Chapter One


Princess Anni walked briskly along the corridor ticking things off in her head. She had checked the food with the cooks, made sure there was enough fresh bedlinen, enlisted extra servants to look after the influx of guests and inspected most of the chambers prepared for them. She only had the rooms for the Amrad party to check, then she could go to her own room and try to don a more regal presence along with her formal gown for the ceremony. Of all the guests invited, the Amrads were the ones she most wanted to see and they were the only ones yet to arrive. As she reached the door of her brother, King Channan's, apartments, she paused. She ought to let Dovinna know how the preparations were going, but the Queen had not been her usual self since the birth.

She thought better of it, turned and found herself with her head virtually in the chest of Lord Fordel.

"Princess Anni. How nice to bump into you." He grinned and stepped into her path as she attempted to get around him.

"Can you never be serious?" She tried to look stern but found herself smiling. "I thought you'd gone with Channan to check security at the gates." She made to step around him again.

"I did, and now we're back." He matched her step for step.

"I'm in a hurry."

"Shame. I was hoping you'd help me practise my dancing before the celebrations." He took her hands and twirled her around so that they changed places.

"I'm sure you can find plenty of ladies to help you do that." As she spoke, a door opened behind them.

"Fordel! I thought I heard your voice. Where's Channan?" Dovinna's manner instantly wiped Anni's smile away. A maid had obviously been in the process of dressing the Queen's hair to show off its bright autumnal colours, and she pulled a stray strand away as if it was a snake.

Fordel swept her an elegant bow. "Your Majesty. The King was right behind me, but he was detained by one of the ambassadors."

"Don't you mock me too." Dovinna looked inclined to hit him.

"I mock everyone, Dovinna. You know that," Fordel said. "How's the young heir? Been waking you up at night?"

"So now you're trying to say I'm a bad mother too."

Fordel almost took a step back. "No, Channan said..."

"All babies wake in the night." Anni tried to help. "It must be exhausting."

"I know I've been neglecting my queenly duties." Dovinna clenched her fists at her sides.

"No one expects you to do everything, and I'd be bored if you didn't let me help out." Anni found items on her list scrolling through her head again.

"I'm sure you know more about being a queen than I do." There was such bitterness in Dovinna's voice that Anni could not answer. There had been those not so long ago who had thought Anni anything but regal, including her poor mad sister. Suddenly, all the tension left the Queen, and Fordel stepped forward to support her. "I know, I'm not being fair, it's just..."

"You there, blackguard! Unhand my wife!" It was Channan's voice, a little too loud and slurred.

The three turned to watch him. He walked as if he expected the floor to tilt.

"He's drunk!" Dovinna hissed. "Fordel, how could you?" She backed away from him as if he had pinched her.

"I? Why blame me? He was sober a few minutes ago. We never touched a drink." Fordel looked at Anni for support.

"Channan, you have to learn to say 'no'," she said.

Channan hugged her, then held out his hands to Dovinna. "You know what it's been like, Dovi. Everyone wants to toast the baby, but I'm not drunk." Channan put his arm around her and tried to put his cheek against hers, but she pulled away. "Smell. No alcohol on my breath."

Anni saw a look like panic come into Dovinna's eyes as he continued.

"Can we sit down? I feel very tired."

"You feel tired!" Dovinna snapped.

"Best get him out of the corridor," Fordel said. He took Channan's arm and between them, he and Dovinna manoeuvred him into the royal apartments.

Anni watched with her lip caught between her teeth. If Fordel said they had not been drinking, she believed him. Channan had his best friend and his healer wife to look after him, there was nothing more she could add.

"Now, what was I doing?" she asked herself. "Ah, yes." She started down the corridor once more, but her thoughts were no longer on clean towels and fresh linen.

#

By the time Ro, Lar, Raimi and Lalli made their way from the palace to the temple of Ondd, the wind had piled the clouds into a great purple-tinged heap that roiled as if the dragon's tail lashed them. The gold of the temple's egg-shaped dome gleamed dully under a streak of sunshine that broke through the clouds, but none of the people still in the streets paused to look up. The weight of the sky made them walk with hunched shoulders.
Ro found the wind swirling around her so that she was fighting to push her way through it one moment and tottering to keep her balance when it vanished the next. Instead of being lined with gawkers, the streets were virtually empty. The wind whipped up grit and discarded rubbish, flinging it against those who had yet to shutter themselves against it. It tugged at hair and whipped the breath away, so that none of them spoke. Raimi carried Lalli against his shoulder, protecting her as best he could, but she still began a thin grizzle that penetrated the whooping of the wind, flapping awnings and the rattle of roof tiles. By the time they took their seats in the glinting interior of the temple, Ro felt as if she had been trying to wade chest deep through turbulent water.
The temple doors locked out the wind, but a rustling like a breeze through a barley field accompanied the chanting of the priests, as the congregation straightened their disordered robes and hair. Ro did her best to smooth her own. Her gaze caught on a group whose plainness set them apart from the other Najarindians, like sparrows amongst hummingbirds. Their stillness was not like that of Lar and Raimi either. It seemed to Ro that it was intended to show their piety rather than inner calm.

She craned her neck to see the entrance. They had delayed leaving the palace as long as they could in hopes that the party from Amradoc would arrive, but it appeared they would miss the ceremony. It was a blow. Ro had been through so much with Jubb, and the magician Edun with his trio of onddikins. She missed the simple judgement and optimism of King Darian's so-called fool. She even missed the unruly mongrel he had adopted, and she had hoped that the Incredible Edun would need her help with his magic act. Lar put a hand on Ro's arm, and she realised she had been tugging a loose thread on her cuff.

A ripple went through the congregation as the chanting priests fell silent. There was a moment's pause, then the new Patriarch appeared in the open doorway. He strode up the main aisle, followed by King Channan and Queen Dovinna with their baby son in her arms, then Princess Anni, Lord Fordel and representatives from across the empire. The Patriarch lacked the stately dignity of his predecessor, bustling officiously like a secretary. Dovinna's gaze flitted between the baby and Channan, avoiding the stares of the congregation, unlike the King, who gazed fixedly at the Patriarch's back. The Queen's heavy brocade robes made her appear smaller than ever. Princess Anni watched them both, prepared to catch whichever one of them stumbled first.

The procession halted before Ondd's altar under the dome where the mechanical dragon's eyrie was hidden. Ro glanced up, hoping it would appear. The Patriarch briskly dispensed with the welcomes and began the ceremony. He took the baby from Dovinna's arms and paced the circumference of the space to a shrine where he picked up a glinting chain from which a stone dangled that shot out red sparks of light. He placed it over the baby's head. Ro glanced at Lar. The Earth-hearer's eyes were focused on the wall at the far end of the temple. Ro guessed she was going through the Iyessi naming ceremony in her head to block out this travesty. The Patriarch was not even visiting the elements in the right order. Ro's shoulders relaxed. Lar and Raimi were right. This ritual held little real belief, only the memory of it. Again she looked up into the dome, but was no longer surprised that nothing emerged. The Patriarch continued the round of elemental shrines until he reached the flower-decked vitae one. As he plucked one of the blooms to tuck into the baby's clothes, the musical dragon Ro's father had made, swooped from its hidden nest. Its song released a communal sigh from the congregation, and Lalli clapped her hands, squealing with delight.

The Patriarch raised his voice and help up the flower for all to see. "Know that this child's name is Tomec, and welcome him to..." He never reached the end of the sentence.

The doors crashed open and a blast of air blew out all the candles. The Patriarch was forced to step back, and the mechanical dragon circling above them was swept towards the wall, grazing one of its metal wings against the stone with a screech that made Ro clench her teeth. She gasped, thinking it would fall, but it recovered to fly jerkily over the astonished Patriarch, snatch the flower from his fingers and rise with the tip of one wing trailing back to its eyrie.

Ro turned to see what had happened, not knowing whether to hope that it was the missing Amrads or not. A woman stood just inside the doors waiting until all eyes were on her, then walked calmly up the central aisle. She looked untouched by the wind even though her outfit of brightly coloured cloth was draped in folds and layers and she wore a gauzy veil over her head. When she reached the royal party, she swayed into a bow making a formal salute with her hands together and her fingertips to her lips. The nearest courtiers hastily made space for her on their bench.

"Your Majesties, please forgive this humble ambassador's late arrival." She set back her veil. People gasped. Her head was shaven, and her features were accentuated with heavy, mask-like make-up. The fashion was unmistakable; she was Gindullan. Despite her apologetic words, her smile showed she was not displeased with the effect she had. "It was a far way here from Gindul, and we were delayed."


Ro saw Dovinna shudder and instinctively hold out her arms to take the newly named Tomec from the Patriarch.

The new arrival smiled and saluted the cleric, whose features pinched with disapproval. He drew himself up and continued the ceremony invoking Ondd's protection, but he might as well have sung a bawdy song. No one listened, except for the band of plainly dressed worshippers, who intoned the responses with a deliberation that was a rebuke to all those craning their necks for a glimpse of the Gindullan woman. Ro doubted that even the royal party were concentrating on the Patriarch. Dovinna curled her arm around the baby like a shield, and Channan stood stiff-shouldered, while Princess Anni resolutely kept her hands folded and her face neutral.  Even Lord Fordel took care not to look at her. Ro was sure they must have felt the same jolt that she had. To her, Gindul meant poison, and as far as she was aware, the only guests who had been missing were the Amrads. Where were they?

Finally, the Patriarch released the congregation with a blessing. The royal party started down the aisle. The Gindullan woman fell-in behind them. When they drew level with Ro and her family, she turned and shot Lalli a smile. Ro's breath caught in her throat, but Lalli was still reaching out to where the automaton had been. The Iyessi followed the others outside. Perhaps Ro was overreacting. Explanations would have to wait, that was if she had a chance to talk to Dovinna or Anni before she left. The unexpected arrival made her departure seem even more essential. She had become too comfortable in Najarind. She had allowed the fact that she had friends and was accepted there to lull her into thinking there was no rush, that things were back in balance. All the while she had been fooling herself, and now, who knew what damage the delay had caused?

Outside, the wind had dropped, although sudden gusts still skirled up dust and made the courtiers' gowns billow. A cry above them made Ro look up. Three black specks streaked overhead, sped on by a following gust.

"Onddikins!" Ro's heart soared. It could only mean one thing–the Incredible Edun had arrived. The beasts wheeled over them.

Ahead, Channan missed his footing and stumbled. Hands reached out on all sides, the Gindullan ambassador's amongst them. Instead of the King, she caught the arm of Lord Fordel.

"Your pardon, Lord," she said, but her smile did not look apologetic to Ro, and her touch lingered until he moved his arm away. Ro was not the only one to notice. Anni's chin tilted higher as she walked on.

Then the onddikins spotted Ro and began to swoop and make their fluting cries over her head, so close that Ro almost feared they would tangle in her hair as Pirik's had the first time they met. Their leathery wings and bodies were glossy and well-fed, and their feathery ruffs iridesced in the fitful gleams of sunshine.

"You'd better return them to Edun before there's an accident," Lar said.

Ro did not need telling twice. "Take me to him," she told them. She stepped out of the procession, ignoring the 'tuts' and irritated gestures of the nearest courtiers, and tried to keep up with the excited onddikins, who raced to show her the way. She knew she should have restrained her eager feet to a dignified pace, but she was infected with the onddikins' carefree joy. Life in Najarind was as bound about with rules and restrictions, in its way, as Iyessa was. Ro laughed. Leaving the city would not all be sadness.

They arrived back at the palace and Ro raced up to the great hall where everything except the Incredible Edun's stage had been left set up for the return of the court. Ro almost collided with a servant leaving the room in her haste to see the friends hidden behind the curtained stage that they had swiftly erected. Instead of stepping aside and offering her a deferential salute, the man pushed past with his head down. Then the onddikins swooped over the curtainrail and a voice made Ro forget him.

"So, you've decided to come back, have you?" The voice was theatrically angry.

Ro peeped through a gap in the curtains. The onddikins settled on a rail beside Edun's magic cabinet and preened their ruffs as the magician scolded them. His hair was as black and well-groomed as she remembered, but his manner was more harassed than swaggering. A gangling figure sat on a trunk watching him work.

"They couldn't wait to find our old friends," he said. "I wonder where Ro is?"

"Right here, Jubb." Ro flung open the curtains.

The Amrad king's fool almost fell off the trunk. He threw his arms around her.

Edun dodged out of his way. "Steady, Jubb. If you break her nose, she won't be able to tell us where she's been."

Jubb relinquished his place, so that the magician could give Ro a hug. The onddikins chirred contentment as Edun took her by the shoulders and held her at arm's length for a better look. Ro smoothed the hair at her neck, aware how different she must look from the crop-haired girl who could easily pass for a boy the last time they met.

"You missed the ceremony," she said. "Lar and Raimi were beginning to worry that they'd be called on to provide after-dinner entertainment."

"We were delayed." Edun looked drily at Jubb as he spoke.

The fool's forehead furrowed. "You did know Darian and Uwert weren't coming, didn't you? There's trouble with bandits raiding from the southern swamps again."

"Yes, but..." Ro broke off. Something was missing. "Where's Chickens?" How could she not have noticed before? The mongrel was even more clumsy and unruly than its master.


Jubb beamed at her. "He's a father. The rat-catcher's terrier, Snatcher, and he have five beautiful puppies."

"I've seen prettier mudfish–squashed mudfish," Edun said.

Jubb's face fell again. "Beautiful, but Uwert said I couldn't bring them with me, and he was right. They need to stay at home with their mum, and Chickens has to look after them, but I couldn't leave before I was sure they'd be all right. Channan and Dovinna won't be angry, will they?" His hand went to the breast of his tunic where he used to keep his words of power.

Ro looked questioningly at Edun.

The magician rolled his eyes. "He asked me for new ones. What could I do?"

"Just the same as before," Jubb said.

"Don't worry, you won't need their protection from Channan and Dovinna. Everyone will be delighted to see you."

"But not like that," Edun said.

Jubb tried to flatten his hair and straighten his tunic.

Edun sighed. "I've finished here. Where can we make ourselves presentable?"

"I'll show you." Ro linked an arm with each of them to show them out. At the door, she hesitated, remembering the servant who had been loitering when she arrived. "Perhaps I'd better call a guard to prevent curiosity getting the better of anyone while you aren't here."

"No need." Edun signalled Quinik, and the onddikin flapped back to perch on the curtainrail. "It's Quinik's turn to keep watch. Lead on. You can bring us up-to-date on all the news."

Ro took a deep breath. "Actually," she began. "I need to ask you a favour."


Chapter Two


Anni felt that her face would be permanently frozen in a smile. At least the formalities of welcoming guests to the banquet had gone smoothly. Everyone was too busy watching the Gindullan ambassador to complain about being seated in a draft or not having their glass filled swiftly enough. Edun's act would have to be incredible indeed if he was to divert them from her. Anni glanced towards the curtained stage. It appeared ready, but the latecomers and Ro were missing. The Gindullan ambassador's voice pulled Anni's attention back.

"I apologise again, Your Highness, for my intrusion. I am Oonay, first daughter of His Ruling Excellency Ijan of Gindul." She made another graceful salute. Anni wondered how she managed to avoid hooking her drapes and veils over the bystanders.

"We're honoured that His Ruling Excellency could spare you." Channan escorted her to a seat beside his at the top table.

Anni's smile began to feel painful. It was where she was supposed to be–between her brother and Lord Fordel. Now, the Gindullan would be able to poison one and flirt with the other, and she would be able to do nothing about it except watch. At least Dovinna appeared to have sobered Channan up enough to carry out his role, although it was hard to say which of them was paler. Servants piled food up in front of them. Anni wished she had not seated Lar and Raimi so far down the table. The Iyessi would be able to feel any falsehood.

"Your Highness, this humble ambassador does not wish to bring business to your table at such a celebration, but she must request a private audience as soon as possible. There is news that might put her country and yours in great danger." Oonay kept her eyes lowered as she spoke, then cast Channan a sidelong glance to see his reaction.
Dovinna stiffened. "Danger?" She spoke loudly enough to interrupt the conversation of diners several places down.

"You speak of danger?" There was no mistaking her tone, but Oonay smiled.

Channan said: "You may speak openly to those at this table."

"His Ruling Excellency is anxious for harmony between our two countries, and wishes to assure Your Highness that we are loyal to the Ortanian Empire. Our greatest danger is that there should be misunderstanding. That is why we have vigorously pursued those on the assassin, Ayif's list of traitors. Our intention was to detain them all at the same time, so that none would hear of the arrests and flee. Unfortunately, our plan became known to some. When our guards arrived they had disappeared. We believe they have made their way to the swamps bordering Amradoc."

"That'll please King Darian," Fordel said.

"This humble ambassador believes that King Darian will be more than displeased. She believes he will blame Gindul for any trouble they cause in that land."

Channan placed his hand on Dovinna's. "I appreciate your troubling to tell me this in person, but you could have sent a message through the usual means."

"There are rumours that the traitor, Torslin, might have joined them. His Ruling Excellency hopes that sending his first daughter to your court will convince you of his earnest desire for your friendship. If not you may cut off her head and send it back to him, or keep her here as a hostage." There was a tremor in Oonay's voice but Anni did not believe it any more than her smiles earlier. "His Ruling Excellency also hoped this humble ambassador could persuade King Darian that Gindul is as likely to be attacked by these traitors as Amradoc is, but I do not see him." Oonay's voice trailed off as Channan, who had been staring blankly ahead, smiled.

Anni followed his gaze. Two of the servants bearing empty platters back to the kitchens appeared to be engaged in some kind of unarmed combat with a newly arrived guest. The more they tried to avoid each other, the more tangled they became, until one's foot caught on the hem of the guest's coat, knocking both off-balance, so that the guest flung up his arms. The second servant was not quick enough to dodge and received a blow on the side of his head that spun him around. The noise as all three fell in a heap of dirty crockery and applause made those nearest wince. Anni shot a glance at Lar and Raimi, but the Iyessi were smiling.

"Jubb!" Fordel rose, and Anni could have laughed at the disappointment in Oonay's face. If she had hoped to hold them all fascinated, that wish was shattered.

The Princess followed the lord to assist the tangled trio off the floor, but Ro, who had followed the fool in, was quicker. She tried to bow and dodge the greasy hand Jubb was about to put on her shoulder at the same time.

"I'm so sorry, Princess Anni." She began picking up pieces of shattered crockery.

"Me too," Jubb said. "We've missed the first course."

"Most of it, anyway." Fordel took a piece of meat off Jubb's tunic, then burst out laughing.

"Don't worry, Jubb," Anni said. "It's been a day for spectacular entrances." Then added under her breath. "Some more welcome than others."

A plainly dressed man standing close to the stage behind them, glanced towards the head table at her words. A fleeting expression of disgust passed over his features.

Anni put on her princess's smile and lowered her voice. "Is she genuine?" She knew Ro would not need to be told who.

"Careful, Anni," Fordel said. "She's an ambassador. You don't want to create a diplomatic rift."

Anni turned the same smile on him. "I don't need a lecture from you on the appropriate way to treat guests. I'm not the one who's likely to forget her rank."

Lar stepped forward. "It's easy to let prejudice deafen us. There's so much mistrust and curiosity here, it isn't possible to feel the truth."

"Who are we talking about?" Jubb asked with his usual tact, drawing attention to them. The Gindullan turned the full force of her smile on the fool.

"She's very beautiful," he said.

"So are night-hummers, but they still sting," Anni muttered.

"Oh no, she's more beautiful than a night-hummer," Jubb said, before Anni could speak over the top of him. Oonay inclined her head graciously.

Anni looked sheepishly at Fordel, and led the way back to the table. Oonay leaned towards them.

"His Majesty tells me this strange man is King Darian's ambassador. Surely, he is teasing me?"

Anni answered. "His ambassador and his friend."

"But he looks (forgive me) a little simple."

"Looks can be deceptive," Anni said.

Oonay continued watching him. "Who are the others?" She looked towards the table where Jubb and Ro had joined the Iyessi. The fool was bouncing Lalli on his knee. Every time he tried to give her to Raimi so that he could eat, she wailed and held out her arms for more. Oonay shook her head. "Naughty child!"

Anni was not as sure. The room was full of false jollity. People smiled, but their eyes were watchful. From the set of Lar's shoulders, she knew the Earth-hearer felt it, and if Ro was right, then Lalli would feel it too. Belatedly, Anni realised that she had not yet answered Oonays's question.

"They're from Iyessa."

"Ah, I have heard of them. Perhaps you would favour me with an introduction. We are fond of music at my father's court."

A bang loud enough to rattle the crockery and stop conversation spared Anni having to answer. A cloud of purple smoke enveloped the stage. When it cleared, the curtains had been pulled back and the Incredible Edun stood there with arms outstretched in his coat like tongues of flame, as if he had just arrived from the mystic plane. A moment's shock was followed by enthusiastic applause, which the magician acknowledged with a sweeping bow.

"Your Highnesses, lords and ladies–forgive my tardy arrival. I hope it hasn't shattered too many plates. I have come from the mystic plane with a naming gift for Prince Tomec." He muttered an unintelligible incantation and clapped. When he opened his hands again a toy dragon lay on them. Pirik swooped down from where it had perched hidden amongst the ceiling beams, plucked up the toy and dropped it in Dovinna's lap before fluttering back to the stage.
Edun made onddikin eggs appear and disappear, produced bouquets of real flowers seemingly from the empty air and kept up a comic banter with the onddikins, who gave the impression of knowing the act better than the magician did. It was a polished performance. At last he slid his magic cabinet to the centre of the stage.

"This may look like a mere box, yet it has extraordinary properties," he began. "This cabinet transports those who enter it to the mystic plane. But I see scepticism on your faces, and why should you believe me without proof? How can you be sure there's no trickery involved? I would not believe it myself unless it had been put to the test. Who will volunteer to check it?"

Ro jumped out of her seat almost before Edun had finished, but she was not fast enough. Oonay was already on her feet.

"Please permit this humble ambassador to assist."

Edun's smile froze momentarily. Most eyes were on Oonay, but those of the audience who noticed greeted Oonay's offer with hoots and applause. He had no choice but to accept.

He bowed. "I'm honoured, Ambassador. Please inspect the cabinet and assure yourself that it is as solidly built as it appears."

Anni saw Ro hesitate in front of the stage, as Edun handed Oonay to the cabinet."

"Please be thorough, Ambassador. Tap the walls..." He gave the cabinet a couple of raps to demonstrate.

Oonay rapped the box once, twice, she opened the door and the stage erupted. The explosion knocked the nearest guests from their seats and others dived behind tables as tattered cloth and splinters showered down. The shock hurt Anni's ears. People began to wimper and scream or call out for companions. They scrambled and clawed at each other desperate to get out. It was hard to distinguish between the piercing shrieks of Lalli and the onddikins. Anni found herself pushing through the panicking guests with no clear thought except to get to what remained of the stage. All she would see was wreckage. Where were Oonay and Edun? Where was Ro?

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