On a Crooked Track

Book 4 of The Chained Adept, Chapters 1-3


Wood everywhere—the solid pier on which Penrys was trying to find her land legs, the ship moving gently beside it in the harbor at Ellech after almost two months at sea, and the entire forest of a city spread out before her, topped by the clusters of signals towers like groves of mountain spruce trees.

It smelled like home, all that wood—weathering away in the buildings, or freshly cut in the long arm of the hoist that was even now swinging cargo off the ship, or burning as firewood and flavoring the crisp spring breeze.

Home was in the woolens everyone wore, retentive of the odor of hard work and dinners long past. It was in the hair and beard dressings of the dock workers, leavened by the exotic aromas of some of the southern cargo, destined for the perfume manufactories.

Penrys inhaled deeply, feeling the rightness of the environment deep inside her. She hoped they’d have a few days to spend in the harbor cities at the base of the two rivers before moving upriver to Tavnastok so she could get started doing her research at the Collegium, but that would depend on her mentor, Vylkar, visible on the wharf at the end of the pier making arrangements for their cargo.

Najud and Munraz were having troubles of their own adjusting to an unmoving surface. “Come on,” she said, picking up her pack. “The sooner you start walking, the easier it will get.”

“Does it work that way for you?” Munraz asked, gamely lifting his own gear.

“Don’t know—I’ve only read about it.” She chuckled at his outraged expression. “I’ve never been on a ship before, not at sea. Never been in Stokemmi, either.”

Striding off down the pier, she called over her shoulder, “Let’s go explore.”

She made a game of anticipating exactly where her feet would meet the planks until her body adjusted to the change of terrain and she stopped stumbling. Her footing wasn’t improved by her hard-soled boots, donned for the first time in a while after the bare feet or soft shoes of shipboard life.

The three of them clattered to a stop behind Vylkar. Two piles were accumulating before him as they came off of the hoists. The larger one, goods destined for trade here in the city, were to be stored in the warehouse used by the Collegium for its own supplies. Cargo handlers were stowing the horse packs onto two wagons to move them there, and the draft horses waited patiently, their breath visible in the chilled air.

The laborers joked with each other as they worked, swapping insults that would bring a blush to a hardened campaigner. Many ships were in harbor, and this wharf, one of several, was busy, filled with people earning a living and working up a sweat doing it.

It was noisier, smellier, and far more vivid than the river harbor at Yenit Ping, and Penrys wondered what Najud and Munraz made of it. Except for the sea at their back and the size of the city, it could almost be Tavnastok, two hundred and fifty miles upstream from the mouth of the Lodentaf, just visible as a gap in the wharves far to the west along the shoreline. She’d seen sights like these there, running errands for the Collegium.

Their personal bags went into a hired two-wheeled pony cart. They would walk alongside it toward the center of Stokemmi to wherever they took rooms.

“We’ve fallen into the hands of talking bears,” Najud muttered. “Loud, smelly bears. Great big tall ones.”

“I warned you about the beards.” Penrys surveyed the wharves with a stranger’s eye and noted how many people were clearly natives (most of them), male (most of those), and bearded (all but the children). The few men of other nations, mostly officers from some of the ships in harbor, looked astonishingly youthful with their shaven faces.

“You’ll find plenty of foreigners here, and they shave,” she told them. “I was never sure if that was out of fastidiousness, or because they couldn’t raise a competitive beard and were afraid to try.”

Some wore their beards in braids, or loose down their chest. Others had neatly trimmed, no-nonsense specimens. And here and there, especially for the citizens who’d come down from the city on business, elaborate grooming and stiffening fashions were on display.

“Do they breed for it?” Munraz asked, in a hushed tone that said he wouldn’t be surprised by an affirmative answer.

“Hard to say. The boys compete with pride to see who can sprout first, and survey their fathers and older brothers with envy. Maybe the less hairy ones have had a harder time finding a bride, and so they’re all bearded now.”

She smiled at the open alarm on his face. “Don’t worry, you can keep a beardless face and foreign clothing—no one will think it strange. Foreigners mean money, here—trade and business and interesting foods.”

Najud looked unconvinced. She wondered if he thought he had to cultivate a beard to measure up, and then she wondered if he could. She’d seen him in stubble, but she’d never seen a bearded Zan, just the somewhat patchy results of a couple of months of neglect. That would never work here, in Ellech, and they didn’t expect to be here any longer than that. Better to choose a different display of manhood.

Ah, but how do you tell a man that? She suppressed a smile.

“What will you wear?” Najud asked her. “Ellech or Zannib clothes?’

And then it hit her. When Najud met her, she wore Ellech clothing, the same sort of work clothes she’d worn for the three years since Vylkar found her. The only years she had memory of—all her life, as it were. She’d adopted local clothing in sarq-Zannib, and her life was with Najud now. She’d never expected to return to Ellech, so the matter had never come up.

“Zannib,” she said, firmly.

Najud eyed her skeptically. “You should use Ellech styles if you like, might be a nice change for you. Might make it easier to work with the Collegium.”

She wavered. “Well, maybe—I’ll find something I can wear at need. But with my foreign face, I’ll never pass for Ellech anyway.” Unlike the tall, fair Ellechen people, Penrys was brown of hair and eyes, round of face, and below middle height. The two men with her had the olive skin and loose curly black hair of a typical Zan.

Only Vylkar, just concluding the cargo assignments, looked at home with his tidy graying scholar’s beard. He turned now to survey his companions.

“Ready?” he asked.

They added their packs to the cart so they could walk unencumbered beside it. The small piebald cob leaned his shoulders into the load, and the carter clucked encouragingly from his well worn perch behind him.

“Is it far?” Munraz asked. He was tall, for a Zan, and not quite at his full growth yet, but Vylkar topped him by almost a head.

“We’ll stop at the trade hall in the central square, up near the bridge, and take rooms nearby for the night. You’ll want to see the trade goods properly stowed, too, before looking at what’s left of the day’s markets.”

Vylkar glanced over at Penrys, and added, “You’ll find it not too different from Tavnastok, I think.”

She shook her head. “In Stokemmi, with no deadline, no errands for others, and my own money in my pocket—I think I’ll find it very different indeed.” She could feel Najud’s amusement through the light link she held with him.

The cartwheels rumbled up the wooden road, adding their bit to the resonant din of all the traffic to and from the wharves. Their own footsteps were drowned out.

The harborside warehouses and trade offices along their route gave way to a sort of seamen’s district of rooming houses, taverns, and shops, with open street markets visible down some of the cross streets. The faces on the streets there were of many nations, including the bearded Ellech, but she looked in vain for anyone resembling herself or the Zannib beside her. The smells of the food were of as many nations as the men, and her own stomach made its presence known as she inhaled sharply.

They saved their breath as the street continued to climb, not very steeply, away from the harbor, and gradually the main core of the city began to grow around them like a maturing forest—first the many craft shops, most of them integrated into the first floor of the dwellings they passed, and then some of the craft halls and larger markets. Up ahead, the street opened up even as the buildings gained in height, rising to three and four stories, or even higher. The decorative flourishes carved into the doors were matched by touches of wooden inlay for variety, or even painted color and gilt.

Traffic in both directions was brisk, but no one gave their party much of a look, even with the exotic Zannib robes three of them wore.

Penrys displayed her chain openly. When she’d left Ellech a year and a half ago, she was the only chained wizard anyone knew of—a seemingly unique and local specimen.

That had all changed, drastically. Her chain meant nothing to this crowd, but it was the reason she was here—to chase down a possible lead on who might have been involved in the creation of dozens of wizards like her, chained wizards, from all nations, scattered where they didn’t belong about four years ago, with no knowledge of who they’d been before.

Two months of shipboard speculation were past, and now it was time to get to work.

*There are wizards here, lots of them.*

Penrys smiled at Najud’s startled thought.

*I warned you. Ellech, land of wizards, they say.*

She spoke aloud. “So many wizards, that most of them earn a living just like any other craft, and the craft is large and varied.”

A shop on their left provided her with an example. “See the power-stone on the sign, there, over the door? Cradled between two hands?”

Munraz nodded, conserving his breath for the long uphill walk. They couldn’t stop—the horses pulling the wagons behind them couldn’t afford to lose their momentum.

“That’s a power shop. The wizards there, they recharge power-stones for other people. Power-stones are embedded in all sorts of devices, and non-wizards can’t renew the power in them without help. So you can either bring your device here, or someone from the shop will come to you. For regular businesses they set up a schedule.”

Vylkar added, “There’s a place like this every few blocks, and more in the industrial districts. But once you get out of the cities, well—not many powered devices in use outside a wizard’s household. Though that’s been changing, over the last several years. More wizards of a middling level getting an education, more power-stones—means more devices and wider usage. No turning back to the old days, I keep telling my colleagues.”

He chuckled. “The Kigaliwen are in for a surprise once their new wizard guilds settle down and start becoming productive.”

Looking down at Penrys, he said, “I overheard Najud’s question. You’ll get further with Ellech clothing if you want to do research and interview people. It’ll reassure them about your intentions. And your rank—blues, now, mind you. No more greens. First stop,” he told her, and turned back to concentrate on the climb.

Blues! Penrys glanced at Vylkar’s robes, the dark purple of a senior council member. He’d worn them in Yenit Ping, as a representative of Ellech there, but they’d been packed away for travel until today. The sleeves stopped well short of the wrist, giving free rein to the under-layer, a lightweight wool knit tunic to turn away the spring chill.

The informal robe fell to mid-calf, and hung open for ease of movement, but she’d seen his formal robes before, the floor length belted versions he wore in his official business. Most of the staff at the Collegium wore blues, and the rest of the robes varied between visitors in borrowed greens and students in shades of yellows and reds. Reds for the youngest, the least able to control themselves.

She’d been too old to be classed as a student when Vylkar placed her there, and her mind too blank for wizardry ranking, so Vylkar had argued for greens, during her three-year stay, since she was clearly a wizard of some power, whatever the damage was that stripped her of memory.

Penrys mulled over the statement Vylkar wanted to make with the choice of color. Blues were reserved for wizards as members of their institution, which was in her case the Collegium, where they were bound in a few days. But was she a member? She was committed now to Zannib, with Najud. She was still a visitor, and green made no comment about her rank, other than declaring her beyond her student years.

He knows what he’s doing. But do I agree with it? She bit her lip, and watched her footing as the cart creaked beside her.


The street leveled off for a block or so and then opened up ahead. The cob pulling the cart turned left and walked far enough along the edge of the square for the two wagons behind to do the same before all the drivers stopped to let their horses catch their breath from the long climb.

Penrys dodged around the cart to get an unobstructed view of the entire grand plaza, the Stone Square, the center of Stokemmi. It extended for a distance of four blocks on each side, on level ground, across a stone-paved surface. The road from the docks had led them to the middle of the southern side. The far side held institutional buildings she didn’t recognize, but on the right, she thought one long colonnaded front might mark the exchange, and on the far left, she saw the blue pennant and second story open porch of the wizards’ guild hall, familiar to her as the subject of many illustrations back in the Collegium.

The buildings around the square were of similar heights—four or even five floors high—but at ground level, many were occupied by restaurants and shops, everywhere but the side directly across from her. It was too early for dinner, but she turned her head to seek the appetizing scent of broiled meat somewhere nearby.

Stone buildings were not unknown in Ellech—the Collegium was built of stone, for the greater safety of its books—but the Stone Square and its immediate environs were the greatest concentration of stone-built structures in the country, outside of some of the factories.

After Kigali, I shouldn’t be impressed, but for Ellech, this is quite a sight. Penrys noted the massive nature of the stonework, as if the architects hadn’t trusted the strength of an unfamiliar material. Where there were arches, they suggested the shapes of tree branches, in ornamentation if not in actual curve. In fact, all the decorative carving used the vocabulary of plants—leaves, flowers, and trees. She realized, looking back, that it had been the same at the Collegium, as though the stone buildings were just forests in a different medium.

In Kigali, they used stone as stone. Here, it’s stone as trees. How surprising she’d never noticed it before.

Najud and Munraz joined her, and Vylkar explained the sight to them all. “Across from us are the buildings of the Great Council and the Governor’s Seat, the nation’s leadership. In the corner, you see the Magistrate’s building, for the city of Stokemmi itself.”

“We’re going to be staying over there”—he waved at the wizard’s guild hall—“but first we have to get our goods stowed away. I suggest…” He looked them over and pointed to the left. “Najud, you go with the wagons to the guild warehouse on the west side and make sure everything is done to your liking. I’ll take the cart and Munraz with me and arrange for our stay at the guild hall, then we’ll come meet you at the warehouse and finish up there.”

“You,” he said, turning to Penrys, “should go to Redenchek’s over there and get your robes. I want you in formal blues tonight for dinner, like any Ellech wizard returned home from her travels.” He pointed to a shop at the near end of the left side of the Stone Square, but he hardly needed to. The sign over the door was enough—they were the legendary outfitters for the wizards in the capital. “When you’re ready, and not before, you can meet us at the guild hall.”

He raised a quizzical eyebrow at her, and she nodded. The gold in her pockets in the form of Kigali coins would be enough, and the exchange was just across the square if they had any reservations about it.

She stepped out of the way of the wagons, and Najud winked at her as he moved off with them. *You sure he was never your father? Acts like one. Why blue?*

She explained, and he rolled his eyes. *Too bad—I liked you in those worn out, ratty old work clothes I met you in. Of course, I like you even better without them on.*

*Stop that! You never know who might be listening.*

He winked at her anyway, and she could feel the heat rising in her cheeks as she stepped away with the cart to accompany Vylkar and Munraz partway down the left side of the Stone Square, until they abandoned her at Redenchek’s shop.

“Perhaps a band for the hair in a matching blue?”

The tailor assigned to Penrys gestured to a display of ribbons, but she shook her head, with difficulty restraining her hands from rising to check that her ears remained covered by her shoulder-length hair. The last thing she needed was to expose her dark fur-covered ears, shaped like a fox’s. All the chained wizards she’d met had them, and the why was as much of a mystery as the chains themselves.

She was here to follow a trail that might give her some answers, she reminded herself, not to take up some task as a wizard newly come to her blues, preening herself in her new robes.

“No, thank you.” She looked over the pile of clothing that had accumulated in the course of the last hour. Both the informal and formal robes had required shortening to accommodate her less-than-Ellech height, but the fit of the layers worn under the robes was straightforward enough. The tunics for working clothes, rightly speaking, should also contain the blue, though it needn’t be solid, and they would need to be shortened, as well. Shirts, undergarments, and even shoes presented no difficulties, the latter provided from the separate establishment next door.

“I require both robes and the matching items immediately—I intend to wear them tonight in place of the clothes I entered in.” She eyed the discarded Zannib garments with regret. “I can return tomorrow for the rest, and for my original clothing.”

“That will take just a few minutes, rerri. Rather than put you to the trouble of returning, shall we deliver it all to you at the guild hall?”

“Delivery would be more convenient—thank you. I’m part of Vylkar’s party there.”

He nodded and went off to make the arrangements. Penrys walked out of the measuring room in the shirt, sweater, and freshly-hemmed pants of the under-layers, respectably clothed if not presentable without an outer robe. She admired the materials along the walls behind the counters, sorted by the colors of rank—the minutely differentiated student fabrics in their bright yellows, oranges and reds, and the senior ranks, greens, blues, and purples, less varied and more somber.

The blue she’d chosen was dark, rich, and quiet—well within the range of accepted colors—but now her eye was caught by the greens. Most wizards who visited an institution other than their own borrowed its green robes to wear rather instead of going to the expense of buying such infrequently used garments, and so they were characteristically ill-fitting, worn, and mended. Only the traveling scholars who spent their careers visiting one wizard hall or academy after another went to the trouble of purchasing green robes of their own, and then only if they were wealthy, as few of them were. Well-fitting greens were a rare sight. Her own greens at the Collegium had been a trial for her, with temporary hems to shorten them, and plenty of evidence of previous ownership.

Adult wizards in Ellech wore blue—that’s just the way it was, unless they were out of place somewhere or officials of some sort encouraged to announce their status with the purple.

It still bothered her. It proclaimed a solidarity with Ellech that she was no longer sure she felt. She agreed with Vylkar’s reasoning, but…

When her tailor returned, she waved him over and pointed. “I would also like to look at fabrics for both short and long robes, in that green there, or that other one next to it. And work tunics, too.”

I can afford it. No one has to know.

“Think she’s still there?”

Najud watched Vylkar’s face as they approached the shop he’d sent Penrys to. Amusement flickered over it before he settled on his usual sobriety and replied, “She is in many ways an unusual person, our Penrys, but she is certainly a woman. I will be surprised indeed if she has already left. Entire plays have been written about the donning of one’s first blues.”

*Ready for us, Pen-sha? We’re about to pass the tailor’s shop.*

He felt her doing a mental inventory of her possessions and garments. *I’ll be right with you. Come on in.*

Vylkar led them in and waved aside the staff who came to assist them. “We’re meeting someone,” he told them.

Munraz glanced around the place wide-eyed, but Najud only had eyes for his wife, clothed in alien fashion in an informal dark blue robe, like so many of the people on the streets he’d been passing through, almost as though she had suddenly renounced sarq-Zannib and her family. He blinked in momentary uneasiness, until she smiled at him uncertainly.

“What do you think? You should see the long one.”

“Like the ocean waves and the peaceful mountains,” he said, with a mock bow.

She half-grinned at him, reassured.

Munraz glanced at Najud. “Do we have to dress like that?”

Vylkar commented, dryly, “I would not advise it. Foreign wizards have different customs, as everyone knows. Your best Zannib garments will be very suitable for formal occasions.”

Penrys finalized her arrangements with the tailor while Vylkar looked over the display of awards and badges presented on top of the counter nearby. “You are entitled to some of these, you know,” he told her. “Travel, scholarship, and so forth. The Collegium seal, for example. Anything we can do to help people understand how to position you is to the good.”

“And misleading,” she responded. “Compared to this”—she gestured discretely at the chain around her neck—“very little of that matters.”

“Nonetheless,” Vylkar replied. He lifted out three small badges for the left breast of her robe and fastened them on. All three were silver.

Najud realized that all the wizards they’d seen on the street had something similar on their robes, but he hadn’t known how to read the code.

“I know the Kigaliwen run to wax seals and ribbons, but didn’t you receive an honor from the emperor?” Vylkar asked.

Penrys snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous—it’s a great big thing, and gold. No one wears something like that here.”

“Not so, young Penrys. You’ve just never seen one—how many wizards of Ellech do you know outside the Collegium?” He turned to the tailor who was following the conversation. “Whom do you recommend to produce a badge version of a foreign honor?”

“We can arrange that for you, raer.”

Vylkar nodded. “Send someone to our rooms at the guild hall, and we will show him the original—I assume it’s in your packs, Penrys? Warn him that we may be leaving as soon as the day after tomorrow, so the sooner the better. If it could be completed before dinner this evening, impossible as that sounds…”

“Someone can be with you in an hour, if that will be convenient. With tools and materials.”

“That will do very well,” Vylkar said. “We’ll expect someone then.”

Najud marveled at witnessing Vylkar in his element. Under his imperious gaze, the transactions were concluded and the four of them back on the street almost before he could take a breath.

He shared a look with Penrys. *Impressive. Is he always like that?*

*Don’t know, Naj-sha. I’ve rarely seen him in this mode either.*

Vylkar glanced at them both as if he’d overheard. “Money speaks, as they say. Might as well get what you want, eh?”

“True enough,” Najud answered.

They strolled down the west side of the Stone Square on the way to the guild hall, taking their time and exploring the windows of the shops. After the fourth shop, Penrys noticed Munraz lagging behind, rapt by one particular display. She went back to see why, and to hasten him along. Plenty of time tomorrow for shopping.

She smiled to herself when she saw what it was—a supplier of power-stones, devices large and small, and shelves of pamphlets and books. They may not use devices in sarq-Zannib, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t startling to see the things for sale out in the open, like so many lamps. It’s a veritable wizard shop to him.

Vylkar looked back to see what had detained them. “You wouldn’t want to buy anything in a rystet like that —too expensive. I can show you better places later, outside of the main district.”

Munraz shot him a look of disappointment, and Penrys was surprised to see Vylkar relent, returning with Najud so they could all enter the shop. Munraz and Najud went first, and Penrys could almost hear the proprietor size them up as foreigners and dismiss them, puzzled at their presence.

The appearance of a blue-robe and a purple-robe behind them was another matter, and Penrys saw the shopkeeper’s eyes travel first to Vylkar, as the more important, and then to her. When he caught sight of her chain, his eyes widened, and he started to speak, but then he raised them to her face and stuttered to a stop, puzzled.

What was that about? I should pin him to the spot and have it out of him. She glanced sideways at Vylkar and he shook his head almost imperceptibly.

But he knows something, he’s seen a chain before. This isn’t something from a generation ago—it’s now, today!

She seethed in frustration but consoled herself with the thought that she could always come back later to interrogate the man.

Her fingers itching to grab for the fellow, she walked past him and joined Munraz. She showed him some of the devices, explaining what they did and how they worked. The power-stones themselves were laid out under glass on the counter, sorted and graded.

When she glanced over at Najud, she saw that the posted prices were a revelation to him, his trader’s mind quickly estimating the value of the pouch of power-stones still in their possession.

I told you what they were worth, Naj-sha. She’d share the thought with him after they were out of this place, when no one could overhear them. She could still feel the shopkeeper’s eyes on her. Did Najud even notice?

The proprietor joined Penrys and Munraz and casually answered their questions about devices Penrys didn’t recognize, as though nothing had happened when they first walked in.

Vylkar kept his thoughts to himself while they waited. “We haven’t much time, Munraz. We can return tomorrow, if you wish.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, rair— I just hadn’t expected a place like this.” Munraz drew back from a magnifying device reluctantly. “I didn’t mean to delay us.”

“No harm done.”

Vylkar looked directly at the shopkeeper. “Thank you for your attention.”

And try as hard as she might, Penrys couldn’t decide if she heard an edge to that remark or not.


“I didn’t think you even saw it! And how could you set Munraz on his trail? He’ll stand out like a rooster in a flock of geese.”

Penrys paced the common room of their suite at the guild hall, tracing a path between the backs of the chairs and the open window. Najud and Vylkar twisted their necks to follow her from their seats, and the leather creaked as their bodies moved.

Najud raised a hand to slow her down. “What did you think, you could just pry it out of him? In civilized Stokemmi?”

He glanced over at Vylkar for assistance. “He was a wizard himself, yes?”

Vylkar nodded. “He would have to be, to demonstrate his wares.”

“He wore blue robes,” Najud said.

“Anyone can wear the robes,” Penrys said as she changed direction again. “People have been known to bluff. But Vylkar’s right—he was surely a wizard.”

“He recognized the chain. I’m sure of it.” Najud repeated. “He started to say something about it. What I don’t understand is why he stopped.”

“Because he didn’t recognize the wearer. In fact, I think the fact it wasn’t an Ellech face is why he was puzzled.” Vylkar’s tone carried certainty.

“So, he knows other chained wizards, eh? And maybe they all have Ellechen faces.” Penrys whirled to face Vylkar. “And are they the few you found already in Ellech, of various nations, that you reported on in Yenit Ping, or something else?”

Vylkar shook his head. “We found none alive, except you.”

Najud followed her speculation. “You think they have something to do with the makers you’re looking for?”

“I don’t know!”

He could hear her frustration. He pictured the two of them each holding an ankle and dangling the shopkeeper from the roof of his building, then he showed it to her. *This more what you had in mind?*

She gave an involuntary chuckle. “If only we could do that, Naj-sha.”

It worked—finally she stopped pacing and sat down in one of the padded chairs. “This is real, then. He knows something, so there’s something to know. Something that’s not a generation old.”

“More to the point,” Najud said, “we should find out what he’s going to do about it, if anything. If you scare him off, you may learn nothing. If he tells someone, that gives us another name. That’s why I set Munraz on him, for an hour or two—to watch what he does next.”

He hadn’t liked setting his nal-jarghal loose in a strange place where he would be noticeable, but he hoped his youth and obvious visitor status would allay any more sinister suspicions if he were noticed.

“And does this shopkeeper have any connection with Gialfinnur and his possible sect?” Vylkar’s deep voice quieted them all for a moment. “I don’t see how, but then we’re just starting to look.”

A knock on the door of the suite interrupted them, and Vylkar opened the door to a strange woman in wizard blues carrying a rectangular case in one hand. She inclined her head, exposing hair more gray than blond.

“I am seeking Vylkar. I’m Syrlyggi, sent by Redenchek to create a badge…”

At Vylkar’s nod of comprehension, she walked in far enough to clear the door and set the case down as though it were heavy.

Najud nodded to himself. The tools of her trade, and perhaps a bit of precious metal, too. No guard—but then a wizard is her own protection, I suppose. I’ll have to ask Vylkar how armed robbery works in a society with so many wizards around. Or maybe those badges over her breast say something that warns others away.

“You can set up over here, rerri,” Najud told her, waving her over to a table near the window that seemed to be the best height for her sort of work.

Penrys reappeared from their shared room with a velvet pouch and laid it on the table while the goldsmith opened her case and took out magnifying devices and a small balance scale, as well as a soft green felt cloth.

Clearing her throat, Penrys waved at the pouch diffidently. “This was from the Emperor of Kigali.”

The goldsmith’s eyes widened in spite of her urbane professionalism, and she reached for it. She drew out the square gold plaque almost the size of her palm and laid it on the felt. “Are there any documents that come with it?” she asked, her eyes never moving from their examination of the piece.

This time Najud accompanied Penrys to their room and rummaged in his pack for a small scroll encased in a leather pouch while Penrys did her own document search.

When they returned, Penrys laid out a fat paper scroll, heavy with the weight of wax and gaudy with yellow ribbons and the red chop of the emperor. Syrlyggi unrolled it and looked up puzzled. “I cannot read this, rerri.”

Vylkar recited its contents from memory, in Kigali yat. “To Sar Luplen, the foreigner Penrys of sarq-Zannib and Ellech, the thanks of the Emperor Ki Sechat for services to the Kigali Nation.” He walked over to the goldsmith and repeated it in Ellechen guma. Then he leaned over her and pointed to the individual characters on the gold plaque that signified the key names.

“I believe this may be the first time that a foreigner has ever received this particular honor,” he told her. “The Kigaliwen consider such a thing an heirloom of their house, earned by a famous ancestor, and boast of it hundreds of years later. It becomes part of their family emblems, to distinguish their house.”

Penrys had retreated out of embarrassment, and Najud took her place. He laid down the small scroll he carried. “I don’t know if you’ve seen this one, Vylkar. This was after the Voice was destroyed. It was presented by Chang Zenju, the commander of the military expedition where Penrys and I served. It’s a small thing, but I wondered if you thought it should be represented.”

He read the words and translated them for the goldsmith. The scroll’s simple acknowledgment of assistance, made on the behalf of the emperor by one of his military officers to two foreign wizards, from a nation which did not at the time officially recognize that it had wizards of its own, presented a puzzle.

Syrlyggi recovered from her surprise and ventured an opinion. “These are both proper honors to display, foreign though they are. The first one is, of course, the more important and should be represented at the largest size appropriate to an honor not of Ellech. The second would be more modest, but still a separate and worthy honor.”

She glanced at Najud, in his Zannib robes. “I see it bears both your names. Do you wish for your own badge?”

Smiling, he shook his head. “That’s no part of our Zannib traditions. Just the ones for Penrys, suitable for Ellech.”

After some discussion, they settled on an appropriate design for both. The larger honor would be in the form of crossed Kigali-style swords, since the service rendered included physical battle, even if most of it was magical in nature. It would include the characters for the Kigali Emperor’s name, and any decorative touches would complement the foreign style. All in gold, of course, to match the original plaque.

For the minor honor, they agreed that silver was more appropriate. At Najud’s request, the design included the hand-axe used to kill the Voice, the chained wizard eliminated by Penrys at such cost.

“Too bad you’ve nothing to show for your defeat of the qahulajti in sarq-Zannib,” he said to Penrys.

She glared at him. “Just as well. It’s nothing to boast of.”

Najud shook his head. “You’re wrong. Think of all the lives saved.”

“I’d never be able to look at it without thinking of that poor girl. The last thing I want to do is keep count…”

She broke off, conscious of the stranger in the room with them, but Najud knew how to complete the phrase—“count of the dead.”

Syrlyggi followed their conversation without interruption, but when they paused, she ventured, “If I may… I see you are of foreign birth and perhaps you are not aware… When wearing your wizard’s robe and Ellech honors, it is not customary to distract from them with jewelry, other than of the most discreet variety. Your necklace…”

Despite herself, Penrys stiffened, and Najud watched as she made herself relax. “It doesn’t come off, I’m afraid. Would you recommend I conceal it behind a piece of cloth, or would that be just as incongruous?”

“Ah, I see… Well, in that case, please forget my words. It’s always better to present yourself when in formal robes in your truest form, without concealment.”

Najud wondered what she would make of the wings. He caught Penrys’s eye and thought she might be considering the same thing.

The goldsmith worked on a piece of paper for a few moments and then laid down her quill. “For the design work, the materials, and the making of the badges, here is my charge. For the registration of the new honors with the heraldry guild, and for the special urgency, this additional amount.”

She looked uncertainly between Vylkar and Penrys, and Vylkar took charge. “This is for me to pay. You may lay it to my account with the wizard guild—half now, and half upon delivery, if that suits you.”

“If you will so indicate here, that will be satisfactory. Since I expect to stay here and deliver within two hours, I see no need to delay by taking the first payment in advance. Your name is known.”

Vylkar acknowledged her courtesy. “May we offer you a place to get started, or will this arrangement do?”

“Any private room with an appropriate table will be fine.”

“Munraz is still out,” Najud said. “Let’s put her in his room. If he comes back too soon, we’ll work around it.”

“How long before we have to show ourselves at dinner?” Penrys asked.

“Two hours, Pen-sha,” Najud told her. “Just enough time.”

“Please, raer, would it be possible to see how it works?”

Munraz concentrated on making his demeanor seem younger, rounding his eyes to convey guilelessness. He thought it helped to be beardless—young men his age here were all bearded, as best they could manage.

“And what does a Zannib youngster want with my signals tower?”

The middle-aged man, unremarkable except for his butter-yellow beard that was trimmed to the level of his collarbone, stood at the door of the westernmost of the four wooden towers at the top of the city’s hill. A steady stream of foot traffic passed them by in the warrens surrounding the cluster of buildings, the tallest ones in the middle, five stories high, and the rest of varying heights in loose rings around them.

It looked as if the clerk who had opened the door to Munraz’s knock had fetched the master of the tower, and Munraz bowed his best elaborate Zannib greeting.

“My apologies, most esteemed raer, but my master and I are newly arrived in Ellech, and he wanted me to study how things are done here. He’s a wizard, you understand. It was my idea to begin with these magnificent structures, but I had no intention to disturb a man such as you in your daily activities. I apologize.”

There. That would never work in sarq-Zannib, but maybe here, if he looked really young, and foreign… That shopkeeper, the one who’d stared at Penrys’s chain, had come here in haste and left more calmly, as if he’d taken care of a problem, and this was the only way Munraz could think of to find out what he’d done.

“Hmmph. Off to the Collegium, I shouldn’t wonder.” The man fingered his beard. “Educating foreigners now, are we?” He studied Munraz’s robe and the simple turban that surmounted it.

Now would not be the time for any of the small sharp items secreted in my anah-im-ghabr to suddenly poke out from the folds. Munraz’s fingers crept surreptitiously to the pouch at his belt and felt the outline of his lud for what luck it might bring him. He’d stumbled upon the small stone in the tunnels under the upper city of Yenit Ping, the Kigali capital, and it had seemed meant for him, as a lud does, but it was chancy to rely on that.

The man pulled the door wide, and waved Munraz in. A counter stood to his left in the small anteroom with benches, and the clerk who had opened the door to him in the first place stood nervously behind it, watching them. The master yanked open the heavy door at the far end of the room and bellowed into it. “Gechendair! Spend a few minutes showing our visitor around, eh?”

Munraz followed him into a large workroom at the base of the tower. Shelves with boxes and labels filled the walls, and his eyes sorted the bustle of activity into young men and a few women working at the narrowly-spaced tables throughout the room with stacks of paper sheets, quills and ink, and long, thin strips of paper. The center of the room was blocked by some sort of complicated column, and Munraz noticed the start of a staircase at its base.

The young man who raised his head near the front of the room waved a hand in acknowledgment and unfolded himself from his work at a table. Munraz turned to the tower master and bowed again. “My thanks to you, raer, and I will try not to be a disruption to you.”

He grunted. “It’s just as well for foreigners to get an idea of how we Ellechen taurath manage things, I suppose. Don’t take up too much of his time, now.”

He stalked off and made his way to the right of the room, where Munraz saw a group of doorways with windows to view the activity in the central space. A supervisor’s room. Must be complicated, this work they do here.

“You’re a Zan, aren’t you? I’m one of the signals clerks.”

Munraz turned to look at his guide and then tilted his head back. Younger than me, even with that little yellow beard he’s got, but does that mean he’s going to be even taller when he stops growing?

He bowed anyway, deadpan. “I am indeed. My name’s Munraz, apprentice to Najud, come to visit the Collegium. My master has told me to find out more about how things are done in Ellech, so… what do you do here? How does it work?”

“Oh! You’re a wizard, then? I guess they don’t wear the colors where you come from.”

Munraz pictured himself in the yellow robes of a student and was grateful for his familiar clothing. He waved a hand at himself. “No, as you see.”

Gechendair glanced at the closed door where his master had vanished. “What we do… we send messages, all around the country.”

Munraz blinked. Could he find the shopkeeper’s message? “We don’t have anything like this in sarq-Zannib. Can you show me?”

“Sure. Follow me.”

Munraz tried not to feel that he was scurrying to keep up with those long legs as the two of them headed for the central column.

“Up to the top.” Gechendair grinned, and opened a door next to the stairs to reveal a small cubicle, large enough to hold four people, illuminated by a device embedded in the ceiling. He waved Munraz in to join him and shut the door, while Munraz tried not to panic in the small space. Still grinning, Gechendair yanked the top lever of four next to the door, and the tiny room jerked and began moving.

“First time in an ossanutkenbendu? Thought it might be.”

Munraz swallowed and refused to let his reaction show on his face. This is like the lift cages in Yenit Ping, he told himself, only much, much smaller.

His dignified silence apparently abashed his guide to some degree, for a note of apology crept into his voice. “Don’t worry—only the best lifters for the signals tower. The hortkendrosi look them over every week.” At Munraz’s blank look, he added, “The wizards, the ones that check and inspect all the devices and keep ’em powered.”

Munraz looked for power-stones, now that his fear was subsiding. Penrys had showed him how they felt, and now he recognized them, first in the ceiling device that provided light, and then in the levers. Floors—they must indicate what floor to lift this little room to. But they seem like small devices. How could they do all that work?

He forced his body to relax. “Yes, my first time. What pulls this little room up?” He kept his voice friendly, the good-natured recipient of a joke.

“Oh, there’s a device at the top that turns a wheel attached to a rope, and the controls here tell it how far. We’re lucky to be one of the long-distance towers—the shorter ones don’t have this luxury. Stair-climbing all the time for them.”

The room stopped moving, and Gechendair opened the door. “Top of the tower,” he announced.

When Munraz followed him out, he was confronted by a noisy clacking sound. Before he could pinpoint it, Gechendair dragged him over to one of the windows that penetrated each of the four sides of the room. “How do you like this?”

They faced west, where no other buildings restricted their view at that height, though others almost as tall ringed them. Before them, the land dropped off rapidly to the river, and Munraz could see the concentrations of structures across the water, and boat traffic, but no bridges.

He walked over to the north windows, and looked past the great tower there which partially blocked it. The city continued, and then the land rolled out beyond it, a mixture of fields and forests. “Can you see the big mountains from here?” he asked.

“What, the Dunnarfeol? Much too far away,” Gechendair replied. “It’s the south tower that gets most of the visitors—they want to see the harbor.”

Munraz turned away and looked for the source of the noise. There were two complex machines, one above the other, and strips of paper.

“This one sends.” Gechendair patted the bottom one. “And this one receives. We’re getting a message now. Come see.”

Munraz felt a cluster of power-stones in the two devices, both large and small ones. These must be very expensive devices. Everything in this building must be very costly, and there are how many buildings like this, clustered on this hill?

This is as big an investment, in its way, as the places where they forge metal in Yenit Ping. Do we have anything like this in sarq-Zannib? I’ll have to ask Najud.

Meanwhile, his guide was explaining things. “We get the messages from the distant west—the lower buildings below us get the more local traffic. If you were already at the Collegium, your message would come in here.” He grinned at Munraz.

“The scriber marks it on this double strip of paper, see? The first part is the destination tower and priority, then the person it should go to, and where, and then the person sending. The rest is the message itself, and this little bit here marks the end so you know you’ve gotten the whole thing.”

To Munraz’s eyes, these were holes punched in the paper grouped in little clusters of nine, with the center hole always punched and larger than the rest in its cluster, while some of the other eight holes were punched and some were not. He could see that each cluster was different from its neighbor. “You can read this?”

“That’s what we do all day.” He lifted the upper strip which was loose at the end and accumulated in an open wooden bucket—the lower strip was wound up slowly on a wheel, kept aligned by a ratchet through the large center holes. “This one is for some woman at the Stumbling Man, from some man, about a shipment of brandy being delayed.”

He let the paper strip drop. “They swap buckets every few minutes, cut the rekenponkenkiemmenbar—we call it a ponka— into individual messages, sort them by priority, and send them downstairs. We use the tubes for that.” He pointed at the central column, and Munraz saw the buckets of empty colored capsules and an opening they would fit into. A woman sat there and spun paper strips into tight inserts for the capsules, then dropped them through the opening.

“The daily wheels are saved for a week, in case there’re any questions.”

A man brushed by them and perched in front of the lower device with a punched strip of paper. He carefully fed it in, and beside him, another strip copied it and accumulated around a wheel. His beard was neatly trimmed, and Munraz realized he had seen nothing but short beards on the men in the building. I guess you wouldn’t want to catch one in the moving machines.

“Now he’s sending a message. If you walked in downstairs, you’d write your message on a piece of paper and pay the fee. The clerk would send it back to us, and we’d use a different device to transcribe it onto a ponka. That comes up here, and it gets sent.”

“What happens if two messages are sent to you at the same time? From different towers?”

“The competing strip won’t advance past the tower name, and the sending tower will just have to try again later. Sometimes they can send to another tower and relay it, if it’s a long delay—a broken receiver, say. Last year there was a fire which damaged a tower and they had to route around it for weeks.”

The shopkeeper’s message is around here somewhere, but how would I find it?

“What happens to the original message?” Munraz said.

“We keep the message sheet, and a wheel for messages sent and received, so we can tell if a message was never sent. Some people pay more to get an official receipt from the other tower, when it’s important.”

Gechendair looked at Munraz cheerfully. “You going to study this at the Collegium?”

“I’m thinking about it. I’ve never seen such a complicated combination of devices before.” This was no deception. There was something about the designed nature of the system that fascinated Munraz, the creation of something that had never existed before. Like Najud’s planned caravan in the west… No wonder it appealed to his jarghal, fond as he was of organizing people. This added devices to the mix, and Najud would never do that. The Zannib with their prohibition against physical magic would never permit it. Too bad.

“Can I see how the original messages are stored, just so I can get a clear picture of it in my head when I report back to my master?”

‘Of course! Follow me.”

The little lifting room was in use, so they clattered down the stairs instead. Munraz wondered what he was missing on the intermediate floors but couldn’t think of a way to ask.

At the bottom, Gechendair led the way to a set of painted bins with individual sheets thrown haphazardly in. “The bins in front hold the messages from the senders, sorted by priority. One of us goes over and takes the oldest message with the highest priority—those are the ones in the red bin there— and makes a ponka for it. We send that upstairs, and then put the original message into the bin in back. Every time that fills up, someone swaps it out for an empty one, and we stash it over there.” He pointed at shelving that held a dozen bins in four colors. “That’s the traffic for a day. Someone compares it to the sent-message wheel each day to make sure they’re all accounted for, then they sit over there for a week before we discard them.” He waved over at bundles tied with string on a different set of shelves.

Munraz watched the process. The bins not yet sent were almost empty, so the message form he wanted was probably in the bin in back, already sent. He strode there casually and poked around the slips of paper, but nothing caught his eye until he noticed one near the top. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Gechendair leaned over him to see what he was talking about. “Oh, one of those.” He plucked it out of Munraz’s hand. “That’s in code, you see. Merchants with secrets, sometimes government stuff. They’re a nuisance to transcribe—you have to be very careful to get them right. And look, see the destination? It gives the tower name and then says ‘Relay 1139.’ That’s the big central tower for the west, and they’ll look that number up and forward the message according to instructions. Even the sender’s name looks like code, doesn’t it?”

A dead end. Munraz’s heart sank. He ran his eye over the room full of chattering voices and busy hands. The ingenuity that put all of this together supported even more ingenuity that obscured the information he wanted. Clever systems and devious minds.

To read more, look for On a Crooked Track from your favorite retailers.