Read an excerpt from The Merchant Emperor, the seventh book in Elizabeth Haydon’s Symphony of Ages fantasy series, out on June 3rd from Tor Books!
The war that they had feared is now upon them. Ashe and Rhapsody, leaders of the Cymrian Alliance, are gathering their allies to combat the machinations of Talquist, who will soon be crowned emperor of Sorbold. Gwydion Navarne remains by Ashe’s side. Anborn, Lord Marshal, has taken to the field. And Rhapsody has been forced into hiding to protect the life of her infant son.
The Merchant Emperor of Sorbold has unintentionally allied himself with a pair of demons and has begun targeting the dragons that remain on the Middle Continent. Talquist will stop at nothing until the Cymrians are wiped out and the entire continent and the rest of the Known World is under his rule.
Assailed by danger from all sides, surrounded by lies and intrigue, Rhapsody is left with one undeniable truth: if their forces are to prevail, she must join the war herself, wielding the Daystar Clarion, an ancient weapon whose power is nearly unparalleled.
GWYNWOOD, NORTH OF THE TAR’AFEL RIVER
The first sign that something terrible was wrong with the world was birdsong.
The white forest of Gwynwood was a virgin wood, thick with old stands of pale-barked trees that had been growing undisturbed for so many centuries that their upper branches had become entwined, interlacing in a thick canopy through which the sun struggled to warm the ground in the height of summer. Now, in the dying days of winter’s Second Thaw, the warmth promised by a coming spring had caused trees of all heights to bud with new leaves, casting ever-changing patterns of shadow on the mossy ground below.
Melisande Navarne, mere days from her tenth birthday, reined her horse to a stop beneath those entwined branches, watching the patterns of light and shadow dance all around her.
The air of the forest, rich and heavy with life and the lingering scent of old magic, was both sweet and spicy to her nose. The dazzling dance of the sun on the leaves filled her eyes, making her yearn for more innocent times, when she could have taken off her boots and run through the greenwood, playing chase with her brother and the father she had loved to adoration. The sweet singing of birds in the trees delighted her ears, completing the picture of tranquillity of an ancient forest in the advent of spring.
Except that in this place, if things were as they should be, no birds should sing.
All around them the woods were alive with natural music, the rustling of trees’ boughs, skittering and snapping in the undergrowth, and everywhere birdsong, a wild, almost nervous cacophony. The clear water of the stream she had been following joined in the forest song, splashing noisily as it hurried ahead of her. Melisande glanced repeatedly over her shoulder for Gavin the Invoker, feeling less than comforted, even at the sight of him following her, as he had promised to do. There was something looming in the distance, something she had been warned about from the beginning, but was still unprepared for, no matter how good a face she was able to put on.
She clicked to her mount and continued into the greenwood.
Finally, when the noise was all but deafening, she heard a soft birdcall behind her, one she had come to recognize as the Invoker’s signal. Melisande reined her horse to a halt and looked over her shoulder again.
Gavin had halted as well.
“This is where we part company for the moment, Lady Melisande Navarne,” he said seriously, gentling his own mount. “Your instructions from the Lady Cymrian forbid me from going on past this place.”
The little girl nodded, trying to appear brave, but her stomach turned to water at his words. Gavin had found her, lost and wandering aimlessly in the forest after her carriage had been attacked. In spite of his gruffness and his sparse use of words, Gavin had been a comforting presence, a staunch protector and capable guide to this place of unwelcome birdsong and the errant wind in the trees. She had grown to depend on him to keep her safe not only from the dangers that lurked in the greenwood, but from her own doubts and fears.
It appeared both of those protections were about to come to an end.
She glanced into the sky above her. The silver branches of the tall trees reached, twisting, into a sky racing with clouds of almost the same color. Melisande shivered, then dismounted.
“Are you certain, Gavin?” she asked, hating the nervousness that made her voice sound younger than she was. “You are sure this is the place? You said you have never been here before.”
The Invoker smiled. It was something Melisande had rarely seen him do in their brief time together, but she knew immediately that he had seen through her attempt to keep him with her a little longer.
“The instructions you conveyed to me were to bring you to follow the sweetwater creek to Mirror Lake.”
Gavin nodded at the opening in the thicket before them. Melisande followed his gaze with hers, then tremulously ventured into the copse of trees. Beyond it, the splashing stream emptied out into an oval body of water, glistening in the morning light, its surface flat and smooth as a pane of glass. Mist clung to the clear water, hovering above it like clouds reflecting the sky.
Don’t be frightened.
Melisande froze. The words were spoken in her ear, quiet and distinct, as if the speaker had been standing a hairsbreadth away, in the unmistakable voice of Rhapsody, the Lady Cymrian.
I have a mission for you.
The little girl spun around, looking anxiously for a glimpse of the Lady’s golden hair, a shadow of her small, slender form, but there was nothing in the greenwood but the wind in the trees and the song of birds. The words could have come directly from her memory, spoken to her as they had been on a dark night, not really that long ago and a whole lifetime away. But they were not a function of memory; she could hear them as plainly as she could hear the rustling of the underbrush around her.
She thought back to that dark night, to the room in her family’s keep, in the fading glow of the evening’s candles. Melisande could feel the warmth and tingling of excitement now that she had felt then when Rhapsody had taken her hands and had begun to chant softly in the words of an ancient language, taught to her more than a thousand years before by her mentor in the art of Singing, a science known to her mother’s people, the Liringlas, called Skysingers in the common language, and Namers, when they were especially advanced in it.
Melisande closed her eyes, reveling for a moment in the memory.
The air in the room had gone dry as the water within it was stripped, and a thin circle of mist formed around the two of them, glittering like sunlight on morning dew. A moment later, the words Rhapsody was speaking had began to echo outside of the mist in staggered intervals, building one upon the other until the room beyond was filled with a quiet cacophony. Melisande had witnessed this phenomenon before; the Lady Cymrian, the closest thing to a mother she had known, often called such a circle of masking noise into being to protect their words from imaginary eavesdroppers whenever the two of them were whispering, giggling, and sharing secret thoughts. The corners of Melisande’s eyes stung with sharp tears, bitter for the loss of those innocent times.
I need you to do something for me that I can entrust to no one in this world other than you, Melly.
The voice was even closer now, clearer in her ears. At the time they had first been spoken, the words had rung with a clarity that Melisande recognized as the Naming ability of True-Speaking. Now she wondered if, besides magically ensuring their veracity, the Lady Cymrian had been planting them in her head for this very moment, to remind her of her quest, or to indicate that she had arrived on its doorstep, in this sacred place, this untouched ground where only a handful of people had ever trod in all of history.
This night I will send a messenger bird to Gavin asking him do as you direct him when you arrive. I can only entrust this request to you in spoken word, because if something should happen to the message, it would be disastrous.
Melisande, orphaned by such disasters, had understood the full implication of the Lady Cymrian’s words.
Once you arrive at the Circle, ask Gavin to take you, along with a full contingent of his top foresters and his most accomplished healer, to the greenwood north-northeast of the Tar’afel River, where the holly grows thickest.
Melisande turned slowly, scanning the distant edges of the forest, burgeoning black with that holly, and willed herself to be calm.
These are sacred lands, and I can give you no map, for fear of what might become of it. Gavin will know where this is. Tell him to have his foresters fan out at that point, keeping to a distance of half a league each, and form a barrier that extends northwest all the way to the sea, setting whatever snares and traps they need to protect that barrier. They are to remain there, allowing no living soul to enter. They should comb the woods for a lost Firbolg midwife named Krinsel, and should they come upon her, they are to accord her both respect and safe passage back to the guarded caravan, which will accompany her to Ylorc.
In spite of being alone, Melisande nodded at the words. All had been done according to these commands; even now, many leagues behind them, the elite of Gavin’s corps of foresters guarded the holy forest lands, unseen in the greenwood. She began to tremble, recalling how Gavin had recently come upon the body of a woman being devoured by coyotes, and wondering if the first part of her mission had already ended in failure.
Gavin himself is to take you from this point onward, the voice continued. It switched ears, making her start, and she turned quickly in the new direction of the voice to find herself facing the sparkling stream. A sweetwater creek flows south into the Tar’afel; follow it northward until you come to Mirror Lake—you will know this body of water because its name describes it perfectly.
Yes, it does, Melisande acknowledged. This is the place. Her stomach turned as she remembered the words that were to come a heartbeat later.
At the lake you are to leave Gavin and travel on alone. He is to wait for you there for no more than three days. If you have not returned by then, direct him to return to the Circle.
She stared, lost in thought, down into the glassy water of the lake, still partly frozen in winter’s grip of ice, though the spring melt had begun, leaving large pools of shimmering liquid pocketing the surface, reflecting the sky. Melisande bent over and looked into the water.
A stranger’s face returned her gaze.
The last time she had beheld her own aspect, it had been in her bedroom in her family’s keep, and a young child of nine summers with black, inquisitive eyes ringed by golden curls had looked back at her, mischievous and smart beyond her years. The face that stared at her now was much older, though it had been but a few weeks in time since then, harder, browner.
A face that had survived the attack of her carriage on the way to fulfill the quest Rhapsody had given her, the slaughter of most of her guards, and her awkward introduction to Gavin, who now seemed about to send her on her way, alone.
How long Melisande stood, absorbing the words of the voice, contemplating the change in her face, she did not know. When a quiet coughing sound behind her startled her, she looked up to see that the sun had climbed a little higher in the sky, though the mist still clung to the water of the lake, unmoved by its ascent. She turned to see the Invoker, still atop his horse, watching her intently.
“Well, Lady Melisande Navarne?”
Melisande inhaled deeply, the cold air of spring making the bottom of her lungs cramp. Then she walked back to Gavin and his mount.
“This is the place, you are right,” she said, her young voice crisp with confidence she did not feel. “I am to go on from here alone.”
The Invoker nodded, then alighted from his horse in a movement so swift she almost didn’t see it. The golden oak leaf atop his wooden staff, the symbol of his office, caught the light as he dismounted, making it flash. It was the only thing that served to remind Melisande that she was traveling with the leader of the most numerous religious sect on the continent rather than a scruffy forester.
“You will be all right, then.”
The Invoker smiled again. “I know,” he said, humor in his husky voice. “It wasn’t a question.” He opened the saddlebag and pulled forth a leather pack. “If I recall, I am to wait here for three days.”
He tossed her the pack. “Well, this should keep you that long without getting too hungry. There is a waterskin in there as well—best not to drink anything found in these lands unless you know it to be safe and permissible for you to do so.”
Melisande put her arms through the straps. “Thank you.”
“The spores you will find in a sack inside there are luminescent—they glow in the dark when gently crushed. They should provide you light enough to see in the dark, as long as you are not too deep under the canopy.”
“Again, thank you.”
The Invoker came and stood in front of her.
“With your permission, m’lady, I would offer you a blessing, even though you are an adherent of the Patrician faith, rather than that of the Filidic order,” he said. His voice took on a more gentle tone, and Melisande looked up to find his eyes fixed on her.
“By all means,” she said, trying to sound older than her years.
The corners of the Invoker’s mouth crinkled, but his eyes remained serious.
“Kneel then, if you will, Lady Melisande Navarne,” he said.
The little girl sank quickly to the mossy ground.
Gavin pulled off his lambskin glove and rested his weathered hand on her head. He began to chant quietly in a language Melisande had not heard before, even in snippets of conversation she had caught in passing at the Circle, the central gathering place and holy lands of the Filidic religion. The dance of unintelligible words seemed after a moment to entwine with the gusts of wind around her, buffeting her with a breeze that felt warmer than it had a moment before.
The ground, cold and wet beneath her knees, hummed with a sudden warmth, blending with the song of the wind and that of the Invoker, lulling her. I’m so tired, she thought hazily, so tired. I don’t know if I can take another step. Let me sleep, then, let me curl up and sleep just a little longer.
The newborn leaves rustled in the branches above, jarring her awake.
Her knees, no longer cold and stinging, tingled with warmth that seemed to seep up from the ground beneath her. The warmth spread quickly through her, filling her with energy she had not felt since she left home. It shot all the way to the top of her head, where the Invoker’s hand rested.
She blinked, awake and alert.
Gavin removed his hand and helped her rise. He leaned on his staff, his eyes still trained on her thoughtfully.
“May the stars guide you, Lady Melisande Navarne,” he said finally. “May the winds cleanse all ills and remain at your back. May the earth protect you and give you strength. May fire guard you, and rain refresh you, may all nature be your friend until we meet again in this place.”
“Thank you,” Melisande said. She rose, shifted the pack on her shoulders to a more comfortable position, and patted her horse in farewell. “Remember, only wait three days. After that, Rhapsody said you should return to the Circle.”
“So you have conveyed,” Gavin replied. His eyes, dark in a face weathered brown from the sun, twinkled like starlight on dark water. “But, as I told you when I agreed to guide you here, take heed and remember this well—no matter what comes to pass, I will come for you.”
Melisande tried to smile, but instead just turned to follow the stream.
“Three days hence, you will return, and with you, the spring,” Gavin said from behind her. “And then you will be ten—life is much better when there are two digits in your age. It is even more so when there are three, but you shall have to wait awhile to see that.” His hand came to rest on her shoulder. “Having the first day of spring as your birthday is auspicious, Lady Melisande Navarne. It means you are one who can bring about profound change in the world, returning warmth and light where cold and darkness once held sway.” His hand returned to his side. “I hope if I’m ever lost, you are the one who comes for me.”
This time the smile came, unbidden. The young Lady Navarne took her own walking stick from the horse’s stores and started off into the depths of the greenwood, following the stream.
She did not look back.
The glassy lake was still shrouded in mist when she stepped through the trees to the water’s edge. Vegetation floated quietly at the shoreline, unmoving. Birds called to one another from the trees around it, but no insects hummed above the still surface. Well, that’s a good sign, at least, thought Melisande. Perhaps here the wildlife is silent, as it should be. Perhaps the insects sense the world is aright. She discarded the thought a moment later, realizing that the grip of winter had not eased enough to have brought them from their sleep anyway.
She stood on the shore, surveying the view beyond. Rhapsody’s voice returned, clear and soft, as if it were hovering in the air in front of her.
Walk around the lake to the far side. There you will see a small hillside, and in it, hidden from all other vantage points, is a cave.
Melisande exhaled. Beyond the mist she thought she could make out a hummock or hillside, too far away to gauge its size. The crystal water of the lake appeared to originate from its mouth. Other than the twittering of the birds, and the occasional gust of wind, there was silence.
When she had waited as long as she dared, she made her way back across the marshy floodplain of the lake down to where the ground was dry enough to walk more easily, and began the trek around the lake to the hillside.
She found quickly that the lake was bigger than it appeared, and the walking more arduous than she had expected. Many steps led her only a very little way, and soon she was tired from pulling her feet from the sucking mud. The view had not changed much; the hummock appeared as far away as it had when she began. She paused a moment, and leaned over to catch her breath. She was just straightening up when she heard the voice again.
You must walk respectfully as you approach her lair.
The words shattered not only the silence, but Melisande’s fragile sense of safety.
In all of the turbulence and violence, in the confusion of everything that had happened to her since she had left the safety of Haguefort, her ancestral home at the great forest’s edge, she had almost come to forget the reason for her journey.
In the cave beyond the water’s edge was a dragon, or at least Melisande hoped there was. The Lady Cymrian had sent her forth from the relative safety of her home into the forest to find the beast, Elynsynos, one of the five daughters of the Progenitor Wyrm, the very first of the race to appear on the earth. Like virtually every other human being in the world, Melisande had never seen Elynsynos in the flesh, but her late father had been the Cymrian historian, and so had a statue in his museum of her. That statue’s ferocious aspect and cruel talons had frightened Melisande so much when she was little that she had refused to climb the stairs where it was situated at the top, welcoming museum guests to the second floor.
Rhapsody had assured her that the legends about the beast were lies, that Elynsynos, far from being sinister and wicked, was in fact childlike and beautiful, with uncommon wisdom and the desire to see the Cymrian people, Melisande’s ancestors, prosper and live in peace. But the little girl remained unconvinced, still too close to the memory of her early-childhood nightmares in which the jewel-encrusted copper statue roared to life and rampaged through her father’s keep, devouring the servants and the horses until it finally found her.
Now Melisande, whom some might also describe with the same words that Rhapsody had used to portray the dragon, was the one doing the seeking. Far from confronting a wyrm that was doing harm, however, she had been warned that the beast might be injured or dying.
Thus the reason Gavin’s greatest healer had been brought on the journey and left at the place where the holly grew thickest.
Tread softly, said the voice. Walk slowly, and pause every few steps to listen. If you feel warm air flowing from the cave, or hear the leaves of the trees begin to rustle noticeably, stop and ask permission to enter.
Melisande closed her eyes and listened intently, but heard nothing. She tilted her face to the wind, to see if it carried any particular warmth, but found none other than the slight rise in temperature that had come with the advent of spring.
“Elynsynos?” she whispered. “Are you there? May I approach?”
She heard nothing.
She waited a moment longer, then carefully went forward, stopping every few steps, as she had been instructed, to listen and ask again. Nothing answered, not wind, not leaves, not voice.
When the sun was past its apex she rested halfway around the lake and dug into the pack Gavin had given her. Famished, she devoured a wedge of hard cheese, a winter apple, and several gulps from her waterskin before she realized that night would be coming on soon. Melisande scrambled to her feet and hurried on her way, fearful of darkness finding her alone at the forest’s edge on the shore of Mirror Lake.
She doubled her speed, watching anxiously as the sun continued its descent, darkening the reflection of the trees mirrored in the surface of the water. Finally she came within sight of the hummock she had seen from afar, which was actually a series of steep hills. Melisande made her way as close as she could to the bottom of the hummock and looked up, panting.
A cave was set in the steepest of the hillsides, invisible except from this vantage point, its entrance black and ominous in the fading light. A small stream flowed from it, trickling down the hillside and emptying silently into the glassy waters of the reflecting pool. The mouth of the cave was perhaps twenty feet high.
“Elynsynos?” Melisande called, her voice high and childlike. She swallowed and willed herself to sound older. “Elynsynos, are you in there? May I enter?”
The sound of her voice echoed slightly above her in the mouth of the cave, but otherwise only silence answered her.
Rhapsody’s voice spoke again, clear and soft.
As much as I pray that this will come to pass, I regret to tell you that I think that you may hear nothing. It is my fear, Melisande, that you will find her dead, or injured, or not there at all.
The little girl glanced up at the setting sun. The climb was steep, but not difficult, so she clenched her jaw and set to it, finding herself in half an hour’s time at the opening of the cave.
On the rocky wall outside the opening was a rune, carved into the stone. Melisande peered at it as the dusky gold rays of the setting sun came to rest on the words, inscribed in an ancient language. She had seen those words in history books, had pored over them in her lessons many times, and could even pronounce the dead language of ship’s cant correctly, thanks to the careful ministrations of her historian father.
Cyme we inne friđ, fram the grip of deaþ to lif inne đis smylte land.
COME WE IN PEACE, FROM THE GRIP OF DEATH, TO LIFE IN THIS FAIR LAND.
Shivers ran through her from the roots of her hair to her heels. Even at the tender age of almost ten years, Melisande was aware of the significance of this place, and this rune, to her people, her family. This rune was more than fourteen centuries old, carved on the cave wall by Merithyn the Explorer, the Ancient Seren man who had saved the culture of the Cymrian people from being lost to the winds of Time. It was here he had met the dragon, and had secured her willingness to allow them to refugee to this continent, fleeing the destruction of their homeland in cataclysm. The words had been given to him by his king, Gwylliam, to greet anyone he had met in his search, and had led to the name Cymrian, as its prefix was the first word with which each person they contacted was greeted.
She was beholding the very birthplace of the Cymrian empire.
The shadows around her deepened as the sun began to slip beneath the horizon. The sky above her had turned to a deep shade of indigo, and stars were winking in and out of racing clouds. Melisande looked back to the opening of the dragon’s lair.
The mouth of the cave widened into a dark tunnel, with a glowing light pulsing deep within it. At the outer edge, starlike lichen grew on the cave walls, reaching out into the remaining light of day, to grow thinner and eventually disappear in the darkness as the tunnel went deeper in. She summoned her courage and stepped in front of the opening.
Deep within the cave the wind whistled hollowly, tinged with the occasional lapping sound of water.
If you find her dead, return to Gavin and report what you have found, the voice said. If she is injured, but can still speak, ask her what she wants you to do. If she cannot, again, go to Gavin, but return with the healer to the cave, and stay with her while they attend to her wounds.
Melisande squared her shoulders, trying to look brave in the vain hope that it would help her be so.
“Elynsynos?” she called again. “Are you in there?”
At first she heard nothing. Then, from the depths of the cave came a horrific noise, a groaning that was not human. It rattled the lichens and growths extending outside the cave, amplified by the high, deep tunnel walls, and sent waves of terror coursing through Melisande.
Because, at not even ten years of age, she knew the sound of agony in the face of approaching death.
The Merchant Emperor copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Haydon