A blustery wind ripped and buffeted at the old house, making roof creak and casements rattle. Clouds streamed through the night sky and played tag with the moon. The air smelled of rain now, not snow; spring lurked outside in the damp woods.
The old woman wandered the empty galleries, clutching a dancing candle in knotted fingers. She listened to the whisper of the Voices and cackled at their amusement and their joy.
"Coming, is he?" she said. "Well, you said he would."
She paused, thinking she had heard a living sound, but there was nothing more. It might have been the child, restless with a new tooth, perhaps. It might have been the soldier. She had forgotten his name, they all just called him Centurion. He prowled at night, sometimes, but the Voices warned her where he was and she avoided him. Dangerous, that one.
The Voices were joyful tonight. The duke was coming, they said, coming to claim his lady, coming to fulfill his destiny as they had known he would, these many years.
She wasn‘t aware of it yet, the lady--didn‘t know he was coming. Pretty, she was. Lovely as a dream, even if she was mother to the brat. And cold. The old couple had a name for her, but they called her Ma‘am when they thought they weren‘t overheard. They were a count and countess, so what did that make the lady, that they would be so respectful toward her? She had a husband somewhere. Not the duke. Husbands had never stopped lovers much, now, had they?
The old folk wouldn‘t either. Nor the centurion. The Voices knew that.
Cold, she was, but a lover would soon melt the ice.
He was on his way at last, the duke. Coming to claim his lady, his destiny. And hers. The Voices knew.
Wind rattled the casements.
* * * *
Lord Umpily had never experienced anything in his life as bad as the dungeon. He did not know how long he had been lying there, alone in the cold, stinking darkness, but when he heard the clatter of chains and locks and saw the flicker of light through the peephole in the door and could guess that they had come to take him away ... well, then he did not want to leave.
Probably he had been there for no more than a week, although it felt like at least a month. In the darkness and silence he would have welcomed even a rat or two for company, but the only other residents were the tiny, many-legged kind. He itched all over; there was a lot of him to itch. He had developed sores from lying on the hard stone, for the straw provided was rotten and scanty. He had lost count of meals, but they seemed to come only every second day, or perhaps twice a week. He had passed the time mostly in thinking of some of the great banquets he had attended in his time, mulling them over in his mind, dish by dish. When he had exhausted even that fund of entertainment, he began reviewing all his favorite recipes, planning the perfect meal, the one he would arrange in celebration were he ever to be restored to court and a normal existence again.
The mental torment was much worse than the physical. He was no stranger to hardship. As advisor to the prince imperial, he had journeyed with Shandie to almost every corner of the Impire, living in the saddle for weeks on end, bedding in army camp or hedgerow hostel. He had survived forests and deserts, blizzards and breakers--he had never tasted anything worse than this prison gruel, though. At least on those expeditions he had understood why he was there and what he was doing. Life had made sense then, and even if warfare itself sometimes seemed nonsensical, there had always been the consolation that he was helping a future imperor learn his trade.
He wondered how Shandie was managing now, deposed and dispossessed within minutes of his accession, a hunted outlaw battling omnipotent sorcery. Ironically, when Legate Ugoatho arrested Umpily, he had not ordered him searched, and the magic scroll still nestled safely in the inside pocket of his doublet. Writing in the dark was trickier than he had expected, but he had scrawled a warning that his spying days were ended. Disregard future communications! He could not tell if Shandie had received the message or had replied.
Always Umpily‘s thoughts would return to the dread vision he had seen in the preflecting pool. That prophecy had been fulfilled. A dwarf now sat on the Opal Throne. After more than three thousand years the Impire had fallen, and almost no one knew it. With its immense occult power, the Covin had overthrown the Protocol, deposed the wardens, replaced the imperor, and yet had managed to hide the truth from the world. The sorcerous would know the secret, of course, or most of it--practically all of them had been conscripted into the Covin anyway--but no mundanes did, except for a tiny handful. Zinixo undoubtedly intended to keep his triumph secret indefinitely. What would he do to those who knew it?
Umpily was about to find out. Light flickered outside the spy hole, chains rattled, the lock squeaked.