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Lukan! Her journeyman called her.
Quickly she looked around the stillroom filled with aromatic herbs and brews and potions. All of the other healer apprentices were busy with their own tasks, trying to finish before the sun fully set lest darkness and unknown qualities invaded their medicines. She crept up the long, narrow staircase against the interior wall toward the journeymen’s living quarters. Then past the bedrooms and up another stair to the apprentice dormitories. Finally the ladder to the loft attic appeared, deep in the shadows of the back corner.
At the top, in her own private space, she poured water into a palm-sized ceramic bowl, lit the candle with a snap of her fingers, and dropped her tiny shard of glass into the bowl.
Lukan’s face appeared almost immediately.
Souska reached a finger to trace the curve of his cheek but he turned his face away, looking over his shoulder anxiously.
“I have no time. Tell Mistress Maigret that Rejiia is in the city, and I think she’s recruiting a new coven.”
“I’m beached at Sacred Isle, and I can’t work magic once I set foot out of my boat,” he hissed at her. “Memorize what I said. The Masters need to know this.” His face vanished.
This book grew out of twelve previous volumes in the world of the Dragon Nimbus. Along the way I have had to thank all those who read the books with a critical eye, those who helped me promote the works, the ones who cooked dinner and planned research trips when I was on deadline, and the readers who bought books so the series could keep going. Rather than bore readers with a long and growing list of names of people they don’t know, I ask that all you friends and family, colleagues and mentors, agents and editors, consider yourself thanked and hugged.
CORONNAN RESTS QUIET, but defensive and wary. The people are as wounded as the land after the mage-driven storm that flooded half the fertile fields in the country and ripped up the open prairie with its fearsome winds. The monstrous Krakatrice are mostly destroyed by teams of magicians and dragons. The king works everywhere with his people, rebuilding, restoring, stripping off his fine tunic to lend a strong back where needed. So do his two heirs.
The people adore King Darville de Draconis. He has forsaken strong drink and regained much of his youthful vigor and charm. No trace of scandal taints him, and the people have forgiven him his bastard son by a witchwoman, fathered before his marriage to his beloved Queen Rossemikka. This kingdom will not rise against him. Not now or for many years to come.
My father has become useless. Fifteen years in prison have taken their toll on his energy and intelligence. He looks old. He acts old, content to sit by the fire in the kitchen and swap tales with his old retainers. He cares not that another, weaker man wears his title, lives in his castle, and sits in the Council of Provinces. My father wants only peace, and has not even introduced himself to the cousin who rules his province. I doubt the vague lord and his even vaguer lady even know their predecessor lives in their castle. He has truly sloughed off the persona of his totem, the tin weasel with flaking gilt paint.
The years of imprisonment were kinder to me. I feel as if time stopped. I look as if time slowed, or even reversed. I made certain of that, when the restoration spell fueling the storm changed us. I stood behind my father and directed things so that . . . some of my aging dumped into him and some of his former youth fed back into me. People mistake my years by ten at least. My beauty is intact.
My powers are not. I need a coven to support my magic. I shall begin recruiting practitioners, men and women who enjoy the inflicting and receiving of pain. Men and women who draw power from the suffering of others.
Pain is the essence of power. That and a few doses of the addictive Tambootie leaf.
A few members here and there I can achieve easily. But for a full thirteen I must search further afield. A new coven, new powers, a new land to rule and subdue. People with a great deal of anger buried deep within.
And no one will suspect my true goals, nor how ruthless I can be when something, someone, stands between me and what I want.
“TOGETHER WE MOURN. Together we bury the dead.” The pulsing rhythm of priestly plainsong vibrated through the soles of Lukan’s journey boots.
A dragon bellowed in mourning from the sky above.
The journeyman magician looked up, scanning for a flicker of sunlight against nearly invisible, crystalline dragon fur. There! He caught sight of a delicate tracery of fire-green defining a wing.
Why had the dragons come here? Today? They should be at their home deep in the Southern Mountains—towering, jagged peaks trying to pierce the sky with their icy serrated knife tops. Deep ravines lay in shadow most of the year there, hiding treacherous passes and blind snow caves. A safe refuge for dragonkind from the fearful reactions of an ignorant populace. Dragons had always lived separate from humans, intruding occasionally to admonish, to offer wisdom, to celebrate life.
And now to grieve. Matriarch Shayla and her consort Baamin had maintained close ties to Brevelan and Jaylor, Lukan’s parents. Upon their deaths, within moments of each other, the dragons had retreated from humankind. The Stargods only knew when, or if, the dragons would once more hover in the back of Lukan’s mind. He’d grown up among them and now their absence left a gnawing emptiness behind his heart. Or was that his own grief?
He paused in indecision as he approached the top of the latest hill he and the bard, Skeller were climbing. The slopes were gentle, the footing even. Ten to fifteen miles a day they covered, easily. He didn’t expect the next leg of their journey to be as easy; for reasons more painful than difficult terrain. Tall grasses, waving bright green in the sun of high summer. But autumn must follow soon, and already the plains showed signs of going to seed. The stalks brushed their knees before bending in their wake, leaving a faint trail behind. And seeds to be carried farther afield to spread the bounty.
A bounty sorely needed this year, for though tall, the grasses should have reached shoulder height, and the seedpods should have contained fifteen to twenty seeds each. He counted only three on each tufted head of the grasses in his path.
The disastrous floods of early summer had damaged the wild crops as well as the sown ones.
Once Lukan delivered the cursed letter in his pack to Crown Prince Glenndon, he and Skeller could set out on their own individual missions, and depart this damaged kingdom once and for all. He hoped.
Somewhere deep in his gut he knew that leaving Coronnan did not mean he’d leave his problems and anger behind as well. But his instincts demanded he run far and fast and forget his friends, the University of Magicians, the untimely deaths of his parents, and . . . and the love he’d shared with his brother . . . half brother.
The only person he thought he’d miss would be Souska, the little apprentice magician he’d been mentoring.
The soft chanting in response to the priest’s deep bass voice echoed around the vale just beyond the hill’s ridgeline.
Skeller flung his arm across Lukan’s chest, forcing him to stop. The wood-and-leather harp case on the bard’s back shifted with his movement, thumping lightly. Lukan almost believed the harp—Telynnia—alive and wanting to add her voice to those ahead of them. Skeller’s relationship with his music and instrument bordered on magic.
“What?” Lukan mouthed. Then the meaning of the words penetrated his mind.
“Funeral,” Skeller said quietly at the same time the word touched the tip of Lukan’s tongue. Skeller sounded as if he wanted to add his light baritone to the prayers rising from a great many voices.
“Here?” Lukan asked in surprise. By his calculation they should be approaching Battle Mound, sacred ground, not to be disturbed, plowed, or grazed. Not just anyone could be buried here. Only someone important, someone deeply honored by one and all. And only if the deceased had fallen in battle. Who?
His heart pounded loud in his ears. Glenndon!
No. He forced his panic to recede. He’d know if his brother—his brother, not just his half brother—had passed. He’d know.
He dropped low to the ground and crawled up to the crest where a few scraggly trees offered shade from the hot summer sun as well as shadow to hide him.
“How many?” Skeller asked. His fingers drummed a light tattoo upon his thigh, covered in journey leather trews, in a pattern that took on the cadence of the chant.
“Looks like hundreds,” Lukan whispered. He tried spotting individuals in the ring of people holding hands around a wide swath of churned dirt.
Why? Why had they dug up the site of the last great battle in the civil war that had nearly torn Coronnan to pieces three hundred years ago? Only Nimbulan, the greatest magician of all time, had stopped the war by making a covenant with the dragons and establishing a new form of magic that could be controlled by a group, rather than greedy individuals constantly working against each other. The group in charge had evolved into the Magic Circle, twelve master magicians who could combine their powers to overcome any single rogue.
Lukan picked out the master magicians who counseled the twelve lords of the Council of Provinces quite easily, identified by their deep blue robes. Glenndon was also easy to spot with his bright golden hair and richly brocaded tunic in the royal colors, green and gold. (Lukan didn’t like to admit how relieved he felt to see his brother standing tall and very much alive. He still harbored a great deal of anger toward him. And toward their Da, Master Magician Jaylor, dead these two, nearly three moons.) Two small girls, about twelve and ten, with darker hair but equally rich green and gold gowns, stood next to him. Those must be Glenndon’s half sisters through his father, the king. Ah, there was King Darville with his long silver-gilt hair pulled back into a tight four-strand queue and a heavy glass crown shaped like a dragon ready to take flight. Next to him was the queen. She could only be Queen Rossemikka. Her clothes and demi-crown didn’t matter; she was an older, near duplicate of her daughter Rosselinda, who had forsaken her royal heritage to become a magician and was currently first assistant to Master Maigret, who now ran the Forest University.
“Reports from the capital said only one in ten survived the mage-driven storm and flooding,” Skeller said, his voice dropping as he gulped back strong emotions. He shuddered, and the rhythm of his beating fingers slowed to a dirge. “In a city that boasted twenty thousand souls when I left here at the beginning of summer . . . I just can’t fathom it. They must be buried here too.”
Good reason to further sanctify Battle Mound, a place to honor the newly dead as well as those lost in battle long ago.
The citizens had needed nearly three moons to recover as many bodies as possible, and to rebuild enough that they could leave their temporary shelters for this day of mourning.
Lukan turned his face away from the mass grave and looked toward the western horizon, across the River Coronnan, which had receded back within its normal banks. The sun had dipped past its zenith three hours ago. “If we hurry, we can be inside the city before dusk.”
“You could give your brother the letter from your father here and we wouldn’t have to go into the city at all,” Skeller reminded him. He didn’t look happy about that solution.
“Not here. Too public. This last meeting between us needs to be private.” Lukan looked sadly toward the blond young man in the distance, barely a year older than himself. They’d been incredibly close until a few moons ago. They’d shared everything, wrestled, fought, played tricks on each other, swapped chores in defiance of Da and their masters, and laughed together over everything and nothing. They’d rarely spent more than a few hours apart. Their twin sisters were much the same. But now Lillian and Valeria had gone their separate ways, and it was time for Lukan and Glenndon to do the same. The ties that had bound them were badly frayed last spring when King Darville called Glenndon, his illegitimate son, to the capital to become heir to the dragon crown. Now the time had come to totally sever those ties and find their different destinies.
Lukan only wanted to connect with one person at the University. He wasn’t certain how long he could maintain that one connection in good conscience. Souska needed a tutor. Lately, she sounded more interested in becoming a lover.
“I wonder there is any city left,” Skeller said. “A mage-cast storm thrusting a wall of water thirty feet high one hundred miles across the Bay and up the river . . . It would have wiped clean every one of the hundreds of river islands making up the city.” He shook his head, wanting to deny what the reports had said over and over.
“Of course the city is still there. Glenndon the Magnificent rode a Dragon to the rescue, cast the greatest magic spell of all time, and triumphed over the storm of the millennium,” Lukan sneered. “But he left countering the storm to Da and the Circle.” Fighting the storm had cost Da his life. His mother had miscarried and hemorrhaged within minutes of Da’s passing. She hadn’t had the strength or the will to fight for life without him. Lukan gulped back strong emotions.
“All I have to do is deliver this S’murghin letter, then we cross to the far side of that mile-wide river and set up camp.”
“I was looking forward to a hot meal and a real bed for a change,” Skeller sighed wistfully.
“I thought you liked the wandering life, following the caravans, singing for your supper, and sleeping under the stars.”
“I do. But I also like the occasional inn with a generous barmaid and an appreciative audience.” He looked away, no doubt wishing he could replace the generous barmaid with Lukan’s sister Lillian. But despite their love for each other, they needed time apart. They both had things to learn about life and love before they could decide if they wanted to be together.
“I don’t know this city. I wasn’t invited to come with my sisters last spring to help Da and Glenndon fight the Krakatrice and the civil war,” Lukan grumbled. Another time when Da had had no use for him and had forgotten his existence. “But I’m willing to bet the inns and taverns were the first to rebuild, especially close to the port, where aid will have come from King Darville’s barons and allies across the sea. I still want to sleep rough and unhindered, but you shall find your beer there. Then tomorrow, we’ll search out a berth on the next ship headed to Amazonia, one that leaves after I complete my journeyman’s quest.”
“And what am I to do alone while you row over to Sacred Isle? Presuming the island and its trees even survived the flood.”
“You will sing in whatever bar we can find near the port and listen to the gossip. Listen to the sailors talk while beer loosens their tongues and learn what they know or have heard about your father’s prisoner.”
The chant soared into a hymn, a familiar and comforting one. Skeller’s fingers drumming against his thigh took up the new rhythm, and his entire body took on a straighter and more comfortable posture. He couldn’t help lifting his magnificent voice in song, joining with those who mourned and now released their lost loved ones to the beneficence of the Stargods.
Lukan couldn’t let go so easily. He held his grief and his grudges tightly in his heart and in his mind, despite the tug of that beautiful hymn, and the dragon flying above. But even he had to add his own voice to the triumphant ending.
Just then, Glenndon lifted his head and scanned the ridge where Lukan crouched. The prince’s gaze settled on his half brother.
You came, Glenndon said directly into Lukan’s mind with a sigh of relief.
I was sent, Lukan replied.
For the first eighteen years of his life Glenndon had never spoken aloud. His telepathic powers came more easily to him than speech, and even now, five moons after a near-miraculous healing of his throat, he still reverted to mind-speech.
Can you meet me in the palace?
Where in the palace? I hear it’s a big place. The twins had been there and reported convoluted passages, wings sprouting at odd angles, twisting staircases, and abandoned sections left over from generations before.
Private parlor, ground floor. I’ll have Keerkin, my . . . friend wait for you at the main door. Mentally, Glenndon directed Lukan’s gaze to a man of middling height and neutral coloring a few years older than themselves, who stood directly to Glenndon’s right.
Lukan nodded his head and grunted an acceptance. Glenndon wouldn’t meet him himself, he had to trust that chore to an underling. Just as Lukan was an underling to him. Everyone in Coronnan was an underling to him except the king.
The king. The man who had seduced . . . actually loved . . . their mother before she married Master Magician Jaylor. Mama kept that brief affair secret for eighteen years. The king and Da had been best friends for decades. But the king needed a male heir and had only daughters from his queen, so he’d yanked Glenndon away from his family, and out of his silence, and made him Crown Prince. Now both Mama and Da had passed. Glenndon had his new family, the royal family. Lukan had no one. Even his companion the wandering bard would leave him as soon as they reached his home in Amazonia.
MASTER MAGICIAN ROBB stuffed his aching and swollen hands inside the sleeves of his once-pristine formal robe as he paced. At dawn, damp chill permeated the walls of his small cell. By midday he’d have to shed both the robe and shirt while he sweated in desert heat. If Maigret could see him now, she’d scold him mightily for his disheveled appearance, even as she held his hands and lovingly examined every pore on his body for signs of illness.
She’d also make him shave, two or three times, before his face was smooth enough for her standards. His captors hadn’t let him near any kind of blade.
His gut ached from missing his wife and their two young sons. His heart skipped a beat at the thought that he might never see them again, or touch them again, or bear up to Maigret’s scoldings again . . .
He yanked his thoughts out of that destructive loop. Again.
His captor had preserved his health. Freedom, light, and dignity had been denied.
Whoever kept him in this benighted cell needed him alive for some reason Robb could not fathom. Of course, it would help if he knew who held him, and why.
Had three moons passed since he’d been whisked out of a transport spell into an alien land? Or was it four? He’d meant to transport to Coronnan City. Had he made a mistake in the tricky and dangerous spell?
Or had a rogue magician manipulated the layers of visualization and precise timing required?
He’d thought and thought through all the permutations—he didn’t have much else to do—and drawn the conclusion that a rogue had added an extra layer of images to his own to bring him here. And he thought he knew which rogue was involved. Samlan had a lot to answer for when Robb got out of this S’murghin prison. If he didn’t go insane first.
To ward off such dangerous thoughts, Robb paced his cell, five steps to a side. He checked the scratches on the wall he’d made to keep track of the days. Had he made one yet since the sun rose?
He didn’t think so. His wooden spoon lay on the end of his cot ready for him. He grasped the bowl in his right hand, balanced his left against the wall and scratched hard against the dressed stones with the worn handle. A new line appeared gradually, only slightly lighter than the background. Another fraction of an inch splintered off the handle. His work showed well enough to mark another day. He counted each grouping of five, as he did every morning. One hundred thirty-six.
Surely that couldn’t be right. When had thirty days become sixty? Then ninety? Fear broke out in cold sweat down his spine. Praying to the Stargods that he hadn’t lost his mind along with time, he counted again, each individual slash against the stone. One hundred thirty-six.
Robb almost wept. “No, no, no,” he cried out as loudly as he could, slamming his fist against the wall. “I’ve cried enough. I’ve languished enough. I have to get out of here.” He looked around at the same four walls he’d addressed every day for the last one hundred and thirty-six days.
“Wizard,” a small lisping voice whispered to him from the barred window in the ironbound door of his prison. Iron. Poison to magicians according to myth and legend. But it wasn’t the iron in the door that kept Robb’s magic dormant. The iron underground, massive and buried beneath ten feet of stone and dirt, hampered his powers. Only one small window near the ceiling marked the passage of light and dark. Not enough access to the air to gather dragon magic—if any dragons flew the skies of this land—and the floor too thick to tap a ley line—if any of the silvery blue streams of energy ran through here.
“Yes?” he asked wearily. The same voice spoke every morning, making certain he lived before wasting a tray of food on a corpse.
Robb thought it might belong to a beardless boy, perhaps a scullery maid, no one more important.
“His Majesty needs you,” the voice said.
“What can I do?”
“Follow.” A turning key rasped within the lock, iron scratching seldom-used pins into motion.
Robb waited obediently against the far wall, as he did any time his guards brought him food or water rather than thrusting it through a narrow slot in the door, or came to empty the chamber pot when they absolutely had to, and not before. The door opened slowly, revealing a slim female in a sturdy dress, wearing a stained apron. She carried a candle lantern out to the side, not shedding enough light to determine her age, coloring, or degree of beauty. Only a large ring of keys hanging from her belt indicated that she held some authority.
“Follow.” She turned around, waving the lantern just enough to indicate she intended to move to the left. After checking to see if armed guards waited to run him through with sword or spear, and finding none—they were all lined up against the corridor walls, stiff and respectful of the woman—Robb followed, shuffling his feet over the uneven stones, breathing deeply of air fresher than that in his cell. Afraid to think beyond the circle of light from the lantern. Afraid to hope for more between one step and the next.
Lily? Where are you!
Lily sighed as her twin, Valeria, burst into her thoughts. Just once she wished that Val would contact her just to check on Lily’s well-being and not to solve some problem at home. She had enough problems of her own on the road.
She took her time answering her sister as she tamped down a little soil around the last of the apple tree cuttings she’d brought to plant. Six trees that wouldn’t bear fruit for five years. But it was a start at rebuilding the crops for this town on the Dubh River, a major tributary half a mile south of the mighty River Coronnan. The Dubh was still navigable up here, for small boats and flat-bottomed barges to transport produce and livestock downstream. A two-day walk inland from the Great Bay, the town had grown to a substantial size as the only gathering place for the outlying farms. The floods had drowned the crops here, but left most of the houses and barns sodden and only a little damaged. At least the livestock had found higher ground and survived. This place was better off than most. Closer to the big river, nothing remained but layers of mud and corpses.
She signaled the headman to pour a pitcher of water around the cutting. He did so quite reverently. Then the entire village bowed to Lily.
She returned the gesture of respect, then gathered her thoughts to reply to her sister. Val, I’m somewhere between the river and the Bay in a town called Lower Dubh. What’s wrong? she replied telepathically without breaking her smile and wave of farewell to the devastated farm folk. She’d done what she could to give them hope. Sometimes that was a better cure for despair than a wagonload of food.
You aren’t here and that’s what’s wrong.
I’m not supposed to be there. Though I wish I could stand in the middle of the Clearing and listen to the wind in the everblue tops and absorb the peace of the mountains. She took a deep breath imagining the smells of home. Her heart continued to ache. For many reasons. Loneliness the least of them.
It’s not peaceful here at the moment.
Lily caught an echo of childish screams of despair in the background of Val’s thoughts.
What did Jule do this time? She asked about their youngest brother, who neared his third naming day.
I don’t know, Val wailed. I’ve tried everything and he just screams louder.
Lily had never heard her twin so close to crying, not even when she had worked a long and complex spell, and exhausted her physical strength almost to the point of forgetting to breathe.
Lily waved a last farewell to the town elders and their ladies and turned her steps to the broad path that led to the next village, a day of hard walking to the west, toward the long line of mountains that nearly divided the continent and served as a barrier between Coronnan and their age-old enemy and sometimes ally, SeLennica.
Away from the prying attention of the villagers, she listened more carefully to her twin.
Is xhtmlhe teething? He shouldn’t be, not this late. But everyone in the family of Jaylor and Brevelan did everything backward, or sideways, or too fast. Maybe it was Jule’s turn to be behind at something.
As Lily was behind her brothers and sisters in magical talent. Her one and only skill seemed to be talking to her twin though separated by a thousand miles or more. And understanding the souls of plants and what they needed to grow best.
Um . . . I don’t know. What are the symptoms of teething?
Crying a lot. Drooling a lot. Gnawing on things he’s not supposed to.
No. Other than the crying a lot.
Is he constipated?
How should I know?
Lily sighed again. She should be the one at home taking care of the younger children. Val had no empathy, training, or instincts when it came to nurturing children. She did have a magical talent that she probably thought was being wasted in her current situation.
A journey was about learning. Val needed to learn to take care of others after a lifetime of being an invalid and cared for. Lily needed to learn . . . to live, when she should have died with the man she had murdered. Executed, she reminded herself. But it still felt as though she’d murdered the rogue magician Samlan when she’d slid a knife between his ribs.
He’s out of nappies now so you can’t check the soiled ones. Have you taken him to the outhouse today? Lily asked.
I don’t usually . . .
Then ask your charges, Lady Graciella and Ariiell.
They left for the University early this morning and haven’t come back.
Then ask Sharl. Their six-year-old sister had more of a sense of responsibility than Val, Gracie, or Ariiell.
Give him some red fruit and a big glass of water, Val. Then make him sit for as long as necessary. Lily closed down on the communication. Her mind and heart felt empty when the contact vanished. She’d done that too often these last few moons of wandering Coronnan. Grimly she planted her staff of plain hawthorn one step ahead of her and continued her solitary mission. “I should be the one who stayed home, Val. You’re the one who deserves a journeyman’s journey.”
But you wouldn’t heal here at home, Val reminded her, despite Lily’s barriers.
“We both have a lot to learn, twin. That’s why we are both placed in positions that seem so opposite to our natural ways.”
Lukan mingled with the crush of people trying to cross a bridge from the mainland over to the maze of islands that made up Coronnan City—five square miles of city with hundreds of islands and connecting bridges, many of them so badly damaged that people had to take longer, convoluted routes to get home. Had everyone still alive in the city trekked out to Battle Mound for the funeral and now returned all at the same time? All these people trying cross at once strained the raw wood of the newly built bridge. He eyed the hinges and latches at either end, freshly crafted but based on the old design, so that in case of invasion, or flood, the bridge could be collapsed as people retreated inward.
He guessed the city had emptied gradually over the course of the day. They’d all lost loved ones. They needed to see the mass grave, sing the songs, pray the prayers, and mourn. Now they could put aside crippling emotions and begin to rebuild in earnest. A determination to survive had pulled them through the disaster, and now it kept the throng moving forward, despite the crowding.
Skeller kept lagging behind, searching faces and postures and patches of newly cut lumber on every single building they passed. Many spaces between houses and shops lay empty, the gaps where buildings ripped from their foundations and now floating out to sea once stood. As crowded as this bridge was, he doubted enough people remained in the city to fill in all of those empty lots.
Those blank places brought home to him, more than the sight of the mass grave and the somber sounds of chants and hymns, just how much the storm, and the mage that had conjured it, had stolen from the heart of Coronnan.
“Thank the Stargods Lily managed to kill the S’murgin rogue,” he muttered to himself. The fact that his sister had wielded the knife and not Skeller, as they’d planned or at least expected, was a gaping wound between them. Sweet, gentle, Lily, who couldn’t bear to eat meat because she felt the death of the animal sacrificed to become food, had executed a man when no one else had had the nerve.
Her empathic talent had exploded outward and engulfed Skeller. He’d shared the moment of death with Samlan as deeply as Lily had.
The fact that the rogue magician was expecting a magical attack and Lily had very little, if any, magic, meant that she’d met no resistance. Lukan didn’t think he could have managed the deed, and Skeller had hesitated a moment too long. Lily and only Lily had stopped Samlan before he wreaked any more damage on Coronnan.
Both she and Skeller nursed deep guilt and bruised minds.
“Skeller, keep up.” Lukan stopped mid-span to wait for his companion. The tide of people surged around him, mostly silent, shooting him resentful glances but not protesting. They moved more like a stunned herd than people impatient to go about their business. Maybe they’d lost the drive for impatience. They lived. They had the work of survival to do. That was enough.
Except for one. A tall, lanky man hovered at the other end of the bridge. Not hesitant. Waiting. He kept his back to Lukan.
Lukan tamped down his suspicions. No one knew he was coming this way. The man couldn’t be waiting for him.
“Sorry. This is all so fascinating, so different from my last visit,” Skeller said, still craning his neck to take in everything. As usual, his fingers drummed against his thigh as his mind composed a new song. This one was livelier than the dirge about the funeral. This one was about cherishing life and building something new, fresh, and special, out of the ruins of the old.
Lukan had learned to read Skeller during the moons of their travels together. He could almost hear the melody and lyrics as they formed in the bard’s mind.
“Well, I’m going ahead to the palace. I’ll meet you at whatever inn you find down on the docks.” Lukan started to turn away to join the surge of people flowing inward.
“Wait! How will you know which inn?” Skeller claimed Lukan’s arm to delay him.
“I’ll know by the number of sailors crowding around to hear you sing. I’ll know by the bawdy chorus they take up in celebration of whatever songs you dredge out of that copious memory of yours.”
With that Lukan joined the throng and pressed forward. Inward toward the largest and highest of the islands, where the tallest of tall buildings had stood strong against the flood. His nose wanted him to divert toward a deep concentration of magic—the old University of Magicians. Master Marcus would be there, ready to officially give Lukan his right to claim a staff and begin his journey.
Lukan wasn’t ready to face the man who had reluctantly taken Jaylor’s place as Chancellor of the Universities, Senior Magician of the Circle, and counselor to the king. “I’ll deliver this S’murghin letter to Glenndon, then be free of family obligations, free to live my own life away from the shadow of older, more powerful, better respected magicians that I can’t live up to.”
Three more bridges and his steps grew heavy, reluctant. He trudged forward to the pedestrian gate in the palace wall. The floodwaters had darkened the finely fitted stones to eight feet above the ground. Lukan looked at the river flowing around Palace Isle, a good six feet below where he stood. It ran a bit low in high summer. Still, the clear evidence of just how much water had shifted from the Bay up the river channels made him pause and gulp.
Glenndon, his brother, had thrown the spell that encased the acres and acres of palace buildings in a protective bubble, keeping out all of that water; protecting the thousand or more people who had taken refuge inside the buildings.
Lukan knew he couldn’t have done that. Even with a staff to channel and focus his magic. At the University, on the adjacent isle, six masters had joined their powers and thrown a similar spell to protect those buildings and their refugees.
Still awed and a bit bewildered, he faced the uniformed guard and identified himself. Apparently Glenndon had passed word along to expect him. Of course the royal family had returned before anyone else. They all rode steeds. Lesser people, like journeymen magicians and wandering bards, had to walk.
A boy of about thirteen, in palace livery of green trews and a gold-and-green tunic, appeared at Lukan’s elbow. “Sir, His Highness requested I escort you,” the boy said, his burgeoning baritone cracking back to alto at odd moments. He flushed at the way his voice betrayed him, but he did not bow his head in shame.
Lukan nodded and followed, not certain what else to do. At least a servant treated him with respect. At the grand double doors presiding over the twelve steps up to the main floor of the palace, the young servant passed Lukan on to a man wearing normal clothing, a shade richer than Lukan’s own, in black and maroon that complemented his hair, dark with just a hint of red in the tip of his queue.
“Journeyman Lukan,” the man bowed respectfully. At least he got the title right, even if Lukan didn’t wear the medium-blue leather journey clothes that were once considered the uniform of a journeyman on journey. “I am Keerkin, assistant to His Highness.”
“Do I know you?” Something familiar in the name and the set of his freshly shaven jaw triggered a faint memory.
“No reason why you should. I only studied at the Forest University for about a year before it became obvious to everyone that I have very little talent. But your father arranged for me to continue my mundane education so that I could become a scribe here at court.”
“You know your father well. My condolences on his passing. He was a great man.”
Lukan dipped his head, not certain he shared the country’s grief. And yet a niggle of sadness worked out of his heart to remind him that Jaylor had raised him, taught him, and cared for him, even if he did love Glenndon best. And Glenndon wasn’t truly Jaylor’s son.
“I’d like to see my brother now,” he said curtly, not knowing what else to do. Not knowing how else to respond.
“Of course. This way, Journeyman.” Keerkin gestured to the left, clearly expecting Lukan to precede him. At last someone showed him respect for who he was. Keerkin, a failed apprentice, owed a journeyman deference, and not just because he was Prince Glenndon’s younger half brother.
Lukan tried to memorize the curves and twists of the route, but he kept getting distracted by the fine tapestries depicting the lives and adventures of the Stargods, the trials and triumphs of Nimbulan, the last Battlemage, who made a covenant with the dragons in order to control magic and magicians and thus end the endless civil wars. Such intricate details and brilliant colors! Mama would have loved to add such fine wool embroidery to the clothing she made for her family.
All this grandeur of high ceilings, spacious rooms, sturdy stone walls, and lovely wall hangings could have been Mama’s if she’d married the king. Glenndon and Lukan and their sisters could have been raised here, educated here . . . If Mama had become Darville’s queen Lukan might not have been born, he might never have developed his magical talent as much as he was able.
He had to remind himself that Mama had loved Jaylor. They’d been happy together for many years. She would have hated the fuss of court life and the press of strangers against her mental shields.
None of the family would have known the dragons. A bit of a wiggle in the back of his mind reminded him that at least one green-tip flew nearby.
Lukan here, he flashed to the unknown dragon in proper dragon protocol.
Verdii here, a juvenile voice replied.
Verdii, please inform the Circle of Magicians that cleanup and recovery of the capital city continue. I don’t know what they need most at this moment, but I’m sure they need most everything, including food and untainted water.
A sense of acknowledgment was his only reply, and then a vacancy at the top of his spine as the dragon closed communication.
He twisted a bit to see if the image of an iridescent, nearly invisible dragon presiding over the scene of Nimbulan’s marriage to Myrilandel was accurate. As he drew close enough to reach up and examine the tiny stitches, just to find out how the weaver had made the dragon look so real, his knees and thighs brushed the damp hem and fringe of the tapestry. Mud and dirty water stained the valuable hanging a good three feet off the floor.
Nearly six weeks after the flood, during high summer, the fabric was still damp. How long had water filled this corridor to so thoroughly saturate it?
Curious, he looked away from the images to the mud and water stains.
The letter tucked inside his tunic crackled, reminding of his errand.
If Mama had married the king, Lukan would still be the second son, destined to walk in his older brother’s magnificent shadow.
Not anymore. As soon as he delivered the letter, he’d leave, on his own, carving out his own destiny with his own talents and wits.
MARIA D’AMAZONIA WALKED slowly, steadily along the straight passageways of King Lokeen’s castle, careful to make certain she stepped evenly on her twisted right leg. Each time she paused to change direction, her hand touched the precious pendant hanging above her breasts. Goddess give me strength. Her keys clanked with every step, signaling her authority as chatelaine. As they should. She paused at each right corner and rebalanced herself to make the turn smoothly, but also to make certain the foreign wizard followed as well as he could. Moons of imprisonment had weakened him, but not dampened his spirit.
Good. She had plans.
But so did her cursed brother-in-law the king.
“If you know what’s good for you, do not speak until spoken to. Offer nothing, give only what you must,” she whispered to the wizard as he passed before her into the king’s private receiving room. She regretted her ill-formed tongue that made each ess sound like the hissing of the S’murghin Krakatrice. Another sin Lokeen had inflicted upon her people—bringing the monsters back to the desert and nurturing their eggs to export to his enemies.
The stranger looked at her briefly and gave only the barest hint of acknowledgment by blinking his eyes. She slipped in behind the man in blue, clinging to the shadows made by the heavy, dark wooden furniture favored by the king. He wouldn’t notice her, because he’d never look for her.
“What is your name, Mage?” Lokeen demanded without looking up from the letters strewn across the portable table in front of his throne. Nothing else in the castle was as moveable as that table. The king liked everything fixed in place, never moving a fraction of an inch, even for Maria’s maids to clean beneath and around.
Afraid someone might steal his precious possessions as they’d like to steal—should steal—the kingship he’d stolen.
“I am called Master Robb,” the wizard said evenly, drawing deep breaths between the few words, not bowing or nodding or giving any indication the king was anything but an equal. The name fit him: tall and spare, nothing fancy about him. Self-assured.
I am called. Not my name is. A wily one. He answered the question without answering the question. The old magician, the one who’d been missing since midsummer, had refused to give any name at all. “There is power in knowing another’s true name,” he’d said. Courtiers and staff alike knew him only as “Sir.”
“I’m told mages from Coronnan can all read and write, in many languages.”
Master Robb nodded.
Lokeen shoved a worn piece of parchment across the table. It looked like it had been used and reused, each scraping off of old ink making it more fragile. The newest ink looked thin and spidery. From the length of the room away, Maria couldn’t make out the words, damn her weak eyes, as weak as her leg.
“What is this?” Lokeen demanded.
Master Robb took one step forward and peered down at the missive. “It appears to be a letter.” Robb straightened and stepped back again.
“And what does it say? Who is it from?” Lokeen shouted. His color rose high on his cheeks as he spluttered, nearly frothing at the mouth in his anger. “I do not recognize the language.”
Master Robb reached for the piece of parchment, his hand pausing a scant finger’s width away. “May I?” he asked.
“Of course you may touch it. How else will you read it?”
“It appears to be greetings from Lord Laislac of Aporia. It is written in the language of Coronnan, not so different from your own dialect. But the letters are archaic, with extra flourishes and decorations.”
Was that an insult, thinly disguised? The wizard appeared to accuse his captor of being illiterate!
“I know that. I know what it says. I need explanations, not lectures.”
Something flickered across the mage’s face. Maria couldn’t tell what, but she enjoyed how he irritated Lokeen.
“Lord Laislac apologizes that his daughter Ariiell refuses the betrothal you so kindly offered her.”
“How can she? Women in your country have no rights, no status. Her father makes all decisions for her.”
So that was why he looked for a bride from across the sea, now that he’d mourned the required five years for his wife. By all rights he should marry one of his wife’s relatives, a woman who had a right to claim the title of queen with or without Lokeen as husband. But no, Lokeen wanted an obedient wife who would not challenge him, who had no right to reclaim the crown in her own name.
“Mistress Ariiell has informed her father that, fifteen years ago, when she was heavily pregnant with her son—who is now second heir to the throne of Coronnan—she submitted to a handfasting with the father of her child.”
“Handfasting? What in the name of the Great Mother is that?”
“A form of marriage. Binding to both parties. It legitimatizes the child, binds the couple to the raising of the child for life, but does not require the couple to live together as married. Mistress Ariiell reminds her father that this handfasting precludes her from marrying anyone else while the father of her child lives.”
Lokeen sat in stunned silence for a long moment as all color drained out of his face. He looked skeletal, nearing death.
Maria watched and waited, did nothing to help him, not calling his body servant or ringing a bell for wine.
“Why didn’t Laislac tell me of this before we entered into the marriage treaty?” the king said through gritted teeth.
Master Robb shrugged, saying nothing.
“Did you know of this?” Lokeen returned to screaming, color returning to his face. Kraks, he hadn’t taken ill or died.
“Should you have?”
Another shrug. Smart man. He guarded his tongue well.
“By your laws, does Darville have the right to annul this handfasting?”
“I do not know. I’ve never heard of it being done before. The handfasting is rare enough.”
“Then you are useless to me!”
“Only if you do not allow me to write a reply and address it to my king in words he will understand, saying it is necessary that he arrange for permission to annul the handfasting.”
But since the child is now second heir to the crown, he’s unlikely to do that, Maria thought.
Maria shared a moment of triumph with the wizard. Robb had manipulated Lokeen into letting him tell Darville where he was held hostage. And perhaps giving him coded words to launch a rescue. Perhaps this other king would invade with enough troops to depose Lokeen and put a rightful heir on the throne.
She touched the goddess pendant at her chest, wishing for strength. “Useless sack of sperm, you spawned only sons. Now you will reap the rewards of your failure to produce a daughter,” she said under her breath, almost wishing he’d hear her.
“Message coming in, Mistress,” Apprentice Magician Souska called to Master Magician Maigret.
“S’murghit! How am I supposed to get this potion right with these constant interruptions?” Maigret cursed as she stomped away from the long bench, filled with herbs, crushed minerals, beakers, braziers, mortar and pestle, and only she knew what else, toward the desk she’d inherited from Master Marcus in the grand Chancellor’s office at the Forest University.
She cursed and stomped a lot more than she had when she was merely the potions mistress and foster mother to all the females at the University.
She also cried a lot more. But Souska thought she was the only one who heard Maigret weep into her pillow deep in the night, when she was alone and ever so lonely for her husband Master Robb.
Maigret picked up her circle of glass, bigger around than her sturdy work-worn hand and encased in a golden frame, and dropped it into the ever-present bowl of clear water. Souska hurried to light the candle beside the bowl. She didn’t have an affinity with fire as she did with plants and dirt, but she’d learned this one trick through frequent practice over the last two moons. And some thoughtful guidance from her journeyman.
“What do you want now, Marcus?” Maigret snapped, keeping one eye on the distinctive colors swirling in the glass and the other on a small pot bubbling on the brazier. Impatiently, she waved for Souska to stir the mixture.
Souska jumped to obey, grateful for the chance to eavesdrop on this conversation. Since she’d lit the candle, her magic was a part of the summoning spell and therefore she could hear both sides. Her journeyman had taught her that. Mistress Maigret may not have known that little spying trick. Except that Mistress Maigret always knew more than she let other people know she knew.
“I thought you’d like to know that Journeyman Lukan was spotted in the city earlier today.” The voice of Marcus came through the glass, loud and clear to Souska’s ears.
“He’s your journeyman, not mine. Why should I care?” Maigret stretched her chin to peer over Souska’s shoulder to make sure she stirred the potion correctly, moving her wooden spoon deasil, along the path of the sun, never widdershins, the opposite.
Souska bristled a bit. She knew how to stir, even if she couldn’t do much else right. And this potion smelled ready. She grabbed a hot holder and moved the pot off the brazier onto a slice of granite to protect the wooden counter.
Maigret nodded absently in approval.
“You should care where Lukan is because the bard is with him,” Marcus said.
“And?” Maigret tapped her foot impatiently.
“Lillian is not with them.”
Maigret’s attention swung back fully to the glass. “You know where my journeyman isn’t. But do you know where she is?”
Souska knew that journeymen on journey, male or female, weren’t supposed to contact their masters except in dire emergencies or situations of extreme importance to the entire country. A journey was about learning to cope on one’s own with little or no resources. It was about learning your strengths and weaknesses and how to compensate. She guessed it was also about learning what was important to the magician, both as a person and as a member of the community of magicians. Her journeyman had a lot of anger to let go of before he’d learn much of anything. But he was a wonderful, thoughtful teacher who immediately saw ways to spark her imagination and make her think through a problem.
She had news for him when he scried for her next. He might feel alone and unhindered by his master, but Marcus kept track of him all the same.
“I had a report this morning, just before we left for the funeral, that Lily was sighted delivering a sack of seeds and cuttings to a walled village on the Dubh River. Only the wall isn’t there anymore, so they are open to the punishing winds down the river canyon.”
“That’s southwest of the city, on a tributary. Did the flood reach that far?” Maigret seemed truly distressed.
“If they didn’t flood, then the circling wind wicked the water away and the dust storms clogged the secondary waterways with dirt and plants, even trees ripped from miles away. I’ve heard reports of villages having to dig new channels for their rivers so they’d return to their village and fields and not wander off in a new direction because of the clogs.”
“All the spring growth ended up in those dams,” Maigret mused. “Lily’s got the right of it, delivering new seeds and cuttings. She can’t do it all though. Not alone. Who has surplus I can shift to the flooded areas?” She shoved stuff about looking for parchment and pen.
Souska rushed to the front of the desk just in time to catch loose pages skittering toward the floor. Holding everything together with her left hand, she found a clean page and shoved it toward Maigret. Then she uncovered a flusterhen quill, sharpened the copper nib with a thought, and made sure the inkwell was full.
“Where’s Linda?” Maigret finally looked up and found the room empty except for herself and her newest apprentice. “This is her job!”
“You sent her to a class on diplomacy,” Souska whispered. She didn’t want Marcus to hear her and figure out that she eavesdropped on his conversations.
“Never mind. Time you learned to help me regardless of what I need. The potion needs a pinch more mint. Make sure you don’t crush it too hard before adding it. I want the essential oils on the outside of the leaf, not lining the mortar.” Maigret sat abruptly and started making lists.
Souska read over her shoulder, smiling that she now had permission to spy for her journeyman.
THIS IS RIDICULOUS. Exhaustion makes strong young men limp and uncaring about power. I have ridden long and far and only found two men and one woman interested in what I can offer them. The rest are concerned only with easing aching muscles and getting a good night’s sleep so that tomorrow they may begin again their never-ending labors of rebuilding and replanting. The only mating that concerns them is among their steeds and cattle and sheep to replace their lost herds. But the flusterhens survived. They always do. And they multiply and go wild and are always underfoot.
I and my followers have offered sex, wine, and magic to every likely person to no avail. Not even a whiff of the Tambootie leaves I carry with me for emergencies entices the people of Coronnan. They turn up their noses in distaste.
Time I quit this land and reap better harvests elsewhere. I have heard rumors and half stories of recent events. I know where I must go. There are no ships leaving the port for days and days. Endless days. I must make certain none of my old contacts recognize me and betray my presence to the king or his minions. The University hunts me actively, reminding all the students and teachers to keep an eye out for me as they help clear and rebuild the city. They will imprison me without bothering with a trial. If I dared, I’d take Crown Prince Glenndon to my bed. He is much among the people and the city, lifting with the strength of dragons, designing new roofs with the arcane knowledge of the ancients, consoling the grieving with a firm touch, a sorrowful hymn, and a prayer. I should entice him away for a little privacy and rest in the comforting arms of a willing woman. He could grant me much magic. Humiliating him would bring me a tiny bit of justice against both his fathers: the king and the dead Master Magician Jaylor.
This one time I shall forsake pleasure for expedience. I shall hide in plain sight.
But while I must hide, my minion can walk the city, listening and learning like any good spy. His scarred face and rope-thin body do not alarm the people. Many of them are underfed and scarred as well. He knows this city better than most. He serves me well.
Lukan held out the folded and sealed parchment he’d carried almost the full length of the country. “Da sent this,” he stated firmly, keeping all his emotions pushed into a tight knot behind his heart. “With his dying breath he commanded me to deliver this to you. For me he had only criticism.”
Not quite the truth, but close enough. Da had used his last breath to tell Mama he loved her.
Glenndon, taller than Lukan by half a hand, broader in the shoulder and slimmer of hip as well, bit his lip and blinked back tears. His golden hair glinted in the sunlight streaming through a high window. He didn’t need a crown as symbol of his title and position. His life energy surrounded him with a shining aura that even mundane minds could see.
“W . . . were you there?” Glenndon stammered. His throat worked as he swallowed heavily against a choke.
Lukan wondered briefly if his brother had taken time to grieve for the loss of their parents, or if his emotions had been suppressed by the massive amount of work involved in rebuilding the city. This little room on the ground floor, designed for greeting visitors and nothing more, showed no evidence of the planning necessary to even begin the task.
Lukan nodded, suddenly finding himself needing to banish tears. He hated revisiting those awful moments when Da’s heart gave out after trying to control the massive spell that broke Samlan’s control over the storm and unleashed its fury. Then as Da told Mama he loved her with his last breath (Lukan had left the room, but heard and saw much through the open doorway from the front yard) Mama had screamed and clutched her pregnant belly. Within minutes she had miscarried and bled to death. Linda said she’d smiled and held out her hand as if reaching for her husband.
Lukan dropped the letter onto a decorative little table and turned his back on his brother. He almost wished he’d taken the time to summon Souska to collect the latest gossip at the University. Then he’d have something to talk about. He couldn’t talk about Mama, not even after the passage of nearly two moons.
“I wanted to be there,” Glenndon said defensively. “I was halfway into the transport spell when Father—the king stopped me. He reminded me of my duty here. I had to save as many people as I could and that meant cutting off exits, communication, everything from outside the palace walls. I had no choice.”
“There are always choices,” Lukan reminded him, getting a firm grip on his emotions. “You made the one that seemed right for you at that time.”
“Right for the kingdom! Not right for me.”
“I’m leaving. I have my journey. I’ll spend tonight on Sacred Isle and leave soon afterward.” Lukan aimed his steps toward the door, unable to see clearly through the film of tears covering his eyes.
“Good Journey, little brother,” Glenndon said. “The island remains mostly intact. I checked. A few trees fell, mud and silt filled in the pit I was trapped in, the central pond is bigger than it was. But the magic ingrained in the island repulsed a lot of the magic in the storm surge.”
“I’m glad to hear it. When I saw that so much had been destroyed, so many of the little islands washed away, I wondered if the sanctity of the place could continue to inspire us.”
Lukan allowed a few moments of silence, almost comfortable with Glenndon in their shared concern for Sacred Isle.
Then Glenndon lifted his chin, shook back a few stray hairs that had escaped his queue and fixed a neutral gaze on Lukan. “Greet the trees with respect, meditate deeply, and leave the island a stronger man.” That sounded almost like a ritual leave-taking. “I wish you could stay, share a cup of ale, tell me all that has happened since I left home.”
“This is your home now. Our family is scattered; there is nothing left at the University for either of us anymore.”
“Mama and Da . . .”
“Are dead. Lily is on her own journey taking seeds to where the crops were destroyed. Val is at home taking care of the little ones, along with Lady Ariiell—who is no longer insane—and Lady Graciella, who may very well fall insane before she delivers her child. Especially if her mother takes her in and berates her for . . . well, for being alive.” Lukan left before he could take his brother up on the invitation to linger and reforge their fraternal bonds.
“You need to get your instructions from Master Marcus before you row over to Sacred Isle,” Glenndon called after him.
“I have my instructions.” He’d made them up himself when the rest of the world had abandoned him.
“What is taking so long?” King Lokeen screeched. He paced from window to desk, peered over Robb’s shoulder, and paced back again, hands waving wildly about.
“Letters need careful wording, sir,” Robb replied. The man was making him nervous. Would he notice the tiny bits of magic that disguised words to make them seem ordinary but actually held another meaning? Even this tiny spell cost him dearly in strength—as if he were wading through thick mud.
If any dragons ever flew these skies, they hadn’t come recently enough to leave behind magical energy. If the ley lines reached across the Bay and the ocean, they spread wide and didn’t come near the city. He had only his own diminished physical strength to fuel his attempt to disguise his words. And that energy seemed blocked.
He didn’t know if King Darville would know to have a magician read the thing for him. When Robb had left Coronnan, magic and magicians were still disdained and forbidden access to the government. But the king had brought Glenndon into his household as son and heir. Surely Glenndon would smell magic in the letter and take care of it. Surely . . .
Robb licked the pen nib to restore the ink and add his magic to it. Bad habit. Maigret would have his hide, especially when he kissed her with a black tongue. A tiny smile tugged one side of his mouth upward.
And that brought the next phrase to mind, almost as if Maigret gave him the words.
He bent his head closer to the page and set down words:
Because of Lady Ariiell’s noble status, allowing her to become available to suitors at home and abroad for the purpose of marriage treaties advantageous to the realm and her family is something Your Grace should consider.
Then his mind went blank again.
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