The Alliance is crumbling.
Driven to madness by the abduction of his son, King Elias declares war on Andaryon. Sullyan knows the Andaryans are blameless, still reeling from the abduction of their own prince and the subsequent collapse of the Hierarch, but Elias will not listen to reason. While he gathers his forces to march through the Veils, the real conspirators remain free to wreak havoc on both sides of the conflict.
Branded a traitor by her king, and with the rift between her and Robin widening, Sullyan embarks on a perilous search for the missing princes. Bloodshed is inevitable and innocent lives will be lost, but the war must be stopped. If she fails, it will mean death for both princes and disaster for the Five Realms.
The summons came just as Rienne was preparing to go off shift. It was clearly urgent and she dropped the pile of clean bandages to answer it, yet now she had to lean against the wall a minute to catch her breath. Her pregnancy didn’t allow her to rush around these days. Panting, she tried to calm herself.
Tad, the cadet who had brought Chief Healer Hanan’s summons, didn’t tell Rienne the reasons behind the urgency. He simply gave his message and ran off, but his tone and serious expression sent shivers of fear down her spine. Something dreadful must have happened.
Her fear was confirmed by the anxious bustle along the infirmary’s corridors. It seemed every available healer was hurrying to Hanan’s office. Had there been another invasion? Had the demons who had been raiding recently committed an atrocity? Oh, she hoped not; the infirmary was already as full as she’d seen it. They’d be hard put to cope with a large influx of wounded.
Rienne’s heart was pounding by the time she reached the office, and not just from her physical condition.
There was quite a crowd of blue-clad healers around Hanan—the entire day shift, as far as Rienne could see. The Chief Healer wore a somber expression. The woman was tall and strongly-built, with a severe face that transformed when she smiled, which was often. Now, however, there was something else in her eyes.
“Healers,” she began, “I have some grave news for you. A couple of hours ago our King received a message telling him that his son, the young Prince Eadan, has been abducted by demons.”
There were cries and exclamations of shock.
“It seems he has been taken by minions of the Hierarch of Andaryon in revenge for the abduction of his own son.”
Rienne gasped. She knew this couldn’t be true.
Hanan continued. “The King is understandably distraught, and I have to tell you all that he has just declared war on Andaryon.”
“No!” Rienne was unable to stop the outburst. Eyes turned her way, but hers hadn’t been the only protest. They all knew how highly the King had valued his alliance with the Hierarch, but Rienne thought she was probably the only one whose protest was as much for Pharikian’s sake as it was for Elias’s. She shared Sullyan’s fondness for the demon ruler of Andaryon.
Chief Healer Hanan wasn’t finished. “King Elias has summoned us all to attend him at midmorning tomorrow on the parade ground. You will arrange your duties accordingly, and we will also take all patients who are capable of being moved. That is all. You may return to your duties.”
Rienne turned away, her hand to her mouth. She had been too young to remember much about the civil war in Albia, and had not experienced first-hand Rykan’s war on Pharikian. She had no clear idea how this dreadful news would affect her on a personal level. More work, more patients, more wounded; she could be certain of that. Some of the wounds would be severe, and some fatal.
With a sudden cold shock, she realized that Cal would be involved and in the thick of the fighting. Her heart sank as it dawned on her that, as an Artesan, it was far more likely that he would be fighting in Andaryon rather than staying to defend Albia. What if she lost him over there? What if he became too injured to return home? What if he developed some virulent alien infection and was trapped there forever until he died? Her trembling hands protectively clasped her belly as tears started in her eyes.
Only then did she register that someone was standing before her. It was Emos, Sullyan’s valet, and she thought he’d probably spoken her name at least twice. “Oh, Emos, it’s you. I’m sorry, I was preoccupied. We’ve only just heard the news.”
The small man regarded her with a worried expression. “Healer Arlen, I’m sorry to intrude when you’ve your own troubles, but I’m concerned about Colonel Sullyan. Could you come and take a look at her?”
“Why, what’s wrong with her?”
Emos took Rienne’s elbow and guided her out of the infirmary. “I’m not quite sure. I came across her in the hallway halfway between the General’s office and her own. She was leaning against the wall, staring into nothing as if she didn’t know where she was. She looked dreadful—she was pale and trembling and her brow was damp. I called her name, but she didn’t seem to hear me. I touched her arm, and that’s when she finally realized I was there. She didn’t answer me when I asked if she was all right. I couldn’t just leave her there, but I could see she needed some help. I managed to get her back to her rooms so I could come and find you. I just hope she’s still there.”
Rienne frowned. She didn’t like the sound of this. Sullyan was bound to be distressed, even angry, over the King’s announcement, but Rienne wouldn’t expect her to react as badly as this. She glanced at the valet. “Was Robin there?”
He kept his eyes straight ahead. “No, Healer.”
Rienne’s anxiety grew as they hastened to the Colonel’s chambers. Sullyan hadn’t been herself for some time now, and Rienne was developing her own suspicions as to why that was. This time, she wouldn’t be sidetracked or fobbed off; she would do a thorough examination whether Sullyan liked it or not. At least it gave her a temporary distraction from her fears for Cal.
The valet received no response to his tap at Sullyan’s door. They entered to find Sullyan sitting just as Emos had described leaving her; staring blankly ahead, a slight frown on her brow. The valet stood aside as Rienne approached her, softly calling Sullyan’s name.
She eventually got a response, but only when she knelt down in front of her and put both her hands on Sullyan’s arms.
“Brynne!” she said urgently, giving her friend a gentle shake. Some semblance of life came back to the clouded golden eyes, and Sullyan blinked.
The healer turned to the valet, who was hovering at her shoulder, his face a picture of worry.
“It’s all right, Emos. I’ll look after her now.”
“What’s wrong with her, Healer? I’ve never seen her like this before.”
“She’s in shock. I’ve seen its like before. Just leave us now; peace and quiet are what she needs most.”
The small man left, muttering that they’d be lucky to have much in the way of peace or quiet from now on. Rienne waited until he had closed the door and then she stood, still looking intently into Sullyan’s unseeing eyes.
“Brynne!” she said sharply, but there was no response, not even the flicker she had seen just before. Rienne sighed deeply; she wasn’t going to enjoy this. Steeling her resolve and making very sure there were no sharp weapons nearby, she drew back her hand and slapped her friend resoundingly across the face.
Sullyan’s head snapped back and she hissed in a breath, but otherwise didn’t react. Rienne was afraid she’d have to do it again, though her palm already stung and there was a bright red mark on Sullyan’s otherwise pallid cheek. But when the younger woman slowly turned her head back to face Rienne, her eyes were normal, albeit tear-filled.
“Oh, Rienne,” she whispered, “I am so sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” Rienne smiled in relief. “I’m the one who slapped you!”
“I am sorry you had to do it. I cannot think why I reacted that way. I seemed to have no control over my body.”
“It’s just shock, my dear, that’s all. It’s quite a natural reaction.” Rienne sat down beside her friend. Seeing the tears begin to slide down Sullyan’s face, she gathered her into her arms.
“Rienne, what am I going to do?” Sullyan’s voice was hoarse with emotion. “Elias has declared war on Andaryon. I couldn’t stop him—he wouldn’t listen. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he has commanded me to tell him everything I know about the Citadel’s defenses and Anjer’s battle strategies. How can I possibly obey him?”
Rienne gasped. “He asked you to do that? Doesn’t he realize what he’s doing? There’s no way on earth Timar’s involved in Prince Eadan’s abduction.”
“I know, Rienne, I know. I have told Elias so, but he does not wish to hear me. He is full of fury and avid for revenge and the need to do something to regain his son. I cannot blame him for that. But war! It will achieve nothing but death and the destruction of the alliance. This could put us back decades and resurrect all the old grievances still simmering beneath the surface. Which is exactly what our enemy wants, of course.”
Rienne stared at Sullyan, totally overwhelmed. Events were moving too fast for her. “What will you do? What can you do?”
“I have no idea. I need time to think. But I simply cannot use my knowledge to help Elias attack Timar.”
They were silent a moment, deep in their own depressing thoughts. Then Sullyan told Rienne everything that had happened that morning, how Pharikian had collapsed after finding his son’s severed finger in a box, and how upset she was by Pharikian’s condition, as well as Aeyron’s maiming and probable death. Rienne felt herself turn pale and fresh tears welled in her eyes. She could understand Pharikian’s belief that his son was dead.
“And what do you think?” she asked.
Sullyan shrugged. “He may well be right. I have searched and searched for Aeyron’s signature in the substrate and can find no trace, not even one dulled by spellsilver. I very much fear that he is indeed dead.”
Full of grief, Rienne shook her head. “This could kill Timar.”
Sullyan nodded. “Let us hope that Idrimar’s pregnancy will sustain him. The promise of grandchildren may serve to give him some hope.” Her words clearly reminded her of Rienne’s own condition, and she eyed the healer. “How are you faring, Rienne? All this must be a great shock to you, and you are still in the early stages of your own pregnancy. You must try not to let all this distress you too much.”
Rienne found a smile for her friend. This was much more normal. Sullyan always was far more concerned for the welfare of others than she was for herself. Feeling easier about Sullyan’s state of mind, Rienne said briskly, “I didn’t come here to talk about me, Brynne. Emos came for me because he was worried about you, and so am I. You have experienced far too many of these little ‘indispositions’ lately, and today we’re going to get to the bottom of them.”
Sullyan shrugged. “We have tried before and each time you have found that I am healthy.”
“Yes, I know. So today I want you to start from the beginning. Go back to the very first time you remember feeling unwell, however slight, and tell me everything. Leave nothing out. Even those things you felt were connected with Rykan’s … abuse. I want it all and I’m not leaving until I get it.”
Sullyan gazed at her and then capitulated, telling the healer everything she could remember, going back five or six months.
Rienne was startled when she heard this. “Five or six months? I thought we were talking weeks!”
Sullyan gave a small smile. “Well, you said to include everything.”
“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” demanded Rienne. She waved a hand, knowing how heedless Sullyan could be of her own health. “Oh, just go on.”
The catalog of minor irritations continued. The intermittent nausea, the lack of appetite, the metallic taste in the mouth that had put Sullyan off her fellan, the strange numb and tingling sensations in her wrist and forearm, her uncertain temper, her inexplicable weight gain; all were listed for Rienne’s benefit. The healer heard it all with growing conviction and heightening exasperation. She couldn’t blame Sullyan though, not really. After all, she’d had very good reasons for not seeing the obvious.
When Sullyan had finished, Rienne bade her sit quietly and open herself to Rienne’s examination. She wasn’t as competent at this part as Sullyan, but her experience in healer matters stood her in good stead now that she knew what she was looking for. Sullyan complied in mystified silence. When Rienne finally let go of her hand and sat back with a sigh, Sullyan watched her.
“Well? Are you any the wiser? Do you have any answers for me this time?”
Rienne looked her in the eye. “Oh, yes. That I have.”
The tone of her voice, somewhere between excitement and sorrow, alerted Sullyan’s senses. Rienne noted the sharpening of her gaze.
“Come on, then. You cannot keep it to yourself. What is wrong with me?”
Rienne smiled gently. “There’s nothing wrong with you, Brynne. You’re in a very healthy condition.”
“Do not play games, Rienne, please! I am in no mood—” She stopped short, something about Rienne’s phrasing having got through to her. “Healthy condition?”
“Yes, my dear.” Rienne smiled through a sheen of tears. “If you hadn’t been so sure it was impossible, you’d have seen it for yourself. Brynne, you’re six months pregnant.”