Seventeen-year-old Kerida Nast has always wanted a career in the military, just like the rest of her family. So when her Talent is discovered, and she knows she'll have to spend the rest of her life as a psychic for the Halls of Law, Ker isn't happy about it. Anyone entering the Halls must give up all personal connection with the outside world, losing their family and friends permanently.
But just as Kerida is beginning to reconcile herself to her new role, the Faraman Polity is invaded by strangers from Halia, who begin a systematic campaign of destruction against the Halls, killing every last Talent they can find.
Kerida manages to escape, falling in with Tel Cursar, a young soldier fleeing the battle, which saw the deaths of the royal family. Having no obvious heir to the throne, no new ruler to rally behind, the military leaders will be divided, unable to act quickly enough to save the empire. And with the Halls being burned to the ground, and the Talents slaughtered, the Rule of Law will be shattered.
KERIDA Nast stood at ease outside the Cohort Leader’s tent, trying hard not to look as though she was listening to the discussion inside. That the Cohort Leader was her older sister Ester wouldn’t make much difference to her punishment if she were caught.
“You people checked her every year from ten to fifteen— like everyone else in the Polity— and never found anything,” her sister was saying. “Talents just don’t manifest this late.”
“It is rare.” The dry voice of the Talent Inquisitor sounded familiar. Kerida held her breath. “But rare is not impossible. We have the right to investigate every reported occurrence of Talent, no matter the circumstances.”
“Explain.” Ker had heard that tone often enough to picture her sister’s narrowed eyes. That tone usually meant trouble for someone.
“You wouldn’t be the first to believe they could hide Talents from us. We don’t waive our rights over any. Not at any age, nor in the highest places.” The man’s tone clearly showed he didn’t consider a temporary camp of the Eagle Wing to be any such place.
The pause that followed was quiet enough for Ker to hear the surf on the other side of the dunes. Long enough that the cold knot in her chest had time to send out tendrils. Guilty of hiding a Talent— At the very least her family would be fined. Money, land, and probably livestock, though Mother, Daughter, and Son knew there was none of that to spare. The Nasts were of the old nobility, long on honor and military service, short on ready money. So much for her parents. As for her sister Ester? She’d be lucky if she were only demoted. If the Halls of Law decided that the Cohort Leader had really been hiding Kerida from them, Ester could be stripped of her command and dishonorably discharged. Such things had happened before, to Battle Wing Faros, no less, and no one in the military ever forgot it. Or forgave it.
“We have hidden nothing.” Ester’s voice was stony.
Another pause, in which the Inquisitor must have made some gesture that acknowledged her sister’s words. “Undoubtedly, my examination will reveal this.”
“Examination of a military officer requires a royal warrant.” Ester was clutching at straws, and the Inquisitor must have known it. Ker was only a Barrack Leader, in charge of ten soldiers, the lowest official rank in the Wings. She shifted her weight from one sore foot to the other. Drill hadn’t gone so well this morning. And now this.
“You know that such a warrant would be granted. The suspected party, yourself, and your entire Cohort would have to remain here until the warrant arrived.”
Still another pause. Would Ester make him do it? The Ruby and Emerald Cohorts were due to rotate back to Farama the Capital the following week, leaving coastal patrol to the Onyx and Pearl. Ker had been looking forward to her first visit to the Capital as a soldier; her first chance to spend her pay on more than extra food.
“Very well.” Ester’s tone was as harsh as the reality they all faced. “You may examine her.”
Ker straightened and edged away from the wall of the tent, just in time to avoid being caught by her sister’s runner when he came to the entrance and signaled to her. She tugged her green tunic straight with fingers grown suddenly cold and followed the girl in, coming to attention in front of Ester’s traveling desk, and giving her salute.
“Barrack Leader, Black Company, Emerald Cohort, reporting as requested,” she said. She kept her eyes fixed firmly on her sister, as if the man in the black tunic, with the griffin-shaped emblem of the Halls of Law on his left shoulder, wasn’t even in the tent.
“At ease, soldier.” Ker saw the little muscle at the corner of Ester’s jaw jumping. She was angry all right. There was no love lost between the military and the Halls of Law at the best of times, and whatever happened today wasn’t going to help.
“You will submit yourself to Talent High Inquisitor Luca Pa’narion for examination.” Ester looked Kerida right in the eyes, unflinching. Her sister was facing this head on, and Kerida knew she was expected to do the same.
She turned smartly to her left, bringing herself face-to-face with the Talent— and swallowed. No wonder his voice was familiar. Talent High Inquisitor Pa’narion was the one who’d done her final examination at fifteen, so it was less than a year since she’d seen him. Like the majority of people, Kerida hadn’t shown any Talent. The Inquisitor was lots older than either of her sisters, though not nearly as old as her father, who was at least ten years retired from his post as Faro of the Panther Wing. The Inquisitor’s eyes were a most unusual shade of pale lilac, though they turned gray as he bent his head away from the light.
“Please open the neck of your tunic.” He gestured toward his own collar, and came a step closer.
Gritting her teeth, Ker undid the braided closure of her collar and spread it open. She swallowed again, and shifted the twisted leather cord that held her military identification plaque to one side.
Inquisitor Pa’narion moved closer still and placed his hand so his thumb rested on Ker’s right collarbone, and his fingertips on her left; his left hand he placed across her forehead. At first, Kerida felt nothing, but then a creeping cold spread from the places of contact, pleasant at first in the heat of this summer afternoon, like a wet washcloth when she had a fever. But this cold didn’t fade, it grew. Grew until Ker started to hiss with the pain of it. No matter how many times this happened, Ker thought, a person would never get used to it.
“Relax, it will pass.” It sounded enough like a command that Kerida instinctively obeyed it.
And the cold faded, replaced by a tingling warmth. This warmth spread through her, and gradually Ker’s muscles loosened, and she felt as though she were somehow floating. She wanted to resist, to turn away, but the warmth was comforting . . .
Images began to form.
. . . Ker is sorting the weapons. “What about this one?” Viki asks, handing her a short sword with a worn leather grip. “It’s the right weight,” Ker says, hefting it. “I wonder—” Suddenly she falls to her knees, sweat starting out on her brow. She hears her voice from far away. “This has blood on it.” “I don’t see any blood,” Viki says. “It has Ju-an’s blood.” Her own voice, still distant. “Ju-an’s and Tikor’s and Soni’s. Too much blood. Too much.” She drops the weapon and looks up. Viki’s eyes are wide with shock. “What?” Ker says. The sweat on her skin turns cold when she realizes what’s happened.
Viki saw me, she thought now, as the images faded. And though Viki hadn’t said anything to her at the time, she must have said something to someone later. And that something had reached the ears of the Talent assigned to the Emerald Cohort— no knowing how, because surely no soldier would have gone to a Talent directly and reported on one of their own. Even a rumor would have been enough for the Talent to act, however; otherwise why would the High Inquisitor be here?
But he was still taking her back.
. . . she wins another hand of Seasons, this time because she knows when the Luqs of Winter will turn up in the deck.
That was— four years ago? Ker remembered the faces of her father and her grandmother, half- pleased at her skill, half-annoyed that she’d scooped up the pot. She’d been Winter, and they’d had to pay her double.
There were more instances, just as insignificant, some she’d forgotten herself, like:
. . . she touches a tarnished cloak pin in her mother’s box of jewels and sees an older woman, straight-browed, with a wide, firm mouth. She can tell from the resemblance to her oldest sister, Tonia, that this is the grandmother none of them ever knew, their father’s first wife’s mother. But the Inquisitor isn’t finished with her. He’s looking for all of it.
“No,” she says, and she knows she’s spoken aloud.
“We must,” he says, but his voice was kind. “Breathe deeply.”
His hands on her throat and face were like cables pulling her back, though she struggled to resist. Pulling her into the dark where she never let herself go. Back to the light and sun that were worse than any darkness.
Late in Griffinmonth. Sun burning hot in a sky the color of her father’s eyes. Her brother Fraxim, the one who went to the university and became a doctor, racing her through the meadow, and letting her win, because he didn’t really want to play with his little sister when he could be reading in the shade.
She hadn’t known that at the time; she’d thought they were really racing, and she’d run with all her strength, despite the hot sun and the scratchy stubble of the hay, into the dark copse of wood on the far side of the field, through the trees, over the stream, jumping it easily because it was already shrunken down to its summer trickle. Landing in what she thought was dark ground on the far side, but sinking into what turned out to be mud, falling forward, hands out to catch herself.
. . . her left hand lands in the mud, on something hard and round, and she grips it instinctively, like a railing. But it’s a leg bone. Ker knows this immediately, though it’s still covered with mud, and she’s never seen a human bone before. Let alone the bone of a murdered man, struck over the head, again, and then again, and his throat cut, and his money taken and his body stripped. He’d been so frightened, and his family would never know what became of him, and she could feel it all, the terror, the pain, and the blood. She thrusts the bone away, scrabbling backward into the water behind her, but the Flashing doesn’t stop, and she pounds on her head with her muddy fists, squeezing her eyes tight and pushes. . . .
Pushed it all away into the darkest corner room in her mind and slammed shut the door.
Kerida opened her eyes and found she was sitting down, the Talent on his knees in front of her, her hands held tight in his. His expression was very serious, with his gray-flecked eyebrows pulled together above his long nose and his lilac eyes. Ker’s lips trembled, and her eyes were wet. She swallowed. Over the Inquisitor’s shoulder was Ester’s stricken face, her sister’s eyes wide with shock and concern. Suddenly realizing she was seated in an officer’s presence, Ker braced her wobbly knees and tried to stand.
“Sit quiet, girl.” There was kindness, and a certain edge that might have been respect in Inquisitor Pa’narion’s voice. “Rest easy. If we know nothing else, we know you won’t be staying here, so your niceties of military courtesy no longer apply. Sit quiet, and don’t worry; his family will be found and told.”
Tears spilled over and rolled down Ker’s cheeks. The body, he meant. His Talent was so great that he knew who the body had been, even though he’d never touched a bone of it himself.
“There is no doubt, then?” Her sister came around the Inquisitor, leaned over, and brushed Ker’s hair back from her forehead with rough soldier’s fingers. Ker blinked back fresh tears. Her sister hadn’t done that since Ker had been little, and Ester already grown and gone off to be a soldier. More than anything else, that gesture told Ker that her own life here was over.
“It’s true?” Ester said now. “A late manifestation?”
“Yes and no.”
Her sister glared up at the Inquisitor, now standing at his full height, his brows still drawn together. “What, then? Don’t play with us, man.”
“It’s not a late manifestation,” he said, his voice soft. “It was an early one. Very early. It terrified her, and she blocked it. As powerful a natural block as I’ve ever seen. Powerful enough to last a good ten years.”
“Ten years.” Ester straightened, her hand staying warm on Ker’s shoulder. “But she would have been only four years old, five at the most.”
“Manifested early, as I said.” Talent Inquisitor Luca seemed pleased now. “It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s usually the sign of a great Talent. Griffin Class, she will be. Your family has reason to congratulate itself.”
Ester’s upper lip lifted. “No offense, Inquisitor, but none of us is going to feel that way.” Her voice was cold again, and in that chill Ker felt the width of the gulf between the military and the Halls.
The Talent High Inquisitor turned to pick up his black cloak from the corner of Ester’s desk. “Have her things brought here, if you please.”
“But surely, a visit home, a leave-taking—”
“She has no home outside the Halls of Law. Not anymore.” He gestured with his long-fingered hand. “Come, Cohort Leader, do I have to tell you what the whole world knows? I’m satisfied that you knew nothing about this— not only from your own behavior, but from what I Flashed from the Candidate.” Another gesture, one which made it clear to everyone that he meant Kerida. She was a Candidate now, a Talent, not a Barrack Leader. Not anymore.
“Must I examine the rest of your family?” the Inquisitor continued. “Make certain none knew and kept silent? Shall I interrogate the servants, to see if any has guilty knowledge? Or shall I go, taking my Candidate with me?” The kind, soft-spoken man of a few moments ago was gone.
Ker took in a deep breath, her nose stinging from the salt air. She’d have given odds no one at home knew— gods, she hadn’t really known herself— but there had been that quiet look on the head shepherd’s face, that one time, when she’d gone to help with the lambing, and she’d known the unborn lamb was still alive. Genron was an old man, but they’d examine him anyway, wouldn’t they?
Ker got to her feet, and tugged her plaque from under her tunic, lifting the cord over her head and letting it dangle from her hand. “Don’t, Ester. I’ll go.”
Her sister held her gaze for a long moment before nodding slowly and putting out her hand for the plaque.