting?"
The young man shrugged, and cocked a handsome, lopsided grin at us that did strange things to my knees. "I've never really been all that interested in any particular form, anyway. With my Master's mirrors, I can experiment all I want."
"But what about your leg?"
"I'll get around to fixing that eventually," Cubist said, unaware he was mimicking Ynrchy's dismissive hand-wave. "I don't usually use this body except between basins, anyway."
"That golem body," Cubist said, gesturing at the tungsten man, "is controlled by a water mirror. Have you seen them? It's a little metal basin filled with-"
"We've seen them," Bard nodded. "But I thought those only focused on living things?"
Cubist nodded. "That's right. That golem used to be a living man, which Ynrchy turned to metal."
We stared at the two of them in horror.
"Don't look so shocked," Ynrchy interrupted us brusquely. "The man was old and dying - we do still have old age and death here, believe it or not. After a certain point there's nothing anybody can do, not even with mirrors, to prolong your life. This man's life was nearing an end, and he asked if there were anything I could do for him. We agreed that in this way, he would still be of use." The Shaper grunted with satisfaction. "Cheaper than mining a ton of ore, too. I should consider that for the next Golden Mirror I make - change someone into gold, yes? Melt him down - mold him- hammer him flat -probably wouldn't take more than one of his fingers to make a nice full-sized mirror-"
Cubist cleared his throat. "Master, you asked me to remind you not to-"
Ynrchy growled unhappily. "Glass and splinters, boy, it's a good idea. Valid science. Very economical, too. Ah! Curse these rules we live under. I always said having a King was a bad idea."
"We have a Queen," I said, none too gently.
The Master stared at me. "Do not," he said, petulantly. "We have a King. The Queen is nobody, she's just a girl."
Cubist nudged his Master. "She's been on the throne for years," he reminded his Master.
Ynrchy continued to scowl. "Very well. If you say so, we have a Queen. Don't see what difference it makes. I was Shaper to Poul before he was king. Told him it was a bad idea to have a king. Gives them ideas." He slumped down into a chair and clutched his steel blue robes about his knees, muttering to himself.
"I'm sorry," Cubist apologized, pulling us to one side. "He gets like this. They tell me it wasn't that bad before, but the past couple of weeks have been pretty trying. I don't know, maybe he's been pushing himself too hard, getting all these new Apprentices in. He's been helping Master Lamard with Foundry business, I think. He's certainly had me checking a lot of his chemical calculations."
"We heard Master Tzcheon talking about that," Bard said excitedly. "Can you really calculate the correct formula for the kind of mirror you want?"
Cubist made a seesawing movement with one hand. "Yes, with certain basic mirrors. Glass is pretty easy - gemstone, not so much. Metal and water have this strange interrelationship that's hard to explain. You take a basin, right? It's linked to a particular person. You add ingredients to the water, and you can make the person change."
"Yes," Bard said. "Master Irsio explained that part."
"Well, that's just the first part. Now you bring that same person before a metal mirror, which changes the person, but the water changes, too. Ynrchy calls it a reciprocal force, like magnetism inducing a magnetic current, and vice versa. That's how he made the tungsten man. He found the proper ingredients using a basin, then calculated the properties of the metal mirror he would need."
Bard looked thoughtfully as the lustrous blue statue across the room. "I still don't understand what you mean when you say you used that body to hold a red-hot mirror. How can you control it if it isn't alive?"
"I don't know," Cubist said, shaking his head. "It shouldn't be alive. It's pure tungsten, or at least I'm assuming that's what it is. No, since it used to be a living thing, it has a basin. And since it has a basin, it can be controlled from there." He grinned slyly, giving a very handsome expression that again made my thighs feel as if they were melting. "See? I told you it was hard to explain. Even I don't get it. It just is."
"What do you use the golem for?" I ventured to ask.
"Mostly to separate and extract ores for Ynrchy's metal mirrors," Cubist explained. "The tools here are fairly primitive by our standards, and they use different names, so it's hard to say exactly which acids I've been handling, but I know mercury when I see it. And gold is traditionally extracted with cyanide, so I guess the golem is immune to poison, too."
"It can't be killed?" I asked. "It's a wonder all the Masters don't use golems like that, considering all the recent attacks."
Cubist held up one hand. "No, I know what you're thinking, but you wouldn't want to live your life in a golem body. They don't see well, and they're very slow - it feels like wading through wet cement. You have to get by on hearing and touch. Not only that, but while you're using a basin, you can't see or feel your real body, and you have to keep it somewhere, right? No matter where you put it, your body would be completely vulnerable if anybody found it."
I frowned. "What happens then? If you're using a basin and hiding out in the golem's body, and somebody kills your original body, what happens? Do you die? Does your soul go into the golem?"
He shook his head. "I asked Master Ynrchy the same question. He wouldn't say. I get the feeling he doesn't know."
"You've been studying your Master's calculations," Bard said, thinking hard. She looked as if she had something specific on her mind. "You've been here for weeks, it sounds like. You could teach the rest of us a few things."
"I can teach you everything I know," Cubist offered. "That isn't much. I haven't been outside this room. I don't really even know what kind of world we're in - there's been so many amazing things to do in here. In fact, I didn't even know that there were any other List members coming until Ynrchy told me that you and Fish would be visiting." He glanced directly at me.
My mouth fell open. I shut it again with a snap. "He told you? He knew? He knew that I was masquerading as Iolande the maid?"
"Of course he knew," Cubist said, perplexed. "Why, was it supposed to be a secret?"
Later in the hallway, Bard said, "We have to get together with Cubist again. He's the only one from the List so far who appears to be studying something useful. It's lucky he got a Master who's keen about studying the practical uses of mirrors."
"It's lucky Cubist didn't tell anybody who I was," I said, relieved. "But anyway, give it time. It hasn't even been a single day, for most of us. Wexrtyn got you working on your first day - and Tzcheon was lecturing, too."
"I'm serious," Bard said. "Master Wexrtyn is a hard worker, but he's not very scientific about it. Shadow Wolf is digging through piles of old papers, looking for clues on the old Masters - doesn't Master Quistad have anything better for him to do? If there were anything truly useful in those pages, his Master would have found them himself. That's probably just to keep Shadow Wolf busy.
"Xodiac is stuck out in Achlad with Master Varacid testing new mirror techniques on him. Bryan is laboring in the forges. I'm working in a mine. You're a chambermaid. Jon - I mean Rachel - is doing who-knows-what for Master Lamard. At least Cubist has some of the formulas and calculations. Dana was the only other Listie we know of who was actually learning something about Shaping, and he's dead."
"Interesting," I murmured. "Between all of us, we have a pretty efficient mirror-making team."
Bard came to a sudden stop. Behind her, our last mirror rocked in its slot as the cart's momentum ceased.
"What?" I asked her. "Think about it. We have a mine, a way to separate ores, someone to craft the mirrors, a forge, a researcher, someone who knows how to make a few calculations and someone who's learning how to use the mirrors we make. The only one who hasn't learned a damn thing about mirrors is me."
"But we're all pretty isolated. You can go anywhere you like," Bard said, becoming excited with the idea. "Nobody even looks twice at you. You're a servant. It's the next best thing to being invisible. You're already passing notes between the Masters for their Triad game - you can pass notes for us, too. As long as we're all studying under separate Masters, we're going to need someone to lead the group."
"Lead?" I asked blankly. I never thought of myself as a leader; I just did what I thought was right, moment to moment, and tried to live as if I were setting a good example. But a leader?
"Somebody has to keep us all coordinated," Bard was saying. "You know, to make sure we're working to answer the right questions, so if one of us needs silver, or iron, or some formula or something, another one of us is getting it."
Would you rather be the servant of the leaders or the leader of the servants? Master Oleu's voice sounded in the back of my mind, and the question he had asked of everyone during the selection of Apprentices. I wondered if Master Oleu had known, even then, that I might become both at once - chambermaid to the Queen of the Four Lands, head of the maid staff, and de facto leader of the Apprentices.
"I'll think about it," I said. "The Masters seem to have a plan for rooting out the Cabal. I don't think we should interfere with that until we know a little bit more."
"A plan?" Bard scoffed. "They barely talk to one another."
"They brought us here," I pointed out.
"That was Lamard's idea, didn't you hear Master Hannis?" Bard asked. "He's the one who found us."
"He? Lamard is a she. Sometimes."
"He, she, whatever. Lamard found us in her mirrors, and the rest of the Foundry probably caught wind of it and demanded we get split up, so not too much power was concentrated in Lamard's hands. You saw how Lamard plays in Triad - she was busy forming a bloc of power, a wedge."
"That's just a game," I said, not really convinced myself.
Bard nodded. "It's a game that probably tells you as much about the player as chess does. I want to learn that game, if only to get an idea how Lamard and Oleu and Hannis all think."
This time I heard the voice of Master Hannis: Master Lamard has captured my Caravan. I really need to respond in kind, but it would pull me out of position.
I tried to think. Had Master Hannis said that just before, or just after we heard about Dana's murder? Was their game of Triad being played out somehow among the List members? Had Dana been murdered - not, as everyone guessed, in defense of Master Tzcheon, but in retaliation for some other maneuver?
"What's a Caravan do?" I asked Bard urgently.
"In Triad? It's a piece that moves other pieces around," Bard said. "I think it moves up to five spaces, depending on how much it's carrying. It's like a courier piece."
A courier - like Iolande had been, I thought with a chill running down my back. And Iolande had indeed been captured, by Lamard.
I tried to explain the theory to Bard, and did so very badly, stumbling over my words. "I'm the courier," I said in conclusion. "I'm the Caravan that Lamard captured, aren't I?"
Bard didn't protest at the wild theory. Instead, she looked thoughtful. "If that's true, then that suggests that Hannis murdered Dana - or paid to have it done - in retaliation for Lamard disposing of Iolande. But it doesn't work."
"It doesn't?" I asked, hopefully.
"I don't think so," she said slowly. "It assumes the Caravan - you - were one of Hannis's pieces. If you're his sister, and you said he suggested that you were, then that makes a certain sense. Iolande probably would be his ally. However, it would mean Hannis knew you weren't Iolande, knew his own sister had been taken away and possibly killed, but he didn't do anything about it."
"That doesn't sound very likely," I agreed. "That Apprentice outside Tzcheon's door said the assassin was wearing a cloak with a shifting animal-patterned cloak. That doesn't sound like Hannis - it sounds like a cloak I saw Lamard wearing. And don't forget what Lamard said. He told me that Iolande had allies, but he didn't know who they were, and he was going to use me to find out. If I were looking for Iolande's allies, Hannis is the first person I'd look at."
"Maybe Lamard didn't know they were related," Bard suggested. "That doesn't make sense either. Weren't Iolande and Hannis the two guards who pushed the mirror over onto that guy from the Cabal? They would've been heroes - how do you hide the fact that they're brother and sister?"
I shook my head in negation. "No, actually, Hannis never said who the second guard was. But that reminds me of something else. Master Hannis told me that I had pushed the mirror over onto dear old Adept Arvero. But Master Oleo said it had been Master Ivis. Which of them was it?"
"Ask Bryan, next chance you get," Bard advised me. "Master Hannis said he was going through all those old legends and stories looking for clues about how the old Masters might have made their mirrors. Bryan might help find the answer to that one. I'm sure there were plenty of stories told about the downfall of the Cabal."
"Would we trust an answer that came from Master Hannis?" I asked pointedly.
"Or from Bryan, for that matter, since those salamander-lizards Hannis made seem to obey his Apt Ioanna," Bard observed.
"They're the same person," I reminded her. "Hannis and Ioanna are the same, remember?"
"You never told me that."
Because I hadn't been sure, then, that Bard was really herself. Now I knew. Embarrassed by the omission and the implicit mistrust which had caused it, I said, "Must have slipped my mind at the time. Even so, that's all the more reason to be somewhat suspect of what Bryan might tell us."
"Then ask Shadow Wolf," Bard urged. "He isn't looking at stories, he's looking at the economic end, the geography, the availability of materials, but there might be something. A letter, a purchase record, I don't know."
"Or I'll just google for it," I quipped.
"I wish," Bard said with a laugh. "The record-keeping in this world is just a mess. How do they get any research done?"
"Slowly," I guessed. "They hardly ever share their secrets with each other, so every Master has to discover every new technique for himself. Each Master practically has to start over from the beginning, except for any secrets and formulas he can acquire by defeating other Shapers in conquest."
"And if every mirror operates by some mental impulse, some thought or password," the horse-girl said, "then killing enemy Shapers only tells you how to make that mirror, not what it's for or how it works."
I nodded. "Look, we'll have time to figure this all out, I hope. Right now I'm starving - I have to get something to eat, somewhere. First we have to take this extra mirror back to Master Wexrtyn and let him know we didn't need it."
"Lead on," Bard said wearily.
I looked down along Iolande's unfamiliar curves. "Lead on, feet!" I said.
Bard just gave me a funny look.
We never made it back to Master Wexrtyn's mines with the mirror. There was one final delivery - evidently someone had known there would be an extra mirror. Someone had known that Dana would not need the one we had brought.
I could not explain where in the Alcazar this Master's chambers were. There was no door, no passage, no visible access of any kind. We knew from the lingering, distant scent of sulfur and coal that we were somewhere in proximity to Master Wexrtyn's own smithy, but in more precise detail I could not be certain. I doubted I could follow back the twisting, turning route.
It was to this anonymous half-finished corridor that my legs took us. My sandals plodded methodically over the gritty, rough-hewn floor. I kept looking for familiar landmarks in the halls, trying to recall if I had seen that lantern just so, that rusted torch bracket.
We came to a stop at the edge of the torchlight where the hallway seemed to end in a blank, smooth rock face. There were no doors. A hammer lay beside a large pile of stones where some excavator probably sat years ago and finished a meal of roast chicken. The bones sat in a musty heap.
"This isn't it," I said, turning to Bard. "My legs must have taken a wrong t-"
But Bard was staring at her cart. It was vanishing in a strange swirling rainbow refraction. The distortion around it was painful to the eye, as if something had twisted my optic nerve; it reminded me strangely of the time I had placed the telephone receiver beside my computer monitor. Waves of color bent the cart and its payload into strange, funhouse shapes, enveloping it in blackness, and then it was gone, harness, mirror and all.
I barely had time to shout Bard's name in surprise before that strong distortion claimed me, drawing me as a magnet draws an paper clip. She shouted something at me, probably telling me to run. The world became hazy and fragmented, as if seen through pebbled glass, and as Bard vanished with the world, I felt myself drawn through a mirror.
An eyeblink later, I was standing in a Master's chamber.
The room was large and it gave me an immediate impression of wood and ancient stones joined together against the weather. A number of open windows spied out upon a storm-tossed bay laden with heavy clouds and a curtain of dark rain. Wind, chill and salted, curled the thick curtains into lazy waves. From the view of the sea, and the warmth and humidity of the room, I guessed I must have been taken to somewhere in Ebella.
There were mirrors here, many glass and metal; and there were wide racks the size of tables and shelved almost to the ceiling on all sides. In each shelf was a basin, either metal or glass. The floor was protected by a layer of woven coconut matting, and there were a few objets d'art on the walls, but this room appeared almost purely function in nature. This is where a Master stored his mirrors - or, I thought, where he wished me to think his mirrors were stored.
"Welcome," said Master Oleu, smiling faintly.
I goggled at him. "Did you bring me here?" It wasn't a very intelligent question, but I couldn't think of a better.
"Of course," he said. Master Oleu was standing beside a mirror about my height, with one arm resting casually on the top of the frame. In the mirror was Bard, shouting my name silently from a safe distance. Oleu was not dressed as I had seen him before, in steel-blue Shaper's robes of heavy wool, but in light cotton breeches of the same color, and a similar loose white blouse that seemed to be all the fashion in Ebella. "Mirrors work well enough when you step through them, but a Shaper can summon objects to be transported through them. Or people," he added.
"Why?" I asked. "Why did you bring me?"
"You are delivering mirrors to all the new Apprentices," Oleu said easily. "There is a new Apprentice here too, you see." He stroked the frame of the glass mirror that had brought me here; in its image, I saw Bard retreating down the hallway. As I watched, Oleu appeared to adjust the mirror's focus with his fingertips, turning its view more directly toward Bard. The mirror looked for all the world like a camera on a dolly, panning over to the horse-girl as she backed warily down the hall, tracking along after her as if on rails. Hypnotized by the mirror, watching Oleu re-focus it, I could say nothing.
"How are you doing that?" I asked quaveringly.
"Glass mirrors can be refocused slightly," Oleu explained. "No more than a few hundred paces in any direction, of course, but far enough that a mirror isn't fixed to only one arbitrary location. Some Shapers say that metal can be refocused," he said wistfully, "but nobody apart from Adept Kommalt ever claimed to have done it. Kommalt, of course, isn't telling," Oleu said, and did a brief, mocking impression of freezing in the position Kommalt now held - locked in stone, back arched, with a sword slicing through one shoulder.
I tried to think quickly. Oleu was very adept himself, very much in command, and I felt as if I had been pushed around the Triad board by him since my arrival. I would have to be at the top of my game to match wits with him. "I didn't think I had any extra mirrors," I said cautiously. It was somewhere to start.
"Of course you do," Master Oleu said, and he gestured to the cart which stood beside him in the room. The harness dangled, empty, from the shafts. "Dana no longer requires hers, you see."
"Hers?" I asked. "Dana was a man."
"You never knew Dana," Master Oleu said. "You may be certain of that. Your friends from the List never knew Dana, either."
"So she was a lurker on the List," I nodded. I decided to strike out with a wild guess, hoping to surprise Oleu, to break that placid façade, so I said, "And apparently Dana was a woman in the other world. Isn't that what Lamard told you when he recruited her?"
Master Oleu simply laughed lightly, mockingly. "Master Lamard had nothing to do with bringing Dana here. I should know."
I was thunderstruck. "You're saying Dana was an assassin? Someone from the List was trying to kill Master-"
"Dana was no friend of yours," Master Oleu said. "It was obvious enough that there were more Apprentices at the Examination than there were mirrors made to summon them. By the end of the Examination we had no Masters left, and one Apprentice left over."
"Yes, me," I nodded bitterly, gesturing down at my newly acquired physique. "I remember, I was there. I was shipped off to the Queen to become this."
"There was, therefore, one Apprentice too many. Someone had inserted an extra Apprentice, days ago, when the process of Examination first began. Unfortunately, it is now impossible to know precisely who sent Dana, or why. The surplus was detected, and then of course it became necessary to correlate Master Lamard's formulas against the Apprentices who had arrived. And so the calculations were given to a Master with an excellent reputation for alchemathy, which would have been-"
"Master Tzcheon!" I exclaimed. "He verified the calculations, didn't he?"
Oleu nodded gravely. "He knew that the Apprentices at the Examination contained a mole. Moreover, Dana knew that he knew it; Tzcheon could hardly have completed his calculations in total secrecy. We don't know what Dana had hoped to achieve by infiltrating Tzcheon's class of Apprentices, but Tzcheon took steps."
"So Tzcheon summoned an assassin, to kill the assassin?" I asked skeptically. "Why didn't Tzcheon take care of Dana himself? Why didn't he call the guard, tell the Foundry, do something?"
"What Master Tzcheon did was verify the calculations from all the formulas Master Lamard had used in summoning you and your friends," Oleu corrected me patiently.
"But why do all the calculations?" I asked. "When we were recruited, duplicates were left behind. All you would have to do is look in each of the mirrors that brought us here, and see if one of them had a duplicate of Dana."
"Glass mirrors are focused on places, not people," he reprimanded me, like a stern instructor. "He could wait, and eventually the subject would return to the mirror's vicinity. To calculate what the assassin would look like in our world - that he could not do."
"Because we hadn't been brought here physically," I realized, amazed. "Because we had taken over bodies that lived here. "
Master Oleu nodded. "And because he did not have the mirrors themselves."
"Lamard had those," I guessed.
"Exactly. The assassin could have assumed any shape, could have been any one of you. Two methods remained. One, Lamard might have hoped to find each duplicate in the mirror and revert him to his previous shape. Or two, Tzcheon might have calculated the manufacture of a basin from the glass mirror formula and used the basin to verify each identity, one by one.
"But a mirror's focus is limited," Oleu said. "Lamard could not afford to wait idly and hope the subject chanced to pass within range, if there were any other means of arriving at the answer more quickly. And manufacturing basins for each of your friends would take time.
"Master Lamard found as many duplicates in his mirrors, where this was possible; only those mirrors he could not verify were calculated by Master Tzcheon. By the time you arrived - last - a basin had been made for you, and it was arranged that you would not be chosen, and instead sent to the Queen. You could verify the identity of your friends much more quickly than we, and so certain suspected spies were eliminated from consideration. When Master Lamard deduced that only Dana could be the impostor, he saw to it that Dana was killed. Fortuitously, our assassin managed to reach Dana before Dana decided that Tzcheon should not be allowed to finish his alchemathy."
I tried to keep up. My breathing was more rapid, and I wasn't sure if anything Master Oleu had said could be trusted - and yet, it all sounded so plausible. That was what made it dangerous. "Okay, wait," I said, marshalling a few thoughts together. "When the Examination ended, there was a Master left. There was you. You said you hadn't bothered to tell the Foundry that you had already taken an Apprentice."
Oleu nodded, his face solemn. "That is so."
"That means you also had advance warning about the mirrors Lamard was making," I concluded, working it out in my head.
"Perhaps not," Master Oleu demurred. "You have no reason to suspect that Apprentice is from your world at all."
"But you also acquired your own Apprentice outside the Examination process," I said, still trying to piece it together. "And you play Triad with Lamard and Hannis. It's too much of a coincidence. You could have received Lamard's formulas from Iolande on the sly just as easily as Hannis and Quistad did. Your story was very nice, but it doesn't prove anything except that Master Lamard tried to save Master Tzcheon - it certainly doesn't prove that you're an innocent bystander in all of this."
"Who provided you with the key to the mirror in the Colonnade?" Master Oleu pointed out. "Do you know how few people are able to visit the tomb of the Cabal? Who ordered your new ward made? You have one of the only wards in existence to that mirror."
"If that's the only mirror down there, which I doubt," I retorted. "There could be ten others all in a row, but you closed them before we arrived - next time I go down there, they'll all be wide open. But you know what, I think I'm going to go down there anyway."
"Why would you?" Master Oleu asked. He seemed unsurprised, damn him.
"Because you just said somewhere you have a basin with my name on it," I said. I was getting angry now, angry at being pushed around and kept in the dark. "Bard figured that out before I did. That's how you've been spying on me, controlling my movements, leading me around by the nose. It's not the ward; it never was. But I'll bet if I walk right into the Colonnade, into the path of a hostile mirror, it'll hit you, too - and what will that do? I don't think you'd let me walk into a mirror like that as long as I've got you riding shotgun in my head."
Master Oleu mouthed the words riding shotgun, as if trying to divine the meaning of the idiom.
"And that's another thing," I continued hotly. "Master Hannis said that Iolande had been one of the guards who pushed the mirror over onto the Cabal. You said it was Adept Ivis. Hannis said it was Adept Arvero. Which one of you is lying to me?"
For the first time, Master Oleu seemed genuinely pleased. "Adept Arvero, did he say? Fascinating. For years we have assumed that the Master was Ivis. Quite possibly, we have been in error."
"Some error," I said. "Who dropped the ball on this one?"
"Your idiom is colorful," Master Oleu smiled. "Nevertheless, we had it on two very reliable sources that the Master at the forefront was Ivis. Iolande, of course, was one of the guards - although at that time, she was a man named Hollan. She maintained that it had been Ivis all along, and as you know, her loyalty has never been unalloyed."
"And what did the other guard say? The same thing?" I asked. "Isn't that exactly what you'd expect if the two guards were brother and sister? I mean, brothers?"
Master Oleu shook his head. "The two guards were temporary allies - the enemy of my enemy, and so on. They plotted a means to overthrow the Cabal and seized their opportunity when it arose."
"I still don't understand something," I said, dismissing that problem for the moment and analyzing another. "Master Lamard said Iolande had allied, but he didn't know who they were. Surely it must have been Quistad and Hannis, yes? They were the only other Masters apart from you that acquired their Apprentices themselves. Did they attend the Examination? I didn't see them there."
Oleu shook his head again. "They did not attend."
"So it should have been obvious it was them," I said. "The minute they bowed out of the Examination, didn't that mean they had cribbed from Lamard's notes, therefore they were using Iolande as a spy?"
"Not necessarily," Oleu said sternly. "Do try to think clearly. There are dozens upon dozens of Masters, and there are many others who did not participate. Masters are always free to select their own Apprentices, from anywhere they can find them, on any world; Master Lamard simply provided a golden opportunity to select from a group of potentially very talented candidates. Most Masters took the opportunity - but they were not required to do so."
"So Quistad and Hannis, among others, might have been Iolande's allies."
"Yes. It was as Lamard said: he did not know who Iolande's allies were."
"But how do you know now?" I asked plaintively. My head was spinning.
"As you say, that is obvious," Master Oleu said. "We could not be certain that Quistad and Hannis were Iolande's allies until you met with them today."
"How? What did they say?"
Master Oleu smiled. "When your friend Bard recognized both of their Apprentices. It was clear then that you all came from the same world. And if you came from the same world-"
"-then they had acquired those formulas from Master Lamard," I finished, "via Iolande or some other intermediary."
"And before visiting them, you were warned not to be free with your identity," the Shaper said, as if explaining to a child, "so that Quistad and Hannis would not make a similar deduction about you."
I let out a shivering breath. My blood was still racing, and my head was spinning, but something finally added up. "Okay, I think I understand," I said.
His smile was faintly sardonic. "It is pleasing to see you finally understand something."
"Who was the second guard, then?" I asked, nettled. "The one who helped Iolande push over that mirror. I mean, if it wasn't Hannis sticking a sword in Adept Kommalt's back, who was it?"
Oleu smiled faintly. "Why, it was Lamard."
I gaped at him.
"Master Lamard had been working for years to achieve the Cabal's downfall. As a simple guard, he listened to the conversations of four of the greatest Shapers ever seen in the Four Lands. He saw the benefits of cooperative research, which the Foundry struggles today to recognize and admit. It was Lamard who recommended that the crown establish the Foundry, a body whose purpose is cooperation. He is the only Shaper whose loyalty to the crown cannot be doubted."
"But he disregards his duties," I protested. "He turns up to the meetings in the wrong body, he blathers on about aesthetics, he doesn't even bother to train his Apprentice!" I thought sadly of Rachel the snow leopard, and wondered how well she was handling her new line of study.
"Yes," Master Oleu said quietly. "He makes himself seem unimportant, ineffective. Uninterested. It makes him appear less valuable, less of a threat."
The safest place to be is off the board, I remembered. "And he's on the verge of being deposed as Principal Shaper," I breathed in realization. "They almost have the votes, you said."
"Yes," Master Oleu purred. "We do."
We? Master Oleu was working to have Lamard deposed? What would that mean? I didn't know; I couldn't answer that without more information, and time to think it over.
Should you ever learn to play Triad, child, do not underestimate Master Oleu's end game.
It occurred to me that Master Oleu still hadn't answered one very important question. He had skillfully evaded my central point - his own position amid all these machinations - and distracted me with a dangerously plausible scenario, where Masters Quistad and Hannis were working to overthrow Lamard and Tzcheon. But where did he himself fit into all of this?
In fact, something that had nagged at me about the pattern of Master Oleu's speech was now coming into focus. I had an actor's disposition, and I paid attention to the way people spoke. And Master Oleu had never yet, in my hearing, spoken aloud the word I. He never spoke of himself at all.
One thing I knew for certain: if Master Oleu was here, standing before me, he was not at my basin. He couldn't control me without it. If I could find it in the room, if I could shatter it or - weren't basins of this type made out of metal? - or bend it, perhaps I could render it useless, and I would be free, at least until he fashioned another. That might give me time enough to decide for myself what was going on, time to decide if Master Oleu's story was real or simply a very cunning lie.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a good candidate: a brassy bowl on a table, light reflecting from the glimmering water inside. Droplets of darkness were dribbled on the wooden table around it; it had recently been used. And it was right beside an open window, even. I could probably clamber up onto a table and throw the mirror out the window - how high were we? Was this a tower? I could try to shatter the mirror on some rocks below, or perhaps throw it into the sea. How good would Iolande's arm be for throwing? How heavy would the mirror be? Would I toss the water out of the basin first, and if I did, what would that do to my body?
To keep Master Oleu occupied, I asked another question: "If Lamard is deposed as Principal Shaper, who would take over after him?"
He smiled thinly at me. "That is a question that the Foundry proposes to vote on tomorrow," he began-
-and while he was warming to his subject, I made a dash for the table.
Oleu was caught flat-footed, gaping in momentary surprise as I leapt away, sandals flapping on the stones. Iolande's body had been crafted by Master Lamard both for beauty and for labor; in it, I was fit and swift. I was also considerably too well-endowed for long-distance running, I discovered. Iolande's breasts bobbled awkwardly inside my gray shift dress, and her hair tossed around my eyes. Nevertheless, a momentary advantage was all I needed. Master Oleu was several steps behind me.
I reached the basin and grasped it with both hands, spilling most of the water from it. Light cascaded from the bowl, momentarily blinding me, but I remembered where the window had been. Water spilled onto my shoulder, soaking my dress, when I raised the basin up with both hands to throw it. Master Oleu's footsteps were somewhere behind, growing closer. I heaved the basin toward where the window should be, squinting through the green after-glow of the bright lights.
My aim was good. The basin went right for the window.
And the seascape shattered.
Shards of mirror tumbled down onto the table before me, showering me in broken pieces of sky; glittering, falling pieces of wind and wave. The Ebellan landscape descended in fragments and tinkled onto the table. Behind where the mirror had been was a blind stone socket in the shape of a window.
Master Oleu had not brought me to Ebella at all, I realized stupidly. I had been looking out of mirrors, not windows.
Numbly, I heard Oleu approaching and realized I would have to run, so I darted away again, ducking between the high racks of shelves so I could not be caught by whatever offensive mirror he might have in his pocket. After only an instant I realized that in my panic I had left behind the basin - stupid! - that I had just dashed away to destroy.
But then a peaceful tingling overcame all my limbs, and my skin seemed to become very far away, almost thick and heavy, and I slowed to a walk. Someone was taking over my body again, only this time it wasn't just my legs. A strange sense of looseness slowly filled my body, as if I were a puppet with all my strings cut. Although my mind was shouting frantic commands to run, to move, to get away from Master Oleu and his chamber of mirrors, I could not.
Imprisoned in my own body, I turned around against my will and walked back toward Master Oleu. I stood before him, helpless - and I smiled.
Master Oleu's answering smile was warm, but what he said was puzzling: "There rushes at once through my flesh tingling fire," he said. "My eyes are deprived of all power of vision."
I felt myself nodding in return. "My ears hear nothing but the sounds of wind roaring, and all is blackness."
"That was the King's favorite poem," Oleu murmured. "I thought it must be you."
"Be still," my mouth murmured. "Your Apprentice is listening."
"It is very fortunate that you were listening as well," Master Oleu said, looking down into my eyes with something like relief. "Iolande might have escaped from us otherwise, and who knows what secrets she might have told?"
I stepped lightly toward Master Oleu and embraced him lovingly, and after hesitating for a moment, he enveloped me in his strong arms, wrapping me in scents of spices and salts that surrounded him. "I'm always watching, as often as I can," I assured him, giving him a quick kiss. "But don't worry, I'm always very discreet."
Master Oleu's expression became troubled. "Then you have heard. Our Iolande has become rebellious, has taken matters into her own hands."
I nodded, even as my misbehaving fingers toyed with the collar of Oleu's white blouse. "It was inevitable," I said. "We expect her to trust us, but we have given her little enough reason to do so."
"What do you suggest?" Oleu asked me - rather, asked it of the unknown puppeteer who possessed my body.
"I know how much you abhor the thought of rebellion," I said, slipping out of his embrace. "In this case, I think we have little choice. We cannot abandon our new Iolande without revealing the subterfuge, and we cannot easily replace the talents of this actor," I said the word with some distaste, "as easily as we would like." My puppeteer turned my gaze upon Iolande's body, and my hands were made to pat my dress, straightening and tidying it. "You must admit, he has done surpassingly well in the role."
"He will need to be better," Master Oleu said firmly, "because we expect him to fool Iolande's own brother. You overheard Master Hannis."
My arm came up in a dismissing gesture. "It may be nothing. A figure of speech. And yet you are correct: they do know each other. It is a dangerous game we have asked Iolande to play."
"Then what is your recommendation?" Oleu said again, persistently.
"We must tell Iolande the truth," I said - and inside, as I heard myself say it, I felt a certain thrill of relief. "If we are to have her cooperation, and her trust, we must first extend it."
Oleu nodded, his expression thoughtful. "We have tried everything else to defeat our Enemy; in so doing, we become more like them. We have tried everything else, now let us try trust. It is like their shaking of hands. When one's hand is extended in concord, one's enemy sees it holds no weapon. Very well," he said decisively. "We agree."
We? I wanted to speak, to ask what Master Oleu had meant, but I could not control my lips, or even turn my eyes away from his own: in them, I saw sadness, wisdom, compassion, and oceans of patience.
Master Oleu caught my upper arm in one of his warm hands, and his arm curved around my shoulders. We walked together to a mirror that showed the flickering, water-reflected light of a dim grotto pierced by natural stone columns. "We have given you little reason to trust us," the Shaper murmured softly, "in part because we have not treated you with trust in return. A lesser man might blame this on how easily our secrets were penetrated, how effectively our enemies spread fear and mistrust among us, but that would be small comfort.
"We will free you from our command. We will even return to you the basin which is crafted to command you, if you wish it. All we ask is that you step through this mirror." Master Oleu sounded oddly satisfied, almost vindicated. "In it you will find a friend whom you can trust who will assure you that we mean you no harm. We believe that if you understand the danger which confronts us all that you willingly shall assist us. We hope that it is so. But if we command, if we coerce, if we control those whom we hope to call allies, we would be no better than our Enemy."
I found that I could move again. The tingling sensation had retreated from my limbs. "Who is in that mirror?" I asked.
Master Oleu looked into the depths of the glass. "A friend," he said again. He caressed the frame of the mirror, concentrating to open it, and gestured an invitation with one hand.
Not knowing what I might find, not knowing if it might be another trap, but too tired and depleted from adrenaline to think clearly, I stepped through the glass.
Beyond the looking glass was a cave, a natural cavern full of shadows and columns. Light danced on the ceiling, sparkling from the surface of a great pool of water, sending reverberations of rippling waves scattering around the room to re-echo a thousand times. Throughout the chamber there was a sound at once monstrously large and very faint: the rhythmic, almost subsonic breath of some unimaginably huge creature. The cavern was not bare, but the shores of the pool were furnished with crates and shelves, and books, and candles, and barrels of grain and food; and there was a brazier providing heat and a stove for cooking. As always, everywhere I had seen in this new world, there were mirrors.
I stepped toward the pool, where I thought I heard the splashing water had come from.
The pool itself was not natural; it was too rounded and smooth, an irregular bowl polished to a fine finish. It was from this that the light danced, casting onto the ceiling a huge projection of the image on its surface. Through the ripples I thought I could see signs of a room, but the pool was large and my angle was poor, and there was too much distortion on the surface.
In the pool was a woman, bobbing in the water. She tossed her hair back behind her shoulder as she saw me, and she smiled winningly. "Corey!" she cried. "I was wondering if you were going to come visit me. Don't worry, I heard everything."
"Heard everything?" I asked, confused. "Do I know you? Are you from Earth?"
"Know me?" she asked blankly, then rolled her eyes. "I'm sorry, I forgot for a moment. I'll be right out." She dipped down below the water, ducking head-first and curling under the surface to flash her silvery tail at me.
The mermaid retrieved something from the bottom of her pool and swam up to the surface again, slicing gracefully through the water toward the edge. With the mirror in her teeth, she grasped the pool's edge with slender arms and heaved herself onto dry land. Below the waist, she was flexible and fishy; above the waist, she was fully female.
"Give me just a minute," she said, flicking her wet hair away from her face and looking carefully into the mirror. "And could you grab my robes?"
Over where she had gestured, draped over a stalagmite, were the brown robes of an Apt. I retrieved them and brought them to the water's edge. She activated the metallic mirror and waved it over herself, bathing herself in a glow of transformation.
Her piscine tail split into a pair of legs; her long, wet blue hair retreated into her scalp. The mermaid's body became fully human - and male - and stood up.
I almost dropped the robes in surprise. "Bryan?"
It was he. I had only known him by long distance, never in person, but I had seen his photograph, and his appearance was unmistakable: bookish, wise, wry, with a medium build and a prominent forehead. Bryan gave me a quick, ironic smile as he took the robe from my unresisting grip and wrapped it around himself. "Didn't expect to see me here, did you?"
"Uh, no," I stammered. "I thought I had already seen you somewhere else, actually. I thought you were Master Hannis's apprentice."
"Oh, they did come for me?" Bryan asked pleasantly. "Master Lamard thought they might. That's why he brought me."
"B.D., I've had a very long day," I said wearily. "Can you unpack that for me? Lamard brought you because Hannis brought you?"
Bryan grinned. "I'd say you're doing very well, actually. I've been keeping tabs on your basin during my spare moments. I never actually got a chance to use it, but I could see and hear everything you were doing."
I could not wrap my mind around it yet. There had been too many surprises today. "What the hell are you doing here?" I begged him to tell me. "You don't even look changed! How did you get here in your own body?"
"All right, I'll start at the beginning," Bryan said. "Master Lamard and Queen Gayle found me in their mirrors. They wanted to recruit me. I assume they made a similar proposal to you?"
"Because of my interest in Wikipedia, they knew I'd be in demand at the Examination," Bryan said. "The Masters usually like intelligent, self-taught people. But more than that, Lamard suspected that someone might try to nab me before anyone else had a chance to. He convinced me to come with him, and he left behind a decoy."
"Yes," I said. "All of us had duplicates left behind."
"Not like mine," Bryan said slyly. "The duplicate Bryan knows what I know. He's almost exactly like me, but he's ambitious and devious and untrustworthy."
"Are you sure he's not like you?" I drawled.
"Totally unlike me," Bryan said, deadpan. "That Bryan is basically a time bomb for whichever Master tried to steal him away - and now you say that Hannis has him?"
I grinned. "Yeah, you - the other you - got turned into some self-replicating fireproof lizard. Something like a six-armed salamander."
"Male or female?" Bryan wondered.
"Male, I think," I said jokingly. "I didn't exactly lift up his tail and check."
"Anyway," Bryan said, "I've been spending a great deal of time watching mirrors, ever since the Listies started arriving. I didn't recognize many of them, of course - they're in different bodies, here, and Lamard's mirrors aren't all rigged for sound. But I've got a pretty good idea what's going on in this world, even though I haven't actually left this cave much."
"What is going on?" I asked plaintively. "I'm tired of getting pushed around and told lie after lie. I just want to know if coming here was a huge mistake."
Bryan shook his head. "I don't think so. If you want to go back, just ask them - I'm sure they'd let you. Your life will be pretty much intact, just as you left it. They're very reasonable about the whole thing. I just can't believe you'd really leave this place."
"What?" I asked, shocked. "I've been forced into servitude in a female body, I've been stuck into the middle of this - this nest of vipers, I have no idea what's going on-"
"You'd really go home?" he asked dubiously. "You wrote about places like this for years, stories where you could have magic at your fingertips. You'd really go back to boring old Earth and pretend to forget all about the place where you could make it all happen?"
I didn't have any answer to that. He was probably right.
Bryan noticed my speechlessness, and nodded. "They don't have much here that passes for science," he said, "or history. They're a fairly medieval culture, feudal agrarian in structure, which occasionally pirates some very basic technology from the worlds they discover. They stole the idea of the printing press, for instance - moveable type, the whole works. They liked the concept of the centrifuge, although for some reason they can't get the electricity to work here. I told them to grab me a laptop and a portable generator, but they just doesn't function - something about the laws of physics doesn't work the way we understand it."
"Just run an extension cord through a mirror," I grinned.
"We couldn't find one long enough," he replied with an answering smile. "But from what I've been able to piece together, every Shaper has always been his own man. They don't trust each other, and share as little as they can. A Shaper's worst enemies have always, throughout their history, been other Shapers. I mean, they didn't even use standardized weights and measures, or common alchemical symbols!"
"That must make it even harder to share their technology," I nodded.
"Exactly," Bryan said. "That was the point. You could only ever learn new secrets through conquest or deception. Even that wasn't always reliable - every mirror has its own mental key, so if the Shaper is killed in combat, his keys die with him. All you really end up with is a pile of formulas, and no idea what they're for."
"And you probably can't read that Shaper's formula notation anyway," I said, understanding.
"I think Shaping would have died out centuries ago if it weren't for the Apprentices - making a mirror isn't easy or cheap. It takes labor, and it takes a rich patron. Every little lord had his own Shaper in his back pocket, defending the lord's castle or attacking his foes."
"So why are we here?" I asked. "What do we hope to accomplish by being here?"
Bryan led me across the cave floor to his books and research. "Gayle and Lamard - and really King Poul, I guess - have been trying for thirty years to make their world a better place through mirrorcraft. I don't know if it can be done; war and paranoia and superstition seem deeply ingrained in their culture. It's the only thing most of their people are really good at.
"They're trying to change that," Bryan carried on. "They're trying to build up trust and shared research. They can see other worlds, they can look in on our scientific communities, where our research is published for the common good, but they're having a hard time convincing the old-guard Shapers that it's an idea worth pursuing. The younger generation seems to understand the possibilities. It's a question of whether the schism will tear their society apart before it welds it together."
"You keep talking about Gayle and Lamard," I said slowly. "But I don't get it. Queen Gayle is - well, you've seen her, she's a thirty-year-old spoiled teenager. And Lamard is bipolar, or something. Are we talking about the same people?"
"I've heard that-" Bryan began, but he didn't get farther before we were interrupted.
There was a flash of rainbow light, and waves of swirling distortion — bright white this time, instead of black — and two figures stepped out of the center of the vortex. One of them, Master Lamard, I knew by sight; and yet, it was not the same Master at all.
It was not Lamard as I had seen her in the Foundry, languid and female, disinterested in the bureaucratic proceedings around her, clad in figure-hugging satin robes that slit halfway up the thigh and exposed down the bustline. This Lamard was tall, and male, and dressed in finest black robes trimmed with gold and white threads. At his collar, and his cuffs, and in a wrap thrown casually over one shoulder, was a moving pattern of animal hides, shifting from zebra to tiger to leopard to giraffe, to patterns I had never seen before in nature. His eyes were golden, like that of a raptor, and they were fixed sharply on me. This was Master Lamard as I had seen him in my own world, Principal Shaper of the Foundry, stern and commanding. His powerful male gaze made my knees go inexplicably weak.
The other figure was Queen Gayle: vigorous, regal and beautiful, with a silky cascade of golden-white hair, shockingly violet eyes, and clad in a flowing dress of stormy blue. Clouds swirled over the fabric of her dress; in its threads, a storm — a gale — was brewing.
"Thank you, Bryan," Gayle said softly, as I stared at them both. "Because you are Iolande's friend, because there is mutual trust, you accomplish easily what we cannot, and we learn from your example. We are very pleased that you choose to remain here with us."
There was that odd-sounding we again, I noticed; the same royal we that Master Oleu had been using all along. "You?" I asked, amazed. I was so surprised I could only say it again: "You?"
To me, Queen Gayle began to speak, her voice vibrant and commanding, somehow both melancholy and firm of purpose. "I cannot apologize for deceiving you. Our need to protect the Four Lands is greater than our need for some small courtesies as these.
"Yes, Master Oleu is a real man; he is an Ebellan, and has been a member of the Foundry for years. We chanced to discover, through sheer luck, a basin that looked in on his mind. We saw some small part of his deviousness, his cruelty, his malice, and we realized how close he was to obtaining an alliance with Drndwyn's enemies. Using the basin we created, we interceded, forcing Master Oleu to destroy that alliance before it was created, but others exist. We could not discover them all.
"Using the form of Master Oleu is a temporary necessity, a gambit," she continued. "Master Oleu was known to be sympathetic to the desires of the Cabal, the drive to allow Shapers to rule the world again as they once had, to drive the masses forward into the battlefield to fight horrors conjured out of glass. For this reason, we continue to use the basin to command Master Oleu to do our bidding. One day the new Cabal may approach him, may seek to solicit his help, and then we would discover their identities.
"But we cannot release him, for he would surely reveal everything we have made him do, everything he has heard us make him say. We command him utterly only when we, or Master Lamard, sits vulnerable at the basin."
Oleu, too, was a captive? Inside, behind those eyes, he must be absolutely furious — and terrified at what these unknown puppeteers might make him do next. Could they command him to throw himself from a precipice? Given how my limbs had felt like limp spaghetti when they inhabited my body, all my muscles unresponsive to my will, I was certain that they could do just that.
"Why don't you just kill him?" I demanded. "If Master Oleu is that much of a threat, why don't you get rid of him?"
"We may," said the Queen, regretfully, "if he ceases to be useful as a decoy. Until we are certain that the Cabal has no interest in Master Oleu as an ally, we must continue to play the part — as you now play the part of Iolande — and hope that our patience bears fruit. It is unlikely we will ever kill him outright: our world is unlike yours; we hesitate to kill those who are no longer useful. We have solutions that are less permanent."
"Turning them to stone," I nodded.
"Meanwhile, he cannot be left to his own devices for long," Gayle said, and she held up a ruby mirror in which Oleu's visage spun, trapped. "We hope that our new Apprentice will learn to play Oleu's part, freeing our person from the constant charade."
Bryan nudged me. "That's why I have the mermaid form, that's why the huge pool. They're making an extra-large basin that I can use to control Oleu. I can stay in it almost indefinitely, in that form, as long as the supply of fish holds out."
"But while our Apprentice learns the Alcazar through Master Oleu's eyes," Master Lamard said, his eyes flashing, "while he learns the keys to all of Oleu's mirrors, one of us must always be in command of the basin. We have chosen a strategy that constrains us. We cannot together foster amity and trust while one of us must always be Oleu's jailer. Even a gemstone mirror such as this may not be an adequate prison."
"Wait a minute, wait," I said, holding up one hand to my forehead. "How can you use this mirror at all, Your Maje— I mean, Your Grace? I thought you had been brought before the Golden Mirror? Mirrors shouldn't affect you at all. And that should include a basin, right?"
Gayle smiled gently. "Well-reasoned but, alas, wrong. My younger sister Vayle was brought before the Golden Mirror, and it is she who remains immune to all mirrors everywhere. She is not the true Queen; she is not the first-born. As the real heir, we were hidden away so the Cabal might not find a way to harm us or usurp our command."
"And that is why we are searching for the secrets of the Platinum Mirror," Master Lamard concluded. "Vayle sits upon the throne as an impostor, nothing more; but because she was brought before the Golden Mirror in such a public way, we cannot now prove she is so. Only with the Platinum Mirror, or something like it, could Gayle truly ascend to the throne."
I remembered vaguely some talk of a mirror made of platinum, but I couldn't recall the details. "What good would that be?" I asked them.
Lamard looked grim. "It is said that a Platinum Mirror can be made which displays the world for the viewer exactly as it truly is. Before that mirror one cannot hide behind assumed shapes or names, behind falsehood or dissembly. Some even suggest that a mirror could be made that would speak the truth whenever it heard lies."
"Kind of a double-edged sword, isn't it?" Bryan asked casually. He appeared to have given this some thought. "If the Cabal had such a mirror, they'd denounce Oleu and Vayle as fakes and use it to usurp the throne. If we had one, we'd know who the Cabal was."
"I decided long ago," Lamard said, "when Gayle and Vayle were children, that it was not safe to advertise Gayle's identity as Queen. Bringing her before the Golden Mirror would mark her as a target for the Cabal, which was still at large. There were signs, even then, that Gayle might become a powerful and talented Shaper, in addition to one day becoming Queen. The Golden Mirror would affix her form forever, rendering her immune to any mirrors she might one day create, mirrors which could be used for her benefit. I convinced King Poul to bring his second daughter before the mirror instead as a decoy."
"So that's how the two of you were able to visit my apartment," I realized, looking at Gayle in wonder. "I had wondered how the Queen could have come herself, if she were immune to mirrors. But it was you all along," I said to Gayle. "And you weren't immune."
"That's what I said," Lamard grumbled.
"So where do I fit into all of this?" I asked. Some of the bitterness returned to my voice, as I began to realize how I had been used for the past day. "You brought me here on the pretext that I would learn to become a Shaper, that I had talent. Look at where you've got me now."
"That was no lie," said Gayle, hurt. "We have every reason to suspect you and your friends are more Talented than most, but your greatest asset here is your friendship, your camaraderie, your trust. The Cabal became powerful because it shared its secrets, even in a limited way; together, you and your friends from off-world can become greater than any Shaper who now lives."
"But you've got a lot to learn," Master Lamard said bluntly. "The Cabal's got a huge lead in this race, and you haven't even begun. Your people don't even know the first precepts of Shaping, yet."
I frowned. "You mean, we should get together and teach each other what we're learning? How do we do that without getting caught? I don't even know my way around yet!"
"I do," Bryan said confidently. "And I'll have your basin close at hand. I'll be able to nudge you in the right direction from time to time, until you learn the way."
"But where do we go?" I asked. "I'm sure the Foundry ever discovered we were teaching ourselves to become an army of Shapers, they'd suspect the worst. We couldn't do this openly, we'd need someplace private. Where could we go hold lessons that nobody will be able to catch us doing it?"
The three of them — Bryan, Lamard, and the Queen — looked at me with exasperation, waiting for me to figure it out.