Following The Obsidian Tower,The Quicksilver Court is the thrilling second instalment in an epic fantasy series bursting with intrigue and ambition, questioned loyalties and dangerous magic.
“Anything coming to kill us yet?”
Ashe tossed the question to me from her perch on a low stone column at the near end of the bridge. The cold light of the luminaries caught sparks in her eyes.
I shook my head, lips pressed together.
“Only because it’s been two hours, and my rear is freezing off.”
I tore my eyes away from the rough black edge of forest beyond the bridge. “Do you want to go up to the castle and get a coat?”
Ashe shrugged. “I hate fighting in a coat.”
“I’m really hoping there won’t be any fighting.”
Ashe gave the restless, hissing trees on the far side of the bridge a dubious glance. “You go on hoping.”
I couldn’t blame her for being skeptical. The wind shook whispers and creaks from the night-hoarding boughs, a language I could almost understand. The tops of the pines swayed, seeming ready to march toward us with slow arboreal menace.
They might do exactly that, if my grandmother got angry enough.
I didn’t feel anger surging through the link that bound us, or much of anything for that matter. My grandmother kept herself remote these days—for which I should be thankful, given circumstances. Instead it worried at my mind like an itch, not knowing what she was up to.
“This isn’t like her,” I muttered. “We always welcomed trade and visitors from the Empire.” I’d built an entire diplomatic strategy on it. Now my grandmother was driving imperial citizens from her domain, and I had to watch all my work crumble with each frightened refugee crossing the border.
Ashe didn’t answer. Either she hadn’t heard me, or she didn’t feel the need to point out the obvious: my grandmother had a reason for not acting like herself.
We stood on the imperial side of the graceful stone bridge the Serene Empire had built across the river, with its carvings of fruitful vines and twin lines of bright luminaries on tall poles. Well-laid paving stones continued the road behind us as it wound off through the hills into the Empire, a branch climbing to Castle Ilseine above us. On the far side, beyond the pooling brilliance of the luminaries, a rocky dirt road passed between two rough and ancient boundary stones into the darkness of the forest and vanished.
Home. I was close enough to feel it, through my magical link to the land of Morgrain: the life running strong through the pine-scented shadows, the birds sleeping in the boughs, the tiny creatures crawling in the earth.
It would be so easy to cross the bridge, to pass between the stones, to enter the forest. Every piece of me yearned to take that first step forward, to plunge back into Morgrain as if I were returning to my grandmother’s welcoming arms. Even if what I was feeling from the land didn’t exactly qualify as welcome. Slitted eyes watched us from the darkness, and behind sharp fangs rumbled a growl too low for human ears to hear—the same song the trees whispered, the words resonating in the earth: You can’t go home.
“Hey,” Ashe said, her voice low and rough. “Don’t do it. She kicked you out, remember?”
“How could you tell I was thinking about it?” I asked ruefully.
“You had this glazed look.” She lifted her head, keen as a dog pricking its ears at distant voices. “Wind makes it hard to hear if they’re coming. You sure you can’t feel anything?”
“Maybe if I were closer.”
Ashe knew as well as I did that we were supposed to stay on this side of the bridge. The last thing the Empire wanted to do right now was rile up the living border to wrath by a perceived display of aggression. She chewed her cheek a moment, thinking.
At last, she let out a puff of breath. “All right. I hate standing in the light anyway. Makes us a target.”
We crossed the bridge, pacing its stones between overlapping pools of light as the river rushed in darkness beneath us. There was no point trying to be stealthy in our approach; my grandmother could sense my presence. As both a demon and a Witch Lord, she could kill us in the blink of an eye if she chose.
Once, I would have said she’d never do that. Now, I couldn’t be sure, and that uncertainty was like a ragged hole that let the bitter wind in through a favorite old coat.
“You realize they could all be dead,” Ashe said conversationally. “We could be waiting here for nothing while the wolves eat them.”
“The last batch of refugees made it through all right,” I pointed out.
Ashe snorted. “Bit scratched and dented, and that was without an ominous warning first.”
The warning was why we were here. My mother’s note—just a scrap of paper, a torn-off corner dropped in my lap by a sparrow this afternoon—had said simply, Expect trouble. So we’d come down to watch at the bridge instead of waiting for the refugees in the warm castle. Ashe because she was adept at trouble herself, and me to try to pacify my grandmother if necessary. The rest of the Rookery were stuck in a meeting consulting with the imperial Falcons on potential anti-demon enchantments; there’d been a lot of those lately, peppered between outings to investigate fruitless tips on the location of the Demon of Hunger and the occasional quick jaunt to deal with an alchemical accident or a forgotten artifice trap leftover from centuries-old border wars.
“I just hope we’re enough,” I muttered.
“If we’re not, then numbers wouldn’t matter anyway.”
She had a point. If my grandmother truly wanted to kill the fleeing imperials, they’d already be dead.
Ashe fell a step or two behind me as I passed beyond the light of the bridge and crossed the brief open expanse of weedy grass to the looming edge of the forest. The boundary stones stood so close I could almost touch them, vibrant with power, marked with my grandmother’s blood to close the circle of her grasp around Morgrain. The forest exhaled its soft breath over me, scented with pine and decaying leaves and the soft musk of living things. I closed my eyes and breathed it in, almost weak with longing.
Something was coming.
A shiver of anticipation ran through the forest at the very edge of my senses. The trees rustled as if the wind surged, but the air lay still. An owl stretched its wings, staring down the road; small creatures woke from sleep and lifted wary heads to blink around them.
“Here they come,” I whispered.
Ashe rolled her neck. “Time to find out if this is going to be a mortal danger sort of evening, or a drinks by the fire sort of evening.”
Far down the road, someone cried out in fear.
“Sounds like mortal danger,” I replied, my pulse quickening.
“No reason it can’t be both.”
Travelers should be safe on the road. The Conclave of Witch Lords had decreed the trade roads neutral territory and prohibited assaulting those who stayed on the path; it was one of Vaskandar’s oldest and most important rules. But those rules got bent or broken sometimes even under normal circumstances—and since she had merged with the Demon of Discord, we had no reason to expect my grandmother would hold much respect for them.
Another shriek sounded from the forest, rising with the sharp edge of terror in the darkness. An encouraging voice shouted “We’re almost there! Hurry!” in response.
A voice I recognized. Sweet Grace of Mercy.
“I’m going in,” I snapped to Ashe, throwing myself into a heart-lurching run without waiting for a response.
“What? Wait, Ryx, don’t—”
“That’s my mother!”
I plunged between the boundary stones, caution forgotten. Morgrain unfolded around me at once, painting my senses with a thousand colors of life.
The packed dirt beneath my pounding feet resonated at my touch, watered with the blood of my ancestors, linked to my very soul. The trees had known me before I was born; the creatures that prowled the darkness were my brothers and sisters by the bonds of magic, bound inextricably to my family line, part of the great web of life that ran through Morgrain like the blood in my grandmother’s veins—and in mine.
For as long as I could remember, I’d lived with the comfort of knowing in my bones that every living thing in Morgrain would protect me. That everything from the smallest insect to the most towering tree was my ally, my friend.
Now something was different, colder, darker, wrong.
No, Ryx. You can’t come home.
I pelted down the road in the moonlight-mottled darkness, breath seizing in my chest, following the sound of running feet and crying voices and chiming steel. Branches leaned down over the road, reaching for me. Twigs caught at my hair, and I had to leap over a root that buckled up from the earth to grab me.
My domain had turned against me. It hurt as if a member of my own family had stabbed me in the back. Curse it, Grandmother.
A handful of figures approached on the road ahead, three of them running and stumbling toward me, at least one clutching an injury. The fourth stood with her back to me, grounded in a graceful fencer’s stance, the thin silver gleam of her blade leveled at a hulking, green-eyed shadow in the road before her.
My mother, facing down one of our battle chimeras by herself.
I threw a breathless “Keep going, the border’s just ahead” at the fleeing people and passed them by without another glance; Ashe would ensure they made it. Heart pounding, I skidded to a halt beside my mother.
A shaft of moonlight fell full on her through the trees, catching the jeweled pins that held up her rippling black hair and the elegant swept coils of her rapier guard. Her vestcoat barely nodded at Vaskandran style, with a fitted Raverran bodice, fine Raverran brocade, and a fullness of fabric sweeping behind her that made the skirt look more like the back half of a gown than the bottom half of a coat. Her stance was pure poise and control, as always, and she regarded the battle chimera crouched before her as if it were some churl who had rudely interrupted a private conversation.
She didn’t seem injured, thank the Graces. The battle chimera growled low in its throat, hackles up, teeth showing in a snarl; it had the bulk of a bear and the face of a wolf, with patches of scaly armor on its sides. A couple dozen of them always patrolled the border, but they normally had strict orders to never so much as come in sight of the road.
“Ryx,” my mother greeted me, without taking her eyes off the chimera. “Good to see you.”
I couldn’t keep my own voice nearly so level and calm. “Mamma, get out of here. I’ll hold it off.”
“We’ll hold it off together.”
“You get the others to safety,” I urged her. Whatever I had to say to get her out of danger. “Grandmother won’t hurt me. Please.”
The chimera threw back its head as if it were in pain. A strange sound came from its throat, twisted and almost unrecognizable, starting as a gurgle and turning into something closer to a bark.
“Won’t I, Ryx?” it hissed.
A chill walked down my spine. The battle chimeras weren’t intelligent; their throats weren’t formed for speech. The Lady of Owls must have seized control of this one from afar and shaped its tongue to suit her needs.
“Grandmother?” I whispered.
The beast leveled the flat green glow of its stare at me, reflecting the distant light seeping through the trees from the bridge.
“I told you not to come home,” it said, in a voice scraped up from deep in its animal chest.
Grief and anger stung my eyes. “Don’t worry. I’ll be leaving in a moment.”
“Start backing away,” my mother whispered. She took a smooth and careful step back herself, sword still pointed at the chimera’s eye.
I tried to follow her, but something caught my ankle. I glanced down in alarm to find a root crooked up from the earth and around my boot, winding tighter like a snake with prey in its coils.
My heartbeat lurched faster. She was taking this personally. I was in trouble.
That horrid chuckle rumbled up from the beast’s belly again. “I didn’t warn you to stay away because I wanted you gone, Ryx. I warned you not to return to Morgrain because I knew that if you did, I wouldn’t let you leave.”
The root coiled up my leg; a second one wrapped my other calf. Oh, holy Hells. I managed to wrench that foot out of my boot, leaving it prisoned and empty on the road, but my trapped leg wouldn’t come free.
My mother stepped up by my side again. “You’ve made your point, Most Exalted. Let her go.”
This was no good. I had to get my mother out of here. “Ashe?” I called over my shoulder.
“All clear!” Ashe’s voice floated distantly through the trees. “Got them past the border. You can come back now!”
“I’d love to!” This time, I couldn’t keep the edge of panic from my voice.
The chimera paced closer, until its hot breath warmed my face and its fierce eyes stared directly into mine. “I’ve missed you, Ryx. Time to come home.”
A hard lump formed in my throat, and I stopped struggling to get free. I could almost hear my grandmother’s resonant voice below the chimera’s growling one, almost see the orange rings of her mage mark gleaming in the chimera’s eyes.
“I miss you, too,” I said hoarsely. “But last time I was home, you wanted to half kill me to see if it would get me to release my power. So forgive me if I’m reluctant to return to Gloamingard.”
The chimera’s lips drew back from its knife-sharp teeth in a wicked grin. “Oh, you don’t have to come to Gloamingard for that. I can do it right here.”
The chimera’s grin widened to a snarl, fangs bared, and its shoulders bunched to spring. A white-hot lance of fear ran through me. “Wait, don’t—”
A hiss of steel sliced the air, and the chimera’s head fell with a heavy thunk at my feet.
I couldn’t suppress a yelp. My mother stared in shock, frozen halfway through a lunge; she wasn’t the one who had killed it.
Ashe straightened from her landing crouch, magical energy crackling up her sword from the wire-wrapped orb at the pommel. She might as well have dropped from the sky. Her spiky near-white hair was even more disheveled than usual, and her eyes shone with intense focus.
“We need to run, now,” she said, as the chimera’s body toppled to the ground.
Before I could protest, her sword whipped around in a low, clean arc, slicing through the root that wrapped my leg. Its edge sizzled with magic. I shook the severed wood off, fear rising as the trees thrashed into life and angry animal cries rose up from the forest around us.
“Wise woman,” my mother agreed. The three of us sprinted as fast as we could for the border.
Branches reached for us; wings beat at the air. My atheling’s senses swarmed with all the life converging on us, roused at my grandmother’s command. The air came into my lungs sharp as a knife, and the rough road jabbed at my bootless foot with each uneven step. Ashe paced me easily, slashing at anything that got too close; my mother kept up well enough, her long-skirted coat flowing behind her.
It was only a short dash to the border, and we dove between the boundary stones in a matter of seconds. The lights of the bridge blazed in our eyes.
The open ground felt dead beneath my feet again. The loss of that connection hit me like stepping into cold water.
I collapsed to my knees on the stony road, gasping. Ashe continued toward a cluster of people waiting nervously on the far side of the bridge, huddled together with fear—the refugees my mother had brought to safety, in person this time.
She could have told me she was coming herself.
“Ryx. Are you all right?” My mother hovered over me, not quite touching.
Expect trouble, she’d said. She was trouble, all right. I laughed, breathless. “I’m fine. Mamma, I know you like dramatic entrances, but this is too much.”
She smiled, a strange hesitancy in her eyes, her hands caught empty halfway through some gesture I didn’t recognize. “Are you . . . That is, can I . . .”
A hug. She was offering me a hug.
My chest constricted. I held up my wrist; the golden jess encircling it shone in the lamplight.
“It’s safe,” I said, my voice ragged with emotion.
My mother let out a low cry. For the first time since I was two years old, she threw her arms around me.
I knew her scent so well, from years of being wrapped in her scarf in place of her arms. But this—this warmth, this closeness—this was new. Hells, what I wouldn’t have given for this when I was small and afraid and just beginning to learn all the ways I could ruin the world around me, all the lonely consequences of a killing touch.
I hugged her back, fiercely, and buried my face in her shoulder to hide my stinging eyes.
“I’m so glad you came,” I muttered into the fine brocade of her collar. Her enfolding warmth promised I could let go of everything I held clenched in my middle, all the worry and responsibility and fear, and surrender it trustingly to her supporting embrace, like I dimly remembered doing when I was very, very small.
But that was a luxury of innocence, and one I’d lost long ago.
I drew in a deep, perfume-laden breath. “We have work to do.”