The harbormaster’s bell rang clear and cold as the xebec slipped past the tall breakers and entered Rowan Harbor. Witch-fire burned at its prow, an oily plume of green flames that sputtered in the breeze and cast a spectral gleam on the dark swells. A dozen fishermen and smugglers scattered out of its path, coaxing their smaller vessels beyond reach of the ship’s oars as it skimmed toward the main dock like a huge black dragonfly.
On the cliffs above, Max McDaniels slung off his heavy pack and stopped to watch the ship’s progress. Despite the predawn gloom, he could make out a weather worker on the xebec’s deck. The witch was crouching near the fire like an old spider as she piloted the craft through a minefield of broken stone towers that jutted from the water.
Max understood the need for caution. He was curious to see how such a ship would navigate the towers, but he was even more curious as to who was aboard and why they were here. Rowan’s shores had become treacherous to visitors. The jagged pillars represented more than just a danger to the ship’s hull; they symbolized all that had changed since May Day.
Just six months earlier, those broken and barnacled spires had belonged to Gràvenmuir. The demons had called it an embassy but it had really been an occupation, a base from which they could influence Rowan’s affairs and keep a close eye on the only humans who might challenge their rule. It had been a darkly beautiful structure, a Gothic sculpture of black towers and battlements encasing gilded halls where demons held court, oversaw trade, and ensured that Rowan honored the terms of her surrender.
All of that was history.
At May Day’s dawn, Elias Bram had obliterated the embassy and fired a shot heard around the world. Max had witnessed the event, but even now it seemed a dream. It was difficult to believe that a single person was capable of such an astonishing act, much less a man who was supposed to have died centuries ago.
Max replayed the sequence in his mind. Once Bram had halted at Gràvenmuir’s gates, the sorcerer had spread his arms wide. With a roar, the surrounding cliffs had broken, shearing clean away as though struck by a chisel. And as they plummeted, so did Gràvenmuir—cast down into the sea along with all inside.
Gràvenmuir’s plunge to the sea had been eerily silent. And during that surreal interlude, Max had realized—with awful, numbing clarity—that the world was about to change. The moment’s scale and implications had been exhilarating and terrifying. There would be no more deliberations or debate. In that instant, Elias Bram had dictated Rowan’s path, and mankind’s fate would hang in the balance. Shocked by this realization, a part of Max had clung to the absurd hope that the silence would continue indefinitely. For as long as it held, they might pause to consider this momentous course.
Seconds later those hopes vanished. Gràvenmuir struck the water with an astounding crash. The impact jolted people from sleep for miles around and shattered nearly every window in Old Tom and Maggie. The awful din soon subsided, fading like a summer storm as the sea rushed in to swallow up the dead and dying. All that remained of Gràvenmuir were those jagged spires, lurking at the water’s surface to bare their teeth at low tide.
A shout and the sound of many footsteps snapped Max from his thoughts. Turning, he saw a motley troop of youths hurrying toward him along the cliff’s edge from the north. They clanked along, carrying spears and lanterns as they threaded through the pines and sought to keep up with their leader, who skidded to a stop before him and promptly drew her sword.
“Who are you?” she panted. “Identify yourself and explain why you’re breaking curfew.”
Max merely stared, confused, as the others arrived, surrounding him and leveling their long spears, their breath fogging in the November chill.
“What is this?” Max finally asked, giving a bewildered turn.
He failed to recognize a single one of the frightened, eager faces. They couldn’t be Rowan students. For one, they’d obviously had little training, as evidenced by their sloppy perimeter and the fact that most were out of breath. For another, their clothes were mostly homespun and heavily patched—a ragtag array of leather jerkins, woolen leggings, and mismatched boots. Refugees, Max guessed, and recently arrived by their appearance.
“We’ll ask the questions,” snapped the leader. She had coarse black hair and a sallow, ferretlike face. Max waited for the punch line, some clue that she was joking. There was none.
“Answer up,” she pressed. “Who are you and why are you breaking curfew?”
“I’m Max McDaniels,” he replied. “And I didn’t know about any curfew. I’ve been away.”
“Then you’re an intruder and our captive,” she declared. “Get his blade, Jack.”
This order was directed at a skinny youth with a tumble of red tangles peeking from beneath a worn leather cap. Glancing at the short sword and its owner, the boy licked his lips like a scolded dog.
“Let’s call an Agent, Tam,” he whined. “He looks dangerous.”
“Follow orders,” she seethed, “or I’ll have you thrown down in the Hollows!”
“Look,” said Max calmly, “you must be new to Rowan. We’re on the same side. If you let me—”
“Old or new don’t matter,” interrupted the girl, jabbing her sword mere inches from Max’s face. “You ain’t from Rowan. You look like you been livin’ in a ditch. You’re the most pathetic demon I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen my share. Now get his blade, Jack, and be quick about it!”
Before Jack could obey, another girl spoke up. “Max McDaniels,” she mused, repeating it to herself. “I think I heard that name, Tam. I’m sure I have. Maybe he’s telling the truth.”
“You don’t see demons like I do, Kat,” said Tam, her voice taut and hateful. “That’s why they put me in charge. Don’t believe anything this demon says.”
At Tam’s third, furious order to confiscate Max’s weapon, Jack inched forward and reached for it.
“Tam,” said Max pointedly, “I don’t know what this little patrol is supposed to be or anything about a curfew. But I can assure you that I belong here and that none of you even wants to see this blade, much less touch it.”
These words exerted a powerful effect. Jack promptly backed away and stared at the weapon with superstitious awe. But Tam remained undaunted.
“Well, this sword is iron, demon,” she threatened, inching closer. “These spears are iron and thrice blessed. Surrender or we’ll call one of the Red Branch!”
“They’re already here.”
Pulling back his sleeve, Max revealed a tattoo upon his right wrist. Inked in red, it depicted an upraised hand wrapped with a slender cord. A casual observer might not have looked twice, but for those who knew better, the tattoo was a warning as clear as the mark on a black widow’s belly. It was the sign of the Red Branch, the elite among Rowan’s warriors. Only twelve people bore such marks, and they were the most dangerous Agents in the world.
“I told you I’d heard that name!” exclaimed Kat.
“Well, I haven’t,” Tam snapped, her sword arm trembling. “And demons are false, Kat. He might fool you, but he can’t fool me. I see his shine.”
Max was genuinely surprised to hear such a claim.
“Is that so?” he wondered, cocking his head to appraise her. “That’s a rare gift you have, but not all who shine are demons, Tam. I applaud your courage, but use your head. Would an intruder hang about in the open to watch the harbor? Wouldn’t an intruder have fled or attacked when you came running?”
“Answer some questions, then,” she snapped. “Who is the Great Matriarch?”
“And who played fiddle at the Samhain Feast?”
“I wasn’t here,” replied Max, “but I’d guess it was Nolan.”
“Well, what’s the name of the sad old brute who lives on Crofter’s Hill?”
“No idea.” Max shrugged. “No one was living there four months ago.”
Tam snorted dubiously, and Max grew weary of the game. “Oh, run me through if you want,” he sighed, stepping between her and a nervous boy with an unfortunate mustache.
Desiring a better view of the xebec, Max walked down to the very edge of the cliff and retrieved a weathered spyglass. His would-be captors trailed uncertainly after him, dragging their spears and muttering to one another.
By now, the xebec was moored alongside the customhouse, and several remote figures could be seen hurrying about the pier. Despite her flurry of orders, Tam’s companions had apparently tired of playing soldier and seemed more intrigued by what Max was studying through his spyglass.
“Have you seen other ships like these?” Max asked, gesturing at the xebec.
“No,” said Jack, dropping his spear in the rough gorse and peering down. “I ain’t seen anything that big, but I haven’t been here very long. Why doesn’t she burn up from all that fire?”
“That’s witch-fire,” Max explained. “A witch is on that ship. You can see her there—that dark shape by the mainmast. The fire strengthens their weather magic.”
At the mention of a witch, several children hissed and drew away.
“I care less about the witch than who she’s working for,” said Max. “Demons hire witches as weather workers. If you’re hunting demons, Tam, I think you’ll find one on that ship.”
“But I’ve got one right here,” she insisted. “And you don’t know there’s a demon on that ship. It could just be a trader from Jakarün or Zenuvia.”
“Do you see any cargo on the deck?” inquired Max, handing her the telescope. She scanned from stem to stern.
“No”—she frowned—“but that doesn’t mean there aren’t goods stowed below. Maybe it’s a smuggler.”
“Possibly,” Max allowed. “But that would be a big ship for a smuggler. At any rate, most smugglers don’t fly royal banners from their masts.” He pointed to a plum-colored pennant and its pyramid of three gold coins. “Do you know whose standard that is?”
Tam barely glanced at it. “No,” she muttered, passing the glass along. “I was taught only the mark of my brayma.”
The statement told Max a great deal about her. Brayma was a demon word, a title used for the lord of a fief. Some controlled vast territories and others small, but all enjoyed absolute authority over those who lived on their lands. While some braymas were indifferent to their subjects, Max knew most were tyrants whose appetites and cruelty far exceeded human norms. Tam’s brayma must have fit this description.
From the girl’s accent, Max guessed she’d lived in Dùn. That was Aamon’s realm and comprised much of what had once been Russia and northern Asia. Tam was undoubtedly a runaway slave. Max had to respect anyone who had survived such a life, much less escaped and journeyed all the way to Rowan.
“You live here now,” he said gently. “You have no brayma anymore.”
“So where is that ship from?” she asked, still wary.
“It’s from Blys,” Max replied. “And it’s no merchant—that standard belongs to the king himself. The white pennon beneath is a sign of truce. Apparently, Prusias wants to talk.”
“D-do you think the king is aboard?” stuttered a boy with terrible burn scars.
“I doubt it,” said Max. “It’s not his style to slip quietly into port. If Prusias visits us again, he’ll be leading an army.”
“So war is coming here,” muttered Jack with gloomy resignation. “I thought I’d finally found someplace safe, but everyone keeps talking of war. They say Rowan broke the peace and it’s only a matter of time before the demons come for us.”
Max gazed down at Gràvenmuir’s ruins, its spires littering the harbor like barrow markers.
“They may be right,” he admitted soberly. “War may come here. But keep your chin up. I’ve been traveling far and wide these past few months. Rowan’s not the only one who kicked the hornet’s nest. At the moment, the demons fear Astaroth and each other far more than they do us. So do your duty, learn to handle that spear, and pray you never need to use it.”
Stretching his tired limbs, Max gestured for the spyglass.
“And now I have to go,” he announced. “The Director probably had warning of that ship, but I need to make certain.”
“But you can’t just leave,” said Jack, grinning up at him. “You’re our prisoner. You gotta pay a ransom or something.”
With an amused grunt, Max dug into his pack and retrieved a leather pouch. “A Zenuvian kraken for each and a piece of maridian heartglass for your fearless captain.” He handed the smooth disk of pearly, translucent stone to Tam. “I won that off a smuggler in Khoreshi. He said if you hold it up to the hunter’s moon, the stone will reveal your true love.”
“Does it work?” she wondered, turning it over.
“Didn’t dare peek. But you give it a try someday and let us know.”
Flushing pink, she studied the heartglass until Jack hooted and she threatened to brain him. His captivity ended, Max turned for the Manse. The others followed along, peppering him with questions as his long strides took him past the academic buildings.
He was glad to see Maggie, stout and solid, her pale gray stone peeking modestly from beneath her ivy. Beyond her was Old Tom, stately and elegant with his tall clock tower and broad sweep of marble steps. They had almost reached the Manse when Max noticed someone sitting on the edge of the fountain at its steps, watching their approach with a bemused expression. When their eyes met, the man tipped his cap.
“Back where you belong and in one piece besides,” he drawled. “Who’d have thought?”
Grinning, Max strode over to greet Rowan’s chief game warden. It was unusual to find Nolan outside the Sanctuary, but Max was glad he had. The man’s wry, weather-beaten face was as warm and welcome as a winter hearth. With a laugh, Nolan popped up and embraced him.
“You know, I think you’re taller than Cooper,” he observed, sizing Max up. “Shoot, you’ll be catching Bob next.”
“He might be big, but we still took him prisoner,” Jack announced.
“I can see that, son,” quipped Nolan. “Hope you weren’t too rough. You have any idea who you’ve captured?”
“He says he’s Max McDaniels,” muttered Tam. “Whatever that means.”
Nolan scratched his graying side whiskers and cocked an eyebrow. “Well, I’ll give you a hint what that means. Take a good look around this place, young lady. Without our Max, I don’t think it’d be here. Heck, I don’t think I’d be here. So let’s show a little respect. Why, you’re just lucky Hannah didn’t hear you.”
“Who’s she?” said Tam, scuffing her boots. “His girlfriend?”
“I hope not,” Nolan chuckled. “She’s a goose! Anyway, y’all head off now and leave Max be. I need a private word with him. And curfew’s about over, so try not to assault anyone till breakfast.”
Once they’d finally shuffled out of earshot, Nolan shook his head. “Breaks my heart,” he sighed. “We’ve got hundreds of those kids showing up every day now, scared and starving. They all want to help, but mostly they just get underfoot. Anyway, we got word you’d returned when you passed by Wyndle Farm. Director asked me to keep a lookout for you.”
“Why’d she bother you?” asked Max. “Why not send an Agent?”
“They’re all busy. Been scrambling since the watchtowers caught sight of that ship. Half the Red Branch is already here. Cooper was up north, but he’s on his way. In the meantime, Richter wants you to clean up and report to Founder’s Hall. Military uniform.”
“No rest for the weary.”
“Not today,” said Nolan, his blue eyes tracking the gulls beyond the cliffs. “Anyway, I’ve done my duty and you’d better get going. I don’t know who’s on that ship or what they want, but I feel better knowing we’ve got our Hound.”
Within the hour, Max climbed the shallow flight of stairs that led to Founder’s Hall. Situated in a new wing of the Manse, Founder’s Hall served as an audience chamber when the Director’s offices would not suffice. It was the largest of many additions made to the Manse as Rowan Academy evolved from a secret school of magic into an independent nation.
Despite all of these changes, Rowan’s seal remained the same. It was engraved upon the doors: a sun, star, and moon set above a flowering rowan tree. Stopping to gaze at it, he glimpsed his reflection in the sun’s polished silver. Hot water might have removed the dirt, but it could not wash away months of hard travel. Max’s wavy black hair now fell almost to his shoulders and framed a face that could no longer be called boyish. He still resembled his mother; they shared the same dark eyes and high cheekbones that had won him many an admirer. But as Max grew to manhood, the blood of his father told.
And that father was not a mortal man; he was Lugh the Long-Handed, an Irish sun deity who had been king of the Tuatha de Danaan. Like other heroes before him, Max straddled the boundary between mortal and immortal. Old Magic coursed in his veins—vast primal energies from ancient days when the world was shaped. Among his kin, Max could name gods, giants, and heroes—not only Lugh, but also Balor of the Evil Eye, and Cúchulain, whom Max resembled.
To a mortal, the Old Magic’s gifts were great, but they were also dangerous. In battle, the same monstrous forces that destroyed Max’s enemies also threatened to consume him. Like Cúchulain before him, Max became something else entirely . . . wild, indomitable, and terrifying.
Rowan’s recruiters had known right away that Max was exceptional, but none foresaw how rapidly his abilities would develop. During his first year at Rowan, Max shattered records that had stood for centuries. At thirteen, his skills were such that only William Cooper, Rowan’s top Agent, would train with him. That very year, the Red Branch had inducted Max into their elite ranks while his peers were still studying basic combat. But no others in the Red Branch had traveled to the Sidh or mastered Scathach’s feats as Max had done. They had not been blooded in Prusias’s Arena or crowned Champion of Blys. And no mortal—Red Branch or otherwise—possessed a weapon like the gae bolga.
The awful blade hung at his hip, lurking in a dark scabbard gilded with wolves and ravens. The gae bolga had not always been a sword. It had been a spear when Cúchulain wielded it, a barbed and grisly weapon that claimed the lives of friends and foes alike. With Cúchulain’s death, the broken spear’s pieces were salvaged and kept in a vault by his comrades in the Red Branch. Many kings and warriors had tried to possess the legendary weapon, but the gae bolga screamed at their touch and would not suffer them to hold it. Centuries passed until one arrived whom the spear deemed worthy.
While Max had successfully claimed the broken artifact, he did not have the skill to mend it. With his friends, he sought the aid of his distant kinsman, the last of the ancient Fomorians. The giant confirmed what Max had feared ever since the weapon had called to him. The gae bolga was a sentient thing, the living relic of a dark and terrible goddess. The Morrígan herself had made the weapon and it was infused with her essence and lust for blood and battle.
With great reluctance and difficulty, the Fomorian reforged the weapon. The gae bolga was now unbreakable and its gruesome blade could shear through flesh, bone, steel, and spirit with terrifying ease. The demons dreaded it. While most mortal weapons could only cause them pain, the gae bolga could slay even the greatest among them. In battle, the blade keened like a banshee and the wounds it made would never heal. The Fomorian had warned that a warrior could never truly wield such a weapon; it would always wield him. Even Max was frightened of it and kept it sheathed unless in dire need. He had not drawn it since May Day.
Will we need you today, I wonder?
A student came in answer to his knock, a Third Year apprentice, judging from her sky-blue robes. Admitting him inside, she ushered Max past several tapestries and into a large oval hall whose rosewood walls swept toward a high-domed ceiling of wrought iron and colored glass. Seven living rowan trees were spaced evenly about the perimeter, each pair flanking an illuminated case. At the room’s center was a great stone table. Many others had already arrived and stood conversing in quiet clusters. The tension was palpable.
“The Director says you’re to have the Steward’s Chair,” said the apprentice, gesturing toward a high-backed seat at the table’s far end.
“That’s Cooper’s place.”
“No, sir,” she said, consulting her sheet. “He is to take the Fool’s Perch.”
Max raised an eyebrow. As commander of the Red Branch, William Cooper should have had the Steward’s Chair and sat at the Director’s right hand. It was a place of honor, signifying that its occupant was the leader’s most trusted and capable servant—one who might rule in his or her stead. Conversely, the Fool’s Perch was the seat positioned nearest visitors, and its title stemmed from a time when negotiations might well turn bloody. Depending on the occupant, the Fool’s Perch was viewed with dread or black humor, but rarely indifference.
Such names were once echoes from a distant past, but Rowan’s traditions were no longer consigned to deep vaults or special ceremonies; they had been dusted off and woven into everyday life. Student apprentices now dressed in the ancient manner, donning hooded robes whose colors ranged from First-Year brown to Sixth-Year scarlet. In addition to their robes, all students wore magechains about their necks, silver ropes whose weight and value increased as they attained various proficiencies. Max glanced at the apprentice’s chain.
“Is Herb Lore to be your specialty?” he asked, noting the prevalence of green stones threaded among an assortment of iron keys and silver runes.
“I want it to be,” the girl whispered, her hand straying to a bright tourmaline. “Miss Boon thinks my talents lie in Firecraft, but can I help it if I like plants?”
Max sympathized but knew red garnets and fire opals were destined to join the girl’s beloved malachite, jade, and tourmaline. No student could long defy Hazel Benson Boon; she was too smart, too patient, and far too stubborn.
He saw the young teacher ahead, standing by an illuminated case and addressing a trio of Promethean Scholars with folded arms and a forward lean. That the nearby case held Macon’s Quill struck Max as no mere coincidence. It was the very prize Miss Boon had won not once but twice during her student days. For all her aloof reserve, he knew she was sinfully proud of the achievement. Catching sight of Max, she ended her conversation with the scholars with a final emphatic point.
“That will do, Siddanhi,” said Miss Boon, coming over.
Once the girl departed, the teacher turned and appraised Max with her mismatched eyes. One was brown and the other blue, leading many students to theorize that the unusual feature was correlated somehow to her gifts in mystics. Miss Boon dismissed this as nonsense, but her eyes did underscore the many contrasts in her personality and appearance. Her hair was stylishly short, but her glasses were old-fashioned. Despite her bookish nature, she’d shared some of Max’s most dangerous adventures. And apparently—in spite of the fact that she was not yet thirty—Hazel Benson Boon had recently joined Rowan’s most venerable faction of Mystics, the Promethean Scholars.
“Congratulations,” said Max, nodding at the telltale robes—inky black with amber trim.
“I suppose I should be pleased,” she mused, considering a sleeve. “In truth, it’s just because Ms. Kraken didn’t want them. As you know, we lost many of the scholars during Astaroth’s Siege, but now they’re rebuilding their ranks and want to include someone on the faculty. When Annika declined, I was the natural choice.” Her brow furrowed and she pursed her lips. “However, I can hardly see the point if they won’t even listen to my counsel.”
“Counsel on what?”
“Bram!” she hissed. “They practically worship him—utterly refuse to acknowledge the dangers.”
“Will he be here?”
“Hopefully not,” she muttered, smoothing her robes. “The Director has asked him to stay away, but who has any idea what he’ll do? He knows we can’t stop him.”
“I’m sure David will speak to him,” Max reassured her. “He’ll listen to David.”
“Let’s hope,” she sighed. “It’s a dark and disturbing day, but at least you’re home and William is on his way. He’s been gone nearly as long as you have.”
Standing on tiptoe, she craned her neck hopefully at the door. “I take it your presence means your mission was a success?”
Max coughed into his fist. “You know that DarkMatter operations are classified, Miss Boon.”
“Yes, indeed,” she replied. “But if you’re going to cite regulations and clam up, I’ll advise you to lose that unfortunate smirk. Small wonder William likes to play cards with you. May I at least ask if you plan to resume your studies? Does such an apparent stickler for the rules need me to remind him that the Manse dormitories are for actively enrolled students?”
“You expelled David and he still lives there.”
“A fair point,” she conceded. “But as we both know, David Menlo has no further need of formal education, while you persevere in a state of appalling ignorance. It’s a wonder you can still read. If your duties prevent you from joining scheduled classes, we’ll just have to find you some tutors. . . .”
Only Miss Boon could delve right into academic schedules and curricula while everyone else was fretting about demonic ships and resurrected sorcerers. Max knew she did it to distract herself; he even found her unwavering commitment to his studies oddly comforting. But there were larger matters at hand, and when Old Tom chimed seven o’clock, it was time for all to take their places.
Miss Boon joined the Promethean Scholars as they occupied stone benches set within alcoves along the walls. Max settled into the Steward’s Chair and discovered that he did not care for its rigidity or the rough iron rivets that pressed into his back. It was a heavy, thronelike chair and came with heavy expectations—expectations concerning statecraft, diplomacy, and governance. Max far preferred the Fool’s Perch.
Four other members of the Red Branch members were present at the table. Like Max, each wore a hauberk of black mail beneath a dark gray tunic along with black boots and breeches. While the Mystics and scholars fairly bent beneath their glittering magechains, the Red Branch never displayed any insignia other than the small tattoo at their wrists. Their scars told their stories.
Max knew them by name and reputation, but he did not know them well. Members of the Red Branch often worked alone and lived abroad. They might disappear for months or even years as they traveled the globe, looking after Rowan’s darkest, most dangerous business. Max’s predecessor, Antonio de Lorca, had been gregarious and charming, but he seemed to be an exception. As a rule, the order’s members were quiet and reinforced Max’s belief that those who’d seen the most often said the least.
He nodded hello to Ben Polk, a balding, slope-shouldered Agent with the disquieting habit of never looking one in the eye but just beyond their shoulder. There was nothing overtly impressive about the man; he was of average height with a plain and utterly forgettable face. But Max knew that this seemingly unremarkable man was over two hundred years old, shockingly quick with a knife, and had single-handedly destroyed a secret society of necromancers. Max could not say he liked Ben Polk, but he certainly respected his abilities. The same held true for the others around the table: Natasha Kiraly; Matheus; and wrinkled Xiùmĕi, whose ancient sword looked shaving-sharp. They were knights and assassins and everything in between, but they were not friends. Max had only one friend in the Red Branch, but the Fool’s Perch remained empty.
When the bronze doors opened, all heads turned to see Gabrielle Richter stride into the hall accompanied by her chief advisers. The Director wore a teacher’s simple navy robes, a choice that struck Max as a message: We are first and foremost a school. Her silver hair was pulled back, emphasizing the hard lines of her face. Her expression was calm but strong and purposeful as she made directly for the central table, while Miss Awolowo, Ms. Kraken, and others found places in the alcoves.
“The Blyssian ambassador will be here shortly,” she announced. “I’ve been assured that the ambassador comes in good faith, but we will be vigilant. We may call on some of you to speak, but otherwise I ask that you remain quiet. If the ambassador or any of his entourage should threaten violence in this hall, you are to destroy them outright. Rowan desires peace, but only peace with honor.”
There was apprehension on some faces but approval on most. The Director slid into the seat next to Max and patted his arm as she looked toward the doors. The sounds of heavy booted feet were coming down the corridor. A moment later, the captain of the Harbor Guard stepped beyond the hall’s threshold and rapped the flagstones with his halberd. His voice filled the chamber.
“An ambassador from Blys desires admittance to the Founder’s Hall. He has sailed under banner of truce and sworn a pledge of peace. Shall he enter?”
“He shall,” replied Ms. Richter.
“Then I give you Lord Naberius, Keeper of the Opal Road and High Ambassador of Blys.”
“They do like their titles,” muttered the Director.
As the Harbor Guard stepped aside, thirty malakhim marched silently into the room bearing a colossal gold palanquin on their shoulders. The malakhim were dressed in hooded black robes, their faces hidden behind obsidian masks whose cracks and gouges marred their serene, angelic features. Their movements were so smooth, so graceful that it seemed their burden was no burden at all. But when they lowered the palanquin upon the floor, Founder’s Hall trembled and several flagstones cracked.
Even when resting upon the floor, the palanquin loomed over the table and the malakhim that flanked it. It stood twenty feet tall, an enormous cube whose golden frame was fashioned in the shape of twining dragons and scepters. Its sides were made of thick glass plates whose warding runes glowed faintly against the deep purple curtains that hid the litter’s interior. The curtains remained closed, but a voice issued out—a seductive tenor that flicked and probed at one’s ears like a serpent’s tongue.
“Greetings from Blys, Madam Director,” said the voice. “I am honored so many should attend this audience, but I had hoped for a more private discussion.”
“They would hear Prusias’s words and I would hear their counsel,” said Ms. Richter.
The litter’s drapes stirred as though something huge had turned or shifted within. “There is one here who has waged open war against my king and violated every term of the peace,” the ambassador observed coldly. “It grieves me to see the Hound present, much less in a place of honor. Is this meant as an insult? Or is it mere oversight?”
“Neither,” replied Ms. Richter. “Max McDaniels knows the King of Blys well. He has been a guest in Prusias’s palace and his dungeons. Who better to hear your lord’s words and judge them? And if we speak of insults, what are we to make of an ambassador who addresses this court from behind glass and curtains?”
“The runeglass is a necessary precaution,” sniffed the demon. “These shores have grown inhospitable to my kind.” This was most certainly true. Since the events of Walpurgisnacht, many more rowan trees had been planted along the cliffs, as had whole gardens of the otherworldly flowers called blood petals. The former were merely an irritation to evil spirits, but the latter were dangerous. “These drapes are merely meant as a courtesy,” Naberius continued. “My form is not fair to mortals.”
“We will not be swayed by a pretty face,” remarked Ms. Richter.
“That is just what Prusias said when I urged him to send a fairer emissary,” laughed the demon. “My king has every faith in your sound judgment, Madam Director. He knows that Rowan and Blys shall enjoy a long and prosperous friendship once we address the unpleasant matter of your rebellion.”
“Against whom has Rowan rebelled?” inquired Ms. Richter frankly.
“Are you speaking in earnest?”
The demon began to chuckle. Those from Rowan watched uneasily as strange forms pressed and flopped repulsively against the runeglass, obscured by the purple silks. It looked as though some giant octopus sought to escape an undersized aquarium. The curtains were thrust aside and several of the scholars gasped.
There was no visible connection between the thing behind the glass and its honeyed voice. How such an alien form produced the necessary sounds was a mystery. The ambassador’s head resembled an ancient and sickly vulture that had been skinned and endowed with the large and multifaceted eyes of an insect. Perched atop a long, glutinous neck, the head swayed like a serpent’s behind the runeglass. While Naberius surveyed the hall, his pale, larval body slowly slid about the glassed interior, oozing pus upon his nest of scarlet cushions and blankets of golden samite.
“Let us review history,” he said, his throat pulsing with each syllable. “Two years ago, you signed a treaty, Gabrielle Richter. In exchange for Rowan’s peaceful independence, you agreed to abide by Astaroth’s edicts and look to your own affairs and people. Do I misspeak?”
“No,” replied Ms. Richter. “As you say, I was there.”
“Very good,” said Naberius. “But despite these generous terms, Rowan has violated almost every provision of the accord. We know that you have been consorting with humans beyond your borders, teaching them to read, recruiting the mèhrun among them, and permitting them to settle your lands. Each of these activities is strictly forbidden by the treaty you signed, Madam Director. . . .” The demon cocked his head at the Director, allowing the charges to resonate. “But King Prusias appreciates that humans are more sentimental than daemona. My lord admires this trait, as he admires so much about your kind. Had the transgressions stopped there, he might have been moved to overlook them in his desire to keep the peace. But as we know, the transgressions did not stop. . . .”
“Please continue,” said Ms. Richter, folding her hands beneath her chin. Her expression was open and thoughtful, as though she were listening to charges levied against someone else.
“You have attacked my king, murdered his vassals, and destroyed our embassy,” the ambassador seethed, heaving his body forward so that its bulk flattened against the runeglass in a white, corpulent smear. His hideous head loomed and swayed above them. “Rowan’s provocations have been so brazen that news of my impending visit nearly triggered an uprising in Blys. The braymas are howling for war, not diplomacy. They want your head, Madam Director, along with those of every man, woman, and child within this realm.”
“What is stopping them?” inquired Ms. Richter calmly, meeting the ambassador’s gaze.
“Prusias,” replied Naberius, his voice softening. He eased away from the glass, settling back down onto his cushions. “It is my king—wronged and wounded Prusias—who stands between you and annihilation. Despite Rowan’s recent madness, he would still extend an olive branch. Provided she makes amends . . .”
“That is very generous of him,” said Ms. Richter. “What terms would he require?”
“There are but three,” replied the demon. “Rowan shall swear everlasting fealty to Prusias. Rowan shall rebuild Gràvenmuir. And Rowan shall deliver both Elias Bram and the Hound’s sword to my king’s keeping.”
“Just the sword?” wondered Ms. Richter. “Not its owner?”
“The Hound himself is of no consequence,” said the ambassador, coldly eyeing Max. “The Atropos have already cut his thread and entered his name in the Grey Book. He is already dead. King Prusias requires only his blasphemous sword as the final proof of your allegiance.”
Throughout this chilling interlude, Max betrayed no emotion. He had never heard of any Atropos or an ominous Grey Book, but it was clear that Ms. Richter had. Her control was very good, but Max was sitting right beside her. At mention of the Atropos, her face lost some of its color.
“What have you to say?” inquired Lord Naberius. “Will Rowan join with Prusias and help him bring peace to the realms?”
“You have spoken plainly,” replied the Director, “so I will do the same. If Rowan had committed the treasons of which you speak, I might be more amenable to your terms. But these attacks you mention and Gràvenmuir’s destruction were committed without Rowan’s blessing or knowledge.”
A long silence ensued while the ambassador circled slowly about the palanquin. His glittering amethyst eyes never left Ms. Richter’s. When at last he spoke, his throat flushed an angry crimson. “The Hound sits at your right hand and you have the impudence to deny Rowan’s treason!”
“It is truth,” the Director replied, spreading her hands. “Almost two years ago, Max McDaniels left these shores, sailed to your lands, and lived quietly in the countryside. He might still be doing so had your king not found him and pressed him into service. Did Prusias not proclaim Max the Champion of Blys in his very own arena? If Blys’s own champion has attacked its ruler, it would seem an internal matter for your kingdom. It is hardly Rowan’s treason.”
“What of David Menlo, then?” demanded the ambassador. “Do you deny that he was behind the events on Walpurgisnacht? Do you deny that he poisoned Astaroth?”
“Another curious charge,” Ms. Richter observed. “David Menlo was expelled from this school for insubordination long before Walpurgisnacht. We reported this to Gràvenmuir and subsequently declared the Little Sorcerer an outlaw. Furthermore, David Menlo did not poison anyone. Astaroth willingly consumed the boy’s potions before his entire court after demonstrating their considerable danger. Tell me, sir, if I seized your blade, praised its edge, and cut my throat, should Rowan hold you responsible?”
“You are cutting it now.”
Ms. Richter looked up at the swaying head and laughed, brushing away the threat like a cobweb. “Come, sir,” she chided. “You’re taking this too personally! Emissaries must have thicker skins. You have made accusations and I am answering them. Let us turn to the issue of Gràvenmuir and its unfortunate destruction by Elias Bram. Does Prusias intend to hold us answerable for the actions of a man we believed had died centuries ago and before Rowan was even founded?”
The ambassador regained his composure, easing back onto his cushions and regarding Ms. Richter and the Red Branch with brooding malevolence. “You maintain Rowan’s innocence and disavow these criminals, and yet here they reside. We know they shelter and sup beneath this very roof. If Rowan were truly innocent in these affairs, Madam Director, you would have delivered these outlaws and outsiders as a token of good faith and allegiance. Why have you not done so?”
“For the simple reason that the task is well beyond my power.” Ms. Richter shrugged. “Why doesn’t Prusias bring Yuga to heel? I hear she has devoured all of Holbrymn and is now drifting into Raikos. . . .”
Max had heard tales of Patient Yuga. She had been a humble imp until her cleverness enabled her to escape her long servitude and become a being so dreadful that even the greatest demons now feared her. Yuga took the form of a massive storm that moved slowly over the lands, mindlessly devouring all in her path. While Prusias had sought to placate her with the vast duchy of Holbrymn, it sounded as though Yuga had already consumed all of her subjects and now desired more.
“Yuga is not your concern,” hissed Naberius. “And you misunderstand your position. Prusias does not answer to Rowan; it is Rowan that answers to Prusias.”
“Would King Aamon agree?” inquired Ms. Richter. “Would Rashaverak or Queen Lilith? The other rulers might find it rather presumptuous for Prusias to claim Rowan as his vassal state. Our treaty was with Astaroth, not his servants or their kingdoms.”
Naberius uncoiled once again. His heavy head reared up to gaze at them. “Prusias is Astaroth’s servant no longer. Astaroth was a fool. He allowed a mortal to deceive and weaken him before his nobles. None will follow him again. It is Prusias whom you should seek to please, Madam Director. Only Prusias is strong enough to impose harmony across the four kingdoms and ensure the peace we all desire.”
“I hear the other kingdoms intend to resist this ‘imposition of harmony,’” remarked Ms. Richter. “Is it true that Dùn and Jakarün have formed an alliance or am I misinformed?”
“It makes no difference,” the demon sneered. “Prusias is strongest. The others will surrender or be crushed and their lands awarded to those who aided my king. Rowan could benefit if she is wise enough to reconcile with Blys and swear fealty. Despite your deflections, Madam Director, Prusias will hold Rowan accountable for whatever he chooses. My king is giving you an opportunity to make amends before war is declared. I urge you to seize this chance, for he will suffer no cravens or neutrals once battle is joined. Rowan is either with him or against him. . . .”
Ms. Richter nodded. “The choice is plain, but difficult. I must have time to consider Prusias’s offer and see if we can even procure the coin that he requires. Gràvenmuir we can rebuild, a sword we can surrender, but to deliver Elias Bram . . . I simply do not know.”
Sinking back to the litter’s cushions, the ambassador slid beneath his samite covers like a glutted snake returning to its burrow. “You have my sympathies,” he observed. “You are unlucky in your subjects. If Bram or your Hound had any honor, they would relieve you of this burden and make the necessary sacrifices. Rowan has until the winter solstice to swear fealty and fulfill my lord’s demands. I will await your answer upon my ship. Until then, I leave you to your council and your Hound to the Atropos. . . .”
The curtains closed as the malakhim raised the massive palanquin upon their shoulders. In their long black robes, they seemed to glide from Founder’s Hall. Max watched them go, his mind racing with Rowan’s dilemma and this unexpected threat from the mysterious Atropos. It was only when the great doors boomed shut that he remembered William Cooper and the Fool’s Perch. The chair was still empty.