realized you knew full well that I was the author of both rumors, and that in mocking me you sought to establish yourself as a worthy opponent.”

If he had thought me a worthy opponent, I didn’t plan to tell him how little I had understood when we first reached Xantium.

“I would also ask you something, Daimbert,” he continued. “Ever since I renewed my search for the Black Pearl, I have sensed another player in the game, but I have never been able to see him. He is a wizard or mage, of a certainty, but he has kept himself well back from events, as though knowing the danger of the Pearl’s curse, and as though playing a long-term game where he felt no urgency to win at once. At first I thought it had to be you.”

“Not me,” I said, startled. “I knew nothing of the Pearl until this year.”

“I realized it was not you when I met you, unless you had erected a highly skillful facade.” I was afraid this wasn’t a compliment.

“He and I seemed to be working in parallel,” the mage continued. “He traced the ruby ring from the caliph’s court as I had fifty years ago, and he found the trail less thoroughly cold than it had been for me, because of my own earlier search. Like me, he initially reached a dead-end at the elder Prince Dominic’s tomb. And like me, when he finally learned the ring was in Yurt, he knew better, because of the threat of the curse, than to use violence to obtain it.”

“Or he recalled,” I said in a low voice, “the oaths all western wizards take on magic itself, to help and not injure mankind. It was Dominic’s ring. Another western wizard couldn’t have taken it from him by force any more than I could.” It was now full night, and the mage was only a silhouette against the slightly lighter sky.

“Do you know then who this wizard might be?”

I shook my head, reluctant to voice my suspicions, although I didn’t think he could see the gesture.

“Have you turned your thoughts, for example, to who might have freed the Ifrit from his bottle in the first place?”

I was silent for several moments before answering. Down in the harbor a ship was coming in, lamps hung from its mast and along the rails.

“I have thought,” I said at last, “that the ‘mage’ whom the Ifrit said originally freed him must have been Elerius, a western wizard, the best wizard in fact the school has ever produced. The chief reason I think so is that King Warin was his employer, and Warin seemed remarkably well informed about the East. I also think it must have been Elerius who appeared, in disguise, to Sir Hugo’s party in the Holy City, urging them to go the Wadi. The only two people from whom I have heard the highly unlikely story of Noah’s Ark being found are Evrard, who said a ‘traveler’ told it to them at the same time as he sold them the Ifrit’s bottle, and Elerius, who said he thought they must have heard such a story.”

“Why would this wizard have freed an Ifrit?” When the mage shifted, the balcony made somewhat alarming creaking sounds, but it held firm under our weight.

“I think he freed the Ifrit originally in the hope of using him to break through the Pearl’s magical defenses, and when he discovered that wouldn’t work, he reserved the two wishes he had earned until he might need them for something else.”

“An excellent strategy,” said Kaz-alrhun approvingly. “Do not waste anything; if a move does not profit when you take it, reserve it until it may.”

“Last year,” I said, “he used his first wish to order the Ifrit to guard the Wadi against anyone from Yurt. But he may have outmaneuvred himself in giving Evrard the Ifrit’s bottle.” Some of this I was still working out as I spoke. “It was an excellent ploy. He had the Ifrit waiting to capture people from Yurt, then sent Sir Hugo’s party to the emir with a bottle that would most certainly gain them admittance to his presence, as well as a request to guide them to the Wadi that would result in their being imprisoned-where they would serve as bait for those of us from Yurt. By the way, I expect he told them specifically to eat the emir’s salt before asking about the Wadi, because he intended to keep them alive.” Unlike you, I thought, who didn’t care. “But because Evrard met the Ifrit before they reached Bahdroc, and was able to trick him temporarily back into his bottle, Elerius’s link with the Ifrit was broken.”

“In any game,” said Kaz-alrhun, “one should prepare for all contingencies, even the most unexpected. Do you think, then, that Elerius is also the wizard who made the onyx ring? He must have persuaded Arnulf and King Warin it would do to buy my horse-though he knew well it would not-with the intention of making me reveal my hand, just as I played along with King Warin in the hope of making your Elerius reveal his hand.”

“He guessed your plans just as you sensed his,” I said in agreement, “and wanted to precipitate them. I’ve wondered for a long time what payment Arnulf could have offered him in return for making a substitute ‘magic ring from Yurt,’ and I realize now that it was to be informed when we reached Arnulf’s house. Arnulf said something about the school checking up on us, which I should have realized was highly unlikely-it could only have been Elerius. And then, at Elerius’s urging, Arnulf directed us along the road to the mountain passes that went through Warin’s kingdom. In case Arnulf couldn’t persuade us to bring the onyx ring to you in Xantium, Elerius wanted to be sure Warin had it instead.”

“A fine strategist, your Elerius. He knows the most subtle and effective form of maneuvre is to allow others to think they are acting in their own self-interest.”

“He is not ‘my’ Elerius,” I replied, mostly under my breath. I thought, but did not like to say, that he seemed willing to use even the self-interest of a man who had given himself to the powers of darkness-to the point of teaching him a little school magic. He had also almost certainly been in contact with Warin’s chancellor’s friend, Prince Vlad, who was now doubtless absorbed in rebuilding his body with the magic of blood and bone. “The most discouraging aspect of it is, Elerius surely thought of himself as acting from the purest of motives.”

“And he is the best of your school-trained wizards,” said Kaz-alrhun in satisfaction. “A worthy opponent, then. When both he and I directed you toward the Wadi, both of us even using your friends as bait, you never had a choice. Was he trying to obtain the Black Pearl for himself or so that your school could use its powers?”

“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “But I suspect he never hinted to the school about any of his plans, intending to keep them entirely secret unless he succeeded.”

“If a western wizard could resist boasting even about mastering an Ifrit,” said Kaz-alrhun, “then he must indeed keep his own counsel.”

“If he wanted the Pearl for the school, he would have had to betray his employer, who certainly wanted it for himself.” But Elerius had left Warin’s kingdom. Had he intended to get the Black Pearl for his own use, telling Warin just enough about it to send the king on the hunt for it, shielding himself from the Pearl’s curse but knowing he could always obtain it from Warin later-or obtain it after the king died of whatever curse he was bound to bring down on himself?

“Once your school learns what has happened,” commented Kaz-alrhun, “they may not be pleased with you, Daimbert, for sinking the Pearl beyond recovery in the Outer Sea.”

I had thought about that at some length. Evrard and I would have to make sure our stories matched as we tried to explain delicately to Zahlfast what had happened to the most powerful manmade object out of the old magic.

“I’ll have to tell the school about the Pearl,” I said, “but I don’t intend bringing any accusations against Elerius. I have no proof of any of this, only guesses, and if he denied it they’d certainly believe the best graduate they ever had rather than me.”

“I would say he has maneuvred you as well,” said the mage thoughtfully. “Even if you did wish to accuse him, what accusations could you bring? It comes to mind, Daimbert, that he may at some point seek to use your abilities-or even seek your friendship. You will need to sharpen your own strategies for when you and he meet again in the future.”

“And had you prepared all your strategies,” I asked, “for the Pearl being cursed almost as soon as we found it, and for it now lying at the bottom of the Outer Sea?”

A low chuckle came out of the darkness. “You have outmaneuvered both the East’s greatest mage and your own western school’s best graduate. Find satisfaction in this! It seems to me, Daimbert, that you have played the game better than any of us.”

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