Corruption and conspiracy have infected the city of Maradaine, from the top levels of power to the very depths beneath the city. Dayne Heldrin and Jerinne Fendall, elite warriors of the Tarian Order, have no idea how close they truly are to the center of the city's dark secrets. But when they learn that children are going missing, they know they must investigate furtherno matter the cost.
They are soon joined by others, each with their own reasons for seeking the children. Veranix Calbert, the vigilante known as the Thorn, thinks his enemies are responsible for the missing children. Inspectors Minox Welling and Satrine Rainey fear the disappearing children are tied to corruption in the city Constabulary. Asti and Verci Rynax hope to protect the kids from their streets, one of whom barely escaped the kidnappers. And a mysterious young cloistress seeks to lead each of them deeper down into the depths of enigmas beneath the city, to the dark, unholy cult known as the Brotherhood, and the horrors that are growing within it.
The only hope Maradaine might have against the impending darkness is if these champions can work together to protect all the people of the city....
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"YOU AREN'T SUPPOSED TO be here."
Jerinne Fendall felt the glare from the marshal at the palace gate even stronger than the hot autumn sun overhead. He tried to look down at her, but he wasn't anywhere near tall enough, so he craned his neck in an attempt to intimidate.
"I don't think you're right about that," Jerinne said. "I've been invited."
"Nonsense," the marshal said. "Pips on your collar clearly mark you as an Initiate, and only Tarians and Spathians of Master rank are invited to the Royal Authentication. That's how it is."
Jerinne reached into the coat of her dress uniform and pulled out the letter. "That might be how it is, but I was still invited."
Another marshal came up behind him and gave him a disapproving knock on the shoulder. "Kasmar, open your damn eyes. Miss Fendall is a special guest. Don't you recognize her?"
"Am I supposed to?" Kasmar asked.
"Don't you read the newssheets?"
"Not much, no, sir."
The other marshal-a chief by his rank insignia-shook his head. "Come along, Miss Fendall. I apologize for the inconvenience. Dayne's already here."
"My apologies, Chief," Jerinne said as they walked onto the palace grounds. This was the first time she had ever even been near the Royal Palace, let alone on the grounds, and her heart was fluttering despite herself. "If we've met, it escapes my memory."
"Perhaps briefly, but not formally," he said. "Chief Donavan Samsell, but feel free to just call me Donavan."
"Samsell, yes," Jerinne said. He had been the one in charge of administrating the election a few months back. "I thought you were assigned to another city now."
"I was in Marikar for about a month," he said. "But after the latest atrocity and the scandal with Chief Quoyell, I was recalled to Maradaine."
Scandal was selling it lightly. Quoyell had orchestrated mass murder on the Parliament floor, and was assassinated after his arrest. Needless to say, his tenure as head of security for the Parliament was disastrous.
"You're head of Parliament security now?" she asked. "Or the Palace?"
"Well, the Palace marshals and the Parliament marshals need to work together on a day like today," he said with a chuckle. "But-sorry, I thought Dayne might have told you."
"I've not seen Dayne much for the past week or so," Jerinne said. Both of them had taken a battering at the Kittrick Hotel, and Dayne seemed to be overwhelmed with duties at the Parliament since the atrocity incident. Jerinne thought it best to give him some space for a bit.
"Ah, of course. Well, you should know that Parliament security will no longer be handled solely by the King's marshals. Instead it will be a joint operation of the marshals, the Tarians, and the Spathians."
That explained why Dayne had been busy. As the liaison between the Orders and the marshals, his hands would be kept full setting up something like that.
"That's why he's here already."
"Perfect aim on that," Samsell said.
Jerinne followed him down the walkway, already crowded with people. Most of them were high-class swells-nobility, high-ranking officers in the military, members of Parliament-all of them in elaborate suits and exquisite dresses. Her own dress uniform, as crisply as it was pressed and as shiny the buttons, seemed shabby in comparison.
He led her around a hedge wall down a marble stairway, and her breath was almost taken away.
The royal courtyard was a splendor of colors in bloom. Jerinne had never learned anything about flowers, but now she was overwhelmed by the beauty and spectacle before her.
"You all right, Miss Fendall?" Samsell asked.
"It's a lot to take in." Amaya Tyrell, Adept of the Tarian order, was at her side. "I mean, I've never seen its equal."
"That's for certain," Jerinne said.
"Miss Tyrell," Samsell said, "I never had the opportunity to personally thank you for your role in defending the integrity of this election."
"I appreciate your thanks," Amaya said with a nod. "That's pretty much why Jerinne and I are here. Though if you ask me, the entire third-year Initiate cohort should have been invited."
Samsell gave a weak smile. "I was not consulted, on many things."
"Not blaming you," Amaya said. She hooked her arm around Jerinne's. "Shall we, Initiate?"
"Of course, Madam Tyrell," Jerinne said.
The sun was already high and unseasonably warm for the end of Oscan. Usually by now the trees would be resplendent with golds and reds, but many were still bright green.
"You're slightly out of uniform," Amaya said once they were away from Samsell and down the walkway, to the area where many of the guests were milling about with drinks and food, chattering away about whatever the gossip of the day was.
"I'm of the opinion that the dress uniform could use gloves," Jerinne said, holding out her hand for Amaya to inspect. "I think they go quite nicely."
"I don't disagree," Amaya said. "But the Grandmaster is here. He will also notice, and he will probably say something."
"Oh no," Jerinne said flatly. "Perhaps I'll lose ranking among the third-years."
"Don't joke," Amaya said. "You haven't been ranked on the bottom in two months."
While true, she had still been in the lower half. Jerinne's time of being repeatedly ranked dead last ended shortly after mentors had been assigned. She had assumed it had been an orchestration to specifically deny her a formal mentor.
Dayne's position as her mentor was, after all, unofficial and informal. Denied a proper mentorship with one of the Masters or Adepts, Madam Tyrell-
Amaya, she corrected herself.
Amaya wanted Jerinne and Dayne to work together, away from the rest of the Tarians at the chapterhouse. She had been vague about why, but Jerinne trusted her.
Jerinne spotted Dayne across the courtyard next to Lady Mirianne, looking slightly uncomfortable talking to several nobles. She noticed that Mirianne was not dressed like most of the noblewomen present, at least the older ones. No flowing dress with crinoline petticoats or whalebone corsets. Instead Lady Mirianne wore a deep blue suit jacket, tight-fit trousers, high boots, and a leather cap.
A glance at the crowd showed that many of the younger noblewomen, while not matching Lady Mirianne's defiant style, wore the same cap.
"We seem to be out of the fashion," she said to Amaya.
"Ah, the Marikar suncap," Amaya said. "She did say she would make it the thing for ladies in Maradaine this season, didn't she?"
Jerinne tried to make her way toward Dayne, but the crowd between them started to move together toward a raised platform. Jerinne didn't see for what purpose at first, but then she noticed several people stepping up on the platform. Including a young man who was devastatingly handsome.
That was not a thing Jerinne had a habit of noticing in any man. That's how pretty he was, that even she had to acknowledge it.
Then she saw the silver circlet he wore on his head, and realized who he was.
"Ladies and lords and gentlepersons of all persuasions," Prince Escaraine said with a voice that washed over the crowd like it was carried by doves. "Thank you all for joining us on this glorious day. We are here, of course, to formally give the royal blessing to the newly elected members of Parliament, so they may start to do the good work of the crown and throne in the name of the king."
The crowd gave a polite smattering of applause.
"Normally, this benediction before the ceremony is given by my sister, but unfortunately she was unable to return to Maradaine at this time."
Jerinne noticed that a few of the noblewomen near her whispered to each other, usually with a throaty chuckle or a sigh of exasperation. Perhaps there was some gossip or poorly kept secret about Princess Carianna. Jerinne didn't know it, nor did she feel a burning need to know it.
"Needless to say, I'm sure she would echo my sentiments on this day, as my cousin the king does, of how blessed we are in this country, that we have stood together for over two centuries, with a continuity of the throne, and continuity of the Parliament. That we have a civilized rule of law, governed by the people, presided over by the blessed line of Maradaine. This is what makes us Druthal, the great jewel in the crown of the world."
More applause, now thunderous.
"And now, can we have the new and re-elected members of Parliament come forward."
The men standing on the back of the platform-twenty-three of them-stepped forward. Jerinne only recognized one of them: Ret Issendel, the former bishop whom Dayne enjoyed arguing with. The rest were just a sea of pompous-looking men in suits.
Jerinne realized she was stuck in the middle of the crowd, no easy way to escape without making a scene. Yet another slog of political theater to endure. She glanced about to see where Dayne was. He, smartly, had placed himself at the back of the crowd. Of course, at his height, standing in front of anyone would be rude. Dayne was many things, but rude was not one of them.
"Now take a knee for his Royal Majesty, King Maradaine the Eighteenth."
Jerinne presumed that was for the prospective members of Parliament, but then everyone in the crowd dropped to their knees as well. Jerinne quickly did the same, as Amaya half-pulled her down to the ground.
The king was so very normal, so average. Prince Escaraine stood on the stage like a presence, as if the light of the sun shone inside him. King Maradaine XVIII walked up in a half slouch, in somber gray clothing that matched his energy, violet mourning sash lazily draped over one shoulder. He just looked exhausted.
"Thank you, cousin," he said quietly. He clapped his hand on the prince's shoulder, and the prince reached up and squeezed the hand briefly. The king stepped away and went to the first new member of Parliament. "Do you pledge to serve this nation, to honor the Rights of Man, to be deliberate and wise as you serve the people, and honor the trust put into you with their just and true votes?"
"I do, in your name, and in the name of God and every saint," the parliamentarian said. The king touched his thumb to the man's forehead and moved on to the next. This ritual continued with each one, with quiet dignity and respectful efficiency. In just a few minutes, they were all pledged and blessed.
"Thank you, all," the king said as he came to the center of the platform. The prince had taken a few steps back to yield the stage to his cousin. "I happily bless these good and true men to serve the office they have been elected to, this great Parliament to serve my throne and my people, to join the other good and true men who continue their diligent work of governing in my name."
"Rise and hail," Prince Escaraine called out. "Welcome these good and true men, and praise be the name of Maradaine the Eighteenth, may his reign be long and grand!"
"Hail!" the crowd called as everyone got to their feet. "Hail Maradaine the Eighteenth, King of Druthal!"
"Never!" a voice shouted from the back. "The True Line lives!"
With a piercing thwang, a crossbow bolt flew toward the stage, toward the king. Marshals-unobtrusively on the stage all this time-acted in a snap, grabbing the king and the prince and pulling them off the platform before anyone was hit by the shot.
Jerinne looked around, trying to spot the shooter. Not that she could do much: no shield or sword on her at the moment.
That didn't stop Dayne. She saw him charging across the lawn, running ahead of the swarm of marshals toward the would-be assassin.
Dayne was well aware that the crossbow was aimed right at his heart.
"Friend," he said, holding his hands out and open. "There's no need to do this."
Dayne had been able to get to the young man who had just taken a shot at the king before he could load another quarrel in his crossbow, but only just before.
"The True Line . . ." the young man said, his hand shaking. He didn't look like an assassin at all. If anything, he looked like he barely knew how to hold the weapon. He looked more terrified than anyone.
"You've never taken a life," Dayne said. "I can see that. I can see you believe in your cause, but it doesn't have to make you a killer."
"But the kingdom needs-"
"It needs you to put the crossbow down. No one needs to die today. No one needs to kill today."
Dayne noticed the marshals out of the corner of his eye. All of them had their crossbows trained on the boy. "No one needs to, hear?"
"Get out of the way, Tarian!" one of the marshals said.
"We need a strong hand, a pure throne!" the young man shouted.
"This won't do that," Dayne said. "It will taint the throne with blood. It will taint you with blood."
"No!" the young man said, though now his hand lowered a little with the trembling. "I don't have a choice. I have to."
"Why?" Dayne asked.
"I . . ." His voice cracked, like he was fighting to get the word out. "I . . . have . . . to."
"You can't," Dayne said. "You fire, you won't kill the king. Marshals have already pulled him away." Dayne hadn't seen that, but he assumed that would have been the first thing they did. "All you'll do is hurt me. I don't want you to do that. I don't think you want to do that."
"Please," he said in a hoarse whisper. "I have to. They said that . . . the True Line . . ."
Dayne took a step closer. "That doesn't matter. The only thing I care about is-"
That step panicked the young man, and the crossbow went back up at Dayne. But as soon as it did, no fewer than nine bolts fired into his body. Dayne tried to grab him, grab the crossbow away, but he dropped like a sack.
"Get a Yellowshield!" Dayne called out, looking to the marshals behind him, all of their crossbows expended.
The young man still held up his crossbow as he died, wheezing out one last "The True Line . . ." before he passed.
"Dayne." A hand touched his shoulder. "The rest of you, back away, give him space."
Dayne looked up to see Chief Donavan Samsell. "That didn't need to happen."
"I'm sorry, Dayne," he said. "But it did as soon as he raised his weapon." He guided Dayne away from the scene.