The procession into Iskandara was marred only by the inconvenience of an attempted murder. Merlin stopped it, of course.
He was riding in the back of the train with the luggage, banished by Arthur for some perceived offense or another. Gwen rode with him for company and to make sure he didn’t get into any more mischief. Iskandara was a dry country; dust stamped up from the pack horses swirled and clung to the bottoms of Merlin’s trousers and Gwen’s traveling dress. Ahead of them, the palace arched up out of the ground, its multiple domes gleaming roundly.
The town of Iskandara, through which they rode, was much larger than the lower town of Camelot. A hundred years ago, it had been clutched in the grasp of a bloody civil war, finally ended by the sheer force of will—and steel—of the current king’s great-grandfather. Now, trade with the East had made it prosperous, and the people who lined the streets with the hope of glimpsing the visitors from the north had the self-satisfied air of those who could no longer remember a time when commerce did not occupy every waking moment.
They were far enough back from the head of the train that no one could hear them. Merlin amused himself by doing an outrageous imitation of what he imagined to be the conversation between Arthur, Morgana and King Umar, riding stiffly together at the front.
Abruptly, Gwen stopped laughing and clutched Merlin’s arm. “Look! That man!”
Merlin looked. The sun draped itself over welcoming banners; caressed smiling faces of Iskandarans; melted down baked, earthen walls—and glinted off of cold metal. A man, grim and silent, held a blowpipe up to his lips, his eyes fixed to the head of the train. Merlin could see the metal-tipped dart, neatly packed into the pipe. He shouted and jerked the reins.
His horse, unaccustomed to such unskilled treatment and already on edge from the crowds, started and reared. Ears flat, she found the bit and lurched sideways, and the crowd scattered, yelling. The man, arrested on an inhale, looked away from his target and saw Merlin’s horse careening toward him, with Merlin bouncing wildly along, barely keeping his seat. The man’s neighbor, understandably panicked, flailed an arm and knocked the blowpipe out of the man’s hands. His object now lost, the man turned tail and fled into the crowd just as Merlin arrived, satisfied, and promptly fell off his horse.
“…And please accept my apologies, again, for my idiot manservant,” Arthur concluded. “I thought he’d progressed far enough to be able to stay on a horse.” He glared at Merlin, who looked appropriately chastened. King Umar smiled tolerantly.
“Do not worry overmuch. No one was injured.” Behind him, Queen Zuhra turned her head, her glass earrings tinkling in the cavernous meeting hall. At the far door, two young men entered.
“Ah,” Umar said. “Please allow me to introduce my sons. Akbar, the elder, and Amil.” The two approached, smiling. They both had their parents’ height and coloring, broad shouldered with dark skin. The same wide-set eyes and black hair, the same smile. But there the resemblance ended, for while Akbar was loose-limbed and athletic, standing tall and proud in the morning sunlight, his brother Amil was quite lame. He carried a wooden walking stick, intricately carved, which thumped along the stone floor as he walked. Up close, Arthur could see the trace of pain and weariness that marked his young face and doubtlessly affected all his physical exertions. Old men carried that look.
“We are so glad you have come,” Amil said, smiling cordially as he leaned against the arm of his mother’s throne. “Iskandara can only benefit from any relationship with Camelot.”
“And our bards are eager to hear of all your exploits,” Akbar added. “We hear such stories of Prince Arthur, going to war and defeating magical beasts and performing all sorts of heroic acts.”
Arthur smiled, embarrassed. “I assure you, it’s all exaggeration.” Both Merlin’s and Morgana’s eyes widened at this bit of uncharacteristic modesty. Arthur ignored them.
“Surely not.” Akbar grinned. “We must have you out for some sporting. Have you ever hunted lions?”
“I can’t say that I have,” Arthur replied, intrigued.
Amil shifted a little. But of course, he would not be able to take part in the sporting, Arthur thought.
“There will be plenty of time for that after the treaty negotiations are concluded,” Umar said, gently admonishing. “Please, take some rest. We shall convene in an hour to begin the negotiations.”
The royal family bowed them out of the sumptuous meeting hall, and a servant wearing a hat with a ridiculous trailing peacock feather led them to their quarters. He threw open the doors and announced stuffily, “Rooms for your Royal Highness. Should your Royal Highness need anything more, please ring the bell. I am His Majesty’s Chief Usher, and at your disposal.”
The feather floated in front of Merlin’s face. He poked at it inquiringly with one finger and then quickly dropped his hand and affected innocence as the usher glanced around. With his movement, the feather swished into Gwen’s face, who sneezed. The usher looked disapproving, as though sneezing by servants was not permitted.
“Thank you,” Morgana said quickly, as it was apparent that Arthur was still too grumpy to get involved. “I’m sure we’ll be quite happy here.”
The usher gave one last haughty look at Merlin and Gwen, both struggling to keep straight faces, and tripped off, feather swaying.
The Crown Prince of Camelot was afforded several rooms overlooking the Royal Gardens. Windows crisscrossed in lead were open, letting in a dry breeze. Arthur stomped to a table, heavily laden with fruit, and threw himself into one of the flanking chairs.
“Really, Merlin. You just had to embarrass me on the first day of our visit? You couldn’t wait even one night to let me get settled in?”
Merlin ignored this, closing the door and turning to Gwen. “Did you get a good look at him?”
She shrugged, all traces of levity gone. “No more than you, I’d say.”
“What are you talking about?” Arthur said irritably as Merlin reached into a sleeve and pulled out the metal blowpipe.
“You did get it,” Gwen exclaimed, pleased.
Merlin grinned. “Of course. Why’d you think I fell off the horse?”
“What is that?” Morgana asked while Arthur said simultaneously, “You mean to tell me you did that on purpose?” He stared at Merlin.
“Yes,” Merlin said. “It’s a blowpipe. A man in the crowd was attempting to shoot, well, either one of you, I suppose.”
Morgana paled. “Those can kill a man.”
“Wait a minute,” Arthur said, waving a hand. “You’re positive this man was aiming for us?”
“No,” Gwen said slowly. “King Umar was riding next to you. It could well have been meant for him.”
Morgana’s eyes went wide. “We need to warn him.”
Merlin shook his head. “We can’t risk telling anyone. If you or Arthur are the real target, we’re better off pretending we don’t know.”
“But why not inform the king?”
“Because Umar could be the one behind it,” Merlin said. A short silence followed this pronouncement.
“Merlin’s right,” Arthur said heavily. “Bloody hell.”
“May I see it?” Gwen asked, holding out a hand. Merlin passed her the blowpipe, saying, “There’s some sort of mark stamped into it, but I don’t recognize it.”
She turned the metal pipe in her hands. It was surprisingly light, made of a finely-grained metal. Near the base was a marking in the shape of a hammer. “It looks like a guild stamp,” she said.
“You’re sure?” Arthur said. He looked abashed when Gwen raised an eyebrow at him. “My father was a blacksmith,” she replied evenly. “It looks like the type of marking that the local smithy guild would require its members to stamp into all of their products.”
“But anyone could have bought this from a guild member,” Morgana said, dispirited.
“It’s a start,” Merlin said.
“All right,” Arthur decided. “Morgana, you and I will continue with the treaty negotiations and pretend nothing’s amiss. Meanwhile, Merlin and Gwen, you two try and find out as much as you can about this blowpipe. Maybe you can learn something that will lead us to this man.”
A knock sounded at the door, and Lord Percy Godfrey entered. He was a small, dark-skinned man, with a balding head and a round belly that spoke to the many feasts he’d attended over years spent as Camelot’s envoy to various kingdoms. His unassuming demeanor masked a quicksilver mind well-suited to the role of diplomat. When Arthur and his train left Iskandara, Godfrey would remain behind in his newest posting as ambassador.
“Sire,” he said now, “I thought we should go over some of the discussion points for the negotiations.”
“Oh, can we?” Arthur said dryly, but quelled before Godfrey’s look. “Sorry. Of course we should.” He looked a little despairingly at the large sheaf of papers that Godfrey began to spread out on the table.
Merlin cleared his throat. “Gwen and I need to start unpacking.” Arthur waved them away, squinting down at the papers.
As the Crown Prince of Camelot, Arthur had increasingly participated in the various treaty negotiations and acts of statehood that would help prepare him to be king. This entire mission to Iskandara, carried out solely by him, was to be his greatest test yet. He was therefore surprised to find during the first meeting that Akbar, the presumptive heir to Iskandara, contributed very little to the discussions while his brother Amil fell naturally into them. Their father, of course, controlled the tenor of the meeting but let Amil have free rein when fancy struck him, expounding on subjects as varied as currency exchange rate and the legal jurisdiction over foreign merchants, whenever they touched on the negotiations.
It wasn’t until the end of the session, when talk was winding down, that Akbar jumped in with a suggestion about horse breeding.
“Well…it’s certainly possible,” Godfrey said, frowning thoughtfully. “We can’t say concretely what our merchants will be most interested in trading. And no one in Camelot, as far as I’m aware, has any experience breeding and training the type of horses we find here. Your own breeders would be a better bet.”
“I don’t want those horses,” Akbar said. “I want to breed the type of horses you have up north. Your war-horses.”
There was an embarrassed silence. Everyone knew that the royal families of the north controlled the breeding rights to the huge, heavy stud-horses, which were bred specifically with strength and stamina in mind. These horses were trained to withstand the chaos of battle and could carry a knight in full armor. By controlling the breeding rights, the royal families essentially controlled who could purchase a horse that would support a knight, and thus, who could become a knight.
The light, beautiful desert horses, with their speed and agility, did not have the girth to carry an armored man. By asking to breed the war-horses, Akbar was essentially signaling his desire to create his own cavalry of knights. And presumably, one did not set out to create a cavalry without intending to use it. Which was a rather awkward topic at a negotiating table.
“Well,” Umar said, breaking the uneasy pause. “I’m sure we can discuss that later. Shall we take a small rest and convene for the feast?”
So dismissed, the men dispersed. Akbar exited ahead of Arthur, heading toward a group of elegantly dressed young men who’d been lounging indolently in an antechamber off of the meeting room. They jumped up as Akbar approached, stretching their muscles. One young man came toward Arthur, smiling hugely, and bowed. “May I beg milord’s pardon and have leave to introduce myself?”
“Of course,” Arthur said, inclining his head.
“My name is Caldor. I had the good fortune to be in the north several years ago, and saw your triumph at the joust in Cornwall. I must say it is a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Thank you. You’re very kind.”
“I am sure milord Akbar has already conveyed his hope that you will join us for some hunting?” Caldor asked. “We so look forward to seeing the great Prince Arthur in action on the field.”
Arthur assured Caldor that he would indeed take part, and Caldor bowed again and rejoined the rest of the circle crowding around Akbar. Arthur noticed that the other young men gave way before Caldor, allowing him to join Akbar in the center. Chattering boisterously to each other, they disappeared en masse down the hall.
As Arthur and Godfrey headed toward their own rooms, they found themselves accompanied by Amil, thumping apologetically along. “You’ll have to forgive my brother’s notions of horse breeding,” he said. “He likes anything to do with fighting. The fact that horses of that size would do terribly in the desert seems to escape him.”
“Ah,” Arthur said, noting this convenient excuse. “Well, if it’s fighting he likes, I’m sure there are other things he can do to satisfy that urge.”
“Perhaps you can counsel him?” Amil suggested lightly.
“Of course,” Arthur replied slowly. They stopped outside the doors of Arthur’s chambers. Amil bowed and said, “Until later,” heading back down the hallway.
Morgana looked up from the table of papers as Arthur and Godfrey entered. “Well?”
“I hope you’re not marking those up with your stupid little handwriting,” Arthur grumbled, dropping down into a seat next to her.
“I’m making notes,” she protested indignantly.
“Tell me if I have this right,” Arthur said to Godfrey. “Akbar is the crown prince, but Amil has all the brains. All Akbar wants to do is fight, only there’s no one here for him to fight. And Amil just encouraged me to help him find some sort of outlet for his brother to forestall Akbar going off and creating someone to fight, whether they’re a real threat or not.”
“That’s it in a nutshell,” Godfrey said. “Of course, as long as Umar is king, controlling Akbar is not a great problem.”
“And when he dies?” Morgana asked. “Who will control Akbar then?”
“His brother. His councilors. But Umar is not very old. By the time Akbar assumes the throne, we can hope that he will be mature enough to restrain himself.”
Umar is not very old. Arthur exchanged glances with Morgana. He knew they were both thinking of the assassin from that morning.
The next day, he was ambushed by the elder prince, who was surrounded by the same young courtiers. They were dressed for riding, and had the barely-suppressed air of men who were about to embark on a great adventure.
“My friend! You must accompany us,” Akbar said, clapping a heavy hand on Arthur’s back. Around him, the courtiers preened and fidgeted, clearly excited. “We are going hunting for lions.”
Arthur frowned. “What about the meetings?”
Akbar waved a hand carelessly. “Those can wait. It is a fine morning, and we have been looking forward to seeing the great Prince of Camelot in action.”
Arthur was about to demur when he remembered Amil’s entreaty. It was just one morning, and perhaps Akbar would be more settled during the afternoon negotiations, if he got his excess energy out beforehand.
“Let me get ready,” Arthur said, motioning to Merlin.
When asked if she would like to accompany them, Morgana wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Do I want to ride along in the baking heat and watch you attempt to kill lions? No, thank you.”
Shrugging, Arthur and Merlin, accompanied by Leon, headed toward the stables, only to be presented with three of the desert horses they’d been discussing the day before. They really were beautiful: delicate hooves and long, slender legs, built for speed, carried bodies that quivered and rippled at Arthur’s caress. Ears flicked attentively and intelligent eyes regarded him pensively. Arthur rubbed a hand admiringly down the neck of one and was rewarded with a light prance sideways as the horse tossed its head up proudly.
Arthur mounted and turned in time to see Merlin nearly bucked off. His manservant was struggling to stay on, gripping the reins and speaking urgently to the horse, who was clearly not reassured. Arthur’s own horse sat tranquilly under him, ready to move at his slightest touch.
“Your man doesn’t seem to do well on horses,” Akbar observed, bringing his own mount alongside Arthur’s. Merlin’s horse bucked again and Merlin yelped. Arthur rolled his eyes. “He’s normally not this bad.”
He swung down from his own horse and grabbed Merlin’s bridle. “Get down, you idiot. Take mine; she’s much calmer.”
Merlin got down hastily. The only thing separating his descent from an actual fall was the fact that he somehow managed to land on both feet. “Just because I didn’t get my first horse at the age of three,” he muttered to Arthur.
They remounted without any further mishaps on Merlin’s part. Arthur’s new horse settled immediately under his practiced hand, and Akbar nodded approvingly. “You’ve a good touch with horses.”
“Thank you,” Arthur replied, moving aside to let Caldor join them. The courtier was frowning at Merlin in annoyance; Arthur supposed Caldor was one of those men who believed that anyone who couldn’t ride beautifully had no business being on a horse.
Akbar led the way west out of town, passing people who stopped to look at them curiously before continuing on their daily business. A few children shouted and chased them for a few blocks, calling good-naturedly after them. Akbar obliged them by tossing over one shoulder a few coins which glinted as they described an arc downward. “They like to see their prince off to hunt,” Akbar confided to Arthur. “It’s good for them to know that I’m keeping sharp. Makes them feel safer.”
“Ah,” Arthur said noncommittally. Personally, he didn’t think these townspeople gave a hoot as to how many lions Akbar killed. Trade was the lifeblood of Iskandara; the town would probably feel safer knowing that their crown prince understood how to negotiate a competitive trade agreement.
Behind him, he could hear Leon engaging one of the accompanying Royal Guardsmen in conversation about lion-hunting.
“They’re mostly nocturnal,” Eldin was saying. “But they do hunt occasionally during the cooler morning hours, when their prey comes to the banks of the Ratterdan to drink.”
“What do they hunt?”
“Antelope, mostly. Although people farther south tell stories of seeing an entire pride take down an elephant.” Eldin sighed longingly. “We don’t get elephants this far north. My father saw one once, when he was a boy. It must have gotten lost or something. They captured it and put it in the royal menagerie, but it died two months later.”
“My grandfather commissioned a tapestry of it,” Akbar added, swinging round in his saddle to address Leon. “Frightfully ugly thing. The ivory was useful, though.”
“How fast are the lions?” Merlin asked.
“Pretty fast, over short distances. And they can leap clear over a man’s head.”
“I’d heard lions hunt in groups,” Leon said. “D’you have to separate them?”
“Yes,” Eldin answered. “And you have to be careful not to get separated yourself. Last thing you want is for the pride to try to take down you.”
Arthur raised a brow. “They hunt humans?”
Akbar shrugged. “They’ve been known to kill a farmer here and there, or maybe carry off a child or some livestock if the opportunity presents itself. But they generally avoid coming too close to town. Ah. Here we are.”
He motioned and the rest of the group reined in. Ahead, Arthur could see the blue of the Ratterdan, that great lake that watered Iskandara, and to the south, provided a fertile farming delta where the river Phylos flowed into it. Arthur could feel a cooling breeze against his cheek. The ground was just beginning to go marshy, and reeds sprouted thickly around rather emaciated cottonwoods. Three grooms, after nodding to their prince, spurred cautiously ahead.
“Where are they going?” Arthur asked.
“To flush out any lions,” Akbar replied. Arthur regarded him incredulously.
“You mean you just let them drive any lions to you?”
Akbar frowned. “You make it sound so…ignoble that way. The grooms simply corral the lions into coming in our direction, and make sure they don’t escape around the lake. It’s how Iskandarans have always hunted.”
“Well, in Camelot, half the fun is finding your quarry,” Arthur said, and kneed his horse after the grooms.
Merlin watched his prince ride off with a distinct sense of irritation. Then, ignoring the calls of Akbar and his men, he urged his own mount forward through the reeds. The three groomsmen looked alarmed when they spotted Arthur.
“My lord, it is not safe!” one exclaimed.
“Balderdash,” Arthur replied confidently. “It’s just an enormous tabby cat. I’ve handled far worse.”
The grooms did not look convinced, and Merlin regarded them with no small measure of sympathy. It would not occur to Arthur that if anything happened to His Royal Idiocy, these men would be held responsible.
“I promise,” he murmured to the closest one. “You will not be blamed for anything that happens.”
“Easy for you to say,” the groom retorted. “You won’t have to face the king.”
Merlin made a face. “Yes, I know.”
Ahead, Arthur had brought his mount alongside the lead groom, and was questioning him in a low voice on various lion-trapping tactics.
A shout from behind caused them all to twist around. It was Akbar and his men, red-faced and irritated.
“Oh, my god,” the groom next to Merlin moaned upon seeing his prince.
“It’s all right,” Merlin said with more assurance than he felt. “All the noise is likely to scare off any animals, right?”
“We can only hope.”
Akbar drew level with them. “Well, let’s go on, then,” he said with a forced smile. “Can’t let our visitors have all the fun, can we?”
Akbar was clearly not pleased at being forced along on the search. Merlin only hoped Arthur’s actions wouldn’t goad the other prince into staying out for hours searching for a lion, just to prove that he was as adventurous as Arthur.
It was going to be a very long morning.
Generally speaking, Morgana did not enjoy needlework. She was pretty much rubbish at it anyway. She’d been taught because needlework was What They Did With Ladies, but her father had been an indifferent overseer and Uther an oblivious one, so that Morgana learned the art but never fully mastered it. But embroidery could sometimes come in handy, as now, when Morgana asked leave of Queen Zuhra to join her and her ladies at their work. The queen acquiesced, smiling, and her ladies-in-waiting shifted over to make room for Morgana and Gwen.
They were in a solarium in the southern wing of the castle. Morning sun shone brightly through wide, leaded windows that must have cost a fortune. Morgana fumbled for a few moments with the needle, looked enviously at Gwen’s neat-as-a-pin cross-stitch, and settled herself for a nice, long gossip.
She’d learned early on the benefit of “idle” chatter in sniffing out the inner workings of a group of people. Councilors to kings were also husbands who talked to their wives, who then talked to other wives, who relayed new information back to their husbands, and so on. Even the most empty-headed courtier or lady-in-waiting most likely knew something of value. And at court, knowledge was indeed power. The trick was to sift through the speculation, rumors, and innuendo for the nuggets of truth.
So Morgana listened, and when talk swung her way, she imparted some strategic tidbits of her own that sounded juicy but lacked substance. A few of the younger ladies were curious about Arthur and Morgana was only too happy to assure them that no, he was not promised to anyone, and she herself was most definitely not interested.
“Really?” asked Lady Helene, one of Zuhra’s chief ladies-in-waiting. Her needle flashed in and out as she spoke, and Morgana glanced for a moment at thin, clever fingers, working without conscious direction. “You do not wish to be Queen of Camelot?”
“Not if I have to marry Arthur.”
“But he is very handsome, yes?”
“Yes,” Morgana acknowledged readily, smiling. “But I have a hard time looking at him and thinking of anything except the time when we were eleven, and he put frogs in my bed. Or the time when we were thirteen, and he had me banned from the training grounds because I kept beating him. Handsomeness does not erase the memories of a prattish younger brother.”
“Ah,” Helene said, her dark eyes crinkling in amusement. “Surely he is very changed in temperament since then? He seems much the young ruler-in-waiting, now.”
Beside her, Gwen shifted in her seat, still sewing industriously. Morgana shrugged. “He has changed quite a bit over the last few years. But I have a very long memory.”
“You are still young,” Helene said. “You have time yet.”
“Not so much time,” Zuhra said, not unkindly. “Why, I’d been married to my Umar for several years by the time I reached your age!”
“He seems like a very wise king. Iskandara is lucky to have him,” Morgana replied to Zuhra, but she looked at all the other ladies as she said it. Gwen, no stranger to how Morgana’s mind worked, glanced around casually as well. There was no discernable reaction. Zuhra smiled serenely. “We consider ourselves blessed.”
“And your sons,” Morgana continued, trying another tack. “Simply delightful. Why, at dinner last night, Akbar regaled me with the most delightful stories.” This was, of course, a lie. He’d talked her ear off about various hunts he’d been on as well as other exploits, the veracity of which she doubted. Every time she’d tried to steer the conversation toward anything relating to statecraft, he’d grown uninterested.
“Did he, indeed?” Zuhra asked, and Morgana thought, There it is.
“Well, I’m so glad,” said his mother. “I hope you’re not too tired of storytelling; tomorrow night we’ve invited Iskandara’s most accomplished bards to entertain us.”
“I can’t wait,” Morgana responded, politely accepting the queen’s maneuvering away from her sons.
Forty-five minutes of fruitless searching later, the hunting party had gone halfway around the Ratterdan and the only thing that had been discovered was the northern men’s propensity to sunburn in the desert heat. Merlin especially looked like a miserable, overcooked beet, his fair skin tenderized and pink. Arthur regarded his manservant, jolting listlessly in the saddle beside him, and opened his mouth to call to Akbar.
A shout from Eldin forestalled him. Lions!
As one, the men wheeled away from the lake and toward the labyrinth of valleys, or wadis, that beckoned to the north. Despite the heat and the wretched morning, Arthur felt a rising excitement within him. At first, all he could make out was a dun blur streaking ahead, lighter against the sandy ground, with a long, thin tail. As the horses gained ground, Arthur took in with satisfaction the heavy mane and the muscled flanks, working quickly over the terrain. It was a male, and a big one at that. Then it vanished into the mouth of the first wadi.
The riders crashed down the embankment after it, spilling loose gravel and rocks which clattered noisily after them. Arthur thought he caught another flash of tan, racing through the valley, and excited shouts from the men around him confirmed it. He was aware of Merlin dropping behind him, and of Akbar’s face, contorted with a sort of mindless glee, and he was sure his own face echoed it.
They were riding fast, too fast, over unfamiliar ground, and Arthur knew just how thoughtlessly stupid they were all being. Leon pulled alongside him, shouting happily. The valley twisted and turned, dark sandstone cliffs rising up around them. Here and there, scraggly bushes jutted hopefully out of the ground, catching and tearing on their stirrups.
Akbar and Caldor had pulled ahead, whipping their horses mercilessly. Arthur wondered how long the lion could keep up this pace, and suspected that it couldn’t be maintained forever. As if to prove his point, the animal changed direction, back legs sliding with the effort, heading toward the cliffs overhanging the valley. It had to pass right by Caldor, panting, and Caldor’s horse screamed in sudden panic and threw its startled rider. The lion paid no attention, racing to get to the relative safety of the cliff. Men shouted. A spear, hastily thrown, whistled past the beast to sink harmlessly in the ground. The lion made an agonized noise, less the roar of Arthur’s imagination and more of a bark, like an extremely large, extremely distressed dog. Then the lion leapt directly in front of him.
Time seemed to slow. Arthur, hands tensed on his own spear, watched the lion soaring in front of him, paws extended and reaching for freedom. His eyes traveled admiringly over the sinewy beauty of it, all muscle and straining tendons, stretched out like a springing bow, and he lowered his spear. When the lion landed, scrambling, on the side of the cliff and disappeared down a dark crevasse, Arthur let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. His horse shook itself, relieved that the danger was finally gone.
“What happened?” Akbar trotted up, disbelief on his face. “You could have gotten it!” Behind him, Caldor struggled to his feet, looking thunderous. He remounted, thrashing his horse savagely.
“I—sorry,” Arthur said, distracted. “It just reminded me of…something I regretted killing.”
“Regretted killing?” Akbar repeated, but Arthur wasn’t listening. His mind half in a forest outside of Camelot, he turned, searching. And frowned.
They found Merlin at the entrance of the first wadi. He was sitting on the ground, holding onto the reins of his horse. His saddle lay lopsidedly on the ground next to him.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asked, reining in next to him. Behind him, the young men sniggered, and Arthur gritted his teeth in annoyance.
“Oh, you know me,” Merlin said airily. “Can’t stay on the horse.”
“This is getting ridiculous,” Arthur said, but without heat, because he heard the note in Merlin’s voice warning that all was not as it seemed.
“I know. Actually, I snagged the girth of my saddle on a branch or a bush or something. It ripped.” He looked apologetically at Akbar. “I’ll pay you back for the damage.”
Akbar shrugged, still amused. “Don’t think anything of it.” Beside him, Caldor looked at his prince quickly, no doubt surprised by Akbar’s generosity. “But perhaps you should avoid horses from now on?”
Merlin smiled. Arthur could tell the effort he put into it. “That is probably for the best.”
Akbar pointed to a groom. “Take Hardin’s mount. He can ride your horse bareback.” The groom dismounted obligingly, Merlin traded in his reins, and the party began the trek back to Iskandara.
“Merlin?” Arthur questioned, but his manservant shook his head slightly. Not here. Frowning, Arthur settled in for the return trip.
“Lady Morgana!” a female voice called as Gwen and Morgana were returning to their chambers. They turned to see Lady Helene striding after them. Morgana glanced at Gwen, who quirked a brow as they paused to wait for the other woman. “If you wouldn’t mind,” Helene said to Gwen, smiling easily, “I’d like to speak to your mistress for a moment.”
Both of Gwen’s brows went up ever so slightly at that, but she nodded, dropping a courtesy, before continuing along. Morgana regarded Helene curiously. The latter motioned to a doorway. “The Gardens are right this way. Would you fancy taking a turn with me? The air at this time of morning is so refreshing.”
Morgana was already sweating slightly underneath her court attire. She gave Helene a quizzical look, but followed her obediently out the door and into the bright Iskandaran sun.
The Royal Gardens were not laid out like the typical, formal northern gardens. High walls enclosed rambling paths lined with cottonwoods and olive trees. Helene led her along one such path, trailing a hand down to pluck a bright desert bloom.
“You are curious about our royal family,” Helene said without preamble, bringing the bloom up to her nose and inhaling. A few strands of her glossy brown hair caught on the petals, and Morgana checked a strange urge to free them.
“…Yes,” Morgana said, glancing back up into Helene’s face.
“More specifically, curious about Akbar.”
Helene laughed lightly. “It’s all right. I just wanted to let you know: he has been…indiscrete with visiting ladies in the past. I would not want you to find yourself in an uncomfortable position.”
“Ah,” Morgana said. “Thank you for the warning. But I assure you, I am not at all interested in Akbar.”
“Not your type?” Helene murmured.
Morgana grinned slyly. “Well, I generally don’t enjoy being held hostage to a minute-by-minute recounting of past hunting exploits. Arthur occasionally does that too.”
Helene laughed. “Yes, men do have a tendency to go on.”
“Amil doesn’t seem to be like that, though.”
“No. The princes do not share much in common with each other. It happens.”
“I’d imagine Amil’s condition only exacerbates things?”
Helene sobered. “Akbar is not…the most understanding of men. He does not have the same patience for his brother that Amil has for him.”
“Well,” Morgana said slowly, remembering Godfrey’s comments about the brothers, “Amil seems like he’s very good at…understanding his brother.”
Helene gave a slightly twisted smile, half-amused and half-pained. “You mean at managing him? Yes. We are all taking cues from Amil.”
Morgana glanced quickly at Helene. So, Amil was already being set up to act as chief councilor to Akbar. She wanted to ask Helene what Akbar thought of that, but knew the other woman probably wouldn’t answer.
The path they were wandering took a meandering turn. Up ahead, a sunken lake lay roughly near the center of the garden, its surface stirred by the ripples of a fountain that was surely powered by magic. Morgana found to her surprise that the resulting gurgling of water in the background did instill a phantom sense of coolness in her mind. Helene, leading her along the path, caught Morgana staring at it curiously.
“You like our fountain?”
“It’s magic, isn’t it?”
“Indeed. Probably an extravagant usage, but it’s soothing on a day like today, yes?”
“Mmm,” Morgana said agreeably, still looking longingly at the fountain.
“There used to be fish in the pond, but they didn’t agree with the spell,” Helene said regretfully.
“Didn’t agree? I don’t understand.”
Helene waved a hand casually. “Oh, you know how magic can sometimes interfere with lesser creatures that don’t have their own magic.”
“…I didn’t know that,” Morgana said, frowning.
Helene blinked. “Oh, yes, of course. I’d forgotten about Uther Pendragon’s...interesting views on magic. Forgive me for mentioning it.”
“Are you…?” Morgana stopped.
The other woman looked at her fully. “Yes?”
Morgana opened her mouth to speak.
“My lady!” Gwen’s voice called. Morgana’s mouth snapped shut. She looked around to see Gwen hurrying toward them, hands bunched in her skirts to hold them out of the way.
“Yes, Gwen, what is it?” Morgana tried to keep her impatience out of her voice.
“Prince Arthur and Merlin have returned,” Gwen said as she reached them. “The prince sent a note up requesting your presence.”
Morgana pursed her lips. “I’m sure he just wants to brag about killing lions.” Beside her, Helene looked down, smiling softly.
Gwen shook her head. “I don’t believe they caught any lions. But Merlin fell off his horse.”
“Yes, milady.” Gwen stared at her insistently. Morgana sighed.
“Oh, very well. I’m coming.”
“The girth was cut,” Merlin reported, when Morgana and Gwen joined them in Arthur’s quarters. “Not all the way through, but enough so that a bit of hard riding would rip it.” He looked soberly at Arthur. “That horse was meant for you, you know.”
Arthur sighed. “That’s it. We need to track whoever’s behind this down.”
“The guild stamp’s our best lead,” Merlin said, glancing at Gwen. “Perhaps the blacksmith who made it can remember whom he sold it to.”
Gwen walked over to a trunk, flipped the lid open, and removed the blow dart. “It’s a long shot,” she said, studying it once more.
Morgana shrugged. “It’s worth trying, at the very least. Arthur has another meeting and we have to go to the feast tonight, but I doubt anyone will think twice if the two of you aren’t there.”
“All right,” Merlin said. “We’ll go to the marketplace, and take things from there.”
Iskandara was famous for its covered marketplace, or bazaar, that served to protect the merchants and their goods from the arid climate. Camelot’s contingent had bypassed it upon entering the city; now, despite the circumstances, Gwen was rather pleased at the chance to visit.
The bazaar was enormous, as befitting Iskandara’s prime location on the intersection of several well-traveled trading routes. Thick limestone walls, pierced with metal grilles to let in light and air, ringed the perimeter of the bazaar, creating a fortress-like exterior that belied the utter pandemonium Gwen and Merlin found upon entering.
The noise was deafening. It seemed that everyone believed shouting to be the most efficient method of communicating: shopkeepers hawking wares cajoled reluctant shoppers, and heckled people attempting to walk past their stalls; customers haggled fiercely over prices, expressing outrage and disgust at what they viewed to be blatant price gouging; rival merchants jostled for customers’ attention and shrieked abuse at one another.
Color was everywhere too, from the vibrant green silks that a harried maidservant was attempting to inspect, no doubt for her elegant mistress; to the fierce orange and red spices that a man was folding into paper twists; to a stand of astonishing blue and purple feathers that threatened to tip over at any moment. There were tiny figurines of Eastern idols, in jade and ivory; heavy pelts of animals found far to the north; cloth of all kind, begging to be caressed; barrels and barrels of salt and grain. The halls echoed with commerce being transacted and profits made and lost.
People streamed all over the place, talking and gesturing. Despite the chaos, everyone seemed to know where they were going and no one looked twice at Gwen and Merlin, struck momentarily dumb. After a few stunned moments spent taking everything in, Merlin stirred and touched Gwen’s elbow. “Shall we?”
She blew out a breath. “Let’s go.”
Godfrey had participated in many diplomatic negotiations over the years. One did not last long as an ambassador if one was not very skilled at reading people, listening, and compromising in such a way as to keep most of one’s own objectives while letting the other party believe they were walking away with a favorable deal. He was good at it: he enjoyed the give-and-take of the negotiating table, and he enjoyed learning the peculiarities of each new court at which he was posted. He’d learned early on in his career that nothing was ever as it seemed, and that even the most placid-appearing court contained its fair share of intrigue and political machinations.
Iskandara was a case in point. From the outside, it seemed sound and had a secure succession, with the leading families and merchants of the kingdom all invested in the stability and success of the country. It was ruled over by an intelligent king, who’d chosen to surround himself with able councilors and an equally intelligent queen. Godfrey had been a young man, just starting his diplomatic career, when Umar had married Zuhra, but he remembered reading a particularly approving report on the union. It commented that Umar had been sensible in choosing a wife who had the ability to establish a regency and rule wisely, should anything happen to her husband while their children were young. And she’d gone on to do her wifely duty and produced an heir and the requisite spare, although the second son had been born lame.
But even the most stable kingdoms and the best-laid plans could be rocked by just one troublesome personality, Godfrey reflected, as he watched Akbar and Amil interact—or not, as it happened. Whereas in the previous meeting, Akbar had been content to sit back and let Amil ask questions and argue with the rest of the councilors, now he aggressively cut off his brother whenever the latter made a point or raised an issue. At first, Amil had pressed on, regardless of Akbar’s dismissals. However, as Akbar kept interrupting, Amil subsided, considering his brother cautiously, as a man does when confronted with a new opponent whose strengths and weaknesses he does not yet know.
King Umar, for his part, watched both of his sons inscrutably. Godfrey wondered why the man didn’t take more of a hand in the verbal dysfunction of his progeny, and mentally sighed. Fathers and sons. Some men couldn’t help but promote competition between their offspring; some men could not help but mask their true emotions towards their children, thinking they were teaching them how to survive. Godfrey glanced at Arthur Pendragon, and deliberately did not think of his own king.
On the bright side, the Prince of Camelot was performing admirably. He was obviously aware of the uncomfortable situation between the two brothers, but maintained the same vaguely courteous, professional demeanor without acknowledging in any way the undercurrents swirling around the room. Godfrey shifted a little in his seat and allowed himself a brief moment of pride in his prince. From various reports Godfrey had received as Arthur was growing up, he’d gathered that the boy had been a right terror for much of his childhood and teenaged years. It was a consequence of being indulged materially by an emotionally distant, powerful father; and all of Camelot’s councilors had spent their fair share of evenings privately commiserating over Camelot’s future in the hands of the spoilt princeling.
But this young man, while not entirely rid of his obstinacy, was clearly on the path to becoming something else: a king one served out of love, not just duty. A king one could believe in. A king worthy of the title.
Godfrey was startled out of his reverie by Akbar saying, quite clearly, “No.”
Godfrey looked up, and saw Prince Arthur blink in confusion at the other man. “I’m sorry?”
“I don’t like those terms,” Akbar said. “Why do the rates have to go down?” His voice was querulous and his hands clenched together on the table. A councilor said gently, “My lord, we decrease the taxation rates on visiting merchants over time to encourage repeated visits. Decelerating rates ensure longevity of trade.”
“It’s a similar agreement to what we have in our existing trade treaties,” Amil said placatingly. “But perhaps his highness would be open to renegotiating the initial taxation rate?”
Godfrey was about to answer for his sovereign when Arthur said, somewhat apologetically, “I’m afraid that my merchants would not be too pleased about that. I worry that any higher rate would prevent them from making the initial investment and force them to consider other trading routes.”
“The rate decreases too much,” Akbar said stubbornly.
“Well, I think—” Amil began.
“What you think doesn’t matter!” Akbar burst out, and took a breath to continue speaking. His father beat him to it.
“Akbar, that is enough,” Umar said tightly. “You are dismissed.”
The prince rose to his feet, radiating anger. As he was leaving the room, his father said, “Amil, please continue,” and Godfrey saw the little check that Akbar made before departing.
Fathers and sons. It never changed.
Gwen had suggested starting out with the blacksmiths in the hope that they could, at the very least, identify the guild marking. Both she and Merlin knew from long experience that asking for directions in any market was sure to mark one out as a stranger, and thus open oneself up to harassment from the competing merchants. They’d already gotten somewhat vague directions from one of the palace servants and, so armed, began threading their way through the labyrinth of stalls.
Merlin kept getting distracted by various shiny things they passed; Gwen had to keep a firm grip on his arm lest he wander off down one of the side halls that branched off from the main thoroughfare.
“Arthur said to go straight there.”
“Arthur was just being a prat because he couldn’t come himself,” Merlin retorted, but he stopped pulling at her.
Resolutely ignoring a beautiful display of necklaces, Gwen said, “I still don’t think Umar’s behind this. Both were such clumsy attempts!”
Merlin shrugged. “If it is Umar, he has to take care not to do anything that could be traced back to him. He doesn’t want war anymore than Camelot does.”
“Then why would he want Arthur dead?” she asked.
“Have you met Arthur?” Merlin said, laughing, and ducked away from Gwen’s swat.
“Maybe it’s someone who followed us from home,” she mused. “Arthur certainly hasn’t made any friends upholding his father’s ban on magic. And it would be easier to make an attempt on his life here, away from the protections of Camelot.”
“There was nothing magical about that man,” Merlin said with certainty. “Trust me.”
“How could you tell if he had magic or not?” Gwen asked curiously, before a careless shopper next to her upset a cage of live chickens. Squawking, the birds tumbled out of the cage and ran headlong into the packed isle, feathers flying. It was easy to tell which way they went by following all the swearing and stumbling in the crowd. Their owner gave a howl of despair and plunged after them, flailing at anyone he suspected of taking an errant bird. Merlin grabbed Gwen and pulled her out of the way just before a soldier, come to restore order, stumbled over one of the chickens and went down, twisting wildly. His journey ground-ward was slowed by a passing youth and two sacks of feed, which cushioned his own fall but did nothing to quell the general excitement. Feathers and dust hung heavy in the air.
“Thank you,” Gwen said breathlessly as they drew back from the mêlée.
He grinned at her. “It was mostly luck. Normally, I’d be right in the middle of a mess like that.”
“Normally, you’d have caused it,” Gwen said, grinning back. “In this case, I think a small detour is acceptable, don’t you?”
“Lead on,” Merlin replied.
They found the booths of the blacksmiths with no more fowl-related incidents. Gwen assessed the assembled swords, daggers, poniards, and other instruments of war with a practiced eye. Then, choosing a stall set off a little ways from the rest of the smiths, she picked up a sword and held it aloft, admiring the play of light down the blade.
“That one’s a real beauty,” the proprietor said proudly. “One of my favorites.”
“It is indeed,” Gwen agreed. “The balance is nearly perfect. And the folding—you don’t see craftsmanship like this very often, nowadays.”
The proprietor raised a brow. “You know smithy work, young lass?”
“My father was a blacksmith. I grew up pumping the bellows for him.” She smiled ingratiatingly at the man, who beamed back.
“Did you now? Small slip of a girl like you? I find that hard to believe!”
“Believe it or not, it’s true.”
“Well, what can I help you with? A sword for your friend there? A dagger for yourself?”
“I was actually in the market for a peashooter,” Gwen confided. “I was hoping to show my friend how to hunt for guinea fowl with darts.”
The man frowned. “Not a lot of small game birds around here. Some quail, I guess. Most people use bow and arrow.”
Merlin stepped forward, smiling apologetically. “Afraid I’m terrible with bow and arrow. I’m hoping a blow dart requires less coordination.”
The man took in Merlin’s long arms and legs and smiled understandingly. “I see. Unfortunately, I don’t sell any shooters. You might try Hephastian’s stall over there. He’s the only one I’ve ever seen sell something like that.”
Gwen thanked him and they stepped away.
“None of his wares had that marking,” Merlin noted.
“Mmm. I don’t think he is a member of any guild. Did you see how his stall is set off from the others?”
“I wondered about that.”
Hephastian’s stall was quite a bit larger. What was more, every single piece of merchandise was stamped with the hammer. Hephastian himself was a large man, with strong arms and thick wrists. The typical smith build, Gwen knew.
He was friendly enough until she asked about blowpipes. Then, brow lowered, he said stiffly, “What’d you want with one of those?”
When Merlin explained about hunting birds, Hephastian’s expression shuttered and he said, “You’re only going to find a few flocks of quail in these parts. You’re not from here, are you?”
Merlin and Gwen glanced at one another. “We’re visiting,” Merlin said slowly.
“I see,” Hephastian replied, eyes sharp. “I’m afraid I can’t help you. As you can see, I don’t have any blowpipes here.”
“Have you ever made some, for anyone?” Merlin persisted.
“I make a lot of things,” the smith said. “But I can’t help you with this.”
“Thank you,” Merlin said, looking hard at the man. “You’ve been very kind.” They turned and walked away, Gwen glancing once over her shoulder. Hephastian was still staring after them.
Merlin snorted. “He knows something. He was barely trying to hide it, too.”
“A smith would know where and how to cut a girth so that it rips,” Gwen said thoughtfully.
Merlin nodded, pulling her around a corner. “I say we wait here for a bit, see if he goes anywhere.”
Gwen raised her brows. “It’s the middle of the evening rush. You think he’ll leave his booth?”
Her friend shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe if we made him nervous enough. It’s worth waiting twenty minutes or so.”
Back at the palace, Morgana ignored Arthur’s fidgeting and tried to concentrate. One of Umar’s councilors was giving a toast to the lasting friendship between Camelot and Iskandara. As far as toasts went, it was rather lacking; but the councilor, Morgana knew, also owned a substantial tract of land through which the eastern trade routes ran. It was wise to attend to him, no matter how terrible he was at public speaking.
“They should have been back by now,” Arthur muttered out of the side of his mouth. He and Morgana were seated on the raised dais of honor, next to Umar and Zuhra. Akbar and Amil presided over their own tables farther down. The court of Iskandara was spread before them, and Morgana couldn’t help but notice that a few courtiers were themselves struggling to stay interested in the toast. Through the windows, arched in the style of the region, she could see the sun, slowly sinking.
Morgana kept her smile fixed on her face. “It’s barely been two hours. Pay attention.”
“I am!” he growled. “Saldin is exceedingly glad to bear witness to Iskandara’s new relationship with Camelot, and even more glad for the influx of traders from Camelot that he hopes to tax on their way to the East.”
“And you should be glad as well,” Morgana said severely. “These new trade routes will make Camelot richer by half.”
“I know, Morgana, I’ve been preparing for this mission for months now.”
“You mean your councilors have,” Morgana said, rather unfairly. Arthur sneered at her half-heartedly but, surprisingly, made no response. Off to the side, she could see Godfrey glaring sourly at them.
“How on earth did he manage to accumulate all that land?” she wondered. “He cannot be much of a politician if this is what he thinks a speech should be.”
“He married into it,” Arthur answered. “From what Godfrey said, his in-laws were extremely persuasive—with a sword. I doubt this one’s had to do much more than collect taxes.”
Saldin paused, and Morgana’s heart lifted, hoping he was done. The man inhaled, and then continued speaking.
Her shoulders slumped.
In the end, it was closer to half an hour, as Hephastian was delayed by several customers inspecting swords. Gwen was in favor of leaving, but Merlin stubbornly insisted on waiting, sure Hephastian would lead them somewhere.
And lead them he did, on a merry chase through some of the busiest streets of Iskandara. At one point, Gwen thought they’d lost the smith when they got stuck behind a farmer engaged in a protracted battle of wills with a recalcitrant donkey. Dancing on the balls of her feet, well outside the range of the donkey’s tossing hooves, she watched despairingly as Hephastian neared the end of the block and began to turn out of sight. Miraculously, two barrels of flour tumbled to the street in front of him and cracked open, spilling white powder into the air. Hephastian obligingly waited a moment as the owner of the flour, cursing his bad fortune, retrieved the rolling barrels from the middle of the street.
“That was a lucky break,” Gwen commented, finally able to skirt round the donkey.
Merlin smiled. “Wasn’t it?”
They followed him down two more blocks and up another main avenue when Merlin grabbed Gwen and slammed them both up against a building. “Ouch! Merlin, what?”
He shushed her and leaned out to look. Cautiously, Gwen leaned as well.
Hephastian had been joined by the would-be assassin from the procession into Iskandara. They spoke together tersely, walking quickly into an imposing building made of the same heavy limestone blocks as the bazaar. There was an etching of the same hammer symbol carved into one of the blocks around the door.
“Guild headquarters, you think?” Merlin whispered grimly to Gwen. “I say we wait for him to come out.”
Gwen glanced up at the sky. The sun was sinking fast: Arthur and Morgana would be finishing up soon. “We need to tell Arthur and Morgana about this.”
Merlin pursed his lips. “All right. You go back to the castle. I’ll wait here for awhile longer; see if they come out.”
Gwen squeezed his shoulder and left.
By the time dinner was over, Arthur was ready to declare war on any small, unsuspecting hamlet, just to relieve his feelings. He stalked through the hallways, bowing perfunctorily at passing nobles, with Morgana hot on his heels.
They finally reached their rooms and found Gwen, waiting anxiously.
“What happened?” Arthur asked, walking swiftly to Gwen. “Are you all right? Where’s Merlin?”
She smiled briefly at him. “I’m fine. He’s still in the town. He’s waiting—oh, I’d better just start from the beginning.” Quickly, she explained about the blacksmith Hephastian, following him through the town, and seeing the would-be assassin.
“Merlin’s still hiding outside the guild headquarters, hoping to catch one of them when they come out,” Gwen finished. She frowned as Arthur went to the bureau and pulled out Merlin’s traveling cloak. “What are you doing?”
“Going to find him, of course,” Arthur replied, pulling off his heavy, embroidered court doublet. “I shudder to think what Merlin will destroy if he’s left to wander around Iskandara unsupervised.”
Morgana arched a brow. “So, you’re just going to go wander around the town with him, while an assassin who may or may not want to kill you is on the loose? You’ve had a number of stupid ideas over the years, Arthur, but this one tops them all.”
Arthur glared at her. “It may have escaped your notice, Morgana, but I can take care of myself.”
“Barely,” she muttered. Lifting her chin, she said, “I’m going with you. You need someone to watch your back.”
“Out of the question,” he said brusquely. “It’s far too dangerous.”
Morgana snorted. “I’m not the crown prince of Camelot. I don’t have a giant target painted on my back.”
“We don’t know that you’re not a target, too,” Arthur pointed out, buckling his sword belt.
“We’ll all go,” Gwen said. Arthur stopped buckling and stared at her.
“Er…I really don’t think you should—” he began, but Gwen cut him off impatiently.
“Morgana’s right. We’re safer together. And seeing how neither of you knows how to get to the guild headquarters...”
Morgana smirked at Arthur. “What about Lord Godfrey?”
“He’ll have a conniption if he finds out,” Arthur said, shaking his head.
“You mean he’d forbid you to go,” Morgana stated.
Arthur scowled. “He can’t make me do anything.”
“Keep telling yourself that, Arthur,” Morgana returned before turning to her handmaiden. “Did we pack any less…showy cloaks?”
“Of course,” Gwen replied, crossing the room to a trunk and throwing it open. “Milady, you probably should change out of your court attire as well.”
“And I want to find a sword,” Morgana added.
Arthur opened his mouth to make an acerbic comment about wasting time, looked at Gwen, and decided against it. He settled against the footboard of the bed to wait.
Disguised as servants of the Prince of Camelot, they were able to slip out of the palace with only a modicum of fuss. Gwen led the way through town in the glimmering twilight. There were few people about, most townspeople having already sought the warmth of their hearths against the chill of the encroaching desert night.
She found Merlin much in the same place, back wedged against a doorframe, peeking out periodically to check the guild headquarters. He started when he saw all of them.
“You know, being stealthy only works with one or two people,” he said as they approached.
“They insisted on coming,” Arthur said, conveniently ignoring the fact that he would have been lost without Gwen. “Any sign of our man?”
Merlin shook his head. “I was actually about to pack it in. Neither of them has come out.”
“Is there a back entrance?” Morgana asked sensibly. Merlin stared at her. “Uh…”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Oh, honestly.”
There was, unfortunately, a back entrance. Merlin looked at it a little forlornly. “They could have left at any time, and I wouldn’t have noticed.”
“Never mind,” Morgana said, taking his elbow. “At least now we know a few more of the players. Come, let’s go back to the palace and have a proper council of war.”
Arthur handed Merlin a small unlit torch from his belt and then drew back to walk beside Gwen after lighting his own. The streets were now completely deserted, and cold was beginning to settle. The moon had broken through the eastern horizon and was rising, impersonally.
“I didn’t think of the back door either,” she said apologetically.
He smiled down at her. “It’s all right.” She felt him touch the small of her back. “We’ll figure this out.” Despite the layers of her cloak and clothes, she could feel his fingers, lingering. She shivered.
“Are you cold?” he asked, concern creasing his brow. “D’you want my cloak?”
Gwen was about to reassure him when she saw Merlin and Morgana jerk to a halt in an intersection in front of them. A group of men were approaching down the street. They did not look friendly.
“Arthur…” Merlin warned. Arthur drew his sword. Following his lead, Morgana drew her own sword and Gwen took out the daggers she was carrying, tossing one to Merlin, who was unarmed.
“These odds aren’t so bad,” Arthur said, flipping his sword. “I’ve definitely had worse.”
“Now is not the time to brag, Arthur,” Morgana growled.
Gwen glanced behind them. Several more men melted out of the street, all carrying swords. One of them was the blow-dart assassin.
“Um…I think it just got worse,” she said.