Chapter no 5

Sword Catcher

As Kel had predicted, the day after the visit to the Caravel was uneventful. Conor woke with a vicious hangover. Kel took himself off

to the kitchen to retrieve Dom Valon’s famous morning-after cure: a vile- looking substance made with eggs, red pepper, hot vinegar, and a secret ingredient the head cook refused to divulge. After downing it, Conor had stopped complaining about his headache and started complaining about the taste of it instead.

“Do you remember anything about last night?” Kel asked as Conor dragged himself out of bed. “Do you remember telling me you’d made a terrible mistake?”

“Was the terrible mistake punching Charlon Roverge?” Conor had peeled the black kerchief from his hand and was making a face. “Because if I did, I think I broke my hand on his face.”

Kel shook his head.

“Must have smashed a glass, then,” Conor said. “Don’t summon Gasquet; he’ll just make it worse. I’m going to go boil myself in the tepidarium until the water turns into royal soup.”

He stripped off his clothes and made his way, naked, across their rooms to the door that led to the baths. Kel wondered if he should point out to Conor that he still had his crown on, and decided not to. It wasn’t as if hot water and steam were going to do it any harm.

When he was younger, Kel had assumed that one day he would be given his own room—near Conor’s, certainly, but still separate. That hadn’t happened. Jolivet had insisted that Kel continue to sleep where Conor slept, in case something happened in the night. And when Kel had asked Conor about it, saying surely Conor also wanted privacy, Conor had said he wasn’t looking to be alone with his thoughts, unless Kel really wanted his own

room, in which case Conor would make sure he got it. There had been genuine hurt in his voice, though, and Kel had dropped the topic.

Queen Lilibet, after all, shared her apartments with her ladies-in-waiting, keeping a golden bell beside her bed to summon them to her side. Master Fausten had slept on a cot outside King Markus’s door in the Star Tower

since the Fire on the Sea. And the rooms Kel shared with Conor were vast, encompassing not just the room where they slept, but the library upstairs,

the roof of the West Tower, and the tepidarium. Being alone wasn’t impossible, so Kel decided he’d been unreasonable to ask in the first place.

Kel, who had already bathed, began to dress, ignoring the stinging in his right hand. There were three wardrobes in the apartments: one, the largest, for Conor’s clothes. One for the sets of clothes required for public

appearances and other events at which Kel might need to take Conor’s place at a moment’s notice, containing two of everything, matching: frock coats, trousers, even boots. And the third for clothes that were Kel’s own, inflected with the style of Marakand. For after all, wasn’t he Amirzah Kel Anjuman, the Queen’s cousin? Lilibet had taken some delight in making

sure his wardrobe reflected that. Silk tunics in jewel tones with loose sleeves, colorful scarves, and long tapered coats of gold or bronze brocade, their sleeves slashed to show green silk beneath. (Green was the color of the Marakandi flag, and Lilibet wore it almost exclusively.)

Kel dressed in black today, with a green tunic buttoned over: The loose sleeves were useful, as they concealed the daggers secured to his wrists with leather buckles. As far as he knew, Conor had no special plans for today, but it was always good to be prepared.

They ate breakfast in the courtyard of the Castel Mitat. Marivent was not in fact one large castle, but a scatter of different small palaces, or castels, dotted among richly planted gardens. The story was that this had made the Palace easier to defend—even if an army were to get past the walls, they would have to siege multiple fortresses—but Kel did not know if that were true, or if it simply reflected the fact that kings and queens over the

centuries had found it easier to add new buildings than to expand the Castel Antin, the oldest of the palaces, which contained the throne room and the Shining Gallery.

The Castel Mitat sat dab in the middle of Marivent; it was a hollow square, surmounted by the sturdy West Tower, which looked out over

Castellane and its harbor. Half in sun, half in dappled shade cast by arbors of climbing vines, its courtyard glowed like a jewel box. Orange and red poppies and grandiflora hung from vines like drop earrings of polished

coral. In the center of the courtyard was a sundial tiled in scarlet and green, representing the marriage of Lilibet and Markus. The green of Marakand,

the red of Castellane.

According to the sundial, it was closer to noon than morning, but as far as Conor was concerned, that still meant breakfast. Bread, honey, figs, and soft white goat’s cheese, alongside cold game pie. And wine, of course.

Conor poured a glass and held it up to watch the sunlight strike through the liquid, turning it to stained glass.

“Perhaps we should go back to the Caravel,” Kel suggested. He was picking at a fig; he found he had not much appetite. “Since you’ve forgotten yesterday anyway.”

“I haven’t forgotten all of it,” said Conor. He had left off his crown, or lost it in the tepidarium. There were shadows smudged beneath his gray eyes. Once they had had eyes of different colors, but that had been changed long ago. “I recall Falconet doing some truly scandalous things to Audeta. She seemed to like them. I ought to ask him how—”

“Well, then, if you enjoyed yourself, all the more reason to return. With Falconet, if you like.” Which will allow me to seek out Merren and demand some answers.

“I prefer not to wear the same thing twice in a row, or do the same thing two nights running.” Conor turned the glass in his hand. “If you’re missing Silla, we can always have her brought here.”

Where I have no bedroom to myself? No, thank you, Kel thought. But that was not fair. Conor required him close by. It would be that way until Conor himself was married. Which reminded him—

“So were you really thinking of getting married? Malgasi, Kutani, Hanse . . .”

Conor set his glass down with a thump. “Gods, no. What’s gotten into you?”

He really doesn’t remember, Kel thought. It was both a relief and an annoyance. He would have liked to know what had bothered Conor so much he’d put his hand through a window. Perhaps whatever Falconet had done with Audeta had been very, very peculiar.

“I was thinking,” Conor said, his eyes bright. “Before I get married, I’d like to see more of the world. I’m the Crown Prince of Castellane and I’ve never been farther away than Valderan. And Valderan is mostly horses.”

“Excellent horses,” Kel pointed out. Asti and Matix had been gifts from the King of Valderan. “And arable land.”

Conor chuckled. So he remembered that, at any rate. “I recall I promised you travel, a long time ago,” he said. “An extraordinary life.”

You would see things hardly anyone ever sees. You would travel the whole world.

They’d often spoken of the places and things they’d like to see—the floating markets of Shenzhou, the towers of Aquila, the silver bridges that connected the six hills of Favár, the Malgasi capital—but it had always been in a distant, theoretical sense. The little travel he had actually done with Conor had not been much like his dreams of ships and blue water, gulls flying overhead. Traveling with royalty was an organizational nightmare of horses and caravans, trunks and soldiers, cooks and bathtubs, and rarely managing to go more than a few hours a day before having to stop and set up camp.

“My life is already fairly extraordinary,” said Kel. “More than most people know.”

Conor leaned forward. “I was thinking,” he said. “What about Marakand?”

“Marakand? Over the Gold Roads?”

Conor dipped his left shoulder in an elegant shrug. “Why not? Marakand is half my heritage, is it not?”

Kel bit thoughtfully into an apricot. Lilibet had been insistent that her son remain conscious of the roots that bound him to her home country. He—and Kel, of course—had been tutored in the language of Marakand until they

were both fluent. They knew the history of the royal family of Marakand and the Twin Thrones, now occupied by Lilibet’s brothers. They knew the history of the place, the names of its most significant families. But Conor had never expressed interest in traveling there before. Kel had always suspected that Lilibet’s passion for the place had left Conor feeling ambivalent about a country that would, despite his connections there,

always regard him as a foreign Prince.

“Darling!” The Queen swept into the courtyard, dressed in rich emerald satin, the waist of her dress lashed tight, long skirts brushing the dusty ground. With her were two of her Court ladies. Their dark hair was tucked up under fern-green caps, their eyes downcast. “How are you? How was


She was speaking to Conor, of course. She preferred to go on as though Kel didn’t exist unless it was necessary to acknowledge him. It was much the way she treated her ladies, who stood at a polite distance, pretending to admire the sundial.

“Kel gave a very fine speech,” said Conor. “The populace was duly impressed.”

“That must have been disappointing for you, darling. Jolivet is so over- cautious.” She had come around behind Conor’s seat and ruffled her ringed hand through his hair as she spoke, the emeralds on her fingers shining among his black curls. “I am sure no one wishes you harm. No one could.”

A muscle in Conor’s cheek twitched. Kel knew he was holding himself back; there was no point correcting Lilibet, or telling her that no member of a royal family was likely to be universally beloved. Lilibet preferred her own version of the world, and disagreement only sparked sulking or anger.

“What have you just been speaking of, my dear? You did seem quite animated, just now.”

“Marakand,” Conor said. “Specifically, my desire to pay the land a visit. It’s ridiculous that I’ve never been there, considering the connection I have to the place. You and Father represent the alliance of Marakand and Castellane, but I am the one who must carry it on. They should know my


“The satraps know your face. They visit every year,” Lilibet said, a bit absently. The satraps were the Marakandi Ambassadors, and their visits tended to be among the highlights of the Queen’s schedule. She would gather with them to hear gossip from the faraway Court in Jahan, and afterward, for weeks, she would talk of little but Marakand: how everything was better there, more cleverly done, more beautiful. Yet in all the years

since her marriage, she had never returned. Kel wondered if she knew that her memories were more idealistic fantasy than reality, and did not want them spoiled. “But it’s a lovely idea.”

“I’m glad you approve,” said Conor. “We could leave as early as next week.”

Kel choked on his apricot. “Next week?” Just readying a royal convoy— with its tents and bedding, horses and pack mules, gifts for the Court at Jahan, and food that would not spoil on the road—would take longer than that.

“Conor, don’t be ridiculous. You can’t leave next week. We have a reception for the Malgasi Ambassador. And after that, there is the Spring Festival, and the Solstice Ball—”

Conor’s expression had shut like a door. “There is always some festivity or another, Mehrabaan,” he said, deliberately using the formal Marakandi word for “mother.” “Surely I must be allowed to miss a few of them in pursuit of such a valuable goal.”

But Lilibet’s lips had pursed—a sign that she was digging in her low, pointed heels. It was true that there was always a festivity on the horizon;

the one thing Lilibet truly seemed to enjoy about being Queen was planning parties. She would obsess for weeks or months over the decorations, the color scheme, dancing and fireworks, food and music. The night Kel had

come to Marivent as a child, he had thought he had arrived at a rare magical banquet. Now he knew they happened every month, which took some of the enchantment out of the whole thing.

“Conor,” Lilibet said, “it is admirable that you wish to strengthen Castellane’s international ties, but your father and I would appreciate it if you saw to your responsibilities at home first.”

“Father said that?” Conor’s voice was brittle.

Lilibet ignored the question. “In point of fact, I would like to see you oversee the Dial Chamber meeting tomorrow. You’ve sat in on enough of them; you ought to know how they’re handled.”

Interesting. The Dial Chamber was the room in which the Charter Families had met for generations to discuss trade, diplomacy, and the

current state of affairs in Castellane, with the King or Queen always present to direct the course of the discussion, for the final word on any decision was House Aurelian’s. For the past years Lilibet, with Mayesh Bensimon at her side, had represented the King at the meetings—always with a look of

dispassionate boredom on her face.

Now she wanted Conor to take her place, and from her expression, it did not look as if arguing the point would do any good.

“If Father could—” Conor began.

Lilibet shook her head, the ornate loops of her glossy, still-black hair trembling. Kel sensed that she was looking at him out of the corner of her eye—for all her pretense that he didn’t exist, she was wary of what she said in front of him. “You know that’s not possible.”

“If I lead the meeting alone, there will be gossip as to why,” Conor said. “Darling,” said Lilibet, though there was little warmth in it, “the way to

fight gossip among the nobles is to show them you have a firm grasp on power. That is what you must do tomorrow. Seize control; do not let it fly out of your hands. Once you’ve shown that you can do that, we can discuss a journey to Marakand. Perhaps you could go on your honeymoon.”

With that, she swept away, the hem of her green skirt leaving a path in the dust like the dragging tail of a peacock. Her Court ladies hurried after her as Conor sat back in his chair, his expression set.

“The Dial Chamber meeting will be fine,” Kel said. “You’ve been to a hundred of them. It’s nothing you can’t do.”

Conor nodded vaguely. It occurred to Kel that this might mean he’d be left on his own tomorrow afternoon, perhaps into the evening. It depended on how long the meeting went, but all he needed was to get to Merren Asper, threaten the truth out of him, and return. Merren was clearly an academic, not a fighter; it couldn’t take that long.

“You’ll come with me,” Conor said. It wasn’t a request, and Kel wondered if Conor truly noticed the difference between asking Kel to do

things and telling him. But then, did it matter? It was not as if Kel could say no, in either circumstance. And resentment was pointless. It was more than pointless. Resentment was poison.

“Of course,” Kel said, with an inward sigh. He’d just have to try to get away at another time. Perhaps tonight. As far as he knew, Conor had nothing planned.

Conor did not seem to hear him. He was gazing into the distance, unseeing, his palms flat on the table before him. It was only then that Kel realized that though Lilibet must surely have noticed the raw red wounds on Conor’s right hand, she had said not one word about them.

“Zofia, darling,” Lin said, “do take the pills, won’t you? There’s a good girl.”

The good girl in question—a ninety-one-year-old ball of wild white hair, fragile bones, and mulish temper—glared at Lin out of her one good eye.

The other was covered with an eye patch; she had lost it, she claimed, during a sea battle off the coast of Malgasi. The battle had been with the royal fleet. Zofia Kovati had been a pirate, as feared and dreaded in her day as any man. She still possessed an appearance of great fierceness, with her nest of pure white hair sticking out in all directions, a mouthful of false teeth, and a collection of brass-buttoned military coats she wore over full- skirted dresses in the style of decades past.

Lin switched tack. “You know what will happen if you don’t take them.

I’ll have to send a Castellani doctor to look at you, since you don’t trust me.”

Zofia looked gloomy. “He’ll put the pills up my bum.”

Lin hid a smile. This was likely; doctors of the malbushim were obsessed with suppositories for reasons she could only guess at. Partly, she supposed, because they had not mastered injections into the blood, as the Ashkar had, but she could not explain the rest of it, not when swallowing pills was a perfectly good way of getting medicine into the system.

“Oh, yes,” Lin said. “He will.”

She grinned as Zofia snatched the pills out of her hand and swallowed them down with only a slight grimace. The foxglove would treat, though not cure, Zofia’s failing heart and the swelling in her legs. Lin left her with a bottle of more pills and strict instructions regarding when and how to take them—instructions she had given before, but Zofia seemed to enjoy the ritual, and Lin did not mind. She would have stayed for tea today, as she often did, had she not been late for her next appointment.

The day was warm and bright, perfect for traversing the city. When she had first started seeing patients in Castellane, Lin had worried about criminals, cutpurses, and Crawlers. The Ashkar regarded the city outside

the Sault walls as a dangerous and lawless place. She was sure she would be set upon and robbed, but she had gone mostly unhindered through the streets, rarely troubled by more than curious looks.

Once, in the Warren, after delivering a baby, she had made her way home late at night, under a green-tinted spring moon. A skinny young man, a

knife flashing in his hand, had slipped from the shadows between two

buildings and demanded her physician’s satchel; she had clutched it away from him, instinctively—the items inside were precious and expensive— when a dark shadow had dropped from a balcony above them. A Crawler.

To her great surprise, the Crawler proceeded to disarm the young man and send him on his way with a sharp warning and a sharper kick to the ankle. The would-be thief had scuttled away while Lin blinked in surprise.

The Crawler, whose hooded jacket hid his face, had grinned, and Lin had caught a flash of metal as he turned his head. A mask? “Compliments of the Ragpicker King,” he said, offering her a half-mocking bow. “He is an admirer of physicians.”

Before Lin could respond, the Crawler had vanished, scrambling up the nearest wall with the quick spidery movements that had earned the Crawlers their name. Lin felt safer after that—quixotic, she knew, to feel safer

because of a criminal, but the Ragpicker King was a fixture in Castellane. Even the Ashkar knew he controlled the streets. And much to her own surprise, Lin’s rounds of patient appointments had turned out to be her

favorite part of being a physician.

After Lin had passed her last medical examination, she had expected to begin seeing patients immediately. But other than Mariam, no one in the Sault seemed interested in availing themselves of her services. They avoided her, seeking out instead the male physicians who had scored lower than she had on the exams.

So Lin had expanded her reach into the city. Chana Dorin sold talismans in the city market every Sunsday, and spread the word that there was a young Ashkari physician willing to treat ailments for very little money.

Josit, then one of the Shomrim—the guardians of the Sault gates—had told every malbesh who came seeking a physician of his sister: her skills, her wisdom, her extremely reasonable rates.

Slowly Lin built a stable of patients outside the Sault, from the rich

daughters of merchants seeking someone to remove wens from their noses, to the courtesans of the Temple District whose jobs required them to be regularly examined by physicians. Once she had built her reputation, more began to seek her out: from anxious pregnant mothers to the gnarled old men whose bodies had been broken by years of toiling at shipbuilding in the Arsenale.

Illness was a great leveler, she realized. Malbushim were just like the Ashkar when it came down to their health: fretting over their own wellness, vulnerable where it came to sickness in their family, frantic or silent in the face of death. Often, as Lin stood quietly while a family prayed over the body of a lost loved one, she would hear their words—may he pass through the gray door unhindered, Lords—and she would add some of her own, silently, not just for the dead, but for those left behind. Be not alone. Be comforted among the mourners of Aram.

Why not? she always thought. They did not have to believe in the Goddess for her to touch their hearts in their greatest time of need.

Enough; there was no need to sink into morbid thoughts. Besides, she had reached her destination: an ochre, red-roofed building facing onto a dusty square. Long ago, the Fountain Quarter had been a neighborhood of rich merchants’ houses built around courtyards, each one boasting one of the grand fountains that gave the neighborhood its name. Now the houses had been split into inexpensive flats of a few rooms each. Their frescoes had faded to muddy swirls, and the gloriously tiled fountains had cracked and gone dry.

Lin enjoyed the faded grandeur of the place. The old buildings reminded her of Zofia: They had once been great beauties, and their bones still revealed that grace beneath wrinkled, liver-spotted skin.

She hurried across the square, her footsteps sending up puffs of saffron dust, and ducked into the ochre house. The ground floor was stone and tile, curving wooden stairs leading up, each step worn and saddled in the middle. The landlady—a grumpy woman who lived on the top floor—really ought to see to fixing them, Lin thought, as she reached the second landing and found the doors there already open.

“Is it you, Doktor?” The door swung wide, revealing the wrinkled, beaming countenance of Anton Petrov, Lin’s favorite patient. “Come in, come in. I have tea.”

“Of course you do.” Lin followed him into the room, setting her satchel down on a low table. “Sometimes I think you survive entirely on jenever and tea, Dom Petrov.”

“And what would be wrong with that?” Petrov was already fiddling with a gleaming bronze samovar, the most elegant item in the small apartment, and the only thing he had brought with him from Nyenschantz when he’d

left it forty years ago to become a trader on the Gold Roads. He’d always had his samovar with him, he’d told her once, as the thought of being caught in an inhospitable region with no tea was insupportable.

Unlike Josit, Petrov seemed uninterested in displaying much in the way of souvenirs from his years of travel. His flat was plain, almost monastic. The furniture was scrubbed birch, his books neatly arranged in shelves along the walls (though Lin, not being able to read Nyens, could not decipher most of the titles). His cups and plates were plain brass, his

fireplace neatly swept, and his kitchen always tidy.

Having poured them both tea, Petrov indicated that Lin should join him at the table near the window. Pots of flowers adorned the sill, and a hummingbird buzzed lazily amid the red valerian blossoms.

As she settled herself across from Petrov, tea mug in hand, Lin’s gaze went automatically to the carpet in the middle of the room. It was a beautiful item—rich and plush, woven with a pattern of vines and feathers in deep green and blue. It was not the carpet that interested Lin, though, but rather what it concealed.

“Do you want to see it?” Petrov was looking at her with an impish sort of grin, uncharacteristically boyish. Petrov was in his sixties, but looked older, his skin papery, his hands given to the occasional tremble. His skin was pale, like that of most Northerners, and Lin sometimes thought she could

see his veins through it. Though his hair was gray, his mustache and

eyebrows were black (Lin suspected he dyed them) and tremendous. “If you’d like . . .”

Lin felt a slight flutter beneath her breastbone. She quickly took a sip of her hot tea; it had a smoky taste, which Petrov claimed came from the

campfires along the Gold Roads. It was also too sweet, but she didn’t mind. Petrov was lonely, she knew, and the tea was a chance to draw out their appointment, to chat and visit. Loneliness, Lin believed, was deadly; it killed people as surely as too much alcohol or poppy-juice. It was hard to be lonely in the Sault, but much too easy to disappear and be forgotten in the

chaos of Castellane.

“I have to examine you first,” she said. She’d set her satchel down by her chair; she rummaged in it now, and drew out the auscultor—a long wooden cylinder, hollow and polished—and set one end to Petrov’s chest.

The old man sat patiently while she listened to his heart and lungs. Petrov was one of her more mysterious patients. His symptoms did not match anything in Lin’s studies or books. She often heard crackling noises when

he breathed, which ought to have meant pneumonia, but they came and went without fever, leaving her at a loss. Strange rashes often appeared on his skin—today there were red spots on his forearms and legs, as if the

vessels beneath the skin had burst for some reason.

Petrov claimed all of it—his breathing troubles, his fatigue, the rashes— were a disease he had picked up on his travels. He did not know the name of it, or who had given it to him. Lin had tried every treatment she knew: infusions, tinctures, changes in diet, powders mixed into his food. Nothing helped save the amulets and talismans she gave him to ease his pain and symptoms.

“Do be careful,” she said, drawing his sleeve down his thin arm. “The best way to avoid these painful red spots is to avoid bumps and bruises. Even as small a thing as moving a chair—”

Enough,” he muttered. “What, am I supposed to ask Domna Albertine?

She scares me worse than a bruise.”

Domna Albertine was his landlady. She had a vast bosom and a vaster temper. Lin had once seen her chase a stray goose across the courtyard with a broom, screaming that she would beat it to death and then track down and kill each of its children.

Lin crossed her arms over her chest. “Are you refusing my advice? Is it that you wish for a different physician?”

She let her voice quaver. She had long ago realized that the best way to get Petrov to cooperate was to make him feel guilty, and she used this

knowledge ruthlessly.

“No, no.” He shook his head. “If I didn’t have you treating me, wouldn’t I be dead by now?”

“I am sure there are other physicians who could do what I do,” Lin said, rummaging in her satchel. “Even in Nyenschantz.”

“In Nyenschantz, the doctors would advise me to go out in the woods and punch a bear,” rumbled Petrov. “Either it would make me feel better, or the bear would kill me, in which case I would no longer be sick.”

Lin giggled. She took several talismans from her bag and set them on the table. Petrov, who had been grinning, looked at her thoughtfully. “Those

papers you wanted,” he said. “Did you manage to get them?”

Lin sighed inwardly. She should not have told Petrov about her quest to get the Academie manuscript. It had been a moment of weakness; she had known she could tell no one in the Sault.

“No,” she said. “No bookshop will allow me even to look at it—not just because I am not a student, but because I am Ashkar. They hate us too


“It is not that they hate you,” Petrov said, gently. “It is that they are jealous. Magic vanished from the world with the Sundering, and with it much danger, but also much that was beautiful and wondrous. Only your people still possess a fragment of that wonder. It is perhaps not surprising

they seek to guard the bits of history they have. The memory of a time they were equal in power.”

“They are more than equal in power,” Lin said. “They have all the power, save in this one thing.” Lightly, she touched the necklace at her throat, the

hollow circle with the old words etched onto it: How shall we sing our Lady’s songs in a strange land? The cry of a people who did not know how to be who they were without a home or a God. They had learned—over the many years they had learned—yet their belonging was still imperfect.

Hollow in parts, like the circle itself.

She looked at Petrov closely. “You are not saying you agree with them, are you?”

“Not at all!” Petrov bellowed. “I have traveled the world, you know—” “I do know,” said Lin, teasingly. “You tell me about it all the time.”

He glared. “And I have always said you can judge a country by how they treat their Ashkar. It was one of the reasons I left Nyenschantz. Stupidity, closed-mindedness, cruelty. Malgasi, too, is one of the worst.” He broke off, waving his hand as if to ward off the idea of evil. “Now,” he said. “Would you like to see the stone? As a reward for healing me, eh?”

I helped, but did not heal. Lin only wished she could do more for Petrov.

She watched him worriedly as he rose to his feet and crossed the room to his new carpet. He rolled back a corner of it, revealing a square hole in the floorboards beneath. He reached in with a trembling hand and drew out an oval stone, pale gray as a swan’s egg.

He stood a moment, looking down at the stone, his fingertip resting lightly on it. Lin tried to recall the first time she’d seen it; he had brought it

out to show to her when she’d told him her brother was traveling the Gold Roads. “He’ll see wonderful things, many marvels,” Petrov had said, and lifted one of his floorboards to bring out his small stash of treasures: a porcelain teapot, streaked with gold; the belt of a bandari dancer, its strands interwoven with dozens of coins; and the stone.

He brought it across to her now, placing it gently in her hand. It was perfectly smooth, lacking even the hint of a facet: It was clearly a highly polished stone, and not a gem. Something seemed to flicker in its depths, a play of light and shadow.

It felt warm in Lin’s hand, and inexplicably soothing. As she turned it in her palm, images seemed to arise from the smoky depths, coming tantalizingly to the stone’s surface, then vanishing just as she was about to recognize them.

“A lovely thing, isn’t it?” Petrov said, looking down at her. He sounded a bit wistful, which struck Lin as peculiar—after all, the stone was his; presumably he could look at it whenever he liked.

“You really won’t tell me where you got it?” She smiled up at him. She’d asked before, many times: He would only say that he’d acquired it on the Gold Roads. Once he told her he’d fought a pirate prince for it; another day, the tale had involved a Marakandi queen and a duel gone wrong.

“I ought just to give it to you,” he said gruffly. “You are a good girl and would do good with it.”

Lin looked at him in surprise. There was a peculiar look in his eyes, something at once both sharp and faraway. And what did he mean, she wondered, do good with it? What could anyone do with a bit of stone?

“No,” she said, handing the stone back to him. She had to admit she felt a slight twinge of regret as she spoke. It was such a pretty thing. “Keep it, Sieur Petrov—”

But he was frowning. “Listen,” he said. Lin did as he asked, and heard a faint step on the stairs outside. Well, there was nothing wrong with Petrov’s hearing, at least.

“Are you expecting visitors?” Lin reached for her satchel. “Perhaps I have stayed too long.”

As she rose to her feet, she could hear the voice of Petrov’s landlady, squawking indignantly downstairs.

Petrov’s eyes were narrowed, his back straight. In that moment, Lin could imagine him as a traveler on the Roads, squinting into the distance at an ever-receding horizon. “I’d nearly forgotten,” he said. “A few friends;

we were meant to play cards.” He forced a smile. “I will see you at our next appointment, Domna Caster.”

It was a definite dismissal. Puzzled, Lin headed for the door; Petrov hurried to open it, jostling against her in the process. Also odd; usually he did not stand on ceremony.

On the way downstairs, Lin passed two men in disheveled sailors’ clothes. She could not have guessed at their nationality, other than that they seemed northern, with pale hair and eyes. One glanced at her and said something clearly discourteous to his companion in a language Lin did not know. They both laughed, and Lin left the building feeling disquieted.

Petrov was a gentle old soul: What business did he have with men like that?

But in the end, she supposed, it was not her business. Her job was to care for Petrov’s physical health. The choices he made otherwise were not hers to judge.

After sword practice and supper, Kel and Conor returned to the Castel Mitat to find that Roverge, Montfaucon, and Falconet had crowded into the Prince’s apartments in their absence. They had already broken out the nocino—a strong liquor made from unripe green walnuts—and greeted Conor and Kel’s return with cheers.

“And we’ve a surprise for you,” said Charlon. “A visitor, upstairs.”

Conor narrowed his eyes with interest, but declared that he and Kel must change out of their sweaty practice whites. He directed his friends to wait for him upstairs, atop the West Tower.

Conor hurried to wash and dress mostly in silence. He seemed almost relieved the others had come by—he had a feverish energy to him, as if he were determined to have a good time the way some men might be determined to win a duel or a race.

What he was racing against, Kel wasn’t sure. Having washed and dressed in leather and brocade, Conor disappeared upstairs with wet hair, taking the spiral steps at a run. In contrast, Kel dawdled while getting dressed, gauging

his options, before deciding that slipping away without anyone noticing would be impossible. Resigned, he made his way to the tower.

Conor had made many “improvements” to the tower in the past years, showing a flair for decoration he must have inherited from Lilibet. The

square tower-top was surrounded by parapets, offering a crenellated view of the city and harbor below. Conor had installed canopied divans, piled with cushions, and marquetry tables where metal bowls of fruit and candy had just been laid out by servants, along with chilled bottles of various liquors and meat pies.

The others had sprawled across the divans with glasses of wine, and it was then that Kel saw the visitor Charlon had mentioned. Antonetta Alleyne, seated primly on a sage-green cushioned chair, her legs crossed neatly at the ankle. Her yellow dress foamed with lace and seed pearls and there were ribbons in her hair, though they looked about to come loose in the strong wind off the sea.

Kel felt a wave of irritation—he’d wanted to ask Charlon what it had meant, him bringing Antonetta to the Caravel. Now he could not. He looked toward Conor, who was leaning against Falconet’s shoulder while Roverge, having produced an entire bottle of orris-root jenever from somewhere

inside his coat, complained loudly that his father, in a temper, had beaten Charlon’s favorite serving maid. The temper seemed to have been caused by some kind of escalating feud with a family who was refusing to tithe the legally required portion of their ink sales to the Roverges.

“Charlon, enough,” said Montfaucon, taking a small jeweled snuffbox from his pocket. “This is dull. Let us play a game, perhaps.”

“Castles?” Falconet suggested. “I could get the board.”

“We did that last night.” Montfaucon took a pinch of snuff, his eyes roaming curiously over Antonetta, who had not spoken since Kel’s arrival. Montfaucon had never been part of their little group as children: He had never known a different Antonetta from the one who existed now. “Let us wager on something.” He tapped the snuffbox with a green-painted nail and said, “Would you be interested in a wager, Demoselle Alleyne?”

“I brought no money with me, Sieur Montfaucon,” she said. “Silly of me.”

“Clever of you,” said Conor. “If you haven’t any gold, Montfaucon can’t take it off you.”

Antonetta looked through her eyelashes at Conor. She was shivering, Kel realized. Her silk-and-chiffon dress would be little protection against the night’s chill.

“Nonsense,” said Falconet. “Montfaucon accepts promissory notes, don’t you, Lupin?”

Charlon had risen to his feet and was thoughtfully observing the spread of food. “I’ve an idea,” he said just as Conor leaped up from the divan. He slid his brocaded jacket off his shoulders and offered it to Antonetta.

The Antonetta of old would have scorned the idea that she was bothered by cold, but this Antonetta took the jacket with a brilliant smile and shrugged it over her shoulders. Conor went to join Charlon at the tower’s edge, as did Montfaucon and Falconet. Charlon was bellowing with laughter over something.

Kel, feeling as uneasy as if an ant had crawled into his collar and was scrabbling about, decided no one would notice if he did not join in. He was not known as much for games of chance anyway, while Conor and the

others would bet on anything at all—which bird would alight first on a tree branch, or whether it would rain tomorrow.

He was in no mood for it. He turned and walked a distance away, until he was standing at the edge of the western parapet. From here, he could see the sunset. It was a glorious one, red and gold like the flag of Castellane unfurling across the sky. Below, lamps were being lit in the city, bringing

the pattern of the streets to life with a soft glow. Kel could see the hollow ring of the Sault, the spire of the Windtower in Fleshmarket Square, and the dark dots of moored ships, rising and falling atop the hammered-gold sea.

In the back of his mind, the Ragpicker King’s voice whispered, asking him about House Aurelian, about the Charter Families. Do you like them? Do you trust them?

“Kel?” It was Antonetta who had come up to him, surprisingly silently. Or perhaps he had simply not been paying attention. Not a good habit for a Sword Catcher.

He turned to look at her. It was odd, Kel thought, the way her mother both desperately wanted Antonetta to marry, yet insisted she dress as if she were still a little girl. Her dress had been designed for someone with a girlish figure, and the fullness of her breasts strained the citrine buttons at her neckline in a way they were not designed to be strained.

“You’re not interested in joining the game?” she asked. The light of the sunset glimmered off the metallic threads in Conor’s jacket. “Although I cannot blame you. They are betting on who can throw a meat pie farthest off the tower.”

“Perhaps you had the notion our amusements had become more

sophisticated?” Kel asked. “After all, it has been nearly a decade since you graced us with your presence here at the Mitat.”

“Eight years.” Antonetta looked down at the city below. The sunset’s bloody glow tinted the edges of her pale hair.

“Why now?” Kel said. He wondered if anyone else had asked her. “Did Charlon ask you to come?”

“Well, he thinks it was his idea. That’s what matters.”

There was a shout. Kel glanced over to see that Charlon was making a triumphant gesture, presumably after hurling a pie. Falconet was drinking from a bottle of scarlet rabarbaro, a liquor derived from Shenzan rhubarb. Kel thought it tasted like medicine. Conor stood a little distance away, watching his friends with an unreadable expression.

“I was worried about Conor,” said Antonetta. “After last night.”

Kel leaned against the stone parapet. “You ought to forget that. He was drunk, that’s all.”

Now Antonetta glanced up at him. “I heard he might be getting married.

Perhaps he’s sad at the idea of having to marry one of those foreign Princesses.”

So that’s what this is about. Kel felt an unreasonable frustration go through him. He told himself it was because she seemed to know Conor so little, despite whatever she felt for him. Conor was angry sometimes— furious, frustrated, jealous, operatically disappointed—but not sad. Sad did not seem to describe anything he’d ever felt.

“I don’t think so,” Kel said. “He does not want to get married, and I doubt House Aurelian can force him.”

“Because he’s a Prince?” Antonetta said. “You’d be surprised. We can all be made to do things. It simply requires finding the right way to push.”

Kel was about to ask her what she meant when Charlon called out to her.

She leaped down from the low wall without a second glance, crossing the roof to where Falconet was holding out a pie. She took it, smiling that false

smile that made Kel think of the painted masks worn every year on Solstice Day.

He remembered all too clearly when he and Antonetta had still been the sort of friends who climbed trees and chased imaginary dragons together. When he was fifteen, he had given her a ring—not a real ring, but grass he had fashioned into a loop—and asked her to be his bandit queen. He had been surprised how hard she had blushed, and later Conor had teased him. “Charlon will be furious,” Conor had said. “He’s been looking at her differently himself—but you’re the one she’s always liked.”

Kel had stayed awake that night, thinking of Antonetta. If she’d liked the ring. If she looked at him any differently than she did at Conor, at Joss. He determined to study her the next time he saw her. Perhaps he could read her thoughts; she had never taken enormous trouble to hide whatever she was feeling.

It never happened. It was not Antonetta he saw next, but her mother. She had rarely taken much note of Kel before, but after a Court dinner, Lady

Alleyne had taken him aside and told him in no uncertain terms to stay away from her daughter. She knew they were young, but this was how

trouble started, with boys getting ideas above themselves. He might be a minor noble of Marakand, but he had no land or wealth or significant name, and Antonetta was destined for much greater things.

Kel had never felt so humiliated. He told himself that it was not Kel, himself, who had been humiliated, but Kel Anjuman, the part he played. He told himself Antonetta would be furious at her mother’s interference.

Instead Antonetta had vanished from their group, disappearing into House Alleyne for months, like a prisoner vanishing into the Trick.

Kel never spoke to Conor of what Lady Alleyne had said to him, and Joss, Charlon, and Conor seemed to feel Antonetta’s disappearance was only to be expected. Girls, they seemed to feel, went off and did mysterious things in order to become women, who were fascinating, strange entities.

He heard Antonetta giggle, and then she was gliding back across the tower. The sun had almost entirely set, and the stars were not yet out. She was mostly a shadow as she approached him. He was surprised she had

come back, but equally determined not to show it. “I don’t have,” he said, “anything else to tell you about Conor.”

“What about you?” She tilted her head to the side. “Marriage, proposals.

That sort of thing. You—”

Marriage is impossible for me. It will always be impossible. He said stiffly, “House Aurelian has given much to me. I wish to repay that debt before I think about marriage.”

“Ah.” She tucked a curl of hair behind her ear. “You don’t want to tell me.”

“It would be odd for me to confide in you, Antonetta,” Kel said. “We hardly know each other now.” She blinked; looked away. He said, “I remember the girl I was friends with when we were children. Who was bold and sharp and clever. I miss that girl. What happened to her?”

“You don’t know?” She raised her chin. “That girl had no future on the Hill.”

“She could have made a place for herself,” said Kel, “if she was brave enough.”

Antonetta sucked in a breath. “Perhaps you’re right. But how lucky for me that bravery, like cleverness, is not much valued in women. Since I lack both.”


Kel thought for a moment he had spoken, said her name. But it was Conor, calling, gesturing for her to come over. Saying that they needed an objective observer to judge the winner of the contest.

For the second time, Antonetta stepped away from Kel and went back to the other side of the tower. Charlon threw an arm around her shoulder as

she came close, the sort of gesture that might have been intended as friendly, if it had not been Charlon making it. Antonetta, leaning away from Charlon, had turned her attention to Conor, was smiling as she spoke to him. That brilliant false smile that no one but Kel seemed to notice was false.

He remembered the first time he’d seen it, that smile. At the ball her mother had thrown for her debut into the society of the Hill. He had gone with Conor, as Kel Anjuman, and at first he had looked around for

Antonetta eagerly, not seeing her in the room.

It had been Conor who tapped him on the shoulder, directing his attention to a young woman speaking to Artal Gremont. A young woman in a dress of ornately patterned silk, edged everywhere with lace, whose curled blond

hair was tied up in dozens of ribbons. Slim gold chains circled her wrists and ankles, and diamond baubles hung from her ears. She seemed to sparkle like something hard and bright, metal or glass.

“That’s her,” Conor said. “Antonetta.” Kel had felt his stomach drop.

Somehow he had imagined that once she saw them all—and they were all there: Conor and Kel and Joss—she would come back to them, rejoin their group of friends. Complain about her mother. But though she greeted them all with smiles, with fluttering lashes and breathless giggles, there was nothing there of the old camaraderie that they had shared.

At last he had found a moment to speak to her alone, behind a statue bearing a tray of lemon ices. “Antonetta,” he’d said. He felt sick with how pretty she was. It was the first time he had really noticed the fine-grained softness of a girl’s skin, the color and shape of someone else’s mouth. She had become someone new: someone thrilling, someone horrifying in her distance, her difference. “We’ve missed you.”

She’d smiled at him. That brilliant smile he’d later come to hate. “I’m right here.”

“Will you come back?” he’d said. “To the Mitat? Will your mother let you?”

Her smile did not change. “I am a little old for those kinds of games now. We all are.” She patted his shoulder. “I know my mother spoke to you. She was right. We are not of the same class. It is one thing to play in the dirt as children, but we are too old to close our eyes to reality. Besides.” She tossed her hair. “Different things are important to me now.”

Kel could hardly breathe. “What kind of—things?”

“It’s no concern of yours,” she said breezily. “We must both grow up.

You, especially, ought to make something of yourself, Kellian.”

And she was gone. He watched her for the rest of the night—giggling, flirting, smiling. Clearly untroubled. Just as she was now, as she laid a hand on Falconet’s shoulder, laughing as if he had just made the best joke in the world.

Perhaps it was better that she had changed, Kel thought. The old

Antonetta could hurt him. The person she had become all those years ago could not. She could not be a gap in his armor, a place of weakness. That was all to the good. He knew the limits of what was available to him, he

thought; he had learned them painfully through the years. How could he blame Antonetta for knowing the same?

In the dream, a man was toiling up a long and winding path cut into the

side of the cliffs above Castellane. Dark water crashed in the harbor below, exploding into pale foam whitened by the moonlight.

The man wore long robes, made colorless by the night, and a sharp wind whipped at his face. Lin could taste the salt, sharp as blood in his mouth.

Could feel the hatred in his heart—cold and bitter and brutal. A hatred that stole away breath, that felt like a vise gripping the chest, crushing and destructive.

The man reached the high point of the cliff path. He looked down at the steep fall below. At the sea, coalescing into a terrifying whirlpool, spinning and vertiginous. If one fell into such a whirlpool, one would be sucked down into darkness before one was even able to scream.

From a pocket in his robes the man drew a book. Pages fluttered in the wind as he raised it over his head and threw it. It hovered for a moment, white as a gull, before plunging downward. It struck the whirlpool, where the waters spun it like a dancer before drawing it down and down . . .

The man stood watching, shaking with rage. “Be thou forever cursed,” he hissed, over the sound of the sea. “Be thou loathed in the eyes of the most holy forevermore.”

Lin sat bolt upright, gasping, a firestorm exploding behind her closed lids. Opening her eyes, she saw not a churning black sea, but her own bedroom in her own house, lit dimly by the blue glow of dawn.

She willed herself to slow her breathing. She had not had such a dream— so vivid and unpleasant—for many years. Not since the death of her parents, when she had dreamed each night of their bodies abandoned on the Great Road, picked over by crows until only parchment bone was left.

She slid out from beneath her coverlet, careful not to knock any of her papers to the ground. Her neck ached, and her hair was wet with sweat.

Opening a window cooled her skin, but she could still see the ocean behind her eyelids, still smell the cold salt on the air.

Lin’s medical satchel hung on a chair by the door. She fetched it, and began to rummage through it for a sleeping draught, something that would

calm her. It was odd, she thought: What she had seen in her dream was not objectively horrifying. It was more that it had felt so terribly real. And that she had not been herself, Lin, in the dream. She had been someone else— watching a man consumed by hatred, icy and acidic. An Ashkari man, for he had spoken their language, though he had made the words sound ugly. What would someone have to do, she thought, to earn such loathing? And what did it have to do with the book—was it the book’s owner that the man had hated so much?

Stop trying to make sense of it. It’s just a dream, she told herself, and then her fingers closed around something cool and hard. Her heart gave a jolt.

She drew her hand out of the satchel and saw, rolling in her palm, a hard gray orb.

She sank down with her back against the wall, staring at it. Petrov’s stone. It could be nothing else. The feel of it, the weight in her hand, was familiar; as she gazed at it, she seemed to see smoke swirling in its depths. Now and then it formed itself into shapes that seemed almost recognizable, almost like words . . .

But how had it gotten into her satchel? She recalled Petrov jostling against her as he’d opened the door of his flat. He was clever and careful. He could have dropped it into her bag, but why? Because of the men coming up the steps? Was he hiding it from them?

She sat and wondered, gazing at the stone, until the aubade, the morning bell, rang out from the Windtower Clock, signaling the start of the working day and the end of the watches of the night.



The greatest lesson that we, citizens of the Empire, can take from the time of the Sorcerer-Kings is that power should not be limitless. It is for that reason that, when an Emperor is crowned, it is whispered in his ear by a priest of the Gods: Remember that you are mortal. Remember that you will die. For when we die, we face Anibal, the Shadow God, who judges our actions in life, and any abuse of mortal power will result in eternity in Hell.

But the Sorcerer-Kings had no Gods. And the One Word bestowed on them a great power. Yet that power was limited by mortal strength. Magic required energy, and too great a spell could exhaust the magician, even unto death.

It was then that the Sorcerer-King Suleman invented the Arkhe—the Source- Stone. It allowed magicians to store energy outside themselves. Such energy came from many sources: from a drop of blood fed to the stone each day to more violent methods; the murder of a magic-user provided great power, which could be stored within the Arkhe.

The world darkened. The Sorcerer-Kings grew in murderous ambition. They began to look past their borders and covet what their neighbors had. Why should I not be the greatest? each asked themselves. Why not the most powerful?

Thus was the world nearly destroyed.

Tales of the Sorcerer-Kings, Laocantus Aurus Iovit III

You'll Also Like