“Cloak Games: Shatter Stone” excerpt

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CHAPTER 1: CHAPERONES

A mistake caught up to me.

To be blunt, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I almost always wriggle out of them.

Some of that is because I’m clever and a very good liar. Some of it is because I have magic, and I know spells that no human is supposed to ever learn. I’m in good shape and I can run faster than a lot of the things that want to kill me. Most of it is because I always assume the worst is going to happen and prepare for it thoroughly. That saved my life a lot of times.

Though some of my ability to wriggle out of mistakes – if I’m honest with myself – is because I’m pretty, and I can smile and stand up straight and stick my chest out a little and flirt my way out of trouble.

A pretty smile at the right time smooths over all kinds of problems.

But not this. Not this mistake. This time, the mistake caught up to me, and there was no way I could avoid it.

It happened on the day I had coffee with my brother’s girlfriend’s grandfather.

Yeah. It was kind of awkward.

But not as awkward as you might think.

If anything, it was stimulating, but in the same way that running for my life was stimulating. Hakon Valborg might have been old, but he was not even remotely stupid, and he knew there was something unusual about me.

I couldn’t have survived the Archon attack on Milwaukee otherwise.

Let me back up. I met Hakon Valborg on the day of the Archon attack on Milwaukee back in September of Conquest Year 314. My brother Russell had talked me into going to the mall so he could ask out Lydia Valborg, Hakon’s granddaughter. That meant we were with Lydia when the Archons and their orcish mercenaries attacked. One thing led to another, and Russell and I wound up saving Lydia’s life from the orcs and getting her back to her parents and grandfather. As it turns out, saving a teenage girl from orcish mercenaries is an excellent way to impress her, and Russell and Lydia had been going out ever since.

There are rules about that kind of thing.

Unwritten rules, but Morvilind had observed to me once that humans held social convention more sacred than the law. Russell and Lydia were both fourteen, and while my brother was fond of pointing out that he would turn fifteen in July, that was still five months off. Not that it mattered, because the unwritten rules were clear. Teenagers went on chaperoned dates until they turned eighteen.

When they turned eighteen, the couple often (but not always) got married. The newlyweds would have a few weeks together, the wife hopefully becoming pregnant in the process. Then the husband began his six-year term of service in the armies of the Elven nobles and the High Queen, fighting the Archons and the dwarves and the orcs and worse things in the Shadowlands. Sometimes the husband returned and settled down with his wife, and they lived happily ever after. Sometimes the husband returned maimed or crippled.

And often the husband did not return at all.

Except it wouldn’t work that way for Russell.

He had frostfever, a rare magical ailment that had turned his hair white and made him gaunt even for a fourteen-year-old boy. He would never become an Elven noble’s man-at-arms and would therefore never become a veteran, and only now had I begun to realize just what kind of disadvantage that would be for him, since veterans had numerous formal and informal privileges. I had been so focused on saving Russell’s life that I hadn’t given much thought to what kind of life he would have. A lot of doors would be closed to him, and he would have a lot of disadvantages.

He would always be an outsider.

Nevertheless, as I watched Russell put six rifle rounds through the center of a target in rapid succession, I suspected these disadvantages would not slow him down much.

“Your brother,” said Hakon Valborg in his gravelly rasp of a voice, “is a good shot.”

“He is,” I said. “If he keeps this up, he’s going to better at it than I am.”

Hakon lifted his pale eyebrows. “You have much time to practice shooting in your work?”

I looked at the old man and considered my answer.

We sat at a table in Sergeant Bob’s Shooting Range And Dining Club, located in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. There were thousands of such places scattered across the United States. Sergeant Bob’s was an establishment that catered to veteran men-at-arms and their families. The veterans (and their wives, if so inclined) could practice their firearm skills on the range and have a nice dinner after. There was even an attached play area for the kids, this big thing of plastic tubes and slides and an enormous ball pit, and from its direction, I heard the whoops of excited children.

Our table sat on a wide platform overlooking the shooting range, which was itself encased in armored glass. From here, we observed the shooters at the range, and I watched as Russell emptied his rifle. All his shots had hit the outline on the paper target at the far end of the range. Next to him, Lydia Valborg, Hakon’s granddaughter, and Russell’s girlfriend, clapped her hands in approval and even jumped up and down a few times as he did. Like Russell, she was only fourteen, and like Russell, she was taller than I was, which annoyed me to no end. She was a cute girl, and I suspected she was going to become a woman of remarkable beauty.

And she was dating my brother, which was why I was here.

Those unwritten rules? One of them was that a young couple had to have chaperones in certain settings, usually a trustworthy relative. Lydia’s parents and siblings all had to work or were serving with the Elven nobles, so that left Hakon Valborg to watch her. I was Russell’s only living relative, so that left me.

Which was why I was having a cup of coffee with my brother’s girlfriend’s grandfather.

It should have been awkward. Instead, it was kind of unsettling, and in a twisted sort of way, I was enjoying myself.

Because Hakon Valborg was a very dangerous man.

“It is like any other skill, Mr. Valborg,” I said. “It is good to keep in practice.”

Hakon grunted. He was about seventy-five, thin and tough as an old tree, his hair yellowish-white, his eyes pale blue. Lydia had the exact same eyes, though her eyes looked pretty. Hakon’s gaze looked intense and stark. He wore an old brown suit that was too large for him, but his thick, callused hands did not shake as he lifted his cup of coffee.

He was a former man-at-arms, an HVAC technician, and a retired member of the Wizard’s Legion of the High Queen.

Which meant, like me, he could use magic. I had not met many other human wizards, but Hakon was the strongest of them. A member of the Wizard’s Legion did not survive to old age without being very strong and very smart.

That, in turn, meant there was every chance Hakon Valborg might realize what I really was.

I had to be careful around Hakon, both for my sake and for Russell’s. Lydia was pretty, true, but I thought he could do better than her. On the other hand, given that he would always face at least a degree of ostracism, I didn’t want to blow this for him.

“You did keep in practice,” said Hakon, “from what my granddaughter tells me.”

I shrugged and took a sip of the coffee. Sergeant Bob’s Shooting Range didn’t have great coffee, but it was strong, and that covered a multitude of sins. “A valuable skill. It saved my life during the Archon attack last year.”

“This is so,” said Hakon. “An unusual skill for a web programmer.” Most of the people who knew my real name believed I worked for Lord Kaethran Morvilind as a web programmer. After the Archon attack, Russell and James and Lucy Marney knew the truth. Though Russell had known the truth for years and had been wise enough to keep his mouth shut.

“The Archons and the Rebels kill web programmers, too,” I said.

The old man inclined his head. Below us, Russell helped Lydia load her rifle. I suspected she knew how to load her firearm just fine, but was letting him help her. Had I been in her place, that would have irritated me, but Lydia looked pleased.

Something else I had learned about my brother last year – he was very charming when he put his mind to it.

“This is so,” said Hakon. “That is why I taught my children to shoot, and they, in turn, taught my grandchildren to use firearms.”

“You don’t need to use firearms,” I said.

“I am retired from the service of the High Queen, may God save her,” said Hakon.

“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “You don’t need a gun. You have magic.”

I probably shouldn’t have brought up the topic, but I was curious. Hakon Valborg had served for years in the Wizard’s Legion, the only legal way for humans to use magic on Earth. What was more, he had survived, which meant he had a great deal of power.

I wanted power like that.

More to the point, I needed that power to survive the tasks Morvilind set for me, to make sure I lived long enough that Russell would be cured of his frostfever. Hakon had power, and I wanted some of it for myself.

Of course, I couldn’t think of a way of obtaining that power without getting myself killed. Hakon was a loyal man of the High Queen. On his wall, he had portraits of the High Queen Tarlia and Duke Tamirlas of Milwaukee, both gazing sternly down at any visitors. Below that hung his old regimental banner from his time as a man-at-arms, and next to that a flag with the thunderbolt insignia of the Wizard’s Legion. Alongside the banner hung a framed certificate signed by Lord Mythrender, the High Queen’s Lord Marshall, certifying that Colonel Hakon Valborg had honorably completed three six-year terms of service in the Wizard’s Legion.

The men of the Wizard’s Legion were fanatically devoted to the High Queen, and Hakon had been one of them. More than that, he had risen to an officer’s rank. If Hakon knew what I really was, that Morvilind had taught me both magic and spells forbidden to humans, he would call the Inquisition at once. He might kill me on the spot, and once he had explained to the Inquisition what he had done, he would likely get another signed certificate of merit from Lord Mythrender.

“Magic,” said Hakon. He sighed and looked at the ceiling for a moment.

“You were in the Wizard’s Legion,” I said. “I imagine you don’t need a weapon to fight Archons or orcish mercenaries.”

“No,” he said, looking at me with those pale eyes. “Miss Moran, my family settled in Milwaukee five generations ago, shortly after the Archon attack on Stockholm. Before that, I’m afraid we don’t have any records since they were lost in the attack. But every generation of my family served in the Wizard’s Legion. My grandfather, my father, myself. Two of my three sons served in the Legion, and both died fighting in the Shadowlands.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I am grateful,” said Hakon, looking back at the shooting range, “that my grandchildren do not have the power of magic. If any of them have the ability, it would have manifested by now.”

“Then you’re grateful they won’t be drafted into the Wizard’s Legion?” I said. That sounded like wishful thinking. Hakon’s grandsons would likely be recruited into the men-at-arms of an Elven noble. Even Lydia would face danger if the Archons or another enemy attacked Earth again. She had almost been killed during the attack last year.

“No,” said Hakon, his voice quiet. “They will not have to learn the terrible burden of constant self-control.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“A loaded gun requires self-control,” said Hakon.

“Obviously,” I said. “Else you’ll shoot yourself in the foot. Or the face, if you’re really unlucky.”

“Or someone else,” said Hakon. “A man out for a walk. A woman talking her children to the market. Someone who doesn’t intend you harm at all. Or a man who irritates you, but doesn’t deserve death. Yet with magic, you can deal out death with a thought.” He tapped the side of his head with a callused finger. “That is why I am glad my grandchildren do not have magic, Miss Moran. They will not need not always keep themselves under such rigid discipline.”

I started to say something, but I fell silent. Hakon had a point. Of necessity, I lived under rigid self-control. I was careful about what I ate and I frequently exercised, because I had to be in good shape to pull off the various tasks Morvilind gave me. I had skills I practiced constantly, and I always practiced my spells, trying to become more powerful.

So, yeah, I saw why he wouldn’t want that kind of life for his grandkids.

Me, though, I wanted power. Self-discipline was a kind of power, which was why I pursued it so zealously. Magic was a more potent form of strength, and I wanted much more than I had.

Unfortunately, I could think of no way to learn any of Hakon’s spells. If he realized what I really was, I was in a lot of trouble so I would settle for keeping him from figuring out the truth.

“You want a better life for your grandchildren,” I said. “Nothing wrong with that at all.”

“Yes,” said Hakon. “I suppose that is what we all want, in the end. Which is why we are here. To see if your little brother can make a better life for Lydia.”

I glanced at the shooting range, taking a sip of my coffee as I did so. It was Russell’s turn to shoot again, and Lydia watched with obvious admiration as he put an excellent grouping into the target. After fighting orcs at the Ducal Mall, shooting practice targets had to be less stressful.

“Do you think he can?” I said.

“I would prefer,” said Hakon, “that Lydia marries a veteran.”

I looked at the old man. I suspected we had come to the main point.

“Do you?” I said.

“Yes,” said Hakon. “If a man survives his term of service with an Elven noble, he has shown responsibility. He will have seen the horrors of war and known pain and loss, and he will be ready to settle down and start a family. It has been that way for generations. Once a man knows what it is to suffer loss, he will care for what he has more devotedly. We are taught that in school, yes, but I have seen the truth of it with my own eyes.”

I said nothing. Russell liked Lydia, but I didn’t know if he was in love with her. He was only fourteen, so I suppose getting his heart broken wouldn’t kill him. I’d had my heart broken, and it hadn’t killed me.

Of course, since the man I had loved had been the leader of a Rebel cell, his guns and bombs had almost killed me.

“Do not mistake me,” said Hakon. “Russell is a good boy. A brave boy. Not every boy could keep his head in a firefight like Russell did. But because of his illness, he will never be a man-at-arms. Russell will never form bonds of friendship with his comrades, the men who would become like his brothers. He will always be an outsider in American society. Not an outcast, not exactly, but he will always stand apart. That will give him a disadvantage.”

Everything he said was true.

I was an outsider as well. Most women my age were either married, engaged, or working in an office somewhere and hoping to find a husband from among the veteran men-at-arms Hakon had mentioned. That would never be my life, and it didn’t trouble me. I wanted to save Russell, and I wanted power. I had a few people I cared about, and beyond that the rest of the world could burn for all I cared.

But maybe it would bother Russell more than it would bother me.

“Then why are we sitting here, Mr. Valborg?” I said. “You could tell Lydia to break up with Russell, and she would do it.”

Hakon said nothing for a moment.

“Because, Miss Moran,” he said at last, “because while everything I have said is true, Russell Moran is an exceptional young man, and I think he may even become a great man.”

I blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Perhaps you do not see it because you are so close,” said Hakon. “He is a very driven young man.”

“Well,” I said. “Yes.”

“Ah,” said Hakon. “Another question. Why are you not married or engaged?”

It was a rude question, but Hakon was old enough to get away with it. The entire point of this was to see if Russell would make a suitable match for Lydia, and that included Russell’s family, which basically amounted to the Marneys and me.

“I was seeing someone,” I said. “It didn’t exactly work out.” I wasn’t about to tell him that my first boyfriend had been the leader of a Rebel cell. “Right now, I’m seeing someone new.” I certainly wasn’t going to tell him that my boyfriend was a hired assassin and a Shadow Hunter. “And if you’re asking for yourself…well, that’s very kind, but the age difference might be a problem.”

Hakon snorted. “A clever answer. But I am occasionally witty myself. The reason you are not married, Miss Moran, is because of Russell’s frostfever.”

That was much closer to the truth than I liked.

“I know frostfever,” said Hakon. “I saw many cases of it during the High Queen’s war against the frost giants in the Shadowlands. Many of my friends died from it. I know that there is no cure, save a powerful and complex spell that only the strongest Elven wizards can cast. Lord Morvilind is one such wizard. Russell’s frostfever should have killed him years ago. Yet Lord Morvilind is casting the cure spell upon him. Why?”

I still said nothing.

“He casts the spell,” said Hakon, “in exchange for work you do for him. Which I suspect is not, in the end, web programming.”

I considered my answer, my fingers tapping against the warm curve of my cup of coffee. Hakon had puzzled out the truth, but I don’t think he had figured out that I could use magic and that I stole things for Morvilind. If he had, he would have called the Inquisition then and there.

Or maybe he was smarter than that. Maybe he knew better than to pry too much. Kaethran Morvilind was many things, most of them terrifying, and he would not tolerate anyone meddling in his affairs.

“You realize,” I said, “that Lord Morvilind would be furious if I discussed his business with anyone.”

“Of course,” said Hakon. “But that is not the point. Your brother knows that he owes you his life. I think he has known it for a long time, and he is driven to prove himself worthy. He will always be an outsider, yes, but that can have its own strength. I suspect Russell will do great things if he lives long enough, and at the very least he will become quite wealthy.” He shrugged. “Certainly, he will be able to take care of Lydia and her children.”

I took a sip of coffee to cover my hesitation as I wrestled with the idea, watching Russell as he helped Lydia reload her rifle. Russell would never be a man-at-arms, thanks to the damage the frostfever had done to his physical stamina. But he was involved in every possible club he could join at school. I had seen him around his friends, how they all gravitated towards him, how his natural charm let him take command of a social situation.

Hell. Russell was smart, wasn’t he? On the day of the Archon attack, he had talked me into taking him to the Ducal Mall so he could ask out Lydia. He had also kept his head during the battle. Which, in turn, was the reason I was sitting here talking with an old man who was much more perceptive than I might wish, who had already guessed more about me than I wanted, and who might guess even more.

For a vicious moment, I wished that we had left Lydia to die at the Ducal Mall. Then I wouldn’t face the danger that Hakon Valborg might figure out what I really was. A burst of guilt followed the thought. I couldn’t go around just murdering people because it was convenient. Riordan had pointed out that I tended to use saving Russell’s life as a justification for ruthlessness, and he had a point. I had almost murdered Alexandra Ross simply because she had been slowing me down, and if I had done that, the Knight of Grayhold would have let the anthrophages kill me.

And Russell would have died once Morvilind stopped casting his cure spells.

“You have become very quiet,” said Hakon.

“Just thinking about learning things the hard way,” I said.

Hakon snorted. “The best lessons are learned that way.”

“I think all my lessons have been hard ones,” I said. “You’re right, you know.”

He lifted his white eyebrows. “About what?”

“My brother,” I said. “He is special. Even if he’ll never be a man-at-arms.”

Hakon nodded. “So, I have no opposition to their dating at this time. Lydia’s parents agree.”

Now it was my turn to raise my eyebrows. “Because you’ll tell them what to think?”

“Certainly not,” said Hakon. “Lukas and Charlotte may form their own opinions.”

“By heeding the wisdom of their elders?” I said.

“You have something of a smart mouth,” said Hakon.

I grinned. “Wait until you really get to know me.”

That actually wrung a laugh from the grim old man.

###

Later Hakon took Lydia home, and I drove Russell back to the Marneys’ house.

I would have preferred to take my Royal Motors NX-9 sportsbike, but it was the middle of February in Wisconsin, and the middle of February in Wisconsin is not motorcycle weather. The temperature had gotten above ten degrees Fahrenheit once in the last week.

I had gone through (and trashed) a lot of cars during my time working for Lord Morvilind, and I was currently driving an old Lone Star Motors Vaquero sedan. All the dashboard instruments were labeled in Spanish, but since I could read Spanish, that was all right.

I really didn’t like the cold. You’d think I’d be used to it since I had lived in Wisconsin since Morvilind had brought me here from Seattle fifteen years ago. I had on thermal underwear, black jeans, heavy black boots, a t-shirt, a sweater, and a black puffy coat that I didn’t like because it kind of made me look obese, a hat, and a scarf, and I was still cold, even with the heater on. Maybe if I survived, if Morvilind kept his word and healed Russell, I would move to Los Angeles or Arizona or someplace that had beautiful hot, dry weather.

Well. Maybe not Los Angeles. Too many bad memories there.

“So,” I said, the car crunching over the packed snow covering the street. “Did you and Lydia have a good time?”

Russell smiled. “What do you think? You watched us.”

“You looked like you were having fun,” I said. “Either that or you were both acting. I don’t think reloading someone else’s gun is a fun time, but what do I know?”

Russell laughed. “Lydia knows how to reload her rifle. She just thinks I don’t know that, so she lets me do it for her, so I feel useful.”

I snorted. “And that doesn’t bother you?”

Russell shrugged. “If she didn’t want to spend time with me, she would load her own rifle and tell me to go away.”

We were at a red light, so I watched him for a moment. Russell looked a lot like me, except considerably taller (which was annoying), and sharper, leaner features thanks to the frostfever. The frostfever had also turned his hair stark white, and he liked to say it made him look like a malevolent creature from an old pre-Conquest fairy tale.

I had spent my life to save Russell, and I didn’t regret it. Granted, I had made the choice as a child of five before I could even begin to understand the consequences, but even knowing what I knew now I still would have made the same decision.

But I had never paused to consider what kind of man he would become. I was shocked to realize he was only a few years away from becoming a man. In another four years…no, three and a half years, he would be old enough to vote. Not that voting changed anything, not when the High Queen ruled everything. But in three and a half years, he would have been old enough to become a man-at-arms, had he been healthy. He would be a legal adult, and he could do whatever he wanted.

“But she doesn’t,” I said at last.

“No,” said Russell, grinning. “She doesn’t. She likes me.” He shrugged. “I know I’m fourteen and that I should be scared of girls and all that…but I’m not. Knowing that frostfever could kill you puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? Or that a bunch of orcish mercenaries could pop out of a magical gate and shoot you.”

“That only happened to you once,” I said. The light finally changed, and I eased the Vaquero over the slippery road.

“True,” said Russell. “It could happen again, you know? Or we could slip off the road and hit a tree or something.”

“Is that a criticism of my driving?”

“My point is that we could all die at any time for any reason,” said Russell. “Most people don’t like to think about that. Some of the veteran men-at-arms do. One of my teachers, Mr. Vander, the shop teacher, I think he understands. But most people don’t like to think about the fact that we could die at any time for any reason.” He shrugged. “But I understand that because of the frostfever. I think you know it too, because of the stuff Lord Morvilind makes you do.”

“Yeah,” I said in a quiet voice. “We probably shouldn’t talk about that. It might get both of us killed.”

Russell nodded. “I know what you’ve done for me, Nadia.” I blinked. He sounded so serious. It made him seem older. “I’ll repay you someday. I don’t know how yet, but I’ll find a way to repay you.”

I blinked again. My eyes were stinging a little.

“Hell, Russell,” I said.

“You shouldn’t swear.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” I said. “I mean…I didn’t do it for a reward. I did it. That’s all there is to it. If you want to repay me, go have a nice peaceful life and have a bunch of kids. They can look after me when I’m old.”

Assuming I lived that long. Of all the things I worried about, dying of old age was not one of them. It was more likely I would get killed by a falling meteor.

“I’m going to do something great,” said Russell. “I’m just not sure what it is yet. I have some ideas. But I’m not sure which one I’m going to do.”

“Aren’t you being all mysterious?” I said.

“Actually, I’m kind of hungry,” he said.

“Seriously? You just had lunch.”

“I’m a growing boy,” Russell said. “I need nourishment to keep my strength up.”

He wasn’t wrong about that. I had known that teenage boys tended to eat a lot, but I hadn’t understood the reality until the first time I had opened the Marneys’ fridge and realized that Russell had eaten everything I had been saving for lunch. The frostfever also did something to his metabolism, driving it up higher than it should have been, which was another reason he would never be a man-at-arms.

“You can wait until supper,” I said.

“You’ll be there?” said Russell.

“Yeah,” I said. “Lord Morvilind doesn’t have anything for me to do, and I’m good with money for a while.” That was a polite way of saying I wouldn’t have to steal anything to pay my bills. Morvilind and his retainers had taught me many useful skills, but most of them did not translate to a regular wage. For that matter, Riordan was out of town, and he didn’t think he would be back for another week. Not that I put my boyfriend before the Marneys, but I did like spending time with him.

“No Riordan?” said Russell.

“Afraid not,” I said.

“Pity,” said Russell. “You always stare at him with these big shining eyes. It’s kind of fun to watch.”

I glared at him. “I do not.”

“Do too.”

“Do not.”

“Like you don’t ogle Lydia,” I pointed out.

“I don’t ogle,” said Russell. “I regard her with the appreciation that she merits.”

I snorted. “Good answer.”

“That,” said Russell, “and if I did ogle her, her grandfather would probably take offense.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Scary old guy, isn’t he?”

“I didn’t think you’d be scared of him,” said Russell, a little surprised. “After all the things…well, you know.”

I saw his point.

“He was in the Wizard’s Legion,” I said, “and he’s over seventy years old. That meant he survived his terms of service in the Wizard’s Legion and got to retire. That means he’s one hell of a fighter…”

“Language,” said Russell.

I ignored the interruption. “And that means if we got into a fight, he would kick my ass. And, yes, that is the only way to describe it, bad language or not.”

“Then don’t get into a fight with him.”

“My point,” I said, “is that it’s only sensible to be a little frightened of Hakon Valborg. You should be, too, seeing as you’re attempting to seduce his granddaughter.”

“I’m not seducing her,” said Russell with quiet calm.

“Then you’re doing it wrong.”

“I’m dating her,” said Russell. He smiled. “Seduction is merely a subset of the totality.”

I snorted. “Promise me you won’t be a lawyer.”

“And there is no way I would…um, take liberties with Lydia while Mr. Valborg was watching,” said Russell.

“Smart kid,” I said. I hesitated. “He said something else…”

“What’s that?” said Russell.

“He pointed out that you were going to always be an outsider,” I said. “Maybe not an outcast, but definitely an outsider.”

“Well, obviously,” said Russell, tapping his white hair. “I look like Father Christmas, and I’m fourteen years old.”

“Does it…” I wasn’t good at this kind of thing. I had once seen a Department of Education video explaining that women were naturally at ease in the home sphere because we’re more in touch with our feelings, but I don’t know if that was true. I had spent more time learning to steal and shoot and cast spells than getting in touch with my feelings, and when I did get in touch with my feelings, it was because I was pissed off and wanted to hurt someone. “Does it bother you?”

“Sometimes,” said Russell, “but not really. I mean…the Marneys are kind of outsiders, aren’t they?”

“How?” I said. The Marneys went to church every week, paid their taxes, had a portrait of the High Queen on the wall, and held full-time jobs. People like them were the backbone of the country.

“Because they don’t have kids of their own,” said Russell. “You know how it is. You’re supposed to be a man-at-arms for six years, come back, get hitched, and have a bunch of kids. The other women at church and work sometimes whisper about it behind Lucy’s back.”

“Oh.” I had never thought about it, but it made sense.

“But they’ve saved a lot of lives between them,” said Russell. “I mean, James is a doctor and Lucy is a nurse. I bet after the Archon attack they saved hundreds of people who would have died. Maybe you have to be an outsider to do something amazing…and I want to do something amazing.” He rubbed his stomach. “But only after supper. Are you sure we can’t stop for a snack?”

I snorted. “Priorities.”

We drove the rest of the way to the Marneys’ house. It had a small front yard with a well-tended garden, currently buried under a lot of snow, and a flagpole over the front door flew the colors of the High Queen, the United States, and the House of Morvilind. A little wooden mailbox (hand-crafted, of course) said MARNEYS on the side, icicles hanging from its side. I suppose I could have parked on the street, but the snow was piled so high that there was barely one lane for traffic, so I eased the old Vaquero into the driveway. I would have to move it once the Marneys got home so they could get into the garage.

Russell climbed out of the car. “I’ll start on supper. We can have it waiting when they come home. Steak?”

“Yes,” I said. “Don’t eat it all.”

Russell vanished through the patio door and into the kitchen.

I got out, opened my puffy coat long enough to fish out my phone, and glanced at it. No new messages and calls, which was good, and it was late enough that James and Lucy would show up at any minute. I might as well wait a little while. I really wanted a cigarette, but (perhaps fortunately) I didn’t have any. Cigarettes were on the list of restricted items that were sold only to former men-at-arms. James had some, but I wasn’t about to steal from him.

As the thought crossed my mind, I saw a man walking down the sidewalk.

He looked familiar.

The man was tall and lean, and wore a green jacket, jeans, and battered steel-toed work boots. He had dark blond hair tied into a ponytail and a close-cropped blond beard, his eyes a bright shade of blue. Oddly, he wasn’t wearing a hat or scarf or even gloves, but the cold did not seem to discomfort him.

The man stopped at the end of the driveway and looked at me with a smile. Maybe he wanted to hit on me. I started to say something acerbic to put him off, and then his blue eyes met mine.

A horrified jolt of recognition shot through me.

I knew this man. I had met him on one of the most dangerous days of my life, and I owed him a favor.

Which was bad, because he was one of the most powerful people I had ever met.

“Oh,” I said. “Oh, hell.”

“Hello, darling,” said the Knight of Grayhold in his deep drawl. “Been a while, hasn’t it?”

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