A fragile peace has been restored, but at what price?
Despite averting the destruction of the Veils and preventing all-out war between two realms, Brynne Sullyan’s troubles are far from over. Her marriage is in tatters, her military career sacrificed for the greater good, and her impending motherhood a source of anxiety rather than joy. Fleeing the shambles of her life in Albia, Sullyan seeks solace in Andaryon. Taran accompanies her, but even he cannot protect her from her ravenous inner demons.
Baron Reen’s trial looms and his conviction is by no means certain. Tad’s testimony and the capture of the traitorous Captain Parren may be the keys to proving Reen’s guilt, but Tad’s life still hangs by a thread and Parren has fled the Manor. Devastated by his wife’s betrayal and his own failure to protect Tad, Robin vows to hunt down the traitor. Whether he succeeds or fails, his quest for vengeance could be the undoing of them all…
As entrances went, Taran had to admit he had never seen better. The bolt of lightning Sullyan had called forth seemed to pierce the hilltop like a spear of the gods. The brilliance hurt his eyes and his skin crawled with static. He was nearly deafened by the colossal noise and his pounding heart raced. The two armies clashing below had ceased hostilities to turn disbelieving stares upon the spectacular tableau. She couldn’t have found a more impressive or commanding way to announce their arrival.
Satisfied she had captured every eye with her display, Sullyan released the lightning. It snapped up into the clouds with a titanic crack, bringing most of those gathered, both Albian and Andaryan, to their knees. It was appropriate, thought Taran, that they should kneel before the Crown Princes of two realms.
He followed Sullyan as she guided Drum down the hill. He could now make out Anjer and Elias, only fifty yards apart, with their respective forces gathered round them. An avenue opened through the press of men, seemingly of its own accord. Every Andaryan recognized Aeyron, even in his sorry state, and every Albian recognized Sullyan. Taran saw many of the humans grinning as she rode serenely through their ranks, and a chant rose from the gathered men. Those on the Albian side sang Sullyan’s name, while those on the Andaryan sang Aeyron’s.
The noise increased until it swelled about their ears. It accompanied the two Princes as they were carried to the center of the field.
Sullyan took no outward notice of the acclaim. She appeared unmoved, completely serene. Yet Taran was close enough to see it was the calm of exhaustion—she simply didn’t have the energy after that spectacular entrance to do anything but keep her seat and hold Aeyron erect.
General Blaine couldn’t keep a smile of pride and relief from his face, though it was tinged with concern when she came close enough for him to see her bruises and swollen mouth. His expression was mirrored by Anjer. Taran saw the generals share a look of understanding.
King Elias sat transfixed on his roan stallion, staring hungrily, almost fearfully, at the small wrapped bundle Taran bore. Robin was beside the King, his back rigid. Many emotions crossed his face, but the foremost seemed to be anger. Maybe it was because Sullyan was still with Taran, or maybe there was another reason entirely.
Sullyan herself looked neither left nor right. Taran knew she was struggling to hold Aeyron upright. She would not let him lose any more dignity than he already had. She halted Drum and with a wave of her hand sent Taran toward Elias.
Taran rode close to the mesmerized King. The baby was closely wrapped within Taran’s cloak, both to shield him from the rain and to muffle his ears against the thunder. He hadn’t made a murmur at the tumult around him, and yet it seemed he also knew something about entrances. As soon as Taran uncovered his chubby face and held him out to the King, Eadan gave a happy, gurgling cry and reached for his father’s face.
Taran had never seen a grown man break down so thoroughly, nor cry so pitifully. He turned away as Elias took his son, hugging him and sobbing, his head bent to his breast. Many of the men dashed their tears away, shamed by their reaction. Elias had no thought or care for appearances. He had thought the boy lost forever. Now he had his precious son back, and his emotions overflowed.
Ignoring the overwrought King, Sullyan nudged Drum toward Anjer. The Lord General frowned with concern when he saw the state of Aeyron. He bent his head to his Prince, who was barely conscious and didn’t acknowledge his salute.
“So,” breathed Anjer, “you did it. We’ve all been praying you would. My Lord Marik will be very pleased and relieved to see the two of you, and the Princess will be overjoyed. She has suffered much over her father and her brother.”
Sullyan regarded him from bruised, red-veined eyes. “I must get Aeyron back to his father,” she said, her weak voice and lack of formality betraying her highly emotional state and profound exhaustion. “Will you inform General Ephan of our imminent arrival? Ask him to have Deshan standing by. The Prince is gravely wounded.”
Anjer called over his shoulder and a group of men came forward. “You look like you need some attention yourself,” he growled. “These men will go with you, both as protection and as honor guard for his Highness. I will see you later. Go swiftly. I will tell Ephan to open the gates for you.”
Sullyan accorded him an Andaryan-style salute, which caused raised brows among many of the Albians, not least when Anjer returned it, love and respect shining in his eyes. She did not acknowledge King Elias as she turned, sending Drum cantering toward the Citadel with Anjer’s honor guard ranged around her.
Only then did Taran notice Robin had vanished, and profound unhappiness flooded his heart. There was much hurt there that needed healing.
He reined Morlech around to follow Sullyan, but Blaine stayed him. “Adept Elijah, might I ask that you wait with us awhile? The King will require the tale of his son’s return when he has recovered, and you are the only one able to give it.”
Taran couldn’t refuse, no matter how much he wanted to follow Sullyan. He felt bound to her, more than ever, and she needed care and rest. Yet Elias also needed to learn of Baron Reen’s treachery and the Queen’s possible involvement, so Taran acquiesced with a reluctant nod.
Blaine then formally approached Anjer to end the hostilities. It was up to Blaine to salvage some shred of dignity for Elias from this debacle, although the King was clearly in no state to worry about trivial things like embarrassment over his wrongful invasion.
He drew a breath, his expression apologetic. “My Lord General—”
Anjer cut across him. “General Blaine, you need make no apologies. I am relatively new to fatherhood myself. Had it been my child abducted, I might have reacted the same way. This is awkward for us all. I suggest both sides withdraw to a discreet distance and make camp. We are all wet, tired, and hungry, and I believe King Elias is in no condition to deal with matters of state. After a few hours’ rest, those responsible for sorting out this mess can meet again. Shall we say sunset? I will have a pavilion set up between our two camps. Does that meet with your approval?”
Blaine bowed his head. “You are generous in your compassion, my Lord. None of us wanted this war and did all we could to dissuade the King. I make no excuses, you understand; we are all to blame. I thank you for your magnanimous gesture and I assure you, when Elias has recovered his … strength, he will make whatever reparations are necessary.”
Anjer gave a curt nod. “One thing I’ll ask of you, General. Send runners to the towns of Andeno and Sharrett, ordering your men to withdraw at once. I take it none of the inhabitants was injured, nor buildings destroyed?”
“Only minor injuries to a few townsfolk who resisted our entrance,” Blaine said. “It shall be done at once. If you are in agreement, I will instruct the men who currently occupy those towns to join us here. I would also request permission to bring up our healers. We have wounded who need treatment before they can return to Albia.”
Anjer nodded. “By all means. But they are to place themselves under the command of my men. You may send an officer to convey the order, and I will provide him with an escort.”
“Very well, my Lord, I will see to it right away. Until sunset.”
The warleaders parted and went back to their men. The two sides withdrew a safe distance and settled down with no demur. Sullyan’s spectacular entrance and the King’s reaction to the return of his son had subdued them all. Both races recognized a momentous event when they saw one.
General Blaine approached the King, who had now dismounted from his warhorse and was walking about, talking softly to his baby son. He seemed oblivious to the comings and goings of the men around him. Only Taran remained nearby. Robin and Valustin were off about the camp, seeing to the comfort of the men and tending the wounded. Midday had come and gone. Everyone was tired and hungry.
The rain had mercifully stopped. The thunderclouds called by Sullyan had dissipated without her touch to hold them. The General approached Elias and beckoned to Taran, who reluctantly joined them.
Blaine laid a hand on his monarch’s shoulder. “Your Majesty.”
Elias started. He was so wrapped up in his son he seemed to have forgotten everything else. Taran was concerned that the King’s mind might have been permanently damaged by his desperate ordeal, but the look Elias turned on his old friend was sane, if overwrought.
“It seems you were right all along, Mathias.” The King’s voice was hoarse with emotion and shame. “Sullyan was right. I should have listened to you both. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was wrong and I’m sorry. I must apologize to Sullyan at once. Where is she?”
Blaine cast a glance at Taran before replying. “I believe she has gone to the Citadel. She managed to rescue the Hierarch’s Heir as well as Prince Eadan, and she has taken Aeyron back to his father. I’m sure Pharikian is as desperate to see his son as you were to see yours.”
Taran heard the implied rebuke in the General’s tone, and Elias winced. “Yes, you have the right,” the King whispered, hugging Eadan closer. The little boy seemed not to mind his father’s tight embrace and continued to suck on a corner of his expensive cloak. Elias sighed deeply. “It will have to wait till she returns.”
The General squared his shoulders. “If you’re ready, Elias, I’ve asked Adept Elijah here to tell you the details of your son’s rescue. Will you sit and hear him?”
Someone had lit a fire and put water to heat for fellan. Stools had been set out in the center of the encampment, and a large square of oiled leather had been stretched on poles to provide a makeshift shelter. Elias allowed Blaine to steer him toward it and sat, his son cradled in his lap. The welcome aromas of fellan and hot food filled the air, and Taran waited until the King had been served before beginning his tale.
Elias and Blaine sat in attentive silence as Taran spoke, starting with Sullyan’s suspicions concerning Reen when they had first set out from the Manor, and then relating the entire catalog of events to the present.
The King raised his brows at Ardoch’s involvement, and scowled when he heard of the Baron’s cavalier treatment of Lady Jinella. His expression turned thunderous as he listened to what the First Minister had discovered in the treasury records, and what he and the Torlander had seen in the castle dungeons. But when Taran recounted the actual rescue of the Prince, his freeing of Sullyan and Aeyron from the burning circle, and their subsequent fight with the Baron’s men, Elias’s face wore the threat of murder.
“Where is the traitor Reen now?” he demanded.
“The First Minister used his authority to raise the garrison and ordered Lieutenant Major Denny to confine the Baron to his mansion,” said Taran. “But he was concerned about how the Queen would react and what she might try to do. No one can prevent her seeing Reen.”
The King growled low in his throat. He was plainly in no fit state to fully comprehend, let alone deal with, the implications of the Queen’s involvement. He steered Taran away from the topic.
“You say that poor backward boy, Huw, was somehow Reen’s tool in all this? Some kind of … natural Artesan? And the Baron killed him?”
“Yes, your Majesty. Sullyan said he was a sport. No one knew about his abilities, and even she failed to sense him. They’re difficult to spot, apparently. I don’t really understand it. You’d have to ask her. But that’s not all he was.”
Elias raised his brows, arrested by Taran’s tone of regret. He sounded almost fearful as he said, “What do you mean? What else was he?”
Taran lowered his eyes, not entirely sure he was doing the right thing. Yet he thought Elias ought to know, and Blaine too. Sullyan had suffered enough. Some was at the King’s hands, and he needed to hear why she was reacting this way. Maybe he would understand her better.
He raised his head and looked Elias in the eye. “It appears he was also Sullyan’s cousin.”
Sullyan only just held on to Aeyron long enough to reach the Citadel. The honor guard around her would have helped, but Aeyron was moaning again, almost delirious with exhaustion. Drained though she was, she would not abandon him again. She was supporting both of them almost completely now with the strength of her psyche alone, and was thankful to see the Citadel’s western gate open to her escort’s horn. General Ephan was waiting to usher them into the palace.
One look at Aeyron’s condition and the General gave the order to clear the streets. He wasted no time on greetings or congratulations, but conveyed her to the palace courtyard with efficiency and speed.
They lowered Aeyron gently to the ground and laid him in a litter. He clung desperately to Sullyan’s hand. They were linked through the contact and she knew it was his lifeline. There was only one circumstance under which he would relinquish it, and for that reason she requested they be taken immediately to Pharikian’s chambers.
They were halfway there when Marik and Deshan arrived. Marik put an arm about Sullyan’s waist and tried to support her with what little power he possessed. His love and care flowed into her and she nearly fell into his arms for weariness.
Deshan moved to Aeyron’s side, his hand on the Prince’s forehead. The Master Physician’s brows quirked upward as he found no sign of infection, and the look he gave Sullyan was close to awe.
“I don’t know how you did this, my dear, but you will be the most revered person in the entire realm for what you have done today.”
“How is Timar?” she asked, exhaustion marring her tone.
Deshan gave a small smile. “His body’s recovering well. His mind will heal when he beholds the face of his son. He is physically stronger at the moment than either of you.”
She smiled back, but had no strength for further speech. As they continued to the Hierarch’s quarters, she noticed Marik giving Deshan pointed looks over her head. He must have seen the wound on the back of her head. She had almost forgotten it. The wound in her thigh was invisible beneath her combat leathers.
At the door to Pharikian’s chambers they were met by Princess Idrimar, whose belly was already swelling with the growth of her twins. Her hands twisted nervously, her expression swinging between worry and desperate hope. As she saw them she gave a squeal of shock and excitement, and sprang toward her brother. The sight of his ravaged frame brought her up short.
“Will he be all right?” she pleaded, taking Sullyan’s free hand. “Please tell me he’ll be all right!”
Sullyan squeezed her hand. “He should be, Highness, once he gets some treatment and rest.”
Marik took his wife’s shoulders, gently pulling her back. “Don’t worry so, my dear. All will be well. They’re going to awaken Timar and then you’ll see. Stay back and let them work.”
Idrimar let herself be steered away, tears sliding down her cheeks. Aeyron was so pale, so gaunt, the bandages on his arm and hand dark with blood. He didn’t look like he could possibly survive.
With Deshan pouring strength into the Prince, they brought him into Pharikian’s chamber, laying the litter alongside the prostrate man. Aeyron opened his eyes. He immediately sought Sullyan, reaching for her despite his hand still being clamped around hers. She came even closer and stroked his cheek.
“You are home now, my Prince. Be strong a little longer, and then you can rest.”
Persuading him to release her by placing Pharikian’s limp hand in his, Sullyan moved around to the other side of the bed. She sat and tried to marshal her thoughts, as well as her fading strength. She gazed down into Pharikian’s dearly loved face, seeing the worry lines etched under his closed eyes, the papery quality of his skin. Although he had lost his earlier haunted, collapsed look, he would never fully heal until he knew Aeyron was home. Releasing a deep, bone-weary sigh, she opened her mind to Pharikian and felt for the cocoon of his psyche.
There was no resistance. He was an empty shell. His spirit, his psyche, his mind; all were wrapped and insulated from stray thoughts and external stimuli. He heard nothing, felt nothing. But she could see within to where he lay, where his spirit only awaited release before completing its destructive wish to dive into the Void of oblivion.
She recognized the signs, for she had once felt the same. He was a Senior Master, the same rank as she. She wasn’t physically able to prevent him from carrying out his desire. In her current depleted state, she barely had the power to release him.
There was someone he would heed, someone who did possess the power to reach Pharikian’s desperate soul, though with the power of love rather than mind. Before beginning her work, she gathered Aeyron’s life force and used it to shield and conceal her own so that the first thing Pharikian felt would be the yearned-for touch of his son’s psyche.
Aeyron offered no resistance. She was part of him now, completely accepted into his life and soul even as his father was. He let her work through him, her touch sure and gentle despite her great weariness. She felt his father stir.
Rising from the bed, she removed her hand from Pharikian’s brow. She turned his head toward his son, who was already gazing at his father’s face. When Pharikian’s eyes finally opened and she saw his incredulous smile of love, she slipped unnoticed from the room.
If Taran thought he would be released once he had told Elias everything he knew, he was sadly mistaken. He had to endure Elias’s endless questions, most of which he was unable to answer. Blaine asked questions too, and Taran suffered a bad moment when the General demanded to know how Sullyan had overcome the spellsilver on her wrists, as well as that within the circle, in order to prevent the catastrophe the Baron had set in motion.
He answered as best he could. “I wasn’t there, sir, so I didn’t see. You’d have to ask Sullyan. I may now be Adept-elite, but I won’t pretend to understand how she did it.”
It was true enough and Blaine had to be content, but Taran could see the General suspected he held something back. This final secret of Sullyan’s was not for Taran to divulge. He would respect her wishes and leave that one to her.
Finally released from the King’s inquisition, Taran searched the camp for Cal. His belly was growling with hunger. Blaine had offered him food, but he was anxious to rejoin Sullyan. Eating could wait till later. He simply wanted to thank Cal and say farewell.
As he walked through the camp, a troubling sense of unease crept over him, making his skin crawl. He halted and glanced around. His eyes met Robin’s. The young Major was staring balefully at him from a campfire not ten yards away, his arms folded over his chest.
Taran hadn’t spared Robin a thought, so intent was he on finding Cal. He felt his face redden with shame and was immediately furious with himself. He had nothing to be ashamed of. If anyone, it ought to be Robin who was shamed. He was the one who should be caring for Sullyan, especially in her condition.
Taran briefly imagined himself marching over to Robin and telling him about his child. His unborn child who had already served his King, and indeed the whole world, by saving them from destruction. Then the image of Sullyan’s face came into his mind, and he knew he could not. It was none of his business. Robin wouldn’t believe him anyway.
He tore his gaze away from those eyes so full of pain and anger, and moved on.
Taran finally found Cal with Dexter. The two captains sat surrounded by their command, laughing and joking among themselves and seeming more at ease than any of the other men. Their help and support of Sullyan, and the outcome of that aid, had raised their spirits and lightened their hearts. They welcomed Taran with much backslapping and rough pride, and he felt it like a balm to his soul. He had not realized how much he’d missed Cal.
They sat and spoke together for a while, Cal persuading his friend to eat with them. They all demanded the story of the Princes’ rescue, and Taran couldn’t deny them. When he eventually rose to go, Cal stood with him and sent one of his men to fetch Taran’s horse.
“When will you be back?”
Taran replied honestly. “I don’t know. When Sullyan returns, I suppose. She needs me now, Cal. She’ll need me until all this is sorted out, until Robin realizes what a fool he’s been. How long that will take, I just don’t know. And then there’s Elias. I imagine he’ll apologize and reinstate her, but whether she’ll accept, I can’t say.”
He saw Dexter’s expression and thought the other captain would protest, but Dex closed his mouth without speaking. Taran turned back to Cal. “Give my love to Rienne. Tell her I’m looking after Brynne. She’ll know what I mean.”
Cal gave him an old-fashioned look. “Oh, yes? What else is going on, Taran?”
He grinned, shaking his head. “Just give her the message. I’ll keep in touch. You take care.”
They clasped forearms before Taran mounted Morlech, taking the reins from Cal’s man with thanks. The dark-skinned Apprentice sat back down as Taran rode off, a thoughtful look on his face.
The last thing Taran heard as he headed off through the trees was Cal’s longwhistle playing one of their favorite folk tunes.
A fragile peace has been restored, but at what price?