Chapter no 13

Sword Catcher

Kel made his way up Yulan Road, his head bent under the bright sun of Castellane. It was nearly noon, and he was beginning to overheat in his

green velvet jacket, but such were the sacrifices one made to please the Queen of House Aurelian.

Merren Asper walked by his side, a slim figure in rusty black, seeming lost in thought. Here I am, Kel thought, side by side with a poisoner, off to meet the only man in Castellane who can, in theory, get me close to Prosper Beck. How again did I get here?

Not that it was a difficult question to answer. The Ragpicker King. Kel had made his usual excuses about training at the Arena, and headed directly for the Black Mansion. He’d found Andreyen in the solarium, admiring the plants. “You talked to Markus,” Andreyen had said, the moment he caught sight of Kel’s expression. “And I see it did not go well.”

Halfway through the story, Merren and Ji-An had joined them, plainly curious. Andreyen had shot Kel a warning look, but he’d already moved past the part of the story where Markus had acknowledged a connection to the Ragpicker King. He repeated the other things Markus had said: that it was his sin and evil that had brought them to this place. That Conor’s debt could only be paid in blood. And what he had not said: anything about Prosper Beck.

He told them, too, about Fausten—his defensiveness and his threats. “Maybe he’s Prosper Beck,” Merren had suggested. “Or funding him.”

The Ragpicker King had been quick to dismiss this notion. “Fausten has no money to speak of,” he’d said. “The influence he wields over the King is his only power. Prosper Beck is a destabilizing force. Fausten likes things

as they are.” He’d shrugged. “You’ll have to try to talk to the King when Fausten is not there.”

But Kel had dug his heels in. Perhaps Fausten had been bluffing when he’d threatened the Trick, but Kel doubted it. There had been none of the usual fluttering of diffidence about him. He’d seemed sure, and the horror of what the Trick represented was stronger than he guessed Andreyen would understand.

“The King understands there is danger, of some kind,” said Kel, “but I do not believe he has a clear picture of it. His faith in the stars and what they portend is almost religious. He believes in prophecy, not actuality.” He hesitated. “I must speak with Prosper Beck instead. He knows his own plans; no one else seems to.” He’d reached out to brush the yellow petal of a sunflower. “I’ll need to find Jerrod Belmerci.”

There had been an explosion of argument. Jerrod could not be gotten through; he would never let Kel near Prosper Beck; it would only alert Beck that Kel was looking for him. But Kel had been adamant, and at last Ji-An had reluctantly proffered the information that Jerrod could be found between the hours of noon and sunset at a noodle shop on Yulan Road,

where he conducted business on behalf of Beck.

“If you’re determined to go,” Andreyen had said darkly, “take Merren with you.”

“Merren?” Kel had echoed. “Not Ji-An?”

The Ragpicker King’s lip curled in amusement. “Don’t be rude to Merren.”

“I don’t think it’s rude,” Merren had said. “I think it’s a good question.” Kel had half expected Ji-An to be offended, but instead she had merely exchanged a quick look with the Ragpicker King. One that told Kel that she

understood Andreyen’s reasoning. “Poor Merren,” she said. “He hates conflict.”

“That’s true,” Merren said, looking glum but resigned. “I do hate conflict.”

But here they both were, marching up Yulan Road as the Windtower Clock began to chime noon, the sound of its bells carrying on the breeze from the harbor. Yulan Road was lively now with students in search of a cheap midday meal at one of its many dumpling pushcarts. Gold and white banners hung above carved wooden doors, bearing the names of shops in Castellani and Shenzan: a jeweler’s store, a tea shop. Scarlet lanterns of paper and wire, painted with characters for prosperity and luck, dangled

from hooks in plaster walls. Similar neighborhoods bearing the cultural imprint of those who had settled in Castellane from Geumjoseon, Marakand, and Kutani dotted the city, though the area around Yulan Road was likely the oldest. Trade in silk had been the first Charter, after all.

Kel had started his trip to the Black Mansion with a plan, one he had not entirely shared with Andreyen. The closer he got to Jerrod and the enactment of the plan, the more he felt tension rise like a bitter taste in the back of his throat.

He pushed the thoughts away. “You’re awfully loyal to the Ragpicker

King,” he remarked as Merren paused to examine the wares of a cart selling medicinal herbs.

“You’re awfully loyal to the Prince,” said Merren mildly.

“I didn’t realize you’d sworn an oath to protect Andreyen,” said Kel. “Or that keeping him safe was your duty and vocation.”

Merren looked up, squinting against the sun. His hair was bright as new- minted gold. “I owe him.”

Despite his jangling nerves, Kel’s curiosity was piqued. “For what? Is this something to do with Gremont?”

“Artal Gremont is the reason I became a poisoner,” said Merren matter- of-factly. “So I could kill him. Andreyen offered me a place to work. To

hide from the Vigilants, if necessary. One day, Artal Gremont will set foot in Castellane again, and I will be ready. And Andreyen will have helped me.”

“Gray hell,” said Kel. “What did Artal Gremont do to your family?”

Merren’s gaze darted away. Abandoning the cart and its wares, he started back up the road, his hands shoved into his pockets. Kel went after him.

“It’s all right,” Kel said. “You don’t have to talk about it—”

“This is the place.” Merren pointed across the street at a low-slung shop with a white-painted wooden front and windows screened with rice paper. The sign above the door proclaimed it the YU-SHUANG NOODLE HOUSE, home to a proprietary recipe for ginger-pork noodle soup.

Kel felt his stomach tighten, but he was in no mood to show his nerves to Merren, or even to acknowledge them to himself. They went inside. A silk curtain hung in the entryway; ducking past it, Kel found himself in a wood- paneled room where a row of cooks, dressed in red, tended steaming pots of

soup and curry. The air was redolent of green ginger, scallion, pork broth, and garlic. A watercolor map tacked to the wall, its edges curling, showed the continent of Dannemore from a Shenzan perspective, with Castellane marked out as the Kingdom of Daqin. The greatest detail was reserved for Shenzhou and its neighbors, Jiqal and Geumjoseon. Kel thought of something Bensimon used to say: We are each the center of our own worlds. Castellane may believe itself the most important country in

Dannemore, but remember that Sarthe, Malgasi, and Hind all think the same about themselves.

Kel had been in shops like this before. They tended to stay open late into the night, which made them attractive to Conor’s friends. Using a technique he’d learned from Jolivet, Kel scanned the room without making it obvious that he was doing so. The place was about half full, and Jerrod was indeed there—alone, seated at a wooden booth in the back of the shop.

The top halves of the booths were open fretwork, with a geometric design. Through the latticed squares, Kel could see Jerrod was wearing a black linen coat over a hooded tunic, his silver mask gleaming in the dim light that filtered through the rice-paper screens.

It was as if someone had held a lit taper to his skin. Kel recalled all at

once the stinking alley behind the Key, the pain in his side, his chest. Jerrod looking down at him, only his mask visible, his face hidden in shadow.

Kel’s anxiety bled away into a cold fury. He felt nothing at all as he walked up to the long rosewood counter, placing his order in Shenzan. The cooks seemed surprised and even a little amused by his command of their language; they chatted a little, while Merren looked bored, about the

intricacies of their recipe, and the way Kel wanted his food prepared. As he reached over the counter, Kel could not help but wonder if Jerrod was watching; he studiously ignored him as he ordered ginger tea for Merren (everything else had meat in it, which Merren wouldn’t eat), paid, and headed for Jerrod’s table, Merren muttering in his wake.

No one gave either of them a second glance as they approached the back of the shop. The owners must be used to Jerrod entertaining a stream of visitors, if he was doing business here. Presumably the restaurant got a cut of whatever deals he made.

It was only when they had reached his booth that Jerrod looked up. If he was surprised, there was no way to tell it: Jerrod’s eyebrows quirked,

though his expression was otherwise hidden by his tarnished quarter-mask. It was as if someone had laid the palm of their hand, in a silver glove, over the left side of his face, covering his eye and the upper part of his cheek.

Was it hiding burns or scars? Identifying marks of some kind? Just an affectation, meant to alarm?

“I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again,” he said with remarkable composure. His gaze slid from Kel to Merren. “Merren Asper,” he added, his voice taking on an entirely different tone. “Do sit down.”

Merren and Kel slid into the booth across from Jerrod. The table between them was gnarled wood, sanded to smoothness, stained here and there with the marks of old burns and spills.

Jerrod, smirking, sipped his tea. The mask made it difficult to tell what he was thinking, but he seemed to be looking over the rim of the cup at Merren. There was something curious in his eyes—almost admiring.

Kel said, “Were you not expecting to see me again because you assumed I’d died in that alley?”

“I learned soon enough that you hadn’t,” said Jerrod. “Word gets around. I’m glad to see you looking better, Anjuman. It wasn’t anything against you personally.”

“So, now you do know who I am,” said Kel.

Jerrod inclined his head. “You’re the Prince’s cousin, who had the

misfortune to look a bit like him and borrow his cloak on your night out in Castellane.” He glanced at Merren. “In fact, we followed you from Asper’s flat to the Key. We wondered what the Prince of Castellane was doing visiting a dank building in the Student Quarter.”

“It isn’t dank,” Merren said indignantly.

“But now I’m wondering what the Prince’s cousin was doing visiting a dank flat in the Student Quarter. You do know your friend here”—he gestured at Merren—“has been spotted going in and out of the Black

Mansion? That he seems to run errands for the Ragpicker King?”

“I can see how that might trouble you,” Kel said, rolling his eyes. “Proximity to crime, I mean.”

“I am not a cousin of House Aurelian,” Jerrod pointed out. “Whereas you are, yet you seem to favor the more . . . seedy sides of Castellane.”

“Some of us are drawn to sin,” Kel said darkly, and noted Merren shooting him a glare. “And some of us are stupid enough to try to kill the

Crown Prince of Castellane in an alley.”

Jerrod shook his head so violently he dislodged his hood. It fell back, uncovering a head of tousled, brown hair. “We weren’t trying to kill anyone. It was only a matter of money owed. And the money is still owed, by the way.”

“I thought we could discuss the matter,” Kel said, as a waiter carrying a tray approached their table. “Look, I’ve bought you dinner. A show of good faith.”

Jerrod’s eyebrows went up just as a server arrived at their table carrying a steaming tray. Two copper bowls were set down in front of them, followed by small ladles, ornately enameled with flowers and dragons. Soup was served from a vast pitcher of noodles and broth, and garnished with the traditional shavings of ginger, garlic and scallion, topped off with a rice

cake and a dash of spiced oil.

Kel picked up his ladle and dug in. There was an art, in his opinion, to consuming noodle soup: One needed to get the right blend of broth, meat, and garnish into each mouthful. He glanced at Jerrod, who had not yet taken a bite. Finally Jerrod shrugged, as if to say, Well, we’re eating out of the

same pitcher, what’s the harm? He picked up his ladle.

“I’d like to meet with Beck,” Kel said. “Discuss this with him.”

Jerrod swallowed his soup, then chuckled. “I don’t have to ask, because Beck would never agree. He doesn’t meet. Not with anyone.” He cast a

sideways glance at Merren. “Well. Maybe he’d meet with you, if you were interested in crossing sides. Working for Beck. He likes attractive people.”

Merren raised an eyebrow.

“Beck’s being awfully reckless,” Kel said. “Trying to start a war with the Palace. What does he have to back up his threats besides a pack of criminals from the Maze?”

“He’s got more than that,” Jerrod said, and frowned, passing a hand across his face. He was starting to sweat. Kel could feel it, too, the first prickles of heat along his own skin.

“Well, what he has had better be an army and a navy, because that’s what Conor has,” said Kel.

Jerrod tapped the fingers of his free hand on the table. He had large,

square hands, with bitten fingernails. “Prosper Beck has a good reason for

doing what he does, and a better knowledge of his own position than you do.”

“I want to talk to Beck,” said Kel, setting his ladle down. There was a faint buzzing in his ears. “In person.”

“And I said you can’t.” Jerrod set down his ladle. He looked exasperated, and . . . in pain? Merren looked at him with a sudden puzzlement, followed by a shocked realization. “Besides. Why should I do you any favors?”

“Because I poisoned you,” said Kel. “The soup. Is poisoned.”

The ladle fell from Jerrod’s hand. “You what? But we shared the soup—” “I know,” Kel said. “I poisoned myself, too.”

Both Merren and Jerrod looked equally stunned. “You what?” Jerrod demanded.

“I poisoned myself, too,” repeated Kel. “I told the chefs it was a spice I’d brought from home, asked them to add it to the soup. Not their fault. They didn’t know.” His stomach cramped, sending a bolt of pain through his abdomen. “Merren didn’t know, either. My fault—nobody else’s.”

“Kel.” Merren was white about the mouth. “Is it cantarella?” Kel nodded. His mouth felt dry as sand.

“Ten minutes.” Merren’s voice was flat with fear. “You have about ten minutes before it’s too late.”

“Anjuman—” Jerrod gripped the edge of the table, fingers whitening. With an effort, he said, “If you poisoned yourself, there’s an antidote. If there’s an antidote, you have it with you.” He started to rise. “Give it to me or I’ll cut your fucking head off—”

“The more you move around, the faster the poison spreads through your system,” said Merren, almost automatically.

“Anjuman, you bastard,” Jerrod breathed, sitting back down. The collar of his shirt was dark with sweat. Kel could feel the same fever-sweat prickling his own spine, the back of his neck. There was a dull, metallic

taste on his tongue. “You’re insane.”

“I can’t disagree with that,” Merren muttered.

“What,” Jerrod said, with tight control, “do you want, Anjuman?” “A promise that you’ll set up a meeting for me with Prosper Beck.”

The vein in Jerrod’s neck was throbbing. “I can’t promise that. Beck might refuse.”

“It’s your job to convince him not to refuse. Not if you want the antidote.”

Jerrod looked at him; when he spoke, he sounded as if he were being slowly strangled. “Every minute you delay, you’re risking your own life. Why not take the antidote yourself? Make me beg for it?”

Kel didn’t feel like grinning, but he did it anyway. “You need to see how far I’ll go.” His hands were burning, his tongue numb. “That I’ll die for


Jerrod’s face was pinched around the mask. He said, “You really would?”

Merren leaned across the table, white-faced. “He’s willing to die,” he said. “He might even want to. For Aigon’s sake, just agree.

Jerrod looked at Merren. “All right,” he said, abruptly. “I’ll get you a meeting with Beck.”

His hand shaking, Kel drew one of the two phials of antidote Merren had given him out of his shirt pocket. Began to twist off the top. His throat was tightening. Soon he wouldn’t be able to swallow at all. He tipped the open phial of antidote down his throat—sweet, licorice, the taste of pastisson— and flipped the second across the table to Jerrod.

Almost immediately, the buzzing in Kel’s head, the pain between his shoulder blades, began to subside. He watched through blurred eyes as Jerrod, having emptied his own dose down his throat, slammed the empty phial down on the table, hard enough to crack the glass. He was breathing as if he had been running, his eyes fixed on Kel. When he spoke, it was a low growl.

“Many would say that a promise extracted under duress is no promise at all.”

Merren groaned faintly, but Kel met Jerrod’s gaze. “I know you work out of this shop.” He gestured at the mostly empty restaurant, the chefs behind the counter studiously ignoring them. “I know how to find you. I have the power of the Palace behind me. I could get Jolivet to shut the Maze down. I could follow you to every place you go after that, and shut every one of them down, too. I could follow you like death at your heels and ruin your hellspent life, do you understand me?” He was gripping the edge of the

table, his fingers white, the metallic taste still bitter at the back of his throat. “Do you?”

Jerrod rose to his feet, flipping his hood up to cover his hair. He looked down at Kel, expressionless. Kel could see his own reflection, distorted, in Jerrod’s silver mask. “You could,” Jerrod said, “have just led with that.”

“But would that have been as much fun?”

Jerrod muttered something, likely a curse, and stalked out of the shop.

After a long moment of utter silence, Merren scrambled to his feet, pushed past Kel, and walked out the door after him.

Kel followed. Merren hadn’t gone far; he was only a few steps ahead, striding angrily along the road. Jerrod was nowhere to be seen, which was no surprise; he’d doubtless vanished down one of the many side streets that branched off Yulan Road like veins off an artery.

Kel didn’t care. He had nearly died, but only nearly; everything was brighter, harder, sharper than it had been before he’d swallowed the

cantarella. The world shone like the gloss of light on a diamond.

He had felt this before. He remembered the assassin at the Court in Valderan, how Kel had broken his neck, the small bones crunching under his fingers like flower stems. Afterward, he hadn’t been able to be still, but had paced back and forth across the tiled floor of Conor’s room, unable to slow down long enough for the Palace surgeon to bandage his shoulder.

Later, when he’d taken off his shirt, he’d found that his blood had dried on his skin in a maze of spiderwebbed lines.

He caught hold of Merren’s arm. Merren looked at him, startled, blue eyes wide as Kel drew him around a corner, into the shadows of an alley.

Kel pushed him up against a wall, not hard but firmly, his hands tangling in the fabric of Merren’s black coat.

Merren’s cheeks were flushed, his mouth downturned, and Kel again had the thought he’d had in Merren’s flat: that he could kiss him. Often when he was like this, when he was high on the exquisite agony of surviving, sex (and its auxiliary activities) could bring him back down to earth. Sometimes it was the only thing that could.

So he kissed Merren. And for a brief moment, Merren kissed back, his hands on Kel’s shoulders, fingers curling in. Kel tasted ginger tea, felt the

softness of Merren’s mouth against his. His heart pounded forget, forget, but even as it did, Merren wrenched his face away from Kel’s. Shoved him back with surprising strength. “No,” he said. “Absolutely not. You tried to

kill yourself.” He sounded as if he couldn’t believe it himself. “You took poison. On purpose.”

“I was not trying to kill myself,” Kel protested. “I was trying to break Jerrod. I had the antidote—”

“And only my word that it worked!” Merren tried to straighten his jacket. “It was an insane thing to do. Insane and suicidal. And I won’t—”

“I had to do it,” Kel said.

“For who?” Merren demanded, a little wild-eyed. “Andreyen didn’t ask you to do that. He wouldn’t. Did you do it for yourself? For House

Aurelian?” He lowered his voice. “You love your Prince; I see that. I thought it was half a joke, this Sword Catcher thing, when I heard it. Who’d do that?” He bit his lower lip, hard. “My father killed himself,” he said. “In the Tully. They weren’t going to hang him. They would have let him out in a few years. But he chose to die and left me and my sister to fend for

ourselves on the streets.”

“I am sorry for that,” said Kel, torn between sympathy and defensiveness. What he’d done was dangerous, yes, but so was Ji-An shooting arrows at Crawlers, and Merren wasn’t shouting at her. “But I am used to putting myself in danger, Merren. In fact, I’m going to need more of that cantarella antidote from you. It worked excellently well.” Catching sight of Merren’s expression, he added hastily. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to do that again. I don’t want to die—”

Merren flung up his chemical-scarred hands. “You don’t value your life.

That’s a fact. So why should I?”

He walked away, boots throwing up puffs of bone-dry dust as he stalked out of the alley. Speechless, Kel watched him go.

Kel returned to Marivent via the West Path—a limestone track which wound up the side of the Hill through low-lying green shrubs: juniper and wild sage, lavender and rosemary. The sharp green scents helped cut through the fog in his brain, the lingering aftereffect of the cantarella.

He had a sneaking suspicion he owed Merren Asper an apology.

The wind had kicked up by the time he reached the Palace. The flags atop the ramparts snapped in the brisk air, and white squalls danced across the

surface of the sea. In the distance, Kel could see half-drowned Tyndaris

sharply outlined against the sky. Boats bobbed like toy ships in the harbor, their rhythm matching the sweep of waves against the seawall. Far in the distance, rain clouds were gathering at the horizon’s edge.

After greeting the guards, Kel slipped through the West Gate and went looking for Conor. There had been a Dial Chamber meeting this morning, but surely it would be over by now? They needed to talk, though Kel was dreading the conversation.

He was halfway to the Castel Mitat when he passed Delfina and stopped to ask her if she’d seen the Prince. She rolled her eyes in the way only a lifelong servant of the Palace could. “He’s in the Shining Gallery, playing whatsit,” she said. “Indoor archery.

Indeed, the doors of the Shining Gallery were standing open. From inside, Kel could hear laughter, interspersed with what sounded like breaking glass. He ducked inside to find that Conor, Charlon Roverge, Lupin Montfaucon, and Joss Falconet had set up a makeshift archery range inside the elegant, high-ceilinged room. They had lined up bottles of wine along the high table on the dais and were taking turns shooting at them with arrows, with whoever wasn’t doing the shooting laying bets on the outcome.

Broken glass was strewn everywhere, amid puddles of multicolored wine and spirits. No wonder Delfina was annoyed.

“A hundred crowns says Montfaucon misses his next shot, Charlon,” drawled Conor, and Kel felt a rare feeling—a flash of real anger, directed at Conor. You owe Beck ten thousand crowns, a debt you haven’t yet paid.

What are you doing, betting a hundred on something that pointless?

Montfaucon took his shot, and missed. As Conor cheered and Roverge swore, Falconet turned and saw Kel standing in the doorway. “Anjuman!” he cried, and Conor glanced over. “You weren’t at the Dial Chamber


“He doesn’t have to be,” Conor said, and Kel realized that Conor was, though hiding it well, very drunk. His smile was slightly off kilter, and his hand, where he leaned upon his longbow, unsteady.

Falconet winked. “Where were you? Caravel?”

Kel shrugged. There was a chorus of whistles, and Montfaucon muttered, “Lucky bastard.” Kel wondered what they’d say if he told them he’d spent

the afternoon not in the exercise of sybaritic pleasure but rather poisoning himself in a noodle shop with two criminals.

Of course, he didn’t. Instead, he hopped up to sit on one of the long tables where, as a child from the Orfelinat, he had first laid eyes on the nobility of the Hill, and told them he’d been at the Arena, learning new fight techniques.

This had the desired effect of distracting the group. Roverge, Falconet, and Montfaucon peppered him with questions, several of the answers to which he had to invent on the spot. They were all a little drunk, he realized, though none as much as Conor. The whole room stank of a sickening

mixture of sweet liquors and jenever.

“What were we talking about before Anjuman got here? Ah, yes, the lovely Antonetta Alleyne,” said Roverge. “Whether she might consider a bit of bedsport with someone now it seems clear she’ll never trap Conor into


The rage that boiled up in Kel’s throat threatened to choke him. “That was her mother’s plan,” he said flatly. “Not hers.”

“True enough,” Falconet said, taking the bow from Roverge, who had just missed a bottle of yellow cedratine by a hairbreadth and didn’t seem pleased about it. “Pity Ana hasn’t a brain in her head. She’d be a good match otherwise.”

“She doesn’t need brains,” said Montfaucon, leaning against the great fireplace. He’d set his bow aside for the moment. “She’s worth millions, and she’s ornamental enough.”

Roverge chuckled, and sketched a voluptuous female form with his hands. “If I married her, I’d keep her flat on her back, pumping out little Roverges, all swaddled in silk.”

Kel forced down the sudden, almost overwhelming urge to punch

Roverge in the face. You used to play pirates with her, he wanted to say. She once chased you around with a sword until you burst into tears, after you insulted her mother.

Kel realized then that he had always framed the past as the time

Antonetta changed: changed how she behaved, changed the way she treated him. But now, listening to Roverge and Montfaucon and Falconet, he thought: They were the ones who had changed. When Antonetta had suddenly curved, her new body all breasts and hips, it was as if she had

become something else to them—something foreign and negligible, easy to mock. They had forgotten she was bright and clever. No, it was more than that. Her cleverness had become invisible to them. They could not see it.

At some point, alone, she had made the choice to turn that invisibility to her advantage. He thought of the way she had disarmed Conor in his room; it had been skillfully done, but it was not the sort of skill Charlon Roverge could see. In fact, Kel had to admit, he had not, until now, seen it himself.

“Then propose yourself as a match to House Alleyne,” Kel said to Charlon, through his teeth. “With all you have to offer, they could hardly say no.”

Conor’s lips twitched. Roverge, though, was oblivious to the sarcasm. “Can’t,” he said. “My bloody father promised me off at birth to a Gelstaadt merchant’s daughter. We’re just waiting for her to finish her education. In

the meantime, I’m free to play.” He leered.

“Speaking of play,” said Montfaucon, “I hear Klothilde Sarany arrived last night. I thought she might enjoy a small and tasteful gathering at House Montfaucon.”

Roverge looked puzzled. “Who?”

“The Malgasi Ambassador,” said Falconet. “Do try to keep up, Charlon.” “If you intend an amorous connection with her, I’m impressed,” said

Conor. “She’s terrifying.”

Montfaucon grinned. “I like a few scars.” He blew a smoke ring. “You’re having dinner with her tomorrow night, Conor. You could bring up the matter of the party . . .”

“I am not inviting Klothilde Sarany to a party whose only guests are you and her,” said Conor. “She would be rightfully annoyed.”

“That’s why I’m inviting the rest of you,” said Montfaucon, gesturing expansively. “Come one, come all. Wine will flow, there will be beautiful dancers and less attractive but highly skilled musicians . . .”

Montfaucon was famous for his parties. They went wrong as often as they went right, but were always a spectacle. There had been the time every guest had received the gift of a basket of snakes (Antonetta had fainted and fallen behind one of the sofas) and the time Montfaucon had planned to

arrive atop his balcony in a hot-air balloon that became entangled in the trees instead.

“She’s not here to attend your party, Montfaucon,” said Roverge, ungraciously. “She’s here to try to talk Conor into marrying the Princess, Elsabet—”

There was a crash. Falconet had let an arrow fly, shattering a bottle of samohan from Nyenschantz. Everyone ducked as glass flew in all directions. The floor was littered with shards, and some of the tapestries boasted long tears. Queen Lilibet was going to be furious.

Joss offered the bow to Conor, whose turn it was. Roverge, eyes glittering—he’d bet against Falconet making the hit—said, “Well, Conor. If this marriage business is still troubling you, you should talk to my father.

He gives the best, most objective advice.”

“Charlon,” Kel said as Conor’s expression stiffened, “whatever happened with that upstart merchant that was troubling your family? The ink-


Roverge scowled. “We took them to court. They had the temerity to argue before the Justicia that ink and dye are quite separate things.”

“Aren’t they?” said Conor, taking aim with the bow.

“On the contrary, they are the same! And the judges saw it our way, of course.” With an ample bribe, Kel thought. “The Cabrols have left

Castellane with their tails between their legs. They’ll be lucky if they can set up as shopkeepers in Durelo.” He spat. “I don’t think they’ll trouble

anyone from now on. You’re welcome.”

He swept a bow just as Conor let his arrow fly. It hit the bottle of jenever, sending more glass flying and filling the room with the scent of juniper.

Roverge, as always inattentive to the mood of his companions, clapped Conor on the shoulder. Montfaucon went to take the bow as Roverge continued chattering on about ink and dye and the destruction of the Cabrol family.

The table shifted; Falconet had seated himself beside Kel. He wore black velvet today, the silk pile enlivened with a luminous silver weave. Falconet was not like Conor or Montfaucon—he presented himself well but clearly lacked their fascination with clothes and fashion. Kel often wondered what it was that did interest Falconet. He seemed to regard all activities with the same casual amusement, but no real preference.

“So,” said Falconet, glancing at Kel’s shoulder. “How did you get injured, then?”

Kel cut his gaze sideways. “What makes you think I did?”

“People talk. But . . .” Falconet spread his hands wide. “We needn’t discuss it if you’d prefer not to.”

“I got drunk,” Kel said. “Fell off a horse.”

Falconet smiled. Everything about him was sharp—his cheekbones, the angle of his shoulders, even the cut of his smile. “Why in gray hell would you do such a fool thing?”

“Personal reasons,” Kel said.

“Ah.” Falconet was watching Montfaucon, who was engaged in wagering with Roverge. “As I said, we needn’t discuss it.” He leaned back on his hands. “Conor had mentioned that he was thinking of going to Marakand, but he seems to have abandoned that idea.”

He was only running away from Prosper Beck. “Yes, he has.”

“That’s a pity,” Falconet said. “I visit my mother’s family in Shenzhou often, myself.” This was something Conor and Joss had in common:

Neither of their mothers had been born in Castellane. “But I take it that perhaps he has gotten more serious about getting married.”

“Really? I hadn’t gotten that impression.”

“Well, it makes sense. The right marriage would bring a great deal of gold and glory to Castellane. If I may share a thought . . .”

“You will, whether I give you permission or not,” said Kel, and Falconet grinned. Joss was among those rare nobles who treated Kel as a person

separate from Conor. Kel knew perfectly well this didn’t mean Falconet had his best interests at heart, but it was interesting, all the same.

“If Conor has come to consider marriage, and I think he has,” said Falconet, “he ought to consider the Princess from Kutani.”

“I thought you were a backer of Sarthe. Or is this sudden enthusiasm for Kutani related to your holding of the spice Charter?” The Falconet fleet circled the world, delving deep into Sayan and Taprobana for cinnamon and pepper. But Kutani was known as the island of spices for good reason. Its

shores were perfumed with cassia and clove, saffron and cardamom, each one precious and expensive.

Falconet shrugged. “Just because something is good for me, it does not hold that it isn’t good for House Aurelian. The spices of Kutani are valuable, and will serve to enrich the coffers of Castellane. But I have had the privilege not just of visiting Kutani but of meeting Anjelica Iruvai. She

is far from some empty-headed royal. A bandit uprising once threatened the palace in Spice Town while the King was away; Anjelica directed the army herself and put down the threat while the Princes cowered. The people

adore her. And—well, you’ve seen her.”

Yes,” Kel said drily. “Or I have seen the work of some very imaginative artists, at least.” He glanced over at Conor, who was laughing as Charlon Roverge arranged a tower of palit bottles to form a new target. A few

servants had ventured into the gallery and now scuttled about, picking up

the broken glass that littered the room. Montfaucon looked on as he always did, dark eyes unreadable.

Kel glanced at Falconet. “Might I ask you something?”

“You may always ask,” said Falconet. “Whether you will get what you ask for is anyone’s guess.”

“It is information,” Kel said. “I overheard the Queen refer to Artal Gremont as a monster. Have you any idea why, or why he was exiled?”

“Hm.” Falconet seemed to be considering whether to answer, for so long that Kel assumed he had settled on no. Then he said, “He was never exactly upstanding, is what I’ve gleaned. But it seems he conceived a passion for a guildmaster’s daughter in the city. He could not offer her marriage, of course. But he did offer to make her his official mistress, for a decent sum.”

Falconet examined the shining half-moons of his nails. “Alas, her father

was a respectable sort. Wanted his daughter married, and had no interest in bastard grandchildren. Gremont had the father thrown in the Tully on a trumped-up charge and took the opportunity to . . . use the daughter.”

Kel felt sick to his stomach. “He raped her.”

“Yes. And the father killed himself in the Tully. But he’d had friends among the guilds. There was talk of going to the Justicia. So Artal was sent away, and the scandal died down. Some money was settled on the daughter, for her pains.” Falconet sounded disgusted by the whole business, which was, Kel thought, to his credit.

“The daughter,” Kel said. “Was she Alys Asper?”

Falconet whipped round to look at him. “You do know more than you let on,” he said. “Don’t you?”

Before Kel could reply, there was a tap on his shoulder. It was Delfina. “My apologies, Sieur. Gasquet wants a word with you.”

Kel hopped off the table. “You understand,” he said to Falconet. “The chirurgeon demands my presence.”

“Of course.” Falconet inclined his head. “Your injuries, the sad result of falling off a horse for personal reasons, must be seen to.”

Kel followed Delfina out into the courtyard. It was no longer drizzling, though the courtyard still smelled of it—the richness of white flowers, the green scent of damp earth and limestone, the sour-sweet marriage of sea and rain.

She turned to face him beneath a dripping arch. “I’ve a note for you, Sieur.”

She handed over a folded piece of paper. Kel scanned the lines quickly

before looking up at Delfina, who was watching him without curiosity. “So Gasquet doesn’t want to see me.”

Delfina shook her head.

“Who gave you this note, Delfina?” Kel asked.

She beamed, her face blank as paper. “I really couldn’t say. So much happens in this Palace, one simply cannot keep track.” She bustled off toward the kitchens.

Kel glanced back down at the missive, its ink already beginning to smear with the dampness of the rain.

Meet me at the gates of the Sault. You owe me.—Lin



The people of Aram had gathered together to hear the words of their Queen in their time of greatest need and fear. Already the armies of the Sorcerer-Kings were massing on the plains beyond Aram.

With Makabi beside her, Queen Adassa stood before the Ashkari people and spoke unto them. “For many years our land has been at peace while those around us have warred,” she said. “But that time has come to an end. The wicked and the power-hungry are bringing war to us, and Aram must answer.”

And the people cried out, for they were in fear for their families and their lives, and they said, “But Queen, Aram is such a small country, and with such power ranged against us, how can we prevail?”

And Adassa said, “Sorcerer-Kings such as Suleman know only how to take power by force. They do not understand that which is freely given.” She

stretched out her hands. “I cannot command you to share your strength with me, that I might wield it against our enemy. I can only ask it of you.”

But though her words were bold, in her heart she was afraid. Perhaps none of her people would wish to share their strength. Perhaps she would stand alone before the armies of the plains.

But Makabi said, “Take heart,” and so then the Queen threw open the doors of the palace, and as she sat upon her throne one by one each of her people passed before her. Not a one stayed back: not the very young or the very old or the sick

or the dying. Each came and offered a word to increase the power of her Source- Stone—a word that they gave up willingly, a word that, after it was offered, they could never speak again.

And that was the gift of the people of Aram.

Tales of the Sorcerer-Kings, Laocantus Aurus Iovit III

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