The seventh day of Strella’s Moon
YARROW adored his anonymity. Anonymity softened the world, the invisibility giving him a feeling of safety and freedom. It might be illusion, but illusion had its place sometimes. Unfortunately, the others of the world loved the trivial trappings of status, the power that stemmed from being a little more important than those beneath them, the idea that they mattered somehow beyond their frivolous stations. They had no idea of their place in the grand scheme of things, beyond their paltry power struggles and hollow victories. Yarrow hated being bothered with trifling problems and things beneath him, which, in his opinion, included almost everything. He hated pettiness, though the rest of the world seemed to embrace it. All the more reason to retreat from society and its pretense, it seemed to Yarrow. He despised the powers trying to force him back into the irrelevant and transient maneuverings of the privileged. He resented returning to this castle at all.
Do we have to be here? The voice circled Yarrow’s thoughts in the dark, and for a moment he sank underwater, into blackness. A silken voice slid against his bare skin, sharp tines brushing over his goose-bumped flesh, no less frightening because the voice and its source lived within him. I’m hungry, beloved—and bored.
Give it time.
Yarrow wore garments neither too shabby nor too fine: a shirt and trousers, once black, now faded to slate, dull ebony leather pauldrons, boots and bracers, a few belts, and a dark, hooded cloak. His clothing allowed him to pass through the castle gate without being mistaken for a servant and ordered off on a trivial errand, and without being marked as a courtier and fawned over, another barrier he’d constructed between him and the mundane foolishness others so valued. Among the dozens of scurrying workers, merchants, horse-drawn carts, foot soldiers, and knights on horseback, Yarrow entered the courtyard without attention. He knew that would change if he threw back his cowl and revealed his anything-but-anonymous visage beneath. Since he didn’t want to be bothered, he kept his eyes on the wet, gray stone, fouled with mud, straw, and horse dung as he made his way around the great castle toward the stables and carriage houses at the back.
Smoke from the smithies, the kitchens, and the many small fires, around which infantrymen huddled for warmth, rose into and blended with the smudged, charcoal sky. The stink of the fumes, combined with the odor of animals and unwashed men, burned the lining of Yarrow’s nose. He’d become unused to human civilization and the crowding and stench towed in its wake. As he walked between the outer wall and the citadel, he felt a familiar shiver up his spine. It nudged at the base of his skull, gently at first, then insistently. Yarrow let his mental barriers lower, and tendrils of the other awareness filled his head.
What is it now? he asked the presence that shared his body. He already felt irritated by the cold, the wet, the stink, and the trifling chore for which he’d been summoned. It had been many years since he’d felt welcome or comfortable at this fortress, and its towers and turrets, looming over him and throwing thick shadows across the yard, conjured confusing recollections and set him on edge. He found himself in no mood for further annoyances.
What a hassle, Yarrow. It’s dull and it smells.
Yes, I know, and I don’t like it any more than you do, but I’ve received a royal summons, and even I can’t ignore that.
Let me wear the body, the other voice suggested hungrily. I’ll show this king of yours we aren’t to be commanded.
You’ll stem your thirst for blood immediately, Yarrow ordered. The other’s rapacious lust had already started to spread to the young man and influence his decisions and desires. Yarrow caught himself mopping his lips with his tongue, a little excited to show the king the power heating his veins. He squelched it with reluctance. You’ll keep quiet whilst I speak to the king. I don’t want to be distracted. With any luck, I can get us out of this fool’s errand, though I can’t make any promises.
Might I wear the flesh later?
It’s not the flesh, it’s my flesh, and you’d do well to remember that, Yarrow chastised, his temper flaring. Now, be quiet.
A chill, light rain began to fall as Yarrow turned the corner and entered the expansive space in front of the stables. Six fancy passenger carriages and an equal number of carts stood in a line facing the back gate. Several dozen foot soldiers and half a dozen knights waited beside them. Two guards wearing cobalt and white tabards with the great bear on its hind legs, the royal livery, over their mail suits crossed their halberds in front of Yarrow when he attempted to approach the procession. The other presence grew offended and prepared to retaliate, but Yarrow soothed it.
To the guards he said, “I am Yarroway L’Estrella, of the Valenny of Lockhaven. I’m expected.”
“Forgive us, tam,” said one of the men, rain running in rivulets from his chain mail hood and down his face. “We didn’t know it was you.”
They stepped apart to allow Yarrow passage. Yarrow curtly nodded his gratitude, even as his lips curled at the title of tam. It was little more than a common expression of respect. Yarrow felt much worthier than his older brother of being valen, though he had no real desire to rule Lockhaven. Still, he felt like the king ought to lay the title at his feet, just to give him the pleasure of turning it down.
Let me wear the body and then—
No, Yarrow warned. Hush. The king is coming.
A quartet of atonal horns sounded as the monarch approached, flanked at each shoulder by three guards in shining silver plate. King Agarick, a middle-aged man with brown hair and a beard streaked with silver at the corners of his mouth, wore a harrow-wolf’s fur cloak atop his own armor. A young page tried desperately to shield his sovereign from the rain with an oilcloth umbrella, though Agarick stood at least a foot and a half taller than the shivering boy. Fat, gray droplets ricocheted off his broad shoulders and the slimy stone, outlining the men, horses, and carriages in chill mist.
“His Majesty Agarick, High King of all Selindria,” announced one of the trumpeters.
Everyone present, aside from Yarrow, dropped to one knee and bowed his head. Yarrow stood looking at their stooped shoulders, the frigid rain running uncomfortably beneath his collar and down his spine. He pushed his sopping fringe out of his eyes and met the dark gaze of the monarch. “Uncle,” he said with an almost imperceptible dip of his head.
A collective gasp of shock rose from the kneeling soldiers, courtiers, administrators, and servants. Yarrow regarded his fingernails. He knew Agarick wouldn’t honor his affront by acknowledging it, and his guess proved right.
“Nephew,” the king said, feigning a belly laugh and holding his arms open. “How good to see you again after all these years.”
The men on their knees in the wet offal began to rise and whisper anxiously to one another. Yarrow added to their astonishment when he hesitated to embrace his uncle. Agarick strode confidently toward him, unwilling to be made a fool of a second time. He squeezed Yarrow’s small body in his powerful arms, brusquely and without affection, making Yarrow flinch and almost gag. Panic rose in him for the few seconds he stood trapped in the thick, unyielding arms. The king smelled of sweat despite the chill, horses, dogs, and ale. “Good of you to come, Yarroway.”
The young man, half the size of the king, wriggled away and stepped back. “I hardly had a choice, Uncle.” Yarrow saw Agarick’s jaw twitch in irritation and fought not to smile.
After another false laugh the king said, “You make it sound as though I dragged you here in chains.”
“Practically. I have my own pursuits to attend to, tam. It is the greatest inconvenience to be called here for this silly task.”
“How dare you,” Agarick snarled, lunging at Yarrow, who stepped to the side and swept off his hood.
The king hesitated at the sight of Yarrow’s jagged, messy layers of snow-white hair and ice-blue eyes. Some Emiri paint curled from Yarrow’s hairline to the center of his right brow and spiraled out beneath his eye in three intricate, swirling lines that loosely resembled long lashes. More elaborate dark-blue lines rose from his collar and twined up the side of his neck before disappearing into the hair behind his ear. Those in attendance inhaled in unison. Yarrow lifted his chin, reveling in his intimidating appearance. Not so long ago, he’d hated the way he looked. Now, when he needed to, he used his aspect as another way to keep others at a distance.
The king stammered. “I, nephew, I have not seen you since your foreign pilgrimages and the exotic fever that altered you so.”
Fever, aye? That’s a good one, Yarrow.
“Surely you must appreciate the import of this affair,” the king continued. “My son, your beloved cousin Garith, is to wed into the kingdom of Gaeltheon. Our united realms will be a power unlike this world has seen, and may finally bring peace to our troubled land.”
A lofty endeavor. How’s he planning to accomplish it, beloved?
For the benefit of his passenger, Yarrow sketched out a crude map in his mind. Selindria and Gaeltheon stood at the east and west ends of their small continent, both roughly triangular in shape. In the north, their apexes leaned together like toppling-over tombstones, while both commanded vast expanses of coastline to the south. Between them, over a dozen small, warring nations occupied a spear-shaped tract of land around the Kanda River. Ruled by warlords, their borders shifted constantly, though none of them stood a chance against either of the larger, wealthy kingdoms surrounding them.
Only the Emiri people, who’d come across the southern seas about a century and a half ago, posed any real threat. They were lithe, androgynous folk with skin the color of wet sand and eyes in hues of crimson, orange, and gold. They possessed nautical skills so superior no nation could begin to compete. Emiri, while not a formal nation, occupied most of the south coast, on both sides of the river. Yarrow knew the word Emiri translated only to “seafarer.” Their raiders terrorized Selindria’s and Gaeltheon’s beaches and ports. They delighted in painting their bodies with permanent swirls and dips to accentuate their musculature. Yarrow found them nearly amphibious: as much at home within the ocean waters as without. They were notoriously dissolute, valuing little more than wealth and pleasure. Yarrow especially enjoyed the company of Emiri boys, and had yet to encounter one who preferred one gender over the other.
He plans to push from both sides, Yarrow’s companion noted. Drive out the smaller nations between Selindria and Gaeltheon. He’ll decimate your precious Emiri.
“That is neither here nor there,” Yarrow replied, artfully answering both questions. “The issue is whether or not my talents are necessary to accompany a wedding party. I say, tam, that they are squandered thus.”
“Yarroway L’Estrella, you are the greatest magic-wielder of our age!” Agarick protested.
“Of course,” Yarrow allowed, mildly pleased. “All the more reason why I shouldn’t need to waste my time accompanying the prince to Gaeltheon. You seem to have a fine company established already. I’m certain my cousin will be well protected. Surely, with your vast resources, you can find another mage if you need one.”
“You know better than any how few mages exist these days. You are third cousin to this family,” Agarick fumed. “You have a duty to the crown and you’ll fulfill it. You should be honored to do so.”
“I’d really rather not. I hate weddings, Uncle.” From the corner of his vision, Yarrow noticed blue velvet curtains cleave open in the window of the carriage second to the end. A dark eye and a sliver of a face appeared for a moment, then disappeared again behind the drapery. Something about the glimpse of that eye intrigued the young mage.
“Tam Yarroway, must I remind you of your past indiscretions?” Agarick bellowed. “I hesitate to use them to compel you, but—”
“Must I remind Your Majesty of indiscretions committed against my person?” Yarrow countered, bored, aggravated, and offended. “Many within the walls of this very castle? Shall I name them before everyone here? I will not be forced into this foolish task. It is unworthy of me.”
Agarick paled. “No, nephew. I would not discuss them here.”
“Good. I’ll be going.”
The king dared not say another word, and Yarrow had prepared to turn and leave the damp, stinking courtyard when a woman in an emerald gown lined with fox fur rushed around the corner. Breathless, she seized the mage’s hands within her soft, suede gloves.
“Dearest Yarrow,” she panted. “I beg you to protect my son. I have faith in no one more than you. I have worked years to arrange this marriage. It’s more important than you know. There are many who would benefit were this union not to reach fruition. Please. Guide him safely into the arms of his Gaelthonian bride. Do this if you love me.”
Who’s this strumpet, now? asked the presence within Yarrow’s mind. Why’s she making your heart into porridge?
My Aunt Denna Corina. She’s from the island nation of Espero, to the south of Gaeltheon’s western peninsula. It’s a country of mages. She’s always favored me. I think she hoped one of her children might have the gift. She used to show me the loveliest little parlor tricks when I was a boy. She was my first teacher and confidant. I told her… everything, and she accepted it. I can’t repay what she did for me as a child.
“Auntie, I just don’t feel I’m needed.”
“It would put my mind at ease, knowing you stood by Garith, watched over him. Please, Yarrow, he’s my only son.”
“You place too much faith in me,” Yarrow said, nuzzling the side of his aunt’s neck as she continued to clutch his hands. “I will see Garith safely to his nuptials in Gaeltheon.”
“Bless you, nephew.” She kissed him at the corner of his mouth. “I knew you would not forsake us.”
“I do it for you,” Yarrow whispered into her hair, “not him.” He indicated the king with a subtle cant of his head.
Hush, I said.
“Very well,” Agarick said. “Let us see to the details. Back inside, dear wife, lest you catch cold in this rain. Yarroway, come with me.” The king motioned the young mage toward the front of the procession. They stopped in front of a long, wooden table strewn with maps, their ink running, turning countries and continents to blobs and making rivers drip from the edges of the parchment. Yarrow helped himself to water from a clay pitcher. His eyes wandered to the large man seated at the foot of the table.
Unlike Agarick’s honor guards in their polished armor, this man’s heavy plate was dull, dented, and dinged from years of service. While broad-shouldered, the soldier’s body still possessed a lanky elegance. Yarrow felt sure he’d be as quick and agile on the battlefield as he would be powerful. Yarrow could see the fine cut of the man’s square jaw beneath his close-cropped, dark-brown whiskers. Hair the same rich hue was pulled back in a leather loop, the ends just grazing the top of the man’s battered armor. A few loose strands dripped rain down his forehead, thick brows, and sharp, high cheekbones. Water pooled in the divot above his mouth. His lips seemed a little too full and shapely to sit on such a stoic face. His eyes were a blend of green and brown, recalling to Yarrow the waters of the Kanda during the spring floods, while he had the deeply tanned complexion of a southerner. He was quite handsome, if a little too stern in countenance for Yarrow’s taste.
At the king’s approach, the man stood, held an armored hand over his heart, and bowed at the waist. “Your Majesty,” he said in a velvety baritone that raised gooseflesh over the mage’s arms.
“Tam Duncan Purefroy of the Valenny of Thulemore,” Agarick said by way of introduction. “This is my nephew, Yarroway L’Estrella of Lockhaven. He’ll be assisting you in your defense of the prince’s procession. You may think of him as your second in command. Now, let us sit. We have much to plan and discuss.”
This is rotten, Yarrow. Is there a reason we can’t consult these maps inside the castle?
I thought you relished all sensation.
The presence made the mental equivalent of a sigh and said, You know I can’t experience it fully unless I take control. Besides, I’m bored of the way your flesh is trembling, and I’m tired of this wet cloth clinging to our skin.
As you say, Yarrow. Still, I’d like to feel a fire at my back and some spiced wine warming my throat.
Waiting will only make those things sweeter, Yarrow teased as he sat down on the long bench.
I have been waiting, beloved Yarrow, and I am waiting still.
DUNCAN tried to suppress the curl of his lip as the young mage took his place at the table. The queen, the princess, and their ladies-in-waiting spoke often of this Yarroway, and the stories reached Duncan’s ears secondhand via servants and guards. The women loved the lad, as he frequently conjured butterflies and bluebirds for their entertainment. He made music play and flowers grow, much to their delight. Duncan supposed the boy had probably been quite a treat for the ladies’ eyes before his legendary affliction. He had a pretty, oval face and delicate features, though not at all feminine and still strong. Thick lashes, white as gosling’s down now, framed eyes unlike anything Duncan had ever witnessed. While the irises tried for blue, they managed only the faintest hint of pigment, like a frozen lake in moonlight. His large eyes held the knight’s attention longer than Duncan liked. Yarrow’s lithe body seemed more suited to the dance floor than the battlefield, and why any son of nobility would brazenly mark his face and neck with the paint of pirates, slatterns, and criminal filth of the lowest caliber eluded Duncan completely. Likely it had been some sort of rebellion against his wealthy parents and pampered life. Surprisingly, the sorcerer’s skin was nearly as sun-darkened as Duncan’s own.
Duncan knew only that his task had just become more difficult. Not only would he need to watch over the fragile little princeling, now he’d be playing nursemaid to this spoiled whelp as well. Still, he had a duty to carry out his king’s commands, and nothing would stand in his way. He’d deliver both Garith and this Yarrow-flower safely to Gaeltheon, as befit a servant of the crown. If need be, he’d even feign cooperation with the king’s nephew. Nobody would die on his watch, not ever again.
Clearing his throat, Duncan slid the largest of the maps between Agarick and himself. He noticed the mage staring distractedly off into the sky. It was just as well; Duncan doubted Tam Yarroway could contribute much to their conversation.
“Here is the route I propose.” Duncan traced his finger along a blurred line that led down the mountains from Agarick’s fortress on the highest peak, east across the plains of Everdale, and directly to the banks of the Kanda River. “We can cross into Gaeltheon by way of the Lucasian Bridge, at the port of Meritage.”
“That won’t do,” the mage said dreamily without turning his gaze from the rain clouds.
Balling his fist, Duncan said, “Why is that, tam?”
“Because it would lead us through some very hostile territory. The last time I passed that way, the fighting between the White Feathers of Keth and the Riders of the Dawn was fierce. The territory is unclaimed and completely unstable. Not to mention, the Bridge of Light itself is often besieged by bandits. Meritage is a den of cutthroats, ruled by the criminals who hold the city officials in their pockets. I assure you they won’t pass up such a lucrative opportunity. We’d be leading the prince into unnecessary peril.”
“What do you propose, Tam Mage?” Duncan asked through gritted teeth, reluctant to admit the wisdom in Yarroway’s words.
“Here.” The wizard pulled the map in front of him. With his finger, he marked a sparkling trail that continued to flicker brightly despite the damp and gloom. “We head down the mountain and turn toward the north at Everdale. We’ll travel inland until we reach Estrella Lake, in my family’s valenny. Then we can cross the Starlight Bridge, which is kept secure by my brother’s knights. On the other side of the river, we’ll only need to pass through a few miles of barbarian land before crossing into Gaeltheon. Afterwards, when we’re safe, we can head south again.”
“A pretty trick for a lady’s salon,” Duncan scoffed, watching the prismatic twinkles on the smudged parchment. “But your route adds at least a few weeks to our journey.” He couldn’t decide if this boy was homesick for his lake, terrified of confrontation, or wise beyond his years. Either way, Duncan couldn’t deny the soundness of his proposal, had they the entire world at their feet and time to waste.
“At least the prince will meet his bride with his heart beating,” the mage said, his melodic voice dripping condescension like the sky dripped rain.
“Winter is nearly upon us,” Duncan argued, more out of pride than practicality. “The Valenny of Lockhaven is treacherous when frozen.”
The boy laughed, a bitter edge obvious in his mirth. “Lockhaven is my home. I can lead us safely through. As for the added travel time, I say we send a messenger to Gaeltheon. They’re as eager as we are for this union, are they not? I’m sure they’ll wait the extra month it will take to ensure it occurs. Let a single courier brave your route, Tam Duncan, whilst we lead our prince safely along mine.”
Duncan could formulate no debate. This Yarrow-flower was right. The lad might not be tough, but apparently he was clever. Even so, Duncan would be happy to follow his route without the added burden of protecting him. “Let the king decide,” Duncan finally said.
Agarick scratched his whiskers and sat silently for several moments. The rain fell harder, blurring the maps spread before the three men to nonsense. Yarroway pulled his black hood over his contrasting, ash-white hair and hugged himself, shivering. Duncan felt a surprising pang of compassion for the young man’s discomfort. Unlike Duncan, he hadn’t been trained to endure the elements. Such a scrawny thing as the mage would surely feel the cold acutely, and the boy had no servant to throw a cape over his slender shoulders. Duncan couldn’t help but wish a maid might fetch the lad a blanket.
Agarick spoke. “I fear my beloved queen would never forgive me were I to place our only son in harm’s way. We shall follow the path suggested by my nephew.”
“As you will, Your Majesty.” Duncan acquiesced with a bow of his head.
The mage, rather than looking triumphant, returned his attention once again to the horizon. “Your Majesty might also send messengers to the many noble households along our route, that they might prepare an appropriate reception for the visiting prince. Lodgings for my cousin and his men. Provisions. A fire to warm his back and spiced wine for his throat.” For some reason unknown to Duncan, this suggestion entertained the mage enough to make him chuckle.
“Very good,” the king said, standing. “We shall be underway within the hour. I’ll send word for my general, Taran Edercrest, to meet you at The Starlight Bridge. He can bolster your ranks before you cross through the barbarian lands on the other side. Tam Duncan, please relay instructions to your men. Be sure their orders are detailed and that each man knows his task. Yarroway, make your way to the stables and select a mount. Our armory is also at your disposal. I see you carry no weapons. Please, nephew, take what you need.”
“I have all that I need,” the wizard said, holding up his hand and producing a faint, blue glow.
“Great,” Duncan muttered under his breath as he turned to inspect the infantry. “His hand sparkles, and he needs no other weapons. This is going to be a long trip.”