A Good-Faith Excerpt

I know some of you have been waiting on me, really patiently, for news of Menyoral book 4. All I can say is that Hard Time is a huge book with tons of threads, and it’s taking me a long time to get it right for you. I will give you what I can today: a chapter from the manuscript, in which I gather some of the players. This piece has new friends and old ones, and I hope you like it. The Dingus stuff is not ready to show you, and for that I am sorry. Without further ado:

The News

two weeks ago

Thundering Hills, Wealaia

“Was that the post?” Voalt asked, poking his head out of the bedroom.

“Sure was,” said Rhialle, smiling at her husband’s messy hair. He wouldn’t comb it; he hardly ever did. She went on dishing up breakfast for him, humming to herself. Her apron was already floury. She’d been up before dawn, down in the bakery, and she had some nice fluffy biscuits piping hot. Before he left, Dingus would’ve had care of the storefront at this hour, but she’d hired a little help since, and Halden would have things well in hand below.

Eagle disappeared for a moment and came out scratching his belly through a plain tunic. It was never this way Before—he would’ve been up before she was—but it didn’t strike her anymore how much he slept. “This looks good,” he said, eyeing the breakfast with relish. “Anything for me?”

“Yeah, there was.” She reached into her apron pocket and dropped a thin letter by his place while he fetched himself tea, or, well, milk and sugar with a tiny bit of tea as far as Rose was concerned.

He kissed her cheek when their paths crossed, and sat at the table to demolish his breakfast. She’d fixed him a dozen eggs, a dozen biscuits dripping butter and honey, and a ridiculous heap of sausages besides, plus a hefty wedge of cheese. He would eat it all—but she didn’t think he’d put on more than a few pounds since they met, centuries ago, and every ounce of it was muscle. If anything, since the magic went, he’d lost weight, and she was in the habit of noticing that. Watching him close, every day, to see he wasn’t losing more.

Fretting over Eagle took a lot of her time. Maybe her life’d be easier if he gave in, like Owl, but she’d rather have him. She leaned against the butcher block—she’d already eaten this morning.

He stuffed a second biscuit into his mouth and broke the seal on the letter.

“That’s a weird frank,” she offered.

“Wiffif,” he said, then swallowed. “Excuse me. Windish. It’s from Dingus.”

“Oh yeah. He said he was going out there.”

“To stay alone with the girl,” Eagle muttered.

“Like you wanted him going to Dreamport anyway.”

“It’s probably one of Vail’s smarter moves. That doesn’t mean I have to like the idea of his being out there alone.”

“True,” Rose said. She wasn’t crazy about it either, to tell the truth. “He isn’t alone, though, is he?”

Eagle shot her a deadly look.

She rolled her eyes and sipped her own tea, sugar only, no milk to mess it up. “How’s he doing?”

But Eagle was gone from the table. The letter, a single sheet, drifted toward the floor. Rose caught it before it fell.

“Eagle?”

“Yes, my heart?”

She looked from the letter to her husband, already kitted up and slinging a knapsack over his shoulder. “Be careful.”

“I probably won’t. But I’ll try to come back in one piece.” He kissed her on the mouth like he used to. Then he went out. She didn’t hear him go down the steps outside.

*

Dreamport

the Lucky Strike

Haakon blew into the club with a snowstorm at his back. Flakes clung to his blond beard, and he tracked slush over the clean floorboards on his way to the bar. Angharadh hadn’t been expecting him. It was early evening—the house fighters were just beginning to filter down from their apartments to fetch a little supper—and even though the Strike had opened for business an hour before, as yet only the heaviest of the heavy drinkers had ventured past the double doors.

He stopped in front of her and opened his mouth.

“Half a moment,” she said, taking a clean mug from one of the shelves that ran around underneath the top. “Tostig, clear that up and get the mats, or we’ll be mopping all night. How did it go, then?”

“Is it my boss doing the asking? Or Vandis’s friend?”

She pulled a pint; long practice meant she could time filling without the use of her eyes, and so she gave Haakon a level gaze while she did it. “Leave the interpretation to me.”

“Right.” He took the drink she slid across the scarred top and turned it in his hands. “Wynn—Boss—Yatan is dead.”

Her hand stilled as she reached for another mug. “What?”

“Yatan’s dead.” Before she could ask whatever that had to do with Vandis’s children, he went on. “The young Knight. Dingus. He killed Yatan.”

“Why, exactly, was he allowed to involve himself with Yatan?”

“I did what you asked of me. Yatan was already involved when I got there. Dingus, he did a stupid thing. He took pickpockets from the market, little Ishlings.” Haakon scrubbed at his face with a gloved hand. “They weren’t earning for him.”

“I would have covered it.”

“I know. I offered the coin.” He shook his head and drank nearly the whole pint at one go. A tiny rivulet of stout escaped the corner of his mouth and slipped through the neat beard, down his throat; he licked foamy head from his upper lip. “He wouldn’t. It wasn’t right to kick up, he said. Now he’s in Culoo.”

“And Yatan is dead.”

“Yes.” He let out a mirthful snort. “I haven’t seen anything like it in a while. If he was tied up with anyone else besides Sir Vandis, you’d scout Dingus for sure. Sliced the head right off someone less than half his size. I don’t think he shaved even a hair off the little one Yatan had hostage.”

“Impressive.” Angharadh drummed her fingers on the bar. “How would you like to visit Kuo again?”

“That is not a real question,” Haakon said, smiling vaguely. “What about my sons?”

“I’ll send someone. They’ll be taken care of.”

“What will I look at in Kuo?”

“Silk,” she said. “I want to trade in bolts, rather than the finished goods they send us now. First ship out, Haakon.”

“All right. Sure, but nobody’s going out now, with the storm.”

“Why not go down to the spring?” she suggested.

“That sounds good.” He smiled again, more broadly. “I’ll wash off the ship.”

She patted his forearm and went down into the cellar, a natural cavern system found when she’d repurposed the place. Eamon Baird worked busily down here, counting kegs and making sure no one had been skimming beer. He pressed his ear flat to a keg now, and he knocked on it to assure himself it wasn’t any emptier than it had been the last time he took inventory.

“Get all the lads together,” she said when he straightened. “We need to meet. Tonight. And send a message to Maldemer—he’ll be at the Dead Gull by now, if I’m not mistaken—that I have a run for him. When he leaves, I’ll be aboard.”

“Where to, Boss?”

“Windish.” And it’s going to make me First. The thought pleased her beyond telling. If she might get her fingers into the silk trade—into the gambling racket that had for so long kept Yatan earning more than she—into the poppy trade that whispered from the street corners of Windish—just one of them would be enough to solidify her as Second. First, though, she’d liefer that. The more she earned, the less he touched her. In the fifteen years since she’d broken into the Top Ten, only twice had she been made to suffer him.

If she were First, she felt certain he would never insult her pride in that way again, and now First lay so close she could nearly grasp it.

“How long?” Eamon wanted to know.

“Undetermined.”

He shifted in place, a bare flicker of movement—enough that she read his discomfort, but no more. “All right, Boss.”

With a nod of thanks, she left him to the kegs and went out into the club. It was quiet enough yet, she decided, thinking of the sea serpent tattooed in woad on Haakon’s chest. When he flexed, he could make it seem to swim. She turned her steps down the passage toward the hot spring, pinning up her hair as she went.

*

one week after that

Dreamport

Knights HQ

Vandis dripped all over the spanking-clean floor of the hospital. He hadn’t gotten wet en route, of course, but he’d had trouble seeing where he was landing through the storm, and in consequence had gotten covered in snow walking over from War Lord Kradon’s temple. He wished there were a way to check the weather before he left Windish—he definitely wouldn’t have come tonight if he’d known about this damned snowstorm. He’d have liked to curl up on his cot and sleep the next twenty years, but it wouldn’t be fair.

At least Reed was off just now. Vandis would much sooner not deal with him. Bad enough he was reduced to begging. “Kirsten, I need you over there. It’s important.”

“And this isn’t?” she demanded, gesturing behind her at the full beds, the cots that were catching the overflow, and at Lukas, who pushed the bedpan cart, exchanging full and disgusting for empty and clean. “Look at all this. It’s coming on winter. Someone’s got to deal with—”

“I’ve got seventeen little kids coming off a life of starvation and abuse. I need your help, Kirsten. I need you to help me make sure they’re healthy and keep them that way. Please.”

“Ask Ambrogio,” she said, supremely unfeeling. She leaned back against the desk, folding her arms under her breasts: no way.

“Ambrogio,” he said, supremely frustrated, “is a man.”

“Very observant, Vandis. No wonder you’re a ranger.”

He scraped his hands back through his hair, breathing through his temper. “Look. This is Windish. I might as well be wearing manacles. We are staying in tents, Kirsten. Me, Kessa, and seventeen little kids! I need somewhere to put them.” He looked into her ocean-cold eyes and saw not a mite of sympathy. “I need a woman!”

She snickered. “You can say that again.”

“Kirsten—!”

“All right,” she said, wearing a shit-eating grin. “I’ll come. Just because you said that, I’ll come. Gives me a good story.”

“Thank you. Thank you. You don’t know how much I—”

“Yeah, yeah.” She waved a hand in dismissal. “I’ll come as soon as I can. Lukas, too—hear that, Lukas?”

“I’m going as fast as I can,” Lukas said, gingerly placing a brimming bedpan on the cart.

“We’re going to Windish.”

“What’s in Windish?” Adeon asked from behind, making Vandis jump.

“Short answer? I’m fucked. I’ve got seventeen ex-pickpockets living in tents under a Treehopper’s house, a Squire trying to help me keep up with them, and a Junior sitting in prison, who I cannot even visit because his ass is in disciplinary confinement every time I try. I’ve got committee meetings I need to be at, I’ve got High Priestess Meep fluttering around interfering without actually bothering to help, and I’ve got Hops checking on me at all hours. Conclave is coming up in two and a half months and I cannot leave Kessa alone, but I have to be there to see that Lech Valitchka gets half an ounce of what’s coming to him!”

“Er,” Adeon said, “I see. Would this be a bad time to point out that you seem to have shit on your jerkin?”

Vandis seized a double fistful of his hair. “Dammit—Reeb! And he’s the least of my problems! At least he’s not that clever about messing with me! Tai—fuck my entire life!”

“Hmm.” Adeon tapped his index finger on his lips. “I think you ought to start from the beginning, Vandis, and by ‘the beginning’ I mean why, by our Lady, is Dingus in prison?”

“Yatan. You know who that is?”

Adeon didn’t. Vandis filled him in from the beginning. By the middle, he’d started to smile, and at the end, he cut an excited caper in front of the desk. “But that’s wonderful! My congratulations to you!”

“Uh,” Vandis said. “On what, exactly?”

“Why, on your teaching, of course! Lady fair! I’ve had something in the neighborhood of a hundred Squires, and still I can count on the fingers of one hand the number who have taken the Oath so very seriously.” He spread the hand, beaming. “Besides, my friend, think in the long term. How utterly fantastic for the Knights!”

Vandis scowled. “I haven’t had time to think of anything beyond keeping shit off my face.”

“It’s so exciting!” Adeon said, actually clapping his hands. “I’ll be there as soon as I can, Vandis!” He rushed for the door, but when he reached it, turned back. “Oh, ah, Kirsten, before I go, might I get a little more valerian root? My poor Guthlaf is so restless.”

“Sure,” she said, and walked off toward the apothecary at the back of the hospital. Adeon cocked his head slightly, watching her go, with a slight smile: I like what I see. Vandis rolled his eyes.

“Vandis, is he really in prison over a bunch of little Ishlings?” Lukas said from Vandis’s right elbow. “Dingus, I mean?”

“Yes.”

Lukas drew a deep breath and let it out as a long, wondering sigh, shaking his head. “That’s—that’s really amazing,” he said. “Like, just, an amazing thing to do. Taking care of them and everything? For over a month?”

“That’s what Kessa said.”

“Wow.” Lukas looked away, at the bedpan cart, which he’d pushed over to listen to the Masters talk. His mouth set into a grim line. “I guess I have work to do. See you in Windish.”

“See you there,” Vandis agreed.

Lukas went back to exchanging clean for dirty, working his way up the row. After a couple of minutes, Kirsten came back with a little cloth bag, and he said to her, “I’ll never complain about bedpans again.”

“I’ll believe that when I don’t hear it.”

“I could be doing a lot worse for my Lady.”

She patted his shoulder and came back down to Adeon. “Not too much now,” she said. “Careful with the dose. That should be enough for three or four nights.”

He dazzled at her. When he reached to take the bag, he caught her arm with the free hand, raising the inside of her wrist to his lips. Vandis left, but not in time to avoid hearing Adeon say, “Am I to understand you’ll be joining us in Windish? What a pleasure.”

“See you there,” Kirsten said significantly, and Adeon came out with a goofy smile on his face.

Vandis dribbled a trail of melted snow behind him. When he passed through the dimmed, off-hours mess hall, he paused to snag a slab of cold ham and a hunk of johnnycake from the table of food set out for late-night comers. He ate the johnnycake first, adding crumbs to his trail, all the way up the stairs to his office. When he got up to the door, he stuck the ham between his teeth to free his hands and pulled his keys out of his pocket.

A minute or so spent messing with the lock, cursing around the ham, saw him in. He pulled the meat out, leaving a bite behind, and chewed while his eyes grew accustomed enough to the darkness that he could find a taper and light it off the banked stove. He let himself into his tiny office, dodged stacks of paper, and put the candle on his desk, right on top of Dingus’s letter—the one that had sent him on a manic flight to Windish just a week before.

A jolt of pain caught Vandis off-guard. “Some shit happened,” in his Junior’s chicken scratch. Even the untidiness of it hurt. He’d been over to Culoo four times in the last week, and every single time, he’d met with the news that Dingus was in disciplinary confinement and couldn’t have visitors. Was it retaliation from the Hoppers? Were they just… keeping him there? What could Dingus have possibly done inside of a week? I’m going to have to start bribing people if this doesn’t clear up in a hurry.

I think you had better start.

He smiled faintly. Is that sanction?

Absolutely.

Vandis slumped into his desk chair and eased the letter out from under the taper. Is it that bad?

My own… She trailed off, and he dropped his head into his hands, still holding the letter. He’s faring as well as ever he can, far better than anyone can expect him to be faring. But…

But it’s prison, and he’s Dingus.

Just so.

With a sigh, Vandis laid the letter on the desktop. He picked up his ham and took another bite, chewing without tasting.

I know you’re missing him.

He scowled. Yeah, well. My own fault. I should’ve brought them here instead of leaving them.

I can think of seventeen little ones who are gladder than glad for your mistake.

The fact remains: I fucked up, and he’s paying for it.

She let a little sigh into his mind, and he tried to push his melancholy away while he searched through his stacks for the things that most urgently needed his attention. Don’t forget the supply reports, She told him, while he packed three bladders of ink and a handful of quills into his writing case.

Right. Vandis swore foully as he knocked three piles into a cascade of paper. It just figured that one of the piles, if he recalled right, held the reports he needed to review. He bent his aching knees and started to pick up. Having to look at each item, in some cases each sheet, made the work slow going. He’d gotten about a third of the way through when he saw the candlelight out of the corner of his eye.

Someone was in the outer office. Vandis straightened, suppressing a groan when his right knee popped. “Who’s there?”

“Oh. It’s you.” Reed appeared at the door, holding his candle high.

“What are you doing up here?”

“I heard someone moving about. I thought you’d gone to Windish.” His tone implied, ‘no such luck.’

“Don’t worry,” Vandis snapped. “I’ll be gone again soon enough.”

“Back to the road. Where you belong.”

He gnashed his teeth.

“You seem stressed, Vandis. The Headship is such a demanding position, and to pile a Master’s duties atop it must be quite the challenge. Perhaps you ought to—”

“Perhaps you ought to shut the fuck up.” Vandis laid hands, finally, on the sheaf of supply reports. Jimmy had punched them onto a bit of wire and twisted the wire into a loop, like he often did with things that went together.

“A holiday would do you a world of good. Or perhaps a little delegation. I’d be glad to pick up a little of your slack.”

With a snort, he jammed the reports into his pack, along with a thick stack of expensive vellum, and another of the cheapest paper. He needed to write a ridiculous number of formal letters, at least some of which he hoped got past the secretaries and assistants of the Matriarchs of Windish; he also needed to start composing a leaflet to distribute to the people there, outlining Dingus’s cause. If he couldn’t convince the Matriarchs to drop the charges outright—

“How are you faring over west?” Reed pressed. “I’ve heard a strange thing, but of course it can’t possibly be true.”

Vandis buckled his pack, trying to make a shield of ignoring-you between himself and Reed.

“I mean, honestly. That a Junior should go to prison! What rot!” Reed paused, and Vandis felt the eyes, picking him over like a raven’s beak. “I can’t imagine what for.”

He raised his head, putting the most deadly perch-eye he possessed square on Reed. “Murder,” he bit off, and shouldered past the tall doctor on his way out of the office. He pulled the door shut behind him so that it backed Reed up and slammed in his face.

“My, my.” Reed clucked his tongue. “I wonder what His Grace thinks of that.”

Shit. Vandis’s heart sank. He knew he’d forgotten something. Shaking his head, he forged onward, leaving the extinguished taper on Jimmy’s desk.

Softly, Reed said, “Oh, I see…”

“Before I come back next, I think you should move downstairs. You’re too far from the hospital up here—and besides, I think it’ll help you focus on your duties.” Vandis left. It was high time he got back to Windish anyway. Will You guide me? he asked Her while he rushed down the stairs, trying not to appear as if he were rushing.

I won’t let you fall, She promised. But My own, perhaps you ought to let Lord Marcus know what’s happening.

Or crash into a mountain? he teased, ignoring the reference to Marcus. He didn’t want to think about it, or talk about it.

You know very well you’ll be fine as soon as you get above the clouds. Vandis, you’ll have to tell him at some point.

I know that. Right now, Kessa’s waiting for me. It’s not fair to leave her for this long. He pulled on his flying cap and pushed out the door. He hadn’t gotten down to the incense burner before his cloak was gray with snow.

How virtuous, She said dryly. Don’t you think he has the right to know?

Of course he does. Safest, he decided, would be straight up. He couldn’t really see where he was walking anyhow. His knees creaked another protest when he prepared to jump, and he grimaced. The wind howled around him. I may not want to talk to Marcus, but that has nothing to do with it. He’s just lower on the priority list than Kessa. Which is entirely proper.

She snorted indelicately. Whatever you’re needing to tell yourself, then.

Vandis scowled and leapt skyward.

*

just outside Windish

the next morning

In the depths of the ancient forest, Evan Grady fought a desperate battle with his clothes. He hadn’t mastered quite yet the trick of dressing himself one-armed. His breeches were crooked. These fasteners were bad as Oda Himself! He swore quietly at the hooks up the front of his jerkin.

For what must be the twentieth time, Wally glanced up at him from near the fire. “D’ye want a bit of help, then, Evan?” he ventured at last.

“I don’t want it, no I don’t!” Evan snapped. “But I need it.”

Wally rose and crossed to where he sat on a nurse log, then took one knee in front. “I don’t mind giving it, ye ken.”

“Aye. That I know.” It was a trim, hard Wally kneeling before him. The last couple of months had carved away the last of Wally’s belly, thickened the arms, and put a shadow in his Junior’s eyes. “It’s so much you’ve taken on in my stead,” he said softly.

“I don’t mind it,” Wally insisted.

“I ought to be helping you grow, and instead here you are playing nursemaid.”

“Evan,” he said, finishing with the fasteners, “we’ve had this discussion before, have we nae? Must we have it again and again? I’m where I want to be.”

“I can’t—”

“Yesterday I heard a strange thing,” Wally said, a little too loudly. He sat back on his heels. “About a young Knight in Windish. I think it can only be Dingus, but I can’t think it the truth, or mayhap I only don’t want to think it so.”

Evan’s ears pricked up. No Knight worth his salt could resist a bit of gossip or a lovely little rumor, no matter how foolish or false. “Go on, then. What have you heard?”

“I heard that a young Knight with red hair was to go to the gallows for murder, but instead was sent to prison. That he’d killed ten with his bare hands.” Wally laughed. “It must be Dingus they mean, but I can’t think it true. Dingus would nae harm a fly.”

“You never know what a man will do,” said Evan, thinking uncomfortably of what Vandis had told him about Dingus and a gang of bandits that past spring, “or do ye not understand that by now?”

“I do.” Wally frowned, looking a bit subdued.

“Whether truth or falsehood, we’re late, my lad.”

“That we are.”

This time, Evan kept his sigh within. “Help me with my boots, then. We’d best be going.”

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