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Elvenborn

Book Three

of the

Halfblood Chronicles

Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey

TOR

fantasy

ATOM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES BOOK NEW YORK

PROLOGUE

V'kel Lyon Lord Kyndreth stood up, and loomed over the Council table and the Councilors seated there. Most of his fellow Elvenlords would not meet his eyes; those that did so shared a congratulatory glance with him. The Council Chamber was not a comfortable place today, and he had en­sured—with a few orders to the slaves who had prepared it— that it would remain so. Cold. Dim. The cushions on the seats pounded flat. And even the refreshments were ill-served—at a uniform temperature that could only be described as "tepid." All to keep everyone here wishing he was elsewhere, and less than pleased with the one—not Lord Kyndreth—who was nominally in charge.

Lord Kyndreth's star was in the ascendant once again, and this time he would see to it that it did not fall a second time.

"How is it," he asked, to empty air, "that a rebellious pack of children and former slaves have managed to hold off our al­legedly well-trained, well-led and well-supplied armies? And have done so for long enough that people are beginning to call this—temper tantrum—the Young Lords' Rebellion?"

"Lord Kyndreth—" ventured V'kel Anster Lord Rechan, scrambling mightily for the upper hand he had—if he had only known it—just lost, "this is, exactly as you say, no more than a temper tantrum. Inconsequential. No more than a handful of es­tates have been lost, our supplies continue to move without more than the occasional ambush, there is no more than a trickle of slaves escaping, and our lives continue as they always have. In balance, the threat—"

"A trickle here, a loss there, the complete inability of our so-called 'invincible' army to bring our own offspring to heel, and you say it's inconsequential?" Lord Kyndreth roared, and had

the satisfaction of seeing his chief opponent wince. "By the An­cestors, you fool, can't you see that a so-called 'trickle' is all that is needed to bleed us to death?" Kyndreth saw with some satisfaction a subtle and unspoken shifting among the other Council members, and watched as power came over to his side. "And what, may I ask, do you propose to do if these so-called 'errant children' of ours decide to ally with the Elvenbane and her wizards and dragons?"

There. It was out in the open, the thing that no one had dared to say, and he watched as a chill passed over all the rest of them. Yes, even Lord Rechan.

"They wouldn't—" someone whispered.

"Don't ever believe that," one of Kyndreth's supporters said, sharply. He took note of the speaker and reminded himself to single that one out for some special favor. "Why shouldn't they?"

"Because—because—because they're Elvenlords!" the first lord spluttered, looking so horrified by the very notion that one would think he'd been accused of fathering halfblooded chil­dren himself.

"And when whatever magic they've discovered ceases to pre­vent our magic from reaching and punishing them?" Lord Kyn­dreth asked. "What then? Do you think, do you really think that they will hesitate for one moment before going over to the half-blood side?"

Silence.

"Now," Kyndreth said, into that silence, changing his voice from challenging to calm, "I have some suggestions. The first of which is one I think none of you will anticipate. I suggest that we continue to allow our loyal offspring to continue their lives as usual. I do not propose interfering with their pleasures. In fact, if anything, I suggest a slightly looser leash for now. And you may well be asking yourself why—"

"Well—yes," replied Lord Rechan, looking gratifyingly puz­zled. "If, as you say, the inroads are slowly bleeding us to death—"

"Firstly, we don't want the brats to know it's bleeding us to death, and rest assured, they must have ears and eyes among us,

and it's probably some of our apparently-loyal children. Sec­ondly, we want to remind our apparently-loyal children just how pleasant life is, when one's sire is pleased with one." He smiled, slightly. "It is easier to catch a fly with a sweetmeat than with vinegar. And meanwhile—" his eyes narrowed. "—I will be a-hunting for a better commander."

And to his immense satisfaction, there was not one single objection.

1

V'kel Aelmarkin er-Lord Tornal smiled down at the slave who rested her pale-tressed head on his knee. She was his current personal favorite, a delicate young human fe­male nestled trustingly against his leg. Her thin, fine-boned face and porcelain complexion pleased him with their flawless symmetry and perfection. She returned his smile shyly, yet with a touch of the coquette, her round, blue eyes reflecting her cal­low, unsophisticated nature. No rebellious thoughts dwelling in that narrow skull—in fact, he would be surprised if she man­aged to conjure up more than one or two thoughts of any kind in an average day! Her pedigree was immaculate, out of a long line of carefully chosen slaves famed for their beauty and deli­cacy to be nothing more complicated than any other ornamental object.

He sighed with contentment, and smoothed the pale gold, silken hair away from her brow with a gentle caress. She was exquisite; lovely, eager to please, pliant, graceful, innocent and incredibly easy to manipulate. Exactly the sort of slave that gave him the most pleasure. He carefully cultivated that inno­cence, and none of his other slaves would dare his wrath by spoiling that naivete. No tales of floggings or more extreme pun­ishments, no harem-stories of his other "favorites" and what had become of them—nothing to hint that he had aspects she had never experienced. So far as she was concerned, he was the gen­tle, loving, ever-kind master that she believed him to be.

He turned his attention back to his most important guest. "There, you see?" he said, gesturing expansively to the hall be­fore them and its raucous occupants. "Did I not promise you would be far more amused here than in dancing attendance on all the dull, hopeful maidens at your father's fete?"

Elvenlord Aelmarkin did not possess enough magic to create a fanciful illusion in his Great Hall, so the luxurious surround­ings here were all quite real; guests at his entertainments would always find themselves in the same opulent room that they had graced at the last entertainment, rather than a new and exotic setting vastly different from their last. He made up for the lack of novel surroundings by the lavishness of his entertaining, which had begun to earn him something of a reputation.

Take this room, for example: fortunately it had been beauti­fully constructed in the first place, and he had only needed to embellish it when it came into his possession. The north and south walls were mostly of glass—northwards lay a natural lake, artfully landscaped, and southwards were the pleasure-gardens. The east and west walls, paneled in wood bleached to silver, held silver-rimmed doors that led to the rest of the manor. The ceiling with its bleached-wood beams from which hung great silver fantasies of lights, crystals, tiny glass sculp­tures and silver filigree, also boasted vast transparent skylights; just now the reflection of the myriad lights made it impossible to see anything of the outside world, but later, when the lights were dimmed, the stars would shine impassively down on the celebrants. The black carpet of the floor was kind to the bare feet of the slaves, but Aelmarkin had selected black carpeting largely because it was easy to clean after one of his entertain­ments and was far more forgiving a surface for a drunken rev­eler to fall on than marble or wood. The east and west walls were hung with silver draperies, and the silver dining-couches were upholstered in black to match the carpet. Between each couch and the next stood an enormous silver censer, from which came sensuous and intoxicating incense-smokes. Silver tables stood before each couch, and the guests provided the only touch of color in the room. The couches themselves each held two occupants, an invited guest and a companion of his (or her) choosing—either a fellow guest or one of Aelmarkin's harem-slaves dressed in silver gossamer and matching silver collar. Picturesque wine-slaves, dressed in abbreviated silver tunics, stood at each couch with their silver pitchers, and more slaves dressed in silver tunics and gossamer skirts or trews