For your perusing pleasure, please enjoy the prologue and first five chapters of THE QUEEN OF MAGES:


On the day of his murder, Lord Keller Skarline first attended a most eventful session of the Greater Council.

Duke Terilin Faroa stood and hunched forward over the council table. “My lords. Your majesty.” He nodded deeply at the king, who watched him with tired blue eyes. “Allow me to present a most disturbing report. A courier arrived this morning, bearing news that the Vaslanders mobilize on the other side of Cold Hills Pass. Their warriors come south from the hinterlands to join a growing army. It is clear that they mean to come across the mountains and strike again into Garova.”

Keller Skarline watched from a seat along the wall of the council chamber as the dukes of the council muttered and cast dark looks at one another. They ignored Keller; he was but one of many observers, unremarkable.

Duke Faroa, ever the showman, dramatically held up a chubby finger. “Let us not forget the lesson of two decades past. Vaslanders are a bloodthirsty, ruthless people. They will burn and pillage as they go, as they did when we were young men. The royal army must be sent north at once to meet this threat and throw the savages back into the cold where they belong.”

A chorus of Hear, hear met his pronouncement. But Duke Loram Arkhail would never let Faroa have the last word, and Keller had his eye on Arkhail even before the younger duke stood to speak.

“You would break twenty years of peace and prosperity by wasting resources on a folly,” Loram Arkhail said calmly, stroking his pointed beard. “The Vaslander tribes have no strong leader to unite them now, as they had old Gerhard during the war. And our fortresses in the mountain passes are doubly strong, compared to, ahem, two decades past.”

Terilin Faroa scoffed. “Are you suggesting we wait? I assure you, the Vaslanders will not hesitate. Strong as our fortresses may be, they can be overrun. A full assault on our part is imperative.”

“An assault?” Loram smiled. “You would compound your folly by trying to send our men across the Black Mountains?” The high passes were difficult to negotiate even when not blocked at either end by fortresses: Vaslander at the north, Garovan at the south. Undisciplined savages the Vaslanders might be, but Garovan armies had broken themselves on those bulwarks before. Keller had even seen them with his own eyes, once. Faroa was a fool if he was suggesting an invasion.

The king broke in. “If I wanted endless debate, I would bring a Steward in here.” Everyone laughed politely, even Duke Faroa. “I will look at the reports myself.”

Terilin Faroa nodded and sat down abruptly, glaring at Loram Arkhail while the council moved on to other business. Keller watched Duke Faroa for a while. The man was an inveterate schemer, always transparently jockeying for position and favor. He thought he was clever, but didn’t seem to realize that the king found him tedious.

The meeting ground slowly to its end, and the king departed posthaste, vanishing through the rear doors, escorted by his retinue of bodyguards and servants. Keller stood up, stretched, and took a moment to examine which dukes and counts and other lords clustered together in gossiping little groups. He saw only the usual patterns, and so sauntered out, his cloak swishing around his boots.

His valo, Rory, lurked outside in the antechamber, along with two dozen others. Valai were not permitted into the Greater Council meetings, to avoid doubling the number of people in the already crowded council chamber. “M’lord,” Rory muttered to Keller, falling in beside him.

“War is perhaps delayed for the moment,” Keller said as they walked.

“Prince Edon will not be pleased.” Rory’s eyes darted around, watching for eavesdroppers.

“When is Edon ever pleased? I need you to go to the Citadel and check with Sir Edvan about an army courier. Faroa claims to have reports showing Vaslanders massing at the border.”

Rory nodded. “Will you be safe alone?”

“No one is ever safe,” Keller murmured as they came to a cross-corridor. Banners hung at each corner, all depicting the sigil of the royal house, the silver eagle with flaming talons on a checked field of purple and blue. The eagle’s watchful eye stared out at them.

Keller watched Rory move off down the corridor. He was loyal, and obedient, and best of all, he kept Keller’s secrets close. He was as good a valo as Keller could want.

It was not far to the king’s chambers, not the way Keller went. The servants’ ways within the royal palace Elibarran were well-lit, narrow passages that connected all the newer parts of the palace. He would not be seen by other nobles as he moved about, but the servants who infested the ways could not be avoided. They ducked their heads and muttered “M’lord” as they passed. No doubt some of them reported to the likes of Faroa and Arkhail. Keller often wondered how many of his own spies whispered into more than one ear.

He came out a narrow door in the corner of a wide hallway, near the king’s study. The guards recognized him and let him pass. Inside he found his majesty, King Viktor of Garova, standing over a map of the northern border, sipping a glass of wine.

His chief bodyguard, Sir Mirlind, lurked in the corner, still as a statue. The man had absolutely no patience for intrigues. Keller did not waste effort trying to deceive or subvert him.

“Your majesty,” Keller said, bowing low.

“Mm,” the king said, not looking up.

Keller cleared his throat. “Your majesty will be unsurprised to learn that I agree with Duke Arkhail. I have heard nothing of an impending Vaslander invasion. I am looking into whether Duke Faroa’s report is accurate. It would be unkind to accuse him of fabricating the story, though it cannot be discounted.”

King Viktor drained his wineglass and poured some more. “If the treasury had a copper for every time someone swore the Vaslanders were going to invade again, we could simply buy Vasland outright.” He laughed, but Keller heard a note of despair in it.

“Do you believe there’s cause for concern, sire? The realm is strong, our treasury healthy, our people prosperous. Twenty years of peace have been good to us. Even the Vaslanders cannot be so foolish as to think they can successfully invade unimpeded. Especially not when we have advance warning, and more defenses in place.”

The king wandered over to the window and peered down into the gardens. “The Vaslanders do not bother me. I crushed them before, and I’ll do it again if they ever present a real threat.” He swirled the wine around, some golden vintage, and eyed Keller. “But the northern dukes all seem convinced that Vasland is about to boil over the mountains again. They’ll continue to agitate for war if I do not make a gesture to appease them.”

“Agreed, sire,” Keller said.

“So. I’ll have the Army Council send a regiment to each pass. Have them do exercises, make a show of strength. That should mute Faroa, and not break the treasury.”

“A wise plan, sire—”

The door flew open with a crack, and Keller spun around at once, hand going to his dagger. Sir Mirlind tensed and reached for his sword. But then Keller saw the interloper, and he bowed again. “Your royal highness.”

Prince Edon, heir apparent to the throne of Garova, strode into the room. “Skarline.” It was his usual greeting: blunt hostility laid bare. Prince Edon was tall, broad, muscular, with icy blue eyes and curly chestnut hair that made him look the young image of his father.

King Viktor stared coldly at his son. “Have you no courtesy, boy? We are engaged in a discussion.”

Edon stopped near Keller and glared down at him. “Trying to keep my father on the path of peace, coward?”

Keller ignored the provocation, and forced a smile. “Merely keeping his majesty informed, your highness.”

Edon turned to face his father. “I heard of the discussion in council. Vasland intends to invade us! Why do we not march at once?”

“Running headlong into every situation with swords drawn is unwise,” King Viktor chided. “I would hope you’d have learned that by now. We have only reports that some Vaslanders may be gathering, and that from unreliable sources.”

The prince glared down at Keller. “See how you’ve turned my father into a coward, too, little lord. Perhaps you hired a woods witch to cast a spell and wither his manhood?”

“Idiot!” Viktor threw his wineglass down, shattering it on the wooden floor. Keller flinched, shielding his eyes.

The king stalked over to his son, overtopping him by an inch, and stabbed a finger into the boy’s chest. It made a clinking sound. Is the prince wearing mail under his shirt? “If you ever managed to attend a council meeting, you might learn that there is more to ruling a kingdom than warfare.”

Edon shrank back a bit under this assault, but the fire in his eyes was undiminished. “It is a king’s duty to protect his kingdom! It is plain as day that the Vaslanders are up to no good. Send me at the head of your army, and I will prove it.”

“I am dispatching regiments to let the Vaslanders see our strength. Your assistance,” he hissed, “is not needed.” He went back to the window.

“Father, I—”

“GET OUT!” Viktor roared. Keller did not think that the king desired any further advice this day, and briskly followed Edon out the door.

Outside, the prince stormed away. His own personal bodyguard, Sir Thoriss, cast a cold glance at Keller, then fell in behind the prince.

Keller sighed. The position of spymaster was tough and unrewarding. By tradition the spymaster was not a duke of the Greater Council; dukes all had far too much to do. Keller was the third son of a count, with little chance of inheriting his father’s countship. However, he had shown adroitness at gathering information and seeing hidden patterns. He had impressed King Viktor a few years prior when he’d brought news of a conspiracy among several dukes to murder another of their number—Loram Arkhail, in fact. Duke Terilin Faroa had been among the conspirators.

Viktor had wanted all their heads, but Keller had convinced the king to let him undermine the conspiracy more quietly, in the name of stability. When Duke Arkhail suddenly decamped for his seat at Thorncross, and the leader of the conspiracy died in a fall from a horse, the other dukes lost their nerve and the plot was undone. Keller had told each of them that the king knew of their treason, but had magnanimously chosen not to take their heads, as long as they behaved themselves. It would benefit the realm not at all to lose several dukes at once.

As a reward, Viktor had made Keller his new spymaster… after the previous one was dismissed for failing to detect the plot.

Keller had to speak with many people each day to gather all the intelligence he needed, and he had no time to spend dawdling in the halls. He walked briskly along, passing into one of the palace’s old stone fortifications. Viktor’s great-great-grandfather had expanded the palace, adding modern wooden sections between the ancient mortared towers. The castle had become a proper palace, no longer just a vast fortress, but now a structure that truly represented the power and glory of Garovan kings.

But the stone towers remained cold, drafty places. Someone had hung huge tapestries on all the walls here, trying and failing to hide the bones of the fortress. As well paint flowers on the hide of a bear. He wondered if Rory had found Sir Edvan yet. There was no particular reason to fear for his safety here, but it did not hurt to be cautious.

Keller found his way to the palace guards’ command, near the practice yard. He met with the captain of the palace guards, Portio, a man he liked. Portio had been a dashing swordsman in his youth, but middle age had thickened his belly and stolen most of his hair. He was firmly in Edon’s grasp, or so Edon thought. Keller paid the man handsomely for information on Edon’s doings.

“The prince, he is acting suspicious today,” Portio said, watching several of his men spar in the yard. Portio was from Parilia, a nation off to the northwest of Garova. Friendly, but wary. “Wearing armor in the palace, as you said. Being even more of a grumpy man than usual. I do not like it.”

Keller snorted. “He accused me of hiring a witch to put a curse on his father. That boy gets strange ideas. Has he asked anything of you today?”

Portio shrugged. “Just one thing. To keep my men off the east ramparts, over the square.”

The ramparts? Was Edon meeting secretly with someone? This was quite suspicious. Edon was blunt as a hammer. What intrigue could he be getting up to? “Anything else?”

“My men’s reports, they are always the same. The prince rides and hunts in the forest. Practices in the yard. Has whores in his chambers. Two or three at a time, I hear.” He sniggered. “Never will there be a man more disappointed by marriage.”

Keller felt sorry for any woman unfortunate enough to marry Edon. He thanked Portio, slipping him a small purse, and strode away.

He felt as if half his efforts were keeping tabs on Prince Edon, not for the prince’s own sake, but to protect the royal house. Even the king had hinted a time or two that Keller should focus less on affairs of state and more on keeping Edon from ruining the royal family.

It twisted Keller’s stomach to think that one day, some disaster might befall the royal house of Relindos. Aside from Edon—and, well, Viktor, who was strong and wise but had such a temper—Keller was fond of them all. Queen Alise was nicknamed the Queen of Hearts by the people, for her kindness and gentleness. Princess Taya spent so much time arranging entertainments and frolics for the palace’s guests that the mistress of rooms often joked that she should retire and let Taya run things. Karina, the younger princess, acted as her older sister’s messenger, flitting about the palace and ensuring that everything was properly arranged for whatever game or masque Taya had planned. Karina was sweet as honey, but there was no harsher taskmaster in all the palace. With the royal summer ball fast approaching, the girl would be sterner than ever.

And little Luka, the apple-cheeked boy who pored over every text in the palace library, day after day, reciting old, dusty facts about which king fortified which wall of which tower, confounding his tutors to no end. The Darling Prince, they called him. It was a second son’s duty to act as chief advisor to his elder brother, and when Edon inevitably took the throne, that job would fall to Luka. The boy would be good at it. Keller prayed that that day would not come for many years. Perhaps Luka’s bookishness would temper Edon’s belligerence.

That belligerence had never shaded into subtlety before, and that worried Keller. He found his way to a narrow, rarely-used stone stairwell that spiraled up to the ramparts. He went slowly, listening for any noise. If Edon was meeting with someone, he wanted to overhear that conversation.

No sound came but wind whistling over the ancient stones of the palace wall. Usually, guards patrolled all along here, but not today, as Portio had said. Keller took a few more steps, emerging cautiously into daylight. Still, no one was there. He looked over the parapet, out at the capital city of Callaston itself, which spread toward the River Brinemoor in the distance. A brown haze hovered over the city, the child of chimneys and furnaces.

He could see the manses of the nobility, closest to the palace, in the neighborhoods just beyond the Great Square, followed by the haunts of the merchants and traders and craftsmen further on: trade halls, shops, markets, smithies. The city got rougher near the docks, where it was full of warehouses and whorehouses, malthouses and gambling dens.

A scrape of boots on stone sounded behind him, and he spun. Before him stood Edon Relindos, holding a thick quarterstaff in his hands. “Your highness—”

The staff whipped up, cracking Keller squarely on the temple. He tried to lurch aside, but the staff hit his knee, and he buckled, collapsing against the parapet. Again and again, the staff struck, on his head, chest, arms. Everything was stars and noise and screaming pain. He realized he was hearing words. “No more of your poison, coward.”

Keller felt himself lifted up, and then the warm afternoon air whistled past his face as the flagstones in the square below rushed up to embrace him.


Lady Amira Estaile’s hand drifted from one dress to the next. “Hm, this one could do. In green, perhaps, dark green. And lower the bodice a bit.”

“Then the shoulders should be wider too, m’lady,” the dressmaker offered.

Amira smiled. “Yes, that would be fine. And no lace here.” She traced a finger along the décolletage.

“If m’lady desires so,” the little dressmaker said dubiously.

Katin Berisha, Amira’s vala, rolled her eyes. “I think m’lady will be distracting enough without excess cleavage on display.”

“Oh, hush. It will give them all something else to gossip about.” Which would be a nice change. Her common birth, recent ennobling, and dead husband had been tittered about quite enough in the noble parlors of Callaston. Amira could understand their fascination, but it grew tiresome. She rubbed at her aching temple absently.

Katin sighed and turned to the little old dressmaker. “When can it be done?”

“Oh, well, I am quite busy with my other orders for the summer ball,” she fretted. “So many ladies are ordering new dresses… My seamstresses are already quite overwhelmed.”

All part of the game, Amira thought. “Katin?”

Amira’s vala drew a small velvet purse from the folds of her dress. “An extra silver should be enough motivation for your girls,” she said dryly, holding up a coin.

The dressmaker cleared her throat. “Countess Besiana next door thought it wise to motivate each of the three seamstresses assigned to her dress.”

Amira snorted. “Shameless! I believe we can afford to match the countess’s generosity,” she said to Katin with a wink, although the pain in her head was making it harder for her to keep smiling.

Katin sighed and pulled two more silvers from the pouch. “I trust that my lady’s dress will be ready the same day as the countess’s.”

“A countess must come first, of course,” the dressmaker said, pocketing the coins, “but I assure you, Lady Amira’s dress will be ready in plenty of time for the ball.” She simpered at them and toddled out the door on her stumpy legs. Her assistants gathered up the sample dresses and scurried after her as a housemaid showed them out.

It had thrilled Amira to be able to summon one of Callaston’s preeminent dressmakers to her manse, but her pounding head had drained all the fun from it. She held her smile rigid as she swept out of the sitting room and led Katin up the stairs.

When Amira reached her bedroom, she could not hide it any longer, and collapsed against the bed, moaning and clutching her head with both hands. The headache came in slow, pounding waves that took forever to crest and break.

Katin clucked her tongue and shut the door quickly. “You need a surgeon.”

“No! They’ll just put leeches on me, or do something equally useless.” Amira lifted her head up and tried to smile. “I’ll be fine.”

“If your head doesn’t crack open from the pain. I saw you grinding your jaw.” Katin went over to the window and flung it open. “At least get some air.”

“Yes, yes.” Amira pushed to her feet. “Help me get this blasted corset off.”

The headaches had been getting worse, coming almost daily now. Amira had come to dread the first sign of it, a tension behind her eyes. The pain built slowly, then erupted into pulses of agony that shattered her concentration. She’d barely been able to make it up the stairs this time.

Katin made quick work of the buttons on her dress and unlaced the corset, and shortly Amira rested in a chair by the window, clad only in her underdress. The high-walled garden behind her manse would thwart any prying eyes.

Amira inhaled deeply, nose tingling at the mixed smells of Callaston. The city had covered sewers, but it still reeked of smoke and effluent anyway. At least the roses in her garden added a pleasant, masking sweetness.

“Perhaps we should get out of the city,” she said. “The invitations have thinned now that everyone’s preparing for the summer ball. Plenty of time for a trip to the country.” Her headache had mostly subsided now, but she felt unnaturally warm. “Nobles go out to the country all the time. Or even to the sea.”

“It would take weeks just to get to the sea,” Katin stated flatly.

“Yes, dear, I wasn’t actually suggesting—ugh. As your mistress, I command you, prepare us for a journey into the country, et cetera and so on.”

“What—just the pair of us?”

“Are you concerned about the other servants?” Amira chuckled. “I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to have a few days to themselves.”

“You still haven’t hired a house major. They’ll likely let the place rot if I’m not here to shout at them. But that’s not what I’m worried about,” Katin said darkly. “Two women alone on the road…”

“Pish,” Amira said. “We’ll have the driver with us, and we’re hardly going into uncharted wilderness. The land is thoroughly settled for leagues in every direction.”

“Yes, well…” Katin sighed. “Where in particular are we going?”

“I don’t know. Wherever is pleasant. Surprise me.” The headache had all but vanished; Amira very nearly felt like herself again. The promise of the summer ball came back to her, and she was thrilled all over again.

It took the rest of the afternoon for Katin to pack Amira’s bags, or rather to direct Amira’s other servants to pack them. A vala was supposed to anticipate her lady’s needs and ensure that all her affairs ran smoothly. Katin accomplished this by snapping incessantly at the other maids. Sara, the youngest, squeaked and scurried whenever Katin said her name. Sometimes Amira wondered if Katin deliberately tried to terrify the girl. It would be easy sport, but Amira felt sorry for the poor thing.

Katin was right about hiring a house major, though. Every noble residence of any size needed a major to run the place properly. A vala was a personal servant whose attentions should be directed toward her mistress. Amira knew Katin didn’t exactly mind ordering the other servants around, but she still complained about having to do two jobs.

Amira could barely sleep that night, alone in her vast canopied bed. The headache had returned, slightly weaker than before, but it was the impending journey that kept her awake. Amira had wanted to see all the wonders of the realm since she was a little girl: the towering Black Mountains; the southern highlands with their dramatic canyons; Angaril Saeth, the Skysilver Spire, a mysterious monolith far to the northwest; the famed clifftop city of Seawatch.

Upon her marriage to Valmir a year ago, she had thought her dreams would come true. His wealth had brought her a certain kind of freedom, but it had also constrained her. Valmir’s business dealings had kept him tethered to the city, and Amira had been swallowed whole by the maw of noble society. There were endless dinner parties, masques, dances. She enjoyed them, but she wanted to see more of what the world had to offer.

Then winter had come, and a spate of galloping cough had run through the city. Everyone shut their homes tight, but somehow Valmir had caught it, and he was one of the unlucky few not to survive. There had never been deep love between them, only a sort of friendly acquaintance, but Amira found herself missing him anyway. She thanked the Aspects she’d never been consumed by the fantasy of a marriage wrought from true love. Their union had been convenient for them both, and she had certainly gotten the better end of the deal, what with not being dead.

She felt a vague twinge of guilt that she’d returned to Callaston society so soon after Valmir’s death, but he’d been a practical man. He wouldn’t have minded. The mourning month had barely ended when the invitations started pouring in. Luncheons, dinners, garden parties, all of them an excuse for Callaston’s noble matrons to inflict their bachelor sons upon her. Not that Amira didn’t enjoy the company of handsome men, but she needed a palate cleanser before the summer ball. She could not go as far as the Black Mountains, so a trip to the countryside would have to suffice.

She supposed she would eventually marry again, but thanks to the resources she inherited from Valmir, she need not rush. The redoubtable Mister Hendricks oversaw the day-to-day management of her assets; he would let her know if her financial situation ever threatened to become dire.

After a long while lying in the dark she went to wake Katin, in her little cell adjacent to Amira’s bedchamber. Katin sat up, cursing, and made some tea. Amira only wanted to talk, and Katin was content to listen drowsily. Night always made Amira feel lonely and isolated, as if all the life and charm had gone out of the world. Even when Valmir had slept next to her, she could not shake the feeling. Having someone to chat with, even if it was only idle gossip, drove away some of that terror.

She jerked awake some time later, realizing she’d drifted off in her chair. Katin was gone, probably back to her cell, so Amira climbed into bed and dozed a while longer. The curtains were drawn, and dawn crept in slowly.

Katin had said that the coach would arrive early. Amira rose once the sun peeked through the window. She fetched the garments they’d set out the night before. A travelling corset, not so tight as the dreadful thing she’d worn yesterday, and a clean underdress to go beneath it. A simple blue linen dress, to ward off the heat, with little white flowers embroidered on the sleeves. A wide-brimmed hat, for the sun, and tan leather gloves.

Amira washed from her basin and brushed out her honey-blonde locks, then tied them back with a cord. Katin could do something with her hair later. She started to dress, but couldn’t tighten the corset properly on her own. Finally she gave up and called for Katin, who woke and helped her, cursing some more. Katin helped powder Amira’s face and apply a little color to her eyes, but as always refused Amira’s offer to do the same for her. It was as if the girl wanted to look plain.

Her clothes and accoutrements required two entire trunks, for no vala would dare risk letting her lady be unprepared for any circumstance the countryside might offer. One never knew when a masque would leap from behind a hedge and demand one’s attendance. The maids wrestled the trunks down the stairs to the foyer.

The morning had dawned cool, and light breezes ruffled the trees outside. The hedge maples on Willbury Street were old and grand, their branches nearly making a natural arbor across the road. Amira had worked herself up into great excitement over this jaunt, and she waited impatiently in her sitting room, watching the morning traffic through the window: servants going to the grocer, milkmaids and butchers making their deliveries, merchants heading off to conduct business.

Soon the coach arrived. Katin had managed to find a coachman who was willing to take them for an unknown number of days toward an unpredictable destination. His name was Huffman, and he was a gray-haired stork of a man so tall that his breeches barely reached his boot-tops. He never seemed to smile, but Katin had said his price was fair. Amira found him delightfully solemn.

The coach itself was crafted in elegant simplicity, its dark wood shiny with countless layers of polished lacquer, but otherwise devoid of ornamentation. A cunning little step folded out from the undercarriage, springing forth with a click when Huffman tugged on it.

Amira’s chef, a heavyset, mustachioed Parilian named Fortino, came wheezing out of the manse bearing a pair of baskets stuffed full of cheese, bread, apples, grapes, figs, and smoked oysters imported at great expense from the coast. Amira thanked him for his foresight, while Katin clucked at the excess. “A basket for each of us? Is there a famine coming?” she muttered when Fortino had his back turned.

Huffman and Fortino, being the only men present, heaved the two enormous trunks onto the coach, lashing them to the luggage rack. Huffman bowed to Amira and held out his hand to help her up.

As she settled onto the cushions, a squeaking noise drew her attention. She looked out the open door of the coach and saw a rotund woman, dress askew, striding toward her and calling out Amira’s name. A gaggle of maids trailed behind, making futile attempts to finish dressing her. The Lady Besiana Tarian, Countess of Hedenham, and Amira’s neighbor, ground to a halt at the coach door, blocking Katin from climbing aboard. The vala glared at the countess’s expansive back.

“Amira, dear! Surely you are not going on a journey, today of all days?” The countess eyed the trunk perched above her as if it might somehow be to blame.

Amira bowed her head, a necessary token of respect. Amira was no countess, not even a baroness, just an unlanded lady, the lowest rank of the nobility, but it annoyed her to have to bow to this nag of a noblewoman. “Ah, yes, I’m afraid I am, my lady,” she said, pursing her lips. “I just need some time to clear my head before the summer ball. I’ve been having the most awful headaches, you see.”

“How dreadful,” Besiana said, slapping away the hand of a maid who tried to straighten her sleeve. “Dreadfully unfortunate, that is. You see, my son has sent word—he is arriving in the city this very day!”

The countess had been plotting for months to introduce Amira to her son. Apparently he preferred to stay in Hedenham with his father, and only came to Callaston rarely, on business of their house. Amira’s social calendar had, by some unfathomable coincidence, been completely full during his last several visits.

“Oh, my, that is unfortunate,” Amira said, knitting her brow in feigned distress. “But I simply cannot wait if I’m to feel well for the ball.”

“Oh, of course,” Besiana said, chuckling lightly. “Ah, the ball! He’ll stay for the ball, I’m sure of it. I’ll see to it! You two should attend together. You’d make the most elegant couple.”

Amira gave a bright smile. “It would not be an impossible thing!”

While the countess worked out the meaning of that, Katin impatiently slipped past her and up into the coach, clutching the snack baskets in either hand. “Pardon me, m’lady, we must be going.” She pulled the door shut and pounded on the roof. Huffman snapped the reins briskly, apparently as eager to escape the countess’s grasp as Amira was.

“Do let me know when you return, dear!” the countess shouted after them as the coach pulled away. “I shall tell my son that…” Her voice faded as the coach picked up speed.

Katin frowned out the window. “I’m going to find out which of our servants gossiped to her servants about this trip, and have them flogged.”

“Oh, hush,” Amira said. “Servants gossip.”

“I don’t,” Katin grumped, plucking a grape from one of the baskets and gnashing at it.

Willbury Street curved so that its ends both met the same road, a wide avenue named the Grainway, populated by shops and businesses with apartments stacked atop them. The coach joined the traffic on that road, passing by the little grocer where Fortino went twice a week to purchase fruits and vegetables, and other local shops that Amira had come to know.

Barely a block later, Amira realized they’d pass right by the local temple. “I want to stop there,” she told Katin.

“What? Why?”

“For a blessing.”

Katin rolled her eyes. “I suppose we left early enough. Please be quick.” She hammered on the roof and shouted to Huffman. “Stop at the temple!”

He complied, bringing the coach to a halt squarely before the temple’s door. Three stone steps led up to it, and Amira knocked on the doorframe three times in rapid ritual before entering. Katin stayed in the coach, which suited Amira fine. Katin never wanted to pray, or receive blessings, or even set foot in a temple if she could avoid it.

One could find temples of the Niderium in every city, town, and village in Garova. There were dozens in Callaston alone. Amira sought them out often; she liked praying to the Caretaker and the Aspects. It made her feel safe and calm. The Elibanders, who had come to this land centuries ago, had brought their religion with them. They worshipped a god called the Guardian, who rewarded control, conquest, and strength. But the native Caelanders’ spirit-worship had been too hard to wrest away, too ingrained in the rituals and patterns of their daily lives.

Some dusty old scholar had claimed a vision of the true god, whom he called the Caretaker, and founded a religious order that merged the Elibanders’ monotheism with the spirit-worship of the Caelander natives. The Devoshim Niderium, as he’d named it, had expanded over the centuries to nearly blanket the realm in temples, administered from its headquarters compound in Callaston. Virtually all Garovans worshipped the Caretaker, although Amira had heard tales of backwaters where people still prayed to spirits in the water, air, and earth.

Like most Niderine temples, this one was long and narrow, with a high, arched ceiling. A clear glass window at the far end admitted some light, but mostly the temple was lit by candles in wall sconces. Amira strode past the eight altars where a few folk prayed, and found the temple’s steward reading something atop his lectern. He looked up and smiled. “Good morning, Lady Amira,” he said quietly, closing a large, leather-bound book of real paper. It must have cost a fortune; parchment was cheaper, but the Niderium could afford the finer things.

“Good morning, Stew—er, Sendraj Alfin.” Amira grimaced, hoping no one else had noticed her flub. Proper nobles used the Elibander title, not the commoner’s “Steward.” “If it please you, I’d like a blessing. I’m starting a journey today and I wish it to be safe and enjoyable.”

“Indeed, m’lady? That sounds most pleasant. Although I notice you say ‘I’ as opposed to ‘we.’ I assume your vala will be attending you on your journey, as is proper, so that is a curious turn of phrase.” He peered over her shoulder. “M’lady really ought to encourage her vala to visit the temple. We can hardly see to her spiritual welfare if—”

“Yes, Sendraj,” Amira blurted, not feeling at all bad about cutting him off. Stewards would ramble at the slightest provocation. She wondered if they learned it at Ulisharran, or if the Niderium simply sought out men who loved the sound of their own voice. Besides, there was no way to get Katin into a temple short of dragging her. “But I am in rather a rush, so if you would…?”

“Ah. Of course. Please step into the Eye.”

Alfin’s little wooden lectern sat at the edge of the Eye of Sanctuary, a circle set down into the floor by three shallow steps. Amira descended to its center and stood with her hands clasped as Alfin straightened up and hefted his shepherd’s crook.

“By the Caretaker and his thousand names,” the steward began, addressing no one in particular. “I call for a blessing on this lady, as she begins a journey. Her path is known and unknown. I invoke the Aspect of Courage, to help her take the next step. Her benefit is known and unknown. I invoke the Aspect of Joy, to help her prosper in its light. Her destiny is known and unknown. I invoke the Aspect of Chaos, to help her face the mystery to come.” He reached out with the crook and lightly tapped Amira on the top of her head.

Amira smiled. Stewards might ramble in conversation, but the rituals of the Niderium were tidily efficient. She dropped a silver into the donation urn, whispered her thanks, and departed.

Katin tapped her foot impatiently as Huffman helped Amira climb back into the coach. “Properly consecrated?”

“I made him put a curse on you,” Amira teased. Katin rolled her eyes and thumped on the roof.

They followed the Grainway for half a mile, then turned north along the Way of Trade, two broad avenues that flanked a grass parkway that was used for the annual Wintergift feast. Soon they reached the Great Square. Hundreds of vendors, shoppers, beggars, and supplicants crowded the square, and it took several minutes for Huffman to thread his way through, shouting and cursing at the pedestrians obstructing their way. Amira glimpsed the high stone walls of the great castle Elibarran, seat of the crown of Garova. From what she’d heard, it was more palace now than fortification, though the walls looked impressive enough. She was of too low station to have been invited in by the royal family or others at court, but when the royal summer ball came, all the nobles in the city would be allowed to enter. She tingled with excitement at the prospect.

They escaped the Great Square and soon passed through the city’s western gate, called the Trade Gate in the typically practical fashion of Garovan commoners. It had a fancy official name she’d forgotten, some confusing phrase from the old Elibander tongue.

“So, where are we bound?” Amira asked as the road turned from stone to dirt beneath them. Callaston had not been attacked by any army in decades, and it had long since overflowed its walls. Cottages, shops, fields, and farms dotted the landscape around them.

“West.” Katin smirked at her. “Surprise!”

Amira pursed her lips. “I find myself less exhilarated than I had hoped.”

“You wanted to get out of the city. Well, here we are. What were you expecting on a half day’s notice? It took all the time I had just to get packed and arrange the coach.” Katin sniffed. “There are a few noble estates we could call at. Countess Isilian, for instance—”

“No, no. We’ll stay at wayfarers’ inns. I may as well have stayed cooped up at home if we’re simply going to camp out at some lady’s estate. I want to visit the country.”

The plains west of Callaston soon gave way to low hills threaded with gentle streams. Occasionally Amira could glimpse the silver ribbon of the River Brinemoor running parallel to the road a mile or so to the south. As the sun slipped behind the western hills, Huffman called out from atop the coach. “Inn ahead, m’lady, and it’s getting on toward dark. Should we stop for the night?”

Amira’s headache had returned with reinforcements, and the jostling of the coach had not helped one bit. She stopped rubbing at her temple long enough to push the curtain aside and spy a cozy inn beside the road. She nudged Katin, who had drifted off, slumped over one of the baskets. The vala twitched and woke, smoothing her dull brown hair back and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Katin called out for Huffman to stop once Amira pointed out the inn to her. Amira would gladly have done the shouting herself, but she was a proper lady now, and ladies were supposed to refrain from raising their voices.

Huffman helped her down from the coach. When her foot struck the ground, a cascade of agony erupted in her head. She turned away from Huffman for a moment, gritting her teeth against the pain, and forced out a “Thank you, sir,” before he could think her unbearably rude. A gawky young boy came hopping out of the inn to help with the trunks.

The Inn of the Western Well followed the same plan as most Garovan inns: a common room taking up most of the ground floor, with the kitchen behind it, and a winding stairwell leading up to the bedrooms. Through the arch to her right Amira saw a handful of guests at dinner. Food was the furthest thing from her mind as she tried to ignore the growing pain. She felt as if a white-hot dagger was being slowly and inexorably driven through the top of her skull.

The innkeeper, a fat old man who smiled at everything, bowed and gave them the guest register to sign. Amira scratched in Lady Amira Estaile, a lone Elibander-style name beneath a sea of common Caelan names. There were no other nobles staying here at the moment, it seemed. Her vala put in her own name beneath it, Katin Berisha.

The innkeeper led them to their room at the end of the upstairs corridor. Katin slipped the man a few coppers and he bowed and smiled his way out, shutting the door. Amira felt hot. She threw open the windows, which looked out behind the inn onto a grassy yard where a few guests strolled.

The cool evening air didn’t help. What she needed was privacy. And to get the damned corset off. “Help me undress, would you,” she said as evenly as she could. Katin did, while Amira took deep breaths, trying to steady herself. “I’m famished,” she lied. “I don’t suppose you’d see if the kitchen can spare a plate or two for us.” She smiled tightly at her vala, trying not to wince.

Katin eyed her for a moment, but nodded and went out. When the door snicked shut, Amira collapsed onto the bed, buried her face in the coverlet, and released a keening wail. The pain was worse than ever, as if a blazing ember scorched her from within. She couldn’t picture anything else in her mind’s eye, no matter how hard she willed it. All she saw was a scorching, blistering sun, filling every corner of her being.

She slid down to the floor, her shift crumpling up against the bed. The pain ebbed for a moment, and it was then that Amira realized she could actually see the ember. It was a steady orange glow, easily visible when she shut her eyes. Which she did, allowing the ember to occupy all her attention.

It felt odd, as if it had some physical presence within her head. Not just where the pain lay, but beyond it. Go away, you wretched thing, she thought at it bitterly.

It moved.

Amira gasped, flinching as if she could escape from her own thoughts. When she settled a bit, she looked at the ember again. It was still there, but… off to one side, somehow, no matter how she turned her head. Move, she thought again, and it jumped a little more, this time to the other side of her vision.

What is this? The little ember fascinated her. Sparks and lines flitted around it, as if she’d rubbed her eyes. The sun had set; colors washed out of the world, leaving everything in twilight. Amira spent a minute or two pushing the ember around some more, until thumping steps echoed in the hall outside. Instinctively Amira shoved the ember away hard, trying to hide it—

The room brightened suddenly, and she turned to see a small, flickering flame burning on the wall. Astonished and entranced, Amira gaped at it, until the door swept open. Katin stood there in silhouette, a tray in her hands. “Why is it—a fire!” She darted over and balanced on one leg, stamping the flame out with her boot. “Amira, what happened? Why is it so dark in here?”

“I… I was trying…” She gulped, her throat dry. Suddenly she felt absolutely starved. “I was trying to light the lamp…”

Katin deposited the tray atop the dresser, and looked around. She picked up the tinderbox. “This was on the other side of the room.”

Panic rose in Amira, and she burst into tears. “I’m sorry… I don’t know…” She clenched her eyes against the anguish and confusion. Aspect of Chaos, help me!

Katin knelt down and wrapped her arms around Amira. “Hush, it’ll be all right, it was nothing. You’ll be all right.”

Amira sniffled, holding back sobs. “The… the food…”

Katin nodded briskly. Her tone was just as clipped. “Right. Here you go.” She handed one of the plates down to Amira.

The food was good, still faintly warm, a slice of fatty roast pork and spicy mashed potatoes and peas, and even a biscuit with butter and honey. Amira wolfed it down, sitting on the floor as Katin watched, ignoring her own food. She had to stop herself from licking the plate clean. “More?” Amira asked, but Katin felt her forehead.

“You’re burning up. You need to lie down. You infuriating girl, why didn’t you tell me your headache was back?” She took Amira firmly by the arm, guided her into the bed like a child, and covered her halfway with the sheet. “Go to sleep,” she said, but Amira already had.


Lord Dardan Tarian reined to a stop on the crest of a stony ridge, gazing southwest toward the pale walls of Callaston. The morning haze had lifted and Dardan could see acres of farms and cottages laid out between him and the city. The little homes, smoke wafting from their chimneys, looked pleasant and inviting, but Dardan had to go into the city itself. Callaston was crowded, and it stank. He’d spent more than enough time here as a boy.

His valo, Liam Howard, rode up beside him, shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun. “Looking for something, m’lord?”

“An excuse to avoid visiting this foul city.”

“Surely your lady mother isn’t such unbearable company,” Liam deadpanned.

Dardan snorted. He kicked his horse to a safe walk down the hill, toward their one-wagon caravan below. He thought about the sheaf of parchment in his satchel, a pile of contracts and documents from his father, destined for the Tarians’ trade agent in Callaston. As usual, he would have to spend tedious hours overseeing the details.

They still had to reach the city first. A handful of guards bracketed the wagon, keeping a watchful eye, though there was little risk of banditry this close to Callaston. Dardan came up alongside their captain, a young, chiseled man with flinty eyes.

“M’lord.” Captain Reed bowed slightly. “Will we be accompanying you in the city once we arrive?”

Dardan shook his head. “Escort the wagon to the warehouse, then return to the manse. You can quarter there for the night. Mother may have letters to send back with you. Then I think you can return to Hedenham. I’ll be in the city a few days, and we’re taking nothing back but ourselves.”

“Your mother the countess will insist on an escort,” Liam interjected.

Of course she will. Countess Besiana fretted for Dardan’s safety every time he left the city, though he’d made the trip back to Hedenham a dozen times with no escort save his valo. This time would be no different: she’d insist, he’d decline. All part of the routine. He shrugged at Liam, ending the conversation.

Dardan eyed the wagon once again. All the cargo looked undisturbed, the wax seals still intact on the crates of raw iron and copper, smithed tools, and bales of wool and flax. Dardan’s father the count always insisted he take some goods with him on his trips to the city, if for no other reason than to keep up appearances. Arriving in the capital with freight in tow reinforced the image of Hedenham’s prosperity.

The ashstone walls of Callaston loomed ever closer. The Festival Gate stood wide open, and a steady stream of wagons, horses, and travellers issued forth, but a long line waited to enter. Royal inspectors examined all cargo entering the city, to extract import duties on the relevant goods. Dardan’s wares had already been inspected, taxed, and sealed at a royal trading house in Hedenham. Still, it was a long line. I hate waiting.

When they reached the end of the queue, he nodded at Liam. The valo rode ahead, looking through the line. He returned shortly. “Men with Duke Visail’s colors guard a wagon near the front. All else are commoners.”

“Is Visail with the wagon?”

“No, nor his kin, that I could tell. Just guards and servants.”

Dardan considered. It was a noble’s privilege to skip to the head of the queue, but a duke far outranked the son of a count. “We’ll wait,” he said, irritated at the further delay.

Finally, Visail’s wagon made it through the gate, and Dardan motioned to his own driver. They pulled out of the line and cantered to the front, bypassing all the commoners. Dardan empathized with their envious looks, but he wanted to get this over with. The men at the gate made a cursory inspection of the seals and the manifest, and waved Dardan and his men into the city.

Captain Reed bowed to Dardan and led his men after the wagon, which had turned down toward the river and the warehouses there. Dardan trotted away toward the north of the city, Liam at his side.

Callaston reeked, and it would only get worse as summer approached. Dardan was used to the open fields and heath of Hedenham; here all the people and buildings and waste were packed too tightly together. Not to mention the tendency of Callaston’s nobles to embroil him in their tiresome intrigues. He especially did not relish the memory of Countess Rambul’s last dinner party, and its aftermath. Nonetheless, his duty brought him here, and he would see it discharged. Quickly.

The main avenues of Callaston formed a rough grid, though even the widest streets curved around ancient inns, trading houses, shops, malthouses, and manses. The city was more than four hundred years old, having grown from a small riverside trading post in Garova’s early days, and it showed. Some past kings had tried to impose more order on the city, but Callastonites had more than once rioted against attempts to demolish their favorite malthouses for the sake of straighter streets.

Dardan wended his way through that haphazard plan, eventually reaching the Grainway, and then Willbury Street. Many of the city’s streets lacked trees, but Willbury was well-shaded. He was almost able to forget he was in crowded Callaston at all.

The Tarians’ manse sat at the bottom of the curving road, sheltered from the bustle of the city, though alas not entirely from the smell. Dardan saw the house major, the prissy and gray-fuzzed Bertram, waiting impatiently out in front with a pair of stableboys. Dardan dismounted and gave the old man a friendly nod which was returned precisely. Liam greeted the major with a jocular bellow and a clap on the shoulder. Bertram’s face turned a soft shade of purple.

“Mother, I’ve arrived,” Dardan called out in the foyer. He tossed his hat onto the demilune table by the door. He was sweaty from the ride, and the countess would no doubt insist he clean himself up at once.

“Dardan, my dear boy!” came his mother’s squeak from the top of the stairs. She glided down, trailed by her vala, the perpetually nervous Rose. Spending a lot of time around Besiana could do that to a person. “It’s so good to see you.” She pecked him on the cheek, then sniffed. “Mister Howard, have you been letting my son sleep in barns the whole way here?”

“No, m’lady, that’s how he always smells,” Liam said. Dardan fought down a grin.

“Off to a bath, I won’t have your foul stench permeating the house. BERTRAM!”

“Yes, m’lady?” The major nearly leapt forward, hands clasped expectantly.

“My son will be hungry, of course. Prepare a snack for us at once.”

“It’s good to see you as well, mother,” Dardan said, not waiting for her to pause, as that could mean quite a long wait.

“Off with you. I shall be in the sitting room.” Besiana strode away. Rose followed, although not before giving Liam a besotted grin. The valo winked at her.

Dardan snorted once she was gone. “I thought I told you to stop tumbling the maids.”

“Perhaps I remind them of your father, m’lord,” Liam said. He was more handsome than Dardan, they were both well aware. Dardan had lost count of the times someone had assumed that he was the valo, and Liam the lord.

A small suite of rooms had been made ready for him. He washed from a painted porcelain vase, ignoring the bar of lavender-scented soap that sat beside it. A man should not smell like flowers. Liam helped him dress in garments that had already been laid out for him: linen shirt, waistcoat, breeches, hose, and velvet slippers. Besiana insisted he dress like a city dandy whenever he was here. Whether he matched the furniture seemed more important than his own desires. Would she never realize he was a grown man, almost twenty years of age?

Dardan found his mother in the sitting room, chatting with the family’s trade agent, Mister Dobbs. The room was as absurdly ornate as everything else in the house, with golden sconces along the walls, plush chairs for lounging and reading, a high plaster ceiling carved with children and flowers and painted in garish colors, and a narrow cherrywood table that had once belonged to his great-great-grandfather.

Bertram brought in plates of fruit and cheese while they went over the trade contracts. Goods in, money out, the endless wheels of commerce. Dardan paid close attention the whole time, but wished he were somewhere else.

By early evening, the trade agent had gone. Captain Reed returned with his men, and Besiana insisted they stay in the city several days, overriding their objections. It seemed Dardan would have an escort back to Hedenham regardless. He caught his mother fluttering her eyelashes at the handsome Captain Reed, though, and his stomach turned. No wonder.

Once the guards had gone off into the servants’ hall, Dardan settled down to a simple dinner with his mother: robin’s-egg soup and roast lamb and garden greens, cold crab bisque, warm soft nut bread with honey and butter. He’d given Liam an evening at liberty, deciding that at least one of them should get a bit of entertainment while they were in the city. Dardan let the envy wash over him as he thought about Liam having a drink with the lads in a malthouse somewhere.

Besiana nattered on about the usual noble trivialities. Upcoming marriages, who was cuckolding whom, news from points west and south. Casually, she mentioned the young widowed lady who lived next door. Besiana brought her up every time Dardan visited, and he was growing tired of hearing about her. Tonight, Besiana lamented that the lady had gone on a sudden trip that very morning.

Dardan sighed as he tucked into his second helping of lamb. “Yes, mother, I’m sure she’s quite lovely. Should we ever chance to occupy the same city at the same time, I would be glad to meet her.” If only to shut you up.

“Oh, but you must remain here until the royal summer ball,” she replied. “I’m certain Lady Amira will be attending. Perhaps you could accompany her.”

He hesitated. “I had only planned to be here long enough to handle our business affairs.”

“My dear boy, you have missed the summer ball the last two years. Your absence is spoken of.”

His last nerve frayed. “By whom? Anyone whose opinion I care about?” he snapped.

Besiana recoiled a little and slowly put down her fork. “I am only thinking of your future happiness, my dear boy.”

“You’re only thinking of the family legacy. You couldn’t give two coppers about my happiness.” He felt righteous saying it, but regret crept in as soon as he saw his mother’s hurt expression.

“Dardan! I care about nothing more than the happiness of my children. But that happiness is tied intimately to this family’s legacy.” She leaned forward slightly, her voice lowering. “You are almost four years a man, and it is past time you married.”

“I will consider it in my own time,” he replied, stabbing at a morsel of lamb on his plate. “Besides, this girl is no maid. You’ve told me about her late husband, and her wealth. I don’t care how amazingly beautiful you claim she is, it’s obvious you only want her for her money.”

Besiana narrowed her eyes. “Money is what keeps us in robin’s-egg soup and two houses full of servants. It may be enchanting to pretend that our lifestyle is by the divine grace of the Caretaker, but you are old enough to know better.” She picked up her fork again. “And so what if she is not a maid? Neither are you, unless I miss my guess.”

Dardan choked on his wine, spraying droplets onto the table. He coughed, dabbing his napkin at the purple spots soaking into the silk tablecloth. “Mother!”

“Well? You are almost twenty. Your father had bedded his first girl by the time he was fourteen.” She shrugged.

Dardan was shocked. He would not discuss bedroom affairs with his mother. It was perverse!

Besiana went on, unruffled. “Petulance does not become you, Dardan. Lady Amira is young, beautiful, childless, wealthy, and was married barely half a year before before her noble husband passed on. She is of common birth, true, but she is a commoner no longer.”

Dardan’s jaw set. “I will not be forced into a marriage.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, dear. Unlike your sister, you have shown no congenital hostility to the idea of marriage, merely the reluctance common to young men. But you are also your father’s eldest son. You have a duty to this house to—”

“I know my duty!”

You have a duty,” she rode over him. “Strong unions between nobles are strands in the web that keeps us safe. Things are simpler in Hedenham, I know, but here you can barely go a day without the dogs nipping at your heels. Think, for once, what might happen to this family if you were to eschew your duty for a year, or a month, or even a day too long.”

She would not be content until he gave in. The woman was indefatigable, and he did not want to simply walk out of the room. “I have said I would be happy to meet the lady,” he bit out. “When will she return?”

“Most likely a few days hence. She did not see fit to inform me of her plans in detail.”

“Father expects me back within a week.”

“I will send a message that you are staying for the summer ball. He can argue with me if he likes.”

Count Asmus Tarian did not like arguing with his wife. They’d had some barn-burning screaming matches when Dardan was young, with the eventual result that Besiana spent all her time in Callaston, while Asmus stayed in the country. Asmus came to the city a few times a year to do his marital duty, and spent the rest of it chasing girls all over Hedenham County.

Besiana seemed satisfied by Dardan’s capitulation, and changed the subject. Once the meal had ended and the dishes were cleared away, she led him to the sitting room and gave Bertram explicit instructions that they were not to be disturbed. The old major frowned disapprovingly, but he nodded and shut the doors. Even Rose was left outside.

Mother and son settled onto the couch. Dardan was glad that the evening candles muted the room’s garish color scheme. His mother seemed focused inward, which was unusual. “Is something amiss?”

Besiana sighed. “A most terrible thing occurred. Lord Keller Skarline fell to his death four days ago.”

Dardan stared. “What?”

“From the front wall of Elibarran, right into the Great Square. He almost flattened an apple cart, if the story is accurate.”

Dardan had met Keller Skarline once or twice, at this function or that, but had not really known much about him. Except that he was the king’s spymaster, a fact which was supposed to be secret but which everyone knew anyway. “I assume he was pushed,” Dardan said.

“He did not seem the type to walk absently along the merlons,” Besiana said. “The crown is investigating, of course. They even have a pair of Wardens looking into the matter, so I hear. The first question is, who would benefit from his death?”

“Anyone who wanted the post of spymaster to open up, but I can’t think of anyone who’d want it that badly. But you have your ear to the court, of course,” Dardan admitted. The one disadvantage to spending most of his time in Hedenham was its distance from the political machinations of Callaston. He despised court politics, but could not deny their importance.

“Many rumors fly. The one that piqued my interest was that Lord Keller favored a more subtle approach toward the Vaslanders, a position shared by our own Duke Loram Arkhail.”

“The Vaslanders? What of the Vaslanders?” Dardan asked. They hadn’t crossed the mountains in twenty years, since King Viktor had thrown them back when Dardan was just a babe in arms.

“Their warriors gather across the northern border,” Besiana said darkly. “Duke Faroa favors an immediate attack against them. So does Prince Edon, it seems. Our own Duke Loram, however, calls for restraint.”

Dardan’s stomach roiled. Only a few counties stood between the Black Mountains and Hedenham. Dardan’s home hadn’t seen fighting in the last war, but some towns not terribly far to the north of Hedenham had been sacked and burned. If the Vaslanders did invade again, Hedenham—his father, his sister, his brother, his people—might suffer.

But Count Asmus Tarian owed his direct allegiance to Duke Loram Arkhail of Thorncross. If Duke Loram favored a subtle approach, then Asmus must perforce agree. He couldn’t understand why Duke Loram would be so cautious; Loram’s seat at Thorncross was even closer to Vasland. Loram hadn’t fought in the last war, though. His father had been the duke then, and Loram had been away to the south somewhere. Perhaps he’d never seen the destruction with his own eyes.

Dardan had. When he was ten, his father had taken him north to Cold Hills County, in Seawatch. The land had begun to recover by then, but they still saw the ruins of countless destroyed towns and burned farms. Count Asmus had wanted Dardan to see with his own eyes what the Vaslanders had wrought.

Pieces fell into place in Dardan’s mind. “Faroa might have wanted Skarline out of the way, if Skarline’s reports supported Loram’s position. And Blackwall suffered badly in the last war.” Dardan had been to the Dukedom of Blackwall once as well, along the northern hills where the Vaslanders had held Garovan territory for a long part of the war. The destruction hadn’t been as severe there as in Cold Hills, since the Vaslanders had used it as a base of operations rather than just pillaging it, but the few Garovan folk who lived there had all had a permanently haunted look. Dardan had seen them cast their eyes up the towering mountains as if expecting a wave of Vaslanders to sweep over it at any moment. “House Faroa lost some family in the fighting as well. Though perhaps there’s a simpler explanation. Blackwall is renowned for its mines and smithies. Perhaps Faroa has a surplus of blacksmiths who need employment turning out swords and shields.”

Besiana shrugged. “Well. Whatever his goals, I hardly think murdering young lords is an effective way to achieve them.”

But Dardan cared nothing about Keller Skarline or Terilin Faroa now. Visions of Vaslander berserkers rampaging through Hedenham Town filled his mind. “Father must know of this,” he declared. “Although… he may insist on readying the garrison.”

“I thought your father always kept the garrison readied,” she said. Your father, Dardan noted, not my husband.

“Father directs them in hunting down brigands and poachers, yes. But mobilizing them for war is another story entirely. Only by the king’s authority may that kind of order be given. The king will not be pleased if that happens without his approval. They are the king’s soldiers, not father’s. Too many dukes and counts have suborned garrisons in the past for the king to ever turn a blind eye to that sort of thing.”

“Then I will petition his majesty at the next court, to send such an order to the Hedenham garrison. The next court session is the day after tomorrow, I believe.”

“What if the king doesn’t listen? Father may try to convince the garrison commander to mobilize anyway.”

Besiana started. “What? He couldn’t do that! Could he?”

“Father and the garrison commander get along quite well,” Dardan said, “which you would know if you ever spent any time there.”

“Hm,” Besiana said, eyeing him coolly.

“This is delicate, but… Do you recall Baron Parvis Stanton?” he asked.

“Of course. Wretched, selfish little man.”

“Well, the other week he was accused of raping a farmgirl.”

“How horrid! Oh, dear. Though I can quite believe the charge.”

“Father ordered him to stand trial, of course, and even though father would sit in judgment as befits the noble accused, Baron Parvis chose to flee and hide instead. The baron obviously feels his guilt. Father may be impulsive and brazen, but no one who knows him can rightly accuse him of countenancing injustice. So he ordered the garrison commander, Captain Orrel Stanton, to find and retrieve the baron.”

“Oh my!” Besiana’s hand flew to her breast. “He ordered Parvis’s own brother to find him? I remember that boy!”

“The very same. The spitting image of his brother, in fact, though commendably loyal where the baron is treacherous.”

“Did he do it?”

“Yes, without hesitation. I’ve never heard Captain Stanton speak ill of his older brother, but he took a detachment of twenty men and a Warden and rode without delay. He returned a day later with the baron in chains.”

It pleased Dardan to see his mother, for once, at a loss for words. Finally, inevitably, she spoke. “I had no idea the county was such a hotbed of scandal,” she nearly giggled.

“Yes, well, I’m sure it pales when compared to the daily mischief of the Callaston nobility,” he said dryly. “The upshot is, Captain Stanton respects father and is quite likely to obey if he orders a war footing.”

“Oh, dear,” Besiana muttered. “Then the king’s permission is all the more critical. I shall endeavor my utmost to attain it.” She stood, and Dardan followed suit. “I’m afraid I am quite tired, my boy. We shall speak further in the morning. ROSE!”

The nervous vala scurried in, but was forced to backpedal as the countess swept out. Dardan watched them go, then sat back down, alone at last.

Speaking with Besiana always left him agitated. He stared at the wall for a while, letting his aggravation wind down. He’d just begun to consider searching the kitchen for more dessert when Liam popped his head in. “Evening, m’lord,” the valo said brightly, his face a little flush.

“You’re back early,” Dardan noted.

“Ah, well, m’lord looked so glum when I left, I couldn’t bear to leave you in your mother’s clutches.” He brushed a stray lock of sandy hair out of his eyes. “It seems you’re rid of her already, though.”

“Not soon enough. She harped at me about the widow again.” Dardan supposed he probably still looked glum. “We’ll be staying in the city for the summer ball.”

Liam nodded. “You’ll need a new suit, and all the usual nonsense. We’ll start on that tomorrow, if it pleases m’lord.” He cleared his throat. “You look tired, m’lord. We’ve had long days of riding, so maybe it’s best you go to bed.”

Curse the man, he was right. Dardan trod gloomily up the stairs, and dismissed Liam for the night. He washed again and dressed for bed in a linen nightrobe. He gazed at himself in the mirror, at the broad chin, the too-short nose, the small dark eyes. He’d been told his face had a pleasing symmetry to it, but girls never swooned over him the way they did over some boys. Over Liam. Perhaps they’d all just been humoring Dardan his entire life.

The dinner conversation came back to him. His mother assumed he’d bedded a girl. It spoke well of him, he supposed, but she was wrong. He almost had, a few times. Once was the farrier’s daughter in Hedenham Town, when he was fifteen. He’d followed her around all during the Wintergift feast, drunk on spiced ale, gazing at those long eyelashes, savoring that sweet laugh. She’d snuck him back to her bedroom, but they’d just ended up talking through the night and kissing a little. She’d been so warm and soft. He woke up lying next to her, still fully clothed, in the sober gray light of dawn. When she’d woken, she’d thrown him out at once, fearful that her father would discover him and try to nail horseshoes to his feet in a rage. He’d mooned after her for weeks on end.

Then there had been the night after his sixteenth birthday. Liam had been his valo for a few months already—nobles were only supposed to have valai once they came of age at sixteen, but Asmus had declared there was no sense waiting, and who would care, out there in the country?—and had taken him to a little brothel on the edge of Hedenham Town. Dardan made it as far as the foyer before panicking and running out into the night. Liam had at least had the sense not to mock him openly about it, but for days afterward, the man’s every expression looked like a smirk.

There had been a few opportunities since, this girl or that who fancied bedding a lord. Dardan had resigned himself to the idea that his first bedding would wait until marriage, to whatever woman would have him. Perhaps it will be this Amira, he mused. But if she’s really so beautiful, what would she want with the likes of me?


Two days after the Inn of the Western Well, Amira suddenly announced that they would go for a picnic in the countryside. Katin’s plea that they stay on the road was brushed aside.

They rented horses from a farm they happened upon. Both mares seemed pleasant enough when the farmer brought them out, but that didn’t last an hour. Katin’s horse bounced through the grass, bruising Katin’s rear and changing direction so often that Katin wondered if the beast was going mad. Only because they were now miles from the stable did she stay atop the foul creature. Amira rode a little ways ahead, and of course her horse was obedient and graceful.

At least the day was pleasant. They wound along beside a burbling stream, heading slightly uphill through grassy gullies beyond the farm. Huffman, the driver, brought up the rear of their little party, perched on one of his draft horses and concentrating on staying upright. He was a poor rider for such an excellent coachman. Katin kept looking back to check on him, hoping he didn’t fall and break something.

They found a quiet meadow beside a crook in the stream. In the shade of a sycamore, they weighted down a blanket with rocks. Everything in the basket tied to Katin’s saddle had been bought at farms, inns, and little markets along the road: cold spicy sausage, fresh crusty bread, a jar of honey and another of strawberry jam, dried apricots and peaches and walnuts.

Huffman loomed, wringing his hands as Amira and Katin lounged on the blanket, nibbling on chunks of apricot. After a while Amira sighed and commanded the coachman to sit down and enjoy himself. Katin didn’t think the man had the capacity to actually express happiness, but he did look grateful to rest on something that wasn’t constantly moving.

Katin watched her lady discreetly as they ate. Amira had avoided Katin’s questions the morning after the Inn of the Western Well. She insisted the fire had just been an accident. Katin wasn’t so sure.

It frustrated her that Amira was so cavalier with what she’d been given. Valmir’s offer of marriage had saved them both from a harder life, but it had been Katin who’d gained the most benefit from it. Amira’s only duty had been to help her mother run the brothel, and Amira would some day have inherited it. She’d never have to lay with men for money, as Katin had. Amira’s insistence that Katin come along as her maid had been the sweetest thing she’d ever heard.

But Amira’s carelessness could ruin them. She was a noblewoman now, and she needed to act the part. Her impulsive girlishness had to be put away. Valmir was not here to protect them; his sudden death had left Amira a widow at the ripe old age of nineteen.

“What a lovely day,” Amira mused, startling Katin. “It does make one appreciate the countryside more, spending so much time as we do in the city.”

“Yes, all this greenery is just fascinating. Does m’lady have some plan in mind, or shall we continue on westward until we’re swimming in the sea?” Amira threw an apricot at her, but Katin batted it aside, sticking her tongue out. Huffman looked appalled that a vala would disrespect her lady so, but she’d known Amira for a long time before the girl became a noble, or even a merchant’s wife.

Amira stood, planting her hands on her hips and taking deep breaths. Finally she strode off toward the stream. Huffman, alarmed, dropped his food to follow her, but Katin stopped him with a hand on his arm. “M’lady is twenty paces off. I believe she can make the trip back unaided.” The coachman stared after Amira, dubious, but finally the tension went out of his legs and he settled back.

Amira watched the stream for a while, holding very still. Katin watched the sunlight glint off her lady’s golden hair, and listened to the leaves fluttering in the branches above. It was easy to forget her troubles here, she had to admit. But then she began to consider the real threats that might appear: wild animals, bandits, sudden storms. She kept glancing at the distant trees, nervous that any sign of movement might herald an attack.

Suddenly Amira’s hand flew to her temple and she staggered. At the same moment, a splash erupted from the stream, and a puff of steam billowed up from it. This time Huffman was up like a shot, long strides taking him to Amira in seconds. Katin was close behind. “Come back and sit, m’lady,” she said over Huffman’s “Are you all right, m’lady?”

Amira nodded, and followed them back to the picnic without a word. She sat down and cast an eye at Katin. “Did you see?”

See? See what? The splash? She glanced back at the stream, which flowed placidly along. “Yes, it’s a very pretty stream,” she offered. What in the world is going on?

Amira ate again, and they passed another hour by the stream before Katin suggested it might be time to return. The sun was drooping down, and it would take a while to reach the farm and find somewhere to sleep. Katin did not relish the prospect of spending the night in a hayloft.

Night had almost fallen before they found another inn, this one much smaller and in worse repair than the Inn of the Western Well. Their travels had brought them halfway to Bridger’s Rush, and Katin hoped Amira would turn them around after this night. She wanted the safety of their manse again, no matter how badly Callaston smelled.

The Smiling Willow’s innkeeper sweated constantly from his rolls of fat, and despite Katin’s attempts to bargain, he claimed he had only one room available, and that one smaller than Katin’s cell in the manse. Amira wearied quickly of their haggling, and she snapped at them until Katin gave up, paid the man, and escorted her lady to the common room.

Amira devoured two large bowls of beef and carrot stew, and all the bread the cook could bring. Katin had never seen her so famished as on this trip. Normally she ate lightly and exercised regularly, always insisting how important it was to keep herself slim. Perhaps it was just the excitement of a trip into the countryside, but Amira had been acting so peculiar the last few days. Even for her.

The meal much improved Amira’s mood, but by the time they got to their room Katin was completely out of sorts. She shut the door and turned to her lady. Amira had only really been a lady for less than a year, and they’d known each other so much longer than that, that in private they treated one another as equals. Usually.

Katin would have to be blunt. Amira was excellent at turning aside conversations to suit her own ends. “Amira, what is the matter with you? You’ve been acting very strange since we left Callaston.”

Amira did not look at her. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, the fire at the other inn. The… the whatever that was, at the stream today. And you’re eating like a horse.” Suddenly a terrible thought seized her. “Amira! Are you pregnant?

Amira’s eyes bulged. “No! Oh, my goodness, no. You know I haven’t been with a man since Valmir.”

“Well… not that I know of… I just…” Katin flinched inwardly. Of course Amira couldn’t be pregnant, why had she said something so stupid?

“When would I have had time? You’re with me practically every moment. And why would I hide that from you, of all people?” But Amira did not seem displeased. On the contrary, she met Katin’s eyes now, smiling. “I have something to show you. But help me undress first.”

Katin did so. Amira shook out her hair and flexed her fingers. “Blow out that candle.” She went to stand by the door as Katin looked at the little candle sitting on the bedside table. She blew it out, though the stand-lamp near the door still cast soft shadows through its frosted glass globe. Amira ignored it, focusing on the candle from across the room. “Watch.”

Katin wondered what Amira could be up to. Perhaps she’s learned how to breathe fire, like that magician we saw last Wintergift.

Amira stared at the candle for a long minute. Then her hand came slowly up, as if to reach for something, but she did not move forward. The candle suddenly flared back alight.

Katin jerked back from it. “What the—” She gulped down a curse. “How did you do that?”

“Blow it out again.” Katin hesitated, but obeyed, and waited a few more seconds as Amira stared intensely at the candle, as if she could light it by sheer force of will. The wick burst into flame again. This time Amira’s hand never left her side.

If she hadn’t known Amira for so many years, she would likely have fled the room screaming. But something held her in check. Trust, perhaps. She swallowed her pride with a dry mouth, and made a silent prayer to the Aspect of Courage. “Tell me what is going on,” she pleaded.

“The headaches,” Amira said, drifting over to sit down beside Katin on the bed. Her eyes looked a little red, and she drooped as if sleepy. “The last few days… I can see the pain, in my head. It appears as a, a little ember, perhaps. A little orange ball of flame in my mind’s eye. But it’s not just my imagination. It moves. I can move it. And when I push…” She flicked her fingers at the candle. “The pain goes away… and that happens.”

Katin understood all the words, but together it made no sense. “You can start fires with your mind?

Amira smirked. “I’m glad you understand.”

Katin groped for something to say. “The headaches… are they getting worse?”

“On the contrary, they’ve been getting better since that first inn. That one was the worst yet. I felt like my head would split open. When you went to get the food, I ended up writhing on the floor…” She stopped and hugged herself for a moment. “That was the worst pain I’d ever felt. Worse than anything.” She took a shuddering breath, and Katin saw a tear fall from one eye. Amira wiped it away quickly. “But since then, they’ve been getting better. And the ember has been getting brighter.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Katin demanded. The bitterness in her voice surprised her, and she bit her tongue to hold back another outburst.

Amira paid it no mind. “It’s only been three days, dear. I’m just getting a handle on this myself.” She leaned over and blew out the candle. Seconds later it burned again. “The ember seems to persist now, and my head barely hurts at all.”

Katin’s gut clenched. This was a disaster. “We have to go back to Callaston. At once. It’s not safe to stay here.”

“We need sleep,” Amira said, yawning. It was barely full dark, out through the windows. “We can decide in the morning what we’ll do next.” She yawned again. “I get so exhausted after doing that a few times.” She curled up on the bed, her head resting against Katin’s hip. Katin wanted to talk to her more, to find out what this madness truly was, but Amira was asleep in seconds, snoring softly.

Katin gently lowered Amira’s head onto a pillow. She paced for a while, thinking. We must keep this hidden. No one can ever know. The prospect of keeping this secret for years or decades felt like a crushing weight. Someone would find out eventually, and what then? They’d lose everything, be outcast, or burned for witches, or, or… She had a vision of an angry mob outside their manse, throwing torches through the windows, and she shuddered.

And Amira wouldn’t make it easy. She’d want to experiment and practice with this power. She would never ignore something this interesting; it would be another adventure to her.

In the morning they found Huffman in the common room eating breakfast. He grumbled politely about the filthy spot in the stable where he’d put down his bedroll, and Amira promised him a room of his own at any further inns. Huffman nodded in gracious surprise, and went out to look after his horses. Katin clenched her jaw. The girl was too free with money, even if she did have a lot of it.

Breakfast this morning was oily sausage and fried potatoes. Amira stared down at them, concentrating. “M’lady, what are you doing?” Katin muttered.

Amira shushed her. “I fancy blackened sausage,” she said with a glint in her eye.

“Amira, no—” There was a pop and Katin felt a wave of heat on her face. One side of the sausage turned black instantly, but then the pool of oil it sat in caught fire. Amira yelped and lurched backward, toppling over in her chair and crashing to the floor. The common room’s only other diner twisted around in his chair to look, bushy black eyebrows raised in surprise. Katin shouted at him, “Help! Fire!”

The man darted across the room, bringing a cloth napkin. He smothered the flames, splashing oil everywhere and knocking sausage onto the floor, but the fire went out quickly. The cook burst out of the kitchen, waving her spoon and demanding to know what had happened.

Katin came to Amira’s side, helping her up. There were no candles or lamps lit in here, as it was morning. “There must have been a hot ember in the oil,” she said quickly. The cook stared, incredulous, but Katin made noises about her lady needing to recover and ushered Amira out at once. Amira was still blinking, confused, and let herself be pulled along.

Katin slammed the door to their room. “What in the black spirits is wrong with you?” She fought to keep from shouting, but it was a near thing. “Can’t you go one day without doing something so… so reckless?”

“I’m sorry,” Amira snapped. “I had to. Using it makes the pain go away.”

“I thought you said there was hardly any more pain!”

“I lied!” Amira shouted. “It’s getting better, I swear, but it still hurts. I didn’t want you to worry any more than you had to.”

“I have to do all the worrying, because you never do,” Katin bit out. “Amira, don’t you realize how dangerous this is? If someone finds out about this… You have to talk to me. We have to work together, or the world will drag us down into the muck again.”

“I was never in the muck,” Amira sniffed at her.

Katin turned away and pounded a fist on the wall to keep herself from slapping Amira instead. She said nothing, trying to let her anger ebb.

After a minute, she heard Amira sigh behind her. “I’m sorry, Katin. I just… I forget that I’m not really a lady.”

“You are a lady,” Katin countered, turning to face her. “By law and custom.”

“But I was never born to it. I never learned how.”

“Well you’ve fooled all the other nobles,” Katin said. “This… this power you have. You have to be careful. We have to be careful. Promise me you won’t do anything that stupid again.”

“I’m not stupid,” Amira whispered at her, eyes downcast.

“Promise me,” Katin insisted. When Amira nodded slightly, Katin went on. “And promise me we’ll go back to Callaston. Today. Not tomorrow, not after another picnic in the woods or another inn almost burned down.” Amira nodded again, and sat down on the bed, seeming to draw into herself.

Katin hated to browbeat her closest friend, but she had no choice. Amira would never learn caution otherwise, and Katin could not watch her every second.

She fetched her coin purse and went back to the common room. A young boy kneeled on the floor, scrubbing at it where bits of flaming sausage had left char marks, as the cook watched over him. Katin apologized for her lady’s clumsiness and offered a few pieces of silver for their trouble.

The cook accepted them. “You’d best be gone soonest,” she said irritably.

Huffman had them on the road within an hour. Katin directed him east, back toward Callaston, as Amira sat quietly in the coach, hands folded on her lap.

They rolled through the countryside in silence. Amira looked out the window from time to time, but mostly sat studying her hands. Katin had felt righteous and commanding when they left the inn, but those feelings had faded. Now she just felt acid climbing her throat.

A wall of storm clouds passed by them to the south. Cold wind curled in through the windows, but they were spared rain. They ate in the coach as it bumped along, and in the late afternoon came back through a village they’d stopped at the day before. When Amira spoke, she startled Katin out of a drowsy reverie.

“I want to stop there.” She pointed at a little temple by the side of the road, isolated from the other buildings. “To pray.”

Katin reflexively wanted to deny her, but instead she said, “Fine. I’ll go in with you.”

If Amira was surprised, she didn’t show it. Katin had no use for the Niderium, not after a childhood spent praying for salvation that would never come. Only luck and her own hard work had saved her from the perils of Cleavesport’s streets. Where had the Caretaker been, all those years? She never saw the Aspect of Joy, or Ardor, or Sacrifice. Her world was nothing but Terror and Despair, and her own Courage. She would not credit the Caretaker with that.

But she was not going to let Amira out of her sight until the girl learned to restrain herself. Not that she could stop Amira from using this strange power of hers, but maybe Katin’s presence would remind Amira to be more careful.

The temple’s long entryway led past the usual altars to the sacred circle beyond. Her lady knelt down at the altar of Despair, clasping her hands on the edge of the stone, almost touching the little statue of the mouse. Katin stood back a ways, watching. There was no one else present, not even the steward. He was probably in the privy.

Katin listened for a while as Amira whispered to herself. She probably chose Despair to make me feel bad, Katin groused. I’d pray if there was an Aspect of Slapping Sense into People.

The steward appeared a few minutes later, bowing when he saw them but otherwise leaving them undisturbed, much to Katin’s relief. She’d sought help from Niderines when she was a child, but the priests never had more to offer than comforting words and prayers. How were prayers supposed to feed an empty belly?

Eventually Amira stood up, wiping her eyes. They were red, Katin saw, but now she had a look of determination and marched straight out the door. Amira said nary a word for the rest of the day’s ride, but her dejection had vanished, and she stared clear-eyed out the window as the coach rolled along.

They reached Callaston two days later. Amira’s mood had thawed a bit by then, and Katin was able to make some conversation with her, for which she felt grateful. In the silence Katin had started to feel an unbearable loneliness.

The house servants all fussed over Amira from the instant she stepped out of the coach. Katin let them, keeping her distance. Amira was her closest friend, but she was becoming something else as well. Something disquieting.

She helped Amira settle in, then went over the letters that had arrived in their absence. A few dinner invitations, and several from gentlemen who wished to accompany Amira to the royal ball. She took them to Amira, who flipped through them. “Ugh. No. No. Oh, here’s Count Vondulian again. I’m surprised that old prune wasn’t camped on the doorstep when we arrived. Will he never give up?”

“Some men cherish the chase,” Katin said.

They had not been home an hour when Countess Besiana Tarian’s vala showed up with an invitation to luncheon the next day.

“The woman pounces the moment I return,” Amira said.

“You’ve put her off long enough, m’lady. It won’t do to make enemies of the neighbors.”

Amira sighed. “Fine. One more tedious introduction won’t kill me. Let’s meet this son of hers.”


Liam tried not to wince as Dardan repeatedly stumbled over his own words. The young lord had made half a dozen sallies at describing Hedenham County to this Lady Amira, and each time, he said the wrong word, or got caught up in irrelevant details, or simply trailed off awkwardly. Liam had seen Dardan tongue-tied with a pretty girl before, but this was agonizing.

“They seem to be getting along,” Liam murmured politely, leaning against the wall of the Tarians’ sitting room. Lady Amira’s vala hummed dubiously and did not return his glance. She was quite focused, this Katin Berisha, closely watching both Dardan and Amira.

Luncheon had been served out in the Tarians’ garden, a fine meal of sautéed greens, fresh-baked rosemary bread, grilled pheasant, mushroom bisque, and herb-encrusted pork loin. Liam and Katin had, for a wonder, been invited to join the nobles at the table. The countess no doubt wanted to ensure that even Amira’s vala would approve of the Tarians. After luncheon, the party had retreated inside so that the eligible lord and lady might converse and get to know one another better. Protocol did not demand Liam’s attendance here, but he was not about to miss his master’s first meet with a prospective wife. Katin clearly shared his interest, which spoke well of her. Any vala who would leave her lady’s side in such a situation was no vala worth having.

At least out in the garden, Dardan had not had to speak much. Besiana had been happy to blather while everyone else ate. But now it was Dardan’s turn, and he was fumbling it badly.

Liam could quite understand. Amira was even more beautiful than Besiana had insisted. Liam had stared at her for a moment when she came into their foyer, then made himself look away, feigning indifference. Dardan, however, had gaped at her for several seconds before remembering himself and bowing over the lady’s hand. Later, when Besiana and Amira were distracted with chattering, Dardan had caught Liam’s eye with an expression of utter disbelief. Amira, even in her demure, high-necked powder blue dress, drew every eye. Even disagreeable old Bertram’s jaw had gone slack when he saw her.

But it was Amira’s vala who drew Liam’s eye. Katin was young and slim, and pretty, though in a much more conventional way than her lady. Her hair was a dull brown, and her smiles were tight and never reached her eyes. She reminded Liam of a doe, lonely in the woods and fearing danger behind every tree. He silently cursed his distractedness and tried to focus on the nobles.

Besiana sat across from the young couple, eyes twinkling. Liam could tell she was fighting to keep her mouth shut. As well she did; the whole point was to observe Amira and her son, to begin to gauge whether they could make a suitable couple. Liam had watched one such meet several months ago, between Dardan and a baron’s daughter, that had ended with them arguing angrily with one another. Dardan had been horribly embarrassed, but Count Asmus (and, less openly, Liam) had found it highly amusing and cracked jokes about it the rest of the day.

Now Liam had only pity, and hoped someone would put an end to this soon. Amira, for her part, did not seem openly repulsed by Dardan’s verbal ineptitude. She knew just how to flatter Dardan, responding with subtle compliments on his skills at riding, hunting, leadership. After a while Liam began to wonder if she was trying to fluster him on purpose.

Besiana had prepared them with what she had learned about Amira. The lady had married Valmir Estaile, a wealthy merchant, only a little more than a year earlier. He’d found her in some city out to the west, Bridger’s Rush or Cleavesport or somewhere; it was unclear. She had apparently been a merchant’s daughter. A month after returning to Callaston, King Viktor had granted Valmir peerage, raising him to the lowest level of the nobility. No lands, just a title, but still, any man would find it a great honor. Amira, as his wife, automatically became a noble as well. The reason for the peerage was also unclear, though Besiana had heard rumors of “special services” rendered to the crown, whatever that meant.

Then Valmir had died abruptly this winter past, after a short illness. Even though he’d been Amira’s senior by a good fifteen years, he’d had no children anyone knew of, not with Amira or any other woman, and so by law all his holdings passed to her.

From unwed common girl to wealthy lady of the realm in just over a year… She was either extraordinarily lucky, or exceedingly devious. Liam was inclined to be a little suspicious based on the story alone, but now that he’d met her, he could hardly believe her capable of such treachery.

After some time, Amira pleaded exhaustion. “I did return from my trip only yesterday,” she explained, “and I’m afraid my reserves are quite drained.” When she stood, Dardan practically leapt to his feet to take her hand. Liam came to his master’s side, and Katin to her lady’s.

Dardan’s mouth worked for a moment. “My lady, I have had a great pleasure—that is, it has been my pleasure—a pleasure to meet you. I, um…” He trailed off, casting about as if someone might step in and save him.

Besiana coughed a little. “The ball…”

“Mother,” Dardan muttered.

“Indeed?” Amira asked, looking amused.

Liam could not help himself. “I believe m’lord said he meant to ask m’lady something.”

Dardan gulped. He was trapped and he knew it. Liam could barely contain his glee. “My lady Amira… would you—would you consider attending the ball? With you? I mean—the royal summer ball, with me?”

A sheen of sweat glistened on the young lord’s forehead. That he had asked the question was a miracle in itself; he didn’t even want to go to the ball, the fool. Besiana looked pleased as punch.

“Well,” Amira said, glancing at the countess for a moment before returning her attention to Dardan. “As you were so courageous in asking, how could I say no?”

“What?” Katin blurted out, stunned.

“Really?” Besiana said, equally surprised. “I mean… really, how delightful!” She clapped her hands.

Dardan’s jaw simply hung open. After a few seconds he blinked a few times. “Um… thank you?”

“Not at all,” Amira said. “This will be my first time at the ball. I’m sure you’ll be able to show me everything.” She bowed to the countess and swept out of the room. Katin followed close behind, glowering at everyone.

Liam was going to have to get Dardan very drunk tonight.

“That was a cruel trick,” Dardan said as he held his arms out. The wizened little tailor scampered from one side to the other, measuring the cut of Dardan’s half-finished new suit and marking adjustments here and there.

“Woe betide m’lord, he who must attend the greatest feast in the kingdom with the most beautiful woman in the realm.” Liam snorted.

“You and my mother planned that, didn’t you?”

“I wish I could claim that level of foresight, m’lord, but alas, it was merely a fortunate coincidence.” Dardan sighed and hefted his arms again as the tailor prodded him and asked him if he could kindly hold still for five seconds at a time. Dardan certainly could have summoned the tailor to the manse, but he’d wanted to get away from his mother for a while and had insisted they go out into the city.

The sun was nearly set when they emerged from the tailor’s shop. Callaston’s tall streetside oil lamps had already been lit. “What say we go for a walk, m’lord?” Liam suggested.

“Hm? Yes, of course.” He let Liam lead the way, paying no attention to their path. Liam made a beeline for the the nearest malthouse: Tarrington’s, catering to lords and wealthy merchants, situated as it was in this upscale part of Callaston.

The room was somehow both well-lit and musty, sunlight slanting in through the windows to glint off motes in the air. Three men, two with flutes and one with a hand drum, sat on a platform at the side of the room, piping and pounding merrily. Liam found an open booth and sent a serving boy to fetch ale and fried onions. Dardan slid into the booth, looking doubtful.

Liam felt just the opposite. Going into a malthouse energized him like nothing else. Ale was all well and good, and he loved the traditional snack of battered and fried pearl onions as much as the next Garovan, but the real allure was in the freedom to speak. By tradition, men left their titles at the door, and said what they willed. Well, as much as they dared to. Everyone knew stories of some ale-soaked valo who had said the wrong thing to a duke, and later regretted it.

It was also the best place to talk about women, since they were customarily banned from malthouses. In Callaston, at least, and most towns Liam had been to. He waited until he’d had his first sip of ale, then started in. “All right, you’ve spent half the day moping about. Stop it before I knock your hat off. You’ll be with the prettiest girl at the ball! You should be dancing with joy, though I suppose I’ve been your valo long enough to know you better than that.”

Dardan glanced up. “What are you on about?”

Liam shoved the bowl of onions at Dardan hard enough that the younger man had to catch it before it tipped into his lap. “I’ve seen moths less dazzled by a torch than you were by that girl.”

Dardan snorted, pushing the onions back. “So what? She’s a pretty girl. We’ve got them in Hedenham too, you know.”

“Your eyes nearly fell out of your head. Don’t deny it. I was watching you the whole time.”

“Can’t a man be charmed?” Dardan finally took a gulp of ale.

“Charmed? Is that what it was?” Liam popped a bit of fried onion into his mouth. “Tell me one thing, anything, that you learned about her today, that you didn’t already know.”

Dardan paused. “Uh. Well, there was… uh… she…” He trailed off. “Oh, shut up.”

Liam laughed. “See? You were hooked the moment she walked in the door. I’ll admit, she might be the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, but it’s not my legacy that’s on the line here.”

“Yes, well, you got to stand over by the wall, with her vala. Who was much less distracting. See? I did notice something besides the lady.” This time he took a deeper drink. “You don’t think there’s anything to worry about, do you?”

“About what?”

“That she told us so little of herself. I mean, mother already gave us the important details, but…”

Liam shrugged as he crunched on another onion. “Some girls don’t talk much of themselves. Well, a few girls. Well, before today, I would have said there might be one somewhere. Look, unless there’s something in particular you’re concerned about, have a drink and thank your good fortune. You’ll see her again, no doubt. The countess will want you to meet her at least once more before the ball.”

“By all means, let’s repeat today’s disaster.”

“You got her to say yes. Hardly a disaster.”

“I meant all that came before it. By the Caretaker, I was nervous.”

“Look, you don’t have to meet with ladies if you don’t want to. You are a grown man.”

“Try telling that to my mother.”

“Next time you should tell your mother to go stuff herself.”

Dardan snorted. “She’s determined to get me married off. She’s already acting as if I’m deep into a proper courtship.”

“Make a good impression on the lady, and maybe you will be.”

Dardan just grumbled at that, and took a drink. Clearly he was going to need several more cups of ale. Liam signalled to the serving boy.

With their second round in hand, Liam raised his cup. “To limited responsibility.”

“To the Aspect of Courage,” Dardan said.

“Don’t go all devout on me, Dard,” Liam chortled. They clinked their cups together and drank.

Evening turned to night as they drank through more rounds and plowed through baskets of onions. Lamps were lit, the crowd grew, and Liam glanced up to see a familiar face coming toward him. “Gareth!”

The stocky, red-haired man leaned on their table, carrying a basket of fried onions. “Liam Howard, you young bastard,” he crowed in a thick voice. His bulbous nose shone red from too many cups of ale. That was typical for Gareth Ainsley, valo to Lord Skender Faroa. Usually a valo helped his drunken master back home after a night at the malthouse, but with Gareth and Skender it was usually the reverse.

“Serving boy now, eh?” Liam cracked, eyeing the basket. “Lord Skender get tired of your nose?”

“He got tired of your sister first,” Gareth shot back with a grin. His eyes went to Liam’s boothmate. “Dardan, ho there.” Dardan mumbled a greeting around a mouthful of onions. “Come and join us?” Gareth asked.

“Don’t mind if we do,” Liam said, sliding out of the booth. Dardan, surprisingly, followed without objection.

“What’s with him? Never seen a lord look so down,” Gareth said as they wove through the crowd.

“Dardan’s got himself a date for the ball. He senses wedding bells in his future, whether he likes it or not.”

“Poor man,” said Gareth.

Lord Skender Faroa, heir to the Dukedom of Blackwall, sat alone in another booth. He had long dark hair pulled into a queue, and black eyes with irises so wide the whites were almost invisible. His nose was sharp and his smile always grim. Liam found him unsettling, but he thought the company would be good for Dardan.

At the next table sat two black-coated men, drinking only water. Their eyes scanned the crowd warily. This duke’s son isn’t foolish enough to go unprotected, even in the nice part of town.

“Good evening, gents,” Skender said, raising his ale.

“Skender,” Liam said, sliding in. “How’s things up north?”

“Cold.” He smiled thinly. His eyes fixed on Dardan. “Why so glum?”

“Lord’s in love,” Gareth snorted as he shared the onions around.

“Is that so,” Skender said, his smile deepening slightly. “Do tell.”

Dardan shrugged. “Hardly. The widow who lives next door,” he said. “I’m escorting her to the summer ball.”

“Are there so few eligible maidens that one must chase old women now?” Skender took the tiniest sip of his own ale.

“She’s no crone,” Liam put in loudly. “She’s of an age with m’lord. Just unlucky to be widowed so young.” He gulped his ale. “Anyway, what of you? If you’ve got a girl half so beautiful to bring to the ball, I’ll eat this table.”

Skender raised up his left hand. A golden band glittering with iridescent onyx stones encircled his ring finger. “My betrothed, sadly, remains in Blackwall.”

Liam coughed on his ale. “The likes of you, getting married. Gareth! I thought a valo was supposed to protect his lord.”

“Knives, plots, poisons, that’s easy. Protecting a man from himself, that’s where it gets tricky.” The red-haired valo chuckled, but the eye he cast toward Skender was wary.

“So, Dardan,” Skender said. “No doubt you’ve heard about the regiments his majesty dispatched to the northern passes.”

“Of course.”

“Where does your house stand on the Vaslander threat?”

Liam glared at Gareth. “Well no wonder.”

Gareth at least had the good sense to look embarrassed. “Just doin’ as I’m told.”

Dardan tapped a finger on his mug. “You know as well as I do what our position has to be. What I’d like to know is why your father’s so bent on starting a war.”

Skender’s eyes narrowed a little. “A fair question.” He sipped at his ale again. The cup was still nearly full. Either he can’t hold his liquor… or he prefers to be the only one sober. It occurred to Liam that there were benefits to being the last man standing.

Skender went on. “I know how you love to study history, Dardan, so you’re well aware of how much damage the Vaslanders did to Blackwall in the last war.”

Dardan nodded. “I’d think Duke Terilin would want to prevent war, not engage it.”

“Any wise man would, but, ah… Do you know how my mother died?”

Gareth was holding very still now, staring down at the table. Liam thought he could see the man biting his tongue.

Dardan shook his head. “I only knew she’d died in the war, along with… others.”

Skender took another tiny sip of ale, as casually as anything. “Father moved us all to the south of the dukedom when the Vaslanders invaded. My mother, my sisters, and I were all taken to an old castle in the southern hills, and then again south to Gravensford when the Vaslanders came closer.”

“Gravensford? Doesn’t the royal family have an estate there?” Liam asked.

“The very same,” Skender said. “Many nobles of Blackwall were housed there during the war. My mother, however, felt as strongly about the defense of Blackwall as my father did, and refused to stay long. She left us children in the care of others, and returned north to help my father.” His smooth tone never changed, as if he were recounting a day at the shops on King’s Street. “By then, we had pushed the Vaslanders back north a ways, and reclaimed the keep at Iceford. Mother saw to the defense and the wounded there, while father led sorties north, to weed out pockets of Vaslanders who still held some towns and villages.” His black eyes gleamed in the candlelight, and he paused for a moment. “He returned to find Iceford under attack. Forces spread too thin had let a band of Vaslanders slip through and reach the castle. Somehow they gained entry, and…” Here he paused, his voice showing a little strain for the first time. “Few in the castle survived. Father found my mother in the kitchens. She was still warm.” He sipped at his ale again and fell quiet.

No one else spoke, either. Gareth no doubt knew this story already, which explained his grim expression. Liam felt sick.

“So you see,” Skender went on after a minute, “my father has quite enough reason to hate Vaslanders, and to want them all dead. He will not risk them reaching his borders again. I find myself compelled to agree.” He smiled again. “But this is such a sad topic. Tell me more of this lady of yours,” he suggested.

Everyone seemed relieved to change the subject. Dardan spilled everything he knew about Amira, which still wasn’t much. Liam found it interesting that the summer ball and the prospect of courtship seemed to unsettle Dardan, but when he spoke about Amira herself, his face lit up.

“And what about your betrothed?” Liam asked Skender, once Dardan had finished. “She couldn’t come down for the ball?”

“She preferred to stay in Blackwall,” Skender said, but for once Liam thought he detected a hint of irritation in his reply. But so what? Men could talk freely here. Liam took another gulp of ale.

“Well at least tell us something about her,” Liam insisted, wiping his mouth. “Dardan told you all about his lady.”

Skender pursed his lips. “She’s the daughter of Count Ebersbach. A lovely girl.”

Liam waited. “And?”

“And that is all I wish to say about her.”

Liam snorted. Who did Skender think he was? Liam was already flush from all the ale, and he could feel the heat in his cheeks. “Come on, man, Dardan told you everything he knows about Amira.”

Skender’s thin smile disappeared completely. “You forget yourself, valo.”

A palpable chill rose around the table. Gareth, still barely conscious, started in with a drinking song, and Dardan joined in quickly. Liam and Skender had locked eyes, but Liam looked away first. He clenched his hand around the table leg to keep himself from smashing in Skender’s face.

He cut himself off about then, to regain some of his wits before they had to stumble home. Several other nobles Dardan or Skender knew stopped by to chat, as Dardan guzzled another three mugs of ale and Liam’s fury slowly cooled. How had Skender gotten him so enraged?

When they made to leave, Gareth was snoring face down in a bowl of onions. Skender still had half his first mug left, and nodded slightly as Liam put an arm under Dardan and half-dragged him from the malthouse. Liam was glad to leave those dead black eyes behind.

They stumbled along through the dark, from one pool of lamplight to the next. “Skender wa’n’t too happy wit’ us, I thin’,” Dardan slurred.

“That was a right awful story he told, m’lord,” Liam agreed, slipping back into valo formality. He had to take care of his master; that would keep his mind off Skender.

“Urgh,” Dardan said, and vomited on the street. Liam danced aside just fast enough to avoid the splash. His lord wiped some spittle away with a sleeve and leaned up against the darkened window of a jeweller’s. “Too much ale,” he groaned.

“Not enough onions,” Liam joked lightly. “They soak up the ale.”

Dardan laughed. It was hard to tell in the dark, but Liam thought the night out had served his master well.

“We should get you home, m’lord. You need some proper food.” All they’d had since luncheon was ale and onions. Besiana would be irritated they’d missed dinner. No, wait. She’ll be preoccupied with preparing for the ball. She might let them alone for once.

Liam kept his eyes open as they went home. Even in the affluent, well-lit streets of northern Callaston, nobles still got robbed or stabbed from time to time, but they made it to the manse without further incident. Bertram brought out a tray with broth and baked carrots for Dardan and demanded that he eat. The young lord choked down a few bites before begging off and going upstairs to his rooms. Liam helped him wash and dress for bed. Dardan was already half-asleep when his face hit the pillow.

Liam hoped he’d be able to fall asleep just as easily, but once he was in his own chamber, he felt the rage creeping back upon him. Skender, that arrogant bastard. Where did he get off acting like that in a malthouse? If the man wasn’t going to play fair—or at least get drunk—then what in the black spirits was he doing in the place?

Liam tried to calm himself down, but he couldn’t. He wrapped his fist in his pillow and slammed it into his mattress a dozen, two dozen times. Only when his arm began to grow sore from the exertion did he collapse onto the floor, breathing hard and curling himself into a ball to keep from lashing out.

He’d let it happen again. When was this going to stop? One of these days he was going to lose control in public, and do something he knew he’d regret. He tried to keep his distance, not let people provoke him.

His father’s face flashed before him. Liam crawled onto the bed and drank a sip of water from the glass on his bedside table. He didn’t want to think about his father. He wanted no part of the man, and yet he was his father’s son, wasn’t he?

The rage had drained, leaving a morose numbness behind. He had little to look forward to now; the ball was only a few days away, and Countess Besiana would keep Dardan close. Liam would spend most of his time standing around, watching nobles nattering on. There’d be no more evenings at the malthouse for him, not for a while. That might be a good thing, if the likes of Skender Faroa’s going to be hanging about.

He wondered when Dardan would see Amira next. Everyone would be busy the day before the ball with last-minute preparations and adjustments, but perhaps the day before that, another meet could be arranged. Dardan and Amira would need to spend much more time together before an offer of marriage could even be considered. Liam wondered who they’d present the offer to; he’d heard of no male relatives, no father or uncle or brother or cousin. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Any marriage offer’s a long ways off. For all you know, Amira will change her mind at the last minute and skip the ball altogether.

Instead he thought about going down to the servants’ quarters to see if any of the girls were still awake. Maybe Paula or Tria would be up for a little roll in the hay. His thoughts drifted, and he found himself thinking about Katin instead. Perhaps the offer of marriage could go to Katin. Yes, Katin would do nicely…

Liam realized he was smiling dreamily at the wall, and scolded himself. Don’t go mooning, idiot. You’re twenty-six, you should be past that sort of thing by now. And you’ve only met the girl once. Grumpily he turned over and planted his face into the pillow.

He fell asleep hoping to dream of Katin, but instead found himself fleeing through a forest from giant, angry onions who all had the smirking face of Skender Faroa.


Amira’s stomach fluttered as she stood rigidly in her gown, just out of sight at the top of the stairs. Everything was arranged perfectly: her hair, the dress, her powdered face, and most importantly, her sense that this night would be extraordinary.

Katin paced on the landing, stopping every so often to glare down past the iron banister. Her own dress was fine enough, though of course simple when compared to her lady’s. Katin claimed the absurdly large bustle on her dress would keep menfolk from venturing too close to her rear. The thought made Amira giggle.

Katin jerked to a halt and stared at her. “Don’t ruin your appearance,” she snapped. “Lord Tarian will be here any moment.”

“Oh, hush,” Amira said, still amused. “Not a hair will be out of place, I assure you.”

“I still can’t believe you actually accepted.”

Amira shrugged as much as she was able, confined as she was in the gown. “It put an end to Count Vondulian and the like pestering me. And besides, it was so pitiful watching Lord Tarian all flustered and falling over himself. I couldn’t help it. He’s hardly an ogre, anyway.”

Katin sighed and muttered something about complications.

Amira ignored it and thought over her own appearance again. True to the little dressmaker’s word, Amira’s gown had been ready three days prior to the ball. She’d created a silk in shimmering dark green that glinted wherever the light hit it. A long vee of powdery gray silk rose from the hem in front, culminating in a low curve under the swell of her breasts. They only felt slightly squished by the built-in corset. Her décolletage was bare except for a gold cat’s-cradle necklace Katin had found somewhere, but lace climbed the sides of the neckline, surging into a froth at each shoulder.

A golden net dotted with emeralds lay woven into her honey-blonde hair, which had taken forever to shape and tease properly. Tendrils of hair snaked down past the emerald pendants hanging from her ears. White silk gloves completed the ensemble. Her hands already sweated within them, but it would be crude to remove them before arriving at the ball.

Now she waited, excitement pounding at her heart. She looked forward to Lord Tarian’s reaction when he saw her. With luck, he’d be even more astonished than the first time they met.

They’d gotten to meet a second time, two days ago, for another walk in the garden behind the Tarians’ manse. Besiana had tried to keep her distance, but while Amira and Dardan chatted, the countess had crept closer and closer, trying to overhear without being imposing. Eventually Dardan had snapped “Mother!” and after that she had finally left them alone. At least that time, Dardan had managed to string a few coherent sentences together.

Katin continued pacing. Amira sighed at her. “You’ll wear a hole in the floor and fall atop Fortino in the kitchen if you keep on like that. What are you so worried about? You’ll be with me the whole time.”

Katin shook her head, causing her twin looping braids to swing back and forth. “This is not some simple dinner party, Ami—m’lady. The whole of Callaston’s nobility will be there. The king will be there. You must be careful.”

“I promise not to disrobe in front of everyone,” Amira said.

Katin made a moue at her. “I’m more concerned you’ll burn down the palace.”

Amira pursed her lips. Did Katin have to try to ruin everything? Of course Amira wouldn’t use her ember at the ball. Her headaches had completely vanished, and the warm little glow in her mind’s eye seemed content to sit and pulse for hours, even if she didn’t use it. She’d practiced as much as she could since her return to the city, but with all the preparations for the ball, she just hadn’t had much time.

Or much privacy. Not that her servants intruded unduly, but Amira had never realized just how much they were underfoot until she wanted time to herself. It would seem suspicious if she banished them from her presence, so she’d had to make do with late-night experimentation in her bedchamber, the curtains drawn, using a little candle on her night table. Blow it out, push the ember into it until it flared alight, blow it out again. When she pushed the ember out, she could see it as a tiny silver bead, floating in the air, that she could command to move this way or that. Katin couldn’t see the bead.

Amira heard quick footsteps down below. “He’s here, m’lady!” one of her maids called out—Sara, it sounded like. Amira couldn’t see anything from where she stood. Her stomach fluttered again.

Katin gestured impatiently. “Get on with it.”

Amira heard the door swing open. “Good evening, m’lord,” Sara squeaked. “Don’t you look dashing!”

“Thank you,” came Dardan’s voice. “Is Lady Amira…?”

“She’ll be down in a few moments, m’lord,” Sara said.

Katin caught Amira’s eye. Amira held her hand up, and Katin waited, frowning. Mustn’t seem too eager. After several heartbeats, she nodded at Katin, who then looked down over the banister. “Lord Tarian,” the vala called down. “May I present Lady Amira Estaile.”

Amira took a deep breath and stepped forward. She’d been holding still so long, her feet had half fallen asleep, but she managed to avoid stumbling. She came out onto the landing and halted at the top of the stairs.

Lord Dardan Tarian stood below, with his valo Liam lurking behind him. Dardan’s expression told all. His jaw dropped even further this time, though he managed to catch himself sooner, and swept off his hat as he bowed deeply. “My lady. You look extraordinary.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Amira said. “You, as well. ‘Dashing’ is the word, I believe.” Sara blushed to hear her own words out of Amira’s mouth.

Well, the girl was right. Black silk trousers, black longtail jacket, over a starched white shirt that buttoned halfway up and split into a vee of gray silk that matched hers in color and shape, if not in size. We match? How did—ah, Besiana, so clever. Dardan’s mother had no doubt conspired with the dressmaker and Dardan’s tailor. A silk cravat that matched the emerald of Amira’s dress was stuffed into the top of Dardan’s shirt. A northern mastiff, the sigil of House Tarian, was picked out in silver thread on the cravat. Dardan looked every inch a proper lord, and yet at the same time so young, clutching his hat. I wonder if I seem so young.

She made a quick prayer to the Aspect of Courage and started down the stairs. Katin appeared at her elbow, ready to make a grab if Amira tripped, but she made the descent without incident.

Dardan reached up and took her hand, bowing over it and boldly planting a quick kiss on her glove. “The coach is waiting without, my lady. If you are ready?” Dardan’s smile held, but it could not hide his nervousness.

Sara brought forth a fringed green evening shawl, but Dardan said, “If I may,” and took it from her, gently draping it around Amira’s shoulders. The party trooped outside into the twilight.

Compared to Huffman’s simple coach, the one that sat outside was a gaudy colossus. It was easily twice as long; painted in crimson and gold, the seats padded with crimson silk pillows, and drawn by a team of four white horses with silver plumes fastened to their foreheads. Even the wheels were gilded. The driver, an old white-haired man with gnarled fingers, wore a crisp red coat and white breeches. Clearly the Tarians had spared no expense for the trip to the ball.

In moments they were en route. The coach even rode over the cobblestones more gently than Huffman’s had. Amira realized belatedly that Countess Besiana must have taken a separate coach. Thank Sacrifice.

Dardan made an effort at small talk as they rode. So far he had been pleasant enough company; that is, when he managed to actually get some words out. He apologized in advance for his poor skill at dancing. Even beneath his nervousness, Amira could see that he was full of himself, as all young men were, and possessed of some wit and charm. He was not particularly handsome, but not repulsive either. She’d rejected prettier men. So why hadn’t she rejected him?

Her stomach simply would not sit still. It was the ball that had her so excited, not Dardan. The royal ball marking the first day of summer was the social highlight of the whole year, and every noble in Garova was invited. Along with, so the stories went, entertainments of all kinds: jugglers, singers, dancers, magicians, tricksters, menageries from far-off lands, and more. Not to mention the food, a panoply of dishes from a dozen nations, lined up on silk-draped serving tables a hundred feet long.

Dardan was recounting a fire-breather he’d seen at a previous ball, when Liam interrupted. “We’ve arrived, m’lord.”

Huge mirrored stand-lamps stood in the Great Square before the palace, casting an amber glow up the wall. Long scarlet banners patterned with golden flames had been hung down from the battlements. The tremendous iron gate of the palace Elibarran stood wide open, a line of coaches creeping through it.

“A line,” Dardan grumbled. “I hate waiting.”

“M’lord hates waiting,” Liam agreed. Dardan shifted in his seat, accidentally elbowing Liam in the ribs. Liam chuckled quietly. Amira watched, amused. They get along well. That is a good sign.

The coach trundled forward, stopped, moved again. After a few minutes they finally got through the gate and into the coachyard. Amira could see a long red carpet that led away through a colonnade. Countess Besiana had tried to explain the layout of the palace to her, but it had been a futile effort. Maybe if she had a map…

She could see nobles proceeding up the carpet, some arm in arm, others holding hands in the formal manner, their valai trailing along. Amira’s pulse quickened as their turn to disembark approached.

Finally the coach rolled to a stop, and a liveried footman opened the door, revealing a set of permanent stone steps, the red carpet snaking right up them to the top. Wonderful. More stairs. Dardan gave her a hand down, at least.

Faint music drifted to her ears, and she smelled something warm and rich and sweet and tangy all confused together. Her stomach growled, but thankfully no one seemed to hear it. She’d been too busy all afternoon to eat.

The footman, dressed in the royal purple and blue of House Relindos, bowed crisply before Dardan, who gave him their names. The footman gestured up the carpet. “M’lord, m’lady, please follow me.”

They passed through through the colonnade and under another iron portcullis. Beyond it lay the foreyard, a broad, simple garden decorated along its edges with yet more slender oil lamps burning bright. The red carpet continued through the center of the garden, through another archway and out of sight. But the foreyard was already packed with people, all of them servants by their look. Several musicians plucked at strings in one corner of the yard.

The footman paused. “M’lord, m’lady, your valai may take their pleasure here.”

Amira started. Had Besiana mentioned this? Katin looked alarmed. “But what if m’lady needs me?” she said.

The footman raised an eyebrow. “There will be servants at the ball to meet your lady’s every need.”

Amira felt awful that Katin wouldn’t get to see the ball, but there was nothing for it. “I’ll be fine, dear,” she said, pasting on a smile. Katin’s glanced at Amira’s forehead for a moment. “I’ll be fine,” Amira repeated firmly.

The footman cleared his throat a little and took a tentative step into the foreyard. “M’lady, if you would…” His eyes flicked toward another couple rapidly approaching behind them.

Katin hesitated another moment, then pursed her lips and turned to go. She stopped short to find Liam holding his arm out for her. Katin stared at it like it was a viper, but then placed her hand on it, and rigidly followed him into the crowd of valai.

The footman led Amira and Dardan onward. They passed through a hall strung with tapestries, and another with windows overlooking the foreyard, and on and on, until finally they came to a doorway framed by thick velvet curtains. As they approached it, the sounds of revelry grew, along with Amira’s excitement.

The royal herald waited there, an old man with thinning gray hair and a deeply lined face. Beyond him, Amira glimpsed what must be the grand ballroom. Her pulse pounded.

The footman whispered to the herald, then took Dardan’s hat and Amira’s shawl and strode quickly back the way they’d come.

The herald turned to face the room beyond. “Lord Dardan Tarian of Hedenham, and Lady Amira Estaile.” His voice cut through the noise, and Amira stepped into a dream.

Her entire manse and gardens could easily have fit inside the ballroom. The whole room shone gold, with gilded marble columns every ten feet along the edge. A forest of crystal chandeliers hung above, hundreds of candles banishing all shadows. A balcony encircled the upper part of the room, with string quartets perched at either end. The hubbub was so loud that Amira could hardly hear what they were playing.

Nobles stood clustered in small groups around the perimeter. The middle was given over to dancing, and a few couples were so engaged at the moment. The ball had only just begun; the formal dances would come later, and Amira would not miss that for the world, not even if Dardan had nine left feet.

Those closest to the entryway turned to watch Amira and Dardan descend the short steps into the ballroom. Amira recognized a few of the nobles, but most were strangers. The men, and not a few of the women, stared at her with envy. There were also a few resentful looks, all from ladies. No countess or duchess would appreciate a lesser lady drawing her husband’s attention. But Amira was thrilled to see the men’s jaws go slack. She glanced up at Dardan, and was even further pleased to find him gazing around defiantly, puffing out his chest as if to ward off challengers.

Her reverie was shattered by a resounding squeak. Countess Besiana approached at speed, knifing through the sea of nobles before her. The rotund old woman beamed with pride at her son. “My boy! You’ve arrived at last. Oh, my dear, don’t you look spectacular,” she added to Amira, taking her hands for a moment. “Let me show you around.”

Amira hoped that “show you around” meant “show you to the food,” but alas she spent a good half hour being paraded before barons, counts, dukes, their wives, their sons, their elderly dowager mothers. She met Duke Albrecht Visail, Countess Kiria Harnum, Count Ivian Rambul and the great old Duke Fortarin Eltasi of Seawatch. The middle-aged Duke Terilin Faroa was so enchanted with her beauty and spoke with her for so long that his much younger wife eventually dragged him away by force, her cheeks red with fury.

Amira was introduced to Duke Loram Arkhail, Dardan’s liege lord, who bowed graciously and stroked his beard while eyeing Amira from head to toe. She met Grand High Steward Aerandin—head of the Niderium, the Epirro Ulishim himself—whom Besiana traded jests with; Lord Yarvin; Lord Lairnos; Duchess Anteria; and Countess Isilian, the last of whom Amira had met before. She was even introduced to a Warden of Aendavar, a young man named Mason Iris whose hair had already gone white, and who wore gleaming silvered armor beneath a black cloak. For a wonder, he seemed more interested in observing the crowd than in gawking at Amira. Just as well; Wardens were reputedly fierce swordsmen, and it unnerved Amira a little to think of his attention turned on her.

She lost track of the names within minutes and even the faces and gowns and suits all began to blur together. After scores of introductions, Amira had to interrupt Besiana. “My lady countess, I am most grateful that you have introduced me to so many remarkable people, but I confess that I have not eaten since luncheon and am growing a little light-headed.”

“Oh, my dear! Let us away outside, and I will show you. All the best entertainments and delicacies are out in the gardens, of course.” She drew them through the crowd to a smaller antechamber that was still thrice the size of the Tarians’ sitting room. Along its walls stood tables absolutely stuffed with food: fowl and pork, beef and rabbit, and other meats she could not identify, drowning in brown sauces and red sauces and white sauces, covered in honey and jelly, and an entire suckling pig that had been prepared solely for use as a decoration. There were breads and cheeses, melons and berries, and curious little pink-and-white crescents she had never seen before arranged around glass bowls of lumpy red sauce.

And she didn’t get to eat any of it, because as soon as she started to veer toward the servants who waited by the stacks of empty plates, Besiana tugged on her sleeve. “No, no, my dear, this is all local fare. Garovan cuisine. The interesting dishes are outside.” Amira gazed wistfully at the food as they passed, but let Besiana guide her onward.

Dardan, at least, did not seem astonished or even impressed by any of it. He noticed Amira was looking at him, and smiled a little. “It’s a bit much, isn’t it?”

Amira realized she must look a gawking fool, and tried to moderate her expression. “This does not stir you, my lord?”

Dardan looked alarmed, as if he might have said the wrong thing. “Ah, no, I don’t mean—that is, it’s certainly impressive. I just, ah…”

“You didn’t even want to be here,” she teased.

His mouth worked for a moment, and then he glanced at his mother, who bulled on ahead. “We had better catch up.”

They came out into the evening, at the top of an immense stone staircase. At its foot sat the Queen’s Courtyard, though in truth it was more like a plaza, a smaller replica of the Great Square outside Elibarran’s gate. Gardens and hedges receded into the dimness beyond, but there were oil lamps aplenty casting light over the central area.

Dozens more nobles milled about here, with an air of excitement the ballroom had lacked. Amira was startled to see a man with a huge, drooping moustache throwing flaming torches into the air, and snatching them before they hit the ground, laughing gaily all the while. A group of shirtless, muscular tumblers wearing bright green and red trousers leapt and rolled and flung one another overhead, to the amusement of a flock of tittering ladies. Amira saw a semicircle of golden cages arranged at the bottom of the stair, each bearing some exotic animal. One of them was an enormous tan-haired cat, with black stripes and fierce fangs, pacing back and forth. Its gold eyes glinted at her. Beside it, a large, clumsy green bird stretched out fantastically wide wings, and squawked and bit at its cage with its wickedly hooked beak.

Along one edge of the courtyard were yet more tables with food piled on them. The nobles here seemed to be carrying their own plates, handing them to be filled by the servants standing beside each table. Besiana showed Amira and Dardan to a table stacked high with clean, empty plates. “It’s so delightfully common fetching your own food!” Besiana squeaked. Amira forced herself to laugh.

Dardan interposed himself between his mother and Amira, and began explaining how the crown sent across borders and seas for fantastic dishes from foreign lands. He seemed relieved to have something to do. Amira held her tongue and nodded politely. “Each table represents the cuisine of one nation,” Dardan said. “It’s considered vulgar, but I’m actually quite partial to Vaslander food.”

Amira chuckled. Liking anything having to do with Vasland would be frowned upon by virtually everyone. Perhaps the Vaslander table was a test, to see who would dare eat from it.

The first table held the cuisine of Liahn, a nation across the ocean to the east. There was a huge steaming pot of tiny white grains, and several large bowls of various meats and vegetables arranged around it. The practice seemed to be to heap the grains, which stuck together in a mass, onto one’s plate, and then pile meat and vegetables on top. Amira gamely took a small portion. It was heavily spiced, and the smell alone made her eyes water. For some reason this reminded her of Katin, and she wondered for a moment how her vala was getting along.

The next table was from Vasland. There were skewers of plump brown sausages and pink pickled turnips. The sausages smelled delicious and the turnips vile. Dardan boldly took several of each, and Amira agreed to try some. The next table, and the next, and the next all contained strange delicacies, and Amira’s plate was soon overloaded.

They retired to tall tables draped in silk, arranged in the center of the courtyard. Dardan had brought two entire plates heaped high. Is he really going to eat all that? And he did, rapidly churning through both plates and going back for seconds. Some women might be put off by such gluttony, but Amira found it amusing. Why not gorge oneself at the crown’s expense?

Amira restrained herself from wolfing down her own meal, but it was delicious. Most of it. The tiny grilled bird’s eggs—she’d already forgotten which table they were from—tasted foul, and she hid the remainder under some of the sticky white grains. There was wine aplenty; she found herself a little tipsy after a few glasses. She knew she could tolerate a lot more, but she didn’t want to embarrass poor Dardan by out-drinking him.

She watched the fire juggler again, and there was a bard, a real live bard brought over from Eliband. This was a rare treat; they were master singers and storytellers, who trained for years at some great academy across the sea, and put Garovan minstrels to shame. This one sang lengthy, ribald songs, nearly without pausing for breath, and changing the words to mock any noble who ventured too close, much to their delight.

A balding, dark-skinned man wearing a glittering red robe appeared at one point, casting sparkling flames into the air seemingly from his fingertips. Amira wondered for a moment if he had the ember like she did, but his fires were just a conjurer’s trick. A green-eyed woman with hair down to her knees and skin painted gold, wearing little but sheer silk, whipped and spun a long tendril of multicolored fabric in dizzying patterns. All the menfolk watched her with interest. Even Dardan, until he saw Amira looking at him. His cheeks flushed and he turned his back on the dancer.

When they finished eating and watching the singers and dancers and magicians, Dardan worked up his courage and haltingly invited her back to the ballroom for dancing. She accepted gladly and let him lead on, her toes and fingertips tingling with excitement.

The formal dances had already begun when they arrived, and they squeezed in. Amira had only learned a little of the formal court dances, but the rest wasn’t too hard to pick up. She spun and twirled between numerous partners, losing sight of Dardan before suddenly colliding with him again. He gritted his teeth in concentration and moved stiffly—so much for the hope that he might be a brilliant dance partner—but Amira found the whole thing delightful anyway, as she twirled beneath the glittering chandeliers.

Later dances proved more complicated; Amira had to apologize several times for stepping on feet. She didn’t want to stop, but soon she took pity on her victims and guided Dardan to the edge of the room.

“That was exhilarating,” Amira remarked, catching her breath.

“Dancing is not normally my favored pastime, as I’m sure was obvious. But I must admit, I did enjoy it.” Dardan paused; he’d had a moment of confidence there, Amira saw, but it faded as he looked at her again. “Um… would you—perhaps a separate dance?”

They found a section of the ballroom away from the long paired lines of the formal dances, where couples moved about with no order at all. This time Amira led the way, and soon she and Dardan held one another, moving slowly with the music that drifted down from above.

This was what she’d dreamed of. The golden room, the rich attire, and the sweet melodies all conspired to intoxicate her. The wine had helped, too, but this was a feeling far beyond simple inebriation. She sent countless tiny prayers to the Aspect of Joy as she and Dardan danced.

The magic of it was interrupted only when someone bumped roughly into them. Another young man, his hair a bit mussed, eyes glazed and face flush from too much wine, barely kept his balance as he ricocheted off Dardan. He turned to glare at Amira’s partner. “Watch yourself, man!” he called out, in much too harsh a tone. His own partner, a pale young lady in blue, looked mortified.

“My apologies,” Dardan said curtly. He bowed slightly, first to the other lady and then to the man who’d jostled him.

The drunken young lord glowered, his stillness standing out amidst the scores of whirling couples around him. The pale lady tugged at his hand, and he resentfully turned away. “Cowardly lout,” he said, much too loudly to be anything but a deliberate insult.

Dardan did not go red, as Amira might have expected a young man to do. He merely rolled his eyes, took Amira’s hand, and led her to another part of the floor, where they resumed dancing. “My apologies, my lady, for interrupting the dance.”

“Not at all,” she said. Dardan suddenly looked different; less like a chore to be tolerated, and more like—

A voice rang out. She lifted her eyes to see the royal herald standing on the balcony, the better to be seen by everyone in the ballroom. “His majesty the king awaits in the throne room.”

“The receiving line,” Dardan muttered, his face falling as they came to a stop. He had been enjoying himself, perhaps unconsciously mirroring Amira’s rapture. But now duty intruded, and that suddenly dampened his mood. It made Amira hate the herald.

Everyone began to scurry for the exit. “Why such a rush?” Amira asked.

“The line lengthens quickly,” Dardan said, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow and offering his arm. “Waiting an hour just to bow before the king for five seconds is not my idea of time well spent.”

“Why not wait until later, when the line has dwindled a bit?” she asked, but when Dardan frowned at her, she suffered a moment’s chagrin. What had she said wrong?

Dardan’s mouth worked for a moment, and he flushed. “I apologize. I forget that you have not—that I take these customs for granted.” He moved briskly, joining them to the stream of nobles. Amira had to skitter along to keep up; she could not take long strides in this gown. “I would gladly wait as you suggest, but those who appear near the end of the line are looked upon unfavorably.”

The throne room was up another long staircase and past several more halls. Amira was quite turned around by the time they arrived. Luck was not wholly against them; there were only a few dozen nobles ahead of them in the line by the time they joined it.

Elibarran’s royal throne room was far less ornate than Amira had imagined it might be. The throne itself was a massive chair said to have been carved as a single piece from the bole of a great oak, polished to a high sheen. Its back was carved to appear as woven branches, intertwining high. The rest of the room was panelled in a similarly dark wood, with high windows all along one wall, and painted portraits of former kings hanging along the other. Aside from that, and a row of low-backed chairs beneath the portraits, there was little decoration.

Yet the room spoke of power, and iron will. In contrast to the frivolous opulence of the ballroom, this was a place where ruling was done. Amira could imagine the intimidation one would feel when brought before the dais. She already felt nervous, and she was still fifty feet back in the line.

And there sat the king, dressed splendidly in royal purple and blue, his surcoat showing the royal arms upon his chest, his heavy golden crown resting atop light brown hair flecked with gray. His Majesty, Viktor II of the Royal House of Relindos, King of Garova, Defender of its People, Protector of the Realm, and numerous other titles besides. His beard was still mostly brown, his eyes lidded as he watched the nobles pass. He did not look old, just… worn.

The woman in a dark blue gown who sat by his side, on a smaller throne, must be Queen Alise. She smiled gently, kindness in her large brown eyes, nodding graciously at each lord or lady as they bowed before the dais. A silver circlet sat atop her golden curls. To the king’s other side stood a large young man, of an age with Amira, with blue eyes and a thin golden circlet resting upon his chestnut hair. His hands were clasped behind his back and his mouth was set in a severe line. He nodded curtly at each noble. Prince Edon, the king’s eldest son and heir apparent to the throne of Garova.

A willowy, very pretty young girl, wearing a demurely cut but bright red gown, stood next to the queen. She smiled brightly at everyone who passed, making some jest here or there, giving some life to the whole tedious undertaking. That must be the king’s elder daughter, Taya. Amira could see why she was so popular.

The other royal children, Karina and Luka, were not of age, and so were not present. Little Prince Luka would certainly never tolerate hours of standing and greeting hundreds of boring grown-ups. Lucky him, he had years yet before he had to endure such pleasures.

The royal servants kept the line moving in efficient routine. The herald, who seemed to have an endless memory for names, introduced each noble as they bowed or curtseyed or knelt as they were able. “My liege” or “Sire” or “Your majesty” drifted back to Amira’s ears time and again.

Soon enough it was Dardan’s turn. He gave her hand a comforting squeeze before stepping forward to kneel alone.

“Lord Dardan Tarian of Hedenham,” the herald intoned.

Dardan bowed his head deeply. “Your majesty. I regret that my father the count is not present, but matters detain him in Hedenham.”

“Yes, of course,” the king muttered. Dardan took the hint and moved on, stopping a few yards away to wait for Amira.

She stepped forward, heart fluttering. “Lady Amira Estaile,” the herald said. Amira bowed her head and curtseyed, though with her starched petticoats and tight corset, she simply lowered three inches for a moment. As she rose, she looked up at Prince Edon and was startled to see a line of blazing silver light erupt from the side of his head.

He stood in profile, speaking quietly to some old knight standing beside him. The silver line seemed to run from above Edon’s ear up to the top of his scalp, even visible through his circlet. It pulsed brightly, as if someone had dripped molten silver on him. But he did not seem to be in any distress, and nobody around him was panicking.

Yet Amira could not move. She stared, until the prince faced her and caught her gawking. He frowned at her. The silver light had disappeared the instant he turned his head.

“M’lady,” Dardan hissed at her. Amira realized she’d been standing there far too long, and the nobles next in line were glaring. The herald made little shooing motions with his hand, and now the royals were all watching her curiously. Amira stepped away quickly, saying, “Your majesty, your highnesses.”

As Dardan took her arm to lead her from the room, she glanced back at Prince Edon. He stared at her with wide eyes, his mouth hanging open, one hand half-raised, as if he’d seen something astounding in her as well. Something like silver light.

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