Chapter 1

Egan

  

The chair went flying across the room and crashed loudly against the far wall. Splinters and boards exploded in the air, until the room reeked of dust and varnish.

Vacot Soss froze in the doorway, very much aware of how close he’d come to being in the path of that chair, and glad he had been tardy in answering the costell’s summons. The man’s mood swings were becoming more erratic, sometimes to the point where he feared for his friend’s mental health.

Vacot!

Egan Pri stood in the middle of the room. His face dripped sweat, and he was breathing heavily, making it obvious he was responsible for the broken pieces of wood and pottery that littered the room.

“Yes, Egan? I’m here. You can cease your little temper tantrum now.” He gave the man his best I’m-not-in-the-mood-for-your-nonsense glare. As usual, it had little effect on the big man.

He watched the costell stumble toward the door before turning to head down the hallway toward his personal chambers. Vacot sighed loudly, not caring if the man heard him, and dutifully followed. Once they were back in the costell’s bedroom, he stood to one side as Egan slumped wearily on a tufted footstool by the fire. When he was certain the man was finished with his little show, Vacot took the chair across from him.

“Shall I call for something to drink?”

Egan glanced at him. “Call for yourself, if you wish.”

Vacot nodded. He knew that tone of voice all too well, but he knew his friend better. Getting up from his seat, he walked over to the bell pull near the door and tugged twice on the elaborately sewn length of cloth. Seconds later, a maiden opened the door.

“A pottle of prine, and two mugs.”

She bobbed her head and disappeared. Vacot resumed his seat near the fire. By this time Egan had wiped his face, and his breathing had slowed. Which meant he was ready to be civil again.

“What’s wrong?”

Egan gave a slight shake of his head. “Grain count is off. We won’t have the harvest this winter the farmers had been praying for.”

Vacot frowned. More bad news, on top of all the other bad news they had been experiencing for the last six years. Would it ever end? No wonder his friend was throwing a fit.

“How short do you think we’ll be this season?”

“At least two bushels per person,” Egan snapped. Digging his fingers through his thick, black hair, he stared dejectedly at the fire. “The crops have been off for far too long. There’s no avoiding the fact that my people are going to starve this winter if something isn’t done.”

“Egan, listen. You didn’t cause the flood that washed away half of the storage bins. Neither did you bring about the drought that caused the grain shortage,” Vacot pointed out.

“Hunting is poor. The fish are scarce. There’s very little to look forward to.” Egan clenched his hands in front of him. The man’s anger was again rising, borne of frustration, fear, and the overwhelming sense of impotence. He couldn’t help his people, and knowing many would die this winter under his rule was tearing him apart.

Vacot tried to hide his own disappointment. “What did you need to see me for?” He reminded the man why he was here.

The costell gave a sound that was part grunt, part growl. “I need a clear head to give me suggestions.”

“I’m not a miracle worker, Egan. I can’t make crops appear out of thin air. I have no more control over...” He stopped, suddenly speechless, as an idea crossed his mind.

Egan buried his face in his hands, unaware of his friend and advisor’s moment of epiphany.

“I don’t expect you to pull a miracle out of your ass, Vacot. But I was hoping for some sound advice. Perhaps a suggestion or two. If nothing else, a hard lecture on my piss-poor job performance.” He glanced up to see the half-smile on Vacot’s face. Immediately, he sat up a little straighter. “What?”

No. No way will he go for it. “Forget it,” Vacot said.

What?

“Forget it,” Vacot repeated. “You said yourself you’re the last person who believes in the mystic arts.”

That frigid look he knew so well settled over Egan’s features. “I have said all the prayers I can muster,” the man began.

“No. Not prayers. Something else. Or rather, someone else.”

“What are you talking about?” the costell demanded. “Quit with the riddles!”

Vacot swallowed hard. “A Charm. I’m talking about a Charm.”

Egan looked as if Vacot had swatted him across the face with a wet fish. “A Charm? You’re talking about one of those, those gypsies?

“Egan, listen to me—”

“You want me to take one of those vagrants and let them have free reign of my home and my lands because you believe they can bring us luck?” The man got to his feet. He was clearly incensed by Vacot’s suggestion. “You want me to risk the lives of my people on the chance this Charm could actually—”

“Egan, for the gods’ sake, listen to me!” Vacot got to his feet to meet the man face to face. “Go take your precious gem coins over to the next province. It won’t do you any good, and you know that! They’re hurting for every scrap of food they can find, as much as we are! And if they do have a meager portion to share, they damn well won’t share it with you, no matter how much you try to barter!”

Rather than risk having the man take a punch at him, Vacot turned and strode over to the opposite wall, near the bed. “Egan, I’ve been racking my brain, trying to find some kind of solution, whether it be temporary or permanent. But the truth is, we have run out of options. We have no chance, no hope...nothing that will keep us from slowly starving to death. And I...I’m willing to do anything now to prevent that from happening...even if it means putting my faith in the mystical arts.”

“But...a Charm?” Egan gasped. His anger had diffused itself again, to the point where he was near tears. “What next? Writing the stars in our own blood?”

“Listen, I recently received word that a gypsy camp will be landing in Goddenslau in eight days. That may be your only chance to procure a Charm, since they don’t show but every few years. If you don’t take the risk then, Egan, you will never have another opportunity.” Vacot took a deep breath. “We may not be alive the next time the camp comes around.”

He watched as Egan wearily rubbed his face. “How will my people react when they discover I’ve foolishly spent their taxes on a gypsy Charm? Huh?”

“If the Charm works, you know how they’ll react.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Will any of us be around much longer if you don’t try?” Vacot held out his hands in supplication. “We have no chance but this one, as slim as it appears, and as much as you don’t believe in the mystical arts. But we have to try every option, every possibility, no matter how it appears to be. Egan?”

“What?”

“You know my beliefs. You know where I stand on this.”

“Yes, I do,” Egan nodded, then paused to think. “Eight days?”

“Yes.”

“Only in Goddenslau?”

“It’s the only port that’s gotten a notice, so far as we know. Roh Torom is a bit off the regular trade routes. You know that.”

Egan nodded in answer.

“All right. Let me think on it.”

Vacot held his breath, afraid to show his joy. Giving a slight bow, he turned to leave when his friend stopped him.

“Vacot? Have you ever witnessed one of these Charms yourself? Up close?”

“No. I’ve only heard of them.”

“Same here. I’ve heard of what they can do...of what they’ve done in the past. It almost sounds...it’s almost...”

“Too good to be true?”

For the first time in days, Vacot heard a soft laugh come from the costell. “Yeah. Very much.”

“People swear by them. Have been for as long as I can remember. But one rule is very clear, or else the Charm will not work.”

“I know,” Egan told him. “They must be kept happy.”

“Yes. Think you can manage that, my friend?”

“Whatever it takes to save my people,” the costell vowed. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”

As the man lapsed into silence, Vacot bowed again and finally left the bedroom.

Egan Pri had not been a happy man for the past six years, but he promised he would do whatever it took to keep those under his rule healthy and safe. He was known as a man of his word.

Vacot prayed the man would also be able to find a little happiness of his own.