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Day followed day. Rhavas never stopped exclaiming when fogs and rain came to Skopentzana even in the summertime. "Anybody would know you came from Videssos the city, very holy sir," Zautzes said when they met by Stavrakios' statue one misty morning.

The prelate frowned. Someone else had said something like that to him not long before. He couldn't recall who, or why. Not being able to recall annoyed him, as it always did. "What is the news?" he asked the prefect. His breath smoked when he spoke. That would never have happened in summer in the capital, either.

"Not much," Zautzes answered. "The only thing I'm sure I can truthfully tell you is that Stylianos hasn't given up the fight. The war goes on."

"Too bad." Rhavas meant that with every fiber of his being. "I'd hoped he would see he can't win and give up the fight."

"Even if he does see he can't win, he may not give up," Zautzes pointed out. "What can a rebel expect if he tries to surrender? The sword, little else. Maybe exile to a monastery if he's very, very lucky. With that to look forward to, why not hope for a lucky break?"

Rhavas frowned again, not because he didn't agree but because he did. "If Stylianos' followers see he cannot win, they'll abandon him," he said. "Then he'll have no choice but surrendering or trying to disappear."

"No doubt you're right," Zautzes said. "It hasn't happened yet, though—or if it has, I haven't heard of it."

"Nor I." Rhavas tried hard not to let his irritation show. News came slowly to Skopentzana. It was too far from places that mattered to expect anything else. The prelate knew as much. He'd understood it when he came here; it was one of the reasons he'd been so much less than delighted to come here. Through all the years since, it had bothered him less often than he'd expected it to. Of course, those years had been quiet. The Empire of Videssos was quiet no more.

"One good thing . . ." Zautzes said.

"I'd gladly hear anything good," Rhavas said. "What is it?"

"That the Halogai are quiet," the prefect answered. "You always worry that a rebel down on his luck will send lieutenants over the border and bring barbarians back into the Empire." Rhavas had seen that he wasn't a particularly pious man. The eparch sketched the sun-circle even so, to turn aside the evil omen.

Matching the gesture, Rhavas said, "What of the Khamorth? Stylianos always had more to do with the nomads than with the wolves of the north."

Zautzes looked west, toward the broad plains of Pardraya. Again, Rhavas did the same thing. No Videssian could say with certainty how far those plains ran, or what lay at the far end of them—if they had a far end. Writers with more imagination than sense peopled the distant steppe with dog-faced men and web-footed men who lived in the rivers and men with no heads but with faces in the middle of their chests. Rhavas didn't believe in any of those prodigies, but he couldn't prove they were only imaginary.

Slowly, the eparch said, "I can hope he wouldn't want to bring them into the fight. When you deal with Khamorth, you're always liable to get more than you bargained for."

Now Rhavas glanced toward the sun, which was trying to burn its way through the morning mist. The disc was dim enough to let him look at it without hurting his eyes. Just as it had more radiance than it was showing, so the steppe nomads could indeed cause more trouble than those who tried to deal with them often looked for. One clan chief, or two, or three, might sign their men up as mercenaries. That was all right. But if they found the pickings good, more nomads might follow, and still more, until Videssos had to try to drive them back beyond the frontiers. That had happened more than once since Stavrakios' day.

"How much of the Empire would be nothing but grazing land if the Khamorth had their way?" Rhavas asked.

"If the Khamorth had their way? Why, all of it, very holy sir," Zautzes answered.

Again, he was bound to be right. He was telling an unpleasant amount of truth this morning. Rhavas' gaze went to the great statue of Stavrakios. The conqueror seemed ready to go to war on the instant—or he would have if a pigeon hadn't perched on the palm of his left hand.

"Well, we wouldn't want our lives to be dull all the time, would we?" Rhavas inquired.

"My personal life? No," Zautzes said. "My professional life? My professional life is a very different story. If nothing happened in my professional life, that would prove I was doing an excellent job."

Rhavas raised an eyebrow, but the eparch plainly wasn't joking. Rhavas still had many things he wanted to accomplish in his professional life. That book Digenis the scribe was copying was only the beginning. He still aspired to more scholarship, and to donning the patriarchal regalia one day. Poor Zautzes! He had no hope of rising further. He would never become a provincial governor or a minister in Videssos the city. Torpor and inactivity were the most he had to look forward to.

Fortunately, the eparch had no idea what Rhavas was thinking. Long years in and around the imperial court had taught the prelate how not to let his face show what went on behind it—a talent that had its uses in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, too. Zautzes said, "I don't think we need to worry much about the plainsmen. Stylianos knows better than to summon them, and, ah, they know better than to come into Videssos on their own."

The little catch in his voice gave him away. He'd started to say that the rebel had taught them not to come into Videssos on their own—that or something very much like it. He'd checked himself, but not quite soon enough. Rhavas' somber countenance hid a smile now. Zautzes had just shown why he'd never rise higher than eparch.

"If the lord with the great and good mind is kind to us, soon this civil war will be gone and forgotten," Rhavas said. "Then we won't have to worry about an irruption of nomads off the steppe."

"May it be so, very holy sir." No matter what Zautzes thought, he couldn't very well disagree with the Avtokrator's cousin. And no Videssian, regardless of whether he favored Maleinos or Stylianos, could possibly want the Khamorth rampaging through the Empire. As the mist slowly cleared, Zautzes also looked up to the statue of Stavrakios. "He'd make mincemeat out of anybody who tried to cause trouble for the Empire."

"Wouldn't he just?" Rhavas agreed. The conqueror had had a driving intensity no Avtokrator since had been able to match. He'd beaten the Makuraners in the far west and sacked Mashiz, their capital. He'd smashed the Khamorth at the edge of the steppe. And his fleets of war galleys had trounced the Halogai again and again. No other Videssian ruler had given himself over to war so completely.

"But he's not here," Zautzes said, which was another obvious truth. "We have to do the best we can on our own."

"We can. We will. And it will be good enough." Rhavas spoke confidently. The eparch nodded.

* * *

Men and women lingered in the narthex of Skopentzana's chief temple after the divine liturgy. Husbands met wives descending from the women's gallery. Brothers met sisters. And young men and young women not formally related to one another got to look as much as they wanted, which didn't happen many other places in Videssian towns.

Rhavas knew all this, knew it and paid hardly more attention to it than to the air he breathed. His duty in the narthex was talking about the sermon and, with the more prosperous members of the congregation, about donations. This wasn't one of his favorite parts of the job. It was, he knew, one of the reasons he'd been sent to Skopentzana. If he couldn't do it here, he wouldn't be able to do it at the High Temple, either.

By now, he was good enough at it. He listened with half an ear, nodding in all the right places, as a plump fur merchant who'd got rich trading with the Halogai went on and on about the sermon. Like so many Videssians, the fur trader fancied himself a theologian. Like a lot of them, he was mistaken.

When Rhavas first came to Skopentzana, he would have pointed that out in biting detail. No more. He wanted the locals to stay happy with him. If they were happy with him, they were likelier to stay happy with the Avtokrator Maleinos, too. Skopentzana had no garrison inside it, not anymore. A citizens' rising could bring it over to Stylianos' side. Anything Rhavas could do to stop that, he would.

A flash of gilt hair distracted him from the long-winded fur trader. That was probably lucky for the merchant, who was drifting so close to out-and-out heresy that Rhavas had an ever harder time holding his tongue. Videssians were a swarthy folk, almost all of them brunets. Ingegerd always stood out among them.

"Excuse me, if you'd be so kind," Rhavas told the trader, and stepped away for the man had a chance to answer. He nodded to Himerios' wife. "I hope the sermon pleased you."

"As always, you speak well," Ingegerd answered seriously. "I still find it strange to have the good god's ways and powers spoken of so openly. In Halogaland, the gods are the gods. Everyone knows what they can do, but no one talks about it very much."

"This is not Halogaland, I am glad to say," Rhavas told her. "We want to know Phos' will as well as we can. This lets us precisely follow it."

"So you say. But I sometimes think you Videssians spend so much time arguing about the lord with the great and good mind for no better reason than that you like to argue." Ingegerd's smile took most of the sting from her words—most, but not all.

Rhavas might have got angry at her if he hadn't had the same thought himself while listening to the fur trader. "We will argue about almost anything," he admitted, "but some things are more important than others." He paused for a moment. "I hope you are doing well?"

"As well as I can be, with Himerios away," she answered. Those startling blue eyes darkened, as if a shadow had crossed across the sun. "But I have no word of him. All I can do is wait and worry."

"And pray," Rhavas said stiffly.

"And pray," Ingegerd agreed. "But so many prayers go up to Phos. Who can say whether he will have time to bother with mine? Will you pray for Himerios, too, please? You are a very holy man, very holy sir, so the good god is likelier to listen to you than he is to me."

Is she mocking me? Rhavas wondered. The playful way she used his title suggested that she was. She sounded serious, though. He wanted to scratch his head. He didn't understand her. He didn't understand women generally, but he also didn't understand how thoroughly he didn't understand. With her, unlike the general case, his incomprehension was clear to him. Voice gruff, he said, "I will pray for him."

Ingegerd dropped a curtsy. "I thank you, very holy sir." She swept away, majestic as a ship under full sail.

As Rhavas watched her go, behind him the fur trader grumbled out loud to a friend or perhaps to his wife: "Calls himself a holy man—expects other people to call him a holy man, by the good god—but he'd sooner talk to that foreign chippy than he would to me. Oh, yes! I'll bet he would! And that's not all he'd sooner do to her, either, or I miss my guess."

Slowly, Rhavas turned. He remembered the mosaicwork image of Phos stern in judgment in the great dome of the High Temple. No mere mortal could rest easy under that magnificent, unforgiving gaze. At the moment, he himself might have been its incarnation. Under his eyes, blood drained from the fur trader's face, leaving it corpse-pale. "Did you say something that had to do with me?" Rhavas inquired into sudden, vast silence.

He waited, clinically curious: how much nerve did the trader have? Enough to challenge him to his face? He didn't think so, and he proved right. Still pale and frightened, the man shook his head, muttering, "No, very holy sir, not me. You, uh, you must have heard wrong."

"Must I?" Rhavas gravely considered the notion. "Well, I suppose it is possible. Not likely, mind you, but possible."

He didn't quite call the fur trader a liar, but he didn't missed by much, either. The man scuttled out of the narthex, scuttled out of the temple. Rhavas would have been amazed if he ever came here to worship again. The prelate dared hope the man would go to some other temple to offer up praises to Phos. Rhavas didn't want to swing the trader's soul toward Skotos.

After starting to spit in rejection of the dark god, Rhavas arrested the gesture. The rest of the people watching him would think he used it to condemn the fur trader. Rhavas didn't want that; the man had done a perfectly good job of condemning himself.

Later—much later—Rhavas would wonder whether that moment hadn't been an odd sort of watershed. He would search his memory to see if he hadn't felt some small premonition. And, search as he would, he would come up empty again and again. He hadn't known. He hadn't even suspected. What sort of man could see into the future? A soothsayer? Yes . . . and no. Rhavas remembered too well what had happened to Eladas. If the man hadn't frightened himself to death . . .

For some reason, no one else that morning had much in the way of queries for Rhavas. The narthex, in fact, emptied with startling speed. A priest smiled at the prelate and said, "You should put the fear of Phos in them more often, very holy sir. We'd have more time to ourselves that way."

Rhavas looked through him, as he'd looked through the fur trader. "You tend to your business, Oriphas. I will tend to the temple's business."

Where the trader had turned white, Oriphas turned red. That showed a bit more spirit, anyhow. The priest's chin lifted in pride. "I meant no harm, very holy sir," he said. "Just—a bit of a joke, you might say."

"You might say so, perhaps," Rhavas replied, and Oriphas went redder yet. The junior priest bowed, as if to say he gave respect even where it might not be deserved. Rhavas bowed back, as if to say he cared not a fig for Oriphas' opinions—which he didn't. Seeing as much, Oriphas stalked away in a snit.

Sometimes Rhavas' temper would stay kindled for a long time. Sometimes, indeed, he never forgave at all. Here, though, he let out a long sigh. By then, the narthex was altogether empty, so there was no one to hear it. He knew he would have to find some way to come to terms with the priest. Oriphas hadn't been doctrinally incorrect, only impolite. If Skotos held power over every man who was impolite, then how few would cross the Bridge of the Separator and attain to Phos' heaven? Very few, Rhavas feared.

And if that was so . . . A logically trained mind pursued an idea wherever it led. If only a handful attained to Phos' heaven—so what? Would they not be all the more special for being an elect?

Rhavas liked the idea. But he frowned again, at himself this time. Was it theologically sound? Could Phos triumph in the end if most souls tumbled down to the eternal ice? How?

The prelate sighed. The alternative seemed to be making most men better than they really were. That was what the lord with the great and good mind always sought to do. What sort of success even the good god found . . .

Skotos, on the other hand, tried to make men worse than they really were. When Rhavas was in a gloomy mood, he thought the dark god found altogether too much success. When he felt more cheerful, he reminded himself that mere men were only men, and that they were not and could not be perfect. They did have to try, and—he supposed—most of them did most of the time.

When Rhavas walked back into the main hall of the temple and up the aisle toward the altar, he was the only one there. His sandals' soles slapped against the flagstones of the aisle. He never would have noticed the sound when the temple was full; now echoes came back from walls and ceiling.

His eyes went to the images of the good god that filled the temple. Phos stared back at him, again and again and again. Rhavas bowed his head, hoping to know the all-enfolding comfort communion with Phos could bring. But he'd returned to the temple in the wrong mood. Despite that multitude of images, he felt very much alone.

* * *

Every time Rhavas saw a courier ride up to Zautzes' residence, he worried. Couriers came fairly often. Civil war or no civil war, the business of the Empire went on. The eparch didn't bother telling him about most of the messages. In some towns, the prelate would have done as much governing as the eparch, but Zautzes was touchy about his prerogatives. Rhavas didn't push him; administering the temples and monasteries in Skopentzana gave the prelate plenty to do.

Rhavas was out in the square talking with a couple of merchants when a rider came galloping by and tied his horse in front of the eparch's residence. The man ran inside. One of the merchants chuckled and remarked, "Somebody put scorpions in his drawers."

That made the other trader—a dealer in amber—laugh, too. "He's got something that needs telling, all right," he agreed.

"I wonder what it could be," Rhavas said.

Both merchants shrugged. The one who'd spoken of scorpions said, "We'll find out pretty quick. Zautzes can't keep a secret to save his skin. And even if he could, his guards'll blab in the taverns."

They were thinking of ordinary things—of the duty on goods coming into Videssos from Halogaland, maybe, or a change in the rate of the hearth tax. Rhavas had other worries. When he saw a courier in a hurry . . . "Maybe it's news of the Avtokrator's fight against the usurper."

The merchants shrugged again. The amber dealer said, "What if it is? One of them will win, and then things will quiet down again." He plainly didn't care whether the winner was Maleinos or Stylianos.

His colleague nudged him and whispered in his ear. He turned red. Both of them said hasty good-byes to Rhavas. The prelate knew exactly what had happened there. The amber dealer had forgotten—or perhaps hadn't known—he was related to Maleinos. The other trader had set him straight, whereupon they'd both decided they had urgent business somewhere else.

It wasn't the first time time such things had happened to Rhavas. He knew it wouldn't be the last. What he didn't know was what news the courier had brought to the eparch.

He started across the square. He hadn't got far when one of the guards purposefully strode his way. The man waved. "Hello, very holy sir," he called. "The eparch would like a word with you."

"What a coincidence," Rhavas said dryly. "I would like a word with the eparch, too. I would like that very much."

Ignoring the sarcasm in Rhavas' voice, the guard nodded and said, "Then please come with me." He ceremoniously led the prelate in the direction he was already going. The other guards bowed to Rhavas as he went by. He responded with a dip of the head he'd cribbed from his imperial cousin.

In Zautzes' study sat a thin, travel-worn man who was improving his morning with a cup of wine. Zautzes himself was also drinking one. He had the look of a very unhappy frog. After shouting for a servant and sending the man after wine for Rhavas, the eparch said, "The news isn't good, very holy sir."

"By your manner, most honorable sir, I hadn't expected that it would be." Rhavas perched on a stool and swung toward the courier. "I presume you will be able to give me the details?"

"What I know of them, yes." The man looked weary unto death. How far and how fast had he ridden? He took a long pull at the winecup. The servant came in just then with another cup, this one for Rhavas. As he took it with a murmur of thanks, the courier went on, "The core of it is, the Avtokrator's been beaten. Badly beaten. It happened near a place called Imbros, northeast of Videssos the city."

"Oh, yes," Rhavas said quietly. "I know of Imbros."

"Then you'll know it's on the highway running back to the capital." The courier waited for Rhavas to nod, then continued, "It was a running fight most of the way there. Stylianos kept trying to get men around behind his Majesty and cut him off from Videssos the city. Maleinos' men had to fight their way through a couple of times, but the rebels never quite blocked their path."

"Phos be praised for that." Rhavas wanted to gulp his own wine, but made himself go through the usual ritual beforehand. He shivered, though Zautzes' study was warm enough. Had Maleinos been trapped away from the capital, Stylianos would be Avtokrator of the Videssians now, with no one to challenge him. The prelate said, "So Maleinos is safely inside Videssos the city?"

"He is, very holy sir, yes," the courier answered, and yawned an enormous yawn. "Excuse me. Like I say, he's back there now, but his army took a beating in the battle, and then took a worse one in the pursuit. He'll have to do some serious recruiting and mustering before he can face Stylianos in the open field again."

"The westlands . . ." Rhavas and Zautzes said the same thing at the same time. The lands on the far side of the strait called the Cattle-Crossing were rich in men, and rich in horses, too.

But the courier, instead of encouraging the two leaders of Skopentzana, only shrugged. "There's word Stylianos has lieutenants in the westlands himself. This fight fills the whole Empire."

It hadn't yet filled the far northeast. Indeed, it had already emptied Skopentzana of soldiers. Rhavas said, "If the Avtokrator can't recruit in the westlands, where will he draw more men?"

Another shrug from the courier, one that showed even raising and lowering his shoulders took effort. He said, "It's a good question, very holy sir. Too bad I haven't got a good answer for you."

"You're from the city, aren't you?" Rhavas asked. The man nodded, also effortfully. Rhavas wasn't sure what made him think so. Not the courier's accent—that intonation had spread from Videssos the city for miles around on both sides of the Cattle-Crossing. But the cheeky way he'd finished his reply: yes, that sort of attitude belonged to the capital alone.

"Where do we go from here?" Zautzes asked.

The courier yawned again. "Me, I'd like to go to bed," he said.

Zautzes called for a servant. The man took the courier off to a guest room. The eparch went out and spoke to the guards. They took charge of the rider's hard-used horse; Rhavas watched them lead the poor beast past the study window toward the stables. Zautzes came back shaking his head. He stared down into his winecup, as if the answer to the mystery of life might lurk inside. People uncounted had sought it in wine, but nobody had found it there. Plaintively, he repeated, "Where do we go from here?"

"By the good god, most honorable sir, I don't know what to tell you now," Rhavas replied. "Stylianos has proved stronger than I thought. All we can do is wait to see who wins. I still pray my cousin does. If he doesn't . . ." The prelate shrugged. "If he doesn't, the usurper will do with me as he wills. Since you aren't connected to Maleinos by blood, you should be safe enough either way."

"His Majesty appointed me. I am known to be loyal to him. I am loyal to him," Zautzes said. "If we were in the westlands, we could flee to Makuran if things didn't turn out the way we hoped."

Rhavas nodded. Videssians fleeing political convulsions often took refuge in the other great civilized empire. Makuraner Kings of Kings sometimes used them as cat's-paws and stalking horses against Videssos. In the same way, Makuraner grandees were known to flee to Videssos, and Avtokrators happily used them against their old homeland.

"If things go badly wrong, you could run off to Halogaland," Rhavas said.

By the face Zautzes made, he might have smelled stale fish. "All things considered, very holy sir, I do believe I'd sooner face the headsman's sword."

Rhavas nodded once more. He felt the same way. Videssians in dire straits had gone to live among the blond barbarians, but a man would have to be truly desperate to do such a thing. Rhavas tried to imagine himself living in a smoke-filled longhouse; learning the slow, sonorous tongue of the Halogai; forgetting books, wine, good talk, and everything else that made life worth living. The picture refused to form in his mind.

If a fugitive fell in love with a blue-eyed woman, she might help him forget all he'd left behind. Rhavas tried to imagine that for himself: one more picture that wouldn't form. For him, falling in love with a Haloga woman—indeed, with any woman—would mean abandoning his priestly vows, in effect abandoning his god.

"You're right," he said to Zautzes. "Death is better than some ways of holding on to life."

Before the eparch could answer, his servant slipped into the study with a carafe of wine. Smooth and silent as a ghost, the man refilled the eparch's cup and, when Rhavas nodded, the prelate's as well. Then he disappeared again. Zautzes sipped and sighed. "Maybe it won't come to that. I hope it won't come to that. I pray it won't come to that."

"Yes." Rhavas intended to spend more time prostrated before Phos' holy altar in the temple, and in his bedchamber before images of the good god and the holy men who'd served him. But prayer went only so far. Maleinos needed action, too. "Where will his Majesty come by more soldiers if he can't get many from the westlands?"

"I wish I could tell you," Zautzes said. "If he ordered the garrison out of a distant city like Skopentzana, he will have summoned men from closer towns, too. That leaves . . . I don't know what that leaves."

"The men from the frontier posts," Rhavas said. Now he was the one to look as if he smelled something nasty.

"It's possible that Stylianos has already summoned them. Many of them will have served under him and will be well-disposed toward him. Maybe they gave him the help he needed to beat his Majesty in this latest battle."

"Yes, you could be right." Rhavas' face didn't lose that expression. "I am sad to think even a rebel would strip the frontier bare." He'd thought about it for Maleinos. He hadn't liked it, but he'd thought about it. Why was he surprised Stylianos might have thought about it, too, and might have done something about it?

Because Maleinos is the Avtokrator, and is blood of my blood. He answered his own question almost at once. Stylianos is a man who would murder his way to the throne. His own grandmother's brother had murdered his way to the throne. He knew that, but once more chose not to think about it.

Zautzes said, "Any man will worry first about the enemy closest to him. Once he beats that one, he will think he can take care of any other troubles he may have."

"You could be right there, too. I—" Rhavas broke off.

"What?" the eparch asked.

"Nothing. Nothing that matters." Rhavas seldom lied, and didn't do it as well as a lot of Videssians. Zautzes raised an eyebrow, sure the prelate wasn't telling the truth. Rhavas' ears got hot. With his tonsure, Zautzes might have been able to watch his blush rise all the way to the top of his head. Rhavas kept quiet even so. He'd started to talk about the soothsayer, and about the question he'd asked the luckless man. But no. Zautzes didn't need to know that.

Rhavas had thought about summoning another soothsayer and asking him the same thing. He didn't have the nerve. If one man died while trying to see whether he would be patriarch, it was happenstance, coincidence, chance. But Rhavas couldn't forget the terror on Eladas' face and in his icy grip as he died. If another soothsayer tried to see the same thing and also died trying . . . Rhavas didn't want that to happen, and didn't want to have to worry about it if it did.

Zautzes visibly thought about pressing him on it, and just as visibly decided not to. "Well, very holy sir, we'll just have to wait and see what happens down in the south, as you said yourself. Once we know that, we'll have a better notion of what we ought to do." The eparch's laugh held a hollow undertone. "Who knows? Maybe Halogaland won't look so bad after all."

"I may grow desperate enough to do a great many things," Rhavas said with as much dignity as he had in him. "By the lord with the great and good mind, I will never grow desperate enough to run away to Halogaland."

A time would come when he'd wish he had never said that.

* * *

Skopentzana went on about its business as if the civil war convulsing most of the Empire were happening in distant Makuran. That was the one advantage Rhavas had ever found in living in a city so far from the imperial heartland. Interesting things passed Skopentzana by, but so did troubles.

The prelate could walk through any of the city's markets and watch Videssians and tall, blond Halogai and even a few swarthy, stocky, bushy-bearded Khamorth haggling over amber and furs and wine and jewelry and horseflesh and weapons and a thousand other goods. Everything seemed the way it had the year before, when peace pervaded Videssos. He wished the reality matched the seeming.

As days grew longer with astonishing speed when spring burgeoned here, so the hours of light shrank quickly as autumn approached. Birds began flying south. Nights grew chilly. Days had never got hot, not to a man used to the scorching, muggy summers of Videssos the city. Now they had trouble feeling anything but cool.

On the farms around Skopentzana, peasants began bringing in the harvest of barley and rye and oats. Few dared plant wheat here, for the growing season proved long enough to let it ripen only about every other year. Autumn harvests still sometimes made Rhavas feel as if the world had turned upside down and inside out. Down around Videssos the city, fall and winter were the rainy seasons, and farmers brought in their crops in the springtime.

He often grew tired of rye bread and oatmeal and chewy barley cakes. He drank wine whenever he could. For a man of wealth, that was most of the time. Because he could drink wine so much, he didn't have to grow tired of the beer the locals brewed from barley. He could tolerate it, but he'd never got a taste for it. After wine, it was nasty, sour stuff. He and Zautzes didn't agree on everything, but they were in perfect accord there. Even praying for a good crop of barley smacked of hypocrisy to him.

Ingegerd, now, took barley altogether for granted. In conversations in the narthex, Rhavas learned she'd bought a lot of barley for brewing: more than for baking. "In Halogaland, beer was all we had," she told him. "I do not think I tasted wine above once or twice before I came down into the Empire. Wine was—is—only for the chieftains, the big men, there."

"What a benighted place!" Rhavas burst out, and only later hoped he hadn't offended her.

Fortunately for him, she answered with a matter-of-fact nod. "I know that now," she said. "I did not know it then. How could I? Halogaland was all I had seen. If one place is the whole world to you, you cannot think it fine or dreadful, not in any real way. Would we know how good Phos is if we did not have Skotos to compare him to?" She spat.

So did Rhavas, for whom the gesture was almost as ingrained as breathing. He didn't answer at once. She'd framed the question in a way that hadn't occurred to him. As far as he knew, it hadn't occurred to any other Videssian theologians, either. After his pause for thought, he said, "Phos is goodness absolute. We deny that at peril to our souls."

"I do not deny it, very holy sir," Ingegerd said steadily. "But would we understand how good he is if we did not see what went on in the world where goodness is not? I have seen horrors. Surely you have as well."

Rhavas hadn't, or not many; he'd lived a sheltered, prosperous life. He nodded even so; he followed where she was going. He said, "You believe good seems sweeter after evil, as wine seems sweeter after a taste of, uh, salt fish." He'd started to compare it to beer. That would have been fine in the capital, but not even with most Videssians born in Skopentzana.

"Yes, that is what I mean," Ingegerd agreed.

"The wine would be as sweet even without the fish," Rhavas said.

"My point is not what it would be but how it would seem," she replied.

To Rhavas, things were what they were. How they seemed mattered much less. He and the woman from Halogaland eyed each other in exasperation tinged with respect. He was the one who changed the subject, asking, "Have you had word of your husband?"

She shook her head. Her unbound hair flew like a shower of gold. "Nothing," she said. "And, with the turning of the seasons, I doubt I will hear, not till spring. I pray he is safe."

"So do I," said Rhavas, who had indeed offered up prayers for Himerios.

"I thank you for that, very holy sir." With Haloga fatalism, Ingegerd added, "In any case, it will be as it is."

"It will be as the lord with the great and good mind wills it to be," Rhavas said, a touch of sternness in his voice.

Hearing him take that tone would have made any of the priests who served under him quail. Ingegerd only nodded, equal to equal. "We said the same thing with different words, I think."

"Well, maybe we did." Rhavas found he didn't want to get into an argument with her. She was no trained theologian. The prelate didn't know whether she could read and write. But she had a formidable native intelligence. She thought straight, too, which many couldn't do. She would follow her logic wherever it took her, and she would face without fear whatever she found at the end.

Would I challenge her more directly if she were a man? Rhavas wondered. He couldn't remember the last time he'd backed away from a dispute. Backing away wasn't usually in his nature. Slowly, he shook his head. It wasn't that she was a woman. He'd got into disputations with women who fancied themselves theologians both back in Videssos the city and here in Skopentzana. He'd sent more than a few of them off in tears, too; when he did argue, he pulled no punches.

What, then? Before he could find anything that might be an answer, Ingegerd dipped her head to him and swept out of the temple. A man who smelled of onions came up and bent his ear about something or other. He made responses that seemed to satisfy the odorous Videssian, and then forgot about him as soon as he took himself and his smell away.

When Rhavas got back to his residence, he found he couldn't remember any of the conversations he'd had after Ingegerd left. He'd been thinking about her, and about why he didn't want to argue with her, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The answer, though, came to him as he was drifting toward sleep, when he wasn't thinking about it at all. He sat bolt upright in his dark bedchamber. "Phos!" he exclaimed, and sketched the sun-circle over his heart.

He'd asked himself the wrong question back in the narthex. It should have been, Would I challenge her more directly if I didn't want her? 

There in the blackness—a blackness that reminded him too much of Skotos—he prayed and prayed and prayed, sleep forgotten. Celibacy had never been too hard for him, never till now. He'd scorned those who let their fallible flesh come between themselves and their devotion to the good god. Now, all unawares, he'd fallen into the same trap himself.

"She must never know," he whispered in the darkness. "No one must ever know." But the person who most needed not to know was himself, and he had no idea how to make that so.

* * *

Some of the troop of men who rode south through Skopentzana were Videssians: soldiers of a sort Rhavas had seen many times. Some were Halogai, with whom he was also familiar—big, burly blond men with their hair swinging in thick braids behind them. They wore mailshirts and carried long-handled war axes. And some could have been one or the other or both—as on any frontier, there were men of mixed blood along the border between the Empire of Videssos and Halogaland.

A narrow-faced Videssian named Petinos commanded the troop. He came to Rhavas' temple to pray. The prelate invited him back to his residence for some wine. "Yes, we were ordered out of the frontier forts," the officer said in response to Rhavas' question. "We left behind what garrisons we could, but . . ." He shrugged.

"How soon before the Halogai take advantage of the border's being stripped?" Rhavas asked. "It won't be long, will it?"

Petinos only shrugged once more. "No one will move fast on the northern frontier after winter closes down, not even the blond barbarians. If the good god is kind, we may have those forts manned again by spring. Plenty of time for fighting down in the south, and that may give us an answer before the Halogai start stirring."

"And if it doesn't?" Rhavas said.

The borderers' officer shrugged yet again. "If there is no answer by spring, very holy sir, my men and I will still be down in the south. What happens up here won't be our worry anymore. But, I'm afraid, it will be yours."

Rhavas glared at him. Petinos looked back, imperturbable. Rhavas said, "This is not the feeling you should show for your fellow man."

"My fellow man sent me to the chilblain capital of the world," Petinos retorted. Rhavas wondered what he'd done to deserve getting sent to the farthest northeast. Zautzes might know; he paid more attention to that kind of gossip than Rhavas did. Petinos went on, "Now that my fellow man has seen fit to call me back to something approaching civilization, what can I do but thank him kindly? As for folk still stuck up here . . . I am sorry for you. The difference is, now I don't have to be sorry for myself, too."

That sort of ruthless pragmatism struck Rhavas as more typical of the Halogai than of Videssians. More of the north had rubbed off on Petinos than he was willing to admit—more, perhaps, than he knew. Rhavas said, "You do know the border troops have been pulled not just from this frontier but also from the one facing the Pardrayan steppe?"

"What?" Petinos started. His hand jerked so that wine almost sloshed out of his cup. He needed what looked like a distinct effort of will to steady himself. Slowly, he said, "No, very holy sir, I did not know that. No one had seen fit to tell it to me. Are things really so bad?"

"They aren't good, by all the signs." Rhavas didn't want to say even so much, but he didn't want to lie, either. "Even the rebel would not have done such a thing without gravest need."

"Meaning no offense, but it could be a need that puts a lot of people in the grave," Petinos said. "The Khamorth won't care whether it's summer or winter. They're on the move the year around, and live off the flocks they drive with them. If the frontier is empty, what's to stop them from swarming into the Empire? Once they're in, they'd be bloody hard to drive out, too."

In a low, troubled voice, Rhavas answered, "I'm afraid this thought also crossed my mind. I was hoping you would tell me it was so much moonshine, all wind and air—shadow, not substance."

"Phos! I wish I could, not for your sake—meaning no offense again, I'm sure—but because this could be the worst thing that's happened to Videssos in a very long time." Petinos tilted back his head, emptied the silver winecup at one long draught, and then poured it full again. "If Maleinos and Stylianos keep hammering away at each other, who will drive the nomads back to the plains where they belong? Will anyone?"

He didn't answer his own question. He didn't have to; the answer hung in the air regardless of whether he came out and said it. No.

Rhavas reached for the jar of wine, too. Most of the time, he was as stern with himself on such indulgences as he was with anyone else. Today? Today another cup of wine seemed not an indulgence but an anodyne. He wouldn't have begrudged it to a man facing the surgeon's knife, and felt himself—and the Empire—in much the same predicament.

The wine did help steady him. Setting down the cup, he said, "Phos must have prepared this great test of life for the whole Empire."

"Either that or Skotos is working something particularly nasty against us." Petinos spat.

So did Rhavas. "May it not come to pass!" he said. "Skotos may win battles, but surely everything we see in life proves that the lord with the great and good mind will triumph in the end."

"Surely," Petinos echoed. Rhavas sent him a sharp look. Petinos didn't sound as if he agreed. He sounded like a man pretending to agree so he wouldn't have to argue, or maybe like a man who said one thing but meant exactly the opposite.

Most of the time, Rhavas would have lit into him for such hypocrisy. Today, he let it pass. If Petinos wanted to endanger his soul, if he wanted to risk falling down to Skotos' eternal darkness and ice, that was his affair. Rhavas had more urgent things to worry about himself.

He worried even more when the detachment of frontier troops Petinos led marched out of Skopentzana. The gates swung shut behind the soldiers. The thud of those two great valves closing sounded dreadfully final in Rhavas' ears. It might have said the city would never again see imperial soldiers.

As a matter of fact, it said just that. No one knew it, though, not even Rhavas. Sometimes, as Eladas the soothsayer could have testified were he still among the living, not knowing what lay ahead was the greater mercy.

* * *

Spring in Skopentzana always seemed to last longer than it really did. It stretched ahead to the promise of summer. Autumn, by contrast, felt foreshortened. All that lay ahead of autumn was winter, and everyone in Skopentzana knew winter much too well.

Firsts came thick and fast in autumn. First leaves changing color. First leaves falling from the trees. First frost. First bare trees. They all came together in a few hectic weeks.

Some years, a hailstorm would wedge its way into the schedule. That could mean disaster and famine if it came early and ruined the harvest. This year, no natural catastrophe visited itself among Skopentzana.

That reassured Rhavas less than it might have. Skopentzana and the Empire of Videssos needed no natural catastrophes to be miserable, not this year. They had far more than their fair share of man-made catastrophes.

The first snowfall, nearly two months before the winter solstice, was slight and soon melted. Some years, weather almost summery came hard on the heels of a snowstorm like that. Sometimes it lasted for quite a while, too.

Not here. Not now. After the brief, halfhearted thaw, a real blizzard rolled out of the northwest. It was the sort of storm that made people fret about firewood, the sort of storm that didn't usually come till much later in the year.

Most folk clapped shutters over their windows, which only made the inside of their homes and shops darker and grimmer. Rhavas didn't have to endure that. The prelate's residence was one of the very few buildings in Skopentzana boasting glazed windows. Even in Videssos the city, they were far from common. Rhavas didn't think Skopentzana had had any till he put these into the residence. A few rich people and a few people who wanted to be on the cutting edge of fashion had imitated him since.

Rhavas didn't get the clearest view when he looked outside. The glass was streaked and bubbled and set in small panes separated by strips of lead. That bothered him not at all. It would have been no different in the capital. Glassmaking was an uncertain art.

Before long, clearly or not, he could watch snow whipping almost horizontally past his window. When winter came to Skopentzana, it settled in and made itself at home. Rhavas knew not much news from the south would come till the weather warmed again. That didn't mean no news would be made down in the warmer parts of the Empire. As Petinos had said, campaigning down there didn't have to stop so soon as it would in these parts.

Would Petinos ever come back through Skopentzana on his way back to the northern border. Would Himerios and the city garrison ever come back to Skopentzana? Rhavas wished he hadn't asked himself that second question. The part of him that cared about good governance hoped he would soon see Himerios here again. The part of him that cared about . . . other things had . . . other ideas.

That other part shamed him by existing. Prayer hadn't driven it from him, as he'd hoped prayer might. All he could do, it seemed, was try to pretend it wasn't there. What he thought, what he wanted—that was one thing. What he did—that was something else. Skotos might tempt a man. If the man didn't yield to temptation, he stayed in Phos' good graces . . . didn't he?

How could it be otherwise? By their very natures, men were imperfect. That left them vulnerable to temptation. But if they rose above it, the lord with the great and good mind would surely have to acknowledge their steadfastness.

Such things were easy to believe in the summertime, when Phos' light filled the sky almost the whole day long. After snow started falling, it was a different story. Light dwindled day by day. That happened in Videssos the city and all over the Empire, of course. Here in the north, though, the dwindling was dramatically magnified.

Midwinter's Day, the day of the winter solstice, was a great holiday throughout the Empire. People and priests proffered prayers to bring the sun back toward the north once more, to keep it from sliding ever southward and leaving the world cloaked in Skotos' eternal darkness.

In a place like Skopentzana, where the sun barely climbed over the horizon at the solstice, Midwinter's Day took on a special urgency, for Skotos seemed closer to triumph here than he did farther south. Towns and villages throughout the Empire reveled on Midwinter's Day after the prayers were done. The celebrations showed their confidence the sun would turn north once more—or so folk said.

In Skopentzana, though, the revels took on a special urgency. No one in this city had ever claimed people celebrated more heartily here because they had a greater fear that the sun might disappear for good. No one had ever claimed such a thing, no, but that was how it looked to Rhavas.

The prelate woke before dawn on Midwinter's Day. Considering how long the night before had lasted and how early he'd gone to sleep, that was hardly surprising. A lamp with a fat oil reservoir still burned on a table by his bed. Without that lamp, he might have thought Skotos had indeed conquered the world.

Lamplight let him see his breath smoke, even here indoors. A brazier did something to fight the cold—something, yes, but not much. Rhavas had heavy woolen drawers and a thick wool robe for winter wear. He also put on socks and heavy felt boots, not the sandals he would have worn in Videssos the city or any other place with even a semicivilized climate.

His robe had a hood, too. All priestly robes intended for winter use in Skopentzana did. A tonsured scalp bled heat into the air. Even the short walk to the temple was a torment.

No matter how cold it was, though, Rhavas lingered. No pink or even gray showed in the southeast; the sun would not rise for some little while yet. But the night was clear. Stars blazed in the sky. And the northern lights danced, across the sky from where the sun would eventually show itself. Shimmering curtains of gold and green streamed from the northern horizon more than halfway to the zenith.

Rhavas sketched the sun-circle above his heart as he stared at the marvelous, rippling lights. He'd heard of them when he lived in Videssos the city. He'd heard of them, yes, but he hadn't been sure he believed in them. They rarely showed themselves there, so rarely that he'd never seen them before coming to Skopentzana. He had now, more times than he could count. Their beauty and their strangeness took his breath away even so.

When he started to shiver and his teeth began chattering, he came out of his reverie and went on to the temple. Inside, it blazed with light. Lamps and candelabra all blazed away, hurling defiance at the darkness outside. So many flames burned, they helped heat the temple.

So did the swarm of people who packed the temple for Midwinter's Day services. They sang hymns with far more fervor than any congregation would have shown down in Videssos the city. They believed in eternal darkness in the capital; here, they really feared it. Because Skotos seemed so likely to get the better of the sun, their rejection of him seemed to mean more than it would have farther south.

As Rhavas preached his usual sermon on the turning of the seasons and the growing light that would come, he changed things so he could make an addition: "Some of you, coming to the temple, will surely have seen the northern lights." He waited for men here and there to nod, then went on, "Do they not show how Phos' light may appear at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected way? Should this not be a lesson to us all?"

The Skopentzanans looked at one another. More of them nodded now. Some of them smiled, too, liking the figure of speech. Rhavas nearly smiled himself. He had always impressed them with his piety and his intellect. He knew that. He also knew they hadn't warmed to him. Few people did; his character was not of the sort that drew warmth. But he had here now.

People had a saying—anything can happen on Midwinter's Day. Maybe those smiles were proof of that.

For once, he didn't linger in the narthex after the service was done. Neither did anyone else. Everybody went out to the city square between the temple and the eparch's residence. By then, the southeast was going from pink to gold: the sun would make its brief appearance soon. The northern lights had faded almost to invisibility. Rhavas' sigh spewed fog out in front of his face.

As if to make up for the loss of the magic in the sky, half a dozen bonfires blazed in the square. Men and women of all stations and walks of life lined up at them, nobles next to barmaids, proprietors waiting peaceably behind pimps. Each in turn would run and leap over the flames, shouting, "Burn, ill luck!" in midair. One jump was suppose to be able to take care of a year's bad luck—not a bad bargain, or a small miracle, if true.

When jumpers came down on the far side of the fires, those who had already leaped would catch and steady them. Sometimes they would take a kiss as payment for their service. Sometimes they would go off and take more. Not all babies born nine months from now would look like their mothers' husbands. Anything could happen on Midwinter's Day.

Priests and monks got in the lines to jump the fires, too. They shouted along with everybody else. When wineskins and mugs of beer went through the crowd, they swigged from them along with everybody else. Some of them would break their vows of chastity before the day was done. That happened every Midwinter's Day. Some prelates and some abbots were inclined to look the other way. Rhavas wasn't one of them. To him, a sin was a sin, no matter when it was committed.

That didn't stop him from taking his place in a line and snaking up toward the nearest bonfire. Just before his turn to run and jump came, a cheer rose all over the frozen square: "The sun lives! Phos' sun lives!"

Rhavas looked back over his shoulder. Yes, there was the sun, sneaking up over the horizon at last. He murmured the creed—and then murmured again, in a different tone of voice, when he saw Ingegerd three or four people in back of him.

The woman ahead of him ran, jumped, and shouted out in midair. Someone beyond the fire steadied her. The heat haze rising from the flames made their shapes shimmer.

"Go on, very holy sir!" people near Rhavas called. "Go on!" Somebody pushed him, an indignity he would have suffered—in either sense of the word—on no other day of the year but this.

He ran. The chilly breeze blew into his face and pulled the hood off his head. He jumped, as strongly as he could. "Burn, ill luck!" he cried in a voice that rang across the square. His boots thudded down on the paving stones. He started to stagger, but someone caught his elbow. "My thanks," he said, panting a little.

"Happy to do it, very holy sir," answered the man who'd caught him. "Here—have a swig of this." He handed Rhavas a wineskin.

The prelate drank. The wine was sweet and strong. "A blessing from the good god," he said, and gave the skin to the woman who'd leaped just before him.

Another man jumped over the bonfire, and a woman with a wart on her cheek. Then it was Ingegerd's turn. She raced forward, arm's pumping like a man's as she ran. She soared high over the crackling flames. "Burn, ill luck!" she called, and came to earth again.

Rhavas stepped forward to make sure she didn't fall, but she needed no help, straightening on her own. He drew back a pace, disappointed—and disappointed at himself for being disappointed. Ingegerd dropped him a curtsy. "I thank you for the thought, very holy sir."

"Yes." Rhavas didn't thank himself for some of his own thoughts.

Ingegerd could not see that. She looked to the east, murmuring, "Another Sunturning come and gone."

"Yes," Rhavas said again, but the unfamiliar word piqued interest of a different sort. "Is that what they call Midwinter's Day in Halogaland?"

"It is." The yellow-haired woman nodded. Then she laughed. "I have not called it that, especially not in this tongue, for many years. Sunturning." She said something in the language she'd learned as a baby; Rhavas would have guessed it was the same word.

"How do the Halogai celebrate the day?" he asked—the scholar in him never slept for long.

"With great horns of beer and blood sacrifices and even more fornication than is the custom here," Ingegerd answered.

"I . . . see." Rhavas coughed a couple of times. He'd asked. She'd told him. She had a pagan—or at least a most un-Videssian—directness to her.

"What you Videssians do . . . This is all right," Ingegerd said.

"So glad you approve," Rhavas said dryly.

She laughed at him. He smelled wine on her breath. "As if it matters in Videssos what I think," she said. "You people here have your customs, as the Halogai have theirs. You think yours best because you are used to them, they think theirs best for the same reason."

Ours are hallowed by the worship of the lord with the great and good mind. Though Rhavas thought it, he didn't say it. Ingegerd was too likely to come back by saying her birthfolk thought their gods hallowed what they did. Anything could happen on Midwinter's Day, but a religious argument wasn't what he had in mind.

Ingegerd went on, "I do like the mime troupes who perform. We have nothing like that in Halogaland." Then, more girlish than Rhavas had ever seen her, she laughed and clapped her hands. "Here they are! I spoke of them, and here they are! Am I not a great wizard?"

Rhavas made himself nod, though the magic she'd worked on him was as old as mankind and had nothing to do with what anyone normally thought of as wizardry. He hoped he kept a sour expression off his face. No matter what Ingegerd thought of the mime troupes, he didn't much like them. To his way of thinking, they turned Midwinter's Day liberty into license. That everyone cheered when they did it meant nothing to him. There was a difference between popularity and right and wrong—and if there wasn't, there should have been.

The first troupe was a group of women dressed in men's clothes, which would have been scandalous—to say nothing of illegal—any other day of the year. They swaggered out, pretended to work for a couple of minutes, and then repaired to what was obviously supposed to be a tavern. There they got drunk with miraculous haste. When the barmaid came over, she proved to be a woman not only dressed as a woman but wearing little enough to threaten her with chest fever—and frostbite—in a climate like Skopentzana's. The women dressed as men gaped at her as if they'd never seen such a marvelous creature before.

Among the people in the square, the women laughed and applauded while the men jeered lewdly. Their skit done, the mimes hurried off onto a side street. A troupe of men dressed as women took their place. The men still wore beards and showed off hairy legs. That made their effeminate gestures and prancing all the funnier—to the men in the crowd, anyhow. Their skit was almost the mirror image of the one that had gone before it. From housework, they quickly switched to gossip and to pouring down improbable amounts of beer. The more they pretended to drink, the more licentious their gossip seemed to get, at least by the way they gestured and wagged their hips. The men watching them howled laughter. The women rained catcalls down on their heads. Everyone cheered as they minced off at the end of the skit.

A troupe of swarthy Videssians in mailshirts and blond wigs came out next. Everybody roared at them—they imitated drunken Halogai. They looked for love and looked for fights and ended up in a terrific free-for-all with one another.

Rhavas glanced over at Ingegerd. She was laughing as hard as any of the Videssians around her. She caught his eye, which he hadn't expected. "Halogai do act like that when they drink," she said, "and they do drink."

"You admit it?" he said.

"Why would I deny it, when it is true?" she answered. "Usually, though, we are not so funny as this."

The next troupe skewered Zautzes the eparch as a pompous fool. Zautzes did what he had to do: he laughed twice as loud as anyone else.

On every day of the year but one, lampooning the prelate would have been at least as risky for the person rash enough to do it as insulting the eparch. The rules changed on Midwinter's Day. No—the rules disappeared on Midwinter's Day. The mime troupe that came out after the one that mocked Zautzes mocked Rhavas. The man who played him wore a blue robe; he had a bald head that let him look tonsured. On his head he had a gold—more likely (much more likely) polished brass—coronet, to remind everyone of the prelate's imperial connections.

He also had a permanent frown, one doubtless enhanced by greasepaint to be visible from a greater distance. He used it to disapprove of everything he saw, from a sausage seller to a pretty girl. He also thundered—silently, of course—from the pulpit. By the way the man impersonating Rhavas kept pointing to his coronet and sometimes even taking it off and pounding with it, he had to be thundering against Stylianos.

Zautzes' method made sense to Rhavas. Like the eparch, he laughed uproariously. He'd been doing it for years, ever since the first time a mime troupe went after him. Men in public life had to have, or at least to show, a thick skin. Those who couldn't got hounded the whole year through, not just on Midwinter's Day. Videssians were like wolves. When they scented blood, they hunted without rest and without mercy.

Out of the corner of his eye, Rhavas glanced at Ingegerd again. He might have hoped she would disapprove of watching a holy man mocked. He might have hoped that, but he was doomed to disappointment. She laughed at the teasing he got, just as she'd laughed at what the troupe before had done to Zautzes. Laughing when you were grinding your teeth was hard, but Rhavas managed.

He clapped and cheered when the mimes sashayed out of the square. If he was clapping and cheering because they were leaving . . . well, that was his business. No one else would know. No one else could prove it, anyhow, which was what really mattered.

Sure enough, anyone and everyone was fair game on Midwinter's Day. The next group of mimes that came out was enormous. It included not one but two men wearing imperial regalia. Each marched at the head of an army of men in armor: some ancient and rusty, the rest made from cheap sheet tin for the occasion.

Rhavas needed a moment to notice that the two rival Avtokrators were identical twins. They strode out in front of their armies to fight with each other. Somehow, the fight turned into a dance. One went back to one army, the other to the other. Had each man gone back to the army he'd had before? Had he traded armies with the other? Did it matter?

Wasn't raising that very question the point of the skit?

Most of the people in the square seemed to think so. They roared their approval. Some of them threw coins to the mimes. More than once, Rhavas caught the glint of gold in the air. Either some folk were already too drunk to know what they were doing or they knew exactly what they were doing and hated the civil war very much indeed.

The prelate had thought that would be the last skit, but it wasn't. One more came after it. Half a dozen men holding hands in a ring impersonated the walls of Skopentzana. Two men inside the ring showed it was Skopentzana: one wore a pasteboard model of the temple on his head, the other a model of the eparch's palace.

There was a spirited struggle outside "Skopentzana." Half the contestants wore blond wigs to impersonate Halogai. The other half wore bushy false beards and furs and leather to impersonate Khamorth nomads. What the struggle was about was which group would get to sack the city. They finally compromised and destroyed it together.

People laughed at that skit, too, but nervously. Like a lot of the others, it held an uncomfortable amount of truth. Skopentzana was vulnerable. How soon the barbarians beyond the border would realize that and how long the city would stay ungarrisoned . . . Not even Rhavas, who was usually an astute judge of matters political, had any idea.

The "Halogai" in the troupe swept off their wigs and bowed as the crowd in the square cheered them. Not to be outdone, the "Khamorth" swept off their beards and bowed even lower. Here and there, latecomers started jumping over fires again. Men and women who'd already done that began drifting out of the square. Taverns always did a roaring business on Midwinter's Day. Brothels didn't. On this day as on no other, men seldom needed to pay for that.

Rhavas' shadow stretched long before him. He glanced back over his shoulder at the sun. It stood about as far above the horizon as it would get, but that wasn't very far. The prelate shrugged. More than once, he'd celebrated Midwinter's Day here in the midst of a snowstorm. People leaped over bonfires then the same way they did in good weather. Mime troupes performed the same way, too. The only difference was, the audience had to crowd closer to see what sort of outrageousness they were perpetrating.

He looked around for Ingegerd, wondering if she would want to drink some wine with him. That wasn't sinful, especially since Himerios had asked him to look after her. If anything sinful happened later, he could blame it on the wine and on Midwinter's Day. Even his stern rectitude had, or could have, cracks.

But Ingegerd had slipped away. Ashamed of himself for the direction in which his thoughts had veered, Rhavas sketched the sun-circle over his heart. "Penance," he muttered. "Heavy penance."

He kicked at the paving stones, humiliated by his own weakness. He murmured Phos' creed again and again. He'd almost just failed a great test in his own life. He owed Ingegerd a debt of thanks for not staying with him—a debt he could never tell her about.

If he looked around a little, he could find some other woman with whom he might take his pleasure. That never occurred to him. He did not want a woman for the sake of having a woman. He wanted one woman in particular, a much more pernicious and dangerous affliction.

He never thought to wonder whether Ingegerd wanted him. That in itself was a telling measure of how little experience he had. Because he was so inexperienced, though, he didn't realize that it was.

"Phaos' blessings on you, very holy sir," somebody said at his elbow.

He started, then gathered himself. "And on you," he told the man. If he remembered rightly, the fellow sold fancy saddles.

The man eyed him for a moment, then breathed beer fumes into his face as he said, "It's Midwinter's Day, very holy sir. You're supposed to be happy. The way you look, somebody's just about to pound a live crawdad up your arse."

Part of Rhavas wondered how the saddler knew what sort of expression a man in that situation would wear. He almost asked, but at the last minute he held back. He was afraid the fellow would tell him. Instead, the saddler just stood there, awaiting his reply. Slowly, he said, "If the Empire were happier, I would be happier as well."

"Ah. The Empire." The other man had surely lived in the Empire of Videssos all his life. By the way he said its name, he might have heard of it for the first time from Rhavas' lips. "Well, now, very holy sir, that's a pretty big thought, that is. I don't know that I could worry about the whole Empire all by myself."

"There we differ, then," Rhavas said. For a wonder, the other man took the hint. He lurched off to bore someone else.

Rhavas thought about going to a tavern and drinking himself blind. No shame attached even to a cleric who did that on Midwinter's Day. No public shame, that is—the prelate would have been ashamed of himself for such a lapse from asceticism. For one of the few times in his life, he stood irresolute.

He was still standing there, watching the sun scurry across the sky toward the southwestern horizon, when a courier came into the square. The rider made slow going against the throng celebrating Midwinter's Day. "What's the news?" a drunk bawled.

And the courier answered him: "The Khamorth! The Khamorth are over the border!"


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