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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Poet King

The Harp and Ring Sequence (Volume 3)

Ilana C. Myer

Tor Books




RIANNA stood at a window overlooking the city lit gold in sunrise. A new day. Red slate roofs and cypress trees were a view she had seen all her life, but not from this height. This was the Tamryllin palace, with its towers. Blackbirds made a whooping spiral, winging around the towers and down, toward the rooftops of the city. She could hear the bells of the Eldest Sanctuary welcoming the sun.

She heard him come in, come up behind her. When she turned, she was struck—as ever—by how handsome he was. How noble he appeared with that strong jaw, the red-gold forelock with a slight curl that fell, appealingly, from the peak at the center of his forehead. He was a picture of nobility—in ways the nobility themselves rarely were.

Elissan Diar smiled a little, to see her. For him it was a rare expression; the man who had conquered Tamryllin and seized its throne showed a stern countenance to most.

By now she had often seen his smile turned to her.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“A good morning to you, too,” was her sharp reply, and he laughed.

A part of her was immediately ashamed. Rianna knew she had been disingenuous in her sharpness.

She’d known he would like it.

“What has you gazing out so pensively?” he said, and joined her at the window. She was seated on a cushioned bench. He took a place at its other end. Despite his powerful frame, there was yet a distance between them. A proper distance, one might say.

She thought she read the question behind his question. He’d wonder whether she was thinking of her husband. “I was remembering my girlhood,” she said. “Of the view from my father’s house. And how … I was happy there.”

“We never forget where we are from,” he said. “Nor the places where we were happy.” He spoke with a soft clarity, as if visited by memories of his own. “I’d fain see you happy once more, lady. It would become you even more than melancholy already becomes you.” He smiled again. “I doubt there is any mood which does not suit your face. I would consider it a gift if I might see them all.”

Rianna let a silence fall. She heard the faint, busy chatter of the blackbirds. The bells had ceased. Finally she said, “You have seen much in your travels, is that not true?”

He picked up on her meaning. It unnerved her, a bit, that he often did. “I have seen queens adorned with gems and cloth of gold,” he said. “Beauty to make a man weep. Yet none to match Lady Rianna, in her plain grey dress.”

She waited. She was interested to see if he would say what most men would have said by now. The obvious thing. Your husband is a fool. But this was the man who had conquered Tamryllin by means of enchantment. Who had moreover succeeded in winning over the people of Tamryllin in a short time. Rather than executing the royal family, he’d had them exiled—a gesture of magnanimity. He’d pointed to the destruction in Majdara, the chaos of civil war on the border, as a reason for new leadership.

For Kahishi was at war. The Court Poet somehow in the midst of it. All the more reason for the capital to surrender to Elissan Diar and his Chosen. Tamryllin’s palace guard had been overcome by magical attacks. Rumor had it that warriors had suddenly appeared in every corridor, overpowering the guards within moments.

Once he assumed control, Elissan Diar attended first to stifling dissent, while at the same time put in action a plan to win the hearts of the people. He lowered taxes, including that which was most reviled—the tax on olive oil. This perfectly coincided with trade tariffs rising as a result of the border wars. Thus Elissan showed himself a man with the people’s interests in mind. It helped that King Harald had been unpopular and weak; that the Court Poet, the true power behind the throne, was in Kahishi.

A man who had accomplished all this, in so short a time, would know better than to speak of Ned. He would not be so crude. He would rely upon her to remember in every bone what her partner in love and life had done: that Ned had had, if the rumors were true, a passionate liaison with the queen of Kahishi, Rihab Bet-Sorr—said to be lovely beyond description. He’d done that, and then helped her escape the palace, and had run off with her.

He’d done that.

Elissan did not need to remind Rianna of any of this. She was yet married to Ned Alterra, which made her one of the nobility. It meant she had become, in this new way of things, a lady-in-waiting to Elissan’s daughter, Sendara.

“Plainness suits a married woman, and mother,” said Rianna, looking down at her lap. “I am done with frippery.”

He laughed. “Oh, my lady,” he said. “With every word you please me more.”

“I must see to my lady Sendara,” she said, rising. With his back to the window, Elissan was edged in sunlight. “If my lord will excuse me.”

“Wait,” he said.

She stopped.

“Please, Rianna. Call me by my name. Do that for me.”

She nodded, a curt gesture, and departed.

* * *

SENDARA’S hair was a curtain of red-gold to her waist. The task of brushing it out fell to Rianna, most mornings. The girl looked nervous. She kept smoothing her skirts, fidgeting with the cross-ties on her sleeves, which were the fashion. Rianna could read her well enough. Once, she had been that girl: desired by all, cherished by her father. Though not precisely that girl—there was a chilly self-centeredness to Elissan’s daughter that repelled Rianna, despite that she knew she ought to have compassion. The girl had lost weight; it gave her a ravaged, hungry look beyond her years. All at court knew that Sendara was consumed by her feelings for her father’s closest advisor, Etherell Lyr. While he, though displaying the requisite devotions as her intended, was oddly distant. A distance that intensified Sendara’s craving. That may have edged her voice when she hissed, “Watch it, fool—you’re hurting me,” as Rianna worked at a knot in her hair.

Etherell had not been to see Sendara Diar more than briefly for at least two weeks. She kept eyeing herself in the glass. The dress she had chosen was red, cut low. Once Sendara asked, as she turned this way and that before the glass, “Do I look pretty?” Struggling to look defiant, even though Etherell Lyr was not there to witness it, and these women who waited on her were, as far as Sendara was concerned, no better than servants.

Rianna spoke the truth, though without warmth. “You are beautiful.”

There were other things she could have said. About men, and about power. Elissan Diar was to be crowned King of Eivar. Preparations for the coronation were under way. As the king’s daughter, Sendara was a desired commodity beyond her beauty. Etherell might love her; he might also, more plausibly, have other motives. But Rianna was not here to say those things, and besides—she didn’t think the girl would receive them well. There was a row of severed heads on pikes by the palace gates. It would not be wise to anger Elissan Diar’s daughter. Or be heard to speak poorly of Etherell Lyr, who was in high favor with the king. Elissan may be intrigued by Rianna now, but she knew how expendable was women’s beauty. She combed the hair in silence.

* * *

OFTEN her thoughts went to the day the city fell. Though that had not been the outcome, exactly—the coup had left Tamryllin outwardly the same. At least, to begin. She’d known, when she heard who had taken the city, what it could mean. There would be changes, significant ones. It was important to appear loyal. It was important to come to grips on her own with these events, before someone else could dictate the terms. She knew this even before the executions began.

At the time she’d been living with her father, and her old nurse, who helped care for Dariana, her two-year-old daughter, who every day looked more like Ned.

Rianna had borne her daughter shortly after her wedding. By the age of nineteen she was a mother. As Dariana Alterra strengthened, seemed fit to survive, Rianna came to accept that her life would never again belong entirely to her. Even though she had not made the decision to give it up.

It had happened fast.

Rianna had felt foreboding when Ned went with the Court Poet to Kahishi. Fearing for his safety. She’d never have imagined how events would unfold. She’d trusted him. That was Ned, to her—the one she could trust. But then had come that day in the spring when she learned he had vanished … and the reason.

So she lived with her father. She went through her days wondering how to go on, knowing—for her daughter—that she must. The rage building in her was familiar, from a time before her marriage, but the agony … was not. Was new. This was not her first experience of betrayal, but it was the deepest cut.

She’d killed the first man to betray her. Had slit his gullet and gut with her own knife, and though it sickened her to recall it now, she was not sorry.

This was different, however. It was Ned. The safe harbor throughout her life. Now there was no harbor, no safety. She was unmoored. Worse—abandoned.

It was midsummer, glaring heat on the streets and redolent of honeysuckle in the shade, when word came that the palace of Tamryllin was taken. By Seers, it was said. Then amended—no, by one Seer and a force of poets. Some were only students. The enchantments were back, and finally it was clear what this meant for Eivar. A power long confined to Academy Isle had asserted dominance in the capital.

Rianna had wasted no time. She’d convinced her father to take Dariana and her nurse to his estate in the south. They’d put about a story: that the child suffered from illness, needed the soothing warmth of the southlands. Rianna would stay behind.

Rianna’s father had aged visibly since his imprisonment and torture by the prior Court Poet. The news of Ned’s betrayal had already shaken him. And now there was this. He seemed to age further on the spot when Rianna informed him of her decision. The dangers he had thought she’d escaped—sheltered in a courtly marriage and motherhood—threatened again.

“Why?” he had pleaded. “Why won’t you come with me?”

A reasonable thing to ask.

* * *

RIANNA sat at the window so she could look out on a city still aflame with autumn colors. Around her the ladies-in-waiting chattered. Each embroidered a panel for Sendara’s coronation gown. The piece Rianna worked was a sleeve, to be trimmed in a pattern of thread-of-gold. The cloth was velvet, forest green. It was painstaking work. Sometimes she liked that it allowed her mind to roam free; other times, thought it would be a kinder fate to leap from the high window. She missed her father’s library.

The women often tried to boost their lady’s spirits with gossip. Today the story of a maid who’d been sent away after making too much of her dalliance with a lord’s son—a man with a wife and children—seemed to make Sendara forget her troubles. There was pitying laughter. All agreed that the poor girl had brought it on herself, imagining such a man could have feelings for her. Rianna bit her lip against distaste. Once in a while she made an effort to smile, or even put in a comment. She knew these women had an eye on one another. If Rianna seemed to put on airs or be “above herself,” they could make trouble for her.

Once she might have stored up her observations for later, to relay to Ned; now there was no one to confide in, in her cell of a room. Each night was silence.

Elissan Diar would know that, of course. How she spent her nights. There were eyes and ears throughout the palace—Rianna knew about that from Ned, who had once controlled them. She knew of the hidden tunnels, the spyholes. The Tamryllin palace was not for keeping secrets.

The date of the coronation was set for winter, on solstice day. Most foreign dignitaries sent their regrets, anticipating impassable roads, but perhaps Elissan Diar had planned it that way. The ceremony was primarily for the people of Eivar, Rianna guessed; a cementing of Elissan’s legitimacy here. Lords with sizable holdings would swear fealty. It would be as if King Harald and his line had never existed.

Rianna did not think the coronation date could be a coincidence. The winter solstice was a time of dual significance. For one, it marked the birth of Thalion, the sun god. Of the Three, he was the god who stood for justice, light, knowledge—among other things. Although Elissan was at least fifty years of age he appeared younger and gleamed with vital health. A golden god come to Tamryllin, to lead its people and ensure peace.

There was also an ancient tradition of the longest night. Rianna wished Lin were around to ask. All she knew was that for poets, it was important. Now with the enchantments returned, there was more it would mean. And Elissan had to know it. Often she wondered if, at his councils with the Chosen, he revealed his plans.

No secrets would escape the stone lips of those strange, bewitched boys.

Without Lin to ask, there was little Rianna knew. Only that at the solstice Elissan Diar would be crowned king, and Tamryllin would rejoice throughout the long night.

Lin. It was strange to think of her. She’d meant many things to Rianna through the years. No one knew where she was now. Rianna remembered the other woman as first her mentor, then friend; and then, finally, the Court Poet who had commanded Ned’s loyalty. That last year before Lin Amaristoth and Ned traveled to Kahishi, Rianna had scarcely known her friend. They’d seen each other rarely, and then often when Rianna had a squalling infant to wrangle. And each of these times Lin had been cordial, kind, yet it was impossible to forget who she was: Court Poet and highest advisor to the king. As time went on Rianna began to notice a shadow in Lin’s eyes, an expression that crossed her face now and again that reminded her, disquietingly, of Rayen. So over time Rianna had stopped visiting; and now she barely knew the Court Poet who had whisked her husband into a political maelstrom no one understood. All they knew in Tamryllin was that some magic had penetrated to Kahishi and instigated civil war. And that Ned Alterra had aided Queen Rihab in treason and disappeared. Likely he was with her at this moment. That luminous queen who had brought a king, and now an entire country, to their knees.

Rianna tried to build a wall in her mind against such thoughts. To focus on the work at hand. Which at the moment was a panel for a coronation gown, thread-of-gold and green.

* * *

NED used to talk to her about his work for the Court Poet. When she sat at the long dining table for the evening meal, with residents of the palace and lords assembled, Rianna knew whom to watch. What to look for. Her glance scarcely grazed that of Lord Alterra, Ned’s father, though she knew he was anxious about her and Dariana. He was grateful, too—her voluntary service to Sendara Diar had mitigated whatever pall of suspicion might have fallen on him, father to Ned Alterra. The severed heads at the palace gate were those of nobility accused of treachery. Rianna had known those men. One, Lord Derry, had been kind to her when she was small. A ruddy man with a salt-and-pepper beard, who bellowed jokes to enliven any occasion. He’d had a strong presence in the council—no doubt too strong for the liking of Elissan Diar. And jokes … well, as any poet knew, satire was dangerous.

She watched, from her place below, as Elissan Diar and his daughter were as suns to the spheres that orbited them at the high table. There were lords who paid fearful homage. There were, standing at attention at various parts of the dining hall, Elissan’s Chosen. These boys were not even graduates of the Academy, yet held a high status at court. They had taken part in the defeat of the castle. Intermingled among them were the palace guards, known derisively on the streets of Tamryllin as Ladybirds, proven ineffectual yet again. The Chosen were the true force now.

There was something chilling about these boys. They were to a man hollow-cheeked, with deadened eyes. They evinced no interest in the palace women and girls. No interest in anything.

They seldom spoke. The most Rianna heard from them was late some nights, when she couldn’t sleep—their singing. A layering of voices. Meetings held in moonlight. In those trained voices raised in song was a quality like a blade tapped on crystal. Exquisite and cold.

Though he had served among the Chosen, Etherell Lyr, advisor to the king and prince-in-waiting, looked more hale than the rest. Rianna thought he probably did not participate in their activities as he once had. Not since being elevated to his current status. Rianna also thought, when it came to Etherell Lyr, that she’d never seen anyone so opaque. She could never guess what he was thinking. It was not hard to see the reason for Sendara’s infatuation. Rianna thought his beauty was like sunlit snow, too blinding. One could not see beyond it.

Also in the dining hall was Syme Oleir, the king’s Fool. A young man of perhaps seventeen dressed in motley, the Fool was pale, his face oddly slack. He was often at the king’s side. Sometimes he entertained with tricks, or juggling, but at all times Rianna thought him strange. He was, just now, hovering over one of the lords at table with a grin: Lord Herron, who had made extensive obeisance to Elissan and provided men-at-arms. A gruff, older man, he was about the age of Rianna’s father. She could not hate him, despite thinking she should hate anyone who had so entirely capitulated.

The Fool leaned over Lord Herron’s shoulder as the other man tried to eat. He jeered, “What price your loyalty? A penny? A florin? Perhaps a little dance?” And then, just as the lord seemed about to faint with terror, Syme danced away with a wild laugh. He was nimble, spinning once on each foot, by turns, until he had reached the dais. Climbing the stairs, he went to drift about the king, singing to himself, a burbling murmur. A parody of a poet’s song.

Elissan paid no attention to any of this. What Syme got up to was none of his concern.

Rianna paid little attention as well. Sometimes she wondered why Elissan felt the need for entertainment from a deranged boy. She kept her eye where it mattered—the high table.

She was probably not supposed to spot the note pressed into Sendara Diar’s hand by a servitor. It happened fast. Even from a distance, and in torchlight, Rianna saw the girl’s cheeks redden as she hastily tucked the note away.

Details like these could be insignificant. In fact that was likely. Rianna found that much of her time doing the sort of things Ned had told her about—observing, cataloguing information—often led nowhere. It was part of the work. It was only in panning through worthless stones, he’d told her, that one might on occasion discover gold.

In a palace there was one thing more precious than gold and jewels, and that was information.

When the meal was done, those at the high table were first to leave. Elissan Diar passed Rianna’s seat, though it was not in his way. He said, “You belong at the high table. With me.”

He’d murmured in her ear, feather-soft. No one heard. Rianna kept her head down. But she felt the stares. And something more. Ned had been gone a long time.

* * *

LATER that night, Rianna brushed out Sendara’s hair again. The girl did not complain this time. She held still, slender in her lace nightdress, as Rianna divided her hair into plaits. It was perhaps because Rianna had hair like this, though not nearly as long, that she’d been delegated this task. She knew what to do. Knew the oils to apply, when needed; how to part the tresses so they ran smooth.

It was not her job to brush down her lady’s dress, laid out on a table, before it was put away. That was typically assigned to one of the other women. But tonight, Rianna had smiled sweetly and offered to take on the task herself. After Sendara retired to her bedchamber, Rianna reached into the skirt pocket and found the note. Unfolded it before returning the paper to its soft hiding place.

It was as she thought.

There was a passageway behind Sendara’s rooms, as there were behind many rooms in the palace. They were cleverly concealed, but Ned had told her the signs. This passageway was hidden by a cabinet that appeared heavy but wasn’t, at all. It came loose if you turned one of its handles backward, the wrong way, with a bit of force applied. Rianna had been using this tunnel for some time. She had not dared look for passageways beside Elissan Diar’s chambers—not yet. She didn’t know what his gifts for magic might detect. But his daughter was a different story.

The tunnel was low and cramped. Rianna had left a tinder box and wax candle at the foot of the stairs. As she climbed the stairs, shoulders hunched to avoid the ceiling that encroached, she tried to keep her breath soft.

The note had been a scrawl, one word: Moonrise.

As she crouched in the tunnel, Rianna wondered if her mother had ever been in here, knelt in this spot. There was no way to know—the tunnels that riddled Tamryllin Castle were innumerable. Rianna’s mother, Daria Gelvan, had served as a spy for King Harald’s father. A thing even her own husband had not known while she was alive.

In the end it had killed her.

The spyhole was too small to see anything through. There was only a spot of half-dark; Rianna guessed Sendara had kept a candle burning. A light no one would see under the door.

It was a long silence and once or twice Rianna thought she heard Sendara sigh. Her mind drifted. She thought of the south where her daughter and father were; where the weather would yet be mild, vineyards newly harvested. There would be autumn rains, that once she had liked to listen to by the fire, reading across from her father.

She thought of Kahishi, a place she’d never been—had once longed to see—and now hated. An hour might have passed. By the time she heard a distinct rapping, three short knocks, it was likely the moon rode high. No way to know for sure; the dark was timeless.

She heard a male grunt, heard Sendara murmur, “Let me help,” then a thump. A soft laugh, definitely a man. He said, “You see what I’ll do for you, my lady. Even climb in the window like some desperate swain.” His voice deepened. “After all, it’s been too long.”

A gasp from the girl. Then, “We have to be quiet.”

“Yes.” A honeyed sound. “It’s not like the Academy, Sendara. People here watch, and listen. I can’t make a habit of visiting.” He laughed again, softly. “You like that, do you? When I use my fingers. You were so ready for me.”

The girl was trying not to moan. Etherell went on, a murmur, as if to gentle a horse. “You must be patient. Soon we will be married. After the coronation, once it is proper. And then it won’t just be my fingers, Sendara. I’ll make you mine in all the ways. Again and again until you’re exhausted. And then some more. The whole castle will hear your ecstasy, and envy you.”

She choked, tried to speak. Tried again. “I don’t … want … them to hear me.”

He laughed. “You won’t care. You’ll only want it to never stop.”

Now there was silence, or almost a silence, but Rianna thought she heard a suppressed, frantic squeal, like a mouse. A moment, and the sound of Sendara’s breathing resumed. There was just that, for a while. Then she whispered, “Why can’t it be soon?”

“Your father must be crowned first. Have patience, my dear. Think how beautiful a bride you’ll make in the spring.”

“Are you sure … we are safe? What if the Court Poet returns? No one knows where she is. What if she’s waiting … to attack?”

“Oh, you’re worried about that? Poor dear.” He sounded indulgent, yet something in his tone made Rianna shiver a little. “I wish you’d said so before. There is no need to worry. Your father is clever … I would not be at his side if he were not.”

“What if the Chosen are not enough?” Sounding like a fretful child. “It is said Lin Amaristoth has great power.”

“I doubt that. Alone, there is little she can do against the force your father commands. And the Chosen are not the only weapon your father has. In fact…” He lowered his voice. “You must promise to say nothing of this. Just know … he has at his disposal a magical weapon. Greater than anything anyone in this land has ever seen.”

“He does? Where?”

Here. Hidden in rooms far beneath us. So you see, we are well protected. But you must not tell.”

* * *

RIANNA imagined herself soundless, invisible in her grey dress, as she made her way down the carpeted hallway from Sendara’s rooms to her own. It was a route to which she’d grown accustomed. She knew the tapestries along these walls that depicted tales of the Three—she’d searched behind each of these for passageways. There was a painting, too, a work more recent than the tapestries. A lady in gold silks and sewn diamonds, hair in elaborate chestnut curls. This image drew Rianna’s eye more than the rest. Hypnotic, when Rianna recalled how close she’d come to being that woman. The lips were curved in an alluring smile, with a touch of mischief at the corners of the lips. The dimples. Even so, Rianna thought the smile just a shade inane. To imagine oneself powerful due to fast-fading allure. There was a hard truth to it, and a stupidity—both at once.

The artist had made the woman’s face and hair, the embroidery on her gown immortal. But her name was forgotten. His was not.

That painting hung near the end of the hallway. There, the turn to her room, where the carpet ended and the floor and walls were bare.

Something new was there this time, however. Three Chosen stationed at her door. She rounded the corner and froze, seeing them. Just as their heads turned toward her, with unnerving synchronicity, in a gaze as if to bind her fast. “Rianna Alterra,” said one. “You must come with us.”

There was nowhere to run. No choices here. The dagger concealed in her garter belt would hardly avail with three armed men. She fell in step with them. Two flanked her, one close behind. Her heart pumped fiercely but she let nothing show on her face. She recalled Lord Derry, how he’d met his end. How before his beheading he’d made a jest. “That blade?” he’d said, as the executioner neared him with the sword. “I can lend you one better.”

There was no mirth in Rianna, no heart for mockery. But as she kept her tread measured to the pace of the men alongside—neither a slow trudge nor a scurry—she thought about dignity and the life she’d lived.

Now the paintings, the tapestries they passed, seemed to have eyes that were watching. Gods, goddesses, nobility of the past. They had seen much and would remain here long after Elissan Diar, his daughter, their golden descendants had been swept away by mortality. So it went.

The room to which they brought her was of a grand size, bright-lit. After the dimness of the hallway Rianna felt herself at a disadvantage, blinking. Coming toward her, more of his Chosen surrounding, the imposing figure of Elissan Diar.

“Rianna,” he said. He was smiling.

“Why do you summon me so late?” A steely voice. Her last defense. “It is an impropriety. People will talk.”

This took him aback. Which in turn surprised Rianna. She didn’t think herself capable of throwing Elissan Diar off his guard. “You’re right,” he said, surprising her further. “I should have considered my lady’s reputation. But I have news I didn’t think should wait.”

She felt the blood drain from her face.

“Tidings from afar.” Syme Oleir, from a corner. He was standing on his head, gilded shoes pointed in the air. His face was purple. Abruptly he tumbled upright. “Tidings, tidings, turning and turning. And we, with them. Turning and turning.”

“Hush, Fool,” said Elissan, and turned back to Rianna. “It’s not your daughter,” he said. “Look, Rianna. A message for you from your husband. He is alive, in Kahishi. Or was, anyhow, at the time of writing.” Now she saw. He held the paper in his hand. It was unfolded. Almost Rianna thought she could recognize, even from here, Ned’s graceful hand. “I had to read it, my lady,” said Elissan. “Any word from Kahishi is intelligence I cannot ignore. For that breach of privacy, please know that I am sorry.” He held the paper outstretched. In a movement that seemed slow to her she reached for it. Strove to hide the dizziness that made the floor tilt and weakened her knees.


She felt as if she watched herself from a distance. As if someone else held the note with steady hands; someone else leaned back against a couch armrest to read with greater ease.

“You need not read it here,” said Elissan. He sounded kind.

“Turning and turning,” Syme murmured from his corner, as he did a forlorn twirl on his pointed shoes.

She ignored them both. Her eyes swam, then cleared. She read. She took her time, allowing her eyes to linger on each line. In the room had fallen a hush. Even the Fool said nothing more.

As she finished reading, Rianna became aware of the only sound: the fireplace, a dance of warmth on an autumn night.

She strode to the hearth. Without a word or change of expression, she tossed Ned’s note to the fire. Watched those graceful lines curl and blacken. Turned away again. “I am tired, my lord Diar,” she said. “Thank you for conveying this news to me.”

He was watching her. His eyes were blue, matching the star sapphire ring on his right hand. He said, softly, “Why destroy it?”

She held his gaze. “You know what he did.”

“He denies it. He speaks of his love for you.”

“The words are fine.” In the low, clear voice she heard something unfamiliar; a woman much older, weary from knowledge. Which perhaps in a short span of time she had become. “If I cared for words, I’d have married a poet. Words may not mend a broken bridge. Nor heal an ailing child.” She shrugged, as if to dismiss her own words as an outburst. “If you don’t mind, my lord, it is late.”

The Fool spoke, sing-song.

“Late the hour,

Late the day,

Late in life,

To see my love once more.”

Elissan still looked at Rianna, his expression one of concern. But he only said, “My guard will escort you.”

In silence those same three Chosen emerged to take her back. Rianna felt as if she walked on air as she returned the way she’d come, oblivious to the men surrounding her. Eyes sightless as her feet found the way.

Later she would think about Ned’s letter. Later. For now, she had to focus on what mattered.

A magical weapon. Etherell’s voice, cool and precise. Somewhere here—in the castle beneath their feet. The cellars and cold storage rooms that extended in a circuit of tunnels underground, or so she’d heard. A part of the castle she knew nothing about, where not even Ned’s tales might cut a path for her. His work had been carried out aboveground, in council chambers, bedchambers, courtyards. She possessed no guide, no map for the task to come.

Her father’s face before her, his stricken gaze as he implored her to flee with them. Ending in that question, “Why?”

Rianna Gelvan had tried to respond with gentleness despite what she was feeling. “Don’t forget,” she’d said to him. “I am my mother’s daughter.”

Copyright © 2020 by Ilana C. Myer