Andreno surged to his feet. “Who do you think you are? You can’t just barge in here without permission and start ordering people around. This is my room!” “I’m the king’s General,” Heston said. “And this room is his. In his home. He’s allowing you to use it.” “You behave!” Chamberlain Malk scolded Heston. “He isn’t just any guest!” “This room is too crowded.” Heston swept a hand in the direction of all the guards. “Out. Now.” Malk held up a hand of his own to stop them. “You can’t order all his guards away.” “He may keep one,” Heston said. “Go,” Andreno said to his guards, barely flicking his head at them to indicate who he spoke to. They all scurried. Not even one of them remained. All the elites followed them out into the corridor. Jerryck tried to leave with them, but was crowded away from the bottleneck of the doorway. When the door closed, he was still stuck in the room. Andreno crossed his arms. “Now tell me why I’m unguarded.” “Your cousin is dead,” Heston said. “What cousin?” Andreno asked. “Quillen,” Heston said. “The one that was living in Bershent Fortress with the district premiere and the mayor.” Andreno uncrossed his arms. His eyes darted around the room, flitting in and out of every corner, nook, and shadow. His breath hitched, making him sound almost afraid. He began stuttering. “I don’t… see… he’s not… What happened?” “Unclear,” Heston said. “He was in a pub known for violence. A fight broke out. He was one of four that were killed, according to witnesses. His body was tied to a horse and dragged through the alleys until it was unrecognizable. If not for the witnesses, we wouldn’t know it was him.” That didn’t make any sense. Jerryck and several other magicians could use magic to identify any body that was fresh enough. How long ago had this happened? Past the three day mark, they’d have to rely on witnesses, not magic. “Several were killed at the same time?” Andreno focused his eyes on Heston’s face, visibly calming. “Oh. I wonder, possibly… I don’t see… um, nothing.” “Three of your guards were unaccounted for the time,” Heston said. “What?” Andreno’s eyes went out of focus again. “Three of your guards were missing,” Heston repeated. “They didn’t return from the city with you.” “Oh, them.” Andreno sank back into the chair. “I told a few of my men to tail Quillen, make sure he doesn’t hurt himself. He’s kind of stupid sometimes. Gets himself into trouble. It comes from his common blood.” “Not anymore,” Heston said. Andreno chuckled. He didn’t look overly upset about the loss. The initial shock was wearing off very quickly. Jerryck wasn’t very good at reading individuals, but he was too familiar with the common reactions at the news of a family death. And Andreno wasn’t showing the normal signs of grief. Andreno looked around at the few people left in the room. No one else joined him in his chuckles. They tapered off. He looked down the floor and cleared his throat. “I suppose Uncle might take this kind of hard. He liked Quillen.” “You should escort the body back,” Heston said. “What about the trade agreements?” Malk asked. “He’s not doing any of the negotiating,” Heston said. “The only thing he’s needed for is an official signature on the end of the documents. Someone else can come in his place and do that.” “And it would reflect better on me if I did Uncle this favor,” Andreno said. “Before I go, Jerryck, May I take a sample of that substance you used for the test to show my friend?” “By the time you got it home, the magic would be so weak you would barely be able to see the glow it makes,” Jerryck said. “It can be my souvenir.” Andreno smiled as if nothing was wrong. “I don’t want to leave here without a souvenir.” Heston crossed his arms. “Make it part of the trade negotiations. We’ll send you some. You should be on your way by tomorrow morning, which means packing tonight. Not collecting souvenirs.” Andreno’s face screwed up with anger. Malk quickly said, “There’s no need for that. There’s some right here. Jerryck can leave it, and Andreno will have taken no time at all from preparing for departure. Jerryck, would that be all right with you?” Jerryck took the folded parchment back out of his pocket and handed it over while Heston glowered. Malk ushered the two of them out of the room, saying to Andreno, “You just relax for a moment while I get everything underway for you.” Out in the corridor, all the guards that had scurried were gone. None of them even guarded the door. One of the palace elite stood there instead. Heston refused to budge more than a few feet from the door. He glared at Malk. “You’re just giving away the tools we used? So they can back-engineer it?” “They won’t need to,” Jerryck said. “I submitted the process for making that tool to the Gathering a long time ago. As long as they haven’t denied approval, any magician can look it up and duplicate it. None of them have.” “It’s an inconsequential item.” Malk glared right back at Heston, meeting his gaze without flinching. “You of all people know exactly how he treats everyone around him when he’s upset.” “I offered a cure for that.” Heston’s voice was flat. Malk broke the stare-down by rolling his eyes. “You can’t take him downstairs and whip him. Not without making his granduncle furious with us.” “You keep saying that.” Heston rocked back on his heels. “My sources tell me his granduncle doesn’t like him very much.” “I don’t want to know any more about this.” Jerryck threw up his hands and walked away. “Wait,” Heston called, striding after him. “There’s something I need to ask you.” Jerryck stopped walking. “What?” “Not here.” Heston opened the door to a vacant guestroom and beckoned Jerryck in. “Some thing’s shouldn’t be discussed in corridors.” “There’s no one around except one of your own men.” Jerryck entered the room anyway. “Irrelevant.” Heston closed the door behind them. “Your search for the poison maker magician. Have you looked in Shontarra?” “Not yet.” Jerryck didn’t admit that he was procrastinating that one. It was doubtful that Shontese magicians would be cooperative after how he treated their prince’ s court magician. “You should,” Heston said. “Andreno is far too interested in our water and our current relations with the Chemwanitz.” “What does that have to do with it?” Heston crossed his arms. “He knows something. He’s just clever enough to elude answering if he’s asked about it. And he’s important enough that I can’t take him down to the dungeon and beat it out of him.” “Is that the real reason you’re telling them to leave? Because you honestly think he’s dangerous?” “I knew he was dangerous before he got here,” Heston said. “Sometimes the only way to learn about a danger is to draw it in and examine it closely. I’ve learned what I can. Now, he can leave.” “I’d like to leave,” Jerryck said. Heston stepped out from in front of the door and opened it for him. Jerryck didn’t hesitate to take advantage. # He went back up the tower. When he told Leanne that Andreno was leaving, she was so excited she ran down to tell her friends the good news. By morning he was gone, without fanfare. The rest of the delegation got down to business and the negotiations commenced. Jerryck put the whole affair our of mind. Shipments of the supplies he had ordered in the city began to arrive at the palace. So did so did a trickling of responses regarding inquiries to magicians outside Kershet. Most of them only led to someone of mediocre potential. Some of them he already knew about. He sent them responses. Then he spread his feelers wider, sending letters to magicians and districts where he hadn’t yet contacted anyone. While everyone else was preoccupied with the trade negotiations, Jerryck used the time to go through the palace. He checked on every charm, every spell. He did maintenance work on any that were wearing thin. He finished about the same time a new Shontese delegate arrived to put official signatures on the end documents. Chamberlain Malk was called on to play host to this new delegate, a role normally filled by Nita. She was excused from it while she prepared to leave the palace. Every summer she took a few weeks for a vacation. She would travel someplace in the nation she had never visited, just to see and experience the lifestyle there. Then she would take a circuitous route, avoiding anything near the palace, and go to the Tarn District. There, she spent two weeks with her maternal uncle Premiere Grennan, and his family. In her absence, her father would just about have apoplectic fits. Head medic Kellos stocked up on calming potions and sleeping droughts. If he ran short, or Terrance refused to utilize them, Jerryck stepped in with magic. Every year during these preparations, Jerryck, Kellos, and others would meet. They all took inventory of the blossoms and herbs in the flowerbeds and gardens. They surrounded the various plots, arguing about which blooms were needed most, and where to plant them. Then they decided which ones to grow from seed, and which ones to transplant in from other places, like Zinrish Dell. For the most part, Jerryck and Kellos always wanted the same thing, since they used very similar supplies. Jerryck rarely had to do a thing. Kellos did all the arguing and haggling. Jerryck mostly stayed out of the way and tried not to look bored. Everything was being finalized and recorded, the arguments winding down. Jerryck and Kellos both had what they wanted. The only two still debating and haggling were the head chef and one of the top interior decorators. Several people turned to watch when Nita crossed the bustling bailey for the stables. “Still going for her daily rides, I see.” Kellos chuckled. “The priad is never going to convince her to stop doing that, not even this close to her vacation.” “She reminds me of her mother every time he tries,” Jerryck said. Kellos craned his neck, watching the last of the escort guards disappear into the stables with her. “I don’t see Tajor.” “Why would you see Tajor?” Jerryck asked. “In fact, how do you even know him? He doesn’t go to the infirmary.” “Which is why I sought him out and made acquaintance,” Kellos said. “I was curious. As often as Heston’s elite are in and out of the infirmary, I had yet to treat the man for anything. And as for your question, he’s been assigned as a secondary riding escort. Several months ago. I thought you knew that.” “Uh…” Jerryck probably shouldn’t admit that he didn’t really pay all that much attention to such details. “Sometimes I think she uses her daily rides to go out and talk to him, dredge out some advice,” Kellos said. One of the other gardeners brought over a list for them both to sign their approval. “Advice?” Jerryck let Kellos have the list first. “From Tajor?” “She claims he’s very reliable.” Kellos looked over the list. Jerryck snorted and rolled his eyes. “He’s very annoying!” “I learned that the hard way.” Kellos signed the paper. He handed it over for Jerryck to do the same. Some of the group moved off. A few stayed to keep hashing out exact placement of items with the gardeners. Jerryck turned to head for his tower when Ressell, Kershet’s official magician, approached from the direction of the palace gates. A page led him, and Tajor followed behind. “That’s why he’s not with the princess,” Jerryck said. “Heston finally has the perfect excuse to keep a closer eye on magicians visiting the palace. There was trouble with one during the bad water.” “I know,” Kellos said. “We treated him after the guards were done with him.” Jerryck cleared his throat, avoiding anything further on that particular subject. He glanced up at his tower, where one of his alerts was surely chiming. He reached up mentally and with a muttered word, turned it off. Then he said, “Yes, well, when Andreno came, a couple of other magicians visited. When Heston wanted details, I couldn’t remember every little thing. So now he wants every visiting magician escorted by an elite. Tajor, specifically, if he’s available.” Ressell approached Jerryck, shooting a derogatory look at Kellos. The page ran off, his job apparently done. Tajor remained. Ressell looked Kellos up and down. “You consort with alchemists?” “He’s very good at healing,” Jerryck said. Ressell’s upper lip curled back. “He’s an alchemist.” “And about half the people in the palace prefer alchemical medics to healing magicians,” Jerryck said. “Besides, I never was as good a healing as my mentor. Kellos can more than make up for the difference.” Ressell glanced back at Tajor. “Isn’t he the one that chased Masorno off?” “The Shontese court magician?” Tajor smiled. “What makes you think anyone other than Jerryck or the king could chase him off?” Jerryck blew out a breath. “Please, don’t get him started. He’s difficult enough as it is.” “Who? Me?” Tajor’s smile widened. “Difficult? Whatever do you mean?” “See?” Jerryck said. “What do you need?” “I brought you these.” Ressell took folded papers out of his traveling satchel. “They’re the names of every boy I could find in the city with the potential to become a magician.” “Thank you,” Jerryck said, taking the list. “You didn’t have to come deliver them personally.” “I’m running errands outside the city and this is just one of the stops.” Ressell tapped the papers. “I would advise you to read the back of the list first. Those are the youngest. That’ll give you more time to go get your license.” “I have no intentions on getting a license.” Jerryck opened the papers and scanned down some of the names. Kellos looked rather consternated. “You’re not seriously going to take on an apprentice while still defying the Gathering, are you?” Ressell’s sneer instantly returned. “That’s done of your business, medic!” “Behave.” Jerryck glared at Ressell over the papers. “I appreciate the concern, and the personal delivery, but that’s no reason to disrespect someone important on Terrance’s staff.” “You’re defending a medic?” Ressell raised his eyebrows. “How far? What would you do? Toss me out like you did Masorno? I’ll save you the trouble.” He spun around and stomped toward the palace gates, Tajor smirking in his wake. Kellos said to Jerryck, “You shouldn’t let him walk away angry like that. He just did you a favor. He didn’t have to.” “He didn’t have to be rude, either.” Jerryck rolled the pages, making them easier to carry. “Don’t make enemies on account of me.” Kellos gave Jerryck a nudge in the direction Ressell had stomped off. Jerryck had to run to catch up, dodging around people working and moving about in the bailey. He called out, “Ressell! Wait! Wait, wait, wait. Please don’t leave like that. Just… I can’t… Don’t…” “Spit it out.” Ressell slowed down just enough for Jerryck to catch up. He gasped from the short sprint, and Ressell stopped entirely. “You know, I’ve always been respectful to you, even though you don’t deserve the position you have.” “I know…” Jerryck filled his lungs slowly and released it, pausing to let his heart rate slow some. “Kellos does deserve his position as head medic. Terrance hired him personally. He’s not a fraud, like so many other medics. And he stands up for me when they badmouth magicians. Please, just try to respect that the same way you’re respectful to me.” “Fine.” Ressell ground his teeth. “Because he stands up for magicians. And for the king. Not for you.” “Then we’re agreed,” Jerryck said. They stood staring at each other a few moments, the hustle and bustle of the bailey continuing around them. They couldn’t stay there like that. So Jerryck remembered his manners and protocol. “Come up to the tower? Have some tea?” Ressell nodded at Tajor. “Is he still going to shadow me?” “Do shadows talk?” Tajor asked. “Not my choice,” Jerryck said. Ressell frowned. Giggling children around by them, trying to catch each other in some sort of game. A hammer from the smithy rang. A rider with a messenger satchel galloped through the palace gates bearing a Shontese flag. Ressell looked around at all the activity, normal for the average day in the palace bailey. “I’ll go,” he said. “If your job is as busy as mine, someone will call on you the moment we sit down anyway. Besides, as I said, I have other errands to run.” He headed away again. Once he mounted his horse and left, Jerryck turned to go inside. He paused when he spotted his niece Marla sitting on a bench by the gardens all by herself. She had tucked her feet up and rested her chin on her knees. She watched the other kids playing. Jerryck walked over and sat beside her. “You’re not over there playing with all your friends?” “I’m waiting for the afternoon class to get done so I can talk to Zev.” Her head bobbed when she talked because of how she rested her chin. “About what?” “I had another bad dream.” “You want to tell me about it?” Jerryck offered. She shook her head. “I’ll just wait for Zev.” Jerryck wasn’t sure what more to say to her. He always offered to listen. She always declined. He looked over at the other children playing around. Did other people have trouble getting kids to tell them things? Or was it just Jerryck?