The black-clad assassin paused just out of reach of Myste's rapier, his eyes glinting in the shadows of his hood. She surreptitiously adjusted her grip, grateful for the fencing lessons she and Darsint had been taking. She could feel Terisa's shoulder blades against hers, could feel her arms trembling as she hoisted her knife. She had no skill with a blade, but Myste knew that her reputation as an Arch-Imager would make the assassin facing her hesitate. They didn't need to win, Myste reminded herself. They just needed to survive a little longer.
A small sniffle at her feet reminded her of the stakes, but she didn't dare to look down to reassure her tiny niece. All her concentration had to be on the silent killer before her. His shoulders were tense with malice, his eyes bright with murder. The room was silent except for the quiet ticking of blood from Myste's blade onto stone.
Terisa's voice came from behind Myste, detached and full of wonder:
"Does anyone else hear horns?"
: : :
Eight hours ago
When the walls of Carmag--spires of pale sandstone, azure roofs that rippled in the searing sun--came into view, Myste could feel the tension go out of Geraden without having to look at him. She shared a brief, amused glance with Terisa as he muttered, "At last."
"Come now, Adapt Geraden," Myste said, using the title that he always begged her not to, "We have only been attacked by bandits twice on our journey across the desert; perhaps we should turn around and seek out further adventures before reaching the dull safety of Carmag?" She kicked her mare into a canter for a moment, enjoying Geraden's exasperated look as she tossed up sprays of sand beneath her hooves.
"Carmag is unlikely to be either dull or safe," he said sententiously. "The High Regent and his consort are popular with the people of Cadwal, but the nobles and the assassin's guild are less enamoured with them. With two assassination attempts in the last year--"
"--Geraden, we're not Apts for you to lecture," Myste broke in impatiently, and he subsided, blushing. "I'm perfectly aware of the political implications of our visit. But for me, this is a chance to talk to my sister for the first time in three years, so--" She flashed a look over at Terisa, who was still smiling. "I'll race you to the city!"
The mare leapt under her touch, stretching her sturdy legs. Myste heard Terisa's laughing challenge behind her, heard both other horses move into a gallop. Soon Geraden was whooping like a boy as the gates of Carmag loomed before them.
From a window high in a slender spire Myste saw a figure dressed in royal purple appear, the sun flashing briefly on her golden hair. Myste waved to her sister and saw Elega raise a hand to them before disappearing from the window to meet them at the gate.
: : :
The sunlight on the bleached walls of Carmag was implacable and harsh, but it only seemed to make the interiors more dim and shadowy. Inside, the flickering lamplight glimmered off the ornate silken tapestries and turned Elega's golden hair into a gilded wonder. Her deep violet robe seemed to pool shadows within its folds, and her twilight-colored eyes were alight with happiness and secrets. Even in the late stages of pregnancy, her motions were graceful and elegant. Myste brushed sand off her leather pants and reminded herself that it was only natural to feel rather grubby and unsophisticated: Elega was in her element. Darsint had told her--and shown her--often enough how much he enjoyed the tumble of sunlight and the tangle of wind in her hair, and Myste needed no other mirror than the love in his eyes.
Elega's long fingers rested on the curve of her belly as she paced across the pale stone floor, her robes swishing with each turn. "--Then Lord Therris stood up to address the nobles, and although his words were honeyed, it was clear that he was hinting that as long as there was no heir, Kragan was replaceable." She made a sharp cutting motion with one hand at the memory. "Well, Kragan informed him that in Alend daughters could be heirs, but he just laughed--" The hand became an angry fist, "--just laughed and said that we were not in Alend now, and not in Mordant either. He said--" Elega shook her head forcefully, as if to dislodge memories. "Well, you don't want to hear what he said about Mordant, or our father."
Myste took a sip of wine. "High King Festten would surely have had him killed for such impertinence," she observed.
She received an exasperated glance from violet eyes. "That's exactly what we are trying to counter, dear, and you know it." Myste hid her smile against the goblet's rim. "We can't just go executing everyone who bothers us--tempting as it might be at times."
"What does it mean for Claret that she isn't viewed as a proper heir here?" Myste's eyes went to the toddler asleep on a cushion, worn out from the excitement of so many guests and the thrill of playing horsey with "Unca Ger'den."
Elega sighed, and for the first time a glint of worry touched her eyes. "In a way, I think it keeps her safe. Maybe they won't bother to send an assassin against a baby girl if they think she's no threat."
And you have always called me the unrealistic idealist, Myste mused, but kept the thought to herself, as Elega's eyes revealed that she didn't believe it any more than Myste did. She stood up instead, going to the window and moving aside the heavy brocade that kept the room dim despite the blaze of the day. By all rights the rooms should have been stuffy and close, but Cadwal's finest Imagers translated fresh ice from the glaciers of the north every morning to keep the palace cool through the day. One of the first actions Elega had insisted on was that the royal Imagers would translate ice every morning for distribution among the citizens of Carmag: the Imagers had protested such menial labor vehemently, but the act had marked the beginning of the Regent and Consort's massive popularity among the people of Cadwal.
Blinking as her eyes adjusted to the harsh sunlight, Myste looked out at the spires and minarets of Carmag. In the street below, a succession of street vendors peddled their wares: melons and figs, silver anklets and vials of perfume. She spotted Geraden's dark, curly head, Terisa's auburn locks shining beside him as always.
"They don't have enough sense to come in out of the sun," Elega's trenchant voice said at her elbow.
"Geraden says they have to get to know Carmag perfectly if they are to make mirrors of it."
Geraden held up a copper locket, setting it against Terisa's glossy red hair as if to compare. She laughed, but when he turned to pay the vendor for it, she blushed and didn't protest.
Elega sighed. "If Geraden can make a curved mirror in Orison that really does show Carmag, if he could make it possible for us to travel back and forth..." Her voice trailed off.
"Being able to get extra troops and provisions to Carmag could be such good insurance," Myste agreed.
Her sister burst into laughter, and Myste blinked at her. "Oh Myste," said Elega through her laughter, "When did you become the strategist and I the romantic?" She reached out and clasped Myste's shoulder. "I mean that I miss you and would like to see you more often."
Myste ducked her head, feeling suddenly shy--not at the affection in Elega's eyes, that had always been there, but at the respect. "I miss you very much as well, sister."
"Did you know," Elega went on, turning from the window, "Claret reminds me of you sometimes?"
"Oh dear," laughed Myste.
"I mean it. It's in the way she seems to look through me at times, the faraway steel in her eyes. She's going to be brave and strong, I know it. Just like her aunt."
"Just like her mother and father," Myste added, and they smiled at each other.
"I shall have you formally introduced to the Cadwallian court tomorrow," said Elega after a moment. "Once you have a chance to rest and refresh yourselves."
"Oh," sighed Myste, "Can't it wait a little longer?" The idea of having to change back into court clothing and play at court intrigue chafed worse than her riding leathers.
Elega frowned, her imperious manner restored. "I kept your arrival a secret for your sake, Myste, but I can hardly be seen as not receiving a Princess of Mordant properly."
"I'm just your sister," Myste protested weakly, knowing Elega would win this argument. At least they had been able to have one day in Carmag free of politics and diplomacy, she thought.
Elega looked amused. "There's no 'just' about that," she said.
Myste had to admit she had a point.
: : :
"What was that sound?"
Myste frowned at Geraden's words and shot Terisa a questioning look. The three of them were catching up before bed, comparing notes of their first day in Carmag over a glass of chilled wine.
Terisa was frowning. "That thump?"
"It was outside the door," Geraden said. Standing up, he reached cautiously for the doorknob and opened it.
A body fell into the room.
As Terisa's gasp echoed off the stone walls, Myste recognized the livery of the personal royal guard. The bleeding man stared up at them blankly, too far gone to be sure where he was. "The Princess," he gasped. "Claret. I--"
Myste didn't wait for him to finish his sentence. She grabbed her rapier and shoved Terisa's knife-scabbard at her before heading out the door at a dead run, hurdling the fallen guard.
The other two were right behind her, as they had been that morning, charging into danger.
: : :
They didn't have to win, Myste reminded herself once more. There was a mirror in the room. Geraden or Terisa would shift the image, would translate something that would turn the tide of battle. She just had to give them enough time. She bared her teeth at the assassin in front of her. "You god-rotting fornicator of goats," she grated with relish. For a moment his eyes faltered before her gaze. Good. She gripped the rapier more tightly, readying herself for a fresh assault, and a chuckle bubbled in the back of her throat.
"Oh yes," she answered Terisa, laughing. "I hear them too."