It was her talent for tracking magic that got Anna Zhdanov sent to catch a thief. A scholar's daughter sold as a bond servant, she has no desire to recover the Emperor's jewel for herself. But a chance to earn her freedom has driven her to the untamed Andelizien province, awash with warm breezes, lapping waves, and more danger than she could possibly guess.
Within days her cover as an indolent noblewoman is in question, and it's clear there's more to Anna's task than she knows. Soon she's the captive of the unpredictable pirate captain Andreas Koszenmarc, hunted by the Emperor's guard, besieged by a brigand queen, and at odds with her only friend. She must trust someone if she is to survive. But when all that's certain is that everyone is hiding something, it's no simple thing to choose . . .
Praise for A Study in Honor
"...a hell of a good novel... A Study in Honor turns out to be one of those books I find impossible to put down. I want the sequel immediately." (Tor.com)
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The innkeeper at Iglazi had promised her ruins — magnificent, ancient ruins, which surely dated from an age before the Empire conquered these islands. He had not uttered the word romantic, but that was implicit in his description of the tumbledown walls covered with vines, the courtyard and its statues, and his breathless mention of an underground passageway.
Anna Zhdanov surveyed the expanse of broken stone before her. There were walls, yes, if you counted that knee-high mound of rubble as a wall. Here and there she spotted the remains of statues as well, though these were more dust than stone. The man had not exaggerated about the vines, at least. These ruins stood in the midst of a tropical forest, after all, with vines growing in profusion over everything except this desolate square.
A breeze sifted over the stones, carrying with it the scent of overripe flowers and the fainter tang of salt. Anna shivered, in spite of the heat.
Magic vibrated in the air. She felt its echo in her bones; she could almost hear the chants of priests from a civilization long dead.
What had brought Lord Aldo Sarrész to this strange and lonely place?
Her horse shifted underneath her, as if sensing her uneasiness.
It was just a case of nerves, she told herself. Over the past three months, the search for Aldo Sarrész had led her from the city of Duenne, the heart of the Empire, through half the western provinces, and across the ocean, to this island called Vyros in the midst of the Eddalyon archipelago. Everything here felt alien, from the dense jungles and the overbright sky to the sense of ancient magic permeating the stones. She reminded herself that once they completed their mission, she could leave the islands behind and go home to Duenne. Besides, as the supposed Lady Vrou Iljana, she had a reputation to uphold. Folly. Extravagance. A taste for excitement. Anything to explain why she had insisted on this most improper and possibly dangerous outing.
Her two companions in this adventure drew their horses next to hers. Both were men skilled with sword and knife. Both of an age between forty and fifty and, by accident or planning, they had the same sharp-cut features and ruddy brown complexion of the northeast provinces as she did.
At Lukas Raab's signal, the six young men who served as their guards obediently arranged themselves in a loose circle. Raab had hired these men from Iglazi's local market, where the free swords often gathered, and he'd spent the past three days drilling them in proper military discipline. With little success, apparently, because Maté regarded the men with a faint air of exasperation.
With a sigh, Maté turned away from the guards and indicated the ruins. "Well, Lady Vrou. Does this please you?"
"I don't know." She sighed in return. "Perhaps. It is a ruin, to be sure. And it is ancient."
The hired guards exchanged amused glances. Anna could tell what they thought: here was yet another eccentric noblewoman seeking adventure. Even though that was precisely what she intended them to believe, she still wanted to box their ears, the hypocrites. According to Raab, these young men were all the sons of minor nobles, who had come to Eddalyon with a small allowance and large taste for gambling. Having squandered their money, they hired themselves out as common guards to avoid bonded servitude.
They had no way of knowing their Lady Vrou Iljana Klos was really Anna Zhdanov, a bonded servant herself, ordered by HÀªr Lord Brun to recover the valuable artifact Sarrész had stolen from the Imperial court — and not just any artifact, but a rare magical jewel said to be a gift from the goddess Lir herself. One the Emperor depended upon for his endless wars to expand the Empire's territory.
Maté knew her identity, as did Raab, but then, they served the same master.
"Raab," she said. "What do you think?"
Raab shrugged. "I think you are hungry, Lady Vrou."
Maté scowled. Anna tried to calculate the best response. The Lady Iljana would reprimand a servant, but Anna Zhdanov knew who actually commanded this mission. "I am hungry," she said. "But I would like to know if I am safe as well. That is why my father hired you."
One of the guards choked down a laugh. Raab shot a glare at the man but managed to tamp down his irritation. Perhaps he too considered the roles they had to play.
"I have not forgotten," he said stiffly. "If my lady will excuse me, I should inspect the grounds. Kovács, come with me. You three" — he pointed to the three closest guards — "take the outer watch. The rest of you stay with our Lady Vrou."
He and Maté dismounted and tethered their horses. The three guards he indicated dismounted as well and moved to the perimeter of the square. The others settled into their saddles. They were not bad young men, Anna thought, merely foolish. She wished she could have set out on today's expedition with only Maté and Raab, but no one jaunted about in the wilderness without half a dozen guards, especially not a member of the nobility. And though she was only pretending to be a noble, the risk was very real, here on the edge of the Empire.
A risk she had agreed to, in spite of all the dangers. HÀªr Lord Brun knew Anna all too well, damn him. Deliver Sarrész and the jewel by autumn, he'd said, and she would not only receive a generous sum of money, but he would sign all the papers, pay every Imperial clerk, to cancel her bond. She might travel wherever she liked, live however she wished, instead of depending on his goodwill. She would be free.
I could buy a pair of rooms for myself. One for my books. One for my bed and a fireplace to cook my breakfast. And a lock on the door ...
She swung down from her horse and tossed the reins to the nearest guard. Thoughts of doors and locks and the absence thereof made her restless. She set off across the empty square, ignoring the ripple of magic beneath her boots. Walking wasn't enough to drive away those memories, but it was all she had.
I told him yes. But what does yes mean when no means less than nothing? I had no home, nowhere else to go.
She fetched up against the opposite boundary of the square. For a moment, the stones did not register, nor the forest beyond. She still saw Brun's face, that assessing gaze of his, as he calculated whether to use seduction or the age-old rights of nobles over slaves and bonded servants. In the end, he had not forced her — at least by the ordinary use of the word.
She blinked, and Brun's face dissolved, replaced by the impenetrable mass of green a few yards away. Sunlight beat down upon the open square, but the forest was dark even at this late morning hour. Off to one side, the hired guards were muttering among themselves, no longer sounding amused or bored. No doubt they had heard tales of brigands and pirates along Vyros's coast. So had Maté, who disliked this expedition and had expressed that dislike, in spite of all the clues that led them here.
"My lady. Lady Vrou."
Maté burst from the forest at a jog, with Raab close behind. Both were breathless, as though they had galloped a mile up the mountainside. With great effort, she pretended to yawn. "What is the matter? Did you discover a ferocious mouse?"
Neither man laughed, and Raab glanced around at the guards, as though to reassess their worth. Maté's expression was much harder to read. Excited? Anxious? She could not tell.
"Nothing so terrible, my lady," Raab said. "But we've discovered a far better prospect for your picnic."
"Ah, interesting." Anna looked toward Maté. "And you, what do you say?"
He shrugged with a fair show of indifference. "Our friend is correct for once. We've come across the perfect site for you — an exquisite patch of shore, with an equally exquisite expanse of ocean." His voice dropped low, in an imitation of their innkeeper's breathless tone. "Indeed, it cannot be matched elsewhere."
Sarrész, she thought. He's found a clue.
"Excellent," she said. "Let us mount up and you shall lead me to this nonpareil view."
* * *
A narrow trail, little more than a gap in the forest, brought them down from the summit to a wider path. Anna noted the carefully tended road with growing unease. This was not another work of priests from centuries past. Someone had cleared away the tangle of trees and vines, someone else had paved sections with bricks and stones against the late- summer rains, and those someones were most likely bandits smuggling goods over the mountain. She wiped the sweat from her face and wished the air wasn't as close or as humid.
Raab had placed himself directly behind Anna, while Maté took the lead. Neither of her companions had spoken for the past hour. Their guards, those young and feckless creatures, rode silently at the rear. Perhaps they understood both men considered them expendable, a mere barrier in case brigands did appear.
As soon as the path widened enough for two to ride abreast, Anna urged her horse forward next to Maté. "Was he there?" she asked quietly.
Maté glanced back toward Raab, then to the guards.
"I believe so," he said just as softly. "We found evidence of a large company, ten at least. They built a fire and buried their garbage, all very neat, which tells me our friend Sarrész hired professionals."
The bondsmaid Iouliana, back at the inn, had mentioned a company of expensive guards, but Anna had not believed her. Sarrész was the younger son of a minor lord, with only a small allowance from his father. She remembered seeing him once or twice in Lord Brun's household. A man of middle years, his manner smooth, his smile much too easy. He must have borrowed the money for the ship's passage to Eddalyon. He had definitely borrowed more from Iglazi's moneylenders, but gossip said he had spent as much as he received.
Maté's voice sank lower. "They shifted six or seven stone tiles outside the temple walls and dug a hole at least three feet deep. One of the tiles had been marked with an X in grey paint, nearly invisible against the stone. The hole was empty, of course."
Oh. That was significant.
Their theory said Lord Sarrész would seek a buyer for the jewel as soon as possible. Clearly, he had not found one on the mainland. Just as clearly, the matter had proved more doable in Eddalyon. Anna had heard the rumors about the trade in legitimate and not-so-legitimate goods throughout the islands. Even so, anyone who dared to buy the Emperor's jewel would have to do more than produce enough gold. They would have to know a second market, one where they could dispose of the jewel before the Imperial forces caught up with them.
"He found a buyer," she said flatly. "The trade did not take place."
"No," Maté agreed. "My first guess is Sarrész cheated his buyer. He took the money, kept the jewel, and fled back to the mainland, where he will repeat the game as many times as he can. He's a greedy man, Lord Sarrész."
She nodded slowly. "That fits his character. What about the guards?"
"The guards are the flaw in my theory," he admitted. "If Sarrész meant to run off with the jewel and the money, he'd never take them along. At the same time, we didn't find any sign of an ambush by the temple. This trail we're following shows tracks from a large mounted company. I suspect a third party was involved."
Anna wanted to ask more about this supposed third party, but they had already talked longer than usual for a lady and her servant, even if that lady did have a reputation for flouting rules.
It was such a delicate balance, this disguise Brun had insisted upon. Lady Vrou Iljana had access to the same nobles Lord Sarrész would, and no one questioned Anna when she inquired about her old friend, under whatever name he used. But there were boundaries even the most eccentric noble dared not cross, and Anna was certain she had violated them more than once.
And then there was the secrecy Lord Brun had imposed ...
With a sigh, she drew rein to let Maté resume the lead, while she turned over the implication of his words.
Sarrész had arrived on Vyros twelve days before them, showering silver and gold on the servants at the inn. The girl Iouliana had chattered on about his charm, his habit of bedding the servants, his odd comings and goings around the city, and his curiosity about the trade between the islands. Though he called himself HÀªr Lord Gerhart Toth, it was obvious he was the man they were hunting.
And he came this way not three days ago.
Patience, she told herself. They had nearly caught up with Sarrész on several occasions, and each time, the interval between their arrival and his escape had grown shorter. Certainly this time they would succeed.
Two more hours passed. They rested the horses frequently, but Anna could tell the beasts were weary from the long, long descent. She was about to ask Maté if they ought to pause again when they rounded another bend and the silent green forest broke open into sunlight and the roar of surf.
Maté had already reined his horse to a stop. He tilted his head back and sniffed. Now he glanced over his shoulder. "Vrou?"
She caught the uptick in his voice. "Yes? What is it?"
"The shore lies ahead, as you can see, but I've sighted an object that might interest you. An item from before the Empire days ..."
Sarrész. He had come this way. The hired guards were listening, however, so she kept her voice bored. "Tscha. You've promised me exotic memorabilia before, Kovács. Is this thing any different?"
"I make no guarantee, Lady Vrou. If you would prefer to ride on —"
"No, no. Let us examine this curiosity of yours."
She dismounted with an air of impatience. Maté took charge of her reins and tethered both their horses to a nearby tangle of roots. Anna had not missed how her mare flicked her ears back and forth, while Maté's normally placid gelding trembled under his touch. Anna sniffed, just as Maté had done, but the air was too close, too thick with scents from flowers and trees and the nearby ocean.
Raab ordered two of the guards to take up positions ahead. The others remained to the rear, while Raab himself dismounted. All of them had their weapons drawn and ready.
Maté too had a blade in hand as he crept into the undergrowth to their left. Once, twice, he stopped and sniffed. Then suddenly he plucked up an object from the ground. He beckoned to Anna.
"What is it?" she said softly, once she had reached his side.
"Our first tangible clue."
He said the word tangible as though it were a magical word.
Anna crouched amongst the vines and bushes and examined the clue. In his palm lay a short length of wire. Maté's eyes were not upon the wire, however. She followed the direction of his gaze down and to the right.
Vines and bushes grew thickly here, but they could not hide the signs of battle. All those leaves crushed, the branches trampled, the dirt churned up.... She sniffed again and caught the unmistakable scent of rotting flesh.
Theory number three. The buyer — or that possible third party — had lured Sarrész and his guards away from the temple and its open square into the forest, where they were forced into a single file. And here, within sight of the shore, the ambush had taken place.
"Where are the bodies?" she whispered. "Or did they take prisoners?"
"I doubt they bothered with prisoners," he said. "No, they dumped the bodies in the ocean, though they missed one or two, which accounts for the stink. Sloppy work," he muttered. "Though truth be told, I don't see why they bothered. Our friend was here, however."
Was. Silently she uttered a curse on Aldo Sarrész's soul. Three months chasing after the man, only to find him murdered at someone else's hands. Lord Brun would not be pleased. Notpleased — dear gods, what an inadequate phrase. Anna shuddered at the thought of how Brun might express his displeasure.
Meanwhile, Maté continued to examine the ground. The attackers had strung metal wire across the path to dismount their quarry, he told her. They had attacked using crossbows to take down the rest. The guards had fought hard, but all signs pointed to the party being overwhelmed and everyone slaughtered. Even three days later, splashes of blood marked the leaves and brush.
"Someone dragged a body here," he murmured. "We might get a clue ..."
Before she could ask which body, or what kind of clue, Maté plunged into the thicket of bushes, hacking at the vines with his sword. The guards were muttering openly now. A sharp comment from Raab silenced them, but Anna could sense their nervousness. She could hardly blame them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Jewel Bright Sea"
Copyright © 2019 Claire O'Dell.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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