Turquoise Scepter Chapter One

The Turquoise Scepter

Chapter One

In springtime, the sky above Laurelynn was full of wings.

As the equinox approached, the great flocks moved north through the Great Valley in their millions. The delta of the Dorada was a rest stop for teal and mallard ducks, coots and scaup and pintails and the elegant black headed geese, and some of them always found a harbor in the small lake at the center of the island that men had built to be a refuge from the chaos of the Cataclysm eight centuries before.

King Julian sat on the red-brick terrace above the lake, finishing a breakfast of fruit and porridge and watching a clan of ducks who had been feeding among the reeds where the lawn sloped down to the water erupt in raucous altercation as a new group settled in.

“Noisy, aren’t they,” said Rana, passing him the pitcher of cream.

“It reminds me of the council hall,” said the king, and was rewarded by her laugh. When the birds came, the population of Laurelynn was swelled by men as well, arriving for the Spring Sessions. For the past week bridges and boat slips had been busy as those who spoke for the Estates of Westria came in.

He dug his spoon into the bowl, appreciating the firm, nutty texture of the varied grains, and the bits of dried apricot and cherry and plum. There had been a time when he had taken all this for granted–the good food and the way the shining surface of the lake splintered into shards of brightness as the birds landed, the mellow brick walls of the palace, the glow of reflected light on the face of his wife and the silver that threaded her red hair. But that had been before the war.

The noise from the lake increased as a flock of geese lifted skyward, confusion resolving as they found their places and arrowed northward. By Midsummer all these visitors would have departed, leaving Westria to its rightful inhabitants. Julian wished he could say the same for the Children of the Sun. Their dead now fed the soil of Westria, but the remnants of the army that had invaded his land remained to trouble the living.

“Have a honeycake and stop fretting about the Council,” Rana’s words echoed his thought. “Be grateful that we are the ones who are sitting here, not Mother Mahaliel.”

“I am grateful–” he reached out to take her hand. “For that, and for many things.”

They looked back at the lakeshore where his son was walking, his flaming red head bent close to his lady’s dark hair. Long ago, Julian had been struck down by Caolin’s sorcery and buried for three days in the Sacred Wood, but it seemed to him that Jo’s resurrection was more impressive, for the leader of the Suns, Mother Mahaliel, had all but slain his soul.

The two turned, waving, as a fair-haired man wearing the Seneschal’s red mantle over a grey robe came down the path, a sheaf of papers in his hand.

“Finish your porridge, love,” said the queen. “Here comes Frederic to summon us to the Council Hall.”

Light shafted through the central skylightt, shining blue in the tendril of smoke that twined upward from the ceremonial fire. It was rosemary for the spring sessions, as cedar in the fall, thought Jo, as it had been for centuries before the years in which the Suns held the heart of Westria. While the Council was in session that flame would be kept burning, visible symbol of the spirit of the land they were all here to serve.

Once, Jo had attended only under duress, bored by the minutiae of kingdom business. Every time he glanced at the king and queen on their thrones below he had been reminded of how unworthy he was to follow the shaman-king who had recovered the four Jewels and defeated the sorceror Caolin. He knew his own flaws even better now, but his connection to Westria was the core of his newly recovered identity.

“I don’t remember ever seeing the hall so full before,” said Luz, who as his betrothed now had a place beside him.

On the eight sides of the structure people were filling the benches–the Lords of the provinces and their followers occupying the tiers in the four cardinal directions, and in between them, the representatives of the Free Cities, the College of the Wise, the great officers of State, and the King. Their banners, still wrinkled from being hidden in cellars and barns when the Suns took the city, hung behind them. The new stone in the floor of the council hall showed pale in the light that shafted through the upper windows, replacing with the circled cross of Westria the gap where the emblem of the sun and serpent had been torn away.

“A good turnout–” said Luz, nodding toward the tiers of benches. The previous autumn attendance had been limited to the leaders and enough men to protect them from any stray Sun survivors they might meet on the road.

“Everyone needs something, or has interests to protect, or just wants to see who else survived the war,” Jo replied.

“Are you still such a cynic?” her reproving headshake was balanced by a smile.

For a moment he drew strength from those dark eyes, then forced himself to look away. In Awahna they had shared their souls–it was only the flesh that was still a problem. Old traumas were slow to heal.

“You only came when your mother was making a report on the state of our shipping, or your grandparents had promised you a trip to Laurelynn,” he said brightly. “I had to sit here on display every spring and fall.” He could feel the pressure of many eyes upon him now, and knew that the lost prince who had returned in such spectacular fashion to save the day at the Battle of the Dorada Buttes was one of the sights the crowd had come to see. With Luz beside him he could deal with that attention, even welcomed it as proof of his connection to them all.

The Provinces had sent their Commanders, or their heirs. Carola of Las Costas sat between the wedge assigned to the Royal Domain and the one where the Seneschals and other officers of state had their place, the black and red of House Battle clashing with her ginger hair, her features set in lines of bitter pride. It seemed strange not to see Eric of Seagate beneath the green banner with the leaping seahorses to the left, but the war had worn even that great warrior down, and the Lady Rosemary had forbidden her husband to travel. His son Orm occupied his seat today, a stockier, darker version of his brother Frederic, who had renounced his heritage to become an adept of the College, and then King Julian’s Seneschal.

“There’s Mistress Iris!” exclaimed Luz as a small round woman with a heavy black braid came through the passageway beside the section reserved for the College of the Wise. Her grey master’s cloak billowed around her as she settled into the carven chair. “I am so glad that your father confirmed her!”

“He didn’t have many choices–” said Jo. “I hear that some of the other masters who left when the College was disbanded have still not been found. She will certainly be a change from Master Granite. I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead, but my father says he was more hindrance than help in the war.” His own acquaintance with the Master of the College had been limited to the moments before he was killed by Mother Mahaliel.

“Master Granite was a great man…” Luz responded after a little pause. “But I think he would have found it hard to adapt to the changes we must make now. Mistress Iris has the spirit as well as the power to restore the College of the Wise.”

“If you like her, I’m glad that she will be in charge when we go there. She seems kind.” He was going to need kindness, though there were things in his past that he did not think he could reveal to any woman, even the Mistress of the College of the Wise. Luz knew, of course. Luz knew him better than he knew himself. He wondered, not for the first time, if she would wait forever for his body to follow where his spirit found its home. If she found the delay a frustration, she had given no sign.

Next to the wedge of benches reserved for the College was that of the Corona, where Lady Elinor, whose riders had been so welcome at the battle of the Dorada Butes, sat with her son Alaric in the white and black of their House. The section reserved for the Free Cities was directly across from that of the King and the Royal Domain. Except for Laurelynn, the towns had not been much affected by the war, but they were suffering from the decline in trade.

At least they could count on Philip, still Lord Commander of the Ramparts, Westria’s eastern gate. Their purple banner bore the image of a golden bear. The king’s cousin had always been his strongest supporter. Philip joked that it was because without Julian, the weight of crown and staff would have fallen on him, but there was no doubting his loyalty. Both his son and his daughter were with him. Jeanne, with her hair the color of oak-bark, caught Jo’s eye with the same grin with which she had led the heavy cavalry of Westria to break the enemy line.

Before the war, the king had been about to declare one of Philip’s children his heir. William, sturdy and dependable as the stone of his mountains, had his heart in the Ramparts’ forests and fields. Jo thought the king’s choice would probably have been Jeanne. Is she glad or sorry, he wondered, that I turned up again?

He looked up as a whisper ran through the Chamber, bitter as a breath of winter wind. A group of newcomers was being escorted in. Jo frowned, wondering if any of them were men he knew from his time with the Suns, or to be more correct, if any of them would know him, for during much his captivity a variety of other personalities had been his refuge from intolerable pain.

They stared around them as if they expected stones, or at least insults, to rain down. They had reason. If these men themselves had not committed atrocities against Westrians, those with whom they marched most certainly had. But then, thought Jo, so did I. Frederic had been wise to put them on the Ramparts side of the wedge set aside for the seneschals and officers, not that of Las Costas. Lady Carola had already taken a bloody vengeance for the murder of her father by the Suns, and would be glad, he suspected, to exact more. The men whom the Seneschal’s officers were directing to the benches represented those surviving Suns who from choice or necessity remained in Westria. Jo wondered how Elaya and Aztlan were dealing with the Suns who remained in their lands.

The murmurs hushed as Frederic signaled to the herald. Jo glanced at Luz, who was watching her father as if he were a riddle she was trying to solve. Like her, Master Frederic had gone to the College of the Wise intending to spend his life as an adept, and found himself following a very different path. His love for the children the lady Ardra had borne him had to take second place to both his calling as a priest and his service to Westria. Luz, her sister Bera and her brother Lenart, who assisted his father now as a seneschal, had been raised by their grandparents.

Did it matter that Jo and Luz had already been to Awahna, which was supposed to be the adepts’ goal? How would she reconcile her own commitment to the world of the spirit with her duty as Westria’s queen? He looked down at his parents and thanked the Guardians that both the king and queen were still strong. If the Powers were kind, Luz would not have to answer that question for many years to come.

The silence became absolute as the herald brought down his staff with a shimmer of bells.

“In the names of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and the Maker of All Things, let the Spring Sessions of the Estates of Westria begin.”

Lenart cleared his throat, glanced down at the papers he was holding, and up at the sea of faces around him once more, tallying the farms and fortresses that Westria had lost during the war. He was still not certain whether giving this report was a privilege or a penance. He had seen some of those ravaged farmsteads, and the memory still haunted his dreams. Perhaps it was simply his father’s way of making sure the Estates would know who he was when he came round to ask for their taxes.

“The Office of the Seneschal recommends that taxes for those Provinces that were most affected should be lifted for a period of two years. Furthermore, we request that those Provinces whose centers were not occupied, namely Seagate and the Corona, should divide the surplus in their storehouses and send supplies to the Ramparts and to Las Costas.”

There was a slight murmur, but the necessity for some kind of sharing had been obvious to all. The king was listening with his head tipped to one side, dark eyes lowered, heavy brows creased in a slight frown. The banner of the Royal Domain was House Starbairn’s white star on deep blue. Jo wore blue as well, as did the king. In theory, Julian was here to represent the Domain, but he cradled the staff against his shoulder, and both he and Rana wore their crowns. The Officers had no vote in this Council. If a vote was tied, that of the Royal Domain would decide.

“And what of Laurelynn?” Master Kieran stood up. “For eight months the Suns were eating up what we had stored, with no trade to speak of coming in.”

“We must ask for an additional levy from the north, and from the other cities,” Frederic rose to answer him, and motioned to Lenart to take his own seat once more. Orm and Elinor grimaced, but they made no objection. At least the harvest looked as if it would be good, in those places where folk had been home to plant the winter wheat.

Lenart’s own harvest was likely to consist of paper, he thought ruefully, as the Office of the Seneschal strove to reconstruct its files. Most of the records had been hidden before they surrendered the city to the Suns, but for some of the boxes, damp and rats had proven more dangerous enemies. He knew how essential the work was to the well-being of Westria, but the thought of it made him wince. During the war he had grown accustomed to a broader sphere of action. He would miss the constantly changing challenges and the comradeship of shared danger. But not enough, he told himself firmly, to want another war.

“These are our recommendations,” the Seneschal repeated. “I open the floor to discussion regarding the best way to implement them.”

Lord Philip got to his feet, nodded to the king and turned to face the Seneschals.

“As you say, we have lost both farmsteads and the folk who tilled them, but the land is still there. The season for harvesting the winter wheat is upon us. If you will assign us some of those prisoners you have been wondering what to do with, we can get all of it in. They will all have to live rough for awhile, but with the blessing of the Guardians, we will have enough to share.”

“And what will you do with these workers when the harvest is in?” asked the king. He got to his feet, leaning on his staff. “Where the original holders cannot be found, are you prepared to grant to these men the lands on which they have labored?”

Philip blinked. “I suppose so. It seems only fair.”

Lenart nodded to himself. That had been one of the solutions proposed when they discussed what to do with the remaining Suns. Once the stragglers from the Battle of the Dorada Buttes had been rounded up, the victors had focused on capturing the garrisons left in Laurelynn and other towns. The only Suns left at large in Westria were a few starving stragglers skulking in the hills.

“And have you considered how these men shall live with the land, as well as how they till it?” the king replied. “I do not know how the Guardians have arranged matters in other lands, but in Westria, it is not enough to put seed into the ground. Without the blessing of the spirits of the land, it will not grow. And these strangers do not belong. ”

“Do you dislike the plan?” asked Philip in surprise.

“Not the plan, but I remind you that if the newcomers are to prosper they must know more than when to plant and plow. Who will teach them, and how will they be brought into the Covenant of Westria?”

Julian had straightened, and something in his stance reminded Lenart of the way his father looked when he put on his grey robe and took up the staff of a Master of the College of the Wise. Lenart had ridden with the king when they fought the Suns and knew him as ruler and as warrior. He had forgotten that Julian was king because he too was a master, and that the region which he and his queen served as priest and priestess was all of Westria.

“That is our responsibility,” came a new voice. Heads turned as the Mistress of the College spoke from her place on the other side of the hall. “Your word but adds weight to our own conclusions. I will be conferring with the priests and priestesses in each Province. We recommend that the men who are sent to work the farms be directed by those who do know the rites for the land. We ask also that special Initiation retreats be arranged, and that no one be given a holding who has not received the teaching and taken oath to the Covenant as well as to the lord of his Province.”

“Well said, Mistress–” the king bowed in her direction, then turned his gaze toward Philip once more. “And it the lord commanders of the Provinces will also agree, you have my full support in this decision. It seems only right to me that those who came to break should stay to build.”

“My lords–” Everyone turned at the unfamiliar accent, murmuring in surprise and then hostility as they saw it was one of the Suns. “Please, sirs, may I speak here?” He was a short, fair-haired fellow, whose skin flushed as he looked around him, his anxious eyes at last fixing upon the king.

For a long moment, Julian held that gaze, then he nodded, and eased back down on his carved chair.

“Lords, ladies–” the man swallowed. “We did not come to do harm. We come because we want a home. This is the golden land. The sun sets here. We had nothing. We followed a dream. But this is real, these mountains, these fields. We give you our lives to make it grow.”

“And so you will,” said King Julian, leaning forward, hands clasped upon the staff, “as do we. We spend our strength to maintain this web of life, from the smallest blade of grass to the eagle that soars the heavens, to which we belong, and our bodies to nourish it when we are done. Understand that if you are given a holding, it will not belong to you. You, through your land, will belong to Westria.”

His gaze swept around the Council Hall, reminding them all. The man who had spoken for the Suns bent his head, and one by one, so did everyone else, smallholder and Commander alike. When Lenart looked up, he thought he saw a glitter of moisture on the king’s cheek, but his own eyes were blurred, so he could not be sure.

And what will I, who create nothing but papers and who will beget no child, give Westria? he wondered then.

Julian sank back in his seat as Frederic began to discuss how to decide which Provinces would receive which men, a little surprised to feel his heart racing as if he had been fighting a battle instead of giving a speech in his own Council hall. Rana reached out to take his hand and grateful, he returned her clasp, recognizing that it was her steady support that had enabled him to get through that speech with as much control as he had. He had meant the Council to remember what it meant to be Westrian. He had ended up reminding himself as well. Long ago he had given himself to the Lady of Westria. It was a little startling to realize how strong that binding was still.

If the Suns had conquered, I would have continued to perform the rites and make the offerings, even if I had to do it in the wilderness alone…. And if he could not, Rana would carry on, as she had when he was away. And if neither king nor queen were able–Julian turned and met his son’s blue gaze, reading in those eyes all he could have hoped to see. However long Johan’s road to full healing might be, the king knew that the boy was bound to Westria.

As Frederic finished, one of the heralds crossed the floor, his green cloak glowing with the intense hue of spring grass as he passed through the patch of sunlight that came through the smoke-hole above. It was Arsenio of Hightower, who had survived the war in Laurelynn disguised as a street sweeper. Julian would not have thought there remained anything that could cause the odd mix of expressions he saw on the old man’s face now. The herald spoke softly to Frederic, who took a deep breath, and turned to face Julian. “My leige–” his voice shook only a little, “is it your will to receive a delegation–two delegations–that have come to us from Elaya and Aztlan?”

In his seneschal’s grey gaze, Julian read a sudden appalled panic that they were about to repeat the moment when a fainting messenger had come to beg the aid of Westria against the Suns, that the past three years were a nightmare that was about to begin once more. If it were so, wondered Julian, could he find a way to avoid the mistakes he had made then? If he led more wisely, would Robert still be grinning at him from the Ramparts’ side of the hall?

But three years ago, his son would not have been sitting behind him. He started to glance back to make sure that Jo was really there, but the double doors between the sections belonging to the Corona and the Free Cities were opening. A trumpet called, and in the passage he glimpsed red and yellow plumes.

He had expected sky blue and silver, but of course the last Prince of old Palomon’s line had died at the Battle of Condor’s Rest. No one in Elaya had the right to wear his colors now. These were the colors of the Elayan Federation, Julian realized as guards in brimmed helmets spread out to flank the three men who followed them. It was a truly representative delegation, he observed. One of the men wore the silver-studded horseman’s gear of a Spanyol-speaking ranchero, the next, tall with skin the color of steeped tea, bore the gorgeous brocaded caftan and lion-skin of a commander of the impis, and the third, sandy-haired and stout with skin burnt brick-red by desert suns, was in the kilt of a Drylands miner.

The king was still assimilating that when the horns blared again and the delegation from Aztlan marched in. They were almost as varied in feature and gear as the Elayans. Three were clearly warriors of the tribes, with bronzed skin and hair of black or brown. An older woman walked with them. There was also a woman who looked Spanyol, accompanied by a gentleman in the gear of a ranchero. The last man, still unwrapping his headcloth, wore a tunic and breeches beneath a flowing outer robe of pale blue. His hair was a startling black against milk-white skin.

In the Council Hall, a murmur of speculation rose and faded. Seeing that his seneschal seemed to have been struck dumb as well, Julian levered himself to his feet.

“Lords and ladies of Elaya and Aztlan, be welcome in the names of the Lady of Westria and the Guardian of Men.” He waited as each newcomer in his own fashion bowed. “If my officers will bring benches, you may be seated. I suspect that any business important enough to bring you all this way will take some time.”

Frederic’s face reddened. He said a few words to Lenart, who with his usual efficiency would no doubt shortly produce the required seating, and turned back to the newcomers.

“I understand that the delegation from Elaya arrived first, so I hope the representatives of Aztlan will not be insulted if they speak first as well.”

As the Elayan envoy rose, the ranchero bent to whisper something to the Drylands miner, who turned to stare across the floor at Lenart. It was an odd, considering look, but he smiled and nodded in return. The ranchero had been introduced as the Condé de las Palisadas, a distant connection of the old line, who had taken over the Campos del Mar when Harun became Prince Paramount. He would have been some kind of cousin, if Lenart’s mother had actually been the old Condé’s daughter, instead of a bastard begotten on the Princess Aisha by Caolin. Did the man think that Lenart would resent him? Once her parentage was known, Ardra had renounced all claims in Elaya and given her life to managing Westria’s navy for King Julian with occasional breaks to bear Frederic’s three children.

We may be an irregular family, thought Lenart, maintaining his bland expression, but all in all we were a happy one. His gaze moved to the benches of the Royal Domain, where his younger sister sat at Prince Johan’s side. Of Ardra’s three children, Luz, with her golden skin and cloud of dark hair, showed her inheritance from Prince Palomon’s sister most clearly. Once, there would have been an outcry at the prospect that the grand-daughter of the sorcerer Caolin and an Elayan princess might become queen of Westria, but all those old enmities seemed meaningless now.

The dark man with the lion skin draped over his shoulder had risen. According to Arsenio’s whispered information, he was called Asraaf Elias, ruler of the Tambara and one of the few officers of the princely guard to survive the war.

“My lords, my ladies–” deep and velvety, his voice filled the hall. “Westria and Elaya have not always been friends….” He paused to let the little ripple of amusement at this understatement pass. “But when the Suns attacked us, we appealed to you, and you answered our call.” He bowed deeply to the king. “Our prince was slain, but we will never forget that you fought beside him. We shed our blood together on the Condor’s Field.”

Lenart saw Julian’s brows crease in pain, and knew that the king was remembering Robert of the Ramparts, who had been his war-leader, and for a time his lover, and his lifelong friend. Robert had died of the wounds he got that day. Lenart sometimes felt a little guilty when he remembered that Marcos, who had been Robert’s beloved, was his own lover now. But everyone assured him that Robert would have given his blessing. Life has to go on, he told himself, focusing on the speaker again.

“And now, like you, we must rebuild our nation,” Asraaf was continuing. “In Elaya, the Suns had longer to secure their grip on the land, and there are pockets of resistance still. And so we ask your aid once more.” Again he waited for the exclamations and objections to fade. “You will say that we all face the same problems, but you are a more united people, whereas we are a federation whose states have fought each other as often as we fought you. And you still have your king….”

Julian’s head came up at that. “But I am not your king!”

“Except for an occasional disagreement regarding the ownership of Santibar, we have never doubted it–” Asraaf ventured a wry smile. “Let Westria extend to us a brother’s hand. Send to us a force that because it belongs to none of the states of Elaya will be respected by all. Appoint a legation of men skilled in many crafts to advise us.” Once more he paused, and now his dark gaze moved toward the seneschals. “And give them a leader,” he said softly, “who has ties in both lands. Send us the great-nephew of Prince Palomon.”

Lenart’s first thought was that he was glad to be sitting down. He scarcely heard the rising murmur of confused speculation. As the hall stilled once more he realized that they were all staring at him. He turned to his father. Of course it was impossible, and in a moment the seneschal would tell them so.

“A most interesting proposal–” said Frederic, his voice surprisingly controlled. “But you must understand that a decision to commit our resources to such a task will take more discussion than we have time for here.”

“We expected no more–” Asraaf bowed. “We are prepared to wait until you have an answer….”

As the Elayan sat down, Jo’s gaze returned to the envoys from Aztlan. For a moment an image of the raked sand of the arena overlaid that of the tiled floor, and instead of redwood beams he saw the faded russet of the big tent beneath which Master Marvel’s Circus had played to men such as these.

“Do you know any of them?” murmured Luz, laying a soothing hand on his arm.

“More to the point, will they know me? It was not only the Suns from whom he feared recognition. As the Dragon, he had always worn red. In the blue-robed prince of Westria would they recognize the half-naked gladiator for whom they had cheered, or the berserker in red armor who had killed their king? Then the younger of the two women straightened and slid the finely woven shawl back from her shining black hair.

“What is it?” whispered Luz.

“That’s Milagra de Mirabal…” through stiff lips Jo replied, “the daughter of the alcalde of Ogaponge Adentro. She will recognize me. We met at a party just before the Suns arrived. They put her father in charge of Cibola. Why in the name of all the Guardians is she here?”

“What are any of them doing here?” murmured Luz. “It seems a long way to journey to congratulate us on winning the war.”

They would know soon enough, thought Jo as the older woman got to her feet. Her robe was a simple affair of white wool with stylized black mountains woven into the hem, but the collar upon her breast was wrought from plates of hammered gold.

“I am Doña Margaret Windale de las Monteras Negras–the Lady of the Black Mountains, as you would say in your land. The lords of Aztlan ask me to talk for them so you know that we speak as friends.”

No, thought Jo. You were chosen because you are still a power in the land. He had not encountered the lady when he was in Aztlan, but he had heard of her. She was reputed to be as tough as her territory, a volcanic waste whose major crop was cholla cacti, populated by a mixed blood tribe. Its wealth lay beneath the surface, where those favored by the local spirits could still find gold. The Suns had planned to seize those mines eventually, but their migration to Elaya had followed the easier southern route. She was a power to reckon with, he thought, noting the lines graven into the brown skin stretched over the strong bones and the iron-grey braids bound around her head.

“I present to you my companions–” A ripple of names introduced the tribal chieftains, the ranchero and Doña Milagra, ending with the pale man, who had the odd title of “HughJustin”, from Tsiuck Shan. “All of us here have same enemy. You in Westria cut off the head of the serpent–” her pale eyes hardened as she noted the Sun survivors sitting behind the seneschals. “But in Aztlan the Sun enclaves are still strong. I do not lie to you–my friends here are not from all the tribes. Our high king died. Civil war will destroy our alliance. Then who will stop the Suns from rising again? Not Elaya, as we have heard….”

Each word was an arrow in Jo’s heart. He tried to tell himself that he was not responsible for the conquest of Aztlan, but however unwillingly, he had been part of it. Not all he had suffered since could redeem what he had done during that time when Mother Mahaliel had enslaved his soul.

“Do you ask Westria to help you?” the king replied. “Elaya is our neighbor, but Aztlan is very far away. We have no business interfering in your affairs.” Jo opened his eyes and saw his father lean forward, his weight supported by his staff.

At least he understands that much, thought Jo, wincing as he did each time he realized how much grey streaked the hair beneath the Westrian crown.

“And if they suceed?” Doña Margaret asked. “I saw Sanjos. If you know what would come, would you not have stopped the Suns before they lay waste your land?”

Julian was still shaking his head. “If you have seen what they did to Las Costas you will understand that we do not have any resources to spare. You have my sympathy, but I think you underestimate your warriors. The Suns were a danger because of their leaders. Surely with time their followers will lose heart.”

“We thought you might say that, King of Westria, but maybe this convinces you that the fight is yours–it is not just the tribes and the Suns who make war in Aztlan now. There is a new army that threatens all. They say a man with dark skin leads them. They say it is the Iron General.”