Authors: Catherine Asaro
I would like to thank the following readers for their much-appreciated input. Their comments have made this a better book. Any mistakes that remain are mine alone.
To Aly Parsons and Jeri Smith-Ready for their excellent comments on the full manuscript; and to Aly's Writing Group for insightful critiques of scenes: Aly Parsons, Simcha Kuritzky, Connie Warner, Al Carroll, J. G. HuckenpÃ¶hler, John Hemry, Bud Sparhawk, Mike La Violette, and Robert Chase.
Special thanks to my much-appreciated editor, Stacy Boyd, and also to Mary-Theresa Hussey, Kathleen Oudit, Amy Jones, Julie Messore, Laura Morris, Adam Wilson, Dee Tenorio, and all the other fine people at LUNA who helped make this book possible; to Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, the artist who did my gorgeous covers; to my wonderful agent, Eleanor Wood, of Spectrum Literary Agency; and to Binnie Braunstein for her enthusiasm and hard work on my behalf.
A heartfelt thanks to the shining lights in my life: my husband, John Cannizzo, and my daughter, Cathy, for their love and support.
To the Math Club Moms
With appreciation, delight and friendship
rummer was in trouble. Again.
He had strolled into town earlier today, his clothes covered with dust and his frayed pouch slung over his shoulder. His glittar was packed in his good travel bag, carefully protected by layers of soft cloth.
He soon found the town's inn. In many towns, such inns also served as gathering halls where townspeople could enjoy shows by traveling theater groups, acrobats, dance troupesâand minstrels.
That night, he played in the inn's common hall, on a platform at one end of the room. As he warmed up with his glittar, a few patrons glanced his way, but no one showed much interest. When he launched into a medley of Aronsdale folk songs, some people moved closer to the stage. Several fellows asked him to sing love songs for their ladies, which he obliged.
Within an hour, people had filled the room. Drummer could feel their moods. Glancing at a wooden cube that adorned a post by the door, he concentrated on its shape. It allowed him to create a mood spell that gave his love of his music to his listeners. It was a minor spell, of course; he had never done any of consequence. But it heightened his joy in singing to offer his pleasure to his audience.
The customers seemed to enjoy his singing and his music. The longer they stayed in the common room, buying food and drink, the more the innkeeper beamed. He kept Drummer supplied with ale. The townspeople didn't have many hexa-coins, but they left Drummer other thingsâbreads and beads and a fine leather pouch. All in all, it was a good night.
He was singing the “Crystal Maker's Lament” when a fiery-haired girl arrived with some other young people. As she glided to a table with her friends, Drummer glided over the high notes of his song:
My heart shatters as easily,
As these vases drawn of crystal,
Don't leave me even teasingly,
I live only as your minstrel.
He sang the last line to the fiery girl. One of the young men in her group frowned, a big fellow in the homespun garb of a farmer.
Drummer waited until the farmer got his dinner and was focused on wolfing it down. Then Drummer sang a ballad to the girl. He drew out the dulcet notes for her, until her pretty cheeks turned the same color as her tousled curls. The big fellow noticed, though, and started looking irritated again, so Drummer switched his attentions to three matrons, who clucked and chuckled at his song. When they left, they set a hefty meat pie on the stage for him. He grinned and they laughed, waving as they made their way out of the inn.
It was growing late, and Drummer didn't want to strain his voice. He rarely had trouble hitting even the highest notes, but they were the first to go when he tired. He finished his song and bade his audience a pleasant night amid calls of appreciation. As he left the stage, he winked at the fiery girl.
Drummer was upstairs, headed for his room, when a sweet voice called from a recessed doorway. “Gentle sir, you do surely sing like an angel.”
He peered at the girl in the shadows, wondering if this was a trick to rob him. He was carrying his glittar, his most expensive possession, and he had his take for the night slung over his shoulder in his new pouch.
“And who might you be,” he asked, “so shy and sugar-voiced?”
The fiery girl stepped forward, her blush as becoming now as it had been downstairs. “My name is Skybell, handsome sir.”
Handsome, eh? His thoughts softened as he ambled over to her. “Dear Skybell,” he murmured. “Why are you hiding up here?” He couldn't resist teasing her. “Do you plan to knock me over the head and steal my possessions?” It wouldn't be the first time it had happened to him. However, he had learned to judge such matters, and he suspected the only thing on her mind was far sweeter than thievery. Smiling lazily, he added, “Or perhaps your nefarious cohorts lurk nearby, waiting to do me in.”
“Oh! Never.” She was aghast. “I would never do such.”
Drummer ran his fingers over the strings of his harp, evoking a sensuous ripple of notes. “How can I be sure?”
Her shy smile dimpled her face. “You play with me, sir.”
He quit strumming and traced the tip of his finger down her cheek. “Such a vision, with cheeks like blossoms and lips that surely men sing of everywhere. Are you playing with my poor, helpless heart, only to break it tomorrow?”
Her eyes widened. “I would never hurt you, truly.” She touched a curl of hair that had fallen into his eyes. “You have nice hair. The color is like corn kernels.”
“It's to match your skybell eyes.” He wasn't much more than her height, so he didn't have to bend his head far to brush his lips across hers.
“Oh.” Her mouth opened like a small O.
He smiled, charmed. “Has no man kissed you before? Surely every fellow in town must be wooing you.”
“Only you have been so bold.” Tentative, she touched his cheek. “You looked so beautiful singing tonight.”
He thought of the glowering farmer. “Your young man didn't think so.”
“The big farmer with the straw hat.”
“Plowman?” Her laugh rippled. “He's not my young man.”
“No?” Drummer slid his arm around her waist and pulled her well-curved body against his. “You aren't spoken for?”
“Never.” She sounded breathless.
“Then I am a lucky man.” He held her close as he kissed her again. A thought in the back of his mind warned that such a pretty girl would be this inexperienced only if she was barely out of childhood, which would make her too young for him. But she was warm and sweet, her body supple against his. Surely it was no harm if he dallied just a littleâ
Someone yanked Drummer away from the girl and slammed him against the wall. He found himself staring up, and up, at the man Skybell had called Plowman. The farmer swung a gnarled fist, and Drummer barely ducked in time.
“Hey!” Drummer slipped out of the man's grip and backed down the hallway, raising his hands to placate the giant.
“Stop it!” Skybell cried from beyond Plowman.
The farmhand lumbered after Drummer. Muscles rippled under his worn shirt, and his footsteps thudded on the wooden floor.
Drummer kept backing up. “Listen, I'm sorry. But she can choose who she wants.”
Plowman lunged at him, and Drummer dodged out of the way. He held tight to his glittar, more concerned about protecting it than himself.
“Stay put!” Plowman roared. “Fight like a man.”
“Why?” Drummer frowned at him. “She doesn't want you. What good will fighting do?”
me?” For some reason, that enraged Plowman even more. He strode forward, and Drummer backed right into a wall.
“Stop this right now!” Skybell had somehow got herself in front of Plowman. “Honestly, Plow, behave yourself.”
“I saw him kissing you,” he snarled. “You don't even know him at all. No one dishonors my little sister.”
Drummer groaned. Irate brothers were worse than rejected suitors. In earlier days, he might have reacted the same way on his sister's behalf, except she was eight years older and had bedeviled him no end in their childhoodâuntil the day she had wed a prince. He wondered what Plowman would say if Drummer announced that his sister was queen of the country Harsdown and that her daughter had married the notorious despot, Cobalt the Dark. Probably Plowman would pound him into the ground for telling tales.
Drummer spoke in a conciliatory voice. “I have the greatest respect for your sister. I would never dishonor her fine name.” He wanted to add,
She has a right to choose her men.
Women did all the time here in the country of Aronsdale. Staring up at the massive Plowman, though, he kept his mouth shut.
Skybell gently grasped her brother's arm. “We should get home before father starts to worry.”
“I'm not done with this puny songster,” Plowman grumbled.
“You can finish tomorrow,” she offered.
“I can?” He seemed confused.
“You can,” she assured him. Drummer wished she didn't sound so earnest. But she was buying him time to get out of town.
Plowman glowered and rumbled a bit more, but Skybell soon had him on his way. Unfortunately, that meant she went, too. She glanced at Drummer with a look of apology so sincere he wanted to embrace her. He wanted to live even more, though, so he stayed put. He offered Skybell his most regretful look until Plowman shot him another hard, angry glare.
Within moments, brother and sister were gone. Drummer exhaled, relieved he hadn't been pummeled. He wasn't safe yet, though.
It didn't take long to pack his belongings and settle his bill at the inn. He hated to leave so soon; the audience here had been generous. But he couldn't sing if Plowman flattened him.
Drummer was soon on his way, sneaking out of town in the middle of the night.
Cobalt Escar stood alone. He had sought refuge on a walkway of an onion tower in the Alzire Palace. His palace. It had become his when he conquered this country of Shazire. He had done it for his father, Varqelle Escar. But Varqelle lay in his grave, killed a year ago in battle. The conqueror had been conquered, and he had left his son to rule in his stead.
Cobalt's hair blew across his face and shadowed him from the streaming sunlight. Far below, succulent grasses carpeted the hills and waterways sparkled. Wildflowers grew everywhere, swirls of color in blurs of pink, gold and blue. Spring filled the world with a profusion of life, and it was too much. He had spent most of his life in the spare, utilitarian Castle of Clouds high in the cliffs of his home, where just growing enough crops to feed the staff and animals was a challenge. The wealth of life here mocked his lingering grief. Today, on the anniversary of his father's death, the memories were poignant.
A door opened behind him. He turned as a woman came through the archway. She was a lovely vision with yellow hair, blue eyes and an angelic face. Cobalt wasn't fooled. As a sword fighter, she trained with his best men; as a woman, she could be dulcet one moment and tart the next. People called him Cobalt the Dark, the Midnight Prince, but she was the one he found formidable.
“Greetings of the morning,” Mel said.
Cobalt grunted. Then he pulled her over and kissed her. He had to bend down. Although Mel was a tall woman, she didn't reach his shoulders. Her body had slender curves, ample in the right places and narrow at the waist. He tightened his embrace. She was pushing his shoulders, though, and he thought she was laughing. Laughing! Irate, he glared at her.
Her lips curved in the smile that could turn his hardened warriors into clay of the type found on the riverbank after a heavy rain. He was immune to it, of course.
“I'm glad to see you, too,” Mel said.
“Which is why you laugh at my kiss?”
“I love your kisses, my handsome husband.”
He never knew what to do when she talked like that. He wasn't handsome. His countenance frightened people. He and Mel had married as part of a treaty less than two years ago, and they had met as strangers on their wedding day. She continually exasperated him, but for some reason he wanted her to keep doing it. So he kissed her again. The darkness in his heart receded, and the sun's warmth heated his back.
After a while, they paused. Her eyes had that sensual glossy look he loved so well. But she was also studying his face.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Of course.” He needed to hide his moods better. No one could read him like Mel, and no matter how hard he tried to remedy that, he never fooled her. He had learned as a child to protect his emotions, lest they spur the violence of his grandfather, King Stonebreaker of the Misted Cliffs. His grandfather had raised him. The queen had died and Stonebreaker had never remarried, so he never sired a male heir. That left Cobalt, the grandson he despised and often beatâuntil the day Cobalt fought back. Stonebreaker never touched him again, for Cobalt had grown larger and stronger, and could have killed him.
As a child, Cobalt would have given anything to live with his father. But he had been thirty-three when he met Varqelle, and they had known each other only a few months.
“You are quiet,” Mel said.
“I was thinking of my father.” He gazed at the countryside. Perhaps if he had grown up here, taking this verdant wealth for granted, he could have enjoyed its richness without feeling as if he had to escape. “I was wondering what it would have been like if he had raised me.”
Mel was quiet. Why should she answer? Nineteen years ago his father, the king of Harsdown, had invaded the country of Aronsdale with no provocation, intending to take the throne and murder the royal family. Mel's family. But Varqelle had lost the war, and so he lost his own throne, in Harsdown. The Aronsdale king gave it to Mel's father. It was why Mel was heir to the Harsdown throne instead of Cobalt.
“Varqelle was a hard man,” Cobalt allowed.