Book Four of the Collegium Chronicles (A Valdemar Novel)

Mercedes Lackey - Author

Paperback: Mass Market | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780756408053 | 400 pages | 01 Oct 2013 | DAW | 6.49 x 4.29in | 18 - AND UP
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Life at the Heralds' Collegium in Haven has definitely improved for Mags. He's even become something of a hero since risking his own life to rescue Amily--daughter of Nikolas, the King's Own Herald--from Karsite kidnappers. But Mags still doesn't know who his parents were, and Bear, Mags' Trainee friend, was not one to let him forget: "You gotta deal with your past Mags, you have to. If you don't, it'll just keep coming back to haunt you, and one day it'll do something to you that you can't get out of."

Mags began his special training as Nikolas' undercover partner and future spy for the crown. Disguised, they work at night in one of the seedier parts of Haven, where Nikolas had set up a false identity as a pawnbroker and fence. Mags poses as his deaf-mute nephew, covertly watching and listening from behind the desk. He was especially good at the trait that had kept him alive as a child laborer in the gem mine--ferreting out hidden motives.

Now Mags has graduated to a new role: Nikolas' partner and information broker. Mags channels his old cunning self from the mines and discovers that he's quite good at his new job. So good, in fact, that Nikolas decides to let him open the shop alone one hot, summer night. Mags has barely unlocked the shop when everything goes black in a blinding flash of pain.

He wakes with an agonizing headache, bound, blindfolded, in a conveyance of some kind. But worst of all, he's head-blind. No Mindspeech--he can't even sense Dallen. And if he can't sense or hear Dallen, then no one can sense him. And if no one can sense him, no one can come to his rescue.

Herald Trainee Mags and his Companion Dallen stood so quietly in the blue dusk that they might have been an equestrian statue. The last light of the sun burned a rim of muted rose against the trees and the wall around the western side of the Palace. Overhead, stars gleamed in a sky gone a blue so dark it was just barely a color. Mags knew there would be only a sliver of new moon tonight, nothing to drown the splendor of the stars. The scent of newly cut grass surrounded them, but the gentlest of breezes at their backs brought whiffs of the mingled perfumes of roses, lilacs, honeysuckle, and lilies. The stars seemed near enough to touch, blazing jewels strewn across velvet.

Dallen dipped his head a little, and Mags absently patted his Companion’s neck. Dallen was attired in unusual splendor, in his full formal gear, with blue leather saddle and bitless bridle, the bridle adorned with silver-plated bridle bells, browband with his name tooled into it, and blue-and-white barding embroidered with silver. Mags had spent hours grooming him, and it showed; there was not a hair that didn’t gleam like the finest satin. Mags had even polished his silver-gray hooves until they looked almost like real silver.

Mags was clothed to match in a set of formal Grays in a velvet as light as a cobweb and linen fine enough to use in a Temple. And for once, these weren’t hand-me-downs from some other, wealthier Trainee; no, this was a very special occasion that warranted a very special outlay by the Crown itself. Every Trainee at the Collegium had an identical set of splendid new Grays, or the dull Scarlets and Greens of the Bard and Healer Trainees—and every Herald, Bard, and Healer here who didn’t already own a sumptuous uniform or set of robes of his or her own had been supplied with dress uniforms that had left some people gaping.

Mags wasn’t thinking about his new uniform. He was putting himself into the quietest state of mind he could manage. What he and the others were about to do required that every Herald and Trainee surrender himself to a kind of common pool of doing. It wasn’t unlike Kirball in that way, actually, and the more he thought about it in that fashion, the calmer he felt himself becoming. Finally he felt that last little bit of tension ease out of his shoulders, and Dallen shook his head gently.

:It’s time, Chosen.:

Mags took the blue-glass lantern hanging from the saddle horn, found the fire-striker in his belt pouch without even thinking about it, and set the wick alight. Then Dallen turned, and they moved down toward the chapel in Companion’s Field, joining one of half a dozen processions of Heralds and Trainees, all carrying identical lit lanterns in one hand, coming from all parts of the Collegium and moving as if they were all directed by the same will. Dallen moved smoothly under him, not like a horse at all—the few times Mags had ridden one of the Kirball horses had left him with a hearty sympathy for the Riders.

The lanterns provided the only light anywhere up on the Hill. Not a single light of any sort shone from the Palace or the Collegia. As dark as it was, they all might as well have been riding through a forest somewhere in the wilderness rather than through Companion’s Field. Within a few moments, Mags was at the head of the farthest left of the six lines, and he sensed, rather than saw, that King’s Own Nikolas was at the head of the farthest right. All the lines stopped. And in that same moment, with one accord, the Companions took up the curiously slow, graceful, and beautiful gait that was known as “Companion Dancing.”

The only sound was that of the rhythmic chiming of the bridle bells as all six lines halted in place, Companions still pacing. Then Mags and Nickolas led their lines out, while the inner four remained pacing in place. When they were six lengths in front of the rest, Mags and Nikolas turned toward each other. The lanterns seemed to make graceful arcs in the darkness as they moved, with the blue light reflecting off the snowy coats of the Companions and the white and gray uniforms. The next two lines began to move forward, as the outermost lines curved toward each other, met, and passed. Then the innermost lines moved up, until the entire path to the chapel had become an interlacing of dancing Companions, coats throwing back the blue light of the lanterns, bridle bells making the only music needed for this dance. From any distance, it would all blur into a moving, weaving, and reweaving braid of light whose goal was clearly the chapel.

Mags found himself in a kind of pleasant half-trance, aware of every Companion and every Herald and Trainee around him, aware of exactly where they were in the procession, somehow conveying minute corrections to the others so that the distances between the riders never varied, and every hoof was precisely placed.

He and Nikolas arrived at the chapel, again at the heads of the two outermost lines, and Dallen and Rolan pivoted so that they faced one another with a broad stretch of the path between them. As the rest arrived, they too lined up, and only when the last of them were in place did the Companions cease to dance.

But there was still the sound of bridle bells, for coming down the path they had left was a single Companion with two riders, followed by another, followed by a very select group of witnesses.

The first riders were, of course, the Heir, Prince Sedric, and his bride, Master Soren’s niece Lydia, and as they reached the chapel, the door opened, spilling out a carpet of soft, warm light, although there was no other light visible. Lydia was radiant, her green eyes shining with happiness, her tumble of red curls pinned up under a wreath of white flowers. Mags knew more about cloth and dresses than most young men, since such knowledge was part of the training he had as what was essentially a spy for the Crown. Her white gown, trimmed in silver, was rich but not ostentatious,—quite good enough for a princess, but it said without words that this was a lady who would not break the Treasury for the sake of a dress. Sedric, of course, looked every inch the Prince and Herald and very much his father’s son, dark as his father was and with his father’s chiseled features. And very, very happy.

The Prince dismounted, and his lady slid down into his arms; the King and Queen followed suit, and the wedding party proceeded into the chapel to the sound of a harp from somewhere inside. The door closed, leaving everyone outside with only the blue light of the lanterns illuminating them all.

It was a very small wedding party. The chapel wasn’t very large and they all fit inside, handily, with room to spare. Faced with an ever-increasing guest list, the princess-to-be had finally put her foot down, gently, but firmly. “Every time we meet, there is someone else who cannot be left out without offending them,” Lydia had said, with the aplomb of someone who had spent all her life watching the factions and movements in the Court. “Very well. We will offend everyone. I want no one at the ceremony but our immediate families.”

The Council had been horrified. But Lydia was both firm and charming in a way that made some suspect some sort of Gift at work. Or, as Nikolas had said, in tones of admiration, “She can tell you to go to hell in a way that will send you running off to pack your bags.” Lydia had gotten her way.

Of course, no one was going to be offended. The vast mobs of people who could not possibly have been accommodated in any temple or cathedral in all of Valdemar could certainly fit into the Palace grounds, and as soon as the two were declared officially wed, the celebration would begin. And meanwhile—

Nikolas nodded at Mags, who dropped back into his trance. Rolan and Dallen pawed the ground three times in perfect synchronization, and the Heralds and Trainees raised their lanterns again on the third beat as the Companions resumed their dance.

This time it was only two lines, crossing and recrossing, weaving and reweaving, to the sound of the bridle bells. When the King signaled from within the chapel that the ceremony had concluded, they needed to be back in their places for the recessional within four beats of the dance. But it was certainly a fine display up there on the hill, and it was making those who had been shut out of the ceremony feel as if they were part of it. Or that was the theory, anyway.

As if someone had conjured it to make the entire scene perfect, a flower-scented breeze came up from somewhere deep in the Field, wafting up to the top of the hill where the silent onlookers waited.

:Now,: Mags heard in his mind, and within the allotted four beats, they were all back in place.

:Ready,: Nikolas replied to the King, and the entire chapel suddenly blazed with light. Light poured from every window. Light streamed from the Bell Tower. And that, of course, was the signal for the Palace and gardens to answer with their own blaze of glory, as the chapel doors opened, and the wedding party came out.

From up on the hill, it was the Bards’ turn to contribute, as the massed musicians of the Collegium and every other Bard who could possibly get here broke into a processional march especially composed for the occasion. The Prince mounted his Companion; Nikolas, who had dismounted, lifted the new Princess up onto the pillion pad behind him. Then the King mounted, and Nikolas then did the same for the Queen. Then with the Prince leading Mags’ row, and the King leading Nikolas’, they made their way in two long lines back up to the Palace. The breeze seemed to accompany them like an invisible train of flowers, and the music came down to them like a blessing.

The onlookers withheld their applause until the royal party reached the half-circle of splendidly clad Guardsmen awaiting them, and the Companions stopped just as the recessional ended. Then the clapping and shouting began.

The two rows of Heralds and Trainees passed by a pair of tables, where a couple of servants took their lanterns from them.

Mags was mightily glad to be rid of that lantern when he got to that edge of the grounds and the people waiting to relieve the honor guard of their glowing burdens. It might not have been very heavy, but they were awkward to carry, and you couldn’t just hang a lit lantern on your saddle-bow. The lanterns were going to be gifts to all those people who dared not be offended; he was pretty certain they’d be satisfied enough with them. If you couldn’t be at the ceremony itself, it certainly would not displease anyone to have a pretty thing like the silver-plated lantern to show you had been to the event.

The lanterns were placed on a table next to the King and Queen to be distributed (after which they became the problem of their new owners!), and a long reception line began to form to tender congratulations.

Not, however, to the bride and groom.

No, the Prince waited until all the Companions were back up at the gardens and all the lanterns collected and blown out. Then with a general wave and an exuberant whoop, he and his bride galloped back down to Companion’s Field and their own secluded little wedding bower somewhere in it. There they would be guarded by all the unpartnered Companions, and heaven help anyone who tried to disturb them. That had been the Prince’s demand, and who could blame him? He’d had to wait two years for Lydia already. The festivities were scheduled for three days; they’d come out for some things, and at the end of the third day, he and the Princess would return to the Palace and take their congratulations at a formal reception as the invitees left.

The gardens had been illuminated not only with their usual lamps but also with scented lanterns and torches. Tables with drink and refreshments—drink, mostly, Mags suspected–were scattered about. The guests had been feasting all afternoon, unlike the Trainees.

Mags was scanning the crowd for another face entirely, and he felt his heart lift as he spotted Amily slowly, and with great determination, making her way toward him. You had to be watching for her to see her; as always, she was dressed to blend in, rather than stand out. Among all of the jewels and extravagant costumes, she was like a sparrow among scarlet jays.

He did not urge Dallen to her, for he knew she was exceedingly proud of how strong she was growing, and he was not going to undermine that by offering more help than she wanted. But by the time she had reached him, Nikolas had pulled up beside him and dismounted, and he boosted her up behind Mags exactly as he had helped the Princess and Queen.

Amily was very like her father; you had to look at her closely to realize she was pretty, and you had to really know her to understand she wasn’t merely pretty but had a quiet beauty that was so self-contained that very little of it escaped. Like her father, she had soft brown hair and brown eyes, and something about her made the eye tend to slide over her. In his case, Mags suspected that the ability to make people overlook Nikolas was entirely training. In Amily’s case, it was something more subtle than training; it had been, at least in part, the desire to draw no attention to herself and her disability. A disability that, thanks to Bear, no longer existed. She had learned all the ways she could distract attention from herself by sending it to someone, or something, more interesting.

“How did we look?” Mags asked her, as her father remounted and he and Rolan trotted off elsewhere. The breeze lifted her soft hair and teased it into gentle curls. He had to crane his neck around to see her.

“Magnificent,” she told him, with a touch of pride. “The bridle bells were quite clear up here as well. Everyone was really impressed. They would probably have been even more impressed if they could have seen the dancing clearly, but the light reflected off of all of you and turned the whole thing into ribbons of glowing blue.”

“Good,” Mags sighed. “I was hopin’ it was going to be worth it. I swear to you, that poxy dancin’ took more working out and practice than Kirball.” He’d lost a great deal of his thick, rural accent by dint of a lot of practice. It still slipped out a little when he was relaxed and among friends, but he was as proud of his speech as Amily was of her ability to walk.

Of course, when he was really playing a part, his concentration on his speech ensured nothing would slip.

Amily laughed and patted his shoulder. “It was more than worth it if all the oohs and ahs I heard were any indication. Well, where do we go tonight?” she asked. “The gardens and the official celebration?”

Mags made a face that she, of course, could not see, since she was behind him. “Thank you very much, no. I’m not interested in being feted because I can bung a ball through a goal.”

“Surely not everyone here is a Kirball fanatic,” she teased. “I’m sure one or two people have heard of you as something other than the neck-or-nothing player. You actually have done one or two things besides that.”

“Oh, no,” he replied firmly, as Dallen waited patiently for the path before them to clear. “I’ve even less interest in talkin’ about what happened when those fiends took you.”

He felt her shiver, but she said, quite bravely, “Mags, you were a hero . . . and there are people who know that.” He could not imagine how she must have felt—drugged, terrified, in the hands of a couple of known murderers, and fully aware that even if she managed to throw off the effects of the drugs they had poured into her, she would never be able to escape from them on her own. Not a day went by that he didn’t berate himself for not being there when she had been kidnapped. Because of his Gift, he would have known that the carriage sent for her was not the right one. He would never have let her get into it.

Just as bad was the fact that he had been within inches of catching the carriage, and he and Dallen had been neatly knocked senseless.

It had been the worst day of his life.

“The fewer people who think I’m some kind of hero when I ain’t, the better,” he said shortly. “I’m just Mags. Let’s leave it at that. No, the Trainees are havin’ a stable party. I thought we’d go there.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed happily. “I love stable parties!”

“It’s going to be in the hayloft,” he told her, as people managed to clear away from the way they wanted to go, and Dallen turned his head and ambled in that direction. It was almost as bright as day up here, but down at the stable, things were a little more subdued, at least from this side. It was lit up, but it looked no different from any other early evening. “Stablemaster took the opportunity to clear the place out down to the bare floor, since we were going to have to feed all the visitors’ mounts anyway. Once they’re gone, he’ll bring in the first of this year’s cutting.”

He didn’t ask Amily if she could climb to the loft; he knew she would, or die trying. But he had something else in mind for her.

There were more doors in the stable now—one for every stall, in fact—and all of them stood wide open. The ground floor was mostly empty except for a few bales of straw and some Trainees and stable hands taking advantage of the quiet places to sit, for there were not a lot of those available with so many people on the Palace and Collegia grounds. Only the two night lamps, one on each wall, were lit. Mags had a notion that in some of the darker corners people were taking advantage of the quiet places to do more than just sit, but that wasn’t any of his business. Dallen went around to the hoist side of the stables, where four or five young ladies in lovely gowns were waiting with varying degrees of impatience and varying degrees of giddiness.

The hay hoist was made for one man to haul up a pallet of several hay bales at once, so the weight of one young lady was hardly likely to strain its capacity. A comfortable canvas sling, stolen from one of the tree swings down by the river, had been fitted to the hoist. Anyone who wanted to ride up to the loft rather than climb the steep, ladder-like stair would be able to take this somewhat more exciting route up. The trick, however, was that the man at the top of the hoist would use a hay hook to snag the rope and haul the pallet in through the open door at the top. Rather than flailing about in the dark with the heavy hay hook, the young ladies were being encouraged to swing their way to the door and be caught by their escorts. There were a lot of squeals and giggles. And every so often, one of the lads appropriated the swing so he could show off by swinging and jumping in through the door at the apex of his swing.

If the teachers and other elders had known about this, Mags reflected, they would probably have had a proper fit over it. But they didn’t, and he was pretty sure that with all the Gifts scattered among the crowd, no one was going to get seriously hurt.

His thought was confirmed when he spotted First-Year Trainee Finny standing just inside the hayloft door, out of the way of the swingers but well in line-of-sight. This was important, because young Finny’s Gift was a particularly powerful one, a kind of Fetching that allowed her to lift or catch objects with her mind that could weigh as much as a Companion. Finny would not allow anyone to fall.

“Well,” he said over his shoulder to Amily, “Care to try? Finny’s up above, so it’s safe as houses.”

He could just see Amily’s face by craning his neck, and she looked both excited and a little bit anxious as she watched one of the Bardic Trainees fling herself into the waiting arms of another.

“If you’re going to catch me, and Finny’s there . . . I think so. But you won’t think badly of me if I get scared and ask to be put down on the ground again, will you?” She bit her lip a little.

He wanted to kiss her. “Nay, I’ll just reckon you have more sense than the rest of us.” He swung his leg over Dallen’s saddle horn and dropped down to the ground, then lifted Amily down. And, feeling emboldened, he led her into the line while Dallen ambled off to be divested of his regalia and join the other Companions in the Field.

:Don’t get yourself knocked silly-sideways,: Dallen said mildly as he vanished into the darkness.

:Eh, this is nothing compared to m’roof-running,: Mags assured him, as he took his place in the sling and waited to be hauled aloft. And really, it wasn’t. He’d done much more perilous leaps on the nighttime rooftops, and the loft was very well lit. The absence of hay meant people could bring up as many lanterns as they chose, and they did. A couple of good pumps of his legs got him the height and momentum he wanted, and he capped his jump by turning it into a somersaulting tumble through the air, rolling to his feet, that left him standing again with his arms spread, taking a little, mocking bow.

“Allo, Finny,” he said, nodding to the short, shy girl who must have changed out of her Formal Grays into something more comfortable as soon as she got the chance. I should’ve done that. Oh, well, too late now. These’ll need a wash. “Glad to see you’re here to keep us from breaking our necks.”

Finny blushed with pleased confusion. “Really . . . I couldn’t . . . I mean . . .”

Mags beamed at her. “Damn shame with a Gift like yours they won’t let you on the Kirball teams. Did you think about volunteering for the Healers’ squad? Be really useful to have someone that could lift a person with a busted bone without moving anything.”

She flushed even redder. “Do you think . . . would you . . .”

“I’ll talk to the Captains and Bear as soon as all this wedding flummery is over,” he promised. “Bet they’ll all be falling all over each other to ask you first.”

“Oh!” she said, deep pink with pleasure. He gave her shoulders a friendly squeeze. Sometimes being “Mags the Kirball champion” and “Mags the hero” was nice. When he could make someone as shy and anxious as Finny feel wanted and good—that was when it stopped being annoying.

She was so happy now her eyes just shone behind her glass lenses. He grinned again. “Thenkee, Finny,” he just said, with all the gratitude he could put in his voice. “Now, it’ll be Amily coming up next, so let’s make sure she comes in just as soft as a feather.” He looked over the edge of the loft door. Amily was just getting into the swing; she glanced up and spotted him, lamplight falling softly on her face, and she saw Finny’s close-cropped head beside his. She waved, looking relieved.

“All right, boys, it’s Amily, give her a smooth ride!” cried a young Guard Trainee who was helping the girls into the swing down below. Mags looked over to see a cheerful-faced young giant of a Guard Trainee on the rope and nodded to him. The youngster nodded back and began hauling the rope, slowly, carefully, and very smoothly. At one point, only her friends had known Amily was the King’s Own’s daughter, and most people up here on the Hill were not aware she existed. But after the first attempted abduction, everyone became aware of her, and after the second, successful kidnapping, she suddenly acquired a veritable army of protectors.

Finny remained poised at the edge of the loft door, practically quivering with concentration. When Amily came into view, Finny waved at her.

“I can . . . I . . . I can give you a little push . . . if you want,” Finny said hesitantly. “If that would help . . .”

“Oh, would you?” Amily begged. “It looks a lot higher from here than I thought!”

On hearing that, Finny did a lot more than give Amily a “little push.” With her face set in a grimace of concentration, Finny stared at Amily, and without Amily having to move her legs at all, she began swinging in a gentle, highly controlled arc, until she was close enough for Mags to catch. And as he reached for her, he could feel Finny helping to steady her, so bringing her into the loft was no more difficult, and no more dangerous, than lifting her down from Dallen’s back.

She felt it too, and she beamed as she thanked the Trainee. Finny went an even deeper pink but managed to accept the thanks graciously.

Another girl was already coming up, though, and Finny quickly turned her attention back to making sure she did so safely. Mags and Amily moved out of the way and scanned the hayloft.

There were dozens of lanterns hanging from the rafters, and since the loft was meant to store hay and straw through the winter for a great many Companions, these upper walls with their black timbers and white-plastered noggin between were a full story tall, with the roof and rafters above that. Without the hay, it looked like a rustic hall, and not part of a stable. There was plenty of room for whatever anyone wanted to do, even though there must have been more than fifty people up here. Mags had been part of the contingent helping to get food up during the day, so he had a pretty good idea of what was on the crowded tables down at the north end of the loft. “Are you hungry?” he asked.

He certainly was. There had been an awful lot of running around today and not a lot of time to eat.

“Starving,” Amily replied, her eyes warming with her smile.

The south half of the loft was where the gathering of musicians had set up, so it wasn’t too hard to weave their way through the crowd to get to the food. It was every bit as good as a Midwinter spread at Master Soren’s. There were pocket pies, both meat and fruit, and tiny egg pies and fruit tarts. There were cheeses—sharp and yellow, mild and white, pungent with veins of blue running through them. There was white and rye and barley bread and even an oat bread that Mags was rather partial to. There were hard-boiled eggs and everything pickled that could be pickled. There was thin-sliced hard sausage and sausage in pastry. There were cookies, candied nuts, hard-boiled sweets, and plenty of fruit, but for once, there was only one sort of cake—the wedding cake, which Mags expected would be good enough that no one would miss any other sort. Mags was pleased to see that his favorites and Amily’s were still available. There weren’t any plates, probably because everything that even looked like a plate was in service up at the Palace, but knowing that this was coming, some enterprising soul had bought up the entire output of Haven’s apprentice basket-weavers to use instead. The work was terrible and would ordinarily have been burned, but it was certainly good enough to hold food for the night. Mags secured something that looked as if it had been intended as a sieve and something else that might have been a lid, and he filled them with little meat and fruit pies, cheese chunks, bread, grapes, and slices of the wedding cake, which was a rich, dark creation scented with spice and honey, bursting with chopped nuts. There was quite a crowd at the food tables and not so much at the drink tables, so with unspoken accord, Amily had gone to get drink for both of them.

Although there was a light spiced honey wine available, Amily had gotten them both cups cleverly made of molded and waxed paper pulp full of spiced cider instead. “Oh, good choice,” Mags told her, when he managed to make his way to her.

“Well, you’re playing a game tomorrow, and I don’t want you to have to do so with a mead head,” she laughed.

He rolled his eyes ruefully. “I hope the others remember that,” he replied. The Kirball match was going to be an exhibition game, the Prince’s team against the King’s, with the members of each picked by their respective patron. Mags was on the Prince’s team, which pleased him quite a bit. If nothing else, that would put to rest the last unease about his loyalty and how Prince Sedric felt about it.

The loft might have been cleared of straw and hay, but there were plenty of other things to sit on. The bedrolls everyone was supposed to make and keep available at all times, in case there was a sudden need to put everyone in the Field (or take a survival test), made perfectly good seating, some people had hauled up benches from the stable below, and others had brought up the folding cots some preferred over bedrolls, and which Mags did not trust at all. He had brought up his own bedroll and a couple of old cushions, and he got them out of the corner and spread out in no time at all. Amily needed a little help to get down to the floor, but once there, she seemed quite comfortable.

It was rather like having a picnic indoors. All the loft doors were open, and a good breeze was coming through; all the musicians were clustered around the door at this end with people disposed on their various seats around them, too busy eating and drinking to talk.

“Where’s the dancing?” Amily wanted to know.

“Down below,” Mags told her. “There’re too many to fit up here and have dancing, so we all agreed the dancers would be outside, and people who just wanted to get together would be up here. That’s why the musicians are at the door there. Look! There’re Bear and Lena!” He waved at their friends, who had several more of their usual circle in tow, and before long there was a cluster of Kirball team members, a couple more Bardic Trainees besides Lena, and two more shy and very young-looking Healer Trainees. Mags remembered when Lena was as shy as that, a thin, delicate, dark-haired thing with sad brown eyes. Now although she was still thin, she gave the impression of strength along with delicacy, and her eyes were seldom sad. Bear, of course was Bear, still. Still peering from behind his lenses, still looking like a sleepy, affable bear full of honey and good nature. Not so round anymore—he’d grown into some good muscles of late. But it was no surprise that he’d rounded up the Healer Trainees—he was always one for picking up strays. Rather like Mags.

Bear introduced them, but they seemed very much overawed by the company they were in, and they just sat there with round eyes, occasionally remembering to eat and drink. The rest of them, however, were as famished as Mags was, which was not surprising, really. Every free hand had been needed right up until the beginning of the ceremony, and what meals had been snatched had often been eaten on the run.

The cooks had clearly rewarded their diligence, however. This was not cast-offs from the tables meant for the nobles.

When he and Amily had sat down, the musicians had been a tambour drummer, a girl with a gittern, another with a hautboy, and someone Mags couldn’t quite see with a set of small-pipes. By the time Bear’s group settled, the hautboy player and the tambour drummer had been replaced by someone with a set of bones and someone with a shepherd’s flute. It was clear that the musicians—not all of whom were in Trainee Red—were rotating in and out as people got tired of playing or were ready to eat. Right now the music was all lively country dances, things most musicians knew very well. And from the sound of whooping and laughter outside, the dancing was going on apace. The breeze outside had strengthened, which was a good thing; it kept the air moving through the loft.

“Are you planning on playing later?” Amily asked Lena, who nodded.

“We brought up practice instruments and left them here to share,” she explained. “That way nobody needs to worry about his personal instruments tonight. Accidents do happen after all. No one wants to have a foot put through his prize gittern.”

One of the other Bardic trainees shuddered and ate a big piece of cake to comfort himself. “That happened to me over Midwinter,” he explained. “Family gather got rowdy. I was like to die.”

He ate another piece of cake to comfort himself. “Did all right out of it I s’pose,” he said, after a while. “Family took up collection, Master Martin, the luthier in Haven, took pity on me, and I got a nice gittern out of it, I guess . . .”

“But no instrument is like the first good one you ever get,” said Lena sympathetically. “That one is special.”

The other lad nodded glumly.

“Write a song about it,” Lena suggested. “It probably won’t make you feel better, but it’s good to get things like that out in the open. You know what the teachers say, strong emotions make strong music.”

“Huh. Maybe I will,” the other Trainee said after a moment, then turned his attention back to his food.

Amily got up and slowly made her way to the open door, smiling a little at the musicians as they made room for her. She settled down where she could look down at the dancers. Mags picked up the cushions and brought them to her.

Down below, the crowd was egging on two young men who were particularly good at some sort of rather acrobatic endeavor that involved a lot of jumping and kicking and tumbling. It didn’t look like any dance he was familiar with, but, then, he wasn’t familiar with a lot of dances.

“I’ll dance at Midwinter,” Amily said, softly, out of the blue. “I will.”

Mags felt as if he were going to burst with pride. “Yes,” he said simply, and sat down beside her. “You will.”

He had been afraid that watching the dancers would just make her more aware of what she still couldn’t do, but instead, it seemed to be making her more determined. She’d never wanted to watch dancing before—

Dallen put in his two coppers’ worth of observation. :Maybe that was because before, she’d been defined, at least in her own mind, by everything she wasn’t.:

:You think?: Mags asked.

:Use that clever magpie mind of yours. How many things did she have that she was?:

Dallen was right, as Dallen usually was. The more he thought about it, the more he could see all the “nots” that had been in Amily’s life, and fair few positives. She wasn’t able to walk without help, which automatically made her someone who had to be aided rather than someone who could aid. All that could have been worked around if she had qualified for any of the Collegia, but she had no Gifts and obviously no Companion. She wasn’t a courtier, she didn’t have her father’s ability to seduce information out of people without them knowing it, she wasn’t—well, so very many things. But Bear had changed all that. One thing that had been impossible, that she should ever be like everyone else in the most basic of ways, suddenly became not only possible but actually happened. And if one impossible thing had happened, how many more could? She could dance, she could learn to ride, herself, and on a horse, not a Companion, she could—

“And I am going to ask the Weaponsmaster to help me,” she went on, as the two young men finally exhausted each other. She turned to look at him, her chin set stubbornly. “After all, Lydia and Saski and some of the other girls all know how to fight as well as any of you Herald Trainees. I want to be able to fight back if I need to. I don’t want to be the weak point anymore. I don’t want to be the one everyone has to worry about. And if something happens again, if there’s another attempt . . .” for a moment, her eyes flashed steel” . . . I want to give anyone who thinks they can hurt Father through me the surprise of their lives.”

:Well good for her,: said Dallen. :I expected something of the sort from her, but not quite so soon.:

“That sounds like a good plan to me,” he agreed. “It can’t help but strengthen you more, faster. Bet Bear’ll agree. The Weaponsmaster knows all sorts of tricks, all kinds of—well—dirty-fighting ways. Sounds like something worth doing.”

Her expression softened, as if she had been bracing herself for him to object. “I’m glad you think so.”

“I’m glad you’re glad.” He chuckled. “An’ if we’re done bein’ all serious and everything, I reckon I could use some pocket pies.”

Amily got tired sooner than everyone else, of course. She was still recovering from what had been a harrowing piece of Healing, and everything she did was still twice as difficult for her and took twice as much energy as it did for anyone else. Long before Mags was even thinking about sleeping, she was ready to rest.

She came down out of the loft the same way she had gone up, and with the same care—but this time with greater enjoyment. “Would you like me to get Dallen?” he asked, when she was safely on the ground again.

She shook her head. “I’d rather walk. Besides, being on Dallen would make me a bit obvious once we get nearer the Palace, and I’d rather not be obvious.”

Mags paused a moment to let his mind drift to what Dallen was up to. “Seems he’s found some talk he wants to eavesdrop on, so he’ll thank you for that anyway,” he said thoughtfully. “Wouldn’t you think people could stop with the politicking and all for just one day?”

The breeze lingered around them, stirring her skirts. “Court politics is all some people have in their lives,” she replied, then shrugged. “But since Dallen has so kindly decided to deal with this particular bit of it, we can probably let ourselves enjoy the evening without worrying about it. Dallen is as good at not being noticed as you.”

:Wise woman,: Dallen commented, then went back to eavesdropping.

It wasn’t a quiet walk nor a private one, what with all of the celebrants swirling about the grounds. Judging from the amount of reeling some of them were doing, not to mention what Mags could only think of as “drunken shenanigans,” there were going to be many, many sore heads in the morning. But as he held Amily’s hand, and they walked slowly toward the Herald’s Wing, he felt oddly as if they were somehow apart from all of that. It was a feeling he liked, as if the two of them were enclosed in a magical bubble through which they could watch what was going on if they chose, and yet were in a world away from it.

They entered the Herald’s Wing, and the noise dropped precipitously as soon as they closed the door. There was no sign of anyone in the long, wood-paneled corridor, and the sound of their footsteps echoing down the hall was louder than the music and voices outside.

When they got to the door of the quarters she shared with her father, however, things got a little . . . awkward. Just to begin with, there was her father. Nikolas was not only a Herald, and thus would certainly find out if they got up to any shenanigans of their own, but he was the King’s Own Herald, which meant he would probably find out about it from multiple sources.

This did put a bit of a damper on romance. It was altogether awkward, in fact, since both of them were aware of it.

At least the hallway was empty; in fact, it felt to Mags as though most of the wing was empty. So when they reached the door, he leaned over without warning to steal a kiss, and Amily wasn’t shy of reciprocating. He put both his arms around her when she did, pulling her closer, and felt her arms around his waist.

“I don’t think there would be any harm if you came in,” she said huskily.

“It’d probably be better than standin’ about in the hall,” he agreed.

The little sitting room had been laid ready for the evening, though it wasn’t likely that Nikolas would set foot here before dawn. Two lanterns were lit in the sitting room, and the windows had been left open to the breeze, although the curtains had been drawn before them. They both sat down on the couch before the cold fireplace and listened to the distant sounds of celebration coming in through the open window.

All right, Mags. Do manage to make some kind of talk, won’t you? He seized on the last thing she’d mentioned in the loft.

“I might be able to help you with weapons’-work and all,” he said, “I’ve got some weapons I think’d suit you,” then blushed as she giggled. “I don’t think that came out right.”

“Oh, you probably have a lot of weapons that would suit me, but we should confine ourselves to the ones my father would approve of,” she flirted, making him blush even more. But he liked this new side of her; she was so much more alive.

They flirted a little more and kissed a little more, but eventually the fact that she was tired and the fact that Nikolas was very much a presence even though he was occupied elsewhere made him take his leave of her.

He was by no means ready to call an end to the evening, which was still going strong in the gardens. By the time he got back to the stable loft, however, Bear and Lena were nowhere to be seen.

:Don’t go looking for them,: Dallen advised. :And for Haven’s sake, don’t go knocking on Bear’s door for a nightcap!:</p>

Oh, so that was the way the wind blew . . . he’d had his suspicions for quite some time, but this was the first Dallen had confirmed them. He felt a flash of envy. Lena’s father was in no position to dictate anything to her, given that he was utterly in disgrace, and Mags rather doubted that her teachers would disapprove either of Bear as something more than a friend or of anything that would give her a little distraction from her studies. If anything, her teachers at Bardic Collegium had difficulty in getting her to think about anything other than music. Being in love would certainly give her perspective on love songs. And as for Bear himself, well, his parents were already so furious about his defiance of their wishes (with the help of Healer’s Collegium) that it was difficult to imagine how anything he would do short of murder would change their opinion for the worse. Bear already had the responsibilities of a full Healer in many areas, and even his teachers tended to regard and treat him as a full adult and peer.

:Well,: Dallen said, commenting on his thoughts, :your case is a bit more complicated.:

:It always is,: he sighed. :It’s bad enough that Amily has been a cripple for so long and all her friends feel protective of her. It’s worse her father is a Herald, so the chances of us actually keeping anything to ourselves is pretty low. But given that Nikolas is the King’s Own Herald . . . sometimes it feels as if every single person in Whites and half of the Companions thinks themselves her substitute parents. Awkward don’t begin to describe it.:

:It could be worse,: Dallen observed. :You could be the Prince. No matter what he does, someone is bound to disapprove.:

Mags snorted. But that was entirely too true.

He nibbled a little more, drank a little more, mingled with his fellow Trainees and some of the younger Guard recruits who had managed to find the party, and finally decided to try his hand at dancing. If Amily was determined to dance by Midwinter, he’d better be ready to dance with her. On a night like tonight, the girls would forgive his mistakes, he reckoned.

And so it proved. He danced a great deal, even if he didn’t dance well; he drank a little, and when Dallen turned up to shove him into his own room in the stable, he was tired enough and just light-headed enough, not to resist.

“Returning to her beloved Valdemar universe, Lackey opens her new series at a pivotal time in the history of Valdemar, when the education of Heralds is changing and dangers from other lands are felt in the court and on the training field. Series fans will enjoy the variations on a familiar theme, while enough information is presented for first-timers to discover a world of high adventure and individual courage. Highly recommended.”—Library Journal
“A real page-turner…. Outstanding characters, especially Mags, will greatly please Valdemar fans.”—Booklist
“Has everything you’d expect in a Valdemar book…and it’s wonderful.”—Romantic Times
“Recalls Lackey's earliest Valdemar books... a worthy entry in the overall saga.”—Publishers Weekly

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