I hover in the dark stairway, between the calmness of the second floor and the merry riot of the common room, clinging to these last seconds of anonymous freedom. The abandoned hall above tempts me. I want no part of the revelry, and the townspeople—if they recognize me—will not want me among them.
And yet, it’s the anniversary of the king’s victory they’re celebrating. I owe him a toast, at least.
My magic tingles and coils under my skin as I take the last steps and enter the common room. The revelry breaks upon me like waves upon a rock: music, the stomping feet of dancers, laughter and calls, roast meat and drinks. I skirt around the room and settle down at a corner table, away from it all.
“Port,” I say to the serving girl.
She returns with a glass and a lingering stare that makes my spine prickle. But she turns away to a company of three who clamor for her attention, and pays me no more heed.
It is ten minutes to midnight.
The tavern door opens, and in walks a giant of a man. My stare snaps to him as he brushes snow from his furs and pulls down his wolverine hood. The lamplight blazes off his bald pate and gold nose ring.
I straighten up with a jolt of recognition.
The giant weaves his way to the counter. Judging by his walk, he is either avoiding invisible columns or already deep in his cups. I shake my head when he orders a pint of shroom beer. That’s Rorrik, all right; only he will drink that foul slime.
He turns from the counter with his tankard and scans the room. My lips curl in anticipation of his surprise when he finds me, and his name teeters on the end of my tongue. But his eyes skim over me without pause. I sink back into my chair as he makes for an empty seat across the room.
On impulse I take the Third Sight. At once, light becomes music, a symphony so poignant it makes my heart hitch. The hearth is bellowing a bold aria, and all around me, a choir of candles answers in a softer voice. This is the music that plays on people’s eyes, the music that evokes pictures in their minds.
I reach out and tweak the music that washes over Rorrik. For Rorrik and for him alone, a green fireball seems to sail through the air and plunge straight into his tankard.
He still has the sense of mind—and the swiftness of reflex—to hurl the cup away and stagger back, shielding his face against the inevitable explosion. Which never comes. I make the illusionary fireball bob peacefully in the pool of spilled drink, and after a moment, I banish it completely. Rorrik curses and whirls around.
This time his stare rakes the room with feral intensity. When he notices me, his anger dissolves into confusion, which melts into glee.
“Teregryn Eve!” he booms. “I’ll be jiggered!”
The revelry grinds to a halt: the singing trails off mid-verse, and some dancers knock into each other as they stumble to an untimely stop. Every face turns to me. I hunch under the volley of stares, struggling against the lure of the Third Sight and the invisibility it can offer.
“Go on, back to your merrymaking,” Rorrik says to the hushed crowd. “Ain’t you ever seen a man drinking before?”
Gradually, the noise and dancing resume. Rorrik orders another pint of shroom beer—I hear him charge it to me—before heading over to sit opposite me.
“Sorry about that,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking.”
I raise my glass in dismissal. Now that Rorrik is here, I’m beginning to regret ever drawing his attention in the first place.
“So.” He takes a swig of his beer and wipes off a foam moustache. “How have you been? Where have you been?”
I shrug. “Recovering at St. Ceperess Monastery.”
Rorrik’s eyebrows climb up his forehead. “For two years? Gods! What did those blasted elves do to you?”
I’m about to tell him to mind his own business when another question rings in my ears: “How many swordsmen does your king have?”
I look around, but no one else is close enough to speak to me. My gut clenches. I grip the arms of my chair, but at the same time, I can feel leather cords around my wrists and the bark of a tree biting into my back. The tavern fades from my sight.
“How many pyromancers?”
The questions come from three stone-faced elves standing in front of me. One of them raises his fist. His slender fingers are already smeared with blood, the same blood I now lick from my lips.
“When is the next raid planned?”
A blow to my kidneys. The leather cords bite deep into my wrists as my body tries to double over.
“Where is the First Battalion bivouacked?”
I let my gaze wander over their shoulders, like I do in boring council meetings. Behind them stands an elf with black curls and gray eyes and the lithe grace of a panther. Young, except these creatures are ageless; feminine, except there’s something hard and masculine in his poise. He might have been beautiful, if not for his emotionless features.
I stare into his eyes and give him a slow, insolent smile. He turns and walks away.
“How many swordsmen does your king have?”
“How many pyromancers?”
Rorrik’s voice reaches me from across a table and two years. “Teregryn!”
My stare snaps to him.
“Did you hear a word I was saying?”
My hands are shaking. I grip my glass of Port to steady them. “I . . . What?”
“I said, did he ever tell you how he did it?”
“How who did what?”
Rorrik unhooks one finger from his tankard and points it at me. “Very funny. Look, the elves had been raiding us for ages, striking and skulking back into their woods. With me so far?”
I tip my head, acknowledging the obvious as much as wondering where he is steering us. I take a hasty swallow of Port.
“Right. And then one day, they decide to attack in full force, out in the open. Now why is that?”
“How would I know?”
“And they might have overrun us, too, but the king somehow knew to meet them with an army. How is that?”
“How would I know!”
The words come out more harshly than I’d planned. I breathe, breathe, breathe, pulling in the unraveling edges of my patience. “Sorry. I wasn’t even there, remember?”
I certainly don’t. I had just escaped the elves, wracked with fever and illness. The memory of that time—and the two years of my following recuperation—have been completely burned from my mind.
Rorrik waves it away, but I can read the worry in his face. “I just figured the king might have told you, is all,” he mumbles by way of apology.
It’s meant to soothe, but it rankles. “The king has not seen fit to visit me these last two years,” I tell him coldly.
He flinches back; dismay is loud on his face. “But—”
The horologe strikes twelve.
The wall opposite my alcove becomes semi-transparent, and within it, a ruby light begins to pulse. Something is stirring behind the stones. The face of the wall bulges out, deflates, and bulges out again, like the throbbing of a giant heart. Staccato pounding thunders in my ears.
My hand clenches on my glass. “Rorrik,” I say with quiet urgency.
“Can’t you see it?”
I hear his tankard landing on the table. “See what?”
Dark liquid oozes out of the cracks between the stones, separating into tendrils that crawl over the wall and twist themselves into familiar shapes. Shapes I never thought to see again. Elven runes.
The glass shatters in my grip. I hear Rorrik jump to his feet.
I point at the wall with a hand that drips Port and blood. “Look!”
“Look at what?”
Wonderful. Whatever magic is at work here, it’s targeting me alone. Strangely fitting, since I am probably the only human left who can read those runes.
First, Gidden Loristan, they say. Then you.
The runes dissolve; the wall buckles one last time and smooths; the pulsing light in the stones ebbs away. The pounding noise recedes and merges with my own heartbeat.
I look up at Rorrik. His face is furrowed with concern, though probably for all the wrong reasons. The music has died down, the dancing stopped. Everyone in the room is pretending not to stare at me.
I rein in my stampeding breath, grip the table against my dizziness. “Help me find him,” I say quietly.
“Who do you think is him? The elf that worked that magic!”
“Lord Eve—” Rorrik puts a hand on my shoulder “—the elves all died in the Cleansing.”
His words make my stomach churn. I push his hand away. “Well, we missed one.”
“Teregryn . . .”
I rub my face with my good hand and gaze at the stubbornly normal wall. Look over the strangely subdued people in the sitting room. Look down at my bleeding hand that bristles with glass shards.
“It’s just the drink,” Rorrik says. “Come on, let’s get that hand of yours bandaged, and I’ll help you to your room . . .”
I should go hunt that elf.
I should go warn Gidden.
I’m so tired . . .
I’ve been through seven kinds of hell in my short life. I cannot truly blame myself for following Rorrik upstairs and letting him tend me, then tuck me into bed, just this once.