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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Last Song Before Night

The Harp and Ring Sequence #1

The Harp and Ring Sequence (Volume 1)

Ilana C. Myer

Tor Books




MUSIC drifted up to the window with the scent of jasmine; a harp playing a very old song of summer nights, one Dane knew from childhood. The merchant smiled to himself as he scratched out the last figures in a column, the result of a long evening's work. This was why he liked to work in a room that overlooked the street. Especially now in summer, when the Midsummer Fair brought singers and all manner of entertainers to Tamryllin. But especially singers-Academy-trained poets whose art was the pride of Eivar even now, centuries after their enchantments had been lost. Dane's wife complained of the noise, but that was women for you.

She complained about a lot of things lately, despite the considerable wealth Dane Beylint had hauled to her door in all the years since they were wed. It was tiresome. It was worse than that-it exacerbated Dane's anxiety in what she should have realized was already a tense way of life.

Ships came in, ships went out-you never knew if your fortunes might sink with one of them. Certainly he had insurance, but those agents invariably tried to cheat you in the end. Just a month earlier, Dane had lost a ship on the seas in the far east, an entire cargo of jacquard and spices gone forever to Maia. He was one of the few merchants of Tamryllin bold enough-and with the resources-to send ships to those distant waters, which were said to run red with blood.

Dane didn't believe any such nonsense. He suspected the ships' captains liked to spin tales as a ploy to raise their rates. To say nothing of the insurance agents. But there was no question that it was risky, no question that he-Dane Beylint-was renowned for where he dared send his ships, how much he risked. Between his boldness and his informers at court, Dane kept his wife in silks and pearls, his sons standing to inherit an empire. And his daughter-she would marry well; there was no question of that.

His work for the day done, Dane saw there was an hour's worth of oil left in the study lamps. Rather than call the servant to light his way to bed, Dane paused to consider the black satin cloak, lined with gold brocade, draped across a chair. It had just arrived that day, to his delight. Inwardly he calculated its assembled cost: two sumptuous imported fabrics sewn together, the impeccable tailoring. The gold clasp he'd ordered on impulse, that would glitter at his throat under lamps. Yes, it was costly, but he was to attend the Midsummer Masque at the residence of the Court Poet himself; for that you spared no expense.

More valuable was the mask that Dane now lifted from the desk and set over his face, gazing at himself in the silver-backed mirror that was itself worth a fortune. His eyes looked back at him from within a frame of black, patterned with gold leaf. Even the evening lamplight danced on that gold. An ornamental sword, the hilt and scabbard perfectly matched, would complete the ensemble. He had commissioned the mask and sword from a master craftsman in Majdara; they were just different enough from the traditional Eivarian style that he was certain to stand out. And Dane liked the idea of standing out. He had deliberately not asked his wife to attend the masque with him.

That line of contemplation was a bit too stimulating at this time of night, when he needed to sleep. He had an eye on more than one alluring prospect at court; ladies weary of their arranged marriages and intrigued by a man who was experienced, by all accounts, in the dangers of seas that ran red with blood.

As if divining Dane's thoughts, the singer outside had ended his song of the summertime and now struck up a ribald ballad, its brisk rhythm drastically at odds with the hush of night. Dane couldn't make out the words-it was something about seduction. But then, most of them were.

His informers at court were helpful in these matters-keeping Dane abreast of a prospect's level of interest, of opportunity. Frequently absent husbands, for example, could be a convenience. But that was a frivolous use of his contacts' services; more often, Dane benefited from them in other, more substantial ways. When the king was on the verge of betrothal to his southland queen, years ago, it was Dane who had caught wind of it weeks in advance; who had procured an emerald so fine, so prodigious in size, it was still discussed at court to this day. A gift from the king to his intended bride, set in gold as a pendant for her to wear. Such acts tallied over years could consolidate a man's power, extend his sphere of influence even in a court as harshly glittering as that of the capital.

Dane lowered his mask, felt the warm summer air on his face. An owl called at the window, softly. The song was moving into its last phase, and Dane hoped for his wife's sake that the poet was nearly done. Well, and for his own sake, too. He would be heading to bed and hopefully sleep in just a moment. But first, as he stood at the window and observed the startling edge of the scythe moon, there were things to consider. Or savor.

Days ago, one of his informers had told him of something that was interesting ... singularly interesting. An opportunity, in fact, not likely to arise again. Dane had sent a note to the palace, pressing his advantage. It was precisely through such shrewd stratagems, such creative mechanisms, that he kept his wife in exquisite fashions-not that she would ever appreciate it. His children were ungrateful as well, but then that was all but a given. Luckily, Dane found solace in his work and its rewards. Particularly the rewards.

Silence, now, at the window. It occurred to Dane that the song had cut off abruptly, mid-verse. He wondered if some enraged, sleepless citizen had knocked the poet flat. Dane had a liking for music, and even for poets-brash and arrogant as they were-and so hoped not.

Once again taking note of the moon, the scent of summer jasmine, Dane thought-not for the first time-that if he had not had a family to support, perhaps he too could have been a poet. Wandering from hearth to hearth, composing songs that would make even the most diamond-glimmering of the aristocracy tremble with admiration or lust. His singing voice, he was told, could be impressive when he put effort into it. But poets didn't have families. Even the greatest poet of the age, Valanir Ocune, was said to wander without a home. And such was Dane's nature-forever putting the needs of others before his own.

It was while occupied with this particular thought, this melancholy satisfaction, that Dane heard a new strain of music break the silence. But this was not music such as he had ever heard before. Dissonant, it ripped across the night. Across his soul. And then blackness before his eyes, and then nothing at all.

When Dane awoke, he was bent painfully backward over a hard surface. The room was bright with the glow of candles, the brightness nearly blinding. Dane began to scream.

The man in his line of sight held a knife outstretched. His face a mask of red. Another moment, and Dane realized both who the man was, and that the mask was blood.

"Dane Beylint," the man said and swiped the knife at Dane's throat. Mercifully, it was quick, the main artery of the neck severed at once. Around Dane's now-slackening face, a pool of blood collected into a trough in the table. It was neatly done.

* * *

LIN woke with a gasp. She'd tugged the blanket from Leander and clung to it, though the room was hot. She was shivering.

"For gods' sake, Lin," Leander muttered blearily and made a grab for the blanket. "Give it back."

Her fingers went limp; she let him pull the rough fabric to himself. From the bed she could see the moon, a white grin against the night. Lin shook her head; that was not a helpful metaphor. But the terror that had pierced her lingered.

"What is it?" Leander said now. He must have felt her shivering.

Lin swung her legs out of bed and approached the window. Outside, she could see a back alley, and not much of that. The smell that wafted up from it had induced them to close the window even against the summer breeze. "I heard a scream."

"You were dreaming," said Leander. "Or ... you know what goes on in places like this. Nothing terrible, though."

She was glad he couldn't see her, that his face was still buried in the flat mound that passed for his pillow. Nightmares were certainly not new territory for Lin. She didn't know why this particular one had bitten so deep. Already, the images were fading-the flash of a long knife, candles. But the tortured shriek-that was new. Worse than any nightmare she'd ever had.

"Leander, can I play us a song? Just one?" Lin tried to sound more casual than she felt. The harp was his, and he disliked for her to even touch it. And he had been sleeping.

But perhaps she underestimated his kindness. At times he could be generous. She had cause to know. "You're crazy," he said. In the dimness she saw him stretch his arms wearily. "I could swear you invented a nightmare to get your hands on my harp. One song."

She nodded, stroked the metal strings of the instrument with reverence. In that moment she was so grateful to be in this room and with this harp in her hands that tears pricked her eyes. "That's right," she said. "I'll sing you to sleep again."

* * *

THE eyes were watching her. But no-they were hollows, not eyes, cut into the mask that sat on her bedside table in a spill of moonlight. Yet Rianna felt watched as she pressed her ear to the bedroom door. Silence in the hallway.

A stab of guilt in her, briefly, at the sight of the magnificent mask, a gift from the man she was to marry. But then she was on the move again. She cracked the door ajar, smoothly quiet on hinges she had oiled earlier that day with this moment in mind. All that day her thoughts had been arrowing to now, past the toll of midnight when at last she could count on her father's being asleep. Even if he had stayed up very late writing figures in his account books or pacing the carpeted floor of his study, interminably, fueled by wine. A merchant such as Master Gelvan had many cares.

Rianna's father was not one of those men-most often wealthy-who locked their daughters up at night. And for years, she would have laughed at the thought. They would both have laughed. He joked that the seventeen-year-old Rianna was already as sober as the most venerable spinster, obedient almost to a fault.

She slid around the door, stepping carefully in satin slippers. These allowed her to glide on the tiled floor and then on the stairs that led to the rooms below. By night, the interior of the Gelvan house had an eerie way of reflecting moonlight from the white marble of the floors and pillars, of which Master Gelvan was so fond. He'd had the stone shipped from the quarries of the south at considerable expense. Rianna thought her own shadow on the gleaming floor was like a pursuing spirit, felt a shudder.

How Darien would tease her, if he knew.

A thought that was mortifying and alluring at the same time. Her ears drummed to the rhythm of her heart.

It was when she reached the door of Master Gelvan's study that Rianna heard voices. Her father, and one other. Her heart thundered now, but she kept her composure; she still had time to tiptoe past the study door-open only a crack-and escape to the main room and, from there, out to the garden.

"... An itemized note on the body had his name," said the voice that was not her father's. Rianna thought he sounded familiar, and then realized-it was one of their kitchen servants, Cal. "It seems to confirm your suspicion-that there is a connection to the other killings."

"His blood was drained like the others, Callum? You are sure of this?" Master Gelvan's voice, low and urgent.

"I spoke with Master Beylint's servants. It was the same wound. But instead of the streets, Master Beylint was found in his own garden. The night guard is being questioned."

Rianna stood frozen. She clasped her hands over her mouth to stifle the sound of her breath. The murders. An ugliness that had begun in the past year, but always at a distance: bodies found sprawled in the more ramshackle streets, the poorer districts of Tamryllin. Master Gelvan would have concealed the knowledge from her if he could, but the servants talked. The killings were all done the same way: a knife wound to the throat, the blood drained and nowhere to be found. Six there had been so far.

Dane Beylint, the seventh, was a man like her father-a merchant, with close ties to king and court. And not found in the streets. His garden.

"I will go myself, tomorrow, to convey my condolences to the family," said Master Gelvan. "Thank you, Callum, for doing such good work. For the rest-the invitations go out tomorrow. And now I think there are some names we must add to the list."

Rianna crept swiftly past the study and toward the main room. The invitations. Her father was of course referring to the Midsummer Ball that he was to host this year, as he did every year. Everyone in Tamryllin who was of any importance would attend, including the king himself-and his Court Poet, Nickon Gerrard, said to be the most powerful man in Eivar. The entertainment would comprise some of the most skilled performers who had journeyed to Tamryllin for the festival. So it had been every summer for as long as Rianna could remember.

This year was different. Darien would be there, performing, along with his friend Marlen. This year she had her secret to conceal from the world ... at least until the contest was over.

As she turned the handle of the second door she had oiled that day-which led out to the garden-Rianna thought of her father's voice calmly invoking blood and wounds. It was too strange. And Cal...? With his heavyset frame and mournful eyes, Rianna had often thought he resembled a hound. That was, if hounds spoke of animal innards and turnips and the turnings of the harvest seasons.

What had Master Gelvan's kitchen servant to do with murders? Why was either of them awake so late?

Then the scent of roses enfolded her with the warm summer air, and Rianna almost forgot her disquiet when she caught sight of them waiting at the base of the cherry tree.

* * *

IT was a long time since Darien Aldemoor had last broken the law. The last time had been for the same reason, a girl. Marlen had been with him then, too-his friend's much taller frame lending itself, on that occasion, to reaching an inconveniently located gate bolt.

Darien grinned at the memory. His and Marlen's success that night had made them even more a legend among the Academy students, the lady in question a stunning creature who had inspired one of his most admired songs. She had soon afterward married a wealthy lord, as stunning creatures did tend to do. But not before Darien had made her famous, in image if not in name, from the Blood Sea south of Eivar to the bare mountains of the north.

"What are you smiling about, lunatic?" Marlen growled. His dark hair veiled his eyes in the moonlight.

"You," said Darien. "Now hush. We could get stopped here by guards." The street was quiet and steeped in scents of midsummer. Jasmine and honeysuckle twined in starry abundance on walls that sealed the mansions of Tamryllin from the streets. Darien thought sadness was distilled in those scents despite their sweetness, from the knowledge of how short a time they would last.

An odd thought to have while breaking into a rich man's home. Yet such thoughts tended to go to a reservoir in Darien's mind, to the place where songs were born. And then women wondered how he knew about sadness-and loss, and ravaging love-when otherwise a more cheerful person would have been hard to imagine.

A person who was now about to cheerfully commit a crime.

Darien muttered a prayer of thanks to Kiara for the slenderness of the moon. Then: "Follow me," he said, and moved to another tree. A rustling sound told him that Marlen followed, grumbling under his breath.

"Stop complaining," murmured Darien. "We will sing of this later."

"That we will," said Marlen. "If in prison, a tragic ballad. Otherwise, a farce."

"You're too cynical," Darien admonished him. Down the alley, he remembered. A fault in the garden wall.

They crept down the alleyway beside the mansion, where they reached the square into which the gardens faced. Each with its own high wall, affording the treasure of privacy to wealthy inhabitants.

Except the merchant's wall had a loose stone at its base. When Darien prised the stone aside-with both hands and a grunt, for it was heavy-there was an opening wide enough for each of them to fit through.

As Marlen brushed himself off with distaste, Darien surveyed their surroundings. Roses greeted them in a profusion that appeared white by moonlight, islands in a dark sea of thorns and leaves. A stone fountain plashed at the center, flanked by curving ornamental trees that were also in bloom. Stone benches were scattered under the trees with deliberate artlessness.

A rose caught Darien's eye that was unlike the rest: in the night, it looked almost black. As blood would look by moonlight, Darien thought, and unsheathed his knife to cut it from the thorns.

"Let's hope the merchant doesn't notice the theft of his precious red rose," said Marlen. "His only one."

Darien smiled. Only an Academy graduate would be so metaphoric in his choice of words-alluding not just to the flower, but to its intended recipient. "Follow me," he said. He wondered why he had felt compelled to share this experience with Marlen, who, though his closest friend, was unlikely to understand. But it was too late to reconsider. They approached the cherry tree where he and Rianna had assigned to meet.

"How long are we to wait?" Marlen asked. He spoke in undertone, though it was unlikely that his words would reach the house from this distance. That and the music of the fountain colluded to mask their voices.

Darien shook his head. "Why, did you have other plans tonight?"

"I might have."

"It would do you good to practice 'The Gentleman and His Love.' I noticed you kept slipping up on one of the chords."

Marlen flung back his hair. "I play it exactly as it ought to be played, Aldemoor," he said. "You'd do well to practice not smirking when we sing it. The audience is not to know it is satire until well into the third verse."

"I can't help it that your bad playing amuses me," said Darien. He grinned as he said it.

They passed the time amiably trading insults for what seemed quite a while before the door to the house opened, and a slim white figure appeared on the steps. The moon was silver on her long hair. And then she was running, dress and hair flowing behind her as she tripped into his waiting arms. She wore a nightdress, Darien saw, and was momentarily scandalized. But she couldn't know, he reminded himself; there had been no mother to teach her.

"There you are," he breathed into her hair. It was whisper-soft and smelled of jasmine, a summer scent. After a moment, he released her and presented the rose. She smiled, and even in moonlight he could see her flush. He knew Marlen would note this, and the chaste brevity of their embrace, and want an explanation. That part of it Darien didn't want to tarnish with too much exposure to his friend's mockery.

"Where can we go to talk?" he asked.

She looked down, her lower lip curling almost in a pout. "My father's plans changed at the last moment. He's home. Last I saw, he was even awake in his study."

"Awake? Now?"

"There was-there was a murder tonight," she said. "An associate of my father's, in his own garden."

"His garden?" Marlen said sharply. "That is strange."

"You two have not been introduced-apologies," said Darien. "Rianna Gelvan, meet Marlen Humbreleigh ... thorn in my side since our Academy days."

"Pleasure," Marlen said lazily, and kissed her hand. Rianna looked startled, but nodded and drew back her hand, her composure a testament to her impeccable upbringing. Well, almost impeccable, thought Darien. With a high neck and long sleeves, she had no doubt thought her nightdress proper enough. The less proper implications were a nuance that had not penetrated the high walls of this garden.

Though it seemed a killer had managed to penetrate a different garden that same night.

Darien shook his head. Strange things happened in the capital. He had lived isolated on the Academy Isle too long, his only occasional respite the nearby village-and even that was against the rules. He and Marlen had since traveled to many towns and cities in the past year, but none compared in complexity or size to Tamryllin, the queen of them all.

"Do you think it will interfere with the Fair?" asked Rianna. Her eyes were round.

"The death of a merchant? Surely not," said Darien. "Sounds to me like someone had a grievance against him." He clasped her hand. "Don't fret, love. The contest will happen. And Marlen and I are the best, and are sure to win."

"Humility is not a trait in which we excel at the Academy," drawled Marlen.

"Oh shut up," said Darien and laughed. "No use denying the truth, is there?"

"All the same, there's some stiff competition," Marlen pointed out. "The contest brings the best people from all over the country. We know most of the people from the Academy, but there could still be surprises."

"Like if Valanir Ocune were to participate," Rianna said with sudden sparkle, and it was all Darien could do not to beam proudly. He flung his arm about her shoulders as if claiming a prize; when she leaned into him, he thought she felt fragile, like a bird.

"That would be unfair," Marlen conceded. "Luckily, he is said to be wandering in Kahishi somewhere. Being the world's greatest Seer must be a demanding job."

"Didn't he ever win the Silver Branch?" asked Rianna, her head on Darien's shoulder.

"No ... Valanir never entered the contest," said Marlen. "Tales have it that he didn't want the Branch, didn't even want to become Court Poet. Of course, that may have been just sour grapes, since he and Court Poet Gerrard were rivals."

Rianna shook her head. "I doubt the Seer Valanir Ocune has time for sour grapes," she said reprovingly, as if he had uttered heresy.

Darien smiled. "You'd be surprised what even the greatest men have time for."

"As our presence here at this hour would indicate," Marlen said with a bow. "Listen, I want to get into the house and see the space where we'll be performing at the ball."

"But you've seen it," said Darien. "We already performed there."

"Yes, but I need to see it again," said Marlen. "Any chance your father is asleep yet?"

"I don't know," said Rianna, confused. She leaned on Darien's arm as if for support. "It seems ... a risk."

"So much the better," said Marlen.

At last they agreed that Rianna would return to the house to see if her father and the servants were sleeping. And indeed, the silence within was absolute. To make certain she checked the study, and even ascended the stairs to confirm that her father's bedroom door was closed.

"Thanks," Marlen said when she returned. "I'll be just a moment."

Darien shook his head. "I don't know when you became one of those poets," he said. "The space, is it."

"It matters," said Marlen, and vanished into the house.

"Well that gives us a chance to be alone for a moment," said Darien, and kissed Rianna's cheek. "I only wish we were really alone-I would sing for you."

"Soon?" she said, and rested her head on his chest. He was the first man she had loved, Darien realized, not for the first time. He was sometimes awed when he considered this. "You will at the ball, won't you?" she said. "Even if no one knows it's for me."

"I will," he said. "All my songs now are for you."

* * *

DARIEN felt a silence come over him when Marlen returned, after he had clasped Rianna's hand for the last time and watched her disappear into the house. In silence they crawled through the opening and into the alleyway.

It was only when they reached the streets near their inn that Marlen asked, a note of rare uncertainty in his voice, "So what's different this time?"

Darien knew what he meant. So often had they helped each other in the game of seduction, seldom competing since their tastes were different. Marlen's women tended to be unhappily in gilded marriages, dissatisfied as caged snakes. Darien gravitated to smiles, to laughter. But Rianna took him to a different place. Her eyes were still as the pools in the woodland of Academy Isle, and stirred within him a similar quietness.

"I think I love her," he said, shaking his head. "A Galician girl."

"Other than that," said Marlen, dryly, "what's the problem?"

"She's promised to another," said Darien. "One of much more impressive lineage than a youngest son of Aldemoor. And her father made mention of a winter wedding."

"Sounds like you'll need to move fast," said Marlen. He looked unusually contemplative, gazing straight ahead, his long fingernail tracing the smooth carnelian stone set into his Academy ring. Perhaps that was why he did not ask Darien the obvious question: How could he be considering marriage? Darien, of all people? Only Marlen himself was worse suited for it. They had never made a formal pact, but both had assumed that the next ten years of their lives would be spent much as the previous one had been: traveling, singing, adventuring. Marriage meant one woman, one bed, one home.

But Darien thought he'd never wanted anything more in his life than he wanted Rianna Gelvan now. Even if it meant one home. Life with her could be an adventure, lit by the gold of her hair.

"If only we had those lost enchantments the Academy masters liked to go on about," said Darien. "I could magic Rianna away from this place."

Marlen laughed. "If we had powers, Darien, you could likely conjure up an ideal woman of your own."

"A terrifying thought," said Darien. "That could be a song-of a poet who uses enchantments to create his ideal woman, the havoc that ensues. There is always havoc-at least in songs-when you get your heart's desire."

"Is there?" said Marlen. "I'd risk it. Though it wouldn't be some girl."

Darien was only half-listening. "I'll tell you what I need to do," he said. "That Silver Branch is worth as much as a kingdom."

"You think the merchant will approve your suit if we win?"

Darien wagged his finger at Marlen in mock reproof. "No, my Lord Humbreleigh," he said with exaggerated courtesy. "When we win."

Copyright © 2015 by Ilana C. Myer