" A love triangle... mixes explosively with politics and war in a stimulating adventure grounded by deft characterizations and a vivid historical setting. .. a stimulating new series. " - Publisher's Weekly Starred Review
" Duncan doesn't disappoint with another extraordinary tale of magic, mayhem and family relationships. With great storytelling, stand-out worldbuilding, compelling characters and a quick-paced plot, this inventive fantasy will have you clamoring for book two. " - Romantic Times (Four and a half stars; TOP PICK)
" Love, magic, religion, and politics collide in this tale of supernatural knight-errantry. " - Booklist
" The usual fine and entertaining Duncan adventure, sure to please. " - Edmonton Journal
The brothers‘ billet was an attic in the slum area, Lower Mauvnik. It was smelly and cramped and the roof leaked. It would be an icehouse in winter and an oven in summer, and Anton could not stand upright there, even without his hussar hat. The old couple who lived in the fourth-floor room below it feared and hated all soldiers, but the pittance the king paid them to billet two men in their loft was probably their only income. The open steps were almost as steep as a ladder and creaked monstrously, so Anton made no effort to be quiet when he entered, although the relics were still abed in the dark. He climbed through the trap at the top, closed it, and carefully set his hat on the solitary chair.
A bed too narrow for two, a rickety chest of drawers, and a small table completed the furnishings, and the plank floor was carpeted by the clothes and domestic litter of two young men unable to afford servants. Being a count in a great castle was going to be a big step up.
Wulf was standing in the dormer, having opened the shutter to let in the first rays of daylight. He was shirtless, but seemed unaware of the cold, and he was shaving, which he did every day, although he was too fair to show much in the way of stubble.
Anton flopped down on the bed. "Sorry I forgot your birthday last week, Wulf."
"You are forgiven. I forgot it too. It‘s not exactly a major festival."
"You feeling better today?"
He had been tortured by a pounding headache yesterday morning. Possibly in the evening too; Anton had forgotten to ask. He still sounded upset. Commands from a lancer to his varlet would not work in the current situation. Careful negotiation was required.
"What‘s gnawing your ass, then?"
"You‘re lying. I‘ve got important news and we‘ve got to hurry, so spit it out, sonny."
Wulf turned around, his face shining with the oil he used to lubricate the razor. "You don‘t know? Really?"
"Just that the next time you try to commit suicide, don‘t expect me to stop you, all right? It‘s my soul you risk and my head you hurt. I hope your palace trollop was worth it, but from now on you can enlist your bawds by yourself."
Despite the bitterness in the words, he spoke them softly. No matter how far he was provoked, Wulf never raised his voice. On the rare occasions when he was pushed too far, the first warning was the impact of his fist on the offender‘s face.
"Your soul?" Anton protested. "I never asked you to Speak. I didn‘t know you had Spoken until you told me yesterday. I thought Morningstar and I did that jump all by ourselves."
"Truly?" Wulf‘s yellow eyes glinted. "There I was, comfortably sitting on wet grass eating some noble leftovers in the company of six ignorant churls and a million horseflies, making eyes at a young nursemaid just on principle, when I see you waving for me to come running. The which I then do, anxious lest you need your nose wiped, and you say only, ‘Pray for me!‘ Straightaway, you spur your horse down the side of a cliff and into an impossible double jump."
"It wasn‘t impossible!"
"Yes it was. And you knew what sort of prayer you were asking for."
Anton sighed. "I suppose I did sort of hint. But I was going to try it anyway, and if my survival was your doing, or your saints‘ doing, then I‘m very grateful. What did you actually do, by the way? After I left?"
"I fell on my knees and begged St. Victorinus to preserve you."
"It doesn‘t work otherwise."
Who else ever prayed to St. Victorinus? Who but Wulf had ever heard of St. Victorinus? Obviously Wulf‘s odd behavior had been noted and reported, so Zdenek had known all along that it was Anton‘s brother who was the Speaker. At the end, when the cardinal had tricked Anton into admitting that he would have to take Wulf along to Cardice, that had been mere confirmation.
"Perfectly natural behavior. You saw me careering downhill like that, so of course you appealed to Our Lady to save me. There was no one close enough to hear what you actually said."
"I just hope you‘re right," Wulf said skeptically and went back to shaving.
Anton decided that a little more sincerity was required. "Wulf, I know it wasn‘t fair of me. It was an impulse. I saw a chance to catch the eye of people who matter in this kingdom. It was for both our sakes. And for Vlad, too, remember! This town swarms with fine horsemen, but riding‘s the only skill I have that could get me promoted."
"You told me that swiving would," Wulf said scornfully.
"Really? She does have influence at court?"
"Well, let me show you!" Anton dug in the satchel. "The baldric of a companion in the Order of St. Vaclav...a marshal‘s baton...letters patent making me a count."
His brother hooted. "By the blood, you must be almost as good as you say you are! Better than good--you must be stupendous! So you humped your way into a singing role in the next court masque?" Still laughing, the kid turned his back to continue his ordeal with the razor. Now that he had blown off his anger, the incident was closed. He had never carried grudges, fortunately, despite innumerable excuses provided by four older brothers.
So far so good, except that Anton would now have to reopen the wound.
He said, "Listen. We must be quick. I‘ve got Morningstar and Sparrow downstairs, all ready to go."
Anton spread out the engraving. "Do you know where this is?"
Wulf glanced over his shoulder. "That‘s Castle Gallant. I‘ve seen a print of it before."
"It‘s mine now," Anton said. He lowered his voice to a whisper. The antiquities below were both deaf and the floor was surprisingly solid and soundproof, but he was going to be revealing state secrets. "I‘ve just come from a meeting with the Scarlet Spider himself. He‘s given me a job. Given us a job, I mean. There‘s bad trouble brewing in the north. The Wends are massing to invade and they‘ve blindsided him, although he didn‘t admit that. He thinks Pomerania is about to attack Castle Gallant, which holds the Silver Road. Now the keeper is dead, murdered by witchcraft, and his son also. He‘s survived by--"
"You mean the army‘s mustering?" Wulf spun around, eyes bright. "We‘re riding north?"
"Not the army, just us. Stop leering, you idiot! I‘m serious. These things are all genuine: baldric, marshal‘s baton... letters patent creating His Majesty‘s ‘dear and right trusty‘ Anton Magnus. --that‘s me, believe it!--Count Magnus of Cardice... Here‘s His Majesty‘s permission and requirement that I marry the daughter, Madlenka. So what do you think of that?"
Wulf snapped the razor closed and laid it down. He wiped his face with his rag. All the while his golden, lupine eyes stared hard at Anton. He stepped over some dirty dishes so that he was standing close, looking down.
"Just like the fairytales? ‘...gave him the princess‘s hand in marriage and half the kingdom and they all lived happily ever after?‘ But nobody heard me Speak to my Voices? Pure coincidence. Happens all the time."
"All right!" Anton roared. "So I cheated a little. What matters is that it worked! The king needs us! Zdenek needs us!"
"You say ‘us‘? What exactly do we have to do?"
"We have to ride like the devil to Castle Gallant. I marry the girl, take command of the troops, clean out the traitors, and hold the fort in the king‘s name."
"Ride like the devil?" Wulf repeated in a soft whisper. He took up his shirt from the bed. "Why us? You swore an oath, Brother. The day the Dominicans took Marek away, Father made all of you swear on the hand of St. Ulric never to tell anyone that I could Speak too. You all swore not to reveal that secret by word or deed, by omission or commission. You pledged your immortal soul, Anton Magnus, Count Nothing."
"I have not revealed it, nor told anyone." Anton realized that Wulf might well be building up to a fight. It was almost a year since they‘d last had a roughhouse, and Wulf had won that one.
The golden eyes did not blink and the voice stayed low, but that meant nothing. "So why did the Spider decide to send you, only you, of all the king‘s men? He asked you because of what happened at the hunt on Friday. Did he tell you to take me along?"
"Did you say you would?" Wulf said, tipping his head sideways.
Anton squirmed. He rarely won arguments with his young brother, and it would be useless to threaten him. Straight orders had been working since they signed up in the hussars, and a sharp cuff to the ear used to, but none of those would serve this time.
"Wulfgang, I am asking you very humbly to make an exception, just this once."
"No. You think I want to be locked up for the rest of my life? Or tortured? Burned at the--"
Grovel time. "But this is the most incredible chance for all of us, Wulf! I get a wife rich enough to ransom Vlad. Otto won‘t have to sell off any of the family lands. And you can have anything you have ever wanted, anything my wealth can buy. I swear! You can be my constable, or master of horse, or go to Vienna to study medicine, as you talked of last year. Or Padua, or Rome."
"Or a monastery cell with a bolt on the door. Or a dungeon with ropes and pulleys. No. I will not make another exception. I hold you to your oath, Anton Magnus. You can jump off cliffs alone from now on."
"You want to see those Wend bastards raping and pillaging across Jorgary?"
"Go and find your princess and your castle," Wulf said, even more softly. He straightened up and turned away. "I‘m not stopping you. I‘ll give you all the help I can, except not the sort of help you want."