Can we just start by saying that we are so excited to share this excerpt with you guys?! Mindee Arnett has written some amazing books in the past (we’re looking at you, AVALON), so we literally cannot wait for her new fantasy novel, especially after reading these first few chapters!! If you like your fantasy series to have a healthy dose of epic journey, imminent danger, forbidden magic, and will-they-won’t-they romance, then this is for you.
She’s the daughter of a man who tried to assassinate the king. He’s the song of the king her dad tried to murder. And they used to be in love. When she finds him the sole survivor of a massacre, their paths cross once more to save the kingdom from an even darker threat.
It’s epic, it’s magical, it’s brutal—and you can read the first few chapters now!
THE TRAITOR’S DAUGHTER
Out here, darkness meant death.
Kate Brighton urged her weary horse ever faster as night crept over the land of Rime. The gelding labored with the pace already, his pants like whipcracks in the air, and his shoulders and neck lathered with foamy white stripes. But they couldn’t stop, and they couldn’t slow down. They had to make it inside the city before the gates closed.
How much farther? Kate thought for the hundredth time, Farhold still nowhere in sight. The road wound between hills too tall to see beyond, the shadows deep and dark. The swaths of everweeps spilling down the slopes toward them were already drawing their petals closed, while the moon with its pale silvery ring peeked over the crest of the hills to the east like a watchful eye in the bruised face of the sky.
“Come on, Pip,” Kate whispered. She stood in the stirrups as she rode, her legs burning from the effort to keep her weight off the horse’s back. After so many hours in the saddle, her muscles felt like wood gone to rot.
Pip’s sleek ears twitched at the sound of her voice, but his pace remained the same. He had no more speed to give. It was more than fatigue. Even without her magic, Kate could sense the horse’s pain in the way his neck dipped whenever his left foreleg struck the ground. When she reached out with her abilities, though, Kate felt the pain as if it were her own, a hot throb running up from the base of the hoof. What must’ve started as a tiny fracture had only spread and worsened on their long journey.
Fear clutched at Kate’s heart. If the bone shatters . . . She cut the thought off before it could grow roots and spread.
The guilt was harder to keep at bay, though. If only they’d stayed a bit longer in the Relay tower, where she and Pip had spent the night on their return journey from Marared, a city more than fifty miles to the east. Another Relay rider would’ve come along to help them. The royal courier service of Rime kept strict protocols about searching for riders who failed to return with the mail they carried. Most riders who went missing were assumed killed by the nightdrakes that roamed the surface of Rime after sunset. The creatures ruled the night in this land, devouring any human or horse they could find. The only safety was behind the fortified walls of the cities and Relay towers or a magist wardstone barrier.
But she hadn’t sensed the injury. Pip had left the tower sound, if a little sluggish from the previous day’s ride. Then halfway to
Farhold—snap. The foot went from fine to on fire. At once Kate had dismounted and wrapped the leg with the cloth bandage she kept in her saddlebag. She wanted to stay put, fearing further damage, but they had to press on. She’d slowed their pace in an effort to keep it from worsening, but that too had been a mistake—one they were paying for now with this hellish race against the encroaching darkness. If she just had the power to halt the sun in its descent . . . but only Caro could do that, and she doubted the sky god was listening.
“We’re almost there,” Kate said, struggling to convey the complex idea to the horse. Although her gift allowed her to touch the minds of animals, and to even influence their behavior, making them understand wasn’t easy. Horses didn’t think in words and ideas but in images and feelings, a language much harder to speak in.
Still, for a few seconds she sensed something like relief from Pip, his steps a little lighter, his head a little higher. Then the road began to climb upward, and the horse fell out of the gallop into a trot. Kate resisted pushing him back into a run; Pip needed to catch his breath, and daylight still lingered, if only by a single brushstroke of pink on the sky ahead. Farhold can’t be much farther, she hoped. They’d been in the hills that formed the city’s eastern border for more than an hour now. But this was only her second time taking this route, and she couldn’t be certain. The Marared route, with its lengthy distance and taxing pace, was reserved for veterans, and Kate had only just made three years as a Relay rider for Farhold.
Nevertheless, her instinct proved true. When they finally crested the hill, she spotted Farhold’s towering stone wall less than a mile ahead. In the deepening darkness, the wardstones set in the embrasures at the top of the wall glowed bright as starlight. The magic inside each stone served a single purpose: to repel the nightdrake packs. No one knew where or how the drakes passed from under the earth to the surface, but they always appeared at dark and terrorized until dawn.
Kate ran her gaze over the cornfields on either side of the road, which started at the base of the hill and stretched all the way to the city. The green stalks, high as Pip’s knees, swayed in the breeze, making gentle whish-whish sounds. At least, Kate prayed it was the breeze. In the weak light, the stalks offered enough cover for the nightdrake scouts to venture out without fear of being burned by the sun. The smaller, more timid drakes of the pack, scouts always appeared first to spy for prey. With teeth like knives and claws like razors, a single scout could bring down a horse with little effort. The drakes came in every size. Some small as pigs, others large as horses. All of them deadly.
The path ahead appeared clear for now, and she allowed Pip to slow to a walk as they descended the hill, the pressure in his hoof too great for anything faster. Each step sent needling pain through both horse and rider. Kate wanted to withdraw from it, the agony making her dizzy, but she didn’t dare. Sharing the pain with Pip was the only way he would endure this final stretch. The horse had great heart, but even the strongest spirit couldn’t push a broken body forever.
With her nerves on edge, Kate kept her eyes on the fields, flinching at each twitch of the stalks. She retrieved the bow tied to the back of her saddle and held it crossways over her lap. The quiver on her back contained twelve arrows, half of them fashioned with ordinary steel tips and the other half bearing tips enchanted with mage magic, same as the wardstones. Piercing a nightdrake’s hide was no easy task—only arrows imbued with mage magic could do it from a distance. Pistols could as well, but they fired a single shot, which made them next to worthless against a pack. The remaining drakes would be on the shooter before she had time to reload.
Kate closed her legs around Pip’s sides, asking for more speed. He snorted and tossed his head in protest, the bit jangling in his mouth. She couldn’t blame him; the pain was more tolerable at this pace. For a second, she considered letting him stay at the walk, but then two sounds reached her ears. The first was the clang of Farhold’s evening bell, calling for the gates to close. The second was the distinctive screech of a nightdrake from somewhere behind them. Both had the same effect. Digging her heels into Pip’s side, Kate sent him a vision of an attacking drake. The horse had no trouble understanding the concept this time, and he charged into the gallop.
Turning in the saddle, Kate spotted a pair of bright, glistening eyes peering out from the stalks just behind them. The scout gave chase, flanking them on the left but staying hidden beneath the cover of the corn. For now. With her heart thrumming, Kate grabbed an arrow, nocked it, and loosed it, all in the span of a second. She missed, but it didn’t matter. Scouts spooked easily, and it backed off.
But there would be others. There always were.
Turning back around, Kate heard the wind shriek in her ears even louder than the bell. Ahead she saw the teams of oxen hitched to the insides of the gates, pulling them closed.
“Wait!” she shouted. “Wait!” Once the gates closed, they wouldn’t reopen until dawn—not for one lowly Relay rider. There was another way into the city, through the hidden mage door, but only mage magic could find and open it. Hers was wilder magic, outlawed and secret and good only for influencing animals.
If the men driving the oxen heard her, they didn’t respond. She urged Pip even faster, but the horse was failing by the second as the pain in his foreleg spread. She heard the rustle of corn behind her, louder than before. In the distance, the rest of the pack began to screech, closing in. Kate spied the Farhold guards waiting atop the wall with arrows nocked to repel the beasts should they approach the gate before it closed.
Come on, Pip. Gritting her teeth, Kate closed her eyes and went deeper into the horse’s mind until she found the very center of him, his essence. All animals possessed it—a glowing brightness like a burning candle that she could see and feel only through the eye of her mind and the magic that gave it sight. She found the brightness and wrapped her magic around it, shielding the horse from the pain. She took that pain into herself instead, gasping at the sensation. The ploy worked, and the horse shot ahead, his strides lengthening.
Moments later they charged through the narrow space between the gates and into the safety of Farhold. The gates thudded closed, sealing them in. Kate resisted the impulse to let go of the horse’s mind, fearing what the shock would do to him. She eased back on the reins and brought him to a halt. Then she slid from the saddle and slowly withdrew her magic. Immediately the horse began to tremble, struggling to stay upright with only three legs able to bear weight now.
Ignoring the curious looks from the Farhold guards, Kate led the horse forward, one slow, hobbling step at a time. The Relay house wasn’t far from the eastern gate, but it was like miles to poor Pip. Now that she’d withdrawn from his mind, he bore the pain in full, but she couldn’t risk maintaining the connection. There were magists in Farhold, same as in every city in Rime, and all of them carried enchanted stones designed to detect wilder magic. If they ever discovered what she could do, she would face imprisonment and execution, a fate she feared for more reasons than the obvious. Not that she would even be able to use her magic much longer today, with true night descending. Wilder magic worked only during the day. Like the everweeps on the hills outside, the power closed up inside her and would remain dormant until dawn.
Still, Kate did what she could to help the horse. Halting him, she removed both saddle and mailbag, slinging them over her shoulder despite the weight and her own weariness. She tried to find comfort in knowing that at least they’d made it into the city, but she couldn’t stop the tears stinging her eyes. She had done this. Broken this horse to save her own life.
By the time they arrived at the Relay house, the ringed moon had risen high overhead, drenching the cobbled street below in silver light. Irri, the goddess whose nightly charge it was to spin that shining orb, was hard at work. Kate wished for darkness, if only to hide her guilt. The iron gates into the stable stood closed and barred from the inside. She started to shout for entry when the door into the main house opened and a young man stepped out.
“You’re late, Traitor Kate,” Cort Allgood said in a mocking, jovial tone.
Kate ignored him. He used the name far too often for it to bother her like it once had.
A grin twisted Cort’s lips. “We thought you died. Even started making bets on it. You cost me more than a few valens.”
Clenching her teeth, Kate adjusted the mail pouch across her shoulder. Of all the people to be here now, why did it have to be him? The gods must hate me.
“Open the gate. Pip is lame.”
Cort examined the horse, cocking his head so that his blond curls bounced foppishly. Instead of his usual Relay rider uniform he wore a green tunic over breeches and tall black boots. The sight of his dapper appearance made Kate regret her own state of disarray. She smoothed down the front of her soiled tunic and brushed back raven-black hair from her face, where it had escaped the neat braid she’d plaited this morning.
“That horse isn’t lame,” Cort said, finishing his examination. “He’s good as dead.”
Kate’s hands balled into fists around the reins. “Open the gate.”
“How’d he get like that anyway?” Cort cocked his head in the other direction, his curls doing another ridiculous bounce. “You ride him off a cliff? Could’ve sworn they trained us not to do that.”
Turning to the gate, Kate opened her mouth to shout for someone else but stopped as Cort made a quick retreat. A moment later he appeared on the other side of the gate and swung it open.
“Come on, Pip. Just a little farther.” Kate tugged the horse forward.
“Poor thing.” Cort slapped the gelding on the rump, making him flinch. “But that’s what happens when you’re forced to carry a traitor.” Cort touched a mocking finger to his chin. “How does the Relay Rider’s Vow go again, Traitor Kate? The part about protecting the horse at all costs?”
She kept walking, head up and lips sealed, but her blood heated with every word he spoke. She had reason to hate Cort Allgood. He was the one who had first discovered who she really was: Kate Brighton of Norgard. Daughter of Hale Brighton, the man who tried to kill the high king of Rime.
The traitor’s daughter.
After her father was executed for his crimes, she’d come to Farhold hoping to escape her past, to start over with a new life and a new name. For the first ten months she’d managed it, but then Cort had seen an illustration of her in the Royal Gazette, a new monthly newspaper published by the royal court and sent to all the city-states that formed the kingdom of Rime. The story that accompanied the illustration marked the one-year anniversary of Hale Brighton’s attack on the king. Within days of its publication the anonymous Relay rider Kate Miller became Kate Brighton once more. She was lucky not to have been dismissed from the position.
“Then again, Traitor Kate,” Cort said, catching up with her, “if you had kept the vow, you would’ve ruined your reputation.” He paused, frowning. “You know, I’ve always wondered why it is your father did it. None of the stories ever say. Do you know why he did it?”
Kate ignored his question as well as the same one that echoed deep inside her. No, she didn’t know. She never would. The dead tell no truths, as the priests were fond of saying.
Spying a stable boy ahead, Kate waved him down. “Fetch Master Lewis.”
The boy looked set to argue, then changed his mind when he saw Pip stumble sideways, struggling to maintain his awkward three-legged balance. While the boy made a dash for the foreman’s quarters, Kate continued on, guiding Pip toward the eastern stable.
Cort started to follow her, another cutting remark on his lips, but someone shouted his name from across the way. He shouted back a response, then turned and addressed Kate.
“Well, I’m off, Traitor Kate. Good luck saving that doomed horse.”
“Shut up,” Kate said, her hold on her temper finally slipping. “He’s not doomed.”
Cort barked a triumphant laugh. “I’d say let’s make a wager on it, but there’s no sport in a fixed game.” He winked, then turned and jaunted off without another word.
I hope you choke on your own spit, Cort Allgood, she thought after him.
By the time Kate managed to get Pip inside the stable, the foreman had arrived. Small and lean as a tree branch, Deacon Lewis looked fit enough to still outride any of the riders in his charge, despite his years. Short-cropped black hair, tinged with silver, framed his angular face, his brown skin leathered with age. He was intimidating on a normal day, but in this moment, Kate could barely bring herself to look at him for fear of his judgment. Over and over again, she ran her hands down the front of her tunic, trying to make it lie flat, trying to give herself the shield a good appearance could bring.
At first, he stood examining the horse from a few feet away, acknowledging Kate with a glance. Then he came forward and ran his hand down Pip’s injured leg. The gelding hopped sideways, protesting the touch.
Sighing, Deacon let go of the leg and straightened up. “I’ll summon a healer,” he said, and his doubtful tone felt like a punch to Kate’s gut.
“I might be able to mend the bone,” the magist healer said sometime later. “But I doubt he’ll ever be sound for hard work again.” He straightened from his hunched position and smoothed his green robes, the mark of his order. The magestone he’d used to diagnose the horse’s injury remained fastened around Pip’s pastern on a piece of leather. It glowed bright red, pulsing like a heartbeat.
Kate stared at the green robe, frustrated that she couldn’t read his expression behind the mask he wore and despising his matter-of-fact tone. All magists wore masks, the cut and coverage of them signifying rank. This one’s covered his whole face, marking him a master, the very best of his order—and the most expensive.
“How much?” Deacon said, his face as expressionless as the magist’s. Nevertheless, the way he kept rubbing his fingers along the four scars on his left forearm betrayed his concern. The scars ran so deep, they made the muscles beneath look permanently twisted in a cramp. There weren’t many riders who survived a nightdrake attack, but Deacon had come through two in his long years with the Relay.
“Seventy valens,” the magist said.
A wrench went through Kate’s stomach. That was nearly as much as it would cost to replace the horse, and she knew what Deacon’s answer would be.
Forgetting her position, Kate touched Deacon’s arm. “Please, Master Lewis, let me pay for it. If you hold back my wages this month and the next, maybe—”
Deacon brushed her off and raised a hand for silence. He turned to the green robe. “Thank you for your services. We’ll pass on further treatment.”
The green nodded, then stooped to untie the piece of leather around Pip’s injured foot. The glow in the magestone faded the moment it was removed.
Once the green robe had gone, Kate wheeled on Deacon, unable to stay silent a moment longer. “Please reconsider. Please. I’ll do anything. I’ll give up a month’s salary. I’ll do extra rides for free, muck out the stables for the next year. Anything. Please, Master Lewis.”
Deacon turned to Kate, meeting her gaze for the first time, it seemed. “I’m sorry, Kate, but I can’t let you.”
“But, sir . . .” Tears burned in her eyes, making her cheeks flush. If she didn’t stop speaking she wouldn’t be able to hold them back. “He’s a good horse, and it’s my fault. I didn’t mean—”
“Hush now. There’s no place for such foolishness here.” Deacon folded his arms, fingers worrying at his scars again. “I know he’s your favorite, but Pip’s a working horse and only as good as his legs. If he were a mare, it would be a different story, but a lame gelding is worth more dead than alive.”
“But, sir, given time he could be sound again. He’s still young. If you just let me buy him, then maybe—”
“I said no, and that’s final.” Deacon glared down at her now, his dark eyes sharp enough to cut. “How would you feed him? Where would you keep him? He can’t stay here, and don’t tell me you’re paid so handsomely that you can afford to be wasteful with your coin, because I know better. No, I won’t let you sacrifice for
Kate flinched at every point he made, each harsh truth laid bare. He was right. She couldn’t afford the coin, and a part of her even understood the practicality of his reasoning. Saving a lame horse was more than pointless—it was wasted space, a great selfishness in a city already overfull with humans and animals both. There wasn’t room for anything that didn’t serve a purpose. Even the elderly and infirm were encouraged by the priests and priestesses to give their lives in sacrifice to the gods. But the rest of her had touched Pip’s very essence, had caressed his soul with her magic. That part couldn’t bear the idea of his death. A piece of her would die with him.
But she couldn’t tell Deacon any of that, not in a way that he would understand and accept. Although Deacon always treated her fairly, even after he learned who she really was, he wouldn’t tolerate her wilder magic if he ever found out. Wilders were outlaws, subject to the Inquisition.
Sagging in defeat, Kate swallowed. “Yes, sir.” She reached for Pip’s lead. He was her charge, and it was her responsibility to take him to the slaughterhouse. She’d never had to take a horse there before, and her fingers shook as she untied the rope.
Deacon took the lead from her, his expression softening. “Go home, Kate. I’ll see it done.”
Kate looked up at him, torn between what she knew she ought to do and what she wanted to do. But in the end, she couldn’t refuse his kind offer, the escape too welcome, too easy a path to choose any other.
She turned to Pip and ran a hand over his sleek neck, wishing she could touch his mind one more time, to give him the peace he deserved. He leaned into her touch, burying his muzzle in her belly. She stroked his nose for a moment, whispered good-bye into one velvety ear, then turned and walked away.
Shame and regret dogged each step she took on the way to her rented room, a few miles from the Relay house. Cort’s taunts echoed in her mind, taking on weight. It was true—as a Relay rider, she had vowed to always bring Pip back safely, to hold his life equal to her own. But she had broken that vow tonight, an act of betrayal as sure as any other.
Have I become my father? Did oath breaking run in her blood? She was so much like him. Even her magic was inherited from him. Hale Brighton had been master of horse to the high king, a position he’d earned with the help of his secret, forbidden gift. He’d been the king’s friend and liegeman, and yet he had tried to kill him. Kate didn’t know why, but there was no denying her father’s guilt. Just as there’s no denying mine. Traitor’s daughter. Traitor Kate.
Once again, she had lived up to her name.
The morning came too early, as it always did, night slipping away like a thief afraid of discovery. Fingers of sunlight pressed against Kate’s eyelids, and she rolled over out of their reach. It was more comfortable on this side, cooler, though the bed remained hard, nothing like the beds she used to sleep in. Memories disguised as dreams—of feathered mattresses wrapped in silken sheets and long luxurious mornings spent dozing only to be awakened by the smell of sugar-glazed sweet rolls—started to lull her back to sleep.
Then a more recent memory slid through her mind—of Pip, and the disaster of the night before. Kate groaned, coming fully awake. She forced her eyes open, breaking apart the crust of dried tears that had sealed her lashes together. The urge to renew that crying rose up in her, only to be shoved aside by a sudden jolt of alarm. The sun beyond the narrow window shone too brightly and too high in the sky, more than an hour past dawn. But the dawn bell didn’t ring! She was sure of it. She never slept through the loud gong that signaled the opening of the gates.
Panicked, Kate scrambled out of bed just as the door swung open and her roommate stepped in, carrying with her the faint, sweet stench of barberry wine.
“You’re still in bed?” Signe’s pale eyebrows climbed her forehead, almost disappearing into her golden-blond hair. “What happened?” Yawning, she gestured to Kate’s unmade bed. She wore a sleeveless jerkin and breeches, both disheveled from whatever activity had kept Signe away all night from their shared room.
“I don’t know.” Kate stooped and picked up the clothes she’d discarded on the floor the night before, their presence there, instead of carefully folded and put away, a telling sign of her distressed state of mind. Scowling at the soiled state of her Relay rider’s tunic—whoever thought light blue and horses was a good pairing should be drawn and quartered—she slid it on over her shift. “What time
“Nearly eight.” Signe stepped in and dropped onto the bed nearest the door. There wasn’t much room for standing and the two narrow beds were the only places for sitting. “If you hurry, you should make it to roll call.” Signe was a Relay rider too, and both of them knew the consequences of a late arrival. Fortunately for Signe, it was her day off.
“Gods, let it be so.” Kate pulled on the rest of her uniform of black breeches and overskirt, wishing she had time to rebraid her hair and wash the dirt from her face.
“Did you hear?” Signe asked, a gleam in her voice. “There’s a royal in the city.”
“What?” Kate’s hand stilled in the act of fastening her belt over the tunic.
Signe nodded, raising one leg to pull out the knife tucked inside her boot. She leaned back on the bed and idly began to toss the knife in one hand. “I don’t know who, but it must be someone important.”
“Obviously,” Kate said, breathless. A royal was in the city. A Tormane. But who? She shook the thought from her head. Whoever it might be was not her concern anymore. She’d left that life behind. “That explains it, though. The dawn bell doesn’t ring when there’s a royal in the city.”
“It doesn’t?” Signe cocked her head, birdlike. Even with her gaze fixed on Kate, she didn’t stop juggling the knife, catching it absentmindedly. Although they’d been friends for more than two years now, Kate had no idea where Signe had learned such a skill. She was from the Esh Islands and never talked about her life there or what had brought her to Rime, but Kate often suspected she’d either been a circus performer or a thief. “If I’d known that,” she continued, “I would’ve come home sooner to wake you. Why doesn’t it ring?”
Kate made a face. “Because royals don’t like to have their sleep disturbed so early.” That wasn’t precisely true, but she didn’t have time to explain the political nuances involved. Although there were kings in Esh, there weren’t sealed city gates. All the islands were free of the nightdrakes that plagued Rime after sunset.
Why did you ever leave? Kate wanted to ask, the memory of Pip ambushing her again. If the horse had been reared in Esh, he would still be alive.
She shoved the regret down deep inside her and headed for the door. “I’ve got to go.”
“Wait,” Signe said. “I brought you a gift.”
Kate turned back automatically, unable to resist her friend’s infectious enthusiasm. She gaped as she saw the object in Signe’s hand, a silver chain with a series of small colored stones fastened between the links. The magestones glowed faintly, the enchantment on them strong and new. “A moonbelt?”
Signe grinned. “I swore I would find you one.” She thrust out her hand. “Take it. And learn to enjoy life. Like I do.”
Against her better instincts, Kate accepted the moonbelt. The very hint of its purpose made her insides squirm like she’d swallowed a jar full of worms. It was indecent for an unmarried woman to possess one, let alone wear it.
“Uh, thanks, Sig, but I enjoy life enough already.” Kate tried to hand it back.
Signe brandished a finger at her like a whip. “Working all the time is not enjoyment.”
“It is if you’re me.” There was nothing Kate liked more than riding, and—last night aside—she loved working for the Relay. “Besides,” she added, “you know I’ve no need for it.”
A suggestive smile stretched across Signe’s face. “Yes, so now you must choose a nice boy for a plaything and create the need.”
Ignoring the blush creeping up her neck, Kate shoved the moonbelt into the single outside pocket on her overskirt, making sure it was hidden from view. She would put it on—or not—at the Relay house.
“I’ve got to go.”
Signe shooed her toward the door. “Yes, yes, may the luck of Aslar be with you.”
With a determined bent, Kate hoisted her overskirt and trotted down the narrow hallway to the even narrower staircase. If she was late to morning roll call, she would get bumped from her route by one of the other riders to either a less lucrative one or a more difficult one. The latter was the last thing she wanted, especially after the tragedy with Pip.
Grease hung thick as smoke in the air as Kate descended, the walls and railing slick with it. She would be slick with it too by the time she made it outside. A greasy face and hair were an inevitable consequence of renting a room in the Crook and Cup. So was the stench of boiling meat and ripe onion (a smell she despised) that lingered on her clothes nearly as strong as the ever-present scent of horse (a smell she loved). She and Signe would’ve preferred staying at the Relay house, but there wasn’t a bunk for women riders, only the men, who vastly outnumbered them.
Turning right into the kitchen, Kate darted between a cook and a serving girl on her way to the alley door. The cook shouted that she wasn’t supposed to be in here, but Kate batted her eyes at him and smiled before heading outside. She turned left down the alley, her boots splashing mud over the hem of her overskirt with each step, and soon reached Bakers Row.
“Oh hells,” she muttered at the congestion in the street. Always a little crowded, this morning Bakers Row looked like a fisherman’s net after a good catch, full of flailing, chattering people piled one next to the other. There were women in brightly colored gowns embroidered with lace and with long gaped sleeves, and men sporting velvet or silk tunics and boots polished to a high sheen. Jewelry hung from belts and around necks, some glowing with mage magic designed to enhance beauty or hide disfiguration, others merely glinting in the sun. Kate clucked her tongue in dismay. Such finery had no business in a marketplace as common as Bakers Row.
One man, a merchant by the looks of him, wore a sash made from the carcass of a small nightdrake. The reptilian head hung over the man’s shoulder with its fanged mouth fastened to the scaly tail, and its body wrapped crossways over his back and chest. Shiny black stones had been placed in the eye sockets, making it look alive. Kate suppressed a laugh at the absurdity of such a person wearing such a trophy. No one would believe this portly, gray-bearded man had actually killed the drake.
She pushed her way into the crowd, elbowing sides and stepping on toes without care. The royal is to blame for this, she realized. Why else would everyone bother with such finery if not with the hope of impressing whichever of the Tormanes was here? Not that they’re likely to be seen right now. In her experience, the nobility preferred to breakfast late in the quiet comfort of whatever palace or stately home was grand enough to host them.
With her agitation building, Kate couldn’t keep the glare from her face. Some of the people stepped out of the way at the sight of her blue tunic with the silver galloping horse on the left breast, but most did not. A Relay rider uniform commanded respect only from atop a horse and with a full mail pouch in tow—the contents of those pouches too important to impede, containing everything from personal missives to newsletters to royal decrees.
Booths and vendor carts lined both sides of the streets, some beneath canopies, some leaning with off-angled sides, but all displaying savory wares like sweet buns, pumpkin-glazed crumpets, or flatbreads slathered with butter and honey. The smell of yeast and sugar filled Kate’s nose, making her stomach quiver. She’d been too distraught last night to eat, and hunger sabotaged her now when there was no time to assuage it.
As she reached the end of Bakers Row, turning onto Copperfield, Kate began to silently curse the royal for all the congestion. Nothing brought out a crowd as quickly as the chance to ogle one of the Tormanes, especially way out here in Farhold, where they so rarely journeyed. She wanted to scream aloud how foolish everyone was being, that they were wasting their time—and hers.
But when she reached the intersection with Main Street, she realized she might be the foolish one. A row of city guardsmen standing at parade rest blocked the road ahead. In the distance Kate heard the trill of trumpets, sounding the approach of a royal procession.
Damn them all, she thought, picturing every member of the Tormane family in her mind. Well, not everyone. There was one she refused to picture. One she chose to believe did not exist.
Kate glanced behind her, weighing her options. Nearly everyone towered above her, and they were all pushing forward, vying for a spot near the intersection. The only option was to sneak across Main Street somehow, and her short stature would be an advantage. She ducked under the arm of the woman in front of her, then jostled her way forward until she reached the guardsmen. They stood with their backs to her, their cloaks so dark a shade of green they were almost black. Kate couldn’t see beyond to determine how far the procession still was, but it didn’t matter. She refused to be late, especially after last night. Taking a deep breath, she dashed between the guards onto the empty street.
“Stop!” someone shouted, but Kate plunged on, counting on her size and quickness to keep her from being caught.
Once again, her assumption proved wrong. Whether motivated by the approaching royal or perhaps just favored by the gods, one of the guards managed to grab the end of her braid. The sudden jerk against her scalp yanked her off-balance, and she landed hard on her rump, a shock arching up her spine and into her neck. Her teeth clanked together, catching her bottom lip, and the iron taste of blood filled her mouth.
“Get her up,” one of the men yelled. “Prince Corwin is almost here.”
The sound of that name struck Kate like a cattle whip. She clambered to her feet, ready to claw and bite her way free if she had to. Anything to get out of here before the procession reached them.
But it wasn’t to be. The guard still had hold of her braid, his fingers twisted cruelly around her black hair. “What were you thinking?” He gave the braid another jerk. “And you, a Relay rider. You ought to know better.”
“Let me go.” Kate craned her neck, pulling uselessly against his hold.
“Get her off the street!” another guard called. “They’re here.”
Kate stopped fighting and let herself be dragged off to the side, where two of the guards stepped in front of her, shielding her from view.
“Please let me go,” Kate said, hating the plea in her voice but desperate for escape. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble. I’m going to be late. I’m—”
“Be quiet.” Another tug on her braid, this one hard enough to make her yelp.
She bit back the sound, her heart sinking as she realized it was too late anyway. The procession had reached them. As always, the prince rode up front, flanked by a dozen men on horseback. Some wore the livery of the governor of Farhold and some wore that of Norgard, the home city of the royal family. Kate’s home city.
No, not anymore.
Dropping her gaze, she fixed her eyes on the prince’s warhorse, a tall bay with a white strip on its face. An ache squeezed her chest at the sight of it. The horse had been sired by Shadowdancer, her father’s prized stallion. She would’ve known the breeding anywhere. Looking away, she told herself she would be all right once they passed.
The discordant clop of steel-shod hooves striking the cobblestones halted. Again, Kate refused to look up. Dear gods, make me small. Sweet Farrah, goddess of night and shadows, make me invisible.
“What’s the commotion here?” It was the familiar voice of Governor Prewitt, the most powerful person in Farhold. “You there, step forward and explain.”
Kate braced as her captor pushed her out of the shadows of the intersection and onto the cobbled street once more.
“Apologies, lord governor.” The guard bowed low, forcing Kate to do the same with another harsh tug on her braid. “This Relay rider tried to break through our line.”
“Ah, yes, the riders are always in such a hurry,” a new voice said. This one familiar, too. It was deeper, more mature than the last time she’d heard it, but still unmistakable.
Prince Corwin. The sound stirred emotions long buried inside her—anger aged to bitterness, and something else she refused to name.
“But surely,” the prince continued, “no harm has been do—”
Looking up was a mistake, but Kate couldn’t help it.
Corwin stared down at her, his mouth falling open and his eyes widening in shock.
Kate stared back. Her heart had become a separate living creature inside her body. It thrashed and quaked. There were so many things she wanted to say. You let my father die. You ruined my life.
You broke my heart.
She shoved the last away. That thought didn’t belong to her. Not anymore.
“Do you know this girl, your highness?” Governor Prewitt asked.
The prince didn’t answer. His pale-blue eyes, like winter sky, remained fixed on her, and his jaw worked back and forth as he took in her appearance. Kate’s stomach roiled at what he must see—dirty tunic, mud-caked skirt, hair in disarray. She’d imagined this scene a hundred times before, the day her path crossed his again, but she always pictured herself with an impeccable appearance, the undeniable air that she was fine, that she had triumphed over the hardships he’d helped bring down on her. Instead she looked one step above a beggar wallowing in the gutter.
Belatedly she realized there was blood on her lips, and she wiped it off. With her confidence shattered, Kate looked away, her eyes refusing to be still in her growing nervousness. She swept her gaze over the crowd, which was pressing in for a better look, voices murmuring as someone recognized her.
Traitor Kate . . . Traitor Kate . . .
“Your highness?” Governor Prewitt prodded. “Do you know this young woman?”
Kate glanced back, her gaze on Corwin. He was as handsome as ever, with his dusky blond hair and a tanned face chiseled by the gods—each angle and plane designed to complement the other, from the high cheekbones to the angular jaw. All except for his nose, which was more crooked than she remembered, and the thin, white scar across his chin. The source of these injuries was a mystery no one had solved. The newspapers out of Norgard had nicknamed him the Errant Prince, thanks to the way he had vanished for nearly two years. He’d returned some few months ago, to wild speculation as to where he’d been and what he’d done. To Kate’s dismay, the scars only added to his attractiveness. Damn him.
“No,” Corwin finally said. “I don’t know her.”
The words were a slap, and Kate lowered her gaze to his horse. Temptation called out to her. One little push with her magic and she could fill the horse with an inescapable desire to dump its rider. A poor vindication, but better than none.
“But neither would I begrudge her a livelihood,” Corwin added. “Let her go.”
“As you wish.” The Governor cocked his head toward Kate’s guard, and he released her braid at last.
She dropped into a quick bow, then started to turn, ready to run.
“Wait a moment, rider,” a new voice called. “You’ve dropped something.”
Against her better judgment, Kate stopped and glanced behind her. The speaker rode beside Corwin, atop another of her father’s horses. A hunting falcon perched on the man’s shoulder, its head covered in a black hood. Kate didn’t recognize the nobleman, with his black hair and bronzed complexion. His tunic of soft, slick wool dyed red and trimmed in gold piping bore no insignia. He was pointing at the ground in front of the horses with an amused expression.
Kate’s gaze shifted to the glow rising up from the cobblestones. The moonbelt. She touched her skirt pocket, hoping she was mistaken, but only fabric met her hand. A blush heated her neck, inching upward.
“Is that yours?” the nobleman asked.
Kate stooped to retrieve the moonbelt, returning it to her pocket with fingers gone clumsy. Whispers from the crowd reached her ears, coaxing her blush to spread. Trying to ignore them, she stood up straight and raised her head.
She had nothing to be ashamed of. She was no longer the kind of girl who needed to worry about reputation. So what if she might have a “plaything,” as Signe put it. So what if she might seek physical comfort and pleasure. This was who she was. Kate Brighton. Rider for the Relay.
I am Traitor Kate, she thought, drawing strength from the name for once.
“Thank you, my lord.” Relieved at how steady she sounded, Kate bowed again.
The man’s grin widened. To her annoyance, he was every bit as handsome as the prince. A magestone glistened in his left ear, and she wondered what the magic in it was concealing.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “And best of luck to you on all your endeavors—both work and leisure.”
Several in the crowd laughed at the innuendo, and the falcon on the man’s shoulder shifted nervously at the noise. Kate risked a glance at Corwin. His expression was inscrutable, but cold fire seemed to burn in his eyes.
Once again Kate considered using her magic. She could spook all the horses, reducing this band of noblemen to a gaggle of fools trying to stay astride. No one would know. Horses spooked all the time, for all sorts of reasons.
Then she spotted the master magist riding at the back of the procession, his face obscured behind the full white mask. His blue robes marked him a member of the defensive order, one of the most powerful and dangerous. Like all the magists in every order—blue, green, brown, red, white, and gold—he carried a mace, its head embedded with magestones, including one that would flare into life in the presence of wilder magic.
Fear doused her anger as quickly as cold water on hot steel. Never use your gift where someone can see, Katie girl, she heard her father saying as clearly as if he were standing beside her now. She couldn’t believe how close she’d come to doing it. If she had, this disaster of a day would’ve turned into something much worse.
As if to emphasize this truth, the loud clang of the bells sounded, chiming the arrival of the eighth hour. She was officially late. Kate allowed herself one last dark look at the prince, then turned and walked away, feeling as if something inside her had broken.
Yes, this morning had indeed come too early. She wished it had never come at all.
Prince Corwin sighed in relief when he and his escort arrived at Farhold’s southern gates without further incident. Two massive owl statues, the symbol of Farrah, patron goddess of Farhold, perched atop either side of the gates, their wings raised toward one another to form an archway through which visitors would exit. The wall of this remote city was among the most impressive in all of Rime. Fifty feet tall and ten feet thick, it boasted iron reinforcements at every measure.
Even more impressive than the size of the wall was the number of wardstone embrasures built into it. Hardly more than four feet existed between each one and its neighbor. Farhold’s forefathers had taken the defense of the city against nightdrakes very seriously. If a bit optimistically, Corwin thought. There might be an abundance of embrasures, but only one in three currently bore active wardstones. The enchanted rocks glowed with varying levels of intensity, some bright as the full moon and others hardly visible in the morning sun. He wondered if the city had ever possessed enough wealth to keep an active wardstone in every embrasure. The sight would be something to behold, the entire place luminescent with magic.
He wished for that distraction now—anything to block the memories intruding into his mind. Kate Brighton was here, in Farhold. The knowledge made him tense. He’d never dreamed he would see her again, no matter how many times his thoughts had turned to her over the past three years—questions of where she was, how she was faring.
Does she ever think of me?
It seemed he finally had his answers, to at least some of those questions.
Traitor Kate, they call her. A terrible mix of regret and guilt squeezed his chest. She was as beautiful as he remembered—raven-black hair, skin sun-kissed to a golden hue, and large, large eyes, the color of amber. But older. Aged. She’d been sixteen the last time he’d seen her, himself just a year ahead. She is nineteen now, he realized, a woman. He remembered the vivacious girl she’d been before, quick to laugh and to speak her mind, with the swift temper of a sudden summer storm. Now she seemed thin and worn—hard. Like leather boiled until all the soft suppleness was leached from it.
Doubtless the years had not been kind to her. Once, her prospects had been guaranteed. She’d been born into the gentry: those of the lesser nobility who possessed no title, only land. With her father being master of horse to the high king, her family had both wealth and respect. Until the day Hale Brighton tried to murder Corwin’s father. Now Kate’s prospects went no further than her next ride. Being a Relay rider was a respectable profession, at least, if a dangerous one.
Or maybe the years have not been that hard, he considered, remembering the moonbelt. It was an expensive piece, one bestowed on her from some wealthy lover, perhaps, maybe even a husband. Jealousy prickled inside him, and he shoved everything out of his mind once and for all. Kate Brighton is not my concern.
Corwin turned his attention to the fine, bright morning. Now that they were outside the city, a faint breeze kept the heat at bay. And it was blessedly quiet, the noisome trumpeters left behind at the gate. Of all the annoyances he had to endure during this peacekeeping tour his elder brother had forced him on, the trumpets were the worst. They were so piercingly loud and pretentious, he could barely stomach even the idea of them. And yet he had to endure it. Everywhere he went, there they were, ready to give proclamation of his presence. I’m lucky they don’t announce my trips to the privy.
It was all so absurd. These people looked on him like he was someone who mattered, who could change their lives. He wasn’t. His brother, Edwin, was the prince who could do that, a fact they would come to accept in time, as he finally had.
Farmland lined both sides of the main road leading away from Farhold. To the left, rough, sturdy fences marked individual fields, penning in cattle, sheep, or goats. The animals would graze through the day, until the shepherds herded them back into their pens and stables inside the city shortly before dusk. The next morning they would return to graze again. To the right of the road, neatly partitioned plots held crops of every kind—soybeans, corn, wheat, even cotton.
Corwin had seen similar fields when he arrived at Farhold, but it had been nearly twilight, and he was too concerned with trying to make it into the city before full dark to be impressed by the diversity of this area, one he’d never visited until now. Most of the city-states of Rime relied on one primary export. For Andreas it was coal; for Aldervale, lumber. His own city, the capital, Norgard, produced livestock—mostly horses to support its military strength.
Corwin turned toward Governor Prewitt. “I’ve always heard rumors that Farhold is completely self-sustaining. I see now that might be true.”
Prewitt smiled, broadening his already broad face. His wide, flat nose huddled between ruddy cheeks. “Indeed it is, your highness. We have meat, crops, clothing. There’s even an open iron pit a few miles west, right at the foothills of the Ash Mountains.”
“Impressive.” For a second Corwin almost added that he would like to see it, but he changed his mind. If he said it, the governor would make it happen, and that would mean another day in Farhold. As interesting as the city might be, he’d been here long enough already, and he was due to visit three more cities of the western province before making the long journey home. He tired of the slow pace and the constant decorum. Even now he felt the urge to loosen his grip on Stormdancer’s reins and touch his heels to the warhorse’s sides.
As if Corwin had spoken the desire out loud, his friend, Dallin Thorne, leaned over in his saddle toward him and whispered, “Shall we ask the good governor to let us ride ahead? Such a wide-open road begs for a race.”
Corwin grinned. For a moment, he wanted nothing more than to indulge in the diversion. But then he remembered that his brother’s spies were among the guards, eagerly waiting to inform Edwin of Corwin’s every misstep on this tour. There’d been several already, such as in Eetmark when he overindulged in wine during the farewell banquet and ended up calling the high chancellor a worthless ass. Never mind that it was true—what else could you call a man who decided that rather than rebuild the orphanage that burned down, he would erect a new temple to Eetolyn in its place? Surely, any goddess worthy of worship would value caring for children more than some new shrine, but then again, the sex rites practiced by the Eetolyn priestesses no doubt swayed him. He’s still a worthless ass, Corwin thought, but nevertheless, he didn’t want to give his brother any more material with which to berate him upon his return.
“Or,” Dal said, his voice dropping to the level of conspiracy, “would you prefer to wait and race with the pretty rider we met in the city? The one you claimed not to know?”
Corwin’s fingers tightened around the reins as Kate’s face ap-
peared in his mind once again.
Dal clucked his tongue at Corwin’s silence. “No one believed you, you know. They were just too mindful of your station to contradict such an obvious lie.” He spoke more freely now, as their Norgard warhorses had already outpaced the others on their shorter-
legged, lesser-breed mounts. Dal winked. “But no mind. I will get the truth out of you sooner or later, I promise.”
Corwin rolled his eyes. “I don’t doubt it.” Dal had become his closest friend in the years since Kate was exiled, but he’d known Kate much longer. His relationship with her began as a childhood friendship, one built on rivalries over who could ride faster, fight better. Later, that friendship grew intimate, stolen kisses and secret touches. Then her father had nearly slain his and changed things between them forever.
“And I think I will enjoy the telling,” Dal added as he raised his gloved right arm to his shoulder, encouraging Lir to step onto it. He removed the falcon’s hood, then stretched out his arm, releasing Lir’s jesses as the falcon launched into the air. Dal watched Lir’s progress for a moment before returning his gaze to Corwin. “She might’ve been a dirty little thing, but still pleasant to gaze upon, and with a mouth made for kissing.”
Corwin hid his prickling nerves behind a dry cough. “You would do best not to think about that one’s mouth. Seems to me the girl didn’t appreciate our presence much. Or did you not notice?”
“Me? Of course not. Unlike you, I don’t know her.” Dal paused, running a hand over the stubble on his chin, its presence a poor attempt to disguise the too-perfect hue of his skin on the left side of his face where the magestone in his ear hid his scars. “So you do have an acquaintance with her mouth then. This is good news. It seems to me the girl is willing for such a diversion as kissing, given the moon—”
“No.” Corwin cut his friend a hard look. “I have no acquaintance, and I don’t care about her diversions.”
“Oh yes. Clearly.” Dal winked again, no doubt delighted that he’d finally gotten a rise out of Corwin. Such reactions were not easy to provoke in him. But Dal would not be Dal if he didn’t try. Corwin both loved and hated him for it. Without him, Corwin feared he would spend far too many days brooding inside his own mind. Dal had a way of smoothing Corwin’s rough edges.
“Why did I bring you along on this again?” Corwin said, cocking his head.
“Self-preservation.” Dal placed a hand over his heart. “You would die of boredom without me.”
“If I recall, you were the one who begged me to come. Something about adventure and amusements.”
Dal gave a mock bow. “Whatever version of the truth your highness prefers.”
Shaking his head, Corwin slowed Stormdancer until he once again rode side by side with Prewitt. “How long before we reach the Gregors’ manor, lord governor?”
“Quarter of an hour, I would guess.” Prewitt frowned. “Is your highness sure you don’t wish to send a rider ahead to announce your arrival? Showing up like this is a great discourtesy.”
“Yes, I daresay it is,” Corwin replied. He would’ve loved not to be doing it at all, but attempting to discover why Marcus Gregor, former governor of Farhold and one of his father’s greatest supporters, suddenly chose to withdraw from public life was part of what had prompted Edwin to include a stop in Farhold as part of this peacekeeping tour. The tour was to be Corwin’s recompense for the trouble he’d caused by disappearing these last few years. His punishment came in the form of endlessly facing all the duties he’d avoided in his long absence. Duties like trying to smooth the ruffled feathers of some pompous old man too proud to voice his complaints directly to the high king.
Then again, he didn’t like to think what his punishment would’ve been if the truth of where he’d been was ever made known. Instinctively, his gaze dropped to the vambrace he wore around his right wrist, hiding the tattoo beneath.
Corwin forced his eyes up again and sighed. “However, as Lord Gregor has refused to commit to seeing me, I’m afraid springing on him unannounced is the only way forward.”
Prewitt cleared his throat. “Yes, of course, but as Gregor no doubt has his reasons for staying away, I wouldn’t expect a warm welcome.”
Corwin didn’t. Faith in the high king was low throughout all of Rime. Orwin Tormane had never fully recovered from the assassination attempt. The wound he’d suffered at Hale’s hand lingered, a festering corruption that had robbed him of his health, both in body and mind.
Dal slowed his horse to join them. “I don’t see how anyone would dare such disrespect toward the royal family.”
“That is because you were born in the time of high kings, my lord Thorne, and you come from the east.” Prewitt laughed, the sound guileless and surprisingly pleasant, the kind of laughter one felt inclined to join in. “Things are different in Farhold. Before the Sevan Invasion, we were not a people used to bowing to kings.”
Dal’s brow furrowed. “But the invasion was fifty years ago, and we’ve had a high king ever since.”
Prewitt laughed again. “I’m sure it seems an awful long time to someone so young, but remember that before the cities united under the high king, we ruled ourselves for more than a thousand years. That’s a long time to forget.”
“Oh, I remember my history lessons,” Dal said drily. “A thousand years of war and bloodshed. No wonder the cities are so reluctant to serve the high king.”
Corwin shot Dal a look, sick of the subject already. For weeks now, all he’d heard was how there was unrest in the west, protests in the cities over the high king’s rule, tax strikes among the merchants, and the growing threat of the Rising. He wanted to cover his ears and hum a tune just for a moment’s peace.
Prewitt shrugged, his expression placating. “Not that we aren’t learning to appreciate the new way of things. High King Orwin is a worthy ruler, and every day we reap the benefits of our united cities. Such as the bridge he’s commissioned for the Redrush.”
Corwin made a mental note of how easily Prewitt changed the subject, a mark of a skilled politician. Edwin would hold him in high esteem. Especially as it was Edwin and not their father who had commissioned the bridge. Orwin ruled in name only these days.
“Yes, the bridge is a marvel of engineering and an industrious decision as well,” Prewitt continued, nodding. Despite the breeze, beads of sweat dotted the top of his bald head. “It will make the journey to Andreas easier for the entire realm and free us all from reliance on unreliable ferrymen.”
And it will bring in a hefty sum to the royal coffers, Corwin silently added, once Edwin levies the toll. He wondered what Prewitt would make of that when he found out.
“The Relay riders will appreciate it most of all, I believe,” Dal said. He waggled his eyebrows at Corwin. “Wouldn’t you agree, highness?”
“For certain,” Corwin said, ignoring the implication.
They turned off the main road, following a narrower path through a copse of trees dense enough to be called a wood. A strange smell on the air teased Corwin’s memory. He tried to determine the source but couldn’t with the sweet scent of everweeps so strong here, dozens of the colorful flowers growing wherever sunlight reached the ground. Nevertheless, something about that underlying smell made him uneasy.
When they emerged from the trees a few minutes later, Corwin’s unease turned to alarm. Ahead, the Gregor manor house sat in the middle of a wide clearing. Three stories high and half again as wide, the house was nothing but a charred husk. Smoke still billowed up from several of the gables.
Fire, Corwin thought, his mind finally connecting the memory to the smell—and burned flesh. His stomach threatened to rebel, and he turned his breathing shallow. For a second he was sixteen again, surrounded by terrified shouts as fire raged through the central marketplace of Norgard. He heard his mother screaming, ordering him to climb the roof, to save—
No, don’t go there now, he told himself and, with an effort, pushed the memory away.
Governor Prewitt’s mouth fell open, his jowls quivering. “What happened here?”
“Death and destruction,” Dal said on a puff of air.
“But who? And how?” Corwin moved his eyes off the house to examine the wall surrounding it. The fine hairs on his neck stood up as he saw that every wardstone set in the wall had been smashed to pieces. This wasn’t an accidental fire—the place had been attacked. Although the wall here stood easily fifteen feet high, that wasn’t nearly tall enough to keep out nightdrakes. Only the wardstones could do that, and someone had deliberately destroyed them. Corwin swept his gaze over the destruction to see that the gate had been blasted apart.
Several of the men riding with them exchanged looks and whispers. “Was it nightdrakes that done this?”
“No, couldn’t’ve been. They don’t really breathe fire, you know.”
“They used to.”
“That’s just superstition.”
“Wilders must’ve done it.”
The Rising, Corwin thought, tension spreading through him.
Governor Prewitt silenced the chatter with a wave of his hand. “You four, sweep the perimeter. The rest of you head in to investigate. We need to see if anyone is yet alive in there.”
Corwin doubted it. The house looked gutted, every visible surface charred and every window shattered. Wilders. It seemed the only explanation. These last few months, the high council had received dozens of reports about so-called Rising attacks from all across Rime. But they were mostly small skirmishes, raids on caravans or personal assaults on members of the Mage League. He’d never heard of them striking so big and neutral a target as this freeholding. On the contrary, from what he’d gleaned, the Rising was little more than a disjointed idea, one picked up here and there by wilders living in fear of discovery by the Inquisition, not a true underground movement. Even their symbol—a lion haloed by a rising sun, left painted on walls or carved into trees—varied widely in its depiction from city to city.
Spying a hole in the ground a few feet ahead, Corwin guided Stormdancer toward it. The horse crow-hopped nervously as Corwin tried to steer him near enough to see into the hole. In seconds he understood the horse’s reluctance—the hole went so deep he couldn’t make out the bottom.
“It must be the Rising,” Dal said, bringing his mount to a halt next to Corwin. His voice held a note of awe. It was like the ancient stories come to life—wilders who could rain down fire, summon winds and lightning, even rip the earth asunder. Some of the stories claimed that during the War of Three, a conflict that preceded the Sevan Invasion by more than two hundred years, the wilders cut holes so deep that the first nightdrakes were able to rise up from the three hells themselves.
“Why would the Rising attack the Gregors?” Corwin said.
“As an affront to the high king,” Prewitt said, almost matter-of-fact. “Lord Marcus is your father’s greatest supporter in the west.”
Was, Corwin thought, not is. He turned Stormdancer toward the opened entrance into the manor, scanning the charred wood for the sign of the sun lion in any of its variations but finding nothing.
“Um, your highness,” Governor Prewitt said. “Would it not be best for you to stay out here until we determine all is safe?”
Corwin pulled his sword free of the scabbard belted at his waist. He held it up, steel glinting in the sunlight. He wore a pistol too, but he could carry only one weapon and still steer a horse. The pistol held a single shot—the sword could be used many times. His buckler he left hanging from the side of his saddle, at the ready should he need it.
“Maybe,” Corwin said, “but I’m not going to.”
“But your highness. You’ve no armor, no—”
Corwin rode forward, ignoring the governor’s protests. If wilders were responsible for this, it was his duty, both personal and public, to bring them to justice. He saw his mother’s face again, the fear etched across her brow just as the crowd swept over her, trampling her in their mad need to flee the fire—one set by a wilder determined to harm as many people as he could. And that was before the wilders began to organize into this Rising. No, Corwin would not stand idly by now.
Dal joined him at once. “Thank the gods. Thought I might expire from curiosity.” He pulled free his sword as well. Although he wore an eager, boyish expression, he carried his weapon with the surety of a man who knew how to use it. Which he did, all too well. Both of them did. It was a skill that had bonded them together during their adventures away from Rime.
The smell worsened as they passed through the gate into the bailey. Corwin blinked the sting of smoke out of his eyes and breathed through his mouth, trying not to focus on the stench of burned flesh. Stormdancer snorted in protest, nostrils flaring. Bodies littered the bailey, scattered here and there like desecrated statues. It was impossible to count their numbers. Several of them had burned together, loved ones clinging to each other through the end. Corwin couldn’t understand why so many were caught in the fire. With so much stone in the house’s structure, surely there would’ve been ways to escape before the fire spread. Then the explanation came to him—it must have been more wilder magic.
Corwin and Dal headed to the right, with the rest of the Tormane guards following behind them, while Prewitt’s men swept the left. Dal stared down at the bodies as they passed, but Corwin kept his gaze up and forward, paying as much attention to Stormdancer’s ears as he did to everything else. If there was danger ahead, Storm would give him early warning. The warhorse was uneasy, his neck arched and back tense, each step punctuated by a snort.
They rounded the first corner only to find the destruction continued on. More bodies were scattered about, charred to unrecognizable husks. In the distance, what remained of the postern gate hung open, three-quarters of it blown away. The attackers must have surrounded the house.
Hearing a noise beyond the gate, Corwin tightened his grip on his sword and steered Storm toward it. Once on the other side, he spotted a bonfire burning ahead. A man knelt beside the fire, but the moment he spotted them, he leaped up and bolted.
“Stop!” Corwin dug his heels into Storm’s sides and reined him after the stranger, who disappeared down a narrow path through the woods. Giving pursuit, Corwin swept his gaze through the trees on the lookout for other enemies. His knees brushed tree trunks and bushes, branches scraping through his hair like grasping fingers. Still, Stormdancer made ground on the man easily. They were almost upon him when the path opened up into a clearing.
Reaching the man, Corwin leaned over in the saddle and grabbed the back of his tunic. Corwin kicked his feet free of the stirrups and tackled the stranger to the ground. Storm halted at once, as he’d been trained to do. Corwin quickly stood and pointed his sword down at the man lying facedown in the grass.
“Roll over slowly and look at me.”
The man obeyed, shifting awkwardly onto his back. Corwin held the sword steady, his gaze unmoving even as Dal and the others arrived. Out of the corner of his eye, Corwin watched Dal fetch Stormdancer for him, securing the horse’s reins.
“Who are you?” Corwin said.
The stranger shook his head, which was as bald as Governor Prewitt’s. Pockmarks and dirt spotted his face while blood and char covered his tunic. His right sleeve had been torn away at the elbow, exposing a muscled forearm rimmed with a blue tattoo.
Corwin brought the sword closer to the man’s throat. “I won’t ask again: Who are you and what are you doing here?”
In answer, the man opened his mouth, but only a garbled sound came out, a red pit where his tongue should’ve been.
“What in the three hells is going on?” Dal said, joining Corwin.
Corwin stepped back, giving the man room to stand. “Get up.”
The man did so, limbs trembling. Corwin frowned, surprised by the depth of his fear. Surely he knew that if Corwin was going to kill him, he would’ve done it already.
“Watch out, Corwin!” Dal shouted, making a grab for the man, who had reached into his pocket for a weapon. His hand came out empty save for a puff of smoke. For a second, Corwin thought the stranger was summoning fire, but then he saw it was magic of a different kind entirely. Just what, he didn’t know, but he stumbled back from it in fear.
The smoke transformed into two long black tendrils like snakes. They slid into the man’s mouth, disappearing down his throat. He began to scream as black lines spread over his face and down his arms, following the flow of his veins. Those veins swelled until they burst, breaking through the skin with blood blackened to tar. The man’s screams abruptly ended, and he fell to the ground in a messy pile.
Covering his mouth, Corwin turned away from the sight. Around him, the others gasped and shuddered, several of them gagging. At least one man vomited.
Governor Prewitt and the rest finally arrived. “What happened?” Prewitt said. He dismounted, feet striking the grass with an audible thud, and handed his horse’s reins to one of the guards before approaching the body. Corwin relayed the story while around him the guards made warding gestures.
After several seconds of examination, Prewitt announced, “This man was from Andreas.”
Taking a steadying breath, Corwin forced his gaze onto the body. “How do you know?”
“This tattoo.” Prewitt indicated the blue ink wrapped around the man’s forearm, barely visible on the ruined skin. “It’s a miner’s mark. All who work in the mines in Andreas receive one. The ink glows in the dark, making their bodies easy to find if there’s an accident or they lose their way.”
Across from them, Dal wrinkled his nose. “That’s rather unpleasant.” He picked up the magestone whistle around his neck and blew it. No sound came out, at least none that the men could hear, but somewhere overhead, Lir let out a cry in answer to the silent summons.
“But what sort of magic was that smoke?” Corwin said. “I’ve never seen something like that. I thought wilders could only manipulate the elements . . . fire, earth, air, and water.”
“And sometimes spirit,” Prewitt said. “That’s what the oldest tales say.”
“No wilder born with spirit has been seen for centuries.” Dal stretched out his arm to catch Lir as she landed.
“Quite right, Lord Thorne,” said Prewitt with a bob of his head. “They haven’t been seen.”
Corwin considered the implication. It was true that wilders lived in hiding. The eradication of their kind was one of the Mage League’s primary purposes, one they’d grown even more successful at these last three years since the inception of the Inquisition and the formation of the gold order. Before it, wilders were condemned only once they’d been discovered performing wild magic. Now, the League actively searched them out. Every city and freeholding in Rime was bound by royal decree to allow the gold robes to examine their citizens, regardless of age. Could it be that there were those with spirit abilities who had simply managed to avoid being caught all this time? Corwin didn’t know. But with magic like he’d just seen, he supposed anything was possible. He knew a dozen men or more who would give their right hands to possess such a weapon.
“Lord governor,” one of the guards shouted, bursting into the clearing to join them. “The fire that man was tending had a nightdrake corpse in it.”
Corwin, Prewitt, and Dal followed the guard back to the fire. Corwin fixed his eyes on the charred pieces. The guard was right—there was a drake corpse among the debris. Still, he couldn’t make sense of it. Drakes couldn’t have done this. So why were there corpses here? Nightdrakes scavenged their dead. Why burn them? It was like trying to solve a puzzle with misshaped pieces.
“What would you have us do, your highness?” Governor Prewitt asked.
Corwin didn’t answer at first, uncomfortable with the question and the responsibility that fell to him. “I suppose we should take the miner’s body back to Farhold and have the magists examine it. They might know more about the magic that killed him. And we need to complete a thorough search of the house and grounds.”
Prewitt nodded. “Will you be prolonging your stay in Farhold then?”
Corwin considered the question, his unruly thoughts turning to Kate once more. If he did stay, it was possible he might run into her again. He could even orchestrate the meeting, if he dared.
But only heartache lay down that path.
“No,” Corwin said. “I will not prolong my stay. If the man was from Andreas, then that’s all the more reason for me to keep on with the tour.” That and the fact that Lord Nevan of Andreas is one of my father’s biggest detractors, he thought but didn’t say. “I was scheduled to head there next,” he added. “I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
“Beg pardon, your highness,” replied Prewitt, “but given that this attack might have been an act against the high king, surely someone from your party should stay to learn what the magists have to say.”
“I’ll stay,” Dal said before Corwin could respond. Corwin shot his friend a suspicious look, and Dal shrugged. “Should take only a short while. I’ll be able to catch up to the tour easily.”
Corwin resisted an eye roll, understanding Dal’s motives clearly—by delaying his departure, he could avoid the slow pace they were forced to keep with the royal caravan. Should’ve volunteered myself instead.
Corwin sighed. “If you’re sure, Lord Thorne.”
“Quite sure.” A hint of a smile curved the edges of Dal’s mouth. “It will give me time to do a bit more exploring of this lovely city. I’d very much like to visit the Relay house.”
Corwin looked away, hiding a scowl. Dal was free to do what he wanted, as was Kate.
It’s not my concern, he told himself.
No matter how much he might wish it were.