Chapter no 12

Sword Catcher

The day after Lin’s visit to Marivent, Kel duly presented himself at the Black Mansion, note in hand. Unusually, Conor had asked where he

was taking himself off to and, scrambling, Kel had invented a new fighting style that was being taught at the Arena. “Something a Sword Catcher should know about,” he’d said, and Conor had agreed. Kel was left to hope that Conor would not demand a demonstration of the technique later.

Kel had often looked down on the Black Mansion from the West Tower; it stood out among the other buildings of the Warren like a dollop of jet- black paint splashed onto an ochre canvas. No one knew who had built the place; it had existed as long as there had been a Ragpicker King to occupy it, which was longer than anyone alive could recall.

He mounted the black stairs to find the famous scarlet door guarded by a mustachioed man so heavily muscled he seemed top-heavy, like an inverted pyramid. He wore an elaborate uniform of red and black, with braiding on

the shoulders as if he were a member of the Arrow Squadron.

“Morettus,” Kel said, feeling a bit silly, as if he were in a Story-Spinner tale involving spies and passwords.

“Fine,” said the guard. He didn’t move. “. . . Now?” said Kel, after a long pause. “Fine.” The guard nodded.

“Right,” Kel said. “I’m going to open the door now. And go in.” “Fine,” the guard said.

Kel gave up. He had his hand on the door latch when it swung open from inside. Ji-An stood on the threshold, a slight smirk on her face. She wore her foxglove-purple coat, her hair pinned up with jade clips. “That was agonizing to watch,” she said, gesturing for him to enter the mansion.

“You’re going to need to learn to be more assertive.”

“Does he say anything but fine?” Kel asked as soon as the door had shut behind them.

“Not really.” They were walking down a wood-paneled corridor that seemed to snake through the interior of the Black Mansion like a vein of gold in a mine. Paintings of scenes from around Castellane hung on the walls between closed doors. “But he once dispatched an assassin with a spool of thread and a butter knife, so Andreyen keeps him around. One never knows.”

“What about you?” Kel said.

Ji-An looked straight ahead. “What about me?”

“You saved my life,” Kel said. “Why? I didn’t get the impression you were fond of me.”

“Please don’t fuss about it. I was nearby because Andreyen asked me to follow you and report back.”

“Did he,” Kel muttered under his breath.

“Don’t bother being offended. It was very dull, following you. You barely leave Marivent. Then when you finally did, you went to Merren’s, of all places. At which point I realized that I wasn’t the only one following


“The Crawlers,” Kel said, and Ji-An nodded. “You could have let me bleed out on the street, though.”

“Andreyen wouldn’t have liked that,” Ji-An said as the corridor opened out into a sort of great room, the kind nobles tended to maintain in their country retreats. Half a dozen armchairs and low sofas were scattered in a haphazard circle beneath a ceiling like an inverted bowl. The furniture was mismatched—a black lacquer cabinet here, a tiled Valdish table there.

Merren was sprawled in one of the chairs, reading. Despite the heat of the day outside, a fire burned in the enormous grate that dominated one wall.

“Is there some specific reason you’ve come to talk to Andreyen? I might as well know before I go fetch him, in case it’s something he couldn’t possibly find interesting.”

So the Ragpicker King hadn’t told his loyal assassin about the message he’d sent to Kel. Interesting. Perhaps he’d wanted it to be a secret, though why, Kel couldn’t imagine.

He thought back over the last few days, the bits of gossip he’d caught wind of as he wandered around Marivent. “Tell him I have a question about

Artal Gremont.”

The book fell out of Merren’s hand and hit the floor with a thump. An incredulous expression passed over Ji-An’s face. Kel looked from one of them to the other, wondering what on earth he’d said.

“I’ll—go fetch Andreyen,” said Ji-An, clearly caught entirely off guard.

She glanced back one more time at Kel as she departed the room, eyes wide, rather as if he were a hedgehog who had started spouting off poetry in Sarthian.

The moment she left, Merren rose to his feet, scooping up his fallen book. He looked just as he had the last time Kel had seen him—somehow nervous and graceful at the same time, his fair hair a halo of ringlets, his black clothes shiny with age and patched at the elbows. “Why would you mention Gremont?” he demanded.

Kel threw up his hands. “Just chance,” he said. “He’s a figure of curiosity on the Hill. He was sent off into what amounted to exile nearly fifteen years ago—”

“It wasn’t exile,” Merren snarled. “He escaped. He ought to have hung from the gallows in Valerian Square.”

Kel narrowed his eyes. “This has something to do with your father?” “My father. My sister. My family.” Merren’s hands were shaking. “You

really—no one on the Hill knows what Gremont did?”

“What do you mean, what he did?” Kel began, but Ji-An and the Ragpicker King had come into the room, putting an end to the conversation. Merren sat back down quickly, opening up his book again, while Andreyen settled onto a dark-blue sofa. He was, as always, impeccably dressed in black, his long white hands folded atop his blackthorn cane. His eyes were bright in his narrow face.

He said, “Kellian. I was told you’d recovered well, but I’m pleased to see it. Have you come because I requested you to, or do you really have a question about that toad, Artal Gremont?”

“The former. I came because of the message you sent to me at Marivent,” Kel said. “Does Lin Caster work for you, too? Does everyone in Castellane work for you secretly?”

“No,” said Andreyen. “Some of them work for Prosper Beck.”

Kel couldn’t decide whether this was a joke or not. What he did know was that he was the only one in the room standing up—Ji-An had perched

herself on a side table—and he was beginning to feel foolish. He sat down in a wing chair opposite Andreyen, who looked pleased.

“The truth is,” said the Ragpicker King, “I find very few people qualified to work for me. Ji-An and Merren, of course, have special skills. Lin and I merely have similar interests. You, on the other hand”—he fixed Kel with a steady jade-green gaze—“I still want you to work for me.”

“Nothing about that has changed,” Kel said quietly. “If this conversation is conditional on my agreeing to work for you . . .”

“It isn’t. But much has changed. You’ve been stabbed nearly to death by Beck’s Crawlers. If Ji-An hadn’t been there, you’d likely be dead.”

Kel crossed one leg over the other. It was uncomfortably hot in the room and he longed to shrug off his jacket. “The Crawlers ambushed me because they thought I was Conor,” he said. “Beck must be out of his mind if he’s sending Crawlers to threaten the royal family.” He frowned. “The leader

was named Jerrod, Jerrod something—”

“Jerrod Belmerci,” said Ji-An. “He’s Beck’s right-hand man. He protects Beck completely. People often think they can get to Beck through him— and believe me, they’ve tried—but he’s a stone wall.”

“Sounds like you might have had some personal experience there,” Merren said, grinning at Ji-An. His fury over Gremont seemed to have gone, a shadow banished by sunlight.

Ji-An threw a pillow at Merren. Kel, meanwhile, was lost in thought— thinking of Jerrod, of his silver mask and what it might conceal.

“Not that Beck isn’t out of his mind,” added Ji-An, “It is a peculiar move, and dangerous, positioning oneself to extort royalty.”

“Most people wouldn’t try to wring money out of House Aurelian,” said Merren. “They could just send the Arrow Squadron to burn down the Maze. It almost seems like . . .”

He trailed off. The Ragpicker King looked at him, his gaze inquiring but patient. There was almost a fondness to that look, Kel thought in surprise. As if Andreyen simply liked Merren, outside of needing a poisoner on his staff.

“Well,” Merren said, “almost as if it’s personal.”

“I suppose it could be, if Beck’s being funded by someone on the Hill,” said Ji-An, eyeing Kel.

Kel shook his head. “I’ve thought about that. It could be any of the Houses, really. They’re all ruthless, and they’re all rich. And none are likely to confide such business to me. They know I’m close to the Prince, so I’m

the last person they’d tell.”

“You could search all their homes,” said Ji-An, looking delighted at the prospect. “We could break in—”

“Before we go quite that far,” said Andreyen, “Kel, can I speak to you in private?”

Kel, surprised, could not help but glance at Merren and Ji-An, who it seemed had been abruptly dismissed. Merren simply shrugged and closed

his book before heading out of the room; Ji-An, though, could not conceal a look of hurt. Kel felt a little guilty as she departed with her hands shoved into the pockets of her fox-glove jacket.

Once they were gone, Andreyen rose to his feet. Kel wondered if the Ragpicker King planned to lead him somewhere, but no; it seemed Andreyen was only pacing.

“Why Morettus?” said Kel. “As a password. They do make us study dead languages up at the Palace, you know. I’m aware it means ‘no name’ in


“Because all Ragpicker Kings have the same last name: no name at all. I am Andreyen Morettus because I have given up the name I had before. It is a reminder that there will always be a Ragpicker King; it is an office, not a specific person.” He eyed Kel, picking up a silver bowl that had been sitting on a shelf. Idly, he passed it from hand to hand. “Now. I am going to tell you something that very few people know. How few? A month ago, three

people in all of Castellane knew it. Now only two people know, because one of us is dead.”

“Died of old age?” Kel said hopefully.

“No, murdered. Poisoned in fact. Not,” Andreyen added, with the ghost of a smile, “by Merren.” He ran a finger around the rim of the silver bowl. “But before I tell you anything else, know that if you repeat any of this information to anyone—for instance, your friend the Prince—I will have you hunted down and killed.”

His raised his eyes to Kel’s, and in that moment, Kel saw behind the calm, even kindly veneer of the Ragpicker King—the one who looked

fondly at Merren, and responded to threats with amusement—to the cold and ruthless criminal beneath.

Blood on his carriage wheels, Kel thought. Aloud, he said, “You are not making learning this secret very appealing.”

Andreyen set the bowl down. “If you do not wish to know it, I won’t tell you. But it may be the only thing that will help the Crown Prince.”

Kel leaned back in his chair. “I wondered,” he said. “Why me? Why offer me the task of spying for you? You seem to have plenty of informants on

the Hill. You knew Lin Caster treated me, you know I’ve been wandering the Palace grounds; you surely know more than I do about the various

political machinations of the Charter Families. What have I got to offer that a dozen others might not?”

Andreyen looked at him silently.

“Is it because putting myself in danger for Conor is my vocation?

Because if you suggest that his life is threatened, I must say yes to whatever you ask?”

“Loyalty,” said the Ragpicker King. “Not to you.”

“It does not need to be loyalty to me.” Andreyen reached inside his black coat and drew out an envelope. “There has been a Ragpicker King in

Castellane for as long as there has been a King on the Hill,” he said. “I inherited the title from another, just as your Prince will inherit his title from Markus.” Kel squinted, but could not see what was written on the envelope; only a blank square faced him. “A wise king knows that there will always

be crime,” said Andreyen. “As long as there are Laws, people will break them. But criminals are not anti-monarchist by nature. Many of them are quite patriotic.”

Kel snorted, and Andreyen gave him a cool look before resuming. “Most criminals wish only for their businesses to prosper, like any

guildmaster or merchant might. A wise king knows that he must encourage the right kind of crime, and thwart the wrong kind.”

“So you are a sort of Charter member,” said Kel. “But your Charter is crime.”

Andreyen looked amused. “You could think of it that way. My Charter is crime. The wrong kind of criminals don’t fear the Vigilants or the Arrow Squadron, but they fear me.”

“What does this have to do with the King on the Hill—King Markus?” Kel asked. He sensed they were coming closer to the secret Andreyen wished to tell him, though they were still circling it like ravens circling the Star Tower.

“When King Markus inherited his throne, he inherited an ancient contract

—between the King on the Hill and the Ragpicker King. The agreement

assures that my larger operations will not be touched. I will never be hauled before the Justicia; I will never be dragged to the Tully. In turn, I make sure that the kind of crime that does not threaten the King or the city is allowed to flourish—in a controlled sort of way—and that the kind of crime that is unwanted in Castellane does not. It is an arrangement that has withstood the test of time. It has always remained secret, as it must. But now . . .”

Andreyen turned the envelope over in his hands, and with a jolt, Kel recognized the royal seal: the wax dyed with the royal scarlet, the lion rampant. He strode across the room to Kel, offering him the letter.

This is it, Kel thought. The secret that could cost me my life.

But it was a cool, detached thought. He had no choice. Not if, somehow, all this could help Conor.

When he took the letter, he found the paper heavy and stiff—paper, the Raspail Charter—and the moment he unfolded it, he recognized the handwriting immediately as the King’s.

The message was short, and addressed to the Ragpicker King.

There are few who hold Castellane as precious as you and I do. The city is in danger, I am in danger, and my son is in danger. You and I must meet.

Kel read the few lines several times, as if they might give up more of their import in the repetition. At last, he looked up at Andreyen. “What does this mean?”

“I never found out. I sent back a message with a suggested time for meeting, but it is my belief that the King never received it. The messenger was a Castelguard. That night, he was found dead in his room—”

“Dom Guion,” Kel said, remembering. The reason he had gone to Merren in the first place. A Castelguard he could not recall ever having spoken to, and yet because of his death—all this. “It was put about that he was murdered by a jealous lover, a woman from Sarthe—”

“Guion was not interested in women,” said the Ragpicker King, “though I doubt many knew that. He was an intensely private person. He had to be.

He was one of three people in the city who knew of my contract with Markus. It was something I learned when I first came to the Black Mansion. There is always a messenger.” He threw himself back into his chair. “But not now. No messenger has come in Guion’s stead; there has been no word for me from the Palace. I believe Markus thinks I never replied to him.”

Kel narrowed his eyes. “Are you asking me to be your new messenger?

Why not one of your spies who is already on the Hill or in the Palace? Why me?”

“As I told you before,” said the Ragpicker King, “loyalty. Not to me, but to House Aurelian. When I first made my offer to you in the carriage, I wanted to see if you would accept it, or remain loyal to the Prince. You passed that test. I believe you will keep this secret, for his sake. And . . .?”

“And?” Kel said, through his teeth.

“And then there is the Prince’s loyalty to you. Guion was murdered. His death was easy to sweep away, to dismiss. Should I choose another of my spies to try to contact the King, who can say if they, too, will not be killed

before the objective is reached? Whoever did this is clever—clever enough to know how important you are to the Prince. It is one thing to murder a guard, and another to slay the Prince’s cousin, who has hardly left his side for over a decade. They must know that if they harmed you, the Prince would hound them to the ends of the earth. He would never stop seeking


And Kel knew that was true. Slowly, he turned the letter over in his hands. “King Markus says here that Conor is in danger,” he said. “And you believe Prosper Beck is that danger?”

“Prosper Beck was already growing in power when Markus sent me this message. Making sure that I cannot reach the King, nor he me, is in Beck’s interest. He is exactly the sort of criminal—chaotic, oblivious to the normal rules of engagement—that the King on the Hill would work together with me to eliminate. The King says his son is in danger, and now Beck is willing to threaten the Prince. No criminal who answers to me would touch a member of the royal family.”

Kel said, “If Prosper Beck arranged for your messenger to die, then he must know about this contract. So there were not three people who knew of your arrangement, it seems. There were four.”

Andreyen inclined his head as if to say: very true. Kel wondered where his preternatural calm came from. Mayesh always said graciousness paired with viciousness was the domain of the nobility, but Andreyen was certainly not that. Then again, it was impossible to determine his class. He stood apart from such things.

“That is what I need you to find out for me,” said Andreyen. “Normally, with the assistance of the Aurelian King, it would not be so difficult to discover who Beck is, and how he knows what he knows. But without

it . . . I need to understand what the King wished to tell me at that meeting. If there is a thread that can unravel Beck’s growing empire, I need to know how to find it and draw on it.” He fixed Kel with an unnerving stare. “So. You’ll do it?”

There is a great deal about this I don’t like, Kel thought. But Andreyen had a point. If Kel didn’t talk to the King, there was no way to find out if there was a greater danger Conor was in. If Beck wanted more than just

money. Getting rid of Beck was as much in Conor’s interest, and thus Kel’s, as it was the Ragpicker King’s.

“All right,” said Kel. “I will speak with the King. But if I get murdered because of it, I swear to Aigon I will come back and haunt you from hell.”

“Excellent,” said the Ragpicker King. “I look forward to it.”

Once a week, the Maharam held receiving hours in the Shulamat. He sat in state, wearing his sillon, ceremonial robes thickly fringed at the cuffs and hem with dark-blue thread. Across his lap lay his almond-wood staff—a

replica of the one Judah the Lion had carried with him into the desert after the destruction of Aram.

During these hours, the Maharam would answer questions regarding matters of Law, offer blessings on engagements or new babies, and

moderate minor disputes that had sprung up in the Sault. Any accusation of a crime, or issue that involved the whole community, would be saved for

the annual visit of the Sanhedrin. It was during one of these hours that Chana Dorin had brought Lin to the Maharam to demand that she be allowed to study medicine.

Lin had not come before him again since—until today. And she had not wanted to come before him today, either. But she had been desperate. The

previous night she had gone to the House of Women to see Mariam, bringing with her not her physician’s satchel but the brooch she’d had made with Petrov’s stone in it.

She had tried everything she could think of to awaken the stone in Mariam’s presence. All she wanted was for it to flare up as it had at the Palace, but it lay cold and dead in her palm like a toad’s eye waiting to be dissected. Thinking words at it did nothing, concentrating did nothing, and praying, alas, did nothing. Eventually Mariam, sensing her distress, had begged her to go to sleep and worry about making the stone work as a healing object later. “After all,” Mariam had said, “you still know so little about it.”

Which, Lin had to admit, was true, and here was her chance to change all that. So she had waited this afternoon, very deliberately, loitering in the

square outside the Shulamat, until everyone else who had come to see the Maharam was finished.

The diamond-paned windows of the Shulamat let in a pale gold light, in which dust motes hovered like wingless moths. The silence was eerie as Lin proceeded up the aisle, between the rows of benches, toward the Almenor,

the raised central platform where the Maharam sat.

She approached and made the customary gesture of respect, folding her two hands over her heart. His silver hair and beard shone like pewter as he inclined his head, acknowledging her.

Lin heard a faint sound. It was Oren Kandel, she realized, sweeping a broom along the rows of empty pews. A sense of irritation prickled along her spine; she wished Oren was not there, and not so clearly eavesdropping.

Still. There was nothing to be done about it.

“I have come,” Lin said, “to petition for access to the Shulamat library.”

The Maharam frowned. “That is impossible. Access to the library is only for students of the holy texts.”

“As a physician,” Lin said carefully, “I am asking that an exception be made. A life is in danger—Mariam Duhary’s life. And is not the saving of a life a purpose holier than any other, even obedience to the Law?”

The Maharam templed his fingers beneath his chin. “You bring up an interesting question of Law,” he said. “I will deliberate upon it.”

“I . . .” Lin turned to glare at Oren, who was inching closer with his broom. “I hope that you will not need to deliberate long. Mariam needs my

help—our help—soon.”

“You are passionate about your profession,” said the Maharam. “That is admirable. I will do my best to help you.” His teeth were yellow when he smiled. “Perhaps you could help me, in return. Your grandfather brought you to the Palace the other night, I understand?”

Lin had not been prepared for this. But of course the Maharam would know; Oren had been at the gate that night, and would have told him. “I had a patient there,” she said.

“There are many other fine physicians in the Sault,” said the Maharam. “Why bring you? It is not as if you and your grandfather are close. A shame, I have always thought. Did he perhaps wish to discuss with you the matter of who will succeed him as Counselor? Who he plans to recommend to the Palace? He is not a young man, after all, and must be tiring of his

arduous duties.”

Oren had given up all pretense of sweeping and was staring openly. “My grandfather does not confide in me, Maharam,” said Lin. “As you

observed, we are not close.”

Disappointment flashed across the Maharam’s face, deepening the net of wrinkles around his eyes. “I see,” he said. “Well, it is a complicated matter you have brought before me. It may require the wisdom of the Sanhedrin.”

Lin caught her breath. “But—it could be months before they come to Castellane again,” she said, forgetting to be politic. “Mariam could die by then.”

The Maharam’s usually benevolent gaze hardened. “Mariam Duhary is dying of the same disease that killed her father—a disease the best

physicians of the Sault could not cure. Yet you think you can do better? Why?”

“I think,” said Lin, trying to control her temper, “that for a religion that

purports to worship a Goddess, who was once a powerful Queen, there are a great many men making decisions about what I, a woman, can read and


His eyes darkened. “I advise you to tread carefully, Lin. You are a physician, not a scholar. Yes, we worship her, but it is from Makabi that we have our Laws, from which none of us are exempt.”

“Makabi was not a God,” said Lin. “He was a man. I do not believe it is the will of the Goddess that Mariam die so young. I do not believe the

Goddess is so unkind.”

“It is not a matter of kindness. It is a matter of fate and purpose.” The Maharam sat back, as if weary. “You are young. You will understand in time.”

He closed his eyes as if in sleep. Lin understood this as a dismissal. She left, pausing only to kick the pile of dust Oren had swept carefully into a corner. She heard him yell as she hurried down the steps, and grinned. Let that be a lesson to him not to eavesdrop.

When Kel returned to the Palace, he found Conor lying on his bed, reading a book. This was not unusual: Conor tended to treat Kel’s bed as an extension of his own, and would often drape himself across it when feeling dramatic.

He sat up when Kel came in, and said, “Do you think you’ll be ready for practice again soon? Or do you intend to continue this business of wandering about the Palace like a lost soul?”

Kel shrugged off his jacket and went to join Conor on the bed. It had not occurred to him before, but his new habit of rambling about the grounds of Marivent provided a useful excuse for any absences. “I thought we could start up again tomorrow—”

“There’s a diplomatic dinner two nights hence,” Conor said. “I’ve been trapped with Mayesh all afternoon, practicing my Malgasi. You ought to come. Sena Anessa will be there, too, and she likes you. I believe she feels she’s watched you grow up.”

“Dinner with Malgasi and Sarthe,” said Kel. “Two countries that loathe each other. How could I resist?”

“You’ll be fine,” Conor said, and Kel knew that, of course, there was no question of resisting. If Conor wanted him to go, he would go; it was his purpose, his duty. He thought briefly of the Ragpicker King and their

discussions of loyalty. To the Ragpicker King, Kel’s loyalty was a quality that simply made him useful. Andreyen saw that loyalty, but he did not understand it. He did not live in a world of loyalty and vows. He lived in a world of trickery and extortion, a world where power balanced on a knife’s edge, ready to tip this way or that. Of course, one could say the same of the Hill, or international diplomacy for that matter. But that, too, was part of

Kel’s purpose: to be a shield for Conor against invisible arrows as well as visible ones.

Conor had not seemed to notice Kel’s silence; he was grinning. “Look what Falconet gave me,” he said, and handed Kel the book he’d been reading. It was a slim tome, bound in embossed leather. Conor watched with a look of amusement as Kel flipped it open and perused the contents.

For a moment, he thought it was simply the same collection of loose

portraits Mayesh had shown them the previous day, bound into book form. Then his eyes adjusted. Here indeed were Floris of Gelstaadt, Aimada d’Eon of Sarthe, Elsabet of Malgasi, and many more, but instead of being painted in their finery, they had been depicted stark naked. Princess Elsabet had been drawn draped over a brocade sofa, eating a persimmon, her long black hair brushing the ground.

“Where did Falconet get this?” Kel said, staring.

“He had it commissioned, to amuse me,” said Conor. “Leave it to Falconet to know exactly the list of royals Mayesh considers eligible. The images are reliant, of course, on the artist’s imagination, but they do say

there are spies in every Court.”

Kel looked at him. “Every Court?”

Conor looked thoughtful. “Are you suggesting there are spies here at Marivent drawing naked pictures of me?”

“I have seen some of the servants lurking in the shrubberies. Planning to peek through the windows, perhaps?”

“Well, let them bask in my nude glory, then. I’ve nothing to be ashamed of.” Conor flipped a page, revealing an illustration of Princess Aimada of Sarthe, wearing only a few strategically placed peacock feathers. “Not bad.”

“She has lovely eyes,” Kel said, diplomatically.

“Only you would be looking at her eyes.” Conor turned the next page, and there was Princess Anjelica of Kutani. The artist had drawn her with one hand feathered across her bare breasts, half covering them. Her eyes were the same as they had been in Mayesh’s portrait: amber-gold, unfathomable. Kel turned the page quickly.

“Give me that back.” Conor flipped the book out of his hand and grinned. “Gray hell, look at Florin of Gelstaadt. That tree cannot compete with his absolutely enormous—”

“Bank account,” Kel said gravely.

“Surely those proportions can’t be accurate,” Conor said. He stared once more, then tossed the book onto the nightstand. “Falconet may be a bit


“All the best people are,” said Kel. “He knows your sense of humor, Con.”

But Conor wasn’t smiling now. He was looking at Kel through his eyelashes; it was something he did when he wanted to hide the evidence of his thoughts. He said, “What would you say if I told you that I no longer needed a Sword Catcher? That you were free to go where you wanted to go, and do what you liked?”

Something deep in Kel’s belly tightened. He was not sure if it was anxiety or relief, lightness or heaviness. He was not sure of anything anymore. He had not been since that first meeting with the Ragpicker King. Slowly, he said, “What makes you ask?”

“Something Mayesh’s granddaughter said.” Conor flopped back down on the bed and regarded Kel through the tangle of his dark hair. “When I was escorting her out of the Palace.”

“You didn’t need to ban Lin Caster from the Palace, Con,” Kel said. “She wasn’t plotting some sort of coup. She’s a physician. She feels a sense of duty toward her patients.”

“She’s maddening,” Conor said, moving restlessly on the bed. “I’ve met sharp-tongued women before, but most know to temper their blades. She

speaks as if—”

“As if you weren’t her Prince?” said Kel. “The Ashkar have their own banished ruler, you know. The Exilarch.”

“I don’t think I recalled that,” Conor murmured. “Either way—”

“She is Mayesh’s granddaughter,” said Kel, not sure why he was pushing against this so hard. He often felt it was his purpose not only to protect Conor physically, but to recognize the ways in which he had been given

principles to follow only irregularly—a word from Jolivet here, a bit of advice from Mayesh there—and left in neglect to attend them as best he could in an atmosphere that rewarded neither virtue nor empathy nor

restraint. Perhaps it was merely that he felt there was no one else to define goodness for Conor, though he was no expert himself. “Do you want her to be afraid of you?”

Conor pushed the hair out of his eyes and fixed Kel with a sharp look. “Afraid of me? She is the furthest thing from afraid of me, Kellian.”

“And it bothers you?”

“When I see her, I feel as if I have stood too close to a fire, and hot

cinders have flecked my skin with little burns.” Conor scowled. “I tried to pay her, the night she healed you. She refused to take the reward I offered

—” He held up his hand, showing Kel the blue signet on his right ring finger—“and I cannot help but feel that if she had, my irritation would cease. I dislike owing her.”

“Think of it as owing Mayesh,” Kel suggested. “We are all used to that.”

Conor only scowled more, and Kel decided it was past time to change the subject.

“So,” he asked, “what would you say, if I told you I no longer wished to be Királar? That I wanted to leave Marivent?”

“I would let you go,” said Conor. “You are not a prisoner.”

“Then there is your answer,” Kel said. “If I wanted to leave, I would leave. If you no longer want a Sword Catcher, that is your decision, but not one you ought to make for my benefit.” Conor was silent. “I have trained for this, nearly all my life,” Kel added. “I am proud of what I do, Conor.”

“Even though hardly anyone knows about it?” Conor said, with a crooked smile. “Even though you must be heroic in secret?”

I wouldn’t say hardly anyone, Kel thought darkly. Too many people knew his secret for his liking, but that was not something he could share with Conor. “It isn’t that much heroism,” he said. “Mostly it’s listening to you complain. And snore.”

“That is a treasonous statement. I do not snore,” Conor said, with great dignity.

“People who snore never think they snore,” said Kel.

“Treason,” Conor repeated. “Sedition.” He stood up and stretched, yawning. “As it turns out, I barely remember a word of Malgasi.

Fortunately, I’ve a new cloak of black swan feathers that ought to distract the ambassadress.”

“That sounds expensive,” said Kel, and immediately regretted having said it. Conor stopped his stretching and looked at Kel, hard. After a moment, he said, “If you are still worried about the Prosper Beck business, don’t be. I’ll take care of it.”

“I wasn’t worried at all,” Kel said, but it was not the truth, and he suspected Conor knew it.

This time, when a knock came on the door late in the evening, Lin knew immediately that it was not Mariam. She would have used her code: two quick raps, a pause, then a third. This was the thud of a fist against her door, and she bolted to her feet, suddenly panicked.

She had spent much of the evening, after her rounds in the city, studying the few pages she had of Qasmuna’s book and cursing herself for never having studied Callatian. She had a translator’s dictionary from her time as a student and had been doing her best with it, skipping from the dictionary to the original. The pages were also not in order, having been torn from their bindings, making it difficult to construct a narrative or even a series of instructions from the pages.

So far Lin had learned only a few rather disappointing things. The

Source-Stones had indeed existed, and been invented by Suleman the Great, lord of what was now Marakand. There seemed three ways to fill them with power: One could drain off one’s own magical energy into them, like filling a flask with water. One could take power from a magical creature—a dragon or phoenix or hippogryph, something formed from the power of the Word itself. Or one could kill another magic-user and take their energy in

the form of blood.

Magical creatures, alas, no longer existed. Lin did not know how one could manage the method of saving one’s own magical potential, and her physician’s Oath forbade her from killing anyone else, had she even known a magic-user in the first place.

Frustrated, she took out her own stone—she was beginning to think of it as hers, and not Petrov’s—and looked into it. How can I use you? she thought. How can you help me heal Mariam?

For a moment, she thought she saw the odd shapes in the stone rearrange themselves, flowing like the letters and numbers of gematry. She thought

she could read the old Ashkar word for “heal,” buried down deep, a cinder glowing through smoke—

And then the knock came on the door. She scrambled up, sliding the

pages of Qasmuna’s book—and her notes—carefully under the pillows on

the window seat. Then she went to the door.

To her surprise, standing on her stoop and looking diffident, was Mayesh. He seemed to have just come from the Palace, for he wore his Counselor’s robes, and around his throat the silver medallion of his status gleamed.

Barazpe kebu-qekha?” he said. May I enter your home? It was a formal request, not the sort usually made by family.

Wordlessly, Lin stood back and let him into the main room of her house. He took a seat at the kitchen table, careful not to disarrange her remaining books and papers.

Lin locked the door and came to sit across from him at the table. She knew she ought to offer him tea at least, but he seemed distracted. She could sense him studying the room, from the various items Josit had brought back from his travels to the cushions her mother had carefully sewed. She did not think he had been in this house since her parents had died, and she could not help but wonder if it made him think painfully of

Sorah. Surely there was pain when he thought of his lost daughter? It had always felt an extra injury to her, that in taking himself out of her life, Mayesh had taken from her the last person in the Sault, besides herself and Josit, who truly remembered and loved her mother.

“I heard you managed to get yourself into the Palace,” Mayesh said, his words snapping her out of her reverie. “Despite Conor’s request to the contrary.”

Lin shrugged.

“You are lucky it was only a request,” said Mayesh, “and not a royal order.”

“What is the difference?”

Mayesh’s eyes were red-rimmed. He seemed tired, but then he always seemed tired. Lin could not remember a time she had seen him look as if he did not have the weight of the world on his shoulders. “A royal order is a formal demand made by the Blood Royal. The punishment for disobeying it is death.”

Lin kept her expression calm, though her heart skipped a beat. “No one,” she said, “should have that kind of power over another human being.”

Mayesh studied her. “Power is an illusion,” he said. This surprised Lin; she had always assumed him obsessed with power, its dilemmas and

possibilities. “Power exists because we believe it does. Kings and queens— and yes, princes—have power because we grant it to them.”

“But we do grant it to them. And death is no illusion.”

“Do you know why the King always has an Ashkari Counselor?” Mayesh said abruptly. “In the time of Emperor Macrinus, the Empire was on the brink of war. It was the good advice of the Emperor’s Counselor, a man named Lucius, that brought it back. When Lucius lay dying, the Emperor

was distraught: How would he ever find another to advise him so well? It was then that Lucius said to him: All the good advice I have ever given you was first told to me by my friend, a man of the Ashkari people, named Samuel Naghid. Against the advice of his Court, the Emperor brought Naghid into his confidence, and named him his next Counselor. And for thirty years, Naghid guided the Empire, serving first Macrinus and then his son, and the Empire retained its territories and peace. After that, it was considered both wise and lucky to have an Ashkari Counselor to the throne, and the Kings of Castellane keep that tradition.”

“I see,” said Lin. “What meaning do you take from that? Because to me it sounds as if the wisdom of an Ashkar was trusted only when people believed it came from a malbesh.

“That is not the lesson I take from it. The malbesh opened the door, but Naghid proved himself, and because he proved himself, the belief continues that an Ashkari Counselor is indispensable—both wise and impartial, for they stand apart from the squabbles of the people. They have the power of

the outsider.”

“A power that is used to serve the throne?” Lin said, quietly. She half expected Mayesh to fly into a fury. Instead, he said:

“Because there is always an Ashkar close to the throne, the King is forced to look upon us and remember we are human beings. The task I perform protects us all. Not only do I speak for our people, but I am a mirror. I reflect the humanity of all our people to the highest seat in


Lin raised her chin. “And you are telling me this because you want me to understand why you chose the Palace over me and Josit?”

Mayesh flinched almost imperceptibly. “I did not choose the Palace. I chose everyone in the Sault.”

A knot of pain, presaging a headache, had begun to form between Lin’s eyes. She rubbed at it and said, “Why are you telling me this?”

“I was impressed with the way you got yourself into the Palace,” he said. “It indicated to me an understanding of the uses of power. You could not get in yourself, so you found someone who could, and you worked your will through them.”

It was Mariam’s idea, Lin wanted to say. But that would be of no help to Mariam, and might in fact cause trouble.

“But the Prince was furious,” she said, instead.

“He was also impressed,” said Mayesh. “I know him well. He complained that you were too clever by half. That’s a compliment, from Conor. He was furious—”

“Furious is bad.”

“Believe me,” said Mayesh. “It’s good for him.” He rose to his feet. “I was also impressed that you did not come to me,” he added. “Conor indicated that you seemed concerned with protecting my position. When you said you would tell no one else that you know Kel is the Sword Catcher, he seemed to believe you.”

Lin exhaled. She had wondered if Mayesh was aware she had revealed her knowledge. It seemed he was, but if he were troubled by it, he was carefully giving no indication.

“I am your granddaughter,” said Lin. “Should I not be assumed trustworthy by association?”

Mayesh only shrugged. “We will see,” he said, and went out the door.

After he had gone, Lin went to retrieve the pages she had hidden beneath the window cushions. How strange, she thought, to have had her grandfather in her house—she had imagined the moment so many times.

Imagined herself reproaching him, his head hanging with shame. It had, of course, been nothing at all like that. But she found she did not regret the difference.

As she drew out the papers, the pain in her head made her flinch. The

papers fell from her hands. She knelt to gather them, half-absentmindedly, her attention on the turmeric tea she’d need to make to prevent her

headache from worsening.

She paused. The pages had fallen in such a way that she was able to see something she had not seen before. Two of the torn-out pages were clearly

meant to be looked at side by side. What had seemed separate incomplete designs was in fact one design—the same design, like a ten-rayed sun, that she recalled from the covers of more than one book in Petrov’s flat.

Frozen, she stared at the pages. Petrov had been obsessed with the stone in his possession. What if he’d also had Qasmuna’s book, or one like it?

You want his books—nasty little magic books, full of illegal spells, his landlady had said. I sold them to a dealer in the Maze.

The Maze. Just on the other side of the Sault walls, but nowhere an unaccompanied Ashkari woman could go safely. Neither the Vigilants nor the Ragpicker King could protect her there.

It was Mayesh’s voice she heard then, in her head. You could not get in yourself, so you found someone who could, and you worked your will

through them.

Still kneeling on the floor, and despite the pain in her head, Lin began to smile.

Long ago, Kel had trained himself to wake up at dawn for training sessions with Conor and Jolivet. Now that Conor was old enough to refuse to rise at daybreak to practice swordplay, that skill had fallen out of use, but Kel was pleased to discover his internal clock still functioned. He woke as the sun

rose over the Narrow Pass, his eyes snapping open.

Pale-gray light streamed through a gap in the curtains. Conor was asleep in his bed nearby. The light that filtered through the draperies around his bed laid a pattern of uneven lines across his bare back.

Kel dressed silently: soft boots, gray clothes that would blend with the dawn. Conor did not stir as he left the room.

Few were afoot in Marivent at this hour. The grass of the Great Lawn

was starred with dew, and in the distance, the ships in the harbor bobbed on water that resembled hammered tin.

Servants hurried back and forth like flitting shadows, preparing the

Palace for the day. When they saw Kel, they ignored him. It was fortunate, Kel thought, as he approached the Star Tower, that he had been marching himself around the Palace grounds for the past days. No one would question his presence anywhere; they were used to his wanderings.

Still, when he entered the tower, he felt a tightening of his nerves. He had not been inside the tower in years, and the air of it felt peculiar—cool and dry, which was not surprising, but also dusty, as if it had been closed up for a long time. Like the air of a tomb—though that was foolishness; Fausten

came in and out here every day, as did Jolivet and a few of the older servants.

As with most of the other towers, the upper, inhabited part of the Star Tower was reached by a set of narrow spiral stairs. Kel’s soft boots allowed him to move soundlessly up them. He tried to look intent upon the simple activity of walking.

The staircase ended at a landing that featured two doors: one of plain wood, the other metal, hammered with a pattern of stars and constellations. Light spilled from around the metal door’s edges, providing the strange illusion that it was floating in space.

Years ago, Kel recalled, he and Conor had been playing up and down the steps, and the King had emerged from behind the metal door, benevolent but stern. He was studying the stars, he had told them; they needed to leave him in peace and quiet.

Kel put his hand to the metal door now. It was possible, he thought, that this was merely the King’s study and that he slept in the room across the landing. But barely had he touched the door than it swung open, and he found himself in a chamber lit brightly by two orbs of Sunderglass, within

which a blue light shone. The room was circular, the roof high above a clear glass turned to silver by the dawn’s light. The walls were paneled wood, gleaming a warm brown; the furniture was plain but solid, carved from Valdish chestnut.

A gold-and-silver orrery, displaying the elliptical position of the planets, rested on a desk; the walls were lined with books regarding astronomy, the positions and histories of the stars. A cabinet held a sextant, and telescopes of varying sizes, some made of ivory or studded with gems. Finely drawn wheel charts and maps, showing the position of the stars and the paths of

the planets, hung upon the walls. Everywhere were papers, covered in notes made in a close, dark, scribbled hand.

As Kel’s eyes adjusted to the light, he started, realizing that what he had taken for an empty chair by the window was, in fact, occupied. It was only that the man sitting in it was as motionless as furniture. He did not seem to

be moving at all, not a twitch of muscle, or a breath. Despite the harsh light in the room, he was in shadow.

“Your Highness,” Kel said. King Markus did not look at him. He was gazing out the window at nothing, his eyes red-rimmed. He wore his astronomer’s robes, though Kel could see they were frayed at the cuffs.

Kel cautiously approached the chair—it was difficult not to think of it as a throne. The back was plain but high, the arms carved with worn scrollwork. As he drew close, he went instinctively to his knees. “Your

Highness,” he said, again. “The King in the City sent me.”

Now the King did look down at him. His gray eyes, so like Conor’s, were hazed with confusion. “You are not Guion,” he said.

Kel reached into his jacket. Before he had left the Black Mansion, Andreyen had pressed into Kel’s hand a small pewter bird. The King would recognize it, he’d said, though Kel was puzzled. It seemed a cheap trinket to him, though the little magpie did seem to be the Ragpicker King’s unofficial symbol. The thieving bird.

“The Ragpicker King said you would know me by this,” Kel said. “That I have come from him.”

The King’s eyes were glued to the bird. “Yet—you are the Sword Catcher.”

“Yes,” said Kel. “But I am also a messenger. The King in the City is concerned he has not had word from you.”

“It is I who have not had word from him. I sent a message requesting a meeting.” The King tore his eyes from the magpie trinket and stared again out the window. “I should not have done it. The stars prophesied we would not meet. The stars do not lie.”

“Perhaps,” said Kel. Sweat prickled along his spine—the sky outside was brightening. He could not stay here long. And his knees hurt from contact with the stone floor. “Perhaps what the stars intended was that you tell me what danger faces House Aurelian, and I will bring that message to the Ragpicker King.”

The King moved fretfully in his chair. “Fausten tells me this is the destiny written in the stars. But I know it is my sin, my evil, that has brought us to this place.”

“What place?”

“This place of debt,” said the King, and Kel felt as if a hot poker had jabbed him between his shoulder blades. Could the King know of the money Conor owed Prosper Beck? Surely that could not have been the danger he spoke of. Should the King wish to pay that money back, it would be simple for him. The Treasury was his.

“It is not your fault,” said Kel, choosing each word with care. “Your Highness. This is Prosper Beck’s fault.”

The King looked at him blankly.

“Who is Beck?” Kel whispered. “What does he want? Surely the debt can be paid, ten thousand crowns—”

Hoarsely, the King snapped: “This is no debt to be paid in gold, boy. This is a debt of blood and flesh. It entraps me like the bars of a cage, yet I cannot escape it.”

Kel sat back on his heels. “I don’t—”

The metal door slammed open. A squat figure barreled into Kel. He found himself hauled to his feet by none other than Fausten. The little man was pale, the bald pate of his head shiny with sweat. He stank of sour sweat and old liquor.

“Your Highness,” Fausten gasped. “My apologies. You should not have been troubled by this—this interloper.”

The King looked at Kel—no, not at Kel. At what he held in his hand. But Kel had already closed his hand around the magpie trinket. He wrenched away from Fausten, but there was nothing to say. He could not appeal to Markus, who was watching them with haunted eyes. Fausten did not know about the contract between the two Kings in Castellane, and keeping that secret was far more important than Kel’s protesting that he had a right to be where he was.

He let Fausten herd him out onto the landing. It galled him not to push back, but he knew it would have accomplished nothing, and Fausten could certainly stir up trouble for Kel if he liked.

Fausten was breathing hard through his nose. “How dare you—”

“I heard a noise while walking the grounds,” Kel said smoothly. “I came to assure myself His Highness was well. It was a mistake to assume—”

“It was indeed a mistake,” Fausten snapped. When he was angry, his Malgasi accent thickened. “His Highness’s welfare is not your concern, Királar. The Princeling is your responsibility. Not his father.”

“The safety of all House Aurelian concerns me,” said Kel, tightening his hand around the tin magpie. Its sharp little wings cut into his palm.

Fausten shook his head slowly. Kel had never noticed how small his eyes were before, how glittering and black. “His Highness,” he hissed, “does as I advise. I interpret for him the will of the stars, which he believes in utterly. If the stars told him to imprison you in the Trick, he would do it. You would hardly be the first Királar locked away for treachery.”

“I have done nothing to warrant that.”

“See that you continue to do nothing.” Fausten gave Kel a small shove; he was not strong, but Kel, stunned by what he’d just heard, took a step back. “He szekuti!

Get out of here. Do not return.

With that, Fausten spun on his heel and hurried back into the King’s study. Kel could hear him muttering in his high, worried voice, assuring the King all was well. “Your Highness, you are agitated. Have a bit of your


Bile rose in Kel’s throat. He flung himself down the steps, puzzled and furious, and out the door of the tower, into the clear air of morning. The sky above was blue and clear, the air free of dust.

His hand ached. He opened it, looked down. He had gripped the Ragpicker King’s magpie trinket so tightly in his hand that he had crushed it out of all recognition.



When Judah Makabi returned to Aram, Queen Adassa gave him back his human form, and bade him speak of what he had seen. “Dark news, my Queen,” he told her. “You have been betrayed. King Suleman has raised a great army against you, and they will attack Aram in three days’ time.”

Adassa did not speak, but shut herself up in the great tower of Balal. When she did, unrest stirred in Aram, for the people feared their Queen had forsaken them. But Makabi came out to the front of the palace and said to them: “Do not fear, for our Queen will save us. Have faith. She is ours.”

On the morning of the second day Adassa emerged from her tower much changed. She had been a beautiful and gentle girl, but all that seemed burned away, and it was a woman bright and sharp as a blade who went out from her palace and looked upon her people, who had gathered together to hear her speak.

“My people of Aram,” she said. “I need your help.”

Tales of the Sorcerer-Kings, Laocantus Aurus Iovit III

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