Excerpt of forthcoming Hellions book.





Working Title: Servants of the Unseen Shadow

Ginn Hale



Chapter One


Twenty days of road dust caked Narsi’s body, hair, and clothes. His dappled mare looked gray as clay. He wasn’t certain which of the two of them smelled worse or felt more relieved to reach the renowned city of Cieloalta with its great display of public fountains.

Local merchants in painted carriages rolled past him, while herdsmen with their droves of swine, cattle, and sheep bustled around the fountains on the way to the famous market grounds. Narsi rinsed his face and allowed his tired mare to drink.

Three stone stallions and a column of eagles rose from the center of the fountain. The horses Narsi recognized as symbols of Faith, Honor, and Strength but he couldn’t exactly recall which sermon the eagles represented. “Heights of Bravery” from the Book of Redemption? Or was it “The Rise of Courage” from the Epistles of the Holy Savior

It hardly mattered, for the sheer beauty of the carvings coupled with the relief of fresh water awed Narsi.

His sense of wonder only grew as he turned around, taking in the towering, angular Cadeleonian architecture that lined the wide, straight thoroughfare. Even in this modest quarter, building after building boasted blue-washed walls, bright yellow roof tiles and downspouts in the shapes of horses. In the distance, royal emblems and colors blazed still more brilliantly, where immense lapis lazuli inlayed walls supported gilded spires. Hundreds of indigo flags fluttered with the stark white form of the Sagrada stallion. Overhead, flocks of white messenger doves moved like clouds across the bright summer sky.

“It’s just as Lord Vediya describes it in his memoirs,” Narsi told his horse. “A royal city made so bright and proud that it would challenge the heavens if only they would listen.”

Narsi grinned and stroked his mare’s jaw. She ignored him and kept drinking.

He felt as if he’d stepped into one of the thrilling epics that he so loved to read. He wondered suddenly if he might be able to find the plaza where the notorious swordsman, Elezar Grunito had fought his bloody duels before going on to battle monsters in the savage northlands. Or better still, could he hunt through the narrow lanes surrounding the opera houses to find the green door of the kaweh tavern where Lord Vediya penned so many of his daring, brilliant memoirs?

Or should he head closer to the river where, veritable mansions full of exotic and medicinal herbs were maintained by royal decree. The doors opened to anyone bearing the silver signet of trained physician, or so they said. Narsi’s prospects felt infinite. For Cielalta was the city where the best and brightest people flocked to the patronage of princes, dukes, even the king, and where a young man like himself stood a chance of meeting them all.

“Make way, you brown bastard,” A sunburned pig herder shouted and Narsi reflexively stepped aside as the red-faced man and his squealing charges shoved their way past the fountain. Narsi’s mare snorted and stamped when a sow snuffled too near her legs. The herder paused to eye Narsi with the disgusted expression of a man confronted by a two-headed sheep.

His recent travels had familiarized Narsi with this reaction. Still, it was discomforting to be gawked at as if he were freakish beyond imagining. Even rural Cadeleonians living this far north had to have encountered Haldiim—or at least bands of nomadic Irabiim— and they saw one another day in day out. So Narsi didn’t understand why they so often appeared taken aback when laying eyes upon his mixed features. Did they really think it utterly impossible for Cadeleonians and Haldiim to interbreed? Or was such a union so blasphemous that they could not help but stare at the progeny?  

Narsi frowned at the dozens and dozens of Cadeleonians all around him on the street. Eight city guards, dressed in dun-colored uniforms and armed with pikes and swords stood behind him at the city gates. Farmers in their wagons, herders amid their animals, and several herb girls laden with straw baskets of fragrant dill and garlic scapes ambled past him. Narsi took in the uniformity of their stout bodies, pale faces and straight dark hair. It had been at least a week since he’d sighted anyone as dark-skinned or lanky as himself. He didn’t want to admit it, but that absence gnawed at his initial excitement and inspired a sudden feeling of uneasiness.

But he couldn’t let the sheer number of Cadeleonians surrounding him intimidate him. After all, the herb girls here traipsed by, ignoring him just as Haldiim herbsellers would have ignored him back home in Anacleto.

He wondered if three weeks of isolation had lead him to read too much into their dour gazes. There were reasons other than his race that the sight of him might strike someone as disconcerting.

Tall even for a Cadeleonian, his big hands and broad shoulders made the rest of his slim figure appear all the more gangly and adolescent. And he supposed the streaks of gray road dust and crusts of mud had lent a particularly ghastly pallor to his dark skin. Likely, neither the dirt nor sleeping in a bedroll on the roadside for weeks had imbued his normally wild, curling black hair with any sudden semblance of civility either. All and all, he probably looked like he’d stolen his horse, bags and gray coat from a real physician whom he’d throttled in the woods.

Narsi smiled to himself at the absurd thought and the swineherd shot him an even more suspicious glance before hurrying his pigs up the road to the butchers’ square.

“Better to be a traveler he disdains than the piglet he smiles upon and leads to slaughter,” Narsi murmured to himself.

He wondered if the thought was worth putting down in his shabby little diary.

Likely not.

Narsi rinsed his hands and face once more then straightened. What did he care if a pigherder and several of the goose girls now passing him gawked? He’d been summoned to serve Holy Father Timeteo in the Duke of Rauma’s household. Most of these nobodies could only dream of such an honor.

Still, he decided that he might want to settle into his rooms, wash, and change into clean clothes before he attempted to breeze into the haunts of famous authors and dangerous noblemen. He’d just mounted his mare and started down the crowded road when a man in the black and violet robes of a Cadeleonian priest waved to him from the mouth of a smaller lane.

“Berto?” For just a moment Narsi hadn’t recognize his childhood friend. He looked so much more adult and distinctly Cadeleonian now, with his formal robes, short-cropped hair and dapper cap. He’d filled out handsomely. By comparison, Narsi knew he looked like a scarecrow built from twine lashings and willow branches.

“Narsi, Lord bless me! You’ve grown even taller, haven’t you?” Berto’s broad grin briefly transformed his stern face back into the beaming countenance of the twelve-year-old classmate that Narsi remembered from when they’d both lived in the lively Grunito household. Berto lead his glossy, bay mare to Narsi’s side and then grasped Narsi’s shoulders in an embrace. Narsi hugged him back, taking comfort in the welcome after so many cold stares. But the thought of those glares reminded him that he was no longer among the Haldiim. Here in the royal city it would be unwise for a man to display too much happiness in the arms of another—particularly a man such as himself.

 He released Berto and stepped a little back from him.

“You haven’t been waiting here for me, have you?” Narsi asked. He’d had no way to send ahead and inform Father Timeteo of when exactly to expect him and yet it seemed an unlikely piece of luck that Berto should happen by just as he passed through the south gates of the city.

“I certainly haven’t been lingering around the public fountain for the sake of that swineherd,” Berto replied.

“But how did you guess that I’d arrive today?” Narsi asked.

“Father Timeteo asked the duke’s couriers to watch for you on the King’s Road. We’ve been kept abreast of your progress every other day or so.”

So he’d not entirely imagined the attention of other travelers along the road. But how like Father Timeteo to find a way to watch over him even across the miles of mountains and wilderness.

“And here I’d presumed myself traveling alone and unknown across a vast, strange land,” Narsi commented and Berto laughed.

“Has the Holy Father kept well?” Narsi asked.

Berto’s expression sobered.

“His spirit is stronger than ever but his body…” Sorrow showed so plainly upon Berto’s face that it alarmed Narsi. At once he remembered the terrible weeks when he’d nursed the Holy Father through a fever that had nearly wasted him away in Narsi’s arms.

“Has he kept anything down?” Narsi gripped his mare’s reins. There was no time to tarry if Father Timeteo had succumbed to grippe again. “I’ve brought powdered cloudroot but we may need to brew bluedust—”

“No, no. He’s not collapsed again. I wouldn’t be standing here chatting with you if he had, rest assured. No, he’s just been restless lately. Not eating or sleeping as he ought to. Nothing new. ” Berto’s long-suffering expression eased a little. “But he’ll be better once you’re with him. You always know how to convince him to show himself a little kindness.”

“That’s less my doing than my mother’s recipe for velvet soup. I can always tempt him to eat a little more than he thinks he needs.” Narsi tried not to let his pleasure in being capable of moving the Holy Father show. All too often people jumped to the wrong conclusions when they noticed Narsi’s resemblance to the priest. The last thing Narsi wanted was his affection to seem too familial and further burden Father Timeteo with another bout of cruel rumors of some illicit affair with Narsi’s mother.

“So how have you been?” Narsi asked Berto. He noted that his friend’s robe still bore the silver insignia of a scholar—not the violet of a priest—over the breast. He’d not yet taken the final holy vows of obedience and celibacy. “Is life as a scripture scholar and courtier in Cieloalta all you hoped?”

Berto laughed but his expression struck Narsi as bitter.

“I’ll tell you all while we ride.” Berto cast a wary glance back at one of the uniformed city guards, who slowly strolled from the shadow of the city gates towards the public fountain. The guard’s hand rested on his sword hilt and there was something about the man’s surly expression that reminded Narsi of a boy planning to kick a dog.

“Of late, the city guards have not been overly fond of men in priestly colors,” Berto murmured. “If relations between Prince Sevanyo and the Royal Bishop worsen we may well witness warfare in the streets. The bodies of two decapitated priests were found here at the south gate only a week past.”

Narsi glanced again to the city guard. He wore a captain’s epaulettes and glowered at the two of them as he stalked nearer. Narsi and Berto quickly mounted their horses.

Berto led the way down a narrow lane, refreshingly free of cattle, geese and swine. As they rode between carriages and oxcarts, Narsi asked about the degrading relations between Prince Sevanyo and his brother the Roayl Bishop but Berto just shook his head and refused to be drawn out on the subject. Instead, he entertained Narsi with descriptions of the exotic, odd and amusing occurrences in his life since he’d followed Father Timeteo to the Duke of Rauma’s palatial residence.

“I’ve actually met the duke several times now, though the first encounter embarrassed me to the core. I somehow mistook him for one of those good-looking grooms that are so fashionable just now,” Berto said, grimacing. “I handed him my horse’s reins. And then he humored me by actually accepted them! It wasn’t until I decided to tip him for seeming so attentive to my mare that he explained that he didn’t need my pennies as he owned all of Rauma.”

“I have heard that Lord Quemanor is quite strange in his own way,” Narsi commented.

“In many ways,” Berto responded. “But he and his wife have been very welcoming to Father Timeteo and myself.” Berto told him how he’d become acquainted with the duke’s ivory-skinned wife and her Yuanese parrot after driving off a mangy black cat.

“The bird’s wings are clipped so it doesn’t fly well. But just sitting on its perch the parrot makes a magnificent sight. Its plumes are gold and sapphire blue and it calls out a blessing for the king of Cadeleonian every time the noon bells ring. Such a strange creature though I daresay not the rarest to attend the court recently.” Berto smiled at some private joke. Then he went on to describe his single sighting of Count Radulf’s flame-haired sister, who had sailed from the wilds of northern Labara apparently just to horrify the Cadeleonian court with her casual references to her brother’s taste in men and her own prowess as a witch.

Even in the Haldiim district of Anacleto, people rarely spoke so blatantly of attractions or practices that transgressed Cadeleonian holy law—certainly never to Cadeleonians.

“Did the royal bishop have her arrested?” Having just read Lord Vediya’s scandalous memoir recounting his time in Count Radulf’s court, Narsi felt an odd attachment to the count’s young sister. Lord Vediya had brought her to life as proud, vulnerable, and so relentlessly loyal to her brother that Narsi couldn’t help but think protectively of her.

“He’s decried her as a heretic and has dispatched his varlets to throttle her,” Berto replied casually and Narsi supposed it showed how common noble machinations were here in the royal city that the plotted murder of a nineteen-year-old girl didn’t alarm his friend. “But Prince Sevanyo’s fourth son in rumored to have been enchanted—perhaps literally— by the girl and sheltered her from his uncle’s assassins.”

“The royal bishop can’t really be so rash as to order the murder of Count Radulf’s sister, can he?”  Only six years ago Count Radulf had singlehandedly defeated the Mirogoth Witch Queens who had previously fought the entire Cadeleonian army to a standstill. Murdering the man’s little sister seemed a quick route to plunging all Cadeleon into a war they might not win.

“Who truly knows?” Berto shrugged. “Courtiers’ gossip is half exaggeration and half lies. Most of mine is second hand on top of that so for all I really know the royal bishop is up in his chapel tower furiously penning love poems to Hylanya Radulf.”

 Narsi laughed and relaxed. Berto continued to regale him with gossip he’d gleaned from a variety of chatty ladies maids. Narsi enjoyed the stories but didn’t take any of them too seriously now. While Berto recounted the escapades of nobles, Narsi observed the city around him.

The blue facades of the houses and businesses lining the street cast long cool shadows and on the walkways, modestly dressed Cadeleonians greeted one another and conversed. Narsi hadn’t realized how much he’d missed the noise of a city until now. The clatter of carriages and wagons, someone practicing scales on a lute, and countless voices raised in conversation. It soothed Narsi with a feeling of surrounding safety and civilization. Even the sharp tang of urine, sweat, and smoke offered him a sense of familiarity. He was no longer alone in a wilderness.

But even as he took in the cacophony of busy life around him, he also noted how Cieloalta differed from his native Anacleto. Here he faced a uniformity of features, dress and language that would have been impossible to find in the port city. Here he didn’t catch a single word of Haldiim, Mirogoth, Yuaneses or even Labaran. He heard and saw only Cadeleonian. Even the scents drifting from taverns on the summer breeze struck him as odd—devoid of the pungent spices or choking pepper smoke that had so often assailed him in Anacleto. Where were the goat carts filled with vats of strange fermented pickles? Shouldn’t they have already passed several surly broadsheet sellers decrying each other’s publications?

By comparison the royal city struck Narsi as sedate and so perfectly composed that it might have been the world of a painting that he rode through.

But then he reminded himself that only a fool would expect every city he encountered to be the same as the one he’d just left. If that were the case what would be the point of traveling—aside from escaping ones creditors or relations? No, he chided himself, this wasn’t his home, but it was still a stunning, new destination. A city painted in all the blue shades of the sky and sea, and decorated everywhere with flourishes of gold. Even the cobblestones glinted with ochre and yellow flecks.

A woman with her hair tucked into a matronly snood dumped a pitcher of murky water from a second story window, while across the way a little girl gleefully tossed down marigold flowers. Narsi caught one and felt several others fall into the dark curls of his hair. The girl gave a startled squeal and then disappeared from the window.

“Already charming the ladies,” Berto commented dryly.

“It’s a wonder I’m still single,” Narsi replied as he shook several of the golden flowers out of his hair. Before Berto could comment on that, Narsi pressed on to another subject. “I had expected that you and Father Timeteo would have been received into the royal bishop’s retinue by now.”

“Oh, we were invited last fall. Bishop’s robes had already been cut, fitted and embroidered for Father Timeteo.” Berto glanced out to the shining gold spire of a distant towering steeple. He scowled. “But then at supper the royal bishop brought up the revival of Haldiim religious practices in Anacleto. I truly think he expected Father Timeteo to simply agree with his condemnations. Drag them all to the gallows, and such.”

“The royal bishop hadn’t encountered Father Timeteo before then had he?” Narsi met Berto’s gaze and they exchanged a smile of sad understanding.

Father Timeteo practiced brutal self-denial and was truly devout, but he also recognized miracles even when they occurred outside the consecrated halls of Cadeleonian chapels. He readily accepted Haldiim and Mirogoths into his household and collected holy texts regardless of their origins. He’d encouraged Narsi and all of the boys in his charge not to judge others too swiftly or harshly. And he’d even blessed Narsi’s decision to leave the chapel to study Haldiim medicine.

  In his own way Father Timeteo could be as much of a radical as his infamous younger brother, Elezar Grunito. Perhaps more so, since the Holy Father supported his assertions and arguments with scripture that not even the royal bishop could condemn.

“I suspect that the dinner was a test to see if the promise of a bishop’s title would bend Father Timeteo to the royal bishop’s will,” Berto replied. “Thankfully, the Duke of Rauma took us in the very next day.”

“And you immediately mistook him for a groom?” Narsi commented.

“Yes. You have no idea how mortified I felt.” Berto drew his mount to a halt at the top of a hill. He pointed beyond the surrounding squares of neat homes and boisterous businesses, past the two huge stone bridges to vast tracks of ornately planted grounds and what looked to Narsi like dozens of gilded palaces.

“There at the eastern point is the Sagrada Castle and north of it is the duke’s household where we’re bound.”

Narsi had memorized the map of the city that Father Timeteo had sent him two months previously without thinking too much about the difference between the neat little boxes that made up the properties south of the Peraloro River and those sprawling forms that filled the city’s northern grounds. Now looking out from these surroundings of modest houses and seeing acre after acre of rich grounds surrounding sprawling mansions he felt the rigid disparity between the common and noble of Cadeleonian society.

Then a flash from the wide green-gray river caught his attention and he was amazed all over again. There from the middle of the river rose the Shard of Heaven. Four furlongs wide and nearly as long, the bright blue stone rose high above the turbulent waters. Huge seams of shining gold flashed as the afternoon sun caught the angular facets of the stone. Truly it did look as though a piece of blue sky filled with rays of golden sun had fallen from the heavens and turned to stone.  

A bridge arched out from each riverbank as if to lash the Shard of Heaven down. The huge chapel squatting atop it would likely have looked resplendent anywhere else but compared to the effortless grandeur of the stone all those gilded buttresses, statues and spires struck Narsi as garish.

How rare and wise is that man who recognizes the divine without crushing it beneath pulpits and palisades.” Narsi felt that he understood what Lord Vediya had meant by those words now.

“Tell me, that you aren’t still quoting that poxed whoremonger, Atreau Vediya.” Berto cast him a disappointed glance.

“He’s Lord Vediya, to you,” Narsi corrected, though he felt absurdly pompous the moment the words were out of his mouth.

“Fourth son of a destitute baron and some Labaran trollop.” Berto rolled his eyes. “His nobility runs as deep as my foreskin. Even he doesn’t call himself anything but Atreau.”

Narsi resisted the urge to argue. All of his books were proudly attributed to Lord Atreau Inerio Vediya.

He and Berto agreed on most subjects but Lord Vediya was a glaring exception and had been since the night eleven years prior when they had met the man. Berto blamed Lord Vediya for the pregnancy and departure of a kitchen maid who had often secreted them sweets. Narsi wished that he could have assured Berto that Lord Vediya had not been with the maid that night, but to do so Narsi would have had to reveal how he knew.

That was too dangerous for both himself and Lord Vediya. So, Narsi kept the knowledge to himself along with his vivid memory of Lord Vediya’s warm lips brushing his own—the scent and taste of the other man melding into the swell of distant music and the deep shadows of the dark garden.

“You know that he was nearly exiled for publishing his latest obscene epic?” Berto asked but then he went on. “The bishop’s men-at-arms and the royal city guards joined forces for the first time in probably a generation just to scour the city for every copy of that filthy book and burn them all.”

Again Narsi decided to keep his mouth shut. It would only annoy Berto to know that an entire library of Lord Vediya’s works had been translated and published in the Haldiim district of Anacleto. A copy of the most recently banned tome lay snuggly packed in the top of one of Narsi’s saddlebags at this very moment. Five Hundred Nights in the Court of the Scarlet Wolf, like Lord Vediya’s previous book, In the Company of the Lord of the White Hell, recounted his part as well as the roles of his friends in historic plots and battles. The books were also famed for their detailed and rather extensive erotic passages.

Narsi adored them all the more for those, but wasn’t so foolish as to say so to Berto.

“Atreau keeps company with gamblers, degenerates and Salt Islanders,” Berto grumbled. “And he calls Father Timeteo ‘Tim’ and refuses to attend chapel regularly nor is he often sober when he does appear.”

“He’s still in attendance in the duke’s household then?” Narsi asked, as if he’d not known. As if that didn’t account for half of Narsi’s excitement at the prospect of living in Cieloalta.

“He’s laid claim to a suite of rooms if you can call that attendance.” Berto shook his head. “What good he does the duke I couldn’t say. He’s certainly perverted a number of the pages and servants. And on top of all that he actually gave one of his obscene books to Delfia—”

“Delfia?” Narsi broke in before Berto could work himself up into one of his all-day rants.

“Hadn’t I mentioned her?” Berto’s expression brightened all at once and his voice turned gentle. “She’s the sister of the dance and fencing instructor that the duchess brought to the household to tutor her young son. The instructor is plain as a clod of dirt but his sister …” Berto’s gaze drifted as he seemed to struggle to find a word that could sum up this Delfia. “Well, she’s not young but not too old. Not exactly a beauty. I mean not to just look at. But when she’s speaking and laughing and dancing she’s so alive and vibrant she just lights up a whole room… You’ll understand once you meet her.”

“I look forward to it,” Narsi said and not just to keep Berto from further detailing Lord Vediya’s vices and failings, but because he tended to enjoy the good-humored company of the sorts of women who attracted Berto.

They rode on, descending past the shops belonging to woodcarvers, carpenters and smiths of all kinds. Berto pointed out the craftsman who’d made his silver prayer beads and another who’d created Father Timeteo’s spectacles. Narsi noted the designs of holy gold stars painted over both doors. Other shops displayed the rampant royal stallion, but none bore both symbols together.

As they neared the river, a square opened before them where flower sellers displayed glass cases of exotic botanical specimens as well as pots of native herbs and flowers. A plump auctioneer stoked the crowd to bid wildly on potted saplings, bulbs and embroidered sachets of rare seeds. The perfume of dwarf roses mixed with the scent of the riverbank where fishmongers and barbers plied their trades along the Gado Bridge. Narsi scowled at the sight of a filthy, sweat-soaked man using a pair of ugly iron pliers to wrench a bad tooth from a whimpering young woman’s mouth. Narsi started to rein his mare to a halt to offer a few drops of duera to relieve the poor woman’s obvious agony, but Berto shook his head.

“Best not to come between a barber and his business with Haldiim ways on your very first day in the city,” Berto said. “Save your skill for people who will thank you for it.”

Narsi guessed that Berto knew best, still he couldn’t help but think that the physicians who’d mentored him would not have approved. He had to resist the urge to look back and see if the barber at least rinsed the woman’s mouth with distilled coinflower. Instead he focused on the ships passing below the bridge and the way the afternoon light seemed to gild every building and statue in the surrounding city.

  As they rode through the crowds Narsi stole a brief glance back at the south side of the city. Lord Vediya and his haunts lay somewhere to the east, past the maze of billowing laundry lines and behind boisterous opera houses. Streets there were not safe and by his lordships own account, pickpocketing and mugging was nearly as common as a friendly greeting in other quarters. And yet Narsi yearned to explore the narrow avenues, drink hot, acrid kaweh and once more find the languorous Lord Vediya awaiting him amidst indigo shadows.

“Hungry?” Berto asked. “You look glassy-eyed and half-absent.”

“Sorry,” Narsi replied quickly. “I’m distracted. Too many nights on the road. A meal does sound like a fine thing indeed.”

“Very soon,” Berto promised.

Narsi nodded and forced his attention back to the road ahead. He’d waited eleven years to find Lord Vediya again. Another day wouldn’t kill him. It just fleetingly felt as though it would.

Fine shops filled with rare goods populated the northern bank. Ladies in glossy open carriages passed them as did mounted men dressed in bright silks with liveried youths running along side their stately horses. Armed guards stood watch at gateways and glowered with what Narsi felt was a professional disdain as he and Berto passed.

Narsi’s stomach grumbled as the scent of roasting meat floated to him from behind a high, stone wall.

And still they rode on. Shadows lengthened and the pale crescent of the moon lit the darkening blue of the sky. A figure seemed to break from the cover of the imposing hedges of hawthorn, but when Narsi glanced after the motion he saw no one.

“Here at last,” Berto called his attention to a white pebble drive which lead to a massive black gate. Pots burgeoning with yellow roses lined the drive and perfumed the cool air. On their way up the drive, a courier wearing the royal colors raced passed them and out to the wide streets. Another rider trailed far behind them, looking dour in his orange velvet doublet. Perhaps he resented the heraldry of his ancestors burdening him with colors that lent him an unmistakable resemblance to a ripe pumpkin.

 The two men-at-arms standing guard before the broad archway leading into the courtyard wore gold and green liveries and held deadly looking pikes. But unlike so many others Narsi had seen they smiled as he and Berto drew near. One of the men looked a stout forty and wore a neatly cropped beard, the other seemed neared Narsi’s age of twenty-three and appeared nearly as broad as he was tall. Their high brows and long noses made Narsi think they were father and son.

“Returned home with your catch, have you?” the older of the two men addressed Berto. But he cast a curious glance to Narsi. “Looks a little scrawny.”

“All skin and bone,” Berto replied with a grin. “But when you need a physician you’ll be happy I didn’t throw him back, I promise.”

Oddly, both the guards appeared far more impressed at the mention of his profession than Narsi would have expected. The younger beamed at him as if Narsi had proffered him a chest of Kir-Zaki candies, while the elder of the two glanced at once to the silver signet on Narsi’s left hand.

Berto introduced the elder guard as Usto and the younger as Treses and then he made a sweeping gesture towards Narsi. “This is Narsi Lif-Tahm who studied alongside me under Father Timeteo until he was lured away to a hallowed school of medicine.”

Narsi appreciated how neatly Berto left all accusation out of the story.

“Have you brought many babes into the world, Master Lif-Tahm?” The older guard seemed at pains to pronounce Narsi’s Haldiim name correctly. Narsi decided not to jest and ask if the man was expecting.

“I’ve delivered ten children,” Narsi assured him and then added. “All of them and their mothers are well.”

At this the younger guard, Treses, grasped his hand and, to Narsi’s shock, kissed his physician’s ring. Berto and the older guard looked on with amused expressions.

“My wife, she’s nearing her time we think,” Treses said. “And the previous physician told us that he feared that she would not survive without treatments. But the duke dismissed him before he told us more. Since then we’ve not had another physician in the household for more than a day.”

Narsi had heard rumors of Fedeles Quemaonr’s immense distrust of physicians. People said that he often dismissed one from his service the moment he laid eyes upon him. Once he’d supposedly fired a man even sooner by sending a courier riding directly behind the courier that his wife had dispatched to offer the position. There were so many tales surrounding the duke that it was difficult to know which to believe but this one sounded as if it might be valid. He felt a little relieved that he would be in Father Timeteo’s service and not directly answerable to the duke. Other wise his stay at court might be quite short.

“Is your wife very ill?” Narsi asked. “Has she bled?”

“Not at all. She’s strong, my Lucia, and healthy as a summer rose,” Treses replied. “But the babe has grown and grown more. She fears that if it gets any larger she won’t be able to rise to pass water much less attend to her duties in the scullery.”

Narsi caught himself before he could show a troubled expression and cause the guards further anxiety. The description of relentless growth brought a tumor to mind more than a child but he certainly didn’t want to jump to a conclusion before even seeing the women. Perhaps she was simply much nearer to delivering that the family expected.

“How long has she been carrying the child,” Narsi asked. Hopefully he wouldn’t be assisting a delivery before supper.

“Six months, Lucia is certain.” Usto provided this. “She felt the babe quickening nearly two months ago.”

“It moves a great deal?” Narsi asked. That would certainly allow him to rule out a tumor.

“The babe kicks and rolls about so much that I’ve felt it,” Treses said proudly. “It’s lively as a puppy chasing its tail.”

Narsi nodded but still felt uneasy. Had the previous physician deemed Lucia’s prospective labor dangerous simply because of the size of the growing infant or was there something else? “Once I’ve unpacked and washed I could call on your wife, if you would like?”

“I work most of tonight and Lucia needs her sleep. Perhaps tomorrow morning?” Treses suggested.

“Certainly,” Narsi agreed. Clearly the young guard felt quite protective of his wife. Narsi didn’t hold it against him if he didn’t want her to be alone with a stranger, prodding and poking at her.

Beside him Berto grinned and Narsi realized that he’d been planning this encounter all the time that they’d been riding. It was so like Berto to become more attached to the maids, guardsmen and servants who made up a noble household than to the lords and ladies who sponsored him. Narsi adored that about him and felt hopeful that he too could befriend these people instead of feeling like a foreigner in their midst.

He and Berto both dismounted though Usto still had a few more words to share with Berto, mostly involving the royal courier who’d only just departed. Berto and the guards speculated that at last the royal bishop had decided to allow his father, the king, to pass into holy immortality and thus make way for Prince Sevanyo’s coronation. The importance of that just registered in Narsi’s mind when he glanced to the dark figure leading a grey horse out from the courtyard.

His heart instantly began to pound in his chest as he recognized Lord Vediya strolling towards them. He was not as Narsi remembered and yet Narsi knew him without a doubt even through the twilight gloaming and fluttering shadows of messenger doves winging back to their roosts.

He remained just as tall as Narsi remembered but over the years his slender body had filled into the solid bulk of a grown man. His pale skin had tanned and freckled, and his once soot-black long hair now appeared streaked as wood grain from sun and weather. His rumpled, loose clothes conveyed nonchalance bordering upon sloppiness, but his expression was bright and alert. He smiled as he drew near their party and Narsi couldn’t keep himself from smiling back, though no sign of recognition lit Lord Vediya’s countenance.  

Closer up, Narsi could see that a decade of travel, war, and debauchery had carved the lines of those experiences into the handsome planes of Lord Vediya’s face. He looked older than his thirty years. Wrinkles edged his eyes and mouth, but to Narsi they seemed to convey character. A deep crease clearly marked his habit of arching one brow, while another etched the curve of his crooked smile.

Berto glanced up just as Lord Vediya drew alongside them. His condemning glower provoked a lewd grin from Lord Vediya then he lazily traced the sign of the holy star over his silver belt buckle. Narsi didn’t laugh but Berto’s incensed expression didn’t make it easy. The two guards simply nodded to Lord Vediya, neither of them bothering to acknowledge his rank with even a half-bow. For his part Lord Vediya appeared utterly unconcerned with any of them.

He narrowed his eyes, focusing on something in the distance, or perhaps simply in contemplation of his evening’s journey. His hand gripped his mount’s rein. In a moment he’d ride away, just as he had eleven years earlier. And Narsi would be left behind because he lacked the courage to simply speak his mind.

Narsi’s pulse raced and his hands felt clammy. Berto was going to be so disappointed in him, but he had to act, had to say something.

“Lord Vediya,” Narsi called and to his relief the other man stopped.

Narsi quickly dug into his saddlebag and drew out the book he’d poured over throughout his travels. Flowing Haldiim script curled in an elegant arch over scarlet wolf’s head design stamped into the leather cover.

Narsi didn’t look to see Berto’s expression or those of the guards. He rushed five paces to Lord Vediya’s side and held out the book.

“I’ve been reading your memoir and very much enjoyed the writing—I felt almost as if I was there with you when the Demon Lord awoke. The way you captured the chill and darkness of the city as that gigantic, fiery serpent rose up over the rooftops—it was beautiful and terrible all at once…” Even as the breathless words rushed out of him, Narsi felt like an utter fool. He hadn’t sounded this flustered and ebullient as an awestruck twelve-year-old. “I was hoping that you would do me the honor of signing the book for me.”

He had no doubt that behind him Berto was rolling his eyes in embarrassment, but Lord Vediya took the book.

“I’d not seen the Haldiim translation yet. It looks beautifully made.” He studied the cover for a moment then glanced to Narsi. “Have you a graphite stylus?”

“Yes. Of course!” Narsi silently cursed himself for not thinking of that before requesting to have the book signed. He quickly rifled through his saddlebag for one of the soft silver-gray styluses. He felt incredibly aware of everyone—possibly even the horses—watching his search. The bags weren’t huge and yet if felt as if hours passed while he felt around medicinal jars and reams of notes and maps. He heard another rider approaching as he at last found the stubby little remnant of a stylus and returned with it to Lord Vediya’s side. Out of the corner of his eye Narsi recognized the orange velvet doublet of the man he’d dubbed the Dour Pumpkin. He appeared to be on his way towards them. Armor clattered as the guards behind them straightened, but Lord Vediya didn’t seem to notice the approaching rider or his roan stallion.

“You’re a physician I take it?” Lord Vediya asked Narsi.

“Yes. Master Physician Narsi Lif-Tahm,” Narsi supplied hoping that his name might rouse some memory for Lord Vediya. It did not seem to.

“Have you much experience treating men kicked by horses?” Lord Vediya asked.

“Some,” Narsi wondered if the lord had suffered such an injury. He appeared at ease in his motions. Before Narsi could inquire, the man in the orange doublet swung down from his stallion and drew his sword. Instinctively, Narsi stepped back. Lord Vediya remained where he stood, but let his horse’s reins fall from his hand. His gray stallion trotted ahead but only as far as display of yellow potted roses.

“Atreau, you filthy shit!” The man in orange strode past the potted flowers and gray stallion intent upon Lord Vediya. “You will return my fiancé at once or I will kill you right here!”

  Narsi glanced back at the guards as they started forward, but then Lord Vediya waved them back. He smiled crookedly at the furious man in orange. Narsi thought he heard Berto call him but he couldn’t just abandon Lord Vediya, not when he hadn’t even drawn his own sword. Instead he simply held Narsi’s book in one hand and shook his head at the man stalking up to him.

“Suelita is not yours, Ladislo,” Lord Vediya replied. “No more than she is mine to take or give.”

Ladislo responded with a sweep of his sword, which Lord Vediya eluded with a quick step. Narsi’s hand went instantly to his hunting knife. He would not simply stand by and see Lord Vediya murdered. To his shock he felt a hand grip his arm and jerk him back. He spun to see Berto holding him.

“This isn’t a matter you want to become entangled in, Narsi,” Berto whispered to him.

“He’s going to kill Lord Vediya!”

“Trust me that degenerate can look after himself—” The rest of Berto’s words broke off as Narsi elbowed him hard and jerked free of his hold.

As he did so, Lord Vediya let loose with a piercing whistle. Suddenly his stallion slammed one it its hind legs into Ladislo and sent him sprawling across the pebbled drive. Then Lord Vediya sprang forward and easily launched himself into his saddle. An instant later he and his stallion were gone from sight. For a moment Narsi simply stood feeling stunned and staring at the haze of dust that drifted over the drive in Lord Vediya’s absence. Then his attention snapped immediately to where Ladislo lay sprawled on the ground. Obviously Lord Vediya inquiring about his experience in tending horse kicks had not been mere chance.

Narsi stepped over Ladislo’s fallen sword and knelt down beside him. Ladislo swore and wept at the same time, his face flushed nearly as red as the bleeding scrapes along the side of his head. At least one of his ribs was likely broken, Narsi guessed.

“I’ll bring you duera for the pain and then we can get you inside and tend to your—”

“Burn in the Black Hell you Haldiim whore!” Ladislo lashed out to strike Narsi across the face. Narsi caught his hand and Ladislo screamed, “Don’t touch me, you heathen shit!”

Narsi released the man’s hand and stood. Cursing and spitting blood from his split lip, Ladislo staggered up to his feet and then stumbled to his horse. After two attempts he managed to climb into his saddle. Then he rode away, leaving his sword behind.

“I told you that Atreau could manage for himself,” Berto said.

“You knew he’d do that?” Narsi asked.

Berto looked annoyed but both the guardsmen laughed. Usto strode to them and took up the fallen sword.

“Young Lord Bayezar is far from the first man to assume Atreau Vediya can be so easily pinned down by waving a blade about,” Usto said. “But that was good of you coming to the aid of a fellow of our household, Master Lif-Tahm.”

Narsi nodded, still feeling a little stunned. He’d only been in Lord Vediya’s presence for minutes before the man had yet again ridden away. Belatedly Narsi realized that Lord Vediya had taken his book with him.