Search

Chapter no 25

Sword Catcher

As Lin stepped out into the garlanded streets of the Sault, the air was heavy with the fragrance of roses and lilies. She paused a moment on

the front step of the Etse Kebeth, nervously adjusting the lace at her cuffs and collar, smoothing down the lines of her blue dress. She touched the silk sachet at her throat, hoping it would distract from the pulse she was sure

was beating visibly in her throat. She had never been so nervous.

The door of the Women’s House opened behind her, releasing a flood of laughing young women. Arelle Dorin smiled at her as the group went by, headed to the festival. Their excitement was warm and palpable; on another night, Lin would have found it infectious. Now she only clenched her right hand into a fist. Silently, she said to herself: You can always change your mind, Lin. Up until the last moment, you can change your mind.

The door opened again, and this time Mariam joined Lin on the steps. Her dress was a magnificent creation of pale-blue Shenzan silk, the cuffs turned back to show saffron-yellow setino lining, striped with black. Her hair, like Lin’s, had been twisted into a thick braid dotted with flowers.

Against the richness of her dress, her fragility stood out starkly: Rouge

circles spotted the pale tops of her jutting cheekbones, and the stiff collar

rose high around her thin neck. But the smile she gave Lin was as strong as ever.

“Our last Festival,” she said, linking her hand with Lin’s. “After this we will be officially old maids, I think.”

“Good,” Lin said. “Once one is an old maid, one can stop making an effort to be charming.”

“I am astonished.” It was Chana Dorin, joining them on the stairs. She

wore her usual uniform: a gray tunic and trousers, and thick boots one could garden in. Her only concession to the importance of the evening was a

silvery shawl Josit had brought back for her from the Gold Roads. “I had no idea you were making an effort to be charming, Lin.”

“Outrageous,” Lin said. “I am outraged.”

Mariam giggled, and they set off together for the Kathot, Lin detailing as they went the many ways she planned to cease making an effort to be

“maidenly” once this night was through. She would dress in only torn clothes, she told her companions, and wear only muddy boots. She would buy a pet rat at the market and walk it on a silk lead. She might get some

chickens as well, and she would name them all individually, and tell anyone who inquired that she sometimes sat on the eggs to see if they would hatch. “I am impressed,” Chana said. “This is worse than your current behavior.

Though not by much,” she added.

“You should talk,” Mariam said. “Your boots are always muddy, Chana.”

Lin smiled at the good-natured squabbling, but only half her attention

was on it. As they neared the center of the Sault, Marivent seemed to loom above them, hovering against the darkness of the sky, white as a second moon.

Tonight, Lin knew, was the welcoming banquet for the child Princess from Sarthe; it was why Mayesh would not be attending the Festival. In past years, this would have angered Lin—that her grandfather could not even be bothered to turn up for the most important religious event of the year in the Sault because his loyalty was to Marivent and not his people.

Now she was only glad he would not be there. She was not sure she could go through with her plan if he was watching.

They had reached the illuminated Kathot, brilliant as a live ember among banked coals. Lamps of hammered silver swayed among the branches of the trees, and candles burned in cups of colored wax paper all up and down the long tables with their coverings of white cloth.

Chana cut through the crowd, pulling Lin and Mariam after her. For once, Lin was glad to be led. She felt naked in the crowd, as if her intentions were surely visible on her face. Stop it, she told herself. These were all people

she knew, all familiar faces. There was Rahel, laughing among the other married women; nearby Mez sat tuning his lior at a circular table, surrounded by several other musicians. In addition to the narit—young women like Mariam and herself, all in blue dresses—there were young men of marriageable age, awkward in rarely worn finery. They sprawled at long

tables, joking with one another and drinking reddish-purple wine from silver cups that had been liberally distributed by the Sault elders.

The Festival was a celebration, Lin reminded herself; people were supposed to be relaxed here, and happy. She forced herself to smile.

“Stop that.” Mariam shook her arm. “Why are you glaring?”

Chana had guided them to a space under the fig trees where they had a good view of the square. Directly in front of them was a cleared space scattered with petals, meant for gathering and dancing. At the foot of the Shulamat stairs a raised plinth had been erected. Upon it stood a purpose- built wooden chair intended for the Maharam, garlanded with flowers.

When the festival was over, the dais and the chair would be broken down and burned, the sweet scent of almond wood filling the air.

“I’m not glaring,” Lin whispered. “I’m smiling.

“You could have fooled me.” Mariam ducked out of the way as Orla Regev, another of the Sault elders, rushed up to Chana for a whispered consultation. Someone, it seemed, had garlanded the Maharam’s chair with hyacinth flowers, when everyone knew they were supposed to be roses.

Also, the wine had been put out far too early, and many of the older men were drunk, and some of the younger ones, too.

“Oh, poor dear,” said Mariam sympathetically as Chana was whisked away by Orla, complaining as she went that the Maharam was unlikely to notice what kind of flowers were on his chair, and the Goddess, blessed be

the Name, unlikely to care. “Why can’t Orla leave her be to enjoy herself?” “Because this is how Orla enjoys herself,” Lin said just as a young man approached them, smiling. Lin recognized him immediately as Natan Gorin,

Mez’s older brother, the one who had just returned from the Gold Roads.

Like the rest of the young men at the Festival, he wore plain white

cambric with silver embroidery, a crown of green spikenard leaves on his head. (For a moment, Lin was reminded of another crown, a gold circlet with winged sides, gleaming against dark curls.) His hair was coppery, his skin sun-browned. He smiled easily, extending a hand marked with the black-ink tattoos of the Rhadanite traders to Mariam.

“I happen to have a friend among the musicians”—he winked over at Mez—“and have been informed that the dancing is about to begin. If you would join me?”

Blushing, Mariam took Natan’s hand. Mez greeted this with a trill of the

lior, and a moment later the music had swelled, and Natan and Mariam were dancing.

A swell of happiness cut through Lin’s nerves. She looked over at Mez, who was grinning. Had he asked Natan to dance with Mariam? It didn’t matter, Lin told herself; Mariam was happy just to be dancing. Her face was shining, and in the moonlight she did not look the least bit tired or ill.

Other couples had begun to join them. Lin leaned back against the rough bark of the tree trunk, letting the moment carry her. There was laughter all around her, and the brightness of a community that was glad for an excuse to come together. Something cold snaked under her ribs, even as she watched Mariam. A feeling of dread.

You can’t do this, said the voice in the back of her mind. Not to all of them. The stubbornness of the Maharam is not their fault. And surely there is some other solution. Something less extreme.

Though she had not thought of it, yet.

“Lin.” She stood up straight; it was Oren Kandel, looking down at her somberly. He really was immensely tall. She felt as if she had to crane her neck back to see his face, which was set in somber lines. He was not wearing a leaf crown, like the other boys, and his clothes were somber, without embroidery. He said, stiffly, “Would you dance with me?”

Lin was too surprised to refuse. She let Oren lead her out among the other dancers, let him take her hand and draw her close. He smelled faintly acidic, like bitter tea. As he turned her awkwardly in his arms, she could not help but remember the last time she had danced. And made a fool of herself, she thought, Conor watching her with that bitter light in his eyes—

Not Conor, she reminded herself. The Prince. She was not Mayesh, to use his given name. Besides, he hated her now. She had told him he was broken, and he would be unlikely to forgive an insult like that.

“Lin,” Oren said, and his voice was surprisingly gentle. For a moment,

Lin wondered if he was going to say, You look troubled, or, Why do you

seem sorrowful, on such a joyful occasion? “Lin, do you remember when I asked you to marry me?”

Lin winced inwardly and wondered why on earth she had thought Oren Kandel might have noticed she was unhappy. If he had not had all the

insight and empathy of a slug, she might not have refused his marriage proposal in the first place.

“Yes, Oren,” she said. “That sort of thing is hard to forget.”

“Did you ever wonder why I asked you?” His dark eyes were brilliant as he looked down at her. “Though you are obviously unsuitable, and would make a very difficult wife for an ordinary man.”

What was that expression Kel always used? And Merren, too? Gray hell,

Lin thought.

“I had not wondered,” she said. “Though, I confess, I am wondering now.”

“I know you’re angry at me,” Oren said. “I helped the Maharam take your books.” And begged him to punish me more, Lin thought grimly. “But I think you’ll come to understand, Lin, that the things I’ve done have all been to help you, even if you couldn’t see it.”

“Taking my books does not help me, Oren.”

“You think that now,” he said, “but that is because you are corrupted.

Your grandfather has corrupted you with his worldly values. He wants to

make you like those women out there”—he jerked his chin toward the Sault walls, a gesture that seemed to encompass all of Castellane—“too proud, too arrogant, thinking they’re better than we are. But I can save you from

his influence.”

“Oren—” Lin tried to pull away, but he held her fast.

“Reconsider my offer,” he said. His eyes were still shining, but it was not with happiness. It was with a mixture of revulsion and desire that nearly turned Lin’s stomach. He might have told himself he wanted to save her,

she thought, but what he really wanted was to change her beyond all recognition. And she could not help but think of Conor, who—drunk as he had been, wild and uncontrolled—had told her she was perfect as she was. “I still want to marry you,” he breathed. “I want to—and marrying me will raise you up in the estimation of the Maharam, of all the Sault—”

“Why?” Lin said.

Oren blinked for a moment. “What do you mean, why?” “Why do you want to marry me?”

“Do you remember,” Oren said, “when we were children, and we would play hide-and-seek in the gardens? No one else could find you, but I always

could. I always found you in the end. You are lost like that now, Lin. Only I can find you. Help you.”

A sour note sounded on the lior. Lin glanced over, saw Mez looking at her, his eyebrows raised, as if to say: Do you need me to step in?

“Lin,” Oren said. “What are you thinking?”

She shook her head minutely at Mez, and turned back to Oren. “Just that I wondered if those were the words Sulemon used, when he was trying to convince Adassa to join with him and the other kings. Join with me and I will keep you safe. I will help you. You are lost on your own. Isn’t that the sort of thing he said?”

Oren stiffened.

“Although,” Lin said, “he probably at least told her that he loved her.

And you haven’t even done that.”

The music had stopped. Mez must not have been able to stand it any longer, Lin thought, the way Oren was looking at her, and she could not

blame him. Nor could she look at Oren anymore. His face was creased with anger, his eyes hard and bright as stones.

She walked past Natan and Mariam as she hurried away from the dancing. She took herself to one of the tables, found a silver cup of wine, and drank, letting the heat of the alcohol settle the vibration in her bones. Turning, she looked about but could not see Oren among the crowd. She let herself relax slightly.

Oren was not the Sault, she reminded herself. Most of them, her friends and neighbors, were not like that: not rigid or judgmental. They had empathy, like Chana. Compassion, like Mez. Wisdom, like Mayesh. (Yes, she told herself, it was all right to think it: He was wise, and cared about

goodness, even if he was not always kind.) Most of the elders had not voted to exile the Maharam’s son. It was the Maharam himself, in the end, who had cast the deciding vote.

Mez began to play again, this time a slower song, a sweeter refrain.

Sparks from the lamps were flying up, salting the air with firefly light. Lin was hot from the dancing and the wine, but the space between her shoulder blades was clammy-cold.

She sat watching the dancing, the couples circling under the glowing lanterns. She did not know all their names, she realized—not the younger ones, who had not been in school with her and Mariam. It was almost as if

she were observing a play, or a performance in the Arena. Some part of her ached. These were her people, their ways her ways. And yet even as one song blended into another and the moon glided across the sky, Lin did not move to join them but sat and watched, a spectator.

“Lin!” Mariam hurried up to her with Natan following, hands in his pockets. He had a nice smile, Lin thought, an easy smile. “How long have you been sitting here?”

Lin glanced over the walls of the Sault, at the Windtower Clock rising against the sky. To her surprise, some hours had passed; it had felt like only a few moments. Midnight was looming on the horizon.

Mariam said, “I saw Oren with you—”

“It’s fine,” Lin said quickly. “We danced, that’s all.” She turned a smile on Natan. “I had wanted to ask you—”

“If I saw your brother on the Gold Roads?” Natan said. “I did, actually. At a caravansary near Mazan. Josit seemed well,” he added, hastily. “He told me that if I made it back here before he did, I should send his love to you both.”

“Did he say when he might be coming back?” Lin asked.

Natan looked mildly puzzled. “I don’t believe I asked him. He’d bought a pet monkey, though,” he added. “Off a Hindish trader. It was stealing people’s hats.”

Natan, Lin was beginning to think, might be handsome, but was not that bright. “Hats,” she said. “Imagine that.”

Mariam shot her a chiding look, though she looked close to smiling herself.

“I doubt he had any news as exciting as yours,” Natan said. “The Crown Prince, in the Sault? I doubt that’s ever happened before.”

Lin wondered if she should start telling people that Conor had come to see her because he had some terrible version of the pox and desperately

needed treatment. That seemed, however, like the sort of untruth that would get you arrested by the Arrow Squadron.

“He was looking for Mayesh,” she said. “That’s all.”

Mariam grinned. “Everyone says he’s going to sweep Lin away to a life of luxury on the Hill.”

Lin thought of the Hill. The brilliance of it, the colors. The way people spoke, as if every word were dipped in sweet acid. The way Luisa had wept

in humiliation. The way Conor had watched her when she danced.

“Well, that’s just silly,” she said around the tension in her throat. “The

Prince is as good as engaged, and besides, he would never marry an Ashkari woman.”

“He wouldn’t,” Natan agreed. “There is no alliance to be made there. We are a people without a country, and kings do not marry people. They marry kingdoms.”

Perhaps Natan was cleverer than she’d given him credit for, Lin thought. “We do have a country,” said Mariam. “Aram.”

“I have passed through Aram, on the Roads,” said Natan. “It is a blasted land. Nothing grows, and there are no resting places—the land is too

poisonous to sustain life for even a short time. One must travel through without stopping.”

The music paused. Lin looked quickly toward the Windtower Clock. It was thirty minutes to midnight. The ritual of the Goddess was about to begin.

She barely noticed as, with a polite murmur, Natan excused himself: The young women and young men were separating from each other, as the ritual required. Dancers vanished from the square, melting back into the crowd.

Lin’s heart began to beat faster. She could feel her own pulse in her throat, her spine. It was starting. The ceremony. The Maharam had appeared at the Shulamat door.

He came slowly down the steps, carrying his walking stick, which had been engraved with the name of Aron, the first son of Judah Makabi, and

the numbers of gematria. He wore his sillon, woven of midnight-blue wool, the cuffs and collar gleaming with talismanic equations picked out in glass.

Beside him was Oren Kandel, staring straight ahead. If he saw Lin at all as he escorted the Maharam to his chair on the dais, he gave no sign.

Mez’s lior trilled, a summoning chime. Mariam took Lin’s hand, and together they moved with the other narit into the space before the dais. A crowd of girls and young women in blue dresses, their hair full of flowers, looked up as the Maharam took his seat in the garlanded chair. He gazed out over the gathered crowd, smiling benevolently. Lifting his walking stick, he laid it lengthwise across his lap.

Sadī Eyzōn,” he said. It was the Ashkar’s own name for themselves: the People Who Wait. They did not speak it to the malbushim, to any outside

their own company. “The Goddess is our light. She illuminates our darkness. We are in shadow, as she is in shadow; we are in exile, as she is in exile. Still, she stretches forth her hand to touch our days with miracles.”

He raised his staff, which burst into flower: Blossoms and almonds bloomed from it, as if it were still a bough on the tree. The crowd gave its small gasp. Though it happened every year—in every Sault, at every Tevath, in the hand of every Maharam—it never failed to elicit wonder.

“Today,” said the Maharam, “we celebrate the greatest of Adassa’s miracles, the one that changed our world and preserved our people.” His voice began to fall into the rhythm of a chant, the lilt of a story so often told, it had almost become a song. “Long ago, long ago in the dark times,

when the Goddess was betrayed, the forces of Suleman rode against Aram. They expected an easy victory, but they were denied. The people of Aram, led by Judah Makabi, held off the Sorcerer-Kings of Dannemore, with all their might and power, for three long days and three long nights.” The Maharam’s gaze raked the crowd. Though they had all heard the story

countless times, his eyes seemed to ask: Can you believe this? This miracle of miracles?

“And when at last the walls fell, and the enemy armies poured into Aram, they found it an empty land. Under cover of shadow, Judah Makabi had already led our people to safety. But Suleman knew the Goddess was not finished with her work.

“He raced to the top of the tower of Balal, the tallest tower in all of Aram. She was there, Adassa, our Goddess. There in all of her terrible glory. She was dreadful and wonderful to behold in that moment. Her hair was flame, her eyes stars. Sulemon cowered before her, but he could not flee, for her gaze held him fast. She told him, ‘In striving for my annihilation, you have only ensured your own. The power you wield should not be wielded by any man, for it only causes destruction. And now it shall be taken from you.’”

Lin closed her eyes, slipping her hand into the pocket of her dress to touch the smooth surface of her stone. Oh, she knew this story. She knew it in her heart; in her dreams. The flames, the desert. The tower. This was what she had danced, on the Hill, in that terrible house of terrible people.

This moment, when the Goddess, betrayed by her greatest love, snatched victory from her own obliteration.

“The Goddess stretched out her hand,” said the Maharam, “and she plucked from the world the Great Word, the Name Unspeakable—and when it was gone, all the artifacts of magic it had made possible began to disappear. The Sorcerer-Kings were struck down where they stood, for all that had kept them alive was their own foul spells. The beasts of magic vanished from the world, and the armies of the risen dead crumbled away to earth. With the last of his power, as the tower of Balal turned to dust around him, Suleman reached for the Goddess. But there was nothing to touch. She had already vanished into shadow.”

He sighed. And Lin thought: It was a measure of the power of the tale, of the Goddess herself, that his small sigh was audible. The crowd was that still, that silent.

The Maharam said, “It is a tale of great bravery and sacrifice, but you may be asking yourself, why are we here? Easy enough for the outsider to say: Sing a song of your Goddess, then, if in her you believe. For how shall we sing our Lady’s song in a strange land? Long have we wandered, but we are not abandoned. Long have we waited, but we are not abandoned. We are scattered among the nations, yet we are not abandoned. For now, we make our home in our own hearts, and there we wait. For we are not abandoned.

The Goddess returns, and leads us to our glory.”

Whatever Lin thought of the Maharam, it did not matter. The old words still thrilled her down to her bones. She touched the necklace at her throat, her fingers tracing the words. For how shall we sing our Lady’s song, in a

strange land? Was Castellane then a strange land? She supposed it was. All lands were strange until the Goddess brought them home.

“Tonight, in every Sault, in every nation, comes this ceremony to pass,” said the Maharam. “Tonight the question is asked and answered. Come now, narit, and stand before me.” He rapped his flowering staff upon the dais. “Let her will be done.”

Lin found herself moving to join the others, a slow river of blue snaking toward the dais as, above them, prayers were recited. Mariam wiggled through the crowd to stand beside her; there was a flush on her cheeks—

rouge or nature, Lin could not be sure. She gave her friend a reassuring smile. Easy, easy, her mother had told her, long ago; a formality, a ritual, that is all. When the Goddess returns, do you think she will wait until the

Tevath to reveal it? No, she will come to us in a pillar of fire, on the spear of the lightning. One sweep of her hand will illuminate all the earth.

It was not a swift thing, gathering so many people into an orderly line, and it was ten minutes to midnight by the time the Maharam had begun the questioning. Lin could hear his voice as the narit passed before him, one by one, lingering on the platform. They answered the old question, their voices shy or sharp, confident or questioning.

Are you the Goddess Returned? No, I am not she.

Very well, depart.

Six minutes to midnight. What if the Maharam did not call her name in time? She touched the stone in her pocket again, lightly, just to reassure herself with the feel of it. Someone added a load of wood to the bonfire. Red-gold embers flew upward as Mariam moved to take her place before the dais. The Maharam regarded her with kindness, mixed with pity: We allow you to be here, but only as a formality. Surely one so ill, so weak, could not be she. He said, “Are you the Goddess Reborn?”

Mariam raised her chin. Her gaze was firm and clear. “I am not.”

She turned then, her back very straight, and went to join the other girls who had already given their answer to the Maharam. Lin felt a stab of pride that Mariam had not waited to be dismissed. The Maharam had noticed it, too; as Lin came to stand before him, she saw that his eyes were thoughtful.

That thoughtfulness turned to something else when he saw Lin. His pale gaze raked her from her blue slippers to the flowers in her curled hair.

She kept her face blank, her hands clasped loosely before her. She could still feel her own heartbeat in every part of her body. In her fingers, her toes. In the pit of her stomach.

It was five minutes to midnight.

“Lin Caster,” the Maharam said, “this is the last year you will stand before me at the Tevath.”

It was not a question, so Lin said nothing. She could sense the gaze of the Sault on her. There was little suspense in it. No one really expected an

outcome different from every other Tevath they had lived to see. But Lin—

Lin could feel her hands shaking like leaves at her sides. Only the long

practice of patience that being a healer had taught her enabled her to cling to the semblance of calm.

“They say all wisdom comes from the Goddess,” said the Maharam. Lin heard someone behind her whisper; it was unusual for the Maharam to say more than the required words of the ritual. “Do you believe that, Linnet, daughter of Sorah?”

Reminding me that he knew my mother. Lin gritted her teeth. Her knees were trembling, her palms wet with sweat. She said, “Yes.”

The Maharam seemed to relax minutely. “My dear,” he said. “Are you the Goddess Reborn?”

Long ago, when she and Mariam were young, they had swum together in the stone pools of the washing room in the Women’s House. Diving underwater, they would call to each other, seeing if the other could understand their words through the rippling distortion of the water. She heard the Maharam like that now, as if his voice came down to her through echoes, as if she stood not at the bottom of a shallow pool but on the floor of the ocean.

Are you the Goddess Reborn?

She clenched her fists at her sides, so hard her fingernails bit into her palms, breaking the skin.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes. I am.”

They poured through the broken doors of the Shining Gallery, assailants dressed in ragged scraps of old military uniforms, red and black, their faces blank, featureless. In the jagged light of the swinging lamps, they had the look of creatures out of nightmare: They wore close-fitting caps, their faces painted in white and black greasepaint to resemble skulls. They carried a motley assortment of weapons: old axes, maces, and swords. One swung a banner above his head: the image of a golden lion, pouncing on an eagle.

And suddenly Kel was in the square, watching as the Castelguard dragged the group of vociferous protestors away. Their banners, stitched with the victorious lion, the bleeding eagle. Their shouts—repeated later at the Roverge house, when the Charter Families had listened from the terrace and laughed: Death to Sarthe! Blood before union with Sarthe!

They had not had their faces painted then, nor had they had weapons; they had seemed a little ridiculous, even. No longer.

Kel turned, grabbed Conor by the shoulders. Shoved him behind the arras. He yanked the dagger out of his boot. It wasn’t much. Not enough to protect Conor, if it came to it. He glanced back, saw Conor with his back against the wall, eyes wide.

“Stay here,” Kel snarled. “Stay back.

He dropped the dagger, kicked it across the floor to Conor. Turned back to the Gallery. It had been seconds, and the place was a melee. The silk screen behind Jolivet had come down, and the room was full of Castelguards. Half of them dashed toward the high table, moving to encircle the Queen and Counselor. Vienne had pushed Luisa behind her. She was screaming at the Castelguard, words Kel could not hear but could guess: demanding they protect the Princess, demanding they give Vienne a weapon, too.

The dancers had scattered. Some of them were hiding among the clustered trees of the false forest. Kel could see their bright clothes, like fireflies in the dark. The half of the Castelguard who were not protecting

the high table had flooded into the center of the room, swords flashing. A second false forest, this one of steel.

They met the intruders with a clash, and Kel could smell blood in the air now, sharp and coppery.

The Castelguard whom Kel had seen stabbed in the belly lay nearby, on his back, eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling. A silver-and-black scarf was caught in the branch of a tree overhead, flickering in the wind from the open door. Kel ducked and rolled, sending himself skidding across the floor as he’d done with the dagger. He fetched up beside the dead guard. He

knew his face—one of the Castelguards who’d let him into the Trick to see Fausten. May he pass through the door unhindered, Kel thought, gripping the hilt of the blade embedded in the guard’s belly. It came free with the sound of steel scraping against rib bones.

Kel rolled to his feet. Now he was armed. And—

Fuck,” he whispered. Because Conor had not stayed put, or stayed back, as Kel had told him. He had come out from behind the arras, dagger in hand, and as Kel watched, he flung himself onto one of the skull-faced

assailants knocking him to the ground. He stabbed down, plunging the dagger between the Skull’s shoulder blades. When he jerked the blade back, blood gushed, a scarlet spray across gold brocade.

Kel reversed course, and began to cut his way toward Conor. The floor of the Shining Gallery was a boiling whirlpool of white, black, and red. The red of Castelguards, the darker red of blood, slicking the floor. A Skull—it was hard to think of them as anything else—lunged at Kel, who parried and thrust, savagely burying his sword between the man’s ribs. He crumpled, blood running from the corners of his mouth, mixing with the white greasepaint on his face.

Some of the nobles had joined the guards on the floor. Kel saw Joss Falconet brandishing his sword, a slim silver blade. Montfaucon had drawn a thin dagger from his brocaded cuff; Kel saw him slit a Skull’s throat

before plucking a half-full wineglass from a nearby table and downing the dregs. Charlon had waded in like a bull, unarmed but swinging his fists.

Lady Sardou had produced a jeweled misericorde from the bosom of her dress, and was laying about her with ferocity.

In that moment, Kel knew he had been correct to always go armed to Dial Chamber meetings.

But where was Antonetta? He was used to having his entire focus be on Conor—whom he could see engaged in battle with a Skull, slashing away at his opponent without regard for the rules of swordplay Jolivet had taught them—and to have it split was disorienting. But he could not do anything about it; Ana had taken up residence somewhere behind his eyes, and he could not stop them searching for her. Looking for the flash of gold silk among the teeming mass—

And there she was, a silver dagger in her hand. She was near the doors, her mother behind her, looking stunned as Antonetta dispatched a Skull who had come too close with a kick to the knee and a swift slashing cut to the shoulder. Those secret sword lessons must be good ones, Kel thought. The Skull collapsed, bleeding and clutching at his arm, as Antonetta dragged her stunned mother by main force out of the room.

A few were following—safety seemed to be outside, but the path to it was a bloody trek through flashing blades and mounting chaos. Kel was

halfway to Conor now. His progress was slow, each step a bloody fight. He decapitated a Skull with the sweep of his blade, ducked low to sever the

ankle tendons of another. He stopped short of cutting the man’s throat. Better if some of them survived the night, a small rational voice in the back

of his head told him. They would need to be interrogated. There was a why

to all this, a why Kel could only guess at—

And then there was a shriek from the high table. Kel looked over and saw Sena Anessa stagger back. A black arrow protruded from her shoulder. No, not an arrow, Kel thought, rising to his feet, a crossbow bolt—

Anessa slumped, blood pouring down the front of her dress, and Luisa screamed. She was struggling in Vienne’s arms and she pulled free suddenly—only for a moment, but it was long enough. Even as Kel turned to look, to see where the first bolt had come from, the second arrowed through the air. It plunged into Luisa’s chest with enough force to lift the girl off her feet.

She slammed into the wall behind the high table. The bolt that had gone through her body must have lodged itself between two stones—later, it would be discovered that this was exactly what had happened—for it stuck fast. It stuck fast, and Luisa, who must have died the moment the bolt went into her chest, hung limply from it, dangling against the wall like one of the butterflies Kel had seen in Merren’s flat, pinned to a specimen board.

Vienne let out a terrible, heartbroken, shrilling cry and flung herself at Luisa. Kel could not bear to watch; he turned and saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, partway up the wall—

The gallery. From what better vantage point might one shoot a crossbow?

Kel ran. For the first time in his life he ran not toward Conor, but after something else. He shot up the twisting marble steps, exploding out onto

the gallery, only to find it empty of musicians. There were instruments here, lying scattered about, and chairs that had been overturned—by those who had fled, Kel guessed—but the gallery was empty.

Kel was about to turn and go back downstairs when he saw the window.

An ordinary sash window at the end of the room, it was open, its curtain fluttering in the breeze. Only Kel knew, from years of familiarity with the gallery, that this window did not look out on empty air. It led to the roof.

A second later, he was climbing through it. His boots hit the roof tiles and he nearly slipped. It was no darker out here than it had been in the

gallery—the moon was bright, a white moon that cast a brilliant glow over the curve of the roof, illuminating the scattered palaces of Marivent. And outlining the figure standing in shadow at the roof’s edge, gazing out over the city.

At its feet, a crossbow lay, abandoned.

Kel shouted, scrambling down the tiles. He was not sure, later, what he had shouted exactly. Something like: Who are you? Who paid you to do this? Something pointless, anyway.

The assassin did not move or seem to hear Kel. A slim figure, and tall, they seemed fitted into some kind of tight black uniform, flexible as a second skin. And yet Kel could not tell if the stranger was male or female, old or young, Castellani or foreign. Only that whoever it was seemed to

have no fear of heights.

As he crept closer, the dark assassin turned toward him, slowly. Kel almost yelled aloud. The stranger had no face, or none he could observe. Only a smooth and featureless dark expanse. The black uniform, whatever material it was, covered everything entirely.

And yet, somehow, he felt strongly that the stranger was smiling. “Sword Catcher.” The voice was a low hiss. “Királar. You ruined my

plans, you know. But do not be afraid. Tonight is not your night to die.” “How reassuring,” said Kel. “And yet, you’ll forgive me if I don’t find

you entirely trustworthy.”

He took another step forward. He could not tell if the figure was watching him. It had no eyes, only pools of darker shadow amid the pale shadow that was its face.

“You stand upon the threshold of history, Sword Catcher,” said the figure. “For this is the beginning of the fall of House Aurelian.”

“And are you the architect of that fall?” Kel demanded, desperation and fury hot in his veins. “Will you buy their destruction with a child’s blood?”

The figure chuckled. “The fall is all around you,” it said. “Tread carefully.”

And with unbelievable speed, the assassin caught up their crossbow and sprang. Not toward Kel, but off the roof’s edge. The dark figure seemed to hang for a moment against the moon before hurtling silently toward the ground.

Kel raced to the edge of the roof, nausea roiling his stomach as he looked down, expecting to see a body crumpled on the flagstones, dark blood pooling around it.

But there was nothing. Only the empty courtyard, the ordinary shadows, the sough of wind in the branches of the cypress trees. He moved closer to

the roof’s edge—

You ruined my plans, Sword Catcher.

There must have been another crossbow bolt, one meant for Conor.

Death before marriage to Sarthe. Cursing himself, Kel bolted back the way he had come.

He had only been gone a few minutes, maybe less than that. But by the time Kel returned to the Shining Gallery, everything had changed, because of Vienne.

He found out later that, a moment after Luisa’s death, Vienne had leaped onto the high table, flinging herself at a Castelguard; they went down together, and when they rose, she had his sword in her hand.

She tore through the ring of Castelguards and lunged, her body making one long line with the sword, as if it were part of her. It sliced through the nearest Skull’s throat; his head spun from his body. Blood spurted from the stump of his throat as he sank slowly to his knees, listing like a drowning

ship. He hit the ground just as Vienne leaped from the dais and charged into the fray, heedless of the blood that soaked her silver slippers.

It was then that Kel came back into the gallery, racing down the stairs,

his bloodstained sword in his hand. He looked first for Conor, and saw him with Jolivet. Conor’s gold coat was slashed nearly to ribbons, the white lynx-fur lining stained scarlet with blood.

But it was not his blood, not his injury. He had found a sword somewhere, and still held it. Its blade was red-black. And he was staring, as everyone in the room was staring, at Vienne d’Este.

Never before had Kel seen one of the Black Guard fight. Vienne’s sword blazed in her hand like lightning bursting from the palm of Aigon. She leaped and spun, cutting down Skull after Skull, leaving a trail of blood and innards behind her.

She was the north wind, the Wind of War. She was a comet formed of cold steel. She was Lady Death, with a blade that danced.

There seemed nothing for anyone else to do. Indeed, as Vienne fought,

the Castelguards were ushering the rest of the nobility outside, through the broken doors. The room was swiftly emptying. Kel saw the Queen escorted out, with Mayesh; Lady Gremont, white-faced with shock, walked between

two guards. Falconet and many of the others refused to be escorted, but instead stalked out, heads held high, as if insulted at the suggestion that this was a matter for the Castelguard now and not for them.

Conor had seen Kel, across the room. He raised a hand, beckoned to him.

Kel started across the room, stepping among the bodies, the slick-drying blood on the floor.

He heard a groan. Looked down. Saw the sleeve of a torn robe, gray hair.

A white beard, speckled with blood.

Gremont.

Kel knelt down by the old man, knowing instantly and terribly that there was nothing he could do. The blade of a dagger protruded from the left side of Gremont’s chest; the hilt of it had broken off, leaving only the blade, a broad sliver of steel, embedded in his body.

It was a miracle he was still breathing at all. Kel laid a hand on his shoulder. “Gremont,” he murmured, the back of his throat burning. “Gremont. It’s all right.”

Gremont’s eyes opened. They were blurred, rheumy. He looked up at Kel and said, “I told you—we had to speak. Urgent—”

He coughed. Kel stayed silent. Gremont thought he was Conor. He was not wearing his talisman, but still. It was dim and chaotic in the room, the man was dying, their eyes and hair were the same. It was

understandable . . .

“Place your trust in no one,” Gremont whispered. “Not mother, not Counselor, not friend. Trust no one on the Hill. Trust only your own eyes and ears, else the Gray Serpent will come for you, too.”

The Gray Serpent? He must mean the Dark Guide, the serpent-headed boatman that met the dead at the door to the afterworld, and led them to the kingdom of Anibal.

“I did not know it would come so soon,” Gremont wheezed. “The Gods forgive me. I did not know when it would come, that it would start tonight, but I knew. They came to me—I would not—I could not—”

His wheezing choked off in a gout of blood. Numbly, Kel clutched at the old man’s shoulder. “Gremont,” Kel said. “Thank you. You have done your duty.”

If he had thought the words would comfort the old man, he had been wrong. Gremont’s eyes rolled; he plucked once at Kel’s sleeve, and died.

Kel knew the moment it happened; between one breath and the next, he was gone.

“May he pass unhindered,” Kel whispered, for the second time that night, and rose to his feet. As he did, he could not help but think of the Ragpicker King. Andreyen had begged him to speak to Gremont. Had he done so, would things now be any different?

He forced his mind back to the moment at hand. The world, not knowing Gremont was dead, had gone on. Vienne was fighting the last of the Skulls now, a big man with a nicked bronze blade. If there was blood on him, his black clothes hid it, but Vienne was soaked in the stuff. It flecked her

cheeks like freckles, soaked her dress. She had lost one of her slippers, and her bare left foot was smeared with blood. She looked like a fiend from a dream, but there was nothing dreamlike about her actions. She ducked the Skull’s blow, raised her own blade, and with a precision too swift to follow, cleanly sheared away the top of his skull.

He crumpled at her feet. Vienne looked around, as if in a daze, or waking from one. Kel saw her realize: There was no one left to fight. She was standing in the Shining Gallery surrounded only by a few Castelguards, the Legate, Kel, and Conor himself.

And the dead. Most assuredly, the dead.

She turned to look at the high table. Someone had lifted Luisa down, thank the Gods, and laid her on the table itself. She was very small, lying among the scattered plates; her white lace dress looked as if it had been dyed scarlet in blood.

“Sena d’Este,” Conor said. His voice was low, urgent. Serious. “We will find out who did this. We will discover the ones responsible. Sarthe will be avenged. The Princess—”

“This is your fault,” said Vienne. She said the words very carefully, as if each one were an effort. “She would not have been here if it were not for you. She should not have been here.”

“No,” said Conor. “She should not. But that part was not my doing.”

But Vienne only shook her head, her eyes widening. “This is your fault,” she said. And raising her blade, she charged at Conor.

Jolivet shouted. The Castelguards raced toward Vienne. Conor did not reach for his sword; he seemed too stunned.

There was a flash of silver. Steel slammed against steel; Kel had placed himself between Vienne and Conor. He did not even remember moving; he had been there, and now he was here, in front of the Prince, his body and

his blade between Conor and a sword.

“Kel Anjuman,” Vienne said tightly. “I will not tell you twice. Get out of my way.”

He met her gaze. “It is as you said. I guard him, as you did Luisa.”

Her mouth softened. He thought, for a moment, she might have heard him—but her sword turned to a silver blur in her hand and Kel staggered, blocking the sweeping blow. His ears rang as she forced him back; it was all he could do to defend himself. He had been trained, well trained, but he was not Vienne. She would drive him to the wall, and she would kill him there. There was nothing he could do about it.

He heard Jolivet say, “You cannot. She is Black Guard, Conor, you will die. Conor—”

Kel moved back, and back again. The wall was steps behind him. Vienne raised her blade—

And was lifted into the air, as if she were tethered to strings. She was flung aside, the sword clattering from her hand.

Kel heard Conor suck in his breath. “Father,” he said.

It was, indeed, Markus. He seemed to loom over Vienne like a giant as she rolled aside, climbing back to her feet. He wore a plain dark tunic and trousers, his hands sheathed in their black gloves, though he was unarmed. Kel flicked his gaze toward the doors; Mayesh stood outlined there. He must have gone to fetch the King. But why—?

Vienne, her eyes blazing with a near-holy fire, swung her sword at the King.

With a movement so swift it was barely a blur, Markus reached up and caught her blade in his hand. It should not have been possible—even if the burns on his skin were tough as leather, his hand should have been sliced in half—but he caught the blade as if it were a sapling, and flung it back at her. She reeled away. Conor said something—Kel could barely hear him; it sounded like You can’t, though he couldn’t be sure, nor was there any time to ask. Markus had caught hold of Vienne and, as easily as he had lifted Fausten, jerked her off her feet and hurled her at the stone wall.

Kel cried out. He would never forget the sound of bone crunching as Vienne’s body struck the wall. She crumpled, sliding limp to the floor as Jolivet hurried to her side, his sword drawn. He bent down, touched the side of her neck. Shook his head. “Dead,” he said, and drew off his scarlet cloak, with its gold braid. He laid it over her body, rising to his feet.

Kel was surprised. It was what a soldier might do for a fallen comrade on the battlefield. Respect for the Black Guard, perhaps, if not for Vienne herself. Kel looked to the King for a reaction, but he was standing over Conor, his hand touching the once gold overrobe, his eyes narrowed.

“Your blood,” he said, roughly. “Is this your blood, child?”

Kel looked over at Mayesh, as if to say: What a strange way to ask if

someone is hurt. If Mayesh thought it was strange, though, he gave no sign. He only watched, quietly, his hands folded, his face expressionless.

“No,” Conor said, stiffly. Everything in his posture screamed that he wanted to get away from his father, but Markus seemed not to notice. “I was not hurt.”

“Good.” Markus turned to Jolivet. “The Queen. My wife. Where is she?” If Jolivet were surprised, he betrayed it with no more than a blink. “In the

Carcel, my lord. Which is where you all should be,” he added, turning. “Monseigneur Conor—”

Conor held up a hand. “Are they all dead? The ones who attacked?”

“Yes,” said Mayesh, still standing in the doorway. “The lady of the Black Guard made sure of it. Not a one still breathes.”

Conor was pale, the blood on his face standing out like bruises. “And the Sarthians?”

“Also dead.”

“Will this mean war with Sarthe?”

“Yes,” Mayesh said, again. “Most probably.” Conor sucked in a breath.

“That is not the concern now, Counselor,” snapped Jolivet. “We do not

know if there will be another attack. We must get the family to the Carcel.”

Mayesh only nodded, but the Castelguards had not waited for him; they had already sprung into action. Some surrounded the King; another pair flanked Conor. Kel did his best to stay by Conor’s side as they were ushered from the room.

It was a relief to be outside. Kel had not realized how heavy the stench of blood and death had been inside the Gallery until the night air struck him, cold and clean. He felt as if he could drink it like water.

The stars glittered overhead, a brilliant fretwork. As they crossed the courtyard, Kel pushed his way past an irritable-looking Castelguard and fell into step beside Conor. They were passing through the garden between two courtyards. Colored lamps still glowed among the tree boughs, though the

candles that had lined the stone path had been trampled by running feet. They lay crushed into the grass, messes of broken wax.

Rather suddenly, Conor stopped and crouched down by the wall. In the starlight, Kel could see his shoulders convulsing. He was being sick— which was something Kel had seen before, but he did not recall Conor being sick for these reasons. Out of grief, or shock, or more than that.

Conor staggered to his feet, wiping at his mouth with a brocaded sleeve. There were bruises on his face, and a cut on his cheek that might need to be stitched.

He put his hand on Kel’s sleeve. Kel could not help but recall earlier that night, Conor keeping a hand to the wall of the Gallery as he walked, holding himself steady. “I was so unkind to her,” Conor said. His voice was low. “The child.”

He still cannot bring himself to say her name.

“The Sarthians made Luisa a pawn,” Kel said, quietly. He could see the King ahead of him, walking between Jolivet and another Castelguard, his broad back immobile. “That was not your fault.”

“It was my fault,” Conor said. “I thought I was being clever. That I would impress them—Jolivet, my mother, my father. Bensimon. I went behind their backs out of vanity and pride, and now that pride is paid for in other people’s blood. This—” He flung a hand out. “This is my mess. Mine to clean up.”

“You tried to do it all alone,” Kel said in a low voice. “None of us should do everything alone.” He took hold of Conor’s lapel. “Go into the Carcel. I cannot come with you, you know that. But keep yourself and your parents

there while the grounds are searched and cleared. It’s the best thing you can do for everyone.”

Because there is something I must do. Something I should have done

before. A path I should have taken, a way to protect you that I cannot speak

about. That you cannot know.

Conor’s eyes reflected back starlight. “She said I was broken,” he said. “Do you think I’m broken?”

“Nothing that can’t be fixed,” said Kel, and then Jolivet had come up, and Conor went with him, crossing the grass to join his family as the

Castelguards escorted them to the Carcel. Mayesh lingered a moment longer, staring up at the sky as if he wished he could, like the King, find answers in the stars.

“The other Charter Families,” Kel said, carefully. “Are they all right? The Alleynes—”

“Antonetta has returned to her estate.” Mayesh looked at him coolly.

“She is unharmed. As are the other Charter Families. They will all be under heavy guard tonight,” he added. “As will the Aurelians, of course. And

where will you be?”

“I’ll be staying out of sight,” Kel said, backing away from the Counselor. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I’m not sure I was,” said Mayesh, but Kel was already gone, rapidly crossing the lawns toward the North Gate. He kept toward the shadows, away from the guards who were patrolling the dark grounds. The air smelled of honeysuckle and blood. As he walked, he skirted all manner of miscellany that the nobles, dancers, and servants had dropped while fleeing the Shining Gallery—here a pale glove on the path, like a severed hand, and there the chain of a necklace, an apple-carved garnet, a phial of posy-drops, and a crushed glass goblet, sparkling like dew among the grasses.

A wave of nausea ran through him as he crossed the empty courtyard where earlier Vienne and Luisa had played together. He passed under the archway, pushing his way through the line of Castelguards ringing the

perimeter of the inner Palace. Some of them stared at him, but none asked a question. He did not think he would have had the words for an answer if they had.

He was nearly at the North Gate. The sky seemed to rise above him, drawn upward like the painted scrim of a stage. He could see the city below him, its mapped channels of lighted roads, the shimmer of the water in the canals. The walled circle of the Sault.

It would not take him long to reach his destination. It was earlier than he had guessed: The great clock in the square showed it to be near midnight.

And then a voice came, from behind him.

“Kel Saren,” said Jolivet. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Yes. Yes, I am.

What followed Lin’s declaration was a silence no ocean could have concealed. Lin looked neither to the right nor the left, only at the Maharam directly before her. His wrinkled hand had tightened on his almond-wood staff, knuckles bulging as if the bones would split the fragile skin. “What did you say, girl?

“I said yes,” said Lin. She felt strangely light. She had stepped off the cliff; she could no longer clutch at the earth for support. She was falling free, and there was a relief in it she had not imagined. “The Goddess has returned, in me.”

Now there were murmurs, rising, racing through the gathered throng. Lin thought she heard Chana speak and then Mariam’s frightened voice. She felt her throat ache. Don’t be afraid, Mari. This is for you. I’m doing this for you.

The Maharam sat forward. In the flickering light of the bonfire, his face was a mask. “You understand the consequences,” he said, in a dry small voice, “of lying in this situation.”

Lin wasn’t sure she did; as far as she knew it had never been attempted or considered before. “I am,” she said, “not lying.” She met his gaze with her own. “In the name of the Goddess, and of Aram, I tell you again: I am the

Goddess Reborn. She is within me.”

The Maharam rose to his feet. He seemed to be struggling for words. The noise among the crowd had risen, a buzzing whine in Lin’s ears.

“If she says she is the Goddess, she must be treated as such; that is the Word,” said Chana, her voice unexpectedly firm.

More buzzing. Lin fixed her gaze on the clocktower. The hands had inched forward.

Three minutes.

Stroke of midnight. All the nobles will be gathered for that banquet.

Roverge and his rotten son will be there. I need them to see my vengeance written in fire across the sky.

“She must be tested.” It was Oren Kandel, his voice shaking with suppressed rage. “The Sanhedrin must be called upon, Maharam.”

But the Maharam only stared at Lin, the lines beside his mouth harsh and pronounced. “Why this year, your last year at the Tevath? Five years you

have had the chance to reveal yourself as the Goddess. Why have you—has she—been silent?”

“The Goddess comes when she comes.” It was Mariam. Her head held high, ignoring the stares of those around her. “She has waited for us to be ready—not for Lin to be so.”

Hoarsely, the Maharam said, “The Goddess would not come in the form of one who embraces blasphemy—”

The hands of the clock swept around. Less than a minute now.

“I will prove it to you.” Lin flung her arms wide. Silk and rattle of beads, the clamor of her gown, the wind in her ears. “The Goddess returns on the spear of the lightning,” she said. “With one sweep of her hand she

illuminates the earth.”

Silence. Lin could hear the shortness of her own breath. Feel the weight of eyes upon her. Terror—the terror she had not allowed herself to feel until this moment—darkened the edges of her vision. What madness, to gamble on the plan of a stranger—anything could have happened since she had last overheard him in the house of the Ragpicker King.

She could be cast out, like the Maharam’s son. She could lose everything: her family, her people, her power to heal—

The light came first. A bloom of gold spreading across the sky, and then another, and another, a garland of fire-flowers. A moment later, the sound, muffled by water and distance. Black powder igniting, the tearing of metal and wood as ships blew apart.

Two long tons of pure black powder. The ships will burn to the waterline before any smaller craft can reach them.

A glow like sunrise rose over the walls of the Sault, outlining the Shomrim, black figures printed against a sky of deep gold.

Lin let her arms fall to her sides. The Maharam sank into his chair, staring at her in bewilderment.

The alarm bells in the city had begun to ring. The Vigilants would be rushing through the streets toward the dinghies in the harbor. On the Hill,

the nobles would be watching the fiery ruin in the harbor. Kel would see it.

The Prince would see it. He would not think of her; this had nothing to do with her, not out there in the great world.

Dimly, Lin could hear the voices of one of the Shomrim, who had clambered down from the walls: Six tallships of the Roverge fleet were husks, aflame on the surface of the sea. It had happened between one moment and the next, and there had been no attack; they had simply begun to burn.

For the first time since her announcement, Lin allowed herself to look around at those gathered in the square. At her people. She saw Mariam, her hand over her mouth. Natan, shaking his head. Mez, his expression worried. Chana, her back straight, her eyes bright. And Oren—Oren was gazing at her in utter horror and revulsion.

“Kneel,” said Chana Dorin, her voice hard as steel. “Sadī Eyzōn, kneel to the Goddess-elect. Kneel,” she said, and they did, dropping to their knees all around Lin—young and old, shocked and wondering, the firelight from the harbor playing across their faces. Even Oren, his face set in anger, sank to his knees.

Lin could hardly bear to look. Chana, Mariam, Mez: She had never wanted or imagined them kneeling to her. She felt sick, and even more so when she imagined what Mayesh would say when he returned and found out what she had done. She folded her hands across her stomach, swallowing back bile as the Maharam rose wearily to his feet.

“Come, then,” he said, and in his tone Lin heard his fury, his incredulity, and his powerlessness. If Davit Benezar, the Maharam of Castellane, had not been her enemy before tonight, he certainly was now. “Let me bring you, Goddess, to the Shulamat. We will speak there of what must happen

next.”

Kel turned.

Standing behind him on the path that led through the North Gates and down into the city was Jolivet. Kel had rarely seen the head of the Arrow Squadron in disarray. From the first moment Jolivet had come to take him from the Orfelinat, even during training sessions in the Hayloft, he had seemed to Kel like a statue of a heroic soldier in a town square. Jaw set,

eyes forever fixed on the middle distance, posture erect.

He was surprisingly composed now, given all that had happened, though the gold braid on his uniform jacket was torn and stained with blood. A cut along his neck had soaked blood into his stiff collar. He held an unsheathed sword in his left hand.

“Never mind,” Jolivet said, striding closer to Kel. The Castelguards at the gate looked pointedly away from the two of them: What Jolivet did was

none of their business. “I know exactly what you’re doing.”

I doubt that. “I assume you think I’m off to the Caravel, or some other place where I can forget the events of this night—”

“No,” said Jolivet. “I think you’re going to the Black Mansion.”

It was as if wires were run through Kel’s bones and blood, and had been suddenly and viciously tightened. It took everything in him—all the training Jolivet himself had ever given him—to remain composed. He only looked around, wondering if any of the Castelguards were within earshot. None seemed to be; all were staring toward the Shining Gallery, the ruin of tonight’s banquet.

“Now, I know you will protest,” said Jolivet. “And you will tell me I am being ridiculous, to make such accusations and assumptions. But I do not want to waste that time. The Palace keeps its eyes on the Ragpicker King. We are not inside the Black Mansion, but we know enough. If you invent excuses now, you will only waste both our time.”

“So are you calling me a traitor, then?” The wires Kel imagined seemed to be pressing in on his heart. “Am I next for the Trick—and then the crocodiles, like Fausten?”

Jolivet smiled coldly. “I saw you there on the path that day,” he said. “I wondered if you glimpsed your own fate in the astronomer’s.”

“You’ve known me all my life, Jolivet,” Kel said. “Do you think I belong in the Trick?”

The wind off the ocean had picked up. It blew dirt from the path into small whirlpools at Kel’s feet.

Roughly, Jolivet said, “Not only have I known you, I have shaped you. I have always sought to mold you into the best armor for the Prince that you could be, the strongest defense. I thought of it in terms of combat, always: that you would protect him with your blade, stand between him and arrows. But I have come to understand that this is Castellane. Danger is more subtle

than could have been imagined by those who invented the office of the Sword Catcher.”

Kel narrowed his eyes. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“There is a difference,” Jolivet said, “between leaping in between the Prince and a sword, and knowing from which quarter danger might approach, that the sword might never leave its sheath in the first place. I

knew I had trained you to defend the Prince, but it is also true he has your

love and loyalty. I am loyal to the King; Bensimon to the Palace. You alone place Conor above all other things.”

“So you are saying,” Kel said, hardly able to believe his ears, “that you understand why I had counsel with the Ragpicker King? Why I thought to accept his offer of cooperation?”

Perhaps this was merely a trap, Kel thought. Perhaps Jolivet was in search of a confession. But if Jolivet knew the truth, and meant to damn him with it, then it was already too late to scramble out of the way.

“I understand that you left Conor to go to the Carcel without you because you believe that the Ragpicker King may have information about what transpired here tonight that will be more significant in protecting Conor than your presence beside him.”

“Then—if you have no objection to my going—why tell me? That you know any of this at all?”

“There have always been ties between the Palace and the Black

Mansion,” said Jolivet. “I want those ties unbroken. If you are to continue your alliance with the Ragpicker King, I wish to hear everything you learn, everything you are investigating. What happened tonight could not have occurred without the involvement of someone on the Hill. Without instruction, without help, these assassins could not have breached the walls of Marivent.”

“And you want me to find out how they did.”

“I cannot force you to do this,” said Jolivet. “But you are uniquely positioned, Kel Saren. You are both of the Palace and not of it, of the city and not of it. You stand in the place between—and only from that vantage point, I think, can it be clearly seen who is attacking House Aurelian. Who wants them gone.”

Kel thought of the assassin on the rooftop—this is the beginning of the end of House Aurelian—but before he could decide whether this was

something he should mention to Jolivet, the sky above him turned the color of fire.

Kel spun to see that half a dozen ships in the harbor below had exploded into shimmering blossoms of flame. Nor had they simply caught fire; he had heard the crack of black powder detonating, flinging itself skyward to lace the clouds with burning chains.

Jolivet had turned to look at the harbor, and Kel could see the flames reflected in the pupils of his eyes.

“Another attack?” Kel said.

“Not on Castellane,” said Jolivet. “No—this is revenge, pure and simple. I knew Cabrol had something like this planned, but not the how or when of it.” He turned his head to look at the Castelguards, who were pouring out onto the lawn now, gaping over the ramparts to where the ships burned like floating candles on the water. Already the air was carrying with it the tang of saltpeter. “Go,” Jolivet said abruptly. “Get down into the city before the chaos stops you. I’ll deal with the guards. You aren’t the only one who will assume this to be another attack.”

And he strode away from Kel without another word.

The passage down into the city was like something out of a dream. Kel was halfway down the hill when the alarm bells began ringing, a relentless blaring that jarred his bones. The ships in the harbor were still burning high, illuminating a sky turned the color of marmalade.

Against that sky threaded long tails of black clouds formed of smoke and tinder. Under that choking banner, Kel reached the city itself, finding the

Ruta Magna almost too crowded to navigate, citizens spilling from their

houses to exclaim and point, wide-eyed, in the direction of the harbor. Their voices rose in a clamorous murmur:

—Six ships, they say. Maybe ten. All blown to bits while lying at anchor.

—The Roverge fleet. All of it, gone. They could lose their Charter.

—Who’d get it next, then?

—Not you, numbskull, so no point wondering. It seems like nobles’ business. And their problem.

“Wise man,” Kel muttered, fairly sure no one could hear him over the clangor. Indeed, no one paid any attention to him at all, though he would

have thought he was an unusual sight. A filthy young man in blood-streaked velvet and silk, making his way half dazed down the Great Southwestern Road.

Fortunately, he wasn’t the most interesting thing in Castellane right now.

Not by many miles.

Someone had blown the Roverge fleet sky-high. Most likely the Cabrol family. Kel thought of Benedict. Of Charlon. That was their gold burning out there on the water. Depleting the coffers of House Roverge, leaving them vulnerable. All around him was the chatter of excited voices, describing the scene at the harbor: six tallships burning to the waterline,

little left now but flaming embers adrift on oily scrims of multicolored liquid: pools of saffron, indigo, and madder caught by waves and churned to bright froth. Small boats, piloted by officers of the city watch, searching the choppy waters for whatever might remain of the Roverge fortune. The light from their lamps picking out bits of the wreckage: here a barrel floating on the waves, there a torn sack bleeding cochineal.

Under ordinary circumstances, the attack on the Roverge fleet would

have occupied Kel’s mind to the exclusion of all else. With Conor, he would have discussed it long into the night over glasses of green pastisson, getting drunker and drunker until they were no longer making any sense at all.

But these were not ordinary circumstances.

He began to walk west. He was aware of Marivent, above, like a white star on his shoulder, gleaming just out of reach on the Hill. From here in the city, there was no sign that any trouble had touched the Palace, its cool

white stillness a counterpoint to the chaos of the streets. He imagined Antonetta, slipping out of her bloodied golden gown, watching as it was whisked away by servants, never to trouble the sight of the Alleynes again.

Though Antonetta would remember, he knew. It was not in her nature to forget, much as the Hill loved to forget everything that troubled it.

Enough thinking about Antonetta. She was not his mission now. He could not have said exactly when the moment was that he had determined to seek out the Ragpicker King as soon as he could leave the Palace. Perhaps the moment when Gremont had, dying, begged him not to trust anyone; perhaps the moment when the dark assassin on the roof had told him that danger

was all around. Perhaps even the moment when the King had caught Vienne d’Este’s blade out of her hand.

It could have been any of those moments, or all of them, when Kel had thought: I cannot do this alone. And then, when he had seen Jolivet, he had feared it had all fallen apart. That he would be locked away as a traitor, and the worst would be that Conor would be left unprotected from whatever

threats might come.

But what was it Jolivet had said? You are both of the Palace and not of it, of the city and not of it. You stand in the place between. Kel had always known he did not belong. Not at the Palace, or among those he had grown up with in the Orfelinat. Not in the city or on the Hill. He had always thought of it as a weakness. How strange that it had taken Legate Jolivet and the Ragpicker King for him to realize it might be his greatest strength.

He was almost drunk with exhaustion by the time he reached the Black Mansion. He had pictured himself climbing the stairs and knocking on the scarlet door, but there was no need for that. The red door was flung wide open, and the Ragpicker King was standing atop his steps, looking out over the city.

He was not entirely alone, of course. Guards in the livery of the Black Mansion flanked the stairs. They moved to stop Kel as he approached, one reaching for his sword, but the Ragpicker King held up a hand.

“Let him through,” he said, and Kel started up the steps toward him, seeing the Ragpicker King’s eyes widen as he drew near and Andreyen took in his bloodstained appearance. “Something has happened, then?” he said. “At Marivent?”

Kel paused on the step below the Ragpicker King. Looking up at him, he realized he had wondered, all the way down the Hill, whether Morettus would already know about the attack before Kel told him. It was clear from the look on his face, though, that he had not. For the first time Kel knew something before the Ragpicker King did—but it gave him no pleasure.

“You tried to warn me,” Kel said. “You told me to talk to Gremont. I should have done it. Now it is too late.”

“He is dead?” said Andreyen.

“There has been much death,” said Kel. “But you knew that. You knew there would be blood.”

Andreyen’s green eyes glittered. The night sky around them was full of clouds, great pillars of black vapor slashed through with orange fire. “I had hoped not,” he said. “But it was only hope.”

Kel took a deep breath of smoky air, tinged with the acid of burning. “Understand this,” he said. “I won’t work for you. I will never work for you.” He paused. “But I will work with you.”

Andreyen looked thoughtful. “You know,” he said, “it is not in my interest to tell you this, but I would rather not have it occur to you later and trouble your mind.”

Kel said wearily, “What?”

“Working with me in secret—for the Palace in secret—you may die doing it. And it will be an inglorious death. No one of your House Aurelian will know you died doing your duty, and when you are buried, it will not be near your Prince.”

“I know that,” Kel said. “But I will die doing what I want.”

Andreyen almost seemed to smile. “Well, then,” he said. “Come in. We have a great deal of work to do.”

You'll Also Like