Lateran XII, Wing of the Temple and the single most powerful man in Valnon, had to be at least eighty. Rarely did he leave his rooms, preferring to interact solely with Hawk, and due to his advanced age, little question was made of the practice. But the smoothness of his voice was as sleek as that of a new-minted Preybird off the dais only yesterday, the angles of his jaw were supple and firm, his step certain, his back straight. That Temple Birds were a vain lot who aged well was a noted fact, but the Wing seemed to take that tendency to a new and discomfiting extreme. “I don’t put much stock in pure chance, Nicholas fa Grayce,” Lateran said, and as it had done fourteen years ago, the man’s voice wiped any doubts from the minds of those present. There was power there, it was true, like the faint echoes of Evensong, and Grayson knew it was not something within the grasp or understanding of an ordinary man like himself. Still, even with those honeyed vowels, he could not help but flinch at the sound of his old name.
"Your Grace, forgive me, but that is not my—"
“What’s to forgive, fa Grayce?” The Wing asked, amused. “Or do you intend to argue with me?”
Grayson shut his mouth with a snap. “No, Your Grace.”
"I thought not," the Wing concluded, and settled into the chair nearest the fire, his back to the flames, throwing his figure into even greater shadow. "But as you wish. Grayson, if you prefer. We are greatly in your debt, and yet I fear I must ask for even further assistance."
Kestrel coughed softly. “It would seem,” he said, “that Grayson has little interest in protecting our Songbirds.”
"Let the man speak for himself, Rouen," Hawk said, and it was Kestrel’s turn to fall uncomfortably silent.
"Rouen is right," Grayson said, spreading his hands in apology. "Your Grace, I’m sorry, but I have no place in the Temple now. Being here is painful for me, as I’m sure you can understand, and my presence would do nothing but stir up scandal and bad memories. Surely there are swords far more able—and less tainted—to do the service you require, without bringing further shame upon Rouen—" Grayson’s voice cracked, he reached for his cup of wine and swallowed some, unnerved by the Wing’s impassive silence. "…and further shame upon the Temple."
"I have never known you to bring shame upon anyone," the Wing said, softly, "And rarely have I known anyone else so worthy of the name you have been forced to put aside. But that is all by the by. You are correct, of course, and it is a pity you could not serve publicly in Boren’s place. However, I’m not asking you to be the Dove’s formal guard." He leaned forward, and his smile made his eyes flicker in the depths of his hood. "I’m asking you to kidnap him."
Grayson choked on his wine; Kestrel made a strangled noise of surprise.
"Excuse me?" Grayson said, when he could manage.
The Wing waved one ringed hand in airy dismissal. “Your reputation makes you unsuitable as a guard for a Songbird, it is true. But it also makes you ideal as a captor of one. Don’t misunderstand me, Grayson. The task I propose is extremely dangerous, and should you fail, even my efforts might not be enough to save you. But I am presented with a situation too precarious for leisurely action. I must get the Songbirds safely away from Valnon with as little fuss and delay as possible. I would rather have them kidnapped by you than by those who actually mean them harm.”
Grayson remembered his cup before it could slip from his fingers. “So you know who is behind the attack tonight?”
Lateran XII raised one thin shoulder. “I have suspicions that I fervently hope are untrue.”
"The ruse will distract the Songbirds’ attackers on the outside, and keep their attention on the Temple," Hawk explained. "And they will be out of reach of any enemy that might come from within. The delay will give us time to root out the source of the trouble. Meanwhile, you will take them under the city through the tombs, to our contact in the Undercity."
"And if it all goes wrong, and I’m strung up for high blasphemy against the Temple, you can’t get involved with saving me, correct?"
The Wing’s mouth tensed; it was not a smile. “To do so would reveal too much of our plans, and alert our enemies.”
"You ask Grayson to risk his life in such a shameful fashion?" Kestrel was appalled. "After what the Temple has already done to him?"
"Sparing his life once already, you mean?" Hawk answered, giving Kestrel a narrow look.
"He was innocent!"
"No, he was only equally as guilty as you were.” Hawk’s sharp retort landed on Kestrel with the force of a blow. “No one will force him to accept, Rouen. This is no trial.”
"No," Grayson broke in, swallowing back the sour taste the wine had left in his mouth. "It is not. And to be honest, Your Grace, I fail to see why I should bother risking my life and the small bit of honor I’ve wrangled for myself for the sake of three spoiled boys."
"You speak poorly of young men you have barely met," the Wing demurred. "But you are wrong to think we would not offer just compensation for your efforts." He lifted his head, the light sliding easily from his hood, resting in a blood-red droplet upon his ruby ring of office. "Aid us in this, and I will see to it that not only are you given the rank you deserve, but once more made fa Grayce in the scrolls of your family line. I could not prevent the words you spoke in trial fourteen years ago, or halt the damage made in the recklessness of youth. But few now in the Temple remember those days, and still fewer care. Do us this service, and I will grant full exoneration from your crime."
"It was no crime," Kestrel breathed, little more than a stirring of air between his lips, but Hawk shot him a look and the younger Preybird went still.
"What do you say to my offer?" The Wing leaned forward slightly, his eyes fixed on Grayson’s. "Would you be Lieutenant Nicholas fa Grayce, Godsword of Valnon, and lend us your arm as the holy knight of the Temple you were destined to be? Or will you leave now, with your invented name and your invented shame, to go back to the Undercity and sell your blade to the highest bidder?"
Grayson’s throat worked soundlessly as he fought the tight grip of longing in his chest. He had never allowed himself to dwell on what-ifs or could-have-beens; he had banished the dreams of younger days for the cold embrace of the Undercity. It was not the life he had been born to or desired, it was true, but it was a good life all the same and far better than some. He had money enough for comfort and work that rarely troubled his sleep. And yet, and yet…
Grayson stroked his thumb over the lip of his wine cup, worrying his thumbnail at a nick in the silver rim. “Full exoneration?” he asked, at last.
The Wing was too politic to smile at his certain victory. “I will personally scrape the trial history from the parchment in the archives.”
Grayson set the empty cup on the table, precisely in the center of the forged ransom note. “I would want to hear them sing, first,” he said, cautiously.
"Of course." The Wing dipped his head. "It would be our pleasure to have you as our guest at hours tomorrow. Have we an agreement, then?"
Grayson’s eyes narrowed. “Captain,” he said. “And not behind a desk at some backwater outpost, either. Shock Cavalry, if you please, and with the finest ton of horseflesh under me that the garrison’s stables have to offer.”
"I told you he wouldn’t settle for Lieutenant," Hawk murmured, startling Kestrel into a smile.
"Captain it shall be," Lateran said, warmly. "It’s done then. You shall abscond with our Songbirds, and I shall do away with your past." He rose, and held out his hand for Grayson to accept.
"Provided they can sing," Grayson said in reminder, taking the Wing’s hand in his own, and bowing over his ring.
"Oh, I should have no doubts about that, Captain fa Grayce," Lateran said, with a tiny smile as Grayson’s lips brushed his ring. "No doubts about that at all."
Evensong’s Heir is available in ebook and trade paperback at Amazon, as well as in multiple digital formats at Smashwords.