The Spirit War (Legend of Eli Monpress Series #4)by Rachel Aaron
Eli Monpress is vain. He's cocky. And he's a thief.
But he's a thief who has just seen his bounty topped and he's not happy about it. The bounty topper, as it turns out, is his best friend, bodyguard, and master swordsman, Josef. Who has been keeping secrets from Eli. Apparently, he's the only prince of a rather feisty country and his mother (a formidable queen… See more details below
Eli Monpress is vain. He's cocky. And he's a thief.
But he's a thief who has just seen his bounty topped and he's not happy about it. The bounty topper, as it turns out, is his best friend, bodyguard, and master swordsman, Josef. Who has been keeping secrets from Eli. Apparently, he's the only prince of a rather feisty country and his mother (a formidable queen who's every bit as driven and stubborn as he is) wants him to come home and do his duty, which means throwing over personal ambitions like proving he's the greatest swordsman who ever lived.
Family drama aside, Eli and Josef have their hands full. The Spirit Court has been usurped by the Council of Thrones and someone calling herself the Immortal Empress is staging a massive invasion. But it's not just politics --- the Immortal Empress has a specific target in mind: Eli Monpress, the greatest thief in the world.
Fans of Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora (2006) will be thrilled with Eli Monpress." - Booklist (Starred Review)"
A romp of a lighthearted fantasy starring an absolutely darling rogue." - Publishers Weekly
"Full of humor and suspense, this action-packed fantasy adventure is highly enjoyable." - SciFiChick.com "
A charming and fast-paced caper with intriguing worldbuilding and interesting characters." - RT Book Reviews (4 stars)
" This book was a nice surprise and a complete winner for me. Rachel Aaron has written a fun story which can be best described as "Terry Brooks Meets Scott Lynch" in a lighter vein." - Fantasy Book Critic
Read an Excerpt
The Spirit War
By Aaron, Rachel
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Aaron, Rachel
All right reserved.
The old swordsman was kneeling in the dirt, blowing on the embers of last night’s fire when he saw the boy approaching. He paused, keeping low to the dusty ground as he watched the boy start up the hill toward his campsite. The boy was a tall one, skinny and fair but with the large shoulders and wide ribs that spoke of the man he’d become once he finished growing into them. The swordsman pegged him at seventeen, maybe a little younger, but he wore the two short swords at his hips like he knew how to use them.
The swordsman sat back with a long sigh and glanced at the great black sword stabbed in the sand beside him.
“They never give up, do they?”
“No,” the sword answered. “Thank the Powers. I think we’d both die of boredom if they stopped coming.”
The swordsman sighed. “Speak for yourself.”
The sword didn’t answer, but the ground creaked as it settled itself deeper. The old swordsman shook his head and sat back to wait.
It took the boy the better part of an hour to climb to the top of the old swordsman’s hill. At last, he pulled himself over the final boulders and stepped panting into the circle of dusty brush outside the cave where the swordsman made his home. He caught his breath and straightened up, fixing his eyes on the swordsman with a challenging glare.
“I’m looking for Milo Burch,” he announced. “You him?”
The old swordsman frowned. “Why would a boy like you be looking for an old has-been like Burch?”
The boy stepped forward, planting his feet in first position. “I’ve heard he’s the greatest swordsman in the world, wielder of the legendary Heart of War. I’ve come to challenge him.”
“Really?” The old man rubbed his graying beard. “How did you get here?”
The boy paused, thrown for a second. “I walked.”
The swordsman looked at him, and then looked out over the scrubby, flat desert that stretched as far as he could see in all directions. “You walked?” he said. “Alone?”
“Yes, alone.” The boy’s voice was growing frustrated. “Are you Milo Burch or not? I was told he lived out here. If you’re not him, then I’ll be going.”
“Let’s say I am,” the swordsman said. “Who would be asking?”
The boy straightened up. “I am Josef Liechten, and I demand a duel for the title of greatest swordsman.”
The swordsman started to laugh. “You demand it, do you?” he choked out at last, wiping his eyes. “I’m afraid you’ll be a little disappointed. ‘Greatest swordsman’ isn’t a hat you can pass around, and it’s not like there’s anyone out here to see your victory over an old man.” The wind blew as he spoke, its lonely whistle a sharp reminder of the vast emptiness around them.
The boy set his jaw stubbornly. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Are you going to fight or not? I didn’t walk all the way out here to stand around talking.”
The old swordsman stood with a deep sigh and walked over to the scrabbly tree that grew just beside the little space he used as his fire pit. “You certainly sound determined, Josef Liechten,” he said, reaching up to break off a dry branch. “I’m too old to go tumbling around with kids, but I can see that trying to talk you out of this duel nonsense would be nothing but a waste of breath.”
The boy, Josef, nodded.
The swordsman turned, holding up the branch he’d just taken from the tree. “How about we make a deal? If you can break this, I’ll fight you.”
Josef stared at the stick in the man’s hand. It was a sad thing, knobby and dead, its ends already cracking under the force of the old man’s grip.
“I think it would be a greater challenge not to break it,” he said, his voice turning cautious. “Is this some kind of trick?”
“If it was, I certainly wouldn’t tell you,” the old man said, his tanned, leathery face breaking into a grin. “Then again, the greatest swordsman in the world would hardly have to resort to tricks, don’t you think?”
Josef glowered and shifted his feet. “All I have to do is break the stick,” he said slowly. “Just break it, and you’ll fight me for real?”
The old swordsman nodded. “That’s it.”
Josef scowled, and then he drew his swords. They were good work, the old man noticed. Well balanced and a good size for Josef’s reach. It seemed the boy knew something. That was good. He was too old to waste energy on idiots.
“Come at me whenever you’re ready,” he said, lifting his stick.
With one final, annoyed look, Josef charged.
It was a good assault, a straight-on rush and then, three steps in, a feint to the left. Milo Burch stayed still just long enough to let the boy think he’d fallen for it and then quietly ducked out of the way. The boy charged past him and stopped, boots skidding on the loose dirt. He turned around, panting. Milo smiled at him, resting the stick on his shoulder.
“That was good,” he said. “Perhaps you should try—”
Josef was running before he could finish, cutting around to Milo’s left. Again, Milo let him get just close enough to commit to the blow before ducking down. Josef’s sword whistled over his head, and the boy stumbled past him. Josef cursed loudly, and Milo stepped right to avoid the second sword that thrust from below. He spun around as Josef carried the thrust through, bopping the boy on the head with the stick as he passed.
Josef yelped in surprise and stumbled, falling to the ground. Milo sighed.
“If I’d taken your duel, that would have been the end, you know,” he said, swinging his stick. “I won’t think less of you if you want to give up.”
He’d barely finished when Josef dropped the sword in his left hand. The knife came a second later. Milo opened his hand, letting the stick drop in his grip just before the knife sliced through the air where it had been. As soon as the knife was past, he sidestepped again as Josef followed through with a lunge at his legs.
“Again, not bad,” Milo said, grinning. “Why don’t you—”
“Shut up!” Josef shouted, grabbing for the stick with his now-empty left hand.
Milo stepped neatly out of his reach, making Josef stumble as he overbalanced. The boy was panting now, his face red from the sun and slick with sweat.
“You’re not a bad fighter, you know,” Milo said gently. “Surely you’re good enough to see the difference between us. You know you can’t win. There’s no point in pushing yourself.”
Josef scowled at him, breathing hard, and then flicked another knife right at Milo’s hand.
This went on all afternoon. Josef would attack and Milo would step out of the way. Josef never attacked the same way twice, but the end result never changed. As day wore into evening, Josef’s lunges grew slower, but he did not stop until finally, as the sun sank below the horizon, he tripped and fell and did not get up again.
Milo leaned on his stick. “Are we done?”
Josef didn’t answer. He just lay in the dirt, panting. Milo sighed and set the stick on the ground beside the fire. He walked over, shoved his hands under Josef’s arms, and began dragging him toward the cave.
“What are you doing?” Josef gasped.
“Keeping you from dying of dehydration,” Milo said. “I also imagine you would like some food.”
Josef stared at him. “But I’m your enemy,” he said, the words wheezing.
“You’re the only one who said that,” Milo said. “I was sitting here minding my own business.” He dumped Josef unceremoniously on the floor of the cave. “Do you want some water or not?”
“Yes, please,” Josef said, lying flat on his back. “Thank you.”
“Polite,” Milo said, handing him the water skin. “I like that.”
Josef was too focused on drinking to answer.
He drank the entire water skin and half of another, and then ate the five loaves of bread that were meant to keep Milo the next week. He was still chewing when he fell asleep. When he was sure the boy was out, Milo tossed his blanket over the boy and walked out to sit beside the great black sword that was still staked beside the fire.
“What do you think?”
“He’s stubborn as a rock,” the sword said. “He’s slow, his movements lack subtlety, and he has no grace.”
Milo arched a white eyebrow. “Since when do you care about grace?”
“A minimum is required,” the sword grumbled. “Still, he lasted five hours. That’s the best yet.”
“It is, isn’t it,” Milo said, rubbing his aching arms. Dodging all day was harder than it used to be. “He’s spirit deaf, you know.”
He felt the sword’s ambivalence brush over him like a shrug. “I’ve had many deaf wielders. Hearing isn’t what matters. It’s everything else.”
“Well, you’ll have to stop being so picky,” Milo said quietly. “We don’t have much time left.”
“I have all the time in the world,” the sword answered. “Still, we’ll see. Tomorrow, maybe.”
“Tomorrow,” Milo said, lying back to watch the moon rising over the desert.
Josef woke with the sun in his eyes and the old man standing over him, poking him in the shoulder with the hated stick.
“Morning,” Milo said, grinning.
Josef smiled back, and then, fast as he could, rolled to grab the stick. For a second it was in his grasp before the old man snatched it away.
“Nice try.” He sounded genuinely impressed. “Shall we begin?”
Josef pushed himself up, wincing as every muscle in his body protested, and reached for his swords.
They fought all morning with nothing to show. Everything Josef tried, the old man countered. The desert sun was brutal, burning Josef’s skin through his shirt. Sweat soaked everything he owned, but he did not let himself stop. The old man had yet to admit it, but there was no more question in Josef’s mind. He was fighting Milo Burch, the greatest swordsman in the world, famous across all the Council Kingdoms. It had to be him; no one else could be this fast. This was the reason he’d traveled all the way to the desert, why he’d walked through the heat and the burning sand for two days. It didn’t matter if Burch was toying with him; he could not lose now. Not when he was this close.
Noon came and Josef kept going. His movements were jerky, and he could scarcely see through the burning sweat in his eyes. His limbs were so tired he actually dropped his sword a few times, but he pushed on until, at last, there was simply nothing left to push.
He didn’t realize he’d fallen until he saw Milo standing over him, pressing a water skin to his cracked, dry lips.
“You know,” he said softly, “there’s a fine line between being determined and being an idiot. If you keep this up, I won’t have to lift a sword to kill you. You’ll kill yourself.”
Josef choked on the water. He tried to sit up, but he had no strength left in his back. In the end, he settled for lying back and letting the water trickle down his throat.
“Josef,” Milo said. “Give up, would you? When you’re as old as I am, you’ve seen enough of the world to recognize its patterns. You think you’re unique, but I’ve seen you dozens of times. Let me guess: You were the best swordsman in your village, or wherever you came from. Sword work came as easy to you as breathing, and soon there was no one who could give you a challenge. You took to wandering, fighting whoever was strong enough to teach you something. You’ve probably defeated a hundred men, haven’t you?”
“More,” Josef croaked.
Milo shrugged. “Your problem is you’re young. Impatient. You think that by beating me you can somehow jump to the top, but you can’t. You can’t beat me, and you can’t jump ahead. The sword must be earned, Josef. Strength that comes easily is no strength at all.”
Josef opened his eyes, squinting in the bright light. “I know that,” he whispered. “But I’m not fighting for strength.”
The old man’s face was too far away for him to focus on, but Josef felt him frown. “What are you fighting for?”
“I hurt a lot of people when I decided to be a swordsman,” Josef wheezed. “Let a lot of people down. That’s why I have to be the strongest.”
“Do these people care if you’re the strongest?” Milo said quietly.
Josef shook his head. “But they will,” he said. “I have to show them—”
His words broke into coughs as he choked on the water again. It didn’t matter, though. Milo finished for him.
“You have to be the strongest to give meaning to their suffering,” he said, tilting his head.
Josef nodded, breathing deeply as the coughing subsided. “I was the one who left. If I’m not the best, then I hurt her for no reason.”
“That’s a dangerous way to think,” Milo said quietly. “There’s a good chance you will never be the best. That you will die alone and forgotten, remembered only as a disappointment.”
“I don’t believe in chance,” Josef whispered. He looked at Milo and raised his sword. His hand shook as he lifted it, the sword sliding in his weakening grip. Josef forced himself to be calm, to be strong one last moment. The shaking slowed, and then, for one breath, stopped. That was when Josef moved.
He tossed his sword into the air, over Milo’s head. The old man’s eye went wide, but Josef grabbed the old man’s wrist where he was holding the water bottle, pinning him in place. Trapped, the old swordsman could only watch as Josef’s short sword flew through the air, spinning in wobbly arcs, and landed behind him, on top of the stick he’d laid aside when he knelt to help Josef. The blade landed sideways, bouncing away the moment it stuck, but the branch was old and brittle, and it was enough. The stick cracked with a soft pop, breaking into two ragged halves.
For a moment, all Milo could do was sit there, watching the broken remains of his stick rocking in the hot desert wind. Then he turned and looked at Josef with a strange, bemused expression on his weatherworn face. Josef grinned back.
“I never stop fighting,” he said. “I’m holding you to your word, Milo Burch.”
“And I never go back on my word,” Milo said with a sigh. “Tomorrow, then. At dawn.”
Josef nodded and released the old man’s hand. He grabbed the water skin and drank until he drained it. When he was finished, he crawled across the baked ground and collapsed on a blanket just inside the cave, falling asleep instantly.
Milo picked up the broken pieces of his stick. When he had them both, he sat down with his back against the broad slab of scarred black metal that stood rooted in the sand and began feeding the pieces into the fire.
When Josef woke the next morning, the cave was empty. He took a long drink from the water barrel and helped himself to a breakfast of bread and dried apples from the swordsman’s supplies. When he finished, he grabbed his sword from where he’d dropped it and walked out onto the hilltop.
Milo Burch was already there, sitting beside the now cold fire pit with his back against the massive, black metal shape that dominated the open space. As Josef stepped into the sandy ring around the fire, Milo held out the sword Josef had thrown to break the stick. Josef took it, sheathing it opposite its brother on his hip. When they were both ready, he took his stance and waited for Milo to begin.
The old swordsman stood with a sigh, rubbing the small of his back as he straightened. But his hands were empty as he turned to face Josef.
“Wait,” Josef said. “Where’s your sword? I’m here to fight the master of the Heart of War. Let’s see it.”
Milo shook his head and laid his hand on the wrapped handle of the great metal monster in the ground beside him. Josef’s eyes widened. The black slab was enormous. He couldn’t even think of what it must weigh. A man Milo’s size shouldn’t even have had the muscle to lift something that heavy, and yet the old swordsman pulled it up as easy as a farmer pulling a weed out of new-tilled dirt.
“I thought we agreed, no more games,” Josef said. “What is that thing? Where’s your sword? Where’s the Heart of War?”
“This is the Heart of War,” Milo said, swinging the black blade in front of him.
Josef almost laughed out loud. “That is the Heart of War? That… that iron post is the greatest awakened blade ever made? You’re kidding. It doesn’t even have a sharp edge. It couldn’t cut paper.”
Milo smiled. “A sword cuts whatever its swordsman wants it to cut. The Heart is no different.”
Josef scowled. “We’ll see.”
They took their positions on either side of the dead fire. Josef readied his blades, keeping the man’s movements from their earlier fights clear in his mind. He almost thought the old man should have stuck to the stick. There was no way he could move fast enough carrying that enormous weight. There had to be a trick or something. Maybe the sword was hollow? Something that large couldn’t be solid metal, not if a human was meant to lift it. Still, the few awakened blades he’d beaten had all had their own oddities. He’d just have to push and see what happened.
“You know,” Milo said. “You don’t have to go through with this. I meant it when I said you were a good swordsman. Give you a few years and you could very well become the best, but not yet. The Heart won’t let me hold back. You should stop now, while you still can.”
“I told you before,” Josef said. “I never stop. I can’t stop.” He raised his sword. “Guard yourself.”
The words had barely left his mouth when he lunged. He pushed forward, slamming his feet down faster than he ever had before. He would get only once chance. He’d learned the first day that he couldn’t beat the old man in speed, but yesterday he’d proven he could still trick him. He’d seen the strain in Milo as he stood up. The days of fighting had taken their toll on his old body. Now, weighed down with that enormous sword, especially after so long fighting with a stick that weighed nothing, there would be a hesitation in his first swing as his body got used to the weight difference. That was when Josef had to strike.
He rushed forward, boots pounding on the sand, watching the old man’s arm for the moment he lifted the sword to parry. He had to parry. What else could you do with a sword that big? But the old man didn’t move. He just stood there, watching as Josef came closer and closer. When he was one step away, Josef realized he might have been wrong. The old man might be too slow to catch him. There might be no need to wait for the hesitation in the parry. Already his swords were racing for the man’s torso, one high, one low, and for one shining moment, Josef thought he might actually land the blow before Milo could move.
One moment, that’s all it was. And in that moment, Milo Burch attacked.
It happened so fast Josef couldn’t see the blows, but he felt them. There were three in the space of a second. The first shattered his left sword, the second broke his right, and the third hit him dead across the chest. That last blow knocked the breath from his lungs and sent him flying backward. He hit the side of the hill like a stone hurled from a catapult. For a moment, all he could feel was the rough ground on his back and the strange sensation of air against his chest through his sundered shirt, and then pain like he’d never felt before slammed down and he hit the ground with a sound that would have been a scream had he still had breath.
He floundered in the dirt, his whole body convulsing. Somehow, he ended up on his back again. That was when he saw it, though it took him several moments to realize that the bloody mess he was looking at was his own chest.
A deep, perfect cut ran from his left shoulder to his right hip. It was perfectly straight, as though he’d been cut by a razor, but so deep he had to look away. When he turned his head, he saw Milo crouching beside him, leaning on the Heart of War as he bent down to whisper in Josef’s ear.
“Worst pain you’ve ever felt, isn’t it?”
Gasping, Josef could only nod.
“This is the pain of defeat,” the old swordsman said. “You are dying. I have defeated you utterly. Even if I were to bind your wound right now, there’s no saving your life. This is the end. So now I’ll ask you: Was it worth it?”
Josef looked at him and wheezed, “Yes.”
Milo paused. “And if you’d known this was how it ended, would you still have broken the stick?”
“Yes,” Josef said, his voice little more than a grating of breath. “I would rather die trying than ever give up.”
“Is that so?” Milo said. “Then prove it. Take another breath.”
Josef grimaced and looked down at his sundered chest. He tried to talk, but he had no air for the words.
“I can’t,” he mouthed.
“If you can’t, then all your struggles to this point, all the pain you’ve caused, it’s all for nothing,” Milo said, his voice taut. “Take another breath, Josef Liechten.”
Josef closed his eyes and focused on his lungs. For an eternity, nothing happened. His body was going stiff. Nothing would obey him. He concentrated, pouring every speck of his consciousness into that one action. The pain was so intense now he could barely think, but he felt his chest rise and fall, and suddenly he had air again.
His eyes popped open just in time to see Milo’s face break into a grand smile. The old man held out his hand, offering something. Josef blinked, it was dark and heavy and, he could see now, larger than it looked.
“If you walk the path of the swordsman, you will feel this pain hundreds of times,” Milo said. “You will never know a moment’s peace, even if you move to a hill in the middle of the desert. Your life will be brutish, violent, and most likely short but it will also be glorious. This is what it means to live your life on the sword. You said you would rather die trying than give up. Now you must try living, or die. If you want to live, Josef Liechten, then reach out as far as you can and take your sword. Rise a swordsman, the master of the Heart of War, or do not rise at all.”
His words fluttered against Josef’s ears. The world felt very far away now. Even the pain was going, but Josef could still see the black shape of the sword hovering high above him. With the last of his will, he lifted his arm. He saw his hand moving above him, his fingers stretching up to clutch the wrapped handle. The moment his fingers made contact, a voice deeper and broader than any voice he’d ever heard spoke through him.
Welcome to your rebirth, swordsman. The words were more vibration than sound, but they were clear as carvings in his mind. As you gave your life to become a swordsman, so did I give my life to become a sword. We are the same, you and I. Will you fight with me?
Josef could not speak, but the answer echoed in his mind.
It is done, the voice said. Welcome to your mountain, master of the Heart of War.
As the voice faded from his mind, so did the pain. Strength like Josef had never felt flowed into his body. All at once he could breathe again. His eyes were clear and open to the world. His arms moved without pain, and he was able to stand enough to let Milo guide him back to the cave and wrap him in the blankets, all the while dragging the massive black blade behind him.
He fell asleep the moment Milo lay him flat, the Heart of War clutched to his chest. How long he slept, Josef never knew, but when he woke it was night and Milo Burch was gone. The cave was empty except for the bloody blankets Josef lay on, the water barrel, and a large supply of food. A loaf of bread and a water skin lay on the ground beside his head, and Josef ate greedily before falling asleep again. When he woke next, it was evening. This time he was strong enough to stand. He went looking for Milo, but the old swordsman was gone. There was, however, a message scratched in soot on the cave wall.
After fifty years as a swordsman, it read, I think I’ve earned the right to live my last few as just a man. Remember why you fight, Josef Liechten, and the Heart of War will never forsake you.
That was it. No name, no date, no direction. Josef smiled. Nothing else was needed. He read the note twice and then rubbed it out with his palm. He gathered the food and as much water as he could carry. Then, tying the great black blade across his back with strips torn from the blood-ruined blankets, Josef Liechten, master of the Heart of War, set off into the desert to become the world’s greatest swordsman.
Den the Warlord, unknowing owner of the highest bounty the Council of Thrones had ever issued, was bashing his way through a jungle. He ripped out the waxy green plants in wet handfuls, kicking the rotten ground whenever it tried to trip him. Insects whizzed by in the humid air above his head, flying at his eyes whenever they dared, biting and stinging and all the while buzzing, “Go away! Go away!”
Den smacked them out of the air and kept going.
He knew by this point that the jungle was another dead end, but he had nowhere else to go but through it. So through it he went, smashing the undergrowth with mechanical efficiency until he spotted something white through the trees. Den slowed at once, sliding into a stance as he pushed the last of the broad leaves back. There, hanging directly in his path between two large trees, was a hole in the world. The hole was rectangular, an inch taller than himself, which was to say very tall indeed, and easily wide enough for him to walk through. Its edges were smooth and white, and they shone brighter than the noon sun reflected off water, which explained the flash he’d seen earlier. But strangest of all was that the jungle he saw through the opening was not the one he stood in. It was as thick as his jungle, just as green and overgrown, but the wind that drifted through the white-edged hole was hotter than the humid air around him. The soil on the other side was sandier, the trees denser and older. Though he’d been following a ridge in this jungle, the new jungle was flat, the land unremarkable save for a knot of trees directly ahead, their roots tangled around the entrance of what looked to be a small dirt cave.
Den frowned and took a moment to consider. He’d seen such a portal once before, the only time he’d ever managed to corner a League man. His face broke into a grin at the memory. That had been a good fight.
If he hadn’t already decided his jungle was a dead end, that thought alone was enough to decide for him. Smiling in anticipation, Den stepped forward, ducking through the portal. When his feet hit the ground on the other side, he took up a defensive position, looking for his opponent. But the new jungle was as empty as the old one had been, its trees tossing in the lonely wind. Feeling cheated, Den turned back only to find that the portal was gone, leaving nothing but a fading white line in the baking air.
Den snarled. It wasn’t that he was angry to leave the first jungle. When you were searching blindly as he was, one place was as good as the next. But he didn’t like unknowns, and he certainly didn’t like having fights taken from him. He closed his eyes and listened, ears straining, just on the off chance the League man was waiting for an opening, but it was no use. If the League had been here, they were long gone. Den was working himself into a foul mood over this when he caught a faint sound on the wind, almost like a sob.
All at once, Den’s smile returned. Seemed this jungle wasn’t so empty after all.
He turned on his heel until he was facing the dirt cave below the tree roots. It was a wretched thing, a black hole in the mud held together by tree roots. The entrance crumbled a little as Den pushed his way in. The inside of the cave was dim and low, forcing Den to stoop almost double until he’d climbed down to the bed of mud and leaves that served as the cave floor. When he reached the bottom, he straightened as best he could and gazed through the dark at the woman hunched against the cave’s far wall. Den’s smile split into a toothy grin. Not a League man, true, but a better prize, the one he’d been walking through jungles for almost ten years now in search of.
Despite his noisy entrance, the woman didn’t appear to notice Den for several seconds. Finally, she shifted against the mud, glancing at him through slitted eyes.
“Oh,” she said, looking away again. “It’s you.”
Den crossed his arms. “It’s me.”
The woman didn’t answer, and Den, tired of crouching, sat down. Normally, he would have just knocked the roof out, but he’d been looking for her a long time and, much as it irked him, a little tolerance was a small thing compared to the hassle it would take to find her again if she ran, miraculous portals notwithstanding.
When it was clear Den wasn’t leaving, the woman pressed her face against the cool dirt as though she could somehow ignore him. It was a futile effort, for the cave was very small and Den was a large, large man.
“What do you want?” she grumbled at last.
“What you promised me,” Den said.
The woman laughed, a harsh, joyless bark. “Is your life so dull you’d search all across the Empire to collect a bad debt?”
“You promised me a war,” Den answered calmly. “I crossed half the world for that promise. Does it really surprise you that I would cross the other half to hold you to it?”
She glanced sideways at him, her dark eyes sharp and almost as he remembered them. “I suppose it doesn’t,” she said. “My apologies, Bloody Den, but you’ll have to find someone else to stage your fights.” She turned away, pulling herself against the wall again. “I have no more care to rule.”
“No!” Den’s shout rattled the earthen walls. The woman jumped, flinching as Den leaned in, towering over her despite his seated position.
“You promised me,” he whispered, low and deadly. “Twenty-six years ago you promised me a war. Twenty-six years I’ve waited, fought your warriors, and prepared your troops. I’ve held up my end of the deal tenfold, and you owe me. If you want to lie in the mud and feel sorry for yourself, do it on your own time, but right now you need to finish what you started. You will honor your pledge, or I will test your famous immortality for myself, Nara.” The name rolled off his tongue like a curse.
The woman leaped up from the mud and turned to face him, staring him down like he was a cockroach. “You will not speak so informally to me, barbarian.”
Den leaned back against the cool mud. “I’ll treat you like an empress when you start acting like one.”
For a moment, the rage burned in her eyes, and she was nearly herself again. Her authority radiated through her mud-stained rags, dismissing her long, matted hair and wretched surroundings until he could almost see the Empress he remembered, tall and dark and terrible in her rage. But then, between one second and the next, it crumbled, and she sank to the mud floor in a broken heap.
“What does it matter?” she whispered, letting the dirty mass of her dark hair fall over her face. “The Shepherdess has abandoned me. Everything I did, my entire life, it was all for her. I gave her everything—my soul, my love, my service—but she doesn’t even look at me anymore. All she cares about is that boy.”
The ragged, naked hatred that trembled through her voice when she said the word boy shocked even Den, and he seized his chance. “Of course she doesn’t want to look at you,” he said. “I can hardly stand to see what you’ve let yourself become.”
The woman hissed and turned on him, lashing out with her fist. Den caught the blow with one hand. “Who could love such a self-pitying, wretched hag?” he said, letting his disgust ring clear through the words. “You were the favorite of creation. The unquestioned ruler of half the world for twelve generations. Now look at you, a rat hiding in a cave, and all because your White Lady found a new pet.”
She snarled and the ground began to rumble, but Den held on, pulling her forward until they were eye to eye. “If you want your Shepherdess to love you again, become something worth loving. Even if her boy died tomorrow, she’d never look at you while you’re like this. Who would? No one loves a failure, Nara.”
Her eyes went wide and she wrenched herself free. Den let her go, watching her with a sneer as she stumbled back to her rut in the mud. She stayed there for a long time, not speaking, not moving. Den matched her silence, waiting to see if his gambit played true. If it didn’t, he was in for another long walk. But it seemed he was in luck, for at last she sat up.
“You are a horrible man, Den,” she whispered, pushing the filthy hair out of her face. “But you are also a keen one. Fine. My years of begging have earned me nothing. Perhaps it is time to see what action can do. We shall see who is called favorite when I rule all the world. After all…”
She closed her eyes, and the air in the cave rippled like water. Den flinched as her spirit opened over him. It rolled out of her, a roaring wave of power, and everywhere it touched, the world began to change. The cave walls shook like leaves, the spirits crying in obedient awe as they reshaped themselves to please her.
The roof of the cave vanished, replaced by clear, blue sky. The mud Den sat on flattened, drying and hardening and spreading until he sat in the middle of a court pressed with spiraling patterns of impossible beauty. At the edge of the clay circle, the jungle trees lifted their roots and began retangling them into walls of beautifully knotted shapes. Then, as quickly as it had started, the changes stopped, and Den found himself sitting in a beautiful open court as grand as any he’d ever seen. At its center, seated on a raised throne of living wood, was the Immortal Empress. The dirt had fallen from her skin and hair, leaving her radiant, her body almost glowing beneath a sheath of beautifully patterned silk, the ends of which were just finishing weaving themselves from the remnants of her rags. Her glossy black hair was piled on her head, each hair holding itself of its own accord in an impossible arrangement that seemed to float over her ageless face, now as stern and as proud as he remembered it.
“After all,” she said again, leaning back on her throne, “I am the Immortal Empress still, a star of the Shepherdess, and I will be victorious.”
She held out her hand, and a white line appeared in the air. Den blinked in recognition as it sank silently through the empty space, glowing like the full moon. Through it, Den could see the interior of the throne room at Istalirin, her war palace, and the chaos of the panicking staff as they realized what that glowing line meant.
A wide grin broke over Den’s face and he hopped to his feet. “So it was you then,” he said. “Suits me. Let’s go.”
“I have no idea what you’re babbling about,” the Empress said. “But this is for me. You’re walking.”
“What?” Den roared.
“You were very disrespectful toward your Empress,” she said with a cutting look. “Your punishment is that you must walk back to Istalirin. Your commission will be ready when you arrive.”
Den frowned. “And you will honor your promise at last?”
The Empress gave him a cruel smile. “Beyond your wildest dreams, Bloody Den.”
And with that, she was gone. The white line shimmered and faded, leaving Den alone in the beautiful court under the sky. He stood a moment, grinding his teeth until he could feel the pain shooting down his neck. Finally, he turned and stomped out. That had been petty, even for her, but he should have expected it. The Empress was a woman, and women were always petty, especially when their pride was bruised. Still, it didn’t matter. He’d just spent almost fifteen years walking the breadth and width of her cursed land, what was another few weeks? What mattered was that he’d done it. He’d found her, and better, he’d won. He would have his war.
A great smile broke over Den’s scarred face, and he began to walk faster, jumping into the jungle at the clearing’s edge. This time the trees parted for him, whispering apologies. Now that he was in the Empress’s favor again, the world was bending over to make his life easy. His walk became a run as the forest opened for him, and Den began to laugh. A war at last. Finally, after so long, he would reclaim his paradise.
Still laughing, Den fell into a mile-eating jog, running through the now-genteel forest. He didn’t know where he was still, but it didn’t matter. The spirits had their mistress again, and they would make sure he got where she wanted him to be. Grinning at the thought, Den picked up his pace, running full out along the path the trees made him, following the setting sun west toward the war palace of the Immortal Empress.
Two Months Later
“Are you sure?” Queen Theresa of Osera leaned forward, frail fingers tightening to white-knuckled claws on the velvet arms of her chair. “Absolutely sure?”
The fisherman looked almost insulted. “I can tell you only what I saw with my own eyes, your queenship,” he said, lifting his head to look at her for the first time. “For years now, my crew has sailed the roughest ocean in the world to be your eyes on the Unseen Coast, and I’m telling you the shipyards are active again.”
“But why now?” The queen shook, though with fear or rage even she could not tell. “She built like mad for twelve years after the war, and then fifteen years ago, everything stopped. Now you’re telling me she’s building again? Why? Why ships? Why now?”
The fisherman flinched and gave no answer.
None was expected. The queen had already hauled herself to her feet and was now pacing the length of the small stage at the end of her private-audience chamber, muttering under her breath.
“What changed?” Her whisper was tight and raspy. “Did we show some weakness? Or perhaps I was the fool to think she had given up.” Her jeweled heels clicked faster on the glossy wood floor. “How many ships?”
The fisherman jumped. “Too many to count. I took the time to spy on only one of the yards before coming to you. Was I wrong?”
“No,” the queen said, shaking her head so sharply that she knocked loose one of the carefully pinned curls of her once famous golden hair, now mostly white. “Without your information we wouldn’t have a candle’s chance in a storm. Tell me, though, in your hurry, did you see what kind of ships was she building?”
“I did,” the fisherman said, licking his chapped lips. “They was palace ships, lady. Every single one.”
The queen stopped walking and pressed a bony hand to her forehead. “Lenette?”
A strikingly beautiful woman in an elegant dress of stiff black silk appeared from a side door. “Yes, my queen?”
“Pay him. Double.”
Lenette nodded and walked across the room to the strongbox. She took a fist-sized bag from the bound chest and walked to the fisherman, holding it out for him with both hands. He took it with a blush and opened the bag at once, eyes bulging when he saw the pile of gold it contained. But the smile slipped from his face when the queen looked at him with a glare that could have cut iron.
“Spend it quickly.”
The captain swallowed loudly, but the queen’s attention was already back on her pacing. Lenette took the man’s arm and led him back to the doors, gently pushing him into the hall. Thus dismissed, the fisherman bowed several times before the guards shut the doors in his face. The moment they closed, the queen collapsed into her chair with a pained sigh.
“And there’s the other shoe,” she muttered. “Twenty-six years after her first invasion, the immortal sow finally rousts herself to finish the job.”
“The man was a fisherman, my lady,” Lenette said gently, walking over to kneel beside the queen’s chair. “Not a trained spy. He could have been mistaken.”
The queen gave an unladylike snort. “I’m not sending the fleet into the Unseen Sea to check his story. The deep trawlers are the only ones who dare that crossing. Fortunately for us, the same reckless greed that sends them chasing leviathan spawn in the deep current spurs them to take my money to spy for their country. Anyway, without that ‘fisherman,’ the old harpy would have caught us naked as a cheating lover.” She nodded at the closed door. “The captain is Oseran born and old enough to remember the war. If he says they’re palace ships, they’re palace ships. It’s not something you forget.”
“But we only know that she’s started building again,” Lenette countered. “Those ships might not even be for us. She could have a new target.”
“Where?” the queen said with an exasperated huff. “The woman rules half the world. There’s nowhere left for her to conquer save the Council Kingdoms, and our little island is dead in her way. Her army will roll over us without even a pause. When I think of all—”
A racking cough stopped her midsentence. The queen doubled over, pressing a lace handkerchief to her mouth as her body convulsed. Lenette was with her in an instant, rubbing the queen’s back with her small, delicate hands until the attack subsided.
“You shouldn’t think about such things, lady,” Lenette whispered. “You’ll only worsen your condition. Remember, Osera and the Council have pushed the Empress back before.”
“Yes,” the queen wheezed. “Two and a half decades ago, when I was young.” She looked at her blood-streaked handkerchief with disgust. “When I wasn’t sick. When I could stand to look at myself in the mirror. Back when I was truly queen.”
She raised her gaunt face and gazed across the chamber at the portrait that took up most of the wall. It was enormous, large as life and set in a gilt frame that touched both floor and ceiling. On it, a steel-gray sea pounded the rocky eastern shore of Osera. The stony beach below the cliffs was filled with soldiers raising their swords in salute, or perhaps taunting, for the choppy sea was scattered with the Immortal Empress’s warships, some crashing on the reefs, some ablaze, all fleeing defeated back across the Unseen Sea. In the painting’s foreground, a young woman dressed in the heavy black armor of the Eisenlowe stood with her feet in the sea. She faced the fleeing ships with her head held high, hair flying behind her like a pale gold banner. Her hand was stretched out toward the ocean, the gloved fingers tangled in the long, black hair of the enemy general’s severed head.
Queen Theresa smiled. That was not how it had ended, but it was the way she wanted the war to be remembered—bloody, glorious, an absolute victory. The way it should have been and, she closed her eyes, the way it could never be again.
“Osera has always been ruled by the strong, Lenette,” the queen said quietly. “We’ve grown wealthy and civilized thanks to the Council, but it will take more than these few generations to tear us away from our bloody past. Were we a softer kingdom, more deeply rooted in law and nobility, perhaps I could re-create the miracle I stumbled onto all those years ago. But we are not. The Empress is coming, and an old, sick woman cannot lead Osera to war.”
Lenette stiffened, her face, still so lovely despite her advancing years, falling. “Will you abdicate, then? Give the country to your cousin?”
“Finley?” The queen made a disgusted sound. “He’ll get his soon enough, much as I hate to think of it. But he’s no Eisenlowe. Much as he hated to, father entrusted our line to me after my brothers died. I’ve spent the last thirty years fighting to stay on my throne. I do not intend to meekly hand it over now.”
Lenette shook her head. “But what will you do, lady?”
“Crisis demands stability, Lenette,” the queen said grimly. “I’d thought I could give him a little more time, but circumstance has left us little choice. The Throne of Iron Lions must follow the proper succession, whatever the cost.” She settled back into her chair with a pained sigh. “Wake up the Council wizard and have him bring me the Relay point. We must warn the Council tonight. I’ll need to speak with Whitefall personally, and then I’ll need that cousin of his, the one who runs the bounties.”
“Phillipe Whitefall?” Lenette said.
The queen waved her hand dismissively. “Whoever. I never could keep all the Whitefalls straight. Just get me the head of the bounty office. Also, get Adela in here. Your daughter is a sensible girl, and she has a larger stake in this business than most.”
Lenette pursed her lips. “It’s time then, is it?”
“Long past,” the queen said, patting her friend’s hand. “If the Immortal Empress is on her way, then we have no time left for patience. That boy is out there somewhere, and I don’t care if I have to hand over every scrap of gold in Osera, he will come home and do his duty.”
Lenette nodded and bent to kiss the queen’s hand. “I will bring Adela to you, lady,” she said, rising to her feet. “And send someone to fetch the Relay keeper. Meanwhile, I’ll have the maid bring up your medicine.”
The queen smiled. “Thank you, Lenette. What would I do without you?”
Lenette smiled and stepped off the little stage. She walked to the door, her heels clicking delicately across the polished floor, and vanished into the hall with a curtsy.
When she was gone, Queen Theresa lay back in her padded chair, staring at the picture of what she had been. As her eyes struggled to focus on the familiar brushstrokes, she remembered not the gory glory of the artist’s rendition, but the real morning, twenty-six years ago, standing on the windy beach, too large for her armor at nine months’ pregnant, weeping in relief at the retreating ships while her guard made a square around her so that no one could say they’d seen the Lioness of Osera cry.
When the maid arrived a few minutes later with the medicine tray, the queen dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief and took the cup that the girl offered, drinking the bitter concoction without so much as a grimace.
The Perod bounty office was packed with the usual riffraff. Dozens of men and a few scowling women lounged on long benches stolen from the tavern across the street, boredly polishing a startling variety of weaponry and trying to look like they weren’t waiting. It was a farce, of course. It was criminally early on a Monday morning, and the only reason bounty hunters ever came into a regional office before noon was to get their hands on the weekly bounty update from Zarin.
The only person who didn’t try to hide his anticipation was a young man toward the back of the crowd. He stood on his bench, hopping from foot to foot and ignoring his dour-faced companion’s constant attempts to pull him back down, an anxious scowl marring the boyish face that everyone should have recognized, but no one did.
“Honestly,” Eli huffed when Josef finally managed to drag him down. “Are they walking from Zarin?”
“It’s not even eight,” Josef said, his voice low and annoyed as he nudged the wrapped Heart of War farther under the bench with his foot. “The post isn’t due until eight fifteen. And can you at least pretend to be discreet? I love a good fight, but we walked all night to get here. I’d like some breakfast and a few hours of shut-eye before I have to put down an entire room of bounty hunters, if it’s all the same to you.”
Eli made a disgusted sound. “Go ahead. I could wear a name tag on my forehead and these idiots still wouldn’t notice. No bounty hunter worth his sword goes to a regional office for leads. There’s not a soul here who’s good enough to see what they don’t expect.” He slouched on the bench. “Sometimes I think there’s no pride in the profession anymore. You were the last of the bounty hunters worth the name, and even you got so bored you took up with the enemy.”
“Not bored,” Josef said. “I just learned that working with you got me better fights than trying to catch you. Anyway, Coriano was perfectly decent, and what about that man who attacked you at the hotel? Gave you quite a scramble for a dying profession, didn’t he?”
Beside him, Nico did her best to stifle a laugh, but her coat gave her away, moving in long, midnight waves as her shoulders shook. Eli rolled his eyes at both of them.
“Well, too bad you killed them, then,” he said with a sniff. “Knocking over the best of a dying breed without even leaving a calling card—it’s such a waste. No wonder your bounty’s only ten thousand.”
Josef shrugged. “Unlike some people, I see no need to define myself by an arbitrary number.”
Eli bristled. “Arbitrary? I earned every bit of that bounty! You should know; you were there for most of it. My bounty is a reflection of our immense skill. You should take some pride in it. After all,” he said, grinning painfully wide, “I’m now the most wanted man in the Council Kingdoms. Two hundred and forty-eight thousand gold standards! That even beats Nico’s number. My head is worth more than a kingdom—no, two kingdoms! And to think, just last year I was struggling to break thirty thousand. This is an achievement no one else in the world can touch, my friends. You are sitting beside a national power. Tell you what. When they hand out my new posters, I’ll sign them for you. How’s that?”
Josef looked decidedly unimpressed and made no comment.
“It is a large number,” Nico said when the uncomfortable silence had gone on long enough. “But you’re not the highest. There’s still Den the Warlord with five hundred thousand.”
“Den doesn’t count,” Eli snapped. “He was the first bounty, made right after the war. The Council hadn’t even decided on a valuation for its currency yet. If they’d made the bounty properly with pledges from offended kingdoms rather than just letting old Council Daddy Whitefall pull some grossly large number out of his feathered helmet, Den would never have gotten that high. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’ll be passing him soon enough, just you watch. This time next year I’ll be at a million, and see if I offer to autograph your poster then.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Josef grumbled, eyeing the crowd. “Look lively. I think the post is here.”
Eli was on his feet in an instant, elbowing his way through the crowd that was no longer even pretending to look bored. The hunters thronged around the door as a sleepy-eyed bounty officer and two harried men in Council uniforms with piles of paper under their arms attempted to push their way in.
“No shoving!” the officer shouted. “Stand back! Individual posters can be purchased after the official notices are hung!”
The crowd took a grudging step back as the Council postmen began tacking up the latest posters under the bounty officer’s direction. First they hung up the small-fry, lists of names with tiny descriptions and even tinier numbers beside them. Next came the ranking bounties, criminals with a thousand or more on their heads whose notoriety had earned them a sketch and a small poster of their own. These were all pinned between the floor and waist level. The top of the wall was reserved for the big money. Here, the Council men hung up the famous names.
Izo was gone. The men stripped his old poster down with minimal fanfare, moving those bounties below him up a notch. The old, yellowed poster offering two hundred thousand for the Daughter of the Dead Mountain was left untouched, as was Den’s large poster at the top of the board. Between these, however, the men tacked up a fresh, large sheet featuring a familiar face grinning above a rather astonishingly large number.
Eli stopped shoving the men in front of him and gazed up at his poster, his eyes glowing with pride. “It’s even more beautiful than I imagined,” he whispered. “Two hundred and forty-eight thousand gold standards.”
Josef pressed his palm to his forehead as Eli resumed shoving his way forward. Thankfully, no one else seemed to have heard the thief’s remark. The bounty hunters were all loudly clamoring for copies, shouting over each other while the bounty officer tried to shout over everyone that no one was getting posters until the official copies were up.
Eli vanished into the fray only to reappear moments later with a scroll tucked under his arm. Josef raised his eyebrows and began easing the knives out of his sleeves, just in case, but the bounty officer was too busy screaming at the bounty hunters to get in line to notice that one of his carefully protected posters was already missing.
“They get better with every likeness,” Eli said, proudly unrolling his poster. “If it wasn’t black and white, I’d say I was looking in a mirror.”
Nico nodded appreciatively, but Josef wasn’t even looking. Eli turned to berate his swordsman for his shocking lack of attentiveness, but Josef was just standing there, staring at the bounty board like he’d seen a ghost. Eli followed his gaze, glancing over his shoulder at the bounty wall where the Council men were hanging one last poster, just below Den’s and just ahead of Eli’s. As the Council men tacked the poster’s corners up, a familiar, stern face glared down at the room, and below it, in tall block letters, was the following:
JOSEF LIECHTEN THERESON ESINLOWE.
WANTED ALIVE, 250,000 GOLD STANDARDS.
“Josef,” Eli said, very quietly. “Why is your bounty larger than mine?”
Josef didn’t answer. He just stood there, staring. Then, without a word, he turned, pushed his way through the crowd to their bench, grabbed his bag and his wrapped sword, and stomped out the back door.
Eli and Nico exchanged a look and ran after him.
“Josef,” Eli said, running to keep up with the swordsman’s ground-eating strides. “Josef! Stop! What’s this about? Where are you going?”
Josef kept walking.
“Look,” Eli said, jogging beside him. “If you’re worried I’m upset that you have a higher bounty than I do, you shouldn’t be. I mean, I am upset, but you shouldn’t be worried. I’m sure it’s just a mistake. If you’ll stop walking for a second, I can go nick your poster and we’ll take a closer look. Maybe they added an extra zero by accident or—”
“I don’t need a closer look.”
Eli stumbled a little. Josef’s voice was quivering with rage. Quick as he’d taken off, Josef stopped and turned to face them. Eli shrank back at the cold, white anger on his face, nearly falling into Nico.
“It’s no mistake,” Josef said. “That bounty is her last card. I can’t let her do this.”
“Her who?” Eli said.
“I see,” Eli said, though he didn’t. “Well, if it’s not a mistake, then I’m stumped. What did you do to this queen to earn a number like that?”
The side of Josef’s mouth twitched. “I lived.”
Eli arched an eyebrow. “Could you try being a little less cryptic?”
“No.” Josef pulled his bag off his shoulder and tossed it to Nico. “I have to go away for a while. There’s food enough for the next day in there. Nico, I’m counting on you to keep Eli from doing anything stupid. I realize it’s a tall order, but do your best.”
Nico scowled at him and tossed the bag back. “I’m going with you.”
“And I’m with her,” Eli said, straightening up. “You can’t just walk out on us now.”
Josef crossed his arms. “And I suppose my opinion in this doesn’t matter?”
“Not in the least,” Eli said. “Where are we going?”
For a moment, Josef almost smiled. “The port at Sanche. We can catch a ferry from there to Osera.”
“Osera?” Eli made a face. “You mean the island with the carnivorous yaks, endless rain, and zero-tolerance policy toward thieves? Why?”
“Because,” Josef said, setting off down the road. “I’ve been called home.”
Nico fell in behind him, her feet kicking up little clouds of yellow dust as she hurried to catch up. Eli stared at their backs a moment longer, and then, cursing under his breath, he shoved his new poster into his bag and ran down the road after them.
Alber Whitefall, Merchant Prince of Zarin and Head of the Council of Thrones, was having a terrible morning. Actually, considering he hadn’t slept since yesterday, morning was a misnomer. What he was having was a terrible night that refused to end.
There were two others sitting in his office on this terrible morning. Sara was there, of course, and Myron Whitefall, his cousin and director of Military Affairs for the Council. As usual, Sara looked equal parts miffed at being called away from her work downstairs and intrigued by their new problem. Myron, however, looked like a man who’d just learned he’s dying from plague.
“Is there a chance she’s overreacting?” Myron said, pulling at his stiff military collar. “The queen is getting older.”
“Theresa is younger than I am, Myron,” Merchant Prince Whitefall said flatly. “She’s hardly to the age of senility.”
“And this is Osera we’re talking about,” Sara added with a sniff. “They’re not people who’d ask for help unless things were desperate. Especially Theresa. Shouldn’t you know that?”
Myron gave the wizard a disapproving look. Sara stared right back, daring him.
“Be that as it may,” Alber said, bringing the conversation back to himself before things could get any worse. “Osera’s borne the brunt of the Empress before, and they’ve never forgotten. If Theresa says the Empress has reactivated her shipyards, then I believe her. The only real question is, how much time do we have left to prepare?”
Sara looked away from Myron with a dismissive huff. “A decent amount, I’d wager,” she said. “Unless she’s spent the last twenty years making upgrades, palace ships are slow and the Unseen Sea is wide and treacherous. Even if she set sail tonight, we wouldn’t see her fleet for two months. Maybe three, if she’s bringing a larger army this time, which I assume she would.”
“Three months is hardly a ‘decent amount,’ ” Myron snapped. “Even if we called in conscripts today, I can’t raise an army on such short notice.”
Alber scratched his short beard thoughtfully. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Why is she moving now? Her initial attack was the disaster that birthed the Council. She was the only thing scary enough to finally convince the kingdoms to stop fighting each other and stand together. And stand together we did, but anyone in the know understands that the only reason we survived was because we had the Relay and the Empress didn’t. That, and the fact that her fleet was too far from home to maintain a supply line. Still, it was hardly what I would call a decisive victory. Were I the Empress, I would have renewed my attack the very next year while the Council was still unstable. Even five years later we couldn’t have turned back any sort of invasion force, but now? We’re stronger than ever. She has to know that. So why did she wait?”
“Maybe she was rebuilding?” Myron said. “The combined Council forces sunk nearly a hundred ships before her fleet retreated. Maybe even the Empress can’t pull that kind of firepower out from under her skirt.”
“This is the Empress, Myron,” Sara said, exasperated. “If our reports are anywhere close to right, she has enough people and resources to bury us in boats without batting an eye.”
“So why hasn’t she, then?” Myron said. “How do we know this resurgence is even aimed at us? There’s been no declaration of war. All we have is some fisherman’s tale about palace ships.”
“Where else is she going to go?” Sara said. “There are three continents in the world: hers, ours, and the icy wastes in the north sea. You don’t build a fleet of palace ships to go ghosthound hunting, so I think we can safely say she’s coming for us.”
Myron’s face went scarlet, but Sara seemed to have forgotten him entirely. She leaned back in her deep-cushioned chair, thin arms crossed over her chest as she met Alber eye to eye. “It’s a bad position any way you look at it. Forgetting the issue of whether or not the Empress is actually immortal, her empire has been a stable ruling power for as long as we’ve known there was another continent across the Unseen Sea. We know she has wealth, resources, and a troop capacity we can’t even quantify. Considering this, the force we sent running twenty-six years ago was likely little more than a small excursion.”
“Small excursion?” Myron cried.
“Yes,” Sara said calmly. “I wrote as much in my report at the time, which, by the way, you should read.”
Myron looked away with a sniff. Sara ignored him, focusing on the Merchant Prince.
“I believe it was a test,” she said. “An opening strike to reveal the strength of the opponent. That said, I don’t know why she’s waited so long to strike again. Maybe she truly is immortal and twenty-six years is nothing. Even so, now that she knows what we’re capable of, her course is simple. If our strength is our ability to communicate instantly through the Relay and move our troops to counter her attacks with our full strength at a moment’s notice, all the Empress needs to do is send enough soldiers that it doesn’t matter. Move, counter move. This time she will overwhelm us, plain and simple.”
“So what would you have us do?” Myron growled. “Roll over? Surrender?”
“I’m only being realistic,” Sara said. “The Relay was our trump last time, but that card’s been played.”
“So make us another,” Alber said, leaning back in his chair. “If she knows how to counter our advantage, make us a new one. That’s why you’re here.”
Sara clenched her jaw. “I’m working on it.”
“Well, it’s not going to be enough,” Myron said. “We can’t beat the Immortal Empire with wizard tricks. The Relay was fine and dandy, but it was our soldiers who fought and won. Talking tables and carts that roll themselves don’t sink ships.”
“Yes, Myron, thank you,” Alber said before Sara could snap back and make things even worse. “Your opinion is noted. Now, if you’re done antagonizing my wizard, what have you got for me?”
With one final, dirty look at Sara, Myron reached into his jacket and pulled out a packet of folded papers.
“We have five thousand soldiers on active duty across the Council,” he said, spreading out the stack of figure-covered papers on the table. He pulled a map from the satchel beside him and laid that out as well. “I think we can safely assume that any attack will begin as before, at Osera.” His finger tapped a long island just off the Council’s eastern coast. “As well as being geographically in the way for an invasion from across the Unseen Sea, Osera is the Council’s greatest naval power. Ignore them, and the Empress will have Oseran ships at her back while she’s fighting us on the mainland. Go far enough to get around them, and she lands in the mountains.” His finger traveled north, tapping the wild mountain country that formed the Council’s northern border. “Or the jungle.” His finger went south to the lush, tropical nightmare that covered the Council’s lower tip. “There’s no way around it. She has to take Osera first. Now, I can have our current forces to the coast in a month. With reserves, country-by-country conscripts, and heavy recruitment, we can probably field another ten thousand in the next two months. Training will take another four.”
“That’s six months,” Sara said. “We don’t have—”
“I can’t pull soldiers out of the air!” Myron roared, standing up so fast that his chair toppled behind him. “I’m talking about men, wizardess, not spirits! Men take time. I have to move them, equip them, train—”
The general stopped. Alber Whitefall was sitting at his desk as before, calm as ever, but his eyes were narrow and his mouth was a thin, clamped line.
“Myron,” he said again in a soft, measured voice. “Do your best. Don’t worry about Sara. Just get me as many soldiers as you can. Understood?”
“Yes, Merchant Prince,” Myron grumbled.
“Excellent.” Alber gave him a smile. “You’d better go get started. Time is wasting.”
Myron Whitefall did not look pleased by the dismissal, but he gathered his papers and stomped into the hall without comment.
“Why is he in charge of our army again?” Sara said the moment the page closed the door.
“Because his mother was very insistent,” Alber answered, standing up with a sigh. “And because he’s not a bad general. He did secure the northlands, if you’ll recall. You’re seeing him at his worst. He was never one for politics, but he’s quite good with the soldiers.”
Sara glanced at the door and gave a dismissive snort. “I could have told you the Empress would go for Osera.”
“Yes, well, you have the benefit of experience, don’t you?” the Merchant Prince said, pouring himself a finger of brandy from the bottle on the table behind him. “And the day you feel like marshaling our army, I will be more than happy to let you. Until then, Myron will have to do.” He paused. “It would also help if you didn’t treat him like some idiot child.”
“I treat him as he shows me he deserves to be treated,” Sara said, pulling her pipe out of her coat pocket. She lit it with a spark from a tiny ruby, one of nearly a dozen she kept on a chain in her pocket, and took a deep drag, pointedly ignoring Alber’s glare.
“He’s right, though,” she said softly.
Alber sipped his drink. “About what?”
“I don’t have a trick to beat the Immortal Empress.”
Alber lowered his glass. “Then why am I paying for your little playground downstairs?”
Sara grew very still. “The Relay was the idea that started my career, Alber. If I could have flashes of genius on call, I wouldn’t be working for you. But brilliant as the Relay was, we were fighting the Empress’s army, not the Empress herself.”
“Come now,” Alber said. “You don’t actually believe all that malarkey about the Empress being an unkillable, magical queen, do you? Everything we know came from captured soldiers who knew they were going to die. Of course they’d tell us the Empress is our doom incarnate.”
“There’s something going on with her,” Sara said. “Maybe she’s just a powerful wizard who’s good at selling herself, but one thing’s certain, Alber. I have a dozen different projects going right now, all with good potential, but I don’t have a miracle. Not this time, and not like we’re going to need.”
“Sara,” Alber said, swirling his drink. “I am an old man who has been up for nearly thirty hours. If you have a point, get to it.”
Sara took an angry puff from her pipe. “My point is that no matter how many poor farmers Myron shoves into Council uniforms, it’s not going to be enough. The Empress’s army isn’t just men. In the last war, the Empress’s forces used spirits on a scale I’ve never seen before. She had amalgam spirits, blends of fire and metal better than even Shaper work, specifically created for war and directed by trained teams of wizards.”
“How could I forget?” Alber said dryly. “And I suppose you’re going to say we can’t field something similar?”
Sara nearly choked on her smoke. “Powers, no. Even forgetting the combination of spirits for war, I would have written wizards working in teams off as impossible if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. I’ve tried for years to duplicate it, but individual wizard’s wills are simply too different to…” She trailed off when she saw Alber’s bored look. “Never mind. The point I’m trying to make is that we caught a very lucky break last time. We can’t count on that kind of lightning striking twice. If we’re to have any real hope of keeping our lands, we’re going to need a different sort of army than Myron’s putting together. A wizard army.”
“You have wizards,” Alber said.
“A hundred, maybe,” Sara answered. “And that’s counting the idiots I give Council kingdoms to mind their Relay points. A hundred’s not an army. I’m talking about a large-scale, organized, combat-ready force.”
The Merchant Prince’s eyebrows shot up. “You can’t seriously be suggesting what I think you are.”
“I am always serious,” Sara said. “The Spirit Court accounts for almost every wizard born in Council lands. We cannot do this without them.”
Alber sighed heavily, shaking his head slowly from side to side. “Banage is going to be a problem.”
“Who’s talking about Banage?” Sara said. “Banage hates the Council. Has for years. The only reason he goes along with us is because we’re too powerful for him to openly antagonize if he wants his Court to have any say on the continent. The second you go to him hat in hand asking for help, he’s going to try and shove his doctrine down our throats.”
“I am well aware of Banage’s low opinion,” Whitefall said. “He’s never bothered to hide it, after all. But the years have made you too jaded, Sara. Even Banage can’t stand around on his principles doing nothing while the Immortal Empress destroys everything he’s built.”
“Banage will stand on his principles until they gnaw his legs off,” Sara said with a puff of smoke. “But we don’t need Banage to get the Court. There are several Spiritualists, especially among the Tower Keepers, who would have no problem working with the Council.”
“Sara!” Whitefall said, shocked. “We are on the verge of a perhaps unwinnable war. I will not cause a schism in what might be our only salvation just because you don’t want to work with your former husband.”
“The Spirit Court’s already broken,” Sara countered. “Banage’s constant hard line has driven many of the more moderate members away. He almost tore the Court apart last year when they put his apprentice on trial. If Hern hadn’t gotten himself tangled up in that Gaol nonsense, the Court would already be ours.”
“Put it out of your mind,” Whitefall said. “You don’t win wars by ripping up your allies. Not if there is any other hope.” He turned away, looking out over the city. “I’ll send Banage an invitation to talk. Compromise is always possible, and who knows? Maybe this Empress thing will make him see we’re not actually that bad.”
Sara chuckled. “Want to wager on that?”
“I already am,” Whitefall said, looking at her over his shoulder. “I’m wagering our survival on the hope that Etmon Banage likes being Rector Spiritualis more than he dislikes working with you. After all, if we can’t find some way to work together, the Empress will crush us both, and you can’t be Rector when there’s no more Spirit Court.”
Sara bit her pipe between her teeth. “I wish you wouldn’t group the rest of us in on your impossible wagers.”
Whitefall set his empty glass on his desk. “We’re all going to have to do the impossible before this mess is done. Now, get downstairs and start working on that miracle. I’ll take care of Banage.”
Sara stood and walked out without a word. When she was gone, Alber called his pages in. One he sent to the Spirit Court, and the rest he set to opening windows. When his office no longer reeked of smoke, he poured himself another glass of brandy and lay down on his silk couch to contemplate the wreck his carefully cultured plans had become.
So,” Miranda said. “One more time. The demon under the Dead Mountain is sealed, but he can sneak out shards of himself, called seeds, that bury themselves into host bodies, who become demonseeds.”
“Correct,” Slorn said. “Demonseeds are tiny slivers of the demon itself. Each seed has the potential to grow into a new demon, given enough time and food. The stronger the host and the longer the seed is able to incubate, the stronger the resulting demon is at awakening.”
Miranda shuddered, blinking her eyes against the memory that refused to vanish—the hideous black shape standing over the woods outside Izo’s bandit city, its black wings blotting out the sky as it ate the screaming world.
“How do we stop it?” she said quietly. “Stop the seeds from coming out?”
“I don’t know,” Slorn said. “Unawakened demonseeds constantly travel through the shadows in and out of the mountain, bringing their master new vessels. There is a human cult that serves there, presenting wizards to the demon in hopes of becoming demonseeds themselves. The League has cleared out the mountain several times—killing the human followers, setting up a perimeter, but the seeds always get through. All demonseeds can hear the demon’s voice in their heads, and he moves them like pieces on a board that only he can see the whole of. This makes them very hard to block completely, especially as the League can find them only when they cause a panic. Alric gave up trying to blockade the mountain years ago. Staying on the mountain for any length of time is dangerous, even for the Lord of Storms, and the reward wasn’t worth the risk. They now focus on the eradication of seeds that cause problems.”
“Well,” Miranda said with a huff, “it doesn’t seem to be working.”
“It works,” Slorn said, looking at her with his black, calm, bear eyes. “We are still alive.”
Rebuked, Miranda shut her mouth and focused on the path ahead. Seeing that the lesson was at an end, Slorn leaned back on the roof of his walking cart to stare thoughtfully at the wispy clouds flowing like silk across the pale blue sky.
They were high in the mountains, riding north. It was slow going, even for Gin. The constant wind kept the ground clear from snow, but the stone itself was icy and treacherous. The ghosthound kept his eyes on his feet, delicately picking his way across the steep slopes, his dappled silver coat shifting with the wind. Still, they could have gone faster if not for Slorn’s wagon. The wooden cart climbed at a snail’s pace, rattling and scraping as its carved wooden legs scrabbled on the ice despite the metal hooks Slorn had attached. Sometimes they barely made ten miles in a day, but the pace didn’t bother Miranda. She’d learned more from Slorn in the two weeks since they’d left Izo’s camp than from all three years she’d spent training to begin her apprenticeship with the Spiritualists. Gin, however, didn’t seem to be enjoying himself.
“I don’t like him,” the ghosthound growled when they stopped for lunch.
“You don’t like anyone,” Miranda said, smearing a sliver of cold butter across her hard baked bread as best she could. “And keep your voice down.”
“He asks too many questions,” Gin said, loud as ever. “And he looks at the sky too much.”
Miranda glanced at Slorn. He was standing beside his cart, talking to it softly as he checked the wooden legs. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Gin made a harrumphing sound. “He shouldn’t be doing it, is all. Or talking about the Dead Mountain like he does. I’ve never understood you humans and your constant need to know things. You’re the nosiest spirits in creation.”
“And you’re the biggest curmudgeon in creation,” Miranda said, smacking him across the haunches. “You saw that thing at Izo’s the same as all of us. I’m a Spiritualist, but that thing, demon or demonseed or whatever, makes the usual Spirit Court worries look like children’s games. It’s not something I can just ignore, and until I find out what I can do to stop what happened at Izo’s from happening again, even if that turns out to be nothing, I can’t go back to Zarin. Not while still calling myself a Spiritualist.”
Gin flattened his ears. “Not everything’s a crusade, Miranda. The bear man’s leading you places you shouldn’t go, and you’re going to get hurt if you keep following.”
“I’m a big girl,” she said, reaching out to scratch his nose. “I won’t get in over my head.”
Gin moved away from her hand and shook himself, sending dirt and ice everywhere. “Just watch yourself,” he said, trotting away.
Miranda frowned. “Where are you going?”
“Hunting,” Gin growled, stalking off down the frozen path.
Miranda started to remind him that there was dried meat in Slorn’s cart, but the ghosthound had already vanished into the frosty landscape, his shifting fur blending into the white mist rolling down from the peaks.
“I’m starting to understand why they call them ghosthounds.”
Miranda turned with a start. Slorn was standing behind her, smiling in a way that was probably meant to be reassuring but never quite made it, thanks to his sharp teeth.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “Gin doesn’t have a lot of tact.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Slorn said, sitting down on the large, flat rock that sheltered their little fire from the wind. “It’s a ghosthound’s nature to be protective and wary of outsiders, and I never fault a spirit for following its nature. Besides, he’s not exactly wrong. Spirits have learned over countless centuries that some things are better left alone.”
Miranda frowned. “You mean the demon?”
Slorn shrugged. “The League, the Dead Mountain, demonseeds, these are all things that spirits, even Great Spirits, have learned to ignore. Must learn to ignore. You can’t have a life worth living when you’re constantly worrying about things you cannot fight or change. All they can do is trust the system that has worked for thousands of years and go on with their lives.”
Miranda’s frown turned into a scowl. “And where does the thing we saw at Izo’s fit into that system?”
“It doesn’t,” Slorn said. “That’s why we’re going to the Shaper Mountain. If the League will not listen, then I must make my case to an outside party. If I can find even one voice to speak for me that the Shepherdess will heed, Nivel’s death won’t have been in vain.”
Miranda bit her tongue. Slorn spoke his wife’s name with such sadness that words felt pointless. But there was so much of what he said that she still didn’t understand and she could not keep quiet.
“The Shepherdess,” she said. “I’ve heard of her, of course, but never in any detail. Most Spiritualists are lucky if they ever get to talk to a Great Spirit.” Mellinor found that amusing, but Miranda ignored his bubbling laughter and pressed on. “She’s the greatest spirit, isn’t she? The one at the top of the spirit world.”
“Assuming she’s a spirit at all,” Slorn said. “Which I don’t think she is. The Shepherdess is the force that guides the world and commands the spirits. She also controls the League and keeps the demon locked beneath the mountain, among other things.”
“How can she not be a spirit?” Miranda said. “Everything has a spirit.”
“I don’t know the answer precisely,” Slorn answered. “But I do know her control is nothing a spirit could manage. No spirit except a human’s can control another, and humans can’t touch the spirits of other humans. But, so far as I understand it, the Shepherdess can command everything. Therefore, she’s not a spirit. Or, at least, not a spirit like we are familiar with.”
Miranda slumped down. “I feel so ignorant,” she muttered. “You’d think I’d have at least heard more than a passing mention of something so important.” A tremor of reproach went through her before she could stop it, and deep in her mind she felt her rings twinge.
“Don’t blame your spirits,” Slorn said. “Nothing talks about the Shepherdess unless they have to. It took me decades to piece what little I have together, and even I don’t know for certain. All I have are theories. Suppositions based on years of asking too many questions, as your dog would say. It may be that the Shaper Mountain can do nothing and this journey is little more than a waste of time.”
“But we have to try,” Miranda said.
“Yes,” Slorn said quietly. “We have to try.” He leaned back, looking up at the snow-covered slope they’d been following all day. “If we keep this pace we’ll make Knife’s Pass by sunset. From there it’s a straight shot to the Shaper Mountain. We’ll reach the gate by noon tomorrow, weather permitting. After that, there’s no turning back.”
Miranda laughed. “There’s been no turning back for a while now. Remember, I was the one who asked to come along.”
“I have not forgotten,” Slorn said, standing up. “Let’s go. We have more miles to cover than we can make if we dawdle.”
Miranda took his offered hand, and he helped her to her feet. They had almost everything together by the time Gin returned with a scrawny mountain goat in his jaws.
It was late when they reached Knife’s Pass and Miranda was too tried to look at anything besides her bedroll. When she woke at dawn, Gin was still sleeping, his body curved to shelter her from the icy winds. She smiled and packed her blankets, and then, stepping softly so she wouldn’t wake the ghosthound, she tiptoed to Slorn’s wagon. As always, Slorn was already awake. He was sitting on the fold-out steps, staring up at the clear morning sky. There were two steaming mugs of tea on the step beside him, one half empty, the other full. Miranda took the full one.
“How much farther?” she said, blowing on the steaming liquid.
Slorn looked at her with an incredulous expression and pointed north. Miranda’s eyes followed his gesture and she nearly dropped her tea. The sheltered pass they were camped in wasn’t a pass at all, or at least not a natural one. It was a road cut between the mountains, running due north in a perfectly straight line between two sheer cliffs, and at the end of that road stood the largest mountain Miranda had ever seen. It was impossibly tall, soaring above the surrounding mountains like a spire. Its steep sides were snowbound and blinding white in the morning sunlight, but the mountain’s peak was too sheer and tall even for snow. It loomed far, far overhead, naked and gray-white, a porcelain knife set against the pale sky.
“That’s the Shaper Mountain?” Miranda said when she could speak again. “How does anyone live on a slope like that?”
“Not on,” Slorn answered. “In.”
Miranda frowned and looked again, squinting against the glare. Sure enough, the tiny dark spaces beneath snowy overhangs that she had first taken to be shadows were now clearly windows. There were balconies as well, each placed so elegantly along the mountain’s natural cliffs that Miranda would never have spotted them if not for the faint glimmer of the icy railings. Panes of glass flashed between the snow banks, and at the end of the pass she could just make out the unnaturally straight edge of what looked like a door set deep in the mountain’s base.
“The upper body of the mountain is given over to the Shapers for their work,” Slorn said. “In return for its protection, leadership, and instruction, the Shapers serve the mountain and work in its name.”
Miranda shivered. “And what kind of work does a mountain need done?”
“All kinds,” Slorn said with a toothy smile. “Though only the Great Teacher understands how it all fits together.”
“You’ll see soon enough,” Slorn said, standing up. “Let’s get moving. We have far to go.”
Miranda looked back at the mountain. It didn’t seem that far away. But she obeyed and walked back across the camp to wake up Gin. The hound was already up and waiting when she reached him, his orange eyes narrow and guarded as he watched Slorn’s wagon pack itself. He answered her “good morning” with a gruff snort, and though Miranda tried several times as they packed their camp, that was all the comment the hound would make.
Though the mountain looked like it was only a few miles away, the distance was deceptive. Knife’s Pass was an endless corridor between the lesser peaks, a straight, flat slab of rock large enough to march a legion down walled in by two featureless stone walls. Ahead, the Shaper Mountain rose over everything else, filling the end of the pass, but no matter how fast they ran along the smooth road, it never seemed to come any closer.
The sun was high overhead when the end of the road finally came into sight. Gin was panting hard, his feet swollen after running full out for miles on the hard stone. Slorn slowed the pace, and Miranda started to thank him on Gin’s behalf when she realized that Slorn had not slowed for them.
Just before the towering spire of the Shaper Mountain took over everything, the mountains fell away. The ground simply stopped, leaving an enormous gap of empty air between them and the Shaper Mountain. As they got closer, Miranda saw that it was a canyon. The divide cut between the rest of the mountains and the Shaper’s peak like a sword stroke. At the very bottom, a deep blue, freezing cold river glittered in the noon sun, but it was so far away that Miranda couldn’t even hear the sound of the water, only the endless wind howling between the cliffs.
The road, however, did not stop. A bridge of arching stone just wide enough for two carts running side by side spanned the enormous divide, linking Knife’s Pass to the mountain on the other side. The bridge was all one piece, a great length of curved rock that sprouted like a branch at one end from the stone under their feet and on the other from the roots of the Shaper Mountain itself. There were no railings, nothing to save a careless traveler from plummeting into the ravine, but the bridge itself was free of ice, and Slorn’s wagon stepped onto it without hesitation.
With a nervous swallow, Miranda followed, leaning with Gin into the wind that threatened to toss them both into the canyon below. She was so focused on not falling that she didn’t notice Slorn had stopped until she was past him. She turned around, nudging Gin back until they were pressed against the wagon.
“What’s wrong?” she shouted over the wind.
Slorn looked down at her from his seated position on the wagon’s roof, his small bear ears blown flat by the wind. “Things might get a little tense in the mountain,” he said. “No matter what happens, I need you to stay calm and follow my lead.”
Gin began to growl. “What do you mean ‘tense’?”
“You’ll see soon enough,” Slorn said, starting his wagon forward again. “Just stay with me and everything will be fine.”
Gin snorted, sending a poof of white vapor into the air that was instantly snatched by the wind. “If he thinks we’re just going to roll over—”
“Gin!” Miranda said sharply.
The hound shut his mouth, and Miranda pushed him forward. She didn’t like this any more than he did, but they’d come too far to stop now. All she could do was press herself flat against the ghosthound’s back and follow Slorn’s wagon across the final half of the ravine.
The bridge ended at a sheer wall in the mountain’s side, the smooth stone road butting up against an unnaturally straight, unnaturally square cliff. The wind here was stronger than ever, buffeting them against the cliff face. Miranda kept low on Gin’s back, her eyes darting up the mountain for another path, but there was nothing, just the bridge and cliff. She was about to ask Slorn where to go next when a loud crack sounded over the wind. More cracks followed until the ravine sounded like a breaking glacier, and then, all at once, the cliff opened.
An enormous slab of stone twice as wide as Gin was long swung into the mountain with a long scrape, revealing a cavern larger than anything Miranda had seen before, including the Relay chamber below the Council. For a moment, she just stood, gawking at the sheer size of it, the perfect smoothness of stone so white it seemed to glow as it arched up to the domed ceiling. It was only when Gin began to growl that she realized they were not alone.
Just inside the stone door, a sternly handsome older man with a long, white beard stood with his arms crossed, as though he’d been waiting. Two younger men flanked him on either side. They were all strangely dressed. The two younger men wore what looked like work shirts and simple trousers, but the cloth was nice enough to take the front window in the best Zarin shops. The old man, however, was dressed in a padded silk robe finer than any Miranda had ever seen.
It was the old man who broke the silence. He lifted his chin, eyes narrowing as he looked Slorn over from boots to ears. “Heinricht.”
“Guildmaster,” Slorn answered, his deep voice strangely flat.
The old man’s expression wavered, and for a moment he looked almost heartbroken. Then the stern frown was back, and he flicked his fingers. At the signal, the two men stepped forward, each carrying a pair of iron cuffs. Slorn held out his hands as the men lay the cuffs on his arms, one at the wrists, one farther up at his elbows. They held the cuffs in place as the iron rings fastened themselves with a dull clank.
“Wait just a moment,” Miranda said, sliding off Gin’s back. Forget staying calm, this was ridiculous. “What’s going on? What are you doing?”
“They’re arresting me,” Slorn said, lowering his bound arms.
“As you knew we would,” the old man said, his voice as deep and solid as the mountain beneath their feet. “You knew the punishment for leaving, Heinricht. Why did you return?”
“Nivel is dead,” Slorn answered. “I’ve come back to honor my duty as a Shaper and return our knowledge to the Teacher.”
One of the men who’d cuffed him looked at Slorn with a sneer. “What knowledge could a deserter have for the Teacher?”
“Knowledge has no faction, Krevich,” the Guildmaster said.
The young man blushed and bowed his head, but the Guildmaster didn’t look at him. His eyes never left Slorn. “You may bring your knowledge to the Teacher. As for the outsider you’ve brought”—his eyes flicked to Miranda—“leave. This is no place for Spiritualists.”
“Spiritualist Lyonette brings knowledge as well,” Slorn said before Gin’s growling could get any louder. “My story would be incomplete without hers.”
The Guildmaster’s face darkened, but he turned and walked away without another word, his beautiful silk robe moving with him. The men grabbed Slorn and marched him inside, the sound from their boots echoing through the beautiful cavern. After a moment of hesitation, Miranda followed, guiding Gin into the Shaper Mountain as the enormous door swung closed behind them.
“And there they go.”
Sparrow slid down the icy rock and tossed the spyglass to Tesset. “I told you this was going to end in tears.”
Tesset caught the spyglass and stowed it carefully in his belt pouch. “No one’s crying yet.”
“Sara will when she hears that her sea on a leash and pet bear are gone for good,” Sparrow said. “Assuming she could do something so human as cry.”
Tesset didn’t reply. Sparrow shook his head and pulled his now-ratty coat closer. It didn’t help. The wind on the cliffs above Knife’s Pass was cold enough to freeze his bones. “No point in dragging it out,” he said, fishing the Relay link out of his pocket. “Let’s face the music.”
He twirled the Relay link until it turned bright blue. Since Sparrow didn’t have enough spiritual presence to wake up an awakened sword, Sara had created his link to activate when it was shaken. She’d given him a huge lecture about this when she’d handed it over. Fortunately, Sparrow hadn’t wasted his time listening.
It took Sara an uncommonly long time to answer the Relay. When her scratchy voice finally did speak, she sounded harried and annoyed.
“No luck,” Sparrow said. “Papa bear and Banage’s darling were swallowed by the mountain. We couldn’t catch them, which should come as no surprise, seeing how you failed to provide us with either a walking cart or a ghosthound.”
Sara’s voice grew thoughtful. “So they were going to the Shapers.”
“Of course they were,” Sparrow snapped. “Where else would they be going up here?”
“With Slorn, you never know,” she said. “Anything else to report?”
“Yes,” Sparrow said. “We’re coming home. I’m sick of being poorly dressed and freezing. And since there’s nothing left for us to—”
“Don’t be stupid,” Sara said with a puff from her pipe so vivid Sparrow could almost smell the smoke. “The job’s not done. This Empress situation is getting out of control. I need Slorn and the Spiritualist girl’s sea more than ever. Actually, Tesset, are you there?”
“Yes, Sara,” Tesset said, straightening up.
“I want you to come back to Zarin. I’m headed down to the desert for a few days and I need someone here whom I can trust to deal with Myron.”
Tesset arched an eyebrow. “Myron?”
“The Whitefall in charge of the army,” Sara said, yawning. “He seems to think I’m made of Relay points.”
“Isn’t there someone else?” Tesset said, scratching his stubbly chin. “It’s a long walk back to Zarin just to run interference on a Whitefall.”
“No one he’ll like,” Sara said. “He’s a military man. He’ll like you. And that’s an order, so stop questioning it.”
Tesset furrowed his brows, giving the matter careful consideration. “It will take me a few days,” he said at last. “I’m not as young as I used to be.”
Sara sighed loudly. “Just do your best.”
“And what am I supposed to do?” Sparrow said. “Surely you have more members of the Whitefall family who need corralling.”
“I do,” Sara said. “But you’ve got your orders.”
“Sara!” Sparrow cried. “The bear man I get, but Miranda? I understand she has fantastic powers or whatever, but you and I both know you only pulled her into this to make Banage steam. Why should I have to risk my neck just so you can stick it to your—”
Sparrow snapped his mouth shut. He knew that tone in her voice.
“That’s better,” Sara said. “Tesset, report to Zarin. Sparrow, your orders stand. Secure the Spiritualist and the Shaper and bring them to me.”
“And how am I supposed to do that without Tesset?” Sparrow said. “In case you forgot, Miss Lyonette doesn’t feel too kindly toward our office at the moment. Even if I get to her, she’s not going to just come back. What do you want me to do, arm wrestle the ghosthound?”
“You’re charming,” Sara said. “Figure it out.”
Sparrow flopped back against the icy rock in disgust, but the link’s light was already fading. Sara had severed the connection.
He shoved the orb into his pocket with an exasperated huff. “Can you believe this?”
“That Sara is being unreasonable?” Tesset said, buttoning his coat. “Of course. What Sara have you been working for that this behavior comes as a surprise?”
“And you’re just going to abandon me?” Sparrow said, his voice pathetic.
Tesset didn’t even have the decency to look hurt. “I’m going to do my job, as are you. I couldn’t help you in the Shaper Mountain anyway. It can see me, remember? Just make sure you get a good look around or Sara will never forgive you.”
“Right, right,” Sparrow said, rubbing his eyes. “She must be distracted not to mention that angle. This Empress thing really has her on edge.”
“If the Immortal Empress doesn’t put you on edge, you’re a fool,” Tesset said, lacing his boots tight. “Good luck.”
Sparrow nodded, but when he looked up, the older man was already gone, jogging down the path and picking up speed with every tireless step. With a frustrated groan, Sparrow pushed himself up from the rock. He shrugged off what was left of his brocaded coat and tossed it on the ground. Then, dressed only in his drab pants and shirtsleeves, he began to walk along the ledge toward the Shaper Mountain, fading instantly into the gray landscape.
Eli sat on the prow of the schooner, sulking at the blue ocean that spread out in all directions. Ahead of him, the shadowy peaks of the islands of Osera dominated the horizon. Eli sulked at them too. They’d made record time to the coast, thanks to him. Not an hour after Josef had announced they were suddenly and inexplicably going to Osera, Eli had found an express carriage. After a little excessive bribery, the driver somehow found time in his schedule to take them from just south of Zarin to the port at Sanche in a little over a day and a half. At the port, Eli had found a private fishing schooner willing to take them to Osera the very next morning, well before the commercial ferries. It was nothing short of a miracle that they were on the ocean at all right now, but Eli might as well have saved his miracle making for all the thanks he got.
Josef had been in high dudgeon since they’d left the bounty office. He hadn’t said more than a syllable at a time the whole trip. This wasn’t remarkable in and of itself, but considering that Eli was bending over backward to get them to Osera for as yet unknown reasons, the swordsman’s silence irked him more than usual.
Eli sighed and fought the urge to scratch under his wig. They were deep in civilized lands now, where people actually read bounty posters, and he didn’t have the luxury of running around like he usually did. The golden wig wasn’t enough to fool anyone who was actually looking for him, but it was fine at throwing off the casual glances. It was also unbearably hot. Even sitting on the prow with the sea wind in his face and the slightly fishy shade provided by the lofted nets, Eli could feel the sweat crawling down his scalp. But no matter how bad it got, he kept his hands on the railing. The ship wasn’t big, and the sailors had enough to talk about with Josef’s swords. The last thing they needed was for bored, curious fishermen to start wondering why the blade-covered man’s business partner was wearing a wig.
He was just starting to work himself into a really foul mood when something soft touched his arm. Eli jumped and nearly fell off the boat. He grabbed the railing and turned to see Nico standing beside him.
“Don’t do that!”
“I said hello,” Nico said, sounding a little hurt.
Eli took a deep breath. “Sorry. What can I do for you?”
Nico shrugged and sat down beside him. Eli shifted uncomfortably. They’d never really talked about what had happened in the valley, but he liked to think that he and Nico were square these days. Still, it was hard to tell where you stood when the other party in the relationship never said more than five words together under the best of circumstances. After several awkward moments, he tried again. “I don’t suppose Josef has told you why we’re rushing to Osera?”
“No,” Nico said, looking down at the water. “He hasn’t said anything.”
Eli was immediately sorry he’d asked. The girl looked heartbroken. He glanced over his shoulder toward the back of the boat where Josef was standing with the Heart in his hands, practicing his stances. He looked so calm as he brought the enormous sword around (narrowly missing a tied-off line, much to the crew’s displeasure) that Eli wanted to strangle him.
“Who does he think he is?” Eli growled, turning back around. “We’re supposed to have a plan when we enter a new country. We would have had a plan three days ago if I’d had my way, but no. I don’t know what he expects us to do when we land in Osera. Powers forbid he actually tell us anything.”
Nico shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sure he has his reasons.”
“Oh, I’m sure he does,” Eli said. “I just wish he’d share them. We’re supposed to be a team.”
For the first time in days, Nico smiled a little. “Well, we were the ones who decided to come along. I suppose we can’t complain if he doesn’t share plans that he didn’t want us along for in the first place.”
“I can complain about anything,” Eli said, straightening up. “And if you ever quote that back at me, I’m never speaking to you again.”
Grinning at her arched eyebrows, Eli spun on his heel and walked off to find the captain to ask, yet again, how much longer this unbearably long boat ride was going to take.
Nico listened to Eli’s light footsteps until they were lost in the crashing waves. Fifteen steps, she noted to herself. Fifteen steps from a famously light-footed thief on a rocking ship in the middle of the sea. She gripped the railing until her already-white fingers were the color of bleached bone. It wasn’t her imagination. Her hearing was getting better.
And it wasn’t just her hearing. Ever since she’d taken back her body from the demon, her strength had grown as well. Her night vision was now better than her normal sight, and she could smell the tiniest traces of scents lingering days after whatever had made them was gone. She could hear the turning of the sleeping spirits and the laughter of the winds as they rushed overhead. But all this she could accept. It was reasonable that her senses would get better now that she was her own master. What didn’t make sense, what she couldn’t accept, was that she wasn’t just seeing the world more clearly. She was seeing things she’d never seen before, things that were not there.
Nico tilted her head back, squinting up at the clear sky overhead. At first, she saw nothing but the sky, deep blue and cloudless. Then her eyes adjusted, and she saw them. High overhead, great things—she had no other name for them—streaked through the air. They were as faint as shadows, but they were always there, swimming through the sky in great colorless coils, turning and flashing so quickly it made her nauseous.
The snakes in the sky weren’t all she saw, the strange things were everywhere: in the boat, in the sails, in the nets. Unlike the things in the sky, these were stationary, twitching only slightly, mostly when Eli walked by. The sea, however, was roiling with half-seen shapes. They flowed with the waves, thousands of millions of little sparks swimming in and out of each other.
The first time she’d seen the shapes was the day after she’d beaten the demon. They were so dim then, barely more than shadows, that she’d dismissed them as a trick of the light. But the trick never went away. Day and night she saw them like a second world over the real one. As the days passed and it was clear the things weren’t going away, she’d finally decided to talk to Eli. Other than Slorn, he was the only person who might know what they were. But just when she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him, Josef had declared they were going to Osera. Nico decided to keep her mouth shut after that. Whatever Josef needed to do in Osera, he had enough to worry about without her adding more.
Nico closed her eyes. When she woke up on the valley floor, it hadn’t occurred to her that she might be different. How stupid. You couldn’t be torn apart and rebuilt and expect to still be what you were. What had happened in Izo’s valley had changed her. Was still changing her. But whatever was different, whatever changed, she was still the master of herself. The demon was still buried. She could feel the rock in her mind keeping him down as clearly as she felt her own arms. The shadows weren’t his doing, but that almost made things worse. The demon she could deal with, but these new visions were alien and frightening. Every time she saw them, which was all the time now, she couldn’t help thinking that maybe she hadn’t been truly rebuilt that day. Maybe something was still missing, something important.
Maybe she really had gone mad.
Against her better judgment, Nico opened her eyes and looked up again, past the coiling snake creatures that streaked through the air and up to the sky itself. It was hard to make out under all the movement, but if she stood very still and focused on one spot, there was no mistaking it. There, at the very top of the world, something was moving. Something enormous, something sharp, dragging across the other side of the sky’s dome.
Fear closed over her like ice, and she slammed her eyes shut. It made little difference. From the moment she’d first seen the things clawing the sky, she could not unsee them. The dread followed her waking and sleeping, eyes open or closed, and through it all a thought went round and round and round her head, like a marble rolling around the inside of a bowl.
Only mad people saw shapes against the sky.
She stayed like that for several minutes, eyes shut, forcing her breath to remain calm. Finally, when she’d worked up the courage to open her eyes again, Nico looked over her shoulder at Josef. He was standing at the back of the boat with the Heart in his hands, moving through his stances. His face was blank, eyes half closed. To an outsider, he probably looked bored, a man going through a routine, but Nico had been watching him all her life that she cared to remember. She could tell he was upset as well as if he’d screamed it. It was written all over him: in the tenseness of his footing, the way his hands folded white-knuckled around the Heart’s hilt, the clench of his jaw. Something about this trip to Osera bothered him deeply, and until she found out what, and why, she could not add her fears to that burden, no matter how desperate she got. Whatever had changed in her that day in the valley, nothing could change the fact that Josef was the center of her life. He was her partner, her savior, the one person who had never done her wrong, who had always believed in her even when there was nothing to believe in. Whatever he needed out here in the middle of the sea, she would help him reach it, and no madness, no bizarre other world that crept across the real one would keep her from being whatever he needed her to be.
That thought alone drove the fear back, and Nico gripped it like a lifeline as she turned again to face the islands rising like swords from the sea.
Seen on a map, the kingdom of Osera looked like a wall separating the Council’s eastern seaboard from the wild waters of the Unseen Sea. Though even those who lived there called their land “the island,” the kingdom of Osera was not one island, but dozens, a long line of mountaintops rising vertically from the ocean along the Council coast. Most of these islands were uninhabitable, their sloping sides too steep for anything other than sea birds, but at the center of the chain the islands grew wider, and there was room for people, especially on the island of Osera itself.
Even on its largest island, Osera was like a wall. Over fifty miles long, the main island Osera measured barely twenty miles at its widest point. Dominated by the peak at its center, the island was constantly sloping. This slope was long and gentle on the Council side, but steep and short on the side facing the Unseen Sea. Because of this quirk in geography, and the fact that the face the island turned to the open ocean had borne the brunt of the Empress’s attack, the eastern side of the island had been left to ruin. After the war, Osera had turned its back on the sea and the Empress, embracing the Council’s new prosperity by covering its gentle western slope in city.
“Covering” was the right word. Buildings on the island’s western slope crowded every inch of land that was flat enough to lay a foundation. Tiny streets ran seemingly at random, following the flattest paths upward or sideways along the mountain and sometimes changing into stairs without notice when the island’s geography took a sudden turn for the vertical. The farther up the mountain the buildings climbed, the shorter and narrower they became, clinging to the mountain’s rising cliff like barnacles. But down by the water, the buildings were tall and broad, a busy tangle of workshops, warehouses, and shipyards spilling out onto Osera’s pride and greatest source of wealth: the marina.
The marina ran nearly unbroken for thirty miles along the island’s western edge. Docks jutted far into the calm water of the protected channel that ran between Osera and the Council coast. Endless lines of moored ships waited their turn to be unloaded and reloaded by the armies of barefoot dockworkers while captains did business on the large, permanently moored barges that served as mobile offices for the hundreds of trading companies that called Osera home.
Eli’s ship tied in at one of the long sloops jutting from the floating tangle of deepwater docks at the center of the marina. Josef hopped off the moment they stopped moving, and by the time Eli had worked out a payment for the schooner captain that was large enough to make sure the old man didn’t remember them should anyone ask, but not enough to send him bragging in the taverns and drawing unwanted attention, the swordsman was halfway to the island. Nico trailed behind him, a black blot in the bright sun.
With a final, frustrated sigh, Eli pressed the gold coins into the captain’s hand and jogged down the planks after his companions.
“Well,” he said, raising his voice over the squawk of the sea birds. “Here we are. Do you have further directions to find your queen, Mr. Cryptic, or shall we just turn ourselves in at the local bounty office?”
Josef didn’t even honor that comment with a sneer. “We’re going to the palace,” he said, boots clattering on the wooden boards.
“The palace?” Eli fell in step beside him. “Of course. Brilliant. Where else do you find queens? Out of idle curiosity, what’s your plan for getting into said palace?”
“We’re going to walk up to the front gate and ask the guard.”
Eli nearly tripped. “Are you out of your bleeding mind?”
He would have said more, but Nico elbowed him hard in the back. He grunted and gave her a hurt look over his shoulder. She didn’t even have the good grace to look apologetic, just pressed her finger to her lips and glanced pointedly at the sailors crowded on the dock beside theirs, most of whom were now unloading their cargo suspiciously slowly with their ears turned toward Eli.
Eli shoved his hands in his pockets. “The question still stands,” he said, albeit more quietly. “All you had to do was say, ‘Eli, I need to get into a castle’ and I could have done it in a heartbeat, but no. You’ve apparently taken too many hits to the head to remember that you’re traveling with a master thief. And since you never thought to share any of your magnificent plans, I don’t have anything ready. No false papers, no aliases, no nothing. That kind of throws a kink in the whole front door plan.”
“Really,” Josef grumbled.
“Really,” Eli grumbled back. “I never saw a palace that just let random people in off the street, especially not when one of them was carrying enough blades to open his own armory, but maybe I’m just being negative.”
Josef stopped and turned to face the thief. “Are you done?”
Eli opened his mouth and then snapped it shut and threw out his arms for Josef to lead the way. Shaking his head, Josef resumed his march down the wooden dock and into the packed, tangled streets of the city itself.
Put out as he was, Eli enjoyed the walk. For a country burned to the ground by the Immortal Empress, Osera looked remarkably well. Narrow streets merged into large courtyards strung with vines that shaded merchant stalls of every sort. The buildings were brightly painted and cheery, and though their upper stories loomed over the streets, the vertical nature of the island made it impossible to feel claustrophobic. Every corner came with a grand view of the port below, and, narrow as they were, the streets were impeccably clean, probably because of the constant wind tunneling down them from the mountain above.
Nothing in the city looked old or dilapidated. Everywhere Eli looked he saw new construction, most bearing the clean architecture and ornate accents that had come into style with the Council’s rise. Every building had glass windows, tiled roofs, and iron window grates that grew only more ornate as they climbed away from the docks. Storefronts showcased impressive displays behind large picture windows. In the space of two blocks, Eli saw clothes, fabrics, cheeses, pastries, and metal goods as fine as any in Zarin. Tastefully painted signs advertised restaurants that, this close to noon, were full of well-dressed men and a few women. Eli could almost smell the money in the air, and he was beginning to wonder why he’d never come to Osera before.
Josef led the way, forging a path upward through the busy streets and toward the top of the island. He kept his eyes ahead and said nothing, and Eli, thoughtful friend that he was, took the opportunity to do a little digging.
“So,” he said, pushing through the crowd until he was walking beside Josef. “You’re from here, right?”
“Yes,” Josef said without looking at him.
“Not what I expected,” Eli said, smiling as they passed through another of the vine-shadowed merchant squares, this one with a large, ornate, bronze fountain done in a fanciful representation of a whale gushing water from its enormous mouth. “I’d always heard Osera was an island of barely reformed pirates, terrible weather, and fish smokehouses. This place rivals Zarin.”
Josef stopped to let a cart go past. “Being burned to the ground leaves a lot of room for improvement.”
“But all this?” Eli said. “In twenty-six years?”
Josef shrugged, picking up the pace again. “Osera bore the brunt of the war so the inner kingdoms didn’t have to. In return, the Council waived most of our sea-trade tariffs. That’s the kind of thing that can make a small country rich enough to build just about anything.”
Eli grinned. “So I see. My only question now is what to steal first.”
“Nothing,” Josef said.
Eli’s smile faded. “Why not?”
“Because we’re not going to be here long enough for you to steal anything,” Josef snapped. “We’re going to the palace, hearing what the queen has to say, and then we’re leaving.”
“What?” Eli cried. “Wait, wait, wait. That’s it? That’s why you dragged us all the way out here? Powers, Josef, if we’re just going to tell this queen to shove off, why did we even come?”
“Because even I feel guilty sometimes,” he said. “Now come on. And shut up. The last thing we need is more attention.”
Eli stopped, affronted. The street was packed with people on their own business. No one so much as glanced their way. Still, when Josef was this prickly it never did any good to push him further. So with great difficulty, Eli kept further opinions to himself as he stomped up the hill after Josef and Nico.
The sun was high and hot overhead when Josef finally stopped them. Eli fell against a building, panting. “Please tell me we’re there,” he said, fanning himself. “We’ve been walking for years.”
Josef rested his hands on the swords at his sides, infuriatingly untouched by the heat or the long climb. “Almost,” he said, nodding across the street. “There’s the palace.”
Eli looked up. The road ahead opened into a large square. It was the most open space he’d seen since arriving in Osera, and the flattest. They were on the mountain’s shoulder, a long stretch of relatively flat land before the final assent to the peak. The buildings surrounding the square were as rich as any Eli had seen in any country, but the square itself looked old and almost shabby. There were no shady vines, fountains, or merchant carts, just open stone baking in the noon sun. The crowds were thinner here as well, mostly men in formal dress carrying leather cases and looking very important.
They were very high now. To the west, Eli could see the whole of the city stretching down the mountain like a mushroom forest made of red-and-yellow-tiled roofs, but looking east, the view was entirely different. At the edge of the square, the mountain’s sharp peak rose dramatically, and wrapped around it was a building unlike any Eli had seen in Osera. The palace of Osera was a hulking mass of rough-cut, weatherworn stone wrapped around the mountain like an ugly scarf. What windows it had were narrow as arrow slits, and its roof was tiled with stone shingles worn white by time and rain. There was no proper gate or guardhouse. Instead, the palace’s face fronted directly onto the square, its tiny windows glaring down on the lovely modern buildings below like the squinty eyes of a disapproving old man.
Staring up at the old, ugly, ungainly mess, Eli felt crushingly disappointed. If the brightly colored city below had been modern and inviting, the building in front of them was gloomy and aggressive, more like a lonely fortress on an embattled front than the royal palace of a prosperous, modern nation. Just the sight of it was enough to kill any joy left lingering from the beautiful climb up, not to mention Eli’s fledgling dreams of a glorious heist.
“Lovely,” he said at last, fiddling with his wig.
Nico shot him a nasty look, but Josef didn’t even seem to hear. The swordsman wiped a spare bandage across his face to clean off some of the day’s grime, and then, tying the bandage tight around his wrist, started across the square like a man beginning his death march. Eli and Nico exchanged a final, worried glance before falling in behind him.
The front entrance to the palace was protected from the main square by a guard box, a wooden structure slightly larger than a shed, attached to the castle wall beside the narrow main gate. There were two guards on duty that Eli could see, and they came out to stand at attention only when Josef had cleared the center of the square and was obviously headed their way. The guards wore minimal equipment, just a simple chain jerkin under their uniform jackets and a short sword like the ones at Josef’s hips, but they carried their swords like they knew how to use them, which was more than Eli usually expected of gate guards. The men kept their faces blank as Josef approached, but their hands were on their sword hilts when he stopped in front of them.
The older guard gave them a long, disdainful glance. “Business?”
Josef pulled himself straight. “I am Josef Liechten Thereson Eisenlowe, here to answer the queen’s bounty.”
Eli gritted his teeth. Trust Josef to find the baldest way to say anything. He eased his feet carefully, ready to jump if the soldiers made a move to arrest his idiot swordsman. But, to his surprise, the guards didn’t budge.
“Josef, you say?” The older guard looked at his companion, who seemed to be smothering a laugh. “And do you have proof?”
“What proof do I need?” Josef was starting to sound annoyed. “Show me to the queen and that should be proof enough.”
This time the younger guard did laugh. “If I had a silver for every time I’d heard that one…”
“We wouldn’t be working here,” the older guard finished. He grinned and turned back to Josef. “Listen, idiot, the queen doesn’t have time to go over every two-bit con who says he’s Josef Liechten. If you’re going to try and impersonate a long-lost prince—”
“Prince?” Eli said before he could stop himself.
The guard gave him a funny look. “Aye, prince. As I was saying, if you’re going to try and impersonate a prince, at least have the decency to clean up a bit. Look at you—knives head to foot, scars, worn boots, you look like a highway bandit.” The guard snorted. “At least the last fool who claimed to be Josef Liechten had a crown. That was a nice touch. ’Course, it got all bent when we sent him packing, but you can’t complain when you’re scamming, can you?”
“But I am Josef Liechten,” Josef said, his voice tight with anger. He pointed inside the guard box, where his wanted poster was prominently displayed. “Look at the picture.”
The guard didn’t turn around. “I seen the picture,” he said, crossing his arms. “Drawn by some Council hack off the account of some witness who probably didn’t witness anything. I’ve been working at the palace for close to twenty years. I saw the prince plenty of times when he was a boy. He was a handsome lad. I find it frankly insulting, you coming up here saying Queen Theresa’s son’d grow into something like you.”
Josef took a deep breath. “You won’t take me to the queen?”
“No,” the guard said. “Now shove off before I do it for you.” And with that the guard spat on the ground by Josef’s foot.
Josef didn’t move. He just stood there with his hands clenched so tight on his swords that his arms were beginning to shake. Beside him, Nico was easing into a fighting stance, preparing to back Josef the second the swordsman moved. It was clear things were about to get bloody, and bloody was not how Eli liked to start his jobs, planned or not. Clearly, it was time to step in.
“Well,” he said cheerfully. “I guess that’s that.”
Nico, Josef, and the two guards all turned to look at him.
Eli gave them a large smile. “Can’t fault a fellow for trying, can you, gentlemen?” he said, his voice bright as the noon sun. “I don’t suppose you’d believe I was Eli Monpress, would you?”
The guards stared at him for a moment more, and then they burst into laughter.
“Powers,” the older one said, wiping his eyes. “No offense, friend, but you three look like beggars. Monpress is stinking rich. Wasn’t even six months ago he robbed Gaol blind, so I hear. You do look like him, though. I’ll give you that. ’Cept for the hair, of course.” He eyed Eli’s blond wig. “Tell you what.” The guard reached into his pocket, pulling out a silver coin and tossing it at Eli. “Take this and get out of here. Go get a haircut and some better clothes, and then you come back and try that line again next shift. I’d love to see Wallace handle Eli Monpress at his door, the old stuffed shirt.”
“Next shift,” Eli said, catching the coin neatly. “I may just do that. What time?”
“Eight o’clock even,” the guard said.
“Much obliged,” Eli said. With a final, farewell grin, he grabbed Josef’s arm and began to steer the swordsman back across the square. “Thank you, gentlemen. You’ve been exceedingly kind.”
The guard waved. “Shove off. And if Wallace guts you later, you got none to blame but yourself.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Eli called. “Good afternoon.”
The guards started laughing again and walked back into the guard box. Eli kept grinning the whole way across the square. When they were safely out of sight around a building, he dropped the smile and slammed Josef against the wall.
“Prince?” he shouted. “You’re a prince and you never told me?”
Though he could have broken Eli’s hold easily, Josef let it stay, leaning in to the wall at his back. “Not anymore.”
“Well, your mother’s a queen,” Eli said. “That sounds like a prince to me.”
“Eli.” Nico’s hand closed on his shoulder. “Stop it. Now. I’m sure Josef had his reasons.” She looked at Josef. “Didn’t you?”
Josef glowered at them. “Do I need reasons?”
“Oh come on!” Eli cried. “What kind of a question is that? I thought we were partners. I thought we were friends. How do you just go hiding something like that? Never mind all the times before, how do you justify hiding it when you’re bringing us back to your own country to turn yourself in?”
“Because I’m not a prince anymore,” Josef growled. “I told you before. And I am your friend. That’s why I let you come along.”
Excerpted from The Spirit War 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.
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