Herald Mags, the King of Valdemar’s Herald-Spy, has been developing a clandestine network of young informants who operate not only on the streets of the capital city of Haven, but also in the Great Halls and kitchens of the wealthy and highborn. In his own established alternate personas, Mags observes the Court and the alleys alike, quietly gathering information to keep Haven and the Kingdom safe.
His wife Amily, is growing into her position as the King’s Own Herald, though she is irritated to encounter many who still consider her father, Herald Nikolas, to be the real King’s Own. Nonetheless, she finds it increasingly useful to be underestimated, for there are dark things stirring in the shadows of Haven and up on the Hill.
Someone has discovered many secrets of the women of the Court and the Collegia—and is using those secrets to terrorize and bully them. Someone is targeting the religious houses of women, too, leaving behind destruction and obscene ravings.
But who? Someone at the Court? A disgruntled Palace servant? One of the members of the Collegia? Someone in the patriarchal sect of the god Sethor? Could the villain be a woman? And what is this person hoping to achieve? It isn’t blackmail, for the letters demand nothing; the aim seems to be the victims’ panic and despair. But why?
Mags and Amily take steps to minimize the damage while using both magic and wits to find the evildoer. But just as they appear to be on the verge of success, the letter-writer tires of terror and is now out for blood.
Mags and Amily will have to track down someone who leaves few clues behind and thwart whatever plans have been set in motion, and quickly—before terror turns to murder.
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Mags slumped over the table, his posture calculated to reflect indifference rather than defeat or weariness. This was not the sort of place in which to display any indication of weakness. This might not be the worst tavern in Haven, but it was certainly in the bottom third. The room was barely big enough to hold six tables; Mags was sitting in the corner at the rearmost one, with his back to the wall. The chimney smoked, leaving the already-dark room further obscured by haze from about chest-high up to the black rafters. The rushes on the floor hadn’t been changed in years, and probably housed entire self-supporting populations of mice and bugs. And there was a thin film of grease on everything. The beverage selection was limited to stale beer and sour wine, and the food selection—well, Mags wasn’t putting that to the test. The best he could have hoped for was that the pocket-pie he’d ordered, and was slowly crumbling to bits, was mostly crust with a smear of gravy inside. The worst, well...the probability that the meat inside was dog, cat, or rat, was very high. The choice of food here was bread and a substance alleged to be cheese, pocket pie, boiled eggs of uncertain age, or bread alone.
Fortunately he wasn’t hungry or thirsty, having fortified himself for his little fishing expedition before he arrived.
So both the pie and the beer were going, by sleight of hand, into the rushes at his feet. No one would ever notice. Except perhaps the indigenous wildlife, which would come harvest his sacrificial offerings and hopefully not crawl up his legs.
“Harkon!” The greeting included a hearty slap on his back, which he’d braced himself for the moment he heard his assumed name called. The speaker slung his leg over the bench and joined Mags. “What’re you doin’ in this scummy part’o town?”
“Bizness fer the Weasel,” Mags replied, clanking wooden mugs with the newcomer. “You?”
The newcomer snorted. “Debt collection.” Merely from the way the fellow intoned those words, Mags knew the errand had ended in failure.
“Done a scarper, did ’e, Teo?” Mags said with sympathy. “Bad luck fer ye. ’Ere.” He tipped his mostly full wooden tankard into Teo’s mostly empty one. “Least I kin do.” Teo wasn’t bad, as the hired thugs around here went, and neither was his boss, who had, more than once, extended a little more time to debtors who needed it, and whose interest rates were more than reasonable even by the standards of Willy the Weasel’s pawn shop. Teo had also proven to be a good source of information more than once, and Mags liked to keep him “sweet.”
“Ye ain’t all bad, Harkon,” Teo said gratefully, and looked meaningfully at the pie lying on the slap of wood that passed as a plate. “Ye gonna et—”
“Here, I got about all I kin stomach,” Mags replied, shoving the greasy slab of wood that held about three fourths of the “pie” at Teo, who grinned and took it. “So aside fr’m yer coney doin’ a scarper...?”
Teo ate, and talked, and Mags got a refill for both of them—and again, tipped most of his into Teo’s mug—and listened.
Teo loved to talk—and he knew Harkon could be trusted to keep his mouth shut. They were off in their own little corner of this dank hole, with everyone else avoiding the area around two known toughs, so Teo could gossip like a laundrywoman and no one would care or pay any attention. Since Mags rarely got over to Teo’s part of town—the slums around the Tanner’s
Quarter—every bit of information was potentially useful.
When Teo finally ran down, Mags got refills for them both again, and a second pie for Teo, who seemed to have a stomach made of boiled leather. No fear Teo was going to get drunk, not on this slop. “Yer a generous fren’ Harkon,” Teo said with gratitude.
Mags shrugged. “Nuncle’s payin’. I kin afford t’be generous.”
Since this was precisely the reason Mags was here—to collect street-gossip—he wasn’t any too eager to chase Teo away. The man was good company, even if he did look like a battle-scarred alley cat, and at least, unlike a lot of the denizens of this place, he was clean. In fact, he was fastidious. That had been one of the things that had drawn Mags to him in the first place. Mostly, he played bodyguard for his employer, especially when the man took money to the goldsmith for safekeeping. A goldsmith could always afford more protection for his place than a small- time moneylender ever could.
Teo actually performed as much of a service as a bodyguard merely by standing there and looking intimidating as he did by using his fists or other weapons. Tall, strongly muscled, visible scars on face and arms, a jaw like granite and a skull to match, thick brows, and black hair cut shorn- sheep close to his scalp, he did not look like someone one of Mika Tarneff’s customers would want to cross—and those intimidating looks scared off most would- be robbers as well.
Teo’s gossip today was useful, even if there was nothing urgent in it. In fact, it was useful precisely because there was nothing urgent in it. Most especially, there were no “Nah, yeken, I heerd a strange t’ing t’other day...” which was generally a sign that there was something amiss, or about to go amiss. Things were exactly as they should be for summer. Stinking, of course; the Tanner’s Quarter was at the downwind side of Haven, always stank, and it was twice as bad in the heat of summer as it was in winter. No one lived there that could possibly afford to live elsewhere. It wasn’t filthy; in fact, there were weekly inspections to make sure the entire Quarter was as clean and vermin- free as possible, because if disease started there, it would spread like wildfire. But the process of tanning itself was noxious, and after the hides were cleaned of decaying flesh and fat, the first step required the use of urine, which was collected all over the city every morning for that purpose. The stink of urine was everywhere, even on the coldest day. Frankly, Mags could not imagine living somewhere that stank of piss night and day, but Teo swore you got used to it.
It was just one more of the things that reminded him on an hourly basis of his incredible good luck; it might not have seemed that way when he was a little mine- slave, but every day since he’d been carried off by Dallen and Jakyr had been a day when he’d enjoyed a ridiculously good life. Well, apart from people trying to kill him. But the mine had been full of perils, and if anything, the attrition- rate among the mine-slaves was twice that among the Heralds.
“Ye look about as fur away as th’ Pel’girs,” Teo observed, breaking into his thoughts. “I arst ye twice if’n ye’re aight.”
Mags shook his head. “Long night,” he observed. “Will took’t inventory. ’Ad a notion there was stuff missin’.”
“And?” Teo prompted.
Mags laughed. “Turned out, we ’ad more damn stuff’n ’ e’ad in ’is books. ’E’s ’appy, fer sure. ’Tis like some’un give it to ’im free.”
“If Willy ain’t ’appy—”
“Ain’t nobody ’appy,” Mags finished for him. There was a clutch of young layabouts at the table nearest the door, grousing and carrying on. He jerked his head at them. “Like thet lot. Yammer, yammer, yammer th’ whole time I bin here, ’bout they’s sad, sorry lot.”
Teo snorted. “Whingin’ like a lotta liddle girls, ’cause they cain’t get none. I ain’t got no prollem gettin’ wimmin, an’ I look like a beat mule. Mebbe iffin they treated wimmin proper, gels ’ud gi’ ’em the time’a day.”
“Is thet wut they’re on about?” Mags asked, curious now. He listened. And sure enough, Teo was right. They were complaining bitterly about how women treated them. Which is to say, women treated them like the ne’er- do-wells and lazy louts that they were, and not as the all- conquering kings- of-the-world they thought they were.
This group of about six young ruffians evidently considered it their natural born right to be feted like gifts from the gods and were complaining mightily because that wasn’t happening.
At the moment, the subject being harped on was that, somehow, women in general, and a couple of girls by name, “owed” them sexual favors by the mere fact that they were men, and that was the only purpose women had.
Mags listened with growing disgust and astonishment as they waxed as eloquent as a lot of louts with pus between their ears instead of brains could. This, it seemed, was not mere hubris, it was theology. This lot had either invented a system of belief wholesale, or had found someone who would preach one to them that they embraced fervently. At first, Mags was of the opinion that they’d made it up all on their own but the longer he listened, the less sure of that he became.
Their cant was repugnant, but too internally consistent for a lot of rattle- brains like them to have concocted in what passed for their imaginations.
So who’s telling them what they want to hear and calling it Holy Writ? That was a good question.
Women, it seemed, should “know their place,” and that place was to be told what to do by men. Evidently, some god had created men in his image, and women were an afterthought, created to serve men. Women should be pretty, serve, and provide sex, and not be heard, or think for themselves. A woman’s duty was to make sure she was always attractive and pliant, and do everything a man told her. She certainly wasn’t to “take a man’s job,” or compete with a man in any way. In fact, she wasn’t to work outside the home at all, unless it was to the advantage of her man, and as ordered by her man. She must get a man as soon as she was able—“The younger, the better,” growled one.
“Aye, get ’em little and get ’em trained up right,” spat another. “I got no use for anythin’ above thirteen.”
“Them Holderkin down south’s got it right,” agreed a third. “A man kin hev as many as ’e wants, an’ thirteen, no later, is when they go to the men.”
Well, the others wanted to hear all about that, and the fellow was happy to oblige. Mags felt anger and disbelief in equal measures rising in him, until he was suddenly aware that Teo was making a very strange noise.
He glanced over at his friend. The bodyguard had his fist jammed up against his mouth, and was making a strangled sound as his face turned red. Now a little concerned, because Teo had never shown signs of being prone to fits, Mags poked him with an elbow. “You aight?”
Teo looked up, trying to keep his face from being seen by the gang of layabouts. “Holy balls,” he choked. “I ain’t niver seen so much stupid i’ one concentrated place i’ me life!”
“Aye, bu—” Mags said doubtfully.
“Lissen t’em! They ain’t one uv ’em got a pot t’piss in, an they thin’ iffen they was down i’ Holderkin territory, they’d be wallerin’ in wenches!” Teo’s face got redder as a chortle broke through. “What they’d be, is like th’ mangy mongrels sniffin’
at th’ fence whilst th’ prize hound gets put t’ the bitches. I seen the Holderkin wi’ their passel’a Underwives, an’ they all be old, wi’ money, an’ wi’ tight bizness connections and plenny uv’ favors from given large t’their priests. Rat’s asses like them? Farm drudge if they was lucky, an’ not put t’ turnin’ th’ water- wheel or suchlike. An’ closest they’d get t’wimmin is a straw- dolly, iffin they could get the straw.”
All the time Teo was talking, he was having more and more trouble controlling himself, and when he got to the word “straw,” he couldn’t manage it anymore. He broke out into a guffaw, and Mags couldn’t help it, because though he might have been uneducated, Teo had a certain way with words, and Mags could just see those layabouts, sniffing sadly after a gaggle of girls supervised by their lord and master, and he broke out into laughter.
Now the entire group turned to stare at them. That only made the two of them laugh harder.
The leader, who, on a good day, with a rock in each hand, might have weighed as much as Teo’s thigh, stood up and glared at them belligerently, hand on the thin strip of pot-metal he called a “sword.” “Somethin’ funny?” he growled.
“Oh, aye,” Teo howled. “High-larious.”
Now all of them stood up, and put hands on their weapons. Mind, those weapons mostly consisted of clubs, with a couple of knives. Teo wiped his eyes, and Mags managed to get himself under control, and both of them stood up.
Now, Mags had been a small boy, and he was still not a tall man. But as he stood up, all his weapons became visible as he cocked his elbows back and tucked his thumbs into his belt, pulling back his long vest a trifle. Short sword, long- sword, and across his chest an entire bandolier of knives. All of them in old, worn sheathes and possessed of hilts with plenty of wear on them.
As for Teo...he topped the tallest of the others by a head and a half, his shoulders were broad, his chest matched his shoulders, and he had two bandoliers of knives, an ax, a sword, and a club twice the size of the ones the layabouts were sporting. And of course, there were the scars. Not just on his face, but, since his chosen attire in this warm summer weather was a sleeveless moleskin jerkin, there were plenty of scars lacing across the highly defined muscles of his arms.
Teo reached up and gave a final chuckle as he wiped away a last tear. “Oh, aye. Funniest t’ings I heerd in ages. Be ye a comic show? On account’a I’d pay t’hear all that palaver agin.”
The would-be toughs had shrunk back once Mags and Teo had revealed their true natures, and now the ones at the rear were stealthily making their way toward the door, leaving their erstwhile leader and two of his friends standing there uncertainly. The leader tried to bluff anyway, unaware he was being rapidly deserted. “Th’ hell ye say! I say—”
Now he looked around. And the speed at which his bravado ran out of him made Teo laugh all over again, reaching out to support himself on Mags’ shoulder.
“I...ah...say...oh...no...we was jest...” He began backing up, as his two final friends made their escape. “...jest...talk—” And here he fell over a bucket and tumbled into the noisome rushes.
Teo lost it. He doubled up and howled with laughter again,as the poor fool scrabbled backward, away from the giant madman, managed to get to his feet, and tore out of there, running as fast as his legs would carry him.
Teo collapsed, choking with laughter, back down to the bench. And that was when Mags made up his mind that it was time to put Teo to the test.