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Chapter 15

Diarmuid, the Prince, as Warden of South Keep, had a house allocated to him in the capital, a small barracks, really, for those of his men who might, for any reason, be quartered there. It was here that he preferred to spend his own nights when in Paras Derval, and it was here that Kevin Laine sought him out in the morning after the cataclysms, having wrestled with his conscience a good part of the night.

And it was still giving him trouble as he walked from the palace in the rain. He couldn’t think very clearly, either, for grief was a wound in him that dawn. The only thing keeping him going, forcing resolution, was the terrible image of Jennifer bound to the black swan and flying north into the grasp of that hand the Mountain had sent up.

The problem, though, was where to go, where loyalty took him. Both Loren and Kim, unnervingly transformed, were clearly supporting this grim, prepossessing older Prince who had suddenly returned.

“It is my war,” Aileron had told Loren, and the mage had nodded quietly. Which, on one level, left Kevin with no issue at all to wrestle with.

On the other hand, Diarmuid was the heir to the throne and Kevin was, if he was anything at all here, one of Diarmuid’s band. After Saeren and Cathal, after, especially, the look he and the Prince had exchanged when he’d finished his song in the Black Boar.

He needed Paul to talk it over with, God, he needed him. But Paul was dead, and his closest friends here were Erron and Carde and Coll. And their Prince.

So he entered the barracks and asked, as briskly as he could, “Where’s Diarmuid?” Then he stopped dead in his tracks.

They were all there: Tegid, the company from the journey south, and others he didn’t know. They were sitting soberly around the tables in the large front room, but they rose when he entered. Every one of them was dressed in black, with a red band on his left arm.

Diarmuid, too. “Come in,” he said. “I see you have news. Let it wait, Kevin.” There was quiet emotion in the usually acerbic voice. “The grief, I know, is yours most of all, but the men of the South Marches have always worn a red armband when one of their own dies, and we have lost two now. Drance and Pwyll. He was one of us—we all feel it here. Will you let us mourn for Paul with you?”

There was no briskness left in Kevin, only a compounding of sorrows. He nodded, almost afraid to speak. He collected himself, though, and said, swallowing hard, “Of course, and thank you. But there is business first. I have information, and you should know it now.”

“Tell me, then,” the Prince said, “though I may know it already.”

“I don’t think so. Your brother came back last night.”

Sardonic amusement registered in Diarmuid’s face. But it had indeed been news, and the mocking reaction had been preceded by another expression.

“Ah,” said the Prince, in his most acid tones. “I should have guessed from the grayness of the sky. And of course,” he went on, ignoring the rising murmur from his men, “there is now a throne up for the taking. He would return. Aileron likes thrones.”

“It is not up for the taking!” The speaker, red-faced and vehement, was Coll. “Diar, you are the heir! I will cut him apart before I see him take it from you.”

“No one,” said Diarmuid, playing delicately with a knife on the table, “is going to take anything from me at all. Certainly not Aileron. Is there more, Kevin?”

There was, of course. He told them about Ysanne’s death, and Kim’s transformation, and then, reluctantly, about Loren’s tacit endorsement of the older Prince. Diarmuid’s eyes never left his own, nor did the hint of laughter sheathed in their depths ever quite disappear. He continued to toy with the dagger.

When Kevin had finished, there was a silence in the room, broken only by Coil’s furious pacing back and forth.

“I owe you again,” said Diarmuid at length. “I knew none of this.”

Kevin nodded. Even as he did, there came a knocking at the door. Carde opened it.

In the entranceway, rain dripping from his hat and cloak, stood the broad, square figure of Gorlaes, the Chancellor. Before Kevin could assimilate his presence there, Gorlaes had stepped into the room.

“Prince Diarmuid,” he said, without preamble, “my sources tell me your brother has returned from exile. For the Crown, I think. You, my lord, are the heir to the throne I swore to serve. I have come to offer you my services.”

And at that Diarmuid’s laughter exploded, unchecked and abrasive in a room full of mourners. “Of course you have!” he cried. “Come in! Do come in, Gorlaes. I have great need of you—we’re short a cook at South Keep!”

Even as the Prince’s sarcastic hilarity filled the room, Kevin’s mind cut back to the pulse beat of time that had followed his first announcement of Aileron’s return. There had been sharp irony in Diarmuid then, too, but only after the first instant. In the first instant, Kevin thought he had seen something very different flash across the Prince’s face, and he was almost certain he knew what it was.

Loren and Matt had gone with Teyrnon and Barak to bring the body home from the Tree. The Godwood was not a place where soldiers would willingly go, and in any case, on the eve of war the last two mages in Paras Derval saw it as fit that they walk together with their sources, apart from other men, and share their thoughts on what would lie in the days ahead.

They were agreed on the kingship, though in some ways it was a pity. For all Aileron’s harsh abrasiveness, there was in his driven nature the stuff of a war king of old. Diarmuid’s mercurial glitter made him simply too unreliable. They had been wrong about things before, but not often in concert. Barak concurred. Matt kept his own counsel, but the other three were used to that.

Besides, they were in the wood by then and, being men acquainted with power, and deeply tuned to what had happened in the night, they walked in silence to the Summer Tree.

And then, in a different kind of silence, walked back away, under leaves dripping with the morning rain. It was taught, and they all knew the teachings, that M"ornir, if he came for the sacrifice, laid claim only to the soul. The body was husk, dross, not for the God, and it was left behind.

Except it hadn’t been.

A mystery, but it was solved when Loren and Matt returned to Paras Derval and saw the girl, in the dun robes of an acolyte of the sanctuary, waiting outside their quarters in the town.

“My lord,” she said, as they walked up, “the High Priestess bade me tell you to come to her in the Temple so soon as you might.”

“Tell him?” Matt growled.

The child was remarkably composed. “She did say that. The matter is important.”

“Ah,” said Loren. “She brought back the body.”

The girl nodded.

“Because of the moon,” he went on, thinking aloud. “It fits.”

Surprisingly, the acolyte nodded again. “Of course it does,” she said coolly. “Will you come now?”

Exchanging a raised-eyebrows look, the two of them followed Jaelle’s messenger through the streets to the eastern gate.

Once beyond the town, she stopped. “There is something I would warn you about,” she said.

Loren Silvercloak looked down from his great height upon the child. “Did the Priestess tell you to do so?”

“Of course not.” Her tone was impatient.

“Then you should not speak other than what you were charged to say. How long have you been an acolyte?”

“I am Leila,” she replied, gazing up at him with tranquil eyes. Too tranquil; he wondered at the answer. Was her mind touched? Sometimes the Temple took such children.

“That isn’t what I asked,” he said kindly.

“I know what you asked,” she said with some asperity. “I am Leila. I called Finn dan Shahar to the Longest Road four times this summer in the ta’kiena.”

His eyes narrowed; he had heard about this. “And Jaelle has made you an acolyte?”

“Two days ago. She is very wise.”

An arrogant child. It was time to assert control. “Not,” he said sternly, “if her acolytes presume to judge her, and her messengers offer messages of their own.”

It didn’t faze her. With a shrug of acceptance, Leila turned and continued up the slope to the sanctuary.

He wrestled with it for several strides, then admitted a rare defeat. “Hold,” Loren said, and heard Matt’s snort of laughter beside him. “What is your news?”

The Dwarf, he was aware, was finding this whole exchange richly amusing. It was, he supposed.

“He is alive,” Leila said, and suddenly there was nothing amusing about anything at all.

There had been darkness. A sense of movement, of being moved. The stars very close, then impossibly far away, and receding. Everything receding.

The next time there was an impression, blurred as through rain on glass, of candles wavering, with gray shapes moving ambiguously beyond their arc. He was still now, but soon he felt himself slipping back again, as a tide withdraws to the dark sea wherein there lie no discontinuities.

Except the fact of his presence.

Of his being alive.

Paul opened his eyes, having come a long way. And it seemed, after all the journeying, that he was lying on a bed in a room where there were, indeed, candles burning. He was very weak. There was astonishingly little physical pain, though, and the other kind of pain was so newly allowed it was almost a luxury. He took one slow breath that meant life, and then another to welcome back sorrow.

“Oh, Rachel,” he breathed, scarcely a sound. Forbidden once, the most forbidden name. But then intercession had come, before he died, and absolution allowing grief.

Except that he hadn’t died. A thought like a blade pierced him at that: was he alive because he’d failed? Was that it? With an effort he turned his head. The movement revealed a tall figure standing by the bed gazing down at him from between the candles.

“You are in the Temple of the Mother,” Jaelle said. “It is raining outside.”

Rain. There was a bitter challenge in her eyes, but it couldn’t touch him in that moment. He was beyond her. He turned his head away. It was raining; he was alive. Sent back. Arrow of the God.

He felt the presence of M"ornir then, within himself, latent, tacit. There was a burden in that, and soon it would have to be addressed, but not yet, not yet. Now was for lying still, tasting the sense of being himself again for the first time in so very long. Ten months. And three nights that had been forever. Oh, he could go with joy a little ways, it was allowed. Eyes closed, he sank deep into the pillow. He was desperately weak, but weakness was all right now. There was rain.

“Dana spoke to you.”

He could hear the vivid rage in her voice. Too much of it; he ignored her. Kevin, he thought. I want to see Kev. Soon,he told himself, after I sleep.

She slapped him hard across the face. He felt a raking nail draw blood.

“You are in the sanctuary. Answer!”

Paul Schafer opened his eyes. With cold scorn of his own, he confronted her fury. This time, Jaelle looked away.

After a moment she spoke, gazing at one of the long candles. “All my life I have dreamt of hearing the Goddess speak, of seeing her face.” Bitterness had drained her voice. “Not me, though. Not anything at all. Yet you, a man, and one who turned from her entirely for the God in his wood, have been allowed grant of her grace. Do you wonder why I hate you?”

The utter flatness of her tone made the words more chilling than any explosion of anger would have been. Paul was silent a moment, then he said, “I am her child, too. Do not begrudge the gift she offered me.”

“Your life, you mean?” She was looking at him again, tall and slender between the candles.

He shook his head; it was still an effort. “Not that. In the beginning, perhaps, but not now. It was the God who gave me this.”

“Not so. You are a greater fool than I thought if you know not Dana when she comes.”

“Actually,” he said, but gently, for it was a matter too high for wrangling, “I do know. In this case, better than you, Priestess. The Goddess was there, yes, and she did intercede, though not for my life. For something else before the end. But it was M"ornir who saved me. It was his to choose. The Summer Tree is the God’s, Jaelle.”

For the first time he read a flicker of doubt in the wide-set eyes. “She was there, though? She did speak? Tell me what she said.”

“No,” said Paul, with finality.

“You must.” But it was not a command now. He had a vague sense that there was something he should, something he wanted to say to her, but he was so weary, so utterly drained. Which triggered a completely different realization.

“You know,” he said, with feeling, “that I haven’t had food or drink for three days. Is there…?”

She stood still a moment, but when she moved, it was to a tray on a low table by the far wall. She brought a bowl of cool soup to the bed. Unfortunately it seemed that his hands didn’t work very well yet. He thought she would send for one of the gray-clad priestesses, but in the end she sat stiffly on the bed beside him and fed him herself.

He ate in silence, leaning back against the pillows when he was done. She made as if to get up, but then, with an expression of distaste, used the sleeve of her white gown to wipe the blood from his cheek.

She did rise then, to stand tall and queenly by his bed, her hair the color of the candlelight. Looking up at her, he felt at a disadvantage suddenly.

“Why,” he asked, “am I here?”

“I read the signs.”

“You didn’t expect to find me alive?”

She shook her head. “No, but it was the third night, and then the moon rose…”

He nodded. “But why?” he asked. “Why bother?”

Her eyes flashed. “Don’t be such a child. There is a war now. You will be needed.”

He felt his heart skip. “What do you mean? What war?”

“You don’t know?”

“I’ve been somewhat out of touch,” he said sharply. “What has happened?”

It may have taken an effort, but her voice was controlled. “Rangat exploded yesterday. A hand of fire in the sky. The wardstone is shattered. Rakoth is free.”

He was very still.

“The King is dead,” she said.

“That I know,” he said. “I heard the bells.”

But for the first time now, her expression was strained; something difficult moved in her eyes. “There is more,” said Jaelle. “A party of lios alfar were ambushed here by svarts and wolves. Your friend was with them. Jennifer. I am sorry, but she was captured and taken north. A black swan bore her away.”

So. He closed his eyes again, feeling the burdens coming down. It seemed they could not be deferred after all. Arrow of the God. Spear of the God. Three nights and forever, the King had said. The King was dead. And Jen.

He looked up again. “Now I know why he sent me back.”

As if against her will, Jaelle nodded. “Twiceborn,” she murmured.

Wordlessly, he asked with his eyes.

“There is a saying,” she whispered, “a very old one: No man shall be Lord of the Summer Tree who has not twice been born.”

And so by candlelight in the sanctuary, he heard the words for the first time.

“I didn’t ask for this,” Paul Schafer said.

She was very beautiful, very stern, a flame, as the candles were. “Are you asking me for pity?”

His mouth crooked wryly at that. “Hardly, at this point.” He smiled a little. “Why is it so much easier for you to strike a defenseless man than to wipe the blood from his face?”

Her reply was formal, reflexive, but he had seen her eyes flinch away. “There is mercy in the Goddess sometimes,” she said, “but not gentleness.”

“Is that how you know her?” he asked. “What if I tell you that I had from her last night a compassion so tender there are no words to compass it?”

She was silent.

“Aren’t we two human beings first?” he went on. “With very great burdens, and support to share. You are Jaelle, surely, as well as her Priestess.”

“There you are wrong,” she said. “I am only her Priestess. There is no one else.”

“That seems to me very sad.”

“You are only a man,” Jaelle replied, and Paul was abashed by what blazed in her eyes before she turned and left the room.

Kim had lain awake for most of the night, alone in her room in the palace, achingly aware of the other, empty bed. Even inside, the Baelrath was responding to the moon, glowing brightly enough to cast shadows on the wall: a branch outside the window swaying in the rain wind, the outline of her own white hair, the shape of a candle by the bed, but no Jen, no shadow of her. Kim tried. Utterly unaware of what her power was, of how to use the stone, she closed her eyes and reached out in the wild night, north as far as she might, as clearly as she might, and found only the darkness of her own apprehensions.

When the stone grew dim again, only a red ring on her finger, she knew the moon had set. It was very late then, little left of the night. Kim lay back in weariness and dreamt of a desire she hadn’t known she had.

It is in your dreams that you must walk, Ysanne had said, was saying still, as she dropped far down into the dream again.

And this time she knew the place. She knew where lay those jumbled mighty arches of broken stone, and who was buried there for her to wake.

Not him, not the one she sought. Too easy, were it so. That path was darker even than it was now, and it led through the dead in the dreaming place. This she now knew. It was very sad, though she understood that the gods would not think it so. The sins of the sons, she thought in her dream, knowing the place, feeling the wind rising, and, her hair, oh, her white hair, blown back.

The way to the Warrior led through the grave and the risen bones of the father who had never seen him alive. What was she that she should know this?

But then she was somewhere else, with no space to wonder. She was in the room under the cottage where the Circlet of Lisen still shone, Colan’s dagger beside it, where Ysanne had died, and more than died. The Seer was with her, though, was within her, for she knew the book, the parchment page within the book where the invocation could be found to raise the father whole from his grave, and make him name the name of his son to the one who knew the place of summoning. There was no peace, no serenity anywhere. She carried none, had none to grant, she wore the Warstone on her hand. She would drag the dead from their rest, and the undead to their doom.

What was she that this should be so?

At the morning’s first light she made them take her back in the rain. An armed guard of thirty men went with her; troops from North Keep who had been Aileron’s before he was exiled. With cool efficiency they compassed her about on the ride to the lake. At the last curve the bodies of Aileron’s victims still lay on the path.

“Did he do that alone?” the leader of the guard asked when they were past. His voice was reverent.

“Yes,” she said.

“He will be our king?”

“Yes,” she said.

They waited by the lake while she went inside, and then down the now familiar stairs into the glow cast by Lisen’s Light. She left it where it lay, though; and, walking to the table, she opened one of the books. Oh, it was a glory and a terror that she knew where to look, but she did, and sitting there alone, she slowly read the words that she would have to speak.

But only when she knew the place that no one knew. The tumbled stones were only the starting point. There was a long way yet to walk along this path; a long way, but she was on it now. Preoccupied, tangled among interstices of time and place, the Seer of Brennin went back up the stairs. Aileron’s men awaited her, in disciplined alertness by the lake.

It was time to go. There was a very great deal to be done. She lingered, though, in the cottage, seeing the fire, the hearth, the worn table, the herbs in jars along the wall. She read the labels, unstoppered one container to smell its contents. There was so much to be done, the Seer of Brennin knew, but still she lingered, tasting the aloneness.

It was bittersweet, and when she moved at last, Kimberly went out the back door, still alone, into the yard, away from where the soldiers were, and she saw three men picking their way on horseback down the slope north of her, and one of them she knew, oh, she knew. And it seemed that amid all the burdens and sorrows, joy could still flower like a bannion in the wood.

They buried Ailell dan Art in a time of rain. It fell upon the windows of Delevan high above the Great Hall where the King lay in state, robed in white and gold, his sword upon his breast, his great, gnarled hands closed upon the hilt; it fell softly upon the gorgeous woven covering of the bier when the nobility of Brennin, who had gathered for celebration and stayed for mourning and war, bore him out of the palace and to the doors of the Temple where the women took him; it fell, too, upon the dome of that sanctuary while Jaelle, the High Priestess, performed the rites of the Mother, to send back home to her one of the Kings.

No man was in that place. Loren had taken Paul away. She’d had hopes of seeing Silvercloak shaken, but had been disappointed, for the mage had shown no surprise at all, and she had been forced to cloak her own discomfiture at that, and at his bowing to the Twiceborn.

No man was in that place, save for the dead King, when they lifted the great axe from its rest, and no man saw what they did then. Dana was not mocked nor denied when she took her child home, whom she had sent forth so long ago on the circling path that led ever back to her.

It was the place of the High Priestess to bury the High King, and so Jaelle led them forth when the rites were done. Into the rain she went, clad in white among all the black, and they bore Ailell shoulder-high behind her to the crypt wherein the Kings of Brennin were laid to rest.

East of the palace it lay, north of the Temple. Before the body went Jaelle with the key to the gates in her hands. Behind the bier, fair and solitary, walked Diarmuid, the King’s Heir, and after him came all the lesser nobility of Brennin. Among them there walked, though with aid, a Prince of the lios alfar, and there were come as well two men of the Dalrei, from the Plain; and with these walked two men from another world, one very tall and dark, another fair, and between them was a woman with white hair. The common folk lined the path, six deep in the rain, and they bowed their heads to see Ailell go by.

Then they came to the great gates of the burying place, and Jaelle saw that they were open already and that a man clad in black stood waiting there for them, and she saw who it was.

“Come,” said Aileron, “let us lay my father by my mother, whom he loved.”

And while she was trying to mask her shock, another voice spoke. “Welcome home, exile,” Diarmuid said, his tone mild, unsurprised, and he moved lightly past her to kiss Aileron on the cheek. “Shall we lead him back to her?”

It was greatly wrong, for she had right of precedence here, but in spite of herself the High Priestess felt a strange emotion to see the two of them, the dark son and the bright, pass through the gates of the dead, side by side, while all the people of Brennin murmured behind them in the falling rain.

On a spur of hill high above that place, three men watched. One would be First Mage of Brennin before the sun had set, one had been made King of the Dwarves by a sunrise long ago, and the third had caused the rain and been sent back by the God.

“We are gathered,” Gorlaes began, standing beside the throne but two careful steps below it, “in a time of sorrow and need.”

They were in the Great Hall, Tomaz Lal’s masterpiece, and there were gathered that afternoon all the mighty of Brennin, save one. The two Dalrei, and Dave as well, so fortuitously arrived, had been greeted with honor and shown to their chambers, and even Brendel of Daniloth was absent from this assemblage, for what Brennin had now to do was matter for Brennin alone.

“In any normal time our loss would demand space for mourning. But this is no such time. It is needful for us now,” the Chancellor continued, seeing that Jaelle had not contested his right to speak first, “to take swift counsel amongst one another and go forth from this hall united, with a new King to lead us into—”

“Hold, Gorlaes. We will wait for Silvercloak. “ It was Teyrnon, the mage, and he had risen to stand, with Barak, his source, and Matt S"oren. Trouble already, and they had not even begun.

“Surely,” Jaelle murmured, “it is rather his duty to be here when others are. We have waited long enough.”

“We will wait longer,” the Dwarf growled. “As we waited for you, yesterday.” There was something in his tone that made Gorlaes glad it was Jaelle who’d raised objection, and not himself.

“Where is he?” Niavin of Seresh asked.

“He is coming. He had to go slowly.”

“Why?” It was Diarmuid. He had stopped his feline pacing at the edges of the hall and come forward.

“Wait,” was all the Dwarf replied.

Gorlaes was about to remonstrate, but someone else came in first.

“No,” said Aileron. “For all the love I bear him, I will not wait on this. There is, in truth, little to discuss.”

Kim Ford, in that room as the newest, the only, Seer of Brennin, watched him stride to stand by Gorlaes.

And a step above him, directly before the throne. He will always be like this, she thought. There is only the force of him.

And with force, cold, unyielding force, Aileron looked over them all and spoke again. “In time of council Loren’s wisdom will be sorely needed, but this is not a time of council, whatever you may have thought.”

Diarmuid was no longer pacing. He had moved, at Aileron’s first words, to stand directly in front of his brother, an unruffled contrast to Aileron’s coiled intensity.

“I came here,” said Aileron dan Ailell flatly, “for the Crown, and to lead us into war. The Throne is mine”—he was looking directly at his brother—“and I will kill for it, or die for it before we leave this hall.”

The rigid silence that followed this was broken a moment later by the jarring sound of one man clapping.

“Elegantly put, my dear,” said Diarmuid as he continued to applaud. “So utterly succinct.” Then he lowered his hands. The sons of Ailell faced each other as if alone in the vast hall.

“Mockery,” said Aileron softly, “is easy. It was ever your retreat. Understand me, though, brother. This, for once, is no idle sport. I want your fealty this hour, in this place, or there are six archers in the musicians’ gallery who will kill you if I raise my hand.”

“No!” Kim exclaimed, shocked out of silence.

“This is preposterous!” Teyrnon shouted at the same time, striding forward. “I forbid—”

“You cannot forbid me!” Aileron rode over him. “Rakoth is free. What lies ahead is too large for me to trifle with.”

Diarmuid had cocked his head quizzically to one side, as if considering an abstract proposition. Then he spoke, his voice so soft they had to strain to hear. “You would truly do this thing?”

“I would,” Aileron replied. With no hesitation at all.

“Truly?” Diarmuid asked a second time.

“All I have to do is raise my arm,” Aileron said. “And I will if I must. Believe it.”

Diarmuid shook his head slowly back and forth; he sighed heavily. Then:

“Coll,” he said, and pitched it to carry.

“My lord Prince.” The big man’s voice boomed instantly from overhead. From the musicians’ gallery.

Diarmuid lifted his head, his expression tranquil, almost indifferent. “Report.”

“He did do it, my lord.” Coil’s voice was thick with anger. He moved forward to the railing. “He really did. There were seven men up here. Say the word and I will slay him now.”

Diarmuid smiled. “That,” he said, “is reassuring.” Then he turned back to Aileron.and his eyes were no longer so aloof. The older brother had changed, too; he seemed to have uncoiled himself into readiness. And he broke the silence.

“I sent six,” Aileron said. “Who is the seventh?”

They were all scrambling to grasp the import of this when the seventh leaped from the gallery overhead.

It was a long jump, but the dark figure was lithe and, landing, rolled instantly and was up. Five feet from Diarmuid with a dagger back to throw.

Only Aileron moved in time. With the unleashed reflexes of a pure fighter, he grabbed for the first thing that came to hand. As the assassin’s dagger went back, Aileron flung the heavy object hard across the space between. It hit the intruder square in the back; the flung blade was sent awry, just awry. Enough so as not to pierce the heart it was intended for.

Diarmuid had not even moved. He stood, swaying a little, with a peculiar half-smile on his face and a jeweled dagger deep in his left shoulder. He had time, Kim saw, to murmur something very low, indistinguishable, as if to himself, before all the swords were out and the assassin was ringed by steel. Ceredur of North Keep drew back his blade to kill.

“Hold swords!” Diarmuid ordered sharply. “Hold!” Ceredur slowly lowered his weapon. The only sound in the whole great room was made by the object Aileron had flung, rolling in diminishing circles on the mosaic-inlaid floor.

It happened to be the Oak Crown of Brennin.

Diarmuid, with a frightening glint of hilarity in his face, bent to pick it up. He bore it, his footsteps echoing, to the long table in the center of the room. Setting it down, he unstoppered a decanter, using one hand only. They all watched as he poured himself a drink, quite deliberately. Then he carried his glass slowly back towards them all.

“It is my pleasure,” said Diarmuid dan Ailell, Prince of Brennin, “to propose a toast.” The wide mouth smiled. There was blood dripping from his arm. “Will you all drink with me,” he said, raising high the glass, “to the Dark Rose of Cathal?”

And walking forward, he lifted his other arm, with obvious pain, and removed the cap and pins she wore, so that Sharra’s dark hair tumbled free.

Having Devorsh killed had been a mistake, for two reasons. First, it gave her father far too much leverage in his campaign to foist one of the lords on her. The lordlings. Leverage he had already begun to use.

Secondly, he was the wrong man.

By the time Rangat sent up its fiery hand—visible even in Cathal, though the Mountain itself was not—her own explosion of rage had metamorphosed into something else. Something quite as deadly, or even more so, since it was sheathed within exquisitely simulated repentance.

She had agreed that she would walk the next morning with Evien of Lagos in the gardens, and then receive two other men in the afternoon; she had been agreeing to everything.

But when the red moon rose that night, she bound up her hair, knowing her father very, very well, and in the strangely hued darkness and the haste of departure, she joined the embassy to Paras Derval.

It was easy. Too easy, a part of her thought as they rode to Cynan; discipline was shockingly lax among the troops of the Garden Country. Still, it served her purpose now, as had the Mountain and the moon.

For whatever the larger cataclysms might mean, whatever chaos lay before them all, Sharra had her own matter to deal with first, and the falcon is a hunting bird.

At Cynan there was pandemonium. When they finally tracked down the harbor-master, he flashed a code of lights across the delta to Seresh and was quickly answered. He took them across himself, horses and all, on a wide river barge. From the familiarity of the greetings exchanged on the other side of Saeren, it was clear that rumors of quite improper intercourse between the river fortresses were true. It was increasingly evident how certain letters had gotten into Cathal.

There had been rumblings of thunder in the north as they rode to Cynan, but as they came ashore in Seresh in the dark hours before dawn, all was still and the red moon hung low over the sea, sailing in and out of scudding clouds. All about her flowed the apprehensive murmurings of war, mingled with a desperate relief among the men of Brennin at the rain that was softly falling. There had been a drought, she gathered.

Shalhassan’s emissaries accepted, with some relief, an invitation from the garrison commander at Seresh to stay for what remained of the night. The Duke, they learned, was in Paras Derval already, and something else they learned: Ailell was dead. This morning. Word had come at sundown. There would be a funeral and then a coronation on the morrow.

Who? Why, Prince Diarmuid, of course. The heir, you know. A little wild, the commander conceded, but a gallant Prince. There were none in Cathal to match him, he’d wager. Only a daughter for Shalhassan. What a shame, that.

She slipped from the party as it rode towards Seresh castle and, circling the town to the northeast, set out alone on the road to Paras Derval.

She reached it late in the morning. It was easy there, too, amid the hysteria of an interrupted, overcrowded festival, a dead King, and the terror of Rakoth unchained. She should, a part of her mind said, be feeling that terror, too, for as Shalhassan’s heir she had an idea of what was to come, and she had seen her father’s face as he looked upon the shattered ward-stone. Shalhassan’s frightened face, which never, ever showed his thought. Oh, there was terror enough to be found, but not yet.

She was on a hunt.

The doors of the palace were wide open. The funeral had so many people coming and going back and forth that Sharra was able to slip inside without trouble. She thought, briefly, of going to the tombs, but there would be too many people there, too great a press.

Fighting the first numbings of fatigue, she forced herself to clarity. They were having a coronation after the burial. They would have to; in time of war there was no space to linger. Where? Even in Cathal the Great Hall of Tomaz Lal was a byword. It would have to be there.

She had spent all her life in palaces. No other assassin could have navigated with such instinctive ease the maze of corridors and stairwells. Indeed, it was the very certainty of her bearing that precluded any challenge.

All so very easy. She found the musicians’ gallery, and it was even unlocked. She could have picked the lock in any case; her brother had taught her how, years and years ago. Entering, she sat down in a dark corner and composed herself to wait. From the high shadows she could see servants below making ready glasses and decanters, trays of food, deep chairs for nobility.

It was a fine hall, she conceded, and the windows were indeed something rare and special. Larai Rigal was better, though. Nothing matched the gardens she knew so well.

The gardens she might never see again. For the first time, now that she was, unbelievably, here, and had only to wait, a tendril of fear snaked insidiously through her mind. She banished it. Leaning forward, she gauged the leap. It was long, longer than from high branches of familiar trees, but it could be done. It would be done. And he would see her face before he died, and die knowing. Else there was no point.

A noise startled her. Pressing quickly back into her corner, she caught her breath as six archers slipped through the unlocked door and ranged themselves along the gallery. It was wide and deep; she was not seen, though one of them was very close to her. In silence she crouched in the corner, and so learned, from their low talk, that there was more than a simple coronation to take place that day, and that there were others in that hall with designs on the life she had claimed as her own.

She had a moment to think on the nature of this returned Prince, Aileron, who could send men hither with orders to kill his only brother on command. Briefly she remembered Marlen, her own brother, whom she had loved and who was dead. Only briefly, though, because such thoughts were too soft for what she had still to do, despite this new difficulty. It had been easy to this point, she had no right to have expected no hindrance at all.

In the next moments, though, difficulty became something more, for ten men burst through the two doors of the high gallery; in pairs they came, with knives and swords drawn, and in cold, efficient silence they disarmed the archers and found her.

She had the presence of mind to keep her head down as they threw her together with the six archers. The gallery had been designed to be shadowed and torch-lit, with only the flames visible from below, so that music emanating therefrom would seem disembodied, born of fire. It was this that saved her from being exposed in the moments before the nobles of Brennin began to file in over the mosaic-inlaid floor below them.

Every man in that gallery, and the one woman, watched, absorbed, as the foreshortened figures moved to the end of the hall where stood a carved wooden throne. It was oak, she knew, and so was the crown resting on the table beside it.

Then he came forward into view from the perimeter of the room and it was clear that he had to die, because she was still, in spite of all, having trouble breathing at the sight of him. The golden hair was bright above the black of his mourning. He wore a red armband; so, she abruptly realized, did the ten men encircling her and the archers. An understanding came then and, though she fought it very hard, a sharp pleasure at his mastery. Oh, it was clear, it was clear he had to die. The broad-shouldered man with the Chancellor’s seal about his neck was speaking now. Then he was interrupted once, and, more intensely, a second time. It was hard to hear, but when a dark-bearded man strode to stand in front of the throne she knew it was Aileron, the exile returned. He didn’t look like Diarmuid.

“Kevin, by all the gods, I want his blood for this!” the leader of her captors hissed fiercely. “Easy,” a fair-haired man replied. “Listen.” They all did. Diarmuid, she saw, was no longer pacing; he had come to stand, his posture indolent, before his brother.

“The Throne is mine,” the dark Prince announced. “I will kill for it or die for it before we leave this hall.” Even in the high gallery, the intensity of it reached them. There was a silence.

Raucously broken by Diarmuid’s lazy applause. “God,” the one called Kevin murmured. I could have told you, she thought, and then checked it brutally.

He was speaking now, something too soft to be caught, which was maddening, but Aileron’s reply they all heard, and stiffened: “There are six archers in the musicians’ gallery,” he said, “who will kill you if I raise my hand.”

Time seemed to slow impossibly. It was upon her, she knew. Words were spoken very softly down below, then more words, then: “Coll,” Diarmuid said clearly, and the big man moved forward to be seen and speak, and say, as she had known he would: “There were seven men up here.” It all seemed to be quite peculiarly slow; she had a great deal of time to think, to know what was about to happen, long, long it seemed, before Aileron said, “I sent six. Who is the seventh?”—and she jumped, catching them utterly by surprise, drawing her dagger even as she fell, so slowly, with so much clarity, to land and roll and rise to face her lover.

She had intended to give him an instant to recognize her; she prayed she had that much time before they killed her.

He didn’t need it. His eyes were wide on hers, knowing right away, knowing probably even as she fell, and, oh, curse him forever, quite unafraid. So she threw. She had to throw, before he smiled.

It would have killed him, for she knew how to use a dagger, if something had not struck her from behind as she released.

She staggered, but kept her feet. So did he, her dagger in his left arm to the hilt, just above the red armband. And then, in a longed-for, terrifying access to what lay underneath the command and the glitter, she heard him murmur, so low no one else could possibly hear, “Both of you?”

And in that moment he was undisguised.

Only for the moment, so brief, she almost doubted it had taken place, because immediately he was smiling again, elusive, controlling. With vivid laughter in his eyes, he took the crown his brother had thrown to save his life, and set it down. Then he poured his wine and came back to salute her extravagantly, and set free her hair so that she was revealed, and though her dagger was in his arm, it seemed that it was he who held her as a small thing in the palm of his hand, and not the other way around at all.

“Both of them!” Coll exclaimed. “They both wanted him dead, and now he has them both. Oh, by the gods, he will do it now!”

“I don’t think so,” said Kevin soberly. “I don’t think he will.”

“What?” demanded Coll, taken aback.


“We will treat this lady,” Diarmuid was saying, “with all dignity due to her. If I am not mistaken, she comes as the vanguard of an embassy from Shalhassan of Cathal. We are honored that he sends his daughter and heir to consult with us.”

It was so smoothly done that he took them all with him for a moment, standing the reality on its head.

“But,” spluttered Ceredur, red-faced with indignation, “she tried to kill you!”

“She had cause,” Diarmuid replied calmly.

“Will you explain, Prince Diarmuid?” It was Mabon of Rhoden. Speaking with deference, Kevin noted.

“Now,” said Coll, grinning again.

Now, thought Sharra. Whatever happens, I will not live with this shame.

Diarmuid said, “I stole a flower from Larai Rigal four nights ago in such a way that the Princess would know. It was an irresponsible thing, for those gardens, as we all know, are sacred to them. It seems that Sharra of Cathal valued the honor of her country above her own life—for which we in turn must honor her.”

Sharra’s world spun for a dizzy instant, then righted itself. She felt herself flushing; tried to control it. He was giving her an out, setting her free. But, she asked herself, even then, with a racing heart, of what worth was freedom if it came only as his gift?

She had no time to pursue it, for Aileron’s voice cut abrasively through his brother’s spell, just as Diarmuid’s applause had destroyed his own, moments before: “You are lying,” the older Prince said tersely. “Even you would not go through Seresh and Cynan as King’s Heir, risking so much exposure for a flower. Do not toy with us!”

Diarmuid, eyebrows raised, turned to his brother. “Should I,” he said in a voice like velvet, “kill you instead?”

Score one, Kevin thought, seeing, even high as he was, how Aileron paled at that. And a neat diversion, too.

“As it happens,” Diarmuid went on, “I didn’t go near the river fortresses.”

“You flew, I suppose?” Jaelle interjected acidly.

Diarmuid bestowed his most benign smile upon her. “No. We crossed Saeren below the Dael Slope, and climbed up the handholds carved in the rock on the other side.”

“This is disgraceful!” Aileron snapped, recovering. “How can you lie at such a time?” There was a murmur among the gathering.

“As it happens,” Kevin Laine called down, moving forward to be seen, “he’s telling the truth.” They all looked up. “The absolute truth,” Kevin went on, pushing it. “There were nine of us.”

“Do you remember,” Diarmuid asked his brother, “the book of Nygath that we read as boys?”

Reluctantly, Aileron nodded.

“I broke the code,” Diarmuid said cheerfully. “The one we could never solve. It told of steps carved into the cliff in Cathal five hundred years ago by Alon, before he was King. We crossed the river and climbed them. It isn’t quite as foolish as it sounds—it was a useful training expedition. And something more.”

She kept her head high, her eyes fixed on the windows. But every timbre of his voice registered within her. Something more. Is a falcon not a falcon if it does not fly alone?

“How did you cross the river?” Duke Niavin of Seresh asked, with no little interest. He had them all now, Kevin saw; the first great lie now covered with successive layers of truth.

“With Loren’s arrows, actually, and a taut rope across. But don’t tell him,” Diarmuid grinned easily, despite a dagger in his arm, “or I’ll never, ever hear the end of it.”

Too late!” someone said from behind them, halfway down the hall.

They all turned. Loren was there, clad for the first time since the crossing in his cloak of power, shot through with many colors that shaded into silver. And beside him was the one who had spoken.

“Behold,” said Loren Silvercloak, “I bring you the Twiceborn of the prophecy. Here is Pwyll the Stranger who has come back to us, Lord of the Summer Tree.” He had time to finish, barely, before there came an utterly undecorous scream from the Seer of Brennin, and a second figure hurtled over the balcony of the overhead gallery, shouting with relief and joy as he fell.

Kim got there first, to envelop Paul in a fierce, strangling embrace that was returned, as hard, by him. There were tears of happiness in her eyes as she stepped aside to let Kevin and Paul stand face to face. She was grinning, she knew, like a fool. “Amigo,” said Paul, and smiled. “Welcome back,” said Kevin simply, and then all the nobility of Brennin watched in respectful silence as the two of them embraced.

Kevin stepped back, his eyes bright. “You did it,” he said flatly. “You’re clear now, aren’t you?” And Paul smiled again. “I am,” he said.

Sharra, watching, not understanding anything beyond the intensity, saw Diarmuid walk forward then to the two of them, and she marked the pleasure in his eyes, which was unfeigned and absolute.

“Paul,” he said, “this is a bright thread unlooked-for. We were mourning you.” Schafer nodded. “I’m sorry about your father.” “It was time, I think,” said Diarmuid. They, too, embraced, and as they did so, the stillness of the hall was shattered by a great noise over their heads as Diarmuid’s men roared and clattered their swords. Paul raised a hand to salute them back.

Then the mood changed, the interlude was over, for Aileron had come forward, too, to stand in front of Paul as Diarmuid stepped aside.

For what seemed like forever, the two men gazed at each other, their expressions equally unreadable. No one there could know what had passed between them in the Godwood two nights before, but what lay in the room was palpable, and a thing very deep.

“M"ornir be praised,” Aileron said, and dropped to his knees before Paul.

A moment later, everyone in the room but Kevin Laine and the three women had done the same. His heart tight with emotion, Kevin suddenly understood a truth about Aileron. This, this was how he led, by pure force of example and conviction. Even Diarmuid, he saw, had followed his brother’s lead.

His eyes met Kim’s across the heads of the kneeling brothers. Not clearly knowing what it was he was acquiescing to, he nodded, and was moved to see the relief that showed in her face. She wasn’t, it seemed, such a stranger after all, white hair notwithstanding.

Aileron rose again, and so did all the others. Paul had not moved or spoken. He seemed to be conserving his strength. Quietly the Prince said, “We are grateful beyond measure for what you have woven.”

Schafer’s mouth moved in what was only half a smile. “I didn’t take your death after all,” he said.

Aileron stiffened; without responding, he spun and walked back to the throne. Ascending the steps, he turned again to face them all, his eyes compelling. “Rakoth is free,” he said. “The stones are broken and we are at war with the Dark. I say to all of you, to you, my brother”—a sudden rawness in the voice—“I tell you that this conflict is what I was born for. I have sensed it all my life without knowing. Now I know. It is my destiny. It is,” cried Aileron, passion blazing in his face, “my war!”

The power of it was overwhelming, a cry of conviction torn whole from the heart. Even Jaelle’s bitter eyes held a kind of acceptance, and there was no mockery at all in Diarmuid’s face.

“You arrogant bastard,” Paul Schafer said.

It was like a kick in the teeth. Even Kevin felt it. He saw Aileron’s head snap back, his eyes go wide with shock.

“How presumptuous can you get?” Paul went on, stepping forward to stand before Aileron. “Your death. Your crown. Your destiny. Your war. Your war?” His voice skirled upward. He put a hand on the table for support.

“Pwyll,” said Loren. “Paul, wait.”

“No!” Schafer snapped. “I hate this, and I hate giving in to it.” He turned back to Aileron. “What about the lios alfar?” he demanded. “Loren tells me twenty of them have died already. What about Cathal? Isn’t it their war, too?” He pointed to Sharra. “And Eridu? And the Dwarves? Isn’t this Matt S"oren’s war? And what about the Dalrei? There are two of them here now, and seventeen of them have died. Seventeen of the Dalrei are dead. Dead! Isn’t it their war, Prince Aileron? And look at us. Look at Kim—look at her, at what she’s taken on for you. And”—his voice roughened—“think about Jen, if you will, just for a second, before you lay sole claim to this.”

There was a difficult silence. Aileron’s eyes had never left Paul’s while he spoke, nor did they now. When he began to speak, his tone was very different, a plea almost. “I understand,” he said stiffly. “I understand all of what you are saying, but I cannot change what else I know. Pwyll, I was born into the world to fight this war.”

With a strange light-headedness, Kim Ford spoke then for the first time in public as Seer of Brennin. “Paul,” she said, “everyone, I have to tell you that I’ve seen this. So did Ysanne. That’s why she sheltered him. Paul, what he’s saying is true.”

Schafer looked at her, and the crusading anger she remembered from what he had been before Rachel died faded in the face of her own certitude. Oh, Ysanne, she thought, seeing it happen, how did you stand up under so much weight?

“If you tell me, I will believe it,” Paul said, obviously drained. “But you know it remains his war even if he is not High King of Brennin. He’s still going to fight it. It seems a wrong way to choose a King.”

“Do you have a suggestion?” Loren asked, surprising them all.

“Yes, I do,” Paul said. He let them wait, then, “I suggest you let the Goddess decide. She who sent the moon. Let her Priestess speak her will,” said the Arrow of the God, looking at Jaelle.

They all turned with him. It seemed, in the end, to have a kind of inevitability to it: the Goddess taking back one King and sending forth another in his stead.

She had been waiting, amid the tense dialogue back and forth, for the moment to stop them all and say this thing. Now he had done it for her.

She gazed at him a moment before she rose, tall and beautiful, to let them know the will of Dana and Gwen Ystrat, as had been done long ago in the naming of the Kings. In a room dense with power, hers was not the least, and it was the oldest, by far.

“It is a matter for sorrow,” she began, blistering them with a glance, “that it should take a stranger to Fionavar to remind you of the true order of things. But howsoever that may be, know ye the will of the Goddess—”

“No,” said Diarmuid. And it appeared that there was nothing inevitable after all. “Sorry, sweetling. With all deference to the dazzle of your smile, I don’t want to know ye the will of the Goddess.”

“Fool!” she exclaimed. “Do you want to be cursed?”

“I have been cursed,” Diarmuid said with some feeling. “Rather a good deal lately. I have had quite a lot happen to me today and I need a pint of ale very badly. It has only just occurred to me that as High King I couldn’t very easily drop in to the Boar at night, which is what I propose to do as soon as we’ve crowned my brother and I get this dagger out of my arm.”

Even Paul Schafer was humbled by the relief that flashed in that moment across the bearded face of Aileron dan Ailell, whose mother was Marrien of the Garantae, and who would be crowned later that day by Jaelle, the Priestess, as High King of Brennin to lead that realm and its allies into war against Rakoth Maugrim and all the legions of the Dark.

There was no banquet or celebration; it was a time of mourning and of war. And so at sundown Loren gathered the four of them, with the two young Dalrei Dave refused to be parted from, in the mages’ quarters in the town. One of the Dalrei had a leg wound. That, at least, his magic had been able to deal with. A small consolation, given how much seemed to be beyond him of late.

Looking at his guests, Loren counted it off inwardly. Eight days; only eight days since he had brought them here, yet so much had overtaken them, he could read changes in Dave Martyniuk’s face, and in the tacit bonds that united him to the two Riders. Then, when the big man told his story, Loren began to understand, and he marveled. Ceinwen. Flidais in Pendaran. And Owein’s Horn hanging at Dave’s side.

Whatever power had been flowing through him when he chose to bring these five had been a true one, and deep.

There had been five, though, not four; there were only four in the room, however, and absence resonated among them like a chord.

And then was given voice. “Time to start thinking about how to get her back,” Kevin Laine said soberly. It was interesting, Loren noted, that it was still Kevin who could speak, instinctively, for all of them.

It was a hard thing, but it had to be said. “We will do everything we can,” Loren stated flatly. “But you must be told that if the black swan bore her north, she has been taken by Rakoth himself.”

There was a pain in the mage’s heart. Despite his premonitions, he had deceived her into coming, given her over to the svart alfar, bound her beauty as if with his own hands to the putrescence of Avaia, and consigned her to Maugrim. If there was a judgement waiting for him in the Weaver’s Halls, Jennifer would be someone he had to answer for.

“Did you say a swan?” the fair-haired Rider asked. Levon. Ivor’s son, whom he remembered from fully ten years ago as a boy on the eve of his fast. A man now, though young, and bearing the always difficult weight of the first men killed under his command. They were all so young, he realized suddenly, even Aileron. We are going to war against a god, he thought, and tasted a terrible doubt.

He masked it. “Yes,” he said, “a swan. Avaia the Black she was named, long ago. Why do you ask?”

“We saw her,” Levon said. “The evening before the Mountain’s fire.” For no good reason, that seemed to make it hurt even more.

Kimberly stirred a little, and they turned to her. The white hair above the young eyes was still disturbing. “I dreamt her,” she said. “So did Ysanne.”

And with that, there was another lost woman in the room for Loren, another ghost. You and I will not meet again on this side of the Night, Ysanne had told Ailell.

On this side, or on the other now, it seemed. She had gone so far it could not be compassed. He thought about Lokdal. Colan’s dagger, Seithr’s gift. Oh, the Dwarves did dark things with power under their mountains.

Kevin, straining a little, punctured the grimness of the silence. “Ye gods and little fishes!” he exclaimed. “This is some reunion. We’ve got to do better than this!”

A good try, Dave Martyniuk thought, surprising himself with how well he understood what Kevin was trying to do. It wasn’t going to get more than a smile, though. It wasn’t—

Access to inspiration came then with blinding suddenness.

“Uh-uh,” he said slowly, choosing his words. “Can’t do it, Kevin. We’ve got another problem here.” He paused, enjoying a new sensation, as their concerned eyes swung to him.

Then, reaching into the pocket of his saddle-bag on the floor beside him, he withdrew something he’d carried a long way. “I think you’ve misinterpreted the judgement in the McKay case,” he told Kevin, and tossed the travel-stained Evidence notes down on the table.

Hell, Dave thought, watching them all, even Levon, even Tore, give way to hilarity and relief. There’s nothing to this! A wide grin, he knew, was splashed across his face.

“Funny, funny man,” Kevin Laine said, with unstinted approval. He was still laughing. “I need a drink,” Kevin exclaimed. “We all do. And you,” he pointed to Dave, “haven’t met Diarmuid yet. I think you’ll like him even more than you like me.”

Which was a funny kind of dig, Dave thought as they rose to go, and one he’d have to think about. He had a feeling, though, that this, at least, would turn out to be all right.

The five young men departed for the Black Boar. Kim, however, following an instinct that had been building since the coronation, begged off and returned to the palace. Once there, she knocked at a door down the corridor from her own. She made a suggestion, which was accepted. A short while later, in her own room, it emerged that her intuitions on this sort of thing had not been affected at all by anything in Fionavar.

Matt S"oren closed the door behind them. He and Loren looked at each other, alone for the first time that day.

“Owein’s Horn now,” the mage said finally, as if concluding a lengthy exchange.

The Dwarf shook his head. “That is deep,” he said. “Will you try to wake them?”

Loren rose and crossed to the window. It was raining again. He put out his hand to feel it like a gift on his palm.

“I won’t,” he said at last. “But they might.”

The Dwarf said softly, “You have been holding yourself back, haven’t you?”

Loren turned. His eyes, deep-set under the thick gray eyebrows, were tranquil, but there was power in them still. “I have,” he said. “There is a force flowing through all of diem, I think, the strangers and our own. We have to give them room.”

“They are very young,” Matt S"oren said.

“I know they are.”

“You are sure of this? You are going to let them carry it?”

“I am sure of nothing,” the mage said. “But yes, I am going to let them carry it.”

“We will be there?”

Silvercloak smiled then. “Oh, my friend,” he said, “we will have our battle, never fear. We must let the young ones carry it, but before the end, you and I may have to fight the greatest battle of them all.”

“You and I,” the Dwarf growled in his deep tones. By which the mage understood a number of things, not least of which was love.

In the end, the Prince had had a great many pints of ale. There were an infinity of reasons, all good.

He had been named Aileron’s heir in the ceremony that afternoon. “This,” he’d said, “is getting to be a habit.” The obvious line. They were quoting it all over the Black Boar, though. He drained another pint. Oh, an infinity of reasons, he had.

Eventually it seemed that he was alone, and in his own chambers in the palace, the chambers of Prince Diarmuid dan Ailell, the King’s Heir in Brennin. Indeed.

It was far too late to bother going to sleep. Using the outer walls, though with difficulty because of his arm, he made his way to Sharra’s balcony.

Her room was empty.

On a hunch, he looped two rooms along to where Kim Ford was sleeping. It was hard work, with the wound. When he finally climbed up over the balustrade, having to use the tree for awkward leverage, he was greeted by two pitchers of icy water in the face. No one deflected them either, or the laughter of Shalhassan’s daughter and the Seer of Brennin, who were a long way down the road to an unexpected friendship.

Mourning his fate somewhat, the heir to the throne finally slipped back into the palace and made his way, dripping, to the room of the Lady Rheva.

One took comfort where one could, at times like this.

He did, in fact, eventually fall asleep. Looking complacently down on him, Rheva heard him murmur as in a dream, “Both of them.” She didn’t really understand, but he had praised her breasts earlier, and she was not displeased.

Kevin Laine, who might have been able to explain it to her, was awake as well, hearing a very long, very private story from Paul. Who could talk again, it seemed, and who wanted to. When Schafer was done, Kevin spoke himself, also for a long time.

At the end of it, they looked at each other. Dawn was breaking. Eventually, they had to smile, despite Rachel, despite Jen, despite everything.

Chapter 14 | The Summer Tree | Chapter 16