HE HEARTWORLD of the Republic hung against the darkness of space like an enormous, glittering opal, swirled with bright green and deep blue and white streaks of cloud. Looking out from the observation deck of his flagship, Grand Admiral Theio syn-Ricte sus-Airaalin knew that he had accomplished the impossible. He had brought a warfleet through hyperspace to strike without warning, and all the enemy’s inmost citadels lay under his hand. He called the roll of them in his mind: Galcen Prime Base; Galcen South Polar; the Grand Council of the Republic; the Adepts’ Retreat.
Knowledge of his victory brought sus-Airaalin no special pleasure. Now, and not the long years of preparations or the desperate battle just past, was the period of greatest danger. Having done the impossible, he would have to do more—hold what he had gained, and bring the outlying sectors of the Republic securely under control.
We can do it
, he thought.
With luck, and with the aid of the Circles. If we don’t lose too much of the fleet in any one action, or if we can augment our forces somehow … we’ve spent too much already, in ships and in lives, when we had little enough to begin with.
The commander of the Resurgency’s warfleet was a realist, or as much a realist as any man could be and hope to bring back the old ways and the old knowledge. sus-Airaalin had understood from the beginning that his only chance for success lay in throwing massive strength into a single unexpected blow, crushing the head of the serpent while it slept. But the broken pieces of this particular serpent could still fight; and if they should rejoin, like the braidworm of legend that made one beast out of many, then what the Adept-worlds had done to the Circles thirty years before would pale beside their vengeance now.
He would stop that, if he could, for the sake of a generation not yet born when the Old War ended in crushing defeat and systematic, relentless destruction. The young men and women who crewed the ships of sus-Airaalin’s fleet and worked in his new-formed Mage-Circles were children of poverty and repression. They had never known the former days of power and vainglory, when Eraasian warfleets raided the Adept-worlds at will and broke whole planets for daring to resist. For them—and not for the Resurgency—sus-Airaalin would do whatever must be done.
, he thought.
Even to this.
Straightening his shoulders, he turned from the viewport and left the
s observation deck, making his way through the narrow passageways to the detention area at the heart of the ship. Outside the door of the deepest cell, he paused for a moment to gather his resolve, then laid his hand on the lockplate. The door opened. He stepped inside, and the door closed again behind him.
There was no light in the cell. sus-Airaalin touched a control near the door, and the ceiling panels began to emit a pale, dingy glow. The man who lay on the narrow metal bunk stirred briefly and opened his eyes; then, with an effort, he sat up, although his hands were manacled and chained to the wall behind him.
The prisoner was not a fearsome man to look at. He was scarcely taller than sus-Airaalin, without the Grand Admiral’s compact sturdiness; his black hair hung lank around features made haggard by captivity. Not, one might think, a particularly threatening figure, but sus-Airaalin knew better. This was Errec Ransome, Master of the Adepts’ Guild: the Breaker of Circles.
He regarded his visitor without surprise.
“My lord sus-Airaalin,” he said.
The Grand Admiral inclined his head in the barest shadow of a formal bow. “Master Ransome.”
“Your personal attention … honors me.”
Although dried blood stained the pale skin around Ransome’s mouth, still the Adept Master seemed amused. sus-Airaalin let the faint mockery go past unremarked. He had his own reasons for not giving Errec Ransome into the hands of the Resurgency’s intelligence wing, reasons that had nothing to do with either Ransome’s honor or sus-Airaalin’s pleasure.
I ought to kill him now,
. The longer he’s a prisoner, the greater the danger to all of us.
“I know too much for you to kill me,” said Ransome, as if he had read the unspoken thought—as perhaps he had. He was the Adept Master, and powerful enough that not even manacles wrought for that purpose could render him entirely harmless. “What you want, Magelord, you’ll have to gain through your own strength. There’s no Circle standing behind you here.”
“No,” agreed sus-Airaalin. The Mages of his Circle had given themselves into his control and his protection; he would not repay their faith by using them so. He unclipped the silver-and-ebony rod that hung from his belt and, stooping, laid it on the dull metal floor. “Nor will I forget myself and make this into a contest for lordship.”
“You spoke differently at Prime Base.”
“I offered you challenge then according to our way,” sus-Airaalin told him. “And you refused. There is never a second challenge. That, also, is according to our way.”
Irony flickered in the Adept Master’s dark eyes. “And is this?”
sus-Airaalin didn’t answer. Instead he drew in all his strength—like a man preparing for some physical exertion, though no part of his body moved—and struck at the gates of Errec Ransome’s mind.
It was like battering his fists against the barred and metal-bound doors of some massive citadel—like trying to break down the portal of the great Retreat itself. Wall upon wall it rose above him, tower upon tower, secret upon secret.
A cold wind tore the air about him, keening among the mountain crags. Black clouds spread out like ragged banners across the sky overhead. sus-Airaalin was alone. He longed to call upon the strength of his Circle, but he did not dare. He had laid his staff aside to keep that temptation from him.
Whatever happens, I will not give over those who have trusted me into the hands of the enemy.
He struck again at the ironwood gates. His knuckles split and bled with the force of the blow. He struck a third time, and the great gate splintered and fell open. sus-Airaalin stepped through the gap and entered into the citadel of the Breaker of Circles.
Within was desolation: courtyards empty of everything but blowing dust; rooms that held only sticks of broken furniture; dark halls leading nowhere except to doors locked strongly against further passage. One by one, sus-Airaalin smashed the doorways open, forcing his way into deserted chambers where nothing lived besides an echo of voices.
Is this all there is?
He fought against a surge of bitter, irrational anger.
The Master of the Guild should have more to guard than dirt and rubble.
He suppressed the thought and went on, searching always further down and inward. At last he came to a door that swung open easily when he put his hand against it. Inside, he found another barren space, this one empty except for the man who knelt there in meditation, with his back to a solid wooden door.
The man lifted his head. sus-Airaalin realized that he was facing Errec Ransome, as the Master of the Adepts’ Guild might look if he lived another three decades or more. The sleek black hair was dulled with grey; the dark eyes were deep-set and shadowed in a worn and furrowed face. He followed sus-Airaalin’s gaze past him to the locked door.
“Yes,” he said. “What you look for is there.”
“How do you know?”
The old man laughed. There was an edge of madness in the sound. “How could I not, my lord sus-Airaalin? You told me yourself with every lock and barrier you broke.”
“Master Ransome,” sus-Airaalin said. “Open the door. Or I will break it and you together.”
The old man looked at him. sus-Airaalin heard the ghost of laughter in his breath. “Very well, my lord. It isn’t locked. Open it yourself, if you want.”
“I will,” sus-Airaalin told the old man. He strode forward and swung open the door. There was nothing behind it but a blank wall of grey stone. Again sus-Airaalin heard the faint sound of Errec Ransome’s voiceless laughter.
“You have your answer,” Ransome said. “What you look for, you will not find. This place will crumble before it yields up anything more to you. Now go.” sus-Airaalin shook his head. “No. I
He put his hands against the blank wall and pushed with all the strength in his shoulders.
Wood and stone cried out under the strain, but nothing moved. The ground shifted underneath his feet in a queasy sideways slide, and an upward glance showed him that the plaster ceiling had broken into a thousand tiny cracks. White dust fell onto his hair and shoulders in a powdery rain, and the walls began sliding and tilting against one another at odd angles like paper cards. sus-Airaalin abandoned his efforts and ran. Behind him in the swaying, ransacked fortress, the old man kept on laughing.
With a desperate surge of effort, the Grand Admiral pulled himself away from the treacherous architecture of Ransome’s mind. When his vision cleared, he was back in the physical reality of the flagship’s detention level, still standing where he had planted his feet at the beginning of the struggle. His staff lay untouched on the floor.
Across from him, Errec Ransome slumped against the wall of the cell. Fresh blood trickled from the Adept Master’s nostrils, and from the corners of his eyes. But when he straightened and met sus-Airaalin’s gaze, there was a dark triumph on his face.
“Not yet, my lord sus-Airaalin,” he said. “Not yet.”