One

Motes of dust spun in the sunlight slanting into the upper hold through an open hatch. At the edge of the shadows, a slight, dark figure held a round shield, turning it this way and that so its polished surface caught the light.

“And I thought Bannon was vain,” Vree muttered.

*It’s not vanity,* Gyhard protested.

As the quiet voice in her head spoke with unusual seriousness, the ex-assassin, late of His Imperial Majesty’s Sixth Army, snorted but continued tilting the shield.

*There. Hold it there.*

Vree stared into the makeshift mirror, feeling as though she were seeing her features for the first time. Her dark brown eyes looked too big for her face. Her chin was ridiculously pointed. Six days at sea under an unrelenting late summer sun had darkened the deep olive of her skin. She looked thin and much younger than her almost twenty-two years.

*You are young.*

Her lips pressed into a thin line. *You told me you couldn’t hear my thoughts.* When Bannon had shared her body and it had been her brother’s voice she heard, their thoughts had merged and, with their thoughts, their identities. It had very nearly destroyed them both. With Gyhard, however, it had been easy to draw the line between them. Until now.

*I can feel strong emotions, Vree.* Gyhard’s reassurance was almost gentle. *So can you. There’s no need to panic.*

*You don’t know …*

*I have a good idea.* He’d been there from the beginning. As Governor Aralt, the leader of a rebellion whom Vree and Bannon had been sent to assassinate, he’d stolen Bannon’s body. When Vree had appeared, carrying her brother’s life, her brother’s kigh, tucked in with her own, he’d blackmailed her into helping him get close enough to a young Imperial prince for him to make yet another trade. But a broken piece of his past had taken the prince and they’d ending up chasing him across half the Empire. Together. He’d seen how close she’d come to losing herself in sharing herself with her brother. *I’m not Bannon, Vree. His weaknesses aren’t mine.*

*Neither are his strengths.* Until Gyhard had driven them apart, Bannon had been the center of her life. No. Her teeth ground together. Gyhard had not driven them apart. For reasons she could not yet admit, she’d chosen to save his life by making it a part of her own and now had to face the consequences of that decision. Forcing the tension out of her shoulders, she stared down at her reflection. *Are you done?*

*In a minute.*

*What do you think you’re going to see?*

*Who I am.*

*Who I am…. Did you hear that?* Brows drawn in, she set the shield aside and started for the ladder leading up to the deck.

*Hear what?*

*Lookout’s spotted a sail.* Callused fingers and toes barely touched the polished wooden rungs and a heartbeat later, Vree crossed the deck to a knot of sailors gathered at the rail. “What is it?” It was the one sentence she could say in Shkoden and be certain she’d got it right.

“Pirates.”

The word was close enough to Imperial that she understood the meaning before Gyhard finished his translation. Shading her eyes with her hands, she peered back along the side of the ship. Just moving into the current behind them was a sleek, two-masted, narrow-hulled vessel.

“The Raven .” It sounded like a curse. Two sailors spat over the side, giving water to the sea for luck, and a third traced the sign of the Circle on her breast, muttering, “Probably bin followin’ us since the outer islands.” When the lookout confirmed the identification a moment later, the crew of the Gilded Fancy raced to defensive positions.

Vree put herself in the path of a running sailor and he skidded to a stop. The third night out, she’d barely managed to keep from killing their best knife fighter when he’d challenged her right to the long dagger she wore. After her easy victory, the crew treated her with the same wary respect she’d received from those around her most of her life. While they might not know what she was—had been—they’d been made very aware of what she could do. “Can we …” She hated having to search for words but her Shkoden was up to little more than the most basic of conversations. *Gyhard, how do you say, outrun her?*

When he told her and she repeated it, the sailor shook his head, scalp locks whipping his ears. “No stinking way. They’re in the same stinking current, ahead of the same stinking wind, and they’re built for speed which we sure as fish shit aren’t.”

“What will …”

He didn’t wait for her to finish. “Happen? They’ll board us. Anyone who survives the fight’ll go over the side. Less, of course, they’ve got some stinking skill Edite i’Oceania …”

*i’Oceania?*

*She’s claiming the sea as her mother,* Gyhard explained. *It’s probably not true.*

*Probably?*

“… thinks she needs—healers, or sail makers, or stinking carpenters. You, don’t know what she’ll do about you, but the hucksters, his stinking Lordship, and his stinking Lordship’s servant, she’ll hold for ransom.”

The hucksters were a pair of Imperial merchants and His Lordship was a Shkoden noble, who was involved in some way with the ambassador at the Imperial court. Vree knew nothing more about any of them, nor did she really care. As the sailor ran off to join others performing complicated and inexplicable maneuvers with a rope—the decks looked like an anthill stirred with a stick—she took another look at the Raven .

Even in that short time, it had pulled closer—close enough to see that all exposed timber had been painted a deep matte black.

*That’s conceit,* Gyhard growled. *All that black paint must’ve cost her a fortune. No wonder she turned pirate.*

Conceit. Vree frowned.

She felt Gyhard stir uneasily within the boundaries of her mind. *What are you thinking?* he demanded. *Vree …*

*I’m thinking that there may be an alternative to going over the side with a pirate’s ax splitting my skull.*

* What alternative?*

She turned from the rail. *The usual one.* Ignoring the chaos growing around her, she made her way past frantic men and women fighting to get the last bit of speed out of the Fancy to the arms locker where the armsmaster was methodically setting out bundles of barbed arrows. As he’d spent some years in the Empire and spoke fluent Imperial, they’d not have to waste any of their rapidly decreasing time on translations. “Tell me,” she demanded without preamble, “about Edite i’Oceania.”

“Good at what she does,” he grunted, not bothering to look up. “Almost as good as she thinks she is. Shkoden navy controls most of the sea-lanes through the Broken Islands, but they can’t catch her. And the Circle knows they’ve tried. From what I’ve heard, her crew adores her. They should. She’s made them rich. They’d die for her.” He pulled oilskin-wrapped packets of bowstrings out of the locker. “And some of them are going to.”

“What about her? Would she die for them?”

The armsmaster laughed, but the sound held little humor. “Her type thinks they’re immortal.”

“How would she respond to a knife at her throat?” The tone of Vree’s voice lifted the armsmaster out of his crouch and turned him toward her. “Would this pirate call off an attack in exchange for her life? Would her crew listen if she did?”

“Aye, the crew would likely listen,” he said slowly, studying her face, a slow realization dawning. “But i’Oceania wouldn’t give that order. If she’s taken alive, she’ll die ashore and she knows it. You kill her, though, and her crew becomes the stinking rabble it was before she forced order on it. Captain Edite’s the only thing holding that murdering bunch of cutthroats together. If she dies, they’d fall apart. If they fall apart …” His eyes still on her face, he closed his fist around the hilt of his short sword. “I can beat them.”

Vree nodded and spun about on one bare heel.

“Assassin.”

She paused.

“Do it quickly or there’ll be no point in doing it at all.”

* * * *

Down in the forecastle, ignoring the fire crew readying its station, Vree unrolled her pack and began buckling on the wrist sheaths that held her throwing daggers. Up above, she could hear the armsmaster shouting orders. As she understood it, the captain—a thin and hairy man she’d barely seen—commanded all nautical situations and the armsmaster commanded defense. It would never have worked in the Imperial Army, but it seemed to work at sea.

If the armsmaster commanded, then the Raven was close.

*You’re very quiet,* she said a moment later as she regained the main deck.

*I thought we’d agreed that it would be best if you told no one what you were.*

*I didn’t tell him.*

*You gave him enough for him to figure it out. He must’ve been suspicious ever since you won that knife fight …*

Teeth clenched, Vree cut him off. *Look, you can jump into the nearest slaughtering pirate if this body dies. I can’t. So shut up and stay out of my way.*

*I can’t talk you out of this?*

*No.*

She had a mental image of Gyhard spreading his hands—Bannon’s hands, because those were the only ones she’d ever seen him wear. *Then I guess I’m along for the ride. Wait a minute! Where are you going?*

Surefooted despite the constant movement of the ship, Vree started up the rigging by the stern mast. *You know that long thing sticking out from the front of the Raven ?*

*The bowsprit.*

*Whatever.* Swinging up onto the bottom spar, she moved out to the end. The armsmaster had obviously said something to his bowmen, for the three she passed stared at her wide-eyed and twisted out of her way as much as their position some fifteen feet above the deck allowed. *I’m going to jump from the end of this crosspiece thing down onto it.*

*You’re going to what?* Each word was carefully and separately enunciated. He sounded impossibly calm.

*There’s enough rope coming off it that it shouldn’t matter if I miss a little.*

*Are you out of your mind!* The calm had disappeared so completely it might never have existed. *That is not possible!*

Rolling her shoulders, Vree squinted back at the Raven , now close enough to make out the individual pirates crowding the rail. She could almost see the single line that held them together. The line she was about to cut. *It’s not impossible, just very difficult. In fact, I’ll aim for that rope between the whatever-you-called-it and the front mast and not worry about my footing. I can swing straight from there to the deck.*

*No you can’t. No one could do that.*

Vree merely shrugged and watched with interest as a flaming ball of pitch landed with an angry hiss and a gout of steam just short of the Raven . Familiar with the huge siege engines the Imperial Army used, she’d been fascinated to discover, upon exploring the ship, a much smaller catapult on the carved stern of the Gilded Fancy .

The Raven ’s answer was a canister of metal fragments. The Raven ’s armsmaster was a better shot. Vree heard the impact; heard wood splinter; heard someone scream; could smell smoke.

What happened on the Fancy was no longer her concern.

All her attention shifted to the enemy.

*Vree! Listen to me! You can’t do this! I don’t care how much training Imperial assassins go through; you can’t jump from a moving ship to a moving ship!*

Concentration broken, she snapped, *How do the pirates intend to board us?*

*That’s different!*

*Only in degree.*

*They’ll wait until they’ve dropped sail and grappled!*

*I haven’t time to wait, and I know what I’m capable of. You don’t. So shut up. And if you try to take over even an eyebrow, I’ll push you right out of my head! Do you understand me, Gyhard?*

*I don’t want to die,* he said softly, ignoring the threat neither of them wanted to explore.

*Good. That makes two of us.* But as his concern was in her head, she had to feel it. And the feeling was a distraction. Because assassins couldn’t feel. Not while they were working. *Gyhard …*

*At least they won’t be expecting it,* he sighed, surrendered, and drew back until he was barely a whisper in the depths of her mind. Vree suspected the whisper would remain even if Gyhard’s kigh should find another body.

She forced her attention back to the Raven . Looked through the arrow fire. Ignored the howls of both pain and fury. Found a wild-haired woman in a scarlet shirt and boiled leather armor conducting the attack, a sword in one hand, and a basket-hilted dagger in the other. She marked the defenses and defenders she’d have to pass and found two of the pirate ship’s other officers.

Compressing her focus, she shifted her gaze to the bowsprit.

The world became a rope, two sets of movement, and the distance between them.

The distance narrowed.

A grappling iron clanged against the side of the Fancy , only a hand’s span short.

Vree jumped.

She was holding the rope but still falling when the Raven ’s reinforced bow rammed into the Fancy ’s side. The rope took up most of the shock, her arms the rest. Her right hand lost its grip, gained it again as the rough hemp burned a line across her palm, but the dagger in her wrist sheath twisted out and into the sea.

Shit!

She let her weight on the rope swing her in over the deck. As the ship rose, cresting a wave, she dropped, rolled, and sprinted for the stern.

Survive to reach the target. She’d been seven when she’d started training. Bannon had been six. They’d survived the training—two out of three didn’t. She couldn’t remember how many targets they’d survived to reach.

The world became a scarlet shirt and the pale column of throat above it.

In the confusion of boarding, few of the pirates noticed her. Those that did, she avoided although one took a wild swing and slashed a shallow cut diagonally across her back.

When Vree reached the sterncastle, a narrow three steps above the main deck, she leaped, without pausing, up and over the railing, landing directly in front of her target.

The captain broke off bellowing orders and began to laugh. A large woman, carrying very little of her weight as fat, she towered over the short, slender Southerner. “Have you come to challenge me, little sprat?” her voice cut through the bedlam and heads began to turn on both ships. “I think not.”

Her heavy sword slammed down into the deck, splintering the wood, but Vree had begun to move before she’d finished speaking. Virtually too fast to follow, the point of her long dagger slipped in under Edite’s left ear, drew a graceful line across the captain’s throat, and slid out from under the right ear. She finished the motion by flicking her remaining wrist dagger down into her hand and sending it hilt deep into one of the brilliant blue eyes of the sailor on the tiller.

Edite scowled and began to choke, covering the immediate area with a crimson spray. Sword and dagger fell from fingers that curved to clutch futilely at life. With her windpipe and all major blood vessels severed, she didn’t live long. As she slammed into the deck, still twitching, a roar went up from her crew. As one, their prize forgotten, they turned on Vree and, screaming with rage, they rushed for the stern. A few, already on board the Fancy , returned to join the enraged mass. A high-pitched voice, shouting for them to continue the attack, was ignored.

An ax splintered the deck at Vree’s feet and a javelin cut through the place she’d been an instant before. Fortunately, most of the howling pack forgot the missile weapons they held in the desire to personally rip their captain’s killer limb from limb. Backing rapidly into a corner of the stern, Vree’s hips hit the rail. The first half-dozen crew members charged toward her past their captain’s body, faces twisted in identical masks of hate.

*Vree!*

She hit the water in a clean dive some distance from the Raven ’s ebony hull and stayed deep as long as she could.

*I didn’t know you could swim.*

The relief in Gyhard’s mental voice was so great that Vree very nearly laughed aloud. *The Sixth Army’s garrison was at Harack, on the coast. When I was eleven, we had to swim about five miles back to shore in the middle of the night.*

*When you were eleven ?*

*Bannon was ten. The swim wasn’t so bad, but the sharks were annoying.*

*Sharks!*

This time she did laugh as her head broke the surface, the water pulling her dripping hair back off her face. *I’m kidding about the sharks.* Bobbing up and down the swells, salt burning in the cut across her back, she turned until she could see the battle raging on the two ships. Although she thought she could hear the Fancy ’s armsmaster yelling orders, she had no way of knowing who was winning.

*If the garrison was by the ocean, why didn’t you know what a bowsprit was called?*

*Because it wasn’t important; we had too many other things to learn, and a ship has no throat to slit. I guess we should go back and …*

Large hands closed around Vree’s waist and dragged her under. Released her, grabbed her shoulders, and pushed her deeper. As the water closed over her head, she fought a heartbeat’s panic, then pointed her toes and pushed up against the water, trying to go deeper still. It almost worked. Her attacker lost his grip on her shoulders but caught a painful handful of her hair.

Taken by surprise, her lungs were nearly empty. She needed to breathe.

Most assassins died after taking out their targets, success having made them careless.

Her chest burned. A primal panic clawed at the inside of her mouth and throat.

The sea closed around her ribs and squeezed, trying to force her to inhale.

Through slitted eyes, she could see a huge, dark shape in the water above her.

Facing her.

Throwing the strength of arms and shoulders into a backstroke, she drew her legs up and, knees touching her own forehead, drove both feet past his arm and slammed them up under his jaw. Pulling herself over and around, she sucked in great lungfuls of air as her face broke the surface and finished the circle, coughing, gasping, with an unnecessary dagger in her hand.

*I think you crushed his throat.*

Forcing her breathing to slow, Vree sheathed the dagger and started swimming for the ships, ignoring the choking, thrashing pirate just over an arm’s length away.

*Aren’t you going to finish him?*

*He’s finished. And I’d rather not put more blood into the water.* Arms and legs growing heavier with every heartbeat, all she wanted to do was get back on board the Fancy before the last of her energy gave out.

* * * *

*I don’t understand why they’re carrying on like this.*

Through Vree’s eyes, Gyhard watched as the crew of the Gilded Fancy celebrated by lantern light. The captain’d had two casks of sweet Imperial wine brought up on deck and most of the toasts drunk had been to Vireyda Magaly, the savior of the ship. Gyhard could feel her confusion and recognized its source. While any of the Seven Armies might rejoice at the removal of an enemy commander—for the lack of a battle no lives were lost—they’d been trained to make no fuss over the assassin who, after all, had only been doing her job. But Vree was no longer in the Imperial Army and she’d just done the impossible. *You’ve never worked with an audience before. Usually, the people who see you don’t survive the experience.*

She shifted uneasily. *So?*

*So, you do impressive work.* He remembered the first time he’d seen her kill; by the time he’d thought she should start moving, it was all over. Her concentration, he’d just discovered, was as complete as it appeared—nothing got in her way. Fueled by that concentration, her speed was terrifying. If he ever took control of her body, the difference would be night and day, her deadly grace lost. If he ever took control of her body … He buried the thought as deeply as possible, lest she feel it.

He’d wanted to remind her, back when she’d been worrying over how assassins couldn’t feel, that she wasn’t an assassin any more. Except that only an Imperial assassin with years of brutal training both mental and physical behind her could hope to make that jump, and as she obviously intended to make it and he had no choice but to go along …

In the corner of her vision, he caught sight of the two Imperial merchants and felt the memory of hair rising off the back of his neck. Although both merchants held heavy metal goblets, their expressions were anything but celebratory and when one of them, believing herself unobserved, glanced at Vree, she was scowling.

In the Havakeen Empire, assassins were named the blades of Jiir, the goddess of battles, and their terrifying, deadly skills were controlled by the army. The citizens of the Empire were constantly assured that assassins were not only rare but safely sheathed, killing only on order of their commanders. Trained from early childhood that the army was their only family, assassins never left … home.

As an added reassurance to a nervous population, it was well known that if, in spite of incredible odds, they should desert, they would be targeted and quickly killed.

But Vree had been trained with her brother and that attachment had been strong enough to break all the rest. She’d killed the man sent to kill her and had bought her freedom from His Imperial Majesty with the life of his youngest son.

Gyhard, though born in Shkoder, had lived most of his hundred and thirty-six years—most of his lives—in the Empire and could understand the fear on the merchant’s face. This assassin was not sheathed by the army and she’d just made her own decision to kill—without orders. If that were possible, how could anyone be safe?

How indeed, Gyhard wondered. When the celebration was over, it would only take a couple of voices to turn the admiration to fear. “Listen to me, I come from the Empire, I know …” She was too fast. Too deadly. Too impossible to stop. And they had all seen what she was capable of. Assassinating both merchants before the warnings could start seemed a bit extreme even if he could convince Vree to do it. Besides, after the afternoon’s exhibition of her abilities, the authorities wouldn’t need a bard to discover who’d wielded the knife—Vree was deadly but hardly subtle.

As Vree turned slightly to watch a sailor juggling three torches, an ax, and a dead chicken, Gyhard took a better look at the merchants. There was nothing obviously wrong with the male of the pair: young enough, reasonably good-looking. Suppose he could convince Vree to push him into the male merchant? Once there he could easily silence the rumors by arranging an accident … except that even should Vree prove willing—which she wouldn’t—Gabris and Karlene had made it clear what the bards would do if he acquired a body by taking a life.

“As we can neither remove you nor bring you to justice for the lives you’ve so callously ended as long as you remain in Vree’s body, you have, for the moment, found sanctuary. You’d best not forget what you owe her for that.” Karlene’s voice had made it a warning, not a reminder. “But this is where we draw the line. If anyone else dies because of you, anyone, the bards will see to it that your kigh goes back into the Circle so fast you won’t know what hit you.”

That Karlene and Gabris were a very long distance away in the Empire meant little when they both Sang air and distance meant nothing at all to the kigh.

He felt Vree’s foot tapping in time to the music as a battered squeeze-box, a fiddle, and a pair of pipes began to play. The army had gone to a great deal of trouble to present the assassins as weapons; perhaps it would help if Vree were seen as flesh and blood. *Why don’t you dance?*

To his surprise she shifted uncomfortably. *Don’t you start.*

*Start what?*

*The whole time Bannon shared my body, he kept trying to push me into having sex with someone, anyone. You. Karlene. He didn’t care just as long as he got to experience it from the other side.*

*It’s just a dance, Vree.*

He could feel her tension as she chopped a hand at the leaping, stomping, sweating bodies that filled the deck. *If you think this won’t end in a sacrifice to the horizontal gods, you never spent much time expecting to die.* She snorted. *How stupid of me; of course you didn’t. If you expected to die, you just … jumped ship.* Wiping damp palms on her cotton trousers, she added, her voice flat, all sarcasm gone, *Not for Bannon. Not for you.*

It didn’t take much to recognize where the tension originated. First Bannon. Then him. *It’s been a while, hasn’t it?*

*Shut the slaughter up!*

*Vree, I’m not your brother. I don’t want to be with you—in you—while you’re with someone else.* The thought of her wrapped in the arms of a man or woman, taking what he couldn’t give her, drove daggers into his heart and twisted. She might not know how she felt about him, but he knew exactly how he felt about her.

*Don’t say it.*

They could feel each other’s strong emotions.

*Vree …*

*No.*

* * * *

When the Gilded Fancy made her way into Pitesti Harbor—the only harbor in the Broken Islands deep enough for a merchant ship of her draw—followed closely by the Raven , the hysterical reaction on shore could be both seen and heard from the foredeck. Bells rang out, fishing boats ran themselves aground, and the broad pebble beach curving between the town and the sea began to empty.

“Fools think they’re being invaded,” the armsmaster snorted, jerking his head at the masts where the flags of Shkoder hung limp and unreadable. “Think i’Oceania’s crew has both ships.”

Vree glanced toward the Raven where the late captain’s body had been lashed to the bowsprit. The surviving pirates were secured belowdecks and the sailors now guiding her in past the breakwater were a skeleton crew off the Fancy .

On shore, the beach began to fill again as archers took up their positions behind the curved shields of overturned dories and siege engines were uncovered at both ends of the crescent.

“Pitesti was the last place to fall when Shkoder took the Broken Islands,” the armsmaster told her, leaning unconcernedly on the rail. “They’re proud of that. Obviously, they don’t intend to fall again.”

Vree squinted at the town silhouetted against the setting sun. “I’d feint at the harbor, land troops on the other side of the island and take the place from behind.”

The armsmaster nodded. “You and King Mikus.”

*Should we be worried?* As far as Gyhard could tell, the catapults were being loaded with what looked to be bales of hemp soaked in pitch.

Under the circumstances, it seemed a reasonable question, so Vree repeated it.

“No, we’re just at the edge of their range.” As the armsmaster spoke, the anchors were dropped. “Captain’ll send a boat in. With any luck they won’t sink it.”

From the expressions on the faces of the boat crew, they were aware of their danger; postures visibly relaxed when the keel scraped gravel and the mate stepped safely ashore. Her hands out from her sides, she moved a body length from the boat, and stopped. There seemed to be a lot of shouting going on although no one on either ship could make out the words. After a moment, she half-turned and waved an angry hand toward the harbor.

As though the mate had commanded it, a sudden evening breeze unfurled the crowned ship of Shkoder flying from both the Fancy and the Raven and a last, long ray from the setting sun bathed both ships in a golden light.

The cheering carried clearly over the water and the bells of Pitesti began to ring again.

“Always said Kirston had a touch of bard. Couldn’t have done that with more style if she’d Sung the kigh.” The armsmaster pushed off the rail. “You’d best get ready. They’ll likely want you ashore.”

“Why?”

He chuckled, the sound almost fatherly. “You killed Edite i’Oceania. That makes you a hero in these parts, Assassin.”

*I wish he’d stop calling you that.*

Vree nodded slowly. She didn’t know why but the armsmaster’s reinforcement of her past made her uneasy as well.

Bonfires were lit on the beach that night, but most of the sailors, exhausted by the effort of bringing two ships safely to harbor with what remained of a single ship’s crew, crawled into their hammocks and stayed there.

The next morning, the town council and the captain of the Gilded Fancy hung Edite i’Oceania’s body in an iron cage on the harbor headland.

“And she’ll soon have company enough,” growled an old woman. Dry fingers wrapped around Vree’s forearm and drew her away from the crowd clustered under the dead woman’s dangling feet. “I’m Ilka i’Gitka, the eldest on the council. You’re the Southern girl who cut that second smile ’neath her chin, aren’t you?” Before Gyhard could finish translating or Vree could answer, she went on, “Slip of a girl like you doing what the entire Shkoden Navy couldn’t; that’s going to make them feel like a bunch of unenclosed fools, isn’t it? Looks good on them. We’ll have the trial this afternoon, you’ll tell your story—that’s you, the Fancy ’s armsmaster and anyone else who feels like they’ve got an anchor to drop—the pirate scum’ll tell their story, then we’ll likely hang the lot of them. Until then, you let folk make a fuss of you, you hear? Few enough heroes in the world as it is.”

A muffled exclamation drew them both around. The man who’d made the noise was staring wide-eyed at Vree.

“Looks like you’ve made an impression on young Tomas,” Ilka cackled.

Did she say young Tomas? Vree frowned. The man was at least forty; possibly older, the broad faces of the Northerners made judging age confusing.

*Look at the robe, Vree.*

Tomas’ robe hung off his narrow shoulders in full folds of green and blue. Other than a white splash of seagull shit, Vree couldn’t see anything special about it.

*He’s a bard!*

*Oh.* Bards knew. In ways she couldn’t understand, they could sense both of the lives she carried. Even injured and in the dark, Karlene had known.

*Make friends with him, Vree. He keeps these people connected with the world and his opinion carries a lot of weight.*

She set her jaw. *Why should I care what he thinks?*

Gyhard watched through her eyes as the pair of Imperial merchants came ashore and, keeping as far from the assassin as possible, joined the crowd. He hadn’t wanted to tell Vree his suspicions, but now he had no choice. Quickly, he outlined the damage he thought the merchants could do.

Vree’s hands curled into fists. *The next time you see danger at my back,* she said, her mental voice an edged weapon, *tell me or this slaughtering … thing we have won’t last very long.*

*I just thought …*

*No. You didn’t think. I can’t protect myself against enemies I don’t slaughtering well know I have.* She turned to the councillor, who’d been talking about bards and heroes and how the former could create the latter while she and Gyhard had been holding their silent conversation. A quick bow cut off the flow of meaningless words. “If I may be …”

*Excused,* Gyhard broke in. *Not dismissed. Let’s not remind people of the army right now.*

“… excused, the bard and I have … something to talk on.”

*Discuss.*

*That’s what I said.* Her tone made it clear he was far from forgiven.

As Vree approached, Tomas stopped nervously cracking his knuckles and tried, not very successfully, to smile.

* * * *

The Bardic Hall in Pitesti occupied the seaward corner of the top floor of the four-story Healers’ Hall. It was the tallest building in the town and Tomas’ balcony—a ten by twenty cedar-covered section of the third-floor roof—had an unobstructed view out over the harbor. As he Sang, Vree watched the leaves of potted herbs flutter against the wind and wondered what Karlene would tell him.

His voice quavering just a little, the bard Sang a gratitude and sent the air kigh on its way. Although the salt breeze was cool, he wiped a dribble of sweat from his brow before he turned to face his guest. Guests. “We won’t get an answer for a while,” he explained. “Would you like some, well, lunch?”

*Well, would I?*

She could feel Gyhard’s approval. *Lunch is good.*

*Lunch is all. I don’t care how friendly we need him.*

*Having touched Bannon’s mind, I can see how you might have gotten this impression, but not all men think about sex all the time.*

“And if it’s all right, I’d like my partner to look at you,” Tomas continued, taking her silence for assent. “He hasn’t a full healer’s talent, but he’s a good diagnostic and I’d like to show him proof that the fifth kigh exists. That is, if you and, uh …”

“Gyhard,” Vree prompted.

*He has the worst memory of any bard I’ve ever met.*

*I don’t think he wants to remember.*

“Yes. Gyhard. If the two of you don’t, well, mind?”

“No.” When his face fell, Vree frowned. “Yes?” When he only looked confused, she sighed. “The words in your language get … mixed.” Hands spread, she said very slowly, “You may bring your healer.”

“Good.” The bard finally managed a smile. “I hope you like fish.”

*What do you man, he doesn’t want to remember?*

*Isn’t it obvious? This whole slaughtering fifth kigh thing, you being here in my body, has screwed up everything he thought he could be sure about in his entire life.* Vree perched on the edge of a huge fan-backed wicker chair and, out of habit, adjusted her daggers. *You’re good at that.*

*Vree, are you about to begin your flows? You seem unreasonably angry.*

*Jiir forbid I should be angry at you for destroying my life? For nearly killing my brother? For deciding what I do and do not need to know about potential danger?*

*For loving you?*

*Yes. No.* She sagged into the chair. *I wish you’d quit bringing that up. It doesn’t have anything to do with …*

*You?*

*Oh, shut up.*

Gyhard tried to remember how close they were to the next dark of the moon. There were aspects of occupying a woman’s body that had never occurred to him during the previous six lives he’d lived. He thanked all the gods the Circle contained that he wasn’t facing those complications alone. If Vree had made it to his/Aralt’s chamber before her brother and he’d taken over her body … He shuddered.

* * * *

Brow furrowed, Tomas listened to the message the kigh brought out of the Empire and tried to keep from glancing over his shoulder to where Vree— “No, Vree and Gyhard,” he corrected himself silently—sat talking quietly with Adamec. His partner had been first skeptical and then, after laying on his hands, ecstatic. He’d had a thousand questions. Tomas only had one.

“You can trust Vree completely,” Karlene told him through the kigh. “She’ll kill to survive, but I believe that’s it. Ignoring for the moment the implication I would’ve even considered sending a maniacal murderer to Shkoder—Imperial assassins don’t work that way. If anything, they’re too controlled. All she wants is to talk to our healers and see if there’s anything they can do to find Gyhard a separate life.” The kigh paused and their ethereal noncolor seemed to darken. “Gyhard, on the other hand, you can’t trust. He’s spent over a hundred years jumping from body to body—I don’t know how he does it; I wish I did—and this is the first time he’s been in a willing host. It’s also only the second time he hasn’t killed the host and the first time with Vree’s brother Bannon was, as I understand it, a fluke. He says he loves her, but I personally am not sure I believe him.”

Tomas grinned a little at that as the emotional nuance the kigh gave to the words indicated that Karlene herself had an intimate interest in the tiny, Southern woman.

“Even if he does love her, I doubt it would be enough to change his basically amoral nature. This is, after all, a man who has removed himself from the Circle. We can’t do anything about justice as long as he’s sharing Vree’s body but he seemed to believe Gabris and me when we explained that if yet another host died because of him, that would be it. I explained the whole thing to Captain Liene, and if I’d known Vree’d be stopping at Pitesti, I’d have let you know as well. Final chorus—as long as it’s Vree in control of her body, I wouldn’t worry about it.”

You wouldn’t worry about it,” Tomas muttered after Singing a gratitude and dismissing the kigh. How was he supposed to tell who was in control of the assassin’s body? With two kigh in a place where there should be only one, all nets came up empty. Why did he have to be the first bard to deal with this situation? “All right, third bard,” he amended, granting first and second place to Gabris and Karlene. Not for the first time, he felt completely inadequate. Although most bards who anchored the country at a Bardic Hall Sang all four quarters, he’d been given Pitesti because he Sang the two most common, air and water, very strongly and because King Theron and the Bardic Captain had agreed that a returning native might be more acceptable to the Broken Islanders than a perceived foreigner.

As he turned, he heard Adamec say, “I wish you could stay! There’s so much we could learn from you! So much we could learn to do deliberately instead of instinctively.”

“Trained instincts,” the young woman replied, “can be a powerful … tool.”

Crossing toward them, Tomas wondered what she’d intended to say. What had been discarded in that pause? Weapon, perhaps? She doesn’t look dangerous , he mused. With that pointy little face she looks almost fragile . Then she stood and the way she moved suddenly made him think of several deadly predators. It took him a moment to find his voice. “If we’re going to be on time for the trial,” he managed at last. “We’ll have to leave now.”

Vree nodded but remained where she was. “What did the air spirits, the kigh, tell you?”

“Well …” He weighed the information and separated what he thought he should pass on. “Karlene says I should trust you.”

“Are you going to?”

Meeting her steady gaze, Tomas saw strength and vulnerability about equally mixed and found himself in sudden sympathy with this strange young foreigner. “Yes,” he said, a little surprised by his reaction. “I am.”

*I wonder what Karlene told him about me,* Gyhard muttered.

Vree snorted. *I think you already know.*

* * * *

“Bertic a’Karlis step forward.”

Vree watched in horror as the armsmaster obeyed the bard’s command.

“Bertic a’Karlis, you will speak only the truth.”

*Are they going to do that to me?* She remembered the terrifying feeling of being held by an invisible fist the night they’d broken into Karlene’s chamber at the Healers’ Hall in the Capital. She’d broken the spell by having Bannon take over her body, but she didn’t have Bannon with her now.

*Calm down, Vree. They just want to make sure they’re getting at the whole truth. People’s lives are at stake here. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt.*

*I wasn’t worried about it hurting,* she snapped. *I don’t want anyone controlling my body ever again.*

*He won’t be controlling your body. In a minor way he’ll be controlling your mind.*

*That makes me feel so much better.*

*They don’t need your testimony as such, but if you refuse, you’ll be playing right into whatever rumors those merchants started.*

They’d definitely started something. Vree could feel the hostility rising from whispering clusters scattered through the crowd and wrapping around her like a dark fog. She’d seen mobs work before and couldn’t ignore the danger.

* * * *

“Vireyda Magaly, step forward.”

It wasn’t as bad as she’d thought it would be, but without Gyhard’s constant murmur of comfort, she doubted she’d have been able to stand it. When it finally ended, she was covered in a clammy film of cold sweat.

As Gyhard predicted, her cooperation, combined with the apparent approval of Tomas and his partner, returned the hero status the Imperial merchants had nearly managed to destroy.

* * * *

The Raven ’s carpenter and sail maker, impressed from captured ships and tortured to maintain their compliance, were set free. Unfortunately, the sail maker was no longer exactly sane. Three women in the early stages of pregnancy were taken aside—their sentences commuted until their babies were born. The rest, condemned out of their own mouths, stood bound on the beach before the council. Most of them looked numb, a few cursed softly, a couple wept. They all wore the marks of rotten eggs and fruit. The crowd had stopped throwing things only after the council had threatened to move to the privacy of the council chamber.

From her central seat in the semicircle of driftwood chairs, it was clear that Ilka’s position as eldest not only allowed her to run the council but also everyone on it. “You’re lucky we’re not on the mainland,” she declared, looking as though she considered them lucky indeed. “On the mainland you’d have to go through all this again before the king at a Death Judgment. Fortunately for us, our distance from His Majesty ensures a certain autonomy in dealing with the sort of people who have, over a period of some years, slaughtered, individually and collectively, upward of two hundred men, women, and children. In short, in dealing with scum like you.” She stood, accepted a staff carved with an entwined pattern of kelp and crowned with a leaping dolphin, and slammed its metal-bound butt three times into the smooth stones of the beach, “By the power invested in this council by Theron, King of Shkoder, High Captain of the Broken Islands, lord of a whole bunch of places that don’t mean fish shit out here, I pronounce sentence—hang them.”

The crowd released a collective, satisfied sigh and Vree thought she saw Tomas wince as he said, “Witnessed.”

* * * *

“Of course she’s dangerous. She just put an end to the most vicious crew of mass murderers we’ve had in these waters since my grandfather’s time.” Ilka nodded in satisfaction as the seventh pirate was hoisted kicking and writhing into the air at the other end of the beach, then turned her attention again to the pair of Imperial merchants. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“Honored Councillor, you don’t understand.” Although he spoke Shkoden fluently, the merchant’s accent put strange inflections on the words. “Assassins are trained only to kill or be killed, for them there is no middle ground and they are never away from the army. For this one to be as she is, deciding to kill as she has, is wrong.”

“Very wrong,” affirmed his companion. “It is as though a sword moved through the world, striking and killing with no hand wielding it.”

The elderly councillor studied them, weighing their fear. “How do you know there’s no hand wielding her?” she asked at last. “Perhaps she’s been sent to kill someone in Shkoder, no one saw fit to tell the two of you, and you’ve just blown her cover to the other side. That’s treason, isn’t it?”

The young man paled. Frowning, the woman shook her head. “Assassins travel only as part of an army. They are targeted and released by the army. The Empire is not at war with Shkoder, nor do we wish them to be. War is very bad for trade.”

“It is that.” Hand disappearing into her robe, Ilka scratched at the white line of an old scar, received the day Pitesti fell. “So what do you want me to do about this wild sword of yours? If she’s too dangerous for Shkoder, she’s an unenclosed sight too dangerous to hold here. Even if we had a reason to hold her. Which we don’t. And besides, she spent the morning with the bard and if she was any kind of a threat, he’d have told me.”

“We know nothing of bards, Honored Councillor, we merely thought that someone should be told what we know of assassins.”

“Well, someone’s been told. In fact …” The sudden shrieking of a pirate brought face-to-face with his own imminent death cut her off. She waited until the noise stopped before continuing. “In fact, from the whispering I’ve been hearing, hasn’t just about everyone been told? Didn’t it occur to you that she could get annoyed about that and, if she’s as dangerous as you say, maybe you’d be better off not attracting her attention? You think on that, and I’ll think on what you’ve told me. Ass-kissing bottom feeders,” she added after the two recognized a dismissal, bowed, and scurried away.

“Still,” she sighed, a pair of pirates later, “personal admiration probably shouldn’t stand in the way of national security. Kaspar!”

A balding fisherman hurried over to her chair. “Yes, Grandmother?”

“Wasn’t there a Shkoden diplomat of some kind on the Fancy ?”

“I think so, Grandmother.”

“Go find him, and tell him I want to talk to him.”

* * * *

Imrich i’Iduska a’Krisus, diplomatic courier between the Shkoden ambassador to the Empire and King Theron, stroked the point of his beard and frowned. “We’ve been on the same ship for nine days; I wonder why they didn’t bring this information directly to me.”

“Because you’re an officer of the Shkoden court, and I’m a sweet, approachable old lady.” She threw up her hands. “How in the Circle should I know? The point is, you have the information now. Forget it or pass it on, it’s all the same to me.”

* * * *

Vree stood out on the bard’s deck and watched the dark silhouettes of the hanged pirate crew swinging in the night. Although the air was warm, she shuddered.

Tomas, who’d been about to ask if she wanted something to eat before Adamec started in on her again, saw the movement and asked instead, “It bothers you?”

She shrugged without turning. “It is a slow, painful, messy way to kill.”

“You’re saying you could’ve done it better?” He couldn’t stop the incredulous question, recognized how insulting it sounded, and hoped Karlene’s assessment of the assassin’s temperament was correct.

“I am not … an executioner. I say, it is a slow, painful, messy way to die. And, yes, it bothers me.”

The bard swallowed and risked touching her gently on one shoulder. “It bothers me, too.”

When Vree turned to face him, her face was carefully expressionless and her tone matter-of-fact. “But they expect it to bother you. Please tell Adamec I will be in … soon.”

He could possibly have Sung his way past the barriers, but he suspected he wouldn’t have known what to do with what he found, so he merely nodded and went back inside.

*Vree? What’s wrong?*

*I’m in a strange country, speaking a language I barely understand, and I want to go home.*

*We can.*

*No.* She stared at the harbor without really seeing it. *I miss the army.* Her fingers dug into the soft wood of the railing. *I miss Bannon. I have no one around me I can trust.*

He didn’t so much understand her pain, as share in it. *You can trust me.*

The sound of the rope rubbing against wooden cross beams drifted up clearly from the beach.

*Vree?*