Chapter no 10

Sword Catcher

Five hundred years past, there had been an outbreak of the Scarlet Plague in Castellane; nearly a third of the population had died. As a physician,

Lin had been required to learn about it. The bodies had been burned, as had been the custom, and the choking smoke that resulted had sickened more, until citizens were dropping in the streets.

The King at the time, Valis Aurelian, had ordered the end of corpse burning. Instead, plague pits were dug, and the bodies buried in them and covered with quicklime. Not long after, the plague had ended—though Lin wondered if it hadn’t simply worn itself out as epidemics were wont to do. Regardless, Valis got the credit—and his face permanently on the ten-crown coin—and the city got a number of spaces on which it was forbidden to build, as the Law prohibited construction on grave sites. Earth covered the bodies, flowers and trees were planted there, and the houses that faced these green spaces became desirable residences.

And then there was the Black Mansion.

It had been there as long as anyone could remember, rising at the north end of Scarlet Square (which, despite its name, was not scarlet at all, but thick with greenery)—a great house built of smooth black stone with a domed roof, two great terraces on either side, and narrow vertical windows. It seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it. Everyone in Castellane was familiar with the mansion, with its red door like a drop of blood, and they

knew who lived there—who had always, it seemed, lived there.

The Ragpicker King.

Lin’s pulse sped up as she and Ji-An dismounted the carriage and approached the dark stone house. She had given up any thought of running away or even protesting. She did not like being misled, but she was terribly curious. Everyone in Castellane, she suspected, was curious about what lay behind the walls of the Black Mansion, just as they were curious about the

interior of Marivent. How strange, to see inside both structures within the span of three days. She lightly touched the brooch at her shoulder. How

strange life had been recently, in every way.

Two guards, dressed in black, stood on either side of the mansion’s great front door. They nodded to Ji-An as she ascended, with Lin beside her. A

bronze knocker in the shape of a magpie graced the door, but Ji-An did not use it. Lifting her necklace over her head, she used her pendant as a key and ushered them both inside.

Inside, the mansion was less dark than Lin would have expected. The interior walls were polished wood, lit by hanging carcel lamps. A long corridor stretched ahead of them, like a tunnel leading into the heart of a mountain. It was carpeted with thick rugs in deep jewel colors, muffling the sounds of their feet as they walked.

“What do you know of the Ragpicker King?” asked Ji-An as they followed the winding corridor. Doors led off it on either side, all of them closed. Lin could not help but wonder what was behind them.

“What everyone knows, I imagine. That he is a criminal mastermind, of sorts.”

Ji-An frowned. “He doesn’t like that word, so I wouldn’t use it around him.”

“What, criminal?” Lin wondered how else he might describe himself. A guildmaster of felons? A tycoon of the illicit?

“Oh, no, he doesn’t mind that at all. But he does object to being called a mastermind. He feels it has the air of pretense.”

They had reached a massive room, with glass skylights built into the sloped ceiling. The floor was black marble, and a wide channel, running with water, had been cut through the center. There was no way past save a wooden bridge that arched above the man-made river. Ji-An led the way over, flicking the hem of her robe away from the edges. “If you can avoid it,” she said, “do not look down.”

Lin couldn’t help herself. As she crossed the bridge, she heard a noise—a dank, sucking noise, as of something sliding beneath the water—and looked down.

The surrounding black marble lent the indoor river an opaque quality, but as Lin watched, she saw that the water was not still. It moved, without the

eddies or currents of a tide. Shadows darker than its darkness slid

noiselessly beneath the surface. One glided close to the bridge, and Lin jumped as a bumpy crest, dotted with a single yellow eye, broke the surface.


She shuddered, and hoped Ji-An hadn’t noticed. She was glad to reach the other side of the bridge and hop down onto the marble bank. Glancing back as they moved away, she saw only flat black water, stirred here and there by peculiar currents.

Distracted, Lin barely noticed as they crossed into a solarium: a glassed- in tangle of hothouse flowers. They had these at the Palace, too; Mayesh had told her of them. In such a place, one could make the delicate plants that did not grow in Castellane’s salty earth flourish. Long ago, the Empire had discovered that one could not graze animals on the alluvial plain surrounding their precious harbor; crops like wheat and oats did not grow within the circle of the mountains. So Castellane became a garden of trade. If they could not grow crops, they would grow the money to buy them.

They traded roads for wheat, tallships for barley and millet; their apples were banks, their peaches casques of gold.

Yet here, the Ragpicker King had re-created a more temperate climate, redolent of white flowers. Paths of crushed stone wound through the garden, with its roof of glass; benches were set at intervals. Lin tried to

imagine the lanky, black-clad form of the Ragpicker King, relaxed on a bench, enjoying his carefully tended hothouse.

She failed.

“Wait here,” said Ji-An. “I have an errand to run; I will return to escort you when Andr—when he is ready to see you.”

“I don’t—” Lin began, but Ji-An was already gone, slipping noiselessly through the greenery.

Well, really, Lin thought. It was one thing to be snatched from the market under false pretenses and another to be made to wait around afterward. The Ragpicker King could at least behave as if kidnapping her was a priority.

Annoyed, she wandered among the flowers for a time, naming off the

ones she knew from botanist’s guides. Camellias from Zipangu grew beside the paths, white heads nodding like a group of old men in harmonious agreement. There were blue passionflowers from Marakand, and nodding Hindish poppies, the sap of which could be extracted to create morphea.

After what seemed like an hour, she lost patience. She could not remain here forever. She had patients to see in the afternoon, and Mariam would worry if she did not return for hours.

She slipped out the door of the solarium. She did her best to point herself back in the direction she’d come, but soon found herself in an unfamiliar room. It was large, with a massive fireplace and a great deal of shabby but comfortable-looking furniture—deep sofas and wing chairs whose brocade was fraying along the arms, not at all the sort of thing she’d have expected to find in the home of the Ragpicker King. The ceiling above disappeared into shadow—the famous dome of the Black Mansion? A pendant lamp hung from it on a long metal chain, swaying slightly above her head.

Shelves along the walls held oddments and antiquities: a brass and turquoise honey pot, probably Marakandi in origin. A map written in

Malgasi. A jade statue of Lavara, Goddess of thieves, gamblers, and the underworld. And—she saw with some surprise—a silver incantation bowl of Ashkari workmanship. She picked it up, curious: Indeed, engraved around the rim were words in Ashkar. ZOWASAT MUGHA TSEAT IN-BENJUDAHU PAWWU HI’WATIDesignated is this bowl for the sealing of the house of Benjudah.

In the Sault, engraved bowls and tablets were often buried at the

threshold of a home, to protect the family within from bad luck and evil spirits. Seeing such a bowl here, a holy item scattered among a collection of trinkets, made the hair rise on Lin’s arms. And it wasn’t as if Benjudah was an ordinary Ashkari name. Only one family bore it—the family of the Exilarch, the Prince of the Ashkar.

“Two long tons of black powder.” A man’s voice, gruff and irritable and very nearby, broke into her thoughts. “You’re sure you can manage it?”

“Calm yourself, Ciprian.” The second voice was smooth, low, peculiarly devoid of any identifiable accent. “Of course I can manage it. Though I am tempted to ask why you need quite such a large amount of explosives.”

Lin set the bowl down hastily, her hands shaking slightly. She was sure this was a conversation she was not meant to overhear. Two long tons of black powder could blow a city block into the sky. She had only heard of black powder being used to blast holes through rock or to destroy ships.

During sea battles, flaming bags of it would be catapulted onto enemy

decks, shattering the hulls when they exploded. She had treated sailors who had old burns from the stuff. Was a naval army being supplied? Or, more likely, a band of pirates?

“Because I need to blow something sky-high. Why else?” “As long as it isn’t a someone.”

“Not at all. A fleet of ships—actually, how many ships are in a fleet?

Let’s call it several ships,” came the reply, just as two men walked into the room where Lin was standing.

She recognized the Ragpicker King immediately. Tall and thin, with legs like the long black spokes of carriage wheels. He wore his customary black, his clothes plain but elegantly cut in a way that would be sure to intrigue Mariam.

With him was a young man with dark-red hair. (Lin was always glad to see another redhead, though the young man’s skin was the olive tone of most Castellani, not pale like her own.) His clothes were plain broadcloth, his eyes narrow and black. He was still speaking, a dark intensity underlying his words. “I’ve told you no one will be harmed,” he said. “I’ve planned it quite carefully—”

Lin had not moved. She stood still, hands clasped, near the shelves of curiosities. Perhaps she ought to have ducked behind a sofa, but it was certainly too late for that now. The Ragpicker King had seen her. His black eyebrows lifted, as did the corners of his mouth.

“Ciprian,” he interrupted, “we have company.”

The red-haired man paused mid-gesture. For a moment, both men stared at Lin.

Lin cleared her throat. “Ji-An brought me,” she said. This was mostly true. Ji-An had brought her to the Black Mansion, if not to this particular room. “But she had an errand to do.”

“Probably had to kill someone,” said Ciprian, and shrugged when the Ragpicker King gave him a dark look. “What? She’s very good at it.”

Lin thought of Ji-An’s cool eyes and graceful movements and supposed she was not surprised. Someone like Ji-An would clearly do more than simply fetch wayward physicians for the Ragpicker King.

“So you’re the physician,” the Ragpicker King said. “Not feeling well, Andreyen?” Ciprian inquired.

“A touch of gout,” said his companion, looking not at Ciprian but at Lin, the same amusement playing around his mouth. So it seemed clear he had a name—Andreyen—but Lin could not imagine thinking of him that way.

Even up close, he seemed more like a child’s tale than a living man. A

figure one might follow down a dark road, only to discover he had vanished where the street turned. A golem made of clay and shadows, with bright- burning eyes.

“Ciprian, I’ll notify you when your shipment arrives. And by the way, I can guess who those several ships belong to.”

Ciprian grinned ferociously. “I’m sure you can.” As he left the room, he passed Lin, his shoulder nearly bumping hers. He paused for a moment. He had the sort of gaze that seemed to weigh heavily, Lin thought, like a too- familiar hand on the shoulder. “You’re awfully pretty to be a doctor,” he said. “Or to be Ashkar, for that matter. Quite a waste, all those girls locked up in the Sault—”

Ciprian.” There was a sharp warning in the Ragpicker King’s voice, and the amusement had left his face. “Go.”

“Only a jest.” Ciprian shrugged, dismissing Lin as easily as he’d noticed her. She waited until his footsteps had faded from earshot before turning to the Ragpicker King.

“Do you really have gout?”

“No.” He threw himself into a worn armchair. She wondered how old he was. Thirty, she’d guess, though he had the sort of face that seemed ageless. “And I didn’t call you here because I need a physician, Lin Caster, though I am glad to see you’ve come. I wasn’t sure Ji-An could convince you.”

“Because you’re a criminal?” Lin said. Ji-An had said he didn’t mind the word, so why not be honest?

“No, because I’ve been told she has an off-putting manner—though I’ve not noticed it myself.”

“She told me you saved her life,” Lin said. “Perhaps she’s nicer to you.” “She isn’t, and I wouldn’t like it if she was,” he said. “So you’re the

physician who healed Kel Saren?” “How did you know that?”

He spread his hands wide. They were very long and pale, like the legs of a white spider. “Knowing things that happen in Castellane is a significant part of my occupation. Ji-An had told me she did not think Kel would live,

that his injuries were too great for him to survive. What I want to know is— did you use that to heal him?”

“Use what?” Lin said, though a part of her guessed what he would say. “That brooch.” He pointed with a languid hand at her shoulder. “Or, to be

more specific, the stone inside it.”

Her hand flew to her shoulder. “It’s only a bit of quartz.”

“No.” He pushed his chair back until the front two legs came off the ground. “That is what the jeweler in the market told you. But it is not the case.”

“How do you know—”

“He works for me,” said Andreyen. “He identified the stone as soon as you brought it to him, and sent a messenger to the Black Mansion. Ji-An went to fetch you.”

Lin could feel her cheeks begin to heat. There was nothing she hated more than the feeling she had been manipulated.

“I have eyes in the Palace,” he went on. “I knew you had healed Kel; that you also had a Source-Stone, I did not know. I assumed you knew what it was. That you used it in your medicine. Though—” He let the chair fall back down with a thump. “You are also Ashkar. This sort of magic is forbidden to you. It is not gematry; it is the very opposite of that. Source-

Stones were invented by King Suleman, the enemy of the Goddess.” “You know a great deal about our beliefs,” said Lin tightly.

“I find them interesting,” he said. “It is because of your Goddess, the lady Adassa, that there is no more magic in the world—save the low magic your people practice. I have always felt that if we were to find our way back to High Magic, it would be through gematry. There is some key there that will unlock the door. But what you have there—the Arkhe, the stone—that

is a remnant of High Magic. It holds a piece of the world before the

Sundering.” He narrowed his jade-green eyes. “So how did an Ashkari girl get hold of such an object, as priceless as it is forbidden?”

Lin folded her arms across her chest. She was beginning to feel the same way she did when the Maharam questioned her—a certain rebellious instinct to snap, to push back rather than answer. But this was the Ragpicker King, she reminded herself. As casual as his current demeanor was, that did not mean he was not dangerous.

She had seen a crocodile attack a seal in the harbor once; the water had been still and smooth as glass until the moment it broke suddenly into a boiling froth of thrashing and blood. She did not think it would be wise to

lie to the Ragpicker King. One did not become the Ragpicker King without an excellent instinct for when others were prevaricating.

“Anton Petrov,” she said, and told the story quickly: that he had been her patient, that he had slipped the stone inside her bag, that she feared he was dead. That she had suspected he had known he was going to die.

“Anton Petrov,” he said, with some amusement. “I would almost think you were mocking me with a tale, but I can tell a liar.” He seemed to note her puzzled look, and smiled. “Petrov,” he said, “in the language of Nyenschantz, means ‘stone.’”

“I think,” Lin said slowly, “that he believed himself to be its guardian, in some way.” She shook her head. “I do not know why you have told me all this,” she said. “You want the stone. I would have given it to you the moment you asked. I will give it to you now.”

“You would do that?” The Ragpicker King’s eyes were pins of green ice, holding her in place. “So easily?”

“I am not a fool,” Lin said.

Something changed then in his face; he was up on his feet before she could say another word. “Keep the brooch. And come with me,” he said, and stalked out of the room.

Lin had to hurry to keep up with his long stride. They made their way through another series of corridors, these tiled in blue, black, and silver, reminiscent of a night sky. She was relieved that they did not again pass through to the grand chamber with its dark interior river.

They reached a half-open door through which a pale smoke drifted.

There was an acrid tang to it, like the scent of burning leaves. The Ragpicker King stiff-armed the door open and gestured for Lin to enter the room ahead of him.

Inside, to Lin’s surprise, was a laboratory. It was not large, but it was cluttered. A large polished wood worktable was covered with the

instruments of science: phials of multicolored liquids, bronze alembics (Lin had seen such things before in the market, where perfumers showed off the distillation of rose petals into attar), tangles of copper and glass tubing, and

a mortar and pestle, still filled with half-pulverized dried leaves. An athanor smoldered away in the corner, releasing a pleasant heat.

A number of tall wooden stools surrounded the central table. Seated upon one of them, long legs dangling, was a young man with curling blond hair, in dark clothes like a student’s. He was scribbling away with great haste in a notebook propped on his lap.

Lin felt a stab of longing. In contrast, her workshop in the kitchen of the Women’s House seemed makeshift and ineffectual. What she could do with the equipment here, the compounds and cataplasms that would be at her fingertips—

Without looking up, the young man pointed at a retort distilling a pale- green liquid into a large glass vessel. “I’ve managed to dilute the Atropa belladonna,” he said, “but the concern remains that, for the solution to work, the key ingredient must be present in an amount that would surely prove fatal.”

“Belladonna,” said Lin. “Isn’t that deadly nightshade?”

The young man looked up. He was irrationally pretty, with delicate

features and dark-blue eyes. He blinked for a moment at Lin before smiling pleasantly, as if she were someone whose visit he had been anticipating.

“It is, yes,” he said. “I suppose I’m used to using the more scientific name. The Academie insists on it.” He set his notebook down on the table. “I’m Merren,” he added. “Merren Asper.”

Asper, Lin wondered. Like Alys Asper, who owned the Caravel? She had provided physical examinations to a number of the courtesans there; Alys made sure they stayed healthy.

“This is Lin Caster, an Askar physician,” said the Ragpicker King. He had moved behind Merren, all long dark limbs in motion, like a shadow cast at noon. He had opened a drawer and was rummaging around in it.

Merren brightened. “The Ashkar are master herbalists,” he said. “You must have a laboratory like this in the Sault—” he gestured around the room

—“or more than one, I suppose.”

“There is one,” Lin said. “Though I am not allowed to use it.” “Why not?”

“Because I’m a woman,” said Lin, and noticed the Ragpicker King glance over at her, briefly.

“Are you a good physician?” Merren asked, looking at her earnestly.

You are the best in the Sault. She pushed the intrusive thought of the Prince away and said, “Yes.”

“Then that’s stupid.” Merren picked up his notebook. He did not seem curious, Lin noted, as to why Andreyen had brought her into what was clearly his workshop; nor did he seem to wonder why the Ragpicker King was muttering to himself as he went through a drawer of crumpled papers. Seeming to locate the one he wanted at last, Andreyen gestured for Lin to join him as he spread the paper out, smoothing it across an uncluttered section of the worktable.

“Look at this,” he said as Lin joined him. “Do you recognize anything familiar about these drawings?”

Lin leaned in closer, though not to the Ragpicker King. He still frightened her, even in this incongruous setting. On the paper were a series of diagrams, the words written in Callatian, the language of the Empire. Her knowledge of it was limited to medical terms, but it did not matter: The

drawings were what leaped out at her. They were sketches of a stone nearly identical to the one Petrov had given her—down to the swirl of smoke within it forming suggestions of gematry words and numbers.

She touched the paper lightly. “Is this from before the Sundering?” “It is a copy of a few pages from a very old book. The works of the

scholar Qasmuna.”

Lin shook her head; she didn’t recognize the name.

“She wrote them just after the great wars,” said the Ragpicker King. “She had seen magic leave the world and sought a way to bring it back. She believed that if these vessels of power could be reawakened, magic could be done again.”

“And that would be a good thing? For magic to be done again?” Lin said in a low voice.

“You need not fear a return of the Sorcerer-Kings,” said Andreyen. “It is only one Source-Stone. The Word is still gone from the world—the

unknowable name of Power. Without it, magic will remain limited.” “Limited to you?”

He only smiled.

“There’s more of this?” Lin indicated the pages.

“In theory. Most copies of the book were destroyed in the purge after the Sundering. Qasmuna herself was put to death. I’ve been looking for an

edition for years.” His keen gaze swept over her. “Just as I’ve been looking for a Source-Stone.”

“Then why don’t you want mine?”

“Because I do not want to learn magic myself,” said the Ragpicker King. “I have no aptitude. You clearly have aptitude. I believe the stone helped you heal Kel Saren.”

Lin saw Merren glance at her, a flicker of curious blue. “I told you,” Lin said. “I did not use it.”

“I believe that is what you think,” said Andreyen. “But a Source-Stone seeks a hand that will wield it.”

Lin thought of the stab of pain she’d felt while healing Kel. The burn on her skin—still there, even now—when she’d returned home. She’d had no conscious sense of using the stone, no sense of a strange power granted.

And yet . . .

“And I,” said the Ragpicker King, “seek a hand that will wield such a stone.”

“A hand that will wield it,” Lin said slowly. “Are you saying—You want me to learn magic, and perhaps perform it, in your service?”

The Ragpicker King flexed his long, white hands. “Yes.”

“Oh.” Lin had been half braced for this moment—the one where he finally told her what he wanted from her—but now that it had come, she found herself stammering. “I don’t—I would prefer not to be in your employment. It’s nothing personal,” she added. “But—you are who you are.”

Merren looked up from his notebook. “That was quite diplomatic,” he said. “We are all who we are, after all. Ji-An is an assassin, I am a poisoner, and Andreyen dabbles in a bit of everything, as long as it’s illegal.”

“You are more than a poisoner, Merren, you are a scientist,” said the Ragpicker King. “As for you, Lin Caster, I am not asking you to do me a favor with no recompense. I can offer you the use of the laboratory here, since you cannot use the equipment in the Sault—”

“And what about me?” Merren inquired, looking alarmed. “I thought this was my laboratory.”

“You would have to share, Merren. It will be good for your character.” “No—Sieur Asper, that’s all right.” Regret lay like a stone in Lin’s chest,

but she knew even entertaining the offer was foolish. This was not her

world, not her people. She did not belong in the Black Mansion, but within the walls of the Sault or at the bedsides of her patients. “I’m afraid I shouldn’t.”

Shouldn’t,” said the Ragpicker King, as if it were a word he found distasteful. “It is your choice, of course. I feel you could do good work here. Qasmuna was not just a scholar, you know. She was a physician. She wished to return magic to the world that it might be used for healing the


Oh. Lin said nothing aloud, but she was sure the Ragpicker King could see the change in her expression. A sort of hunger flared in her, for more than just the laboratory now. For the chance, however small—

“I am not saying it will be easy,” said the Ragpicker King. “It took me years even to find these copied pages of Qasmuna’s work. But there is one

place I’ve never had access to in my search—the library of the Shulamat. In your Sault.” He spread his hands wide. “You might take a look there.”

Take a look? Lin almost told him: That will be impossible, books on magic are restricted, forbidden, unless they are lessons in gematry. And even those can only be studied in the Shulamat itself, not taken from the building, or outside the walls of the Sault.

Instead, she said, “I suppose I could try.”

The Ragpicker King clapped his hands together. “Excellent,” he said, and in that moment Lin knew: He had never had any doubt that she would agree.

In the end, the Ragpicker King summoned Ji-An to escort Lin from the Black Mansion, assuring her that she would soon enough learn the layout of the place. The labyrinth of corridors were meant to confound any intruder who might find their way inside.

Ji-An gave Lin a sour look before walking her briskly to the front door. “I told you to stay put in the solarium,” she said crossly, as the door swung open. “I hope you are not going to be troublesome.”

“I don’t plan to be.” Lin was already out the door. Outside, the afternoon light was dark gold; birds sang in the boughs of the trees that lined Scarlet Square. She felt as if she had passed into the underworld and returned to a city unchanged.

Halfway down the steps, she turned, looking up at Ji-An, who was standing in the doorway of the mansion, framed by scarlet. “Is he a good man?” Lin asked. “Or a bad one?”

Ji-An frowned. “Who? Andreyen? He does what he says he will do. If he says he will kill you, he will kill you. If he says he will protect you, he will protect you.” She shrugged. “To me that is a good man. Perhaps others might feel differently.”



In Aram, Suleman was profuse with his compliments, telling Adassa he had

never seen such a rich land, or such a wise healer and Queen as she was. Even as he spoke his honeyed words, he prevailed upon Adassa to visit him in his own kingdom of Darat, so that she could see all that also might be hers if she agreed to marry him.

She was at first reluctant to go. Her people were anxious at the thought of her leaving, for though Aram was at peace it was surrounded by lands deep in strife. It was Judah Makabi who convinced Adassa, saying, “Be not ignorant of the designs of others, lest you be defeated.”

At his insistence, she wore around her neck a talisman of gematry, meant to protect her against ill intent.

While in Darat, Adassa was shown many wonders that had been accomplished through the use of magic. Great marble castles higher than the tower of Balal, which was the pride of Aram. There were dazzling rivers of fire that burned night and day, illuminating the sky. Phoenixes wandered the grounds of the palace, shedding sparks like fireflies.

Yet often Adassa was aware of the hard gaze of Suleman upon her. Though he told her he watched her with the eyes of love, she was suspicious. At night when she retired to her chambers, she found that a carafe of water had been placed for her beside her bed; when she gave some of the water to one of the palace cats, the creature was rendered instantly unconscious. Realizing that Suleman meant to drug her, Adassa made her excuses the next day and returned to her kingdom. With a heavy heart, she went to Makabi and asked of him that he journey unto Darat and spy on Suleman to determine his plans, and she laid upon him the guise of a raven that he might travel unseen.

Tales of the Sorcerer-Kings, Laocantus Aurus Iovit III

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