I saw them earlier. But they did not look like musicians to me, nor behave like them. They gave no indication of wanting a turn on the dais.
Send Just to me, please. We’re going to do a quick search of the unoccupied wings. And let me know if you and Riddle find the three strangers.
Just and I divided Withywoods and went room-to-room, looking for any sign of intrusion in the unoccupied areas of the manor. It was not an easy task in the rambling old place, and I relied on my Wit as much as my eyes to tell me if a room was truly empty. Nettle and Riddle found no sign of the three strangers, and when she asked our other guests if they had seen them, the responses were so conflicting as to be useless. Even our servants, who sometimes irritated me with the close attention they paid to family doings, had nothing to report. The three and the messenger were as gone as if they had never visited us at all.
Toward the small hours of the morning, when our guests were sated with food and music and were departing for their homes or seeking the chambers we had offered them, I called off the search. Riddle and the lads joined Revel in seeing that all the outside doors were secured for the night, and then made a quiet patrol of the south wing, where we had housed our guests. While they were doing that, I resolved to slip off to my private den in the west wing. From there I could access a spy-network that only Patience, Molly, and I knew existed. It was my low intention that I would wander it tonight and peer in on our sleeping guests to see if anyone had offered the strangers shelter in their rooms.
Such was my intent. But when I reached the doors of my study, the hackles on my neck arose. Even before I touched the door handle, I knew it was not quite latched. And yet I recalled clearly that I had shut the door behind me before I had followed Revel to join Riddle. Someone had been here since I last left it.
I drew my knife before I eased the door open. The interior of the room was dim, the candles guttering out and the fire subsiding. I stood for a time, exploring the room with my senses. There was no one inside, my Wit said, but I recalled that earlier the strangers had been almost transparent to Web, a man with a much more finely tuned magic than I possessed. And so I stood, ears pricked, and waited. But it was what I smelled made me angry. Blood. In my den.
My knife led the way as I advanced. With my free hand I kindled a fresh candle and then poked up the fire. Then I stood still, looking around my room. They had been here. They had come here, to my den, someone’s blood still wet on them.
If Chade had not trained me through a thousand exercises to recall a room exactly as I had left it, their passage might have been unnoticeable. I smelled a brush of blood on the corner of my desk, and there was a small smear of browning red where my papers had been shifted. But even without the scent of blood and its tiny traces, they had been here, touching my papers, moving the scroll I’d been translating. They’d tried to open the drawer of my desk, but had not found the hidden catch. Someone had picked up the memory-stone carving the Fool had made for me decades before and put it back on the mantel with the facet that showed my face looking out into the room. When I picked it up to correct it, my lip lifted in a snarl. On the Fool’s image, a clumsy thumb had left blood smeared down his cheek. The surge of fury I felt was not rational.
When I lifted it, I felt the tide of the memories stored in it. The Fool’s last words to me, stored in the stone, tugged at my recollection. “I have never been wise,” he had said. A reminder of the recklessness of our youths, or a promise that someday he would ignore caution and return? I closed my mind against that message. Not now.
And foolishly, I tried to swipe the blood from his face with my thumb.
Memory stone is peculiar stuff. Of old, Skill-coteries had traveled to a distant quarry in the Mountain Kingdom where they carved dragons from it, imbuing the stone with their memories before being absorbed into their creations to give them a semblance of life. I’d seen it happen, once. Verity, my King, had given himself to a stone dragon, and then risen in that guise to bring terror and war to the enemies of the Six Duchies. On Aslevjal Island I’d discovered that small cubes of the gleaming black stuff had been used by the Elderlings to store songs and poetry.
I myself had wakened the slumbering dragons of previous generations with an offering of blood and a call to arms that was both Wit-and Skill-wrapped into one magic.
Blood on memory stone, and my touch. The Skill and the Wit both boiling inside me. The smear of blood sank into the stone.
The Fool opened wide his mouth and screamed. I saw his lips stretch, his bared teeth and stiffened tongue. It was a screech of unremitting agony.
No sound reached my ears. It was more intimate than that. Sourceless and enduring, the endless, hopeless, merciless agony of systematic torture engulfed me. It filled my entire body and burned my skin as if I were a glass brimming with black despair. It was too familiar, for it was not the keen pain of any one physical torment but the overwhelming drowning of the mind and soul in the knowledge that nothing could prevent this torment. My own memories rose up in a shrieking chorus. Once more I sprawled on the cold stone floor of Prince Regal’s dungeons, my battered body suffocating my tormented mind. I tore my awareness free of that memory, denying that bond. The Fool’s carved eyes stared at me blindly. For a moment our gazes met, and then all went dark and my eyes burned. My enervated hands fumbled the carving, nearly dropping it but instead hugging it to me as I collapsed to my knees. I held it to my chest, feeling a far-distant wolf lift his muzzle and snarl in fury. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I babbled blindly, as if it were the Fool himself I had injured. Sweat burst from every pore on my body, drenching me. Still clutching the carving to me, I sank onto my side. Slowly, vision came back to my open, tearing eyes. I stared into the dying fire, haunted by images of dull-red instruments soaking in the flames, smelling blood both old and new mixed with the acrid stench of terror. I remembered how to close my eyes. I felt the wolf come to stand over me, threatening to rend any who came near. Slowly, the echoes of the pain passed. I drew breath.