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The Sekoi was huddled miserably among the cushions, gnawing at its nails. It gave Galen a bitter look. “It’s no use. They won’t give it up.”

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Galen spun back. “Explain. Tell us!”

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“It concerns the Great Hoard.”

Immediately the owl made a small chirring noise. The female Karamax went to it and spoke, then stroked its plumage. “For hundreds of years my people have collected gold. Your Order and the Watch have always wondered where it went. Some thieves”—its glance flickered to Marco—“have even tried to find it. No one ever has. The purpose of the Hoard is a hidden one, but because you are the Crow, Galen Harn, and this is the end of the age, I will tell you what it is.”

It stepped away from the owl, slipped its mask back on, and moved to the center of the Seven, sitting complacently on the silk cushions.

“The purpose of the Hoard is to buy Anara.”

Outside, the wind gave a great roar. The canvas billowed, slapping against its ropes and pegs. Raffi’s sense-lines swung with it, dizzying, a huge aftershock.

“Buy?” Solon whispered.

Galen’s stare was dark and even. “From the Makers!” he said.

“Exactly.” Another of the Karamax was speaking now. “The world was ours once. When the Makers return, it will be cleansed, and we will ransom it with an enormous treasure.”

Solon looked at Galen. He seemed too astonished to speak. Finally he plunged his hands through his silver hair. “You really believe this? That the Makers will . . . sell the world?”

“Yes.”

“But you have no idea . . .”

“And you have never seen the Great Hoard.” Behind its mask the creature’s eyes were bright with greed. “It holds more riches, keeper, than you could ever imagine. It will buy the Sekoi their world back. And every fragment of it, every ring, every coin, every little gold circle, will be needed.” It looked at the other six, who nodded. “The Coronet will not be given up. That is our decision.”

“No!” Solon threw his arms out. “Those who die . . . !”

“Must die.”

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The wind screamed. For a moment Raffi thought Solon would fling himself to his knees in complete despair but Galen gripped him gently and turned him, small energies rippling around his hands.

He looked down at Raffi and Carys.

There was nothing left to say.

25

I had betrayed my people and they me. I was sick with shame and could not show it.

Sorrows of Kest

T
HEY WERE GIVEN A SMALL TENT but none of them could sleep.

Outside, another squall raged, sleeting in through the entrance, hissing out the fire. It was Solon who seemed most devastated by events; the Archkeeper usually cheered everyone up, made small teasing jokes, but he was drawn and white now, as if some great pain had struck him. And the Sekoi had gone, stalking off into the rain.

Galen took down the lamp, spread the awen-beads carefully around it, and began the Litany. His voice was grave but even, and the familiar Maker-words seemed slowly to take some chill out of their hearts and the damp night. Raffi joined in, and after a while Solon murmured the responses, as if he clutched at them for comfort.

Carys sat in a corner, watching. Marco cleaned and loaded his crossbow.

When the prayer was over, the silence seemed worse, until the curtain was whipped back and the Sekoi ducked in.

They stared at it. It was drenched, its brindled gray fur dark and sopping, water trickling down its neck and sleeves.

“Galen, I’m sorry,” it said, its voice strangled.

“Not your fault.” The Relic Master stood, his dark hair brushing the tent roof. He smiled sourly. “I told you a long time ago I knew the Sekoi had their own ways.”

“I didn’t know we had it! I swear!”

Raffi had never seen the creature look so wretched. It crumpled and sat, arms around knees. All its airy confidence had been knocked right out of it; it even looked thinner, its fur scraggy.

Galen sat beside it, his hooked face half in shadow.

“I believe you,” he said softly. “But do you think too that all Starmen should be left to die?”

The creature dragged in a breath. When it spoke its voice was reluctant. “We’ve always been taught so. Most of us are not interested in the fate of Starmen.” It looked up. “Neither was I, once.”

“And now?”

It gave an exasperated hiss. “Don’t torment me. You know I would help you if I could. But . . .”

“You can. Take us to the Great Hoard.”

Raffi drew his breath in. The Sekoi sat quite still. Small raindrops dripped from its fur. Then it said, “I knew you would ask this.”

“But you still came back.” Galen caught hold of its arm. Blue sparks flickered from his fingers. “If we don’t use the Coronet the weather will overwhelm us all. The Makers will find no one alive. And even if the Sekoi survive, what use is a ruined world?”

The creature pulled away, utterly miserable. “You don’t know what you’re asking. I can’t.”

“We need you,” Solon pleaded. “Please!”

“It’s against all I believe in!” The creature’s voice was agonized, its eyes dark slits. “How can I take outsiders to the Hoard? How can I take a thief and a spy and three keepers to our most holy place? You’re asking too much, Galen!”

The Relic Master sat still, though his shadow swung as the lamp moved. Raffi felt the power of the Crow pent up inside him, the tingle of it on the skin.

“But that’s what we did.” Galen’s voice was harsh. “We took you to Sarres. The spy and the thief and the Sekoi. We trusted you.”

The Sekoi winced. “Don’t ask me.”

“But I do ask you.” Suddenly Galen had both of its wrists tight; the crackle of energy sparked up around all of them. Marco yelped. Raffi sat breathless with tension. “Take us there! We’ll take nothing! But we must hurry. We must go now!”

For a long moment the Sekoi was still. It closed its eyes in something like despair.

Then it pushed him away, stood up, and brushed the water from its fur with both long hands.

“I make myself an outcast by this,” it muttered.

THEY RAN THROUGH THE CAMP, stumbling in the raging squall. Above them the awnings were wild screaming flickers, torn and frayed. All the owls were gone, every Sekoi undercover, and that was their only chance, Raffi thought, his sense-lines swept away. He crashed against Carys, who hissed with annoyance.

The noise was incredible. Ducking under sodden hangings, the Sekoi led them swiftly, Galen with Solon close behind, Marco last, watching their backs, bow firmly braced. Carys glanced at it enviously. “We should have found mine!” she screamed in Raffi’s ear.

Purple silk plastered against his face; he tore it off. “No time!”

The roar of the storm covered them; it was a weight, a lid of blackness lit with low flickers of lightning.

At the camp’s edge the Sekoi paused. “Run now!” it yelled.

They were in the open. They raced into darkness between the last tents, stumbling over tussocky grass, fleeing the relentless deafening flap of silk, climbing hard, up and up as if into the storm-cloud. Breathless and soaked, Raffi slipped, grabbing handfuls of wet grass. At the top they glanced back. In a glimmer of lightning the camp was there and then gone.

The Sekoi stared down at it, face drenched and blank. Solon patted it kindly on the shoulder. “All will be well, my friend.”

The Sekoi looked past him at Carys. “Will it?” it said coldly.

For an hour they hurried through the storm. Galen was relentless and would allow few rests, but even Solon was anxious to keep going.

“How far is this place?” Marco gasped as they crashed down through a sheshorn copse.

The Sekoi glared. “Never mind.”

Marco laughed, hefting the bow. “Scared I’ll find my way back one day?”

“My son, there may not be many more days if we fail,” Solon muttered, stumbling. The bald man grabbed him.

“Keep your feet, Holiness.”

Carys turned, looking for Raffi. He was far behind; she waited, anxious. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.”

But he wasn’t. It had come again, that flicker of evil. Something dark, right among them. Something he had seen once before, a shape that still lurked at the back of his mind, in the corners of his nightmares.

Carys looked at him hard, then said, “Tell me later. Come on.”

The storm faded. After a while there was only rain and wind and then even the rain died, and above the trees they saw patches of sky glinting with stars. They ran down steep, rutted tracks hollowed by the passage of a thousand Sekoi-carts. It was hard to keep their footing in the puddles and mud; Galen slipped on his stiff leg and swore. Splashing through a stream they plunged back into a fir wood, the trunks so black and closely set that even the Sekoi lost its way and only Galen’s hurried conversation with the trees got them out.

An hour later, as they climbed a steep hillside, the moons came out, all seven, with Lar very low to the east. Raffi gazed up at them in relief, but Carys grabbed his coat.

“What’s that?”

On the ridge above them a vast dim shape rose against the stars. It was crouching down, and for a second Raffi thought it some monster of Maar, gigantic and watchful, one arm flung out, until the sense-lines told him it had no life. It was stone.

“Climb up to it,” the Sekoi muttered.

They pulled themselves up wearily, under the colossus. In the darkness its dim eyes seemed to watch them come, a vast kneeling Sekoi, crowned with silver, its hand pointing away over the hilltop.

In its shadow they paused for breath. Marco stared up in amazement. “So there were cat-kings, once.” He moved out of the Sekoi’s hearing and said quietly, “Can you credit their crazy ideas? To buy the planet! How can they believe that?”

“Faith is not about reason,” Solon said gravely. “It’s another thing altogether.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

Solon rubbed his muddy hands in distress. “My son, you may surprise us all yet.”

Galen was looking back; beside him Raffi knew he was sensing deep into soil and stone.

“Are they coming?”

“Not yet.”

“But you can’t feel the Sekoi,” Carys said.

“I can feel any disturbance of the trees. There’s none as yet.”

She looked around. “We ought to set up a few traps. Slow them down.”

Galen smiled, mirthless. “Training dies hard, Carys. Let them come.”

“Even the Watch?” Seeing his look, she moved closer, her voice low. “I ran into them, a patrol, back at the observatory. They’re following us. Someone’s getting information straight to Maar, Galen, and I don’t understand who or how.”

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He was still a moment. Then he said, “I know.”

The path led right under the cat-king’s body, a trail beaten around its vast knee and over a half-buried foot. Marco watched the serene face nervously, all the way.

Over the hill the land dropped. Now they could see other colossi spaced out over a wide plain, some sitting, some standing like grim sentinels, each pointing the way to an immense and bizarre ruin far off on the horizon, a dark outline that troubled Raffi’s nerves.

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Slowly, the moons climbed above them. At their fastest pace it took over two hours to cross the plain, and as they came to the last statue the Sekoi stopped and doubled up, clutching its side.

“Need a rest,” it gasped.

Marco already had his boot off and was rubbing a sore foot; Carys and Solon drank from the water flasks. Unwinding the scarf from his neck Raffi shuddered, and stopped.

Snow had begun to fall. Through it he saw at last the image of the Margrave. It loomed out of his memory, a hateful shadowy outline turning toward him, its dry reptilian whisper mocking him.

“Raffi.”

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Coronet

He couldn’t move. He was sweating, felt utterly sick. “Raffi?” Galen caught his arm. “What is it?”

Dazed, he looked around. Snow fell between them. Galen’s voice was oddly quiet. “What did you see?”

He moistened dry lips. “Him. The Margrave.”

Galen crouched. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure!”

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“Keep your voice down.”

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Raffi rubbed his face anxiously with both hands. Then he whispered. “It’s here, isn’t it? With us?”

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“Galen?” The Sekoi’s tall shadow darkened them. “We must hurry.”