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The Lyra Novels
Shadow Magic Daughter of Witches The Harp of Imach Thyssel Caught in Crystal The Raven Ring Patricia C. Wrede
By Patricia C. Wrede
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Open Road Integrated Media
All rights reserved.
As the last wagon in the caravan rumbled into the courtyard of the Blue Heron Inn, Maurin Atuval allowed himself to relax. Theoretically, the safety of the trade goods had been the responsibility of the cargo masters since the wagons passed through the city gates of Brenn, and the other caravan guards had long since abandoned any pretense of patrol: Unlike his fellow guards, however, Maurin was himself a Trader, and could expect to share in the caravan's profits—and losses. So he had continued to watch the wagons even after his duties were officially over.
The hired guards lined up near Master Goldar to receive their pay, while the Traders began the cheerful ritual of unloading and securing their goods. Maurin was hauling a bundle of white fox pelts to the storage room when someone tapped him on the shoulder from behind.
Maurin turned his head to see who had accosted him. It was a slender young man in the leather uniform of the caravan guards, whose unruly shock of sandy brown hair made him look younger than Maurin knew him to be. "Har, what are you still doing here?" Maurin said. "I thought you'd be away home by now."
"I would have been, if I hadn't had to stop and look for you," Har said. "Here, give that to someone else. You're done for the day." He plucked the bundle of fox pelts from Maurin's arms and set it on a nearby barrel.
"You forget, I'm a Trader. I'm not done until Master Goldar says I am."
"I didn't forget." Har looked smug. "I've already checked with him, and you're officially released. Unless, of course, you've changed your mind about accepting my family's hospitality while you're in Brenn."
Maurin looked at his friend in consternation. "I never said ... I mean, uh—"
Har raised his straight black eyebrows. "What's the matter? Isn't the Noble House of Brenn up to your standards?"
"You're not thinking," Maurin said, letting his breath out in exasperation. "Look, it's all right for nobles and guardsmen to brush cloaks on a caravan trip, but your family isn't going to appreciate you bringing home a mere journeyman. Even the Master Traders don't stay with lords in town."
"That's because they don't get invited," Har said. "They'd come fast enough if they were. And you don't have to worry about my family. Mother won't mind, and if she doesn't, no one else will, either."
"I'll mind," Maurin muttered, too low for Har to hear. It was obvious that the young nobleman meant to have his way, however uncomfortable it might make everyone else. And he was right about one thing: Master Goldar would never forgive Maurin if he turned down the opportunity to make a good connection with even a minor Noble House. Maurin resigned himself to a few days of awkward formality, and allowed Har to lead him away.
At this hour, the streets were full. Peasants, guildsmen, merchants, and Traders jostled visitors and townsfolk alike. A man from Rathane in gaudy robes walked past the deadly, black-clad figure of an assassin from beyond the Mountains of Morravik. Three dark-skinned desert people bargained in loud voices with a man whose accent was Ciaronese.
And over the cheerfully miscellaneous crowd, above the jumble of homes and shops and inns, loomed Styr Tel. The castle of the Noble House of Brenn looked every inch the border fortress that it was, but the high stone walls that were a reassuring presence to a Trader caravan concerned with raiders and bandits gave an entirely different impression to a mildly unwilling visitor. Maurin could not shake the feeling that he was heading for a prison.
The castle had been set back from the houses of Brenn, as if to prevent an attack from the upper stories of the homes and shops. Time and custom had made a marketplace of the resulting open area, and the stalls were even busier and more crowded than the city streets. Maurin and Har wove through the merchants and townspeople to the castle gates, ignoring the persuasive calls of the dealers. The guards recognized Har at once, and let him and Maurin through the gate without challenge.
As they entered the courtyard, Maurin blinked in surprise. The Styr courtyard was a maze of benches, chairs, trunks, and other furnishings. Servants wound among the furniture, carrying buckets and stacks of cloth. Everywhere people were polishing and scrubbing; the air reeked of soap and Mindaran wood-wax. Maurin's foolish mental visions of dungeons and imprisonment fled, to be replaced by the alarmed thought that at any minute someone would demand help with the cleaning.
"Har!" someone shouted, and then a tall girl with pale gold braids hanging nearly to her knees ran forward to throw her arms around the young noble. "Har, you're back!" she exclaimed.
"Just barely," laughed Har, swinging her off her feet in a wide circle. "We came straight here as soon as the caravan got in." He set her gently back on her feet and turned. "Maurin, this is my sister, Alethia."
"I am charmed," Maurin said, bending low over Alethia's hand. The introduction was nearly unnecessary; there was no mistaking those tilted green eyes and straight black eyebrows. Alethia was clearly Har's sister.
Alethia returned his courtesy absently, and linked arms with her brother as they started for the house. "I'm so glad you got back in time for my party," she said as they mounted the stairs.
"Party?" Har said with studied blankness.
Alethia laughed. "You don't even remember! I'm twenty tomorrow; today is my birth eve."
Maurin smothered a grin. When the caravan had stopped in Karlen Gale, Har had spent two precious hours of his free afternoon hunting for exactly the right gift for his sister's birth eve party, and he had fretted ever since for fear they wouldn't arrive in time.
Then Alethia turned to Maurin and added, "You'll join us, too, won't you?"
Caught by surprise, Maurin hesitated. He hadn't anticipated being asked to any formal feasts ...
"It won't be more than dinner and songs, really," Alethia said, almost as if she could read his mind. "But if you'd rather not—"
"Of course he'll come," Har said. "He's staying for a week, at least."
"Staying for a week?" Alethia frowned. "Then one of you will have to sleep in the south tower; Father will want the north one for the Lords Armin and Gahlon, and—"
"Lord Armin and First Lord Gahlon are coming here? Together?"
"At the end of the week," Alethia said, nodding. "And I'm not supposed to know why Father asked them to come, so don't bother quizzing me until after Father explains it to you."
"Father asked them?" Har repeated. "Allie, you're making that up!"
"Unfortunately, she is not," said a deep voice behind them, and Alethia jumped. The three turned to find a tall, dark-haired man of middle years looking at them with a smile. "Father!" said Alethia and Har together.
The man's smile deepened. "Welcome home," he said to his son, and there was no mistaking the deep affection in his tone. For a moment they stood silent, then Har shook himself and turned to introduce Maurin.
"I am honored. I have heard a good deal about you, Lord Bracor," Maurin said when the formalities were finished.
"Nothing too dreadful, I hope," Bracor responded. "Har, I realize that you have only just arrived, but I have some questions for you and your friend. Would you join me in my study?"
"Questions?" Har said. "Why?"
"Honestly, Har, sometimes you are thicker than Ceron's treacle sauce!" Alethia said. "You just got back from a caravan patrol that ran about as close to Lithra as you can get without being raided, and you can't think why Father would want to ask you questions?"
"The Lithmern haven't raided anyone in months," Har said.
"That's what you—"
The girl broke off, looking faintly guilty. Bracor studied his daughter for a moment, then shook his head ruefully. "I don't suppose you would like to go and tell your mother that Har has returned?"
"Mother probably already knows," Alethia said, and smiled.
"And you would rather join us. I don't quite see why; you appear to know everything I was going to say to Har already."
"I know just enough to be interested, that's all," Alethia said. "Of course, I can find out from Har later, but it would be easier if you'd just let me stay. Har leaves things out sometimes."
Har's face reddened, and Bracor shook his head in mock resignation. "Very well, then, since you are so determined. Come."
Bracor led them inside and up a long, spiral staircase to a pleasant, though simply furnished, room. Maurin was pleased to find that the cleaning frenzy had not completely stripped the castle of furniture; there were two benches and a footstool, in addition to a trestle table littered with parchments.
Once they were all seated, Bracor looked at Har and said, "As Alethia has already guessed, I want to talk to you about the Lithmern."
"I don't see the point," Har said. "The border has been quiet for months."
"The Conclave of First Lords feels the same way, I'm afraid," the Lord of Brenn replied tiredly. "But open raids are not the only thing to fear from the Lithmern."
Har looked puzzled, then frowned suddenly. "Open raids? Are you saying you think they've been raiding secretly?"
"It's not speculation," Bracor said. "I'll wager your Trader friend knows what I'm referring to."
Maurin looked at Bracor with surprise and respect. "You must have excellent sources to have uncovered that, my lord."
Har made a frustrated gesture. "What are you talking about?"
"Three caravans have disappeared completely in the past six months," Maurin said.
"Disappeared?" Har raised his eyebrows skeptically. "How can fifteen or more wagons and sixty men just vanish?"
Maurin shrugged. "If we knew that, we might be able to stop it. But the only information we have is that all three caravans were traveling near Lithra. At least, that's where we think they were."
"You aren't sure?" Alethia asked.
"Caravan masters can be very secretive, especially if they think someone wants to cut in on their profits."
"The Lithmern have never made any secret of their raiding before," Har said, his frown deepening. "They must have something new to hide."
"I believe they wish to keep us in doubt of their numbers and their intentions," Bracor said.
"Are you sure it's not more than that?" Har said.
"Need they have more reason? Until now, the Lithmern have been afraid of Alkyra; they remember their defeat at Eirith too clearly to take chances with us. But I think their fear is passing at last."
Alethia stared at her father. "You think the Lithmern are planning to attack Alkyra!" she blurted.
"I do," her father replied. "I have tried to convince the Conclave of it, but they will not listen."
"Your Regent—" Maurin began, but Bracor was already shaking his head.
"The Regent has too little real power to compel even the minor lords, much less the Nine Families. They have been safe too long. Oh, there are a few who suspect, who build their own forces, but Alkyra has no unity."
"The Regent never does anything," Alethia put in. "I think he's afraid to offend the First Lords, because if he did they might replace him."
"Alethia is right," Bracor said. "The Regent's authority depends on the good will of the Nine Families, and he knows it too well. We cannot look for help there."
Baffled, Maurin shook his head. He would never understand the way stonebound folk managed their affairs. A Route Master who ignored the requests of even one of his Caravan Masters would not keep his position for another month.
"Then what are you going to do?" Har asked his father.
Bracor straightened. "Lord Armin of Lacsmer and First Lord Gahlon of Meridel will arrive here three days from now, on a courtesy visit." He smiled wryly. "Protocol has its uses, after all. They are actually coming to discuss an alliance among us. If we can come to an agreement, Brenn will have some support against the Lithmern, even if the Conclave of First Lords does not act."
Maurin shifted slightly, uncertain whether to speak his doubts or not. The noble families of Alkyra were notorious for both their independence and their irritability. Though Maurin knew nothing of the two men Bracor had named, he did not think the chances of an alliance were good.
"First Lord Gahlon is young, but he is reasonable," Bracor went on. "Armin has something of a temper, but things should go well if I can show him how great the danger really is." He paused and looked sharply at Maurin and Har. "That is why I wish to talk to you; your caravan is the only one in the city which has taken the trade route just south of Lithra in the past month. So tell me about your journey."
For the next hour, Har and Maurin talked, describing the cities and towns they had passed through. Bracor had many questions, from how many men-at-arms they had seen in the streets of Sormak to what welcome the Traders had received from the people in Karlen Gale. To Maurin's surprise, Alethia's comments were more intelligent and informed than his small experience with noble ladies had led him to expect. She spoke and acted more like a tradeswoman than like one of the stonebound, and he began to wonder whether his stay with Har's family might not be more enjoyable than he had expected.
Finally, Bracor sat back. "That is enough for today, I think. Once I have considered, we can—"
A perfunctory rap at the door interrupted him. A moment later, a tall woman with silver-white hair entered the room. She wore a simple gown of gray, trimmed with silver, and she moved like mist on the water. "Bracor, have you seen Tatia? She's escaped from her nurse again."
Bracor shook his head. "We've been in here for the past hour."
"Then I won't keep you longer from your business."
"We're done," Har said. "Hello, Mother."
"Welcome home, dear," the white-haired woman said. "It is good to have you safe. But who is the friend you have brought with you?"
"Forgive me; I should have introduced you earlier," Bracor said. "Isme, may I present Maurin Atuval of the Traders?"
"I am pleased to meet a friend of Har's," Isme said in her musical voice. Her tilted green eyes studied him for a moment, but the scrutiny was neither unfriendly nor unpleasant.
Perhaps Har had been right about his family's reaction after all, Maurin thought as he made a courteous bow to the Lady Isme. Certainly none of them had shown even a hint of annoyance at the unexpected guest Har had foisted on them. Idly, he wondered where Isme's native land was. He had never seen the combination of white-blonde hair and tilted green eyes before, though after his time with the caravans he knew most of the peoples of Lyra.
"Journeyman Atuval is staying for a week or so, until the caravan leaves," Alethia said. "I thought the big room in the south tower would be best for him, since those other lords are arriving at the end of the week."
Isme nodded approvingly. "Very good. Now, if you and Har are finished with your father, perhaps you would help me hunt for Tatia while Har shows his friend to the room."
Alethia made a face, but nodded and rose to her feet. One by one, the group followed Isme out.CHAPTER 2
Candlelight and color filled the banquet hall of Styr Tel. Tapestries in rich hues covered the black stone walls, and the room was already filling with the notables of Brenn in their best and brightest holiday garb. Alethia, looking around the hall, sighed in considerable satisfaction. The afternoon's efforts showed in the gleaming wood of the chairs her parents occupied, in the smooth sweep of linen that draped the trestle tables, and in the scent of fresh rushes and strewing herbs that rose from the floor as she passed. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, too.
Nearly everyone. Har's journeyman friend was standing beside one of the iron candle-stands, staring out over the crowd with a morose and forbidding expression. Well, he wasn't going to snow on Alethia's birthday party if she had anything to say about it. She made her way over and, by way of opening the conversation, asked what he was so interested in. To her mingled annoyance and amusement, she had to repeat the question before he responded, and then all he said was, "I'm sorry, I'm afraid I didn't quite hear your question."
"I asked what you find so fascinating," Alethia said. "Now I am doubly curious."
"I was watching your guests." Maurin hesitated; then, as if he realized that this was a little obvious, he added, "You said this would be a small party."
Alethia laughed. "It is small. Just wait until First Lord Gahlon and Lord Armin arrive; then you'll see a feast! Everyone in town will be here."
"Why? I'm sure tonight's guest of honor is far more attractive than they are."
"Very nice!" Alethia said, nodding in approval. "Or it would have been if I hadn't been there when you told my father that you've never met Lord Armin or the First Lord."
Excerpted from The Lyra Novels by Patricia C. Wrede. Copyright © 2012 Open Road Integrated Media. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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