Book excerpt

Touchstone

Glass Thorns

Melanie Rawn

Tor/Forge

Chapter 1
 

Predictably, the girl was willing to draw the pint only when the coin was glinting on the bar. Cayden stretched his lips in a parody of a smile as she scooped up the money with one hand and pulled the tap with the other. No glass for him, oh no; leather tankard instead, sealed with tar and riveted with brass and bound to taste of both.
Well, it was alcohol, and that was all that mattered. But if that fool who’d had the bollocks to claim himself a glisker had been any good, Cade would be knocking back whiskey right now, and plenty of it—from a real glass, and with coin to spare for something to eat. Decent drink and his supper had walked out of the tavern a little while ago, jingling in the incompetent’s purse. Glisker, he’d termed himself. Experienced, even. Cade snorted. Probably had about as much Elfenblood in him as the dirty rag the girl was using to mop up the bar. At least he was paid off and gone, and nobody was any the worse for the performance.
Yet when Cade thought about what might have been, if he had the right glisker, one with real talent and real magic—
“Wuzna too gude, wuzzee?”
The accent was excruciating—especially as Cayden had worked so hard to soften his own, distorted during years of schooling not twenty miles from here. Eyeing the young man beside him at the bar, he noted a confusion of features that proclaimed an ancestry so diverse that probably even he didn’t know what to call himself.
“No, he wasn’t too good.” He had to admit it. Honesty was the hallmark of a real artist, or so his Sagemaster had told him. Or maybe it was “truth” that mattered most. They weren’t the same.
“Gotz me a chum c’n do ooshuns better,” the rough voice continued.
“Do you?” Cayden smiled politely and returned his attention to his ale.
“Domn near purely breeded Elferblud, an’ tha’s fact. Givvem withies next show, whyn’t ya?”
Yet another aspiring glisker. Splendid. What was he, the audition manager for every amateur in the kingdom?
Still … they’d gone through four gliskers this year alone, not counting the idiot tonight, never finding the right mix, never finding anyone Cayden could trust with his visions and Jeschenar could trust with his skin and Rafcadion could trust with his sanity. They weren’t anywhere near good enough even to seek Trials, and it was all because they didn’t have the right glisker.
What would it be like, he wondered, to experience that effortless balance of talent and energy and magic that this was supposed to be? It was what all the greatest players had known, what he sensed was going on with the Shadowshapers now that they’d hired Chattim Czillag away from his old group. That nobody had ever heard a name so outrageous, nobody knew where he’d come from or his lineage or the name of his clan—if any—or indeed aught about him mattered not at all. Chattim fit. With the right glisker, a performance became an event, a distinction.
Hells, what was one more tryout, anyway? It wasn’t as if anyone would ever hear about yet another botched playlet, not in this rickety old tavern only half a step inside civilization.
Cade shrugged to himself and glanced down—way down—at the youth beside him. “All right, send him up for the next show.”
Breath hissed between ragged teeth—a sign of delight in a Troll, and of an impending brawl in a Gnome. As he hurried off to find his friend, he moved with the rolling shoulders and splayed knees peculiar to the former, thereby settling the question of his primary ancestry as surely as Cayden’s long-boned height proclaimed his. Watching the little man, recalling the quirks of his accent, for an instant Cade felt a twinge of longing for home. Not for his parents; a bit for his little brother; mostly for their Trollwife, Mistress Mirdley. She’d been strict and kind to him, when all his mother knew how to be was neglectful and harsh.
“Oh, pity the poor little Wizardling!” jeered the Sagemaster’s voice in his head. “How horrid to be you!”
A small commotion behind him jostled him into the bar, and he turned his head to snarl. One more trite old playlet tonight for this unsophisticated crowd, and they could get out of here, get some sleep in the hayloft, and then tomorrow be gone entirely from this village of sour ale and foul manners. And really lousy trimmings, he thought with a gloomy sigh; two nights of this, and they’d barely made enough for the coach fare home. He thought with longing of the brand-new private coach his friend (and rival, though nobody but Cayden knew that yet) Rauel Kevelock had so gleefully described last month, painted in swirling colors like a demented prism, with SHADOWSHAPERS in stark black on both sides. It had bunk beds for when they got tired, and a firepocket for when they got cold. True, the group still had to hire horses from the post stations, but at least they were no longer at the mercy of worn-out springs and a coachman who drank his wages in full before clambering up to take the reins, and—
Someone bumped into him again, knocking his hand against his leather flask of ale. He half-turned and shoved right back. Spindle-boned Cade might be, but Jeska had taught him how to use his fists efficiently rather than his magic haphazardly, and he was just frustrated enough right now to relish the prospect of a punch-up.
Then he saw what had knocked into him.
Even for someone with plenty of Wizardly blood, Cayden was tall. The man whose chest was on a level with his eyes—this man was at least half Giant. Maybe more than half; there was very little mitigating intellect visible in the red-rimmed eyes glaring down on him.
“Uh—sorry,” Cade managed. “Thought you were somebody else.”
“Did ’ee, now?” The depth of his rumble rattled the bottles on the shelves.
Oh, shit.
“Yazz!” exclaimed a light, cheerful voice. “Don’t break him! He’s me new Quill, he is! It’s rich an’ famed he and me will be—but only if ye leave him all his wits an’ bones!”
A slow, fond smile gentled the massive face. Cade turned, wondering if he was more grateful for the rescue or annoyed by the glisker’s arrogance. Because a glisker this had to be, the one promised by the Troll. For an Elf, however, this boy had peculiar taste in friends.
And then all speculation—indeed, all thought—fled Cade’s brain, except for the sure knowledge that he would remember for the rest of his life the instant those huge, melting eyes looked up at him from beneath a shock of coal-black hair.
Those eyes: sparkling with what his Sagemaster called “front and effrontery,” a combination of awful nervousness and awe-inspiring conceit. Cade had been accused of it himself on occasion, but hard lessoning in the brutal school of his own family had taught him to hide any fear behind all the arrogance he could possibly project. This boy was too young yet to have perfected his mask.
Those eyes: a bit too bright with the alcohol downed to get his courage up, trying to hide apprehension that Cade wouldn’t think he was good enough, but not trying at all to disguise that he thought any group of players would be colossally lucky to get him.
Those eyes: full of anxiety and arrogance, innocence and cunning, and a dozen other conflicting things that dizzied Cade for a moment.
There was a low growling in his ears that he hoped was Yazz agreeing to let him live. A burst of bright laughter followed from the Elf. His new glisker.
Those eyes were directed at him again, calculating, challenging. “Mieka say-it-five-times-fast Windthistle.”
“Dare ’ee t’try!” The Giant nudged Cade with an elbow strongly reminiscent of a roof joist, and he staggered against the bar.
“Did I tell ye or did I not, Yazz? Don’t damage him!”
“Much beholden,” Cade said, taking refuge in the stock phrases of civility. “You’re the glisker wants a chance?”
“You need me, and here I am. Thought I’d introduce meself afore we start work.” Thick black brows arched an invitation to share his name.
“Cayden Silversun, Falcon Clan,” he said.
To his annoyance, the Elf didn’t look as impressed as he ought to have done. But there was an odd sort of approval in his eyes, and perhaps relief, as he said, “Falcon, not Hawk? Good. Such a harsh, cruel word, innit? Typical of that tongue—and that clan. Always makes me think of claws with blood drippin’ off ’em. Met any foreign kin?”
“No. Are you ready to work?” He cast an eloquent glance at the whiskey in Windthistle’s hand.
“Almost.” He slugged back the remainder of his drink, slapped the glass onto the bar, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, belched delicately, and gave Cade a dazzling smile. “Now I’m ready.”
Yazz reached out a finger and tapped a carefully gentle admonishment on the Elf’s head. “Rich un’ famed, Miek,” he rasped, and Cade had the irrelevant thought that meek was precisely the wrong word for any Elf, particularly this one.
“Oh, certain sure,” the boy laughed, and scampered off towards the tavern’s pathetic excuse for a stage.
“Givvem simple t’do,” said Yazz. “Makes everythin’ from nothin’, Miek does.”
“Is that so?” Hearing the sharp skepticism in his own voice, he dredged up a smile meant to mollify the Giant. “I’m looking forward to it.”
*   *   *
The trouble with being the tregetour, Cayden thought for possibly the millionth time, was that after you were done with your part of the piece, you were helpless. Superfluous. At times, a nuisance.
No, that was wrong, he thought morosely as he crouched before his glass baskets of crystalline withies. The worst part of it was having to trust.
Rafcadion and Jeschenar, them he trusted. It wasn’t their fault they’d never found a glisker who really knew what he was doing—or, more to the purpose, knew what to do with Cade’s magic. Jeska was a good masquer, and getting better—and Cade knew that a lot of the reason they’d gotten as far as they had was that Jeska really could make much out of practically nothing. Rafe was just plain brilliant: steady, calm, powerful, everything a fettler ought to be and more. But Cayden couldn’t help wondering what it would be like when Rafe didn’t have to use up so much of himself keeping the performance together because the glisker was lazy or erratic or reckless; when he could fine-tune things, work with the man instead of guarding against excesses, correcting failures, glossing over incompetences.
Given a glisker who could not only perform the piece but also enhance it, Jeska and Rafcadion would be free to develop their gifts to their fullest, to provide Cayden’s work with the nuances he craved. And they would no longer end each evening so wrung out they could hardly stand.
Despite Yazz’s affectionate confidence in this new glisker, Cade had no hopes for him. He’d never known of any Elf from that kin line who even aspired to what the Troll and the Giant claimed this one could do. All Elves were maddeningly insubordinate, but the Air lineages added a wicked capriciousness to the mix, just as the Earths were devious and greedy, the Waters were sullen, and the Fires were downright malicious. Cade doubted that this Elf could sit still long enough for a performance.
Things definitely ran in families; he knew that for a fact. His mother’s great-grandfather—the one without a title, the one she never talked about—had been a noteworthy poet. His father’s father had been a Master Fettler who’d performed on the Ducal Circuit. Some of Cade’s cousins participated in amateur theatrics—though none of them would dream of making it a profession, for more money and status were to be had in other Wizardcraftings. His uncle had begun a promising career as a fettler before being called up into the army for that despicable experiment that had killed so many—and left others drooling imbeciles, like Uncle Dennet. It was a grudge Wizards had against Elfenkind, that they had flatly refused to participate in the Archduke’s scheme to use magic as a method of war, and had thus escaped tragedy.
That this Mieka Windthistle had no ancestors Cayden knew of who’d ever worked in theater boded ill. Then again, maybe his circumstances were like Cayden’s: a talent that simply would not be stifled, a restless need to create that could not be channeled into more respectable ways of making a living. Maybe he had chafed and rebelled as Cayden had, until finally his parents gave their unwilling consent to let him try.
And if that was indeed the case, he wondered if, like his own parents, they expected him to fail.
The claim to “purebred” he dismissed as absurd. How many centuries since the last truebloods of any race had died? He could trace his own ancestry back seven generations in his father’s line, and fully twelve in his mother’s. In their long, long history had been some genuine oddities, but his mother considered him the oddest of all. “Something must not be quite right on your father’s side,” she’d mused more than once. “My people never threw such a mongrel as you.” He knew by the names alone that he had Wizard and Elf (two Water, one Fire), Piksey and Sprite, and even that rarest of all bloods, Fae, in him. And Troll, he’d heard his mad great-granny say, because where else could he have got a face like this? Hook-beak nose and long jaw, cheekbones that could cut glass, wide mouth—granted, he was tall and gangly, not short and stout, but the byword for ugliness had stuck to him like pine sap, and every nickname he’d ever been inflicted with and every insult ever flung his way incorporated troll amongst its syllables. Never mind that his eyes were the fundamental truth about him: a clear, luminous gray, like the moonstones in Queen Roshien’s crown. They were Elfen eyes, inheritance of Mistbind and Watersmith, just as his long bones and thin, strong hands proclaimed Wizard, and his straight white teeth were entirely Human.
But it was the gift he never spoke about that was proof positive he was Fae. How all these things had combined to create him, he neither knew nor cared. He was what he was, and he knew what he could someday be. He’d seen it.
But … trueblood Elf? Not damned likely. Usually the bit remaining showed only in the coloring—the very dark, the very pale. Black hair, and eyes brown as tree bark or green like a forest pool, and skin the golden brown of fallen leaves. White-blond hair, with eyes blue as ice or gray as snow clouds, and translucent milky skin. The other features—delicate little hands and feet, sharp teeth, pointed ears—those things seemed to have faded first from the bloodlines.
If they reappeared, they were quite often hidden somehow. There were chirurgeons who did a brisk business in mutilating a newborn’s ears (as had been done to Jeska at the orders of a grandfather frantic to be thought entirely Human), and grinding down or knocking out and replacing any suspect teeth. Hands could not be hidden, but feet could be broken at the instep to flatten the telltale high arch. There were dyes for the hair and cosmetics for the skin, and specialists who retrained the lilting voice—or broke the willful spirit.
Nothing had been done to disguise this boy. Nothing. He was Elfen from his thick hair to his small, high-arched feet. Moreover, he had inherited the most attractive aspects of both major Kins. No Dark Elf would have skin as purely white as his, with no brown freckles or brick-red mottling, and no Light Elf would have hair that black. Those eyes confirmed it: neither gray nor blue, neither green nor brown, but an almost opalescent combination of all those colors, with an elusive golden spark in the iris of the left eye. It just wasn’t right that anything male, even Elfen male, should have eyes that beautiful, with such long, thick lashes. The teeth were small and regular and entirely Human; the ears, peeking shyly from the heavy silk hair, were entirely Elfen. It was a quick, wickedly nimble little body, and the fine bones were long enough to give him Human height. His voice was soft and lively, deeper than a young Elf’s treble. And his spirit was untamed—and, Cayden suspected, completely untamable.
He was the most beautiful thing Cayden had ever seen in his life. And he was asking to be given a chance.
So: should Cade give him something simple, as the Giant had suggested, something to ease him into it, give him the opportunity to succeed? Or something complex, difficult, to challenge the arrogance in those eyes? For Cayden realized that Mieka Windthistle wasn’t asking for anything, any more than Cayden had ever asked his parents’ permission to become a player. He was demanding control of Cayden’s glass withies, and Jeschenar’s absolute trust, and the entirety of Rafcadion’s supportive skill. Arrogant little Elf.
Cayden crouched down beside the glass baskets, his lips softening in a smile. Woven of ropes made of clear glass, there were two sets of four baskets each, the smooth curved rims tincted in sequential rainbow colors. Within were distributed almost three dozen hollow glass twigs varying in length from half a foot to nearly thrice that, crimped at one end and stamped there with the glasscrafter’s hallmark, their colors more delicate. The withies trembled with random sparks, reacting to the proximity of the one who had imbued them with magic.
He and Rafe and Jeska had thought to do another classic tonight, a cloying sentimental piece about a sailor coming home rich from his voyages to find his girl bespoken to another man. It was simple enough, requiring a masquer to shift only twice, from the sailor to the girl and back to the sailor again. There was magic and more than enough in the withies already primed. Simple magic for a simple story. Had he been forced to do the glisking, as he would have had to after the departure of the talentless idiot if Mieka Windthistle hadn’t shown up, these withies would have been sufficient. He had enough Elfenblood for the work, but a restrained magic was all he could handle on his own. It wasn’t that he was incapable, he told himself, it was just that he was so much better at the creating than the working. But he had to be honest inside his own head: He was clumsy at best, his hands too big and his fingers too long for the delicate manipulations required. With a quick glance at Mieka, who was over in a corner sharing a laugh with his Giant and Troll friends, he decided that the magic inside the slender glass twigs was too simple. On impulse he grasped a handful from the far basket, the indigo one. A few moments’ concentration imbued them with fresh spells. A second basket, and a third, and he breathed deeply before rising to his feet again. Let the snooty little Elf give this a try, he told himself, and went to talk to Jeschenar and Rafcadion.
“You really want to?” Jeska asked, frowning all over his gorgeous golden face. “I’m game, of course I am, but—”
“You’ve Elf enough in you to supplement whatever he can’t do. I’ve watched you work this one when you’re so drunk, you can’t hardly see straight.” To Rafe, he added, “I’ll tell him he’ll have more than the usual to work with on this piece, but if you catch him messing about, slap him back down.”
The fettler shrugged powerful shoulders and nodded. “I’ll keep him in line. No flourishes.”
“Oh, you can tease him a bit. Just don’t let him get away with anything silly.”
Ten minutes later, watching from his hiding place beneath the stairs—hiding not to avoid seeing the audience’s reactions but to avoid their seeing him—he clenched his jaw and his fists and prayed to the good Lord and Lady to protect his friends if this new glisker should prove not just arrogant but dangerous. Still, their long search for the right glisker had taught them to deal swiftly with the inconsistent and the incompetent, the nervous and the confused. Jeschenar was strong, with great instincts; Rafcadion was capable of throttling any flawed or frantic magic. And if needs must, Cayden could summon up his own skills and help his friends.
Expecting the boy to wait politely beside the glass baskets while Jeska readied himself and Rafe took a position at far stage left, Cade was startled when the glisker charmingly persuaded a couple of patrons out of their chairs and dragged the furniture to the back of the stage. Then he began rearranging baskets. Quick hands switched green with blue, yellow with violet, perched the black and white onto chair seats and balanced the orange on their slick rims. Then he seemed to be looking for something. Not finding it, he shrugged—and picked out two withies from the red basket to balance across the blue. It was a configuration that made no sense to Cade at all, who always used the classic prism pattern. Then, rather than seat himself on the glisker’s bench within easy reach of all the baskets, he remained standing. When Jeska nodded to Rafe that he was ready, and Rafe began the foundation work—steady and solid as always, the best fettler Cade had ever encountered—the glisker bounced a few times on his heels, laughing soundlessly to himself.
Magic began to radiate through the tavern. Usually Cade spent a few moments watching the audience, marking those who resisted and those who instinctively fought, just in case his help might be needed. It never was. Rafe was too good at control. But vigilance was another duty a tregetour owed his group. Tonight, though, he completely forgot. The Elf did something he’d never seen a glisker do before, not even the Winterly or Ducal or Royal Circuit professionals.
He made his work into a dance.
Instead of sitting where he could reach for one withie at a time to have it ready in the left hand for the switch to the right when needed, he twisted and curled his whole body, swaying from one basket to another, grabbing up glass twigs in both hands and waving them like a Good Brother censing parishioners at High Chapel. Cayden bit back a despairing moan. If the boy was this wild just setting up the scene, who knew what he’d do with the piece itself?
Mieka played it straight for the Sailor’s homecoming. A mast and a white backdrop sail, and a wooden deck below Jeska’s feet: all these things were usual. The hint of salt air, the touch of a breeze, even the dim ring of ship’s bells calling the hour—all were subtle touches usually found only on the Circuits. But when the Sailor set foot on land and caught sight of his beloved in the company of another man, instead of the outrage and pain and betrayal the piece called for, Mieka projected shocked amazement without letting the audience—or poor Jeska—in on why.
What he had in mind became apparent when Jeska made his shift to the persona of the Sweetheart. At first she was as the Sailor had remembered and described her: a lovely, dainty little thing with blond curls and a winsome smile. But quickly the demure blue gown deepened to a vile purple; the shawl turning from leaf to livid green; the gold hair brassy; and the petal-pink lips blood-crimson as the glisker conjured the painted face and blowsy figure of a seasoned whore. She lamented how hard she had to work, how difficult her life was—all with Jeska behaving physically as if he wore the usual pretty face and graceful form. The audience howled with laughter and pounded tables with fists and flagons. As she bemoaned the fact that she’d had to accept the other man’s proposal because it just wasn’t possible for her to go on any longer alone and unprotected, Jeska did what he always did at this point—what, by tradition, every masquer did at this point: sank to his knees. A pitiable gesture for a young girl, it now looked as if she was kneeling to perform certain services.
Jeska held the pose, then got to his feet almost as if pulled upright by powerful, unseen hands on his shoulders. By the time he was standing, the shift back to the Sailor had been made. Cayden swallowed a gasp of shock at the glisker’s skill—and nearly strangled on an exclamation when he sensed Rafe loosen his stringent hold on the flux of magic. The Sailor told his former girlfriend that it was breaking his heart but he understood, he’d been gone a long time, it was only natural that she’d grown tired of waiting—and all the while the Elf emanated waves of gleeful relief at this lucky escape that washed over the eagerly receptive audience. At the end, the Sailor was supposed to slump into a tavern to drown his sorrows, dejection in every line of him as he dropped coins on the bar and bought drinks all round so he’d have company in his despair. By now Jeska had adapted—oh, had he ever adapted. Jaunty and carefree, whistling in between his lines, he dug deep in pockets and flung coins high in the air as he invited everyone to toast his freedom. The imaginary coins were one of Cade’s best feats of magic, something very few tregetours his age could do; their cheery chiming was all Mieka, and something no other glisker had ever managed to do for Cade before.
It was funny, it was brilliant, it was completely outrageous, and it had the patrons flinging real coins onto the stage.
The Elf had one more trick. As Jeska bent to retrieve the money, he suddenly wore once again the Sweetheart’s garish gown and brassy curls. Startled, he nearly tripped on his own feet. Cayden heard Mieka chortling behind the glass baskets. Jeska again reacted swiftly, changing the crouches to curtseys, blowing kisses to the audience. And the trimmings piled up in his swift, snatching hands.
It was a while before Cayden felt ready to leave the darkness beneath the stairs and shoulder his way through the crowd to the bar. The whole village was congratulating the Elf, buying him and Rafe and Jeska drinks, roaring out the stale old lines that Mieka had turned from histrionic to hilarious. When Cade at last ventured out, he was swept up in the general celebration of the glisker’s triumph.
He had never been so furious in his life.
He wasn’t so furious that he turned down the chance to get drunk for free.
Neither was he so drunk by the end of the night that he neglected his duty to himself and his friends by making it easy for the tavern keeper to hire them for another night. Guessing that the coins would keep coming from the audience, Cade demanded not money but decent beds—including tonight—and three meals tomorrow instead of one, plus a full supper before they went to bed tonight and breakfast on the day they left. By the time he got what he wanted, the minster chimes had rung curfew and the place was nearly empty. Both he and the landlord knew that tomorrow night, from opening bell until closing, there would scarcely be room in the tavern to stand. He spread his hands wide open in the Wizardly gesture that meant You may trust my word, I use no magic and concluded the deal, then returned to the bar.
Rafe was superbly drunk, lids drooping over his blue-gray eyes, a silly smile curving his lips beneath the heavy beard he was very proud of being able to grow at the ripe old age of nineteen. Jeska was a little more sober, but only a little; the tavern keeper’s daughter might or might not get the full benefits of his attention later on. Cade wondered whether he ought to mention they’d be in real beds tonight, not in the hayloft, then shrugged to himself. Jeska always found a way.
As for the glisker—Mieka Windthistle couldn’t have said his own name once, slowly, let alone five times fast, without hopelessly tangling his tongue.
Cayden didn’t wait to be noticed. He poked the Elf in the ribs and demanded, “What the fuck was that?”
Big, innocent, very drunk eyes—almost entirely green at the moment—blinked up at him. “Ye dinnit like it?” Before Cade could reply, he turned to Jeska. “Sorry for that bit at the end, mate, but it were such a fetchin’ little Sweetheart, I just couldn’t resist.”
“You’re a shithead,” Jeska remarked amiably, sorting coins on the bar. “You want your share now, or after the show tomorrow night?”
“Tomorrow night?” Cade sucked in an outraged breath. How dare they decide such things without him? “Have I said yet that there’s gonna be a next show with this—this—”
Rafcadion interrupted. “This best glisker you or me or Jeska or anybody else in this shit-pit of a town ever saw? Yeh, there’ll be a next show.” He grinned, white teeth flashing in his dark beard. “And a next, and a next, and a next—all the way to Trials.” Raising his glass—they’d all been given the real thing in place of the leather—he announced, “Trials, and the Winterly Circuit!”
Mieka laughed and raised his glass to his lips—but his gaze was sharp and watchful, and suddenly he appeared considerably more sober. Cade looked into those eyes, discovered he was unable to look away. When at last he nodded, and drank the toast, the Elf nodded back, satisfied.
“Much beholden, Quill,” he murmured. “Very much beholden.”

 
Copyright © 2012 by Melanie Rawn

MELANIE RAWN is the three-time Locus Award–nominated author of the bestselling Dragon Prince trilogy and of the Dragon Star trilogy. She graduated from Scripps College with a BA in history and has worked as a teacher and editor. Rawn lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.