Chapter no 16

Sword Catcher

Kel spent most of the next day feeling as if he were being driven slowly mad. For some reason, he had thought that the moment Conor had the

opportunity, he would be eager to tell Kel that he had repaid his debt to Prosper Beck.

But it did not seem that was the case. To be fair to Conor, there was little opportunity. When Kel woke in the midmorning, Conor was seated at the small porphyry table, his hands outstretched as one of the housemaids painted his nails in alternating shades of silver and scarlet. He was also in

the middle of arguing about something with Mayesh, who was pacing the floor.

“Lowering tensions with Malgasi would be ideal,” Mayesh was saying. “But we do not want to find ourselves too closely bound to them. Their

ways of doing things are antithetical to Castellane’s.”

“I thought we merely wished to secure the promise that we could

continue to use the trader roads that run through their country,” said Conor, flexing his fingers as the housemaid put away her little pots of paint. “Beyond that—” He winked as he saw that Kel was awake and sitting up. “Good morning,” he said. “It is early yet, and already you owe me; I prevented Mayesh from waking you an hour ago.”

He certainly looked at ease, Kel thought, as someone who had recently paid off a large debt might. But then Conor was an expert at projecting an air of ease, whether he truly felt it or not. A few weeks ago, Kel would have said he alone had the skill to see through Conor’s pretenses. Now he was no longer sure.

Mayesh looked dour. “One forgets,” he said, “quite how long it takes to prepare for these state dinners. Kel, get yourself up; the tailors will be here any moment to fit you and Conor for your evening clothes.”

Kel yawned and began to clamber out of bed. “I had rather hoped everyone had forgotten I’d agreed to attend in the first place.”

“Not a chance,” said Mayesh. “Lest it slip your mind, Sena Anessa, the Ambassador from Sarthe, will also be present. As she is fond of Kel Anjuman, you will be in charge of distracting her while the main business of the event—smoothing relations between Castellane and Malgasi—goes on unhindered.”

She is fond of Kel Anjuman. Not, she is fond of you. But Mayesh was right, Kel thought, as the tailors arrived, and Conor got lazily to his feet. Kel Anjuman was not Kel himself. Sena Anessa did not really know him, but a construction of him, and that was where her fondness lay.

“I told you you couldn’t get out of it,” Conor said. He grinned the way he once had when he and Kel had been young and had been caught stealing

tarts from Dom Valon’s kitchens—amusement mixed with unrepentance.

Mayesh excused himself, and the tailors went to work, fluttering around both Kel and Conor like anxious doves. Clothes, too, were political in the world of the Palace. Conor had to be fitted for an outfit that would pay

tribute to Malgasi while retaining the honor of Castellane. He could not wear the silver and purple of Malgasi, obviously, but neither could he wear red. A deep burgundy had been settled on: a silk shirt, a fitted, gold- embroidered waistcoat of wine velvet, trousers of linen and brocade, and wrist-cuffs of blood-red rubies. He had been discouraged from wearing his swan-feather cloak, and was displeased about it.

Kel was given far more neutral colors to wear: pale grays and blanched linens, the colors of ash stirred into cream. They were colors that said: Pass me over; do not see me.

He buckled his leather vambraces, with their cleverly hidden blades, beneath the sleeves of his dove-gray coat, despite complaints from the

tailors that it would ruin the lines of his clothes. “It is a state dinner, Sieur Anjuman; surely you do not need these weapons!”

Kel only stared coldly. “I would prefer to keep them.”

Even after the tailors left, hurrying to make the last alterations to the

clothes before evening came, there was no chance to speak to Conor alone. Kel took himself to the tepidarium while Conor was attacked on all sides:

his hair trimmed, his eyes smudged with kohl (which would please Lilibet), his jewelry and coronet chosen, and a series of small stars painted in silver

along his cheekbones. Kel was relieved to escape all that; Conor had a reputation to keep up, but no one much minded what Kel Anjuman looked like as long as he was respectably attired and clean.

By the time the tailors returned with the final iterations of their clothes, Domna Talyn, the Palace Mistress of Etiquette, was there, reminding them both of key phrases in Malgasi they would need to know that night—how to greet the Ambassador, how to send regards to Queen Iren Belmany, how to inquire after the well-being of Princess Elsabet. “I learned a phrase from a Malgasi gentleman the other night,” Conor said, adjusting his glittering crown among the dark waves of his hair. “Keli polla, börzul.

Domna Talyn gasped. “That is obscene, Monseigneur.”

“But it does show a command of the language, I think,” said Conor, looking innocent. “Don’t you?”

At this point, Kel gave up. He was not going to have an opportunity to speak to Conor on serious matters tonight, and Conor was not in a serious mood regardless. He would wait until tomorrow and try to pry the truth out of Conor then (without giving away his own knowledge) and in the meantime, consider tonight a dead loss.

He did not regret that decision now. Despite Lilibet’s graciousness, her committed decorating, and the efforts of Dom Valon’s kitchen in pleasing the palates of the visitors, tension hung like a cloud in the Gallery, and seemed only to be rising. It was no time to be pondering matters of Beck and debts and the Ragpicker King; Kel’s attention was needed in the moment.

The dinner had begun well enough. Lilibet had outdone herself with the decorations, draping the room in the Malgasi colors, and Ambassador Sarany had been delighted. (It helped that all evidence of Conor’s indoor archery game had been cleared away; even the rents in the tapestries had been mended with impressive speed.)

The high table had been brought down from the dais that was its usual home and placed in the center of the room. Sheer curtains of mulberry silk

drifted against the walls, softening the look of the stone. Every shade of the Malgasi color was represented somewhere, from the chairs upholstered in crushed burgundy velvet to the porcelain plates decorated with fat plums.

Lilac jade vases over-flowed with heliotrope and lavender, and the wine- colored glass goblets had been provided to Lilibet directly by House

Sardou, sourced from their warehouses along the Key. Around the handles of the knives and forks, serpents made of amethyst curled, their diamond eyes glittering.

Their seats around the table had been carefully assigned as well. Kel was beside Sena Anessa, who seemed more amused by the decorations than offended that Sarthe’s presence had been ignored. Conor sat across from Ambassador Sarany, near the head of the table, where a chair had been left empty for King Markus.

Along the wall behind the King’s chair were ranged several members of the Arrow Squadron—including, to Kel’s surprise, Legate Jolivet, who usually chose to remain where the King was, but had placed himself here tonight, where he could stare at the Malgasi Ambassador with a stony expression.

Things had begun to go sour when Lilibet explained that King Markus was too deep in his studies to attend. “Some new star system,” Lilibet had

offered airily, the emeralds at her throat catching the light when she moved. “A matter of great import for scholars, of course, though perhaps less for

those of us who must live on the earth.”

Sarany had looked furious. Kel understood now why Conor had said he found her terrifying. She was tall and very thin, perhaps forty years old, with a narrow, predatory face. Her dark hair was pulled back tightly, held in place with a dozen glittering pins. Her eyes were deep black, almost

cavernous in her bone-white face. Yet despite her extreme spareness, her stare was hungry, as if she wished to devour the world. “Surely you are


The Queen only raised a plucked, arched eyebrow. Conor tapped his

fingers idly on the arm of his chair, and Kel realized how long it had been

since he had seen anyone respond to the King’s absence from official events with surprise. Everyone knew that this was how the ruler of Castellane was; one simply accepted it.

“What about Matyas Fausten?” said Sarany. She had only the faintest accent. An accomplished diplomat was likely to speak nine or ten languages fluently. Conor had managed eight, Kel seven. “Will he be here?”

“The little astronomer?” Lilibet seemed puzzled.

“He is Malgasi. I knew him as a tutor at the Court in Favár,” said Sarany. “I would like to see him again.”

“We could certainly arrange that,” said Lilibet, recovering her equilibrium quickly. “I know he was an instructor at your great university . . .”

“The Jagellon,” said Conor, and smiled without any emotion at Sarany.

She looked back at him with her hungry eyes. “In Malgasi, learning is treasured,” she said. “Free education is provided to our citizens at the

Jagellon. Among our royal line we number many polymaths. You will find Princess Elsabet a fine match for your own quick mind.”

It was a peculiar thing to say. Peculiar enough that Kel wondered if she had misspoke in uttering the world match; usually diplomats were far more subtle than that in angling for a political marriage. Elsabet Belmany had been included in Mayesh’s list of potential royal alliances, but still, it was

strange for the Ambassador to broach the topic with such . . . careless conviction.

Sarany continued to enumerate the Malgasi Princess’s many fine qualities to a puzzled-looking Conor: She could hunt, ride, paint, and sing; she knew eleven languages, and had traveled all over Dannemore, and didn’t Conor think travel was the best broadener of minds? Meanwhile, Sena Anessa had opened a conversation with Kel about horses, and whether it was really true that the finest came from Valderan, or were the horses of Marakand rated too low?

Kel had begun to develop a headache as he tried to follow both conversations; fortunately one of the cleverly hidden doors in the walls, usually concealed by a tapestry, opened, and out came a line of servants bearing pitchers of iced wine and sorbet, and silver platters of quince, cheese, and savory pastries.

The iced wine was rose-colored and tasted faintly of cherries. The chatter at the head of the table seemed to have at last turned to the opening of a direct road between Favár and Castellane. It would facilitate trade, Conor said, and naturally it would also pass through Sarthe. Lilibet suggested the

three countries share the cost of building the road. Sena Anessa seemed interested. Ambassador Sarany continued to stare at Conor. Every once in a while her pink tongue would emerge from her narrow mouth and flick swiftly into her goblet, curling up a tiny swallow of wine.

“In Sarthe, we, too, believe that travel increases wisdom,” said Sena Anessa, smiling beatifically. “I just journeyed with our own Princess

Aimada to the Court of Geumjoseon in Daeseong. Such a charming place. Their customs are so different from ours, but so fascinating.”

“Are they not preparing for a royal wedding now?” inquired Lilibet. “I believe I had heard as much.”

“Indeed,” said Anessa. “Crown Prince Han, the King’s second son, is soon to be wed.”

Sarany wrinkled her forehead. “Is this the heir?”

“For now, yes,” said Conor. “If I recall, succession in Geumjoseon is not determined by age. The King selects the favorite of his children and names them heir.”

“It does lead to a great deal of jostling,” said Anessa. “But rather exciting. Han is marrying into the noble Kang family, which may displease his father. They are quite wealthy, but scandalous.”

“Ah, yes,” said Lilibet. Her dark eyes sparkled. She always enjoyed gossip. “Didn’t a daughter of the Kang family slaughter a dozen or so of another noble House? The Nams, I believe?”

“It is all a bit of a fairy tale,” said Anessa. “It is said that the Nam family was already gathered for a funeral when the Kang girl climbed over their garden wall and murdered the lot of them. After which, she vanished in a black carriage—some say it was drawn by two dozen flying black swans. I am sure some of the story is true, but clearly not all of it. Anyway, Prince Han seems not to mind.”

“What’s a little bloodbath between friends?” Conor said. He was playing with the crystal stem of his goblet, but as far as Kel had noticed, he had not been drinking much. “Myself, I applaud the bravery of the young Prince of Geumjoseon. I would be afraid to marry into a family of murderers, lest I be next.”

Ambassador Sarany smiled, though it was less a smile than a stretching of lips. “Getting married is always an act of bravery and faith. Especially when it represents the merging of two great powers.”

Sena Anessa cleared her throat, clearly irritated. “My dear Queen

Lilibet,” she said, “where is Mayesh Bensimon? I always enjoy his sage advice.”

Before Lilibet could speak, Sarany tapped her fork sharply against her plate. “I had nearly forgotten,” she said, “that you have an Ashkari adviser to the throne, do you not?”

“Indeed,” said Conor, “in the tradition of Macrinus.”

Sarany’s lip curled. “I noticed you have a very active Sault. There are so very many Ashkar in the streets here. Don’t you find they spread criminality and disease?”

There was a blank silence; even Lilibet, normally poised, looked stunned. Conor’s eyes had begun to glitter dangerously. “On the contrary,” he said.

“The Ashkar are skilled healers who have saved many Castellani lives, and they are among our more Law-abiding subjects. Of the few hundred

criminals in the Tully, not one of them is Ashkar.”

“You are young and naïve, Ur-Körul Aurelian,” said Sarany coolly. (Even with his limited Malgasi, Kel recognized the word for “Prince.”)

“You are fond of Bensimon—or you believe you are, at least. The Ashkar exert a sort of pull, a power that draws you to them. It is part of their evil.”

“Evil?” The word broke from Kel; he knew better than to speak out, yet he could not help himself. “That seems a severe term. They are, after all, only people who pray to a different sort of God.”

“And practice gematry.” Sarany’s gaze swept over Kel and dismissed him. “In Malgasi, we believe all magic is sin. We have made our lands Aszkarivan—free of Ashkar. In doing so, we ushered in a new phase of prosperity for our people.”

“Was that because they enriched themselves with gold stolen from the Ashkar who had fled?” Conor said, and now his eyes were glittering in a truly dangerous way.

Kel could not help but remember the Dial Chamber meeting where Mayesh had said calmly that there were no Ashkar in Malgasi. No one had paused to ask the Counselor why, he realized. No one had thought about it; no one had seen it as important.

Sarany was looking at Conor, her nostrils flared. Kel could feel the energy in the room changing. It had spiked upward, from tension to anger. He wondered if he should rise and go to Conor, but at that moment, to his surprise, King Markus strode into the Shining Gallery.

With him was Fausten. Neither had dressed for the dinner, precisely, though the King wore a heavy velvet cloak over his usual plain tunic and trousers. It was clasped at the throat with a thick gold chain from which hung an elaborately carved pendant ruby. Fausten, a step behind the King, wore his astronomer’s cloak of silk and glass. Kel could not help staring at

the little man; the sight of him made Kel feel sick with rage, and the fact that he ignored Kel completely, his gaze sliding over him as if he were not there, did not help.

Markus was stony, bland, and calm as he approached the table and took his seat at the head. Lillibet was staring at him, lips parted in surprise;

Conor was expressionless, but his hand was clenched around the stem of his wine goblet.

As Fausten positioned himself behind the King’s chair, Kel noted there was something very different about his demeanor. Where he was usually

cringing and sycophantic, now he seemed eager, eyes bright and darting. He seemed to be vibrating with excitement as he bowed in the direction of Ambassador Sarany, greeting her in Malgasi:

“Gyönora, pi fendak hi líta.”

It was a breach of etiquette for Fausten to speak before the King did;

Sena Anessa looked taken aback, but Sarany only smiled a thin smile and turned to the King. “I am so glad, Körol Markus,” she said, “that we have the favor of your presence.”

Markus? Kel shot Conor a look; Conor only shrugged.

The King inclined his head. “I know my duty,” he said, with the tone of a man who was going to his own execution, and knew it, and knew he must not falter on the road to the gallows.

Very strange.

Ambassador Sarany did not reply, but stared at the King openly with a deeply peculiar expression. There was an edge in it, as of hunger—and something else as well. A sort of longing, almost desperate. Lilibet was watching her over the rim of her wineglass, her expression a mixture of vexation and disbelief.

“How kind of His Highness,” murmured Anessa into the awkward silence, “to make a special effort to see us.”

The King looked up and down the table, his face expressionless. Despite his rich cloak, there was a tear in the sleeve of the shirt underneath which must be causing Lilibet agonies of embarrassment.

“I have not heard words spoken in Malgasi in many years,” he said, “nor seen the wolf blazon. It brings back . . . memories.”

Kel saw Conor’s eyes darken. Even before he had retreated to the Star Tower, the King had never spoken of his time as a foster at the Court in


As if sensing a change in his mood, Sarany turned to Conor. “Perhaps your father has told you of the beauties of Favár,” she said. “The Erzaly River, the Laina Kastel palace—but to hear of something is never quite the same as seeing it yourself, is it?” She clapped her hands together in artificial delight, as if she had just had an idea. “Perhaps, Prince Conor, instead of our Milek Elsabet journeying to Castellane, you could come to

us? Elsabet could be your guide to the city. No one knows Favár and its history better. And you simply must tour the harbor at night. The people of the city cast floating lamps upon the water; it is a sight to behold.”

Conor tossed back the dregs of his rose-colored wine. There was almost no food on his plate. Damn Sarany, Kel thought. She must press and press on this Elsabet business, like a finger pressing a bruise.

“I get seasick,” Conor said.

“What he means,” said Lilibet, “is that his duties here compel him. It is a shame. I am sure he would love to see your city.”

Sarany ignored this. “You must also visit our Kuten Sila, the Bridge of Flowers. It is a monument to the marriage of Andras Belmany and Simena Calderon, and known as the Bridge of Peace, for that union brought an end to many years of bloodshed. A marriage can heal many wounds, even those of long standing.”

Kel could stand it no more. “Our own King Valerian never married,” he said, “and he was known as a great peacemaker.”

For the first time that evening, Ambassador Sarany looked at Kel. Her gaze said, You are prey, but too small to interest me. “And there was a bloody civil war when he died,” she said.

“Arguably,” said Conor, “that would have happened anyway.”

Sarany looked directly at Conor. Something flickered in her gaze—there was a flash of anger, but that hunger remained there, too. She said, her

voice dark and sweet as chestnut honey, “My dear Ur-Körol Aurelian. Might I give you some advice?”

“I am dreadful with advice,” said Conor. “I so rarely take it. It is a besetting sin.”

His tone was casual but his hand was in danger of crushing the stem of his wineglass. Sena Anessa had abandoned any pretense of speaking with Kel and was staring from the King to Conor, and back again.

Sarany said, “I have known, in my travels, many young lords and princes. In love with fun and adventure and ease.” She made a face that indicated she was familiar with none of those things. “Those whom the

Gods have blessed with a royal position inherit much from their forebears. Nobility and power, certainly, but also responsibility. Also debt.

The King looked at Sarany as if, in her face, he saw the gallows.

“I owe no debt to Malgasi,” Conor said, and Kel saw an ugly smile flash across Fausten’s face. He wanted to get up and throttle the astronomer until he told what he knew.

“Oh, but you do,” said Sarany. “Your father might not have told you, but long ago you were promised to Elsabet Belmany. Before either of you were born. It was a union written in the stars.” And she looked at Fausten with her narrow, predatory gaze, the force of which made him shrink back a little.

Conor had gone an ashen color. “Promised? What nonsense is this?” “Markus.” Lilibet’s voice was chilly calm. “Say it is not true.”

“A King does his duty,” King Markus said. “Conor’s duty is to marry Elsabet Belmany. To unite the blood of Belmany and Aurelian. The stars have foretold it. It must be so.”

Conor knocked over his wineglass, spilling rosy liquid across the tablecloth. The servants at the door exchanged glances, then vanished back into the kitchen.

“For months,” Conor snarled, “we have been discussing the nature of the union I must enter into: which countries, which nobles, which alliances.

And you have said nothing. I take it Bensimon does not know, nor my mother, nor Jolivet. You have lied to us all—”

“There was no lie,” hissed the King. “Let the Council of Twelve bicker and barter. See where their alliances lie. It does not matter what they say, or do. What is written in the stars cannot be undone.”

“No, my lord,” said Fausten, in a voice like a chant. “Oh, no, it cannot.


“Enough!” It was, of all people, Sena Anessa. She was on her feet, her crown of white hair trembling with indignation and rage. “Enough of this ludicrous discussion. It is too late for the stars.” She spoke the words with

contempt. “Prince Conor, in the name of the agreement that exists between

us, put a stop to this—this—misunderstanding, before the Ambassador from Malgasi is further embarrassed.”

Embarrassed?” echoed Sarany, her voice rising. “What is this? I demand to know.”

There was an awful moment of silence. Conor looked down the table— not at Anessa, but at Kel. There was something like an apology in his eyes. It sent a dart of fear up Kel’s spine.

“Conor, jun,” said Lilibet. An endearment, one she rarely used. “What is all this about?”

Conor flung his napkin onto his plate. He looked around the table with defiant eyes. “It is really very simple,” he said. “I am already engaged. To Princess Aimada of Sarthe.”

Ambassador Sarany’s mouth fell open. Lilibet looked stunned, Sena Anessa vindicated. Kel felt as if his mind had gone blank for a moment.

How could Conor have done this? Or, if he were honest, how could Conor have done this without Kel knowing?

“There you have it,” said Anessa. “The contract has already been signed.”

Conor,” said Lilibet, urgently. “Is this a joke?” “No,” said Conor. “It is not a joke.”

Lilibet whirled on Anessa. “This may well not be binding,” she said, “given that neither myself nor the King knew anything about it.”

Anessa’s smile soured. It seemed clear she had not been aware that Conor was making this agreement in secret, without the agreement of the King or Queen, though Kel imagined she would deny it if asked. “My dear Queen

Lilibet,” she said. “Prince Conor is not a child. He can make his own agreements. We have his signature, his seal, and we have already delivered the dowry payment.”

The words flashed like lightning behind Kel’s eyes. What was it Beck had said? About being paid in Sarthian gold? “Ten thousand crowns,” he said, then clamped his lips together; he had not meant to speak at all.

But Anessa was crowing. “See,” she said. “Even his cousin knows.”

“Fausten,” Sarany hissed, her blood-red lips twisted into a grimace. “You lying traitor.

The King looked between Fausten and the Malgasi Ambassador, his

brow darkening. But Legate Jolivet—Jolivet looked directly at Kel, and for

a moment, Kel felt pierced by his disapproval. In Jolivet’s eyes, Kel should have not only known Conor’s plans, but been able to stop them.

Fausten began to tremble. “I did not know—”

“You swore,” Sarany snapped. “You said it was all in order, that Markus was in agreement, that the marriage would proceed.”

Fausten looked at Conor with real hatred. “No one knew the Prince would do this. No one could have expected. Cza va diú hama—”

It was not my fault.

Markus turned his head slowly. It was like watching the head of a statue grind in a slow, impossible circle, shedding granite dust as it moved. “You said nothing was unexpected, Fausten. You said everything was there in the stars if one knew how to read them. You told me you were sure.”

Sure of what? Kel wondered. Of the marriage, of more than that?

Fausten seemed to have shriveled in on himself, like a frightened beetle. “It isn’t fair,” he wailed. “I could not have known. I have done everything asked of me—”

“You,” Sarany hissed in disgust. “You cheap little tutor who thought you could enrich yourself by meddling in politics. You will be dealt with.” She looked at Conor. Her eyes were dead as the jeweled eyes of the spider in her ring. “You will not break the contract with Sarthe?”

“I will not,” said Conor. “I have given my word.”

Sarany’s lip curled. She rose from her chair, facing the King. “Your son has betrayed you,” she said. “And betrayed his own nature. He does not

deserve to be joined with the great House Belmany.” She swept the room with a contemptuous gaze. “We offered this alliance because of the deep connection we thought we had forged with House Aurelian when Markus fostered at our Court. I see now that our trust was misplaced.”

“This is no favor you offer us,” snapped Markus, and there was a light in his eyes Kel had not seen for many years. “This is to your advantage,

always your advantage. Fausten lied to me at your bidding. And yet you behave as if you are entitled to not just a place at my table, but my blood. You would cage my son as you caged me.”

Cage you—?” Sarany began, her eyes flaring with rage, but she stopped herself. Straightened her back. “I see the stars have turned your mind. You are to be pitied, Markus,” she said coldly. “House Belmany has better

prospects than you and your debauched son.”

She whirled and stalked from the room. Her bodyguards, who had been waiting by the door along with the Castelguard, scrambled to follow.

“Debauched? How rude,” said Sena Anessa, rather cheerfully. But if she were indeed cheerful, she was the only one. Conor sat unmoving, his finger circling the rim of his wineglass. Lilibet’s mouth was set in a hard line. The King had returned to staring into the middle distance. And Kel was wishing he could be anywhere else in Dannemore.

“Sena Anessa,” said Lilibet. “Would you mind excusing us? I do not think anyone is in the mood for a meal now.”

Gracious in her victory, Anessa rose and inclined her head. “Of course. I understand that all issues of family are complex, Your Highness, and statecraft equally delicate. But I am sure we shall be able to arrange these matters to everyone’s satisfaction, very soon.”

She left, even as carriage wheels sounded on the gravel outside. The Malgasi delegation departing, no doubt.

Kel was conscious, very conscious, of the vambraces on his wrists; of the blades hidden therein. They had been no use to him this night. There had been danger, but not the kind that daggers could disarm.

“Father,” Conor said, setting down his wineglass. “I can explain—”

But the King was not looking at his son. He was rising to his feet, his gaze fixed on Fausten, who had frozen where he was, a beetle pinned to a board.

“Was any of what you told me true?” the King demanded hoarsely. “Could you read the stars? Did they speak to you? Or were you only reciting to me scripts that had been written for you by the Malgasi Court?”

“N-no,” Fausten whispered. “It was written—it may not come to pass now, but that does not mean it will never come to pass—”

Markus slammed a fist down on the table and Fausten cowered back. The King said, “Lies. Sarany called you a traitor. She believed you loyal to her

—because you were. Everything you told me was what the Malgasi would have me believe. That is treason. You will go to the Trick. There, you will think on what you have done.”

Terror flashed across Fausten’s face. Kel could not help but pity him, even as he recalled that Fausten had threatened him with the same imprisonment. It was an awful irony, but not one he could enjoy. “No, no, I have always been loyal. If it were not for me you would have died in

Malgasi when you were a boy. I made them understand how they would benefit, if they let you go—”

“Silence.” Markus snapped his fingers, gesturing for Jolivet, who approached the table swiftly, flanked by two Castelguards. Fausten seemed to have shrunk in on himself, like a mouse under an eagle’s gaze. He made no protest as Jolivet ordered the Castelguards to seize him; they dragged him from the room as he hung limp between them, his elaborate cloak trailing on the ground behind him like the tail of a dead serpent.

There was a sour heat in Kel’s belly; he felt as if he might be sick. He tried to catch Conor’s eye, but Conor’s gaze was flat, unseeing. He had gone inside himself, as he had when he cut his hand open at the Caravel.

“I never did trust Fausten,” said Lilibet. “Horrid little man.” She looked at her husband with a sort of puzzlement; Kel could not help but wonder what she truly thought. Was she glad that Markus had been disabused of his dreams about the stars? Did she hope he might return, speak sense again, as he had tonight? Or did she hope otherwise? “Malgasi should not have approached this through Fausten, nor tried to twist your will, my dear,” she said. “But the situation is not a disaster. A Princess of Sarthe is a perfectly rational choice for Conor—”

The King did not seem to hear her. Abruptly he caught his son’s face in his hand, forcing Conor’s gaze up to meet his own. “You may think you belong to yourself,” he said, “but you do not. I thought you knew it.

Nevertheless, you will learn it now.”

He dropped his hand. Kel was on his feet, but Conor, bruises rising on his skin where his father had gripped him, shook his head minutely. No. Stay.

“Jolivet,” the King said. “Take my son. You know what to do.”

“Chana must be thrilled that you’re helping with the festival after all,” Mariam said.

They were in Mariam’s bedroom. Seated on a pile of cushions, Mariam was embroidering a micromosaic of seed pearls onto the bodice of a sea-

blue dress that spread out around her like a pool of water. Lin, at Mariam’s small worktable, was fulfilling her promise to Chana Dorin—carefully tying off small packets of herbs with ribbons, creating the luck sachets carried by eligible young girls on the night of the Goddess Festival.

“What do you mean, after all?” Lin scoffed. “I was always going to help.

It’s my last Tevath.”

“You were always going to hide in the physick garden until Chana gave up,” said Mariam. “You only agreed because she made you feel guilty. I can tell because you make a horrid face every time you finish one of those


“I’m just so bad at it,” Lin said ruefully. “And I’m not used to being awful at things.” Because you choose to only do the things you think you’ll be good at, said a small voice in her head. “I’m already dreading the

Goddess dance. You know I’m not graceful.”

Part of the Festival’s ceremony required the eligible girls—all unmarried women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three—to participate in a silent, complex, ritual dance. It was actually quite beautiful: As children in the Women’s House, they had practiced its fluid movements each week. Lin was sure she could do it blindfolded, entirely from memory. Which didn’t mean she could do it justice.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re a fine dancer,” Mariam said. “Anyway, your grandfather will be pleased, won’t he? Now that you’re getting along with him better, I’m sure he’ll be proud—”

“He won’t see any of it,” Lin interrupted. “Tevath falls on the same date as Ascension Day this year. They’re having a massive banquet up at the Palace, which I gather Mayesh is required to attend. He won’t even be in

the Sault.”

“Oh,” Mariam said softly. “Lin—”

But before she could say anything else, there was a knock at the door.

When Lin went to answer it, she found Chana Dorin there, wearing a worried expression. “There’s someone at the gates for you, Lin,” she said.

“A patient?” Lin demanded. But of course, it must be a patient; who else could it be? Her mind raced. She had not been expecting any emergencies, any babies being born. She’d have to get her medical satchel, change her

clothes if there was a chance. She was wearing an ordinary day dress, spring green and slightly worn around the sleeves and hem. She’d had it for years.

Chana’s eyes darted to Mariam, and back to Lin. “Yes, a patient,” she said, though Lin was puzzled—what had that look been about? She was even more puzzled when Chana bundled her out of the room and placed a

satchel in her arms, draping a shawl around her shoulders. “You’ll have to hurry,” she said. “Everything you need ought to be in there.”

“Chana,” Lin hissed, looping the strap of the bag over her shoulder, “what’s this about? Why the secrecy?”

Chana gave her a dark look. “You ought to blame your grandfather. Now go. Hurry along.”

Lin hurried, feeling slightly resentful. Blame your grandfather? This must have something to do with the Palace, then. Had Kel fallen ill? Gotten injured again? It was all very odd.

She found Mez at the gates, with Levi Ancel, a good-natured young man who’d grown up in the House of Men with Josit. “You lead an exciting

life,” Mez noted as she ducked through the gates. He was laughing, but Lin fretted a little, inside. To be summoned to the Palace once had already attracted the attention of the Maharam. For it to happen twice . . .

But then she saw Kel, and those worries faded. He was standing in the shadow of the Sault walls, near the old cistern. He seemed unharmed, at least, but looked ragged around the edges somehow, like a smudged drawing. She was instantly worried.

“Kel.” She drew close enough to him so that she would not be overheard

—she suspected Mez and Levi were still watching avidly from the gates— but not so close as to cause chatter. He was dressed quite finely in silk and linen, all shades of pale ash and smoke and dark soot. His coat was silver linen, the sleeves slashed open, as was the style, to show the shirt of raw silk beneath. He was not wearing his talisman. “Are you all right?”

His pupils were wider than they should have been, his mouth compressed in a tight line. “It’s not me. It’s him.”

She looked at him blankly. It was a hot night; the air felt thick and heavy.

She could see the lights of the Broken Market in the distance. The moon hung overhead, a copper penny, yellowed at the edges. “You mean . . .”

“Conor,” he said, in a low voice.

She almost took a step backward. “Kel, he forbade me to come to the Palace. If you want an Ashkari physician, we can find someone else—”

“No.” His eyes were wild. “It has to be you, Lin. I’m asking. If it isn’t you, it won’t be anyone.”

Name of the Goddess. Lin knew the answer before she gave it. For a Physician should not question whether a patient is enemy or friend, a native

or a foreigner, or what Gods he worships.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll go.”

His shoulders sagged with relief. “We must hurry.” He indicated the black carriage loitering in the road. “I’ll explain on the way.”

Once inside the carriage, she relaxed minutely. At least Mez and Levi weren’t watching. The inside was richly upholstered, cushioning the shocks as they rolled over the pitted surface of the Ruta Magna. Outside the windows, the blaze of naphtha torches created halos of light that cast a blurring softness over the edges of landmarks. Shops and bridges, balconies and flagstones dissolving into a soft wash of gray and black.

Lin said, “Are you quite sure about this, Kel? You didn’t hear Prince Conor when he ordered me out of Marivent. He was quite furious.”

“I am very sure.” A muscle jumped in his cheek. “You are skilled. Very skilled, as I am in a position to know. But there is more than that at work here. You are coming at the express request of Lilibet, because you are Mayesh’s granddaughter. She believes she does not need to worry that you will tell anyone what you have seen.”

“Lilibet—the Queen?” Lin was stunned. “Kel, you are frightening me a bit. If the Prince has injured himself in some foolish way, surely that cannot be—”

“He did not injure himself. He has been whipped.”

Lin sat back, openmouthed. “Who would whip a Prince of Castellane?

Are they in the Trick now?”

Kel said, tonelessly, “It was a royal order. He had to be whipped.” “I don’t understand.”

Kel looked at her in a sort of agony. The angle of the carriage indicated to Lin that they had begun to climb the Hill. She was suddenly desperate to

know what had happened. Surely no one would whip the son of House Aurelian with true severity. The body of the Crown Prince was almost holy. He was precious, irreplaceable.

“Conor,” Kel said, “displeased his father. The King felt he should be

made to understand his duty. He ordered Legate Jolivet to whip him until he lost consciousness.”

Lin curled her hands into fists to keep them still. The story seemed incredible. The way Mayesh had always described King Markus—distant, dreamy, studious—did not seem to match this behavior at all.

“And the Legate—he agreed to this?”

“He had no choice,” said Kel, almost unwillingly. “Jolivet has always disapproved faintly of Conor, and the way he lives his life—and me as well, by extension; he considers us both a pair of wastrels—but he cares for Conor. He did not wish to do what he did.”

“Has this,” Lin whispered, “happened before?”

“No,” Kel said. He ran his hands through his hair, agitated. “We were in

the Gallery. Conor had angered everyone—gray hell, I don’t think there was anyone who wasn’t furious, but still—the King had Jolivet take him to the Hayloft, the room where we train. I went, too; no one stopped me. And Lilibet ran after, calling for Jolivet to stop, but the King’s orders supersede all others. It has just been so long since he has given any.” His breath quickened. “I thought it would be symbolic. A lash or two over his jacket, to show him he’d done wrong. The King was not even there, but Jolivet had his orders. He knew them—and had known them a long time, I think. He

made Conor kneel. Whipped him through his shirt, until the shirt came apart like wet paper.” He made a dry, retching noise. Clenched his right hand tightly. “Five lashes, ten, then I lost count. It stopped when he was

unconscious.” He looked at Lin. “There was nothing I could do. I am meant to be Conor’s shield, his armor. But there was nothing I could do. I told them to whip me instead, but Jolivet did not even seem to hear.”

There was a metallic taste in Lin’s mouth. She said, “The Legate had his orders from the King. You could not have made him disobey them. Kel— where is the Prince now?”

“Our room,” Kel said. “Jolivet carried him there. Like he carried me, when I came to Marivent.”

“And there was discussion of finding a physician?” Lin could see the white glow of Marivent, swelling outside the windows, as if they were nearing the moon.

“None of the Palace staff know what happened. The Queen was afraid to summon even Gasquet, as the news would travel so quickly through the Hill. That the King had whipped Conor. That there was discord in the House. That Conor had been shamed.”

“I do not see anything shameful about it,” said Lin. “If there is shame, it is the King’s.”

“The Charter Families will not see it that way. They will see it as weakness, a crack in the foundation of House Aurelian. I told the Queen about you—that you had healed me before, that you were Bensimon’s granddaughter. That you wouldn’t talk. So she agreed to let me fetch you. She is Marakandi; they have a great faith in Ashkari physicians.”

“I won’t know,” Lin said. “I won’t know what I can do until I see him.” She knew, though did not say, that whipping alone could kill a man.

Blood loss, shock, even damage to the internal organs. She thought of Asaph and the long fall down the cliffs to the sea. Did they—the Queen, the Legate, even the King—understand what had been done? Surely they had never seen whip scars, that ugly grid of pain and trauma that ached long after the wounds had healed.

“I know,” Kel said, as they passed beneath the North Gate. “But if it were not you, Lin, there would be no one. No other physician who could attend him. I—”

So I am not the best, just the only, she thought, but she was not angry. How could she be? It was so plain in Kel’s face that there was more than duty here, more than obedience that had been drummed into him through

years of training. It did not matter how much she believed that, in his place, she would resent Prince Conor, even hate him. She was not in his place. She could not understand.

The carriage had come to a stop in the courtyard of the Castel Mitat. Kel threw the door open, leaping down to the ground, and turned to help her down after him. “Come,” he said. “I will bring you to him.”



Sulemon passed over the city walls and into the land of Aram, and found it deserted. Many of its great buildings, its temples and libraries, its gardens and marketplaces, lay in ruins, but while he saw much destruction, he did not see death: The people of Aram were gone, the city and the land uninhabited. Adassa had held off the sorcerers long enough for her people to escape.

In fury, Suleman climbed the tower of Balal, his stone burning like a flame at his side. And when he reached the top, he found the Queen waiting for him.

It seemed she could barely stand. She had been worn away like a candle burned down to the wick. He knew then that she was dying, that she had used all she had—the power in her stone, and then her own power—to hold off the enemies of her people.

“What have you done?” he cried. “You have blackened the land, and your city lies abandoned. Where have your people gone?”

“They have escaped,” she said. “Far beyond your reach.”

But Suleman only shook his head. “Nothing is beyond the reach of sorcerers, and when you are dead, we will hunt your people down and make them slaves through the generations. You have won nothing.”

And Adassa felt despair.

Tales of the Sorcerer-Kings, Laocantus Aurus Iovit III

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