By Rachel Aaron
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He’s also still at large, which drives Miranda Lyonette crazy. While she’s been kicked out of the Spirit Court, Eli’s had plenty of time to plan his next adventure. But now the tables have turned, because Miranda has a new job — and an opportunity to capture a certain thief.
Things are about to get exciting for Eli. He’s picked a winner for his newest heist. His target: the Duke of Gaol’s famous “thief-proof” citadel. Eli knows Gaol is a trap, but what’s life without challenges? Except the Duke is one of the wealthiest men in the world, a wizard who rules his duchy with an iron fist, and an obsessive perfectionist with only one hobby: Eli.
It seems that everyone is hunting for Eli Monpress.
Table of Contents
Zarin, city of magic, rose tall and white in the afternoon sun. It loomed over the low plains of the central Council Kingdoms, riding the edge of the high, rocky ridge that separated the foothills from the great sweeping piedmont so that the city spires could be seen from a hundred miles in all directions. But highest of all, towering over even the famous seven battlements of Whitefall Citadel, home of the Merchant Princes of Zarin and the revolutionary body they had founded, the Council of Thrones, stood the soaring white spire of the Spirit Court.
It rose from the great ridge that served as Zarin's spine, shooting straight and white and impossibly tall into the pale sky without joint or mortar to support it. Tall, clear windows pricked the white surface in a smooth, ascending spiral, and each window bore a fluttering banner of red silk stamped in gold with a perfect, bold circle, the symbol of the Spirit Court. No one, not even the Spiritualists, knew how the tower had been made. The common story was that the Shapers, that mysterious and independent guild of crafting wizards responsible for awakened swords and the gems all Spiritualists used to house their spirits, had raised it from the stone in a single day as payment for some unknown debt. Supposedly, the tower itself was a united spirit, though only the Rector Spiritualis, who held the great mantle of the tower, knew for certain.
The tower's base had four doors, but the largest of these was the eastern door, the door that opened to the rest of the city. Red and glossy, the door stood fifteen feet tall, its base as wide as the great, laurel-lined street leading up to it. Broad marble steps spread like ripples from the door's foot, and it was on these that Spiritualist Krigel, assistant to the Rector Spiritualis and bearer of a very difficult task, chose to make his stand.
"No, here." He snapped his fingers, his severe face locked in a frown even more dour than the one he usually wore. "Stand here."
The mass of Spiritualists obeyed, shuffling in a great sea of stiff, formal, red silk as they moved where he pointed. They were all young, Krigel thought with a grimace. Too young. Sworn Spiritualists they might be, but not a single one was more than five months from their apprenticeship. Only one had more than a single bound spirit under her command, and all of them looked too nervous to give a cohesive order to the spirits they did control. Truly, he'd been given an impossible task. He only hoped the girl didn't decide to fight.
"All right," he said quietly when the crowd was in position. "How many of you keep fire spirits? Bonfires, torches, candles, brushfires, anything that burns."
A half-dozen hands went up.
"Don't bring them out," Krigel snapped, raising his voice so that everyone could hear. "I want nothing that can be drowned. That means no sand, no electricity, not that any of you could catch a lightning bolt yet, but especially no fire. Now, those of you with rock spirits, dirt, anything from the ground, raise your hands."
Another half-dozen hands went up, and Krigel nodded. "You are all to be ready at a moment's notice. If her dog tries anything, anything, I want you to stop him."
"But sir," a lanky boy in front said. "What about the road?"
"Never mind the road," Krigel said, shaking his head. "Rip it to pieces if you have to. I want that dog neutralized, or we'll never catch her should she decide to run. Yes," he said and nodded at a hand that went up in the back. "Tall girl."
The girl, who was in fact not terribly tall, went as red as her robe, but she asked her question in a firm voice. "Master Krigel, are the charges against her true?"
"That is none of your business," Krigel said, giving the poor girl a glare that sent her down another foot. "The Court decides truth. Our job is to see that she stands before it, nothing else. Yes, you, freckled boy."
The boy in the front put down his hand sheepishly. "Yes, Master Krigel, but then, why are we here? Do you expect her to fight?"
"Expectations are not my concern," Krigel said. "I was ordered to take no chances bringing her to face the charges, and so none I shall take. I'm only hoping you lot will be enough to stop her should she decide to run. Frankly, my money's on the dog. But," he said and smiled at their pale faces, "one goes to battle with the army one's got, so try and look competent and keep your hands down as much as possible. One look at your bare fingers and the jig is up."
Off in the city a bell began to ring, and Krigel looked over his shoulder. "That's the signal. They're en route. Places, please."
Everyone shuffled into order and Krigel, dour as ever, took the front position on the lowest stair. There they waited, a wall of red robes and clenched fists while, far away, down the long, tree-lined approach, a tall figure riding something long, sleek, and mist colored passed through the narrow gate that separated the Spirit Court's district from the rest of Zarin and began to pad down the road toward them.
As the figure drew closer, it became clear that it was a woman, tall, proud, redheaded, and riding a great canine creature that looked like a cross between a dog and freezing fog. However, that was not what made them nervous. The moment the woman reached the first of the carefully manicured trees that lined the tower approach, every spirit in the group, including Krigel's own heavy rings, began to buzz.
"Control your spirits," Krigel said, silencing his own with a firm breath.
"But master," one of the Spiritualists behind him squeaked, clutching the shaking ruby on her index finger. "This can't be right. My torch spirit is terrified. It says that woman is carrying a sea."
Krigel gave the girl a cutting glare over his shoulder. "Why do you think I brought two dozen of you with me?" He turned back again. "Steady yourselves; here she comes."
Behind him, the red-robed figures squeezed together, all of them focused on the woman coming toward them, now more terrifying and confusing than the monster she rode.
"What now?" Miranda groaned, looking tiredly at the wall of red taking up the bottom step of the Spirit Court's tower. "Four days of riding and when we finally do get to Zarin, they're having some kind of ceremony on the steps. Don't tell me we got here on parade day."
"Doesn't smell like parade day," Gin said, sniffing the air. "Not a cooked goose for miles."
"Well," Miranda said, laughing, "I don't care if it's parade day or if Master Banage finally instituted that formal robes requirement he's been threatening for years. I'm just happy to be home." She stretched on Gin's back, popping the day's ride out of her joints. "I'm going to go to Banage and make my report." And give him Eli's letter, she added to herself. Her hand went to the square of paper in her front pocket. She still hadn't opened it, but today she could hand it over and be done. "After that," she continued, grinning wide, "I'm going to have a nice long bath followed by a nice long sleep in my own bed."
"I'd settle for a pig," Gin said, licking his chops.
"Fine," Miranda said. "But only after seeing the stable master and getting someone to look at your back." She poked the bandaged spot between the dog's shoulders where Nico's hand had entered only a week ago, and Gin whimpered.
"Fine, fine," he growled. "Just don't do that again."
Point made, Miranda sat back and let the dog make his own speed toward the towering white spire that had been her home since she was thirteen. Her irritation at the mass of red-robed Spiritualists blocking her easy path into the tower faded a little when she recognized Spiritualist Krigel, Banage's assistant and friend, standing at their head. Maybe he was rehearsing something with the younger Spiritualists? He was in charge of pomp for the Court, after all. But any warm feelings she had began to fade when she got a look at his face. Krigel was never a jolly man, but the look he gave her now made her stomach clench. The feeling was not helped by the fact that the Spiritualists behind him would not meet her eyes, despite her being the only rider on the road.
Still, she was careful not to let her unease show, smiling warmly as she steered Gin to a stop at the base of the tower steps.
"Spiritualist Krigel," she said, bowing. "What's all this?"
Krigel did not return her smile. "Spiritualist Lyonette," he said, stepping forward. "Would you mind dismounting?"
His voice was cold and distant, but Miranda did as he asked, sliding off Gin's back with a creak of protesting muscles. The moment she was on the ground, the young, robed Spiritualists fanned out to form a circle around her, as though on cue. She took a small step back, and Gin growled low in his throat.
"Krigel," Miranda said again, laughing a little, "what's going on?"
The old man looked her square in the eyes. "Spiritualist Miranda Lyonette, you are under arrest by order of the Tower Keepers and proclamation of the Rector Spiritualis. You are here to surrender all weapons, rights, and privileges, placing yourself under the jurisdiction of the Spirit Court until such time as you shall answer to the charges levied against you. You will step forward with your hands out, please."
Miranda blinked at him, completely uncomprehending. "Arrest? For what?"
"That is confidential and will be answered by the Court," Krigel responded.
"Powers, Krigel," Miranda said, her voice almost breaking. "What is going on? Where is Banage? Surely this is a mistake."
"There is no mistake." Krigel looked sterner than ever. "It was Master Banage who ordered your arrest. Now, are you coming, or do we have to drag you?"
The ring of Spiritualists took a small, menacing step forward, and Gin began to growl louder than ever. Miranda stopped him with a glare.
"I will of course obey the Rector Spiritualis," she said loudly, putting her hands out, palms up, in submission. "There's no need for threats, though I would like an explanation."
"All in good time," Krigel said, his voice relieved. "Come with me."
"I'll need someone to tend to my ghosthound," Miranda said, not moving. "He is injured and tired. He needs food and care."
"I'll see that he is taken to the stables," Krigel said. "But do come now, please. You may bring your things."
Seeing that that was the best she was going to get, Miranda turned and started to untie her satchel from Gin's side.
"I don't like this at all," the ghosthound growled.
"You think I do?" Miranda growled back. "This has to be a misunderstanding, or else some plan of Master Banage's. Whatever it is, I'll find out soon enough. Just go along and I'll contact you as soon as I know something."
She gave him a final pat before walking over to Krigel. A group of five Spiritualists immediately fell in around her, surrounding her in a circle of red robes and flashing rings as Krigel marched them up the stairs and through the great red door.
Krigel led the way through the great entry hall, up a grand set of stairs, and then through a side door to a far less grand set of stairs. They climbed in silence, spiraling up and up and up. As was the tower's strange nature, they made it to the top much faster than they should have, coming out on a long landing at the tower's peak.
Krigel stopped them at the top of the stairs. "Wait here," he said, and vanished through the heavy wooden door at the landing's end, leaving Miranda alone with her escort.
The young Spiritualists stood perfectly still around her, fists clenched against their rings. Miranda could feel their fear, though what she had done to inspire it she couldn't begin to imagine. Fortunately, Krigel appeared again almost instantly, snapping his fingers for Miranda to step forward.
"He'll see you now," Krigel said. "Alone."
Miranda's escort gave a collective relieved sigh as she stepped forward, and for once Miranda was in complete agreement. Now, at least, maybe she could get some answers. When she reached the door, however, Krigel caught her hand.
"I know this has not been the homecoming you wished for," he said quietly, "but mind your temper, Miranda. He's been through a lot for you already today. Try not to make things more difficult than they already are, for once."
Miranda stopped short. "What do you mean?"
"Just keep that hot head of yours down," Krigel said, squeezing her shoulder hard enough to make her wince.
Slightly more hesitant than she'd been a moment ago, Miranda turned and walked into the office of the Rector Spiritualis.
The office took up the entirety of the peak of the Spirit Court's tower and, save for the landing and a section that was set aside for the Rector Spiritualis's private living space, it was all one large, circular room with everything built to impress. Soaring stone ribs lined with steady-burning lanterns lit a polished stone floor that could hold ten Spiritualists and their Spirit retinues with room to spare. Arched, narrow windows pierced the white walls at frequent intervals, looking down on Zarin through clear, almost invisible glass. The walls themselves were lined with tapestries, paintings, and shelves stuffed to overflowing with the collected treasures and curiosities of four hundred years of Spiritualists, all in perfect order and without a speck of dust.
Directly across from the door where Miranda stood, placed at the apex of the circular room, was an enormous, imposing desk, its surface hidden beneath neat stacks of parchment scrolls. Behind the desk, sitting in the Rector Spiritualis's grand, high-backed throne of a chair, was Etmon Banage himself.
Even sitting, it was clear he was a tall man. He had neatly trimmed black hair that was just starting to go gray at the temples, and narrow, jutting shoulders his bulky robes did little to hide. His sharp face was handsome in an uncompromising way that allowed for neither smiles nor weakness, and his scowl, which he wore now, had turned blustering kings into meek-voiced boys. His hands, which he kept folded on the desk in front of him, were laden with heavy rings that almost sang with the sleeping power of the spirits within. Even in that enormous room, the power of Banage's spirits filled the air. But over it all, hanging so heavy it weighed even on Miranda's own rings, was the press of Banage's will, iron and immovable and completely in command. Normally, Miranda found the inscrutable, uncompromising power comforting, a firm foundation that could never be shaken. Tonight, however, she was beginning to understand how a small spirit feels when a Great Spirit singles it out.
Banage cleared his throat, and Miranda realized she had stopped. She gathered her wits and quickly made her way across the polished floor, stopping midway to give the traditional bow with her ringed fingers touching her forehead. When she straightened, Banage flicked his eyes to the straight-backed chair that had been set out in front of his desk. Miranda nodded and walked forward, her slippered feet quiet as snow on the cold stone as she crossed the wide, empty floor and took a seat.
"So," Banage said, "it is true. You have taken a Great Spirit."
Miranda flinched. This wasn't the greeting she'd expected. "Yes, Master Banage," she said. "I wrote as much in the report I sent ahead. You received it, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did," Banage said. "But reading such a story and hearing the truth of it from your own spirits is quite a different matter."
Miranda's head shot up, and the bitterness in her voice shocked even her. "Is that why you had me arrested?"
"Partially." Banage sighed and looked down. "You need to appreciate the position we're in, Miranda." He reached across his desk and picked up a scroll covered in wax seals. "Do you know what this is?"
Miranda shook her head.
"It's a petition," Banage said, "signed by fifty-four of the eighty-nine active Tower Keepers. They are demanding you stand before the Court to explain your actions in Mellinor."
"What of my actions needs explaining?" Miranda said, more loudly than she'd meant to.
Banage gave her a withering look. "You were sent to Mellinor with a specific mission: to apprehend Monpress and bring him to Zarin. Instead, here you are, empty-handed, riding a wave of rumor that, not only did you work together with the thief you were sent to catch, but you took the treasure of Mellinor for yourself. Rumors you confirmed in your own report. Did you really think you could just ride back into Zarin with a Great Spirit sleeping under your skin and not be questioned?"
"Well, yes," Miranda said. "Master Banage, I saved Mellinor, all of it, its people, its king, everything. If you read my report, you know that already. I didn't catch Monpress, true, but while he's a scoundrel and a black mark on the name of wizards everywhere, he's not evil. Greedy and irresponsible, maybe, and certainly someone who needs to be brought to justice, but he's nothing on an Enslaver. I don't think anyone could argue that defeating Renaud and saving the Great Spirit of Mellinor were less important than stopping Eli Monpress from stealing some money."
Banage lowered his head and began to rub his temples. "Spoken like a true Spiritualist," he said. "But you're missing the point, Miranda. This isn't about not catching Monpress. He didn't get that bounty by being easy to corner. This is about how you acted in Mellinor. Or, rather, how the world saw your actions."
He stared at her, waiting for something, but Miranda had no idea what. Seeing that this was going nowhere, Banage sighed and stood, walking over to the tall window behind his desk to gaze down at the sprawling city below. "Days before your report arrived," he said, "perhaps before you'd even confronted Renaud, rumors were flying about the Spiritualist who'd teamed up with Eli Monpress. The stories were everywhere, spreading down every trade route and growing worse with every telling. That you sold out the king, or murdered him yourself. That Monpress was actually in league with the Spirit Court from the beginning, that we were the ones profiting from his crimes."
"But that's ridiculous," Miranda scoffed. "Surely—"
"I agree," Banage said and nodded. "But it doesn't stop people from thinking what they want to think." He turned around. "You know as well as I do that the Tower Keepers are a bunch of old biddies whose primary concern is staying on top of their local politics. They care about whatever king or lord rules the land their tower is on, not catching Eli or any affairs in Zarin."
"Exactly," Miranda said. "So how do my actions in Mellinor have anything to do with some Tower Keeper a thousand miles away?"
"Monpress is news everywhere," Banage said dourly. "His exploits are entertainment far and wide, which is why we wanted him brought to heel in the first place. Now your name is wrapped up in it, too, and the Tower Keepers are angry. Way they see it, you've shamed the Spirit Court, and, through it, themselves. These are not people who take shame lightly, Miranda."
"But that's absurd!" Miranda cried.
"Of course it is," Banage said. "But for all they're isolated out in the countryside, the Tower Keepers are the only voting members of the Spirit Court. If they vote to have you stand trial and explain yourself, there's nothing I can do but make sure you're there."
"So that's it then?" Miranda said, clenching her hands. "I'm to stand trial for what, saving a kingdom?"
Banage sighed. "The formal charge is that you did willfully and in full denial of your duties work together with a known thief to destabilize Mellinor in order to seize its Great Spirit for yourself."
Miranda's face went scarlet. "I received Mellinor through an act of desperation to save his life!"
"I'm certain you did," Banage said. "The charge is impossible. You might be a powerful wizard, but even you couldn't hold a Great Spirit against its will."
The calm in Banage's voice made her want to strangle him. "If you know it's impossible, why are we going through with the trial?"
"Because we have no choice," Banage answered. "This is a perfectly legal trial brought about through the proper channels. Anything I did to try and stop it would be seen as favoritism toward you, something I'm no doubt already being accused of by having you brought to my office rather than thrown in a cell."
Miranda looked away. She was so angry she could barely think. Across the room, Banage took a deep breath. "Miranda," he said, "I know how offensive this is to you, but you need to stay calm. If you lose this trial and they find you guilty of betraying your oaths, you could be stripped of your rank, your position as a Spiritualist, even your rings. Too much is at stake here to throw it away on anger and pride."
Miranda clenched her jaw. "May I at least see the formal petition?"
Banage held the scroll out. Miranda stood and took it, letting the weight of the seals at the bottom unroll the paper for her. The charge was as Banage had said, written in tall letters across the top. She grimaced and flicked her eyes to the middle of the page where the signatures began, scanning the names in the hope she would see someone she could appeal to. If she was actually going to stand trial, she would need allies in the stands. However, when she reached the bottom of the list, where the originator of the petition signed his name, her vision blurred with rage at the extravagant signature sprawled across the entire bottom left corner.
"He is the head of the Tower Keepers," Banage said. "It isn't unreasonable that he should represent them in—"
"Grenith Hern?" She was almost shouting now. "The man who has made a career out of hating you? Who blames you for stealing the office of Rector out from under him? He's the one responsible for this 'fair and legal' accusation?"
"Enough, Miranda." Banage's voice was cold and sharp.
Miranda blew past the warning. "You know he's doing this only to discredit you!"
"Of course I know," Banage hissed, standing up to meet her eyes. "But I am not above the law, and neither are you. We must obey the edicts of the Court, which means that when a Spiritualist receives a summons to stand before the Court, no matter who signed it or why, she goes. End of discussion."
Miranda threw the petition on his desk. "I will not go and stand there while that man spreads lies about me! He will say anything to get what he wants. You know half the names on that paper wouldn't be there if Hern hadn't been whispering in their ears!"
She flinched at the incredible anger in his voice, but she did not back down. They stared at each other for a long moment, and then Banage sank back into his chair and put his head in his hands, looking for once not like the unconquerable leader of the Spirit Court, but like an old, tired man.
"Whatever we think of Hern's motives," he said softly, "the signatures are what they are. There is no legal way I can stop this trial, but I can shield you from the worst of it."
He lowered his hands and looked at her. "You are my apprentice, Miranda, and dear as a daughter to me. I cannot bear to see you or your spirits suffer for my sake. Whatever you may think of him, Hern is not an unreasonable man. When he brought this petition to me yesterday, I reacted much as you just did. Then I remembered myself, and we were able to come to a compromise."
"What kind of compromise?" she said skeptically.
"You will stand before the Court and face the accusations, but you will neither confirm nor deny guilt."
Miranda's face went bright red. "What sort of a compromise is that?"
Banage's glare shut her up. "In return for giving Hern his show, he has agreed to let me give you a tower somewhere far away from Zarin."
Miranda stared at him in disbelief. "A tower?"
"Yes," Banage said. "The rank of Tower Keeper would grant you immunity from the trial's harsher punishments. The worst Hern would be able to do is slap you on the wrist and send you back to your tower. This way, whatever happened, your rings would be safe and your career would be saved."
Miranda stared at her master, unable to speak. She tried to remind herself that Banage's plans always worked out for the best, but the thought of sitting silently while Hern lied to her face, lied in the great chamber of the Spirit Court itself, before all the Tower Keepers, made her feel ill. To just be silent and let her silence give his lies credence, the very idea was a mockery of everything the Spirit Court stood for, everything she stood for.
"I can't do it."
"You must do it," Banage said. "Miranda, there's no getting out of this. If you go into that trial as a simple Spiritualist, Hern could take everything from you."
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2010
- Page Count
- 464 pages