Chapter no 15

Sword Catcher

Kel followed Jerrod in silence down Arsenal Road. (He felt a little

foolish—he ought to have simply assumed that when he entered the Maze, one of Jerrod’s Crawlers would have reported on his presence. The Maze was Beck’s territory, after all.)

Eventually they reached a warehouse whose windows had been blacked out with paint. Jerrod led him inside and down a long corridor that seemed as if it had been decorated in stripes; Kel realized, upon a closer look, that the weathered paint was simply peeling away in long strips. Curls of paint lay scattered on the floor, crunching under their boots like dried leaves.

From the far end of the hall came the glow of moving lights and the sound of voices.

The corridor ended abruptly, opening into an enormous room. Here Kel paused a moment to stare. Glass lanterns hung from a roof that disappeared into darkness, dimly illuminating dozens of tables scattered across the rough wooden floor of what was clearly an abandoned shipbuilder’s manufactory, back in the days before such work had been moved out of the city to the Arsenale. An array of rusting hooks, on which sails had likely

once been stretched to dry, hung from the ceiling. The hulking shadow of a half-built ship gazed down at an upturned crow’s nest, around which six or seven men played lansquenet with gleaming mother-of-pearl chips.

Presumably, they would be traded for money at the end of the night.

Not everyone in the place was engaged in gaming. Men and women in dark-blue velvet moved among the crowd, taking money and dispensing

gambling chits and fresh bottles of wine—Beck’s employees, clearly. A few young men cavorted among dinghies piled with cushions, drinking abnormally bright-green pastisson, the kind that produced waking phantasms. One slept against a rusting anchor, the bottle clutched against

his chest, a blissful smile on his face like a child’s. They were more finely

dressed than the average inhabitant of the Maze, in gold-cloth and silk,

jewels gleaming at necks and fingers. As Kel did not recognize any of them, he guessed they were rich guildsmen and merchants, not inhabitants of the Hill.

Though, he mused, what would keep Montfaucon or Falconet away from such a place? Or Roverge, or even Conor? Though Conor claimed he had never met Prosper Beck, that did not mean Prosper Beck had not observed him.

Ships’ berths, gutted out of their old homes, were stacked against one of the walls. Diaphanous curtains half hid them from the main floor; as they passed, Kel was aware of movement behind the curtains. Figures, writhing in the small compartments—muffled gasps and rustling, the occasional gleam of light on bare skin or dark velvet.

“The doxies here work for Beck,” Jerrod said as they crossed the room. “It pays well, and we Crawlers protect them. As long as you keep spending money at the tables, their services are free.”

The edge of a diaphanous curtain twitched back. Kel saw a girl: pale-

purple curls, an indigo velvet mask. An arm looped around her from behind, a hand sliding down into her bodice. Her eyes fluttered shut as the curtain fell back in place.

Kel thought of Silla, and of Merren. Of Lin. He had been kissing far too many people lately, he thought. He was in danger of becoming some sort of romantic bandit from a Story-Spinner’s tale, of the he kissed her, then vanished mysteriously into the night variety.

He’d enjoyed all the kissing—kissing Lin had been surprisingly pleasant

—but knew enough about himself to realize he was seeking something he had not yet found.

Nothing about the berths here enticed him, regardless. There was something a little desperate about such public debauchery. As he and Jerrod headed toward a velvet curtain at the far side of the room, they nearly collided with a young Malgasi sailor as he staggered by, rolling down the

sleeve of his copper-colored jacket. Not before Kel caught sight of the puncture marks along his forearm, though. They looked fresh. The boy glanced at him briefly; his pupils were vastly dilated, like black dinner

plates. This was how it started, Kel thought; soon enough he’d be one of the emaciated addicts staggering around the Maze.

“So, is this Beck’s headquarters?” he asked as they ducked past the curtain and found themselves in a stairwell. Rickety steps led upward. Lamps swayed from hooks on the walls. Stacked crates of bottles with bright-green labels that proclaimed it to be SINGING MONKEY WINE. A peculiar name for a vintage.

Jerrod led the way up. “One of many,” he said. “Beck’s not like your

Ragpicker King, with his Black Mansion and his pretensions of being a gentleman. He owns a score of buildings, each running a different business, and moves among them. A manufactory one day, an old temple another. It’s clever, really.”

“And how’d you end up working for Beck?” Kel asked. They had reached a small landing.

Jerrod, though, seemed to have run out of patience with small talk. “None of your business,” he said, shouldering open a door whose rusty hinges screeched like an owl.

Another short corridor before Jerrod led Kel into a room that seemed to have once been an office. It had a nautical feel to it, the walls painted dark

blue and hung with dusty maps of faraway ports. A carved walnut desk took up most of the room.

On one side of the desk was an empty wooden chair; on the other sat a man who glanced quickly from Kel to Jerrod and nodded. “Good,” he said, in a guttural voice. “You brought him.”

So this was Prosper Beck.

Beck was a big man—much bigger than Kel had somehow imagined.

Barrel-chested and broad-shouldered, he had a thickened nose that looked as if it had been broken more than once. Dark stubble shaded a lantern jaw.

He wore an elaborate coat of scarlet-and-silver brocade that seemed

somehow at odds with a neck the size of a tree trunk and fists the diameter of dinner plates. In fact, Beck overall was the opposite of what Kel had pictured.

Well, that was what one got for making assumptions.

Kel studied him, wondering what to say. Long ago, when he had first been learning etiqueta at Marivent, he had complained to Mayesh that he did not understand why he needed to memorize the hundred different ways

to greet foreign nobility, the correct way to deflect questions without giving offense, the different bows appropriate to different occasions.

“Politics is a game,” Mayesh had said. “Manners give you the tools to play that game. And it is a game as deadly as any swordfight. Think of

etiquette as a sort of armor.”

And so Kel, in his mind, put on his armor of manners. The greaves and gauntlets of polite smiles, the vambraces of careful answers that gave nothing away, the helm and visor of unreadable expressions.

“May I sit down?” he asked.

Beck indicated the seat across from him. “Sit.”

Kel settled himself in the wooden chair. It was uncomfortable. He was

aware of Jerrod, standing against the wall, arms crossed. He was not foolish enough to think Jerrod was the only observer here, the only one ready to leap to Beck’s defense should Kel prove troublesome. Though Beck looked as if he could defend himself.

“You are the Prince’s cousin,” rumbled Beck. “Anjuman of Marakand.

What message does the Palace have for me?”

“I do not come on behalf of House Aurelian,” said Kel. “Only on behalf of Prince Conor. And he does not know I am here. No one does.”

There, Kel thought. He had laid out a vulnerability, like a card on the table. He was unsupported by the Palace. He was alone.

“Ah,” said Beck. “Are they aware of Conor’s debt? The ten thousand crowns?”

“Only I am aware,” said Kel. “Once the King knows, the situation slips beyond my control. One does not know what he will do. But he has an army at his disposal, not to mention the Arrow Squadron.”

Prosper Beck smiled a little. “You are threatening me, but sideways,” he said. “Amusing. Now let me ask: Why are you doing all this for Conor


“Because,” Kel said, carefully. “He is my family.” Surely criminals understand family.

“You and the Prince are close, then? You’re in his confidence?” “Yes.”

“Then it would surprise you to hear that he repaid his debt this morning?” said Beck, eyes glittering. “In full?”

Kel’s breath caught in his throat. He thought of his armor. Remember your visor, the mask you must wear. He kept his expression neutral as he said, “The whole ten thousand crowns?”

Beck looked smug. “So you are surprised.”

“I am surprised,” Kel said, “that, having been paid by Conor”—he refused to say repaid—“you agreed to meet with me at all.”

Beck sat back. His gaze flicked over Kel. His eyes were dark, opaque as metal. “You poisoned Jerrod. I thought that was . . . interesting. It made me interested in you.”

Jerrod cleared his throat.

“Though the Prince’s debt may no longer be an issue,” Beck said, “I

admire a person with nerve, which you seem to have. And I am sure you wish to know where the money I used to set up my business came from. Specifically, who on the Hill gave it to me. A person who wishes very much, let us say, to destabilize the monarchy. It was their idea”—he smiled thinly—“that I buy up Conor Aurelian’s debts. And they gave me the money to do it.”

Kel’s heart slapped against the inside of his rib cage. “Why would I believe,” he said, “that you would turn against your own patron?”

Beck snorted. “Why wouldn’t I? If they happen to wind up in the Trick, I keep the whole ten thousand crowns, not just a cut of it.”

“You’re offering to tell me who on the Hill is betraying House Aurelian,” Kel said. “But you have not said what you want in exchange.”

“Antonetta Alleyne,” said Beck.

In the ensuing silence, one could have heard a feather strike the floor. Kel thought of his imaginary armor, but it did not help. Rage was running through his veins like wires through a puppet. He glanced at Jerrod—as if Jerrod of all people would be any help—but Jerrod was at the door, conversing in a low voice with a boy in a blue velvet suit.

“Specifically,” said Beck, as the boy slipped back out of the room, “a necklace that belongs to Antonetta Alleyne. A gold locket, shaped like a heart.”

“It can’t be worth that much,” Kel said, without being able to stop himself. “Why—?”

“It’s what is inside it that I want,” said Beck. “A piece of information.” “Information that could hurt her?” Kel asked.

“She is far too rich and protected to be hurt,” said Beck, dismissively. “And the information I have could well save your precious Prince, even your House Aurelian.” He sat back in his chair. “Get me the necklace. Then we’ll talk.”

“And if I don’t get the necklace?”

“We won’t talk. And you came here for nothing.” Beck shrugged his big shoulders. “I’ve nothing else to say. Off you go, Prince’s cousin.”

Kel rose to his feet. Beck was watching him with his odd, metallic stare. What the hell, Kel thought. He might as well ask. Abruptly, hoping to catch Beck off guard, he said, “Where did Conor get the money to pay you?”

Beck raised his hands, palm out. “Don’t know,” he said. “Don’t care. One odd thing—he paid me in Sarthian lire.” He chuckled. “Not that it matters. Gold is gold.”

“We ought to get down to the floor,” Jerrod said to Beck. “There’s some kind of fight brewing over a hand of lansquenet. Things are turning


Beck rose to his feet and, without another word, followed Jerrod out of the room. Kel watched him go. There was something odd about Beck, something that did not seem to quite match up, but he could not quite put

his finger on it, and Jerrod and Beck did not seem to be coming back. After some time spent sitting alone in the room, Kel got to his feet and shrugged.

“Well, all right then,” he said. “I’ll show myself out.”

When Lin returned to the Sault, she felt as if she had traveled much farther away from home than simply the Maze. She was absurdly pleased to see the place again, and wondered if this was how Josit felt when he returned from the Gold Roads. (She suspected not; he was always happy to see her, and Mariam, but retained an air of guarded wistfulness about him, the sense that while his body might be in the Sault, his mind was voyaging still.)

She went immediately to the Etse Kebeth, the House of Women, and found Chana in the kitchen. Chana shook her head when she saw Lin. “Mari’s asleep,” she said. “She was in a bad way. I had to give her

passiflora tea to calm her down.” She narrowed her eyes. “What did you say to her?”

“Nothing,” Lin protested. “She saw a royal Malgasi carriage on the Ruta Magna. It gave her a shock.”

“Ah.” Chana played with the beaded fringe that edged her cuffs. “I had thought perhaps it was something about the Tevath. The Goddess Festival.” She shook her head. “I had not thought of something so very painful. It took Mariam so long to feel safe in Castellane. To see a Malgasi carriage

here . . .”

“She said something about the vamberj,” said Lin.

“They were the Queen’s own guard in Favár,” said Chana. “They covered their faces with wolf-face masks in silver, and hunted the Ashkar in the

streets as a wolf might hunt a rabbit.” She shuddered and gestured to Lin to come closer. “Darling girl,” she said, giving her a one-armed hug around

the waist, “you have been out in the city so often these past days. Be careful.”

If only she knew, Lin thought. She dropped a kiss on Chana’s wrinkled forehead and made her way back out into the night. As she crossed the Sault, heading toward her home, she glimpsed the shine of lanterns and realized, with a pang, that today had been the day of Mez and Rahel’s wedding ceremony.

She hurried to the Kathot. It was still alight. Round glass lamps hung like pendant moons from the boughs of the fig and almond trees. The damp paving stones were strewn with the petals of red and white roses, as were

the steps of the Shulamat.

Long tables draped in fine white linen bore the remains of the wedding feast—half-empty glasses of wine; crumbs of sweet bread and cake. Lin closed her eyes. She could picture it all: Mez and Rahel in their finery, arms around each other; the Maharam with his staff, giving thanks for the

blessings of the Goddess: joy and gladness, loving couples, mirth and song, close communities, peace and companionship. There would have been gifts: silver blessing cups, made in Hind; gold incantation bowls from Hanse.

From Marakand, leather prayer books studded with semiprecious stones. It was traditional that the wedding gifts come from far-flung places, as a reminder that the world was full of Ashkar, their sisters and brothers. They were not alone here in Castellane.

Lin felt suddenly lonely. She had thought perhaps she would go to the House of Women when she returned from the Maze, to see Mariam, but it

was too late; she did not want to wake her friend. Instead, as she left the Kathot, she found her feet pointed in a very different direction.

As always on the rare evenings that Mayesh was present in the Sault, he was sitting on the porch outside his small, whitewashed house, enclosed in a cloud of lilac pipe smoke. His heavy rosewood rocking chair had been a gift from a Shenzan emissary; when Lin was very small, she had liked to run her hands over the intricate carvings of birds, flowers, and dragons.

In the moonlight, Lin climbed the porch steps. Her grandfather watched her from beneath his thick eyebrows, seeming not at all surprised to see her. “Were you at the wedding?” she asked, perching herself on the porch railing. “Mez and Rahel’s?”

Mayesh shook his head. “I was at the Palace,” he said. “The Ambassador from Malgasi required greeting.”

There was a time when Lin would have been angry. Of course he had not been there, she would have thought. That was Mayesh, ever more dedicated to those outside the Sault than he was to those within it. But she could not summon that anger now. She herself had forgotten Mez’s wedding; she herself had stood among the remains of the feast, the ghost-memory of the happy dancers, realizing that the river of life in the Sault went on, and she stood on the banks, watching from a distance.

“I heard you’ve been making trouble again,” said Mayesh. “Bothering the Maharam about access to the Shulamat, is it?”

“I suppose Chana told you.”

“I am too much of a diplomat,” said Mayesh calmly, “to reveal my sources of information.”

It took Lin a moment to realize he was joking. A grandfather who made jokes. Well. “I thought you didn’t even like the Maharam.”

“It’s not our job to like each other,” said Mayesh. “It’s our job to serve the Sault, albeit in different ways.” He set his pipe down. “You are rather like your mother,” he said, and Lin stiffened. “You never stop pushing, refusing to accept things as they are. You are always fighting. For something else, something better.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Not necessarily,” Mayesh said. “The Sault is a good world, but it’s a small one. That’s why I became Counselor.”

“The Sault was too small for you?” Lin intended to sound contemptuous, but the question came out as curious instead.

“I had a sense,” Mayesh said, “of how small we were, and because of that, how vulnerable. We serve our roles as Ashkar—remaining in the Sault, providing small magics to the people of Castellane, but never being of them. Content to give counsel to others on the topic of laws that do not apply to us, rights that are not ours. There is only one voice that speaks for

the Ashkar outside the walls, only one raised to defend our people in the halls of power.”

“Your voice,” said Lin.

“The Counselor’s voice,” said Mayesh. “It need not be me. It has not

always been me. I will not be Counselor much longer, Lin. At some point, I will need to train a replacement. Perhaps someone clever enough to get

themselves into Marivent against the Prince’s will. Perhaps someone else who finds the Sault a little bit small.”

Lin blinked. Surely she was misunderstanding him. He was looking at her very steadily though, the reflection of the moon a pinpoint light in each of his pupils. “You mean . . .”

Mayesh rose with a groan, settling his hands in the small of his back. “It is late, and time for an old man to seek his bed. Rest well, Lin.”

It was a dismissal.

“Rest well,” she said, and let him go. On the way back to her house, as

she passed through the Kathot, she spied a small gray mouse, nibbling on a crumb of honey cake. It glanced up as she approached with tiny, fear-bright eyes.

Worry not, little mouse, she thought. We are neither of us sure of our welcome here.

Kel had intended to stop on his way back to the Palace to leave a message for the Ragpicker King. He told himself now, as he turned his steps toward the Hill instead of the Warren, that he would reach out to Andreyen soon; he needed to puzzle through what he had learned in the Maze first, and

above all, needed to understand how Antonetta Alleyne could possibly be involved.

Upon his return to Marivent, Kel found the Palace was dark, only a few lamps burning in the upper windows of the various buildings. The single window of the Star Tower was ablaze with light, like a narrow eye gazing

down on Castellane. Kel imagined the King in his tower, watching the stars, guarded by Fausten. He had underestimated the little man, he thought, recalling that Jolivet had once told him that the smallest serpents were the most venomous.

Kel trudged across the wet grass of the Great Lawn, nonplussed and bone-tired. Prosper Beck had not been at all what he had imagined. That

sense of wrongness, of something being off about the man, nagged at him. He wondered, too, if Conor had been puzzling over where he’d gone, or if he’d been drunk enough not to notice. Kel hoped Falconet had taken him seriously when Kel had said: Keep him distracted.

Lost in thought, he nearly bumped into a carriage that had been left

inside the courtyard of the Castel Mitat. It was massive and dramatic, shiny with dark lacquer, its sides sweeping up in the shape of great, dark wings. It seemed to crouch there in the moonlight, hunched and waiting, like some black beast of the night. Upon the doors was the silver blazon of a snarling wolf.

Malgasi, Kel thought. So the Ambassador had arrived. He thought of what Charlon had said: She’s here to try to talk Conor into marrying that girl, the Princess. And he had been right enough, in his clumsy way. They would be swarming soon enough: Malgasi now, then Kutani, Sarthe, Hanse, and the rest. All of them, he thought, with a weary smile, underestimating

how stubborn Conor could actually be.

Kel trudged up the stairs of the Castel Mitat to the rooms he shared with Conor. There were Castelguards posted at the door, as usual; Kel nodded at them and slipped inside, closing the door soundlessly behind him.

Conor was asleep on his bed, a shaft of moonlight falling crosswise upon him. He was in shirt and trousers and, for some reason, one shoe. Kel half wanted to shake Conor awake, to demand of him the manner in which he had somehow managed to pay off his debt. But curled half upon his side,

his arm beneath his head, Conor looked young and careless in sleep, and vulnerable. Wrists, eyes, throat: Kel was acutely aware, as he sometimes was, of all the places Conor could be hurt.

When they were younger, Kel had felt every bruise on Conor’s skin as a weight of guilt, a failure on his own part to protect, to be the Prince’s shield, his unbreakable armor. That had been a time when he had thought Conor kept no secrets from him. He knew better now.

Conor rolled onto his back with a sigh, though he did not wake. Kel sank down upon his own bed, staring into the dark. Had it done him any good to uncover Conor’s secret—the debt, the connection to Prosper Beck? Conor had repaid the money without his help, and Kel had learned nothing from Beck.

Not yet, at least. And if he wanted more information, he would have to betray Antonetta. But that pathway was a dark one. Was it not part of his duty to Conor to betray Antonetta—to take her necklace if that meant he might learn more about protecting House Aurelian? Was that not where his duty lay, even if he did not like it?

He lay awake late into the night, his thoughts running in circles. One thing he was sure of: For the first time, what he knew his duty to be clashed with his own sense of what was right. Curious—he had not realized Kel Saren still had his own sense of rightness, buried under everything he had learned since his first arrival at Marivent.



The Sorcerer-Kings looked upon the small figure of Adassa atop her tower, and they laughed. She was but one person, they said among themselves, and they were an army; she was young, and they were experienced. It would not take long to destroy her.

But the fire of the Source-Stone that Adassa held was greater than any they had imagined, because its power came from willing sacrifice. As the armies of the sorcerers threw themselves against the walls of Aram, they found the very land turned against them: Pits of burning fire opened at their feet, and walls of briars sprang up from the ground to block their steps. Whirling pillars of sand and fire scoured the desert and scattered their soldiers.

For two days and nights this battle raged without slowing, and Adassa remained upon the tower of Balal, and it seemed she would never tire. The sorcerers came to Suleman and they said, “This cannot be won with magic alone. She is a woman, and she loves you. Go into the city and climb the tower and strike her down with your sword. Then we will have Aram.”

Tales of the Sorcerer-Kings, Laocantus Aurus Iovit III

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