- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Some people are skilled, and some are lucky, but at that moment Mince realized he was neither. Failing to cut the merchant’s purse strings, he froze with one hand still cupping the bag. He knew the pickpocket’s creed allowed for only a single touch, and he had dutifully slipped into the crowd after two earlier attempts. A third failure meant they would bar him from another meal. Mince was too hungry to let go.
With his hands still under the merchant’s cloak, he waited. The man remained oblivious.
Should I try again?
The thought was insane, but his empty stomach won the battle over reason. In a moment of desperation, Mince pushed caution aside. The leather seemed oddly thick. Sawing back and forth, he felt the purse come loose, but something was not right. It took only an instant for Mince to realize his mistake. Instead of purse strings, he had sliced through the merchant’s belt. Like a hissing snake, the leather strap slithered off the fat man’s belly, dragged to the cobblestones by the weight of his weapons.
Mince did not breathe or move as the entire span of his ten disappointing years flashed by.
Run! the voice inside his head screamed as he realized there was a heartbeat, perhaps two, before his victim—
The merchant turned.
He was a large, soft man with saddlebag cheeks reddened by the cold. His eyes widened when he noticed the purse in Mince’s hand. “Hey, you!” The man reached for his dagger, and surprise filled his face when he found it missing. Groping for his other weapon, he spotted them both lying in the street.
Mince heeded the voice of his smarter self and bolted. Common sense told him the best way to escape a rampaging giant was to head for the smallest crack. He plunged beneath an ale cart outside The Blue Swan Inn and slid to the far side. Scrambling to his feet, he raced for the alley, clutching the knife and purse to his chest. The recent snow hampered his flight, and his small feet lost traction rounding a corner.
“Thief! Stop!” The shouts were not nearly as close as he had expected.
Mince continued to run. Finally reaching the stable, he ducked between the rails of the fence framing the manure pile. Exhausted, he crouched with his back against the far wall. The boy shoved the knife into his belt and stuffed the purse down his shirt, leaving a noticeable bulge. Panting amidst the steaming piles, he struggled to hear anything over the pounding in his ears.
“There you are!” Elbright shouted, skidding in the snow and catching himself on the fence. “What an idiot. You just stood there—waiting for the fat oaf to turn around. You’re a moron, Mince. That’s it—that’s all there is to it. I honestly don’t know why I bother trying to teach you.”
Mince and the other boys referred to thirteen-year-old Elbright as the Old Man. In their small band only he wore an actual cloak, which was dingy gray and secured with a tarnished metal broach. Elbright was the smartest and most accomplished of their crew, and Mince hated to disappoint him.
Laughing, Brand arrived only moments later and joined Elbright at the fence.
“It’s not funny,” Elbright said.
“But—he—” Brand could not finish as laughter consumed him.
Like the other two, Brand was dirty, thin, and dressed in mismatched clothing of varying sizes. His pants were too long and snow gathered in the folds of the rolled-up bottoms. Only his tunic fit properly. Made from green brocade and trimmed with fine supple leather, it fastened down the front with intricately carved wooden toggles. A year younger than the Old Man, he was a tad taller and a bit broader. In the unspoken hierarchy of their gang, Brand came second—the muscle to Elbright’s brains. Kine, the remaining member of their group, ranked third, because he was the best pickpocket. This left Mince unquestionably at the bottom. His size matched his position, as he stood barely four feet tall and weighed little more than a wet cat.
“Stop it, will ya?” the Old Man snapped. “I’m trying to teach the kid a thing or two. He could have gotten himself killed. It was stupid—plain and simple.”
“I thought it was brilliant.” Brand paused to wipe his eyes. “I mean, sure it was dumb, but spectacular just the same. The way Mince just stood there blinking as the guy goes for his blades. But they ain’t there ’cuz the little imbecile done cut the git’s whole bloody belt off! Then…” Brand struggled against another bout of laughter. “The best part is that just after Mince runs, the fat bastard goes to chase him, and his breeches fall down. The guy toppled like a ruddy tree. Wham. Right into the gutter. By Mar, that was hilarious.”
Elbright tried to remain stern, but Brand’s recounting soon had them all laughing.
“Okay, okay, quit it.” Elbright regained control and went straight to business. “Let’s see the take.”
Mince fished out the purse and handed it over with a wide grin. “Feels heavy,” he proudly stated.
Elbright drew open the top and scowled after examining the contents. “Just coppers.”
Brand and Elbright exchanged disappointed frowns and Mince’s momentary elation melted. “It felt heavy,” he repeated, mainly to himself.
“What now?” Brand asked. “Do we give him another go?”
Elbright shook his head. “No, and all of us will have to avoid Church Square for a while. Too many people saw Mince. We’ll move closer to the gates. We can watch for new arrivals and hope to get lucky.”
“Do ya want—” Mince started.
“No. Give me back my knife. Brand is up next.”
The boys jogged toward the palace walls, following the trail that morning patrols had made in the fresh snow. They circled east and entered Imperial Square. People from all over Avryn were arriving for Wintertide, and the central plaza bustled with likely prospects.
“There,” Elbright said, pointing toward the city gate. “Those two. See ’em? One tall, the other shorter.”
“They’re a sorry-looking pair,” Mince said.
“Exhausted,” Brand agreed.
“Probably been riding all night in the storm,” Elbright said with a hungry smile. “Go on, Brand, do the old helpful stableboy routine. Now, Mince, watch how this is done. It might be your only hope, as you’ve got no talent for purse cutting.”
Royce and Hadrian entered Imperial Square on ice-laden horses. Defending against the cold, the two appeared as ghosts shrouded in snowy blankets. Despite wearing all they had, they were ill-equipped for the winter roads, much less the mountain passes that lay between Ratibor and Aquesta. The all-night snowstorm had only added to their hardship. As the two drew their horses to a stop, Royce noticed Hadrian breathing into his cupped hands. Neither of them had winter gloves. Hadrian had wrapped his fingers in torn strips from his blanket, while Royce opted for pulling his hands into the shelter of his sleeves. The sight of his own handless arms disturbed Royce as they reminded him of the old wizard. The two had learned the details of his murder while passing through Ratibor. Assassinated late one night, Esrahaddon had been silenced forever.
They had meant to get gloves, but as soon as they had arrived in Ratibor, they saw announcements proclaiming the Nationalist leader’s upcoming execution. The empire planned to publicly burn Degan Gaunt in the imperial capital of Aquesta as part of the Wintertide celebrations. After Hadrian and Royce had spent months traversing high seas and dark jungles seeking Gaunt, to have found his whereabouts tacked up to every tavern door in the city was as much a blow as a blessing. Fearing some new calamity might arise to stop them from finally reaching him, they left early the next morning, long before the trade shops opened.
Unwrapping his scarf, Royce drew back his hood and looked around. The snow-covered palace took up the entire southern side of the square, while shops and vendors dominated the rest. Furriers displayed trimmed capes and hats. Shoemakers cajoled passers-by, offering to oil their boots. Bakers tempted travelers with snowflake-shaped cookies and white-powdered pastries. And colorful banners were everywhere announcing the upcoming festival.
Royce had just dismounted when a boy ran up. “Take your horses, sirs? One night in a stable for just a silver each. I’ll brush them down myself and see they get good oats too.”
Dismounting and pulling back his own hood, Hadrian smiled at the boy. “Will you sing them a lullaby at night?”
“Certainly, sir,” the boy replied without losing a beat. “It will cost you two coppers more, but I do have a very fine voice, I does.”
“Any stable in the city will quarter a horse for five coppers,” Royce challenged.
“Not this month, sir. Wintertide pricing started three days back. Stables and rooms fill up fast. Especially this year. You’re lucky you got here early. In another two weeks, they’ll be stocking horses in the fields behind hunters’ blinds. The only lodgings will be on dirt floors, where people will be stacked like cordwood for five silvers each. I know the best places and the lowest costs in the city. A silver is a good price right now. In a few days it’ll cost you twice that.”
Royce eyed him closely. “What’s your name?”
“Brand the Bold they call me.” He straightened up, adjusting the collar of his tunic.
Hadrian chuckled and asked, “Why is that?”
“ ’Cuz I don’t never back down from a fight, sir.”
“Is that where you got your tunic?” Royce asked.
The boy looked down as if noticing the garment for the first time. “This old thing? I got five better ones at home. I’m just wearing this rag so I don’t get the good ones wet in the snow.”
“Well, Brand, do you think you can take these horses to The Bailey Inn at Hall and Coswall and stable them there?”
“I could indeed, sir. And a fine choice, I might add. It’s run by a reputable owner charging fair prices. I was just going to suggest that very place.”
Royce gave him a smirk. He turned his attention to two boys who stood at a distance, pretending not to know Brand. Royce waved for them to come over. The boys appeared hesitant, but when he repeated the gesture, they reluctantly obliged.
“What are your names?” he asked.
“Elbright, sir,” the taller of the two replied. This boy was older than Brand and had a knife concealed beneath his cloak. Royce guessed he was the real leader of their group and had sent Brand over to make the play.
“Mince, sir,” said the other, who looked to be the youngest and whose hair showed evidence of having recently been cut with a dull knife. The boy wore little more than rags of stained, worn wool. His shirt and pants exposed the bright pink skin of his wrists and shins. Of all his clothing, the item that fit best was a torn woven bag draped over his shoulders. The same material wrapped his feet, secured around his ankles by twine.
Hadrian checked through the gear on his horse, removed his spadone blade, and slid it into the sheath, which he wore on his back beneath his cloak.
Royce handed two silver tenents to the first boy, then, addressing all three, said, “Brand here is going to have our horses stabled at the Bailey and reserve us a room. While he’s gone, you two will stay here and answer some questions.”
“But, ah, sir, we can’t—” Elbright started, but Royce ignored him.
“When Brand returns with a receipt from the Bailey, I will pay each of you a silver. If he doesn’t return, if instead he runs off and sells the horses, I shall slit both of your throats and hang you on the palace gate by your feet. I’ll let your blood drip into a pail, then paint a sign with it to notify the city that Brand the Bold is a horse thief. Then I’ll track him down, with the help of the imperial guard and other connections I have in this city, and see he gets the same treatment.” Royce glared at the boy. “Do we understand each other, Brand?”
The three boys stared at him with mouths agape.
“By Mar! Not a very trusting fellow, are ya, sir?” Mince said.
Royce grinned ominously. “Make the reservation under the names of Grim and Baldwin. Run along now, Brand, but do hurry back. You don’t want your friends to worry.”
Brand led the horses away while the other two boys watched him go. Elbright gave a little shake of his head when Brand looked back.
“Now, boys, why don’t you tell us what is planned for this year’s festivities?”
“Well…” Elbright started, “I suspect this will be the most memorable Wintertide in a hundred years on account of the empress’s marriage and all.”
“Marriage?” Hadrian asked.
“Yes, sir. I thought everyone knew about that. Invitations went out months ago, and all the rich folk, even kings and queens, have been coming from all over.”
“Who’s she marrying?” Royce asked.
“Lard Ethelred,” Mince said.
Elbright lowered his voice. “Shut it, Mince.”
“He’s a snake.”
Elbright growled and cuffed him on the ear. “Talk like that will get you dead.” Turning back to Royce and Hadrian, he said, “Mince has a bit of a crush on the empress. He’s not too pleased with the old king, on account of him marrying her and all.”
“She’s like a goddess, she is,” Mince declared, misty-eyed. “I seen her once. I climbed to that roof for a better view when she gave a speech last summer. She shimmered like a star, she did. By Mar, she’s beautiful. Ya can tell she’s the daughter of Novron. I’ve never seen anyone so pretty.”
“See what I mean? Mince is a bit crazy when it comes to the empress,” Elbright apologized. “He’s got to get used to Regent Ethelred running things again. Not that he ever really stopped, on account of the empress being sick and all.”
“She was hurt by the beast she killed up north,” Mince explained. “Empress Modina was dying from the poison, and healers came from all over, but no one could help. Then Regent Saldur prayed for seven days and nights without food or water. Maribor showed him that the pure heart of a servant girl named Amilia from Tarin Vale had the power to heal the empress. And she did. Lady Amilia has been nursing the empress back to health and doing a fine job.” He took a breath, his eyes brightened, and a smile grew across his face.
“Mince, enough,” Elbright said.
“What’s all this about?” Royce asked, pointing at bleachers that were being built in the center of the square. “They aren’t holding the wedding out here, are they?”
“No, the wedding will be at the cathedral. Those are for folks to watch the execution. They’re gonna kill the rebel leader.”
“Yeah, that piece of news we heard about,” Hadrian said softly.
“Oh, so you came for the execution?”
“More or less.”
“I’ve got our spots all picked out,” Elbright said. “I’m gonna have Mince go up the night before and save us a good seat.”
“Hey, why do I have to go?” Mince asked.
“Brand and I have to carry all the stuff. You’re too small to help and Kine’s still sick, so you need to—”
“But you have the cloak and it’s gonna be cold just sitting up there.”
The two boys went on arguing, but Royce could tell Hadrian was no longer listening. His friend’s eyes scanned the palace gates, walls, and front entrance. Hadrian was counting guards.
Rooms at the Bailey were the same as at every inn—small and drab, with worn wooden floors and musty odors. A small pile of firewood was stacked next to the hearth in each room but never enough for the whole night. Patrons were forced to buy more at exorbitant prices if they wanted to stay warm. Royce made his usual rounds, circling the block, watching for faces that appeared too many times. He returned to their room confident that no one had noticed their arrival—at least, no one who mattered.
“Room eight. Been here almost a week,” Royce said.
“A week? Why so early?” Hadrian asked.
“If you were living in a monastery for ten months a year, wouldn’t you show up early for Wintertide?”
Hadrian grabbed his swords and the two moved down the hall. Royce picked the lock of a weathered door and slid it open. On the far side of the room, two candles burned on a small table set with plates, glasses, and a bottle of wine. A man, dressed in velvet and silk, stood before a wall mirror, checking the tie that held back his blond hair and adjusting the high collar of his coat.
“Looks like he was expecting us,” Hadrian said.
“Looks like he was expecting someone,” Royce clarified.
“What the—” Startled, Albert Winslow spun around. “Would it hurt to knock?”
“What can I say?” Royce flopped on the bed. “We’re scoundrels and thieves.”
“Scoundrels certainly,” Albert said, “but thieves? When was the last time you two stole anything?”
“Do I detect dissatisfaction?”
“I’m a viscount. I have a reputation to uphold, which takes a certain amount of income—money that I don’t receive when you two are idle.”
Hadrian took a seat at the table. “He’s not dissatisfied. He’s outright scolding us.”
“Is that why you’re here so early?” Royce asked. “Scouting for work?”
“Partially. I also needed to get away from the Winds Abbey. I’m becoming a laughingstock. When I contacted Lord Daref, he couldn’t lay off the Viscount Monk jokes. On the other hand, Lady Mae does find my pious reclusion appealing.”
“And is she the one who…” Hadrian swirled a finger at the neatly arranged table.
“Yes. I was about to fetch her. I’m going to have to cancel, aren’t I?” He looked from one to the other and sighed.
“I hope this job pays well. This is a new doublet and I still owe the tailor.” Blowing out the candles, he took a seat across from Hadrian.
“How are things up north?” Royce asked.
Albert pursed his lips, thinking. “I’m guessing you know about Medford being taken? Imperial troops hold it and most of the provincial castles except for Drondil Fields.”
Royce sat up. “No, we didn’t know. How’s Gwen?”
“I have no idea. I was here when I heard.”
“So Alric and Arista are at Drondil Fields?” Hadrian asked.
“King Alric is but I don’t think the princess was in Medford. I believe she’s running Ratibor. They appointed her mayor, or so I’ve heard.”
“No,” Hadrian said. “We just came through there. She was governing after the battle but left months ago in the middle of the night. No one knows why. I just assumed she went home.”
Albert shrugged. “Maybe, but I never heard anything about her going back. Probably better for her if she didn’t. The Imps have Drondil Fields surrounded. Nothing is going in or out. It’s only a matter of time before Alric will have to surrender.”
“What about the abbey? Has the empire come knocking?” Royce asked.
Albert shook his head. “Not that I know of. But like I said, I was already here when the Imperialists crossed the Galewyr.”
Royce got up and began to pace.
“Anything else?” Hadrian asked.
“Rumor has it that Tur Del Fur was invaded by goblins. But that’s only a rumor, as far as I can tell.”
“Not a rumor,” Hadrian said.
“We were there. Actually, we were responsible.”
“Sounds… interesting,” Albert said.
Royce stopped his pacing. “Don’t get him started.”
“Okay, so what brings you to Aquesta?” Albert asked. “I’m guessing it’s not to celebrate Wintertide.”
“We’re going to break Degan Gaunt out of the palace dungeon, and we’ll need you for the usual inside work,” Royce said.
“Really? You do know he’s going to be executed on Wintertide, don’t you?”
“Yeah, that’s why we need to get moving. It would be bad if we were late,” Hadrian added.
“Are you crazy? The palace? At Wintertide? You’ve heard about this little wedding that’s going on? Security might be a tad tighter than usual. Every day I see a line of men in the courtyard, signing up to join the guard.”
“Your point?” Hadrian asked.
“We should be able to use the wedding to our advantage,” Royce said. “Anyone we know in town yet?”
“Genny and Leo arrived recently, I think.”
“Really? That’s perfect. Get in touch. They’ll have rooms in the palace for sure. See if they can get you in. Then find out all you can, especially about where they’re keeping Gaunt.”
“I’m going to need money. I was only planning to attend a few local balls and maybe one of the feasts. If you want me inside the palace, I’ll have to get better clothes. By Mar, look at my shoes. Just look at them! I can’t meet the empress in these.”
“Borrow from Genny and Leo for now,” Royce said. “I’m going to leave for Medford tonight and return with funds to cover our expenses.”
“You’re going back? Tonight?” Albert asked. “You just got here, didn’t you?”
The thief nodded.
“She’s okay,” Hadrian assured Royce. “I’m sure she got out.”
“We’ve got nearly a month to Wintertide,” Royce said. “I should be back in a week or so. In the meantime, learn what you can, and we’ll formulate a plan when I return.”
“Well,” Albert grumbled, “at least Wintertide won’t be boring.”
Someone was whimpering.
It was a man’s voice this time, one that Arista had heard before. Everyone cried eventually. Some people even broke down into fits of hysterics. There used to be a woman who was prone to screaming, but she had been removed some time earlier. Arista held no illusions of the woman being set free. She had heard them drag the body away. The whimpering man used to cry out but had grown quieter over the past few days. He never wailed anymore. Although not long before, she had heard him praying. Arista was surprised that he did not ask for rescue or even a quick death. All he prayed for was her. He asked Maribor to keep her safe, but in all his ramblings, the princess never caught the name of the man’s lover.
There was no way to track the passage of time in the dark. Arista tried counting meals, but her hunger suggested they came less than once per day. Still, weeks must have passed since her capture. In all that time, she had never heard Gaunt, despite having called out to him. The only time she had heard his voice was the night she and Hilfred had failed to rescue him.
Since then, she had been confined to her cell, which contained only a pail for waste and a few handfuls of straw. The room was so small that she could touch all four walls at once, making it feel like a cage or a grave. Arista knew that Modina, the girl once known as Thrace, had been kept somewhere just like that. Perhaps even in that very cell. After she had lost everyone and everything that mattered to her, it would have been a nightmare to wake alone in the dark without explanation, cause, or reason. Not knowing where she was or how she had gotten there must have driven the girl mad.
Despite her own tragedies, at least Arista knew she was not alone in the world. Once the news of her disappearance reached him, her brother, Alric, would move the world to save her. The two had grown closer in the years since their father’s death. He was no longer the privileged boy, and she was no longer the jealous, reclusive sister. They still had their arguments, but nothing would stop him from finding her. Alric would enlist the help of the Pickerings—her extended family. He might even call on Royce and Hadrian, whom Alric affectionately referred to as the royal protectors. It would not be long now.
Arista pictured Hadrian’s lopsided smile. The image stung but her mind refused to let it go. Memories of the sound of his voice, the touch of his hand, and that tiny scar on his chin pulled at her heart. There had been moments of warmth, but only kindness on his part, only sympathy—compassion for a person in pain or need. To him, Arista was just the princess, his employer, his job, just one more desperate noble.
How empty an existence I’ve led that those few I count among my best friends are two people I paid to work for me.
She wanted to believe that Hadrian saw her as something special, that the time they had spent on the road together had endeared her to him—that it meant as much to Hadrian as it did to her. Arista hoped he considered her smarter or more capable than most. But even if he did, men did not want smart or capable. They wanted pretty. Arista was not pretty like Alenda Lanaklin or Lenare Pickering. If only Hadrian saw her the way Emery and Hilfred had.
Then he would be dead too.
The deep rumble of stone against stone echoed through the corridors. Footsteps sounded in the hall. Someone was coming.
Now was not the time for food. While Arista could not count the days in the darkness, she knew food never came until she feared it might never come. They fed her so little that she welcomed the thin, putrid soup, which smelled of rotten eggs.
The approaching footfalls came from two sets of shoes. The first she recognized as a guard who wore metal and made a pronounced tink-tink. The other wore hard heels and soles that created a distinct click-clack. That was not a guard, nor was it a servant. Servants wore soft shoes that made a swish-swish sound or no shoes at all—slap-slap. Only someone wealthy could afford shoes that clacked on stone. The steps were slow but not hesitant. There was confidence in the long, measured strides.
A key rattled against the assembly of her lock and then clicked.
The door to her cell opened, and a bright light made Arista wince.
A guard entered, jerked her roughly to one side, and attached a pair of iron bracelets, chaining her wrists to the wall. Leaving her sitting with her arms above her head, the guard exited but left the door open.
A moment later, Regent Saldur entered holding a lantern. “How are you this evening, Princess?” The old man shook his head sadly, making tsking noises. “Look at you, my dear. You are so thin and filthy, and where in Maribor’s name did you get that dress? Not that there’s much of it left, is there? Those look like new bruises too. Have the guards been raping you? No, I suppose not.” Saldur lowered his voice to a whisper. “They had extremely strict orders not to touch Modina when she was here. I accused an innocent jailor of improperly touching her and then had him pulled apart by oxen as an example. There were no problems after that. It might seem extreme, but I couldn’t have a pregnant empress, now could I? Of course, in your case I really don’t care, but the guards don’t know that.”
“Why are you here?” she asked. Her low raspy voice sounded strange, even to her.
“I thought I would bring you some news, my dear. Kilnar and Vernes have fallen. Rhenydd is now a happy member of the empire. The farmlands of Maranon on the Delgos peninsula had a nice harvest, so we’ll have plenty of supplies to feed our troops all winter. We’ve retaken Ratibor but had to execute quite a few traitors as examples. The peasants must learn the consequences of rebellion. They were cursing your name before we had finished.”
Arista knew he was telling the truth. Not because she could read his face, which she barely saw through her matted hair, but because Saldur had no reason to lie. “What do you want?”
“Two things, really. I want you to realize that the New Empire has risen and nothing can stand in its way. Your life, Arista, is over. You will be executed in a matter of weeks. And your dreams are already dead. You need to bury them alongside the sad little graves of Hilfred and Emery.”
“Surprised? We learned all about Emery when we retook Ratibor. You really do have such a way with men. First you got him killed and then Hilfred as well. You must make black widows jealous.”
“And the second?” She noticed his momentary confusion. “The other reason we’re having this little chat?”
“Oh yes. I want to know who you were working with.”
“Hilfred—you killed him for it, remember?”
Saldur smiled and then struck her hard across the face. The chains binding Arista’s wrists snapped taut as she tried to protect herself. He listened to her crying softly for a moment and then said, “You’re a smart girl—too smart for your own good—but you’re not that smart. Hilfred may have helped you escape arrest. He might even have hidden you for those weeks we searched. But he couldn’t have gotten you into the palace or found this prison. Hilfred died wearing the uniform of a fourth-floor guard. You must have had help from someone on the staff to get that, and I want to know who it was.”
“There was no one. It was just me and Hilfred.”
Saldur slapped her again. Arista cried out, her body shaking, jangling the chains.
“Don’t lie to me,” he said while raising his hand again.
Arista spoke quickly to stay the blow. “I told you. It was just me. I got a job working in the palace as a chambermaid. I stole the uniform.”
“I know all about you posing as Ella the scrub girl. But you couldn’t have gotten the uniform without help. It had to be someone in a position of authority. I must know who the traitor is. Now tell me. Who was helping you?”
When she said nothing, he struck her twice more.
Arista cringed. “Stop it!”
“Tell me,” Saldur growled.
“No, you’ll hurt her!” she blurted.
Realizing her mistake, Arista bit her lip.
“So it was a woman. That limits the possibilities considerably, now doesn’t it?” Saldur played with a key that dangled from a small chain, spinning it around his index finger. After several minutes, the regent crouched down and placed the lantern on the floor.
“I need a name and you will tell me. I know you think you can carry her identity to your grave, but whether you hold your tongue out of loyalty to her or to spite me, you should reconsider. You might believe that a few weeks is not long to hold your tongue, but once we start, you’ll wish for a quick death.”
He brushed her hair aside. “Look at that face. You don’t believe me, do you? Still so naive. Still such an optimistic child. As a princess, you’ve led such a pampered life. Do you think that living among the commoners of Ratibor and scrubbing floors here at the palace has made you strong? Do you think you have nothing else to lose and you’ve finally hit bottom?”
When he stroked her cheek, Arista recoiled.
“I can see by your expression that you still have some pride and a sense of nobility. You don’t yet realize just how far you have to fall. Trust me, Arista, I can strip you of that courage and break your spirit. You don’t want to find out just how low I can bring you.”
He stroked her hair gently for a moment, then grabbed a handful. Saldur pulled hard, jerking her head back and forcing Arista to look at him. His gaze lingered on her face. “You’re still pure, aren’t you? Still untouched and locked in your tower in more ways than one. I suspect neither Emery nor Hilfred dared to bed a princess. Perhaps we should begin with that. I will let the guards know that they can—no—I will specifically order them to violate you. It will make both of us very popular. The men will be requesting extra duty so they can desecrate you night and day.”
Saldur let go of her hair, allowing her head to drop.
“Once you are thoroughly used and your pride has evaporated, I’ll send for the master inquisitor. I’m sure he will relish the opportunity to purge the evil from the infamous Witch of Melengar.” Saldur moved closer and spoke softly, intimately. “The inquisitor is very imaginative, and what he can do with chains, a bucket of water, and a searing hot brand is sheer artistry. You’ll scream until you lose your voice. You’ll black out and wake where the nightmare left off.”
Arista tried to turn away, but his wrinkled hands forced her to look at him once again. His expression was not pleased or maniacal. Saldur appeared grim—almost sad.
“You’ll experience anguish that you never thought possible. Your remaining courage will evaporate into myth and memory. Your mind will abandon you, leaving behind a drooling lump of scarred flesh. Even the guards won’t want you then.”
Saldur leaned forward until she could feel his breath and feared he might kiss her. “If, after all that, you’ve still not given me what I want, I will turn my attention to that pleasant little family who took you in—the Barkers, wasn’t it? I will have them arrested and brought here. The father will watch as his wife takes your place with the guards. Then she will witness her husband and sons drawn and quartered one by one. Imagine what it will do to the woman when she sees her youngest, the one you supposedly saved, die. She will blame you, Arista. That poor woman will curse your name, and rightly so, for it will be your silence that destroyed her life.”
He gently patted Arista’s burning cheek. “Don’t force me to do it. Tell me the traitor’s name. She is guilty of treason, but the poor Barkers are innocent. They have done nothing. Simply tell me the name of this woman and you can prevent all these horrors.”
Arista found it difficult to think and fought for breath as she started losing control. Her face throbbed from his blows, and she was sickened by the salty-metallic taste of blood in her mouth. Guilt conjured images of Emery and Hilfred, both of whom had died because of her. She could not bear to add the Barkers’ blood to her hands. To have them suffer for her mistakes.
“I’ll tell you,” Arista finally said. “But in return I want your assurance nothing will happen to the Barkers.”
Saldur looked sympathetic, and she could almost see the grandfatherly face from her youth. How he could make such despicable threats and then return to such a kindly expression was beyond her understanding.
“Of course, my dear. After all, I’m not a monster. Just give me what I want and none of those things will come to pass. Now, tell me… What is her name?”
Arista hesitated. Saldur lost his smile once again—her time was up. She swallowed and said, “There was someone who hid me, gave me food, and even helped to find Gaunt. She’s been a true friend, so kind and selfless. I can’t believe I am betraying her to you now.”
“Her name?” Saldur pressed.
Tears ran from Arista’s eyes as she looked up. “Her name is… is… Edith Mon.”
Archibald Ballentyne, the Earl of Chadwick, stared out the windows of the imperial throne room. Behind him, Saldur shuffled parchments at a table while Ethelred warmed a throne not yet his own. A handful of servants occasionally drifted in and out, as did the imperial chancellor, who briefly spoke with one regent or the other. No one ever spoke to Archibald or asked for his counsel.
In just a few short years, Regent Saldur had risen from Bishop of Medford to the architect of the New Empire. Ethelred was about to trade his king’s crown of Warric for the imperial scepter of all Avryn. Even the commoner Merrick Marius had managed to secure a noble fief, wealth, and a title.
What do I have to show for all my contributions? Where is my crown? My wife? My glory?
The answers Archibald knew all too well. He would wear no crown. Ethelred would wed his wife. And as for his glory, the man who had stolen that was just entering the hall. Archibald heard the boots pounding against the polished marble floor. The sound of the man’s stride was unmistakable—uncompromising, straightforward, brash.
Turning around, Archibald saw Sir Breckton Belstrad’s floor-length blue cape sweeping behind the knight. Holding his helm in the crook of one arm and wearing a metal breastplate, he looked as if he were just returning from battle. Sir Breckton was tall, his shoulders broad, his chin chiseled. He was a leader of men, victorious in battle, and Archibald hated him.
“Sir Breckton, welcome to Aquesta,” Ethelred called as the knight crossed the room.
Breckton ignored him, and Saldur as well, walking directly to Archibald’s side, where he stomped dramatically and dropped to one knee. “Your Lordship,” he said.
“Yes, yes, get up.” The Earl of Chadwick waved a hand at him.
“As always, I am at your service, my lord.”
“Sir Breckton?” Ethelred addressed the knight again.
Breckton showed no sign of acknowledgment and continued to speak with his liege. “You called, my lord? What is it you wish of me?”
“Actually, I summoned you on behalf of Regent Ethelred. He wishes to speak with you.”
The knight stood. “As you wish, my lord.”
Breckton turned and crossed the distance to the throne. His sword slapped against his side, and his boots pounded against the stone. He stopped at the base of the steps and offered only a shallow bow.
Ethelred scowled, but only briefly. “Sir Breckton, at long last. I’ve sent summons for you six times over the past several weeks. Have the messages not reached you?”
“They have, Your Lordship.”
“But you did not respond,” Ethelred said.
“No, Your Lordship.”
“My lord, the Earl of Chadwick, commanded me to take Melengar. I was following his orders,” Breckton replied.
“So the crucial demands of battle prevented you from breaking away until now.” Ethelred nodded.
“No, Your Lordship. Only the fall of Drondil Fields remains and the siege is well tended. Victory is assured and does not require my attention.”
“Then I don’t understand. Why didn’t you come when I ordered you to appear before me?”
“I do not serve you, Your Lordship. I serve the Earl of Chadwick.”
Archibald’s disdain for Breckton did not diminish his delight at seeing Ethelred verbally slapped.
“May I remind you, sir knight, that I will be emperor in just a few weeks?”
“You may, Your Lordship.”
Ethelred looked confused. This brought a smile to Archibald’s face. He enjoyed seeing someone else trying to deal with Breckton and knew exactly how the regent felt. Was Breckton granting Ethelred permission to remind the knight, or had he just insinuated the regent might not be emperor? Either way, the comment was rude yet spoken so plainly and respectfully that it appeared innocent of any ill intent. Breckton was like that—politely confounding and pointedly confusing. He had a way of making Archibald feel stupid, and that was just one of the many reasons he despised the arrogant man.
“I see this is going to continue to be an issue,” Ethelred said. “It demonstrates the point of this meeting. As emperor, I will require good men to help me reign. You have proven yourself a capable leader, and as such, I want you to serve me directly. I am prepared to offer you the office and title of grand marshal of all imperial forces. In addition, I’ll grant you the province of Melengar.”
Archibald staggered. “Melengar is mine! Or will be when it is taken. It was promised to me.”
“Yes, Archie, but times change. I need a strong man in the north, defending my border.” Ethelred looked at Breckton. “I will appoint you the Marquis of Melengar. All too fitting, given that you were responsible for taking it.”
“This is outrageous!” Archibald shouted, stomping his foot. “We had a deal. You have the imperial crown and Saldur has the imperial miter. What do I get? What is the reward for all my sweat and sacrifice? Without me, you wouldn’t have Melengar to bestow to anyone!”
“Don’t make a fool of yourself, Archie,” Saldur said gently. “You must have known we could never entrust such an important realm to you. You are too young, too inexperienced, too… weak.”
There was silence as Archibald fumed.
“Well?” Ethelred turned his attention back to Breckton. “Marquis of Melengar? Grand marshal of the imperial host? What say you?”
Sir Breckton showed no emotion. “I serve the Earl of Chadwick, just as my father and grandfather before me. It does not appear he wishes this. If there is nothing else, I must return to my charge in Melengar.” Sir Breckton pivoted sharply and strode back to Archibald, where he knelt once more.
Ethelred stared after him in shock.
“Don’t leave Aquesta just yet,” Archibald told the knight. “I may have need of you here.”
“As you wish, my lord.” Breckton stood and briskly departed.
They were silent as they listened to the knight’s footfalls echo and fade. Ethelred’s face turned scarlet and he clenched his fists. Saldur stared after Breckton with his usual irritated glare.
“It seems you didn’t take into account the man’s unwavering sense of loyalty when you made your plans,” Archibald railed. “But then, how could you, seeing as how you obviously don’t understand the meaning of the word yourself? You should have consulted me first. I would have told you what the result would be. But you couldn’t do that, could you? No, because it was me you were plotting to stab in the back!”
“Calm down, Archie,” Saldur said.
“Stop calling me that. My name is Archibald!” Spit flew from his lips. “You’re both so smug and arrogant, but I’m no pawn. One word from me and Breckton will turn his army and march on Aquesta.” The earl pointed toward the still open door. “They’re loyal to him, you know—every last one of the miserable cretins. They will do whatever he says, and as you can see, he worships me.”
He clenched his fists and advanced, maddened that his soft heels did not have the same audible impact as Breckton’s.
“I could get King Alric to throw his support behind me as well. I could return his precious Melengar in exchange for the rest of Avryn. I could beat you at your own little game. I’d have the Northern Imperial Army in my right hand and what remains of the Royalists in my left. I could crush both of you in less than a month. So don’t tell me to calm down, Sauly! I’ve had it with your condescending tone and your holier-than-thou attitude. You’re as much a worm as Ethelred. You’re both in this together, weaving your webs and plotting against me. You just may have caught your own selves in your sticky trap this time!”
He headed for the door.
“Archi—I mean, Archibald!” Ethelred called after him.
The earl did not pause as he swept past Chancellor Biddings, who was just outside the throne room and gave the earl a concerned look. Servants scattered before Archibald as he marched in a fury through the doorway to the inner ward. Bursting into the brilliant sunshine reflected by the courtyard’s snow, he discovered he was unsure where to go from there. After a few moments, Archibald decided that it did not matter. It felt good just to move, to burn off energy, to get away. He considered calling for his horse. A long ride over hard ground seemed like just the thing he needed, but it was cold out. Archibald did not want to end up miles from shelter freezing, tired, and hungry. Instead, he settled for pacing back and forth, creating a shallow trench in the new snow.
Frustration turned to pleasure as he recalled his little speech. He liked the look it had put on both of their faces. They had not expected such a bold response from him. The delight ate up most of the burning anger, and the pacing dissipated the rest. Taking a seat on an upturned bucket, he stomped the snow from his boots.
Would Breckton turn his forces against Aquesta? Could I become the new emperor and have Modina for my own with just a single order?
The answer formed almost as quickly as the question had. The thought was an appealing dream but nothing more. Breckton would never agree and would refuse the order. For all the knight’s loyal bravado, everything that man did was subservient to some inscrutable code.
The entire House of Belstrad had been that way. Archibald recalled his father complaining about their ethics. The Ballentynes believed that knights should take orders without question in exchange for wealth and power. The Belstrads believed differently. They clung to an outdated ideal that the ruler—appointed by Maribor—must act within His will to earn a knight’s loyalty. Archibald was certain Breckton would not consider civil war to be Maribor’s will. Apparently, nothing Archibald ever really wanted fit that category.
Still, he had rocked the regents on their heels, and they would treat him better. He would finally have respect now that they realized just how important he was. The regents would have no clue that he could not deliver on his threats, so they would try to placate him with a larger prize. In the end, Archibald would have Melengar and perhaps more.
The Duchess of Rochelle was a large woman in more than just girth. Her husband matched her, as they were both rotund people with thick necks, short pudgy fingers, and cheeks that jiggled when they laughed, which in the case of the lady was often and loud. They were like bookends to each other. A male and female version, cut from the same cloth in every way except temperament. While the duke was quiet, Lady Genevieve was anything but.
Amilia always knew when the duchess was coming, as the lady heralded her own arrival with a trumpetlike voice that echoed through the palace halls. She greeted everyone, regardless of class, with a hearty “Hullo! How are you?” in her brassy voice, which boomed off the dull stone. She would hug servants, guards, and even the huntsman’s hound if he crossed her path.
Amilia had met the duke and duchess when they first arrived. Saldur was there and had made the mistake of trying to explain why an audience with the empress was not possible. Amilia had been able to excuse herself, but she was certain Saldur had not been so lucky and probably was delayed for hours. Since then, Amilia had been avoiding the duchess, as the woman was not one to take no for an answer, and she did not want to repeat Saldur’s mistake. After three days Amilia’s luck finally ran out, when she was leaving the chapel.
“Amilia, darling!” the duchess shouted, rushing forward with her elegant gown billowing behind her. When she reached Amilia, two huge arms surrounded the imperial secretary in a crushing embrace. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Every time I inquire, I’m told you are busy. They must work you to death!”
The duchess released her grip. “You poor thing. Let me look at you.” She took Amilia’s hands and spread her arms wide. “Oh my, how lovely you are. But, darling, please tell me this is a washday and your servants are behind. No, don’t bother. I am certain that is the case. Still, I hope you won’t mind if I have Lois, my seamstress, whip you up something. I do so love giving gifts and it’s Wintertide, after all. By the look of you, it will hardly take any material or time. Lois will be thrilled.”
Lady Genevieve took Amilia’s arm and walked her down the hall. “You really are a treasure, you know, but I can tell they treat you poorly. What can you expect with men like Ethelred and Saldur running the show? Everything will be fine, though, now that I’m here.”
They rounded a corner and Amilia was amazed by the woman’s ability to talk so quickly without seeming to take a breath.
“Oh! I just loved the invitation you sent me, and yes, I know it was all your doing. It’s all been your doing, hasn’t it? They have you planning the whole wedding, don’t they? No wonder you are so busy. How insensitive. How cruel! But don’t worry. As I said, I’m here to help you. I’ve fashioned many weddings in my day and they’ve all been wonderful. What you need is an experienced planner—a wizard of wonder. We aristocrats expect panache and dazzle at these events and we hate to be disappointed. Being that this is the wedding of the empress, it must be larger, grander, and more amazing than anything that has come before. Nothing less will suffice.”
She stopped suddenly and peered at Amilia. “Do you have doves to release? You must have them. You simply must!”
Amilia thought to reply, but the concern fled the duchess’s face before she had a chance. Lady Genevieve was walking once more, pulling Amilia along. “Oh, I don’t want to frighten you, darling. There is still plenty of time, given the proper help, of course. I am here now, and Modina will be thrilled at what we will achieve together. It will simply astound her.”
“How many white horses have you arranged for? Not nearly enough, I’m sure. Never mind, it will all come together. You’ll see. Speaking of horses, I insist you accompany me on the hawking. I won’t stand for you riding with anyone else. You’ll love Leopold—he’s quiet, just like you are, but a real pumpkin. Do you know what I mean? It doesn’t look like you do—but no matter. You two will get on marvelously. Do you have a bird?”
“A bird?” Amilia managed to squeeze in.
“I’ll let you use Murderess. She is one of my own goshawks.”
“No worries, my dear. There’s nothing to it. The bird does all the work. All you need to do is just sit on your horse and look pretty—which you will in the new dress Lois will make. Blue would be a good color and will go wonderfully with your eyes. I suppose I will have to arrange a horse as well. We can’t have you trudging through the snow and ruining the gown, now can we? I just know Saldur never thinks of such things. He appointed you secretary to the empress, but does he realize the need for clothing? A horse? Jewelry?”
The duchess paused again, still gripping her arm like a cider press. “Oh, my darling, I just realized you aren’t wearing any—jewelry, that is. Don’t be embarrassed. I understand perfectly. Otto is a fabulous jeweler. He can set a sapphire pendant in the blink of an eye. Won’t that look stunning with your new blue gown? Thank Maribor I brought my full retinue. Lord knows the local artisans could never keep up with me. When you think about it, who can?” She laughed, and Amilia wondered just how much longer she could go on.
With another pull, they were off again. “I tend to be a bit much, don’t I? It’s the way I am. I can’t help it. My husband stopped trying to turn me into a proper wife years ago. Of course, now he knows that my exuberance is what he loves most about me. ‘Never a dull moment or a moment’s peace,’ he always says. Speaking of men, have you chosen a champion to carry your favor in the joust?”
“You haven’t? But, darling, knights just adore fighting for pretty, young things like you. I’ll bet you’ve driven them mad by waiting so long.”
There was a pause, which startled Amilia into speech. “Ah, I didn’t know I was supposed to.”
“Ha hah!” Lady Genevieve laughed delightedly. “You are a marvel, darling. Simply fabulous! Ethelred tells me you’re new to the gentry—elevated by Maribor himself. Isn’t that delightful? Maribor’s Chosen One watching over Maribor’s Heir. How amazing!”
They turned the corner into the west wing, where a handful of chambermaids scattered like pigeons before a carriage. “You’re a living legend, dear Amilia. Why, every knight in the kingdom will clamor for your favor. There will be none more sought after except the empress herself, but of course, no one would dare insult Ethelred by asking for her favor just weeks before his wedding! No one wants to make an enemy of a new emperor. That makes you the darling of the festival. You can have your pick of any eligible bachelor. Dukes, princes, earls, counts, and barons are all hoping for the chance to capture your attention or win the honor of sitting next to you at the feast with a victory on the field of Highcourt.”
“I wasn’t planning on going to either,” Amilia stated.
The mere idea of noblemen chasing her was beyond frightening. While courtly love might be honorable and romantic for princesses and countesses, no noble ever practiced gentleness with a common woman. Serving girls who caught the eye of any noble—whether a knight or a king—could be taken against their will. Amilia had never been attacked, but she had wiped tears and bound wounds for more friends than she cared to count. Although she now possessed the title of lady before her name, everyone knew her background, and Amilia feared her flimsy title would be a poor shield against a lust-driven noble.
“Nonsense, you must attend the feasts. Besides, it’s your duty. Your absence could very well start a riot! You don’t want to be the cause of an insurrection in the weeks leading to your empress’s wedding, do you?”
“Ah, no, of course—”
“Good, so it’s all settled. Now you just need to pick someone. Do you have a favorite?”
“I don’t know any of them.”
“None? Good gracious, darling! Do they keep you a prisoner? What about Sir Elgar or Sir Murthas? Prince Rudolf is competing, and he is a fine choice with an excellent future. Of course, there is also Sir Breckton. You couldn’t find a better choice than that. I know he does have the reputation of being a bit stuffy. It is true, of course. But after his victory in Melengar, he’s the hero of the hour—and quite dashing.” The duchess wiggled her eyebrows. “Yes, Breckton would be a perfect choice. Why, the ladies of several courts have been fawning over him for years.”
A look of concern crossed Lady Genevieve’s face. “Hmm… that does bring up a good point. You’ll probably need to be careful. While you are certainly the object of every knight’s affections, that means you’re also the target of every lady’s jealousy.”
The duchess threw a meaty arm around Amilia’s neck and pulled her close, as if she were going to whisper in her ear, but her voice did not drop a bit in volume. “Trust me, these women are dangerous. Courtly love isn’t a game to them. You’re new to politics, so I am telling you this for your own good. These are daughters of kings, dukes, and earls, and they are used to getting what they want. When they don’t, they can be vengeful. They know all about your background. I am certain that many have sent spies to visit your family, trying to dig up any dirt they can. If they can’t find any, trust me, they will invent some.”
Lady Genevieve tugged her around another corner, this time toward the northern postern and up the steps to the third floor.
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“It’s quite simple, my dear. On the one hand, they think belittling you should be easy because of your common roots. But, on the other, you’ve never made any pretense of being otherwise, which negates their effort. It’s difficult to demean someone for something they’re not embarrassed of, now isn’t it? Still, you must turn a deaf ear to any jibes told at your expense. You may hear name-calling, like swine herder and such. Which, of course, you’re not. You must remember you’re the daughter of a carriage maker and a fine one at that. Why, absolutely everyone who is anyone is beating a path to your father’s door. They all want to ride in a coach crafted by the father of the Chosen One of Maribor.”
“You know about my father? My family? Are they all right?” Amilia stopped so suddenly that the duchess walked four steps before realizing she had lost her.
Amilia had long feared her family was dead from starvation or illness. They had had so little. She had left home two years earlier to remove an extra mouth from the table, with the intent of sending money home, but she had not counted on Edith Mon.
The head maid had declared Amilia’s old clothes unfit and demanded she pay for new ones. This forced Amilia to borrow against her salary. Broken or chipped plates also added to her bill, and in the first few months, there were many. With Edith, there was always something to keep Amilia penniless. Eventually the head maid even began fining her for disobedience or misbehavior, keeping Amilia in constant debt.
How she had hated Edith. The old ogre had been so cruel that there had been nights when Amilia had gone to sleep wishing the woman would die. She fantasized that a carriage would hit her or that she would choke on a bone. Now that Edith was gone, she almost regretted those thoughts. Charged with treason, Edith had been executed less than a week earlier, with all the palace staff required to watch.
In more than two years, Amilia had been unable to save even a single copper to send home and had heard nothing from her family. While the empress had been trapped in her catatonic daze, the regents had sequestered the palace staff to prevent others from learning about her condition. During that time, Amilia had been as much a prisoner as Modina. Writing letters home had been useless. The palace rumor mill maintained that all letters were burned by order of the regents. After Modina recovered, Amilia continued to write, but she never received a single reply. There had been reports of an epidemic near her home, and she feared her family was dead. Amilia had given up all hope of ever seeing them again—until now.
“Of course they’re all right, darling. They are more than all right. Your family is the toast of Tarin Vale. From the moment the empress spoke your name during her speech on the balcony, people have flocked to the hamlet to kiss the hand of the woman who bore you and to beg words of wisdom from the man who raised you.”
As they reached the third-floor guest chambers, Amilia’s eyes began to water. “Tell me about them. Please. I must know.”
“Well, let’s see. Your father expanded his workshop, and it now takes up an entire block. He’s received hundreds of orders from all over Avryn. Artisans from as far away as Ghent beg for the chance to work as his apprentices, and he’s hired dozens. The townsfolk have elected him to city council. There is even talk of making him mayor come spring.”
“And my mother?” Amilia asked with a quivering lip. “How is she?”
“She’s just marvelous, darling. Your father bought the grandest house in town and filled it with servants, leaving her plenty of time for leisure. She started a modest salon for the local artisan women. They mostly eat cake and gossip. Even your brothers are prospering. They supervise your father’s workers and have their pick of the women for wives. So you see, my dear, I think it is safe to say your family is doing very well indeed.”
Tears ran down Amilia’s face.
“Oh, darling! What is wrong? Wentworth!” she called out as they reached her quarters. A dozen servants paused in their tasks to look up. “Give me your handkerchief, and get a glass of water immediately!”
The duchess directed Amilia to sit on a settee, and Genevieve dabbed the girl’s tears away with surprising delicacy.
“I’m sorry,” Amilia said softly. “I just—”
“Nonsense! I’m the one who should apologize. I had no idea such news would upset you.” She spoke in a soft motherly voice. Then, turning in the direction the servant had gone, the duchess roared, “Where’s that water!”
“I’m all right—really,” Amilia assured her. “I just haven’t seen my family in so long and I was afraid…”
Lady Genevieve smiled and embraced Amilia. The duchess whispered in her ear, “Dear, I’ve heard it said that people come from far and wide to ask your family how you saved the empress. Their reported response is that they know nothing about that, but what they can say with complete certainty is that you saved them.”
Amilia shook with emotion at the words.
Lady Genevieve picked up the handkerchief. “Where’s that water!” she bellowed once more. When it arrived, the duchess thrust the cool glass into Amilia’s hands. She drank while the big woman brushed back her hair.
“There now, that’s better,” Lady Genevieve purred.
“Not at all, darling. Do you feel up to finding out why I brought you here?”
“Yes, I think so.”
They were in the duchess’s formal reception area, part of the four-room suite that Lady Genevieve had redecorated, transforming the dull stone shell into a warm, rich parlor. Thick woolen drapes of red and gold covered every inch of wall. Facades made the arrow slits appear large and opulent. An intricately carved cherry mantel fronted the previously bare stone fireplace. Layers of carpets covered the entire room, making the floor soft and cozy. Not a stick of the original furniture remained. Everything was new and lovelier than anything Amilia had ever seen before.
A dozen servants, all dressed in reds and golds, returned to work. One individual, however, stood out. He was a tall, well-tailored man in a delightful outfit of silver and gold brocade. On his head he wore a whimsical, yet elegant, hat that displayed a long, billowing plume.
“Viscount,” the duchess called, waving the man over. “Amilia, darling, I want you to meet Viscount Albert Winslow.”
“Enchanted indeed.” He removed his hat and swept it elaborately in a reverent bow.
“Albert is perhaps the foremost expert on organizing grand events. I hired him to mastermind my Summersrule Festival, and it was utterly amazing. I tell you, the man is a genius.”
“You are far too kind, my lady,” Winslow said softly with a warm smile.
“How you managed to fill the moat with leaping dolphins is beyond me. And the streamers that filled the sky—why, I’ve never seen such a thing. It was pure magic!”
“I’m pleased to have pleased you, my lady.”
“Amilia, you simply must use Albert. Don’t worry about the cost. I insist on paying for his services.”
“Nonsense, good ladies. I couldn’t conceive of taking payment for such a noble and worthwhile endeavor. My time is yours, and I’ll do whatever I can out of devotion to you both and, of course, for Her Eminence.”
“There now!” Lady Genevieve exclaimed. “The man is as chivalrous as a paladin. You must take him up on his offer, darling!”
They both stared at Amilia until she found herself nodding.
“I am delighted to be of service, my lady. When can I meet with your staff?”
“Ah…” Amilia hesitated. “There’s only me and Nimbus. Oh, Nimbus! I’m sorry but I was on my way to meet with him when you—I mean—when we met. I’m supposed to be selecting entertainment for the feasts and I’m terribly late.”
“Well, you should hurry off, then,” Lady Genevieve said. “Take Albert with you. He can begin there. Now run along. There is no need to thank me, my dear. Your success will be my reward.”
Amilia noticed that Viscount Winslow was less formal when away from the duchess. He greeted each performer warmly, and those not selected were dismissed with respect and good humor. He knew exactly what was required, and the auditions proceeded quickly under his guidance. All told, they selected twenty acts: one for each of the pre-wedding feasts, three for the Eve’s Eve banquet, and five for the wedding reception. The viscount even picked four more, just in case of illness or injury.
Amilia was grateful for the viscount’s help. As much as she had grown to rely on Nimbus, he had no experience with event planning. Originally, the courtier had been hired as the empress’s tutor, but it had been quite some time since he had educated Modina on poise or protocol. Such skills were not required, as Modina never left her room. Instead, Nimbus became the secretary to the secretary, Amilia’s right hand. He knew how to get things done in a royal court, whereas Amilia had no clue.
From his years of service to the nobles in Rhenydd, Nimbus had mastered the subtle language of manipulation. He tried to explain the nuances of this skill to Amilia, but she was a poor student. From time to time he corrected her for doing foolish things, such as bowing to the chamberlain, thanking a steward, or standing in the presence of others, which forced them to remain on their feet. Almost every success she had in the palace was because of Nimbus’s coaching. A more ambitious man would resent her taking the credit, but Nimbus always offered his counsel in a kind and helpful manner.
Sometimes when Amilia caught herself doing something particularly stupid, or when she blushed from embarrassment, she noticed Nimbus spilling something on himself or tripping on a carpet. Once he even fell halfway down a flight of stairs. For a long while, Amilia thought he was extremely clumsy, but recently she had begun to suspect Nimbus might be the most agile person she had ever met.
The hour was late and Amilia hurried toward the empress’s chamber. Gone were the days when she spent nearly every minute in Modina’s company. Her responsibilities kept her busy, but she never retired without checking in on the empress, who was still her closest friend.
Rounding a corner, she bumped headlong into a man.
“I’m sorry!” she exclaimed, feeling more than a little foolish for walking with her head down.
“Oh no, my lady,” the man replied. “It is I who must apologize for standing as a roadblock. Please, forgive me.”
Amilia did not recognize him, but there were many new faces at the palace these days. He was tall and stood straight with his shoulders squared. His face was closely shaved and his hair neatly trimmed. By his bearing and clothing, she could tell he was a noble. He was dressed well, but unlike those of many of the Wintertide guests, his outfit was subdued.
“It’s just that I am a bit confused,” he said, looking around.
“Are you lost?” she asked.
He nodded. “I know my way in forests and fields. I can pinpoint my whereabouts by the use of moon and stars, but for the life of me, I am a total imbecile when trapped within walls of stone.”
“That’s okay, I used to get lost in here all the time. Where are you going?”
“I’ve been staying in the knights’ wing at my lord’s request, but I stepped outside for a walk and can’t find my way back to my quarters.”
“You’re a soldier, then?”
“Yes, forgive me. My stupidity is without end.” He stepped back and bowed formally. “Sir Breckton of Chadwick, son of Lord Belstrad, at your service, my lady.”
“Oh! You’re Sir Breckton?”
Appearances never impressed Amilia, but Breckton was perfect. He was exactly what she expected a knight should be: handsome, refined, strong, and—just as Lady Genevieve had described—dashing. For the first time since coming to the palace, she wished she were pretty.
“Indeed, I am. You’ve heard of me, then… For good or ill?”
“Good, most certainly. Why, just—” She stopped herself and felt her face blush.
Concern furrowed his brow. “Have I done something to make you uncomfortable? I am terribly sorry if I—”
“No, no, not at all. I’m just being silly. To be honest, I never heard of you until today, and then…”
“It’s embarrassing,” she admitted, feeling even more flustered by his attention.
The knight’s expression turned serious. “My lady, if someone has dishonored me, or harmed you through the use of my name—”
“Oh no! Nothing as terrible as all that. It was the Duchess of Rochelle, and she said…”
Amilia cringed. “She said I should ask you to carry my favor in the joust.”
“Oh, I see.” He looked relieved. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I am not—”
“I know. I know,” she interrupted, preferring not to hear the words. “I would have told her so myself if she ever stopped talking—the woman is a whirlwind. The idea of a knight—any knight—carrying my favor is absurd.”
Sir Breckton appeared puzzled. “Why is that?”
“Look at me!” She took a step back so he could get a full view. “I’m not pretty, and as we both now know, I’m the opposite of graceful. I’m not of noble blood, having been born a poor carriage maker’s daughter. I don’t think I could hope for the huntsman’s dog to sit beside me at the feast, much less have a renowned knight such as yourself riding on my behalf.”
Breckton’s eyebrows rose abruptly. “Carriage maker’s daughter? You are her? Lady Amilia of Tarin Vale?”
“Oh yes, I’m sorry.” She placed her hand to her forehead and rolled her eyes. “See? I have all the etiquette of a mule. Yes, I am Amilia.”
Breckton studied her for a long moment. At last he spoke. “You’re the maid who saved the empress?”
“Disappointing, I know.” She waited for him to laugh and insist she could not possibly be the Chosen One of Maribor. While Modina’s public declaration had helped protect Amilia, it had also made her uncomfortable. For a girl who had spent her whole life trying to hide from attention, being famous was difficult. Worse yet, she was a fraud. The story about a divine intervention selecting her to save the empress was a lie, a political fabrication—Saldur’s way of manipulating the situation to his advantage.
To her surprise, the knight did not laugh. He merely asked, “And you think no knight will carry your favor because you are of common blood?”
“Well, that and about a dozen other reasons. I hear the whispers sometimes.”
Sir Breckton dropped to one knee and bowed his head. “Please, Lady Amilia, I beseech you. Give me the honor of carrying your token into the joust.”
She just stood there.
The knight looked up. “I’ve offended you, haven’t I? I am too bold! Forgive my impudence. I had no intention to participate in the joust, as I deem such contests the unnecessary endangerment of good men’s lives for vanity and foolish entertainment. Now, however, after meeting you, I realize I must compete, for more is at stake. The honor of any lady should be defended and you are no ordinary lady, but rather the Chosen One of Maribor. For you, I would slay a thousand men to bring justice to those blackguards who would soil your good name! My sword and lance are yours, dear lady, if you will but grant me your favor.”
Dumbstruck, Amilia did not realize she had agreed until after walking away. She was numb and could not stop smiling for the rest of her trip up the stairs.
As Amilia reached Modina’s room, her spirits were still soaring. It had been a good day, perhaps the best of her life. She had discovered her family was alive and thriving. The wedding was proceeding under the command of an experienced and gracious man. And a handsome knight had knelt before her and asked for her token. Amilia grasped the latch, excited to share the good news with Modina, but all was forgotten the moment the door swung open.
As usual, Modina sat before the window, dressed in her thin white nightgown, staring out at the brilliance of the snow in the moonlight. Next to her was a full-length intricately carved oval mirror mounted with brass fittings on a beautiful wooden swivel.
“Where did that come from?” Amilia asked, shocked.
The empress did not answer.
“How did it get here?”
Modina glanced at the mirror. “It’s pretty, isn’t it? A pity they brought such a nice one. I suppose they wanted to please me.”
Amilia approached the mirror and ran her fingers along the polished edge. “How long have you had it?”
“They brought it in this morning.”
“I’m surprised it survived the day.” Amilia turned her back on the mirror to face the empress.
“I’m in no hurry, Amilia. I still have some weeks yet.”
“So you’ve decided to wait for your wedding?”
“Yes. At first I didn’t think it would matter, but then I realized it could reflect badly on you. If I wait, it will appear to be Ethelred’s fault. Everyone will assume I couldn’t stand the thought of him touching me.”
“Is that the reason?”
“No, I have no feelings about him or anything. Well, except for you. But you’ll be all right.” Modina turned to look at Amilia. “I can’t even cry anymore. I never even wept when they captured Arista… not a single tear. I watched the whole thing from this window. I saw Saldur and the seret go in and knew what that meant. They came back out, but she never has. She’s down there right now in that horrible dark place. Just like I once was. When she was here, I had a purpose, but now there is nothing left. It’s time for this ghost to fade away. I have served the regents’ purpose by helping them build the empire. I’ve given you a better life, and not even Saldur will harm you now. I tried to help Arista, but I failed. Now it’s time for me to leave.”
Amilia knelt down next to Modina, gently drew back the hair from her face, and kissed her cheek. “Don’t speak that way. You were happy once, weren’t you? You can be again.”
Modina shook her head. “A girl named Thrace was happy. She lived with the family she loved in a small village near a river. Surrounded by friends, she played in the woods and fields. That girl believed in a better tomorrow. She looked forward to gifts Maribor would bring. Only instead of gifts, he sent darkness and horror.”
“Modina, there is always room for hope. Please, you must believe.”
“There was one day, when you were getting the clerk to order some cloth, that I saw a man from my past. He was hope. He saved Thrace once. For a moment, one very brief moment, I thought he had come to save me too, only he didn’t. When he walked away, I knew he was just a memory from a time when I was alive.”
Amilia’s hands found Modina’s and cradled them as she might hold a dying bird. Amilia was having trouble breathing. As her lower lip began to tremble, she looked back at the mirror. “You’re right. It is a shame they brought such a pretty one.” She put her arms around Modina and began to cry.
Several miles from Medford, Royce saw the smoke and prepared himself for the worst. Crossing the Galewyr used to mean entering the bustling streets of the capital, but on that day, as he raced across the bridge, he found only a charred expanse of blackened posts and scorched stone. The city he had known was gone.
Royce never called anywhere home. To him the word meant a mythical place, like paradise or fairyland, but Wayward Street had been the closest thing he had ever found. A recent snowfall covered the city like a sheet that nature had drawn over a corpse. Not a building remained undamaged, and many were nothing but charcoal and ash. The castle’s gates were shattered, portions of the walls collapsed. Even the trees in Gentry Square were gone.
Medford House, in the Lower Quarter, was a pile of smoldering beams. Nothing remained across the street except a gutted foundation and a burned sign displaying the hint of a rose in blistered paint.
He dismounted and moved to the rubble of the House. Where Gwen’s office used to be, he caught a glimpse of pale fingers beneath a collapsed wall. His legs turned weak and his feet foolish as he stumbled over the wreckage. Smoke caught in his throat, and he drew up the scarf to cover his nose and mouth. Reaching the edge of the wall, he bent, trying to lift it. The edge broke away, but it was enough to reveal what was underneath.
An empty cream-colored glove.
Royce stepped back from the smoke. Sitting on the blackened porch, he noticed he was shaking. He was unaccustomed to being scared. Over the years, he had given up caring if he lived or died, figuring that a quick demise spared him the pain of living in a world so miserly that it begrudged an orphan boy a life. He had always been ready for death, gambling with it, waging bets against it. Royce had been satisfied in the knowledge that his risks were sound because he had nothing of value to lose—nothing to fear.
Gwen had changed everything.
He was an idiot and never should have left her alone.
Why did I wait?
They could have been safe in Avempartha, where only he held the key. The New Empire could beat themselves senseless against its walls and never reach him or his family.
A block away, a noisy flock of crows took flight. Royce stood and listened, hearing voices on the wind. Noticing his horse wandering down the street, he cursed himself for not tying her up. By the time he caught the reins, he spotted a patrol of imperial soldiers passing the charred ruins of Mason Grumon’s place.
“Halt!” the leader shouted.
Royce leapt on his mare and kicked her just as he heard a dull thwack. His horse lurched, then collapsed with a bolt lodged deep in her flank. Royce jumped free before being crushed. He tumbled in the snow and came up on his feet with his dagger, Alverstone, drawn. Six soldiers hurried toward him. Only one had a crossbow, and he was busy ratcheting the string for his next shot.
Royce turned and ran.
He slipped into an alley filled with debris and vaulted over the shattered remains of The Rose and Thorn. Crossing the sewer near the inn’s stable, he was surprised to find the plank bridge still there. Shouts rose behind him, but they were distant and muffled by the snow. The old feed store was still standing, and with a leap, he caught the windowsill on the second story. If they tracked him through the alley, the soldiers would be briefly baffled by his disappearance. That was all the head start Royce needed. He pulled himself to the roof, crossed it, and climbed down the far side. He took one last moment to obscure his tracks before heading west.
Royce stood at the edge of the forest, trying to decide between the road and the more direct route, through the trees. Snow started to fall again, and the wind swept the flakes at an angle. The white curtain muted colors, turning the world a hazy gray. The thief flexed his hands. He had lost feeling in his fingers again. In his haste to find Gwen, he had once more neglected to purchase winter gloves. He pulled his hood tight and wrapped the scarf around his face. The northwest gale tore at his cloak, cracking the edges like a whip. He hooked it in his belt several times but eventually gave up—the wind insisted.
The distance to the Winds Abbey was a long day’s ride in summer, a day and a half in winter, but Royce had no idea how long it would take him on foot through snow. Without proper gear, it was likely he would not make it at all. Almost everything he had was lost with his horse, including his blanket, food, and water. He did not even have the means to start a fire. The prudent choice would be the road. The walking would be easier, and he would at least have the chance of encountering other travelers. Still, it was the longer route. He chose the shortcut through the forest. He hoped Gwen had kept her promise and gone to the monastery, but there was only one way to be certain and his need to see her had grown desperate.
As night fell, the stars shone brightly above a glistening world of white. Struggling to navigate around logs and rocks hidden beneath the snow, Royce halted when he came upon a fresh line of tracks—footprints. He listened but heard only the wind blowing through the snow-burdened trees.
With an agile jump he leapt on a partially fallen tree and nimbly sprinted up its length until he was several feet off the ground. Royce scanned the tracks in the snow below him. They were only as deep as his own, too shallow for a man weighed down by even light armor.
Who can possibly be traveling on foot here tonight besides me?
Given that the footprints were headed the direction he was going, and Royce wanted to keep the owner in front of him, he followed. The going was less difficult and Royce was thankful for the ease in his route.
When he reached the top of a ridge, the tracks veered right, apparently circling back the way he had come.
“Sorry to see you go,” Royce muttered. His breath puffed out in a moonlit fog.
As he climbed down the slope, he recalled this ravine from the trip he had taken three years earlier with Hadrian and Prince Alric. Then, as now, finding a clear route had been difficult and he struggled to work his way to the valley below. The snow made travel a challenge, and once he reached level ground, he found it deep with drifts. He had not made more than a hundred feet of headway before encountering the footprints once more. Again he followed them, and found the way easier.
Reaching the far side of the valley, he faced the steep slope back up. The footprints turned to the right. This time Royce paused. Slightly to the left he could see an easy route. A V-shaped ravine, cleared and leveled by runoff, was inviting. He considered going that way but noticed that directly in front of him, carved in the bark of a spruce tree, was an arrow-shaped marker pointing to the right. The trailblazer’s footprints were sprinkled with wood chips.
“So you want me to keep following you,” Royce whispered to himself. “That’s only marginally more disturbing than you knowing I’m following you at all.”
He glanced around. There was no one he could see. The only movement was the falling snow. The stillness was both eerie and peaceful, as if the wood waited for him to decide.
His legs were weak, his feet and hands numb. Royce had never liked invitations, but he guessed following the prints would once again be the easier route. He looked up at the slope and sighed. After following the tracks only a few hundred feet more, he spotted a pair of fur mittens dangling from the branch of a tree. Royce slipped them on and found they were still warm.
“Okay, that’s creepy,” Royce said aloud. He raised his voice and added, “I’d love a skin of water, a hot steak with onions, and perhaps some fresh-baked bread with butter.”
All around him was the tranquil silence of a dark wood in falling snow. Royce shrugged and continued onward. The trail eventually hooked left, but by then the steep bluff was little more than a mild incline. Royce half expected to find a dinner waiting for him when he reached the crest, but the hilltop was bare. In the distance was a light, and the footprints headed straight toward it.
Royce ticked through the possibilities and concluded nothing. There was no chance imperial soldiers were leading him through the forest, and he was too far from Windermere for it to be monks. Dozens of legends spoke of fairies and ghosts inhabiting the woods of western Melengar, but none mentioned denizens that left footprints and warm mittens.
No matter how he ran the scenarios, he could find no way to justify an impending trap. Still, Royce gripped the handle of Alverstone and trudged forward. As he closed the distance, he saw that the light came from a small house built high in the limbs of a large oak tree. Below the tree house, a ring of thick evergreens surrounded a livestock pen, where a dark horse pawed the snow beside a wooden lean-to.
“Hello?” Royce called.
“Climb up,” a voice yelled down. “If you’re not too tired.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m a friend. An old friend—or rather, you’re mine.”
“What’s your name… friend?” Royce stared up at the opening on the underside of the tree house.
“Now see, that’s a bit odd, as I have few friends, and none of them is called Ryn.”
“I never told you my name before. Now, are you going to come up and have some food or simply steal my horse and ride off? Personally, I suggest a bite to eat first.”
Royce looked at the horse for a long moment before grabbing the knotted rope dangling along the side of the tree trunk and pulling himself up. Reaching the floor of the house, he peeked inside. The space was larger than he had expected, was oven warm, and smelled of meat stew. Branches reached out in all directions, each one rubbed smooth as a banister. Pots and scarves hung from the limbs, and several layers of mats and blankets hid the wooden floor.
In a chair crafted from branches, a slim figure smoked a pipe. “Welcome, Mr. Royce,” Ryn said with a smile.
He wore crudely stitched clothes made from rough, treated hides. On his head was a hat that looked like an old flopped sack. Even with his ears hidden, his slanted eyes and high cheekbones betrayed his elven heritage.
On the other side of the room, a woman and a small boy chopped mushrooms and placed them in a battered pot suspended in a small fireplace made of what looked to be river stones. They too were mir—a half-breed mix of human and elf—like Royce himself. Neither said a word, but they glanced over at him from time to time while adding vegetables to the pot.
“You know my name?” Royce asked.
“Of course. It isn’t a name I could easily forget. Please, come in. My home is yours.”
“How do you know me?” Royce pulled up his legs and closed the door.
“Three autumns ago, just after Amrath’s murder, you were at The Silver Pitcher.”
Royce thought back. The hat!
“They were sick.” Ryn tilted his head toward his family. “Fever—the both of them. We were out of food and I spent my last coin on some old bread and a turnip from Mr. Hall. I knew it wouldn’t be enough, but there was nothing else I could do.”
“You were the elf that they accused of thieving. They pulled your hat off.”
Ryn nodded. He puffed on his pipe and said, “You and your friend were organizing a group of men to save the Prince of Melengar. You asked me to join. You promised a reward—a fair share.”
Royce shrugged. “We needed anyone willing to help.”
“I didn’t believe you. Who of my kind would? No one ever gave fair shares of anything to an elf, but I was desperate. When it was over, Drake refused to pay me, just as I expected. But you kept your word and forced him to give me an equal share—and a horse. You threatened to kill the whole lot of them if they didn’t.” He allowed himself a little smile. “Drake handed over the gelding with full tack and never even checked it. I think he just wanted to get rid of me. I left before they could change their minds. I was miles away before I finally got a chance to look in the saddlebags. Fruits, nuts, meat, cheese, a pint of whiskey, a skin of cider, those would’ve been treasure enough. But I also found warm blankets, fine clothes, a hand axe, flint and steel, a knife—and the purse. There were gold tenents in that bag—twenty-two of them.”
“Gold tenents? You got Baron Trumbul’s horse?”
Ryn nodded. “There was more than enough gold to buy medicine, and with the horse I got back in time. I prayed I would be able to thank you before I died, and today I got my chance. I saw you in the city but could do nothing there. I am so glad I persuaded you to visit.”
“The mittens were a nice touch.”
“Please sit and be my guest for dinner.”
Royce hung his scarf alongside his cloak on one of the branches and set his boots to warm near the fire. The four ate together with little conversation.
After she had taken his empty bowl, Ryn’s wife spoke for the first time. “You look tired, Mr. Royce. Can we make you a bed for the night?”
“No. Sorry. I can’t stay,” Royce said while getting up, pleased to feel his feet again.
“You’re in a hurry?” Ryn asked.
“You could say that.”
“In that case, you will take my horse, Hivenlyn,” Ryn said.
An hour earlier, Royce would have stolen a horse from anyone he had happened upon, so he was surprised to hear himself say, “No. I mean, thanks, but no.”
“I insist. I named him Hivenlyn because of you. It means unexpected gift in Elvish. So you see, you must take him. He knows every path in this wood and will get you safely wherever you need to go.” Ryn nodded toward the boy, who nimbly slipped out the trapdoor.
“You need that horse,” Royce said.
“I’m not the one trudging through the forest in the middle of the night without a pack. I lived without a horse for many years. Right now, you need him more than I do. Or can you honestly say you have no use for a mount?”
“Okay, I’ll borrow him. I am riding to the Winds Abbey. I’ll let them know he is your animal. You can claim him there.” Royce bundled up and descended the rope. At the bottom, Ryn’s son stood with the readied horse.
Ryn climbed down as well. “Hivenlyn is yours now. If you have no further need, give him to someone who does.”
“You’re crazy,” Royce said, shaking his head in disbelief. “But I don’t have time to argue.” He mounted and looked back at Ryn, standing in the snow beneath his little home. “Listen… I’m not… I’m just not used to people… you know…”
“Ride safe and be well, my friend.”
Royce nodded and turned Hivenlyn toward the road.
He traveled all night, following the road and fighting a fresh storm that rose against him. The wind blew bitter, pulling his cloak away and causing him to shiver. He pushed the horse hard, but Hivenlyn was a fine animal and did not falter.
At sunrise they took a short rest in the shelter of fir trees. Royce ate the hard round of mushroom-stuffed bread Ryn’s wife had provided and gave Hivenlyn a bit of one end. “Sorry about the pace,” he told the horse. “But I’ll make sure you get a warm stall and plenty to eat when we arrive.” Royce failed to mention that the deal depended on his finding Gwen safe. Anything less, and he would not care about the needs of the horse. He would not care about anything.
The storm continued to rage all through that day. Gale-swept snow blew across the road, forming patterns that resembled ghostly snakes. During the entire trip, Royce did not come across a single traveler, and the day passed by in a blinding haze of white.
As darkness fell, the two finally reached the summit of Monastery Hill. The abbey, silent and still, appeared from behind a veil of falling snow. The quiet of the compound was disturbing, too similar to that visit he had made three years earlier after the Imperialists had burned the church to the ground with dozens of monks locked inside. Panic threatened to overtake Royce as he raced up the stone steps and pulled on the expansive doors. He entered, moving quickly down the length of the east range. He just needed a face, any face, someone he could ask about Gwen. Not a single monk in the abbey could have missed the arrival of a band of prostitutes.
The corridor was dark, as was the hall leading to the cloister. He opened the door to the refectory and found it vacant. The empty dining tables were matched by empty benches. As Royce listened to the hollow echo of his own footsteps, the sense of doom that had driven him through the snow caused him to sprint to the church. Reaching the two-story double doors, he feared that, just as once before, he would find them chained shut. Taking hold of the latches, he pulled hard.
The soft sound of singing washed over him as Royce gazed down a long nave filled with monks. The massive doors boomed as they slammed against the walls. The singing halted and dozens of heads turned.
“Royce?” a voice said. A woman’s voice—her voice.
The forest of brown-clad monks shifted, and he spotted Gwen among them, dressed in an emerald gown. By the time she reached the aisle, he was throwing his arms around her and squeezing until she gasped.
“Master Melborn, please,” the abbot said. “We are in the middle of vespers.”
Hadrian drew the drapes and lit a candle on the small table before asking Albert, “What have you discovered?” In the past Royce had always run the meetings, and Hadrian found himself trying to remember all the little things he would do to ensure secrecy.
They were in Hadrian’s room at the Bailey, and this was their first meeting since Royce had left. Albert was staying at the palace now, and Hadrian wanted to keep Albert’s visits infrequent. A guest of the empress might patronize a seedy inn for entertainment, but too many visits could appear suspicious.
“Genny introduced me to the empress’s secretary,” Albert said. He was dressed in a heavy cloak, which hid his lavish attire beneath simple wool. “The girl cried tears of joy when Genny told her the news about her family. I think it’s safe to say that Lady Amilia loves the duchess and at least trusts me. You should have seen Genny. She was marvelous. And her chambers are exquisite!”
“What about Leo?” Hadrian asked.
“He’s quiet as always but playing along. If Genny is all right with it, so is he. Besides, he’s always hated Ethelred.”
The two sat at the table. The dim, flickering light revealed not much more than their faces. For over a week Hadrian had tried to find out what he could in town, but he was not getting very far. He did not have the head for planning that Royce did.
“And you know how Genny loves intrigue,” Albert added. “Anyway, she got me appointed as the official wedding planner.”
“That’s perfect. Have you learned anything useful?”
“I asked Lady Amilia about places that could be used to temporarily house performers. I told her it’s common practice to utilize empty cells, since tavern space is hard to come by.”
“Thanks, but it didn’t help. According to her, the palace doesn’t have a dungeon, just a prison tower.”
“Prison tower sounds good.”
“Empty? Are you sure? Have you checked?”
Albert shook his head. “Off-limits.”
“Why would it be off-limits if it’s empty?”
The viscount shrugged. “No idea, but Lady Amilia assures me it is. Said she was up there herself. Besides, I’ve watched it the last few nights, and I’m pretty sure she’s right. I’ve never seen a light. Although, I did see a Seret Knight go in once.”
“Any other ideas?”
Albert drummed his fingers on the tabletop, thinking for a moment. “The only other restricted area is the fifth floor, which I’ve determined is where the empress resides.”
“Have you seen her?” Hadrian leaned forward. “Have you managed to speak with her?”
“No. As far as I can tell, Modina never leaves her room. She has all her meals brought to her. Amilia insists the empress is busy administrating the empire and is still weak. Apparently, the combination leaves her unable to receive guests. This has been a source of irritation recently. All the visiting dignitaries want an audience with the empress—but all are denied.”
“Someone has to see her.”
“Lady Amilia certainly does. There is also a chambermaid…” Albert fished inside his tunic, pulling out a wadded bundle of parchments, which he unfolded on the table. “Yes, here it is. The chambermaid is named Anna, and the door guard is…” He shuffled through his notes. “Gerald. Anna is the daughter of a mercer from Colnora. As for Gerald, his full name is Gerald Baniff. He’s from Chadwick. Family friend of the Belstrads.” Albert took a moment to flip through a few more pages. “Was once personal aide to Sir Breckton. A commendation for bravery won him the position of honor guard to the empress.”
“What about the regents?”
“I assume they could see her, but as far as I can tell, they don’t. At least, no one I’ve talked to reports ever having seen them on the fifth floor.”
“How can she govern if she never takes a meeting with Ethelred or Saldur?” Hadrian asked.
“I think it’s obvious. The regents are running the empire.”
Hadrian slumped back in his seat with a scowl. “So she’s a puppet.”
Albert shrugged. “Maybe. Is this significant?”
“Royce and I knew her—before she became the empress. I thought maybe she might help us.”
“Doesn’t look like she has any real power.”
“Does anyone know this?”
“Some of the nobles may suspect, although most appear colossally unaware.”
“They can’t all be that gullible.”
“You have to keep in mind that many of these people are extremely religious and dedicated Imperialists. They accept the story of her being the heir descended from Maribor. From what I’ve determined, the vast majority of the peasant class feels the same way. The servants and even palace guards view her with a kind of awe. The rarity of her appearances has only reinforced this notion. It’s a politician’s dream. Since she’s hardly seen, no one attaches any mistake to her and instead they blame the regents.”
“So no one other than Amilia, the guard, and the chambermaid sees her?”
“Looks that way. Oh, wait.” Albert paused. “Nimbus also apparently has access.”
“Nimbus?” Hadrian asked.
“Yes, he is a courtier from Vernes. I met him several years ago at some gala or ball. No one of account, as I remember, but generally a decent fellow. He’s actually the one that introduced Lord Daref and me to Ballentyne, which led to that pair of stolen letter jobs you did for the Earl of Chadwick and Alenda Lanaklin. Nimbus is a thin, funny guy, prone to wearing loud clothes and a powdered wig. Always carries a little leather satchel over his shoulder—rumor is he carries makeup in it. Smarter than he appears certainly. Very alert—he listens to everything. He was hired by Lady Amilia and works as her assistant.”
“So what is the likelihood you could see the empress?”
“Slim, I suspect. Why? I just told you there’s not much chance she can help, or do you think they’re keeping Gaunt in Modina’s room?”
“No.” Hadrian rubbed a hand over the surface of the table amidst the flickering shadows. “I’d just like to—I don’t know—to see if she’s all right, I guess. I sort of promised her father I’d watch out for her—make sure she was okay, you know?”
“She’s the empress,” Albert stated. “Or hasn’t he heard?”
“Oh.” Albert paused.
“I just would feel better if I could talk to her.”
“Are we after Gaunt or the empress?”
Hadrian scowled. “Well, it doesn’t look like we’re very close to finding where Gaunt is being held.”
“I think I’ve pushed things about as far as I can. I’m a wedding planner, not a guard, and people get suspicious if I start asking about prisoners.”
“I really didn’t think it would be this hard to find him.”
Albert sighed. “I’ll try again,” he said, standing and pulling the drawstrings on his cloak.
“Hold on a second. When we first arrived, didn’t you mention that the palace was recruiting new guards?”
“Yeah, they’re expecting huge crowds. Why?”
Hadrian didn’t reply right away, staring into the single candle and massaging his callused palms. “I thought I might try my hand at being a man-at-arms again.”
Albert smiled. “I think you’re a tad overqualified.”
“Then I ought to get the job.”
Hadrian waited in line among the weak-shouldered, bent-backed, would-be soldiers. They shifted their weight from foot to foot and blew into cupped hands to warm their fingers. The line of men stretched from the main gate to the barracks’ office within the palace courtyard. Being the only man with his own weapons and a decent cloak, Hadrian felt out of place and forced himself to stoop and shuffle when he walked.
Heaps of snow packed the inner walls of the well-shoveled courtyard. Outside the barracks, a fire burned in a pit, where the yard guards would occasionally pause to warm their hands or get a cup of something steaming hot. Servant boys made routine trips back and forth to the well or the woodpile, hauling buckets of water or slings of split logs.
“Name?” a gruff soldier asked as Hadrian entered the dim barracks and stood before a rickety desk.
Three men in thick leather sat behind it. Beside them was a small clerk, whom Hadrian had seen once before in the palace. A disagreeable sort with a balding head and ink-stained fingers, he sat with a roll of parchment, pen, and ink.
“You have a name?” the man in the center asked.
“Baldwin,” Hadrian said. The clerk scratched the parchment. The end of his feathered quill whipped about like the tail of an irritated squirrel.
“Baldwin, eh? Where have you fought?”
“All over, really.”
“Why aren’t you in the imperial army? Ya a deserter?”
Hadrian allowed himself a smile, which the soldier did not return. “You could say that. I left the Nationalists.”
This caught the ear of everyone at the table and a few men standing in line. The clerk stopped scribbling and looked up.
“For some reason they stopped paying me,” Hadrian added with a shrug.
A slight smile pulled at the edges of the soldier’s lips. “Not terribly loyal, are you?”
“I’m as loyal as they come… as long as you pay me.”
This brought a chuckle from the soldier, and he looked to the others. The older man to his right nodded. “Put him on the line. It doesn’t require much loyalty to work a crowd.”
The clerk began writing again and Hadrian was handed a wooden token.
“Take that back outside and give it to Sergeant Millet, near the fire. He’ll get you set up. Name?” he called to the next in line as Hadrian headed back out into the blinding white.
Unable to see clearly for a moment, Hadrian blinked. As his eyes adjusted, he saw Sentinel Luis Guy ride through the front gate, leading five Seret Knights. The two men spotted each other at the same instant. Hadrian had not seen Guy since the death of Fanen Pickering in Dahlgren. And while he hoped to one day repay Guy for Fanen’s death, this was perhaps the worst possible time to cross paths.
For a heartbeat, neither moved. Then Guy slowly leaned and spoke to the man beside him, his eyes never straying from Hadrian.
“Now!” Guy growled when the knight hesitated.
Hadrian could not think of a worse place to be caught. He had no easy exit—no window to leap through or door to close. Between him and the gate were twenty-six men, still in line, who would jump at the chance to prove their mettle by helping the palace guard. Despite their numbers, Hadrian was the least concerned by the guard hopefuls, as none of them were armed. The bigger problem was the ten palace guards dressed for battle. At the sound of the first clash of swords, the barracks would empty, adding more men. Hadrian conservatively estimated he would need to kill or cripple at least eighteen people just to reach the exit. Guy and his five seret would be at the top of that list. The serets’ horses would also need to be dispatched for him to have any chance of escaping through the city streets. The final obstacle would be the crossbowmen on the wall. Among the eight, he guessed at least two would be skilled enough to hit him in the back as he ran out through the gate.
“Just—don’t—move,” Guy said with his hands spread out in front of him. He looked as if he were trying to catch a wild horse, and did not advance, dismount, or draw his sword.
Just then the portcullis dropped.
“There’s no escape,” Guy assured him.
From a nearby door, a handful of guards trotted toward Hadrian with their swords drawn.
“Stop!” Guy ordered, raising his hand abruptly. “Don’t go near him. Just fan out.”
The men waiting in line looked from the soldiers to Hadrian and then backed away.
“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Blackwater,” Guy said in an almost friendly tone. “But we truly have you outnumbered this time.”
Hadrian stood in an elegantly furnished office on the fourth floor of the palace. Regent Saldur sat behind his desk, fidgeting with a small bejeweled letter opener shaped like a dagger. The ex-bishop looked slightly older and a bit heavier than the last time Hadrian had seen him. Luis Guy stood off to the right, his eyes locked on Hadrian. He was dressed in the traditional black armor and scarlet cape of his position, his sword hanging in its sheath. Guy’s stance was straight and attentive, and he kept his hands gripped behind his back. Hadrian did not recognize the last man in the room. The stranger, dressed in an elegant garnache, sat near a chessboard, casually rolling one of the pieces back and forth between his fingers.
“Mr. Blackwater,” Saldur addressed Hadrian, “I’ve heard some pretty incredible things about you. Please, won’t you sit?”
“Will I really be staying that long?”
“Yes, I am afraid so. No matter how this turns out, you’ll be staying.”
Hadrian looked at the chair but chose to remain standing.
The old man leaned back in his seat and placed the tips of his fingers together. “You’re probably wondering why you’re here instead of locked in the north tower, or at least why we haven’t shackled your wrists and ankles. You can thank Sentinel Guy for that. He has told us an incredible story about you. Aside from murdering Seret Knights—”
“The only murder that day was Fanen Pickering,” Hadrian said. “The seret attacked us.”
“Well, who’s to say who did what when? Still, the death of a seret demands a severe penalty. I’m afraid it’s customarily an executable offense. However, Sentinel Guy insists that you are a Teshlor—the only Teshlor—and that is an unusual extenuating circumstance.
“Now, if I recall my history lessons correctly, there was only one Teshlor to escape the destruction of the Old Empire—Jerish Grelad, who had taken the Heir of Novron into hiding. Legend claims that the Teshlor skills were passed down from generation to generation to protect the bloodline of the emperor.
“The Pickerings and the Killdares are each said to have discovered just a single one of the Teshlor disciplines. These jealously guarded secrets have made those families renowned for their fighting skills. A fully trained Teshlor would be… well… invincible in any one-on-one competition of arms. Am I correct?”
Hadrian said nothing.
“In any case, let’s assume for the moment that Guy is not mistaken. If this is so, your presence presents us with an interesting opportunity, which can provide a uniquely mutual benefit. Given this, we felt it might encourage you to listen if we treated you with a degree of respect. By leaving you free—”
The door burst open and Regent Ethelred entered. The stocky, barrel-chested man was dressed in elaborate regal vestments of velvet and silk. He too looked older, and the former king’s once-trim physique sported a bulge around the middle. Gray invaded his mustache and beard in patches and left white lines in his black hair. After pulling his cape inside, he slammed the door shut.
“So this is the fellow, I take it?” he said in a booming voice as he appraised Hadrian. “Don’t I know you?”
Seeing no reason to lie, Hadrian replied, “I once served in your army.”
“That’s right!” Ethelred said, throwing up his hands in a large animated gesture. “You were a good fighter too. You held the line at… at…” He snapped his fingers repeatedly.
“At the Gravin River Ford.”
“Of course!” He slapped his thigh. “Damn nice piece of work that was. I promoted you, didn’t I? Made you a captain or something. What happened?”
“Pity. You’re a fine soldier.” Ethelred clapped Hadrian on the shoulder.
“Of course he is, Lanis. That’s the whole point,” Saldur reminded him.
Ethelred chuckled, then said, “Too true, too true. So, has he accepted?”
“We haven’t asked him yet.”
“Asked me what?”
“Hadrian, we have a little problem,” Ethelred began. As he spoke, he paced back and forth between Saldur’s desk and the door. He kept the fingers of his left hand tucked in his belt behind his back while using his right to assist him in speaking, like a conductor uses a baton. “His name is Archibald Ballentyne. He’s a sniveling little weasel. All of the Ballentynes have been worthless, pitiful excuses for men, but he’s also the Earl of Chadwick. So, by virtue of his birth, he rules over a province that is worthless in all ways except one. Chadwick is the home to Lord Belstrad, whose eldest son, Sir Breckton, is very likely the best knight in Avryn. When I say best, I mean that in every sense of the word. His skill at arms is unmatched, as are his talent for tactics and his aptitude for leadership. Unfortunately, he’s also loyal to a fault. He serves Archie Ballentyne and only Archie.”
Ethelred crossed the room and took a seat by hopping onto Saldur’s desk, causing the old man to flinch.
“I wanted Breckton as my general, but he refuses to obey the chain of command and won’t listen to anyone except Archie. I can’t waste time filtering all my orders through that pissant. So we offered Breckton a prime bit of land and a title to abandon Ballentyne, but the fool wasn’t interested.”
“The war is over, or soon will be,” Hadrian pointed out. “You don’t need Breckton anymore.”
“That is exactly correct,” Saldur said.
There was something in the detached way he spoke that chilled Hadrian.
“Even without a war we still need strong men to enforce order,” Ethelred explained. Picking up a glass figurine from Saldur’s desk, he began passing it from hand to hand.
Saldur’s jaw clenched as his eyes tracked each toss.
“When Breckton turned us down, Archie threatened to use his knight and the Royalists against us. Can you believe that? He said he would march on Aquesta! He thinks he can challenge me! The little sod—” Ethelred slammed the figurine down on the desk, shattering it. “Oh—sorry, Sauly.”
Saldur sighed but said nothing.
“Anyway,” Ethelred went on, dusting off his hands so that bits of glass rained on the desk. “Who could have guessed a knight would turn down an offer to rise to the rank of marquis and command a whole kingdom as his fief? The piss-proud pillock! And what’s he doing it for? Loyalty to Archie Ballentyne. Who hates him. Always has. It’s ridiculous.”
“Which brings us to why you’re here, Mr. Blackwater,” Saldur said. He used a lace handkerchief to gingerly sweep the broken glass off his desk into a wastebasket. “As much as I would like to take credit for it, this is all Guy’s idea.” Saldur nodded toward the sentinel.
Guy never changed his wooden stance, remaining at attention as if it were his natural state.
“Finding you in our courtyard, Guy realized that you can solve our little problem with Sir Breckton.”
“I’m not following,” Hadrian said.
Saldur rolled his eyes. “We can’t allow Breckton to reach his army at Drondil Fields. We would be forever at the mercy of Archie. He could dictate any terms so long as Breckton controlled the loyalty of the army.”
Hadrian’s confusion continued. “And…?”
Ethelred chuckled. “Poor Sauly, you deal too much in subtlety. This man is a fighter, not a strategist. He needs it spelled out.” Turning to Hadrian, he said, “Breckton is a capable warrior and we had no hope of finding anyone who could defeat him until Guy pointed out that you are the perfect man for the job. To be blunt, we want you to kill Sir Breckton.”
“The Wintertide tournament will start in just a few days,” Saldur continued. “Breckton is competing in the joust and we want you to battle him and win. His lance will be blunted, while yours will have a war point hidden beneath a porcelain shell. When he dies, our problem will be solved.”
“And exactly why would I agree?”
“Like the good regent explained,” Guy said, “killing seret is an executable offense.”
“Plus,” Ethelred put in, “as a token of our appreciation, we will sweeten the deal by paying you one hundred solid gold tenents. What do you say?”
Hadrian knew he could never murder Breckton. While he had never met the man, he was familiar with Breckton’s younger brother Wesley, who had served with Royce and Hadrian on the Emerald Storm. The young man had died in battle, fighting beside them at the Palace of the Four Winds. His sacrificial charge had saved their lives. No man had ever proven himself more worthy of loyalty, and if Breckton was half the man his younger brother was, Hadrian owed him at least one life.
“What can he say?” Saldur answered for him. “He has no choice.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Hadrian replied. “You’re right. I am a trained Teshlor, and while you’ve been talking, I’ve calculated eight different ways to kill everyone in this room. Three using nothing more than that little letter opener Regent Saldur has been playing with.” He let his arms fall loose and shifted his stance. This immediately set Ethelred and Guy, the two fighters, on the defensive.
“Hold on now.” Saldur’s voice wavered and his face showed strain. “Before you make any rash decisions, consider that the window is too small to fit through, and the men in the corridor will not let you leave. If you really are as good as you say, you might take a great many of them with you, but even you cannot defeat them all.”
“You might be right. We’ll soon find out.”
“Are you insane? You’re choosing death?” Saldur erupted in frustration. “We are offering you gold and a pardon. What benefit is there in refusing?”
“Well, he does plan on killing all of you.” The man with the chess piece spoke for the first time. “A good trade, really—forfeiting one knight to eliminate a knight, a bishop, and a king. But you offered the man the wrong incentive. Give him the princess.”
“Give—what?” Saldur looked puzzled. “Who? Arista?”
“You have another princess I’m not aware of?”
“Arista?” Hadrian asked. “The Princess of Melengar is here?”
“Yes, and they plan to execute her on Wintertide,” the man answered.
Saldur looked confused. “Why would he care—”
“Because Hadrian Blackwater and his partner, Royce Melborn, better known as Riyria, have been working as the royal protectors of Melengar. They’ve been instrumental in nearly every success either Alric or his sister has had over the last few years. I suspect they might even be friends with the royal family now. Well—as much as nobles will permit friendship with commoners.”
Hadrian tried to keep his face neutral and his breathing balanced.
They have Arista? How did they capture her? Was she hurt? How long have they been holding her? Who is this man?
“You see, Your Grace, Mr. Blackwater is a romantic at heart. He likes his honor upheld and his quests worthy. Killing an innocent knight, particularly one as distinguished as Breckton, would be… well… wrong. Saving a damsel in distress, on the other hand, is an entirely different proposition.”
“Would that be a problem?” Ethelred asked Saldur.
The regent thought a moment. “The girl has proven resourceful and given us more than her fair share of trouble but… Medford is destroyed, the Nationalists are disbanded, and Drondil Fields won’t last much longer. I can’t see any way she could pose a serious threat to the empire.”
“Well,” Ethelred said, addressing Hadrian, “do we have a deal?”
Hadrian scrutinized the man at the chessboard. While he had never seen his face before, he felt as though he should recognize him.
“No,” Hadrian said at length. “I want Degan Gaunt too.”
“You see? He is the guardian!” Guy proclaimed. “Or he wishes to be. Obviously Esrahaddon told him Gaunt is the heir.”
Ethelred looked concerned. “That’s out of the question. We’ve been after the Heir of Novron for years. We can’t let him go.”
“Not just years—centuries,” Saldur corrected. He stared at Hadrian, his mouth slightly open, the tip of his tongue playing with his front teeth. “Esrahaddon is dead. You confirmed that, Guy?”
The sentinel nodded. “I had his body dug up and then burned.”
“And how much does Gaunt know? I’ve heard you’ve had several little chats with him.”
Guy shook his head. “Not much, from what I’ve been able to determine. He insists Esrahaddon didn’t even tell him he’s the heir.”
“But Hadrian will tell him,” Ethelred protested.
“So?” Saldur replied. “What does that matter? The two of them can travel the countryside, proclaiming Gaunt’s heritage from the mountaintops. Who will listen? Modina serves us well. The people love and accept her as the unquestionable true Heir of Novron. She slew the Gilarabrywn, after all. If they try to convince people that Gaunt is the heir, they’ll get no support from the peasants or nobles. The concern was never Degan, per se, but rather what Esrahaddon could do by using him as a puppet. Right? With the wizard gone, Gaunt is no real threat.”
“I’m not certain the Patriarch will approve,” Guy said.
“The Patriarch isn’t here having a standoff with a Teshlor, is he?”
“And what about Gaunt’s children, or grandchildren? Decades from now, they may attempt to regain their birthright. We have to concern ourselves with that.”
“Why worry about problems that may never occur? We’re at a bit of an impasse, gentlemen. Why don’t we deal with our present issues and let the future take care of itself? What do you say, Lanis?”
Saldur turned to Hadrian. “If you succeed in killing Sir Breckton in the joust, we will release Degan Gaunt and Princess Arista into your custody on the condition that you leave Avryn and promise not to return. Do we have a deal?”
“So I’m free to go?”
“Actually, no,” Saldur said. “You must understand our desire to keep this little arrangement between us. I’m afraid we’re going to have to insist that you stay in the palace until after your joust with Breckton. While you’re here, you will be under constant observation. If you attempt to escape or pass information, we will interpret that as a refusal on your part, and Princess Arista and Degan Gaunt will be burned at the stake.
“Breckton’s death has to be seen as a Wintertide accident at best or the actions of an overambitious knight at worst. There can be no suspicions of a conspiracy. Commoners aren’t permitted to participate in the tournament, so we’ll need to transform you into a knight. You will stay in the knights’ quarters, participate in the games, attend feasts, and mingle with the aristocracy, as all knights do this time of year. We will assign a tutor to help you convince everyone that you’re noble so there will be no suspicions of wrongdoing. As of this moment, your only way out of this palace is to kill Sir Breckton.”
Drip, drip, drip.
Arista scratched her wrists, feeling the marks raised by the heavy iron during the regent’s interrogation. The itching had only recently started. With what little they fed her, she was surprised her body could heal itself at all. Lying about Edith Mon had been a gamble, and she had worried Saldur would return to her cell with the inquisitor, but three bowls of gruel had arrived since his visit, which led her to conclude he had believed her story.
There it was again.
The sound was faint and distant, echoing as if traveling through a long, hollow tube.
Creak, click, creak, click, creak, click.
The noise certainly came from a machine, a torture device of some kind. Perhaps it was a mechanical winch used to tear people to pieces or a turning wheel that submerged victims in putrid waters. Saldur had been wrong about her courage. Arista never had any doubt she would break if subjected to torture.
The stone door to the prison rumbled as it opened. Footsteps echoed through the corridors. Once more, someone was coming when it was not time for food.
The shoes were different and not as rich as Saldur’s, but they were not poor either. The gait was decidedly military, but these feet were not shod in metal. They did not come for her. Instead, the footfalls passed by, stopping just past her cell. Keys jangled and a cell door opened.
“Morning, Gaunt,” said a voice she found distantly familiar and vaguely unpleasant, like the memory of a bad dream.
“What do you want, Guy?” Gaunt said.
“You and I need to have another talk,” Guy said.
“I barely survived our last one.”
“What did Esrahaddon tell you about the Horn of Gylindora?”
Arista lifted her head and inched nearer the door.
“I don’t know how many ways I can say it. He told me nothing.”
“See, this is why you suffer in our little meetings. You need to be more cooperative. I can’t help you if you won’t help us. We need to find that horn and we need it now!”
“Why don’t you just ask Esrahaddon?”
There was a long pause.
“Think. Surely he mentioned it to you. Time is running out. We had a team, but they are long overdue, and I doubt they’re coming back. We need that horn. In all your time together, do you really expect me to believe he never mentioned it?”
“No, he never said anything about a damn horn!”
“Either you’re becoming better at lying, or you’ve been telling the truth all along. I just can’t imagine he wouldn’t tell you anything unless… Everyone is so certain, but I’ve had a nagging suspicion for some time now.”
“What’s that for?” Gaunt asked, his voice nervous—frightened.
“Let’s call it a hunch. Now hold still.”
Gaunt grunted, then cried out. “What are you doing?”
“You wouldn’t understand even if I told you.”
There was another pause.
“I knew it!” Guy exclaimed. “This explains so much. While it doesn’t help either of us, at least it makes sense. The regents were fools to kill Esrahaddon.”
“I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”
“Nothing, Gaunt. I believe you. He didn’t tell you anything. Why would he? The Patriarch will not be pleased. You won’t be questioned anymore. You can await your execution in peace.”
The door closed again and the footfalls left the dungeon.
Esrahaddon’s dying words came back to Arista.
Find the Horn of Gylindora—need the heir to find it—buried with Novron in Percepliquis. Hurry—at Wintertide the Uli Vermar ends. They will come—without the horn everyone dies.
These words had brought Arista to Aquesta in the first place and were the reason she had risked her and Hilfred’s lives trying to save Gaunt. Now she once more tried to understand just what Esrahaddon had meant by them.
Drip, drip, drip.
The protruding bones of Arista’s hips, knees, and shoulders ached from bearing her weight on the stone. Her fingernails had become brittle and broken. Too exhausted to stand or sit upright, Arista struggled even to turn over. Despite her weakness, she found it difficult to sleep, and lay awake for hours, glaring into the dark. The stone Arista lay on sucked the warmth from her body. Shivering in a ball, she pushed herself up in the dark and struggled to gather the scattered bits of straw. Running her fingers over the rough-hewn granite, she swept together the old, brittle thatch and mounded it as best she could into a lumpy bed.
Arista lay there imagining food. Not simply eating or touching it, but immersing herself. In her daydreams, she bathed in cream and swam in apple juice. All her senses contributed and she longed for even the smell of bread or the feel of butter on her tongue. Arista was tortured with thoughts of roasted pig dripping with fruit glaze, beef served in a thick, dark gravy, and mountains of chicken, quail, and duck. Envisioning feasts stretching across long tables made her mouth water. Arista ate several meals a day in her mind. Even the vegetables, the common diet of peasants, were welcomed. Carrots, onions, and parsnips hovered in her mind like unappreciated treasures—and what she would give for a turnip.
Drip, drip, drip.
In the dark there was so much to regret and so much time to do so.
What a mess she had made of a life that had started out filled with so much happiness. She recalled the days when her mother had been Queen of Melengar and music filled the halls. There had been the beautiful dress stitched from expensive Calian silk that she had received on her twelfth birthday. How the light had shimmered across its surface as she twirled before her mother’s swan mirror. The same year, her father had given her a Maranon-bred pony. Lenare had been so jealous watching as Arista chased Alric and Mauvin over the Galilin hills on horseback. She loved riding and feeling the wind in her hair. Those had been such good days. In her memory, they were always sunny and warm.
Her world had changed forever the night the castle caught on fire. Her father had just appointed her uncle Braga as the Lord Chancellor of Melengar and celebrations ran late. Her mother tucked her into bed that night. Arista did not sleep in the tower then. She had a room across the hall from her parents, but she would never sleep in the royal wing again.
In the middle of that night, she had awoken to a boy pulling her from bed. Frightened and confused, she jerked away, kicking and scratching as he tried to grab hold.
“Please, Your Highness, you must come with me,” the boy begged.
Outside her window, the elm tree burned like a torch, and her room flickered with its light. She heard a muffled roar from somewhere deep in the castle, and Arista found herself coughing from smoke.
Screaming in terror, she cowered back to the imagined safety of her bed. The boy gripped her hard and dragged her toward him.
“The castle is burning. We have to get out of here,” he said.
Where is my mother? Where are Father and Alric? And who is this boy?
While she fought against him, the boy lifted her in his arms and rushed from the room. The corridor was a tunnel of flames formed by the burning tapestries. Carrying her down the stairs and through several doors, he stumbled and finally collapsed in the courtyard. The cool evening air filled Arista’s lungs as she gasped for breath.
Her father was not in the castle that night. After settling a dispute between two drunken friends, he had escorted them home. By sheer luck, Alric was also not there. He and Mauvin Pickering had secretly slipped out to go night hunting, what they used to call frog catching. Arista’s mother was the only royal who failed to escape.
Hilfred, the boy who had saved Arista, had tried to rescue the queen as well. After seeing the princess to safety, he went back into the flames and nearly died in the attempt. For months following the fire, Hilfred suffered the effects of burns, was beset by nightmares, and had coughing fits so intense that he spat blood. Despite all the agony he endured on her behalf, Arista never thanked him. All she knew was that her mother was dead, and from that day on everything had changed.
In the wake of the fire, Arista moved to the tower, as it was the only part of the castle that did not smell of smoke. Her father ordered her mother’s furniture—those few items that had survived the fire—to be moved there. Arista would often cry while sitting before the swan mirror, remembering how her mother used to brush her hair. One day her father saw her and asked what was wrong. She blurted out, “All the brushes are gone.” From that day forward, her father brought her a new brush after each trip he took. No two were ever alike. They were all gone now—the brushes, her father, even the dressing table with the swan mirror.
Drip, drip, drip.
Arista wondered if Maribor decreed she should be alone. Why else had she, a princess nearly twenty-eight years old, never had a proper suitor? Even poor, ugly daughters of fishmongers fared better. Perhaps her loneliness was her own fault, the result of her deplorable nature. In the dark, the answer was clearly visible—no one wanted her.
Emery had thought he loved Arista, but he had never really known her. Impressed by her wild ideas of taking Ratibor from the Imperialists, he had been swayed by the romantic notion of a noble fighting alongside a band of commoners. What Emery had fallen in love with was a myth. As for Hilfred, he had worshiped Arista as his princess. She was not a person but an icon on a pedestal. That they had died before learning the truth was a mercy to both men.
Only Hadrian had escaped being deceived. Arista was certain he saw her merely as a source of income. He likely hated her for being a privileged aristocrat living in a castle while he scraped by. All commoners were nice to nobility when in their presence—but in private, their true feelings showed. Hadrian probably snickered, proclaiming her too repulsive for even her own kind to love. With or without magic, she was still a witch. She deserved being alone. She deserved to die. She deserved to burn.
Drip, drip, drip.
A pain in her side caused her to turn over slowly. Sometimes she lost feeling in her feet for hours, and her fingers often tingled. After settling onto her back, she heard a skittering sound.
The rat had returned. Arista did not know where it came from or where it went in the darkness, but she always knew when it was near. She could not understand why it came around, as she ate all the food delivered. After consuming every drop of soup, she licked and even chewed on the bowl. Still, the rat visited frequently. Sometimes its nose touched her feet and kicking would send it scurrying away. In the past, she had tried to catch it, but it was smart and fast. Now Arista was too weak even to make an attempt.
Arista heard the rat moving along the wall of the cell. Its nose and whiskers lightly touched her exposed toes. She no longer had the energy to kick, so she let it smell her. After sniffing a few more times, the rat bit her toe.
Arista screamed in pain. She kicked but missed. Still, the rat scurried off. Lying in the darkness, she shivered and cried in fear and misery.
“A—ris—ta?” Degan asked, sounding horse. “What is it?”
“A rat bit me,” she said, once again shocked by her own rasping voice.
“Jasper does that if—” Gaunt coughed and hacked. After a moment, he spoke again. “If he thinks you’re dead or too weak to fight.”
“I call him that, but I’ve also named the stones in my cell.”
“I only counted mine,” Arista said.
“Two hundred and thirty-four,” Degan replied instantly.
“I have two hundred and twenty-eight.”
“Did you count the cracked ones as two?”
The princess lay there, listening to her own breathing, and felt the weight of her hands on her chest as it rose and fell. She started to drift into and out of sleep when Degan spoke again.
“Arista? Are you really a witch? Can you do magic?”
“Yes,” she said. “But not in here.”
Arista did not expect him to believe her and had been doubting her own powers after being cut off from them for so long. Runes lined the walls of the prison. They were the same markings that had prevented Esrahaddon from casting spells while incarcerated in Gutaria, but her stay would not last a thousand years as his had. Gutaria’s runes halted the passage of time as well as preventing the practice of magic, and the ache in her stomach reminded Arista all too often that time was not suspended here.
Only since the Battle of Ratibor had Arista begun to understand the true nature of magic, or the Art, as Esrahaddon had called it. When touching the strings of reality, she felt no sense of boundaries—only complexity. With time and understanding, anything might be possible and everything achievable. She was certain that were it not for the runes disconnecting her from the natural world, she could break open the ground and rip the palace apart.
“Were you born a witch?”
“I learned magic from Esrahaddon.”
“You knew him?”
“Do you know how he died?”
“He was murdered by an assassin.”
“Oh. Did he ever talk about me? Did he tell you why he was helping me?” he asked anxiously.
“He never told you?”
“No. I didn’t—” He broke into another fit of coughs. “I didn’t have much of an army when we met, but then everything changed. He got men to join and follow me. I never had to do much of anything. Esrahaddon did all the planning and told me what to say. It was nice while it lasted. I had plenty to eat, and folks saluted and called me sir. I even had a horse and a tent the size of a house. I should have known all that was too good to last. I should have realized he was setting me up. I’m just curious why. What did I ever do to him?” His voice was weak, coming in gasps by the end of his speech.
“Degan, do you have a necklace? A small silver medallion?”
“Yeah—well, I did.” He paused a long while, and when he spoke again, his voice was better. “My mother gave it to me before I left home—my good luck charm. They took it when they put me in here. Why do you ask?”
“Because you are the Heir of Novron. That necklace was created by Esrahaddon nearly nine hundred years ago. There were two of them, one for the heir and one for the guardian trained to defend him. For generations they protected the wearers from magic and hid their identities. Esrahaddon taught me a spell that could find who wore them. I was the one who helped him find you. He’s been trying to restore you to the throne.”
Degan was quiet for some time. “If I have a guardian, where is he? I could use one right now.”
The waves of self-loathing washed over her again. “His name is Hadrian. Oh, Degan, it’s all my fault. He doesn’t know where you are. Esrahaddon and I were going to find you and tell him, but I messed it all up. After Esrahaddon’s death, I thought I could get you out on my own. I failed.”
“Yeah, well, it’s only my life—nothing important.” There was a pause, then, “Arista?”
“What about that thing Guy mentioned? That horn? Did Esrahaddon ever mention it to you? If we can tell them something about it, maybe they won’t kill us.”
Arista felt the hair on her arms stand up.
Is this a trick? Is he working for them?
Weak and exhausted, she could not think clearly. In the darkness she felt vulnerable and disoriented—exactly what they wanted.
Is it even Gaunt at all? Or did they discover I was coming and plant someone from the start? Or did they switch the real Gaunt while I slept? Is it the same voice?
She tried to remember.
“Arista?” he called out again.
She opened her mouth to reply but paused and thought of something else to say. “It’s hard to recall. My head’s fuzzy, and I’m trying to piece the conversation together. He talked about the horn the same day I met your sister. I remember he introduced her… and then… Oh, how did it go again? He said, ‘Arista, this is… this is…’ Oh, it’s just beyond my memory. Help me out, Degan. I feel like a fool. Can you remind me what your sister’s name is?”
Arista waited. She listened and thought she heard movement somewhere beyond her cell, but she was not sure.
“Degan?” she ventured after several minutes had passed. “Don’t you know your own sister’s name?”
“Why do you want to know her name?” Degan asked. His tone was lower, colder.
“I just forgot it, is all. I thought you could help me remember the conversation.”
He was quiet for so long that she thought he might not speak again. Finally, he said, “What did they offer you to find out about her?”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe you’re Arista Essendon, or maybe you’re an Imperialist trying to get secrets from me.”
“How do I know any different about you?” she asked.
“You supposedly came to free me, and now you doubt who I am?”
“I came to free Degan Gaunt, but who are you?”
“I won’t tell you the name of my sister.”
“In that case, I think I will sleep.” She meant it as a bluff, but as the silence continued, she dozed off.
Hadrian sat on the edge of his bunk, perplexed by the tabard. A single red diagonal stripe decorated each side. Depending on how he wore it, the stripe started from either his right or his left shoulder, and he could not figure out which was correct.
As he finally made a decision and placed it over his head, there was a quiet knock, followed by the timid opening of his door. A man’s face, accentuated by a beaklike nose and topped by a foppish powdered wig, peered inside. “Excuse me, I’m looking for Sir Hadrian.”
“Congratulations, you found him,” Hadrian replied.
The man entered, followed closely by a boy, who remained near the door. Thin and brittle-looking, the man was dressed in bright satin knee breeches and an elaborate ruffled tunic. Even without the outlandish clothing, he would still be comical. Encased in buckled shoes, his feet seemed disproportionally large, and all his limbs were gangly. The teenage lad behind him wore the more conventional attire of a simple brown tunic and hose.
“My name is Nimbus of Vernes, and I am imperial tutor to the empress. Regent Saldur thought you might need some guidance on court protocol and instruction in knightly virtues, so he asked me to assist you.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Hadrian said. He stood and offered his hand. At first Nimbus appeared confused, but then he reached out and shook.
Motioning toward the tabard Hadrian wore, he nodded. “I can see why I was called upon.”
Hadrian glanced down and shrugged. “Well, I figured I had a fifty-fifty chance.” Removing the garment, he turned the tunic around. “Is that better?”
Nimbus struggled to suppress a laugh, holding a lace handkerchief to his lips. The boy was not so restrained and snorted, then laughed out loud. This made Nimbus lose his own battle, and finally Hadrian found himself laughing as well.
“I’m sorry. That was most inappropriate of me,” Nimbus apologized, getting a hold of himself. “I beg your forgiveness.”
“It’s no problem. Just tell me what I’m doing wrong.”
“Well, to start with, that particular garment is used only for sparring, and no self-respecting knight would wear such a thing at court.”
Hadrian shrugged. “Oh, okay, good to know. It was the only thing I saw. Any ideas?”
Nimbus walked to a drape behind the bunk and flung it aside, revealing an open wardrobe filled with tunics, jackets, coats, capes, jerkins, gambesons, vests, doublets, baldrics, belts, breeches, shirts, hose, boots, and shoes.
Hadrian looked at the wardrobe and frowned. “So how was I supposed to know all that was there?”
“Why don’t we begin by getting you properly dressed?” Nimbus suggested, and motioned for Hadrian to pick something.
He reached toward a pair of wool pants, but a cough from Nimbus stopped him.
“No?” Hadrian asked.
Nimbus shook his head.
“Okay, what do you think I should be wearing?”
Nimbus considered the wardrobe for several minutes, picking out various pieces, comparing them, putting one back, and then choosing another. He finally selected a white shirt, a gold doublet, purple hose, and shiny black shoes with brass buckles. He laid them out on the bunk.
“You’re joking,” Hadrian said, staring at the array. “That’s your best choice? I’m not sure gold and purple are for me. Besides, what’s wrong with the wool pants?”
“Those are for hunting and, like the tabard, not appropriate for dress at court. Gold and purple complement each other. They announce you are a man that makes no excuses.”
Hadrian held up the clothes with a grimace. “They’re loud. Disturbingly loud.”
“They exude refinement and grace,” Nimbus corrected. “Qualities, if you don’t mind me saying, from which you could benefit. I know knights in the field dress in order to bully rabble-rousers and brigands, and under such circumstances, it’s appropriate to select garments based on certain utilitarian qualities.” He took an appraising look at Hadrian’s attire. “But you are at the palace now, competing with a higher class of… thug. A strong arm and loud voice will not be enough. You need to sell yourself to the knights you wish to intimidate, to the ladies you wish to bed, to the lords you wish to impress, and to the commoners who will chant your name during the competitions. This last group is particularly important, as it will raise your stature with the others.
“A knight skilled in combat may stay alive, but it is the one skilled in persuasion who wins the king’s daughter for his wife and retires to a vast estate. Truly successful knights can obtain multiple fiefs and enter their twilight years as wealthy as any count or earl.”
Nimbus lowered his voice. “Regent Saldur mentioned that you might be a bit rough around the edges.” He paused briefly. “I think we can both agree I’ve not been misled. It may take some doing to refine your mannerisms. So, in the meantime, I plan to overcompensate with clothing. We’ll blind everyone with dazzle so they won’t see the dirt on your face.”
Hadrian reached for his cheek.
“That was a metaphor,” Nimbus informed him. “Although now that I look at you, a bath is certainly in order.”
“Bath? It’s freezing outside. You’re supposed to groom me, not kill me.”
“You may be surprised to discover that in civilized society we bathe indoors in tubs with heated water. You might even find it enjoyable.” Turning to the boy, Nimbus ordered, “Renwick, run and fetch the tub and get some others to help carry buckets. We’ll also need a bristle brush, soap, oils, and—oh yes—scissors.”
The lad ran off and quickly returned with a small army of boys carrying a wooden tub. They left and returned with buckets of hot water. After filling the tub, all the boys left except Renwick. He dutifully stood beside the door, ready for further requests.
Hadrian undressed and tested the water with a hesitant foot.
“Are you versed in the basic concept of bathing? Or do you need me to instruct you?” Nimbus asked.
Hadrian scowled at him. “I think I can handle it,” he said, settling into the water. The tub overflowed and created a soapy mess. He grimaced. “Sorry about that.”
Nimbus said nothing and turned away to give Hadrian a modicum of privacy.
The hot bath was wonderful. Hadrian had been assigned an interior chamber selected, no doubt, for its lack of windows. There were a simple bed, two wooden stools, and a modest table, but no fireplace, which left the chamber chilly. If he was desperate, there was a large hearth in the common room at the end of the hall, which also sported carpets and a chess set, but despite the cold, Hadrian preferred to remain in the isolation of his private room. Having not felt comfortably warm in days, Hadrian sank lower to submerge as much of himself as possible.
“Are these yours?” Nimbus asked, noticing Hadrian’s weapons resting in the corner of the room.
“Yes, and I know they’re worn and dirty just like me.”
Nimbus lifted the spadone, still encased in the leather baldric, with a noticeable degree of reverence. Turning it over gingerly, he ran his fingertips along the hilt, grip, and pommel. “This is very old,” he said almost to himself. “Wrong sheath, though.” He laid the sword across the foot of the bed.
“I thought you were a courtier. What do you know about swords?”
“You’ll learn that there are many weapons at court. Survival in the maelstrom of the body politic requires being able to size up another by what little they reveal to you.”
Hadrian shrugged. “It’s the same in combat.”
“Court is combat,” Nimbus said. “Only the skills and setting differ.”
“So how would you size me up?”
“Regent Saldur told me your background is completely confidential and that divulging anything would result in my—not too painless—demise. The only information he provided was that you were recently knighted. He refrained from any detail about your station or ancestry. The regent merely mentioned you were lacking refinement and instructed me to ensure you fit seamlessly into the Wintertide festivities.”
Hadrian kept an unwavering stare on the tutor. “You didn’t answer the question.”
Nimbus smiled at him. “You really want to know, don’t you? You aren’t toying with me?”
The tutor turned to the page. “Renwick?”
“Fetch Sir Hadrian a cup of wine from the steward in the kitchen.”
“There’s wine in the common room, sir, and it’s closer.”
Nimbus gave him a stern look. “I want some privacy, Renwick.”
“Oh, I see. Of course, sir.”
“Very well, then,” Nimbus said after the boy had left. He pursed his lips and tapped them several times with his index finger before continuing. “The truth of the matter is that you are not a knight. You haven’t even served as a squire, groom, or page. I doubt you’ve ever set foot in a proper castle for more than a few minutes at a time. However—and this is the important point—you are indeed noble.”
Hadrian paused in his scrubbing. “And what makes you think that?”
“You didn’t know where the wardrobe was, you’ve never taken a bath in winter, you shook my hand when we met, and apologized for spilling your bathwater. These are most certainly not the actions of a knight raised from birth to feel and act superior to others.”
Hadrian sniffed the scented soap and discarded it.
“Most telling, however, was the handshake itself. You offered it as a simple gesture of greeting. There was no agenda, no flattery, no insincerity. There also was no insecurity or sense that, by virtue of my clothes and mannerisms, I was your better. How odd, considering, as I now know, you were not raised a noble.” Nimbus looked back at the sword resting on the bed. “It’s an heirloom, isn’t it?”
Picking up a bottle of oil, Hadrian pulled the cork and deemed it acceptable. He added a bit to the bristles of the brush. “I got it from my father.”
The tutor ran his hand along the sheathed blade. “This is a remarkable weapon—a knight’s sword—tarnished with time and travel. You don’t use it as often as the others. The bastard and short sword are tools to you, but this—ah—this is something else—something revered. It lays concealed in a paltry sheath, covered in clothes not its own. It doesn’t belong there. This sword belongs to another time and place. It is part of a grand and glorious world where knights were different, loftier—virtuous. It rests in this false scabbard because the proper one has been lost, or perhaps, it waits for a quest yet to be finished. It longs for that single moment when it can shine forth in all its brilliance. When dream and destiny meet on a clear field, then and only then will it find its purpose. When it faces that honorable cause—that one worthy and desperate challenge for which it was forged and on which so much depends—it will find peace in the crucible of struggle. For good or ill, it will ring true or break. But the wandering, the waiting, the hiding will at last be over. This sword waits for the day when it can save the kingdom and win the lady.”
Hadrian sat staring, not realizing that he had dropped his brush.
Nimbus appeared to take no notice of Hadrian’s reaction and sat on the bunk with a satisfied smile across his face. “Now, while I have your attention, shall we address the task to which I was assigned?”
“To help me judge where to start, can you tell me what you already know about chivalry?” Nimbus asked.
“It’s a code of conduct for knights,” Hadrian replied, searching the bottom of the tub for the lost brush.
“Yes—well, you are essentially correct. What do you know of its principles?”
“Be honorable, be brave, that sort of thing.”
“ ‘That sort of thing’? Oh, I’m afraid we’ll have to start with the basics. Very well, please pay attention, and don’t forget to scrub the bottoms of your feet.”
Hadrian frowned but lifted a foot.
“The knightly virtues derive themselves from a standard of ethics passed down from the original empire. There are eight such virtues. The first is proficiency. It is the easiest to achieve, as it merely means skill at arms and can be obtained through practice and observation. Judging from the wear on your weapons, I trust you have a solid understanding of this virtue?”
“I’m able to hold my own.”
Nimbus nodded. “Excellent. Next is courage, one of the most important virtues. Courage, however, is not so cheaply bought as by charging against overwhelming odds. It can take many forms. For instance, the bravery to choose life over death, especially if that means living with loss. Or the will to risk all for a cause too noble to let perish. Courage can even be found in surrender—if doing so will mean the survival of something too valuable to lose.
“The third virtue of a knight is honesty. To possess honor, a man must first strive to be honest to men, to women, to children, to great and to small, to the good and to the villainous, but mostly to himself. A knight does not make excuses.”
Hadrian made an extra effort to keep his eyes focused on scrubbing his feet.
“Integrity is a virtue that comprises both loyalty and honor. Possessing integrity often means adhering to a pledge or principle. Loyalty to a sovereign is the mark of a goodly knight. However, integrity can also mean defending those in need who cannot help themselves. A knight should always work for the good of the king third, the betterment of the kingdom second, but always place what is right first.”
“How does a knight know what is right?” Hadrian interrupted. He put down the brush, letting his foot slip back to the bottom of the tub. “I mean… what if I’m forced to choose between two evils? Someone could get hurt no matter what I do. How do I decide?”
“True nobility lies in the heart. You must do what you know to be right.”
“How do I know I’m not being selfish?”
“Ah, that brings us to the next virtue—faith. Faith is not simply a belief in the tenets of the church but a belief in virtue itself. A knight does not find fault. A knight believes in the good of all men, including himself. He trusts in this belief. A knight is confident in the word of others, in the merits of his lord, the worth of his commands, and in his own worth.”
Hadrian nodded, though the words did not help ease his conscience.
“Generosity is the sixth virtue. A knight should show bounteousness to all, noble and commoner alike. More important than generosity of wares is a generosity of spirit. A knight believes the best of others and always extends the benefit of doubt. A knight does not accuse. He does not assume wrongdoing. Still, a knight grants no benefit to himself and always questions if he is at fault.
“Respect is the virtue concerning the good treatment of others. A knight is not thoughtless. He does not harm through recklessness. He seeks not to injure by lazy words or foolishness. A knight does not mimic the bad behavior of others. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity to demonstrate virtue by contrast.”
Nimbus paused. “I don’t think you need worry too much about this one either.” He offered a smile before continuing.
“The final virtue is sincerity, which is elusive at best. Nobility by birthright is clear, but what is in question here is noblesse of heart and cannot be taught or learned. It must be accepted and allowed to grow. This virtue is demonstrated through bearing, not swagger; confidence, not arrogance; kindness, not pity; belief, not patronage; authenticity, not pretension.
“These are the virtues that comprise the Code of Chivalry,” Nimbus concluded, “the path of goodness and truth to which men of high honor aspire. The reality, however, is often quite different.”
As if on cue, the door burst open and three men tumbled inside. They were large, stocky brutes dressed in fine doublets with silk trim. The lead man sported a goatee and stood near the door, pointing at Hadrian.
“There he is!” he announced.
“Well, he certainly isn’t this little sod,” roared a second man, who pushed Nimbus hard in the chest and knocked the tutor back against the bunk. This man was the largest of the three and wore several days of beard growth. The insult, as well as the terrified expression on the courtier’s face, brought the new arrivals to laughter.
“What’s your name, twig?” the man with the goatee asked.
“I am Nimbus of Vernes,” he said while attempting to stand and regain some level of dignity. “I am imperial tutor to—”
“Tutor? He’s got a tutor!”
They howled in laughter again.
“Tell us, twig, what are you teaching Sir Bumpkin here? How to wash his arse? Is that your job? Have you taught him to use the chamber pot yet?”
Nimbus did not answer. He clenched his teeth and fixed his eyes on the unkempt man before him.
“I think you’re getting under that ruffled collar of his,” the last of them observed. He was clean-shaven and sipped wine from a goblet. “Careful, Elgar, he’s made fists.”
“Is that true?” Elgar looked at the tutor’s hands, which were indeed tightly clenched. “Oh dear! Am I impinging on your sacred pedagogical honor? Would you like to throw a punch at me, little twig? Put me in my proper place, as it were?”
“If he takes a big enough swing, it’s possible you might actually feel it,” the shaved one said.
“I asked you a question, twig,” Elgar pressed.
“If you don’t mind, we’ll continue this another time,” Nimbus said to Hadrian. “It would seem you have guests.”
Elgar blocked the tutor’s path as he tried to leave, and shoved him again. Staggering backward, Nimbus fell onto the bed.
“Leave him alone,” Hadrian ordered as he stood and grabbed a towel.
“Ah, Sir Bumpkin, in all his regal glory!” proclaimed the man with the goatee, pointing. “Well, not that regal and certainly not that glorious!”
“Who are you?” Hadrian demanded, stepping out of the tub and wrapping the towel around himself.
“I am Sir Murthas and the gent with the handsome face beside me here is Sir Gilbert. Over there, that dashing fellow holding the pleasant conversation with the twig is none other than Sir Elgar. We are the three finest knights of the realm, as you will soon discover. We wanted to welcome you to the palace, deliver you a fond tiding, and wish you luck on the field—as luck is all you’ll have.”
Nimbus snorted. “They’re here because they heard a bath was ordered, and wanted to see your scars. Knowing nothing about you, they came to see if you have any fresh bruises or recent wounds they might take advantage of on the field. Also, they are trying to intimidate you, as a man in a tub is at a disadvantage. Intimidation can frequently win a contest before it starts.”
Sir Elgar grabbed hold of Nimbus, pulling him up by his tunic. “Talkative little bastard, aren’t you?” He raised a fist just as a sopping towel slammed into his face.
“Sorry. Elgar, is it?” Hadrian asked. “Just got done drying my ass and noticed a smudge on your face.”
Elgar threw off the towel and drew his sword. In just two steps, the knight cut the distance to Hadrian, who stood naked and unflinching even as Elgar raised the blade’s tip toward his throat.
“Brave bugger, I’ll give you that much,” Elgar said. “But that just means you’ll be an easier target along the fence. You might want to save that water. You’ll need it after I put you in the mud.” Sheathing his sword, he led his friends from the room, nearly colliding with Renwick, who stood outside the door holding a goblet of wine.
“You all right?” Hadrian asked, grabbing a fresh towel.
“Yes, of course,” Nimbus replied in an unsteady voice. He smoothed the material of his tunic.
“Your wine, sir,” Renwick said to Hadrian.
Without pause, Nimbus took the cup and drained it. “As I was saying, the reality can be quite different.”
Royce stood before the window of the bedroom, watching Gwen sleep and thinking about their future. He pushed the thought away and suppressed the urge to smile. Just imagining it would bring disaster. The gods—if they existed—detested happiness. Instead, he turned and looked out over the cloistered courtyard.
The previous night’s storm had left everything covered in a new dress of unblemished white. The only exception was a single line of footprints that led from the dormitory to a stone bench, where a familiar figure sat wrapped in a monk’s habit. He was alone, yet the movement of his hands and the bob of his head revealed he was speaking with great earnest. Across from the monk was a small tree. Planting it was one of the first things Myron had done when he had returned to the abbey after the fire. It now stood a proud eight feet tall but was so slender it drooped under the snow’s weight. Royce knew there was great resiliency in a tree accustomed to bending in the wind, but he wondered if the strain could be endured. There was a breaking point for everything, after all. As if reading his thoughts, Myron rose and gave the tree a light shake. He had to stand close to do so, and much of the snow fell on his head. The tree sprang back, and without the burden of snow, it appeared more like its former self. Myron returned to his seat and his conversation. Royce knew he was not speaking to the tree but to his boyhood friend who was buried there.
“You’re up early,” Gwen said from where she lay with her head on a clutched pillow. He could make out the elegant slope of her waist and rise of her hip beneath the covers. “After last night, I would have thought you’d be sleeping late.”
“We went to bed early.”
“But we didn’t sleep,” she teased.
“It was better than sleep. Besides, around here, waking after first light is sleeping in. Myron is already outside.”
“He does that so he can talk privately.” She smiled and drew back the covers invitingly. “Isn’t it cold next to that window?”
“You’re a bad influence,” he said, lying down and wrapping his arms around her. He marveled at the softness of her skin. She drew the quilt over both of them and laid her head on his chest.
Their room was one of the bigger guest chambers, which was three times larger than any of the monks’ cells. Gwen, who had left Medford a week before Breckton’s invasion, had arranged to bring everything with her, even her canopied bed, carpets, and wall hangings. Looking around the room, Royce could easily imagine he was back on Wayward Street. He felt at home, but not because of the decorations. All he needed was Gwen.
“Am I corrupting you?” she asked playfully.
His fingers caressed her bare shoulder and ran along the swirled tattoo. “This last trip Hadrian and I went on, we went to Calis… into the jungles. We stayed in a Tenkin village, where I met an unusual woman.”
“Did you? Was she beautiful?”
“Tenkin women can be exceptionally attractive.”
“Yes, they can. And this one had a tattoo that—”
“Did Hadrian find the heir?”
“No—well, yes, but not how we expected. We stumbled on the news the empire is holding him in Aquesta. They’re going to execute him on Wintertide. But this tattoo—”
“Execute him?” Gwen pushed herself up on one elbow, looking surprised—too surprised just to be avoiding questions. “Shouldn’t you be helping Hadrian?”
“I will, although I’m not sure why. I was hardly any help on the last trip, and I didn’t need to save him. So your little prophecy was wrong.”
He thought it would put Gwen at ease to know her prediction of disaster had not come to pass. Instead, she pushed him away—the familiar sadness returned.
“You need to go help him,” she said firmly. “I might be wrong about the timing, but I’m not wrong about Hadrian dying unless you are there to save him.”
“Hadrian will be fine until I get back.”
She hesitated, took a deep breath, and laid her head back down. Hiding her face against his chest, she became quiet.
“What’s the matter?” Royce asked.
“I am a corrupting influence.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” he told her. “Personally, I’ve always rather liked corruption.”
There was a long pause, and he watched her head riding on the swells of his breath. Running his fingers through her hair, he marveled at it—at her. He touched the tattoo again.
“Royce, can we just lie here a little while?” She squeezed him, rubbing her cheek against his chest. “Can we just be still and listen to the wind and make believe it is blowing past us?”
Excerpted from Heir of Novron by Michael J. Sullivan Copyright © 2012 by Michael J. Sullivan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted January 17, 2012
2 bks separated
Royce and Hadrian ride into Aquesta ragged and cold from the journey. Many people are coming to Aquesta for the upcoming Wintertide Celebration, one month away. The news has spread that Modina is to be married and the Nationalist leader Degan Gaunt will be executed, all as part of the celebrations. Melengar has fallen to the Imperial Empire. With this many worries come to mind...How's Gwen? Arista? Alric? So much to happen and worry about and questions to answer.
I got a chuckle at the beginning of this book with the small group of young thieves we meet. But, by now we are all well acquainted with the characters and ready for Michael to bring them back to life for us. I was excited to be back into this world ~ its comfortable to me and I want to see where we are going with the situations the characters were left in, in Emerald Storm. Again, I couldn't put it down. I just had to know what would happen to these characters left in a little bit of a tight spot.
Michael did a great job of setting up for this book with the previous ones and using what he had available in all aspects of the world. There is nothing new pulled out of thin air or make you wonder 'where did that come from', everything we need and know have been laid out for us, but now tied together to answer questions for us. Many of the smaller unknowns and lose ends are tied up here, within a captivating story in which Michael brings all the characters together and to demise, good or bad.
Men are fighting for their kingdom and homes against attackers we have feared would come. Arista's having horrible nightmares, Royce is depressed after the ending in Wintertide, and Hadrian feels guilt. The kingdoms are coming together under the ruling heir, Modina, as predicted, but without the horn it might all be destroyed. Our friends through the series have one last quest, that could be the death of them but with out it they will die anyway, they all want or need to go on, for different reasons but for the same result, to save man kind.
Screaming from the rooftops, MASTERFUL! This is THE way to end a magnificent fantasy series.
Michael weaves all the books together into this one, pulling pieces together and setting the world; past, present and future, in clear view for us. Just amazing the way Michael took two plain and simple thieves, to create an outstanding series and amazing ending.
This one book holds all the missing pieces we didn't realize we were missing, yet piecing all the secreted comments throughout the series together to complete everything. Michael has taken a series to all different levels through out this series, and this book is a fabulous ending to it all!
I laughed and cried and worried. Both for happiness and sadness, of many reasons -- the characters and their hardships and humor. I have to say I LOVED this book, such a perfect ending. I can't describe how well the ending fit for me, all the way to the last sentence. I don't think I can write a review that will give this book it's well deserved justice, or even the series itself. I am just floored with it all; the story, the characters, the depth of the world completed. All of it completed. And an action packed finale.
I was afraid the team wouldn't have their spark, but they had it. Oh they had it. Seeing the characters grow and live through emotions is what makes the book the best, digging deep in us to care. All the characters have their numer
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 6, 2012
I picked up Theft of Swords nearly three weeks ago, looking for a new book or series to read. I read the back, trying to get a feel for the book. It looked interesting but I was not going to get my hopes up. All I expected was a decent story. I was proven wrong. The story was not decent. It was brilliant. Sullivan begins the story with the two main characters on a mission. While many books take a while to draw you in, Theft of Swords abandons that, drawing you in on the first page. And it does not relinquish it's hold.
In my reading, I have found that many authors have "filler" sentences and chapters. While these are okay, they often detract from the story. Throughout the Riyria Revelations, I cannot think of a single word, let alone sentence or chapter, that I would call "filler". There were many times that a character was introduced, one whom I THOUGHT was "filler" and would simply disappear. Time and time again, I was proven wrong. The character would be introduced again, be it a chapter or a book later, and would interact with the main characters, Royce and Hadrian, proving vital to the progression of the story.
If I were to identify one thing I think Sullivan does that is truly exceptional, I would have to say CHARACTERIZATION. Throughout the series, Sullivan carefully describes the characters, giving them their own lives and meaning. After reading the series, there is not a single character that I do not identify with (and understand). To use a cliché, the characters "jump of the page", taking over your mind and thought. Ultimately, this is a goal all writers have: to make the reader understand their characters, enjoy them, and find entertainment with them. This does not always happen, however, and the impressive thing Sullivan accomplished is not only pulling it off with one or two characters but each and every one of them. Literally.
I am an avid reader, always have been, and always will be. Bookshelves adorn the walls of my house, the one in my bedroom reserved for my favorite books. The top shelf (on the far left) is specifically reserved for my favorite book, or series. This is where my copy of the Riyria Revelations now reside. I also have each of them on my Nook (tablet), Apple iPad, and Apple iPhone so I can have them wherever I go (literally). I have heard it said many times that a great book is one that you feel you can read over and over again. I do not always agree with this statement. There have been books I have read that I would classify as great that I would not read again, at least for a very long time. Riyria: I will read over and over again. I know it. I cannot now. I am in college, currently struggling my way through a week of midterms before Spring Break, and I want to try out a long list of books I have stored in Notes on my iPhone. But come summer in a couple months, after I have gotten through four or five of the sixty books on my reading list, I have no doubt that I will return to the Riyria Revelations for another, in depth read. For me, Riyria was not just a great series. It is my favorite series and Sullivan, whom I had never heard of before has become my favorite author. I am looking forward to what the future brings in terms of his writing and hope, or pray, that he will return to it (and publish more) someday.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 24, 2014
The characters are the main attraction here but the action is on- going with a surprise twist thrown in as well. Just when you thought nothing more could happen in the story...it does.
Get ready for twists and turns and new revelations about the characters.
Posted October 11, 2013
The six nooks Mr. Sullivan has written reveal a talent that almost defies description. Absolutely glorious, magical, and astounding: I am left breathless and overcome. Beautiful works, these, that left me speechless to the very last three words. Thank you, Mr. Sullivan. I really did laugh and cry. These books really did become a part of me. Dang, but you're good.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 18, 2013
Posted September 6, 2013
This series tells a beautiful story. It may not be a scholastic masterpiece but for fantasy fiction fans, it has everything you could want, minus the foul language and sexual content that are in some of the current adult fantasy books.
I loved the complexity of the characters. No character was left being just a walk-on with only a name and a small forgettable role to play. The story was like a web with sub-stories and clues to mysteries and the fine strands all run to a fascinating center where the tale culminates with all questions answered and mysteries solved.
There are a lot of good writers who can spin a good tale and create believable, fleshed out interesting characters, but not many writers have the skill (or talent, as some would describe it) to infuse deep emotions into their words so effectually that it infects the readers. The Riyia Revelations stories did that for me. I laughed, my stomach clinched with tension, I cried with both joy and sadness.
You would have to be a book snob, not to like this series.
Posted October 15, 2012
Posted September 22, 2012
Posted August 15, 2012
Short and sweet review.
Amazing story, sucks you in. Never a dull moment, continually progressing through the story. Great characters. AMAZING READ! You wont regret it!
Posted August 12, 2012
I’ve tried to take a little bit of reprieve before I wrote this review, to allow my emotions time to settle, but after a full two weeks, and reading another spectacular fantasy series in between, I don’t think they’re going anywhere. If anything, they’re solidifying, especially the feelings of sadness. Not only for the heartache at the loss of some of my favorite characters in this last part of the saga, but because the series came to an end. It reminds me a lot of how I felt at the end of Harry Potter. I cried for two days, but that was after I had invested several years following that particular journey. With Riyria Revelations, I’ve only recently discovered it, revealing how strong of an impact it made in such a short period of time. I hereby induct Michael J. Sullivan into the Evil Author’s Guild – for his love of killing off much beloved characters.
This series has a brilliant mix of riotous comedy, wondrous character development, and heart-breaking resolutions. Sullivan did such an excellent job of keeping the strongest elements of this story in a good balance, not allowing one component to overpower the others. As a fellow writer, I understand the difficulty of such a task. While reading Heir of Novron, knowing a conclusion waited on the horizon, Sullivan was able to keep me in the moment, but most all, able to keep my heart and emotions in the moment in order to break them.
While Hadrian and Royce has cemented themselves into my heart as strongly as Harry, Ron & Hermione, it’s some of the secondary characters that helped solidify my love for this series: Empress Modina (Thrace Wood), Amilia, Albert Winslow, Mince, Elbright, Brand, Kine, Gwen DeLancey, Princess Arista, the Pickerings – all of them, Myron Lananklin, Magnus, Esrahaddon, Wyatt Deminthal, and Sir Breckton Belstrad. Of course, there are all those bad guys too, but these are the characters that pilfered my heart. With so many fantasy series filling it pages with dozens upon dozens of characters, I find many of the main characters get lost in the melee, but Sullivan did a great job keeping Hadrian and Royce front and center.
Though I figured out early in the series the identity of the Heir of Novron, I still enjoyed experiencing every step, clue and adventure that brought out the revelation. I love the great mixture of all the elements of fantasy like: new worlds, colorful kingdoms, gods & goddesses, elves, dwarves, wizards, magical beasts, and everyday medieval elements like inns, thieves’ guilds and armies (reminding me a lot of the video game Assassin’s Creed). There’s a surprise at the ending, something I thought about in the first book, but then became so absorbed in the other elements of the story, I totally forgot. When it came about in the end, it really made me smile, and it added such a soft, pleasant touch to the story, especially coming after some really heart-breaking moments. That was I think the formula that made this series great – the balance of soft, hard and hilarious moments.
I’m trying to hard not to give away any plot points, it’s difficult, because it’s those particular points I found so exciting about this series. I guess all that I’m left with is this last sentiment: I love Michael J. Sullivan’s imagination. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
Till next time,
Posted June 7, 2012
Posted May 7, 2012
The characters are well developed and I found I couldn't put the book down, I had to see what was going to happen next. The dialogue was well written and fit the characters. These books were a great read. I highly recommend themWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 15, 2012
The third installment definitely delivers on the promises of the previous two! This is a hearty adventure, with believable characters and a brilliant storyline. I definitely recommend this book (and the whole series).Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 13, 2012
Posted April 12, 2012
Posted March 29, 2012
Posted February 29, 2012
Posted January 9, 2014
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Posted January 28, 2012
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