He sat for several seconds, waiting for the sound to repeat itself, but it didn't. Finally, he shrugged and returned his attention to his work, but he wasn't able to slide back into it the way he usually could. The oddity of that unidentifiable sound continued to pick at one corner of his mind, continued to challenge him to figure out where it had come from.


            Oh, all right, Rahzhyr! he told himself finally. You know you're not going to get anything else done until you go and find out.


            He laid his pen down once again, stood, walked across his small fourth-floor office, and opened the door onto the building's central stairwell.


            The blast of heated air roaring up the hollow core of that stairwell nearly knocked him off his feet.


            Rahzhyr Mahklyn stared in disbelief at the dense torrents of smoke already funneling up like the fumes from one of Ehdwyrd Howsmyn's furnaces. The brick building was close to eighty years old. Its wooden framing timbers, walls, and floors were bone-dry and heavily painted, its hollow core was like one, vast chimney, and the hungry, crackling roar of the voracious flames told Mahklyn the structure was already doomed.


            And so, a small, still voice told him in the back of his mind as he slammed the door shut once again, was he. His office was on the College's top floor. That stairwell was the only way out, and if anything in this world was clear, it was that he couldn't possibly get down those stairs through that inferno.


            I suppose I'm coming after all, Ysbet, he thought almost calmly as he backed up against the office's outer wall.


            Smoke was beginning to curl under the office door, as if the fact that he'd opened it had shown the fiery monster the path in, and he thought he could feel the searing heat on the far side of that flimsy portal radiating against his face. Perhaps it was only his imagination. But if it was, it wouldn't be imaginary heat for long, and Mahklyn made up his mind.


            It's better than burning to death, he thought grimly, and opened his office window wide. The cobblestone street below was already lit with the hellish red glare of the flames consuming the College's lower floors. The cobbles didn't look very inviting, to say the least, but at least it ought to be quicker and less painful than burning.


            Yet he hesitated. Perhaps it didn't make any sense, but somehow these last few moments of life were unutterably precious. Or perhaps it was simply that his excellent imagination insisted on projecting what would happen when his frail, elderly body slammed into that stony street.


            A contrarian to the end, aren't you, Rahzhyr? Still, when the flame actually eats through that door, I think you'll find it easier. And, of course, you can always plan on landing headfirst and


            "I beg your pardon, Dr. Mahklyn, but don't you think we should be going?"


            Rahzhyr Mahklyn jumped at least a foot straight up as the deep, calm voice seemed to speak out of the thin air beyond his window. Then, as he stared in disbelief, Captain Merlin Athrawes of the Charisian Royal Guard swung easily down and through the open window from the edge of the building's roof. His boots thumped on the office floor, and Mahklyn gaped at him as the seijin stroked his waxed mustachio thoughtfully.


            "Yes, definitely time we were going," he said, as if he were simply observing that it looked like they might have rain.


            "How –? Where –?"


            "I'm afraid we're a little short on time for detailed explanations, Doctor. In fact, we're a little short on time for anything except –"


            Mahklyn squawked in astonishment as King Cayleb's personal bodyguard snatched him up in what another era on another planet would have called a "fireman's carry." Mahklyn was elderly, and he knew he was growing frail, but he also knew he weighed far more than Merlin seemed to realize. The shoulder under him could have been carved out of marble for all that it gave under his weight, and then Merlin was clambering back out through the window opening.


            Well, you were going to jump anyway, weren't you? a lunatic voice gibbered in the back of his brain, and he screwed his eyes tightly shut as Merlin calmly turned sideways and reached for the side of the building.


            Later, Mahklyn was unable to reconstruct exactly what happened next. Possibly that was because of the way his all-too-rational mind insisted on trying to make sense of something which was patently impossible. Or, possibly, it was because smoke inhalation had already begun to blur his perceptions, caused him to begin imagining things. Of the two, he considerably preferred the second explanation. Probably because he was confident it wasn't the right one.


            At any rate, he found himself smoothly descending the outside of the Royal College's home over that impossibly strong shoulder. It was as if Captain Athrawes were actually driving his fingers and toes through the outer wall as easily as if it were made of paper or thatch instead of bricks and mortar. That was the only explanation for how he could possibly have found purchase points exactly where he needed them all the way down that sheer wall. Except, of course, that it wasn't possible . . . was it?


            Possible or not, it obviously worked. Only minutes after Merlin had miraculously appeared in his office, Rahzhyr Mahklyn found himself standing in the street watching the building which contained the better part of his life's work go up in a roaring torrent of flame.