Let's start with the first sentence again!
The blue leather saddlebags and a canvas pack, all bulging with filthy clothing and miscellaneous gear, landed in the corner of Vanyel's room with three dull thuds.
So, there's been a timeskip. Vanyel's 28 years old, a full-fledged Herald-Mage second only to the King's Own in rank, and he's just gotten back from a year-long tour of duty on the border where, presumably, he saw people die a lot. In really nasty and magical ways. But instead of taking a nap like any reasonable person, he has to go visit everybody for some exposition! First he visits his aunt and mentor Savil and convinces her to follow him home for a visit to his dear old family, which he still remembers from the POV of a tortured 15-year-old instead of as a reasonable adult with, like, adult powers. Then he visits King Randale and his lifebonded consort Shavri, and their daughter Jisa, who Vanyel fathered.
Yup, Vanyel's daughter! Vanyel's such a giver, he gives his dick so that people can start families. Here's how, if you want the gory details:
:Of course I like her!: he answered--again, just a shade too quickly. :She and Randale--they're friends; how could I have told them no?: He shied away from examining his feelings too closely. :Besides, it was never anything more than a--physical exercise for either of us. No more involved for me, certainly, than dancing. Shavri being a Healer, she could make sure she "caught" the first time. Neither of us were emotionally involved, or ever likely to be.
Wait, what does her being a Healer have to--what do you mean "caught"--I--so does she move the sperm to--you know what, never mind.
You may have noticed in the passage above that Vanyel might have feelings for Shavri, which would be awkward because he's gay and she has a vagina, not to mention that she's lifebonded to the King. (Lifebonding is fancy Mercedes Lackey speak for one-and-only when-one-of-us-dies-so-does-the-other type stuff.) What is this deep affection he holds for another human being? Does he love her? Does that mean he's not gay? But he was totally in love with Tylendel!
He's still carrying a torch for Tylendel after all these years, BTW, and besides porking his friends and fathering preternaturally beautiful and Gifted children, he's basically been celibate because nobody will ever replace this boy of summer from his teen years. But he's still convinced that everyone hates him because he's gay, and not because he's a super duper powerful Mage who's like, got five times the power of anything else. People couldn't possibly be intimidated by that.
Also, Vanyel's friend Tantras introduces us to the word shaych, which is the new and happenin' slang word in Valdemar these days. Everyone's using it now! Thank God, because shay'a'chern is really annoying to type. I always add an extra apostrophe to the end and then have to delete it.
So, Vanyel rides back to Forst Reach, where he hasn't spent any prolonged amount of time since he was 15, and is surprised when everything's different and people treat him differently. His father wants advice from him! His brothers are grown up and married and some of them have kids! The old armsmaster that broke his arm wants to spar and learn some new moves! His mother...is exactly the same! Also, there's some drama across the border because someone's disinherited his eldest son because he might be a bastard or something, who knows, who cares, not Vanyel. Vanyel's got 99 problems: he's super lonely because nobody understands that his one true love died when he was 15, he has to start sleeping in the stable because his mother keeps putting naked women in his bed in an attempt to turn him straight, and also his 12-year-old nephew Medren is this skinny, waifish little thing who wants to be a rock star. And he actually has the Bardic Gift! And he comes to Vanyel's room in the middle of the night and--
Medren colored even more. "I--V-Vanyel, if you could--if you would--teach me? Please? I'll--" He coughed, and lowered his eyes, now turning a red so bright it was painful to look at. "I'll do anything you like. Just teach me."
Not to worry: Vanyel may be shaych, but he doesn't have sex with children, because, you know, gay men are not synonymous with pedophiles. He sets Medren straight on the matter and goes to tell his dad that the kid needs to go to rock star school, and then has it out with his dad because as soon as he walks into Withen's study with a blushing 12-year-old boy, Withen assumes the worst.
"Why, Van?" Withen's voice sounded half-strangled. "Why? What in hell did I do wrong?"
"Nothing! Everything! I don't know!" Vanyel cried out, his words trembling in the air, a tragic song tortured from the strings of a broken lute. "Why am I Gifted? Why am I anything? Maybe it's something I was born with. Maybe the gods willed it. Maybe it's nothing more than the fact that the only person I'll ever love happened to be born into the same sex body that I was!" Grief knotted his throat and twisted his voice further. "All I know is that I am this way, and nothing is going to change that. And I care for my father, and nothing is going to change that. And if you can't believe in me, in my sense of honor--oh gods, Father--"
You go, Vanyel: you were born this way.
Savil finally shows up, which is fortunate because more firepower is about to be needed. Vanyel and his Companion Yfandes feel something horrible happen in the middle of the night---something involving a Companion! So they ride all night and get to Highjorune just in time to see a Herald whipping a Companion that's got a boy on its back, while a bunch of armsmen stand around and watch. What the fu--
Vanyel puts a stop to that right quick. Turns out that whoops, the Herald didn't think that was actually a Companion; he thought it was a demon the boy summoned, on account of the boy is clearly full of demons. Look inside the palace if you don't believe me! Those stains used to be people! The boy was the only one left alive and he doesn't remember what happened, so it must have been him! Companions don't Choose murderers! Never mind that the Herald's own Companion almost passed out from shame because her Herald is dumb as a box of rocks and never learned anything in Herald school.
Oh yeah, the kid's that disinherited son that was mentioned a few paragraphs back. He's 16 years old and looks just like Tylendel! That's not going to be a problem at all.
A pitchfork-wielding mob outside starts banging out the door demanding the boy, so Vanyel shoves the too-dumb-to-live Herald outside to deal with them, flings up a shield around the palace to keep people from dicking with the evidence, and Gates himself and the boy Tashir the hell out of there. Of course this puts him into a coma for like three days, and when he wakes up he learns a few things about Tashir:
1. He's afraid of women between the ages of 18 and 35.
2. But he likes Jervis the armsmaster for some reason.
3. When he's upset he makes things float with his brain.
4. He doesn't remember anything about the night the palace exploded and turned everyone inside into tomato paste.
Boy, I sure hope we solve this mystery!
Vanyel decides that he's going to sneak back into Highjorune in the guise of traveling minstrel Valdir and try to figure out what's been going on. That part's no problem, and he even manages to find a berth at a pub in the red light district that appears to be run by a butch lesbian:
If she was less than six feet tall, Valdir would have been surprised. The sleeves of her sweat-stained linen shirt were rolled up almost to the shoulder, leaving bare arms of corded muscle Jervis would have envied. She wore breeches rather than skirts, which may have been a practical consideration, since enough materials to make her a skirt would have made a considerable dent in a lean clothing budget. Her graying brown hair was cut shorter than Valdir's. And no one would ever notice her face--not when confronted with the scar that ran from left temple to right jawbone.
After two weeks, Vanyel-as-Valdir manages to find out is that the Lineas are, like, really fucked up, and where they're not fucked up, just kinda weird. Like, they really hate mages and magic for some reason, even though the city is built on a place of incredible magical power, and the palace is sitting right in the middle. Ylana, Tashir's mom, was only 14 when she was given over by the Mavelans as part of an alliance marriage. She gave birth to Tashir a suspicious (because nobody ever gives birth prematurely, I guess) 8 months later, and then Tashir turned out to look nothing like his dad at all--and actually more closely resembles Tashir's uncle Vedric, his mother's half-brother. Not only are those implications totally gross, but as Tashir grew older and more attractive, Tashir's own mother tried to get herself some of that hot teenage dick. The reason he likes Jervis is because Jervis reminds him of some guy in the palace who was basically the only person who was nice to him.
So that whole situation totally wins Fucked Up Incest Bingo. Tashir wasn't really bothered by the disinheritance, but then his dad informed him that he was going to be sent to live with the scary scary Mavelans, and then the palace conveniently exploded.
Having heard enough, Vanyel runs back to Forst Reach, where...absolutely nothing has happened. Then he realizes it's the 12-year anniversary of Tylendel's death, and he goes to sulk on the porch for a while. He even conjures up an illusion of his dead boyfriend and cries when he puts his hand right through it. Then Tashir comes to see what he's up to.
Okay, so I have to say that one thing that baffles/amuses me about Lackey's writing is that all of her characters are shockingly good at talking about their feelings. Like, everyone's super self-aware and practices nonviolent communication! Remember when I said above that the old armsmaster that broke Vanyel's arm wanted to spar and learn some new tricks? Oh boy, was there a conversation about that one, as in, they got drunk and talked about their feelings and Jervis apologized to Vanyel for having been a fathead.
This time, though, Vanyel's so upset about Tylendel that he basically just grabs Tashir and spells him into telling the truth, which basically matches up with what he learned in Highjorune, so I'm not really sure what the point of that was. Tashir's crying and pleading and Vanyel just keeps pushing him, telling him he's going to give Tashir up to the Mavelans, and Tashir keeps floating stuff with his brain, until finally Vanyel's satisfied that Tashir's not going to turn him into jam. This all happens in half a page of really awful telling vs. showing:
It took him the better part of a candlemark to revive Tashir. It took longer than that to convince him that although it might be the wisest thing to do, it was not the course of action that Vanyel intended to take. The youngster was totally terrified of being sent into Mavelan hands, yet even under the stress of this absolute terror, his Gift manifested at no higher level than before.
Eventually Tashir believed him when he told the younger that he would continue to shelter him, to try to find out what had really happened.
And then, when the young man had settled a little, he began the questioning again.
Finally Vanyel drops everything, apologizes to Tashir, and waits for the kid to leave. But for some reason, possibly because he's a masochist or maybe just stupid, or maybe because Lackey needed a conversational foil, Tashir doesn't leave: he wants to hear about Vanyel's old boyfriend. Vanyel can't believe that Tashir wants to make everything about him, because after all,
He fought the words past the grief. "--lost somebody I loved more than anyone else on earth. He was my lifebonded, and I will be without him for the rest of my life. You're not the only one in the world who's alone! You're not the only one who's suffered!"
Yes Vanyel, because losing your first boyfriend is totally the same as being accused of killing your entire family with your brain.
Vanyel goes on to summarize the events of the first book for Tashir and weeps manly tears onto the backs of his hands, and finally Tashir says what we've all been thinking:
"I'm probably saying things I shouldn't, but you said it yourself, Vanyel. It's been twelve years. Don't you think that's an awful long time to be holding on to a memory so tightly that it strangles you?"
And finally Tashir leaves, and Vanyel realizes that he's been a dick.
Vanyel, Savil, Jervis, and Tashir go back to Highjorune--in disguise again--partly because nobody will think to look for Tashir in his own hometown, and partly because they want to take a look at the Palace, which is still sealed off behind Vanyel's shields. Why Vanyel didn't just investigate it himself last time he was there I don't know; probably he's just a shitty detective. Tashir is surprisingly cool about being dragged back to where everyone thinks that he murdered his family and revisiting his family's bloodstains. They manage to slip back inside the palace, behind Vanyel's shields (which are still there, although someone's obviously been hammering at them), but they won't have much time before Tashir's evil uncle Vedric, who's in town, figures out what's going on.
It turns out that the palace is actually built on top of a Tayledras heartstone. Remember those guys? The awesome Hawkbrothers who're good at magic and not homophobic at all and in touch with nature and shit? Yeah, turns out ages ago they used to live here. Usually they don't leave active heartstones behind, but in this case the heartstone's trying to heal a fault line left behind by the Mage Wars; if the heartstone's drained, a huge earthquake will cause
They figure this out just as Vedric shows up to break the door down. Oh, surprise: he looks just like a grownup Tylendel, only evil! Does Vanyel ever fight anyone who's not blindingly handsome? Anyway, Savil and Tashir Gate out of there in a hurry, leaving Vanyel and Jervis to face off against Vedric, although what an old mercenary expects to do against an evil wizard I don't know. Vanyel and Vedric throw lightning at each other for a while, until Vanyel realizes that he's going to have to use the power of the heartstone to defeat Vedric, because he's got the entire Mavelan family helping him out. He does, reducing Vedric--and presumably all the Mavelans--to a pile of ash (which was actually kinda cool), but then the palace starts falling down because, you know, earthquakes. He manages to fling up a Gate, and Jervis drags Vanyel through just before the palace comes down on their heads like one of those evil overlord castles that always collapses after the villain dies. Fortunately, Vedric put up a shield to keep Vanyel from escaping that limits the earthquake to just the palace, so the rest of Highjorune is safe, I guess, even though that is not how earthquakes work at all.
But as soon as Jervis and Vanyel get through the gate, the priest at Forst Reach shanks Vanyel! For being gay! Oh, no, actually it's because he's possessed. Jervis knocks him out with a chair and yells for a Healer, but Vanyel's already going toward the light.
He was standing. The pain was gone.
So was the wound. The strange Herald still held his hand, but about them was--nothing. Only a kind of peaceful, tranquil gray emptiness.
The stranger's face was still shadowed--except for the eyes, a blazing glory of sapphires and light, a light never seen in Vanyel's world.
That's Death, who to Vanyel appears as a really hot dude, because you might as well see one nice thing before you die, I guess. It turns out that because Vanyel's so important, he gets to have a choice: he can die now and be at peace, or he can go back and suffer a lifetime of pain and loneliness in order to save Valdemar. Because he now realizes that he has friends and people who love him and that being single is not the same as being FOREVER ALONE--and because this is the second book in a trilogy--Vanyel picks the second option.
But he doesn't have to go back right this second. He can stay here and make out with Death for a little bit.
There was a whisper of sound, and a feather-light touch on his jaw. He opened his eyes, and Death's hand lifted his chin so that his gaze again met those beautiful eyes. There were tears in Death's eyes, tears that matched his own, and a tender, sorrowful smile on Death's lips.
"I have never been so grieved--and so glad--to lose," he said, and touched his lips to Vanyel's. Their tears mingled on his lips as Vanyel closed his eyes; he tasted them in the kiss, his own salt, bitter tears--and Death's sweet--
Strong arms closed about him, supporting him, holding him against a comforting shoulder, as Death held him with all the sensitivity of the lover that He could be.
Then Vanyel goes back and immediately gets a diplomatic problem dropped in his convalescing lap: Tashir, as the only living Lineas/Mavelan, is now technically King, but he doesn't want to be King, and he can't anyway because he's a Herald--he was chosen by a Companion, remember? (We never even learned that Companion's name, so you'd be forgiven for forgetting.) Vanyel manages to pull a solution out of his ass, mostly by sending half of the overcrowded Forst Reach to Highjorune to act as a Council, and the book ends with Jervis thanking Vanyel for saving the day, and also for some reason trying to find out how much hot sex Vanyel has had.
"It's been so damned long that both you and those damned sheep in Long Meadow are starting to look good!"
Jervis gave him a long, thoughtful look, and Vanyel wondered if he'd said too much, too freely. He tried to ready an apology--when Jervis gave him a long, slow grin.
"Stick to the sheep," the armsmaster advised impudently. "They don't snore."
And you'd know, eh Jervis?