Touchstone: Chapters 1-5

amazon bn powells booksamillion ibooks2 indiebound

Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from Touchstone by Melanie Rawn, the first book of the Glass Thorns series. In Albeyn, theater is shaped by the magic of skilled practitioners into a complete sensory and emotional immersion. Catch up before the next book in the series, Playing to the Godscomes out August 29th.

Cayden Silversun is part Elven, part Fae, part human Wizard—and all rebel. His aristocratic mother would have him follow his father to the Royal Court, to make a high society living off the scraps of kings. But Cade lives and breathes for the theater, and he’s good—very, very good. With his company, he’ll enter the highest reaches of society and power as an honored artist—or die trying. Cade combines the talents of Merlin, Shakespeare, and John Lennon: a wholly charming character in a remarkably original fantasy world created by a mistress of the art.

Chapter 1

Predictably, the girl was willing to draw the pint only when the coin was glinting on the bar. Cayden stretched his lips in a parody of a smile as she scooped up the money with one hand and pulled the tap with the other. No glass for him, oh no; leather tankard instead, sealed with tar and riveted with brass and bound to taste of both.

Well, it was alcohol, and that was all that mattered. But if that fool who’d had the bollocks to claim himself a glisker had been any good, Cade would be knocking back whiskey right now, and plenty of it—from a real glass, and with coin to spare for something to eat. Decent drink and his supper had walked out of the tavern a little while ago, jingling in the incompetent’s purse. Glisker, he’d termed himself. Experienced, even. Cade snorted. Probably had about as much Elfenblood in him as the dirty rag the girl was using to mop up the bar. At least he was paid off and gone, and nobody was any the worse for the performance.

Yet when Cade thought about what might have been, if he had the right glisker, one with real talent and real magic—

“Wuzna too gude, wuzzee?”

The accent was excruciating—especially as Cayden had worked so hard to soften his own, distorted during years of schooling not twenty miles from here. Eyeing the young man beside him at the bar, he noted a confusion of features that proclaimed an ancestry so diverse that probably even he didn’t know what to call himself.

“No, he wasn’t too good.” He had to admit it. Honesty was the hallmark of a real artist, or so his Sagemaster had told him. Or maybe it was “truth” that mattered most. They weren’t the same.

“Gotz me a chum c’n do ooshuns better,” the rough voice continued.

“Do you?” Cayden smiled politely and returned his attention to his ale.

“Domn near purely breeded Elferblud, an’ tha’s fact. Givvem withies next show, whyn’t ya?”

Yet another aspiring glisker. Splendid. What was he, the audition manager for every amateur in the kingdom?

Still … they’d gone through four gliskers this year alone, not counting the idiot tonight, never finding the right mix, never finding anyone Cayden could trust with his visions and Jeschenar could trust with his skin and Rafcadion could trust with his sanity. They weren’t anywhere near good enough even to seek Trials, and it was all because they didn’t have the right glisker.

What would it be like, he wondered, to experience that effortless balance of talent and energy and magic that this was supposed to be? It was what all the greatest players had known, what he sensed was going on with the Shadowshapers now that they’d hired Chattim Czillag away from his old group. That nobody had ever heard a name so outrageous, nobody knew where he’d come from or his lineage or the name of his clan—if any—or indeed aught about him mattered not at all. Chattim fit. With the right glisker, a performance became an event, a distinction.

Hells, what was one more tryout, anyway? It wasn’t as if anyone would ever hear about yet another botched playlet, not in this rickety old tavern only half a step inside civilization.

Cade shrugged to himself and glanced down—way down—at the youth beside him. “All right, send him up for the next show.”

Breath hissed between ragged teeth—a sign of delight in a Troll, and of an impending brawl in a Gnome. As he hurried off to find his friend, he moved with the rolling shoulders and splayed knees peculiar to the former, thereby settling the question of his primary ancestry as surely as Cayden’s long-boned height proclaimed his. Watching the little man, recalling the quirks of his accent, for an instant Cade felt a twinge of longing for home. Not for his parents; a bit for his little brother; mostly for their Trollwife, Mistress Mirdley. She’d been strict and kind to him, when all his mother knew how to be was neglectful and harsh.

“Oh, pity the poor little Wizardling!” jeered the Sagemaster’s voice in his head. “How horrid to be you!”

A small commotion behind him jostled him into the bar, and he turned his head to snarl. One more trite old playlet tonight for this unsophisticated crowd, and they could get out of here, get some sleep in the hayloft, and then tomorrow be gone entirely from this village of sour ale and foul manners. And really lousy trimmings, he thought with a gloomy sigh; two nights of this, and they’d barely made enough for the coach fare home. He thought with longing of the brand-new private coach his friend (and rival, though nobody but Cayden knew that yet) Rauel Kevelock had so gleefully described last month, painted in swirling colors like a demented prism, with SHADOWSHAPERS in stark black on both sides. It had bunk beds for when they got tired, and a firepocket for when they got cold. True, the group still had to hire horses from the post stations, but at least they were no longer at the mercy of worn-out springs and a coachman who drank his wages in full before clambering up to take the reins, and—

Someone bumped into him again, knocking his hand against his leather flask of ale. He half-turned and shoved right back. Spindle-boned Cade might be, but Jeska had taught him how to use his fists efficiently rather than his magic haphazardly, and he was just frustrated enough right now to relish the prospect of a punch-up.

Then he saw what had knocked into him.

Even for someone with plenty of Wizardly blood, Cayden was tall. The man whose chest was on a level with his eyes—this man was at least half Giant. Maybe more than half; there was very little mitigating intellect visible in the red-rimmed eyes glaring down on him.

“Uh—sorry,” Cade managed. “Thought you were somebody else.”

“Did ’ee, now?” The depth of his rumble rattled the bottles on the shelves.

Oh, shit.

“Yazz!” exclaimed a light, cheerful voice. “Don’t break him! He’s me new Quill, he is! It’s rich an’ famed he and me will be—but only if ye leave him all his wits an’ bones!”

A slow, fond smile gentled the massive face. Cade turned, wondering if he was more grateful for the rescue or annoyed by the glisker’s arrogance. Because a glisker this had to be, the one promised by the Troll. For an Elf, however, this boy had peculiar taste in friends.

And then all speculation—indeed, all thought—fled Cade’s brain, except for the sure knowledge that he would remember for the rest of his life the instant those huge, melting eyes looked up at him from beneath a shock of coal-black hair.

Those eyes: sparkling with what his Sagemaster called “front and effrontery,” a combination of awful nervousness and awe-inspiring conceit. Cade had been accused of it himself on occasion, but hard lessoning in the brutal school of his own family had taught him to hide any fear behind all the arrogance he could possibly project. This boy was too young yet to have perfected his mask.

Those eyes: a bit too bright with the alcohol downed to get his courage up, trying to hide apprehension that Cade wouldn’t think he was good enough, but not trying at all to disguise that he thought any group of players would be colossally lucky to get him.

Those eyes: full of anxiety and arrogance, innocence and cunning, and a dozen other conflicting things that dizzied Cade for a moment.

There was a low growling in his ears that he hoped was Yazz agreeing to let him live. A burst of bright laughter followed from the Elf. His new glisker.

Those eyes were directed at him again, calculating, challenging. “Mieka say-it-five-times-fast Windthistle.”

“Dare ’ee t’try!” The Giant nudged Cade with an elbow strongly reminiscent of a roof joist, and he staggered against the bar.

“Did I tell ye or did I not, Yazz? Don’t damage him!”

“Much beholden,” Cade said, taking refuge in the stock phrases of civility. “You’re the glisker wants a chance?”

“You need me, and here I am. Thought I’d introduce meself afore we start work.” Thick black brows arched an invitation to share his name.

“Cayden Silversun, Falcon Clan,” he said.

To his annoyance, the Elf didn’t look as impressed as he ought to have done. But there was an odd sort of approval in his eyes, and perhaps relief, as he said, “Falcon, not Hawk? Good. Such a harsh, cruel word, innit? Typical of that tongue—and that clan. Always makes me think of claws with blood drippin’ off ’em. Met any foreign kin?”

“No. Are you ready to work?” He cast an eloquent glance at the whiskey in Windthistle’s hand.

“Almost.” He slugged back the remainder of his drink, slapped the glass onto the bar, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, belched delicately, and gave Cade a dazzling smile. “Now I’m ready.”

Yazz reached out a finger and tapped a carefully gentle admonishment on the Elf’s head. “Rich un’ famed, Miek,” he rasped, and Cade had the irrelevant thought that meek was precisely the wrong word for any Elf, particularly this one.

“Oh, certain sure,” the boy laughed, and scampered off towards the tavern’s pathetic excuse for a stage.

“Givvem simple t’do,” said Yazz. “Makes everythin’ from nothin’, Miek does.”

“Is that so?” Hearing the sharp skepticism in his own voice, he dredged up a smile meant to mollify the Giant. “I’m looking forward to it.”

*   *   *

The trouble with being the tregetour, Cayden thought for possibly the millionth time, was that after you were done with your part of the piece, you were helpless. Superfluous. At times, a nuisance.

No, that was wrong, he thought morosely as he crouched before his glass baskets of crystalline withies. The worst part of it was having to trust.

Rafcadion and Jeschenar, them he trusted. It wasn’t their fault they’d never found a glisker who really knew what he was doing—or, more to the purpose, knew what to do with Cade’s magic. Jeska was a good masquer, and getting better—and Cade knew that a lot of the reason they’d gotten as far as they had was that Jeska really could make much out of practically nothing. Rafe was just plain brilliant: steady, calm, powerful, everything a fettler ought to be and more. But Cayden couldn’t help wondering what it would be like when Rafe didn’t have to use up so much of himself keeping the performance together because the glisker was lazy or erratic or reckless; when he could fine-tune things, work with the man instead of guarding against excesses, correcting failures, glossing over incompetences.

Given a glisker who could not only perform the piece but also enhance it, Jeska and Rafcadion would be free to develop their gifts to their fullest, to provide Cayden’s work with the nuances he craved. And they would no longer end each evening so wrung out they could hardly stand.

Despite Yazz’s affectionate confidence in this new glisker, Cade had no hopes for him. He’d never known of any Elf from that kin line who even aspired to what the Troll and the Giant claimed this one could do. All Elves were maddeningly insubordinate, but the Air lineages added a wicked capriciousness to the mix, just as the Earths were devious and greedy, the Waters were sullen, and the Fires were downright malicious. Cade doubted that this Elf could sit still long enough for a performance.

Things definitely ran in families; he knew that for a fact. His mother’s great-grandfather—the one without a title, the one she never talked about—had been a noteworthy poet. His father’s father had been a Master Fettler who’d performed on the Ducal Circuit. Some of Cade’s cousins participated in amateur theatrics—though none of them would dream of making it a profession, for more money and status were to be had in other Wizardcraftings. His uncle had begun a promising career as a fettler before being called up into the army for that despicable experiment that had killed so many—and left others drooling imbeciles, like Uncle Dennet. It was a grudge Wizards had against Elfenkind, that they had flatly refused to participate in the Archduke’s scheme to use magic as a method of war, and had thus escaped tragedy.

That this Mieka Windthistle had no ancestors Cayden knew of who’d ever worked in theater boded ill. Then again, maybe his circumstances were like Cayden’s: a talent that simply would not be stifled, a restless need to create that could not be channeled into more respectable ways of making a living. Maybe he had chafed and rebelled as Cayden had, until finally his parents gave their unwilling consent to let him try.

And if that was indeed the case, he wondered if, like his own parents, they expected him to fail.

The claim to “purebred” he dismissed as absurd. How many centuries since the last truebloods of any race had died? He could trace his own ancestry back seven generations in his father’s line, and fully twelve in his mother’s. In their long, long history had been some genuine oddities, but his mother considered him the oddest of all. “Something must not be quite right on your father’s side,” she’d mused more than once. “My people never threw such a mongrel as you.” He knew by the names alone that he had Wizard and Elf (two Water, one Fire), Piksey and Sprite, and even that rarest of all bloods, Fae, in him. And Troll, he’d heard his mad great-granny say, because where else could he have got a face like this? Hook-beak nose and long jaw, cheekbones that could cut glass, wide mouth—granted, he was tall and gangly, not short and stout, but the byword for ugliness had stuck to him like pine sap, and every nickname he’d ever been inflicted with and every insult ever flung his way incorporated troll amongst its syllables. Never mind that his eyes were the fundamental truth about him: a clear, luminous gray, like the moonstones in Queen Roshien’s crown. They were Elfen eyes, inheritance of Mistbind and Watersmith, just as his long bones and thin, strong hands proclaimed Wizard, and his straight white teeth were entirely Human.

But it was the gift he never spoke about that was proof positive he was Fae. How all these things had combined to create him, he neither knew nor cared. He was what he was, and he knew what he could someday be. He’d seen it.

But … trueblood Elf? Not damned likely. Usually the bit remaining showed only in the coloring—the very dark, the very pale. Black hair, and eyes brown as tree bark or green like a forest pool, and skin the golden brown of fallen leaves. White-blond hair, with eyes blue as ice or gray as snow clouds, and translucent milky skin. The other features—delicate little hands and feet, sharp teeth, pointed ears—those things seemed to have faded first from the bloodlines.

If they reappeared, they were quite often hidden somehow. There were chirurgeons who did a brisk business in mutilating a newborn’s ears (as had been done to Jeska at the orders of a grandfather frantic to be thought entirely Human), and grinding down or knocking out and replacing any suspect teeth. Hands could not be hidden, but feet could be broken at the instep to flatten the telltale high arch. There were dyes for the hair and cosmetics for the skin, and specialists who retrained the lilting voice—or broke the willful spirit.

Nothing had been done to disguise this boy. Nothing. He was Elfen from his thick hair to his small, high-arched feet. Moreover, he had inherited the most attractive aspects of both major Kins. No Dark Elf would have skin as purely white as his, with no brown freckles or brick-red mottling, and no Light Elf would have hair that black. Those eyes confirmed it: neither gray nor blue, neither green nor brown, but an almost opalescent combination of all those colors, with an elusive golden spark in the iris of the left eye. It just wasn’t right that anything male, even Elfen male, should have eyes that beautiful, with such long, thick lashes. The teeth were small and regular and entirely Human; the ears, peeking shyly from the heavy silk hair, were entirely Elfen. It was a quick, wickedly nimble little body, and the fine bones were long enough to give him Human height. His voice was soft and lively, deeper than a young Elf’s treble. And his spirit was untamed—and, Cayden suspected, completely untamable.

He was the most beautiful thing Cayden had ever seen in his life. And he was asking to be given a chance.

So: should Cade give him something simple, as the Giant had suggested, something to ease him into it, give him the opportunity to succeed? Or something complex, difficult, to challenge the arrogance in those eyes? For Cayden realized that Mieka Windthistle wasn’t asking for anything, any more than Cayden had ever asked his parents’ permission to become a player. He was demanding control of Cayden’s glass withies, and Jeschenar’s absolute trust, and the entirety of Rafcadion’s supportive skill. Arrogant little Elf.

Cayden crouched down beside the glass baskets, his lips softening in a smile. Woven of ropes made of clear glass, there were two sets of four baskets each, the smooth curved rims tincted in sequential rainbow colors. Within were distributed almost three dozen hollow glass twigs varying in length from half a foot to nearly thrice that, crimped at one end and stamped there with the glasscrafter’s hallmark, their colors more delicate. The withies trembled with random sparks, reacting to the proximity of the one who had imbued them with magic.

He and Rafe and Jeska had thought to do another classic tonight, a cloying sentimental piece about a sailor coming home rich from his voyages to find his girl bespoken to another man. It was simple enough, requiring a masquer to shift only twice, from the sailor to the girl and back to the sailor again. There was magic and more than enough in the withies already primed. Simple magic for a simple story. Had he been forced to do the glisking, as he would have had to after the departure of the talentless idiot if Mieka Windthistle hadn’t shown up, these withies would have been sufficient. He had enough Elfenblood for the work, but a restrained magic was all he could handle on his own. It wasn’t that he was incapable, he told himself, it was just that he was so much better at the creating than the working. But he had to be honest inside his own head: He was clumsy at best, his hands too big and his fingers too long for the delicate manipulations required. With a quick glance at Mieka, who was over in a corner sharing a laugh with his Giant and Troll friends, he decided that the magic inside the slender glass twigs was too simple. On impulse he grasped a handful from the far basket, the indigo one. A few moments’ concentration imbued them with fresh spells. A second basket, and a third, and he breathed deeply before rising to his feet again. Let the snooty little Elf give this a try, he told himself, and went to talk to Jeschenar and Rafcadion.

“You really want to?” Jeska asked, frowning all over his gorgeous golden face. “I’m game, of course I am, but—”

“You’ve Elf enough in you to supplement whatever he can’t do. I’ve watched you work this one when you’re so drunk, you can’t hardly see straight.” To Rafe, he added, “I’ll tell him he’ll have more than the usual to work with on this piece, but if you catch him messing about, slap him back down.”

The fettler shrugged powerful shoulders and nodded. “I’ll keep him in line. No flourishes.”

“Oh, you can tease him a bit. Just don’t let him get away with anything silly.”

Ten minutes later, watching from his hiding place beneath the stairs—hiding not to avoid seeing the audience’s reactions but to avoid their seeing him—he clenched his jaw and his fists and prayed to the good Lord and Lady to protect his friends if this new glisker should prove not just arrogant but dangerous. Still, their long search for the right glisker had taught them to deal swiftly with the inconsistent and the incompetent, the nervous and the confused. Jeschenar was strong, with great instincts; Rafcadion was capable of throttling any flawed or frantic magic. And if needs must, Cayden could summon up his own skills and help his friends.

Expecting the boy to wait politely beside the glass baskets while Jeska readied himself and Rafe took a position at far stage left, Cade was startled when the glisker charmingly persuaded a couple of patrons out of their chairs and dragged the furniture to the back of the stage. Then he began rearranging baskets. Quick hands switched green with blue, yellow with violet, perched the black and white onto chair seats and balanced the orange on their slick rims. Then he seemed to be looking for something. Not finding it, he shrugged—and picked out two withies from the red basket to balance across the blue. It was a configuration that made no sense to Cade at all, who always used the classic prism pattern. Then, rather than seat himself on the glisker’s bench within easy reach of all the baskets, he remained standing. When Jeska nodded to Rafe that he was ready, and Rafe began the foundation work—steady and solid as always, the best fettler Cade had ever encountered—the glisker bounced a few times on his heels, laughing soundlessly to himself.

Magic began to radiate through the tavern. Usually Cade spent a few moments watching the audience, marking those who resisted and those who instinctively fought, just in case his help might be needed. It never was. Rafe was too good at control. But vigilance was another duty a tregetour owed his group. Tonight, though, he completely forgot. The Elf did something he’d never seen a glisker do before, not even the Winterly or Ducal or Royal Circuit professionals.

He made his work into a dance.

Instead of sitting where he could reach for one withie at a time to have it ready in the left hand for the switch to the right when needed, he twisted and curled his whole body, swaying from one basket to another, grabbing up glass twigs in both hands and waving them like a Good Brother censing parishioners at High Chapel. Cayden bit back a despairing moan. If the boy was this wild just setting up the scene, who knew what he’d do with the piece itself?

Mieka played it straight for the Sailor’s homecoming. A mast and a white backdrop sail, and a wooden deck below Jeska’s feet: all these things were usual. The hint of salt air, the touch of a breeze, even the dim ring of ship’s bells calling the hour—all were subtle touches usually found only on the Circuits. But when the Sailor set foot on land and caught sight of his beloved in the company of another man, instead of the outrage and pain and betrayal the piece called for, Mieka projected shocked amazement without letting the audience—or poor Jeska—in on why.

What he had in mind became apparent when Jeska made his shift to the persona of the Sweetheart. At first she was as the Sailor had remembered and described her: a lovely, dainty little thing with blond curls and a winsome smile. But quickly the demure blue gown deepened to a vile purple; the shawl turning from leaf to livid green; the gold hair brassy; and the petal-pink lips blood-crimson as the glisker conjured the painted face and blowsy figure of a seasoned whore. She lamented how hard she had to work, how difficult her life was—all with Jeska behaving physically as if he wore the usual pretty face and graceful form. The audience howled with laughter and pounded tables with fists and flagons. As she bemoaned the fact that she’d had to accept the other man’s proposal because it just wasn’t possible for her to go on any longer alone and unprotected, Jeska did what he always did at this point—what, by tradition, every masquer did at this point: sank to his knees. A pitiable gesture for a young girl, it now looked as if she was kneeling to perform certain services.

Jeska held the pose, then got to his feet almost as if pulled upright by powerful, unseen hands on his shoulders. By the time he was standing, the shift back to the Sailor had been made. Cayden swallowed a gasp of shock at the glisker’s skill—and nearly strangled on an exclamation when he sensed Rafe loosen his stringent hold on the flux of magic. The Sailor told his former girlfriend that it was breaking his heart but he understood, he’d been gone a long time, it was only natural that she’d grown tired of waiting—and all the while the Elf emanated waves of gleeful relief at this lucky escape that washed over the eagerly receptive audience. At the end, the Sailor was supposed to slump into a tavern to drown his sorrows, dejection in every line of him as he dropped coins on the bar and bought drinks all round so he’d have company in his despair. By now Jeska had adapted—oh, had he ever adapted. Jaunty and carefree, whistling in between his lines, he dug deep in pockets and flung coins high in the air as he invited everyone to toast his freedom. The imaginary coins were one of Cade’s best feats of magic, something very few tregetours his age could do; their cheery chiming was all Mieka, and something no other glisker had ever managed to do for Cade before.

It was funny, it was brilliant, it was completely outrageous, and it had the patrons flinging real coins onto the stage.

The Elf had one more trick. As Jeska bent to retrieve the money, he suddenly wore once again the Sweetheart’s garish gown and brassy curls. Startled, he nearly tripped on his own feet. Cayden heard Mieka chortling behind the glass baskets. Jeska again reacted swiftly, changing the crouches to curtseys, blowing kisses to the audience. And the trimmings piled up in his swift, snatching hands.

It was a while before Cayden felt ready to leave the darkness beneath the stairs and shoulder his way through the crowd to the bar. The whole village was congratulating the Elf, buying him and Rafe and Jeska drinks, roaring out the stale old lines that Mieka had turned from histrionic to hilarious. When Cade at last ventured out, he was swept up in the general celebration of the glisker’s triumph.

He had never been so furious in his life.

He wasn’t so furious that he turned down the chance to get drunk for free.

Neither was he so drunk by the end of the night that he neglected his duty to himself and his friends by making it easy for the tavern keeper to hire them for another night. Guessing that the coins would keep coming from the audience, Cade demanded not money but decent beds—including tonight—and three meals tomorrow instead of one, plus a full supper before they went to bed tonight and breakfast on the day they left. By the time he got what he wanted, the minster chimes had rung curfew and the place was nearly empty. Both he and the landlord knew that tomorrow night, from opening bell until closing, there would scarcely be room in the tavern to stand. He spread his hands wide open in the Wizardly gesture that meant You may trust my word, I use no magic and concluded the deal, then returned to the bar.

Rafe was superbly drunk, lids drooping over his blue-gray eyes, a silly smile curving his lips beneath the heavy beard he was very proud of being able to grow at the ripe old age of nineteen. Jeska was a little more sober, but only a little; the tavern keeper’s daughter might or might not get the full benefits of his attention later on. Cade wondered whether he ought to mention they’d be in real beds tonight, not in the hayloft, then shrugged to himself. Jeska always found a way.

As for the glisker—Mieka Windthistle couldn’t have said his own name once, slowly, let alone five times fast, without hopelessly tangling his tongue.

Cayden didn’t wait to be noticed. He poked the Elf in the ribs and demanded, “What the fuck was that?”

Big, innocent, very drunk eyes—almost entirely green at the moment—blinked up at him. “Ye dinnit like it?” Before Cade could reply, he turned to Jeska. “Sorry for that bit at the end, mate, but it were such a fetchin’ little Sweetheart, I just couldn’t resist.”

“You’re a shithead,” Jeska remarked amiably, sorting coins on the bar. “You want your share now, or after the show tomorrow night?”

“Tomorrow night?” Cade sucked in an outraged breath. How dare they decide such things without him? “Have I said yet that there’s gonna be a next show with this—this—”

Rafcadion interrupted. “This best glisker you or me or Jeska or anybody else in this shit-pit of a town ever saw? Yeh, there’ll be a next show.” He grinned, white teeth flashing in his dark beard. “And a next, and a next, and a next—all the way to Trials.” Raising his glass—they’d all been given the real thing in place of the leather—he announced, “Trials, and the Winterly Circuit!”

Mieka laughed and raised his glass to his lips—but his gaze was sharp and watchful, and suddenly he appeared considerably more sober. Cade looked into those eyes, discovered he was unable to look away. When at last he nodded, and drank the toast, the Elf nodded back, satisfied.

“Much beholden, Quill,” he murmured. “Very much beholden.”

Chapter 2

Even though he’d long since learned not to anticipate, Cayden wasn’t too surprised when he didn’t dream that night. He had both expected to and expected not to; that was the particular glorious hell of what his Fae heritage had done to him. His Sagemaster had explained it once.

“There are things that occur which are important, and things that are not. There are things that are essential, things that must happen—and things that are so trivial, they make no difference at all. The difficulty is discerning which is which. Now, what may seem obviously important—a death in the family, moving from one village to another, falling in love—might not be important after all. And things such as choosing to wear the red tunic instead of the blue, this might be absolutely vital. Simply put, you will never, ever know.

“It would be logical to assume that events, people, interior realizations that you know at once will change your life—these will be pivots from which visions will come. Assume nothing of the kind. Some of these things are simply fated. They must happen for every other thing to happen. You have no choices to make and therefore you will dream no futures. You cannot unmeet your future wife, for example. So the day you meet her, you probably won’t dream. But if you bring her daisies instead of roses, if you wear that red tunic instead of the blue, these things may very well trigger more dreams than you can keep track of—for these are the things that often determine what shape the future will take.

“So the lesson must be that there is no predicting what will set off a foretelling. What seems important may be trivial, and what seems insignificant may be critical. You cannot control your gift. You are at the mercy of fate.”

Which was why, as Cade knew very well, he enjoyed his work so much. For, during the time he spent devising his tales, he was in control.

Once his part was done, once he’d written or rewritten the lines and employed his own special ciphers that signaled the sensory underlays, he had to give everything over to Jeska and Rafe and now, apparently, Mieka. But for those hours and days of the creative process, the work was entirely his. He supposed he could learn to trust the Elf the way he trusted his two other partners.

At least—unlike their last couple of gliskers—Mieka told them the truth, that next afternoon when they met to discuss what they would perform that night. When Rafe asked a polite question about where in the village he lived, he laughed.

“Don’t live here at all! I’m as much a Gallybanker as you three.” When they stared at him, he shrugged. “Saw you last year, didn’t I, at that tavern over on Beekbacks. With a glisker not worth a splintered withie—nor the one I saw you with next, or next as well. The one last month wasn’t bad, but…”

“A cullion, he was,” Jeska commented. “Wish him good morrow, and he’d say, ‘I take it you’re planning to die before then? Lovely!’ Mean of spirit and meaner of pocket. But I don’t understand why everyone here seems to know you.”

“My auntie’s house is out on the edge of town. She’s the one as brews the whiskey.” He winked; those eyes were blue with flecks of green this afternoon. “I’d be popular and indeed beloved even if I weren’t adorable all on me own.”

“And modest, I see,” Rafe drawled.

Mieka nodded genially. “When I heard you were booked here, I decided to make a visit to Auntie Brishen.”

“You followed us,” Cade accused.

“And aren’t you glad I did?”

He sat back in his chair, rolling his eyes. “When His Gracious Majesty gives you the silver sword and golden spurs, Sir Mieka, you’ll be sure to spare a nod for us petty quidams, won’t you?”

“Don’t condemn yourself to wretched obscurity so soon,” Mieka shot back. “Tell me what you want to do for tonight, and then tell me what your thinking is for Trials.”

“That’s almost three months away,” Rafe observed. “We’ve the first of two shows in three hours.”

“Only one show tonight.” The boy burst out laughing when they stared at him. “Thunderin’ hells, I hope what’s between your legs is more use to you than what’s between your ears! They expect us at eight. We come on near nine. They expect a good giggle, and we give it to ’em—but instead of an interval, we go right into what makes ’em weep. I know this lot. They’re surly outside and mushy inside—and once they’ve worn themselves out laughing, they won’t have energy to resist a good long cry. Which is what they really want anyway, drunk as they’ll be by then.”

Cayden had the feeling this would not be the last time he’d have to struggle for control of his own group. “If they expect us at eight and we come on at nine, they’ll be so impatient and angry that Jeska will have to work twice as hard to win them over.”

“Not with me doing the glisking.” He tapped a finger down the list Rafe had given him of the works in their folio. “No … no … no—Gods and Angels, not that one!—and not that one, neither, not if you held a sword to me throat—”

“Do you ever stay still long enough for anyone to give it a try?” Jeska asked.

“Not often, and certainly not when I’m working. Not this one—but I think the sons-and-fathers dialogue would be just the thing.”

Rafe actually recoiled. “We don’t hardly ever do that one.”

“Nobody does,” Mieka responded with a shrug. “But it’s perfect tonight, and here’s why. There’s a reason this village is near empty of old men—hadn’t you noticed?”

With a suddenness that set his heart pounding too hard, Cade knew everything. “We’re on the Archduke’s old domains, aren’t we?”

“And full marks with shooting star clusters for the scion of the Falcon Clan.” Mieka crooked a finger at the tavern keeper’s daughter. “Another round here, if you would, please, darlin’,” he called, and gave her a beguiling smile.

“Not for me,” Jeska told him. “Not until after.”

Mieka shrugged. “As you will. I’ll have yours, then. What Cayden knows and you haven’t yet guessed—”

“Almost every man of military age either died or was crippled by the Archduke’s War,” Rafe said flatly. “You don’t yet know me, boy, but there’s no advantage in routinely assuming everyone you meet isn’t near as smart as you.”

Mieka had the grace to look abashed—for all of three heartbeats. “Won’t happen again. Anyway, the piece may be about the loss of three fathers in a collapsed silver mine, but that’s neither here nor there nor anywhere else for our purpose. There’s no man will be present tonight who’ll not have lost a father or a grandsir, an uncle or older brother. They’ll weep oceans. And we’ll be up to our necks in trimmings.”

Cade accepted his glass of ale before the maid could spill it—her attention was dangerously divided between Jeska and Mieka—and took a long swallow. It wasn’t polite to ask, but previous experience had made him cautious about a glisker’s willingness to work the really wrenching pieces, the ones that demanded a fettler’s iron control but a glisker’s near-total abandonment to emotion. Uninhibited expression of joy or sorrow, love or fear, was the reason no one not substantially Elfenblood could function effectively as a glisker. Elves were creatures of unabashed emotion; unruly as a rule, even the best of them were unpredictable. The worst of them … self-indulgent was a nice way of putting it.

As for the best of them … perhaps Mieka was one, though from his enthusiastic consumption of alcohol, he appeared to have fully mastered the self-indulgent part. Cade slumped back in his chair again and sipped his ale, listening as the other three discussed the proposed performance of “The Silver Mine.” There was a wild glint in those changeable eyes, granted—but there was also an intensity of purpose as Mieka plotted out the changes with Jeska and made notes with Rafe on when he’d have to exert most control. Skepticism turned to cautious admiration as it became plain that the glisker knew what he was doing.

It was odd, Cade reflected, that he’d never once had a dream—waking or sleeping—about anyone even vaguely resembling this Elf. Jeschenar had been glimpsed several times, so when they’d finally met almost two years ago, Cade felt reasonably comfortable with him from the start. Getting used to his occasionally belligerent ways had been another matter, but at least Cade knew not to challenge him physically: Jeska was effectively king of about a square mile of Gallantrybanks, with a bagful of souvenir teeth he’d knocked out to prove it. The roster of his defeated rivals had stopped growing only because these days nobody was fool enough to confront him and add another name to the list, or tooth to the collection.

Cade had known Rafe since littleschool, so the foretelling dreams about him had no power to surprise him. He was still waiting for the squat little Gnomelike man he’d seen more and more often this last year. Those dreams were comparatively forceful, the kind that flashed through his waking consciousness as well as invaded his sleeping mind. There were several other people who populated his foretellings with more or less frequency and importance. But he’d never caught even a hint of this Elf, and it confused him.

Did it mean Mieka was insignificant? Cade would never believe that. What he’d seen and experienced last night, what he presumed would happen again this evening, argued for a powerful presence in his life. But why had he never seen the boy before?

“The worst mistake you can make is to believe that you are the sole arbiter of your existence. Put another way—do you really have the arrogance to think that nothing anyone else does has any effect on you? That if you don’t envision it in advance, it can’t possibly be real? That you make all the choices?”

Mieka must be one of those people whose caprices ruled his own life so thoroughly that Cayden’s prescience was of no use at all in predicting his sudden arrival. Now that he was here, however, Cade found it equally unsettling that there had been no dream last night, not even a vague impression upon waking that something in life had changed forever.

In fact, now that he considered it, last night he’d slept better than he had in a long time. Worry usually kept him awake until sheer physical exhaustion dragged him down into sleep. He’d attributed the swift and untroubled slumber of last night to good liquor and a blissfully soft bed. But now, watching his group thrash out the details of the night’s performance, he wondered if something else might be at work here.

“Cade? Cayden!”

“Oh—sorry,” he said as Jeska’s impatience finally penetrated his self-absorption. “Have you decided, then?”

Mieka was giving him a sidelong glitter of a smile. “Remind me—why do we need you?”

Cade grinned back, set down his empty glass, and flexed his fingers. “Without me, you’d all be nothing. Are you ready to make your choices, then, Mieka? Come on.”

Together they went into the kitchen, where a large cupboard was unlocked by the glowering Trollwife who vastly resented this interruption from her bread-making—until the Elf gave her a sweetly innocent smile. Without the slightest twinge of a dreaming, Cade foresaw infinite doors being opened for them by that smile.

They took the glass baskets outside to the enclosed porch, trying to ignore the stench of uncovered rubbish bins as they sorted through for what Mieka would be using tonight.

“Who made these for you?” he asked, fingers caressing the graceful curvature of the blue basket.

“Friend of mine,” Cade answered.

Another sidelong glance, this time speculative, and a moment later Mieka said, “You’ll have to introduce me to her.”

Cade stared. “How did you know—?”

“I didn’t!” He crowed with triumphant laughter. “Quill, you really do need to guard those eyes of yours! You can turn down your mouth and knot up your eyebrows all you like, but the eyes will always give you away! Does she make the withies as well?”

“Some of them,” he admitted grudgingly. “Most of them are her father’s castoffs. I have terrible trouble priming some of them.”

“I felt that, last night.” He selected a glass twig and inspected it. “This is one of hers?”

“Yes. Even her best aren’t quite as supple as her father’s culls, but she knows me better.”

“Let’s pick out the ones he made,” Mieka instructed, “and return them for credit. Whatever skill she lacks, I can make up for. I didn’t much like the feel of some of those from last night. They fought me.”

Bemused, he helped to sort as required. Mieka made no mistakes in choosing which had been Blye’s work and which her father’s. Those quick little fingers were exquisitely sensitive.

“Bleedin’ indecent, if you ask me,” the boy muttered, tossing a withie onto the discard pile, “trying to pass off mottles like these as usable. And you were a fool to buy them, I don’t care how much of a discount he gave you. Look at the warp in this!” He held up a foot-long twig of glass tinted faint blue, and pointed to a distortion halfway down. “It’s a tribute to your skill that these do what you want them to do—but they make you work much too hard. From now on, we use only the best, right? What’s your glasscrafter girl’s name?”

“Blye Cindercliff.”

“A rare and lovely Goblin name,” he approved. “We’ll make her as rich as us—but on what she’ll charge other people,” he added with a grin, “once we’ve made her famous!”

“We can’t use her name. No Guild allows women to use a hallmark.” And thus their wares went for much less than Guild-sanctioned items, and foreign trade was forbidden to them—“inferior” goods might ruin the Kingdom’s reputation. Never mind that what Blye made was far beyond apprentice work, approaching that of Master. She, and the hundreds of women crafters like her, would never receive Guild-level prices or Guild rights.

“This is her father’s, then?” He ran a finger over the symbol stamped into the crimp end of a withie.

“Yes. You don’t seem upset that she’s a girl.”

“A knack’s a knack, no matter if it comes wearing trousers or a skirt. You say she knows you, and that’s a very good thing. Once she gets to know me, it’ll be even better.” He paused, head tilting to one side, hair shifting to reveal one pointed ear. “Forgot to ask—how well do you know her? Meaning—”

“—would I be upset if you bedded her?” Cade laughed, genuinely amused. “I’d like to see you try, to be honest.”

“Oh. Likes girls, does she?”

“Not that I’ve ever noticed. It’s not something we discuss. No, it’s just that I’ve never seen her with anybody—she works too hard, being her father’s only child and determined to learn all she can from him before he dies. After, she’ll hire another glasscrafter, to keep the Guild happy and everything looking legal. But she wants to know everything about the work so the new man doesn’t swindle her.” He rolled one of Blye’s better efforts between his palms. There was only one barely discernible bump near the crimp to mark it as apprentice work. But no bubbles, no rutilations. Blye knew what she was about, and would only get better. As the chill glass warmed to his skin, the warmth within it seemed to stir and stretch like a cat recognizing a familiar caress.

“I like her more and more,” Mieka announced. “What’s ailing her father, can I ask?”

“Lungs. He was in the war.”

Mieka shivered. “No wonder his hand slips and his breath’s unsteady, then. Is he at the blood stage yet?”

“Not quite. A year or so, the physicker says.”

Anger made him look years older as he snarled, “Damn the Archduke, and damn the Wizards he corrupted!”

It was a typical attitude for Elfenkind, but there was a subtlety of loathing that differed from what Cayden had come to expect. It was a lack of contempt, he decided as he searched Mieka’s face, and a sincere compassion for the victims. But to hear an Elf count Wizards amongst those victims … perhaps Mieka wasn’t just the better sort of Elf. Perhaps he was one of the best.

“You’ll have to change up your ciphering,” Mieka said all at once. “These codes and colors—no, none of this will work at all.”

“Are you insane? Do you know how long it took me to put that together?”

“And how many gliskers have you explained it to?” He tapped the page of performance notes. “I don’t want anyone stealing and copying. So there’ll have to be a new cipher. I’ll help.”

“Kindly of you,” Cade snapped.

“Not at all,” Mieka replied blithely. “We see things in the same colors, you know. It’s alike to the quality as makes Chattim so good with Vered’s work—but with Rauel’s, not as much.”

“How do you know that? And how do you know the Shadowshapers, anyway?”

“And that’s another thing. We need a name, and a good one. But I’ll help with that, too. Anyway, all you and I need do is settle on a color arch, organize the subtleties, and code everything so just the four of us understand it. A night’s work, if the whiskey’s good enough for inspiration.” He smiled. “I’ll ask me auntie to contribute to the cause, shall I?”

“Anything else about our lives you’d care to rearrange?”

“Well…” Critically, gaze flickering down and up Cade’s frame. “The clothes could use a tweak. Yellow just isn’t your color. You ought to wear something silver or gray, always, to play on your name and play up your eyes. And do stop trying to grow a beard, Quill, you’re only embarrassing yourself.”

Had he really just speculated that this Elf might be one of the best sort?

“You know I’m right,” Mieka added with a cajoling smile. “I always am. But if you won’t admit it now, you will after tonight.”

It turned out he was right—about the performance, anyway. The tavern’s patrons laughed themselves silly over “The Sailor’s Sweetheart,” just as Mieka had predicted, soon forgetting that the show had begun almost an hour late. They had barely recovered their breath when “The Silver Mine” began. And they wept unashamed, also as Mieka had predicted. For all that Cade himself had been the one to supply the magic for the withies used tonight, he was hard-pressed to keep tears from his own eyes as he watched from beneath the stairs. Across Jeska’s features the anguished faces of the dying fathers melted one by one, with heartrending subtlety, into the younger, grief-stricken faces of their sons; the elusive sensations of physical pain in broken legs, ribs, fingers were diffused by Rafe carefully, gently, gliding into the emotional pain of loss as the boys bade their fathers farewell. The changes from the sunlit hill where the sons stood to the dark depths of the silver mine, with a single candle glinting that turned veins of ore to threads of light, were accomplished with breathtaking grace. The dialogue was traditional to the piece, except for a dozen or so lines Cade had changed within each section, adding and subtracting words as he sensed them needed or unnecessary. For all the familiarity of the story, there was nothing mawkish about the performance, nothing squirmy. All of it was honest. All of it was real.

He wondered what Mieka was using to produce such effects, what he was quarrying inside himself that created this art. Surely he was too young to have experienced that intensity of emotion. As the last echoes faded and Rafe allowed the magic to drain quietly away, Cade found himself doing something he never did: He joined his masquer, fettler, and glisker onstage to share, as their tregetour, in the applause.

Jeska’s arched brows conveyed his astonishment at this break with Cade’s introverted habits. Rafe’s wry smile of understanding wasn’t quite hidden in his beard. Mieka, breathing hard, damp with sweat, grinned brightly up at him and shouted over the tumult, “Free ale tonight!”

He was right about that, too. Ale there was, and the best, in tall green glasses the landlord brought out from his wife’s own shelves. When Cade finally staggered upstairs to bed—oh, the delight of a real bed with a real mattress and real sheets, and all to himself besides—he had to work hard at it to remember how buttons and lacings worked as he got out of his clothes and slid between those real sheets, naked so he could fully enjoy them. He was asleep before he had time to do more than stretch in the luxurious little cocoon. For the second night in a row, he had no dreams. And when he woke in the morning, surprisingly free of a hangover, considering the amount of ale he’d drained down his throat the night before, he was actually happy.

Their ride home was in the back of one of Mieka’s aunt’s whiskey wagons. It was chilly, but it was free—and it became a lot less chilly when Mieka tugged the bung from a half-size barrel snugged in beneath the driver’s bench and handed out tin cups.

“She always puts this one in for me,” he said, patting the barrel fondly.

By the milestone that marked halfway home, all four of them were roaring drunk—or, rather, warbling drunk, because Jeska had issued a singing challenge for Most Obscene Ballad. The black sky overhead, dappled with stars, was treated to Rafe’s touching rendition of “Whistlecock and Biggerstaff” and Jeska’s contribution of “The Wizard’s Wondrous Wand.” Cade gave them a mercifully truncated version of the thirty-three stanza “What a Lady Needs,” mainly because he was too drunk to recall the middle fifteen requirements. But before Mieka could offer a contender, he passed out. By the Presence Lamps of a lonesome countryside chapel Cade saw him do it, marveling at the transition from full, laughing consciousness to absolute oblivion between one eyeblink and the next. He slumped against a barrel of whiskey, his jaw dropped open, and he began to snore. Jeska prodded him in the side with a toe of his boot; there was no reaction.

“Will somebody for the love of the Lord shut him up?” Rafe growled.

“Lay him down on his side,” said the driver, with a glance over his shoulder.

They tried, tugging and cursing, until Mieka grunted, pulled away, and—still sitting up, more or less—curled with his cheek to one of the padded crates containing Cade’s glass baskets and withies.

“He’ll sleep it off by daybreak,” the driver continued. “Now, tell me again, where am I setting you boys down?”

“He won’t be sick, will he?” Cade asked. He’d stitched the feather-filled cushioning himself, each nest specific to the basket it held.

“Never that I’ve seen it.” He paused for thought. “Always a first time, though.”

“Wonderful,” Cade muttered, and yanked the boy away from the padded crate with scant sympathy for any bruises he might be giving. Mieka grunted again, shifted, and this time curled on the floor of the wagon with his head on Cade’s knee. He snuffled like a puppy and settled back into sleep.

Jeska sniggered. “At least if he yarks, it’ll be on you.”

“I’m washable.” Shrugging, he addressed the back of the driver’s head. “Let them off at Beekbacks Lane.” Rafe lived a block north, Jeska four blocks east. “And me at Criddow Close, if you would.” He had all his baskets to carry, and his partners helped him when they took the public coach, but he was certain that Blye would be readying the glassworks by the time the wagon got them home, and be on the lookout for him—he was returning a day later than planned. That she would help him with the crates was secondary, though; he wanted her to get a look at his new glisker.

It was nearly daybreak, and the city traffic had not quite snarled the streets yet, when the wagon stopped at the top of Beekbacks Lane. Mieka didn’t stir as Jeska and Rafe jumped off. Cade threw their satchels down to them and reminded them of rehearsal at Rafe’s the following afternoon. The fettler’s parents were most obliging when it came to giving over their sitting room to their son and his friends. Jeska’s widowed mother allowed them the use of her cellar, but strictly in the summer months; she worried about the damp. Cade’s parents didn’t want that rubbish in their house at all. He wondered suddenly what sort of attitude Mieka’s family had towards his work, his ambitions, his determination to live the unpredictable life of a traveling player. As the horses began their weary clopping over the pavement again, he looked down at the head still resting on his knee. Shaggy black hair hid most of the face, and Cade was tempted to brush it back, wake him up, ask the thousand questions he should have been asking all day yesterday and all night last night. What held him back was the memory of another bit of advice from the Sage who had taught him.

“Sometimes, you know, it’s best just to let things happen. There are places and moments and people meant to be savored. You can force flowers to a quicker bloom in a hothouse, but they only fade all the faster. What your mind can do to you, Cayden, means that all too often you’re skipping ahead in a book to the last few pages, and you find out how it ends—but you have no idea how you got there, how it happened the way it did. In brief, there are times when you simply have to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

The driver brought the horses to a halt at the bottom of Criddow Close, tucked up onto the cobbled footway to avoid carts and coaches now clogging the morning. The city had woken up; Mieka hadn’t. Cade stacked the crates handed down to him by the driver, who also did him the favor of yelling at a Trollwife as she prepared to slosh her slops bucket down to the drainage runnel right next to Cade’s feet. By the time the last of the gear was unloaded, Blye had been distracted from her kiln, as Cade had known she would be. She stood in the middle of the lane, absently smacking fireproof dragon-gut gloves again her thigh. He waved, and she tossed the gloves back into the shop and started towards him.

“Until another time then, lad,” the driver said. Cade nodded and began to express his gratitude, but he interrupted with, “Last night? I was watching. You’d do well to keep him, in spite of the trouble he’ll be to you.”

He would have asked how much trouble, and what kind, but Blye was beside him, cuffing him affectionately on the shoulder, and he smiled down at her. No one would ever know it to look at her, because the more obvious traits of the bloodline had been more or less overcome by Human and Wizard, Piksey and even some Elf, but like all those who worked with fire or forge, she was primarily of Goblin descent. It showed in how short she was, and her wiry build, and her slightly crooked teeth, but only if you were looking for Goblin traits. Her beauty was in the silvery blond hair that any other woman would have slit her own throat rather than cut; Blye kept it scythed off to barely neck length, to keep it out of her way when she worked. Cade hadn’t seen her in a skirt for any occasion other than Chapel since they were children. She was exactly five days older than he, and they had known each other all their lives.

“Yes,” he told her before she could say anything, “I made it home in one piece. Yes, I have the money you lent me for the trip, plus enough to take you out for a drink tonight. Yes, we were good, and he’s why.” He pointed to the slumbering Elf curled between whiskey barrels. “Introductions will have to wait for when he’s conscious, but that’s our new glisker.”

Placing a foot on a wheel spoke, she hoisted herself up to peer over the side of the wagon. “You’re hiring children now?”

“He’s eighteen. Well, probably. But it doesn’t matter, Blye, he’s good.” Then, shrewdly, knowing she’d be caught even if she didn’t want to admit it, he added, “He only wants to use your work from now on.”

“So I’ll be getting to know him whether I like it or not?” Blye looked for a moment more, then jumped down. “I’d better like it, Cade,” she warned. “Come on, let’s get your things inside and you can tell me all about it.”

They were arranging the crates between them with the ease of long practice, and the wagon had just set off again, when a voice rang out.

“Tell her she’ll adore me, Quill—everyone does!”

Blye slanted a look at Cade, dark eyes not quite amused. “Adorable, is he?”

“To hear him tell it.” He shrugged. “Me, I don’t much care what he says or does offstage. When he’s on…”

“Jeska and Rafe agree with you?”

“They agreed with me before I did!” They reached the back door of Cade’s parents’ house, and he paused. “We’ll be at the Downstreet tomorrow night, Blye, I wish you’d come and see.”

“P’rhaps I will. Is he really that good?”

Reluctant as he was to admit this, still he had never been anything less than honest with her. “Y’know, I think he might be better.”

Chapter 3

Time after time it happened, and every time it happened, it was different.

Sometimes there was a setting, just as if he’d planned it all out for a performance: a backdrop as clear and tangible as if he could walk into the room and pull the curtains open to the sunshine, or stride up the hill and feel the wind on his face as it rustled the trees. There were smells and sensations, he could hear chirring birds and mothers calling their children inside for supper. He even knew what clothes he wore by the feel of linen or wool or leather against his skin. He was there, in that place and time, and if he was lucky, a glance around would show him a broadsheet thrown on a table or left open across a chair arm, and a glimpse of its date would tell him precisely when he was.

But sometimes there were only vague shadows. Glimpses. Fleeting sensations. Unrecognized, unclear voices. Being a crafter of words, a designer of specific magic, he was both annoyed and frightened by the imprecision. He never knew if the blurred dreams were blurred because that particular future was as yet unresolved, unset, uncaused. He did know that the crisply real futures could be changed, in spite of their detailed authenticity, because he’d done it. He had done it when he was twelve years old.

{His mother turned her back on him and stepped lightly from the drawing room, the satisfied smile on her face seeming to linger in the mirror above the hearth. He felt Mistress Mirdley’s warm, powerful arms around his waist as she hugged him, but she let go very quickly and hurried for the kitchen. He thought she might be crying. He hoisted his satchel up onto a shoulder and turned, catching sight of himself in the huge gold-flecked mirror that had long since been drained of its magic. Very tall, very thin, the merest shadow of a beard on his jaw, he could not have been more than sixteen. His fist clenched around parchment, and he looked down at the letter with loathing.

Master Remey Honeycoil
Fine Imported Wines
72 Tullyhowe Lane
Vintners and Victuallers Guild

How pleased Master Honeycoil was to accept so clever a boy as his clerk—and how relieved his mother was that selling her son into servitude would cancel out the family’s liquor bills for the last two years and the next three besides. Shoving open the door to the vestibule, grabbing up his father’s old blue cloak, not pausing to don it against the snow-swirled night outside, he unlatched the front door and left his parents’ house for what he knew was the last time.}

It had all felt so real. So appallingly real. He’d woken, shivering as desperately as if he really had been outside in the bitterest cold, rather than sweating with the midsummer heat in his own bedroom high above Redpebble Square. But what had awakened him had not been the lingering chill of his dream. As he lay there, trying to catch his breath, he heard his mother cry out, and then the quick heavy stomping of Mistress Mirdley’s feet up the wrought iron staircase, and knew the baby was finally about to be born. Pillows over his head to muffle the awful sounds from two floors below, he reviewed the dream and concluded the obvious: that this new baby would be a boy, and healthy, and as good-looking as his handsome parents, and therefore Cade would no longer be required to enhance the family repute. But something would have to be done with him, something would have to be found for him to do with his life. When the bills came in for little Derien’s Namingday party a month later, he saw the note from Master Honeycoil, and chills shook him once again.

That he was not tending the wine shop at 72 Tullyhowe Lane was his own doing. It had not been as simple as stealing his father’s new blue woolen cloak and stuffing it into the glassworks kiln, although that was the very first thing he’d done. In retrospect, he was ashamed of himself for it. Not for stealing and destroying the cloak (a household mystery ever after), but for having panicked. One had to think these things through, he decided. So he thought, and found that it was even simpler than it had at first appeared, for what it all came down to was money. So for the rest of that summer and on into the autumn, he ran errands for the Trollwives who served the other houses in Redpebble Square, using the coins earned to pay Master Honeycoil on the sly. It wasn’t until the beginning of winter that he had his inspiration: to work for Master Honeycoil after school each day. During a month of sweeping floors and lugging crates, he learned quite a lot about wine—at secondhand, of course, being not quite thirteen years old. And then one day his employer mentioned that when the current apprentice went to open his own shop, another boy would be needed. So Cayden—who only the previous night had woken from a slightly different version of the same dreadful dream, still featuring his departure from home to become Master Honeycoil’s apprentice—made the “mistake” that cost him his job. A shipment of twenty-year-old wine to a very important client for a very important Wintering party in the Spillwater district somehow was switched with two dozen bottles of rumbullion lately arrived from the Islands. Master Honeycoil sacked him and refused to have anything to do with the Silversun household again.

There had been other dreams, of course, where he saw himself walking out the front door to become anything from an office clerk to a bookseller. (That wouldn’t have been too bad, but it wasn’t his choice any more than the wine shop.) There were also visions of being summarily thrown out the back door and slinking along to Blye’s or Rafe’s because he had nowhere else to go. As each dream occurred, he made plans to show himself incompetent at the proposed work, or to offend the master whose apprentice he might have become. It seemed to him that just thinking about how to avoid a particular future must change things enough to cancel those possibilities for all time. Yet it remained that he had done it, he had made certain that he would never be trapped into any life he didn’t want. Now, at nearly nineteen, he was what he had always yearned to be: a tregetour, an artist. And when he finally walked out his parents’ front door for good, it would be to lodgings of his own, paid for with his own money, and he would be answerable to no one and live exactly as he pleased.

But for the time being, he still slept in the smallest and highest of the bedrooms, and mostly avoided his family—though it had turned out that he and Derien liked each other. The little boy was old enough now to understand that he was the important one, not Cade, and it was beginning to be clear to him that the responsibility was a burden Cade was more than happy to surrender. It remained to be seen if Derien would choose to shoulder their parents’ hopes or shrug them aside. Cade thought it could go either way. He spent as much time with Derien as he could, bespelling silly voices into stuffed animals and creating Fae lights that danced to make him laugh. He liked Dery for his affectionate heart and inquisitive mind; but even if he hadn’t, Cade would have been benevolence personified to anybody who freed him of his parents’ ambitions.

Those ambitions were emphasized by their address. Criddow Close was the back entrance. Their front door opened on the infinitely more stylish Redpebble Square. It had been the pretty conceit of the long-dead nobleman who had ordered the town houses constructed to use dark red sandstone from his own quarries. He had, regrettably, started a trend; Gallantrybanks was here and there inflicted with buildings made of stone in shades of sunshine yellow, seaweed green, clover blue, and a frightful shade of orange. Any color other than white or gray made it easy to date a block of houses to that period. The Silversun residence was the smallest and narrowest on the Square, having originally housed a collection of upper servants who worked in the more lavish homes. Cade’s great-great-great-grandfather had purchased the five-floors-plus-attic house from the founding noble’s impoverished descendant, and by now Cade’s mother had almost everyone convinced that it had never been servants’ quarters at all, but the elegant little town mansion of the nobleman’s widowed mother. Not that anyone but Lady Jaspiela cared. Cade certainly didn’t. The tall, thin house had felt constricted to him ever since he could remember—as if it were a coat too tight in the shoulders, that wouldn’t allow him to stretch without ripping a seam. His mother glided with perfect composure up and down the delicate wrought iron staircase, serenely approving the tricks she had herself arranged—mirrors, pale walls, sparse but supremely elegant furniture—to make the rooms look bigger. All of it illusion, especially the big gilt-framed looking-glass over the hearth. Long ago that mirror had been the dwelling of no one quite knew who or what. But there was no magic left in it now.

The glassworks down Criddow Close had been established by Cade’s grandfather, a Master Fettler who had performed on the Royal Circuit. He had set up his favorite glasscrafter a few steps away from his own back door. This artisan had been Blye’s great-grandfather. The families got along splendidly until Cade’s father brought Lady Jaspiela home as his bride. Arrogant about her heritage, she had no time for anyone tainted by even a trace of Goblin blood. The Lord and Lady and all the Angels help anyone who failed to address her by her title—even though their title was all her family had retained after championing the losing side in the Archduke’s War. She had condescended to marry Cade’s father for two reasons: his descent from some long-ago princess nobody else cared about, and the fact that he was the only undamaged son of a wealthy Master Fettler with plenty of Court connections. She hadn’t counted on his being a shiftless quiddler who was forever promising the world … tomorrow. Or surely the day after. Perhaps next week. Certainly by the end of the month …

But he was charming and handsome, was Zekien Silversun, and she forgave him everything so long as he treated her with the deference that was her due, and called her Lady, and brought a few Court nobles to dine every so often.

Cade wondered sometimes if he was so good at what he did, at making up scenes and stories, because he’d inherited his mother’s gift for pretending.

At least he wasn’t self-delusional. Sagemaster Emmot had crushed that out of him by the time he turned fourteen. His parents, however, were of the opinion that Cade was deceiving himself about his life’s work. If so, he intended to go on deceiving himself—and everyone who saw his work—until the day he died.

But accompanying the Wizardly magic that he was positive would make his name and his fortune onstage was the bequest of the Fae within him. The dreams were not delusions. They were real. Worse, they might become real.

Blye always knew when the visions had come. When he met her at his parents’ back door the evening of his return from Gowerion, she saw it in his face at once. She said nothing, though, until they were well away from Criddow Close and walking up the cobbled slope of Beekbacks to the only tavern within a mile that allowed decent women inside—even the eccentric ones who wore trousers.

“What was it this time?” she asked quietly.

He shrugged.

“You looked tired this morning when you got home. You look about ready for the burn and the urn now. Did you get any rest this afternoon?”

“Not much.” That morning, he’d begged off telling her the tale of the last few days and gone up to his bed. He’d slept, but he hadn’t rested. Not at all.

“We don’t have to do this tonight,” she insisted. “Why don’t we go back to the works, and I’ll get out that bottle my da keeps for important customers? He won’t miss it,” she added bitterly. “Word’s got round. There aren’t many customers, important or otherwise.”

“You should have told me.” He detoured down a side street, nipped into a shop, and emerged a few minutes later with a distinctive long-necked bottle. “Colvado brandy,” he said. “I can afford it.”

“Because of the new glisker. I’ve been fretting myself to splinters all day,” she admitted as they retraced their steps back to the glassworks. “You have to tell me everything, Cade. Especially if I’m to be making all the withies from now on.”

He grinned down at her. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about that part of it! And he’s serious, he truly is. Picked out yours from your father’s without a single mistake. What’s more, he said that while he was working, he could sense how well you knew me from how they felt in his hands.”

“Hands?” She looked up sharply. “Both hands?”

“I know it’s odd,” he said. “But he does, he works with both. And doesn’t just sit there, either. It’s—it’s a dance, what he does. You have to come see us tomorrow night, Blye, you just have to.”

She unlocked the door of the glassworks and gestured him inside. “P’rhaps I will,” she allowed.

“I wish you’d let me spell that for you,” he said suddenly, gesturing to the lock. “So nobody but you and your father can get in.”

She shook her head. The silvery hair, loose from its band and neatly combed, shifted around her cheeks. “Beholden, Cade, but I can always feel additional magic, and it distracts me when I work.” She led him through to the little shop, and he made a casual gesture that lit the overhead lamp with a mellow bluish light: Wizardfire in its gentlest form. Shelf on shelf of vases, goblets, bowls, and baskets gleamed the full spectrum of colors. In a special display case atop a wooden plinth was a sampling of a full suite of tableware, plate to chalice to eggcup. Cade walked over to investigate.

“This is new,” he remarked. “Yours, right?”

“Some of it,” she admitted. “As much of each piece as the Guild allows, so we can legally sell it with Da’s hallmark. But it’s my design.”

“It looks like you,” he said. When he saw her brows arch, he smiled. “Silver and gold round the edges, dark accents. Unpretentious. And threatening to become elegant any moment now.”

“Elegant!” Blye snorted. “Lady forefend! Open the bottle and tell me about the glisker.” From the assortment on the shelves she selected a pair of round-bellied snifters swirled with green, eyeing him sidelong as she appended shrewdly, “Or maybe I should say, tell me the dream you had today that was about the glisker.”

He supposed it was a measure of how much he’d learned while bargaining with tavern keepers that not a flicker of reaction crossed his face. As Blye held out the glasses, he was ashamed of himself. Of all the people in his life—including Rafe and Jeska and even Mistress Mirdley—he trusted Blye alone with most of himself. Most; not all.

“I know you remember it,” she went on sympathetically. “Sage Emmot taught you how to remember every single detail. If you don’t want to talk about it, fine. But you did dream today.”

He poured brandy, set the bottle aside, and cradled the glass in his hands to warm the liquor. “I’m not sure I want to talk about it yet. But wait till you hear what happened in Gowerion.”

He talked, she listened, and they got through half the bottle. Yet even as he described what Mieka had done, and how the audiences had reacted, the boundary line separating his waking mind from the insistent dreaming began to smudge. Yes, he remembered it; all of it; Sage Emmot had taught him so well that he could never not remember.

{Perhaps the tavern had once been fashionable and popular. Not anymore. The chairs were rickety, the tables stained and scarred. Instead of fragrant wood in the huge hearth, finances compelled the burning of turfs, and not very good ones at that. The stink was unmistakable.

Over in a back corner two men sat opposite each other, leather tankards between them. One man stared into his ale; the other stared with calculating intent, paper and pen and ink at the ready.

The first man spoke, his voice raspy, one hand suddenly raking lank brown hair from his face, fingers shaking a little. “I must’ve written a dozen pieces about them through the years. I don’t think anybody ever realized how good they really were.” He drained his ale down his throat, coughed, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and glanced at his companion.

The hint was not taken. The second man smiled blandly and rendered ink onto paper with a delicacy unsuspected in such thick fingers. “You said you first met them after their rather sensational appearance at Trials.”

“I didn’t see the performance, but I knew somebody who did, and he tipped me that they might be something very special. They were, of course. But no one ever really understood until he was gone.”

“Did they ever admit to it?”

“Rafcadion came closest, two or three years ago. Said he missed him.” He reached over and appropriated the other man’s ale, took a swig. “But a week or two later, he gave another interview saying he didn’t miss him at all, when it came to the performing. As a friend, yes. Not as an artist, a partner onstage.”

“He was lying,” the other man suggested.

“Oh, yes. Jeschenar’s never said anything about him at all, but I’ve spoken with Cayden a few times since it happened.”

“And—?”

“Full of himself, he is. The meaning of this and the significance of that, what art must do and artists must be in society, all sorts of bilge. But he’s a cold unfeeling bastard and it’s no wonder his wife finally left him.”

“Unfeeling? Forgive me, Tobalt, but—”

“I know. He emotes all over everything, doesn’t he, in his work. But the only feelings that matter are his, you see. It’s only important if he feels it—and he expects unconditional compassion that he’s feeling that way. Not that he expects understanding, because nobody could possibly understand him, he’s unique, and an artist, and all that rot. And he’d never let anyone help him find his way out of whatever mood he happens to be wallowing in.” Tobalt leaned forward. “What isn’t readily obvious in the work is that although he does feel these things right enough, he also stands apart from them so he can slice them up like feast-day mutton and then use them. His mind’s cold, but his heart’s colder.”

“He wasn’t always like that, was he?”

The rest of the ale was swallowed, the tankard slammed down onto the table. “He has to be that way, now. Got no choice, has he? He’d go mad, otherwise. Because he knows. He’ll never admit it, but he knows. When the Cornerstones lost their Elf, they lost their soul.”}

“Cade.”

The snifter almost dropped from his hand. Blye was looking at him as if she’d been looking at him for quite some time—waiting for him to rouse from whatever vision was playing itself out inside his head. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“Stop apologizing! I’m not your mother.” She held out her near-empty glass. “Might as well finish it.”

He thoroughly agreed. They sat quietly for a time, sipping fine liquor that tasted of oak and golden apples. At last he made an effort. “How’s your da? You haven’t said.”

“No better, no worse. He got in a few hours of work today, actually.”

“Anything usable?” He regretted the words as soon as he spoke them. Her dark eyes flashed angrily, and then her face became a mask quite as good as any he’d ever worn himself, or magicked into a withie for Jeska to wear. But he knew better than to apologize again; she’d only snap at him again. Instead, he asked, “Want something to eat? Mistress Mirdley was making dumplings earlier.”

“No, I’m fine. I know better than to drink on an empty stomach—which is more than can be said for you.”

“I’ve had practice. Say you’ll come tomorrow night.”

“So I can meet him and adore him?”

The image of the Elf came into his head. He flinched. Their soul, the man had said, he had been their soul, and when they’d lost him—

“That bad, was it?” Blye murmured. “I think it’ll take more than half a bottle of brandy to get you to sleep tonight.”

“I slept fine in Gowerion,” he heard himself say.

“Was she pretty?”

“Was who pretty?” Then he tumbled to what she was saying, and saw the teasing glint in her eyes, and groaned. “Don’t, Blye! You know Jeska always has first pick—and in Gowerion, there wasn’t a second pick, nor a third.”

“We need to find you a girl, Cade.” She swallowed the remaining brandy and set the glass on the counter. “Somebody to warm your bed and keep her mouth shut—oh, except when you want her to open it, that is!”

“Blye!” he exclaimed, scandalized.

“You’re always so intimidated by Jeska’s looks,” she went on, shaking her head with disapproval. “Rafe has a nice, smooth line of chatter when he takes the trouble, and when Crisiant isn’t around to hear, and that daunts you, too. As for this Elf—Lord and Lady save us, he’s gorgeous even when he’s passed out. Or pretending to be passed out, now that I think on it,” she finished broodingly. “So he’ll be yet another excuse for you not to try, even if a girl does look thrice at you.” All at once she made a face at him. “I know, I know!” In the high-pitched, die-away tones of the upper classes, she said, “The most they evah mahnage is twice—just to make sure they’ve seen what they’ve seen, dontchaknow.”

“Now you do sound like my mother.” Then something occurred to him, and he asked, “Blye, is there anything wrong with my clothes?”

He ought to have guessed that she’d make the connection. She knew him very well indeed. She laughed at him as she took the two glasses into the back room for a wash.

“The Elf thinks so, is that it? He’ll be turning you into a prancing peacock inside of a month, I see it now! A shirt first, a tunic thereafter, and then a coat with embroidered sleeves—you’ll be frustling your pretty new feathers every chance you get!”

Picking up a clean towel from the stack beside the sink, he agreed amiably, “So now we really do have to find me a girl—preferably one who can sew!”

Blye started listing the girls they’d known at school and the girls who worked in various nearby shops, but when she got to the daughters of his mother’s friends, he growled a playful warning.

“And how would you know any of those useless little twitchies, anyway?” he demanded.

“They come in and break the glassware, don’t they? And say it jumped off the shelves all by itself, and leave me to explain to Da why a set of eight goblets now has to be sold as a set of six. But all’s not lost, oh not a bit of it, for we can send out the seventh as a sample.”

The seven could not be made eight again, because her father wasn’t capable of making a new glass to match the old anymore. It was one reason custom had fallen off at the shop lately: no one really wanted to buy a suite of highly breakable objects if replacements were out of the question.

“But we’ll be wanting scores of withies,” he burst out, “and once people learn that it’s you as made them for us—”

“Sweet Angels of Mercy, don’t even whisper it!” she exclaimed. “Don’t you know what the Guild would do to me if they found out?”

“It’s not fair. Why should it matter that you’re a girl?”

“Same reason it matters if I try to walk openly into a tavern where you’re working, or board the public coach on my own, or attempt any profession but weaver or seamstress. No good reason at all.” She returned to the shop front to replace the snifters.

Following her, he said, “You know I don’t think that way.”

“That and a penny and my hair hidden under a hat will get me a drink tomorrow night at the Downstreet to watch you perform. Get the light, won’t you? I don’t want to come down tomorrow morning and have to clean up after your magic.”

He waited until she had gone back into the glassworks, and doused the lamp with a tired gesture. She was waiting for him by the door, arms folded, fingers drumming.

“Blye—Mieka says we’ll make you rich, and he’s right. It will happen—Guild or no Guild. We’re using only your withies from now on, and when everyone else wants to know where we got them—”

“Just so long as you don’t mention who made them,” she muttered. Then: “Wait a moment—did you say Mieka? The Windthistle boy?”

“Yes. Didn’t I say his name before? He’s my glisker.”

“Everybody’s glisker, you sapskull! He’s worked with more players than you’ve got teeth—for all of a week at the most! I heard last year that he even approached the Shadowshapers and asked if he could join them! He’s your new glisker?”

So that was how he knew Vered and Rauel, Cade thought. “Yes,” he repeated. “My new glisker.” He heard the voice again, from his dream of that morning: “You said you first met them after their rather sensational appearance at Trials.” Mieka would be with them through Trials at least—three months from now. But then that other voice echoed in his head, the bleak and bitter one: “When the Cornerstones lost their Elf, they lost their soul.”

Blye touched his arm lightly, hesitantly. “Cade?”

“Mine he is, and mine he’ll stay,” he said without thinking, heard his own words, and amended swiftly, “Ours, I mean. He’s our glisker now.”

{Mieka was laughing, young laughter in an older face: lines framing his mouth and crossing his forehead and his black hair going silvery, but those eyes were bright with the joy unique to him, and he was still the mad little Elf of all those years ago, gazing up at Cade and laughing—}

He blinked, and saw Blye’s frown. Before she could voice the worry in her eyes, he nodded a good night and headed for his parents’ back door, and the warmth of Mistress Mirdley’s kitchen, where no dreams had ever touched him, not since the dreaming began. It was the only place in the world, including his own private bedchamber, where he felt truly safe.

Chapter 4

Eventually Mieka showed up for rehearsal, and blamed his lateness on Cade.

“Didn’t tell me where Rafe lives, now, did you? I’ve been wandering like a stray breeze, asking after anyone who knows anything about anybody in the fettling way.” He stripped off a pair of very fine and very flash gold-embroidered gloves, shoving them into a pocket of his cloak. This, too, was eye-catching, woven with a dark green warp and a black weft, with crosswise threads of blue and gold, so that every time he moved, the material seemed to change colors. Cade, wearing old brown wool trousers, a plain white shirt, and a black tunic with a frayed hem, began to understand what he’d meant about the clothes. “I’d still be drifting round Beekbacks if I hadn’t bethought me of the delightful Mistress Blye, who not only gave me directions but the pleasure of her company.”

He stepped lightly from the vestibule doorway, removing the cloak with a flourish as if drawing aside a stage curtain, to reveal Blye hanging up a shabby gray coat. It was the ankle-length one she always borrowed from her father when she didn’t want to be bothered with the jeers and insults that always assaulted any girl past age twelve who wore trousers. She half-turned, startled, and shrugged as she recognized the annoyance in Cade’s eyes. Not that he entirely understood why he was annoyed, but it had something to do with the pair of them walking over here, talking about only they knew what.

“I brought a cap,” she said. “We can just go from here to the Downstreet, can’t we?” A cap to hide her hair and enough of her face so that when she removed the coat people would think her a boy. “The nice one,” she added.

Cade knew the cap she meant. Blye had made a half-dozen child-sized pretend withies for Derien, and he had insisted on giving her his best cap in return, the sapphire velvet one with the puffy black feather. Being a shrewd little boy as well as a generous one, he’d told Lady Jaspiela that the wind had blown the cap into the river. As her ladyship was in company with Blye perhaps five times a year, and never deigned to notice her anyway, the chance of her seeing and recognizing the cap was nonexistent. That Dery so easily lied to their mother bothered Cade a little, but he shrugged it aside, knowing that if the boy was to have any kind of life of his own, he’d have to learn how to lie to her, and lie convincingly. That Dery had begged Cade for the withies, even if they were just pretend, after Lady Jaspiela reacted with horror to his request, told Cade that there was a nice streak of rebellion in his baby brother. And he grinned to himself every time he glimpsed Dery in his big bedroom on the third floor, solemnly declaiming “magical words” to bespell the glass twigs or waving them gently as imagination turned him into a Master Glisker. After twelve years of being the only child, pinched and pushed to fit a mold of his mother’s devising, Cade was rather wickedly looking forward to watching Derien stand up to her the way he himself had done. She deserved it.

“Blye, dearling!” Rafe’s mother, large and stout and loud, held out her arms to welcome the girl. Overwhelmed by a cinnamon-scented embrace—as Cade had been half an hour earlier—Blye hugged back. “You’ll be going with the boys tonight? Sweet Angels, I do wish I still had the figure to do the same! But that’s what being a baker’s wife will do, and it’s a fact not to be argued with. Come, leave the boys to their plotting. You and I will go into the kitchen and make their tea, and you can tell me how your dear father is these days. And don’t let me forget to send you home with a dozen of those little seedy cakes he likes.”

Even as she bustled with Blye through the kitchen door, her eyes sought the Elf with a look more suited to a woman half her age. Surely she was promising herself a much longer look later on. Rafe had noticed his mother’s sidelong glance; his jaw dropped slightly and his gray-blue eyes blinked wide. Cade hid a grin by turning his back and pretending to examine the magnificent inlaid chessboard hanging above the hearth. He’d learned to play on that board. Master Threadchaser’s pride and joy, it had been handed down from father to son for five generations, and an offer to take it down for a game was a signal that he liked you. As Cade examined for the hundredth time the delicate spiderweb patterns decorating its wide border, he had the thought that it was rather emblematic of the two families—that above this hearth was a symbol of intellectual skill, and above his mother’s was an empty looking-glass drained of magic, in which one could look only at oneself.

“Jeska, please tell me your house is easier to locate,” Mieka whined, and Cade decided it would waste too much time to remind the Elf that he’d been very clear about the location. Even if he hadn’t, all anyone had to do was ask about for a door with a spiderweb carved above it, proclaiming the family’s clan.

“Middle of the block, right after Marketty Round, can’t miss it,” the masquer replied absently as he scanned the evening’s performance charts. He was agonizingly meticulous, for he’d always had difficulty reading, which made him work all the harder at memorizing his lines. But he’d rarely got a word wrong in the year Cade had worked with him. “I think I’ve got this now, Cade, but I’d like to run through the whole thing at least once, just to make sure.”

Seating himself on a ladder-back chair with a glass basket of withies at his feet, Cade said, “As many times as you need, Jeska. We’ll be doing the ‘Sailor’ again tonight, and then ‘The Princess and the Deep Dark Well’—how are you at echoes, Mieka?”

“Excellent. But don’t you have something original? That’s such a boring old drudge of a thing.” He sprawled in one of the overstuffed chairs, looking disgruntled.

Still without glancing up, Jeska asked, “Hadn’t you noticed? Cade puts in things of his own all the time.”

“But not enough to make people realize it!”

“We’ll make a splash some other night,” Cade said. “We made this booking with another glisker, you know—somebody who works traditional.”

“They don’t know I’m coming? Get ready for a drenching, then, because it’s no mere splash we’ll make. The Downstreet is almost a real theater, you know. The stage was specially built, not just nailed together with spare planks. Big enough so I can really work!”

Rafe caught Cade’s glance and rolled his eyes. Was there no limit to Mieka’s arrogance? But what Rafe said had nothing to do with stemming the boy’s vanity. “You’ve played the Downstreet before?”

Incautiously, still caught up in his vision of their triumph, the Elf said, “Sat in with Vered and Rauel and Sakary one night, when Chattim took ill.”

“You what?” Jeska exclaimed.

“Good reason to think well of yourself, then, have you?” Rafe snarled. “Quite a downcoming, playing with quidams like us!”

Stricken, Mieka stammered, “I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to say that—I mean, I’m not hiding anything, it was just one show and—” He looked an appeal at Cade. “Quill, it’s not like it sounds!”

So that was how he knew the Shadowshapers. Blye had mentioned that he knew them, but it turned out that Vered and Rauel had trusted him with their work. Only because their own glisker had been ill, but—Mieka had actually played a show with the Shadowshapers. Cade was all for interrogating him about what it had been like, and the pieces they’d done, and a hundred other things. But anger touched his tongue first, and he demanded, “Why so bloody eager to join up with us, then?”

“Sakary couldn’t cope with me, all right? I can’t help it when I don’t like the taste of someone’s magic, and he had a stranglehold on me and—and I fought him, I couldn’t help it! We got through the show and he hasn’t spoken to me since! He’s a good fettler, one of the best, but I couldn’t work with him—”

“Because he couldn’t cope with you?”

“Leave him be,” Rafe said suddenly. “You know the trouble they had finding a glisker, before Chattim. Like us. Just like us, Cade. Call it the taste or the feel of the magic, or puzzle pieces locking into place, or instinct, but you and me and Jeska worked strong together from the first. We fit.” Pointing a long finger at Mieka, he finished, “And so does he. With us. Not with them, nor anybody else. Us.”

Mieka cast him a grateful glance, then turned back to Cade with his shoulders slightly hunched, as if he was anticipating a fist to the jaw. “Cade?” he ventured. “I’m sorry I didn’t say anything earlier. But Rafe’s right, isn’t he?”

They were all looking at him now, waiting for his concurrence. How did he explain to them that knowing Mieka had worked with the absolute best, had done the glisking for two of the most innovative minds in the theater, had shaken his confidence on the very night when a successful booking at the Downstreet could assure their future?

“Please don’t be cross,” Mieka said softly.

“He’s not,” Rafe said with the certainty of long friendship. “He’s comparing himself to Vered and Rauel again, that’s all. He does it all the time. The good thing is that it always makes him work harder.” Eyeing Cade with wry understanding, he added, “If you’re through being overawed by the thought of your glisker working with the illustrious Shadowshapers, can we get down to it now?”

“Mine he is, and mine he’ll stay.” He heard his own voice saying it just last evening. He nodded sharply.

“Right, then,” Rafe said. “What can you tell me about the Downstreet, Mieka? We’ve never played a place that big before.”

With a last wary glance at Cade, Mieka made a grimace that was half relief and half apology. “Nothing to it, really.”

“No, nothing at all,” Cade muttered, but when he caught the nervous flicker of those big eyes—dark now with apprehension, plain brown and murky—he shrugged and gestured for him to start talking.

The Downstreet was, as Mieka had mentioned, a real venue, not just a tavern with a rickety makeshift platform. The stage was actually divided for a performance: a solidly made wooden riser for the glisker, a lectern for the fettler, with the masquer given plenty of room. It was so big, in fact, that a glisker could add more than just the usual impressions of a landscape, buildings, a room’s interior: he could really paint a whole scene for the masquer to act against.

But there was a problem with this large a venue, as well, because the fettler had to make sure the people in the cheap seats could feel things, sense things, just as well as the people up front and in the middle. Rafe was nervous about exactly how and where to direct everything.

“How did Sakary do it?” he asked.

“Played to the middle, and just slightly to the right. The roof timbers aren’t evenly spaced on that side of the room. There’s an extra row crosswise, put in to support the Lady Shrine upstairs. The wife and daughters insisted, once there was coin enough for it. They’ve a stone plinth, and a little fountain—remind me to flick some extra magic up there. It’s only polite to give them a nice little cascade for their evening devotions.”

“Plinth and fountain?” Jeska asked, amazed. “Most noble ladies make do with molded plaster and a bowl!”

Mieka snorted. “‘Make do’ isn’t a thing the mistress would recognize if it introduced itself and paid for the privilege. She has plans for her girls, she does. The elder is to make a noble marriage, the younger will be consigned to whichever minster’s influence matches up with their money.” He paused, then resumed pensively, “Why is it that mothers lacking a son reach even higher than those with?”

“You’ve never met Lady Jaspiela,” Cade said before either of the other two could.

“Really?” Those eyes were lighter now, the shine back in them. “What did she want you to be, before you told her you’d be a tregetour or nothing?”

“His father’s at Court,” Rafe said quite casually, and Cade silently blessed him. “Her Ladyship was seeing Cayden there in a few years when Prince Ashgar takes a bride, and then a rich marriage, and by the time the grandchildren come, everybody’d forget that Herself married middle for the money and not upper for the glory.”

Mieka whistled softly between his teeth. “Sounds grim. Prince Ashgar is nobody’s pattern of perfection, is he? Lovely of your little brother to oblige you by being born. But if he’s anything like you, I’d imagine your lady mother will be thwarted a second time.” Shifting in the wide chair, drawing both legs up and wrapping his arms around his shins, he rested his chin on his knees. “Bless the good Gods for giving my parents four sets of twins! There’s enough of us to drive them stark staring mad, and they know it, so they let us do what we please!”

“Must be nice,” Jeska said. “Can we get on with the rehearsal now?”

“Yes,” Rafe said, “and I’d like to get there a bit early, and have a look at this ceiling. Extra timbers, and a big stone plinth above—it’ll be tricky, no doubt of it. How did you know about the Lady Shrine?”

“Showed it to me, didn’t she? Old ladies, they like me,” he confided with a smirk. “They think I’m sweet. Anyhow, the support timbers deflect things a bit odd, but if you play to the right, everything bounces just like it should, all the way back to the bar.”

An hour later they were all more than ready for their tea. In some ways, containing even the minimal magic used in rehearsal was harder on Rafe than an entire show. A few years ago, when they finally confessed to each other that they had the same ambitions regarding the theater and were learning their crafts, Cade had tried to impart as much as he recalled of what his grandsir the Master Fettler had taught him when he was little. Lady Jaspiela had not been pleased, having decided there were more distinguished uses for her son’s magic than stagecraft. But she hadn’t dared speak against it while the old man was still alive. Cade had tried to feel disappointed that he had no talent for his grandsir’s specialty; a restless imagination impelled him instead towards the creative process of the tregetour. But even years later, he remembered most of what he’d been taught, even if he didn’t really understand it, and had shared it all with Rafe. On one memorable occasion, up in Rafe’s big, airy bedchamber that occupied the whole of the attic high above the bakery, Cade’s attempted demonstration of how to expand and contract control had burst every piece of glass and ceramic in the room, including the mirror, and warped the chamber door into the bargain. It had never closed properly since, or so Rafe’s mother avowed with a wink at Cade every time she said it. She treasured the memory of that afternoon, for as it turned out, her son’s instincts had kicked him into containing Cade’s magic so that it didn’t run riot through the rest of the house. “Might have blown out every other window in the place, and in the bakery besides,” Mistress Threadchaser always said to finish the tale. “Cayden is that powerful—but my boy, he’s that strong!”

Once Jeska announced himself prepared, and Mieka had agreed with Cade on the exact sequence and nature of the magic, and Cade had done the minor shifts in the spells already within the withies, Rafe sank back into his chair with a long sigh of weariness.

“We go on at eight? Fine. Wake me five minutes before the show.”

“What you want is your tea, mate.” Mieka sprang to his feet and bounded lightly for the kitchen door.

Cade leaned towards his fettler, frowning. “Are you sure you’ll be ready for this tonight? Or maybe I ought to be asking if you can cope with him?”

Rafe shrugged. “It’s a different sort of tired, y’know.”

Nodding, Cade settled back again. He knew what Rafe meant. There was a look his friend wore sometimes after a performance that meant he’d spent the evening fighting to discipline an erratic or inexperienced glisker. This was not the same. Rafe had been modulating and adjusting, not struggling for control. The tired that came of satisfying work was entirely different from that of a long battle to a disappointing end.

Jeska packed up the scuffed leather portfolio where he kept his charts, saying, “I can’t stop. Make my apologies to Mistress Threadchaser, if you would. And I’ll have to meet you at the Downstreet—I’ve accounts to be totted before supper.” As difficult as he found reading, arithmetic came as simply to him as breathing. Jeska supplemented his mother’s always shaky finances by keeping the books for a dozen local businesses.

“Our duty to your mum,” Rafe said. He had very pretty manners.

“Travel safe,” Cade added, and when Jeska had left the sitting room turned again to his fettler. “You really do look worn out. Are you sure he fits?”

“Even boots made to measure start out a little stiff. But he knows what he’s doing, and what’s better, I know what he’s doing. It’ll come right, Cade, stop fretting.”

Nodding once more, he pushed himself to his feet. “I’ll bring in the tea.”

He knocked politely on the kitchen door—Mistress Mirdley had more than once threatened to smack his bottom for startling her at her work. The day she’d carried through on the threat had given him the biggest surprise of his life. There had been a napkinful of sweets on his pillow that night by way of apology, but he had never again forgotten to knock.

No one answered from the other side of the kitchen door, and as he listened carefully he understood why. Mieka was talking. Did Mieka ever stop talking?

“—shoulda seen me fa’s great-auntie, ears like big floppy bat wings—took all four brothers and a sister or two to hold her down in a spring breeze or she’d take flight! Mum was horrid scared I’d turn out the same, but it appears I got the best of all things Elfen,” he finished without a trace of conceit. Only stating the facts.

“And there are eight of you? Mercy!” exclaimed Mistress Threadchaser.

“Eight,” the Elf confirmed, “and no two sets like another. My older brothers, they’re all Human, down to the last curly red hair. Six foot five, shoulders like cannon mounts, no more magic in them than can stir the soup—which neither of ’em can bring to a boil. Not that it’s so unusual in our family—not much Fire Elf, we’re none of us very good at that sort of thing. But the Air and Earth and Water, my younger sisters got those and those only. They look like the Greenseed line, mostly—or so Fa says. For a while they were hoping they’d top five feet, but that’s not gonna happen, not in this lifetime. White hair at twelve years old, eyes almost black, and a set of teeth on each of them that’d gnaw through a tree trunk in a twitch of a wyvern’s tail. Ears like the sails on a schooner, too,” he added, and Cade could hear the smirk. “Mum found a chirurgeon—a good, careful one, mind—to refine them just a bit, and take care of the teeth. Me an’ Jinsie, though, we got the best of the Elf and the best of the Human, with a bit of Wizard and a dash of Sprite for spice.”

Blye asked, “She’s your twin sister, and that much alike?”

“Mirror image, almost. She’s not quite as pretty as me, though! Twins aren’t usual with Elfenfolk, of course, but it’s the clue we’ve some Piksey knockin’ about somewhere, and makin’ quite a racket with it, too. They whelp twins as an iron-bound rule. The new little mites, they’re only two years old, a boy and a girl—and it looks as if the one’s pretty much Water Elf from the Staindrop and Stormchill lines, and the other’s anybody’s guess, ’cept he’s determined to grow up to be a dragon!”

As Mieka paused for breath and the ladies laughed, Cade knocked again. Invited to enter, he found the coziest imaginable domestic scene: Mistress Threadchaser in a big cushioned chair by the blazing hearth, Blye in the matching armchair opposite her, and Mieka hunched on a low wooden stool between, two pottery bowls at his feet and one in his lap as he shelled walnuts. He looked up as Cade entered, and his hair shifted around his pointed Elfen ears, and a wide smile revealed white, square, very Human teeth.

“Quill! There you are! Hunger finally got the best of you, then?”

“Oh, good Lady have mercy on us,” Mistress Threadchaser cried with a quick glance at the clicking clock on the sideboard. “It’s gone five and you poor things must be starved! Here, I’ll take care of those later,” she said to Mieka, who shook his head.

“I finish what I begin.” He twirled a finger above the bowl on his knees, and a little whirlwind surged upwards, emitting a series of sharp cracks. Then the blur split in two and descended neatly to the bowl of nuts and the bowl of shells. Beaming, Mieka looked about for approval—just as a last walnut hurtled from the bowl in his lap and struck him right in the nose.

Cade laughed at him. Mistress Threadchaser asked anxiously if he was all right. Blye, however, sat back in her chair and frowned.

Cade asked her about that later, after they’d devoured the usual lavish and excellent tea and were carrying his crated glass baskets to the Downstreet.

“Bit of a jester, isn’t he?” she murmured. “I mean, look at him.”

Mieka was loping along beside Rafe, who had livened up considerably after his mother’s cakes, fruit breads, and sausage salad. Usually he was quietly self-possessed before a performance; Cade had expected him to be completely silent, in fact, on their way to this oh-so-important booking. But Rafe was trading quips with Mieka, laughing, even snatching the cap off his head and holding it high out of the Elf’s reach to tease him.

“Why didn’t he crack the walnuts by magic in the first place?” Blye went on. “If he’d got finished faster, maybe Mistress Threadchaser had something else she wanted done.”

Cade eyed her sidelong. “You don’t like him, do you.”

“I like him fine. He’s funny, he’s a charmer, and he’s no chore to look at, that’s for certain sure.”

“P’rhaps a little too much the charmer?” he guessed. “Did he pay you a compliment you didn’t believe? Not that you ever believe a compliment.” Her blush told him all he needed to know. “Leave off, Blye, he’s just a puppy, all excited and wriggly over joining us, wanting to show off a bit. It’s the player in him.”

“That remembers me, Cade—on the walk over, when he wasn’t asking questions about you, he was trying to figure a name for the group. I’m hopeless, I’ve no imagination to speak of, but he wasn’t doing much better.”

“Something will occur to us,” he replied. “What kind of questions?”

“Oh, just things,” she evaded. “He’s not very subtle. That last walnut, for instance—it was on purpose. Didn’t you notice?”

“He did it to get a laugh? What’s wrong with that?”

“As I said. Look at him—a clown.”

“He was really good with ‘Silver Mine,’ y’know,” Cade told her quietly. “There’s thought in him, and honesty. He’s more than a clown. You’ll see that tonight.”

“P’rhaps. But the ‘Princess’ isn’t exactly grand tragedy, is it? And are you sure he won’t make that into a farce, the way you say he does the ‘Sailor’?”

“He wouldn’t dare.”

She arched her brows eloquently, but said nothing more.

“Cade!” Mieka had danced back towards them, his moss-green cap stowed in his pocket where Rafe couldn’t get at it again. “We still need a name. There’s a group over the North End goes by Wishcallers, and somebody else that thinks if they’re lucky they’ll get mistaken for the Shadowshapers by naming themselves the Smokecatchers.” His nose wrinkled with disdain. “We need a contrast, I think, don’t you?”

“Good idea,” Blye said. “So that nobody thinks you’re trying to imitate anybody. Something solid. Rock, brick, stone—”

“Brickballs,” Mieka offered, grinning.

“Brickbrains,” she tossed back at him.

Rafe had paused to let them catch him up, and contributed dryly, “Pebblebrains, more like.”

“What about ‘stone’ something, or something ‘stone’?” Blye asked. “Keystones?”

“Not bad,” Rafe allowed. “Nice imagery—a bit nervy, implying we’re the ones holding everything together—”

“—when it’s really only you, O Great Fettler?” Mieka scampered ahead, then turned and walked backwards so he could talk to them. “Lodestones. Nobody can resist us, we’ll draw them in like magnets!”

Cade wanted to join in their banter, but a slither of a chill down his backbone caught him unawares.

“Lodestars? No,” Blye decided at once. “You’re none of you Fire Clan, and they’re touchy about who thinks to associate with them.”

Mieka was scowling. “Stone … Stonesmiths—I hate it. Stoneciphers? Hewstones? Whetstones? Even worse. Come on, Quill, you’re the wordsmith!”

“Headstones—everybody needs one eventually,” Rafe said.

Mieka began a mocking singsong. “Limestones, Sandstones, Gemstones, Cornerstones—”

“No!”

The protest burst out of his mouth before he could remember why it was the worst word in the lexicon. As they stared at him, he lost track of where he was and even who he was, and he was back in the dim, run-down tavern listening to someone called Tobalt say, “When the Cornerstones lost their Elf, they lost their soul.”

“Quill?”

Soft voice, worried and even a little frightened. Gentle touch on his shoulder. He looked down into those eyes and if the glass baskets hadn’t been cradled in his arms, he would have grasped Mieka with both hands, to keep him here and safe and alive—

“Cade, what is it?” Rafe’s deep voice, raspy with concern.

“Back away,” said Blye. “Let him breathe.”

She knew. Of course she knew. But he couldn’t look away from the Elf, the Elf he would one day lose, and with him his soul, and he would go cold inside and heartless and cruel, he knew it, he knew those things were inside him and if he wasn’t careful, if he didn’t do everything exactly right, if he made even one wrong choice—Sagemaster Emmot had told him that very first night, hadn’t he, told him what a ruthless decision it was to leave home and friends to seek magic, a decision Cayden had made without a single qualm—

“Cade!” Blye had pushed Mieka aside and was gripping Cade’s face between her hands. She snarled over her shoulder as Mieka protested, and swept the sweat-damp hair from Cade’s face. “Are you back?” she asked in a low voice. “Have you come back?”

He nodded and caught his breath. “Yes,” he muttered, looking into her dark eyes that were so wonderfully familiar—eyes that didn’t compel feelings he couldn’t put names to.

“What just happened?” Mieka demanded. “Quill, what does she mean, ‘Are you back?’ Back from where?”

“Leave it,” Rafe said. “Come on, we’ve a show to do. Come on, Mieka!”

Blye asked him exactly nothing during the rest of the walk to the Downstreet. He could only imagine what must have been on his face, in his eyes, during the turn, as Master Emmot had always called such things. “Turns your brain right round inside your skull, doesn’t it? Not to be mistaken for the kind of ‘turn’ a lady succumbs to when the fit of her corset is too tight—although it’s rather like the fit of your thoughts is too tight, isn’t it?”

Too many thoughts. Too many feelings. Too many memories that weren’t, but might be—and all of it so huge that his mind couldn’t sort it without reasoned reflection, which the Sagemaster had taught him to do and which he had unwisely neglected to do since the dreaming about that derelict tavern.

In the few minutes remaining to him before the most important performance of his life thus far, he tried to run through the basic exercise of organizing the separate elements of the vision.

Hopeless; all he could think about was Mieka.

As he paused for a deep breath before walking up a short flight of steps to the Downstreet’s back door, he decided his instincts were correct. Mieka was the crucial element. From him—from losing him—all else would come. Cade didn’t know how they had lost the Elf, or when, or why. But he could change things. He knew he was young, that he’d had scant experience adjusting the futures he’d seen in his dreamings. But he had made choices, conscious choices, to avoid futures he feared. He blinked at the darkness in the back hallway of the tavern, and Blye’s hand on his elbow guided him towards the stage and the knee-high wooden riser where the glass baskets had to be arranged for the show. She helped him with the crates, still not questioning him. Good of her to choose not to pester him …

And then he realized that he had come to a point in his life where futures depended not just on his own choices, but on those made by others as well. He had to reckon on their desire to change things—or to change themselves. He would be at the mercy of their decisions.

This was no scene he was writing, no playlet where he could decide who did what. He could not control this. He knew that. He also knew himself well enough to know that however useless it might be, he would make the attempt.

Blye had disappeared, presumably to find a drink and a seat someplace where she wouldn’t be noticed. It occurred to Cade to wonder if she was the wife Tobalt had mentioned. No. Impossible. Blye would never leave him.

“Cade, we’re about ready.”

Rafe was there, stacking the padded crates out of the way. He asked no questions, even though he had known Cade long enough to recognize a turn when he saw it. Jeska hopped up onto the glisker’s little platform, unaware of what had happened on the walk over. He rubbed Cade’s shoulder affectionately, smiled at Rafe, and jumped down again to take his place center stage, eager to begin. And then Mieka was there, pushing the glisker’s bench forward, setting the baskets on it, swaying and reaching as if already at work, making adjustments until satisfied. He didn’t look at Cade as he stepped back, and instead addressed Rafe.

“See what I mean about the roof timbers?”

“Play to the right, you said. But the bar’s at an angle back there, and I don’t want to bust any glasses before I get the feel of the bounce.”

“Break as many as you like,” Cade heard himself say. “Shatter them to splinters.”

“Are you insane?” Mieka gasped.

“I won’t have it get round that I’m a fettler who lost control of his glisker’s magic,” Rafe growled.

“That’s the last thing anyone will say about you,” Cade told him, meeting his eyes. He still couldn’t quite bring himself to look at Mieka. “Because you’re going to make it obvious that you did it deliberately. Word will get round, right enough—that we’ve a strength and a power no one can match.”

“The tavern keeper will have our balls on a platter.” But Mieka was beginning to look intrigued.

“Before or after his wife kills us?” Rafe inquired caustically.

“She won’t be killing anybody, and our balls are perfectly safe.” Cade forced himself look into those eyes. “You’re going to charm her out of any temper—and what’s more, you’re going to charm her into replacing her glassware at a price she can well afford. Once people start talking about what they’ll see here tonight, she’ll need more anyway, to serve all the new customers.”

Mieka looked at him with frank admiration. “And here I thought I flew high and wide!”

“Try to keep up,” Cade said, and laughed. His choice, this; his decision. Made a spectacular first appearance at Trials, had they? Why wait? Spectacular could just as easily start tonight.

Chapter 5

There seemed scarce ten minutes between the time Cayden fell into his bed and the vehement return of consciousness in the form of his little brother, Derien, bouncing on the mattress, making the supporting ropes whine and the bed frame creak.

“Wake up, wake up, wake up!”

“No!” he growled. “Get off and go away!”

“But you have to see, you have to read it! C’mon, Cade, wake up!”

He made a grab for the child, who giggled and leaped from the bed, waving a broadsheet so fresh-printed that the ink had left smudges on Dery’s fingers. “Read what? Did somebody—?” Rolling out of bed, he lunged, and almost missed. The page tore. “Give it here!”

“Don’t worry, I bought four of them—one for each of you,” Dery said, handing over the rest of the sheet. “You’re mentioned by name—well, your names, and not spelled right, because you don’t have a real name yet, do you? But—”

He babbled on; Cade didn’t hear him. Two long strides took him to the dormer window, and by the fragile sunlight of a wintry morning he scanned the broadsheet for names, any of their names, spelled right or not. There, in one of the thin columns printers used to fill a page when there wasn’t enough real news or a shop notice couldn’t be wedged in, were three sentences.

At the Downstreet last night, a smashing good show by four local lads not yet knowing what to call themselves. Led by tregetour Cadan Silversun, with fettler Rafcadio Threadspinner, masquer Jeshika Bowbender, and energetic glisker Mekal Windthistle, it was a performance of the sort rarely seen in players not already on a Circuit. Catch their show while it can still be seen for the price of a tankard.

“—have to think up something, Cade, people need to know who you are so when the placards go up they know who they’re looking for—”

He wanted to yell and laugh and just explode. But he restrained himself, and looked round from the window with what he hoped was a casual shrug. “Not quite as nice as if they’d got our names right, but it’s a start.”

With a howl of outrage, Dery bounced back onto the bed, grabbed a pillow, and began pummeling him with it. Cade laughed, picked up him, and tickled him. The pillow burst, the feathers flew, and all at once a chilly voice addressed them from the doorway.

“If you’re quite finished, I would appreciate a few moments of the famous tregetour’s attention.”

“Did you see, Mum? Cade was wonderful, and now he’s famous, and soon he’ll be rich, and then—”

Cade experienced a sudden aching inside as his little brother abruptly realized what would happen once there was enough money. Excitement dropped from the child’s face like the magic from a masquer changing characters. Cade reached out a hand to ruffle the thick brown hair, and smiled reassurance. But he couldn’t lie; he couldn’t say he wouldn’t be out of this house as soon as may be, no matter if the address was a disgrace and a scandal compared to Redpebble Square.

Their mother ignored the change in mood. “Leave us, Derien.”

“Go on, then,” Cade said gently to the child. “Tell Mistress Mirdley I’ll be down soon for breakfast, won’t you? And don’t you yaffle down all the muffins, either—I can smell them all the way up here. Beholden, Dery.”

Derien slumped off, and Cade regarded Lady Jaspiela through the last drifting fall of feathers. His name (misspelled or not) was in the newspaper. He had known it would happen eventually; he hadn’t expected it quite this soon. Well, that was what a couple of shelves of broken glassware would do.

His instincts had been right. He’d have to heed them more often. That Her Ladyship would be raging at him for the next little while required no instinct at all. First would come a description of her mortification that his name had appeared in so disreputable a broadsheet as the Nayword. She would progress to a renewed demand that his name show up in the Court Circular instead, preferably in connection with a prestigious appointment. Then she would move on to the usual lecture about what a disappointment he was and that the very least he could do was cease to parade his inadequacies in front of his little brother, who deserved a much better example, and so on and so on.

Cade decided he didn’t much want to hear any of it.

“Don’t bother,” he said as she was drawing breath. “I’ll be gone from here as soon as I’ve the coin to manage it. Which won’t be long if the papers keep mentioning us, so p’rhaps your time would be better spent beseeking the Lady to favor us, instead of repeating all the things I’ve heard a thousand times before.”

Her brows arched in the expression that always meant Remember who I am! By which she didn’t mean she was his mother, and therefore he owed her respect; she meant she was a Lady of the Highcollar Name of the Wolf Clan. That, and a se’en-penny piece, would get her through the palace gates for one of the weekly tours of the grounds.

“The sooner we’re a grand success, the sooner you’ll be rid of me,” he added, just in case she had missed the point.

She did something unexpected then. She asked, “Who is this ‘Windthistle’ person? The one who is so … energetic,” she finished, as if it were a particularly unpleasant disease.

He shrugged. “You read the broadsheet. He’s my new glisker.”

“I see.”

She was a beautiful woman still, pure Wizard in looks: thick straight hair she wore in a swirl of golden silk at her nape, long bones, brown eyes, high rounded brow. Of the other races in her ancestry, none showed. She was said to resemble her mother, who had so disastrously aligned the Highcollar family with the Archduke. Cade had no way of judging, as the old lady died long before he was born and there were no extant imagings that depicted her. Rumor had it, though, that the Archduke’s son, current holder of the title, had met Lady Jaspiela once, a chance encounter at High Chapel, and turned quite pale. Evidently he still had memories of a woman as haughty and as dangerous as she was beautiful. As little as Cade relished being Lady Jaspiela’s son, he liked being Lady Kiritin’s grandson even less. All at once he wondered if perhaps he might have a thing or two in common with the present Archduke.

Dark eyes swept Cade head to foot, and then inspected his face, as if trying to remember the reason why he inhabited her home. “An Elf,” she said. “And with that name—Air, is he? Yes, of course he would be. I trust I won’t be seeing him anywhere near here.”

“No more than you ever see Rafe or Jeska. Now, if that’s all, Mother, I should get to work on tonight’s performance.”

“If you must.”

Did she finally understand? Not likely. “Yes,” he replied. “I must.”

She never simply exited a room. She swept, strode, stalked, glided, drifted, anything rather than just put one foot in front of the other. And there were always sound effects. The slurring of her skirts, the tap of her heels, the tinkle of her jewelry, the sharply meaningful click of a closing door—the imperious voice raised just that fraction that meant it was a lazy, neglectful servant’s fault that she must raise her voice at all. Today she called down the stairs for the footman, which usually meant she had an appointment somewhere and required a hire-hack. Cade knew perfectly well that she would be making appearances at her friends’ homes this morning to pretend total ignorance of last night’s triumph. How they informed her of it, whether their attitudes were excited or patronizing or pitying, would dictate her response. Compliments—genuine compliments, not the kind soaked in acid—she would wave away with a shrug, a change of subject, and a mental note not to further cultivate the acquaintance, for no real lady would be thrilled by something so vulgar as a son’s name in a broadsheet. Condescension she would greet with a sigh and a shake of the head, and expressions of gratitude for sympathy that hadn’t been offered. Commiseration for the indignity of having a son who performed for anyone with the coin to buy a drink would in all probability bring the daintiest of quivers to her mouth, as if she bravely restrained tears.

Someday, he promised himself, he would write a piece incorporating all her arrogance and pretentiousness, and even though she would never see it, those who did would laugh about it to their wives, who would know instantly who had been his model. And Lady Jaspiela really would have reason to weep.

A childish ambition, he knew. Perhaps by the time his work was performed in the real theaters frequented by the husbands of her friends, he would have outgrown the need to pay back humiliation for humiliation. But she would make such a wonderful character study for Jeska … and that was as good an excuse as any to use her however he saw fit. He was an artist, writing for other artists to entertain an audience; no one was exempt from becoming fodder.

Mothers, he reflected as he got dressed, were always an interesting topic. Jeska did an excellent Mother Loosebuckle, a stock character in farces popular for their exceedingly low humor. They’d have to give one of them a try, now that Mieka had joined them. Jeska could have plenty of fun with any of the playlets—and Cade could just imagine the Elf, dancing behind the glass baskets, flinging magic far and wide as he chortled his way through the piece.

He was grinning as he magicked the strewn feathers into a tidy little white mountain on the bed—a simple Affinity spell, roughly the opposite of that Mieka had used to shell walnuts. He’d restuff the pillow later. Right now he was hungry, and eager to start the day’s work, to see Mieka and Rafe and Jeska, to laugh over their “smashing” show at the Downstreet. Mieka had talked about possibly sneaking his twin sister in tonight, if Blye would come along to help. It really was rotten that women must hoodwink their way into any performance—Blye had almost been grassed last night by a drunk who collapsed against her and discovered unboyish curves beneath her clothes. He’d been so squiffed, no one paid him any attention when he stuttered about a girl being in the tavern (everybody thought he meant the Sweetheart), but it had been a near thing.

Still, what was the worst that could happen? Surely nothing more terrible than getting thrown back out on the street—

{—out on the street, just beneath the vast awning that sheltered the theater doors, a bizarre little group coalesced. Three anxious boys who didn’t move like boys at all, two outraged constables, and one gaudily clad woman who didn’t move anything like a woman. She didn’t sound like one either as she—he—shouted that they’d best leave their hands off or answer to someone more important than they’d ever dreamed they’d meet in their whole miserable, worthless lives—}

Cade clutched at the banister for support, dizzy, as the scene came and went in the space of five heartbeats. He didn’t recognize the girls dressed as boys, or the man dressed as a woman, and he’d no idea what they thought they were doing. When his breathing had calmed, he re-created what he’d just seen and became even more confused—not just by the glimpse of that very odd possibility, but by what might have prompted it. Trace it back, then. He’d been thinking about Blye, and how she’d nearly been caught, and he had just barely started wondering how she’d get Mieka’s sister safely into and out of the Downstreet tonight, and before that he’d speculated about the Mother Loosebuckle playlets, and—

{“Mother—oh, I want him, I want him so much!”

“He’s full fair, I’ll grant, with everything best about all his bloodlines, but you know what you’re in for.”

“I don’t care. I want him. I love him.” She paced the firelit darkness fretfully, slight and shadowy, flames glinting off masses of long bronze-and-gold hair.

The other woman was older, worn and sour. “It’s a stupid thing you’ve done, casting your glance on such as him.”

“Ah, but he wants me as well. Men have looked at me since I was ten, you know they have—”

Smugly: “I made sure of it.” Surprisingly beautiful hands plucked up the rich dark folds of a gown that spread across her knees, and a silver needle began darting in and out, in and out.

“I know, and I’m grateful. But how he looks at me—it’s all those looks and more besides, there in those eyes. He’s mine already, I know he is! All I have to do is reach—” She laughed, flinging her arms wide and then wrapping herself tight, grasping her own shoulders. Her hands were her mother’s hands, slender and delicate.

“Now you’re fooling yourself, girl. His kind, they never belong to anyone. All you can hope is to tame him for a while.”

“Just because you couldn’t keep my father doesn’t mean I won’t be able to keep him!”

The needle paused, a glare of firelight turning it crimson. “What you’ll keep is a mannerly tongue in your head!”

“You know it’s true. Your mistake was waiting too long. You left it too late. He’s much younger than Father. He can’t have found a bonding yet.”

“You think he’s untouched, do you?”

“I don’t care how many girls he’s bedded. If any of them meant anything, he’d be with her. But he’s not. And that means he can be mine. I want him. And you’re going to help me get him.”

The pretense of sewing was abandoned, and the graceful fingers dug deep into velvet the purple-black of overripe plums. “It’s a long time since I used that part of me.”

“I’ve more of it than you. I’ve got it through Father. I can help. It’ll be just that much stronger, don’t you see? You’ll have to teach me, but—with both of us doing the workings, and him so young—”

“Hear me, girl. Search inside yourself. Is he what you really want? Are you willing to go through the work to tame and bind him? Those days he was nearby, the letters he writes—that’s but the start of it. When he sees you again—”

“Next week! Only next week, and I’ll have him for my own—”

“Mind what I’m telling you! It will be long and difficult, and sieve your heart’s blood. He’ll not know what’s happening to him, but he’s Elfenblood, just like your father, and he’ll sense something. Like as not, he’ll fight without even knowing he’s fighting. They don’t conquer easy, and can rarely be broken.”

“You left it too late with my father,” she said again. “And you were never as beautiful as me, you know that, you’ve said it yourself. I’m not meaning to be cruel, but you know it’s true. With him so young, and me the way I am, and your workings upon him and mine added to them—”

Her mother glanced up, and a look spread across her face, something sly and shrewd and predatory, a frightening parody of what had perhaps once been a smile winsome enough to snare a wayward, willful Elfen lover. “Dearling mine, he’ll have no chance at all.”}

Cade struggled out of firelit darkness into the thin winter light of the stairwell, his empty stomach roiling and his head threatening to explode. Laughter echoed from the rafters overhead, rattled off the wrought iron stairs. He would know that laughter if he ever heard it for real. He was afraid he would hear it in his head, unreal, for the rest of his life.

The turn had taken him more viciously than any ever had before. His thoughts had splintered worse than usual, and the panic was something he hadn’t felt this deeply in a long time. His knees hurt, his left shoulder felt bruised—he blinked, and was disgusted to find he’d fallen. A different fear assailed him then, for what if he’d been taken halfway down the stairs and tumbled the rest of the way down and broken his neck? There’d be no one to warn Mieka then, no one who knew to look for the bronze-gold hair and listen for the laughter—

Mieka? Was that whom she’d wanted so desperately?

Instinct told him yes.

He spent a weary while reassembling the bits of himself: reality fitting back with reality, dream joining into dream, unaccomplished pasts and possible futures tucked back into their places. At length he pushed himself to his feet and trudged down to the kitchen, needing the warmth of the big hearth and of Mistress Mirdley’s grumpy affection.

Why the Elf? And why—as yet—no foreseeings that actually featured him? Two men in a run-down tavern, talking about him as if he were dead; two women in shadows, talking about him as if he were some wild thing they would catch and tame—and break. But nothing that showed Mieka as he would be—

No, as he might be. For there had been that one glimpse, just one, of silvering hair and lines beside those laughing eyes—

“Always, always keep it in your mind that what you see is what is possible. Not positive, and sometimes not even all that probable. You can change it. It’s a dangerous and uncertain thing to attempt, but with care and wisdom, you can change it. Only you must be very, very certain that you’re willing to accept the future you’ve made by that changing. Can you live with it? Perhaps more importantly, can you live with yourself for having dared to act as a God?”

The muffins smelled even better now that he was in the back hallway, but he felt he deserved a reward for surviving that dangerous and unsettling turn, something more bracing than tea and fresh-baked muffins. The stillroom door was slightly ajar; he shoved it open and looked around for any congenial bottles left about. Ah—there, on the worktable below the shelves of spice jars, a lovely squat brown bottle of ale, still corked.

Empty. Someone, probably the footman, had finished it off and plugged the cork back in. He shook the bottle once more to make sure, and then hurled it into the darkest corner of the stillroom.

How he was growing to love the sound of shattering glass.

“Cayden! Is that you?”

He should have pulled the door shut. Not that it would have helped much—Mistress Mirdley had hearing as sharp as if her ears were Elfen instead of Troll. “Sorry!” he called out. “I’ll just sweep this up and be there in a moment!”

But she was in the doorway, short and stubby and brown as the bottle he’d just broken, arms folded, small sharp eyes flashing below a frown. “Wondering half the morning, I was, if you’d condescend to make a meal in the kitchen as usual, and not order me up the stairs with a tray. Famous tregetour now, are you? You’ll have your breakfast where you always do, though, until you can afford a servant of your own to fetch and carry to your whims! Oh, leave that, I’ll clean it up later. Come eat.”

He did as he was told. Everyone did as Mistress Mirdley told them—even Lady Jaspiela. The Trollwife had served the Silversun family for generations, although she was forever threatening to abandon civilization entirely and find herself a nice, quiet, secluded bridge somewhere to guard for a lord whose agent came round once a year, if that, to collect the tolls. Grumbling at travelers was preferable, she avowed, to raising a pair of miscreants passing themselves off as Wizards, and half-noble ones at that.

“Don’t you leave anything on this plate,” she ordered as he sat before a small table bearing a large meal. “Skinny as a stick, no matter what I do. Eat!”

He grinned and stuffed half a butter-drenched muffin in his mouth before she could do it for him—which she had been known on occasion to do. He knew better than to talk with his mouth full, and so waited until he’d washed the muffin down with fragrant cinnamon tea before saying, “I’ll bring my new glisker to dinner one night, shall I? Not a pingle in him, that Elf.”

“It would be nice, having all my hard work appreciated for a change by a boy with an appetite instead of an attitude,” she retorted. Quite without magic, although nearly as quick as, two more muffins appeared on his plate. “And talking of honest work, Herself left you a bit to do out front.” When he looked a question at her, she added, “Snowed last night, didn’t it?”

He hadn’t noticed this morning—well, he hadn’t noticed anything other than the broadsheet, even while standing at the window. But now he knew why his mother hadn’t berated him as he’d expected: The weathering witches hadn’t got round to Redpebble Square yet, and she’d want him to clear their front walk of snow. She enjoyed providing the neighbors with proof that powerful Wizardly blood resided at Number Eight. Melting snow might be the work of those with no other skills at all, a task for menials, but it was magic all the same.

Cade didn’t mind doing the little things that would keep her quiet about the big things. It cost him nothing but time and a bit of magic. As he dug into scuffled eggs with cheese, and the chicken sausages that were Mistress Mirdley’s specialty, he was more concerned with the fact that he honestly hadn’t noticed the snow. Sagemaster Emmot had admonished him day after day to pay attention to the world around him, not just the worlds inside his own head, and not let his mind dart about like a dragon perched on a fence between a sheep pen and a pigsty, unable to decide what to chew on first. The parts of his mind that he couldn’t control could get him into serious trouble. Another turn like the one on the stairs just now, and he might break something. Master Emmot had mentioned a few times that precautions might become necessary as he got older, if his foreseeings strengthened so that he had the longer sort of visions waking as well as sleeping. But in his almost five years of study, and the two years since, there’d been only a few waking turns and all of them very brief. Shock usually immobilized him for a minute or two, so he didn’t fall or knock into anything. But if the seeings were going to be as lengthy as the one on the stairs this morning …

… life could become very awkward. There had to be a way to control what happened to him. Other Wizards with Fae blood who were taken the way he was must have discovered a means of keeping the visions confined to sleep, when they were safely in bed. There must be methods or techniques of control. Sagemaster Emmot hadn’t mentioned any, but there must be.

Mieka’s twin sister didn’t risk attending the performance that night. Blye stayed home, too, her father having had one of his very worst days. The tavern keeper—and, more to the purpose, his wife—watched with contentment the swollen crowd in the Downstreet, and flinched only a little when first one row and then another of their cheaper glassware (carefully pointed out to Rafe before the show) splintered along the bar. The four empty beer pitchers didn’t please them as much; the barman and one of the serving girls were picking shards from their clothing for an hour afterwards. Rafe made sure to apologize eloquently to the girl, but not so eloquently as to make Crisiant jealous if she heard of it. Bespoken to each other since the age of thirteen, Rafe and Crisiant would have good reason to like the sound of shattering glass, too, if it resulted in trimmings that piled up enough for them to get married.

On the walk back to the Threadchaser home for an after-show supper, Rafe took Cade’s arm to hold him back from Jeska and Mieka.

“I didn’t mean to do the pitchers,” he confessed worriedly. “The glasses, yes—but it got away from me a bit, and that’s never happened to me before.”

“Ease up,” Cade advised. “No harm done.” A dollop of cold water hit him on the bridge of his nose, and he looked up. The icicle melting down from a shop sign was as clear as a perfectly made withie, sparkling in the Elf-light from a corner streetlamp. He reached high and broke the icicle off, weighing it in his fingers. It was as cold and dead as the spent glass twigs bundled in the black velvet bag in his other hand; Mieka had released, Jeska had used, and Rafe had disciplined more magic than usual, shattering all that glassware. He’d have a long day tomorrow, respelling withies enough for the next show.

Not that he minded. Not at all. The sound was wonderfully satisfying, and the audience’s reaction even more so. Better still was the jingle of coins at the bottom of the velvet bag, his share of the night’s trimmings. But best of all was something the tavern owner’s wife had said while reassuring him that his glass baskets would be perfectly safe upstairs in her very own chamber.

“I watched our customers tonight, until I couldn’t just watch, if you see what I mean. You caught at me, especially that mad little glisker of yours, and I’ve seen them come and go these ten years and more. It’s not the shock of the shattered glass that’s the new standard to measure by. All that does is get you talked about. No, mark me well on this—it’s the shock of how good you really are.”

“No harm done at all,” he reassured Rafe again. “You know what the mistress told me? That we’re the new standard to measure by.” Cade grinned. No, he didn’t mind the poor spent little twigs in his bag one bit.

“So I’m to pretend I did everything on purpose, is that it?” Rafe didn’t sound pleased.

“Nobody knew. Nobody even guessed.”

I knew.”

“You fret too much.” Cade nudged him with a shoulder, smiling, and they walked on.

The four of them were taking a shortcut back to the bakery, and had reached the section of Beekbacks known as Chaffer Stroll. The prostitutes who walked it were garrulously living up to the name. “Ooh, it’s a lovely little Elfer-boy, innit?” and “Me, I’m for the big tall one with the beard!” and “Pretty enough that golden one is that I’d pay him!” This earned a snort from a girl across the street who yelled back, “An’ that’s the only way you’ll ever put hands on ’im, Ferralise!”

“Damn it, Cade,” Rafe suddenly growled, “you don’t understand. It slipped out of my fingers. That doesn’t happen to me, not ever!”

Jeschenar was feeling either very rich tonight or very happy with his performance, because he sauntered up to Ferralise, bowed, kissed the inside of her wrist as if she were Princess Iamina herself, and pressed a coin into her palm. “A drink on me, sweet.” He grinned.

“Come join me and I’ll drink you down, Sun-face!”

“Another time,” he told her with an expression of regret that Cade might have believed if he hadn’t known Jeska to be a consummate masquer.

“Cade, I’m not joking around,” Rafe insisted. “It got away from me.”

“This was only the second time we’ve done things that way.” He tossed the icicle into a snowbank left behind by lazy weathering witches who had only moved the snow from the street and walkway, not melted it as they did in better neighborhoods. “You’re not used to it yet, that’s all.”

“‘Used to it’?” Rafe grabbed his shoulder and roared, “Will you fucking listen to me? I lost control!”

Cade was so startled that he lost his hold on the spent withies. He winced at the muffled splintering as the bag hit the paving stones. Not in the dozen and more years he’d known Rafe had he ever heard him raise his voice, and certainly not like this. Jeska swung round to stare.

“Oy, Sun-face,” Ferralise was saying, trying to cajole his attention back to herself. “You can bring yer friends, and fer free, like. Always exceptin’ that one,” she added. “Lady witness it, the face on him!”

No question whom she meant. Cade crouched to pick up the velvet bag, head bent to hide that face until he could arrange it in the contemptuous glare he used as a reply to such insults. He was quite good at it, usually; he’d had enough practice. It was all in the attitude, a thing his mother had inadvertently taught him. But before he could rise to his full six-foot-two with sneer intact, he heard Mieka laugh.

“Oh, darlin’!” the Elf exclaimed. “First off, it’s not the face on him that’s his most impressive attribute, it’s what’s about three feet lower down.” He approached the trull, who topped him by a good handspan and outweighed him by at least twenty pounds. “Second,” he went on in a sweetly confiding tone, “the way we work is, all of us or none of us.” He tapped her lightly on the chin with one finger. “Professional though you are, you’d never survive him, let alone us three others besides.”

Ferralise treated her giggling coworkers to a snarl of outrage and raised a clenched fist. Mieka danced mockingly out of reach, stuck out his tongue at her, and leaped over a snowbank to the middle of the street.

“Last one home has to come back tomorrow night and fuck her!”

He scampered off, leaving only laughter behind him. When Rafe set out after him, Jeska close behind, Cade looked once more at the fuming and furious Ferralise. Her attention was on his crotch. Her rapt attention.

He couldn’t help it; he started to laugh. “You better hope I can outrun them, darlin’,” he told her, wedged the velvet bag under his elbow, and took off.

Long legs were an advantage. He caught up to his chortling, breathless friends by the end of the next block.

Jeska was holding his side, breathing hard. “I don’t think I’ve seen Rafe move that fast since the time Crisiant got back from a whole month at her gran’s!”

“You really want to be last in my front door, don’t you?” Rafe shot back.

“Has to be, doesn’t he?” Mieka taunted. “After all, he already paid the fair Ferralise for the privilege!”

Jeska lunged for him, and suddenly they were all running again, and laughing, and didn’t stop until they piled up in the Threadchaser doorway, all four of them trying to push through at the same time. They ended up falling over each other into an ungainly sprawl on the vestibule rug, and it was a good five minutes before any of them had breath enough to get through half a sentence of explanation (carefully censored for Rafe’s mother’s ears) without collapsing into giggles again.

Mistress Threadchaser waited them out, fists on her hips, a vastly tolerant expression on her face. When at last they’d sorted out arms and legs and were arrayed about the sitting room grinning like idiots at each other, she picked up the bag Cade had dropped and frowned as a broken withie slid from a hole sliced in the velvet. “You’ll be having some work to do tomorrow,” she observed, handing him the bag.

He stared at it, stunned. He’d heard no clink of coins. Upending it onto a nearby table, he groaned as a single se’en-penny piece fell out with bits of broken glass.

“Here,” Mieka said at once, digging into his pockets. “Have mine.”

Mute with shock, he shook his head.

“You’re the one as earns it, working as hard as you do. Besides, what’ll you use to buy replacement withies? Mistress Blye can’t afford to extend credit, not even to you, not until the Downstreet pays for their new glassware. Take it,” he ordered, and dropped a double handful of coins on the table.

“A loan,” Cade managed at last. “Just a loan, all right?”

Mieka smiled down at him. “Me old fa says a loan is just payment of a debt owed on a bet lost.”

“Did you? Lose a bet, I mean?”

“Only with meself.”

Before Cade could ask anything more, Jeska suddenly snapped, “Rafe, will you please sit down?”

The fettler turned sharply, and in doing so nearly knocked into his mother, returning to the sitting room with a laden tray. In the resulting juggle of plates, cups, and bowls, Cade took a long look at Rafe. Something he hadn’t seen earlier, on the walk back, was all too obvious now: even in the mellow firelight, his pupils were pinpricks of black within the gray-blue irises. And above his beard his cheekbones were ruddy red, even though he’d long since caught his breath back.

Cade looked over at Mieka again. The same shrunken pupils, the same flush of color. The same restless exuberance, he realized.

But Rafe’s sudden wilting into a chair, as if all the energy had bled out of him, was not repeated in the Elf. Supper was devoured, good nights were said, Rafe dragged himself up the stairs, and still Mieka was wide awake and lively as a puppy let off his lead.

Returning to Beekbacks, Jeska took the corner for home and Mieka walked along beside Cade, casting nervous sidelong glances that annoyed Cade into speaking more roughly than he’d intended to someone who’d just lent him quite a bit of money.

“I’ve never heard Rafe yell before. I’ve never seen him fidgety like that. He told me his control slipped tonight, and he didn’t mean to break the pitchers. Was that you, playing the fool by glutting the magic?”

“No.”

“I don’t care how good the show was, don’t ever put him or yourself or the audience in danger again.”

“I didn’t.”

Cade stopped near a streetlamp and grasped Mieka’s upper arm. For a long moment he looked down into those eyes—sullen, dark, and guilty—as Elf-light crackled softly within the heavy glass lamp close by.

“What was it, then?”

A shrug, but no attempt to break free of his hold. “He was tired. I fixed it.”

He waited.

“He had enough whiskey to get to sleep tonight—you saw it, he could hardly keep his eyes open—”

“What does drink have to do with anything?”

“It’s the offset, innit?”

“The offset to what?”

Another shrug of thin shoulders. “You take it when you need it, and when you don’t need it, you don’t take it.”

“And you decided Rafe needed it, so you gave it to him. What was it?”

“Bluethorn. A bit in his tea yesterday, a bit in the ale he had before the show. He was tired, and then he wasn’t.”

“Bluethorn?”

“Nothing serious. He’ll’ve slept it off by tomorrow.”

“Will he need more?”

“If he does, I won’t give it to him without telling him first, all right?”

“What happens when somebody starts to need it—really need it? That happens to some people with alcohol.” Notoriously, sometimes; he flicked the thought of his father out of his head at once.

“So? You stop for a while. Ease up, Quill—it’s all right.”

“What other things do you know about?”

“What do you mean?”

He couldn’t believe he was saying this. “Just for instance, if somebody wanted to … to dream.”

“Waking dream or sleeping dream?” Mieka searched his eyes, then shook his head. “You Wizardly types call it going lost, Trolls call it blocked, and if somebody’s got too much Gnomish blood they just call it dead, because they can’t take anything at all. My folk have gathered up recipes since forever, and people like Auntie Brishen make a life’s study of Thornlore.”

“I thought she distilled whiskey.”

“That, too. There’s some things as make a Goblin sick for a week, and some that turn a Wizard wicked crazy until it wears off, and what dragon tears do to an Elf isn’t anything you want to know. A lot depends on how much of what blood you’ve got in you. The Human in me lets me drink—something me old fa can’t do, by the way, without he goes all grinagog and silly with it, and after that he’s snarly for three days. The Elf and the Wizard and the Piksey are too strong in him, y’see. You’re a bit of almost everything, so you can probably take anything you fancy.” He paused, placing a hand over Cade’s where it rested on his arm. “What’re you hiding from, Quill, that you want to go lost?”

“Nothing.” He was lying, of course, and Mieka knew it. “I just—if it’s safe, I’d—I mean, I think it’d be interesting, y’know—to find out.”

“Blockweed for a beginner like you, I think. Tomorrow night after the show?”

Cade nodded. They had a few days off before next week’s three-night booking at the Downstreet. He’d use the time to rest, respell old withies and work new ones to replace those broken tonight—and see what sort of dreams blockweed could provide. What foreseeings he could go lost in. He should have been appalled by the whole notion. But he wasn’t.

“How can you be your age, and live in Gallytown all your life, and not know about any of this?”

“From the time I was thirteen until I was almost eighteen, I lived—elsewhere,” he finished awkwardly, not yet ready to admit certain things to someone he’d known less than a week.

“You’ll tell me someday,” Mieka said softly. “Just like you’ll tell me what happened last night, when Blye wanted to know if you’d come back. You can trust me, you know. I promise I won’t disappoint you, Quill, or hurt you, or laugh at you.”

He wondered if that was true. He wanted it to be true.

“We were good tonight,” Mieka offered suddenly, kicking at a pile of snow. “We’ve some rough edges yet, but those will polish down. Another month, I think, and we’ll be sharp as the shoulders on the King’s Guard. There’ll be none to touch us, Quill, none at all.”

“The new standard,” he heard himself say. “The standard everyone else is measured against. The touchstone.”

Mieka caught his breath, a smile beginning on his face. “Is that what you want to call us, then?”

Startled, he could only stare down at those eyes. They were green and brown and gold, shining with barely repressed excitement.

“More than a bit nervy, that,” the boy went on teasingly. “Setting ourselves up as the mark for everyone else to beat! Touchstones, all of us—”

“No.” Gruffly, his voice a rasp he hardly recognized, he said, “What you told that trull tonight—about all of us or none? We’re a knot of four ropes. Everyone else calls themselves a plural—Shadowshapers, Wishcallers, Shorelines—they’re not together, do you see what I mean? There’s no unity. They’re still separate parts, even when they’re performing. It’s why Vered and Rauel could even consider doing a show with a different glisker—”

“I didn’t suit them, I told you that. It was the worst possible fit—”

“I know. It’s us three you fit with. But we’re not a plural. We’re separate people, but when we work together we make a whole, a single thing. Touchstone. Just that. Not a collection of things but one single thing, all of us together.”

Mieka watched his eyes for a long time before saying, “All of us together. I’ve never before belonged to anything worth belonging to.”

It was only as he trudged wearily up the five flights to his room that he remembered the word’s other definition. A touchstone wasn’t just the metaphorical standard by which something was judged. It was a real thing that existed in the real world: the stone that was the test of truth.

Copyright © 2012 by Melanie Rawn

Buy Imager here:

amazon bn powells booksamillion ibooks2 indiebound

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *