From the author of Lightborn, the third book in a Regency- flavored fantasy series of magic and manners.
Magic dies with the mage, or so the Darkborn believe. That's why Lady Telmaine Hearne has been condemned to death for sorcery. She's escaped but is now bound with her mageborn allies for the Borders and war. Meanwhile, her husband, Balthasar, has learned of his family connection to the Shadowborn-and is fighting for survival and sanity as magic turns him against everything he holds dear.
These riders are good, Ishmael di Studier thought, ruefully. Otherwise he would have heard them before they were almost on him, even on the pleated and twisting old post road. And then he would have been behind the wall on the far side of the field, well out of range of sonn, rather than crouched in a dip behind a boundary marker a mere twenty yards from the road, impersonating a rock. The ridershowever many there werewere traveling with muffled hooves and carefully wrapped metalwork, on horses trained to be silent and easy in darkness. They had crept up on him. His inability to tell their numberssix? eight?was testament to their quality.
If they were friends, he knew how they would be riding: in two staggered lines, spacing precisely maintained, each one listening and casting sonn to his or her own side. It was an order and discipline he had developed with them. They might well be friends, since the ducal order to raise the Borders for possible invasion should have the entire Stranhorne troop turned out on alert for Shadowborn. Perhaps even with instructions to find him as well.
But they might also be enemies, search parties ordered out on the archduke's warrant for his arrest. Worst of all, they could be soldiers from Minhorne, sent to the Borders on that same warrant. Ish had no doubt that the warrant had included instructions that he was to be brought back unharmed; equally, he had no certainty that those instructions would be followed, not for a fugitive charged with a lady's murder and sorcery.
He sensed diffused sonn, scattered back from the tall grass and tares around him, and thought rocklike thoughts. Midnight damp seeped through his steadying knee and a painful cramp settled in his calf muscles. He dared not shift his weight. The riders would have hearing as acute as his own, and some of the veteran border troopers had intuition that seemed akin to magic. And if his profile broke that of the rock, a bowed spine did not echo like stone.
A horse stamped and blew, and despite himself, he twitched. He could have sworn that he made no sound, but a woman's voice carried clearly through the night. "Ishmael, is that you there?"
He knew the voice; a held breath went out of him in a sigh. "Yes," he said. "I'm here."
Gloved hand on the boundary marker, he pushed himself up. He had hiked and jogged upwards of thirty-five miles in the latter part of the previous night and the earlier part of this one, carrying a pack and weapons, and he was no longer twenty, as his knees were informing him. A little stiffly, he made his way back to the party on the road.
The woman on one of the two lead horses grinned triumphantly down at him. "I thought I caught a movement. You're slipping, Ishmael." She was not that much past twenty herself, a leggy young woman, long hair braided and wound around a broad brow, features too marked and mouth too wide and mobile for conventional beauty. She wore a practical jacket and a divided riding skirt, had a rifle slung over her shoulder, a revolver and a knife at her hip, and another knife in a boot sheath. Hers was hardly the typical attire of an heiress, even in the Borders, but she was a delight to sonn, nonetheless. He returned her grin with one of his own, "You're good, Lavenderyou're all of you goodand y'well know it."
Smiles widened around him. He did not recognize any of the six men and one woman with her, but they'd all know him by reputation as Ishmael di Studier, Baron Strumheller, hunter of Shadowborn, and mage. For all he was no longer most of these things.
"Nicholas," Lavender di Gautier said, "give him your horse, and mount up with Thalia. The two of you will be easier on a horse than the baron and I." The youngest and lightest of the troop swung down and dutifully handed over the reins. Ishmael took a moment to free his rifle from his pack and strap his pack behind the trooper's provisions. The horse tried to sidle; he cuffed it, growling at it for taking him for a novice.
As he climbed into the saddle, she said over her shoulder, "You want we should head back, or finish the loop round the Pot?"
Back would be to Stranhorne Manor, her family seat, and his destination since he had jumped off the southbound coastal train just before Stranhorne Crosstracks. The Pot was a small, perfectly round lake at the bottom of a steep-sided pit, immediately recognizable on any relief model. Almost certainly it had been made by magic.
"Back," he said, though not without thought. But after spending yesterday in the open, in a day-blind pitched in shadows, he would feel much happier with stout walls around him.
"Come up by me."
His lips quirked with amusement at the confident command in her voice, even toward him. The others smoothly rearranged themselves as he eased his horse forward. They were good; neither the baron, her father, nor her twin sister would have allowed her out with anything else.
"Are you all right?" she said in a low voice.
"Aye," he said. "I am now."
"We heard"there was a slight tremor in her voice, despite herself"we heard you were dead."
"Came closer to't than I like, I'll admit," he said. He tried for an easy tone, but that near miss had probably cost him one of the most precious things he had. Two livesespecially those of Lady Telmaine and her daughtershould be a fair exchange for his lost magic, but if someone were to ask him outright, he could not honestly swear that he would not rather have died.
She would never ask him, but she knew him well enough to hear something of it in his voice. "I suppose," she said, "I'll have to wait until Stranhorne to hear all of it. I presume that is where you were bound."
"Well, you're safe now."
"That's more your promise than th'truth," he chided her. "For all it's welcome."
"This warrant for your arrest"
Had her father told her both of the charges, or just the one? With the city broadsheets being delivered every night by train, she could not have remained ignorant for long. "False, both of them."
"I know they're false," she said with spirit. "I know you. Surely the archdukesurely Lord Vladimer"
The less said about the archduke's attitude, the better. "Until Lady Tercelle's true murderer is produced, suspicion will remain on me. And as to th'other"he weighed what to say, given that he was not supposed to talk about this at all with her"it's for Lord Vladimer t'do the convincing of my innocence, since he was the one I supposedly ensorcelled. He's a wily man, and it no doubt suits his purposes to have me leading this chase."
She made a disgusted noise but expressed no further opinion. "Then what about this ducal order? All it tells us is that the ducal order of six twenty-nine was suspended, allowing us to mobilize troops beyond our allotment to guard the Borders against threats. Who are we supposed t'be guarding against? We've not seen claw or hair of Shadowborn all this summer."
She showed her youth there, Ishmael thought, believing that quiet was good. He'd spent the summer in Strumheller as fidgety as a man in burlap britches. The Borders took their name because they abutted the boundary of several thousand square miles of uninhabited land, the Shadowlands. The mages who had laid the Curse that made the Darkborn had lived near the center of what was now the Shadowlands. Some residue of that, or other, terrible magic, had given rise to the Shadowborn, marauding monsters that were the Borders' constant hazard.
Ishmael had passed the betteror worsepart of twenty-five years fighting Shadowborn, first as a trooper for hire, then as a professional Shadowhunter, and ultimately as Baron Strumheller, organizing an integrated system of warning and defense that had about halved the casualties from Shadowborn incursions. In twenty-five years, he had never experienced a summer so ominously quiet.
He had fretted and roamed and listened, but it had been Lord Vladimer Plantageter, the archduke's brother and spymaster, who had raised the possibility that this might be a prelude to Shadowborn activity more organized and extensive than any they'd encountered before.
"Here's the short of it," Ishmael said. "Th'archduke sent the ducal order on th'urging of Lord Vladimer. There's been Shadowborn at work in th'city, Shadowborn with seemingly the wits of men, the gift of taking on the likeness of others, and an appetite for chaos."
He heard her catch her breath, though with admirable discipline, she did not turn her attention from the road ahead.
"I'll tell th'whole of it in Stranhorne, but these Shadowborn were nearly the death of Lord Vladimerwhich was the second charge laid against me"sorcery, the mere suspicion of which had landed him in prison"and were th'death of upwards of a hundred and fifty Darkborn in the Rivermarch, when they set it alight during the day." He had nearly been one of those, too, having escaped by a combination of experience, knowledge of the history of that old and none-too-salubrious district, and luck. He had been spending his luck prodigiously of late. "It's likely"indeed, he was certain of it"that the Shadowborn had the doing of the murder that's been laid at my feet, since Lady Tercelle herself had dealings with them." Intimate dealings, which he would explain to all of them once they reached the manor. "Seems," he said with grim amusement, "that I'm in no great favor with them."
"Ishmael," she said, and fell silent. He could almost hear the hum of her thought. He had first met Lavender and her sister riding with the Stranhorne border troop in boys' disguise. The disguise had been done quite well, and the rest poorly, so he had torn strips off both their hides for being more of a hazard to themselves and their fellows than the Shadowborn, sent them home under escort, and assumed that was that.
"What about Strumheller?" she said.
Ishmael shrugged slightly. "The order of succession was sent and signed, and the barony has passed to Reynard. My brother has no great love for me, but he's got too much sense t'meddle with the arrangements and men I put in placenot with the Borders on alert. You'll have no weakness on your flank."
"Reynard can't hold on to it, not with you still alive."
Having disinherited Ishmael, their father had spent years grooming Reynard to succeed to the barony. His brother had never forgiven Ish for being reinstated, or for the two or three times he had turned up since, alive after long absences. Best to change the subject. "How's your sister? Is she keeping well?"
Unlike Strumheller Manor, which had been reduced to smoldering rubble in the border uprising and civil war of two hundred years ago, and rebuilt as a whole, Stranhorne was a seven-hundred-year-old architectural accretion. There were rumored to be ruins three times its age buried underneath its foundations, but Xavier Stranhorne had dryly observed that even he would not knock down his manor to confirm, historian though he was. Inspired by the fate of Strumheller Manor, the Stranhornes had turned their minds to fortification. South- and west-facing walls were doubled and as sheer an ascent as stonemasonry could make them. The top three stories had sniper windows overlooking an open killing ground strewn with noisemakers, and on the roof were three mounted cannons, a detail that appalled Ishmael, who had fought a shipboard action beside cannon. His ears had rung for hours after. The gardens on the east and the courtyard on the north were protected by a fifteen-foot-high wall with enclosed guard posts. There were two gates, the main one into the courtyard, and a smaller, seldom-used one into the gardens on the east of the manor. The massive courtyard gate was now opened and closed by a steam winch, one of the few concessions to modern technology that Stranhorne allowed.
Even if the features had been added with a mind to repel Darkborn attackers, they should do very well against Shadowborn.
The headquarters for the Border troop had originally been a ballroom on the northeast side of the manor. It was a late addition, conceived last century as a stage for the high social ambitions of one of the baronelles. But after her triumphs, the tiered balconies, the elevated orchestral platforms, and the lush reliefs and scrollwork had grown shabby with decades of neglect. Tradition held that sometimes the ghost of the baronelle could be heard weeping for its ruin, though from what Ish knew of the lady, weeping with rage was more likely.
The courtyard and ballroom were bustling. The courtyard was full of horses, mules, and carts; the ballroom was full of men and a number of women, milling around the entrance to the armory off in one intimate gallery, the mustering station for departing and returning troops, and the entrance to the kitchen. Troops were generally young and inevitably hungry. A final group was gathered around a huge relief model in an open side gallery. A woman was stretching over it to place a marker, her reach slightly impeded by the swell of her abdomen: Lavender's identical twin, Laurel, married a year, and five months pregnant.
At her shoulder, to Ishmael's not unmixed relief, was her father. Most Darkborn were relentlessly modern in outlook; Baron Xavier Stranhorne was an exception, having personally taken an axe to the first telegraph pole raised on his land. He was a relatively young man, only a few years older than Ishmael, and well educated, with a degree in history from the university in Minhorne and a lifelong interest in scholarship. His opposition to "progress" had equal parts Borders obduracy and considered decision.
His opposition to magic was equally uncompromising. The first time Ishmael had called on him as Baron Strumheller, Stranhorne had taken him into his private library and delivered an ultimatum: "I have opened my doors to you, sir, as a peer and a neighbor. But should you exercise or even discuss your unnatural practice within my halls, my doors will be closed to you forever. Do you wish to dispute this?"
"These are your halls, sir. I do not." Stranhorne noddedhe had the refreshing trait of not needing to beat down an adversary who'd submittedand the matter was settled. Ishmael had scrupulously respected Stranhorne's prohibition, and Stranhorne had scrupulously extended to him the courtesies of a peer and host. Were it not for Stranhorne's daughters, their relationship would have remained that of cooperative but distant neighbors. Ishmael would have regretted that.
Lavender hailed her father and sister cheerfully. "Told you we'd find him." Turned her head, sonning the gathered troops. "Pay up!"
He might have known there'd be a pool as to who might retrieve him.
Xavier Stranhorne's face was unreadable, which was not reassuring; the scholarly baron was not particularly demonstrative, but he did not hide what he felt. He said, "Welcome, Strumheller"which title was no accident, undeserved through it was. "I'm afraid I'm greeting you with awkward tidings. Your sister sent a telegram from Strumheller this evening. Ferdenzil Mycene's been charged with the warrant for your arrest. He's on his way with a dozen mounted men."
Lavender caught her breath, her expression horrified. "Mycene! What was the archduke thinking?"
There was no love lost between Stranhorne and the Duke of Mycene and his heir. Mycene's territorial ambitions included the extensive archipelagos off the Stranhorne coast, including the island home of the late Baronelle Stranhorne. And the warrant was for the murder of Ferdenzil's betrothed, Lady Tercelle Amberley. For the sake of his peace of mind, Ishmael was glad he had not known Mycene was hunting him.
"Mycene's also got a prisoner: the physician who was traveling with you."
Ishmael had been afraid of that. When Ishmael had decided to leave the train, his ally, Dr. Balthasar Hearne, had gone on to Strumheller to carry word to Ishmael's brother and sister that he was still alive. Ish hoped the physician had not suffered for his willingness to act as messenger and decoy.
Laurel stepped forward and hugged him firmly. He returned the hug, gladdened to feel her girth. The last time he had passed through, she had been worrisomely thin and sick with early pregnancy. He was not surprised to hear her murmur against his ear, "Librarywe'll join you." Laurel had always been the cunning one of the pair.
"We can give you provisions," Lavender said urgently. "Get you away on a fast horse."
"No," said Ishmael and Stranhorne together. Ishmael continued, "I was coming to Stranhorne, whatever befell. You need t'hear my report. You need to know what's behind the ducal order."
"That can't be more important than your freedom, surely," Lavender said.
"I think it is."
"Then let me intercept Mycene," urged Lavender. "Misdirect him." Her father got a pained expression on his face; Lavender was a notoriously poor liar. Laurel just said, "Lavender, think."
This was best not discussed in an open hall. With this many men and women around, there were bound to be those who, for the best or worst of reasons, might reveal information to a man carrying the archduke's warrant. Ishmael nodded to Stranhorne and worked his way through the group, returning handclasps and greetings as he went, but not stopping. Alone, he made his way to the baron's study. Which seemed to have had several more shelves added, though he would have sworn there was no room. In a bunker built of books alone, Stranhorne could hold off a Shadowborn armybut that whimsy was rapidly followed by the sobering awareness of possibility.
Stranhorne, Laurel, and his younger son, Boris, arrived promptly enough to prevent Ish from nodding off in a soft armchair. Lavender was downstairs, organizing sweeps, knowing that if her father did not tell her everything, her sister or brother would. Stranhorne served Ishmael brandy from a bottle sequestered behind a particularly forbidding tome, and rang for lemonade for his daughter and son.
"If you hoped," Stranhorne said, sitting down with his own brandy glass, "I'd shield you, I'm likely to disappoint."
Ishmael had hoped that; he could not deny it, at least to himselfhoped for shelter, for time, for help. "I know," he said, without rancor. "Would have been one matter to have city agents arriving hours or days behind me, but here's Ferdenzil Mycene hard on my heels. The last you want is him t'give him time to take the measure of Stranhorne's full assets when y'think you might come to need them against him, someday that might be soon."
Stranhorne sonned him crisply, but it was no secret that, should the Duke of Mycene and his son act on their ambitions to annex the islands, Stranhorne would support his late wife's people, in arms, if need be. With the men and women that Ishmael himself had helped train to fight Shadowborn. Ishmael added, "His knowing that you know he's taken me is some security that he'll return me to Minhorne for trial, and not just stake me out for th'sunrise."
"I think I can make sure of that."
"I didn't murder Tercelle Amberley," Ishmael said. "Th'appearance was cursed compromising, I'll admit, but I'd been lured to be discovered with the body still warm. I'd hoped to prevent harm to her, if she'd been blameless, and get some answers if she hadn't."
Stranhorne's nod said that he accepted that. "We've been stockpiling munitions," he admitted. "And rotating our reserves in for training. We know that Mycene has been building up a presence in the isles. We weren't sure that this business about the Shadowborn wasn't a distraction. The city has never taken much interest in Shadowborn before now."
"Lord Vladimer has," Ishmael dissented.
There was a silence. "Vladimer," said Stranhorne, "Yes." His opinions of the archduke's brother and spymaster had to be mixed, Ishmael thought. Vladimer was the best of allies to those whose interests aligned with his brother's policy. And the worst of enemies to those whose interests did not. The former Baron Strumheller well knew where the archduke's policies did not entirely serve the Borders. "In this, at least," he said, "Vladimer's our ally."
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