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Seated on the Rosethorn Throne, Elena studied the riddle be- fore her. The small stranger, dressed in a patchwork of silks and linens, appeared just a boy with his smooth and unlined face-but he was clearly no youngster. His manner was too calm under the gazes of those gathered in the Great Hall. His eyes glinted with sarcastic amusement, bitter and road-worn. And the set of his lips, shadowing a smile, remained both hard and cold.
Elena felt a twinge of unease near the man, despite his illusion of innocence.
The stranger dropped to one knee before her, sweeping off his foppish hat. Scores of bells-tin, silver, gold, and copper, sewn throughout his clothes-jangled brightly.
A taller figure stepped to the tiny man's side-Prince Tylamon Royson, lord of Castle Mryl to the north. The prince-turned-pirate had forgone his usual finery and wore scuffed boots and a salt-scarred black cloak. His cheeks were ruddy, and his sandy hair was unkempt. He had arrived at the island's docks with the rising sun, requesting immediate audience with Elena and the war council.
The prince bowed to one knee, then motioned to the stranger. "May I present Harlequin Quail? He has come far, with news you should hear."
Elena motioned for them both to stand. "Rise, Lord Tyrus. Be welcome." She studied the newcomer as he rose to his feet amid another chorus of jingling. The man had indeed come from afar. His face was oddly complexioned: a paleness that bordered on blue, as if he were forever suffocating. But it was the hue of his eyes that was the most striking-a shining gold, full of a wry slyness.
"I'm sorry for disturbing you so early on this summer morning," Lord Tyrus intoned formally, straightening his disheveled cloak as if noticing for the first time his sorry state.
Er'ril, Elena's liegeman and husband, spoke from his station beside the throne. "What is this urgency, Lord Tyrus? We have no time for fools and jesters."
Elena did not have to glance to the side to know the Standi plainsman wore his usual hard scowl. She had seen it often enough over the last two moons as sour tidings had been flowing into Alasea: supply chains to the island cut off by monsters and strange weather; townships struck by fires and plagues; ill-shaped beasts roaming the countryside.
But the worst tidings struck closer to home.
Elementals, those rare folk tuned to the Land's energy, were succumbing to some dread malaise. The mer'ai were losing their sea sense and their link to their dragons; the elv'in ships could not fly as high or far; and now Nee'lahn reported that the voice of her lute was growing weaker as the tree spirit faded inside. Clearly whatever damage had been inflicted upon the Land by the Weirgates was continuing its onslaught. Elemental magicks waned as if from a bleeding wound.
As a consequence, the press of dwindling time weighed upon them all. If they were to act against the Gul'gotha, it must be soon-before their own forces weakened further, before the gifts of the Land faded completely away. But their armies were spread wide. As matters stood, the campaign against the Dark Lord's stronghold, the volcanic Blackhall, could begin no sooner than next spring. Er'ril said it would take until midwinter to position all their armies; and an assault upon the island then, when the northern seas were beset with savage storms, would give the advantage to Blackhall.
So spring at the earliest, when the winter storms died away.
Elena had begun to doubt whether they'd be ready even then. So much was still unknown. Tol'chuk had yet to return from his own lands; gone these past two moons with Fardale and a handful of others, he sought to question his og're elders about the link between heartstone and ebon'stone. Many of the elv'in scoutships had not returned from reconnaissance over Blackhall. The d'warf army, led by Wennar, had sent crows with news that their forces yet gathered near Penryn. The d'warf captain wanted more time to rally his people. But time was short for all of them.
And now this urgent news from afar.
Lord Tyrus turned to his companion. "Harlequin, tell them what you've learned."
The tiny figure nodded. "I come with tidings both bright and grim." A coin appeared in his hand as if conjured from nothing. With the flick of a wrist, he tossed it high into the air. Torchlight glinted off gold.
Elena's gaze tracked the coin's flight as it danced among the rafters, then fell. She startled back on her throne upon finding the strange man now toe-to-toe before her, leaning in. He had crossed the distance in a heartbeat, silent despite the hundred bells he wore.
Even Er'ril was caught by surprise. With a roar, he swept out his sword and bared it between queen and jester. "What trick is this?"
As answer, the man caught the falling coin in an outstretched palm, winked salaciously at Elena, then backed down the two steps, again jangling with a chorus of bells.
Lord Tyrus spoke up, a cold smile on his face. "Be not fooled by Harlequin's motley appearance. For these past ten winters, he has been my master spy, in service to the Pirate Guild of Port Rawl. There are no better eyes and ears to sneak upon others unaware."
Elena straightened in her seat. "So it would seem."
Er'ril pulled back his sword but did not sheathe it. "Enough tricks. If he comes with information, let's hear it."
"As the iron man asks, so it shall be." Harlequin held up his gold coin to the flash of torchlight. "First the bright news. You've cut the Black Heart a deeper wound than even you suspect by the destruction of his black statues. He's lost his precious d'warf army and is left with only men and monsters to defend his volcanic lair."
Tyrus interrupted. "Harlequin has spent the last half winter scouting the edges of Blackhall. He's prepared charts and logs of the Dark Lord's forces and strengths."
"How did he come by these?" Er'ril grumbled.
Harlequin stared brazenly back. "From under the nose of the Dark Lord's own lieutenant. A brother of yours, is he not?"
Elena glanced to Er'ril and saw the anger in his eye.
"He is not my brother," her liegeman said coldly.
Elena spoke into the tension. "You were inside Blackhall itself?"
Harlequin's mask of amusement cracked. Elena spotted a glimpse of something pained and darker beyond. "Aye," he whispered. "I've walked its monstrous halls and shadowed rooms-and pray I never do so again."
Elena leaned forward. "And you mentioned grim news, Master Quail?"
"Grim news indeed." Harlequin lifted his arm and opened the fingers that had clenched around the gold coin. Upon his palm now rested a lump of coal. "If you wish to defeat the Black Heart, it must be done by Midsummer Eve."
Elena frowned. "In one moon's time?"
"Impossible," Er'ril scoffed.
Harlequin fixed Elena with those strange gold eyes. "If you don't stop the Black Beast by the next full moon, you will all be dead."
Meric ran the length of the Stormwing. His feet flew across the familiar planks, hurdling balustrades and leaping decks. His eyes remained fixed to the skies. Through the morning mists, a dark speck was visible high overhead, plummeting gracelessly out of the sky. It was one of the elv'in scoutships, returning from the lands and seas around the volcanic island of Blackhall.
Something was wrong.
Reaching the prow of his own ship, Meric lifted both arms and cast out his powers. A surge of energy billowed through his form and into the sky, racing upward to flow into the empty well that was the other's boat's iron keel. Meric fed his power, but the plummeting ship continued its dive toward the waters around A'loa Glen.
As he fought the inevitable, Meric felt the weight of the other ship upon his own shoulders. He was driven to one knee as the Stormwing, drained of its own magickal energies, began to drift lower toward the docks.
Gasping in his exertions, Meric refused to relent. Mother above, help me!
He now saw with two sets of eyes: a pair looking up and a pair looking down. Linked between the two ships, he felt the weak beat of the ship's captain, Frelisha-a second cousin to his mother. She was barely alive. She must have drained all her energies to bring the ship even this close
Below, Meric whispered into the wind. "Do not give up, Cousin."
He was heard. Through his magickal connection, the last words of the captain reached him. "We are betrayed!"
With this final utterance, the heartbeat held between Meric's upraised hands fluttered once more, then stopped forever.
"No!" Meric fell to his other knee.
A moment later, a huge shadow shot past the starboard rail. The explosion of wood and blast of water nearby were a distant echo. Meric slumped to his planks, head hanging. As alarm bells clanged along the docks and shouts rose in a chorus of panic, one word whispered from his lips: "Betrayed . . ."
Seated in the Grand Courtyard of the castle keep, Nee'lahn watched the children pause in their play as bells rang along the docks beyond the stone walls. Her own fingers stopped in midstrum on the strings of her lute.
Something had happened at the docks.
A few steps away, little Rodricko lowered his stick, a pretend sword, and glanced to his mother. His opponent in this playful sparring match-the Dre'rendi child Sheeshon-cocked her head at the noise, her own fake sword forgotten.
Nee'lahn rolled to her knees and swung her lute over a shoulder, bumping the thin trunk of the koa'kona behind her. Leaves shook overhead. The fragile sapling was thin-limbed and top-heavy with summer leaves-not unlike the male child that was its bonded twin.
"Rodricko, come away," Nee'lahn said, reaching out to the boy. Rodricko was all limbs and awkwardness. Thank the Mother, his initial growth surge is about over. Both tree and boy would grow into their forms more gradually from here.
"Sheeshon, you too," Nee'lahn added. "Let's see if the kitchens are ready with your porridge."
As Nee'lahn straightened, she dug her bare toes into the rich loam at the base of the tree and took strength from the energy in the soil. She readied herself to enter the stone halls of the castle. Reluctant to leave, she drew the strength of root deep inside her.
Around them, the gardens of the Grand Courtyard were in the full bloom of summer. Tiny white flowers garlanded the ivy-encrusted walls. The dogwoods stood amid cloaks of fallen petals. Red berries dotted the trimmed bushes that lined the crushed white-gravel paths. Most glorious of all were the hundreds of rosebushes, newly planted last fall. They had blossomed into a riot of colors: blushing pinks, dusky purples, honeyed yellows. Even the sea breezes were given color and substance by their sweet fragrances.
But it was more than beauty that held her here, for only in this courtyard were her past, present, and future gathered in one place: the lute that held the heart of her own beloved, the sapling that sprang from the seed of her bonded, and the boy who represented all the hopes of the nyphai people.
Sighing, Nee'lahn tousled the mop of sun-bleached curls atop Rodricko's head and took the boy's hand. So much hope in such a little package.
Sheeshon reached to take Rodricko's other hand, the webbed folds between the Dre'rendi girl's fingers marking her as a link between the seafaring Bloodriders and the ocean-dwelling mer'ai. Rodricko joined hands with her. Over the past moons, the two children, alike in their uniqueness, had become all but inseparable.
"Let's see if the kitchens are ready," Nee'lahn said, turning.
She stepped away, but Rodricko seemed to have taken root in the soil. "Mama, what about the bud song? You promised I could try."
Nee'lahn opened her mouth to object. She was anxious to learn what had arisen at the docks, but already the alarm bells were echoing away.
"You promised," Rodricko repeated.
Nee'lahn frowned, then glanced to the tree. She had promised. It was indeed time he learned his own song, but she was hesitant, reluctant to let Rodricko go.
"I'm old enough. And this night the moon is full!"
Nee'lahn found no way to object. Traditionally among the nyphai, the first full moon of summer was when the young bonded with their new trees, when babe and seed became woman and tree.
"Are you sure you're ready, Rodricko?"
"He's ready," Sheeshon answered, her small eyes surprisingly certain. Nee'lahn had heard the child was rich in sea magicks, an ability to sense beyond the horizons to what's to come. The rajor maga, it was termed by the Dre'rendi.
"Please, Mama," Rodricko begged.
The dock bells had gone silent.
"You may try the bud song; then it's off to the kitchens before the cook gets angry."
Rodricko's face brightened like a sun coming through the clouds. He turned to Sheeshon. "Come on. I have to get ready."
Sheeshon, always the more sober child, frowned. "You must hurry, if we have to finish before the kitchen closes."
Nee'lahn nodded. "Go ahead, but don't be disappointed if you fail. Maybe next summer . . ."
Rodricko nodded, though clearly deaf to her words. He crossed to the tree and knelt on limbs nearly as thin as the sapling's branches. Now would be the moment when all the fates would either come together or fall into disarray, for Rodricko was the first male nyphai. Both sapling and boy were unique, the result of the union of Nee'lahn's tree and the twisted Grim wraith Cecelia. Who knew if the ancient rites, songs, and patterns of growth would hold true here?
Nee'lahn held her breath.
Rodricko touched the tree's bark, drawing a fingernail down through the thin outer coating. A droplet of sap flowed, and the sapling's treesong rose up from its deep thrum and quested out for Rodricko. Nee'lahn listened with both ears and heart. The boy was either attuned to the song, or he would be rebuffed. She was not sure which she hoped. A part of her wanted him to fail. She had been given so little time with him, less than a single winter . . .
Rodricko used a rose thorn to prick a finger, drawing blood. He reached his wounded finger toward the flow of sap.
"Sing," she whispered. "Let the tree hear your heart."
He glanced over his shoulder toward her, his eyes shining with his fear. The boy sensed the weight of the moment.
Sing, she willed to him silently.
And he did. His lips parted, and as he exhaled, the sweetest notes flowed forth. His voice was so bright that the sun seemed to grow pale in comparison. The world grew dark around the edges, as if night had come early, but around the sapling, a pool of luminescence grew brighter and brighter.
In response, the sapling's own song swelled, like a flower drawn to the sun. At first tentatively, then more fully, boy and sapling became transfixed in treesong.
At that moment, Nee'lahn knew the boy would succeed. Tears flowed down her cheeks with both relief and loss. There was no turning back. Nee'lahn could feel the surge of elemental magick from boy and tree, one feeding on the other, building until it was impossible to say where one began and the other ended.
Two songs became one.
From the Hardcover edition.