These days the di Finri family temple was little more than a large stone box.
A double row of columns led to a plain marble altar, where the names of the
past six generations of fallen di Finri men were carved for future sons to read.
Being second best in the Senate made the family very keen to emphasise their
At first glance the room looked plain, but as Rift walked towards the altar he saw the candlelight sliding over the dents and gouges in the walls. A hundred years ago the temple had been full of intricate carvings; now there was nothing left but scars. He'd seen the carvings once in a book that had escaped the bonfires. They'd been beautiful, so naturally Octa had destroyed them.
He sat down on the altar to wait. Tianchi would be a good one to paint next. She'd be a cat. She liked to play with her prey before she pounced. They'd never believe it, though. To them, she was just the Middle Senator's perfect little daughter.
Rift snapped out of his musings. "Chance?"
"Brains like that and you'll make Senator," His friend Chance shut the door and strolled over. "Solly's on the warpath. You'd better have an excuse ready."
Rift rolled his eyes. He should have known that Chance would already have heard. By now the story would have jumped the river and started running through the Copper parts of town, getting more ridiculous with every telling.
"What, she just wants me to sit there nodding and smiling while they go on about how you don't have the intelligence to rebel?"
Chance laughed. "Why'd that make you angry? That's the funniest thing I've heard all week!"
"For gods' sakes, Rift, don't let it bother you," Chance hopped up onto the altar. Like Solly and almost every other Amber in the house, Chance came from a long line of servants. He'd been born under this roof and had never left. Tall and stocky, Chance differed from the other servants in one way - he welcomed parties, because he was always given the night off. Junipus refused to have him anywhere guests might see. He wasn't sufficiently cowed in the presence of his betters.
"They'll still be saying that when we're marching through the streets. They're too inbred to think different. No offence, mate."
"Oh, none taken."
The door slammed. Solly strode towards them with a face that put Junipus to shame.
"What did I tell you?" she snapped. "I told you not to get drunk!"
"Don't you argue with me, Rift di Finri! You got drunk and started talking politics, just like you always do!"
"Anyway, see you later," Chance said quickly, and left. Rift was tempted to follow him, but he didn't dare try.
"You might've given us away!" Solly hissed. "Your dad's not stupid, Rift! He'll put two and two together even if the rest of them don't!"
"Lenus is just starting to trust you and you chuck it all away!"
Rift snorted. "Lenus trusts me about as much as Dad does."
"Oh, he still reckons you're a champagne revolutionary," Solly said dismissively "but he's just about sure you're not going to betray us, at least! That's what I wanted to talk to you about. He likes that picture of your dad."
"He likes something I've done?"
"Don't get too used to it. I doubt it'll happen again after this," She shook her head. "You might be able to make it up, though. What were you thinking for your next one?"
"Tianchi?" Rift ventured.
Solly laughed shortly. "Yeah, right. I can see it now. Paint a picture of the most beautiful woman in Octa, that'll really get people thinking about the revolution."
"You've got a better idea, then?"
"One that'll get all those angry young men thinking with their brains instead of something else? Yeah," said Solly. "The pictures are good, Rift. Lenus wants you to do some more. Slogans are all right with the Coppers, but most of the Ambers can't even read them, and we're going to need some serious weight of numbers when the time comes."
"Don't forget the glaives," Rift murmured.
"I didn't say you were wrong, I just said you shouldn'tve said it."
"Anyway," Solly continued "Lenus wants a painting of all three Senators and the Emperor."
"Oh, stop thinking like an artist and start thinking like a revolutionary!"
" 'It's not a beautiful building, it's a symbol of Golden oppression'," Rift mimicked.
"He doesn't sound anything like that, but yeah."
"If he wants me hacked to pieces, why doesn't he just do it himself?"
"Gods, you're so so argh! What's the word!"
"Witty?" Rift suggested.
Solly gave him a dirty look. "Yeah, I'd know the word too if I'd had classics shoved down my throat all my life."
"Sorry," Rift muttered. He hated himself when he said things like that. Solly had a mind like a razor, but like every Amber - particularly every Amber woman - she'd never had any kind of schooling. Rift had known for years that she was cleverer than him. He always felt guilty whenever, by not knowing a date or quote or equation, she ended up feeling stupid.
"Come on though, Solly, you can't move for guards round the Palace."
She sighed. "Fine, I'll talk to him."
Her voice trailed away. She stared towards the door. Rift heard the sound of footsteps outside, then silence.
Gone? he mouthed to Solly.
She shook her head. There was a rustling and a quiet click as the temple door closed.
There were no innocent reasons for a Golden and an Amber to be talking in private. If this was his father
This train of thought derailed abruptly when Solly stood on tiptoe and kissed him.
Someone coughed. Hastily, they broke apart.
"Well done," said Fiella. "That was nearly convincing."
Rift blinked. "Mum?"
For a moment he couldn't believe this woman was his mother. Throughout his life, Fiella had been the perfect Octan wife. She never spoke out of turn, never voiced her thoughts, or indeed gave any evidence of having thoughts at all. She spent her time sitting, smiling and looking pretty.
This woman was a total stranger. She looked purposeful, not passive, and if her expression was anything to go by, there was a lot more going on in that pretty little head of hers than Junipus had ever realised. She looked just like Tianchi.
Solly ducked into a curtsey and darted away, stopping when Fiella's hand shot out and caught the back of her tunic.
"Can I ask you a favour, Solly?"
"Milady?" Solly replied calmly.
"In my chamber there's a bag full of food and clothes. Will you bring it here, please?"
"I can if you let go, milady."
Fiella let go and Solly pattered away across the temple. Rift shook his head. "Mum, what the hell is going on?"
His mother chucked grimly. "Got a few hours?"
"What?" Bewildered, Rift latched onto the only possible explanation. "Are you feeling all right, Mum?"
"Not at all, so it's all going as written. I can't explain right now, Rift, I'm sorry, but you'll know soon enough."
She held up a hand. "Just shut up and listen, all right? I can only tell you so much, so please don't interrupt."
Scowling, Rift nodded.
"You went too far tonight. Junipus is more convinced than ever you'll bring shame on the family. With me so far?"
"Yeah," She was telling him something he'd known since he was old enough to talk.
"Good. Tomorrow a man posing as a tribune of the Border Army will arrive. He'll offer to take you off Junipus' hands, and of course he'll accept."
"The Border Army?" Rift exclaimed. Fiella gave him a warning look.
The Border Army The thought made him feel sick. For the past ten years Octa had been at war with its neighbour, Eirasi, a country (as every Octan child was taught) full of barbarians so backwards they didn't even have a class system. The Border was hundreds of miles away, making it the perfect place to send embarrassing relatives - particularly as, thanks to those pesky barbarians and their military stratagems, most of them never came back. The Eirasi were notoriously tenacious, and they'd pushed the Octan Army to its limits. Rift had heard stories of torture, massacres, fanaticism yes, anything was acceptable for Octa's finest when they had a point to prove.
"This man has nothing to do with the Border Army," said Fiella. "If you went with him you'd be worse than dead. You have to leave tonight."
"Please, Rift!" Fiella snapped. "Hopefully we've got a few hours' grace, although we can't assume they don't know what we're doing it's more than likely they're expecting this "
"Who are they?"
Fiella sighed. "They're the Shadows, Rift," she said quietly.
Before Rift could ask any more questions, the door banged open and Solly ran towards them, carrying a bag about half as big as she was. She staggered to a halt and handed it to Fiella.
"Lord di Finri's on his way, milady, thought you'd want to know," she gasped, glancing at Rift, who shrugged.
"Thank you, Solly," Fiella swung the bag onto her shoulder. "Say goodbye, Rift. We're leaving."
Gingerly, Tsu touched her head. The pain had dulled, thank the gods, but she was going to have an impressive lump.
She'd been awake for about half an hour. The man hadn't noticed and she wanted to keep it that way. Unfortunately this meant she couldn't look around much, but two things were clear - it was night, and they were travelling by dragon. She was strapped to its back like an awkwardly-shaped piece of luggage. Besides the obvious, there was something very wrong about the whole situation. Dragons weren't stupid. They would carry humans, for a fee, but they refused to get involved in any kind of human conflict. Both species had seen where that road led.
"Clear," said the man. "All right, down we go. Go on, you daft lizard, you."
Another strange thing, Tsu noted. Dragons didn't take kindly to being insulted. No self-respecting dragon would put up with this man, but he'd been talking to it like that for as long as she'd been awake.
She clamped her mouth shut as the dragon swooped downwards. Risking a glance, Tsu saw a wide scatter of lights shining around a silvery river. It was a city, but all that told her was that she was a long way from home.
Think, she told herself. You're a Firebound Islander. Where would any kidnapper be taking you?
Octa. Where else? Of course, slavery had been banned years ago thanks to pressure from Terrane. These days the Goldens had servants. The fact that some of these servants weren't paid and had mysterious marks on their arms that looked like branding wasn't the point. There were no slaves in Octa.
Tsu frowned. It was the most likely explanation, but something didn't fit. Not even slavers could afford the kind of magic that man had used. Even the Emperor - who, from what she'd heard, had more than a few unpaid servants working in his palace - would be unlikely to waste that much money on kidnapping just one girl. Shapeshifting was sorcery, and sorcery meant getting hold of one of the very few, very elusive Old Magic relics that hadn't been confiscated by the Mage's Council.
There was a thump as the dragon landed on the draconerie, a tall stone tower that could be found in every town across the continent. She shut her eyes as the man slid to the ground and - unbelievably - patted the creature. "Good boy. Get yourself home, now."
Tsu felt him untying the ropes and lifting her like she was a sack of flour. There was a clatter of claws on stone and a sudden downwind as the dragon launched itself back into the sky.
The man put her down. Tsu didn't move.
He kicked her in the side. She faked a barely-conscious whimper. Wait, she told herself.
She heard his footsteps moving away. A door-latch rattled.
And she was up and driving her foot hard into the back of his knee. The man cried out and crumpled against the door. Before he could get up Tsu grabbed his hair and cracked his head hard against the flagstones.
There was no time to check whether he was unconscious or just surprised. Tsu stepped over him, pulled the door open and slammed it shut behind her.
She stopped for a second to collect her thoughts. She was standing at the top of a spiral staircase, lit by a single torch. Taking a deep breath, Tsu ran, almost tripping on the narrow steps, until she stumbled out into a square.
She was right. What other city would have a drinking fountain marked "Provided for members of the lower classes"?
Tsu's common sense told her to head straight for the harbour. She could get a boat down the river to the coast, then find a ship heading for Lantis. It would be sure to stop at the Islands on the way. In two weeks she could be home.
The rest of her mind turned around and gave her common sense a good slap. Why in the name of the gods would she want to head home now, when she'd spent the last six months planning how to get away from the place? True, this wasn't the way she'd expected it to happen, but that wasn't the point. Why pass up a chance like this? She could head north into Terrane or west into Eirasi. She could go anywhere and see anything she wanted.
Her conscience began to kick in, but Tsu squashed it by promising herself that she'd write to her father as soon as she found some paper. Meanwhile, she had a city to explore.
She'd taken three steps when a wave of air rolled down and knocked her flat. A shadow dropped in front of her, and the dragon spread its wings and snarled into her face.
"Nearly there," Fiella said as they turned into yet another twisting alley.
"Oh, great. Nearly where?"
"Somewhere you'll be safe for a while."
Rift felt like laughing. Someone had already tried to mug them, but Fiella had soon put a stop to that. It would be a long time before he forgot the sound of teeth crunching against cobbles. Although he'd been impressed, he didn't feel particularly safe.
He watched his mother as she strode on ahead. Part of him was still in shock. If this was the real Fiella, how the hell had she kept up such a convincing act for so long? He'd seen her every day of his life, and there had never been any hint of this other woman. He didn't dislike the new Fiella, but she didn't seem like his mother.
The alley opened out into a narrow street. Fiella headed for the nearest house. All the buildings along the road were dilapidated, but this house looked as if something had nibbled it around the edges. The roof was falling in, the windows were smashed and the door hung off its hinges.
"Safe as houses," Rift muttered.
"Keep up," Fiella called. He followed her inside, wondering just how Lady di Finri had found a place like this.
They went up the drunken stairs into the room on the top floor, although 'room' was a generous term for something that was little more than a floor enclosed by a skeleton of walls and roof. Fiella dropped the bag and sank to the floor with a sigh of relief. "Well, that went better than I expected."
Rift sat down a little way off. "What were you expecting, bandits?"
Fiella chuckled. "Bandits wouldn't have been too bad."
"And those Shadows? They'd just have been a nuisance, right?"
For a moment, Fiella was absolutely still. Her smile vanished. Then she shook her head and leaned back against one of the more solid bits of wall.
"All right. I knew you'd have questions - gods know I did - and I don't have much time, but I can answer a few of them. What do you want to know?"
Rift hesitated. Now it came to it, he realised he was so confused that he didn't even know what to ask.
"Why do they want me? What's so bad about them that - what did you say? - I'd be worse than dead if I went with them?"
Fiella pulled a face. "It's complicated."
"You see, the reason they're chasing you now isn't the reason they'll be chasing you when "
"What?" Rift demanded.
"When they find out who you really are."
Rift gave her a long, cold look. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Listen, Rift, this isn't easy," Fiella snapped. "When we get to Watcher's Pass I'll be able to explain properly, but right now I can only give you the short answers."
"So make them short!"
Fiella took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "The reason they want you - gods, where to start? - I suppose, if we get right down to it, it's because of me."
"Well thanks, Mum."
"Your father is exactly who he seems," said Fiella. "And, as you've probably guessed by now, I'm not. And because of what I am you're useful to the Shadows."
"What, they need people from families with a history of insanity?"
"Your father's from here, Rift, but I'm not. That makes you different."
"So they need people who are half-Octan? They could just follow the army around."
"As for why I can't let them catch you," said Fiella, as if she hadn't heard him "the thing about the Shadows is you know your father's opinion on foreigners?"
" 'Filthy barbarians fit for nothing but servitude'?" Rift answered, and grinned as a thought struck him. "He'd have a breakdown if he found out you weren't Octan."
"Well, next to the Shadows, your father would seem liberal," Fiella considered this for a moment. "Moderately liberal, anyway."
Rift raised his eyebrows. "Is that even possible?"
"As far as the Shadows are concerned, if you're not one of them, you're barely human. 'Lesser' is the word they use. They treat the people they take as commodities, things "
"Slaves and experiments," Fiella shrugged and gave him a helpless little half-smile, half-grimace. "And when they find out more about you, you'll be in even more danger. They're fast, they're strong, they're clever, and they have weapons and magic that you can't even dream of at their disposal. That's why I have to get you out of the city tonight."
"I don't understand! Where are they from? Are they Octan, or what?"
Fiella shook her head. "They're not Octan."
"They're not from this world, Rift."
Rift stared at her.
"Not from this world," he repeated.
"Oh well, thank the gods for that. For a moment there I thought this was all starting to sound a bit far-fetched."
"People from another world are here to kidnap me. Why didn't I work that out myself?"
"I know how it sounds, but-"
She broke off and put her head on one side, as if she was listening to something. Rift strained his ears, but he couldn't hear anything over the usual sounds of the city.
Abruptly, Fiella stood up. "I have to go. Wait here."
"I've got to meet someone. I'll be back as soon as I can. Don't leave this house, all right?"
"Yes, I heard you the first time!" Fiella snapped.
"Not you - oh, for gods' sakes, shut up! - no, I didn't mean you, Rift, but I really have to go now."
She walked towards the middle of the room. "The stairs are behind you," Rift pointed out, wondering if the voices were telling her differently. Maybe he should stand in front of the window, just in case they steered her over there.
"I know that," Fiella said irritably. She shook her head a couple of times, and her expression cleared. She turned back to Rift with a tired smile.
"I won't be long, all right? Promise me you won't leave the house till then."
Rift shrugged. "Fine, I promise."
"Good boy," She leaned forwards and gave him a quick hug. "Now stand back."
Scowling, Rift took a couple of steps backwards. "Mum-"
Before he could say anything else, Fiella had turned around - and vanished.
For a few moments, Rift stood and stared at the place where she'd been. He reached tentatively forwards and waved his hand in mid-air. Nothing.
So which of us is crazy? he thought, and sat back down, hugging his knees.
About half an hour later, just when the cramp was threatening to paralyse him, Rift heard a voice in the street outside.
He sat up straighter. Maybe it was Fiella, although he didn't know quite what he was going to do when she got back. Hopefully he was allowed a few more questions.
Rift scrambled to his feet. That wasn't Fiella's voice. It was much more familiar, and much more welcome.
"Solly!" He ran over to the window and leaned out. Solly was standing in the street below. She'd changed the flashy tunic for a plain dress and cloak. When she heard his voice, she looked up and beamed at him.
"What are you doing here?" Rift called.
"I could ask you the same thing! Is your mum with you?"
Rift shook his head. "She went away."
Solly frowned. "You don't reckon she knows, do you?"
"Of course n-" Rift stopped. "I don't know. She might. Gods know who she really is."
Solly put her head in her hands. "Oh gods right, we've got to get you to Lenus. He'll know what to do."
"What, like kill me just to be on the safe side?"
"Oh, for gods' sakes, he's not going to kill you!" Solly snapped. "He'll probably arrange for you to get to Terrane or something. But the longer we stand here talking about it, the more danger we're going to be in, so come on!"
Rift turned away from the window and headed for the stairs, picking up the bag as he passed. He wasn't as confident in Lenus' forgiveness as Solly, but then again, Fiella hadn't mentioned anything about the revolution. She'd been too busy worrying about those Shadows and listening to voices in her head. Before she'd vanished into thin air.
He probably shouldn't mention that last part to Lenus.
Solly was waiting by the door when he stepped outside. "Come on," she said again, grabbing his elbow and dragging him towards the alleys.
"Where are we meeting Lenus?"
"Usual place, but we've got to be quick. If she does know, and your dad believes her "
"She might not have told him," Rift said defensively, although he wasn't entirely sure why.
"Why wouldn't she?"
"I don't get the impression she likes him very much!"
"She liked him enough to have three kids with him," Solly said, pushing him ahead of her as she ran. Rift scowled. All right, this could be serious, but she wasn't usually this much of a hassle. Was she really that angry about earlier?
He stumbled and slowed down to catch his balance, then stopped completely. There was nothing ahead except a blank brick wall.
"Solly, you've taken us the wrong way-" he began, turning around. The words stuck in his throat.
It wasn't Solly standing behind him. This woman was taller and thinner, her skin as white as paper and her hair and eyes so black they seemed to suck away the light. She was smiling.
Rift launched himself forwards, trying to duck past her and race for the mouth of the alley, but the woman punched him in the stomach and shoved him back against the wall. The breath was knocked out of his lungs, and Rift scrabbled for a hold on the bricks as he choked and gasped.
The woman chuckled as two men, as dark-pale as she was, strolled down the alley to stand just behind her.
"You've run far enough, halfbreed," she said. "Why don't you come with us?"
Everything looks better from a distance. Draw back until the figures are as small as pieces on a chessboard, and this is just a complicated move. This is not the real problem.
The real problem is that their strategy is based on guesswork. To be fair, so is their opponent's, but he has more pieces and his pawns know exactly what they're doing.
If the players were gods, maybe they would be cruel and uncaring, but they're more than gods. Fair is a concept too small for them to understand. The game is all that matters, because the game is life and war.
Now they wait and their enemy makes his move. Dark-pale pieces click into place around his guesses. At the back of the board a single figure stands alone. She seems uninvolved, but she isn't. She's as still as a spider at the centre of her web.
At that moment she sat in a room at the top of a soaring tower, curled into an armchair, reading a book. A glass of red wine stood on the table beside her. Vivaldi was playing in the background.
She turned a page and picked the Dimensional Province Leader's mind out of the babbling mass below.
I hear the imports have arrived, Holson.
All of them?
Apprehension soured the edges of his mind. Most of them, ma'am.
Three are still unaccounted for, ma'am.
Thank you, Holson.
She let him go, took a sip of wine and pulled her thoughts into the base of the tower. There was a sharp, bright instant as the Voices - the telepaths who provided communications for those without her gift - noticed her.
Voices here, how may we help you?
Oh! Blunt, heavy fear. How - um - what can I-
Contact all Patrols still in the field.
She carried on reading and followed the thoughts of three Voices as they found their connections. She slipped into the Patrollers' minds without making a ripple.
One was sluggish, stirring back into consciousness. Raven watched him cursing the short girl, mildly amused. Some of these lessers were actually quite accomplished.
Three were coiled like snakes about to strike. But the talented ones, Raven thought, were certainly an exception. That boy didn't stand a chance.
The fifth was licking his wounds. This was so unusual she decided it would be a shame simply to read about it.
What happened, Kadju?
He flinched, a sudden discord in his mind.
Just a setback. Ma'am.
An unawakened semidimensional?
There was a Keeper and a dimensional hanging around!
It wasn't beyond your capabilities.
But it was a Keeper! That means Destiny's messing around with this one!
Thank you, I had also reached that conclusion.
He paused. Sorry, ma'am. Anyway, I've got the other one.
How near are you?
Just outside the London Gateway.
Deliver it, then bring the other in as soon as you can. But tread carefully. No deaths, no disturbances, do you understand?
Don't disappoint me, Kadju.
Raven wound the threads of her mind back into herself and finished her wine. She hadn't stopped reading for one moment.
This would have to be dealt with. She couldn't afford to be overcautious, and the Keeper made the problem far more serious. Besides, who would miss three halfbreeds?