Chapter no 9

Sword Catcher

Drowned deep in morphea, Kel dreamed.

He dreamed he lay in his bed in Conor’s room, and Mayesh came, and the King and Queen, and chirurgeons and scholars from all over Dannemore. Fausten was there: He brought out ink and quills, and marked Kel’s face, his neck, his bare arms and legs, while Kel tried to speak, to move, and discovered he could not.

The experts examined the marks and spoke in whispered, half-regretful voices about what must be cut away to leave a perfect canvas upon which they could do their work. “All that is here is flawed,” said Fausten, his rheumy eyes fixed on a distant point. “Flesh and blood must be sacrificed. Here—” and he placed his hand upon Kel’s chest—“is the diamond.”

King Markus stepped forward. In his hand was the ceremonial blade Firefly. Gold and silver enamel adorned its hilt; rubies studded the

crosspiece like drops of blood. “My son,” he said. “This is your task.”

And he gave the blade to Conor. Kel tried to whisper Conor’s name, to call out to him for mercy, but the universe was tilting away from him. He could not grasp its substance, not even to beg for his life. As Conor raised

the blade above his heart, Kel heard the screaming of a phoenix and felt the turning of the world.

“So you went to the Palace,” Mariam said, bumping her shoulder against Lin’s as they made their way through the market. “And you met the Prince. And his cousin. You saw their rooms.

“Mariam, I’ve told you this story five times,” Lin groaned. It was true;

she had told the story multiple times over the past three days, though she’d kept her word to Mayesh. No mention of Sword Catchers or anokham

talismans had escaped her lips, nor a word of Crawlers, for that matter.

Mariam had paused at a stall that sold silks and brocades. She had come to the market in search of material with which she planned to make dresses for, it seemed, half the girls in the Sault. The Goddess Festival was a little

less than a month away, and Mariam had been flooded with orders. Though the Ashkar must dress plainly outside the Sault, within its walls they could wear whatever they chose, and the Festival was a chance to parade one’s finery before the whole community.

She smiled at Lin around a bolt of green cloth the color of a lily pad. “And yet I wish to hear it again. Is that wrong?”

“I’m curious myself,” added the stallkeeper, a bored-looking woman with white hair and black eyebrows shaped like inverted V’s. “Did you say you’d been to the Palace?”

Lin took hold of Mariam’s sleeve and dragged her several feet away, into a spot between a jeweler’s stall and a watchmaker’s. She put her hands on her hips and looked severely at Mariam—though she wasn’t actually angry, and she suspected Mariam could tell. How to be angry when Mariam seemed, well, better? Whether it was the tisanes Lin had been forcing into her every day, her excitement over the upcoming Festival, or her delight over Lin’s trip to Marivent, it was difficult to say. What mattered was that

she had a spring in her step and color in her cheeks for the first time in some while.

“What was the Prince wearing?” Mariam said, unrepentant. “Tell me all about his clothes.”

Lin made a face at her. It was a bright, breezy day, the kind where the sky looked like the high ceiling of a temple, painted in shades of lapis and white. The soft air lifted the sleeves and hem of Lin’s dress playfully, like a kitten seeking attention. “I didn’t notice his clothes,” she lied. “Perhaps you want to hear more about how I treated my patient’s wound? Or would you

like me to discuss my concerns about infection? Oh, and pus?” Mariam stuck her fingers in her ears.


“I’ll take them out when you promise to tell me how handsome the

Prince is up close. Did you challenge him with blazing eyes? Did he tell you that he ought to put you in the Trick, but he could never imprison

someone so beautiful?”

“No,” Lin said, patiently, “because that, Mariam, is the plot of Taming the Tyrant.

“You are absolutely no fun,” Mariam declared. “I want more, Lin. I wish to hear about the furnishings in the Palace, and what the Prince was wearing, and the size of his—”


“—crown,” Mariam finished, with a grin that lit up her thin face. “Honestly, Lin. Surely the cut of the Prince’s coat can’t be a state secret.”

She pushed a lock of breeze-blown hair behind her ear. “Anyway, you’ll see them again when you go back to check on your patient, won’t you?”

Lin sighed. She couldn’t lie to Mariam, who knew she always, always returned to see how her patients had responded to her care. “I won’t be going back,” she said. “Mayesh brought me there because they were desperate. But Prince Conor has been clear that I cannot return.”

“Because you’re Ashkar?” Mariam looked as if she’d been slapped. Lin hurried to reassure her, hating that she could not be more honest. But to tell Mariam that the Prince had forbidden Lin from entering Marivent because he disliked her would puncture the fantasy that her friend was enjoying so much.

“No, nothing like that, Mari. Because they have their own chirurgeon, and they do not wish to cause him offense.”

“I heard one of my ladies on the Hill talking about him,” said Mariam crossly. “She said he was dreadful—” She broke off as the city clock, which adorned the top of the Windtower, loudly chimed the hour of noon. “Oh, dear. We’ve been here an hour and I haven’t bought anything.”

“Because you keep bothering me,” Lin pointed out. “Didn’t you say you needed rose silk?”

“Yes, for Galena Soussan. It won’t suit her at all, but she’s determined. She’s got her eye on impressing someone at the Festival, but I don’t know who . . .”

Lin tugged on Mariam’s left braid. “Darling. We can gossip all we want when we get back home. Go get what you need.”

They agreed to meet in an hour’s time at the foot of the Windtower, the great spire that cast its long shadow over Fleshmarket Square. (It was one of the few bits of Castellani architecture, along with Marivent and the roof of the Tully, that Lin could see from her house, rising above the Sault walls.

Its shape had always reminded Lin of the silver spice boxes that adorned most Ashkari tables.)

As soon as Mariam had hurried off, Lin reached into the pocket of her

blue dress and drew out Petrov’s stone. Approaching the jeweler’s stall, she asked the spectacled man working there whether it would be possible to

have it set inexpensively, perhaps into a ring or bracelet?

He took the stone from her, a flicker of what looked like surprise passing over his face. But, “A fine specimen,” was all he said, first raising the stone to the light to peer at it, then measuring it with a pair of engraved calipers.

He pronounced it to be a sort of quartz, flawed with what he called

“inclusions,” which Lin took to mean the odd shapes inside the stone. It wasn’t worth a great deal, he said, but it was pretty, and he could set it in plain silver for a crown. A brooch, he suggested, would be most practical, and he could do the work now if she was willing to return to the stall in half an hour to retrieve the finished product. Lin agreed, and sallied forth to wander the square while the jewel was set.

Lin loved the weekly market. The great tower with its beautiful clock

rose above Fleshmarket Square, and in its shadow stalls and tents sprouted each Sunsday morning like colorful mushrooms. One could find just about anything here: ivory fans and cotton tunics from Hind; black pepper and brilliant feathers from Sayan; dried medicinal herbs and rosewood carvings from Shenzhou; pickled cabbage and rice wine from Geumjoseon; fruit paste, calison, and toys from Sarthe.

The thought of marzipan made Lin’s stomach rumble—a problem very easily addressed in the market. The smells of food filled the air with rich and clashing scents, like a dozen heavily perfumed aristocrats rubbing

elbows in a small room: sizzling butter, noodles frying in oil, the spice of chili and the bitter tang of chocolate. The greatest difficulty was in choosing what to eat—pork dumplings and candied ginger from Shangan, or rice-

cake soup from Geumjoseon? Coconut pancakes from Taprobana or smoked fish from Nyenschantz?

In the end, she decided on a paper cup of honey-sesame sweets, studded with dried raisins. She nibbled on them as she wandered into the part of the market devoted to small animals meant as pets. Silver cages stacked outside a blue tent held sleepy-eyed cats, their engraved metal collars proclaiming

names like RATSLAYER and MOUSEBANE. White-faced monkeys on embroidered leashes darted in and out of the crowd, sometimes tugging on the clothes of passersby and begging with wide eyes. (Lin passed one of them a sesame sweet while the monkey-seller was looking the other way.)

Peacocks waddled in enclosures, spreading their fans. Lin paused to visit

the abode of a white rat she’d always been fond of. He had pink eyes and a whippet tail, and when let out of his cage, he would crawl up her arm and nuzzle her hair.

“If you want him so bad, you ought to just get him,” grumbled Do-Chi, the grizzled old man who owned the stall. His family had come from Geumjoseon a generation back and, according to him, had always been

trainers of small animals, having once owned a hedgehog circus. “Three talents.”

“No chance. My brother would murder me when he gets back. He can’t stand rats.” Lin stroked the rodent’s head through the cage bars with a regretful finger before she bid Do-Chi farewell and moved on to her

favorite part of the market—the bookstalls.

Here was all the knowledge in the world—maps of the Gold Roads, Magna Callatis: The Book of Lost Empire, The Book of Roads and Kingdoms, A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling, A Journey Beyond the Three Seas, The Mirror of Countries, An Account of Travel to the Five Hindish Kingdoms, and The

Record of a Pilgrimage to Shenzhou in Search of the Law.

There were also the sort of travelogues written by nobles when they returned from time abroad filled with a desire to show off to the populace. Lin stopped to look with some amusement through the pages of The

Admirable Adventures and Strange Fortunes of Signeur Antoine Knivet, Who Went with Dom August Renaudin on His Second Voyage to the Lakshad Sea. It promised to be “A Tale of Sea-Faeries and Seafaring” but Lin knew she had neither time nor attention to devote to it now. She checked, as she always did, for any new medical texts that might have turned up since she’d last come, but found only the anatomies and remedy books she was already familiar with.

On her way back to the jeweler’s stand, Lin looped around the far side of the market to avoid the area where red-and-white-striped flags (red for

blood, white for bone) advertised Castellani chirurgeons plying their trade. Armed with knives and pliers they would yank out abscessed teeth and sever gangrenous fingers while blood sprayed and onlookers applauded. Lin hated it; medicine wasn’t theater.

Her detour took her past the Story-Spinners, each with a crowd around them. A man with a grizzled beard held a group captive with tales of piracy on the high seas, while a green-haired woman in shocking-pink skirts kept an even larger group spellbound with the tale of a girl who fell in love with a dashing soldier only to discover he was the prince of a rival country. It’s always princes, Lin thought, drifting closer. No one ever seems to fall into passionate, forbidden love with a lamp-maker.

“He laid her milk-white body down upon the sands,” declaimed the woman in pink, “whereupon he did make love to her, all night long.

The audience broke into applause and demands for more and filthier details. With a giggle, Lin disposed of her now-empty paper cup, and hurried to the jeweler’s stand. He presented her with the stone, set in plain silver with a pin in the back. She professed herself delighted, paid, and set off for the Windtower to meet Mariam.

She examined her new brooch as she went. She was not entirely sure what had compelled her to have the stone set. She could still see shapes in it, despite its new setting: It seemed almost as if smoke were coiled within it, waiting to rise.

As she neared the tower, she saw Mariam, waiting beside a hired waggon that she had piled with bolts of shimmering cloth in every color from

bronze to duck’s-egg blue. Lin fastened her new brooch to the shoulder of her dress and started toward the waggon when a woman stepped in front of her, blocking her way.

She felt a sharp flash of fear—irrational, but instinctive. Most Castellani were indifferent to the Ashkar, but some went out of their way to bother them: to make jokes at their expense, to trip them or knock into them in the street. At least it never rises beyond the level of bother, Chana Dorin had said to Lin once. It’s not like that everywhere.

But the woman in front of Lin was looking at her without hostility, and what seemed to be a mild curiosity. She was young, perhaps a few years older than Lin, with jet-black hair and equally dark eyes. Her padded

brocade jacket was the unusual color of violets. Her hair was pinned up

neatly at the back of her head with combs carved of semiprecious stone: red jasper, milky pink quartz, black chalcedony.

“You are Lin Caster,” she said. “The physician.” Her voice rose slightly, giving the statement the air of a question.

“Yes,” Lin said, “but I am not working now.” She glanced reflexively toward the red-and-white flags in the marketplace, wondering if she should warn the stranger off, but the girl only made a face.

“Ugh,” she said. “Barbarians. They would be laughed out of Geumseong, or beheaded for defiling the art of medicine.”

Geumseong was the capital of Geumjoseon. Indeed, Lin could imagine that the blood-splattered carnival of surgery practiced in the market would horrify someone used to Geumjoseon medicine, where care and cleanliness were prized.

“I am sorry,” Lin said. “If it’s an emergency—”

“Not an emergency, quite,” said the girl. A gold pendant winked at her throat as she turned to glance at Mariam, who was waving at Lin. “But something of interest to you. It concerns a mutual friend, Kel Saren.”

Lin tried to hide her surprise. Mayesh had told her Kel’s real name when he had told her of his true occupation. Still, she had the impression that very few people knew it, even those who worked at the Palace.

“He was attacked the other night, by Crawlers,” continued the girl. “The way you healed him was impressive. The king wishes to speak to you of it.”

Lin was stunned. “The king?”

“Yes,” the girl said, pleasantly. “The king.”

“I don’t mean to cause offense, but you don’t look as if you work for the Palace.”

The girl only smiled. “Not everyone who serves the king wears his livery. Some prefer a more subtle approach.” She gestured toward a black carriage some distance away. A driver was perched on the upper seat, dressed in red and looking bored. “Come, now. The king is waiting.”

“But,” said Lin, “the Prince forbade me from returning to Marivent.” The girl’s smile widened. “The wishes of the king supersede those of

Prince Conor.”

Lin hesitated only a moment longer. The idea that the rarely seen King Markus wished to see her made her more nervous than excited. She could not imagine what he wanted. But beneath that nervousness was the sure

knowledge that her return would irritate the Prince, and there would be

absolutely nothing he could do about it.

She thought of the arrogant way he had waved his signet ring at her, as if he had expected her to kiss the stone in gratitude. “All right,” she said. “Just let me bid my friend goodbye.”

The girl’s eyes narrowed. “You cannot tell her where you are going. This summons is to be kept secret.”

Lin nodded her agreement before darting off to tell Mariam of her change in plans. A sick patient, she explained, in the Lark Street district. Mariam

was understanding, as she always was; as the black carriage drew away from the square with Lin and her companion inside, Lin glimpsed Mariam chatting away merrily to her waggon driver.

The carriage cut its way through the crowded square, a shark gliding through a crowded shoal of fish. Lin’s companion had fallen silent. She was gazing out the window, her face blank of expression.

By the time they turned onto the Ruta Magna, Lin could stand the silence no longer. “Will you tell me your name?” she said. “You know mine. I feel at a disadvantage.”

“Ji-An,” said the girl. Though Lin waited, she added no family name. “Are you in the Arrow Squadron?” Lin asked.

“I am not a soldier. I serve the king directly.” Ji-An touched a hand to the pendant at her throat. It was shaped like a gold key. “Years ago, the king saved my life. My loyalty to him is absolute.”

Years ago? Lin’s companion could not be that old—perhaps twenty-five? And King Markus had been in seclusion for ten years at least. Had he saved her life before she was twelve?

“King Markus saved your life?”

“I didn’t say that,” said Ji-An calmly.

Lin’s heart began to beat faster. The carriage had jounced off the Great Road and onto a smaller street. They were heading into the Warren, the largest neighborhood in Castellane, where tradespeople, merchants, and guildmasters mixed with barbers, clerks, and publicans. It was an old quarter; every once in a while a grand white building would rise from

among its wood-and-brick neighbors, a memento of the days of the Empire. An elegantly tiled calidarium sat between a noodle shop and a knife

sharpener’s, while a porticoed temple to Turan, God of love, cozied up to a squat inn called The Queen’s Bed.

“This is not the way to the Palace,” noted Lin.

“Oh,” Ji-An said, her tone pleasant, “did you think I meant the King on the Hill? He is not the king I serve. I meant the King in the City. The Ragpicker King.”

The Ragpicker King? Lin’s mouth fell open. “You lied to me.” She put a hand to the door of the carriage. “Let me out.”

“I will,” Ji-An said, “if you want me to. But what I told you was true.

The Ragpicker King does wish to speak to you of Kel Saren. He heard that you healed him and was astonished to learn of your skill.”

“Perhaps it wasn’t that bad an injury.”

“It was,” said Ji-An. “I saw his wounds myself. I did not think he would survive them.”

“You saw his wounds?”

“Yes. I am the one who brought him to the Palace gates. I knew someone who was injured like that, once. She—the person suffered for many days

before they died. But Kel Saren will live.”

Lin was still, her hand on the carriage door. She recalled Kel saying, I know who left me outside Marivent. It wasn’t the person who stabbed me.

She drew her hand back from the door. “But why?” she said. Why would a Sword Catcher to the Prince know a common criminal, someone who

works for the Ragpicker King? “Why did you save him?” “Oh, look,” announced Ji-An. “We’ve arrived.”

And so they had. They had reached Scarlet Square, the center of the Warren, and the Black Mansion was before them, its dark dome, all strange unreflective marble, rising like a shadow above the rooflines of the city.

How strange to dream about a phoenix screaming, when no phoenix still existed in Dannemore. Kel knew they had lived once, and been the

companions of Sorcerer-Kings, as had dragons and basilisks, mermaids and manticores. They had been creatures of real magic, created from the now- vanished Word, and had vanished when the Sundering stripped magic from the world.

Still, in his dreams, they cried out, and their cries sounded like children screaming.

Later, in the dream, he was playing a game of Castles with Anjelica Iruvai, Princess of Kutani. She was dressed as she had been in the portrait Kel had seen, which was perhaps not surprising. The coils of her dark hair were caught in a net of silver, spangled with crystal stars. Her lips were red, her eyes soft, the color of honey wine. She said, “It is not unusual to dream of fire when you yourself have a fever.”

He saw Merren in his dreams, surrounded by his poisoner’s alembics, cross-legged in a circle of hemlock and deadly nightshade. With his

threadbare jacket and unkempt blond curls, he looked like a forest spirit, something not quite tamed. He said, “Everyone has secrets, no matter how innocent they may seem.”

Kel saw the Ragpicker King, all in black like Gentleman Death, and he said, “Your choices are not your own, or your dreams, either.

Lastly, Kel saw the steps of the Convocat, and he stepped out onto them, clothed in Conor’s raiment, wearing the crown of Castellane with its sharp wings on either side. He looked across the cheering crowd that filled the

square and saw the arrow flying toward him, too quickly for him to move away; it pierced Kel’s heart and he fell. As his blood spilled red down the white steps, Conor nodded to him from the shadows, as if to say that he approved.

Kel bolted up in bed, his heart racing, his hand pressed to his chest. He had felt the pain in his sleep, and felt it still—a deep sharp ache to the left of his sternum. He knew it had been a dream, the arrows a mist of morphea and half sleep, but the pain was real and present.

He remembered, in a confusion of images, lying here among wet and bloody sheets. Drifting in and out of waking and sleeping; seeing Conor there, but being unable to speak to him. The look on Conor’s face. I ought to have died in the alley, Kel had thought, not here, where he can see me.

He slid a hand into the collar of his nightshirt, discovering the texture of bandages—wrapping his chest, and bound over his right shoulder, like a sling. There was a thicker patch of them just under his heart. He prodded at the spot and jumped as a stab of pain shot through him.

With the pain came a memory. A narrow black alley, Crawlers on the walls above him. The flash of a silver mask. A hot needle in his side. A glimpse of violet . . .

“Sieur Kel! Stop that!” Kel glanced over to see Domna Delfina, shaking her head until her gray curls flew, rising from her seat near his bed. The senior housemaid was holding a pair of knitting needles, the half-finished project she’d been at work on abandoned in her haste. “You mustn’t touch the bandages. Sieur Gasquet says—”

Kel, peevish with fading morphea, poked himself hard in the lumpiest part of the bandage with a forefinger. It hurt. Genius, he thought. Of course it hurts.

“Gasquet didn’t do this. He’s terrible at bandaging.” Kel’s voice scraped out of his throat, dry from disuse. How long had he been asleep?

Delfina rolled her eyes. “If you won’t behave, I’ll get him myself.” Kel had no desire to see Gasquet quite yet. “Delfina—”

But she had already gathered up her knitting. She was making something very long and narrow, with a great deal of green and purple. A scarf for a

giant? Formal attire for an enormous snake? She muttered something

dismissive in Valdish and left, leaving Kel to rub his eyes and search his brain for bits of memory.

He knew he must have been in bed for several days. His muscles felt limp, debilitated; he imagined if he stood up, his legs would shake. His memory was beginning to come back, though. He remembered the arrow, the fleeing Crawlers, Jerrod. He thought he could recall a red haze of pain,

though pain was difficult to remember in its entirety. One knew one had felt pain, but the experience could not be truly re-created in memory. Probably all to the best.

Then, somehow, he had gotten from the Key to the Palace. He had a strong suspicion regarding the method of his return, but he planned to keep it to himself for now. After that . . . He thought he recalled Mayesh, speaking in Ashkar. And later, a girl with auburn hair and a serious face.

Her hands had been gentle, fading pain into memory. Truly, that is magic.

It is medicine, Lin had said. Lin Caster—that had been her name.

Mayesh’s granddaughter. She had healed him. After that, his memory was only flashes of light between dreams. A hand holding his head up, someone

spooning salty broth between his teeth. Morphea grains being shaken from an ampoule, placed on his tongue to dissolve like sugar.

There was a bustle in the corridor—Kel heard Delfina’s voice, and then the door was thrown open and Conor came into the room. He had clearly come from the stables: He wore his riding jacket and was crownless, his hair a windblown tumble. His face was bright with color. He looked the

picture of health, which only made Kel feel more like a chicken that had been recently deboned.

He grinned when he saw Kel sitting up, that slow grin that meant he was genuinely pleased. “Good,” he said. “You’re alive.”

“I don’t feel it.” Kel rubbed at his face. Even the texture of his own skin seemed strange—he hadn’t shaved for days, and the stubble of his beard was rough against his palm. He couldn’t recall the last time that had happened. Conor kept himself clean-shaven, so Kel did, too.

“Delfina seemed concerned that you were tearing at your bandages like a madman,” said Conor, flopping into the chair beside Kel’s bed.

“They itched,” Kel said. He felt slightly awkward, which he did not like. He was not used to feeling awkward around Conor. But his memories of the alley behind the Key were coming back, more and more clearly. He could hear Jerrod’s voice in the back of his mind. Beck owns you now, Aurelian.

He winced. Conor immediately leaned forward, putting his hand under Kel’s chin, lifting his face to be studied. “How do you feel? Should I get Gasquet?”

“No need,” Kel said. “I need a bath and some food, not necessarily in that order. And then Gasquet can prod at me.” He frowned. “The physician who healed me—she was Mayesh’s granddaughter?”

“She still is, as far as I know.” Apparently satisfied that Kel was in no imminent danger, Conor sat back. His tone was light, but Kel sensed

something—a layer of feeling or doubt, just below the surface Conor chose to show the world. Few saw beneath that invisible armor; even Kel could only guess. “An Ashkari physician. Mayesh has been keeping that quiet.”

“He never speaks much of the Sault.” The memory of Lin grew clearer, firming up around the edges. She had been small, with quick hands and hair the color of fire. A stern voice, like Mayesh’s. I need to concentrate. You

are interrupting me. Please leave me alone with my patient.

No one talked to Conor like that. Interesting. Kel filed the memory away.

“Kellian—what happened to you?” Conor demanded. It was clear he’d been waiting days to ask. “I told you to go get drunk with Roverge, and the next thing I know you get yourself dumped off at the Palace gates like a wounded sack of potatoes. Who left you there?”

“I’ve no idea.” Kel looked down at his hands to hide the lie in his eyes.

Several of his fingernails were broken. He remembered scrabbling at the

stones in the alley, wet black mold under his fingers. The smell of it, like a dead mouse in a wall. The memory made his stomach clench. “I was in an alley,” he said, slowly. “I thought I’d die there. The next thing I remember is waking up in this room.”

“What were you doing down in the city?” Conor demanded. Kel supposed it wasn’t demanding, exactly; Conor simply expected to know

where Kel had been because he could not imagine a situation in which Kel had secrets he did not know. It was why Kel had been so angry at the Ragpicker King—and perhaps why he had felt so very odd in Merren’s flat. Now I have secrets that must be kept.

Conor cocked his head to the side. He had latched on to Kel’s hesitation like a hunting dog latching on to the scent of blood. He said, “Now, what

would you feel you had to sneak off to do? A duel, perhaps? Over a girl? Or a boy? Did you get some guildmaster’s daughter pregnant?”

Kel held his hand up to forestall the flood of half-serious questions. He couldn’t imagine trying to explain to Conor about the Ragpicker King.

Besides, he had tied up the loose end with Merren; there was no point talking about it now. But he could not lie about what had happened in the alley. “No romance,” he said. “No duel. I went to the Caravel to see Silla.”

Conor leaned back against a bedpost. “This happened at the Caravel?” “I never made it there. I was jumped by Crawlers.” Well, at least that’s

the truth. He took a deep breath, sending a stab of pain deeper into his chest, like an arrow tunneling home. “Crawlers who thought I was you.”

Conor went still. “What?

“They must have followed me, waited until I was alone. I was wearing your cloak—”

“Yes,” Conor said. He twisted at a ring on his left hand—a blue signet ring that winked like an eye. “I remember; we had to throw it away. It was ruined. But that isn’t enough to assume they thought you were me. Unless

—your talisman?”

“I wasn’t wearing it. But they called me Monseigneur, and it was very clear who they thought I was.”

“That’s not possible.” Conor spoke evenly. Only his hands betrayed real tension: His fingers had curled up against his palms. “Crawlers don’t seek out princes to rob and kill. They’re lowlifes. Pickpockets. Not assassins.”

“They didn’t want you dead,” Kel said. He wondered if he should mention the arrows, but decided not to. It would only complicate things. “They only tried to hurt me when they realized I wasn’t you. What they wanted was money.”


“They work for Prosper Beck,” Kel said, and saw Conor blanch. “How long have you known you owe him ten thousand crowns?”

Conor jerked upright—a curiously ungraceful movement, a puppet being yanked by its strings. His leather riding jacket spun with him as he crossed the room to the rosewood cupboard he had personally ordered from Sayan. The doors were painted with images of colorful birds and unknown Gods, their eyes circled in gold.

Inside were decanters and bottles of every liquor under the sun. Nocino, made from bitter Sarthan walnuts, and bloodroot liquor from Hanse, dark and thick as if it were drawn from human veins. Juniper-scented jenever from Nyenschantz. Sticky white rice-and-honey wine from Shenzhou, and apricot-kernel vaklav from the high mountains of Malgasi. The servants had been instructed to keep the cupboard stocked with everything Conor liked, and when it came to alcohol, his taste was various. The cabinet even had a

false bottom, where poppy-drops and the odd powders Charlon liked were kept out of sight.

His back to Kel, Conor selected a bottle of pastisson, the cheap green

anise stuff drunk by every student in the city. A gold label on the bottle bore the image of a viridescent butterfly. He walked back to the bed, seated himself again in the chair, and twisted the cork out of the bottle.

The scent of licorice rose, roiling Kel’s stomach. He already felt slightly sick. He could not help but feel that this was far from what a Sword Catcher was designed to do; he did not want to tell Conor unpleasant things that must be reckoned with. That was Mayesh’s job, or Lilibet’s. Even Jolivet’s. Not his.

“I am not telling you this to hold you to account,” Kel said, as Conor took a drink from the bottle. “I am telling you because if I do not, next time it will be you they follow and threaten, not me.”

“I know.” Conor looked at Kel with unblinking gray eyes. “I should have told you.”

“Does anyone else know? Mayesh, even?”

Conor shook his head. The alcohol was bringing a little of the color back to his face. “I ought to have told you,” he said, “but I only just found out myself. Do you recall that night at the Caravel? When Alys wanted to speak to me alone?” Conor licked a drop of wine from his thumb. “It seems that bastard, Beck, has been going around Castellane buying up all my debts.

Debts to boot-makers, clothiers, wine merchants, even the debt for that falcon I borrowed and misplaced.”

“You misplaced it in the sky,” Kel pointed out. “It flew off.”

Conor shrugged. “The Hill runs on credit,” he said. “We all run up bills, all over town. We pay them eventually. That’s how the system works. When Beck approached Alys, he tried to buy my debt to the Caravel. She refused to sell it. She has a loyal heart.”

And a clever brain, Kel thought. By being the first to alert Conor to the situation, Alys Asper had won Conor’s loyalty. She had bet on House Aurelian against Prosper Beck, which made sense to Kel. What did not

make sense was how many merchants, it seemed, had bet the other way.

For Conor was correct: The lifeblood of Castellane was credit. Trade ran on it. The nobles ran up bills when their fleets were out at sea, their

caravans on the Gold Roads, and paid them off when the goods came in. To bet against Conor was to bet against a system that had been in place for

hundreds of years.

“Alys,” Conor said, “is one of the few who refused. Totaled together, it seems, the rest of my debts equal ten thousand crowns.” Kel supposed it

made sense; merchants were unlikely to pointedly remind the Crown Prince what he owed. The ten thousand crowns could represent years of spending. “And Beck wants it all. Now. In gold.”

“Is that even possible?”

“Not really. I have an allowance, you know that.” It was true: Conor was paid monthly from the Treasury, by Cazalet, who kept a close eye on Palace expenditures.

“This might be a matter for Jolivet,” Kel said. “Have him send the Arrow Squadron into the Maze. Find out where Beck is hiding. Bring him to the Trick.”

Conor’s smile was bitter. “What Beck is doing is legal,” he said. “It’s legal to buy up debt, from anyone at all. It’s legal to enforce payment by nearly any means. All Laws the noble Houses passed—including House

Aurelian.” He ran a finger around the neck of the pastisson bottle. “Do you know what Beck threatened me with, if I didn’t pay him the full amount

immediately? Not with violence. He threatened to haul me in front of the Justicia, to force repayment through the Treasury. And he could. You can imagine the scandal then.”

Kel could. He thought of what the Ragpicker King had said, that Prosper Beck was likely being funded by someone on the Hill. Had one of the noble Houses engineered all this, just to humiliate Conor? Or was this just the overreach of a greedy criminal new to Castellane, who did not yet understand how the city worked?

“The Treasury would have to pay off my debt,” Conor said slowly, “and you know the Treasury money belongs to the city. The Dial Chamber would be furious. My fitness to be King would be questioned. It would never end.”

Kel felt slightly breathless, and the pain was intensifying. It had likely been hours since he’d last had morphea. “Have you tried to negotiate with Beck? Has he asked anything else of you?”

Conor set the bottle of pastisson down with a thwack. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. His face changed then; it was as if a hand had been passed over sand, smoothing it out, erasing any marks that had been visible before. He smiled: that too-quick smile that did not reach his eyes. Now Conor was hiding something from him. “I ought to have paid Beck already. I was being stubborn. I didn’t want him to think he could threaten the money out of me. Perhaps at another time, but—” He shook his head. “I don’t like it, but there it is. I’ll get him paid, and we can forget about this.”

“Pay him how, Con?” Kel asked, quietly. “You just said you didn’t have the gold.”

“I said I couldn’t lay my hands on it easily, not that I couldn’t get it at all.” Conor waved an airy hand; the light from the window caught the

sapphire in his signet ring and sparked. “Now stop worrying about it. It will

make you heal more slowly, and I can’t have that. I need my Sword Catcher back. For the past three days, you’ve been very boring indeed.”

“I’m sure I haven’t,” said Kel. His mind was whirling. He felt as if he had started out on a long journey only to be told it was over before he had reached the Narrow Pass. He knew he had not imagined the look on Conor’s face, the bitterness in his voice. But the pain was radiating through his body, and it was difficult to think.

“Kellian, I have it on good authority that for the past seventy-two hours you’ve been doing an excellent imitation of a landed trout. I was so bored I had to invent a new game with Falconet. I call it ‘indoor archery.’ You’d

like it.”

“It really doesn’t sound like I would. I like the indoors, and archery, but I don’t feel combining the two would be wise.”

“You know what is no fun at all? Wisdom,” Conor observed. “How often have you been invited out for a boisterous night of wisdom? Speaking of

boisterous fun—a drink before I call the good doctor in to look at you?” Conor asked, lifting the bottle of pastisson. “Though I should warn you, Gasquet advises against mixing morphea and alcohol.”

“Then I shall certainly do so,” Kel said, and watched, half lost in thought, as Conor poured him a glass of cloudy green liquor with a hand that shook so imperceptibly he did not think anyone else would have noticed it at all.



Aram was different from any other land. In other lands, to use magic was to be preyed upon by the Sorcerer-Kings, seeking ever more power to feed their Source-Stones. But in Aram the people were free to use gematry to improve their lot. The Queen had no desire to appropriate that magic, and used her own power only to enrich the land. Every market day, the people of Aram could present themselves before the palace, and the Queen would come out and with spells and gematry would heal many of the sick. It was not long before the folk of Aram came to love their Queen as a kind and just ruler.

Tales of the Sorcerer-Kings, Laocantus Aurus Iovit III

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