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In the prison under the castle Allaze, in the dark, moldy cells where the greatest criminals in Mellinor spent the remainder of their lives counting rocks to stave off madness, Eli Monpress was trying to wake up a door.
It was a heavy oak door with an iron frame, created centuries ago by an overzealous carpenter to have, perhaps, more corners than it should. The edges were carefully fitted to lie flush against the stained, stone walls, and the heavy boards were nailed together so tightly that not even the flickering torch light could wedge between them. In all, the effect was so overdone, the construction so inhumanly strong, that the whole black affair had transcended simple confinement and become a monument to the absolute hopelessness of the prisoner’s situation. Eli decided to focus on the wood; the iron would have taken forever.
He ran his hands over it, long fingers gently tapping in a way living trees find desperately annoying, but dead wood finds soothing, like a scratch behind the ears. At last, the boards gave a little shudder and said, in a dusty, splintery voice, “What do you want?”
“My dear friend,” Eli said, never letting up on his tapping, “the real question here is, what do you want?”
“Pardon?” the door rattled, thoroughly confused. It wasn’t used to having questions asked of it.
“Well, doesn’t it strike you as unfair?” Eli said. “From your grain, anyone can see you were once a great tree. Yet, here you are, locked up through no fault of your own, shut off from the sun by cruel stones with no concern at all for your comfort or continued health.”
The door rattled again, knocking the dust from its hinges. Something about the man’s voice was off. It was too clear for a normal human’s, and the certainty in his words stirred up strange memories that made the door decidedly uncomfortable.
“Wait,” it grumbled suspiciously. “You’re not a wizard, are you?”
“Me?” Eli clutched his chest. “I, one of those confidence tricksters, manipulators of spirits? Why, the very thought offends me! I am but a wanderer, moving from place to place, listening to the spirits’ sorrows and doing what little I can to make them more comfortable.” He resumed the pleasant tapping, and the door relaxed against his fingers.
“Well”—it leaned forward a fraction, lowering its creak conspiratorially—“if that’s the case, then I don’t mind telling you the nails do poke a bit.” It rattled, and the nails stood out for a second before returning to their position flush against the wood. The door sighed. “I don’t mind the dark so much, or the damp. It’s just that people are always slamming me, and that just drives the sharp ends deeper. It hurts something awful, but no one seems to care.”
“Let me have a look,” Eli said, his voice soft with concern. He made a great show of poring over the door and running his fingers along the joints. The door waited impatiently, creaking every time Eli’s hands brushed over a spot where the nails rubbed. Finally, when he had finished his inspection, Eli leaned back and tucked his fist under his chin, obviously deep in thought. When he didn’t say anything for a few minutes, the door began to grow impatient, which is a very uncomfortable feeling for a door.
“Well?” it croaked.
“I’ve found the answer,” Eli said, crouching down on the doorstep. “Those nails, which give you so much trouble, are there to pin you to the iron frame. However”—Eli held up one finger in a sage gesture—“they don’t stay in of their own accord. They’re not glued in; there’s no hook. In fact, they seem to be held in place only by the pressure of the wood around them. So”—he arched an eyebrow—“the reason they stay in at all, the only reason, is because you’re holding on to them.”
“Of course!” the door rumbled. “How else would I stay upright?”
“Who said you had to stay upright?” Eli said, throwing out his arms in a grand gesture. “You’re your own spirit, aren’t you? If those nails hurt you, why, there’s no law that you have to put up with it. If you stay in this situation, you’re making yourself a victim.”
“But…” The door shuddered uncertainly.
“The first step is admitting you have a problem.” Eli gave the wood a reassuring pat. “And that’s enough for now. However”—his voice dropped to a whisper—“if you’re ever going to live your life, really live it, then you need to let go of the roles others have forced on you. You need to let go of those nails.”
“But, I don’t know…” The door shifted back and forth.
“Indecision is the bane of all hardwoods.” Eli shook his head. “Come on, it doesn’t have to be forever. Just give it a try.”
The door clanged softly against its frame, gathering its resolve as Eli made encouraging gestures. Then, with a loud bang, the nails popped like corks, and the boards clattered to the ground with a long, relieved sigh.
Eli stepped over the planks and through the now-empty iron doorframe. The narrow hall outside was dark and empty. Eli looked one way, then the other, and shook his head.
“First rule of dungeons,” he said with a wry grin, “don’t pin all your hopes on a gullible door.”
With that, he stepped over the sprawled boards, now mumbling happily in peaceful, nail-free slumber, and jogged off down the hall toward the rendezvous point.
In the sun-drenched rose garden of the castle Allaze, King Henrith of Mellinor was spending money he hadn’t received yet.
“Twenty thousand gold standards!” He shook his teacup at his Master of the Exchequer. “What does that come out to in mellinos?”
The exchequer, who had answered this question five times already, responded immediately. “Thirty-one thousand five hundred at the current rate, my lord, or approximately half Mellinor’s yearly tax income.”
“Not bad for a windfall, eh?” The king punched him in the shoulder good-naturedly. “And the Council of Thrones is actually going to pay all that for one thief? What did the bastard do?”
The Master of the Exchequer smiled tightly and rubbed his shoulder. “Eli Monpress”—he picked up the wanted poster that was lying on the table, where the roughly sketched face of a handsome man with dark, shaggy hair grinned boyishly up at them—“bounty, paid dead or alive, twenty thousand Council Gold Standard Weights. Wanted on a hundred and fifty-seven counts of grand larceny against a noble person, three counts of fraud, one charge of counterfeiting, and treason against the Rector Spiritualis.” He squinted at the small print along the bottom of the page. “There’s a separate bounty of five thousand gold standards from the Spiritualists for that last count, which has to be claimed independently.”
“Figures.” The king slurped his tea. “The Council can’t even ink a wanted poster without the wizards butting their noses in. But”—he grinned broadly—“money’s money, eh? Someone get the Master Builder up here. It looks like we’ll have that new arena after all.”
The order, however, was never given, for at that moment, the Master Jailer came running through the garden gate, his plumed helmet gripped between his white-knuckled hands.
“Your Majesty.” He bowed.
“Ah, Master Jailer.” The king nodded. “How is our money bag liking his cell?”
The jailer’s face, already pale from a job that required him to spend his daylight hours deep underground, turned ghostly. “Well, you see, sir, the prisoner, that is to say”—he looked around for help, but the other officials were already backing away—“he’s not in his cell.”
“What?” The king leaped out of his seat, face scarlet. “If he’s not in his cell, then where is he?”
“We’re working on that right now, Majesty!” the jailer said in a rush. “I have the whole guard out looking for him. He won’t get out of the palace!”
“See that he doesn’t,” the king growled. “Because if he’s not back in his cell within the hour…”
He didn’t need to finish the threat. The jailer saluted and ran out of the garden as fast as his boots would carry him. The officials stayed frozen where they were, each waiting for the others to move first as the king began to stalk around the garden, sipping his tea with murderous intent.
“Your Majesty,” squeaked a minor official, who was safely hidden behind the crowd. “This Eli seems a dangerous character. Shouldn’t you move to safer quarters?”
“Yes!” The Master of Security grabbed the idea and ran with it. “If that thief could get out of his cell, he can certainly get into the castle!” He seized the king’s arm. “We must get you to a safer location, Your Majesty!”
This was followed by a chorus of cries from the other officials.
“His majesty’s safety is of utmost importance!”
“We must preserve the monarchy at all costs!”
Any objections the king may have had were overridden as a surge of officials swept down and half carried, half dragged him into the castle.
“Put me down, you idiots!” the king bellowed, but the officials were good and scared now. Each saw only the precipitous fall that awaited him personally if there were a regime change, and fear gave them courage as they pushed their protesting monarch into the castle, down the arching hallways, and into the throne room.
“Don’t worry, Your Majesty,” the Master of Security said, organizing two teams to shut the great, golden doors. “That thief won’t get in.”
The king, who had given up fighting somewhere during the last hundred feet, just harrumphed and stomped up the dais stairs to his throne to wait it out. Meanwhile, the officials dashed back and forth across the marble—locking the parlor doors, overturning the elegant end tables, peeking behind the busts of former kings—checking for every possible, or impossible, security vulnerability. Henrith did his best to ignore the nonsense. Being royalty meant enduring people’s endless fussing over your safety, but when the councilors started talking about boarding over the stained-glass windows, the king decided that enough was enough. He stood from his throne and took a breath in preparation for a good bellow when a tug on his robes stopped him short. The king looked down incredulously to see who would dare, and found two royal guards in full armor standing at attention beside the royal dais.
“Sir!” The shorter guard saluted. “The Master of Security has assigned us to move you to a safer location.”
“I thought this was a safer location.” The king sighed.
“Sir!” The soldier saluted again. “With all due respect, the throne room is the first place the enemy would look, and with this ruckus, he could easily get through.”
“You’re right about that,” the king said, glowering at the seething mass of panicked officials. “Let’s get out of here.”
He stomped down the steps from the high marble dais and let the guards lead him to the back wall of the throne room. The shorter soldier went straight to an older tapestry hanging forgotten in one corner and pushed it aside, revealing, much to the king’s amazement, a small door set flush with the stonework.
“I never knew this was here,” the king said, genuinely astonished.
“Doors like these are standard in most castles this age,” the guard said, running his gloved hand over the stones to the right of the door. “You just have to know where to look.” His fingers closed in the crack between two stones. Something clicked deep in the wall, and the door swung open with a soft scrape.
“This way, sir,” the soldier said, ducking through.
The secret passage was only a few feet long. This was good, because it was only a few inches wide, and the king was getting very claustrophobic sliding along sideways between the dusty stone walls, especially when the second soldier closed the door behind them, plunging the passage into darkness. A few steps later, they emerged into the back of another large tapestry. The soldier pushed the heavy cloth aside, and the king was amazed to find himself in his own drawing room.
“Why did no one tell me about this?” he said, exasperated, watching as the second soldier draped the tapestry back into place. “It will be fantastically useful the next time I want to get out of an audience.”
“Over here, sir,” the shorter guard said, waving toward the wide balcony that overlooked the castle garden. The king didn’t see how a balcony was much safer than a throne room, but the guard seemed to know what he was doing, so the king followed quietly. Perhaps there was another secret passage. The king frowned, regretting all those times he’d chosen to go hunting rather than let the Master Builder take him on that tour of the castle the man was always so keen on. Well, the king thought, if the Master Builder had put more emphasis on secret passages rather than appreciation of the flying buttresses, perhaps he would have been more inclined to come along.
The balcony jutted out from the drawing room in a large semicircle of pale golden marble. His mother had had it built so she could watch the birds up close, and the handrails brushed right up against the leafy branches of the linden trees. The king was about to comment on how peaceful it was compared to the nonsense in the throne room, but the shorter of the two soldiers spoke first.
“I’m really sorry about this.”
The king looked at him quizzically. “Sorry about wha—” His question was answered by a blinding pain at the back of his head. The trees and the balcony swirled together, and then he was on the ground with no notion of how he’d gotten there.
“Did you have to hit him that hard?” The soldier’s voice floated above him.
“Yes,” answered a voice he hadn’t heard before, which his poor, aching brain assigned to the tall soldier who hadn’t spoken while they were escorting him. “That is, if you want him to stay quiet.”
The shorter soldier took off his helmet, revealing a young man with a head of dark, shaggy hair. “If you say so,” he said, tucking the helmet under his arm.
The shorter soldier trotted to the edge of the balcony, where the trees were thickest. Spots danced across the king’s vision, but he was sure he saw what happened next. One of the trees moved to meet the soldier. The king blinked, but the tree was still moving. It leaned over as far as it could, stretching out a thick branch to make a nice little step up off the railing. So great was his astonishment, the king barely felt the bigger soldier heft him over his shoulder like an oat sack. Then they were up on the tree branch, and the tree was bending over to set them gently on the ground.
“Thank you,” said the shorter soldier as they stepped onto the grass.
And the king, though his ears were ringing horribly, could have sworn he heard the leaves whisper, “Anytime, Eli.”
That thought was too much for him, and he dove into unconsciousness.
The ghosthound appeared at the gates of the royal city of Allaze without warning. One moment, the guards were standing beside the gatehouse playing divel shanks and speculating on what all the noise in the palace was about, the next they were on their backs, staring up at an animal that only lived in stories. From the way it was showing its teeth, the guards would rather it had stayed there. Twice the size of a horse and built like a racing dog, it had to swivel its head down to look them over. The great orange eyes, each the size of a dinner plate, twinkled with amusement, or perhaps hunger. But most horrifying of all was the way the white patterns on the animal’s silver fur moved like night clouds in a high wind, forming terrifying, shifting shapes above its dagger-sharp teeth.
“Excuse me,” said a voice, “but I need you to open the gates. I have an urgent message for King Henrith.”
The guards cowered on the sandy ground. “Great powers,” the left one muttered. “I never knew they could talk.”
There was a long sigh, and the beast lay down in a fluid motion, bringing the woman on its back into view. She was very well dressed in a handsome green riding suit with a crisp white shirt and tall boots. Red hair hung in a cascade of curls around her pretty, girlish face. Overall, she had a very striking look that was entirely out of place for a woman who rode a monster.
When she was sure she had their attention, the woman said, very slowly and with a charming smile, “My name is Miranda Lyonette, and I am here on behalf of the Spirit Court with a warning for your king. Now, I’m on a very tight deadline, so I would appreciate it very much if you would open the gate and let me on my way.”
It was the older guard who gathered his wits first. “Um, lady,” he said, picking himself up off the ground, “we’d like to help, but we can’t open the gate without the Master Gatekeeper, and he’s been called off to the castle.”
“Well,” she said, “then you’d better run and get him.”
The men looked at each other, then back at the woman. She made a little shooing motion, and the guards ran off, falling over each other as they rushed the tiny gatehouse door.
When they were gone, Miranda slid down the hound’s back and began to stretch the last few days out of her joints.
“I could have just jumped it,” the hound growled. It eyed the two-story wall and snorted dismissively. “Saved us some time. I thought you said we were in a hurry.”
“We are in a hurry,” Miranda said, shaking the road dust out of her hair as best she could. “But we’re also trying to make a good impression, Gin. Mellinor has a reputation for not liking wizards.”
“Good impressions are wasted on this lot.” Gin shook himself vigorously, raising a small cloud of grit from his ever-shifting coat. “We should have just jumped and saved the act for the king.”
“Next time I’ll just leave the negotiating to you, then.” Miranda stepped clear of the hound’s dust cloud. “Why don’t you worry less about the schedule and more about keeping your nose sharp? He has to be skulking around here somewhere.”
Gin gave her a withering look. “My nose is always sharp.” His long ears twitched, then swiveled forward. “The guards are coming back, and they brought a lot of other clanky metal types with them.” He flopped down, resting his chin on his paws. “So much for doing things the quick way.”
Miranda ignored him and put on a dazzling smile as the two guards, and a small squad of spearmen, marched through the gatehouse.
The gate guards had had no trouble finding the Master Gatekeeper. He was in the throne room, standing in a rough clump around the empty throne with every other official in Allaze.
“Sir,” the older guard said, tapping him on the shoulder. “We have a situation outside.”
“I’m a bit busy,” the Master Gatekeeper snapped.
“But, sir,” the guard said, clutching his metal cap, “it’s really something I think you should—”
“There’s a wizard at the east gate!” the younger guard burst out, and then shrank back as the older guard and the Master Gatekeeper both snapped their heads around to glare at him. “It has to be a wizard,” he said sheepishly. “Ain’t no one else can ride a monster like that.”
“Did you say wizard?” The Master of Security pushed his way over to them. “Was it a dark-haired man? Young looking?”
“No, sir.” The young guard saluted. “It was a lady wizard, sir. Redheaded. Said she had a warning for the king.”
The Master Gatekeeper and the Master of Security put their heads together and began arguing quietly. Whatever it was they argued about, the Master of Security must have won because he was the one who started barking orders. Three minutes later, the two gate guards were back at their post, only now with a squad of royal guard and the Master of Security between them and the monster, which lay with its long chin rested on its paws, watching.
The woman appeared completely unruffled by the sudden arrival of a large number of spears pointed in her direction. If there were any remaining doubts about her being a wizard, the large, ostentatiously jeweled rings covering her fingers put those to rest. She watched patiently, gently tapping her nails against the large ruby on her thumb, which was beginning to glow like an ember in the bright sun. Several of the men started to ease back toward the gatehouse, their spears wobbling, and the Master of Security decided it was time to take control of the situation.
“I hear you have a warning for the king,” he said boldly. “You may speak it to me.”
“My orders are to speak only to the king himself,” Miranda said. “It is a matter of some delicacy.”
“I am Oban, Master of Security. You’ll speak it to me, or not at all,” he huffed.
Miranda looked at Gin, who flicked his ear in the ghosthound equivalent of a shrug. “I suppose we have wasted enough time,” she said. “I am here on behalf of the Spirit Court by order of the Rector Spiritualis, Etmon Banage. Yesterday morning we received a tip that the known fugitive wizard and wanted criminal Eli Monpress has been sighted within your kingdom. It is our belief that he is after an old wizard artifact held in your treasury. I am here to offer my assistance to keep him from stealing it.”
There was a long pause, and Miranda got the horrible, sinking feeling that she had missed something important.
“Lady,” the Master of Security said, shaking his head, “if you’re here to warn the king about Eli, then you’re a little late.”
Miranda scowled. “You mean he’s already stolen the artifact?”
“No.” The Master of Security sighed. “He’s stolen the king.”
Three hours later, Miranda was seated at the foot of a small table in a cramped office in the lower part of the castle. Oban, Master of Security, the Master of the Exchequer, and the Master of the Courts were crammed together at the other end of the table, as far from her as possible. Other than Oban, none of them had told her their names, and they all looked equally displeased at being cornered in a small room with a wizard. Still, this was a step forward. An hour ago, she’d been sitting in the throne room with all forty masters of Mellinor, whom she guessed were the local equivalent of the standard governing body of lords and appointees that most kingdoms this size seemed to favor, staring daggers at her. It was only after much official argument that these three had stepped forward to speak for the whole, but from the way they were glaring at her, Miranda didn’t think she’d gotten off any easier. In fact, she was beginning to regret telling Gin to wait at the gate. Miranda knew from experience that a large set of teeth on one’s side tended to make these bureaucratic talks much easier.
Still, for all their pomp, the men across from her seemed to be in no hurry to get things started. After several minutes of waiting, compounded by the hours already wasted while the Mellinor officials decided who was going to deal with her, Miranda came to the conclusion that civility could get one only so far in life, and she cut straight to the point.
“Gentlemen,” she said. “This would be much easier if you just told me the whole story.”
The two nameless officials sneered, but Oban, at least, had the decency to look embarrassed. “There’s not much to tell,” he said. “We caught Eli this morning trying to get the king’s prized stallion out of the stables. The horse made a racket and the Master of the Stables caught him red-handed. The thief gave up immediately, and as soon as he told us his name was Eli Monpress… Well,” Oban said and shrugged, “who hasn’t heard of him? I was called in and we locked him up in our strongest cell. Now, of course, we’re sure the horse business was only a ploy to get inside the castle proper, because no sooner had we put him in the cell than he was gone, and shortly after that, so was our king.”
“If you knew he was a wizard,” Miranda said slowly, “why did you leave him alone?”
“Well,” Oban said, wiping his bald head with a handkerchief, “as I said, it was our strongest cell. We took everything off him that looked magical. He didn’t have any rings or gems, nothing like that.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Of course, as soon as we knew the thief was out, we tried to get the king to safety. His Majesty was with us all the way to the throne room, and then he vanished. We searched all the secret passages, all the hidden stairs. By that point, the grounds were crawling with soldiers and every exit was watched. No one saw a thing.”
“This is our only clue,” said the small man to his left, the Master of the Exchequer. He took a small white card from his pocket and slid it across the polished table. “We found it in the rose garden shortly after the king vanished.”
Miranda picked up the card, holding it delicately between her thumb and forefinger. It was cut from a heavy white stock, like a calling card, and at the center, engraved in gold ink, was an extravagant, cursive M. Miranda scowled and flipped the card over. On the back, someone had written Forty thousand.
That was it, no instructions, no threats, just the number written out in small, neat capitals across the lower left corner. Miranda scowled and slid the card back across the table. “I assume he means forty thousand in council gold standards.” She smiled. “A king’s ransom, indeed.”
“We can’t pay it,” the Master of the Exchequer groaned, clutching his bony hands together. “That’s an entire year’s revenue for a small country like ours. We don’t even have that much cash on hand in our own currency, let alone Council standards.”
“But we must have our king back, whatever the cost,” Oban said, landing his fist on the table. “King Henrith is young. He has yet to take a wife or produce an heir, and he’s the last son of House Allaze. We’ve never had any kings other than House Allaze. There’s not even a protocol for this sort of thing. If he vanished, our country would fall into chaos, and that would cost us far more than forty thousand standards.”
Miranda tapped her finger against the polished arm of her chair. “A difficult problem,” she said, “and one that could have been easily avoided. It seems that Mellinor is paying the price for its long unfriendliness toward wizards.”
“It is the law,” said the solemn old man to Oban’s right, the Master of the Courts. “The oldest law in Mellinor, decreed by our first king, a law that we are breaking, I might add, by talking to you.”
“But your first king was a wizard, wasn’t he?” Miranda leaned forward, enjoying the pinched look on their faces. Ruffling stuffy politicians was one of the best perks of her job. “Come now, gentlemen, you can hardly expect an agent of the Spirit Court not to be up on her magical history.”
“If you know that much,” the Master of the Courts growled, “then you already know why he closed Mellinor to your kind. King Gregorn was disgusted by the misuse of power he witnessed at the hands of greedy, arrogant wizards, and he sought to create a country where people could live without fear, where no wizard would threaten us. For that purpose, he led his family and followers to the edge of what was then a great inland sea. In a tremendous act of magic, King Gregorn banished the sea and created a new land, made by magic, yet free of wizardly corruption. This act of selfless bravery took his life. That is why, for four hundred years, we have honored his sacrifice by upholding his law.” The old man closed his eyes. “For Gregorn’s direct descendant to be held for ransom by some wizard thief”—he took a shuddering breath—“it’s only slightly worse than enlisting a wizard to rescue him.” He lifted his chin to face Miranda, glaring snowstorms at her from under his bushy eyebrows. “Rest assured, young lady, were we not in such dire straits, you would never have made it into this castle.”
“Had I been in this castle,” Miranda said dryly, “you wouldn’t be in such dire straits.”
All three men glowered, and she gave them a scalding look. “I think you’ll find that wizards have changed in the years since your country was founded. The Spirit Court exists to maintain a balance between the power of man and spirit, and to prevent wizards from abusing their gifts. So, as you see, the Spiritualist’s purpose and your Gregorn’s dream are dissimilar in method but not in substance. We both want to keep the world safe from people like Eli.”
The overdressed men shifted uncomfortably, and Miranda saw her chance. “Here’s my offer,” she said. “I will get your king back for you, and, in exchange, you will let me work unhindered. When I return your monarch, you must promise me that he will allow envoys from the Spirit Court and consider welcoming our Spiritualists into his kingdom.”
The officials put their heads together for a moment, and then the Master of the Courts nodded. “You drive a hard bargain, Miss Lyonette, but we do not have the luxury of time. Your terms are acceptable. We must have our king.”
Miranda stood up with a triumphant smile. “In that case, gentlemen, let’s get to work.”
An hour later, when Miranda had wrung almost every provision she wanted out of the old men, they adjourned. After being shown to her room, she threw down her pack, grabbed a handful of bread off the dinner tray, and went to find Gin. This proved an easy task, for he was lounging in the afternoon sun right where she’d left him, surrounded by a gawking circle of stable boys at the main entrance to the castle.
Miranda approached with a grin, scattering the boys like sparrows. “Time to work, mutt.”
Gin sat up slowly, stretching his paws. “You’re in a good mood.”
“There may be hope for this country yet.” She smiled.
The dog snorted. “What about that artifact thing Banage made us rush down here for? Find out anything about that?”
“The bureaucrats didn’t mention it, so I felt no need to bring it up,” she said. “Gregorn’s Pillar is only dangerous to wizards, and the only one of those we have to worry about is off having a slumber party with the king. Besides, I don’t think I could have spoken ill of their honored founder and lived to tell about it. Though, mind you, I could tell them a few things about their precious Gregorn that would set their hair on end.”
“So why didn’t you?” Gin yawned, showing all of his teeth.
“Telling people what they don’t want to hear gets us nowhere,” Miranda said. “My duty is to catch Eli before he can mess things up more than he already has, not force old men to change their prejudices. That’s the unhappy job of whichever poor sap Master Banage promotes to Tower Keeper of Mellinor when we’re done.” She flopped down on the marble step with a sigh. “So long as Eli isn’t interested in Gregorn’s Pillar, I’m not either. There’s no point in trying to convince a panicked kingdom to let us poke around in their treasury if we don’t need to. Besides, if we play our cards right, Mellinor will be crawling with Spiritualists by year’s end. We’ll have a Tower and a court envoy with plenty of time to talk the king into giving the Spirit Court all the pillars and artifacts and whatever else Gregorn left lying around. Right now, we focus on catching Monpress, and speaking of which”—she leaned forward—“what did you find?”
“His smell is everywhere.” Gin’s nostrils flared. “He was probably scouting the palace for days before he let himself get caught. The smells are all knotted together, though, so I can’t tell where he made his final exit.”
“So much for doing things the easy way,” Miranda said and sighed, running her hand through her curly hair. “All right, we’ll do this by the book. I’ll start with the throne room and work my way down. You check the grounds and try not to scare anyone too badly.”
“Shouldn’t you get some rest?” Gin said, eyeing the sinking sun. “I can take two days of hard travel, but we don’t want you flopping over like last time.”
“That was an isolated incident.” Miranda said, bristling. “No breaks. We’re finally in the same country as that thief, possibly the same city. I’m not going to risk letting him slip away again, not when we’re this close.”
“You’re the boss,” Gin said, trotting across the courtyard. “Don’t get carried away.”
“That’s my line,” Miranda called after him, but the enormous hound was already slinking away behind the stables, sniffing the ground. Miranda shook her head and fanned out her fingers, nudging her rings awake.
“Time to get to work,” she muttered, smiling as the stones began to glow. With a final look at the setting sun, she turned and tromped up the castle stairs. With any luck, she’d have Eli by the time it rose again.
Down below the stable yard, quivering away from the ghosthound’s fearsome scent, a rat darted through a narrow crack in the castle’s foundation and made a break for the wall. It bounded through the ornamental gardens as if all the cats in Mellinor were on its tail, though nothing followed it in the dim evening light. What terrified the rat was not behind it, but inside it, pressed like a knife against its brain. It hit the castle battlements at full speed and began to climb the rough white stone, running vertically as easily as it had run along the ground. The knot of guards at the castle gate didn’t notice as the rat crested the wall behind them and, without so much as pausing for balance, launched itself into the air. For a terrifying moment, the rat scrambled in free fall, then, with a clang that made the guards jump, landed on a drainpipe. The rat clung to the pipe, stunned for a moment, and then the pressure was back, the inescapable voice pressing down on its poor, fright-addled mind, and it had to go on. The rat scurried down the drainpipe to the cobbled street. Keeping to the gutters and dark places people forget to sweep, it made its way through the tangled streets of Allaze, following the sewer ditches away from the castle, down and west toward the river, into the darker parts of the city.
Scooting between the tilting wooden buildings, the rat threaded its way through the blind turns and back alleys to a ramshackle three-story nestled at the end of a row of identical ramshackle three-stories. Without missing a beat, the rat jumped on a gutter pipe and, quick as it had climbed the castle wall, scaled the pipefitting to the building’s third floor. The window had been left open for it, and the rat tumbled inside, squeaking in relief that the horrible journey was almost over. It landed on the floor with a scrambling thud, but the momentary triumph was pushed from its mind by a wave of pressure that thickened the air to syrup. The attic room it had landed in was scarcely bigger than a closet, and the slanted ceiling made it smaller still. Broken furniture and discarded rags were stacked in dusty piles, but the rat’s attention was on the figure sitting in the far corner, the source of the pressure.
The man sat slumped against the wall, rolling a black ball in a circle on his left palm. It was the size of a large marble, black and shiny like a wet river stone. He was thin and long, with matted blond hair that hung around his face in a dirty curtain. For a moment, the man didn’t move, and then, slowly, lovingly, he slid the black sphere into his pocket and beckoned the rat closer. The pressure spiked, and the rat obeyed, crawling on its belly until it was an inch from the man’s bare foot.
“Now,” the man said, his whisper humming through the room, resonating against the pressure that threatened to crush the rat’s mind. “Tell me what you saw.”
The rat had no choice. It told him everything.
Crouched on the floor in the hall with his eye pressed against a crack in the baseboard, the boy had to cover his mouth to keep from shouting. The blond man who rented the spare room had always made him nervous, which was why the boy took it upon himself to spy on him. He’d told his father over and over that their renter wasn’t right in the head. He’d seen him talking to the walls, the floor, even the junk in the room as though they could answer back. Every time, his father had told him to lay off and leave the renter be. The blond man had come with the house when they’d moved in last year, and his money kept the family in shoes and off the street when times were hard. But this time was different. This time, the boy had actually seen the blond man open the window for a rat. His father was a butcher who kept his shop on the first floor. Once he told him the renter was letting vermin into the house, his father would have to throw the crazy man out, money or no. Grinning fit to break his face, the boy got to his feet and started to tiptoe toward the stairs. Before he took two steps, a strange sound stopped him. It was coming from the rented room, and it took the boy a moment to realize that the renter was laughing.
The door to the renter’s room burst open, and the blond man was on him before he could run. Still laughing, the man grabbed the boy by his patched collar and dragged him up with surprising force.
“Young man,” he said in a smooth voice, and something cold and heavy slid into the boy’s shaking hand. “Take this. Find whatever passes for a tailor in this pit and bring him here. If you’re quick, I’ll give you another.”
He dropped the boy as suddenly as he’d grabbed him. The boy landed on his feet and immediately looked at the object in his hand. It was a gold standard. His eyes went as wide as eggs, and, for a moment, he forgot that he disliked the strange blond man. “Yes, sir!”
“Tell your mother to bring some hot water up as well,” the renter called as the boy tumbled down the stairs.
The child began to bellow for his mother, and the blond man stepped back into his rented room. The rat lay twitching in the corner where he had left it, and he kicked it aside with his foot. Such weak spirits were only useful once. He’d need something else. He turned his attention to the dusty wall beside him and grinned as the timbers creaked in fear.
“Find me another spy.”
A fine cloud of grit fell from the ceiling as the wall shuddered its response. “Yes, Master Renaud.” The room began to buzz as the order spread through the building, asking for a new rat.
Renaud slumped against the dusty piles of junk and stared out the open window at the last glow of the setting sun as it lit up the tall towers of castle Allaze, just as white and beautiful as he remembered from his childhood. Now, finally, after eight years of shame and banishment, eight years of watching for a chance, any chance, fate, it seemed, had paid out in spades.
He began to chuckle, and it was all thanks to a simple wizard thief.
His chuckle became a full-fledged cackle, and Renaud doubled over, his shoulders shaking. He laughed like that until the butcher wife’s timid knock interrupted him.
There was much coming and going at the butcher’s house that night, enough to attract the neighborhood’s attention. Contrary to his usual nature, the butcher wasn’t talking, and that just made the whole thing more interesting. Down the road in the raucous Merrymont Tavern, men with missing teeth made wagers about what was going on. Some put money on a murder; others said it had to do with the ruckus up at the castle. One man was blaming wizards, though he was a bit unclear about what exactly he was blaming them for. This led to more betting and speculation and, in their excitement, no one noticed the swordsman sitting at the corner table quietly nursing the same drink he’d been on for hours.
On a less interesting night, a swordsman would have been a fine topic of conversation. Especially this one, with the wicked scar he bore over the left side of his face, but with the mystery at the butcher’s and rumors of a wizardess riding up to the castle on a dog the size of a house, the people had no breath left to spare for a swordsman. For his part, the swordsman didn’t seem to mind the lack of attention. He simply sat in his corner, swirling his drink and listening. As the night dragged on, the talk began to go in circles. Finally, after the same theory was brought up three times in a quarter hour, the swordsman stood, laid his coins on the table, and, carefully tucking his wrapped sword into his belt, slipped out into the night.
He walked north for several blocks, ducking in and out of buildings almost at random. Only when he was sure no one was following him did he turn around and begin walking purposefully toward the butcher’s house.
Renaud was fastening the starched cuffs of his new jacket when he heard it, an icy, blood-thirsty whine that grated against his thoughts. He froze. The butcher’s wife stood in the corner, her eyes roving, looking at everything except him, just as they had for the last four hours. She gave no sign she heard anything.
“Get out,” Renaud said.
The woman jumped and hastily obeyed, closing the door behind her. Renaud resumed working on the small buttons at his wrists. Outside his tiny window, the night was drifting toward morning, and in the faint gray light he saw the man’s shadow seconds before he heard the window scrape.
“If you’re going to sneak up on someone,” Renaud said coldly, turning to face the man who was now crouched on the windowsill, “learn how to keep your sword quiet.”
The man smiled, but the scar across his cheek warped the expression into a leer as he sat down on the window ledge and laid his gloved palm against his sword’s wrapped hilt. The wailing stopped, and Renaud let out a relieved sigh.
The man’s smile widened. “So it’s true,” he said. “There is a wizard in Mellinor.”
Renaud did not move, but somehow his slouched posture shifted from bored to threatening. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“First answer”—the man leaned back against the window’s bowed frame—“my name is Coriano, and I’m a bounty hunter. Second answer, I was curious. You’ve caused quite a stir.”
“A bounty hunter?” Renaud laughed. “I’m afraid you’ve found the wrong wizard. The one you want has already struck and gone.”
Coriano’s good eye narrowed. “On the contrary, you’re exactly the wizard I wanted to find, Renaud of Allaze.”
Renaud’s hand slipped into his pocket and gripped the glassy black sphere that lay hidden at the bottom. “How do you know that name?”
“It’s my business to know,” Coriano said dryly. “But don’t worry, I’m not here to threaten you. In fact, I’d like to make you an offer.”
Renaud’s fingers eased their grip. “And what could you offer me?”
“Something that will help you reach your goals.”
Renaud arched an eyebrow. “What would you know of my goals?”
“I told you,” Coriano said. “It’s my business to know.”
“All right,” Renaud took his hand from his pocket and folded his arms over his chest. “I’m listening.”
Coriano, grinning, hopped down from the windowsill. Renaud gave the sooty, warped glass a warning look, and the window slammed itself shut with a terrified squeal, locking the men’s words away from the brightening sky.
When King Henrith opened his eyes, he knew he was dead. A few blinks later, the certainty hadn’t changed, but he was starting to feel a little upset about it. However, what happened next put all of that out of his head, for the great nothingness he had been staring into, the endless void that lies beyond human experience, stood up and began stirring the fire. As his eyes adjusted to the sudden light, he saw it was a girl. Or, at least, that was his best guess. All he could see at this angle was a tangle of short, black hair and a bit of pale forehead. The rest of her was lost inside an enormous coal-black coat that, he now realized, had been the void covering his head.
The sudden knowledge that he was, indeed, not dead was further underscored by the extreme discomfort of his position. He was lying on his side on a dirt floor, his hands and feet tied behind him so that he was bent belly out. The fire the girl tended was far too large for the small stone hovel they were in, and the heat pressed down on him as tightly as the ropes.
Finished poking at the fire, the girl walked over to the woodpile, pushed up her sleeves, and, despite the suffocating heat, began tossing more logs on. The fire accepted them reluctantly, shrinking away from her thin, pale hands. In the flickering light, Henrith caught the dull gleam of silver at her wrists, and he leaned his head slowly to the side for a better look. They weren’t bracelets. The dull, thick metal was badly scuffed, and it was wrapped tightly around her bony wrist, like a manacle. His hopes began to rise. If she was a prisoner as well, maybe she could help him escape.
But before he could get her attention, the rickety wooden door burst open, flooding the small hut with blinding sunlight as two men stomped in. The first, medium height and gangly, was carrying a huge stack of wood. “Nico!” he shouted, craning his neck over the logs. “Are you trying to burn us to crisps?”
The girl shrugged and then turned and glared at the fire. The flames shuddered, and the fire shrank to half the size it had been only seconds before. A cold terror ran up the king’s spine, but the man carrying the wood only sighed and started adding his armload to the woodpile. The second man, a towering figure with cropped sandy hair, carried two rabbits over one broad shoulder and what looked to be a sharpened six-foot-long iron bar over the other. The rest of him, from shoulders to calves, was covered in blades. He wore two swords at his waist, another sideways across his lower back, and knives of every size poking out of his belt, boots, and sleeves. Two long braces of throwing knives were strapped across his chest, with two more around his thighs. Anywhere he could strap a sheath, he had one, until it was difficult to tell what color his clothing actually was beneath the maze of leather sheaths.
The king cringed, terrified, as the swordsman walked past, but the man didn’t even glance the king’s way. He stepped nonchalantly over the scorched dirt the bonfire had vacated moments before and sauntered over to the small table set against the far wall, where he began to skin the rabbits. He kept all of his blades belted on as he did this, paying them as little mind as another man would pay to his jacket. The sword-shaped iron bar he leaned against the table beside him, keeping it close, like a trusted friend.
Not wanting to draw the attention of anyone so fond of sharp objects, the king focused his efforts on lying as still as possible. However, the girl looked at him, watching him with her head tilted to the side as the men worked. A few moments later, she announced, “The king’s awake.”
“Is he?” the man at the woodpile said and whirled around. “Wonderful!” The next moment, he was crouching beside King Henrith, a huge grin on his face. “Hello, Your Majesty! How have you enjoyed your kidnapping so far?”
The king looked up at him, noting the shaggy dark hair, thin build, and boyish grin that, in any other circumstance, would have been infectious. He looked just like his wanted poster. “Eli Monpress.”
The grin grew wider. “You’ve heard of me! I’m flattered!”
At that, the king’s fear was overwhelmed by indignation. “Of course I’ve heard of you!” the king blustered, blowing the dirt out of his beard. “We caught you trying to steal my horses this morning!”
“Yesterday morning, actually.” Eli looked sideways across the fire at the knife-covered man. “I’m afraid Josef may have hit you a little too hard.”
“I hit him perfectly,” Josef said, not looking up from his rabbits. “He’s not in pain, is he?”
Eli looked down at the king. “Are you?”
Henrith paused, considering. His head didn’t hurt. He remembered being hit and the shooting pain on the balcony, but now he felt nothing, just uncomfortable from the ropes and the strange position. He looked up at Eli, who was still waiting for his answer, and shook his head.
“See?” Josef said. “Perfect.”
Eli sighed dramatically. “Well, after that display, I suppose I’d better introduce my associates.” He reached down and took the king’s head in his hands, turning him toward the tall man with the blades. “That man of perfection you see mutilating the bunnies for our supper is our swordsman, Josef Liechten, and this little bundle”—he turned the king’s head to the left, toward the girl, who was back to poking the fire—“is Nico.”
That was apparently enough for introductions, for Eli let the king’s head go and plopped down in the dirt beside him, leaning on his elbow so his eyes were level with the king’s.
“Why are you doing this?” the king whispered, wavering between rage and genuine bewilderment.
“I’m a thief.” Eli shrugged. “I steal valuable things. What could be more valuable than a king to his country?”
“Why me, then?” Henrith wiggled himself semi-upright. “If money is what you’re after, why not go after a larger country, or a richer one?”
“Trade secret,” Eli said. “But since you’re being such a good sport about all this, I will tell you that we’re not working for anyone. There’s no great scheme, no big plot. Just pay our price and we can all go home happy.”
Henrith supposed that was a relief. “What’s your price, then?”
“Forty thousand gold standards,” Eli said calmly.
The king nearly choked. “Are you mad? We can’t pay that!”
“Then I guess you’ll just have to lie here forever.” Eli gave him a little pat on the shoulder, and then stood up and walked over to where Nico was poking the fire, leaving the king to wiggle futilely in the dirt.
“Of course,” he added, almost as an afterthought, “you wouldn’t have to pay it all at once.”
“What,” the king scoffed, “set up an installment plan? Would you leave a forwarding address, or should I just send a company of armed men every month?”
“Nothing so complicated.” Eli walked over and kneeled down again. “How about this? You write a letter to your Master of the Money, or whatever you call him, and tell him to put aside a mere five thousand gold standards. Surely even Mellinor can gather such a small sum without too much difficulty. We’ll make a switch”—he waggled his long finger at the king—“you for the money, and the rest of the debt can be pledged to my council bounty.”
Henrith’s face went blank. “Pledged to what?”
Eli gawked down at him. “The Council of Thrones’ bounty account.” He leaned down, looking incredulous. “Do you even know how bounties work?”
The king started to answer, but Eli rolled right over him. “Of course not, you’re a king. I doubt you’ve even been to a council meeting. You’ve probably never even left your kingdom.” He sat down again, muttering under his breath, “Council of Thrones, pah. More like Council of Junior-Adjuncts-No-One-in-Their-Own-Kingdom-Wanted-Around.
“All right,” Eli said when he was settled. “So you know the Council of Thrones takes care of things no single kingdom can handle—large-scale trade disputes, peace negotiations, and offering bounties on criminals wanted for crimes in more than one kingdom.” Eli reached into the pocket of his faded blue jacket and pulled out a folded square of paper, which he shook out proudly. It was his wanted poster, the same one the king had seen in the rose garden back when Eli had been his prisoner, and not the other way around.
Eli held the poster up. “Only the biggest criminals, those considered to be a danger to every member kingdom of the Council, are listed on the Council wanted board, and that means the bounties have to be in amounts that can get the attention of whole kingdoms, not just small-time bounty hunters.
“As you see,” he said, tapping the numbers under his portrait, “my head, dead or alive, is currently worth twenty thousand gold standards. This price is guaranteed by five countries, each of which pledged a little of its hard-earned money to entice men like yourself to try and catch me. Since you’ve made such a fuss over how you can’t pay the whole amount of your ransom at the moment, I’m going to cut you a deal. All you have to do to buy your freedom is top what those countries have offered by pledging your ransom to my bounty. Minus, of course, the five thousand in cash we’ll be taking with us. Still, that means the kingdom of Mellinor will be responsible for the remaining thirty-five thousand only in the unlikely event of my capture. Now,” he said, folding the poster back into a square, “I think that’s more than fair. What do you say, Mr. King?”
The king didn’t have much to say to that, actually. This was either the worst kidnapping in history or the best Council fundraiser he’d ever seen.
“So,” he said slowly, “Mellinor pledges the thirty-five thousand to your bounty, we give you five thousand in cash, and you let me go. But,” he said and paused, desperately trying to find some sense in what was happening, “that will bring your bounty to fifty-five thousand gold standards. It doesn’t make sense at all. You’re a thief! Won’t having a higher bounty make stealing things more difficult?”
“Any thief worth the name can steal,” Eli snorted. “I, however, am not just any thief.” He straightened up. “I’m Eli Monpress, the greatest thief in the world. I’m worth more gold dead than most people will see in two lifetimes, and this is only the beginning.” He leaned down, bringing his eyes level with Henrith’s. “A bounty of fifty-five thousand puts me in the top ten percent of all criminals wanted by the council, but so far as I’m concerned, that’s nothing. Child’s play. One day,” he said, smiling, “I’ll be worth one million gold standards.”
He said it with such gravity that the king couldn’t help himself, he burst out laughing. He laughed until the ropes cut into his skin and his throat was thick with grit from the dirt floor. Eli just watched him convulse, a calm smile on his face.
At last, the king’s laughter receded into gasps and hiccups, and he slumped to the floor with a sigh. “One million?” he said, chuckling. “Impossible. You could buy the Council itself for that much. You’d have to kidnap every king in the world!”
“If they’re all as easily gotten as you were,” Eli said with a grin, “that won’t be a problem.” He gave the king a pat on the head, like he was a royal puppy, and stood up. He stepped over the sprawled king and crouched down behind him, where the king’s hands were tied.
The king wiggled, trying to get a look at what Eli was doing. But the thief put his boot on the king’s side, keeping him still while he reached down and brushed his fingers over the rope at the king’s hands and ankles. “Thank you very much,” Eli said. “You’ve been most helpful. I think he’s got the point, though, so you can let him go now.”
Henrith was about to ask who he thought he was talking to when the rope at his hands wiggled like a snake. He jumped as the rope untied itself and fell into a neat coil at his side. Eli reached down and picked the rope up, leaving the king slack-jawed on the floor.
“Good-natured rope,” the thief cooed, holding the coils up. “It’s always such a pleasure to work with.”
He left the king gaping in the dirt and went over to a corner where a small pile of leather packs leaned against the wall, well away from the fire. He tucked the rope carefully into the pack on the top and began to dig through the others, looking for something.
Henrith sat up gingerly, squeezing his hands to get the feeling back and trying not to think too hard about what had just happened. By the time he got the blood flowing in his fingers again, Eli was back, this time shoving a pen nib, ink pot, and a sheaf of slightly dirty paper into the king’s hands.
“All right, Your Majesty,” he said, grinning. “If you would write a letter detailing what we talked about, I’ll make sure it gets sent to whoever deals with this sort of thing. Be sure to stipulate that you will not be returned until I see my new wanted poster—that part is key. With any luck, this will all be over in a few days and we’ll never have to see each other again.”
He clapped the king on the shoulder one last time and stood up. “Nico,” he said. “I’m going to find someone who wants to carry a letter. Would you mind watching our guest? I want to make sure he doesn’t get any ideas that might come to a sad conclusion.”
The girl nodded absently, never looking up from the fire. Eli gave the king a final wink before opening the cabin door and walking out into the sunlight. The swordsman, who had long finished skinning his rabbits, picked up his iron sword and followed, leaving the king alone in the small, dark hut with the girl.
Her back was to him, and King Henrith flexed his newly freed hands again. The door was only a few feet away.
“Whatever you’re thinking, I wouldn’t suggest it.”
The sudden edge in her voice nearly made him jump backward. He froze as she turned to look at him. When her brown eyes locked with his, the feeling of oblivion came roaring back. Suddenly, it was very hard to breathe.
“Write your letter,” she said, and turned back to the fire.
He took a shuddering breath and spread the paper out on his knee. With one last look at the girl’s back, he leaned over and began to write his ransom note.
“That was stupid,” Josef said, closing the rickety door behind him.
“Why do you say that?” Eli asked, scanning the treetops. They were standing in the small clearing outside of the forester’s hut that Eli had “repurposed” for this operation. High overhead, sunlight streamed through the treetops while hidden birds called to one another from their branches. Eli whistled back.
Josef scowled, leaning against the small trees that shielded their hut from view. “Why did you put that part in about seeing the poster? This job has dragged on long enough already. We’ll be here forever if we have to wait on Council politics.”
“You’d be surprised how sprightly they can be when there’s a lot of money involved,” Eli said, and whistled again. “The Council gets a percent fee on capture for every bounty posted, and fifty-five thousand is a lot of money, even for them.”
“It wouldn’t be so bad if there was something to do,” Josef said, stabbing his iron sword into the patchy grass at their feet. The battered black blade slid easily into the dirt, as though the hard, rocky ground were loose sand. “There’s no challenge in this country. The city guards were a joke. The palace had no swordsmen, no wizards. I don’t understand why we even bothered to sneak in.”
“A job finally goes smoothly,” Eli said, “and you’re complaining? All we have to do is lounge around for a few days, collect the money, get my new bounty, and we can be on our way.”
“Smooth jobs are boring,” the swordsman grumbled, “and you’re the only one who enjoys lounging.”
“You might like if you tried it,” Eli said.
Josef shook his head and Eli turned back to the leafy canopy, whistling a third time. This time something whistled in answer, and a small falcon swooped down to land on the moss beside him.
“You needed a break anyway,” Eli said, kneeling down. “You’re too tense these days.”
“I’m not tense,” Josef said, pushing himself off the trees with a grunt. “Just bored.”
He yanked his sword out of the ground and walked off into the forest, tossing the enormous blade between his hands as though it were made of paper. Eli watched him leave with a mixed expression, and then, shrugging, he turned back to the falcon and began talking it into taking a message to the castle.
Miranda stood at the center of the empty prison cell, her bare feet resting on a springy bed of new moss that spread out from the moss agate ring lying in the middle of the floor. The heavy door to the cell was open, though it would have been useless even if closed, owing to the gaping hole in the middle where the wooden boards should have been. The boards themselves lay in disgrace a few feet away, piled against the far wall of the cell.
She could feel the moss humming under her toes as it crept across the stone, feeling for slight changes in the dust. “He’s very light-footed; I’ll give him that,” the moss said. “It feels like he spent most of his time by the door, but”—Miranda got the strange sensation that the moss was frowning—“every spirit here is dead asleep, mistress. If he used any spirits, he was uncommonly quiet about it.”
Miranda nodded thoughtfully. “What about the door?”
“That’s the strangest bit.” The moss crept over the pile of boards, poking them with thousands of tiny rootlings. “The door is sleeping soundest of all.”
“Thief nothing,” Miranda said, rubbing her palms against her temples. “That man is a ghost.”
The cell was only the latest in a long line of failures as night turned to morning. “Well,” she said, “Eli’s not a Spiritualist. Maybe he used something else.”
“Enslavement, you mean?” The moss wiggled with displeasure. “Impossible, mistress. Enslavements happen when the wizard’s will completely dominates the spirit’s until it has no choice but to obey. It’s not a subtle thing. Why, even a momentary enslavement just to open the door would spook every spirit within earshot. They’d be moaning about it forever. But this room is so relaxed even I’m feeling sleepy. If you hadn’t told me otherwise, I would have guessed these idiots hadn’t so much as smelled a wizard in a hundred years.”
“Why do you say that?” Miranda sat down on her heels. “If he didn’t do anything flashy or dangerous, like enslavement, I doubt these rocks would notice a wizard standing right on top of them. Most spirits won’t even wake up enough to talk to a wizard unless we stand around making a racket for a few hours. Remember how long it took me to get your attention, Alliana?”
Alliana ruffled her green fuzz. “Spirits might not always respond, but we always notice a wizard. You’re very distracting.”
“You mean we’re loud and obnoxious,” Miranda said. “But then why did no one notice Eli?”
“Sometimes, spirits choose not to notice,” the moss said wistfully. “There are some wizards it’s better not to look at.”
“What do you mean?” Miranda leaned closer to the moss’s fluffy green surface. “Is Eli one of those?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Alliana said with a huff. “I’ve never seen him.”
“It’s no use asking any more questions, mistress,” the moss said. “I can’t say it any clearer. It really is too bad you humans are spirit blind. It’s so hard to explain things like this when you can’t see what I’m talking about.”
Miranda blew the hair out of her face with an exasperated huff. Spirits were eternally complaining about the human inability to see the spirit world, as if humans chose to be blind out of sheer stubbornness. As always, she tried to remind herself that it was very hard on spirits. All humans had the innate ability to control the spirits around them, though only born wizards could actually hear the spirits’ voices, and thus actually use their power. But this power came with a price, for, wizard or not, no human could see as the spirits saw. It was as if the whole race lacked a vital sense, and this lack was a source of endless frustration for both sides. It wasn’t that Miranda didn’t appreciate the difficulty. She did, really. For Alliana to explain how a wizard was distracting would be like Miranda trying to describe the color red to a blind person. Even so, it was impossibly frustrating when, every time she got a little closer to finally understanding, the spirit would pull the whole “Well, you can’t see, so I can’t explain” cop-out. Her spirits might serve her willingly, but sometimes she got the feeling she didn’t really understand them at all.
“Let’s move on,” she said. “Go ahead and wake up the door. You said Eli spent all his time beside it. If he’s as powerful as Master Banage seems to think he is, the wood should have noticed something.”
The wood was not cooperative. First, it took thirty minutes of Alliana’s poking to wake it up. Then, as soon as the wood recognized the moss as a wizard-bound spirit, it shut itself down in protest. Even after some direct threats from Miranda herself, the most she could get out of it was that Eli had been a nice and helpful human, with a strong implication that she was not. After that, the door buried itself in a sound sleep and nothing Alliana did could wake it.
Miranda threw herself down on the cell’s narrow bench with a frustrated sigh and began to tug her socks back on. She still didn’t know how Eli had escaped, but at least the door had mentioned him. Her attempts in the throne room had been a disaster. The officials had trailed her every step, muttering suspiciously, while the spirits remained sleepy, distant, and decidedly unhelpful. Ten hours wasted, altogether, and nothing but frustration and an attack on her personality to show for it. It was enough to make her spit.
She called Alliana and the circle of bright green moss began to shrink, returning to the moss agate ring that lay on the floor. When the moss was completely gone, Miranda bent down and picked the ring up. She ran her fingertips lovingly over the smooth stone, soothing the moss spirit into a light sleep. When Alliana was quiet, Miranda slipped the ring back onto its home on her right pinky finger.
“What are you doing now?” a perky voice behind her asked. “Did you find anything?”
Miranda’s smile vanished. She’d almost forgotten about the girl.
Of course, Mellinor, a country that had built a long and proud tradition out of hating wizards, wasn’t about to let one roam around alone. When it became clear they couldn’t follow her all night, the masters of Mellinor had insisted on providing a “guide” who stayed with her at all times “for her convenience.” Unfortunately, because of that long and proud tradition of hating wizards, volunteers for the position of wizard watcher had been scarce. Finally, the masters had given the job to the only person who actually seemed to want it, an overly inquisitive junior librarian named Marion.
Marion peered through the doorway, her round face beaming. “Are you done growing moss?”
“In a manner, yes.” Miranda leaned back against the cool stone.
The girl poked around the cell, growing more excited by the moment. “Amazing! The moss is gone! Was that a spell?”
Miranda rolled her eyes. A spell? No one had talked about magic in terms of spells since before the first Spirit Court. “The moss was my servant spirit,” she said, and she held up her hand, waggling her fingers so the rings glittered in the torchlight. “She was very helpful, but, unfortunately, we’re no closer to finding where Eli took the king. I’d like to try—”
“Did the spirit cast a spell?” The girl looked hopeful.
Miranda pressed her palm hard against her forehead. “Marion, this would go more smoothly if you wouldn’t ask questions.”
The girl’s face fell, and Miranda immediately felt awful. Fabulous effort at making a good impression, she thought. The one person in the whole kingdom who doesn’t think you’re the living incarnation of all that’s wrong in the world, and you yell at her.
“Look, Marion,” Miranda said gently, “how much do you know about wizards?”
“Not much, really,” Marion said sheepishly, tugging at her long, formless tunic dress, which Miranda had come to recognize as the Mellinorian librarian uniform. “All the books about wizards were destroyed generations ago.” She reached furtively into one of her cavernous side pockets and pulled out a slim leather book. “This was all I could find. I’ve practically memorized it.”
The book looked ancient. Its leather cover was cracked and worn and missing chunks in several places. Miranda took it gently and stifled a groan when she read the title, Morticime Kant’s A Wizarde’s Travels. Of course, the one book the Mellinorian purge missed would be the most ostentatious, misinformed plague on wizardry that had ever stained a page. If you wanted someone to get the wrong idea about magic, this was the book you would give them.
Out of morbid curiosity, she flipped it open to a random page and started reading a section labeled “On the Dress and Manner of Wizardes.”
“A wizarde is easily separated from his fellow men owing to the Presence of his Person. Often he will carry the Fragrance of Old Magic, gained from his years over the cauldron brewing his fearsome Magical Potions. If you do not wish to step close enough to determine his odor (for doing so may put you in his thrall, beware!) you may determine his demeanor from a safe distance, for all wizardes wear, by oath, the marks of their Station, namely the ever present flowing Robes of State, the flashing Rings of Enchantment, and the long-pointed, elegant cap of a Master of Magicks. Further more—”
Miranda snapped the book shut in disgust. Whoever had purged the library had probably left it on purpose.
“Well,” she said, handing the book back, “that explains much.”
The girl cringed at the scorn her voice, and lowered her head until the thick woolen veil that covered her blonde hair slid down to hide her face as well. “I did not mean to offend, lady wizard.”
“Spiritualist,” Miranda corrected gently. The girl peeked at her quizzically, and Miranda tried again. “Let me explain. Wizards don’t do magic—at least, not like the book describes it. What Kant calls ‘magicks’ are actually spirits. The world we live in is made of spirits. Mountains, trees, water, even the stones in the wall or the bench I’m sitting on”—she rapped the wood with her knuckles—“they each have their own souls, just as humans do. The word ‘wizard’ is just a catchall name for a person who can hear those spirits’ voices. Now, it’s possible for anyone to hear the spirits if they are seriously injured or dying. Death brings us as close as humans can get to the spirit world. What makes a wizard different is that wizards hear spirits all the time, even if they don’t want to. But a wizard’s real power is not just hearing the spirits, it’s control. Wizards can exert their will over the spirits around them and, if the wizard’s will is strong enough, control them. Though, of course, this control must always be used responsibly and only with the spirit’s consent.”
She looked at Marion to make sure this wasn’t more explanation than the girl was willing to listen to, but the librarian was practically leaning on Miranda’s shoulder in rapt attention, so the Spiritualist continued.
“Not all spirits are the same, of course. There are Great Spirits, a mountain, for example, and small spirits, like a pebble. The larger the spirit, the greater its power, and the stronger a wizard’s will has to be to control it, or even just get its attention. Almost any wizard can wake up a small, stupid spirit, like a pebble, or that door you saw me yelling at earlier, but it’s how they treat the spirit once they’ve woken it that determines what kind of wizard they are.”
Miranda pointed at her rings. “I am a Spiritualist. Like all wizards, I have the power to dominate spirits and force them to do my bidding, but I don’t. The Spirit Court does not believe in forcing the world to do our will. Instead, we make contracts. Each of these rings contains a spirit who has willingly entered my service.” She wiggled her fingers. “In return for their work and obedience, I share my energy with them and provide a safe haven. That’s the way a Spiritualist works, give and take. Often, it’s a good deal for both wizard and spirit. Born wizards often have large and powerful souls, and spirits love to share that power that is often greater than their own. In return, the wizard gets a powerful ally, so it works out both ways. Still, service is always by choice. We never force a spirit to serve us against its will. Any wizard who does is not a Spiritualist, and thus not someone you want around.” She pointed at the only ring on her hand without a jewel, a thick gold signet on her left ring finger stamped with a perfect circle. “This is the mark of the Spirit Court. The only legitimate wizards are ones who show this ring proudly. It is a sign of the vows Spiritualists make to never abuse that power, or the spirits who depend on us.”
“I see,” Marion said, her blue eyes widening until her wispy eyebrows were lost under her square bangs. “But there are wizards who aren’t Spiritualists, right? Who can dominate any spirits? Could those wizards dominate another person?”
“No,” Miranda said. “A wizard can move mountains if her will is strong enough, but no wizardry can touch another human’s soul. Brush it, maybe, press upon it, certainly, if the other soul is sensitive to spirits, but no power I have could force you to act against your wishes. I could make trees dance and rocks sing, but I couldn’t even make you bow your head if you wanted it straight. Does that make sense?”
Marion frowned thoughtfully. “I think so, but—”
“Good.” Miranda stood up with a smile. “Then today hasn’t been a complete waste.” She looked dolefully around the small cell. “I don’t think there’s much more I can do here. We need a change of scenery.” She took a small leather folder out of her bag and began to flip through a neat stack of papers.
Marion looked quizzical. “Scenery?”
“Ah-ha,” Miranda said and smiled triumphantly, holding up a small, tattered note. “Looks like we’re going for a walk to the west side of town.”
A horrified look spread over Marion’s face. “Why?”
“I’m getting nowhere around here.” Miranda stuck the folder back in her bag and slung it over her shoulder. “Either Eli is a much more powerful wizard than I anticipated, which is unlikely, or he’s got some trick that lets him march around unnoticed. Either way, I need to learn more about him, so we’re going to see an expert.”
Marion’s look of horror deepened. “An expert? But what kind of—lady!” She had to scramble to keep up as Miranda swept out of the room, past the prison guards, and up the narrow stairs. “Lady wiz… Spiritualist! Lady Miranda! Wait!” She chased her through the maze of narrow passageways and caught up just as Miranda pushed open the outer door, where the prison let out below the stable yard. With a gasp, she threw herself in front of the Spiritualist. “Wait!” she said, panting. “The west side of the city isn’t exactly, that is, I have to alert the guards. You’ll need a security squad and—”
“Security squad?” Miranda pushed past her with a grin. “Gin!”
He must have been waiting for this, because the ghosthound appeared with a speed that surprised even Miranda. Gin slid to a halt right in front of them, grinning toothily, while the misty patterns flew over his coat in a way that meant he was feeling extraordinarily pleased with himself. Miranda shook her head and turned to the librarian. Marion was almost sitting on the ground in her scramble to get away from the monster that had not been there a second before. It was all Miranda could do not to reach down and shut the girl’s gaping jaw for her.
“I don’t think a security squad will be needed,” Miranda said, vaulting onto Gin’s back. “Coming?”
The girl had barely nodded before Gin swept her up with his paw and tossed her on his back. The stable dogs howled as the ghosthound loped across the castle grounds, fast as an icy gale. He took the castle gate in two leaps and hit the city street running, sending the well-dressed townsfolk screaming in all directions.
“Did you find anything?” Miranda asked.
“Of course not.” Gin sighed. “So, do we have a destination, or are we just putting on a show?”
“West side of the city, and slow it down a little.” She glanced over her shoulder at Marion, who was clinging to the ghosthound’s short coat with everything she had. “We have a delicate flower with us.”
The ghosthound slowed just a fraction as he took a narrow alley westward, downhill toward the river.
If looked at from the sky, Allaze, the capital and only walled city of Mellinor, was a thing of beauty. It lay like a sun-bleached sand dollar on the grassy banks of the river Aze, circular and white with the spires of the castle as the star at its center. Low, undulating hills, spotted with split wood fences and fat cattle, rose around it, so that the city was a bump at the lowest point of a soft, green bowl.
Along the city’s northern wall, the bushy edge of the king’s deer park met the city in a mash of green oaks and tall pines. Only a thin strip of grass and the taller than usual northern parapets kept the trees out of the city proper. Within the walls, a charming, if confusing, knot of streets twisted outward and downward from the castle hill. Following the king’s example, the citizens had also arranged themselves vertically, starting at the top with impressive, stone mansions pressed right against the castle’s outer perimeter and moving down to the sprawling ring of flat-roofed timber houses leaning against Allaze’s edge, where the white stone outer wall ran in a nearly perfect circle around the city. Nearly perfect, but for one slight flaw.
In a fit of architectural rebellion, a small section of the city’s western edge deviated to form an unsightly bulge. It was as if the stones in that part of the wall had tried to make a break for the river, only to fail halfway and rejoin the circle a quarter mile later in sullen resignation. If this building irregularity had a purpose, it was long forgotten, and the western bulge was now a pile of ramshackle buildings on top of what had been a swamp, but was now home to some of the least reputable businesses in Mellinor.
Gin trotted to a stop in front of one such establishment, a ramshackle building with the words MERRYMONT TAVERN painted in fading, uneven block letters across the shuttered upper story.
“This looks like the place,” Miranda said, sliding off Gin’s back. Marion followed timidly, wincing as her nice court slippers hit the muddy road with a wet slap. The wooden buildings here tilted in every direction, leaning on each other like drunks until it was difficult to tell where one ended and the next began. The smell of stagnant water and unwashed bodies hung in a haze over the narrow streets, but there was no one to be seen. Every window was dark and empty, projecting gloom and decay until even the noon sunlight seemed dimmer. Miranda surveyed the empty streets, her face set in her best imitation of the Rector Spiritualis at a Council meeting, equal parts nonchalant superiority and honed indifference to the opinions of others. If growing up in the enormous city of Zarin had taught her anything, it was that empty streets hid the most ears of all.
“Gin,” she said loudly, “if anyone gives you trouble, don’t bother asking permission, just eat them.”
Gin responded by lazily stretching his forelegs out in front of him and yawning, revealing a mouth of yellow, glistening teeth as his ears swiveled for any hint of sound.
Satisfied that no one would bother them after that little display, Miranda marched up the rickety stairs of the Merrymont and pushed aside the muddy blanket that served as a door. The barroom was narrow, dark, and stank of the river. It was also just as empty as the street outside, though the mugs scattered on the warped tables told her it hadn’t been that way a few moments ago. Large, stained barrels took up most of the room, their taps dripping something that smelled faintly of rotting bread and vinegar. The only windows were papered over with advertisements and notices, including a large, peeling poster featuring a pair of girls wearing outfits that made Miranda blush. Looking away, she selected a cleanish table near the center of the room and sat down so that she was facing the main entrance. Marion, white as new cheese and twice as wobbly, took a seat beside her.
The librarian eyed the empty tables and the trash scattered across the warped floor boards. “I don’t think your expert is here,” she whispered.
“He will be,” Miranda said, setting her bag in the chair beside her. “The Spirit Court pays its informants very well, and bounty hunters thrive in trash heaps like this.”
“Such words of praise,” a deep voice purred behind them. “You’ll make me blush, little wizardess.”
Marion fell out of her chair with a series of squeaks, but Miranda stayed perfectly still.
“Well met, Mr. Coriano,” she said calmly. “You seem to be living up to your reputation.” Without turning, she motioned to the chair on the other side of the table. “Since you have time to sneak around and scare young women, surely you can spare a few moments.”
She felt more than heard him stalk around the table. As he came into her line of vision, Miranda did not waste her first look at the infamous Gerard Coriano. He was shorter than she’d expected, with black hair that he wore tied in a ponytail. His clothes were plain, brown cloth and leather, and his face had a sharp, hawkish handsomeness to it that was pleasant enough save for the long, thin scar running down the left side. It started at his temple, split his eyebrow, and ran down his cheek and over his lips, stopping just above his jaw. His left eye was discolored and murky where the scar crossed it, but it followed her movements just as well as his right, which was cold and flat gray-blue. He wore a sword low on his hip, but the guard and hilt were wrapped in thick felt that only hinted at their shape. Judging from the way he took his seat, however, Miranda harbored no illusions that the wrapping would slow his draw.
Coriano leaned on the table, gloved hands steepled in front of him and a small smile tugging at the edge of his thin mouth. “That was quite a display you put on outside. Normally, I prefer a note left at the bar, but I should know better by now than to expect subtlety from a Spiritualist.”
“I would have contacted you more discreetly if I had time to wait in seedy taverns,” Miranda said. “We Spiritualists lack the copious amounts of leisure time you bounty hunters seem to enjoy, Mr. Coriano.”
His smile broadened, and he leaned back in his chair. “How may I help you?”
“You’ve been tracking the wizard thief Eli Monpress for months.” Miranda leaned forward. “Both of our last tips came from you. I want to know how you do it.”
Coriano glanced pointedly down at her rings. “What, can’t root him out with your little menagerie? I thought that was one of the Spiritualist’s specialties.”
Miranda didn’t bother to hide her annoyance. “With any other rogue wizard, yes, but Eli hides his tracks very well. You, however, always seem to be right on his heels.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a heavy sack that jingled invitingly when she laid it on the table. “That’s double the normal payment. It’s yours if you tell me how to find him. More, if you lead me there.”
Coriano glanced at the money, then back at her. “If I knew how to find Eli and his companions, do you really think I’d be wasting my time here?”
“Maybe, if you’re as smart as the rumors say.” Miranda moved her hand slightly, maneuvering her rings to catch the dim light. “You might be a great swordsman, but you can’t take Eli on your own. You need a wizard to fight a wizard, or why else would you endanger your prize by tipping off the Spiritualists?”
“How do you know we’re after the same prize?” Coriano said, tapping his fingers on the table.
“Because Eli is the prize everyone is after,” she said sweetly. “Even us. If I catch Eli, his Council bounty belongs to the Spirit Court. Twenty thousand standards would be quite a boon to our budget. However”—Miranda leaned forward and lowered her voice—“there are things we value far more than money. If you help me, perhaps we can come to an arrangement. I have the authority to be very generous in this affair, Mr. Coriano.”
Coriano leaned forward to match her. “Banage must be desperate indeed if he’s stooped to making deals.”
Miranda jerked back. “The Rector Spiritualis does what is best for the harmony of the Spirit Court,” she said coldly. “Eli Monpress’s rising notoriety threatens the good reputation we’ve spent the last several hundred years building.”
“More valuable than gold indeed.” Coriano smirked. “Can’t have Monpress playing the wolf when the good Rector Spiritualis is busy trying to convince the world he’s leading a flock of sheep.”
“You will not find me a docile lamb,” Miranda said flatly. “Will you help us, or am I wasting my breath?”
“Oh, you’re not wasting anything,” Coriano said. “This has been quite a charming chat. Sadly, I’m afraid I can’t offer you my services this time around. I have a prior engagement. Besides,” he smiled, “I don’t think our methods would mesh.”
“What kind of prior engagement is worth jeopardizing your good standing with the Spirit Court?” Miranda scoffed. “Master Banage has spoken so highly of your services, he would be most disappointed if you didn’t help me now.”
“How dreadful,” Coriano said and arched his scarred eyebrow. “In that case, let me give you some advice, as one professional to another.” He leaned in close, lowering his voice to an almost inaudible whisper. “Don’t underestimate Monpress. He’s a wizard, true, but not as you are, and he’s been doing this for a long time. That twenty thousand bounty he carries isn’t an exaggeration. Monpress has stolen enough gold from the Council Kingdoms to live like a king for five lifetimes, but the only records we have of him spending it are on setups for ever-larger thefts. Some of the world’s best bounty hunters have chased him for months and caught nothing but stories, others simply vanished. This has led some experienced hunters to dismiss him as a wild chase, but that is because they have failed to understand Monpress’s only constant: his pride in his vocation. Eli Monpress is a true thief. He steals for the joy of it. He doesn’t make a show unless he wants you to see, and he never runs before he’s gotten what he came for. He may act the charming fool, but he has a goal to everything he does. Find out what he really wants, and then position yourself so that he has to go through you to get it. Make him come to you. That’s the only way you’ll catch him.
“Now,” he said, holding up the bag of money, which Miranda hadn’t seen him take, “I’ve told you how to find him, so I’ll be taking the payment as agreed.”
He stood up in one smooth motion and bowed courteously, slipping the bulging coin purse into his pocket. “Forgive me, ladies, I must hurry to my next appointment. I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
He left the way he had come, disappearing as quietly as a cat behind the empty bar. Miranda gave him to the count of twenty before pushing her chair back with a clatter and stomping out of the decrepit tavern.
“Complete waste of time,” she muttered, shoving the dirty blanket out of her way. “For all the information he gave us, I might as well have interrogated the door a few more times.”
Marion followed meekly, eyes on the dusty corners in case any other mysterious swordsmen were waiting to make an entrance. “What did he mean ‘a wizard not as you are’?”
“How should I know?” Miranda said, marching down the creaking stairs. “I don’t think he understands what comes out of his mouth any more than we do. We’ll just have to expand the search. There’s got to be something I’m missing. Whatever Coriano says about Eli’s skill, Monpress can’t do what he’s doing without a spirit’s help, and he can’t use spirits without leaving some trace. He’s been lucky so far, but as soon as I can figure out his gimmick, I’ll wring his—” She stopped short.
The street outside was just as empty as it had been when they’d arrived. Gin was where they had left him, slouched on the ground. His large head rested on his paws, one of which had something squirmy pinned in the mud beneath it.
“You have a visitor,” he said, tail twitching. “He didn’t want to wait until you were done with your meeting, but I convinced him otherwise.”
“Gin,” Miranda said through gritted teeth. “Let him up.”
The ghosthound lifted his paw, and Miranda hurried to help the man. Even covered in mud, the royal messenger’s livery was recognizable. He wobbled a bit, like his knees wouldn’t support him, and Miranda had to position herself between him and Gin before he could get his message out.
“T-the Master of Security s-sent me to f-find you, lady,” he stuttered. “A letter just arrived from the king.”
Miranda’s face lit up. “A letter from the king? How long ago?”
“Master Oban sent me as soon as it came,” he said, keeping his distance from the Spiritualist and her monster. “Ten minutes maybe? Twenty?”
That was all Miranda needed. She hooked her arm over Gin’s nose and he lifted her up onto his waiting back.
“Lady!” Marion cried. “Where are you going?”
“To the castle, of course!” Miranda shouted. “Eli’s made his move, and I’m not about to let him get away so easily this time.”
Marion opened her mouth to say something else, but the ghosthound dashed behind her and Miranda swept the girl up onto his back. Gin whirled, patterns flashing wildly over his fur, and dashed up the hill, pouncing in silent bounds toward the castle.
The moment the ghosthound was out of sight, the neighborhood started pouring out of its hiding places. Men, women, and grubby children flooded the muddy street, and the royal messenger found himself surrounded by gawking, dirty people. One look at the knives some of the men wore in their boots and the messenger decided it was time to return as well, and he followed the ghosthound up the hill toward the castle at a dead run.
Oban, the Master of Security, was waiting for them at the castle gate with a roll of parchment in his hand.
“Lady Miranda!” he shouted, running toward them as Gin slid to a stop.
“Is that the letter?” Miranda hopped down.
“Yes.” He shoved the parchment into her hand. “Read it quickly.”
She shook the paper open and read, muttering along as she went. “King is safe… Send riders to the Council… Mellinor shall pledge an additional thirty-five thousand to Monpress’s bounty”—her eyebrows shot up—“and five thousand in cash—these demands are ridiculous!” She shook her head as she finished reading. “ ‘Raise a white flag from the second tower when you receive the new bounty notice from the Council and await further instructions.’ Why that greedy little thief, what is he playing at?” She thrust the note back at Oban. “You said the king wrote this?”
“Yes,” Oban said, “under much duress, we fear.”
Miranda gave him a flat look. “He has very good handwriting for a king under duress.”
“Oh, this isn’t the original.” The Master of Security ran a nervous hand over his bald head. “It’s a scribe copy.”
“Well, that won’t do.” Miranda put her hands on her hips. “Where is the original? I need it now.” Time was precious. If she got it soon enough, the faint, weak spirits in the ink might still remember the ink pot they’d lived in. That would give her a direction at least, maybe even a relative distance, but only if she got to them before they fell asleep completely and forgot that they’d ever been anything except words on a page.
The Master of Security blanched. “I’m afraid I can’t get it, lady. The situation’s, um”—he clutched his hands—“changed.”
“Changed how?” Miranda’s eyes narrowed.
“Go to the throne room, and you’ll see.” He sighed. “They don’t know I let you see the note, lady, but I couldn’t let you go in there without some information at least. Good luck.” He bowed slightly, then whirled around and disappeared into the stables.
“He stinks of fear,” Gin said, his orange eyes on Oban’s retreating back.
“Do you know what this is about?” Miranda asked Marion, who was still working her way down off the ghosthound. The girl shook her head.
Miranda stared up at the white castle, which looked much more forbidding than usual. “Ears open, mutt,” she muttered. “Be ready if I call you.”
“Always am,” Gin huffed, sitting down in the middle of the stable yard.
Miranda nodded and hurried up the castle steps, Marion keeping close behind her.
The entrance hall was quiet and empty. Miranda frowned, glancing around for the usual clusters of servants and officials, but there was no sign of them. She quickened her pace, trotting across the polished marble to the arched doorway that led to the throne room. As she rounded the corner, what she saw stopped her dead in her tracks. The entire servant population of castle Allaze, from the stable boys to the chambermaids, was crammed into the great hall that led to the throne room. They were crowded in, shoulder to shoulder, filling the hall to bursting.
Miranda stared bewildered at the wall of backs blocking their way. “All right,” she sighed, slumping against the wall, “I give up. What is going on?”
Marion hurried forward, tapping the shoulder of a man at the back of the crowd wearing a blacksmith’s leather apron to ask what was happening.
“Didn’t ya hear?” the man said. “Lord Renaud’s back.”
Marion’s face went white as cheese. She thanked the man and hurried back to Miranda. “Lord Renaud is back,” she whispered.
“So I heard,” Miranda said. “But let’s assume for the moment that I know nothing about this country. Who is Lord Renaud?”
“King Henrith’s older brother.”
“Older brother?” Miranda frowned in confusion. “Is he a bastard or something?”
“Of course not!” Marion looked mortified.
“Then why did Henrith become king, and not him?” None of the research she’d done on Mellinor had mentioned any variance in the normal lines of succession. Of course, she hadn’t had time to do much research in her rush to beat Eli.
“Lord Renaud was first in line for the throne, but then there were, um”—she glanced pointedly at Miranda’s rings—“problems.”
“I see,” Miranda said quietly, following her gaze. “You know, in most countries, having a wizard in the royal family is considered a blessing.” Marion winced at the coldness in her voice. “He was banished as a child, then?”
Marion shook her head. “That’s usually the way, but not this time. You see, no one knew he was a wizard until a few days after the prince’s sixteenth birthday. The old king was furious when he found out, of course, and he banished Lord Renaud to the desert on the southern edge of Mellinor.”
“Sixteen is far too old for a manifestation,” Miranda said, drumming her fingers against the stone doorway. “A wizard child can hear spirits from birth. It’s obvious by the time they can talk that something is off. A prince, especially an heir to the throne, is hardly raised in obscurity. How did no one know?”
“The queen covered up for him,” Marion said sadly. “It was no secret that she loved him the most. She wouldn’t let the servants near him. She took care of him herself, dressed him and mended his clothes, prepared his meals, and so forth. We assumed it was because Renaud was the crown prince, since she never did any of that for Henrith. Now, of course, we know the real reason.”
Miranda arched an eyebrow. “So how did it come to light?”
“The queen had a weak heart,” Marion said sadly. “It got worse as she grew older, and finally there was nothing the doctors could do. She died on Renaud’s birthday. They say the prince went mad with grief after that, his mother had been his whole world, and with him going on like that, there was no hiding what he was. He was banished before the week was out, and Henrith was made crown prince in his place.” Marion leaned on the wall beside Miranda. “Of course, this all happened years ago, well before I came to the palace. I’ve seen Lord Renaud only once, when the king drove him out of the city.”
Miranda eyed the packed crowd. “The return of a banished prince, no wonder everyone’s making such a fuss. Well,” she said and straightened up, “strange goings on or no, I need to get my spirits on that note or we’ll be right back where we started. Follow me.”
She walked up to the wall of backs and, without fanfare, began to elbow her way through. Marion wiggled along behind her, apologizing profusely to the angry people in their wake.
“I could have asked them to move,” she huffed, squeezing between two guardsmen. “Despite the circumstances, you are a guest of the masters.”
Miranda shook her head. “From what I’ve seen of Mellinor, announcing I’m a Spiritualist would be the same as shouting ‘fire.’ I don’t want to cause a stampede.”
As they neared the throne room doors, the press of people grew even tighter, and Miranda’s and Marion’s progress slowed to an agonizing crawl.
“This is ridiculous,” Marion gasped, pressed against Miranda’s shoulder by a pack of guardsmen. “We’ll never get through.”
Miranda pursed her lips, thinking, and then her eyes lit up. “Let me try something.”
She closed her eyes and slumped forward slightly, letting her body relax. With practiced ease she retreated to the deepest part of her mind, the well of power her spirits sipped from, the well that was usually kept tightly shut. She breathed deeply, relaxing her hold just a fraction. The effect was immediate.
The crowd around them shivered and stepped away. It was only a step, but it left just enough room for her and Marion to push through all the way to the golden doors. As soon as they reached the throne room’s threshold, Miranda clamped down again. The small knot of people behind them gave a slight shiver and pressed in again as if nothing had happened.
Marion looked over her shoulder with wide eyes. “What did you do?”
“I opened my spirit,” Miranda said.
“Opened your…” If possible, her eyes got wider.
That was all Miranda had meant to say, but, after that awed display, she couldn’t help showing off just a little. “Opening the spirit reveals the strength of a wizard’s power,” she whispered. “Remember when I told you that a wizard’s true power is control? That’s because all wizards are born with more spirit, more energy than normal people. However, that energy is generally locked away shortly after birth by the child’s own self-defense mechanisms. Having your spirit wide open all the time makes you vulnerable. Spirits are attracted to power, you see, and not all of them always mean you well. With training, wizards can learn to open their spirits, sometimes a little, sometimes all the way, depending on how much power you need to display. This is a vital part of getting a spirit’s attention when you start really working with them.”
“But,” Marion said and frowned, thoroughly confused, “I thought you said you couldn’t control people?”
“Well,” Miranda smiled smugly, “what I just did is more of a trick on my part than any kind of real magic. Normal people can’t feel a wizard’s spirit even if it’s open full blast—not consciously, anyway. However, I’ve found that with just the right feather touch even the most spirit deaf will feel a slight pressure without knowing they feel it, and step away.”
“So,” Marion shivered, “that feeling just now, like someone was stepping on my grave, that was you?”
“Yes,” Miranda said, nodding. “A bit unconventional, but dreadfully handy.”
“Must be,” Marion said. “What would happen if you opened it all the way?”
“Let’s say it would be very uncomfortable for everyone involved.” Miranda smiled. “Come”—she grabbed the librarian’s hand and pushed through the last line of people separating them from the throne room—“let’s do what we came here to do. We’ve wasted too much time as it is.” She tallied the time inwardly and winced. The note was probably dead asleep by now. Still, any clue, anything at all, and this would all be worth it.
Though the crowd was better dressed, the throne room was every bit as packed as the hall outside, and buzzing just as intently. Miranda stood on tiptoe, looking around for the Master of the Courts or anyone who could help her, when she heard the solemn sound of metal on stone. It must have been a signal, for all at once the whispers died out and the crowd fell silent. All attention was now on the tall, slim figure climbing the steps of the dais. When he was one step from the empty throne, he stopped and turned to face the crowd. As his face came into view, Miranda caught her breath.
After Marion’s story, she wasn’t sure what she was expecting. A bitter, weather-worn exile, perhaps, or a smug, spoiled prince enjoying his triumphant return. Whatever she’d expected, the man standing on the dais was nothing like it. He was, however, undoubtedly a prince. Tall and handsomely dressed in a dark-blue coat, he projected the confidence of someone used to being obeyed. A waterfall of golden hair hung down his back, swaying gently as he bowed low to the crowd. His fine-featured face was almost feminine in its beauty, and Miranda swallowed despite herself. He certainly didn’t look like someone who’d spent the last ten years exiled in the desert.
The golden prince looked out over the sea of people, a benevolent and humble expression on his lovely face. He held up his hands in a welcoming gesture. Miranda could almost feel the crowd leaning forward to drink him in as he began to speak.
“Citizens of Mellinor!” His voice rang out through the enraptured room. “I come before you as a criminal and an exile. Many have asked me how, seeing this, I come to stand before you today, and so, first, before you all, I must confess. Eleven years ago, I was banished for being born a wizard, in accordance with the ancient law. Yet, despite this, and because of the deep love I bear this country, for the past eight years I have disobeyed my father’s order and lived among you. For Mellinor’s sake, I have lived nameless, a pauper among paupers. I was here four years ago when my younger brother, Henrith, took the throne, and I cheered him in the streets alongside you, without jealousy or malice. Until yesterday, I was content to live forgetting the duty I was born to and denying the curse that took my crown if that was what was needed to stay here, in my home. But yesterday, when I heard of the atrocious crime that had been committed, not just against the throne of Mellinor, but against my own flesh and blood, I could stay silent no more.”
Renaud leaned forward, his ringing voice heavy with contempt. “You have heard by now that the wizard thief Monpress, wanted throughout the Council Kingdoms for a list of crimes too long to read here, has kidnapped our king. This crime must not go unanswered.”
A great cry rose up at this, and Renaud leaned into it, letting it grow. When the noise reached a fevered pitch, Renaud threw out his arms, and silence fell like a knife.
When he spoke again, his words were choked with sorrow. “My friends, I come to you with no expectations, no pleas, nothing but the offer of my service. It was my wizardry that forced this burden upon my younger brother. Let it be my wizardry that ends it. As I was once your prince, I beg you now, let me face this criminal and help save my brother, the only family I have left. Let me serve him as I could not serve you, and I swear to you, I swear on my life that Mellinor will have her king again!”
He threw his fists in the air, and the crowd erupted. The nobles around Miranda clapped and cheered, but their polite noise was drowned out by the crowd in the hall, who hadn’t seen such drama in years, if ever. Even the somberly dressed masters were milling about looking impressed despite themselves, and some of the younger ones were cheering just as loudly as the servants.
Marion bounced up and down on her toes. “Oh, isn’t it exciting?”
“Quite.” Miranda scowled. Something about Renaud’s smile as he shook the waiting masters’ hands didn’t sit well with her. Marion gave her a quizzical look, but Miranda had already begun elbowing her way through the well-dressed crowd.
She ran to catch up. “Lady! Where are you going?”
“To hold him to his words,” Miranda said, pushing past a pair of old ladies waving their lacy handkerchiefs at the prince. “He says he wants to help, so I’m going to make him give me that note.”
Marion shrank from the nasty looks they were getting, but before she could start apologizing, a boy in page’s livery popped out of the crowd right beside Miranda.
“Lady Spiritualist,” he said, bowing nervously. “Lord Renaud wishes to meet you right away.”
“Well,” Miranda said. “That saves some trouble. Lead on.”
The page turned and led them away from the crowd to a small door just off the back half of the main throne room. This opened into a small, richly decorated parlor. As soon as they were inside, the page vanished back into the crowd, letting the door close softly behind him.
“Well,” Miranda said, dropping into one of the silk couches, “that was all very neat. We were swept up and tucked away before we could cause trouble.” She glanced at Marion, who was still standing by the door, looking slightly dazed. “Your Renaud seems to have gained quite a bit of influence in a very short time for a banished wizard prince. His speech wasn’t that good.”
“Prince is the key word there, I think.” Marion sighed, padding across the carpet to take a seat on one of the straight-backed, carved wooden chairs under the window. “With the king gone, Mellinor’s been headless. Since our founding, we’ve never been without a king for more than a day. There’s no precedent at all, so it’s no wonder the masters are in a panic. I shouldn’t say this, but they’d probably follow the king’s dog at this point if it could prove a royal lineage.” She glanced at the door. “Lord Renaud sure picked the right time to come back. Only in a situation like this could his status as a prince outweigh his stigma as a wizard.”
“How very convenient for him,” Miranda said thoughtfully.
Marion paled. “Please don’t take offense, lady. Stigma’s the wrong word. I—”
“It’s fine.” Miranda smiled. “Don’t apologize. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
“It’s just…” Marion pulled at her dress. “I’ve never had to think about things from a wizard’s—Spiritualist! Spiritualist’s point of view, and—”
She stopped midbabble and sprang out of her chair. Miranda looked at her, confused, but Marion shook her head fiercely and pointed at the door before dropping into a low curtsy.
A second later, Prince Renaud himself swept into the room.
Excerpted from The Legend of Eli Monpress by Aaron, Rachel Copyright © 2012 by Aaron, Rachel. 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 March 18, 2012
More fun than most fantasy series. I love the characters and have a bit of a crush on Eli.
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Posted June 11, 2013
Best novel available! A bit pricy but worth it. Witty and spunky, fun and unexpected.... THIS BOOK HAS IT ALL!!!!
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Posted August 30, 2013
I really enjoyed this three book series, I loved that it came all together, rather than buying each book, and I found it to be very charming and imaginative.
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