Chapter One

Ro could not move. Her fingers gripped the niche, but the strange perspective and glittering tesserae played tricks on her eyes. She knew she was firmly balanced halfway up the dome inside Ondd's temple, but she had a dizzying sense that she was about to fall.

"There's another hold above your left hand." Kipai climbed alongside her. She should have let the ex-Servant of the Egg make the climb on his own, as he had wanted to when she had first told him she had discovered that a darker pattern in the mosaic disguised niches and ledges. Kipai had spent much of his life surrounded by the visual trickery that protected Ondd's Egg. She had seen him virtually run along a cliff face and swing by his fingertips when they had escaped from Lethir's cousins. Who better to find the musical dragon's eyrie? But if he did, what then? Mending the automaton her father had built should be her task–if she did not fall.

"Just getting my breath," she said.

Kipai's grin told her he heard the lie. "Good. It wouldn't do to flatten the Patriarch." He might not have Iyessi sensitivity to the elements, but she could not fool him any more than she could her own family.

The head of Ondd's temple waited beneath. "Do be careful," he called up as if hearing himself mentioned.  

"Do you think he's worried about us?" Kipai's grin widened as he glanced down at him.

Ro dared not do the same, but she guessed how he was standing, puffed up with self-importance and mouth pursed in disapproval. He had been complaining for weeks that something must be done to repair the automaton. How that was supposed to be accomplished without someone climbing the dome to find it, he had not said.

"I think he's more worried that we'll dent the floor if we fall."

There was a subtle wavy line running horizontally around the dome that Ro felt sure must represent a song if she was only able to turn her head to look. She tried to push all outside thoughts away, and concentrate on the next hold.

"Right. Ready." She groped above her, guided by Kipai, found the niche then reached for the next, fending off waves of memory. 'Abomination!' her dead sister, Ussu's, voice hissed on the back of her neck. Had she slipped into a dream without knowing it? Maybe the strange sleep had taken her, as it had taken others without warning all over Najarind city.

It was partly due to the sickness that she had determined to fix the musical dragon. It was the only way she could be useful. She had not the medical skill of Queen-regent Dovinna, nor the Iyessi sensitivity to call the sleepers back to life. No one knew the source of the malady. It had started with a child left to doze away a sunny afternoon outside in its cot. Neither its parents nor the healers had been able to wake it. A few days later, an elderly couple failed to answer their door when a neighbour called. They were found sitting fast asleep in front of a hearth full of cold ashes. Others followed: a sentry snoring as he leant on the wall he was meant to be guarding; a pot boy found in the cellar where the innkeeper had sent him to fetch a cask of ale. Young, old, wealthy, poor, foreign or local–there was nothing the healers or Lord-regent Fordel's investigations had found to connect them. They were scattered around the city, but their number was steadily growing, and so were the rumours: it was caused by gas rising from the sewers, migrating birds dropped infection from their wings, it was the fault of the foul rites practised by foreigners–and as Najarind city was the capital not only of Najarind but the whole Ortanian Empire there were plenty of those, Ro's family included.

While Ro believed she was clinging to the inside of the dome, was she really in a sleep from which no one could wake her? If she relaxed her fingers, maybe she would tumble over in the air and never reach the floor. She bit her lip: the pain was real enough. She forced herself up another hold and found herself under the wavy line which formed a ledge. She managed to get her fingers over it and raise herself far enough to see that instead of continuing in a smooth curve, the wall above the ledge had several openings someone could wriggle into.

"Can you give me a push?"

With Kipai's boost she got her head and shoulders into the nearest gap. There was not enough light to tell its full extent or whether anything was in it.

"What do you see?"


"Here." Kipai passed up a light crystal.

Ro made out an arched space with a flat floor that an adult could sit in with their knees drawn up. "Empty." She looked along the ledge. The next one they tried might be the right one, but the muscles in her arms were already protesting. "Let's try one more." She gathered herself for a final effort.

Doors banged below.

"Sacrilege!" The woman's voice almost made Ro miss her grip. Angry screams drowned it out.

"Lalli!" Ro swallowed an urge to giggle. "We'll have to go down." If only she could simply launch herself into space and land on her feet like an onddikin.

More voices began arguing as they descended.

"She stole from the shrine!" The woman raised her voice.

"Don't be ridiculous!" It was Jassi. The intended bride of Ro's marriage-brother was not noted for her patience. Ro tried to make her limbs move faster.

A man confirmed the accusation. "She did steal it, I saw her."

Several other people joined in. Ro risked a look down. A sturdy female acolyte stood with one hand on her hip and gestured angrily at Ro's niece with the other, which still held a trowel. The toddler screamed as if someone had stuck pins in her, while Jassi jogged her on her hip. The Sud-Iyessi woman's expression was one of derision, but the way the little girl's blonde curls bounced as she rocked her gave away how angry she was. Behind the acolyte was a handful of citizens dressed in vivid green to demonstrate their vitae affinity.

The Patriarch had drawn himself up to his full height. "Enough! Have you forgotten where you are? I expect the acolytes of Ondd to behave as examples of respect and humility in the temple!"
The acolyte hastily tucked the trowel in her belt and made the Patriarch a deep salute with her fingertips to her lips. "Your pardon, Patriarch, but it's because of my reverence for Ondd and the order the dragon brings that I'm upset. These Iyessi think they have a monopoly on the elements. They behave with arrogant disregard of Ondd's worship."

Ro's arms gave out and she dropped the last few feet to land with a clatter behind the Patriarch onto the stone floor. There was a collective gasp almost strong enough to put out the candles. A couple of the vitae-affiliates stepped towards her. Ro's slight build and unremarkable looks intimidated no one, but Kipai landed beside her. His stubble of reddish-brown hair and ready crouch gave him an air of menace that made them think better of threatening her.

The Patriarch recovered. "What has the child done that has caused such offence?"

"She stole . . . " The acolyte pointed to a blowzy flower tightly held in Lalli's grip. The toddler's screams had faded to lip-trembling sobs.

Jassi clicked her tongue.

The acolyte ignored her and continued, "It ruins the display. I planted those flowers last year in a pattern specially designed to promote the harmony of the elements, and now she's unbalanced it all."
The vitae-affiliates muttered their support.

Ro closed her eyes. She could well imagine the scene–Lalli loved flowers, and Jassi could never see the point of empty formality. She struggled not to smile.

The Patriarch looked sternly at them all. "You burst in here and disturb Ondd's peace to accuse a child of sacrilege? Do you truly believe that the dragon would begrudge her a flower?"

"If you ask me, it was hardly worth having." Jassi shook back her unruly hair. "It's already wilting."

"And whose fault is that?" the acolyte demanded. "It isn't the first time a flower has gone missing."

"Slugs? Bad weather? Anything could do that–why blame a child?" Kipai laughed. "I think you're looking for someone to blame for your own incompetence."

"Am I? Come and look at it then. There isn't one flower in the whole shrine that isn't drooping, one stem that isn't turning to slime. It wasn't that way when we left it an hour ago. I've tended the vitae shrine for twenty years, and I never had this trouble before they . . . before." The acolyte changed what she had been about to say, but it was obvious to everyone there. There had been no trouble before the Iyessi had arrived.

"Very well," said the Patriarch. "We will come and look. But I will hear no more talk of sacrilege."
They formed a strange procession behind him as he led them out. The acolyte walked at his shoulder, her hand constantly straying to the trowel at her belt, as if it was a charm. The vitae-affiliates jostled each other to be next, striving to appear dignified but not wanting to miss anything, so that the Iyessi and Kipai came last.

Outside, the early summer air was hot and sluggish under a sullen grey sky. The temple square and the streets leading from it were a noisy jumble of stallholders calling to passersby or gesturing extravagantly as they haggled with customers, servants shouting at people to make way for courtiers, beggars thrusting collecting bowls at anyone who came within reach, and children chasing strays. When Ro's family had arrived in the city, the chaos assaulting all their senses and disrupting the harmony of the elements had been disorientating, and her mother, Lar, still avoided the crowded main streets if she could, but Ro had found it liberating. Now, however, there was a wariness in people's eyes that made the liveliness seem false.

The muttered "Outrageous!" "No respect!" "Foreigners!" and other scandalised comments of the vitae-affiliates attracted attention, and a ragtag of people joined on a few paces behind the Iyessi, scenting something about to happen. Some of them made the thumb and finger sign to ward off evil.

Jassi was indignant. "I only came out because Lalli was bored, and I thought the stalls would divert her, but the people here are so rude!" She looked pointedly at the people trailing behind them. "We got shouted at not to touch the stock, when all I wanted to do was look at some fabric, and another stallholder all but snatched the apples I was about to buy away from me and claimed to be packing up!"

Kipai spoke quietly. "I don't like this."

"What?" Jassi demanded.

Kipai frowned at her to be quiet. Ro could not feel the mood, but those following them kept edging closer.

Kipai murmured, "Like a cat watching a shrew."

They arrived at the vitae shrine set at the last junction on the main thoroughfare before the citadel. When Ro and Kipai had passed it on the way to Ondd's temple, its display of brightly coloured exotic blooms native to the furthest reaches of the Ortanian Empire formed a dazzling contrast to the dark earth and surrounding buildings. The freshly unfurled leaves of the wand-like tree at its centre had provided the gardeners with dappled shade. Now, the heavy heads of the flowers drooped, and the vitae tree's leaves rattled like autumn as the Patriarch touched its trunk.

"It was like this when we got here," Jassi said. "You can't blame us."

The Patriarch looked at the acolyte. "Was it?"

"Yes, but . . . "

The Patriarch held up a silencing hand. He stooped as if he had dropped something. "It seems to me," he said, straightening, "that instead of blaming a child you should look to your own pride. You grew plants that have no place in this land and they've failed to thrive, whereas this humble bloom which is native to Najarind continues to delight the eye." He held up a flower he had picked.

Ro stifled a cry. It was a wood-star, thriving in the open when it should be nestled in cool shade. She had found the flower where it was not supposed to be before she and her family were exiled from Iyessa, and on the day an explosion had almost killed her. The Patriarch offered it to Lalli, who giggled and readily exchanged her stolen bloom for it. The watching vitae-affiliates groaned.

The Patriarch raised his voice to include all those who had followed. "If anyone else thinks that picking a flower from a shrine is sacrilege, not only have I, Ondd's Patriarch of all the Ortanian Empire, done it, but the gardeners pull out the so-called weeds that Ondd allows to grow here. The flowers are part of the cycle of life, placed here to remind all of the wonder of creation, not to cause division and ill-feeling. I suggest you all go home and examine your behaviour."

The vitae-affiliates and hangers-on turned away, but not without muttering and a few scowls.

"Not you!" The Patriarch stopped the shrine's acolyte. "You can return to the temple and clean the floor around the altar as a lesson on thinking before you act."

The acolyte swept him a deep salute with fingertips to lips, and retreated several steps before turning back to the temple. They watched her go.

"Thank you," Ro said, saluting the Patriarch herself.

"I would advise you all to return to the palace for now, and take more care to follow Najarind's customs. Flowers aren't the only things that struggle to survive in an unfavourable climate."

Jassi opened her mouth to object, but Kipai took her elbow and began steering her away.

"Don't worry, Patriarch, we're late already. If I'm not at the House of Healing when Dovinna wants to leave, she'll no doubt go without me, and it wouldn't do to have the Queen-regent wandering the city without her bodyguard."


Ro paused outside the door of the chamber she shared with her mother to calm the galloping beat of her heart, hoping she had managed to get back before Lar. She turned the handle. Dusk was gathering in the corners of the room. The fading light came through the window whose curtains had not yet been drawn.
Ro slowly let out her breath as she went over to the window, then snatched it in again as she saw a hand resting on the arm of a chair turned towards the light. Lar sat there with her head resting against the back of the chair, and her eyes closed, breathing quietly. Ro hesitated. What if she could not wake her?

"I know you're there," Lar said without opening her eyes.

Ro groped for the nearest seat. "For a moment, I thought . . . "

Lar looked at her. "Then you'll have experienced some of what I feel when you create a surge of disharmony risking your life."

"I was in no real danger. Kipai . . . " Ro began.

"There's no time for your excuses now. Princess-regent Anni has had supper prepared for us all. A maid has already been to fetch us." The Earth-hearer stood as she spoke. The light softened the firm set of her mouth and brow, and caught on the grey in her hair. She stretched and smiled, and Ro breathed more easily.

When they arrived at the Princess-regent's sitting chamber, they could hear Jassi's outraged voice before they entered.

"Would you believe it? Accusing a little girl!" She spoke between spooning food alternately into Lalli's mouth and her own, as uninhibited by the fact that she was dining with the Queen- and Princess-regents as she would have been by drunks in a wayside tavern. At her side, Raimi lowered his fork with a set expression at odds with his usual mild manner. His blue water-affiliate's eyes were serious.

Princess-regent Anni flashed the new arrivals a welcoming smile that lit her pleasant features. "Sit and help yourselves. I think we're all too tired for ceremony today. Besides, you aren't the last. Fordel wanted to check on something."

"And I don't know where Kipai's got to." Queen-regent Dovinna pushed her chestnut hair back and rubbed weariness from her face. "He accompanied us from the House of Healing to the nursery, but then he vanished again. I'll swear that for a bodyguard, he's getting better at disappearing than the Incredible Edun."

Ro and Lar took their places. Ro almost dropped her plate as she sat next to Lalli. Jassi had pinned the wood-star in the little girl's hair.

Jassi noticed. "Do you like it? She still didn't want to let go of it, so I thought, why not?" She explained blithely to the rest of them. "The Patriarch gave it to her."

Raimi spoke evenly. "Nevertheless, she shouldn't have done it."

"You mean, I shouldn't have let her do it." Jassi glared at him.

"Done what?" Lord-regent Fordel entered, grinning at their startled faces. His dark hair looked as if he had run his hands through it quickly in lieu of combing it properly.

Jassi began explaining again from the beginning while Fordel kissed Anni's upturned cheek and sat beside her. He ignored the plate in front of him, and poured himself a goblet of wine instead. Ro half-expected a mock 'Tut!' from Anni, but her friend merely watched him while her own food cooled in front of her.

"Lalli helped herself to a flower from the vitae shrine. She was obviously bored, and Raimi was exploring those wretched tunnels that Kipai found again."

"Jassi!" Raimi's exclamation only made her pause a beat.

"What? I'm not stupid, I wouldn't mention it in front of anyone else, but everyone here knows, don't they?"

Dovinna, Anni and Ro turned questioning looks on Raimi.

Fordel spoke. "Kipai found one of the chimneys to the waste channels when you were searching for herbs in Ayif's physic garden, Dovinna. I asked Raimi to help him map them because of his water-affinity. We don't want anyone using them as Ayif did, so until we know where they lead, I asked them to keep them secret."

"From us too?" Anni asked.

"I'm sorry, my love, I intended telling you, but we've all been distracted one way and another."

"Anyway," Jassi continued."Lar was at the House of Healing with Dovinna. I couldn't take Lalli there, so I thought she might like to watch Ro and Kipai trying to flush out the mechanical dragon," Jassi said.

All eyes turned on Ro.

"And did you?" Fordel said with his goblet half-raised.

"No," Ro said. "Although we discovered some promising holes or tunnels where it might be."

"Shame. I miss it flying around the temple making the acolytes duck." Fordel made a swooping action with his fork, then caught the look on Lar's face. "It would stop the Patriarch pestering about it too."

"That's what I thought," said Ro, "and I thought people would be reassured by it. Sorry, Mother, but if I can't wake the mechanical dragon, what hope have I of waking the real one?"

"I doubt anyone would be grateful," Jassi said. "In fact, they probably blame us for it getting damaged in the first place. They blame us for everything else." She told the rest of the tale about the acolyte's accusations.

"So, we've all had a good day then," said Fordel, pouring himself more wine.

Anni held her goblet out for a refill too. "No news from Amradoc?"

Fordel stared into his goblet. "Three carrier-birds now, and still no word. Maybe they're asleep somewhere, or they've met with a predator, or maybe there's sickness at Darian's court. Our warning about the illness might have got through, or it may be that the illness came from there. There's no way to tell until we hear from King Darian, unless you've been more successful than I have, Dovinna."

The Queen-regent's expression was answer enough.

"In that case, I'll ride out with a squad tomorrow, and establish a signal route."

"Tomorrow?" Anni blurted, then caught herself and added lightly. "Then you'd better eat a proper meal to go with your wine, or you won't be able to sit your horse."

"Never!" Fordel loaded his plate, then paused. "Where's Kipai?"

No one wanted to answer. Unexplained absences made everyone nervous since the sleep began taking more people.

Dovinna said, "Your guess is as good as ours. I think he misses being a spy sometimes. He's probably eavesdropping somewhere."

Dovinna was closer to the truth than she knew. After Kipai left her at the palace, he headed back to the vitae shrine. The acolytes who had accused Lalli were still there trying to rescue what remained of the plants. He found a shadowy corner where he could see and hear without being noticed. Many of those who passed paused to comment on the devastated display, and each was told the same tale: an Iyessi child had caused it. Some stopped to lend their help. The grumbling grew louder and spread as people carried the story and their fears through the streets. A couple of women carrying baskets of shopping passed Kipai.

"Of course it's sacrilege, even if it is a child. I'm surprised at the Patriarch for allowing it. He's not strict like the old one." The woman was plump and set her basket down to gather her breath.

Her companion eased her heel out of her shoe while she waited for her. "Didn't he go mad?"

"What drove him to it? You tell me. We didn't have any of this death and disaster before they came."

"No, but that doesn't mean they brought it."

"You always were too trusting. If you ask me, it's too much of a coincidence." The plump woman hoisted her basket once more and walked on, leaving her friend struggling to push her heel back in her shoe and catch up.

When they had passed, Kipai looked back at the shrine. The acolytes were still there, although the man now leaned on a hoe surveying their work. The woman was taking a break sitting with her back against the vitae tree's trunk. The man caught sight of her as her head began to nod. He went over to her and bent to wake her, then sat down instead.


Servants cleared their plates. None of them had eaten with much relish. Even Lalli had been more inclined to play with her food than eat it. Light conversation was impossible.

Dovinna said, "I'd feel happier about you going tomorrow if we knew what was causing the sickness."

"If I'm to get it, I'll get it wherever I am."

"But not everyone is Lord-regent. We need you here. Can't you delegate?" She looked at Anni for support.

The Princess-regent smiled at Fordel as she answered. "No, he can't, and you're the last person to suggest it. You risk catching all manner of ailments every day."

Fordel squeezed her hand. "It isn't much of a leader who'll send others to do something he's scared to do himself."

Dovinna persisted. "Just because we haven't found a link between any of the victims, doesn't mean there isn't one."

Kipai burst into the room catching her last words. He was out of breath. "There's link enough now, and it isn't good news."

Anni signalled a servant to lay a plate for him. He waved it away.

"Pardon my dramatic entrance, but we don't have long. A mob's on its way here working itself into a frenzy." He waited until their exclamations had died down. "Have Ro and Jassi told you what happened in the temple?" He saw that they had. "I didn't like the mood. I've seen it before in Gindul when some disaster happens. First, people blame whatever capricious deity they worship, then they begin to look for reasons why that deity turned against them. Maybe they fell short in their religious observance, but the thought that they might be to blame for their own misfortune is too uncomfortable, so they cast about for someone else. Someone who is not one of them, who can be singled out, a minority without power. They've never treated them with kindness or respect, they've mocked them and taken every opportunity to prevent them living in peace. They must want revenge. It could be anyone disfigured or disabled, anyone who looks or sounds different."

It was obvious who he meant.

"That's ridiculous," Dovinna said. "Lar and Raimi have spent virtually every waking moment trying to find a cure."

"I know that–we all know that, but once words like 'sacrilege' start being whispered it doesn't take much for a crowd to become a mob," Kipai said. "Certainly not as much as the acolytes at the vitae shrine falling into a sleep from which they can't be woken. I headed back to the shrine after I left you here, Your Highness. A pair of those who'd gone to the temple were there, and they were as busy planting fear as they were pulling up dead flowers. While they were taking a rest, someone came running up to hear the tale, but the acolytes didn't react even when they were shaken. Now, there's a host of superstitious fools on its way here to demand the Iyessi be punished."

"But Lalli's little more than a baby," Anni protested.

They all looked at the little one, who had climbed onto Raimi's lap, and was hiding her face against his chest.

"I'll send for the Patriarch, they should listen to him." Fordel was half out of his chair as he spoke.

"That won't be enough. They're past reasoning with," Kipai said.

"A squad of mounted soldiers should help to convince them, and with any luck this muggy air will give us the downpour it's been threatening. They'll no doubt think better of it once they're cold and wet." Fordel smiled at the Iyessi, but Lar shook her head.

"People would get hurt," she said. "What is now resentment against us would turn against you."

"All they need is time to cool down," Fordel said.

Kipai looked grim. "This is no drunken rabble tagging along to see what happens. They're fanatics, and we've seen before how that goes."

"Time to cool down, and the real cause of the illness. I'll send materiologists to the shrine tomorrow to test for toxins or miasmas. You might sense something there, Lar." Dovinna turned to her.

Kipai sucked in his breath. "Even if you could disperse the mob now, what about the next time someone's taken? Ondd forbid, but what if any of the royal family were? What if you were caught in the streets when a panic flared?"

Lar nodded. "Have we time to pack?"

"We've wasted too much already," Kipai said.

Jassi looked incredulously at them all. "So we're to be forced to leave."

Raimi took her hand.

She sighed. "Back to the Singing Lake then. I was beginning to think we'd never finish our house there, but I suppose we'll have to leave the things I bought for it here."

"You'll be able to come back for them, just as soon as we get this nonsense sorted out." Anni had tears in her eyes.

"Perhaps we'll find the answers on the road," Ro said. She chewed her lip to keep a smile from her face. These were her friends, but she felt relieved nonetheless. Staying in Najarind was bringing her no closer to finding Ondd, and at least being on the move felt like taking action.

"The question is, how do we get you out?" Kipai pulled at his bottom lip.

"Send them out with the patrol," Fordel said. "We can say they're banished, and that the soldiers will see them deposited at the border of the Empire, so they don't come back."

Kipai shook his head. "Not enough. The mob wants them punished, not banished. I heard talk of taking them to the vitae shrine and hanging them from the tree.

Jassi laughed. "Hah! That can hardly take the weight of its branches."

"Someone pointed that out. He suggested tying you to it and setting fire to it. Someone else said that would be sacrilege, and therein lies our hope, I think. If we can keep them arguing about the most appropriate way to dispose of you–insist we have to consult the Patriarch, read the omens, whatever–we can smuggle you out while they're arguing."

"But how?" Dovinna slapped the table, as if wishing the crowd had one face and she could hit it.

There was rapid knocking at the door, and a wild-eyed servant burst in. "Begging your pardon, Your Highnesses, but someone needs to come and see."

Anni drew herself up. "Wait outside. We shan't keep you more than a moment." She turned to the others. "I think I know a way."

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