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"Good," Gehn said, lowering his head so that the man could place the garland over it. Then, straightening up, he gestured to the man, "Gather the villagers. I shall speak to them at once."

Atrus climbed up onto the rock, hurrying to catch up. He had seen quite a few of his father's Ages these past three years-he hasn't begun to try making ages yet-but it had never ceased to astonish him that mere words could create such vivid and tangible realities.

There was a path leading down between the scattered rocks. After a dozen paces it opened out onto a bare slope covered in thigh-high grass. Below them, maybe a mile or so distant, huddled around the left-hand side of the lake, was a scatter of low, rectangular buildings, oddly shaped, as if half made of stone; maybe forty in all, lit by the lamps which hung over doorways and on poles along the harbor's edge. Suspended walkways linked the huts. Beneath the eaves of the nearest huts a number of dark, upright figures could be glimpsed.

Behind them, the people of the village gathered, following silently, their torches burning brightly in the moonlit darkness.

Atrus turned to stare at Gehn, surprised. "Its inhabited?''

Atrus glanced at his father, alarmed. "Are we in danger?"

Ten paces from them, the party stopped, dropping to their knees and bowing their heads, abasing themselves before Gehn. One of their number-the tallest of them-stood, then, coming forward, his head bowed, held out a garland of yellow flowers, offering at the same rime a few words of broken D'ni.

Atrus turned to stare at Gehn, surprised. "Its inhabited?''

Gehn shook his head. "Be patient, Atrus. You are here to observe, so observe."

"You are welcome, Great Master. Your dwelling is prepared."

Atrus stared at his father, surprised. This was the first he had heard of any of this. But Gehn spoke on, his voice booming now.

Atrus fell silent, watching as a dozen or so of the tall, manlike figures came up the slope toward them, carrying flaming torches.

Farther along, a channel had been cut through the rock, linking the lake to the open sea. It was not very broad-barely wide enough for a single boat to navigate-but a strong wooden bridge had been thrown across it.

Coming to the front of the building, Gehn turned, facing the crowd, whose number had grown to several hundred.

"People of the Thirty-seventh Age," he began, speaking loudly, the circle of hills making his words echo back to him across the lake. "This is my son, Atrus. I have decided that we shall stay with you for a time. While he is here you will treat him with the same respect you accord me."

Ten paces from them, the party stopped, dropping to their knees and bowing their heads, abasing themselves before Gehn. One of their number-the tallest of them-stood, then, coming forward, his head bowed, held out a garland of yellow flowers, offering at the same rime a few words of broken D'ni.

Gehn touched his arm, motioning that he should stop.

Gehn touched his arm, motioning that he should stop.

They walked on, descending the thickly grassed slope. At first Atrus thought they would come upon the islanders unobserved, but then, a hundred yards or so from the edge of the village, a shout went up. Someone had spotted them. At once there was a buzz of voices down below and signs of sudden, frantic activity.

Coming to the front of the building, Gehn turned, facing the crowd, whose number had grown to several hundred.

Atrus stared at his father, surprised. This was the first he had heard of any of this. But Gehn spoke on, his voice booming now.

Ten paces from them, the party stopped, dropping to their knees and bowing their heads, abasing themselves before Gehn. One of their number-the tallest of them-stood, then, coming forward, his head bowed, held out a garland of yellow flowers, offering at the same rime a few words of broken D'ni.

Atrus turned to stare at Gehn, surprised. "Its inhabited?''

"It's very beautiful," he said finally, looking to his father, but Gehn merely grunted, surveying his work with what seemed a haughty disregard.

Atrus turned to stare at Gehn, surprised. "Its inhabited?''

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