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a cycle of sacrifice unwinding

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In the moment, he thought of it as a slip. He had struggled out of sleep that morning, and he was unused to his own hands; he kept thinking that his fingers wanted to curl into claws, even when they did no such thing. He stroked one hand with the other, and caught himself doing it, and was vexed. He picked up his teacup. It shook, and a drop of hot tea (not scalding - Isheian never brought it to him hot enough to burn his tongue) landed squarely on his opposite wrist.

It was soundless - he did not even hiss with wincing - but Csevet looked up from his letters. "Serenity?"

"It is nothing," Maia said. "Only the dream."

Csevet looked bewildered by Maia's phrasing, as well he might, but responded with a cautious nod. It was Cala who stepped forward, frowning.

"Serenity. We beg pardon. You said the dream?"

"Yes," Maia said blankly.

"Is it always the same dream?" His tone was very serious.

Maia's tongue felt thick. "We know not."

Beshelar looked as though he were torn between directing his ready disapproval at his unready emperor or at his unorthodox fellow nohecharis. Maia felt a detached amusement, observing this dilemma.

"You have said it is nothing," Cala pressed, "and so we hope; yet a recurring dream may be a sign of a zhirethmaz. May we examine you for such a thing?"

"As you think best," Maia said, surprised and unguarded. He was trying to place the word that Cala had used.

Cala took another step closer, raised his hands, and murmured a phrase full of sibilants, cutting them off with a horizontal stroke of his hand.

Maia's eyes burned briefly, as if with unshed tears, though they were dry when he pressed the back of his hand against his face.

He remembered the dream. His breath squeezed out of him with a dull, weak puff. His fingers clenched...

But Cala's face had gone pale even for a pure-blooded elf. To Maia's horror, he first knelt, then prostrated himself entirely. Lifting his chin only so far as allowed his words to ring clear of the carpet, he declared, "We have failed you, Serenity, and submit ourself to your censure. There is indeed a zhirethmaz laid upon you. We know not when, nor by whom."

At least this speech allowed Maia to call back his breath. It seemed absurd that only a moment ago he'd been having an ordinary breakfast. He thought of the note to Berenar that Csevet had just sealed, and of Csethiro above him in the Rose Room, carefully following an amended routine of pre-breakfast exercises, and allowed irony to creep into his tone.

"Nor may we know when - or by whom - or what, save you explain it to us," he pointed out. "Please, rise, and explain more fully."

Cala rose - all but his ears - and obeyed promptly. Beshelar and Csevet listened alongside Maia in keen silence. A zhirethmaz was a nightmare-spell, causing the victim to suffer from a repeated and traumatic dream. "Betimes the form is the caster's choice, and betimes the dream takes its shape from the deepest fears of the affected mind," Cala explained. "We know not which afflicts your Serenity."

The caster, he had said. "Some person has cast this upon us to a purpose?" Maia asked.

"Yes, Serenity. And we neither saw nor defended you from it."

His distress filled the room, and confounded Maia more than the distressing information he had provided. Cala was, Maia saw, a mere breath away from offering his resignation - at the very least - and Maia refused to contemplate to what further lengths he might go. This was not Csevet, uncomfortably aware of his ties to Chavar when the latter had attempted a coup; this was not Telimezh, young and unsure and ashamed after Dazhis had betrayed him. Cala had been a sure and kind presence beside him for nigh the last two years, and now he urged Maia's immediate reproach for some evil that had grown unchecked under his watch. Maia very carefully did not look at Beshelar, lest Beshelar's expression reflect the betrayal that Maia was now invited to feel.

Thou posest me a paradox, he thought, to ask me not to trust thy judgment except as it condemns thyself. And what of Kiru?

He could not yet reassure Cala, but judgment was also impossible. For the second time, he deflected it.

"Please, tell us," he said evenly, "what it does, what it has done, what it may do, how it may be removed, and who may have cast it upon us. And if there may be any harmless explanation."

"None, Serenity," Cala said, his voice as flattened as his ears. Maia waited, and Cala collected himself. "How long have you had this dream?"

It startled Maia to realise that it had been three months. Csethiro, her pregnancy confirmed, had left his bed for private sleeping chambers. A purely practical matter, and he had been glad of her frankness that allowed the change to be made, even though he missed her. He had come to enjoy the comfort of her touch and voice and scent as the last thing he knew at night and the first thing he woke up to. But sleep had been difficult for her as the pregnancy progressed, and the change had done her good.

The Corazhas had been especially contentious; a series of flurries had led to the replacement of Isthanar, the Witness for the Universities, by the newcomer Huldevar; announcing the empress's pregnancy had been a delicate affair; there had been a fire in the northern quarter of Cetho whose recovery efforts required the emperor's swift action. In all of that, it had not seemed worthy of note when he slept badly. Now, he was able to see the hand of magic in it. As Cala questioned him, he found himself utterly sure that each night it had been the same dream, and he saw now that every morning since it began he had woken and forgotten.

"Has it changed in that time?" Cala was asking him. "What is its course?"

"We..." Maia began, and broke off. The words came to his mouth, but his throat seized on them. A powerful mix of awkwardness and fear and strange defensive anger prevented him from continuing. He felt as he did at a banquet, trying to make conversation; he felt the shadow of Shulivar's inexorable madness confronting him; he felt small and alone and accused. Be this, too, the zhirethmaz? When he closed his eyes, the dream's images flooded in. He opened them again to his maza's wary look; Cala seemed to have considered that by placing himself in the position of questioner, he presumed.

It is not from wrath that I do not speak. "It is hard to speak of it," he said haltingly. And then, quickly, before the fear could stop him again, "It is dark, and we are on a hill."

It seemed to him unfair that he had to drag each sentence out. Surely, once he had begun the confession should be easier. For it did feel like a confession. He could not meet anyone's eyes. When a messenger came into the room, and Csevet conferred with him urgently - presumably, putting off his first appointment of the day, and Csevet had not even got as far as to tell him what that would be - he stared ahead of him mutely, swallowing carefully, unable even to make a visual mantra of tracing the patterns of the wallpaper with his eyes.

"We are walking up the hill," he said. "We do not want to, but we cannot turn aside. The moon shines on the hill. We come to the top, and we climb..." He closed his eyes; the dream rushed in upon him, like a winter wind accidentally let into a room. He opened them again and looked down at his grey-knuckled hands. "We climb up upon a step to a kind of stake, and hands hold us there with our back to it, and they spread our arms out -" he gestured - "along a beam, and..."

There was a full minute's silence in the dining room of the Alcethmeret. No one prompted him. Out of the corner of his eye - when his eyes, for a moment, consented to focus - he saw Beshelar rock forward, very slightly, his own hand flexing minutely as Maia's did, as though Beshelar wished to reach out and touch him. Perhaps he did not even know he had moved.

"Those whom we cannot see, who have hold of us, take our hand and hold it up to the beam and drive a great bolt through it, at the wrist. It hurts." He had intended that last to come out in a dry tone; he did not achieve it. "Then the other; we are stretched between them. Then they take our feet and force them flat to the stake and hammer a bolt through those, too, and they take away the step beneath our toes, and then we are hanging there." His audience was still silent, waiting, but he could not think of anything else to give them. Except, recalling Cala's earlier comments, "We do not think this was our own fear first," he said. "We have never seen such a means of torture as we have dreamt."

He forced himself to meet Cala's eyes, and the next question. Then he felt his face flush unbecomingly, because at some point during the recital, Csethiro had entered the room. She stood framed in the leftmost doorway with a look of intent ire, and then she crossed to him and completed Beshelar's aborted action, pulling him into a hug. "Maia," she said, though he could tell from the angle of her chin that her words were directed over his shoulder at Csevet. "What's toward?"

"A dream," Maia said.

"A zhirethmaz," said Cala.

"A dream sent by ill magic," said Csevet.

She released Maia and pulled up the light chair that always sat beside his breakfast place, now. The previous year she had made a game of dropping to one knee when she arrived (to test his blush, and also to gain better access to the crumpets, she claimed) but, reluctantly, had had to leave off that particular teasing show of grace.

"Have you undone it?" she asked Cala.

"No, zhasan," Cala said. "We know some of the theory of how, but not perfectly, and a simple maz will not do it."

"What damage does it inflict, while it remains?" Then she looked apology at Maia; he could only shrug wry approval of the question, and brace himself for a difficult answer.

"A zhirethmaz causes disorder of the mood, and reason," Cala said. "The effects are gradual."

"Like a poison," Csethiro said.

Cala nodded acknowledgement. "At first the afflicted one is merely weary, in the manner of one who is habitually short of sleep. Slowly they become more erratic. While it may seem to the observer that they sleep soundly each night, they act as if they have closed their eyes for less than half of the time. Then, less still. The images of the dream, whatever these may be, become an obsession, a focus for hostility and suspicious fear."

"How slowly?" Csethiro cut in. "What speed do you expect for its progress?"

Cala made a half-bow, a strange gesture in the circumstances, but there was no gesture for what Maia thought he meant to convey: We cannot answer to your satisfaction and we are sorry for it.

"The texts held in the Mazan'theileian do not offer the methodology. Nor do they advise as if to one desiring this outcome," Cala said, clearly taking refuge in a teaching attitude. "What we know comes from historical record. In the reign of Belmaliven I, a maza was sent to Hadoree to investigate a supposed zhirethmaz cast upon an alderman of the town. He concluded that it was no zhirethmaz, but a health disorder. However, his notes on the case refer to and summarise texts no longer available to us. He spent two months in Hadoree and wrote copious notes on the expected, and observed, progress of the case. This gives us our best understanding. Then there is the case of Edremeledar II."

Maia remembered it glumly. Edremeledar II was known for his deep religious devotion that, towards the end of his life, had expressed itself in visions and prophecies, none of which had borne fruit. His had been a spectacle of pity and scandal, and no emperors since had used his dynastic name.

"There is a theory, slimly supported, that the second Edremeledar was afflicted with repeated zhirethmazei in the last three years of his reign," Cala continued. "According to the theory, an enemy - several are supposed - contracted with a barbarian maza to cast these zhirethmazei upon Edremeledar in order to give him eccentric visions he was already predisposed to believe." He made a vague gesture as to the political aims that could have been thus furthered. Maia could easily imagine them. How suitable a doom for Maia himself: a religious emperor flying in the face of the fashionably areligious court; a stubborn emperor who valued his first impressions and his emotions' logic; an emperor who would never set the style for courtly graces, and whose mis-steps might thus be magnified.

"From these and other accounts," Cala was continuing, "it is held that a zhirethmaz takes a year to reach its peak. The afflicted person may notice within weeks, or not until it has gathered half its power. A zhirethmaz may vary greatly in subtlety and strength, especially if it is reinforced with malign magic as it goes on."

So I am to be raving when my heir is born. Then, was, he rebuked himself: it was the most foolish of fears to imagine that there was no cure, and all Cala's dismay spoke to guilt, not terror.

Csethiro was frowning. "You speak of theories," she pointed out. "Yet you also speak of certainty. How may you be sure that this is the zhirethmaz in truth?"

"We learned the spell to detect them when we were an apprentice," Cala said. "It was proven as recently as the reign of Edrevechelar XI. There was then a deep friendship between the Adremaza, Dula Athmaza, and a dachenmaza of Ilinveriär, Zoïs, and Zoïs placed the zhirethmaz upon Dula Athmaza and lifted it, and taught him how it it may be lifted."

"And yet this is not part of your ordinary vigilance?" Csethiro pressed on.

Cala said, "The great school of Ilinveriär was overthrown, and there has been very long peace between Ilinveriär and the Ethuveraz, and there has not since been a maza of Ilinveriär whose knowledge was as wide-ranging and subtle as that of the great Zoïs. We learned how we might identify the zhirethmaz because of a fancy - because at the time we sought out obscure works and paths and the curious treasures to be found at the dead tips of knowledge's branches. We never thought to use this. The theory of Edremeledar II we thought exaggeration." He looked from Csethiro to Maia. "Serenity, when we asked to cast the spell on you that would reveal such a thing - we regret very much that we cannot say how much of our thought was idle, a desire to practice the revelation-spell, and how much was apprehension. We were thinking more of how long it has been since we tried the spell, and whether we still knew it, than of what it would mean if it gave us this answer."

"Perhaps," said Beshelar, very dryly, speaking for the first time, "you should try it again."

The words broke across Maia as if Beshelar had thrown water in his face, bewildering him - did Beshelar believe that this was not a dream of delusion, but a mere delusion of a dream? And then he understood. Despite Maia's halting account, and despite Cala's careful talk of history and conjecture, they had bound themselves into a kind of mutual panic, claustrophobic and confining. Truths might yet alter truths. It steadied him. Even as Csevet's ears dipped, and Csethiro's head turned sharply towards Beshelar, Maia said, "We think that is a very good idea. And, too, we think that at the change of your shifts, it would be wise to seek the counsel of the Adremaza. Csevet, please write to him."

Csevet reached for a fresh sheet of paper. "Do you invite him here, Serenity?"

"Let him determine how to proceed. Cala, we understand from you that further study is required to lift the zhirethmaz. We doubt you possess all the references required within your chambers."

Unexpectedly, Cala smiled.

"We do not."

"If there is a zhirethmaz upon us, it will not strike us down today. Will it?" He held Cala's eyes.

"No, Serenity."

"Very well. Let us make trial again that it is a zhirethmaz." His words wavered a little, despite his renewed access of courage. If it were not true - if Cala had jumped across a gap to his conclusion - then he had just babbled out a night-terror to his secretary and his nohecharei and his empress, and made of himself a gibbering loon without the need for any malign influence.

Cala executed the motions and words again, and Maia blinked against the sting of it.

"Yes, Serenity," he said. "We are sure."

"We thank you," Maia said, and to himself: It is not thy fault that thou art frightened. Remember that. He turned to Csevet. "We think there is time for five items of our most urgent correspondence, or perhaps six," he said, "and then should we not proceed to the Michen'theileian?"

The First Nohecharei were not due to give up their posts to the Second until after luncheon: Telimezh and Kiru had seen him off to sleep the previous night. Maia would not hear of any variation to this plan, and indeed spent the morning clinging so fiercely to routine as to almost wallow in it. The emperor and empress were scheduled to begin the day with petitioners, and so they did, and Maia absorbed himself in a myriad of obscure and tangled concerns, held by elves and goblins of all ranks who had no more notion of a zhirethmaz than he had had the previous day, and no reason - so he hoped - learn.

At half an hour to midday, Maia left Csethiro to ride Velvet, and he saw her bite her lip on an offer to accompany him on her own horse. Sometimes she did, but she had neither planned to today nor dressed for it. He saw her fight with her clear understanding that he wanted every possible trapping of normalcy, and her instinct to stay close to him, deflecting ill moods if she could not deflect enemy barbs. Kindness to him won over kindness to herself, and he left her in the Untheileneise Court with a press of hands.

At their wedding, he had made her a fanciful promise: that she would have a chance, some day, to use a blade rather than wit to defend his honour or his person. That had not yet happened - nor did he scheme toward it - yet this was the closest they had come. I am sorry that, yet again, I am beset by something beyond your power to assuage.

As Maia and Csethiro ate together, Kiru and Telimezh arrived, and the four nohecharei had a low-voiced conference at the side of the room that lasted until Maia's very last spoonful of soup. Kiru and Telimezh took their places. Maia looked up at Kiru, wary of seeing dismay to equal Cala's. She was serious, but that was all. "We were glad when your ordinary nightmares ceased," she said wryly. "To all appearances, since autumn, you have slept as soundly as a child." Because I was as helpless as one, he thought, but did not shudder with it.

The Corazhas met in the afternoon. Maia was able to follow a financial matter of trade between principalities with all due attention. However, during the following discussion of the printing of satirical images, he found his mind wandering even though the illustrative material was both unusual and memorable. Keep thy mind while thou hast it, Edrehasivar, he told himself grimly. He was uneasily aware that all he knew about the zhirethmaz was that he had it, and that it was not killing him yet. Everything else, and what help there might be, lay in ignorance, in the darkness in his mind beyond the moon-bared hill.

When he returned to the Alcethmeret, the Adremaza was waiting for him.

Rather like Cala, the Adremaza offered him more questions than answers. As these flew back and forth, it was established to the satisfaction of the mazei that whoever had laid the zhirethmaz on Maia had cast it only once, and very powerfully. "At the time, you would have seen a bright light," the Adremaza told him. Csevet consulted ledgers and schedules. The war council now assembled in the Rose Room decided that the fireworks display that had commemorated the announcement of Csethiro's pregnancy was the most likely event when Maia might have been attacked: Maia had watched from a public vantage, and the occasion and that vantage had been known by many, well in advance, and the lights themselves might have concealed the spell. "We cannot be sure, of course," the Adremaza said stiffly, "but it fits the facts."

A headache was gathering behind Maia's eyes, but he had never wanted less to excuse himself to rest. The very thought of tiredness tired him, and his brain throbbed with the reminder that someone had wanted to hurt him slowly and constantly. He wondered if it had been personal, or if they had merely wanted him out of the way. Perhaps they have forgotten, he thought wildly. Perhaps they are sorry.

At last, the Adremaza cut himself off at the beginning of a question, saying, "Serenity perhaps if - no." He gave a hint of a bow. "No, we think we can discover no more from you today. But, we hope, we can cleanse you." He looked at Cala.

"Serenity," Cala said, "we have learned the means to lift the zhirethmaz, and will perform it, if it pleases you."

"What does it require?" Maia asked.

"You must sleep," Cala said, his ears flickering a little. "Having prepared ourself, and you, we will then enter your dream, and dispel it from within your mind."

Without thought of either politic or polite evasion, Maia said, "No."

All the day, he had found himself questioning his thoughts, because they were not his own: he shared them with a parasite, the agent of someone who wished him harm. As the day went on, he had found himself negotiating silently with his own fear as he had with the cruel remembered voice of Setheris. He had coaxed himself, Hold thy opinions lightly, but do not allow fear to to frighten thee, Edrehasivar. Help will come.

But it came at a price he could not countenance. It was worse even than knowing that each further night's sleep under the zhirethmaz would tighten the tangle further around his mind. Each day after dreaming, however gradual the change, he would be be less alert, less aware, less certain. And even knowing that, it was worse to imagine inviting a person into his thoughts. He had found ways to bear an emperor's lack of privacy. But he had not imagined that he could lose the privacy of his mind.

"Serenity -"

"It does not please us," Maia said. To himself, he sounded petulant and desperate. See how the zhirethmaz finds yet another way to make a fool of thee, he thought bitterly. "We would hear of another cure, and we hope that the grace of more than an afternoon's study will yield it up."

Cala flinched. Maia thought through the many insults he might have implied, and cared very much, but did not see how to relent.

"Serenity," said the Adremaza, which was the only thing he could say. "We will apply ourself to your decree." He bowed rather lower than a dachenmaza should have to bow, even to an emperor, and extricated himself.

Csethiro was rather less restrained, and her blunt disapproval goaded him to snapping at her even the more because he could not justify his position. If he had believed that Cala would harm him, he could not have entrusted Cala with the task of discovering how to save him. Csethiro pointed this out in front of Cala and Cala all but slunk from the room.

"Enough," Maia said at last, wielding an emperor's command with a bluntness that uncomfortably approached bullying. Her mouth pursed only slightly as she reassessed his mood and withdrew, a rebuke worse than if her eyes had flashed fire.

During what should have been a comfortable dinner between the emperor, his empress, and his empress's aunt, it was impossible to hide the tension in the air. Though certainly Arbelan would have noticed the undercurrents even if Maia and Csethiro had come to it in accord, sharing a secret they must keep from her. It was a very lonely dinner, and Maia was not sure whose sharp confidence he missed the more. He ate very little.

Csethiro followed him up to his bedchamber, and waited as Avris tended to him.

"I'm staying," she said, and he recognised the set of his own jaw.

In lieu of a better confession, he said to her, "If I sleep tonight, at least I sleep in knowledge of what I face."

"Does that help?" It was something he valued in her. She never asked an entirely rhetorical question - there was always curiosity there, even when she was at her driest, as though she expected even the most obvious situation to yield up more than was apparent.

"I will tell you," he said, "when I wake."

Neither of them slept for several hours, although Maia could not say he was alert, either, lying in a fretful state where he could neither stop thinking nor entirely hold on to a thought.

Then it was morning, and his throat was raw with the thought of screaming, and agony was streaming out of his hands, no less dreadful simply because it was fading. And he could not find words for Csethiro.

It will not get better with thy wishing, Edrehasivar.

An emperor did not apologise, and an emperor did not bow down, and an emperor did not allow the wishes of those he favoured - or, more simply, those he cared for - to sway his judgment over his own. And an emperor could not afford to be more frightened of being known than of the unknown. But if he owed much to duty and love and logic, still he owed much also to the part of him that thought it an abomination to be asked to share his dreams.

After breakfast, he led Cala and Beshelar on a stroll through the rose gardens of the Alcethmeret, and he sat on a low stone bench, and he prayed.

It was still hard for him to pray under others' eyes; he prayed, and paused to simply think, and began again. He prayed to the goddess of stars, Cstheio Caireizhasan. First, he prayed that she might see him and know him, and then he prayed that he might know himself as he was known by her, and he prayed to bear being seen, and hindered and helped and loved and judged, by those who were not at a vast, perfect distance, as the stars were. And then, briefly, he prayed to Ulis, asking the other god who ruled a domain of silence to accept his grief: for he felt grief for the concession that he made, giving up the privacy of his mind. It seemed to him like a promise that he had made to the frightened boy who became an emperor, and it seemed as though he learned of it only in the breaking of it. And he prayed for the compassion of the silent god for that grief, and his expression of it.

Cala and Beshelar waited patiently, the sun drying the dew on the grass around their planted feet so that the tracks they had made to the the bench gradually dried out and vanished.

Maia did not even know what time it was when he stopped. He could not remember the last time he had not cared. When he returned to his rooms and to Csevet, the world that had briefly stopped would start again, including the unwinding clock that was the zhirethmaz.

"Cala," he said abruptly. "Please... Tell us of the other things you learned, as an apprentice, that are obscure and strange."

It was a clumsy substitute for his real question, which was: how might those studies have continued, and what would Cala's life and career have looked like, if a sabotaged airship had not flung a half-goblin boy up onto the throne?

Cala answered him. After perhaps a quarter of an hour, Cala drew an explanation to a close, and said abruptly, "Serenity, we wished to be a nohecharis."

Maia blinked at him, remembering his own dreams of gaining his father's love by becoming his nohecharis, and saving him in some dramatic scene. The reality of serving as a nohecharis was not so glamorous. He had thought Beshelar and Cala had accepted their position, first, because of their deep love of duty, and - if any second reason compared - because each was skilled and wished for that skill to be valued. It was hard to imagine Cala or Beshelar in a daydreaming age.

"When we learned of the zhirethmaz, and the spells surrounding it, we had a thought to using that knowledge one day. We learned many things of that kind. It was a fascination we shared with our fellow apprentice - Dazhis." He grimaced.

"Only, Dazhis might perhaps have inquired how to cast the zhirethmaz," Maia said ruefully. Cala snorted agreement.

"We are sorry. Not for Dazhis - that is done. That we did not keep the wilder dangers, like the zhirethmaz, in our thoughts - certainly. And also that we did not tell you how we had come to serve you. Or not in so many words. Or remind ourself."

Beshelar had been still during this conversation, but his posture did not suggest the rigidity of someone holding themselves back from speaking. It was not the time to ask, but Maia thought one day he might dare ask when Beshelar had first imagined that he might become a nohecharis.

To the matter at hand - "We think we must ask you to employ whatever means you know to lift the zhirethmaz," he told Cala, and Cala prostrated himself in the grass with perfect dignity, and rose again without being asked.

Despite the consideration of secrecy, which would have been best served by staging the ritual in Maia's bedchamber, the Adremaza strongly suggested that it should be attempted in the chapel below the palace. Maia, Beshelar, and the Adremaza made a procession in stark contrast to the one that had preceded Maia's coronation: for one thing, they carried blankets and other voluminous bedding, giving the impression of a group of children sneaking somewhere forbidden for a night-time adventure. For another, it was Cala, not Maia, whom they descended to find after he had already spent several hours preparing alone.

Maia made himself comfortable, wondering if anyone else had ever made such a bed on the stone. Despite the layers he lay upon, he could feel the cold of the stone drawing heat away, and as he lay there, composing his mind for sleep, the cheering absurdity of his arrival there faded too.

He was dreaming.

He was standing under a vast dark sky where no stars accompanied the moon. He began to walk up the hill in front of him, and his feet were dull with pain as though he had stepped down from the cross and half-healed, as though time went backwards and forwards in the dream or took stranger paths. Very far behind him, there was a crowd, and they were watching him, and perhaps if they had been closer he would have heard them murmuring among each other, talking about him, but he only knew and felt that they were there.

The ground on the path was rocky and it took all his concentration to pick his way up the hill. His feet were bare. He was not naked, but his clothes were rags and the wind and the movement of his walking made them slip and chafe. He was cold and frightened and bleeding.

He reached the top of the hill, approaching the stake in the centre - for there were five in a row, arranged in a wide arrow pointing towards him.

Then Cala was there, in between the stake and Maia, without movement, as if he had been there all along and only a sudden angle of moonlight had allowed Maia to make sense of the sight of him. He held up his hands to bar Maia's way.

At the same time that he raised his hands, a horde of hands answered him. They came behind Maia and pushed him; the malice of them was sudden and shocking, like a shout in this silent place. Maia stumbled into Cala and through him, pressing against his body with a brief, uncomfortable intimacy until Cala's form gave way, seeming suddenly no more solid than mist.

He climbed the stake. The hands spread him across it and drove the first nail into his wrist, making a star blossom out of the pain. He tried to turn, to cradle his hand even if it would have meant leaning out over open air. The hands rolled him back and pinned his other wrist in place.

He was gasping. It hurt too much for screaming: all he could do was breathe, the most basic of actions, and praise himself for breathing. There was relief on his hands for a moment as the unknown torturers arranged his legs, then his feet were nailed too. Almost immediately his body slid down between his hands. Lines of pain ran along his arms and across his shoulder blades, stronger than any rope.

He woke.

Someone was shaking him, and he rolled confusedly away, and spilled out of his blankets onto stone; its cold, bleeding through his night-shirt, did the rest of the job of waking him up. "Oh," he said, a notable utterance only because it had taken perhaps a minute to say.

In the light of the three candles in the chapel, he sat up and looked around him. Cala was crouched at the far wall; Beshelar was standing over him. "Cala! Are you well?" he croaked out.

Cala did not get up, but Beshelar turned back to him. "Well enough," he said. "He is recovering."

An entirely insufficient answer, but Maia had enough to do to lie there and catch his breath. He wondered how Cala had experienced the dream, and if he had felt the way the cross pulled as well as repelled him, offering something: a feeling like silence, or peace, or purity. Even some traces of those feelings remained when the pain began.

Now that he knew about the dream, the fear lingered after he had woken.

He made himself sit up, and get up, and cross to Cala. Seen closer, Cala did not look as pained as Maia had feared, only very, very tired, as if he had siphoned off some of the exhaustion the zhirethmaz dealt Maia nightly.

"We are sorry it did not succeed," he murmured.

"Does that mean it will not succeed?" Maia asked. Cala's head jerked up and he shook his head.

"Only that we must try again."

Maia went back to his stone bed and closed his eyes. The conversation going on above his head was shortly incomprehensible, but it had a soothing rhythm.

He was on the hill again, climbing, his wrists aching, his hands stiff. Before he reached the cross, Cala appeared again, except that this time, instead of holding his hands out in front of him to push Maia away, he held his arms out to the side, mirroring Maia, so that when Maia came towards him, their wrists pushed against each other, and Cala unclenched half-closed fists and grabbed at Maia's hands.

They stood braced against each other, Maia clinging to Cala as if that would prevent Cala dissolving away. Except perhaps it did: the dark hill began to fade as Cala's body had in the previous dream, until there was nothing but them, no hill, no crowd, no moon.

This time when he woke, one of his hands grasped Beshelar's and the other Cala's, and they did not let go until he did.

Both Cala's revelation-spell, and a night of actual sleep, confirmed that the zhirethmaz was gone. The question of who and why remained, though the investigation was a little less ham-strung now that the spell itself was no longer a danger; even so, Maia found himself flinching away from unexpected bright lights for half a month.

The shape of the cross was their main lead. Maia quizzed Leilis, Idra's tutor, whose lessons he now joined once a week, for the history of it, and was provided with a handful of peoples and times to whom the symbolism might mean something. And he invited the Witness for Foreigners - and his best secretaries - to dine with him and let fall what scraps of information he would.

The timing that they had seized on, for when Maia had been struck by the zhirethmaz, yielded information more willingly: it was not a coincidence that the spell had been laid at the celebration of Maia's coming heir. But not so that he could be deposed, and Csethiro too, and a regent put in place, when the child was born. Instead, the spell-caster had in mind a Pencharnese group who had been invited to the occasion that would celebrate the birth. Among them were the followers of the Cult of Five, whose symbol the row of crosses was. Maia's maza enemy was also theirs.

The trials for those who had conspired with the elf who cast the zhirethmaz were brief and unpleasant; the maza himself was not caught.

Csethiro was delivered safely of her child, who was born healthy, with a good pair of lungs; at the ceremony held to introduce Maia's daughter to the court, her wild laughter could be heard in every corner of the hall - loud enough to drown out Maia laughing alongside her.

If true serenity were a distant dream for the emperor of the Elflands, still Maia did not think it was entirely out of reach.