In this character-driven fantasy thriller, desperate people vie to find a kidnapped prince before magical and political pressures threaten the stability of the entire continent and millions of lives... and even if this disparate bunch achieve their objectives, wresting their prize from the foul forces of a nefarious, reality-threatening plot and bringing him back alive are two different things!
"...exciting from start to finish. The best part, though, is the characters. They feel real. They feel like your friends."– Katherine Saavedra
"The book starts with a "bang" and never lets up, as the plot careens along a twisting path, with unexpected turns in almost every chapter. The large cast includes life's losers, tavern-keepers, police / soldiers, royalty, artists, death-cultists, diplomats, criminals, and clairvoyants, all alternatively plotting with or against each other in a mad rush to find, save, or kill the missing heir to throne. Although it's action all the way, the distinctive characters will stay with you."– Kevin Brown
"Very cool fantasy story, great characters, with some nicely thought out cultural details underpinning everything."– Oliver Althoen
"I love that it is close enough to 'standard' fantasy to be easy to digest, but still sets itself apart with enough uniqueness to stand out."– Tom Vogt (for the audiobook edition)
Dennick waited alone in the receiving room of Vuldt, Mouth of the Plainslord of the Alliance of Clans. For some time, he resisted the impression of eyes boring into the back of his neck.
He exhaled sharply, turned around, and looked up.
The tapestry next to the door dominated the wall, ceiling to floor. From Dennick's position across the room, with pale and dusty morning light filtering down from the open shutters high above, it was an effective and imposing likeness of the Plainslord.
Whether it was an accurate representation, Dennick could not say. This was not his Plainslord. This was not the magn who had taken him in as an orphaned child, who had raised him as one of his sons.
This was not the magn who, unbeknownst to Dennick at the time, had ordered the raid on his parents' garrison.
Dennick's Plainslord was more than a year dead.
Though he'd never met Gragag's successor, Dennick served him as surely as he had the last.
The soft brush of a door opening against carpet broke his reverie. Dennick turned around.
Vuldt entered, black eyes gleaming and a wry grin on his lips. "He doesn't have my cousin's shoulders. Or his range with a bow. But of course the latter is determined by the former."
"What about his wisdom?"
Vuldt stopped, squinting, apparently giving Dennick's somewhat impetuous question a disproportionate measure of consideration.
"That remains to be seen," he allowed. "Although… he may match Gragag in foresight."
Vuldt gestured for Dennick to sit on one of the big, plush floor cushions. Dennick lowered himself down.
Vuldt settled onto one of his own. He took his time arranging his green diplomat's robe; a political gesture that ritualistically declared that this meeting was Vuldt's to spend as he saw fit.
Dennick, who had spent many marks patiently idle before many politicians, including and not least the Mouth of the Plainslord, held a pleasant expression on his face, counted the hairs of his foster cousin's drooping mustache, and waited.
Finally, Vuldt said, "How is Agane?"
Dennick knew the question was no more than a courtesy, and he knew Vuldt knew, too. Vuldt's practiced adoption of Palace District niceties was even more impressive than his own, but then, the Mouth of the Plainslord had a talent for putting on his neighbor's clothes and eating from their pantry.
Dennick invested an equal measure of civility in his response.
"Her day seems better than some. At least that was her condition when I left to answer your summons."
Vuldt nodded minimally—as much as Dennick expected—and got to it.
"You heard about the fire."
"I saw the smoke. Heard the bells."
"The city will know this before tahigh: the fire was a distraction."
Dennick knew he couldn't rush Vuldt, and any hint he hoped to would have the adverse effect. "I would say it's distracted everyone in Aenikantag."
Vuldt's lip twitched before stretching to a full grin.
"The infant Ranith was taken."
Despite his general distaste at being Vuldt's tool, Dennick was intrigued.
Vuldt shrugged. "If… we… are responsible, I was given no warning."
Despite his dichotomous role, Dennick inwardly bristled at being included.
Vuldt shook his head, dismissive. "No. No person, no state, no organization, has declared any involvement. The kit is gone and people are dead; that's all the Palace has revealed. I don't have any reason to think there's more to it than that, for now."
"It doesn't matter why Ranith has been kidnapped. The Palace is in chaos. The Alwardenal tower is gutted. Rumor has it that one of them was injured." Vuldt's eyes widened in delight. "Or both!"
Dennick would not have been surprised if Vuldt rubbed his palms together like a child at dessert.
The Mouth restrained himself as he continued. "The only heir of Aenik has been taken from his nursery, and the soldiers protecting the most powerful nation in Kaebrith didn't even know he was gone until the place burned around them."
Vuldt leaned forward. "We knew Aenik had grown soft. Now? It's crippled."
Dennick shifted on his cushion. Despite a lifetime of practice, he could not manage to feel balanced seated on the thing. "Vuldt… if the Plainslord is thinking of war…"
"I don't know what he's thinking," Vuldt said. "Yet. As his Mouth… and his ears… it's my responsibility to advise, and to act in the interest of the Alliance of Clans." He jabbed an index finger in the air. "Our enemy is weak, frantic, and unsettled. Such an opportunity, Dennick, must not be squandered, or be allowed to pass… too quickly."
"By tahigh," Vuldt said, "word will go out across the city and throughout Aenik… even, I am led to understand, to the Faien and Gundynal outposts… that anyone bringing Ranith home safe and whole will be rewarded with the unfettered gratitude of the Alwardendyn."
Dennick nodded. "The guard must have their own ideas as to who's responsible. The entire country will help flush them out."
"And you, Dennick."
"You want me to actively search for Ranith?"
"That, and more. The longer Aenik is in disarray and so ineffectual they cannot protect—or find—their own heir, the stronger our position will be."
"What do you want me to do, Vuldt?"
"Find the kit," the Mouth said, "and make sure no one else does, and that Ranith is not recovered. Or returns. Ever."
"Keep him hidden?" Dennick openly scowled. "Send him off to the Clans, you mean, and raise him in secret?"
Vuldt shrugged. "We cannot ignore the fact that a similar strategy has proven beneficial."
Dennick wanted to break the teeth in Vuldt's flinty smile into bloody shards.
Vuldt glanced at Dennick's clenched fists. His smile only broadened. "And what a fine instrument you have been. But… no. I don't want us to play such a long game."
His smile flattened.
"If his kidnappers plan to kill him, make sure they succeed, Dennick. If they have other plans, capture the kit, and do it yourself."
Dennick recoiled. His mouth dropped open.
"Ranith must never be reunited with the Alwardendyn. The heir must die, and all of Kaebrith must know Aenik could not protect their son."
Dennick swallowed bile.
"You want me to murder a child."
Vuldt's tone was relaxed, as if he was asking Dennick to fetch him a snack. "Assuming he's not dead already. Either way, be sure to leave the corpse somewhere public and obvious. Make it a final embarrassment for the palace guard and for the Alwardendyn."
The proposition physically disgusted Dennick. He shook his head. "You ask a great deal of me, Vuldt. Far beyond the conditions of our arrangement to date."
Vuldt met his eyes. "Yes." The smile was back.
Dennick said, "What gives you the confidence I will find Ranith and his abductors before anyone else? Or that, if I do, I will be able to take him from them?"
"You don't necessarily have to find him first. In fact," Vuldt considered, "it might make sense to find the person or party most likely to find him, and let someone else do the hard work… so long as they never succeed in the end."
Dennick stood up as quickly and indignantly as the cushion would allow.
"I will not. Find another."
Vuldt leaned back, the better to look up at Dennick.
"You will. There is no one quite so capable and qualified as you. So, no, I will not find another, for there is no other to find." Vuldt's tone veered toward conciliatory. "I understand you find politics distasteful; the machinations of state…"
"Politics?" Dennick spat the word. He paced. "Killing babies is not politics. Do not—"
Vuldt came slowly to his feet. "This is what I mean." He tsked. "You have no mind for this. Death has always been an instrument of governance. Babies, the elderly, the weak, the strong." His eyes hardened. "The ill."
He straightened his robe. "You will do this, Dennick, and once it's done… I will not ask for anything else."
Dennick stopped. "You would release me. The Plainslord..?"
"You were Gragag's creature, never his."
Dennick fell silent. A swarm of possibilities careened behind his forehead.
There had to be a way to make this all work.
Vuldt smiled. "That's got you thinking."
"What of Agane's medicine?"
"Well, let me add this wind to the storm between your ears: I have learned of a healer among the Clans who, it is said, cured a boy of the wasting."
Dennick shook his head, despairing. "Vuldt. Do not… Agane should not…" It could not be true.
Vuldt raised a stifling hand and shook his head. "Do this last thing, Dennick, and not only will you be released from all this covert Palace District drama, I will guarantee passage for you and Agane to meet with this healer."
Dennick's hands flapped at his sides.
"How long have you known?" His voice sounded harsh and black to his own ears. "Vuldt. About the healer."
"Oh, I don't know. It's not important. One hears things."
Dennick understood. The monster had been holding this token until he had something on which to spend it.
Dennick need never again doubt his assessment of his ward-cousin. This last footnote completed a thick tome of abomination and cruelty.
If there was even a chance to save Agane…
Dennick felt as though a heavy cloak had fallen across his sagging shoulders. If he must wear it, he would make it serve. Somehow.
He spoke from the least part of himself.
"All right, Vuldt."
Vuldt studied him long enough for Dennick to draw and release four tremulous breaths.
The Mouth of the Plainslord then lowered himself back to his cushion with practiced, deliberately languid grace. He made a show of investigating some undoubtedly imaginary spot on his robe.
"All right, then, Dennick."
Dennick straightened. "Is that all?"
Vuldt nodded. "Just to say: this is a very delicate situation, all around. The Alliance cannot be seen to be complicit. And, as I said, the heir cannot be allowed to return to his parents."
"As you said."
"No. Hear me, Dennick." He looked up at his instrument. "If you fail… in every way that matters, the result will be the same: you will be released, and Agane will no longer suffer. Do you understand me?"
"You're threatening her?"
There was no thought driving the impulse. One blink, Dennick stood there, enduring. The next, cushions scattered and he was on one knee, a hand around Vuldt's throat.
Vuldt's eyes bulged, but he was calm. He didn't even raise his hands.
"Who lingers," he rasped, "near your heartfast while we speak here? Do you wonder? What are their instructions, do you think, should I meet some unexpected… inconvenience..?"
Dennick released him and stood in one smooth, unbroken movement.
There had to be a way to make it work.
There had to be a way.
Vuldt adjusted his collar and threw a loaded look past Dennick, to the door.
"Move your feet, Sword. Things will happen quickly come tahigh, and you'll need to be nimble."
Dennick saw the impressions of his fingers on Vuldt's neck. There might be bruising.
Nowhere near enough.
It would have to do for now.
Dennick found he was not compelled to so much as glance at the Plainslord's tapestry on his way out.