‘Oh, nothing,’ he replied. He began to speak in Styric, weaving his fingers in the air in front of him as he did so. When he had built the spell, he released it and held out his hand. There came a humming vibration, followed by a dimming of the candles and a lowering of the flames in the fireplace. When the light came up again, he was holding a bouquet of violets. ‘For you, little mother,’ he said, bowing slightly and offering the flowers to her, ‘because I love you.’

‘Why, thank you, Sparhawk.’ She smiled, taking them. ‘You were always the most thoughtful of my pupils. You mispronounced staratha, though,’ she added critically ‘You came very close to filling your hand with snakes.’

‘I’ll practise,’ he promised.

‘Do.’

There was a respectful knock at the door.

‘Yes?’ Vanion called.

The door opened and one of the young knights stepped inside ‘There’s a messenger from the palace outside, Lord Vanion. He says that he has been commanded to speak with Sir Sparhawk.’

‘Now what do they want?’ Sparhawk muttered.

‘You’d better send him in,’ Vanion told the young knight.

‘At once, my Lord.’ The knight bowed slightly and went out again.

The messenger had a familiar face His blond hair was still elegantly curled. His saffron-coloured doublet, lavender hose, maroon shoes and apple-green cloak still clashed horribly The young fop’s face, however, sported an entirely new embellishment. The very tip of his pointed nose was adorned with a large and extremely painful-looking boil. He was trying without much success to conceal the excrescence with a lace-trimmed handkerchief. He bowed elegantly to Vanion. ‘My Lord Preceptor,’ he said, ‘the Prince Regent sends his compliments.’

‘And please, convey mine back to him,’ Vanion replied.

‘Be assured that I shall, my Lord.’ The elegant fellow then turned to Sparhawk. ‘My message is for you, Sir Knight,’ he declared.

‘Say on then,’ Sparhawk answered with exaggerated formality ‘My ears hunger for your message.’

The fop ignored that. He removed a sheet of parchment from inside his doublet and read grandly from it. ‘“By royal decree, you are commanded by his Highness to journey straightaway to the motherhouse of the Pandion Knights at Demos, there to devote yourself to your religious duties until such time as he sees fit to summon you once again to the palace.”’

‘I see,’ Sparhawk replied.

‘Do you understand the message, Sir Sparhawk?’ the fop asked, handing over the parchment.

Sparhawk did not bother to read the document. ‘It was quite clear. You have completed your mission in a fashion which does you credit.’ Sparhawk peered at the perfumed young fellow ‘If you don’t mind some advice, neighbour, you ought to have that boil looked at by a surgeon. If it isn’t lanced soon, it’s going to keep growing to the point where you won’t be able to see around it.’

The fop winced at the word lanced. ‘Do you really think so, Sir Sparhawk?’ he asked plaintively, lowering his handkerchief. ‘Wouldn’t a poultice, perhaps –’

Sparhawk shook his head. ‘No, neighbour,’ he said with false sympathy ‘I can almost guarantee you that a poultice won’t work. Be brave, my man. Lancing is the only solution.’

The courtier’s face grew melancholy He bowed and left the room.

‘Did you do that to him, Sparhawk?’ Sephrenia asked suspiciously

‘Me?’ He gave her a look of wide-eyed innocence.

‘Somebody did. That eruption is not natural.’

‘My, my,’ he said, ‘Imagine that.’

‘Well?’ Vanion said. ‘Are you going to obey the bastard’s orders?’

‘Of course not,’ Sparhawk snorted. ‘I’ve got too many things to do here in Cimmura.’

‘You’ll make him very angry’

‘So?’

Chapter 4

The sky had turned threatening again when Sparhawk emerged from the chapterhouse and clanked down the stairs into the courtyard. The novice came from the stable door leading Faran, and Sparhawk looked thoughtfully at him. He was perhaps eighteen and quite tall. He had knobby wrists that stuck out of an earth-coloured tunic that was too small for him. ‘What’s your name, young man?’ Sparhawk asked him.

‘Berit, my Lord.’

‘What are your duties here?’

‘I haven’t been assigned anything specific as yet, my Lord. I just try to make myself useful.’

‘Good. Turn around.’

‘My Lord?’

‘I want to measure you.’

Berit looked puzzled, but he did as he was told. Sparhawk measured him across the shoulders with his hands. Although he looked bony, Berit was actually a husky youth. ‘You’ll do fine,’ Sparhawk told him.

Berit turned, baffled.

‘You’re going to be making a trip,’ Sparhawk told him. ‘Gather up what you’ll need while I go get the man who’s going to go with you.’

‘Yes, my Lord,’ Berit replied, bowing respectfully.

Sparhawk took hold of the saddlebow and hauled himself up onto Faran’s back. Berit handed him the reins, and Sparhawk nudged the big roan into a walk. They crossed the courtyard, and Sparhawk responded to the salutes of the knights at the gate. Then he rode on across the drawbridge and through the east gate of the city.

The streets of Cimmura were busy now. Workmen carrying large bundles wrapped in mud-coloured burlap grunted their way through the narrow lanes, and merchants dressed in conventional blue stood in the doorways of their shops with their brightly coloured wares piled around them. An occasional wagon clattered along the cobblestones. Near the intersection of two narrow streets, a squad of church soldiers in their scarlet livery marched with a certain arrogant precision. Sparhawk did not give way to them, but instead bore down on them at a steady trot. Grudgingly, they separated and stood aside as he passed. ‘Thank you, neighbours,’ Sparhawk said pleasantly

They did not answer him.

He reined Faran in. ‘I said, thank you, neighbours.’

‘You’re welcome,’ one of them replied sullenly. Sparhawk waited.

‘…My Lord,’ the soldier added grudgingly.

‘Much better, friend.’ Sparhawk rode on.

The gate to the inn was closed, and Sparhawk leaned over and banged on its timbers with his gauntleted fist. The porter who swung it open for him was not the same knight who had admitted him the evening before. Sparhawk swung down from Faran’s back and handed him the reins.


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