Chapter no 24

Sword Catcher

Lin stared stonily at the wall as Chana Dorin helped lace her into her Festival dress. Her eyes burned from sleeplessness, but she had not cried. Not even after Mayesh had left the night before and she had been

alone in her house. Not even when she looked at the few dusty bits of old paper that were all that remained of Qasmuna’s book. Not even through the long hours of the night when she blamed herself. How stupid had she been, imagining the Prince’s visit would go unremarked? That the Maharam would not investigate? That Oren would not have spied on her?

She had tried again to create a spark within the stone, using her own visualization and energy. It had not worked. The stone had flickered only dully, and she had exhausted herself badly enough that she had fallen asleep with her head on the kitchen table.

While she slept, she dreamed. The dream was vivid, as had been all her dreams since the stone came into her possession, but for a change she did not dream about the tower and the desert, the last battle of Aram. Instead she dreamed of the harbor of Castellane and the sky over it painted with white fire. And in her mind, she heard Ciprian Cabrol’s words, though not spoken in his voice:

I need them to see my vengeance written in fire across the sky. The

harbor will shine as though the lights of the Gods have returned. As though their magic still burns across the waters.

When she woke at dawn, her eyes felt as if sand had been poured into them. As she went to splash water on her face, she thought of Mariam, of the Maharam, and of her dream. The beginning of an idea had taken root

inside her mind. Perhaps there might be a way to get Qasmuna’s book back after all.

“Stop it,” Chana said now, her hands moving efficiently in Lin’s hair. “I can hear you scheming.”

“As can I,” agreed Mariam. She was sitting on her bed in her shift, her dress thrown over the footboard. When Chana was done with Lin, she would begin on Mariam: lacing her dress, braiding her hair into an elaborate, flowery coil. These were the things Lin and Mariam’s mothers would have done for them before the Goddess Festival, if they had had

mothers. Chana had stepped in to fill that gap years before, as she had filled so many. “It is not your fault, Lin. I’d like to tell the Maharam exactly what I think of him, taking your books like that. But tonight is the Festival, and we cannot let him ruin our fun.”

She broke into a cough and Lin whirled anxiously. She had arrived at the Etse Kebeth at first light to see Mariam, who, to her relief, had slept through the night and was feeling much better. “Good days and bad days,” Chana had muttered as she let Lin into the house. “This is one of the good ones, praise the Name.”

Mariam waved off her anxiety. “I’m all right,” she protested, and indeed, she did look better than she had in some time. Lin knew why—and only prayed the effect of the small magic she had done would last Mariam at least through the night and into tomorrow. “Just angry. The Maharam would never have done this to one of the male physicians.”

Lin had only told Chana and Mariam what she had to, that the Maharam had confiscated a number of her medical books that came from foreign lands. By the direct word of the Law, it was forbidden to study non-Ashkari magic, but Mariam was right in saying that it was a Law that was largely disregarded. Would the Maharam have taken all the rest of her volumes had he not been so angry about Qasmuna’s book? She could not say, but her anger sat inside her belly, cold and hard. Anger . . . and a resolve that was growing every moment. The Maharam had insisted she attend the Tevath, after all. And attend she would, in the full spirit of the occasion.

“There.” Chana patted her hair. “You look nice.”

Lin glanced at herself in the mirror—the same reflection she had seen yearly since she had turned sixteen: a girl in a blue dress, her red hair coiled into a long thick braid, apple blossoms artfully woven in among the plaits so that they appeared to grow there naturally. She would draw those flowers from her hair, one by one, during the Goddess Dance, and fling them to the ground until she and every other girl present danced on a carpet of petals.

“My turn.” Mariam got out of bed, smiling. As she took Lin’s place in front of the mirror, there was a knock on the door. It was Arelle Dorin, younger sister of Rahel. She was already in her blue Festival dress, her hair half braided, her cheeks flushed with excitement.

“Mez says there’s a patient of yours at the gates,” she said to Lin. “Seems like it’s important. Here, don’t forget to take one of these with you,” she added, handing over a sachet of herbs on a slim blue ribbon. “You made them, after all!”

Promising Chana and Mariam she’d be back shortly, Lin set out for the Sault gates. The day was bright and warm, the wind blowing toward the sea. It carried with it the scent of flowers. They were everywhere in the Sault: roses in baskets hanging from tree branches and windows, lilies woven into wreaths pinned to doors. The Kathot would be even more spectacular with blossoms, but Lin avoided it: Maidens were not meant to enter the square on Festival day until the sun had set.

There were more flowers at the gates. Lilies and roses, as was customary (for the Goddess had said, I am the rose, and the lily of the valleys), as well as flowers that grew naturally in Castellane: bright lantana and dull-purple lavender. Mez wore a wreath of fig leaves in his hair and grinned at Lin as she approached.

“Don’t know who it is,” he said, pointing. “They won’t get out of their carriage.”

It was a plain gray barouche, the kind of conveyance one could hire if one had a little money to spend, but not enough to purchase a carriage of one’s own. The driver was a bored-looking old man who didn’t raise an eyebrow as Lin, in all her finery, strode up to knock on the carriage door.

It opened just a little, only enough for Lin to see who was waiting for her. A moment later, she had flung herself into the carriage, slamming the door shut behind her.

“You,” she whispered. “What are you doing here? Haven’t you got a banquet to go to?”

Conor Aurelian raised his eyebrows. “Not until tonight,” he said. “Do you only own that one dress?”

“Did you only have one copy of that book you gave me?” Lin snapped back.

Conor, who had been slumped in a corner of the carriage, sat up, looking at her with what seemed to be genuine puzzlement. He was as plainly dressed as she’d ever seen him, in gray trousers and a black linen jacket with frogged silver clasps up and down the front. He wore no circlet, no crown; he could have been any merchant’s son, if he had not had one of the most recognizable faces in Castellane.

“You’re dissatisfied with the book?” He was frowning a little. He rubbed at his neck, and she realized he was wearing none of his usual rings. She could see the shape of his fingers, long and delicate, his palms lightly callused. Couldn’t anything about him be ugly? “You said it was what you were looking for—”

“I’m not dissatisfied with the book.” She took a deep breath. “Today, your Ascension Day, is also an important day for my people. It is the day of our Goddess Festival. I should not be here with you; I should be in the Sault. So if you please, Monseigneur—why are you here? Is there something you require from me?”

He sat up straight. Leaned toward her. His gaze flicked down, briefly; he must have noticed how hard she was breathing. As if she’d run a mile. He said, “I wish to consult with you. As a physician. As someone who I know can be trusted to keep a secret.”

A weariness went through Lin. More concealments, she thought, more secrets she could not tell to Mariam, or to anyone in the Sault. And there

was no concern for the weight of them on her, or what they might cost her. She was only a useful tool: a physician who would not, could not, speak.

“You are ill?” she said.

He shook his head. There were shadows under his eyes, dark as the linen he wore. They made her think of candlelight and poetry, of long nights spent studying old books, though she knew better. He was probably hung over.

“What do you believe madness is?” he said. “Is it a question of illness, or is it, as the Castellani believe, a weakness or corruption in the blood? Is

there such a thing as a medicine that might treat it?”

Lin hesitated. “There could be,” she said. “I do not believe madness, as you call it, is corruption. Often it is a wound borne by an injured mind.

Sometimes it is indeed an illness. The mind can be sick just as the body can.

But medication—I have never heard of treating an illness of the mind with medicine.”

“But there might be something in all those books of yours,” he said. “All those volumes the Ashkar have, that we lack access to—”

All those books of yours. It was as if the freezing-cold ball of anger in her belly was melting in his presence, sending icy slivers of unthinking rage through her veins.

“I have no books,” she said.

He flushed, his eyes darkening to pewter. “Do not toy with me,” he said. “What I am asking of you, it is important.”

“Is someone dying?” Lin said. “Are they desperately ill?” “No, but—”

“Then it will wait for another day.” Lin reached for the carriage door. “Stop.” He sounded furious. “Lin Caster—”

She whirled on him. “Are you giving me a royal order to stay and speak with you about whatever you wish to discuss? Regardless of my duties, my responsibilities?” My only and single chance to take back what is mine? “Is that what this is?”

“Do I need to?” he said, in a voice as dark as bitter syrup. “After I gave you that book? Are you really so ungrateful?”

Lin looked at her hand, where it rested on the carriage door handle. She felt detached from it, as if it did not belong to her. As if she were looking at her own body from the outside. She said flatly, “That book. Yes, you brought it to me. You walked into the Sault with a bevy of Castelguards, making sure to attract as much attention as possible, making sure every eye would be on you, and you brought it to me.”

“It was an honor,” he said. There was something in his voice she could not identify. It was not anger, which she would have expected, but something else again. “I was honoring you. As your prince—”

“All these years you have known my grandfather,” she said, “and still you do not see or understand his people. You are not my prince. You are the Prince of Castellane. A city I do not live in—a city I am forbidden to live in, save I keep myself walled off from it. You came into the one part of

Castellane in which I am at home, and you brought the worst kind of attention upon me. You could simply have had a messenger deliver that book, but no, you had to show off, prove that you were being gracious to

someone so far below you.” Her voice shook. “And the moment you left, the Maharam came and took the book from me and confiscated it, because it came from you. And now—”

She stopped before she could say And now I will lose Mariam. Unless . . . The tears that had not come the night before were threatening now, her eyes burning painfully, but she would not cry in front of him. She would not.

She reached for the handle of the carriage door and tugged on it. To her horror, it stuck. She felt herself freeze as he reached around her, his gloved hand sliding over hers as he grasped the handle. She could feel the strength in him, the lean arch of his body.

He had not moved to open the door. She was in the circle of his arm: She could feel the rough softness of his linen jacket against her. Feel him breathing in short, caught breaths. He wanted to touch her, she knew. She could not help but remember kissing him at the Roverge mansion; even

now, in the depths of her rage and despair, she knew that whoever had interrupted them had been all that had prevented her from doing anything he wanted that night. She had wanted it, too.

“I thought,” she whispered, “that you were going to forget me. Forget all about me.”

“I can’t.” His voice sounded as if it were being pulled taut. “A malady. Which is ironic, since you are a physician. If you had medicine that could make me forget you—”

“No such thing exists,” she said.

“Then I am cursed,” he said, “to think only of you. You, who think I am a loathsome person. A vain monster who could not resist showing off, and in doing so, has made you wretched.”

Lin stared at the carriage door handle. It appeared to be growing and shrinking in size, as her vision blurred. “I think you are a broken person,” she whispered. “Since you have been given whatever you wanted, all of your life, and never been told no, I don’t see how you could have been anything else. I suppose it is not your fault.”

There was a short silence. He withdrew his arm from around her, moving stiffly, as if he were recovering from an injury.

“Get out,” he said.

She fumbled for the door handle, nearly falling when the carriage door swung open. She tumbled out into the street, and heard him call out,

hoarsely—but he was only shouting to the carriage driver. The carriage lurched off, the unlocked door swinging. A hand emerged, caught the door, slammed it shut; the carriage vanished into the traffic on the Great Southwestern Road.

Heart hammering, Lin made her way back to the gates, where Mez was waiting. He looked at her in concern. “You’re awfully pale,” he said.

“Someone really ill?”

“Yes,” Lin said, her voice seeming to echo, some distance from where she was. “But they’ve been ill a long time, I think.”

“Well, don’t let it ruin the Festival for you,” he said, kindly, and tapped at his forehead. “I nearly forgot. You’re popular today, Caster. Someone left

this note for you, earlier.”

He handed over a folded sheet of vellum, sealed with wax. She thanked him and walked away, running a thumb under the seal to break it. When she opened the note, she saw familiar, cramped handwriting. The Ragpicker King’s.

Remember, stay away from the harbor this midnight. You never know where a stray spark might land.—A. M.

She crumpled the note in her hand. She had not forgotten about Ciprian Cabrol’s black powder. It was time to send a note back to the Ragpicker King, telling him that she had acquired Qasmuna’s book, and though it had been taken from her, she now had a plan to get it back.

When Kel woke up, Conor was not in his bed. This was unusual, as Kel was almost always the earlier riser. Still, he had had a restless night, tossing back and forth as he woke over and over from dreams of Fausten’s screams, and red blood spreading across the surface of the ocean.

It was already nearly afternoon, and a quick look out the window told Kel that preparations for the evening’s festivities were well under way. He frowned—tailors, boot-makers, jewelers, and the like would all be arriving shortly to make sure Conor would be impeccably turned out. As much as Conor might not be looking forward to the banquet, he would be unlikely to miss having every stitch of his attire fussed over. Frowning, Kel threw on

clothes and went in search of the Prince.

He looked first in Conor’s favored hiding places—Asti’s stable, the Palace library, the Night Garden—but found no trace of him. As he

wandered, preparations for the banquet went on around him. The trees were draped in yards of blue and scarlet fabric, and lanterns in the shapes of apples, cherries, and figs dangled from their branches, waiting to be lit at nightfall. Waggons rolled by, piled with ceramic plates, silver vases, and what looked to Kel alarmingly like whole trees. The doors to the Shining Gallery had been flung open, and servants raced back and forth from the

kitchens and the storerooms, carrying everything from piles of green silk to what appeared to be a life-sized jaguar carved from sugar pastry.

So he returned to his bedchamber. Later, he would wish he had kept wandering around the grounds, possibly until the next day, but by the time he stepped through the door it was already too late. Conor’s closets had been torn open, and his clothes scattered on the floor. Queen Lilibet was pacing back and forth, stepping occasionally on an embroidered waistcoat or fur-trimmed hat, keeping up a stream of curses in Marakandi. Mayesh had stationed himself at the window, his lined face more haggard than usual.

Both started at the sight of Kel, their faces momentarily eager before relaxing in disappointment.

“It’s you,” Lilibet said, marching across the room toward him. “I don’t suppose you have an explanation for this?”

She thrust out a folded note. This, Kel knew, could not be good. He took the paper with a feeling of deep foreboding and unfolded it to see Conor’s familiar spiky hand slashing across the page. He read:

Dear Mother,

I have decided not to attend the welcoming banquet this evening. I wish to reassure you that I have thought deeply about the issue, and

the many very good reasons I ought to attend. Please do not imagine it an ill-considered decision when I say that I will not be attending because, frankly, I do not want to. I leave it in your capable hands to manage my absence. If it will trouble you, I suggest you cancel the banquet. If not, it is my opinion the banquet could be held perfectly well without me. If you really consider it, this entire engagement and

wedding could proceed perfectly well without me there, to say nothing of the marriage. My part could as easily be played by an empty chair.

If you demand to find me, I will be in the Temple District. I have heard that they occasionally throw orgies, and while I have never

attended one, I find myself suddenly curious. If nothing else, it should be an education in how to manage a party involving a large number of guests.

All best, yours, etc, etc, C.

“Gray hell,” Kel said, forgetting not to swear in front of the Queen. “He’s serious?”

Lilibet snatched the note from his hand. “Don’t pretend as if you didn’t know,” she snapped. “Conor tells you everything; surely he would have mentioned this. I’m sure he thought it was the wittiest sort of joke, that stupid boy—”

“No,” Kel said. For all the bite to Conor’s letter, there was nothing about it that made Kel think it had been penned by someone who was amused to be writing it. It was bleak, no doubt informed by the knowledge of Fausten’s death, not that Kel could say that. “I do not believe there is any

chance Conor imagines this a joke.”

Lilibet pressed her lips into a thin line. She looked to Mayesh, who was gazing at Kel, his eyes seeming to bore into him in a way the Queen’s had not. “Think, Kel,” he said, his deep voice gruff. “Something must have happened, to so affect Conor’s attitude, and so suddenly—”

Surely he cannot want me to say it, Kel thought. To mention the execution of Fausten, carried out by the King’s own hand. But he must

imagine I know nothing of it, unless Jolivet told him I was there. Jolivet saw me—

“Counselor. My lady,” Kel said. “The Prince has been miserable. Of

course he has been miserable. That ought not to be a surprise to either of you.” He looked to Lilibet, who glanced away, her right hand toying with the emeralds at her throat. “But he has been resigned, not rebellious. I cannot speak to what is in that letter. I do not understand this sudden change. Only that he must be unhappier than we have all thought.” He

spread his hands wide; he was only telling the truth. He did not know where Conor had gone, or why. “I blame myself.”

Lilibet muttered something that sounded very like, I blame you, too.

“Leave him be, my lady,” said Mayesh. “Kel is the Prince’s Sword Catcher, not the guard of his emotions.”

Lilibet had started pacing again. She wore a dress of dark-green velvet, to match the emeralds at her throat; her black hair was lacquered into coils. “I am sure he thinks me very cold,” she said, half to herself. “As if I would want my own son to be in despair; I could never want that. If I could have shielded him from the consequences of this mistake . . .” She glanced at Mayesh. “The King must not know. About tonight. He will not be at the banquet, but still.”

Her tone was brittle. Kel thought of the King lifting Fausten over his head, as easily as if he were a bag of feathers. Thought of the blood in the water, the slick green slide of the crocodile beneath the waves.

“It would be preferable,” said Mayesh, “if no one outside this room

knew. Which means we cannot postpone the banquet. Sarthe would take it as an insult if we did, besides.”

“You could say Conor was ill,” Kel suggested. “Surely they would have to accept—”

“They would not believe it,” said Mayesh. “They are already very much on edge. The Roverges’ display the other night did not help.”

“Much as I’d like them to take that ridiculous child and go home, it would mean severing the last amiable ties we have with Sarthe,” said Lilibet. “If they wished, they could harry us at will at the Narrow Pass, cut off half our trade, murder our people—”

“That will not happen,” said Mayesh. “The evening’s plans will go on, with Conor in attendance.” His gaze rested on Kel, who had guessed, the moment that Mayesh said the banquet could not be postponed, what would happen. He could have protested, he knew; he also knew it would make no difference if he did. “My lady, let us ready the attendants. Kel, fetch your talisman; we have only a little while to get you ready.”

It had been a long time since Kel had taken Conor’s place at a Court event

—years, he thought—but there was, at least, a rhythm to the pantomime.

Kel let himself fall into it, even as his thoughts raced.

He went to the tepidarium first, where he scrubbed his body with

handfuls of flaked lavender soap, and used the strigil to shave himself clean. (Conor would never appear anywhere in public with even the shadow of a beard.)

When Kel emerged, stripped down to nothing but the talisman at his throat such that he appeared a perfectly naked Conor in truth, the Prince’s attendants had been summoned and now swarmed around him like

fashionable bees. His hair was dried, curled, and perfumed, his hands rubbed with scented lotion. He stepped into the clothes held up for him: a shirt of bleached cambric, the sleeves wrapped with gold thread, with a cuff of gold embroidery around the neck. A hip-length black velvet doublet with bands of gold brocade, trousers of the same material, and tooled-leather boots. An overrobe of gold brocade, lined with the fur of white lynxes. A ring on each hand, set with jewels the size of plover’s eggs: an emerald on his left, a ruby on his right. Lastly, the Prince’s circlet was set on his head: a plain gold band that always left a mark across Kel’s brow when it was removed at the end of the day.

His talisman remained, tucked down under the neck of his shirt, now invisible even to those who knew he was wearing it.

Their task complete, the attendants melted away like ships vanishing at the horizon, and were replaced by a somber Mayesh. Kel gazed at the

Counselor wearily. Mayesh wore Ashkari gray, but his tunic was silk, belted with silver, and a heavy silver Court medallion hung around his neck.

He nodded curtly at Kel. “You’re ready, then?”

Kel nodded. The city clock had already chimed seven, but Conor was expected to be late; it would not matter. He followed Mayesh into the hall and through the corridors of the tower into the passages underground that connected the various sections of the Palace.

Only now did he let himself wonder: Where was Conor? He’d told the Queen that Conor had been gritting his teeth through the last few days, and that was true, but he could think of nothing that would have made it so much worse, to drive him into the city. There were parts of Conor where he could be hurt, chinks in his armor where he could be wounded, but he could not fathom what could have hurt him so terribly as to drive him from Marivent at such a significant time. He must know that though the Queen

would be furious, it would make no difference in the end; his absence would be patched over, and the marriage would go on, unstoppable as weather or taxes.

They emerged into the small room that had struck ten-year-old Kel as so wondrously full of books. It was familiar now, unremarkable. There were far more books in the West Tower library.

Kel could hear the dull roar of the party through the golden doors that led to the Shining Gallery. He moved toward the doors, only to be stopped by Mayesh with a hand on his arm. “Let me see your talisman,” he said, and looped a finger below the chain, drawing it out from under Kel’s shirt. He ran a finger over the etched numbers and letters, murmuring under his breath in Ashkar. Kel did not know the words, but he had heard Lin murmur something similar over him, that night he had nearly died. A prayer for safekeeping, or luck?

Mayesh tucked the talisman back under Kel’s collar, and said, “I know you are worried for him.” As always there could be only one him. “Set it aside, for now. You can help him best that way.”

Kel nodded. His heart was beating hard; he could feel it in his fingertips, that sense of anticipatory tension he felt every time he faced the world as Conor. The last time it had been on the steps of the Convocat, with the crowd roaring for him. He wondered if this was what soldiers felt, the moment before stepping onto the field of battle: a mix of fear and a strange exhilaration?

Except his battlefield was the floor of the Shining Gallery, his foes any who might doubt that he was Conor. His strengths were not blades or couleuvrines, but pretense and careful obfuscation. Conor was not here, but he paused for a moment at the door as the guards announced him, his hand on the lintel, and spoke the words of the ritual silently in his mind.

I am the Prince’s shield. I am his unbreakable armor. I bleed that he might not bleed. I suffer that he might never suffer. I die that he might live forever.

Only Conor was not here to say: But you will not die.

Perhaps that was the reason that a sense of wrongness clung to Kel, like a spiderweb to his shoe, as he stepped into the Shining Gallery. He was aware of Mayesh, not far away, moving into the crowd toward the Queen; he was

aware of the noise of the party, a roar of heightened chatter mixed with the tap of boots on marble and the clinking of glasses.

There was no reason for Kel to feel a sense of wrongness, at least none that he could see. He smiled automatically as the musicians in the gallery— a wide balcony of carved wood reached by a flight of marble stairs in the corner of the room—greeted his entry with a flourish of harp and violin.

He realized now why he’d seen waggons carrying trees across the Palace courtyards; Lilibet had transformed the center of the Shining Gallery into

the secret heart of a forest. An irony, Kel thought, as no such forest grew in Castellane, nor among Marakand’s deserts and mountains. And yet it was such a forest as anyone might recognize immediately: the heart of an old

tale of princesses and huntsmen—a place of curling leaves, strange flowers, and the harp-song of birds.

Living trees had been arranged throughout the room, their trunks and branches painted with lacquer until they shone like the polished

goldenwood floor. The red apples that dangled from the trees were carved garnets; the berries that grew among the thickets of greenery artistically arranged about the room were lapis and onyx. The leaves that scattered the floor were green silk. Animals had been cunningly crafted of sugar pastillage, colored with royal icing—white ermine scampered among the leaves, sugar birds perched among the boughs, and a leopard, native to the island kingdom of Kutani, gazed from the shadows with eyes carved from jasper.

At the far end of the room, where the forest ended, the great carved table had been restored to its accustomed dais. It was empty, save for old Gremont—sitting wearily in a low chair—and, near the head of the table, Princess Luisa. Beside her was Vienne d’Este.

Apparently the Sarthians had decided not to risk Luisa mingling with the party guests. Dressed in white lace, her hair tied back with a ribbon, she

was whispering to Vienne, who was no longer wearing the clothes of the Black Guard, but a simple dress of gray silk with pinked sleeves, through which silver-threaded linen was visible. Her hair was unbound, a riot of chestnut curls. She seemed to see Kel looking at her across the room and shot him a glare; it startled him for a moment until he recalled that she thought he was Conor.

He grinned at her; it was what Conor would have done. Luisa, glancing up, caught the tail end of the grin and smiled happily. Down the table from her, old Gremont snorted and settled more comfortably into his chair. For a moment, Kel seemed to hear Andreyen Morettus whispering in his ear: 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.

Though it was hard to picture Gremont in the Maze district, or at a

suspicious meeting. Especially when it came to staying awake for one. He wondered if Merren’s understandable obsession with the Gremont family was prejudicing the Ragpicker King. Gremont did not seem a credible threat, especially when compared with many of the other Council members

—Sardou, Roverge . . . Alleyne.

He looked then for Antonetta. He did not know when she had become

one of the first people he searched for when he entered a room, only that it had somehow happened. Nor did he have any trouble finding her in the Gallery: His eyes snapped to her as if he had been trained to discover her among crowds, the way he had in fact been trained to see the gleam of weapons, the shift of a suspicious movement.

She stood beneath the shadow of a tree that was hung with golden berries. Her dress, too, was gold, as were her high-heeled slippers. She was not wearing her locket.

His heart seemed to tighten under the layers of velvet and brocade that protected it. She always wore the locket. Where was it, and why had she chosen to leave it off? He desperately wanted to ask, but knew he could not. Conor would not have noticed the locket or the fact that it was missing: not because he was not observant in general, but because he spared little thought for Antonetta.

As for Antonetta, she looked, unusually for her, desperately sad. When she raised her eyes and looked at him directly, he saw a sort of relief in her

gaze, and something that felt like a shared secret that passed between them.

His heart lifted, and fell again. It was not him she was sharing this secret with; she thought he was Conor. But what kind of secret could Conor have with Antonetta?

A crowd passed in front of him, cutting off his view of Antonetta. It was Lilibet and the entourage currently following her. Dripping wit and jewels,

she was charming House Uzec, House Cazalet, House Raspail, and House Sardou with equal enthusiasm.

Kel knew his duty—or at least Conor’s duty. He flung himself into the flock of nobles, engaging with them as Lilibet did: asking Esteve about a team of horses he had just purchased, soliciting Uzec’s advice on what wine might be served at next season’s Solstice Ball, and listening to Benedict Roverge extol the virtues of his fleet of dye-ships, currently berthed in Castellane’s harbor.

Kel was conscious of the Queen’s eyes on him even as she went to speak with Jolivet, who wore his full Court uniform of red and gold, a sash of gold braid across his chest. He stood before a painted silk screen, which

was no accident. Lilibet never liked shows of military force at celebrations; she felt it broke the mood of revelry. But the Legate insisted there be guards present. They had compromised. The Castelguard, when in attendance, remained concealed behind a screen, through which they watched the

festivities unfold. Kel hoped someone brought them food on occasion. “My Prince. Your mother has outdone herself with these decorations.” It

was Lady Alleyne, swathed in silvery silk, a moon to her daughter’s sun. Was Liorada now following Antonetta’s fashions? Interesting, if so.

“Thank you, doyenne.” Kel bowed. “Though you should be telling her; she never tires of praise for her skills.”

“If one is skilled, one should be praised for it.” Lady Alleyne smiled, but her eyes were hard as the carved leopard’s. She leaned toward Kel, her

voice conspiratorial. “Congratulations on the happy event to come.”

Which meant: I see you are getting married, and not to my daughter. My resentment will be undying and evergreen.

“Yes, congratulations,” said Antonetta, who had come up to join her mother. She carried a glass of pale-yellow wine in one hand, and her dark- gold hair curled down her pale throat to meet the deeper-gold silk of her dress. She smiled at Kel, though it did not reach her eyes. “Monseigneur Conor—is Kel Anjuman here this night, by any chance?”

Kel was glad he himself had not been drinking wine; he would have choked on it. “I am quite sure he’s here somewhere,” he said. “I do have a difficult time keeping track of him.”

“He’s quite popular, you know, with many of the young ladies of the Hill,” said Antonetta. “And some of the young men as well.”

Is he?” Lady Alleyne looked mildly intrigued—and, somewhat insultingly, surprised.

“I have heard his skills in the bedchamber are unparalleled,” said Antonetta, her eyes gleaming with amusement.

Kel felt himself blush, followed by an acute sense of horror. Conor would never blush. He hoped the dim lighting hid the color. Think about something else, he told himself. Picture something calming. But his boat on the sea, with the blue water all around, would not come.

“Antonetta, honestly,” exclaimed Lady Alleyne, looking scandalized. “I am sorry,” Antonetta said contritely. “I do say the silliest things! I’ve

no idea why. Monseigneur, Lord Falconet had sent me to ask if you could come and speak with him. I know there is little time before the banquet begins, but he seemed eager to talk to you.”

Kel looked across the room but did not spot Joss. “Where is he, then?” “Somewhere in the make-believe forest, I believe,” Antonetta said. “I

will take you to him.”

Kel knew that if it had been someone other than who he was pretending to be, Lady Alleyne would have protested; as it was, she looked annoyed that her daughter was doing a favor for Falconet. But she could not object, as it was also a favor for the Prince. She simply watched the two of them, narrow-eyed, as Antonetta led Kel among the lacquered trees. Gold and greenery pressed in around them until the Shining Gallery itself seemed to disappear, and they had wandered, like the protagonists of a Story-Spinner tale, into the heart of the forest.

Kel knew only a few layers of trees hid them from view, yet it felt surprisingly real: The floor was marble and not dirt, the fallen leaves cut from silk, and the birds perched among the branches were sugar and clockwork, but the sap that ran down the trunks of the trees was real, and scented like resin. He even thought he caught sight of a real bird’s nest, no doubt transported by accident, perched high in the boughs above.

Antonetta leaned back against the lacquered trunk of an oak tree and looked up at him. At Kel—no, he thought; she was looking at Conor. The look on her face was for Conor. “I did not lie,” she said. “Joss does wish to speak to you. Only I wished to speak to you first, and in private.”

“It couldn’t wait?” Kel was used to putting on Conor’s haughtiness like a cloak; but now, with Antonetta, the cloak seemed ill fitting. Cinched so

tightly at the throat that it was difficult to breathe.

Her eyebrows drew together questioningly. “Did you not get my message?”

Kel tensed. If Conor had gotten a message from Antonetta, he had not mentioned it. “I don’t recall,” he drawled, hating himself a little. “I get so many messages.”

If he had thought she would look hurt, he was surprised; she merely looked annoyed. “Conor. It was important.”

He took a step closer to her. Something seemed different about her. She wasn’t flirting, he realized, or using the smile that was like an arrow in his heart. She was looking at him—at Conor—directly and steadily, with a clarity tinged with frustration.

For a wild moment, he thought, Does she know it’s me? He had never wondered that before when disguised as Conor, or at least not for many years. No one saw past the illusion. No one cared to. He had relaxed into the truth that people saw what they wanted to see.

But the clarity of Antonetta’s gaze undid him. She looked at him as if she knew him down to his bones, and he wished, knowing as he did so how

dangerous it would be if that wish came true, that she did. That she would say, Kellian, and tell him she had recognized him the first moment she had seen him. Perhaps all those years ago, the first time he had ever sat down for dinner in the Shining Gallery, not sure which piece of cutlery to pick up with his shaking hands.

But that was ridiculous; she had only been nine. She could not have known.

He thought of the grass ring. If she did know who he was, he could ask her. The question had been in the back of his mind since he had learned the locket’s secret, like the afterimage of a bright light printed against his eyelids. He said, “Antonetta—”

Antonetta glanced around, as if making sure no one was there to overhear them. “I told you in the note,” she said, quietly. “It’s my mother. She wishes to engage me to Artal Gremont the moment he arrives back in Castellane.”

Kel felt as if the trees were closing in around him. “Artal Gremont?

Antonetta looked stricken. “He is years older than me, but an alliance between our Council seats would please my mother—”

“He is a bastard,” said Kel. “And not the usual sort of bastard we’ve all gotten used to ignoring here on the Hill. He is an exceptional bastard.”

“Which is why I want your help, Monseigneur. There must be a way you can convince my mother to form another plan.”

Monseigneur. Kel wished he were anywhere else; his ridiculous hope that Antonetta knew him through his disguise had been just that—ridiculous. He knew he could simply walk off—Conor had done stranger things—but more than he wanted to be away, he wanted to help Antonetta.

And yet there was little he could do. He was not himself; he was Conor, and must answer her as Conor would. There was nothing more important than preserving the illusion that he was the Prince. Even though it seemed to choke him as he said, “Your mother wants you to marry. Is there—

someone else you wish to wed? I could perhaps try to turn her in that direction.”

Antonetta took a deep breath. In the strange false-forest light, her skin seemed dappled with shadow and gold. Kel knew there had been a time that he had not found her beautiful, but he could not remember the shape of his thoughts then. “No,” she said. “I would remain unmarried if I could. As my mother has since my father’s death.”

“I have no doubt she loves you,” said Kel, “but you are a piece on a Castles board, as well. Asking her not to marry you off is asking her to sacrifice her queen.”

Antonetta took a step toward him in the moving shadows. She laid her hand on his arm—he could not feel it, through the thickness of the material he wore, but the weight of her touch carried warmth with it. “You are kind,” she said. “There are many who say you are not, but I know that you are. I

know you can help.”

And for a moment, he let himself be lost: in the touch of her hand, the look on her face, the scent of her lavender perfume. And the softness of her gaze, though he knew it had to be for Conor—whatever she felt for him— drew Kel in; he bent his head, brushing his lips across her cheekbone. She looked up in surprise. He could kiss her—her mouth was inches away; he could bury his hands in her hair and slant his lips against hers, and even if her kiss was for Conor, he would take it. It made him feel like a beggar, but in that moment, the idea had ceased to trouble him. He had been born a beggar in the streets; it was nothing new to him.

He felt her warm breath against his cheek. His mouth brushed hers; she started, and stepped backward, raising her hands to form a flimsy barrier between them. She looked at him wryly. “Conor,” she said. “Are you really drunk this early in the evening?”

Set back, he blinked at her. “I thought—”

“No, you didn’t,” she said, calmly. “You know how I feel. I know how

you feel. Let us not do anything silly.”

“Conor!” The soft sound of rustling silken leaves broke the odd silence. Kel stepped away from Antonetta as a shadow flickered through the trunks of the trees. It was Joss Falconet. “Thank you, Antonetta, for finding him for me.” He winked. “A personal matter has arisen, and I require his sage advice.”

Antonetta inclined her head politely. “It was nothing,” she said, and though Kel wanted to stop her, he could think of no reason Conor would do so. She set off alone through the false trees, and a moment later Joss was steering a bemused Kel toward the center of the room, where a massive sugar sculpture of Aquila soared toward the sky, perfectly detailed down to a working portcullis in the wall around the city. Flying from the top of the tallest tower were miniature flags of Sarthe and Castellane.

Hm, Kel thought. It was a conundrum. Conor would be very likely to nibble at least one tower, or possibly the city clock. It would, however, annoy both Lilibet and the Sarthian delegation. Deciding to choose harmony over verisimilitude, Kel said, “Joss. You have a personal matter you wish to discuss?”

Joss was as fashionable as ever. Posy-drops had turned his pupils the shape of wings, and a blue Shenzan dragon curled across the back of his

silk tunic, wrapping its gold-and-cobalt tail over his shoulder. And yet he looked uncomfortable, which was unusual enough for Kel to note it. He lowered his voice before saying, “I wished to offer an apology, actually.”

Kel looked at him in some surprise. Falconet was rarely serious; nor was he the apologizing type. “What for?”

“The party the other night. Charlon’s mockery of the Sarthian Princess.”

Kel glanced over at the long table, where a plate of sops—a sweet bread stuffed with jam made of peaches, pears, and cherries—had been laid in front of Luisa. She was offering one to Vienne, who was smiling and shaking her head.

“Luisa,” said Kel. “Her name is Luisa.”

“I wanted you to know that I had no idea what Charlon was planning with that dance business. Neither did Montfaucon, though I think he found it funnier than I did.”

“I’m sure he found it uproarious,” said Kel. “I’m surprised to hear you didn’t.”

“I could see it bothered you,” said Joss, looking at him closely. Kel had not wondered before if Conor had been bothered by Charlon’s casual cruelty; he had assumed Conor had been too bitter, too angry at the situation, to consider feelings other than his own. But perhaps he had been unfair. Joss was observant, in a way Montfaucon and Roverge were not, and he knew Conor well. “I knew you didn’t like it—and I wanted to tell you, whatever I might think of what Sarthe has done, whatever I might have wished was different, I am loyal to you. To House Aurelian, but more than anything to you.”

“You mean,” said Kel, “if I wish all of you on the Hill to make your peace with Luisa, you will do what you can to help?”

“Yes, though it will not be easy. There is a great deal of bad feeling toward Sarthe, and a great deal of rage over the trick they played. But,” Joss added hastily, “I will try. I am cleverer than most of them, and I imagine I can sort them out.”

“And you are modest,” said Kel. “There’s also that.”

Joss grinned a little. “And there was something else I wanted to ask you,” he said. “About that girl, Mayesh’s granddaughter. The one who danced at Charlon’s—”

He broke off with a look of surprise. Kel soon realized why; old Gremont had come up to them and laid a frail hand on Kel’s brocaded sleeve.

“Might we speak alone for a moment, my Prince?” he said.

Joss bowed and excused himself, shooting a look at Kel that communicated clearly: You’ll have to tell me what this is about later.

Kel turned back to Gremont, whose eyes were darting around the room; the old man seemed clearly anxious at the idea of being overheard.

“Alone,” he said, again, and cleared his throat. “If we could talk for a moment, perhaps outside . . .”

“Is this about Artal?” said Kel. He knew he should not ask—Conor would not—but could not help himself. “Is he returning soon?”

Gremont’s eyes darted away. “Soon enough,” he said. “In a few weeks, I’d imagine. He had business to attend to in Kutani. It is not Artal I wished to speak to you about,” he added hastily. “It is something else entirely.”

“My dear Gremont,” Kel said, as gently as he could, “of course I will be happy to speak with you.” About your meetings in the Maze? If that is even true? “But let us make it after dinner. It will be difficult for me to get away just now, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

Gremont lowered his voice. “My lord Prince. It must be soon. It is a matter of trust, you see—”

“Of trust?” Kel echoed, puzzled, just as the bell that meant food was to be served rang out. Guests began to swarm the high table, and a moment later Mayesh was at Kel’s side, smiling benignly at Gremont. “Come, my Prince; you had better finish your greetings and sit down, else no one will ever eat.”

It was true enough; Castellani Laws of etiquette decreed no noble could sit and eat until the Blood Royal did, though because Conor thought the rule was stupid, he usually ignored it.

Gremont’s face fell, but Mayesh was already steering Kel to the high table. Kel mounted the steps, stopping to greet Senex Domizio and Sena Anessa. They looked surprised as he spoke of his delight at the thought of visiting Aquila, the Eagle City. (If nothing else, Kel thought, Conor might as well get a trip out of this whole business.)

As he made his way toward the royal seats, stopping for a moment to

joke with Charlon and Montfaucon, he was conscious of Mayesh watching him from across the room. The Counselor was in deep conversation with Jolivet. The two men might dislike each other, Kel thought, but they were bound nonetheless, to the service of the King and the keeping of royal secrets. They reminded Kel of the figures painted on the Doors of Hell and Paradise—one representing good, one evil, both tussling over the souls of humankind.

At last, Kel reached his place and seated himself beside Luisa. Vienne

was on her other side; Lilibet was at the head of the table, some seats away, already in conversation with Lady Alleyne. Antonetta had been relegated to the other end of the table, across from Joss and Montfaucon.

Luisa looked anxiously at Kel. She had cherry jam on her cheek. Conor, he knew, would ignore her, but he could not bring himself to do it. “Me

scuxia,” he said to her, in Sarthian. “My apologies. A Prince has many duties.”

“I was beginning to wonder if you were going to grace us with your

presence at all,” said Vienne, drily, in Castellani. “I had assumed you would spend this evening as you did the one at the Roverges’, flirting and


Before Kel could reply, it became temporarily impossible to say anything at all as the food was served. There were plates and plates of the Marakandi dishes Lilibet favored: pigeon stewed with dates, capons cooked with

raisins and honey, lamb studded with sour cherries and drizzled with

pomegranate syrup. Alongside such delicacies were the recipes of Sarthe: cuttlefish in black ink, meatballs stuffed with dried cheese, chicken brined in vinegar, passatelli in herb butter.

There were expressions of pleasure up and down the table, but all Kel could think of was the first time he had visited the Palace. The wonder of the food—so much of it, and such variety—unrolling before him like an enchanted tapestry. How he had eaten until his stomach hurt.

Now it was just food, a source of sustenance without wonder. And he was not hungry. Though he was ignoring the tension he felt, it was still there, a coiled spring in his belly, precluding any desire for food.

He wondered if Vienne, too, was tense. Despite her clothes, despite the rather calm circumstances, she was still guarding the Princess. He wished he could tell her he knew what that was like; instead, he said, echoing her words, “Drinking and flirting, eh?”

“Well, yes,” said Vienne, spearing a raisin with her fork. “It is what you were doing—”

“I was speaking with Mathieu Gremont. He is ninety-five,” Kel said, “and he runs the Charter for tea and coffee, though I rarely see him awake. I would not say I was flirting, however. He is frail, and such activities might kill him off.”

Vienne looked a little surprised—it was probably more than Conor had ever said to her before. “I meant the other night—”

“But that was the other night,” said Kel. Servants were moving down the table, serving from the platters. Kel reminded himself to make sure he took some of Conor’s favorite foods: hare and candied ginger, capons stuffed with cinnamon. “This is tonight.”

“Are we to expect it will be different, then?” said Vienne, who was trying to encourage Luisa to eat.

Kel said, “I am reminded of an old Callatian saying: ‘If you look for faults, you will find them.’”

“And I am reminded of another Callatian saying,” said Vienne. “‘The measure of a man is what he does with his power.’”

“I was unaware,” Kel said, “that it was in the remit of the Black Guard to take the measure of royalty. Also, if you wanted Luisa to eat, you shouldn’t have let her consume an entire plate of jam.”

Luisa, hearing her name, tugged at Vienne’s sleeve. “What’s wrong?” she demanded in Sarthian. “What is it you are saying? I will not be left out,


“Look, do you see that tapestry over there?” said Kel, in Sarthian as well. He pointed at the arras that hung down from the balcony, screening off the alcoves beneath. “It is called The Marriage to the Sea. It is a ritual that the royal family must undertake, here in Castellane, to dedicate themselves to

the sea that brings us so much. The King and Queen carry golden rings out into the harbor on a ship of flowers, and they scatter them upon the waves of the sea. That way we seal the sea’s love of the city, and keep ourselves on her good side.”

“It seems like a waste of jewelry,” said Luisa, and Kel laughed. “I would rather keep the ring.”

“But you would anger the sea,” Vienne teased. “And what would happen then?”

Luisa did not answer; Lilibet had risen to her feet, a small silver bell in her hand. She rang it, sending a peremptory chime through the room.

The music from the gallery above faded as Lilibet—queenly, elegant, chin raised—gazed about her. Her emeralds glittered at her throat, her ears, on her fingers.

If any wondered where the King was, they knew better than to express that wondering aloud. His absence was an expected thing at this juncture; even the nervous Sarthian delegates could not be insulted by it.

“On behalf of Castellane,” Lilibet said, “I offer welcome to the delegates of Sarthe, and to the Princess Luisa of the House of d’Eon.”

Luisa brightened; she had understood her name, at least. Poor child, Kel thought, to have come all this way at the whim of politicians. It was like

releasing a dove among hawks. Being engaged to Conor would not save her. There would be jostling for her favor, true, but many more hoping to see her fall.

“She welcomes you,” Kel translated, and Luisa smiled. Lilibet was still speaking: of the eagle of Sarthe and the lion of Castellane, the union of fury and flame and the empire they would build together of domination over land and sea.

Vienne reached for a decanter of rosé wine; Kel got there first, and passed it deftly to her. She gave him a narrow look. “You seem different,” she said.

“Different than other Princes?” Kel said, flexing his ringed fingers. “More charming? Ah. More handsome.

She rolled her eyes. “Different than you were,” she clarified. “You have not been kind to her”—she glanced at Luisa—“these past days. Now you are all kindness and jests. Perhaps you have had a change of heart,” she added, “though I do not credit it. I have never known a Prince who had a heart to change.”

Luisa, tired of her companions speaking in Castellani, gave an aggrieved sigh just as Lilibet finished speaking.

“You must clap for the Queen’s speech,” Kel whispered, and brought his own hands together, though it was not quite etiquette for the Crown Prince to applaud. Luisa copied him quickly. The musicians began to play again, and the twang of a lior filled the hall as Lilibet took her seat.

Through the servants’ doors under the arches, a stream of performers in bright silks and gold braid began to enter the room. Pleased murmurs ran up and down the table: These were dancers, called bandari. They wandered the Gold Roads, affiliated with no particular country or language, dedicated to their art. They wore tight-fitting silk jackets that ended just below the rib

cage and low-slung trousers in sheer silk. Gold satin slippers completed the outfit.

They performed with their hair unbound and intricate belts of coins wrapped around their muscled waists. It was said that a bandari dancer saved a coin from each performance and looped it on a chain; the length of a belt indicated how long the dancer had been plying their skill.

The Court at Jahan had its own troupe of bandari, and Lilibet was a particular enthusiast of the art. She applauded as the dancers entered the


“Must I clap again?” Luisa whispered; Kel shook his head. The

decorative trees and greenery had been rearranged to create a cleared space for the dancers to perform; he had an excellent view of the “stage” since the chairs opposite him were empty. “No need yet,” he said. “Only do as I do, and do not worry.”

He wondered if the sight of the dancers would bother her, considering what had happened at Roverge’s party. She seemed only charmed, though, at the sight of them. Indeed, they were beautiful: lithe and carefully put together as if purpose-built for graceful movement. Unbound hair—fair and scarlet, black, and brown—cascaded down their backs.

Vienne was not looking at the bandari dancers; she was regarding Kel with the same puzzled look on her face. I must stop being kind to the child, he thought, yet he knew why he was doing it—it was what Conor had done for him, when he had first come to the Palace. Showed him which fork to use, told him when and how to speak. Luisa was a child, as he had been; he could not leave her to flounder.

Yet still, he felt a prickle at the back of his neck—as if the force of old memory had sent a shiver up his spine. He turned and saw a flicker of movement at the back of the hall. A cloaked figure had come in through the golden doors and stood regarding the room. His hood was up, shadowing

his face, yet Kel knew his step, his gait, as he knew his own.


Kel could only stare as the Prince made his way into the room. The

dancers were still moving about, as were a few servants carrying bronze bowls of rosewater, apparently needed for the performance. Up in the

gallery, the musicians tuned their instruments. No one—not even Jolivet or Mayesh—seemed to have noticed Conor save Kel.

All his life, Kel had been trained to do as Conor would do, anticipate his actions, guess his likely responses. Conor was in the shadows, but to Kel he was plain enough. He could tell that Conor was drunk—drunk enough to

require a hand against the wall as he walked, steadying him.

But not so drunk that he did not know where he was, or what he was doing. He was making his way determinedly toward the high table, as if he intended to take his place there.

Kel could not bear to think what would happen then. He could excuse himself, he thought; he could slip into the Victory Hall, but even then—

Conor had reached the arras, was walking alongside it, one bare hand trailing along the tapestry of The Marriage to the Sea. Above him, the fast strumming of the lior signaled that the dance was about to begin. Luisa

gave a gasp of delight as the lamps dimmed. Silver and black gauze scarves began to tumble from a hidden opening in the ceiling. The room was no longer a forest. It was the night: the iron of stars, the obsidian of the sky.

The dancers, in their shining finery, began to move across the floor. It was a dance of constellations, Kel realized: The dancers would be comets, meteors, and asteroids. They would be the air that caught fire between the planets, the brilliant and unexplained debris of the universe.

They would be a distraction.

Murmuring something to Luisa, he slipped out of his seat, leaped silently down from the dais, and crept behind the high table. He slid along the length of the wall beneath the gallery, his every sense on high alert. Music poured through the room; the air was full of glittering scarves, and the

dancers spun a glimmering path across the floor. Conor had paused, his back to the tapestry, to stare at them. Kel sped up, caught hold of him by the jacket he wore beneath his cloak, and dragged him behind the arras.

One carcel lamp illuminated the bare stone alcove behind the arras; the tapestry fell into place, concealing them, as Conor struggled for a moment.

“Con,” Kel hissed. “It’s me. It’s me.

Conor went limp. He sagged back against the wall, his hood falling away to reveal his face. He wore no crown, and his eyes were bloodshot.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He wasn’t slurring his words—he wasn’t drunk enough for that—but he was half whispering. It was hard for Kel to hear him over the music. “I left you. I thought I was leaving them, but I left you.”

Kel, still holding on to the front of Conor’s jacket, said, “What did you think would happen? Though I suppose you didn’t think. Conor—”

“I thought they’d cancel this fucking party,” Conor hissed. “I thought they’d realize—I know this has to happen, it’s politics, it can’t be changed, but all this pretense, these lies that we’re happy about it—that anyone is

besides whoever stands to profit: a few politicians and merchants—” Kel

saw the motion of his throat as he swallowed. “I didn’t think they’d make you do this.”

“This is my duty, Conor,” Kel said, wearily. “My charge. I pretend to be you. Of course they’d make me do this. And you shouldn’t be here.”

Conor put his hands flat against Kel’s chest. “I want to make it right,” he said. “Let me switch places with you. I’ll go out. Do my duty.”

Kel wanted to ask him what had happened, why he’d left so abruptly and come back the same way. Why now, today? But now was so incredibly, utterly not the time. He said, “Con, you’re drunk. Go back to the Mitat. Go to sleep. I’ll tell you what happens. It won’t be much.”

Conor set his jaw. “Switch with me.” “It’ll make everything worse,” said Kel.

Conor flinched. And for a moment, Kel remembered back down the years, the boy with the light behind his eyes, who’d said to him playfully: What was it like, then, being me?

When had that light gone out? Had he noticed the moment? Conor’s eyes looked like bruises in his face now, and there was a pinched tightness to his mouth. Half of Kel wanted to shake Conor, to scream at him; the other half wanted to stand in front of him, protecting him from every dangerous thing in the world. Not just blades, but lies and cruelty, disappointment and despair.

“I can make it better now,” Conor said stubbornly. “Switch with me.” Kel expelled a breath. “Fine. Fine.

Conor yanked off his cloak. His jacket. Kel could not remember the last time he had seen Conor dressed so plainly. He wore more elaborate clothes to practice fencing in the Hayloft. Kel drew off his overrobe and rings, lifted the crown from his head. It was a relief, not wearing it.

He handed them over to Conor, who flung them on hastily. “Trousers—” Conor began, doing up the clasps on the robe.

“I’m not taking my trousers off,” Kel said firmly as he took off his amulet and slipped it into the pocket of the jacket he was now wearing. “No one looks at trousers, anyway.”

“Of course they do.” Conor slid on the last of the rings. The circlet glittered in his dark hair: It was amazing, Kel thought, what a difference a thin gold band made. It transformed Conor, not into what he wasn’t, but

back into what he was. “Otherwise, how do you know what’s in fashion?” He looked down at Kel’s feet. “Boots—”

But there was no chance to swap either trousers or footwear. From the other side of the tapestry, a sound cut through the music. A scream, high and terrible, and then another. The music stuttered, faltering.

Kel raced to the arras, twitched back the corner.

“What—?” Conor said, at his elbow, and they both stared: The doors of the Shining Gallery had been flung open wide, and dark figures were pouring through. Behind them, Kel glimpsed the night outside, the

brilliance of stars, the lights of the Hill, and for a moment, he wondered if this was some sort of play, a part of the evening’s entertainment.

Then he saw the flash of torchlight on steel, and saw a Castelguard crumple, a blade in his belly. One of the dark figures stood over him, a bloody sword in hand. Another sword flashed, and another, like stars coming out at nightfall, and Kel realized: This was no entertainment.

Marivent was under attack.




You have asked me where your responsibility lies in the matter of the return of the Goddess. You ask if you will look into her eyes and see the flame of her soul. You yearn for wisdom and the gift of certitude, as do we all.

Be at rest, Maharam. This is not your burden. The Exilarch is not merely a title passed down through the sons of Makabi, it is a soul that is passed down, and the soul of the Exilarch will recognize the soul of the Goddess when she returns. In this matter there need be no question.

Your burden will be of a different sort. For when the Goddess returns, you

must gather our people to rise up with their swords, for it will mean a great threat has come, not just to the Ashkar, but to all of the world.

—Letter from Dael Benjudah to Maharam Izak Kishon

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