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Sarena watched a bird of golden light with silver wings circling overhead. In broad, sweeping curves it descended toward her until she recognized that the bird was in fact an Ilyarian woman, her perfect form accentuated by a thin veil of mist draped across her body. Alighting as lightly as a fallen feather, she gazed at Sarena through wide-set indigo eyes, windswept sky-blue hair framing the golden sun of her face.

Azhanli’s voice was musical, rich with harmonized tones, a symphony of speech. “Sarena of Ashra,” she chimed, curtsying with the grace of a dancer, delicately collapsing her body, arching her wings outward and upward. “Yours is the story I am sworn to bear, a song of she who shall come to share the fables we tell, where muses dwell, strolling among the colonnades and courtyards of our cathedral in the clouds!”

Before Sarena could react, Azhanli pivoted to stand beside her, swinging her arm around Sarena’s waist in a single swift motion and rising into the air on outstretched and powerful wings.

They passed through trailers of mist high above the earthly sphere, and into a thickening bank of fog, soaring through a gossamer sea, vapors streaking past like the weird wayside of some ethereal highway. Then they emerged into the sunlight once again, and beheld the glorious cloudscape of Ilyaria.

They glided effortlessly over a frothing carpet punctuated by random curls and ragged holes. Massive floating platforms with tapered turnip-root bases hovered at various heights above and below. Huge foamy crescents stood like frozen waves forever poised on the verge of breaking, wisps of spray suspended motionless beside them. Azure-haired and golden-skinned Ilyarians reclined in clusters on the platforms, gowns of spun mist refracting the white brilliance of Ilyaria in sparkles of bright color.

They came to a quiet place, where the laughter and music had faded to a distant whisper, and the fibrous sea stretched unbroken in all directions. Azhanli dove toward it, wings spread wide, leveling off at the last instant, skimming the surface, sweeping upward to a stall and setting down so gently that Sarena could not feel the moment of their landing. She knew that she was standing on her own only when she saw Azhanli an arm’s length away, no longer holding her aloft.

Together they strolled astride the airy earth toward a distant glint of light in the sky, which resolved itself into a rapidly approaching Ilyarian. “Azhanli!” he called, as he descended in a graceful arc to the ground. “Come to join me in a bit of gardening?”

Azhanli laughed almost inaudibly. “No, Zaliya, just to observe. There is time yet before the Chorus convenes. I thought our guest might enjoy watching you at work.”

Zaliya’s eyes sparkled approval. Then he glanced about, moving his hands as if taking the measure of the land, at first quite casually. But gradually his movements became more pronounced, taking on, not a formal air, but an intentional one. The gestures were graceful and fluid, progressing from the careless motions of one musing to himself to an elaborate dance, as though he were trying to extract something from the vapors around him. He became emersed in a kind of moving trance, with long, smooth sweeps of his arms, pivots upon one foot, arches and flutters of his wings.

Even as Zaliya began, the cloudscape began to change, subtly at first, then more noticeably. The white froth parted like morning mist in the heat of day, unveiling a carpet of moss beneath. Low hills rose in the distance, obscured by the thinning haze, slowly drawing closer, reaching higher, becoming more diverse. Rock formations appeared, varieties of shades and shapes and textures. A fog-filled basin cleared to reveal a cool blue pond, its placid surface steaming with the last wisps of evaporating mist.

Zaliya submerged himself in his art, making bolder, sharper, more violent gestures. His hands struck the air, his arms ripped at unseen fabrics. In his enthusiasm he drifted upward, hovering above the turf, conducting his symphony with hands and feet and wings flailing rapturously. His face, serene at the outset, now revealed inner-torments, conflicting emotions, unyoked and explosive passions. His chiseled features took on the fierceness of a warrior, the ecstacy of a lover, the fear of a man before the infinite. The calm mountain had become an erupting volcano, its lava hardening into a complex and beautiful landscape.

As Zaliya’s gestures grew sharper and more dramatic, so too did the changes he wrought. Small shrubs and bold branching trees grew around the banks of the pond, exploding from nothingness into being with startling suddenness. Strokes like the dabbing of brush on canvas, only in reverse, coaxed color from his canvas, invoking bright blossoms on a gently inclined flower bed: Out they popped and bloomed, as though too eager to wait nature’s course. He carved from the desolation an elaborate panorama, every twig and leaf carefully in place. Water lilies sprang from the surface of the pond; frogs and birds and squirrels began to make their presence known. Scents and sounds filled the air. The sun burned away the last of the mist, and the blank slate to which they had come was transformed into a joyful collage of living things.

Zaliya lowered himself onto the newly groomed earth, relaxing with a deep sigh, inviting his guests to join him with a silent gesture. Sarena strolled along the immaculate paths as the two Ilyarians accompanied her in low, looping flight, a tableau of exquisite treats for all the senses arrayed with an artist’s precision and flair. They picked plump berries from drooping clusters, and let the sweet juice caress them, inhaling the fragrant air, serenaded by the music of life.

At last, with a lackadaisical sweep of the arm, the vista evaporated as though it had never been. The trees and flowers shimmered and blurred, details growing indistinct, engulfed by a white haze emanating from the pores of the formerly bright-hued scene, until all again was uncarved mist and dull desolation. But now, the desolation no longer felt so desolate. Now, it seemed more a mirror of the mind waiting to reflect a glancing imagination. “Beautiful things are ephemeral,” Zaliya said in a voice rich with sentiment, “but their beauty itself can never be destroyed. The moment was, is, and forever will be.”

(For other excerpts from “A Conspiracy of Wizards,” see The Hollow Mountain, The Wizards’ Eye, “Flesh Around A Whim”. and Prelude to “A Conspiracy of Wizards”. Also see The History of the Writing of “A Conspiracy of Wizards” and About “A Conspiracy of Wizards”.

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