Chapter no 23

Sword Catcher

Kel decided to take the long way back to the Palace to give himself a

chance to think. This meant the Sea Path. As the city fell away below, Kel could not help thinking of what Jerrod had said: You’re thinking too small, Anjuman. You’re thinking about your Prince and your House

Aurelian, like you always do.

Jerrod had meant it as a criticism, but to Kel it had been almost a relief to hear. A reaffirmation of his purpose, which was to protect Conor. His place was by Conor’s side, and both the Ragpicker King and Prosper Beck had tried to bend that loyalty and duty to further their own ends. His proximity to the Prince would always prove appealing to those looking for an advantage; he wished he’d been taught to guard against that sort of approach the way he’d been taught to guard against swords and daggers.

He had not realized that there was a gap in his armor: not the desire to involve himself in matters on the Hill, but rather the desire to be around people who knew him, knew him as he really was—not as Conor’s false

cousin, not as a suit of armor that sometimes wore the Prince’s face, but as Kel—orphan, observer, Sword Catcher. It was a need he had never known he had. A dangerous need to have . . .

He had reached the part of the path where it curved around the side of the hill, hiding the city behind it. Kel was always struck by the beauty of this part of the trail, where the green hill fell away to the sea. The ocean was an ink-blue road today, flecked with small boats. They cut white paths through the water, Tyndaris rising behind them, its towers like the fingers of a hand reaching out of the sea. The air tasted of salt and promise.

He thought of Vienne then, and how she had said that he guarded Conor as she guarded Luisa. As if she had sensed some quality about him that betrayed his true work—a quality that Falconet and the others, for all the years they had known him, had never observed.

The path slanted steeply upward here, the last quarter mile to Marivent, and Kel could see the sea cliffs appear, and far above him, the shadow of the walls. And then, below the path, appeared a strange sight. A wooden

platform, cantilevered over the sea, jutted from the hill below him. The Sea Path continued above it and the space below the path was recessed, meaning the platform must emerge from a hollow dug into the mountain.

Kel did not recall seeing the platform before, but surely it could not just have appeared out of the mountain?

There was a flash of red and gold—the uniforms of Castelguards, bright as flames. Two of them appeared on the platform, as if they had simply walked out of the mountain. Pinned between them was a struggling man,

his arms bound behind him. His hair was a wild tangle, his straggling beard matted with blood. His face was bruised, his eyes swollen half shut, but he wore his fine cloak, embroidered with tiny beads that glittered in the sunlight. Beads that marked out the shapes of constellations: the Lion, the Harp, the Twins.

It was Fausten.

He must have been dragged here from the Trick. Perhaps he had fought the guards who came for him. Perhaps he had expected them, and they had beaten him regardless.

The guards turned to each other, speaking in quiet voices; the wind off

the sea muffled the sound, in any case. Kel could hear his own breath, harsh in his ears, but nothing more.

He crouched down behind a scrubby growth of thyme. He could try to scrabble up the path or down it, but that would bring him more plainly in view of the platform below. He was hidden here, his own verdant clothes camouflaged among the hill’s greenery.

His view, straight down, was clear. He almost wished it wasn’t. Fausten was struggling, though he made no sound. He kicked out at one of the guardrails, then froze, his terrified eyes darting to and fro as a new figure stepped out onto the platform.

King Markus. He looked very big against the sun, his gold circlet glittering against his pale hair. His cloak was clasped at the shoulder with a heavy silver brooch, and his hands were, as always, covered with black gloves. A pace behind him came Jolivet, his posture rigid, his face expressionless.

To Kel’s surprise, the Castelguards immediately released Fausten, who sagged to his knees. Both guards vanished back into the mountain. Jolivet remained a few yards away, as though keeping himself at a remove: a witness, rather than a participant.

Markus reached down to catch hold of his adviser by the front of his cloak, hauling him to his feet. He pulled him close, and over the sound of

the sea, the screaming of the gulls, Kel heard him shout in Malgasi: “Miért árultál el? Tudtad, mi fog történni. Tudtad, hony mi leszek—

Why did you betray me? You knew what would happen. You knew what I would become.

Fausten was shaking his head. “Your medicine,” he cried, answering not in Malgasi but in the language of Castellane. “Only I can make it. If you kill me, your sickness will be worse. You know what is coming, my lord, you

know what is coming—”

The King roared with rage. He caught hold of Fausten, wrenching him to his feet. Fausten screamed, over and over—high sounds that matched the crying of the gulls. Fausten’s feet were bare, Kel saw. They drummed against the wood, leaving bloody streaks behind.

It seemed like forever, but Kel knew it was likely only a few seconds. Fausten struggled as the King, inexorable, stalked to the platform’s edge. Gripping the thrashing man with black-gloved hands, he lifted him as if he weighed no more than a pair of boots and flung him over the guardrail.

Fausten fell, hurtling toward the sea like a bird shot out of the air.

His body hit the waves. There was a soundless splash, and then his head appeared, a dark dot riding the surge of the water. He seemed to be screaming as the sea roiled around him. A black shadow rose up under him and Kel’s stomach surged into his throat. Dark, knobbled green heaved itself through the dark blue; a vast mouth yawned, lined with discolored, knife-sharp teeth. Even from a distance, Kel imagined he could see the thing’s eyes: yellow and rolling as the jaws snapped shut, blood pulsing through razored teeth. A howling scream, a last, helpless thrash, and a great blot of scarlet spread like a stain over the surface of the ocean.

The crocodile vanished with the surge of the waves. Fausten’s head still floated atop the water, the red stump of his throat no longer joined to his body. Then the shadow beneath the water curved back around and the head, too, was pulled down.

Everything seemed distant, as if it were happening at some remove. Kel dug his fingers into the dirt. He could hear nothing now but the wind in the branches of the scrub pine and his own harsh breathing. He watched as the King dusted off his gloved hands and stalked back into the mountain.

He was followed a moment later by Jolivet, who had watched the scene unfold without moving, a silent witness. As Jolivet passed out of view, he looked up, as if alerted by a movement. His eyes met Kel’s. They were

chips of ice, chill and dead.

You will be Legate Jolivet, the Ragpicker King had said. 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.

A moment later, Jolivet was gone. There was a deep groaning sound from within the mountain, the rattle of gears and pulleys. The platform began to recede, sliding back into the Hill; in seconds, it was gone, along with any

evidence that anything unusual had just happened. As Kel rose to his feet, he saw that even the surface of the sea where Fausten had died was smooth again, an unruffled expanse of blue-green silk.

Kel started back up the path to Marivent. He felt numb, as if he had been dosed with morphea. When he had to stop halfway to the walls to vomit among the rosemary and lavender bushes, he was more surprised than anything else. He had not even realized he felt sick.

He must have seemed normal enough to the guard at the gate, who let him in with a friendly word. He stopped in the courtyard of the Castel Mitat to splash water on his face. His heart was racing as he made his way up to

the rooms he shared with Conor.

Conor was there, sitting in the window embrasure. He looked up when Kel came in. There was something about him that seemed different—he was smiling, and there was real relief in it, as if he had been divested of a weight on his shoulders. The last time Kel could remember Conor smiling like that was before he had found out about Prosper Beck.

Kel hated to have to shatter that expression. But Conor needed to know; it was not something he could keep from him. “Con,” he said, his voice rougher than he’d expected, “there’s something I have to tell you. It’s about your father.”

It was Second Watch, and there was not enough moonlight to read by; Lin, with a sigh, rose to light the lamps. She had been sitting at her kitchen table all afternoon and into the evening, translating Qasmuna’s book and taking careful notes.

Not in the original book, of course. She wouldn’t have dared to write in it, and besides, the pages were already loose in the binding, the paper soft with age, almost powdery under her fingertips.

Lamps now glowing, Lin returned to the table and her cold cup of karak. There were, of course, still passages she didn’t understand, so she planned to bring the book to the Black Mansion tomorrow; surely among the forgers and thieves Andreyen employed, someone must be able to translate Callatian. She suspected Kel could do it, if it came to that.

There were many passages in the book about how magic was used for healing. The first of them followed what she had learned about Source- Stones: Magicians in the past had been able to use their powers to heal, but were limited by the power they could themselves expend without dying.

Those able to store energy in stones were able to do more. When Suleman (the betrayer, the traitor) created stones that could hold limitless energy, the ability to heal became, also, nearly limitless. A man would fall dying on the field of battle, Qasmuna wrote, and the sorcerer-healer would come and

raise him up to fight on; even if his wounds could not be healed, he would still fight.

It was a chilling image, and gave Lin pause. She even had to rise to her feet, and make a circuit of her room, before returning to the book. Every power can be used for evil, she reminded herself. But she would not do so. She wanted only to heal Mariam. But her stone seemed dead, and had since she had used it to heal Conor. And while she had known that there was a way to put her own power into the stone, to imbue it again with strength,

she had not known how to do it.

According to Qasmuna, as Lin read painstakingly on, the issue was one of binding. A Source-Stone needed to be bound to its user via a series of steps. Some seemed simple, while others involved words that, even with her dictionary, Lin could not yet understand. There were also places in the manuscript that Lin found blank—sections, she guessed, where the Word itself had once been written, and had vanished when the Goddess removed it from the world.

Still. There was enough for her to try binding herself to her stone, and why not now? Why wait?

Her eyes fixed on the page in front of her, she took the stone, embedded in its silver setting, in her hand. She laid her hand against her chest—as the book bade her to do, and as she had done instinctively when she healed

Prince Conor—and closed her eyes.

Against the darkness of her lids, she imagined the stone as her heart.

Imagined it set into her chest like a jewel that was also a living part of her. That pulsed with light in time to her heartbeats.

For a moment, she felt wind in her hair, and smelled the scent of smoke. She saw the top of the tower in Aram, and Suleman, rising to his feet, his stone pulsing at his chest—

Her eyes flew open. Her heart was hammering almost painfully, as if she had run flat-out until she could run no more and must crouch down, gasping for breath.

Her hand ached. She opened it, stared down at the stone in her palm. It was still pale, milky as a blind eye, but was there something moving in it now? A swirl, down in its depths, like the first rise of smoke from a

fire . . . a whisper, in the back of her mind.

Use me.

A sharp rap on her front door. Lin jumped to her feet, flipping the tablecloth across Qasmuna’s book to hide it.

“Lin!” A familiar voice. “It’s Chana. Mariam—”

Lin flung the door open. Chana Dorin stood at her threshold, her broad face creased with worry.

“It’s bad, Lin,” she said, in answer to Lin’s silent question. “She’s been coughing up blood. And her fever—”

“I’m coming.” Lin slipped the stone into the pocket of her tunic, caught up her satchel, and stuffed her bare feet into a pair of embroidered slippers Josit had brought her from Hind. She followed Chana out into the night, her heart hammering as they raced through the dark streets of the Sault.

She found Mariam in her bed at the Etse Kebeth, racked with

uncontrollable coughing. She held a bloody rag to her mouth, and more rags were littered on the bedspread. She was pale as starched linen, drenched in sweat, but she still managed to glare at Chana.

“You shouldn’t—have bothered Lin—I’m fine,” she gasped. “I’ll be— fine.”

Lin clambered onto Mariam’s bed, already unbuckling her satchel. “Hush, darling. Don’t talk. Chana—tea, with feverfew and willowbark. Quickly.”

Once Chana had left, Lin wrapped a shawl around Mariam’s shoulders,

despite Mariam’s coughing protests that she wasn’t cold. There were streaks of blood on Mariam’s chin and neck, blackish red.

“It’s always worse at night,” Mariam said, hoarsely. “It . . . goes away.”

Lin wanted to scream in anger, though she knew it wasn’t Mariam she was angry at. It was the disease. The blood on the rags was flecked with foam: It was coming from deep within Mariam’s lungs, carrying air inside it.

“Mari,” she said. “How many nights? How long?”

Mariam looked away. Sweat shimmered on the sharp divide of her collarbones. The room smelled of blood and sickness. “Just make me well enough to go to the Festival,” she said. “After that . . .”

Lin caught Mariam’s thin wrist. Squeezed it gently. “Let me try

something,” she whispered. “I know I keep saying that. But I think there’s a real chance this time.”

Some part of her knew it was a terrible thing to keep asking—to keep raising Mariam’s hopes and then dashing them. But the voice in her head was louder: You have the book now. You’re so close. She cannot die now.

Mariam managed a weak smile. “Of course. Anything for you, Linnet.” Lin reached into her pocket and drew out the stone.

Use me.

Holding it lightly in one hand, she placed her other palm over Mariam’s heart. She could feel Mariam watching her as she let her mind spin away into that space of smoke and words, where letters and numbers hung shining against the sky like the tails of comets.

Heal, she thought, picturing the word in all its separate components, and then in its completeness, the pieces of gematry flying together to form the concept, uncovering the truth of what language had been formed to hide.

Heal, Mariam.

“Oh!” Mariam’s gasp broke the silence, and the shadowy world fled from Lin’s vision. Mariam had a hand on Lin’s shoulder, and her huge dark eyes

were wide. “Lin—it feels different.”

“Is the pain gone?” Lin demanded, not daring to hope.

“Not entirely—but it’s much less.” Mariam took a breath—still a shallow one, but less ragged than before.

Lin reached for her satchel. “Let me examine you.”

Mariam nodded. Lin retrieved her auscultor and listened to Mariam’s

chest—the terrifying clicking and bubbling noises had faded. Lin could still hear a faint wheezing when her friend inhaled deeply, but at least she could inhale deeply. Some color had come back to her pale face, too, and the beds of her nails were no longer blue.

“I’m better,” Mariam said, when Lin straightened up. “Aren’t I? Not healed, but better.”

“It really seems like it,” Lin whispered. “If I try again, or try differently

—I need to look at the books again, but Mari, I think—”

Mariam caught at Lin’s hand. “I’m well enough to go to the Tevath, aren’t I? However long this lasts?”

Lin bit back an assurance that of course this would last. She could not be sure, and knew she should not raise Mariam’s hopes unreasonably. But her own hope felt as if it were pressing against the inside of her chest like a

bubble of air. For so long, nothing had worked to help Mariam—to have helped her at all, even just a bit, seemed a reason for optimism.

And more than that. It seemed a reason to believe that all she had done, all the choices she had made with Mariam’s healing in mind—perhaps they had been the right ones? She had reached the limit, she knew, of what she could do with the knowledge she’d gleaned. But there was more to be learned from Qasmuna’s book . . .

“Lin?” Chana appeared at the door, looking apologetic. “I’m not sure about the tea, Lin, could you look at it—?”

Lin felt a wave of impatience. Chana knew perfectly well how to make willowbark tea. She slipped her brooch into her pocket again and followed the older woman to the kitchen, where a kettle was boiling away on the stove.

“Chana, what—?”

Chana turned to face her. “It’s not the tea,” she hissed, waving away Lin’s question. “I just heard. The Maharam is at your house. With Oren Kandel. They’re looking through your things.”

Now?” Lin felt faint. She had expected some sort of reaction from the Maharam to Prince Conor’s visit, but had been anticipating being called to the Shulamat, or perhaps even waylaid and scolded in the street. For the Maharam to enter an individual home without permission spoke of a situation he believed to be extreme indeed.

“I must go,” she gasped, and fled, Chana’s worried look following her to the door. Lin raced back through the Sault, cursing herself for not having hidden the Qasmuna more carefully. She could have taken it with her, rather than merely slipping it beneath her tablecloth. She had been foolish, careless. She was shivering with anxiety as she passed through the Kathot, where long tables were already set up in preparation for the Festival

tomorrow night. Silver braziers of incense hung from the trees, and the air was redolent with the smell of spices.

When she reached her house, she saw that the front door was flung open, yellow lamplight spilling out into the street. Shadows moved against the

fabric of her curtains. She raced inside, only to feel her heart tumble into her slippers.

It was as she had feared. The Maharam stood by her kitchen table, from which the cloth had been removed. Oren Kandel stood beside him, looking smug; his smile widened when Lin came into the room.

Laid out on the table, like a body ready for the autopsy knife, were all her books—Qasmuna’s tome, of course, and the pages the Ragpicker King had given her. Even the scatter of mostly useless books on medicine and spells

she had bought long ago in the market, or at Lafont’s, were there— everything she had collected in the desperate hope she would find answers among their pages.

Lin lifted her chin. “Zuchan,” she said. The formal term for a Maharam; it meant He Who Communicates the Word. “This is an honor. To what do I owe this visit?”

The Maharam struck the floor with his staff, nearly making Lin flinch. “You must think me quite an old fool,” he said coldly. Lin had never seen him look like this: the rage on his face, the disgust. This was the man who had sentenced his own son to exile for his studies into the forbidden. Lin

felt a small sliver of ice lodge in her spine. “The Prince of Castellane comes marching into our Sault, our sacred place, because you invited him—”

“I never invited him,” Lin protested. “He came of his own accord.”

The Maharam only shook his head. “Your grandfather, as much bad as there is to say about the man, has never made the denizens of the Palace feel that they are entitled to enter here. The Crown Prince of Castellane would hardly have come marching up to your door had you not let him think he was welcome to do so.”

“I did not—”

“How long has he been giving you books?” the Maharam snapped. The rage in his voice was a pure flame; Oren seemed to be lapping it up, like a cat with spilled milk. “You came to me, asking to see the books in the Shulamat, but you were not satisfied with my answer, is that it? So you went behind my back, in defiance of the Law?”

“The Law?” Lin’s voice shook. “The Law says that above all things, life matters. The life of our people matters, for if we were gone, who then would remember Adassa? Who would open the door for the Goddess to


The Maharam gazed at her coldly. “You say those words, but have no idea what they mean.”

“I know what they mean to a physician,” said Lin. “If we are offered the means to save a human life, we must seize it.”

“You speak of the Law? You, who have never cared about it?” said the Maharam, and for a moment, Lin saw a flash of the dislike he held for Mayesh, and knew that he hated her in part for that. For being her grandfather’s blood. For, like Mayesh, finding the Sault too small for her desires, her dreams. “These books will be confiscated. And when the Sanhedrin comes, this matter will be put directly before the Exilarch—”

Zuchan,” said Oren, hoarsely, and Lin turned to see Mayesh ducking through the low doorway. She wondered if he had just returned from Marivent; he was in his Counselor’s robes, his medallion shining on his chest. The lamplight carved deep shadows under his eyes.

“The Exilarch?” he said, mildly enough. “That seems extreme, Davit, for what amounts to no more than a misunderstanding.”

The Maharam looked at him with loathing. “A misunderstanding?” He swept a hand toward the books on the table; Lin saw her grandfather’s gaze flick from Qasmuna’s book to the Maharam, an odd expression flashing

across his face. “At least one of these dates to the time of the Sundering. The Goddess alone knows what sort of forbidden magic it details—”

“I doubt Lin has even had time to peruse it,” said Mayesh. He was utterly calm. Calm as his job had trained him to be, calm in the face of crises through five decades of serving the Palace. “It is, as I said, a misunderstanding. I brought her to Marivent to consult on a medical matter, as you know, and the Prince, in his gratitude, took this volume from the

Palace library and decided to make a gift of it. He believed it a medical tome she might enjoy. A mistake was made, but not intended; I cannot

imagine you, Maharam, would think it wise to throw that error back in his face by punishing the very one he meant to honor.”

The Maharam’s mouth worked. “He is not our prince,” he said. “Our prince is the Exilarch, Amon Benjudah. Conor Aurelian has no authority here.”

“But outside these walls, he does,” said Mayesh. “And outside these

walls is all the world. There was a Sault in Malgasi, you know. Queen Iren Belmany knocked down the walls and seized the Ashkar inside. By the word of the Law, it may be true that House Aurelian has no authority here. But in practice, those in power can do what they like to us.”

His eyes bored into the Maharam’s; Lin could not help but feel that there was some communication here that she and Oren were not privy to; that

more than the present moment was under discussion.

“Then what do you recommend, Counselor?” said the Maharam, finally. “She keeps these books, and the Law goes begging for justice?”

“Not at all. The books shall be confiscated, and reviewed when the Sanhedrin comes, if you like. Lin won’t care. She never asked for the book in the first place.” Mayesh turned to Lin, and the meaning in his eyes was unmistakable. “You don’t mind, do you?”

Lin swallowed. Blood on the rags on Mariam’s bed, streaks of blood on her hands. Then Mariam telling her the pain was better. What she had done had not fixed Mariam forever; she knew that. But with only a few hours’ reading of Qasmuna’s book, she had done something she had never managed before—she had helped Mariam, using magic. To give up that

chance now was more bitter than the taste of blood.

But she knew what had to be said.

“No,” she whispered. “I—don’t mind.”

There was a moment of silence. Finally, the Maharam nodded. “The Law is satisfied.”

“That’s all?” Oren cried. “You’re just going to take these stupid books away from her? Isn’t she going to be punished? Exiled?

“Now, now, young man,” Mayesh said. “Don’t overexcite yourself. The Maharam has spoken.”


“She is young, Oren,” said the Maharam. “She will learn better. The Law can be merciful, too.”

Merciful, Lin thought, bitterly, as the Maharam directed Oren to gather up her books. They seemed a pitifully small pile in the end, as Oren, glaring furiously, marched out the door with them. The Maharam lingered a moment longer before he, too, departed.

Lin sank down in a kitchen chair, all the strength gone from her legs. She was trembling suddenly, her body shaking with frustration. It was unfair, so very unfair—

“That could have been much worse, Lin,” said Mayesh. “Had I not been here, had the Maharam not been in a generous mood—”

“A generous mood?” Lin flared. “That was generous?”

“For him. He has a special hatred for this sort of thing, even the hint of interest in medicine that is not Ashkari medicine. And as for magic, the study of it”—he shook his head—“he would never have let you keep those books, and he might have done worse.”

“We are supposed to save lives,” Lin whispered. “How is that something he does not understand?”

“He understands it well enough,” said Mayesh. “In his mind, he is weighing the life of one against the lives of many. If the malbushim thought we were practicing forbidden lore—”

“It is the Prince of the malbushim who gave me the book in the first place!”

“Do you think Conor had the slightest idea what it was he was giving you?” Mayesh said. He did not sound angry, only tired. “I assure you, he has never given this sort of thing any thought; he has never had to. You

refused the first thing he offered, so he wanted to offer something he did not think you could reject. It was a challenge, and he wanted to win it. He does not like to lose.”

Lin stared at her grandfather. “You know him so well,” she said. “I

suppose that is because you spent every day of his childhood with him, as

you did not with me, or with Josit.”

It was a low blow, she knew. He did not flinch, but his eyes darkened. “Conor Aurelian is dangerous,” he said, heading for the door. He turned on the threshold to look back at her. “In ways that he does not even understand, he is dangerous. You were right to refuse the first gift he offered you. You should have refused this one, as well.”



When the battle was done, and victory secured with blood, the people of Aram fell to their knees in thanks. And before them appeared a white doe, and spoke to them in the voice of Adassa:

“Once, in another land, I was your Queen, but now I am your Goddess. You are my people. You will no longer be Aramites. Instead, you will be known as the Ashkar: the people who wait. For there will come a time when the Ashkar will be needed. You must be preserved, you must continue, until that day. You must become a people of all nations, so that if one community of Ashkar is destroyed, the others shall survive. You must be everywhere, though none of these places will be home.”

“But what of you, O Goddess?” cried Makabi. “Where will you be?”

“I will be all around you and with you, my hand on your shoulder to guide you, and my light to lead you. And one day, when the time has come, I will return to you clothed in the flesh of a woman of the Ashkari people. I will be once again

your Queen, and we will rise in peace and glory.”

And then the Goddess ascended into the heavens, and as she went, she took Makabi’s hand and brought him with her, and she gave his sword to his son and named him Benjudah, son of Judah, the next Exilarch. All Exilarchs from that day forth would be descended from Makabi, and would carry the name Benjudah and the Evening Sword, the gift of the Goddess.

Thus dawned the new age of the Ashkar.

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