Saturday, June 9, 249

The Summer Palace

Now I am better for a bit of sleep and a decent meal. I always forget how much a Hunt takes out of me, until the next time I am on one.

When I stood beside the dead soldier of the King’s Own, Achoo was ready to leap out of her skin, she was so anxious to keep on. Anyone might have thought I’d cost her hours instead of a minute at the most. I stepped out into the garden with her and gave her the order to Hunt. Master Farmer and Tunstall followed us.

Off she went, tracking the scent into the night. A vast glow grew behind us, throwing our shadows over the garden paths. I glanced back to see it came from all around Master Farmer. He was lighting our way. The dead had been cleared off, so there was naught to hinder Achoo as she trotted downhill. She leaped the garden wall handily. It was more of an ungraceful scramble for us humans, but she made sure I was over before she went on, across the road we had taken not so long ago to reach the front door of the Summer Palace. The young prince’s captors had not even bothered to conceal themselves at that point. They had followed the road straight down to a walled gate that overlooked the sea, knowing they had left everyone in the Summer Palace dead. Were they laughing as they passed through?

I kept to the roadside as Achoo and I continued on. I knew Tunstall would pause to inspect the footprints at the gate, to see who came and who left. Achoo led me down a broad path that wound into the rock formations below the wall. I could see where the path split off twice, to rise toward other parts of the palace. I wasn’t certain if it was Master Farmer’s pearly light that made my vision of those paths waver, or the remnants of the spells that had once hidden them. In any event, Achoo had no interest in anything but this route. She followed it all the way to a long, narrow shingle of beach. There she ran to and fro between the waves and the stone cliffs that sheltered it, barking furiously at the Emerald Ocean. Seemingly she wanted it to give up the prince she was seeking.

“Tide’s still high,” Master Farmer said as he came up behind me, still casting light around us. “Doubtless it’s washed away all traces of the ships’ landing spot.”

I saw sommat on the waves. Hurriedly I stripped off my boots and weapons belt and waded in after it while Achoo set up a yelping I was sure they could hear atop the cliffs. The riptide dragged on my knees and ankles, trying to tug me out to sea. No wonder the coast folk talk of mermen and merwomen grabbing hold of someone from under the water—it almost felt like hands about my legs, when no one’s seen any of the sea people in two hundred years!

Achoo set up a mourning howl as I grabbed the thing I had seen. It was the body of a cat. Other bodies floated by me—dead rats of the four-legged, pink-tailed kind. I grabbed one of the rats’ bodies, and a floating whip. Then a strong arm wrapped around my waist and Tunstall towed me back to shore.

“A little cold for a sea bath, isn’t it?” he growled in my ear. “And what was that smokehead thinking, to let you wade in?” He dumped me on the sand.

I glared up at him. “I’d have liked to see him stop me.” I dropped my findings on the wet sand before him and Master Farmer while Achoo whined and sniffed me all over anxiously, licking my face and arms.

Pounce had caught up with us again. He looked at that poor dead cat, his tail lashing, then said, Achoo tells you that while she may be silly, she knows better than to go into the angry waters.

“Achoo only has a name for being silly because she gets bored easy, she’s so clever,” I told Pounce. The two coves were still staring at the things I had fetched from the waves. Seemingly they hadn’t got their import yet. I went on telling Pounce, “When she gets bored, she’ll do anything to keep from being bored, even if it means just chasing butterflies or leaves. I had to get those things because they tell us sommat that’s very, very important.” I looked at the coves. “What manner of fleeing raiders take time to throw their cats and rats into the sea? What manner of slavers toss their whips overboard?” I pointed to the cargo of rope, rats, and whatnot that floated on the sea at the outermost edge of Master Farmer’s light. “There’s more coming in with the tide.”

“The beasts weren’t tossed,” said Tunstall. “They drowned.”

Master Farmer crouched on the wet sand, scooping a bit up in his hands. He let it fall and took out that lens of his, putting it to one eye. “Ach,” he murmured. “We need more light.” He released the lens, tucked it away, then got up and went to a tall stone that thrust out of the sand. He laid both hands on it for a moment. Suddenly it blazed all over, but only in spots, those spots giving enough pure light to cover the beach.

“You put light in the rock?” Tunstall asked. I half hid behind my partner. I’m not at my best with mages in the first place. It was one thing to speak with Master Farmer if he was a Hunter like Tunstall and me, but I couldn’t do that if he was going to make lanterns of things that don’t hold fire.

“Not the rock,” Master Farmer said cheerfully. “But there are quartz crystals in the rock. Their nature makes it possible for them to hold light for quite some time.” Now he sounded like a mage, and a clever one at that. Why play the fool, then?

He sat cross-legged at the edge of the wet sand. “I have mage work to do here, if you will excuse me. It may take some time.”

Tunstall sighed. “Mages. They’re like cats, forever walking their own path. Why don’t you search the north end of this beach for anything that might tell us about our raiders, and I’ll search south. Oh, wait.”

He ambled over to the glowing rock. There he bent down and picked up two smaller stones that had gotten caught in Master Farmer’s light spell along with the main boulder. Pounce trotted over to rub against Tunstall’s calves. Then the cat leaped up to a flat space on top of the big stone. Tunstall gave him a quick scratch around the ears. As Pounce curled up for a nap, Tunstall tossed one of the glowing stones to me. “Nice to have stone lamps,” he said, and walked south.

Achoo came galloping to me, sensing we were about to do actual work. With her at my side, I took my fireless stone lamp along the northern end of the beach, using it to inspect the sand from the waves’ edges to the bottom of the cliffs. I found a child’s wooden dog, a toy meant to be pulled on a cord, and a woman’s scarf. They may have been left behind after an afternoon by the water. Achoo sniffed them and turned away—they did not come from the prince, or his scent had washed clean. Mayhap the toy belonged to one of the other missing children? Given the coating of sand on both, I misbelieved they had been left by the captives.

I had reached the rocky foot of land that walled off the north side of the beach. Even an adventurous holidaymaker would be hard put to it to climb over this high, stony spur of the cliffs to see if there was a beach on the other side. I was about to turn back when the light from the crystals in my rock sparked an answering gleam at the base of the stone. I knelt to see what it was, setting the toy and the scarf aside.

I picked up a bronze pendant or ornament. It hung from a thin leather strap that had been worn through at the end. Did the owner even know it was missing? It was nearly flat and round with a raised edge. At the center, also raised, was a design of four lance blade leaves, laid with the narrow tips meeting in the middle.

I turned the dangle over in my hand, wondering who had brought it to this far corner of the beach. Holding up my stone lamp, I inspected the sand around me and then the cliffs. Here I found one more trail, half blurred by the spells that still remained on it.

Achoo and I climbed that trail a little way. I stopped and raised my bright stone to examine my surroundings. Stone steps were planted in the steep hillside. They led to the Summer Palace. The walls on the trail were slabs of the same rock as the cliffs, rising high above my head. Defenders could pour anything from arrows to boiling oil on anyone who came this way, and they would have no room to hide.

Turning to climb down, I saw light on the sea at the edge of the cove. I shoved my fireless stone lamp under my tunic in case more raiders had come. As I stared, though, the lights traced fiery lines as they flowed to the center of the cove and stopped. There they continued to move, shaping figures in the air. Slowly the shapes became familiar—curved sides, flat-faced sterns, masts, sails. Two ships drawn in fire floated over the middle of the cove.

I snatched up the toy and the scarf I’d found in addition to the brass dangle, then raced with Achoo back to Master Farmer. I kept an eye on those ghost ships. More details appeared to fill in the ships’ outlines, until I could even glimpse the pilot’s wheel on one. When I halted next to the mage, he didn’t even look at me. His gaze was intent on the ghost vessels.

Tunstall reached Master Farmer just after I did and dumped the things he had found on the sand. “Trickster’s blue pearls, what’s this?” he demanded as I added the toy and the cloth to the pile of findings.

Master Farmer looked up at us. “There are reasons Gershom called on me,” he said. “I can raise the image of something that’s buried, under the ground or underwater.” He held up his lens. “Once I noticed the traces of magic on the surface out there, I used my lens to see if there was more power under the water. The raiders never left the cove. They sank.” When we stared at him, he shrugged. “Many folk carry magic with them. I found the crew’s charms and amulets and the magics that went into the ships when they were built.” He pointed at the ghost vessels. “With all that, I could draw images of what’s there. The closest ship is two hundred feet off. Oh, and the magic that blasted the bottoms out of them and kept anyone from escaping, that’s there, too. It’s a complex mix of powers, curse it all. Even if I knew the mages who did it, and that’s not likely, I wouldn’t be able to tell if they’d had a hand in this.”

“That’s mad,” I said. “Two ships, crew, and captives? Why go to all this trouble, only to destroy the profits? It must have taken a lot of power to attack the palace, then flat-out sink the ships so fast that none could escape. That’s seriously big magic, right? Surely the realm doesn’t have that many great mages that could do this.”

“She’s the thinker,” Tunstall said. “I’m the beauty.”

Master Farmer smiled at him, then looked at me. “There are plenty of powerful mages in the realm these days, and lots of them are angry. You know about the licenses and the taxes on mages, don’t you?”

“Only a fool Dog doesn’t attend to what’s going on,” Tunstall said irritably.

Master Farmer shrugged. “I meant no offense. The Dogs I work with concern themselves with keeping the peace, not politics. I tend to stay to myself, but even I’ve heard other mages say the realm has no business interfering in what we do. Some of the loudest protest comes from the great mages—some of the quietest whispers, too, I wager. It would only take one or two great mages to do something like this.”

“All that effort and power just to drown the prince?” Tunstall asked. “That doesn’t play out. And we see no signs of any other group but the one that attacked the palace.”

“Nor a second enemy that came just in time to sink them,” I added. “We’re missing a piece.”

Hearing the sound of folk approaching, I looked back at the steps to the palace. Mistress Orielle and Master Ironwood were coming to join us. For company they had two of the King’s Own as torchbearers and a pair of servants. One carried a flask and two cups while the other had what looked to be cloaks over one arm.

“I reached through my mirror to let them know what I’d found,” I heard Master Farmer say. “They might help. And it will be interesting if they refuse, or if any help they give goes awry and destroys what we’ve found.”

I turned to gaze at him, impressed. Tunstall also had an expression of approval on his face. There was more to Master Farmer than the plain package that he came in.

The great mages halted near the water’s edge and stared at Master Farmer’s creations. Master Ironwood sniffed. “Very pretty,” he said. “You summoned us to show pictures?”

Master Farmer looked at him with dull cow eyes. “Naw,” he drawled. “I’m showin’ you where two ships are sunk along with crew and slaves.”

“Sunk?” Mistress Orielle repeated. “These ships are on the bottom of the cove?”

“If you’d looked down here, you mighta seen ’em yourself,” Master Farmer replied. “But you’ve both been that busy, I know.”

“Doubtless those vessels have been down for years,” Master Ironwood snapped.

Mistress Orielle stretched out a hand, letting her Gift roll down into the sea. After a moment, she said, “No. They are almost whole. The trash that rises from them is fresh. They’ve been here a day, perhaps less.”

Master Farmer nodded. His light ships were coming closer to the beach. “I learned this spell from a teacher that worked in fishin’ villages all the time. When my images are close enough, we’ll see anything about them that’s touched with magic.” He’d dropped his yokel’s accent some. He’d been mocking the royal mages, I realized. I shook my head. What manner of looby tried to pull a bear’s tail? In truth, I’d sooner meddle with that bear than a mage, for mages are far more touchy. Then I saw Master Farmer scratch his head. He wasn’t done tweaking these two high-and-mighty folk. He said, “A course, we’d see even the non-magicked stuff if we could raise the ships from the bottom, but I can’t do that.”

“Of course you cannot,” Master Ironwood said. If he had noticed Master Farmer’s nonsense, it did not show. Even Mistress Orielle did not seem to suspect. “What manner of Provost’s mage studies with fishing mages?” he asked.

“One that studies with any mage that will take him,” Master Farmer replied. “I wasn’t good enough for the City of the Gods or Carthak, nor had I the coin for it. And Master Seabreeze was good for other things. He could call winds, seek out schools of fish, make dyes from sea urchins—”

“Quiet!” Ironwood said. “I am sorry I asked. Mistress Orielle and I can do work that is far more useful than your gleanings from the ocean bottom.”

“I have a grip on one,” Mistress Orielle told him coolly. “Will you take the other?” She smiled at Master Farmer. “You may help, if we have need. We have stores of power at hand, should we require any, but you might also learn a new trick or two.”

Master Farmer nodded, grinning. His bright ships began to fade. “That’s an honor for me,” he said eagerly.

“Excuse me for asking, but are you not supposed to guard Their Majesties?” Tunstall wanted to know. “Meaning no offense.”

“We placed them in their chambers under layers of protection spells so they might sleep,” Master Ironwood replied, his eyes already fixed on the cove. “They are exhausted and will not wake for hours.” Yellow fire flowed from him like a river to mingle with the waves.

I frowned. It did not seem proper for Ironwood and Orielle to lock their charges in their rooms, but that was not supposed to be my concern. Finding the prince was. Mayhap these sunken ships would give us more clues, but we could do nothing about that until the ships were above the water. In the meantime, I needed sommat to keep me busy.

Tunstall beckoned me over to the pile of things he had found on the southern half of the beach. Seemingly that area was more popular with the palace folk than the northern half. We inspected all of it. Nothing seemed important: a wooden comb, a straw basket, a leather ball, a pale blue blanket, and a small fan made of feathers, together with my toy dog and scarf. The brass dangle was too small to be left there, where it might be lost. I kept that safe in my pocket. Tunstall and I looked at our collection with my spelled mirror, but these things showed no magic whatsoever.

“We’re wasting time here, standing about with our thumbs up our asses,” Tunstall said at last. “I’ve a mind to take Achoo up to the woods and cast about to see if any other strangers have been near. We don’t have to wait for day, now we’ve got these lamps. Someone sank those ships. I doubt he went down with them. Like as not he sailed off on his own, but just in case he didn’t …”

I showed him the bronze piece. “I found it up there,” I said, and pointed. “Right next to another path to the heights.”

Tunstall looked it over. “I don’t know the insignia. Might’ve been there for who knows how long, though it’s not scratched up.” He flipped it in the air, caught it, and handed it back to me. “Could be something, could be naught. Let’s have a stroll, Cooper.”

I looked at the mages. Mistress Orielle stood straight, her small shoulders square. Ironwood swayed a little. Masts were poking out of the rolling water, masts and a figurehead in the shape of a vulture. The first ship, drawn by Mistress Orielle, was coming in. Master Farmer was still seated, but his hands were busy. I looked closer. To my startlement, he was stitching on a length of broad ribbon. He was embroidering, and doing so without looking at the ribbon! He got stranger every moment I was in his company.

There was no point to interrupting, so Tunstall and I set off down the beach without farewells. Achoo found a stick and brought it to Tunstall, who threw it for her.

Good Hunting, Pounce called as we passed him on his rock.

At the end of the beach I let Achoo sniff the brass medallion and its leather strap, but they gave her nothing. She circled and circled, sniffing, going to the path, then down the beach. Finally I felt sorry for her and said, “Berhenti, Achoo.” Mayhap the owner’s scent had worn off by now, and this dangle had naught to do with the raiders. I gave Achoo a bit of dried meat, because she had tried so hard.

“Up we go, then,” Tunstall said cheerfully, squinting at the half-magicked path. He found his way onto it by feeling ahead with his feet, hands, and baton. Once we were on it, we could see perfectly well using our stone lamps. It was getting past the first spells that was tricky.

As we climbed, Tunstall said, “I tell you, Cooper, this Hunt is shaping to be a true pile of scummer and snakes. Us lowly folk better mind how we go, else we’ll be crushed. We’ve no business dealing with nobles and great mages.” He made the Sign against evil and spat to the side of the trail. “Even lesser mages. Did you see what that Farmer was doing? He was sewing!”

“Embroidering, actually,” I replied. “Mayhap he does trims with magical signs and sells them for pocket money. It’s not like he gets a share of the weekly Happy Bag, if he’s a kennel mage. They only get coin from the Bag where they’ve helped to hobble the Rats. And the pay is no royal sum.”

“Embroidery,” Tunstall said, and spat again. “Sewing and doing your mending, that’s manly enough. But fancy work? And playing with string while those other mages were pulling up whole ships, if they weren’t belching braggarts.”

Tunstall’s view of what men could and couldn’t do was sometimes odd. Our old partner Goodwin and I agreed that there was no manly or unwomanly, only what you chose to do. But I didn’t argue with Tunstall about it as we often did, when we were unsettled and wanted to think of sommat else. We had reached the top of the bluff.

We stepped onto the road that wound around the Summer Palace, where we’d been that afternoon, on the turn just before we saw the garden full of the dead. Without another word Tunstall and I raised our shining rocks so they cast their light around us for about four feet. We spread just six feet apart. Achoo, knowing her role, went about four feet to my left, a little ahead. Then we began walking forward at a sharp angle through that very clean woodland at a slow pace, inspecting the ground before us. Tunstall would signal, and we’d move ahead in the reverse direction, walking a letter Z among the trees.

“I see it!” Tunstall said when we’d gone about a quarter of a mile. “They groom even the woods like the garden. They get rid of all the brush and little trees and vines so everyone can trot their horses through without getting tangled.”

Looking at the neat forest around me, I sighed. Tunstall was right. It meant that there were precious few places for animals to hide. There were no vines to trip me up, and the trees were neatly trimmed well above my head. It also made the woodland seem false, somehow. It was not the way the Goddess made the forests.

“Cheer up, Cooper,” Tunstall said. He could read me like a proclamation. “I’ll wager the forest where they hunt is messier by far. This is for the ladies. See here.” He pointed to his right. I came closer to look and winced. A perfect mossy bank led to a stream. Willows grew there, and flowers. It was so tidy it could have been painted.

Then Achoo charged down to the water and slurped loudly as she drank from the stream, a commoner hound with leaves in her curls and sand in her paws. Tunstall and I chuckled and returned to our inspection of the ground.

We kept close to the cliffs, straying no more than a hundred yards east of them, moving back and forth in our narrow Z, always headed north. It wasn’t the best of search patterns, but it was the best that two Dogs and a lone hound could manage. At least we remained in hearing of the little stream, so we could all drink as we got dry. Palace streams, we agreed, should be safe to drink from.

I will say this of Master Farmer’s glowing rocks. They did not go out. By their light we covered about three miles of ground, dismaying all manner of bats, owls, and small burrowing creatures that had escaped the humans that had groomed all the interest from the woods. I was about to say we should turn back when Achoo raced to the cliff’s edge and began to circle, huffing to herself.

Tunstall and I froze. Here the wood opened on a clearing some five hundred yards or so across, a place where folk might have games and contests. That was not Achoo’s concern, though. She looked up at me and whined. She had the prince’s scent again!

I went to her. Tunstall followed in my footsteps. After two year of working with Achoo, we knew to keep our own scents to as thin a path as we could, that we might not interfere with what had caught her attention. There, in the bare earth where yet another half-magicked trail faded in and out of sight over the edge of the land, we found the footprints of horses.

Tunstall walked along the cliff another hundred feet and came back as Achoo followed her drift of scent thirty feet inland. “Someone waited with mounts back there,” Tunstall said when he reached me. His voice was tense, but he spoke calmly. Achoo did better if she didn’t think we were worked up. “On the grass. Hard to tell how many riders and how many horses without mounts there. Is it worthwhile to look down by the water?”

Achoo was moving in circles. She sniffed the air and glanced at us, as she did when she was on the track. I ground my teeth. We dared not let that trail get colder, but we needed all the evidence we could get, too.

“I think we’d better keep on the land trail,” I told him. “We know they took to the sea back at the palace. Now we know they came ashore and met someone here, then rode east. We’ll have to send someone to look at that beach—there’s only two of us now, and if they have a crew and we’re caught, we might never get word to the others that the prince is alive.”

“Right, then,” Tunstall replied. Hurriedly he set up a trail sign to let other searchers find the landing point below.

I produced one of the prince’s loincloths and let Achoo smell. She gave me a look as if to say, “Do you really think I need a reminder in such a short time?” She gave it the barest of sniffs, looked scornfully at me again, then trotted off across the grass. We followed, crossing the clearing to enter the trees. This was the forest that was left natural for hunters and game. Now there was brush and tree branches to dodge, and vines to flay us like whips. I went flat on my face twice, once on dry ground, once as I crossed the stream that was a play area for ladies further south. Half of me got soaked as the other half struck the bank on the far side. Tunstall called softly, “Cooper? This is no time for a bath.”

I told him what he might do with himself and his bath. The sorry old guttersnake’s by-blow only laughed at me and offered me one of his large handkerchiefs. As quietly as I could I escaped the stream and wiped the mud off. Tunstall offered me the small bottle of mead he always carries in case someone needs warming up, but I shook my head. I don’t like to drink at all when I’m on duty, even when it might warm me. Tunstall put the bottle away as I told Achoo to move on.

It was the trotting to keep up with her that warmed my poor sodden legs and helped to dry my breeches out some. We were two miles past the stream when we came to the wall that enclosed the grounds for the Summer Palace. We halted to stare, Tunstall whistling low with admiration. We raised both of our stone lamps to view it.

The hole the enemy’s mage had blown through it was about five horses wide. Seemingly the kidnappers didn’t worry about anyone catching them by then.

Achoo didn’t want to wait even for the scant time we would have taken to survey the broken wall. The prince’s scent must have been stronger than ever. She dashed across the road north and into the woods on its far side. Tunstall and I followed, spotting horse tracks that cut across the beaten earth of the main road in the same direction. We halted briefly inside the trees to get our bearings.

I knew his thinking. One lamp would be enough to see the trail while two might draw attention if the enemy was near. I also saw him grimace and rub his knees. They were hurting him, then. He looked tired, though I knew he’d deny it if I asked. I pretended not to see as he took a drink from the flask. The mead would ease any pain in bones that had been broken and healed too often for healing to really work anymore. “How far to the river?” Tunstall asked as he tucked his stone lamp away.

I can never tell if he is testing me or if he doesn’t know. If he is testing me, I wish he would stop. I have not been a Puppy, nor he my training Dog, for four years. I called the map to my memory. I knew it because Achoo and I had been Hunting a gem thief between Blue Harbor and Arenaver last winter. “A mile and a half to the Ware,” I said.

We covered the next mile in silence. We didn’t talk, but even without consulting about it, we slowed to a walk at the same time, while I whistled Achoo back to me. Then I wrapped all but a thumb’s length of my stone lamp in the hem of my tunic. The three of us approached the river as quietly as we could manage. We had no idea of how far behind the enemy we were. If they were on the riverbank, awaiting a boat or ferry, we wanted our arrival to be a surprise. If they outnumbered us, it would be even better if they didn’t see us split up, one to watch and the other to go for help.

At last we came out of the trees. We stood near the Ware River on an open slope cleared by Crown foresters so bandits couldn’t hide close to the water. We looked up and down our side of the river. No one, riders or ferries, was visible in the half-moon’s light. We heard only the river’s constant rush as it flowed down to the Tellerun. As far as we could tell, there were no humans but us about.

Still, we made our way down to the water slowly. The glimmer of light from my shrouded lamp revealed only a couple of feet ahead of us. Suddenly Achoo whined and butted in between Tunstall and me, her way of telling us something bad was near. Then the smell hit my nose, bringing me up short. It was a tripe-wringing mix of burned meat, scorched leather, and hot metal.

Achoo began to growl, hackles up. “Diamlah,” I whispered as Tunstall drew his baton. We moved forward slowly until we discovered a large, stinking pile, or puddle. “Let’s have some light, Cooper,” said Tunstall. “Any Rat is long gone from here. Any witnesses, too, I’ll wager.”

We both raised our lamps so we could better see the nastiness that was before us. It was a great soup that lay on the grass, trickling slowly into the river. I stared at it, fascinated. I recognized pieces of metal from horses’ tack, metal amulets and jewelry, and swords and daggers, but naught that was leather, cloth, or skin.

“Mistress Fea was melted,” the queen had said.

Tunstall ran back to the trees. He returned to shove a long, leafless branch at me. He carried one of his own. “Keep the evidence out of the river, Cooper!” he ordered.

I set my rock on the ground, as Tunstall did his, and began to drag the solid pieces from the mess with my stick. The swords might be recognized, not to mention the jewelry. I swallowed my gorge, which was trying to come up, and thrust the sludge aside to find anything that might be under it.

Tunstall was cursing under his breath. “Chaos take the mage that did this, Cooper,” he said. He coughed, and went on, “No decent burial for these cracked mumpers.”

I stood away from the mess. It was beginning to eat at my branch. “Tunstall,” I said, holding the length of wood up for him to see.

He looked at his own half-melted stick. “Gods help us if that poor lad’s in this,” he said.

“Take heart,” I told him. “Look at Achoo.” She was going back and forth along the bank a few feet away, sniffing the ground and the air, whining. “Seemingly whoever did this took His Highness on another boat.”

“Check upstream for riders to be sure,” Tunstall ordered. “Give it a mile.”

“Some of us think I can walk to the Realms of the Gods and back,” I grumbled. “What will you be doing?”

Tunstall took another drink from his flask, then emptied it onto the ground and walked over to the river, upstream from the mess. Stooping with a soft grunt, he dunked the flask in the water and rinsed it. “I’m going to wash the evil off of what we’ve retrieved, in case it just takes longer for it to eat through metal.”

I rolled my eyes, impatient with myself. “I never thought of that,” I confessed. “Don’t tell me. This is why you’re senior partner.”

He chuckled softly as he stood, the flask now full of water. “You think of plenty of other things, Cooper. Now, maji!”

I gave him my shoddy imitation of Achoo’s soft bark, watching as he returned to the pile of metal we’d made. Using his half branch, he spread the pieces apart. I saw from his movements that he was in pain, two gulps of mead or no. Usually he rides and leads the horse I ride when I’m not running with Achoo. Tonight we had tried his body too far. That’s why I hadn’t whined when he ordered me to run up the river. When I do complain, he mentions me getting a younger partner, and I don’t like that at all. It’s my fault we’re out running all over the countryside, mine and Achoo’s. Without us he’d be walking through the Lower City, a life that would be easier on his legs.

“Achoo, kemari,” I ordered her. She came to me, her tail between her legs, whining her objections. She wanted to find her quarry, but once more he had vanished over water. “Bau,” I said, offering the prince’s loincloth for her to smell. She looked at me with reproach, as if she said, “I know the smell, I just want to find him!”

“Maji,” I said, pointing upstream.

She whined at me again. She didn’t want to go beside the water, she complained, or so I believed. I knew she also wondered why we didn’t have a way to go on the water.

“Pox and murrain, Achoo, I’m too tired to fuss over it. Maji, right now!” I ordered.

Supposedly we should only use our hound’s name and the words of the exact order, but Achoo and I understood each other far better than the scent-hound handlers’ stiff-necked rules took into consideration. Just then, she knew I was a fingertip away from shouting, something neither of us liked. Sullen, head and tail down, Achoo circled the ugly soup and headed upstream. I scooped up my stone lamp and followed her.

We actually went over a mile to see if there was a ferry or anyone who might have seen a strange boat. We found no witnesses nearby, though I knew they could have been there earlier. I was relieved to see there were no ferries as far as we ran. Achoo and I returned to Tunstall, our eagerness and worry over having found the mess completely worn off. My neck was stiff and sore from staring at the ground, but I knew I would have to do a search of the riverbank downstream as well as up. I was sorry I hadn’t had a drink of that mead before Tunstall dumped it out.

We found him weaving a rough basket out of willow withes. “To carry our gleanings,” he explained. Apparently he’d forgotten he had named Master Farmer unmanly for doing embroidery. Beside Tunstall the metal pile, rinsed clean, gleamed in the light of his stone lamp. When I told him I would take the downriver search as well, he nodded. Achoo drank from the water above the black patch that was the mess while I took a quick rest with Tunstall by the trees.

“You’ll need to do more than check downriver, Cooper,” he told me wearily. “We need a mage to look at the evil, and my lord has to be told sooner before later. My legs are giving me Chaos. I would have sworn the night would be clear, but my bones grieve me like it means to rain.”

“Let me have a look,” I said. He turned over on his belly. We’d done this before, ever since both of his legs were broken in a market brawl. Kora, who knows sommat of healing even though it’s not through her Gift, taught me magicless things to help my partner. Tunstall and I both knew that if he’d gone to the Dogs’ healers and they understood how much his old wounds troubled him, they’d put him to soft work, not the tough Rat-catching he loves.

First I felt his calf and thigh muscles. They were as hard as stone. I leaned into the muscles with my knuckled fists, like Kora had shown me, working from the narrow part up into the big. I put my whole back behind it, twisting my fists into the knots I could feel. When they started to loosen up, I switched to the heels of my palms and long, looser strokes up through the muscles. I knew it had to hurt like sharp razors, but except for a grunt or two, Tunstall hardly let on.

Such pains are the price of years of Dog work. I’m starting to collect a few of my own, in the arm bone that was broke when a horse threw me two years back and again last year, in the fingers I broke while stupidly punching a Rat in the jaw.

“Tell my lord we need more folk to search these woods for aught we’ve missed,” Tunstall said when I was nearly done. “Hunters will be good, surely. He needs the warriors to protect Their Majesties. If those mages did bring the ships up, they’ll have to be searched, too. That’s you and me—none of these nobles or their servants will know what to look for or how to look for it. Mage Farmer, too, mayhap, if he knows how to do a sarden search.”

“Yes, indeed, but not tonight,” I told him, getting to my feet. “And Achoo stays here with you.”

“She needs to sniff the riverbank,” Tunstall said. “We’ll feel like right loobies if it turns out later they swam the river on horseback, or came back on land after they broke this trail we’ve been following.”

“I hate it when you’re right,” I said. “Achoo, tumit.

Achoo began to smell around us, but her heart was not in it. She had plainly given up on finding the scent in this place. We went to the riverbank and followed it south.

For two miles or so there was naught of use. I would have to ask where boats docked at night, if they docked, and where the trading caravans that followed the road stopped to rest. I suspected no one was allowed to spend the night anywhere near the Summer Palace, but I had to be sure. In the meantime, Achoo and I had ourselves a quiet, boring, disappointing walk. Achoo hates searching places where there’s not so much as a hint of the scent that she’s after. She droops from top to toe. Once I was certain we’d covered the two miles, we swung back toward the main road, bordered here by the wall of the Summer Palace. We hadn’t gone more than a mile before I heard riders approach. Achoo and I went into the trees, not knowing who was out so late.

They came with a jingle of chain mail and torches to light their way. Lord Gershom was in the lead, an armsman of the King’s Own riding on his left, Master Farmer on his right. Five of the King’s Own were behind them. They led two riderless horses.

“My lord!” I shouted, taking the stone lamp from my tunic as Achoo and I walked out of the brush. The men of the King’s Own had bows pointed at me before we got our feet on the road.

“Stand down!” my lord barked, dismounting. The archers lowered their bows. “Cooper, Mithros spear us all, what are you doing out here?”

I stood up straight. “Begging Your Lordship’s pardon, but Tunstall and I went for a walk,” I explained. “You know us. There was naught left for us to do on the beach.”

Lord Gershom walked over to me and offered me his water bottle.

“I thank you, but no,” I said. “My own is half full yet.” And I was very glad I’d filled it at the stream inside the royal walls, not at the river downstream from the melted dead folk. “But we did find some things that my lord will wish to hear of and see.”

My lord looked at me. Something in my face must have told him. “He’s alive?” he whispered. “But the ships …”

“Achoo picked up his scent north along the coast,” I replied, just as quiet. “We lost it again, but not because he was killed. Though we’ve got another of those melted people messes, like the one back at the Summer Palace. Tunstall’s keeping watch over this one. How do you come to be here, my lord?”

Lord Gershom nodded to Master Farmer, who dismounted and led his horse over to us. “Farmer said you three had gone off hunting something. He tracked you with traces from the evidence you and Tunstall had found on the beach.”

“Always glad to be of use,” the mage said. “It was the prints of your and your partner’s hands, Guardswoman Cooper. I picked them up as I examined the things you and Tunstall found. Good thing I got the traces before they went stale.”

“Stale?” I asked. How could a magical trace go stale?

“We all leave oil from our skin when we handle things,” Master Farmer explained. “You see it best on bright metal, glass, and glossy stone. A mage with the training can draw it off when it’s fresh and use it to find the one who left it behind.”

“You are going to teach it to the other Provost’s mages.” Lord Gershom’s words lined up like a question, but it was actually a command.

Master Farmer shrugged. “If they can, or will, learn it from me, I am glad to teach it,” he replied. “Not all of us have the ability.”

“And you’re all contrary as cats,” Lord Gershom retorted. He glanced back at the guards. “Bring a spare horse,” he commanded. A man of the Own trotted over on his horse, towing another that was already saddled. I should not have been surprised that Pounce was riding on its saddle.

“Nice of you to join me,” I told the cat as I accepted the reins from the soldier.

There is only so much squabbling between two arrogant mages that I am ready to watch before the boredom grows intolerable, Pounce replied, jumping to the ground. Besides, the beach is cold.

It was plain everyone heard Pounce. Lord Gershom and Master Farmer were grinning, as were those who did not flinch at the sound of Pounce’s voice. “I am sorry your life is such a trial,” I grumbled to the cat. Then I attempted to mount the horse. My legs, which had done so well over the miles of walking, trotting, and running, chose to cramp for that. To my shame, Lord Gershom boosted me into the saddle.

Achoo whined. She was worn out, too. “If someone can hand her up to me?” I asked. “I’m sorry she’s dirty—”

“I’ll take her, if she doesn’t mind,” Master Farmer said as he mounted his own horse. “Forgive me, Guardswoman, but you look as weary as she does. Carrying her while you ride won’t rest you any.”

Lord Gershom cocked an eyebrow at me. I argued with myself about telling Achoo a near stranger was that close a friend, but the mage was right. I was weary. Lord Gershom picked Achoo up gently. She licked his face. He was the only one there she would have permitted to handle her. Then he offered her to Master Farmer.

“Achoo, santai, kawan,” I told her. As the mage took Achoo in his arms and settled her over his lap, I told myself that I could always rename him as her enemy if I had to.

Lord Gershom brushed off his tunic and accepted the reins of his own mount. When he was on his horse, he even took the reins of mine. He let Pounce jump onto the saddle in front of him, stroking the cat as Pounce settled. “Now tell me what happened,” he ordered me, gesturing for the soldier who had ridden on his left before to fall back. “Softly.” We rode a little way ahead of the men, my lord beckoning Master Farmer to join us. I told both of them all that Achoo, Tunstall, and I had done since reaching the beach below the Summer Palace.

“Alive,” my lord whispered when I was done. “The prince is alive.”

“Mithros grace us,” Master Farmer added.

“As best as Achoo and I can tell he’s alive,” I said. “We only went two miles up and two down the river. We should have scent hounds five miles up and down on both sides of the river, and mayhap a ship to take us up or down, to see if Achoo can get another whiff of him.”

Lord Gershom reached over and patted me on the shoulder. “Cooper, you, Tunstall, and Achoo have done far more than I could have hoped for. We might have lost him entirely, were it not for you three.”

Achoo knew when she was getting compliments. She wagged her tail, beating Master Farmer with it. He grinned and scratched her ears.

“So tell me, did he really make torches from rocks?” Lord Gershom asked me.

I passed my lamp to him. “He lit up an outcropping. Forgive me. He lit up the quartz crystals in the outcropping. And there were a couple of smaller stones fallen from the main rock, the same kind of stone, so we helped ourselves. His charms stick.”

“When it’s a charm I can work,” Master Farmer said. “Don’t confuse me with Orielle and Ironwood.”

“Who taught you this one?” my lord asked him.

“Cassine, naturally,” Master Farmer replied. “See, Cooper, we hadn’t much coin, so I did chores and so on for any mage I found who would teach me something. Then I met Master Cassine, and she took me for her student. She taught me where the spells I knew had things in common or could be put to fresh uses, as well as whatever else I could learn. She’s a great mage.”

Lord Gershom turned the glowing rock over in one gloved hand. “Who keeps to herself for the most part, the Goddess be thanked. I’d be pleased to know when this lamp fades, just for curiosity, Cooper.” He returned the lamp to me.

We all fell silent for a time. I dozed. My lord woke me by asking, “Cooper, how close are we to Tunstall?”

Pounce looked up at him. Close, he said.

“And I can find him, with my lord’s permission,” I replied. I halted my horse and dismounted. I didn’t have to ask Master Farmer for Achoo’s return. As soon as she saw me touch down, she wriggled out of the mage’s hold and leaped to the ground. We trotted ahead of Lord Gershom and his guards, with me holding the stone lamp up. I’d gone about a quarter mile and my arm was sore when I heard a pigeon’s call. I halted and waited for Tunstall to come out of the brush. He stood with Achoo and me, watching as the others rode up to us.

“I said to get some help, but did you have to bring the whole nursery?” he asked me quietly as the jingling men of the King’s Own came close.

“You know how it is with boys,” I replied. Any Rats that might have been nearby were long gone, alerted by the sounds of a good-sized party of folk on horses. “My lord went for a ride, and he just couldn’t say no, not when they begged all pathetic like.”

Lord Gershom drew up and dismounted. “Mattes,” he said, clasping Tunstall on the shoulder. “Let’s see what you have.”

One of the men from the Own came to take charge of my lord’s horse, Master Farmer’s, and mine. Rather than follow the others, I tucked my lamp in my tunic and ordered Achoo to dukduk. Once I found some thick bushes away from the men, she was quite willing to sit in the cool grass behind them and wait for me.

I was tidying my clothes after relieving myself when I heard several folk walking not too far from my refuge. Cursing silently, I beckoned Achoo to come with me. We hid in another clump of brush a couple of feet away. I meant to work my way around them to rejoin my lord when I heard sommat that kept me still.

“—a disgrace, to see these matters handled by Dirty Gershom and those disgusting commoners of his.” With my stone lamp hidden in my tunic, I couldn’t tell who it was that spoke, though I dearly wished I could. “I pity his lady and his children. They never fail to uphold their name.”

“Gershom of Haryse is an original, for certain,” one of the others said. “And I wouldn’t let that mage hear you. Even hedgewitches can bite.”

“But why bring Gershom and his Dogs?” a third demanded. “Why not get the Ferrets? At least they know how to treat royalty, and nobility. They keep a proper distance.”

“Haven’t you noticed he doesn’t get along with the master of Ferrets any longer?” replied the one who’d called my lord an original, whatever that meant. “Not to mention the Lord of the Exchequer and the Lord High Magistrate. With what happened here, the murder of the Lord Chancellor and perhaps even His Highness, I wouldn’t trust anyone at court.”

“He’s also made the lords and the mages furious with the new taxes,” said the one who wanted our job turned over to the Ferrets. “I wouldn’t pay a copper cole for His Majesty’s life these days.”

“You talk treason,” the first speaker said harshly.

“I didn’t say I wanted it,” the Ferret-lover replied. “But do you think half of us would be greeting the Black God right now if His Majesty was still his old, lazy self?”

The voices moved out of my hearing, headed back toward the river. I crouched for a moment longer, clenching my fists over and over. Mayhap the split-tongued canker bums would stop for a drink from the water, below the pile that was melted corpses.

I stood finally and snapped my fingers for Achoo. Everyone knew His Majesty was at odds with his nobles as well as his mages. I found it very hard to feel sorry for the nobles or the wealthy great mages. The king had nearabout beggared the treasury to feed the poor over the winter of 247. What was unreasonable about asking those that had the coin to build the kingdom up again? They made enough riches off of us.

Today wasn’t the first treasonous bit of speaking I’d heard, either. Every time someone had a complaint about the realm, they whined about the “good old days,” when King Roger sported high and low and his younger brother Baird ruled the Privy Council and the Council of Nobles. Prince Baird was happy to oblige the nobility and tax the merchant class and the poor folk. I know what I think of their precious “good old days.” The number of them living in the Lower City had doubled as farmers lost their land to taxes and came to the cities for work that wasn’t there.

Talk of treason made my belly roll. The hungry winter of 247 and the food and wood riots of those days had given me all the taste of rebellion I could want. The only good thing that had come from it was the night I met Holborn at the Mantel and Pullet.

I stopped near the picketed horses. There. Mourning. For the first time in hours I had remembered Holborn. I wished passionately that I’d get to remain on this Hunt even when my lord Gershom did send the Ferrets out to hunt down the prince. Worrying about trails and tripping over bodies, meeting Their Majesties, I hadn’t once thought of my loss.

I went over to a tree and leaned there until I could breathe proper again. Only when I was sure of myself did I go on down to the water. I’d thought for a moment that hurt like a dagger’s stab that Holborn would have wanted to know what I had seen, what I had heard, and what Lord Gershom had said.

I spotted Master Farmer, Tunstall, and Lord Gershom. Tunstall nodded, and my lord turned so he could see me. “Cooper, why don’t you, Tunstall, and Achoo catch some rest? The lads will wrap what you and Tunstall salvaged from the remains while Farmer takes care of that pile of rot. They can get their hands dirty. You two have done enough.”

I wasn’t about to argue. No more was Tunstall. Still, I had questions I didn’t want “the lads” to overhear. I beckoned the three coves aside, away from the remains. “My lord, might this be some plot by the king’s own nobles?” I asked. I’d made sure we stood in the open by the river, with the water’s sound to cover what we said, and no nearby brush to hide any eavesdroppers like I had been. “Is that why you’re keeping this close to your chest?”

Tunstall groaned. “Not politics, Cooper,” he said quietly. “We’re Dogs, not useless natterers.”

Lord Gershom looked at me for so long that I began to fear I had angered him. Finally he said, “That is the problem with encouraging a promising young one to learn all she can of Dog work. There will come a time when she learns the things you would prefer stayed hidden. Cooper, His Majesty has enemies, some of whom think they are more fit to govern than he is. It may be that they have chosen this way to attack him.”

“Wouldn’t it be simpler to do away with Their Majesties?” I asked.

“Not if you want to make certain His Majesty does as he is told,” Master Farmer said, his voice soft. “Think how much easier it would be, Cooper, to have a pet king.”

“But His Majesty doesn’t do whatever he likes,” I pointed out. “The Council of Nobles and the Council of Mages make it curst hard for him.”

“Us worrying over such matters won’t get our evidence packed up or the prince found,” my lord said. “The political problems are mine, Cooper. Don’t forget, this kidnapping could be the work of someone else entirely, using a rough time at court to set us on another trail. Keep your mind open.”

“Yes, my lord,” I whispered.

“Of course, my lord,” Tunstall said, giving me a gentle elbow in the ribs.

“Now rest,” my lord ordered. “I’ll rouse you when you’re needed. Nond!” he called to one of the men. “Let’s have two of the blankets for Tunstall and Cooper here!”

Master Farmer saluted us. “Enjoy your nap,” he said.

Tunstall looked at him. “My lord said you went over the things we found on the beach. Did you find anything besides whatever led you to us?”

Master Farmer shook his head. “All of them had been washed by the tide. I found nothing but your traces.”

Tunstall cursed under his breath as one of the Own’s men trotted off toward the horse lines. The soldier returned with a pair of saddle blankets in his arms. My lord Gershom had gone by then. I could see him a few yards up the bank, near the mess, talking with other men. They’d brought oiled cloth to gather up the pieces we thought we could identify. Master Farmer stood over the mess. If he was using his Gift, I couldn’t see it.

“Here you are,” the soldier called Nond said as he gave Tunstall and me each a blanket. “Gods all be thanked for the two of you,” he whispered. “I know we wouldn’t be out here if you hadn’t found his trail. You needn’t say anything,” he said hurriedly when Tunstall opened his mouth to deny it. “I know it’s all secret. I’m just grateful for the bit of hope, you see. I’ve been giving young Gareth rides on my horse for a year. I don’t know what I’d—well, never mind. I’ll make sacrifice to Great Mithros in your names, in hopes he’ll keep guiding you.” He left us, his head bowed.

“Here I thought it was Achoo guiding us,” Tunstall whispered when Nond was well out of earshot.

I punched Tunstall’s arm. “Don’t blaspheme,” I said. “You know very well what he meant.” Tunstall worshipped the hill gods, Keirnun and his two wives, Morni and Danya. He liked to poke fun at the gods of the rest of Tortall, though he did so only lightly, and never at quiet Death.

Tunstall shrugged. “I think the god would say Achoo has earned her praise this night.”

I couldn’t argue with that, so I found one of the trees with a broad spread of limbs and leaves. I wrapped myself in my blanket. “Achoo, turun,” I said quietly. She was still pacing to and fro along the riverbank, trying to get the scent back. She looked at me. I pointed to the ground at my side. “Turun. We can’t do any more just now, so get some sleep, girl.”

She walked over to me and together we lay down, Achoo grumbling in her throat. She wanted to be on the Hunt again.

“I don’t like it, either,” I told her, “but when we have a boat, mayhap we can pick the lad’s scent up. We just need to cast around for a bit. I’m betting upstream. Downstream takes them straight to Blue Harbor. They have to think the Deputy Provost has been alerted.”

Achoo sighed.

“I know,” I said, scratching her ears. “Sometimes we just have to wait.” I nodded to Tunstall as he found a spot under our tree. I think I was asleep before he’d spread his blanket.

The boom of distant thunder roused me. At first I thought I’d been dreaming. As it came closer, I prayed Master Farmer could send the storm off. Then I heard him bellow, “I can’t work with weather, all right, Tunstall? Some things I do, and plenty of things I can’t!”

I got up, not wanting to get soaked where I lay. Achoo was not beside me. I found her sitting with Master Farmer, who stood on the riverbank, hands dug deep in his pockets. Tunstall was walking away from him as I approached. “Aren’t you the one forever telling me not to tweak a mage’s tail?” I whispered to my partner.

He grinned at me. “How could I know he’s sensitive, Cooper?”

“If we’re to Hunt together, you’d best find a way to get along with him,” I replied.

“Oh, he’s all right,” Tunstall assured me. “We had a talk, and now I know he’s not one of those poxy mages who will treat us like scummer. Not once did he threaten me with magicking, and I wasn’t sweet to him.”

“Have you done that with the other mages we’ve dealt with?” I asked, my arms going all over goose bumps. The thought that he’d risked his hide, or mine, testing some of the mages we’ve had to deal with was a chilling thing.

He patted me on the shoulder. “Some mages are easier to read than others,” he murmured. “This one took a little more work.” He walked over to where the men of the Own were preparing the horses so we could leave.

I joined Master Farmer by the water. There was no point in trying to find shelter. I’d be soaked by the time we reached the road. “Can you at least conjure hats, Master Farmer?” I asked. “I have a good one, but it’s at home.”

He smiled at me. “I can weave hats, with my own two hands. I can’t conjure them.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Besides, don’t you women like to wash your hair in the sweet summer rain?”

“I don’t have time, usually,” I said.

But he was gone again, vanished into a world of mage vexation. “They think, because you can do some big things, you can do all manner of big things,” he grumbled. “I killed the molten remains before too much got into the river, didn’t I?” He glanced at me. “You were asleep.”

I took a deep breath, relieved beyond saying. I had not liked that stuff. “You’re sure?” I asked.

“Not a trace of it left,” Master Farmer said. “And I cleaned what you and Tunstall took from it, so we’ll have evidence to look at when we get back.”

Another burst of thunder struck so near I felt my teeth rattle. “Was it supposed to rain tonight?” I asked when it died away.

“Not for the rest of the week,” Master Farmer replied. “A lot of weather-seers will have some fast talking in the morning. No, I’d say whoever’s working on this plot brought the storm down on us. Look.”

He raised his left hand palm up to the sky. Almost instantly I saw lines like bluish-purple fire ripple across the clouds like dozens of thread-width lightning branches. “That’s magic in the clouds, stirring up the rain,” Master Farmer told me. “Whoever did it must have pulled the storm down from the north. That’s why it’s getting so cold. How much rain must fall before your pup loses the scent?”

“It varies,” I told him. “Part of it’s the strength of the scent to start, and then how much rain there is. What worries me is that Achoo’s been following a scent in the air. These Rats are carrying the lad. If he’s not touching anything, it makes it harder to track him. We need him to be on the ground.” The first spits of rain struck my face. “Oh, pox,” I said, and sighed.

The clouds opened up and soaked us all three. I whistled for Achoo to come as we raced for the horses and the shelter of the trees. After we collected our mounts, we found Lord Gershom. Pounce sat on his saddle before him.

Finally, my cat greeted us. He glared up at the shelter of trees they had found. Rain was starting to drip through the leaves. A few drops fell onto Pounce’s face. I only waited to tell you that I will meet you at the palace, he said, his mind voice grouchy. Just because Achoo likes to be wet does not mean I have to endure this. You are on your own.

He vanished. Lord Gershom looked at the spot where Pounce had been. “If I weren’t tired to the bone, that would have startled me,” he commented. “Anything new, Farmer?”

“We’re at a standstill,” Master Farmer grumbled as Tunstall rode over to join us.

“We are not,” I said. “We know there are mages at work who are powerful enough to call up a rainstorm, sink two ships whilst holding those who are in them down, and kill the Chancellor of Mages, all in a bit over one day. Their Majesties’ mages ought to be able to guess who is most likely to combine for work like this. And those two have to give us something, or they should be clever enough to know that if they don’t, my lord might be inclined to suspect them.”

Master Farmer watched me, his eyebrows raised. “Very true.”

Tunstall raised his voice to be heard over the rain. “What foreigners could have gotten so close to the Mage Chancellor, or gotten their paws on Their Majesties’ schedule? It’s our own folk, Tortallans, who know the court, and who know our tides and beaches on this coastline, and can make their way through the forest after dark.”

“Moreover, there’s all manner of upset among the nobles and mages, as I understand it,” I said as Lord Gershom made the sign for our group to ride out. This time the men of the King’s Own went first, to make sure the road was safe. Keeping a distance behind them, I went on talking to my lord and Master Farmer. “The bigger the gang, the more tongues to tattle,” I said. “I think these Rats are home bred, murrain take them and their ratlings.”

The rain came down harder as we left the shelter of the trees. “Well thought out, both of you,” Lord Gershom shouted as we reached the road. The rain immediately doused our torches. Master Farmer instantly cast a bright globe of light that revealed everything for a hundred yards before and after us. “What do you say, Farmer?” my lord asked.

“She makes a good case,” Master Farmer called. “You’re going to need more Hunters.”

After that we fell silent, in part because the rain made it curst hard to talk, and in part because we didn’t want our guards to hear. Instead we kept our heads down and prayed each time the sky turned white with lightning. I soon noticed Achoo was miserable, so I whistled her up into the saddle before me. The soldiers cheered her leap and the horse was steady as Achoo landed in my lap. The hound poked her head over my shoulder so she could thank the men with a short bark. Then she let me cuddle her close, for her warmth and mine.

Tired as I was, I still had it in me to feel sorry for the men my lord left to guard the gaping hole the kidnappers had blown in the wall. True, someone had to keep folk from entering the palace grounds that way, but it was a scummer detail. The rain showed no sign of letting up as we reached the palace, gave our horses over to the men who would stable them, and went inside.

Master Farmer went straight to the room prepared for him, saying he had to examine the cloth-wrapped metal remains we had brought in Tunstall’s basket. Tunstall insisted that we tell Their Majesties the prince was yet alive. I wanted naught to do with it, soaked as I was. Achoo had to be dried off and fed. I wanted to let my lord speak to Their Majesties, as he offered to do, but the look in Tunstall’s eyes was such that I agreed. Unhappily. I felt bad about our state. Our clothes were drenched, even our boots, belts, and packs. At least Their Majesties would know we had not lazed about.

Achoo looked far worse than me. With every curl flat against her skin, she looked like she’d lost a third of her weight. One of Her Majesty’s ladies offered to take her to the room that was set up for me and see to it she was dried and fed. I ordered Achoo to go with the mot. She had no reason to curry favor with royalty, or to help a friend do it. My hound refused at first. In the end I had to quickly lead her to the room. Pounce was already inside, looking dry and smug.

“Tell Achoo to let this lady help her,” I told Pounce. “No arguments.” As the lady gawped at me I raced back to join Lord Gershom and Tunstall outside Their Majesties’ chambers. The moment I reached my companions, a manservant opened the door to the royal sitting room.

Their Majesties were dressed for sleep, I think, in jewel-colored robes over silk and lace, but they did not have the look of people who’d been roused from their beds. They waited in wide-bottomed chairs on either side of a table where a flagon and wine cups sat.

Lord Gershom, Tunstall, and I bowed. Their Majesties nodded in welcome and the king said something gracious. I barely remember what it was. My lord replied while I studied the mud splotches on my boots and the beautiful tiles on the floor.

My lord poked me in the arm. “Cooper.” To Their Majesties he said, “They are exhausted. They found everything on foot.”

I looked at my lord. “Forgive me.” My voice sounded blurry to my ears. “What was the question?”

The king looked the three of us over. “Gershom said you have good news?”

I glared at Tunstall. He could tell them!

“Cooper’s scent hound tells us His Highness is alive, Your Majesties,” Tunstall explained, bowing. “While Master Farmer found the ships and looked at what we’d found on the shore, we thought we’d search the palace grounds. We expected to find more clues as to how the enemy got in, if they’d let others onto the grounds after they came by sea … We had all manner of questions to answer. There is a small beach several miles up the coast. That was where Cooper’s hound got His Highness’s scent again.”

The queen lunged forward and grabbed my arm. “Are you certain?” she begged, gripping me hard with both hands. “How can you know?”

I took a step closer so she wouldn’t fall from her chair. It was hard to think of her as royalty, the folk who often stepped on our purses and our lives, when she acted like so many young mothers I’d known when they feared for a child. She needed to weep on her mother’s shoulder, or a friend’s. Her mother was in Barzun, I remembered. Did Her Majesty have any true friends she could trust for a proper cry? I hesitated, then patted her shoulder, half expecting the king to order me to take my hands off his queen. He said naught, to my surprise. Mayhap he felt like ordinary commoner fathers whose children were missing? Or did he feel worse, because his child would be safe if his father had not made powerful enemies?

“Your Majesty, I found His Highness’s dirty laundry,” I explained, loud enough so the king might hear, too. “I kept some for myself to give Achoo his scent. Once she had it, she tracked where it led. She won’t follow another scent by mistake. We followed it to the River Ware. We think they caught a boat there, because that’s when we lost it.”

She stared at me, her hold so tight I’d have bruises on my arm later. “What if they killed him there?” she whispered.

I answered her as if she were one of my younger sisters, or my friend Tansy, who tends a bit to the nervous side. “Majesty, they had plenty of chances to kill him. Here. On the beach. In the ships they sank. When they escaped those ships and rowed up the coast. When they ditched that boat and climbed up the cliffs to join whoever waited there with horses. They didn’t keep him alive through all that just to kill him at the Ware.” I patted her hands. “You do him no good to fret like this. The gods are watching over you, and they’re watching over him. My lord Gershom will tell you, it’s not killing they mean for him by now.”

The queen didn’t let go of my arm, though she eased up on her grip. She sat back, drawing me with her. I signaled Tunstall with my eyes, begging him to do something, but he stood there with one hand over his mouth so he’d look like he was thinking deep thoughts, not smirking like the wicked mumper he is.

“Is this true, my lord?” the queen asked Lord Gershom, changing her grip so she held my hand with both of hers. “Is this what you believe?”

My lord sighed and ran his hand back through his soaked steel-gray hair. “I do, Your Majesty. Though I would prefer not to raise the possibility that there is a future game unrevealed as yet.”

“We pray that no one is listening, but surely the word will spread soon enough,” the king replied quietly. “Face it, Gershom, our court will be a shambles then.”

“Which is why I wish to work it so that very little gets out,” replied my lord. “Allow these scoundrels to show what game they wish to play. We have plans to make, if you will trust me.”

“I am trusting you with everything,” the king replied. “I can rely on no one else.”

I looked at my lord, suddenly frightened. It sounded like an honor to have a king place all his confidence in him, but kings, especially this one, are fickle. I remembered Lady Sabine, exiled to the hill country for offending King Roger. Others who had offended him had not escaped with their lives. What if one of my lord’s enemies convinced His Majesty that Lord Gershom was in on the kidnapping, or that he could not find Prince Gareth?

“Tunstall, Cooper, I have your promise for your silence,” my lord said. It wasn’t a question. We nodded. He could have just told the mages to magic us into silence.

Lord Gershom was also dismissing us. I hesitated, then risked my life and gave Her Majesty a hug, as if she were one of my friends or sisters. Only then did she let go of my hand. Her arms went around me. “I’ll begin work on more heirs,” she whispered in my ear. I jumped a little, not expecting such an important confidence from someone so far above me in station. “I’ve been selfish, wanting more time with Gareth alone. But I know you’ll find my baby. You’ll bring him back to me.” She released me at last.

Tunstall bowed to Lord Gershom and to Their Majesties. The king nodded to us, his face a blank mask.

I managed to bow and back out of the room along with Tunstall and Pounce. One of the queen’s ladies waited for us there. “We’ve made up rooms, and we found nightclothes for you both. If you will place your uniforms outside your doors, we’ll have them dried by the morning.”

“How do you manage?” Tunstall asked as we accompanied her downstairs. “Have you brought servants in from Blue Harbor?”

The mot looked up at him, eyes wide. “Oh, no, Guardsman. Lord Gershom forbade it. No one is to leave the palace grounds without his express permission. Those of us ladies and gentlemen of Their Majesties’ households, those that were in their company last night—” Her lips quivered for a moment and her bright brown eyes filled with tears. She forced a smile to her face and went on, “We must do everything. It’s been a good distraction, finding where the servants keep whatever is necessary! I’m afraid the food is not at all up to palace standard, none of us being able to cook—”

Tunstall rested a hand on her arm, his face sober and sympathetic. He has rendered the hardest mots of the Lower City into puddles of tears and information with that look, and his deep voice speaking kind words. “You lost friends last night. You have our sorrow, Cooper’s and mine. Would you care to tell me what happened?”

Which was how I ended in my chamber with Pounce and Achoo, alone, while the lady sat in Tunstall’s room, telling him her story. He’d waved me off. I was glad of the permission. I was tired, and I needed time alone. I picked up bowls of food for my hound and cat and fed them immediately. Next I opened up my pack and laid out its contents, including the glowing stone, on the worktable. Then I turned the empty pack inside out and set it beside one of the two braziers that warmed the room.

The room itself must have belonged to an upper servant. The bed was big enough for two, which left a bit of room for me beside the hound and cat, who were there already. The clothes in the press were all far too large for me, but I helped myself to a clean loincloth and a nightdress. I knew well the owner would not be returning or they would not have put me here. I murmured a prayer as I put on the dry clothes.

From the looks of the dishes on the floor, both of my four-legged friends were now full. When I rested my hand on Achoo’s freshly combed fur, she blinked at me and gave me her shy “bruff” of greeting. She was good and dry.

Fruit, cheese, bread, and a pitcher of wine waited for me on a bedside table. I decided the wine was light enough that a cup wouldn’t addle me too badly, if I had some of the bread and cheese first. I combed out my soaking hair between bites, then braided it once more. That was all the supper I managed before I blew out the lamp and crawled under the blanket.

Achoo whined at me and shoved her nose under my arm. I knew this conversation, which we often had. Rest is very good, she was telling me, but we didn’t find the boy.

“We’ll find the boy,” I promised. I tucked myself against the hound and the cat and slept.

I have no notion if it was before or after twelve of the clock on Thursday, June 7, being that the palace clocks had been destroyed by the raiders. I choose to finish the events of this day as part of the events of June 7, to save myself fuss. It is not as if anyone but me will ever be able to read this journal, which is why I write it in a cipher that is part Dog cipher and more my own creation. I will need this book, to keep my head clear and my thoughts straight. I see dark times coming. In this book I will write the truth, when I can, not the canker-licking half-truths I will have to submit later, for the public record.

Gods all aid me and my Hunting team, I beg.

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