When we got within sight of the elven embassy, it was swarming with Guardians. When we got closer, it was obvious that someone had been doing a little exterior remodeling.
The embassy had a hole in it. A big, gaping, smoking hole. An entire section of the wall was gone and smoke was pouring out of the building.
It was beautiful.
I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
Phaelan and some of Tanik’s crew stood admiring it from across the street like it was a work of art you had to view from several angles to truly appreciate.
“Ronan,” I said. “Piaras and I are going to leave you for a while.” I paused. “We might rejoin you—we might not.”
The maestro nodded. “I understand.” He held out his hand to Piaras and Piaras took it. “Master Rivalin, I hope you are able to resume our lessons. You have a truly rare gift and it would be a shame—and a danger—if it were not properly developed.”
“Thank you, sir. I hope I can continue my studies, too.”
Ronan extended his hand for mine and I was once again treated to a most proficient hand kiss. “Mistress Benares, it has been both a pleasure and an adventure—an adventure I hope to never repeat.”
I grinned at him. “I’ll bet you don’t get to say that to many girls.”
“I can honestly say that you’re the first.”
We watched for a minute until Ronan and the spellsingers were spotted by the Guardians at the elven embassy. They were safe; I wished I could say the same for us.
“Did you get a chance to say good-bye to Katelyn?” I asked Piaras.
He bit his lip and his eyes were sad. “No. But maybe it won’t be for long.”
Phaelan spotted Piaras and me and was grinning like the explosives-happy maniac he was. We quickly darted into the shadows and my cousin greeted us both with bone-crushing hugs.
I stepped back and draped an arm over my cousin’s shoulder, admiring the view along with him.
“You do magnificent work. Truly awe inspiring.”
Phaelan shook his head, still beaming. “Not mine.”
“Nope. Tanik’s junior gunner. That boy has a true gift.” He lowered his voice. “The official story is Tanik was taking the Zephyr to a new slip, the boy was messing around with the forward cannon, and when the Zephyr passed the embassy, it accidentally went off. Apparently the kid didn’t know it was loaded.”
Piaras and I looked at the hole and turned and noted the path the cannonball had taken. Piaras whistled. It was a straight shot down a narrow street to the harbor. An extremely narrow street, more like an alley. That was a flawlessly timed accident. The kid was gifted. Tanik might want to keep watch over his junior gunner; Phaelan was always on the lookout for new talent.
My cousin’s grin turned sly. “Unofficially, I thought you two might need a distraction—and the paladin looked like he needed another way into the embassy.”
I blinked in disbelief. “You’re helping Mychael?”
Phaelan shrugged. “We chatted briefly from a comfortable distance. I told him who had Piaras, where he’d been taken, and that you’d gone in after him. Then Tanik’s gunner had his accident. After that, the paladin and a couple dozen of his boys made use of the new door in the embassy wall. Eiliesor hasn’t come out and thanked us, but he hasn’t tried to have us arrested, either.”
I looked around. There were curious onlookers and plenty of Guardians in full battlefield armor. Most of those Guardians were elves. I smiled. Leave it to Mychael to try to get into the elven embassy using the most legal means possible.
“It was a regrettable and embarrassing accident,” Phaelan was saying. “Tanik and the boy want to personally apologize to the ambassador, but he seems to have gone missing.”
I laughed. “Check under his desk.”
“Where’s Inquisitor Balmorlan?” Piaras asked.
“No one’s seen him, either,” Phaelan said.
“His yacht’s still in the same slip,” I told him. “The Khrynsani ship is still here, too.”
The Guardians near the embassy’s front gates came to attention. When I’d gone in as Captain Baran Ratharil, they’d parted the wards just enough for me to squeeze through.
They shut them down completely for Paladin Mychael Eiliesor to leave.
I grinned. In through a breach in the wall, out through the front gates. Someone in there had decided to cooperate.
Mychael saw me, and after a few brief words with one of his officers, he started toward us. When he got close enough, Piaras walked forward to meet him.
“Sir, I didn’t attack the archmagus. It—”
Mychael held up an armored hand. “I know, Piaras. And so does Justinius.”
“He weak, but I believe he’ll recover.”
Mychael slowly turned his head to look at Phaelan. “I have no knowledge of the events immediately preceding the firing of that cannon.”
“Would you like some?” Phaelan offered.
“No, I would not. I also do not want to hear rumor, innuendo, or confirmation that it was anything other than an accident. The city watch has taken Master Ozal’s statement, and they are satisfied that there was no malice or forethought involved on his part or that of his crew.”
“Tanik’s the salt of the earth,” Phaelan proclaimed, his expression solemn. “Not a malicious bone in his body.”
“There will be no further investigation.” Mychael paused meaningfully. “Into this incident. The same guarantee does not apply to any such future incidents.”
“Understood. I’m sure Tanik will take the appropriate measures to ensure that his forward cannon never blows a hole in the south wall of the elven embassy ever again.”
I couldn’t care less about holes in the elven embassy. I had one question, a big one. “Has Acting Archmagus Carnades Silvanus ordered either my or Piaras’s arrest, extradition, and/or execution?”
“He has not,” Mychael assured me. “He lacks that authority.”
“He’s not archmagus until Justinius recovers?”
“He is, but the Isle of Mid is under martial law. My martial law.” Mychael’s gaze took in every possible threat within fifty feet of us. “Raine, we really shouldn’t be standing out in the open. It’s not safe for either one of us, but especially not for you.”
He’d get no argument from me on that one.
“Phaelan’s staked out a nice patch of dark over there,” I told him.
“That will suffice.”
Mychael and I stepped into the shadows of a building near where Tanik’s crew was gathered. I waved to the boys and they waved and grinned back. I noticed that a quartet of elven Guardians kept their paladin in sight and within response distance.
“Phaelan, I need to speak with Raine in private,” Mychael said.
My cousin looked at me. “Would you like to speak to the paladin in private?”
“I think I need to.”
“Fine. Just yell if you need me—or all of us.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Come on, Piaras. Let’s give our girl some space.”
I waited until Phaelan and Piaras were mostly out of earshot before saying anything. I also stayed well out of Mychael’s reach. Trust is a wonderful thing; caution is even better.
“I thought Carnades took over completely if anything happened to the old man.” I kept my voice down in case there were any eavesdroppers I couldn’t see. This was Mid; the freaking lampposts probably had ears.
“Under normal circumstances he would be. Circumstances haven’t been normal since you got here.”
I couldn’t keep a little smile off of my face. “Most girls get flowers or candy. I get a declaration of martial law. What’s Carnades going to say about this?”
“Magus Silvanus has had his say. Until Justinius is fully recovered, Carnades is the senior-ranking mage. But until this island is secure, he is under the protection of the Guardians in the comfort of his town house.”
My little smile turned into a delighted grin. “You’ve got Carnades under house arrest?”
“At-home security precautions for a senior mage.”
“Call it what you want. You locked him up to keep him out of your way.”
“Six of my Guardians were ambushed and killed with military precision behind Sirens. Piaras was knocked unconscious and put into a coach.” Mychael’s voice was tight with restrained anger. “Both of these acts were committed by elves. I have two eyewitnesses.”
“Three if you count Phaelan,” I told him. “They were embassy guards. Taltek Balmorlan wanted Piaras, so he took him.”
“I had assumed as much. That’s why I came here.”
“To rescue Piaras?”
Mychael nodded. “And you. If Piaras was here, I knew you wouldn’t be far behind.”
“Correct on both counts.” I hit the high points of the rest of our night, culminating with Rudra Muralin’s vanishing act.
Mychael listened, his face expressionless, his mind working, no doubt separating our multiple near-death experiences into cold, hard facts he could legally act upon, and nonprosecutable incidents. I had a sinking feeling where most of them would fall—under nonprosecutable incidents with untouchable perpetrators. And I couldn’t be entirely sure that he didn’t consider Tam one of those perpetrators.
“Balmorlan’s going to walk, isn’t he?”
“Probably. Diplomatic immunity being the first of a long list of reasons. The confession Balmorlan wanted Piaras to sign was that he had attempted to assassinate the archmagus. To virtually everyone in Sirens, that’s exactly what it looked like. Piaras is an elven citizen. No doubt Balmorlan will claim he was acting in the best interests of the elven people, and the Conclave.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Then again, I could. “He only acted in the best interest of Taltek Balmorlan. He wanted to take Piaras off of this island because of his voice, not his guilt.”
“Unfortunately, we can’t prove intent.”
I spat a word that expressed my feelings perfectly.
“I agree. But that doesn’t change the law.”
“Then the law sucks.”
“Sometimes it doesn’t.”
I snorted. “How?”
“After Piaras was taken and you disappeared, Carnades wanted to convene the Seat of Twelve and discuss our next steps. I didn’t agree with his plan. The archmagus was nearly assassinated by a Khrynsani spellsinger, Nightshades had kidnapped five students and our top maestro, six of my Guardians were murdered, Piaras was abducted, and the first person to be able to wield the Saghred in centuries was missing. In my opinion, martial law was not only justified, but called for.”
“So you declared martial law.”
One corner of Mychael’s mouth turned upward. “There’s a statute that says there has to be a two-thirds majority vote from the Twelve before martial law can be declared. It’s a safety measure to keep a paladin from wresting power from the Conclave.”
I was stunned. “Two-thirds actually voted for martial law?”
“No paladin has ever declared martial law, so it’s a little-known statute.” Mychael’s blue eyes gleamed in boyish mischief. “So I didn’t ask them.”
I grinned slowly in delighted amazement. “You broke the law.”
“Not broken, merely bent it in the direction it needed to go.”
“Until it squealed. First I corrupt Piaras, now you.” I laughed. “I’m a bad influence. You want me to go home?”
Mychael reached me in two strides, gripped my shoulders, and pulled me to him in a kiss of desperate relief and long-denied need. His hands slid down my arms and around my waist and back, enfolding and crushing me against him.
Heat flared and spread through every part of me, and I felt breathless and disoriented. Though that may have been from being crushed against plate steel. I didn’t mind. I also couldn’t feel my feet on the cobblestones. It took a moment to register that Mychael had lifted me off my feet.
He raised his head and gazed down at me, his sea blue eyes as dark as sapphires. “I didn’t know where you were, who had you, if you were hurt or dead. I was tearing this island apart looking for you.”
“You trashed your island for me?”
“I thought I’d lost you.”
“You almost did.”
He briefly rested his lips against my forehead. “And I still could.”
He gently set me back on my feet and reluctantly took his arms from around me, but he didn’t step away. I was glad he didn’t. I could still feel his warmth—and I wanted it.
Mychael was worried about losing me to someone like Rudra Muralin or Taltek Balmorlan. I didn’t tell him about the Mal’Salin family—and Tam and goblin favors and shifting alliances. He’d probably find all that out soon enough.
Mostly he meant the Saghred.
“Are you ready to go home?” he asked quietly.
I knew what he meant. The citadel. I knew I didn’t have a home anymore. Home was where you felt safe, and until I felt safe in my own skin, I couldn’t call anyplace home. Oddly enough, that didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. In fact, it was liberating. I started to smile. Must be the Benares seafarer in me.
“You’re smiling.” Mychael’s voice was a husky whisper. “What is it?”
My smile broadened and I took a step back from him. “No.”
He was confused. “No, what?”
“No, I’m not ready to go home. Mychael, I’m not going to be locked up, put in protective custody, safe keeping, whatever. That’s not home. I can’t live that way, and I won’t.”
He stood utterly still. “Then you might not live.”
I put my hand gently on his armored chest. “My choice,” I whispered. “And it has to stay mine.”
“What is your choice?”
I thought for a moment. “For now, I’ll stay on the Fortune.”
“But I can’t protect—”
“Mychael, you can’t protect me anywhere. No one can.” I chuckled. “I’m way beyond protection. You could lock me in the deepest containment room you had and I wouldn’t be protected.” I paused and looked into those sea blue eyes. “You know that.”
I took his silence as a yes.
“I want my family around me right now,” I said.
“Then Phaelan’s told you.”
I was instantly wary. “Told me what?”
“Apparently Phaelan’s father was on his way to Mermeia in case the two of you needed to make a quick getaway.”
I grinned crookedly. “That I knew.”
“He also told his father that once he made port in Mermeia and if he hadn’t heard from either Phaelan or you in three days, that he was to sail directly here.” Mychael blew out his breath; it came out as a long-suffering sigh. “If the wind’s good, you’ll have all the family I can handle by sun-down tomorrow.”
“Uncle Ryn’s coming to visit!” I couldn’t keep the excitement out of my voice and I didn’t even try.
“And he’ll stay as long as it takes,” came Phaelan’s voice from behind me. “The paladin here has said there are mages on this island who can help you. Dad and I will be around to ensure that it happens. The quicker it happens, the faster we’ll leave. If the high-and-mighty mages don’t want pirates in their harbor and town, they’d better start looking for some solutions to your problem. The good paladin has agreed to uncloak and unward the Fortune. Kind of defeats the purpose of having a ship if it’s just a big, wooden float.”
I turned to Mychael. “And you approved this?”
“With the understanding that Ryn Benares is here only as your concerned uncle, not as Commodore Benares.”
I snorted. “And you actually believe that’ll happen?”
“Yes, it will,” said the steely-eyed paladin. “This island isn’t secure—but it will be.”
If it could be done, Mychael would do it; of that I had no doubt.
And he was right—Mid was anything but secure.
Rudra Muralin wasn’t going anywhere. Neither were the Khrynsani unless their lawyers could work some serious legal magic. No one had seen Banan Ryce, but vanishing into the woodwork was what Nightshades did best. Banan didn’t lead by example; he led from behind. At the first whiff of Khrynsani, Banan had probably bolted. No body, no Banan. The Nightshades we found in the embassy basements had been goblin bait, pure and simple. Banan had lost some; he’d just recruit more. There were always plenty of goblin-hating elves to fill his ranks.
Once it became known that Piaras didn’t assassinate the archmagus and that we both had played a big role in rescuing the spellsingers, some of Carnades’s supporters might just switch sides. But the same ones who condemned us one day and congratulated us the next could be back to witch hunting tomorrow.
And some of them would never stop.
My life’s goal was to get rid of the Saghred. Until I could get rid of my link to it, to keep my life, I had to fight for the rock. Meanwhile, the temptation would be there. The danger sure as hell wasn’t going anywhere.
I could live with that.
Like a starved monster crouching in a dark corner, the Saghred was waiting for me to yield to temptation, turn my back, make a mistake, let my guard down.
I smiled. I had some bad news for the rock—and worse news for anyone who tried to take either it or me.
I’m Raine Benares. My guard never comes down.