“Tristan Morrison.” The Chorister rolled out the words like the luxurious carpet under his feet, that snide smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Well, well. And I thought we would never see you again.”
I clenched my fists behind my back and kept my feet on the marble. “Well, I’m here now, sir.”
My words echoed in the high-ceilinged chamber, and I felt for the photograph in my coat pocket. For the briefest moment, I closed my eyes and held the picture in my mind. When I opened them, the Chorister was still smiling.
“And how, Tristan Morrison, did you convince my doorkeepers to permit you entrance?”
My breath caught in my throat. “Not all your cronies are as cold-hearted as you are.”
His smile widened, and I flinched. “Cold-hearted?” he repeated. “Only careful, my dear Minstrel.”
“Don’t you dare use that name on me,” I snapped. “It’s been a long time since I sang your cursed songs, and I—”
“Come, come, Minstrel,” he interrupted, his voice almost a purr. “You wouldn’t come here to lose your temper to my face, would you?”
The black cat at the Chorister’s feet uncurled itself and stretched, reaching out a lazy paw to me. I stared into its unblinking eyes and felt my clenched fists relax.
“It has been a long time,” the Chorister murmured. “Have you come to rejoin our company? However you feel now, you did acquit yourself with honor on our last venture.”
I couldn’t shrug away the rhythm of his voice. The last venture tumbled into my memories, but I slipped my hand into my pocket. My fingers met the edge of the photograph, and I looked away from the cat.
“Remember this, Minstrel?” The Chorister dangled a familiar object in front of my face. I no longer wore the slender chain, but I could almost feel the metal charm, hot against my skin.
“That’s why I’m here.” I forced out the words. “For the Minstrel’s charm.”
He coiled the charm in his open palm, almost hidden under the silver snake of its chain. “What, for this? You are no longer a member of our company. This can never be yours.”
“Why is it yours, then?” I countered. “You’re no Minstrel.”
His smile didn’t falter. “Oh, the charm has never been mine. But imagine what would happen to it in the wrong hands. It would be—”
I stepped forward for the chain, but the Chorister matched my movement with a retreat. Between us, the cat arched its back and hissed. When I stepped back, the cat curled around the Chorister’s feet again.
I tried to steady my breathing. “You have no Minstrel. What if I rejoined the company?”
The Chorister laughed softly. “Only to reclaim your place as Minstrel, your trinket? You will understand if I doubt your motives, my dear Tristan.”
I braced myself and met the Chorister’s gaze. “Without the Minstrel, no one leads the song. Has your chorus alone ever torn the veil of time or place?”
For a fleeting moment, the Chorister frowned. At his feet, I heard the cat mew, and his smile returned. He opened his mouth, but I spoke first. “No, they haven’t. You need me, and you need my charm.”
The Chorister laughed again. “Do you think all our success depends on one Minstrel? Your song may pass through all ages and all places, but the songs of others are powerful.”
The Chorister’s cat hissed, but I ignored it. “Then why not give me my trinket?”
He studied the vaulted ceiling before turning his gaze back to me. “We wouldn’t want to unravel the success of your last venture, would we?”
I drew the photograph from my pocket. The outlines of the figures were blurred, but I could still recognize two children. Isolde was solemnly smiling for the photographer. My mouth was partway open, as if I had been demonstrating my scales and hadn’t adjusted my grin.
“Your poor Isolde,” the Chorister murmured. “You aren’t here to claim a simple memento, Tristan. Why spend your words clamoring for this?”
As the Chorister swung the chain, I dropped the photograph and leapt forward. My hand closed around the charm, and a sharp pull snapped the fine links. Almost at the same time, the cat sprang for me. Claws tore at my fingers, and the charm rang on the marble floor.
“You were always stubborn,” the Chorister sighed, sweeping up the charm. “Do you think your Isolde could ever come back to you?”
I cleaned the blood from my hand with the edge of my coat and watched the cat pick its way across the floor. The Chorister reached down to stroke it, still watching me.
“A way back to her?” Faced with my silence, he tried again. “Is that why you came?”
I laughed. “Why ask me? Even after this many years, I’m no better at hiding from you.”
I took a step closer to the Chorister, but neither he nor his cat moved.
“This isn’t only about the charm,” I admitted, “but I can’t get her back without it.”
The Chorister’s snide smile returned. “Nobly mending my mistake, is that how you see it? She belongs in another time, another place, but you believe she should be here?”
When I reached for the photograph, he creased it under his foot. Red drops stained his boots, but he didn’t step back.
My words cracked and broke, but I forced them out. “She does belong here. I’ve seen the records. I know. The first time she came wasn’t a mistake—sending her back was.”
The Chorister pushed away the photograph with the tip of his boot. “You were the Minstrel, Tristan. Only the Minstrel—”
“My song sent her back on your orders!” I shouted, reaching for the Chorister’s clenched fist.
The cat sprang again, but I ignored the blood running down my face. For the briefest of moments, the Chorister’s smile vanished, and the charm dropped into my hand.
“I’m getting Isolde back,” I whispered, “and none of you will stop me.”