— Prologue —
Andry wondered how long it would take to die. It was difficult to think straight, difficult to concentrate on any thought for more than a few seconds, but his eyes kept being drawn back to the rope on the dais at the far end of City Square and the crowd that was even now beginning to gather around it.
It was raining, a fine drizzle that soaked through the thin cotton shirt and made him shiver. He was finding it increasingly hard to stay awake – never mind keep warm – and since the last dose of whatever drugs he’d been given, he’d finally realised that there was no way out. This time he wouldn’t leave Ariathen alive and he wasn’t sure he cared anyway.
Why did you do it, Elene? When you had so much to live for? The only one of this violent and bloodthirsty race who had cared about him and she was dead, had been dead these seven years past and he hadn’t known. Not until now. She’d ended their affair, determined to make her marriage work and then she’d killed herself. He’d have cried if he’d had the strength, but all he could do was stumble across the cobbles and hope to meet her in whatever world she’d gone to.
A diversion up ahead and one of his guards stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. He turned his head to one side and saw a familiar face pushing his way to the front of the crowd. Jereth? But the cocktail of drugs was too potent and he couldn’t reach his friend’s mind. Words would have to be enough.
“Andry.” Not much more than a whisper, but the guards were looking towards the source of the disturbance across the square.
“Jereth.” What could he say? There was nothing his friend could do without jeopardising his own safety. “She’s dead.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
He knew? Was that why they’d kept him away from the city for so long? “There was a child. A girl.” The words kept getting stuck in his throat, but he was alert enough to see Jereth’s wide-eyed expression – he obviously hadn’t known this much.
He nodded, but even the slight movement made him lose his balance and he fell against the guard. By the time he’d got his feet underneath him, he was pushed forwards again and Jereth had melted back into the sea of people, all jostling for the best vantage point to see him die. Someone spat at him, but his hands were tied and he couldn’t even wipe his face.
Up on the dais stood a familiar figure. Dressed in the uniform of the City Militia, the man’s complete lack of any badges of rank marked him out from the other soldiers positioned around the square – both Watch Guard and Militia had turned out for the event. Andry wondered if they knew what he’d done. Why he was really here. Not just because he’d broken the treaty.
“Andry. Are you prepared?” The man’s voice was low but the tone deadly.
“To meet Elene again? Oh, yes.” If he’d been capable of it, he’d have laughed at the effect her name had on Ariathen’s Guard Captain. He wished he could shout it out loud.
His last thought as he felt the rope was that he’d never even known his daughter’s name.
— Chapter 1 —
There was someone outside her window. Down there in the warm sticky night, perhaps hiding in the bushes on the edge of the lawn, or just beyond the brick wall that separated the kitchens from the palace gardens. From this distance it would be hard to tell the difference between an intruder and the ornate topiary sculptures that stood sentry around the formal lawns adjoining the west wing.
Alesha didn’t know how she knew he was there. Or even how she knew it was a man. She just knew, with the same certainty she had of the sun rising in the morning, that there was a man outside in the palace grounds and that he was looking for her.
Her bedroom was quiet in the darkness, the thin line of light from beneath the door telling her that there were still servants up and about in the palace even at this hour. She scrambled out of bed and tiptoed over to the window, reluctant to break the stillness of the night, but needing to know if her intuition was correct. Her reflection danced with the shadows in the gardens, making it impossible to see what was out there. Ivy clung to the brickwork outside, but it had given up trying to invade the room, the thin tendrils hanging limp in the sultry summer heat. It hadn’t rained for months.
Alesha struggled with the window sash. Her father didn’t like her to sleep with the windows open, even in this weather, claiming that she was too easy a target for kidnapping, or worse. Few of the night patrols monitored this area; they were mostly concentrated on the south side of the palace around the state apartments. The daughter of the Captain of the Guard didn’t merit much in the way of protection and Alesha couldn’t see that she needed it anyway. At nineteen, she was hardly the catch of the century. Her father wasn’t rich and she was no beauty, although men did say she was striking with her dark curly hair and green eyes. Not that many men ever got near her, of course. They were all too damned scared of Haran to speak to her most of the time. Alesha loved her father dearly, but she did wish that he wasn’t always quite so intimidating.
Leaning her head out of the window, she stared hard into the bushes. Why would a man be looking for her in the middle of the night and who was he? Even as she asked the question, there was a flicker in her mind’s eye, a shadow dancing across her consciousness, then it was gone and with it went the presence outside.
Alesha shook her head, wondering if she’d imagined the whole thing. Too much wine at dinner, perhaps? The night air was still hot and humid and even at this hour, she could smell the horses across the barracks. The man was gone now – if he’d ever really been there at all. Taking one last look at the garden, she latched the window, checking the lock several times before she felt confident enough to turn away. Then she took her nightlight, lit it from the one down the corridor outside her room and left it burning low by her bed.
He was up close this time, in her bedroom, by the bed, leaning over her, silently watching her, blue eyes expressionless. Hands reached out to her and Alesha woke with a start, jerking upright and pulling away before she realised she’d been dreaming. But what a vision; to dream such things could only be an omen. Not that she was superstitious, of course, she thought as she lay back again. Well, not much, anyway – with a father like Haran, she couldn’t afford to be. To have the Captain of the Guard believing in ghosts and fairies would make the whole military force of Ariathen into a laughing stock, so if his daughter enjoyed a little harmless fun with truth-cards, well – that was better kept quiet. Alesha had to smile at the thought of her father solemnly reading his day’s work in the cards every morning.
Her father had been in her dream. Him and another younger man. A stranger with short blond hair and the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. The same stranger who’d been watching her room last night. They were standing in what appeared to be the sky, surrounded by thousands of tiny glittering stars. Then he’d stared straight at her –out of the dream and into her mind – straight through her as if he were looking into her soul. Alesha shuddered, feeling suddenly cold in the warmth of the late summer sunlight streaming into the room. He’d looked inside her and then he’d died and a part of her had died with him.
Let’s not get silly, she told herself sternly. You had a vivid dream, that’s all. Nobody’s died and even if they did, it’s nothing to do with you. She’d long ago stopped worrying over the morality of her father’s work; the power of life and death was a huge responsibility and not one to contemplate at this hour of the day. Breakfast that morning was a hurried affair. Sitting in their private dining room, Alesha had all but given up waiting for Haran and she was about to start without him, when her father burst through the door as if the very Hounds of Hell were after him.
“Alesha, love. I can’t stop.”
He looked harassed, but then that was normal for her father, who took life far too seriously for Alesha’s liking – too seriously for his own health, she sometimes worried. “Is something wrong? Everybody seems to be in a hurry this morning.”
“Nothing you need to worry about.”
He was hiding something. She knew that look on his face, had known it ever since he hadn’t wanted to tell her of her mother’s death. “What’s happened?” she asked him somewhat sternly. “You may as well tell me yourself. You know I’ll find out anyway.”
Haran smiled slightly. “Alesha, will you stop treating me like a little boy? I’m your father.”
“Yes, I know,” she said demurely, handing him a mug of red-leaf tea. “But tell me anyway. And you must have something to drink, if you’re not going to eat.”
Haran gave in, dropped his leather jerkin and gloves on an empty chair and slipped into the seat across from his daughter, reaching for a hot corn roll. Alesha looked him up and down appraisingly. He was a good-looking man, her father. Not handsome, he was too much the Guard Captain to ever be handsome in the accepted sense and faint scars of old battles lined his face, but he had a look of rugged wildness about him, a wildness held barely in check by the strictures of discipline. Alesha knew of his reputation and his temper, but she had also seen a side of him that many others hadn’t – the husband and the father. But her mother had been dead eight years now and she was all but grown up. What was left for the man but his work?
“So what happened?”
“Sorry?” Haran looked up at the sound of her voice, taking another mouthful of tea.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on? Maybe I can do something.”
“I doubt that.” He paused. “Something happened last night in the city. Something I’d been expecting, but it didn’t turn out quite the way I’d hoped.”
“Someone died,” said Alesha intuitively, remembering the dream. “A man—”
Haran frowned. “Who told you?”
“So it was real,” Alesha said softly, the memory returning. In the light of day, it seemed silly, melodramatic even, and she’d half-thought it had been just that – a melodramatic dream caused by too much wine the previous evening. But she could see those eyes staring at her again. An icy blueness that had frozen the image in her mind. Why had he been watching her?
Haran pushed up the sleeves of the loose grey-green shirt which formed the base uniform of the Palace Guard. “All right, Alesha. What do you know?”
She recounted the dream, omitting the strange feelings she’d had at the time. It was odd how much of it she could actually remember. The clarity was frightening and only served to confirm her opinion that it hadn’t been a dream at all.
Haran sighed, having listened to her story without interruption. “So he got to you, did he?”
“Will you stop talking in riddles? If it wasn’t a dream, then what was it?”
Haran reached for another roll. “There was a man last night. In the Starlight Tavern – and don’t tell me you know where it is, Alesha, please. You’re too young to frequent that sort of place.”
Starlight – of course. She didn’t reply. She was privately convinced that Haran still thought she was eleven, whereas she’d recently celebrated her nineteenth birthday. And there were better places to drink than the Starlight.
“I’ve had my eye on this man for some time,” he continued. “A bit of loose surveillance – that kind of thing.” He stopped abruptly.
“And?” Alesha prompted.
“And I followed him back to the palace and caught him in the gardens.” Haran stood up, finished his drink and headed for the door. “Anyway, he almost died in the early hours of this morning.”
“I dreamed about him.” And saw him too. Outside – before you got to him.
Her father looked away. “What is it with these people?”
“What people?” She wondered what he meant. “He died in my dream.”
“No.” Haran shook his head. “He didn’t die. Came very close to it, I admit, but he didn’t die.” He opened the door. “Alesha, don’t ask me any more questions, please. I’m not sure myself what we’re dealing with here, but it may be more than it seems. I need to be back downstairs. Can you amuse yourself today?”
“Don’t I always?”
“I’ve told you we’ll discuss your future when your aunt returns. Now I must go.”
Alesha watched as he left the room and poured herself another mug of tea. We’ll discuss your future when your aunt returns. When will that be? This year? Next year, maybe? Haran freely admitted he knew next to nothing about the education of young ladies and while Alesha’s early schooling had been under palace tutorage, her further education and future had been delegated to her aunt. Rumour had it that her father’s sister was more than happy down in South Island Bay; the air agreed with her and she was in no great hurry to return to the North. And in the meantime, Alesha was left in limbo. What did he expect her to do to amuse herself? He didn’t like her going out alone and he never approved of any of the young men she occasionally brought back to the palace. Oh she had female friends of course, but Roselle, the regent’s daughter, had her own retinue which was hard to escape and it was difficult to relax in the presence of a bodyguard, even if he was rather cute. And the thought of Roselle out drinking in the many inns throughout the city was inconceivable. Both she and her friend found the security irritating as it wasn’t as if Roselle would ever accede to the throne; that was a privilege reserved for her little cousin. And Marly was only five.
Alesha often wondered what her future would be. What could the daughter of the Guard Captain aspire to? Living in the palace, but not being a part of the royal family, she was neither one thing nor the other and she sometimes thought it would be easier all round for Haran to marry her off to some powerful family. The thought made her sick. Spending the rest of her life married to the spoiled heir of some obscure duchy would drive her insane. Then again, she could just as easily end up as somebody’s maid.
She sighed and looked out of the window. The summer doors opened onto a wide patio which led in turn to a small walled garden. Not quite the kitchen gardens, but not far off. Since Haran had little time for such things, it was effectively her own private haven and she could sit out there for hours, content with just her thoughts for company. But it was too hot to sit outside today. The grass was parched and brown in patches and Alesha could understand how it felt. Stifled and unable to escape its fate, unable even to breathe sometimes. Today was a day for doing something cool and refreshing. Something different. Like swimming, perhaps – now there was an idea.
Alesha stood up, leaving the table for the servants to clear. Up in her bedroom, she found a bathing suit and sheet-towel and stuffed them into a small bag before leaving their quarters for the main palace. There was a link door to the main building, their private rooms effectively separating the rest of the palace from the guard rooms, barracks and stable block. Outside Roselle’s room, she stopped briefly to talk to the duty guard, before knocking once and entering.
“Alesha!” The girl jumped up from the window seat. Blonde and petite, Roselle’s hair was immaculately braided in an intricate style which complemented the detailed embroidery of her dress. Alesha wondered how she could stand to be fussed over in that way, but Roselle didn’t seem to notice. After seventeen years of attention, she accepted it as normal.
“Fancy going swimming?” Alesha dropped her bag on the rug and went off to search her friend’s extensive wardrobe. Roselle never knew where anything was kept, but Alesha had watched her maids often enough.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Alesha looked up. “The river?”
“How about the lake outside the east gates?” Roselle suggested. Then her face fell. “But I promised I’d mind Marly this morning. Aunt Marita has one of her headaches.”
“Poor Marita,” Alesha sympathised, wondering why they had so many servants, if they weren’t going to use them. There were at least three nursemaids that she could think of and no doubt more. But then Roselle had always taken her responsibilities seriously, feeling she should play her part in the upbringing and education of the future King. “We can take Marly with us.”
Roselle’s eyes widened. “Take him outside the city? Daddy would have a fit!”
“What daddy doesn’t know about, daddy can’t worry about, can he? Here.” She pulled a cerise bathing suit out from a drawer. “This will do very well.”
“Alesha, I can’t!”
“Why not?” Alesha demanded. “We’ll drag Falconer along if we must. Now go and fetch Marly, there’s a good girl, and let’s get going. It’s a glorious morning.” She stood up. “I wonder what Falky looks like in a bathing suit?”
Roselle had to laugh at that. The girls often went to great lengths to embarrass Roselle’s personal guard and Alesha marvelled at Falconer’s restraint, the things they had subjected him to in the past. In their early teens, they had thought it incredibly amusing to watch his confusion when Roselle had called him in to see them semi-naked. Falconer was in his late twenties now and Alesha had been more than fond of him for years, though she would die rather than let Roselle know. Or Haran for that matter.
They fetched Marly before returning to see Falconer, who was stunned when Roselle informed him of their plans and refused point blank to allow them to go.
“What’s the matter, Falky? Can’t you swim? Or are you embarrassed at us seeing your body?” Roselle patted him playfully. Now Alesha had persuaded her, she was just as enthusiastic as her friend.
Falconer blushed, picking off her arm with exaggerated care. “Certainly not, Roselle. I just don’t think your father would approve.”
“Daddy has other things to worry about,” said Roselle. “Now are you coming with us, or not?”
He looked at Alesha, annoyed. “I bet this was your idea, wasn’t it? Do you know how much trouble I’ll get into with Haran if I let Roselle go off on her own? Especially with Marly.”
“So come with us. Let your hair down, Falconer. It’s a beautiful day and the lake will be so cool. And it will do Marly good to get out of the palace.”
“After what happened to his grandfather, I don’t blame Arven for keeping him in,” Falconer retorted. “Really, Alesha, I wish you wouldn’t keep putting ideas into Roselle’s head.”
“Do you know something?” said Alesha spitefully. “You’re so square, you could cut yourself on the corners.” When Falconer treated her like some recalcitrant child, she wanted to hit back at him. “Come on, Rosy. Falconer wouldn’t know what to do with a good time if it came up to him and bit him.”
Falconer rolled his eyes, but said nothing. He looked like he wanted to slap her, but Alesha just shook her head in exasperation and bent down to pick up Marly who was tugging at her skirt for a ride.
Out of the city, the air was noticeably cooler and fresher and a gentle breeze rippled the grass at the edge of the plains. The land was open here, exposed all the way to the mountains in the south and bordered on another side by the river which flowed right through the city. Upstream of the city walls, the water was clear and cool and fed a small lake.
“Right.” Falconer sat down on the grass. “You’ve got exactly thirty minutes and then we’re going back. No, don’t argue, Alesha. I’ve played along with you so far and you can have your swim.”
“You can’t make us go back,” Alesha protested.
“Can’t I?” He smiled slightly. “You just watch me.”
Alesha pouted but Falconer wouldn’t meet her eyes. Outside the palace he looked different somehow. He’d changed his clothes for one thing, swapped the grey uniform of the Watch for light green trousers and a loose cream shirt. A lone soldier outside the city walls was positively advertising for trouble, he’d said. For all of that, he still carried a short sword and Alesha didn’t doubt there would be a small arsenal concealed about his body. Falconer didn’t like to take chances, she’d discovered. Not even with women and especially not with his employer’s daughter.
“You’re not going to swim, then?” she asked him coolly.
“Don’t make my job harder, Alesha.”
“Is that all this is to you? A job?”
“Oh leave him alone, ‘Lesha.” Roselle spoke up. “If Falky wants to sit and watch, then let him. Come and help with Marly.”
Alesha hesitated before turning away. She’d make the man notice her somehow. Maybe not today, but soon. She was tired of waiting – waiting for Falconer, waiting for her aunt to return, waiting for a life that was going nowhere.
They left Marly playing by the water’s edge while both girls got changed under their towels, giggling and watching Falconer’s reactions. But Roselle’s guard was used to the teasing and he kept his eyes firmly on the young prince, who was splashing happily and making mud pies.
They swam for fifteen minutes or so, until the water had taken the edge off the heat of the morning. Then they stretched out on the towels to let the sun dry them. Falconer clearly didn’t approve of such displays, so he busied himself with the little boy, drying him off and getting him dressed. Alesha was surprised at the competent way he handled the child, but then Falconer was full of surprises. His calm composure hid an acid tongue and Alesha had heard him in the barracks on many occasions.
Roselle’s fair skin was turning pink in the sun. “It’s so peaceful out here.” She stretched languidly. “I don’t envy your father, spending the whole day in the cells. It must be baking down there by now.”
“He’s with the prisoner,” said Alesha idly, picking bits of grass from her hair as she rolled over onto her stomach. “The man almost died last night. They gave him too much birythial.” She explained her dream and what Haran had said at breakfast.
“So what was he doing at the palace?” Roselle sat up. “Dreams are strange things aren’t they? I wonder how much of them are true – things we bury in our minds. Is something wrong, Falky?”
Alesha looked over at Falconer, who was watching her curiously. Sitting cross-legged on the grass, he looked absolutely gorgeous, the sun outlining tight muscles beneath the thin shirt. “Was he in your dreams as well, Falconer?” And me? Do you ever dream of me? she wanted to ask, but never could. Instead she always seemed to come out with sarcasm.
“Maybe.” Falconer was as non-committal as ever. He didn’t normally pay much attention to their conversation, unless they deliberately brought him into it. “Alesha, how much did Haran tell you about what happened last night?”
“Only what I managed to get out of him this morning. Why?”
Falconer frowned. “Then how did you know he overdosed on birythial?”
Alesha avoided the question. “But it’s what happened, isn’t it?”
“That’s unlike Haran,” said Roselle after a moment. “He’s normally so careful.”
“I know.” Alesha pursed her lips. Now that she thought about it, she definitely couldn’t recall dreaming that the man had actually overdosed, nor could she remember the name of the drug. Haran had an array of chemicals to hand, from mild truth-drugs to sophisticated poisons and it wasn’t something with which Alesha was familiar.
But she could recall the eyes. The way they’d seen her even though it was her dream. Taken control and stared right through her. Who was he?
Then it came to her. A flash of inspiration confirmed by what she read in Falconer’s face. Memories of what she knew of the events of forty years ago, when they’d shared the city and the land with another race. And suddenly, Alesha knew what it was all about.
He was one of the Cala.