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"Walk carefully, my prince," the ghost warned. "You are in great danger this night."
Outside the mullioned windows, Martris Drayke could hear the revelry of the feast day crowds. Torchlight glittered beyond the glass, and costumed figures danced, singing and catcalling, past the castle tower. Dressed in the four aspects of the One Goddess, Margolan’s sacred Lady, the partygoers lurched behind an effigy of the Crone Mother, far more intent, this Feast of the Departed, on appeasing their appetite for ale than memorializing the dead.
"From whom?" Tris returned his attention to his spectral visitor. The ghosts of the palace Shekerishet were so numerous that he could not recall having ever seen this particular spirit before, a thin-faced man with heavy-lidded eyes, whose antiquated costume marked him as a member of the court one hundred years past.
The specter flickered and tried to say more, but no sound came. Tris leaned closer. Now of any time the ghost should be the easiest to see, for on Haunts as the feast day was commonly known, spirits walk openly abroad and even skeptics cannot refuse to see. The palace ghosts had been Tris’s friends since childhood, long before he came to understand that his insubstantial companions were not so easily seen by those around him. "Spirits… banished," the fading ghost managed. "Beware… the Soulcatcher." Tris had to strain for the last words as the revenant faded into nothing. Puzzled, he sat back on his heels, his sword clattering against the hard stone floor. The rap at the door nearly made him lose his footing.
"What are you doing in there, or aren’t you alone?" teased Ban Soterius through the door. The latch lifted and the sturdy captain of the guards strode in. Nothing in the young man’s manner corroborated the strong smell of ale on his breath, save for his mussed brown hair and the slight rumpling of his fine tunic.
"I’m alone now," Tris said, with a glance back to where the ghost had been. Soterius looked from Tris to the empty wall. "I keep telling you, Tris," the guardsman said, "you’ve got to get out more. Me, I don’t care if I ever talk to a ghost… unless she’s a good looking lass with a pint of ale!"
Tris managed a smile. "Have you seen the spirits tonight?" Soterius thought for a moment. "Not as much as usual, now that you mention it, especially for Haunts." He brightened. "But you know how they love a good story. They’re probably down listening to Carroway tell his tales." He pulled at Tris’s sleeve. "Come on. There’s no law that says princes can’t have fun, too, and while I’m standing up here with you, I could be missing the love of my life down in the greatroom!"
Soterius’s good humor made Tris chuckle. The captain of the guards was a favorite with the court’s noble daughters. Soterius’s light brown hair was cut short, for a battle helm. He was of medium build, fit and tanned from training with the guards. Everything about his bearing and his manner bespoke his military background, but the mischievous twinkle in his dark eyes softened his features, and seemed to make the marriageable maidens flock to him.
Tris was just as happy to have those same young girls and their ambitious mothers distracted. He stood a head taller than Soterius, with a lean, rangy build. He had been told often that his angular features and high cheekbones took after the best of both his parents, but the white-blond hair that framed his face and fell to his shoulders was clearly from Queen Serae’s side, as were the green eyes that matched those of his grandmother, the famed sorceress Bava K’aa. It was a combination the ladies of the court found quite attractive.
"I promise I’ll be down right behind you," Tris said, and Soterius raised an eyebrow skeptically. "Honest. I just want to light a candle and put a gift in grandmother’s room before I go. Then you can take me on that tour of alehouses you’ve been promising."
Soterius grinned. "I’ll hold you to that, Prince Drayke," he laughed. "Get moving. The way the festival’s going tonight, they’ll run out of ale and you know that brandy doesn’t agree with me."
Tris heard his friend’s boot steps fade down the corridor as he made his way to the family rooms. The silent stares from a row of paintings and tapestries seemed to follow him, the long-dead kings of Margolan, King Bricen’s forebears. Bricen’s lineage was one of the longest unbroken monarchies in the Seven Kingdoms. Glancing at their solemn visages and knowing the stories of what they had endured to secure their thrones, Tris was glad the crown would not pass to him. He picked up a torch from the sconce on the wall and opened the door into his grandmother’s room. The smell of incense and potions still clung to the sorceress’s chamber, five years after her death. Tris shut the door behind him. It was an indication of the awe with which even her own family regarded her that, even now, no one disturbed the spirit mage’s possessions, Tris thought. But the sorceress Bava K’aa earned that kind of awe, and though he remembered her most clearly as an indulgent grandmother, the legends of her power were enough to make him hesitate, just an instant, before stepping further into the room.
"Grandmother?" Tris whispered. He set a candle on the table in the center of the room and lit it with a straw from the torch. Then, he set out a token gift of honey cakes and a small cup of ale, over which he made the sign of the Goddess in blessing. And then, with a glance to assure himself that the door was shut and he would not be discovered, he stepped onto the braided rug in the center of the room. Plaited from her sorceress’s cords, the rug matched the warded circle of his grandmother’s workspace, and Tris felt the familiar tingle of her magic, like the residue of old perfume. With his sword as his athame, Tris walked the perimeter of the rug as his grandmother taught him, feeling the circle of protection rise around him. Its blue-white light was clear in his mind, though invisible. Tris closed his eyes and stretched out his right hand.
"Grandmother, I call you," he murmured, stretching out his senses for her familiar presence. "I invite you to the feast. Join me within the Circle." Tris paused. But for the first time since her death, no response came. He tried once more.
"Bava K’aa, your kinsman invites you to the feast. I have brought you a gift. Walk with me." Nothing in the room stirred and Tris opened his eyes, concerned.
And then, a glimmer of light caught his eye. It seemed far beyond the circle, struggling and flickering as if trapped within gauze, but as he strained to make it out, he recognized the form of his grandmother, standing at a great distance obscured by fog.
"Grandmother!" he called, but the apparition came no further. Her lips moved, but no sound reached him, yet a chill ran down his back. He did not need words to recognize a warning in his grandmother’s manner. Though Tris could not hear Bava K’aa’s voice, the indication of danger was clear enough.
Without warning, a cold wind howled through the shuttered chamber, guttering the torch and extinguishing the candle. It buffeted the circle Tris cast, and the image of his grandmother winked out. Two porcelain figures crashed to the floor and the bed curtains fluttered as the gust tore scrolls from the desk and knocked a chair to the ground. Tris gritted his teeth and strained to keep his warding in place, but he felt the gooseflesh rise on his arms as the chill permeated even the area within the cord and circle. Like a glimpse of something there and gone, impressions formed in his mind. Something evil, something old and strong, lost, hunting, dangerous.
And then, as quickly as it came, the wind was gone and with it Tris’s sense of foreboding. When he felt sure that nothing stirred in the room, Tris raised his shaking hand to silently thank the Four Faces of the Goddess, and then closed the circle, shivering as the magic light faded in his mind. He looked around the room. Only the torn parchments, shattered figurines and overturned chair testified that anything was amiss. More troubled than before, Tris turned to leave.
From the corridor, a woman screamed. Tris bounded for the door, his sword already in hand. In the shadows of the hallway, Tris could make out a grappling pair, the dark figure of a man looming over one of the chambermaids who struggled to escape.
"Release her!" Tris raised his sword in challenge. Seizing the moment, the terrified woman sank her teeth into her attacker’s arm and wrenched free, running down the corridor for her life. Tris felt his throat tighten as the assailant straightened and turned, recognizing the form even before the thin gold circlet on the man’s brow glinted in the torchlight.
"Once again, you’ve spoiled my fun, brother," Jared Drayke glowered, his eyes narrowing. King Bricen’s eldest son started down the hallway, and Tris could tell by his brother’s gait that Jared was well into his cups this feast night. Tris stood his ground, though he felt his heart in his throat. Ale never compromised Jared’s swing nor blunted his swordsmanship, and Tris had taken enough bruises at his brother’s hand to know just what kind of a mood Jared was in tonight.
"You’re drunk," Tris grated.
"Sober enough to whip your ass," Jared retorted, already beginning to turn up the sleeves of his tunic.
"You can try."
"You dare to raise steel against me?" Jared roared. "I could have you hanged. No one threatens the future king of Margolan!"
"While father rules, I doubt I’ll hang," Tris replied, feeling his heart thud. "Why don’t you bed one of the nobles’ daughters, instead of raping the servants? Or would it be too expensive to pay off their families when they disappeared?"
"I’ll teach you respect," Jared growled, close enough for Tris to smell the rancid brew on Jared’s breath. And with a movement almost too quick to see, Jared drew his sword and charged forward.
Tris parried, needing both hands to deflect the thrust he had no doubt was meant to score. He fell back a step as Jared drove on, barely countering his brother’s enraged attack. Jared pressed forward, and the anger that burned in his eyes was past reasoning. Tris fought for his life, knowing that he could not hold off Jared’s press much longer as Jared forced him back into the glow of the torch sconce.
In the distance, boot steps sounded on the stone. "Prince Jared?" Zachar, the seneschal called. "My prince, are you there? Your father desires your attendance."
With an oath, Jared freed his sword from Tris’s parry and stepped back several paces. "Prince Jared?" Zachar called again, closer now and more insistent.
"I heard you," Jared shouted in return, watching Tris carefully. Warily, Tris lowered his sword but did not sheath it until Jared first replaced his own weapon.
"Don’t think it’s settled, brother," Jared snarled. "You’ll pay. Before the dawn, you’ll pay!" Jared promised. Zachar’s footsteps were much closer now and Jared turned to meet the seneschal before Zachar could happen upon them.
Tris stood where he was for a moment until his heart slowed and he caught his breath, shaking from the confrontation. When he regained his composure, he headed for the greatroom, slowing only when the sounds and smells of the festival reached him as he neared the doors to the banquet hall.
Soterius looked skeptically at him as Tris joined his friend. "What’s your hurry?"
The armsman was far too observant to overlook the sweat that glistened on Tris’s forehead on a chill autumn night, or the obvious flush of the fight. "Just a little conversation with Jared," Tris replied, knowing from long acquaintance that Soterius would fill in the rest.
"Can’t your father-?" Soterius asked below his breath.
Tris shook his head. "Father can’t… or won’t… admit what a monster he sired. Even good kings have their blind spots."
"Good feast to you, brother." A girl’s laughing voice sounded behind them just then, and Tris turned. Behind him stood his sister, Kait, her prized falcon perched on her gauntlet. A dozen summers old, at an age when most princesses gloried in mincing steps and elaborate gowns, Kait was radiant in the costume of a falconer, its loose tunic and knickers hiding her budding curves. Her hair was dark, like Bricen’s, plaited in a practical braid, which only accentuated how much she resembled both Tris and Jared. Dark-eyed like her father, with her mother’s grace, Kait was likely to catch the eye of potential suitors before too long, Tris thought with a protective pang.
"Didn’t anyone tell you you’re supposed to get a costume for Haunts?" Tris teased, and even the events in the corridor could not keep a smile from his face as Kait favored him with a sour look.
"You know very well, brother dear, that this is the one night of the year I can wear sensible clothes without completely scandalizing mother and the good ladies of the court," she retorted. The falcon, one of the dozen that she tended like children, stepped nervously in its traces, restless at the noise of the boisterous crowd.
"Are you going to take that bird with you on your wedding day?" Tris bantered.
Kait wrinkled her nose as if she smelled spoiled meat. "Don’t rush me. Maybe I’ll take him with me on my wedding night, and not have to start birthing brats immediately!"
"Kaity, Kaity, what would mother say?" Tris clucked in mock astonishment, as Soterius laughed and Kait swung a lighthearted punch at Tris’s shoulder.
"She’d say what she usually says," Kait returned unfazed. "That she had better find me a suitor before I’ve scandalized the entire court." She shrugged. "The race is on."
"You know," Soterius said with a wink, "she might find you someone you actually like."
Kait raised an eyebrow. "Like you?" she replied with such a withering tone that both Tris and Soterius chuckled once more.
Soterius raised his hand in appeasement. "You know that’s not what I mean."
Kait looked about to make another rejoinder when she glanced at Tris, who had fallen silent. "You’re quiet, Tris."
Tris and Soterius exchanged glances. "Had a bit of a run-in with Jared," Tris said. "Stay out of his way tonight, Kaity. He’s in an awful temper."
Kait’s banter dropped, and Tris saw complete understanding in eyes that suddenly appeared much older than her dozen years. "I’d heard," she said with a grimace. "There’s talk at the stables. He thrashed a stable hand down there half to death for not having his horse ready." She rolled her eyes. "At least I’ve managed to stay away from him for a few days."
Tris looked at her and frowned. "Where’d you get that bruise on your arm?"
Kait felt for it self-consciously. "It’s not bad," she said, looking away.
"That isn’t what I asked, Kaity," Tris pressed. He could feel his anger burning already, for this welt and all the others over the years.
Kait still did not meet his eyes. "I earned it," she sighed. "Jared was taking it out on one of the kitchen dogs, and I clipped a loaf of bread at his head to let the pup get away." She winced. "He wasn’t very happy with me."
"Damn him!" Tris swore. "Don’t worry, Kaity. I’ll make sure he stays away from you," he promised, though they both knew past attempts had only limited success.
Kait managed a wan smile. "After the party, think you could do up one of your poultices? It does smart a little."
Tris ruffled her hair, feeling such a mixture of anger for Jared and love for Kait that he thought his heart might break. "Sure thing, Kaity. I don’t even have to sneak the herbs out of the kitchen any more."
Long ago when they were children, Tris dared night runs to the kitchens to get the herbs he needed to bind up the bruises and cuts Jared inflicted. Though he was only eight years Kait’s senior, he was her self-appointed guardian since the day she was born. Maybe he had been stirred by how small and lonely she had looked in the nursemaid’s arms. Or perhaps it was Tris’s fear that a baby would prove a more amusing target for Jared’s cruel humor than the ill-fated cats and dogs that disappeared from the nursery with distressing regularity.
They stuck together, and he frequently took the brunt of Jared’s tempers for her. Jared drove off one nursemaid after another with his outbursts. As Kait got older, she and Tris found safety in banding together against Jared, able to make him back off when they no longer made such an easy mark.
"Father’s got to listen soon," Kait said wistfully, breaking into his thoughts.
Tris shook his head. "Not yet he won’t," he said. "He won’t hear a word I say, even though he and Jared argue more and more. Some days, I think they argue about saying ’good morning.’"
Kait sighed, and the bird on her gauntlet fidgeted. "Maybe mother-?"
Again, Tris indicated the negative. "Every time she tries to say something, father accuses her of favoring her children over Jared. I don’t think he’s ever quite gotten over Eldra’s death," he added. Jared’s mother died giving birth to Bricen’s first-born, and it took the king nearly ten years to find the will to wed again, a decade in which young prince Jared had little supervision and less correction as his father retreated into despair.
"Mother won’t even bring it up anymore," Tris added. "She just tries to keep you out of his way."
"Uh oh," Kait whispered under her breath. "More trouble." Tris followed her gaze across the crowded greatroom, to the red-robed figure that stood in the hall’s entrance. A hush fell over the room. Clad in the flowing blood-colored robes of a Fireclan mage, Foor Arontala, Jared’s chief advisor, made his way through the crowd. The throng parted in front of him in a desperate haste to get out of his way, yet the fine-boned, porcelain-pale face that peered from beneath a heavy hood and long dark hair did not even acknowledge their presence.
"I hate him," Kait whispered in a voice that only Tris and Soterius could hear. "I wish grandmother were here. She’d squash him like a flea," she added, with a little stamping motion for good measure.
"Grandmother’s gone," Tris replied tonelessly, thinking of his unsuccessful attempt to contact Bava K’aa’s spirit earlier in the evening. He moved to tell Kait what happened, and then, out of long habit, stopped. Bava K’aa always kept his training such an elaborate secret that even now, he was unwilling to put it into words.
"I wish your father had been quicker to bring a new mage of his own to Shekerishet," Soterius added in a whisper. "Even a grannywitch would be better than that," he said with carefully shielded distaste.
Foor Arontala passed among the hushed partygoers as if he did not notice their existence, gliding with preternatural smoothness through the crowd to exit on the other side of the hall, but it took several minutes before the revelry began again, and even longer before it began to sound wholehearted.