It was one of the first sunny days of spring: the kind of day when the relentless chill blade of winter finally lost its edge, and the air tasted of green growing things, and down in the city the workers went bare-armed in hopeful anticipation of summer’s return. Miles was able to say his morning devotions to the Sun Lord in the full and certain knowledge of His presence, instead of merely in hope.
Breakfast brought starfruit, the first of the season and his favourite. He sat beside Art, slicing the golden-yellow fruit and enjoying the sweet tang of the juice, while the high voices of the Nightshade children filled the air. Three of them, all under six years old; breakfast was necessarily a noisy affair. Perhaps Miles thought briefly of his own nephew, forever frozen at the age of three in his memory, but if so, he didn’t let it linger. He watched the faces around him – Ayla Nightshade, overlord of Darkhaven, his employer and friend; Tomas Caraway, her husband and Captain of the Helm; their adopted son and their two tiny daughters; Art – and enjoyed the warm, comfortable sensation of being part of a family once more.
After the meal he went straight down to his laboratory, a room that had once been a disused wine cellar but that Ayla had converted for his use when she’d invited him and Art to move into Darkhaven. The previous night he had made considerable progress on his latest project – a collar that would afford alchemical protection to ordinary men and women, not just Changers – and he wanted to try it out. So he put it on, and cut his finger, and made notes on the result. Yes, the knife blade still sliced through his skin without any difficulty. Yes, he still bled. But there was no denying that the blood flow was far slower and more sluggish than it would have been without the collar. Give him another year and he’d have the technology perfected.
That was all very satisfactory, and in itself would have been enough to content him. Yet as if the gods were determined to pour blessings on him, Art also had a rare afternoon off. Not that he wasn’t allowed time off; he just never took it. But this time he swore to stay out of the fifth ring, and to ignore any summons from Captain Caraway, should it come, and not even to touch the hilt of a sword.
‘We’ll take a balloon out of the city, Milo,’ he said with the twist of a smile. ‘Have a picnic. Even grown men need to indulge in romance from time to time.’
Miles scoffed at the idea, of course, but secretly he was delighted. Sometimes he worried that he and Art didn’t do enough together, that they were turning into the kind of couple who spent more time fretting about the unwashed dishes than enjoying each other’s company. So they had the picnic; and afterwards, eyebrows raised, Art looked around the glade where they were sitting and said, ‘Secluded, isn’t it? I wouldn’t think there’s another body about for leagues.’
It was all the invitation Miles needed.
Enjoying the seclusion took longer than they’d planned, and so the sun was already setting by the time their balloon touched back down in the city. Art went straight up to their room to wash before the evening meal, but Miles lingered in the grounds of Darkhaven, looking at the orange light gilding the temple roofs below him and enjoying being happy. For once, he wasn’t listening to the constant whisper of guilt in his ear. He wasn’t letting himself feel the simmering dread that one day, everything would come crashing down around him until there was nothing left but rubble. There was sunshine, and the scent of spring blossom, and for once that was enough.
But then, as he turned, he saw a messenger climbing the hill.
There was no reason to believe the message was for him. No reason at all. And yet a shiver crawled between his shoulder-blades. He stood very still, barely daring to breathe, and waited.
The messenger walked right up to him, handed him a folded piece of paper, then – without a word – turned back for the Gate of Death.
It is nothing, Miles told himself. A note from the university. Something from the fifth ring for Art … but his hands were shaking.
He unfolded the paper. He read: Luka’s temple. One week. And his stomach plunged as if he’d been cast off a precipice.
It had been a long time since he’d received a summons like this. Once a month, he delivered his report to a particular address in Arkannen, along with a letter to his sister Mara; in return, every so often, he received coded instructions and Mara’s replies. He’d been doing it for so long, it had become routine – though never without the uneasy edge of guilt. But a face-to-face meeting … that rarely happened any more. The last time had been almost three years ago, when a Kardise assassin had threatened Ayla Nightshade’s life.
Three years. It had almost been long enough to convince himself that his life would stay as it was forever. That, somehow, he could avoid all the consequences of his actions. He should have known that sooner or later, there would always come a reminder of what he was. Sooner or later, the dread always returned.
Still, he would keep going down this path, because what else could he do? On one side of the scales lay Art and Ayla and everyone he loved in Darkhaven. On the other side lay the only family he had left. And he would forever be in the middle, holding them in balance. Because if he let either side fall, even the slightest bit, someone would die.
Just keep going.
He tore the slip of paper into hundreds of tiny pieces, sprinkled them among the new green stems of the sprouting dragonlilies, and went in search of Art.
The wind had turned cold again, as it often did in the unsettled early days of spring. Ayla felt its icy fingers slip down the back of her neck as she crossed Darkhaven’s central square, a reminder that winter still clung to power. Yet for all that, change was coming, and with it something she could almost taste on the air: peace.
It had been long enough in the making. Border skirmishes between Mirrorvale and its southern neighbour were almost too common to comment on: a state of affairs that dated from well before Ayla was born. For as long as she could remember, it had gone without saying that Sol Kardis would take Mirrorvale for its own, if it could. Yet last autumn, the Kardise government had sent her a polite and carefully oblique letter that hinted, somewhere between the lines, at the possibility of a treaty. She had replied with delicately worded hints of her own that expressed her willingness to entertain the suggestion of that possibility. And so the correspondence had continued, shaping a shared intent out of allusion and obfuscation until, just before the onset of deepest winter drew a temporary halt to the proceedings, a meeting had been agreed for springtime.
Now springtime was here, and a Kardise ambassador was on his way to Darkhaven.
It would be the most important meeting she had yet held as overlord; Ayla was well aware of that. A peace treaty would put an end to the fighting at the border, fighting that was sporadic but still cost the patrolmen and women limbs and sometimes lives. It would strengthen Mirrorvale’s position against its other neighbours. It would increase the flow of trade and information between Mirrorvale and Sol Kardis. And, on a personal level, it would put her in less danger of being murdered. After the first assassination attempt, three years ago, there had been a few others; and although none of them had ever come as close as the first – and indeed, it was some time since any attempt had been made at all – the disquieting possibility remained that one day, an assassin would succeed where the others had failed. Yet once the treaty was signed, she would no longer need to worry about the Kardise trying to kill her.
At least, so she hoped.
Don’t promise the fruit before the tree is grown, she told herself. Just because the ambassador is coming, doesn’t mean we’ll be able to reach agreement. All the same, it was a chance. It was far better than anything she’d achieved before, where the question of Sol Kardis was concerned. And for that reason, she couldn’t help but let her thoughts leap ahead to what she might be able to do – what Mirrorvale might be able to do – when there was no longer the constant need to be on guard. We can extend our railway. Build new and better airships. Concentrate our alchemical efforts on improved medical remedies, not defence. Tomas won’t have to worry about me so much … and maybe our children can grow up into a world that doesn’t threaten war at every turn.
But first, she had to convince the ambassador that Mirrorvale was strong enough to be worth dealing with as an equal, not a potential conquest.
She found Tomas with two of his men near the door to the transformation room, explaining something that involved sweeping hand gestures and a lot of laughter. Ayla stopped to watch, an unexpected surge of emotion swelling inside her. They had been together for long enough, now, that it was hard for her to view him with any kind of objectivity. It was like looking at one of her children, or her own face in the mirror: too familiar to judge. But every so often, she’d catch him in a moment like this – when he wasn’t aware of her presence – and it would be like falling in love with him all over again.
‘Captain Caraway,’ she said softly. All three of the men turned straight away, drawing themselves upright and saluting. Tomas’s expression softened into that particular look she’d never seen him give anyone else – the one that made her feel as though everything and everyone else had faded into the background, leaving the two of them alone – but he greeted her formally, as he always did when they were in company.
‘Lady Ayla. Are you ready?’
She walked right up to him, grabbed the lapels of his striped coat and stretched up on tiptoes to kiss him. ‘Now I’m ready.’
The two Helmsmen whooped in approval, and Tomas smiled.
Do you mind? she’d asked him once. When I break protocol in front of the Helm?
He’d grinned. Not at all. I can’t do it, because it would demonstrate an alarming lack of respect for my overlord. But please don’t let that stop you.
It was a strange game they played, Ayla thought sometimes. One with many changing roles: overlord and captain for the world at large, equals in private, something in between for the Helm. But after six years they’d found a balance that kept them both happy, and that was what mattered.
‘Are you ready?’ she asked. ‘And the rest of the Helm?’
He nodded. ‘Everything is in hand.’
‘Then I’d better get going. I don’t want to be late.’
She hesitated – it was one thing to play in front of others, quite another to seek genuine reassurance – before winding her arms around his waist and resting her cheek against his chest.
‘Safe journey,’ he murmured into her hair.
‘I’m only going as far as the third ring. It’s not quite the same.’
She would have liked to stay there a while, but instead she stepped back. Their fingers clung together a moment longer. Then Tomas and his men saluted her again, and she entered the transformation room.
The Kardise ambassador was coming in by airship. Perhaps, once, Ayla would have been content to wait in Darkhaven, allowing Tomas and a contingent of the Helm to meet the ambassador at one of the airship stations in the third ring and escort him up through the city to join her. But not today. She and Tomas had decided that where Sol Kardis was concerned, it was vital to display all of Mirrorvale’s strength right from the start.
They are bigger than us, more powerful, more advanced, Tomas had said. But there’s one thing they don’t have, and that’s you.
And so rather than wait passively for the ambassador to be brought to her, Ayla was going to meet him.
Suppressing a tiny stirring of doubt, she touched the intricate collar at her throat. She wasn’t sure how Miles had done it, but this particular piece of jewellery was nothing short of a miracle. It protected her in both human and creature form, allowing her to switch from one to the other without losing the shield that kept her safe from bullets. She could even access her lesser Changer gifts in human form – enhanced strength, heightened senses, the ability to manipulate ice and wood – without having to remove it. And in her creature form, she was genuinely invincible.
As far as anyone can tell, she reminded herself. We thought Changer creatures were invincible before firearms came along, and look what happened there.
Still, she was as confident as she could be. Miles had thrown every danger he could think of at her, and none of it had stuck. Now he was busy working on developing similar shields for ordinary people – a far harder task, since they had no alchemy in their blood to build on, but he didn’t think it impossible – and she …
She was going to fly out to meet the Kardise ambassador’s airship, alone.
Show him, and show the world, she vowed silently. Mirrorvale is not afraid of Sol Kardis.
Letting her hand fall, she summoned the Change.