Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 - 36 NIEBA, MIDDAY 881ST YEAR OF THE SABRIAN REALM
CHAPTER 2 - 36 NIEBA, MIDDLE-NIGHT
CHAPTER 3 - 1 OCET, AFTERNOON
CHAPTER 4 - 1 OCET, EVENING
CHAPTER 5 - 4 OCET, AFTERNOON
CHAPTER 6 - 4 OCET, EVENING
CHAPTER 7 - 5 OCET, EVENING
CHAPTER 8 - 10 OCET, AFTERNOON
CHAPTER 9 - 17 OCET, AFTERNOON
CHAPTER 10 - 17 OCET, EVENING
CHAPTER 11 - 17 OCET, NIGHT
CHAPTER 12 - 18 OCET, MIDMORNING
CHAPTER 13 - SOLA PASSIERT, MORNING
CHAPTER 14 - SOLA PASSIERT, LATE AFTERNOON
CHAPTER 15 - SOLA PASSIERT, EVENING
CHAPTER 16 - 19 OCET, MORNING
CHAPTER 17 - 19 OCET, LATE AFTERNOON
CHAPTER 18 - 19 OCET, NIGHT
CHAPTER 19 - 19 OCET, MIDDLE-NIGHT
CHAPTER 20 - 20 OCET, BEFORE DAWN
CHAPTER 21 - 20 OCET, MORNING
CHAPTER 22 - 20 OCET, EVENING
CHAPTER 23 - 21 OCET, AFTERNOON
CHAPTER 24 - 21 OCET, EVENING
CHAPTER 25 - 22 OCET, MORNING
CHAPTER 26 - 22/23 OCET, MIDDLE-NIGHT
CHAPTER 27 - 23 OCET, DAWN
CHAPTER 28 - 23 OCET, MORNING
CHAPTER 29 - 23 OCET, MIDDAY
CHAPTER 30 - 23 OCET, AFTERNOON
CHAPTER 31 - 24 OCET, LATE EVENING
CHAPTER 32 - 25 OCET, BEFORE DAWN
CHAPTER 33 - 25 OCET, NIGHT
CHAPTER 34 - 26 OCET, BEFORE DAWN
CHAPTER 35 - 26 OCET, BEFORE DAWN
CHAPTER 36 - 26 OCET, MORNING
CHAPTER 37 - 26 OCET, MIDDAY
CHAPTER 38 - 27 OCET, PREDAWN
CHAPTER 39 - 27 OCET, MIDMORNING
CHAPTER 40 - 27 OCET, SUNSET
CHAPTER 41 - 27 OCET, NIGHT
CHAPTER 42 - 27 OCET, NIGHT
CHAPTER 43 - AFTERWARD
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Praise for the Novels of Carol Berg
The Spirit Lens
“In this superbly realized leadoff to Berg’s quasi-Renaissance fantasy trilogy . . . Berg shapes the well-worn elements of epic fantasy into a lush, absorbing narrative.”
“Rich with vivid characters and unforgettable places. . . . [Berg] spins an infectiously enjoyable series opener that fans of thought-provoking fantasy and intriguing mystery should appreciate.”
“A super opening to what looks like a great alternate Renaissance fantasy. . . . Fans will appreciate this strong beginning as science and sorcery collide when three undercover agents investigate the divine and unholy collision of murder, magic, and physics.”
—Genre Go Round Reviews
“Berg is entirely adept at creating a detailed and nuanced fantasy world, made all the more impressive by noting that other books she has written seem to be about other worlds with other rules.”
—I Don’t Write Summaries
“A genuine page-turner that should please both mystery and fantasy fans.”
“A nonstop ride to a superb ending that left my appetite whetted for the next installment.”
—Fantasy Book Critic
“Berg is a master world builder that novice fantasy authors would do well to study. This first installment in a new trilogy, Collegia Magica, is a winner.”
The Spirit Lens
is an incredibly enjoyable fantasy adventure for those who love unexpected heroes, web-worked plots, magic versus technology, and librarians with a skill for investigative spying.”
—The Reader Eclectic
Breath and Bone
“The narrative crackles with intensity against a vivid backdrop of real depth and conviction, with characters to match. Altogether superior.”
“Berg’s lush, evocative storytelling and fully developed characters add up to a first-rate purchase for most fantasy collections.”
“Replete with magic-powered machinations, secret societies, and doomsday divinations, the emotionally intense second volume of Berg’s intrigue-laden Lighthouse Duet concludes the story of Valen. . . . Fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon sequence and Sharon Shinn will be rewarded.”
“Berg combines druid and Christian influences against a backdrop of sorcerers, priestesses, priests, deep evil, and a dying land to create an engrossing tale to get lost in . . . enjoyable.”
—Monsters and Critics
“An excellent read . . . a satisfying sequel.”
Flesh and Spirit
“The vividly rendered details . . . give this book such power. Berg brings to life every stone in a peaceful monastery and every nuance in a stratified society, describing the difficult dirty work of ordinary life as beautifully as she conveys the heart-stopping mysticism of holiness just beyond human perception.”
—Sharon Shinn, national bestselling author of
“Valen is unquestionably memorable—in what is definitely a dark fantasy as much concerned with Valen’s internal struggle as with his conflicts with others.”
“Fast-paced. . . . Berg creates a troubled world full of politics, anarchy, and dark magic. . . . The magic is fascinating.”
“Carol Berg has done a masterful job of creating characters, places, religions, and political trials that grab and hold your attention. . . . Don’t miss one of 2007’s best fantasy books!”
—Romance Reviews Today
“[Berg] excels at creating worlds. . . . I’m eagerly awaiting the duology’s concluding volume,
Breath and Bone
. . . . An engrossing and lively tale, with enough action to keep you hungry for more.”
The Davis Enterprise
The Bridge of D’Arnath Novels
“A very promising start to a new series.”
The Denver Post
“Berg has mastered the balance between mystery and storytelling [and] pacing; she weaves past and present together, setting a solid foundation. . . . It’s obvious [she] has put incredible thought into who and what makes her characters tick.”
The Davis Enterprise
“Berg exhibits her skill with language, world building, and the intelligent development of the magic that affects and is affected by the characters. . . . A promising new multivolume work that should provide much intelligent entertainment.”
“Imagination harnessed to talent produces a fantasy masterpiece, a work so original and believable that it will be very hard to wait for the next book in this series to be published.”
Midwest Book Review
“[Seri] is an excellent main heroine; her voice, from the first person, is real and practical. . . . I’m truly looking forward to seeing what happens next.”
“Gut-wrenching, serious fantasy fiction.”
—Science Fiction Romance
Song of the Beast
Winner of the Colorado Book Award for Science Fiction/Fantasy
“The plot keeps twisting right until the end . . . entertaining characters.”
“Berg’s fascinating fantasy is a puzzle story, with a Celtic-flavored setting and a plot as intricate and absorbing as fine Celtic lacework. . . . The characters are memorable, and Berg’s intelligence and narrative skill make this stand-alone fantasy most commendable.”
“It would be easy to categorize it as another dragon fantasy book. Instead, it is a well-crafted mystery. . . . Definitely recommended for libraries looking for high-quality fantasy and mystery additions.”
ALSO BY CAROL BERG
THE COLLEGIA MAGICA SERIES
The Spirit Lens
THE LIGHTHOUSE SERIES
Flesh and Spirit
Breath and Bone
THE BRIDGE OF D’ARNATH SERIES
Son of Avonar
Guardians of the Keep
The Soul Weaver
Daughter of Ancients
THE RAI-KIRAH SERIES
Song of the Beast
Published by New American Library, a division of
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,
Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2,
Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)
Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124,
Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)
Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park,
New Delhi - 110 017, India
Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632,
New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)
Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue,
Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published by Roc, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, January 2011
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2011 All rights reserved
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA:
The soul mirror: a novel of the Collegia Magica/Carol Berg.
eISBN : 978-1-101-47847-9
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
For those who are shy, reserved, or introverted, who lack self confidence, or who just can’t ever come up with a punch line until a day late . . .
Thanks, as always, to Linda the Muse, aka the spirit of Lianelle, for literary lunching and launching. To Susan, Laurey, Brian, Catherine, Curt, and Courtney for their support and tough, careful reading, and especially to Glenn, fine man, fine friend, fine writer. To Markus for sharing his combative expertise. To my dear readers for their constant encouragement. And most especially to the Exceptional Spouse for love and support above and beyond.
36 NIEBA, MIDDAY 881ST YEAR OF THE SABRIAN REALM
ere we are, Damoselle de Vernase.” My escort drew aside the overhanging pine branches so I could better view the disturbed ground. A raven flapped away, screeching, scraping my already stripped nerves. The shallow ravine was heavily wooded, preventing any glimpse of the severe gray walls or the round, slate-roofed towers my younger sister had called home for the past seven years.
Lianelle had once told me that forests were the perfect representation of magic: roots that delved deep into the rich, layered loam of all that had come before, shadow and light, growth and decay, mystery and life. All of it connected and balanced, ever changing, yet old beyond history. My sister had lived for magic. And now she had died for it—all her merry teasing, her laughter, her brilliance wasted on lies, dead dreams, and superstition.
The wiry little man shuddered and licked his pale lips with an overlong tongue. “Mage Bourrier says that for the last tenday Acolyte Lianelle has scarce been seen about the collegia. Whatever she was working on, it was certainly
her assigned duties or lessons. The alchemical stores were dreadfully out of order and the aviary unswept, and she had not yet submitted her essay on theoretical formulae for shape transformations. One of the tutors found her out here. Evidence bespoke a magical explosion . . . as I told you. Horrid.”
And then they had dug a hole and thrown her in without a song or a prayer or a kinsman’s touch to bid her farewell. A girl of seventeen.
could not even begin to describe it. What of
Yet another spasm of pain shivered my heart. Anger and resentment burned in my chest like fiery ingots, and I wanted to yell and weep and curse every stone of this place and every bastion of Heaven. But I swallowed the knot in my throat and clamped my jaw tight. Anne de Vernase did not crumble before strangers.
The patch of raw earth scraped out of the scorched bracken had been outlined with salt and sprinkled with herbs, likely some magical foolery intended to keep evil away—or contain it. Unbelievable that anyone could countenance such nonsense, when academicians could view the structure of a salt crystal through magnifying lenses and write treatises cataloging its properties. Every day scholars and academicians unmasked another enchantment as a fraud.
Only Lianelle had ever been able to fool me into thinking there was any substance to sorcery. “Certainly not in the common practices,” she would say with a mixture of excitement and worldly wisdom laughable in a girl who had spent almost half her life within these walls. “Most large magical workings are illusion, and anything for sale in the marketplace is a waste of good coin. But the fundamentals—spellwork, binding power, elemental linkages between natural objects—those are real. That’s what I study at Collegia Seravain.” And then an oriole would settle on top of her head or the hearth fire would flare into stringy flames the deep blue of iris, and Lianelle would swear she had not thrown lamp oil in the hearth to make it burn so strangely or sprinkled seeds in her hair to attract the bird, but had done it all with magic. Laughing.
I folded my arms in front of me as if by force of will I might not lose the last bits of her. My sister. My dearest friend in the world. How could she be dead?
Their salt barrier had not lasted even a sevenday. Rain or animals had already blurred and broken the white lines.
“You’ve not marked her burial place with so much as a stick,” I said, the magnitude of the hurt leaving privacy and dignity in ruins. “Did no one recall she had family to mourn her, to give her honor to ease her Veil journey? Why was she not taken to a proper deadhouse?”
My companion’s fluttering hands dismissed my concerns, his bony wrists protruding from his sleeves as if he had put on a younger apprentice’s gown. “The chancellor determined we could afford no delay in such untidy circumstances. A master mage came from Merona and laid heavy enchantments about her body to ensure nothing of her mistakes lingered to harm others. Being ungifted, you perhaps would not understand.”
Ungifted. Paeans to the Pantokrator and his saints that I was ungifted in the ways of magic! Better to be plain, plodding Anne than dead like my gifted sister or locked away, unable to tell day from night, like my gifted mother. With my brother four years hostage to an angry king’s vengeance, I seemed to be the only functioning member left of a family my father had once proclaimed “as perfectly balanced as the elegant ellipses of the planets.” My father, who had explained the world to me, only to prove his every word a lie. My father, the royal diplomat, the man of science, the traitor.
I squeezed my arms tighter, fingers pressing to the bone. “This land belongs to the collegia?” I scanned the rugged landscape for some fence or marker.
“Yes. Though much of our lower, flatter land has had to be sold off—a disgraceful result of the king’s new tax levies—the forest reaches and cliff-side lands remain under our hold.”
“Then certainly the mages will not object to my placing a stone marker scribed with my sister’s name here. A small thing. Out of the way.” Too little, too cold, too hard to remember a bright spirit. “She died while in the school’s care.”
“Um . . . I will have to inquire, of course. I was told only to show you.” The balding man, not a day younger than fifty years, chewed his nails like a schoolchild. The masters of the collegia had sent an aging apprentice—a nobody—to guide me here. Someone who could answer not one of my thousand questions. No adept, no mage, and certainly no master could spare the time to explain why a sixth-year student at Collegia Magica de Seravain had been found half buried in last year’s leaves, her flesh scorched and her fingers missing. I supposed I should be grateful they had notified me at all.
My guide scuttered up the slope of the ravine on his way back to the forest path.
FOR TWO HOURS I SAT outside the collegia gates, awaiting word that the mages would allow Lianelle’s grave to be marked. The autumn day waxed warm and hazy. Fibrous streaks of cloud left the sky brownish gray rather than blue, promising rain by nightfall, a welcome change. Even the leafy wood that crowded the narrow lawn appeared dry, its greens grayish, the undergrowth already dying. I crushed the surging emotions of the previous hour until they had subsided to a familiar fevered dullness. Until I felt dead, too.
“Damoselle de Vernase!” The balding apprentice called out from behind a wicket gate in the gatehouse wall. “Chancellor Kajetan agrees to the marker. The stone must be cut small and designed to lie flat on the ground. When it is ready, the stonemason should apply to the grounds-keeper, and he’ll be taken to the site. Now, will there be anything else?”
Everything else! My skin flushed hot, then cold, then hot again. Choked by events I could not allow myself to feel, I could spit out only the mundane. “My sister’s things,” I said. “I should take them with me.”
The jittery apprentice glanced over his shoulder. Well behind him, in the rectangle of sunlight at the far end of the dark gate tunnel, a broad-shouldered man leaned on a white stick and stared back at me. His features were indistinct, save for dark brows and thick black hair that threatened escape from a bound or braided queue. A silver band glinted from his neck—a mage collar.
“If anything of a personal nature is discovered, it will be forwarded to you along with the girl’s death warrant,” said the apprentice. “This concludes our business. Divine grace, damoselle.” The wiry man slammed the wicket and retreated into the shady tunnel. Once he exited the tunnel, the arched rectangle of light was empty.
So, that was that. The sorcerers of Collegia Seravain had not allowed me even to step inside their door. Suffering such disrepute as they were already, they likely feared my unsavory family connections would taint them irreparably.
Five years previous my father had enlisted three sorcerers of the Camarilla Magica in his scheme to overthrow his oldest friend, the King of Sabria. The three had been caught using grotesque, murderous means to “enhance their power for magic” and paid the price on the headsman’s block. My father yet eluded capture. The penalties for
infamy had been paid only by his victims and his family.
I hiked the long, dusty road down the hill to the whitewashed village of Seravain. As constant practice taught me, a rapid walk helped loose the knots in one’s belly.
In the village I endured another two-hour wait, this time for the stonemason to return from mending a customer’s springhouse. A contract with the stonemason to engrave a small plain marker with Lianelle’s name and embed it in the ravine took two silver kentae and no time at all.
The stonemason gave me the name of the village baker’s half-wit son, who might be spared long enough to drive me down to Tigano. From there I could take the evening coach back to Vernase. I’d be lucky to get home before middle-night.
“Damoselle Anne! Anne de Vernase!” I’d not yet rounded the village well to the baker’s house when the shout halted me. A fair-haired man came pelting down the road from the collegia, the long sleeves of his gray gown flapping behind him like pennons in a Feste Vietre parade.
I waited for him in the middle of the deserted road.
“You’re Lianelle’s sister?” He skidded to a stop not a handsbreadth from my nose. Sweat dribbled through the fine layer of dust coating his boyish face and plastered tendrils of pale hair to his high forehead.
I stepped back to leave a more comfortable space between us. “Sonjeur?”
“I’m Guerin—Adept Guerin—Lianelle’s instructor in semantics: lexicography, cryptonymics, and all that. And her friend, I think.”
My sister had written about her semantics instructor a number of times.
, she had called him,
and wickedly handsome.
Lianelle had never been temperate in either speech or living.
“She mentioned you.”
“We were just beginning—” The adept’s voice faltered. Puffing out his cheeks, he released a long, shaking exhale, then held out a small roll of red leather tied with string. “The day before she died, she asked me to post this to you. But I’d not gotten around to it, and, in the upset, forgot I had it. When I heard you were here today . . . Oh, saints and angels, damoselle. I am so sorry.”
His sorrow enveloped me like a fire-warmed blanket on a winter night, more welcome than any word or artifact. But I dared not accept such seductive gifts. Grief had broken my mother.
I nodded and said nothing.
His fingers were slow to release the leather packet. The bundle was heavy for its small size, the smooth leather warm and damp from his hand. A folded paper protruded from the flap.
“They’ve had me into her dormitory cubicle to decode some papers. Said she was plotting with her father. But they were only notes she took in my tutorials.” His frowning gaze lingered on his hands, as if the troublesome bundle remained there. “I had no idea her father—your father—was—”
A woman banged open her door and yelled at her daughter to come in for supper.
Guerin glanced about uneasily. “I must get back, before—I’ve duties.”
His imminent departure raised a fluttering panic, questions crowding and bumping to get through my constricted throat. “They’ll not tell me what happened,” I blurted. “Only that she was trying to work some enchantment that was too advanced. What was she doing? I swear on my hope of Heaven, she had no dealings with our father. And why would they bury her so quickly? Why in secret? Why in that ravine?”
“I know little more than you.” His wide brow knotted. “She was upset that morning. Begged off my tutorial, swearing me not to report her absence. Said she had something dreadfully important to do. She asked if I still had this, and when I said I did, she pulled out that paper and scribbled your name on it—so I would be sure to get it right, she said. She could have been going anywhere. Students often cut through the ravine to avoid the door warden. But I had this awful, sick feeling about her all day. When she didn’t attend her afternoon tutorial, I went looking for her the first moment I was free.”
He tightened his jaw and closed his eyes for a moment.
“A small, focused explosion killed her,” he went on, “damaging her chest and her hands. But whether the fire or the impact or the magic itself did the mortal damage, I couldn’t tell. There were no particles lying around—no objects used in the spellwork—that might tell me what she was attempting. The magical residue was of a kind wholly unfamiliar to me, and once I’d summoned my superiors, I wasn’t allowed to examine her again. But my mind refuses to let it go, as it just doesn’t make—You see, your sister was a very good student, damoselle. Talented. Eager, but not rash. She should have been a first-rank adept long ago.”
A frigid hand squeezed my heart. “Are you saying that someone else did this to her?”
“No. The magical signature was hers alone. There was not so much as a boot print near her.” He rubbed his arms and stepped backward. “I am so sorry. So very sorry.”
This could not be everything. Though it scalded my tongue to speak of it, I had to know. “Adept, surely you know the kind of vile sorcerers my father was involved with, and what they did to Ophelie de Marangel, to others. Lianelle wasn’t—”
“Certainly not!” He hushed me with the words, his eyes darting at the windows and doors opened to the cooling evening. “No one was bleeding her, damoselle. Nothing I saw . . . nothing I knew of her . . . suggested she was being used for power transference. Divine grace, lady.”
Before I could ask more, he was trotting back up the road.
Certainly Lianelle could have made a deadly mistake. She was forever rash and always headstrong. I’d spent half my life cleaning up her messes. And a determination to prove she was more than just a traitor’s daughter could easily have led her to overreach. But someone had failed her. Failed in protecting, failed in teaching, failed in caring.
Inexpressible fury set my whole body trembling, so that every step down the road required an act of will. My sister was dead and no one would tell me why. But she was the daughter of Michel de Vernase, and slander already tainted her memory in a place that should have been her shelter. Had her tutors murdered her before fifty witnesses here in Seravain village square, no one in the world would care, and I could do not a blasted, bloody, wretched thing about it.
“LET ME ROUST REMY, DAMOSELLE. He’ll parse you up to the house. It’s past middle-night.” Mistress Constanza, the proprietress of the Cask, watched the Tigano coach rattle out of her rutted innyard. Her ample figure filled the bright-lit doorway of the sole inn in Vernase. Wavering yellow light spilled around her robust silhouette, along with the sounds of hearty laughter, boisterous conversation, and well-lubricated singing. “If you’ll pardon my saying, dearie, you’ve got the look of a rug’s been beat too many times.”
“I think I’d rather walk home tonight. Thank you, Constanza. The rain has left the air so pleasant after the hot day.”
“Sure you won’t come in and ease your bonesprits with a cup?”
“Not tonight, mistress.” I could not bear the thought of company, the sidewise glances, knowing nods, and incessant murmurings:
Treason . . . unholy sorcery . . . wife near burnt the place down
. . .
the wild boy prisoned . . . the youngest so odd . . . that plain’uns the eldest, no feelings, corked tight as a swollen bung, damned her own father . . .
Gossip helped fill the friendly Constanza’s ale mugs, but my family had provided enough of that for a lifetime of swilling.
“As you will, dearie.” As I picked my steps carefully across the innyard, she called after me. “Is your brother hale, then, damoselle? Such a direful confinement in the river damp. I suspected perhaps this journey . . . so sudden . . . Or was it the contessa, sweet angeli comfort the poor dear lady? Still helt in the mountains with her kin, is she? Her brothers tend her, I think.”
“My brother endures, mistress.” Though when I wrote Ambrose this day’s news, he would surely batter his head to pulp against his prison walls. “And my mother’s condition is unchanged. Thank you for your concern.”
My aching back would have appreciated transport, even in Constanza’s rickety donkey cart, but I had used up the last of my ready money for the stonemason and the coach fare. I’d not so much as a kivre to tip Remy. On another day, the petty humiliation of such impoverishment might have bothered me more. But all such nagging worries had long coalesced into a single overriding truth: My family was broken, and nothing in the wide, starry universe was ever going to repair it.
THE STEEP HIKE UP TO Montclaire stretched very long and very dark. The only sentient being I encountered along the path was the soldier assigned to that particular portion of the estate’s encircling watch posts. Four years they’d kept up this stranglehold, lest the traitor
abrogate his celebrated intelligence and attempt to visit the family he had abandoned.
The insolent guardsman near singed my hair with his torch as he examined my face and questioned my late excursion. With well-practiced hauteur, I rebuffed his attempts to pry out gossip. By the time I let myself through our outer gate, climbed the last swell of the hill, and used the faint light from the stable lamp to step carefully through the churned muck of the yard, the moon had set.
A sturdy man, more grizzle on his chin than on his round head, awaited me on the flagstone terrace, lamp in hand. “Mistress Anne, we have a—”
“It’ll have to wait until morning, Bernard. I can’t think another moment.”
Underneath the spreading walnut tree, that dearest of men traded his lamp for my cloak. He wore the faded purple jacket and breeches, meticulously white linen shirt, and threadbare hose that he donned in the evenings when he became footman, chamberlain, and porter after a day spent as gardener, vintner, carpenter, and steward. “My lady, I must tell you—”
“Please, not now.”
Even his urgency could not penetrate my leaden spirit. Almost everything Bernard had to tell me was urgent: The grapevines were dying; the roof needed patching; the chimney in the reception room was clogged with starlings’ nests. Always and ever.
But, of course, he did not deserve to be chastised for it. I summoned one more breath of control. “Thank you for waiting up. Angels’ peace be with you this night. And to Melusina the same.”
Bernard’s wife, Melusina, also played multiple roles: cook, housekeeper, laundress, and maid. In truth, we three did everything around Montclaire, and it was never enough. The most beautiful house in Sabria was slowly falling to ruin, yet today and tonight I could not care.
“Is it true, then, about the little one?” he called after me softly, as I started toward an open door into the house.
I looked back. “Yes, it’s true.”
The soft circle of lamplight illuminated his round, ruddy face as it crumpled in grief. His sorrow tore at me like hot pincers. If I stayed to comfort him, I would be undone.
But when I stepped into the small parlor beyond the open doorway I at last grasped what Bernard had been trying to tell me, what a burning stable lamp and fresh muck should have told me, considering I had sold the last of our horses two years past. An unfamiliar cloak lay over a small traveling case, and a tray bearing the bony remains of boiled fish sat on a small table beside a half-empty decanter of wine.
We’d had no visitors at Montclaire since a few months after the trial, when my mother’s irrational behavior had grown severe enough that we could no longer mask it. Only creditors, or wanderers in search of work or custom, neither of which we could provide, had wandered by. And, of course, yesterday’s messenger from Seravain. Saints shield me from worse news.
Leaving the lamp behind, I peered through the inner doorway into the foyer. A slim, stiff-backed gentleman with close-trimmed brown hair and hands clasped behind his back was examining my father’s telescope, on display between the curving arms of the grand staircase. Though richly made, the visitor’s garments were unadorned and conservative in cut. Black and gray. No puffs, no ruffs, no trailing lace or colored ribbons. His modest height topped me by little more than a handspan. Familiar . . .
I eased past the arched doorway, hoping to glean his identity before choosing to engage or escape his attention. But he must have heard my footsteps. He pivoted sharply.
“Damoselle Anne,” he said, bowing slightly and exposing the back of his left hand on his right shoulder as Sabrian law required of those born to a family of magical inheritance.
The law required the same of me, no matter that my father was not born to the blood and that I took no supernatural gift from my mother’s family. But anger erased every other concern at recognizing the slight, soft-spoken man. This was the questioner. The wheedler. The Royal Accuser. The king’s odious secretary or investigator or
—whatever he was—who, with relentless pursuit and irrefutable logic, had destroyed my family.
“Sonjeur de Savin-Duplais,” I said, wrestling to find words contemptuous enough to drive him away. “How dare you come here?”
36 NIEBA, MIDDLE-NIGHT
y apologies for intruding, damoselle, especially in this dif ficult time. I’d not planned to impose upon your hospitality, but your man said you would be late. It was necessary I speak with you as soon as possible.” Four years had not altered his chilly demeanor. Always assessing. Always judging.
Many would discount Portier de Savin-Duplais, neither young nor old—middle thirties, perhaps—and so physically unexceptional. Before he took on the task of investigating the conspiracy that surrounded my father, he had served as librarian at Collegia Seravain. I would have preferred the company of an adder.
, sonjeur? What could possibly be so important?” My bravado stemmed solely from Bernard, who had taken up a protective stance in the doorway of the dark dining room.
My father, the diplomat, had avowed that not even the most profound shyness or the most determined reserve could prevent an honest man from meeting a steady gaze. My visitor’s eyes flicked from one of the twelve arched doorways to another, then swept the stair and upper gallery, as if my father’s corruption might be visible as creeping mold or cracked mortar.
It pleased me that Bernard, Melusina, and I had managed to keep this part of the house respectable, at least. Our finest tapestries hung on the cherrywood panels. The lamps were bright. The blue slate floor was clean. As a fond duty to my mother, Melusina had set pots of fresh snapdragons about in nooks and crannies, and alongside the priceless Lefage mirror Mama had brought from her home in Nivanne. In front of the mirror, the telescope’s brass gleamed, its ornate mounting free of dust, its mirror spotless, the engraved signature of the renowned astronomer Germond de Vouger—my father’s longtime correspondent—prominently displayed. Yellow, blue, and green marbles representing the sun and the planets perched firmly atop the polished spindles that fixed them in the planetary. My father’s prized possessions remained in the house because they were rare and valuable, not in any relapse of sentiment.
Returning his attention to the vicinity of my head, Duplais drew a folded paper from his doublet. “I’ve brought a summons.”
My fists released their hard clench. He’d not brought ill news of my hostage brother or notice that my father’s ashes had been
scattered in an unknown location, according to the law of Sabria
, as the king’s judgment prescribed. Yet a summons could mean anything.
The paper was heavy and rich, my name in bold, sweeping script. I turned it over and my spirit petrified. The red wax was imprinted with the royal seal of Sabria.
A glance revealed only Duplais’ back as he examined the gleaming brass ellipses of the planetary. I broke the seal.
By order of His Royal Majesty Philippe de Savin-Journia y Sabria, Anne de Vernase is hereby summoned to attend His Majesty’s Court at Merona no later than the fifth day of Ocet, making all prudent preparations to fulfill her duties as king’s ward and gooddaughter, such duties to include investiture as a maid of honor of the queen’s household and all such proper engagements and alliances as His Majesty may specify.
Engagements . . . alliances . . .
I read the message four times before I comprehended its full meaning. And when I did so, the reek of betrayal sickened me.
The King of Sabria—my goodfather by my parents’ wish, my guardian by law, which said that an unmarried woman of property who lacked competent parents became the king’s ward, no matter her age—desired to use me as a diplomatic pawn, like an estate or a forest range or ten paces on a disputed border. Handsome, noble, knightly Philippe de Savin-Journia, whom I had adored from the day I could walk until the day he sent his soldiers to arrest my father, wanted to sell me for whatever pitiful return a traitor’s daughter could fetch.
Duplais had now abandoned his studious pretense, his eyes narrowed and posture stiff, as if he expected a torrent of hysteria, or that I, the daughter of a condemned felon, might somehow produce a weapon and attack him. My own mind fixed itself upon absurdity. I had lived in the country my entire two-and-twenty years, and had maintained no contact with noble society since I was sixteen. For my life, I could not remember how to curtsy.
“By departing Montclaire at third hour of the afternoon watch tomorrow, I determine we can make it as far as Tigano by nightfall,” said Duplais, “which should bring us to Merona four days after, in concert with His Majesty’s orders. Naturally, I shall provide you female accompaniment. Your own attendant can follow with your luggage.”
Impossible. But then, five months or five years would not be enough. The estate was my responsibility. Bernard and Melusina and I, working all day every day, could scarce keep it up. I mustered what calm I could scrape together. “I cannot possibly leave Montclaire so abruptly. You must inform His Majesty. The house, the accounts . . . We begin the grape harvest in less than a tenday. You
understand my mother does not reside here anymore.”
He ought. For the first year we had lived under the shadow of my father’s disappearance, my mother had been our mainstay, her strength inspiring, uncompromising. But then the king had ringed Montclaire with soldiers hunting Papa, and this Duplais had come here with his dreadful mage. They had poked about the house, pried, questioned, brutalized my mother with insinuations and threats until her spirit had fractured. By the time of Papa’s trial and condemnation, her distress had deepened into mania.
Duplais’ slender face remained cold. Long dark lashes shielded his eyes. “You needn’t concern yourself with Montclaire any longer, damoselle. The Ruggiere titles and lands have been granted elsewhere.”
As a fox empties a meadow of birdsong, so did this announcement silence my heart. Papa’s crimes had already exiled Mama, Ambrose, and Lianelle. Now it was my turn. And to my shame, though the terms of my departure were trivial beside madness, prison, or death, I was not sure I could bear it.
Montclaire’s expansive vistas, the abundant richness of its soil, the warmth and unpretentious comforts of the rambling house had created a nest for my life’s nurturing. Though the echoes of laughter and playacting, sword fights, my mother’s whimsical singing, and debates over everything from politics to mathematical proofs to shoes were fast fading, I felt safe here, embraced by the warm stone and sweet airs and the robust quiet that I could not seem to find in any city or village.
The reprieve that had kept us in our home had always been temporary. I’d known better than to credit the king with some lingering belief in Papa’s innocence that I myself did not hold. My father was a betrayer and a murderer; he was never coming back.
Like an automaton, I gestured toward the doorway where Bernard waited, his expression bloodless with shock. “Our steward will show you to a room. It’s very late, and it appears we’ve a great deal to do tomorrow.”
“Indeed. As I informed your man, a clerk will arrive in the morning to begin an inventory. You may set aside your family’s personal belongings. Everything else remains with the house.”
“Yes. Naturally. I understand.” My lips spoke the proper words, the only words possible.
Duplais did not move immediately to join Bernard. His sharply inquisitive gaze fixed on me, as if he could sight straight through my bones. “Have you—? You understand I must ask, damoselle. Why is your sister dead?”
“They told me she overreached in her magical studies. I don’t know what that means. Perhaps you could tell me.”
“Have you any further information on your father’s whereabouts or activities?”
“I have not.” Despite his burrowing stare, I refused to drop my eyes. I was guilty of nothing.
“You understand, surely, an intelligent young woman, a daughter so close in mind to her father, that this death signifies some change in his situation, some rising conflict with allies or rivals. I urge you to share whatever you know.” When Duplais came to Montclaire that first time, he had lured us into exposure with this same reasoned urgency. Only at my father’s trial had I observed his steel blades fully bared.
“You know nothing of my relationship with my father, sonjeur. Nor do you know anything of my mind.”
“Very true. I do not.” He bowed, stiff as an oaken door. “Angels’ peace, damoselle.”
Foolish to bait him. Silly, angry bravado, the kind of response for which I had always berated my brother. But I could not grasp his purpose, and the long day and its grinding emotion had deprived me of any more reasoned response. My father had called me the child of his mind. Then he had set about torturing and murdering a girl younger than me. How could I ever come to terms with that?
I stumbled up the stair to my own bedchamber. Once behind a closed door, I sat on my bed and screamed into a lapful of pillows, indulging anger and outrage and a shameful dose of self-pity. I would grieve forever for my beloved sister and my mad mother, for my wretched hostage brother, and for the false memory of a father I had worshiped. But for that one hour I mourned the end of one life and the dismal prospects of the next, raging and weeping and cursing my treacherous parent and his cruel king and their damnable conspiracy to steal away the home that was as much a part of me as heart and bones.
SELFISH EMOTIONAL INDULGENCE AIDS NOTHING, of course. Certainly not sleep. When my crusted eyes blinked open in the dark hours before dawn, the harsh facts remained unchanged. Even after stripping off shoes and travel-stained skirt and climbing under the sheets, I could not banish them with dreams. My thoughts were already snarled in packing, choosing, leaving.
But I refused to yield these last quiet hours alone to Portier de Savin-Duplais and his summons. Some things were more important. Traveling in the dark, lost in the storm of grieving, I had not yet read my sister’s letter.
The candle Melusina had left burning on my table was naught but a puddle of wax, but I found another, coaxed a spark from the ashes of my bedchamber hearth to light it, and set it on my family altar beside the stone figurines representing my Cazar grandmother and a young cousin who had died ten years previous. Until I received Lianelle’s death warrant from the Seravain deadhouse, our local verger would not sanctify a tessila for her.
Although I had long abandoned my childhood beliefs in the trials of Ixtador Beyond the Veil and the Ten Gates to Heaven in favor of reasoned ethics in this life and speculative ignorance about what might follow, I found comfort in the rituals of remembrance. I invited the memories of my sister to fill my heart as I extracted her packet from my discarded skirt, untied the string, and pulled out the paper bearing my name.
The crumpled letter was spotted with candle wax and varicolored blots of ink and tea. Not unexpected from the perennially messy Lianelle. Wiping my eyes with the back of my hand, I smiled and broke her seal. The letter was initially dated ten days past, but the two pages appeared to have been written in fits and starts. I wrapped a shawl about my shift and settled down to read.
She had stuffed the red leather packet with scraps of old linen. Nestled in the soft folds was a gold ring, fashioned in the likeness of a falcon’s head. A silver bead had been fitted as the bird’s eye. The packet’s weight derived from a palm-sized round case made of ivory, filled with a coarse gray powder. The nireals must be the two thumb-sized oval pendants of untarnished silver. Pretty trinkets. It was only the thought of magic working that left me queasy. Smoke and mirrors and lies.