Read an Excerpt
There it was, a city on a low, gentle hill, walls shining in the sunlight, houses clustered up against the outer and inner walls like chicks snuggling up to a gray hen. And underneath Mags, the solid, steady warmth of his Companion, jogging steadily toward those walls, taking him back to the only place he could even think of as home. By all rights, Mags should have been half out of his mind with joy to see the walls of Haven in the distance, but all he could muster was relief.
Partly, that was due to exhaustion. After all, a person doesn’t get kidnapped, drugged, escape, trek alone and without any real resources across a foreign wilderness, get caught again, get drugged again, and fight his way free without being exhausted by it. He’d gotten some rest on the journey back; his Herald and Healer escorts had been very careful to see that the trip had been taken at a slow pace when Mags showed no evidence that he was in a fret to be home. But exhaustion could be mental as well as physical, and he was suffering from both. His sleep was . . . not good. He woke a dozen times in the night, and his dreams were full of strange images, people he didn’t know, a life he had never imagined before all this. He knew what they were from, of course: the “memories” that his captors had forced into his head. And none of these so-called “memories” raised even a little interest in him. If anything, he would have liked to be rid of them. They were disturbing on a multitude of levels.
Dallen, his Companion, had been uncharacteristically quiet for the entire journey back to Haven. He was always a steadying presence, but he just hadn’t said much that wasn’t necessary. Not that the Companion was withholding himself in any way! On the contrary, it was a great relief to Mags to feel Dallen as a bulwark in the back of his mind when he woke in the night. And it wasn’t a disapproving sort of quiet, more the introspective sort.
When Mags had finally asked him what was going on, just this morning, he’d gotten a somewhat surprising answer. At least, it wasn’t anything that Mags would have guessed.
:I’m examining those— well, I suppose they are “memories”— that you got.: And that was all Dallen would say. So those memories . . . well, Mags supposed it was just as well someone was looking through them. It was the very last thing that he wanted to do.
It wasn’t the first time that Dallen had gone rummaging through Mags’ head, and Mags certainly didn’t mind, but it was the first time that the things Dallen had examined weren’t exactly events that Mags himself had lived through.
I wonder what he’s made of all of that . . . He’d probably shared it with other Companions at this point; it would be foolish not to. The men who had shoved those things into Mags’ skull had tried multiple times to destroy the heart of Valdemar— first by killing the King, then by destroying the Companions, then by kidnapping the daughter of the King’s Own Herald, Mags’ sweetheart, Amily. If anything could be learned by going through all those thoughts, Mags would let a hundred Companions rummage through them.
:So?: he asked, as they rode down into a valley and lost sight of the city for the moment. :Have you learned anything?:
Dallen made a sort of muttering noise, and Mags got the definite impression that he was not at all happy. A moment later, the Companion’s answer explained why. :Not very enlightening as to the origin of your pursuers. I suppose I would have to say “your countrymen”—
:Not mine!: Mags objected, so strongly that Dallen’s head jerked up, and the Companion turned to stare at him with one startled blue eye. :Mebbe I got the same blood, but I ain’t the same sorta person as they are! Valdemar’s my home!: No matter what those fiends had said, if there was one thing he was sure of, it was this— he had nothing whatsoever in common with a clan full of assassins who took whatever contract paid most, regardless of how heinous it was.
: . . . I apologize, Chosen,: Dallen said contritely— and immediately. :I should never have put it that way. Well. There is a lot you don’t really remember of what they poured into you, and I think that’s just as well. I can get at it with some work and share it back with you, but, honestly, it doesn’t seem to be particularly useful. It’s mostly about training, clan life, the clan hierarchy, and the bonding that those awful talismans of theirs creates. There’s nothing there that I can look at and say, “Aha! That’s where they come from!” I don’t recognize the language, even. Rolan doesn’t.:
It wasn’t the first time that Dallen had shared things at a great distance with Rolan; Mags’ Companion seemed to have an extraordinarily long “reach” when it came to Mindspeaking. And that gave Mags some comfort. Rolan knew . . . a lot. He’d been the Companion to the last three King’s Own Heralds, and as a Grove-Born, Mags had every reason to suppose that he had access to a wealth of information no other creature— except maybe a few gray old scholars— had ever seen.
:While I’ve heard of drugs that repress Mindspeaking, I’ve never heard of drugs that open you up to memories like that. The talisman they used . . . that seemed to be where those memories came from. Something of that sort is completely new to me and to Rolan as well.:
Dallen settled himself back down, as Mags brooded on what he’d said.
:Was there anythin’ at all that was useful?: he finally asked.
:Hints. I wish there had been more of their life outside of their training. Or more of their more— soteric training. Spy work. There were hints of things that could have been enormously useful to you in the path that Nikolas is mapping out for you. The techniques and tricks of an assassin are useful for a lot more than just killing people.:
It was too bad that Dallen had not managed to glean anything more useful, and yet Mags was just as glad he wasn’t going to have to re-experience those memories for the sake of learning . . . spycraft. Surely Nikolas could teach him everything he would ever possibly need to know. Mags would just as soon not think too hard about what had been stuffed into his head. The best of it was unpleasant, and the worst made his skin crawl. He was just glad that it was all— secondhand, as it were. Something that didn’t feel as if he had done it.
And he was just as glad that his parents had escaped that poisonous environment. He didn’t like to think what he would be like if he’d been raised that way, with every waking moment in earnest competition with other killers. Being a mine-slave had been bad enough; he still was not sure why it hadn’t turned him hard and cruel. But the training that his blood kin went through . . . that was worse. It was meant to turn someone hard and cruel. It was meant to turn someone into a ruthless killer who would not hesitate to murder a babe in its mother’s arms.
They rode up the slope, and now, again, above the farm fields and meadows that surrounded it, was Haven, close enough to make out people on the road leading in, the low Hill on which the Palace and the Collegia stood rising slightly above the rest of the city, secure behind their stone walls. And farther out, the city walls built of the same mellow stone. Not that the city needed walls anymore; evidence of that lay in the sprawl of city streets that spread out untidily outside them. The walls themselves were not even manned these days, except as a place for the City Guard to use as an easy path for patrolling, and a vantage point for looking down over the streets below. No enemy had come far enough into Valdemar to put the capital under siege in twenty generations or more. Only on the Borders did cities need to huddle inside their walls— and really, not even on all the Borders. Mostly the one with Karse, although there were places in the north and west where small, organized troops of bandits were enough of a threat that no one wanted to build outside a defensive wall.
Spreading out over what was ordinarily a quiet stretch of common land between the city and the river was a second city of tents and canvas booths, and ever since the city had come into view, traffic on the road had been growing thicker. This was a reminder, not that Mags needed one, of how long he’d been gone from Haven. He had been stolen away in early autumn. It was now almost winter. This was the Haven Harvest Fair, the last Harvest Fair in Valdemar for the year. Those merchants and peddlers disinclined to travel in the winter descended on the capital for one last spate of commerce before settling back into their shops and workshops for the winter months. Farmers brought their stock and their produce for merchants to store and sell all winter long. There was a Hiring Fair in one corner, a Horse Market in another. And, of course, where there was a Fair there were always entertainers. With all the other Harvest Fairs over, every traveling player and musician, every roving acrobat and tumbler, every single person who made his living on the road supplying amusement, all converged on Haven for the biggest Fair of the season.
It wasn’t the only fair, of course; there were four huge ones, one for each season, plus various other specialty fairs. But this was the biggest of them all. There would be another enormous Fair at Midwinter, but it would be only half the size of this one, if that; it would depend entirely on the weather. There would be no Hiring Fair at Midwinter as all seasonal hiring was done at the Spring and Harvest Fairs, and any entertainer who had any sort of venue for regular income would be sticking to it and not venturing to cross the country in the hard months of bitter cold.
Mags thought of the Midwinter Fair with much more fondness than the Harvest Fair— even though the Harvest Fair was generally the favorite of all the other Trainees. It had been at Mags’ first Midwinter Fair, ever, that he had met Master Soren, whose friendship had led to so much— including meeting Amily.
At the thought of Amily, he felt his throat closing; not even exhaustion could keep him from longing for her the way a starving man longs for meat. All of his doubts about whether or not he was in love with her had somehow vanished in those weeks he had been in captivity. If he had anything to say about it, he was never going to be separated from her again.
:I’d be jealous if she weren’t worth every bit of your regard,: Dallen said lightly, and teasingly. :And if I weren’t certain she feels the same about you.:
:Quiet, horse,: he managed, with real humor. :Do I get jealous of all the mares you chase?:
:And catch!: Dallen replied archly, and he curved his neck and flagged his tail to prove how handsome he was. :Even Rolan can’t keep up with me. I am a legend among the mares, I will have you know.: Mags chuckled and felt his spirits start to rise, albeit sluggishly.
It could not possibly have been a more perfect day for a homecoming. The air was just cold enough to still be pleasant as long as you were under a good wool cloak, the sky sported only a handful of fluffy white clouds. The air was rich with the scent of woodsmoke, fallen leaves, and the last hay crop drying in the fields. Virtually everyone on the road was in a high state of cheer. And how not? From everything that Mags knew, it had been a good and fruitful year, the harvests especially bountiful. Even if the winter was terrible, there was more than enough to sustain the entire Kingdom through it.
The crowds gave way to the easily identifiable three Heralds in their white uniforms who rode at the front of the little group, the remains of the troop of Guardsmen and Heralds that had met Mags and Dallen at the Karsite Border. There were the three Heralds, a Healer, and Mags now, which was a much more manageable number than the original rescue party. They’d been able to spend the nights in comfortable inns rather than tents.
It wasn’t surprising that people parted to let them pass. Mags might be in the Grays of a Trainee rather than the Whites of a Herald, but his Companion marked him as one of the Chosen. And a Healer’s Greens always got respect, no matter what he was riding on.
Mags must have seemed to be emerging from deep thought, for the Healer perked up and gave him a look of inquiry, which Mags answered with a nod. “I’m looking forward to finally meeting your friend Bear,” the Healer said cheerfully, urging his mule up beside Dallen. “He’s quite the genius with herbs, and I can learn a lot from him.”
That made one of the Heralds turn around in his saddle to stare a little. “But Raynard, you have a Gift!” Herald Farnten exclaimed. “Why on earth would you need herbs?”
“Because if I can get the same result using herbs as I can using my Gift, I am going to use herbs,” the Healer said patiently, as if he had been forced to make this same explanation far too many times in the past. “That way I save my energy for someone I can’t dose with herbs. You have Fetching Gift. Do you use it to get an apple from a bowl across the room?”
The Herald chewed his lip a moment. “You have a good point,” Herald Farnten replied, nodding. “I never thought of it that way. I just think of Healers as . . .” Then he shrugged. “Obviously, I’m an idiot.”
“Not so much an idiot as the first part . . . you didn’t think,” Raynard chided. “But don’t feel bad; that’s all too common, alas. I wish it weren’t. People like Bear would get a lot more respect.”
It cheered Mags immensely to hear his friend spoken of with such respect by a Healer who knew him only by reputation. Certainly poor Bear got none of that from his own family, who felt that a Healer without a Gift was no kind of Healer at all.
This engendered a lively discussion between Raynard and Farnten, which Mags stayed out of. They generally agreed with each other, but they seemed to enjoy these debates that were not quite arguments. He’d learned that much on the journey back up from the South. He supposed just some people just enjoyed arguing for the sake of it and somehow managed to not turn an argument into an excuse for an actual fight.
:Yes, well, civility is an art form not practiced nearly enough,: Dallen observed. :By the way, are you going to be civil enough to buy me a pocket pie on the way through the Fair?:
:I swear I would, but you know I haven’t so much as a bent pin in my pockets,: he apologized. :I promise I’ll beg the cooks for some for you when we get up to the Collegium. You deserve a thousand pocket pies for rescuing me.:
:I’m pleased to see you properly value my courage.: There was a chuckle under Dallen’s mind-voice. :Not to mention my astonishing good looks and sparkling personality.:
Mags found himself grinning and felt his spirits lightening some. :You’re almost as handsome as Raynard’s mule. And a hundred times better as company.:
He got a snort for an answer.
The road had entered the Harvest Fair, and it appeared that on the right was the quarter devoted to food and entertainment, and on the left was that devoted to livestock. Clashing bits of music competed with one another, showmen shouted out their attractions, and the aromas of a hundred different things to eat on the one side conflicted with the bawling of cattle, the whinnies of horses, the noise of flocks of chickens, geese, and ducks, the shouts of auctioneers, and the smells of animal sweat and dung on the other. Nearest to the road were the cattle pens, and it made Mags a little dizzy to think how much hay was going to feed the herds—and how much cleaning up it was taking to keep the pens healthy. Although, someone was surely profiting by that; healthy cow dung was valuable stuff, especially for those who had no cattle of their own and fields that would need a good manuring before winter set in.
It might seem a mistake to put the two quarters cheek by jowl, but men who had just concluded a bargain always wanted to drink over it, and the animal market had to go somewhere. At least the road divided them—and the rules of the Fair were quite strict about sanitation. Every pen had two boys whose only job was to make sure that the pens were clean enough you wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to walk across them without watching where you were stepping.
It did make for a very noisy passage, however, and a crowded one, as drovers competed with travelers for road space. It was almost enough to give him a headache at this point, and it made him weary all over again to be battered by so much noise and crowding. Much as he had always enjoyed a Fair, Mags was glad to get out of this one and onto the quieter city streets.
Unusually quiet, which was all due to the presence of the Fair. Even merchants who could be found at their shops from dawn to dusk had closed up and opened little booths if their stock-in-trade lent itself to impulse purchases. And often enough, even if the merchant didn’t close his regular shop, he’d send a ’prentice or two down to the Fair with a booth and some stock.
Mags breathed a sigh of relief as they found themselves on streets that held very little traffic. They were actually able to spread out a little, and the Companions, eager to be back in their comfortable stable and no longer kept to a slow walk by the press of the crowds, picked up their pace.
Mags knew Haven intimately at this point; probably no one knew these streets better than he did except the City Constables who patrolled them. But the familiarity was not giving him a great deal of comfort, and the closer he got to the Collegium, the less easy he felt.
And the more torn.
Because being home didn’t really mean being safe. Not now that he knew what he was up against.
On the one hand, he was almost desperately glad to be back with Amily, with his friends. But on the other hand— he’d been kidnapped practically right under their noses. All right, he had been taken from within Haven, not the inside the Palace walls, but . . . the assassins had penetrated the Palace grounds before. They could again. Now Mags truly knew what he was up against in their skills, and he was not going to underestimate them.
Was he just bringing danger back with him?
:At least you know after that dust-up with the Karsites, the assassins are not going to be tendering their services there anymore,: Dallen said, in an effort to comfort him. It was a good effort . . . and what Dallen had said was true. The Karsite priests who had hired the men who had taken him had no idea just what it was they had contracted with. When their goals turned mutually exclusive, well, it was not the Karsites who had triumphed, at least not as far as Mags had been able to tell.
:I don’ think they were lyin’ when they burned up the contract,: he replied, as the street took another turn upward, and the neighborhood became more genteel, with fewer shops and larger homes. That had been why he’d allowed himself to be infected with those dreadful memories. It had been a bit of a devil’s bargain, but the only one he could see his way clear to making at the time.
I won’t fight you if you pledge to leave Valdemar in peace and never attack the Royal Family and the Heralds again.
At the time, there was no prospect of rescue. The contract with the Karsites was still to be fulfilled, and he had known that his kidnappers would fulfill it unless he gave them a reason not to.
At the time, all he could think of was that his duty as a Herald was to sacrifice himself to protect the Kingdom. So he had made his offer, hoping that not fighting was enough of an incentive to them that they would agree to it.
They had. He still was not entirely certain why, except that maybe their faith in their talisman wasn’t all that strong. The fact that he hadn’t resisted, and had still managed to remain himself, might very well be the proof that their form of coercive Mind-magic couldn’t hold against someone who had training in the Heralds’ form.
:An’ I kept the letter of the bargain.: He had only pledged not to fight. He’d never pledged not to escape if he got the chance.
Plus . . . well . . . the Karsites had managed to thoroughly and completely muck things up for themselves by first aggressively confronting, then actually attacking the kidnappers. Mags had the notion that even if he’d escaped, his captors would be in no hurry to make another bargain with anyone as duplicitous as the Karsites.
So at least there was that much. He might still be in danger, but at least the Kingdom and its leaders were no longer in jeopardy from that source.
:I don’t think they could lie about that,: Dallen opined. :I don’t think it would ever occur to them to outright lie. The thing I picked out of those memories is that they are absolutely bound by their contracts and pledges unless the person they’ve contracted with violates the agreement first. Which the Karsites did. Who knows? Maybe they’d already seen that the Karsites were not to be trusted and counted on the priests violating the agreement before it became an issue. I suppose that is only logical. Who would trust a clan of assassins to keep their bargains and not get bought out if they didn’t have a stellar reputation? If you can call a reputation for that sort of thing “stellar.”:
Mags considered that. :Yes, but . . . they made me that promise before the Karsite priests attacked them.:
Dallen was silent. :That’s true . . . but I still don’t think they are going to renege on what they promised you. Valdemar turned out to be a lot nastier to deal with than any of them expected. And we know now that they want you, specifically. Taking contracts from the Karsites was just a means to finance their deeper scheme, and they’ve discovered that the Karsites will break their word without a second thought.:
Mags was not so sure about that . . . but then again, it was Dallen who had been sifting through his memories. Right now, the only things he could remember clearly were ones that would actually be useful to him. Then there were things that were muddy— like the attitudes these people had. And Dallen had just said there were things he had shoved away so hard he couldn’t consciously remember them at all.
Dallen might be in a better position to judge than he was.
He certainly hoped so.
By this time, they were out of the district of merely prosperous houses and into the one of extremely wealthy mansions— assing right by Master Soren’s home, in fact. The place was shuttered up, and no surprise, really, with the Harvest Fair going on. Master Soren must be up to his eyebrows in business right now; he was involved in every aspect of the cloth trade since he was on the King’s Council, and he would deem it his duty to personally oversee trade at this Harvest Fair. He certainly couldn’t wait around his own doorstep on the off chance that Mags would be coming by. And Mags was quite certain that as soon as his business allowed, Soren would personally come to see that his young friend was all right.
Still, he felt a faint disappointment, which he quickly scolded himself out of.
It ain’t as if you’re all that important, either, my lad! he reminded himself. And since all the Companions and their Chosen up on the Hill had certainly known to the quarter-candlemark when he would be arriving back at the Collegium, he knew he could be certain of a warm welcome from his friends.
:You very nearly got a warm welcome on the road,: Dallen put in, as they passed from the homes of those who were merely wealthy to those who were wealthy and highborn. :It was only being reminded that those who skipped classes would get demerits that prevented a general stampede through the Harvest Fair.:
Mags smothered a laugh. :That could have been awkward.:
:A bit more than awkward. Having us galloping through the Fair would be likely to set all the animals in an absolute uproar, and not all the Animal Mindspeakers on the Hill would have been able to keep them quiet.: Dallen shook his head vigorously. :No, you’ll just have to put up with an avalanche at the— h, look, here it comes now.:
“Here it came” indeed. Ahead of them, the main gates to the walls around the Palace and Collegia sprang open, and a flood of Companions— some with Gray-clad Trainees, a few with Heralds in full Whites, and many carrying double with people in Healer Trainee Green, Bard Trainee Rust, and Guard Blue— came pouring out. There were even a few ordinary horses amid the crush, which poured down the road and surrounded the five riders in a shouting, laughing mob.
And then the shouting, laughing mob, having engulfed their prey, turned around and carried the five back up through the gates in a relentless tide of exuberance.