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The air tasted wrong.
Not like yestereve's fish course lingering beyond its welcome, nor like the stinks of backed-up palace plumbing. Nothing so simple, so ordinary, could taste so wrong. She hesitated, breaking the rhythm of her stride to sample the air more carefully, and her entourage stumbled into confusion around her.
"What is it, my Reinine?" one of them asked.
After six years, she had finally got past the urge to look around to find whom the courtiers addressed, had finally grasped the idea they were talking to her. To Kallista Varyl, Godstruck Naitan of the One, Ruler of all Adara from the Devil's Neck and the Jeroan Sea in the north to the Mountains of the Wind in the south, from Dostu prinsipality far to the east to Emtai in the west. She was Kallista Reinine.
She still didn't feel like a Reinine, but she'd become fairly adept at pretending. And after six years thecourt had mostly stopped sayingthings like "but Serysta Reinine always--" or "a Reinine must never--" They had learned that Kallista Reinine had her own way of doing things.
Her name, the touch on her elbow, brought her out of her thoughts. She looked up at the chief of her security and answered the question in his eyes by spinning a tendril of magic from him. His mouth quirked in the tiniest of smiles and he moved a step closer, motioning her other bodyguards into tighter formation with a sweep of his eyes and a turn of his head. Torchay Omvir had been her bodyguard for more years than she liked to remember and one of the first of her iliasti, her temple-bound mates. He was also father to her eldest child.
"Trouble, myReinine?" Leyja Byrek rested a hand on the hilt of her sword, eyes scouring the palace around them for enemies. Sunlight pooled just under the tall windows that lined one side of the corridor in Summerglen Palace here in the heart of the capital city, making the white marble floor almost too bright to look at.
The last of Kallista's godmarked, magic-linked mates, Leyja had been bodyguard and ilias to the Reinine who had come before. Tall and freckled, with hair a lighter red than Torchay's near-crimson mane, she could have passed for his kinswoman. But Torchay hailed from the Devil's Neck prinsipality of Korbin while Leyja's home was in the coastal swamps of Kimishen prinsipality, near the port of Kishkim.
"Maybe trouble. Maybe not." Kallista gave as much of an answer as she knew. She swept a hand forward. "Let's move on. I grow impatient for my luncheon."
She spilled magic gently into the air, sending it to search out the tastes and find the wrongness. Her midday meal was waiting, her favorite time of day when all the sycophants and hangers-on were dismissed, and her family gathered. All ten members of their ilian, plus the nine children.
Thenoisetendedtowarddeafening,themannersnon-existent--andthat was without considering the children. But the whole family was together.
Her councilors hated it, begrudging any of the time between the chimes of the countless clocks spent on anything besides Adara's affairs--and hence their own--especially at midday. But Kallista was adamant. She was ilias and parent before she was Reinine. She could delegate many of the Reinine's duties. She would not delegate her role as parent to her children.
A flicker of motion ahead caught her attention. Had the magic found something?
Shechecked,foundherspellburblingmerrilyalong,pokingintocorners, sweeping up desiccated husks of expired spells cast by various naitani in the palace, including herself. Torchay's shout explained what she'd seen.
"Girls!" His roar could surely be heard halfway across the city of Arikon. "Stop right there."
Two small bodies froze in midstep where they'd been scurrying along, hugging the corridor wall leading to the family dining room.
Kallista's twins hunched their shoulders in anticipation of the scold about to come thundering down on them.
Torchay strode forward, catching each girl by the arm to lead them farther from the company of courtiers. Kallista turned and inclined her head at the entourage. "I leave you here, prinsipi, friends."
Someone protested. Someone always protested. Kallista gave them the narrow-eyed glare she'd been working on for the last six or so years. Apparently she didn't have it yet perfected, because the protests didn't stop until Leyja glared at them. Her troop escort remained to make sure the courtiers actually stayed where they'd been left, while Kallista stretched her steps to catch up with Torchay and the little girls.
"You know better than comin' off alone into the palace, do you no'?" His north mountains accent thick with the strength of his emotion, Torchay was barely getting into his scold.
Kallista folded her arms and scowled to hide her trembling reaction to the thought of what might have happened to her precious daughters, even here in the Reinine's palace tucked into the heart of Adara's capital city.
Six-year-old Lorynda gazed up at her father, waiting patiently for him to be done with his lecture. Her night-dark baby hair had fallen out and come back in auburn waves by her second birthday. Already she was taller than her fraternal twin Rozite, fidgeting next to her. Rozite's hair had bleached yellow-white in the summer sun, like her father's, but now that fall had arrived, it would be darkening again over the winter.
Kallista took pity on her. "Do you have anything to say for yourselves, girls?"
Rozite's eyes flashed to hers in relief. "We wouldn't have gone, Mami, we wouldn't, but we can't find Omri."
Kallista eased her alarm with the reminder that her son's favorite game was hide-and-seek. With a flick of her eyes, she summoned Leyja to organize the search for their wild child. Omri was three, almost four, with an insatiable curiosity and an uncanny ability to move from one place to another with the speed of his mother's native lightning magic and the silence of nothing Kallista knew.
"Search the whole palace," she murmured, "but keep it as quiet as possible. I don't want anyone taking advantage."
"No." Leyja's expression was grim. She had always taken her bodyguard duties as seriously as Torchay took his, but when it came to protecting their children, she became a fire-breathing guardian that no one dared cross. None of the children were of her body, but it seemed to make no difference to Leyja.
Keldrey Borr arrived out of breath from the family quarters to fall on the twins with another scold. As both ilias and bodyguard, he supervised security for the family quarters.
"Wait, Kel." Kallista put a hand out. "Omri's missing."
"I know. I got the whole staff scouring quarters for the little devil."
"But--" She gave her daughters a stern look. "Why were you looking for him here, girls? What makes you think he's not at home?"
Lorynda bit her lip. Rozite stared at her shuffling feet. Finally, Lorynda spoke. "We were playing hide-and-seek with him because he wanted to come find you, Mami. Or Papi Obed. He didn't want to wait for lunch."
"He wanted lunch early," Rozite said. "So we were playing with him so he would wait."
"But what if he came to hide in the lunch room?" Lorynda was biting her lip again.
Keldrey gave them a little shake. "Why didn't you come tell me?"
"Omri's our brother," Rozite blurted out. "We didn't--"
"We didn't want him to get in trouble," Lorynda finished for her twin.
"Well, now it's all three of you in trouble." Keldrey gave them another gentle shake as he spoke to Kallista. "I'll look after these two. You go find that little imp."
Kallista glanced over her shoulder at the courtiers still standing half a corridor behind them, blocked by the guards from advancing, eagerly watching everything she said and did. Resentment swelled in a relentless internal tide. She'd never wanted to be Reinine, never asked for it. She wanted to live her own life with her family, without everyone gawking at her, gossiping about her, wanting things from her.
She should never have agreed to move the family luncheon from her private quarters to a state dining room. Just because it required a good fifteen ticks to walk from the audience chamber and workrooms to the family's quarters and another fifteen to walk back was no reason to bring the children out of that secure environment. The sleeves of her red overrobe billowing around her, she waved her bodyguards on. She needed to be away from those grasping busybodies before she throttled one of them. And she needed to find her son.
Torchay led the way, slightly to her right, with Leyja on her left and the third bodyguard--the new one whose name she could never remember and who was too, too young--at her back. Since the rebellion that had ended in the assassination of the Reinine before her, Kallista always had at least three bodyguards on duty. It had been several years since they'd proved necessary, but she still had them.
Leyja whirled, sword half-drawn, at the sound of boots running up behind them, then slid it back into the scabbard. Kallista already knew through the magic linking her to her godmarked iliasti that Omri's father approached. She turned, walked backward a few steps till Obed reached them.
"Have you found him?" He caught Kallista up in a quick, fierce hug and kiss.
"The twins think he's in the dining room." She walked faster as Obed fell in on her right side. Obed im-Shakiri might act as the family's man of business and trade like any merchant, but his sword-skills were the equal of the best bodyguards.
"I swear, even I was not this bad as a child." Obed shook his head. "I did get into a great deal of trouble, yes, but not this much."
Torchay grinned over his shoulder at them while he strode down the corridor. "The two of you are a dangerous combination."
Before Kallista had time for retort, the magic screamed.
Danger. Inside the palace. Kallista froze motionless, her body unable to move while her mind scrabbled to read what the magic told her.
"Oh dear heaven, the dining room." She burst past Torchay at a dead run.
Please, Goddess, Omri wasn't in there with it.
Torchay and Obed overtook her, running ahead. Leyja and the new guard kept pace with Kallista. She opened her senses to the dining room, searching as they reached it. The men grasped the handles to open the doors, their motion as simultaneous and synchronized as ever.
"Don't!" she screamed, snatching at their magic to stop them, in case fear for their son overrode her order.
"Why?" Obed shuddered with the need for action.
Her little twist of magic had found the wrongness, the danger, but it hadn't been able to name it. Now she could.
"It's a murder knot." She fought to control the pounding of her terrified heart. "West magic. Assassin's magic."
"Goddess, will they never leave us alone?" Obed's cry echoed her own heart's plea.
"For a group that claims to hate West magic, the Barbs certainly seem to have no problem with usin' it." Torchay sounded as bitter as she felt. "Why won't they just die?"
"Because we didn't get all the demons." Kallista had broken the back of the Barb-led rebellion six years ago by destroying the demons who'd driven it. All but one. She'd been hunting it ever since, but it had eluded all her magic-driven skill. And she didn't have time now for guilt or regrets.
"Is Omri in there with it?" Leyja asked. "What will it do if he is? What is a murder knot? I've never heard of such a thing."
Kallista called up every bit of rumor and fact she'd ever heard about the deadly magic. "They're part magic, part poison bomb and can be spelled to seek out a single person, or to eliminate every living thing in a given space. The magic empowers the seeker part of it and adds to the deadliness of the poison. They key off motion."
"Oh, sweet Goddess." Obed's hand tightened on hers in a crushing grip. She hadn't noticed taking it. "Is Omri in there with that thing?"
"I don't know. They can also be constructed to track magic. If I look, the magic could draw the knot to him. If he's there."
"So what do we do?" Torchay's twin Heldring-forged short swords were in his hands, a sure sign of his agitation.
Kallista had to think. Panic wouldn't save her son. She drew on the magic her godmarked iliasti carried within themselves, magic only she could use. The hot rush of power calmed her.
"Omri likes to hide," she said. "He's good at it, at being quiet and still, so if he is in the dining room, he's probably safe."
At the "probably," Leyja moaned, a tiny fragment of sound. Torchay set his hand on her shoulder and squeezed, taking comfort as much as giving it.
Kallista bit her lip, looking past them back down the corridor as the rest of their godmarked arrived from quarters. Each of the eight carried magic with distinctive qualities. As the Godstruck and only naitan among them, Kallista could shape their magic, weaving the different and necessary qualities into a whole strong enough to destroy demons. If she and her iliasti could do that, then surely they could save their child.
Kallista drew hard on her iliasti's magic, till she felt near to floating away with it. Over the past several years, she hadn't needed to use this much at one time, and using it now stretched her, challenged her.
"Stay here," she said. "One of you--Obed, come with me to grab Omri and get him away while I deal with the murder spell."
"I'll be comin' too," Torchay said. "In case there's somethin' else waitin' for you."
She nodded, not surprised. After sixteen years at her side, Torchay was as much a part of her as her magic. She divided the magic she'd called; some to find Omri and protect him, some for shielding the boy's rescuers, and the rest to deal with the murderspell and its poison.
"Ready?" Kallista met Torchay's eyes, then Obed's, deliberately not looking at the others. She knew what she would see--the same worry and need to act that she felt. But she would not risk any more of them. She took a deep breath, nodded, and the two men opened the dining room doors.
They blew into the room, slamming the heavy doors shut behind them as the knots--two of them--shot through the air, one from either side of the long, column-lined room, bright with light from the windows behind the columns. They resembled little balls or knotted buttons, just smaller than a walnut, and they glowed a faint poisonous yellow.
"Don't move!" Kallista fumbled a little, getting magic around both knots and pulling it tight. Damn it, she should not be this out of practice. She'd been focusing her magic too much on farseeing and truthsaying rather than more physical types of magic like holding or moving objects. She was ready to do two things at once, but one of them had been meant to find Omri.
Torchay and Obed stood frozen on either side of her, waiting for her signal while she organized her magic, siphoning off another bit from them to search out the boy. A giggle echoed around the empty room.
"Omri, stay there, son." Obed called out. "Hide. Hide well."
A third poison-bearing knot flashed toward them from the decoration at the top of a column. It must have been hidden there, waiting for some trigger to send it into action. Torchay knocked it away with the flat of his right-hand sword. Kallista looped magic around it, snatching it to a mid-air stop.
"Find me, Papi!" Omri's voice came from the far end of the room.
Obed looked at Kallista, the terror in his eyes mirroring what she felt. What if there were more murder knots? Already she struggled to hold three of them against their magic-spelled need to reach the necessary proximity and burst into a puff of poison. She should have never let her magic practice slide, no matter how peaceful Adara had seemed.
"Go," she said through lips as still as she could make them. "Get him out of here." She spun out a bit of magic to make sure. "He's inside the sideboard holding the cakes. There's a door to the kitchens just beyond."
"Don't let the knots touch you and don't let them get too close. Use your sword. Hit them to me. I'll catch them."
"I will. Take care of Omri."
Obed nodded once, slowly. Kallista felt his love for her and their child flood the magic-born connection between them and sent her own love back the same way. She tightened her grip on the deathspells and spread magic to trap any others.
"Papi!" Omri called, making her heart jump and pound. "Come find me."
In a swirl of black robes, Obed sprinted the length of the room. He knocked aside a fourth knot with his Heldring saber. Kallista captured it, beginning to feel a faint quiver at the strain. She followed, the imprisoned knots bobbing around her like rebellious dogs on leads. Torchay mirrored her, at her side as always. She didn't follow too closely, but close enough that Torchay could help Obed if needed.
The sideboard door opened and Omri fell half out of it, bracing his hands against the floor, his ink-black hair all in his eyes. "Here I am, Papi," Omri announced to the world.
"No!" Obed bellowed, leaping across the remaining distance.
A fifth poisonous ball flashed into action. Kallista screamed. Torchay shouted. He leaped forward, swinging wildly at the tiny, glowing button. Obed scooped up the child, his billowing robes seeming to distract the spell. Torchay slapped the knot to the ground with a sword and stepped on it to hold it there as Obed slammed out the kitchen door with Omri in his arms.
"Have you got this one, K'lista?" Torchay shifted his weight. "I think it's trying to burrow through my boot."
"Get off it then." Kallista took hold with her magic and at the same time, reached out to seize a sixth knot before it could leave its flower arrangement hiding place. Was that all of them?
She bound the spells into a mid-air bunch, save for the one Torchay had crushed, which seemed to have lost its aerial ability, and sent the magic to scour the room clean. She found one more murder knot tucked into the frame above the servants' door where Obed had exited. Seven spells. The number of misfortune.
Kallista let curses fall from her mouth as she fought to control the deathspells. Only the seventh gave her no trouble. The "seeker" part of its spell hadn't yet been triggered. But it felt as evil as the rest of them. The knots made her skin crawl with an ugly, blighted, invisible something that oozed off them like stink off old fish, creating a miasma of awfulness around them.
"Even after all the legends I've seen come to life, I thought these things might not be real." Torchay stood glaring at the hovering, quivering knots, body balanced and ready, short swords in his hands. "I should have known better."
"North Academy has records. We studied weapons like this, even though supposedly no one had proper magic to make them, not in a hundred years or so. We knew they were real." Kallista put her gloved hands into the fetid atmosphere and gathered up the little balls, hoping it would be easier to use her magic to keep them from bursting open if she held them in her hands. It still took both magic and physical strength to keep them prisoned.
"Let me help." His lower sword back in its sheath, Torchay had a hand out to take some of the knots. His bare hand.
"No!" She didn't want him near the evil things. "You're not gloved. This poison can soak through the skin's surface. You can't risk it." Kallista still wore gloves in public, like the soldier naitan she'd been.
Military magic was considered too deadly to risk getting loose among the populace. Any covering over the hands stopped magic, save for that under the most exquisite control. But gloves hadn't stopped Kallista's ability to throw lightning, the magic she'd been born with. They had even less effect on the Godstruck magic she'd wielded for the past six years. Still, they made people more comfortable around her, so she wore them.
"Well then, smash the things and be done with it." Torchay's left-hand sword was in his hand again.
"I'm trying." She pried at the deathspell's protections. They were sealed tight, like oysters in their shells. How could she immobilize the things without bursting them and releasing the poison contained within? She drew more magic, and then more, finally shaping it into a great fist and squeezing until the knots were crushed flat.
Carefully, she pulled her gloves off, turning one inside the other to contain the terrible stuff. The awfulness seemed to cling, but she didn't dare try to shake it off. Who knew what it was or where it would fly? She rolled her gloves into one of the napkins laid ready on the table.
"No luncheon in here today." She led the way to the doors where the rest of their family waited. "Have the kitchens send everything to our quarters."
"Yes, my Reinine." Torchay held the door for her.
She sighed and shifted her shoulders as the Reinine's robe of responsibility settled its weight back into place. Her captain's ribbons, even the major's gold ribbons she'd worn for a short time, hadn't weighed nearly so much. Not so much that she'd minded Torchay calling her "Major." Being called "Reinine" by her mates was different.
The crowd outside the dining room was larger than they'd left it. Obed had made his way around to join the rest of the ilian with Omri clinging to his neck, excited and frightened by all the attention. All of their troop of bodyguards had arrived, along with a squadron of regular soldiers. Her administrator, the High Steward, hovered in the background.
"General, Steward--" Kallista held out the napkin-wrapped bundle. "Get a dispatch bag to hold this. It's the remnants of seven deathspell murder knots."
"Seven," whispered around the antechamber from a dozen throats.
"I want our best people on it. Gweric first, then whoever else we have." Kallista named the eyeless Tibran youth she'd brought back from their first demon-hunting quest. Grown man now, he was their oldest West naitan, the best of any at sniffing out demon-taint. She shifted her shoulders against the odd discomfort she felt. "Anything that can be learned about who made it, where and how, I want to know. And find out how they got it into that room, if you would be so kind."
"Yes, my Reinine." The general bowed low as she held open the hurriedly located leather bag for Kallista to drop her wrapped gloves inside.
"Tell them to be careful. The poison is as much magic as chemical." She used the new word created by those studying the physical properties and interactions of all sorts of strange things from ground rock to salt to--she didn't know what. One of her first projects after becoming Reinine had been to open academies for such studies. The Tibrans had once invaded with non-magical cannons and gunpowder. Adara needed to know more than merely magic.
"Now." Kallista held her arms out to her iliasti and embraced the first one to reach her. "I am starving. Lunch. In quarters."
"But, Majesty, it's already half of noon." The head of her council quivered in protest. "We are meeting delegates from the far south at first chime after."
"Postpone the meeting. I am having lunch with my family."
"But, my Reinine--"
Kallista ignored the protests. She ignored the hovering sense of impending catastrophe as well, the bad taste lingering in her mouth, tucking it into the back of her mind to deal with later. The murder spells changed everything.
But the children were waiting.