‘Zemoch?’ Sparhawk asked after they had passed the man.

‘It’s impossible to say,’ Sephrenia replied.

‘Is he concealing his identity with a spell?’

She spread her hands helplessly ‘There’s no way to tell, Sparhawk. Either he’s just an ordinary backwoods Styric with nothing on his mind but his next meal, or he’s a very subtle magician who’s playing the bumpkin to block out attempts to probe him.’

Sparhawk swore under his breath. ‘This might not be as easy as I thought,’ he said. ‘Let’s go on then and see what we can find out.’

The house to which Sephrenia had been directed sat at the end of a cul-de-sac, a short street that went nowhere

‘That’s going to be difficult to watch without being obvious,’ Sparhawk said as they rode slowly past the mouth of the narrow street.

‘Not really,’ Sephrenia disagreed. She reined in her palfrey ‘We need to talk with the shopkeeper there on the corner’

‘Did you want to buy something?’

‘Not exactly buy, Sparhawk. Come along. You’ll see’ She slid down out of her saddle and tied the reins of her delicate white horse to a post outside the shop she had indicated. She looked around briefly ‘Will your great war horse discourage anyone who might want to steal my gentle little Ch’iel?’ she asked. She laid her hand affectionately on the white horse’s neck.

‘I’ll talk to him about it.’

‘Would you?’

‘Faran,’ Sparhawk said to the ugly roan, ‘stay here and protect Sephrenia’s mare.’

Faran nickered, his ears pricked eagerly forward.

‘You big old fool,’ Sparhawk laughed.

Faran snapped at him, his teeth clacking together at the empty air inches from Sparhawk’s ear.

‘Be nice,’ Sparhawk murmured.

Inside the shop, a room devoted to the display of cheap furniture, Sephrenia’s attitude became ingratiating, even oddly submissive. ‘Good master merchant,’ she said with an uncharacteristic tone in her voice, ‘we serve a great Pelosian noble who has come to Chyrellos to seek solace for his soul in the holy city’

‘I don’t deal with Styrics,’ the merchant said rudely, glowering at Sephrenia. ‘There are too many of you filthy heathens in Chyrellos already.’ He assumed an expression of extreme distaste, all the while making what Sparhawk knew to be totally ineffective gestures to ward off magic

‘Look, huckster,’ the big knight said, affecting an insulting Pelosian-accented manner, ‘do not rise above yourself. My master’s chatelaine and I will be treated with respect, regardless of your feeble-minded bigotry.’

The shopkeeper bristled at that. ‘Why –’ he began to bluster

Sparhawk smashed the top of a cheap table into splinters with a single blow of his fist. Then he seized the shopman’s collar and pulled him forward so that they were eye to eye ‘Do we understand each other?’ he said in a dreadful voice that hovered just this side of a whisper

‘What we require, good master merchant,’ Sephrenia said smoothly, ‘is a goodly set of chambers facing the street. Our master has been ever fond of watching the ebb and flow of humanity’ She lowered her eyelashes modestly ‘Have you such a place abovestairs?’

The shopkeeper’s face was a study in conflicting emotions as he turned to mount the stairs towards the upper floor.

The chambers above were shabby one might even go so far as to say ratty They had at some time in the past been painted, but the pea-soup-green paint had peeled and now hung in long strips from the walls. Sparhawk and Sephrenia were not interested in paint, however It was to the dirty window at the front of the main chamber that their eyes went.

There’s more, little lady,’ the shopkeeper said, more respectfully now

‘We can conduct our own inspection, good master merchant.’ She cocked her head slightly ‘Was that the step of a customer I heard from below?’

The shopkeeper blinked and then he bolted downstairs.

‘Can you see the house up the street from the window?’ Sephrenia asked.

‘The panes are dirty’ Sparhawk lifted the hem of his grey cloak to wipe away the dust and grime

‘Don’t,’ she said sharply ‘Styric eyes are very sharp.’

‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll look through the dust. Elene eyes are just as sharp.’ He looked at her ‘Does that happen every time you go out?’ he asked.

‘Yes. Common Elenes are not much smarter than common Styrics. Frankly I’d rather have a conversation with a toad than with either breed.’

‘Toads can talk?’ He was a little surprised at that.

‘If you know what you’re listening for, yes. They’re not very stimulating conversationalists, though.’

The house at the end of the street was not impressive The lower floor was constructed of field-stone, crudely mortared together, and the second storey was of roughly squared-off timbers. It seemed somehow set off from the houses around it as if drawing in a kind of isolated separateness. As they watched, a Styric wearing the poorly woven woollen smock which was the characteristic garb of his race moved up the street towards the house. He looked around furtively before he entered.

‘Well?’ Sparhawk asked.

‘It’s hard to say,’ Sephrenia replied. ‘It’s the same as with that one we saw in the street. He’s either simple or very skilled.’

This could take a while.’

‘Only until dark if I’m right,’ she said as she drew a chair up to the window

In the next several hours, a fair number of Styrics entered the house, and, as the sun sank into a dense, dirty-looking cloud bank on the western horizon, others began to arrive. A Cammorian in a bright yellow silk robe went furtively up the cul-de-sac and was immediately admitted. A booted Lamork in a polished steel cuirass and accompanied by two crossbow-bearing men-at-arms marched arrogantly up to the doors of the house and gained entry just as quickly. Then, as the chill winter twilight began to settle over Chyrellos, a lady in a deep purple robe and attended by a huge manservant in bullhide armour such as that commonly worn by Pelosians went up the centre of the short street, moving with a stiff-legged, abstracted pace. Her eyes seemed vacant and her movements jerky Her face, however, bore an expression of ineffable ecstasy

‘Strange visitors to a Styric house,’ Sephrenia commented.

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