Being a hero is a recession-proof jobfrom the author of Heroes at Risk.
The Emperor has personally selected Shield Lee Mallorough and Source Shintaro Karish to protect the duchy of Westsea-Taro's ancestral lands. But Westsea is suffering from deadly earthquakes that resist Lee and Taro's magic and political unrest that is stoked by their arrival.
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"Seriously," I muttered. "You would think someone would have figured out by now how to build a carriage that didn't cause the passenger to feel every rock and hole." All the jostling about had given me a blistering headache.
"Are you getting old?" Taro asked. "You've been complaining a lot."
I had not. I had merely been making accurate observations. "And you've been unusually quiet," I responded. "Do you think we've switched personalities?"
"Lee, I never complain," he claimed loftily.
"Never?" I snickered.
All kidding aside, Taro had been uncharacteristically silent for much of our journey. No doubt because we were heading for Flown Raven, Taro's place of birth, and not by choice. If Taro had had his way, we would have never stepped foot in Flown Raven.
But we didn't have a choice. Emperor Gifford, assuming an authority he didn't have, had sent us there, for reasons neither of us could determine. And Taro hadn't been quite himself since we'd gotten the news.
I wasn't thrilled with the transfer, either, for a lot of reasons. There was the fact that we shouldn't have ever been transferred by the Emperor, of course. That just alarmed me. We could have reasonably expected a few more years in High Scape, where we worked with six other Pairs, and where everything we could possibly want was close to hand. Most importantly, in my own mind, at least, Taro's mother, the Dowager Duchess, didn't live in High Scape. She did live in Flown Raven. In my opinion, that made Flown Raven the worst of all possible posts for us.
I despised that woman.
The carriage drew to a stop. I looked around the edge of one of the curtains. We hadn't reached Flown Raven itself, so I assumed we were taking another break to allow the horses to rest. Our driver seemed unusually careful of his horses. I didn't mind, I'd hate to be stuck out here with an injured animal, but it did seem to lengthen the trip immeasurably.
The door to the carriage was pulled open. "Source Karish," the driver said to Taro. "Shield Mallorough," he greeted me. As he did every time we stopped. He was oddly formal. "You might wish to work your legs."
I did, actually. I preferred riding to sitting in a carriage for days, but the last livery in our path, once learning of our destination, had refused to lend us riding horses, preferring to send a driver and a carriage with us. Technically, we could have insisted on the riding horses, but I didn't like making that kind of fuss. I could understand why a livery wouldn't want to trust us to borrow the horses and arrange for them to be returned when we were going as far as Flown Raven.
So we stepped out, and I spent a few moments enjoying the fresh air and stretching the kinks out of my knees. Taro lingered by the carriage, though, his gaze a little blank, his mind obviously leagues away. I wished there were a way to make him feel better, but the only handy method I could think of was sex, and I wasn't prepared to do that in a confined space with the driver listening in.
The sky, which had been dark all day, rumbled, and it began to hail. Only little stones, they didn't hurt, but all three of us scrambled back into the carriage. I'd heard of hail that got as big as tea cups and I had no interest in risking something like that landing on my head.
I was worried about the horses being unattended. What if they spooked?
The driver looked at Taro. "Can't you fix this?" he demanded.
Taro's eyebrows rose in surprise. "This is just the weather, my dear boy," he told the driver. "Not our bag, I'm afraid."
I glanced at him with concern. I hadn't heard him use that kind of airy tone for a while. It was one he used when he wanted people to assume he was an idiot, when he was feeling uncomfortable.
"Thought you two were supposed to deal with the weather," the driver insisted. "That's what you're paid for."
Well, no, members of the Source and Shield Service, or the Triple S, weren't actually paid. We were supported. We could commandeer rooms in boarding houses, as fine as we liked, and requisition clothing and food and services. But we could never demand money.
"Ah, if only we could," said Taro. "Hail and rain are so annoying, and snow should be made illegal. It would be delightful if we could just will"he waved a languid hand"it all away."
Well, I could affect the weather. Sort of. I just wasn't any good at it. And we weren't telling anyone that, because it wasn't part of a Shield's regular bag of tricks.
"So what do you do?" the driver asked with asperity.
I was surprised to meet someone so ignorant of Sources and Shields and their roles. I wasn't aware that there were people who didn't know what we did. On the other hand, our new post hadn't had a Pair in recorded history, having only recently been afflicted with earthquakes. Perhaps people in this area honestly never thought about Sources and Shields.
"When there is an earthquake, or a tornado, or an erupting volcano, or other natural disaster, I gather up all the forces of these events and channel them"and this time Taro used both hands to make a sort of waving motion"away."
"And what does she do?" The driver indicated me with a thrust of his jaw.
"The forces are powerful things, my good man. She makes sure my skull doesn't fly apart while I channel."
Actually, I made sure the forces he wasn't handling didn't rush into the vacuum created by his channeling and crush him, at the same time making sure his brain and heart didn't tear apart under the strain of doing something that was unnatural for the human body to do. But I had a feeling Taro was, for some reason, going for maximum dramatic effect as opposed to accuracy.
The driver sniffed. "Seems to me a man who really knew his stuff wouldn't need some kind of assistant to help him do his job."
Pompous little moron. And I wasn't an assistant.
"Why don't you do something about the hail, then?" Taro suggested in the friendliest of tones. "Show us how it's done."
And the driver surprised me by snorting and saying, "Fine." He left the carriage momentarily and returned carrying a small leather bag. He pulled from it the smallest knife and scabbard I'd ever seen, a small pouch, and what looked like a bleached finger bone of the human variety.
I knew what those trappings meant. He was going to try to cast a spell. He sliced the palm of his hand with the little knife, just a small cut to bring up just a dot of blood. He poured yellow powder from the pouch right onto the blood, and I wondered if that stung. The greenish yellow powder looked like something that would sting. He spat on the same area, and that was just disgusting. I noticed a strange acrid scent rising up from the man's palm. Finally, he crossed the bone through the mess. "Forces of earth, forces of air, clear of the water, skies be more fair. I offer my blood, I offer my will, I seek clear skies, for better or ill."
Ooh, bad poetry. I wondered if I could make up a bunch of rhymes and sell them as a book of spells. I had written some ghastly stuff when I was fifteen or so.
That seemed to be it, but the hail continued. We looked at the driver. "It takes a while to work," he said.
Ah. So whether it took an hour or whether it took all day, he could claim it was his spell that had cleared the skies and Taro and I, in theory, wouldn't know any better.
But I would know. I could feel it when a spell was being cast. I'd felt nothing from him.
Of course, I couldn't tell the difference between when a spell was being cast ineffectively or when it was actually working. That, I thought, would be a nifty skill to have.
At least the carriage hadn't exploded. I had witnessed attempts to cast spells that had destructive results.
And despite my former exposure, it was still something of a shock to see someone so openly attempting to cast a spell. I had spent most of my life happily not thinking about spells, except for the odd time they showed up in novels and plays. I certainly hadn't thought they could actually be real, nor had I known anyone who believed in them.
And then the depth of my ignorance had been revealed. Spells were real. I had seen them work, though I had denied what I'd seen until someone used a spell to save my life. I knew my flaws, I could be hard to persuade of things I didn't want to believe in, but when someone cleans away poison in my blood with a few words and some multicolored fire, even I had to admit there was something to the belief in spells.
Pretending to cast spells was against the law. Actually casting a spell was not, because the official story supported by the law was that spells were nothing more than performances put on by swindlers. The official story was bunk. And the Emperor knew it. He had used a spell during the coronation. I had felt it. I still didn't know what the spell was supposed to accomplish, but I had no doubt one had been cast.
So why were the lawmakers so sure spells were just poetry and ritual with no real effect? Or was that something they were just pretending to believe for some reason?
The driver didn't seem to care who saw him performor pretend to performhis spell. That was interesting. Did he not know that the Emperor had made the sanctions against the performance of spells much more brutal, or did he just not care?
There was no way to measure the passage of time with the sky clouded over, but it seemed to take a while for the hail to stop. That didn't prevent the driver from giving us a look of triumph as he left the carriage once the air was clear again. I wondered if he really thought he could effect the weather, or if he was merely pretending he did.
The driver got the carriage started moving. I knew this was the last leg of our trip. I hated the thought of the trip ending. It would mean we were actually in Flown Raven, and there was no getting out of it.
"It won't be that bad," Taro said suddenly.
I looked at him. "I know."
"You're braiding your fingers."
I looked down at my lap, where my fingers were all locked and twisted together. I pulled them apart. Taro was tense enough without my contributing to his unease with my behavior.
"Fiona seemed nice," Taro said to reassure me, naming the cousin whom he'd assisted in acquiring the title of Duchess of Westsea. We'd met her briefly at the Emperor's coronation.
"Aye, she did." Not what I'd expected of a relative of Taro's, she'd had a warm manner and an easy smile.
I heard a strange thud, closely followed by a second. The carriage jerked into a faster speed, and I heard the driver shouting at the horses. Three more thuds sounded against the side of the carriage.
What the hell was going on?
The carriage continued to speed along. It tilted as it took a corner and I slid on my seat. "What's happening?" I shouted.
I received no answer.
Was someone chasing us? It was the only reason I could think of for the speed, but who would be chasing us? Why?
I pulled the curtain away from the window and took a look outside. All I could see were trees racing by.
Taro and I were bounced and jolted within the carriage. I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do to control what was happening. There was nothing Taro could do, either. He had one hand propped against the wall of the carriage, the other on the seat, as he tried to stay centered.
There was another hard jolt as a wheel clearly hit a hole in the road. I was sure the wheel must have been broken by the abuse, but we kept rattling along, just as quickly as before.
I held on to Taro's arm. I didn't know why that made me infinitesimally better. It just did.
The carriage took another turn. It tilted, hard. Time seemed to slow as the carriage held askew, as if it were deciding what to do next. Then it completed its fall, landing Taro and I in a heap on the side of the carriage.
Taro could be heavy.
A few moments later, the door was yanked open. "Out, now," a gruff voice ordered.
It was difficult to get out of a carriage on its side. It took some time to accomplish it. The carriage had fallen into a ditch, and the mud on the sides covered our trousers as we climbed out.
Our driver was sitting on the ground, blood pouring from his right temple. There were arrows sticking out of the side of the carriage. I guessed they were the source of the thuds.
Two men held four horses. A third had a bow with an arrow aimed in our general direction. The fourth person stood beside the carriage. "I'll be taking your earrings," she ordered. Taro and I took out our earrings and put them in her palm. "The harmony bobs, too."
I didn't mind losing the earrings, but my harmony bob was special to me. It was a sign of affection from Taro. And it had helped save my life.
"Get your bags."
The trunks hadn't been shaken from their bindings. That meant they were hard to untie.
"Hurry up!" the woman snapped.
I couldn't believe we were being robbed. We had the worst luck in the world.
Once the trunks were free and open, the woman picked through our belongings. She was apparently disappointed with what she found. "You're Triple S," she muttered. "You're supposed to be rich."
It always amazed me, the rumors that were out there about Sources and Shields. We owned very little, though I didn't doubt there were some Triple S members who used their right to requisition goods to acquire fabulous jewels. That might make them appear rich in the eyes of regulars.
She didn't fail to find the little jewelry Taro and I did have, or the small stash of coins Taro kept for gambling. Everything else we owned ended up on the muddy bottom of the ditch. I was too cowardly to object. The idea of being speared by an arrow horrified me.
"Don't tell anyone about this," the woman said. "Or we'll come back for you."
The hell with that. I would be telling everyone we met.
The four thieves rode away, leaving us in a mess.
"How are you doing?" Taro asked the driver. "Can you see all right?"
"Aye, I'm not hurt bad," said the driver.
"I'm fine." I was sure I would have an array of bruises soon, but that wasn't worth mentioning.
"Do you think we could push the carriage back over?" Taro asked the driver.
The driver laughed.
Under the driver's instructions, we freed the horses from the carriage and gave them to the driver to lead. What could be packed on the horses was, but Taro and I each ended up dragging a trunk behind us. The ache that created between my shoulder blades was brutal.
This probably wouldn't have happened if the livery had given us horses to ride. We would have been able to outrun the thieves.
On the other hand, they might have fired the arrows directly at us. That would have been messy. And it would have hurt.
It was twilight when we first saw the wall of thick dark gray stone that was ominous in its solidity. It was an unnecessary remnant of a time when titleholders battled each other for land and power. We passed through an iron gate being held open by two guards. There was an emblem high on the gate that I recognized as the family's crest. Taro used to wear a ring with that emblem.
The grounds beyond the gate were lush and green, with small bushes huddled against the base of the house. I supposed it was a house. I thought it looked more like a castle would look, though it lacked the size and grandeur of Erstwhile, the seat of the Emperor. It was made of stone, proof of a people who didn't worry about natural disasters. It looked long, and it appeared to be four stories high. There were two towers, one at either end, with only slits for windows. The rest of the windows in the structure were wide, and I thought I saw some kind of iron inlaid in a diamond pattern. All of those windows had shutters, odd single and heavy-looking slats that were propped up over the windows and meant to be lowered to cover the windows at night. I'd never seen that arrangement before.
The front door was huge, three men high and four men wide, arching to a point at the top. It looked solid. Impenetrable. Like it would make an ominous clanging sound when it closed and one might feel trapped within. Like a prison.
Beyond the house, I could see, in the distance, a significantly smaller house in the same style. The dowager house, I guessed, where Taro's mother lived. She was going to be our far too close neighbor, as we would be Fiona's guests for as long as we were stationed in Flown Raven. That meant we were likely to see the Dowager Duchess on a weekly and possibly daily basis. Cold, manipulative, evil wench of a woman.
There was a third building that looked like a stable.
Beyond the buildings was what looked like some kind of mountain range, but smaller. More like a rocky hill range. It looked kind of vicious and dark. I knew that beyond that, at some point, was the West Sea, and that Fiona controlled the waters of that sea for several leagues. As she controlled hundreds and hundreds of acres of farmland all around us.
What did it feel like, I wondered, to control so much? To be so important to the people who lived on and worked that land and those waters? It was a staggering amount of responsibility. I certainly wouldn't want it. I could understand why Taro hadn't wanted it, either.
Two people ran out from the back of the house as we approached the steps leading to the front door. "Sir, ma'am," the blond servant said. "What has happened?"
"We were robbed," Taro answered grimly. "The driver is injured."
"I'm not," the driver protested. "I don't have the coin for a healer. Especially now. Don't call one."
"We had to leave the carriage in the ditch," Taro added.
"I'll have someone fetch it," said the blond servant. "You, there," he said to the driver. "Come with us and you'll be seen to for the night. Sir, madam, if you would approach the main entrance. We'll see to your trunks."
Couldn't I slip around to the back, too? My hair was half falling down and I was a sweaty mess. Not at all the image I'd hoped to present to the Duchess of Westsea and her family.
We climbed the steps toward the front door. The door seemed even larger when I stood right in front of it. Really, who needed a door so large? What purpose did it serve, other than the attempt to intimidate people?
I was intimidated by a door. That was sad.
Taro knocked on the door.
This was it.