For Jane, the cold winter of exile creeps up on her and her friends in their new abodes in Mechta. However, fate intervenes in the form of an offer of clemency from an old friend of Caius. The catch is they must earn their pardon by protecting the canta, a young woman of exceptional ability who must sing before the faithful of Gad at the Edict.
They agree to the task and find themselves at one of the holiest cities of Gad, Sacratia. Though under the sanctuary of the canta, their troubles with the Blue Binds haven’t ended and they soon find themselves clashing heads with their old foes.
On top of old troubles, new problems arise in their role as protectors to the canta. Their protection becomes essential as their mysterious foe tries to stop the canta from performing, even if it means sending her for a personal performance before Gad himself. If they fail then it’s the final curtain for all of them.
Life has a way of leading you into trouble. In my case trouble comes strolling through the door like an old friend. That was how this adventure began.
I inched closer to the crackling fire and held my palms up to the heat. "It sure is cold now."
"That's the problem with Mechta, winter always comes too soon," Caius spoke up as he looked over our pile of wood.
My friends and I were seated around the crackling fire of Father Ferrero's snug home. The good father himself was gone to his church to give the evening mass.
Sage tilted his head to one side and listened for a moment. "I believe we may expect a white storm tonight."
"I like snow!" Marcus spoke up from his seat beside his big brother.
Caius smiled and ruffled his hair. "You and me both, but are you ready for the coming snowball wars?"
Marcus waved away his brother's affectionate hand, but grinned at Caius. "I'm always ready!"
The door opened and Father Ferrero stepped inside.
The brown shoulders of his robes were white, as was his graying hair. He closed the door swiftly behind him, but not before a few swirls of the white stuff flew in after him and ghosted across the floor.
"There appears to be a storm coming," the good father mused as he shook the snow from his shoulders. "And quite a ferocious one."
"We've saved you a seat and some soup," Caius offered as he stood. "Marcus, fetch the father some soup, will you?"
"Okay!" Marcus agreed as he leapt to his feet and scurried over to the small kitchen.
The good father plopped himself into a seat closest to the fire and smiled. "Something warm would do me good."
A terrible gust of wind blew against the house and rattled the panes. Marcus stopped his ladling and looked out the window in front of him. "I've never seen such big snowflakes!"
"There was a storm this bad about fifty years ago," Caius told him.
"And a worse one a hundred years before that," Ferrero added with a smile. "And I am sure there was a worse one before that if we could but find an older citizen of Trava to tell us what that was like."
"Probably the same thing as ours, worse than the others," Caius mused.
Father Ferrero chuckled. "No doubt. Ah, thank you, Marcus," he welcomed as he took the warm bowl of soup. He breathed in the warm steam. "A delicious odor. I am glad for such wonderful cooks."
"You know, Father, you might be committing blasphemy in eating such good food," Caius teased him.
Ferrero took a sip of the soup and smiled. "You forget that we are all sinners, my son."
Laughter erupted from our group and we regaled each other with stories of childhood snow men and snowball fights. In a few minutes the good father set down his empty bowl and stood to stretch his arms above his head.
"I fear my age is a stalker come to take me to slumber," he announced as he stifled a yawn. "If you won't mind, I will retire for the-" He paused and furrowed his brow. "Was that a knock I heard?"
We silenced ourselves and listened. This time there was a loud pound against the door.
Father Ferrero frowned and moved toward the entrance. "What poor soul would be out in this weather?"
Sage pursed his lips and his eyes flickered over each of us. "Perhaps unwelcome guests."
Ferrero paused at the door with his hand on the handle and half-turned to us. "Whoever it is I cannot let them remain outside in such horrible conditions."
The rest of us stood and stiffened, ready for a fight or flight response. The good father opened the portal and revealed a gale of a snowstorm. The white stuff pushed itself into the house and nearly extinguished our fire, and many of the candles were snuffed out. Among the swirling white snowflakes stood two figures dressed in simple brown cloaks.
"My goodness! Come in! Come in before there is aught left of you!" Ferrero invited them as he stepped aside.
The two figures stepped into the light of the remaining candles. One was two heads shorter than the other and the lower half of their face was covered by a cloth. The rest of their head was hidden beneath the heavy hood of their cloak, but their eyes stood out against the dreary clothes. They were as soft and as bright as a calm ocean, and showed an attention I'd rarely seen in any individual, much less one half-frozen on the doorstep of a small preacher's cottage.
The other companion was quite different. He was a half a head taller than Caius, but that was where the similarity ended. His frame was darkly-skinned and bulky, but not grotesquely so. He moved without waste and bore himself like a commander on the field. His block of a head had bright eyes like his companion, but they were as brown as dirt and as sharp as knives.
He looked us over before his gaze settled on Caius. A smile slid onto his lips. "I thought I smelled a fink."
Caius relaxed his stance and grinned. "And I thought I smelled a belk!" He strode up to the man and clapped their hands together in a rough shake. "How have you been, Massada?"
"As fit as the day my mother bore me, and twice as wise," Massada replied.
Caius leaned back and wrinkled his nose. "No, I think I see you being a little darker than before. Have you been trapped in the galleys again?"
Massada laughed. "Not again, my friend, but as for the pallor, you'd look the same in my line of work."
"What's it now? Smuggling through catacombs? Caves?" Caius guessed.
Massada smiled and shook his head. "Not anything like that. I'm in the security business now."
Caius grinned. "I wouldn't have though you'd want to babysit anyone."
Some of his friend's humor fled. "I would have thought the same thing five years ago, but now-" He shook himself and cleared his throat. "That's why I've come here. My client has a bad case of stalking and I wouldn't mind a hand in protecting her." He looked down at Caius' now-normal left arm and pursed his lips. "I thought you might help, being what and who are you."
Caius raised his hand and turned it to and fro so Massada could have a good look at it. "Not bad, huh? A little recent fix."
"That ‘fix' wouldn't have happened to get rid of that technique you had, would it?" Massada wondered. "The one where you used the elements?"
"It did," Caius confirmed.
The short figure looked up at Massada with questioning eyes, but he smiled down at her and shook his head. "There's nothing to worry about. I think he can still hold his own in a fight."
"What's this protection work about exactly?" Caius wondered.
"As you know, the Edict of Gad is soon," Massada reminded our group.
I looked at Sage. He leaned over and whispered a few words in my ear. "It's sort of like Christmas for this world where the first appearance of Gad is celebrated."
Caius shrugged. "What about it?"
"At the Edict ceremony a singer must sing His hymn to the worshipers, and it's this person who needs protection," he explained.
Caius snorted. "In case you haven't heard, we're not out here for our health." He paused and studied his old friend. "How did you find us, anyway?"
"You're not the only one who has connections, and I've got a nose for the Fable Line," Massada reminded him.
"You always did like horses," Caius agreed as he folded his arms over his chest. "But that still doesn't change why we're out here. I mean, I'd like to help, but it's not like we're going to get a pardon from the Blue Binds."
Massada leaned closer to him and lowered his voice. "What if that's exactly what I could promise? What would you say to that?"
"I'd say you're either insane or you've got higher friends than I remember," Caius retorted.
Massada kept his eyes on Caius as he nodded at the rest of us. "They'd be pardoned, too."
"Pardon my intrusion," Sage spoke up as he stepped forward. "But who would be making this request on our behalf?"
"It would be at my request," his companion spoke up. The figure drew back their hood and revealed a face of a beautiful girl of eighteen. Her blue eyes sparkled like diamonds and her face was as smooth as a calm sea. Her long white hair spilled out and cascaded down her back, and her ears were slightly pointed. I noticed a strange feathery look at the back half of her cheeks. When she smiled I felt a warmth inside that made my tension soften. "I am Agacia Belmont, Forty-second Canta of the Edict."
Bee leaned toward me and whispered a few words. "She's the lovely woman who's going to sing for everyone."
Sage smiled and bowed his head. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Canta Agacia, but I fear your influence may be less than your friend boasts."
She shook her head. "It is I who should be bowing. Massada has told me much of the deeds of Caius Ornello, and everyone knows the stories of Storm Sage and Beastly Bee. Now I come to you with my promise that you will be acquitted on all charges if you will but be my guards for the remainder of the Edict."
"How would My Lady leverage her influence?" Sage wondered as he looked her over. "You are the canta, to be sure, but one so young."
"She's young, but she knows her mind," Massada spoke up.
Agacia set a hand on his arm and smiled up at him before she returned her gaze to us. "I understand your hesitation, but I can entrust myself to know one else save Massada, and I fear this task will be too great even for his skill."
"Pray, tell us what has happened," Sage requested.
She sighed. "I have been the canta for only eight months, but word of my ascension passed swiftly over the empires. Four months ago I began to receive anonymous letters praising my beauty, all written in the same hand and in the same ink. I desired to reply, but no address was ever given. Then a fortnight ago I received another letter in different handwriting, but in the same ink." She bit her lip and looked away.
"This one threatened her life," Massada spoke up. "They would kill her if she sang the hymnus at the Edict, and she should stay away."
"But I cannot!" Agacia spoke up as her pleading eyes looked at each of us. "I am the only one with enough training to sing the hymn, and my family honor would be ruined if I would not sing!"
Caius stepped up to within a few inches of her. She kept her ground and looked up into his intense gaze. "You swear on your family's honor that you could get us that pardon?"
She nodded. "I swear it."
"She is the only one with the training," I pointed out.
Caius half-turned to us. "Well? What do you guys say?"
"I say we go for it!" Marcus spoke up.
Caius frowned at his little brother. "You're staying here."
Marcus face twisted in horror and anger. "What? But why?"
"Because you couldn't protect yourself, much less anyone else," he pointed out.
"But I could help somehow!" he promised.
Father Ferrero set a hand on Marcus' shoulder and smiled at Caius. "I will watch over him."
Marcus shrugged off the good father's hand. "But I want to go!"
I knelt in front of him and grasped his hands. "What if we came right back? How about that?"
Marcus' narrowed eyes flickered to Caius and his lips puckered out in a pout. "He's said that before."
I grinned and winked at him. "Yes, but I wasn't with him last time, was I?"
He sighed, but nodded. "All right, but you'd better promise on your family's honor."
"In that case, we will ensure she keeps her promise," Sage spoke up.
I crossed my finger over my heart. "Cross my heart and hope to die should I ever tell a lie."
"And the rest of you?" Massada asked my grandparents.
Sage bowed his head. "We will-"
"Be very much coming with you!" Bee finished for him as she clapped her hands. "This is going to be so exciting!"
And boy, was it ever.