/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Valdemar (02): Last Herald Mage

Magics Price

Mercedes Lackey

In this book, Valdemar is in trouble. Karse, the religious/evil country to the South is waging a ruthless attack against Valdemar's borders. But more importantly, a dark Mage of unknown strength is preparing a final massing strike into Valdemar. Vanyel meets a young Bard named Stefen and falls in love with him. He finds out that not only is he in love, he is lifebonded, just as he and Tylendel were. Is this Tylendel's reincarnated soul? King Randale is near death from illness, so Vanyel has temporarily taken on most of the King's duties. As if this is not enough, all of the Herald-Mages are mysteriously being murdered off, one by one, until finally there is only Vanyel left. The dark master challenges Vanyel. He receives a vision in his dreams that reveals to his just what would happen if he and his companion Yfandes were to accept that challenge. If they should fail this fight, they will both be asked to pay the ultimate price. But if they flee, Valdemar will fall.

Mercedes Lackey

Last Herald-Mage 03

Magic’s Price

To

Russell Galen

Judith Louvis and Sally Paduch

and everyone who dreams of wearing Whites

One

Sweat ran down Herald Vanyel's back, and his ankle hurt a little - he hadn't twisted it, quite bad, when he'd slipped on the wooden floor of the salle back at the beginning of this bout, but it was still bothering him five exchanges later.

A point of weakness, and one he'd better be aware of, because his opponent was watching for such signs of weakness, sure as the sun rose.

He watched his adversary's eyes within the shadows of his helm. Watch the eyes, he remembered Jervis saying, over and over. The eyes will tell you what the hands won't. So he studied those half-hidden eyes, and tried to hide his entire body behind the quillons of his blade.

The eyes warned him, narrowing and glancing to the left just before Tantras moved. Vanyel was ready for him.

Experience told him, just before their blades touched, that this would be the last exchange. He lunged toward Tantras instead of retreating as Tran was obviously expecting, engaged and bound the other's blade, and disarmed him, all in the space of a breath.

The practice blade clattered onto the floor as Tantras shook his now-empty hand, swearing.

“Stung, did it?” Vanyel said. He straightened, and pulled at the tie holding his hair out of his eyes, letting it fall loose in damp strands. “Sorry. Didn't mean to get quite so vigorous. But you are out of shape, Tran.”

“I don't suppose you'd accept getting old as an excuse?” Tantras asked hopefully, as he took off his gloves and examined the abused ringers.

Vanyel snorted. “Not a chance. Bard Breda is old enough to be my mother, and she regularly runs me around the salle. You are woefully out of condition.”

The other Herald pulled off his helm, and laughed ruefully. “You're right. Being Seneschal's Herald may be high in status, but it's low in exercise.”

“Spar with my nephew Medren,” Vanyel replied. “If you think I'm fast, you should see him. That'll keep you in shape.” He unbuckled his practice gambeson while he spoke, leaving it in a pile of other equipment that needed cleaning up against the wall of the salle.

“I'll do that.” Tantras was slower in freeing himself from the heavier armor he wore. “The gods know I may need to face somebody using that cut-and-run style of yours some day, so I might as well get used to fights that are half race and half combat. And entirely unorthodox.”

“That's me, unorthodox to the core.” Vanyel racked his practice sword and headed for the door of the salle. “Thanks for the workout, Tran. After this morning, I needed it.”

The cool air hit his sweaty skin as he opened the door; it felt wonderful. So good, in fact, that between his reluctance to return to the Palace and the fresh crispness of the early morning, he decided to take a roundabout way back to his room. One that would take him away from people. One that would, for a moment perhaps, take his mind off things as well as his bout with Tantras had.

He headed for the paths to the Palace gardens.

Full-throated birdsong spiraled up into the empty sky. Vanyel let his thoughts drift away, following the warbling notes, leaving every weighty problem behind him until his mind was as empty as the air above -

:Van, wake up! Your feet are soaked!: Yfandes' mind-voice sounded rather aggrieved. :And you're chilling yourself. You're going to catch a cold.:

Herald-Mage Vanyel blinked, and stared down at the dew-laden grass of the neglected garden. He couldn't actually see his feet, hidden as they were by the long, dank, dead grass - but he could feel them, now that 'Fandes had called his attention back to reality. He'd come out here wearing his soft suede indoor boots - they'd been perfect for sparring with Tran, but now -

:They are undoubtedly ruined,: she said acidly.

She sounded so like his aunt, Herald-Mage Savil, that he had to smile. “Won't be the first pair of boots I've ruined, sweetheart,” he replied mildly. His feet were very wet. And very cold. A week ago it wouldn't have been dew out here, it would have been frost. But Spring was well on the way now; the grass was greening under the dead growth of last year, there were young leaves unfolding on every branch, and a few of the earliest songbirds had begun to invade the garden. Vanyel had been watching and listening to a pair of them, rival male yellowthroats, square off in a duel of melody.

:Probably not the last article of clothing you'll ruin, either,: she said with resignation. :You've come a long way from the vain little peacock I Chose.:

“That vain little peacock you Chose would still have been in bed.” He yawned. “I think he was the more sensible one. This hour of the day is positively unholy.”

The sun was barely above the horizon, and most of the Palace inhabitants were still sleeping the sleep of the exhausted, if not the just. This half-wild garden was the only one within the Palace grounds with its eastern side unblocked by buildings or walls, and the thin, clear sunlight poured across it, making every tender leaf and grass blade glow. Tradition claimed this patch of earth and its maze of hedges and bowers to be the Queen's Garden - which was the reason for its current state of neglect. There was no Queen in Valdemar now, and the King's lifebonded had more urgent cares than tending pleasure gardens.

An old man, a gardener by his earth-stained apron, emerged from one of the nearby doors of the Palace and limped up the path toward Vanyel. The Herald stepped to one side to let him pass and gave him a friendly enough nod of greeting, but the old man completely ignored him; muttering something under his breath as he brushed by.

His goal, evidently, was a rosevine-covered shed a few feet away; he vanished inside it for a moment, emerged with a hoe, and began methodically cultivating the nearest flowerbed with it. Van might as well have been a spirit for all the attention the old man gave him.

Vanyel watched him for a moment more, then turned and walked slowly back toward the Palace. “Did it ever occur to you, love,” he said to the empty air, “that you and I and the entire Palace could vanish overnight, and people like that old man would never miss us?”

:Except that we wouldn't be trampling his flowers anymore,: Yfandes replied. :It was a bad morning, wasn't it.:

A statement, not a question. Yfandes had been present in the back of Vanyel's mind during the whole Privy Council session.

“One of Randi's worst yet. That's why I was taking my frustration out with Tran.” Vanyel kicked at an inoffensive weed growing up through the cobbles of the path. “And Randi's got some important things to take care of this afternoon. Formal audiences, for one - ambassadorial receptions. I won't do, not this time. It has to be the King, they're insisting on it. Sometimes I wish I didn't have to be so politic, and could knock a few diplomatic heads together. Tashir, bless his generous young heart, handled things a bit better with his lot.”

Another gardener appeared, and looked at Vanyel oddly as he passed. Van suppressed the urge to call him back and explain. He must be new; he'll learn soon enough about Heralds talking to thin air.

:What did Tashir do with his envoys? I was talking to Ariel's Darvena while you were dealing with them. You know, I still can't believe your brother Mekeal produced a child sensitive enough to be Chosen.:

“Neither can I. But then, illogic runs in the family, I guess. As for Tashir; his envoys have been ordered to accept me as the voice of the King-” Vanyel explained. “The trouble's with the territories he annexed on Lake Evendim. This lot from the Lake District is touchy as hell, and being received by anyone less than Randi is going to be a mortal affront.”

:Where did you pick that tidbit up?:

“Last night. After you decided that stallion from up North had a gorgeous - ”

:Nose,: Yfandes interrupted primly. :He had a perfectly lovely nose. And you and Joshe were boring me to tears with your treasury accounts.:

“Poor Joshe.”

He meant that. Less than a year in the office, and trying to do the work of twenty. And wishing with all his soul he was back as somebody's assistant. And unfortunately, Tran knows less about the position then he does.

:He's not comfortable as Seneschal.:

“In the black, love. He's young, and he's nervous, and he wanted somebody else to go over his figures before he presents them to the Council.” Vanyel sighed. “The gods know Randi can't. He'll be lucky to make it through this afternoon.”

:Esten will help. He'll do anything for Randi.:

“I know that, but - 'Fandes, the pain-sharing a Companion can do and the strength a Companion can lend just aren't enough anymore. And it's time we all admitted what we know. Randi's too sick for anything we know to cure - ” Vanyel took a deep breath to steady his churning insides. “ - and the very best we can hope for is to find some way to ease his pain so he can function when he has to. And hope we can get Treven trained soon in case we can't.”

:Get Treven trained in time, you mean,: Yfandes replied glumly. :Because we're running out of it. I hate this, Van. We can't do anything, the Healers can't do anything-Randale is just dying by inches, and none of us can do anything about it!:

“Except watch,” Van replied with bitterness. “He gets a little worse every day, and not only can't we stop it, we don't even know why! I mean, there are some things not even the Healers can cure, but we don't even know what this illness that's killing Randi is - is it inheritable? Could Treven have it, too? Randi didn't show signs until his mid-twenties, and Trev is only seventeen. We could be facing the same situation we have now in another ten or fifteen years.”

Unbidden thoughts lurked at the back of his mind. A good thing Jisa isn't in the line of succession, or people would be asking that about her, too. And how could I explain why she's in no danger without opening a much bigger trouble-box than any of us care to deal with? Especially her. She takes on too much. It's bad enough just being fifteen and the King's daughter. To have to deal with the rest of this - thank the gods there are some difficulties I can spare her.

He stared down at the overgrown path as he walked, so deep in thought that Yfandes tactfully withdrew from contact. There were some things, or so she had told him, that even a Companion felt uncomfortable about eavesdropping on.

He walked slowly through the neglected garden. He took the winding path back to the door from the Palace, setting his feet down with exaggerated care, putting off his return to the confines of the building as long as he could. But his troubles had a tendency to pursue him beyond the walls.

“Uncle Van?” a breathless young female voice called from behind him. He heard the ache in the familiar voice, the unshed tears; he turned and opened his arms, and Jisa ran into them.

She didn't say anything; she didn't have to. He knew what brought her out here; the same problems that had driven him out into the unkempt maze of the deserted garden. She'd been with her mother and father all morning, right beside Van, doing what she could to ease Randale's pain and boost Shavri's strength.

Van stroked her long, unbound hair, and let her sob into his shoulder. He hadn't known she was behind him -

Ordinarily that would have worried him. But not since it was Jisa. She was very good at shielding; so good, in fact, that she could render herself invisible to his Othersense. That was no small protection to her - since if she could hide her presence from him, she could certainly hide it from enemies.

Vanyel was tied to every other Herald alive, and was able to sense them whenever he chose, but since Jisa wasn't a Herald, he wouldn't “know” where she was unless he was deliberately “Looking” for her.

Jisa had not yet been Chosen, which Vanyel thought all to the good. To his way of thinking, she didn't need to be. As an Empath she was getting full Healer's training, and Van and his aunt Savil were instructing her exactly as they would have a newly-Chosen Herald. If people wondered why the child of two full Heralds wasn't yet Chosen when every Companion at Haven loved her and treated her as one of their own, let them continue to wonder. Vanyel was one of the few who knew the reason. Jisa hadn't been Chosen because her Companion would be Taver, and Taver was the Companion to the King's Own, Jisa's mother Shavri. So Jisa and Taver would not bond until Shavri was dead.

Not an event anyone cared to rush.

None of them, not Randale, Shavri nor Vanyel, were ready for even the Heraldic Circle to know why she hadn't been Chosen. Jisa knew - Vanyel had told her - but she seldom said anything about it, and Van didn't push her. The child had more than enough to cope with as it was.

Being an Empath and living in the household of your dying parent -

It was one thing to know that someone you loved was going to die; to share Randale's pain as Jisa did must be as bad as any torture Van could think of.

Small wonder she came to Vanyel and cried on his shoulder. The greater wonder was that she didn't do so more often.

He insinuated a tiny thread of thought into her mind as he stroked her tangled, sable-brown hair. Not to comfort; there was no comfort in this situation. Just something to let her know she wasn't alone. :I know, sweetling. I know. I'd give my sight to take this from you.:

She turned her red-eyed, tear-smudged face toward his :Sometimes I think I can't bear it anymore; I'll kill something or go mad. Except that there's nothing to kill, and going mad wouldn't change anything.:

He smoothed the hair away from her face with both hands, cupped her chin in one hand, and met her hazel eyes with his own. :You are much too practical for me, sweetling. I doubt that either of those considerations would hold me for a second in your place.: He pretended to think for a moment. :I believe, on the whole, I'd choose to go mad. Killing something is so very messy if you want it to be satisfying. And how would I get the blood out of my Whites?:

She giggled a little, diverted. He smiled back at her, and blotted the tears from her eyes and cheeks with a handkerchief he pulled from the cuff of one sleeve :You'll manage as you always do, dearest. By taking things one day at a time, and coming to me or Trev when you can't bear it all on your own shoulders.:

She sniffled, and rubbed her nose with her knuckle. He pulled her hand away with a mock-disapproving frown and handed her his handkerchief. :Stop that, little girl. I've told you a hundred times not go out without a handkerchief. What will people think, to see the King's daughter wiping her nose on her sleeve?:

:That she's a barbarian, I suppose,: Jisa replied, taking it with a sigh.

:I swear, I'll have your women sew scratchy silver braid on all your sleeves to keep you from misusing them.: He frowned again, and she smiled.

:Now wouldn't that be a pretty picture? Sewing silver braid on my clothing would be like putting lace on a horseblanket.: Jisa dressed plainly, as soberly as a priestly novice, except when coerced into something more elaborate by her mother. Take now; she was in an ordinary brown tunic and full homespun breeches that would not have been out-of-place on one of the Holderkin beyond the Karsite Border.

:Jisa, Jisa,: he sighed, and shook his head. Her eyes lit, and her pretty, triangular face became prettier with the mischief behind them. There were times he suspected her of dressing so plainly just to annoy him a little. :Any other girl your age in your position would have a closet full of fine clothing. My mother's maids dress better than you do!:

Mindspeech with Jisa was easier than talking aloud; she'd been a Mindspeaker since she was six and use of Mindspeech was literally second-nature to her. On the other hand, that made it very difficult to keep things from her. . . .

:Then no one will ever guess you are my father, will they?: she replied impudently. :Perhaps you should be grateful to me, Father-Peacock.:

He tugged a lock of hair. :Mind your manners, girl. I get more than sufficient back-chat from Yfandes; I don't need it from you. Feeling any better?:

She rubbed her right eye with the back of her hand, ignoring the handkerchief she held in it. :A bit,: she admitted.

:Then why don't you go find Trev? He's probably looking for you.: Van chuckled. Everyone who knew them knew that the two had been inseparable from the moment Treven stepped onto the Palace grounds. That pleased most of the Circle and Court - except those young ladies of the Court who cherished an infatuation with the handsome young Herald. Treven was a finely-honed, blond copy of his distant cousin Herald Tantras, one with all of Tran's defects - not that there were many - corrected. He had half the girls of the Court trailing languidly after him.

And he was Jisa's, utterly and completely. His loyalty was without question - and no one among the Gifted had any doubts as to his love for her.

Sometimes that worried Van; not that they were so strongly attracted to each other, but because Treven was likely to have to make an alliance-marriage, just the way his grandmother, Queen Elspeth, had.

It would never be a marriage in more than name, Vanyel was certain of that. There were conditions in Treven's case that his grandmother and cousin had not ever needed to consider. Elspeth had not been a Mindspeaker; Randi wasn't much of one. No one but another Herald with that particular Gift could guess how distasteful it would be for a powerful Mindspeaker like Trev to make love to someone who was not only mind-blocked, but a total stranger. Probably a frightened, unhappy stranger.

One wonders how any Mindspeaking Monarch could be anything but chaste. . . .

Yet the Monarchs of Valdemar had done their duty before, and likely would do so again. Probably Trev would have to, as well. Yes, it was heartrending, but it was a fact of life. Heralds did a lot of things they didn't always like. As far as that went, for the good of Valdemar, Vanyel could and would have bedded anyone or anything.

In fact, he had done something of the sort, though it hadn't been exactly disagreeable; Van had fathered Jisa with poor, dear Shavri, when Randale proved to be sterile - even though his preference was, then and now, for his own sex. . . .

Shaych, they called it now-from the Tayledras word shay'a'chern, though only a handful of people in all of Valdemar knew that. Though openly shaych, he'd given Shavri a child because Randale couldn't, and because she'd wanted one so desperately - Randi needed his lifebonded stable and whole, and the need for a child had been tearing her apart.

And her pregnancy had stilled any rumors that Randale might not be capable of fathering a child, which kept the channels open for proposals of alliance-marriages to him, at least until his illness became too severe to hide.

But because Randale had needed to keep those lines open - and because Shavri was terrified of even the idea of ruling - he'd never married his lifebonded. So when it became evident that Randale was desperately ill, and that the Companions “inexplicably” were not going to Choose Jisa, Randale's collateral lines had been searched for a suitable candidate.

Treven was the only possible choice at that point; he'd been Chosen two years ago, he was a Mindspeaker as powerful as Vanyel. He understood the principles of governing - at least so far as they applied to his own parents' Border-barony, since he'd been acting as his father's right-hand man since he was nine.

Jisa had loved him from the moment he'd crossed the threshold of the Palace. It wasn't obligatory for the King's Own to be in love with her monarch, but Vanyel was of the opinion that it helped. . . .

Except that it makes things awfully complicated.

:She's not a child anymore,: Yfandes reminded him. At that point he really looked at her, and saw the body of a young woman defining the shape of what had been shapeless before this year.

:Let's not borrow trouble before we have to,: he thought back at his Companion, avoiding the topic.

Jisa looked back at him with those too-old, too-wise eyes. :Trev's waiting for me; he sent me to you. Sometimes he knows what I need before I do.:

He released her, and stepped back a pace. :Think you still need me?:

She shook her head, and pulled her hair back over her shoulders. :No, I think I'll be all right, now. I don't know how you do it, Father - how you manage to be so strong for all of us. I'll go back in now, but if you need me for anything -:

He shook his head, and she smiled weakly, then turned and threaded her way across the overgrown flowerbeds, taking the most direct route back, the route he had avoided.

Soaking her shoes. And not caring in the least.

:Like father, like daughter,: Yfandes snorted.

:Shut up, horse,: Van retorted absently.

His own thoughts followed his daughter. It's a life-bonding, the thing between her and Trev. I'm positive. The way she's always aware of him, and Trev of her... in a way that's not a bad thing. She's going to need all the emotional help she can get when Randi dies, and she surely won't get it from Shavri. Shavri is going to be in too much pain herself to help Jisa - assuming Shavri lives a candlemark beyond Randi. . . .

But the problems . . . gods above and below! Is she old enough to understand what Trev is going to have to do - that the good of Valdemar may - will - take precedence over her happiness? How can any fifteen-year-old understand that? Especially with her heart and soul so bound up with his?

But-she was old enough to understand about me. . . .

How well Vanyel remembered. . . .

. . . .the provisions of the exclusion to be as follows. . . .

“Uncle Van?”

Vanyel had looked up from the proposed new treaty with Hardorn. He had the odd feeling that there was something hidden in the numerous clauses and subclauses, something that could cause a lot of trouble for Valdemar. He wasn't the only one - the Seneschal was uneasy, and so were any Heralds with the Gift of ForeSight that so much as entered the same room with it.

So he'd been burning candles long into the night, searching for the catch, trying to ferret out the problem and amend it before premonition became reality.

He'd taken the infernal thing back to his own room where he could study it in peace. It was past the hour when even the most pleasure-loving courtier had sought his or her bed; it was long past the hour when Jisa should have been in hers. Yet there she stood, wrapped in a robe three sizes too big for her, half-in, half-out of his doorway.

“Jisa?” he'd said, blinking at her, as he tried to pull his thoughts out of the maze of “whereases” and “party of the first parts.” “Jisa, what are you doing still awake?”

“It's Papa,” she'd said simply. She moved out of the doorway and into the light. Her eyes were dark-circled and red-rimmed. “I can't do anything, but I can't sleep, either.”

He'd held out his arms to her, and she'd come to him, drooping into his embrace like an exhausted bird into its nest.

:Uncle Van-: She'd Mindtouched him immediately, and he could sense thoughts seething behind the ones she Sent :Uncle Van, it's not just Papa. I have a question. And I don't know if you're going to like it or not, but I have to ask you, because - because I need to know the answer :

He'd smoothed her hair back off her forehead. :I've never lied to you, and I've never put you off, sweetling,: he'd replied. :Even when you asked uncomfortable questions. Go ahead.:

She took a deep breath and shook off his hands. :Papa isn't my real father, is he? You are.:

He'd had less of a shock from mage-lightning. And he'd answered without thinking. :I-yes-but -:

She'd thrown her arms around his neck and clung to him, not saying anything, simply radiating relief.

Relief - and an odd, subdued joy.

He blinked again, and touched her mind, tentatively. :Sweetling? Do -:

:I'm glad,: she said. And let him fully into her mind. He saw her fears - that she would become sick, as Randale had. Her puzzlement at some odd things she'd overheard her mother say - and the strange evasions Shavri had given instead of replies. The frustration when she sensed she wasn't being told the truth. The bewilderment as she tried to fathom questions that became mystery. And the love she had for him. A love she now felt free to offer him, like a gift.

Perhaps it was that last that surprised him the most. :You don't mind?: he asked, incredulously. He could hardly believe it. Like many youngsters in adolescence, she'd been a little touchy around him of late. He'd assumed that it was because she felt uncomfortable around him - and in truth, he'd expected it. Jisa knew what he was, that he was shaych, and what that meant, at least insofar as understanding that he preferred men as close companions. Neither he nor her parents had seen any point in trying to hide that from her; she'd always been a precocious child, as evidenced by this little surprise. :You really don't mind?: he repeated, dazed.

“Why should I mind?” she asked aloud, and hugged him harder. “Just - tell me why? Why isn't Papa my father - and why is it you?”

So he had, as simply and clearly as he could. She might have been barely over twelve, but she'd taken in his words with the understanding of someone much older.

She left him amazed.

She'd finally gone off to her bed - but had sent him back to his treaty both - bewildered and flattered, that she admired him so very much. . . .

And loved him so very much.

She still loved him, admired him, and trusted him; sometimes she trusted him more than her “parents.” Certainly she confided more in him than in Shavri.

He shook his head a little, and continued down the cobbled path that would lead him eventually to the door out of the garden. Poor Jisa. Shavri leans on her as if she were an adult - depends on her for so much - it hardly seems fair.

Then again, maybe I should envy the little minx. I still can't get my parents to think of me as an adult.

All too soon he came to the end of the path. Buried in a tangle of hedges and vines was the chipped, green-painted door. He opened it, and stepped into the darkened hallway of the Queen's suite.

The rooms were just as neglected as the garden had been; dark, full of dusty furniture, and with a faint ghost of Elspeth's violet perfume still hanging in the air. Shavri had never felt comfortable here, and Randale had deemed it politic (after much discussion) to leave this suite empty as a sign that he might take a Queen.

That “might” had been hard-won from Randi - because although Shavri was both his King's Own and his lifebonded love, his advisors (Vanyel among them) had managed to convince him that he should at least appear to be free to make an alliance and seal it with a wedding.

Shavri had seen the need, but Randale had been rebellious, even angry with them. But after hours of argument, even he could not deny the fact that Valdemar's safety would be ill-served if he acted to please only himself. It was a lesson Trev was going to have to learn all too soon.

Fortunately Shavri - lovely, quiet Shavri - had backed them with all the will in her slender body. And that was considerable, for she was a full and powerful Healer as well as being a Herald. Herald-Mages were rare; before Taver Chose Shavri, Valdemar had never seen a Herald-Healer. Van hoped the need would never arise for there to be another.

Vanyel eased through the rooms with a sense, as always, that he was disturbing something. Dust motes hung in the sunbeams that shone through places where the curtains had parted. Despite that hint of perfume, there was no sense of “presence” - it was rather as though what he was disturbing were the rooms themselves rather than something inhabiting them. There were several places in the Palace like that; places where it seemed as if the walls themselves were alive. . . .

Taver had Chosen Shavri when Lancir had died - just before Elspeth herself had passed. The Heralds had been puzzled; they hadn't known why a Healer should be Chosen, though most assumed it was for lack of a more suitable candidate, or simply because Shavri and Randale were lifebonded. Only later, when Shavri couldn't seem to conceive for all her trying, did she suspect that the reason for Taver's taking her was that something was wrong with Randi.

And only much later did they all learn that her suspicion was correct.

At that point, wild horses couldn't have dragged her to the altar to marry Randale. If there was one thing Shavri didn't want, it was the responsibility of rule.

Vanyel eased open one side of the heavy double door to the main corridor, and shut it behind him. His own responsibilities settled over him like a too-weighty cloak. He straightened his back, squared his shoulders, and set off down the stone-floored hall toward his own quarters in the Heralds' Wing.

Shavri was, if truth were to be told, entirely unsuited to ruling. I guess we should be just as pleased that she doesn't want Consort status, Vanyel thought, nodding to an early-rising courtier, one already clad in peacock-bright, elaborately embellished Court garb. For her own sake, and Jisa's sake, I think she made the right decision. I know she didn't want Jisa forced into the position of Heir, and really, this was the only way to keep that from happening. She can't be sure that Jisa wouldn't be Chosen if the Companions thought it necessary. And if she were Chosen and rightborn -

But Jisa's legally a bastard and can't inherit, and not being Chosen makes her doubly safe.

The stone floor gave way to wood; the “Old Palace” to the New. Vanyel ran over the plans for the day in his mind; first his audience with Tashir's people, then a session with the Privy Council, then with the Heraldic Circle. Then the audiences with Randale and the Lake District envoys. Shavri would be there, of course; Randale needed her Gift and her strength. She spent it all on him, which left her no time or energy for any of the normal duties of the King's Own. No matter; Vanyel took those - and even if she'd had the strength to spare, Shavri had not been very skilled at those tasks. . . .

:Shavri was abysmal at those tasks,: Yfandes said tartly. :The only reason she wasn't a total failure was that she relied on Taver and on you to tell her what to do and say.:

Vanyel stopped long enough to have a few words with one of Joshe's aides, an older girl-page with a solemn face, his mind only vaguely on what he was saying to the girl :'Fandes, that isn't kind.:

:Maybe. But it's true. The only thing she showed any real talent in was managing Randi and in knowing where her skills weren't up to the job. If Shavri'd let Randale go through with wedding her, she'd be next in line even before Jisa, and that would be a disaster.:

Vanyel wanted to be able to refute her, but he couldn't. Shavri wasn't a ruler; she wasn't even a Herald except in having Taver. Vanyel did most of her work, from playing ambassador with full plenipotentiary powers, to creating and signing minor legal changes into effect. From being First in the Circle to being First in the Council, to being Northern Guardian of the Web; he did it all. He even took Randale's place in the Council in the King's absence.

:That's most of the time, now,: Yfandes observed sadly.

Van got the answer he wanted out of the child, despite his distraction. She smoothed her tunic nervously, plainly anxious to be gone, and Vanyel obliged her. He was still analyzing the overtones of his conversation with Jisa. :We've got a new problem. Did you pick up what I did from Jisa?: he asked, hurrying his steps toward his room. His feet were beginning to ache with the cold, and the wet leather had begun to chafe his ankles.

:About the real reason why she came to cry on your shoulder? The one she doesn't want to think about? It was too cloudy for me to read.:

Vanyel sensed someone in his room as he neared it, but it was a familiar presence, though one without the “feel” of a Herald, so he didn't bother to identify his visitor. :Shavri,: he said grimly :It's what she's picking up from her mother. Jisa knows Randi's doomed; she's coming to grips with that. What she can't handle is that Shavri's getting more desperate by the moment, more afraid of being left alone. Jisa's afraid that when Randi leaves us - her mother will follow.:

He felt Yfandes jerk her head up in surprise :She's a Healer!: the Companion exclaimed. :She can't - she wouldn't -:

:Don't count on it, dearheart,: Vanyel answered, one hand on the door latch. :Even I can't tell you what she'll do. I don't think she'd actively suicide on us - but she is a Healer. She knows enough about the way that the body works to kill herself through lacking the will to live. And that's what Jisa's afraid she'll do; just pine away on us. And the worst of it is, I think she's right.:

He pushed the door to his spare quarters open; it was full of light and air, but not much else. Just a bed, a low, square table, a few floor-pillows, a wardrobe, and a couch.

On the couch was his visitor-and despite his worries, Vanyel felt his mouth stretching in a real smile.

“Medren!” he exclaimed, as the lanky, brown-haired young Bard-trainee rose and reached across the table to embrace him. “Lord and Lady, nephew, I think you get taller every week! I'm sorry about not being able to get to your recital, but - ”

Medren shook long hair out of his warm brown eyes, and smiled. “Tripes, it isn't my first, and it isn't going to be my last. That's not what I came after you for, anyway.”

“No?” Vanyel settled himself down in his favorite chair, and raised an inquiring eyebrow. “What brings you, then?”

Medren resumed his seat, leaning forward over the table, his eyes locking with Van's. “Something a hell of a lot more important than a stupid recital. Van, I think have something that can help the King.”

Two

Vanyel closed the door behind him, balanced with one hand still on the door handle, and reached down to pull one of his boots off. “What exactly do you mean?” he asked, examining it, and deciding that it was going to survive the soaking after all. “Forgive me if I sound skeptical, Medren, but I've heard that particular phrase dozens of times in the past few years, and in the end nothing anyone tried made any difference. I'm sure you mean well -”

Medren perched in a chair beside the window, with not only his expression but his entire body betraying how tense he was. The curtains fluttered in a sudden gust of breeze, wrapping themselves over his arm. He pushed them away with an impatient grimace. “That's why I waited so long, I really thought about this for a while before I decided to talk to you,” Medren told him earnestly. “You've had every Healer, herbalist, and so-called 'physician' in the Kingdom in and out of here - I wasn't going to come to you unless it wasn't just me who was sure we had something.”

Vanyel pulled off his other boot, and regarded his nephew dubiously. He'd never known Medren to go overboard - but there had been so many times when a new treatment had sounded promising and had achieved nothing. . . . Medren's judgment was unlikely to be better than anyone else's.

Still - there was always the chance. There was little doubt that in Medren Van was dealing with a rational adult now, not an overly impressionable boy. Medren had grown taller in the years since Vanyel had sent him off to Bardic Collegium, and even though he hadn't put on any bulk at all he was obviously at full growth. He actually looked like a pared-down, thin version of his father, Vanyel's brother Mekeal. Except for one small detail - he had his mother Melenna's sweet, doelike eyes.

He must be just about ready to finish Journeyman's status at least, Vanyel realized with a start. He might even be due for Full Bard rank. Ye holy stars, he must be nearly twenty!

The curtains flapped, and Medren pushed them away again. “You know I wouldn't bring you anything trivial or untried. I know better, and anyway, I've got my ranking to think of. I'm one master-work away from Full Bard,” he finished, confirming Vanyel's startled assessment. He combed his fingers restlessly through his long hair. “I can't start my career by getting a reputation for chasing wild geese. I've had Breda check this for me, and she's confirmed it. It seems my roommate, Stefen, has a Wild Talent. He can sing pain away.”

Van had made his way to the side of the bed by the end of this speech; he sat down on it rather abruptly, and stared at his young cousin. “He can - what?”

“He sings pain away.” Medren shrugged, and the cloth of his red-brown tunic strained over his shoulders. “We don't know how, we only know he can. Found it out when I had that foul case of marsh-fever and a head like an overripe pumpkin.”

Vanyel grimaced in sympathy; he'd had a dose of that fever himself, and knew the miserable head and bone aches it brought with it.

“Stef didn't know I was in the room; came in and started practicing. I started to open my mouth to chase him out, I figured that was the last thing I needed, but after the first two notes I couldn't feel any headache. Point of fact, I fell asleep.” Medren leaned forward, and his words tumbled out as he tried to tell Vanyel everything at once. “I woke up when he finished, he was putting his gittern away, and the headache was coming back. Managed to gabble something out before he got away from me, and we tried it again. Damned if I didn't fall asleep again.”

“That could have been those awful herbal teas the Healers seem to set such store by,” Vanyel reminded him. “They put me to sleep -”

“Put you to sleep, sure, but they don't do much about the head. Besides, we thought of that. Got at Breda when I cured up, told her, got her to agree to play victim next time she had one of her dazzle-headaches, and it worked for her, too.” He took a deep breath, and looked at Vanyel expectantly.

“It did?” Vanyel was impressed despite his skepticism. Breda, as someone with the Bardic Gift, wasn't easily influenced by the illusions a strong Gift could weave. Besides, so far as he knew, nothing short of a dangerous concoction of wheat-smut could ease the pain of one of her dazzle-headaches.

Medren spread his hands. “Damned if I know how he does it, Van. But Stef's had a way of surprising us over at Bardic about once a week. Only eighteen, and he's about to make Full Bard. Just may beat me to it. Anyway, you were telling me how Randale hates to take those pain-drugs because they make him muddled -”

“But can't endure more than an hour without them, yes, I remember.” Vanyel threw the abused boots in the corner and leaned forward on his bed, crossing his arms. “I take it you think we can use this Stefen instead of the drugs? I'm not sure that would work, Medren - the reason Randi hates the drugs is that his concentration goes to pieces under them. How can he do anything and listen to your friend at the same time?”

Medren swatted the curtains away again, jumped to his feet and began pacing restlessly, keeping his eyes on Vanyel. “That's the whole beauty of it - this Wild Talent of his seems to work whether you're consciously listening or not. Honest, Van, I thought this out - I mean, if it would work when Breda and I were asleep, it should work under any circumstances.”

Vanyel stood up, slowly. This Wild Talent of Stefen's might not help - but then again, it might. It was worth trying. These days anything was worth trying. . . .

And they had tried anything and everything once the Healers had confessed themselves baffled. Hot springs, mud baths, diets that varied from little more than leaves and raw grains to nothing but raw meat. There had been no signs of a cure, no signs of improvement, just increasing pain and a steadily growing weakness. Nothing had helped Randale in the last year, not even for a candlemark. Nothing but the debilitating, mind-numbing drugs that Randi hated.

“Let's go talk to Breda,” Van said abruptly, kneeling and fishing his outdoor boots out from under the bed. He looked up to catch Medren's elated grin. “Don't get excited,” he warned. “I know you're convinced, but this may be nothing more than pain-sharing, and Randi's past the point where that's at all effective.” He stood up, boots in hand, and pulled them on over his damp stockings. “But as you pointed out, it's worth trying. Astera knows we've tried stranger things.”

Medren kept pace with his uncle easily, despite Vanyel's longer legs and ground-devouring strides. After all, he had just spent his Journeyman period completely afoot, in the wild northlands, where villages were weeks apart. Fortunately it was also the shortest Journeyman trial in the history of the Collegium, he reflected wryly, recalling his aching feet, sore back, and the nights he spent half-frozen in his little tent-shelter. And it wasn't even winter yet! Three months up there gave me enough material for a hundred songs. Although so far half of them seem to be about poor souls freezing to death -

Medren watched his uncle out of the corner of his eye, trying to gauge his feelings, but he couldn't tell what Van was thinking. In that, as in any number of things, Vanyel hadn't changed much in the past few years, though he had altered subtly from the uncle Medren had first encountered.

Gotten quieter, more focused inside himself. Doesn't even talk to anybody about himself anymore, not even Savil. Medren frowned a little. Uncle Van isn't doing himself any favors, isolating himself like that.

Vanyel had the kind of fine-boned, ascetic face that aged well, with no sign of wrinkling except around the eyes and a permanent worry-line between his brows. His once-black hair was thickly streaked with white, but that wasn't from age, that was from working magic with what he and his aunt, Herald-Mage Savil, called “nodes.” Medren had gathered from Vanyel's complicated explanations that these node-things were collecting points for magical energy - and that they were infernally hard to deal with.

For whatever reason, the silver-streaked hair, when combined with the ageless face and a body that would have been the envy of most of Medren's peers, made Vanyel's appearance confusing - even to those who knew him. Young - old, and hard to categorize.

Add eyes the color of burnished silver, eyes that seemed to look right through a person, and you had the single most striking Herald in Whites. . . .

Medren frowned again. And the least approachable.

His nephew guessed that Vanyel had been purposefully learning how to control his expressions completely in the same way a Bard could. Probably for some of the same reasons. Not even a flicker of eyelid gave his thoughts away; over the past couple of years control had become complete. Even Medren, who knew him about as well as anyone, never knew what was running through his mind unless Van wanted him to know.

Vanyel was as beautiful as a statue carved from the finest alabaster by the hand of a master. But thanks to that absolute control, he was also about as remote and chill as that same statue.

Which is the way he wants it, Medren sighed. Or at least, that's what he says. “I can't afford hostages,” he says. 'I can't let anyone close enough to be used against me.” He doesn't even like having people know that he and I are as friendly as we are-and we're related. He thinks it makes me a target. . . .

There actually had been at least one close scrape, toward the end of the Tashir affair. Medren hadn't realized how close that scrape had been until long after, in his third year at Bardic. And in some ways, Van was absolutely right, in that he couldn't afford close emotional relationships. If he'd been the marble statue he resembled, his isolation would likely have been a good thing.

But he wasn't. He was a living human being, and one who would not admit that he was desperately lonely.

To the lowest hells with that. If he doesn't find somebody he can at least talk to besides Savil, he's going to go mad in white linen one of these days. He's keeping everyone else sane, but who can he go to?

Nobody, that's who. Medren gritted his teeth. Well, we'll see about that, uncle. If you can resist Stef, you're a candidate for the Order of Saint Thiera the Immaculate.

They left the Palace itself, and followed a graveled path toward the separate building housing the Bardic Collegium; a three-storied, gray stone edifice. The first floor held classrooms, the second, the rooms of such Bards as taught here, and the third, the rooms of the apprentices and Journeymen about to be made Masters. There were only two of the latter, himself and Stefen. Some might have objected to being roomed with Stef, for the younger boy was shaych, and made no bones about it - but not Medren.

Not with Vanyel for an uncle, Medren reflected, with tolerant amusement. Not that Stefs anything like Van. If uncle's a candidate for the Order of Saint Thiera, Stefs a candidate for the Order of the Brothers of Perpetual Indulgence! No wonder he writes good lovesongs; he's certainly had enough experience!

One of the brown-tunicked Bardic apprentices passed them, laboring under a burden of four or five instruments. They stepped off the path long enough to let her pass; her eyes widened at the sight of Vanyel, and she swallowed and sketched a kind of salute as they passed by her. Van didn't notice, but Medren did; he winked at her and returned it.

Medren had gotten Stef as a roommate before this, back when he was an apprentice. That was surely an experience! I'm not sure which was stranger for me; Stef as he arrived, or Stef once he figured out what he was. Medren mentally shook his head. What a country-bred innocent I was!

Stef had arrived at the Collegium in the care of Bard Lynnell; barely ten, and frightened half to death. He had no idea what was going on, or why this strange woman had plucked him off his street corner and carried him off. Lynnell wasn't terribly good with children, and she hadn't bothered to explain much to young Stefen. That had been left to Medren, the only apprentice at the time who had no roommate.

And first I had to explain that this wasn't a bordello. He'd thought Lynn was a procurer.

Lynnell had heard the boy singing on the street corner, attracting good crowds despite being accompanied only by an unskilled hag with a bodhran. While the Bard had no talent for taking care of children, she was both skilled and graced with the Bardic Gift herself. She had recognized Stefen's Gift with the first notes she heard. And she knew what would happen if that child was left unprotected much longer - some accident would befall him, he could be sold to a whoremaster, some illness left untreated could ruin his voice for life - there were a thousand endings to this child's story, and few of them happy.

Until Lynnell had entered it, anyway. One thing about Lynn; she goes straight for what she wants so fast that most people are left gaping after her as she rides out of sight.

She'd made enough inquiries to ascertain that the crude old woman playing the drum and collecting the coins was not Stefs mother, nor any kind of relative. That was all it took for her to be on the sunny side of legality; once that was established, she had invoked Bardic Immunity and kidnapped him.

Then dumped him on me. Medren smiled. Glad she did. He may have gotten me into trouble, but it was generally fun trouble.

There were some who opined that Stefen's preference for his own sex stemmed from some experience with that nasty old harridan that was so appalling he'd totally repressed the memory. Privately Medren thought that was unlikely. So far as he was able to determine, she'd never laid a finger on Stefen except for an occasional hard shaking, or a slap now and then.

From everything Stef said, when she was sober, she knew where her money was coming from. She wasn't cruel, just crude, and not too bright. So long as her little songbird kept singing, she wasn't going to do anything to upset him.

He held the door to the Bardic Collegium open for his uncle, and followed closely on his heels.

All that Stef had suffered from was neglect, physical and emotional. The emotional neglect was quickly remedied by every adult female in the Collegium, who found the half-starved, big-eyed child irresistible.

Stefs spirits certainly revived quickly enough once he discovered the attention was genuine - and also learned he was to share the (relative) luxuries of the Bardic Collegium.

Like a roof over his head every night, a real bed, all he could eat whenever he wanted it, Medren thought, following Vanyel up the narrow staircase to the second floor. Poor little lad. Whatever his keeper had been spending the money on, it certainly wasn't high living. Drugs, maybe. The gods know Stefs death on anybody he catches playing with them.

Bard Breda's rooms were right by the staircase; Collegium lore had it that she'd picked that suite just so she could humiliate apprentices she caught sneaking in late at night.

The fact was that she had chosen those rooms because she was something of an Empath and something of a chiru-geon; she'd gotten early herbalist training before her Gift was discovered. Bardic apprentices tended to get themselves in trouble with alarming regularity. Sometimes that trouble ended in black eyes - and occasionally in worse. Breda's minor Talents had come to the rescue of more than one wayward apprentice since the day she'd settled in to teach.

Like every other female in the place, she'd taken a liking to Stef, which was just as well. Once Stef had reached the age of thirteen his preferences were well established - and his frail build combined with those preferences got him into more fights than the rest of the apprentices combined. Breda had patched Stefen up so many times she declared that she was considering having the Healers assign him to one of their apprentices as a permanent case study.

Vanyel paused outside the worn wooden door, and knocked lightly.

“Come,” Breda replied, her deep voice still as smooth as cream despite her age, and steadier than the Palace foundations. Vanyel pushed the door ajar, and let them both into the dim cool of Breda's quarters.

Medren often suspected that Breda was at least half owl. She was never awake before noon, she stayed alert until the unholiest hours of the dawn, and she kept the curtains drawn in her rooms no matter what time of day or night it was. Of course, that could have been at least in part because she was subject to those terrible headaches, during which the least amount of light was painful . . . still, walking into her quarters was like walking into a cave.

Medren peered around, trying to see her in the gloom, blinking as his eyes became accustomed to it. He heard a chuckle, rich and throaty. “By the window. I do read occasionally.”

Medren realized then that what he'd taken for an empty chair did in fact have the Bard in it; he'd been fooled by the shadows cast by the high back. “Hullo, Van,” the elderly Bard continued serenely. “Come to verify your scapegrace nephew's tale, hmm?”

“Something like that,” Vanyel admitted, finding another chair and easing himself down into it. “You must admit that most of the rumors of cures we've chased lately have been mist-maidens.”

Medren groped for a chair for himself; winced as the legs scraped discordantly against the floor, and dropped down onto its hard wooden seat.

“Sad, but true,” Breda admitted. “I must tell you, though, I was completely skeptical, myself. I'm difficult to deceive at the best of times; when I have one of my spells I really don't have much thought for anything but the pain. And that youngling dealt with the pain. I've no idea how, but he did it.”

“So I take it you're in favor of this little experiement?” Medren thought Van sounded relieved, but he couldn't be sure.

A faint movement from the shadows in the chair signaled what might have been a shrug. “What have we got to lose? The boy can't hurt anyone with that Wild Talent, so the very worst that could happen is that the King will have one of our better young Journeymen providing appropriately soothing background music for the audiences. He'll have to have someone there entertaining in any case - someone with the Gift, to keep those ambassadors in a good mood. No reason why it can't be Stefen. The boy's amazingly good; very deft, so deft that even most Gifted Bards don't notice he's soothing them.”

“No reason at all,” Vanyel agreed. “Especially if he's that good. Can he do both at once?”

“Can you Mindspeak with 'Fandes and spellcast at the same time?” Breda countered.

“If the spell is familiar enough.” Vanyel pondered. “But I don't know, he's not very experienced, is he? Medren told me he's still a Journeyman.”

“He may not be experienced, but he's a damned remarkable boy,” Breda replied, with an edge to her voice. “You ought to pay a bit more attention to what’s going on under your nose, Van, the lad's been the talk of the Collegium for the past couple of years. That's why we kept him here for his Journeyman period instead of sending him out. The boy's got all three Bardic requirements, Van, not just two. The Gift, the ability to perform, and the creative Talent to compose. Three of his ballads are in the common repertory already, and he's not out of Journeyman status.”

Vanyel coughed. “I stand rebuked,” he replied, a hint of humor in his voice. “Well, let's give this Stefen a chance. Do you want to tell him, or shall I?”

Breda laughed. “You. I'd just gotten comfortable when you two sailed in. And at my age, one finds stairs more than a little daunting.”

Vanyel rose, and Medren scrambled to join him. “You're just lazy, that's all,” he mocked gently. “You can outdance, outfight, outdrink, and outlast people half your age when you choose.”

“That's as may be,” Breda replied as Vanyel turned toward the door, her own voice just as mocking. “But right now I don't choose. Let me know how things work out, youngling.”

Medren felt a hand between his shoulderblades propelling him out the door and into the corridor. “Just for that,” Vanyel said over his shoulder as he closed the door, “I think I'll see that someone tells you - some time next week.”

A pungent expletive emerged, muffled, through the door. Medren hadn't known Breda knew that particular phrase . . . though anatomically impossible, it certainly would have been interesting to watch if she'd decided to put his uncle in that particular position....

Stefen - or rather, Stefen's appearance - came as something of a surprise to Van. Vanyel had been expecting something entirely different - a youngster like Medren, but perhaps a little plainer, a little taller. At some point he'd formed a vague notion that people gifted with extraordinary abilities tended to look perfectly ordinary.

Stefen was far from ordinary -

Van hung back when they'd gotten to the room Medren shared with the boy, prompted by the feeling that Stefen might be uneasy in his presence. Stef had just been leaving, in fact. Medren intercepted him right at the door, and Vanyel had lingered in an alcove while Medren explained to the boy what they wanted of him. That gave Van ample opportunity to study the musician while the youngster remained unaware of the Herald's scrutiny.

Vanyel's first impression was of fragility. Stefen was slight; had he been a girl, he'd have been called “delicate.” He was a little shorter than Vanyel, and as slim. That didn't matter, though - Vanyel could tell that Stef's appearance was as deceptive as his own. Stefen was fine-boned, yes, but there was muscle over that bone; tough, wiry muscle.

I wouldn't care to take him on in a street fight, Van observed, eyes half-closed as he studied the boy. Something tells me he'd win.

Dark auburn hair crowned a triangular face; one composed, at first impression, of a pair of bottomless hazel eyes, high cheekbones, and the most stubborn chin Van had ever seen.

He looks like a demented angel, like that painting in the High Temple of the Spirit of Truth. The one that convinced me that knowing too much truth will drive you mad. . . . Vanyel watched carefully as Stef listened to Medren's plans. Once or twice, the boy nodded, and some of that wavy hair fell into his eyes. He brushed it out of the way absently, all his attention given to his roommate.

He was tense; that was understandable. Vanyel was very glad that he had chosen to keep himself out of the way now. The boy was under quite enough pressure without the added stress of Herald Vanyel's presence. Van was quite well aware how much he overawed most of the people he came into contact with - that gardener this morning was the exception. Most folk reacted the way that young Bardic apprentice had on the way over here - the kind of mix of fear and worship that made her try to bow to him despite having both arms full, and despite custom that decreed otherwise. Heralds were not supposed to be “special.” Rank was not supposed to matter except inside Circle and Council.

Rules, apparently, did not apply to Herald-Mage Vanyel Ashkevron.

Well, that's neither here nor there, he thought, watching the young Journeyman-Bard carefully :Fandes, what do you think of this youngster?:

He felt her looking out of his eyes, and felt her approval before she voiced it. :I like him, Van. He'll give you everything he has, without holding back. He has a very powerful Bardic Gift, and he does indeed have a secondary Gift as well that is nearly as powerful. It's something like MindHealing, but very specific. I can't tell you any more than that until I See it in action.:

For the first time that day, Vanyel allowed his hope to rise a little. :Then you think this might work?:

:I don't know any more than you do,: she replied, :But the boy has something unusual, and I think you'd be a fool not to give him all he needs to wield it.:

Van blinked. :Huh. Well, right now, the only other thing I can give him is to stay out of the way. I don't want to frighten him into freezing by having The Great Herald-Mage Vanyel Demonsbane descend on him.:

:The Great Herald-Mage indeed,: she snorted. :Sounds like someone I know may not fit his hats before too long.:

Medren opened the door to their room and waved Stefen inside. He looked back over his shoulder at Van, who just nodded at him. The boy was doing just fine; so long as Stefen got to the Throne Room in time for the audiences, Vanyel didn't see any reason to interfere in the way things were going. He turned and headed back down the hallway to the stairs.

: I won't fit my hats, hmm?: he replied as he descended the stairs. :Isn't that interesting. I was just thinking that it's been too long since the last time you and I went over the advanced endurance course together. Who was it I overheard boasting about the times she used to make over the course?:

If she'd been human, she'd have spluttered. :Van! That was a long time ago! The trainees are going to be out on the course at this time of the day - I'm going to look like an out-of-shape old bag of bones in front of them!:

Vanyel chuckled, and pushed open the door to the outside with one hand. :And who was it who told me she could run those trainees into the ground?:

He hadn't known Yfandes knew that particular curse. He wondered if she'd learned it from Breda.

Stefen sagged bonelessly into the room's single comfortable chair, and stared at a discolored spot on the plastered wall.

This was what I wanted, right? That's why I let Medren talk me into trying that trick on Breda. I used to “cure” old Berte's hangovers by singing them away - I was sure I could do the same for what ailed Medren and Breda. And that would get me what I needed, since I knew damn well he has connections up into the Court. I knew he'd get me in to see if I could help the King. This is the only way I could think of to get Court favor, and get it honestly. Now, I know I can help King Randale. What I can do is better for him than his taking a lot of drugs. It'll be a fair exchange. So why am I so nervous about this?

He couldn't stand sitting there idle; he reached automatically for the gittern he kept, strung and tuned, beside the chair. It was one of his first student instruments - worn and shabby, a comforting old friend. He ran his fingers over the strings, in the finger exercises every Bard practiced every day of his life, rain or shine, well or ill.

He'd known about this trick of his, this knack of “singing pain away” for a long time - he'd had it forced on him, for all practical purposes, by the old woman who had cared for him for as long as he could remember. It was either sing her pain away, or put up with her uncertain temper and trust he could get out of her reach when she was suffering a “morning after.”

Old Berte wasn't his mother - but he couldn't remember anyone who might have been his mother. There had only been Berte. Those memories were vivid, and edged with a constant hunger that was physical and emotional. Berte teaching him to beg before he could even walk. Berte making false sores of flour-paste and cow's blood, so that he looked ill. Berte binding up one of his legs so that he had to hobble with the help of a crutch.

The hours of sitting beside her on a street corner, learning to cry on cue.

Then the day when one of the other beggars brought out a tin whistle, and Stef had begun to sing along, in a thin, clear soprano - and when he'd finished, there was a crowd about the three of them, a crowd that tossed more coppers into Berte's cracked wooden bowl than he'd ever seen in his short life.

I looked up, and I saw the expression on her face, and I knew I'd never have to limp around on a crutch again.

He closed his eyes, and let his fingers walk into the next set of exercises. Berte bought us both a real supper of cooked food from a food stall at the market. Fresh food, not stale, not crumbs and leavings - and we shared a pallet and a blanket that she bought from a ragman that night. That was the best day of my life.

It remained the best day of his life for a long while, for once she had a steady source of income, Berte returned to the pleasures that had made her a beggar in the first place. Liquor, and the drug called “dreamerie.”

She drank and drugged away every copper we made. At least I didn't have to spend half of every night trying to run the cramps out of my legs, he thought, forcing the muscles in his shoulders to relax while he continued to play. Things were a little better. I could take care of her hangovers - enough so that we could get out every morning. I was hungry, but I wasn't quite as hungry as when we'd just been begging for a living. The worse she got, the easier it was to hide a coin or two, and once she was gone into her dreams, I could sneak out and buy something to eat. But I kept wondering when she was going to run afoul of whoever it was that sold her the drugs - how long it would be before the craving got too much and she sold me the way she'd sold her own children. An involuntary shudder made both his hands tremble on the strings. I was sure that was what had happened when Lynnell grabbed me that night.

It had been late; Berte had just sunk into snoring oblivion, and Stef had eased out between the loose boards at the back of their tenement room, a couple of coppers clutched in his fist. He had intended to head straight for Inn Row where he knew he could buy a bowl of soup and all the bread he could eat for those two coppers - but someone had been waiting for him. A woman, tall, and sweet-smelling, dressed all in scarlet.

She'd grabbed his arm as he rounded the corner, and there had been two uniformed Guardsmen with her. Terror had branded her words into his memory.

“Come with me, boy. You belong to Valdemar now.”

He hadn't the faintest idea what she'd meant. He hadn't known that “Valdemar” was the name of the kingdom where he lived. He hadn't even known he lived in a Kingdom! All he'd ever known was the town; he'd never even been outside its walls. He'd thought this “Valdemar” was a person, and that Berte had either sold him or traded him away.

I was in terror - too frightened to object, too petrified to even talk. I kept wondering who this “Valdemar” was, and whether it was a he or a she - He smiled at the next set of memories. Poor Lynn. When she finally figured out what I thought she'd bought me for, she blushed as red as her tunic.

She'd done her best to try and convince him otherwise, but he really didn't believe her. He really didn't believe any of it until a week or two after he'd been brought to the Collegium, tested, and confirmed in his Gifts.

It was really Medren that convinced me. Bless him. Bless Breda for putting us together. He was a complete country bumpkin, and I was an ignorant piece of street scum, and together we managed to muddle through. If he was just shaych, he'd have been perfect. He wasn't even jealous when he found out I had all three Gifts, too, and in a greater measure than he did. . . .

It took two of what were commonly called “the Bardic Gifts” to ensure entry into Bardic Collegium as a Bardic apprentice rather than a simple minstrel. The first of those two were the most common: the ability to compose music, often referred to as the “Creative Gift,” and the unique combination of skills and aptitudes that comprised the “Gift of Musicianship.” The third was more along the lines of the Gift of Healing or one of the Heraldic Gifts - and that was simply called the “Bardic Gift.”

It seemed to be related to projective Empathy; a person born with it had the ability to manipulate the moods of his audience through music. Some of the Bards of legend had been reputed to be able to control their listeners with their songs.

Stef had all three Gifts, just as Lynnell had suspected. Medren, who until Stefen had arrived had been the star apprentice, also had all three, but not to the extent Stef did.

Take the Creative Gift, for instance. Medren cheerfully admitted that he could no more compose anything more complicated than a simple ballad than he could walk on water. Or Musicianship; there were few even among the Master Bards that were Stef's peers in skill on his chosen instruments. In sober truth, there were few who even played as many instruments as he did. Although his favorite by far was the twelve-stringed gittern, he played virtually every string and percussion instrument known to exist, and even a few wind instruments, like the shepherd's pipes.

But it was Stefen's Bardic Gift that was the most impressive. Even before he had revealed his ability to come between the listener and his pain, the Master Bards had marveled at the strength of his Gift. Untrained, he could easily hold an audience of more than twenty; and when he exerted himself they would be deaf and blind to anything other than himself and his music.

Anybody but Medren would have been jealous. He just felt sorry for me, because I was alone. Stefen smiled, and modulated the last exercise into a lullaby. There I was, the cygnet among the chicks, and instead of trying to peck me to bits like anyone else would have, he decided I needed a protector. Life would have been a lot harder without him. He kept me from making a lot of enemies. . . .

He hadn't known until much later that a number of the sharp-tongued boys who initially closed their ranks against the stranger were children of high-ranking nobles, or were nobles in their own right. When he would have gone after them in the straight-forward “fight-or-be-beaten” manner of the streets, Medren had kept him from losing his head.

He helped me to at least get them to accept me. And I may need them. I certainly couldn't afford to have any of them holding grudges. He sighed and racked his instrument. That's my only hope; court favor. And it's a damned good thing Medren kept me from losing it before I even had a chance at it. Being a Bard is better than being a beggar, but it's still a risky profession to be in, with no real security. A Healer can always rely on the Temple to care for him if something happens to him, and if a Herald ends up hurt or ill-Havens, most of them end up dead-there are always places for them here, at the Palace. But a Bard has only himself to rely on. If he loses his voice, or the use of his hands. . . .

The harsh reality was that Stefen had come from the streets, and if something happened to him, the streets were likely where he'd end. Unless he built himself some kind of secure future.

Otherwise - No. He got up, and stared for a moment out his window, at the Palace, the heart of all his hopes. No. I'll do it. I'll make my own luck. I swear I won't go back to that. I won't end up like Berte.

He gazed at the Palace for a moment more, then picked up the case holding his good gittern, squared his shoulders, and headed for the door.

So now “Valdemar” needs me, after all. That should work. I serve Valdemar, and we both get what we need. He nodded to himself, and closed the door behind him. Fair enough.

Three

“Are you going to be all right?” Vanyel asked in an undertone. Then he thought savagely in the next instant, Of course he isn't going to be all right, you fool. The King was as pale as paper, thin to transparency, with pain-lines permanently etched about his mouth and eyes. Under any other circumstances, Vanyel would have ordered him back to his bed; beads of sweat stood out all over his forehead with the effort of walking as far as the Audience Chamber, and Vanyel didn't have to exert his Empathy to know how much pain his joints were causing him. Vanyel would have traded away years of his life to give the King a few moments' respite from that agony. But he allowed none of this to show as he settled the colorless wraith that was King Randale into the heavily-padded shelter of his throne.

“I'll be fine,” Randale replied, managing a strained smile. “Really, Van, you worry too much.” But he couldn't restrain a gasp of pain as he slipped a little and hit his arm against the side of the throne.

Vanyel cursed his own clumsiness, and did his best not to clutch at Randale's fragile arms, as he caught Randale before he could fall and lowered the King carefully the rest of the way down into his seat. Another bruise the size of my hand, and he doesn't need ten more where my fingers were.

“Really, Van,” Randale repeated with patently false cheer, once he'd been settled as comfortably as possible. “You worry too much.” Vanyel stepped back a pace, ready to aid in any way he could, but sensing the King's irritability at his own weakness and helplessness. He also doesn't need to be reminded of how little he can do anymore.

The slight noise of the chamber's side door opening and shutting caught Randale's attention. He craned his head around a little to see who it was, as young Stefen entered the Audience Chamber, put down a stool, and began setting up near the throne.

“Is that a new Bard?” he asked with more real interest than he'd shown in anything all day. “I don't remember seeing that youngster in Court, and I'd surely remember that head of hair! He looks like a forest fire at sunset.”

:Should I tell him, 'Fandes?:

:No,: came the immediate reply. :It would be cruel to raise his hopes. Stefen is either going to be able to help him, or not. And if not, better that the King simply enjoy the music, as best he can.:

Vanyel sighed. Yfandes could be coldly pragmatic at the oddest times. “Breda sent him over,” Van temporized. “She says he's very good, and you can probably use him with this particular lot of hardheads.”

“Gifted, hmm?” Randale looked genuinely interested.

“Quite remarkably, according to Breda.” Vanyel coughed. “I gather she caught something in the wind about the Lake District lot, and sent him over specially. I understand he's to concentrate on something soothing.”

Randale actually chuckled. “Breda is a very wise woman. Remind me to thank her.”

At that moment, the delegation from the Lake District arrived, a knot of brightly-clad figures beside the door, who waited impatiently for the Seneschal to announce them. Vanyel stepped back to his place behind the throne and to Randale's left, while Shavri stepped forward to her position as King's Own at his right.

Please, he sent up a silent plea, just let him get through this audience.

Shavri nodded to the young Journeyman Bard, and Stefen began to play as the delegation formed themselves into a line and approached the throne.

Stefen fought down the urge to stare at the King, and concentrated on his tuning instead. Each brief glance at Randale that he stole appalled him more than the one before it. Only the thin gold band holding his lank hair back, and the deference everyone gave this man, convinced him that the man on - or rather, in - the throne was Valdemar's King. There were two other Heralds on the dais, one on either side of the throne; a dusky woman, and a man Stefen couldn't see because the woman was in his line-of-sight. Either one of them was a more kingly figure than Randale.

He'd known that Randale was sick, of course - that was no secret, and hadn't been for as long as Stefen had been in Haven. But he hadn't known just how sick Randale was; after all, apprentice and Journeymen Bards hardly were of sufficient rank to join the Court, especially not bastards like Medren and gutter rats like himself. The Bards didn't gossip about the King, at least not where their students could hear them. And Stef had never believed more than a quarter of what the townsfolk and nobly-born students would tell the presumptive Bards. He'd imagined that Randale would look ill; thin and pale, perhaps, since his illness was obviously serious. He'd never thought that the King could actually be dying.

Randale looked like a ghost; from colorless hair to skeletal features to corpse-pale complexion, if Stef had come upon this man in a darkened hallway, he'd have believed all the tales of spirits haunting the Palace. That the King wore Heraldic Whites didn't help matters; they only emphasized his pallor.

Stefen was stunned. He couldn't have imagined that the King was in that bad a state. It didn't seem possible; Kings weren't supposed to die in the ways ordinary mortals did. When Kings were ill, the Healers were supposed to take heroic measures, and cure them. Kings weren't supposed to have pain so much a part of their lives that every movement was hesitant, tremulous.

Kings were supposed to be able to command miracles.

Except this one can't. This one can't even command his own body to leave him in peace. . . .

There was something so heroic about this man, this King - sitting there despite the fact that he obviously belonged in bed, doing his job in spite of the fact that he was suffering - Stefen wanted to do something for him, to protect him. For the first time in his life, Stefen found himself wanting to help someone for no reason other than that the person needed the help.

And for a moment he was confused.

But I am getting something out of this, he reminded himself. Notice at Court. Maybe even the King's favor, if I really do well. Come on, Stef, you know what's at stake here; settle down and do your work. If he needs your help, that's all the more reason that he'll be grateful when he gets it.

There was a stir among the group of people beside the door, and they began to sort themselves out and move toward the throne. Stefen looked back to the three on the dais for instructions, and the dark-haired woman with the sorrowful eyes nodded at him purposefully.

Taking that as a signal, he began to play, dividing his power as he'd been instructed. The greater part went to King Randale. Once that was established, the remainder went toward the approaching delegates, soothing their fears, their suspicions - and they were suspicious, he could read that in their attitudes, just as he'd been taught. Bards weren't Thoughtsensers, but the kind of instruction they had in reading movement and expression sometimes made it seem that they were. It was plain to Stef that this lot thought Randale had been playing some kind of political game with them, calculatedly insulting them by making them wait for their audience.

Look, you fools, he thought at them, surprising himself with his anger at their attitude. See what he's going through? He wasn't putting you off, the man's in agony; every moment he spends with you he's paying for in pain.

He tried to put some of that behind his music, and it worked. He saw the mistrust in their hard, closed faces fade; watched the expressions turn to shock and bewilderment, then faint shame.

He allowed himself a moment of triumph before turning his attention back to the King.

He hadn't quite known what to expect from Randale in the way of an indication that he was doing some good. He had known he would manage something in the way of relief for the King; he had been completely confident of that. But how much - and whether there would be any outward sign -

It was the woman's reaction that surprised him the most. She clutched at the other Herald's arm, her expression astonished and incredulous. Randale simply looked - well, better. He sat up straighter, there was a bit more alertness in the set of his head and shoulders, and he moved with more freedom than he had before.

But then Stefen caught a glimpse of his face.

Breda had been transfigured when his Gift had taken away the pain of her dazzle-headache; Medren had revived when it had eased the misery of the fever - but those reactions compared to the relief Randale showed now - well, there simply was no comparison.

Only at that moment did Stefen realize how the King must have been living with this pain as a constant companion, day and night, with no hope of surcease.

He couldn't bear to bring that relief to an end, not after seeing that. So even when the audience concluded, he played on, allowing himself to drift into a trance-state in which there was nothing but the music and the flowing of the power through him-all of it directed to Randale now. A cynical little voice in the back of his mind wondered at that; wondered why he was so affected by this man and why he was giving so much of himself with no promise of reward.

He ignored that thought; though he might have heeded it an hour ago, now it seemed petty and ugly, not sensible and realistic.

Besides, it really wasn't important anymore. All that was important was the music, and the places it was reaching.

There was only the flow of melody, no real thought at all. This was the world he really lived for once he'd discovered it, the little universe woven entirely of music. This was where he belonged, and nothing could touch him here; not hunger, not pain, not loneliness.

He closed his eyes, and let the music take him deeper into that world than he had ever gone before.

Something brushed against Stefen's wandering thoughts; a presence, where no one had ever intruded until now. What? he thought, and his fingers faltered for a moment.

That slight hesitation broke the spell he had woven about himself, and suddenly he was in pain, real pain, and not some echo from Randale. His fingers ached with weariness, threatening cramps-the tips burned in a way that told him he'd played for much longer than he should have. . . .

In fact, when he opened his eyes, slowly, then pulled fingers that felt flayed off the strings and looked at his chording hand, the reddened and slightly swollen skin told him of blisters beneath the callus.

Blisters that are really going to hurt in a moment.

But that wasn't what had broken his trance; there was someone standing near enough to him to have intruded on his trance, but not so near as to loom over him.

He felt himself flushing; why, he wasn't quite sure. It wasn't quite embarrassment, it was more confusion than anything else. He glanced up from his mangled hand at whoever it was that was standing beside him.

The Audience Chamber had been nearly empty when he'd lost himself in his music - now it was filled to overflowing. But it wasn't the crowd that had broken his entrancement; it was that single person.

The other Herald, the one he hadn't been able to see clearly because the woman had been in the way. And now Stefen knew him, knew exactly who he was. Long, silvered black hair, the face every women in the Court sighed over, silver eyes that seemed to look straight into the heart - there was no mistaking this Herald for any other. This was Herald-Mage Vanyel Ashkevron. Demonsbane, they called him sometimes, or Firelord, or Shadowstalker.

There were a hundred names for him, and twice as many tales about him, ballads about him; he was probably the most sung-about Herald alive.

Stefen knew every song, and he knew things about Vanyel that were not in the ballads. For one thing, he knew that Vanyel's reputation of being a lone wolf was well-founded; he'd held himself aloof from non-Heralds for years, and even those he called “friend” were scarcely more than casual acquaintances.

He had no lovers - not even the rumor of a lover for as long as Stef had been at the Collegium. So the ladies set their wits to catch him, each one hoping she'll be the one to capture his fancy, to break through that shell of ice.

Stef would have felt sorry for them if the situation hadn't been so ridiculous. The ladies were doomed to sigh in vain over Vanyel; their hopes could never bear fruit. He knew what they didn't - thanks to the fact that Vanyel might just as well have taken a vow of celibacy, and that the few older Heralds who knew him from his younger days were not inclined to gossip. Because of Medren, Stef was well aware that Vanyel, like Stef himself, was shaych. And that his current state of solitude was not due to a lack of capability or desire.

It was due to fear, according to Medren. Fear that being close to Vanyel would put prospective partners in danger. Fear that others he cared for could be used against him.

The past seemed to have proved Vanyel right, in some ways. Certainly the Herald had not had a great deal of good luck in his emotional life. . . .

Especially with Tylendel.

Stef knew all about Tylendel, the Herald-trainee no one talked about - at least not willingly. They'd talk about his Companion, but they'd avoid mentioning his name, if they could. “Gala repudiated her Chosen,” they'd say -

As if by mentioning Tylendel's name, his mistake would rub off on them.

There were no songs and few people were willing to discuss the deceased young trainee, even though that repudiation had led to Vanyel's coming into his powers in the first place.

People knew that Herald Vanyel had been Tylendel's closest friend - and some even remembered that they'd been lovers - but it sometimes seemed to Stefen that despite that, they wanted to forget that Tylendel had ever existed.

That struck him as unfair, somehow. The whole tragic mess had been directly responsible for Vanyel becoming the most respected and powerful Herald-Mage in the Circle - and from what Stefen had learned, Tylendel hadn't been sane when he'd pursued revenge at the cost of all else. The Companions knew that; they'd rung the Death Bell for him. That was why he'd been buried with full honors, despite the repudiation, which told Stef that someone thought he'd have been worth his Whites if he hadn't gone over the edge.

Someone besides Vanyel. Stefen was one of the few outside of the Heraldic Circle who knew that doomed Tylendel had been Vanyel's very first lover - and according to Medren, his lifebonded, and only love.

And Medren should know, seeing that Vanyel is his uncle, Stefen thought, staring stupidly into those incredible silver eyes. This was the closest by far he'd ever been to the famous Herald-Mage, though he'd secretly worshiped Vanyel and daydreamed about him for - well, years.

Medren had offered an introduction, but Stef just couldn't scrape up the courage. Certainly Medren was Stef's friend, and certainly Medren was Vanyel's favorite nephew - but the Herald himself was as far from Stef's reach as a beggar child from a star.

Still, he could dream.

In all those daydreams, Stefen imagined himself doing something wonderful-writing a ballad that would bring tears to the eyes of everyone who heard it, perhaps, or performing some vague but important service for the Crown. He had pictured himself being presented to the Court, then being formally introduced to Herald Vanyel. He'd invented a hundred witty things to say, something to make the Herald laugh, or simply to entertain him. And from there the daydreams had always led to Vanyel's seeking out his company-and finally courting him. Because, thanks to Medren's gossip, Stefen was very well aware that before the Herald-Mage had gotten so bound up in assuming most of the duties rightfully belonging to the King's Own-and before he'd decided that his attentions could prove dangerous to those around him - Vanyel hadn't been at all celibate.

Now the moment was here; Herald-Mage Vanyel was within arm's reach, and looking at him with both gratitude and concern. Now was the time to say or do something clever -

The music limped to a faltering conclusion as Stefen stared back at his idol, unable to think of a single word, clever, or otherwise.

Vanyel pivoted and strode back over to the dais, while Stefen's ears burned with chagrin.

I had my chance. I had it. I should have said something, anything, dammit! Why couldn't I say anything? Oh, ye mothering gods, how can I be such a gap-faced idiot?

The King was talking with someone in Healer's Greens; this looked like more of an interview than an audience - though judging by the way they were leaning toward each other and the intensity of their concentration, there was no doubt that it was an important exchange. While Stefen sat dumbly, berating himself for being such a dolt, the Herald-Mage interrupted the earnest colloquy with a whispered comment.

Both Randale and the Healer turned their heads in his direction, and Stefen suddenly found himself the focus of every eye in the Audience Chamber.

He felt his face growing hot, a sure sign that he was blushing. He wanted to look away, to hide his embarrassment, but he didn't dare. He knew that if he did, he'd look like a child, and a bigger fool than he already was. Instead he raised his chin a little, and politely ignored the scrutiny of everyone in the room, and kept his eyes fixed on the King.

Randale smiled; it was an unexpected smile, and Stefen smiled hesitantly back. It was easy enough to be cocky among his own peers, but between Vanyel's attentions, and then the King's, Stef was getting very flustered.

He struggled to keep himself from dropping his eyes - the King's smile spread a little wider, then he turned away. He said something to Vanyel, something too quiet to overhear.

Then people were suddenly clearing out of the chamber-

Stefen blinked. I guess the audience must be over. In the bustle over the getting the King out of his throne and on his feet, everyone seemed to have forgotten that Stef existed. He took a deep breath, and began to pack up his things. In one way he was relieved that he was no longer the center of attention, but in another, he was a little annoyed. After all, he'd just played his hands bloody for Randale's benefit - he'd be a week recovering, at least. If it hadn't been for him, there wouldn't have been a session of Court this afternoon.

Thank you, Stefen. You're very welcome, your Majesty. Think nothing of it. All in a day's -

Movement at the edge of his vision made him look up. Herald Vanyel was walking back toward him.

He looked back down at his gittern, and at the leather traveling case. His hands were shaking, which didn't make it any easier to get it into the tight leather case - and didn't make him look any more confident, either. He hastily fumbled the buckles into place, his heart pounding somewhere in the vicinity of his throat. I'm jumping to conclusions, he thought, stacking his music and putting it back into the carrier. He's not coming toward me. He doesn't know me, he has more important people to worry about. He's really going to talk to somebody behind me before they leave. He's -

“Here,” said a soft, deep voice, as his music carrier vanished from his hand, “Let me help you with that.”

Stefen looked up into the clouded silver of Vanyel's eyes, and forgot to breathe.

He couldn't break the eye contact; it was Vanyel who looked away, glancing down at Stefen's chording hand. The Herald's mouth tightened, and he made an odd little sound of something that sounded suspiciously like a reaction to pain.

Stefen reminded himself that blue was not his best color, and got his lungs to work again.

Then his lungs stopped working for a second time, as the Herald took his elbow as if he were a friend, and urged him onto his feet.

Vanyel looked back over his shoulder at the milling crowd, now clustered about the departing monarch, and his lips curled in a half smile. “No one is going to miss either of us,” the Herald said. “Would you mind if I did something about those fingers?”

“Uh, no -” Stefen managed; at least he thought that was what he choked out. It must have sounded right, since Vanyel steered him deftly out of the room and toward the Heralds' Wing.

Stefen immediately stopped being able to think; he couldn't even manage a ghost of a coherent thought.

Vanyel took the young Bard's music carrier and gittern away from him, and gave the youngster a nudge toward the side door. He refused to let Stefen carry anything; the boy's fingers were a mess. He chided himself for not having noticed sooner.

For that matter, if I'd thought about how he'd been playing without a break, I'd have realized that no one, not even a Master Bard, can play all damned afternoon and not suffer damage. He tightened his jaw. The boy must have been in some kind of a trance, otherwise he'd have been in agony.

He guided the youngster through the door to his quarters, thanking whatever deities happened to be watching that no one seemed to have noticed their exit from the Audience Chamber together, and that there was no one in the halls that would have noticed the two of them on the way there. The last thing I need is for this poor boy to end up with his reputation ruined, he thought wryly, pushing Stefen down into the couch near the door, and putting his instrument and music case on the floor next to him.

The youngster blinked at him dazedly, confirming Vanyel's guess that he'd put himself in a trance-state. It's just as well; once he starts to feel those fingers -

Well, that was why Vanyel had brought the boy here; there was a cure for the injury. Two, actually, one of them residing in his traveling kit. Vanyel had become perforce something of an herbalist over the years - all too often he, or someone he was with, had been hurt with no Healer in reach. He had a touch of Healing Gift, but not reliable, and not enough to Heal anything serious. So he'd learned other ways of keeping himself and those around him alive. He kept a full medical kit with him at all times, even now, though here at the Palace he was unlikely to have to use it.

He found it, after a moment of rummaging, under the bed. He knew the shape of the jar he wanted, and fished it out without having to empty the entire kit out on his bed. A roll of soft bandage followed, and Vanyel returned to the boy's side with both in his hands.

A distinctive, sharp-spicy scent rose from the jar as soon as he opened it. “Cinnamon and marigold,” he told the boy, and took the most maltreated hand in his to spread the salve on the ridged and swollen fingertips, feeling the heat of inflammation as he began his doctoring. “Numbs and heals, and it's good for the muscle cramps you'd be having if you hadn't played your fingers past that point. I'm surprised you have any skin left.”

The boy smiled shyly but didn't say anything. Vanyel massaged the salve into the undamaged areas of the boy's hands and spread it gently on the blistered fingertips. With the care the raw skin merited, he wrapped each finger in a cushion of bandage, then closed his eyes and invoked the tiny spark of Healing talent he had along with his Empathy. He couldn't do much, but at least he could reduce the inflammation and numb some of the pain that the salve wouldn't touch.

But when he opened his eyes again, he was dismayed by the expression on the boy's face. Pure adoration. Unadulterated hero-worship. As plain as the condition of the boy's fingers, and just as disturbing.

It was bad enough when he saw it in the eyes of pages and Herald-trainees, or even younger Heralds. It made him uncomfortable to see it in the pages, and sick to see it from the Heralds.

He couldn't avoid it, so he'd learned to cope with it. He could distance himself from it when it was someone he didn't know, and wouldn't have to spend any amount of time with.

I can't leave it like this, he decided, feeling his guts knot a little. I'II be working with him constantly, seeing him in Court - I can't allow him to go on thinking I'm some kind of godling.

“So,” he said lightly, as he put the boy's hand down. “According to my nephew, you're the best thing to come out of Bardic in an age.” He raised an eyebrow and half-smiled. “Though if you don't show a little more sense, you'll play the ends of your fingers off next time, and then where will you be?”

“I suppose I could-uh-learn to play with my feet,” the boy ventured. “Then I could always get a job at Fair-time, in the freak tent.”

Van laughed, as much from surprise that the boy had managed a retort as at the joke. There's more to this lad than I thought! “Well, that's true enough - but I'd rather you just learned to pace yourself a bit better. I'll wager you haven't eaten yet, either.”

Stefen looked guilty enough to convince him even before the boy shook his head.

Vanyel snorted. “Gods. Why is it that anyone under twenty seems convinced he can live on air and sunshine?”

“Maybe because anyone under fifteen is convinced he has to eat his weight twice a day,” Stefen retorted, his eyes starting to sparkle. “So once you hit sixteen you realize you've stored up enough to live on your fat until you're thirty.”

“Fat?” Vanyel widened his eyes in mock dismay. “You'd fade away to nothing overnight! Well, rank does have its privileges, and I'm going to invoke one of mine -” He reached for the bell-rope to summon a servant, then stopped with his hand around it. “- unless you'd rather go back to Bardic and get a meal there?”

“Me?” Stefen shook his head the awe-struck look back on his face. “Havens, no! But why would you want to - I mean, I'm just -”

“You're the first person I've had to talk music with in an age,” Vanyel replied, stretching the truth just a trifle. “And for one thing, I'd like to know where you got that odd fingering for the D-minor diminished chord -”

He rang the bell as he spoke; a page answered so quickly Vanyel was startled. He sent the child off after provisions as Stefen attempted to demonstrate with his bandaged hand.

When the page returned a few moments later, laden with food and wine, they were deep in a discussion of whether or not the tradition was true that the “Tandere Cycle” had been created by the same Bard as “Blood Bound.” Once into the heated argument (Vanyel arguing “for,” based on some eccentricities in the lyrics, Stefen just as vehemently “against” because of the patterns of the melodies) the boy settled and began treating him as he would anyone else. Vanyel relaxed, and began to enjoy himself. Stefen was certainly good company - in some ways, very much older than his chronological age, and certainly able to hold his own in an argument. This was the first chance he'd had in weeks to simply sit back and talk with someone about something that had nothing whatsoever to do with politics, Randale, or a crisis.

The page had brought two bottles of wine with the meal; it was only when Vanyel was pouring the last of the second bottle into both their glasses that he realized how late it was -

And how strong that wine had been.

He blinked, and the candle flames blurred and wavered, and not from a draft.

I think maybe I've had a little too much - Vanyel forced his eyes to focus, and licked his lips. Stefen had curled up in the corner of the overstuffed couch with his legs tucked under him; his eyes had the soft, slightly dazed stare of someone who is drunk, knows it, and is trying very hard to keep everyone else from noticing.

Vanyel glanced up at the time-candle; well past midnight, and both of them probably too drunk to stand, much less walk.

Certainly Stefen couldn't. Even as Vanyel looked back at him, he set his goblet down with exaggerated care - on the thin air beside the table.

In no way is he going to be able to walk back to his room, Vanyel thought, nobly choking down the laugh that threatened to burst from his throat, and fumbling for a handful of napkins, as Stefen swore in language that was quite enough to take the varnish off the table, and snatched at the fallen goblet. Even if he got as far as the Collegium building, he'd probably fall down the stairs and break his neck.

He mopped at the wine before it could soak into the wood of the floor, Stefen on his knees beside him, alternately swearing and begging Van's pardon.

Seriously, if I send him back to his room, he'll get hurt on the way, I just know it. Maybe all he'd get would be a bruising, but he really could break his neck.

Stefen sat back on his heels, hands full of wet, stained napkins, and looked about helplessly for someplace to put them-some place where they wouldn't ruin anything else.

Vanyel solved his dilemma by taking the cloths away from him and pitching them into a hamper beside the wardrobe. He took no little pride in the fact that although he was just as drunk as Stefen, he managed to get the wadded cloths into the basket.

Aside from the fact that I like this youngster, there's the fact that he's proven himself valuable - after his performance this afternoon, I'd say that he's far too valuable to risk. Van sat back on his own heels and thought for a moment. He allowed his shields to soften a little, and did a quick “look” through the Palace. None of the servants are awake. There's nobody I'd trust to see the lad safely over to his quarters except myself. And right now, I wouldn't trust me! I can still think, but I know damn well I can't walk without weaving.

He became aware, painfully aware, that Stefen was looking at him with an intense and unmistakable hunger.

He flushed, and tried not to look in the boy's eyes. Damn. Damn, damn, damn. If I let him stay - it is not fair, dammit! He's too young. He can't possibly know what he wants. He thinks he wants me, and maybe he does, right now. But in the morning? That's another thing altogether.

He Felt Stefen's gaze, like hot sunshine against his skin, Felt the youngster willing him to look up.

And stubbornly resisted. The boy was too young; less than half his age.

And the boy was infernally attractive. . . .

Damn it all, it's not fair. . . .

Stefen could hardly believe it. He was in Herald Vanyel's private quarters; the door was shut and they were quite alone together. He'd finally managed to redeem himself, at least in his own eyes, for looking like such an idiot. In fact, it looked like he'd impressed Vanyel once or twice in the discussion - at least, up until he'd spilled the wine.

And even then, he could tell that Vanyel was attracted; he sensed it in the way the Herald was carefully looking to one side or the other, but never directly at him, and in the way Vanyel was avoiding even an accidental touch.

Yet Vanyel wouldn't do anything!

What's the matter with him? Stefen asked himself, afroth with frustration. Or is it me? No, it can't be me. Or is it? Maybe he's not sure of me. Maybe he's not sure of himself. . . .

The wine was going to Stefen's head with a vengeance, making him bolder than he might otherwise have been. So when Vanyel reached blindly for his own goblet on the table beside them, Stefen reached for it, too, and their hands closed on the stem at the same time. Stefen's hand was atop Vanyel's - and as Vanyel's startled gaze met his own, he tightened his hand on the Herald's.

Vanyel's ears grew hot, and his hands cold. He couldn't look away from Stefen's eyes, startled and tempted by the bold invitation he read there.

No, dammit. No. Boy, child, you don't know what you're asking for.

In all his life, Vanyel had never been so tempted to throw over everything he'd pledged to himself and just do what he wanted, so very badly, to do.

Not that there hadn't been seduction attempts before this; his enemies frequently knew what his tastes were, and where his preferences lay. And all too often the vehicle of temptation had been someone like this-a young, seemingly innocent boy. Sometimes, in fact, it was an innocent. But in all cases, Vanyel had been able to detect the hidden trap and avoid the bait.

And there had been encounters that looked like seduction attempts. Young, impressionable children, overwhelmed by his reputation and perfectly willing to give him everything he wanted from them.

And that's what's going on here, he told himself fiercely, the back of his neck hot, his hand beneath Stefen's icy. That's all that's going on. I swore by everything I consider holy that I was never going to take advantage of my rank and fame to seduce anyone, anyone at all, much less impressionable children who have no notion of what they're getting into. No. It hasn't happened before, and I'm not going to permit it to happen now.

He rose to his feet, perforce bringing Stefen up with him. Once on his feet he took advantage of Stefen's momentary confusion to put the goblet down. The boy's hand slid from his reluctantly, and Vanyel endured a flash of dizziness that had nothing at all to do with the wine they'd been drinking.

“Come on, lad,” he said cheerfully, casually. “You're in no shape to walk back to your bed, and I'm in no shape to see that you get there in one piece. So you'll have to make do with mine tonight.”

He reached for the boy's shoulder before the young Bard could figure out what he was up to, and turned him about to face the bed. He gave the boy a gentle shove, and Stefen was so thoroughly intoxicated that he stumbled right to the enormous bedstead and only saved himself from falling by grabbing the footboard.

“Sorry,” Vanyel replied sincerely. “I guess I'm a bit farther gone than I thought; I can usually judge my shoves better than that!”

Stefen started to strip off his tunic, and turned to stare as Vanyel walked slowly and carefully to the storage chest and removed his bedroll.

“What are you doing?” the youngster asked, bewildered.

“You're my guest,” Vanyel said quietly, busying himself with untying the cords holding the bedroll together. “I can do without my bed for one night.”

The young Bard sat heavily down on the side of the bed, looking completely deflated. “But - where are you going to sleep?” he asked, as if he didn't quite believe what he was hearing.

“The floor, of course,” Vanyel replied, unrolling the parcel, and looking up to grin at the boy's perplexed expression. “It won't be the first time. In fact, I've slept in places a lot less comfortable than this floor.”

“But -”

“Good night, Stefen,” Vanyel interrupted, using his Gift to douse all the lights except the night-candle in the headboard of the bed because he didn't trust his hands to snuff them without an accident. He stripped off his own tunic and his boots and socks, but decided against removing anything else. His virtuous resistance might not survive another onslaught of temptation, particularly if he wasn't clothed. “Don't bother to get up when I do - the hours I keep are positively unholy, and no one sane would put up with them.”

“But -”

“Good night, Stefen,” Vanyel said firmly, crawling in and turning his back on the room.

He kept his eyes tightly shut and all his shields up; after a while, he heard a long-suffering sigh; then the sound of boots hitting the floor, and cloth following. Then the faint sounds of someone settling into a strange bed, and the night-candle went out.

“Good night, Vanyel,” came from the darkness. “I appreciate this.”

You'll appreciate me more in the morning, Vanyel thought ironically. And I hope you leave before there're too many people in the corridor, or you'll end up with people thinking you are shaych.

But -”Good night, Stefen,” he replied. “You're welcome to stay as long as you like.” He smiled into the darkness. “In fact, you're welcome any time. Consider yourself my adoptive nephew if you like.”

And chew on that for a while, lad, Vanyel thought as he turned over and stated at the embers of the dying fire. I have the feeling that in the morning, you'll thank me for it.

Four

Hard surface beneath him. Too even to be dirt, too warm to be stone. Where?

Van woke, as he always did, all at once, with no transition from sleep to full awareness. And since he was not where he expected to be, he held himself very still, waiting for memory to catch up with the rest of him.

A slight headache between his eyebrows gave him the clue he needed to sort himself out. Of course. I'm sleeping - virtuously - alone. On the floor. With a hangover. Because there's a Bard who's altogether too beautiful and too young in my bed. And I'll bet he doesn't wake up with a hangover.

He heard Yfandes laughing in the back of his mind. :Poor, suffering child. I shall certainly nominate you for sainthood.:

Van opened his eyes, and the first morning light stabbed through them and straight into his brain. :Shut up, horse.: He groaned and closed his eyes tightly.

:No you don't,: Yfandes said sweetly. :You have an appointment. With Lissandra, Kilchas, Tran, and your aunt. Remember?:

He stifled another groan, and opened his eyes again. The sunlight was no dimmer. :Now that you've reminded me, yes. I have done stupider things in my life than get drunk the night before a major spellcasting, I'm sure, but right now I can't recall any.:

:I can,: Yfandes replied too promptly.

He knew better than to reply. In the state he was in now, she'd be a constant step ahead of him. Some day, he vowed to himself, I'm going to find out how to make a Companion drunk, and when she wakes up, I'll be waiting.

So there was nothing for it but to crawl out of his bedroll, aching in every limb from a night on the hard floor, to stare resentfully at the youngster who'd usurped his bed. Stefen lay sprawled across the entire width of the bed, a beatific half-smile on his face, and deaf, dumb and blind to the world. Dark red hair fanned across the pillow - Van's pillow - not the least tangled with restless tossing, as Van's was. No dark circles under Stefen's eyes - oh, no. The young Bard slept like an innocent child.

Vanyel snarled silently, snatched up his towels and a clean uniform, and headed for the bathing room.

The room was very quiet this early in the morning, and every sound he made echoed from the white-tiled walls. He might well have been the only person alive in the Palace; he couldn't hear anything at all but the noise he made. After plunging his head under cold water, then following that torture with a hot bath, he was much more inclined to face the world without biting something. In fact, he actually felt up to breakfast, of sorts; perhaps a little bread and a great deal of herb tea.

Stefen was still blissfully asleep, no doubt, which made Van's room off limits. Well, it was probably too early for any of the servants to be awake.

He dressed quickly, shivering a little as the chill morning air hit his wet skin, and headed down the deserted hallways to the kitchen, where he found two cooks hard at work. They were pulling hot loaves from the ovens, anonymous in their floured brown tunics and trousers, their hair caught up under caps. They gave him startled looks - it probably wasn't too often that a Herald wandered into their purview - but they gave him a pot of tea and a bit of warm bread when he asked them for it, and he took both up to the library.

The Palace library was a good place to settle; the fire was still banked from last night, and a little bit of work had it crackling cheerfully under new logs, filling the empty silence. Vanyel chose a comfortable chair near it, his mug of tea on the hearthstone beside him, and nibbled at his bread while watching the flames and basking in the heat. The last of the headache faded under the gentle soothing warmth of the tea. Yfandes, having sensed, no doubt, that he had reached the limits of his patience, had remained wisely silent.

:Are you up to this?: she asked, when his ill-humor had turned to rueful contemplation of his own stupidity. :It won't hurt to put it off another day, or even two.:

He leaned back in his chair and tested all the channels of his mind and powers. :Oh, I think so, No harm done, other than to my temper. Sorry I snapped.:

She sent no real thoughts in reply to that, just affection. He closed everything down and thought about the planned session. They would be working magic of the highest order, something so complicated that no one had ever tried it before.

If he'd had any choice, Vanyel wouldn't be doing it now - but the ranks of the Herald-Mages had thinned so much that there was no one to replace any of the four Guardians should something happen to one of them. There were no spare Herald-Mages anymore. The Web, the watch - spell that kept the Heralds informed of danger, required four experienced and powerful mages to make it work; a Guardian of the Web was effectively tied to Haven - not physically, but psychically - as long as he or she was a Guardian. One fourth of the Guardians' energy and time were devoted to powering and monitoring the Web.

Van intended to change all that.

He had been gradually augmenting a mage-node underneath Haven for the past several years. He was no Tayledras, but he was Hawkbrother-trained; creating a new node probably would have been beyond him, but feeding new energy-flows into an existing node wasn't. He intended to power the new Web-spell with that node, and he intended to replace the Guardians with all the Heralds of Valdemar, Mage-Gifted or no.

And lastly, he intended to set the new Web-spell to do more than watch Valdemar; he intended to make it part of Valdemar's defenses, albeit a subtle part.

He was going to summon vrondi, the little air-elementals used in the Truth Spell, and summon them in greater numbers than anyone ever had before. Then he was going to “purpose” them; set them to watching for disturbances in the fabric of mage-energy that lay over Valdemar, disturbances that would signal the presence of a mage at work.

No one but a mage would feel their scrutiny. It would be as if there was something constantly tapping the mage's shoulder at irregular intervals, asking who he was.

And if the mage in question was not a Herald, it would report his presence to the nearest Herald-Mage.

This was just the initial plan; if this worked, Vanyel intended to elaborate his protections, using other elementals besides vrondi, to keep Valdemar as free as he could from hostile magics. He wasn't quite certain where to draw the line just yet, though. For now, it would probably be enough for every mage in Valdemar to sense he was being watched; it would likely drive a would - be enemy right out of his mind.

Well, sitting there thinking about it wasn't going to get anything accomplished.

Vanyel rose reluctantly from his chair, left his napkin stuffed into his mug on the hearth, and left the comforting warmth of the library for the chilly silence of the stone-floored corridors.

He headed straight for the Work Room; the old, shielded chamber in the heart of the Palace that had been used for apprentice Herald-Mages to practice their skills under the eyes of their teachers. But there were no apprentices here now, and every Herald-Mage stationed in Haven had his or her own private workrooms that would serve for training if any new youngsters with the Mage-Gift were Chosen.

Now the heavily shielded room could serve another purpose; to become the Heart of the new Web.

Tantras was already waiting for him when he arrived, arranging the furniture Vanyel had ordered. A new oil lamp hung from a chain in the center of the room. Directly beneath it was a circular table with a depression in the middle. Around it stood four high-backed, curved benches. Over in one corner, Tran was wrestling a heavy chair into place, putting it as far from the table as possible.

The older Herald looked up as Van closed the door behind him, raked graying hair out of his eyes with one hand, and smiled.

“Ready?” Vanyel asked, taking his seat, and putting his mage-focus, a large, irregular piece of polished tiger-eye, in the depression in the center. He hadn't been able to find a piece of unflawed amber big enough to use as a Web-focus, and fire-opals were too fragile to use in the Web. Fortunately when he'd replaced Jaysen as Guardian, he'd learned that he worked as well with Jaysen's tiger-eye as with opal and amber; flawless tiger-eye was much easier to find.

Vanyel looked back over his shoulder at his friend. “About as ready as I'm ever likely to be,” Tantras replied, shrugging his shoulders. “This is the first time I've ever been involved with one of these high-level set-spells of yours. First time I've ever worked with one Adept, much less two.”

“Nervous?” Vanyel raised an eyebrow at him. “I wouldn't blame you. We've never tried anything like this before.”

“Me? Nervous? When you're playing with something that could fry my mind like a breakfast egg?” Tran laughed. “Of course I'm nervous. But I trust you. I think.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence -” Van began, when the door behind him opened and the other three Herald-Mages entered in a chattering knot.

The chattering subsided as they took their places around the table; Savil directly across from Van in the West, Kilchas in the South, Lissandra in the North.

Savil hadn't changed much in the last ten years; lean and spare as an aged greyhound, she moved stiffly, and seldom left Haven anymore. Her hair was pure silver, but it had been that color since she was in her early forties. Working with node-magic was the cause, the powerful energies bleached hair and eyes to silver and blue, and the more one worked with it, the sooner one went entirely silver. She placed her mage-focus, a perfect, unflawed natural crystal of rose-quartz, opposite the tiger-eye. She pursed her lips and contemplated the arrangement, then adjusted her stone until one side of the crystal was just touching the tiger-eye before she sat down. She smiled briefly at Vanyel, then her blue eyes darkened as she began opening up her own channels. Her face lost expression as she concentrated. What wrinkles she had were clustered around her eyes and mouth; there was nothing about her that told her true age, which was just shy of eighty.

On the other hand, Kilchas looked far older than Savil, although in reality he was twenty years younger. A wizened, shriveled old tree of a man, he had more wrinkles than a dried apple, hair like a tangle of gray wire and a smile that could call an answering grin from just about anyone. At the moment, that smile was nowhere in evidence. He set his focus-stone touching Vanyel's and Savil's. A piece of translucent, apple-green jade, he'd had it carved into the shape of a pyramid. He fussed with it a moment until its position satisfied him. Then he took his seat and lowered his eyelids to concentrate, frowning a little, and his eyes were lost in his creased and weathered face.

Lissandra was the most senior of the Guardians, despite being younger than Vanyel. She had been a Guardian for much longer even than Savil. She had assumed the Northern quadrant along with her Whites, and although she was not quite Adept status, she wasn't far from it. Outside of her duties as a Herald-Mage, she specialized in alchemy, in poisons and their antidotes. Taller than many men, and brown of hair, eyes and skin, her movements were deliberate, and yet oddly birdlike. She had always reminded Vanyel of a stalking marsh-heron.

Like a heron, she wasted no motion; she dropped her half-globe of obsidian in precisely the right place, and sat down in her chair, planting her elbows on the table and steepling her fingers in front of her face.

Tantras settled gingerly in his chair in the corner as Vanyel reached for the lamp, dimming it until everything outside the table was hardly more than a dim shadow. He reached into his belt pouch and felt for the final stone he'd selected for this spell; a single flawless quartz-crystal, perfectly formed, unkeyed, and as colorless as pure water.

And I must have gone through five hundred-weight of quartz to find it.

He closed his hand around it, a sharp-edged lump wrapped carefully in silk to insulate it, and brought it out into the light. The silk fell away from it as he placed it atop the other four, and it glowed with light refracted through all its facets.

Lissandra nodded her approval, Kilchas' eyes widened, and Savil smiled.

“I take it that we are ready?” Vanyel asked. He didn't need their nods; as he lowered all of his barriers and brought them into rapport with him, he Felt their assent.

Now he closed his eyes, the better to concentrate on bringing them all completely into rapport with himself and each other. He'd worked with Savil so many times that he and his aunt joined together with the firm clasp of longtime dancing partners.

:Or lovers,: she teased, catching the essence of the fleeting thought.

He smiled :You're not my type, dearest aunt. Besides, you'd wear me out.:

He reached for Kilchas next, half expecting a certain reticence, given that Van was shaych - but there was nothing of the sort.

:I'm too old to be bothered by inconsequentials, boy,: came the acid reply, strong and clear. :You don't spend most of your life in other peoples' heads without losing every prejudice you ever had.:

Kilchas' mind meshed easily enough with theirs - not surprising, really, given that he was the best Mindspeaker in the Circle - but Vanyel found it very hard to match the vibrations of his magic. The old man was powerful, but his control was crude, which was why he had never gotten to Adept status; he was much like a sculptor used to working with an axe instead of a chisel. Every time Van thought he had their shields matched, the old man would Reach toward him impatiently, or his shields would react to the presence of alien power, and the protections would flare, which had the effect of knocking the meld of Van and his aunt away.

Vanyel opened his eyes, clenching his teeth in frustration, and saw Kilchas shaking his head. “Sorry about that, lad,” he said gruffly. “I'm better at blasting things apart than putting them together. And I'm 'fraid some things have gotten instinctive.”

“Would you object to having me or Savil match everything for you?” Vanyel asked, unclenching his fists and twisting his head to loosen his tensed shoulder muscles.

“You mean - you take over?” Kilchas frowned. “I thought Heralds didn't do that. Isn't that the protocol?”

“Well, yes and no,” Savil replied, massaging her temples with her fingertips. “Yes, that's the protocol, but the protocol was never meant for Mindspeaking Adepts, especially not with the strong Gifts my nephew and I have. Van and I can get in there, show you what to do, then get out again without leaving anything of ourselves behind. Occasionally rules were made to be broken.”

“You're sure?” Kilchas said doubtfully. “I don't want to find myself not knowing if an odd thought is a bit of one of you, left over from this spellcasting, or someone trying to squeak past my shielding.”

“I'm positive,” Van told him. “It's how the Tayledras trained me. One of them would take over, walk me through something, then get out and expect me to imitate them.”

Kilchas sighed, and placed both his palms flat on the tabletop. “All right, then. Savil, by preference, Van. You're the one directing this little fireworks show - I'd rather you had your mind on that, and not distracted with one old man's wavering controls.”

“Good enough.” Vanyel nodded, relieved that it was nothing more personal than that; Kilchas' reasoning made excellent sense. “Let's try this again.”

This time he waited, watching, for his aunt to take over Kilchas' mage-powers and bring them into harmony with her own, putting into place a much finer level of control than he had learned on his own. Not to fault Kilchas - for all that his hobby was the peaceable one of astronomy, he'd been primarily an offensive combat mage. He hadn't had much time to learn the kind of control Van and Savil had, nor had he any reason.

:So we take a shortcut,: Yfandes said softly. .-There's nothing wrong with a shortcut. I wish this were going faster, though.:

:So do I, love,: Van replied, watching the edges of Kilchas' shields for the moment when the fluctuations ended, since that would signal Savil's success. :I take it that the others are impatient?:

:Kilchas' Rohan is petrified,: she said frankly. :He's afraid Kilchas isn't up to this. Lissandra's Shonsea just wants it over; she's not happy about this, but she's confident that Lissandra can handle her part.:

:I don't blame her for being unhappy. I want it over, too. I'm not going to be worth much when we finish this job.: Suddenly Kilchas' shields stopped pulsing, and the color smoothed to an even yellow-gold. :Tell her it won't be long now.:

He Reached out again to his aunt, and let her bring him into the meld, to avoid disturbing Kilchas' fragile control. Then, before the delicate balance could fall apart, he and Savil flung lines of power to Lissandra.

The fourth Guardian was used to working with Savil; she had been waiting for them, and with the smooth timing of a professional acrobat, caught them, and drew herself into the meld. Vanyel had, in the not-too-distant past, had more than one dislocated joint; the snap as Lissandra locked herself into place was a physical sensation very like having a bone put back in the socket. And once she was there, the meld stabilized; a ring instead of an arc. Vanyel breathed a sigh of relief, and Yfandes took that as the signal to bring the Companions into the meld.

They were to be the foundation, the anchoring point, so that none of them would be caught up in the currents of mage-power Vanyel would be using and find themselves lost. Kilchas and Lissandra would be contributing their powers and their presence, and Savil her expertise in handling vrondi, but most of this would be up to Vanyel.

Vanyel had worked this entire procedure out with the Tayledras Adepts of k'Treva, taking several years to research and test his ideas. The Hawkbrothers Moondance and Starwind, and their foster-son Brightstar were the ones that had helped him the most. No one knew node-magic like the Tayledras did; they were bred in and of it, and those that were Mage-Gifted handled it from the time their Gifts first began to manifest, which could be as young as eight or nine. And among'the k'Treva clan, those three were the unrivaled masters of their calling.

In point of fact, it had been the spell that another master of an unidentified Tayledras clan had left behind in Lineas long ago, the one that bound Tashir's family to the protection of the heart-stone there, that had given Van the idea for this in the first place. In that case, the compulsions set by the spell had been relatively simple; guard the heart-stone, discourage the use of magic, keep the stone and the power it tapped out of the hands of unscrupulous mages. While Tayledras normally drained any area they abandoned of magic, they had left the heart-stone in what would become the capital of Lineas because the stone had been bound into another spell meant to Heal a mage-caused fault-line. That spell would take centuries to complete, and meanwhile, only magic was keeping the fault stable. If that magic were to be drained, the devastation caused by the resulting earthquake would be extensive, carrying even into Valdemar. Tashir's family had been selected precisely because they had no Mage-Gift and little talent with Mind-magic; although this would ensure that none of them would succumb to the temptation to use the magic, that meant that the creators of the spell had very little to work with.

Vanyel had all of the Heralds, and all their varied Gifts, to integrate into his spell. So what he planned to do was infinitely more complicated, though the results would be equally beneficial.

First things first, he told himself. Get a good shield up around the four of us. If anything goes wrong, I don't want Tran caught in the backlash.

The shield was the tightest he'd ever built, and when he was finished, the other three Guardians tested it for possible leaks and weak points. Ironically, of the five of them, it was Tantras, who sat outside that shield, who would be in the most danger if anything got loose. The Work Room itself was shielded, and so securely that even sounds from without came through the walls muffled, when they penetrated at all. Each of them had their own personal shields; that, in part, was what had been the cause of the difficulty Van had in melding with Kilchas - those shields never came down, and it was difficult to match shields one to another so that the power would flow between mages without interruption or interference. If the energy Van planned to call up got away from him, he and the others would be protected by their personal shields. The Work Room shields would protect those beyond the doors, but Tran would be caught in between the two. And since he wasn't a mage, he had none of his own. Van had spent many hours manufacturing protections for him, but they'd never been tested to destruction and he had no idea how much they would really take.

:He knows that,: Yfandes reminded him, :And he agreed. Life is a risk; our lives ten times the risk.:

Somehow that only made Vanyel feel guiltier.

But he had no choice; his decision to go ahead was based entirely on Valdemar's need. The problem was that the Mage-Gift had always been rare, and the troubles following Elspeth's passing had resulted in the deaths of more Herald-Mages than could be replaced. It had been appallingly clear to Vanyel after the death of Herald-Mage Jaysen that there weren't going to be enough Guardian-candidates to take over the vacant seat in the Web in the event of another death. Yet the Web was Valdemar's only means of anticipating danger before it crossed the Border. Heralds with no Mage-Gift, but with very powerful Gifts of Mindspeech or FarSight, had been tested in the seats; the Web-spell wouldn't work for them because it was powered by a Mage's own personal energies, and there was no way for a Herald without the Mage-Gift to supply that energy.

What Vanyel proposed was to modify that spell.

For the first time since his Gifts had been awakened, he dropped all but the last of his shields. Every mage ever born could establish a “line” to the mind of another with whom he had shared magic - but Vanyel had a line to every living Herald in Valdemar, by virtue of their being Heralds. When his shields were down, he found himself part of a vast network linking all the Heralds together. As delicate as a snowflake, as intricate as the finest lacework, the strands of power that bound them all were deep-laid, but strong. They pulsed with life, as if someone had joined every star in the night sky to every other star, linking them with faint strands of spun-crystal light. It was beautiful. He'd suspected this network existed from the glimpses he'd caught when following his lines to other Heralds, but this was the first time Vanyel had ever Seen the whole of it. Through his mind, the others Saw the same.

:Amazing,: Kilchas said at last. :Why has no one ever spoken of this before?:

:Probably because unless your Gift is very strong, you can't detect it since the actual linkage is through the Companions,: Vanyel replied. :We share magic with the Heralds without the Mage-Gift through the Companions. That's the other reason I wanted them in the meld; I can See this without them, but with them, I can also manipulate it.:

:This must be what King Valdemar first saw when he created the Web.: Savil's mind-voice was subdued.

:Except that things were a lot less complicated in his day,: Vanyel said dryly :Let's get to this before we lose the meld.:

:Or we get bored with your chatter and find something more interesting,: Yfandes Mindspoke him alone.

:One more comment like that, and I'll replace you with one of the Tayledras birds,: Vanyel retorted. Before 'Fandes had a chance to respond, Savil had begun invoking the Web, and Van's attention was fully take up with the task at hand.

As each Guardian responded, his or her focus-stone came alive with power. When Lissandra completed her response, the four stones were glowing softly, as brightly as the lamp flame above them, and the quartz crystal that topped them was refracting their light in little spots of rainbow all over the room.

Now Vanyel closed his eyes and Saw the Web overlaying the network lacing the entire Kingdom. There were secondary lines of power wisping out from the Web, as if the spell-structure was trying to make full contact with the entire body of Heralds, and yet lacked the power and direction to do so.

That was exactly what Moondance had surmised; the spell-structure was capable of linking all Heralds, but was incomplete and underpowered.

There was no way of knowing if King Valdemar had intended that, or not. Somehow the idea of legendary Valdemar being incapable of completing such a spell did not make Vanyel feel any easier.

If he couldn't, how in Havens can we?

Never mind; he was already committed, and it was too late to back out now. He Reached for the assemblage of focus-stones in the center of the table; Felt a sudden flare of heatIlightIpressure as he melded with all five of them, then stabbed his power deep into the earth below Haven, to the ancient node there, a node he and Savil had reawakened. It was very deep, and hard to sense, but now that it was active it was one of the most powerful he'd ever used.

Finding it was like plunging into the heart of the sun; too overwhelming to be painful-it was beyond pain-and it threatened to burn him away from himself. It was easy to be lost in a node, and that was why the Companions were in this meld - after the first breathless, mind-numbing contact he Felt them anchoring him, reminding him of where and what he was.

It took him a moment to lean on their strength and steady himself, to catch his breath. Then he took hold of the heart of the node, braced himself, and Pulled -

This was something no one outside of the Tayledras clans had ever attempted. Vanyel was going to create a heart-stone. A small one, but nevertheless, a true heart-stone.

He was fire, he was riven earth, he was molten rock. He was raging water and lightning. He was ancient and newborn. He was, with no memory, and no anchor. No identity. Then something prodded him. A name. Yfandes. He . . . remembered. . . .

With memory came sensation. He was agony.

He Pulled, though his nerves screamed and his heart raced, overburdened. He Pulled, though it felt as though he was pulling himself apart.

Slowly, reluctantly, the power swelled, then settled again at his command.

He Reached again, this time for the Web, and brought it into contact with the raw power of the node-Contact wasn't enough.

He entered the Web itself; Reached from inside it with mental hands that were burned and raw, and with the melded will of the four Guardians and their Companions, forced it to match magics with the raw node-power and take it in -

And with the very last of his strength, keyed it.

The Web flared; from the heart of it, he Saw and Felt the power surging through it, opening up new connections, casting new lines, until the Web was no longer distinguishable from the fainter, but more extensive network he'd seen before.

He cast himself free from the new heart-stone, and sent delicate tendrils of thought along the new force-lines of the Web. And wanted to shout with joy at what he found, for the spell had taken full effect.

From this moment on, all Heralds were now one with Valdemar, and all were bound into the Web in whatever way their Gifts could best serve. When danger threatened, the FarSeers would know “where,” the ForeSeers would know “when,” and every Herald needed to handle the danger would find himself aware of the peril and its location.

At that moment, Vanyel Felt the Companions withdraw themselves from the meld.

For a moment, he panicked - until he Saw that the new Web was still in place, still intact.

Damn. I'd hoped - but they're still laws unto themselves, he thought ruefully. They were apart from the Web before - and it looks like they've decided it's going to stay that way. Too bad; we could have used them to make up for Heralds with weak Gifts. And since every human magic I've seen has always left them unaffected, I was hoping they might have conferred that immunity on us. Companions have never done more than aid their Chosen, but it would have been nice if this time had been an exception.

At least his original intentions were holding; the new Web was powered by the magic of the node, and only augmented by the Heralds instead of depending entirely on them. When the call came, those without more pressing emergencies would leave everything to meet greater threats to Valdemar.

Now for the addition to the Web protections. . . .

He dropped out of the meld, for this was something he had to handle alone. He stilled himself, isolated himself from every outside sensation, then brought Savil in closer. Together, they reached out to the vrondi and Called -

One came immediately; then a dozen, then a hundred. And still they Called, until the air elementals pressed around them on all sides, thousands of the creatures -

It was a good thing they didn't really exist on the same plane of reality where his body slumped in the Work Room, or he and everyone in it would have been smothered.

He Reached again, much more carefully this time, and created a new line to the Web and the power it fed upon. And showed it to the assembled vrondi, as Savil told them wordlessly that this power would be theirs for the taking -

- they surged forward, hungrily -

:-if,: said Savil, holding the line a bit out of their reach.

:If?: The word echoed from vrondi to vrondi, ripples of hungerIdoubtIhunger. :If? If?:

They withdrew a little, and contemplated both of them. Finally they responded.

:What?:

Vanyel showed them, as Savil held the line. To earn the power, all they need do, would be to watch for mages. Always watch for mages. And let them know they were being watched.

They swirled about him, about Savil, thousands of blue eyes in little mist-clouds. :All?: they asked, in a chorus of mind-voices.

:That's all,: he replied, feeling the strength of his own power starting to fade. :Watch. Let them know you watch.:

The vrondi swirled around him, thinking it over. Then, just when he was beginning to worry -

:YES!: they cried, and seized on the line of power - and vanished.

And he let go of Savil, of the meld, and let himself fall.

“Gods,” Kilchas moaned.

Vanyel raised his head from the table, where he'd slumped forward. “My sentiments exactly.” Kilchas was half-lying on the table with his hands over his head, fingers tangled in his gray mane.

“I think,” Lissandra said, pronouncing the words with care, “That I am going to sleep for a week. Did your thing with the vrondi work?”

“They took it,” Vanyel replied, staring at the single globe of iridescent crystal in the center of the table where the grouping of five stones had been. “Every mage inside the borders of Valdemar is going to know he's being watched. That's going to make him uncomfortable if he doesn't belong here, or he's up to no good. The deeper inside Valdemar, the more vrondi he'll attract, and the worse he'll feel.”

“And he'll have to shield pretty heavily to avoid detection,” Savil added, leaning into the back of her chair and letting it support all her weight. “The vrondi are quite sensitive to mage-energy. And they're curious as all hell; I suspect wild ones will start joining our bound ones in watching out for mages just for the amusement factor.”

“That's good - as far as it goes.” Lissandra reached out and touched the globe in the center with an expression of bemusement. “But it doesn't let us know we have mages working on our territory, not unless you can get the vrondi to tell us.”

“I do have some other plans,” Vanyel admitted. “I'd like to get the vrondi to react to strange mages with alarm - and since they're now bound into the Web, that in itself would feed back to the Heralds. But I haven't got that part worked out yet. I don't want them to react that way to Herald-Mages, for one thing, and for another, I'm not sure the vrondi are capable of telling mages apart.”

“Neither am I,” Savil said dubiously. “Seems to me it's enough to let mages know they're being watched. If you're guilty, that alone is enough to make you jumpy.”

Kilchas had managed to stand up while they were talking; he reached for the globe and tried to pick it up. His expression of surprise when he couldn't made Vanyel chuckle weakly.

“That's a heart-stone now,” he said apologetically. “It's fused to the table, and the table is fused to the stone of the Palace and the bedrock beneath it.”

“Oh,” Kilchas replied, sitting down with a thump. Vanyel banished the shields, then turned to the only person in the room who hadn't yet spoken a single word.

Van leaned against the back of his chair, and faced Tantras. “Well?” he asked.

Tran nodded. “It's there, all right. There's something there that wasn't a part of of me before -”

“What about the trouble-spots?” Vanyel asked.

The other Herald closed his eyes, and frowned with concentration. “I'm trying to think of a map,” he said, finally. “I'm working my way around the Border. It's like Reading an object; I get a kind of sick feeling when I come up on some place where there're problems. I'll bet it would be even more accurate if I had a real map.”

Vanyel sighed, and slumped his shoulders, allowing his exhaustion to catch up with him. “Then we did it.”

“I never doubted it,” Savil retorted.

:Nor I,: said the familiar voice in his head.

“Then it's time for me to go fall on my nose; I think I've earned it.” Vanyel got to his feet, feeling every joint ache. “I think all of us have earned it.”

“Aye to that.” Lissandra copied him; Kilchas levered himself up with the aid of the table, and Savil needed Tantras' help to get her onto her feet. Vanyel headed for the door and pulled it open, leaving the others to take care of themselves. Right now all he could think about was his bed-and how badly he needed it.

He walked wearily down the corridor leading out of the Old Palace and toward his quarters, doing his best not to stagger. He was so tired that it would probably look as if he was drunk, and that wouldn't do the Heraldic reputation any good....

:Oh, I don't know,: Yfandes chuckled. :You might get more invitations to parties that way.:

:I might. But would they be parties I'd want to attend?:

:Probably not,: she acknowledged.

It didn't occur to him until he was most of the way to the Herald's Wing that his bed might not be unoccupied. . . .

But it was; he pulled his door open to find his room empty, the bed made, and no sign of his visitor anywhere. Evidently the servants had already cleaned and tidied his quarters; there was nothing out of the ordinary about the room.

He clung to the doorframe, surprised by his own disappointment that the young Bard hadn't at least stayed long enough to make some arrangements to get together again.

This time with a little less wine. . . .

That disappointment made no sense; he'd only met the boy last night. And he couldn't afford close friends; he'd told himself that over and over.

Anybody you let close is liable to become a target or a hostage, he repeated to himself for the thousandth time. You can't afford friends, fool. You should be grateful that the boy came to his senses. You can talk to him safely in Court. You know very well that after yesterday you're going to be seeing him there every day. That should certainly be enough. He had no idea what he was offering you last night; it was the wine and his hero-worship talking. You're too old, and he's too young.

But his bed, when he threw himself into it, seemed very cold, and very empty.

Five

A door closed, somewhere nearby. Stefen stretched, only half-awake, and when his right hand didn't hit the wall, he woke up entirely with a start of surprise. He found himself staring at a portion of wood paneling, rather than plaster-covered stone. It was an entirely unfamiliar wall.

Therefore, he wasn't in his own bed.

Well, that wasn't too terribly unusual. Over the course of the past couple of years, he'd woken up in any number of beds, with a wide variety of partners. What was unusual was that this morning he was quite alone, and every sign indicated he'd gone to sleep that way. He rubbed his eyes, and turned over, and blinked at the room beyond the bed-curtains. There on the floor, like a mute reproach, was a rumpled bedroll.

Looks like I did go to bed alone. Damn.

A pile of discarded clothing, unmistakably Heraldic Whites, lay beside the bedroll.

So it wasn't a dream. Stefen sat up, and ran his right hand through his tangled hair. I really did end up in Herald Vanyel's room last night. And if he slept there and I slept here- Stefen frowned. He's shaych. I certainly made an advance toward him. He was attracted. What went wrong?

Stef unwound the blankets from around himself, and slid out of Vanyel's bed. On the table beside the chairs on the opposite side of the room were the remains of last night's supper, and two empty bottles of wine. I wasn't that drunk; I know what I did. It should have worked. Why didn't it? He was certainly drunk enough not to be shy. Should I have been more aggressive?

He reached down to the floor, picked up his tunic and pulled it over his head. His boots seemed to have vanished, but he thought he remembered taking them off early in the evening. He found the footgear after a bit of searching, where they'd been pushed under one of the chairs, and sat down on the floor to pull them on, his bandaged left hand making him a little awkward.

No, I think being aggressive would have repelled him. I read him right, dammit!

Another thought occurred to him, then, and he stopped with his left foot halfway in the boot. But what if he wasn't reading me right? What if he thinks I'm just some kind of bedazzled child? Ye gods, little does he know -

Stef started to smile at that thought, when another thought sobered him.

But if he knew - or if he finds out, what would he think then?

That was a disturbing notion indeed. I haven't exactly been discreet. Or terribly discriminating. He felt himself blushing with-shame? It certainly felt like it. I was just enjoying myself. I never hurt anybody. I didn't think it mattered.

But maybe to somebody like Vanyel, who had never had more than a handful of lovers in his life, it might matter. And before last night, Stef would have shrugged that kind of reaction off, and gone on to someone else.

Before last night, it wouldn't have mattered. But something had happened last night, something that made what Vanyel thought very important to Stefen.

Maybe that's it. Maybe it's that he's heard about me, heard about the way I've been living, and -

But that didn't make any sense either. Vanyel hadn't been repelled, or at least, he hadn't shown any sign of it. He'd just put Stefen to bed - alone, like a child, or like his nephew - and left him to sleep his drunk off. And had himself gone to some duty or other this morning, without a single word of reproach.

Stef stood up, collected his gittern and music case from where they were propped beside the door, and slipped out into the hallway, still completely at a loss for what to think.

All I know is, it's a good thing nobody knows I slept alone last night, or my reputation would be ruined.

There were no less than four messages waiting for him when he reached the room he shared with Medren. Fortunately, his friend wasn't in; he didn't want to face the older Journeyman until he could think of a reasonable excuse for what hadn't happened. There were times when Medren could be worse than the village matchmaker.

And he didn't even want to look at all those messages until after he was clean and fed.

The first was easily taken care of in the student's bathing room; the youngsters were all in class at this hour, and the bathing room deserted. The second was even easier; he'd learned when he was a student himself that his slight frame and a wistful expression could coax food out of the cooks no matter how busy they were. Thus fortified, he went back to his room to discover that the messages had spawned two more in his absence.

He sat down on his bed to read them. Four of the six messages were from Healers; one from the Dean of Healer's Collegium, two from Randale's personal physicians, and one - astonishingly - from Lady Shavri herself.

They all began much alike; with variations on the same theme. Effusive, but obviously genuine gratitude, assurance that he had done more for the King's comfort than he could guess. The Dean asked obliquely if he would be willing to allow the Healers to study him; the King's attending Healers hinted at requests to attach him directly to the Court. Shavri's note said, bluntly, “I intend to do everything I can to see that you are well rewarded for the services you performed for Randale. As King's Own, I will be consulting with the Dean of your Collegium and the head of the Bardic Circle. If you are willing to continue to serve Randale, Journeyman Stefen, I will do my best for you.”

Stef held the last message in his bandaged hand, and contemplated it with amazement and elation.

Last night I thought they'd forgotten I existed. Vanyel was the only one who seemed to care that I'd played my hand raw for them. But this -

Then his keen sense of reality intruded. Shavri hadn't promised anything specific. The others had only been interested in finding out if he'd work with them, and while their gratitude was nice, it didn't put any silver in his pocket or grant him a permanent position. There were two more messages, and one was from the Dean of the Bardic Collegium. There was no telling what they held.

You spent too much time with Vanyel, Stef, he told himself. All that altruism is catching.

The fifth was from Medren; letting him know that his roommate was taking a week to travel up north of the city with a couple of full Bards for a Spring Fair. “I want to try out some new songs, pick up some others,” the note concluded. “Sorry about running off like this, but I didn't get much notice. Hope things work out for you.”

An oblique and discreet hint if ever I heard one, Stef thought cynically. Obviously he noticed I didn't come back to the room last night, and I'll bet he's wondering if it was his uncle I was with. Unless somebody already told him. Stefen sighed. Horseturds, I hope not. If nobody knows, I'll have a chance to make something up to satisfy his curiosity between then and now.

That left the message from the Dean of the Collegium; Stefen weighed it in his hand and wished he could tell if it was good or bad news before he opened it. But he couldn't, and there was no point in putting it off further.

He broke the seal, hesitated a moment further, and unfolded the thick vellum.

Sealed, and written on brand new vellum, not a scrap of palimpsest. Very official-which means either very good, or very bad.

He skimmed through the formal greeting, then stopped cold as his eyes took in the next words, but his mind refused to grasp them.

“. . . at the second noon bell, the Bardic Circle will meet to consider your status and disposition. Please hold yourself ready to receive our judgment.

What did I do? he thought wildly. I only just made Journeyman - they can't be meaning to jump me to Master! But - why would they demote me? What could I have possibly done that was that bad? Unless they just found something out about my past. . . .

That could be it; not something he'd done, but something he was. The lost heir to some title or other? No, not likely; that sort of thing only happened in apprentice-ballads. But there were other things that might cause the Circle to have to demote him, at least temporarily. If his family ran to inheritable insanity, for instance; they'd want to make sure he wasn't going to run mad with a cleaver before they restored his rank. Or if he'd been pledged to wed in infancy -

Now there was a horrid thought. In that case the only thing that would save him would be Apprentice-rank; apprentices were not permitted marriage. And galling as it would be to be demoted, it would be a lot worse to find himself shackled to some pudgy baker's daughter with a face like her father's unbaked loaves. But being demoted would give the Bardic Collegium all the time they needed to get him free of the pledge or simply outwait the would-be spouse, delaying and delaying until the parents gave up and fobbed her off on someone else.

Or until they found out about his sexual preferences. Even in Valdemar most fathers would sooner see their daughters married to a gaffer, a drunkard, or a goat than to someone who was shaych.

For one thing, they'd never get any grandchildren out of me, Stef thought grimly. And as long as I'm an anonymous apprentice, there's no status or money to be gained by forcing a marriage through anyway.

That seemed the likeliest - far likelier than that the Circle would convene to elevate an eighteen-year-old barely three months a Journeyman to Master rank.

Well, there was only one way to find out; get himself down to the Council Hall and wait there for the answer.

But first he'd better make himself presentable. He flung himself into the chest holding his clothing in a search for one set of Bardic Scarlets that wasn't much the worse for hard wearing.

Waiting was the hardest thing in the world for Stefen. And he found himself waiting for candlemarks outside the Council chamber.

He did not wait graciously. The single, hard wooden chair was a torture to sit in, so he opted for one of the benches (meant for hopeful tradesmen) instead. He managed to stay put rather than pacing the length and breadth of the anteroom, but he didn't sit quietly. He fidgeted, rubbing at the bandages on his fingers, tapping one foot - fortunately there was no one else in the room, or they might have been driven to desperate measures by his fretting.

Finally, with scarcely half a candlemark left until the bell signaling supper, the door opened, and Bard Breda beckoned him inside.

He jumped to his feet and obeyed, his stomach in knots, his right hand clenched tightly on his bandaged left.

The Council Chamber, the heart of Bardic Collegium, was not particularly large. In fact, there was just barely room for him to stand facing the members of the Bardic Council once the door was closed.

The Council consisted of seven members, including his escort, Breda. She took her place at the end of the square marble-topped table around which they were gathered. There was an untidy scattering of papers in front of the Chief Councillor, Bard Dellar.

The Councillor looked nothing like a Bard, which sometimes led to some awkward moments; set slightly askew in a face much like a lumpy potato were a nose that resembled a knot on that potato, separating a mouth so wide Dellar could eat an entire loaf of bread in one bite, and a pair of bright, black eyes that would have well suited a raven.

“Well,” Dellar said, his mouth stretching even wider in a caricature of a grin. “You've certainly been the cause of much excitement this morning. And no end of trouble, I might add.”

Stefen licked his lips, and decided not to say anything. Dellar looked friendly and quite affable, so the trouble couldn't have been that bad. . . .

“Cheer up, Stefen,” Breda chuckled, cocking her head to one side. “You're not at fault. What caused all the problems was that we were trying to satisfy everyone without hurting anyone's feelings. Making you a Master and assigning you directly to Randale was bound to put someone out unless we did it carefully.”

“Making me - what?” Stefen gulped. Dellar laughed at the look on his face.

“We're making you a full Bard, lad. Shavri was most insistent on that.” The chief Councillor smiled again, and Stef managed to smile back. Dellar picked up the papers in front of him, and shuffled them into a ragged pile. “She doesn't want a valuable young man like you gallivanting about the countryside, getting yourself in scrapes -”

“Nonsense, Dell,” Breda cut him off with an imperious wave of her hand, and pointed an emphatic finger at Stefen. “What Shavri did or didn't want wouldn't have mattered a pin if you weren't also one of the brightest and best apprentices we've had in Bardic in - I don't know - ages, at any rate. We don't make exceptions because someone with rank pressures us, Stefen. We do make them when someone is worthy of them. You are. You have no need to prove yourself out in the world, and your unique Gift makes you double valuable, to us, and to the Crown.”

She gave Dellar a challenging look; he just shrugged and chuckled. “She's put it in a nutshell, lad. We need to keep you here for the King's sake, and the only way to do that is to assign you to King Randale permanently. The only way to give you the rank to rate that kind of assignment is for you to be a Master Bard. But there's a problem -”

“I can see that, sir,” Stef replied, regaining his composure. “It's not the way things are supposed to be done. There's likely to be some bad feelings.”

“That is an understatement,” one of the others said dryly, examining her chording hand with care. “Bards are only human. There's more than a few that will want your privates for pulling this plum. About half of that lot will be sure you slept your way to it. And unless we can do something to head that jealousy off, gossip will dog your footsteps, and make both your job and your life infinitely harder. Need I remind you that we're dealing with Bards here, and experts with words? Before they're through, that risque reputation of yours will be the stuff of tavern-songs and stories from here to Hardorn.”

Stefen felt his face getting hot.

“That's been the problem, lad,” Dellar shrugged. “And this is where we had to make some compromises. So now I'll have to give you the bad news. You'll be assigned as the King's personal Bard, but it will be on the basic stipend. Bare expenses, just like now. No privileges, and your quarters will be your old room right here, rather than something plusher at the Palace. We'll have Medren move out so it's private, but that's the best we can do for you.”

Stef nodded, and hid his disappointment. He was still going to be the youngest Master Bard in the history of the Collegium. He still had royal favor, and he would be in the Court, in everyone's eye, where he had the chance to earn rewards on the side. “I can understand that, sir,” he said, trying to sound as if he was taking all this in stride. “If it looks like I'm not getting special treatment - if, in fact, it's pretty obvious that the only reason I've been made Master is so I can serve the King directly - well, nobody who's that ambitious is going to envy me a position with no special considerations attached.”

“Exactly.” Dellar nodded with satisfaction and folded his hands on top of his papers. “I'd hoped you would see it that way. You'll also be working with the Healers, of course. They're mad to know how it is you do what you do, and to see if it's possible for them to duplicate it.”

Stefen sighed. That would mean more time taken out of his day, and less that he could spend getting some attention where it could do him some long-term good. He'd seen Randale now, and just how ill the King really was; he wouldn't last more than a few years, at best, and then where would Stefen be?

Out, probably. If nobody needs that pain-killing Gift of mine. And having nowhere else to go, unless I make myself into a desirable possession.

“Yes, sir,” he replied with resignation he did his best to conceal.

Still, the Healers can't take up all my time. What I really need to find out is where the ladies of the Court congregate, since there isn't any Queen. The married ones, that is. The young ones won't have any influence - no, what I need is a gaggle of bored, middle-aged women, young enough to be flattered, old enough not to take it seriously. Ones I can be a diversion for. . . .

He realized suddenly that Bard Dellar was still talking, and he'd lost the last couple of sentences. And what had caught his attention was a name.

“- Herald Vanyel,” Dellar concluded, and Stef cursed himself for his inattention. Now he had no idea at all what it was Vanyel had said or done or was supposed to do, nor what it could possibly have to do with himself. “Well, I think that about covers everything, lad. Think you're up to this?”

“I hope so, sir,” Stefen said fervently.

“Very well, then; report to Court about midmorning, just as you did yesterday. Herald Vanyel will instruct you when you get there.”

So, Vanyel's to be my keeper, hmm? Stefen bowed to the members of the Bardic Council, and smiled to himself as he left the room. Well. Things are beginning to look promising.

Despite the precautions, there was still jealousy. Stef found himself being ignored, and even snubbed, by several of the full Bards - mostly those who were passing through Haven on the way to somewhere else, but it still happened.

It wasn't the first time he'd been snubbed, though, and it probably wouldn't be the last. The Bards that stayed any length of time soon noticed that he wasn't getting better treatment than an ordinary Journeyman, and the ice thawed a little.

But only a little. They were still remote, and didn't encourage him to socialize. Stef was not at all happy about the way they were acting, and it didn't help that he had something of a guilty conscience over his rapid advancement. Making the jump from Journeyman to Master was much more than a matter of talent, no rnatter what the Council said; it was also a matter of experience.

Experience Stef didn't have. He wasn't that much different from Medren on that score. Nevertheless, here he was, jumped over the heads of his year-mates, and even those older than he was, getting shoved into the midst of the High Court -

The side of him that calculated everything rubbed its hands in glee, but the rest of him was having second and third thoughts, and serious misgivings. The way some of the other full Bards were treating him just seemed to be a confirmation of those misgivings.

And the Healers were beginning to get on his nerves. They wanted to monopolize every free moment of his time, studying him, and he had no chance during that first week to make any of the Court contacts he had intended to.

In fact, for the first time he was using that Gift of his every time he sang, and by the end of the day he was exhausted. If he wasn't singing for Randale's benefit, he was demonstrating for the Healers. If he'd had any time to think, he might well have told them, one and all, to chuck their Master Bardship and quit the place. But he was so tired at day's end that he just fell into bed and slept like a dead thing, and telling the Council to go take a long hike never occurred to him.

Maddeningly, he seldom saw much of Vanyel either, and every attempt to get the Herald's amatory attention fell absolutely flat.

Every time he pressed his attentions, the Herald seemed to become - nervous. He could not figure out what the problem was. Vanyel would start to respond, but then would pull back inside himself, and a mask would drop down over his face.

If he'd had the energy left, he'd have strangled something in frustration.

That was the way matters stood when Medren returned from his little expedition.

Stefen stared at himself in the mirror, then made a face at himself. “You,” he said accusingly, pointing a finger at his thin, disheveled other self, “are an idiot.”

“I'll second that,” said Medren, popping up behind him, startling Stef so much that he yelped and threw himself sideways into the wall.

While he gasped for breath and tried to get his heart to stop pounding, Medren thumped his back. “Good gods, Stef,” his friend said apologetically, “What in the seventh hell's made you so jumpy?”

“No - nothing,” Stef managed.

“Huh,” Medren replied skeptically. “Probably the same 'nothing' that made you call yourself an idiot. So how's it feel to be a Master Bard?” When Stef didn't immediately answer, Medren held him at arm's length and scrutinized him carefully. “If it feels like you look, I think I'll stay a Journeyman. Don't you ever sleep?” A sly smile crept over Medren's face. “Or is somebody keeping you up all night?”

Stefen groaned and covered his eyes. “Kernos' codpiece, don't remind me. My bed is as you see it. Virtuously empty.”

“Since when have you and virtue been nodding acquaintances?” Medren gibed.

“Since just before you left,” Stef replied, deciding on impulse to tell his friend the exact truth.

“That's odd.” Medren let go of his shoulders and moved back a step. “I would have thought that you and Uncle Van would have hit it off -”

Stef bit off a curse. “Since when - you've been - what do you -”

“I set you up,” Medren said casually. “The opportunity was there, and I grabbed it - I knew Van would try anything to help the King, and I know you think he hung the moon. I figured neither one of you would be able to resist the other. Gods know I'd been trying to get you two in the same place at the same time for over a year. So -” Now he paused, and frowned. “So what went wrong?”

“I don't know,” Stef groaned, and turned away, flinging himself down in a chair. “I can't think anymore. I've tried every ploy that's ever worked before, and I just can't imagine why they aren't succeeding now. The Healers are working me to death, and Herald Vanyel keeps sidestepping me like a skittish horse. I'd scream, if I could find the energy.”

“Tell the Healers to go chase their shadows,” Medren ordered gruffly. “Horseturds, Stef, you're exercising a Gift; that takes power, physical energy, and you're using yours up faster than you can replace it! No wonder you're tired!”

“I am?” This was news to Stefen. He'd always just assumed using his Gift was a lot like breathing. You just did it. And he said as much.

Medren snorted. “Good gods, doesn't anybody in this place think? I guess not, or the Healers wouldn't be stretching you to your limits. Or else nobody's ever figured the Bardic Gift was like any other. I promise you, it is; using your Gift does take energy and you've been burning yours up too fast. If the blasted Healers want to study you any more, tell them that. Then tell them that from now on they can just wedge themselves into a corner behind the throne and study you from there. Idiots. Honestly, Stef, Healers can be so damned focused; give them half a chance and they'll kill you trying to figure out how you're put together.”

Stefen laughed, his sense of humor rapidly being restored. “That's why I was telling myself I was an idiot. I was letting them run me into the ground, but I couldn't think of a way to get them to stop. They can be damned persuasive, you know.”

“Oh, I know.” Medren took the other chair and sprawled in it gracelessly. “I know. Heralds are the same way; they don't seem to think ordinary folks need something besides work, work, and more work. I've watched Uncle Van drive himself into the ground a score of times. Once or twice, it's been me that had to go pound on him and make him rest. And speaking of Uncle Van, that brings me right back to the question I started with: what went wrong? You still haven't really told me anything. Take it from the beginning.”

Stefen gave in, and related the whole tale, his frustration increasing with every word. Medren listened carefully, his eyes darkening with thought. “Hmm. I guess -”

His voice trailed off, and Stef snapped his fingers to get his attention. “You guess what?”

“I guess he's gotten really shy,” Medren replied with a shrug. “It's the only thing I can think of to explain the way he's acting. That and this obsession he has about not letting anyone get close to him because they'll become a target.”

Stefen felt a cold finger of fear run suddenly down his back. “He's not wrong,” he told his friend solemnly, trying not to think of some of the things he'd seen as a street beggar. How during “wars” between street gangs or thief cadres, it was the lovers and the offspring who became the targets - and the victims - more often than not. And it was pretty evident from the Border news that a war between the nations and a war between gangs had that much in common. “It's a lot more effective to strike at an emotional target than a physical one.”

Medren shook his head. “Oh, come on, Stef! You're in the heart of Valdemar! Who's going to be able to touch you here? That's even assuming Van is right, which I'm not willing to grant.”

“I don't know,” Stefen replied, still shivering from that odd touch of fear. “I just don't know.”

“Then snap out of this mood of yours,” Medren demanded. “Give over, and let's see if we can't think of a way to bring Uncle Van to bay.”

Stefen had to laugh. “You talk about him as if he was some kind of wild animal.”

Medren grinned. “Well, this is a hunt, isn't it? You're either going to have to coax him, or ambush him. Take your pick.”

At that moment, one of the legion of Healers that had been plaguing Stefen appeared like a green bird of ill-omen in the doorway. “Excuse me, Bard Stefen,” the bearded, swarthy man began, “but -”

“No,” Stef interrupted.

“The Healer blinked. “What?”

“I said, 'no.' I won't excuse you.” Stefen stood, and faced the Healer with his hands spread. “Look at me - I look like a shadow. You people have been wearing me to death. I'm tired of it, and I'm not going to do anything more today.”

The Healer looked incensed. “What do you mean by that?” he snapped, bristling. “What do you mean, we've been 'wearing you to death'? We haven't been -”

“I meant just what I said,” Stef said coolly. “I've been using a Gift, Healer. That takes energy. And I don't have any left.”

Now the Healer did look closely at him, focusing first on the dark rings under his eyes, then looking oddly through him, and the man's weathered face reflected alarm. “Great good gods,” he said softly. “We never intended -”

“Probably not, but you've been wearing me to a thread.” Stefen sat down again, feigning more weariness than he actually felt. The guilt on the Healer's face gave him no end of pleasure. “In fact,” he continued, drooping a little, “if you don't let me alone, I fear I will have nothing for the King....”

He sighed, and rested his head on the back of the chair as if it had grown too heavy to hold up. Through half-closed eyes he watched the Healer pale and grow agitated.

“We can't - I mean, King Randale's needs come first, of course,” the man stammered. “I'll speak to - I'll see that you aren't disturbed any more today, Bard Stefen -”

“I don't know,” Stefen said weakly. “I hope that will be enough, but I'm so tired -”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Medren with his fist shoved into his mouth, strangling on his own laughter.

“Never mind, Bard,” the Healer said, strangling on his own words. “We'll do something about all this - I -”

And with that, he turned and fled. Medren doubled up in silent laughter, and Stefen preened, feeling enormously .pleased with himself.

“I really am tired, you know,” he said with a grin, when Medren began to wheeze. “I honestly am.”

“Lord and Lady!” the Journeyman gasped. “I know but - good gods, you should go on the stage!” He clasped the back of his hand to his forehead, and swooned theatrically across the back of his chair. “Oh la, good sir, I do believe I shall fai - ”

The pillow caught Medren squarely in the face.

All right, Stefen thought, carefully putting his gittern back in its case. I've left you alone except for simple politeness for three days, Herald Vanyel. Let's see if you respond to being ignored. He began tightening the buckles holding the case closed. I've never known anyone yet who could deal with that.

He suppressed a smile as he caught Vanyel making his way through the crowd, obviously coming in Stefs direction. Looks like you won't be the first to be the exception to the rule.

“Bard Stefen?” Vanyel's voice was very low, with a note of hesitancy in it.

Stefen looked up, and smiled. He didn't have to feign the hint of shyness that crept into the smile; Vanyel still affected him that way. “I can't get used to that,” he confessed, surprising himself with the words. “People calling me Bard Stefen, I mean. I keep looking around to see who you're talking to.”

Vanyel smiled, and Stefen's throat tightened. “I know what you mean,” he said. “If it hadn't been that I spent the winter with the Hawkbrothers and had gotten used to wearing white, I would have spent half every morning for the first couple of months trying to figure out whose Whites had gotten into my wardrobe.”

Do I - no, I don't think so. Every time I've tried to touch him, he's started to respond, then pulled back. Let's keep things casual, and see if that works.

“I sometimes wish I'd never gotten Scarlets,” Stef said, instead of trying to touch Vanyel's hand. “I never have any time for myself anymore. And I don't recognize myself anymore when I look in the mirror. I used to know how to have fun. . . .”

Vanyel relaxed just the tiniest bit, and Stefen felt a surge of satisfaction. Finally, finally, I'm reading him right.

The crowd was almost gone now, and Stefen wondered fleetingly what business had been transacted this time. He wouldn't know unless someone told him.

“You did a good day's work, Bard Stefen,” Vanyel said, as if reading his mind. “Randi was able to judge three inter-family disputes that have been getting worse for the past year or more. I'll make you an offer, Stefen - if you promise not to get so intoxicated you can't navigate across the grounds.” Vanyel smiled, teasingly. “We'll have dinner in my quarters, and you can show me those bar-chords you promised to demonstrate the night you played your fingers to bits.”

I did? I don't remember promising that. For a moment Stefen was startled, because he thought he remembered everything about that evening. Then he suppressed a smile.

Clever, Herald Vanyel. A nice, innocent excuse. And you might even believe it. Well, I'll take it.

“I don't make a habit of getting falling-down drunk, Herald,” he replied, with a grin to take the sting out of the words. “And since the food is much better at the Palace, I'll accept that offer.”

“You mean you're only interested in the food?” Vanyel laughed. “I suppose my conversation hasn't much impressed you.”

He's a lot more relaxed. I think Medren's right, I'm either going to have to coax him or ambush him, and in either case I'm going to have to keep things very casual or I'll scare him off again. Damn. Stefen stood up and slung his gittern case over one shoulder before replying.

“Actually, I am much more interested in someone who'll talk to me,” he said. “I'm not exactly the most popular Bard in the Collegium right now.”

Vanyel grimaced. “Because of being advanced so quickly?”

Stefen nodded, and picked up his music carrier. “I had only just made Journeyman, and a lot of Bards resent my being jumped up like I was. A lot of the apprentices and Journeymen do, too. I can't say as I blame them too much, but I'm getting tired of being treated like a leper.”

He fell into step beside Vanyel, and the two of them left through the side door.

“At least the Council's put it about that the whole promotion was at Herald Shavri's request,” he continued. “That makes it a little more palatable, at least to some of the older ones. And the younger Bards can't claim I earned it in bed - that's one blessing, however small.”

Vanyel raised one eyebrow at that last statement, but didn't comment. “I got something of the same treatment, though not for too long,” the Herald told him. “Since it was Savil that gave me my Whites, there was an awful lot of suspicion of nepotism, or sympathy because of 'Lendel. ...”

The Herald's expression grew remote and saddened for a moment, then he shook his head. “Well, fortunately, Heralds being what they are, that didn't last too long. Especially not after Savil got herself hurt, and I cleaned out that nest of hedge-wizards up north. I pretty much proved then and there that I'd earned my Whites.”

“I'm afraid I won't be able to do anything that spectacular,” Stef replied, lightly. “It's not in the nature of the job for a Bard to do anything particularly constructive.”

Instead of laughing, the Herald gave Stefen a peculiar, sideways look. “I think you underestimate both yourself and the potential power of your office, Stefen,” he said.

Stefen laughed. “Oh, come now! You don't really expect me to agree with that old cliche that music can change the world, do you?”

“Things usually become cliched precisely because there's a grain of truth in them,” was the surprising answer. “And - well, never mind. I expect you're right.”

They had reached the Herald's Wing, that bright, wood-paneled extension of the Old Palace. Vanyel's room was one of the first beyond the double doors that separated the wing from the rest of the Palace. Vanyel held one of the doors open for Stef, then stepped gracefully around him and got the door to his own room open.

Stefen put his burdens down just inside the door, and arched his back in a stretch. “Brightest Havens -” he groaned. “- I feel as stiff as an old bellows. I bet I even creak.”

“You're too young to creak,” Vanyel chuckled, and pulled the bell-rope to summon a servant. “I don't suppose you play hinds and hounds, do you?”

Stefen widened his eyes, and assumed a patently false expression of naivete. “Why, no, Herald Vanyel - but I'd love to learn.”

Vanyel laughed out loud. “Oh, no - you don't fool me with that old trick! You've probably been playing for years.”

“Since I could talk,” Stef admitted. “Can't blame me for trying.”

“Since I might have done the same to you, I suppose I can't.” Vanyel gestured at the board set up on the table. “Red or white?”

“Red,” Stef replied happily. “And since you're the strategist, you can spot me a courser.”

Stefen moved his gaze-hound into what he thought was a secure position, and watched with dismay as Vanyel captured it with a lowly courser. Then, to add insult to injury, the Herald maneuvered that same courser into the promotion square and exchanged it for a year-stag.

“Damn!” he exclaimed, seeing his pack in imminent danger of being driven off, and taking steps to retrench his forces. The “hind” side of hounds and hinds was supposed to be the weaker, which was why the better player took it. It was usually considered a good game if the play ended in stalemate.

Vanyel beat him about half the time.

It looked as though this game was going to end in defeat too. Three moves later, and Stef surveyed the board in amazement, unable to see any way out. Vanyel's herd had trapped his pack, and there was no way out.

“I yield,” he conceded. “I don't know how you do it. You always take the hinds, and I can count the number of times I've won on one hand.”

Vanyel replaced the carved pieces in their box with thoughtful care. “I have a distinct advantage,” he said, after a long pause. “Until Randi got so sick that Shavri was spending all her time keeping him going, I helped guard the Karsite Border. I have a lot of experience in taking on situations with unfavorable odds.”

“Ah,” Stef replied, unable to think of anything else to say. He watched Vanyel's hands, admiring their strength and grace, and tried not to think about how much he wanted those hands to be touching something other than game pieces.

Ever since he'd stopped pursuing Van and started keeping things strictly on the level of “friendship,” he'd found himself spending most evenings with the Herald. He was learning an enormous amount, and not just about hinds and hounds. Economics, politics, the things Vanyel had experienced over the years - it was fascinating, if frustrating. Being so near Vanyel, and yet not daring to court him, overtly or otherwise - Stef had never dreamed he possessed such patience.

This was an entirely new experience; wanting someone and being unable to gratify that desire.

It was a nerve-wracking experience, yet it was not completely unpleasant. He was coming to know Vanyel, the real Vanyel, far better than anyone else except Herald Savil. That was not a suspicion; he'd had the fact confirmed more than once, by letting some tidbit of information slip in conversations with Medren. And Medren would give him a startled look that told Stefen that once again, he'd been told something Vanyel had never confided to anyone else.

He knew Van better than he'd ever known any lover. And for all this knowledge, the Herald was still a mystery. He was no closer to grasping what music Vanyel moved to than he had been when this all began.

Which made him think of something else to say after all.

“Van?” he ventured. “You hated it out there - but you sound as if you wish you were back on the Border.”

Vanyel turned those silver eyes on him and stared at him for a moment. “I suppose I did,” he said, finally. “I suppose in a way I do. Partially because it would mean that Randi was in good enough health that Shavri could take her own duties up again -”

Stef shook his head. “There was more to it than that. It sounded like you wanted to be out there.”

Vanyel looked away, and put the last of the pieces in their padded niches. “Well, it's rather hard to explain. It's miserable out there on the lines, you're constantly hungry, wet, cold, afraid, in danger - but I was doing some good.”

“You're doing good here,” Stefen pointed out.

Vanyel shook his head. “It's not the same. Any reasonably adept diplomat could do what I'm doing now. Any combination of Heralds could supply the same talents and Gifts. The only reason it's me is Randi's need and Randi's whims. I keep having the feeling that I could be doing a lot more good if I was elsewhere.”

Stefen sprawled back in his chair, studying the Herald carefully. “I don't understand it,” he said at last. “I don't understand you Heralds at all. You're constantly putting yourselves in danger, and for what? For the sake of people who don't even know you're doing it, much less that you're doing it for them, and who couldn't point you out in a crowd if their lives depended on it. Why, Van?”

That earned him another strange stare from the Herald, one that went on so long that Stef began to think he'd really said something wrong this time. “Van - what's the matter? Did I -”

Vanyel seemed to come out of a kind of trance, and blinked at him. “No, it's quite all right, Stef. It's just - this is like an echo from the past. I remember having exactly this same conversation with 'Lendel - except it was me asking 'Why?' and him trying to tell me the reasons.” Vanyel looked off at some vague point over Stefen's head. “I didn't understand his reasons then, and you probably won't understand mine now, but I'll try to explain. It has to do with a duty to myself as much as anything else. I have these abilities. Most other people don't. I have a duty to use them, because I have a duty to myself to be the kind of person I would want to have as a - a friend. If I don't use my abilities, I'm not only failing people who depend on me, I'm failing myself. Am I making sense?”

“Not really,” Stefen confessed.

Vanyel sighed. “Just say that it's a need to help - could you not sing and play? Well, I can't not help. Not anymore, anyway. And it doesn't matter if anyone knows what I'm doing or not; I know, and I know I'm doing my best. And because of what I'm doing, things are better for other people. Sometimes a great many other people.”

“This is loyalty, right?” Stefen hazarded.

“Only in being loyal to people in general, and not any one land. I could no more have let those farmers in Hardorn be enslaved than I could have our own people.” Vanyel leaned forward earnestly. “Don't you see, Stef? It's not that I'm serving Valdemar, it's that I'm helping to preserve the kind of people who leave the world better than they found it, and trying to stop the ones who take instead of giving.”

“You sound like one of those Tayledras -”

“I am. Moondance himself has said so more than once. Their priority is for the land, and mine is for the people - but that's at least in part because the land is so damaged where they live.” Vanyel smiled a little. “I wish you could see them, Stef. You'd want to write a thousand songs about them.”

“If they're so wonderful, why are people afraid of them?” Stefen asked. “And why aren't you and Savil?”

Vanyel laughed at that. “Let me tell you about the first time I ever worked with Moondance -”

The story was almost enough to make Stefen forget his frustration.

Six

Damn!” Medren swore, pounding the arm of his chair. “This is stupid! I swear to you, my uncle is about to drive me mad!”

The windows to Stefen's room were open to the summer evening, and Medren was trying to keep his voice down to prevent everybody in the neighborhood from being privy to their plight. Stef evidently didn't care who overheard them. “About to drive you mad?” Stefen's voice cracked, and Medren winced in sympathy. Stef was pulling at his hair, totally unaware that he was doing so, and looked about ready to climb the walls. He shifted position so often that his chair was doing a little dance around the room, a thumblength at a time.

“I know, I know, it's a lot worse for you. I'm just frustrated. You're -” Medren paused, unable to think of a delicate way to put it.”

“I'm celibate, that's what I am!” Stefen growled, lurching to his feet and beginning to pace restlessly. “I'm worse than celibate. I'm fixated. It's not just that Vanyel isn't cooperating, it's that I don't want anyone else anymore, and the better I know him, the worse it gets!” He stopped dead in his tracks, suddenly, and stared out the window for a moment. “I'm never happier than when I'm around him. I sometimes wonder how long I'm going to be able to stand this. There are times when I can't think of anything but him.”

Medren stared at his friend, wondering if Stefen had really listened to himself just now. Because what he'd just described was the classic reaction of a lifebonded. . . .

Stef and Uncle Van? No. Not possible; not when Van has already been lifebonded once... Or is it? Is there a rule somewhere that lifebondings can only happen once in a lifetime, even if you lose your bondmate?

A lifebonding would certainly explain a great deal of Stef's behavior. Medren had long ago given up on trying to second-guess his uncle. Vanyel was far too adept at hiding what he felt, even from himself.

“So, what have we tried so far?” Medren said aloud. Stef at least stopped pacing long enough to push his hair out of his eyes and count up all the schemes they'd concocted on his fingers.

“We tried getting him drunk again. He didn't cooperate. We tried that trip to the hot springs. That almost worked, except that we got company right when it looked like he was going to break down and do something. We tried every variation on my hurting myself and him having to help me, and all I got were bruises in some fascinating places.” Stefen gritted his teeth. “We tried my asking him for a massage for my shoulder muscles. He referred me to a Healer. The only thing we haven't tried is catching him asleep and tying him up.”

“Don't even think about that!” Medren said hastily. “Listen, first of all, you won't catch him asleep, and secondly, even if you did - you wouldn't want to be standing there if he mistook you for an enemy.”

Like the last time he was home, when that idiot with the petition tried to tackle him in the bath. Medren shuddered. I know Grandfather said he needed to replace the bathhouse - but that wasn't the best way to get it torn down.

“He wouldn't hurt me,” Stefen said with absolute certainty.

“Don't bet on that,” Medren replied, grimly. “Especially if he doesn't know it's you. I've seen what he can do, and you wouldn't want to stand in the way of it. If he wants to level something or someone, he will, and anything in between him and what he wants to flatten is going to wind up just as flat as his target.”

“No,” Stef denied vehemently. “No - I swear to you, I know it. No matter what, he wouldn't hurt me.”

Medren just shook his head and hoped Stef would never have to test that particular faith. “All right,” he said after a moment's thought. “What about this -”

Vanyel closed his weary eyes for a moment, and thought longingly, selfishly, of rest, of peace, of a chance to enjoy the bright summer day.

But there was no peace for Valdemar, and hence, no rest for Herald Vanyel.

:Take a break tonight, Van,: Yfandes advised him. :You haven't had young Stefen over for the past three evenings. And I think you can afford to let the Seneschal and the Lord Marshal hash this one out without you.:

At least the news out of Karse was something other than a disaster, for a change.

“So there's no doubt of it?” he asked the messenger. “The Karsites have declared the use of magic anathema?”

The dust-covered messenger nodded. It was hard to tell much about her, other than the fact that she was not a Herald. Road grime had left her pretty much a uniform gray-brown from head to toe. “There's more to it than that, m'lord,” she said. “They're outlawing everyone even suspected of having mage-craft. Just before I left, the first of the lucky ones came straggling across the Border. I didn't have time to collect much of their tales, but there's another messenger coming along behind me who'll have the whole of it.”

“Lucky ones?” said the Seneschal, puzzled. “Lucky for us, perhaps, but since when has it been lucky for enemy mages to fall into our hands?”

“Aye, it wouldn't seem that way, but 'tis,” she replied, wiping the back of her hand across her forehead, and leaving a paler smear through the dirt and sweat. “The ones we got are the lucky ones. They're the ones that 'scaped the hunters. They're burning and hanging over there, whoever they can catch. 'Tis a bit of a holy crusade, it seems. Like some kind of plague, all of a sudden half of Karse wants to murder the Gifted.”

“Good gods.” The Seneschal ran his hand over his closed eyes. “It sounds insane -”

“How did it start?” the Lord Marshall asked bluntly, “or do you know?”

The messenger nodded. “Lord Vanyel's turning those demons back on Karse ten years ago was the start of it, but the real motivator seems to be from the priesthood.”

“The priesthood?” Healer Liam exclaimed, sitting up straight. “Which priesthood?”

“Sunlord Vkanda,” the messenger replied. “And there's not enough news yet to tell if it's only the one priest, or the whole lot of them.”

At that moment, a servant appeared with wine. The messenger took it and gulped it down gratefully. Lord Marshall Reven leaned forward over the table when she'd finished, his lean face intent, his spare body betraying how tense he was.

“What else can you tell us?” he asked. “Any fragment of information will help.”

The messenger leaned back in her chair. “Quite a bit, actually,” she said. “I'm trained by one of your Heralds. The one that started this crusade's a nameless lad of maybe twenty or so; calls himself The Prophet. No one knows much else about him, 'cept that he started on that there was a curse on the land, on account of them using mages. That was a bit less than a month ago. Next thing you know, the countryside's afire, and Karse's got more'n enough troubles to make 'em pull back every trooper they had on the Border. That was how matters stood a week ago when I left; gods only know what's going on in there now.”

“Have we heard from any of our operatives in Karse itself?” the Seneschal asked Vanyel. The Herald shook his head. “Not yet.” He was worried for those operatives - there were at least three of them, one Mindspeaking Herald among them - but his chief reaction was relief. I cannot believe that we pulled the last of the mages out less than a year ago. There is no one in there now who should be suspected of magery. . . .

“You say this situation is causing some civil disorder?” Archpriest Everet had a knack for understatement, but he was serious enough. His close-cropped, winter-white hair was far too short to fidget with, so he fingered his earlobe worriedly instead. Beneath his bland exterior, Vanyel sensed he was deeply concerned.

Not surprising; while it might look as if this was unalloyed good news for Valdemar, that fact that it was a religious crusade meant the possibility of it spilling over the Border. There were several houses of the Sunlord within the borders of Valdemar. If they joined their fellows in this holy war against mages, not only would the Archpriest be responsible for their actions, he would be obligated to see to it that they were stopped.

Which is about all he's thinking of. He doesn't see how much chaos this could cause the entire country. If the followers of the Sunlord move against Heralds -

Some of us are mages; they might also count all Gifts as “magic.”

And we have the backing of other religious orders. If the Heralds were attacked, those orders might move before the Crown and Archpriest could. What would happen if the acolytes of Kernos decided to take matters into their own hands and fight back on the mages' behalf? After all, the order is primarily martial . . . fighting monks and the like. And they favor the Heralds.

The situation, if it crossed the Border, could be as damaging to Valdemar as to Karse.

“The Sunlord's the Karsite official state religion,” the messenger reminded them. “If this Prophet has the backing of the priesthood, then he's got the backing of the Crown. When I left, that was what things looked like - but there's a fair number of people with a bit of magery in their blood, and a-plenty of hedge-wizards and herb-witches that do the common folk a fair amount of good. Not everybody can find a Healer when they need one; when the big magics are flyin' about, the lords tend to forget about the little ones that bring the rain and protect the crops. So not everybody is taking well to this holy crusade.”

“I would suggest a series of personal visits to our own enclaves of the Sunlord, my lord Everet,” Vanyel said mildly. “I suspect your presence will make cooler heads prevail, especially if you point out that this so-called 'Prophet' seems to be operating on nothing more than his charisma and his own word that he speaks for the Sunlord Vkanda.”

Everet nodded, his mouth tight. “They owe their establishments to His Majesty's tolerance,” he replied. “I shall be at pains to point that out.”

“I'll assure him that you're already working on the potential problem,” Vanyel told him, glancing at the empty throne. Barring a miracle, Randi will never use that seat again. I wonder if we should have it taken out? It's certainly depressing to have it there.

The Seneschal dismissed the messenger, who got stiffly to her feet, bowed, and limped out. “Well,” Seneschal Arved said, once the door had closed behind her, “I think we have a Situation.”

The Lord Marshal nodded. “If it stays within the Karse Border, this situation can only benefit us.”

“If.” Vanyel shook his head. “There's no guarantee of that.”

:And what about later?: Yfandes prompted :After this crusade is over?:

:Good point.: “We use magic openly in Valdemar, sanctioned and supported by the Crown,” Van continued. “If this crusade doesn't burn itself out, if in fact it is sanctioned by the Karsite Crown, where does that leave us?”

“The deadliest of enemies,” Everet answered grimly. “It will be worse than before; it will become a holy war.”

Arved groaned, and closed his eyes for a moment. “You're right,” he said, finally. “You're absolutely right. And if that situation occurs, there's nothing we can do to stop it.”

“What we need now is information,” Vanyel told them. “And that's my department. I'll get on it. Whatever happens, we'll have a respite from Karsite incursions for a couple of weeks while they get their own house in order. We should use that respite to our own advantage.”

“Good,” Arved said, shaking back his tawny hair. “Let's take this in manageable chunks. Herald Vanyel, you get us that information, and find out what the King wants us to do with refugees. We'll see what we can do to use this involuntary truce. Tomorrow we'll put together plans to cover all the contingencies we can think of. Everet-”

“I'll be making myself conspicuous in the Vkanda enclaves,” the Archpriest said, rising from his seat. “You'll have to go on without me. I think I'd better leave as soon as I can pack.”

:He's going to be out of here within two candlemarks,: Yfandes said. :He travels light.:

“Lord Everet, I'll have a document from Randale for you before you leave, authorizing you to take whatever actions you think necessary with the followers of Vkanda,” Vanyel said. “Please don't leave without it.”

Everet paused in midturn, and half-smiled. “Thank you, Herald. I would have gone charging off trusting in my office and so-called 'sanctity,' forgetting that neither apply to the Guard.”

“Nor some highborn,” the Lord Marshal reminded him. “And unless I miss my guess, there'll be one or two of those among the Sunlord's followers.”

“Gentlemen, the Archpriest and I will get to our duties, and we'll leave you to work on this in our absence,” Vanyel told them. He and Everet pushed their chairs aside and left the Council Chamber, going in opposite directions once they reached the door.

Randi first, then get in touch with Kera. ... he thought, then Mindsent, :'Fandes, can you boost me that far?: knowing she'd been watching his surface thoughts.

:If not, we can at least reach someone stationed near the Border to relay.: She sounded quite confident, and Van relaxed a little. :We'll have inside information shortly. And don't worry about Kera - thanks to that new Web we wove, if she was in trouble, we'd know. One of us would, anyway.:

:Thanks, love.: He'd reached the door to Randale's quarters, and was such a familiar sight to the guards that one of them had already pushed the door open for him.

He thanked the man with a nod, and slipped inside.

Most of the time Randale was cold, so the room was as hot as a desert, with a fire in the fireplace despite the fact that it was full summer. The King lay on a day-bed beside the fire, bundled up in a blanket, Shavri on a stool beside him; he looked exhausted, but the pain lines about his mouth and eyes were mercifully few.

Those eyes were closed, but he wasn't sleeping. Vanyel saw his lids flutter a little the moment before he spoke. “So,” he said quietly. “What's sent you flying out of the Council Chamber this time? Good news, or bad?”

“Wish I could tell you,” Vanyel replied, dropping down beside the bed, and putting one hand on Shavri's shoulder. She brushed her cheek briefly against it, but didn't let go of Randale's hand. Van touched her dark, gypsy-tumble of curls for a moment, then turned his full attention back to the King. “We just got a messenger from the Border and the Karsites have just confirmed my belief that they're all completely mad.”

He outlined the situation as quickly as he could, while Randale listened, with his eyes still closed. The King had long ago shaved off his beard, saying it no longer hid anything and made him look like the business end of a mop, he'd grown so thin. That was the day he'd finally acknowledged his illness, and the fact that he was never going to recover from it; the day Van had been reassigned permanently and indefinitely to the Palace.

All of Randale that could be seen, under the swathings of blankets, were his head and hands. Both were emaciated and colorless; even Randale's hair was an indeterminate shade of brown. Herald Joshe, who was something of an artist, had remarked sadly that the King was like an under-painting, all bones and shadows.

But there was nothing wrong with his mind, and he demonstrated that he'd inherited his grandmother's good sense.

“Rethwellan,” he said, after listening to Vanyel. “They have mages in their bloodline; if Karse starts an anti-mage campaign, they'll be in as much danger as we. Get Arved to draft up some letters to Queen Lythiaren, feeling her out and offering alliance.” He paused a moment. “Tell him to word those carefully; she doesn't entirely trust me right now after that mess with the Amarites.”

“It wasn't your fault,” Vanyel protested, as Shavri stroked her lifebonded's forehead. Randale opened his eyes and smiled slightly.

“I know that, but she can't admit it,” he replied. “Have we got a 'limited powers' declaration around here somewhere? You'll need one for Everet.”

“I think so,” Vanyel answered, and got to his feet. After a moment of checking through the various drawers, he found what he was looking for - a pre-inscribed document assigning limited powers of the Crown, with blanks for the person and the circumstances. There was always pen, ink, and blotter waiting on the desk; in another moment Vanyel had filled in the appropriate blank spaces.

“Good, let me see it.” Randale read it carefully, as he always did. “Your usual thorough and lawyerlike job, Van.” He looked up at Vanyel, and smiled. “I hope you brought the pen with you.”

“I did.” Vanyel laid the bottom of the document over a book and held both so that Randale could initial the appropriate line. Blowing on the ink to dry it more quickly, he took the paper over to the desk and affixed the Seal of the Monarch. “What about the mages coming across the Border?” he asked over his shoulder.

“Unhindered passage via guarded trade-road into Rethwellan,” Randale told him. “But I don't want to offer them sanctuary. This would be a good opportunity for Karse to get an agent into Valdemar. We can't know which are blameless, which are hirelings, and which are spies. Send them on, unless one of them happens to get Chosen.”

“Not likely.” Vanyel left the paper where it was, and returned to Randale's side. “How has today been?”

“Shavri's beginning to understand what it is that young Bard of yours actually does,” Randale replied. “She's able to do a bit more for me. But yesterday was bad, I'd rather not give audiences today, because I don't think I can get past the door right now. No strength left.”

Vanyel touched his shoulder; Randale sighed, and covered Vanyel's hand with his own. “Then don't try,” Van said quietly. “Anything more I should do about Karse?”

“Get us inside information, then get our Herald operatives out of there,” Randale replied. “Then send a few non-Gifted agents to deliver aid to the rest, then insinuate themselves into the trouble. And let's get moving on the Rethwellan situation.”

By this time, the corners of his mouth were tight and pinched, and he was very pale. Vanyel felt a lump rising in his throat. Randale was proving a better King than anyone had ever expected; the weaker he became, the more he seemed to rise to the challenge. As his body set tighter physical limits on what he could do, his mind roved, keeping track of all of the tangles inside Valdemar and out.

Vanyel swallowed the lump that caught in his throat every time he looked at Randale. “Anything else?” he asked. “There's a lot of matters pending.”

Randale closed his eyes and leaned back into the pillows. “Compromise in the Lendori situation by offering them the contract for the Guard mules if they'll cede the water rights to Balderston. Their animals are good enough, if priced a little high. The Evendim lot has their own militia; feel them out and see if they might be willing to spare us some men. Tell Lord Preatur that if he doesn't either take that little mink he calls his daughter and marry her off or send her back home, I'll find a husband for her; she's got half my Guard officers at dagger's point with each other. That's all.”

“That's enough.” Vanyel touched one finger to Randale's hot forehead, and exerted his own small Healing ability. Shavri had told him that every tiny bit helped some. “Rest, Randi.”

“I'll do my best,” the King whispered, and Vanyel took himself out before he started weeping.

Pages and acolytes were flying about Everet's rooms like leaves in a storm, while Everet stood in the middle of the chaos and directed it calmly. Vanyel dodged a running child and handed Everet the document.

Everet read it through as carefully as Randale had. “Excellent. Enough authority to cow just about anyone I might need to.” He intercepted one of the acolytes and directed the young man to pack the document with the rest of his papers. “Thank you, Herald. Let's hope I don't need to use it.”

“Fervently,” Vanyel replied, and returned briefly to the Council Chamber to give the Seneschal the rest of King Randale's orders.

Sunlight on the water blinded him a moment. :I feel like the Fair Maid of Bredesmere, waiting for her lover,: 'Fandes Mindsent.

Vanyel squinted against the light, then waved to her; she was standing on the Field side of the bridge spanning the river separating the Palace grounds from Companion's Field. :Well, you're all in white,: he teased as he approached the bridge. :And there's the River for you to get thrown into.:

Just try it, my lad,: she reared a little, and danced in place, the long grass muffling the sound of her hooves. :We'll see who throws who in!:

:Thank you, I'd rather not.: He ran the last few steps over the echoing bridge, and took her silken head in both his hands. “You're beautiful today, love,” he said aloud.

:Huh.: She snorted, and shook his hands off. :You say that every day.: But he could tell by the way she arched her neck that she was pleased.

:That's because you are beautiful every day,: he replied.

:Flatterer.: she said, tossing her silver waterfall of a mane. Since they weren't in combat situations anymore, she'd told him to let it and her tail grow, and both were as long and full as a Companion's in an illuminated manuscript.

“It isn't flattery when it's true,” he told her honestly. “I wish I had more time to spend with you.”

Her blue eyes darkened with love. :I do, too. A plague on reality! I just want to be with you, not have to work!:

He laughed. “Now you're as lazy as I used to be! Come along, love, and let's get ourselves settled so we can make a stab at reaching Kera.”

At one time there had been a grove of ancient pine trees near the bridge-the grove that had been destroyed when Herald-trainee Tylendel had lost control of his Gift in the shock following his twin brother's death. There was nothing there now except grass, a few seedlings and a couple of trees that had escaped the destruction. The dead trees had long since been cut up and used for firewood.

Since that night had been the start of the train of events that led to Tylendel's suicide, it would have been logical for Vanyel to shun the spot, but logic didn't seem to play a very large part in Vanyel's life. He still found the place peaceful, protective, and he and Yfandes often went there when they needed to work together.

There was a little hollow in the center of what had been the grove; Yfandes folded her legs under her and settled down there in the long grass. There wasn't so much as a breath of wind to stir the tips of the grass blades. Vanyel lowered himself down beside her, and braced his back against her side. The warm afternoon sun flowed over both of them.

“Ready?” he asked.

:When you are.: she replied.

He closed his eyes, and slid into full rapport with her; it was even easier with her than with Savil. He waited for a moment while they settled around each other, then Reached for Kera:

She couldn't know when someone was going to try to contact her, but Kera had to realize that they were going to do so eventually. Vanyel was counting on that, on the receptivity. He'd worked with Kera before this, so he knew her well enough to find her immediately If he could reach that far.

He strained to Hear her; to sort her out of the distant whispers on the Border of Karse. Most of those mind-voices were strident with anger; a few were full of panic. It was by the lack of both those traits that he identified Kera; that, and the carefully crafted shields about her. Savil's work, and beautiful, like a faceted crystal.

He stretched-it was like trying to touch something just barely within his grasp; the tips of his “fingers” brushed the edge of it. :Kera.: He offered his identification to her shields, which parted briefly and silently.

:Who?: came the thought; then incredulity. :Vanyel?:

She knew where he was and the kind of strain it was to reach her. Hard on that incredulity came the information he needed; exactly what was going on over in Karse, everything Kara knew about the Prophet, and that he was, indeed, backed by the full force of the Karsite Crown and the priesthood of the Sunlord.

:Get out of there,: Vanyel urged. :Go over White Foal Pass if you have to, or get out through Rethwellan, but leave. Warn the others you're leaving if you can. With a Companion around you, however disguised, you're the most likely to be uncovered.:

Fear, and complete agreement. Evidently she'd had some close calls already.

:Go,: she told him, courage layered over the fear. :I've got my plans, I was just waiting for contact.:

He released her, and dropped into clamoring darkness.

When he opened his eyes again, the last of a glorious scarlet sunset was fading from the clouds. Crickets sang in the grass near his knee, and he shivered with cold.

Not a physical cold, but the cold of depletion. Yfandes nudged him with her nose. :I got it all, and I passed it on to Joshe's Kimbry, and Joshe passed it to the Seneschal.:

“Good, 'Fandes,” he coughed, leaning on her warm strength. “Thank you.”

:I never suspected you had that kind of reach. You outdistanced me.:

“I did?” He rubbed his eyes with a knuckle. “Well, I don't know what to say.”

:I do,: she replied, humor in her mind-voice, :You're going to have a reaction-headache in a few more breaths. I suggest you stop by Randale's Healers on the way to your room.:

“I'll do that.” He got to his knees, then lurched to his feet. She scrambled up next to him, glowing in the blue dusk.

:Have you forgotten you'd invited young Stefen to your room tonight?:

“Oh, gods. I had.” He was torn, truly torn. He was weary, but - dammit, he wanted the Bard's company.

:He wants yours just as badly,: Yfandes said, with no emotional coloring in her mind-voice at all.

“Oh, 'Fandes, he's just infatuated,” Vanyel protested. “It'll wear off. If I told him to leave me alone - assuming I wanted to, which I don't - it would just make him that much more determined to throw himself in my way.”

:I think it's more than infatuation,: she responded, and he thought he caught overtones of approval when she thought about the Bard. :I think he really cares a great deal about you.:

“Well, I care about him - which is precisely why I'm going to keep this relationship within the bounds of friendship.” Vanyel tested his legs, and found them capable of taking him back to the Palace, though the threatened reaction-headache was just beginning to throb in his temples. “He doesn't need to ruin his life by flinging himself at me.”He stroked her neck. “Goodnight, sweetling. And thank you.”

:My privilege and pleasure,: she said fondly.

He began the trek back to the Palace, dusk thickening around him, his head throbbing in time with his steps. Friendship. Oh, certainly. Havens, Van, he chided himself. You know very well that you're just looking for excuses to see more of Stef.

Now, finally, a breeze blew up; a stiff one, that made the branches bend a little. He had warmed up quite a bit just from the long walk, but although the cool air felt good against his forehead, it made him shiver. Well, there's no harm in it, except to me. I'm certainly exercising all my self-control. . . .

The depth of his attraction to the Bard bothered him, and not only because he felt the lad was still pursuing him out of hero-worship. As night fell around him and the lights of the Palace began to appear in the windows, he realized that over the past few weeks he had become more and more confused about his relationship with Stefen. Stars appeared long before he reached the doors to the Palace gardens, and he looked up at them, wishing he could find an answer in their patterns.

I don't understand this at all. I want to care for him so much-too much. It feels like I'm betraying 'Lendel's memory.

He turned away from the night sky and pulled open the door, blinking at the light from the lantern set just inside it.

He entered the hall, and closed the door behind him. Great good gods, the boy should be glad I'm not 'Lendel, he thought, with a hint of returning humor. 'Lendel would have cheerfully tumbled the lad into bed long before this. Gods, I need that headache tea -

Evidently the gods thought otherwise, for at that moment, a page waiting in the hallway spotted him, and ran to meet him.

“Herald Vanyel,” the child panted. “The King wants you! Jisa's done something horrible!”

The child couldn't tell him much; just that Jisa had come to Randale's suite with Treven and a stranger. There had been some shouting, and the page had been called in from the hall. Randale had collapsed onto his couch, Shavri and Jisa were pale as death, and Shavri had sent the page off in search of Vanyel.

An odd gathering waited for him in Randale's suite; The King and Shavri, Jisa and young Treven, the Seneschal, Joshe, and a stranger in the robes of a priest of Astera. And a veritable swarm of servants and Guards. By this time, Vanyel was ready to hear almost anything; a tale of theft, murder, drunkenness - but not what Jisa flatly told him, with a rebellious lift of her chin.

“Married?” he choked, looking from Jisa to Treven and back again. “You've gotten married? How? Who in the Havens' name would dare?”

“I did, Herald Vanyel.” The stranger said; not cowed, as Vanyel would have expected, but defiantly. As he raised his head, the cowl of his robe fell back, taking his face out of the shadows. It was no one Vanyel knew, and not a young man. Middle-aged, or older; that was Van's guess. Old enough not to have been tricked into this.

“I wasn't tricked,” the priest continued, as if he had read Vanyel's thought. “I knew who they were; they told me. No one specifically forbade them to marry, and it seemed to me that there was no reason to deny them that status.”

“No reason -” Vanyel couldn't get anything else out.

“The vows are completely legal and binding,” Joshe said apologetically. “The only way they could be broken would be if either of them wanted a divorcement.”

Treven put his arm around Jisa, and the girl took his hand in hers. Both of them stared at Vanyel with rebellion in their eyes; rebellion, and a little fear.

Randale chose that moment to turn a shade lighter and gasp. Shavri was at his side in an instant; and in the next, had him taken out of the room into their private quarters.

“No reason,” Vanyel repeated in disbelief. “What about Treven's duty to Valdemar? What are we going to do now, if the only way out of a problem is an alliance-marriage?”

He addressed the priest, but it was Treven who replied. “I thought about that, Herald Vanyel,” he said. “I thought about it quite a long time. Then I did some careful checking - and unless you plan to have me turn shaych, there isn't anyone who could possibly suit as a marriage candidate, not even in Karse - unless there's some barbarian chieftain's daughter up north that nobody knows about. Of the unwedded, most are past childbearing, and the rest are infants. Of the wedded who might possibly lose their husbands in the next five years, most are bound with contracts that keep them tied to their spouse's land, and the rest are the designated regents for their minor children.” Despite his relatively mild tone, Treven's expression boded no good for anyone who got in his way. “I didn't see any reason to deny ourselves happiness when we know that we're lifebonded.”

“Happiness?” Shavri's voice sounded unusually shrill. “You talk about happiness, here?” She stood in the doorway, clutching a fold of her robe just below her throat. “You've put my daughter right back in the line of succession, you young fool! Do you have any idea how long and hard I fought to keep her out of that position? You've seen what the Crown has done to Randi, both of you - Treven, how can you possibly want that kind of pain for Jisa?”

:Shavri doesn't want the Crown, so she thinks her daughter shouldn't, either,: Yfandes observed. :Your objection is rational, but hers is entirely emotional.:

Jisa ignored her mother's impassioned speech, turning to Vanyel and the Seneschal. “If there's pain, I'm prepared to deal with it,” she said calmly, addressing them and not her mother. “I don't blame Mother for not wanting the Crown - she doesn't want that kind of responsibility, she doesn't like being a leader, and she isn't any good at it. She says that the Crown means pain, and it does, for her - but - my lords, I'm not Mother! Why should she make my decisions for me?”

The priest nodded a little, and Shavri's face went white.

“Mother -” now Jisa turned toward her, pleading. “Mother, I'm sorry, but we're two different people, you and I. I am a leader, I have been all my life, you've said so yourself. I'm not afraid of power, but I respect it, and the responsibility it brings. There's another factor here; Treven will be the King - I'll be his partner. We will be sharing the power, the responsibility, and yes, the pain. It will be different for us. Can't you see that?”

Shavri shook her head, unable to speak; then turned and fled back into the shelter of her room.

Arved was red-faced with anger. “Who gave you the authority to take it upon yourself to decide who and what was a suitable contract?” he snarled at Treven. The young man paled, but stood his ground.

“Two things, sir,” he replied steadily. “The fact that Jisa and I are lifebonded, and the fact that a marriage with anyone except my lifebonded would be a marriage in name only, and a travesty of holy vows.”

“In my opinion,” put in the priest, “that would be blasphemy. A perversion of a rite meant to sanctify. Lifebonding is a rare and sacred thing, and should be treated with reverence. It is one thing to remain unwedded so as to give the appearance of being available, provided it is done for the safety of the realm. It seems to me, however, that to force a young person into an entirely unsuitable marriage when he is already lifebonded is - well, a grave sin.”

Arved stared at the priest, then looked helplessly at Vanyel, and threw up his hands. “It's done,” he said. “It can't be undone, and I'm not the one to beat a dead dog in hopes of him getting up and running to the hunt.”

Joshe just shrugged.

Shavri had fled the room, Randale had collapsed - the Seneschal and his Herald had abrogated their responsibility. It was going to be left to Van to make the decision.

He ground his teeth in frustration, but there really was very little choice. As the Seneschal had pointed out, the thing was accomplished, and there would be no profit in trying to fight it further.

“Done is done,” he said with resignation, ignoring Jisa's squeal of joy. “But I hope you realize you two have saddled me with the hard part.”

“Hard part?” Treven asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “Trying to convince the rest of the world that you haven't made a mistake, when I'm not sure of it myself.

Seven

“I... thought you'd be pleased,” Jisa said sullenly. “You know how we feel about each other. I thought you would understand.”

Vanyel counted to ten, and sighted on a point just above Jisa's head. They weren't alone; the priest was trying to talk Shavri around, Treven hovered right at Jisa's elbow, and there were at least half a dozen servants in the room. It wouldn't do to strangle her.

The only blessing was that Arved and Joshe were gone, which meant two less edgy tempers in a room full of tension.

“Whatever gave you the idea that I'd be pleased?” he asked. “And why should I understand?”

“Because you were willing to defy everything and everyone to have Tylendel,” she replied, maddeningly. “You know what it's like to be lifebonded!” :Father,: she continued in Mindspeech, :We've done everything else anyone ever asked of us. Why should we have to give up each other? And why can't you see our side of it?:

He wanted to argue that her case was entirely different - that Tylendel was only an ordinary Herald-Mage trainee, that neither he nor 'Lendel was the Heir to the Throne -

But he couldn't. They were young and in love, and so it was useless to bring logic into the argument.

:I can't understand why Treven's Companion didn't stop him.: he replied, irritated by her relative calm.

:Father, Eren not only didn't stop him, she helped us. She's the one that found Father Owain for us.: She couldn't have kept the triumph out of her mind-voice, and she didn't even try.

“She what?” Vanyel exclaimed aloud. One of the servants picking up the clutter nearly jumped a foot, then glared out of the corner of his eye at them.

“Bloody, 'Eralds,” he muttered, just loud enough for Van to hear. “Standin' around thinkin' at each other . . . still can't get used to it.”

“Eren helped us,” Jisa persisted. “Ask Yfandes.”

“I will,” he told her grimly :'Fandes, what do you know about all this?:

:Everything,: she replied.

:And you didn't stop them? You didn't even tell me?: He couldn't believe what he was hearing.

:Of course we didn't stop them,: she said sharply. :We approve. You would, too, if you'd take a minute to think with your head and your heart. What else would you have? Jisa will make a fine Consort, better than anyone else your stuffy Council would have picked for Treven. The boy is entirely right; there are no female offspring of a suitable age among any of the neutrals, and why should he make an alliance-marriage with someone who's already an ally? If you'd have him hang about for years without wedding Jisa, I think you're a fool:

:But Randi-: he began.

:Randale's case is entirely different; for a start, there is - or was - a Karsite princess only a year older, and the Queen of Rethwellan is exactly his age. Before his illness became a problem, there was always the potential for an alliance-wedding :

He was too taken aback to reply for a moment, and when he finally managed to recover, one of the pages appeared at his elbow, looking anxious.

“M'lord Herald?” the child said nervously. “M'lord, the King is doing poorly. The Healers said to tell you he was in pain and refusing to take anything and that you'd know what to do.”

“Go fetch Bard Stefen,” Vanyel told the boy instantly. “If he's not in his own rooms, check mine.” He ignored the raised eyebrows as Shavri turned away from the priest and rounded on Jisa and Treven.

“Now see what you've done -” the distraught Herald-Healer began, her hair a wild tangle around her face, her eyes red-rimmed. “You've made him worse, your own father! I -”

Vanyel put a hand on her arm and restrained her, projecting calm at her. “Shavri, dearheart, in all honesty you can't say that. Randi goes in cycles, you know that - and you know he was about due for an attack. You can't say that's Jisa's fault -”

“But she brought it on!” Shavri exclaimed. “She made it worse!”

“You don't know that,” Vanyel began, when the page reappeared with Stefen in tow.

The Bard strolled right up to the tense knot of people, ignoring the page's frantic tugs on his sleeve. He bowed slightly to Treven, and took Jisa's limp hand and kissed it. “Congratulations,” he said, as Shavri went rigid and Vanyel silently recited every curse he knew. “I think you did the right thing. I know you'll be happy.”

He finally responded to the page's efforts, and turned toward the door to the private rooms. But before he could take more than a step, Shavri seized him by the elbow to stop him. “Wait!” she snapped. “Where did you hear this?”

He looked down at her hand, still clutching his elbow, then up at her face. “It's all over the Palace, milady Herald,” he replied mildly, and looked down at her hand again.

She let go of him and pulled away, and clenched her hands in the folds of her robe. “Then there's no way we can hide this.”

“I would say not, milady,” Stefen replied. “By this time tomorrow it'll be all over the Kingdom.”

He winked at Treven as Shavri turned back to the priest. To Van's amazement and anger, Treven winked back.

:You didn't -: he Mindsent to Jisa.

The anger in his eyes was met by matching anger in hers. :Of course we did. The first thing we did was tell the servants and two of the biggest gossips in the Court, one of whom is Stef.:

:Why?: he asked, anger amplifying his mind-voice so that she flinched. :Why? To make your mother a laughingstock?:

:No!: she flared back. :To keep you and her from finding some way to annul what we did! We thought that the more people that knew about it, the less you'd be able to cover it up.:

:The Companions spread it about, too,: Yfandes said, complacently. :I was told by Liam's Orser just as you found out.: “Dear gods,” he groaned. “It's a conspiracy of fools!”

Jisa looked hurt: Yfandes gave a disgusted mental snort and blocked him out.

Stefen stepped back a pace and straightened his back, taking on a dignity far beyond his years. “You can call it what you like, Herald Vanyel,” he said stiffly, “and you can think what you like. But a good many people think that these two did exactly the right thing, and I'm one of them.”

And with that, he turned on his heel, and followed the frantic page to the doorway at the back of the room.

As the priest nodded in satisfaction and took Shavri's arm, Vanyel threw up his hands in a gesture of defeat, and left before his tattered temper and dignity could entirely go to shreds.

As the Seneschal had pointed out, it was done, and couldn't be undone. In the week following, Shavri forgave her daughter, Jisa reconciled with Vanyel - but the Council was unlikely to accept the situation any time soon. As Stefen remarked sagely, in one of the few moments he had to spare away from Randale's side, “They'd gotten used to having a pair of pretty little puppets that danced whenever they pulled the strings. But the puppets just came alive and cut the strings - and they don't have any control anymore. Younglings grow up, Van - and when they do, it generally annoys somebody. Do you want a potential King and Queen, or a couple of rag dolls? If you want the King and Queen, you'd better get used to those two thinking for themselves, because that's what they're going to have to do.”

Vanyel hadn't expected that much sense out of Stefen - though why he should have been surprised by it after all their long talks made him wonder how well he was thinking. The young Bard was showing his mettle in the crisis; not only easing Randale's pain for candlemarks at a time, but soothing Shavri's distress and bringing about her reconciliation with Jisa and Treven. That left Van free to deal with Council, Court, and outKingdom; making decisions in Randale's name, or waiting for one of the King's coherent spells and getting the decrees from him. The two of them worked like two halves of a complicated, beautifully engineered machine, and Vanyel wondered daily how he had gotten along without Stefen's presence and talents before this. The Bard seemed always to be at the right place, at the right time, using his Gift in exactly the right way, but that wasn't all he did. He made himself indispensable in a hundred little ways; seeing that no one forgot important papers, that pages were on hand to fetch and carry, and that Shavri and Randale were never left alone except with each other. He had food and drink sent in to Council meetings; saw to it that ambassadors felt themselves treated as the most important envoys Valdemar had ever harbored.

If it hadn't been for Stefen, Vanyel would never have survived that week.

As it was, by the time the crisis was over, both of them looked like identical frayed threads.

And that was when the second shoe dropped.

Vanyel opened the door to his room, and stared in surprise at Stefen. The Bard was draped over “his” chair, head thrown back, obviously asleep. As Vanyel closed the door, the slight noise woke Stefen, who raised his head and rubbed his eyes with one hand.

“Van,” he said, his voice thick with fatigue. “S-sorry about this. Shavri sent me out; they got two Healers that can pain-block now - they finally caught the trick of it this morning.” He shifted around and grimaced as he tried to move his head. “I couldn't make it back to m'room. Too damned tired. Ordered some food for both of us and came here. Didn't think you'd mind. Do you?”

Vanyel threw himself down in the other chair and reached for a piece of cheese, suddenly ravenous. “Of course I don't mind,” he said. “But why in Havens didn't you take the bed if you were so tired.”

Stefen frowned at him. “I put you out of your bed once. I'm not going to do it again. There's your mail.” He pointed to a slim pile of letters weighed down with a useless dress-dagger. “Just came as I dozed off. Pass me some of that cheese, would you?”

Vanyel passed the plate to him absently and used the paperweight to slit the letters. He worked his way down through the pile, and then froze as he saw the seal on the last one.

“Oh, no,” he moaned. “Oh, no. I do not need this.”

“What?” Stef asked, alarmed. “What's the -”

Vanyel held up the letter, wordlessly.

“That's the Forst Reach seal,” Stefen said, puzzled. Then comprehension dawned and his expression changed to a mixture of amusement and sympathy. “Oh. That. One of your father's famous missives. What is it now - sheep, your brother, or your choice of comrades?”

“Probably all three,” Vanyel said sourly, and opened it. “Might as well get this over with.”

He skimmed through the first paragraph, and found nothing out of the ordinary. “Well, Mekeal's doing all right with his warhorse project, which means that Father's grousing about it, but can't find anything to complain about. Looks like the Famous Stud has a few good traits-well hidden, I may add.” The second paragraph was more of the same. “Good gods, Meke's first just got handfasted. What's he trying to do, start his own tribe? Did I -”

“Send something? What about that really awful silver and garnet loving-cup I've seen around?” Stefen had curled up in the chair with his head resting on the arm and his eyes closed. “Savil told me you kept things like that for presents, and the worse they are, the better your family likes them.”

“Except for Savil, my sister, and Medren, the concept of 'good taste' seems to have eluded my family,” Vanyel replied wearily. “Thank you. Hmm. The last of the sheep has succumbed to black fly, and Father is gloating. Melenna and - good gods!”

“What?” Both of Stefen's eyes flew open, and he raised his head, staring blindly.

“Melenna and Jervis are married!” Van sat there with his mouth hanging open; the very idea of Jervis marrying anyone -

“Oh,” Stef said indifferently. “There's a lot of that going around. Maybe it's catching.” He put his head back down on the armrest, as Vanyel shook his head and proceeded to the third and final paragraph.

“Here's the usual invitation to visit home, which is invariably the prelude to something that kicks me in the -” Van stopped, and reread the final sentences. And read them a third time. They didn't make any more sense than they had before.

I suppose you know we've heard a lot about you from Medren. He's told us you have a very special friend, a Bard. 'Stefen' was the name he gave us. We'd really like to meet him, son. Why don't you bring him with you when you visit?

“Van?” Stefen waved a hand at him, and broke him out of his daze. “Van? What is it? You look like somebody hit you in the back of the head with a board.”

“I feel like that,” Van told him, putting the letter down and rubbing the back of his neck. “I feel just like that. There has to be a trick to it -”

“Trick to what?”

“Well - they want me to bring you with me. They want to meet you. And knowing my father, he's already assumed the worst about our friendship.” Vanyel picked up the letter again, but the last paragraph hadn't changed.

Stefen yawned and closed his eyes. “Let him assume. He asked for it - let's give it to him.”

“You mean you'd be willing to go with me?” Vanyel was astounded. “Stefen, you must be crazed! Nobody wants to visit my family, they're all insane!”

“So? You need somebody they can be horrified by so they'll leave you alone.” Stefen was drifting off to sleep, and his words started to slur. “Soun's like - me - t'me. . . .”

I couldn't, Vanyel thought. But - he's worn away to nothing. They do have two Healers to replace him, and those two can train more. Randi is as much recovered as he's going to get, and the Karse situation is stable. So - why not?

“Why not?” Savil said, and chuckled. “He's certainly asked for it.”

Vanyel had finally prevailed on her to have her favorite chair recovered in a warm gray; she looked like the Winter Queen, with her silver hair and her immaculate Whites. Taking her out of the Web had done her a world of good; there was a great deal more energy in her voice, though she still moved as stiffly as ever.

“But Savil,” Vanyel protested weakly, “He thinks Stef is my lover! He has to!”

Savil leveled the kind of look at him that used to wither her apprentices. “So what if he does? He is the one who issued the invitation, entirely unprompted. Call his bluff. Then confound him. Tell you what. I'll come with you.”

“Kernos' Horns, Savil, what are you trying to do, get me killed?” Vanyel laughed. “Every time you come home with me, I wind up ears-deep in trouble! I might as well go parade up and down the Karsite Border in full panoply - it'd be safer.”

“Nonsense,” Savil scoffed. “It was only the once. Seriously, I daren't travel by myself anymore. And I could certainly use the break. They can't afford to let Herald-Mages retire anymore, there aren't enough of us.”

“True,” Van acknowledged. “You know, this really isn't a bad idea.”

:Stef is a sack of bones and hair,: 'Fandes chimed in. :The Healers are threatening mayhem if someone doesn't take him away for a rest. Savil needs one, too, and so do you, and neither of you will get one unless you're out of reach.:

“Fandes thinks it's a good idea,” he mused. “And to tell you the truth, Mother and Father have been fairly civilized to me the last couple of visits. Maybe this will work.”

“Give me two days,” Savil said, looking eager.

“Don't take more than that,” Vanyel told her, as he got up and headed for the door.

“Why?” she asked. “You don't take that long to pack!”

“Because if you take longer than that,” he called back over his shoulder, “my courage will quite melt away, and you'll have to tie me to Yfandes' back to make me go through with this.”

Two days later, they were on the road out of Haven, with Stefen riding between them on a sleek little chestnut palfrey, a filly out of Star's line. Vanyel's beloved Star had lived out her life at Haven, a pampered favorite whose good sense and sweet nature bred true in all the foals she'd thrown. Star had, in fact, been Jisa's first mount. And although once he'd been Chosen Van had no more need of a riding horse, there had been trusted friends (and the occasional lover) who did - so Star, and Star's offspring, had definitely earned their keep. One of Star's daughters, this palfrey's dam, was now Jisa's mount.

Vanyel had made a present of this particular filly, Star's granddaughter Melody, to Stefen. Stef had reacted with dubious pleasure-pleasure, because it meant he'd be able to accompany Van on his daily exercise rides with 'Fandes. Dubious, because he didn't know how to ride.

Van had been surprised until he thought about it, then felt like a fool for not thinking. Stef had seldom had anything to do with a horse as a child; he was born into poverty, and in the city, so there was no reason for him ever to have learned how to ride. While Van, who had been tossed onto a pony's back as soon as he could walk, was a member of a privileged minority: the landed - which meant mounted - nobility.

He didn't often think of himself that way, but Stefen's lack of such a basic - to Van - skill made the Herald rethink a number of things in that light.

And then he'd seen to it that Stef learned to ride, among other things.

“He was actually glad that Stefen was still such a tyro; it gave him a good excuse to stop fairly early each day. Savil wasn't up to long rides either, but she would never admit it. But with poor, saddle-sore Stefen along, she could be persuaded to make an early halt long before she ran into trouble herself.

By the third day of their easy trip, Stef was looking much more comfortable astride. In fact, he looked as though he was beginning to enjoy himself, taking pleasure in his mount and her paces. The chestnut filly was a good match for his dark red hair, and the two of them made a very showy pair.

:I imagine they'd attract quite a bit of notice if we weren't around,: Yfandes commented, echoing his thoughts.

:Don't look now, beloved, but they attract quite a bit when we are around.: With the late summer sun making a scarlet glory of the chestnut's coat and Stef's hair, and the two White-clad Heralds on their snowy Companions on either side of him, Stefen looked like a young hero flanked by savants.

:It's a good thing he isn't the clothes-horse I was at his age,: Van continued :Otherwise he'd outshine all of us.:

:He is rather striking, isn't he?: There was a note of fondness in Yfandes' thoughts that pleased Vanyel. She didn't always like his friends; it was a relief when she did. One thing that helped was that Stef shared a habit with Jervis, the former armsmaster of Forst Reach. He talked directly to Yfandes, never talked about her in her presence, and included her in on conversations as if she could understand them-which, of course, she could.

Stefs filly snorted at a butterfly and pranced sideways, tossing her mane and tail playfully. Stefen laughed at her, and reined her in gently. A few weeks ago he would have clutched at the reins, probably frightening her and himself in the bargain. There was a patience and a confidence in the way he handled her that spoke to Vanyel of more than riding experience.

He's matured, Vanyel thought, with some surprise. He's really grown up a lot in the last few weeks. He looks it, too, which is probably just as well. It's bad enough that my father is assuming he's my lover - if they knew how young he really is, my tail would truly be in the fire!

He squinted ahead, trying to make out a distance post or a landmark through the bright sun. Another week at most, even at this easy pace, and we'll be there. I wish I knew how much of a strain this was really going to be. It could be worse, I suppose. At least they're making an effort to be polite.

The filly fidgeted, but Stef held her down to a fast walk, talking to her with amusement in his voice. Savil caught Vanyel's eye and grinned, nodding her head toward the young Bard.

:A month ago she'd have put him on his rump in the dust. Boy's doing all right, Van. I like him.: Her grin got a little wider. :Beats the blazes out of some “friends” you've had.:

He made a face at her. :Now don't you start! I've told you; we're just friends and that's the way I intend to keep it.:

She just gave him a look out of the corner of her eye that implied she knew better.

He ignored the look. By his reckoning, even if his parents were willing to admit that he was shaych that didn't imply they were minded to aid and abet him.

They're willing to meet my friends but they won't want to know they're more than friends. I'll bet they keep half the hold between my room and Stefs, he thought wryly. Little do they know how much I'm going to appreciate that. It's been hard enough keeping things cool between us, and if they're going to help, that's just fine with me.

Stefen slowed his filly and brought her alongside Yfandes. “If this is the way traveling always is, I'm sorry they jumped me out of Journeyman so quickly,” he said, as Vanyel smiled. “I could get to like this awfully fast.”

“You should have talked more with Medren,” Van told him. “You're lucky. This is a good trip; the roads are fine, it hasn't rained once, and it's late summer. I'd say that on the whole, the bad days outnumber the good two to one. That's what it feels like when you're stuck out on the road, anyway.”

Yfandes snorted and bobbed her head in agreement. Stef looked down at her.

“That bad, is it, milady?”

She whickered, and snorted again.

“I'll take your word for it. Both of you, that is. But this trip has been - entirely wonderful. I feel like a human being for the first time in weeks.” He tilted his head sideways, and gave Vanyel a long, appraising look. “You look a lot better yourself, Van.”

“I feel better,” he admitted. “I just hope Joshel can hold things together for a few weeks.”

“Huh,” Savil said, entering the conversation. “If he can't, he's not worth his Whites.”

“That's not fair, Savil,” Vanyel objected. “Just because Joshe isn't a Herald-Mage -”

“That's not it,” she replied. “At least, that's not all of it. You left him a clean slate, if he can't deal with it -”

“Then I'm sure we'll hear from someone,” Stefen interrupted firmly. “I don't think it matters. They know where we are; if they really need you, they can contact you, Van. Why not relax?”

Stef was right, he thought reluctantly. He really should relax. This was another in a string of absolutely perfect summer days; the air was warm and still, without being sultry. They encountered a number of travelers, and all were completely friendly and ordinary, farmers, traders, children on errands - not a one had aroused his suspicions or Savil's. Birds chirped sleepily as they passed, and when the sun grew too oppressive, there always seemed to be a pleasant grove of trees or a tiny village inn to rest in for a little.

Maybe that's what's bothering me. It's too perfect. I mistrust perfection. I keep waiting for something to go wrong.

This afternoon was identical to the rest; at the moment they were passing through an area completely under cultivation. Open fields left fallow alternated with land under the plow. There were usually sheep or cattle grazing in the former, and farmfolk hard at work in the latter. The sheep would either ignore their presence or spook skittishly away from the road-the cattle gathered curiously at the hedgerows to watch them pass. Insects buzzed on all sides, in the fields and the hedges.

This is the way it should be, Van thought a little sadly, thinking of the burned-over fields, and ravaged villages of the South. This is how Valdemar should be, from Border to Border. Will I ever see it that way in my lifetime? Somehow I doubt it. Dear gods, I would give anything if I could ensure that day would come. . . .

Stefen gave the filly her head, and she danced away ahead of them, her hooves kicking up little puffs of dust.

Vanyel shook his head. No use in brooding. I'll just do what I can, when I can. And keep Stef at arm's length until he comes to his senses.

The Bard let his filly stretch into a canter, outdistancing both the Heralds. Van chuckled; the filly was headstrong, but hadn't learned her own limits yet. He and Savil would catch up to the two of them eventually, probably resting in the shade of a tree.

With any luck, this whole trip may end up with Stef doing just that - learning his limits. Especially after he meets Mother and Father. Chasing me is one thing, but trying to do so around them - and having to play little politeness games with them - He chuckled to himself, and Yfandes cocked an ear back at him. Oh, Stef, I think you may have met your match. “Many's the marriage that's been canceled on account of relatives.” This might be exactly what's needed to make him realize that he's been throwing himself at a legend, not a ftesh-and-blood human. And when he sees that this human comes with a package of crazed relations, I won't seem anywhere near as attractive!

They rode into Forst Reach in the late afternoon of the one day that hadn't been completely perfect. Clouds had begun gathering in late morning, and by mid-afternoon the sky was completely gray and thunder rolled faintly in the far south. Fanners were working with one eye on the sky, and Stefen's filly fidgeted skittishly, her ears flicking back and forth every time a peal of thunder made the air shudder.

Nevertheless, there was the usual child out watching the road for them, and by the time they came within sight of the buildings of Forst Reach the multitude had assembled. Withen Ashkevron had given in to fate, and begun adding to the building some ten years ago; now two new wings spread out from the gray granite hulk, sprawling untidily to the east and north. And scaffolding on the southern side told Van that yet another building spree was about to begin. The additions had totally altered the appearance of the place; when Vanyel was first a Herald it had looked foreboding, and martial, not much altered from the defensive keep it had originally been. Now it looked rather like an old warhorse retired to pasture; surrounded by cattle, clambered upon by children, and entirely puzzled by the change in its status.

And it appeared, as they drew nearer, that the entire population of the manor had assembled to meet them in the open space in front of the main building. Much to Van's amusement, Stefen looked seriously alarmed at the size of the gathering.

“Van, that can't be your family, can it?” he asked just before they got in earshot. “I mean, there's hundreds of them....”

Vanyel laughed. “Not quite hundreds; counting all the cousins and fosterlings, probably eighty or ninety by now. More servants, of course. Farewells can take all day, if you aren't careful.”

“Oh,” Stefen replied weakly, and then the waiting throng broke ranks and poured toward them.

The filly shied away from the unfamiliar scents and sounds, but the people pressed closely around her were all well acquainted with the habits of horses. The children all scampered neatly out of the way of her dancing hooves, and before she could bolt, Vanyel's brother Mekeal took her reins just under the bit in a surprisingly gentle fist.

“This one of Star's get?” he asked, running a knowing hand over her flank. “She's lovely, Van. Would you consider lending me her to put to one of the palfrey studs one of these days? We're still keeping up the palfrey and hunter lines, y'know.”

“Ask Bard Stefen; she's his,” Vanyel replied, and dismounted, taking care to avoid stepping on any children. Not an easy task, they were as careless around adults as they were careful around horses. He moved quickly to help Savil down before she could admit to needing a hand, a service that earned him a quick smile of conspiratorial gratitude.

Stefen dismounted awkwardly in a crowd of chattering children and gawky and admiring adolescents, who immediately surrounded him demanding to know if he was a real Bard, if he knew their cousin Medren, if he knew any songs about their cousin Vanyel, and a thousand other questions. He looked a little overwhelmed. There weren't a great many children at Court, and those that were there were usually kept out of sight except when being employed as pages and the like. Vanyel debated rescuing him, but a moment later found himself otherwise occupied.

Withen bore down on him with Treesa in tow, plowing his way through the crowd as effortlessly as a draft horse through a herd of ponies. He stopped, just within arm's reach. “Van -” he said, awkwardly. “- son -”

And there he froze, unable to force himself to go any further, and unwilling to pull away. Vanyel took pity on him and broke the uncomfortable moment. “Hello, Father,” he said, clasping Withen's arms for just long enough to make Withen relax without making him flinch. “Gods, it is good to see you. You're looking indecently well. I swear, some day I'm going to open a closet door somewhere, and finally find the little wizard you've been keeping to make your elixir of youth!”

Withen laughed, reddening a little under the flattery; in fact, he was looking well, less like Mekeal's father than his older brother. They both were square and sturdily built, much taller than Vanyel, brown-eyed, brown-haired, brown-completed. Withen's hair and beard were about half silvered, and he'd developed a bit of a paunch; those were his only concessions to increasing age.

Withen relaxed further, and finally returned the embrace. “And as usual, you look like hell, son. Randale's been overusing you again, no doubt of it. Your sister warned us. Kernes' Horns, can't we ever see you when you haven't been overworking?”

“It's not as bad this time, Father,” Van protested with a smile. “My reserves are in fairly good shape; it's mostly sleep and peace I lack.”

“But don't they ever feed you, boy?” Withen grumbled. “Ah, never mind. We'll get some meat back on those bones, won't we, Treesa?”

Vanyel held out his hands to his mother, who took both of them. Treesa had finally accepted the onset of age, though not without a struggle. She had permitted her hair to resume its natural coloring of silver-gilt, and had given up trying to hide her age-lines under a layer of cosmetics.

Yet it seemed to Van that there might have been a little less discontent in her face than there had been the last time he was here. He hoped so. It surely helped that Roshya, Mekeal's wife, was accepting her years gracefully, and with evident enjoyment. Whatever stupid things Mekeal had done in his time - and he'd done quite a few, including the purchase of a purported “Shin'a'in warsteed” that was no more Shin'a'in than Vanyel - he'd more than made up for them by wedding Roshya. At least, that was Van's opinion. Roshya stood right behind Treesa, a young child clinging to her skirt with grubby hands, giving Treesa an encouraging wink.

“Run along dear,” Roshya said to the child, with an affectionate push. The child giggled and released her.

Treesa smiled tentatively, then with more feeling. “Your father's right, dear,” she said, holding him at arm's length and scrutinizing him. “You do look very tired. But you look a great deal better than the last time you were here.”

“That's mostly because I am,” he replied. “Mother, you look wonderful. Well, you can see that I brought Aunt Savil - and -” he hesitated a moment. “And the friend you wanted to meet. My friend, and Medren's. Stef -”

He turned and gestured to Stefen, who extracted himself from the crowd of admiring children and adolescents.

Van steeled himself, kept his face set in a carefully controlled and pleasant mask of neutrality, then cleared his throat self-consciously. “Father, Mother,” he said, gesturing toward Stefen, “This is Bard Stefen. Stef, my Father and Mother; Lord Withen, Lady Treesa.”

Stef bowed slightly to Withen, then took Treesa's hand and kissed it. “Mother? Surely I heard incorrectly. You are Herald Vanyel's younger sister, I am certain,” he said, with a sweet smile, at which Treesa colored and and took her hand away with great reluctance, shaking her head. “His mother? No, impossible!”

Withen looked a little strained and embarrassed, but Treesa responded to Stefs gentle, courtly flattery as a flower to the sun. “Are you really a full Bard?” she asked, breathless with excitement. “Truly a Master?”

“Unworthy though I am, my lady,” Stef replied, “that is the rank the Bardic Circle has given me. I pray you will permit me to test your hospitality and task your ears by performing for you.”

“Oh, would you?” Treesa said, enthralled. Evidently she had completely forgotten what else Stef was supposed to be besides Van's friend and a Bard. Withen still looked a little strained, but Van began to believe that the visit would be less of a disaster than he had feared.

Thunder rumbled near at hand, startling all of them. “Gods, it's about to pour. Meke, Radevel, you see to the horses,” Withen ordered. “The rest of you, give it a rest. You'll all get your chances at Van and his f-friend later. Let's all get inside before the storm breaks for true.”

Treesa had already taken possession of Stefen and was carrying him off, chattering brightly. Van turned protectively toward Yfandes, remembering that his father never could bring himself to believe she was anything other than a horse.

But to his immense relief, Meke was leading Stefs filly to the stables, but his cousin Radevel had looped the two Companions' reins up over their necks and was standing beside them.

“Don't worry, Van,” Radevel said with a wink. “Jervis taught me, remember?” And then, to the two Companions, “If you'll follow me, ladies, one of the new additions to the stables are proper accommodations for Companions. Saw to 'em m'self.”

Vanyel relaxed, and allowed his father to steer him toward the door to the main part of the manor, as lightning flashed directly overhead and the first fat drops of rain began to fall. Good old Rad. Finally, after all these years, I get one of my family convinced that 'Fandes isn't a horse!

Eight

So, that's the situation,” Withen continued, staring out the bubbly, thick glass of the crudely-glazed window at the storm outside. “I don't think it's going to change any time soon. Tashir is turning out to be a fine young man, and a good ruler. His second eldest is fostered here, did I mention that?”

Thunder vibrated in the rock walls, and Vanyel shook his head. “No, Father, you didn't. What about farther north though, up beyond Baires?”

Withen sighed. “Don't know, son. That's still Pelagir country. Full of uncanny creatures, and odd folks, and without much leadership that I've been able to see. It's a problem, and likely to stay one. . . .”

Vanyel held his peace; the Tayledras weren't “leaders” as his father understood the term, anyway, although they ruled and protected their lands as effectively as any warlord or landed baron.

Rain lashed the outside of the keep and hissed down the chimney. He and his father were ensconced in Withen's “study,” a room devoted to masculine comforts and entirely off-limits to the females of the household. Withen turned away from the window and eased himself down into a chair that was old and battered and banished to here where it wouldn't offend Treesa's sensibilities; but like Withen, it was still serviceable despite being past its prime. Van was already sitting, or rather, sprawling, across a scratched and battered padded bench, one with legs that had been used as teething aids for countless generations of Ashkevron hounds.

“So tell me the truth, son,” Withen said after a long pause. “I'm an old man, and I can afford to be blunt. How much longer does Randale have?”

Vanyel sighed, and rubbed the back of his neck uneasily.

“I don't know, Father. Not even the Healers seem to have any idea.” He hesitated a moment, then continued. “The truth is, though, I don't think it's going to be more than five years or so. Not unless we find out what it is he's got and find a way to cure it, or at least keep it from getting worse. Right now - right now the Council's best hope is to be able to keep him going until Treven's trained and in Whites. We think he can hang on that long.”

“Is it true the boy's wedded that young Jisa?” Withen looked as if he approved, so Vanyel nodded. “Good. The sooner the boy breeds potential heirs, the better off we'll be. Shows the lad has more sense than his elders.” Withen snorted his disgust at those “elders.” “It was shilly-shallying about Randale's marriages that got us in this pickle in the first place. Should have told the boy to marry Healer Shavri in the first damn place, and we'd have had half a dozen legitimate heirs instead of one girl out of the succession.”

Withen went on in the same vein for some time, and Vanyel did not think it prudent to enlighten him to the realities of the situation.

“About the Pelagir lands, Father,” he said instead, “The last few times I've visited home, I've heard stories - and seen the evidence - of things coming over and into Valdemar. Are they still doing that?”

When Withen hesitated, he began to suspect that something was seriously wrong. “Father, are these - visitations - getting worse? What is it that you aren't telling me?”

“Son,” Withen began.

“No, Father, don't think of me as your son. I'm Herald Vanyel, and I need to know the whole truth.” He sat up from his sprawled position, looked his father straight in the eyes. Withen was the first to look away.

“Well - yes. For a while they were getting worse.” Withen looked at the fire, out the window - anywhere but at Van.

“And?”

“And we asked Haven for some help. For a Herald-Mage.” Withen coughed.

“And?”

“And they said there weren't any to spare, and they sent us just a plain Herald.” Withen's mouth worked as if he were tasting something bitter. “I won't say she was of no use, but - but we decided if Haven wasn't going to help us, we'd best learn how to help ourselves, and we sent her back. Let her think she'd taken care of the problem after a hunt or two. Had a talk with Tashir's people - after all, they've been doing without mages for one damned long time. Found out the ways to take out some of these things without magic. Worked out some more. Finally the things stopped coming across altogether. I guess they got some way of talking to each other, and let it be known that we don't like havin' things try and set up housekeeping over here.”

“There's been no more sign of anything?” Van was amazed - not that there were no signs of further incursions, but that the people here had taken on the problem and dealt with it on their own.

“No, though we've been keepin' the patrols up. Tashir's people, too. But -”

“But what, Father?” Vanyel asked gently. “You can say what you like. I won't be offended by the truth.”

“It's just - all our lives we've been told how we can depend on the Herald-Mages, how they'll help us when we need them - then when we need them, we get told there aren't any to spare, they're all down on the Karsite Border or off somewhere else - and here one of our own is a Herald-Mage - it just goes hard.” Withen was obviously distressed, and Vanyel didn't blame him.

“But Father - you were sent help. You said so yourself. They sent you a Herald,” he pointed out.

“A Herald?” Within scoffed. “What good's a plain Herald? We needed a Herald-Mage!”

“Did you give her a chance?” Vanyel asked, quietly. “Or did you just assume she couldn't be of any help and lead her around like a child until she was convinced there wasn't any real need for her?”

“But - she was just a Herald -”

“Father, nobody is 'just' a Herald,” Vanyel said. “We're taught to make the best of every ability we have - Heralds and Herald-Mages. The only difference in us is the kinds of abilities we have. She would have done exactly as you did. She probably would have been able to help you, if you'd given her the chance. She wouldn't have been able to invoke a spell and destroy the creatures for you, but it's quite probable a Herald-Mage wouldn't have been able to either. I have no doubt she could have found the ones in hiding, perhaps, or uncovered their weaknesses. But you didn't give her a chance to find out what she could do.”

“I suppose not,” Withen said, after a moment. “I - don't suppose that was very fair to her, either.”

Vanyel nodded. “It's true, Father. There aren't enough Herald-Mages. I'm afraid to tell you how few of us there are. I wish there were more of us, but there aren't, and I hope when you are sent help next time, you won't think of that help as 'just' a Herald.”

“Because that's the best help Haven can give us,” Withen concluded for him.

But he didn't look happy. And in a way, Van understood. But there was that stigma again - ”just” a Herald - when there were Heralds who had twice the abilities of some of the Herald-Mages he'd known.

It was a disturbing trend - and unfortunately, one he had no idea how to reverse.

“Father, which would you rather have in a pinch - a Herald with a very strong Gift, a Gift that's exactly the kind of thing you need, or a Herald-Mage who may be able to do no more than you could on your own?” He paused for effect. “There have been no few Herald-Mages killed down on the Karsite Border precisely because they were mages, and because of that they tried to handle more than they were capable of. If I were spying on the enemy, I'd rather have a strongly Mindspeaking Herald doing it for me than a Herald-Mage who has to send up a flare of mage-fire when he needs to talk! If I were hunting up magical creatures, I'd rather have a Herald with powerful FarSight than a weak Herald-Mage who'd light up like a tasty beacon to those creatures every time he uses his magic.”

“I never thought about it that way,” Withen mumbled. “But still -”

“Please do think about it, Father,” Van urged. “And please talk to others about it. Valdemar is short of friends and resources these days. We have to use everything we can, however we can. You have a powerful influence on the way people think in this area -”

“I wish your brother thought that,” Withen mumbled, but he looked pleased.

“If you decide that I'm right, you can make an enormous difference in the way things are handled the next time. And that just may save you a great deal, including lives.”

Withen sighed, and finally met his eyes. “Well, I'll think about it, son. That's all I'll promise.”

Which is about as much of a concession as I'm ever likely to get out of him. “Thank you, Father,” he said, hoping it would be enough. “That's all I can ask.”

Dinner proved to be entertaining and amazingly relaxing. Only the immediate family and important household members assembled in the Great Hall anymore - there wasn't room for anyone else.

Vanyel was partnered with the priest who had replaced the late, unlamented Father Leren; a young and aggressive cleric with a thousand ideas whose fervor was fortunately tempered with wit and a wry good sense of humor. The young man was regrettably charismatic - before the meal was over, Van found he'd been lulled into agreeing to broach a half dozen of those ideas to his father.

Treesa had kidnapped Stef and enscounced him at her side, with herself and Withen between the Bard and Vanyel. Since that was pretty much as Van had expected things would go, he ignored Stefs mute pleas for help throughout the meal. Given how much effort he'd been going to in order to avoid the less platonic of Stefs continued attentions, he found it rather amusing to see the Bard in the position of “pursued.”

Immediately following dinner, Withen claimed his son for another conference. This time it included Withen, Radevel, Mekeal, and two cousins Vanyel just barely knew. That conference left him with a profound admiration for how well the folk in this so-called “Border backwater” were keeping up with important news. They knew pretty well how much impact Treven's marriage was going to have on situations outKingdom, had good guesses about what concessions Randale was likely to have to make with Rethwellan in order to gain their Queen's aid, and had a fair notion of the amount of help Tashir was likely to be able to offer Valdemar.

What they wanted to know was the real state of the situation with Karse. “We heard they'd outlawed magery,” Radevel said, putting his feet up on the low table they all shared, “and there was rumors about fightin' inside Karse. All well an' good, if it's true, an' what's bad for Karse is likely to be good for us 'twould look like, but what's that really gonna do to us? That gonna end up spillin' across the Border, you reckon?”

Vanyel put his drink down on the table, and dipped his finger into a puddle of spilled ale. “Here's the Karsite Border,” he said, drawing it for them. “Here's Rethwellan, and here's us. Now this is what we know so far -”

In a few sentences he was able to sum up his own and Randale's analysis of the situation, and the reasons why the alliance with Rethwellan was all the more necessary.

“So we end up takin' hind teat if there's trouble out here, hmm?” one of the cousins said cynically, around a mouthful of bread and cheese.

“To be brutally frank,” Vanyel felt forced to say, “unless it's a major incursion, yes. I wish I could tell you differently.”

Radevel shrugged philosophically. “Somebody's gotta take second place,” he pointed out. “No way around that. Seems to me we've been doin' pretty well for ourselves; we got some Guard, we got our own patrols, we got Tashir an' his people. So long as nobody brings up an army, we should be all right.” Withen nodded, and refilled all their mugs, letting the foam run over the tops with casual disregard for the state of the furniture.

“l can do this much for you,” Vanyel told them after a moment's thought. Five sets of eyes fastened on him. “You know I have limited Crown authority. I can authorize a general reduction in taxes for landholders who keep their own armed forces. And I can get you weapons - and I think some trainers. We've got some Guards that are minus legs or arms that would still make good trainers, even if they can't fight.”

All of them brightened at that. Mekeal looked as if he was counting something up in his head.

:Probably would-be young heroes,: Yfandes said cynically. :And he's reckoning how much he can get taken off the tax-roles by encouraging young hotheads to take their energy off to the Guard.:

:Probably,: Van replied, thinking a little sadly of all the aspiring heroes who had found only early graves on the Karsite Border. And how many more he'd send there, if indirectly. . . .

But the fighters had to come from somewhere. Better that they came as volunteers, and well-trained. “I can probably even authorize tax credit if you send trained fighters for the Guard instead of cash or kind at tax time,” he continued. “Randale's pretty loath to hire mercenaries, but he wants to avoid conscription, and right now the ranks down South are getting thinner than we'd like.”

“I got another thought,” Mekeal put in. “Give that credit across Valdemar, an' send the green'uns to us for training an' seasoning. We'll get 'em blooded without the kind of loss you get in combat.”

That made him feel less guilty. “Good gods,” Vanyel replied, “I'm surrounded by geniuses! Why didn't we think of that?”

Meke shrugged, pleased. “Just tryin' to help all of us.”

:It's an excellent solution to getting youngsters used to real combat at relatively low risk,: 'Fandes observed, with approval. :I like the way your brother thinks.:

:So do I, dearling.: He nodded at Meke. “That will help immensely, I truly think.”

They discussed other matters for a while, but it was fairly evident that they'd touched on all the topics the others considered of the most import. Vanyel got to his feet and excused himself when the conversation devolved to small talk about hunting.

“I'll make an effort to get in touch with Herald Joshel and get confirmation on everything we covered,” he told them, and grinned, seeing a chance to bring a point home. “That's the advantage of having a strong Mindspeaking Herald around when you need answers in a hurry. Joshe is actually a stronger Mindspeaker than I am, and he's taking my place with Randale while I'm gone. I know when he'll be free tomorrow, and I'll contact him then.”

He was surprised at how late it was when he left them. The halls were quiet; the servants had long since gone to bed, leaving every other lamp out, and the ones still burning turned down low. His room would be the guest room he'd used every visit he'd made home, and he knew exactly where it was, despite the additions to the manor and the darkness of the halls.

He found himself yawning as he neared his door. I didn't realize how tired I was, he thought sleepily. It's a good thing I didn't drink that second mug of ale Father poured. I wonder what room they put Stef in? I hope it wasn't the one overlooking the gardens; ye gods, he'll be up all night with mocker-birds screaming at his window. I'll take the old room any time, even if it isn't as cool in the summer. Havens, that bed is going to feel good. . . .

He reached for the door handle and pulled it open just enough to slip inside. Some kind soul had left two candles burning, one above the hearth, one beside the bed. The gentle candlelight was actually quite bright compared to the darkened hallway; shadows danced as the candleflames flickered in the draft he had created by opening the door. As he stepped away from the door, he glanced automatically toward the right side of the hearth, beside the bed- the servants always left his luggage there, and he wanted to make sure his gittern was all right before he went to bed.

And he froze, for there were two sets of packs, and two gitterns. His - and Stefen's. And - he looked beyond the luggage to see if the furnishings had been changed; but they hadn't - only one bed.

Behind him, someone shot the bolt on the door.

He whirled; Stefen turned away from the door and faced him, the warm gold of candlelight softening his features so that he looked very young indeed. His loose shirt was unlaced to the navel, and his feet were bare beneath his leather riding breeches.

“Before you ask,” he said, in a soft, low voice, “this wasn't my idea. This seems to have happened on your father's orders. But Van - I'm glad he did it -”

Vanyel backed up a step, his mind swimming in little circles. “Oh. Ah, Stefen, I'll just get my things and -”

Stef shook his head, and brushed his long hair back behind his ears with one hand. “No. Not until I get a chance to say what I have to. You've been avoiding this for weeks, and I'm not letting the one chance I've had to really talk to you get away from me.”

Vanyel forced himself to relax, forced his mind to stop whirling as best he could, and walked over to one of the chairs next to the hearth. He stood beside it, with his hands resting on the back so that Stefen could not see them trembling. He glanced down at them; they seemed very cold and white, and he wondered if Stefen had noticed. “Ah . . . what is it you need to talk about that you couldn't have said on the road?” he asked, as casually as he could.

“Dammit, Van!” Stefen exploded. “You know very well what I want to talk about! You - and me.”

“Stefen,” Vanyel said, controlling his voice with an effort that hurt, “you are one of the best friends I've ever had. I mean that. And I appreciate that friendship.”

Stef’s eyes were full of pleading, and Vanyel forced himself to turn away from him and stare at a carved wooden horse on the mantelpiece. “Stef, you're very young; I'm nearly twice your age. I've seen all this before. You admire me a great deal, and you think -”

There were no footsteps to warn him; suddenly he found Stef's hands on his shoulders, wrenching him around, forcing him to look into the young Bard's face. Stef s hands felt like hot irons on his shoulders, and there was strength in them that was not apparent from the Bard's slight build. “Vanyel Ashkevron,” Stef said, hoarsely, “I am shaych, just like you. I've known what I am for years now. I'm not an infatuated child. What's more -” Now the Bard flushed and looked away, off to Vanyel's right. “I've had more lovers in one year than you've had in the last ten. And - and I've never felt about any of them the way I feel about you. I - I think I love you, Van. I don't think I could ever love anyone but you.”

He looked back up at Vanyel. The Herald could only gaze back into the darkened emerald of Stefen's eyes, eyes that seemed in the dim light to be mostly pupil. Vanyel was utterly stunned. This - this was considerably beyond infatuation. . . .

“Bards are supposed to be so cursed good with words,” Stefen said unhappily, looking into Vanyel's eyes as if he was looking for answers. “Well, all my eloquence seems to have deserted me. All - all I can tell you is that I think I'd love you if you were a hundred years older than me, or a deformed monster, or - or even a woman.”

The Bard's voice had lost any hint of training; it was tight and rough with tension and unhappiness. For his part, Vanyel couldn't seem to speak at all. His throat was paralyzed and his chest hurt when he tried to breathe. He felt alternately hot and cold, and his heart pounded in his ears. Stefen didn't notice his unresponsiveness, evidently, for he continued on without looking away from Van.

“Since you aren't any of those things,” he said, his voice unsteady with emotion, “since you're w-wonderful, and w-wise, and beautiful enough to make my heart ache, and dammit, not old, I - I can't take this much longer.”

A single then proved that the sweet giving and receiving the Bard had just taught him was only the beginning. ...

Overhead, sky a dead and lightless black. To either side, walls of ice - He turned to the one standing at his side. 'Lendel -

But it was Stefen; wrapped in wool and fur, and so frightened his face was as icy-pale as the cliffs to either side of them.

“You have to go get help,” he told the Herald - no, the Bard -

“I won't leave you,” Stef said, stubbornly. “You have to come with me. I won't leave without you.”

He shook his head, and threw back the sides of his cloak to free his arms. “Yfandes can't carry two,” he said. “And I can hold them off for however long it takes you to bring help.”

“You can't possibly -”

I can,” he interrupted. “Look, there's only enough room at this point for one person to pass. As long as I stand here, they'll never get by -”

Blink - Suddenly he was alone, and exhausted; chilled to the bone. An army filled the pass before him, and at the forefront of that army, a single man who could have been Vanyel's twin, save only that his eyes and hair were deepest black - a dark mirror to Vanyel's silver eyes and silvered hair, and as if to carry the parody to its extreme, he wore clothing cut identically to Heraldic Whites, only of ebony black.

“I know you,” he heard himself say.

The man smiled. “Indeed.”

“You - you are -”

“Leareth.” The word was Tayledras for “darkness.” The man smiled. “A quaint conceit, don't you think?”

And Vanyel knew -

He woke, shaking like a leaf in a gale; his chest heaved as he gasped for breath, clutching the blanket.

He was cold, bone-cold, yet drenched with sweat. It was the old dream, the ice-dream, the dream where I die - I haven't had that dream for years -

Stefen lay beside him, sprawled over the edge of the bed, oblivious to Van's panting for air. Though the candles were out, Van could see him by moonlight streaming in the window. The storm had blown itself out, leaving the sky clear and clean; the moonlight was bright enough to read by, and Vanyel saw the bright points of stars glittering against the sky through the windowpane.

Vanyel controlled his breathing, and lay back, forcing his heart to slow. He blinked up into the dark canopy of the bed, still caught in the cold claws of the nightmare.

I haven't had that dream for years -except this time it was different. This time, it wasn't 'Lendel that was with me. Except - except it felt like 'Lendel. I thought it was 'Lendel until I turned around, and it was Stef. . . .

The young Bard sighed, and turned over, bringing his face into the moonlight. Lying beside Stef, for a moment - for a moment it had been, it had felt like being beside Tylendel, his love and lifebonded.

Lifebonded.

Only then did he realize why Stefen “felt” like Tylendel. The tie was the same; Vanyel was not only in love with the Bard, he had lifebonded to him. There was no mistaking that tie, especially not for an Empath.

No -

But there was no denying it, either. Vanyel suppressed a groan; if being attracted to Stefen had been a betrayal of 'Lendel's memory, then what was this? He couldn't think; he felt his stomach knot and a lump in his throat. He had loved 'Lendel; he still did.

He thought that he would lie awake until dawn, but somehow exhaustion got the better of confused thoughts and tangled emotions, and sleep stole over him. . . .

:It's about time you got here,: Yfandes said, with a knowing look :Honestly, Van, you make things so complicated for yourself sometimes. Well, come on.:

She turned adroitly, and flicked her tail at him, looking back at him over her shoulder. :Well? Aren't you coming?:

“Where am I?” he asked, looking about himself. There wasn't anything to be seen in any direction; wherever he looked, there was nothing but featureless gray fog. He and Yfandes were all alone in it, so far as he could see.

:Where are you?: she repeated, her mind-voice warm and amused :You're dreaming, of course. Or rather, in Dream-time. There is a difference. Now are you coming, or not?:

He followed her, having nothing better to do; the peculiar fog thickened until he could hardly see her. He tried to catch up with her, but she always managed to stay the same distance ahead of him. Finally, all he could make out of her was a vague, glowing-white shape in the swirling fog.

A tendril of fog wrapped around his head, blinding him completely. He faltered, tried to bat it away -

And stumbled into an exact duplicate of the grove in Companion's Field where he and 'Lendel had spent so many hours. The same grove that 'Lendel had destroyed. . . .

“Well, ashke,” said a heartbreakingly familiar voice behind him. “You certainly took your time getting here.”

He turned, slowly, afraid of what he might see, especially after what he and Stef had done.

“Don't be an idiot,” Tylendel said, shaking back hair as gold as the summer sun filtering through the pine boughs above him. “Why should I mind?”

Tylendel lounged against the rough trunk of a tree with his arms crossed over his chest, looking little older than when he'd died, but dressed in the Whites he hadn't yet earned in life. He raised one golden eyebrow quizzically at Van, then grinned. “Why, Van - that's twice in one day you've been moonstruck. Is this getting to be a habit?” Then, softer, “What's wrong Vanyel-ashke?”

As Vanyel stood, rooted to the spot, Tylendel pushed himself away from the tree, crossed the few feet between them and took him in his strong, warm arms. Sharp scents rose from the crushed pine needles beneath their feet. Vanyel returned the embrace; hesitantly at first, then, with a sob that was half relief and half grief, held his beloved so tightly his arms hurt.

“Here, now,” 'Lendel said, holding him gently. “What's the matter? Why should I be angry with you because you found someone to love who loves you?”

“Because - because I love you -” It seemed a foolish fear, now-

“Van-ashke, what's the point in suffering all your life for one mistake?” 'Lendel let go of him and stepped back a little, so that he could look down into Vanyel's eyes. “You don't give up a chance at happiness just because you've already been happy once in your life! Havens, that's like saying you'll never eat again because you've been a guest at one grand feast!”

'Lendel chuckled warmly; as his smile reached and warmed his brown eyes, Van found himself smiling back. “I guess that is kind of stupid,” he replied with a touch of chagrin. “But I never did think too clearly when my emotions were involved.”

'Lendel's smile faded a little. “Neither of us did,” he said, soberly. “Me especially. Van - you know, I didn't love you enough, and I'm sorry.”

Vanyel started to protest; 'Lendel put one finger on his lips to quiet him. “This is honesty; I didn't love you enough. If I had, I would have cared more about what was good for you than what I wanted. I'm sorry, ashke, and I think perhaps I've learned better. I hope so. Because - oh, Van - I want to make it up to you more than anything. If you can believe in anything, please, believe that. And believe that I love you.”

He bent down and touched his lips to Vanyel's.

Vanyel woke with a start, wrapped in Stefen's arms. For a moment, he thought he could still smell the scent of crushed pine needles, and feel the breeze on his cheek.

“- love you,” Stefen whispered in his ear, then subsided into deep breathing that told Van he was still really asleep.

'Lendel. That was 'Lendel. What in hell did all that mean? Van wondered, still slightly disoriented. What in hell did all that mean? He stared, wide-eyed, into the darkness. He would have liked to talk to Yfandes, but a gentle Mindtouch showed her to be deep in slumber.

The next time Stef turned over, releasing him, he eased out of bed, far too awake now to fall back asleep. The room was chilly; the storm had cooled things off in its passing. He slipped into a robe and began slowly pacing the floor, trying to unravel his dreams and nightmares, and making heavy work of it.

That second thing didn't feel like a dream, he thought, staring at the floor while he paced. That felt real; as real as the Shadow-Lover, and I know He was real. It was 'Lendel, it couldn't have been anything I conjured up for myself out of guilt. Could it? I've never done anything like that before this. . . .

And the old ice-dream has changed. I thought I'd gotten rid of it - thought I'd purged it away after I faced down Krebain. Why has it come back?

The square of moonlight crept across the floor and up the all, then vanished as the moon set. And still Vanyel was wide awake, and too intent on his own thoughts to feel chilled. He kept pacing the floor, pausing now and again to look down on Stefen. The Bard slept on, his lips curved in a slight smile, sprawled over the entire bed.

After a while, as the impact of the two dreams - if they were dreams - began to wear off, that posture of Stefs began to amuse him. I never would have believed that someone that slight could take up that much room all by himself, he thought with a silent chuckle. He's like a cat; takes up far more space than is even remotely possible under the laws of nature.

It was nearly dawn; the pearly light of earliest morning filled the room, making everything soft-edged and shadowy. Vanyel continued to stare down at Stef; not thinking, really, just waiting for some of his thoughts to sort themselves out and present themselves to him in an orderly fashion.

Stefen stirred a little, and opened his eyes. He blinked confusedly at Van for a moment, then seemed to recollect where he was. “Van?” he asked, sleep bluring his voice. “Is something wrong, Vanyel-ashke?'

Vanyel froze. The words, the very tone, brought back the second dream with the impact of a blow above the heart.

Tylendel leaning up against the shaggy tree trunk, a slight smile on his lips, his arms crossed over his chest. “What's wrong, Vanyel-asbke?”

Ashke - it was the Tayledras word for “beloved,” and Tylendel's special name for him, a play on Vanyel's family name of “Ashkevron.”

But 'Lendel had been fluent in Tayledras; Savil had insisted that ‘Lendel and Vanyel both learn the tongue, as she had always intended to take them to the Pelagir Hills territory claimed by her Hawkbrother friends as soon as Tylendel was ready for fieldwork. She didn't even offer the lessoning to Donni and Mardic, her other two pupils.

Stefen, on the other hand, knew only one word of pidgin-Tayledras; shaych, the shortened form of shay'a'chern, which had become common usage for those whose preferences lay with their own sex. He couldn't ever have heard the word he'd just used, must less know what it meant.

Wild thoughts of hauntings and possessions ran through Vanyel's mind. He'd seen so many stranger things as a Herald - “Stef,” Vanyel said, slowly and carefully. “What did you just call me?”

“Vanyel-ashke,” Stefen repeated, bewildered, and plainly disturbed by Van's careful mask of control. “Why? Did I say something wrong?”

“Is there a reason why you called me that just now?” Vanyel didn't move, though the hair was rising on the back of his neck. First the dreams, and now this ... he extended a careful probe, ready at any moment to react if he found anything out of the ordinary.

“Sure,” Stef replied, blinking at him, and rising up onto one elbow. “I've -” he blushed a little “- I've been calling you that to myself for a while. Comes from your name, Ashkevron. It - it seems to suit you. You know how a Bard likes to play with words. It has a nice sound, you know?”

The probe met with nothing. No resistance, no aura of another presence. Vanyel relaxed, and smiled. It was nothing, after all. Just an incredible coincidence. He wasn't being haunted by the spirit of a long-dead lover, nor was this love in any danger of being possessed or controlled by the last.

Not that 'Lendel would ever have done that, he reminded himself. No, I'm just short on sleep and no longer thinking clearly, that's all. And so used to jumping at shadows that I'm overreacting to even a perfectly innocent pet-name.

“Did I say something wrong?” Stefen asked again, more urgently this time, starting to sit up as he pulled tangled hair out of his eyes with both hands. “If you don't like it - if it bothers you -”

“No, it's all right,” Vanyel answered him. “I was just a little startled, that's all. Ashke is the Tayledras word for 'beloved,' and I wasn't expecting to hear that from you.”

“If you'd rather I didn't -” Stef hastened to say, when Vanyel interrupted him.

“I do like it - just, I had some odd dreams, and coming on top of them, it startled me. That's all.” Vanyel touched Stefen's shoulder, and the Bard flinched.

“Havens, you're freezing,” Stef exclaimed. “How long have you been up? Never mind, it's probably too long. Get in here before you catch something horrible, and let me warm you up. After all,” he added slyly, as Van shrugged off his robe and slid into bed beside him. “Whatever you catch, I’ll probably get, and you wouldn't want to have the guilt of ruining a Bard's voice on your conscience, would you?”

“Anything but that,” Van replied vaguely, then gasped as Stef curled his warm body around Van's chilled one. “Oh?” the Bard said archly. “Anything?”

Nine

After Stefen had warmed him and relaxed him - among other things - they both fell asleep for a second time as the first light of the sun sent strokes of pink and gold across the sky. This time Vanyel slept deeply and dreamlessly, and Stefen actually woke before him. Van awakened to find Stef lounging indolently next to him, watching him with a proprietary little smile on his face.

“Well, what are you looking at?” Van asked, amused by the Bard's expression. “And a copper for your thoughts.”

Stefen laughed. “ 'Acres and acres, and it's all mine,' “ he said, quoting a tag-line of a current joke. “If you had any idea of the number of times I've daydreamed of being right where I am now, you'd laugh.”

“You think so?” Van smiled, and shook his head. “Oh, no, I promise, I wouldn't laugh.”

“Well, maybe you wouldn't.” Stefen searched his face for a moment, looking as if he wanted to say something, but couldn't make up his mind how to say it. Vanyel waited patiently for him to find the words. “Van,” he said, finally, “I have to know. Are you sorry? I mean, I'm just a Bard, I haven't got Mindspeech; I can't, you know, mesh with you when we -” He flushed. “I mean, does that bother you? Do you miss it? I -”

“Stef,” Vanyel interrupted him gently. “You're laboring under a misapprehension. I've never had a lover who shared his mind with me, so I wouldn't know what it was like.”

“You haven't?” Stefen was flabbergasted. “But - but what about Tylendel?”

“My Gifts were all dormant while he was alive,” Van replied, finding it amazingly easy - for the first time in years-to talk about his old love. “The only bond we had that I could share was the lifebond.”

“Do you miss that, then?” Stef asked, shyly, as if he was afraid to hear the answer, but had to ask the question.

“No,” Vanyel said, and smiled broadly. “And if you look inside yourself for a moment, you'll know why.”

“If I -”

“Stef, you're a trained Bard; Bardic Gift is enough like Empathy for you to see what I mean.” Van sent a brief pulse of wordless love along the bond, and watched Stef's face change. First surprise - then something akin to shock - then a delight that resonated back down through the bond they shared.

“I never dreamed -” Stef's voice was hushed. “I never- How? Why?”

“I don't know, ke'chara, and I don't care.” Vanyel shook his head. “All I know is that it's happened, it's real. And I know that if we don't get out of bed and put in an appearance, we're never going to do so before noon - I'm afraid they might break the door down and find us in a very embarrassing position.”

Stefen laughed. “You know, you're right. We should spare them that, at least. It's only fair.”

Vanyel grinned wickedly. “Besides, if I know my mother, she's dying to carry you off to perform for her and her ladies. So come on, Bard. Your audience awaits.”

Stefen struck a pose, and held it until Vanyel slid out of bed and flung his clothing at him.

“I warn you, you'd better hurry,” the Herald advised him, “or I'll send her in to fetch you.”

“I'm hurrying,” Stefen replied, pulling on his breeches. “Trust me, I'm hurrying -” Then he stopped, with his shirt half on. “Van, about your mother - is she-ah, serious?”

Vanyel knew exactly what Stef was trying to ask, and laughed. “No, she's not really chasing you. She would probably be horrified if you took her seriously; in her way, she really loves Father, I think. She's just playing The Game.”

Stefen heaved an enormous sigh of relief. “I couldn't tell, she's a little heavier-handed at it than the ladies at the Court.”

“Not surprising,” Van replied, checking his appearance in the mirror. “She's playing by rules that are thirty years out of date.” He straightened his hair a little, then turned back to Stef, who was struggling into his tunic. “Under all the posing, she really has a good heart, you know. She was the one that saw that Medren had talent, even if she couldn't recognize the Gift, and saw to it that he got whatever training was available out here. Not much, but it was enough to give him a start.” He crossed the room, to tug Stef's tunic down over his head. “She could have ignored him; he was nothing more than the bastard son of one of her maids, even if his father is my brother Meke. She could have dismissed Melenna; she didn't. Granted, she was holding Melenna as a last effort to 'cure' me, but still - she did her best for both of them, and that's a great deal more than many would have done.”

Stef solved the problem of his tousled hair by shaking his head vigorously, then running his fingers through his mane a couple of times. “Then I'll get along fine with her. Anyone who's done anything for Medren gets my nod.”

Vanyel chuckled. “Don't misunderstand me; Treesa's far from perfect. She can be selfish, inconsiderate, and completely featherheaded. She didn't dismiss Melenna, but that was at least partly because she'd have had to train a new maid and take care of all the things Melenna had until the new one was trained. And the gods know she's a shrewd one when it comes to her own comforts; she knew Melenna would be so grateful that she'd have devoted service out of the girl for years. But for all of that, she's good at heart, and I love her dearly.”

Stef unlocked the door, with a sly smile over his shoulder for Van. “You know, this business of having a family takes an awful lot of getting used to. I have to confess it kind of baffles me.”

Vanyel laughed, and followed Stefen out into the hall. “Stef, I hate to tell you this, but for all the privileges I grew up with, there have been any number of times I'd have traded places with any orphaned beggar-child on the street. My life would have been a great deal simpler.”

Stefen grimaced. “I'll keep that in mind.”

True to Vanyel's prediction, Treesa descended upon them once they reached the Great Hall, and appropriated Stefen to perform for her and her ladies as soon as they'd finished a sketchy breakfast.

That left Vanyel alone, which was exactly what he wanted right now. He strolled out the side door, heading ultimately toward the stables, taking care not to take a route that would put him along halls used by anyone except children and servants, or, once outside, under anyone's window. He wanted some time to think things through, and he'd had enough of family conferences for a while.

But there was someone who deserved his attention, first :'Fandes,: he Mindsent, :Good morning, love.:

:Good morning, sleepy,: she Sent back, her mind-voice so full of pleased satisfaction that he chuckled. :I trust you enjoyed yourself last night.:

:You trust correctly,: he replied, just a tiny bit embarrassed.

:Good,: she said. :It's about time. I want you to know that I heartily approve of this and I commend the lad's patience. The only question is, now what are you going to do?:

He paused for a moment beside the mews, noting absently the chirrs and soft calls of the hooded raptors inside :That's something I need to work out, love. Would you be terribly hurt if I borrowed one of the hunters and rode off without you for a little bit? I want to be alone to think this through properly.:

He caught a moment of surprise from her, and half-smiled. It wasn't often that he was able to catch her off-guard anymore. :I suppose that makes sense,: she said after a long pause. :This really affects you a great deal more than me. No, I won't be hurt. Just don't make any stupid decisions like trying to get rid of the lad, will you? You need him, and he needs you, and you are very, very good for each other.:

He laughed aloud, one of his worries taken care of - he was afraid that while she approved of Stef as a friend, she might not be as approving of the new relationship. :I doubt I could remove him now with a pry-bar, love. And - thank you for understanding.:

She Sent him a reply, not in words, but in emotion; love, trust, and shared happiness. Then she released the link.

He managed to reach the stables without being intercepted by anyone, though there were a couple of close calls avoided only because he saw Meke and his father before they saw him. Fortunately the stables weren't far; the double doors were standing wide open to catch every breeze and he walked inside.

Mekeal's famous Stud still had the best loose-box in the place, and the years had not improved the beast's looks or temper. It laid its ears back and snapped at him as he passed, then cow-kicked the side of its stall in frustration when it couldn't reach him. The only ones who had ever succeeded in riding the beast were Radevel and Jervis, and it was a fight every step of the way even for them.

“Watch it, horse,” he muttered under his breath, “or I'll turn 'Fandes and Kellan loose on you again.”

The horse snorted as if it could understand him, and backed off into a corner of its box.

Meke's warhorse mares were in this stable, along with the foals too young to sell. They watched him calmly as he passed them, some whickering as they caught his scent and recognized him for a stranger. That brought him the attention of one of the stablehands, a scruffy young man who came out of a loose-box at the sound of the first mare's call, grinning when he saw that it was Vanyel.

“Milord Herald,” he said. “Can I serve ye?”

“I just want to borrow a hunter,” he said. “ 'Fandes is tired and all I want to do is take a ride through Wyrfen Woods. Has Father got anything that needs exercise?”

“Oh, aye, a-plenty.” The stablehand scratched his sandy head for a moment, thinking. “Habout Blackfoot yonder?” He pointed about three stalls down at a sturdy bay hunter-mare with a fine, intelligent eye. “Not too many can handle her, so she don't ever get all th' workin' she could use. She got a touchy mouth an' goes best neck-reined, an' she's a spooker. Needs some'un with light hands an' no nonsense. Reckon ye can still ride abaht anything, eh?”

“Pretty well,” Vanyel replied. “I gentle all of the foals out of Star's line, if I have the time. I like your watchdogs, by the way -” He waved at the warhorse-mares, who were still keeping an eye on him. “- they're very effective.”

“They are, that,” the stablehand agreed, grinning, and showing that he, like Vanyel's old friend Tam, had lost a few teeth to the hooves of his charges. “Better at night. Anybody they dunno in here, an' they be raisin' a fuss. Leave one or two loose, and they be out o' their boxes - heyla!” He illustrated with his hands and the handle of his rake for a wall. “Got us one thief an' three o' them uncanny things that way. That old Stud breeds better'n he shows.”

“I should hope!” Vanyel laughed, and went to fetch saddle and harness for his assigned mount.

Blackfoot was exactly as predicted: very touchy in the mouth, and working well under pressure of neck-rein and knee. Vanyel took her back to the stable long enough to switch her bridle for a bitless halter; as far as he was concerned, with a beast that touchy, it was better not to have a bit at all. If he had to rein her in, he was strong enough to wrestle her head down, and no horse out of Withen's hunter-line would ever run when she couldn't see.

He took one of the back ways into the Wood rather than the road through the village. Right now he didn't feel sociable, and the villagers would want him to be “Herald Vanyel Demonsbane,” which was particularly trying. So he followed the bridle path out through the orchards, which were currently in fruit, but nowhere near ripe, so there was no one working in them. The apple trees were first, then nut trees, then the hedge that divided the orchards from the wild woods.

Riding a horse was entirely different from riding Yfandes; the mare required his skill and his attention. She tested him to see what she could get away with most of the way to the Wood, and subsided only when they had passed through a break in the hedge and the bridle path turned into a game trail. The silence of the Wood seemed to subdue her, and she settled down to a walk, leaving Vanyel free to turn most of his concentration inward.

Wyrfen Wood was still avoided by everyone except hunters and woodcutters, and those who had to pass it traveled the road running right through the middle of it. The place had frightened Van half to death the first time he'd ridden through it; even dormant, he'd had enough Mage-Gift to sense the old magics that had once permeated the place. Those energies were mostly drained now, but there was still enough lingering to make anyone marginally sensitive uneasy. Animals felt it certainly, birds were few, and seldom sang, and Blackfoot's ears flickered back and forth constantly, betraying her nervousness.

Vanyel had made a fair number of exploratory trips into the Wood over the years, and he was used to it - or at least as used to residual magics as anyone ever got. He was aware of the dormant magic, but only as a kind of background to everything else, and a possible source of energy in an emergency. For all that Wyrfen Wood was an eerie place, it was relatively harmless.

Except that it attracted things from outside that were not harmless, and gave them an excellent place to hide. ...

Which brought him right around to one of the very things he needed to think out.

The mare had slowed to a careful walk, picking her way along a game trail that was a bare thread running through the dense undergrowth. Vanyel let her have her head, settled back in the saddle, and spoke his thoughts aloud to the silent trees.

“There aren't enough Herald-Mages. There won't be enough Herald-Mages for years, even if Karse stops being a major threat tomorrow. That means the Heralds are going to have to start taking the place of Herald-Mages. Right?”

Blackfoot's ears flicked back, and she snorted.

“Exactly. Most people, including the Heralds themselves, don't think they can. But that's because they're looking at Heralds as if they were-were-what? Replacements? No . . . substitutes. And when you substitute something, you're usually replacing something superior with something inferior, but - you substitute something like the original. And Heralds aren't necessarily like Herald-Mages at all.”

He thought about that, while Blackfoot picked her way across a dry creek-bed.

“The point is that they aren't Herald-Mages. The point is to get Heralds to use their Gifts the best they possibly can, rather than trying to do something they can't. I'm a tactician. Where's the tactical advantage in that?”

The game trail widened a little, and they broke into a clearing, a place where lightning had set fire to a stand of pines last year to create a sizable area of burnoff. Now the secondary growth had taken over; grass stood belly-high to the mare, lush and tangled with morning-trumpet vines and bright golden sun-faces. A pair of deer that had been grazing at the farther end looked up at the noise they made, and bounded off into the deeper woods.

“The tactical advantage,” Vanyel told their fleeing backs, “is that most mages don't have strong Gifts in anything other than sensing and manipulating magical energy. Which means - that they won't think of things like that. They won't be protected against a FarSeer spying on their work - or a ThoughtSenser reading their minds. Or a Fetcher moving something they need for a spell at a critical moment. That's it - that's it! I've got to do something to get the Heralds to stop thinking of themselves as second-rate mages and start thinking of themselves as first-rate in the areas of their Gifts. And we have to start matching the need exactly to the Gift, and not just throw the first Herald who happens to be free at the need.”

It wasn't the entire answer, but it was a start. It was more than they had now.

Blackfoot had reacted to the lush meadow before her precisely as any horse would have; she put her head down and began grazing greedily. Vanyel was so used to Yfandes that the move took him completely by surprise. He started to pull her up, then thought better of the idea. The grass would keep her occupied while he contacted Joshe, and the residual magics made a good pool of energy to draw on so he wouldn't have to use his own strength. Right now Joshe should be with Randale, going over what the Herald would need to cover at the Council meeting. This would be an ideal time to contact him.

He let her graze while he closed his eyes, getting used to the sounds around him so that he would be alerted by anything out of the ordinary. There weren't many; a light breeze in the branches high overhead, an air current that did not reach the ground, a few crickets and a locust singing, and the noise of Blackfoot tearing at the juicy grass and chewing it. Once everything was identified, he extended his Mage-Gift and made careful contact with the trickle of magic directly underneath him.

:??:

A curious touch, and one he did not expect. But not hostile; he identified that much immediately.

:??:

The touch came again; he caught it - and began laughing at himself. “Caught by my own trap!” he said aloud, and opened his eyes. Nothing to be seen-until he invoked Mage-Sight. There, right in front of him, hovered a little cloud, glowing a happy blue. A cloud with eyes: a vrondi.

“Hello,” he said to it. It blinked, and touched him a second time. This time he sent back the proper reassurance.

:!!: it replied, and-well, giggled was the closest he could come to it. Then it vanished, leaving him free to tap the magic current again.

So far as Van knew, the Herald-Mages of Valdemar were the only ones to have ever discovered the vrondi. Their touch was not something that outKingdom mages would recognize, and even their appearance only showed that they were air elementals, and nothing more. Air elementals were the ones most commonly used as spies or scouts, which would only reinforce the impression he was trying to give. And even he, who had set the spell in the first place, had found that unexpected contact alarming. So a strange mage would feel something watching him as soon as he invoked any aspect of Mage-Gift or set any spell in motion. He wouldn't be able to identify it, he wouldn't know why it was watching him, and Vanyel heartily doubted he'd ever be able to catch it-vrondi were just too quick, and they were incredibly sensitive to hostility. Van decided he could almost feel sorry for that hypothetical future mage. The vrondi would drive him crazy. Yes, he could almost feel pity for someone faced with that situation.

Almost.

He settled back again; Blackfoot chewed on, happily oblivious to the magics going on around her, intent only on stuffing herself with the sweet grass. Oblivious - or ignoring them; with an ordinary horse, it was often hard to tell which. First she gets spooky because she feels magic, then she totally ignores it going on above her ears. Stupid beast. But 'Fandes would have been laughing at him by now for forgetting his own protection-spell, so Van wasn't entirely unhappy that she wasn't with him at the moment.

He Reached carefully for Joshe, drawing on the little stream of magic he'd tapped to boost him all the way to Haven.

:Vanyel?: came the reply. He caught at the proffered contact and pulled Joshe in, strengthening Joshe's faltering touch with his own augmented energies. The line between them firmed and stabilized.

Concern, overlaid with the beginnings of foreboding. :Vanyel - is there anything wrong?:

:No,: he said quickly, :No, just some things came up out here and I need limited Crown authority to guarantee the things I promised. Is Randi up to that?:

Relief, and assent. :He's been better, but he's been worse. We've got Treven in full training, poor lad. I don't think he sees Jisa until bedtime, and he's up at dawn with the rest of us. A little more seasoning, and he'll be sitting in for Randale on the Council. What is it you need?:

Vanyel explained as succinctly as he could. He sensed Joshe's excitement over the notion of taking more recruits in lieu of taxes, and then sending them to the Western Border for toughening instead of throwing them straight into combat after training.

:It's good, Van, all of it. Hold up a moment.: Van sensed Joshe's attention going elsewhere for a moment, then the contact strengthened as it came back. :King Randale gives you full permission; the official documents will get drafted today or tomorrow, and go out by regular courier. He also said to tell you he thinks your family is slipping. They're not only degenerating into becoming normal, they're getting sensible. He says he's not sure how to take that - it sounds to him like the end of the world can't be far away.:

So Randi was feeling good enough to make a joke. That was an improvement over the state he'd been in following Jisa's revolt. :Tell him it isn't the end of the world, it's merely the result of my own patient application of a board to their heads for the last several years. Even they get the hint eventually.:

Joshe's Sending was a simple laugh.

:l've also got some thoughts for you and the rest of the Heraldic Circle. I'd like you to call a meeting and put this before them, if you would. I really think it's important, especially now.:

He explained his own thoughts on the dichotomy, perceived and actual, between the Heralds and Herald-Mages, the problems he could see it causing, and his own tentative ideas for a solution to the problems. Joshe was silent all through his explanation, and for a short time afterward. Finally he answered.

:I'm surprised you noticed,: he replied slowly, with thoughts just under the surface that Vanyel couldn't quite read. Most of the other Herald-Mages either don't see it - or agree with the common perception that Heralds are some kind of lesser version of a Herald-Mage.:

The bitter taste to his reply told Vanyel that this was something Joshe himself had encountered, and it hadn't gone down well. Joshe was immensely competent, and a match for Van in any number of spheres, and Vanyel didn't blame him for feeling resentment.

:It's a problem, Joshe,: he said, as carefully as he could. :It's part of my peculiar mind-set to see problems. I think it needs to be dealt with now, before it causes serious damage. We can't do much about the perceptions of the general populace until we start to fix things in our own house.:

Something followed that comment that was like a mental sigh of relief that follows after a far-too-heavy burden has been removed. Van nodded to himself, and pursued his advantage.

:You'll never have a better time than now. The King is a Herald, the Heir is a Herald, the Herald-Mage in charge of the Karsite Border is much more Gifted in Fetching than magery and knows it, and you're sitting in for me. Savil will be sensible about this. You can keep this on the table as long as you need to in order to get the others to see that it is a problem, and you can call on the Heralds in the Circle to submit examples.:

Now Joshe's resolution wavered. :Do you think it's that important? It seems so trivial with everything else in front of us. The Karse situation, Randi's health. . . .:

:It's important,: he replied grimly. :And it's only going to get more so. I think you can make the rest of the Circle see that. Point out the attrition among the Herald-Mages, and then quote what happened out here. People are supposed to trust us, and how can they if they think of some of us as being better than others?:

:Good point. Consider it on the boards.: Vanyel knew that once Joshe made up his mind about doing something, he pursued it to its end. He felt a breath of relief of his own. The problem wasn't solved, but it would be. At least a start was being made.

:Then I leave it in your capable and efficient hands. Wind to thy wings, brother.:

:And to yours.: Vanyel felt Joshe break the contact, and dropped his end of it with a sigh.

Blackfoot was still stuffing herself, and showed no signs of stopping any time within the decade. He hauled her head up; she fought him every thumblength of the way, and returned to the game trail sullenly, and with ill grace.

I wish I had as clean an answer to what I should do about Stef, he thought uncomfortably. Gods, there's no denying what I feel about him - or the lifebond. But if I accept all that, and do so publicly, it flaunts the fact that I'm shay'a'chern in the faces of people I have to handle very carefully. Can I afford that? Can Valdemar? Or will knowing I have my weaknesses actually put me at an advantage? It might . . . I know that an awful lot of people come to me with the idea that I'm some kind of supernally wise and powerful savant, and that I can't possibly be interested in their problems. Knowing I have problems and weaknesses of my own might make me more accessible.

But it also puts Stef right where I don't want him - in a position as an easy target for anyone who can't come directly at me. And he doesn't have any way to protect himself from that.

Maybe I ought to give him up. I don't know that I can afford a liability like that. Just make this a wonderful little idyll out here where it's safe to do so, then send him on his way when we get back to Haven. I'll make him understand, somehow. Maybe we could pretend to quarrel. . . .

No - I can't give him up. I can't. There has to be another way.

He was so intent on his own thoughts that he barely noticed when Blackfoot left the game trail for the road, and turned herself back toward Forst Reach.

Why is it I can solve the problems of the Kingdom, but can't keep my own life straight? Gods, I can't even control a stupid horse. He let her go for a moment, then reined her in to turn her back onto one of the game trails. He was still in no mood to face his fellows, and intended to return home the way he'd left.

He got her turned, though not without a fight. She had gotten her fill of picking her way through the brush, and let him know about it in no uncertain terms. She balked when they reached the break in the blackberry hedges that lined both sides of the road, and he finally had to dismount and lead her through.

That was when the spell of paralysis struck him, pinning him and Blackfoot where they stood.

One moment everything was fine; the next, with no warning at all, he was completely unable to move. Every muscle had locked, rigid as wood, and beside him Blackfoot shivered as the same thing happened to her. Magic tingled on the surface of his skin, and Mage-Sight showed him the cocoon of energy-lines that held him captive. It took him completely by surprise.

But only for half a breath; he hadn't spent all those years on the Karsite Border without learning to react quickly, even after being surprised.

His body was trapped, but his mind was still free - and he used it.

He tested the barrier even as he searched for the flare of mage-energy that would betray the location of his enemy as the other mage held the spell against him.

There -

And it was someone who was reacting exactly as he'd postulated ordinary mages would when faced with a Herald; armored to the teeth with shieldings to magic, but completely open to any of the Heraldic Gifts.

Van could use his own magic, and not the Mind-magic, of course. The stranger was nowhere near Vanyel's ability, and Van knew he could break the spell with a simple flexing of his own power, if he chose. But if he did that, the man might get away, and Van had no intention of letting him do that. Too many enemies had come back, better equipped, for second tries at him. Mages were particularly prone to doing just that, even one who was as outranked as this one.

Perhaps - especially this one. Because this was one whose power was stolen; siphoned from others with neither knowledge nor consent. Van saw that the instant before he struck. That may have been the other's motivation; to catch Vanyel off-guard and steal his power. There was no way of knowing until Van had him helpless and could question him at length.

Which - Vanyel thought angrily, as he readied his mental energies for a mind-to-mind blast-would be very shortly now. . . .