I knew I wasn’t being arrested—at least I didn’t think I was. It’s just that certain members of my family have had extensive experience with what being arrested looked and felt like. What had just happened to me met both criteria. You know what they say—if it looks like an arrest and feels like an arrest, chances are it is an arrest.
I was sitting on a bench outside Justinius Valerian’s office. Now that I was out of the screaming crowds and actually sitting down, it felt less like an arrest and more like sitting outside the headmaster’s office, waiting to get yelled at. Vegard was sitting next to me. I wasn’t sure if he was there as a guard or as an accused accomplice. I didn’t want to ask. These were Conclave walls; they probably had ears.
I sighed, leaned back, and closed my eyes. That felt good. Too good. “I am in so much trouble,” I muttered, my voice sounding as tired as I felt.
“No, you’re not,” Vegard said.
I opened one eye and looked at him. “What makes you think that?”
“I’ve been in trouble.” He glanced around. There was no one in the archmagus’s outer office but us. “This ain’t it. Besides, you just saved the archmagus, the paladin, and every dignitary on that stage—and all the Guardians on duty around it. There’s some grateful men in our barracks right now who think mighty highly of you.”
The Guardian punched me affectionately on the shoulder. I winced. Amazing how using magic can even make your hair hurt.
The big lug was grinning like a maniac. “I think you’re about to become the old man’s pride and joy.”
I smiled a little. It sounded like I was Vegard’s pride and joy, too.
I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes again. “Then why are we sitting out here?”
Vegard didn’t have an answer for that one.
I did. I’d just magically cut loose in a packed city square, and I was related to the most notorious criminal family in the seven kingdoms. It probably didn’t matter that I was just trying to help. Someone had paid Banan Ryce a lot of money to kill Mychael and the archmagus. Someone who didn’t get what he paid for. And that kidnapped girl was in the worst kind of danger. My mind kept going over what had happened in that courtyard. And I kept telling myself that I never had a clear shot at Banan. Telling myself that didn’t make it any easier to take. When I heard the office door open, I didn’t want to open my eyes and look, but I thought it might be a good idea if I did.
Mychael Eiliesor was standing in the open doorway. He looked pissed. I wasn’t particularly cheerful, either.
Mychael’s hair was rich auburn, his features strong and classically handsome, and his eyes were tropical-seas stunning—and lock-up-your-daughters-and-wives trouble. The outer package was gorgeous; the man inside was dangerous. You didn’t get to be commander of the Conclave Guardians by being any other way.
He looked at my dust-covered self, and then at Vegard.
“Vegard, you’re dismissed. You’re off duty until the evening watch. Get some rest; you’ve earned it.”
I didn’t ask what I’d earned. I’d be finding out soon enough.
Vegard saluted his commander and left. I stood up. I was stiff and achy, but I got there.
“Are you hurt?” Mychael asked.
I shook my head, and managed a weak grin. “But that stage sure was heavy.”
Mychael’s eyes were unreadable. “Yes, it was.”
“I take it the archmagus wants to see me now.” I didn’t ask it as a question.
“He wants to see you.”
Justinius Valerian was the supreme head of the Conclave of Sorcerers, commander in chief of the Brotherhood of Conclave Guardians, and the craftiest spellslinger in the seven kingdoms. I’d heard he was a foul-tempered, nasty old man.
I’d only seen the archmagus of the Conclave at a distance. The old man sitting in front of me holding a glass of whiskey wasn’t quite what I’d imagined. What once might have been lean had turned grizzled. What might have been a luxurious head of hair was now a fringe of downy, white tufts on a liver-spotted head. Only a pair of gleaming blue eyes gave a clue to the man himself.
“So you’re the one who’s giving me ulcers,” he said.
“It’s the least I can do since I’ve driven you to drink.”
Valerian snorted, a sort of laugh. “This job did that years ago. Or at least it gave me a good excuse. After this morning, you probably want to join me.”
“I’ll pass.” I didn’t think dulling my wits around this man would be a good idea.
He took a sip of whiskey, savored it, and swallowed. “I’ve been archmagus for a long time—some people say too long. Dealing with sons of bitches like the Nightshades is part of my job; I knew that coming in. Most times it’s just an annoyance.” His bright blue eyes were hard as agates. “This morning went beyond that, and right now I’m way the hell beyond annoyed. No one endangers my people—especially not my students.” He leveled those eyes on me. “Do you know what you did out there?”
“Death, destruction, and chaos—all courtesy of yours truly.” Nothing like a nice, public display of Saghred-enhanced power to get me all the attention I never wanted.
“You let the cat out of the bag is what you did,” he said point-blank. “You also didn’t cause the destruction and chaos; the Nightshades did that. And because of you, the only people who died today were Nightshades. We have wounded to take care of, but not one of my people was killed, and for that you have my thanks.”
“You and Mychael were his intended targets,” I told him.
“He intends to try again.”
“Of course he will. He didn’t do his job. Whoever hired the bastard isn’t happy with him right now.”
“Any idea who that might be?”
The old man chuckled dryly and took another sip. “That list started when I took office and gets longer every day. The same is true for Mychael here.”
I looked from one of them to the other. “So who’s at the top of the list this week?”
The archmagus leaned forward. “There’s a couple of front-runners,” he said quietly. “Mychael and I will deal with it. You’re a nosy little thing, aren’t you?”
I shrugged. “I’ve been called worse. If that bolt had hit you, you’d be dead, and I’d be screwed. I understand you’ve been voted the mage most likely to get me out of this mess. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
He grinned broadly. “That makes two of us. But this isn’t your fight. If you see another bolt coming at me, just duck. I’ll take care of it—and Banan Ryce.”
“I couldn’t keep him from kidnapping one of your students.” I couldn’t keep the anger out of my voice, either.
“So I heard. I also heard you did what you could.”
“Tell that to the girl Banan Ryce took. He wanted a human shield against me, so he took one. And he probably picked this particular one because she was beautiful and blond.” I paused. There wasn’t any easy way to say this. “Banan Ryce likes blondes—a lot.”
“I know.” Mychael’s voice was carefully emotionless. “We’re doing everything we can to find her as quickly as possible.”
“Who’s we?” I asked bluntly.
“The Guardians and the city watch.”
“He took her through a mirror. Good luck.”
“There are several likely locations for an exit mirror of that size. They’re all being checked.”
“And if you don’t find it—or her?”
“We’ll expand our search as far as necessary.”
“Does your city watch have any seekers?”
“Are they any good?”
If my question offended him, he didn’t show it. “Yes, they are.”
I looked at Mychael; he looked at me. I hadn’t asked whether they were good enough. Mychael knew what I was thinking, and what I wanted to do. I felt directly responsible for that girl’s kidnapping and whatever was happening to her now, and I wanted to be the one to find her. Mychael knew how good a seeker I was. He also knew that my connection to the Saghred made me one of the most dangerous people on the island. As paladin, Mychael wasn’t about to let me loose on his island. He didn’t have to say anything; I could see it in his eyes.
The only sound was the ice clinking in Justinius Valerian’s glass. “Yes, we do think you’re dangerous.”
I could add mind reading to Justinius Valerian’s list of talents.
“What I did with that stage today was all me, no help from the rock,” I told them point-blank. “Just my own skills enhanced by contact with the Saghred. I was completely in control the entire time. Collapsing that stage was more than an assassination attempt for the two of you; it was an audition for me. Someone wanted to see what I could do, and apparently they got what they wanted. Banan said I performed perfectly and that he had a happy client.”
“You’re sure you didn’t use the Saghred?” Justinius asked.
I snorted. “Positive. I didn’t get dizzy, fall down, and throw up. When I chased Banan Ryce into that courtyard, the Saghred offered to help. Insistently. I told it I didn’t want its help.” I looked at Mychael. “The Saghred’s wide-awake. I thought it was bound.”
“It is.” His lips were set in a grim line. “It was as of this morning.”
“Before Miss Benares took on the Nightshades?” Justinius asked him.
I didn’t like that question, or what it implied about my future.
“I checked the containment room myself just after sunrise,” Mychael said. “And got a report from the guards on duty. At that time, the Saghred was spellbound and quiet.”
Justinius leaned back in his chair. The only sound in the room was the wood creaking.
“Then bindings aren’t enough,” he told Mychael. “We need more.”
“I’ll take care of it, sir.”
The old man’s bright eyes narrowed as he looked at me. “The Saghred’s got you where it wants you. The Nightshades want you where they can get you. And Eamaliel Anguis is your papa.”
I took a shallow breath. “That hits the high spots.”
The Saghred was also known by its pet name, Thief of Souls, which pretty much described its favorite activity of slurping souls and sometimes the bodies they came in. One of those souls trapped inside was my father—a Conclave Guardian named Eamaliel Anguis. He had been the Saghred’s protector, until the Saghred decided to turn its protector into its next meal.
“He’s in there?” Justinius asked.
“Has he been talking to you?”
“Sometimes. Mostly it’s Sarad Nukpana.”
Sarad Nukpana was a goblin and the high priest of the Khrynsani, an ancient goblin secret society and military order. He was also chief counselor to the goblin king, Sathrik Mal’Salin. But most of all, Sarad Nukpana was a first-rate psychopath. Nukpana and his boss wanted to get their hands on the Saghred and bring back the good old days of annihilating armies. Thanks to me, Nukpana was imprisoned inside the Saghred, but a shaman that powerful wasn’t about to let a little thing like being a disembodied soul get in the way of vengeance. He didn’t want me dead, just tormented for eternity.
Justinius took a healthy swig of whiskey. From the way my morning was going, joining him was sounding better by the second.
He set the glass down. “Sarad Nukpana’s not someone I’d want in my head.”
“No one asked what I wanted.”
“And you want me to change that.”
“It’d be nice if you could help.”
Justinius straightened in his chair. “My not-so-illustrious predecessors didn’t have any luck turning that rock to dust, but then I like to think I’m a better mage than they were.”
“Do you have any immediate ideas?”
“Not a one. But Mychael just dumped this on me late last night. Brilliance takes time.”
“Time’s something I’m running out of.”
“Mychael said the rock’s not affecting you, and from what I’m seeing I’m inclined to agree.”
“I beg to differ.”
“Feeling evil?” Justinius asked.
“Having an urge to overthrow governments, kill thousands?”
“No and no.”
“Take over the world?”
“Too much work.”
He laughed, a bright bark. Then the laughter was gone. “You sure you want to be rid of it?”
I knew the “it” he was referring to. Power. “What I was born with was working just fine as of last week,” I told him. “I’m a very good seeker,” I said with a meaningful glance at Mychael. “I’m an average sorceress. That was good enough for me, and I’d like to have that back.”
“Some of my mages would be foaming at the mouth to have what you have now.”
Justinius Valerian’s eyes had never left mine, but they changed focus, and I felt the barest hint of the power that’d earned him his title. He was seeing me inside and out. It was the type of seeing that’d earn any other magic user the business end of my fist. Considering who Justinius was, I thought I’d let him finish. He was just assuring himself that I wasn’t actually on the verge of a world-domination rampage.
“You’ll be fine,” he concluded. “But considering who your papa was, that’s not all that surprising.”
“Who my papa is,” I corrected him.
“You’re absolutely sure about that?”
My father was alive. Nine hundred years’ worth of alive. The last year or so had been inside the Saghred, the other eight hundred and something years the result of an extended lifespan from too much contact with the Saghred. A fate I really wanted to avoid.
“Unfortunately certain,” I said.
I nodded in agreement. “His daughter’s not in too great of a state, either. But at least I’m not sharing his accommodations—or his roommate.”
“Sarad Nukpana isn’t someone I’d want to spend eternity with.”
I didn’t have a response for that.
I’d been in the Saghred once before. It had only been for a few moments, but it’d been enough time for me to see that it wasn’t a vacation destination, more like someplace you went after a lifetime of pulling wings off of flies, then working your way up to things that screamed. A Sarad Nukpana kind of place. I had met Sarad Nukpana up close and personal last week, and was in no hurry to repeat the experience. It was looking more like I was my father’s only chance at freedom—or resting in peace.
“Let’s keep that bit of information to ourselves for now.”
“Nukpana or my father?”
“Both, but especially who’s little girl you are. That doesn’t need to leave this room.”
“I wasn’t about to yell it from the battlements. I’m not sure how I feel about it myself.”
“Contrary to how old I look, I’m not old enough to have known your papa in his early Guardian days. But history’s told me plenty about the bastards he was up against. I’m ashamed to say the archmagus back then was one of them; and a couple of his top mages were a few more. History has an annoying tendency to repeat itself. I’m going to see what I can do to keep that from happening. The Conclave did your papa wrong. I’ll do whatever I can to make up for it.”
“Thank you.” And I meant it.
“Though the first help I might be giving you is of a legal nature.” He glanced at Mychael. “I heard from your friends the Khrynsani last night.”
I swore silently. Mychael tried not to look concerned, but I wasn’t buying it.
“Actually, I didn’t see their representatives directly,” Justinius continued. “They filed their formal complaint with the magistrate. He brought the papers to me. Your ship hadn’t docked yet.”
“What papers?” Mychael’s voice betrayed no emotion.
“The papers charging Miss Benares here with grand larceny, attempted murder, kidnapping, and false imprisonment.”
I blinked. “Of who?”
“Grand Shaman Sarad Nukpana. The Khrynsani have requested that we turn you over to them for prosecution.”
“We won’t do that,” Mychael assured me.
“I should hope not!”
“Actually, we can’t do that,” Justinius said. “Not legally, anyway.”
“For the Khrynsani to have any legal claim, they would have to go through the elven embassy,” Mychael told me. “That would take time; no doubt they want to resolve this quickly.”
Justinius cleared his throat. “Actually, I just heard from Giles Keril this morning.”
The name sounded vaguely familiar. “Who?”
“The elven ambassador to Mid,” Justinius said.
Oh, that Giles Keril.
“Keril got an identical set of papers this morning,” Justinius continued. “The sight of goblin lawyers on his embassy doorstep probably made the little weasel crap his pants. The goblins are claiming that Miss Benares here has stolen the Saghred, which is a treasured possession of the goblin people, attempted to murder a counselor of the royal House of Mal’Salin, and has kidnapped and falsely imprisoned said royal counselor.” He winked slyly at me. “Not a bad week’s work, girl.”
I’m sure if I listened closely enough, I’d be able to hear Sarad Nukpana laughing.
“By the way, you’re listed as an accessory,” Justinius told Mychael. “They claim your actions in Mermeia were outside of your legal jurisdiction as paladin.”
At least I’d have company when I was hung out to dry. Last week Mychael had come to my home city of Mermeia to enlist my services as a seeker, but mostly as Eamaliel Anguis’s daughter, to help him and his Guardians find the Saghred before Sarad Nukpana could get his hands on it. Both Mychael and Sarad Nukpana suspected the Saghred was in Mermeia. They were both right. I found the Saghred, and the Saghred promptly attached itself to me like a psychic leech. I’d definitely gotten the raw end of that deal.
Like father, like daughter.
“I’m not hanging either one of you out to dry,” Justinius told me point-blank.
Further confirmation that the old man could read my mind.
“In terms of legal strength, you may not have any choice, sir,” Mychael told him.
“The hell I don’t.”
“The Seat of Twelve will have to be convened, and you only have two votes to their twelve. Given that enough of them vote in our favor, the situation won’t escalate any further.”
The Seat of Twelve was the name given to the twelve mages who made up the governing Conclave council. In terms of firepower, they ranked right up there with Justinius Valerian.
“And if you’re not too popular right now?” I didn’t want to ask, but I had to.
“The goblin government could begin extradition proceedings,” Mychael said. “If they prove just cause with the elven embassy, they could begin the same against you.”
I wondered just how fast Phaelan could set sail.
“They would have to prove that you had malice of intent on all counts,” Justinius told us both. “And I don’t think anyone who knows—or knew—Sarad Nukpana would call any treatment he received at your hands unprovoked.”
I couldn’t be bonded to just any old stone of cataclysmic power.
Mine had lawyers.