New York Times-bestselling author Mercedes Lackey's Herald Spy series, set in the beloved fantasy world of Valdemar
Herald Mags, Valdemar’s first official Herald Spy, is well on his way to establishing a coterie of young informants, not only on the streets of Haven, but in the kitchens and Great Halls of the highborn and wealthy as well.
The newly appointed King’s Own Herald, Amily, although still unsure of her own capability in that office, is doing fine work to support the efforts of Mags, her betrothed. She has even found a way to build an army of informants herself, a group of highly trained but impoverished young noblewomen groomed to serve the highborn ladies who live at Court, to be called “The Queens’s Handmaidens.”
And King Kyril has come up with the grand plan of turning Mags and Amily’s wedding into a low-key diplomatic event that will simultaneously entertain everyone on the Hill and allow him to negotiate behind the scenes with all the attending ambassadors―something which had not been possible at his son Prince Sedric’s wedding.
What could possibly go wrong?
The answer, of course, is “everything.”
For all is not well in the neighboring Kingdom of Menmellith. The new king is a child, and a pretender to the throne has raised a rebel army. And this army is―purportedly―being supplied with arms by Valdemar. The Menmellith Regency Council threatens war. With the help of a ragtag band of their unlikely associates, Mags and Amily will have to determine the real culprit, amass the evidence to convince the Council, and prevent a war nobody wants―
―and, somewhere along the way, get married.
About the Author
Mercedes Lackey is a full-time writer and has published numerous novels and works of short fiction, including the best-selling Heralds of Valdemar series. She is also a professional lyricist and a licensed wild bird rehabilitator. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, artist Larry Dixon, and their flock of parrots. She can be found at mercedeslackey.com or on Twitter at @mercedeslackey.
Read an Excerpt
Technically, this was spring, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. There was a definite bite to the air, and although there was no snow on the ground, the clouds looked as if they were contemplating dropping flakes any moment now. There was no scent of growing things in the air at all, only a vague dampness.
Herald Mags trudged along the street with his arms wrapped around his chest under his tattered cloak—tattered, because he was in disguise, coming to visit his little tribe of spies-in-training, in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Haven. The street was surprisingly smooth, but people did a lot of walking in this part of Haven, and this was also one of the older neighborhoods. There had been a couple hundred years’ worth of patient, ill-shod feet wearing down the cobbles.
It was not, by any means, a bad neighborhood. For the most part, folks here were working poor, with honest jobs; the neighborhood itself might have fallen on hard times over the decades, but it hadn’t turned into an absolute den of filth and thieves.
That was why the house full of orphans and cast-offs fit right in and caused no curiosity. The only real difference between “Aunty” Minda’s houseful of discarded children and every other congregation of cast-offs around here was that Aunty Minda had the financial backing of the Heralds, so that they were guaranteed not to starve, go half-naked, or freeze.
Well, that, and the fact that they were right next to the “Weasel’s” pawn-shop, and at the first sight or sound of trouble, one to three very large and heavily armed men would come rushing over from the shop to beat the living daylights out of anyone stupid enough to try and cause the little household grief.
The few people on the street were in just as much of a hurry as he was to get where they were going and into the shelter of four walls. Like him, they strode briskly, heads down, worn and faded clothing bundled tightly around themselves. Unlike him, they’d be fortunate when they got to their destinations to find any sort of a fire going. In this part of town, people generally couldn’t afford a lot of fuel; they lit their fires only when they returned from work, and banked them as soon as they were ready to get under the covers in bed.
The street was relatively narrow, and the houses and shops were crowded closely together and on the dilapidated side. Most of them hadn’t been repainted in decades, and although they were in repair, you couldn’t exactly call it good repair; priority here was on keeping the building standing and the roof sound. After that, the landlords often left it up to the tenants to patch holes and repair shutters. The two- and three-story buildings crowded close together, sometimes leaning a little toward each other like whispering gossips. About half of them had a shop of some sort on the first floor, though many people, especially women, worked out of their homes—doing things like sewing, mending, and laundry. The wind that whipped down the street at him carried some of the scents of that business: cookshop aromas (redolent with the two staples of the poor, cabbage and onions), wet laundry, and beer. It was too late in the day for bread-baking, at least around here. The couple of bakers on this street baked their wares in the very early morning, so it would be ready to buy as people came out of their houses. The common breakfast around here was a hot roll, with a smear of fat, or jam, or for the most prosperous, butter or butter and jam. By this time of the day, the bakeshops were closed, except to serve people who had left their dinners to be cooked for a fee as the ovens slowly cooled. If your hearth was tiny, or you didn’t have a hearth, or you lived alone but couldn’t afford to eat out of a cookshop every day, that is what you did for dinner. You made up a pot of something and brought it to the baker as you left for work, and picked up your cooked dinner when you returned home. This was not the poorest part of Haven, poor though it was—those streets had the dubious distinction of being around the tanneries; where extremely cheap rents made up for the stinks associated with tanning leather. It was poor enough that quite often entire families crowded into a single room, or two and even three families shared a flat meant for one. The landlords didn’t care how many people you squeezed in, as long as the rent got paid regularly.
Almost no one here owned the flats where they lived, unless they were the shop-owners, living above their shops. Shops in this street tended to stay open for as long as the owner could manage, or find someone to man the counter for him, since people here worked long and irregular hours. It wasn’t uncommon to find a young child at the counter of many of these places, the offspring of the owner, learning the work of the business he or she would be inheriting by doing it.
It was only after dark—and in the summertime, well after dark—that these streets became dubious, even dangerous. Once the folks who worked for a living shut themselves behind their doors, the ones that lived in the shadows came out. After dark, when you heard shouts or noises, it didn’t pay to be curious, unless you recognized the voice as that of one of the neighbors.
He was glad to reach the converted shop where his little horde of helpers lived, and even gladder to get the door open and pull it tightly shut behind him as a wave of welcome warmth struck him.
He turned and took in the room. He’d had the building gutted when he bought it; since then, he and Minda had taken on so many littles that he’d had a sleeping loft built around all four walls and a staircase to reach it. There were a couple of lamps up there, but nothing else but bedrolls and chests for clothing and trinkets. On the ground floor there were more bedrolls and chests, neatly stowed against the walls. There was only one real bed here, and that was the one reserved for “Aunty” Minda, who tended the children. There was a fireplace at the back of the room, nicely kitted out for cooking, and on either side of it, a row of buckets and basins for washing-up.
Two big kettles hung on hooks over the fire, both of them full of soup. Loaves of bread were waiting, stacked on a table beside the fire. Minda had the fires going briskly and the kettles pulled away from them so the soup didn’t burn, as well she should, given the weather. She was virtually alone here at this hour, since her charges were all either at lessons or at work. Most of them were at work; most of them were messengers and delivery runners, installed at various taverns and inns around the city.
Minda was seated on a stool at the side of the hearth, stirring one of the kettles of soup. She rose to greet him; he was pleased to note that regular meals, reliable heat in the winter, rest, and the (relatively) easy work of mothering a brood of youngsters had vastly improved her health. She walked easily now, only slightly favoring knees that had been swollen from years of scrubbing floors. She looked like every other respectable lady around here; maybe cleaner than most, since she was fanatical about cleanliness now that she had the means to enforce it. Her woolen gown and heavy linen undergown were much mended, patched and faded, but not in tatters. Her kindly face was older than her years, but that was the case with just about everyone down here. “All the littles are out, Master Harkon,” Minda told him—calling him by the name he used down here, Harkon, nephew of “Willy the Weasel,” who owned the pawn shop next door. She knew his real name of course, but no one here used it. Minda called all the youngsters “littles,” despite the fact that food and proper care had caused a few of them to sprout so fast they were as tall or taller than she was. And it was about three of those few he had come.
“I got it set up, Aunty,” he told her. “Berk, Ray, an’ yer li’l Sally’r set up t’ go inter service up on th’ Hill. I’ll come get ’em termorrow, an’ next week it’ll be Starlin’, Kip an’ Jo.”
Minda sighed, and looked both sad and relieved. “Well, th’ bigger lads ain’t gettin’ th’ work as runners so much,” she admitted, “now thet they’s tall as me. An’ we’re getting a wee mite crowded here. An’ Sally’ll be more’n a girl soon, an’ ain’t no place fer a girly wench here, ’mongst all these boys.”
Mags nodded. Having a girl who’d begun to bud woman-bits in a ramshackle “household” full of boys was just asking for trouble. Younglings would go experimenting when urges started, after all. And more likely to go experimenting among friends. “Sally’s t’be i’ Palace itself. Gonna put her in trainin’ as lady’s maid, all the airs and suchlike. She’ll be mighty handy t’me in a year or so, an put up in a room full’f other liddle gels in the meantime, so safe as houses. She’ll be gittin’ a day off ev’ fortnight t’run down here an’ see ye.”
Now Minda sighed with more than relief; she beamed to hear her “daughter” was going to be placed so well—though Mags never had learned if Sally was really Minda’s offspring, or someone the woman had just swept up the way a motherly cat will sweep up any kittens left orphaned. Minda would never have been able to dream of the girl going into service in the Palace before Mags had come along. The most she would have hoped for would have been that Sally could find a place in the kitchen of a tavern, or as a serving girl in an inn. And that would have been if she’d been lucky.
“Th’ lads ’re all gonna be placed as hall-boys ’round the highborn houses. I’ll be keepin’ good track of ’em, an’ I’ll get ’em out if they’re treated bad. They’ll be damn useful, you bet. Hall-boys hear ’bout ever’thin’.” Mags was particularly pleased about that. The job of the hall-boy was quite literally to stay in a little cubicle shrouded by a curtain just off the front hall and answer the door so that visitors were never kept waiting more than a few moments. For the extremely wealthy families where he was getting his boys placed, it was a matter of pride to have a hall-boy that did nothing but that, day or night. He answered the door, got names and rank, and ran to get the steward so the visitors could be properly attended to. The hall-boy would know the names, rank, and business of every single person that came visiting, and would certainly be able to pick up pretty much everything in the way of gossip that he cared to.
“Well, nobody could’a ast better nor that,” Minda agreed, bobbing her head. “And t’ain’t gonna be no harder work than runnin’ messages all day.” She took his elbow and drew him over to a second stool on the hearth. “Now. Let’s hev us a bit uv gossip.”
• • •
Minda didn’t have a lot of information for him, but Mags hadn’t expected too much. Spring was the quiet season, at least until the Spring Fair. The highborn who only came to Court in the Winter were already on their way back to their estates, taking advantage of snow-free roads that were not yet axle-deep in mud due to spring rains. Merchants were busy planning their sales or purchases for the moment the weather turned warm. Farmers were hardest at work; it was already well into lambing season, and soon enough cattle and horses would start dropping babies. Anything that hadn’t gotten mended over the winter would have to be put in shape to use once the ground softened enough to plow. Common folk were too busy at this season to get up to much mischief, and it was unlikely that his ears all over the city were going to hear anything. So what he got was a rough litany of minor affairs—what prosperous fellow was sending presents and messages to a lady who was not his wife, what major robberies had taken place and who the likely perpetrator was, who had been seen in places he ought not to be.
He waited until the younglings began trickling in, and gave his chosen half-dozen the good news as they stood in line to wash hands and faces. And they took it as such.
“Oh!” Sally cried, her cheeks turning pink with pleasure. “I am going to be trained for a lady’s maid, then! I am so glad!”
Mags grinned; Sally was not only a bright little thing, she’d been making concerted efforts at “bettering” her speech and her manners, drilling herself as well as studying with the Sisters of Nenya, ever since he’d suggested he might be able to get her such a placing.
As for the boys, if their speech was a bit rougher than hers, that wouldn’t matter at first; all that was asked of a hall-boy was that he be quick to answer the door, self-effacing, and able to pronounce names and say “yes, milord” or “no, milord,” properly. They’d learn.
And all five of them had had occasion to see hall-boys at work, when Mags had sent them to various wealthy houses ostensibly delivering flowers or sweets at Midwinter. It was hard and often long work, since a hall-boy rarely had time off except to eat—but it certainly was easier than spending all day running messages or parcels all over town.
He gave the first three their letters of introduction and the directions to the Palace Gate and the Great Houses where they would present themselves, and drilled them in exactly what they were to say when they turned up at the servant’s entrance as near to sunrise as they could manage. When he was satisfied they would make a creditable impression, he patted each of them on the shoulder. “Now, Sally, you’re gonna be i’ the Palace. I’ll be findin’ a way t’ talk to you about once a week, but if you hear somethin’ that’s important, you find a way t’ get to the kitchen of Herald’s Collegium and talk t’ the cook. ’E’ll get me.” As she nodded, he turned to the two boys. “You’ll have a harder time gettin’ away, so if you hear anythin’ I should know, take this—” he handed each of them a ball of red string “—an’ tie a piece t’ a tree near the servants’ door. I’ll figger a reason t’ come callin’ as Herald Mags, and ye kin tell me what you’ve got then.”
“You ’spect us to hear anything, Master Harkon?” Berk asked curiously.
“Honestly? Not really, no,” Mags told them. “At least not ’til yer well settled inter your jobs, and they’ll give you leave t’ take an hour or two for yourselves now an’ again, an’ a regular day off. But I druther have a plan in place where you kin let me know we need t’ talk, than have you learn somethin’ then ruin all thet hard work I went to in order t’ git you in place by having t’ run off straight to me.” He clapped both boys on the shoulders. “So concentrate on settlin’ in, keepin’ yer minds on yer jobs an’ not on pretty chambermaids and handsome footmen, an’ not getting sacked!”
All three of the youngsters grinned at him, but promised that they would do just that. For his part, Mags felt perfect confidence in them; they’d already shown they were sharp and clever. They were ready for this . . . and Minda was right. The little refuge was beginning to get a bit crowded. It was time for the first of the lot to move on.
And he already had some ideas in mind for the next batch, after these six were safely in place.
Excerpted from "Closer to the Heart"
Copyright © 2016 Mercedes Lackey.
Excerpted by permission of DAW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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