CHAPTER ONE

Hands gripping her wrists.

Jolted from sleep, Medair an Rynstar, displaced herald of a fallen Empire, opened her eyes in time to see a wide cushion descend. Brocade and too many inches of stuffing made it impossible to breathe, and she tried to turn her head, for a moment too astonished for more. Was it Medarists already, come to punish her for not being the hero they had expected? For the crime of not hating enough? Then fear overcame shock and she writhed against the hands which held her. Unable to free her wrists, she reared back and kicked.

Her feet flailed at nothing, then someone caught hold of her left leg, pinning it down. At least three attackers.

Medair had known this would come, had known that anyone loyal to the old Atherian Empire would hate her unrelentingly for aiding the descendants of the Ibisian invaders, and would not think five hundred years of interbreeding and the threat of indiscriminate slaughter enough to muddy the waters of enmity. But she had not anticipated assassins the same afternoon she had given up the Horn, and certainly not while she was shut away in the apartments of an Ibisian of the highest rank: Cor-Ibis.

Panicked by the tightness growing in her chest, she cried out for help, but the cushion muffled sound as readily as air. Despite her forestalled attempt at suicide a few decems earlier, Medair did not find being murdered an acceptable solution to her problems, and struggled to think her way out of this trap. The only set-spell she’d prepared in weeks was the fire-light charm, but the finger snap release produced no response. It had lapsed.

Bright spots began to speck the blackness before her eyes, but still she looked for escape, going limp for a count of five in hopes of lulling them. Only the hold on her legs relaxed, but that was enough, and she snapped her feet up, this time curling almost double in her effort to strike at her captors. Muscles burned with strain, but she came into contact with the arm of the person who held her right wrist and pushed out with her foot, succeeding in thrusting that one backward. Something broke – jostled from the table beside her bed? – and the pressure on the cushion lapsed, allowing her to steal a single breath. But no more.

"Hold her!" one ordered in an angry whisper. It was a voice she knew. A woman’s voice, muffled but familiar, made outlandish by circumstances. Jedda las Theomain.

That did not make sense. Keris las Theomain was Ibisian, a friend of their ruler, Kier Inelkar, and had been with Cor-Ibis' group during his search for the stolen rahlstones which had led to his path crossing Medair’s. The Keris knew perfectly well Medair had given the rahlstones and then the Horn of Farak, the very weapon Medair had sought to destroy the Ibisian invaders, to their descendants. With the city under siege, why were the people she had betrayed her past to help trying to kill her?

Writhing impotently, Medair struggled for another breath. The third assailant was practically sitting on her feet. She couldn’t begin to guess why Jedda las Theomain, why any Ibisian, would sneak into her room and attack her. It was everyone else who had reason to kill Medair an Rynstar.

A tap on the door, then the voice of Cor-Ibis' ward:

"Medair?"

"Ileaha!" Medair shouted, or tried to, struggling against a rising wave of grey. The effort left her chest stretched and empty, and did not seem to have produced noise to rival an infuriated mouse. Ileaha tapped on the door again.

"Something broke. Are you all right?"

A strained silence was all the answer she had, while Medair struggled to suck air through the scratchy brocade. Then, a click.

The weight sitting on Medair’s feet was gone in a bound. There was an indrawn breath, a scuffle, and the door slammed shut. But Ileaha did not seem to be easy prey. Something else fell, there was more scuffling, then Ileaha’s voice rose, urgent and imperative:

"Liak! Mehtra! To me!"

It seemed, from the grey place Medair was sinking into, that Ileaha did not wait for the arrival of the special guards assigned to Cor-Ibis, but dashed toward the person wielding the cushion. The bedside table collapsed as two bodies landed upon it. Medair, the cushion wrenched away from her face, gulped air.

The man holding her left wrist was Ibisian, his bleached skin and white hair showing no hint of Farakkian blood. Blue eyes narrowing, he let go only to draw a knife. Medair barely got her hands up before he slashed toward her throat. The sturdy fabric of her uniform gave her some protection, but red lines opened across the back of her right wrist and the palm of her left. Then a splintered table leg hurtled past Medair and hit the man in the face. His free hand went to his cheek, but he again thrust at Medair, frantically now, as if killing her were more important to him than his own life. Medair snatched up the abandoned cushion as a makeshift shield, and feathers puffed into the air.

Ileaha, ash blonde hair flying, left Jedda las Theomain crumpled on the floor, and launched across the bed. She hit the man feet first, the knife scoring her boot before it clattered away. She landed on top of him and had him face down with hands wrenched behind his back in one swift whirl. The third intruder tried to make his escape and staggered into the arms of Liak ar Haedrin and another Farakkian woman in the Cor-Ibis livery.

Suddenly the room was full of people. Guards, maids, Avahn. Medair, head swirling, dropped the gutted cushion. She picked a feather from the roof of her mouth, and tried to smile at her rescuer. It seemed a better option than bursting into tears.

"I really can’t imagine you as a secretary, Ileaha," she said, voice thin and creaking. "I’m glad you decided otherwise."

"So am I," Ileaha replied, staring at Jedda las Theomain. There was no sign of movement and the woman’s long limbs lay in awkward positions. Then Ileaha glanced at Medair and her eyes widened. "He did cut you!"

"Vel will bring bandages," Avahn said. Cor-Ibis' heir made a brief, commanding gesture to someone at the door, then nodded at Ileaha with approval. "I think I’ve lost any right to deride your weapons-skill, 'Leaha."

Ileaha lifted her chin, then nodded back, adding only the faintest searching glance to show that she had not quite fully transitioned from the doubt-filled girl Medair had met at an inn in Kyledra. A mixed-blood minor mage raised as ward of a family dominated by powerful full-Ibisian adepts, she was unlikely to quickly forget Avahn’s careless taunts, or the weight of charity driving her toward a dutiful but dull career. Saving Medair was a large stride into the profession of her choice.

"Show me your hands," Avahn ordered, and produced a sturdy kerchief when Medair unclasped her injured wrist. It was not enough to stem the bleeding, but it at least stopped her dripping, freeing him to turn his attention to the man on the floor.

"Sit him up." He studied the captive, an Ibisian of forty or so years, already withdrawing behind a mask of icy control. "Who are you?"

The man just sat there, face set. Avahn’s eyes flashed, but he reined himself back, drawing on the Ibisian calm supposedly bequeathed by cold blood.

"Do you know him, Liak?" he asked, turning to the gathering at the door.

"No, Kerin," the red-headed woman replied. "This one is Felden, of the household since a year past, but I have never seen this other before."

"Ah." Avahn’s gaze rested on the young man bracketed by Kel ar Haedrin and her companion, then he turned to look at Jedda las Theomain’s body. "Search them."

This was swiftly accomplished and revealed only that Jedda was definitely dead. Ileaha pressed her lips together at the news, but didn’t otherwise react.

"Did they speak to you, Medair?"

"No," Medair replied, tightening Avahn’s now soaked kerchief around her palm. "I’m not altogether sure why an Ibisian would be trying to kill me."

"It had to be done," said the man who had cut her, his voice precise and unapologetic. "Keris las Theomain saw clearly the threat you pose. It will not happen. You can be sure of that."

"What threat?" Medair asked blankly, but the man just tightened his lips.

"Take them somewhere less intrusive," Avahn ordered. "And clear the door. Where is Vel?"

"Here, Kerin." An elderly Ibisian woman came forward, a collection of salves, needles and bandages neatly laid out on the tray she carried.

Avahn left Medair to the ministrations of the attendant, while Jedda las Theomain’s body was removed. The cut on the back of Medair’s right wrist and hand wasn’t bad, but her left palm was scored deeply across the base of the thumb. The woman called Vel tended it with a mixture of stitches and a casting to hurry the healing. Medair wondered why Jedda had started with a cushion instead of the knife, and tried not to picture that awakening.

"There will be no loss of function, Kerin," the attendant told Avahn when he returned. She wrapped an injury which now looked days old. "It did not touch the tendons."

"That’s as well." Avahn glanced around the room, at blood-specked feathers and broken furniture. "We guarded you poorly, Medair. We thought you would be at risk from the Hold, or from Medarists, not our own kind."

"What is the Hold, Avahn? I’ve often wanted to ask."

Avahn, after a startled pause, reverted to his more usual persona, laughing. "You don’t know, do you? We were convinced, at one time, that you were an agent of the Hold, or at least their tool. We never came even close to guessing the truth." He laid the cushion on the bed and placed the knife neatly upon it. "The Hold of the Emperor – it started as a resistance movement in the time after the Niadril Kier’s death. Certain of the Farak-lar nobles who had surrendered attempted to retake the throne in the name of the surviving Corminevar, Princess Alaire.

"Their first open move was an attempt to kill Kierash Elvalar, Kier Ieskar’s newborn heir. A serious miscalculation: the Princess would not allow her daughter to be murdered, no matter the child’s father. Alaire never supported them, and it ended in executions. But the Hold itself still flourished. For centuries they have worked behind the scenes, pulling the strings of those such as the Medarists, weakening from within and allying without. Playing their games."

"I’m surprised you let me travel with you, thinking me one of these puppeteers."

"Owing life-debt, glimpsing the secrets you held? We were not inclined to trust you, Medair, but you were far too interesting a study not to pursue. Besides, there are factions within the Hold, and some no longer consider the Ibis-lar vermin to be hunted from Farak’s breast."

"And Jedda las Theomain?" she asked, in a lowered voice. "She was certainly no agent of the Hold."

"No." Avahn lost his incisive air and looked worried. "I don’t know where this has come from. She could not possibly have thought the Horn of Farak false. No-one could mistake that power. Unless she thought that, despite everything you have done for us, you would inevitably be used by those who band against us." He did not sound convinced, meeting her eyes with forthright concern. "Liak tells me that one of the attackers – Felden – has purist sympathies. I don’t know why they would want you dead, but that may be where this comes from. Though for Keris las Theomain to be a purist, when her links to the Kier are so strong–" He shook his head. "The thoughts of those who would keep the Ibis-lar bloodline pure must be strange indeed to find reason to kill someone who has preserved us."

Medair smiled thinly. "I have become unpopular in all corners, it seems. Perhaps I can hope that the Medarists will stop taking my name."

"Or learn–" He stopped. "I had best see to our captives. There is not much time before sunset, and I wish to speak with Liak about having them questioned before we go to the outer wall."

"To ask them whether more will come after me?"

"To ask them why."

With a formal inclination of his head, Avahn left once more, leaving Medair to the wreckage of the room. Testament that she was not safe even from the Ibisians.

She should have left sooner, found some way out of the city despite the army at the gates, and rested only after sufficient distance allowed her to return to anonymity, to leave the mistakes of Medair an Rynstar behind her.

"The same mistake, all over again."

She had slept after finding the Horn of Farak, and lost the chance to use the Horn to destroy the invading Ibisian army. Today she had let escape slip through her fingers, and would have to face the consequence of her choices. The Horn would be used on a Farakkian army, one which claimed to represent a true Corminevar heir, one not tainted by Ibisian blood. People would die, and those deaths would be laid firmly at her feet. What did it matter that she was sworn to defend Athere, that her act would save the descendants of the oldest Atherian families, that even the most pure-blooded Ibisian families now thought themselves Palladian? Time had muddied everything, making it impossible to do anything, to do nothing, without in some way betraying her oaths, and herself.

Inevitably a traitor.

Medair flexed her hands within their bandages then retrieved her satchel from beneath the bed and undressed, carefully folding the damaged pearl-gray uniform and tucking it away. She would never wear it again. She was oath-breaker, placeless and lost. Herald no longer.

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CHAPTER TWO

Sunset saw thousands gathered along the southern reach of Athere’s outermost wall. The army beyond had spent the hours since its abrupt appearance positioning for attack, and casting. Impossible at such distance to distinguish the exact nature of so many spells but, as Avahn remarked, the sheer number and strength told them all too much. The Ibisians' long supremacy in matters of magic seemed to have been lost, like so many other things, in the transformation wrought by the Conflagration: wild magic slipped from control.

But magic-rich armies appearing overnight was only one of too many changes. The Conflagration had not left the land seared and blackened, but it had altered Farakkan to the point where Athere’s defenders' greatest disadvantage was lack of knowledge. The attackers and the spells they might use in this transformed world were a puzzle the Ibisians did not have time to unravel.

Yesterday Medair had stood safely invisible among a less orderly crowd, watching as the city’s most powerful adepts constructed a shield to hold back the Conflagration. Today, unmasked and under escort, she could not fail to notice the ripple of attention which followed her. Abandoning her uniform would not grant her anonymity.

There’d been a time when she’d enjoyed people looking at her. Proud little herald.

"Were you on the wall, Ileaha?" she asked. "When they raised the shield?"