Lhind the Spy by Sherwood Smith


  Sherwood Smith


  Book View Café Edition

  June 9, 2015

  ISBN: 978-1-61138-520-5

  Copyright © 2015 Sherwood Smith


  I sat decorously on a rock overlooking the mighty waterfall below the imperial palace of Erev-li-Erval, Thianra’s practice harp on my lap. What a very fine picture I must make, thought I, my silvery hair swirling about my head (I twitched my scalp and my spine hair to really make it fwoosh), my tail spread picturesquely in a silvery cascade over the panels of my cherry-and-green-embroidered peach silk Hrethan drape, my hands upon the strings. . . .

  Plar-r-r-k! Pla-o-w-nk!

  Flat! Not only had the strings gone out of tune but I’d fingered wrong. Again. I could hear the music I wanted to make, hear it so clearly. But my fingers sure couldn’t.

  All right, then, I would hold the harp and look wistfully out over the water. Or did I just look sulky? Worse, guilty? How does someone look wistful, anyway? I tried half-shutting my eyes and letting my mouth fall slightly open, but I had a suspicion my expression resembled that of a cat who’s about to be impolite on an innkeeper’s best carpet.

  I sighed and bent to tighten the harp strings, though a month’s lessons still had me struggling impatiently with the basics. The only thing worse than my playing was my singing. Though the rest of the Hrethan lifted their voices in melodious song without much effort, maybe it was my being half-Hrethan that made me sound like a drowning bullfrog to my own ears.

  Ploink. The mist rising from the frothing waters below caused a shimmering rainbow of vapors, lovely to behold, but its moisture was obviously not good for harp strings.

  Coming out there was a terrible idea, I thought glumly.

  Once again, I’d run away, a lifelong habit whenever I found myself in difficulties. This latest one a discussion about magic lessons that had turned into an argument. Guess who was at fault for that!

  Now that my temper had cooled, I could see how my fretting about the relentless requirements of the mage instructors as well as imperial protocol added to the burden Hlanan was already bearing, because I wasn’t the one about to be made heir to an empire—


  Ah! Hlanan had come after me! I wanted him to discover me in a soulful pose, so I pretended I did not hear. I picked up the harp, and—

  That’s when the black bag closed over my head.

  The harp fell from my hands. I clawed at the bag as a weird sensation, as if I’d fallen into an avalanche of snow, settled heavily over my limbs.

  Someone had hit me with a stone spell.


  “Thumb up, Lhind. Thumb up, not out. Your fingers are not spiders, so don’t let them climb up the harp springs. One movement, from soundboard to harp, one. . . .”

  I was back in the imperial music gallery with Thianra, but a door had appeared between the windows.

  “Come to me, Lhind. Come!”

  Wary, distrustful of any voice whose owner I could not see, I tried to stay back but my feet and hands moved against my will. In spite of my attempts to cry out, to halt, I walked silently to the door. I opened it and found myself back in the music gallery again, only now my fingers moved deftly over the harp strings, but they were small brown hands, and I moved further away, seeing an unruly brown head bent over the harp, light brown hair short, thick and unkempt. . . .

  Thianra? I called anxiously, though I had no lips, or eyes, or ears.

  She glanced up, gray-brown eyes distant, her face rounder than I remembered, the rest of her childish in form. I was seeing Thianra as a little girl?

  Where’s your brother Hlanan? I called, but she was oblivious, lost in her music.

  She curled her feet tightly under the legs of her stool and bent to her harp again sending a ripple of beautiful sound out and out. I drifted with the music toward the sunlight streaming through the windows, and there was another door.

  I drifted right through it.

  And here was Hlanan, my own dear Hlanan, tallish, slender, only instead of wearing his old scribe robe of blue, he was clad in a long tunic of fine velvet in a shade close to the pale blue light of dawn, embroidery at collar and sleeves in twining vines with tiny rubies representing buds, his brown hair drawn up high on the back of his head into a golden comb with the imperial interlocking laurels.

  Closer, closer . . . I strove with all my strength to halt, but a whisper beckoned me on, Come Lhind. Come to me.

  No, not until I know who you are, I cried, as pain prickled through me like red cracks in ceramic. Sound wavered in a deep, reverberating worble.

  I gasped, and the strange burble rose in pitch, becoming fragments of speech. Pain ignited in every bone and muscle as my body woke. Helpless to move on my own, I sensed that I was being moved in jolts and bumps. My skin itched ferociously as if a thousand needles pricked just below the point of pain.

  The sense of pins stabbing me sharpened to a sting as the world whirled, then stilled.

  Someone had dumped me onto grass. I lay flat. Motionless. The stinging receded gradually, restoring a sense of my limbs. One breath, two, three . . . the burbling fragments of speech rose in pitch to normal cadences.

  I recognized one of those voices. Shock shuddered through me. That was Geric Lendan, Prince of the Golden Circle. Who by all rights ought to be languishing in prison, after all the nefarious things he’d done, beginning with imprisoning the mage Faryana in a diamond necklace, and ending with his hiring the pirates of the Skull Fleet to chase Hlanan and me.

  I’d asked Hlanan. “Why isn’t anyone arresting Prince Geric?”

  “Because nothing can be proved.”

  “But he’s the one who first stole that evil book, and bespelled Faryana, and all the rest of it. And the Mage Council has to know that. I know they still have not freed her, but if I could hear Faryana’s thoughts, they can too, right?”

  “They have their reasons for not talking about Faryana, or the necklace, or Geric’s purpose for what he did,” Hlanan had said. “As for everything else he did, he could claim hearsay.”

  “Hearsay? Sending the pirates after us?”

  Hlanan spread his hands. “Short of the pirates turning up to testify, or to furnish a magic-sealed contract, Geric can claim he was their prisoner, or their passenger, or anything else.” But before I could burst out against the sheer unfairness of Prince Geric’s getting away with everything short of murder (and he’d tried that!), Hlanan said, “Remember, the mages know what he did. And are watching to see what he will do next.”

  Well, I thought sourly as I lay there, it looked like I was about to find out what he was going to do next. But I might not survive to talk about it.

  He had threatened me with death at least a couple of times. Of course that was after I’d robbed him twice, but at least I didn’t go around threatening people, or sticking them in evil spells!

  “. . . Find out who they are. Even though she is a Hrethan, she is a liar, a thief, and could not possibly be the target of an imperial search—unless she has been robbing the Empress. I wouldn't put it past her.”

  Geric’s voice sharpened, breaking into my self-justifying sulk.

  Somewhere to the left, someone scraped steel over a whetstone, hiss, hiss, hiss. Farther away, a horse snorted, and a hoof thudded to the ground.

  “We’d better pick up our feet. Curse it, Pandoc, where are you? What’s Nath’s sign for haste?”

  I had to get away. But how? From long-ago habit, I remained where I was, my breathing slow. Without moving a muscle, I gauged the direction of the voice and cautiously slitted an eyelid.

  I lay under a darkening sky. My limbs were free. That was good. But my thief t
ools, which I had carried with me day and night since I was a sprat? Lying in my trunk back in the imperial palace, because I hadn’t a need for them in the palace.

  Irritation prickled painfully through me. I forced myself to keep my breathing slow and even. Escape first.

  Another peek, this time with both eyes. A cluster of mostly gray-clad figures, one with thick, frizzy ash blond hair, one with long ruddy-fair hair—Prince Geric—one dark short curly hair, standing a few paces away at my left, on the other side of a campfire. Two of them wrung their hands.

  I barely made out a line of horses beyond them. Without moving my head, I could not see to my extreme right, but I heard no noise. Breeze ruffled over my face, carrying the scent of water, of pine—

  Pine! Hope burned away the annoyance. If I were high enough in the mountains, and could get access to a cliff, I could transform into a bird. I was still too unfamiliar with my newly discovered ability to be able to transform without both the altitude and the sensation of falling into air, but pine grew high in the mountains west of the imperial city, and I heard nothing on my right.

  I had to check.

  “Now! Now means now—oh, someone let her know,” Geric exclaimed impatiently as he flung himself away—facing in my direction. I quickly shut my eyes.

  A tenor voice responded, “The hand-sign for urgency is—”

  “We don’t have time to spell it all out. I’ll lead,” Geric retorted. “Make the signal for following on me. Fast!”

  Another furtive peek as Geric shoved past the other two figures in gray. The mercenary Gray Wolves? That was even worse!

  Geric’s urgency meant I wasn’t likely to get a better chance.

  Without moving the rest of my body, I turned my head to the right. Slowly . . . slowly. . . .

  All I saw past tall grasses was air. A convenient cliff? My heart thudded against my ribs as I lifted my head. Easy, easy . . . the top of a shrub. Not a cliff, then, a slope of some sort. A bit farther away, the tops of a cluster of firs, and nothing beyond those.

  A possible cliff perhaps fifty paces to the right. My hands and feet were free. I drew in a breath, rolled to my feet and ran.

  A startled exclamation behind me tightened my neck. I stretched my legs out, laboring hard. Usually I was fast, and could leap high, but the spell still dragged at my limbs.

  Pounding feet shortened the distance. Nearly stumbling in my frantic haste, I leaped over a tangled root of a fallen tree, spotted the edge of a precipice, sucked in my breath to fling myself over—

  Pain jolted through me. Lightning strike?

  I fell flat on my face—and the pain doubled me up, radiating in red throbs from my shoulder as the footsteps gathered around me. Hard fingers hauled me to my feet like a sack of turnips. I fought for breath.

  A fresh wave of cold, slithery pain wrung through me as steel slid out of my shoulder. My knees buckled.

  Two sets of hands held me up. Black spots blurred my vision. More jolting and joggling as footsteps crunched dirt around me, and various people panted from exertion, then the fingers let go and I collapsed in a heap.

  When fingers probed at the muscle below my shoulder, the black spots bloomed again, threatening to take over. I gulped in breath after breath, my bones watery, and gradually defeated the black spots as the ache diminished to a hair below unbearable.

  The ice-cold sense of shock eased enough to enable me to look around. Not that I wanted to, especially when the first thing I perceived was Prince Geric’s intent gaze, the rosy firelight somehow leeching the color out of his face. Or maybe he had paled.

  I scowled at him.

  He sat back, and let out a long sigh. “You’ll live,” he said. Was that relief?

  “You just knifed me!” I croaked. “Or somebody did.” I blinked up at Gray Wolf tunics. These warriors, I remembered with a sinking sensation in my already uncertain middle, had given us a hard chase after Hlanan and I stole that blood mage book from the evil Duchess of Thann and her mage.

  “I pegged you on the right,” Prince Geric said, pointing at my shoulder, which I discovered had been wrapped in some kind of bandage while I’d teetered on the edge of unconsciousness.

  “Why?” I yelped.

  His mouth twisted. “Because I heard that you can transform to a bird if you go over a cliff.” His glance took in the Gray Wolves standing about in a circle. Maybe they were the very ones who had been chasing me the first time I transformed.

  Don’t admit to anything, I thought. Time for my own questions. “I mean, why am I here?” I croaked, still short of breath because of my quaky middle.

  “You ruined my life,” he began.

  “So now you’re going to ruin mine?”

  His expression tightened with irritation, and I wondered if I had interrupted a grand speech he’d planned as he drawled, “It seems a fair enough exchange.”

  Planned speech it was, then. I would go along if I could learn something. “What’s grabbing me exchange for?”

  “For some unfathomable reason, Emperor Jardis Dhes-Andis of Sveran Djur wants you,” he stated with smiling malice. “It is my privilege, and my pleasure, to oblige.” He performed a mocking bow.

  That’s when I discovered that cold and slimy and sick as I felt, I could always drop through a trapdoor into something colder, slimier, and sicker.

  I’d been cautiously touching the bandage, but dropped my hand.

  “No,” I said.

  Prince Geric gave a short, contemptuous laugh. “In the time it takes to get to my camp, you may entertain yourself with contemplating the moral implications of your having robbed me. We would never have met again if you’d kept your sticky fingers to yourself.”

  In a way, that stung almost worse than his knife blade. No. Knives always hurt worse. But frustration boiled away inside me, because while ordinarily I believed him about as far as I could spit into a wind, I knew that much was true: if I had not robbed Geric of that strange bone whistle and played around with the voice communicating through it, I would not have caught the attention of the evil emperor who had given it to him.

  I brooded about that as his minions began to mount up. Two hefty Gray Wolves stood guard while a horse was brought to me.

  “Can you ride?” Geric asked, stepping up to the bridle. Before I could refuse, he said with a return to his old arrogance, “We can always lash you to the stirrups if you can’t.”

  “I’ll ride.”

  The hefties hauled me up again, and in spite of my “Ow! That hurts!” They threw me into the saddle, then mounted themselves. So much for trying to slow them down.

  One of the Gray Wolves kept my reins, riding ahead and to one side. The second one rode a little behind on the opposite side, as the trail did not admit of three horses across.

  Maybe a better rider than I could figure out a way to get the horse to slip them and gallop away. But I was a terrible rider—rarely on a horse—so escape was denied me. So were my thief tools, lying uselessly in that palace.

  Worse, Hlanan did not know where I was. I’d stomped off, felt remorse for trying to start an argument, and then I thought of that stupid plan for his finding me at the waterfall, which he knew I loved visiting.

  Oh, he might go looking there for me, but unless Prince Geric was as stupid as I had been for thinking my waterfall plan such a great idea, he wasn’t going to leave clues lying about. The learner’s harp I’d borrowed from Hlanan’s sister Thianra had probably been pitched over the waterfall the moment after they waylaid me.

  All right. One thing I’d learned during my lifetime on the run: there was no use in mentally beating myself up over mistakes. All my life I’d been my only ally, staying alive with no aid but my wits—and my few magical spells. Some of which Hlanan had warned me were called “greater magics,” which meant I could unwittingly do all kinds of destruction.

  None of those were the least use now. I didn’t know the harmonic range of anyone’s voice except Prince Geric’s well enough for what
I called Voice cast, the magic that strikes another’s nerves long enough to force them to freeze in one place, or to release a hold, or even to fall senseless. I was not certain I could use it on him, even if the air wasn’t so open. I’d heard him speaking rarely, and always in exactly the same tone of mockery. The emotions under it—if there were any—would be difficult for me to reach.

  Mind cast, which recoiled far more dangerously onto me, was even more out of reach. And a good thing, for I had the least control over it. I was not ready to deal with the consequences of killing anyone with that mental white lightning.

  I could hear animals’ thoughts, and sometimes other Hrethan, I had very recently discovered. But I could not be thinking about or doing anything else, and like many of my sustained magics, it left me light-headed, sometimes dizzy.

  I was already dizzy and weak.

  Those were the things I could not do. What could I do? Watch and listen, for starters. Act weak. Being small and light-boned, and looking a lot younger than I really was, I’d found that people usually underestimated me. I put my left hand up to my right shoulder, which throbbed doubly at every jolt of the horse’s hooves beneath me. I didn’t have to fake those watery joints and the roil of nausea in my middle.

  Next time, I decided, don’t flounce away from an argument until after a good meal.

  The inward retort was prompt: I shouldn’t have flounced off at all.

  This mental argument was even worse than the almost-argument that I’d had with Hlanan. Which would have been an argument, except that he hated arguing, and he’d gone silent. So—another lifelong habit—I’d run.

  A swift glance around disclosed the jumble of fir and other trees that I recognized from the lower folds and hills below the mountains. Another cold jolt: I was not high enough after all for the transformation. If Prince Geric hadn’t thrown that knife, I would have landed on rocks or hard ground. Ugh.

  Another glance. They made their way up an animal trail, which meant leaving as little sign of tracks as they could. “Handing me off to Dhes-Andis.” That had to mean magic, as the evil emperor was surely not waiting around on the top of a mountain. Why hadn’t Geric transferred me to Dhes-Andis the moment he threw that bag over my head?

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