A thrush gave a sudden, rattling call of alarm and I sensed the Wood go eerily still around me. I stopped, suddenly tense, and scanned my surroundings. I had been making my way to a nearby heart-tree to replenish my fruit supplies, a route I'd walked many times before. I had stopped in a small clearing carpeted in tall grass thick with flowers. There were blackberry brambles running wild along one edge--I had eaten well from those last summer. Nothing seemed out of place other than the silence.
That was when I heard the crashing. None of the evil remaining in the Wood crashed--they had all been birthed here, and knew how to creep whisper-soft through the underbrush and ambush unsuspecting prey. No, the only things that made that kind of racket were trespassers here.
I told myself the source of the noise was a lost cow or a farmer in search of one, but worried nonetheless. We'd had strange rumors from musicians and book sellers passing through the valley lately--that the balance of power at court had shifted, that the church was seeking out corruption more zealously than usual, even that we were preparing to go to war again. Sarkan had headed south a month ago to determine the truth of the situation. I'd expected a letter from him a week or more past, but had yet to receive any. Worse, I hadn't heard from Kasia since Midsummer.
While I'd been inclined to dismiss the rumblings before, the lack of news had made me uneasy. I'd gotten into the unwelcome habit of twitching at every out-of-place noise in the Wood and every strange face in the valley, and I found myself avoiding the border more carefully. It was absurd; it seemed I mastered a new spell every other day, and it would take a fair-sized force to harm me. A lone stranger in the seat of my power would accomplish very little.
But still, I worried.
The crashing veered to the west; the Spindle was deep and flowed fast by my clearing, but there was a better place to ford it not far away, due west. A wandering cow or horse wouldn't have sought it out, but a person would. Especially one searching for me, if they had a spell to lead the way. I forced the worry from my mind, the need to continue tracking the movement, and focused on the tall grass by my feet. It was swaying gently in the breeze and I began to sway with it.
It was springtime, and I was flowering. The breeze would carry the sweet scent of my flowers through the trees and draw the buzzing, busy bees toward me. The bees would drink my nectar, dusting pollen in my flowers, and would spread my pollen to other plants in turn. I would fruit in harvest time and go fallow in winter and return in spring, green again, to send up new flowers. I would feed chipmunks and line birds' nests and carpet soft footfalls, muffling the passage of travelers through the Wood. Now I swayed, and bent under the weight. My eyes snapped open. The intruder had reached my clearing.
Sarkan loomed above me as I lay on the ground, grass tickling my neck and arms. “What,” he said, raising an eyebrow and tilting his head in his most infuriating way, “are you doing down there?”
As we strode back to my house he mocked me for my jumpiness--“Are you become a mouse again?”--and my attire: Trousers torn by burrs and stained a handspan up the leg from the hem, homespun smock wrinkled and more patch than cloth.
I couldn't stop smiling. No matter the news, my Dragon was back.
His news when we reached my house was grim, but not as bad as I expected.
I sat on the bed while Sarkan paced. I had offered him fruit and Spindle-water; he had refused both. The routine was comforting.
“The King still holds the power at court, but Solya is determined to upset the balance. The Falcon has decided your friend poisoned the king against him, and has decided to poison the court against her in turn. Unfortunately for him, she's loved by more than just Stashek and Marisha. Your Kasia is quite the court favorite, and Solya knows it. You and I, however, are easier targets, and have the benefit of...checkered pasts. He's trying to sway the Magnati against us."
“But what could he gain from that?” I broke in, ignoring the annoyed look it earned me. “We stay here in the valley--well, I do, mostly, and you've stopped wandering so much--and tend to the Wood. I don't see how we threaten him as things stand, but if he strikes out at us...”
“If I could fully comprehend the Falcon's motivations,” said Sarkan, “Our lives would likely be very different.” I was silent in reply, recalling how opaque he'd seemed to me throughout our interactions last year. He wanted power, that was obvious, but I couldn't see what power he'd gain by attacking us. I said as much.
“Oh, it's not that he'll profit directly. He'll use us to discredit Kasia and, through her, the king. That will allow the Magnati to seize more power--I assume Solya will do his best to align himself with as many influential, discontented members as possible before then, and sow discord among the rest. I believe, though I can't be certain, his eventual aim is renewed war. He always has the most consequence when we're at war.
I sat frozen, too shocked to make an intelligent reply. Our army had been decimated in Marek's attack and had yet to recover. With so many men gone, a year's harvest had rotted in the fields. Our stores were dangerously low. Polnya wouldn't survive another war right now.
Sarkan smiled grimly. “Now, Nieshka, don't look so glum,” he said, cupping my chin. “His aim is to discredit us, but there's no reason we must let him succeed.”
I met his gaze. “Of course not. What must we do?” I asked.
He smiled. "My dear," he said, "You must abandon your work for a while and return to the tower with me."
He explained a little more as I gathered my things for the trip. The solution was elegant in a way my life generally wasn't; Sarkan had applied to Kasia and Alosha for help, and Alosha had devised a plan. She was known to like us all, but her love of the country and hatred of corruption outweighed any such bonds. The court had heard the songs about me, including my love of heart-tree fruit. Until now the assertions of Kasia and the king that the Wood was defeated had been enough to protect me from charges of corruption, but Solya was eroding that confidence.
Alosha wanted to help him.
She'd declared that anyone who ate heart-tree fruit must be corrupted; that I therefore must be tested and, if found to be corrupted, put to death; and had come up with an appropriate test. In order to lend her test weight, she'd convinced the Archbishop to travel to our valley with his retinue and observe the tests, as well as testing us himself by laying the major relics on us.
“Alosha came with you?” I interrupted.
“Yes, she's back at the tower with the Archbishop and his retinue. She was quite sensibly cautious of risking corruption by venturing into the cursed Wood with me.”
“You know perfectly well--” I broke in heatedly.
“And so does she, or at least well enough to trust us, but I hardly wanted to make a show of persuading her when it would only reflect badly on our cause. Few would believe you cast as the silver-tongued witch, at least not after having met you, but I have a rather different reputation.”
I could hardly argue with that.
I was ready to go, so we left. I clasped his hand and sang Jaga's walking-song, Sarkan humming a bass rhythm to guide our steps below, and we lurched to a stop at the tower after a half-day's walk. I staggered at the sight of a pavilion set up in front of the door, remembering the battle, and half-turned to Sarkan for reassurance. He grasped my elbow to steady me. “What--” I started, but stopped as I recognized the church insignia on the banner fluttering from the top.
“His Excellency refused my hospitality while he remained unconvinced of our freedom from corruption,” he said dryly. “It's just as well, as I'm not sure I have enough room for his retinue. Come inside and change, and then I'll show you to Alosha. She can explain the plan better than I.”
“No,” I insisted, “Alosha first. It's been too long since we've last spoken, and she's bound to have more news of the court than you.” I could always cast lirintalem before we saw the Archbishop if necessary. Sarkan merely shook his head at me, and transported us into the tower.
I found Alosha in the guest room.
“Agnieszka!” she exclaimed, eyes widening. “Well, if nothing else I suppose the cursed place agrees with you.” Her eyes dropped as she inspected me further. “Though not, I must say, with your clothing. You look like a beggar-woman.”
I laughed and went to embrace her. “I am so pleased to see you, though I wish your errand were happier. Do you bring news of Kasia and the court at Gidna?” I heard Sarkan give an undignified huff behind me. He had reported what he had thought important, but he would never be easy with Kasia. He'd been too taken aback when he learned what we'd thought of him, growing up. I turned to him. "You may leave if you find this beneath your notice," I said. "I'm sure the Archbishop would like to hear our plans." He bowed his head and left us alone.
Alosha raised an eyebrow at the interaction. "You get along with him well," she said.
"We suit each other," I said. “And Kasia?” I asked. “She's sent us only good news, but I'm unsure she'd entrust anything else to a letter.”
Alosha gave me an appraising look. “She has adapted much better than you did, I will say that. It caused a bit of a stir; everyone expected that she'd be just as backwards as you, coming from the same valley as she did. She told me some of how you both were raised. I don't think the Dragon did either of you any favors.”
I shook my head with a rueful smile. “No, if we'd been cherished daughters of our homes it would have been too much harder to leave. I don't know if Kasia would have survived the change if her mother hadn't forced her to be brave. If it helped her at court, and I think it has, it was at least good for something. She is fitting in, though? You're sure?”
“Yes, she is much loved, and not only as a means to gain the King's favor. There is a new fashion to send daughters to the Guard because of her.”
“And Stashek—I mean, the King? He and Marishka are well?”
“The King is lucky to receive good counsel, and his grandfather the Regent is teaching him well. I am content to continue residing here," she said, which I knew was high praise. Our conversation turned to the tests.
She'd forged a major working, a sphere two handspans across that seemed to suck in the light around it--“She said it was her masterwork, the thing that would survive her and keep her alive in memory once she was gone,” Sarkan had said--and we were to touch it while the Archbishop tested us with the relics and while we performed the Summoning.
"It's enchanted to show the reality of things," she explained. "The truth at the heart of all matters. It will suffer no illusions or corruption. If you are corrupted, you must not touch it."
I smiled at her. "I'm sure it will all be fine," I said.
The Archbishop scowled at me. He seemed to be a dour man. “Young woman, I've heard quite a lot about your haphazard, unstudied approach to both corruption and magic. The kingdom has lost entirely too many good men to your lack of care. I refuse to emulate your style. We will proceed as planned, with no deviation, and you will stop attempting to convince me otherwise at once.”
I suspected that he had only deigned to travel so far, to stoop to such unconventional measures, due to an ingrained respect for the kingship and, perhaps, love of Stashek. He was not our ally, but he would be scrupulously fair. I tried not to resent the fact that Solya's interpretation of his character has been so accurate; if he was so perceptive, what had Solya seen in me that led him to advise Marek as he did? I put it from my mind. If the Archbishop could be persuaded that we had permanently defeated the Wood, I'm sure he would be relieved of a great weight. This man had taken no pleasure in the burnings he had been bound to oversee. I found I liked him despite his dourness.
“I understand, Your Excellency. Where do we begin?”
He gestured to a monk behind him, one of his retinue. They were arrayed in a line across from the entry of the tower, each holding a trunk or casket. The monk he gestured to pulled out the net I recognized as Jiwaga's veil and we began the same series of tests I had seen performed on the Queen and Kasia what seemed so long ago. None of them showed any sign of corruption.
At the end of the tests, the Archbishop made a dissatisfied harrumphing noise. “I can find no evidence of corruption, but as you well know the same was true with the late Queen. The Sword assures me that her working shows the world clean of all deception, and the tests I've witnessed have been satisfactory. She has more credit with the Church than either of you,” he added with a severe glance in Sarkan's direction. “All that remains is for you to perform this Summoning for us now.”
Sarkan and I sat facing each other, one hand each on Alosha's sphere where it sat on the table between us, our other hands clasped. I hadn't performed Luthe's Summoning since the battle at the tower, and I still didn't know how Sarkan had started it by himself to save me from the Wood. I waited for him to begin, unsure in a working as I so rarely was these days. He started a low chant, Valellisuus long and lilting, and I joined in with elli, elli in a descant. I knew it had worked when the cold, clear light of the spell started.
I don't remember what we sang; that's the nature of the spell. But I do remember seeing my joy in my work, our successes in freeing the Wood. I remember my frustration with his long absence to rid the court of corruption, my uncertainty that he would ever return. I felt his fear of being tied so tightly to one place, of my knowledge of his feelings and the power that gave me over him, as if it were my own. Mostly, though, I remember the love, of each other and our valley, that overlaid everything else. It wasn't a rosy-hued thing, but it was enduring.
We petered to a close, Sarkan repeating the last word as I hummed, and I knew it had worked. There could be no doubt in the Church that we were uncorrupted—corruption destroyed that kind of love. I hated the idea that the whole court would see us laid bare, the more so because I knew how it grated at Sarkan. But this was what we needed to do for Polnya; it was our newest duty to the Crown.
Alosha lifted the sphere. “Letalem,” she said. “There, that should be plenty.” She gave Sarkan and I a knowing look. “Come, Your Excellency, we must discuss how to present this at court. Agnieszka, I'd love to see the Wood tomorrow.”
I tore my eyes from Sarkan's small smile and nodded jerkily. “Of course,” I promised.
We had plenty of time until then, and I planned to spend it wisely.