Mags was once an enslaved orphan living a harsh life in the mines, until the King's Own Herald discovered his talent and trained him as a spy. Now a Herald in his own right, at the newly established Heralds' Collegium, Mags has found a supportive family, including his Companion Dallen.
Although normally a Herald in his first year of Whites would be sent off on circuit, Mags is needed close to home for his abilities as a spy and his powerful Mindspeech gift. There is a secret, treacherous plot within the royal court to destroy the Heralds.
The situation becomes dire after the life of Mags' mentor, King's Own Nikolas, is imperiled. His daughter Amily is chosen as the new King's Own, a complicated and dangerous job that is made more so by this perilous time.
Can Mags and Amily save the court, the Heralds, and the Collegium itself?
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The crow skimming the treetops with his mate cast an avid eye down to the ground below, looking for one last opportunity for a meal before taking to the branches for the night. It was about an hour to sunset, and although it was getting into autumn, the days here in the heart of Valdemar were still warm and the nights only pleasantly cool. Today had been perfect haying weather, cloudless, dry, and clear, and tonight was going to bring more of the same conditions. The crow approved of haying; it scared a lot of large and tasty insects and even rodents out where they were easy prey for a clever bird. It was certainly good weather for camping, which, it appeared, the owners of a most peculiar caravan were doing. The crow approved of camping, too, and headed in their direction. Caravans needed to be approached with caution, but sometimes there was food. Unwary toddlers could have their rusks snatched. There might be scraps or offal. Rarely, someone who appreciated crows might offer food freely!
Amily chuckled at the crow’s thoughts. She was enjoying riding along in his mind; it was purely a one-way excursion, as it was with all the animals whose eyes she used and whose thoughts she spied on. She hadn’t told Mags about this Gift yet; she wanted to talk to someone at the Collegia who might have a better insight into it. It wasn’t Animal Mindspeech. She couldn’t control the creatures she spied on. At the moment it seemed of very little use, and she hadn’t had it long.
Such caravans as the one standing below the crow tended to be at one extreme or the other—either very drab and utilitarian, the sort of thing used to move goods from one place to another and not meant to attract attention, or the very opposite, gaudily painted and elaborately ornamented. This one was . . . neither one, nor the other. It had been painted a plain white, except for the carvings that ornamented the roofline and the doors, and the shutters that could be closed over the windows to protect them from a storm, which had been painted dark blue. But at one point it had surely been painted as gaudily as you please, for there were designs of flowers and vines bleeding through the white paint. Faintly, but definitely there. It looked as if several coats had been applied, too. The original must have been truly powerful paint.
The caravan looked odd from this vantage. And the crow’s eyes picked out a lot of details that Amily had missed. Maybe this Gift might be useful for scouting, or even spying, but how would you get the animal in question to go where you wanted, look at what you needed to see, or listen to what you wanted to hear? Amily supposed that you could just search for random creatures that were near what you wanted . . . but that could end in a lot of frustration.
Two handsome horses of the vanner breed grazed, hobbled, beside it, as did two beautiful white beasts that no one in all of Valdemar would ever mistake for anything other than Companions.
Well, that wasn’t quite true. In the course of their Circuit, the six travelers had come across quite a few people who thought Companions were nothing more than white horses. Exceptionally trained white horses, but certainly no more than that. It irritated Mags and infuriated Jakyr, but Amily was used to people seeing only what they expected to see.
The crow found this even more promising, as he circled. He knew these white horses. Their riders were never cruel, often kind, and always well fed enough to offer a bite or two to a crow. The only question now was, did they like crows?
Amily chuckled silently. Of course she liked crows. Sometimes, before Bear had fixed her leg, crows had given her endless hours of amusement. They were among the first birds to come when she tossed bits of food, quickly learned not only to recognize that she wasn’t a threat, but to recognize her even at a distance, and their antics made her laugh.
The humans were camped some distance away from the road, and had followed a track between two sheep-meadows to get here. The van was parked beside a neat little building which anyone in Valdemar would recognize as a Waystation, but the four people from the caravan were not making use of it at the moment. The door was closed, with the bar on the outside still in place. There was a well, a proper one, with a stone wall around it and a wooden canopy over it, with a wooden hatch to keep it clean when not in use. And they had made use of that, for the bucket suspended under the canopy was still wet. They were all sitting on rugs spread on the grass around a fire. It appeared that they had gotten their dinner elsewhere, perhaps at an inn further back down the road behind them, and had brought it along to enjoy al fresco here, for the little fire certainly wasn’t serving any purpose other than to heat water for tea. Then again, given the young feast displayed on the rugs, there really was no need for a cooking fire now, and there were more than enough leftovers to serve for breakfast.
As the crow circled, his mate following him cautiously, Amily became aware that he really was hungry, and it wasn’t just corvid greed. She’d seen crows making off with their own body-weight in food and more, taking it elsewhere to cache it against a hungry day, but this fellow had a mostly-empty belly. She resolved to be generous.
Most of the eating seemed to be over with, and letter-reading had begun while there was still light to read by.
Not that the crow knew what “letter-reading” was. Amily was the one that recognized what they were all doing. Well, all of them but her. She was lying back on the blanket with her hands under the back of her head and her eyes closed. It was very odd seeing herself like this. It was not like looking in a mirror at all.
The crow landed, his mate after him. His mate hung back, though; much more wary of humans than he was. One of the people—currently perusing one of a packet of letters—was a woman dressed in Bardic Scarlets. She looked to be of late middle-age, not yet starting to go gray, but just beginning to show character-lines in her face.
Melita looks very imposing through a crow’s eyes.
A second, much younger woman, as quiet and brown as a sparrow, in fairly ordinary clothing (although her outfit featured breeches rather than a skirt), was lying on her back on the blanket, eyes closed.
Definitely very odd to see myself like this. A little unsettling too.
A third, a man in Herald Whites, about the same age as the first woman but with silver threading through the dark blond of his hair, was opening the last of his letters and gave a surprised chuckle when he saw the sealed envelope contained a second one.
I think I’ll pretend to be napping a little longer, this is very interesting.
The fourth human, a young man, dark of eye and hair, but in gray clothing not unlike the Herald’s, was packing up the leftovers. The crow gave a tentative caw, and he looked up, grinned and tossed a generous chunk of cheese in the crow’s direction, and a second toward the crow’s mate.
Both birds seized the bounty, and flew off. The crow was very well pleased. That cheese was enough to fill his belly for the night, and give plenty of time in the morning to find the next meal.
And I didn’t have to be generous after all. Mags anticipated me! Amily opened her eyes and sat up, ready to see what Herald Jakyr had found in his letter that was so amusing.
“Well, Mags,” Herald Jakyr said aloud, making Mags, who had been watching the crows fly off with a half-grin on his face, look in his direction. “It seems someone found a clever way to track you down without giving you away.”
Mags bit off an exclamation and took the sealed envelope, ripping it almost in half in his haste to get at it. “How in—” Mags said, and then plunged into the content of the several thick sheets of vellum that had been inside. With an amused smile, Amily took over the clearing-up where he had left off.
“Huh. This ain’t from . . . anybody I know. But it’s in Bey’s tongue.” He looked over the letter, which had very little writing on it. Then his eyes widened, and he pulled a bit of burning branch out of the fire. Holding the flame carefully under the vellum, he warmed each page up . . . and like magic, as the others watched too, tiny, brown writing appeared between the few scrawled lines.
“Mags, if you know that secret—” Jakyr said, when he’d closed the mouth that had dropped open in surprise.
“Wouldn’t do us no good,” Mags said shortly. “Needs a fruit we ain’t got.” He perused the letter, while Amily picked up the envelope and tried the same trick with it. Her attempt yielded nothing.
“Well?” Bard Melita (or just “Lita” to most) asked after a moment, with evident impatience. “What is it then?”
“Hang on, it’s from Bey, and it’s in . . . well, it’s in Bey’s tongue. I have to translate it, then puzzle it out.” Mags’ brows were creased with concentration—and then, relaxed with relief. “Well, he says the coast is clear, more or less. Nobody from the Sleepgivers is going to be looking for me no more.”
“I assume there’s more to this than the ruse we were planning on?” Herald Jakyr asked.
Mags nodded. “All right, let me take this one bit at a time. The first thing he writes is that he obviously got home safe. He says, once he got back home, he came up with a pretty fine story about comin’ across the last of the lot that was supposed to be comin’ for me at the Bastion, interceptin’ him at the border to Karse.”
Jakyr nodded. “That’s a good, plausible story.”
“Bey’s clever that way.” Mags puzzled through the next part of the letter. “This’s why the letter’s so long, he’s got a mort of things to tell me. All right. He told them all the feller was caught by the Karsites, got wounded and was dyin’. Bey gave over his talisman to his pa to prove his tale.” Mags scratched his head and looked up with a half-smile of rueful admiration. “Reckon he must’ve pulled a couple off the bodies afore we all pitched ’em down the hole in the cave we was livin’ in. I shoulda thought of doin’ that.”
“You had more than a few things on your mind,” Jakyr reminded him. “You also had no idea whether or not they could prove dangerous after the wearer was dead; Bey would know better about that than you. And Bey was practically born in subterfuge.”
Mags shrugged. “Aye, well. So, Bey tells ’em all that this made-up feller told Bey that the bunch that was huntin’ us killed us all, an’ the Karsite demons killed the ones comin’ back to report it. He’s pretty pleased by the tale he spun, ’cause he says they all swallered it, and they reckon to steer well clear of Karse from now on. They don’t know nothin’ about handlin’ their demons, he says, an’ there’s no reason no more t’ go that way. He says he also dropped hints that ‘Mags’ is as common a name hereabouts as say, ‘Daisy’ or ‘Rose’ or ‘Perry.’ So he says I can use the name I’m used to. So, that’s just the first bit. Give me a bit’f time . . .”
Bey wrote in a very florid style—and obliquely. It would probably take someone who had shared both his memories and his experiences to get the full message, which was, without a doubt, exactly what he had intended.
“Well,” Mags continued, feeling once again that odd disconnect between the Bey he knew and rather liked, and the . . . entirely calculating and crafty fellow that he also knew, and didn’t much like. “He says his pa was kinda sickish when he left, and by the time he got back, the word about me bein’ dead and all kinda knocked him sideways. He says he got the feelin’ his pa was just holdin’ on to see if Bey had growed up enough to take over. So that pretty much settled him on doin’ what we talked about, him talkin’ to that girl he had in mind, an’ seein’ if he could count on her at his back an’ all.” He had to chuckle about the next part. “She called ’im a few choice kinds of an idiot, an’ kissed ’im, an’ he gets all coy about it, but seems like she’d been chasin’ after him all this time an’ he didn’ have the wit t’see it. So they go to his pa an’ get things all settled. Bey’s pa an’ her pa basically did everything but throw ’em at what passes fer a priest. An they ain’t been married but a month an’ his pa died.”
“That’s—terrible!” Amily exclaimed, as Lita shook her head. But Mags and Jakyr exchanged a little look, and Mags knew exactly what Jakyr was thinking—because he was thinking it himself. I wonder how much Bey had a hand in seeing his pa off to the next world . . .
It seemed Dallen was of the same mind. :They are an entire nation—small, but a nation—of assassins. It seems perfectly likely to me.:
In those memories he had shared with Bey, his cousin’s relationship with the head of the Sleepgivers, his father, had been . . . ambiguous. He absolutely respected the old man. He absolutely was loyal to him. But . . . there was no love there. That had been reserved entirely for Bey’s mother, who had died when he was a child. And Bey was ambitious. He had very definite ideas about steering the future of the Sleepgivers, plans that were unlikely to see fruition while his father was alive. Would he have given an old, sick man a little help across the threshold of death?
:He had plenty of practice in doing just that,: Dallen observed.
Mags sucked his lower lip thoughtfully, and decided to keep his thoughts on the matter between himself and Dallen. “Well, Bey says that between that tale he spun up, and that he’s now the head of the clan—” He raised an eyebrow.
“There is no longer anyone interested in verifying that cock-and-bull, far-too-convenient story he told,” Jakyr said dryly.
“Pretty much.” Mags shrugged. “The whole idea of lookin’ fer me was his Pa’s anyway. I’ve no doubt a lot of ’em thought it was daft, tryin’ to bring back someone that was raised a furriner. The more ’specially as they lost a lot of fellers tryin’ t’do it. Ended up with a costly contract with Karse they canceled, an’ that didn’t turn out well fer ’em, neither. Hell, prolly half the clan thinks Bey snuck off t’kill me his own self.”
“And without a doubt, the ones that think that admire him for it.” Jakyr reached for a pocket pie he had left warming on a stone next to the fire, as Mags cut a last slice of bread and piled ham and pickled onions on top of it, before Amily could pack the loaf and ham away.
“An’ if any of ’em hinted at it, he’d go all shocked like.” Mags took a big bite of his concoction. “Well, t’ get back t’ this letter, there’s some about how his gal is already workin’ on a baby. There’s a lotta stuff just meant fer me, remindin’ me of stuff that should be in my head now. ’E said ’e waited a decent bit afore arrangin’ t’hand the letter off to someone that’d give it to a Shin’a’in horsetrader ’e’s got contact with.” He shook his head with admiration. “Wish’t I knew how ’e managed that. I didn’ know th’ Shin’a’in went that far.”
Jakyr shrugged. “You never know what a Shin’a’in is likely to do. They’ll go vast distances to ensure that a horse is properly placed—and equally vast distances to take one back if they discover it hasn’t been.”
Mags could only shake his head. “I dunno. I ain’t run across any, jest some of their hand-work. All I know’s what I read, which ain’t much. Anyway, he says the horsetrader was t’ pass it off to whoever’s goin’ north to Valdemar, and ’e’s put you, Jakyr, as the one t’get the letter, ’cause ain’t nobody down there knows who you are.”
“There is a lot more to that letter than that,” Jakyr pointed out. “You’re barely half through it.”
Excerpted from "Closer to Home"
Copyright © 2015 Mercedes Lackey.
Excerpted by permission of DAW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
“Returning to her beloved Valdemar universe, Lackey opens her new series at a pivotal time in the history of Valdemar.... Series fans will enjoy the variations on a familiar theme, while enough information is presented for first-timers to discover a world of high adventure and individual courage. Highly recommended.” — Library Journal (for Foundation)
“A real page-turner.... Outstanding characters, especially Mags, will greatly please Valdemar fans.” — Booklist (for Foundation)
“An enjoyable and pleasant read.... Mags is an appealing protagonist facing challenges (and successes) with which readers will empathize." — RT Book Reviews (for Foundation)
"An entertaining fantasy starring a likable lead character." — Midwest Book reviews (for Redoubt)
"Top Pick! ... A wonderful amalgam of fantasy and character study." — Night Owl Reviews (for Redoubt)