Flamecaster (Shattered Realms, #1)(2)

Written By: Cinda Williams Chima

Mancy blinked at him, her brow furrowed. “Now? But right now I need to muck out the—”

“That can keep,” Adrian said. “If you want, I’ll put in a word with Jarrett.” The stable master owed him a favor.

“You don’t need to do that,” Mancy said. She swallowed hard. “I’ll just let him know where I am. If you really think I need to go now.”

“You do.” Adrian put a hand on her shoulder, soothing her. “You’ll be all right.”

With Mancy on her way to Gryphon, Adrian continued his search for his father. Outside again, it seemed even colder than before. The wind howled down from the Spirits, sending bits of greenery from the recent Solstice celebration spinning down the street.

He really, really needed to get a yes from his father before his mother the queen found out what he was up to. His father, the High Wizard, was a little more flexible when it came to rules. Like the one that said that wizards weren’t supposed to receive their amulets until they turned sixteen.

Adrian reached for his amulet now, as he did a dozen times a day, feeling the usual flow of energy from wizard to amulet. Wizards continually produced flash, a magical energy. Amulets stored flash until enough accumulated to do something worthwhile. Without an amulet, flash leaked away, and was of no use to anyone.

His father had given him this hand-me-down amulet two years ago, on his eleventh name day, along with a lecture on all the bad things that would happen if he abused or misused it.

Adrian had worn the amulet—carved in the shape of a hunter—on a chain around his neck ever since. He’d trained hard in the use of magic—most often with his father, when he was home; elsewise with some of his father’s handpicked friends. Yet it had made no difference. His older sister, Hana, was dead, and his little sister, Lyss, was heartbroken. And Adrian needed to get out of town.

If his da wasn’t in the castle close, and if he hadn’t ridden out, he’d be somewhere in the city. Likely Ragmarket or Southbridge. Adrian headed for the markets.

To call them “markets” these days was being generous. With Solstice just over, the shelves had been cleared of what little food there was. There was nothing on offer but some tired-looking root vegetables that had been held back till now so as to fetch the best prices. His father said it reminded him of the hard times during the reign of Queen Marianna, when there was never enough to eat. Or during Arden’s siege of Fellsmarch Castle, when they had contests to come up with new recipes for barley.

Hard times are back, Adrian thought, if they ever left. For Solstice, the royal family had dined on venison, courtesy of their upland clan relations. Otherwise, it would have been ham and barley pies (light on ham, heavy on barley).

Not that it mattered. None of them had much of an appetite. It was the first midwinter since Hana died.

Around him, the market was waking up: first, the bakers, produce sellers, and fishmongers. Then the secondhand shops selling hard-worn, picked-over goods (all claimed to be clan-made). This was his father’s home ground. He’d once ruled this neighborhood as the notorious streetlord of the Ragger gang.

Adrian always drew attention, too, when he walked the markets. He was too easy to pick out as Han Alister’s son, with his red hair and wizard’s glow. Today it seemed worse than usual—he felt the pressure of eyes upon him wherever he went, the prickle on the back of his neck that meant he was being watched. He guessed it was because he’d been in the camps in the mountains when Hana died, and he hadn’t been down to the markets since.

He asked after his da in several of the market stalls. Nobody had seen him, but they all sent their good wishes for a brighter new year.

Adrian had nearly given up when he walked into the flower market, where the merchants were just unpacking their wares. There was his father, his back to Adrian, bargaining with one of the vendors, a young girl in beaded Demonai garb.

His da was dressed in the nondescript clothing he wore when he walked the city streets, but there was no mistaking the broad shoulders and deceptively slouchy stance. His sword slanted across his back, which was nothing unusual in a city filled with soldiers.

His hair glinted in the frail winter light, more silver than gold these days. His amulet was hidden, but he wore the aura that other wizards recognized. He was known, especially here, on his home ground, as Han “Cuffs” Alister, the lowborn hero who’d become High Wizard. The strategist who continually outfoxed the Ardenine king. He was a former street thief—their former street thief—who’d married a queen.

The flower vendor was flushed and fluttering at having such royalty in her shop, bringing blossoms forward and arranging them in a copper bucket to show them off.

Adrian edged closer, listening as his father bantered with the vendor. In the end, he chose red foxflowers, white lilies, and blue trueheart, along with a few stems of bog marigold and maiden’s kiss.

The girl wrapped them in paper and handed them over. When he tipped a handful of coins into her palm, she tried to give it back. “Oh, no, my lord, I couldn’t. I’m so very sorry for your loss. I used to see the princess in the mountain camps sometimes. Running Wolf was . . . was always kind to me.”

Running Wolf was Hana’s clan name.

His father closed her fingers over the money, looking her straight in the eyes. “Thank you,” he said. “We all miss her. But you still need to make a living.” He bowed and turned away, cloak kiting behind him. The girl looked after him, blinking back tears, clutching her hair in her fist to keep it from flying in the bone-chilling wind.

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