by Jaki Demarest

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback)


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780671032685
Publisher: Pocket Books
Publication date: 08/01/1999
Series: Shattered Light Series
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 4.21(w) x 6.77(h) x 1.08(d)

First Chapter

Chapter 1 Raf came instantly awake as something pelted him. With a sharp hiss he rolled off his cot and came up in a single smooth motion, throwing knives in hand. He was trembling in every limb with the sudden rush of adrenaline.

"Who's there?" he whispered, feeling like an idiot for asking. "Pellar, is that you?"

"Wakey waaaakey time, my lovelies!" a cheerful feminine voice announced, a voice with the faint but distinctive twang of Tycor's northern provinces. Tazira. It could only be Tazira. Raf's green-gold eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness of his chamber, and he could just make out a tall, black-furred, infinitely familiar shape against the whitewashed wall. Tazira.

"Good morning, Captain," Raf saluted her dryly, replacing his knives and recovering his accustomed dignity. "Or is it still evening?"

Pellar, the chamber's other occupant, snorted derisively at that. "You ask that as if it mattered, Raf," he yawned. His cream-colored fur rippled as he stretched, and Tazira narrowly suppressed a jealous sigh. She would have killed for fur like that, or for those detestable sky-blue eyes of his. Not that she'd ever admit as much to him, but Pellar was easily the most beautiful mrem in Tycor.

With another luxuriant yawn, Pellar picked up his thread of pontification where he'd left off. "Ever since the Great Fall, there's been at least one sun in the sky at any given time. I really don't know why we persist in keeping up the artificial, old-fashioned distinction between morning and evening." He pulled back the heavy, dark red drape from the chamber's sole, narrow window to accent his point; the green sun was high in the sky, and the blue was dawning.

"Perhaps we persist in our illusions because the Old Ways still bring us a sense of continuity, fluidity, and dignity in a blasted world --" Raf began placidly, but was cut off by a low growl from Tazira.

"As much as I love listening to your philosophical debates," she drawled, "we don't have time. Varral Romney is asking for us."

"Val?" Pellar asked, frowning. "At this hour? Any idea what's up?"

"Other than us? No idea." Their captain shrugged with disheartening honesty. She started to pace the small stretch of bare wood floor between the cots and the door, her long white-tipped tail lashing with nervous energy. "But whatever it is, it's bad enough that he's summoning all three of us into the presence chamber in the middle of the night, rather than trusting it to anyone else. And judging from the mood in the palace halls, I'd say no one else has heard about it, whatever it is."

"We're summoned to the presence chamber? Not the great hall?" Raf frowned, his short gray fur bristling slightly. Tazira glanced up at him, nodded, and resumed her pacing. "Not the usual form," he murmured. "Definitely something he wants kept quiet. What should we bring?"

"'Civilian clothing' was all the messenger said. So, as much as I'm enjoying the view," she purred, giving them both a lazy, amused perusal, "I'd suggest you dress. I'm going armed to the back teeth, myself."

She made a slow, exaggerated pirouette for comic effect, mimicking the high-fashion models of the pre-Fall era. True to her word as always, she was indeed armed to the back teeth, and beyond if possible. There were throwing knives in both her knee boots, two francisca hand axes at her hip, and a large pouch of spellstones on her belt. And her great axe, the improbably named Black Bessie, was strapped across her back for that final bit of overkill.

Her garb was a nondescript ensemble of blacks and grays. Surprisingly close to tasteful, coming from a woman whose usual civilian wardrobe ran a narrow gamut from bold to garish. She couldn't be trying to blend with the locals; no mrem could hope to blend too closely with a largely human population. She might have been anticipating a potential assignment outside the safety of the city walls. Whatever the case, Raf planned on following suit, figuratively and literally. Gray and black were about the only colors he ever wore, anyway.

As for Pellar, Raf doubted he'd be able to resist his usual apparel: something that accented his eyes or highlighted his pale fur, something in the first stare of fashion. The older mrem's whiskers arched with amusement, but he kept the thought to himself.

"My dears," Tazira sighed, "I honestly have no idea what we re about to walk into. All I can suggest is that you be ready for absolutely anything. Now, you won't have any room to dress with me in here, so I'll just take myself out into the hall, where I can pace to my heart's content."

"Will your tail be lashing majestically as you pace?" Raf teased her laconically.

"Love, only for you." She smiled as she walked out. For her, it was an oddly subdued response, and one that betrayed her worry more than any words could have done. Raf and Pellar exchanged a knowing glance at that, and dressed quickly.

A contingent of four Guards awaited them at the door to the presence chamber. It was the usual number, and did not suggest that anything was out of the ordinary. Dano, Hallir, Alima, and Cain were on duty that night, exactly as they should have been. Tazira made a brief study of their faces; the three new recruits seemed a bit on edge, and Dano looked positively furious. Oh, yes, they knew something was going on, and they were undoubtedly being kept out of it.

"Captain, Lieutenants, Sergeant Dano saluted the trio crisply. "You're expected. If you'll please follow me?" He bowed and led the way in as the tall, dark wood door opened before them.

"Any idea what's goin' on, son?" Tazira asked him under her breadth, quirking an eyebrow at him.

"No idea, Captain. I'm sorry," he whispered, "There's obviously a problem, but no one's seen fit to tell the Guard about it." The stubborn set of the human's jaw told her exactly how he felt about that, if she needed to look. She closed one large golden eye in a conspiratorial wink, and Dano grinned in spite of himself. The sergeant saluted the trio and headed back out to the corridor, and the heavy door was closed behind him. For the moment, they were alone.

The presence chamber was a small, intimate room with plain white plaster walls, high, dark wainscoting, and a fraying burgundy carpet. It was Varral Romney to the core, functional and unprepossessing, a room in which a soldier would be comfortable. A large, rectangular, highly polished creothwood table dominated its surroundings, and the only decoration the room boasted was a pre-Fall personal computer, a graceful, useless beige thing with softly flowing lines.

Tazira's gold eyes darkened as she contemplated that relic and the soft, sane world it had been apart of. She'd never known that world. She was thirty-five, born in the fifteenth year after the Fall. To her, Raf, and Pellar, life had been nothing but a constant struggle to survive, a battle against nightmares made flesh in a world no longer theirs to command. For her part, the life suited her well enough; she was a soldier, and she doubted she would have been at home anywhere else, even in a softer world. But she'd often caught herself wondering what Raf and Pellar might have made of themselves if the Fall hadn't come, if the monsters and the magic hadn't come, if technology and physics hadn't failed so utterly.

The graceful and clever Pellar could have been a diplomat, a detective, a spy, a jewel thief. An actor. Something exotic that took advantage of his polish and address. And Raf, what might he have become? A professor at one of the great universities, she realized, glancing over at him. He was standing at perfect attention, waiting calmly for Romney to appear, the picture of elegance, poise, and long-whiskered dignity. Raf would have been a philosopher, reading, writing, lecturing, and pontificating to his heart's content. The comers of her mouth arched downward in a wry grin, silently betraying a sudden surge of affection for them both.

Then again, she thought, without a trace of bitterness, humans created mrem to be soldiers. I suppose there's no sense wondering if we might have been anything else.

"I honestly don't know why Val keeps that relic," Tazira sniffed at last, flicking the tip of one ink-black ear in the computer's direction. "It's not like it'll ever work again."

"I think I can tell you exactly why he kept it," Raf murmured. Just as he was about to elaborate, the small door at the other end of the chamber swung open, admitting Varral Romney, Third Lord Tycor.

"Truth be told, that particular model didn't work too well even before the Fall," Romney admitted in the harsh, strident voice that had once belonged to a captain of the Tycor Guard. The position, and the strident voice and manner, had long since fallen to Tazira.

"Val!" the woman laughed delightedly, and they met in a great bear hug, throwing propriety to the winds as usual.

"Tazira, my girl, you look well!"

"So do you, Val, so do you?" she lied with a bold laugh. Oh, Val was attractive enough, at least as far as humans went: tall and barrel chested, dark skinned, with a shock of close-cropped silver hair and piercing black eyes. He bore his fifty-eight years extraordinarily well. But he'd been drinking more heavily of late; that and the pressures of command were beginning to show themselves.

"How are these ruffians treating you?" He gestured toward Raf and Pellar with comic expansiveness. They bowed in unison, much more concerned with the social niceties than either Tazira or Romney.

She shrugged "Same as usual."

"That bad, eh?"

"Oh, they're wretched," their captain sighed dramatically, fighting off a grin and not succeeding. "I mean, look at 'em! They let me come in here looking like an old gray dishrag, while they got dressed for court!"

Pellar looped his tail in amusement, and Raf's whiskers arched wryly on one side to acknowledge the left-handed flattery. Pellar's ensemble was a flawlessly chosen taupe, practical enough for the streets and roads, but a subtle complement to the darker points of his ivory fur. And Raf...well, Raf would have had that same effortless elegance no matter what he wore. But his civilian garb, a slightly darker gray than his fur, was every inch as well chosen and beautifully tailored as Pellar's. Tazira looked at them, then looked down at herself, sighed, and gave up for the moment. Romney took one of her black-furred hands in his and kissed it gallantly.

"Foolishness, madam!" he chided her. "You'd be the most beautiful woman at any court in Delos. I'm fortunate enough to have you in mine."



"I wish you were mrem, Val," she rolled her eyes at him teasingly.

"I wish you weren't," he quipped, completing the oldest in-joke that existed between them.

"Oh, but enough of this," Tazira said, half smiling and half growling. "You and I could flirt all day, but I'm sure you didn't call us in here for our charming company." With that, she shot him a searching glance. Raf and Pellar continued to watch him impassively.

"True enough, my friends," the human admitted grimly. "Though the company is always welcome. The fact is, we've got a problem. No...I've got a problem. It doesn't affect Tycor, just my ability to rule it." He paused, half expecting a barrage of questions. When the three of them had served under him in the Tycor Guard, they'd all been about twenty years younger, and wet behind the ears. Their patient silence now was all the difference between the brash kittens they'd been and the seasoned professionals they'd obviously become. Romney smiled to himself and continued.

"Tonight," he said as calmly as he could manage, "someone walked off with the Great Seal of Tycor."

Pellar nodded as if he'd been expecting something like that, Raf arched an eyebrow, and Tazira drew in a short, sharp breath. She laced her hands behind her back tightly, itching to pace the chamber, but forcing herself to stand at attention.

"Can't you have another one made, in secret?" Pellar suggested.

"Even if it were possible, and I doubt we still have the technology, I couldn't do that without admitting that the original is gone," Romney muttered. "And some might be inclined to take that as a sign that it's time for the Cycle of Houses to change. Worse, anyone presenting himself at court with it will be proclaimed Lord Tycor instantly, no matter who he is or how incompetent he is. The Great Seal is a pre-Fall symbol, one of the few we have left, and I have no doubt that the people will cling more tightly to that symbol than they will to me. Go ahead and pace, Tazira; I can tell that you want to."

"Thank you, sir," she breathed, tail lashing as she walked briskly back and forth. Her pacing and tail lashing were hallmarks, and a source of endless affectionate teasing from her friends. Even her soldiers tended to call her Old Lash, partly for her tail and partly for her taskmastering. The "Lash" part she didn't mind. The "Old" part she pretended not to mind. Raf smiled to himself as he watched her, but didn't tease her for once.

"I don't think I need to tell you, my friends, that I have no intention of stepping down gracefully in the event of a challenger." Romney sighed. "I worked too damned hard to free Tycor from the Tyrant's rule, and so did you, for that matter. I'm well aware of the fact that I owe my current lofty title to the three of you. And now, I need you to help me keep it."

"We will, milord," Raf said quietly.

"Any dues as to who took the shardblasted thing, and how?" Tazira asked, steadily wearing down the burgundy carpet with her paring.

"Actually, we do have a sketchy physical description. Tall and muscular, with shoulder-length dark brown hair and blue eyes. Bit of an unkempt beard. Lanky and provincial. Answers to the name of Jain Riordan."

"Well, that's something, at least," Pellar looped his tail almost cheerfully. "It's much more than I was expecting, this early in the game. If you know who he is and what he looks like, you must have some idea of how the theft was accomplished."

"We do, at that." Romney nodded, lacing his hands behind him. "It had to have been done by a wizard, or by someone who had magical assistance. The safebox I kept it in was locked and heavily warded."

"Who created the wards?" Pellar asked him, one eyebrow arching in graceful contemplation. There was nothing on Delos Pellar enjoyed so much as having a puzzle to solve.

"Daman Najendra, one of my court wizards," Val replied. The Guardsmen nodded at that; they all knew him, if only in passing. "In fact, when the wards crashed, he was immediately alerted, and he managed to trace the Seal to an address in the city. It's currently resting, with its temporary owner, at the Gryphon Inn in Southgate."

"Damn it, Val, that takes an the fun out of it," Pellar grumbled. Raf shot his friend an amused and sympathetic glance.

"Can wizards really trace items that way?" Tazira's ears perked up suspiciously.

"Shards, woman, I don't know," Romney growled with affectionate exasperation. "I'm no bloody wizard. I have a few spells at my beck, like everyone else. But the wizards, they're another matter. Raised in the craft, most of them, proud of the fact, and dose with their secrets. I suspect that, like the rest of us, they're still discovering what can be done with the new influx of magic on Delos. But as to the limits of their abilities, if any, I have no choice but to take their word for it. Soon enough, they'll get fired of supporting those of us in power, and they'll take it for themselves, and there won't be a flaming thing we can do about it. I just hope, selfish wretch that I am, that it doesn't happen in my lifetime." He sighed, suddenly looking old, as if that simple admission had exhausted him.

"It won't happen in my lifetime, I promise you that," Tazira said quietly after a moment. "Not in Tycor, and not to you. But for the moment, let's settle for solving the current problem." Her friends nodded their agreement, and Raf picked up the thread of her thought, as he often did.

"You said the seal was at the Gryphon Inn, with a man calling himself Jain Riordan?" the mrem prompted gently.

"There, and likely to stay there until red dawn, according to Najendra," Romney nodded. "That should give you about another six hours."

"I don't know that it's worth depending on that assessment," Pellar murmured thoughtfully. "We'd better move out. Can we bring Najendra with us?"

"Unfortunately, no. He began a leave of absence about an hour ago."

"Convenient," grumbled the ever-suspicious Tazira.

"He'd asked for it weeks ago, and I have no reason to suspect him of any wrongdoing," Romney sighed, shaking his head. "I'll admit, it would be easier if we had him with us, but at least he left us a spelled ring capable of tracking the seal. The jewel will glow redder as you get closer to your target. Which one of you wants it?" he asked, holding it up. The oval, unfaceted jewel was a softly shining pale pink, for the moment.

Raf and Pellar glanced at their captain expectantly. After a brief thought, she took it and gave it to Pellar.

"You're the best tracker," she admitted. "Wear it in good health. Val, we'll be back as soon as we can manage this, and I promise you, it'll come out all right. Let's move out." Her long tail lashed as she headed for the door. Pellar followed in her wake, but Raf hesitated.

"Captain, permission to stay on a moment with Lord Tycor?" Raf asked her. She paused at the door, considering the request, and turned back to lock eyes with him.

"A moment, Lieutenant, no more," she said gruffly, and she and Pellar exited the chamber. Raf took no offense at her brusqueness; he never did.

"What is it, Raf?" Romney regarded him with undisguised curiosity. "And will you please call me Val? The others seem to manage. Humor me."

"This once, milord...Val," the mrem corrected himself, "I will. Because what I have to say to you, I'm saying as friend to friend, ignoring the impropriety of addressing one's liege lord this way."

"All right, I'm listening, son. But you're beginning to worry me."

"I don't think it's anything to worry about -- yet. But it could be. How much have you had to drink tonight?"

Romney froze, and his face became stonily impassive. "I don't think that's any of your concern, Lieutenant," he said coolly.

"How much?" Raf pressed him. The human flushed with anger and started to pace the chamber as furiously as Tazira would have. "And what about yesterday? And the day before that? Enough to relax you? Enough to be a problem?"

"Enough to -- " Romney began loudly, caught himself, and seemed to think better of his answer. He stopped his pacing, dosed his eyes, and took a deep breath, mastering his temper. "You know, Raf, if you were anyone else, even Pellar or Tazira, I honestly think I would throttle you right now. But I can't lay one finger on all that shardblasted dignity."

With a sigh of frustration he sat himself down in front of his pre-Fall computer. He stared numbly into its depths for a long moment, studying the soft reflection of his face in the darkened screen. The lines were blurred, but it wasn't the face of the boy who'd wasted good hours there, playing computer games before the Fall. It was the weathered face of an aging man who'd made hard choices, hard compromises with life and his integrity. Raf, with any luck, would never have to know what that was like.

"Hard choices aren't the sole prerogative of rulers, my friend," Raf said softly, as if in response to the other man's thoughts. Romney stared at him, unnerved, and he continued. "Believe me, I've known enough of command to know what it costs. I know the shifts you make, the choices you have to live with. But that's what life is. In the end, that's all it is, and all we are is the sum of the choices we've made, some good, some regretted. I've lost count of the number of times I've killed, to save myself, to save an innocent. To shield a friend. Each death is a choice. I'm choosing who lives and who dies. I'm choosing to continue to live, when death would be easier. You and I, Tazira and Pellar, your people, we've all made that choice. To live. To fight. You've had to become hard beyond anything you imagined you could be, when you used to play on that computer as a boy. That's what you're seeing now in your own reflection. And that's what you have to accept, if you want to live. That, ultimately, is the choice you have to make."

There was a long pause as the human looked up at him, considering him carefully.

"You know, Raf," he sighed at last, "I think that's the most I've ever heard you say. You were always the quiet one."

"Yes, I suppose I was. But it didn't mean I wasn't thinking."

"Clearly. I just didn't realize you were one of my wizards, all this time." He smiled a bit in spite of himself, and the tension in the chamber finally started to break. Raf arched his whiskers wryly, acknowledging the compliment.

"I'd better go join the others, sir," Raf said calmly. "Tazira will be spitting shards by now."

"Undoubtedly. And pacing her way through the floor." They shared a grin at that, and the lord of Tycor Keep rose from his chair and offered Raf his hand, in the Old Way. Raf took it, deeply honored by the gesture. "Good luck, my friend," Romney whispered.

"And to you, milord." The lieutenant bowed and silently left the chamber. The closing door had a dreadful finality about it, a hollow sound, like the sealing of a tomb. Romney stood and stared at the door for a long time, alone with his choice, and the blurring edges of his vision.

Copyright © 1999 by Catware, Inc.

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