Raves for the Previous Valdemar Anthologies:
“Fans of Lackey’s epic Valdemar series will devour this superb anthology. Of the thirteen stories included, there is no weak link—an attribute exceedingly rare in collections of this sort. Highly recommended.”
—The Barnes and Noble Review
“This high-quality anthology mixes pieces by experienced authors and enthusiastic fans of editor Lackey’s Valdemar. Valdemar fandom, especially, will revel in this sterling example of what such a mixture of fans’ and pros’ work can be. Engrossing even for newcomers to Valdemar.”
“Josepha Sherman, Tanya Huff, Mickey Zucker Reichert, and Michelle West have quite good stories, and there’s another by Lackey herself. Familiarity with the series helps but is not a prerequisite to enjoying this book.”
—Science Fiction Chronicle
“Each tale adheres to the Lackey laws of the realm yet provides each author’s personal stamp on the story. Well written and fun, Valdemarites will especially appreciate the magic of this book.”
—The Midwest Book Review
“The sixth collection set in Lackey’s world of Valdemar presents stories of Heralds and their telepathic horselike Companions and of Bards and Healers, and provides glimpses of the many other aspects of a setting that has a large and avid readership. The fifteen original tales in this volume will appeal to series fans.”
TITLES BY MERCEDES LACKEY
available from DAW Books:
*Coming soon from DAW Books
And don’t miss: THE VALDEMAR COMPANION, edited by John Helfers and Denise Little
The Whitest Lie
—A flash of snow, biting cold, the vertigo of falling. The face of a young boy.—
Herald Wil snapped up his shields and stumbled to his feet. He stood alone in a room lit only by cold moonlight, but a moment before he’d been sitting with his hands resting lightly on the top of a carved rosewood desk covered in ledgers and dust. The ledgers had belonged to the room’s former resident, the Bard Lelia. The dust had started accumulating the day he’d forbidden the Palace servants from entering and cluttering it with their lives.
He’d come here to tap his Gift and unwind a nagging mystery.
In the distance, he heard the first cries of the Death Bell.
Now it seemed he had a fresh mystery on his hands.
Unusual for him, he had no name for the face he’d seen in the moment before the Bell began ringing. His Gift usually told him exactly who had died and where, but not this time. One fact stood out—whoever it was had been young. Too young. Trainee-young.
:Vehs?: he thought to his Companion.
The normally jovial mind-voice of Vehs came back subdued and sorrowful. :Jalay. Chosen last week.:
:Last week?: That would explain why his Gift had failed to tell him who and where.
:He’s on the Collegium grounds, we just don’t know where. We’re trying to find him, but his Companion was asleep when whatever happened to him happened and doesn’t know where he was.:
:Not in his quarters?:
:No. And his yearmates haven’t seen him either.:
Wil’s mind flashed to all the awfulness of the last few years—a dead Herald and a tortured Queen’s Own, a high-born traitor in the Queen’s inner circle, the war with Hardorn, the inevitable war to come. Had young Jalay uncovered something he shouldn’t have?
Wil picked up his coat and went for the door. :I’ll see what I can do.:
His Gift had a few good uses. He had Foresight, yes, but it seemed to span all points in time, not just the future. He’d taken to calling this deviation “Hindsight” and had considered scouring the Archives to see if anyone else had ever exhibited similar Gifts, but he’d never been sufficiently motivated to take the time.
“You aren’t even curious?” Lelia had once said to him.
“What does it matter? It works, more or less,” he’d responded with a shrug, and his dear Bard had thrown her hands up in the air in exaggerated exasperation. Thinking about it brought a twitch of a smile to his lips, but it also reminded him that he wasn’t focusing on what he needed to, so he let the memory go and returned to the present.
Nudges. He needed nudges. He focused on his breathing, reorienting on that every time his mind wanted to wander, and drifted where he “felt” like he should go. Presently he found himself outside the Palace, wandering through snow until he came to the old Queen’s Garden, though he doubted Selenay spent much time there. No one did, this time of year.
Except there were fresh tracks in the snow, and as he followed them around a corner, Wil’s Gift no longer became necessary.
:Send any searchers to the Queen’s Garden,: he said, closing the gap between himself and the body in Grays. The boy—the child—lay sprawled face-up on the path. The icy, untended, unsalted, highly treacherous path.
Somebody’s son, he thought.
People started to arrive. Priests for the body, a Healer to verify how the boy had died. A few other Heralds—Kyril, Queen’s Own Talia and her husband, Dirk—appeared and, feeling outranked, Wil prepared to retreat.
“Herald,” Kyril said, addressing him. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
“Not here,” the Seneschal’s Herald said. “Tomorrow night. Please come see me after dinner.”
Wil nodded, his gaze sliding over to Talia and Dirk. Dirk’s arm circled his tiny wife’s shoulders, the two of them fitting together like puzzle pieces.
:You’re staring,: Vehs said softly, and Wil looked away, adopting a quick pace back toward the Heralds’ wing.
Lelia. Her smiling face surfaced briefly, but this time the memory didn’t elicit a smile of his own. He thought of Jalay’s empty eyes, his youth—a child, somebody’s son—and Wil suddenly needed to get back to his quarters. Someone was waiting for him there.
And though she probably wasn’t awake, he desperately needed to see her.
* * *
The door opened with only the slightest hiss of metal—the servants had finally oiled the hinges, per his persistent request. He crept in on soft leather soles, the shadowy soul of stealth—
And his foot landed on something simultaneously yielding and hard, sending him staggering across the room.
He windmilled helplessly for a moment and caught himself. Panting from the effort to not break his ankle or—worse—make noise, he bent down and picked up the offending cloth-and-wood dolly.
:How’s that Foresight working?: his Companion asked dryly.
Wil poked his head into his bedroom to find his daughter curled into the crook of her uncle Lyle’s arm. The Death Bell had gone silent not long after he’d found the trainee’s body, so all was quiet once more this side of Haven.
“Thank you again,” he whispered as Lyle disentangled himself. Wil covered Ivy with a blanket and briefly rubbed her back, coaxing her once more into the deeper depths of sleep.
“We had fun,” Lyle said with a grin. “After three years of war and Circuit duty, she’s a breeze.”
The two Heralds went out into the main room, where Lyle stoked the fire. Wil collected toys off the floor and stuffed them into a box next to a shelf piled with a mish-mash of things. Old reports, bits of gear in need of polish or repair, and Lelia’s gittern, Bloom, now safely encased and at the very top, where tiny hands couldn’t pull it down. Yet.
Long before she’d lost her voice, Lelia’s fingers had stopped being able to pick out the complicated arpeggios and natural harmonics she’d loved to coax from her gittern. She’d made Wil promise to keep the instrument safe and close, in case Ivy turned out to be a Bard.
Not that Wil read much into it, but it did seem as though every time the gittern was within reach, his daughter gravitated toward it like a moth to flame. Then again, it was an unusual object that Daddy clearly didn’t want her to have. Such things seemed guaranteed to earn her attention.
“Did you get anything useful?” Lyle asked.
Wil shook his head. “No, the Death Bell put an end to tonight’s attempt.”
“I keep trying to remember if she told me anything . . . I just don’t know why my sister would have kept secrets from us.”
Wil was grateful Lyle had busied himself with pouring them drinks and couldn’t see his grimace. “Kyril wants to see me tomorrow night,” he said. “I’d bet my Companion’s teeth I’m being sent back on Circuit.”
:Hey!: Vehs grumbled, sounding sleepy. :Bet your own teeth!:
:Go to sleep, you.:
Lyle handed him a glass of Evendim smokewine, then turned his own so that the topaz-colored liquid caught the firelight. He gripped the cut glass tightly with his three remaining fingers. The other two had been taken by a Hardorn soldier’s axe.
“If Kyril does,” he said, “what will you do with her?”
“There’s no ‘if.’ I’ve been off Circuit duty . . . what, two years?”
Unspoken between them was the truth they both knew: the Companions were still Choosing at a frightening clip, but the trained and seasoned were in short supply. Ancar had seen to that.
“My little sister has five of her own,” Lyle said. “I’m sure there’s room for Ivy.”
“Your family is . . . near Winefold, right?”
“For now. They roam. We used to go as far west as Zoe, but we haven’t in years.” He took a sip and coughed. Lyle was still acquiring a taste for smokewine. “It’s like drinking a campfire!”
Wil chuckled, and sipped his own draught. “With a soupçon of manure thrown in for good measure.” He contemplated the fire a while, then said, “Maresa also offered. And she lives in Haven.”
“Mm. Would certainly make it easier to visit when you get back from Circuit.”
The firewood crackled as they both toyed with their drinks.
“How many of your yearmates remain?” Lyle asked suddenly.
Wil started a mental calculation, then shook his head. “The hour’s too late for that math, Lyle.”
“That few, eh?”
“Really, truly—there isn’t enough in that bottle for me to go down this road tonight.”
Lyle’s face stretched in a sad smile. “I always thought it would be Lelia grieving for me. Isn’t it the Heralds who die too soon? Aren’t we supposed to leave mourners, not the other way around?”
“Seems your sister cheated.”
Lyle shook his head. “Don’t know why I’m surprised.”
Wil waited for more, but Lyle had drunk his fill of melancholy. Not that Wil faulted Lyle for wanting to talk about it, even if he didn’t. She’d been Wil’s love, but she was Lyle’s twin and had been with him since birth.
“Holding hands during the thunderstorms.” The words were hers, and damned if they didn’t seem to be whispered right in his ear, in her voice. He started and realized he’d begun to nod off. It could be his memory, playing tricks on the borders of sleep. It could also be his Gift, dipping into the past for a shared moment.
“Bedtime,” Wil announced, dragging himself out of the chair.
“Will you need me to come by again tomorrow night?”
“If you don’t mind. I just can’t concentrate with Ivy—”
Lyle held up a hand. “Say no more. I’ve one more night in Haven. I’ll be here.”
Wil pushed Ivy over a little as he crawled into bed beside her. They’d tried giving her her own, but as soon as she was able, she’d escape it and sneak back in. Lelia had not-so-secretly loved it, hugging their daughter to her side and murmuring things in her ear. By then soft whispers were all she could do: lullabies, I-love-yous . . . and promises that more often than not were just gentle white lies.
“Any minute, I’ll be dancing out of this bed,” she’d whispered to them both more than once. “Just watch.”
And for all that he’d known the truth from talking to her Healers, Wil couldn’t refute her or her desire to live. To stay with them just a little longer.
Ivy sighed and rolled up against him, and his first thoughts, as usual, wandered toward pessimism. He wouldn’t sleep. He couldn’t sleep. Too many puzzles and uncertainties, and his mind too prone to chewing on them like a dog worrying a bone.
Maybe the smokewine worked its magic. Maybe Ivy worked hers. One moment he was seeing runes against his eyelids, and the next—
“Awake, Daddy?” a voice asked in a stage whisper. Something poked his cheek. “Awaaake?”
Mornings were not his strong suit. Even Lelia—frightfully chipper in the morning—hadn’t been able to make him warm to the first candlemark or two of waking. She’d learned to stay away from him until he’d had a wash and something to eat. Or at least to ignore anything he said during that time.
But for Ivy, he somehow found the will to be fun. To be human. To be . . . well, a father.
“Grrrr.” The sound rumbled out of him like a bear rousing from slumber.
Ivy giggled. “Dad-dee-ee-ee?”
He rolled over. “Mrrrgrrrarrr.”
She flopped over him, and through slitted eyes he could see her face hanging in front of his. “Daaaa—”
His tickle assault was sudden and ruthless. She squealed and laughed. Then it was her turn, and though she didn’t yet have the art of tickling down, he made high-pitched giggling sounds anyway, mimicking her.
:Oh, if your yearmates could see you now,: Vehs chortled.
From there Wil got her dressed, and he washed her face as she squirmed and grimaced. She hated wash-ups, though she loved hot baths. They went together down to the dining hall, he in Whites and she in a brown dress with blue cornflowers embroidered around the hem. A gift from “Aunt” Maresa.
The hall buzzed with somber conversations about Jalay’s death. The teachers sprinkled amid the Trainees very firmly squashed any wild gossip, emphasizing that the Trainee had slipped and fallen—nothing more.
Ivy herself seemed more subdued than usual, and it dawned on Wil that she was listening. Together, they fed on cheese and bacon tarts, stewed fruits, and steaming mugs of spiced cider. He ate lightly, knowing their next destination. Bringing a full belly to Alberich’s training salle would invite disaster. But it was one of the few places one could take a three-year-old in the winter, and Wil needed practice if he was going back in the field.
“Littles, so full of energy,” the Weaponmaster commented as they entered and Ivy began to run back and forth along the salle’s length. The scarred Karsite turned a critical eye on her father. “Soft.” He poked Wil’s belly with a staff. “Time for resting is over, I think.”
Wil schooled his face. The Weaponsmaster probably knew, even if Kyril hadn’t made it official. “You think?”
Alberich pointed to a rack full of staves. “I think . . . get a weapon.”
* * *
The meeting with Kyril confirmed his fear.
He had two weeks.
“Understand that if we could, we would give you a position here in Haven,” Kyril had said.
Wil knew him to be sincere, even as he knew that two weeks was more time than they could afford. He didn’t envy Kyril’s job—part balancing act, part puzzle solving, and possibly some knife juggling thrown in for fun. As a Herald, he understood the dilemma perfectly.
As a father, he seethed.
“It may be an option in the future,” Kyril had gone on. “If . . . if there isn’t another war. And if—”
Every year Wil was in the field was a year he became less a father to his daughter. Time was finite, and Valdemar would eat into that resource with every little nibbling need.
After receiving his orders, he’d gone back to Lelia’s old quarters to stare at the ledgers. He didn’t bother chasing his Gift. His turmoil would only muddle the signals.
His orders were for Forst Reach sector, where things were—as Kyril had so delicately put it—“going south.” Wil had experience there, and locals would remember him, which was part of why he couldn’t be spared—his experience and familiarity were in short supply. And with war looming, the last thing Valdemar needed was the lords of Forst Reach shorting the Crown on soldiers when the Queen made her call to arms.
He chewed over these thoughts while flipping through Lelia’s ledgers, pages covered in cryptic runes. Heralds had their codes. Who knew Bards did, too? She’d never told him, and he’d only discovered them . . . after.
They were important. His Gift gnawed at him every time he looked at them, giving him nudges.
But he couldn’t read them, so the ledgers remained a nagging mystery. And annoyance. Why didn’t she tell me? Or Lyle? he thought. What did she have to hide?
* * *
The next day dawned cold, but not so cold it snapped up the breath from your lungs, so he took Ivy down to Companion Field. She ran ahead of him, yelling and flailing her arms, and scrambled over the fence to charge at Vehs, who had the simplest of riding tack on. She didn’t quite differentiate between Companions yet, but Vehs had put himself out front and center, so she had no choice but to run to him. She bounced up and down, yelling, “Vehs!”
The Companion knelt, and the girl crawled onto his back, gripping his mane with her mittened hands. Vehs stood and started at a slow trot as Ivy whooped. Other Companions watched, and Wil felt a glow of paternal pride. His daughter. Not more than three and already riding.
:Perhaps there was some truth to Lelia’s claim that her family is descended from the Shin’a’in?: Vehs suggested.
Wil snorted. :And my mother was an Iftel courtier. More likely that you’re why she rides so well.:
:Well, I am pretty fantastic.:
He turned to see a figure in scarlet walking toward him, waving and grinning cheerfully. He nodded and called back, “Maresa. Thanks for coming.”
The honey-haired Bard had once been Lelia’s handler—finding her work, negotiating contracts, helping her arrange playlists. She’d recently joined the Ruling Circle, helping to earn fair wages for Bards and to raise awareness of some of the less-than-savory employers out there.
She was also the mother of two fine children, and she fostered war refugees who trickled in from Hardorn. Her offer to take in Ivy wasn’t just idle courtesy. Wil knew she’d be a good surrogate mother. Moreover, she wanted the job.
:And if Ivy ever shows Bardic talent, she’d have a built-in teacher,: Vehs added helpfully.
:Please focus on keeping my child from breaking her neck.:
“Happy to get your message,” Maresa said. “How are you?”
She lifted her brows. “About?”
“Your offer, of course.” He glanced back toward the field. Vehs did a small “hop,” earning a shriek of glee from the (still-seated) Ivy. “Are you sure?”
“Quite sure. And before you offer again—no compensation, I won’t hear it. The Applegates have buckets of money.”
Wil nodded, not trusting himself to speak around the knot in his throat. Maresa undoubtedly sensed this, as she kept talking in a light, friendly tone. “She’ll have the best scholars money can buy—until she gets Chosen or discovered, of course.”
He chuckled weakly. “Possibly both?”
“Worked for Herald Jadus.”
Out in the field, Vehs pranced and tossed his head. Ivy showed no sign of wear; indeed, she seemed energized, yelling, “Faster! Faster!”
Wil felt a smile touch his lips. It seemed impossible to stay sad too long with Ivy around.
So what happens when I go on Circuit, and she isn’t there?
“She’s a very happy child,” Maresa said, belying his thoughts.
“She gets it from her mother.”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s some of you in her.”
He smirked. “She does have her tantrums.”
“Every child does. Ah . . . not to be a Court gossip. . . .”
He raised a brow. “Yes?”
“The Death Bell. Do you know anything about that boy who died?”
Wil considered his words carefully. Maresa Applegate was entirely sensible by Bard standards . . . but she was still a Bard. “A slip on untended ice. We think he was going out to see his Companion. Or tour the Collegium grounds.”
“Hmm.” She didn’t look convinced, but Bards tended not to appreciate the elegant answer. They wanted intrigue and mystery. Wil had had his fill of that with Lelia’s ledgers.
Speaking of which. . . .
“Do Bards have a coded alphabet?” he asked.
Maresa gave him a curious look. “What do you mean?”
“Runes.” He used the snow to scribe one of the characters he’d seen in the ledger. “Like that one.”
She shook her head. “I’ve not seen such. Why do you ask?”
The Herald shrugged. “Just some books of Lelia’s I found. Nothing important.” He cleared his throat. “I have a little less than two weeks. We’ll start moving Ivy’s things over next week, maybe have her spend a night to get used to your home. In the meantime, could you come over and watch her some nights, so she gets to know you?”
Maresa smiled. “I’d be delighted.”
He breathed a mental sigh of relief. Lyle had gone back on Circuit, and Wil still had much to try to unravel in Lelia’s former quarters.
Maresa left not long after, and he watched as Ivy began to slowly wilt over Vehs’ neck.
In the distance, at the outskirts of the old Grove, he saw a lone white figure. Just one Companion among many. It shouldn’t have caught his eye, but it did.
:That’s Aubryn. Jalay’s Companion.:
:How is she?:
Vehs glanced in her direction. The mare turned and trotted off.
:Defying the odds,: he said. :Honestly, I don’t know. She isn’t talking to anyone. Not even Rolan, and I know he’s tried. There are definitely some Companions who think she should go Choose immediately, get past this. But I think she needs time.:
Time. Again, that finite, precious resource.
The one thing we all know Valdemar cannot afford, Wil thought.
He collected Ivy from Vehs’ back and carried her to their room for a nap. Later, they would go into Haven and have a nice meal. Tomorrow, he’d get her whatever she wanted—picture books, dolls, wooden swords. Anything.
He would make what he could of them.
* * *
Lelia sat before him, alive, healthy.
One of the ledgers lay open on the desk, alongside her gittern, pens, and a cast-off scarlet cloak. More ledgers rested on the bookcase behind her.
She picked up a pen, a faint smile on her face—
The Vision evaporated, and Wil found himself alone in the darkened room, grasping at shadows.
A steady stream of curses issued out of him as he angrily paced back and forth in front of the desk. Every passing day the imprint of her life eroded from this place, and the Visions became more fleeting. They certainly didn’t give any insight on the cypher.
He didn’t doubt that Lelia had had the runes in her head—most Bards had incredible memory—but if she wrote it down then she did so with the intent of someone reading them. And he had to believe that there was a corresponding code to break the cypher, and that if he could just go back far enough, he’d find it in her past.
But where? Or, alternately, who had she intended the ledgers for?
If he knew that, the whole thing would unravel.
If his Gift were just stronger. . . .
:Ahem.: Vehs’ mind-voice was the equivalent of a delicate cough.
:You’re in the Palace. You’re two hallways down from the workroom.:
At first the suggestion confused him. Then realization dawned. :Would that . . . work? I’ve been assuming this room was the key.:
:It’s worth a try. Maybe all you need is the ledgers and . . . whatever it is that makes the workroom special?:
Wil picked up a stack of the ledgers and headed out. :Hellfires. Won’t know unless I try.:
He opened the door to the closet-sized space slowly and peeked in. Empty. He set the stack of ledgers next to the crystal sphere and settled onto a padded bench. He knew about the “workroom”—most senior Heralds did—but didn’t have much cause to visit it. Amplifying his Gift had never been a desire. If anything, he’d been plagued by Visions too strong. He hadn’t needed the ancient room and its curious power.
The room had an oddly calming quality to it—as if it muffled some of the constant background chatter of his life. The muscles in his shoulders relaxed. He rested his hands on the ledgers, his eyes on the crystal, and let his thoughts still.
The Vision unfurled instantly.
Lelia sat before him.
No, not in the little room with the crystal. In the quarters Lord Grier had gifted her, two hallways down. He was here but also there, in a different then—different even from the ones he’d been to previously.
There were no ledgers on the bookcase behind her. The one she opened looked fresh, unused. The first one, he realized. She tapped her lip with her pen, her brow creasing—and then reached for Bloom.
And took the cover off the sound hole.
Her eyes scanned the darkness inside the gittern and, slowly, she started to write crisp, black runes in the ledger.
The first time, he realized. Before she’d fully memorized the code.
She lifted her eyes, and they locked with his. A smile spread across her face, the smile he missed every damn day. His heart pounded like a war drum in his chest.
The Vision, mercifully, melted away. He found himself slumped on the table, half sprawled over the ledgers. His temples burned with the threat of an oncoming headache.
A weak groan escaped him, and then, quite unexpectedly, he laughed.
The gittern. Of course. She’d hidden the code in the one place he’d never look, inside the one object she knew he’d never part with.
Not sure I’ll ever forgive you for not telling me about this, he thought, dragging himself upright. But I also can’t deny your cunning.
He found a burst of energy that carried him back to his quarters, and he dumped the ledgers on a table before reaching for Bloom’s case.
“Welcome back, Wil,” Maresa said behind him, but he ignored her. He flipped open the case and took the unstrung gittern out. As he’d seen Lelia do in his vision, he twisted off the rosette over the sound hole and peered inside.
No . . .
Disbelief rocked him. She’d clearly looked inside the gittern. There should have been something. The headache knocked, pounding on his temples. Something wasn’t right, he just couldn’t place it. Something. Something . . .
The fretboard. The smooth, dark wood. He peered closer at the gittern.
He was no Bard, but he knew that Lelia’s instrument, though well-tended, hadn’t been this pristine. She’d taken pride in the nicks and bumps, saying it added “texture” to the music. Her nails had worn away parts of Bloom’s fretboard—but this one was perfectly smooth.
Someone had replaced Bloom with a copy, albeit one that passed a cursory inspection. Someone had been in his quarters.
“Wil?” Maresa looked startled, even a little scared.
“No,” he snarled, not to her, but to the impostor gittern. His fingertips wrapped the wooden neck and he focused, reaching—
Reality snapped back into place. He sensed Vehs’ alarm.
:Should I alert the Guard?: he asked.
:Give us a moment,: Wil thought, focusing his fury on Maresa. She took a step back, her face draining of color, her throat moving in a gulp.
“Maresa,” he said, a dangerous edge to his voice. “Where is Lelia’s gittern? Where did you take it?”
Maresa plastered a placating smile on her face. “Wil—I—ah—I thought I would—”
:No Truth Spell needed here,: Vehs commented dryly.
Wil rolled to his feet. “What the hell is going on, Maresa?” His voice was quiet, icy. The madder he got, the quieter he got. A good thing: Ivy slept one room over. “You replaced Bloom with a copy, I Saw you do it. Why?”
Her smile evaporated. “You didn’t know Lelia as well as you thought.”
“Obviously,” he growled.
“She spied for the Queen,” she said.
Wil felt every fiber of his being still.
:Vehs? Can you verify this?:
His Companion said nothing, but Wil got the sense he was doing as asked. “So the ledgers . . . are her reports?”
“She . . . learned things she wanted to keep from the Queen.”
With that out, Maresa seemed to deflate. Shaking her head, she said, “You Heralds have Companions, and Healers are surrounded all the time by people reading their emotions. Bards—do you know, I’m amazed we haven’t seen more corruption in our ranks.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean she believed someone—somewhere—is trying to strike at the heart of Valdemar through the weaker minds in our Collegium, and Lelia used her skills as a Court spy to try to find out who. She suspected several Bards—yes, multiple—were acting not in Valdemar’s interests. Those ledgers are the sum of the last few years of her work.”
“And you two were keeping this to yourselves?”
“She kept it. She never told me what she learned. Just that she was learning it. And where she kept the cypher’s code.”
Wil growled. “Trusted you, but not me? Not her brother?”
“Yes, damn it!” Maresa exploded, then seemed to remember Ivy, and lowered her voice again—though her fury and intensity did not subside. “And she had reason! Let me just remind you that up until a few years ago, there was a senior member of the Council and a Herald’s own uncle plotting treason and worse. Heralds trusted him. Our Queen confided in him. And he used that to murder people and nearly destroy Valdemar! So before you tell me we could have trusted you—you’re damn right we could have, but that doesn’t mean we could have trusted who you trust!”
Wil sat silently. His fury had split—he found himself, surprisingly, most angry at Lelia.
More lies than just the little white ones, eh?
Maresa sighed. “Honestly, now that you know—maybe it is time to let the Heralds in on it. She had hoped she could find it herself, let the Bards deal with Bardic business. But then she got sicker. . . .
“Wil, we think whoever this is—they rank very high. We think they’re well-funded, and we don’t know what they’re doing, but occasionally we hear things. Songs that portray the Queen or the Heir in an unflattering light. Songs that suggest it’s time for a revolution. The time after a war is a very delicate one—we’ve seen it over and over in the annals. People love the monarch in the beginning, when the victory is fresh . . . but quite a bit less when the war wounded start to come home. Lelia believed someone has figured out they can’t get to Valdemar through Orthallen and is trying another approach.”
“And these ledgers—they can help find that person?”
He took a deep breath. “Bring Bloom back to me.”
* * *
For Vehs to verify Maresa’s claim about Lelia, he’d had to talk to Rolan. And because Talia and Rolan could not Mindspeak to each other, that had meant that Rolan had communicated to Ahrodie to talk to Dirk to talk to Talia. . . .
:Maresa didn’t lie. Lelia was a spy for the Queen. Ahrodie wants us to meet Dirk and Talia in Alberich’s office,: Vehs said.
:In the salle?: Wil frowned. :What about Ivy?:
The others clearly hadn’t thought of that. :Er . . . bring her?:
Wil muttered to himself, and then—halfway into the bedroom to pick up his sleeping daughter, paused.
Bring her. . . .
:That’s an interesting notion,: Vehs observed as Wil scooped up his daughter, wrapping her in blankets.
:Isn’t it, though?: Wil replied.
* * *
At the salle, Alberich composed a makeshift nest for Ivy out of padded armor, and when Wil set her down, she curled up and went right back to sleep.
Four Heralds gathered around a table with Bloom, a resigned Maresa (who’d been intercepted by Guards and redirected to the salle), and a stack of ledgers. Wil was on his third mug of willowbark tea for his headache, one of the few tonics he tolerated.
His heart leaped when they twisted off the rosette of the gittern and peered inside. Black runes and corresponding Valdemaran letters and words covered the inside of the gittern’s body. They needed a spot lantern to make them all out, but within half a candlemark they had the cypher transferred to a sheet of paper.
“Can I just say how much I dislike plots?” Dirk said. “And plotting in general?”
Talia smiled at her husband and patted his hand.
Among the five of them, they translated the first few pages of the oldest-looking ledger and the last few pages of the newest. The tedious work took longer than Wil expected and warranted a fourth mug of tea.
“She’s naming names,” he noted.
Maresa looked miserable. “All Bards. Every single one has been worrisome to the Circle in some way. Songs that just ride the line of venom, questionable uses of Bardic Gift, shady patrons. Mostly hearsay.”
“A gut feeling,” Wil murmured.
“That’s our biggest problem,” Talia said. “We need evidence, not hunches.”
“Who . . . is Amelie?” Alberich asked, tapping the newer ledger.
“Lelia’s protégé,” Maresa said, frowning. “I haven’t seen her in months. . . .”
“Might be a reason for that.” Dirk pointed to the section he’d translated with Alberich. “Lelia sent her to Forst Reach. Last entry.”
“Hunh. My Circuit will take me near there,” Wil said.
“Convenient,” Alberich said ominously.
“Or not . . . if things are ‘going south,’ as Kyril put it,” Wil said.
Maresa chewed on her lip. “I don’t think Amelie knew anything.”
“Are you sure?” Dirk asked.
The Bard looked uncertain.
Alberich pointed at Wil. “Send a Herald. Find the truth.”
“Agreed,” Dirk said. “If there is a conspiracy, and it catches wind that we know . . .”
Wil rubbed his eyes. “My thought as well. If I can buy a little time to make some copies, I’ll take them and Bloom with me, and leave the originals and the cypher copy with you, Alberich. Gods willing, I’ll substantiate what—if any of this—is truly a threat.”
“Secret, we keep,” Alberich said, sounding simultaneously threatening and weary. “Until secret it no longer need be.”
From there the little group broke up. Wil went to pick up his daughter and found her awake and watching him. He wondered how much she had heard. More importantly, he wondered how much she’d understood.
“Daddy,” she whispered.
“Hello, dearling,” he whispered back as he picked her up.
She hugged his neck. “Don’t want you to go.”
He rubbed her back. “Me neither.”
Wil carried Ivy out of the salle, joining back up with Talia, Dirk, and Maresa. It was past midnight, but Dirk carried a little lantern for light.
As the door shut, Wil said, “Maresa, I can’t leave Ivy with you.”
The Bard turned, startled. “What?”
“It’s not that I mistrust you,” he said. “But if this is as serious as we think, I do not want Ivy becoming . . . a liability.” He swallowed hard. “I’m taking her with me.”
The other three adults stopped and stared at him.
“You . . . can’t,” Dirk said, confused.
“Why not?” Wil asked.
“Because . . . you can’t,” Dirk repeated.
But Talia looked thoughtful. “You’d be a moving target,” she said. “Easier to ambush someone when you know where they sleep, and when. If you’re on Circuit, that becomes harder to predict.”
“Conflict of interest,” Dirk said. “You can’t focus on helping people if you’ve got a baby screaming for attention.”
“Vehs can watch her,” Wil said.
“Vehs is your partner. He’ll be just as busy as you.”
Wil flushed. “I am not leaving my daughter to be captured or worse. If Valdemar has a problem with that, Valdemar is going to have to find a new Herald.”
:I will watch her.:
The mind-voice hit all of them—the Heralds and Maresa and Ivy. Ivy sat up and pointed as a white figure approached. “Vehs?”
:No,: the female mind-voice, a rich, lilting alto, replied. :I am Aubryn.: She fixed her gaze on Talia. :And as I keep telling Rolan, I am not ready to Choose again.:
Talia smiled weakly.
Aubryn looked to Wil. :Your Companion and I have been talking. I would go with you, if you would have me.:
The Heralds exchanged looks.
“This . . . might work,” Dirk admitted.
“Mm,” Talia said. “I admit it’ll be an odd sight to see—two Companions, a Herald, and a little—”
:Sounds like a great setup for a joke, actually,: Vehs quipped.
“—but Wil, you’ll know that Ivy has someone you trust looking out for her when you and Vehs need to, say, ride all night from a plagued village to a Healer’s temple.”
Aubryn approached, and Ivy put a hand out to touch her cheek. Aubryn nuzzled her head. The child giggled and wiggled in Wil’s arms. He set her down, and she walked over to Aubryn.
And then, between one blink and the next, she was on Aubryn’s back.
“She also has a substantial Fetching Gift, apparently,” Dirk remarked.
“I could really use that with my kids,” Maresa said.
If transporting several feet in the blink of an eye bothered Ivy, she didn’t show it. She laughed and grinned, and Wil’s heart inexplicably swelled.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. And then, in Aubryn’s direction, “Thank you.”
She bowed her head.
“Ivy will need a saddle,” Talia said. “And you’ll need to bolster your supplies. It’ll be a delay, which we needed anyway for you to make copies. I’ll personally talk to Kyril, but I think he’ll agree that it works for Valdemar.” She cocked her head at Wil. “Does it work for you, Herald?”
Something in his swelling heart broke. The realization that Ivy wasn’t going away. That for once, he wasn’t going to lose what he loved, as he’d lost Lelia, as he’d lost his sister, Herald Daryann. That he could be a Herald and a father.
The danger he was potentially putting his daughter in . . . the danger he was keeping her from. The danger Lelia had tried to keep from him.
It all collapsed down on him. He didn’t even know the tears were streaming down his cheeks until Talia offered him a handkerchief, and then opened her arms to him.
He wept into her shoulder. At some point, a small hand touched his hair.
“Don’t cry, Daddy,” Ivy said, tears in her own eyes.
He pulled her off Aubryn and held her tight. Held her, as she held him back.
* * *
That first day on Circuit, they stopped earlier than Wil would have liked, but he’d come to accept they wouldn’t travel as swiftly as when it was just him and Vehs. A child changed everything, including arrival times.
So when Ivy had gone to sleep, when she was far enough gone that he could disentangle without waking her, he picked up Bloom and looked inside the soundhole at the characters and then—on a hunch—reached inside and swept his fingers around the chamber.
High up, out of reach of even a spot-lantern’s light, he felt the brush of paper. He carefully pried the tightly wrapped cylinder out. Scrawled across it was one word, written in (thank the gods) a familiar hand: Wil.
He unrolled it and read.
The whitest lie we ever tell the ones we love is that we will always be there for them. It’s a lie we want to believe. Gods know I did. But, as the saying goes, if you’re reading this . . . then I’ve lied to you one last time, and for that, I’m sorry.
If there is a Havens, I’ll tarry. Maybe there are Waystations on that final road? Maybe I’ll find one and wait for you.
I love you,
* * *
He rolled it back up and tucked it into the gittern.
“I love you, too, Lelia,” he said to the Waystation’s darkness.
He hoped that somewhere, in whatever Waystation she’d found, she heard him.
Old Loom, New Tapestry
“The Heralds are here!”
The cry resonated through the village square of Blenvane, having started when Heralds Syrriah and Joral had arrived at the village walls. The overcast day clearly hadn’t deterred the villagers from keeping a watch on the road.
Indeed, the cry was tinged with a stroke of desperation. The Heralds had been called, although all they’d been told was that there was a crisis—not what the crisis was. Usually when urgent arbitration was required, the Heralds were given information ahead of time.
Syrriah had confirmed with Joral on the ride here how unusual this was.
The village was as pretty as the rolling green hills dotted with copses of trees that they’d ridden through. The whitewashed, thatched-roof houses sat comfortably beside one another, not clustered too close, and it looked as though most homes had ample space for herb gardens and a few pecking chickens. Flower boxes spilled over with riotously blooming flowers in carnelian, cobalt, and gold, their sweet scents filling the air and making Syrriah a bit homesick.
Based on the healthy, thriving livestock and fields they’d seen on their approach, it was clear Blenvane prospered.
So why the deep concern bordering on panic? There was confusion, and a disturbing amount of anger simmering under the surface.
Syrriah’s Empath Gift quivered on high alert, and Cefylla, her Companion, snorted and said, :Remember, be open, but be shielded. You’re allowing too much in.:
Syrriah ran a hand down Cefylla’s warm, satiny neck. As much as she adored her Companion, she couldn’t wait to be out of the saddle. She ached down to her bones. “Of course you’re right,” she said. “It’s just . . .”
:This reminds you of who you used to be,: Cefylla finished her thought.
“Exactly.” She raised her voice to include Joral. “Something is definitely wrong here. It’s a pot ready to boil over.”
Before Joral had the chance to reply, a man approached them. Tall and slender, he struck Syrriah as young to be the mayor, despite the badge on his tunic.
Then again, she’d reached an age when everyone seemed too young for their positions.
“Thank you so much for coming,” he said. He nodded respectfully to Joral, but directed his words at Syrriah. “I’m Mayor Quentlee, and . . .”
“And I’m Senior Herald Joral,” Joral said, swinging off his Companion. “We came as soon as we could.”
Quentlee blinked, glancing from Joral to Syrriah, who also took the opportunity to dismount.
The same thing had happened everywhere Syrriah and Joral had stopped on Syrriah’s internship ride: the spokesperson (be it mayor, lord, or whoever) spoke first to Syrriah, as if she were the Senior Herald.
Their mistake was understandable, given that Syrriah was twenty years older than Joral.
Nobody expected a middle-aged intern Herald.
Goodness knew, Syrriah hadn’t expected to be a middle-aged intern Herald.
And she still wasn’t entirely sure why it had happened.
* * *
Their Companions seen to, Syrriah and Joral joined Mayor Quentlee in his office, a cramped room off one side of the village hall, filled with books and papers and a tabby cat sleeping on the windowsill.
There was hot tea and dense, scone-like biscuits with jam and cream, the perfect combination of warmth and comfort on a gray day after a long ride.
Syrriah couldn’t remember when the aches and pains began, the ones she’d heard her mother and aunts complain about. Heraldic training kept her fit, but she still experienced deep twinges, especially after heavy riding. As much as she loved Cefylla, she was grateful to be out of the saddle, even if the wooden chair had no padding to speak of.
“Lord Prothal Blenvane is dead,” Mayor Quentlee told them.
Which explained why they’d been greeted by the mayor, rather than the titled head of the manor keep of Blenvane.
“Is there a question of succession?” Joral asked. That happened when a family tree had many branches. The oldest son wasn’t always old enough, or the best choice, or even a possible choice.
Quentlee shook his head, crumbling the edge of a scone between his fingertips. “He had a trusted advisor who can handle matters until his first son comes of age. It’s his wife, Meriette.” He looked up at them, and Syrriah noticed the deep circles beneath his eyes. “She killed him. She went mad and killed Lord Prothal.”
* * *
The problem, they learned, was that nobody could agree on what to do with Lady Meriette Blenvane.
The facts seemed clear: a knife in her husband’s chest, blood on her hands, and, most disturbingly, an emotionless “I killed him.”
Those were the last words Lady Meriette had said to anyone since.
She was currently under guard in her suite at the manor keep while the villagers argued her fate.
Some insisted that her admission of guilt without remorse merited her own death. Others had more sympathy, questioning why a quiet, kind woman would do such a thing. Some of those people even suggested dark magic might have been involved.
The Lady’s unwillingness (or inability? no one seemed to know for sure) to defend or even explain her actions had made the debate more heated—and brought it to an uneasy standstill.
More than unease, Syrriah realized. This explained the simmering anger she’d felt when they’d arrived.
With Cefylla’s assistance, she opened herself, extended and focused her Empathic Gift to seek out Lady Meriette.
Waves of guilt, relief, anger, exhaustion, worry . . . and a deep loneliness. It would have been overwhelming if Cefylla hadn’t been supporting her.