unconquerable leader of the Spirit Court, but like an old, tired man.

“Whatever we think of Hern’s motives,” he said softly, “the signatures are what they are. There is no legal way I can stop this trial, but I can shield you from the worst of it.”

He lowered his hands and looked at her. “You are my apprentice, Miranda, and dear as a daughter to me. I cannot bear to see you or your spirits suffer for my sake. Whatever you may think of him, Hern is not an unreasonable man. When he brought this petition to me yesterday, I reacted much as you just did. Then I remembered myself, and we were able to come to a compromise.”

“What kind of compromise?” she said skeptically.

“You will stand before the Court and face the accusations, but you will neither confirm nor deny guilt.”

Miranda’s face went bright red. “What sort of a compromise is that?”

Banage’s glare shut her up. “In return for giving Hern his show, he has agreed to let me give you a tower somewhere far away from Zarin.”

Miranda stared at him in disbelief. “A tower?”

“Yes,” Banage said. “The rank of Tower Keeper would grant you immunity from the trial’s harsher punishments. The worst Hern would be able to do is slap you on the wrist and send you back to your tower. This way, whatever happened, your rings would be safe and your career would be saved.”

Miranda stared at her master, unable to speak. She tried to remind herself that Banage’s plans always worked out for the best, but the thought of sitting silently while Hern lied to her face, lied in the great chamber of the Spirit Court itself, before all the Tower Keepers, made her feel ill. To just be silent and let her silence give his lies credence, the very idea was a mockery of everything the Spirit Court stood for, everything she stood for.

“I can’t do it.”

“You must do it,” Banage said. “Miranda, there’s no getting out of this. If you go into that trial as a simple Spiritualist, Hern could take everything from you.”

“It’s not certain that Hern will win,” Miranda said, crossing her arms over her chest stubbornly. “Tower Keepers are still Spiritualists. If I can tell the truth out in the open, tell what actually happened and show them Mellinor, let the spirit speak for himself, there’s no way they can find me guilty, because I’m not.”

“This is not open for debate,” Banage said crossly. “Do you think I like where this is going? This whole situation is my fault. If you had another master, this would never have grown into the fiasco it is, but we are outmaneuvered.”

“I can’t just sit there and let him win!” Miranda shouted.

“This isn’t a game, Miranda!” Banage was shouting, too, now. “If you try and face Hern head-on, you will be throwing away everything we worked together to create. You’re too good a Spiritualist for me to let you risk your career like this! You know and I know that you are guiltless, that your only crime was doing the right thing in difficult circumstances. Let that be enough. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your fighting Hern on this will be for anything other than your own pride!”

Miranda quaked at the anger in his voice, and for a moment the old obedience nearly throttled her with a desperate need to do what Master Banage said. But Mellinor was churning inside her, his current dark and furious, his anger magnifying hers, and she could not let it go.

Banage must have felt it, too, the angry surge of the great water spirit, for she felt the enormous weight of his spirit settle on top of her as the man himself bowed his head and began to rub his eyes with a tired, jeweled hand.

“It’s late,” he said quietly. “A late night after many long days is no time to make weighty decisions. We’ll pick this up tomorrow. Maybe after a night’s rest you’ll be able to see that I am trying to save you.”

Miranda’s anger broke at the quiet defeat in his voice. “I do see,” she said, “and I am grateful. But-”

Banage interrupted her with a wave of his hand. “Sleep on it,” he said. “I’ve given orders for you to be under house arrest tonight, so you’ll be comfortable at least. We’ll meet again tomorrow for breakfast in the garden, like old times. But for now, just go.”

Miranda nodded and stood stiffly, mindful of every tiny noise she made in the now-silent room. As she turned to leave, she stopped suddenly. Her hand went to her pocket and fished out a white square.

“I’d almost forgotten,” she said, turning back to Banage. “This is for you.”

She laid the envelope on his desk. Then, with a quick bow, she turned and marched across the great stretch of empty marble to the door. Pulling it open, she plunged out of the room and down the stairs as fast as her feet could carry her.

Banage watched the door as it drifted shut, the iron hinges trained after centuries of service to never slam. When the echo of her footsteps faded, Banage let go of the breath he’d been holding and let his head slump into his hands. It never got easier, never. He sat for a while in the silence, and then, when he felt steady enough to read whatever she had written him, he let his hand fall to the letter she had placed on his desk.

When he looked at the letter, however, his eyebrows shot up in surprise. The handwriting on the front was not Miranda’s, and in any case, she never addressed him as “Etmon Banage.” Curious, he turned the letter over, and all other thoughts left his mind. There, pressed deep into the soft, forest-green wax was an all-too-familiar cursive M.

Banage dropped the envelope on his desk like it was a venomous snake. He sat there for a few moments staring at it. Then, in a fast, decisive motion, he grabbed the letter and broke the seal, tearing the paper when it would not open fast enough. A folded letter fell from the sundered envelope, landing lightly on his desk. With careful, suspicious fingers, Banage unfolded the thick parchment.

It was a wanted poster, one of those mass-copied by the army of ink-and-block spirits below the Council fortress. An achingly familiar boyish face grinned up at him from the creased paper, the charming features older, sharper, but still clearly recognizable despite more than a decade’s growth. His mocking expression was captured perfectly by the delicate shading that was the Bounty Office’s trademark, making the picture so lifelike Banage almost expected it to start laughing. Above the picture, a name was stenciled in block capitals: ELI MONPRESS. Below the portrait, written in almost unreadably tiny print so they could fit on one page, was a list of Eli’s crimes. And below that, printed in tall, bold blocks, was WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE, 55,000 GOLD STANDARDS.

That’s what was printed, anyway, but this particular poster had been altered. First, the 55,000 had been crossed out and the number 60,000 written above it in red ink. Second, the same hand had crossed out the word WANTED with a thick, straight line and written instead the word WORTH.

“Eli Monpress,” Banage read quietly. “Worth, dead or alive, sixty thousand gold standards.”

A feeling of disgust overwhelmed him, and he dropped the poster, looking away as his fingers moved unconsciously over the ring on his middle finger, a setting of gold filigree of leaves and branches holding a large, murky emerald as dark and brooding as an old forest. He stayed like that for a long, silent time, staring into the dark of his office. Then, with deliberate slowness, he picked up the poster and ripped it to pieces. He fed each piece to the lamp on his desk, the heavy red-stoned ring on his thumb glowing like a star as he did so, keeping the fire from spreading anywhere Banage did not wish it to spread.

When the poster and its sundered envelope had been reduced to ash, Banage stood and walked stiffly across his office to the small, recessed door that led to his private apartments. When he reached it, he said something low, and all the lamps flickered, plunging the office into darkness. When the darkness was complete, he shut the door, locking out the smell of burnt paper that tried to follow him.


Eli Monpress, the greatest thief in the world, was strolling through the woods. His overstuffed bag bounced against his back as he walked, and he was whistling a tune he didn’t quite remember as he watched the late afternoon sunlight filter through the golden leaves, bringing with it a smell of cold air and dry wood. So pleasant was the scene, in fact, that it took him a good twenty paces to realize he was walking alone.

Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату