Pounce roused me in the dark. Though it was just his paw on my eye, I came as wide awake as though he’d bitten me. It’s time to wake up, Beka, he said.
“What’s going on?” I asked him, tossing my blankets aside. “I was having my first sleep in near a week—”
Achoo started to bark.
Diamlah, Pounce told her. Achoo went silent right off. Pounce told me, You can sleep on the ship.
I was about to ask “What ship?” when I heard the sound that had set Achoo to barking. Someone was coming up my stairs. He was known to Aniki, Kora, or me, or the guards never would have allowed him to pass. Whoever it was, he banged on the door of the rooms where I normally slept. I looked about for my baton, only to remember it was in the rooms I had shared with Holborn. I took up two of my daggers and went to the door, clad only in my nightgown.
I undid the locks and opened it a crack. “What’s your business?” I demanded of the stranger’s back. “Speak up! And if you wake my neighbors—”
He turned and I fell silent. It was my lord Gershom, clad in a dripping oilcloth cloak over a blue tunic and black breeches. He held a wide-brimmed rain hat in one hand. His face was grim. “Let me in.”
I stood aside. He shut the door as I lit a pair of lamps. By that bit of light I could see Achoo and Pounce sitting by the bed, watching my lord. “Forgive me, Beka, but you’re my best choice,” he told me softly. “Dress and pack what you would need for a woods Hunt and a stay of three days. Bring Achoo. Pounce may come if he cares to. I’m leaving a horse tied in the shed in back. Take it to Peregrine Dock as soon as you can. Tell no one where you’re bound or who the summons came from, understood?”
“Yes, my lord,” I whispered. Nothing good came from orders in the night.
He put the hat on his head. It and the cloak turned him into no one in particular. He was out my door and gone before I could move to open it for him.
“Everythin’ all righ’, Beka?” Aniki asked drowsily from the landing above. I looked up. She half dangled over the rail, her long gold hair and her sword hanging from one drooping hand. Her eyes were swollen with sleep.
“Go to bed,” I told her. “Something’s come up.” I remembered my pigeons. “Will you feed my birds till I come back? I’ll leave coin for the food on Kora’s table.”
Aniki saluted me with her blade and stumbled back to her room. I closed my own door and rushed to dress and to pack. I put on my uniform and my hidden knives. My lord had not said I was to wear cityfolk clothes. Into my heavy pack I stuffed pads, underclothes, my extra uniform, tooth sticks, warm stockings, my comb, and other everyday gear. Into my shoulder pack I put the gear I needed for my work. Most of it was already there—my piece of spelled mirror, the special gloves that make it possible for me to handle things while leaving no magical traces, the clay that can turn so hard as to make a lock useless, insect-banning balm, lock picks, healing salves, Achoo’s brushes and medicines, packets of dried meat strips I use to reward her, my sharp-stone and blade-cleaning gear, my gorget and arm guards, and other bits and pieces. My leg guards and round helm went into my larger bag. My baton, sap, purse, and water flask went on my belt. I shrugged on my shoulder pack, then covered it with my cloak. I put the coin on the table so Aniki and Kora could feed the pigeons while I was gone. At last I donned my hat, hoisted my larger bag, and walked out the door.
“Achoo, tumit,” I said. She came, eager for whatever excitement Lord Gershom’s strange visit had promised. She was an old hand at late knocks on the door. This made our thirteenth night call since we became partners in 247, Achoo’s services being much in demand throughout Corus and even in Torhelm and Groten.
Pounce stuck his head out of an opening in my larger bag. I had not seen him get into it, but that was not new. “If you walked, you would be less weight for me to carry,” I told him as I set the bag down to lock my door.
I would also get wetter than I will be already, he replied.
The horse was where Lord Gershom told me he would be, a fine sturdy gelding who looked no happier to be out in the rain than I was. Still, he let me strap the larger pack behind his saddle with no fuss at all. At least all the riding I’ve had to do in recent years meant that, tired as I was, I could do it properly.
The horse and Achoo sniffed each other nose to nose as I worked, until I was in the saddle. Then we were off, trotting as fast as I dared through the dark streets. There was scant light to go by, only a lantern hung over the door of the odd eating house or drinking den. I stayed on the dark streets, keeping my lord’s orders in mind.
The ride gave me a chance to think. The things that went through my mind made me nervous and shivery with eagerness. My lord had come for me himself. That meant whatever he called me to, it was big. He’d said himself I was his best choice and asked for Achoo, so I suspected the one who mattered was Achoo. Every one of the scent-hound handlers I’ve met, from our chief here in Corus on down, has said she’s the best they know.
My lord Gershom stood watch with some Palace Guards. One of the guards took my horse, while a sailor wearing the navy’s white-trimmed blue tunic took my heavy bag. I kept my shoulder pack. Lord Gershom led Achoo and me down the dock. If the sailor noticed the purple-eyed black cat sticking his head out of my bag, he gave no sign of it.
Now I was alert. Some part of me had wondered if mayhap Lord Gershom had come for me as a way of apologizing for calling me out the night I’d buried my man. Now I saw it was no such thing. It was big, with my lord meeting me at the dock and walking me to a ship. That was going far for comfort. Then the ship came in view at the end of the long dock, and I blinked, to make certain the water was not fooling me.
A peregrine ship waited for us. It might pass for an ordinary ship at a quick glance, but for the bird’s wings painted along its sides. They showed in the lantern light from the ship’s prow. I swallowed. I’d never been on a peregrine ship. Few had. They were the Crown’s most precious vessels, saved for important messages and the greatest emergencies. And now I was going to travel on one.
Suddenly I wanted to turn and run for home.
Lord Gershom rested a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t realize I had stopped. “Easy, girl,” he said in that slow voice that always steadies me. “If I can ride one of these curst bounce-buckets, so can you.”
I took a deep breath and followed him up the gangplank. To the mot in oilcloth who waited for us he said, “We’re all present.” Two sailors who’d been standing to the side trotted off the ship and began to slip the mooring ropes off their cleats. My lord pointed to a shelter at the rear of the deck. The sailor who’d taken my bag was already returning from there without it. He got to work on the sails. My lord cupped my elbow in his hand and steered me to the shelter, while Achoo galloped inside. The mot climbed stairs to a deck halfway up behind the shelter and stood there beside the pilot, one hand held out flat before her. With her index finger she drew a circle on one palm, her lips moving. I felt the wind pick up. It filled the sails as the sailors who had slipped the mooring ropes jumped aboard and pulled up the gangplank. Then I stepped into the shelter.
My partner Tunstall was there already, stretched out on a long, cushioned bunk along one side wall. He grinned and put his feet on the floor, but my lord said, “Don’t stand, Mattes. You’ll bang your head.” He removed his hat and cloak, taking the other side bench. Achoo lay on the deck, panting.
Tunstall reached up and hugged me, dripping wet as I was. “Are you all right, Cooper?”
I hadn’t thought if I was all right or no since my lord’s knock had brought me to my door. “I’m up and about,” I replied, looking around. Our baggage was tucked and secured under the bunks, which were covered with fleeces. Straps hung off their sides and from the hull beside them. I’d heard the passengers on these ships traveled under magical sleep, strapped onto their bunks to keep from flying off of them. I gulped and hung up my cloak and hat, then set my shoulder pack on the bunk for use as a pillow and backrest.
Tunstall nodded. “A Hunt will do you good,” he said as I worked. He looked at Lord Gershom, who had taken a silk bag off a hook on the wall and was rooting through it. “Do you know what manner of Hunt we’re about, my lord?”
Lord Gershom fished out three leather bracelets and hung the silk bag on the hook once again. He tossed one of the bracelets to Tunstall and another to me before he fit the third on his own bony wrist. “I’ve no idea of anything, and I’ll not hazard a guess, Mattes,” he said. “The news I had called for utter secrecy and the best and smallest team with a scent hound I could assemble.”
Tunstall nodded, the wise old owl. “With Elmwood off to Naxen, that leaves Beka.”
I looked at Achoo. “You must tire of dragging me along as deadweight,” I told her. I didn’t mean it, not really. I’ve proved myself plenty of times to those who said our capture of Pearl Skinner three years back was a lucky start. Of Lord Gershom I asked, “What are the bangles for?” I held up my leather strap. I could see letters writ on it and dyed, but they were in mage script.
“Slumber and seasickness,” my lord replied, his eyes twinkling. “It’s not such a problem here on the river, but trust me, you two, if you’re not wearing these when we strike the open ocean, you’ll be puking up everything you ate for the last week. Better to sleep out the trip.”
Tunstall and I looked at each other and hurriedly fastened the bands about our wrists. “But we’ve gone to sea now and then,” Tunstall said. “I puked a bit the first time, but the other times went well enough. Cooper took to it like one of those pelicans.”
“You weren’t on peregrine ships,” my lord replied. “These things go so fast—they’re blown by mage-winds, you know—they fly so fast that they don’t sail over the waves, they bounce off of them. And since we’re on emergency orders, the ship’s mages have instructions to take us as fast as the ship can bear.” He stretched out on the bunk he’d chosen, looking as comfortable as could be for all his earlier complaints.
Three sailors came in, bringing a cool breeze and rain at their heels. “You’re good and settled,” one of them, a mot, said. “We’ll finish up.” She looked at Pounce and Achoo. “Can they be put together? We can strap them under the bunks.”
“They’re old friends,” I replied. I watched as they opened out a net of straps secured to the deck under an unused bunk. Once they’d put a fleece on top of it, I gave Achoo the order to lie down. Once she was settled, Pounce curled up with her. Two of the sailors did up the straps above and below them, tucking them into a space that had enough room for them to sleep comfortably.
I will ensure that we sleep, Pounce told us. The sailors did not seem to hear. I don’t enjoy travel like this, either.
Thank you, I thought to him. I didn’t want these sea folk to think any Dogs were cracked in the nob because I spoke when no one had spoken to me.
“ ’Twill be a curst uncomfortable ride,” Tunstall remarked as the youngest sailor tucked a flat pillow beneath his head.
The mot who had spoken first grinned at him. “You won’t notice, my lad. Once we tell the passengers’ mage you’re all snug, he’ll be putting you and them of the crew that ain’t needed right off to sleep. You can dream of me, if y’like.” She patted Tunstall’s cheek and left us, her cackling laugh trailing behind. The other two followed her, their grins wide enough to show what teeth they were missing.
“You don’t know my woman!” Tunstall called after her. “She don’t let me stray!”
I blinked my filling eyes. Holborn didn’t stray, either. I wish he had. It would have been easier to explain to my friends than he thought me a nag and a cold fish who was forever worrying about the future.
Happily, the spell took us all before I could sink too far into my regrets.
When I opened my eyes, the youngest of the three sailors was undoing my straps. I looked for the leather bracelet, and the cove grinned. “Took that off to end the sleep first thing, mistress,” he told me. “We’ve wake-up tea on deck. Your hound and cat is already out there with your captain. We’ll be at dock soon.”
I blinked at him saying captain, until I realized he meant Lord Gershom. What could be so secret that my lord would not even use his proper rank?
As the sailor turned to free Tunstall, I asked, “What hour is it? Where are we?”
“ ’Tis nearabout noon,” the sailor replied, helping my partner to sit up. “We be in Blue Harbor.”
“Blue Harbor near noon on Friday?” I asked. I still hadn’t quite put together all that had happened to me since my lord had knocked on my door.
“Naw,” he said, undoing the straps on our baggage. “ ’Tis Thursday. Wouldn’t be worth our salt as a peregrine ship was we to be taking a whole day to get from Corus to Blue Harbor! Mind, we could’ve been here three hours afore this—we’ve done the trip in that time—but there was a nasty storm at Port Caynn. Threw us off. The mage lady were spittin’ like a cat.”
I noticed that he didn’t use her name, or give his own. “How do you sailors manage?” I asked. “If we’re buckled down in here—”
“Oh, we tie up to the mast,” the cove told me. “Each of us has one, see, and she eases off if we need to trim the sails. It’s narsty work, but we’re paid in gold, and swapped back to the reg’lar navy every three months. Out you go, now, both of yez. They’ll be needin’ me to dock.”
Tunstall and I walked onto the deck. The sails were puffed out with a steady wind that was carrying us between the twin lighthouses of Blue Harbor.
Tunstall leaned down to mutter in my ear, “I feel like I’ve been hammered, Cooper.”
I had to admit, I was stiff and sore all over. Achoo was running up and down the deck, her plumed tail wagging. If she was sore, she hid it well. Pounce sat at Lord Gershom’s feet while he drank from a heavy mug of tea. One of the sailors brought a mug each for Tunstall and me before he got back to work on the sails. The ship was turning, the obedient wind following the changing sails as the vessel angled for the docks on the northwestern side of the harbor.
From curiosity, I set my tea on the deck between my feet and reached into my belt purse for my mirror, the one that shows me when there’s magic in use. I angled the mirror so I would see our former shelter and the wheel over my shoulder. When I looked at the surface, the blaze of light from the magic nearabout blinded me. It had not occurred to me that not only would the magic be extremely strong, but it would be worked through every splinter and fiber of the ship.
I hurriedly thrust the mirror into my purse and waited for my poor eyes to recover. I reminded myself that the blessing of the mirror was that it seemed to show me all manner of magics, whatever they were for and no matter what their strength. That was scant comfort when my eyes were watering fiercely.
“It could be worse, my lord,” Tunstall replied. “You could be one of these sailors.”
My eyes were clear enough that I could see that Pounce was seated by my feet. I bent down and picked up my mug of tea. “Did you enjoy your nap?” I asked him sourly before I took a swallow of my tea. It was well enough, but I prefer more spices, and less of whatever the bitter herb in it was.
Pounce looked up at me and blinked. I went to the Realms of the Gods once Achoo was under the sleep spell, he informed me. Why should I remain for such an abysmal voyage if I don’t have to?
Tunstall and Lord Gershom both heard, because they choked on their tea. I drank my tea down to hide my own smile. I was glad that Pounce had come along.
The sails were going slack over our heads. We glided smoothly in toward the last of the docks, one that was isolated from the others by a wooden fence in the water. Seeing that we’d be going ashore soon, I went back to the cabin for my belongings. Tunstall followed. We strapped our rain things to our own packs and gathered up Lord Gershom’s things while we were at it. I was shocked when he took one bag from my hand and another from Tunstall, but he shook his head when we would have protested. Both of us took his warning and said nothing.
All this secrecy was starting to give me the itch. Never had I been on a Hunt when we kept our names from those who conveyed us. Never had I been on a Hunt when we had no notion of the manner of crime at issue, the Dog Districts involved, or the local nobles. Lord Gershom had mentioned the king, but surely we were here as a favor to someone the king wished to help. The king had better Hunters than the likes of us. There were the royal spies, the Ferrets, to seek out any offenders against the king’s majesty or that of the royal family. The most powerful mages in the realm served the Crown, as did knights who were sworn to bring anyone singled out by the Ferrets to justice. The king himself would have no need for a Dog pair and a scent hound. Why then the silence, and the expensive night journey all the way to Blue Harbor?
The ship eased between the fence and the dock. Two sailors jumped down to secure the ship to cleats. My lord went to the prow, plainly looking for someone. Then he nodded. He’d seen whoever he was looking for.
“Have you ever been on a Hunt like this?” I murmured to Tunstall.
“Never. But, do you know, Beka, I wish already that we were not,” he replied. “Once folk start to fool with a good, plain Hunt, it never goes well in the long run.”
“We can sacrifice some flowers to your luck god, first chance we get,” I promised him. “That might turn it about for us.”
He was shaking his head. “It will have to be fruit. Flowers won’t be enough, I can tell already.”
The sailors were placing the gangplank so that we might leave the ship. My lord nodded to them, then motioned for us to follow. Achoo and Pounce beat Tunstall and me, but then, they weren’t carrying bags. I felt like I brought up the end of a somberly clad parade, with Tunstall and me in uniform and my lord in black.
Three coves waited for us at the end of the dock. Two of them were from the king’s personal bodyguard, the King’s Own, marked out by their silvery chain mail and their bright blue tunics. They had horses with them, six with saddles and three for packs. Without a word they came and took our things. They strapped our belongings on the packhorses, which already had some baggage. The oldest stopped only for a moment to talk with Lord Gershom, a moment that left my lord white-faced and staring out to sea.
The third man was not from the King’s Own. He was a big cove, six feet and three inches tall, clean-shaven, with brown hair cut short, just over his ears. His eyes were large, set a little shallow in their sockets, and their color was hard to name, partway between pale green and pale blue. He had an easy smile on a mouth that looked as if it smiled often. He dressed in a Dog’s uniform with the silver hem and sleeve trim of a Provost’s mage.
Tunstall and I followed Lord Gershom as my lord walked up to the brown-haired cove. My thoughts raced. I’ve done five Hunts with a mage as part of our group. They are a very mixed lot. The one that was a graduate of the university in Carthak was impossible to manage—Achoo even bit her. The one from the City of the Gods barely spoke to us, but he saved all of our lives when we came under attack. The one lent to us by the Duke of Naxen was a kind fellow but of little use, while the two wander mages were decent sorts. This one, at least, dressed like a normal Dog, without strange bits and pieces clanking from his neck and belt, and he bore himself like a normal cove, without any airs.
My lord and the mage clasped hands. “Well met, Farmer,” my lord said. “There was no problem in getting your release from your district commander?”
Master Farmer, if that was his true name, smiled. It gave him the look of a boy. I guessed him to be twenty-five. “She was quite pleased to let me go,” he replied. “She has a mage nephew she has been wanting to use in my place to see how he manages. Have you more information since you sent your orders? All I had was to meet you here today and tell no one.” He nodded to Tunstall and me.
I sucked on the inside of my cheek. So he was a kennel mage? Those weren’t the cream of the crop.
“I’ve little information myself,” my lord said. “Master Farmer Cape, meet Matthias Tunstall and Rebakah Cooper, from Corus.” Achoo whimpered, indignant at being overlooked, and Lord Gershom laughed. “And Achoo, the very fine scent hound who works with them. You will be working together. For now, we’re not wasting any time. Cooper, Achoo will have to ride. We’re leaving at the gallop.”
He was serious about that. The older guardsman gave my lord, Master Farmer, and Tunstall horses while the younger guardsman helped me to place Achoo atop a packhorse. At my direction we settled her between bags and secured her with the straps I carried for those times we both had to go on horseback. That done, Pounce tucked into my shoulder pack, I mounted the horse set aside for me.
Without another word Lord Gershom led the way at the trot through the gate at the end of the dock enclosure and past the naval guards outside. The older of the two men of the King’s Own rode beside him, while Master Farmer rode with Tunstall. Each of them led a packhorse. The other guardsman and I shared the rear while I led Achoo and her mount.
The older guardsman led us down a private route through the naval yards, one that quickly brought us to the city gates. There he showed the guards a medallion he took from his pocket. It had to be official, because the guardsmen let us go as if we’d been Their Majesties themselves.
Our path soon joined a broad road that led south. There was plenty of traffic to slow us down for ten miles or so, until we came to a wall and gate at a side road. Gate and road were manned by fully armored men of the King’s Own. They opened the gate without even stopping us for questions. By then I was sure of our destination. The Summer Palace was close by, set on the peninsula southeast of Blue Harbor and west of the Ware River. Only nine days ago Their Majesties had left the capital for the seaside palace. Whatever we were there for, it had been commanded by the king, I was sure of it. My tripes were one solid knot. I’m no good with nobles.
Once the gate was closed behind us, my lord opened up our speed and we began to gallop for true. We kept to my lord’s pace, resting briefly in between gallops and trots.
I have been in many woods since partnering with Achoo, and this was the strangest I had seen. The trees were spaced wide apart and much of the ground cover seemed to be moss, not grass. The streams had bridges that were as much ornament as structure needed for water crossing. They even had gilding for decoration, which was plain wasteful. Folk in the Lower City starve every day, yet out here where few can see it, the very bridges have gilding. It vexed me.
After our third stop for water, the road turned to follow a smooth white limestone wall. Men guarded the height, the sun glinting off their helms and crossbows. The older guardsman took out a whistle much like the ones carried by street Dogs and blew a series of notes as a signal. The wall guards aimed their crossbows at us and I took a deep breath of air. There is nothing so discomforting as the sight of crossbows aimed at your company. Then we heard another set of whistles. The guards lowered their bows.
On we rode. The guards farther down must have heard the whistled signal, for no more weapons were pointed our way. Now, behind the soldiers, I could see green land planted with trees rising well above the height of the wall.
“It’s a summer palace, Cooper,” Tunstall reminded me. “They have to catch the breezes.”
“How close is it to the ocean?” I asked him.
Tunstall knew I worried that someone might attack the palace on the other side. These walls looked too pretty to hold off a real attack. “There’s a wall all the way round, you Fretting Franza,” he teased. “And all sorts of mage work you’re not seeing. You think they’d let Their Majesties and His Highness anywhere near a place that wasn’t protected, ground to crown?”
I wanted to ask him that, if this was true, why were we here, but we had come to another gate, guarded again by men of the King’s Own. My skin was starting to itch. I was no expert on palace matters, unlike my brother Nilo. He was a palace courier and knew all sorts of things about royalty. Still, as I remembered it, the Palace Guard was supposed to protect the monarchs’ homes, the King’s Own their persons. If that was so, why did I see no red-and-tan uniforms on the walls? Everyone who stood up there wore blue and silver.
This time our guards from the King’s Own had to come forward, and Lord Gershom had to show his signet ring. I did not like the look of these guards at all. Even the darkest-skinned of them was ashen. Some of them had sweat marks on their pretty tunics. Some of them had hands that shook as they held their weapons.
I looked at Tunstall, who was already eyeing me. He scratched his scruffy beard. I nodded. Something very bad had taken place here.
As our two guides went ahead with the packhorses to lead us on the road that climbed away from the main gate, I promised myself I would never pack my bit of spelled mirror away again. I was very curious to know if the men who’d just let us enter were magicked like our guides not to talk about whatever had frightened them so badly.
We did not gallop, but we went at a good trot, always uphill, always curving left through trees. These were a bit wilder than the ones by the road below, a proper setting for streams that formed little waterfalls over heaps of rocks. I caught glimpses of a large building atop the high ground. First I saw a long hall open on one side with outside pillars to support the upper story. Next came balconies that stood out from a wall, draped with flowering vines.
Then we came into view of the sea. I had to admire it as it shone there, gold in the afternoon sun. Straight below us lay stone heights, and then a stone wall where a handful of men from the King’s Own stood guard. Below the wall were more stone cliffs. If there was a beach, I did not see it.
Brace yourselves, Pounce said from behind my ear. Tunstall looked our way, so he’d heard. Neither Lord Gershom nor the mage so much as twitched. They had not overheard.
“For what, hestaka?” Tunstall asked Pounce. It meant “wise one” in Tunstall’s original Hurdik.
Pounce always got full of himself when Tunstall called him that, but not this time. You’ll see, he replied.
The Summer Palace appeared through the trees on my left, a long building with another open corridor on this side. There were balconies and turrets that must have been pretty white stone once. Now soot streaks marred everything. Part of this wing had collapsed into the cellars. Some of the remains stood open to the air. Others sported a single shutter, or half-burned ones. Tatters of burned draperies and furniture had been thrust from the windows to lie haphazard below. A chill ran clean down my spine and up into my skull. This was fearful business.
Achoo whimpered and scrabbled against the ties that held her to the packhorse. Something was frightening her.
“Would you release her?” I called to the men of the King’s Own. “She needs to get down.” The younger one rode to Achoo’s horse to do as I asked while I looked around.
Between the palace and our road were gardens. Mayhap they’d been pretty, too, but not now. Bodies lay among the flowers. Here were the missing Palace Guards, as well as men of the King’s Own, and the Black God knew how many servants, all burned, sword hacked, or stabbed.
Lord Gershom swore. “Tunstall?”
Tunstall rode up to the older man of the King’s Own. “Once this was discovered, how many people have ridden this track before us?” he asked.
Achoo jumped to the ground. She ran over to my horse, her tail between her legs. She was nearabout spooked out of her fur.
The cove began to reply, cleared his throat, and spoke. “Our party, that was away in Blue Harbor, rode this way to come home after midnight. Guards and couriers have come and gone on this road since. And it is not this for which you are called. Come.”
“Not this?” Lord Gershom demanded, but he set his horse in motion. The mage and I followed. Tunstall fell in with me as we passed. We heard my lord mutter, “What in Mithros’s name can be worse?”
That same question worried Tunstall and me, for certain. I could not read Master Farmer’s face yet.
“Is this what you meant?” I asked Pounce in a whisper.
Master Farmer looked at me. “So your cat talks,” he remarked, as easy as if he rode by dead folk every day. “Doesn’t it unsettle you?”
Easy, Beka, Pounce said in my mind, when I would have given the mage a tart answer. He’s frightened, too, for all he doesn’t act it.
“He’s talked to me for years,” I said. “I’m used to it.”
“Oh, good,” Master Farmer replied, turning to face forward on his mount. “I wouldn’t want you to put a good face on it for me.”
We rode past sight of the flower gardens, but the landscape of the dead continued. They had fought in the trees here. Tunstall pointed to the far side of our road. There were footprints on a wide path that led down toward the sea. I nodded. Had the enemy come from there, or had people tried to escape taking that path? If Tunstall, Achoo, and I were supposed to make sense of this raid, we were sadly overmatched. I’d put at least five pairs on sommat as big as this, and more than one mage.
Thinking of mages, I wondered, shouldn’t that seaward path be magicked to the hilt? Wouldn’t that wall down below be magicked just the same? Royalty came here for the summer. Surely those who kept them safe wouldn’t leave their protection to a couple of walls and some guards.
We halted in a wide circle where Their Majesties’ guests left their chairs, horses, or wagons. This had been cleared of the dead. That there had been dead was plain from the blood splashes on the ground. Men of the King’s Own silently took our horses. I called Achoo to heel—she was sniffing the blood—and followed Tunstall, Master Farmer, and my lord inside.
Our guides did not come with us. Possibly they did not want to face the soot-streaked, blood-splashed entry hall. We were met by a fleshy, white-haired cove. Mayhap he’d been very well satisfied with his life a few days ago. Now I had to wonder if he would live out the month, for all that he wore rich silks and hose and a great gray pearl earring.
“Your people may wait in there, Gershom.” He pointed to a side room well fitted with chairs and small tables. “You will come with me.”
My lord gave us the nod and we did as we were told. The room had escaped both fire and murder. There were pretty mosaics bordering the walls at top and bottom, as well as inlaid at the window ledges. The shutters were well-carved cedar, open to the air outside. I made note because my friends would surely want to know what the inside of a palace, even a summer one, was like. There were silk cushions with tassels everywhere. Pounce went over to one and idly batted a tassel. Achoo showed no interest in the furnishings. She went to the open door and whined.
“Kemari, Achoo,” I told her. “Dukduk.” She looked at me and hesitated. I pointed to a spot next to the chair I meant to take and repeated my commands.
“What language is that?” Master Farmer asked. “It sounds like Kyprish, but it’s mangled. Doesn’t she respond to commands in Common?”
I’d placed his accent by the time he was done. He’d come from the roughest part of Whitethorn City, off east on the River Olorun.
Tunstall had listened to him with eyebrows raised. “Now, would you go about giving away all your mage secrets to some stranger who asked?” he wanted to know. “Cooper has secrets for the handling of a hound. It’s the same thing.”
“What kind of mage are you?” he asked Master Farmer. “The scummer-don’t-stink kind, or the pisses-wine kind?”
Master Farmer scratched his head. “The I-just-like-to-be-friendly kind. Ma always told me I was forever trying to make new friends.” He had changed from the cove who’d greeted my lord to a bit of a country lad. I thought it was to pull Tunstall’s tail, but kept my mouth closed. Tunstall was full grown and able to take care of himself.
My partner advanced until he was but three inches from the mage. He was half a head taller than Master Farmer, heavier in the shoulders, chest, and legs. In his Dog’s uniform he was overpowering. “Don’t play the lovable lout with us. We’re Lower City Dogs from Corus. We’ve seen it all, we’ve heard it all, and we’ve hobbled it all. What kind of name is Farmer, anyway?”
Master Farmer grinned. He looked like a very looby. “It’s my mage name.”
Tunstall was about to spit on the beautiful rug when I cleared my throat. He caught my glare. I don’t care where he spits normally, but not in a palace. He coughed instead. “Mithros’s spear, what kind of cracknob picks a mage name like Farmer?”
The mage shrugged. “Most of the mages that taught me would say I acted like I had my feet in the furrows and my head in the hayloft. I thought maybe there was something powerful, them thinking the same thing, so I took Farmer as a mage name.” He looked at me. “I’ve been wondering lately, though, do you think mayhap they were making fun of me?”
Tunstall shrugged as if he settled his tunic more comfortably on his shoulders and stepped back. “Don’t ask us,” he said. “We’re city Dogs.”
“I’m a city Dog, too,” Master Farmer said cheerfully. “I never had pets. At home we ate them.” He crouched next to Achoo and me. This close, he smelled a little of spices and fresh air. “Is that why you bring your pets along? So no one will eat them?”
I am not edible, Pounce said. I couldn’t tell if Master Farmer heard. I didn’t think so, not when he didn’t even blink.
Achoo was thumping her tail just a bit, telling me she wanted to make friends with the dozy jabbernob. Pounce sauntered over to him and looked up into his face. Master Farmer stared at him for a moment. Then he said, his tone less ignorant and silly, “Now there’s something new. You don’t often see a purple-eyed cat.” He held out a hand. Pounce sniffed it for a moment, then bit one of his fingers. “And that’s a lesson to me,” said the mage, grinning. “Have you a name, Ebon Cat of the Amethyst Eyes?”
Once again he was speaking like a cove of sense. “I don’t know what that means, but his name is Pounce,” I said, frowning at the cat. “And he’s not normally so rude.” To make up for Pounce’s bad manners, I said, “You should greet Achoo, since you’re to work with us. Bau, Achoo.” Since Achoo kept wagging her tail as she smelled Master Farmer’s fingers, I said reluctantly, “Kawan.” He seemed harmless enough. Lord Gershom trusted him. That had to be enough for me.
Achoo had rolled over so Master Farmer could scratch her belly when we heard a mot’s voice raised outside. “Gershom is here and he told us he brought his Hunters!”
The mot cried, “Pox take ceremony! I’ll see them now! I need to see them now!”
The quieter voice spoke again.
The mot snapped, “These people serve the law. I don’t think I need a chaperone in their company!”
We all stepped back hurriedly as the door opened. A lovely, delicate mot came in and closed the door behind her. She had masses of brown curls that hung down to her waist. A few jeweled pins hung from them. Her maids were lax, letting her go about with her hair undone like that. She had large, golden brown eyes, a delicate nose, a soft mouth, and perfect skin. Her under tunic was white linen so fine it was almost sheer, her over tunic a light shade of amber with gold threads shot through it. Strips of gold embroidery were sewn to the front and the left side of the tunic, vines twining around signs for peace and fertility. Golden pearls hung from her ears, around her neck and wrists, and in a belt with a picture locket at the hanging end. Pearls were sewn to her gold slippers. Gold rings with emeralds and pearls were on her fingers, save for the heavy plain gold band on the ring finger of her left hand.
I write all this, remembering her beauty purely, though she was smutched with soot from top to toe. Even her face and hands were marked.
Tunstall had seen her before this at a closer distance than I, but we all guessed her identity. We were kneeling before the door was closed. “Your Majesty,” the coves said. My throat would not work.
“Oh, please, please, get up,” she said, her voice softer now. “I can’t stand ceremony at a time like this. Please. Look, I’m sitting down.” It was true, she’d settled in one of the chairs. A smile flitted on and off her mouth, which trembled whatever she did.
Pounce walked over and jumped into her lap. The queen flinched and then stroked him. I’d been about to call him back, but I waited, watching. Pounce turned around and coiled himself, not letting her see his strange eyes. As she petted him her shoulders and back straightened. Her trembling eased. “I’d thought all the animals had fled, or been …” She looked down for a moment, then turned her gaze to Achoo. “A scent hound? Is he yours?”
I looked at the men, but they, great loobies that they were, stood there dumbstruck. Tunstall flapped his hand at me. He wanted me to talk to Her Majesty! But one of us had to, and Achoo was staring at me with pleading eyes, her tail wagging. She knew the pretty lady wanted to admire her.
“Pengantar, Achoo,” I said. I turned to Her Majesty, without rising from my knees. From talking to folk who’d been broken by something terrible, I knew I would be more of a comfort to her if I sat below her eye level. Having Achoo come over made it reasonable for me to stay where I was. As the queen offered her hand for Achoo to smell, I explained quietly, “Achoo’s a female, Your Majesty. We’ve been partners three years now.”
The queen looked at me, and at the men. “Partners?”
I pointed to Tunstall, then at my uniform. “Achoo, Tunstall, and me, we belong to the Provost’s Guard. Senior Guardsman Matthias Tunstall, I should say. I’m Guardswoman Rebakah Cooper. And this is Master—”
He bowed. “Farmer Cape. I am a Provost’s mage from Blue Harbor.”
The queen frowned. “Surely we need a court mage for this?” she whispered. “I know His Majesty and the Chancellor of Mages fight over the plan to tax mages, but surely at a time like this, duty to the realm is more important.” She looked at Master Farmer. “I mean no offense, but I am used to depend on court mages.”
I thought Master Farmer would take offense, having known too many prickly mages, but instead he only smiled at the queen. “Court mages are all very well, Your Majesty, but they do not often work in the cities and the wilderness. I have done both, as Lord Gershom knows. And he may well replace me with a court mage. I imagine he would like more information before he makes such decisions.”
“That seems most sensible,” Her Majesty replied. “I had not thought of it that way.” She returned her attention to Achoo. She’d not stopped stroking Pounce, either. “I’ve only met the scent hounds we use to hunt. How does one partner a Provost’s Guard?” she asked.
I hoped she knew the answer when she felt better, since the purpose of a Provost’s scent hound seemed obvious to me. Seemingly she wasn’t thinking straight just now. Her eyes were far too wide, as if she’d seen things, unbearable things. Remembering the bodies in the garden, I doubted that our pretty queen had ever encountered anything of the like. “When someone is missing, or something’s been stolen, we give Achoo a scent of it,” I explained. “Then she goes off and finds it. I run with her to keep her on the scent and to summon help, should she need it. Tunstall guards us.”
The queen leaned forward and gripped my arm hard. There was more strength, or desperation, in her fingers than I expected. “It’s true, then? You are the ones who must find my son?”
I sat back on my heels, trying not to let my shock show itself on my face. Tunstall looked down. Master Farmer turned away entirely. Now we knew why my lord had fetched us. In all this mess, His Highness Prince Gareth, the sole heir to the throne, was missing.
I collected myself. “Your Majesty, we’ve yet to hear our orders. It would help if you were to tell us what happened here. We only came a short time ago, and we’ve been told nothing. When did all this happen?” I emboldened myself and took her hand as if she were one of my sisters. “It looks fresh—the marks of burning, and the dead.”
She looked at the men. “Please take your seats. If you find my baby, you may ask anything you wish of me, so please, sit.” She smiled at me. “These two animals, they’re proof you have a tender heart. My little prince, cruel strangers have him.… ” Tears spilled down her face.
I always carry a score of cheap handkerchiefs on my person, in my breech pockets and a pocket I’ve stitched inside the front of my tunic. I fished one of them out now. I was shamed by its rough quality, but I saw no handkerchiefs on her person. She would not leave off scratching Pounce, so I dabbed the tears and not a little soot from her lovely cheeks.
“Oh—oh, Goddess, I’m being so foolish,” she whispered, and took the handkerchief from me. Pounce glared at me. She dried her eyes and wiped her nose, then tucked the cloth behind Pounce and began to stroke him again. The two coves, watching her graceful hand caress the cat’s gleaming fur, sighed. Now it was my turn to glare at them, beauty-dazed cracknobs that they were.
“My lord the governor of Blue Harbor invited His Majesty and me to a party in our honor yesterday,” Queen Jessamine began. “It started around noon. There were nobles from Blue Harbor, the fiefs around Port Caynn, even Arenaver. It was the usual welcome to us that they give every year when we return to the Summer Palace. Roger—His Majesty had a wonderful time. I did, too, of course,” she hurried to say, which led me to think that the king liked big parties more than did the queen. “But I was a little unwell. His Majesty was good enough to return home with me at midnight.”
“Who went with you to this party, Your Majesty?” I asked quietly.
“My maids. Our personal mages. Half of the King’s Own,” she replied. “The other half always stays—” She choked at that point and seized the handkerchief, weeping into it.
I straightened, looking around for a pitcher of water or tea, something to give her to drink. Master Farmer fumbled at his belt and unhooked a flask, then handed it to me. “I’ll be right back,” he said quietly, and left us. I uncorked the bottle and sniffed the contents. It was wine. I hesitated, but reminded myself again that Lord Gershom must have trusted the cove entirely, to bring him when things were dire.
“Have a bit of this, Your Majesty,” I said, putting the flask to her lips. “You must catch hold, you know. You’ve got to tell us the tale if we’re to go about finding His Highness.”
Tunstall got down on his knees beside her chair, too. “Cooper’s right, Your Majesty,” he said, his deep voice soft. “It’s hard to Hunt when we don’t know what happened.”
“I understand,” she said, and took a swallow. “Have—have you worked with Master Farmer long?”
Tunstall and I looked at each other. “We just met,” I said. “Lord Gershom chose him. I’ve known my lord a long time, and I think he would have brought a mage he knew well for this.”
The queen took another swallow from the flask. “If Lord Gershom vouches for him, then I will trust in his skill,” she said quietly. “After all, neither Ironwood, that’s His Majesty’s mage, nor Orielle claim the skills to hunt raiders. Orielle is my own mage,” she explained. “Perhaps they do not teach tracking skills to mages in the University of Carthak or the City of the Gods. I know their oath of duty calls for Orielle and Ironwood never to stray a hundred yards from my lord king or me, but surely this is different?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Tunstall said. “We have no understanding of the skills learned by such important folk.” I waited for him to say, “And our mages are scummer,” but he did not. Perhaps he didn’t want the queen to know most Provost’s mages weren’t very good. I doubted very much that my lord chose a scummer mage for a royally ordered Hunt.
To change the subject, I asked, “Your Majesty, have you a picture of His Highness?”
The queen’s lips quivered. She took a deep breath, blinked several times, and picked up the oval locket that swung at the end of her pearl belt. “Here. We just had it done a month ago for his fourth birthday.”
Tunstall and I leaned closer. The portrait was of a solemn-eyed boy with reddish-brown hair and skin as pale as the queen’s. He had his mother’s eyes and mouth, and the king’s hair and beaky nose.
The door opened. In came Master Farmer with a flagon and some cups. “Here we go,” he said cheerfully, placing them on a table at Her Majesty’s elbow. “It’s lemon water, which I thought might do Your Majesty more good than wine just now.” He poured her a cup and handed it to her. Then he poured cups for the rest of us and passed them around. I sipped the contents carefully. I’d had lemon water only once before. Holborn had insisted on buying some for me last summer.
The memory bit me deep in the belly. I thrust it out of my mind and savored the drink. Master Farmer took a chair as Her Majesty and I set our cups aside. I gave her a fresh handkerchief and nodded to see if she would pick up the thread of her tale.
“We knew there was trouble when we found no one at the gate on the main road. Captain Elfed wanted to leave us there, but His Majesty said that our mages might be needed. The mages refused to leave us—I told you, they are forbidden to do so. In the end, we all came. We saw the fire soon after that. The mages put it out, but Captain Elfed says everyone must have been dead before the fire started. I went straight to the nursery. I promised Gareth …” She took a drink of her lemon water, then made herself go on. “It’s where the fire started. The mages say Lunedda is not there—his nurse. If she is gone, I won’t believe anything’s happened to him. But his mage—Mistress Fea was melted.” The queen’s lips trembled. “I only knew her by her—her hair, and the seeing glass she wore around her neck, and her rings. The rest was … ooze.”
“Forgive me, but was everyone melted?” Master Farmer asked while Tunstall and I drew the Sign against evil on our chests.
The queen shook her head. “Only Fea and the head cook. He was a mage, too. The rest were blasted, or killed with ordinary weapons, or burned in the fire, even the animals. I had two of the sweetest little dogs.…” She wiped her overflowing eyes on the back of her wrist, like a child. “Not bold warrior girls like Mistress Achoo.” Achoo knew she was being praised and wagged her tail. When the queen lowered her hand, Achoo licked it.
There was noise at the door. Men came in. The first was King Roger, a handsome, tan cove in his early forties with gray eyes. Like the queen’s, the king’s eyes were red and swollen, though they were dry now. His reddish-brown hair flipped up around the sides of his head in runaway curls. I spotted a few gray hairs, mostly at the sides. His black silk hose and blue silk tunic were streaked with ash. He’d washed his hands, but his nails were dirty and there was soot in the creases yet, as if he’d been digging in fire-blackened ruins. There was a broad streak of ash on his cheek. I’d seen him in parades. Like the queen, he had an air about him that made him the center of the room.
Master Farmer slid straight from his chair to his knees.
“Achoo, turun,” I whispered. Achoo lay flat on her belly, her head down between her forepaws.
Only the queen and Pounce stayed where they were. Her Majesty offered him her hand. “My love, I have been telling them what happened,” she explained. “How we found … things, when we came home last night.”
His Majesty looked at the three of us. “Rise, please. There isn’t room enough in here for kneeling.” His voice was pleasant to hear, musical in a way. I did not look at him as I got to my feet. All I could think as I stood there was the jokes from the days before his second marriage. “Randy Roger,” “Roger the Rigid,” stories of merchants’ daughters, soldiers’ daughters, noble daughters, Player queens, courtesans, and trollops. Tunstall’s lover, the knight Sabine, had earned herself a spell of patrol in the gods-forsaken eastern hills when she offered her king physical violence if he didn’t keep his hands to himself. Her late Majesty, Queen Alysy, had lived with all his canoodling by turning a blind eye and a deaf ear. Word was that since his marriage to Queen Jessamine, he had yet to stray. From the look he had given her before I lowered my eyes, I could tell the word was true. The king loved his young queen.
“His Majesty has also been telling me what was found.” That was my lord Gershom’s comfortable drawl. I glanced up at him. I’d never seen my lord afraid before, but he was frightened now. “It seems to me that we are best served if my team can set about finding where the raiding party came from, and where they went to.”
“It is perfectly obvious.” That third voice was coming from the plump, white-haired fellow I guessed to be the king’s personal mage, the one who had met us at the door. Like any mage in service directly to the Crown, he would have been trained at the City of the Gods or, rarely, the Carthaki university. I suppose that being acknowledged to be at the height of your craft would put a smug set on your face, but I didn’t like this fellow all the same. I would have broken the vows he’d made to go hunting for the missing child the moment he was gone, not told Their Majesties my vows forbade me to do it.
“Perfectly obvious,” he repeated. I was looking up by then. Lord Gershom was staring at the mage. His Majesty had an arm around the queen’s shoulders. Both he and the queen gazed at the mage with no expression at all. “It was a raiding party from the north, or the Copper Isles. We must get word to our brethren at the palace—”
“That the raiders may have the heir to the throne in their hands?” Lord Gershom asked, his voice harsh. “Are you a born hoddy-dod, or was it your learning that brought you to a crawl?”
“I will not trust the palace mages!” snapped the king. “With the row they’ve put up over the new mage laws and taxes, you’d think I’d attacked them! They will be happy to gain power over our Gareth!”
Tunstall cleared his throat. Everyone looked at him. “Since we lose daylight as we talk, I propose that the three of us begin our Hunt,” he said. “That is why you brought us here?”
My lord Gershom hurriedly introduced us to the king. Then Master Farmer, Tunstall, and I, bowing a great deal, got ourselves out of that room. Pounce and Achoo raced away around our feet, beating us into the hall.
“That was a splendid escape,” Master Farmer said when the door closed behind us. “Do you know where we should start?”
“Are you the investigators Lord Gershom brought to us?” A lady approached us. She was exactly my height, with white skin and blond hair that she had pinned back under a white veil. Her eyes were wide-spaced and blue, attentive, set over a short nose and broad, thin-lipped mouth. Like the queen she wore a very light under tunic and over tunic, but her over tunic was plain gray cotton, with small, sober blue embroideries at the cuffs. I saw no magical designs there. She wore a plain gold chain for a necklace, a black stone on one index finger, and a piece of blue lapis lazuli on the other. There were plain gold hoops in her earlobes. Like the queen’s, her eyes were red and swollen with weeping. “Is Queen Jessamine in there?” she asked.
I glared at Tunstall. I was curst if he would saddle me with talking to every mot we encountered.
He smiled at the lady. “She is there, with the king, and a white-haired cove who has vexed my lord Gershom.”
The lady smiled a little. “He’s Ironwood of Sinthya, His Majesty’s personal mage. He vexes everyone, sooner or later. Actually, sooner. If you want a guide—I couldn’t help but hear what you were saying—I’ll take you to whatever you need to see. Her Majesty has no need of me if she’s with the king.”
Master Farmer offered his hand. “I’m Farmer Cape, handling magecraft for the Hunt. I serve the Provost’s office in Blue Harbor.”
Master Farmer shrugged. “Doubtless someone like that is on the way. I’m just here to get the Hunt started.” He said it evenly, as a simple fact.
The lady must have thought he’d taken offense. She sighed and shook her head. “Forgive me. I meant no insult. I’m sure you’re good at what you do, or Lord Gershom would not have brought you here. And I’m not always so unmannerly. I’m Her Majesty’s personal mage, Orielle Clavynger. Is this a scent hound?” She offered her fingers for Achoo to smell. “She doesn’t look like those we Hunt with.”
“Her name’s Achoo,” I said. “She is a scent hound. I’m hoping to put her to work.”
When Mistress Orielle looked up at me, I saw iron in those mild blue eyes. She might seem to be sweet and approachable, but she belonged to the court, and expected things to be done in a certain way. Reminded to improve my manners, I introduced us properly. “I’m Rebakah Cooper, guardswoman and handler for Achoo. This is my partner, Senior Guardsman Matthias Tunstall. And you have met Master Farmer.”
“The day is trickling away,” Tunstall said politely. “We would like to get to work, lady mage.”
“Oh, of course,” Mistress Orielle replied. “Where would you like to start?”
“The nursery,” Tunstall and Master Farmer said at the same time. Tunstall glared at the mage, but Master Farmer only gave Tunstall a bland, dozy smile. Mistress Orielle tucked her arm through Master Farmer’s and pulled him along, explaining that there would be little to see. The fire had started in the nursery from what her spells had told her.
I wanted to tell Tunstall to back off of Master Farmer, but I was distracted by looking for Pounce. He’d vanished somewhere before I could introduce him to Mistress Orielle. I knew he would be all right. A cat who roamed the stars would hardly lose me here. Still, he sometimes chose to get into mischief that I had to handle later. I liked to have him under my eye.
The damage from the fire got worse as we climbed the stairs and entered what Mistress Orielle said was the north wing. The roof there was burned away, as were parts of the inner and outer walls and chunks of the floors. Finally we had to stop. All that lay before us was a gaping hole from roof to cellar where the north wing had collapsed. I took out my mirror. Magic like cobwebs glowed in the shadows. It was this that held what remained of the floors and the walls. I put the mirror away. It was almost more frightening to see how scant the protective magic was than to know the wing itself was close to coming down.
“Her Majesty said the body of the prince’s mage was found in the nursery,” Tunstall remarked, staring down into the mass of charred beams and flagstones. “Is it still there?”
Mistress Orielle fluttered. “Well, no,” she explained in reply to Tunstall’s question. “All of the bodies, including Fea’s, were brought out right away. Fea of Seabeth,” she added, as if that helped us any.
“So there are no dead actually here,” Tunstall said.
“We could hardly leave them in the cellar. We were searching for His Highness,” Mistress Orielle said, lips trembling.
It was my turn to move in. “Tunstall, she’s been through a bad time,” I scolded, keeping my voice soft. Tunstall and I worked this manner of questioning all of the time. I took her by the arm and gently turned her away from the men. Achoo did her part by looking sad as she nudged Mistress Orielle’s elbow in a comforting way. “Do any of his belongings remain down there, Mistress Orielle?” I asked, trying to speak as if we’d been educated at the same school. “Could you tell if they were taken, or destroyed in the fire?”
“Oh, no, they were burned as far as I could tell,” she said. “The gold rattle from Prince Baird, the crystal orb from my lady of Cavall—or was it my lady of Coa’s Wood?—all of the expensive things were taken, but his clothespresses burned, and his everyday toys.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t understand how this could happen,” she said as she took out a better handkerchief than I could offer. “This place has been magicked and remagicked against all kinds of disaster. The Chancellor of Mages renewed the spells before Her Majesty brought Prince Gareth here at the beginning of May!”
Master Farmer had taken a lens that hung on a chain around his neck and was using it to view the ruins. “I hope you didn’t pay him good coin,” he said. “Or even bad coin.”
“What do you mean?” Mistress Orielle asked sharply.
Master Farmer tucked the lens inside the front of his tunic. Gone was his foolery when he spoke. “The spells all around us are shredded, Mistress Clavynger—apply your own spell if you doubt me. If the Lord Chancellor did anything while he was here, it was damage, not strengthening. If the attackers came up from the seacoast, it was because he destroyed the concealment spells on the cliffs, the paths, and the gates.”
She stared at him, jaw agape. Was she vexed because he had dared to criticize a mage of much higher rank? Or did she see, as I had, that he’d just accused the realm’s chief mage of the worst kind of treason? Master Farmer shrugged. “It stands to reason you have secret paths down to the beaches,” he said. “Why have a seaside palace if you never go down to bathe?”
“Since you’ve put the cat in with the pigeons, you’d best go explain to Their Majesties how it got there,” Tunstall told Master Farmer. “We’re not speaking for you. We didn’t say that their big mage left them open to murder. For all you know, she’s going to say that you’re a fool and don’t belong in this Hunt.”
“Mayhap that fancy education in Carthak and the City of the Gods needs some additions. A class for not killing folk, and another on holding to your vows.” Master Farmer shook his head and followed Mistress Orielle.
It takes a real sack to accuse a great lord and mage before another great mage, don’t you think? I heard Pounce ask. He walked toward us over the gap, balancing easily on a charred beam.
“If he did, hestaka,” Tunstall replied, “why didn’t he also say Ironwood and Orielle should have seen the damage themselves? It’s one thing to accuse a cove who’s far off, and another to rightly say the mages nearby were too smug or too lazy to do their proper work.”
Tunstall was in his crotchety mood when it came to the new mage. I knew it would do no good to remain and let him continue to find fault. He would come to like or simply to work with the new mage when he felt like it. “Well, I’m off to find the laundry, if it isn’t under all that,” I said to him, pointing to the two-story hole. My heart was pounding. I feared that somewhere in all this charred wood and ashy cloth there was a dead four-year-old lad with reddish-brown curls, and Achoo and I might find him, once we had sommat to give Achoo the scent. Then I would have to tell that beautiful girl that her baby was gone, and my king that he was childless again. When I thought of all the prayers that had gone up from the entire realm, begging for an heir of our king and queen, it made me want to weep. Everyone liked the king’s brother and former heir, Prince Baird, well enough, but he was childless himself, and cared little for government.
“Then let’s find the laundry,” Tunstall said. “Mayhap after, we’ll eye the dead and see if the raiders took off with anyone. I wouldn’t mind a look at the bodies of any raiders, myself.”
We walked back into the more solid section of the palace, checking each room we passed for someone who could tell us where we might find the laundry. At last we nearabout ran into a maid with both arms full of sheets. She gave me instructions while Tunstall took her sheets so he could carry them for her.
“I don’t suppose a sharp mot like you would know where they’ve been laying out the dead?” he asked her as they wandered down the hall. He turned his head and gave me a nod. He’d catch up with me.
I nodded and told Achoo, “Tumit.” Split up, Tunstall and I could learn more after we’d dallied so long with folk who didn’t seem to know that time was the main point in matters like these. The longer we spent bowing or listening to royalty or the likes of an Orielle, the colder the trail got. I tried to do my figuring as Achoo and I ran down a narrow servant’s stair in part of the building that had escaped the fire. Her Majesty said the king’s party had left Blue Harbor at about midnight. Even if they’d kept a good pace, and the absence of the guards at the main gate had spurred them on, they would have reached here after one—call it two of the clock. How far the raiders would get depended on whether they had fled by ship or by land. I don’t know what His Majesty or my lord thought we could do if they’d taken ship. The Rats could be on their way to Carthak.
And why the secrecy? I wondered as we reached the basement level. I turned right, as the maid had directed me, following the lingering scent of soapy steam. Why had the king not summoned the navy right off, and the army? Why were all the fine mages of the chancellery not having their own little peregrine voyages right now, ready to put their fancy training and tools into the search? I knew there’d been a lot of angry mages when the king proposed that they be licensed and taxed like ordinary folk, but surely all of the palace mages weren’t rotten.
The laundry was far bigger even than the one at Provost’s House. It was a downhearted place, with no maids at work, beating shirts and tunics, dying new batches of clothes, telling jokes and gossiping above the noise of it all. Achoo and I walked in, looking at indoor lines hung with drying clothes and the baskets of dry stuff, waiting for hot irons. The fires were out, their fuel all burned to ashes. When I dipped my hand into the water tubs, I found them all cold. Several times I had to walk around puddles of blood. Either the raiders had killed anyone here and dragged them out, or those collecting the dead had taken them away.
“Black God take you gentle,” I whispered, in case their ghosts were lingering. “Find the Peaceful Realms and rest.” The more death I know, the more I feel like I must say something, working for the Black God as I do. I wondered if there were pigeons outside who might be carrying any ghosts. If there were, the ghosts might tell me of how the attack had unfolded.
My steps and Achoo’s claws echoed on the stone floors. I looked at the baskets, wondering where I could start, when I saw the second laundry room, connected to the big one. The baskets in there held clothes that were finer than these by far.
This other room was smaller, but better equipped. The flatirons were polished smooth to leave no marks on fine linen, lace, or silk. The starches were the finest ground possible, for a queen’s delicate skin, and the soap was filled with expensive scent.
I saw a pair of good-sized baskets. One held small pressed tunics neatly folded and ready for transport upstairs. The other held tunics streaked with berry traces, hose stained with mud, and loincloths marked by a child who was still learning to master the chamber pot. That touched me. I remember one time when my brother Nilo got lost at Provost’s House, just after we’d moved there. He’d cried himself into hiccups in one of the cellars, thinking he’d never see any of us again. The poor little prince must be so frightened, out there with strangers. He’d been surrounded by them that loved him all his life.
When I knelt by the basket of dirty laundry, Achoo plunged her nose into it. She began to sneeze right away, having gotten the prince’s scent full on. I moved the basket away before she could sneeze into it. If things got ugly, other scent hounds might need these dirty clothes.
A basket was too unwieldy. I looked around and spotted a laundry bag. I slid it over one end of the basket and tilted it so the clothes fell inside. I kept two dirty loincloths, sliding them in a leather outer pocket on my shoulder pack. Then I tied off the top of the bag. Now the scent-rich clothes would be protected from my smell. If we did not find His Highness dead somewhere close, more scent hound teams, the veteran teams, would be placed on this Hunt. They would need these garments.
“Where have you been?” I asked Pounce, though this wasn’t the idea that was chief of those in my brain.
Pounce answered my spoken question anyway. Out and about.
I barely attended to that. Instead I spoke the thing that had been itching at my brain for some time. The itch had gotten almost unbearable since Master Farmer said what he had about the protection spells.
“It was an inside job, wasn’t it?” I asked Pounce. “It’s not just a matter of the magic being shredded to bits, like Master Farmer said. That hill below the gardens is steep. Then we have two outer walls and cliffs down to the sea, as well as those dead soldiers we saw in the garden. For raiders to get by all that, someone helped the kidnappers. Someone opened gates and told them where to find the hidden trails and the prince.”
Is that what you think? he asked. Pounce hardly ever tells me things, even when he knows them. He says he doesn’t want me to depend on him. Since the last time I expected him to warn me of danger and I got my head cracked instead, I don’t argue.
“What I think is that if someone got the jump on our little prince last night, they might well try again, on Their Majesties. It’s not enough to take the heir. Her Majesty’s young, and it’s plain they’re still in love. Mayhap she’s not gotten pregnant again yet because she wanted to spend time with the prince. The first thing they ought to do is get about the business of more heirs, unless their enemies stop them.”
I lifted the bag in my arms and walked out through the bigger laundry room. “At least with this stuff Achoo and I have sommat to start with. It’s a grand life we have, when excitement comes from dirty loincloths,” I told Pounce.
As we climbed the stairs to the main floor, I heard shouting in the distance. I couldn’t be sure, but the loudest voice sounded like the king’s. When we rounded the turn and came in view of the top stair, there sat Mistress Orielle, weeping into her hands. Tunstall perched beside her, one arm around her shoulders. Master Farmer leaned against the wall behind them, his hands in his breeches pockets.
His face brightened when he saw me. “Is it washing day?” he asked. Tunstall shot him a glare, but Master Farmer didn’t seem to even notice it.
“Why is the king shouting?” I asked them. His Majesty’s voice came from down one of the halls.
Mistress Orielle found her handkerchief and blew her nose. “The Lord Chancellor of Mages was found at dawn in his office, murdered,” she said. “It’s disastrous at such a time.”
I stared at her. “How did you find out—oh. Magic.”
“Ironwood spoke to the Corus palace when I told him what Farmer had seen,” Orielle told me. “Everything there is all upended.”
“He didn’t tell the palace folk what has happened here?” Tunstall asked, alarmed. So was I.
“No, of course not!” Orielle replied, outraged. “No word is to leave this place until decisions are made. His Majesty has placed Lord Gershom in charge of everything, and Lord Gershom has been … quite firm about that.”
“Everything? He hasn’t sent for the Knight Commander of the King’s Own? The Prime Minister?” Master Farmer asked. Tunstall glanced at me and raised his brows. This was a shocker. Why would His Majesty do such a thing? Then I had a thought. Mayhap the king already believed the raiders had inside help. Maybe he’s not trusting anyone at either palace just now, except my lord.
I knew Lord Gershom and the king were friends from the king’s wilder days. My lord had saved the king’s life on many an occasion, and he’d hidden many a mistress from the knowledge of Queen Alysy. Now I wondered what other things my lord might have done for him, that the king would place all responsibility for this mess as it stood in Lord Gershom’s hands.
Lady Orielle was clearing her throat to get my attention. “What did you find?” she asked me.
“His Highness’s dirty clothes. They’re important,” I told her when she frowned. “The scent hounds will need them. They must be kept separate and untouched.” I offered her the bag, but chose not to mention the two pieces I’d put in my shoulder pack. If the king didn’t trust the palace folk, neither would I. “This must be sealed and put aside, in case we don’t find the prince here.” Mistress Orielle flinched, but she took the bag from me. I looked at Tunstall. “Any word of the kidnappers?”
Tunstall leaned over, about to spit, then thought the better of it. He took his arm from Mistress Orielle’s shoulders instead. “None of them among the dead. Every body is someone known by the folk here. The melted ones were known by jewelry, amulets, and so on. They’ve not found any dead younger than twenty. And all the fairest young mots and coves are gone, too. Twenty-eight missing, total.”
“Perhaps it’s time to let Achoo go to work?” Master Farmer asked. “Set her to track the prince, now that she has something to give her the scent?”
Mistress Orielle got to her feet with Tunstall’s help and let Pounce and me squeeze by as he climbed the last step to stand with Master Farmer. “I’ll take good care of the clothes, don’t you worry,” she told me, patting the bag. She looked beyond us. Master Ironwood was approaching. I’d thought he looked bad when he greeted my lord at the front door. Now he looked worse. “We have the prince’s dirty clothes to care for,” she told him.
“What do I care for dirty clothes, you idiot female?” he snapped at her as he passed us by. I bristled and stepped onto the ground floor. Achoo came with me, growling, her head down.
Mistress Orielle set her hand on my arm. “I’m used to it,” she said, her soft voice matter-of-fact. “It doesn’t bother me.”
I would have said, “It bothers me,” but it wasn’t my place. If this quiet little mot was the queen’s personal mage, she was far better able to defend herself than I could.
I knelt beside Achoo, telling her, “Mudah.” Achoo looked at me, as if to ask if I was sure, then relaxed. Master Ironwood was gone down the hall in any event. Tunstall and Master Farmer were waiting. I held a stained and smelly loincloth under Achoo’s nose. She gave it a good sniff before she began to sneeze. “Maji,” I said. Get to work. I looked around for Pounce, but he had disappeared again. I hoped he was going to drop a wall on Master Ironwood for his meanness, but knew it wasn’t likely. He would call it interference and tell me to drop the wall on the mage myself.
Off went Achoo. I cleared my thoughts and followed. In the years I have been running with her, I have found that I make my own contributions, keeping my eyes and ears open as I follow. Up the stairs she took me, stopping often to turn, sniffing. On she would go. I was fairly certain that she smelled the raiders as they carried the lad back along the hall from the nursery, but Achoo had to work in her own way. She could be chasing the prince as he came in from play, sweating and leaving his scent in the air where a hound with an uncanny nose would find it hours, even days, after. She had to breathe in all of the scents and then unravel them.
Achoo halted at last, thwarted by the end of the wooden floor and the gaping hole where the roof, attic, nursery, and whatever lay below had dropped into the cellars. Three charred boards, held by whatever remained of the magic that reinforced this wing of the palace, jutted out over that gaping pit. I had the strange fancy the hole was a giant’s mouth, the boards rotted teeth.
“Achoo,” I called softly. I didn’t want to command her when she had the scent, but she was making me very nervous. She circled on those boards, blowing smoke and the scents of charred wood, paint, and flesh out of her nose. The spells were lace. What if the threads that held those boards up snapped under her?
I offered the loincloth silently, about to call her a second time, when she straightened and trotted back past me, her plumed tail in the air. She was on the move again. I followed her back down the hallway. We passed the waiting stairwell. Achoo ignored it. The prince’s captors had not taken him downstairs here. We passed an open linen closet where a noble lady sobbed into a pile of folded sheets and a maidservant awkwardly patted her on the back. The maid glanced at us, but the noblewoman never looked up. Next I looked into a room where Master Ironwood sat in a window, a bowl between his hands. He stared into its contents as a lilac glow shone on its surface.
Then Achoo found a stairwell she liked. She ran swiftly down, but I had to go more carefully. Pooled blood made the marble steps hazardous. Someone had fought like a centaur for this passageway. At the end of it lay a dead man, as I had expected. Gods all witness it, he was chopped meat in chain mail and the tunic of the King’s Own, his head still barely attached. From the state of the landing, he’d made the invaders pay for every gouge on his poor body.
down beside him. Achoo, in the open door to the
“Diamlah,” I told her. “Pox rot it, you know what I must do here.”
Achoo gave her near
silent “wuf,” as much of a
rebelion rebellion when I’d told her
diamlah as she would give. She waited as
i closed the big cove’s open eyes with my fingers and set two
copers from my purs on them. Them collecting the
ded dead had not
found him. Id hav to let them know he was here. “Black God take you
gentle, brave defefe defender,” I whispered. “The
living will cary your duty now. Find the Peeceful Realms and
“what’s this?” I heard Master Farmer say nearby. I knew he and Tunstall had followed us but I hadnt wanted to attend upon them. I was working with Achoo
Tunstall whispered. “Shes as close to being a priest of the Black
difrence in a temple so keep your gob buttoned!
I must stop. I am to tired to rite mor untl Ive had a proper sleep.