Chapter no 18

Sword Catcher

It was the day of the Sarthian Princess’s arrival in Castellane, and Kel wished he had not been seated among the Charter Families. Their chairs

had been ranged upon a raised platform in the middle of Valerian Square, and he could not help but feel that everyone who had gathered to see the Princess arrive was staring at them curiously: from Montfaucon, resplendent in a yellow brocade doublet with vertical stripes of black silk, to Charlon and his father, both glowering in fury, to Gremont: richly dressed but asleep as usual, and snoring at the sky.

Falconet, seated next to Kel, wore dark-blue velvet and a pleased expression. Kel recalled Polidor Sardou’s words during the last Dial Chamber meeting he’d attended. It seemed long ago now. Joss, your sister is married to a Sarthian duke. You are not objective in this matter. An

alliance with Sarthe would likely benefit your family.

As always happened with Falconet, beneficial things seemed to simply fall into his lap. He waved languidly at the crowd in the square, clearly not bothered by the attention, before turning to Kel. “And how is our mutual friend, the Prince?” he murmured. “I have heard little from Conor since

news broke of his felicitious engagement. But then, it has not been long, has it?”

Falconet’s expression was blandly curious, but mischief lurked in his eyes. Kel did not believe it was a malicious sort of mischief, but it was clear Falconet found the situation slightly amusing, as he found so many things.

“No,” Kel murmured back. “It has been just a fortnight.” It was hard for him to believe himself—it seemed a lifetime, not two weeks, since Conor’s engagement had been discovered. Now Princess Aimada was due to arrive in Valerian Square and be presented to the people of Castellane in less than an hour’s time.

Even Conor seemed stunned by the rapidity with which everything had been arranged. Sena Anessa, clearly furious that the King and Queen were not more pleased about their son’s marital plans, had left Marivent with a dark determination in her eyes. During the weeks since, each day had brought a new whirlwind of developments: arrangements for the Princess’s arrival, for her welcoming ceremony, for the drawing up of contracts between Sarthe and Castellane. Each day, royal guards from both Courts galloped back and forth through the Narrow Pass, messages in hand. Should the wedding be held inside or outside? How many ladies-in-waiting would

the Sarthian Princess require? How well did she speak Castellani? Would she need a tutor? Would she prefer to decorate her own apartments or have Queen Lilibet do it for her?

Kel had somewhat hesitantly asked Conor whether this meant it was time for Kel to move into his own rooms in the Castel Mitat. Conor’s eyes had blazed for a moment before he said, “Why bother with that? Most married royal couples keep to their separate rooms. I don’t see why things need to


“Because,” Kel had said, “you’ll need an heir, Conor. And that means—” “I’m familiar with the process.” Conor’s tone was dry. “I suppose it’s a

matter of asking Aimada whether she wishes that process to take place in her apartments or mine. Either way, there seems no reason to consider moving you now.”

So Kel had let it go, while hoping that if he were to be ejected from the room he shared with Conor, he would at least be given enough notice to

relocate his things. He understood Conor’s desire that things not change, but Conor’s desires were often at cross purposes with what was practical.

Meanwhile, Lilibet had set herself to calming the Charter Families, who were predictably enraged that Conor had gotten engaged without consulting them. Not all of them had turned up for this, the official welcoming of the Princess. Falconet was here, and the Roverges; Cazalet, always politic, had come, as had Gremont, Montfaucon, and Uzec. Lady Alleyne was conspicuously absent, as was Raspail, furious at the spurning of Kutani.

Esteve and Sardou were also pointed in their absence.

Even the people of Castellane seemed a little stunned. After years of pleasing speculation as to who might be their next queen, it seemed to them that things had been decided with a disappointing lack of fanfare. They had

gathered behind the barriers separating them from the central square— where a sable carpet had been spread over the flagstones, and a curtained

pavilion draped with asphodel erected as a temporary shelter in which the Crown Prince might, unseen, wait for his bride to arrive—but they seemed more curious than enthusiastic. They had the general air of a traveler who, after a night of drinking, wakes with the strong suspicion that he has been robbed of something, but is not sure what.

It did not help that Sarthe was widely regarded with the contempt with which countries generally regarded their nearest neighbors, rather as Shenzhou despised Geumjoseon and Malgasi loathed Marakand. Across the square, near the steps of the Justicia, stood a group of agitators dressed in makeshift ensembles cobbled together from old military uniforms—ragged jackets and shako caps with tarnished badges, even a ratty but voluminous admiral’s coat—chanting, “Death before union with Sarthe!” One, a tall

fellow with ginger hair, called out: “The only good Sarthian is a dead one! String ’em up outside the Tully!” as he swept before him a handmade banner showing the lion of Castellane pouncing upon the eagle of Sarthe.

Charlon Roverge, half asleep in the bright sunlight, cheered faintly.

“Charlon,” said Kel, “we are not on their side. We are on Conor’s side, and thus in support of a union with Sarthe.”

“I can’t help it.” Charlon yawned. “I am easily persuaded by enthusiasm.”

Falconet threw a glove at him just as there was a slight commotion among the guards surrounding the steps up to the Charter platform. A moment later, the platform swayed and Antonetta Alleyne appeared, looking around anxiously.

Kel felt a tight heat in his chest, as if he’d swallowed a burning ember. Gone were Antonetta’s soft pastels and yards of lace. Her dress was silk, a deep-violet color, inset with black lace through which tantalizing flashes of

skin could be glimpsed. It clung to her body before flaring out at her hips in a trumpet shape; the neckline plunged, creating a startling V of white skin against the black of the fabric. Her hair was loose, a river of dark gold, needing no ornament but its color.

Around her throat gleamed her locket, the carved heart dangling between her breasts. Kel glanced away—he didn’t want to think of Prosper Beck

right now, nor did he want to stare openly at Antonetta. (Well, part of him did, but it was not a part that he usually allowed to rule his will.)

“Someone,” muttered Montfaucon, leaning over the back of Falconet’s chair, “wants to show Conor what he’ll be missing.”

Antonetta lifted her chin. She was alone; Lady Alleyne was nowhere to be seen. Antonetta strode down the platform’s central aisle and, to Kel’s surprise, sat down beside him. Her skirts spread out around her, spilling onto his lap in heavy, weighted folds of silk.

Joss, on the other side of Kel, grinned at Antonetta. “I see Lady Alleyne’s tastes have undergone something of a change.”

Antonetta simpered. Perhaps that was an unkind characterization, Kel thought, but no—Antonetta was gazing at Joss with a meant-to-be-adorable little smile playing around her mouth. Definitely a simper. “Why thank you for noticing, Joss,” she said. “You’re too kind.”

Falconet grinned before turning to start up a conversation with Montfaucon. Behind them, Kel could see Charlon, staring at Antonetta with hungry dark eyes.

“Kel,” Antonetta muttered. The simper was gone; her hands were clenched in her lap. “You don’t mind me sitting beside you, do you? I can trust you not to leer.”

Kel felt instantly ashamed. He wanted to look at Antonetta, wanted to fill up his eyes with the sight of her. A wayward curl of her hair had become caught in the chain of her necklace; he wanted badly to reach over and free the silky strands from their imprisonment.

He felt hot, itchy, and foolish, as if he were fifteen years old again, offering her a ring made of grass in the cool shade of the Night Garden. He had lost himself in fantasy then; he had not realized how little it was he really had to offer. He recalled the night of her debut ball, after it was over, lying awake in the room he shared with Conor.

Do you think you’ll marry Antonetta? he’d asked, his voice tight. Her mother wants you to.

Conor had scoffed. Of course not. She’s like a sister to me, Antonetta.

Kel had been unguarded in that moment. Conor had been kind to him, but that was Conor; Kel did not plan to be unguarded like that again.

“I know your mother,” he said, glancing at her. “I know she didn’t pick out that dress.”

“My mother,” Antonetta said, twirling her fingers in the fabric of her skirt. “She had something of an episode when she heard Conor was marrying the Sarthian Princess. She threw several vases and a carved bust of Marcus Carus. Then she told me she was tired of dressing me and I could wear whatever I wanted since it no longer mattered.” Something like a glint of real amusement flashed in her eyes. “Mariam made this. She seemed delighted to be free of my mother’s . . . instructions.”

“I assume that’s why Lady Alleyne is not in attendance today,” Kel said. “She does know she’s courting controversy with the royal House?”

“She does. She is at home lying in a darkened room; she sent me out to save face for House Alleyne. No one can say we did not attend the welcoming of the Princess—not when I am here to represent us.”

Kel lowered his voice. “That seems cruel,” he said. “Whatever your mother’s schemes, did she not know you cared for Conor?”

Antonetta looked up at him. The posy-drops in her eyes had turned the

pupils to the shape of tears. Kel recalled Lin saying to him in her matter-of- fact way, Antonetta fancies you. He’d had a hard time hiding his reaction from Lin: the tension in his muscles, the speed of his heartbeat. It had stayed with him until he kissed Lin, which had forcibly wrenched his mind back to the present.

And now here was Antonetta, sitting beside him, smelling of lavender oil. It felt familiar, as if he had stepped back in time to one of the many parties where they had sat together on the staircase above, watching the

goings-on and gossiping about the adults. It was strange: She seemed back in his life, but it was nothing he could trust to last. And though she might not have changed as much as she pretended, she had become someone other than the person she had been at fifteen. They all had. And he was not sure

he knew the person she was now.

“Caring was only my mistake,” Antonetta said. She put a hand up to her throat and for a moment toyed with her locket. It seemed a deeper gold against the rose tint of her skin. “Not hers.”

Kel resolved to tell Lin she was an idiot next time he saw her.

A servant in pale-green livery came up onto the dais and whispered something to Montfaucon, who announced: “The carriage from Aquila has been spotted coming through the Narrow Pass. It won’t be long now.”

A stir went through the Charter Families. Antonetta frowned and said to Kel, “Do you know why the Prince made this decision so suddenly? He seemed so reluctant to marry. And now”—she gestured toward the flower- strewn square, the flags of Sarthe and Castellane draping the lions in front of the Justicia—“this?”

Kel was well aware that more ears than just Antonetta’s were awaiting his response. “I believe,” he said, “that Sarthe made an offer that was

impossible to refuse.”

Joss laughed sharply; everyone else was silent. Charlon and his father continued to glower in the direction of the square. Kel wished he could see Conor, but the Queen and Prince remained inside the draped pavilion, its damask curtains firmly closed. A hollow square of Castelguards had been set around the pavilion; within the guarded area, Kel could glimpse the

figures of Jolivet and Bensimon, deep in conversation. Nearby stood the royal carriage—gold lacquer for a royal event, with a red lion blazon on the side.

It all made Kel uneasy. There had been no discussion of him accompanying Conor at the welcoming ceremony, or appearing in his place. Even Legate Jolivet seemed to feel this was something Conor must do alone, with no Sword Catcher to stand between himself and the world.

There was a ceremonial, almost religious, aspect to this event: You will be meeting your future queen, Lilibet had said to her son, and you must be

there as who you are, the embodiment of House Aurelian, its blood and bones. This may have begun in lies, but it cannot continue in pretense.

At least there were Castelguards everywhere. Some, in ordinary street clothes, had even been scattered among the crowd, to monitor the chatter of the citizens and prevent any violence. Along the roofs of the buildings—the Justicia, the Convocat—crouched highly trained marksmen armed with steel-tipped arrows.

Kel wondered if, under other circumstances, the King might have argued in favor of the Sword Catcher’s presence; after all, Kel’s very existence at Marivent had been Markus’s idea. But since the night of the disastrous state dinner with Malgasi, and what had happened next, the King had hidden himself away in the Star Tower. Kel had gone one evening, half wondering if he could speak to the King now that Fausten was locked in the Trick, but the doors had been guarded by the Arrow Squadron, and Kel had turned

away, unsure whether there was much of a point in trying to speak to Markus. It was easy to imagine that all his ravings about debt had been about whatever Fausten was pouring into his ears regarding Malgasi, and not about Prosper Beck at all.

It was still strange to Kel that Fausten, who had been such a constant presence beside the King in all the time Kel could recall, was now in the

Trick, and no one—not Bensimon, not Jolivet, not minor Castelguards like Manish or Benaset—seemed to know what was happening to him. Kel and Conor had watched from the top of the North Tower, seeing the single light illuminating the topmost window of the prison tower, but had not caught a glimpse of anyone coming or going. Conor insisted that the King was likely planning to use Fausten as a pawn in further dealings with Malgasi, but Kel had his doubts.

Kel had not forgotten the look in the King’s eyes—cold, inhuman—when he had ordered Fausten to the Trick, and then Conor to be whipped. Kel had not forgiven Markus for the whipping; the fact that Lin had healed Conor completely did not excuse the King’s actions, though Kel kept that thought to himself.

He, Lin, and Conor had decided that Lin’s handiwork would be kept a secret. Lin, pale with surprise, had not seemed to have wanted it known that she had healed the Prince overnight, and Conor had desired as little fuss about the whole business as possible; the more people who knew about the healing, he reasoned, the more would hear about the whipping. So Lin had re-bandaged his torso, and for a week or so he had walked stiffly before discarding the ruse, pointing out to Kel when he did that generally people found injuries and illnessses awkward and distasteful, and were glad for the chance to forget them. And indeed, the few who knew the truth—Jolivet, Bensimon, Lilibet—had asked no further questions.

Antonetta now elbowed Kel lightly just as three gleaming carriages rolled into the square, accompanied by a flourish of trumpets: a large, royal cabriolet flanked by two smaller companions. Falconet waved casually at

the cheering crowd, who had perked up at the promise of spectacle. Some were clapping. Kel thought for a moment he caught sight of a flash of

foxglove behind the barricades. He raised an eyebrow—though, of course, Ji-An was hardly the only person in the city who wore the color violet. Still,

he wondered if Andreyen Morettus was somewhere here, watching. He suspected so.

The Castelguards began to move aside to allow the Sarthian royal

carriage to draw up before the pavilion. Jolivet seemed to be giving orders, while Bensimon approached the pavilion, parting the curtains to lean inside; a moment later they were thrown back, and Conor stepped out onto the

sable carpet.

Montfaucon whistled through his teeth in reluctant admiration. It was true, Kel thought, that one could often tell how bitterly miserable Conor was feeling by how spectacularly he had dressed. Today Conor’s despair

had taken the form of a waistcoat of dark-blue sueded leather with sapphire buttons. Under the waistcoat was a silk shirt; over it, a gold-frogged jacket with a high, embroidered collar. His trousers had been cut narrowly so high black boots could be fitted over them; his white lace cuffs spilled like seafoam over his hands, which sported rings on each finger. The coronet that encircled his dark curls was gold, with rubies set in the band.

Another small cheer rose from the crowd: They were pleased at the beauty of their Prince. It was a point of pride. They cheered again when Lilibet emerged to stand beside her son, her posture regal, her long black hair braided with emeralds.

Conor stood with his shoulders back as the doors of the Sarthian carriage opened. Kel felt a strange mixture of pain and pride: Conor was facing this, the consequences of his actions, with his head held high. At the same time, Kel hated that it was happening, even as a young woman stepped from the Sarthian carriage.

She was tall, with long chestnut hair, held back by a hoop of bronze. She wore a close-fitting black tunic and trousers, and a gold sword—safe in its scabbard—hung at her hip.

Antonetta made a puzzled noise. “An unusually dressed Princess,” she said.

“She is not the Princess, Ana,” said Falconet, lazily. “I recognize her from the Court at Aquila. That is Vienne d’Este, one of the Black Guard.”

The Black Guard. Kel knew of them. They were nearly mythical: an elite unit of the Sarthian army who gathered intelligence for their King. They

were also trained assassins, some of the best in the world, though that fact was never publicly admitted.

Vienne stepped aside as the carriage door opened again and Sena Anessa emerged, holding a young girl by the hand.

Not a young girl, Kel amended. A child. She could not have been more than eleven or twelve, her thin, dark-brown hair tied back with ribbons, her dress a modest lace kirtle, overlaid with a velvet pinafore. Around her forehead was a thin gold circlet.

The coronet of a Princess.

The crowd had fallen utterly silent. Roverge sat forward. “Well,” he said. “She’s awfully short.”

“What in gray hell,” Montfaucon muttered, as the trumpets sounded another flourish and Sena Anessa presented the small girl to Conor. Even from a distance, Kel could see the smile on her face as Conor and Lilibet stood frozen in shock.

“Well, fuck,” said Falconet.

“Joss,” Kel hissed, “what is this? What’s going on?”

“That’s not Aimada,” said Falconet. He looked as unhappy as Kel had ever seen him. “That’s her younger sister, Luisa. A Princess, yes, but she’s all of twelve.” He shook his head. “Double-dealing bastards. They’ve switched out one sister for another.”

Antonetta looked stunned, everyone else, clearly furious.

“How did this happen?” demanded Cazalet, his usually beatific round face creased in fury. “Did no one look at the marriage contracts? Did

Bensimon not examine them? He would never make a mistake like this—” “It may not matter what the contracts say,” snapped Montfaucon. “The

language of those things is hundreds of years old. It may provide for a substitution to be offered, in the case of the illness or death of the first Princess.”

“I assure you,” said Falconet, “that Aimada d’Eon is not dead.”

“She could be impure. Even pregnant,” Uzec suggested, then shrugged at Falconet’s glare. “It was only a thought.”

“This is a deliberate public provocation,” said Benedict Roverge. “A planned humiliation. They are trying to force House Aurelian’s hand, trying to incite a conflict, even a war—”

“War with Sarthe will only happen,” said Antonetta, “if Conor allows it.

It is all in how he receives her.”

Kel saw the others look at her in surprise. He felt a flash of irritation— did they really expect her to giggle inanely every moment of her existence? Antonetta, for her part, clamped her mouth shut into a firm line.

“How can he receive her?” snapped Benedict. He gestured toward the frozen tableau in the center of the square: Anessa, presenting the child, who was beginning to squirm. Conor, unmoving as a statue. “She is a child, and this is an insult.”

“Antonetta is right,” drawled Falconet, “which is not something I often say. It is a matter of saving face. He cannot spurn her in front of the crowd.”

“So they slap us, and we cannot slap back?” said Benedict. “How is that good strategy? How is that fair?”

“It is not fair to make the girl pay for this, either,” said Antonetta. “That poor child.”

Enough. Kel stood up and vaulted over the railing of the dais, nearly landing atop a gawking Castelguard. He darted through the loose crowd of milling musicians, the girls with their baskets of flowers, everyone hesitating, unsure of what to do next. As he reached the square of sable carpet, one of the Arrow Squadron moved to stop him.

“Let him by,” said Jolivet. His narrow face was expressionless, but Kel could see the banked fury in his eyes. As he took Kel by the arm, he glanced back toward the dais. Kel turned to see that, one by one, the Charter Families were leaving the square. The Roverges first, then Cazalet— guiding the blinking Gremont—and even Joss Falconet, until only

Antonetta remained, loyally in place, alongside Montfaucon, who, Kel suspected, just wanted to see what was going to happen.

Jolivet guided Kel toward Conor. Kel was half aware of Bensimon, at the Queen’s side, politely telling Princess Luisa that this was the Prince’s cousin, come to greet her.

Kel reached Conor, laid a hand on his arm. It was rigid under the fabric of his coat. He seemed locked in place, as if his body had turned to iron or glass. He did not look at Kel, but he leaned into his hand slightly, as if his body recognized the familiar touch.

“Bow to her,” Kel whispered. Conor flicked a glance toward him. He could tell that what the Prince wanted was to explode in fury. He could feel the rage running through him, and knew he had to contain it. Whatever happened, however Sarthe’s betrayal was dealt with, it could not be dealt

with here and now. Roverge had been right when he’d said it could provoke a war.

Vienne d’Este had put her hand on the shoulder of the little Princess, a

protective gesture. (She was also glaring at Conor, for which Kel could not blame her.) She was awkward, Luisa d’Eon, pinned in that odd age between endearing childhood and adult beauty. She did not share her sister’s unusual red hair, rather hers was a lank, colorless brown; her shoulders were bony.

She was looking at Conor as if she were wonder-struck by him, her mouth a little bit open.

There was a terrible sympathy in Kel’s heart. He knew it was pointless;

his sympathy would not help her. No one could help her. She was a pawn in a game of Castles that spanned countries.

“You can deal with Sarthe later,” he murmured into Conor’s ear, speaking in Marakandi; he doubted very much Anessa spoke it, and certainly Luisa would not. “This is not the child’s fault. She is barely older than I was when I came to the Palace. Be kind.

Conor did not respond, did not look at Kel—but he did step forward, finally bridging the gap between the two groups: Sarthians and Castellani. He swept an elaborate bow at Luisa’s feet. If it was a little too elaborate, a little too pointed, the little girl did not notice. She smiled, bright and wide, and clapped her hands together. When Sena Anessa whispered to her, she hurriedly curtsied, then Bensimon stepped forward to present something to Luisa.

Un regàło dal Prìnçipe,” he said, indicating the gift was from Conor.

There were a few faint cheers from the crowd, though there was still a great deal of confused milling behind the barricades. Still, this was at least normal: the bowing, the presentation of gifts. Sena Anessa was grinning.

Kel wanted to kick her.

Luisa tore open the small box and seemed delighted to find a brooch in the shape of a lion, its eyes small chips of ruby. “Che beo!” she cried.


Kel looked at Vienne d’Este. With her smooth olive skin and curling chestnut hair, she looked far more suitable to play the part of a Princess than her charge did. “Does she speak Castellani?” he asked, indicating Luisa.

“She does not,” answered Sena Anessa. “But she is a quick study and will learn.”

Conor looked at Anessa with a polite smile. His expression was gracious, his voice calm, as he said, “What have you done, you bitch?”

Anessa sucked in a breath. Oblivious, Luisa smiled happily up at Conor, seeming more relieved than anything else. It was clear she had been dreading meeting some awful foreign Prince, and had found instead a figure out of a Story-Spinner’s tale, graceful and handsome in lace and silk.

At least she had that, Kel thought wearily. She would think herself lucky, for a time.

“Monseigneur Aurelian, you agreed to marry Princess Aimada of

Sarthe,” said Anessa coldly. “I think you will find that Princesses of Sarthe are given many names at birth. Most are never used, but still, they are official. Here, for instance, is Princess Luisa Estella Matilde Aimada d’Eon. I think you will find that fulfills the requirements of the contract.

She snapped out the word contract as if it were a curse. Behind her, Kel saw Bensimon slip away, and wondered where he could be going.

“This is revenge,” Lilibet said. Her eyes were chips of black ice. “But my son did not break his promise to you.”

“He lied by omission,” began Anessa, and then the musicians began, belatedly, to play. The air was suddenly full of music and Luisa, who had begun to look worried, laughed in delight as the flower cannons were set off, one by one, and a thousand flowers, gold and violet, searing pink and deep scarlet, flew into the air and spun like a whirlwind.

Petals fell like rain. The crowd was cheering. Bensimon returned from

his pilgrimage to the musicians, and he and Jolivet and the Arrow Squadron began to usher the various royalty and diplomats into their carriages.

“Do you wish to go back with the Prince, then?” It was Jolivet, at Kel’s shoulder. The grooves in his cheeks, alongside his mouth, looked as if they had been cut there by knives.

Kel shook his head. “I can’t. I rode Asti here. I’ll bring her back.” “Lucky you,” Jolivet murmured. A moment later he was gone into the

royal carriage with Conor and Lilibet; it began to roll out of the square, followed by the smaller fleet of sky-blue carriages from Sarthe.

The crowd had begun to dispense. Flower petals still spun in the air as Kel crossed the square, looking for Manish, with whom he had left Asti. He felt numb, a faint ringing in his ears: The whole business had not taken that

long, perhaps half an hour, and yet it had upended even the fragile expectations of what was to come in his future—and Conor’s.

He found Asti where he had left her, beside the Convocat. Manish, wearing a hooded black cloak, was holding her reins. Which was odd; Kel recalled the young groom as wearing the red livery of the Palace, and it was far too hot for a cloak to be comfortable. He narrowed his eyes, his hand going to the blade at his hip, just as the “groom” threw the hood back and a spill of black hair, half contained with peony clips, was revealed.

Ji-An grinned at him.

Kel sighed. “I thought I saw you in the crowd. Should I even ask what you did with Manish? If you’ve killed him, I will be vexed. He always lets me in the West Gate.”

“I certainly have not. I bribed him,” Ji-An said, indignantly. “I am not a lunatic, unlike some people who go around poisoning themselves.”

“Have you bribed my groom just for the chance to insult me?” Kel said. “Because I am already having a terrible day.”

“I noticed,” said Ji-An, with the air of someone who has come into a piece of excellent gossip. Kel did not have the energy to tell her that this was more than gossip, this was people’s lives, and he doubted she would care if he did. “Regardless. It’s been a fortnight since you’ve been to the Black Mansion. No message, either. Rather as if you’d vanished.”

“I’d no idea you cared.”

“I don’t,” Ji-An said. “But the Ragpicker King does. The last we heard, you were going off to speak with Prosper Beck. Then—nothing.”

Kel ran a hand through his tangled hair. “Beck had nothing interesting to say.”

“I rather doubt that,” said Ji-An drily. “And Andreyen would want to judge the situation for himself. think . . .”

Kel tensed, half waiting for her to say: I think Prosper Beck offered you the chance to do something for him, in exchange for information, and

you’re considering it.

“I think,” she finished, “that you have been so caught up in the

rather . . . startling events regarding the Prince that you have forgotten all about us, down in the city.”

“Perhaps so. But that is my duty.” Kel sighed. “I have to get back to the Palace. Can you take a message to Andreyen?”

“No,” Ji-An said, moving easily to block him from reaching for Asti. “He needs to see you. Face-to-face.”

“I have no time for a journey to the Black Mansion—”

“Luckily,” Ji-An said, “you needn’t make one. The Ragpicker King’s carriage is just around the corner.”

“Of course,” Kel muttered. “Of course it is.”

Things had changed, he mused as he followed Ji-An, still leading Asti, around the Convocat to the road that ran behind it. There was the familiar shining black carriage with scarlet wheels, which would once have given him pause. Now he felt a weariness with the world as Ji-An swung the door open and ushered him inside.

There he found Andreyen waiting for him, Gentleman Death in his black suit, with his silver-headed cane and narrow green gaze. It was odd, Kel thought, that Andreyen seemed to carry the cane with him everywhere, though as far as he could tell, the Ragpicker King had no need for it.

“Well,” he said. “Sarthe has certainly chosen a unique method of retribution where it comes to your Prince.”

Kel exhaled. “I suppose I should not be surprised. You always know too much.”

The Ragpicker King hummed with amusement. “Only bits of the puzzle.

I have put them together myself. Rather clever of young Prince Conor to arrange for Sarthe to provide him the gold he needed to pay off his debts.

Rather less clever not to gain the approval of the King and Queen first. He is lucky Markus seems to have lost interest in worldly things, or he might be facing punishment from more than just Sarthe.”

Kel studied the Ragpicker King’s face, but there seemed nothing hidden in it, no second meaning to his words. He felt a wave of relief—the secret of Conor’s whipping, it seemed, had been successfully contained.

“I’m well aware of that,” said Kel. “But I doubt you sent Ji-An to fetch me because you wanted to discuss Sarthe.”

“True. I want to know about Beck. Did Jerrod bring you to him? What did he say to you?”

“I did speak to him,” Kel said, carefully. “I do not think he is the danger the King spoke to you of in his letter.”

Andreyen’s eyes glittered. “Has Beck gotten you on his side, then?”

“No.” Kel supposed he should be afraid. He knew there was more to Andreyen than the slightly absent, friendly enough façade; he had caught glimpses of it here and there, in moments when the Ragpicker King was unguarded. But he was too tense, too weary to be anxious. “I have been

watching the nobles of the Hill for fifteen years now,” he said. “They are no different from your criminals. There are the schemers and the plotters, the

ones willing to go along with a plan for expediency’s sake, and then—then there are the opportunists. Beck is an opportunist.”

Andreyen shifted his grip on his cane. “Go on.”

“I do not know where Beck came from,” said Kel. “I can tell you he is not a noble. I made several deliberate mistakes when discussing the nobles on the Hill with him, and he neither cared nor noticed. For someone like him, there is no real benefit in playing about with business on the Hill. Beck wants to run gambling dens and bawdy houses in the Maze. He admits freely to being funded by someone important, but is uninterested in their eventual goals.”

“Someone important,” Andreyen echoed. “Someone in the Palace?” “On the Hill, at any rate. Someone who set Beck up in business and put

him in the position to play the game of debt with Conor.”

“What do you think that was meant to accomplish? Not simply to gain a bit of interest payment, surely.”

“I think it was meant to humiliate House Aurelian, and put them in the position of going begging to the Council of Twelve.”

“Or it could have been an attempt to draw out Markus,” said Andreyen. “Force him to act.”

“I don’t think either outcome is of real interest to Beck,” said Kel. “I am inclined to believe him when he says he has a patron on the Hill who wants to cause trouble for the Aurelians. Not because I trust him, but because it makes sense.”

“Why tell you, though?” Andreyen said, his narrow fingers tap-tapping at his cane. He was looking at Kel in that unnerving way of his, as if he could see directly through him.

Because he wants something from me. Antonetta’s necklace.

Kel pasted his blankest, most Court-appropriate expression onto his face, and said, “I do not get the sense he likes the man who funded him much. He seems to feel that now that he has his own money, he no longer needs a

patron, but I doubt his patron shares that view. I think he hopes I will discover who his patron is and cause trouble for him, perhaps get Jolivet to shut him down completely. And Beck will be free of obligation.”

“I see,” said Andreyen, and Kel had the unpleasant sensation that Andreyen did indeed see, far more than Kel wished he did. “What are you going to do next?”

“Look out for the patron,” said Kel. “Beck gave me no clues, but perhaps he or she will slip up in some way.”

He tried to look blank and credible; years of practice had given him an excellent face for card playing, but the Ragpicker King’s eyes were razors, cutting through the fragile edifice he’d built to protect himself. Still, he would not mention Antonetta or her necklace. He could not bear the idea of bringing her before the Ragpicker King’s searching gaze.

“Perhaps the King sensed a betrayal coming from someone on the Hill.

From Beck’s patron, or from Fausten.”

“Alas,” said Andreyen blandly. “So many options. If not Beck, then Beck’s patron. If not the mysterious patron, then the Malgasi tutor.” He spun his cane in his hand. “I take it that you have not tried to speak again to Markus of his letter of warning?”

“The King is inaccessible,” said Kel. “You must trust me on that point. Besides, I half suspect that whatever danger he spoke of was some fever dream fed to him by Fausten and his lies about the stars.”

“But the Council are not loyal, are they? Not save where it is expedient. Merren always keeps an eye on old Gremont; it seems he’s been attending a number of shady meetings in the Maze district. Perhaps you might have a word with him about that.”

“Artal Gremont left a mess behind him when he fled Castellane,” said Kel. “Now that he’s returning, most likely old Gremont wants to clean some of that up. Besides, what does it matter to you, what benefits the Palace?”

Andreyen regarded him coolly. “I am a businessman, Kel, like any trader on the Gold Roads. I benefit from the stability that is provided when the machinery of Castellane runs smoothly. There may be flaws in the system

—flaws I exploit—but the alternative is chaos, and chaos is the enemy of business. Chaos might profit Prosper Beck, but it does not profit me.”

“It is not my job,” said Kel, “to help you profit.”

“Then perhaps think on what your job is,” said Andreyen. “Not just what it is now, but what it will be. Now you protect the Prince, but when he is King you will be the head of the Arrow Squadron. You will be Legate Jolivet. And it will be your task, as it was his, to go to the Orfelinat and select from the frightened children there the next Sword Catcher. The next you. And it will kill a piece of you to do it.”

Kel put a hand against the carriage door, meaning to swing it open, but could not bring himself to do it. The brightness of the sunlight outside seemed to stab into his eyes.

From behind him, the Ragpicker King said, “I tell you, you cannot protect your precious Conor without my help.”

Just what Beck said, or close enough. “I have never needed your help before,” said Kel. “I do not need it now.”

“Then perhaps it is Fausten you should speak to,” said Andreyen. “Fausten is in the Trick. No one can get inside while there’s a prisoner


“Not no one,” said the Ragpicker King. “And I think you know that.”

Kel turned his head to look at Andreyen, who regarded him through the gloom with a cool, hard gaze. There was nothing of empathy in it, or the careless friendliness he so often wore like a disguise. “You’re asking too much,” said Kel. “There are things I will not do.”

“For me, or for House Aurelian?”

“House Aurelian is my duty,” he said. “For a moment, it seemed our

goals were aligned. Now I think they are not. You are correct that the nobles are not loyal, but there is nothing new to that. I shall guard the Prince as I

always have; if there are deeper issues on the Hill that intrigue you, you have your own spies. You do not need me.”

“I see,” said the Ragpicker King. “Is that to be the end of our connection, then?”

“I would prefer,” Kel said carefully, “that it did not mean enmity between us. It is just that our business seems concluded.”

“Perhaps,” said the Ragpicker King softly, and if Kel did not quite like

the tone in his voice, there was nothing he could say; Ji-An was rapping on the carriage door. When the Ragpicker King swung it wide, she gestured toward the square.

“There’s a fight breaking out,” she said. “Looks like the anti-Sarthe crowd are stirring up trouble. The Vigilants will be along any moment.”

“That’s all right. We’re done here,” said Andreyen easily, though Kel could see that he was far from easy in his mind. “Kel was just leaving.”

Kel clambered down out of the carriage. Ji-An had been right, of course; he could hear a dull roar from the direction of Valerian Square, coming closer. It sounded like waves surging in on the tide.

Ji-An handed him Asti’s reins; the horse nuzzled at Kel’s shoulder, clearly puzzled by all the goings-on. “So, will we see you again?” she said.

“If I learn anything interesting. That remains to be seen.” Kel stroked Asti’s neck as Ji-An turned away, starting back toward the Ragpicker King’s carriage.

“Kang Ji-An,” he said, without being able to help himself. She froze but did not turn around. “What did you say?”

“What’s this I hear about a bloodbath between noble families in

Geumjoseon? A girl who climbed a garden wall and slaughtered a whole family, then escaped in a black carriage?”

Still, Ji-An did not move. It was as if he were looking at a statue carved from obsidian: black hair, black cloak. Without turning around, she said, without a touch of mockery or humor, “If you mention that to me again, I will kill you.”

She said nothing else, only climbed up onto the driver’s seat, leaving Kel to watch the carriage vanish down the street.



With the Great Word gone, all the works of magic were undone. Suleman cried aloud in despair, his body crumbling into dust, for magic had kept him alive far beyond a human life span. And thus it was that the other Sorcerer-Kings, too, became dust, and the workings of their hands were destroyed: The great creatures of magic that they had created, the dragons and manticores and winged horses, all vanished like smoke on the air. Their weapons of war turned to ash, and their palaces fell away, and the rivers that they enchanted into being dried up. Islands sank beneath the sea. Magicians tried to speak the Great Name

of Power, but they found they could not. Every book that had contained the name now had a blank space where it had been.

And this was the Sundering.

Tales of the Sorcerer-Kings, Laocantus Aurus Iovit III

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