New York Times bestselling author Lynn Kurland returns to her enchanting Nine Kingdoms saga as the epic adventure of a weaver and an elven prince continues...
Aisling of Bruadair is frantic to find both the truth about her future and a mercenary to save her country. When an offer of aid comes from an unexpected direction, she is relieved her quest is almost complete. But she soon realizes her task is far from over . . . and will include perils she never dreamed she would ever face.
Rùnach of Ceangail has offered to help Aisling with her quest, then he fully intends to take up his life as a simple swordsman far from magic and evil mages. Unfortunately, a chance finding of a book of indecipherable spells tells him that an ordinary life is never going to be his--especially when he realizes that the book he has in his hands belongs to a black mage who will stop at nothing to have it back.
With time running out, Rùnach and Aisling must solve what seem to be unrelated mysteries before others find those answers first and plunge the Nine Kingdoms into a darkness it will never recover from . . .
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Lynn Kurland is the New York Times bestselling author of numerous novels and short stories, including All For You, One Magic Moment, One Enchanted Evening, Till There Was You and the bestselling Nine Kingdoms series.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
There were only five great libraries of note in the Nine Kingdoms. Tor Neroche boasted one, especially when its noble collections were augmented by those at the palace of Chagailt. The library of Buidseachd found itself firmly on that list, of course, due simply to the number and variety of the tomes to be found in the bowels of the magic-slathered castle in Beinn òrain.
Faodail in Gairn required an arduous trek in order to reach its well-tended and jealously guarded shelves, but scholars through the ages had found the journey to be a fair price to pay for the opportunity to linger in a place of such seclusion where they might read in peace. The library at the university at Lismòr contained, arguably, a collection of the finest and most extensive scholarly works available.
But the greatest of them all was the library of Eòlas, in Diarmailt.
The sheer number of books housed there was staggering, as was the depth and breadth of the topics those books contained. A small army of librarians patrolled the hallways and supervised the reading chambers to keep those granted entrance not only supplied with what they had come seeking but to keep the more obstreperous consumers of words on their best behavior.
Most only saw the lower floors where the lesser tomes were housed for perusal by the unwashed masses. The collections became more exclusive—and progressively more hazardous—as the stairs wound upward, until the discriminating peruser of fine manuscripts would find himself on the most exclusive floor of all.
In Perilous Collections.
Aisling of Bruadair stood with her back against the exquisite wooden paneling on that uppermost floor in the great library of Eòlas, looked at the dozen soldiers standing there with arrows and swords pointed her way, and wondered just how in the world she had managed to get herself in her current straits.
Finding herself completely out of her depth had become a terrible habit. That sort of thing had begun almost three fortnights ago when she had been plucked out of her uncomfortable life as an unwilling weaver, dressed as a lad, and then shoved into a carriage that had carried her off to places she had never dreamed she might see for herself. Her task had been straightforward: find a mercenary to save her country from an evil usurper. With the added incentive of a death sentence awaiting her if she didn’t find a lad to hoist a sword in Bruadair’s defense within a certain amount of time, she had continued her quest with all due haste through the western half of the Nine Kingdoms. Her companion for the most of that time had been the man currently standing next to her, trying to look harmless.
In truth, he had no reason to to look guilty. They had arrived outside the walls of Eòlas at dawn, hidden their steed, then walked through the gates as nothing more than simple travelers seeking enlightenment, which they were. They had gotten inside the library, she had gawked briefly at the seemingly infinite number of books, then they had set about their business of looking for things to aid them.
Or, rather, things to aid her. The truth was, she had recently come to believe that everything she had been told about her homeland was absolute rubbish. She had to know the truth, because she had the feeling her life depended on it.
Unfortunately, they hadn’t been inside the library an hour before they realized that they had attracted the attention of a few well-garbed library officials. Then, as seemed to be her wont of late, Aisling had found herself thrown from one piece of peril directly into the jaws of another.
Because there was apparently nothing quite as dangerous in the country of Diarmailt as a feisty librarian.
The librarian standing in front of them presently, the head librarian as he had identified himself pointedly, was proof enough of that. The man had appeared suddenly at their table and insisted that they come away from where they’d been calmly and methodically looking through things that found themselves on the first floor whilst discarding as useless tomes that hadn’t offered them what they’d been looking for.
Well, perhaps that wasn’t entirely accurate. Her companion had been thumbing calmly through whatever caught his eye; she, on the other hand, had been frantically searching for something to disprove what she’d grown to womanhood believing about curses and the certainty of them falling upon whomever dared set foot beyond Bruadair’s thorny border. It was possible that she had been giving vent to exclamations of increasing dismay as she’d failed.
The librarian had backed up his request with several swords carried by lads who looked as if they meant business with those blades. She and her reading companion had been marched up several flights of stairs until they had wound up in the inner sanctum of the library itself. The assortment of glass cases containing what she could only imagine were priceless treasures of the written word stretched as far as the eye could see. The man standing next to her had begun to purr. Then again, he had a fondness for libraries . . .
“Now,” the head librarian said suddenly, looking at them both as if their sole purpose in his domain were to steal his most valuable personal treasures, “I believe we’ll have a bit of information from you two ruffians.”
“Are things so changed in Diarmailt,” the man standing next to her asked mildly, “that two simple travelers having sacrificed much to enter these doors are greeted with this sort of ridiculous and unnecessary suspicion?”
The head librarian, a Master Laibridh by name, drew himself up indignantly. “You are hardly simple travelers.”
“And what makes you say that?”
“Because of what you have,” the other said shortly.
Aisling frantically struggled to recall everything she had with her, but considering that consisted of two books in a leather satchel slung over her shoulders, she didn’t suppose that was what had gotten them into trouble. Then again, it was possible that just the sight of those books might send everyone in the area into a hearty case of the vapors.
“What do we have?” her companion asked.
The librarian looked at them shrewdly. “Magic, and don’t spare the breath to deny it.”
“But I don’t have any magic,” Aisling said in surprise.
The librarian frowned at her. “I wasn’t talking about you, though I might have you examined later. I was talking about the man standing next to you.”
That man standing next to her happened to be the second son of the most infamous black mage in the history of the Nine Kingdoms, but Aisling thought it was perhaps prudent not to mention that.
That second son shrugged casually. “I have no magic.”
Aisling looked at Rùnach of Ceangail, son of that black mage and grandson of an elven king—an elven king she imagined was full of some fairly mighty magic himself—and wished she didn’t know he spoke the truth. Unfortunately, Rùnach did indeed have no magic, because his father had taken it all for himself.
Then again, perhaps Rùnach had set alarms to ringing just by virtue of whom he was related to.
“We shall see,” Master Laibridh said shortly.
Rùnach leaned back against the wall and folded his arms over his chest. He might have sighed as well, but Aisling couldn’t be certain of that because all she could hear was the blood pounding in her ears. She supposed she had no reason to be nervous, but then again not only had she almost been killed by one of Rùnach’s bastard brothers the day before, but she only had three days left before she either had to complete her quest or die. The last thing she had time for at the moment was to find herself lingering in a dungeon thanks to the overzealousness of self-important keepers of books.
A beefy-looking man parted the swordsmen and came to a halt next to Master Laibridh. He had large, protruding eyes that matched perfectly his large, protruding nose. Whatever he sniffed likely found itself unable to hide.
“This is Fàileadh,” the librarian said coldly, “and he can smell magic from a league away.”
Aisling felt Rùnach hesitate, then sigh.
She looked at him in surprise. “What do you mean damn?”
“You’ll see,” he muttered. He reached down and pulled a dagger from his boot and held it out. “I forgot about this.”
Fàileadh leapt forward and took the knife, looking at it with a strange, unsettling sort of reverence.
“The runes of Tòrr Dòrainn,” he breathed.
The librarian’s mouth fell open. “Impossible.”
“He wears them on his hands as well,” Fàileadh said. He considered, then gestured toward Rùnach’s face. “And somewhere on his brow.”
Swords whispered as they came from sheaths, and arrows made particularly birdlike noises as they came from quivers. Master Laibridh looked at Rùnach narrowly.
“Reveal yourself,” he demanded.
Rùnach remained motionless for a moment or two, then sighed lightly as he lifted his hood back from his face. He shot the librarian a look of irritation. “Satisfied?”
There were gasps, mostly of horror. Aisling understood. Her first sight of Rùnach’s face had left her gasping as well, but then again she’d been looking at the unscarred half, which was almost too difficult to look at thanks to its perfection. The other half was almost too difficult to look at as well, but that came from the web of scars that stretched from his mouth to the corner of his eye to his ear, covering the whole of his cheek.
Fàileadh murmured appreciatively.
Rùnach shot him a look that Aisling suspected had brought more than one courtier to his knees, wondering which words might most quickly restore him to an elven prince’s good graces. Fàileadh remained unmoved.
“Impossible,” Master Laibridh repeated faintly. “’Tis common knowledge that all Prince Gair’s children were slain at Ruamharaiche’s well.”
“Apparently common knowledge is mistaken,” Rùnach said evenly.
“But surely you would have been found long before now, Prince Rùnach. And to have you here—”
“Being treated with such discourtesy,” Rùnach said smoothly. “Appalling, isn’t it?”
Master Laibridh seemed to realize quite suddenly that his guardsmen were still brandishing their swords. He waved them away impatiently. “No need for that, of course.” He put his shoulders back and seemed to pull himself together. “The king will want to know about such an august visitor to the library.”
Aisling didn’t have to look at Rùnach to know that was the last thing he wanted. Their goal had been to get in and out of the library without garnering any notice. She was in haste, and Rùnach had his own reasons for wanting to lose himself in a crowd for a bit. After the previous fortnight they’d had, she couldn’t blame him.
“Don’t go far,” Master Laibridh added to his men, half under his breath. “In case you’re needed.”
“By all means,” Rùnach said caustically, “have your men escort my companion and me as we investigate your priceless treasures.” He reached out and took his knife back, then slid it down the side of his boot. “Unless you worry that the grandson of Sìle of Tòrr Dòrainn would stoop to something as pedestrian as theft.”
“Of course not,” Master Laibridh said quickly. “I never would have considered that. It was just the magic, you see, which set off alarms—”
“Since when is having magic a crime in Diarmailt?” Rùnach asked.
Master Laibridh considered, then shooed his guardsmen farther away. He sent the man with the nose off to sniff other patrons before he stepped closer to Rùnach. “I don’t like to tell tales,” he said a low voice, “but ’tis naught that you won’t hear from the king himself, I daresay.” He looked about him carefully, then back at Rùnach. “The king’s magic is . . . lessened.”
“Is that so?” Rùnach asked, looking rather surprised. “I heard something different quite recently, but perhaps things have changed since my cousin has misplaced his crown.”
Master Laibridh flushed. “Forgive me, Your Highness. I forget to whom I’m speaking.”
Aisling found herself flushing a bit as well. She had grown rather accustomed to thinking of Rùnach as simply, well, Rùnach. In her defense, it had only been recently that she’d realized he was not at all who he was pretending to be.
“This untoward lessening did indeed happen after the loss of his crown, Your Highness,” Master Laibridh continued uneasily. “I have no important magic myself save a rudimentary ability to invoke the odd spell of finding if I’ve lost a treasured book, so my opinions on the matter are perhaps less valuable than another’s might be, but I will say that while there are court mages to keep our spells of defense intact, the king, ah, himself . . .”
Rùnach did the man the favor of rescuing him from what was obviously a delicate subject.
“I understand,” he said quietly. “There are many ways to lose one’s power. Not even kings are immune, I daresay.”
The head librarian nodded slowly. “So they aren’t, Prince Rùnach. But the king assures us happier days are ahead thanks to his cleverness, so we soldier on as best we can. But perhaps now you can understand why we are careful about who we let inside our gates and our library.”
“I can,” Rùnach agreed.
“I’m sure the king will send a proper carriage for you, but perhaps you would care to take your ease in my chambers until that happy time arrives?”
“Actually, it would indeed be a pleasure to peruse your perilous tomes here,” Rùnach said. “If that wouldn’t be an imposition. After all, it isn’t as if we’re here to steal anything, is it?”
“Of course not, Your Highness,” the librarian said quickly. “Please feel free. We’re unable to open the cases any longer thanks to, ah, the lack of proper, ah, kingly abilities—”
“Say no more,” Rùnach said with a nod. “We’ll be happy just to look, I assure you.”
Aisling listened to them exchange another handful of pleasantries before Master Laibridh was apparently satisfied that he had redeemed himself from his display of bad manners. Rùnach started to walk away, then paused and looked at the master of the books.
“Why does the king think happier days are ahead?”
Master Laibridh shrugged. “Perhaps he’s found a new source of magic. Heaven knows we could use it.” He made Rùnach a low bow, then hastened away.
Aisling watched Rùnach stare after him thoughtfully for a moment or two, then reach for her hand and pull her with him toward the long gallery full of finely wrought cases. She waited until she was sure they were out of earshot before she looked up at him.
“That was interesting.”
“Wasn’t it, though,” he said thoughtfully.
“Are we going to see the king?”
“I’m not sure how we can avoid it now, though I’m less than thrilled by the prospect. Not only is Simeon an insufferable prig, he also sets an inedible supper.”
She managed a smile. “We all have our flaws.”
“He has more than his share, trust me.” He sighed, then nodded toward the cases. “We might as well avail ourselves of these lovelies whilst we have the chance. I think I can safely say we will never see anything like them anywhere else in the world.”
“How did the king come by them, do you suppose?”
“I believe it was the previous king, Nicholas, who is resp...
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