“Was it something I said?” The innkeeper laughed as the young woman continued her headlong dash out the door, ignoring him completely. Lifting a slab of fried ham off the grill and onto an already full plate, he slid the pile of food across to his other overnight guest. “Kids these days. You just can’t make ‘em understand that if you sit up all night drinkin’ you pay for it in the morning.”

The burly wool merchant lowered his tankard, wiped the ale foam off his mustache, and dug into his breakfast with enthusiasm. “Used to be,” he said around a mouthful of fried potatoes, “I could empty a good half barrel on my own and never feel it. But these days …” He sighed and speared a pickled onion. “I remember when my youngest brother got joined; the hangover nearly killed me. I was seeing cross-eyed for three days.”

“Wine,” declared the innkeeper sagely. “Don’t get that kind of a hangover on ale.”

The merchant snorted. “Depends on how much you drink.”

The story that followed probably contained as much wishful thinking as accuracy, but it was well enough told that the innkeeper rested his forearms on the counter and settled in to enjoy it. No point fixing more food when the only person around to eat it was still dumping her evening into the privy.

* * * *

Annice spit the last of the bile out of her mouth and straightened, brushing damp strands of short, dark-blonde hair up off her forehead with the back of one hand. Her face felt clammy.

“No surprise,” she muttered, sagging sideways against the rough plank wall. “All things considered.”

Perfectly willing to pay for a night’s excess, she considered it entirely outside the Circle to be so sick when she’d only had water and a little soft cider to drink. She hadn’t overindulged—Overindulged? I haven’t even indulged!—for about a month now because the smell of anything containing alcohol was enough to send her racing from the room.

In fact, the memory of the smell.…

Stomach heaving, she bent over the hole again.

A few moments of painful dry retching later, she lifted her head.

“All right,” she panted, stepping back. “If I don’t shake this bug by the end of the week, I promise I’ll see a healer.” With a shaking hand, she dumped a dipper of ash into the privy and fumbled at the door latch.

A cold wind roared across the courtyard and ripped the door out of her grasp. Reluctantly stepping out into the weather—she’d thrown on barely enough clothes for decency and not nearly enough for warmth—she grabbed the door with both hands and fought to close it behind her. The wind fought back. Frowning, Annice peered around the edge.

A thin and sharply pointed face, stormy gray eyes the most well-defined point in the shifting features, hung in the air over the wind-sketched outline of an elongated body. A wide, nearly lipless mouth opened in silent laughter as long, pale fingers clung to the boards.

“Kigh,” Annice muttered. “Just what I needed.” Running her tongue over cracked lips, she whistled a series of four piercing notes.

Its expression clearly stating, I didn’t want to stay longer anyway, the kigh let go of the door and rode the wind out of sight.

The privy door, now pulled in only one direction, slammed shut.

“Shit!” Sucking on her pinched finger and wrapping the other arm around her for warmth, Annice staggered toward the inn. I remember when I used to like mornings.

* * * *

A wet fall, hanging on long past its time and leaving the roads a muddy quagmire, combined with the expectation of the river finally freezing had put a damper on traveling and given Annice not only the Bard’s corner but the entire dormitory to herself. Leaning against the lingering warmth of the huge stone chimney, she tucked in her linen shirt and struggled to close the carved wooden button at her waist.

“I suspect,” she grunted, as she finally forced the button through and reached for her sweater, “that the cloth for these breeches wasn’t as preshrunk as the weaver insisted.”

Somewhat to her surprise, as the inn was only a day’s walk from the Bardic Hall in Vidor, a heavy fleece overcoat, very nearly her size, had been left in the closet. Although she’d already switched to fleece-lined boots, she decided not to take it. It wasn’t so cold that her oilcloth jacket wouldn’t do and any bards walking the Final Quarter might need it more. Although she hated being wet with a cat’s passion, the cold hadn’t actually had much effect on her this year. Placing the folded blankets up onto the shelves, she tossed in the pair of heavy socks she’d just finished knitting and Sang the closet locked.

Checking that both her instruments were secure, she heaved her pack up onto her shoulders and headed for the stairs.

“Down for breakfast, then?” the innkeeper called as she descended into the common room.

Annice smiled tightly and let her pack slide down onto the floor by the bar. “No. Thank you.” As she breathed in the odors of the grill still hanging in the air, she could feel the nausea returning. “Just my journey food, please.”

The innkeeper laughed, picked a heel of bread off the counter, and handed it to her. “Here, gnaw on this while I fetch your bundle. It’ll help.”

Although dubious, Annice obediently nibbled at the edge of the crust. It couldn’t hurt and if there was any chance it might help.…

The wool merchant watched her over the rim of his tankard. When he finally lowered it, empty, to the bar, he nodded at her pack. “Heading to Elbasan, then?”


“You finishing a Walk?”

He’d been in the common room the night before while she’d been singing, so he knew she was on her way home. Annice considered pointing that out but decided it might be safer to continue repeating words of one syllable. “Yes.”

“I’m going that way myself. I was late leaving Vidor on account of that fire at the Weavers’ Guild. I suppose you heard about that?”

Annice forced down a gummy mouthful of well-chewed bread. “I’m carrying a follow-up,” she told him with little enthusiasm, hoping he wouldn’t want a recall. Every moment she stayed inside, inhaling the bouquet of greasy smoke and stale ale, increased the odds of another dash to the privy. Given the inn’s nearness to the source, most of the story still sat on the surface of her memory, but she strongly suspected—from the tightening in her throat and the churning behind her belt—that even recalling it without trance would take much too long.

“Terrible thing.” He dusted crumbs out of his beard. “Anyway, I found a pilot willing to risk freeze-up and take me into Riverton. You want a lift? It’s a short walk into Elbasan from there and you’ll be home in plenty of time for Final Quarter Festival.”

Five days, weighed against eight, maybe ten walking. Maybe more if whatever I’ve got doesn’t let go. As well as the nausea, she’d found herself tiring easily this last little while which meant more frequent stops and less distance traveled and not arriving home in time for the Festival which was when she was expected. Although she shuddered to think what the motion of the river would do to her stomach, it really wasn’t a difficult choice.

“I’d love a lift. Thank you.”

“Good, good. And maybe you could convince the kigh to get us there a little faster?”

Annice frowned. “You know we’re not permitted to Sing you an advantage.”

“An advantage?” The wool merchant’s teeth flashed white in the depths of his beard. “Hardly that when everyone else is already downriver.”

“You have a point….”

“And you are allowed to Sing boats out of freeze-up, I saw it done once.”

“And you’re splitting hairs.” She sighed. “Still, if you’re determined to go, then the faster you travel the less likely you’ll get caught in freeze-up and have to hire a Song to get you free. So I suppose it would actually be doing a sort of public service if I helped.”

His grin broadened.

You can rationalize anything if you want to do it badly enough. “I’ll do what I can, but the kigh decide.”

“Good enough.” He held out his fist. “Jonukas i’Evicka. Everyone calls me Jon.”

Annice touched his fist lightly with hers. “Annice,” she told him. Bards, like priests, used neither matronym or patronym, and after ten years her name alone was seldom enough to provoke a reaction.

The riverboat rode low in the water by the inn’s dock, the pilot waiting impatiently on the stern deck by the sweep oar.

“What did you get hung up on?” she snarled as they approached. “And who’s she?’

Jon leaped aboard, timing it expertly between swells. “She’s a bard. Name’s Annice. She’ll be traveling with us.”

The pilot’s snort was nonverbal but expressive for all of that. “You payin’ her weight?”

Annice swallowed another mouthful of the bread. To her grateful surprise, it seemed to be settling things. “I’ve offered to Sing. To help you reach Riverton before freeze-up.”

“You a water?” Her tone seemed to indicate she considered it doubtful.

“I Sing all four quarters.”

The pilot’s brows disappeared under the edge of her knit cap. “Well, la de sink it da. You know the river?”

“I thought that was your job.” The tone had been finely tuned to land just this side of insult.

The two women measured each other for a moment, then the pilot snickered. “Get on,” she said, jerking her head at the tiny covered cockpit up in the bow. “River’s runnin’ too fast to need you today, but the Circle’ll bring tomorrow around soon enough. Folk call me Sarlo. That’s i’Gerda or a’Edko if you wanna do a song about me later. Make it romantic, I like them best. Now move yer butt.”

More than willing to move her butt out of a wind that stroked icy fingers over any exposed skin, Annice took a deep breath and stepped across onto the narrow deck. Safely on board, she spat over the side and muttered, “We give to the river. The river gives back.”

Sarlo started. “You know the rituals?”

Annice smiled up at her. “I’m a bard. Knowing the rituals is part of what we do.”

One corner of the older woman’s mouth twisted up. “Think highly of yerself, don’t you?”

Annice’s smile broadened. “I’d float with rocks in my pockets,” she said.

Lashing her pack to the cargo stays, she wrestled herself, her instrument case, and the day’s journey food into the tiny bullhide shelter tucked in between the cargo and the bow. When Jon and two bundles joined her a moment later, it got distinctly crowded.

“I hope you don’t mind riding with the front curtain up.” He tied it back as he spoke. “But I like to see where I’m going.”

“Actually, right at the moment, I appreciate the fresh air.” Between the smell of the hide and the lingering smell of tar clinging to the boat, Annice was beginning to regret the piece of bread.

“Still a bit queasy?” he asked, sitting down and managing to squeeze his shoulders in beside hers.

“No. I’m fine,” Annice said. But she said it through clenched teeth.

Back on the stern deck, the pilot yelled a command and a pair of rope-soled boots under oilskin clad legs pounded into view.

“Sarlo’s youngest, Avram,” Jon explained as Annice craned around the edge of the shelter for a better look. “I think he’s got a love in Riverton. Didn’t take much convincing when his mother decided to take my cloth.”

Late teens or early twenties, the bard decided, watching Avram expertly work the side paddle. He was short and slight like most of the Riverfolk, but the hands wrapped around the paddle’s polished shaft gave an instant impression of capable strength and seemed almost out of proportion to the rest of his body.

As though he felt her scrutiny, he half-turned, flicked a shock of dusty black hair up out of dark eyes, and grinned down at her.

In spite of the lingering nausea, Annice grinned back. Good teeth and great hands, I do enjoy the scenery on the river.

At another command from the stern, he rounded the bow and moved out of sight. With only the bare branches of trees blowing about on the far shore remaining to look at, Annice stifled a sigh and settled back.

Jon propped his feet up on the bow deck and pulled a ball of gray wool and four horn needles out from a small pack tucked under the seat. “I can’t sit with empty hands,” he explained. “And it takes most of my travel time just to keep myself in socks. I hate having wet feet.”

“As a matter of fact …” Shifting her weight against the motion of the river, Annice got comfortable in the other corner and slipped an almost identical setup out of a pocket on the side of her instrument case. The fresh air seemed to be canceling out the rocking of the boat so, while she wasn’t feeling any better, at least she wasn’t feeling any worse. Remembering the alternative, she decided she could live with that. “… I know exactly what you mean.”

They sat knitting in companionable silence for a time, watching gray sky slide by above darker gray water, listening to the occasional profanity drifting up from the stern, when suddenly a gust of wind dove into the shelter, ripped the front curtains from the tiebacks, and belled the hide out above them.

“Bugger it!” Jon grabbed the flapping hide in one beefy hand and dragged it back against the wind.

Annice twisted around and glared up at the two kigh who were pushing against the roof of the shelter. Pursing her lips, she twice repeated the series of four notes she’d whistled at the kigh by the privy. The smaller of the two shot her a haughty glance, twisted back on itself, and ran its fingers through Jon’s beard as it left. The larger circled the inside of the small area twice, then squeezed itself out the space between Annice and the curved wooden frame, lifting the ball of wool off her lap and taking it along.

She grabbed for it but not in time.

“Kigh?” Jon asked, retying the curtains.

“Kigh,” Annice repeated, pulling her dripping wool back on board.

“You usually have this much trouble with air?”

“It’s usually my best Song. I can’t understand why they’re being such a pain lately.”

“I’ve heard,” Jon said as he smoothed his ruffled beard, “that across the border in Cemandia there’re those that say the kigh aren’t in the Circle at all. And there’re some people even here in Shkoder that say the bards should have nothing to do with the kigh.”

Annice snorted. “Have these people got a way to convince the kigh to have nothing to do with bards?” There’d been enough lanolin in the wool to prevent much water from being absorbed, but it was still too wet to use. “Because if they do, I’d love to hear it.”

Jon spread his hands. “Just repeating what I heard.”

“Sorry.” Annice felt herself flush. She’d had no call to snap at the merchant, especially not when he was passing on exactly the kind of things that bards were expected to listen for. As the crown’s conduit to the people, it could be vitally important that they hear what some people say. “They weren’t saying it when I was in Vidor …” She let the end of the sentence trail off; not quite a question but definitely an invitation to talk.

“I’m not actually in Vidor much,” Jon admitted. “I spend the late spring and summer collecting fleece from the small holders in Ohrid and Sibiu—mountain fleece can toss lowland fleece right out of the Circle as far as I’m concerned.”

“You do the traveling yourself?” While she wanted to know, it was more interesting to learn that Cemandian ideas seemed to have crossed into at least two of the mountain principalities.

He laughed. “I don’t trade for anything I can’t touch and I probably travel as much as you do. My family lives in Marienka, at the head of the lake. We weave for the local trade, but every fall I bring our extra fleece to the Weavers’ Guild in Vidor, pick up the fabric from last year’s extra, minus their percentage …”

Annice made a mental note to have the Guild’s percentage checked into. While traders traditionally complained about the percentages they had to pay in order to deal with the larger guilds, the Council had asked that bards keep an eye out for price gouging.

“… and then I continue—usually a little farther from freeze-up—downriver to Elbasan.”

Merchants said that in Elbasan they could trade for the world. As a child, Annice had loved to be taken to the harbor to watch ships unload strange and exotic goods. While the captains had entertained one or another of her older siblings, she’d run about the docks poking her nose into odd corners and driving her nurse to distraction. As an adult, she often thought about petitioning for what the bards called a Walk on Water but had never gone so far as to actually make the request.

Warming to his subject, Jon leaned forward and began sketching trade possibilities in the air. Annice, not really interested in the cycle of wool cloth for exotica for linen back in Vidor, slid into the light trance that would ensure memory as he expanded on his season. She had no idea if the information would ever be of use, but under the bardic adage, wasted knowledge is wasted lives, better to have it than not.

“… and if that trader from Cemandia’s still up in Ohrid, I might be able to unload some on him.”

That roused her. She’d run into a pair of Cemandian traders in Ohrid and another in Adjud. She’d even seen a small cluster of them in the market in Vidor. In fact, she’d seen more on this latest Walk than she had in all her previous travels combined.

Jon laughed when she mentioned it. “There’s always been some trade across the border. Ohrid’s never quite managed to close the pass.” Then he was off again on an unlikely tale of how he’d bested a Cemandian in an impossible deal.

Annice slid back into trance; all Jon seemed to need was an audience and she was more than willing to oblige. Few people realized that bards spent half their training time learning to listen. And half of that, Annice mused as the story slid from unlikely to improbable, learning to sleep with our eyes open.

* * * *

“All right, Bard. This is where you float yer weight.” Sarlo hooked the sweep oar into one armpit and gestured ahead with her free hand. “Got a whole stretch of river here where the current spreads out and ain’t worth shit. Not to mention wind’s comin’ northwest and’ll keep tryin’ to blow us onto the far shore. We get through it slow and sure as a rule, but since I don’t want to end up with my butt caught in ice, it’s all yers.”

Fingers clamped not quite white around the oar support, Annice peered off the stern. The fantail following the riverboat was a deep gray-green; not exactly friendly-looking water. Watching the bubbles slipping away upstream induced a sudden wave of vertigo. Annice swallowed hard and sat down, legs crossed for maximum support and eyes closed. Thanks to the innkeeper’s well-timed hunk of bread, she’d discovered that small, bland meals at frequent intervals both remained down and damped the nausea to merely an unpleasant background sensation. Unfortunately, during the two days on the river, she’d found all sort of new ways to make herself sick.

“You okay?”

Annice opened her eyes and decided she could cope. “I’m fine.”

“You seen a healer yet?”

“I’ll see one after I get to Elbasan.”

Sarlo snorted. “Yer business.”

Reaching under her jacket and sweater, Annice pulled out her flute, the ironwood warmed almost to body temperature. When the kigh arrived she’d Sing, but first she had to get their attention.

“They’re gonna be deep with freeze-up so close,” Sarlo observed.

Annice ignored her, setting her fingers and checking the movement of the single key. She took a deep breath and slowly released it, then lifted the flute to her mouth.

The kigh took their time responding to the call, but eventually three distinct shapes became visible just below the surface.

Three would have to be enough.

Shoving chilled fingers and flute between her legs, Annice Sang. Some bards argued that as long as the music was right and the desire strong, words were unimportant; that the kigh didn’t understand the words anyway, so why tie rhyme and rhythm into knots in what was probably an unnecessary attempt to Sing a specific request. Personally, Annice preferred to repeat variations of short phrases over and over. It occasionally got tedious, but it usually got results.

The kigh listened for a few moments, one lifting a swell two feet into the air the better to stare intently at the source of the Song, then suddenly all three dove and the boat jerked forward.

“Whoa!” Sarlo took a steadying step and braced herself against the sweep as Annice let the Song fade to silence. “This’ll make us some time. How long do you figger they’ll push for?”

Annice slumped forward. “Hard to say,” she admitted. “I haven’t actually asked for much, so we might make it out of the slow stretch before they get bored.”

“Then what?”

“Then I’ll play them a gratitude and we’re back on our own.”

“They won’t hang around and cause trouble?”

“Probably not.…” A sudden gust of wind lifted the top off a wave and flung it up over the high stern deck of the riverboat and into Annice’s face. The air kigh flicked the last few drops off its fingers at her, then sped away.

“More kigh?” Sarlo asked.

“More kigh,” Annice sighed and pulled the sleeve of her sweater down to wipe at the freezing water. “I’ve always been strongest in air, so they get jealous when I Sing the others.”

“Sort of like being followed around by a bunch of obnoxious kids.”


The pilot snorted. “You were never stuck on a riverboat with my right-out-of-the-Circle three.”

“Why didn’t you leave them with their father?”

“Couldn’t. He was my crew till he got knocked off and drowned.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why? You weren’t the one what pushed him in.”

Annice didn’t care how unbardlike it was; she wasn’t going to ask, she didn’t want to know.

* * * *

They were a day out of Riverton, buildings frequently visible on shore through the slanting rain, when Jon cast off a completed sock and said, “I figured out who you remind me of.”

Annice felt her shoulders stiffen.

“I was watching you last night at the inn, while you sang in the common room,” he continued. “Firelight was flickering on your profile, turning it kind of goldlike, and it suddenly hit me.” He reached under his clothes and pulled out a coin.

In spite of herself, Annice leaned over and looked. Most of the sharp definition had worn away over the years, but it was still easy to see that the profile of the last king, not the current one, lay cradled in his palm. He would have a Mikus not a Theron, she sighed. The gold coins were struck only once, at the beginning of a reign and named for the likeness of the king they bore.

Jon tucked the old coin safely away. “You look like your father.”

“Only from that side.”

“My youngest brother knows all twenty-seven verses to ‘The Princess-Bard’ and still sings it.”

The only response she could think of was too rude to say, so she clamped her teeth shut.

“Not a lot of songs stay popular for ten years, but this one’s got a real catchy tune.” He started to hum but abruptly broke off when he caught sight of her expression. “I, uh, I guess you’re tired of hearing it.”

“You might say that. Yes.”

“Sorry. It’s just—well, the Princess-Bard crammed in right here beside me.”

“It’s the same person who was crammed in beside you yesterday.”

“But yesterday, I didn’t know you were the Princess-Bard.”

If he said it again, she was going to slug him.

“Do you ever miss it? Being royal?”

“No. Never.”

And because she’d been trained to use her voice, he believed the lie. Annice had been fourteen when she left the palace for the Bardic Hall in Elbasan and while she never regretted the decision, she did occasionally wish that some things could’ve been different.

Given the chance to live it over, would she make the same choice?”


* * * *

“King Mikus is near death.”

The whisper had scurried around the palace for days. The king had been dying for months, but this new phrasing had finally gained enough conviction to be repeated as a certainty in the city. Goldsmiths who had the royal charter were making ready to cast the new coins. Bards were working on eulogies while criers memorized the highlights of the old king’s rule. Priests prayed for the dying man’s peace. The more pragmatic visited Centers to pray for a peaceful transition of power.

Deep in the palace, King Mikus’ family gathered about him. Neither Prince Rihard, now joined to the Heir Apparent of Petrokia, nor Princess Irenka, now, by joining, Lady of the Havakeen Empire, could be present, but enough remained to pack the small bedchamber uncomfortably full.

Tucked back against the wall, Annice watched her relatives and waited, more or less patiently, for her chance.

Prince Theron, as Heir, stood close by the pillows on the right of the bed. His wife, heavy with their third child, sat in a padded chair by his side. The king had taken leave of his two older grandchildren earlier, in private, but tradition insisted that both Heir and Heir’s Consort remain until the end. Theron had attempted to have his wife excused because of her advanced pregnancy, but Lilyana had sternly told him not to be an idiot and had her favorite chair carried in from her solar. As a political joining it hadn’t been without its difficulties, but over the years they’d developed a relationship that appeared to work although Annice had never understood quite how.

Her sister, the Princess Milena, seemed to lean on the Duc of Marienka’s bulk. Joined for only a year, a joining deliberately arranged to tie his lands more tightly to the crown, they were disgustingly happy. Each made it obvious they considered the other the center of the Circle. Annice figured they were making the best of a bad situation and left it at that.

Prince Tomelis, the king’s youngest and only surviving brother, stood quietly, arms folded, his partner, Lukas i’Johanka a silent strength by his side as he had been for the last thirty years. Now that Rihard was gone and Milena had lost her mind and Theron had gotten so difficult, Annice considered Uncle Tomelis to be her favorite relative. Not only because he’d refused an advantageous political joining with a prince of the Empire and followed his heart, but also because she’d heard him say that he’d rather have his teeth pulled than spend more time than necessary trapped within the walls of the palace. It was a sentiment with which she heartily agreed.

Her Aunt Giti, the Princess Gituska, supported by both her son and daughter, sniveled into a lace-edged handkerchief. Annice had no use for those particular cousins, the only ones who remained in the Elbasan area. Two years ago at a First Quarter Festival, she’d got stinking drunk and embarrassed the family by having to be carried home and he’d thought the whole thing was funny. Her aunt’s grief, Annice would allow, however, was genuine.

The king’s personal healer stood opposite the Heir at the head of the bed, arms folded, hands tucked into her sleeves, her face struggling to come to terms with the knowledge there was nothing more she could do. Two members of the Governing Council watched from the foot of the bed and the current Captain of the Bardic Hall in Elbasan waited about halfway up the left side beside the droning priest—positions all demanded by the ceremony accompanying the passing of a king. A fire of wood soaked in aromatic oils blazed on the hearth. A low table held a basin of water and one of earth.

And as long as we’re breathing, we can’t keep air out. Annice tried not to fidget. Why don’t they get on with it?

One after another, the king’s family approached the bed for the formal farewell; first the cousins—A nonrepresentative sample at best, Annice snorted silently—then the aunt, then the uncle and his partner. As youngest child, Annice should’ve gone next, but somehow Milena and the duc ended up by the bed.

Annice was proud of the subtle manipulation she’d performed in order to move her sister up a place in line—a bit of shy hanging back combined with a silent plea to the sister for rescue—until she caught the Bardic Captain watching her. Flushing slightly, she quickly schooled her features.

Finally, it was her turn.

The growth just under the edge of her father’s ribs had been killing him slowly for the last two quarters. Here, at the end, he was a physical caricature of himself, flesh long melted away, skin hanging loose on the bone, gray hair dull and brittle. Only his eyes remained unchanged even sunk as they were deep below saffron-tinted cheeks.

Annice dropped gracefully to one knee, took a deep breath, and caught up the limp hand lying against the embroidered coverlet in both of hers. “Most gracious and regal Majesty, I request a boon.”

The corners of his mouth twitched slightly. “Go on.”

“I do request that rather than be promised to the Heir of Cemandia, to be joined for political expedience when we are of an age, I be permitted to enter the Bardic Hall of Elbasan.”

Within her grip his fingers moved. “Who promises you to Cemandia’s Heir?”


The old king’s eyes blazed. “Theron,” he said in a stronger voice than any had heard from him in days, “does not rule yet.”

Theron leaned forward. “Lord Juraj, the ambassador, only spoke of it, Majesty.”

“Yet neither you nor he saw fit to speak with the king.”

“We did not wish to tire you over mere speculation.”

“You passed this speculation to your sister.”

“Only to see if she would be willing.”

The dying man jerked out a dry laugh. “Obviously, she is not.”

Go ahead, Annice thought, tell him that I never told you I didn’t want to go along with your premature little power play and I’ll call you a liar to your face. Go ahead, Your Royal Highness, Heir of Shkoder, I dare you.

She could feel the heat of Theron’s glare, but all he said was, “I would not force her.”

“You cannot force her.” The king paused, fighting for breath, but Annice could feel the pressure of his fingers against hers and knew he wasn’t finished. After a moment, he turned his head toward the Bardic Captain. “You have been after her for some time.”

It had been an open secret in the palace for very nearly a year. Annice had no idea why her father hadn’t agreed and realized she was attempting to force his hand as much as her brother’s.

“Her Highness has both talent and skill,” the captain allowed diplomatically. “If you give your permission and she is willing to take the oath, the Hall will accept her for training.”

“Did you know of this … boon?”

Captain Liene’s eyes never left the king’s face. “No, Majesty. I did not.”

“Very well.” The king lay quietly for another moment. When he spoke again, his voice held the ringing tone of proclamation. “I, Mikus, King of Shkoder, High Captain of the Broken Islands, Lord over the Mountain Principalities of Sibiu, Ohrid, Ajud, Bicaz, and Somes, do on this day grant the boon of my youngest daughter that she should be permitted to enter the Bardic Hall of Elbasan. Witness?”

As the only bard present, the captain nodded. “I so witness.”

Annice released a breath she couldn’t remember holding. “Thank you, Majesty.” Then she stood to take a formal farewell of her king. Her father.

After the words, which were words only, as her lips pressed a kiss against his cheek, he whispered, “Well played.”

Later, after the death had been witnessed and they were waiting for priest and bard and the new king to leave the bedchamber, Milena cornered her in the king’s solar and hissed, “Just what’s wrong with the Heir of Cemandia?”

“Nothing.” Annice jerked her arm out of her sister’s grip. “I just don’t want to be joined with anyone. I want to be a bard.”

“And you always get what you want, don’t you? Did you even consider your family obligations? Of course you didn’t. There’s a price to be paid for good food and warm clothes and a lifetime of servants saying ‘yes, Highness, and no, Highness.’ ” Milena tossed her braid back over her shoulder. “But I always said Theron spoiled you.”

“He did not!” He’d just always been there when their mother had been interested only in the beautiful Irenka or their father had been too busy being the king, which was most of the time. Theron had brought her the news of their mother’s accident and she’d clutched his hand when they’d buried her, not understanding why the healers couldn’t fix her. She’d been the first after the proud parents to hold Theron’s baby girl. That wasn’t being spoiled. “Look, Milena, you’re happy. Why can’t I be?”

“I found happiness on the path of duty. Obviously, that’s not good enough for you.” Having said what she’d come to say, Milena spun on her heel and returned to her partner’s side. After a moment, their heads moved so close together a feather wouldn’t fit between them.

Annice felt her lip curl watching them, so she propped one leg on the window ledge and glanced around the room. Everyone seemed to be staying as far away from her as they could get, as if afraid physical proximity might implicate them in her plan. Well, Theron had been pretty angry and was likely to stay that way for some time. Only Tomelis would meet her eyes. Why does he look so sad? she wondered. Just for an instant, she wondered if she might have made a tactical error. How could she at fourteen actually outmaneuver a man nineteen years her senior?

But I’ve done it. With everyone else joined before Theron takes the throne, he’s already let me know that I’m too strong a game piece for him to lose from the board. Even if I didn’t join with Prince Rajmund, he’d never let me become a bard.

He couldn’t stop her now.

The door to the bedchamber opened and the men and women in the solar dropped to one knee as the new king emerged. Expecting him to walk right on through, Annice was startled when he stopped before her.

“By the will of the late King Mikus,” he said, “you have permission to enter Bardic Hall. I, Theron, King of Shkoder, High Captain of the Broken Islands, Lord over the Mountain Principalities of Sibiu, Ohrid, Adjud, Bicaz, and Somes, do on this day declare that by doing so you forfeit all rights of royalty, that you shall surrender all titles and incomes, that all save your personal possessions shall revert to the crown. Furthermore, for the stability of the realm, you may neither join nor bear children without the express permission of the crown. To do so will be considered a treasonous act and will be punished as such.”

Annice thought she heard a deep voice murmur a protest, quickly hushed. Eyes narrowed, she glared up at her brother, her new king.

“Do you understand?” he asked, his lips pulled tight against his teeth. To be convicted of an act of treason was to face a Death Judgment.

He thought she’d back down. Well, he was wrong. “I understand.”


Behind him, the Bardic Captain sighed. “Witnessed.”

Annice thought she saw something that might have been regret flicker for a moment in Theron’s eyes then he turned away from her and said, “Done.”

* * * *

Done. Annice pulled off her mitten and rubbed the back of her hand under her nose. Sometimes Bardic Memory stinks. She didn’t know whether she’d seen regret that afternoon or just imagined it. She’d never spoken to Theron, to any of them, again. Not once in ten years. She wasn’t even sure if that was his idea or hers.

“Annice?” Jon laid his huge hand lightly on her shoulder. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. I’m fine.”

“I didn’t mean your stomach.”

She sighed and let it go with the breath. “I know.”

He sat back, still watching her, worry creasing his face. “I’m sorry I brought it up.” He offered her a tentative smile. “I’ll forget it if you like.”

“Will you forget that unenclosed song, too?”

“I’ll even pound it out of my brother’s head.”

Annice grinned and held out her fist. “Done,” she said.