begun at Ladyshearth Lodgings
I woke with the dawn, dreading another useless day. Cleaned up and dressed, I was feeding grain to the pigeons on my window ledge just to vex the cross-grained maid when Tunstall hammered like thunder on my door. “No lazy day for us, Cooper!” he bellowed. “We’re leaving!”
I yanked the door open. Tunstall was in uniform, a heavy-looking leather package in his hands. “Orders?” I asked, my heart pounding.
“Arenaver,” he said, his voice scarcely audible. “The ship waits. Breakfast and then we go.” He gave me a heavy black leather pouch that clinked. “You look after the money, as usual.” He drew out a thin packet made of parchment. Cooper was written on the front in Lord Gershom’s dashing hand. “Your copy of our orders.” I took it. The packet bulged with the shapes of wax seals. “And maps that my lord says are better than what you have. You may keep them after.” Those came in a leather envelope, small enough to fit into the big one. I grinned at Tunstall. Everyone who knew me also knew my love of maps. Tunstall tweaked my nose. “Hurry up, then!” he ordered, and went into his own room.
Achoo and Pounce raced out the door. I knew Pounce would arrange for their meal in the kitchen. It had taken a few visits for Cook to get used to a talking cat, but now they were the best of friends.
I hurried to put away what few things lay out, then donned my tunic over my shirt. I checked my belt for all the items I needed to carry on it, then buckled that around my waist. Grabbing my shoulder pack and the lightest of my longer packs, I rushed downstairs.
A cart in the courtyard was already half loaded. Master Farmer came to it just behind me, carrying a shoulder pack and two long packs. “Would you like help with yours?” he asked me. “I’ve brought all of mine down.”
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ve but the one more. Achoo and Pounce pack themselves.”
He grinned at me. “See you over breakfast.” He looked up at the sky, stretching. “Gods, it’s good to be moving at last!”
Lady Sabine came around us to lay a covered bow and a pack that clanked of armor in the bed of the cart. Riding saddles and war saddles were already there. “So mote it be,” she said reverently. “I’ve been having too much quiet of late!”
When we had everything in the cart, we had our last good breakfast at Serenity’s for the time being. She kissed all of us farewell on both cheeks.
Lady Sabine had put Drummer and Steady on long reins and a riding saddle on Steady. She rode near the head of the cart while Tunstall lolled on the packs, Master Farmer sat by the carter, and I walked alongside with Achoo. Pounce rode on Tunstall’s lap, flicking his tail at mere street cats.
At the naval yards we found our new peregrine ship, the Osprey. It was the biggest of the four at the dock, with a fierce sea eagle painted at the prow and a tall, raised afterdeck. Sailors looked down at us and spat into the water.
Dogs came from the guardhouse in front of the dock. They checked the orders that had come with the wad of documents that Tunstall received at dawn. Once the Dogs had accepted our right to sail, they stepped out of the way and let the carter drive onto the dock itself. When we reached the ship, sailors came down to help us collect our gear from the cart. Master Farmer and Tunstall were ahead of me, Master Farmer warning the crew away from his own things. I’d already put the pouch with the coin and my orders and maps in my smallest pack. I slung it onto one shoulder.
“Gods defend me,” Master Farmer muttered under his breath as we walked toward the ship. One of the folk on the afterdeck, dressed in a long, pale blue tunic under a deeper blue cloak pinned at the shoulder, was waving to him. Master Farmer raised a hand burdened with the straps of three bags.
“Someone you know?” Tunstall asked quietly. The finely dressed cove was at enough distance that he wouldn’t hear.
“Iceblade Regengar,” Master Farmer told us, his voice soft. “Graduate of Carthak University and a snob. He bores the bones out of me.”
“Good thing you’ll be asleep through the voyage, then,” Tunstall said cheerfully. “What does he do?”
“Besides talk about his skill as a lover and his last woman? His specialties are wind and weather magic,” Master Farmer replied. “His family builds peregrine ships.”
We went up the broad gangplank and climbed narrow steps that led to the deck. Lady Sabine came behind us, coaxing an unhappy Drummer into the hold. “What happens to the horses?” Master Farmer asked the sailors who led us to the passengers’ cabin under the afterdeck.
“One of the mages handles them,” the youngest sailor replied as he thrust our bags under the bunks secured to the walls. “She gets them to sleep layin’ down. They’re strapped in soft. Nothin’ too good for a noble’s horses in His Majesty’s navy!”
We walked outside again in time to see Lady Sabine lead Steady below. Tunstall and I followed them. A small Yamani mot stood with Drummer in a stall with a straw-covered floor, keeping her hands on his side. Fleece-lined straps already circled his barrel to hold him at the middle of the stall. Pink fire shone around the Yamani as she and the warhorse knelt. When he lay on his side, she kept her hands on him. Lady Sabine shifted uneasily and Tunstall went to her, putting an arm around her shoulders for her comfort. Moving like they’d done this a hundred times before, the sailors who waited nearby fitted more fleece-lined straps around the gelding’s muzzle and legs. When they were ready, the mage raised Drummer’s great body some inches above the straw so that the coves could place straps along his length, under his tail and around his chest. Once the sailors finished, the mage settled Drummer again and wrote a symbol on his side. It shone in pink light while the sailors began to secure the straps on the stall and the side of the ship. Tunstall watched it all, tugging his short beard. I wondered what he was thinking about.
The mage went to Lady Sabine and bowed. “He has a big heart, that one,” she said. “He will sleep well. I will stay with both your mounts, to keep them from harm.” She turned to go to another stall, where other coves had begun to put the straps around Steady.
My lady looked at her two horses. “Couldn’t I stay here with them?” she asked wistfully. “Just to be sure?”
“You will be in your own slumber. We cannot keep you safely here,” the mage replied over her shoulder. She was already patting Steady’s neck and nose.
I went above. Master Farmer was there ahead of me and had fallen into the clutches of the well-dressed blond mage he’d named Iceblade. “—nice, firm peaches,” Iceblade was saying, his hands shaping the womanfruit he meant. “No pestiferous husband in the way, either—I made certain of that, this time!” The mage’s eyes lit on me. He straightened, and smoothed his shoulder-length hair away from his face. To me he said, “The Gentle Mother weeps to see so beautiful a flower in the coarse gear of a Provost’s Guard.”
I stared at him. A worshipper of the Goddess as Gentle Mother. Did such flummery appeal to any mot of sense?
His smile faltered a little at my glare. Most folk don’t like it when I’m cross with them. As Tunstall keeps telling me, the superstitious ones think I have ghost eyes, or curse eyes, because the color is so pale. Surely a mage ought to know better.
“Forgive me, fair Guardswoman, I did not mean to vex,” Iceblade said.
“I should hope not,” I told him. “Master Farmer, I’ll be in our quarters, if Tunstall asks.” Tunstall was still below with Lady Sabine.
“I’ll come along,” he said, too eagerly for politeness where it concerned Iceblade. “We should see what’s in that bag m’lord give yeh.” He sounded like an Olorun Valley farm lad now, fresh from the furrows. What was he about? “Mebbe they’s messages and all innit, eh?”
Iceblade produced a great, false-sounding laugh from somewhere around his belly. “Still moving your lips when you read, Farmer?” he asked, putting a sting into it.
Master Farmer shook his head, grinning like an utter looby. “Naw, I hardly has to do that anymore,” he replied. “I’ve got that good with the reading, these last years. Folk expect it, you know, when you do mage work. Even the Provost’s Guards like to see me readin’ now and then.”
I thought Master Farmer wasted his time, tweaking this strutting popinjay, so I went back to the cabin. Master Farmer caught the door before it smashed shut. He held it open for Pounce and Achoo, who trotted in past him, then closed it. “What was that?” I asked.
“I don’t like him,” Master Farmer replied mildly, sounding like his normal self. “He nearly cost the life of a girl lost in the swamp, telling her parents he could find her and I could not. I play the dolt to vex him, because he couldn’t bear it that a seamstress’s unschooled brat found the child.”
“Why care what that mumper thinks?” I wanted to know.
He gave me a crooked smile. “People will do nearly anything to bring a good mage into their service. Powerful mages are happy to bind and sell their rivals and lesser mages to such persons,” he explained. “For a reward Master Iceblade lets mage sellers know where unprotected mages are. I am very happy to play the fool for Iceblade, and everyone knows the Provost’s Guard can’t afford to hire good mages. I’m left alone.” Master Farmer shrugged.
The cabin door opened, but it wasn’t Tunstall and Lady Sabine who entered. Two young sailor lads had come, one with a couple of fleece pads rolled up and slung over his shoulder, the other with coils of rope.
“We’re here to secure your animals,” the redhead of the pair explained to me. “So they’ll be comfortable, like.”
I didn’t wish to discuss such vile things anymore, so I turned my attention to the new problem. “The cat,” I said. “If you could put him together with the hound?”
“He’ll stand for it?” asked the redheaded lad, happily surprised. “We’re going to bundle them up, mistress. He might not like it.”
“They’re friends,” I explained. “They’ll do fine.” Achoo wagged her tail and tried to wash Pounce’s face.
The redhead pointed to the other lad. “He’s my best friend, and I wouldn’t share a bunk with him,” he told us as he and his friend covered the bunk with fleeces. “He snores. And farts.” The older boy gave him a sharp elbow to the ribs. The redhead patted the fleece. “If the hound and the cat will come up?”
“Bangkit, Achoo,” I said. Up she leaped, Pounce following her onto the bunk. Soon the lads had secured them with straps.
As they were finishing, Tunstall and Lady Sabine came in. Tunstall gave each lad two coppers. “We’ll strap ourselves in,” he told them with a wink. “Why don’t you come check us before we set sail, so you know we did it right and can tell your captain so? We need a bit of privacy just now.”
The talkative redhead touched two fingers to his forehead in a salute. “Aye, Guardsman. Actually, we’re only raisin’ anchor now. You’ve a little more time to settle and buckle in before they put the sleep on folk—got to clear the harbor traffic first. Safe voyage to us!” His friend gave us the same salute. Once they left, I took off my shoulder pack and tucked it between me and the wall.
Tunstall looked at Master Farmer and tapped his ear, raising an eyebrow. The mage smiled and looked at the floor. I didn’t see the color of Master Farmer’s Gift, though I felt it. The air in the room relaxed suddenly; my skin stopped prickling. Over our heads I heard a cove’s voice—Iceblade’s?—raised in startlement and anger.
Master Farmer looked up. “If he were wise, he would ask himself how I could do that,” he said. “Instead I’ll wager any amount you care to name he’s telling the others one of you must be a mage as well.”
Tunstall took the leather pouch from his pack and opened it. “Each of us gets our own copy of our orders,” he said as he gave theirs to Master Farmer and my lady. “My lord wants to be certain none of us risk ourselves while on this Hunt. We each hold true Crown documents in case we are separated.”
I opened my envelope of maps as the others read through their papers. Each covered a section of the realm in the finest detail I had ever seen. One set showed rivers and lakes marked out in blue, cities and large towns labeled clearly. The other set was of noble and temple fiefdoms and Crown lands, the owners of the realm. I know Lord Gershom had not meant these for birthday or Midwinter presents, but this was like a lifetime’s worth of gifts all at once.
I like maps very much.
“Lord Gershom sent word to those Deputy Provosts he could trust in the Three Rivers Province and along the coast between the Summer Palace and Frasrlund, telling them we seek any party coming from Blue Harbor or thereabouts with a child aged about four. He gave them the date of the disappearance,” Tunstall said as all of us got comfortable on our fleeces and bunks. He looked at a paper he’d taken from the leather pouch. “Two days after we left Lord Gershom,” he continued, “my lord had word from the District Commander in Eversoul. Just such a party came to town along the Ware River in the north. The party numbered two mages, one a mot, one a cove, three other women, and five small children. He says—” Tunstall read, “All of the children were less than six years of age. I sent orders that they were to be detained if possible, followed if not. It was too late to catch them in Eversoul. By the time they got my orders, all of the children had been taken on ships on the Arenaver. At dawn on the eleventh I had word from the Deputy Provost in Arenaver that four groups answering my description, two of them small slave trains, had come from the south, three by land, one by ship. The District Commander there sent two Dogs to track them, but he has not heard from the trackers.
“Proceed to Arenaver. Take up the most likely trail if the Deputy Provost is unable to detain all of those suspected. Master Farmer will sort out false clues and confessions. If you lose the trail, proceed on your own. I will get information to Master Farmer as often as it is available.” Tunstall looked up. “There’s an emotional bit at the end.” He cleared his throat. “You four are the best possible team I can field. You have my faith and that of Their Majesties.”
“But we can’t be the only ones!” Lady Sabine said, shocked. “We can’t possibly cover the entire realm, and who knows how many people are in this vicious scheme?”
Tunstall opened the last fold of his document. “Oh, yes. He writes, I am assembling other teams and have been doing so since the day after we arrived here. You won’t be in the field alone! Better, my dear?”
“Gods be thanked.” Lady Sabine lay back on her bunk with a sigh. “What do we Hunt? From what I read in the papers Gershom sent to me, these swine have left us precious little to start from.”
Master Farmer was toying with a stone globe the size of a walnut, producing tiny sparks of fire with it. “I’d been thinking we ought to look at slaves—” he began, just as Tunstall said, “It’s the slave trading that has my eye.” They stared at each other.
Since the lads were startled that both of them had come to the same conclusion, I explained, “These Rats came in disguised as a slave-raiding party, took captives like they were taking slaves, and brought at least one slave trader ship. Why do such things when they destroyed the evidence at the palace?”
“We think mayhap so,” Tunstall said with a nod to her. “They took every caution, but they knew there was a chance that evidence would be found. Slave trade is big enough and messy enough that we might get tangled up just tracking the ships or the chains.”
Master Farmer locked his hands behind his head. “From that idea, what easier way to hide the lad than in a slave train roaming the countryside? It’s summer. Dozens of traders are on the roads and rivers.”
“But now we’ve got this information to follow,” Tunstall went on. “We’ll look at the evidence in Arenaver. If these travelers don’t give us something to chase, we’ll follow the slave ship builders.”
The ship was moving out into the river, swaying gently under us. I’d seen no oars when we boarded. I suppose the mages filled the sails with wind they had summoned and directed the ship as they willed. “They’ll change the lad’s appearance, no doubt,” I said to my comrades. We seemed to have silently agreed to refer to Prince Gareth only as “the lad,” which I thought was a good idea. There was less chance of letting his true name slip that way. “Darker is my guess, since he’s fair-haired and fair-skinned. And there are plenty of brown-haired, hazel-eyed four-year-olds out there.”
“It will take them time to toughen him up,” Tunstall said. “His hands and feet will be soft, his skin white.”
“There are stains for his skin,” Lady Sabine replied with a grimace. “Walnut juice, properly applied, takes months to fade. I know.”
“Are they clever enough to avoid using magic on him?” Master Farmer wondered aloud. “That will be the first thing I look for. A child who’s magicked will stand out in any group.” He was digging in his shoulder pack.
“They’ve been evil clever so far,” Tunstall said. “I don’t see them getting cracknob pox so late in the game.”
“Does Gershom mention a ransom note, or a threat?” Lady Sabine asked. “Surely these people want something from Their Majesties. They must have sent their terms by now.”
Tunstall riffled through the rest of the papers. “Letter of credit—copies of our orders for each of us—no other notes, my dear.”
“Lazamon didn’t mention ransom,” I reminded them. “He wants Their Majesties to die. My lady, did you hear of my conversation with him?”
Lady Sabine nodded. “Tunstall has told me all of the information you have.” She began to do up her straps, but Master Farmer raised his hand.
“One more quick matter of business,” he said. He was holding something. “On your feet, please.” Tunstall and my lady stood. I joined them as Master Farmer gave us each a round piece of smooth obsidian secured at one edge with a silver clasp. I recognized them as the magic devices called Dog tags. Goodwin and I had used them in Port Caynn three years ago. These looked the same: one side plain, the other with a compass cross cut into its surface and painted white. An S was engraved at the end opposite the clasp, to indicate south.
“Each of us must take the stone in our right hands and pile our fists together,” Master Farmer instructed. He extended his own right hand turned up, the obsidian gleaming between his fingers. Lady Sabine laid her hand atop his, palm down. He did not correct her, so Tunstall set his right hand palm down atop the lady’s, and I completed the stack.
“Now,” Master Farmer said, “each of us must choose a color—bright, to stand against the stone.”
“Crimson,” said my lady.
“Green,” Tunstall announced.
“White,” I said, thinking of the greatest contrast to the obsidian.
“And bright blue for me,” Master Farmer said. “Close your eyes. Think of each of us, carefully, one after another, as we know each other, even if it’s just been for a short time. Be sure to consider all four of us, so the tag will show us together.”
I had done this imagining with Goodwin. Tunstall was quickest in my thoughts, my big old owl of a partner, who loved flowers, and went mad in a fight, throwing furniture to take down two and three Rats at a time.
Lady Sabine I’d seen too in fights, back to back with Tunstall, control to his fury, her brown eyes intent as she dealt out punishment. But she was elegant in private. Dressed for home, or for one of her family’s many obligations, she took my breath away. She had cool humor and a kind heart for the street children who waited for her behind Tunstall’s lodgings, feeding them leftovers from meals, letting them into the cellar on cold winter nights where they’d find blankets, a fire, and hot soup.
Master Farmer for me was all questions, grim attention, or folly. It was interesting that he kept his power hidden from his fellows. I wondered if he was like me, not wanting too much attention from those who were stupid, arrogant, or simply bad. He seemed very strong for someone who had not studied at the great schools. Master Farmer was so casual with the little magics. And he was quick with humor.
“There,” he said, and I opened my eyes. We all checked our tags. Each had four glowing dots at the center of the cross. I quickly unclasped the chain on which I wore my Dog’s insignia—leather only for one more year!—and threaded the tag onto it, then hung both around my neck. The others did the same, Lady Sabine with the chain upon which she wore amulets for Mithros and the Maiden as warriors, and Master Farmer with the chain on which he wore his lens.
Overhead we heard footsteps approach. As I fetched the bag with the bracelets charmed against seasickness from its hook, someone banged on the cabin door.
“Open up!” Iceblade shouted. “Open—” The door swung wide. He flailed and caught himself before he went face-first into the floor. Tunstall snorted. Lady Sabine, always well bred, turned away to hide a grin. I picked leather bracelets from the bag and gave them to my companions.
“That wasn’t funny!” Iceblade snapped, glaring at all of us equally. “Who’s working magic down here? We’re going to place our spells at half of the hour!”
Lady Sabine drew herself up like a queen. “Master Mage, have you a reason for interrupting us? Or do you interfere strictly to make a nuisance of yourself? We are engaged upon serious matters.”
Iceblade’s skin paled under its tan. He even seemed to shrink a little under my lady’s imperious stare. “I came to say all spellworkings must end. The horn marks the beginning of our speed and of the sleep spell!”
My lady raised her chin. “So you have informed us. You may go.”
Dismissed, he had no choice but to walk out in a hurry. He didn’t bother to close the door. Slowly, as if mocking his hasty exit, the door closed itself. The bolt slid into its socket, shining with blue fire. More such magic collected in the corners of the room and stayed there, glimmering. We all looked at our mage.
Master Farmer shrugged when I glanced at him. “I would hate it if any of the crew went through our packs while we slept,” he explained. When my lady and Tunstall raised their eyebrows at him, he added, “I’m not saying they would. I just don’t want to invite them to an occasion of bad behavior.”
“We all need to be more watchful than we’ve ever been before,” Tunstall said as I donned my bracelet. He buckled himself into his bunk. “Assume as of now that we cannot trust anyone but ourselves with our business.” He grinned at Lady Sabine as I got onto my bunk and did up my own straps. “What brought on your wrath with Master Iceblade, my lady?”
“He is the kind of bully who gets the serving girls in corners and roughs them up,” she replied as she buckled in. “I don’t want to be asleep with someone like that able to enter my room.” She smiled at Master Farmer. “Thank you very much, Master Cape.”
Without the straps, I would have jumped high enough to smack the ceiling of the cabin when that curst great horn bellowed loud enough to deafen us all. Achoo fought her bindings. Her shrieking bark told me that she was frightened half to death. “Achoo!” I shouted. “Diamlah!” I tried to undo my straps so I could go to her. “Diam—” The poxy horn blasted again. I dropped, half hanging out of the bunk.
I have Achoo. I could not tell if Pounce’s voice was in my head or in the cabin, as my ears still rang. My hound settled, wriggling down into the fleece. Pounce lay against her shoulders, one forepaw around her neck, his chin on her head.
I pulled myself back into the bunk and hurried to do up the straps. It was near impossible—the sleep spells had begun. My hands felt little better than sausages, so clumsy they were. Then I saw dark blue fire. My head cleared. I finished the straps and looked at Master Farmer. “Though I don’t like being magicked, I’ll forgive you for it this once,” I said. “Thank you.”
He smiled drowsily at me and closed his eyes. A moment later, I did the same.