Since the day he disgraced his family, Kirt Morgana wanted to be more than what he was.
But the night that opportunity showed its face, all he really wanted to do was take a nice, long nap.
Of course, at the moment, it was not a good time for sleeping.
Rain spattered down from the heavens, accomplishing nothing but soaking him through and chilling him to the bone. Gasping for breath, he shuffled backward on the wet stones and tried to keep up with his opponent’s sword. His arm began to give out. “Please,” he sputtered, swiping the rain out of his eyes.
Kirt had never been a good fencer. He knew the man in front of him was just toying, and he could do nothing about it. Any moment, his opponent would get bored and break through his meager defenses.
The man lunged, and Kirt’s feet slipped as he tried to retreat. The blade rammed into his chest.
He gave a soft oof and fell backward, squelching in the pools of mud oozing from tufts of grass that’d grown in the cracks.
“That was terrible,” said Gilbert Prellis, straightening up and lowering the tip of his sword to the wet cobblestones.
Kirt scowled at his instructor, rubbing his chest. Even through the heavy chain mail, he could only get hit so many times without bruising. “Well, Master Prellis, perhaps if we weren’t fencing in the rain during the middle of the night, for the suns’ sake—”
“Watch your language,” Prellis snapped. Kirt swallowed and glanced at the man’s wrist, where his sunmark glistened in the moonlit rain. Along with the purple warrior’s shield on his left arm, he had earned his second line on his right, marking him as a master of craft.
“Just because you have no respect for the suns’ ancient rituals does not mean you can go flouncing about with such arrogance.”
Kirt shrank back, biting down any angry outburst. I should be used to this by now, he thought, and his left wrist seemed to prickle. But why must everyone remind him?
“En garde,” Master Prellis ordered, taking his position.
The rain poured down harder, echoing off the castle walls around them. They’d been at this for hours—Kirt had missed supper, he was covered in mud, and his whole body was exhausted.
“Please, Master Prellis,” he begged, his cheeks flushing despite the cold. He simply couldn’t take it anymore. One more bout and his arm would fall off.
The solid, mustached man straightened. He stood stoically for a moment, then gestured to the left with his sword. “Well, go on then.”
He shook his head in disgust as Kirt scrambled to his feet. “If Aidas had shown that kind of indecent excuse for swordsmanship, why, I’d have thrown him out of my classroom. You’re lucky your father wasn’t here to see that.”
Kirt gritted his teeth as he reentered the shelter of the tower, pulling off his chain mail and surcoat. They’d been practicing in the wide courtyard of the upper bailey, away from the warmth of the central keep. The swordmaster had claimed part of the adjoining tower as his own, and over the years it had become its own small armory.
Kirt knew where everything was, even in the dark. Unfortunately, this wasn’t his first fencing lesson that had dragged on into the night.
He yanked off his leather gauntlets with a little more force than necessary. Of course, Aidas Juska would have done it better. His replacement was marvelous at everything, according to every one of Kirt’s teachers. Even the villagers and castle staff agreed.
Aidas, such a nice boy. Brilliant at weapons, too.
Aidas, raised on the streets—now fit to be a proper heir, can you believe it?
Aidas, so much more cunning and reliable than that other boy. An utter disgrace, your son. Don’t know why you keep him on, Sir Kay.
Why his father continued Kirt’s lessons was as much a mystery to him as anyone else. Kirt wished he didn’t. It only served as a reminder of how short he fell, how much he could have had…how much he’d lost the night of his sunmark ceremony.
Kirt walked briskly through one of the many passages connecting the castle’s rooms and towers. It was dim, the lamps flickering cozily as the rain outside sloshed down. Ornate portraits and tapestries laced the stone walls as he entered the keep, located at the center of the castle complex.
Right now, the goal was to get to bed. And maybe snag a bit of food in the meantime.
“Young Master,” a brisk voice called. “A word.”
Kirt forced a smile as Ephram, the castle steward, strode into view, consulting a bit of paper. “Sir Kay and Lord Humphrey wish to have you at a private meeting tonight.”
“Tonight?” Kirt managed. If he stayed up much longer, it would be morning. “What did I do this time?”
Ephram’s old eyes looked weary. “This is a good meeting, I believe. You are to be in his lordship’s study as soon as you can. I suggest you get cleaned up beforehand.”
“Thank you, Ephram.”
“Just don’t be late.”
As he sprinted off toward his rooms, Kirt’s mind whirled.
What could they possibly want him for, at this hour? Honestly, what could they possibly want him for at all?
As he closed the door to his rooms, he grimaced. What if they were going to discuss relations with Issanet Fief? The arranged marriage between him and Lady Ahsa was still a bit of a sore spot between Kirt and his father.
But surely any discussion of his imminent betrothal could wait until the morning.
Kirt groaned as he sat on the bed to peel off his sweaty, muddy stockings, wishing he could sleep. However, he dutifully headed to the wardrobe to change, grabbing a fresh shirt and clean trousers, putting on his jerkin, and re-lacing his leather boots. His fingers ran through his mop of dark hair, still wet from the rain outside. He hoped it would at least look presentable.
Kirt couldn’t think of anything he’d done recently to get into serious trouble, or anything he’d done at all to earn praise from Sir Kay. More often than not, he was being scolded for not doing things instead of doing them wrong.
Half the time he spent “dawdling” or “dodging responsibility,” he had shut himself in the library and was copying illustrations from old books. To his father’s dismay, drawing seemed to be the only thing he was good at. No matter how many times he got in trouble, Kirt knew he’d always go back and get out his inks again.
He hated himself for thinking that the stupid hobby would ever be of any use, especially when Sir Kay had spent so much of Kirt’s life preparing him for something else. Something more.
Whether he wanted to or not, Kirt had always assumed he would become a knight. For years, he’d prepared to serve his country and King Aloyzas, eventually taking his father’s place at Lord Humphrey’s side as his vassal—the commander of the castle guard and protector of Piddiran Fief.
Now, though, it would take a miracle for him to be knighted.
Kirt looked down at his arm. For everyone else over the ages of twelve or thirteen, the left wrist held a sunmark—like a purple warriors’ shield or a green craftsman’s coin.
But his skin had been marred with burns that sprawled up his inner wrist like tendrils of smoke. The scars were too elegant and calculated to be from a normal fire.
He rubbed his right thumb over the bit of scarring poking out from his sleeve. It was a bit bumpy, like a normal burn, but otherwise it had none of the regular symptoms one might expect from an injury like it. Apart from the day he’d gotten them, the burns had caused him no pain and no limited use of his arm. It was like they were there to be seen, and nothing else.
A reminder. A permanent one.
He shook his head, pulling his sleeve over his wrist and heading out the door. Sir Kay and Lord Humphrey were probably running out of patience by now.
He traveled up the large staircase that led to the keep’s upper floors, counting each step as he went. By the time he reached Humphrey’s office, Kirt was out of breath. His legs—already sore from fencing—ached in protest, but he straightened and knocked on the large door.
“Enter,” came the nobleman’s voice.
Kirt fumbled with the brass handle and stepped into the room.
A few candles and a hearth burned with a cozy orange light. The pattering rain hissed against the ceiling, and a cold draft from outside seeped in through the tall glass window. As he walked up to the table planted in the middle of the room, Kirt tried not to pinch and fiddle with his thumbs. Sir Kay strongly disliked the nervous habit, and now was not the time to upset him.
Lord Humphrey sat at one end, with Sir Kay at the other, hunched over several sketches and documents.
The nobleman had sharp facial features, with a thin nose and an angular jawline that gave him a strikingly youthful look. Wiry auburn hair adorned his head and chin, thinning but combed over elegantly. He was probably around Father’s age, but Kirt had never asked.
Humphrey was one of the six lords of Kalniva. He had been appointed after his father died in the war to oversee Piddiran Fief. Unlike rulers of the more agriculturally-centered fiefs, he mostly worked with merchants and craftsmen. He was one of the king’s official ambassadors and had been a general in the war—but he was also Sir Kay’s best friend. The two men had long since abandoned formal titles and procedures when in serious conversation.
Kirt’s manners, however, weren’t excused from the proper requirements.
“You’re late,” said Sir Kay, not looking up from the map he was studying.
“Apologies, Father,” Kirt mumbled. “Milord.” He gave a quick bow to Lord Humphrey.
“Ah, our young artist.” Humphrey’s tone was amicable, but Kirt’s ears burned at the words. “We were needing your help here, lad.”
“Of course, sir. What do you want me to do?”
Sir Kay shoved a large piece of paper over to his son, handing him a pen. “A castle—wide and along a river.”
Lord Humphrey leaned forward, his sharp eyes scanning the map in his hands. “Pinpoint a tower in the upper bailey.”
Glancing at the other sketches lining the table, Kirt dipped the pen into the inkwell Humphrey offered him. All the maps had been drawn from a bird’s-eye view, looking over a long castle bordering a river flowing northeast to southwest, labeled the Grie. A large town clustered just south of the castle.
Kirt paused, his pen hovering above the paper. The Grie River was a tributary of the larger Bynus River, which flowed across the entirety of Kalniva. Only one fief had a castle anywhere near it. Or, at least, a castle as large as this one—Calarian Fief’s capital, Kelding.
Still, he didn’t ask. Perhaps they would have answered Aidas, but Kirt didn’t trust himself enough to toe the line.
Whatever they were up to, it would be better if he wasn’t involved.
Kirt sketched out an enlarged version of the small tower in the upper bailey, scribbling over the lines as the nobleman demanded adjustments.
“A bit bigger than that. No, extend it more to the north. It’s three stories. Can you work that in from this angle?”
Kirt did a sort of half-nod, half-shrug. Of course, he could change the angle a bit, but he wasn’t here to show off.
A strange feeling tugged at him. The castle staff had its own professional mapmakers and artists. Why would these two high-ranking men ask him to play cartographer?
Maybe this was being kept secret. Perhaps they didn’t want prying eyes pouring over their plans.
Someone else might have felt honored to be trusted with Lord Humphrey’s secrets, but Kirt knew it was because no one would listen—let alone believe him—if he divulged any information.
He dipped the pen again and added some shading. When he was finished, he double-checked to make sure it matched the other blueprints. The drawing had been hastily done, so it was sketchy, but it looked rather good next to Humphrey’s maps.
Kirt smothered a small smile.
At least he’d done something well.
“Very nice, lad. Splendid.” The nobleman nodded as he put the drawing in the pile.
Sir Kay merely pulled out a new diagram, an interior map that looked suspiciously like dungeons. Kirt swallowed, preparing to leave.
His father’s impenetrable black eyes met his for the first time. “This is very important, so listen carefully.”
Kirt’s mouth went dry.
Sir Kay was, in a word, intimidating. A tall, broad-shouldered man, he had always excelled in weaponry and military strategy. Gray lines were beginning to appear amid the black in his neat, trimmed beard, but his iron character had never wavered.
Kirt’s father was the perfect candidate for a warriors’ sunmark. He was trusted. Admired. Respected. His enemies feared him, and his allies prized him.
The same could not be said for his wayward son.
Kirt, in his own way, was a spitting image of his father. But he was thinner, his ears stuck out more, and his eyes were wide and brown—just like his mother’s, as everyone said.
“Here, lad,” said Lord Humphrey. “Bring up a chair. This particular bit of news may be a little…startling to you.”
Kirt swallowed again, sitting in the chair Humphrey offered him. “With all due respect, milord…” He hesitated. “There must be some mistake. Don’t you want Aidas instead?”
Sir Kay made a small noise in the back of his throat. “Do as you are told, Kirt,” he snapped. “His lordship does not make mistakes easily.”
Kirt’s ears burned and he looked down at the table. “Of course. I’m s—I mean, my apologies.”
“Not to worry,” said the nobleman. “And no, lad. This concerns you, not young Mr. Juska.” He studied him carefully. “It’s about…your mother, actually.”
Kirt's eyes widened, and he looked up. Before he could stop himself, he blurted, “By the suns, have you found her?”
Lord Humphrey winced. Sir Kay closed his eyes in a grimace.
He snapped his mouth shut. “Sorry,” he muttered. “Pardon the…language.”
Still, excitement thrummed through him.
No one knew what battle of the civil war Jone Morgana had perished in. Battlefields had records, of course, but dozens were scattered across the country, and none that they’d visited had carried her name in their list of casualties.
And besides, the whole thing was all a bit…controversial.
Kirt’s mother had died fighting for the wrong side—if there had even been right and wrong sides.
The civil war had been over for eight years, but the heavy losses were still widely felt in this small country. The king had done his best to put the army and economy back together, but nothing had ever been the same.
Especially without Kirt’s mother.
Sir Kay had never really recovered, and Kirt’s sunmark ceremony hadn’t exactly helped things. But maybe Humphrey finally found her name on the casualty lists. Maybe this could end his father’s grieving.
“We did not find Dame Jone’s name on any battlefield records,” Humphrey said.
Kirt’s heart sank.
The nobleman leaned closer. “We found her on a list of survivors.”
The floor seemed to drop from under his feet. “What?” he stammered, gripping the table. He looked at his father, his heartbeat sounding loud in his ears.
“Calarian,” was all Sir Kay said. He sat rigid, looking tenser than Kirt had ever seen him. The broken shadow that haunted Kirt’s father’s eyes had ebbed away. It had been replaced by something that looked dangerously close to hope.
Humphrey’s sharp face twisted into a smile. “Tell me, lad. How do you feel about sieging a castle?”