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Rain pattered steadily through the leaves of the wood and dripped to the ground below. Two figures slipped between the trees, all but invisible in the darkness, silent under the cover of the rain. The one in the lead moved well, but the one trailing him moved better, ghostlike and undetectable, and he never knew she was there.
Three men waited for him, crouching in a tight clump under an old elm and shivering in the rain. He came up to them and spoke in a low voice. “She’s alone. And looks like she’ll be bedding down soon enough. If we wait, she should be easy to take.”
Hidden in the trees just a short distance away, the woman who had been following him smiled thinly.
“I still don’t like this,” one of the other men hissed. “What if she’s got spells set up or something?”
The woman’s jaw hardened, and the amusement faded from her face.
“She ain’t a witch,” someone else said, with the tone of a man who’s said it several times already. “You saw her in the alehouse. She damn near cut that fellow’s throat when he called her one. And Tre would have said if she’d been singing when he looked in on her.”
“She wasn’t,” the spy confirmed. “Just talking to her horse, like anybody does. And besides, witches don’t carry swords, or play cards in alehouses. She’s just a Cousin.”
“We’re wasting time,” the last of the men said. “Heth, you go first. You make friends with the horse so it don’t warn her. Then Nessel can knock her out. Tre and I’ll be ready in case something goes wrong.”
“Some help that’ll be if she is a witch,” the fearful one said. “How else did she manage to get five Primes in one hand?”
The leader spat into the bushes. “She probably cheated. Don’t have to be a witch to cheat at cards. Look, there’s four of us and one of her. We’ll be fine.”
Ten of you wouldn’t be enough, the woman thought, and her smile returned. Not against a Hunter. Not against me.
Mirage didn’t object to being accused of cheating at cards, especially not when it was true. She did object to being called a witch — or a Cousin, for that matter. And she objected to being driven out to sleep in a rain-drenched wood, when she’d been hoping for a warm, dry inn. Now these idiotic thugs were planning on jumping her?
They deserved what they were going to get.
She slipped away from the men and returned to her campsite. Surveying it, she calculated the directions Heth and Nessel were likely to come from, then arranged her bedding so it would look as though she were in it. The illusion was weaker from the other direction, but with the fire in the way, any scouts on the other side shouldn’t be able to see anything amiss.
Then she retired to the shadows and waited.
The men took their time in coming, but Mirage was patient. Just as her fire was beginning to burn low, she heard noise; not all of the men were as good at moving through the forest as Tre. Scanning the woods, she saw the spy nearby, already in place. She hadn’t heard him get there. Not bad.
Quiet whispers, too muted for her to pick out. Then one man eased up next to her horse.
Ordinarily that would have been a mistake. Mist was trained to take the hand off any stranger who touched her. But Mirage had given her a command before leaving, and so the mare stood stock-still, not reacting to the man trying to quiet the noises she wasn’t making.
Mirage smiled, and continued to wait.
Now it was Nessel’s turn. The leader, who had slid around to the far side of the fire, gestured for him to move. Nessel came forward on exaggerated tiptoe, club in his hands. Then, with a howl, he brought the weapon crashing down on her bedding.
Tre went down without a sound half a second later. Fixed on the scene in front of him, he never noticed Mirage coming up behind him.
“She’s not here!” Nessel yelled in panic.
Mist, responding to Mirage’s whistle, kicked Heth in the chest and laid him out flat. Mirage stepped into the firelight next to the horse. “Yes, I am,” she said, and smiled again.
Nessel, a credit to his courage if not to his brain, charged her with another yell. Mirage didn’t even bother to draw a blade; she sidestepped his wild swipe and kicked him twice, once in the chest and once in the head. He went down like a log. Mirage, pausing only to give Heth a judicious tap with her boot, leapt over the fire in pursuit of the last man.
He fled as soon as she appeared, but it wasn’t enough of a head start. Mirage kept to an easy pace until her eyes adjusted once more; then she put on a burst of speed and overtook him. A flying tackle brought him down. She came up before he did and stomped on his knee, ending any further chance of flight.
Then she knelt, relieving him of the dagger he was trying to draw, and pinned him to the ground. “What did you think you were doing?” she growled, holding the dagger ready.
He was trying not to cry from the pain of his injured knee. “Gold,” he gasped. “Only that. We weren’t going to kill you. I swear!”
“I believe you,” Mirage said. “And for that, you live. Provided you learn one little lesson.”
He nodded fearfully.
“I,” Mirage said, “am not a witch. Nor am I a Cousin. I have nothing to do with them. Can you remember that?” He nodded again. “Good. And be sure to tell your friends.” She stood and tucked his dagger into her belt. “I don’t like people making that kind of mistake.”
Then, with a swift kick to his head, she knocked him out.
Eclipse scowled as he shouldered his way through the crowds swarming through the streets of Chervie. The newer parts of the city, outside the walls built during the city’s heyday as an Old Kingdom capital, were more open in their plan, but here in the central parts even carts couldn’t make it down half the lanes. That had never been a problem for him before, but then he’d never been in Chervie this close to the Midsummer Festival. It seemed that every resident of the city had packed back inside the Old Kingdom walls, along with all twelve of their country cousins. The sheer press of people made him twitchy and irritable. It was a relief to step into the alehouse he was seeking; the interior was full, but it was nothing compared to the streets outside.
He scanned the patrons, dressed up for festival in beadwork and lace, and soon spotted a familiar and distinctive head. She found him at the same instant, and even across the room he could see her light up. He sidled his way between the tables and came up to her, grinning. “Sitting with your back to a door, Seniade? What would our teachers say?”
“They’d say I should have picked a different alehouse. Two doors on opposite walls, and hardly a seat to be found in the whole room. I decided to watch one and take my chances with the other.”
He snagged a stool out from under a patron who had just stood to leave and settled himself onto it. “Well, I’ll watch your back and you watch mine. Not all of us have your reflexes, Sen.”
She quirked one eyebrow at him. “You know, you’re the only one who still calls me that. Even the rest of our year-mates call me Mirage.”
“And you still call me Kerestel. Old habits die hard, I guess. Or else we’re slow learners.”
Mirage grinned. “Can you believe this crowd? I’d forgotten how seriously they take Midsummer in Liak. I knew Chervie would be full, but this is ridiculous — and the festival hasn’t even really started yet! It’s a shock, after the quiet of the road.”
“From what I hear, your trip wasn’t what I’d call quiet,” Eclipse said pointedly.
Mirage raised her eyebrow again.
“I came here by way of Enden. An alehouse maid there treated me to — well, several things, but two stories in particular. One about how a soldier playing cards was almost knifed in their common room, and another about how four village lads showed up the next morning, bruised, bloody, and stripped of everything but their skins.”
“They were lucky to keep those. I figured they owed me their coin for trying to steal mine, and as for the other . . . .” She shrugged. “I wouldn’t have actually stabbed him.”
“Your fuse has gotten shorter, I see. Or did he have an extra deck up his sleeve?”
“No,” Mirage said, looking down. “In fact, I won the hand.”
Eclipse leaned forward. “Void it. That again?”
“Yeah.” She sighed. Eclipse noted frustrated fury in her eyes when she lifted her head, but it was soon muted. “Same with the four fools. Except they thought I was a Cousin.”
“So they’re idiots. Not all witches have red hair. And just because you do doesn’t make you one of them, or one of their servants.”
“Tell that to the idiots who panic when I lay down five Primes.”
His eyes widened. “You did that? No wonder they were suspicious.”
“It didn’t take magic,” Mirage said, and grinned wickedly. “Just agile fingers.”
Eclipse swore a blistering oath that earned him a dark look from a prim-mouthed merchant woman at the next table. “Void it, Sen, you’re going to get yourself killed! Cheating at cards is not going to improve your reputation!”
She shrugged. “I was bored.”
“Bored?” He stared at her in disbelief. “Of all the people I know, you’re the last one I would expect to court trouble just because you’re bored.”
Mirage gestured dismissively and looked away.
He caught hold of her arm, worried. “No, don’t you brush me off. What’s wrong?”
She pulled her wrist free of his grip and sighed. “Nothing. I’m just . . . bored.”
“Haven’t you had any jobs lately?”
“Plenty. So many, in fact, that I’m taking a rest; Mist and I have been on the road for months. Three hires, all back-to-back. Courier run clear across the land from Insebrar to Abern, for starters, and then they had word that a town farther out in the mountains was having trouble from bandits — ended up being some men they’d turned out of their town for thievery. Then they said a village even farther out needed a bloody mountain cat hunted down.”
Eclipse smiled, hoping to lighten her mood. “Looks like they took the term ‘Hunter’ in the wrong sense.”
Mirage snorted. “The saddest thing is, that bloody cat was the most interesting part of the whole series. It was a damn sight more intelligent than those so-called ‘bandits.'”
“So that’s why you’re bored.”
“Kerestel, I haven’t felt challenged since . . . since I got that commission two years ago. Remember, when I was set to Hunt Kobach?”
“The one who tried to take the rule of Liak from Narevoi?”
“I went through seven domains after him. Finally caught him in Haira, not too long after I left you. That was tough, Kerestel. It made me work, made me actually use the skills I’ve learned. Since then, though . . . nothing. Routine. Boredom.”
Eclipse eyed her and tried to gauge her exact mood. He had the answer to her problems tucked in his belt-pouch, but right now, with her recent difficulties, might not be the time to bring it up. It might help, or it might be more trouble than it was worth.
And speaking of trouble . . . .
Distracted as he was by his thoughts, he hadn’t even seen the woman come in the door. Eclipse opened his mouth to warn Mirage, but it was too late.
“Well, if it isn’t the witch-brat,” the newcomer said, stalking up to them. She always stalked; he didn’t think he’d ever seen her in a good mood.
Mirage’s eyes sparked. She turned in her chair and leaned back with an air of pure, unadulterated arrogance. “Ah, Ice. So good to see you your usual frigid self.”
Ice’s own blue eyes smoldered with a low fury which belied her name. Smoldering was her usual state; eye color was the only conceivable reason she’d ended up being called “Ice.” Then she lifted her gaze to meet Eclipse’s, and suddenly her expression held a different sort of fire. “Well met, Eclipse.”
“Keep your claws off him, Ice,” Mirage said, her voice flat. “I just ate lunch, and I wouldn’t want to lose it watching you try your tricks on him.”
“Taken already, is he?” Ice asked with a malicious smile.
Eclipse stiffened. He considered Mirage a sister; most Hunters of the same school and year did. What Ice was implying was little short of incest. But Mirage, to judge by her own faint smile, had things well in hand. “No, dear. I’m not so desperate that I have to seduce my own year-mate — although from what I’ve heard about Lion, it seems your luck isn’t so good.”
Eclipse stifled a laugh. He hadn’t heard that particular rumour. Mirage might be making it up, but Ice’s expression suggested she wasn’t. Now it was his turn to add fuel to the fire. “Come, ladies, this is no talk for the week before Midsummer. This is a festival! We should be celebrating! Ice, please, join us in a drink. I’m told this place has an excellent stock of silverwine.”
He thought he heard a snarl. Silverwine — not a wine at all, but an appallingly strong vodka — was brewed in the Miest Valley, and was the drink of choice for Hunters from Silverfire, Mirage and Eclipse’s school of training.
“Now, Eclipse,” Mirage said reprovingly before Ice could get any words past her clenched teeth. “This may be a festival, but you know Hunters should try to keep clear heads. Silverwine is hard on those not used to it; we wouldn’t want to lead Ice into trouble.”
The inarticulate noises Ice was making were quite entertaining. She was such fun to goad; for some reason Hunters from Thornblood all seemed to have short fuses.
“I can drink anything you can,” Ice snarled finally. Red mottled her face and neck.
Mirage smiled a touch too sweetly. “I’m sure you can, my dear.” Ice could probably drink Mirage under the table; Thornbloods prided themselves on the amount of alcohol they could down. But Ice was too infuriated to think clearly. “I’m afraid, however, that I have important matters to attend to — ones that won’t permit me to get drunk with an old friend.”
“What ‘important’ matters?” Ice spat. “You spend your time catching wife-beaters and rescuing kittens from trees.”
Eclipse hesitated. He and Mirage had played in these verbal duels before; it was his turn to attack. And he had a very good response to Ice’s insult. The problem was, if he brought it out now, he might hurt Mirage more than Ice.
Recovering from his pause, Eclipse made his decision. He slipped one hand into his belt pouch and removed a tiny scroll. Keeping his fingers over the seal, he waved it to get Ice’s attention.
Both of the other Hunters froze, looking at it. Eclipse nodded, smiling. “A two-person commission,” he said, addressing the Thornblood. “Mirage and I will be handling it together.”
The fury on Ice’s face was profoundly satisfying. Official commissions were rare enough that receiving one was an honor; as far as he knew, she hadn’t been offered one yet, in seven years out of Thornblood. This would be his first as well, but the second for Mirage.
Across the table, Mirage’s expression was incredulous. Eclipse was pleased by the delight in her eyes; this was, he well knew, the answer to her complaints of boredom and inactivity. Commissions were always difficult, always a challenge.
He just hoped she wouldn’t kill him when she found out who had ordered the job.
Ice was still apoplectic. “Who’s it from?” she growled at last.
He pulled the scroll away when she tried to reach for it. “Uh-uh,” he admonished her, waving one finger in her face. “Authorized Hunters only. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait with everyone else to find out what we’re up to.” He tucked the scroll back into his pouch. Once he got Mirage alone, he’d tell her more.
Mirage had smoothed her expression by the time Ice looked at her. She smiled at the Thornblood. “Don’t worry, Ice,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll get your turn — some day.”
That, coming from a Hunter two years her junior, was too much for the Thornblood. Growling, Ice turned and stormed out of the alehouse.
As soon as she was gone, Mirage leaned forward. “When were you planning on telling me about this?”
Eclipse shrugged uncomfortably. “I was about to say something when she showed up. I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to trap you into it.”
“Trap me? As if I’d turn a commission down?”
He stood to hide his discomfort. “Come on. Let’s go someplace more private to talk.”
Midsummer tradition in Chervie meant that no one cooked and ate at home if they could afford not to, which meant that everybody with two coins to rub together was eating somewhere in the city’s public quarters. Prices skyrocketed, and space at tables, along counters, and under awnings became harder to come by than fresh fruit in winter. Mirage had to pay through the nose for a small, private dining room in a place called the Garden of Bells. It was more like a private closet than a whole room, but the Garden’s architecture was copied from an eastern style; the fretwork walls would be very cold in Chervie’s northern winters, but on this summer day it was pleasantly cool. Plus, there was nowhere for an eavesdropper to hide.
Normally she wouldn’t have dreamed of paying the cost, but she was starving, the Garden had good food, and the commission was sure to pay enough that she could indulge a bit. “So, what will we be doing?” she asked her year-mate once the maid bringing in the roast pheasant and fruit had departed.
Eclipse looked uneasy.
Mirage put her fork down and gave him a sharp look. “What is it?”
By way of response, he pulled the scroll out again and rolled it across the table to her. Mirage picked it up and froze.
The seal was pressed into black wax flecked with silver — a color only one group of people used. And the sigil itself, a triskele knot intersecting a circle, would be instantly recognizable to even the most illiterate of peasants.
It was the symbol of the witches.
Mirage set the scroll down carefully and looked across at Eclipse. “This is from Starfall.”
“Yes,” he admitted.
Mirage stood and walked to the fretwork wall, putting her hands against it. Behind her she could hear him shift uncomfortably.
“You don’t have to,” he said at last. “No matter what we said to Ice. Everyone knows you stay away from witches; everyone would understand if you turned it down. Everyone who matters, anyway.”
More silence. Mirage closed her eyes. “What do they want?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t opened it yet.”
“How did you get it?”
“Jaguar. A Void Hand witch brought the scroll to him; he chose me to take it on.”
Jaguar’s not stupid, Mirage thought. He knew Eclipse would pick me as his second.
What’s his motive?
“A Void witch,” she said, turning away from the wall at last. “Then it’s an internal issue.”
Eclipse nodded. “Which might explain why they’re hiring Hunters. They may not trust their own people to be impartial.”
Mirage returned to the table and picked up the scroll. A commission from the witches. I wanted a new challenge, but not from them.
“If you’re uncomfortable . . . .” Eclipse began again.
Mirage broke the seal with one thumb and unrolled the scroll. Now she was committed; it was a hanging offense for such a message to be read by an unauthorized person. So absorbed was she in fighting down her irrational surge of uneasiness, she almost did not notice Eclipse rising to read over her shoulder.
The message was short, and brutally to the point.
“No wonder they wanted the insurance of two Hunters,” Eclipse breathed into her ear. “Although what the Key of the Fire Heart Path was doing out where she could be assassinated escapes me.”
“Damn them to Void,” Mirage growled, flinging the scroll across the room. Surge of uneasiness, my ass. It had been a spell settling into place. “They’ve enchanted us against speaking of it.”
“Do you blame them?” Eclipse asked.
“No.” She sighed and pressed her hands against her eyes.
Her fellow Hunter crossed the floor and picked up the scroll once more. “Blank.”
No more than I expected.
“This could mean trouble,” he said reluctantly.
“Trouble” didn’t come close to describing the possible outcome, and they both knew it. The commission, before it had faded, had commanded them not only to Hunt the assassin, but also to seek out whoever had been behind the task. And only someone very powerful could afford to pay for the death of such a high-ranking witch.
“If we call Hunt on a Lord or Lady . . . .”
Mirage would have preferred him to leave it unspoken. “They may not ask for that. The witches may prefer to take care of payback themselves.”
“From your lips to the Warrior’s heart,” Eclipse murmured.
Grim silence followed his prayer, before Mirage rose to her feet. “Well. We’re instructed to present ourselves in Corberth before the full moon. We’ve just enough time to make it. Unless you want to be late?”
“Not on your life,” Eclipse said.
They made miserable time on the road south. Rain pursued them through Abern and into the mountains of Seach, turning the road into a sea of mud the horses sank into; this was not one of the Great Roads, graveled and graded and maintained by the Lady who ruled the domain. Mirage, hunched in her cloak as Mist picked her way along, wondered if she would ever dry out again.
“Tell me again,” Eclipse said, “why we picked Silverfire.”
“It sounded glamorous,” Mirage said wryly. “Life on the road. Not tied down to any one place. Adventures! Excitement!”
“Mud. Rain. I should have been a Cloudhawk.”
“Ah, what a life,” Mirage said in a mock-wistful tone. “Pampered and petted, some Lord’s kept spy. You might never have set foot on the road, might have traveled in a carriage.”
There was a brief pause. Then Eclipse snorted. “I would’ve ended up killing someone out of sheer frustration.”
“As would we all,” Mirage replied, referring to her brothers and sisters of Silverfire. “I hate this Void-damned rain, but I wouldn’t trade it for a life bonded to one employer. I’d be even more bored then. At least as a freelance Hunter there’s variety.”
More silence from Eclipse. The reply hung in the air anyway: But Cloudhawks never work for witches.
They did not speak again until they reached the next town. Even so, and despite the rain, Mirage enjoyed the ride. Itinerant Hunters almost always worked solo; she was not used to having company on the road. Eclipse’s presence, however, was welcome, even when they didn’t speak. He had been the first one to befriend her when she came to Silverfire, and he knew her better than any of their other year-mates did. There was no Hunter she would rather work with.
They stopped for the night in Ansing, perched in the foothills a day’s ride from Corberth. Mirage scowled; she had originally expected to reach Corberth today. The rain had changed everything.
Once Mist and Eclipse’s gelding Sparker were stabled, the two Hunters took their belongings upstairs. The town was small, and not wealthy; the inn had no services for drying clothes, so Mirage left Eclipse laying damp clothes out around their room while she went to buy more grain for the horses.
When she returned a half hour later, she also brought up supper, which Eclipse took gratefully. Mirage nibbled her own sausage roll and stared at the floor, pondering what they would face tomorrow. Somehow, even though her intended rest in Chervie had been cut short, she wasn’t tired anymore. She welcomed any challenge to break the monotony of the past year.
“Who do you think we’ll be meeting tomorrow?” she asked Eclipse.
He shrugged. “Another Void Hand, I’d assume.”
A reasonable assumption. A witch of that Ray and Path had brought the commission to Silverfire, after all.
“Do you expect someone else?” Eclipse asked when she didn’t respond.
“Maybe,” Mirage said.
“Like who? Someone from the Void Heart? I guess that’s possible, but usually the Path of the Hand deals with the outside world.”
“I was actually thinking of a Fire witch.”
“Possible,” Eclipse said after a pause. “The victim was one of theirs.”
“No way to be sure,” Mirage said with a sigh. “We’ll just have to default to generic address, at least to start. I’d like to know who I’m dealing with, though.”
There was another silence then; Eclipse stacked their bowls in the hallway and Mirage circled the room, checking the state of their clothes. She lost herself in the routine task, and, accustomed as she was to being alone, she jumped when Eclipse spoke.
“Are you sure you’re all right with this?”
Mirage turned and stared at him. “What? I don’t have much choice now. I read the commission.”
“They could release you from it.”
She sat down slowly, not breaking her gaze from his. “Why do you keep bringing this up? Do you not want me with you?”
“Warrior, no,” Eclipse said instantly. “It’s just . . . .” He hesitated before speaking his mind. “If anybody else told me that you were going to work for a witch of your own free will, I would laugh in his face.”
And he would have cause. Mirage stood and paced a narrow circuit of the room, making herself consider his question seriously. If taking this job was a bad idea, this was her last chance to change her mind.
She’d avoided witches at every opportunity for years now; it had become reflex. It wasn’t just the red hair, either, though that was part of it. Mirage had known since childhood that she was unusually strong for her size, and no one could match her reflexes. Red hair alone didn’t mean anything, though almost all witches had it — but red hair with her physical talents looked strange. And a minor curiosity became a distinct problem when she entered a Hunter school, a place that, by ages of tradition, was not friendly to witches.
A lot of people at Silverfire didn’t like her being there at all. And so it became habit to avoid association with witches whenever possible. Other Hunters might go to a witch for healing; Mirage had only been healed once, while in training, and then not by her choice.
She shook her head and laughed softly. There was really only one answer to Eclipse’s question. “I just can’t pass a commission up.”
“Because it’s a challenge.”
She nodded. “It . . . draws me. I don’t like dealing with witches, but I want to take this job. Gut feeling. I think this is going to test my skills to the limit. And commissions are what our reputations are built on. Having a second one this soon would really help make my name.”
Eclipse grinned and shook his head in resignation.
“I knew you’d say that,” he said, still grinning.
They reached Corberth early the next afternoon. That night would be the full moon. Mirage had intended to arrive a day early, with time to prepare, but thanks to the weather, they had only a few hours.
She felt edgy as they brought their belongings into the inn Eclipse had chosen, and she took a moment to chase the feeling down. Normally freelance Hunters like those of Silverfire set the place of meeting, made their employers come to them. She was used to having that measure of control over the situation. With a witch, though, everything changed. The two Hunters would have to go to their employer.
She didn’t like it, but she couldn’t change it.
They didn’t speak much once they arrived. Even though Mirage and Eclipse had not worked together since their days as students, they fell into a comfortable rhythm. He went downstairs to fetch hot water while she got what they needed out of their bags. It didn’t take much sorting; they both packed very lightly.
Without asking Eclipse, she got out the finer of the two uniforms for both of them. Every Silverfire Hunter took care to keep one set cleaner and less worn, for formal situations. If meeting a witch did not qualify as formal, Mirage didn’t know what did.
Luckily the uniforms packed small, so they were not a burden to carry. Mirage shook out the individual pieces, each made of windsilk dyed so that its black shade did not reflect the light as ordinary silk might. Windsilk was so light it felt as though it might tear in the slightest breeze, but that delicacy was an illusion. Nobles bought it as a statement of wealth; Hunters used it for practicality.
Eclipse returned then with water. They stripped and bathed in their room, conducting their ablutions in silence; each used the washing as a chance to prepare for their task.
Mirage dressed herself with methodical precision. First the full breeches, cut so as not to restrict movement. She took a moment to arrange every pleat properly before donning the loose shirt. Then came the short jacket, cinched down with her weapons belt before she wrapped her waist in the wide sash. The boots she had been wearing were put aside for a pair unstained by mud. She practiced a few kicks and spins to make certain that nothing would chafe. Then a pair of supple gloves, and the mask and head covering that left only a strip across her eyes clear.
There was no mirror in the room, but Mirage still smiled at her appearance. Hunters in uniform were faceless and intimidating. The familiar costume helped to counteract the strangeness of not choosing the meeting location.
Eclipse finished dressing just moments after she did. And by then it was nightfall, and time for them to go.
The two Hunters slipped from shadow to shadow, picking their way across the town. Eclipse had gotten directions from a maid when he went down for the water; he’d managed to choose an inn clear on the other side of town from the designated location. Mirage didn’t mind. This skulk through the shadows honed her focus, stepping up her excitement just a little bit more. Evading the excuse for a local watch was easy, but even so, it exercised skills she hadn’t used much lately, barring the bandits and that one skirmish in the forest outside Enden.
When they arrived at the house indicated in the commission, they stopped to consider it. The place belonged to a person of some wealth; it was surrounded by its own wall, sculpted to mimic flowering bushes and trees. A pair of weary guards patrolled its top with less than full enthusiasm. Mirage and Eclipse exchanged quick glances. The sculptures made it all too easy.
The guards never noticed the two shadows flowing over the wall.
The small courtyard was edged with trees, but paved in the middle. There was no good way to approach the front door without stepping into the open — but then again, Mirage reminded herself, there was no need to. They were expected. And passing the guards in front, easy though it had been, was enough showing off for one night.
They stepped onto the cobblestones and headed for the front door.
It opened just as they reached it. A red-haired woman was inside; Mirage glanced at the short sword the woman wore and felt her lip curl. A Cousin. One of those lackeys she had been mistaken for in Enden, an obedient servant of the witches.
The Cousin bowed to them, showing no sign of fear or even surprise at finding two uniformed Hunters already inside the gate. Mirage swore inwardly, understanding. Ward of some kind. No wonder the guards are so lax. With tricks like this, how did that witch ever get assassinated?
They were conducted inside. The Cousin offered no greeting, and neither Hunter chose to break the silence. Intimidation was a useful tool, and although the woman was not outwardly cowed, Mirage could see the stiffness in her back. She smiled beneath the windsilk of her mask.
The Cousin led them to an elegantly carved door and opened it, gesturing them inside.
Given the sumptuous appearance of the rest of the house, the nearly bare room was jarring. A few high-backed chairs stood in a rough semicircle facing the door, and in the center of the arc sat a woman. The shadows of the chair’s wings cloaked her, but Mirage knew without being told that this was the witch.
Both she and Eclipse saluted their summoner.
The Cousin shut the door, and the room remained silent for several long moments. Then the witch spoke. “Silverfire.”
Mirage instantly tried to analyze that. Had she not known what school was hired? If so, the cut of their uniforms would have told her that. But the voice, almost devoid of inflection, was unclear; it could be that she had known, and was making some comment on the choice. Mirage could not tell.
“Have you been told anything?” the witch asked.
Her voice sent chills down Mirage’s spine. Melodious and smooth, like any witch; they depended on singing to control their magic, and so they trained their daughters’ voices from the time they could speak.
“No, Katsu,” Eclipse responded, defaulting to the generic form of address for a witch of unknown affiliation. “The commission merely said that Tari-nakana, the Fire Heart Key, had been assassinated, and that two Hunters were to be assigned to investigate the situation. It instructed us to come here and find you, and bound us not to speak of it to anyone else until now. That was all.”
The witch stood. She was taller than Mirage by a good bit, of a height with Eclipse. “Tari-nakana was returning to Starfall when she fell from her horse and broke her neck. A simple tragedy, or so it would seem. But the snake that startled her mount is rarely active during the day, and avoids open spaces such as roads. When the horse’s saddle-blanket was removed after it was put down for two broken legs, its back was inflamed — not seriously, but enough to make it more skittish than usual. And the girth strap was quite worn — again, not enough to look suspicious, but more than anyone recalls it being.”
Mirage felt a flicker of professional appreciation. So that was how it was done. Clever, and subtle. No one clue so glaring that anyone would point a finger at foul play, and no mischief strong enough to be caught before it could come to harm.
“These three anomalies caused us to investigate,” the witch continued. “There was no evidence of anyone planting the snake, or tampering with the saddle-girth, but the blanket had been touched with a very mild powder that irritated the horse’s skin. Given that, we suspect that the other two were also not chance.”
“What’s our assignment?” Mirage asked.
“Hunt,” the witch said bluntly. “Hunt the assassin and capture or eliminate her; either is acceptable. But also Hunt the one behind the assassin, the one who ordered the killing done. That, more than the first, is of paramount importance. But exercise caution; we do not wish to alert the employer. Inform us of your discoveries before any action is taken against that one.”
Eclipse nodded. “Who will be our contact?”
“Myself. Do you accept the commission?”
“We do,” Mirage said, knowing she spoke for both of them. Her fingers tingled with anticipation of the Hunt. It was a feeling she had missed, these past months.
The witch ought to have taken their oaths then. But she didn’t, not right away, and a chill prickled at Mirage’s neck. Why was she hesitating?
“I must warn you,” the witch said. “I will require a blood-oath. Do you still accept the commission?”
Mirage froze in shock. Many Hunters went their whole lives without ever taking on a blood-oathed commission. It was glory and death, all in one. Only the most delicate of situations merited blood-oaths, because they required the services of a witch to bind the Hunter to the task. If the Hunter completed the commission, he lived, gained great fame, and could ask three boons from his employer — whenever he wanted, no restrictions.
If he failed, he died.
If anything would require it, this would, Mirage thought. But am I ready for it?
Glory, fame, and three favors from some very powerful people.
She had wanted a challenge.
Mirage looked over at Eclipse, and found him doing the same. She was not at all certain what his choice would be until their eyes met. An instant only; that was all it took for them to know their answer.
“We accept,” Eclipse said.
The witch stood and beckoned them forward. She pulled a small table from her side to in front of her, and Mirage saw that it held a small dagger, a shallow silver bowl, and a faceted crystal. Witches’ tools.
“Your weapon hands, please,” the witch said.
Mirage’s heart was beating rapidly with apprehension. This could make her name for all time, put her into legend with other great Hunters of the past. But she could not forget the danger, the threat of death. If they failed, neither of them would live to take another assignment.
But if we succeed, the reward is worth it. And I’m arrogant enough to believe we will.
The witch interlocked their right hands so they were gripping each other over the bowl. Their gloves had been tucked into their belts.
She slid the dagger carefully between their wrists, flat against the skin, and held the crystal in her left hand. Then, without warning, the witch flipped the dagger to its edges and drew it downward, opening up a shallow cut on the inside of each Hunter’s wrist. Their blood dripped together into the silver bowl, forming a dark pool on the reflective surface.
The crystal the witch held began to hum as she held it above their hands. “You are charged with the task of serving justice to the assassin of Tari-nakana, Key of the Path of the Heart of the Ray of Fire, and of discovering the instigator of the murder. Should you fail, you will die. Should you succeed, we who have hired you bind ourselves to grant three boons to you, whenever you might require them. Do you accept?”
Mirage and Eclipse recited their responses in unison. “I swear, on my oath and my name as a Hunter, that I will devote my utmost efforts to the task, or accept the retribution of the Divine Warrior who holds my oath.”
Right hand on the bowl, left hand holding the crystal, the witch sang a series of sharp notes in the language of magic. Mirage’s stomach lurched as their commingled blood suddenly rushed upward, back through the gap between their wrists, to strike the crystal, where it was absorbed. The witch set the newly-dyed ruby back onto the table and clasped their bleeding wrists in her own hands.
“Your oath is accepted. You are free to Hunt.”
A sudden surge of pain made Mirage grip Eclipse’s hand in resistance. And then it was gone, as quickly as it had come, and the witch was moving the table away.
Mirage released Eclipse’s hand examined her wrist. Even in the dim light, she could see the thin scar. It glittered peculiarly, with a greenish shade that seemed to be a reminder of the strangely colored magical fire that had sealed it shut. The scar would mark her for life, a sign that she had undertaken a blood-oathed commission — and, if all went well, survived.
They didn’t leave the house immediately. Both Mirage and Eclipse had a number of questions they needed to ask; if they were to investigate the assassination, they would need as much information as possible. The witch answered readily enough, but Mirage still felt something off-kilter.
Is she keeping something from us? But why would she? Mirage considered the question even as she listened to Eclipse ask something else. Is she afraid of being incriminated in something? In the murder? I doubt the guilty party’s hiring us to investigate. She frowned beneath her mask. It’s something to keep an eye out for. I don’t like mysteries, not when my life is on the line.
They departed before dawn, carrying the first part of their payment and an enchanted sheet of rice paper that could be used to ask the witch further questions, should the need arise. Mirage was certain it would. She didn’t like the paper, though; it would send the words written on it to a matching sheet the witch had, certainly, but communicating through writing would make it a great deal harder to tell if the witch was equivocating or avoiding a subject.
Neither Hunter spoke until they were in their room again and had checked their surroundings for eavesdroppers. There were none; Mirage hadn’t expected any, but it always paid to be careful. She just wished she had some way to prevent magical prying.
“What do you think?” Eclipse asked as he removed his mask and put it on the table.
Mirage had also taken hers off, and she turned it over in her hands as she replied. “It’s the work of a Hunter.”
He nodded. “My thoughts exactly. We’re the only people who get that kind of training, to think it through carefully, and hide our tracks.”
“So which school? Could be several — Silverfire, for one. Although we don’t tend to do assassin work as often. Thornblood would be more likely. Or Stoneshadow, or Wolfstar.”
“I’d favor those latter two. It strikes me as the kind of job you’d hire a specialist for; we’re more jack-of-all-trades, and so’s Thornblood. So it boils down to a question of freelance or bonded. Is this some Lord’s permanent assassin, or a mercenary?”
“I’ve got the same gut feeling — that it’s an assassination specialist — but we can’t get locked into that,” Mirage cautioned.
“Agreed.” Eclipse sat down, then leaned the chair onto its back two legs as he thought. “The greyweed on the saddle blanket had to have come from out east, probably Insebrar — do you think that’s where the employer is?”
“Maybe. Would Lord Ralni have any reason to assassinate her? Not that it necessarily was him, of course. But Lords are some of the only people with the money or influence to buy the death of someone that important; I mean, she headed an entire Path in her Ray. And besides, Fire witches are the political ones.” Mirage paced the small room, mask still dangling from her fingers. There was a faint thought teasing at the back of her head. When she nailed it down, she stopped pacing. “He’s patient, whoever he is. He couldn’t be at all certain Tari-nakana would die in that accident — our contact said she was a good rider. She might have controlled her horse when it shied, or gotten clear as it fell. So he valued subtlety over immediate results.”
“But he was almost certainly hired for the job, not the attempt.”
“Which means he had a backup plan.”
“Her home, you think?”
“It’s where I’d go next, were I in his place. She was on her way back to Starfall. I just hope they haven’t touched anything yet, or that our assassin friend hasn’t gone and cleaned the place up. If we see another of his traps, we might have a better chance of identifying his school.”
Eclipse nodded and dropped the chair back onto four legs. “Which brings up a question: how do you want to work this? Should we figure out who the assassin was, and track the chain back that way, or should we be trying to find out who would’ve wanted to kill her?”
Mirage leaned against a wall and considered. Eclipse waited patiently for her answer, not pushing; they were already falling into a smooth working partnership. “We could split up, with one of us chasing each. Two Hunters would be useful that way. But we don’t have to decide now.”
“Right. Either way, the next logical destination is Tari-nakana’s house in Starfall, since that’s where her office was.”
Less than an hour, and already Mirage had a question for their witch contact. “Could you write and ask if the house has been touched?” She grinned. “I’d do it, but . . . .”
“You sing like an asthmatic horse. I’d rather not hear you try.”
Mirage mock-snarled at him and went to put her mask away as Eclipse wrote out their question in his elegant handwriting. Then he activated the sheet, singing under his breath the first line of the ballad “The Hawk of Fire.” A sign that their contact was from the Fire Ray, or just a nod to Tari-nakana’s affiliation?
The words faded off the sheet, but the response did not come immediately. Rather than wait idly, they both changed back into mundane clothing. By the time their uniforms were packed into their saddlebags, a line written in a spiky, backhanded script had appeared in place of Eclipse’s question.
“As far as she knows, the house is untouched,” he said, reading off the sheet.
Two copper disks dropped out of nowhere onto the table.
Mirage swore mildly in startlement as she picked them up. “She’d better not do that on a regular basis.” The disks were identical; on one side they showed the triskele circle of the witches, and on the other, a two-part glyph. “Name symbols, do you think?”
Another line had appeared on the paper. Eclipse read it aloud. “The tokens should get you past the wards on Tari-nakana’s house.” He took one and examined it closely, then compared it to Mirage’s. “Maybe. Tari-nakana’s name, with something else?”
“Don’t lose it. I’d hate to have to pick you up in pieces.”
“That would be messy. Don’t worry; I’ll be careful.” He glanced out the window to check the sky. “Not quite dawn. I say we sleep for a few hours, then get on the road.”
“Agreed,” Mirage said. “It’s a long way to Starfall.”
The mountains reached high into the night sky, but the stars glimmered higher still. Miryo lay on her back against the slanted roof of the students’ hall and studied them, trying to lose herself in peaceful stargazing. Her thoughts, however, would not leave her alone.
Her eyes scanned restlessly, picking out one constellation after another, identifying each, reviewing their cycles in the sky. It didn’t help to look elsewhere. Turning her attention downward only showed her the nearby buildings of Starfall’s only major settlement: the students’ hall beneath her; the architectural logjam of the ancient main building; the New House, where she would hopefully be living before much longer. All reminders of what was coming. There was no surcease to be found in looking downward.
All the same, though, it was better out here than in her room. Were she there, her bookshelves and desk would beckon her with reminders of all the things she still had to study, all the things she still didn’t know. Out here, where the night breeze could refresh her, she could at least try to empty her mind, to find peace and forgetfulness.
She could try to ignore what was coming.
The wind blew more strongly, making her shiver. Miryo tucked back strands of hair that had been teased loose from their braid and then wrapped her arms around her body. She should have brought a cloak, or at least worn warmer clothing. It might be the middle of summer, but here on the slopes of the mountains, the breeze could still be chill.
But if she didn’t want to return to her room, there were still places she could go that would be more sheltered. Miryo rose carefully, mindful of the long plunge that awaited her should she fall off the roof of the students’ hall. Despite the cool air, she removed her slippers and stuck them into a pocket; she preferred cold toes to the loss of traction on the slate roof.
She made her way up the slope to the ridge-line where, balancing against the wind, she paused to look upward, at the structure she’d had her back to before. Star Hall itself, the ritual heart of this place, looming over everything else with its windows like watching eyes. Miryo shivered and moved hurriedly into the lee of a higher gable. A cautious slide down the opposite side took her to the base of another rise; the students’ hall, though not as mismatched in its structure as the main building, boasted a crazy landscape of intersecting roofs that afforded all sorts of fun climbing and hidden nooks.
The hissed warning nearly made her lose her grip on the roof’s crest. She caught herself in time and slid carefully into the cup formed by the intersection of several slopes. Some enterprising student long ago had put a wooden platform down there, making a comfortable hidden spot that was a favorite refuge of those students who found it.
“You almost made me break my neck,” Miryo said to the other shadowy figure in the pit.
“If I hadn’t said anything, you would have fallen on me,” Eikyo pointed out. “I figured it was worth the risk.”
Miryo shrugged. “You would have survived.”
“With bruises. Pardon me if I didn’t look forward to that.” Eikyo sighed and leaned back, mirth rapidly forgotten. “Have you finished your essay for Yuri-mai?”
“I’ve hardly started,” Miryo admitted. “I’ve been . . . .”
“Brooding,” Eikyo finished for her.
Involuntarily Miryo glanced upward again at the watchful bulk of Star Hall.
“Don’t think about it,” Eikyo said as soon as Miryo’s eyes moved. “Worrying isn’t going to help you any.”
“Like you never think about it yourself.”
“Of course I do. But not as often as you do; I’ve seen you obsessing.”
“I think I’m justified,” Miryo said sharply. “It is, after all, my fate we’re talking about.”
“And mine,” her friend replied, unperturbed. “In another couple of months. We’re all facing the same thing, Miryo. But plenty of women before us have done fine.”
Miryo shivered and wrapped her arms around her legs. “And plenty have failed. You didn’t see what was left of Hinusoka, after . . . .” She closed her eyes, but it didn’t block the memory of the appallingly small bundle the Cousins had carried out of Star Hall. And the way it had dripped . . . . “I just don’t feel prepared. Study is fine and well, but in the end, they hand you power and you have to control it. Or else it controls you. And there’s no way to practice for that, because only when the time comes will you have power to handle.”
“You’ll be fine,” Eikyo repeated. “Gannu made it, after all; if she can survive the test, you’ll have no problem.” Despite her words, her body had tensed, and Miryo looked at her in curiosity. “All right,” Eikyo admitted. “I worry, too. But not about dying. Is that strange?”
Miryo knew what she was referring to. Eikyo had a superstition about saying it directly, ever since the teachers told them what happened to students who failed the final test. Not everyone died. Eikyo thought the alternative was worse; Miryo didn’t much want to think about either one.
“Worry about something more mundane,” she suggested, to distract her friend. And herself. “Like failing the questioning from the Keys, and being publicly humiliated because they decide you’re not even ready for the test. Stuck here as an old woman, with all the younger students laughing at you –”
“Oh, that’s helpful,” Eikyo said, but some of the tension went out of her shoulders.
Miryo grinned at her. “Come on. If one of us is going to worry about the questioning, it should be me. Your memory has mine beat. Think past the test; think about the future. Are you sure you want to be Earth Heart?”
“Yes,” Eikyo said firmly, brightening. Her preference had always been for the company of plants and animals, rather than people; being in crowds made her uneasy. “What about you? Have you made any decisions yet?”
Now it was Miryo’s turn to sigh. “No. At the rate I’m going, I’ll be one of those witches they have to push into deciding. You may hate the idea of having to wait a year before you’re allowed to officially choose, but I’m glad.”
“Don’t you have any idea?”
“Nothing I can go on.” Miryo gestured in mute frustration. “None of them seem right. None of them really call to me, and isn’t that how you’re supposed to decide?”
“To the Void with what you’re supposed to do. Approach it from a different angle. Whom do you wish not to serve?”
The inversion of the ritual question was an interesting one, and it woke Miryo’s mind up a little. Choosing a Path within a Ray was relatively easy. If you wanted to carry out the fieldwork of your Ray, you chose the Hand. If you wanted to do research or recordkeeping, you chose the Head. And if you wanted to administrate your Ray’s affairs, you chose the Heart. Most people knew where their talents and inclinations lay early on. But who you’d be working with, what tasks you’d be handling — that was organized into the five Rays, and for Miryo, that was harder.
She applied herself to Eikyo’s question. “Not the rulers, I think.”
“I can’t see you playing at politics with Lords and governors,” Eikyo agreed. “Fire’s out, then; four Rays left.”
Miryo leaned back and brushed strands of hair back behind her ears. “I don’t think I could do Water, either.”
“I was going to say that if you didn’t. You’re not suited to living your life out in a village, finding lost livestock and curing the pox.”
“Well, no one said I had to choose the Hand.”
“True, but you’re not really organized enough for the Heart, and you don’t have the patience for the Head. You’re going to be a Hand, no matter what Ray you choose; I’d bet on it.”
Miryo couldn’t argue that. “The rest . . . I don’t know!” She got up and paced as best she could around the tiny platform, feeling the weathered wood rough under her bare feet. “I don’t think I’d want Void. I don’t want to get stuck in internal troubles. That’s politics again, only our politics instead of everybody else’s. Earth? Maybe, but I don’t have the knack for nature that you do.”
“Which leaves Air.”
Miryo paused, thinking about it. The Air Ray didn’t have as clear a purpose as the others; they served whoever needed it. “They travel a lot.”
Eikyo laughed. “I can’t tell by your voice whether that’s a good thing or a bad one.”
“I don’t know which one it is.”
“You’ve complained enough times about never getting to leave Starfall. I’d say you have the traveling bug.”
Miryo wrapped her arms around her body, trying to imagine that life. “But I’ve never actually done it. Not like they do, always on the move. I think I might like it; sounds better than my other options, anyway. But what if I don’t?”
“You do have a year after the test before you can officially choose,” Eikyo reminded her. “That gives you a chance to find out, before you get locked into anything.” The end of her sentence trailed off into an enormous yawn.
“Up early again?” Miryo asked.
“Was I ever,” Eikyo said feelingly. “Ruka-chai had me help with one of the mares. She dropped a darling little colt this morning.”
“So that’s where you were,” Miryo said, sitting once more. “I was wondering. You didn’t come to breakfast.”
“No, Ruka-chai had one of the Cousins bring food out to us. We were covered in muck; believe me, you didn’t want us at breakfast.” Eikyo yawned again, and flapped one hand in apology. “Sorry. I should get back to my room, though.”
“As should I,” Miryo said heavily. “I have to finish that essay for Yuri-mai, after all. You’d think that we’d be done with essays at this stage, but no.”
They both climbed to their feet, and Eikyo gave Miryo’s arm a squeeze. “Don’t worry. We’ll astound them with our knowledge during the questioning, and then breeze through the final test. Both of us. And then you can figure out where you want to be.”
“Thanks, Eikyo.” Miryo gave her a quick hug; then they began the steep climb back out of the cup. The wind bit into Miryo as she crested the top; she shivered in her thin clothing. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said to her friend. They split up then; their rooms were not far apart inside, but a crumbling bit of roof in between them made it safer for Eikyo to take a different path.
Miryo made it back to her side of the building without trouble. She leaned over the edge to make sure Teruku was not looking out her window; her fellow student knew Miryo and most everyone else went climbing on the roof, but she disapproved, and let everyone know it. Teruku was at her desk, with her back to the window. Miryo wrapped her hands firmly around a sculpture of a falcon and swung her legs over the roof. Her feet touched onto a knot of vines and, balancing on these, she inched her way over to her own window and climbed through.
Her half-finished essay for Yuri-mai was on her desk. Miryo gave it a sour look and stretched out on her bed instead.
Lying there, she could look directly across at her shelves. They held pages and pages of notes, all tied into tidy sheaves; a good portion of her education was there, neatly stacked. Not all of it, of course; her education had begun as soon as she could speak, with simple etiquette. The sixteen forms of address proper for witches of various affiliations. How to bow. Where she could and could not go in Tsurike Hall, her first home.
Most of the material covered in her first ten years was not there. Those years had been spent on simple things, letters and numbers, the specialized language of magic. And voice lessons, of course; those had begun as soon as she could speak, so that when the time came she could shape her spells without waver or hesitation. The rest of her early training, in basic history and geography and the like, was deeply enough ingrained that she didn’t need to go back over it.
Miryo rose to her feet and went to the shelves, where she ran a finger down the stacks of notes from her Elemental studies. She had finished reviewing them a few days ago: the symbolic associations of each, the foci that could be used to channel them, the magical effects they were suited for, their reflections in human society, their philosophical meanings. All five Elements, even the Void; it might not have any magic associated with it, or any foci to channel that magic, but it had everything else. Endless floods of detail. Once she finished her essay, she would go over it again. And again, and again, until time ran out and they put her knowledge to the test.
Scowling, Miryo went to her desk and glared at the sheets there. For a moment her own tight, slanted handwriting seemed hateful to her. She wanted to climb down the side of the students’ hall and run away, down the mountainside, out into the night.
But there would be no point to doing that. She was a student here, the daughter of a witch, and in a month’s time, barring failure, she, too, would be a witch. There wasn’t any other path to take, not that she would choose voluntarily.
She kicked her chair abruptly. For the last year she’d gone through this cycle; every few months she would turn maudlin, questioning her purpose and her odds of success. It would pass before much longer; it always had before. Most of the time she enjoyed the challenge of her studies. Her mood would clear; she’d go to the tests with her determination restored and do just fine.
And if I tell myself that often enough, I might even begin to believe it.