Ly looked up at me, his hands still working the pastry. “May I ask a favour of you, Drina?” he said, then ducked his head down again. Still diffident, even after five years of marriage. But then he was still my prisoner, officially.
“You may ask,” I said, as I always did.
He shot me a shy smile, the amber pendant at his throat shimmering. We were sitting in the kitchen of his suite of rooms within my apartment, me at the high table with a glass of wine, Ly sitting on the floor, one leg folded under him, the other knee bent up. His face was intent, as he concentrated on heaping fruit into the pastry circles and folding them. I loved to watch his slender fingers chopping and mixing and shaping. He was an excellent cook and he still liked to prepare food crouching on the floor like that, in the traditional way of his people. The servants had been horrified, and insisted on providing him with a table. It was only a square of slate with legs just a handspan long, but still sufficiently like a table to satisfy their sensibilities.
Eventually the tray of pastries was filled and he jumped up and slid it into the oven at the far end of the room. “There!” he said, joining me at the regular table and topping up my wineglass. “We have a little time before we eat.”
“So ask your favour.”
“I should like to go to the Challenge this year, if you permit.”
“The Challenge – that’s when the Blood Clans send candidates try to open the door to the scribery, yes?”
“It is not a scribery to us, but yes, that is about it. This is the first time since the troubles that all the clans will send candidates to the sacred island.”
The troubles. A slippery euphemism for a war that nearly destroyed us all, Bennamore and Blood Clans alike. Ly was still steeped in guilt over his part in it, but the truth was, Bennamore had started things, and Ly had only retaliated to keep his people safe. It was not his fault that his magic had taken over and turned a minor squabble into something much worse.
“What about the Blood Ceremony itself? Don’t you want to go to that, too?” I said.
“No, no. That is very private. Only the candidates and the Blood Elders attend that. But the Challenge is a celebration, open to anyone. It is important for me to be there, I think, to remind them that I am byan shar. To demonstrate my power.”
“Which means you need to have your power.”
“Yes.” He spoke in a low tone, watching me anxiously. “But only if you permit, Drina.”
I understood him. The war had ended because I had found Ly in his hiding place and taken away the magic that allowed him to control his warriors. Although I wasn’t a mage, and had no magical power of my own, I was unique in having a void inside me, a need for magic, that enabled me to reach out to those with innate power and take their magic from them. I had used it to tame Ly and end the war. For five years I had kept Ly powerless by taking his magic from him every few suns. Now he wanted that magic back again.
“How long would it take, do you think?” I said. “To build up enough power to open the door, I mean.”
“A moon is enough. That is how it usually works. There is the Blood Ceremony, and then, a moon later, the Challenge.”
“And you were able to open the door after one moon?”
He nodded. “Yes. That is the only way to be acknowledged as byan shar. There is only one Challenge. But every year after I succeeded, I went to the Challenge again to prove myself. After the candidates had all failed, then I opened the door.”
I took a sip of wine, then set down my glass. “To show that you could. Of course. A demonstration of power, to show that you are the chosen one of the gods. We do something similar, when the army marches through Kingswell with the Drashona at its head – a reminder that she is in charge.”
He smiled, rather sadly. “A little different, I think. The Drashona’s power is obvious to everyone. Look at the scale of this Keep and her grand apartments, all her elaborate gowns and jewels, the number of servants and guards. But my power is invisible. My people already see me as your slave, kept in subjection. They believe I have abandoned them. It is time to remind them that I am still byan shar.” His smile broadened. “I think it is also time to eat – the fish is ready, and by the time we have finished that, the pastries will be cooked.”
“Excellent. And tomorrow we will talk to Yanassia about the Challenge.”
“Thank you, Drina.”
Those evenings with Ly-haam were a precious treat, something I looked forward to immensely. The first year we were married, I had dealt with him very much as the prisoner he was. Although he shared my apartment, he had his own suite of rooms and was guarded every hour. I was never alone with him. He’d never complained about it, but I knew he wanted more from me, and he was my husband, after all. Eventually, I had gone to his bed, but only occasionally, as an obligation. After all, I already had the man I loved, my drusse, Arran. The law gave Ly-haam greater importance as my husband, but my heart would always belong to Arran.
But gradually those nights with Ly-haam had turned into something special for me. He usually cooked a meal, something traditional to his people, and I liked those simple dishes of baked fish or tender slow-roasted meat better than the elaborate concoctions at the Drashona’s table. In the bedroom, he’d turned out to be a gentle and thoughtful lover, bringing me an intense kind of pleasure that I’d never experienced before without the added stimulus of magic. Sometimes I wished I could blend my two men into one lover, with Arran’s handsome charm and manly body merged with Ly’s skills in bed.
That night I fell asleep with Ly curled around my back, one arm round my waist, his face buried in my hair as he murmured in his own language. The words were always the same: “Goodnight, sweet Princess. Thank you for saving me.” I wasn’t a princess at all, but he had always called me that and I’d long since given up trying to change the habit.
When I woke, he was gone. That was usual, too. He slept less than I did, and he was always up with the first bell. I stretched, rolled over, closed my eyes again. Perhaps I could get another hour’s sleep…
“Drina! Wake up!”
I kept my eyes shut. Maybe he’d go away again.
But no. A soft ripple of laughter. “I know you are awake. Here – your morning herbs. It is past second bell already, and you have the Trade Council meeting this morning.”
Groaning, I rolled over, and hauled myself upright. “Thank you, Ly. Is Arran up and about yet?”
Even in my half-awake state, I noticed the little flash of alarm that crossed his face. He was no diplomat, Ly, and could never hide his feelings. He said nothing, but he didn’t need to.
“Oh. So… still asleep? Or bed not slept in?” A little needle-prick of anxiety.
“The steward told me Arran did not come back here last night. I expect he slept at the barracks.”
“Yes. That must be it. Thank you for the herbs.”
He turned to go, but his eyes were dark with concern.
“Ly…” He stopped, spinning to face me. “Do you know something? About Arran? Should I be worried?”
A hesitation. “I do not know anything,” he said, head down.
“But you suspect? I’d much rather hear it from you, than find out from one of those gossiping waiting women.” But my heart sank, all the same. Surely this couldn’t be happening, not again?
Ly perched on the edge of the bed, his thin fingers playing with the cover. “He asked me…” he began, then sighed. “Drina, I do not know what it means, and maybe it means nothing at all, but he asked me if I thought…”
“If you thought what, exactly?” I tried to keep my voice soft, when all I wanted to do was scream. And cry. I was very close to crying.
“If I thought you would want to know if he was doing something he should not. Or whether it was better to say nothing. But Drina, I am sure it is not what it sounds like. He said he would never do anything of that sort again.”
So he had. He’d wept all over me, and begged my forgiveness, and sworn never to look at another woman. And I, loving him, had kissed him and forgiven him. But not forgotten. Once a man has drifted, there is always that curl of doubt at the back of your mind. Every time he’s late, or seems distracted, or is quieter than usual.
We were at morning board when Arran crept in, and even if I’d not had suspicions in my mind already, I could hardly miss the guilt written all over his face. I dropped the piece of fruit I’d been pretending to eat.
“By all the gods, what have you done?”
He slid into a chair, and buried his face in his hands. “I am such a fool,” he said, his voice anguished.
“Who is she?” Distress made my voice shrill.
His head shot up. “She? Oh – no, no! Not that. No, I swore I would never—” His hand reached for mine, sticky with juice, but he didn’t notice. “It is nothing like that, I promise!”
I breathed again. But what else? “Tell me,” I said softly. “Tell me everything.”
“It is the Gurshmontas,” he said simply, and, in truth, that told me just about the whole story in itself. Shallack Gurshmonta was a powerful man, the head of a wealthy trading family, constantly whispering in corners and forging shifting alliances to improve his position. It didn’t surprise me that he’d tried to recruit Arran.
“They want you to influence me, I expect, with the new round of trade agreements coming up. I am in sole charge of the Trade Council now, and I’ll be head of the Fiscal Determination Table next year, too.”
“No…” A flash of bewilderment crossed his handsome face, so that for a moment he looked very young. “No, I think they wanted information. They have been so friendly for moons now, inviting me to their apartments for private meals, very quiet, nothing… I thought nothing suspicious. Just so interested in me, and the children, and… and you, of course. No pretty young women at all, I swear, just a few of the older ones. But then I began to realise that they were very interested in the southern plains, so last night I went there with my mind fully alert, and I am sure of it. They have trade links there, so I suppose it mattered to them what is going on in that region. And… and I may have told them what you said about Greenstone Ford. And the Vahsi.”
“It is very difficult to remember what is secret and what may be talked about, and… and the Gurshmontas keep an excellent table, very generous.”
“And plenty of wine, too, as I recall.”
He nodded miserably. “I am so sorry, Drina. You must think me such a fool.”
“I think you might have been more on your guard,” I said. “I have had several brushes with Shallack Gurshmonta in the past, so we know he’s as slippery as a snake.”
But I couldn’t help squeezing his hand and smiling as I spoke. He was a fool, of course, and he’d been my drusse long enough to be aware of the pitfalls around the Drashona’s court, but I was too relieved to care. At least he hadn’t been in the arms of another woman. And that made me the fool, because my heart was insignificant to the future wellbeing of Bennamore, but the information, so hard-won, from Kallanash was a different matter.
I went to see Yannassia that afternoon in her apartment, even grander than mine. Her official chambers glittered with gold and sparkling gems and the lush colours of Vilkorani rugs, but her private rooms were sparsely furnished, with her youngest’s abandoned toys on every surface.
She was in bed. Ever since her last difficult pregnancy, she’d taken to having a rest after the noon board, an hour when she read a book, or played dragon stones with her husband, Torthran. No one else was allowed to disturb that precious hour, but the steward admitted me without question.
“Drina! Come in, come in,” Yannassia said with a smile, laying aside her book. “How did the Trade Council go this morning?”
Yannassia could look formidably regal when she dressed in the stiff robes and jewels that went with her role as Drashona, and a word or a look could quell even high-ranking nobles full of their own importance. But here, with her hair loose about her face and a smile softening her lips, she looked very motherly. The golden hair had faded to silver, and her features were more rounded than before, but I thought she looked much prettier this way, despite being more than fifty now. She was not my birth mother, but circumstance had made me her heir and I had grown fond of her over the twelve years I’d known her.
“Quite well, for a Trade Council. The sticking points were as we suspected. You will have my full report at the Inner Circle meeting tomorrow.”
“So that is not what brings you here. Very well.” She turned to Torthran. “Dearest, a chair for Drina, if you would be so good. And some wine, perhaps.”
He was already lifting an ornate armchair of heavy wood across to the bed for me, and then went willingly to fetch wine. I liked Torthran very much. He was ten years younger than Yannassia, but I think that helped her from falling into stodgy middle-age too soon. Like me, Yannassia had found the love of her life in her bodyguard.
I sipped the wine, then set the glass down on a side-table. There was no purpose in prevaricating. Yannassia always liked to get straight to the point. “Ly wants to attend the Challenge this summer. He feels the need to demonstrate his power, to remind his people who he is. But it would mean allowing his magic to grow for a while.”
“Ah, interesting,” Yannassia said. “I heard that the Blood Ceremony will be a bigger affair this year. The decision is yours, of course…”
“I’d like your approval, though,” I put in quickly.
“Hmm, so you are minded to agree?”
“His people treat him with disrespect. It would do no harm to show them what he can do.”
“You mean to put on a bit of a show, then? Arrive on the eagles, that sort of thing?”
“Yes, although many of his people have connections to beasts, so that is not at all unusual, but Ly is the only one who can connect to all of them.”
“Ah, I see. Well, I have no objection. He has been very well-behaved while he has been in Kingswell. You have managed him beautifully, Drina. Both your men, in fact. I was sure they would kill each other when you first set them up in the same apartment, but they get along rather well, I think.”
She saw my rueful grimace, but there was no hiding Arran’s disaster. “Unfortunately, it seems I cannot manage my drusse as well as I would like. He has been drawn in by the Gurshmontas, and was induced to reveal something of the Kallanash situation.”
Yannassia was too well-trained to betray the extent of her dismay, but she huffed a breath, and her words were sharper than usual. “I am disappointed, Drina. He should know better than to be seduced into indiscretion. But he has always had a weakness, we know that. I suppose they set one of the pretty young daughters to trap him.”
“No, quite the opposite. It was Shallack himself, and the old lady – many of the leading family figures. He thought he was safe with them.” Poor Arran! It was the lack of pretty young women which had drawn him in. He knew his own vulnerability, but amongst the older generation he’d not seen the danger. And they’d flattered him and fussed over him, and offered him the finest dishes and wine – and he’d grown too relaxed. Over time, he’d let slip a whole host of small but significant dribbles of information, only realising his error too late.
“This I do not like, Drina,” Yannassia said. “Our people are very vulnerable. I do not want Shallack Gurshmonta rushing in and starting a panic out there.”
“I have taken measures,” I said. “I talked to Shallack privately after the Trade Council.”
“Did you threaten him, or offer inducements?” Yannassia said sweetly.
“Both, of course! I believe – I hope – he will be circumspect, but we should let the specialists know of this.”
“Certainly. But I cannot let this pass without censure. You realise I could have him executed for this?”
Fear roared through me. “No harm has come of it! Shallack will be discreet. He understands the stakes.”
“Perhaps, but it is a betrayal, nevertheless. A lashing, maybe.”
“And how will you explain it? There would have to be a trial, and reasons given, and you cannot do that without revealing everything. If it must remain a secret, then you cannot punish Arran publicly.”
She clicked her tongue in annoyance. “Very true. Besides, for your sake I am minded to be merciful. I have had a couple of complaints about Arran overspending his allowance, so I shall censure him for that. In public, so that the Gurshmontas will know what we are about. You will bring Arran to me in – oh, three suns should be enough to make him sweat a little, then I will give him a thorough scolding. And tell Ly that he will need to request permission officially to attend the Challenge, so he will have to petition me at an assembly.”
I nodded, but my heart sank. I wasn’t sure which of my two men would have the greater dread of the prospect before them.
In the end, it was Ly who was most terrified of his encounter with the Drashona. Arran was noble-born, and well used to the ways of court. He’d regularly shared a relaxed morning board with Yannassia, and seen her ill and afraid and dragged from her bed at midnight; it made her image as an imposing ruler less than terrifying. So he donned his best formal clothes, and waited patiently to be summoned, and then held his head respectfully lowered while she lectured him. And afterwards, he was just as ebullient as ever. He was more afraid of me, as it happened, for I had the power to terminate his drusse contract. Not that I ever planned to, but I wondered sometimes just what it would take for me to take that step.
Ly was a different matter. He’d never adapted well to Bennamore court formality, and unless he was absolutely forced to attend some function in his official capacity as my husband, he was happier keeping to the apartment, or working on his small farm on the edge of the town. The farm had been a wedding gift from one of the noble families, probably because it was too small to be worked economically. Maybe they expected us to turn it into a summer estate. But Ly loved it and kept a whole range of animals there, wild ones as well as domesticated types, and it had become a place people went to on rest-suns to look at all the strange creatures.
Yannassia held assemblies quite regularly, to greet visiting dignitaries, hear petitions, initiate legal matters and, occasionally, dole out punishments. The nobles flocked to them like bees to flowers. They listened and watched and whispered together in corners, but mostly it reassured them that they were still important to the realm. It was my natural domain, too, where I kept track of the shifting alliances amongst the noble houses and watched for any budding threat to Yannassia’s position.
It was all too formal for Ly, though. “Do I have to speak?” he asked, for the thousandth time. “You can speak for me, you know all the proper things to say.”
“I will be with you, and I can prompt you if you forget what to say. But it will be better if you can say the words yourself.”
And it would have been a lot easier if he could read, but he’d never wanted to learn. Sometimes I read aloud to him, if I found a passage in a book that might interest him, but as often as not it confused him. He couldn’t understand the idea that a book was written by someone else, not me, and the words I read were not mine. Words written hundreds or even thousands of years ago by people long dead were beyond his comprehension.
“Don’t you have storytellers in the Clanlands?” I’d asked him once. “People who tell you the histories – where you came from, great events, that sort of thing?”
But he didn’t seem to understand the question.
He hated the clothes, too. “I feel like a goose trussed up for the spit,” he grumbled, even though it was a modified version of his own people’s costume.
“You look rather splendid,” Arran said. “That hat suits you. Do you want to borrow a sword?”
But Ly shuddered. By the time we got him to the assembly, he was shaking from head to toe. The assembly chamber was designed to impress, and the endless marble pillars and larger-than-life statuary did nothing for Ly’s nerves. Nor did the collected majesty of the nobles and petitioners, all dressed in their stiffest, most formal clothes, whispering behind their hands as we passed by. I stood one side of Ly, and Arran, who more correctly should have been behind us, was on the other side, practically propping him up. I’d timed everything so that we wouldn’t have long to wait, but even so, I thought Ly was going to faint away from sheer terror.
The moment came when we stood before the Drashona’s dais, with Yannassia and her husband in their oversized thrones, and her multitude of advisors and mages and scribes and waiting women and guards around her, all gazing down in silence at Ly.
The senior steward banged his ceremonial spear on the floor. “Pray silence for the Most Powerful Lord Ly-haam, Dush-Drashonor of all Bennamore and its dominions, Banshar of the Dehavoran, who requests permission to petition the Most Powerful Lady Yannassia, the wise and enlightened Drashona of all Bennamore and its dominions.”
“Byan shar e de’haa vyoran,” Ly growled. The corruption of his name irritated him more than summer flies. When we had first married, and the scribes had tried to construct the proper title for him, somehow the words had been mistranscribed, and there was no correcting the mistake, since it was written in indelible ink on all the official documents.
“You may speak, Most Powerful,” Yannassia said, with an encouraging nod.
Ly bowed and launched into the little speech we’d rehearsed. Perhaps his annoyance gave him fluency, for to my surprise he was word perfect and didn’t stumble once, although it came out rather fast, with the intonation flattened.
“I hear your petition,” Yannassia said when he had finished. “I will consider it carefully, and give you my answer in the third assembly from this sun.”
Ly bowed again, shaking with relief, and we withdrew.
“Do you want to stay for a while to watch the fun?” I said, reaching for a glass of wine as a tray went past.
“Fun?” The look of horror on his face made me laugh.
“It’s not a bad idea to be seen at these affairs occasionally,” I said. “You’re so seldom around court, the nobles tend to forget you exist.”
But he shook his head, making his soft curls bounce violently. “You stay if you want. I should like to leave now. If you permit.”
“We will all go. There is nothing else of interest this sun.”
I took a sip of the wine and then regretfully abandoned it on a side table.
Yannassia held a private meeting with the specialists, to discuss Arran’s mistake. The specialists were a small part of the Elite Guards, trained in secrecy to undertake any task necessary for Bennamore’s safety considered too dark for the army to undertake. When kin of my Icthari father had tried to avenge some perceived slight by killing me and my two siblings, Zandara and Axandor, it was specialists who had crept in disguise into Icthari lands to assassinate the perpetrators.
The meeting was held in one of the inner rooms of Yannassia’s apartment, small and intimate. The location was deliberately chosen. It was unlikely that a specialist would withhold information from the Drashona, but in such a confined space nothing could be hidden. The smallest nuance of expression could be clearly read.
Yannassia’s drusse-born son, Hethryn, was also present, his first time at such a meeting. He was eighteen now, and likely to be appointed Yannassia’s heir in the autumn, relieving me of that burden, so his mother considered it time to introduce him to some of the secrets of the court.
Both the specialists in attendance were known to me. Rythmarri was only thirty-six, slim, dark and so unmemorable, you’d pass her in the street without noticing, but she was as astute as anyone I’d ever met. She’d done her share of creeping about in disguise and, perhaps, assassinations, but now she was resident at Kingswell, and in charge of what was known as the eastern project on the Plains of Kallanash.
The other specialist was almost as familiar to me as a brother, for we’d grown up together. Lathran was the son of the mage guards assigned to my birth mother, and he’d irritated me intensely when we were children. I’d never even tried to be polite to him. Once he grew up he’d fallen spectacularly in love with me, and I’d rewarded his devotion by seducing him, in one of my stupider plots to disgrace myself and persuade the Drashona I was unsuitable heir material. Fortunately, this worked out well for Lathran, who was sent to train with the Elite Guards, and they discovered that his unmemorable features and ability to blend in anywhere made him the perfect spy.
After Yannassia had explained the problem to them, Rythmarri said to me, “What exactly do the Gurshmontas know?”
Straight to the point. I liked that. “That we have people in place at one of the Karningers’ walled settlements on the southern plains, that they are hidden but would be in grave danger if discovered. That we would be in grave danger if they are discovered.”
“They do not know which settlement?”
“Not explicitly, but it’s not hard to guess, is it? There’s only one it could be.”
“Greenstone Ford,” Hethryn put in eagerly.
“Precisely.” I smiled at him. Hethryn said little, but he was observant and clever. Good-looking, too, in the same blond-haired way as Yannassia. He would make an admirable Drashon, in time.
Rythmarri turned her penetrating gaze on him. “Tell me all you know of it,” she said.
He didn’t hesitate. “First settled about twenty years ago in the aftermath of the political upheaval in the Karningplain, as a farming and craft community, trading with others upriver. About seven years ago, when a temple was built there, it expanded very quickly and there was an influx of newcomers, including large numbers of soldiers. But I do not know why,” he added, flashing the smile that had turned many a young lady to quivering incoherence.
He received no answering smile. “No one knows why,” Rythmarri said. “There are thousands of them, these soldiers. They wear golden armour, and they never speak – not in public, at any rate. They are a ferociously disciplined force, established originally to guard the Karningers’ temples, and at first, as they spread into the plains settlements, that was all they did – build a temple, and guard it. Nothing else. Move on to the next settlement, build, guard. But something about Greenstone Ford stopped them. They made half-hearted approaches to the south – Rinnfarr Gap, a long-settled town – but the council there wanted no Karningplain temple, and the soldiers abandoned the idea. They stayed at Greenstone Ford, and after they built their temple, they started building – well, army barracks, I suppose you would call them, but huge. And more and more of them poured in.”
“So they are setting up an army there?” Hethryn said in alarm. “An invasion force?”
“They certainly have the capability to invade, if they wish to,” Yannassia said. “If we give them reason to. And if they find out that there are Bennamore spies in their midst…”
“Our army is strong,” Hethryn said. “We have recovered well from the war against the Blood Clans, and we are at peace with all our neighbours. Defending ourselves would not be a problem, surely?”
“That is the question we are wrestling with at the moment,” Rythmarri said, with a grimace. “Lathran, you have just come from Greenstone Ford, what is your opinion?”
They talked back and forth for some time, without coming to any conclusions. These golden-armoured soldiers were so secretive that estimates of their numbers varied from five thousand to fifty, and no one had the least idea what they planned to do with so many.
“Well, this is not very satisfactory,” Yannassia said. “So many trained soldiers just round the tip of the Sky Mountains from us, yet we have no idea why. We do not even know if they have any hostile intent, or are simply following some plan of their own which has nothing to do with us.”
“Perhaps we should ask them,” I said.
They stared at me in bemusement, but then Hethryn laughed. “You mean, send a diplomatic mission?”
“Well, why not?” I said. “They are only a few suns’ march from our closest border, and they sit directly on our main trading route to the Karningplain. It is not unreasonable to extend the hand of friendship to our new neighbours.”
“What a splendid idea!” Hethryn said. “I should love to be part of that! But I suppose you will say I am too young again.”
“And so you are,” Yannassia said.
“I am older than Drina was when she went to see the Blood Clans.”
“And look how badly that turned out,” I murmured.
“Phooey. You fixed everything nicely.” He grinned at me mischievously.
“Idiot boy,” I said, ruffling his hair.
“You and Ly could fly over there to have a look,” he added.
“I don’t think—”
“An excellent idea,” Yannassia said crisply. “You would only be gone a few suns. It would give us a different view of the place.”
“A bird’s eye view,” Hethryn giggled.
Everyone else laughed, but I sighed. When you can fly aback a giant eagle, everyone thinks you have nothing better to do than to shoot about the countryside. It was surprising how often there was a message or package too urgent for the roads. It was not that I minded, but sometimes I wished there were more people able to fly. The mages could do it, if they chose, using their magic to connect to the birds but mages were too important to be spared for running airborne errands. I liked to think I was important, but as the Drashona’s heir, and soon to be supplanted by Hethryn, I was clearly not essential to the running of the realm.
Arran hated the idea, as usual. “I wish I could fly on an eagle,” he lamented. “You two have all the fun, and I always get left behind.”
He looked so woebegone that I stretched up to kiss him. “We will only be gone for – oh, four suns, maybe five.”
“We could do it in less time,” Ly said. “A sun-crossing there, a sun-crossing to look around and a sun-crossing back. Arran would not have time to miss you.”
“I always miss Drina when she is away from me,” Arran said, glowering at Ly. “Even for an hour.”
“And I miss you, too,” I said hastily. “But really, I think it would be best if we don’t try to rush this operation. I should like to check the roads as we go, to see if there is anything amiss along the way, and we should keep an eye out for Vahsi movements as well. So I think we will take two suns to get there. Then we can take our first look at this settlement at dawn, when the gates open. A sun looking around, and then, if the eagles are up to it, we can fly back in one sun.”
The following morning, Ly and I donned our flying gear. Mine consisted of fur-lined boots and jacket, my thickest trousers and a hat with ear-flaps. Ly wore his usual indoor clothes, with a lightweight coat on top. Like all his people, he never seemed to feel the cold when he flew. Perhaps the magic in his blood kept him warm.
On the roof of the Keep, the eagles were waiting for us, summoned by our mental connections with them. Not just our own eagles, either. Almost a score of the great beasts lived around Kingswell now, left behind after the war against the Blood Clans. They came and went as they pleased, hunting wild deer from the mountain behind the Imperial City and kishorn from further afield, and roosting on top of the Keep. Only a few were bonded with human riders, but they showed no desire to return to their Clanlands home.
Even after five years, I was still awestruck by the size of these birds, far larger than any wild eagle, their size enhanced by the magic in their Blood Clan riders. My own was one of the smallest, but she still towered over me as I approached her. I could feel the excitement in her mind, knowing that we would be flying far afield this sun. She had been bonded first to Ly’s mother, who had given her the name Sunshine, which I still used although it was a ridiculous name for such a magnificent beast.
Arran came to see us off. “Take care of her,” he said to Ly. “Keep her safe.”
“Come back soon,” Arran said to me. He sounded so despondent that I wrapped my arms around his waist, and rested my head on his shoulder. “My little flower,” he murmured, hugging me tightly.
I kissed him and unentangled myself. Behind him, my bodyguard stood silently. Sunshine clicked her beak at me, wanting to be away. Lowering her great head for me to mount, I scrambled onto her back, fitting my feet into the stirrups. Blood Clan saddles were simpler than the horse version, with only a small strap to hold on to, and my first flying efforts had been terrifying. Now, all I felt was excitement. I grinned at Ly, and he grinned back.
At a thought, Sunshine crouched and then launched herself into the air, her massive wings pumping to gain height. Below me, Ly’s eagle did the same. Dust swirled around us as we rose, slowly it seemed, but the Keep fell away rapidly beneath us. We circled once, twice, before turning to the east.
My last sight was of Arran’s pale face, one arm uplifted in farewell.
The thrill of flying never deserted me. The height, the speed, the swooping down and round, the sheer power of the beautiful creature beneath me – I loved it all. And in my mind, I could touch the thoughts and feelings of my eagle. Since Ly could connect to her too, that meant that my mind and his were also joined.
There was something overwhelmingly intimate about being so attuned to another human being. I could stretch a mental thread towards him as we flew, and know that he was just as excited to be airborne as I was. And when our eagles were side by side, Ly would look across at me and I could feel the burst of affection in his mind. His ability for such mental connections was far stronger than mine, and he could control it better, having inherited it from his Blood Clan ancestors.
He had accidentally transmitted it to me the first time his magic had driven us together. I wasn’t supposed to have blood magic, since I was an outsider – ‘unblooded’, as the Clanfolk called anyone not their own kin – but within a moon of that first terrifying coupling, I’d discovered I could jump into the minds of certain creatures. Rats were the first, with their snufflings and acute sense of smell in their dark world in the Keep walls and cellars. Then a bear, brought to entertain the jaded appetites of the nobility. And then the eagles. Even sitting in my apartment, I found myself simultaneously with Sunshine as she flew far above me, looking down through her eyes to the town far below.
This sun there was no need to look through the eagle’s eyes, for my view was the same as hers – the solid red stone of the octagonal Keep, the magically glowing walls and elegant golden palaces of the Imperial City, tucked into the arms of Candle Mountain, and around their feet, the brown sprawl of Kingswell with its busy streets and squat buildings. We soon left the town behind, following the eastern road until it curved to avoid a series of lakes, and after that making straight for the border. This northern end of Bennamore was the earliest to be settled, and its land was a patchwork of small farms, orchards, open grazing land and small settlements, with a scattering of larger towns. But as we flew on, the fields gave way to rougher ground, with hills and winding rivers and dark patches of untouched forest.
And then the border, a fortress with flags fluttering bravely, defended by a ditch and earth bank. Beyond it, the open plains, with their rolling grasslands. At this time of year, the grasses were brown, still awaiting the greening of spring, and the wind tossed them about like a darkly churning ocean. This was Icthari territory, home of my father’s people, but lately the barbaric Vahsi tribes had driven them west, so although we saw two or three small settlements below us, they were abandoned. We saw no sign of the Vahsi, however.
Another hour or so brought us to the Taysil River. We were still beyond the borders of Bennamore, but by looking through Sunshine’s keen eyes, I could just make out the dark stain of the river bank that was Zendronia. My home. Not my birthplace, but the nondescript little town where I’d grown up. I still remembered it fondly, and there were moments in the grandeur of Kingswell and the Drashona’s court when I wished I’d never left it, that I could have lived a simpler life. But then I would never have met Arran, or had my two children, so there were compensations. And I would never have flown on an eagle’s back.
We flew lower now to follow the trading road more closely, but I saw nothing untoward. Only the occasional train of wagons heading for the Karningplain, or returning from it, in groups of eight or ten, with armed outriders. The plains were never entirely safe. Every few marks, a cluster of buildings beside the road, walled and with a watchtower. An inn, a smithy, a small farm, perhaps a brewery, to supply the needs of travellers. Again, all looked peaceful.
At noon, we found a hidden spot in the foothills to the north of the road. Ly dug out a firepit while I gathered wood, and I huddled over the fire, trying to get some heat in my bones. If I could just stay warm, these excursions would be perfect. No bodyguard, no waiting women, no meetings, no one demanding my attention or seeking my patronage. Just me, Ly and the eagles. Freedom.
“Did you see anything amiss as we flew?” Ly asked.
“No, nothing. I’ve never travelled this way before, so I don’t really know what’s normal, but the wagons are moving, the inns look – well, like regular inns.”
“What does a regular inn look like?”
I laughed, but he was serious. “There were people moving about in the yard, smoke from the chimneys, sheep and cattle in the field at the back, that sort of thing. I could see the smith working at his forge at one of them. And all the buildings were still standing. That’s usually a good sign.”
He nodded, but his face was solemn. He often didn’t get my attempts at humour.
“As we get onto the plains proper, we may see groups of Vahsi. Will you let me know if you see anything?”
“My people were Vahsi, once,” he said conversationally. “Before our blood was changed.”
“Oh, you didn’t always have blood magic, then?”
“No. There was a legend amongst the Vahsi ancestors that if you travelled far enough north or south or east or west, you would come to the sea. Endless water. One man went to find it. He went to the north, and he was gone for many, many years. His journeying brought him to a great city, where he became a ruler, living there for thirty years. But then someone else became ruler and so he came back to the plains, and brought his sons with him. Four sons. And he and all his sons had blood magic.”
“So it came from the city? The blood magic?”
“Yes. But he fell out with the other Vahsi over it, and there was a war – the Vahsi like to make war – and the man was killed. His sons fled west with a small group of friends until they found another sea, and there they stayed. But they could not ride horses, like the Vahsi do, because the blood magic spooks them. That is why the name we have for ourselves – de’haa vyoran – means ‘people who walk’. In time, they learned to ride other beasts instead, but for a while the ancestors had to walk everywhere.”
“I guessed there was a connection,” I said, “because you both have the same type of skin tent – clava. And the lack of horses explains why your people settled, and became farmers and fishers, instead of following the herds, like the Vahsi. This is so interesting. I wish you will tell me more of these stories, Ly.”
“Histories, if you prefer. None of this is in any books I’ve read about your people. Do your elders tell the children all this?”
“Tell the children?” His face was puzzled. “No, why would they do that?”
“Because it’s important for them to know how the Clans originated. You don’t have writing or books, so someone has to tell each new generation what happened in the past.”
“No one has to tell them. They remember.”
“All our history is in our blood. We all remember everything, from the times of the First Ancestor onwards.”
All afternoon, as we flew above the road, skirting the southern reaches of the Sky Mountains, one part of my mind was watching and recording what I saw, but another part was thinking over Ly’s words. It accounted for so much that I’d found bizarre about him and his people. To inherit memories! How strange that must be, to remember not just your own actions, but those of your mother and father as well, and your grandmother and grandfather, stretching back who knows how many generations. I had a thousand questions about it, but I wasn’t going to allow myself to be distracted from the job we had to do. There was time enough to find out more. Ly wasn’t about to disappear.
Late in the afternoon we crossed a range of low hills. Behind us, the rivers fed into Bennamore’s fast-flowing Taysil River; ahead of us was the broad, meandering Dellonar River and Greenstone Ford. The eagles spiralled upwards, feathers riffling, their minds full of contentment as they enjoyed the rising currents from the plains. The river shimmered in the lowering sun, and even from this height I could see the sprawl of the town beyond it. Not a town – it was almost a city, a vast expanse of grey stone smearing the brown of the grasslands.
But Greenstone Ford could wait until tomorrow. For now, I was cold and tired and hungry, and all I could think about was a blazing fire and something hot to eat. We turned towards the Sky Mountains. Further north, so the books said, the peaks rose up into the clouds, a monstrous range that men had never crossed. Even here at the southernmost extremity, the tops were white all year round. But in the foothills, amongst the jagged crevasses and tumbled boulders, were numerous small, sheltered valleys with icy rushing streams, scrubby bushes for windbreaks and enough flat space for the eagles to land.
Ly flew low to the ground, leaning forwards to scan the rocky terrain. I followed behind, leaving him to choose a site for us to make camp for the night. All our previous journeys together had involved staying in the local ruler’s hall, or a comfortable inn, so this was the first time we’d had to camp. I was used to my comforts and wasn’t looking forward to it, but I trusted Ly to make it as easy as possible. His people were skilled at moving lightly through the landscape, and he was completely at home out in the open.
He passed over three or four spots that looked perfectly acceptable to me, before swooping down to land.
“Why this place?” I asked.
“There were three young kishorn hidden in some trees, back there. This is far enough away from them.”
“I didn’t see them – oh, you can connect to kishorn, too?”
He nodded, grinning. “It is one of the benefits to being byan shar.” A shadow crossed his face. “Perhaps the only benefit. You did not detect them?” He tapped his head.
“No. My ability is much weaker than yours. I can only connect with a few beasts, and I can’t find mushrooms the way you can.”
The smile returned at once. “That way, just beyond that huge boulder. There are some berries left on the bushes just downstream, plenty of herbs and any number of rodents underground.”
“Rodents?” I pulled a face.
He laughed at my dismay. “They are delicious, cooked the right way. Not as fine as plains moundrats, but these are a similar type, only smaller. Can you gather some firewood while I prepare the fireplace? And some sticks about this long, quite thick and not too flexible.”
“Quite thick and… Hmm. Should I ask?”
“To skewer the rodents, of course. We have no cooking pot for a proper stew, so we will cook them over the fire.”
Once the fire was ablaze, Ly said, “You stay here and warm yourself. I am going to sit over there and call some rodents.”
He picked up the pile of straight of sticks and took himself a little way off, sitting cross-legged on the ground, his back against a rock, eyes closed. He stayed unmoving for some time, and I wondered whether he’d dozed off. Then I noticed movement near his feet. Rodents. It was true, they were very like the giant moundrats of the plains, but smaller, not much bigger than a hare. There were several of them, their brown fur almost indistinguishable from the winter grass and bracken, so that they were invisible unless they moved.
Ly opened his eyes and held out one hand. Immediately one of the creatures hopped into it. Ly’s other hand shot out, his knife flashed and the animal lay still. The others scattered. Ly moved to another spot and repeated the procedure. Again they came, and another creature’s throat was slashed. When he had four, he took them to the river, gutted, skinned and cleaned them, and skewered them for the fire. The whole process had taken perhaps half an hour.
He was right, they were delicious stuffed with herbs and berries. Ly heated a stone to cook the mushrooms in the dripping juices, and they were wonderful too.
When Ly had finished eating, and I was just nibbling at the bones, I said, “How does it work, this memory business? Doesn’t it drive you mad, having your head filled with so many other people’s memories? And how do you ever sort them out?”
He hesitated. The flickering flames gave his face a grotesque appearance, and I couldn’t tell whether he was upset or irritated by the questions. The Blood Clans were a secretive people, and even though I was Ly’s wife, there was much he wouldn’t – or couldn’t – share with me.
“It is not quite like that,” he said slowly.
I clicked my tongue in annoyance, hurling the rodent bones into the fire, where they spat and sizzled. It was astonishing to me how many things in his culture were ‘not quite like that’. I could never work out whether they really were that vague and uncertain, or whether it was just a polite way of refusing to tell me.
He was sitting cross-legged beside me, his arms wrapped around his knees, but now he half rose, and knelt in front of me. “Princess, I wish to hide nothing from you, but I do not know how I can explain something I do not understand myself. I am so sorry.”
Even in the ever-changing firelight, I could see the distress written in his face. “Hush.” I put one finger to his lips. “We’re both tired. Let’s get some sleep, and get this mission over with, and when we get back to the Keep, maybe we can talk about it again. If you wish.”
“Yes.” His expression lightened. “It is easier to think at the Keep. There is not so much going on around me.”
“The kishorn are moving about. There is a cougar following them. A couple of foxes, some wild goats, any number of hares, two owls…”
“And all those rodents.”
He nodded. “I should like to sleep now, if you permit. Diamond and Sunshine will keep watch. You may take the shelter. I will sleep under those bushes.”
“Nonsense! We will share the shelter. It’s too cold for you to sleep in the open.” He opened his mouth to protest, but I held up a hand. “No argument. It’ll be warmer if we cuddle up together.”
After a tiny hesitation, he said, “As you wish, Drina.”
The shelter was no more than a skin sheet, stretched on poles at an angle from the ground, like half a tent. Not sophisticated, but it would protect us from the worst of the weather. With bracken beneath us, and blankets and cloaks to wrap in, it would serve the purpose.
Ly curled around my back as usual, and even through my winter clothes I could feel his state of arousal. I rolled round to face him.
“Would you like to do something about that?” I whispered, rubbing it gently.
His intake of breath was audible, but he said softly, “It is not my night.”
“Does that matter? We’re here together, we’re married, why shouldn’t we if we want to?”
“Because when we go back, I want to be able to look Arran in the eye. Tonight you belong to him. Three nights from now – that will be my time with you.”
He would never give in, I knew that, not unless I forced him. He was so easy-going and gentle, in many ways, but utterly unyielding in others.
“You know, Ly, it’s been five years. Don’t you think you’ve been punished enough? You don’t have to suffer for the rest of your life.”
“Yes I do.” His voice was a mere thread. “I did terrible things, and many people died. I can never be punished enough for that evil.”
“Will you hold me tight, then?”
“I will.” He pulled me closer, murmuring in his own language, “Goodnight, sweet Princess. Thank you for saving me.”
Eventually, I slept.
The cold woke me long before dawn. The fire had died down almost to nothing, Ly had rolled away from me in his sleep and I was frozen to my very bones. I crunched through heavy frost to the fire and tossed some wood onto it, crouching as close to it as I dared. Above me, a canopy of stars sparkled in the darkness.
Sunshine was asleep, but Diamond, Ly’s eagle, clicked his beak at me in contentment, not in the least discomfited by the cold. Oh, to be wrapped in feathers, snug and warm! Even my fur-lined jacket and boots were not enough to keep the frost out. Diamond inched closer, and then settled on the ground, the invitation in his mind quite clear. Gratefully, I snuggled next to him, half-buried in feathers, luxuriating in the warmth that emanated from him.
I must have dozed off, for the next thing I knew, it was light, and Ly’s concerned face hovered above me, a steaming mug in one hand.
“Your herbs, princess. Are you… all right? Did I offend you?”
“I’m fine. I was cold, but Diamond kept me warm.”
“You should have woken me.”
“No need. Thank you for the herbs.”
Apart from the drinks, our morning meal was cold. We ate quickly, keen to get airborne and fly away from our frosty little valley, still shaded by the hills to the east. Ly began to pack our things.
“We could leave everything here,” I said. “We’ll be staying here again tonight, after all.”
Ly shook his head, his soft curls bouncing. “No. Always take everything with you, because you never know what might happen to change your plans. You might decide you have seen enough by noon, for instance, and then we could be half way home by nightfall.”
I shrugged. He was the expert on camping in wild places, after all. Besides, it was not much of a camp, so we were aloft in less than an hour. We spiralled high over the foothills, and I looked through Sunshine’s eyes at the town on the far side of the river. In one corner was what looked like the original walled town, large enough to enclose a village, a few fields and some grazing land. Then a second wall increasing the size perhaps fourfold, as the little settlement grew.
But the third wall enclosed a vast area, ten or perhaps twenty times the previous size. Fully half of it was the army barracks, a monstrous complex that sprawled in an endless array of low, rectangular buildings and watchtowers arranged around courtyards. I tried, and failed, to count windows and estimate the number of soldiers who might be accommodated there. And how much was hidden underground?
I needed to get closer. Through Sunshine, I connected mentally to Ly and told him what I planned.
“Stay high!” he said in my mind, the words infused with excitement and a little worry.
I knew enough to keep out of arrow range, but I had to fly lower to see more clearly. With the thought, Sunshine began to glide down towards the town. We crossed the river, brown and turgid, flying low enough for me to make out trains of wagons splashing through the ford, and rafts being punted across. On the banks, work was going on to build a bridge.
Almost before I was aware of it, we flew over the outer wall of the town, and were above the barracks. A lazy flap or two of her wings, and Sunshine gained a little height, but we were low enough for me to see clearly through her keen eyes. And now that I could see all the windows clearly, my heart sank, for there were far, far more than I could count. How many people must live in such a complex? Thousands, many, many thousands—
Something crashed into me.
That was what it felt like, anyway, a heart-stopping jolt that almost kicked me out of the saddle. One moment we were flying peacefully at a good height above the barracks, the next we were hurled into a maelstrom that sent us careering and spinning wildly, winds battering us relentlessly.
Sunshine screeched, her great wings struggling to escape the power of the storm, but we were buffeted here and there, tossed upwards to a great height, and then spun down again, then upside down and falling, falling. All the while unearthly winds hammered at us from all sides. I could do nothing but cling desperately to the narrow leather strap and hope that Sunshine could fly us out of the whirlwind.
Closing my eyes, I hung on, trying to soothe the panic in Sunshine’s mind. But something tickled at me, something warm and tingling. Magic. This was no natural storm. I couldn’t focus on it, not when I didn’t even know which way was up, and terror was rising in my throat to choke me.
Sunshine screamed in pain. I felt it as much as she did, the sudden lack of balance, her wing broken by an even greater burst from the gale.
Anger washed over me. Someone had created this evil storm to hurt us, maybe to kill us, but I was not going to give in tamely. Magic I could deal with. Fate, or the gods, had given me a defence against it.
Shutting Sunshine’s agony out of my mind as best I could, I opened myself to the magic in the wind and drew it all into me.
Instantly the wind was gone.
But we were not safe. Sunshine could not fly, could barely glide. We careered down and down, lurching this way and that, one moment level, the next practically sideways. The river glittered below us, then open grassland and in moments we were above the hills, gashed with ravines and littered with boulders. The jagged rocks rose up to meet us.
Then there was only pain, and darkness.
I don’t remember much. Ly’s white face bending over me, eyes wide with fear. Saying something… Couldn’t focus, too much pain, Sunshine’s agony blending with my own. Ly’s voice again, louder. “Mage, Drina! Send a mage for Sunshine!”
Two or three times I half woke, finding myself tightly strapped to an eagle’s back. Not Sunshine, she was broken. Must have been Ly’s eagle. Rain stung my face, but the pain was easier, just a dull ache in one arm and my side. My body was warm, full of the magic I’d taken from the wind.
Then many hands lifting me, shouted orders, people running. Pain again. Several eagles screeching.
The next thing I knew, I was in bed, a face bending anxiously over me. Arran’s face. Thank the gods! I was safe.
“She is awake,” he said.
Another voice. “I will fetch her.” Then boots rapping on the floor, a door opening and closing with a click. Eagles screeched in the distance.
“Drina? How do you feel?” That was Arran again.
A second face leaning over me. Flenn, one of the younger mages, one of the few who’d learned to fly an eagle.
Urgency prickled at me. “Mage…” I murmured.
“Yes, Most Powerful?” Flenn said. “I am here. What do you need?”
“Sunshine?” He turned to Arran in bewilderment.
“Her eagle. Drina, where is Sunshine? And Ly?”
“Ly? Something has happened to Ly?” His voice was sharp with fear.
“Sunshine. Mage. Broken wing. Needs mage.”
“But where? How can I find her?” That was Flenn again.
“Diamond,” I muttered.
“Ly’s eagle,” Arran said. “He is still up on the roof. He will show you where to go.”
Flenn whisked away, and I lay back, exhausted but satisfied. Diamond would take Flenn to Ly and Sunshine, and my eagle would be healed by Flenn’s magic. Arran helped me to sit up, gave me sips of water, stroked my hair and kissed me softly on the forehead, but he said nothing, asked no questions. In one corner of the room, my bodyguard stood, impassive. In another, two waiting women whispered together. It was blessedly peaceful. I had no pain, no discomfort, just a fuzziness in my head and the residual warmth of magic.
The door burst open and Yannassia swept in with Torthran, followed by a retinue of bodyguards, mages, waiting women and scribes, most of whom were promptly chased out again.
“Drina!” Yannassia said. “Thank all the gods! How do you feel?” She was wearing her most formal regalia, all stiff brocade, lace and gold thread. She must have walked out of an assembly as soon as word came that I was awake.
“I feel… a little tired.”
“No pain?” she said, perching on the edge of the bed. “Flenn said your arm was broken in three places, and ribs, too. He spent an age putting you back together.”
I smiled at that. “Should have sent for Mother.”
Yannassia made a non-committal grunt. “Kyra may be the world’s most powerful mage, but even for her, bones are tricky things to mend.”
“But she is coming,” Torthran added, one hand resting on Yannassia’s shoulder. “We sent word straight away.”
I smiled, but so much talk had exhausted me. My eyes closed.
“She needs to rest now, so you had better leave,” Arran said, and if I’d had the strength I would have laughed at him ordering the Drashona out.
“One more question. Drina, what of Ly? Is he injured too?”
“Think he’s all right,” I whispered. “He put me on Diamond. Sent me home.”
“Flenn will tell us when he gets back.” That was Torthran again, always the calm voice of reason.
“So he will.” The bed shifted as Yannassia got to her feet. “Sleep now, dear, and tomorrow you shall tell me exactly what happened. As soon as Ly is back, I shall order a festival of celebration for your safe return.”
She swept out as briskly as she’d arrived, back to whatever important ceremony had been disrupted.
As the room fell back into calming silence, I became aware of the faintest whisper of a voice in my head, thin and distant.
“Princess? Princess! Are you all right?”
The following morning, Mother arrived in a lather of indignation that anyone or anything had dared to injure her daughter. She’d even flown to Kingswell by eagle, something she would only agree to in an extreme emergency. She bustled in, pushing Arran aside, and plonked herself down on the bed. “Well, you look better than I expected. May I?”
She reached for my hand, resting it in both her own, brown against white. No one to look at us would guess that I, so dark, came from someone with such pale skin and red hair. In looks, I was entirely my father’s daughter.
As soon as she touched me, her magic fizzed around me, golden and healthful. Mother was a natural mage, one of only a few people able to connect directly to magic and hold it inside herself. Officially, she was called a Fire Mage, and the mage mark on her forehead was a tiny flame. My father had had the same ability, before he died. As a child, I’d needed Mother’s magic to keep me well, but now I had Ly’s magic for that, and I was still full to overflowing with magic from the unnatural storm.
“Well, that seems to be in order,” she said. It always amazed me that, just by touching, she could see inside and identify any illness or weakness of the body. And heal most things, too. “But whatever happened to you? Did you fall off Sunshine?”
I explained as best I could, although I didn’t understand it myself.
“A magical wind? How strange!” she said.
“Could you do that?” I asked.
She pondered, head tipped to one side. “Possibly. It’s not something I’ve ever tried, but moving air – yes, that could be done. I’ll experiment a bit. Maybe there’s another natural mage out at – where was it? Something Ford?”
“Greenstone Ford. Maybe, but I’ve never heard of mages out on the plains before. The Karningers don’t even believe in magic. All the natural mages we know about came from Bennamore.”
She chewed her lip, frowning. “I’m sure there was one from the coast, years ago. Before I came to Kingswell.”
“Yes, I read about him. He was born in Bennamore. And conceived here, more to the point. The Blood Clans believe that where a child is conceived affects what beast or plant it will have a connection to. You must have been conceived close to a strong source of magic, like a scribery.”
“I don’t know. Maybe on one of my father’s visits to Ardamurkan.” She shrugged.
“Don’t you ever wonder why you’re so different?” I said, smiling at her. “Almost every other mage needs a vessel full of magic to power their spells, but you don’t. Natural mages are so rare – but why are there any? It seems unnecessary to me.”
She shrugged again. “Who can say why the gods bestow these gifts on any of us? I don’t need to know why to be grateful for it.”
The door opened again and Cal came in, blond hair still tangled from his wind-blown eagle flight. Cal was my mother’s – well, I was never sure how to describe him, for he was neither husband nor drusse, but they regarded themselves as bound. I’d asked Mother once what exactly he was, but she’d just said, “Well, he’s Cal, isn’t he?” They’d been together all my life, and Cal was like a father to me.
He bent over and kissed my forehead. “You look tired, petal. Is she all right?” he asked Mother. She nodded. “Thank the gods! But whatever happened?”
I told my story again, and he listened without interrupting. But when I’d finished, he said, “Perhaps that’s why the eagles are so jumpy here. Most of them are gone, did you know that? Gone off to find Sunshine, probably. The rest are twitchy. It’s taken me an age to get ours settled. But that is very weird, the whirlwind business. Very, very weird.”
On that we could all agree.
Three suns later, when Flenn returned, Yannassia called for a meeting of her closest advisors to discuss what had happened. Rythmarri was there, and Landra, the senior mage, and Hethryn had talked his way in as well. I’d hoped that Mother and Cal would be there, but their mage duties had called them home. Because I was deemed too ill to manage the short distance to Yannassia’s own apartment, everyone came to mine. As heir, my accommodation included a number of chambers for official meetings. Yannassia chose one of the smaller rooms, fitted with comfortable chairs and footstools, so that I could rest with my feet up.
“Tell us the news of Ly,” Yannassia said, almost before we were all seated. “You found him well, Flenn?”
“He is well, yes. His camp is poorly supplied, so I have sent Harbrondia out with supplies – grains, root vegetables, a cooking pot—”
“What about Sunshine?” I said, not much caring about cooking pots.
Flenn smiled. “She is recovering well. A clean break, and Lord Ly-haam had splinted it, so I had no trouble mending the bones. She will be recovered enough to fly in a few more suns. She will be well fed, that much is certain. Half the Keep’s eagles are there with her, hunting the choicest delicacies to help her healing. You need not be concerned, Most Powerful.” His tone was so patronising that I felt like a child who’d been patted on the head and told to run away and play. Flenn was, like most mages, noble-born, with good amounts of the arrogance that went along with that.
“She will be as fat as an ox, then, and too heavy to fly,” I grumbled.
Flenn shook his head. “She wants to get back to you. Lord Ly-haam wants to know if you can connect to her from this distance.”
“At first, very faintly, and through her to Ly. But not for a few suns now.”
“Lord Ly-haam has been worried about you,” Flenn said. “He sent Diamond back with me, so that you can connect that way. Can you?”
I opened my mind and searched for the familiar tones of Diamond’s thoughts. There! A burst of bird-happiness raced through him as we connected. Almost at once, as if he’d been waiting for me, Ly’s voice as clear in my head as if he stood beside me, awash with joy.
“Princess?” Then a babble of his own language, only half coherent. “You are better now?”
“I’m fine. You?”
The slightest hesitation. “I am well. Sunshine, too. I miss you, Princess, but I have to stay with Sunshine. She needs me.”
“I know. I’ll see you soon.”
He vanished from my mind, and I blinked. Five pairs of eyes gazed at me, in various states of amusement. I supposed it must look odd from the outside. Only the bodyguards were impassive, staring into space, pretending not to listen.
Then Yannassia leaned forward and asked the question that was bothering me, too. “Will Ly be a problem, Drina? Because his magic must be growing again.”
Ly’s magic. It was in his blood, and nothing could change that, but for five years now I had kept it in check. Every two or three suns, I took away the magic inside him. It grew again, I took it from him, over and over, in an endless cycle. The boost of magic kept me well, and the lack of it kept Ly sane. When his magic had grown unchecked, he’d become a wellspring of anger to his people, leading them to war.
“I don’t think it will be a problem,” I said. “He says he’s well.” But that tiny hesitation before he replied niggled at the back of my mind. Well now, perhaps, but with every sun his magic would be a little stronger. “He needs to stay with Sunshine until she heals.”
“Why?” That was Landra. She was stolid woman of middle age, not as astute as her predecessor, but perhaps easier to deal with. I got on well with her. It was her job to question everything, of course.
Flenn intervened again, his voice smooth. “To keep the bird tame. Who knows what she might do if she were left alone?”
“She can manage perfectly well on her own,” I said, irritated. “The difficulty is that she has always been bonded to a human. She is too far away for me to reach her mind, but if Ly is there, he can reassure her. As for his magic regenerating, this will be a useful test before he goes to the Challenge this summer.”
“If he goes,” Yannassia corrected. “That is not yet decided. Or is it? The decision is yours, since he is your war captive.”
“Let’s see what he’s like when he gets back here,” I said carefully. “Then we can think about the Challenge.”
“If he comes back.” That was Flenn, his eyes hard. There were plenty in the nobility who still resented and distrusted Ly, remembering the war, and conveniently forgetting that we started it.
Yannassia watched him thoughtfully, but said nothing. Instead, she turned back to me. “Drina, will you tell us exactly what happened, as much as you remember.”
I told my story again in exhaustive detail, and answered questions until my head was spinning. It was just as well I was still infused with magic and full of energy.
“You are quite sure the whirlwind was magical?” Landra said.
“Lord Ly-haam said exactly the same thing,” Flenn put in, before I could answer. “It blew up instantly, and vanished just as quickly when Most Powerful Drina absorbed the magical energy.”
“Why was Ly not affected by it?” Hethryn said. A good question.
“He was flying much higher,” Flenn said. “He was almost outside the wind’s range, so his eagle was able to escape quite easily. It was aimed at the Most Powerful, clearly.”
“But why?” Hethryn said. “Why would anyone perceive an eagle to be a threat?”
Again, Flenn spoke before I could formulate a reply. “An eagle with a rider, Highness.”
“But unarmed,” Hethryn said at once.
Landra raised a hand to stop the argument. “I wonder if it is possible that it was magic which drew the attention of… someone. Or something. It seems a disproportionate response to an eagle, even a large one bearing a rider.”
“I have no magic,” I said.
“No, but Most Powerful Ly does, and the eagles are not natural birds. This may be some kind of automatic response, similar to the magical defences in the Imperial City.”
We went all round the subject without reaching any conclusion. Rythmarri had said little so far, but now she leaned forward. “Leaving the magical elements aside for a moment, I should like to know what you saw of the barracks before the storm blew up.”
“It’s huge,” I said at once. “Wait – let me get paper. I can draw the shape of it.” I sketched an outline quickly. “There. Each of those blocks is three stories high, and the main Kingswell barracks would fit into just one of them, with room to spare.”
“Gods!” Rythmarri said. “That makes them ten, maybe fifteen times as large as ours, and who knows how much is underground.”
“We have the fortresses, too,” Hethryn said. “And several training camps.”
“Even so,” Rythmarri said. “They must outnumber our total strength many times. If they choose to invade, they could wipe us out.”
“Then we must hope they stay where they are,” Yannassia said crisply.