The fishing boat rose to the surface of the bay like an abandoned vessel of the old gods. Such was the angle that the masthead, draped in pennants of torn and dripping sail, had barely emerged before the bow broke through, water sheeting over the gunnels back into the sea. A moment later the stern followed, cradled on the crest of an unnatural wave. Long ropes of weed trailed off the rudder as though the depths had attempted to hold their prize.

Ignoring waves and wind, the boat cut across the chop toward a nearly identical vessel carrying four oilskin-wrapped people. Three of the four watched the approach, openmouthed. The fourth, a young man standing alone in the bow, watched the water and Sang.

A few moments later, the salvaged boat drew parallel with the other and stopped, both boats keeping their position as though held by unseen hands.

“That’s her, that’s my Second Chance.” Leaning over the gunnels for a closer look, one of the identical trio pushed her hood back off salt-and-pepper hair and squinted into the spray. “Well, I’ll be hooked and fried, they even brung up both pairs of oars.” Half-turned toward the bow, she lifted her voice over the combined noise of wind and sea and Song, “Hey bard! We’re close enough to use the gaff. Should I hook her in and make her fast?”

Still Singing, Benedikt shook his head and shuffled around on his damp triangle of decking to face the shore. Shoulders hunched against the chill, he changed his Song, and both boats began to move toward the gravel beach at the head of the bay where the tiny figures of the villagers paced up and down.

When the keels scraped bottom, he changed the Song again.

Two roughly human translucent figures rose up out of the shallows on either side of the bow and brushed against the ends of Benedikt’s outstretched fingers like liquid cats. Closing his eyes, he allowed the four notes of the gratitude to linger a moment or two after the kigh dissolved back into the sea.

“Right, then!” The owner of the Second Chance took command of the silence with an authoritative bellow. “Let’s have some help here before the tide turns!”

His part in the salvage completed, the bard stayed where he was until it became obvious that there was nothing left to do but disembark. Clambering awkwardly over the side, he winced as the frigid water seeped into borrowed boots. The uneven footing threw him off balance. He staggered forward, then back, then forward again.

A sudden grip on his elbow kept him from falling.

* The figure beside him, indistinguishable from all the others in the ubiquitous oilskins, was considerably shorter than his own six feet. Under his hood, he felt his ears burn. Bards were not supposed to need rescue. Especially not from rescuers so much smaller than themselves.

The hand remained around his elbow until dry land was reached, then it released him and rose to push back the masking hood. Fortunately, he recognized the face. Bards were not supposed to fumble for names either.


The woman who’d offered her boat for the trip out into the bay smiled up at him. “Benedikt.”

Wobbly on the slippery piles of beach gravel, he had no idea of what he was supposed to say next.

As though she sensed his unease, Lucija’s smile dimmed a little. “That was an impressive bit of Singing out there; what with Tesia swamping right over the cleft and all. I never knew bards could control the kigh so deep.”

He could feel the tension start to leave his shoulders. It had been an impressive bit of Singing, and he was pleased that she’d noticed. “It was nothing.”

“Nothing?” Drawn around by the sound of her name, Tesia stomped over and smacked the bard enthusiastically on the arm. “You’ve given me back the fish, boy. That’s an unenclosed sight more than nothing. Now you head over to my place around dark, and I’ll cook you a meal that’ll make a start at payin’ you back.”

“You don’t have to…”

“I know that. I want to.” She grinned around him at the younger woman. “I can see what you’re thinkin’, Lucija. You may as well come, too.”

* * * *

The entire village ended up at Tesia’s cottage. From where Benedikt sat, there seemed to be a man, woman, or child in every available space—occasionally, two deep. Lucija had a seat close by, and the heat in her pale eyes made him wish his place of honor wasn’t quite so close to the fire.

When they called for a song, he dried his palms on his thighs and lifted his quintara like a shield. He wasn’t good in large crowds; there were just too many people to please.

* * * *

“It’s all right, these things happen.” Up on one elbow, Lucija stroked the soft triangle of golden hair in the center of Benedikt’s chest. “Don’t worry about it.”

It took an effort, but he kept his voice light. “Easy for you to say.”

“Maybe you just need a little encouragement.”

As her hand moved lower, Benedikt closed his eyes. When Lucija had finally come right out and invited him to her bed, he hadn’t been able to think of a believable way to say no. He’d wanted to be with her, but he’d been afraid that exactly what had happened would happen.

It wasn’t his fault really, it was the pressure. After his performance in the afternoon, he’d known that she’d expect an equivalent performance in the dark. He’d been magnificent out on the bay. The need to be that magnificent again—and the fear that he wouldn’t be—had made him so tense….

It would’ve been easier to raise another fishing boat.

“Maybe you’re just too tired.”

There was sympathy in her voice, not blame, but he couldn’t have her telling others that Singing the kigh had exhausted him. Grasping at straws, he began a silent Song, calling up the one thing that had never failed him. Sleek, fluid, the image of the water kigh was not entirely human-seeming.

Not that it mattered.

“Ah, there we are.”

* * * *

“A lot of us fatten a pig and pretty much everyone keeps some chickens,” Lucija explained, forking the strips of bacon onto Benedikt’s plate beside the two fried eggs. “There’s a limit to how much seafood a body can eat.”

“It does lose its appeal after a while,” Benedikt agreed with a laugh. “When I first went to the Bardic Hall, I didn’t eat fish for almost a year.”

“You’re from a fisher family, then?”

He nodded around a mouthful of breakfast. “My three older brothers fish out of Three Island Cove,” he told her when he’d swallowed, adding proudly, “They all go out to the deep water.”

“Brave boys.”

“Yeah, they are. Absolutely fearless. But not reckless,” he hastened to explain. “Just really good at what they do. And my father’s the factor at Three Island Cove. There hasn’t been a surplus in the last twenty years that he hasn’t convinced the Duc of Sibiu to pay handsomely for.” One dark-gold brow lifted. “Whether she started out wanting the fish or not.”

“Your father’d be bored stiff here, then. We’re so close to Elbasan that all of our surplus is contracted in advance, and all we have to do is hand it over to the regular traders.” Grinning and shaking her head, she sopped up egg yolk with a bit of toasted bread. “But you’re a bard. You already know that.”

“You’ve heard the rumors that we know everything, then?”

Her laughter added a special savor to the food and he almost stopped worrying about the impression he was making. He’d only been Walking on his own for a year and, sometimes, being a bard of Shkoder was as much a burden as a blessing.

“So, where do you go from here?”

“Fort Kazpar for the Queen’s visit.”

“So she’s actually going through with it this quarter?”

“I don’t know.” Sighing contentedly, Benedikt pushed his empty plate away and picked up the heavy clay mug of tea. “I won’t know until I arrive.”

Lucija mirrored his movement. “Seems a shame you have to go all that way if nothing’s happening. Can’t you send a kigh ahead to the fort?”

The silence stretched and lengthened until the distant screams of scavenging gulls moved into the cottage to fill the void.


“I Sing only water.” Hands flat on the table, chin lifted, he dared her to comment.

“Ah.” Looking somewhat taken aback, Lucija took a long swallow of tea before saying, “We had a Headwoman back when I was real young who could Sing water, but she decided to stay fishing rather than become a bard. Not that I’m suggesting you should’ve gone fishing,” she added hurriedly when she caught sight of Benedikt’s expression.

He felt the muscles tighten across his shoulders, the tension moving right down both arms and curling his fingers into fists. “If I’d gone fishing,” he reminded her, “Tesia’s boat would still be at the bottom of the bay.”

“Hey, calm down.” Hands making soothing motions in the air, Lucija gave him as much distance as the chair would allow. “We were all impressed by the way you Sang the kigh yesterday. Obviously, you made the right decision becoming a bard.”

Shoving his own chair back with a shriek of protest, wood on wood, Benedikt stood. He’d hoped this time would be different, but it always came to the same thing in the end. “My thanks for breakfast and for last night, but I don’t need your pity.”

* * * *

Arms folded, Lucija stood by her cottage and watched Benedikt grow ever smaller as he climbed to the top of the cliff, resolved that if he turned and waved, she wouldn’t wave back. When Tesia came up behind her, smelling of warm pitch, she grunted a greeting but kept her gaze locked on the path.

“So, he’s leavin’ is he?” Without waiting for an answer, the older woman spat and added, “I never met a bard so uncomfortable at bein’ the center of attention.”

Lucija snorted. “I never met a bard I so desperately wanted to smack.”

* * * *

“Can’t you send a kigh ahead to the fort?”

It always came to that. No matter how well he Sang or how long he spent playing song after song after song, in the end, they always found him wanting.

“I Sing only water.”

His parents had been thrilled when Karlene had Walked into the village and discovered his talent. It explained why skills his brothers performed as easily as breathing came so hard to him. His father had bragged about the discovery up and down the road to Sibiu and even the duc had sent her congratulations. His mother had made him a new suit of clothes, his alone instead of outgrown bits and pieces. To have a bard in the family was a thing to be proud of. So what that he only Sang water—he was untrained. “After training,” they’d told him as they proudly sent him off to the Bardic Hall in Elbasan, “you’ll surely improve.”

They hadn’t understood. He’d been taught Command, and Charm, and tricks of memory that allowed him to recall months of travel down to the tiniest detail. He could Witness in cases of judgment and be an integral part of any service in any Center anywhere the honoring of the Circle had spread.

But he would only, ever, Sing water. Nothing he could do, nothing he could be taught could change that.

He couldn’t tell if his family was embarrassed for him or by him. Visits home were a trial; everyone smiling too broadly, making excuses to the neighbors, telling him too heartily that it didn’t matter.

And it wasn’t just his family. Even the other bards told him it didn’t matter. “There’re half a dozen bards Walking through Shkoder who Sing only air,” they told him. “And don’t forget Jazep. Jazep Sang only earth.” Jazep had been a fledgling with Annice, the Princess-Bard. Jazep had been the best teacher the Bardic Hall had ever seen. Jazep had died saving the kingdom. Benedikt was sick to death of hearing about Jazep and, when asked to play “In the Arms of the Earth,” Jazep’s song, he’d begun to deny ever having learned it.

“Can’t you send a kigh ahead to the fort?”

He’d hoped Lucija would be different.

Settling the straps of his pack more comfortably on his shoulders, Benedikt turned toward Fort Kazpar and settled into the rocking stride the bards used when they needed to cover distance quickly. Unable to learn if the queen would be attending the ceremony, he had no choice but to arrive before her.

* * * *

“Everyone understood why you decided against visiting the forts in First Quarter, Majesty, why you sent His Highness in your stead, but you can’t do it again.”

Jelena, Queen in Shkoder for almost exactly four full quarters, raised an imperious brow and leaned slightly forward, her palms pressed flat against the crested papers scattered over her desk. “Can’t?” she repeated.

“Shouldn’t, Majesty.” The Bardic Captain carefully kept his tone neutral.

After a moment of narrow-eyed consideration, Jelena accepted his correction and sat back. “Why can’t Tavas go again? He’s willing, and the visits are only ceremonial. They serve no real function.”

“On the contrary, Majesty.” This time, Kovar allowed his voice to rise. “Even ignoring the very real function ceremony itself serves, it is necessary that you dispel the lingering fear amongst your people that the road to Fort Kazpar is ill-omened.”

“Ill-omened?” The young queen shuffled paper from one pile to another. “Kings and Queens of Shkoder have traveled that road hundreds of times.”

“Yes, Majesty, they have. Until a queen died.”

* * * *

“And then he dared—dared!—to remind me about my mother’s death.” Unable to remain still, Jelena paced from one end of the terrace to the other, the soles of her half-boots slapping against the wet granite. “As though I’ve forgotten!”

“Lena, I don’t think he meant…”

“He meant it all right. The smug, self-satisfied windbag!”

Tucked up tight against the palace wall in a futile attempt to find protection from the Fourth Quarter chill, His Imperial Highness Prince Otavas, youngest brother of the Havakeen Emperor and the consort of Shkoder’s queen, frowned as he watched his beloved travel back and forth and then forth again.

“He as much as implied that if I didn’t go on this ever-so-symbolically-important ceremonial visit, I was being a bad queen.”

As she passed, Otavas snagged Jelena’s arm and pulled her to his side. With the thumb of his free hand, he smoothed the wrinkles from her forehead. “You are not a bad queen,” he murmured, “but the Bardic Captain is right.”

She jerked her head away from his touch. “Right?”

“Right,” he repeated. “You’ve put it off once; if you put it off again, how much easier will it be to put it off a third time or a fourth?”

* * * *

“So after the Bardic Captain tells me I’m a bad queen, Tavas as much as tells me I have to get back onto the horse.”

“And do you think you should?” Magda asked, tossing her saddlebags onto a chair and shrugging out of her damp jacket.

“Do I think I should what?”

“Get back onto the horse.” She hung the jacket on an iron hook by the fire and turned in time to see Jelena’s lips thin. “Problem?”

“I am not a bad queen.”

“I never said you were.”

“You never said I wasn’t.”

“Oh, I see.” Dropping down into the closest chair, Magda began working off her boots. “You followed me up from the stables so that I could tell you that I think it’s too soon, that you can put off the visit to the forts one more time.”

“No…” When the healer raised both dark brows, the young queen sighed. “Yes.”

Magda smoothed all expression from her face as she studied her royal patient. In spite of the best efforts of tailors and valets, her clothing seemed a size too large, the embroidered velvet filled out with quilted under-tunics to keep out the cold. But the weight loss worried the healer less than the shadows that continued to linger under the hazel eyes. “It’s been almost four quarters since your mother died, Jelena. I think that, if on your way to Fort Kazpar, you visited the spot where it happened, it might help you heal.”

“I doubt it.”

Boots tossed to the hearth, Magda stood, trying to decide if the protest sounded petulant or obstinate. Not that it mattered; queens could ill afford the luxury of either. “Jelena, you have got to move past the moment of your mother’s death.”

“So you’ve said.” Jelena’s left hand jerked up into the space between them, the royal signet inches away from Magda’s face. “But how can I when everything I am, I became when she died? Her death made me Queen. How can I get beyond something I have to live with the rest of my life?”

“That’s a question only you can answer.”

Jelena’s hand fell back to her side. “You are no help at all,” she muttered, spun on one heel, yanked open the door and stomped off down the hall, her two guards hurriedly falling into step behind.

* * * *

“Of course I’m worried about her,” Magda snapped, “but keep in mind it’s been barely four quarters since her mother died. Her spirit, her kigh, was wounded. That takes time to heal.”

Behind the barricade of his desk, the Bardic Captain raised both hands in symbolic surrender. Although he could, as much as any of the bards, Sing the fifth quarter, the kigh carried by every living being, Magda i’Annice a’Pjerin was the first and, so far, the only person in Shkoder who could Heal it. That she was half his age made no difference; in this, he and everyone else in Shkoder—except perhaps her mother—deferred to her.

Sighing deeply, Otavas leaned forward in his chair, slender brown fingers clasping and unclasping between his knees. “I hate to see her so unhappy. It’s like the Jelena she was and the queen she is are two separate people. I just don’t understand how she can feel guilty about something she had nothing to do with.”

“The death of her mother made her queen,” Magda reminded them, “and in her grief she began to believe that all those times she’d said ‘when I am queen, I’ll do this, or when I am queen, I’ll do that,’ she was wishing her mother dead.”

Otavas cut her off before she could continue an explanation he’d heard a hundred times. “Maggi, I understand it up here.” He tapped his temples with his fingertips then pressed both palms over his heart. “But not here. It wasn’t her fault.”

“Jelena has the same problem, Tavas.” Of an age with the consort and second cousin to the queen, Magda had been more friend than healer until this last, dark year. “She knows in her head it’s not her fault, but she can’t convince her heart.”

“If only she had something to distract her,” Kovar mused, one finger stroking the graying length of his mustache.

The consort leaped to his feet. “Don’t you start,” he snarled at the astonished bard, “I have had it up to here…” His hand chopped the air above his head. “… with everyone in this unenclosed country wondering why we haven’t had an heir! There’s nothing wrong with either of us!”

Kovar opened his mouth and, with no idea of how to respond, closed it again.

“It’s not often you see a bard at a loss for words,” Magda murmured. When both men turned toward her, she shot them her most professional calm down expression. Kovar was quite honestly confused by the response he’d evoked, but Otavas’ kigh was beginning to feel as fragmented as Jelena’s and that wasn’t good. “Jelena doesn’t need a distraction, she needs to find acceptance. And, given the sudden tragedy that put her on the throne, it’s only natural the people should worry about an heir—although I realize the speculation hasn’t made this year any easier on her.” When Otavas continued to glower, she added, smiling, “No one’s suggesting you’re not doing your part.”

“Magda!” Ears burning, Otavas sat down, wondering if the healer had read that fear off his kigh or if it had been out on his face for anyone to see. Honesty forced him to acknowledge, at least in the privacy of his own mind, relief that his manhood wasn’t being questioned over every dinner table or mug of beer in Shkoder.

“Which brings us back,” Kovar said after a moment’s silence, “to the matter at hand. Her Majesty must lay the tragedy to rest. She must make the journey to the forts.”

“She knows that,” Magda told him.

“But will she act on the knowledge?”

Magda tucked her hands into the wide sleeves of her Healer’s robe and shrugged. “We three are her closest counselors and she knows how we feel; since she can’t deal with how she feels, that may have to do.”

The sound of heavy footsteps approaching drew their attention around to the door. Kovar separated the sounds and, his voice pitched to carry only within the confines of the room, announced, “Her Majesty.”

The door swung open. Guards flanking her at a respectful distance, Jelena’s gaze swept over healer, bard, and consort. “Is this a private meeting, or can anyone join in?”

She sounded, Kovar realized with a start, remarkably like her grandfather, the late King Theron. He’d had a way of using the same dry, very nearly sarcastic delivery to remind those around him just who, exactly, was in charge. The resemblance was disturbing, coming, as it did, from a young woman only a year or two past twenty.


Magda read excuses rising in Otavas’ eyes and quieted him with a look.

Standing, Kovar bowed. “Your Majesty is always welcome in my office.”

“Thank you. How fortunate you’re all here. It’ll save me the bother of repeating my decision.” When she folded her arms, the royal signet flashed through a ray of sunlight slanting in from the window. “I’ve decided to go to the forts.” Before anyone could respond, she added, “And you’ll all be going with me.”

* * * *

Stonemasons had built Fort Kazpar and, across the water, Fort Tunov, up out of the stones of the headlands so that they seemed an extension of the cliffs. From the sea, the seam between the rock carved by the elements and the rock carved by hand was nearly invisible. By land, a small village and the well-traveled Capital Road leading up to the gate helped define the perimeter.

As Benedikt identified himself to the guard at the gate, he wondered what he’d do if he was challenged. Stop being such an idiot. Why wouldn’t she believe you? No one in Shkoder ever lies about being a bard. And even if she did challenge you, it’s not like you couldn’t…

“So’s Terezka expecting you today?”

Jerked out of his reverie, Benedikt repeated the only word he’d actually heard. “Terezka?”

“The bard who’s already here.”

“Terezka’s here?”

Amused by his confusion, the guard nodded. “I was just talking to her, and she didn’t tell me to keep an eye out for you, is all. Don’t you guys usually send kigh ahead of you, or is this some kind of a surprise?”

Feeling a familiar tightening in the pit of his stomach, Benedikt straightened. “You should be expecting me. I’m here to Sing the queen’s boat safely across the strait.”

“You’re that bard? That’s wonderful!”

Somewhat taken aback, Benedikt searched her face for mockery but found only a visible complement to the pleasure that had been evident in her voice. “Why wonderful?” he questioned.

“Well if you’re here to Sing the queen across the strait, then the queen’s gotta be coming. Right?”

“I guess.”

“You guess?” Stepping aside, she waved him through, eyes sparkling under the padded edge of her helm. “Hey, you’re a bard; you don’t guess, you know.”

Recognizing an exit line when he heard one, Benedikt returned her smile, shoved his thumbs under his pack straps, and strode out into the sunlight of the inner bailey. It seemed that now he’d arrived, Her Majesty had no choice but to follow. It was a pleasant conceit, and he enjoyed it for a full half-dozen steps.

“Benedikt! Up here!”

He squinted toward the source of the summons and could just barely make out Terezka waving an enthusiastic greeting from the top of the inner wall.

“Keep moving, darlin’,” she shouted. “I’ll be on the ground by the time you’re inside.”

His smile broadening, he hurried toward the second gate. The older bard had been one of his favorite teachers when he’d been a fledgling. She’d never offered the reassurances the others had and so had been the only one to truly convince him that she found nothing lacking in his ability to Sing only water. He envied her indiscriminate way of sweeping those around her up into her excess of personality and agreed with her assumption that she was his closest friend among the bards.

He barely managed to get his pack off in time to survive her hug.

“Let me look at you.” Shoving him out to arm’s length, she swept a critical eye from head to toe. “I like the beard. Perhaps a little sparse on the cheeks, but it makes you look like a Petrokian pirate. What made you decide to attempt it?”

“A dislike of shaving in cold water.”


“Hag.” Leaning forward, he kissed the top of her head. “Don’t worry, I’m getting rid of it before the queen arrives. Will the queen be arriving?” he asked as he straightened.

“That’s what they tell me.”

“Nice to know I haven’t made the trip for nothing.”

“Nothing?” Grabbing one side of his pack-frame, she led him toward a heavy wooden door built into the inner wall. “How can it possibly be nothing when there’s me?”

That night, they sang themselves almost hoarse in front of an appreciative crowd of guards and villagers. Buttressed by Terezka, Benedikt managed to ignore the tightening noose of attention and create two new verses to the ale house favorite, “What Would I Do for Your Love.” Just before dawn, he collapsed into bed pleasantly buzzed by the certain knowledge that he’d met all expectations.

* * * *

“But why the Bardic Captain?” Benedikt asked, not for the first time, as he walked Terezka to the village limits. “He’s never come before.”

“Have you not been listening to me?” Terezka demanded, shifting her pack into a more comfortable position. “Her Majesty requested his presence. This has nothing to do with you.” The older bard sighed and frowned at the plume of her breath. “You know, when you get to be my age, you’re not so fond of walking in Fourth Quarter. I should’ve agreed to teach again.”

“Terezka, you seem to be ignoring the fact that Kovar Sings all four quarters. Four,” he repeated. “Including water.”

“Lots of bards Sing water, darlin’, but none of them Sing it like you do. I’ve seen you Sing up kigh in a raindrop, and I can’t think of anyone I’d trust more to sing the queen across the strait.”

“You’re deliberately not understanding—with Kovar here, they don’t need me.”

“Need?” She snorted, blowing a cloud of heated breath into the air. “Need has nothing to do with it. All bards who Sing water take turns Singing the queen across the strait, and now it’s your turn.”

He shoved his hands into his pockets. “Well, it’s nice to be useful for something.”

“You bet your ass it is. Plenty of people never know the place they’re supposed to fill, but us, we’re lucky. We have the security of knowing that our talent defines us. And as for you…” She stopped walking and, when Benedikt turned to face her, poked him in the chest with a gloved and emphatic finger. “There’s nothing that makes a good-looking man less attractive than watching him feel sorry for himself. You’re a bard of Shkoder, Benedikt—one of the few, one of the proud—and I’ve never met a bard that didn’t have an ego big enough to hold the entire Citadel with room left over for Dockside. You hear me?”

“I hear you.”

“What did I say?”

The corners of his mouth curled up. “That you think I’m too good-looking to feel sorry for myself.”

“Ah. I see you didn’t actually need that reminder about bardic ego.” She studied his face for a moment then reached up and patted his cheek. “Just remember you’re as much a bard as Kovar is, and if I wasn’t freezing my ass off standing here, I’d pass on a few choice tidbits about our exalted captain.” Leaning forward, she dropped her voice and murmured, “He has a tendency to be, well, windy in the morning.”

Benedikt rolled his eyes. “I’ll remember that.”

Stepping back, Terezka grinned. “You will, you know.” A quick glance at the sky brought on a tightening of straps. “If I don’t get going, I’ll never reach Planter’s Basin before dark, and these old bones have no intention of spending the night without a bed.” She thrust out her fist. “Good music, Benedikt.”

He touched his fist to the top of hers. “Good music, Terezka.”

“So that’s it, then. Give me a kiss and point me up the Coast Road.”

Having done as she commanded, Benedikt stood where she’d left him until a curve in the road took her from view. A breeze ruffled his hair as he turned back toward the fort, and he couldn’t help thinking that, with him around, at least the Bardic Captain wouldn’t be taken away from more important duties during the voyage.

* * * *

“What do you think they’re saying?” Otavas wondered, nodding toward Jelena and her grandmother. The two women were standing together on the palace steps, well out of the way of the jostling crowd of horses and riders that nearly filled the Citadel’s main courtyard.

Magda looked up, twisted around in the saddle, and grinned. “Her Majesty, Queen Lilyana, is telling her granddaughter, Her Majesty, Queen Jelena, that she should be wearing a heavier coat. Jelena is protesting that it’s almost First Quarter Festival. Queen Lilyana is reminding her that we could still get snow and at the very least would she please put on a scarf. Jelena is insisting she’ll be fine, but if it makes her grandmother happy, she’ll wear the scarf.”

As Magda finished speaking, the queen accepted a length of crimson fabric from her grandmother and wrapped it around her throat.

Kovar, on Magda’s other side, turned his attention from the groom adjusting his stirrups and looked down a disapproving nose at the healer. “It is impolite to eavesdrop.”

“I wasn’t. When I said good-bye to Her Majesty—that is, Queen Lilyana—earlier, she was carrying the scarf. It didn’t take half a lifetime of studying the fifth kigh to work out the rest.” Reaching across the distance between their mounts, she patted the Bardic Captain on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Kovar. Cloud Dancer here is the calmest horse in the Citadel stables. All you have to do is stay in the saddle. She’ll do the rest.”

“I suppose it would be a waste of time to tell you I’m not concerned about my horsemanship?”

“It would as long as you maintain that white-knuckled grip on the saddle horn.”

On the palace steps, Jelena kissed her grandmother, descended into the chaos of the courtyard, and rose above it almost instantly as she accepted a leg up into the saddle.

“Are you all right?” Otavas asked softly as her groom led her horse into position beside his.

Jelena pulled on a pair of riding gloves, using the time to find a neutral expression before she turned to face her consort’s concern. “Grandmother wanted to come with us, at least to the city limits, but I convinced her that my sister and the idiot courting her would be sufficient escort that far.”

“Not to mention Bannon and two full troops of the Queen’s Guard.”

“Not to mention.” A glance across the courtyard showed that the ex-Imperial assassin had taken up position where he could defend all possible approaches to his royal charges. “If Bannon’s coming, why do we need the guard?”

“Even soldiers like to feel wanted.”

“I suppose.” Leaning back, Jelena peered around Otavas at the young noblewoman murmuring the Circle only knew what into her sister’s ear. “The lady Marineka reminds me of my father.”

Otavas couldn’t see a resemblance, but as he spent very little time with Lord Jurgis, the queen’s father, he realized he could be missing subtleties. “Is that a good thing?”

“I haven’t decided.”

Lord Jurgis was a hearty and athletic man who’d never been comfortable at court and, once he’d helped ensure continuation of the royal line, had spent very little time there. Except for state occasions where it was necessary they present a united front and during specific family celebrations, Queen Onele and her consort had lived separate lives—growing up, Jelena and her sister had used their father’s country estates as a refuge from the duties and responsibilities that fell to them from their mother’s position. Although he’d honestly grieved at the death of his queen, he’d returned to the country the moment her body had been interred. Jelena still wasn’t certain how she felt about that; as much as she’d wanted his support, as long as he remained unchanged, safe in the country, he was still a refuge.


She jerked out of her reverie, glad of the groom at her bridle as her horse responded to her shifting weight by moving forward.

“The company is assembled, Majesty.”

“Very well, then.” She glanced up at the sky. Midmorning. The last time it had been midmorning on the sixth day of the third moon of the Fourth Quarter, she’d been standing on the steps next to her grandmother, waving good-bye. If we leave now, we’ll reach the place where my mother died by late tomorrow afternoon. “Open the gates, Troop-Captain, and let’s get this over with.”

* * * *

As the company moved out through the gate and into the city, Lilyana folded her hands inside her muff, fingers laced tightly together to keep her from reaching out and grabbing hold of her granddaughter. She smiled as the young queen rode away, experience hiding the lie. Given a choice, she’d have kept Jelena from going to the forts, kept her safely in the Palace, kept her off the road where Onele had died. Where the crown had been passed on. Again. Loss of a husband. Loss of a daughter. Lilyana didn’t think she could bear it if she outlived a third monarch of Shkoder.

* * * *

“Captain, we seem to have left the cheering crowds behind—at least for a moment. Would it be possible to speed things up a little?”

The Troop-Captain glanced over at his queen, then ahead at the road. “Majesty, with the sun in our eyes and the road following so close along the cliff, it would perhaps be safest to proceed at a walk.”

Drawing in a deep lungful of sea air, Onele kicked both feet free of the stirrups and stretched her legs. “I’ve been on this horse for a day and a half, I’ve smiled and I’ve waved, and I’ve accepted half a dozen bouquets from small children. The sooner we reach Fort Kazpar the happier I’ll be. I think we can risk a trot.” When the Troop-Captain hesitated, she sighed. “This is my eighth trip out to the forts, Captain. We’re as safe on this road as we would be riding down Hill Street in Elbasan. We’ll just keep Stoyan here in the center of the company so that we don’t lose him.”

“Majesty, you cut me to the quick!” The young bard placed one hand on his heart and tightened the other around the saddle horn. “Has my horsemanship so disgraced you?”

Onele grinned as the Troop-Captain muttered, “Horsemanship?”

“I did not fall off,” Stoyan protested with dramatic dignity. “I was dismounting and taken by surprise when the ground was not where I expected it to be. Although, I must admit, I agree with Her Majesty…” He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. “… the sooner we get to Fort Kazpar, the happier I’ll be.”

“So we trot,” the queen announced.

Six horses, six soldiers in the Queen’s Guard riding two by two, had already passed the nest when the bird decided to rise. Shrieking in panic or defiance or both, her wings drumming against the air, she catapulted into the air right under the nose of the queen’s horse.

Eyes rolling, white showing all around, the gelding flung himself four feet to the right. Taken by surprise, Onele lost her stirrups and made a desperate grab for the saddle horn. Mane whipping her face, she slammed forward into his neck as he reared and flipped back off over the cantle when he landed.

The Troop-Captain had insisted that the queen ride on the inside position, away from the edge of the cliff. At first, he thanked all the gods in the Circle he had.

And then he realized it hadn’t mattered.

Stroking sightless eyes closed with trembling fingers, Stoyan howled a lament onto the wind and the kigh spread the news that the queen was dead.

* * * *

“This is where it happened?”

“Yes, Majesty.”

“And the rock?”

“Her guard threw it off the cliff. It was the only vengeance they could take.”

Jelena turned to look at her own guard, standing by the horses a respectful distance away. Every one of them had been with her mother that day.

“Let them come,” Magda had advised her when the Troop-Captain made the request. “They need this as much as you do.”

“Who built the memorial?”

“Fyona i’Amalica, a stonemason from Fort Kazpar, and Stoyan, the bard who was with her when it happened.”

The stone pillar stood exactly as tall as the late queen. The crowned ship of Shkoder had been carved into its seaward face. The other three sides had been polished silken smooth.

“If you would allow me, Majesty?” When Jelena nodded, the Bardic Captain Sang the four notes of Onele’s name.

From the stone, or the air around the stone, came a song wild with grief and denial. It wasn’t long, but it didn’t need to be.

“Stoyan’s lament.”

“Yes, Majesty.”

She couldn’t remember moving into the comforting circle of Otavas’ arms nor could she remember crying, but his arms were around her and her cheeks were wet. Her body felt awkward as she stepped slowly forward and pressed both palms against the stone. This place, this monument, the lament—all three had nothing to do with her. Together they lifted the dark weight of her mother’s death, the weight she’d carried since the day the Bardic Captain had told her she was queen and could finally do all the things she’d planned.

She waited until the stone turned warm under her hands, then she turned and started walking back toward the horses. “We should go.”

His own eyes damp, Otavas fell into step beside her. She leaned gratefully against his support.

“Are you all right, carimei?” He murmured the Imperial endearment against her hair.

“I don’t know.” Every movement she made seemed to take more conscious thought than it ever had. “I feel empty.”

A half-dozen careful steps behind, Kovar turned to the healer and pitched his voice for her ears alone. “Empty? Is that good?”

Most of her attention still on the queen, Magda shrugged. “That depends on what moves in to fill the space.”

* * * *

“This is Benedikt, Your Majesty. He’ll be Singing your boat across to Fort Tunov.”

As he straightened out of his bow, Benedikt found himself being examined by a pair of shadowed eyes.

“I’ve heard you Sing at festivals.”

“Majesty?” All fledglings Sang in the Citadel’s Center as part of their training so she’d definitely heard him, he just couldn’t believe she’d remember.

“You Sang water. My mother once told me that she thought you could Sing the kigh out of a tear. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have Sing me across the strait. And,” she continued as he searched for a response, any response, “I read your recall on the floods in Seven’s Bay back in Third Quarter. Good work.”

He stammered his thanks, managing not to disgrace his training too badly although he barely heard the Bardic Captain’s request for a meeting so they could discuss the next day’s ceremony. When the consort’s Imperial bodyguard snapped his fingers under his nose, Benedikt was astonished to see that the royal party had moved into the inner bailey, “I’m sorry.” Feeling as though he’d could walk on water if the queen required it, he smiled apologetically at the waiting ex-assassin. “Do you want me?”

While golden-haired young men with that pouty just-smacked-in-the-mouth vulnerability weren’t exactly his type, Bannon flashed him a predator smile on principle. “Maybe later. Right now, I need you to show me tomorrow’s pattern.”

A thick Imperial accent added strange emphasis to the words. “Pattern?”

“Where Her Majesty will be, where His Highness will be, where everyone else will be.” When Prince Otavas had contracted to join with the Heir of Shkoder, Bannon had added the Princess Jelena to his responsibilities. No one had asked him to, but since his prince had thought it an excellent idea, no one had been able to stop him either.

Benedikt frowned. Kovar had told him he’d be attending the ceremony at the forts before his last Walk, almost as he was on his way out the Citadel gates. He’d had no time to read the recall of his immediate predecessor, but some things were a given. “You accompanied His Highness here in Second Quarter.”

“I did.”

“It’ll be the same ceremony.”

“Not quite. Her Majesty wasn’t here in Second Quarter.” Gripping the bard’s shoulder a little harder than was strictly necessary, he turned him in a slow circle. “Those barrels weren’t here in Second Quarter; two of the flagstones by the gate are cracked, there’s a new half door on the stable, and there’s evidence of repair on the rim of the well.”

Benedikt whistled softly in amazement and remembered some of the stories floating around the Citadel concerning the ex-assassin. Apparently, those involving his obsessive attention to detail were true. Remembering other stories, a chill spread out from under the pressure of the gripping fingers and lapped against the bard’s spine. If some were true, then all could be, and many weren’t particularly pleasant. Although some were. An unexpected heat followed the chill, and Benedikt had to swallow before he could ask, “Is there any danger?”

“Always. But if you’re asking if Her Majesty is in any danger…” Bannon grinned ferally. “Not when I’m around.”

Benedikt didn’t doubt that for a moment.

And as he pointed out the places the queen and her consort would stand, as he waited while Bannon calculated lines of sight, he couldn’t stop thinking of how he was now one of the details the ex-assassin noted.

* * * *

“You’re looking solemn,” Kovar commented quietly as he and Magda picked their way down a spiral staircase to the floor below the royal suite. “Is there a problem?”

“Not exactly. A couple of the guards are still carrying a lot of guilt about the late queen’s death but I feel that escorting Her Majesty here safely should help them work through it and move on.”

“Since we’re speaking of Her Majesty…” Conscious of the way the stone bounced sound all around them, Kovar dropped his voice until the words were little more than a soft buzz against the healer’s ear. “Shouldn’t you be with her?”

“No. Otavas can do more for her right now than I can.”

“You believe that His Highness can fill the emptiness?”

“I believe love will fill the emptiness,” Magda told him, her tone leaving little room for argument.

Kovar nodded thoughtfully. “Ah, yes, an heir would help.”

“That wasn’t what I meant.” Stepping out into the corridor, she turned and favored him with a disapproving scowl. “And they don’t need you repeating the opinion of every other old fusspot in the country.”

“Every other old fusspot?”

His indignant protest banished the scowl and drew a laugh. “Kovar, you’re a year older than my father.”

“And that makes me incredibly decrepit, I’m sure.” He sighed, wondering, not for the first time, when the children had taken over. “And as I am so decrepit, I’d best have the room closest to the garderobe.” When Magda indicated he should go ahead, he pushed open the door and glanced into the small rectangle. “All the comforts of home.”

“And exactly like this one,” Magda added, looking into the next room along. “A bed, a chair, and a washstand. I can see why the members of the court aren’t exactly falling over each other to accompany Her Majesty on this trip. Can you imagine the Duc of Vidor’s reaction to this?” She peered curiously down the corridor at another half-dozen identical doors. “I wonder if they’ve ever managed to fill their guest quarters.”

“I expect young Benedikt’s in one of them.”


About to enter his room, Kovar paused. “Was that a professional ah, or a personal ah?” When Magda hesitated, he took a step toward her. “I know you saw him a great deal when he was a fledgling, but I’d thought all that had been dealt with.”

Both Magda’s brows rose and she folded her arms, suddenly looking much older than her twenty-five years. “All that?”

“The boy’s belief that he wasn’t worth much because he only Sang water. He’s a fine bard, you know, does an excellent recall.”

“In spite of his handicap.”

Kovar drew himself up to his full height and stared down at the healer, mustache quivering. “I never said that.”

“You didn’t have to, I can feel your pity.”

“Pity?” Only years of voice control kept him from shouting. “Benedikt is a bard of Shkoder, and he Sings a stronger water than anyone I have ever known.”

“I’m aware of that.” She cocked her head to one side and held Kovar in a steady gaze. “But it’s very rare for a bard not to be able to Sing air, isn’t it? In fact, when a bard sings only one quarter, it’s usually air. I can’t think of another bard alive right now that doesn’t sing air, can you?”

“You know very well there isn’t.” He pushed the words out through stiff lips.

“So you don’t feel just a little sorry for Benedikt because he can’t do the one thing all the other bards can do?”

“Of course, I feel sorry for the boy…”

“He’s not a boy, Kovar. His voice broke late, and he’ll be twenty before Second Quarter Festival.”

“Fine. He’s not a boy. And sympathy is not the same as pity. Jazep, your name-father, Sang only earth, the most restricted of all the four quarters, and I never felt pity for him.”

“Because he never invited it. Benedikt does. Thanks to the misplaced enthusiasms of his parents, who were rather like ducks raising a songbird, he doesn’t see what he has, only what he lacks. Not all the time, of course, or I’d have kept him with me longer—but often enough that he’s convinced the rest of you it’s a lack as well. He is a bard, after all, and bards can be very convincing.”

“Do you think,” the Bardic Captain growled, “that I should keep Benedikt from Singing the queen’s boat across the strait?”

Magda smiled. “Why, if he Sings a stronger water than anyone you’ve ever known?”

After a long moment during which he reminded himself that throttling the young healer wasn’t an option, Kovar expelled a long breath through his nose and spread his hands. “Thank you for the lesson. In the future I will try to keep in mind those talents Benedikt has, not those he lacks. There is no reason to feel sorry for a bard of Shkoder.”

“Hey.” Magda spread her own hands in turn. “You don’t have to convince me.”

* * * *

The next morning Her Majesty, Queen Jelena, inspected the troops gathered in the inner bailey, then walked the walls to ensure they remained in good repair. While Benedikt Witnessed and Kovar Sang the air kigh to ensure that everyone in the fort could hear, she stood on an artificial cliff facing the sea and swore that Shkoder would not fall as long as Fort Kazpar stood.

Just after noon, the Troop-Captain handed his queen down onto the small boat that would take her across the Bache ky Lamer—the Mouth of the Sea in the old Riverfolk tongue—to Fort Tunov. Another captain, another troop would meet her on the other side. “Thank you, Majesty,” he said as he released her hand.

Jelena nodded, a gracious smile carefully hiding emotional turmoil. As much irritated that Magda had been right as she was pleased that wounds—hers and her guards—seemed to be healing, she allowed Otavas to lead her away from the side so that the crew could cast off lines. Unfortunately, the morning’s ceremony had done little to fill the emptiness left behind after the dissipation of despair. The ritual had required only a surface involvement and, looking back on it, she could barely remember what she’d said or done. She’d discovered during her long year of grieving that when performing many of the queen’s duties, show sufficed where substance was lacking.

* * * *

“We’re away from the dock.” Bannon nodded toward the deckhands stowing the lines. “Aren’t you supposed to be Singing?”

“Me?” Suddenly realizing how stupid that must sound, Benedikt hurriedly answered the actual question. “No. Not yet.” The ex-assassin had been close by his side all day; charming because he wanted to be, threatening because he couldn’t not. Benedikt wasn’t sure how he felt about the unexpected companionship. Or how he was supposed to feel. “I don’t know why you’re even here,” he protested.

Bannon shrugged, a minimal rise and fall of one shoulder, deliberately infuriating. “I go where my prince goes.”

“Any danger out in the strait will come from the sea.” The waves grew choppier as they moved from the shore. “How can you protect him from that?”

“I can’t. I guess I’ll just have to depend on you.”

Sarcasm blended so smoothly with threat, a bard couldn’t have done it better. Benedikt stiffened. He didn’t have to put up with that kind of attitude from anyone. Not even from an Imperial assassin. His muscles had actually tensed to turn and walk away when Bannon caught and held his gaze, and he suddenly realized that turning his back on this man was quite possibly the stupidest thing he could do.

Suddenly aware that they were standing alone, a considerable distance from anyone else on the ship, Benedikt’s mouth went dry. “I won’t let anything happen to him. To them. To their Majesties.”


Benedikt could clearly hear the consequences of failure in that single word. Walk away? What good would that do? Anywhere he went, Bannon could follow him.

Where do assassins sleep?

Anywhere they want to.

Imperial humor leaned toward the obvious.


Jerked out of his search for a response by Kovar’s summons, Benedikt realized it was time. He glanced down at the smaller man, who gracefully indicated that he should move toward the bow. Heart pounding, unsure of what he’d just gotten free of, he hurried gratefully to his place.

* * * *

Carefully keeping his concern from his face, Bannon watched the younger man walk away. In eight years in Shkoder, he’d never met a bard so precariously balanced. If he was a blade, I’d have him reforged.

A product of Imperial Army training that many intended assassins didn’t survive, Bannon’d often thought that the Bardic Hall, in insisting that bards were born not made, stupidly depended on talent at the expense of discipline. How they could justify sending this particular bard out into the world so ill prepared to face it, he had no idea. He couldn’t decide if he was intrigued or appalled.

I am definitely going to have to keep an eye on him.

* * * *

Benedikt felt the weight of Bannon’s regard all the way to the bow. It doesn’t matter what he thinks….

Except that it did.

The moment he opened his mouth, he would be responsible for the safety of the queen and her consort. He’d be taking on Bannon’s responsibility, and Bannon clearly didn’t believe it was good idea.

As he stared down into the gray-green water, Benedikt’s fingers tightened around the rail. He should never have agreed to do this. Should never have risked…

“Any time, Benedikt.”

He half turned, intending to make some kind of excuse to the Bardic Captain, but saw only the queen. Saw her smile at him, and nod.

“I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have Sing me across the strait.”

Her Majesty believed in him.

He wouldn’t let her down.

The rest of the world, Bannon included, could go suck a wet rope.

* * * *

As Benedict’s Song rose over the myriad sounds of a ship at sea, the waves fell away until the boat rested in the center of a spreading circle of calm. The surface of the water gleamed like polished silver, and when Kovar leaned over the side, the reflection staring back at him was truer than he’d ever seen in any glass. Before he had time to wonder if Benedikt had misunderstood what he was to do, the boat rose gently up on the crest of a massive wave. The wave might have been made of a thousand kigh, or it might have been only one—although he, too, Sang water, Kovar couldn’t tell.

With the boat cradled safely in the water’s hold, Benedikt reached out with his Song and told the kigh what he needed them to do.

The wave began to move toward the opposite shore. Had it not been for the wind of their passage and the rapid approach of Fort Tunov, it would have been hard to believe they were moving at all, so perfectly still did the boat itself remain.

Wide-eyed, the boat’s captain, who had made this journey a dozen times with a dozen bards, turned to stare at Benedikt, tracing the sign of the Circle on her breast.

Others in her crew hurried to follow her lead.

“You’re astounded, aren’t you?”

Kovar turned his head just enough to catch Magda in the corner of one eye, keeping most of his attention on Benedikt. Yes, I am,” he told her.

“You couldn’t do this, could you?”

“No, I couldn’t.”

The healer looked thoughtful. “I wonder if Benedikt knows that.”

* * * *

Standing at the rail, Jelena barely noticed the boat, let alone the kigh it rode. She had given reassurance when it was needed and now, one hand tightly gripping the polished wood, she stared westward out toward the Broken Islands listening to the voice of memory plan for the future.

“When I’m Queen…”

And she was queen. Not grief nor guilt nor anger could change that.

“… I’m going to send ships as far west as they can go and see if they end up in the east again.”