copyright 2013

Melody Daggerhart

All rights reserved.

Chapter 1: The Summoner's Bounty

"Inexcusable!" Ýeórl-Dheryl Saskýa-Ól slapped the report down on her ebony desk, then rose from her ornately carved chair to confront the summoner and assassin who stood before her.

"Two days ago, over half of the Dark Market District was set on fire when an explosion destroyed the Twin Stags Tavern. Numerous good men and women among my guards were killed trying to arrest your prisoner, or trying to put out the fire he started. My city is in shock. Both of you would have been dead if not for those teleport amulets the Derra Eirlyn gave you. Yet no one was able to apprehend him, and you have no leads about where he ran off to?"

Though she felt like wincing at every word emphasized by the elven elder of Thálynessa, Kassí Vadis-Shin's expression remained a stoic mask. She accepted her chastisement without talking back.

The summoner wasn't dressed in her traditional black armor today. It was being repaired at the smith's … again. Instead, she wore simple brown leggings with a white, embroidered tunic. But if she had her armor, the scuff marks, blood stains, and soot would have been proof of her struggle, at least.

Her gaze shifted left to where her assigned partner, Mahntarei Étál-Díra, stood. The brown-haired, green-eyed assassin was still sickly-looking, having just come from the healing ward of the temple. It was only due to his amulet teleporting him to immediate aid that he had survived being shot with a poisoned arrow. The arrow had missed his heart, and the healers had been quick enough to place protective spells around all of his vital organs until an antidote could be administered. But they both knew how lucky he was to escape death-by-dragon-venom.

Kassi barely escaped the vile toxin once, as well. She had been stabbed in the back with a tainted dagger. The burn the dragon venom produced as it raced through her system was worse than any pain she had ever felt, except perhaps for the pain of a dark elf's mind-touch. And the burn was made more painful by the fact that the man who stabbed her was her former lover—the disinherited, exiled Prince—Trizryn Da'en.

She deserved it, though. There was no denying that. She had kept her identity as his summoner hidden until that night when the King sent her to collect his wayward step-son back to the Derra Eirlyn's dungeon for treason.

All the lies and secrets buried beneath the facade came to the surface. To learn she was the one who had been reaping his thoughts, controlling his mind, and sending him into harm's way all those years … she couldn't blame him for wanting to kill her. But he was guilty of treason—the reason why the Dheryl-Kin wanted him watched in the first place.

Trizryn had illegally used one of the ancient gates to bring a human into the realms of the fae. Humans were dangerous creatures that periodically tried to invade elven lands. Over the ages, humans had many of the fae races—and their own kindred—tortured and executed for using magic. His act of bringing one of the creatures into the elven realms had the potential to harm not only himself, but the entire kingdom of Aesethna. He didn't see it that way, of course.

Kassi wasn't sure why the human was so important to him, but it was worth stabbing a summoner in the back to protect the creature and himself the first time she tried to arrest him. The reflective spell built into the summoner's bond had successfully drawn the poisoned injury away from her and thrust it back at her prisoner, but she wondered why he hadn't died in his attempt to assassinate her. It was one of many questions she would demand answers to once he was captured.

During their next encounter, he locked her in the basement of the burning tavern. Kassí was not harmed in the fire, except for some irritating smoke inhalation, but once more she had been forced to use her enchanted amulet to escape a life-or-death situation.

The hearth fire behind them reflected in the dark eyes of the age-wizened elder. "I realize there are certain difficulties to contend with in any attempt to apprehend the Prince. He is one of our own agents, after all, and a dark elf in addition to that. Their magic is more difficult to predict and control. But that's why we gave you the amulets—so you could teleport him immediately back to the dungeon. I can overlook his escape once, but there is no excuse for allowing one renegade to overpower his summoner, an assassin, and an entire unit of elite Derra Eirlyn guards a second time."

Kassí swallowed her embarrassment at having to report the loss of her valuable prisoner, but the reason for her defeat was even more humiliating than the defeat itself. "Forgive me, my lady, but the Prince has found a way to block my summons."

The ýeórl-dheryl's frown deepened. "Impossible. A bonded elf cannot remove the magic that binds him, or he'd be dead by now."

"I don't know how he's doing it, but I can't locate him, contact him, or control him," she confessed. "The disconnect comes and goes, though, so it can't be permanent."

"Why didn't you report to the high council as soon as you lost control of him?"

"I thought ..." The summoner realized nothing would excuse her silence. In fact, her lack of communication with her superiors was almost as unforgivable as her prisoner's. "I meant to, but the Prince was more of a challenge than usual because he was protecting what he values most—his sister and his friends. We didn't wish to harm the Princess, so we let them go after putting up what would seem to be a reasonable fight. I needed him to believe he'd won."

Beside her, Mahntarei gave a cynical snort. "How did you ever get away with pretending to be his lover before this fiasco? You don't understand him at all. Trizryn risked burning in that tavern because he was protecting something more important than himself."

Kassí's lavender eyes cut toward the assassin once more. "That's what I just said."

"No. What he values most is his human," he calmly argued.

"He didn't risk himself to free the human. She wasn't even one of the hostages."

"But without her, there would have been no point in freeing the others."

With waning patience, Saskýa-Ól moved to stand directly before the assassin. "Explain."

Mahntarei drew an uncomfortable breath and put a hand to his chest to ease the pain of his life-saving surgery. "Trizryn knew we could rip memories from his sister for their conversations about the human. That human represents whatever he was after when he hijacked the Gate of Min. Find out why he protects the human, and you will find out what he's really protecting."

He cast a glance to the summoner at his side and lowered his voice only slightly. "I've known Triz a lot longer than you have, my dear. And while he probably is the two-timing bastard you think he is, I believe there's more to his unsanctioned use of the gate than an itch for a different kind of tail." He drew a finger gently down her cheek, as if tracing the trail of an unseen tear.

Kassí snatched Mahntarei's wrist and forced his hand away. "Stop trying to make me look jealous," she warned in a low tone.

He smirked at her irritation. "Aren't you? He ditched you for a hairless monkey."

"I'm the one who ended the relationship, and it was because I needed to find out how and why he was blocking my ability to summon him. My professionalism is why the King entrusted the Prince to my summons in the first place, and my professionalism is why I will do whatever is necessary to bring him back."

"And what happens when you bring him back? Hm? Do you really think the Derra Eirlyn is going to just fix him and hand him back to you? He knows who you really are now, and he's gone rogue. How professional will you be when I have to execute him? I still have the writ for his bounty, remember? And it still says 'dead or alive.'"

With growing displeasure, Ýeórl-Dheryl Saskýa-Ól folded her arms at her chest. "I'm still waiting to hear how allowing the fugitives to escape leads to their capture."

Kassí was glad to change the subject by answering her. "The Dheryl-Kin said the high priestess at the Temple of D'lóron in Brinnan enchanted the brooch of the Princess's vethrkylk, turning it into a scrying link. It's what led to their knowledge of Trizryn bringing the human to Brinnan in the first place. I figured if we could lure him in, plant a scrying gem, and let him escape, we could follow him back to his hideout."

"And what better way to plant an unknown scrying device on him than to let him think he's rescued his sister," Mahntarei added with a thin smile.

The elder elf was skeptical. "The Princess was in on this?"

"She didn't volunteer, but the fact that she came along when she did was a stroke of luck," he answered. "We have an unsuspected, live scrying device in his nest now."

"But for the record," Kassí interrupted, "involving the Princess was not my idea. Planting a similar scrying gem on the innkeeper or bard would have been sufficient. Trizryn would do anything to help his friends." The summoner cast the assassin an accusatory glance.

The elder was not impressed. "His nest is right here in the Dark Market District of Thálynessa—or at least it was until you let him burn it to the ground."

"But there's more to it than that," Kassi continued. "Trizryn was assigned the task of digging up a nest of dissidents in Serensa about a year ago. He came back empty-handed and was punished for mishandling the affair, but we've had no trouble from that particular group since. It's as if they've disappeared into thin air. And Trizryn isn't the type of agent to return empty-handed."

"He didn't turn in the Serensa dissidents because he joined them," Mahntarei inserted.

Kassí gave him an impatient glance for explaining her case, but then continued speaking to the ýeórl-dheryl. "The Dheryl-Kin has suspected for some time now that Trizryn may be part of a peasant conspiracy that is gaining strength. Serensa had some of the most destructive rebellions in recent history, but suddenly everything was fine after he was sent to root out the leaders. It looks suspicious.

"I allowed the ambush and the tavern trap to fail so I could find another way to track him—and possibly something bigger. Please, just … give us a little time. We should be able to return both of the royal siblings to Brinnan and bring down whatever else Trizryn is trying to hide."

Saskýa-Ól sighed. "So, this is what comes of Thálynessa having to take on Brinnan's problem child … again." The silver-haired elf seemed to flow, rather than walk, across the plush, green rug on the crystal-inlaid floor as she returned to her desk.

Kassí rubbed the chill from her arms and wished she could turn her back on the elven elder to enjoy the hearth fire behind her. It radiated a soothing comfort that only the enchanted tree homes of the ancient forest-cities could offer. She grew up in a magically hulled tree-dwelling, so perhaps that was why places like Thálynessa struck a nostalgic chord in spite of recent events.

"I am here under your command at the Dheryl-Kin's orders, but he did not know my plans. I take complete responsibility. I'm sorry for what happened to your guards and your city. I failed to adequately judge how volatile the Prince might be in evading arrest."

With a troubled expression, the elder lifted a dagger-like letter opener from her desk and studied the designs engraved in the crosspiece and hilt. "The Prince has always been a volatile young man. As his summoner, you know that."

Kassí nodded in reluctant agreement. "Yes, my lady."

"It's been twenty-two years since his trial and reconditioning, hasn't it? His mother, the Dheryl-Kin'na, was a trusted friend of mine. She tried hard to raise him in a manner worthy of his inheritance … to prove everyone wrong about their fears of giving the crown of a surface kingdom to a dark elf. Broke her heart to see him accused of plotting to murder her husband.

"We all know that's what truly killed her in the end—seeing her only son betray king and country … and herself. Seeing his trial and condemnation ... She knew he was guilty of treason before, and now he's done it again. Yet I think if Ysmé were here today, she'd be trying to talk me out of hunting him down."

The elven elder sighed and moved to the fireplace beside the summoner. Letter-opener still in hand, she tapped the dull blade in her left palm. "She wanted so badly to believe him, but evidence drawn from the Derra Eirlyn's trials is infallible. It's drawn directly from the memories of the accused and the witnesses. Truth cannot be ignored just because it is not what we hope or believe it should be."

The summoner wasn't sure what to make of this unexpected confession.

The elder elf seemed to have reached a decision. "I will speak with the Dheryl-Kin on your behalf about this plan of yours to investigate whether or not Trizryn is involved with conspirators. The king is a wise man, and I'm sure he will balance your plans alongside the news of your failures when he considers what to do next. Had Erys not stepped in on the Queen's behalf at the Prince's trial—in spite of his being the victim—the Derra Eirlyn would have shown no mercy.

"But if Trizryn is not willing to turn himself in, then we must assume he is hiding something worthy of violating his probation. And if he is protecting outlaws and humans, that is a full-blown security threat that could affect every elf in the Kingdom of Aesethna. Humans must not be allowed to cross the Veil. If he is guilty, I cannot—and should not—stand in the way of justice."

"Yes, Ma Ýeórl-Dheryl."

"I have already sent a team to inspect the damages done to the gate he destroyed. The Derra Eirlyn held a Gathering last night, and it was decided that Trizryn's contract should be officially terminated. In their eyes, he is not an agent or a prince anymore. He is nothing more than a dangerous criminal.

"Though the Dheryl-Kin has given orders that his step-son be brought down dead or alive, if what you say about the dissidents of Serensa is true, I would argue that alive would yield more information. If possible, stay your hand until you have his mind-rip, but if his threat outweighs his usefulness, do what you must."

The elven elder returned to her ornate chair. "That is all. You are dismissed."

The summoner and the assassin bowed with respect to the elder elf. Mahntarei held a hand to the pain in his chest as he made his way to the door.

Kassí started to follow, but lingered with hesitation, then approached the elder's desk. "Ma Ýeórl-Dheryl, forgive me, but before I go I was wondering … is it possible the Gate of Min was destroyed by something other than Trizryn?"

The elder elf settled and met the inquiry with a raised brow. "The Prince is a magnet for trouble. If something else destroyed Min, it's probably because he put it there."

Kassí smiled at a sentiment that could come only from someone who knew Trizryn well, but she didn't know if she could be that assumptive. "It's just that … when he came to get his sister, he said some kind of power failure might be responsible for what happened to the gate. He seems to think my father was among the mage-engineers who worked on it … said he might have known something about it before he died. If so, whatever went wrong with the gate has been happening for quite some time. You see, my father died when I was very young."

The elder's lips pressed together in a thin, straight line. "As our agent beyond the Veil, the only knowledge Trizryn was given about the remaining gates was how to find, open, calibrate, and close them. You know this."

"Yes, but—"

"Whatever comes out of his mouth to excuse his unsanctioned summoning of the Gate of Min is a rumor or a lie."

Kassi could tell that was all the answer she was going to get on the matter. "Understood, my lady." Backing away and bowing with respect, once more, the summoner accepted her dismissal and headed for the door. But the curt manner in which the conversation ended felt … strange.

There was no interest in who her father was, or what the power problem might have been. And there were no questions about why Trizryn would even bother bringing it up. He was an expert liar. There was no denying that. But blaming her father would have been a weak excuse, and he was too smart to follow useless rumors. He was not, however, above using someone else to find out which ones were true.

Mahntarei had been waiting for her, leaning against the wall outside of the elder elf's office, so he accompanied her toward the stairs. "Where do you suppose Trizryn gets his rumors?" the assassin asked with a sly smirk. "Shei perhaps? Róbynn? Bards and innkeepers are usually good sources of gossip."

Of course he had been eavesdropping … As they walked, Kassí admired the colored-glass tapestries which were embedded in the warm, golden wood of the Elder Tree's walls. "How should I know? I can't track anything he does, so he's effectively blinded me."

"Love is blind, isn't it," the other elf agreed.

"If you say so. You're the expert on loving someone that can't possibly love you back," she caustically retorted. Each step descending the vine-carved bannister into the entrance hall was inlaid with glass panels of blue-and-green butterfly wings.

The assassin was amused at the insult. "Tell me, Kassí, what was it like to possess Trizryn, knowing he trusted you? It's must have been such a rush to be able to make a dark elf—a prince—bow at your feet … kiss your ass … literally ..."

With a cold scowl, Kassí stopped and faced the assassin. "My personal life is none of your damned business. What were you doing in there taking credit for my trap? It's bad enough the Dheryl-Kin made you my watchdog, but it was my idea to use a scrying gem to find Trizryn's camp. If we do find a nest of dissidents, I am not going to let you get promoted for it."

Mahntarei lifted one of the copper-colored curls from her shoulder. "Ever since you let Trizryn slaughter your entire guard unit at the Gate of Min, the Dheryl-Kin doesn't have as much faith in your professionalism as you do."

"I didn't let him kill my guards. Have you forgotten who we're dealing with? Trizryn is a wild card on a good day."

"But it's your job to control him. And it's my job to make sure you're doing your job. I deserve a promotion because it was my idea to use K'tía as a hostage, which is the magic ingredient that drew him out of hiding and set up the scrying gem for you."

She drew her hair behind her neck—away from him. "An idea that could have got us killed if anything had happened to her. The Princess may not be officially crowned yet, but she's the only heir to the throne now."

He shook his head. "It's like I already said. Triz knows K'tía is an easy egg to crack during an interrogation. That's why he came to retrieve her. That's why we let him have her … for now. After we check in with his sister, he won't escape the next trap. And neither will his human."

Kassí frowned. "We need to speak with the high priestess in Brinnan to see if she can see or hear anything through K'tia's brooch, so we don't have to use the Princess anymore. That scrying spell is our only lead. But Trizryn needs a few days to get comfortable and let his guard down before we try to find him again."

The elven assassin shrugged, shoved his hands into the pockets of his vethrkylk, and descended the rest of the wide, spiraling staircase ahead of her.

"Where are you headed?" she called before he got too far.

He stopped and faced her from the floor below. "Back to the temple for a few more healing potions before taking the train back to Brinnan … unless you think we should leave now by teleporting."

Kassi cast a glance at the tall, ebony-framed clock standing sentry against the wall at the bottom of the stairs. The enchanted wheel on the bottom pumped a steady undercurrent through the brass cogs and gears submerged in the softly glowing aquamarine fluid behind the glass panel. They still had about thirty minutes before the next train bound for Brinnan left the station.

"I'm not ready to report back at the fortress just yet. Go get your potions, and I'll meet you at the station on the hour." Kassí watched Mahntarei leave. Then, descending the remainder of the stairs alone, she exited the enormous, mushroom-flanked tree that served as the palace of Thálynessa's ýeórl.

Standing on the snow-covered hill, she scanned the ancient tree-city's currently barren canopy to see that parts of the Dark Market District were still smoldering from the explosion. Protection spells had buffered most of the flames, or the damage to the rest of the city could have been a lot worse.

~Trizryn, can you hear me?~ She attempted telepathic contact once more. ~I think the ýeórl of Thálynessa knows something about the gates and my dad, but she's not talking. Wherever you are, if you still have something to say about it … I'm willing to listen.~

As expected, there was no response. She could not touch his mind.

~Trizryn?~

With a sigh of disgust, the summoner tied her winter-robe shut to keep the cold at bay and headed down the hill toward the blacksmith shop. She needed to pick up her repaired armor before she missed her train.