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Elizabeth Moon returns to the fantasy world of the paladin Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter-Paks for short-in this second volume of a new series filled with all the bold imaginative flights, meticulous world-building, realistic military action, and deft characterization that readers have come to expect from this award-winning author. InKings of the North,Moon is working at the very height of her storytelling powers. Peace and order have been restored to the kingdoms of Tsaia and Lyonya, thanks to the crowning of two kings: Mikeli of Tsaia and, in Lyonya, Kieri Phelan, a mercenary captain whose royal blood and half-elven heritage are resented by elves and humans alike. On the surface, all is hope and promise. But underneath, trouble is brewing. Mikeli cannot sit safely on his throne as long as remnants of the evil Verrakaien magelords are at large. Kieri is being hounded to marry and provide the kingdom with an heir-but that is the least of his concerns. A strange rift has developed between him and his grandmother and co-ruler, the immortal elven queen known as the Lady. More problematic is the ex-pirate Alured, who schemes to seize Kierirs"s throne for himself-and Mikelirs"s, too, while hers"s at it. Meanwhile, to the north, the aggressive kingdom of Pargun seems poised to invade. Now, as war threatens to erupt from without and within, the two kings are dangerously divided. Old alliances and the bonds of friendship are about to be tested as never before. And a shocking discovery will change everything.
Chaya, Midsummer Feast
Falkieri Artfielan Phelan, King of Lyonya, waited with barely concealed impatience for his grandmother, the elven queen of the Ladysforest, to appear for the Midsummer ritual. Under his bare feet, the moss of the King's Grove felt cool and welcoming; the fragrance of the summer night, flowers that bloomed at no other time, filled his nostrils. Yet he could not take full pleasure in the soft breeze, the cool moss, the sweet scents. Where was she?
He had spent the entire short night on the central mound near the Oathstone, expecting the Lady to appear, but she had neither granted his request to come early nor sent a clear refusal. He had hoped to use this auspicious day to ask her once again for help with his continuing effort to reconcile the two peoples, elves and humans . . . but since his coronation she had come seldom, and never for long. The whole night she had been elsewhere, and not even his growing taig-sense could find the direction.
He looked again at the stars overhead; the ritual must begin when the Summerstar touched the oldest blackoak's crown--and as he watched, the star slid that last short distance.
"Grandson," the Lady said. "It is time." She was there, where she had not been an instant before, and already she had begun the chant. No time now to remonstrate. He raised his arms high and sang as the sky brightened overhead. Across the Oathstone, she also sang, the two of them--so the tradition went--singing the sun over its midsummer peak. The Lady's hands drew patterns in the air, coils of silvery light, a net to capture the first rays of the sun's gold.
Kieri suspected she would withdraw into her elvenhome kingdom as soon as it was done, but as her enchantment wrapped around him, his irritation subsided. Her song, her power, held him fast. His mind soared: he knew he was in the place he belonged, performing the rituals he needed to perform. The taig responded to both of them; he felt it in his whole body, a tingling awareness of life that both nourished him and needed him. This was how it should be. But the dawn song and the Lady left him at the same time; her enchantment no longer clouded his awareness, and his resentment returned.
He knew she would not return until sundown, when they would spend another short night by the Oathstone. This time, he promised himself, she would listen to him. They were co-rulers; she should not ignore the king any more than he should ignore the Lady. She must at least explain why she had been so supportive that quarter-year ago and so ignored him now. Then he put that out of his head; he still had his own duties.
That morning he walked the bounds of Chaya, retracing the route he'd taken on his coronation day. Once more his subjects lined the streets and the city wall; now he knew many faces and names, and when a child wriggled loose from Berian, baker, and ran to him, he scooped her up.
"Jerli, where are you going?" Kieri glanced at the child's mother, who stood red-faced a few paces away.
"Give you Midsummer luck," the child said, pushing a flower behind his ear. Then she planted a wet kiss on his cheek and wriggled to get down. Kieri set her gently on her feet, and Berian snatched her up, face hardening.
"Don't scold her," Kieri said. "Kind hearts are Arianya's children." His own heart ached, thinking of his lost daughter at that age, who had run to him just as eagerly.
"If the king doesn't mind--"
"A child's good wishes? Never." He went on then, pausing at the four cardinal directions to pour a libation and break a loaf. At noon, he went to the royal ossuary to "bring the sun" to the dead with garlands of flowers. The Seneschal had a basket of fresh leaves ready; Kieri laid the leaves on eyeholes, mouths, earholes, and hung the garlands at either end of the ossuary. He felt a welcome from the bones; he sat on the stool the Seneschal placed for him between the platforms, and the Seneschal set the Suncandle before him, its fragrant smoke wreathing about him, then bowed and left Kieri alone. By custom, he would tell the bones how the year went, reassure them or trouble them as it might.
He had visited the ossuary several times since his coronation, reading over the stories incised on the bones, aware of something he could not define--clouds of feeling from this one and that, not all of them. But always the Seneschal had attended him. This was his first visit truly alone and the first when he had a report to make.
He let his mind quiet, trying to drive away that persistent resentment of the Lady's neglect, and then began, talking to the bones as if they were living men and women, his ancestors, standing around him. He told of the coronation, of the many conferences with his Council, his assessment of the Siers he had met, his concern about the lack of trade, the slow withering of the land's economy, his concern about the danger from Pargun and what seemed to him an unreasonable aversion to preparations for defense.
"And the elves and humans are still estranged," he said, into the silent near-darkness. A chill ran down his back, as if behind him someone had stepped out with drawn sword. He felt a tension in the silence: true listening, it seemed. It could not be, he told himself . . . and yet the hairs stood up on his arms. He did not glance around; he would not give in to the fear. "The Lady of the Ladysforest--"
The Suncandle flared, the flame rising to the level of his knees as he sat on the stool. Kieri felt sweat break out on his forehead. Were elves listening? So much the better, then; perhaps they would carry his message to her. He laid it all out in plain words, in a voice flat with suppressed anger. She was his grandmother and his co-ruler: she owed him the courtesy of her presence and the kingdom the courtesy of her attention and her assistance. She had changed since the coronation, and he did not know why. He was angry, he admitted to the bones, that she had neglected what he saw as her plain duty . . . and yet he was not free to act as he would if he were sole ruler. Even that day, that sacred morn of Midsummer, she had ignored his request and come to the Grove only at the final moment.
As if physical hands touched his face, he felt something--a warmth on his right cheek, a coolness on his left. Something of his father--the merest hint of a man's firm, warm hand on his sword-side, the merest hint of a woman's softer, cooler hand on his heart-side. His heart stuttered a moment, then beat on. He could not speak aloud; he asked the question in his mind. Are you . . . father? Sister?
What . . . do you want? From his father's hand--he could not think it otherwise--came a sense of love, support, peace. He could almost smell that dimly remembered smell, from times his father had picked him up and held him close. From his sister's hand, something different: affection, wistfulness, and--stronger as he listened--anger. Then, sudden and strong: betrayal and warning.
Kieri scarcely breathed. Betrayal? Danger? Who?
They lie. She-- But that was interrupted; his right cheek seemed to feel more pressure.
Not now. No shadows this day.
The sensation faded, his father's faster than his sister's, leaving the certainty that he had more to learn from them. The final word from his father felt like duty . . . from his sister, like judgment.
Kieri opened eyes he had not realized he'd closed; the Seneschal knelt before him, picking up the Suncandle's holder, in which only a puddle of wax remained.
"The candle has ended, Sir King."
"Thank you," Kieri said. He had no idea how long it had burned. "I . . . I will need to talk with you after the rest of this." A wave of the hand encompassed all the Midsummer rituals.
"I wondered," the Seneschal said. "From my post I saw the Suncandle burn higher than I have ever seen it before. When it flares, sometimes there is a message."
"There was . . . something," Kieri said. "Something I do not understand, but must." He shook his head to clear it. "Seneschal, do the bones ever speak to you?"
"Speak to me? You mean, do I hear voices?"
"I suppose . . . or something, some knowledge you feel the bones are giving you?"
"That, yes, Sir King. Just as you said you did, on your first visit. Is that not still happening?"
"Yes. But I do not know . . . how much is real. How much is my wish, or my . . . I was never given to fancies, that I know of."
"Nor would I think you so, Sir King. You have every aspect of a practical man, a man of experience and action. If your ancestors' bones are telling you something, then to my mind you should listen. I am at your service whenever you wish, but is it so urgent that you must ignore this feast?"
"No . . . I think not." Kieri sat down on the bench outside the ossuary to put on his boots. "I must come back again, find the time to sit awhile with them, and then--then I will need to ask you how to interpret what I think I hear."
He found the court waiting for him outside, musicians and all. He led them to feast in the shade of the trees at the edge of the Royal Ride. They ate sitting on the grass, even the stuffiest of the Siers, and watched as a parade of livestock decked with flowers and ribbons, mellow bells around their necks clonking gently, ambled past on the main street. Music eddied in and out of hearing as the breeze shifted: ballads, jigs, round dances.
"We never did any of this in the north," he said to Arian, one of his half-elven Squires. In the quarter-year since his coronation, he'd found himself attracted to her despite the disparity in their ages and his determination not to involve himself with much younger women. "I wish I'd thought of it." It did no harm to talk to her, he told himself.
"Were you even there, in Midsummer?" she asked.
"Not often. I spent the summers in Aarenis." Hot summers those had been, sweat gluing his shirt to his body, sun beating down on his helm. "When we were in a safe camp, I poured a libation on Midsummer Morn, and some of the troops would sing songs through the night." Kieri lay back on the soft grass, eyes half-closed against the gleams of sun coming through the tree's canopy overhead, and pushed those memories away; the present peace and ease were too precious to waste. After a time, the Squires talked softly among themselves. He scarcely listened, letting his mind wander to the coronation taking place in neighboring Tsaia, to his former captains Dorrin and Arcolin. He wished them well, a Midsummer prayer of abundance and health.
"But Paks said there were magelords in enchanted sleep out there," Harin said. Mention of Paks caught Kieri's attention. "If they are magelords, are any of them Verrakaien?"
Kieri opened his eyes. "What magelords? Where?"
"In Kolobia," Harin said. "When Paks was there with the Girdish, she said there were noble warriors in the stronghold the Girdish call Luap's. Didn't she tell you?"
She had, he remembered. Kieri nodded to show he understood.
"If some were Verrakaien, would they be under attainder if they were to wake?" Arian asked. She sounded fully awake herself. Kieri turned his head and glanced at her. She was plaiting the stems of pink and yellow flowers into a crown.
"Who could wake them?" Maelith asked. She fitted a wristlet of blue flowers over her hand and began work on another.
"Who would want to?" Harin asked. "Magelords were always trouble. Let them sleep, I say, until the end of time." Then he flushed as Kieri looked at him. The king, after all, had magelord blood. "The Tsaian ones, I meant."
"The Girdish are trying to find out," Kieri said without raising his head. "The Marshal-General visited me last winter--back in Tsaia--and I heard a little about it then."
"Surely whoever put them to sleep could wake them," Arian said. "And that I would like to know: how did they come to be sleeping there, and who else might be sleeping somewhere else?"
A disquieting thought. Kieri considered what little he knew of Kolobia, what Paks had told him. The magelords had taken refuge in that land, been attacked by something--perhaps the iynisin who attacked Paks--and then cast into an enchanted sleep. Why? For what purpose? And if what cast that sleep ended it, what would come out from that distant fortress? Allies or enemies?
"Maybe dragons out of the old tales are asleep somewhere, too," Maelith said.
"Dragons! They're all gone; Camwyn Dragonmaster sent them away."
"We thought magelords were all gone," Arian pointed out. "Maybe dragons are just sleeping."
"They were said to be shape-shifters as well," Sarol said, putting a pink and white wreath on his head. "We might have one in Chaya today: would we know?"
"The Lady would, surely," Arian said.
Kieri glanced around at his Squires, now all decked with flower wristlets, garlands, crowns of flowers. They looked harmless as any of the farm lads and lasses strolling down the lane but for the swords and bows laid close at their sides.
Some of them, he thought, must be barely out of Falk's Hall--certainly not more than a year or so. He felt his years of war and intrigue as a chasm separating them from him. Even Garris, leaning against a tree a few lengths away, a stone jar of summerwine in his hand, seemed young in comparison. His gaze met Arian's.
"I could make you one," Arian said, holding up a handful of flowers and grinning down at him as if she'd read his thoughts.
"Oh, just give him yours, Arian," Panin said, in a teasing tone. "Berne will plait you one to make it up."
Arian shook her head and gave Kieri a look he couldn't interpret. "No," she said, "I'll make my own." Before Kieri could move, she'd dropped her flower crown on his chest and turned away to pick more flowers.
It was not the first time he'd felt silent communications between Squires wafting past him, but he was not going to respond to it, whatever it was. If there were covert courtships or rivalries going on, better not to know. He'd learned that in the first few years he'd commanded his own company.