Read an Excerpt
A Small Quarrel
The rain had finally let up in western Valdemar.
Highjorune should have been leagues behind Herald Wil, and his prisoner—the traitorous Bard Ferrin—safely delivered to the Heralds and Master Bard (still) waiting at Forst Reach.
Instead, he sipped shamile tea by a dying fire in the Crown of Lineas Inn while flipping through the worn pages of a book with names like Taylore, Emile, Carris, and Fent in it. Master Bards, all suspected of the same treason Ferrin had committed: conspiracy against the throne. Malfeasant use of their Gifts.
Not in that list: “Madra,” the name Ferrin had given for the agent of “Lord Dark,” a mysterious figure who had encouraged his efforts to start an insurrection in Highjorune. Wil had no idea who either one was, though he highly doubted Lord Dark had been born with that name.
Wil hauled himself out of the comfiest chair in the Crown. Ystell, the new owner, wanted to rename it something more patriotic and less nostalgic. The Queen’s Crown or the Hanged Bard, though the latter seemed a bit too grim for Wil.
He pulled on his boots to traverse the muddy grounds to the privy. Bard Amelie, who had assisted in the arrest of Ferrin, had left that morning as soon as the rain stopped, even though some roads were still impassable. She’d gladly gamble if it got her out of Highjorune. He didn’t blame her one bit. He’d have gone with her—
But . . .
He couldn’t, because he had someone else to consider. Someone who couldn’t be out in driving rain and flooding roads, seeing as she’d yet to turn five years old.
Wil rode Circuit under very special circumstances: with his daughter, Ivy. The Companions had even volunteered one of their own to be her nanny.
Being cooped up indoors for a week while they’d waited out the storms had been hardest on her. One could only spin a top or a tale so many times. The need for freedom in littles that age simply ran too deep.
Relieved and ready for bed, Wil tromped back through the empty kitchen, leaving his boots by the door. Tomorrow. Tomorrow they could leave. But tonight they enjoyed a warm bed, and the Companions a stable.
:Ahem. I am not in a stable. I am in the stockade courtyard outside the jail, watching four Guards drink from a wineskin and offering me not so much as a mushy apple.:
Wil chuckled as he climbed the stairs. :You’ll trade off with Aubryn in a couple of candlemarks, and then you’ll get your comfy stall. Just be glad the rain’s let up.:
The Companion sighed.
:I’ll bring you apples next time we meet,: Wil added.
:My Chosen makes it all worth it.:
:Delivering Ferrin to the Queen will make it all worth it.: Wil opened the door to the bedroom, being quiet so as not to wake Ivy.
He paused, head cocked, listening.
He did not see the telltale lump on the bed nor hear gentle breathing. Panic sprung up, and he flung the door wide.
The light spilling in from the hallway revealed an empty bed. Ivy was missing.
His first thought: She went to the privy. But she couldn’t have. He’d just been there.
His second: She’s been abducted.
A sweep of the room—mostly—dissuaded that notion. No signs of struggle, and no one intent on stealing someone’s child bothered to take her boots and cape along.
Unless it was someone she trusted . . . He shook off that thought for the moment. A lantern was also missing. Far more likely that . . .
She left on her own?
He took the stairs two at a time, yanking his boots back on and grabbing a lantern before running out the kitchen door.
Vehs sensed his alarm. :What’s wrong?:
Wil sent a blur of thoughts and images as he swept the inn grounds.
:Maybe she’s with Aubryn?: his Companion said.
He darted into the stables, to where the second Companion in his entourage dozed in her stall. Her head lifted sleepily as he approached, but she came fully awake when he asked, “Is Ivy here?”
A stream of curses began to pour out of his mouth. Aubryn emerged and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him.
:I’m on my way,: Vehs said.
Wil felt the burst of a new, different unease. :No—:
:Ferrin’s asleep, and the Guards know not to approach him without one of us present. Also, I’m halfway to the Crown already.:
They checked alleys and yards, Aubryn scouting the road ahead. Wil looked for footprints on the muddy road, but the day’s foot traffic had obliterated any chance of a clear trail. He listened, but aside from dripping eaves and the odd barking dog, the village slept.
Their sweep took them near the old Lineas palace. Aubryn cantered ahead into the three-walled courtyard and returned moments later with nothing. Wil’s hands trembled, but a calm, rational part of him kept thinking. She’d vanished, but where? Why? And how far could she have gotten?
:Nothing on the south side of town,: Vehs said. :Where are you?:
:The old castle,: Aubryn said.
“Ivy!” Wil bellowed, though it seemed pointless. Like many small children, Ivy simply didn’t respond to her name most times.
:I could try a Mindcall, but it would probably wake up anyone the least bit sensitive in town,: Aubryn said.
:What about that song Amelie sings?: Vehs asked, appearing down the road and racing toward them.
:Uh. What?: Wil said.
:The one Ivy likes to finish, about Maiden’s Hope flowers. She can’t resist. “Pure white blooms—”:
Wil gathered a deep breath and warbled:
“Pure white blooms, perfume of hope!
I pray that you don’t get eaten by—”
A distant voice piped out, “The goats!”
Wil sprinted toward it, down a small road off the Palace to an old stone building. He saw the little lantern first, then the figure beside it, crouched in the mud.
“Ivy!” he yelled, the Companions thundering behind him. She looked up, startled, then grinned.
“Dada!” she said, holding out a hand. “I got snails!”
Wil stared at her, torn between furious screaming and relieved sobbing. Ivy kept grinning as she got to her feet, oblivious to her muddy clothes and the chaos she’d caused.
“I got snails,” she repeated, stuffing them into a jar.
“Sleep in the loft?” Ivy said as they arrived back at the stable.
“That’s what I said,” he said. “Get up there. Take off your clothes. I’ll go fetch fresh ones.”
Vehs had gone back to his guard duty and Aubryn to her stall. Ivy looked dubiously at the loft ladder, then scrambled up it.
Wil leaned his forehead against a wooden post. He felt hollowed out. Parenting was hard.
“Ivy, you can’t do what you did tonight,” he said, straightening and speaking into the darkness. “It’s dangerous.”
She peeked over the edge of the loft’s wooden platform.“Why?”
“Because dada’s a Herald, and there are dangerous people who want to hurt you.”
“Why?” Her shirt sailed out of the loft. He caught it midair.
“Because you’re my daughter.”
“I’d bite them.”
He rubbed his forehead. “I’m sure you would.”
“Hard.” Her pants dropped from above, and he saw her peek out again and chomp at the air comically.
“Ivy . . .” He sighed, then smiled. “Where did you put the snails?”
She held up the jar.
“Hand it down.”
She acquiesced, pouting.
:Keep an eye on her,: he thought to Aubryn, leaving the jar on one of the stable’s tack shelves before collecting the soiled garments.
:That’s why I’m here.:
He dug up fresh clothes from the saddlebags, left the dirty ones by the laundress’ door, and had just arrived back at the stable when he felt Vehs’s alarm.
:I don’t know,: the Companion said. :All four of the guards are asleep, and the gaol door is open. I can’t fit in there. I’m going to find someone who can.:
Wil cursed and sprinted to the ladder, throwing the clothes up to his daughter. “Aubryn, watch her,” he said. “Vehs needs me.”
Ivy leaned out. “Dada? Can I come?”
“No.” She cringed at the severity of his tone. Feeling guilty, he climbed the ladder halfway and kissed her cheek. “Stay here. Do not leave unless Aubryn says to. Okay?”
“Okay,” she whispered.
Then he jumped down and ran out.
The narrow cell had served as a slaughter chute. One small quarrel had forever silenced Ferrin’s testimony.
Wil stood in the entry, taking in the scene of blood and gore. He’d gotten past the point of wanting to flip the nearest table and had slipped into a quiet mix of anger and sickness.
:This is my fault,: Vehs said.
Wil walked back out into the courtyard without replying. The four sleeping Guards were all being roused by another, mixed expressions of confusion and shock on their faces. Wil scanned the area. Four stools for them to sit on. A few skins of the wine Vehs had observed. One sword on the flagstones. So one had drawn his weapon before—what?
:Watch out for me,: Wil said.
Wil leaned against a wall and pressed his hands into the stones.
As a Herald Trainee, Wil and his teachers had thought him a Foreseer; he had Visions, and a gut instinct that bordered on prescient. But a few years ago, his Gift had taken an odd turn—it started showing him the past in addition to the future. It worked with objects, places—sometimes people, too.
Now he skimmed the surface of the courtyard’s last few candlemarks. And Saw—
—Vehs and the Guards, Vehs departing through the sally port, and, not long after, a knock at the gate. Two of the Guards went to answer. A brief conversation, and then they unbarred and opened the gate.
A woman strode through, dressed in a black—no, just a very, very dark green—cloak with a deep hood. She had her hands on the arms of the Guards, who escorted her, meek as lambs. The other two stood in alarm and confusion; one began to draw his sword. She slid forward like a snake, darting between them, and her hands caressed their faces. Both Guards crumpled to the ground.
She stood a moment, slightly bent. Wil could hear her panting slightly. Then she straightened and faced the first two, still standing obediently nearby.
“Where are the keys?” she asked.
One unhooked a ring of keys from his belt and handed it to her. She brushed her hands on their cheeks, and they collapsed.
For a few moments, Wil saw her more clearly. Sweat sheened her face, and she breathed hard. She smiled.
—I know her, Wil realized with a shock.—
Her visit inside the gaol only took a few minutes. She emerged again and left. Half a candlemark later, Vehs returned.—
Wil released the moments, reorienting back into the now.
“Are you all right, Herald?”
Wil looked up at the Guard, the one who’d been waking the others, digging to remember her name. Sergeant Bergen. She’d been the first Guard Vehs had found. She had a stern, square face, close- cropped graying hair, and the lean frame of a career military woman.
“We’re looking for a woman, about so high.” He held his hand up to his shoulder. “Dark green cloak, curly golden hair, pale skin.”
The Guard’s eyes lit up. “We’ll start looking.”
“Be careful,” he said. “I don’t know how . . . but she seems to have some sort of . . .”
He hesitated. He didn’t want to say “magic.” Magic didn’t happen in Valdemar . . . Or that’s what we all said before Hardorn summoned demons and Herald-Captain Kerowyn came along . . .
Still. This could be a Gift. But the idea that one of the Gifted would carry this out . . . “Some sort of . . . sway,” he said at last. “Maybe a drug or toxin. Just . . . be careful.”
Bergen looked confused by this, but she saluted and went off to assemble a search detail.
Wil took a lantern and walked back into the gaol. He strode down the hallway and past the other empty cells. Two of Ferrin’s accomplices had been here until a couple nights ago—Wil had been able to determine they knew relatively little, and he passed sentence for the Guards to carry out. Probably a good thing, too. He had no doubt that if they’d still been here, they would have received the same treatment as Ferrin.
Back in the dead Bard’s cell, Wil held a handkerchief to his mouth. Then he set the lantern in the doorway and stepped into the cell. Doing his best not to touch the blood, he sat on Ferrin’s cot.
:Okay, Vehs. One more time.:
He took a lungful of fetid air and flung himself back across the candlemarks. The smell of blood vanished, and in his mind the cell appeared again, the same room with a completely different setting—
—Ferrin tossed and turned on his cot, sleep clearly eluding him.
This didn’t go on for long. There came the heavy iron chunk of the hallway’s bolt sliding back and the rattle of keys.
Ferrin sat up at the first sound and had stumbled to his feet by the second. He stood frozen in the patch of moonlight streaming in through the cell’s lone, high window. Before the door opened, he’d set his face in a practiced half-sneer.—
—Expecting me, Wil thought.—
—But a Herald wasn’t who stepped inside. The sneer melted briefly into wide-eyed shock, then settled into a fixed smile.
“Hello, Ferrin,” she said.
“M-Madra!” The frozen smile stretched wide, and a lilt crept into his voice that Wil recognized as the Bard trying to exercise his Gift on her. “Get me out of here!”
Her smile curved higher as her hand moved within the depths of her cloak. “Oh . . . definitely not.”
Something gleaming peeked out from the folds of the cloak. Machinery whirred, and a bolt burst through Ferrin’s chest with alarming force for what must have been a small weapon. Viscera and blood splattered. The Bard grunted, surprise and alarm on his face as he stumbled backward.
“Lord Dark sends regards,” Madra said, shaking her cloak back into place before walking away. Limited by his current position, Wil could only watch her go.
Ferrin collapsed forward, gurgling.—
Wil bore witness a little longer, then released the moments back to the past.
He sat there in the gloom, turning over this new information.
She hadn’t been Madra when he’d last seen her. But names could change.
That smile . . .
Wil didn’t get up immediately. He sipped from his flask and let his nerves settle before hauling himself off the cot and back out to where Vehs waited.