������ Snow fell in the broken defile of Steelstain Alley. Haphazard houses, comprised of stones of differing sizes but consistent roughness, shuddered uneven facades up from the mud to a height of three or four stories. Leaning in at one level and swinging away at another, the buildings boxed in the white flakes and the errant gusts of wind that stirred them about. At times the snow rose, seeming to contradict the law of gravity as did the insane architecture. The snowfall was intimate in the Alley as it ghosted in streamers down the narrow defile. That intimacy lasted until a sled loaded with uncured hides skimmed down the slope of the street to cut the frosted snow and let the brown mud bleed through the whiteness.
������Old and heavy with his thoughts, the former First Seer of Winterhold watched the sled shoot the channel of the Alley guided by a raggedly clad body atop the hides. As it slewed and tipped and slid around a corner, he touched the lacily frosted pane of the window that looked down upon Steelstain Alley. The cold stabbed up his fingers to the elbow. He pulled back and rubbed his bony arm to get the thin blood flowing.
������"Mother Ice, you can be cruel. And kind."
������He was not superstitious. He added that last out of habit and reverence. Ice on the window, ice in the street, ice in the air; one great block of ice. Winterhold as a palimpsest. It struck him that way just then. Life layered upon life like one season's ice locked over the season's before. Granular ice blew across the surface of the Waste to carve lines of force. A shift in the wind and the lines shifted. Written and erased and written, ad infinitum. Words that once shouted from the palimpsest now whispered beneath the layers.
������On a mild fall day for Winterhold, with the snow sifting down out of a pearl gray sky, his age and weakening body conspired to darken his pleasure of the relative warmth. Time was when he would have been sweating on such a day with the temperature only ten degrees below freezing. Instead he shivered to his bones at the mere touch of the ubiquitous ice. He pulled the collar of his brum fur robe tighter about his wrinkled neck and plunged his long fingers under his arms to seek a bit of his own warmth.
������And even as he stood at the window, he stood in his mind, a layer or two removed from the final face that touched the world and felt the stinging cold. That face was aging at the same rate as the house that settled minutely deeper into the snow and frozen mud. Wrinkles hung heavily about the wide gray eyes and tugged at the prominent nose. That face was in its allotted place, up above the frozen street but not in the full light of the sun.
������He glanced up then, up to the jagged slash of space between the buildings to where the gray clouds parted for a moment to allow a single ray of sunshine to spill down into the gorge and across his folded arms. He held out his hand to cup the errant ray. The gray skin of his palm pulsed a buttery yellow.
������Turned over, his hand revealed the knotted veins that clutched the narrow bones and the gray skin that buckled about sharp knuckles. The top layer of the palimpsest was where the most recent experiences were written. But beneath and informing that uneven surface were all of the other layers of being which eventually fell away to the unplumbed well of the soul. Each layer held its own story and each one added to the one below it. He was the Seer. Properties of his mind, both inherited and trained, allowed him special access to all of the layers of memory of all of the Seers since the noble profession had emerged from the darkness where conjuration based upon the evisceration of small animals had been the preferred method of the clan's wise man. He was the living repository and dispensary of firsthand history, an ambiguous and often unenviable position.
������"Father Sun, you too can be kind and cruel."
������Once again, it was not said out of superstition. But, as if to prove his statement, the battlements of the clouds drifted irrevocably to cut off the thin beam. His hand reverted to gray and he turned from the window with a snort. His body was shaken by an involuntary shiver and he moved hurriedly toward his chair near the hearth on the other side of the low ceilinged room. The path to the chair was not a straight one, for numerous objects cluttered the floor and spilled off the two heavy tables occupying the center of the room. Globes and compasses, heavily bound books and dried lichen, swatches of old fur in various stages of disintegration and dishes empty or containing the remnants of meals several days old, littered the way. He threaded among them all easily. He knew every object intimately. Within his colorfully cluttered mind each had its own special significance and place.
������He spoke to himself in a low, clear voice as he shuffled along in an attempt to organize the colorful clutter. "Tomorrow is . . . history lesson day. Yes. The Great March south of the Northern clans during the bitterest winter chronicled by the early Rituals. For that I will need globe and pointer and large compass, the tasteless one with the legs of the leaping bryl forming the legs of the compass. Skinny antelope with no grace in the design and cheaply plated to boot. I really must get a new compass. And I shall also need several of the largest volumes; the red one and the blue one with that archaic map. Inaccurate but beautifully executed. There is something to be said for functionless beauty, but very little for functional ugliness. Almost all of that is on the table, or thereabouts, I believe."
������He had been First Seer to the grandfather of the current King/Lord but now merely occupied the position of tutor to the male offspring of the royal line, a title which assured him of relative freedom as well as relative obscurity. The room, which looked as though it had been casually ransacked, served as both classroom and living quarters with every mundane and arcane object occupying its niche in his peculiar but comprehensive curriculum. Relegated to that space, he was like one of his objects which possessed a meaning that was significant yet obscure.
������To wander about his room was to pass in review of all of the major scientific and metaphysical discoveries of the past century. King/Lords and First Lords to be had squatted before the huge globe that represented Winterhold, its vast white surface banded about with a sash of pale green embossed with three long blue ovals at the equator. Its top half was pockmarked from countless blows of the pointer employed to regain the faltering attention of the pupils. Over and over again he had pointed out the extensive reaches of the Waste which spread from either pole and comprised nearly three quarters of the planet's surface as he lectured on the frigid climate that kept the major land masses and the fingers of the three seas that poked northward locked beneath the ice year round. He had held up the dried square of lichen so many times the original square foot of vegetation had been reduced to the size of a half gnawed cracker. And as often as he held it up he told the pupils how that seemingly insignificant bit of vegetable matter formed the basis for the entire complex and fragile food chain of which they themselves were the final and most regal beneficiaries. He had talked and talked, mostly to empty stares and equally empty minds. Blood might determine social status with blazing clarity but it could not guarantee even a glimmering of intelligence. He had helped to shape, as best he could given the dubious nature of the raw material, the representatives of the convoluted river of blood that snaked through the myriad veins of the sundry members of the royal line.
������"A lesson in history. History is based on blood. Blood is all."
������Blood was warmth. And warmth was a commodity vital to survival on the frozen planet. It pulsed through the veins and fed the brain of that ultimate achievement of evolution, man, the warm blooded, hot blooded creature who at first huddled together with others of its kind for the meager warmth produced by the chemical composition of that blood, but who finally triumphed over the killing cold by using the brain fed by that blood. That aspect of blood preoccupied the First Seer for he possessed less and less of that fundamental chemical warmth. His blood, most definitely lacking any regal tinge, was afflicted by a wasting disease that made him extremely susceptible to the hard edge of the eternal cold.
������Blood was society. It was a matrix that determined with cold precision who stood where and who inherited what. While nature determined that all should possess the inherent warmth of that blood, society determined the order of the hierarchy based upon minute amounts of the type of that blood. Dribs and drabs of the right sort made the difference between a First Lord and a Second Lord, the former a mere step away from the pulsing river of royalty, the latter often miles removed from any such vantage point.
������He reached the chair and sank back upon the pillows warmed by the fitful fire. He spread his hands over the tepid fabric to soak up the niggardly warmth. The material quickly grew cool beneath his fingers. Lurching over the side of the chair, he scrabbled in the clutter that spilled out from under the wide frame. Scrolls and plates, quills and spoons were picked up and discarded. Finally he came upon the object he sought. It was a dagger, thin of blade and obviously more ornamental than practical. The blade held a faint promise of warmth within. He bit down on his lower lip and pricked the index finger of his left hand with the needle point. A drop of blood bubbled on the gray skin. His teeth withdrew from his lip. As always, his lip hurt more than his finger. He carefully smeared the red gem along the length of the blade. The dagger was a blood blade made of a metal that held locked within its molecules the potential for heat that was activated by the application of living blood. Blood blades sucked the warmth from the blood and radiated it back to the holder tenfold. It was life blossoming from death.
������The blood blades were intimately linked to both warmth and society. In their larger form as swords they were a tool and emblem of rank in the social order of Winterhold. In the ancient past the metal used to forge the blades was limited in quantity and the supply was strictly controlled by the Interpreters of the Rituals, the priests of the one religion that guided both society and the soul. The blades were looked upon as holy objects to be used only within the parameters of Ritual. But increased warfare among the nomadic clans that wandered across the Waste in search of heat and food meant that the warriors, and not the Interpreters, became ascendant. As the sacred is frequently transformed into the profane, what had been a holy object became the instrument of a deadly but necessary profession. The primary function of the blood blades became the spilling of blood, an act officially deplored by the Rituals unless it could be justified. As a result, justification became the responsibility of the Interpreters and a means of reasserting their sacred authority. The spilling of blood became a holy act and the more blood spilled, the holier the act. This philosophy generated heat for society and reshaped the matrix as the wielders saw fit. Thus, death flowed from life.
������The blade of the dagger warmed and the thin coating of blood began to dissolve as the chemical reaction took place. He cupped his hands about the sliver of metal.
������"A truly undiscriminating bit of metal. It creates warmth even from my paltry blood."
������As he spoke he shivered once again. But the small shudder did not end. It seemed to be transferred to the wood and leather of the chair and to the slate of the floor. A low level tremor gently shook the chair and the house and Steelstain Alley as the volcano upon which all were built shifted somewhere deep at its center. The Alley was one street among many in the town that skirted the peak of the mountain in sprawling concentric circles. Above the rippled streets lay the royal residence of the Queen/Lady, known since the first stone was laid as the Hold, a term also commonly applied to the conglomeration of streets and buildings of the town itself. Both the Hold proper and the town that lay haphazardly at its feet had always been affected by the rumblings of the volcano. Periodic earthquakes were the price gladly paid by the inhabitants in return for an environment that mitigated the brutal cold.
������The Hold was actually built in a series of troughs that acted as runners down which the individual buildings could slide without entirely breaking up. The entire collection of buildings moved slowly down the steep sides of the mountain so houses that started halfway up the face either reached the bottom or were torn down and rebuilt higher up. Street maps of the Hold were nonexistent since their accuracy might last for only a few months. Residents were used to the frequent changes in neighbors in a town which gouged its way down the slope. Steelstain Alley had once been part of a large boulevard that swept in a circle about the vast girth of the mountain. The section in which the Seer lived had only recently become a cul-de-sac from the top of which the white plain that marked the beginning of the Waste could be seen.
������Out on that stretch of frozen earth was planted the Camp of the King/Lord, a collection of dwellings consisting in the main of semi-permanent tents that housed the soldiers and retainers of the King/Lord's army. The tents completely surrounded the mountain of the Hold, leaving only the River Ice that circled the base of the volcano free from domination. The River was the neutral territory through which the trading ships of both sides passed on their way to the large commercial complexes far to the south. While the followers of the Queen/Lady clung to the sheer sides of the mountain, the retainers of the King/Lord crouched in the lee of low drifts, and all lived in a realm of division and compromise on the margin of the Waste.
������For seven generations, Winterhold had been ruled by a King and a Queen who had never set eyes upon one another. The split crown, a relic neatly broken in half by the first King/Lord to enter into the schism, clearly represented the divisive society. The Queen/Lady resided within the Hold upon the highest levels of the slumbering volcano, while the King/Lord occupied the plain below and laid siege to the Hold. The last pitched battle had been fought to an indecisive finish three generations ago by the great-grandmother of the current Queen and the great-great-grandfather of the King. The state of perpetual siege was a well established fact and like all well established facts, alteration of the status quo seemed next to impossible. Now and again warriors from both sides, who wished to reassert the purpose of their class, would meet upon the plain to skirmish and then withdraw. Everyone felt victorious and vindicated. A few warriors died but that was their role in the grand pageant and, of course, the imperturbable status quo was reaffirmed.
������While the conflict was not overt, it was real. Subversive plots and infighting were the hallmarks of the conflict. And while commerce was restricted, it was not halted. The basic siege tactic of starving out the inhabitants of the Hold had long ago given way to a carefully regulated form of trade when it was discovered the heat from the volcano facilitated the growth of food that the Camp needed. As a part of this selective commerce, the First Seer was allowed to live in the comparative comfort of the Hold due to his faltering health and still receive the male offspring of the King/Lord for tutelage.
������And still the siege continued. Society had shored itself up with the shards and trappings of the conflict. The positions of men and women on both sides were secured by the continual opposition balanced against the relative peace of the siege. If the siege ended the basis for the entire society would have to be reexamined and the ancient, faulted structure, like many of the shifting houses that clung precariously to the mountain and to their intrinsic design, could not bear such close scrutiny.
������Underpinning and encouraging the elaborate and often shaky social structure were the Rituals. They were a complex of laws and ceremonies that had evolved out of the original struggle for survival upon the frozen surface of the planet. When the climate was deadly enough to wipe out an entire race during a single severe winter, when the jet streams ripped across the plains of solid ice and could strip flesh from bone, strict rules had to be imposed to ensure continued existence.
������Life emerged from the Waste. The inhabitants of Winterhold banded together in free roaming clans that scoured the snow and ice, hunting the huge bear-like brum and the swift antelope creatures called bryl, following the migration routes like the cayn, the fierce wolves that were only partially domesticated, and foraging for patches of the sturdy lichen that grew in the crevices on the wind swept slopes of the low hills. Their gods were the Ice and the Sun, the two disparate elements that composed their bitter environment. They trekked across the Ice, forever on the edge between life and death, and raised their faces to the Sun that gave off the warmth they struggled to find.
������Heat was life. And when a clan had come upon the volcanic mountain which erupted and spewed vast quantities of heat into the air, heat which was so intense that it killed more quickly than the cold, they could do little but declare the mountain sacred. It was the place where the purest element of the Sun burst through the ubiquitous Ice. As the eruptions became more and more sporadic and the volcano cooled, several of the more courageous clans left the Waste and moved onto its ice free sides. The volcanic warmth that soaked upward through the stones was cherished and used to create a friendlier environment. The presence of heat freed them from the day to day struggle for simple survival. Where before low tents of bryl hides pitched in the lees of drifts or caves in the hills provided protection from the vicious elements, now buildings began to rise, made habitable by the warmth that clung like old ghosts to the mountain.
������The royal residence of the Hold had been the first and central structure and had consisted of little more than one large room. It had been destroyed several times by the eruptions of the volcano whose power was dormant but not extinct. And every time that it was rebuilt it underwent a transformation and elaboration, growing like an organic entity upon the peak of the mountain, sprouting terraces and halls, dripping balconies and battlements, encircling the peak like some ragged crown.
������Even as the city grew and changed, so too did the Rituals, the mirror of the societal soul. For the clans that chose the Hold, survival no longer consisted merely of the quest for heat and shelter. It became a complex phenomenon with a new set of dangers and rewards. Society expanded like a crystal, putting out new and dazzling facets, but all within the carefully prescribed lines of the Rituals. Laws and customs that had once regimented existence to guarantee its continuance altered in focus but not in the strict demand for obedience. They were embellished and became a prominent and heavy jewel in the crown of the Hold. And just outside the defiant walls lay the Waste, a grim reminder of the origin of life which still poked its icy fingers into the most carefully sealed room.
������As the new culture blossomed on the steep and shifting sides of the mountain, an event occurred which threatened to invalidate the core of the Ritual bound society. The King and the Queen went to war with one another. On Winterhold, marriage was for life. The cruel climate made that a necessity. Man and woman had to remain irrevocably bound to one another to ensure the creation of the next generation. In the feeble but steady warmth of the Hold where the old stoic Rituals were either lamely applicable or wildly inappropriate, this basic tenet was sorely tested. One faction of the Interpreters of the Rituals declared the schism had occurred because of the alteration of the old ways. They ranted against the proliferation of ceremony for ceremony's sake and interpreted a dire outcome unless the King and the Queen reunited and left the disruptive environment of the mountain for the frigid purity of the Waste.
������These reactionaries were shouted down by another faction whose interpretations were more in line with the new needs and tastes of the emerging society where clan distinctions were rapidly disappearing. A solution was found, or rather made up. On the winter solstice, when the Waste winds howled their loudest about the Hold, it was declared that the King/Lord and the Queen/Lady could remain separated only if they continued the royal blood line. The sacrament had been bent but not broken.
������And so, another layer of elaboration was added to the Rituals, consisting of a complex genealogy of Consorts and Concubines to provide heirs to the respective half thrones. Consorts were chosen by the newly interpreted sections of the Rituals and sent to the Queen/Lady, while Concubines in whose veins ran the blood of the Queen were delivered to the King/Lord. All of these proxies had dribs and drabs of royal blood in their veins and they produced numerous secondary lines. The new Lords and Ladies were not bastards in the strict Ritual sense, but they were regarded with disdain by the old clan gentry. Grand circles of Lords and Ladies began to revolve slowly and majestically about either one of the royal pair to the tune of the Rituals, those meticulous and imperfect guides to survival high above the Waste.
������The Seer stood on the banks of the great river of royal blood. He was a retainer born, the product of a line developed solely to serve the royal pair, but after the schism under the direct and demanding patronage of the King/Lord alone. Characteristics of blood linked him to the former Seers, not in a firm but at least in a recognizable manner. Once in a generation one was chosen based upon a mixture of blood and capabilities of mind. To be a Seer, blood was important but the mind was vital. It had to work in a certain way. It had to retain and recall the vast quantities of memories poured into it.
������Huddled in his chair, eking out the last bit of heat from the cooling blade, he mused upon his position and that of his ancestors. His name was Sebaste. Just that, no more. No patronymic, no matronymic affixed. Simply Sebaste, like each of his predecessors. And the memories of those who came before were his and his were his own for each Sebaste was an individual continuing and adding to the collective memory. The Seers were not fixed in a progression. They floated free and were the only segment of society allowed, or perhaps forced to do so. No genealogy meant that even as they recalled and retold all of history, they had none of their own.
������Invested on the ice hard plain outside the Hold by the old King/Lord, he had felt the touch of the royal blood blade upon his head and had looked up into the narrow, bitter face of his monarch while the wind from the Waste skirled about the blade. A second after the touch had completed the investiture, the King/Lord had tossed the sword to the nearest servant and bolted for the heat of the royal Tent, leaving him alone upon the shifting snow. His skill at memory recall was not required to tell him that many of his predecessors had been left in just such a dubious position.
������From that inauspicious beginning he had gone on to serve his term in relative quiet, reporting to the present King/Lord's father and then to King/Lord Nordseth pyr Nystrin myr Olda himself on events of decades and centuries ago as if they had occurred yesterday. Crammed as he was with the ancient memories, his only legacy and his eternal curse, it was simply a matter of recalling what the man who possessed his name but not his face had seen and remembered. A word to trigger a thought that led to an emotion that coupled with the feel of a stiff winter wind upon the left side of the face of another Sebaste and he was on his way to recalling how a First Lord of an obscure Northern clan whose dead and frozen body had been sealed in his family crypt two hundred and thirty seven years ago had once, when his body had been very much alive and filled with anger at his King/Lord, had sent three of his sons in succession to attempt to assassinate the then King. A long dead yesterday became today so that King/Lord Nordseth might consider the pattern that he felt was building after one bungled assassination and the rumor of another on the way.
������Sebaste had aged in the service more rapidly than other men who possessed only a single memory. It was an occupational hazard. His mind and body were sensitized and weakened by the strain of the recollection of so many lives telescoped into him. Ostensibly to spare his strength, King/Lord Nordseth assigned a dull Second Seer to take over the routine duties of recall. He brought forth the details of past Rituals and which Lord had sat next to which Lady at which royal banquet. But Nordseth did not often utilize the backward sight of the stand-in Seer and he was never officially given the name of Sebaste. This meant that the full complement of memories was never passed on to him.
������Sebaste continued to hold the office of First Seer. It left him attached but dangling from the superstructure of royal society. While in that undefined position his health had begun to fail and he had been allowed, at the quiet but express command of the King/Lord, to move out of the drafty tent within the Camp to his somewhat more physically secure chambers in the town below the Hold. As if to offset that advantage, he had been saddled with the dubious honor of cramming useful bits of knowledge into the hard heads of a dozen potential Consorts and a score of First and Second Lordlings.
������The science and art of Winterhold were developed through and by the Rituals. Very little pure expression of either occurred since the Rituals occupied the center of social and spiritual life upon the planet. But Sebaste could delve into his memories and dredge up many useful facts and observations and abstract them somewhat from the heavy overlay of the Rituals. Some found his removed perspective intriguing; many distrusted and rejected it. As First Seer he was by default a master observer of the nuances of the political climate in the realm, both in his own age and in previous ones. He knew the personalities in power and sensed the movements up and down from his chamber on Steelstain Alley.
������He survived where others perished due to his memory filled with cautionary tales, his insight into the machinations of power, and, most importantly, by abstaining from involvement. He educated his pupils but did not ask to be carried along with them as they rose to positions of authority and prominence, for in actual fact more sank to the bottom of the River Ice than ever scaled the heights of Hold or Camp.
������The fire burned low and his thoughts followed the dying curves of the flames. His job was to make things more explicable and yet to tint it all with mystery. At the moment that he revealed, he had to mask. People wanted that; royalty craved it, for their life was a beautiful or ugly amalgam of truth and fantasy. The relative beauty or ugliness depended upon the angle of perception. From on high it all blurred out rather nicely, while from below the squalid underpinnings gave one pause.
������The fire burned lower and he had nearly dozed off when the cold crept up his legs. Sebaste stretched out from where he sat and kicked at the ash whitened block of coal. It collapsed, eaten away from within. Only glowing embers were left behind.
������"Nyls. Where is that boy? Nyls!" He raised his voice and huddled deeper into his robe.
������The sound of light footsteps on the stairs and the scrape of the chamber door, ill fitting in the damp cold, announced the arrival of the young man. Sebaste did not look up but muttered with his chin tucked into the collar of his robe. "The fire has died down. Bring up some more coal."
������Cool air fanned his cheek and he knew that Nyls stood next to his chair. Nyls moved as quietly as a shadow and often startled him by materializing at his elbow. When angered by the abrupt materialization, Sebaste scolded him as if he had pulled a boyish prank. But he was a boy quickly maturing into a man. With a gesture characteristically boyish, he brushed back the pale blonde hair that slipped over his forehead. "The coal is already up here." He said it with a smile disconcertingly mature.
������In two strides he moved to the corner where the coal was piled neatly away in a box. It appeared to be the only object in the room that had its place and was in it.
������"How was I to know? It's hidden in that corner. I may be an ex-Seer, but I'm not omniscient."
������Nyls heaved a large block out of the box and onto the fire where a shower of sparks exploded up the chimney and out across the hearth. The feeble fire licked at the black mass and then took hold, beginning to cook Nyls's face which still held a half smile.
������Sebaste peered down at him where he squatted before the fire and in a voice gently irritable said, "You smile all the time and so knowingly. What do you know?"
������"Only what you have taught me."
������"I have not taught you enough to create such a smile."
������At times, Nyls frightened the old Seer with his air of familiarity and persistent strangeness. He was dispassionate to an extreme and the cold never seemed to bother him. Even in the dead of winter when to leave any skin exposed to the open air invited frostbite, Nyls would wander down the Alley with the collar of his singlesuit open. It was not done with bravado but rather with innocence. The cold of Winterhold seemed to have entered his veins and, rather than freezing his heart, had created a natural climate for his dispassionate nature.
������In that respect, Nyls was not atypical. Sebaste had once written a short monograph upon that very theme. He believed in science over superstition, although regrettably superstition explained things that science could never seem to totally encompass. He had hypothesized that the cold pressed a person in upon himself and isolated one from another. The lack of the contact of flesh on flesh tended to create an increasingly insular society and one that, due to the unrelenting hardship of existence, expressed itself in a more and more stoical manner.
������On Winterhold heat might be life, but that way also lay madness. Sebaste had carefully researched the accounts of the bizarre effects that the small but steady amount of heat generated by the volcano had had upon the first inhabitants of the Hold. Feverish activity had burned out many, followed by debauch and waste that nearly wiped out the first generation. The stoicism that the cold induced still had its place. It was useful in dealing with the harsh realities of the political situation where the bloody infighting demanded strong wills and minds.
������Someday soon, Nyls would take his place among the Lords of his own rank who were brutal or sophisticated as the occasion demanded. He was the first son of a Second Lord, several revolutions of the great circle of blood away from the center. Perhaps he would never be involved in any of the plots hatched and carried out among the lesser Lords and Ladies as they attempted to climb a bit closer to the apex of power. But he had to be prepared and Sebaste knew that he was not like any of the other pupils that he had educated. He reminded him of himself. Distant yet sensitive, he only lived fully within his mind where the connectedness and beauty of things hurt like a physical wound but silenced the voice by that very pain.
������For that reason, Sebaste worked him harder than was warranted by the curriculum. Nyls was not athletic and possessed only a blood dagger. He had not taken up the sword and did not seem inclined to do so. If he did not have a strong arm he had great need of a sharp mind. His coldness masked a warmth and vulnerability that Sebaste knew must be guarded by clever layers of well developed armor. Dispassion could be an excellent shield if properly held.
������Nyls continued to stare into the fire. "It's not what you teach, it's how you teach it. Didn't you say that once?"
������"You know I did. Your pretence of humility is quite good. It can serve you ill or well. Watch where and when you use it."
������There was no reply but he knew that the half smile had grown by at least a quarter. "You remember my wise sayings. Do you remember what we were discussing yesterday?"
������Nyls swung about and sat down cross-legged before the fire. He did not directly face Sebaste but positioned himself so that he could watch out of the corner of his eyes. Nyls preferred this oblique approach, as if he gained more knowledge by indirection.
������He looked down for a moment and then up and began to speak in an earnest tone of voice. "It concerned the fifth King/Lord and the debauches that produced such an excess of potential Consorts that the royal line could have been kept going for a hundred years on the offspring of that one monarch."
������"Yes. Good. You do listen then."
������A wry smile from Nyls and he asked, "I know the basic facts about that period. I'm assuming that you will fill in the details?"
������The ex-Seer smiled to himself, as much at his manner as at what he was implying. "Yes. The events of that period are useful in beginning a general discussion of excesses in both power and sex."
������"Then it is an off color tale?"
������"It is the history of the royal line. How can that be off color?"
������Nyls's smile deepened and he settled his shoulders comfortably against the stonework of the hearth. Sebaste narrowed his eyes and gazed into the fire as he cast about for the thread of the lesson he was about to give.
������"Now, let's see. To begin. Praxseth pyr Zynrod myr Korsa. That was the name of the fifth King/Lord. And his Queen/Lady, known for her hardiness, was called . . ."
������"Jenra myr Bynsol pyr Zynrod. The patronymic was the same because Queen/Lady Jenra was the first offspring of her mother, the former Queen/Lady, and a Consort sent from Praxseth's own father. That entitled her to call Zynrod her male ancestor."
������"Huh? Oh, yes. Jenra. You have been listening and reading. The sexual appetite of Praxseth and the strength and perseverance of Jenra were truly amazing. Concubine after Concubine was impregnated and Consort after Consort was produced. Neither one had much in the way of intelligence or imagination, for if one had had more wits than the other the dual centers of power could have been drastically altered. As it was they merely did what they did best, over and over again. Why is a drastic shift to be avoided?"
������His long fingers wrapped about with a lace from his boot, Nyls answered without looking up. "The balance of power must be maintained to ensure the smooth functioning of societal patterns. Too much chaos or order can create an atmosphere in which a correcting influence can threaten the fabric of society. Patterns shift but must retain their integrity."
������"Wynrith's Chronicles of Blood and Power. A suitable quote. You sound like a budding scholar and like one you are a bit pedantic. Know what you intend to say and then think of how it can be said more interestingly."
������Nyls freed his fingers from the entanglement of the lace with a snap and nodded.
������"But back to the lesson at hand which concerned the abundance of potential Consorts and Concubines. It was really a glut, for the two pools tend to be nearly equal during any given reign, except for the current one. It can go too far the other way and that can be just as disturbing. In any case, the lushness of the possible royal variations, both sexual and political, put a strain on the Rituals. The Interpreters simply could not deal with the numbers and permutations thereof. But the problem, I hate to say 'vanished' in this context, was resolved when selected Consorts and Concubines began to disappear. As you well know, this disappearing act is now a time honored means of achieving balance in such matters."
������"But, Master, you have told me before that a 'disappearance' is a clumsy and dangerous way to reestablish a balance."
������"It is. It weakens the gene pool and, more critically, the ones who bring about the disappearance tend to think of themselves as operating in some Ritually blessed manner. They may develop a hunger for power. A murder they perceive as producing beneficial political results for them may satisfy that hunger or only deepen it."
������"The danger arises not so much from the highest levels but from the First or Second Lords and Ladies?"
������"Exactly. The true source of rapid and destructive change is seldom located at the top or the bottom. Both have a great deal of inertia to overcome. It comes from the middle, from the ones who feel they have something to gain from an abrupt shift in power. Change that produces lasting and beneficial results for the greatest number tends to be a slow process, no matter how quickly events connected with that process seem to occur. Slowness is in the nature of . . ."
������A loud banging from below interrupted the Seer. Nyls sprang to his feet and was through the door before he could close his mouth. "Quick. Too quick sometimes."
������He tilted his head to listen. He heard someone enter and then the sound of both the visitor and Nyls climbing the stairs. The visitor sounded heavily booted and perhaps armed. Nyls slipped quietly up the worn treads. Sebaste called out before they reached the top. "Nyls, you left the door open. There's a draft."
������"It certainly won't do to have the Seer catching cold."
������The voice belonged to man who sounded sure of himself, too sure. He rounded the edge of the open door in front of Nyls. The moment Sebaste heard the voice he knew who it was. He nodded in recognition as the man came into view.
������"My Lord Kysel pyr Gratel myr Elsyn, what brings you to the Alley?"
������The man strode into the room making a show of not closing the door. Nyls slipped in, swung to the heavy panel and shouldered it shut. Lord Kysel was dressed for the Waste. His singlesuit was fully laced up, although it did lack warmth webbing, that net of blood metal woven into or worn over the singlesuit and required for travel across the deep Waste. His hood was pulled back and the black snout of his breather mask, a necessity in the bitter cold to recirculate the warmth given off in each exhalation and to keep the cold out of the lungs, hung about his neck. His right arm was sheathed from shoulder to wrist in the light armor which wielders of the blood blade use to protect their fighting arm and which distributes the heat given off by the activated blade through a wire of blood metal which runs up along the arm to keep it warm and limber. And the well worn hilt of the blade itself protruded above his right shoulder. The majority of swordsmen wore the blade strapped across their backs, for in that position it provided the body with the maximum amount of heat.
������Kysel moved to the center of the room and his eyes roved about the myriad objects covering its surfaces. His look was that of the professional warrior ascertaining the safety of the room he had just entered. None of the clutter amounted to a pile big enough to hide anyone, but Kysel's hand hovered near his right shoulder as if he were warming it on the hilt.
������"Sebaste, my old teacher, I came to chat with you of this and that."
������"You can't do it pacing about the middle of the room. You are quite aware there is no danger here."
������"Ask your pupils and see if they agree with you. Eh?" Kysel turned to Nyls at this. Nyls smiled politely and turned away. Kysel frowned at his thin back and kept his hand near his shoulder.
������"Come and sit down, my Lord."
������But Kysel continued to stare at Nyls's back. "Nyls? He called you Nyls."
������A few paces from the table Nyls stopped and, still not looking at the intent Lord, said quietly, "Yes."
������Kysel raised his head but kept his gaze on Nyls. "Nyls pyr Gyreth myr Sofl? Is that your name?"
������"Your father is that scum of a Second Lord whose domain is the swamp along the River Ice. A follower of the Queen/Lady. And a coward." The last word was spit out.
������Nyls spun, his eyes frosted over with hate. And as he spun, Kysel moved as quick as thought. His blood blade slithered from its sheath and the point flashed into line with Nyls's throat and held there with deadly steadiness.
������"Kysel!" The Seer shot from his chair.
������As if conjured from the air, a blood dagger appeared in Nyls's white knuckled fist. The two blades hovered, tracing small circles of tension. The eyes of the two antagonists were locked upon each other, waiting for the tiny sign which indicated a move was about to be made.
������"Kysel! Nyls! Stop it!"
������Nyls's eyes flickered toward the Seer where he stood gripping the arm of the chair. He filled his lungs with air and let it out slowly before he took a step back. The back of his legs bumped against the edge of the table. Slowly he moved his dagger around until it hung over the cluttered surface. He set it down with a thud.
������The point of Kysel's blade dropped and he chuckled deep in his throat. "A brave one. Not to be lightly insulted. I do believe he would have died without crying out."
������Still holding his blade naked and his body toward Nyls, Kysel turned his head to Sebaste who quivered by his chair. "Just a little test. Think of it that way. You tested me often enough. I'm just returning the favor in kind."
������He then raised the blood blade before his eyes and tipped it over his shoulder and into the leather sheath. It whispered and clicked into place. Nyls left the table and walked stiffly to the window. His arms held straight down at his sides, he stared out to where the snow now fell heavily into the Alley.
������"My Lord Kysel, please do come and sit down. My chamber is not the place for violence."
������"I most humbly apologize," said Kysel, a slight smile on his lips.
������Sebaste let go of the arm of his chair and flexed the cramped fingers. He shuffled about the chair and sat. To relieve the tension in the room he asked a mundane question. "What identity did you assume this time to slip into the Hold?"
������Sensing he could provoke no further confrontations, Kysel sauntered over to the fire and draped himself over the other chair.
������"A tried and true one: a dealer in Ritual drugs. I've done so well with it this past year that perhaps I should consider giving up the blade for an account book."
������"You are no merchant, my Lord, and never will be."
������"True." Kysel glanced back at Nyls who stood woodenly before the window. "Your new protege has some fire in him. Is he also clever?"
������"Yes. He's an avid learner. He's not as keen as you on military history and the more brutal aspects of politics, but then I don't believe I've ever seen anyone who had such an innate understanding of the more violent machinations of power. You were born to it."
������"Praise from the master? That's more than I could have hoped for." Kysel sat back in the chair but held himself stiffly due to the length of the blood blade crossing his back. He grinned in a self-satisfied manner.
������The air in the chamber had warmed by several degrees. Due to his blood disease, Sebaste was extremely sensitive to the slightest change in temperature and could unerringly locate the source. The source of the heat in this case was Kysel's blade. It had hit the Seer's face the moment the blade cleared the scabbard. It was significantly more heat than a dormant blade would emanate, which meant the blade had been in contact with blood sometime within the last few hours. As Sebaste leaned forward to bathe his face in the warmth that still clung to the trimly armored Lord, he knew it had been a great deal of blood.
������"And, my Lord, what do you want of me?"
������"I do not interfere in any way with the plots currently underway, sanguine or otherwise. That's the secret to living as long as I have. You know that."
������"Within limits I will provide that."
������His shiny black shoulder armor puddled the trembling light from the fire as Kysel stretched out his booted feet before him and smiled through his neatly trimmed beard. Kysel had a vast repertoire of smiles. This one was intended to placate and cajole. He had been one of those pupils who had left the Seer's chamber to climb inch by inch closer to the true center of power. He was a schemer, but not a consistently clever one, tending to connive his way up to a certain point and then attempt to win through to the end by sheer force.
������Once, during a particularly grueling test of coordination of mental and physical abilities under the tutelage of the Seer, he had almost gone too far. The confrontation which he had just engineered reminded Sebaste of it. The test had required that Kysel move constantly while the Seer fired questions as well as objects at him. He had to catch the object and return it while he answered the question in a reasoned manner. At the height of the dual juggling act when he had seemed so sure of himself, even jeering at his teacher to go faster, Sebaste had hurled a goblet and a plate at him and had asked him why he thought he was good enough to rule anyone. Sebaste had known that it was neither the goblet nor the plate but the question which had shook him. Kysel had let the objects clatter into a corner while as if by magic his blood dagger had appeared in his trembling hand.
������A blistering stare and one word had been enough to stop him back then. Sebaste no longer possessed that degree of control. He would never forget the look of confused intent which had crystallized into icy hatred in his eyes as he had retrieved the goblet and the plate, mumbling a surly response. Back then Kysel's schemes for control had foundered because he did not see the totality of the plots he had masterminded. And, due to his overconfidence, his hasty constructions did not stand up in the long run. Sebaste sensed that Kysel had not changed much.
������"The old Consort has disappeared." This news was delivered in a flat tone of voice with a quick glance from under his eyebrows.
������Sebaste did not rise to the bait but instead replied matter-of-factly, "I expected as much."
������"Why?" Kysel did manage to disguise the incredulity in his voice.
������"He was old and useless. I believe the word is impotent. That impotence was useful, up to a point."
������Kysel shook his head in genuine admiration. "You know so much about the juggling's of power, even from here. That always impressed me, how you could know without appearing to have contact with anyone of consequence."
������"And here I thought that I had taught you so well. It's the people beneath the summit of power who know what is truly going on. The ones at the top can see nothing but the heads of the masses."
������"Impressive. Very impressive."
������"A little knowledge can be very impressive. And it can be dangerous."
������"Yes. The old Consort knew just a little too much and became just a little too useless. A dangerous combination."
������"Certainly a case in point."
������"No doubt he will be found someday in mid-summer." Kysel looped a glance at the Seer. He stared briefly back at him. Suppressing yet another smile from his collection, Kysel looked as if he could have rubbed his hands together in secret glee.
������Sebaste narrowed his eyes and raised one eyebrow in a stern expression. "You killed him. I could tell by the amount of heat your blade is giving off. And now you want me to compliment you on your murderous abilities?"
������Kysel suddenly sat up straighter. In a tone of cautious anger he said, "Now, now, Sebaste, nothing so crude."
������"But I suppose that the murder was gracefully done. Politics on Winterhold depends on murder. It is an accepted fact. I have no particular qualms about its use. The appointment to the position of Consort is made for life. However, once a man is appointed his life expectancy drops dramatically. And, in some cases, that violent alteration of the course of nature is necessary. Bad choices are made. They must be corrected."
������"Exactly. A correction of the course."
������"I don't relish the fact that the murderer boasts about his exploit to me though."
������Kysel tugged at a loose lace on his shoulder armor and assumed a hurt look. "Your pupil merely wished to report to his old master."
������"Don't be coy, Kysel. It doesn't suit you."
������He chuckled and leaned forward to rest his elbows, one in black armor and one in gray leather, on his knees. He stared into the fire that was once again dying. "The Rituals demand another Consort be chosen once the death of the old one is proven. That's merely a matter of time after a hint of where the body might be found is dropped in the proper quarters. I have my own opinions about who will be chosen."
������Studying the face of Kysel, a mask of perfect calm, perfectly deadly, the Seer was silent. The true purpose of the visit was about to be revealed. Steeped as he was in the circumlocution that characterized court politics, Kysel's rashness had been tempered by his walk along the tightrope of power. As little as a year ago he would have blurted out his intention upon first entering the room.
������Kysel poked the dissolving chunk of coal with a booted foot and said quietly, "Gerred pyr Nordseth myr Phylla is the likely candidate. At least, that is who Nordseth has mentioned once or twice in passing."
������"The King/Lord lives by the Rituals. He is not an Interpreter."
������"He has no need to interpret when he can manipulate."
������"King/Lord Nordseth is a master of the patient plot."
������"And I stand by him and do his dirty work and get nowhere. He will regret it someday. They all will." Kysel punctuated his speech with a vicious kick at the crumbling coal. He then drew a deep breath and glared at the embers as if he could set them blazing again.
������"You want to know if Gerred will be chosen as the next Consort?" Sebaste spoke in a low voice designed to soothe Kysel's erratic temperament. In the past such quiet words of command had sometimes been more effective than a rap across the knuckles. When Kysel had risen to the attack, he had often been confounded by subtlety that had seemed to yield to his will but which in reality had cajoled him along paths that he had resisted.
������"I am not an Interpreter. The Rituals are an ever changing labyrinth. Even if I had the proper volumes of law, I sincerely doubt I could predict the exact choice."
������"Now don't you be coy, Sebaste. You know that the Rituals are more often than not a way of giving divine justification to a political decision. You do interpret the shiftings of power. What do they tell you?"
������The Seer paused to consider the situation. Kysel would not be lightly put off. In any case, he was not asking for anything but confirmation of his own assumptions which were well grounded in the intimate knowledge of the bloody web of intrigue that bound the two courts together and in which he played a pivotal role. Reaching down to pick up the discarded dagger, Sebaste placed the point on the tip of his finger and twirled the hilt as it balanced there. The point sharply indented but did not break the skin.
������"I will not be telling you anything that you don't already know or haven't guessed at. Yes, I believe Gerred will be the next in line. His youth and energy would seem to point to a new stage in the eternal war waged between the two halves of the royal family. Only once before has a Consort with such potential for sexual and political rejuvenation been chosen and then the crown was almost united. Almost, but not quite. Instead, it ended in a bloody conflict. Open war broke out between Hold and Camp."
������"You taught Gerred. Is he smart enough and strong enough to gain power, either by reuniting the crown or by beginning an entirely new reign?"
������"He is intelligent but I think disinclined to either scheme or cut this way to a position of strength. He is aware of what transpires about him but much of his energy is focussed inward. It manifests itself as an intense introspection that sometimes appears to be thoughtlessness. Now I have not seen him for a year, but I believe he could claim much power as his own. Whatever he consciously decides, he will be hard pressed to avoid becoming only a catalyst, one bound simply to bring about some violent disruption."
������"Good. I long for action. I am sick to death of this sneaking around and plotting in dark corners. And if this disruption you talk about does come to pass, perhaps someone can go outside of the damned Rituals and really reunite the crown."
������The spinning of the blade fractured the firelight, captured Sebaste's eyes and disengaged his mind from the immediate conversation. The Seer knew only too well of Kysel's ambition to set the spark that would burn away the rot. Quite simply, he wanted to be King/Lord and rule with the Queen/Lady beneath a whole crown. Even as a stripling he had boasted of his ambitions, tinged then with Ritualistic justification. He had felt that it was his destiny.
������But what had been merely a glorious dream had grown closer and closer to reality. Immersed in the violent environment surrounding the courts, he had grown up quickly and his dreams had not died but rather had been tempered by his own brand of cynical practicality. He had fought and schemed his way to a niche of power achievable without the ultimate benediction of royal blood. Kysel might not be clever enough to accomplish his grand design in its entirety, but he was dangerous enough to create an upheaval out of which almost anything could emerge.
������With a sudden slap of his hands upon his knees, Kysel stood up and kicked once more at the chunk of coal. It shattered and sent a gust of flame curling up the chimney. In three long strides he was at the door.
������"Good-by, old teacher. Thank you for imparting a bit of your wisdom to me. I will use it to the best advantage I can."
������"Wisdom comes from within, Lord Kysel. I have given you a crumb of information. Watch what you do with it."
������"I'm always watching. Always." Abruptly he swung about to face Nyls who still leaned near the window. Nyls jerked and scowled at the grinning Lord. "I'm watching you, Second Lordling. Don't doubt that for a moment. Perhaps you will come to see me when you enter the greater world of the courts. Perhaps we could help one another. And if not, well, the Rituals decree all, eh?"
������Nyls looked him squarely in the face and said nothing. "A deep one. Ha." And with the staccato laugh, Kysel ducked out through the door and closed it heavily after him.
������As the rapid sound of his booted feet on the stairs died away and the fierce blaze in the hearth died down, Nyls drifted over to where the Seer sat.
������"Lord Kysel sounds very sure of himself. You've told me that that is when a man should be most careful."
������The Seer thrust the dagger into the arm of the chair where it quivered with the force of the impact. "He is not a careful man. He is frustrated. And with the situation as volatile as it is, with Nordseth no doubt choosing, or rather causing to be chosen, a Consort who is the most potent in the past fifty years, and I mean potent in various ways, there is certain to be blood spilled. And on Winterhold, blood is both life and death."
������Sebaste frowned and gazed up at Nyls. The half smile no longer curled his lips. Somehow that disturbed him more than any of Kysel's blustering. Gripping the hilt of the embedded dagger he tried to pull it free of the wood. It resisted his efforts and his hand fell away from it.
������"Blood, my boy. The blood of life and death."