Chapter no 4

Sword Catcher

Most people, Kel knew, would panic with a blade at their throat. He didn’t like it much himself, but he could feel all the years of Jolivet’s

training paying off: all the times Jolivet had run him through his paces over and over, teaching how he must learn to stand unmoving between Conor and an arrow, Conor and a sword, Conor and a dagger’s point. He had learned not to flinch at the touch of sharpened metal, even when it cut his skin.

He did not flinch now, only kept his eyes closed. His talisman was safely put away; surely they could not think he was Conor. Nobles were kidnapped sometimes, when traveling, for money, but that didn’t happen within Castellane. Not because the nobility was beloved, but because of the punishment—imprisonment in the Trick, the prison tower where those who had committed treason waited to be executed. Torture that lasted weeks, whatever remained afterward fed to the crocodiles in the harbor—was dreaded, and with good reason.

“I thought he’d twitch a bit more,” said an amused, female voice. “He’s been well trained.”

“Legate Jolivet’s hand, I’d wager,” said the second voice. This one was male, low and oddly musical. “Tsk, tsk.” Something slapped away Kel’s hand as he felt for the carriage door. “It’s locked, and even if it weren’t, I would not recommend hurling yourself out. Such a fall, at this speed, could well be fatal.”

Kel sat back. The carriage seats were comfortable, at least. He could feel velvet and leather under his hands. He said, “If you wish to rob me, go ahead. I have not seen your faces. Take what you want and let me go. If you wish to harm me otherwise, be aware I have powerful friends. You will regret it.”

The man chuckled, the sound rich and dark as karak. “I took you because you have powerful friends. Now open your eyes. You are wasting my time, and I will not take kindly to it if you persist.”

The point of the knife dug deeper into the hollow of Kel’s throat, a painful kiss. He opened his eyes, and saw at first only darkness inside the carriage. Light began to glow, and Kel realized the source was a

Sunderglass pendant on a chain, dangling from the carriage roof. Kel stared at it: Such objects were rare, and few could afford their like.

It gave off a soft but potent light, in which Kel finally saw his two

companions clearly. The first was a young Chosean woman with long black hair, divided into two braids. She wore a silk tunic and trousers the color of foxgloves and bracelets of milky violet chalcedony on her wrists. In her right hand was a long dagger with a handle of white jade, its point resting against Kel’s throat.

Beside her was a very tall, very slender man dressed in black. Not Merren’s rusty student black; this man’s clothes were rich and expensive looking, from his velvet frock coat to the blackthorn cane upon which he rested his left hand. A gold ring bearing the sigil of a bird—a magpie, Kel thought—gleamed on his finger. His eyes were the only thing about him that was neither black nor white. They were a very dark green, and seemed to hold a strange light inside them. He said, “Do you know who I am?”

He goes round all in black, like Gentleman Death come to take your soul, and his carriage wheels are stained with blood.

“Yes,” Kel said. “You’re the Ragpicker King.” He didn’t say, I thought you’d be older. He guessed the man in front of him was perhaps thirty.

“And you’re wondering what I want with you,” said the Ragpicker King. “Sword Catcher.”

Adrenaline shot through Kel’s body. He forced himself to remain motionless, the point of the knife still leveled against his throat.

The Ragpicker King only smiled. “Let me be more clear, Kellian Saren. You were given to Conor Aurelian of House Aurelian at the tender age of ten, under the Malgasi custom of the Királar, the King’s Blade. It is your job to protect the Prince with your own life. In dangerous situations you

take his place, aided by a talisman that you are”—he narrowed his eyes

—“not currently wearing. Though I would not be fooled either way. I know

who you really are.” He folded his long pale hands over the top of his cane. “Is there anything you’d like to add?”

“No,” Kel said. There was a strange feeling in the back of his throat. A sort of pressure. He wanted to swallow hard, as if against a bitter taste, but he suspected his companions would take it as a sign of nervousness.


The girl with the blade looked sideways at the Ragpicker King. “This is dull,” she observed. “Perhaps I should—”

“Not yet, Ji-An.” The Ragpicker King studied Kel’s face. Kel kept his expression neutral. Lights came and went around the edges of the black- curtained windows. Kel guessed they were somewhere in the Silver Streets, the merchant neighborhood that bordered the Temple District. “You are wondering, Sword Catcher, why I have an interest in you. Your business is Palace business, and my business is with the streets of Castellane. Yet

sometimes—more often than you might guess—they intersect. There are things I wish to know. Need to know. And I could use your help.”

“We could all use something,” Kel said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll obtain it.”

“You’re awfully rude,” observed Ji-An, her hand steady on the dagger’s handle. “He’s offering you a job, you know.”

“I have a job. We’ve just been discussing it.”

“And I want you to keep your job,” said the Ragpicker King, crossing his impossibly long legs. “So think of what I am offering as a partnership. You help me, and in return, I help you.”

“I don’t see how you could help me,” Kel said, half distracted—the peculiar feeling remained in the back of his throat, halfway between a

scrape and a tickle. It wasn’t painful, but it was strangely familiar. When have I felt it before?

“It is your duty to protect the Prince,” said the Ragpicker King, “but not all threats come from foreign powers or power-hungry nobles. Some threats come from the city. Anti-monarchists, criminals—not the gentlemanly sort like myself, of course—or rebellious merchants. The information I possess could be valuable to you.”

Kel blinked. None of this was quite what he had expected—not that he had anticipated being kidnapped tonight in the first place. “I will not spy on

the royal family for you,” he said. “And I do not see why you would be interested in general gossip from the Hill.”

The Ragpicker King leaned forward, his hands folded atop his cane. “Do you know the name Prosper Beck?”

Odd that Prosper Beck should come up twice in one night. “Yes. Your rival, I imagine?”

Ji-An snorted, but the Ragpicker King seemed unmoved by the comment.

He said, “I wish to know who is funding Prosper Beck. I can tell you it is not just unusual for a criminal so wealthy and well connected to simply appear in Castellane, like a sailor stepping off a ship; it is impossible. It

takes years to build oneself up in a business. Yet Prosper Beck came from nowhere and has already moved to control the Maze.”

“Surely you are more influential than Beck. If you want the Maze back, take it.”

“It is not so simple. Beck is hard to find. He operates through

intermediaries and moves his headquarters from place to place. He bribes

the Vigilants with vast sums. Most of my Crawlers have decamped to work for him.” That was interesting, Kel thought. The Crawlers were famous in Castellane: skilled climbers who could shimmy up and down walls with the speed of spiders. They crept in through the upper windows of the rich and robbed them blind. “Someone is backing him, of that I am sure. Someone with a great deal of money. You make your way among the nobility, passing as a noble yourself. You should have little trouble finding out if one of them is financing Beck’s enterprises.”

“One of the nobility? Why would they bother funding a minor criminal?”

The carriage jounced over a patch of rough road, and Kel felt a wave of dizziness. The Ragpicker King was regarding him with a sort of bored curiosity, as if Kel were a bug he had seen many times before that was now exhibiting an unusual behavior.

“Let me ask you something, Kellian,” he said. “Do you like them? House Aurelian, I mean. The King, the Queen. The Prince and his Counselor. The Legate.”

For a long moment there was only silence, save for the sound of the

carriage wheels rattling over stones. Then words spilled from Kel’s mouth, unplanned, unconsidered. “One does not ask if one likes the Blood Royal. They simply are,” he said. Like the harbor or the Narrow Pass, like the

dark-jade canals of the Temple District, like Marivent itself. “It is like asking if one likes the Gods.”

The Ragpicker King nodded slowly. “That was an honest answer,” he said. “I appreciate it.”

Was it Kel’s imagination, or did the Ragpicker King put a special

emphasis on the word honest? That strange pressure was still there—in Kel’s chest, his throat, his mouth. He remembered now the last time he had felt it, and he felt anger growing like a vine twining through his veins, his nerves, setting them alight.

“In the spirit of further honesty,” said Gentleman Death, “King Markus. Is it true his absences are not due to his being engaged in study, but rather due to illness? Is the King dying?”

“It is not a question of illness,” Kel said, and thought of the Fire on the Sea, the burning boat covered in flowers, and that was the moment he was sure. Without another word, he brought his left hand up, in one smooth, swift motion, and wrapped it around the blade of Ji-An’s knife.

She did exactly what he had predicted she would, and jerked the knife back. Pain shot through his hand as the blade opened his skin. He welcomed the pain, clenching his hand to invite it in deeper. He could feel blood wetting his palm as his mind cleared.

Ssibal,” Ji-An hissed. Kel knew enough of the language of Geumjoseon to recognize this as profanity. He grinned as his blood welled in fat drops through his fingers and splashed onto the brocade interior of the carriage.

Ji-An turned to the Ragpicker King. “This crazy bastard—”

Kel began to whistle. It was a common tune on the streets of Castellane, called “The Troublesome Virgin.” The lyrics were bawdy in the extreme.

“He’s not crazy,” said the Ragpicker King, sounding as if he could not

decide whether to be irritated or amused. “Here, Sword Catcher. Take this.” And he held out a handkerchief of fine black silk. Kel took it, wrapping it around his injured hand. The cut wasn’t deep, but it was long, an ugly slash

across his palm.

“How did you guess?” said the Ragpicker King.

“That you drugged me?” Kel said. “I’ve been dosed with scopolia before.

Jolivet called it Devil’s Breath. It makes you tell the truth.” He finished tying the handkerchief bandage. “Pain counteracts it. And certain thought patterns. Jolivet taught me what to do.”

Ji-An looked intrigued. “I want to learn that.”

“I suppose it was in the wine Asper gave me,” Kel said. “He works for you, then?”

“Don’t blame Merren,” said the Ragpicker King. “I talked him into it.

Bribed him, actually. He’ll still provide you that antidote, if you want it. He doesn’t like misleading people.”

But drugging them is apparently acceptable, Kel thought. Not that there seemed any point in an argument about relative morality with the biggest criminal in Castellane. “Is our business finished, then? I’m not going to tell you what you want to know.”

“Oh, I didn’t think you were.” The Ragpicker King’s eyes gleamed. “I admit I was testing you. And you passed. Excellent stuff. I knew a Sword Catcher would be a fine addition to my team. And not only because of your access to the Hill.”

“I am not,” Kel insisted, “going to be part of your team.”

Ji-An pointed the blade at him again. “He won’t cooperate,” she said to the Ragpicker King. “You might as well let me kill him. He has a killable face.”

Kel tried not to look at the carriage door. The Ragpicker King had said it was locked, but he wondered: If he hurled himself against it, would it hold? A fall from a moving carriage could kill him, but so could Ji-An.

“We aren’t going to kill him,” the Ragpicker King said. “I believe he will come around. I am an optimist.” He leveled a green gaze, the color of

crocodile scales or canal water, on Kel. “I will say one last thing. As Sword Catcher, you must go where the Prince goes, do as he does. Even if you can snatch an hour or so in a day for yourself, you are not free. Your choices are not your own, or your dreams. Surely that cannot be what you hoped your

life would be. Everyone was once a child, and every child has dreams.”

Dreams,” Kel echoed bitterly. “Dreams are a luxury. When I was a child in the Orfelinat, I dreamed about things like dinner. An extra piece of bread. Warm blankets. I dreamed I would grow up to be a thief, a pickpocket, a Crawler. That perhaps, if I were lucky, I would go to work for someone like you.” His tone was mocking. “Branded by seventeen, hanged by twenty. I

knew no other choices. And here you are, offering me a chance to betray those who offered me better dreams. Forgive me if I am not tempted.”

“Ah.” The Ragpicker King tapped his fingers against the head of his cane. They were very long and white, flecked with small scars like burns. “So you trust them? The Palace, the nobles?”

“I trust Conor.” Kel chose his words carefully. “And the Palace is familiar to me. For years I have learned its rules, its ways, its lies and truths. I know the path through its labyrinths. I do not know you at all.”

The sardonic smile had left the angular face of the Ragpicker King. He drew back the window curtain and tapped lightly at the glass. “You will.”

The carriage began to slow, and Kel tensed. The Ragpicker King didn’t seem like the sort who took well to being turned down. He imagined being tossed into a ravine, or over a cliff into the sea. But when the door of the

carriage swung open, he found himself looking at the front door of the Caravel, the lighted lamps glowing above its entrance. He could hear canal water lapping against stone, smell smoke and brine on the evening air.

Ji-An regarded him down the length of her blade. “I really think we should kill him,” she said. “It’s not too late.”

“Ji-An, dear,” said the Ragpicker King. “You are an expert at killing people. It’s why I employ you. But I am an expert at knowing people. And this one will come back.”

Ji-An lowered her knife. “Then at least swear him to secrecy.” “Kel can feel free to tell Legate Jolivet he listened to my criminal

proposals. It will go much worse for him than for me.” The Ragpicker King made a small, shooing gesture with his scarred fingers, in Kel’s direction. “Go on. Get out. Or I might start to think you enjoy my company.”

Kel began to clamber out of the carriage. His legs felt numb, his hand aching. He had not realized until this moment how sure he had been that he would end up fighting for his life tonight.

“One more thing,” added the Ragpicker King as Kel leaped down to the pavement. “When you change your mind—and you will—come directly to the Black Mansion. The password Morettus will get you through the door. Recall it. And do not share it.”

The Ragpicker King reached out to swing the carriage door shut. As he did, Ji-An glanced at Kel and put a finger to her lips, as if to say: Hush.

Whether she was swearing him to secrecy regarding the password or his meeting with the Ragpicker King, Kel didn’t know, nor was he sure it mattered. He had no intention of telling anyone about either.

Kel made his way back into the Caravel to find the main salon only half as crowded as before. Many of the guests must have already selected a partner for the night and gone upstairs. Someone had upended the Castles board, and half-empty glasses were littered on every surface. The tread of boots and slippers had ground chocolate and cherries into the carpet. The fortune- teller had gone, as had Sancia and Mirela, but Antonetta Alleyne remained, perched on a silk divan. She was chatting away to a courtesan with pale-

purple curls, who looked enraptured by whatever she was saying. Kel wondered what on earth the two of them could possibly have to say to each other.

Montfaucon and Roverge had remained in the salon, but Falconet was gone, as was Conor. No one noticed Kel’s entrance; they were all staring at the far side of the room where the hanging tapestries had been drawn back. They revealed the raised dais of a stage, on which a silent performance was taking place.

Kel leaned against the wall, in the shadows, and tried to gather his thoughts. He was familiar with the stage and the sort of “plays” the Caravel put on. Most depicted a bawdy version of Castellane’s history. Those remaining in the salon sprawled in their brocaded chairs, watching as a naked man in a white skull-mask drew a woman—dressed in the stiff, frilled costume of two centuries before—down on a black-draped bed in the stage’s center.

Alys, Kel thought. Had Alys known, when she arranged his meeting with her brother, that Merren worked for the Ragpicker King? Had she known he planned to drug Kel to make him more likely to betray his secrets when

kidnapped? The thought was unsettling. Kel had trusted Alys for a long time. But it also seemed unlikely. Alys valued Conor as a client, and would be unlikely to do anything that would drive the Crown Prince and his

entourage of nobles away from her establishment.

On stage, Death had stripped his partner of her clothes, leaving her in only a filmy petticoat. He began to bind her wrists to the black bed with long ribbons of scarlet silk. Kel was aware of eyes on him. He’d been trained to know when he was being watched, after all. Antonetta Alleyne was looking at him, her expression unreadable, one of her hands playing with the locket at her throat.

“It’s meant to be the Scarlet Plague, I think,” said a voice at Kel’s shoulder. “Death takes a lover while the bodies lie in the streets. The red ribbons are the malady. She will make love to Death and die of it.”

Kel turned in surprise to find Silla standing at his shoulder. She was a tall girl, nearly his height, narrow-waisted and slim-shouldered, a laced green velvet bodice making the most of her small breasts. Her skirt was slit, showing her long legs. She had freckles and blue eyes and a generous,

wide-mouthed smile that had initially drawn him to her. Someone who smiled like that, he had thought, would be kind, would overlook his inexperience, would laugh with him as he learned what to do and how to do it.

He had been right, too, which was why he was still fond of her. He grinned at her now, shoving his misgivings to the back of his mind. “You get the Scarlet Plague from making love to Death?” he said. “I do not recall this as part of my lessons concerning this particular historical period. The

drawbacks of Palace tutelage. They focus entirely too much on the wrong things.”

“I should say so.” Silla slid an arm around his waist. On stage, the man had divested his partner of her petticoat. She was naked save for the ribbons at her wrists and ankles and the spill of her long dark hair. Death drew off

his mask and crawled across black velvet to lower himself upon her, her pale body arching up to his. Someone in the audience cheered, as if they were watching a sporting match in the Great Arena.

“I ought to find Conor,” Kel murmured, though it was not what he wanted to do. Silla was soft and warm against his side, and he could not help but think how she could make him forget—forget what the Ragpicker King had said to him, forget his own foolishness in being duped by Merren Asper, forget his suspicions of Alys. Of Hadja, who had brought him the

false message that had lured him outside. Had she known it was a trick? “The Prince went upstairs with Audeta,” said Silla. “He is enjoying

himself. You need not worry.” She laced her fingers through Kel’s, her eyes darkening. “Come with me.”

Silla knew he would not partake in pleasure in front of the nobles of the Hill, or the Charter Families, for the same reason that he would not drink to excess or indulge in poppy-drops in their company. To lose oneself in

pleasure was to lower one’s guard. Even alone with Silla or another

courtesan, he could not manage it entirely. There was always some part of him holding back.

And yet. He was aware of Antonetta still looking at him, and he could not help himself. He drew Silla toward him, his hand curling under her chin, lifting her face to his. He kissed her red mouth, tasting the salt of her lip paint, savoring the moment she opened her lips to his, inviting him in. As he cradled her face in his hands, he could feel Antonetta’s gaze on him, knew she was watching. He had thought it would bother him, but it only sent a greater heat crackling through his veins. You have come here to be scandalized, Antonetta, he thought. So be scandalized.

It was Silla who finally broke off their kiss. She purred softly, laughing against his mouth, even as he noted distantly that Antonetta was no longer looking at them. She was staring determinedly toward the stage.

“You’re eager as a boy tonight,” Silla murmured. “Come.”

Taking his hand, she led him from the room. As he went, he paused to

glance back at the salon as Silla led him through a small archway at the end of the room. He glimpsed Montfaucon, eyes on the stage, hand on the head of the young man who knelt before him, his head moving rhythmically over Montfaucon’s lap. He was the one who had been telling fortunes before, Kel thought. And Montfaucon was not the only noble being so serviced: The room was full of moving shadows, flashes of skin here and there, the sound of breath, caught. There seemed something hollow and sad about all of it, and he felt a little foolish for having tried to scandalize Antonetta with kissing. Far more scandalous things were going on all around them as Kel followed Silla into the shadows.

Through the archway were a number of curtained alcoves. Silla led him into one of them, its walls plush with rose velvet, before drawing the curtain behind them. Scarlet tapers burned above them in bronze holders. Silla beckoned him close, lifting her face to be kissed.

They had done this often enough that their bodies knew the dance. She arched into Kel as his mouth explored hers, but he wanted more than kissing. He could not have oblivion, but he would take forgetting, even for a short time. He slid his hands up under her bodice, her breasts rounding into his palms. If she felt the bandage on his right hand, she gave no sign. She moaned softly, her fingers trailing down his chest, finding the waistband of his trousers.

“So pretty,” she whispered. She rocked her hips against him. He was hard already, and her movements sent small shocks of pleasure through him— each shock like a sip of brandewine, slowing the racing of his mind, erasing the voice of the Ragpicker King. “Some nobles let themselves get soft, like unrisen dough.” She slid her hands up under his shirt. “Not you.”

Kel supposed he had Jolivet to thank for that. Nobles could let

themselves get soft; they had no need to fight, to defend themselves or anyone else. But I am the Prince’s shield. And a shield must be iron.

Silla’s fingers were on the fall of his trousers, working at the buttons. Kel let his eyes drift half shut. He knew his body was feeling pleasure. It was as familiar and unmistakable as pain. He tried to focus on it, to bring his mind into the moment. Into Silla, her skin painted pale pink by the rose light of

the alcove, her hair soft and thick, scented with lavender. She ran her finger around the inside of his waistband, laughed. “Velvet-lined?”

He licked her lower lip. “They’re Conor’s.”

She tilted her head. “Then I’d better not tear them.” She slipped her hand down, stroked him, her palm hot against his skin. “Does he ever let you

borrow other things?” she whispered, and he realized she was still talking about Conor. “Like his crown? I think you’d look awfully handsome in a crown.”

I wore the Aurelian crown earlier today. But he could never tell her that. It struck him that if the Ragpicker King and Ji-An knew he was the Sword Catcher, did Merren know as well? And what of Alys? And Hadja? Who

else knew?

Gray hell, stop it, he told himself. Be here now. Silla would not mind if

he pushed her skirts up, took her against the wall here. Easy enough to hold her up. They’d done it before. He needed to fall into her, into the drowning pleasure of the act. He took hold of her hips just as the velvet curtain tore back, revealing Antonetta Alleyne, framed in the archway.

Antonetta’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh,” she said. “Oh dear.

“What the hell, Antonetta?” Kel jerked his trousers into place and began to button them hastily. “What’s wrong? Do you need someone to take you home?”

Antonetta was still blushing. “I’d no idea—”

“What did you think we were doing in here, darling, reciting poetry to each other?” drawled Silla. Her corset had come unlaced, but she made no

move to fix it. “Or were you hoping to join us?” She smiled a little. “Which would be up to Kellian.”

“Don’t talk to her like that,” Kel said; it was a reflex, but Silla’s eyes narrowed in surprise. His response made him even angrier at Antonetta. He turned back to her. “If you’re desperate to go home, Domna Alys would

have arranged a carriage for you—”

“It’s not that,” Antonetta said. “I was on my way up to the library and I saw Falconet. He was in a panic. He sent me to fetch you.” She frowned. “It’s Conor. He needs you. Something’s wrong.”

Kel’s blood turned to ice water; he heard Silla take a surprised breath. “What do you mean, something’s wrong?” But Silla was already pressing his jacket into his hand; he did not even remember taking it off. He kissed her forehead, shrugged it on; a moment later he was following Antonetta

through the main room and up the stairs. “What’s happened?” he demanded in a low voice. “Silla said Conor was with Audeta—”

“I don’t know,” said Antonetta, not looking at him. “Joss didn’t tell me.

Just to fetch you.”

These words spiked Kel’s alarm. Falconet being desperate enough to send Antonetta after him portended nothing good.

“I wouldn’t have expected you to be the sort to hire courtesans,” said Antonetta as they reached the landing. “I don’t know why. Silly of me, I suppose.”

“It is silly,” said Kel, a bite to his tone. “I have no prospects among the sons and daughters of the Hill—your mother has made that clear enough.”

He almost thought he saw Antonetta flinch. But he must have imagined it. She was already staring down the corridor. They were on the third floor, where the courtesans’ rooms were, and halfway down the hall was an open door—Audeta’s room, presumably. Sitting on the floor beside it was Conor. Red spatters stained the floor around him. His head had fallen back against the wall; his left arm looked as if he’d pulled a scarlet glove up to his

elbow. Falconet knelt beside him, looking—unusually for Joss—at a loss as to what to do.

“Conor—” Antonetta started forward, but Kel saw Falconet shake his head. He caught Antonetta by the elbow, drawing her back.

“Better not,” he said. “Wait for us downstairs.” He hesitated. “And remember, Domna Alys can take care of anything you need.” Or take care

of you, if you’re uneasy. But he didn’t say that. Antonetta was an adult. She made her own choices, at least as much as her mother allowed. Kel had been her protector once, but she had been very clear on the night of her debut that he was no longer wanted in that capacity.

She bit her lower lip—it was a habit of hers—and looked worriedly down the hall at Conor. “Take care of him,” she said to Kel, and vanished down

the steps.

Of course I will. It’s my duty. But it was more than duty, of course; anxiety raced through Kel’s blood like fire as he made his way to Conor and knelt down beside Falconet at his side. Conor was still, improbably, wearing his crown, the gold wings snagged among his black curls. He jumped when Kel put a hand on his shoulder. Slowly, his gray eyes focused. “You,” he said, in a slurred voice. He was very drunk—much drunker than Kel would have expected. “Where were you?”

“I was with Silla.”

The ghost of a smile flashed across Conor’s face. “You like her,” he said.

His voice held an odd, disconnected quality, and Kel’s stomach tightened. What else might Conor say, in this state, regardless of the fact that Falconet was standing well within earshot?

“Yes, well enough.” Kel stayed still while Conor’s fingers marched up

his arm and bunched themselves at the collar of his shirt. “But I’ve had my fun. You’re not well. Let’s get you home.”

Conor lowered his eyes. His long black lashes brushed his cheeks; Queen Lilibet had always predicted he’d lose those as he grew older, but they

remained—a disarming mark of innocence that had not caught up with the rest of an otherwise not-innocent face. “Not to the Palace. No.”

Conor.” Kel was very aware of Falconet watching them. He looked up and glared at Joss, who stepped away and stuck his head through the open door of Audeta’s room. A moment later Audeta appeared in the doorway, wrapped in a blanket. The scarlet and gold paint on her lids had smeared all around her eyes. She looked tearful, and young.

Conor twisted his fingers in Kel’s shirt. Kel could smell the blood on him, like cold copper. Audeta said, in a small voice, “It was the window. He hit the window—” She shivered. “Broke it with his hand.”

Kel took Conor’s hand. It was mazed all over with small cuts, and a deeper one to the side of his hand that was more concerning. We both

injured our hands tonight, he thought, and it didn’t seem strange, but fitting, somehow.

He untied the black handkerchief from his own hand and began to wrap it around Conor’s. The wound on his palm had stopped bleeding anyway.

“Joss,” he said. “Go downstairs. Take Audeta with you. Play it off as if nothing has happened.”

Falconet said something to Audeta in a low voice. She disappeared back into her room. “Are you sure?” Falconet said, looking at Kel with thoughtful eyes.

“Yes,” Kel said. “And make sure Antonetta gets home. She oughtn’t to be here.”

Montfaucon or Roverge would have said, What do you care about Antonetta? or I don’t take orders from you. They would have tried to hover about, hoping to hear something scandalous. At least it had been Falconet with Conor, Kel thought. He liked to know things, as everyone on the Hill did, but he did not gossip for the sake of it. And though he recognized Kel had little power, he knew that Conor listened to him, and that was a sort of power in itself.

Falconet indicated with a nod that he would do as Kel asked. Audeta emerged from her room, wearing a yellow silk wrapper, her lids repainted. She headed downstairs with Falconet, looking back anxiously at Conor as she went. Kel hoped Falconet would be able to convince her to keep the incident to herself. If anyone could, it was Falconet.

“All right, Con.” Kel gentled his voice. This was the way he had talked to Conor years ago, when Conor woke in the dead hours of darkness with nightmares. “Why would you punch the window? Were you angry at

Audeta? Or Falconet?”

“No.” Conor was still hanging on to Kel’s shirt with his unbandaged hand. “I thought I could forget, with them. But I couldn’t.”

Forget what? Kel remembered a few minutes ago, with Silla, telling himself to forget, to be here now. But Conor . . .

“Is this about you getting married?” Kel guessed. “You know, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

The crafty expression of the very drunk passed across Conor’s face. “I think I do,” he said. “I think I might have to.”

Kel was taken aback. “What? They cannot force you, Con.”

Conor plucked at Kel’s sleeve. “It’s not that,” he said. “I’ve made mistakes, Kel. Bad mistakes.”

“Then we’ll fix them. Anything can be fixed. I’ll help you.”

Conor shook his head. “I’ve been trained, you know, to fight a certain kind of war. Tactical strategy and battle maps and all that.” He looked earnestly at Kel. “I cannot fight what I cannot find, or see.”


“This is my city,” Conor said, almost plaintively. “It is my city, isn’t it, Kel? Castellane belongs to me.”

Kel wondered if they could get out by the back stairway. Avoid the salon and any potential encounters with other people. Especially with Conor rambling like this.

“Conor,” Kel said, gently, “you’re drunk, that’s all. You’re the Prince;

Castellane is yours. Her fleets and caravans are yours. And her people love you. You saw that today.”

“Not,” Conor said, slowly, “not—all of them.”

Before Kel could ask what he meant, there were footsteps on the stairs; someone was coming. The footsteps turned out to be Alys. She pursed her lips in concern when she saw Conor but did not seem surprised. Perhaps Falconet had told her. Perhaps he had been like this when she’d pulled him away, earlier. Before tonight, Kel would have asked, but he could not trust Alys now.

Nevertheless, he let her guide them out the back entrance, where their

horses had already been brought around by the footmen. She was apologetic

—had the Prince not enjoyed himself tonight? Kel found himself reassuring her, even as he thought of Merren and wanted to demand what she’d known.

But Conor was there. He might be drunk, but he wasn’t insensible. Kel kept his questions to himself, bidding Alys a stiff goodbye as Conor swung himself onto Matix, his injured hand held close against his chest.

Kel had gotten Conor home drunk many times before, and he had no

doubts he’d manage it again tonight. Conor had always been a skilled rider, and Asti and Matix knew their way to the Palace. He and Conor would go home, and they would sleep, and in the morning there would be Dom Valon’s hangover cure, followed by training and light disapproval with

Jolivet, then visits from the nobles, and all the usual furnishings of an ordinary day.

He wondered if Conor would remember how he had cut his hand, or what he’d said to Kel, a thing he’d never said before: I’ve made mistakes, Kel.

Bad mistakes.

Another voice cut past the memory of Conor’s words. Your choices are not your own, or your dreams. Surely that cannot be what you hoped your life would be. Everyone was once a child, and every child has dreams.

But the Ragpicker King was a liar. A criminal and a liar. It would be a fool’s errand to listen to him. And Conor said all sorts of things when he was drunk. There was no point placing too much weight on them.

Up ahead, Conor called for him to go faster; they were nearly to Palace Street, where the land began to slant up toward Marivent. Kel glanced down and saw the paper crown that had been tangled in Asti’s reins. It was already coming to pieces; after all, it had never been meant for anything but show.



The time of the Sorcerer-Kings was a time of immense prosperity. Great cities rose up, and clad themselves in marble and gold. The Kings and Queens built for themselves palaces and pavilions and hanging gardens, and there were great public structures: libraries and hospitals and orphanages, and acadamies where magic was taught.

But only those who attended the academies, whose attendance was strictly controlled, were allowed to perform High Magic, which required the use of the One Word. Low magic, which could be done without using the Word, flourished among the peasantry, especially among traders, who traveled between kingdoms. Low magic consisted of combinations of words and numbers etched upon amulets, and was tolerated by the Sorcerer-Kings only because of its limited power.

Tales of the Sorcerer-Kings, Laocantus Aurus Iovit III

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