Chapter 15

I was tired, so tired, but I couldn't remember precisely why. How many nights had passed since my last good night's rest?

Too many, I decided. My apartment bedroom seemed like a distant memory. Then again, I had a bad habit of crashing on my office's couch during late night sessions. But I couldn't remember falling asleep there either.

I opened my eyes. This wasn't my apartment or my office.

Candles mounted on stone walls provided enough light to remind me that I had left that world behind. I was sleeping in a bed, and my surprise was evidence enough I had been in Ovaleaer too long. But only seven days had passed since Malachi had ruined my life. I counted again. Only a week.

The bed was massive. It was probably wide enough to hold three people, but I was the bed's only occupant with a contingent of pillows occupying the rest of its massive girth. There were tall balusters at each corner, and the blanket tucked around me was embroidered with spindly vines and tiny, delicate flowers.

This was Allendore manor.

I pushed aside the heavy comforter and sat up. Goosebumps prickled along my arms. A fire burned across the room, providing some warmth, but not enough to match the warmth of my blanket cocoon. Someone had changed my clothes and replaced my filthy and soaked cloak and tunic with a long cotton nightdress. I was glad to be dry, but the idea of someone undressing me was an uncomfortable one.

The sky through the window next to my bed was dark, which meant that I had again slept the entire day and then some. Whatever happened with the kerah on the plain had sapped my strength.

I heard a noise across the room and turned to see the door open slowly to reveal a woman. She backed into the room and didn't notice me until the door closed behind her. She was a thin, middle-aged woman with a long face accentuated by an over-sized nose. Her graying brown hair was tied at the back of her head, though a few iron strands had escaped and fallen into her face. In her hands was a tray of food.

"I apologize, miss. I did not realize you were awake," she said. She placed the tray on the small table next to the bed.

"Is there anything you need? Shall I have the servants draw a bath?" she asked. She stepped back, her hands folded demurely in front of her. She was old enough to be my mother, and I was self-conscious beneath her assessing eyes. I'm sure I looked like some ill-kept wild-woman. My bangs were plastered to my forehead, and my hair and skin were covered with a layer of grime.

"Eat, miss, and I'll summon some maids to bring the bathwater. The rest of your companions are awake and with my lady. I will let them know you are awake."

"Thank you," I said.

I picked at the croissant and fruits on the tray while a parade of maids carried large pitchers of water through a nearby door to the adjacent bathroom. The graying woman brought a large, white towel and a bundle of black. Once she was gone, I stripped and sank gratefully into the warm water.

Once I was clean, I didn't linger. I changed into the extra black tunic and cloak from Amarlna and braided my wet hair down my back. The maid had disappeared, so I ventured from my room into a wide hallway lined with carpet. Heavy sconces lined the walls and provided a bright, flickering light along the length of the corridor. I followed it to the left and peeked around the closest corner. It opened into a large hall with a staircase.

Voices drifted from the lower chamber, echoing off the stone walls. I followed them down the stairs and around another corner to the entrance of a large dining hall where Asher, Evan, and an unfamiliar woman sat at one end of a long table that I was confident could hold at least six dozen people.

The woman was seated with her back to me and angled toward Evan, whose chair was at the far end, facing the door and me. I couldn't see much of her except for her curly red hair. Her posture was impeccable, and she had the sort of long, refined neck that seemed better suited for a swan than a woman.

I paused in the doorway long enough for Evan to notice me.

"Ah, Anna, please join us," he called from the other end of the room. Asher and the woman turned to face me.

I had a choice—I could walk to the left and sit next to Asher or choose the table's right side and have the mystery woman looming in my peripheral vision. For once, Asher seemed to be the safer option, and I walked the length of the long table on the side that would place me beside him.

Asher stood as I approached, and I was confused until he pulled my chair away from the table for me to sit. Despite my surprise, an unwilling smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. It had been a long time since a guy had paid attention like that. I'd take a polite gesture—even if it were from Asher.

"Thank you," I said and sat down.

"Miren, may I present to you our companion, Anna Garrett. Anna, this is my cousin, Lady Miren Allendore."

Ah, this was Miren. From Evan and Asher's talk, I expected a man, not a woman. She had an open face and almond-shaped hazel eyes that assessed me as certainly as I did her. She offered me a graceful nod, which I attempted to return without looking like an absolute fool. Looking at her, I could see the resemblance to Evan—something about her long, straight nose and the shape of the eyes hinted at their relation.

"So, this is the whisperer," she said with a curious tone and a glance to her cousin.

"So much for secrecy," I commented with a sidelong look at Asher.

"When you insist on ostentatious displays of power, it is a difficult secret to keep," he retorted.

"You haven't changed, Captain," Miren joked before I could fire back. To be honest, I did not remember much of what happened on the plain, but I didn't want to reveal that in front of a stranger. In any case, all my questions were sidetracked by Asher's smile. I stared at him. Perhaps my surprise was too obvious, because when he met my gaze, he lifted one eyebrow in an uncharacteristic display of humor.

"Are you from one of the families, Anna?" Miren asked politely with the obvious expectation that I understood to what families she might be referring. Distracted, I looked at her and attempted to focus. Abilities passed through the family lines, so I suspected she was asking if I belonged to any distinguished lineage of whisperers.

"Uh, no," I responded lamely.

"I see. It's been many years, generations actually, since the whisperers allied with the royal family. It is an interesting strategy to keep a whisperer in your midst while you battle another, Your Highness."

What she didn't see was my uncertain identity as captive, ally, and enemy's pawn. And despite what happened on the plain, she did not know that my powers were useless to me. But her comment was a caution to Evan and a question about my loyalty.

"She is, as yet, untrained," Evan answered. His message was a simple one: she is not a threat.

"How unfortunate," she said with almost genuine regret. "It would be nice to have a powerful ally against Malachi Corelli. Is there any word from inside Renaer?" she asked. Her eyes dropped to the tabletop where she fiddled with one of her bracelets. Her father was one of Malachi's captives, Evan had said.


"And so you hope this seer will do what? Tell you how to defeat him?" she asked hopefully, her pale brow furrowed. In contrast, Evan's face was smooth and even; he hardly reacted to her statement. He told her our destination.


I looked away to hide my surprise. He lied to her, and he did not mention his curse. But I decided it was Evan's secret to keep or tell, and I would not interfere.

"I had wondered if all your time in the Dardanelle court would turn you away from the old superstitions," she said, "but it appears Ovaleaer is preparing for a war that will see all those elements come again."

"All the king's new weapons are nothing against a whisperer of Malachi's caliber," Evan said dismissively. His gaze was fixed across the room beyond her, and the muscles in his jaw were set resolutely.

"Is that why you do not call for aid? Surely after spending two years there, your relationship would be str—"

"The Dardanelle king is paranoid. He cowers in his castle, hording weapons to combat the kerah. He must keep good relations with my father to preserve the Iylesch trade routes, but he fears Ovaleaer. He fears my family's power and our openness to the others like us. If he knew Renaer was in the hands of a whisperer, he would attack. And I refuse to justify his obsession or to pay the price he would demand for his aid."

"I apologize, Your Highness," Miren said. "I did not mean to offend you."

"I was not offended," he replied with an apologetic smile. He reached over the table and placed one of his hands over hers. "You are not the first to suggest it, but we have more to fear from revealing this unrest than facing it alone."

I stared at that hand, confused by the gesture and the strange discomfort it caused inside me. But now was not the time to evaluate what it was.

Based on what I had seen, the prince did not have the resources to fight a war alone. For God's sake, he hid in a forest for six months with a few dozen men. He had no armies or weapons—it was no wonder Malachi seemed so assured of his victory.

And Ovaleaer may not have the Internet, but how the hell do you hide an insurrection from everyone?

"No one knows what has happened?" I asked.

"The commoners are not concerned with our statesmanship if it does not affect the harvest. The winter Court is hostage inside Renaer, and the rest dare not anger the whisperer until he acts. The castle is closed to foreign delegations. Malachi will wait until his power is secure before he declares himself," Evan explained.

"So he's waiting until you are dead," I clarified forcefully, "until he kills you himself." A measured silence followed my statement. Evan looked abashed and would not look at me. Asher—well, Asher nodded in agreement, meeting my gaze briefly. Miren's face was an almost comical expression of surprise or outrage. It was hard to tell, and she seemed to have lost the ability to speak.

"An undesirable outcome," Asher admitted. "He will move before the delegations return in the spring in anticipation of your coming of age and coronation," Asher said, breaking the silence.

If Evan was almost a king, it explained his urgency to find the seer before winter closed the mountain passes. He had a necessary concern for Ovaleaer's image to her allies. In the back of my mind, the pieces were falling into place to explain Evan's desperation to risk his own life on this journey.

"Allendra will stand with you, Your Highness," Miren interjected. "Our men are ready at your call."

"Thank you, Miren," Evan said. He ran his hand over his face; his eyes drifted to the nearby window that showed the still-dark sky.

Miren pressed on. "The men train at dawn if, if you would like to oversee the drills," she said. She knew his attention was waning. "You are welcome to observe from the second-floor atrium. From there, you can observe the practice yard unseen."

"Of course, my lady. We'd be glad to observe," Evan agreed.

"All of your company is welcome to the comforts of this manor. My staff is at your disposal, and I will have your packs refreshed with supplies and food for your departure."

"Tonight," Asher added.

"Thank you," Evan said, pushing his chair from the table. "I'll see you before dawn."

He stood and walked toward the door. A moment later, Miren followed, hurrying to catch him, which left Asher and I alone at the table.

"Well, it is still dark and dawn is some hours away. The castle will sleep until then—it's the perfect time to test those powers of yours."


He looked around and then stood. "I don't believe Lady Allendore would appreciate it if we destroyed her great hall. We'll go to the armory's practice yard."

I followed him from the dining hall through a series of corridors. He seemed to know the way, and I did not question him. We came to a rather unassuming door—a plain slab of dark wood that resembled all the rest—that led into an open-air courtyard. My eyes adjusted to the dim light. It was night still, but I could hear the rain pattering against the yard's dirt floor and the wooden overhang that stretched several yards from the building, sheltering Asher and I from the rain. Lanterns hung along the wall beside the door, offering some light to brighten the shadows.

"You can sense and call the kerah now. I saw you," he said, referring to what happened the previous night.

"What happened? I don't know what I saw and what I only imagined." I remembered the wind I created and the kerah inside me—and then nothing.

"We were only a mile from Allendra. You used the storm's kerah to create a gust so large it ripped the thatch from the roofs of the shepherd's hovels beyond the manor's walls."

My heart pounded in my ears. "The storm was strong. Are you it wasn't the storm or the rain?"

"You don't understand. The storm stopped, disappeared. Then, the wind came. And once I realized what was happening, I saw the kerah around you," he said, his eyes distant as he recalled it. "A whisperer will always draw the kerah. Even when you do not call it, it clings, like flies to a carcass. It is how I was trained to identify a whisperer—by the way the currents behave around you."

He held out his arms at his side. "It moves around me like a stone in the river. You, you were a maelstrom."

Around him, the slippery glint of the kerah was still as the surrounding air. I looked down at my own hands—after all, previous encounters had left me little opportunity to see how the peculiar energy affected me, but now I could see the thin film that covered my skin. It flickered in a way that reminded me of heat rising from hot pavement in summer, a subtle distortion of the air.

"You call upon that energy when you are frightened," he said.

He was very still, I noticed. It was unlike Malachi, who seemed to enjoy prowling around me to assert his confidence. Asher was self-contained, though no less intimidating than Malachi.

"Did anyone see what happened?" I asked in a small voice, fearing the answer.

"It was hard to miss," Asher said. "There are whispers and rumors about what happened, and some tell of a whisperer. This is why you need control."

"What do I need to do?" I asked. It was all well and good that I could sense this energy, but I couldn't remember what I did to harness it or change it.

"I am no whisperer, so I cannot explain the precise mechanism, but if you learn to dispel the kerah or close yourself off to it, you can control your body's attempt to call it," he explained.

I nodded, but I quickly realized Asher had little guidance to offer me. He had no experience accomplishing what I needed to do. With him, I had little hope to learn control. I had some natural instinct; the previous day's events had proven that, but I needed a teacher. And Malachi was my best hope.

"Are there any other whisperers?"

Asher frowned thoughtfully, his thick eyebrows drawing together. He was leaning against the manor's exterior beneath one of the lanterns, which probably afforded some warmth to the chilly morning. It was colder than the previous night—the rain had ushered in the chill of winter again. I rubbed my hands together to banish the stiffness that had begun to creep into my fingers.

"Not many. As you have seen, the instinct is too strong for the power to remain unnoticed. Once, a gifted child would have been sent to the king to be trained, but now—too often—the child is simply killed. There are rumors of enclaves where the arts are still practiced in secret, but they are secluded, like the seers."

"That's horrible," I said, thinking of the witch-burnings and other atrocities committed in the name of superstition and religion. It was hard to contemplate such violence against a child. But I was not a child, and I knew the world was not a kind place to outsiders. Any world, it seemed.

"I will admit that it breeds a harsh mistrust between the survivors and the ones they once swore to protect," Asher admitted.

"And between those who should be allies," I answered. He seemed to understand well enough what I was attempting to say: My abilities should not prevent us from trusting one another. I knew—Asher still mistrusted me, even now.

"Evan trusts you, you know," he said, surprising me. "And he is well-accustomed to recognizing lies, even those wrapped in the pretty wrapping of a truth."

"Please," I guffawed. "Even if that were true, the rest of you don't. You, your soldiers, even that Lady Miren Allendore—you trust me so long as I can help you. One misunderstanding, and you won't hesitate to kill me."

"Miren likes you. It may not have seemed so, but she is too preoccupied by Evan's behavior to pay you much mind. She senses something is amiss."

"Do you trust me?" I asked him directly.

"You have given me no cause not to trust you," he said, looking at me from the corner of his eye. "But I hope you will understand that it is my duty to the Evanderan family to trust no one, Anna. Even a nice girl who seems as suspicious of others as I am." I looked at him sharply. Asher rarely said my name. It was always "whisperer" or nothing at all.

Not only that, he offered me an oblique compliment—it was not an obvious overture of friendship, but for Asher, it was a peace offering. He mentioned us together and put us in the same category with the good guys.

"But you're wasting time," he said. "More focus on the matter at hand, if you would."

I sighed and closed my eyes to do what he had asked: to repel the energy around me. Asher said I was a maelstrom. If I could build a dam between the currents of the kerah and my body, I could stop it. I needed armor. I looked down at my right hand and watched the energy move over my skin. It was eerie, because no sensation accompanied it; I could not feel it there.

In my mind, I imagined an invisible glove covering my hand, pretending in my mind that I could feel it across my skin below the pulsing energy.

Nothing appeared to change. I looked up at Asher, and he shook his head, confirming my suspicion. I sighed and let my hand fall to my side.

"Asher, this is hopeless."

He sighed and pushed off from his wall. "I spent years honing my power. It was a thin hope to believe you could master yours without proper instruction in a matter of days." He sighed again. "The master whisperers have disappeared and with them, their knowledge."

There was something wistful and melancholy about the way he said that. I raised an eyebrow. "What?" he asked.

"You were the one who assumed I was an enemy and believed the old king should have burned the books that Malachi used to learn to control the Gates," I reminded him.

"You remember that?" he asked, surprised. "I have an admiration for the old masters. The lost arts were both beautiful and deadly, and when the practice disappeared, Ovaleaer lost something from the fabric of its culture and history."

He looked out into the yard. The rain had stopped, and the morning air was still. Asher didn't speak for a moment, and I waited. A cold breeze spun through the courtyard, and I shivered. My cloak was drying beside the fire in my room, and my tunic was not enough to keep me warm.

"If abolishing that knowledge would have prevented Malachi from reaching Renaer, I would see it destroyed myself. But he did, and Ovaleaer is not Dardanelle. The tides of the kerah will determine its outcome as much as what military force we can muster."

His frown left deep lines around his mouth, but when he turned to me, he gave a strained smile. It was so fleeting it might have been a grimace, though.

"Come on, whisperer. Let's go see if we can find an early breakfast somewhere."