Condemned as a murderer for killing the man who dishonored his sister, Blaine "Mick" McFadden has spent the last six years in Velant, a penal colony in the frigid northern wastelands. Harsh military discipline and the oppressive magic keep a fragile peace as colonists struggle against a hostile environment. But the supply ships from Dondareth have stopped coming, boding ill for the kingdom that banished the colonists.
Now, as the world's magic runs wild, McFadden and the people of Velant must fight to survive and decide their fate ...
From Gail Z. Martin, author of the beloved series THE CHRONICLES OF THE NECROMANCER and THE FALLEN KINGS CYCLE, comes a new fantasy adventure for the ages.
Welcome to the end of the world.
Welcome to the beginning of THE ASCENDANT KINGDOMS SAGA.
About the Author
Gail Z. Martin discovered her passion for SF, fantasy and ghost stories in elementary school. The first story she wrote - at age five - was about a vampire. Her favorite TV show as a preschooler was Dark Shadows. At age 14 she decided to become a writer. She enjoys attending SF/Fantasy conventions, Renaissance fairs and living history sites. She is married and has three children, a Himalayan cat and a golden retriever.
Read an Excerpt
By Gail Z. Martin
OrbitCopyright © 2013 Gail Z. Martin
All right reserved.
THIS HAS TO END.” BLAINE McFADDEN LOOKED at his sister Mari huddled in the bed, covers drawn up to her chin. She was sobbing hard enough that it nearly robbed her of breath and was leaning against Aunt Judith, who murmured consolations. Just sixteen, Mari looked small and lost. A vivid bruise marked one cheek. She struggled to hold her nightgown together where it had been ripped down the front.
“You’re upsetting her more.” Judith cast a reproving glance his way.
“I’m upsetting her? Father’s the one to blame for this. That drunken son of a bitch…” Blaine’s right hand opened and closed, itching for the pommel of his sword.
“Blaine…” Judith’s voice warned him off.
“After what he did… you stand up for him?”
Judith McFadden Ainsworth raised her head to meet his gaze. She was a thin, handsome woman in her middle years; and when she dressed for court, it was still possible to see a glimpse of the beauty she had been in her youth. Tonight, she looked worn. “Of course not.”
“I’m sick of his rages. Sick of being beaten when he’s on one of his binges…”
Judith’s lips quirked. “You’ve been too tall for him to beat for years now.”
At twenty years old and a few inches over six feet tall, Blaine stood a hand’s breadth taller than Lord McFadden. While he had his mother’s dark chestnut hair, his blue eyes were a match in color and determination to his father’s. Blaine had always been secretly pleased that while he resembled his father enough to avoid questions of paternity, in build and features he took after his mother’s side of the family. Where his father was short and round, Blaine was tall and rangy. Ian McFadden’s features had the smashed look of a brawler; Blaine’s were more regular, and if not quite handsome, better than passable. He was honest enough to know that though he might not be the first man in a room to catch a lady’s eye, he was pleasant enough in face and manner to attract the attention of at least one female by the end of the evening. The work he did around the manor and its lands had filled out his chest and arms. He was no longer the small, thin boy his father caned for the slightest infraction.
“He killed our mother when she got between him and me. He took his temper out on my hide until I was tall enough to fight back. He started beating Carr when I got too big to thrash. I had to put his horse down after he’d beaten it and broken its legs. Now this… it has to stop!”
“Blaine, please.” Judith turned, and Blaine could see tears in her eyes. “Anything you do will only make it worse. I know my brother’s tempers better than anyone.” Absently, she stroked Mari’s hair.
“By the gods… did he…” But the shamed look on Judith’s face as she turned away answered Blaine’s question.
“I’ll kill that son of a bitch,” Blaine muttered, turning away and sprinting down the hall.
“Blaine, don’t. Blaine—”
He took the stairs at a run. Above the fireplace in the parlor hung two broadswords, weapons that had once belonged to his grandfather. Blaine snatched down the lowest broadsword. Its grip felt heavy and familiar in his hand.
“Master Blaine…” Edward followed him into the room. The elderly man was alarmed as his gaze fell from Blaine’s face to the weapon in his hand. Edward had been Glenreith’s seneschal for longer than Blaine had been alive. Edward: the expert manager, the budget master, and the family’s secret-keeper.
“Where is he?”
Blaine caught Edward by the arm and Edward shrank back from his gaze. “My whore-spawned father, that’s who. Where is he?”
“Master Blaine, I beg you…”
“Where is he?”
“He headed for the gardens. He had his pipe with him.”
Blaine headed for the manor’s front entrance at a dead run. Judith was halfway down the stairs. “Blaine, think about this. Blaine—”
He flung open the door so hard that it crashed against the wall. Blaine ran down the manor’s sweeping stone steps. A full moon lit the sloping lawn well enough for Blaine to make out the figure of a man in the distance, strolling down the carriage lane. The smell of his father’s pipe smoke wafted back to him, as hated as the odor of camphor that always clung to Lord McFadden’s clothing.
The older man turned at the sound of Blaine’s running footsteps. “You bastard! You bloody bastard!” Blaine shouted.
Lord Ian McFadden’s eyes narrowed as he saw the sword in Blaine’s hand. Dropping his pipe, the man grabbed a rake that leaned against the stone fence edging the carriageway. He held its thick oak handle across his body like a staff. Lord McFadden might be well into his fifth decade, but in his youth he had been an officer in the king’s army, where he had earned King Merrill’s notice and his gratitude. “Go back inside, boy. Don’t make me hurt you.”
Blaine did not slow down or lower his sword. “Why? Why Mari? There’s no shortage of court whores. Why Mari?”
Lord McFadden’s face reddened. “Because I can. Now drop that sword if you know what’s good for you.”
Blaine’s blood thundered in his ears. In the distance, he could hear Judith screaming his name.
“I guess this cur needs to be taught a lesson.” Lord McFadden swung at Blaine with enough force to have shattered his skull if Blaine had not ducked the heavy rake. McFadden gave a roar and swung again, but Blaine lurched forward, taking the blow on his shoulder to get inside McFadden’s guard. The broadsword sank hilt-deep into the man’s chest, slicing through his waistcoat.
Lord McFadden’s body shuddered, and he dropped the rake. He met Blaine’s gaze, his eyes wide with surprise. “Didn’t think you had it in you,” he gasped.
Behind him, Blaine could hear footsteps pounding on the cobblestones; he heard panicked shouts and Judith’s scream. Nothing mattered to him, nothing at all except for the ashen face of his father. Blood soaked Lord McFadden’s clothing, and gobbets of it splashed Blaine’s hand and shirt. He gasped for breath, his mouth working like a hooked fish out of water. Blaine let him slide from the sword, watched numbly as his father fell backward onto the carriageway in a spreading pool of blood.
“Master Blaine, what have you done?” Selden, the groundskeeper, was the first to reach the scene. He gazed in horror at Lord McFadden, who lay twitching on the ground, breathing in labored, slow gasps.
Blaine’s grip tightened on the sword in his hand. “Something someone should have done years ago.”
A crowd of servants was gathering; Blaine could hear their whispers and the sound of their steps on the cobblestones. “Blaine! Blaine!” He barely recognized Judith’s voice. Raw from screaming, choked with tears, his aunt must have gathered her skirts like a milkmaid to run from the house this quickly. “Let me through!”
Heaving for breath, Judith pushed past Selden and grabbed Blaine’s left arm to steady herself. “Oh, by the gods, Blaine, what will become of us now?”
Lord McFadden wheezed painfully and went still.
Shock replaced numbness as the rage drained from Blaine’s body. It’s actually over. He’s finally dead.
“Blaine, can you hear me?” Judith was shaking his left arm. Her tone had regained control, alarmed but no longer panicked.
“He swung first,” Blaine replied distantly. “I don’t think he realized, until the end, that I actually meant to do it.”
“When the king hears—”
Blaine snapped back to himself and turned toward Judith. “Say nothing about Mari to anyone,” he growled in a voice low enough that only she could hear. “I’ll pay the consequences. But it’s for naught if she’s shamed. I’ve thrown my life away for nothing if she’s dishonored.” He dropped the bloody sword, gripping Judith by the forearm. “Swear to it.”
Judith’s eyes were wide, but Blaine could see she was calm. “I swear.”
Selden and several of the other servants moved around them, giving Blaine a wary glance as they bent to carry Lord McFadden’s body back to the manor.
“The king will find out. He’ll take your title… Oh, Blaine, you’ll hang for this.”
Blaine swallowed hard. A knot of fear tightened in his stomach as he stared at the blood on his hand and the darkening stain on the cobblestones. Better to die avenged than crouch like a beaten dog. He met Judith’s eyes and a wave of cold resignation washed over him.
“He won’t hurt Mari or Carr again. Ever. Carr will inherit when he’s old enough. Odds are the king will name you guardian until then. Nothing will change—”
“Except that you’ll hang for murder,” Judith said miserably.
“Yes,” Blaine replied, folding his aunt against his chest as she sobbed. “Except for that.”
“You have been charged with murder. Murder of a lord, and murder of your own father.” King Merrill’s voice thundered through the judgment hall. “How do you plead?” A muted buzz of whispered conversation hummed from the packed audience in the galleries. Blaine McFadden knelt where the guards had forced him down, shackled at the wrists and ankles, his long brown hair hanging loose around his face. Unshaven and filthy from more than a week in the king’s dungeon, he lifted his head to look at the king defiantly.
“Guilty as charged, Your Majesty. He was a murdering son of a bitch—”
The guard at Blaine’s right shoulder cuffed him hard. Blaine straightened, and lifted his head once more. I’m not sorry and I’ll be damned if I’ll apologize, even to the king. Let’s get this over with. He avoided the curious stares of the courtiers and nobles in the gallery, those for whom death and punishment were nothing more than gossip and entertainment.
Only two faces caught his eye. Judith sat stiffly, her face unreadable although her eyes glinted angrily. Beside her sat Carensa, daughter of the Earl of Rhystorp. He and Carensa had been betrothed to wed later that spring. Carensa was dressed in mourning clothes; her face was ashen and her eyes were red-rimmed. Blaine could not meet her gaze. Of all that his actions cost him—title, lands, fortune, and life—losing Carensa was the only loss that mattered.
The king turned his attention back to Blaine. “The penalty for common murder is hanging. For killing a noble—not to mention your own father—the penalty is beheading.”
A gasp went up from the crowd. Carensa swayed in her seat as if she might faint, and Judith reached out to steady her.
“Lord Ian McFadden was a loyal member of my Council. I valued his presence beside me whether we rode to war or in the hunt.” The king’s voice dropped, and Blaine doubted that few aside from the guards could hear his next words. “Yet I was not blind to his faults.
“For that reason,” the king said, raising his voice once more, “I will show mercy.”
It seemed as if the entire crowd held its breath. Blaine steeled himself, willing his expression to show nothing of his fear.
“Blaine McFadden, I strip from you the title of Lord of Glenreith, and give that title in trust to your brother, Carr, when he reaches his majority. Your lands and your holdings are likewise no longer your own. For your crime, I sentence you to transportation to the penal colony on Velant, where you will live out the rest of your days. So be it.”
The king rose and swept from the room in a blur of crimson and ermine, followed by a brace of guards. A stunned silence hung over the crowd, broken only by Carensa’s sobbing. As the guards wrestled Blaine to his feet, he dared to look back. Judith’s face was drawn and her eyes held a hopelessness that made Blaine wince. Carensa’s face was buried in her hands, and although Judith placed an arm around her, Carensa would not be comforted.
The soldiers shoved him hard enough that he stumbled, and the gallery crowd awoke from its momentary silence. Jeers and catcalls followed him until the huge mahogany doors of the judgment chamber slammed shut.
Blaine sat on the floor of his cell, head back and eyes closed. Not too far away, he heard the squeal of a rat. His cell had a small barred window too high for him to peer out, barely enough to allow for a dim shaft of light to enter. The floor was covered with filthy straw. The far corner of the room had a small drain for him to relieve himself. Like the rest of the dungeon, it stank. Near the iron-bound door was a bucket of brackish water and an empty tin tray that had held a heel of stale bread and chunk of spoiled cheese.
For lesser crimes, noble-born prisoners were accorded the dignity of confinement in one of the rooms in the tower, away from the filth of the dungeon and its common criminals. Blaine guessed that his crime had caused scandal enough that Merrill felt the need to make an example, after the leniency of Blaine’s sentencing.
I’d much prefer death to banishment. If the executioner’s blade is sharp, it would be over in a moment. I’ve heard tales of Velant. A frozen wasteland at the top of the world. Guards that are the dregs of His Majesty’s service, sent to Velant because no one else will have them. Forced labor in the mines, or the chance to drown on board one of the fishing boats. How long will it take to die there? Will I freeze in my sleep or starve, or will one of my fellow inmates do me a real mercy and slip a shiv between my ribs?
The clatter of the key in the heavy iron lock made Blaine open his eyes, though he did not stir from where he sat. Are the guards come early to take me to the ship? I didn’t think we sailed until tomorrow. Another, darker possibility occurred to him. Perhaps Merrill’s “mercy” was for show. If the guards were to take me to the wharves by night, who would ever know if I didn’t make it onto the ship? Merrill would be blameless, and no one would be the wiser. Blaine let out a long breath. Let it come. I did what I had to do.
The door squealed on its hinges to frame a guard whose broad shoulders barely fit between the doorposts. To Blaine’s astonishment, the guard did not move to come into the room. “I can only give you a few minutes. Even for another coin, I don’t dare do more. Say what you must and leave.”
The guard stood back, and a hooded figure in a gray cloak rushed into the room. Edward, Glenreith’s seneschal, entered behind the figure, but stayed just inside the doorway, shaking his head to prevent Blaine from saying anything. The hooded visitor slipped across the small cell to kneel beside Blaine. The hood fell back, revealing Carensa’s face.
“How did you get in?” Blaine whispered. “You shouldn’t have come. Bad enough that I’ve shamed you—”
Carensa grasped him by the shoulders and kissed him hard on the lips. He could taste the salt of her tears. She let go, moving away just far enough that he got a good look at her face. Her eyes were red and puffy, with dark circles. Though barely twenty summers old, she looked careworn and haggard. She was a shadow of the vibrant, glowing girl who had led all the young men at court on a merry chase before accepting Blaine’s proposal, as everyone knew she had intended all along.
“Oh, Blaine,” she whispered. “Your father deserved what he got. I don’t know what he did to push you this far.” Her voice caught.
“Carensa,” Blaine said softly, savoring the sound of her name, knowing it was the last time they would be together. “It’ll be worse for you if someone finds you here.”
Carensa straightened her shoulders and swallowed back her tears. “I bribed the guards. But I had to come.”
Blaine shifted, trying to minimize the noise as his heavy wrist shackles clinked with the movement. He took her hand in both of his. “Forget me. I release you. No one ever comes back from Velant. Give me the comfort of knowing that you’ll find someone else who’ll take good care of you.”
“And will you forget me?” She lifted her chin, and her blue eyes sparked in challenge.
Blaine looked down. “No. But I’m a dead man. If the voyage doesn’t kill me, the winter will. Say a prayer to the gods for me and light a candle for my soul. Please, Carensa, just because I’m going to die doesn’t mean that you can’t live.”
Carensa’s long red hair veiled her face as she looked down, trying to collect herself. “I can’t promise that, Blaine. Please, don’t make me. Not now. Maybe not ever.” She looked up again. “I’ll be there at the wharf when your ship leaves. You may not see me, but I’ll be there.”
Blaine reached up to stroke her cheek. “Save your reputation. Renounce me. I won’t mind.”
Carensa’s eyes took on a determined glint. “As if no one knew we were betrothed? As if the whole court didn’t guess that we were lovers? No, the only thing I’m sorry about is that we didn’t make a handfasting before the guards took you. I don’t regret a single thing, Blaine McFadden. I love you and I always will.”
Blaine squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself to maintain control. He pulled her gently to him for another kiss, long and lingering, in lieu of everything he could not find the words to say.
The footsteps of the guard in the doorway made Carensa draw back and pull up her hood. She gave his hand one last squeeze and then walked to the door. She looked back, just for a moment, but neither one of them spoke. She followed the guard out the door.
Edward paused, and sadly shook his head. “Gods be with you, Master Blaine. I’ll pray that your ship sails safely.”
“Pray it sinks, Edward. If you ever cared at all for me, pray it sinks.”
Edward nodded. “As you wish, Master Blaine.” He turned and followed Carensa, leaving the guard to pull the door shut behind them.
“Get on your feet. Time to go.”
The guard’s voice woke Blaine from uneasy sleep. He staggered to his feet, hobbled by the ankle chains, and managed to make it to the door without falling. Outside, it was barely dawn. Several hundred men and a few dozen women, all shackled at the wrists and ankles, stood nervously as the guards rounded up the group for the walk to the wharves where the transport ship waited.
Early as it was, jeers greeted them as they stumbled down the narrow lanes. Blaine was glad to be in the center of the group. More than once, women in the upper floors of the hard-used buildings that crowded the twisting streets laughed as they poured out their chamber pots on the prisoners below. Young boys pelted them from the alleyways with rotting produce. Once in a while, the boys’ aim went astray, hitting a guard, who gave chase for a block or two, shouting curses.
Blaine knew that the distance from the castle to the wharves was less than a mile, but the walk seemed to take forever. He kept his head down, intent on trying to walk without stumbling as the manacles bit into his ankles and the short chain hobbled his stride. They walked five abreast with guards every few rows, shoulder to shoulder.
“There it is—your new home for the next forty days,” one of the guards announced as they reached the end of the street at the waterfront. A large carrack sat in the harbor with sails furled. In groups of ten, the prisoners queued up to be loaded into flat-bottomed rowboats and taken out to the waiting ship.
“Rather a dead man in Donderath’s ocean than a slave on Velant’s ice!” One of the prisoners in the front wrested free from the guard who was attempting to load him onto the boat. He twisted, needing only a few inches to gain his freedom, falling from the dock into the water where his heavy chains dragged him under.
“It’s all the same to me whether you drown or get aboard the boat,” shouted the captain of the guards, breaking the silence as the prisoners stared into the water where the man had disappeared. “If you’re of a mind to do it, there’ll be more food for the rest.”
“Bloody bastard!” A big man threw his weight against the nearest guard, shoving him out of the way, and hurtled toward the captain. “Let’s see how well you swim!” He bent over and butted the captain in the gut, and the momentum took them both over the side. The captain flailed, trying to keep his head above water while the prisoner’s manacled hands closed around his neck, forcing him under. Two soldiers aboard the rowboat beat with their oars at the spot where the burly man had gone down. Four soldiers, cursing under their breath, jumped in after the captain.
After considerable splashing, the captain was hauled onto the deck, sputtering water and coughing. Two of the other soldiers had a grip on the big man by the shoulders, keeping his head above the water. One of the soldiers held a knife under the man’s chin. The captain dragged himself to his feet and stood on the dock for a moment, looking down at them.
“What do we do with him, sir?”
The captain’s expression hardened. “Give him gills, lad, to help him on his way.”
The soldier’s knife made a swift slash, cutting the big man’s throat from ear to ear. Blood tinged the water crimson as the soldiers let go of the man’s body, and it sank beneath the waves. When the soldiers had been dragged onto the deck, the captain glared at the prisoners.
“Any further disturbances and I’ll see to it that you’re all put on half rations for the duration.” His smile was unpleasant. “And I assure you, full rations are little enough.” He turned to his second in command. “Load the boats, and be quick about it.”
The group fell silent as the guards prodded them into boats. From the other wharf, Blaine could hear women’s voices and the muffled sobbing of children. He looked to the edge of the wharf crowded with women. Most had the look of scullery maids, with tattered dresses, and shawls pulled tight around their shoulders. A few wore the garish colors and low-cut gowns of seaport whores. They shouted a babble of names, calling to the men who crawled into the boats.
One figure stood apart from the others, near the end of the wharf. A gray cloak fluttered in the wind, and as Blaine watched, the hood fell back, freeing long red hair to tangle on the cold breeze. Carensa did not shout to him. She did not move at all, but he felt her gaze, as if she could pick him out of the crowded mass of prisoners. Not a word, not a gesture, just a mute witness to his banishment. Blaine never took his eyes off her as he stumbled into the boat, earning a cuff on the ear for his clumsiness from the guard. He twisted as far as he dared in his seat to keep her in sight as the boat rowed toward the transport ship.
When they reached the side of the Cutlass, rope ladders hung from its deck.
“Climb,” ordered the soldier behind Blaine, giving him a poke in the ribs for good measure. A few of the prisoners lost their footing, screaming as they fell into the black water of the bay. The guards glanced at each other and shrugged. Blaine began to climb, and only the knowledge that Carensa would be witness to his suicide kept him from letting himself fall backward into the waves.
Shoved and prodded by the guards’ batons, Blaine and the other prisoners shambled down the narrow steps into the hold of the ship. It stank of cabbage and bilgewater. Hammocks were strung side by side, three high, nearly floor to ceiling. A row of portholes, too small for a man to crawl through, provided the only light, save for the wooden ceiling grates that opened to the deck above. Some of the prisoners collapsed onto hammocks or sank to the floor in despair. Blaine shouldered his way to a porthole on the side facing the wharves. In the distance, he could see figures crowded there, though it was too far away to know whether Carensa was among them.
“How long you figure they’ll stay?” a thin man asked as Blaine stood on tiptoe to see out. The man had dirty blond hair that stuck out at angles like straw on a scarecrow.
“Until we set sail, I guess,” Blaine answered.
“One of them yours?”
“Used to be,” Blaine replied.
“I told my sister not to come, told her it wouldn’t make it any easier on her,” the thin man said. “Didn’t want her to see me, chained like this.” He sighed. “She came anyhow.” He looked Blaine over from head to toe. “What’d they send you away for?”
Blaine turned so that the seeping new brand of an “M” on his forearm showed. “Murder. You?”
The thin man shrugged. “I could say it was for singing off-key, or for the coins I pinched from the last inn where I played for my supper. But the truth is I slept with the wrong man’s wife, and he accused me of stealing his silver.” He gave a wan smile, exposing gapped teeth. “Verran Danning’s my name. Petty thief and wandering minstrel. How ’bout you?”
Blaine looked back at the distant figures on the wharf. Stripped of his title, lands, and position, lost to Carensa, he felt as dead inside as if the executioner had done his work. Blaine McFadden is dead, he thought. “Mick,” he replied. “Just call me Mick.”
“I’ll make you a deal, Mick. You watch my back, and I’ll watch yours,” Verran said with a sly grin. “I’ll make sure you get more than your share of food, and as much of the grog as I can pinch. In return,” he said, dropping his voice, “I’d like to count on some protection, to spare my so-called virtue, in case any of our bunkmates get too friendly.” He held out a hand, manacles clinking. “Deal?”
With a sigh, Blaine forced himself to turn away from the porthole. He shook Verran’s outstretched hand. “Deal.”
Velant Penal Colony, Six Years Later
PUT YOUR BACKS INTO IT! WE NEED THOSE FISH.”
Blaine bent forward, grabbed the rough rope net, and leaned back, working in time with the line of other men who helped to draw the catch on board. The fishing ship Pathi was a herring buss, a fat-bodied vessel good enough to weather the squalls of the Ecardine Sea but not well suited for escape.
“Good work. That’ll keep the gibbers busy, I warrant.” The overseer stood behind them, chuckling at the size of the catch. “Empty them onto the deck and get the nets out again. Move. Move.”
“I’m frozen to the bones,” groused the man next to Blaine. Broad-shouldered with muscular arms, the man had eyes as cold and blue as the sea.
“Would you rather be gibbing?” Blaine asked, with a nod toward the men who scrambled into position to cut the gills and gullet from the fish before salting them and packing them into the barrels that filled the Pathi’s hold.
“What’s the difference? They’re just as wet as we are,” the man replied, shaking his oilcloth slicker to rid himself of some of the water that had doused them as the net came on board.
“I figure we’re warmer dragging in nets than sitting still gutting fish—and we might be able to get the fish stink off us once we get back to port,” Blaine replied. “C’mon, Piran, you know it’s true. The last time we got stuck gibbing, I smelled like a herring for a month after I got off the boat.”
Piran Rowse chuckled. “You’re assuming that you don’t actually smell like that all the time.” Piran had the build and temperament of a fighter, with a muscular frame, a neck like an ox, and a head of thinning light-brown hair, which he preferred to keep shaved, even in the Edgeland cold. Both his face and his body carried the scars of too many fights for Piran to remember, although one jagged scar beneath his eye was a memento from a broken bottle in a bar brawl. His nose was flatter than it should have been and a little off-center, but his blue eyes could glint with merriment for good music and passable ale. Piran’s broad smile had no trouble winning him female companionship, an effect Blaine likened to the appeal of a friendly, but ugly, stray dog.
From what little Blaine had been able to get out of his friend, Piran had been a mercenary, a onetime soldier, and a bodyguard. Which of those jobs had gone wrong enough to land him in Velant, Piran was cagey about saying. Blaine had met Piran three years ago, when they both were transferred from the miserable ruby mines to the equally miserable herring fleet. Since then, they had become fast friends.
A high wave splashed over the ship’s side, dousing them. Blaine cursed, getting a face full of seawater. The oilcloth slicker, gloves, and pants could only afford so much protection against the cold northern sea. Even with thick woolen clothing beneath the oilcloth, there was no escaping a dampness that chilled to the bone. Blaine stamped his feet, wishing his heavy leather boots were more waterproof. “At least the catch is good today.”
Piran grinned. “Good enough to earn us a full measure of grog tonight, I wager.”
The ever-present smell of fish grew sharper as the gibbers did their work. Blaine and the others continued to haul the heavy nets in with their catch. Other men sealed the barrels of salted fish and carried them below. Shouting to be heard over the wind and the waves, the overseer called out directions and cursed those who moved too slowly.
“Think the catch is good enough to keep us through the winter?” Piran asked as they shouldered into the next haul.
“Don’t know. Why?”
Piran glanced both ways over his shoulder before replying. “Just some of the talk I’ve heard among the guards. Said that the last couple supply ships weren’t as full as usual.”
Blaine grimaced, standing back as the net cleared the railing and the deck shuddered with the weight of the catch. “If that’s the case, we’ll be living on herring and turnips before the winter’s through.”
Piran made a sour face. “Not the first time I’ll have done with tight rations, but I’d rather have my belly full while I freeze.”
A good day’s catch meant backbreaking work. This far north, the sun never completely set, making the six-month “white nights” season the time when convicts and guards alike pitched in to provision the colony for the half year of darkness to come. Blaine shivered. Even after six years, he hadn’t grown accustomed to the long subarctic nights. Donderath, half a world away, had a temperate climate, with four seasons and a winter that, while sometimes harsh, was nothing like Velant’s brutal cold and howling winds.
After a twelve-candlemark shift at the nets, the “night” haulers came clomping up from the bunk rooms below with their heavy boots, growling and cursing at the cold wind. Weary and numb with cold, Blaine and Piran lined up to go below. Since it never got dark, the buss could fish day and night, and by alternating crew, give the men slightly more room in the cramped quarters belowdecks.
In the cramped area of the hold set aside for crew, hammocks swung with the motion of the boat. It was cold enough that Blaine kept his oilskin coat on until the hold grew warm from the press of bodies. Piran had wandered off to find someone who was still willing to play him at cards or dice.
“Give it up, Piran. I’ve already lost two measures of grog and my ration of smoke weed to you,” complained a raw-boned, red-haired man.
Wide-eyed with feigned innocence, but barely suppressing a grin, Piran turned to the man’s companions and held out his hand with three dice on his open palm. They all groaned loudly. “Not since I lost my best socks to you, dammit,” complained one of the men.
Piran’s smile widened. “I haven’t worn them yet. You might win them back.”
Indecision clouded the man’s face for a moment before he nodded. “All right. For the socks.”
Blaine turned away, chuckling. The longer the boat was at sea, the larger the number of fishermen who realized that Piran was uncannily fortunate when it came to games of chance. His luck stopped just shy of being so good as to raise accusations of cheating, though Blaine had known Piran long enough to suspect that sleight of hand, not magic, helped his chances considerably. Blaine had not played his friend for anything more valuable than a few measures of snuff since they had been in the mines together. On occasion Piran let him win.
Later, when most of the men lay snoring in their hammocks, Blaine awoke as the ship rose and then fell so sharply that he was nearly thrown from his bed.
“By the gods! A few more like that, and it’ll send us all to Raka,” Blaine muttered, hanging on to his hammock and hoping that his supper ration remained in his stomach despite the way the ship lurched and pitched.
“If Raka is warmer than Velant, I’ll go willingly,” Piran replied, holding fast to one of the support beams, but to Blaine’s eye, Piran’s face had taken on a green tint.
“Velant is where the gods send the men Raka turns away,” said the red-haired man, who had given up trying to stay in his hammock and braced himself between the hull and the support post.
Water flooded down the stairs from the deck, and the hold erupted with curses. Bad as it was below, Blaine knew it was worse on deck. Storms arose swiftly on the Ecardine Sea, with gale-force winds and sleet that could cut skin. It was not unusual to lose three or four men overboard each trip due to storms. Blaine had no love for Velant, but the idea of dying in the cold northern waters, his body and soul forever prisoner to Yadin, god of the dark water, seemed an even worse alternative.
That fate had obviously occurred to some of their fellow fishermen, because Blaine heard voices muttering prayers to both major gods and household deities alike, begging safe passage. Then a loud laugh cut across the hold, and Blaine looked at Piran.
“Tell Yadin and his ice demons that he’s better off with the herring than the likes of us. The herring have more meat on their bones,” Piran said. “As for the other gods, while you’re at it, see if they can magic up better grog. What we’ve got tastes like sheep piss.”
The red-haired man scowled at Piran. “You mock the gods?”
Piran laughed again. “I can’t mock what isn’t real.”
The red-haired man looked as if he might take a swing at Piran, but the boat rose and fell again, sending him sliding across the hold to land hard against the other hull. Piran looked up at the deck above them as if it were the sky. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Shut up, Piran,” Blaine muttered.
Piran looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “When did you get devout?”
Blaine shook his head. “I’m not. But I’d rather not clean you up after our bunkmates are done kicking your sorry ass.”
Piran grinned. Two missing teeth were testament to just how much he relished a good brawl. “Let them try.”
The ship canted hard to starboard, and several men lost their grip, slamming across the hold. Above their heads, they heard a crack like thunder, and the shouts and screams of men.
“We’ve lost a mast,” Blaine muttered.
Piran let go of his hold on the support post and gave Blaine a shove. “Get up the steps. Now!” All joking was gone from his face. In its place was a cold reckoning that Blaine guessed had gotten Piran through the wars he had survived, battles he would only talk about when drunk.
Lurching like drunkards, Blaine and Piran stumbled across the hold. A few of the others struggled to their feet, realizing that if the ship were to go over, their odds of surviving were far better on deck than below. Many of the men remained frozen where they were, clinging white-knuckled to their hammocks or to the posts, eyes closed and heads down, praying.
“Stay below!” a guard shouted as they reached the top of the stairs, and belatedly tried to shut the door against them. Piran and Blaine threw their weight against the door, sending the guard sprawling. When the man attempted to grab at Piran’s legs, Piran kicked him away.
“Maybe the gods were listening,” Blaine murmured as they reached the deck. The main mast of the buss had splintered, leaving only the mizzen standing. The deck was awash with seawater, and the fishermen and sailors alike had lashed themselves to the rails. Piran and Blaine managed to do the same, ducking to avoid the worst of another wave that broke over the bow. Blaine came up sputtering.
“We’ll drown by inches at this rate,” Piran said, holding tight as the ship pitched.
“Can you see any of the other ships?” The Pathi had been one of thirty ships in Velant’s fleet of herring boats. When Blaine had been on deck before the storm, he had spotted many of the other ships spread out across the water.
“I can barely see my hand at the end of my own damn arm,” Piran replied. “Clouds above, rain between, and the sea below. I can’t see worth shit.”
If we founder, would the other ships bother to look for survivors? Or would they just gather the herring barrels they could find and head back to port? On one hand, Velant wouldn’t care if two dozen convicts drowned. But even Commander Prokief might count the loss of an experienced crew, given the colony’s dependence on fish for both food and trade with Donderath. And while the fishermen aboard the Pathi were convicts, they had fished long enough to be valuable.
Gradually, the storm lost its fury. Blaine dragged himself to his feet, gripping the rail hard enough that he thought his fingers might make indentations in the wood. The deck smelled of vomit and seawater, and every man aboard the Pathi was ashen-faced.
“Stared Yadin in the face and spit in his eye, we did.” Piran chuckled.
“Shut up, Piran.” Blaine was sore all over. He had long ago grown used to the hard work of hauling in nets. Last night’s battle with the sea had left him battered and numb with cold. Storm crests had broken across the deck with the force of body blows. Blaine’s shoulders, knees, and elbows ached after bracing himself all night long. From how stiffly his shipmates moved, Blaine guessed that they felt much the same. Many men were bruised and bleeding where the waves had thrown them into the railings or slammed them against the deck. And yet, despite the worst the storm had to offer, they were still alive and afloat.
Captain Darden came around the ship’s wheel, where he had lashed himself through the storm. His dark, heavy brows and full beard made his scowling face look as ominous as the thunderheads that had just cleared from the sky.
“Muster on deck! I need a head count.”
In the end, only two of the Pathi’s crew were missing, and miraculously, the ship had taken no damage other than the loss of its main mast. That alone was enough to present problems. The Pathi had been at sea for four weeks, nearly at the end of its six-week voyage. They were at the edge of their range, far out from the coastline, and even farther from any other ports.
Blaine and the others waited as the captain took out his sun board and calculated their position. Captain Darden’s expression braced Blaine for bad news even before the man spoke.
“The storm took us off course and farther out to sea than our usual fishing sites,” Darden said. “If we’re lucky, maybe one of our sister ships will find us and tow us back to port. If not—” He shrugged, but they did not need him to finish the sentence. Far from home without their mast, the sea would finish what it started.
“It’s his fault!” the red-haired man, Isdane, shouted. He pointed at Piran. “He mocked the gods. Mocked Yadin himself. Dared the Sea God to take us.”
Piran’s face was pure innocence. He spread his hands and shrugged. “Just a figure of speech.”
Isdane launched himself at Piran, a massive bull at full charge. Piran was faster, and sidestepped the big man, narrowly eluding his grasp.
“Piran!” Blaine spotted two of Isdane’s friends just as they bent to rush Piran. Blaine stepped up beside Piran as the crowded deck erupted in shouts. One of the men threw a punch that connected hard with Piran’s jaw, but Piran returned a sharp jab that sent the man sprawling. Blaine intercepted the second man, landing his fist squarely in the center of the man’s face, breaking his nose.
Before the fight could go further, strong hands seized Piran, Blaine, and Isdane and hauled them back. Captain Darden stepped in between Piran and Isdane.
“That’s entirely enough.” Darden fixed them with an icy glare. “We’ve got all the problems we need without this.”
“But I heard him. He mocked the gods!”
Darden looked at Isdane wearily. “I suspect the Sea God has more sense than to take offense from the likes of Piran Rowse.” He turned back to Blaine and Piran. “Get below, and stay there. Any more trouble and I’ll have you whipped.”
Blaine and Piran followed Isdane and his friends down the narrow stairs in silence. But when they reached the hold, Isdane started toward Piran again. “It’s your fault we’re going to die out here.”
Blaine shouldered his way between the two men, and shoved Isdane backward into his friends, hard enough to make them step back a pace. “Shut up, fool. Dying’s not certain, but whipping is, and I’ve got a mind to hang on to my skin.”
Isdane glared at Piran, and Blaine stood his ground between them, hands on hips. “We’ve got water enough for at least another week, and herring enough for the rest of our lives. There’s no reason for the other ships not to come looking for us; Commander Prokief’ll have their hides if they cost him a boat and a cargo of fish. He won’t be satisfied unless they bring us back or show wreckage to prove we sank. And in the meantime, mark my words, Captain Darden will have us fishing. I’ve got no desire to haul in nets with a striped back, or to have a bath of seawater after a flogging.”
Behind him, he heard Piran open his mouth to comment, and turned. “Your mouth started this. Drop it.”
Blaine could feel the heat from both men’s gaze, but he did not back down. Finally, Piran gave a creative curse and walked away. Isdane shot Piran a murderous look, then turned to his friends. “Let it go, boys. We can always jump the sorry son of a bitch when we get back to port.”
Isdane and the others retreated to one side of the hold. Blaine found Piran leaning against one of the support poles that held their hammocks. “On the whole, that went rather well,” Piran observed.
Blaine swung a punch that caught Piran on the side of his jaw.
Piran’s eyes went wide. “Hey, what was that for?”
“You could have gotten both of us thrown overboard to appease Yadin.”
“You don’t believe in the gods.”
“No,” Blaine replied, “but sailors are as superstitious as they come, and if anyone other than Isdane starts thinking you’re a jyng, the captain’s likely to toss you over you just to keep the peace.”
Piran’s mouth set in a hard line, but he made no retort and Blaine relaxed. “Hey, it could be worse,” Blaine said. “Darden could have decided to split you open and read your entrails for omens.”
“Don’t give him any ideas. He doesn’t like me.”
“I wonder why.”
Piran fell silent for a moment. “Do you think we’ll really die out here?”
Blaine shrugged. “Velant’s a death sentence. The only real question is what… or who… carries it out.”
Piran raised an eyebrow and looked at him. “You really don’t care, do you?”
Blaine turned away, tugging at the knots of his hammock. “No, I really don’t.”
GET ON YOUR FEET, YOU LAZY ASS. WE’RE BEING rescued.” Piran rocked Blaine’s hammock hard enough that he nearly fell to the floor. Blaine struggled to clear his head. “The captain spotted a couple of ventjers on the horizon this morning. They must have been looking for us.” Ventjers were smaller boats sent out from Velant to offload the gibbed herring and resupply the herring busses. With the ventjers, the busses could remain at sea for weeks at a time before returning to port.
“A whole team of ventjers aren’t going to be able to tow us back to port,” Blaine replied.
“There are three more busses with them. I wager they’ll figure out a way to get us back.”
Blaine grimaced. “You’ll wager just about anything, with anyone.”
“Can’t help it; I’m a betting man.”
It took three days to make it back to Skalgerston Bay, Edgeland’s main port. Since both the port city and the port itself shared the same name, colonists often referred to the village as Bay-town, though none of the maps reflected that name. Blaine stood on deck as the Pathi was towed in. Along the waterfront were a collection of low log buildings. Some were warehouses to store gibbed and fresh-caught fish on ice. A few were taverns and brothels for the sailors who found their way to Velant’s gods-forsaken port. Skalgerston Bay had a short row of shops where soldiers and convicts could purchase crockery, farming tools, and a few other necessities and luxuries from Donderath.
Behind the buildings of Skalgerston Bay lay the rest of Edgeland, the island at the top of the world. Blaine had heard the rumors that a few hardy trappers had found more remote shores, even farther to the north, but it was difficult to imagine that anything could be farther from civilization. Most of Edgeland was miles-thick ice and jagged rocky peaks. A narrow fringe of stony soil bordered the sea. On that fringe, guards and convicts scratched out their survival in the prison colony.
From the deck, Blaine could see some of the homestead farms in the distance. Edgeland’s poor soil could still yield potatoes, turnips, and carrots, along with a few bitter native fruits and enough rye, barley, and hops to fuel a profitable—and illegal—trade in home-brewed ale and strong whiskey. Small herds of sheep, goats, and dairy cows, along with chickens and pigs, all sent from Donderath, augmented the fish served at every meal. Prokief’s warden-mages, when not using their magic to keep the convicts in line, used their power and the heat of Edgeland’s underground hot springs to grow more succulent plants, specialties reserved for the commander and his chosen favorites.
Blaine hoisted his sack of clothing and personal items onto his back and lifted the small barrel of gibbed fish he and every other fisherman had earned as part of their pay for the fishing run. Piran was right behind him, juggling his own sack and barrel, as they made their way down the gangplank.
“Show your Tickets, if you have them,” the guard said in a monotone as Blaine and Piran reached the bottom. Blaine dug his Ticket of Leave out of the oilskin pouch that he wore on a leather strap around his neck. New convicts in Velant were housed in the sprawling barracks inside the stockade, under the constant eye of Commander Prokief’s motley soldiers. Those that survived three years in the harsh conditions could earn both a meager stipend for their labor and the coveted Ticket of Leave. For the male convicts, “surviving” meant living through time in the brutal labor gangs of the ruby and copper mines. For the female prisoners, it was enduring the attention of the guards and the backbreaking work of the laundry.
With a Ticket of Leave, a “seasoned” convict could live outside the stockade. Ticket-holders became colonists, able to engage in a trade, offer merchandise for sale, and go about their business. It was a cruel illusion of freedom. Every Ticket-bearer could lay claim to a three-acre homestead. The promise of the offer paled once the homesteader tried to plow the frozen, rocky ground. Those looking to earn coin could sign on with the herring fleet or find work with a trapper or merchant.
“Looking forward to getting home?” Piran asked as he and Blaine paid a coin to the wagon master who would take them out of Skalgerston Bay and out to the homesteads.
Blaine shrugged. “I’m looking forward to drying out, and eating something other than that godsdamned fish.”
By the time they reached the homesteads, it should have been night, though the winter sun remained low on the horizon. At the first rise in the road, the plume of smoke coming from a cabin’s chimney was visible.
“Home sweet home,” Piran said, slapping Blaine on the back. They climbed down from the wagon, shouldering their barrels of fish and their sacks of clothing.
A tall, lanky man was splitting wood in front of the cabin. He stopped when he made out two figures headed his way, and weighed the ax in his hands until Blaine and Piran were close enough to recognize. Then he sank the ax into the stump he was using as a chopping block and grinned broadly.
“Mick! Piran! Welcome back!” Dawe Killick pushed a strand of dark hair out of his eyes. Killick had a hawk-like nose and piercing blue eyes. His long-fingered hands, now calloused from hard work in Velant, retained the nimbleness of his original craft of silversmithing. He smiled broadly as Blaine and Piran approached, and he welcomed them with a handshake and a slap on the back. “You brought fish?”
Blaine groaned. “Of course. And this time out, we nearly became fish food.” He and Piran set down their barrels. “The stories can wait until we’ve had something to eat.”
“Food should be ready inside. I’ll help you move the barrels into the shed.” He looked skeptically at Blaine. “Rough seas?”
“Happy to be back on dry land, that’s for sure,” Blaine replied. “Is everyone well?”
Killick opened his mouth to reply, but the door to the cabin burst open and a woman stood framed in the doorway. “Mick and Piran! Thank the gods you’re home.” A petite red-haired woman bounded down the stairs. Kestel Falke wore the same homespun woolen garb as most of the other Ticketed prisoners, but as Blaine saw her stride toward them, the sashay in her walk betrayed her former occupation as a sought-after courtesan. She had green eyes that sparkled with wit and humor, and a figure that stood out even under her nondescript woolen dress. At the moment, someone might think her pretty but unremarkable. Her cheek had a smudge of cinders and her face was flushed from the hot stove. Yet Blaine had seen Kestel when she bothered to dress up for one of the local festivals, and even with the rough clothing and homemade cosmetics available in Edgeland, she could transform herself into a head-turning beauty. He could only guess just how beautiful she had been at court, clad in silks and velvets and adorned with diamonds and gold from her wealthy paramours.
Kestel greeted both Blaine and Piran with hugs, then linked her arms through theirs and walked them into the cabin with Dawe behind them.
“Did you miss us?” Blaine teased.
Kestel tossed her hair with mock seductiveness. “Not in the least,” she joked. “Dawe and Verran don’t make as much mess as the two of you.”
Blaine gave Kestel a good-natured squeeze. “Ah, but everyone thinks we’re the luckiest four men in Edgeland, sharing a house with you.”
Kestel leveled a half-joking glare his way. “Let them assume all they want. After all, a courtesan’s reputation is her biggest asset.”
Blaine gave her an exaggerated glance from head to toe. “I wouldn’t exactly say that,” he drawled, and she smacked him on the shoulder. “But I’m still in awe of how you managed to arrange this. Everyone assumes that the four of us are your paramours. Meanwhile we four luckless, loveless bastards suffer in silence without relief and you know we can’t set the record straight without making a mockery of our manhood.”
Kestel grinned. “Damned right. No one needs to know that I’ve ‘retired’ from the courtesan business. And there’s nothing stopping any of you from meeting your needs with one of our fine convict wenches or the strumpets down in Bay-town.”
“You’re lucky your other courtly skills include cooking and spying.”
Kestel snorted. “You’re lucky I was willing to lay my virtue on the line with Prokief to get you your Ticket, or you’d still be in the mines.”
Blaine planted a brotherly kiss on the top of her head. “Right you are on that one, luv. I’ll owe you eternally.”
“Yes, you will.” She shuddered. “I slept with more disgusting men at court, but at least they were rich.”
Blaine chuckled. When the five of them had earned their Tickets, Blaine had offered Kestel his protection, no strings attached. A place like Edgeland presented a different set of dangers than the royal court. Kestel’s renown as a courtesan had made her especially vulnerable to Velant’s guards, until two of the first to force themselves on her had mysteriously turned up dead. No one had been able to say just what had killed them, but the others took note. It was then Blaine realized that Kestel could name “assassin” among her talents, along with sex and intrigue, and that while she valued his friendship, she scarcely needed anyone’s protection.
“Has anyone mentioned that you two carry on like an old married couple?” Piran laughed.
Kestel crinkled her nose in mock disgust. “You do. Frequently. So far, I’ve been willing to overlook it.”
She paused at the bottom of the steps and made a shallow bow. Next to the entrance was a small shrine to Charrot, Donderath’s high god. Both male and female, one head with two faces, Charrot embodied both creation and destruction. A small hutch housed a ceramic figure of the god, next to which sat a dozen smooth pebbles, the offering of those who wished a favor or protection. Beside Charrot were several small carved wooden figures, the household and family gods Kestel insisted they honor. Blaine noticed that Kestel had placed a figure of Yadin, god of the dark water, in the hutch to ask for protection for the fishing fleet. He shivered, recalling what a close thing that had been. Though Blaine usually left it to Kestel to appease the gods, this time he inclined his head in thanks as he entered the cabin.
By Donderath standards the cabin was primitive. By Velant standards, it was very comfortable. Blaine, Piran, Dawe, and Kestel had met as new convicts in the hated dormitories, along with Verran Danning, who had befriended Blaine on the ship to Velant. A bond born of hardship had endured, and when they earned their Tickets of Leave and their acres of land, they had decided to pool their resources by building a shared house.
“Take your coats off and have a seat. I’ve got a pot of cabbage and mutton on the stove,” Kestel announced, though the aroma that filled the cabin already had Blaine’s stomach growling. “Dawe and I got some bread baked yesterday on the chance you’d be along. Once you’re fed and rested, you’ve got your choice of digging turnips or gutting and smoking the rabbits Dawe caught this morning.”
“Where’s Verran?” Blaine asked as he set his sack to the side and sat down at the rough-hewn table. Piran followed suit.
Kestel was ladling out generous portions of the stew into wooden bowls. She placed the bowls on the table in front of Blaine and Piran, followed by a hunk of bread. Dawe brought them each a wooden tankard full of home-brewed ale. “Verran’s been playing his music in some of the taverns in Skalgerston Bay. He’ll stay a few nights each week, and come home with coins in his pocket and some wine or ale for the house.” She sighed and pulled up a chair on the other side of the table. “The money he’s bringing in bought some new sheep and it’s gone a ways toward making sure we’ve got food enough put up for the winter.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t go with him,” Piran said, breaking off a hunk of the bread.
Kestel snorted. “I’ve got no desire to go back to the courtesan business, especially with the likes of what wanders into a Bay-town tavern.”
Blaine and Piran exchanged mock-offended glances. “I think we’ve just been insulted,” Blaine said.
“Of course you have,” Dawe replied from where he leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. “Did you forget how our Sour Rose loves to whittle you down to size?”
Blaine swallowed his stew. “It’s Kestel’s other profession I was thinking of, when Piran suggested going into the Bay. Hard to be much of a spy out here in the wilderness.”
Kestel grinned. “Spying always paid far more than being a courtesan. And for that matter, who says I haven’t been to town? It’s just that Bay-town is a small place. I hear more when I wait a little while between visits. That way, my friends have a chance to miss me, and they can’t wait to catch me up on the news,” she said with a wink.
Blaine finished his food and leaned back in his chair. “And what news have you heard since we’ve been out to sea?”
“Plenty,” Kestel said, leaning forward conspiratorially. “And I want to hear what you learned out on the boats. Nothing like cards and grog to loosen men’s tongues. I’m hoping you’ve got some tales to tell of your own.”
“You first,” Blaine said with a grin.
Kestel’s green eyes glittered as she looked from Blaine to Piran. “Word has it that Prokief’s warden-mages aren’t doing quite the job they used to do. According to my sources, there was an escape a few weeks back. Man went over the stockade and it took them a day to realize he was gone.”
Blaine frowned. “That’s unusual. The mages made it their business to know who sneezed.”
“Prokief was plenty mad about it. But I always thought he was scared of his own mages. Hard to do much to someone who can magick you with boils or snap your bones with a thought.”
Kestel nodded. “The supply ships from Donderath still haven’t come.”
Piran shrugged. “So? They’re always late.”
Kestel shook her head. “This time, it’s over three months. One of the merchants was beside himself about it. After all, without goods to sell from Donderath, the shopkeepers in Bay-town have little to offer that people can’t make themselves.”
“Had he heard anything about why the ships are late?” Piran asked.
“Everyone’s got ideas. But in one of the taverns, I turned the head of Prokief’s supply sergeant.” She lifted her shoulder and batted her eyes. “The barkeeper kept the ale flowing and the sergeant was so thrilled to have my full attention that he had to show off how much he knew.”
“And?” Blaine prodded.
“One of Prokief’s lieutenants told him there was a letter on the last ship from General Olvarth. Donderath can’t spare supply ships on the schedule they’d been coming. Said we might see three or four a year, instead of one each month.”
“Why so few?” Piran asked, frowning in alarm. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
Kestel shrugged. “That sergeant didn’t know. But one of the guards I danced with at another tavern told me he’d heard the war with Meroven was going badly.”
Blaine and Piran exchanged glances. “Oh?” Blaine leaned forward.
“The war’s pulled in the other two kingdoms, and from what I hear, it’s a bloodbath no one knows how to end,” Dawe said, kicking away from the wall. “I overheard a couple of soldiers down at the tavern. Said they’re almost glad they’re here in Velant, because they didn’t like the look of things back home.” His gaze was thoughtful as he looked away, trying to remember the conversation. “Food shortages. Conscription is so bad, there weren’t enough men to work the last harvest.” He shrugged. “That was the news they got with the last convict delivery and supply ship three months ago. Could be worse by now.”
Blaine frowned and sat back, crossing his arms. “All because Meroven made a grab for some of Donderath’s borderlands.”
“So the ‘official’ story goes,” Dawe replied. “Word has it that Meroven is equally convinced that King Merrill made a grab for their borderlands. But from what I’ve heard, Edgar of Meroven is insane; I’d put my money on him having made the first move. The two countries have been fighting over some of the same godsforsaken land for generations. Of course, the real reasons for the war aren’t likely to trickle down to any of Prokief’s foot soldiers.”
“Anything else?” Piran asked.
Kestel shook her head. “Just one soldier’s observation that the men were never very fond of Prokief, and if food and pay began to run short…”
“No one’s going to mutiny as long as Prokief has his warden-mages,” Piran said with a snort.
“We might get more news soon,” Kestel said. “I heard there are some convicts earning their Tickets. They might have heard something from the newest prisoners about what’s happening back home.” She grimaced. “I’ll go down to the camp gates with some of the other Ticketed women. We’ll help the lasses find their footing. A proper brothel for the ones who want to resume business and a sponsor and a job for the ones who don’t.” Her tone had grown bitter. “Sad, but it’s better than some of them had before they were sent to Velant.”
Kestel’s voice had lost its bantering tone. It didn’t take much for Blaine to guess the reason for her anger. Prokief’s guards enjoyed bragging to the male convicts about the liberties they’d taken with every new group of female prisoners. Prokief and his guards used each new group of female prisoners as their own private bordello until a shipment with fresh victims arrived. For some of the women, the mistreatment was not far different from what they had experienced back in Donderath. For others, those sent away for minor crimes and petty infractions, the abuse was enough to drive them to hang themselves within a few weeks of arriving at Velant. And for the male convicts, who were likely to settle down with those women, the memory lingered as a constant reminder of Prokief’s power over their lives.
Kestel’s last announcement dimmed the high spirits of the homecoming, and the group scattered to their tasks. Blaine and Piran went to put their sacks away in the room they shared with Dawe and Verran, while Kestel cleaned up what was left of the meal.
Blaine put his few personal possessions away and headed outside to store the barrels of fish in the shed behind the cabin. When he finished, he pulled his cloak more tightly around him and headed down a path toward a stand of pine trees on a ridge behind the cabin. The snow crunched under his boots and as he climbed, the wind grew stronger, so that he raised his hood and had to hold its edge with both hands to keep the wind from blowing it off his head.
He followed the path to where it ended by a mound in the snow. Beneath the mound was a stone cairn, built two springs before. From the foot of the cairn, Blaine could see in one direction out over a wide expanse of pristine ice that stretched to the horizon. In the other direction, he looked down over the slope that led to Skalgerston Bay to the sea. But from this spot, Velant’s prison stockade was not visible. It was why Blaine had chosen the place, and one of the reasons why it had always given him a measure of comfort.
Blaine reached into a small pouch at his belt and withdrew a small piece of wood carved in the shape of a bird, no larger than his index finger. He bent over to lay the carving atop the cairn. “Brought you something, Selane,” he murmured.
Blaine sighed, and his breath clouded around his face. “Ship just got in last night. Bad run of it with the weather. Just as well you couldn’t worry. With the long dark coming, the fleet may not go out again before winter. I wouldn’t mind that.” He paused. “I know you can’t hear me, but it was so much better coming home when you were here.” His throat grew tight, and for a moment, he stood in silence.
Behind him, he heard the crunch of footsteps and turned. Kestel was making her way up, struggling in the snow, her cloak drawn around her, its edges fluttering in the wind. She finally made it to the top and stood beside him. He could see that the wind stung her eyes and reddened her cheeks. “I thought I’d find you up here.”
Blaine shrugged but said nothing.
“I miss her too, Mick. We all do.” She laid a hand on his shoulder.
“I should be happy for her. She’s free. If the stories the Temple Guardians told about the Valley of the Gods have any truth, she’s in a place where she won’t be cold or hungry or imprisoned ever again. No damn fever to hurt her.” He shook his head. He’d finally accepted the fact that he would never go back to Donderath, never see Carensa again. Selane had made it bearable. Together, they had something that Velant and Prokief couldn’t take. Then the fever took her.
“I’m sorry, Mick.”
Blaine turned to look at Kestel. “I don’t think you followed me up here to rehash the past. Not in this cold.”
Kestel used the edge of her hood to shield her face against the wind so that it was easier to breathe. “You and I are the only ones in Velant who knew the court of King Merrill. What do you really think about the news from the tavern? Do you think Merrill will lose the war with Meroven?”
Blaine watched Kestel intently. While it was true that before running afoul of Donderath’s law, both of them had access to the king’s court, Blaine had not known Kestel. She, however, had recognized him on sight, and knew the court gossip that surrounded his banishment. It had counted for something that Kestel claimed that many in the court secretly sympathized with Blaine, and that his father’s reputation had not gone completely unnoticed.
“Merrill’s not a bad king,” Kestel said, thinking as she chose her words. “He can be clever, and the generals respect him.”
“Just how well did you know him?”
Kestel smiled enigmatically. “Personally? Not at all. However, for a time I was Lord Janoron’s courtesan and I had the pleasure of attending balls and private dinners in the presence of His Majesty. To him, I’m sure I was invisible. I prefer that. When I’m invisible, I can observe better.”
“My father spent more time with the king than I did,” Blaine replied. “They enjoyed the hunt, and father had done Merrill great service in the war against the Cerroden Rebellion. On the few occasions father insisted I accompany him to court, I was rarely included in any meetings with the king. Other than when he banished me, I can only remember being in private company with Merrill twice. But I agree: From what little I saw of him as a man, Merrill seemed even-tempered and fair.” Blaine’s voice took on a bitter edge. “Even when he banished me, he let me know that he understood—and possibly sympathized—with my reasons.”
“But he had to make an example.”
“It would have set a dangerous precedent not to.” Blaine looked down the slope toward the sea. “What worries me about the news isn’t that Donderath and Meroven are at war, but that whatever’s happened is bad enough that it affects something as minor as the supply ships to Velant. Under normal circumstances, what they send on a ship for the colony is trivial compared to the rubies they take back. A war with Meroven shouldn’t disrupt sea trade. If it’s true that Merrill can’t send more ships, then I’m afraid something has gone horribly wrong.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Kestel met his eyes. “Without shipments of food and money to pay the soldiers, I don’t know how long Prokief can hold the camp, even with the mages. He relies on the ships to send him fresh guards, and he holds the hope of earning a spot on a ship back to Donderath over the heads of the others. If Donderath were to suddenly withdraw its support, Prokief might face a rebellion by his own men.”
“If anyone but the boys in the cabin were to hear us talking like this—” Blaine said in a warning tone.
Kestel’s eyes took on a serious glint. “That’s why we’re talking up here. If Prokief is afraid, he’s going to be more dangerous than ever before. The warden-mages will clamp down. That’s a situation ripe for a coup—”
“Or for a slaughter,” Blaine replied. “Be careful. The news that reaches us here is part rumor and part wishful thinking. If the prisoners were to rise against Prokief and Velant isn’t cut off from Donderath—”
“There’ll be troop ships headed this way to put down the rebellion within a month or two and we all hang.”
“We’ve got to be careful, Kestel. Until we know, we don’t dare make a move in either direction.” Blaine sighed. “Since we’re having this little exercise in treason, here’s another thought.
“Suppose that for some reason, Velant is cut off from Donderath. How long would that last? Suppose that Prokief mucks it up completely with his soldiers and they riot. Gods, the soldiers assigned up here had a choice of Velant or the noose. They’re not the best of the lot. Sooner or later, Donderath will remember we exist. They’ll miss the rubies or the copper or the fish. They’ll get around to sending new ships. It’s one thing if the soldiers have rebelled. But if the convicts revolt, they’ll pin the whole sorry mess on us and crush us.” He shook his head.
“It won’t work. I hate Prokief as much as anyone, but there’s no way to cut ourselves free of him—”
“Unless Donderath itself falls.” Kestel met Blaine’s gaze and for a moment no one spoke.
“And if that happens, it’ll be the freedom of the damned,” Blaine said quietly. “Because without ships from Donderath, I’m not sure that Edgeland can survive.”
THIS WAR IS MADNESS.” LORD GARNOC THUMPED the tip of his walking stick against the wooden floor for emphasis.
“Perhaps,” replied King Merrill. Donderath’s War Council met in an upstairs chamber of Quillarth Castle, in a room as somber as its purpose. “But it seems unavoidable.” The king’s voice was weary. “Meroven shows no sign of backing down, no matter how many troops we send against them. Vellanaj has thrown in their lot with Meroven. I’ve just received envoys from Tarrant with word that their king will honor his alliance with Donderath against Meroven.” King Merrill shook his head. “Mad it may be, but we have no choice except to stand against Meroven, unless we want to be ruled by Edgar.”
Bevin Connor stood in the shadows against the wall behind his master, Lord Garnoc. He had been there long enough that his knees ached and his back cramped, but he kept his post in silence and resisted the urge to stretch. He brushed a lock of dark blond hair back from where it had strayed.
At twenty-two, he had been in the employ of Lord Garnoc for nearly ten years, since his fostering. His responsibilities had steadily increased as he grew older and as Garnoc’s age took a toll on the old man’s mobility. Connor was grateful for the position, since as the youngest son, he had no inheritance possibilities other than the possession of an old and middlingly well-known noble name. “Middling” was a word Connor thought suited him in many ways: average height and build, unremarkable features, and eyes that couldn’t decide whether they were blue or green. Garnoc said that Connor was a perfect spy because he was good-looking enough to be welcome anywhere and unremarkable enough to be easily forgotten.
Now, Connor’s alarm at the king’s latest news was enough to drive all wish for sleep from his mind. By the faces of Charrot! What except destruction can come from a war that engages all four of the Continent’s great powers?
Connor had been a silent and largely invisible witness to the debates of Donderath’s War Council since the first skirmishes along Donderath’s border almost three years before. Each time the Council convened, he hoped for better news from the front lines. Donderath had a long and successful history navigating the Continent’s politics, and an equally illustrious record during the skirmishes and wars that had occurred when the major and minor powers had clashed. He had expected the conflict with Meroven to be quickly met and done, a bit of battlefield politics. For it to have burgeoned into a war set to consume all of the Continent’s four major powers was as frightening as it was previously unthinkable.
“You’re certain that Tarrant is sincere?” Lord Radenou’s scratchy voice reminded Connor of the sound of a chair scraping along the floor. “Perhaps they mean for us to overextend ourselves. They have a long history of trade with Meroven. Why should they favor us now?”
“By the gods, man! Think of what you say,” Lord Corrender exploded. “If Tarrant is against us, that would put us three against one. Meroven’s victory would be assured. Be grateful for such an ally—Meroven, I think, does worse. We should be glad it is Tarrant that wishes to fight on our behalf and not Vellanaj.” Corrender, like Lord Garnoc, was a former military man, though more than a generation separated the two. Corrender’s hair was still full and dark, though it was gray at the temples. He had lost half a leg in battle, and Merrill had requested that he serve in Council rather than on the field.
Garnoc, too, had once been known for his valor in battle, though it had been in the service of the father of Donderath’s present king. As the men at the Council table glowered at each other, Connor took advantage of the pause to step forward and fill Garnoc’s cup with the watered wine his master preferred when in company with the king. Garnoc gave him a nod of thanks and Connor withdrew once more to the shadows.
“The die is cast,” Merrill said, taking a sip from his goblet of brandy. “In this, Tarrant has common cause with us. Our spies have reported messengers between Vellanaj and Meroven for some time now, even before Meroven attempted to seize land across our border. Tarrant realizes that if Meroven and Vellanaj succeed in their attack on Donderath, they will surely fall next.”
“Yet the king of Tarrant wed the daughter of Jeroq of Vellanaj. Is that not an alliance with the enemy?” Lord Radenou demanded.
“And by all accounts, Jeroq was well rid of the harridan,” Garnoc replied. His voice was gravelly with age, and his hair required no powder to be white as snow. Yet his blue eyes snapped with fire, and from the set of his jaw, Connor had no difficulty imagining his master as a firebrand in his younger days. He was still, even in his seventh decade, the most outspoken of the nobles, and the one to whom Merrill most often turned for private counsel. “One need not have spies to hear the report of how ill matched Zhon of Tarrant is to Jeroq’s daughter. Any courtier who has traveled among Tarrant’s nobility can verify that.”
Radenou shrugged. “An arranged marriage is not for the happiness of the man and wife, but a business deal between the husband and the bride’s father,” he countered. Radenou had the silky manner of a courtier, and the instincts of an assassin. Connor had been privy more than once to his master’s opinions of the recalcitrant lord.
“Such marriages are hardly unknown in Donderath, or do you forget that Queen Loana is the youngest of Edgar of Meroven’s daughters?” Merrill countered. Connor thought he looked much older than he had just a few months earlier. “I’m afraid such brides are mere hostages, and if they commit their affection to their husbands, they are then torn between loyalties.”
I’m betting the king knows a thing or two about that personally, Connor thought. The marriage between Merrill and Loana of Meroven had been brokered through all of the proper channels, yet it was widely rumored to have been a love match as well. Whether the bride and groom had discovered their affection before or after the vows, Connor did not know, but there was a warmth between them even in their public appearances that he did not believe was mere pretense.
“With Tarrant’s help, can we push back both Meroven and Vellanaj?” Garnoc leaned forward, catching Merrill’s eye with a question Connor was sure his master had timed to help the king out of an embarrassing thread of conversation. A flicker of gratitude flashed in Merrill’s eyes as he nodded.
“I believe so. Vellanaj is not a particularly strong ally, though its navy is sizable. Already, there are reports that they have moved to blockade us.”
“And the Cross-Sea powers? Will they take sides in this?” Corrender’s gaze fell to the map of the world powers that stretched across the table. The Sarnian Ocean stretched a vast distance between the Continent and the Peninsula, its nearest neighbor. “Nearest” was a relative term, Connor knew, since the sea voyage took several months, even with good weather.
Merrill shook his head. “No, thank the gods. They have officially declared their neutrality. This is not their fight, and they want nothing of it.” A weary, cynical smile touched the king’s lips. “Or rather, they desire to trade with both sides, and to have no hard feelings with whoever is proven to be the winner.”
Tiredly, Merrill stood. “Gentlemen. I will take tonight’s comments under consideration. When I receive messengers from the front, we will reconvene. Until then, we are adjourned.”
The others remained seated until the king left the chamber.
“Mark my words, this war will not come to a good end,” Radenou muttered as he pushed back his chair.
Corrender rounded on him. “Is that your prediction—or your hope?”
Radenou shrugged. “Merely my observation. It cannot be good for business or personal accounts when the four major powers on the Continent align against one another. The minor powers will scurry like rats dodging among the horses’ hooves, playing both sides for fools. And when we have all beggared ourselves for want of a few acres of ground, we may find the world more changed than we would like.”
“Much as it pains me to agree with Radenou, I think in this case, he may be right.” They turned to look at Lord Onseler, who had remained silent throughout most of the night’s discussion. Onseler was one of the Council’s younger members, though he was well into his fifth decade. Like the others, he had served his time in battle for King Merrill or the king’s father. Now the vast connections of his shipping business made him the perfect spymaster for the king. Lord Onseler had never lost the bearing of a career military officer, and his eyes were cold and cunning.
Well aware that everyone’s eyes were on him, Onseler took his time rising from his chair. “I do not like the omens I see. Always before, when the four powers have clashed, it has been over token issues: a strip of long-contested and otherwise useless land, a trade concession, or an imagined diplomatic affront.” Onseler shook his head. “Edgar of Meroven is a very different king from his father—and from King Merrill. Edgar is headstrong and vain, and by all accounts, he’s surrounded himself with ambitious men. Vellanaj’s king is weak and easily led. No doubt he basks in Edgar’s supposed glory,” he said with disdain. “I don’t think this war will be as easily ended as the last skirmishes. I fear this war will redraw the map of the Continent—and we may not like the results.”
Lord Garnoc said nothing until he and Connor were within their private rooms. It was so apparent that he was bursting to speak that Connor barely suppressed a smile, though the subject was no laughing matter.
“By Torven’s horns!” Garnoc swore, and went on to curse in increasingly creative ways until Connor had poured him a liberal shot of brandy. “Radenou makes me wish I were twenty years younger. I’d like nothing more than to put my sword through that wagging tongue of his!”
Connor chuckled. “I daresay you’d find the rest of the Council offering to be your second in that duel, m’lord. Your opinion appears to be shared by all.”
Garnoc settled into a chair by the fire. “All but the king, though I think I know why Merrill puts up with him. It’s better to keep your enemy close enough to watch.”
“You’re sure Radenou is truly the king’s enemy?”
Garnoc gave a growl as he settled into the chair and thrust a pillow behind his lower back, giving Connor to know that part of his master’s ill temper had less to do with the Council than it did with his aching muscles. “If you mean, do I think Radenou would take up arms for Meroven, no. But the man delights in being a gadfly, and his contrariness wears on me. His sour disposition affects those in his circle, who go off to poison others with their cynicism.” His brows knitted together in a scowl. “Such cynicism can undermine a king, whether it’s meant as treason or not.”
Connor hurried to bring Garnoc his dinner from the covered plate a servant brought to the door. With a flourish meant to lighten Garnoc’s mood, Connor set out the dinner on the table, making a show of laying out the rolls, napkin, tureen of soup with its crust of baked cheese and ramekin of fruit compote, with a perfectly roasted game hen plated with radishes and caramelized parsnips. “Dinner is served, m’lord.”
Garnoc got slowly to his feet, but he waved off assistance. “I don’t need you hovering over me, Bevin!”
“Yes, m’lord,” Connor said with a deep bow that hid his smile. Garnoc was not always a congenial master, but he was a good and fair man who did not believe in beating either his servants or his horses. Unlike much of the nobility. Garnoc had also raised sons to maturity who willingly spoke well of their father.
“Show Millicent to the table,” Garnoc said.
Connor went to the mantle and took down the small oil painting that traveled everywhere with Lord Garnoc. The oval painting showed a dark-haired beauty with tempestuous eyes and a full-lipped smile. Lady Garnoc was rumored to have had a force of personality equal to that of her husband, and the older servants still fondly remembered rows between the two that resulted in broken crockery. Yet their disagreements, however heated, had never gone beyond a few trampled trinkets, and from all recollections seemed to have been as much entertainment for the two as they had been about any subject of meaning.
Even now, twenty years after Lady Garnoc’s passing and long after she had aged to be a respected matron in the court, the elderly chambermaids still blushed when they whispered about the trysts between Lord and Lady Garnoc. The passion that had bound them together had not cooled for Lord Garnoc after his wife’s death, and he made it clear that he would never want anyone but Millicent.
Respectfully, Connor placed Millicent’s portrait opposite where Lord Garnoc sat, and withdrew.
“I did not want to say so in front of the others,” Garnoc said, “because I did not wish to appear to agree with anything Radenou says, but I, too, am worried.” Whether he was speaking to Millicent or to Connor, Connor did not know, but such conversations were common, and Connor accepted them as part of his role as Garnoc’s personal steward. “I have had dark dreams about this war. I don’t think Merrill has considered the impact if Vellanaj’s blockade succeeds, and I have told him as much in private.”
Garnoc shook his head. “Merrill is worried. He won’t show it, but I’ve known him since he was a lad, and I can tell this war wears on him. Merrill is a man of reason. He weighs his options and their cost before acting. Edgar of Meroven is hot-tempered and vain. Edgar must know his grab for land can’t go without reply, but he’s willing to risk everything, and for what?”
He glanced at Connor, who hurried to refill his brandy. “What of the king’s mages, m’lord? Do they give counsel?” Connor asked.
Garnoc sighed. “They speak in riddles, as always. But of late, even those riddles are dark. I was with Merrill the last time his visioner cast the cards. Dark omens of wild seas and fire raining down from a mountain and of an early, killing frost.” He fell silent for a few moments as he finished his meal. “I don’t always hold with the findings of the king’s visioner, so I asked my astrologer, Atriella, to scry the stars for me.”
“And what was revealed?” Connor was skeptical when it came to the proclamations of most of the soothsayers, smoke-readers, and diviners who hung about every court and noble house like weevils in a granary. Yet Atriella was different. She did not affect the swoons and vapors that so many of the visioners used to announce their readings. When she searched the skies for signs of what would be, she was rarely wrong, despite her lack of showy ritual. Her accuracy had made many enemies among the lesser astrologers, who already held her common birth against her.
“You know that Charrot’s figure in the night sky remains visible all year long, dipping and rising but always in view.”
“Yes, m’lord. I’ve seen it when the sky is clear.” Connor had indeed seen the pattern of stars that was named for the two-natured, diune god. He glanced toward a large tapestry on the wall that illustrated a scene from the epic poems that recounted the stories of the gods. One of the tapestries depicted three figures against the constellations of the night sky: Charrot, the Source, and the god’s two consorts, Torven and Esthrane. Beneath them lay land, sea, and the realms of the dead and undead.
Charrot, the Source, ruled both the realm of gods and the realm of men. On one side of his body, Charrot had the form of a perfect warrior: broad-shouldered, with rippling muscles in his arms and thighs and exceptionally well-endowed manhood. His skin was a dusky yellow, and his chiseled, masculine face was always depicted by the artists as handsome. But Charrot was both male and female, and the figure in the tapestry was turned slightly so that both sides showed. Viewed from the other side, Charrot was a woman of surpassing beauty, with heavy, full breasts and thighs that promised both fertility and fecundity. With skin the color of twilight and hair the shade of a midnight sky, Charrot was the epitome of feminine beauty.
In the tapestry, the god held out its hands to its two consorts. Torven, the god of illusion, was a blue-skinned man whose beauty equaled that of Charrot himself. Torven and his progeny ruled the air and sea, water and ice, darkness and twilight, metals and gems, and the Sea of Souls.
Esthrane, the second consort, also equaled Charrot’s feminine sensuality. With yellow-hued skin and a wide-eyed and sorrowfully knowing gaze, Esthrane and the gods of her offspring commanded fertility from the ground and from crops and herds, working their power in birth and fire. And it was Esthrane who kept watch over the Unseen realm, the wandering place of incomplete souls.
Beneath the feet of the figures in the tapestries were the artist’s imaginings of the hundreds of household gods, patron deities, and place-gods who were revered and worshipped. Temperamental and fickle, these lesser gods figured much more in the lives of ordinary citizens than the sons and daughters of Charrot’s consorts. From spoiled milk to turned ankles, the lesser gods influenced the daily routines of life, and a wise person knew how to beseech them for their favor.
Garnoc cleared his throat, pulling Connor back from his thoughts. “As I was saying—”
Connor nodded. “Atriella’s reading of the stars,” he said, embarrassed to be caught daydreaming.
“Aye. We’re coming on toward winter, and Esthrane’s constellation, Woman in Childbirth, dips below the horizon until summer, when life begins again. Torven’s constellation, the Conjuror, rises for the winter.” Garnoc sipped his brandy and cast a glance at Conner to assure his attention.
“You know of the planets in their courses?’
“Yes, m’lord. They move about our sun, like bees in a hive.”
Garnoc nodded, pleased at Connor’s answer. “You’ve been paying attention.”
“Atriella says that once every seventy years, the outermost planets, Veo and Iderban, form a perfect line. If they align when Esthrane’s constellation is high, it augurs for prosperity and good harvest. But if they align when Torven’s stars are ascendant, it is a dark omen, full of changes and of things not being what they seem.”
Connor nodded, though he was unsure that he trusted in the star-seers as much as his lord. “Veo, the Thief. And Iderban, the Assassin,” he mused. Garnoc had told him once that the most remote planets were so named because they were faint to the eye without a spying glass, with shadowy, elusive shapes.
“Atriella believes that the omen bodes badly for the war, and for Donderath’s part in the fighting.” Lord Garnoc shook his head. “Given the news that we’re privy to, I fear she is right. If Vellanaj is able to maintain its blockade, we’ll be forced to feed our people and provision our army without the benefit of trade from abroad.” He paused for a moment, lost in thought.
“It’s a bad business, with winter coming. Likely to stir up all kinds of unrest. Hungry people at home make it difficult for a king to focus on the warfront.” He met Connor’s gaze. “It’s likely to create other problems as well if the folks in the ginnels start looking for someone to blame. I believe Lanyon will want to know what we’ve learned.”
Connor nodded. “When do you want me to take the message?”
“Go now. It’ll be a few days before the king has more news. This has potential to affect Lanyon and his people. He needs to be warned.”
“Shall I wait until after you’re finished with your meal?”
Garnoc smiled. “You can take care of the table when you get back. Millicent and I have some catching up to do.”
CONNOR MADE SURE NO ONE SAW HIM LEAVING Lord Garnoc’s rooms. He took the servants’ stairs down to the first floor, pausing only long enough to retrieve his cloak from his own room. Quillarth Castle had dozens of back stairways and at this hour, long after supper, the passageways were quiet.
Even the stables were empty of groomsmen and hired hands as Connor saddled his horse and led it from its stall. He encountered no one until he reached the gate, when a bored guard asked only if he intended to return that night.
Connor had not gone far beyond the walls of Quillarth Castle before he turned from the main road. There was a full moon, and it lit the way as he urged his horse along the meandering streets that would lead him out of the city and into the countryside.
He had been careful to hide his feelings when Garnoc sent him on the errand, but inside, Connor felt his stomach twist. How long until Garnoc realizes I may have betrayed him? Connor wondered. The question was rarely far from his mind. Garnoc had already noticed something was wrong. He had admonished Connor more than once for allowing his attention to stray. But the fact that Garnoc still kept Connor in his service told him that he had not yet been found out.
I should confess, Connor thought for the hundredth time. Even though I don’t quite know what I’m confessing about. He had been down this line of reasoning before, and it always led him in circles. What do I tell him? That twice I’ve been waylaid on the way back from carrying a message, but that I’ve got no clue about who attacked me? That they left me unconscious in a ditch, and I awoke with no memory of where I’d been for the past few candlemarks?
Connor shook his head. Who would believe me? I hadn’t been drinking, but that’s what they’ll assume. Nothing was taken. And yet, I’ve lost candlemarks of my life. I don’t know what I did or said. Gods help me! What if I’ve broken confidence, betrayed my master—and the king?
Another possibility loomed, equally frightening. Or perhaps, Connor thought, I’m going mad. I’ve heard that men can go into a frenzy and remember nothing. Gods! What if I’ve killed someone, done something awful, and don’t remember? Either way, I’ve shamed my master, betrayed my vows, maybe even compromised the king.
Always the thoughts circled to the same conclusion. Confess my fears, and Garnoc will disown me. No one else will want an unreliable assistant. I’ll starve. Or worse, Merrill will lock me up for treason. I can’t bear that, especially when I don’t even know what I’ve done.
Stay, and it could happen again. He groaned, looking quickly from side to side to assure himself that he was alone on the road. Gods forgive me! I don’t have the courage to confess to a crime I can’t remember. I could run away, but whoever’s done this to me might find me—before I starve as a beggar. The king might fear I was a spy and send his men for me. What a choice! Run away and starve or stay and make it worse, and I can’t even remember what I’ve done!
In less than a candlemark, Connor had left the city of Castle Reach behind him. He paused for a moment and looked up at the sky. It was a clear night in late summer. He searched the sky for the constellations and found the lightning-like pattern of Charrot’s stars, chosen by those who thought it represented the Source God’s twin nature. Esthrane’s constellation, a row of five stars for the body of the mother and emerging child and four other stars at the corners of a square for the goddess’s hands and feet, were also visible. Connor guessed that the ancients who had named the stars had far more imagination than he did to envision such detailed images from a few points of light.
Autumn would come soon, and Esthrane’s constellation would dip below the horizon as Torven’s K-shaped pattern of stars—a conjuror with his arm outstretched holding a staff—would rise. Connor hoped that autumn brought with it milder temperatures and cooler tempers.
With a sigh, Connor urged his horse forward. Lanyon Penhallow’s current home was a two-candlemark ride from Castle Reach. He shook his head to ward off sleep and nudged his horse with his heels. The night was already far spent and he knew that he must reach Penhallow’s manor before dawn.
Finally, the lights of Rodestead House came into view. Connor slowed his horse so as not to alarm Lord Penhallow’s guardsmen at the large stone gate. The manor was surrounded by an iron fence of unsurpassed workmanship, both sturdy and beautiful, wrought with symbols and scenes like a metal tapestry. Connor brought his horse to a walk as he approached the gate.
“State your name and business.”
“Bevin Connor. I bear a message for your master from Lord Garnoc.”
After a moment, the huge iron gate swung open. “You may enter the grounds,” the unseen guard replied. “Wait at the manor door to be admitted.”
By now, Connor was familiar with the ritual. He dismounted, and led his horse up the carriageway. As he approached the house, he felt the scrutiny of unseen watchers. He was careful to keep his hand well away from the sword at his side. Connor looped his horse’s reins over the hitching post at the end of the carriageway and walked slowly up the broad granite steps to the manor’s imposingly carved front door. Before he could knock, the double doors swung open. Framed in the large doorway was a thin man of indeterminate age.
“Welcome, Master Connor. Please come in.” Hannes, Lord Penhallow’s steward, stepped aside to allow Connor to enter. That he was met by the steward and not by one of the other servants gave Connor to guess that somehow, Lord Penhallow expected his arrival. Though he did not understand it, Connor had grown used to Penhallow’s unusual prescience, on both trivial issues and matters of greater importance.
“I bear greetings—and a message—from Lord Garnoc,” Connor replied.
Hannes nodded. “Lord Penhallow will be pleased. Follow me.”
Rodestead House was eerily silent, though it was lit with candles as if for a ball. The huge iron chandelier in the entry hall glittered with dozens of candles, and sconces along the walls lit their way as Connor followed Hannes up the sweeping front stairway. Halfway up, Connor shivered, suddenly chilled to the bone though the night was mild. He caught just the barest glimpse of a shimmer in the air before the apparition was gone.
“Did one of our haunts give you a quiver?” Hannes asked with a chuckle. “Pay them no mind. There are many spirits here, some recent and many quite old. You’re in no danger. Lord Penhallow has let it be known that you are under his protection.”
Hannes’s words, meant to be reassuring, sent another chill down Connor’s spine. He did not doubt that it was an enviable honor to be under the watch of Rodestead House’s formidable lord. Yet he had learned from his years at court with his master that all convenient arrangements had their price.
“You may wait in here,” Hannes said, stopping in front of mahogany double doors. He opened them and made a shallow bow, gesturing for Connor to precede him. “The lord will be with you shortly.” Hannes closed the door, leaving Connor alone.
Inside was a well-appointed library. The large fireplace was tall enough for a man to be able to stand without needing to duck his head. A fire burned brightly, warming the room. Hundreds of leather-bound volumes were arranged on beautifully carved shelves, and the scent of their leather and parchment filled the room.
Connor took in his surroundings without venturing farther, unsure of where his host would have him stand. In the years he had carried messages for Garnoc, Connor had rarely been ushered into the same room twice. Over the years, he had made a game of looking for clues about his taciturn host. This new room provided more pieces of the puzzle to help him decipher the man for whom Rodestead House was home.
In addition to books, a curious assortment of objects lined the shelves. Astrolabes and armillary spheres sat on a table at one side of the room. Trinkets of silver, jade, and glass were arranged on the bookshelves and on side tables. On the mantle, several small marble statues looked warm and lifelike by the glow of the fire. Many of the objects looked to be of a great age, and some Connor could not place as being from anywhere within Donderath or the Continent’s kingdoms. Three large leather chairs faced the fireplace. Next to one of the chairs was a small table with a glass of dark liquid and a plate of sausage, dried fruits, and small pastries. A second partially filled goblet sat nearby, as if its owner had just stepped away.
Above the mantle was an oil painting. It showed a prosperous family dressed in the manner of several centuries past: husband, wife, son, and daughter. The young daughter toyed with a small dog, while her brother seemed to be making an effort to look older than the seven years Connor guessed him to be. The woman had a gracious look, seated with her hands in her lap, wearing a modest gown as befitted a gentlewoman. Her blue eyes were startling, even at a distance, and her long hair fell in ringlets around her face.
The man stood behind the woman’s chair. His right hand rested possessively on his wife’s shoulder, while his left hand lay proudly on the shoulder of his son. He had the look about him of a man who understood that he was born to rule, with high cheekbones and a stern, thin-lipped mouth that did not quite smile although everything about his manner said that he was satisfied with his lot in life. Confident, but not arrogant, with keen intelligence in his blue eyes. His brown hair hung loose to his shoulders, and his clothing spoke of money and position. Connor guessed that the painting was at least two hundred years old, and he also knew without a shadow of a doubt that the man in the painting was the same Lanyon Penhallow whose arrival he awaited.
“Do you like my library?” The voice startled Connor enough that he jumped and he heard his host chuckle.
“Yes, very much, m’lord,” Connor replied, wishing his heart would stop thudding. He turned to see Penhallow standing behind him and searched the apparently seamless wall for signs of a hidden doorway.
Lanyon Penhallow stood framed against his books. His dark hair was caught back in a queue. He appeared to be a few years older than the man in the painting, perhaps in his late third decade. Tonight, he wore a simple, claret-colored silk shirt with a brocade doublet in muted tones over dark close-fit leggings. Against the rich colors of his clothes, Penhallow’s skin seemed pale.
“Is Garnoc well?”
Connor nodded. “Yes, quite.”
“And Millicent?” Penhallow’s mouth quirked upward, just slightly, at the private joke. Endearment and forbearance colored his tone, without a hint of mockery.
Connor smiled, despite the apprehension he always felt in Penhallow’s presence. “Milady Millicent is, as ever, looking splendid.”
Penhallow walked closer. Connor did his best to look nonchalant, though his heart was beating at twice its normal rate once more. “Come now, my dear Bevin. Do I still make you nervous after all this time?”
Connor sighed. “Reflex, m’lord, or instinct. I know you are a man of your word.”
Penhallow nodded. “And a man of few words. You and Garnoc are among only a handful to be granted my protection in these perilous times. It will not keep you from all harm, but it will reduce the number of people willing to interfere with our business.” He paused. “You have a message for me?”
Connor unfastened his right cuff and turned his sleeve up until it exposed the whole of his inner elbow and forearm. “See for yourself, m’lord,” he said, extending his arm, palm up, as he steeled himself, inadvertently making a fist.
Penhallow took the proffered arm and lowered his head. Connor barely felt Penhallow’s sharp teeth sink into the throbbing vein in the hollow of his elbow, but he gasped seconds later at the by-now-familiar vertigo that accompanied Penhallow’s feeding. He forced himself to stand still, though his most primal instincts urged him to run, knowing that his stillness would yield the least bruising and the cleanest wounds. The creases of both elbows were dotted with small, round white scars, badges of his role as witness and messenger.
Penhallow can read my memories. Can he see the gaps? Will he find me out? Another possibility occurred to Connor. Did Penhallow send someone after me to take my memories? Oh, gods! Can he read my thoughts? Maybe I’ve given myself away. I don’t know who to trust.
Both he and Penhallow gained from the exchange. Undoubtedly, Penhallow gained the most, seeing through Connor’s eyes all that had transpired in the War Council, and in his later discussion with Garnoc. Yet while Penhallow gleaned information, the feeding was part of the mysterious magic that granted Connor the vampire lord’s protection. Though the scars were well hidden beneath Connor’s sleeve, something of Penhallow’s magic lingered. More than once, a common cutpurse bent on robbing Connor had drawn back at the last moment, as if warded off by an intangible presence. He did not know what other dangers Penhallow’s magic had spared him, and he did not want to know.
Only a few moments passed, and Penhallow raised his head. No hint of blood colored his lips, and the wound on Connor’s arm was clean, already healing rapidly. “How interesting,” Penhallow said, his expression introspective as if he replayed Connor’s memories in his mind.
Connor’s heart was thudding, afraid that Penhallow had indeed realized his fears.
“You’re more tense than usual,” Penhallow said. “I forget how demanding travel is for a mortal. Please, have a seat and some refreshment,” Penhallow said, snapping out of his thoughts and gesturing for Connor to move with him to a chair near the fire. Penhallow was a gracious host and was always quite solicitous toward Connor after the conveyance of the message, as if he guessed that Connor endured these meetings despite his mortal fear.
“When does Merrill hear next from his commanders?”
“A few days, m’lord. Garnoc does not expect a good report.”
“Neither do I.” Penhallow reached for the goblet beside his chair and swirled the dark liquid. It was as red and rich as cabernet, but it clung to the glass differently, so that Connor knew it to be blood. Connor looked away and availed himself of the repast Penhallow had set out for him, glad his own glass held brandy.
“I have my watchers at the front,” Penhallow said, his voice as darkly lustrous as the liquid in his glass. “In fact, I’d like you to meet one of my main sources of information.” He paused to sip his drink. “He should be joining us any minute.”
As if on cue, the door to the study opened. A portly man came into the room rubbing his hands together. His clothing was dark blue, cut in the fashion of a military uniform, though it bore no rank or insignia. The newcomer was in his middle years, balding with a fringe of gray hair. He moved with surprising alacrity for his bulk, and while his manner was jovial, his dark eyes hinted at shrewd intelligence.
“Good evening, Traher,” Penhallow said. “Please join us. You know where I keep the brandy.”
Voss grinned. He gave a nod in Connor’s direction, and then went to the sideboard to pour himself a generous slug of brandy before joining them near the fire. “This is the pup you mentioned, Lanyon?” he said with an appraising glance at Connor, who felt himself bristle. “Doesn’t look like much, if you’ll pardon my saying so.”
Penhallow took on a bemused expression. “I believe the term ‘pup’ is yours, Traher, not mine. I beg to differ. I believe Lord Garnoc’s attaché has more to him than we know,” he said. “Bevin Connor, meet Traher Voss. Voss is a man of many talents, one of them being channeling information.”
Connor’s heart beat faster at Penhallow’s introduction, unsure just what the vampire meant by his comment. Could he tell from my blood that I might have betrayed him? Connor wondered. He looked up to see Voss watching him, and felt his temper rise.
“You look to be a military man, yet you’re not at the front,” Connor said. “But men with your skills are needed badly.”
Voss guffawed. “The pup can bark,” he said, grinning. “Well, well.” He knocked back the brandy in his glass. “My ‘skills,’ as you put it, go beyond bashing heads together, although I’ll admit to being good at that.” Connor glanced at the sword that hung by the man’s side, a warrior’s broadsword, not a nobleman’s rapier. “I’m also pretty good at things like finding out secrets, which pays much better than being a target.”
“Connor will bear our warning back to Garnoc, and through him, to the king,” Penhallow said.
“I don’t envy you repeating what I’ve got to say at court,” Voss said, setting his empty glass aside. “Donderath is losing the war, and it is likely to lose even with Tarrant’s help.” He held up a hand to forestall Connor’s protest.
“Meroven and Vellanaj have set a trap for Donderath, and Merrill has taken the bait. Meroven’s mages are behind their army’s success, and we believe that once Meroven’s army has made sure that Donderath can’t turn the tide, King Edgar’s mages will attempt to strike a killing blow.”
“You expect them to try to assassinate King Merrill?” Connor asked, looking from Voss to Penhallow, hoping the vampire would disagree.
Penhallow shrugged. “Perhaps, but only as part of a wider attack. No, my sources tell me that Meroven has held back its strongest battle sorcerers until the end, but that they are well equipped to turn the tide of the war—unless Merrill counters them with mages of equal power.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I’ve got a spy among the mages at the front, and one among the mage-scholars at the university,” Voss replied. “Our man at the university, Treven Lowrey, has found some sensitive information that may have bearing on the war.”
Connor shifted uncomfortably. Although he had been a messenger for Penhallow and Garnoc for several years, he often wrestled with just how much of his own opinions—rather than observations—to share.
Penhallow watched him with a look that made Connor wonder if the rumors were true that claimed the undead could read minds. “I have the feeling there’s a comment you’d like to make, but aren’t sure you should.”
Connor sighed. “It’s just that—I get the feeling King Merrill doesn’t like using mages in battle.”
Penhallow’s expression was resigned. “You’re correct. King Merrill is, in many ways, a very good king. I have existed long enough to know, and seen many monarchs who were unworthy of their crowns. Merrill’s virtue, in this instance, is his undoing. He doesn’t consider it ‘sporting’ to use mages in battle unless there’s no other choice, and even then it’s distasteful to him.”
“Edgar of Meroven has no such hesitation, I gather?”
Penhallow nodded. “Edgar has no such hesitation about anything that he wants,” he said, and his voice mirrored his disdain. “I’ve heard quite a bit about Edgar through my sources and none of it is good.”
“Did your sources warn you of war?” Connor looked up sharply, not for the first time wondering whose side Penhallow was really on.
A faint smile touched Penhallow’s lips, but it did not reach his eyes. “Did you think you and Garnoc were my only sources? I haven’t survived for centuries without very good information.” He paused. “I received no warnings of war that I did not pass on to the king through my various connections. But what Merrill does not realize is just how far Edgar will go to get what he wants.”
“Is Edgar a madman?”
Voss laughed out loud. Penhallow’s brow furrowed. “You mean, does he bay at the moon? No,” Penhallow replied. “But he is quite without regard for what his ambitions cost others and utterly without feeling for the unfortunates who get in his way. Merrill doesn’t yet realize, I fear, that to Edgar, all of Donderath—and Tarrant—are in his way.”
“But what does Edgar covet so badly that Meroven doesn’t already have? Their seaports are as favorable, their farmland as good by all accounts, their climate as pleasant.”
“He doesn’t have it all. He doesn’t rule the Continent,” Voss answered in a voice that made his contempt clear.
Connor blanched. “And Vellanaj, are they party to his madness? If Edgar wants to rule the entire Continent, then surely he’ll turn on Vellanaj as soon as Donderath and Tarrant are swept aside, and the smaller states will be swallowed whole.”
Penhallow nodded. “Yes, he will. Either Vellanaj isn’t willing to see Edgar’s ambitions for what they are, or they’ve convinced themselves that they are so valuable that he’ll make an exception for them. They may be the last to be swallowed, but Edgar will want them as part of his empire sooner or later.”
“I’ve been beside Lord Garnoc at the War Council. Merrill’s reports are grim, casualties are high, but there’s been no suggestion that we were about to be overrun—especially with Tarrant entering the war on our side.”
“Merrill’s being fed lies by his generals,” Voss said, adding a creatively embellished curse for good measure. “They don’t have the balls to tell him the truth.”
Penhallow met Connor’s gaze. “Merrill is not hearing the whole truth from his commanders. The war goes badly for Donderath, worse than the generals wish to admit. Edgar has been assembling an army of conquest for a long time. He’ll sacrifice Vellanaj’s troops first, then send in wave after wave of his own. Merrill’s generals are only now seeing glimpses of Edgar’s true power, and they refuse to admit the meaning of what they see.”
“Where do the mages figure in this?”
Penhallow sat forward in his chair and watched the fire long enough that Connor was not sure he meant to answer. The firelight warmed the pallor of Penhallow’s skin, and the flickering of the flame tricked the eye to give the appearance that Penhallow’s chest rose and fell with breath. Connor’s gaze rose to the oil painting over the fireplace. Centuries had passed and Penhallow himself looked no different.
No, Connor thought, that wasn’t correct. There’s a sadness, a jadedness in his expression that the man in the portrait didn’t have. Not so surprising, if one survives several lifetimes of disappointment and sorrows.
“When Merrill was a young man, he fought in the war against Vellanaj. Merrill’s father, King Landor, had no compunction against using mages and neither did the king of Vellanaj.” Penhallow paused again and Connor wondered whether Penhallow had been a witness to that war.
“Neither side used their most powerful mages, but they made free use of lesser magic. Sheets of flame descending from the sky, incinerating everything in their path. Walls of water rising from placid lakes and rivers to sweep away armies and towns. Pestilence that had the opposing army coughing blood and writhing in pain in the few agonizing minutes before they died.” Penhallow’s voice grew quieter.
“Merrill saw how quickly magic could destroy and how vast its potential was for destruction, and I think he decided that the damage mortal soldiers inflicted was bad enough, without the help of mages.”
“But if Edgar is willing to use his mages, his strongest mages—”
Penhallow nodded. “Merrill will have no choice. I’ve watched the war play out over the last few years hoping that my fears would not be realized, but I believe Edgar intended this outcome from the start.”
Connor felt a knot of fear settle into his stomach. “If the magic Merrill witnessed wasn’t what the strongest mages are capable of doing…” He let his sentence trail off, and found himself hoping Penhallow would correct him.
Penhallow’s gaze did not leave the crackling flames in the fire. Voss answered. “Edgar’s been ‘collecting’ mages for his service for some time now. Merrill hasn’t. That means any mage with ambition—and without scruples—finds his way to Edgar.”
Connor cleared his throat uncomfortably. “If mages are capable of such destruction, why hasn’t it happened more often?”
“It has happened before,” Penhallow said quietly. “Several times. The ashes of the empires that nurtured such ambition lie buried with their dead beneath our feet and across the lands of the Far Shores. Search your memory for the tales you’ve taken for legends. Have you never heard the stories about the ‘wars of the gods’?”
Connor frowned. “Yes, of course.”
“How the rivers ran red with blood and the land swallowed men and animals and the corpses of the dead were so poisoned that even the flies and the vultures died from eating them?”
A growing coldness stole through Connor, a chill that the fire could not warm. “Yes, I’ve heard.”
“How many times have the gods remade this world? What do the legends say?”
Connor felt his heartbeat begin to quicken as the old tales became far too real. “Four times, the surface of the world was scoured clean by the sword of the gods, creating it anew for the remnant who were worthy.”
Penhallow’s glance was cynical. “I don’t pretend to know what the gods do with their time, but neither the scouring nor the remaking was their work. Nor was the ‘whole world’ affected as the bards would tell you, just large enough swaths of territory that it seemed like the whole world to the wretches that survived.” Connor saw an unfathomable sadness in Pen-hallow’s eyes.
“And were you among those survivors?”
Penhallow regarded him for a moment without speaking. “Once. On a far continent, beyond the West horizon. I ‘survived’ because I was already dead, though magic of that strength takes a toll even on us Elders, on all creatures who sustain their existence beyond the fringe of the mortal world.”
Connor swallowed hard. “Was it as the bards tell? I always thought perhaps they embellished—”
Penhallow’s gaze silenced him. “The bards did not tell half the horror. They dared not, or no one could hear the stories without despair. In a few candlemarks, I have seen a thriving empire leveled, most of its inhabitants killed. And while the bards sing of war, they say nothing of what happened afterward, of the madness and the starvation, of men living like animals and acting worse than beasts.”
“Isn’t there some way to warn Merrill? We can’t permit Edgar to create that kind of catastrophe.”
“Don’t you think I’ve tried?” Penhallow’s voice was raw. “We Elders have made sure that information reached the king, information he was not receiving from his generals. We dared not approach him directly. Merrill doesn’t hunt us, but his forbearance is more from oversight than by design. We couldn’t reveal ourselves, but our emissaries were well placed.”
“And he refused to listen?”
Voss made a dismissive gesture. “The king hears what he wants to hear,” he muttered.
“He trusts too much in the word of his generals,” Penhallow replied. “His generals fear for their reputations. All great tragedies turn on small emotions—pride, greed, and an inability to see a harsh truth until it’s too late.”
In Penhallow’s voice Connor heard anger, frustration, and resignation. The last, a concession to the inevitable, chilled him further. “Is there nothing we can do?”
Penhallow nodded to Voss. Voss crossed to the shelves that were built into the walls on either side of the fireplace and stood on tiptoe to take down a chest that he unlocked with a key that hung from a cord around his neck. He withdrew a velvet-wrapped object from the chest and carefully laid back the wrapping to reveal an obsidian disk. The disk had several small decorative holes cut through its thin surface, and as Voss handed the disk to Connor, the fine carving on the disk’s mirrorlike surface caught the light in a design Connor could not identify.
“Treven Lowrey was able to get his hands on this and bring it to me. I brought it to Penhallow,” Voss said. “I’ve got Lowrey out looking for anything else that relates to this damned disk, but for now, this is what we’ve got. Take this to Garnoc. Remind him of an astrologer named Nadoren, a man who was in King Landor’s service many years ago. When Landor was very old, Nadoren left court suddenly, under suspicious circumstances. It was rumored that he had stolen from the king’s library. He disappeared and took with him several important maps that were never found.”
Connor frowned. “What can that possibly have to do with the war? And what’s so important about this pendant?”
Penhallow shifted in his chair, taking up the story. “The pendant is a key to a series of maps created several hundred years ago by a very powerful mage named Valtyr. Valtyr had traveled throughout the world, beyond the Continent and the Far Shores, to Edgeland and to lands our ships have only just begun to rediscover. Everywhere Valtyr traveled, he made maps of the places of power, places regarded as sacred or cursed, places where magic was strongest—or null. When Valtyr died, the maps fell into diverse hands. No one is quite sure how many there were, but at least four were known to be in the possession of King Landor.”
“Until Nadoren stole them.”
Voss nodded. “When Nadoren disappeared, so did three of the maps. It was thought that one of Landor’s mages might have been studying the other map, or that it was stored separately and Nadoren didn’t have the time to find it. Needless to say, once Nadoren made off with the others, the remaining map was more closely safeguarded.” He grimaced. “That’s why I’ve got Treven out looking for more information, but it’s dicey. We’re not the only ones interested in these things.”
Connor looked to Penhallow. “Someone else knows?”
Penhallow gave a shrug. “So we suspect. You’ve heard Garnoc speak of Pentreath Reese?”
Connor nodded. He didn’t add that whenever Garnoc had spoken of Reese, what was said hadn’t been good. “I’ve heard.”
“Reese and I have… bad blood between us,” Penhallow said. “Reese is obsessed with the histories of the thirteen original lords of Donderath, the Lords of the Blood. Why he’s interested, we’re not yet sure. But I’ve found it wise to be suspect of anything Reese pursues.”
“Reese works through Lord Pollard,” Voss added. “Vedran Pollard. Name ring a bell?”
Connor nodded. Garnoc held Pollard in nearly as low regard as he did Reese. Voss chuckled. “Don’t be so discreet. I know for a fact Garnoc hates Pollard. With good reason. Pollard is slime. Conscripted his liege men to serve in his place at the front, while Pollard stays behind to do Reese’s dirty work.” He paused, glancing at Penhallow, who gave a nod for him to continue.
“We think Pollard—and therefore, Reese—is behind robberies at the university library, and he might have had something to do with attacks on some of the scholars. We don’t know exactly what he’s up to, but we think it’s got something to do with that,” he said, nodding toward the disk in Connor’s hand.
“The pendant?” Connor asked. Voss nodded.
Penhallow smiled, but it was an unpleasant expression that showed the tips of his long eyeteeth. “Nadoren knew about the maps, but not about the pendant key. Valtyr was a very clever man. His maps included coded information that can only be deciphered with the key. Nadoren was a simpleton, for all that he could read the stars. He was convinced, they say, that the maps hid a treasure. But Valtyr’s only treasure was knowledge. And knowledge is what is needed.”
Penhallow’s long fingers stroked the smooth surface of the pendant’s velvet case as he spoke. “The map that Nadoren didn’t steal was of Donderath. I believe it is secured in the king’s library. If Edgar unleashes his mages against us, Merrill needs to know where the places of power are located, because the effects will be worse there. Magic shouldn’t be able to hurt the null places—it’s where I’d send as many refugees as possible.”
“Refugees,” Connor repeated, his head spinning.
“Let’s say the odds of survival will be higher in the null places,” Voss answered.
“Is that where you’ll be?” Connor’s fear made his question sound like an accusation. He drew back as soon as he had said it. Neither Lanyon Penhallow nor Traher Voss were men he wanted to anger. To his relief, they ignored the slight.
“Quillarth Castle is a place of power. Many castles, forts, and even manor houses were built on places of strong magic, as well as temples and shrines. My advice would be to evacuate the castle and the city around it. Send people close to the null places, and away from the shrines.”
“If Meroven breaks through the army’s line and begins attacks inside Donderath, people are most likely to flee to temples and shrines to beg the mercy of the gods,” Connor said in a hushed voice.
Voss nodded. “If I were Edgar, I’d count on it.”
“Edgar’s mages know about the places of power, don’t they?”
“I believe so,” Penhallow replied. “Most are obvious to anyone with a hint of magic. What was valuable about Valtyr’s maps was that they located many places that weren’t crowned with a palace or a shrine. And the null places tend to be overlooked completely because they are either too unremarkable to remember or have something about them that compels people to avoid them altogether.”
“Is Rodestead House safe?” Connor asked.
Penhallow gave Connor the velvet cloth to wrap the pendant and replaced the empty chest on its shelf. “Having survived such a war once, I’ve taken precautions. My retainers and I will be leaving Rodestead House tomorrow night. Traher has made his own preparations.” He turned back to Connor. “Tell Garnoc what you’ve learned tonight. As your blood gave me access to your memories, so my bite enables you to remember my words precisely.”
And while he’s never come out and said it, I wouldn’t be surprised if it also carried a compulsion to do his will, Connor thought.
“If Garnoc can convince Merrill of the true danger, find the map and use it to protect as many people as you can. And if you can’t convince the king, I’d advise you and Garnoc to leave the city and take the map and pendant with you.” Penhallow had turned back to the fire that danced in the hearth. As their conversation had turned to darker predictions, Connor found that the flames no longer cheered him.
“If the worst happens, if Donderath falls, look for a man named Vigus Quintrel. He’s a mage, and much more powerful than anyone gives him credit for being. His abilities are… unusual… which is what’s enabled him to stay free of service to the crown. You can trust Vigus. Show him the map and pendant. He’ll know what use to make of them.”
“Why haven’t you given him the pendant yourself?”
“That’s part of the reason why I believe we are running out of time. Vigus Quintrel has disappeared.”
The road back to the city was deserted. Connor gripped his reins white-knuckled. His heart pounded, though not for fear of the darkness. Will it happen again? Did Penhallow know? Have I betrayed all of us?
The night was quiet, save for the hoofbeats of Connor’s horse. Connor looked from side to side, barely controlling his desire to spur his horse into a full gallop and ride as hard as he could for home. That won’t do, he told himself. There might be guards around. It would be suspicious, riding like that. They might take me for a brigand.
In the thicket to the side of the road, a twig snapped. Connor startled, but he could make out nothing in the darkness.
A black shape rose up in front of him, and his horse reared, bucking Connor into the air. He braced himself to hit the road hard, but felt himself borne up as if by invisible hands. That same force kept him pinned as the dark form loomed over him. He could make out a black cloak and cowl, but whether the figure had a face beneath, Connor could not see.
“Sleep now,” a deep voice said. “Sleep, and remember nothing.”
BLAINE AND DAWE LEANED AGAINST ONE OF THE wagons that had been drawn up to the edge of the festival space. Across the broad, flat common area, a wonderland of sculptures glittered, lit from inside with candles or lanterns. They were made from Edgeland’s most bountiful commodity—ice—and shaped into everything from statues of the gods to fanciful castles and mythical beasts.
“Nights like this almost make you forget where you are.” Dawe Killick stretched his lanky form and tipped back his tankard of home-brewed ale.
“With this cold, it’s hard to ever forget where we are,” Blaine replied, sipping from his own tankard as they watched the festivities.
For those who had survived long enough to go from inmates to convict settlers, the end of the white nights was a time to celebrate before the long dark. Here on the back acres of the homesteads, as far away from Velant’s prison as possible, the settlers did their best to enjoy both the feast days they brought with them from Donderath and events like the coming of the long dark that were unique to their new home.
Verran Danning and his fellow musicians kept up a lively series of tunes, fueled no doubt, Blaine thought, by the potent liquor that the minstrels’ female admirers kept bringing to quench their thirst. The tune Verran and the others were playing was one that had been popular back in Donderath, and for a moment, Blaine let himself hum along, tapping his toe with the music. In the center of the gathering, a lively circle dance wove its participants back and forth as they changed partners.
Blaine didn’t have to check that Kestel was among the dancers. He smiled. Even bundled up against the cold, Kestel was easy to spot in the crowd. She was shorter by a head than many of the women, tiny-boned and quick on her feet and such a good dancer that she made all of her partners look competent. Blaine doubted that the petty thieves and cutpurses who enjoyed a dance with Kestel would ever dream that she had once danced among the royal and noble. The song ended and Kestel sank, laughing, into the arms of her partner before twirling away from him with a peck on the cheek that seemed to leave the man as out of breath as the dance itself.
“A coin for your thoughts,” Dawe prodded. “You’re quiet tonight.”
Blaine shrugged. “Can’t stop thinking about the supply ships. If it’s true they won’t be back as often, we’ve got to make sure we have enough food put up to get through the winter.” He raised his face to the wind. “Once the dark comes and the shallows of the bay start to freeze, they won’t be able to take the fishing boats out as far. It’ll make for a lean winter.”
Dawe nodded. “We’ve been busy while you and Piran were out on the ships. Verran’s not the only one who can earn a living. I’ve taken in some smithing—small things like fixing locks and making hoops for the cooper.” He flexed his long fingers. “Not exactly silver work, but the idea is the same.” He stretched, and Blaine caught a glimpse of the branded “M” on Dawe’s arm. They’d both been sent to Velant for murder, but unlike Blaine, Dawe was innocent, framed by a rival silversmith. “I’ve also been toying with bits of copper. I’ve made some simple rings and such, to appeal to the ladies.” He grinned. “So long as there are lasses in town, there’ll be men trying to win their favor or claim their hand.”
“We won’t be able to spend coin if the merchants don’t see supply ships for months.”
“I’m ahead of you on this one, Mick. Verran and I have been buying chickens and rabbits to fill the hutches out back. Kestel’s been drying the fruit and vegetables we raised, as well as everything we could buy. We set aside some extra sacks of wheat and flour as well, and paid a hedge witch to spell them against mice. Made some good homemade wine as well. With the gibbed fish you and Piran brought home, we should be able to go a while, perhaps most of the winter.”
Blaine nodded. “Good to hear. Piran was going to set some traps for fox and wild rabbits.” He gave a wan grin. “And let me guess, Kestel’s been making extra offerings to the gods.”
Dawe smiled. “How did you guess? The last sheep we slaughtered, Kestel made tallow candles, and offered the first two to Esthrane and Torven. She told me she was counting on favor from Esthrane for the last of the crops and for healthy herds this winter, and to Torven for mild storms.”
Blaine snorted. “After the storm Piran and I just saw, maybe Kestel needs to leave better offerings.”
Esthrane, one of Charrot’s two consorts, was honored at handfastings and at both planting and harvest. Esthrane was revered among Edgeland’s colonists during the unending days of the white nights. Torven, Charrot’s other consort, ruled the long dark.
Dawe’s expression turned serious. “The mood around here has changed since you and Piran went out with the fleet.” He nodded toward the laughing and clapping revelers. “You can’t tell by tonight, but there’s something on the wind. Prokief’s nervous, and cracking down.”
Blaine drained the rest of his ale. “I plan to stay out of it.”
Dawe met his gaze. “That might not be possible.”
The music changed tempo and the dancers drifted back to the edges of the festival area. Light’s End, the festival at the end of Edgeland’s six months of daylight, was also the customary time for handfastings before the long months of darkness. As the music took on a more processional tone, three young women, each accompanied by an older woman, walked into the center of the festival area. Each of the young women wore a crown woven of straw and dried flowers and each carried a small bough of fir. As the crowd watched, three nervous men walked to stand alone in front of their intended brides.
“As I recall,” Dawe drawled, “you looked about that scared yourself when you made your handfasting with Selane.”
Blaine could not resist a chuckle. “I was just thinking the same thing.”
The men did as they had been instructed, and each withdrew a hunting knife in a scabbard wrapped in a length of dyed rope or braided cloth, and presented the blade laid across their open palms to their brides. Back in Donderath, the ceremony would have involved a presentation of a sword-gift, but under Prokief’s rule, swords were reserved solely for the prison guards and the city patrols.
The brides accepted the gift and passed the knives to the older women who accompanied them, who handed each of the brides a knife-gift for the grooms. On the pommel of each knife was a ring, and as the crowd cheered, the women who had accompanied the brides ceremoniously presented the bride and groom with their rings, then held their hands together and loosely bound their wrists with the lengths of rope. As the couples raised their twined hands, the crowd cheered once more, and Verran and the musicians began to play a familiar song. The crowd began to clap and sing, and the newly wedded couples danced one pass around the open area before the onlookers crowded toward them, joining in the dance.
The crunch of snow under running feet caught Blaine’s attention. A dark figure barreled past the wagon where Blaine and Dawe stood, hurtling into the crowd.
“Get your hands off her!” A tall young man with a shock of dark hair hurled himself at one of the new grooms and knocked him to the ground. The groom, a man who looked to be several years older than his bride, struggled to his feet as the girl screamed. Well-wishers stepped back and the dark-haired man swung a solid punch that knocked the groom back several steps, but the groom came back swinging and connected solidly with his attacker’s chin.
Friends of the bride went after the attacker, while the groom’s friends came running. Across the clearing, Blaine could see Piran turn away from his card game to take note of the altercation.
“Come on,” Blaine muttered to Dawe. “We’d better stop this before we end up with the guards called.”
Blaine and Dawe waded into the fray from one side, as Piran shouldered his way in from the other. What had begun as a fight between two men had rapidly escalated into a free-for-all. The groom was holding his own, backed up by a handful of friends. The dark-haired young man who began the fight seemed to have taken the worst of the damage, as his eye was swelling and he had a growing bruise on his cheek, but he was still on his feet and surrounded by four angry—and more muscular—friends.
Blaine tackled the dark-haired man, while Piran lunged at the groom. The dark-haired man struggled and twisted, but Blaine held him fast. Piran’s man was taller and heavier, but no match to Piran’s experience as a soldier and bodyguard. With the help of Dawe and some of the other men who waded into the fray, the altercation came to an abrupt halt.
Blaine let go of the dark-haired man, who had stopped struggling, but Blaine drew his hunting knife from the sheath at his belt, and held it up as a warning. He turned to the groom, still restrained in Piran’s iron hold, and then looked back at the attacker.
“What in the name of the gods were you doing?” Blaine asked the sullen man.
The dark-haired man glared at Blaine. “Essie was supposed to be betrothed to me,” he spat. “She’s been pressured into this,” he said with a glare toward the would-be groom. “She doesn’t want to marry him.”
“Von,” the bride begged, “don’t do this. Please. Let it go. I’ll… I’ll be all right,” she said with a nervous glance toward the groom. The groom had stopped struggling, but he was glaring at Von with a look that told Blaine the matter was far from settled.
Excerpted from Ice Forged by Gail Z. Martin Copyright © 2013 by Gail Z. Martin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Needless sensationalism to hide poor writing: the story opens with the main character's sister being raped by her dad who also rapes his sister. Typical trash writing in a sad attempt to shock and awe readers
decided to give this one a try because I really enjoyed her other work, and I was not disappointed with this at all, it was a great book, and I am really looking forward to the next one.
Vampires Swords and shields Magic Kings Etc........Must Read
When Blaine finds out what his father has done to his sister, its a step too far. He runs out and looses his temper. He ends up killing him, which most people think is no harm, but still a murder is a murder. The king goes lenient on Blaine though and instead of killing him he sends him to Velant. Its a prison where once you go you never come back from. Blaine has tried to make the most of his time in the frigid wastelands of Velant but when the supply ships suddenly stop coming it doesn't bode well for them nor the other kingdoms. What is happening and what will become of them now no one will bring them supplies? The first thing that grabbed me was the cover of Ice Forged. Its very eye catching!! Then when I read the blurb I was intrigued! Blaine was such an awesome character. Strong, sure, kind and honest. He is destined to marry a beautiful girl he loves but when his father steps too far out of line Blaine looses it. He has put up with his father all his life but now enough is enough. On the way to the prison he decides that Blaine McFadden is dead and thats when Mick is born. No ones needed to know he was a lord. He has survived the first 6 years of the prison and is now allowed to have his "freedom" in Edgeland. Most people turn to him when they want something sorted because he is level headed. The setting of Ice Forged swaps between Blaine in Edgeland and Connor in Donderath. Edgeland is the worst place to live, but then again it is a prison. Its cold, barren and harsh. The prisoners try to have some semblance of life while trying to forget that their life isn't their own. Its brutal and more so when they have to eek out a living with no help from outside. Then Blaine has to try to restore the magic to their world when it stops and try to survive to war that's happening. Donderath meanwhile, is facing a coming war. Connor is tasked with finding a mysterious map using a magical pendant. When the war knocks on his door, he has no choice but to board a boat leaving Donderath. The only place that seems to have escaped the was is Edgeland, so when Connor finds himself in the one place he never thought he would see, both worlds collide. Its been a while since I read a good high fantasy and Im glad I got back into it with Ice Forged. At times I got a little bogged down with what I thought were inconsequential things but everything came together nicely. Everything happens for a reason!! It was fast paced enough to keep me turning the pages. It had plenty of action and surprises. With gritty characters and strong leads Ice Forge is a very strong start to what promises to be a great series.
I'm going to have to look over the next book in this series when it comes out. I may not buy it, because this whole "restore the magic" quest is already seeming a bit tired. I was originally interested in the prison/redemption concept, and the idea of magic losing out to science and that transition, but they payoff doesn't seem to be there, for me.
very well developed full of action
This book is great you should reslly read it
Welcome to the Ice Kingdom! IceWings only.
"You cannot do that! He is mean!" "Not true." Elsa shot back. "Sure!" Insisted Ana. Elsa sighed. "You can if it is true love." "True love indeed!" Yelled Ana. "Ana, what do you know about true love?" "I know plenty of true love! I just got married to a good kind man. Kristoff." "Ok...." Groaned Elsa. "Ana please.." "No Ana please!" Yelled Ana. And with that, she punched Rye in the face. Both gasped. "HANS!?" They said in unsion. "Ow that is the second time....whoa." "Hans, what are you doing?!" "I...uh..I..." stutterd Hans. "Ha! Trying to steal the crown, huh? Well, now you will be gone. Many girlfriends you will have." Snooted Elsa. "Go, or I will freeze you now." "No." Growled Hans. "Okay." Shrugged Elsa. She froze his behind. "Yow!" Yelped Hans and he ran all the way back home. Ana looked at Elsa. "Next time be careful. And the Trolls figured how to un-ra.pe. people. Tuh. Hans." Elsa smiled. "This week was very se.xy. Don't worry, I will." Grinning, the two sisters hugged. THE END!!!!!!!! BYE!!!!! ~SUSAN!!!!!!!