Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Playing to the Gods

Glass Thorns (Volume 5)

Melanie Rawn

Tor Books

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Chapter 1


Overall, it took two years, but Touchstone finally worked their way out of debt.

In the two years following the celebration of King Meredan’s twenty-five years on the throne, Touchstone performed more than five hundred times. They performed at private homes and castles; at the Downstreet, the Kiral Kellari, the Keymarker, and the opening nights of three new theaters in Gallantrybanks; at the small theater Princess Miriuzca had ordered built at the Palace for her father-in-law; at Trials; on the First Flight of the Royal Circuit. They performed “Bewilderland” outside during warm summer afternoons and inside during thunderstorms for large audiences of delighted children and parents. They performed “Dragon” and “Silver Mine” and “Hidden Cottage” and “Doorways” and “Caladrius” and all the other plays in their folio for enthusiastic theater patrons four nights out of seven. They performed the length and breadth of Albeyn for Guilds and societies, Lords and merchants, and the only shows for which they were not paid were the two they gave each year at Trials: one to reaffirm their position as First Flight, and one on the last night of Trials. No one, not Black Lightning or the Crystal Sparks or Hawk’s Claw, was even considered anymore for the honor of the last-night performance. Touchstone reigned supreme.

The Shadowshapers no longer worked together. They had lasted two summers out on their own. It was rumored that both Vered Goldbraider and Rauel Kevelock were trying to assemble new groups of their own, but the notion that either of them would ever appear at Trials again to win a place on one of the Circuits was laughable. They had their pride—which was what had broken up the Shadowshapers in the first place.

All that Cayden knew about it was that Touchstone had no real rival. He ignored rumors. He had no time for them. He had time only for performing and, very occasionally, writing. When Touchstone wasn’t performing, they were traveling. The only real rest they got was at Castle Eyot for seven days each summer. A holiday of a fortnight or longer was something that happened only to other people.

Because the Shadowshapers were no longer available, Touchstone was in constant and lucrative demand, and could command fees for private performances that other groups could only dream about. Two years after King Meredan’s celebrations, Touchstone was at last solvent again. There was no need for constant performances, constant travel, constant work.

But they couldn’t seem to stop.

That second Wintering, everything fell apart.

It began in late autumn when Crisiant’s sisters came to Cayden and told him flat out that if Rafe didn’t stop using thorn, his wife would leave him and take their son with her. According to custom, the women who stood with a bride at her wedding were obliged to let her know if her husband was unhappy; similarly, it was the duty of the men who stood with the groom to warn him should his wife become troubled about their marriage. Things rarely came to that point in practice. But in this case, Crisiant’s sisters had waited months for Cade to say or do something. He hadn’t. They arrived at Redpebble Square one afternoon before a show at the Kiral Kellari and announced their intention to remain until he promised to do more than have a word with Rafe. They wanted him to promise that the thorn would stop.

He didn’t bother to argue. He didn’t say that the only reason Crisiant and Bram still had a roof over their heads was the scanty profits from the last two years of constant performing, and this had been possible only because of thorn that energized tired bodies and minds for shows and quieted them afterwards so they could get some sleep. He wasn’t even terribly shocked that Crisiant, who had set her heart on Rafe when they were mere children, had reached this point of desperation. There were times when he’d been pretty desperate himself. But none of them, not Cade or Rafe or Jeska or Mieka, had been able to stop.

He said none of this. He told Crisiant’s sisters that he would do his best, but could make no promises. Rafe was a grown man of twenty-seven and made his own decisions. Cade thanked them for their concern and escorted them to the door.

Then, because Touchstone had a performance in a little over two hours, he went upstairs and got out his thorn-roll.

It might have been Rafe’s problems nagging at the back of his mind. Mayhap he’d mistaken one of Brishen Staindrop’s special blends for another, concocted just for him because he was so unpredictable in his response to thorn. Possibly he had primed the withies for “The Dragon” to be followed by “Sailor’s Sweetheart” so often that he’d grown careless. But something went wrong, and it was Cade’s fault.

The performance started well enough. Mieka made his entrance in an immense cloth-of-gold ball gown with frothing purple flounces and acid green gloves. He and Cayden did their usual banter, ending with Mieka stripping off his garish finery to reveal the plain white he usually wore onstage nowadays. But as he selected a withie, there was a worried look in those changeable blue-green-gray-brown eyes that Cade didn’t understand.

A minute later, he understood all too well.

There was enough magic in the withies for Mieka to get through “Dragon.” There wasn’t enough magic specific to that play to make it the triumph it had always been since they first performed it at Trials eight years ago. Watching, horrified and ashamed, Cade wondered witlessly which play he’d had in mind while priming the withies—because it hadn’t been “Dragon.” The Prince wore Jeska’s own clothes because Mieka was working so hard to construct the dragon that he didn’t have anything to clothe Jeska with. The cavern looked more like a gray stone castle. There was no female voice describing the battle at all; whatever Cade had put into the withies, magic to do even the captive Princess’s dialogue hadn’t been included. Jeska coped, as always; Rafe kept a stranglehold on the magic just in case Mieka, frantic to make it through the play, slipped in his own control; Mieka, lunging desperately for the withies, cast just one enraged glance at Cade during the whole performance.

In the tiring room, nobody said anything. Cade collapsed into a chair as if he’d been the one doing all the work. Mieka dumped the spent withies in Cade’s lap and went to the drinks table to pour a large quantity of beer down his throat. Jeska paced, using a red silk square to wipe sweat from his face and neck, his golden curls limp. Rafe folded his length into a corner of a sofa and slumped there, exhausted. It wasn’t until Cade had roused himself and concentrated on putting the magic needed for “Sweetheart” into the withies that somebody spoke.

Mieka, unable to contain himself any longer: “And here we always thought it would be me to fuck everything up!”

“Not quite everything,” Jeska offered.

“Near enough as makes no difference! Are those damned things ready yet? All right, then. Just to make sure, it’s ‘Sailor’s Sweetheart’ we’ll be doing, yeh?” Snatching up a withie, he gripped it in one palm and ran the fingers of his other hand down its length. “Good. I can work with this—and without half-killing meself. You go out first, Cade, and clear all those others from the baskets. Gods only know what’s in them. Go on!”

He went.

The performance came off very well. Everyone laughed in all the right places, which was fairly amazing because Cade hadn’t been able to find a flicker of humor in himself to prime into the withies. He was reminded of the first time they’d done this piece, years ago now in Gowerion, when Mieka changed everything up and turned a sappy melodrama into a rollicking farce. It had all been Mieka, dancing his delighted way through the playlet, with Jeska adapting and improvising, and Rafe effortlessly managing the flow of magic. Cade, hiding beneath the stairs of the tawdry old inn, had been furious that his new glisker revised the piece without his knowledge or his permission. But the fact that Mieka Windthistle had in the course of that piece become their new glisker was never in doubt.

When tonight’s dreadful gigging was over, and they were outside the Kiral Kellari trying to wave down hire-hacks to take them to their various homes, Rafe pushed Cade into the first one that arrived.

“Go home. Sleep. No thorn. I’m canceling whatever we’ve got on for the next week.” When Cade opened his mouth to protest, he snarled, “Do as I say, damn it, or I’ll make it a fortnight! And no thorn!”

He waited until he was inside the hack and had given the driver his address, then leaned out the window and asked, “Does that go for all the rest of you as well?”

One thing about being a tregetour: he knew a good exit line. He sat back in the seat, taking home with him the sight of three outraged faces and the sound of three angry voices.

He knew he’d never be able to sleep without thorn. He’d tried. Gods and Angels knew he’d tried, these last two years. He was careful to keep track of what he used and when—that night when his breathing and his heart almost stopped had scared him into at least a modicum of caution—and as he drew columns onto a fresh sheet of paper (date, time, variety of thorn), he purposely did not look at the stack of pages in his desk drawer that recorded the last few months of use. They were no more damning than the marks on his arms.

Snug in a soft linen nightshirt and warm blankets, he closed his eyes and waited for sleep to come. It did not. Sometimes it happened like this: a delay or an outright failure of the thorn to produce the desired effect. He had two choices when this happened. He could use more, or he could endure with gritted teeth. Tempting as another little thornprick was, after tonight’s near debacle he knew he deserved some discomfort. More discomfort, in truth, than a few hours of restless wakefulness would provide.

His brain nagged and nattered. Guilt over tonight’s mistakes warred with self-justification. He deliberately remembered that cold, sick, hunted feeling that came with massive debts and no money to pay them with. He never wanted to feel that way again, that hollow in his guts, the fear. He would still be feeling it, every stomach-churning terrifying icy shard of it, if not for the various thorn that had got Touchstone through these last two years.

They had got through. They were safe.

So why was he still using so much thorn? Why were any of them? Even Jeska, who had always resisted and who pricked far less than the rest of them, was still relying on bluethorn every so often for the energy required of certain performances. As for Rafe—well, his wife’s sisters were witnesses. Mieka … he was occasionally more maniacal, occasionally more somnolent, but at least he’d never had the sort of episode he saved Cayden from: that frightening night when he lost track of what he’d used and nearly died.

Why hadn’t he stopped then? He knew the answer very well. It was too easy just to keep on. Not the danger of too much too carelessly used, not the grim scowls of Mistress Mirdley when he declined dinner because he wasn’t hungry, not even the scorn in Megs’s eyes at the sight of his arms …

Fundamental honesty demanded that he admit it: Thorn was also an escape from the confusion she had brought into his life.

There hadn’t been just the one night in the Palace. That year’s Wintering, when they’d had a week’s worth of last-instant well-paid giggings in Lilyleaf, Megueris had shown up to visit Croodle. After Touchstone’s performance that night, which both ladies attended, Croodle gave a private party at her inn. Cade had woken the next morning with the memory of Megs on his fingers (his hand had mostly healed by then, and was certainly limber enough for what he and she had got up to that night) but no Megs in his bed. Midmorning, Mieka strolled in from wherever he had spent the night—his wife hadn’t had time to make him anything new to wear that would guarantee his fidelity—and once again had only to sniff the air to know who had kept Cade company.

Megs had appeared once more a few weeks later, when her father hired Touchstone to perform at the nearest of his properties to Gallybanks. Only a half-day’s drive in the wagon, just an overnight stay at the manor house (where they were as warmly welcomed as the forty other guests)—but when he’d gone up to his room, there she was, calmly unlacing her gown.

There was never a lot of conversation. Talk could be had from almost anyone. What they provided each other was something he couldn’t have put into words if he’d tried. Some tregetour.

What he did try was to have an Elsewhen about her. He knew she couldn’t possibly be the wife he’d seen years ago, the woman who cared nothing for his work beyond its power to provide for her and their children. Megs wasn’t like that. She knew everything about the theater and was coming to know almost as much about fettling as Rafe. She couldn’t become the wife in that Elsewhen.

He never saw her. Not since that horrible foreseeing about the North Keep and the explosion that had killed her had she appeared in any Elsewhen at all. Cade had long since figured out that people who didn’t show up had made decisions that he had nothing to do with. Whatever he did or didn’t do hadn’t affected them. He had never seen Mieka, for example, before that night in Gowerion, because it was Mieka’s decision alone to follow them there and present himself as their new glisker. He had never seen his little brother, either—something that had not occurred to him until Archduke Cyed Henick asked a mocking question that Cade knew to be a threat. He took this to mean that Derien made his own choices that had little or nothing to do with Cade—but he worried, as with Megs, that perhaps the lack of them in his Elsewhens meant they would not be in his life.

He didn’t know if he could bear that. To lose either of them was unthinkable. It implied that whatever they did with their lives, they didn’t need him. He wasn’t important. He didn’t count.

The blockweed combination that Brishen Staindrop had finally hit upon as an effective sleeping aid for him began to stir sluggishly through his mind. About bloody damned time. It was getting on for morning. If he had nothing to do today, he might as well sleep as long as he liked.

Nothing to do … all week. He couldn’t think what to do with himself if he wasn’t getting ready for a performance, or onstage, or coming home from a gigging. Write? He had yet to finish—after two solid years—the two plays that told the whole tale of the Treasure. He’d put together new versions of some older plays referred to in Lost Withies, and it had been so long since anybody had seen or heard of them that they’d been greeted as originals. This made him squirm inside. He really ought to get back to work on “Treasure.” Or mayhap Window Wall, which had been languishing unfinished almost as long. That as well was a two-play piece. He saw the structure of each in his mind, there and waiting to be written.…

No. He would find something to do that had nothing at all to do with the theater. He needed a rest. A week with nothing to do …

He could find out where Megs was these days and go see her. After that night at her father’s manor house almost a year ago, she’d never come to him again. Not that he’d noticed, except at odd intervals. He’d been too busy. Was she with Princess Miriuzca at the Palace? Had she spent the autumn at one of her father’s many homes? Was she traveling for the fun of it, the way rich people did, and if so, where?

Whom could he ask without sounding like a complete fool?

Easier, more convenient, less stressful to spend some time with Derien. As sleep claimed him at last, he smiled. They might go to the racing meet, or to the Tincted Downs for a day or two. Take a little trip on a pleasure barge, hire a couple of horses and ride out into the countryside. There were a dozen things they could do together that would let Cade get to know him again. The smile deepened, then faded slowly as he slept.


Copyright © 2017 by Melanie Rawn