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Lady of mercy, p.1
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       Lady of Mercy, p.1

           Michelle Sagara
 
Lady of Mercy


  Table of Contents

  Also by Michelle Sagara West

  Title Page

  prologue

  chapter one

  chapter two

  chapter three

  chapter four

  chapter five

  chapter six

  chapter seven

  chapter eight

  chapter nine

  chapter ten

  chapter eleven

  chapter twelve

  chapter thirteen

  chapter fourteen

  chapter fifteen

  chapter sixteen

  chapter seventeen

  chapter eighteen

  chapter nineteen

  epilogue

  Copyright Page

  Also by Michelle Sagara West

  Cast in Shadow 1

  The Sundered Series1

  Into the Dark Lands

  Children of the Blood

  Chains of Darkness, Chains of Light

  The Sacred Hunt Duology2

  Hunter’s Oath

  Hunter’s Death

  The Sun Sword Series2

  The Broken Crown

  The Uncrowned King

  The Shining Court

  Sea of Sorrows

  The Riven Shield

  Sun Sword

  prologue

  Lord vellen’s return to the capital was not a happy occasion, nor was it particularly grand or open. Had he desired such obvious fanfare, he would have been denied the choice.

  All of his Swords—the four taken that he had most trusted—were dead, and the Servants who had come at God’s behest were dispersed. Yet somehow the First of the Enemy remained. As did Sargoth.

  “It is God’s game,” Sargoth had said. “Do not question it.” But no ruler of the Greater Cabal took well to external orders.

  Travel at the hands of the Second of the Sundered was unpleasant and best forgotten quickly—but it brought him immediately to the heart of his house, without any of his rivals’ spies the wiser for it. His rooms were as he had left them, perfectly manicured and completely secure. There were, no doubt, house guards posted at the doors—and they would have their surprise soon enough.

  But he was weary and sought the comfort of sleep. His arm was useless, and any attempt to call upon the powers of his birth caused pain—an echo of the burning. The slave—that cursed child—had been his downfall; all of Lord Vellen’s attention had been focused on the First Servant and the known half blood.

  He pulled back the covers without ringing for his attendant slaves. Weakened, he would be shamed by their presence; it was more than he was willing to undergo. But he had to think clearly, even if he was so weak that standing proved difficult. Weeks had passed, and those, taught and sheltered as he had been by the Second of the Sundered, had made his position in the Greater Cabal tenuous. The balance of power was a game that he had mastered well—but even a master must be present for a majority of the moves.

  Tomorrow he would send for a doctor; tomorrow he would discover just how long his recovery would be—and just how much time Lord Torvallen would have to plot and build a base from which to attempt the high seat of the Greater Cabal.

  Tonight he would dream of the death of a slave, a woman, and the Lord of the Empire.

  To Vellen of Damion, seat of the Greater Cabal, High Priest and Lord of the Karnari:

  Light King takes four. The game isn’t over yet.

  Renar of Marantine.

  Lord Vellen’s hands trembled in the dark silence of his bed-chamber. He laid the note carefully upon the thick, soft counterpane and gazed at it; his face was still and betrayed nothing of what he felt, although none were there to remark upon it.

  The curtains were drawn, denying light and day. An empty crystal decanter lay on the bed table beside fresh-cut flowers, quill, and inkstand.

  He had survived. He had barely survived.

  His eyes silvered, although he knew this precious use of energy was vain and impulsive, and the edges of the parchment caught orange light and fire as his magic reigned. No heat burned the counterpane; no flame touched anything but the words of a foe that Lord Vellen had never quite managed to trap.

  Corval was dead; Stillonius, too, had met assassin’s blade. Of the twelve members of his cabal, these two had been firmly and completely owned by Vellen. In two short weeks, Renar of Marantine had struck a quiet and efficient blow to the power structure that made Vellen’s word law: Morden of Farenel and Sorval of Kintassus had been “voted” upon as replacements in Vellen’s absence.

  In his weakened condition, unable to travel beyond the perimeter of his rooms, Vellen had had little choice but to sign the official document. He had kept a measured and steady correspondence with Lord Valens, delicately skirting around the issue of both his health and his presence at meetings of the full cabal.

  He pushed himself up against the headboard and grimaced in pain. The white-fire that had struck him still burned and scarred his insides; he could not move at all without betraying this.

  And he knew, clearly, where this strike had come from. He had looked up, before the fire took even that ability away from him, to see the slave that he had once kept for the Lord of the Empire. The slave’s revenge was not yet complete, and in the darkness, Lord Vellen vowed that it would never become so.

  But a boy and a disinherited prince of Marantine had achieved a goal that Vellen had thought impossible for any outside of the political Greater Cabal to achieve.

  Grimacing, he fell back and slid into the cool sheets. The Second of the Sundered had not seen fit to supply him with any information of the happenings of the battle; he had come into the preternaturally still hall to teleport Vellen away from the scene of battle without speaking a word.

  Vellen was too proud to ask, and besides, he maintained his own small force to hunt out information, stationed just outside of the castle, in the village of the Vale. Two days had passed, by a count admittedly not as reliable as it usually was; Lord Vellen expected a report and waited with patience that had become ingrained but never pleasant.

  He let the shadows hide his gaunt, pale face for a few minutes longer before reaching for the bellpull and tugging it softly. There was work to do, letters to be dictated.

  chapter one

  The Swords were ready for battle. The castle of the Lord of the Empire loomed in the near distance, a monument of great, carved stone and high towers—a banner not perturbed or moved by the wind on the open hillock.

  Not three hundred yards from the Vale’s village, in the cover provided by thin trees and goldenrod grown too high from a plenitude of rain and sun, the four men kept watch. They were dressed simply and hadn’t seen use of razors or water for a fourday—but they no longer looked bored or irritated. Like a brand, the clash of white and red in the night sky two evenings past had burned itself into their eyes, a harbinger of doom or war that the blood understood well, even if the mind did not.

  Although they wore no chain and no black surcoats, and attended no high priest, they bore arms that were perfectly crafted. They were Swords; Malanthi, all.

  They had seen the nightwalkers drifting through the wrought-iron gates of the castle. Servants of the the Dark Heart. What had drawn the four here, they did not know. Nor were they certain they wanted to.

  But they were not bored; indeed, even if they had been relieved of their long duty, they would have had trouble sleeping.

  The sky was the color of firelight reflected in tears; light, misted orange. Sara rose with the dawn, in silence and mourning. Someone tended to her; she drank the water of Lernan‘s wound and found it both sweet and bitter to her taste.

  “Sara?”

  She coughed, pushed the hand away, and murmured something only half-dist
inct.

  “Almost two days,” was the quiet reply. “We’re in the garden house. Shed,” Darin added as he looked at the rough walls. “I haven’t gone back outside. I left yesterday morning to try to find the Lord, but I—there’s a spell on the ground around the castle. Bethany said it was dangerous. I didn’t cross it. I tried calling him, but he didn’t answer. And all the slaves are gone.” He tilted a cup to her lip; she swallowed, and once again felt the warmth and tingling of Lernan’s Gift. It was almost more than she could bear. Gently, she eased herself to sitting.

  “I’m fine,” she whispered. “I—have to go outside.”

  He offered her a hand—and a shoulder when her weight proved unstable. She stood, leaning against him until Lernan’s healing offered her body strength enough to stand on its own. Then she opened the door and walked into the pink sky, the open garden. She shuddered as she passed beneath the wide door’s frame.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “There’s a magic on this outbuilding. It’s—I don’t know what it is. But it’s not mine. Not ours.”

  Before Darin could press her for more, Bethany spoke quietly into his mind’s ear. Leave her for the moment, Initiate.

  But—but if there’s a spell on the shed, shouldn’t we do something about it?

  Bethany offered momentary silence, as she often did—the pause for breath before the answer. No, she said at last. I do not think we need to fear it. It was for our protection, I think; it kept us hidden from our Enemy’s detection.

  He looked at Sara’s drawn, pale face; he saw the shudder that stretched across her shoulders and arms. She doesn’t think so.

  Perhaps. But you will not ask her.

  She remembered everything.

  She saw, in the sunset and the low morning haze, a flicker of lids over a blood-drenched face. She arrived again a moment too late and let loose her power—her line’s gift—in an empty display of anger, of pain, of betrayal.

  Belfas was dead. Not even the body remained, and she knew that there had been no ceremony for him, no easing of the way. She hoped that the Bridge had been open to him and that the Beyond held nothing of war or its memories to torment him. Nothing of war, and nothing of her.

  She saw the back of a young boy, started, and then relaxed—if the slight easing of her shoulders and jaw could be called that. Darin stood, elbows against the stone lip of Lernan’s Gifting, eyes on the surface of the gently moving waters. His fingers, smooth and bloodless, skirted the water; his lips moved, and his fair, pale hair bobbed lightly as he rocked. He was writing something that no other eyes would see.

  Darin was of Culverne. Culverne lay across the continent. Keranya’s words echoed quietly in the air, where only she could hear them. It had been five years since the fall of Line Culveme—only five. Not four hundred.

  A hundred bitter questions pressed against the tight line of her lips, which were closed against their utterance. She looked out at the garden; her eyes followed the smooth and perfect line of the hedges and wending trail of all manner of flowers, only a few of which she knew by name. She caught the scent of roses and saw that they were white—the color of mourning, of passage. She looked again at Darin. Now was not the time for questions, and she doubted that he could answer even a fraction of them, even if it were.

  She knew where she was, although the forest and the Lady’s trees had been cleared completely away, and no trace remained of the path, once familiar and oft traveled, to the Gifting—the Gifting that Elliath had kept and preserved in its long battle.

  They had lost it, and she would abandon it again. There was no choice.

  She was quiet as she walked to the inner gates that kept the garden from the rest of the castle; quiet as she bent down to retrieve what Gervin, slavemaster no longer, had left for her keeping.

  There was a weapon, a sword a little longer than those she had trained with, and a shield and armor; there was food, snares, and two bedrolls; there was even a small tent which would serve both her and Darin well.

  “Sara?” She heard the soft pad of quick, light steps as Darin left the well and approached her turned back.

  “It’s morning,” she said quietly. “We should leave now, while we have the chance.” Swallowing, she continued. “Lord—Lord Darclan gave us time, but only that. The priests will probably come, if the lord was injured or—or killed.”

  “Can’t we check?”

  “No.” The word was quick and clear—too quick. As if realizing this, Sara added, “The ward on the grounds would make it very difficult—and we ... we can’t risk the power. Not now. Trust me, Darin. It’s best this way.”

  He nodded, hearing her words clearly, and misunderstanding the shakiness with which they were delivered. He had been told, by both Gervin and Lord Darclan, that they would have to flee the castle and perhaps Mordantari itself.

  Lady Sara slid quickly out of her dress, and, before Darin could blush or offer his aid, found her way into the tunic and trousers that Gervin had also seen fit to provide. They were plain, but not coarse; even though they were simple, no observer would have mistaken them for mere slave’s wear. Padding followed, as did armor. She buckled leather into place and girded herself with her weapon.

  “Should I change, too?”

  “Yes. But keep the clothing anyway. It’s fine, a little too fancy, and not very practical—but we may need it, in time.”

  He began to change, and she, to rearrange the backpacks. When she was done, she lifted the heavier one with quiet authority and slid it onto her shoulders. It felt strange. It had been years since she’d traveled with one. Darin’s grunting drew her attention, and she turned with almost a sigh.

  She walked over, held out both hands, and caught the straps of his pack before they crossed at the back. He flushed a little; it added color to his cheeks, to the fairness of his face. “Sorry, Sara,” he muttered, as he turned and held his arms out behind his back.

  She was familiar with the gesture. It cut; it cut deeply. “Don’t be afraid to ask me for help.”

  He would remember that, later. That, and the expression on her face.

  Two others watched the castle from without, aware of the Swords, although they were not aware of each other. One was an older man who carried his age like a mantle of authority or a symbol of wisdom. He wore a brown robe, one simple and unadorned by any threads or embroidery that spoke of rank or office. The hood at the back was pulled up and rested just above the line of salt-and-pepper brows; a twined rope girded his midsection and hung to his knees. A pack lay at his feet and a staff beside it—one of gnarled wood that would stretch to just past his shoulder when carried. He stood almost in plain sight, certainly more so than the Swords—but none noticed or remarked on his presence.

  He was a man of many talents and many dangers—and the moment that he had been planning for, even hoping for, was about to come to pass.

  Indeed, as he watched the gates he hardly seemed to breathe at all.

  The last man waited, better hidden and more silent than any of the others. He watched the Swords, and he watched the gate; it would have been hard to say which garnered more of his attention. He was not old, but not in the first bloom of youth either; lines had been etched into the comers of his eyes, but whether it was due to smiling or frowning was impossible to divine. His face was smooth and perfectly expressionless beneath the dark, deep brown of his hair. There was a scar across his forehead, and another across his cheek—but they were faint, like the trace of an old web that’s been all but removed.

  His arms were crossed; he kept his hands at his sleeves. The sword that he wore hung, sheathed, past his knee. Yet he, too, was prepared for battle.

  “Darin,” Sara said softly, “stay behind me.”

  Her voice, quiet, was nonetheless edged and cold. Darin tilted his head, as if to question her commands, and fell silent at the look on her face, although it was not directed at him. The sweep of lashes closed in a narrowed line over her eyes; those eyes flared green f
or a second—a fleeting echo of the previous night’s battle.

  Her sword rang out in the stillness, a raw scrape of steel and light. Following her gaze, he saw four men, villagers by their dress, but far too idle for those of the Vale. They lounged by the roadside, but even at this distance it was obvious to Darin that they, too, held swords—swords that were drawn.

  Without a word, he reached—fumbled, really—for Bethany. She came to his hand, and he leaned on her for strength; he called on her for knowledge.

  A thin, murky thread of light, almost invisible in the greater brilliance of sun and clear sky, streaked across the distance that separated them from the four that waited.

  Before it reached them, it died, cut off abruptly.

  “Malanthi,” Darin whispered.

  Sara nodded quietly, her eyes a green sheen, her jaw a rigid, square line. “Swords.”

  “Should we go back?” He looked over his shoulder; the road behind them was clear.

  “No,” Sara said softly. “I can’t.”

  “Then maybe we should get off the road?” His eyes darted to trees, but even the suggestion was made doubtfully; the Swords were close. As if his words were beacons, they began to move forward—not running, not precisely, but walking at a very quick pace.

  Sara stopped, planting her feet slightly apart in the flat dirt road. Her pack hit the ground and rocked to a stop. She reached for the shield that rested atop it and shrugged her forearm through its leather straps. The handgrip was caught and held in whitening fingers. The shield’s rounded contours fell just below her hips. It had been years since she had held either sword or shield; there had been little call for either in Rennath.

 
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