Some secrets are too dangerous to share
Annis Benkith sacrificed her future as a healer to prevent her tribe’s ruthless leaders from exploiting her powers. But when an energy-sick nobleman visits the Kith’s trading camp, she covertly reads his lifeshadow and barters her help for a new life in the lowlands.
The fascinating blueblood is Daire, crown prince of Caldermor. At his side Annis can be valued, even happy—provided she can keep him alive. She uses her own life to save his, unaware that her desperate act will leave Daire unable to fulfill his duties under a vital, age-old pact. If Daire’s stewardship fails, Caldermor will fall.
Daire is offered a reprieve if he banishes Annis. Instead, he vows to keep her close and save the Legacy. But as time runs out, Annis must choose whether to leave the life—and the man—she has grown to love…or risk everything on her last, most fiercely guarded, secret.
Secrets and Bargains
Annis Benkith kept her face calm and her breathing steady despite the bone-shaking thump-thump-thump of her heart as she followed Jager Torkith, head trader and the most powerful man in the Kith, around the meadow hidden high above the lowland town of Raceford. Around them, the rest of their ten-person party prepared the trading pitch, chaffing one another over every task from collecting water to the placement of the goathide bargaining tent. The mood was lighthearted, even giddy, as though everyone except Jager had been snacking on fermented berries.
Jager himself offered no sign that this morning was special, but his hatchet face and sinewy body only ever showed what he wanted them to. His lifeshadow was beyond his control though. Nobody was watching, so Annis let her sight blur until his tall frame was replaced by the wash of fine air mantling him. His lifeshadow was the cold, dark purple of a nightshade blossom, the icy blue of his canny mind dominating the red of his heart. Today the telltale nimbus quivered in readiness.
Annis blinked away the vision before he could catch her shadowing him, but his tension was infectious. Excitement bubbled in her stomach like water in a turtle-shell cauldron.
Ever since Jager had announced that he’d given permission for two strange lowlanders to visit, the camp had been abuzz. One visitor was brother to lowland farmer Thorne Randsen. The Randsens were known as thrifty, honest, hard-bargaining men. The unfamiliar brother was a soldier from the royal city of Caldermor, three days’ ride away. He was bringing a friend.
The Benkith dealt only with a tight circle of trusted lowlanders. In Annis’s five years with the traders, she had seen the same faces again and again with the addition of a few younglings and the loss of an elder or a young man gone to become a mercenary. What did these city men want? The traders had as many notions as a furzepig had fleas.
Jager was as tight-lipped as ever, but he inspected the twelve mountain horses picketed around the pass with hawkeyed intensity. Coats, eyes, ears, teeth, hooves—anything a potential buyer might examine, Jager’s calculating mind noted and appraised.
Annis’s carefully trained charges bore his presence calmly despite his scent. He ate only meat to feed his strength and chewed endlessly on strips of dried goat or game. The odor of cooked flesh clung to his leathers, his long brown braid, his breath and skin. To the horses he smelled like a predator, and it frightened them. Fortunately, they loved the balmy oil she massaged into their mouths, muzzles, and nostrils to counter his nearness.
Jager found nothing to complain of. The horses’ eyes were clear and their coats shone like starglass thanks to her healer’s know-how. A glossy coat meant a healthy animal, and Annis’s charges were in peak condition. Last-minute grooming was important, but polishing alone could never create such a glow of well-being.
Finally Jager was finished.
“They’ll fetch a good price.” He chewed for a moment. “No lowlander would ever guess.”
The hairs on the back of her neck bristled. His words stung, though he’d intended them as praise.
He meant no buyer could tell the horses were culls. Too small, coat too bright to blend into the high mountain lands, a hitch in the gait, slight fault in the eyes… The Benkith’s standards were unforgiving.
The anger she’d tamped flared up. “These horses’ strengths far outweigh their faults. I am glad lowlanders prize them since the Kith do not.”
Jager paused midchew. Too late, she clamped her lips shut. His sharp brown eyes narrowed.
“They are culls. Flawed but not wholly useless. Like yourself, kith. A failed healer. Too weak to share her gifts.” He turned away to spit. “I doubt even a lowlander would think you a prize. Be grateful I found a place for you.”
When Annis’s bright future had fractured so painfully, Jager had scented a bargain. Since she was too heart-driven to be a healer, he’d put her to work caring for the culls.
She wasn’t a trader, but she understood them. She met his hard stare without flinching, refused his valuation of her. “Why should I be grateful? I’m your best trade ever, Jager. A healer-trained horsegirl. Your horses have doubled in price since you set me to care for them.”
Jager laughed, hitting her with a blast of meaty breath. “Fine. I admit it. You do good work. Come help me triple my prices.”
Annis followed him to the narrow gateway, running her thumb over her wean-bracelet as she walked. She owed her kith twenty years of service: five years for her rearing and fifteen for her healer training. Five smooth beads sat warm against her wrist, one to mark each year she’d worked for Jager. For a heartbeat, her willpower sagged. Fifteen long years remained.
At the gateway, Jager laid a hand on her arm. “The stranger. If he’s a soldier like Farmer Randsen’s brother, I’ll deal with him. But if he’s a rich city pigeon, I want you to show him the culls.”
Annis stopped dead in her tracks. If the stranger could offer her horses a good home, she’d gladly show them to him, but no Kith ever ceded something for nothing. It was not their way. She thought of Jager’s swirling lifeshadow. If she dared, now would be the perfect time to bargain with him.
She turned to face him. “Why should I deal with the stranger? I’m not a trader.”
“Never, Goddess spare us.” Jager shook his head, making his braid swish against his leathers. “Your heart rules your mind, and your eyes tell more tales than a graybeard on Wintersnight.”
“You truly believe these culls are prizes. One look at you and the lowlander will believe it too. Maybe I’ll ask more than triple.”
Annis straightened her shoulders. “I’ll do it as long as I think he’ll be good to the horses. But I want a benefit.”
Jager blinked. “You what?”
She knew what she wanted. And she’d never get a better chance. “You reward your traders if they bargain well. I should get more since I’ll be doing their job as well as my own.”
He looked closely at her face. Maybe her eyes did tell tales, because he frowned. “What do you want, kith?”
Annis held up her wrist. “One bead if you triple your prices. Two if you make more.”
“No.” His face was blank, his eyes hard. “Ask for something else.”
It was Annis’s turn to shake her head. “There’s nothing else I want. What’s one year less service, or two, when I owe you fifteen?”
A low whistle came from the guard-kith tucked in the rocks above them. The lowlanders approached.
The first man through the gateway was familiar. Thorne Randsen, farmer, slid easily from his stout lowland cob and passed the reins to one of the waiting traders. Farmer Randsen, like his mount, was big-framed and workmanlike. His dark hair was neatly tied, his riding leathers well-worn and patched. He greeted Jager by extending his knuckles in Kith fashion rather than offering to shake arms.
The second man… The second man was not Farmer Randsen’s brother. As his powerful dun gelding stepped through the gateway, the sun came out from behind a cloud, bathing man and mount in golden light. The man’s hair was hidden by a soft cap, but his skin gleamed. His eyes were the bright green of new willow leaves.
The man looked around the meadow from his viewpoint atop the gelding. He met her eyes and offered her a small smile, barely a movement at the corners of his mouth, that had her grinning back before she knew what she was about. He raised a gloved hand to his temple.
Jager licked his lips. “One bead. If he buys all the culls. For triple or more.”
“One bead if he buys them all. The price is your task, not mine.” Annis offered her hand.
“Agreed.” Jager matched his knuckles to hers. “You’re still too soft, kith. You could have had two.”