‘I’ve just wasted ten years of my life on a nonexistent danger. I’m sure you’ll forgive a certain amount of discontent about the whole thing.’

‘Patience will come to you, Sparhawk.’ Sephrenia smiled. ‘Once you have reached maturity’

‘I thought that I already had.’

‘Not by half.’

He grinned at her then. ‘Just how old are you, Sephrenia?’ he asked.

Her look was filled with resignation. ‘What is it about you Pandions that makes you all ask that same question? You know I’m not going to answer you. Can’t you just accept the fact that I’m older than you are and let it go at that?’

‘You’re also older than I am,’ Vanion added. ‘You were my teacher when I was no older than those boys who guard my door’

‘And do I look so very, very old?’

‘My dear Sephrenia, you’re as young as spring and as wise as winter. You’ve ruined us all, you know. After we’ve known you, the fairest of maidens have no charm for us.’

‘Isn’t he nice?’ She smiled at Sparhawk. ‘Surely no man alive has so beguiling a tongue.’

‘Try him sometime when you’ve just missed a pass with the lance,’ Sparhawk replied sourly He shifted his shoulders under the weight of his armour. ‘What else is afoot? I’ve been gone a long time and I’m hungry for news.’

‘Otha’s mobilizing,’ Vanion told him. ‘The word that’s coming out of Zemoch is that he’s looking eastward towards Daresia and the Tamul Empire, but I’ve got a few doubts about that.’

‘And I have more than a few,’ Sephrenia agreed. ‘The kingdoms of the west are suddenly awash with Styric vagabonds. They camp at crossroads and hawk the rude goods of Styricum, but no local Styric band acknowledges them as members. For some reason the Emperor Otha and his cruel master have inundated us with watchers. Azash has driven the Zemochs to attack the west before Something lies hidden here that he desperately wants, and he’s not going to find it in Daresia.’

‘There have been Zemoch mobilizations before,’ Sparhawk said, leaning back. ‘Nothing ever came of it.’

‘I think that this time might be a bit more serious,’ Vanion disagreed. ‘When he gathered his forces before, it was always on the border; as soon as the four militant orders moved into Lamorkand to face him, he disbanded his armies. He was testing us, nothing more This time, though, he’s massing his troops back behind the mountains out of sight, so to speak.’

‘Let him come,’ Sparhawk said bleakly ‘We stopped him five hundred years ago, and we can do it again if we have to.’

Vanion shook his head. ‘We don’t want a repetition of what happened after the battle at Lake Randera – a century of famine, pestilence and complete social collapse – no, my friend, that we don’t want.’

‘If we can avoid it,’ Sephrenia added. ‘I am Styric, and I know even better than you Elenes just how totally evil the Elder God Azash is. If he comes west again, he must be stopped no matter what the cost.’

‘That’s what the Church Knights are here for,’ Vanion said. ‘Right now, about all we can do is keep our eyes on Otha.’

‘I’ve just remembered something,’ Sparhawk said. ‘When I was riding into town last night, I saw Krager.’

‘Here in Cimmura?’ Vanion asked, sounding surprised. ‘Do you think Martel could be with him?’

‘Probably not. Krager’s usually Martel’s errand boy. Adus is the one who has to be kept on a short chain.’ He squinted. ‘How much did you hear about the incident in Cippria?’ he asked them.

‘We heard that Martel attacked you,’ Vanion replied. ‘That’s about all.’

‘There was a bit more to it than that,’ Sparhawk told him. ‘When Aldreas sent me to Cippria, I was supposed to report to the Elenian consul there – a diplomat who just happens to be the cousin of the Primate Annias. Late one night, he summoned me. I was on my way to his house when Martel, Adus, and Krager – along with a fair number of local cutthroats – came charging out of a side street. There’s no way that they could have known that I’d be passing that way unless someone had told them. Put that together with the fact that Krager’s back in Cimmura, where there’s a price on his head, and you start to come up with some interesting conclusions.’

‘You think that Martel is working for Annias?’

‘It’s a possibility, wouldn’t you say? Annias wasn’t very happy about the way my father forced Aldreas to give up the notion of marrying his own sister, and it’s entirely possible that he felt that he’d have a freer hand here in Elenia if the family of Sparhawk became extinct in a back alley in Cippria. Of course, Martel has his own reasons for disliking me I really think you made a mistake, Vanion. You could have saved us all a lot of trouble if you hadn’t ordered me to withdraw my challenge’

Vanion shook his head. ‘No, Sparhawk,’ he said. ‘Martel had been a brother in our order, and I didn’t want you two trying to kill each other. Besides, I couldn’t be entirely sure who’d win. Martel is very dangerous.’

‘So am I.’

‘I’m not taking any unnecessary chances with you, Sparhawk. You’re too valuable.’

‘Well, it’s too late to worry about it now’

‘What are your plans?’

‘I’m supposed to stay here in the chapterhouse, but I think I’ll drift around the city a bit and see if I can run across Krager again. If I can connect him with anybody who’s working for Annias, I’ll be able to answer a few burning questions.’

‘Perhaps you should wait a bit,’ Sephrenia advised. ‘Kalten’s on his way back from Lamorkand.’

‘Kalten? I haven’t seen him in years.’

‘She’s right, Sparhawk,’ Vanion agreed. ‘Kalten’s a good man in tight corners, and the streets of Cimmura can be just as dangerous as the alleys of Cippria.’

‘When’s he likely to arrive?’

Vanion shrugged. ‘Soon, I think. It could even be today’

‘I’ll wait until he gets here’ An idea came to Sparhawk then. He smiled at his teacher and rose to his feet.

‘What are you doing, Sparhawk?’ she asked him suspiciously

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