Chapter no 20

Sword Catcher

Kel had a bad moment when he returned to the rooms he shared with Conor and saw that the Prince had returned from his meeting. It was

dim; the lamps Kel had left burning had for the most part been snuffed out. A fire in the grate provided some illumination, as did the blue moonlight that pervaded the room with an eerie glow.

But the door to the tepidarium was closed, and Kel could hear the sound of water. Swiftly, he moved to the wardrobe and divested himself of Conor’s clothes. With shaking hands, he carefully returned the gold coronet to its bed of velvet. He slammed the wardrobe door shut, and by the time Conor had emerged from the tepidarium he had yanked on a linen sleep

tunic and trousers.

Conor came out blinking, still in the clothes he had worn earlier that day, though the fur-lined jacket was missing. He had clearly splashed his face with water, and his black hair was wet, his heavy gold crown, rubies and all, dangling from one finger.

“Kel,” he said.

He did not sound surprised to see him. He did not sound much of anything but tired. Kel could not remember the last time he had heard Conor sound so exhausted. He started to cross the room toward Kel, then seemed to give up and slumped down on one of the divans, letting his head fall back against the cushions.

He looked exhausted as well, bruise-blue shadows under his eyes, his

boots unlaced, the blue paint on his nails picked away to a mosaic of cracks. He did not move, but his eyes tracked Kel as Kel came across the room and sat down across from him.

Kel remembered a time when Conor’s pains and distresses could be soothed by a trip to the massive playroom in the Castel Mitat. There they had built walls out of blocks, and made a fort, and there had been toy

Castelguards and dolls to staff it. They had played games with Falconet and Roverge and Antonetta until one day Falconet had made some comment about being too old for this sort of foolishness, and the next day it had all been gone, replaced by a sitting room full of elegant divans and silk pillows.

Antonetta had cried. Kel recalled holding her hand; the others had mocked her, but her grief over the vanished dolls—who had been characters, truly, with their own histories and names—was his own grief, one that her voluble sadness allowed him to keep hidden.

It was only later that he wondered if it had been wrong to let her bear the mockery for what he, too, felt. He supposed that he had been punished for it: In the end, she had been the one to tell him that it was time to grow up.

“I wondered where you were,” Conor said, “when I got back.”

Kel hesitated, but only for a moment. He had not meant to keep the night’s activities a secret, but he had no choice now. I went to see Fausten, disguised as you, and he said I would betray you. That I would take something important from you and you would hate me.

Perhaps Conor would laugh it off. In fact, it was most likely he would, but he often laughed off exactly what bothered him the most. Fausten’s

words were already eating at Kel like acid. What would they do to Conor— especially now?

“I was walking around the grounds,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me into the Gallery.”

“Bensimon wouldn’t let anyone into the Gallery. Roverge tried to muscle his way in, but Jolivet had the Arrow Squadron march him out.”

“He won’t like that,” said Kel.

“Probably not.” Conor didn’t sound as if he cared one way or the other. “Con,” Kel said softly. “Have you eaten? Had any water, at least?”

“There was food, I think,” Conor said, vaguely. “They brought us things.

There was a great deal of wine, though Senex Domizio may have drunk most of it. He called me a buxiàrdo fiol d’un can, which I don’t think he would have done if he was sober. I’m fairly sure it means ‘lying fucker.’”

“Bastard,” Kel said, through his teeth. “You didn’t lie. You made a deal, and you stuck with the deal. They’re the liars—”

“Kellian,” Conor said. He rarely used Kel’s first name; he did it now with a sound in his voice that was like pain. “I know.”

“Is there no way out of this?” Kel asked.

“There is no way out of it. The Sarthians are firm. I agreed to marry a

Princess of Aquila with the name Aimada; there is no provision that it had to be her first name.” Conor smiled a ghastly smile. “In the end, Anessa simply kept pointing out that this was a transaction, a marriage of kingdoms; there had never been any pretense that this was a love match.

What does it matter in the end, she kept saying. And that should I accept Luisa, we would have the gratitude and alliance of Sarthe, whereas if I sent her back, we would have war.”

“They have been wanting war for some time,” said Kel. “Perhaps this is only an excuse to bring it.”

“Perhaps,” Conor said quietly. “I am not a very good prince of Castellane. I doubt I will be a good king, either. But I cannot deliberately bring war on my city. I suppose even I have my limits. Or perhaps I am only being selfish.” He rubbed at his forehead, where the crown he had worn all day had left a red mark behind. “If I had been more clever, perhaps I could have prevented what happened at that dinner, with the Malgasi woman. But regardless, Anessa was there. She saw how far our house is from being in order.” He flicked his gaze to Kel. “If you ask me, that was

the moment when Anessa hatched this plan. She did not want to give

Aimada over to a household in chaos. She is their crown jewel. But Luisa— Luisa is worth less to her.”

Kel said nothing. There seemed nothing to say.

“I suppose at least there is one consolation,” said Conor. “It will be a long time before this is a real marriage of any sort. Ten years perhaps.” He smiled crookedly. “So you needn’t move out. Although I suppose if my father dies and you replace Jolivet, you could petition for your own quarters. Quite grand ones, I imagine.”

“I don’t care about my own grand quarters,” Kel said gruffly. It had been a long time since he had heard Conor sound so bleak.

He thought again of Antonetta, all those years ago. She had not wept for lost toys, he thought. She had wept for all the ways things were going to change, that she did not want to change.

He rose and went to sit by Conor, the cushions sinking under them, their shoulders bumping together. Conor hesitated a moment before leaning hard

into him, letting Kel take his weight: the weight of his weariness, his despair. “The Charter Families are going to be furious,” Kel said.

He felt Conor shrug. “Let them be. They’ll learn to live with it. They know what’s good for them, in the end.”

Kel sighed. “I’d take your place in this, too, if I could.”

Conor leaned his head against Kel’s shoulder. His hair tickled the side of Kel’s neck; he was deadweight, like a sleeping child. “I know,” he said. “I know you would.”

The hours of Third Watch had come by the time Mayesh Bensimon returned to the Sault. Lin, sitting on her grandfather’s front porch, watched him

trudge across the Kathot, head down, his hair white under the blue light of the moon.

He had not yet noticed she was there, she realized. He did not know

anyone was watching him. Lin could not help but recall a night two years ago. It had been Third Watch, just as it was now, and she and Josit had been walking beside the southern wall, where it bordered the Ruta Magna and the clamor of Castellane outside. The sounds of the city had carried through the air: the rush of foot and wheel traffic on the roads, the cries of pushcart vendors, someone bellowing a drinking song.

They had both been startled to hear the creak of the iron gates—why were they opening, so late at night? They were even more startled a moment later when Mayesh strode through them, tall and thin in his gray

Counselor’s robes. Lin thought that she had never seen her grandfather look so weary. His face had seemed to sink into harsh lines of grief and exhaustion as the gates closed behind him with a clamor that rang through

the night.

Lin and Josit remained in the shadow of the wall, reluctant to reveal their presence to Mayesh. Lin had wondered what he had been grieving for— what had so troubled him up at the Palace that day? Or was it simply the nightly reminder that no matter what help he was to the Blood Royal up on the Hill, he would still spend every night of his life behind locked gates?

But she and Josit did not approach him, and did not ask. What would they say? He was, in truth, nearly a stranger to them, in every way that mattered.

She was not sure what she thought now. She had come here because of what had happened in the Square; Ji-An had said Mayesh had been there, and she knew he would not have had a pleasant day. He prided himself on planning and control, and this was something very much out of his control, and contrary to his plans.

And he might have news of the Prince, said a small voice in the back of her head. How he is reacting. If he is all right.

She told herself firmly that this was a voice she should not listen to, and fixed her attention on Mayesh, who had come halfway up the stairs of his own house before stopping. He had clearly seen her, sitting in his rosewood chair.

“Lin,” he said. It was half a question.

She stood up. “I was worried about you,” she said.

He blinked, slowly. “I thought you were your mother for a moment,” he said. “She used to wait for me, here, when I returned from the Palace late.”

“I would guess,” Lin said, “that she was worried, too.”

Mayesh was silent for a long moment. The night air was soft and lifted Lin’s hair, brushing it across her cheek. She knew she had her mother’s hair, those same fiery strands she had tugged on when she was a child.

“Come inside,” Mayesh said at last, and went past her to the front door.

It had been years since Lin had been inside her grandfather’s house. It had not changed much, if at all. It was still spare, plainly furnished. There was no clutter or mess. His books were lined up carefully on their shelves. A framed page from the Book of Makabi hung on his wall; it had always puzzled her, since she had never thought of him as a religious man.

He sat down at his plain wood table and indicated that she should join him. He had not lit any lamps, but there was enough pale-blue moonlight to see. Once she had seated herself, he said, “I see you’ve heard what happened. I suppose everyone has.”

“Well,” she said, “everyone in the city. Perhaps not everyone in the Sault, yet. I heard it from a patient.”

“I would have thought you’d be pleased,” he said. “You have no fondness for the inhabitants of Marivent.”

It must please you. What the Prince had said to her, when she’d first seen his wounds. It had stung a little, and stung again now.

“I was thinking of you,” she said. “You are the Counselor for a reason.

You stand for the Ashkar before the Winged Throne. The Maharam does his work here in the Sault, and so he is seen and appreciated. You do your work on the Hill, and so your hand is invisible. But I have begun to believe

that . . .”

“That what? That I might actually be doing some good for the Sault?

That in protecting this city, I am also protecting the Ashkar who live in it?” “Hmph,” she said. “I do not need to praise you, if you are going to praise


He barked a humorless laugh. “Forgive me. I may have forgotten how to recognize recognition itself.”

“Do they not appreciate you, then, up on the Hill?”

“I am necessary to them. But I do not think they consider it often, any more than they consider water or sunlight or any of the other things they cannot manage without.”

“Do you mind?”

“It is how it should be,” he said. “If they thought too much about how they needed me, they might begin to resent me. And to consider: Is it only me they resent? Or all Ashkar? Malgasi is not the only example, you know.

Not the only place we have been driven from, after thinking ourselves

safe.” He shook his head. “This is too grim a discussion. I am disappointed today, yes, and angry, but I will survive. Castellane will survive. An alliance with Sarthe is not such a terrible thing.”

“So it is true,” she said. “They presented the Prince with a little girl, and now he must marry her?”

“They will not marry yet,” he said. “She will live in the Little Palace, and be tutored there, and likely encounter the Prince only on occasion. After eight years or so, they will marry. It is strange, but most royal marriages are strange. It is countries that marry, after all, not people.”

“But you’re disappointed,” she said. She knew she was reaching for the answer to a question she had not asked, and could not: How is the Prince? He had resigned himself to one thing, and now must face quite another.

“In myself,” he said. “I should have seen the signs of this. What Conor did, he did out of desperation. He was ashamed to go to the Treasury for what he needed, so he hatched this half-cocked plan with Sarthe—” He shook his head. “But he has had no proper guidance. Jolivet teaches him to

fight, and I try to teach him to think, but how do you learn to be a king? From the king before you. And if that cannot happen . . .” He looked at her. She could not see his eyes clearly, only the bluish reflection of the moon.

“Have you given any thought to my suggestion?”

“About finding the Sault too small?” Lin said. She put her elbows on the table; Chana Dorin would have been annoyed. “If that was a suggestion, you will have to be clearer about what you mean.”

“Don’t test me, Lin. The Ambassador from Sarthe threw a plate at me today, and I am an old man.”

She smiled in the dark. “Very well. You are asking if I would like to be Counselor after you. And . . .” And yes I would, but to be the Counselor to the King that this Prince will become, to be with him all day every day, is an idea that should repulse me. If it does not repulse me, is that not a reason not to do it?

“I have worked so hard to become a physician,” she said. “I do not think I could give it up to be Counselor to House Aurelian, and I do not know

how I could do both.”

“I think you could,” he said. “When I said you were the best physician in the Sault, it is not only because you had the best scores on the tests.”

Lin had not been aware he knew of her scores. Perhaps Chana had told him?

“It is because you are always challenging yourself,” he said. “You have pushed past so many barriers set up to stop you, and I can tell you from my own experience, once you conquer one challenge, you will want another.

You will hunger for it.”

And Lin realized he was right, if not entirely in the way he thought. Magic. That was what she hungered for. To bring light back to Petrov’s stone, to feel that pulse again, that surge of power through her blood. If I were the Counselor to Marivent, what could I not reach out and find?

Qasmuna’s book, surely. Others like it. Nothing is forbidden to those with enough power . . .

“House Roverge is holding a welcoming party tomorrow night,” said Mayesh. “It was meant to be a welcome for Princess Aimada. They have planned it all this past fortnight, and do not intend to cancel now; it will simply be for Princess Luisa instead. Just as the Palace is still planning their Ascension Day festivities, only they will call it a celebration of the union

between Sarthe and Castellane instead. I do not think they are even changing the decorations.”

“House Roverge,” Lin said slowly. “Theirs is the dye Charter?” Mayesh nodded. “I have heard rumors of them,” she added, recalling what she had overheard in the Black Mansion. “That they recently used their influence to drive a family of ink merchants from Castellane. It seems they are bothered by even a hint of competition. But surely that is not really in the spirit of the Charters?”

Mayesh snorted. “Profit is in the spirit of the Charters,” he said. “But yes, the Roverges are especially ruthless in their pursuit of it. Even the other

nobles look upon them with some mistrust. As for their treatment of the Cabrols, it was abhorrent, and if I were them, I might worry about revenge.”

Lin felt as if she were holding her breath. If she were to tell Mayesh what she knew—but she could not; her talk with the Ragpicker King had made that clear. She had indicated to him that she would not say anything about Cabrol’s plan, and she knew if she did, he would see it as a betrayal.

Besides, the thought of trying to explain to Mayesh how she knew what she did made her feel ill.

In the end, this was not Ashkari business; the Roverges were malbushim, and it seemed they had done dreadful things. Some part of her wished to lay the moral puzzle of it at Mayesh’s feet and have him sort it out. But it would not be fair to him. The less he knew about the whole business, the better.

“Are you worried about revenge, zai?”

He shook his head. “That is for the Roverges to concern themselves with. I am concerned with the affairs of House Aurelian, and with the place of the Ashkar in Castellane. That is as far as my remit extends.”

Lin felt a faint sting of relief. Not only did her grandfather seem uninterested in the idea of revenge against the Roverges, he seemed truly to not want to know more. It was part of their being Ashkar, she thought:

There was always that layer of something like glass between them and the doings of the outside world.

“If they are so unpleasant,” she said, as lightly as she could, “must we then attend their party?”

Mayesh chuckled. “Parties are rarely about who throws them,” he said. “It will be a small affair, just the Charter Families and the guest of honor. It

will be a good opportunity for you to observe them all. To imagine what it might be like to work among them. Accompany me there, and you can give me your answer afterward.”

A party on the Hill. As a child, Lin had taught herself not to want to

follow Mayesh to the Hill, to see what he did, to be a part of his life and his duties. But here he was, offering what she had told herself she would never ask for—and not just offering, asking.

“But,” she said, and she knew she was about to say yes, “I have nothing to wear to a party on the Hill.”

For the first time that evening, her grandfather smiled. “Consult with Mariam,” he said. “I think you’ll find that you do.”



After the Sundering and the destruction of Aram, Judah Makabi was named the Exilarch, the leader of the exiled Ashkar, who had no longer any home. He led the Ashkar to the west, where they wandered in the wilderness for generations, during which time Makabi remained young, and did not die, for the blessing of

their Queen was upon him.

Every time they settled in a new place, and the inhabitants of that place learned that they were practicing gematry, they would be harried and driven out, for in

the dark days after the Sundering, magic was considered a curse. The Ashkar began to become restive. “Why must we wander?” they asked. “Our Queen is gone, and our land as well, why must we continue to practice gematry, which marks us as outcasts?”

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