“Vireyda Magaly.”

Vree turned and, even in the midst of the chaos on the docks, easily identified the woman who’d spoken her name. It almost seemed as though she could see a line drawn in the air between them.

*Bard,* Gyhard murmured.

*That would explain the robe.* But his single word had sounded nervous and Vree regretted the sarcasm. All at once, she found herself wondering how Gyhard felt about returning to Shkoder. He hadn’t asked for her interference back when he’d left Bannon’s body. She’d just grabbed him out of nothingness and since then she hadn’t once considered that he might have feelings that didn’t involve her—for all that she refused to acknowledge his feelings that did. The sudden realization froze her in place.

*Go on. She’s waiting.*

*Gyhard, I …*

*Not now.* Something in his tone suggested he could read the direction of her thoughts and found himself mildly amused by them.

If he didn’t want to come here, he should’ve said something before we left the Empire. Less easily defined emotions lost in irritation, Vree gritted her teeth and made her way toward the bard. The quartered robe covered a stocky body, condensed by age but far from frail. Above the robe, deep lines bracketed eyes and mouth in a well-weathered face and her hair hugged the angles of her head like a steel cap. She leaned on a heavy, no-nonsense cane that to Vree’s practiced eye had enough heft to make an effective club. Amidst the seemingly formless pandemonium that surged back and forth against the harborfront of Elbasan, the elderly bard stood surrounded by a nearly visible circle of competence and calm.

This is someone, Vree thought with relief as she ducked under a swinging net of cargo being unloaded from the Fancy’s hold, who can tell me what to do.

* * * *

Weight on her cane, fingers drumming against the quartered pattern carved into the handle, the Bardic Captain dragged her attention from the pair of kigh the young woman carried—despite the urge to begin investigating them immediately—to the young woman herself. She was younger than Liene had expected. But then again, these days, the captain grunted silently, everyone is. She was also smaller than expected and her lack of height, combined with her youth and the pointed features, resulted in an almost fragile appearance.

But there was nothing fragile in how she moved through the confusion on the docks. She used exactly the space available, sliding from opening to opening, never in anyone’s way, never allowing anyone to be in hers.

Assassin. Liene turned the word over in her mind. She’d never met a person who’d taken a life who hadn’t been, at least for that instant, insane. Karlene had insisted that the Empire had turned this young woman into a weapon without destroying her. Perhaps. Karlene had also insisted that her personal feelings had nothing to do with that analysis. Not likely.

Now this assassin was in Shkoder, asking for help; offering in return a chance for bards and healers to study the suddenly impossible to ignore fifth kigh. And it had to be done in Shkoder not the Empire where an assassin would be no more than a part of the military infrastructure for, in spite of the evidence, the citizens of the Empire barely believed in the original four kigh.

Original four kigh. Liene shook her head. That seemed to imply a possibility of further discoveries. A sixth and a seventh kigh perhaps? Perhaps. All things were enclosed in the Circle. But for now, she told herself emphatically, we have enough to concentrate on without adding further complications.

Upon dismissing the kigh who’d brought Karlene’s message, Liene had gone over every recall in the Bardic Library that mentioned Imperial assassins. It hadn’t taken long. Although bards had gained access to the Havakeen Empire twenty-two years before when Princess Irenka had joined with the Empire’s crown prince—now Emperor—not one of them had met an assassin until they’d encountered Vree and her brother. Apparently, as few people had the necessary combination of skills it took to kill on command as had the perfect pitch and desire to Sing the kigh. Uncomfortable with the analogy, Liene hastily put it aside.

A small amount of the available information had been gleaned from the military. The rest, unfortunately, was nothing more than rumor and hearsay. When she’d had the kigh contact Aurel, the bard Karlene had replaced at the Imperial court, he’d expressed doubts that assassins actually existed.

No doubt of that now. The young woman who turned to acknowledge a shouted farewell from the Fancy’s stern with a truncated wave, had danger wrapped around her like a crimson cloak. Danger to what, though; that was the question.

Was Vireyda Magaly a danger to crown or country? Karlene believed not and, more importantly, Gabris had agreed with her. But they had both warned her to watch Gyhard i’Stevana.

“According to Gyhard, unless Vree pushes him, he can’t jump to another body without killing the body he’s in. He says he has no wish to do that, but then he’s not likely to tell Vree otherwise, is he? Vree has agreed not to help him if it means the taking of a life, but we have little doubt that while he is in her head, he’ll attempt to convince her otherwise. He has been outside the Circle for so long, we cannot trust him.” The kigh had grown very agitated at that point, making the rest of the message difficult to understand.

“We suggest, Captain, that the bards and healers both watch him closely.”

Liene snorted, remembering. Neither bard had been able to suggest how they were supposed to watch a man reduced to kigh and sharing a body with another.

As the young woman drew nearer, it became more and more difficult to be aware of anything but the two kigh she carried.

A good thing I came myself, the captain mused. A younger bard might lose the larger picture in the smaller. Might find a pair of kigh completely overwhelming. Bardic Captain for twenty-nine of her sixty-eight years, Liene considered herself long past the possibility of being overwhelmed by anything. She held out her fist as the ex-assassin stopped an arm’s length away. “Liene. Bardic Captain.”

*Touch the bottom of your fist to the top of hers and tell her your name.*

*She knows my name,* Vree protested, shifting her weight forward onto the balls of her feet.

*It’s the way they introduce themselves in Shkoder. Just do it.*

He was definitely nervous. Under the circumstances, Vree decided to do as he suggested and ignore the tone he suggested it in. “Vireyda Magaly. But I am always Vree.”

“Vree.” Liene nodded. She’d noted the signs of a silent conversation and, abruptly, decided to acknowledge the situation. Ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away. More’s the pity. “And your companion?”

Vree started and glanced around. No one in the surrounding crowd of buyers, sellers, sailors, and city folk seemed to paying them any attention. “Uh, Gyhard i’Stevana.”

*Maybe I didn’t want them to know.*

*You think Karlene or Gabris hasn’t already told her? She’s their captain.*

*It isn’t a military organization, Vree.*

*Then why are they using military rank?*

*She’s like the captain of a ship.*

*Then she’s still the person in charge and they’d still have told her.*

“Is Gyhard not able to speak for himself?”

“No.” When Liene’s eyebrows rose, Vree found herself elaborating. “Not without I give him control of my body.”

The captain half smiled. “Unless. Not unless you give him control of your body. Which, as I understand it, is probably not a good idea.”

As she didn’t seem to expect a response, Vree waited.

“Is that all you brought with you?” Liene used her cane to point at Vree’s pack.


“Good.” She half-turned and, still using the cane, pointed to a cluster of stone buildings just visible above the slate roofs of the city. “That’s the Citadel, there on the top of that hill. That’s where we’ll be walking to.” The last phrase emerged like a challenge and when the expected protest wasn’t voiced, the Bardic Captain shook her head in disgust at her own defensiveness. “Most of the bards and some of the healers seem to think I can’t walk across a room anymore, let alone halfway across the city,” she snorted as Vree fell into step beside her. “My joints stiffen up in the damp, especially my hips and knees, but I’ve walked across this whole country in my time and I won’t be coddled.”

*Am I supposed to say something?* Vree asked, a little confused.

*I don’t think so.*

“Kovar thought he should be the one to come to the harbor to meet you.” Her cane hit the damp cobblestones of Upper Dock Street with unnecessary force and a young man pulling a wheeled dolly loaded with bales of raw cotton moved hastily out of her way. “I had to remind him that I remain Bardic Captain until Third Quarter Festival and he can just live with it.”

*What is it about you and old ladies?* Gyhard wondered as they followed the captain around the edge of the Dock Market, the roar of buying and selling making audible conversation impossible. *All of a sudden, you seem to be attracting them. First in Pitesti and now here.*

*Maybe it’s something Bannon left behind. He was always the one getting pinched and patted.*

*Probably enjoyed it, too.* He watched through Vree’s eyes as Liene exchanged noisy greetings with half a dozen people, questioned the price of a pound of jasmine tea, and arranged for it to be delivered to the Bardic Hall at the lower price all without breaking stride. *I’m curious about why the Bardic Captain herself came down to meet us.*

Vree glanced up at the stone towers of the Citadel rising from the center of Elbasan like a crown. Although the steepness of the hill made an estimate difficult, it looked like they had some distance to cover and, with the captain’s age slowing them down, they were going to take a while to cover it. *Seems like we’ll have plenty of time to find out.*

*Remember you’ve got to …*

*… make a good impression with the bards.* She sighed. *I know. But I can’t be something I’m not.*

*Be yourself.*

*Yeah. Right.*

The bitterness took him by surprise.

The noise of the market became a background growl as the two women turned onto a narrow avenue and started the long climb up the hill.

“Cotton Street,” Liene explained, following Vree’s gaze to where thick skeins of thread dyed all the colors of the rainbow hung twisting in the breeze between the open shutters of a shopfront. “Use to be West Wharf Street, but about fifteen years ago everyone started calling it Cotton Street and about five years ago the city council finally changed it. They buy bales of the stuff raw off the ships from the South, spin it, dye it, weave it, and sell it all around here. Don’t sell a lot of it, mind, as the price is one unenclosed amount higher than the linen coming locally out of Vidor. The cloth doesn’t last as long either.” Then her voice changed, and it suddenly became impossible not to pay attention to what she had to say. “Lower Dock Street, then Hill Street to the Citadel would’ve been more direct, but at this time of day there’d be people all around and we need to talk without being interrupted. What do you want from us, Vree?”

“Karlene …” Vree began defensively.

The Bardic Captain shook her head. “No. I’ve heard her version, now I want yours.”

“Gyhard …”

“Forget Gyhard,” the older woman commanded. “Or if you can’t forget him, disregard him for the moment. What do you want from us?”

I want everything to be like it was before. Except she didn’t. Not really. Or she’d have let Gyhard disappear into oblivion.

“I want Gyhard to have a body for his own.” Ignoring Gyhard’s soft, *Of his own,* Vree clutched the hilt of her dagger with her left hand, fingers opening and closing convulsively, and added, “But no one can die for it.”

“Why not?”

She saw the face of Edite i’Oceania, a crimson line of death across her throat; Commander Neegan’s face, her father’s face, finding his only possible peace as her blade found his heart; Avor’s face, a friend’s face, as he realized he was going to die; too many faces to remember the names or the reasons. Her own face, reflected in a polished shield.

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

*Who I am.*

*Who I am …*


She blinked and realized that she’d stopped walking. The captain had moved a few paces ahead, had turned, and was watching her. She couldn’t read the expression on the older woman’s face and had no better idea of the expression on her own. Her arms were folded tightly over her stomach, as though she’d been slashed in the belly and had to hold in her guts. Slowly, she released the white-knuckled embrace she had on each elbow and held out her hands. “There has been enough death. I don’t want to see death when I look at him.”

To her surprise, the Bardic Captain took a step forward and enclosed her fingers in a gentle grip. Vree found herself looking into a dark gaze that reached past all the years of blood and all the training that had come before to find a seven-year-old who was suddenly no longer a child. It hurt more than any wound she’d ever taken. Somehow, she found the strength to drag her eyes away.

Liene released the girl’s icy fingers and began walking toward the Citadel once again, her only outward reaction to the pain she’d seen a spasming of the hand that held her cane. Never good with emotions unconfined by chord and chorus, this was far more than she was capable of dealing with. More, she suspected, than the Healers’ Hall could deal with. Karlene has a greater perception than I gave her credit for. This child is so tied in knots she’s no danger to anyone but herself.

She’d intended to ask a lot of other whys, but they were no longer necessary.

“I don’t want to see death when I look at him.”

It was a love song with enough tragic potential to rip out hearts and tear them into tiny, bleeding pieces. Teeth clenched, Liene wished she’d sent Kovar to the docks so that she could’ve received these first impressions filtered through his recall.

Gyhard felt Vree tremble and silently cursed his inability to hold her, to comfort her. He hated the Bardic Captain for what she’d done and his anger sizzled around the parameters of his existence. If only he had hands….


He forced himself to withdraw although he knew at that moment she couldn’t have stopped him from taking control.

The moment passed.

*Are you all right?* he demanded, fighting to suppress the anger for both their sakes.

Don’t leave me.

If he’d still had a body, that quiet plea would’ve left him struggling to breathe. This was the first time, since the initial impulse that had gathered up his kigh, that Vree had shown him her heart. If confronted, she probably wouldn’t admit to the thought but he’d heard it—felt it—and nothing, not hatred, not anger, was worth hanging onto in the face of it. Don’t leave me. Catching hold of them before they could fade, Gyhard gathered the words up and locked them away in his memory. Then he waited.

He felt her chin rise. *I’m fine,* she told him, lengthening her stride to draw even with the Bardic Captain again. Her tone implied she didn’t care if he believed her or not.

“I half expected that you’d be carried off the Fancy on the shoulders of her crew,” Liene observed, stepping aside to allow a tailor’s apprentice, arms loaded with a bolt of sea-green fabric, to pass. It suddenly seemed important she find a subject with a little distance.

Vree shrugged. “They were happy to come home. They made me a hero in the Broken Islands. That was enough.”

“From what Tomas told me, I imagine it must’ve been.” The image of a row of hastily-constructed gallows, filled as quickly as they were built, rose in Liene’s mind. The crowd of dead behind the young assassin grew. “You speak Shkoden very well,” she said, searching for yet a safer topic.

“Gyhard taught me.”

The older woman stifled a sigh. It appeared there were no safer topics. “Well, he did a good job. I assume he translates for you, too?”

“Less now.”

Liene grinned at Vree’s tone. “Don’t like depending on other people, do you? I can appreciate that.” Then she frowned. “Gyhard hears through your ears? Sees through your eyes?”


“Then we shouldn’t talk about him as though he isn’t here.” She turned that over, examined it from all sides. When she spoke again, they’d moved some distance up the hill. “From what Karlene has told me, I think you and he and your brother have proved that the body is merely meat worn by the kigh and that what we all consider the person, is the kigh. So.” She took a tighter grip on her cane, forcing herself to give credit where credit was due. “Gyhard, thank you. Although a number of the bards speak Imperial, none of the healers do. You’ve made all our lives less complicated.” Sweeping a piece of trash into the gutter, she snorted. “Well, less complicated as regards language, at least.”

*I’m not sure that granting me any kind of individuality is such a good idea.* Gyhard lightly touched the place where he ended and Vree began, felt her recoil, and drew back. *If I’m given a little, I may be tempted to take the rest.*

*You can try.*

*Vree, I’m serious.*

*Then we’ll deal with it ourselves because I’m not going to tell her. It’s obvious she thinks I’m, we’re, unstable. We don’t need to prove her right.* Conscious of Liene’s gaze, Vree added aloud, “He says, you’re welcome.”

The Bardic Captain shook her head. “No, he doesn’t. Didn’t Karlene tell you that you can’t lie to a bard?” With everything filtered through Vree, they’d have no way of telling if Gyhard was lying—a realization that left the captain feeling distinctly less than happy—but they could certainly tell when she was. “Now then, what did he actually say?”

*Okay. That’s it.* Ever since Ghoti, Vree’d had to continually draw lines between herself and the world. Time to draw another one. *How do I tell her that’s none of her slaughtering business?*


*Never mind.* This woman was the head of all the bards; Vree’d dice with the gods on the odds the Bardic Captain understood Imperial. “That’s none of your slaughtering business,” she repeated aloud, glad to be speaking her own language again and discovering an unexpectedly pleasant freedom in no longer being bound by the rules of rank. A similar response to an Imperial Army Captain would’ve resulted in six lashes and time in the box.

The Bardic Captain understood Imperial. She stopped in the middle of the street. Her cheeks flushed an alarming purple as she spun around and glared into Vree’s face. “If you want our help—” she began.

Vree cut her off. “If you want to study the fifth kigh, we’re going to have to trust you enough to let you poke around in our lives. If you want that kind of trust, you’re going to have to give it in return.”

“Gyhard i’Stevana has removed himself from the Circle!” Liene snapped.

“And we’re asking you to put him back in. Doesn’t that count for anything? All we want is a chance to start over, and if you’re not willing to give us that chance, then we’re on the first boat out of here and you can whistle up information on the fifth kigh without us.”

It wasn’t a bluff. Liene suspected assassins were unable to bluff. And, it was the truth. All they wanted was a chance to start over. At least, it was all Vree wanted and if it wasn’t what Gyhard wanted, she believed he did. Still standing in the middle of the street, disregarding the audience they’d attracted, the Bardic captain drew in a deep breath and released it slowly, releasing her anger and her suspicion and her fear at the same time.

Then she held out her fist. “Liene. Bardic captain.”

Vree stared at it for a long moment. “Vireyda Magaly. Vree,” she said at last, touching it lightly with her own. “Gyhard i’Stevana.”

“Welcome to Shkoder.”

“Thank you.”

“That Southerner giving you trouble, Bard?” a heavyset woman called from a second-floor window. “You want I should come down there?”

“No need,” Liene replied, her tone suggesting the curious return to what they’d been doing before the shouting started. “But thank you for the offer.” She waited until her champion waved cheerily and withdrew, before turning her attention back to Vree. “Are we all right, you and I and Gyhard?”

“I think so.”

“And what does Gyhard think?”

Muscles still tensed, Vree’s gesture took in the end of the argument. “That starting over’s a good idea.”

We’ll have to play a careful melody here, Liene thought as they continued up the hill, squinting in the late afternoon sun. This child has been tuned so tightly she’s going to start breaking strings. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t let Kovar meet her at the dock, she decided silently to herself. If I don’t stay on top of this, it’s never going to work. Someone’s going to have to remember there’s more involved here than the fifth kigh.

* * * *

“She threatened you?”

Liene drummed her fingers on the edge of her desk. “She threatened to leave. Which is her right, she’s not a prisoner.”

The waxed ends of his mustache twitching, Kovar slapped his palms down on the polished wood. “But she lied to you!”

“If someone called me an unmitigated horse’s ass—which, upon reflection, is how I was acting—would you tell me?”

“Of course not.”

“You’d lie to me.”

He didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “It’s not the same thing.”

“Ah.” Liene nodded. “One rule for you. A different rule for her.”

Kovar sputtered for a moment and finally grabbed onto the one affront he was certain of. “She is voluntarily carrying the kigh of a man who removed himself from the Circle!”

“True. Which means there’s a great deal we can learn from them concerning the fifth kigh.” She leaned back in her chair, considered putting her feet up on the desk, and reluctantly decided her hips weren’t up to it. “They help us, we help them—which, if you’ll recall, was the whole point of them coming here—and we all act like civilized people while we do it.”

“How civilized is assassination?” the younger bard demanded.

“How civilized is prejudice!” Liene snapped. Painfully conscious of how her own preconceptions had caused her to react, she was determined Kovar would be less inflexible. The bards had not come across in the best of lights this afternoon.

“Are you trying to tell me that you met this woman completely unconcerned about her past?”

“I’m trying to tell you that after I met this woman, her past became unimportant. She followed orders, exactly as she was trained to. Frankly, I’m a lot more concerned about the people who trained her.”

“You have a point,” Kovar murmured after a moment’s reflection. Liene was pleased to note that he’d stopped reacting and started thinking. “But what about the past of the kigh she’s carrying?”

“That,” Liene admitted, “I am concerned about. But if Vree can’t control Gyhard, we can. If only for her sake, he deserves a chance.”

“For her sake?” Kovar shook his head and dropped into the wood and leather chair facing the desk. He directed a searching gaze at his captain’s face. “You sound like Karlene.”

Liene spread her hands, the gesture clearly allowing the comparison. “The girl’s beautiful, intense, and tragic. I can understand what Karlene saw in her.”

“Beautiful, intense, and tragic,” Kovar repeated, rubbing the creases out of his forehead, unable to maintain suspicion in the face of his captain’s certainty. He sighed deeply. “Then she’s just what we need around the Bardic Hall.”

“Afraid you’ll have the youngsters falling in love?”

He looked up from under his hand and his mustache lifted as his mouth curled into a weary smile. “No. I’m afraid I’ll have to spend the next dozen years listening to overheated, overwritten ballads. If there’s one thing a bard can’t resist, it’s a tragedy. You’ll be well out of it.”

“I’ll be retired, not dead,” Liene pointed out curtly.

The ends of the mustache lifted higher as the smile grew. “I beg your pardon.” Then he sobered and stood. “I suppose I’d better meet her—meet them—before they’re surrounded by healers.”


He paused by the door, turned, and lifted an inquiring brow.

“Remember what Vree said about trust. They have to trust us in order for us to learn anything, so we’re going to have to offer trust in return. Keep in mind who they were but deal gently with who they are.”

* * * *

Shadow screening her from the courtyard, Vree studied the wall below her second-floor window. *I could get down that,* she said with satisfaction as she straightened.

*Why do you want to?*

*I don’t. But I might need to.* Bannon wouldn’t have had to ask. Bannon would’ve understood. Let it go, Vree, she told herself sternly. Even if you’d let Gyhard die, you and Bannon couldn’t have gone back to what you had. You’d come to know each other too well.

*You know, talking to yourself seems a bit redundant under the circumstances,* Gyhard told her dryly, wishing he’d been able to pick the content out of the buzz of thought. *Are you expecting trouble?*

*Expecting trouble keeps you alive.* A squint into the small fireplace showed the chimney too narrow to climb although it appeared to open up into the larger stack just past her fingertips.

*Vree, what are you doing?*


*For what?*

*Escape routes.*

*But we aren’t in any danger.*


Unable to get past the surface agitation to the cause, Gyhard muttered, *You weren’t this paranoid on board ship.*

*I understood the rules on board ship. I stay out of the way, I let them do their jobs, they take me where I’ve paid to go.* The heavy plank door opened in and would be easy to secure from the room. Not so easy from the corridor. *And they don’t want us here. Their captain made that plain.*

*They want us, but they’re afraid of us. Of you, because you’re an assassin. Of me, because I’m outside the Circle.*

*Outside the Circle? What the slaughter does that mean?*

*It’s a religious thing. I’m sure they’ll explain it,* he added caustically.

*I want you …* She froze, head cocked to one side. *Someone’s coming.*

*I hear them, but, Vree, you aren’t the only person in the Bardic Hall. Other people will be using the …*

A brisk rapping cut him off.

Vree checked that her knives were accessible, swore softly when she remembered that one of her wrist daggers lay on the seabed in the Broken Islands, and positioned herself where she’d have the greatest freedom of movement should there be a fight.

*Are you going to tell them to come in?* Gyhard asked when the rapping grew louder. *Or wait for them to break the door down?*



*I’m kidding.* A quick glance over her shoulder defined the distance to the window, just in case. “Come in.”

By all the gods in the Circle, it’s true! The girl is carrying two kigh! Kovar stood in the doorway, fingers clutching the latch, trying to sort out what his eyes told him and what he knew. One slender young woman stood facing him in the center of the small sitting room, but two separate people occupied that space. Until this meeting, he’d dealt with Karlene’s incredible tale purely intellectually. Having taken over most of the day-to-day administration of the Bardic Hall, he’d made arrangements for the girl’s stay, he’d set up schedules with the healers, he’d worried about bringing both an assassin and a man who’d dared to remove himself from the Circle into Shkoder. Upon coming face-to-face with the unarguable evidence, however, he found himself far more overwhelmed than he’d believed possible. Two separate and distinct kigh! What we could learn from this!

*Would it be rude to tell him to close his mouth?* Vree asked, not sure whether she should be amused or annoyed.

Almost as though he’d heard her, Kovar’s mouth snapped shut and he released his white-knuckled grip on the latch, jerking his fist forward. “Kovar.”

“Vree.” She moved toward him just enough to touch her fist to his, carefully avoiding his gaze. “And Gyhard.”

And Gyhard. Two kigh. “Did Liene mention me?”


He couldn’t remember her stepping back, but she stood, once again, in the center of the room. “Were you told about the necessities?” How would a male kigh react to a female body? Or was gender a result of physical form?

*Privies,* Gyhard explained.


“And the dining hall?” Would she have to eat enough to sustain two lives?

“Yes.” Vree’s pulse began to slow as the inane dialogue convinced her this tall, balding man with the impressive mustache was not a threat.

“The bards who have rooms in this part of the hall are all out Walking, so you should have plenty of privacy. If you need anything, just ask.” He paused, then added. “Either of you.”

“Thank you.”

“I have a thousand questions to ask.”

Vree waited, the bard’s last statement so obvious she didn’t think it needed a reply.

About to begin on the first of the thousand, Kovar stopped himself. Something about the young woman’s stance, so clearly defensive, reminded him of his daughter the day she’d arrived at the Hall to begin her training, her talent an inheritance from a father she barely knew. Superficial differences between the two disappeared beneath a shared, desperate bravado. It would be distressingly easy, he realized, to lose sight of the needs of one kigh in the wonder over two. “You’ve nothing to be afraid of, Vree,” he said gently.

Startled, Vree looked him full in the face, her need to keep a distance between herself and these strange new people lost in her need to find out just what he meant. He didn’t seem to be mocking her. “I’m not afraid.”

“I beg your pardon.” Four years learning to be a father to Olexa as much as many more years of bardic training made the apology believable. If the captain, by her own admittance, had not been welcoming, it was time to remedy that. “The bards and the healers are both very glad that you’re here, Vree. You and Gyhard. By allowing us to study your unique kigh, you’re doing us a tremendous favor and we’ll do everything we can to take care of your problem in return.”

“Uh …” To her horror, she started to shake and could feel tears burning behind her lids. *Gyhard, why is he being so nice to me? I haven’t done anything for him.*

*You’re doing him a favor—he said so himself—besides, he’s a bard. They’re supposed to be nice.* Gyhard struggled to keep his own emotions under control lest his anger push Vree over the edge. The mere fact that she couldn’t deal with someone being unexpectedly nice to her told him more than he wanted to know about her life before he became a part of it. He wanted to grab Kovar by the shirt and shake him until he was sure the bard understood. Do you see what they’ve done to her?

Behind his gentle smile, Kovar gritted his teeth, certain he saw another intelligence flash for a heartbeat in Vree’s eyes; pure animal rage one moment, gone the next. Gyhard. All at once, he thought he understood what Vree was afraid of. She’s carrying a kigh that’s been over a hundred years outside the Circle. Before he could say anything—before he had any idea of what to say that wouldn’t make her situation even worse—the sound of a gong struck twice filled the building.

“Dinner gong,” he explained, amazed at how still Vree had gone. “I’d be pleased to have your company this evening.”

Heart pounding, Vree struggled through her confusion and finally nodded. Anything would be better than facing a roomful of strangers alone.

*Not quite alone.*

*No,* she allowed. *Not quite.*

“So what will it be? Do we arrive late to get the reactions over all at once, or do we arrive early so that you only have to go through it one bard at a time?”


“To the pair of kigh.” Kovar spread his hands and smiled encouragingly. “I’m afraid there’s no way around it, you’re going to be the center of attention for a while. Unless you’d rather I had something sent up? You could eat in your room.”

“No.” Her chin rose. “I don’t hide from confrontation.”

“Well, with any luck, it won’t go any further than acknowledgment.”

Considering that Vree’s reaction to confrontation usually involved knives, Gyhard sincerely hoped the bard was right.

* * * *

Three or four heads turned when Vree and Kovar entered the dining hall, reactions turned three or four more and, in a moment, every one of the dozen bards in the room stared openmouthed in their direction.

During the heartbeat of absolute silence, before the babble could begin, Kovar took a step forward. Using enough Voice to hold their attention, he said, “This is Vree, a citizen of the Havakeen Empire who has graciously consented to assist us in our studies of the fifth kigh. Yes, she is carrying two kigh and if you must know the whole story, Karlene has sent us a copy of her recall which will be in the library by tomorrow morning. If you have any questions, bring them to either the captain or myself. Do not pester Vree with them. Is that clear?”

Heads nodded.

“That said, I expect you to make her feel welcome. She speaks Shkoden fluently …”

*He has a loose definition of fluently,* Gyhard observed.

“… but it wouldn’t hurt for some of you to use this opportunity to practice Imperial.” His voice lost its overtone of command and picked up a distinct note of amusement as he added, “That’s all; enjoy your meal.”

Her expression carefully neutral, Vree followed Kovar across the dining hall, skin crawling under the heated focus of a dozen intensely curious pairs of eyes. Assassins worked unseen and not even the greenest of recruits was fool enough to satisfy curiosity by staring at the blades of Jiir. Vree could hear Kovar’s footsteps against the plank floor and her own blood roaring in her ears; nothing else.

The silence stretched and grew brittle.

Then a very, very old woman in a wheeled chair leaned toward her neighbor and said, in what she imagined was a whisper, “She’s a pretty little thing, isn’t she?”

The silence disappeared in the mutual embarrassment that followed. By the time Vree set her plate of cold beef and vegetables on the table across from Kovar, she was the topic of every conversation but no longer the center of attention.

*That’s your third old lady.*

*So?* Vree watched Kovar carry a piece of meat to his mouth on the tines of an implement she’d never seen before and carefully imitated his action. *What is this thing?*

*How would I know?*

*You’re from Shkoder.*

*A hundred years ago. And I was never in Elbasan and I never actually met a bard before Kars.*

*That’s why you’re so,* she settled on, *tense. You keep being reminded of Kars.*

*I’m so tense because everyone around us would as soon Sing me back into the Circle as look at me.*

*I think you’re overreacting.*

*I’m not the one planning to climb up the chimney,* he snapped. He didn’t want to be reminded of Kars—not by Vree, not by the bards. Unfortunately, what he wanted didn’t seem to matter because every bard he saw reminded him not only of Kars but of how he’d failed him twice; the first time by pushing him into insanity, the second by leaving him there. Gyhard didn’t know whether Vree had felt his reaction through their close contact or had come to it on her own; either way he didn’t like it much.

*But it’s okay if you know what I’m feeling?*

*Stay out of my thoughts, Vree.*

*Strong emotions, remember?*

*You going to answer Kovar’s question or sit there like an idiot?*

Vree jerked and found Kovar staring at her from across the table. “I’m sorry. Could you repeat, please?”

He waved a hand at her plate. “I just wondered how you liked the food.”

“The food?” She looked down and realized she’d eaten most of it. “It’s, uh, fine. Better than army cooking.” She couldn’t actually remember how anything tasted, but it seemed a safe comparison.

“And Gyhard?”

“He tastes what I taste.”

Kovar leaned forward, trying not to appear too anxious. “And do you like the same things?”

Conversations died as every bard still in the dining hall waited for her answer.

Vree’s ears grew hot. She had no idea what Gyhard liked.

*You never asked.*

*You could’ve told me!*

She felt the memory of a shrug. *It wasn’t important. Besides, I was busy learning about you.*

*What? And I’m not supposed to learn about you?*

Kovar sat back. “I’m sorry; have I started something?”

Before Vree could find the words, the double doors to the dinning hall slammed open and a short, dark-haired figure charged in.

“Is she here? I heard she was here!” Without waiting for a reply, the young woman—girl—swept her gaze across the remaining occupants of the room. Quarry spotted, she flung herself forward, racing to Vree’s side, her eyes gleaming. “You are here! And you do have two kigh! This is so amazingly amazing. When they told me you were coming, I just couldn’t believe it. I’d have been here sooner, but I had garden duty this afternoon.”

“This is Magda i’Annice a’Pjerin,” Kovar interrupted. If he had anything more to say, not even bardic training gave him the chance to say it.

“Maggi. Almost everyone calls me Maggi. You’re Vree, right? And Gyhard? Captain Liene told me all about you.” She grinned as she took in Vree’s expression. “You have no idea who I am, do you? I’m the healer, well, all right, apprentice healer who Heals the fifth kigh—it has something to do with my mother saving my brother’s life before I was born, but they’re still trying to figure out the particulars. Karlene must have told you about me. I’m the one who’s going to find Gyhard a body.” She shoved a thick fall of curls back from her face with weed stained fingers. “I think that what you did was the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard of.”

Vree blinked, as stunned by the delivery as by the actual flow of information. *I feel old.*

She felt Gyhard twitch. *You feel old?*