Sword Catcher

It began with a crime. The theft of a boy.

It was not presented as a crime. Indeed, the man in charge of the whole enterprise was a soldier, the Captain of the Arrow Squadron, charged with protecting the King of Castellane and seeing to it that the Laws he made

were carried out.

He had an exceeding dislike of criminals.

His name was Aristide Jolivet, and as he lifted his hand to rap sharply on the door of the orphanage, the large, square-cut amethyst on his left hand gleamed in the light of the moon. Etched into it was a lion, the symbol of

the city. It appeared to be roaring.

Silence. Jolivet frowned. He was not a man who liked to wait, or was often made to do it. He glanced behind him, where the narrow path cut into the cliffside fell away to the sea. He’d always thought this an odd place for an orphanage. The cliffs that rose above Castellane’s northern bay were jagged, dotted with scars like the face of a pox survivor, and dusted with a thin layer of loose, gravelly scree. It was easy to lose one’s footing up here, and a dozen or so people did every year, tumbling from the cliffs into the green sea below. None made it to shore afterward—for even if they survived the fall, the crocodiles lurking beneath the surface of the water

knew the meaning of a scream and a splash.

Yet, somehow, the Home of the Orphans of Aigon managed to prevent most, if not all, of their charges from being devoured. Considering the usual fate of parentless children on the streets of the city, these were good odds. A place at the Orfelinat was a coveted one.

Jolivet frowned and knocked again. The sound echoed, as if the stones

themselves were chiming. The granite façade of the Home flowed out from the cliff’s face, encircled by a single gray-green wall. The Orfelinat did not sit atop the cliffs but rather was part of them. It had once been a fortress of

sorts, back in the time of the old Empire. In fact, the door upon which he was knocking was etched with faded words in the old language of Magna Callatis. They meant nothing to him. He’d never seen the point in knowing a language no one spoke anymore.

The door swung wide. The woman on the other side, wearing the blue and white of a Sister of Aigon, looked at Jolivet with wary recognition. “My apologies for the wait, Legate,” she said. “I did not know you’d be returning today.”

Jolivet inclined his head politely. “Sister Bonafilia,” he said. “May I enter?”

She hesitated, though Jolivet did not know why. The question was merely a formality. If he wanted to enter the Orfelinat, there was nothing she or any of the Sisters could do to prevent him.

“I thought,” she said, “that when you came before, and then left, it meant you had not found what you wanted here.”

He looked at her more closely. Sister Bonafilia was a neat-looking, small woman, with bony features and rough hands. Her clothes were plain, many times washed and worn again.

“I came before to see what there was to see,” he said. “I reported my findings to the Palace. I am back on their orders. On the King’s orders.” She hesitated a moment more, her hand on the doorpost. The sun had begun to set already: It was winter, after all, the dry season. The clouds

massed on the horizon had begun their transformation into roses and gold. Jolivet frowned again; he had hoped to complete this errand before dark.

Sister Bonafilia inclined her head. “Very well.”

She stepped back to let Jolivet over the doorstep. Inside was a hall of hollowed granite, the ceiling decorated with faded tiles in green and gold, the colors of the old Empire, now gone a thousand years. Holy Sisters in their worn linen dresses hovered by the walls, staring. The stone floor was worn past smoothness by the passage of years; it now dipped and swayed like the surface of the ocean. Stone steps led upward, no doubt to the children’s dormitories.

Several children—girls, no more than eleven or twelve—descended the stairs. They stopped, wide-eyed, catching sight of Jolivet in his gleaming uniform of red and gold, his ceremonial sword at his side.

The girls scampered back up the stairs, silent as mice under the fixed

gaze of a cat. For the first time, Sister Bonafilia’s composure began to fray. “Please,” she said. “Coming here like this—it will frighten the children.”

Jolivet smiled thinly. “I need not stay long at all, if you will cooperate with the King’s orders.”

“And what are those orders?”

Kel and Cas were playing pirate battles in the dirt. It was a game they had invented, and required few tools save sticks and several prized marbles, which Kel had won from some of the older boys at card games. Kel was cheating, as he usually did, but Cas never seemed to mind. He gave the

game his full concentration anyway, locks of his dark-blond hair falling into his freckled face as he scowled and plotted his ship’s next move.

Only a few minutes ago, Sister Jenofa had shooed them, along with most of the other boys in their dormitory, out to the garden. She did not say why, only urged them to amuse themselves. Kel had no questions. Usually at this hour he would be at the washbasin, scrubbing his face and hands with harsh soap in preparation for dinner. “A clean soul in a clean body,” Sister

Bonafilia liked to say. “Health is wealth, and I wish you all to be rich.” Kel pushed his hair back. It was getting long; soon enough, Sister

Bonafilia would notice, seize him, and lop it off with kitchen shears, muttering to herself. Kel didn’t mind. He knew she had a special affection for him, as she often went out of her way to sneak him tarts from the kitchen, and only yelled at him a little bit when he was caught climbing the more dangerous rocks, the ones that jutted out over the ocean.

“It’s getting dark,” Cas said, squinting up at the sky, which was deepening to violet. Kel wished he could see the ocean from here. It was the one thing that never bored him, looking at the sea. He’d tried to explain it to Cas—how it always changed, was a different color every day, the light slightly altered—but Cas only shrugged good-naturedly. He didn’t need to understand why Kel did the things he did. Kel was his friend, so it was all right. “What do you think they want us out here for, anyway?”

Before Kel could answer, two figures emerged from beneath the archway that connected the walled garden to the main fortress. (Kel always called it

a fortress, not an orphanage. It was much more dashing to live in a fortress than in a place you went because nobody wanted you.)

One of the figures was Sister Bonafilia. The other was familiar to most

inhabitants of Castellane. A tall man, wearing a brass-buttoned coat printed over the breast with the sigil of two arrows at odds with each other. His

boots and vambraces were studded with nails. He rode at the head of the

Arrow Squadron—the King’s most highly trained soldiers—as they paraded through the city on feast days or at celebrations. The city folk called him the Eagle of the Fall, and indeed he resembled a sort of raptor. He was tall and wiry, his bony face marked with multiple scars that stood out white against his olive skin.

He was Legate Aristide Jolivet, and this was the second time Kel had seen him at the Orfelinat. Which was strange. To his knowledge, military leaders did not visit orphanages. But less than a month ago, the boys had

been playing in the garden, as they were today, when Kel had glanced over toward the fortress and seen a flash of red and gold.

He had always been fascinated by Jolivet, who often figured as a villain in his games with Cas—a pirate and thief hunter who, once he caught hold of an innocent criminal, would lock them up in the Tully prison and torture them for information. Not that Kel or Cas ever broke, of course; a snitch

was the worst thing you could be.

Regardless, Kel had recognized Jolivet immediately and scrambled to his feet. By the time he raced to the fortress, Jolivet was gone, and when he asked Sister Bonafilia if the Legate had been there, she’d told him not to be ridiculous and to stop imagining things.

Now a silence fell over the boys in the garden as Jolivet, standing at attention, scanned the scene with his pale eyes, his gaze resting here on that boy (Jacme, engaged in pulling strips from the powderbark tree), there on another (Bertran, the eldest of the group at ten). They passed over Cas and came to rest on Kel.

After a long, unnerving moment, he smiled. “There,” he said. “That’s the one.”

Kel and Cas exchanged a puzzled look. Which one? Cas mouthed, but there was no time for discussion. Instead there was a hand on Kel’s arm, hauling him to his feet.

“You must come.” It was Bonafilia, her grip tight. “Don’t make trouble, Kel, please.”

Kel was annoyed. He was not a troublemaker. Well, there had been that business with the explosive powder and the north tower, and the time he had made Bertran walk the plank off the garden wall and the idiot had

broken a bone in his foot. But it was nothing that couldn’t have happened to anyone.

Still, Sister Bonafilia’s face was worryingly drawn. With a sigh, Kel handed his marble off to Cas. “Take care of it till I get back.”

Cas nodded and made a show of tucking the glass bauble into a vest pocket. Clearly he did not think Kel would be gone more than a few minutes. Kel didn’t think so, either—though he was beginning to wonder.

The way Sister Bonafilia steered him hastily across the garden didn’t sit right. Nor did the way the Legate examined him once he got closer, bending down to peer at Kel as if he were seeking the answer to a mystery. He even tilted Kel’s face up by the chin to more closely examine him, from his black, curling hair to his blue eyes to his stubborn chin.

He frowned. “The boy is grubby.”

“He’s been playing in the dirt,” said Sister Bonafilia. Kel wondered why adults seemed to enjoy exchanging observations about things that were obvious. “Which he does often. He likes being muddy.”

Kel felt the first stirrings of alarm. He wasn’t dirtier than any of the other boys; why was Sister Bonafilia looking and speaking so oddly? He kept his mouth shut, though, as they departed the garden, the Legate marching ahead, Bonafilia piloting Kel through the old fortress at speed. She was muttering under her breath. Aigon, you who circle the earth with waters, who hold sway over swift-traveling ships, grant unto your daughter the

safety of her charge.

She was praying, Kel realized, and felt that alarm again, sharper this time.

As they reached the front hall, he saw with surprise that the front doors were open. Through them, as if framed in a portrait square, he could see the sun sinking rapidly into the ocean. The sky cast a hot glow over the tin-blue water. At the horizon he could see the towers of drowned Tyndaris, tinted

the color of wine.

The scene distracted him, and Kel lost a bit of time, as sometimes happened when he looked at beautiful things. When he was aware again, he found that he was standing among the craggy rocks outside the Orfelinat, flanked by Sister Bonafilia on one side and Jolivet on the other, his red-and- gold uniform glowing like the vanishing sunset.

There was also a horse. Kel stared at it in horror. He had seen horses at a distance before, of course, but never one so close up. It seemed enormous, rising to the sky, its lips curling back over hard white teeth. It was black as night, with rolling black eyes.

“That’s right,” said the Legate, taking Kel’s silence for admiration. “Never ridden a horse before, I’d warrant? You’ll like it.”

Kel did not think he would like it. He found himself not minding when Sister Bonafilia pulled him close to her side, as if he were a child. (Kel did not think of himself as a child. Children were something else, carefree and silly, not like orphans at all.)

“You must say he will be treated well,” burst out Sister Bonafilia in the voice she rarely employed, the one that made orphans burst into tears. “He is so young, to be taken for Palace work—” She straightened her back. “He

is a child of Aigon, and under the protection of the God, Legate. Remember it.”

Jolivet bared his teeth in a grin. “He will be treated like family, Sister,” he said, and reached for Kel.

Kel took a deep breath. He knew how to fight and scratch and kick. He had already drawn back his foot to deliver a vicious kick to the Legate’s shin when he caught sight of the look on Sister Bonafilia’s face. He could not quite believe the message he read in her eyes, but it was there, as clear as the outline of a tallship on the horizon.

Do not struggle or cry out. Let him take you.

Kel went limp as Jolivet lifted him away. Deadweight. It didn’t seem to faze the Legate, though, who swung Kel up onto the monstrous horse’s back. Kel’s stomach turned over as the world went upside down; when it righted again, he was seated squarely on the beast’s saddle, lashed in place by wiry arms. Jolivet had swung himself up behind Kel, his hands gripping

the reins. “Hold tight,” he said. “We’re going to the Palace to see the King.”

Possibly he meant to make it sound like a jolly adventure, but Kel didn’t know, or care. He’d already leaned over the side of the horse and vomited

all over the ground.

After that, their departure from the Orfelinat was precipitous. Jolivet muttered darkly—some of the sick had gotten on his boots—but Kel felt too miserable and ill to care. There was a great deal of swaying, and of Kel being certain that every time the horse moved its head it was planning to

bite him. He remained in this state of high alert as they passed down the cliffs to the Key, the road that ran along the docks, against which lapped the dark waters of the harbor.

Kel was convinced that he would never, at any point, develop an affection for the horse he was sitting on. Still, the view from its back was

impressive as they cut through the city. He had spent plenty of time looking up at the crowds thronging the city streets, but for the first time now he looked down at them. All of them—rich merchants’ sons in gaudy fashions, innkeepers and dockworkers trudging home from work, sailors from Hanse and Zipangu, merchants from Marakand and Geumjoseon—made way for Jolivet as he passed.

It really was rather thrilling. Kel began to sit up straighter as they turned up the wide boulevard of the Ruta Magna, which ran from the mouth of the harbor to the Narrow Pass, slicing through the mountains that separated

Castellane from its neighbor-kingdom of Sarthe. He had nearly forgotten he had ever felt sick, and his excitement only grew as they neared the Great Hill that loomed over the city.

Cliffs and hills ringed the port city, and Castellane huddled in the bottom of the valley like a hedgehog reluctant to poke its nose out of the safety of

its lair. But it was not a city in hiding. It sprawled—and how it sprawled— from the western seas to the Narrow Pass, every bit of it crowded and noisy and dirty and shouting and full of life.

Like most citizens of Castellane, Kel had lived his life in the shadow of the Great Hill but had never expected to set foot upon it, much less make his way to the top, where the Palace of Marivent stood. The Hill—really a range of low limestone peaks covered with a tangle of scrub pine and

lavender—was where the nobility lived, their vast estates dotted up and down the slopes. The rich live high, and the poor live low, Kel had once heard Sister Bonafilia say. It wasn’t a metaphor. The richer you were, the

bigger your house and the closer to the Palace, which occupied the highest point in the city.

The nobles liked their pleasures, and sometimes the sounds of their revels drifted down to the city at night. People would wink at one another in the

streets and say things like, “It looks as if Lord Montfaucon has started drinking again,” or “So Lady Alleyne has rid herself of her third husband, has she?” When you were rich, everyone knew your business and delighted in it, even though they didn’t actually know you at all.

They turned off the Ruta Magna and rode through the darkened city

streets until they reached the foot of the Hill. Castelguards in red uniforms crowded around the path here; their job was to prevent undesirables from accessing the Hill. Jolivet held Kel firm in the saddle while they rode through the checkpoint, the torches of the guards blazing as they stared curiously at the boy. They must have been wondering if the Arrow Squadron had caught a very small criminal, and, if so, why they were bothering to bring him to Marivent. Most lawbreakers, regardless of age, were destined for a short ride to the gallows of the Tully.

One of the guards dipped a slightly mocking bow. “The King awaits you.”

Jolivet just grunted. Kel was getting the impression he didn’t talk much.

The path to the Palace wound steeply up the slope through a terrain of lavender, sage, and sweetgrass that turned the mountain deep green in summers. As they reached the top of the mountain, the massive horse puffing, Kel glanced down and saw the city of Castellane spread out before them—the crescent of the port, the lighted ships in the harbor like scattered match tips. The canals of the Temple District. The neat lines of the Silver Streets. The white dome of the Tully, the glow of the clock at the top of the Windtower, where it brooded over the city’s largest square. The walled area of the Sault, where the Ashkar lived. The Ruta Magna cutting across the city like a dueling scar.

He must have been staring, because Jolivet shook him. They were passing through the North Gate of the Palace, where guests entered. The

pennants fastened to the gate-tops indicated which foreign dignitaries were visiting, if any. Right now the blue banner of Sarthe, with its white eagle, fluttered in the salt wind.

Up close, Kel could see that the texture of the white walls was rough, not smooth, and they glittered with bits of crystal. A boy could climb a wall

like that, if he was agile and determined. Rough rock meant handholds and footholds. Kel had always been good at scrambling over the rocks in the harbor. He dreamed of joining the Crawlers one day: pickpockets of the Warren who, it was rumored, could clamber up any wall regardless how smooth.

Jolivet shook him again. “Sit up straight, Kellian Saren,” he said. “You’re about to meet the royal family.”

“The what?”

Jolivet chuckled. “That’s right. The King and Queen of Castellane wait on your pleasure.”

Kel wasn’t sure what reaction Jolivet expected. Excitement, perhaps?

Instead Kel immediately curled up like a pillbug. Jolivet yanked him upright as they clattered into a massive square courtyard.

Kel had a blurred impression of arched palisades, with the bulk of the

Palace rising behind them. Everywhere were the Castelguards, charged with protecting the Palace itself, in red-and-gold livery, bearing torches of perfumed wood, which released scented smoke and bright sparks into the sky. Servants, their tunics bearing the lion blazon of the royal family, were rushing to and fro with salvers of wine, fruit, and chocolates; others bore

flowers and arrangements of peacock feathers bound with golden twine.

Kel could hear laughter and chatter from inside the Palace. Two great bronze doors had been thrown open to the courtyard and the soft evening air. A tall man, not dressed in livery, stood in the arch of the doorway, watching Kel and his captor with narrowed eyes.

Jolivet hauled Kel down from the saddle like a costermonger tossing a sack of onions from a cart. He set Kel on his feet and placed his big hands on the boy’s shoulders. There was a touch of puzzlement in his expression as he looked down. “Do you understand what’s going on, guttersnipe?

You’re here to do a service for the King of Castellane.”

Kel coughed. His throat still hurt from being sick. “No,” he said. “What do you mean, no?”

The King was a nearly mythic figure in Castellane. Unlike the Queen, he rarely left the Palace, and when he did, it was for ceremonial events: the

Marriage to the Sea, the yearly Speech of Independence in Valerian Square.

He reminded Kel of the lion on the flag of Castellane: golden and towering. He certainly didn’t seem like someone who would talk to orphan brats with no connections to speak of.

“No, thank you,” Kel said, mindful of the manners Sister Bonafilia had tried to teach him. “I’d rather not talk to the King. I’d rather go home.”

Jolivet raised his eyes to the sky. “Gods above. The boy is simple.” “Aristide?”

A soft voice. Soft voices were like soft hands: They belonged to noble folk, the sort who didn’t have to shout to be listened to. Kel looked up and saw the man from the doorway: tall, thin, and bearded, with thick gray hair and aquiline features. Sharply jutting cheekbones shadowed hollow cheeks.

Kel realized suddenly why the man wasn’t in livery. He wore a simple gray cloak and tunic, the usual dress of the Ashkar. Around his throat hung a silver medallion on a chain, finely etched with a pattern of numbers and letters.

Kel wasn’t entirely sure what being Ashkar meant, but he knew they

were not like other people. They were able to do small kinds of magic, even though most magic had disappeared from the world after the Sundering, and they were famous for their physicians’ ability to heal.

Because they did not acknowledge Aigon or the other Gods, by Law they must live within the gates of the Sault. They weren’t allowed to roam freely in Castellane after sundown—which must mean this man was the only exception to that rule: the King’s Counselor. Kel had heard of him only

vaguely—a shadowy sort of figure who advised the Court. Counselors were always Ashkar, though Kel did not know why. Sister Jenova had said it was because the Ashkar were cunning by nature. But she had said other, less kind things, as well: that they were dangerous, devious, different. Though when Cas had gotten scalding fever, Sister Jenova had run right to the Sault and roused an Ashkari physician—forgetting, apparently, about all the times she’d said they couldn’t be trusted.

The man spoke curtly. “I’ll take the boy. Leave us, Aristide.” Jolivet raised an eyebrow. “Good luck to you, Bensimon.”

As Jolivet sauntered away, the Ashkar man—Bensimon—crooked a finger in Kel’s direction. “Come along.”

And he led Kel into the Palace.

Kel’s first impression was that everything in Marivent was enormous. The corridors of the Palace were wide as rooms, the staircases grander than tallships. Hallways sprouted in a thousand different directions like branches of coral.

Kel had imagined that everything inside would be white, as it was outside, but the walls were painted in marvelous colors of blue and ochre, sea green and lavender. The furniture was delicate and jewel-like, as if shiny beetles had been scattered about the rooms. Even the shutters, carved and painted with images of flowering gardens, were finely wrought. It had never occurred to Kel that the inside of a building, no matter how grand, could be as beautiful as a sunset. It calmed his racing heart, somehow.

Surely terrible things could not happen in a place so lovely.

Unfortunately, he had little opportunity to stare. Bensimon seemed

unaware he was escorting a child and did not slow his pace to match Kel’s. Instead, Kel had to run to keep up. It seemed ironic, considering he wasn’t the one who wanted to be wherever they were going.

Light blazed from torches bolted at intervals along the wall, each at a level higher than Kel could have reached. At length they came to a massive pair of double doors covered in gold-leaf panels, each carved with a scene from Castellane’s history: the fleet’s defeat of the Empire’s ships, the sinking of Tyndaris, the King presenting the first Charters to the Council,

the building of the Windtower Clock, the fires of the Scarlet Plague.

Here, Bensimon finally paused. “We are entering the Shining Gallery,”

he said. “Not quite the throne room, but a ceremonial place. Be respectful.” Kel’s first impression on entering the Shining Gallery was of blinding whiteness. He had never seen snow, but he had heard talk of trade caravans

trapped in thick drifts of the stuff when they tried to cross the icy peaks north of Hind. White, they had said—everywhere whiteness and a cold that could snap your bones.

In the Gallery, the walls were white, the floor was white, and the ceiling was white. Everything was made of the same white stone as the Palace walls. At the far end of the room, which seemed as vast as a cavern, was a raised dais on which a long table of carved and gilded wood groaned under the weight of crystal glasses, alabaster plates, and delicate porcelain cups.

Kel realized he was hungry. Blast.

Bensimon shut the doors behind them and turned to face Kel. “In an hour,” he said, “this room will be full of the noble families of Castellane.” He paused. “I assume you know of the Council of Twelve? The Charter


Kel hesitated, despite his anger at being called ignorant. Maybe it would be better to let Bensimon think he was ignorant. Maybe they would send him back home. But Bensimon would likely guess he was pretending.

Everyone in Castellane knew of the nobles on the Hill, and particularly the Charter Families. Their names and their positions were as much common knowledge as the names of the city’s streets.

“Cazalet,” he said. “Roverge. Alleyne. I can’t name them all, but

everyone knows about them. They live on the Hill. They have Charters”— he remembered Sister Bonafilia’s lessons, screwing up his eyes as he reached for the words—“which are, um, special permissions from the King to control trade on the Gold Roads.” (He did not add that Bonafilia had described this as “a rotten plan to make the wealthy more wealthy, of no benefit to the common merchants of Castellane.”)

“And over the seas, yes,” said Bensimon. “Remember, each House has its own Charter—House Raspail runs the trade in timber, Alleyne in silk. A Charter is itself a valuable thing, granted by the King, or revoked at his

pleasure.” He sighed, scrubbing his hands through his cropped hair. “We have no time for a lesson, though. I understand that you don’t want to be here. That is unfortunate. You are a citizen of Castellane, correct? But you have Marakandi heritage, perhaps, or Hindish?”

Kel shrugged. He’d often wondered the same, given that his light brown skin was a shade darker than the olive tone common in Castellane, but

unlike some of the other children in the Orfelinat, who knew their backgrounds, he had no answers. “I was born here. I don’t know about my parents. Never met them.”

“If you were born here, then you owe the King and the city allegiance,” said Bensimon. “You are”—he wrinkled his brow—“ten years old, correct? You must be aware of the existence of the Crown Prince.”

From somewhere in the back of his mind, Kel dredged up the name. “Conor,” he said.

Bensimon’s eyebrows rose into his hairline of thick gray curls. “Prince Conor,” he corrected. “Tonight, a delegation from Sarthe will be visiting

Marivent. As you may or may not know, there has been unrest between our kingdoms for quite some time.”

Sarthe and Castellane were neighbors and quarreled often over taxes, goods, and access to the Gold Roads. Most of the sailors at the docks referred to Sarthians as “those bastards on the border.”

Kel supposed that was what unrest meant.

“As always, the King—ever with the best interests of the citizens of Castellane at heart—is seeking peace with our neighbors. Among the

political, ah, treasures of our city is our Crown Prince Conor. It is always possible that, at some point in the future, the King may wish to form an

alliance between his son and one of the royal family of Sarthe. For that reason, it is important that, even at his young age, Prince Conor attend tonight’s banquet. Unfortunately, he is indisposed.” He looked closely at Kel. “Are you following me?”

“The Prince is sick, so he can’t go to a party,” said Kel. “But what’s that got to do with me?”

“The Prince cannot be seen to be absent from tonight’s affair. Therefore, you will take his place.”

The room seemed to turn upside down. “I’ll do what?”

“You will take his place. He isn’t expected to speak much. You are about his height, his age, his coloring—his mother the Queen is Marakandi, as you no doubt know. We will clean you up, dress you as a prince should be dressed. You will sit quietly through dinner. You will not speak or draw attention to yourself. You may eat as much as you like as long as you do not make yourself sick.” Bensimon crossed his arms over his chest. “At the end of the night, if you have performed satisfactorily, you will be given a purse of gold crowns to take back to the Sisters of Aigon. If not, you will earn nothing but a scolding. Do you understand the arrangement?”

Kel understood arrangements. He understood being given a coin or two to run a message for the Sisters, or the prize of an apple or candy for picking up a package from a tallship and delivering it to a merchant’s house. But the concept of a gold crown, much less a purse of them, was beyond comprehension.

“People will know what Con—Prince Conor—looks like,” said Kel. “They won’t be fooled.”

Bensimon slipped something out of his pocket. It was a hammered-silver oblong on a chain, not dissimilar to the one the adviser wore around his own neck. Etched into it and picked out by the flame of the firelight was a delicate pattern of numbers and letters. This was Ashkari magic. Only the Ashkar knew how to manipulate and combine letters and numbers in ways that wrung enchantment from their design; only the Ashkar, in fact, could perform any sort of magic at all. It had been that way since the Sundering.

With little ceremony, Bensimon dropped the chain over Kel’s head, letting the tablet slip below the collar of his ragged tunic.

“Will this make me look like the Prince?” asked Kel, trying to peer down his own shirt.

“Not quite. What it will do is make those who look at you, and already see a boy who resembles our Crown Prince in complexion and size, more inclined to regard you as Prince Conor. To hear his voice when you speak. Your eyes are wrong,” he added, half to himself, “but it does not matter;

people see what they expect to see, and they will expect to see the Prince. It will not physically change your features, you understand? It will simply

change the vision of those who look at you. No one who really knows who you are will be fooled, but all others will.”

In a way, Kel did understand. There were tales of the way magic had

once been before the Sundering, when a spell could blow a mountain apart or transform a man into a dragon. Magic now—Ashkari magic, talismans and charms and poultices, for sale in Fleshmarket Square—was a shadow of a shadow of what had once been. It could incline and convince and direct, but it could not change the substance of things.

“I would suggest,” said Bensimon, “that, at this juncture, you speak.”

Kel tugged awkwardly at the chain around his neck. “I don’t want to do it,” he said. “But I ain’t got no choice, have I?”

Bensimon smiled thinly. “You do not. And don’t say ain’t. It makes you sound like a mudrat from the Warren docks.”

“I am a mudrat from the Warren docks,” Kel pointed out. “Not tonight,” said Bensimon.

Kel was brought to the tepidarium: a massive chamber with two stone- bound pools sunk into the middle of a marble floor. A rose window looked

out over the nighttime glow of Castellane. Kel tried to keep his eyes on the horizon as he was poked, prodded, and scrubbed with vicious thoroughness. The water ran dark brown into the drain.

Kel thought about whether he trusted this Bensimon and decided he did not. Bensimon said the Prince was sick—indisposed—but Jolivet had come to the Orfelinat a month ago. He couldn’t have known then that the Crown Prince would take ill tonight and need a stand-in.

Nor did the idea that he’d be sent home at the end of the night with a bag of gold make much sense. There was a well-known tale in the Maze about

the Ragpicker King, the most famous criminal in Castellane. It was said that he’d once invited three rival criminals to his mansion and fed them a splendid dinner, offering them a partnership in his illegal empire. But none of them had been able to agree on anything, and at the end of the night the Ragpicker King had regretfully poisoned his guests, on the grounds that

now they knew too much about his business. (He paid for glorious funerals for all three, however.)

Kel could not help but feel that he had already been told a great deal that he ought not to know, and was about to learn more of the same. He tried to think of what he would do were he playing a part in a game with Cas, but could imagine no better strategy than keeping his head down.

After the bath, he was dusted, perfumed, shod, and dressed in a steel-blue satin tailcoat with silver links at the cuffs and collar. He was given velvet

trousers as soft as mouse’s fur. His hair was trimmed and his eyelashes curled.

When he finally went to look at himself in the mirror that covered the whole west wall, he thought, with a sinking feeling, that if he ever stepped out in the streets of the Maze looking like this, he’d be beaten six ways by the Crawlers and run up the flagpole outside the Tully.

“Cease shuffling your feet,” said Bensimon, who had spent the past hour watching the goings-on from a shadowed corner of the room, like a hawk planning its descent onto a family of rabbits. “Come here.”

Kel approached the adviser as the rest of the Palace servants melted away like mist. In a moment, he was alone in the room with Bensimon, who grabbed him under the chin, tilted his head up, and surveyed him unceremoniously. “Tell me again what you’re doing tonight.”

“Being C—Prince Conor. Sitting at the banquet table. Not saying much.”

Apparently satisfied, Bensimon let Kel go. “The King and Queen know who you really are, of course; don’t worry about them. They are well used to playing parts.”

Somehow Kel’s imagination hadn’t gotten this far. “The King is going to pretend I’m his son?”

Bensimon snorted. “I wouldn’t get too excited,” he said. “Very little of any of this is about you.”

That struck Kel as a relief. If everyone important ignored him, maybe he could make it through the night.

Bensimon led Kel back into the warren of corridors that seemed to make up the interior of the Palace. They took a back set of servants’ stairs down to a small but elegant room full of books; there was a tall golden door at the far end of the room, through which Kel could hear music and laughter.

For the first time, Kel’s heart jolted with real longing. Books. The only reading material he’d ever had were a few shabby novels donated to the Orfelinat by charitable patrons, satisfying tales of pirates and phoenixes, sorcerers and sailors, but of course they didn’t belong to him. The study

books—histories of empires fallen, the building of the Gold Roads—were kept locked up by the Sisters, brought out to be read from during classes. He’d been given an old book of tales by a boatswain once, in return for running a message, but Sister Jenova had confiscated it. According to her, sailors only read two things: murder stories and pornography.

These books were as beautiful as the sun sinking behind Tyndaris. Kel could smell the scent of the leather that bound them, the ink on their pages, the bitterness of the stamping mill where the paper was made.

Bensimon was watching him with narrowed eyes, the way a professional gambler eyed a mark. “You can read, then. And you like it?”

Kel didn’t have to reply. Two people had swept into the room, surrounded by Castelguards, and he was stunned into silence.

Kel’s first thought was that these people were the most beautiful he had ever seen. Then he wondered if it was just because they were so fastidiously groomed, and their clothes were so lovely. He didn’t know the words yet for silk and satin and cloth-of-gold, but he knew when things looked rich and soft, and shimmered in firelight.

The King was familiar: unsurprising, since his face was on every coin in Castellane. On the coins he was in profile, gazing to the right—toward

unconquered Sarthe, went the tale. But the coins did not show the breadth of him, his barrel chest or wrestler’s arms. He made Kel quail with his sheer size and presence. His eyes were light, high-set, his beard and hair a pale

mixture of blond and early silvering.

The Queen had dark, flowing hair like the Fear River at nightfall, and smooth russet-brown skin. She was slim and tall, her hands heavy with rings, each set with a different, glimmering stone. Ropes of gold circled her neck and wrist, and her hair was dressed with pins in the shape of golden lilies. She had been a Marakandi princess, Kel remembered, and gold was a symbol of good luck in that country.

The Queen regarded Kel with the dark eyes that had been the subject of a thousand poems and ballads. The citizens of Castellane were competitive about the beauty of their Queen, and wanted it widely known that she was more beautiful than the Queens of Sarthe or Hind. The Queen of Hanse, Kel had been told, looked like a constipated waterfowl in comparison with Queen Lilibet of Castellane.

“That’s the boy?” she asked. Her voice was rich, sweet as sugared rosewater.

“Quite,” said Bensimon. He seemed to have a real fondness for the word. “Are you ready, Highnesses?”

The Queen nodded. The King shrugged. And the Castelguards threw open the golden door as the music in the Gallery turned to a processional tune. The King passed slowly through, the Queen following. Neither of them glanced back.

Kel hesitated. He felt his hair ruffle; Bensimon had placed something on his head: a golden circlet. He felt the adviser’s hands linger over his head, almost like a blessing.

Bensimon grunted, then gave Kel a shove. “Go after them,” he ordered, and Kel stumbled through the golden door, into the blinding light.

Kel noticed two things at once. First, Bensimon had been right: The Gallery was now full of nobles. Kel had never seen so many in one place. He was used to a glimpse of a decorated carriage rolling through the cobbled streets, perhaps a gloved hand dangling languorously from an open window. Sometimes a noble in velvets and jewels might be found on a tallship, arguing with the captain about whether or not to sell shares in the ship’s next voyage. But that was a rare sighting, like the sighting of a

salamander. He had never imagined being surrounded by them—either nobles or salamanders.

The second thing was the room itself. He now understood why it had seemed so white. It was clearly kept blank, an untouched canvas waiting for the painter’s brush. The walls, which had been bare, were now decorated with jewel-toned frescoes depicting the glories of Castellane. Kel did not

know how it was possible. (Later, he would find out they were transparent screens, lowered over the walls, and not paint at all.) Look, they said, how grand a place is our city, and how great.

The floors had been covered with thick Marakandi rugs, and along the east wall curtains had been drawn away to reveal a pillared arcade. In between the pillars were potted trees painted gold, their leaves gilded and apples and berries of colored glass hanging from their branches. Above the

arcade, a gallery of musicians played, all of them in the Palace colors of red and gold. The great hearth was the same, but now a fire blazed in it, large enough to roast a dozen cows.

The inhabitants of the Hill had come to line a sort of shining pathway to the high table, smiling and inclining their heads as the royal family progressed through the room. In the tepidarium, Bensimon had told Kel to keep his head up and glance to neither the right nor the left, but Kel could not stop himself from looking.

The men wore brocade coats and high boots of incised leather; the women were floating clouds of silks and satins, bows and lace, their hair swept up and pinned through with ornaments of all shapes: golden roses, silver lilies, gilt stars, brass swords. Such finery was the stuff of the society drawings one could buy from artists in Fleshmarket Square, where the

daughters and sons of merchants went to learn of the scandalous doings of the noble Houses, and imagine marrying into one.

Bensimon had fallen into step beside Kel, the crowd of nobles thinning out as they reached the high table. It looked much as it had before, though yet more decoration had been added. Peacock feathers dipped in gold paint drooped over the sides of gilded epergnes, and a ribbon of lilies laced together with golden chains snaked down the center of the table. Their scent

—waxy, too-sweet—filled the room.

In a daze, Kel allowed himself to be guided by Bensimon toward one of the three tall chairs grouped in the middle of the table. The Queen was on

Kel’s left; on his right, a pretty girl about his own age, wearing pale-yellow silk, her dark-blond hair in tightly curled ringlets.

Kel shot a look at Bensimon, almost of panic: Why had they sat him next to another child? An adult might have ignored him, but the blond girl was already looking at him with a lively curiosity that indicated she knew Prince Conor fairly well.

Bensimon raised an eyebrow and was gone, taking a place just behind the King’s chair. The blond girl leaned across her plate to whisper to Kel.

“I heard you were sick,” she said. “I didn’t expect you’d be here.”

It was a lifeline. Kel caught at it. “The King insisted,” he said, in a low voice. Hopefully that was how the Prince referred to his father? Kel knew Bensimon had said that the talisman would make him sound like the Prince as well as look like him, but surely it could not change the words he said.

He chose them carefully, thinking as he did so of all the times he and Cas had played at being highborn adventurers, how they had modeled their speech on that of the nobles who they’d read of in books. “I was offered no choice.”

The blond girl tossed her curls. “You are ill,” she said. “Usually you would have made a fuss about coming, or be joking about it at least.”

Kel put that away in the back of his mind. The Prince was someone who had no trouble kicking up a temper, and liked to make jokes. So they had that in common. It was useful information.

“Antonetta.” The woman seated opposite them spoke under her breath, her eyes on the blond girl. “Do sit up straight.”

Antonetta. So that was the girl’s name, and the woman must be her mother. She was very beautiful, with coils of fair hair and a great deal of pale bosom swelling over the bodice of a raw-silk dress the same color as her daughter’s. Her attention rested on Antonetta only for a moment,

though, before she was engaged in conversation with a black-bearded man with clever eyebrows.

“Who’s that man?” Kel muttered to Antonetta, who was now sitting rigidly upright. “The one flirting with your mother?”

It was a bit of a daring thing to say, but Antonetta grinned—as if she expected this sort of comment from Conor Aurelian. “You don’t recognize him?” she said incredulously. She was folding her napkin on her lap; Kel

mimicked her movements. “That’s Senex Petro d’Ustini, one of the ambassadors from Sarthe. Next to him is Sena Anessa Toderino.”

Of course. Kel should have recognized them immediately: a man and a woman, both in Sarthian dark-blue. Senex Petro’s sapphire earring glittered against his olive skin, while Sena Anessa had a great deal of hair piled in

knots on her head and a long, patrician nose.

Farther down the table sat another boy around Kel’s age. He looked Shenzan, with straight black hair and a mischievous face. He winked at Kel, who liked him immediately, though he knew the wink was meant not for him, but for Prince Conor.

“I see Joss is trying to get your attention,” said Antonetta, making a face at the boy. It wasn’t an unfriendly face, more a teasing one. “He’s probably miserable having to sit next to Artal Gremont.”

Antonetta must mean the heavyset, thick-necked man on Joss’s left. His hair was chopped short, as if he were a soldier, and he wore the armband of a gladiator, which looked a little ridiculous over the damask silk of his tunic. Kel had heard his name before. Though he was a noble, he amused himself battling some of Castellane’s most famous fighters in the Arena.

Everyone—save Gremont, perhaps, who was in line to inherit the tea and coffee Charter—knew the games were rigged in his favor.

“Lady Alleyne,” said Senex d’Ustini to Antonetta’s mother. “Your gown is truly magnificent, and is that not Sarthian sontoso embroidery upon the cuffs? You are, indeed, a walking endorsement for the glories of the silk


Lady Alleyne? House Alleyne held the silk Charter. Which meant Antonetta, who was currently playing with her fork, stood to inherit the richest of all the Charters. Kel felt a little sick to his stomach.

“Silk has other uses besides fashion,” Antonetta interjected. “The Ashkar use it in bandages and thread. One can make sails from it, and in Shenzhou it is used instead of paper to write upon.”

Sena Anessa chuckled. “Very clever, Demoselle Antonetta—”

“Too clever,” said Artal Gremont. “No one likes a clever girl. Do they, Montfaucon?”

Montfaucon was apparently the man sitting across from him. He was spectacularly dressed in pink velvet and silver braid, his skin a dark, rich

brown. “Gremont,” he began, sounding irritable, but did not finish his sentence, for the food had arrived.

And what food it was. Not the mush and stews they served in the Orfelinat, but roast capons with white cabbage, ducks stuffed with curried plums, herb and cheese tarts, whole grilled fish dressed with oil and lemon, and Sarthian dishes like pork basted with rosewater on a bed of noodles.

You may eat as much as you like as long as you do not make yourself sick, Bensimon had said.

Kel went to work. He was hungry half the time anyway, and he was starved right now, having emptied his stomach on Jolivet’s boots. He tried to copy what the others were doing with his cutlery, but hands were faster than knives and forks. When he sank his fingers into a slice of cheese and sage tart, he saw Bensimon glare at him.

Antonetta, he noted, was not eating, but was looking down at her food with a furious expression. The glamorous Montfaucon winked in her direction. “When beauty and wisdom can be married together, that is the ideal, but in the usual course of events the Gods gift one or the other. I do think our Antonetta might be one of the lucky exceptions.”

“One cannot have everything, or the Gods would come to envy mortals,” said another man, this one with cold eyes. He had narrow features and light- olive skin, and reminded Kel of illustrations in his schoolbooks of Castellani nobles going back hundreds of years. “Is that not what happened to the Callatians? They built their towers too close to heaven, challenged

the Gods with their accomplishments, and for it their Empire was destroyed?”

“A dark view, Roverge,” said a kind-looking older man. He was pallid, like someone who spent a lot of time indoors. “Empires tend toward

entropy, you know. It is difficult to grasp so much power. Or so I was taught in the schoolroom long ago.” He smiled at Kel. “Have you not been taught

the same, Prince?”

Everyone turned to look pleasantly at Kel, who nearly gagged on a mouthful of tart. Wildly, he imagined what would happen the moment they realized he wasn’t the Crown Prince. He’d be surrounded by the Castelguard. They’d drag him from the Palace and toss him over the walls, where he’d roll down the mountain until he splashed into the ocean and was eaten by a crocodile.

“But Sieur Cazalet,” said Antonetta, “are you not the master of all the wealth in Castellane? And is not wealth also power?”

Cazalet. Kel knew the name: The Cazalet Charter was banking, and gold crown coins were sometimes called cazalets on the street.

“See?” said Artal Gremont. “Too clever.”

Kel plastered a smile upon his face. He could not make his mouth stretch very far, which was likely fortunate; it gave him the aspect of smiling coolly, rather than enthusiastically. Enthusiasm, as he would later find, was deemed suspicious in a prince. “I am still learning, of course, Sieur

Cazalet,” he said. “But it is said by the sages that he who desires all, loses all.”

Bensimon’s mouth quirked, and a look of real surprise went over the Queen’s face, quickly hidden. Antonetta smiled, which Kel found pleased him.

The King reacted not at all to this pronouncement by his pretend son, but the russet-haired delegate from Sarthe chuckled. “It’s nice to see your son is well read, Markus.”

“Thank you, Sena Anessa,” said the Queen. The King said nothing. He was regarding Kel shrewdly over the rim of his tall silver cup.

“That was nicely said,” Antonetta whispered to Kel. Her eyes shone, making her look twice as pretty. Kel’s stomach tightened again, in an unfamiliar and this time not unpleasant way. “Perhaps you are not so ill after all.”

“Oh, no,” Kel said fervently. “I’m extremely unwell. I might forget anything at any moment.”

The adults had gone back to their own conversation. Kel could hardly

follow it—too many names he didn’t know, both of people and things, like treaties and trade agreements. That was, until Senex Petro turned to the King with a bland smile and said, “Speaking of outrageous demands, Your Highness, is there news of the Ragpicker King?”

Kel’s eyes widened. He knew the name of the Ragpicker King; everyone in the city of Castellane did, but he would not have thought the nobles familiar with it. The Ragpicker King belonged to the streets of the city, to

the shadows where the Vigilants did not dare to go, to the gambling hells and dosshouses of the Maze.

Once, Kel had asked Sister Bonafilia how old the Ragpicker King was.

She had replied that he had always existed, as long as she had been aware to know it, and indeed there was something timeless about the figure he cut in Castellane, striding through the shadows all in black, with an army of

pickpockets and cutpurses at his beck and call. He did not fear the Arrow Squadron or the city watch. He feared nothing at all.

“He is a criminal,” said the King, his rough voice uninflected. “There will always be criminals.”

“But he calls himself a king,” said Petro, still with the same easy smile. “Does that not seem a challenge to you?”

Sena Anessa looked anxious. It was almost, Kel thought, like someone in the schoolroom throwing a punch. One waited to see if the punch would be returned or ignored. Friends of the one doing the punching fretted. Going on the attack was always a risk.

But Markus only smiled. “He is no threat to me,” he said. “Children play the game of Castles, but it is no challenge to Marivent. Now, shall we

discuss the issues I had raised earlier, about the Narrow Pass?”

Sena Anessa looked relieved. “An excellent idea,” she said, and voices along the table began to chime in with comments about trade and the Great Southwestern Road that might as well have been spoken in Sarthian for all that Kel understood them.

Antonetta tapped Kel’s wrist with the dull edge of her knife. “They’re bringing dessert,” she said, gesturing for Kel to pick up his cutlery. “You were right. You are forgetful.”

Kel was mostly full anyway, or so he thought until the sweets appeared.

Plums and peaches soaked in rosewater and honey, flower petals crystallized in sugar, glasses of sweet-sour iced sherbet, mugs of sweetened chocolate and cream, custards studded with pomegranate seeds, and plates of marzipan cakes decorated with colorful pastel icing.

The musicians played a soft tune as the last silver platter was brought out, bearing a magnificent cake in the shape of a phoenix, lavishly frosted with gold and bronze, each shimmering wing perfect down to the last feather. As they set the cake upon the table, it burst into flame, to a chorus of admiring noises.

Kel could not see what was admirable about setting a perfectly good cake on fire, but he knew he was supposed to look impressed when a piece of the

phoenix dessert was placed in front of him, shimmering on a gold plate. It was sponge cake in hard, shining icing, like the carapace of a beetle.

He almost didn’t want to eat it. It had always seemed one of the greatest tragedies of the Sundering to him that not only had the world lost almost all magic, but that creatures like phoenixes and dragons, manticores and basilisks, had vanished overnight.

Still. He picked a piece of icing off the cake in front of him and put it in his mouth. It seemed to explode in flavors stronger than any he had ever experienced, a thousand times the sweetness of apples, mixed with spice and the perfume of flowers. He pressed his tongue against the back of his teeth, half dazed with the savor of it.

He wished he could close his eyes. Everything seemed both as if it were fading and too clear at the same time. He could hear his own heart beating, and beyond that the voices of nobles chattering and laughing, with a sound like knives tearing through silk. He knew that, under the laughter, they were

dueling with their words, insulting and challenging and praising one another in a language he knew, but did not understand.

Through the fringed curtain of his lashes, he saw the King looking at the phoenix cake. There was a sort of weary loathing on his face that surprised Kel. Certainly a monarch could not feel so strongly about pastry; the King must be thinking about something else.

Kel slipped further toward sleep as the night went on; apparently there was only so long that being terrified could keep one awake. Eventually he slipped his knife into his lap. Every time he found himself drifting off, he would close his hand around it and the pain would jolt him back awake.

The banquet did not seem to end so much as fade away. First one group left, and then another. Joss Falconet waved to him as he departed alone.

Antonetta kissed his cheek, which set his heart tripping faster and made him blush hard enough that he could only hope no one noticed.

The music softened into silence. The peacock feathers, drowned under their weight of gold paint, drooped like the heads of sleepy children. The

fire had burned down to cherry embers by the time everyone was gone from the room save the royal family and the King’s adviser.

And Kel.

“Well, I thought that all went rather well, darling,” the Queen observed.

She was still seated at the table, delicately peeling the green skin from a

sweet dalandan with her long fingers. “Considering how difficult the Sarthians like to be about every little detail.”

The King did not reply. Instead he stood up, looking down at Kel. It was like being regarded by a giant. “The boy is peculiarly literate,” he said. His voice was gravelly, deep as a drowned city. “I thought he would have little knowledge save what he had picked up on the streets.”

“He is from one of Your Highness’s orphanages,” said Bensimon. “They have books, teaching. Royal generosity at work.”

“He ate like a starveling thing,” said the Queen, separating the coral flesh of the dalandan from its white core. Her voice was sandpaper and honey. “It was unseemly.”

“He recovered from the mistake,” said Bensimon. “That is important.

And he did well with Antonetta Alleyne. She is a friend of Conor’s. If she did not notice the difference, then who would?”

Kel cleared his throat. It was strange to be talked about as if he were not there. “I’d like to go back now.”

The Queen lifted her eyes from her fruit. The King and Bensimon both looked silently at Kel. He tried to imagine rising to his feet, stretching out a hand, and saying, Thank you, but I am leaving now. He could bow politely, perhaps. Someday this would be a story he would tell—his one night of seeing what power looked like up close. Of realizing that it had a feeling

like velvet against your skin at one moment, and the edge of a blade the next.

But he knew better than that. This was never meant to be a story he could tell.

“Back?” said the Queen. “Back to your filthy orphanage, is that it? Not very grateful.” She licked her thumb. “Bensimon. You said he would be grateful.”

“He does not yet know the true purpose of his visit,” said Bensimon. “If you find him acceptable, I will explain it to him. He will then, I expect, be very grateful indeed.”

The Queen frowned. “I don’t think—”

“He is acceptable,” said the King. “As long as Conor agrees.” He snapped his fingers. “Make your explanations, Mayesh. I will be in the Star Tower. It is a clear night.”

With that, he turned on his heel and left. The Queen, a darkly rebellious gleam in her eye, departed flanked by Castelguards, without another look at Kel.

It was as it had been before, no one in the room but Kel and the King’s Counselor. Though now, the remains of food were scattered across the table. The musicians had gone, the fire burned down to ash.

Kel curled and uncurled his hand under the table. It was sticky with blood. He looked at Bensimon. “You said . . . I would be going back.” “I did not know if the King would find you acceptable or not,” said

Bensimon. “It seems he did. Get up. We are not done yet.”

Kel hated it when adults said we when what they meant was you. He frowned as he once again followed Bensimon through the winding corridors of the Palace. Many of the torches had been put out; he could no longer see the contents of the Palace rooms and stumbled as they made their way up a massive stairway, which seemed to curve in on itself like the whorl of a seashell.

Another few turns and Bensimon was leading him down a marble hall and into a grand room. This room, at least, was lit, and decorated in soft

hues of fawn and blue. A velvet-draped bed stood in one corner, and next to it, a smaller bed, which puzzled Kel. Was one bed for a parent and the other a child? Yet there were no other signs of children: The furniture was polished mahogany with ivory pieces set in; the paintings on the walls depicted Lotan, the Father of the Gods, with his three sons: Ascalon, Anibal, and Aigon. War, death, and the sea. An iron spiral staircase led up through an opening in the ceiling.

Spread across a nearby table was a clutter of different weapons. Kel knew nothing about weapons and could not have named most of them,

though he guessed some to be daggers and others, short-swords. They had delicately incised handles of ivory and jade, studded with gems in different colors.

There was a slight commotion at the door. Kel looked up to a swirl of

Castelguards outside, like an incursion of flames. In their midst was a boy, who passed through the door and closed it firmly behind him.

Bensimon straightened up; he did not seem surprised. “Prince Conor.”

Kel felt his stomach drop. Here was the boy he’d been impersonating. A boy who had clearly never been sick. He gathered, now, that it had all been

a test—and that this was somehow the final part.

The Crown Prince was all in steel blue, just like Kel. He was not wearing a circlet, but Kel would have known him for a prince regardless. He was tall for his age, with his mother’s fine features, and there was a sort of leaping

flame behind his eyes and laughing expression on his face that made Kel want to smile at him, which was startling enough in itself. He knew the boy ought to be terrifying—he was royalty—and he was, and yet Kel wanted to smile at the Prince all the same.

Though he had no more years than Kel, Conor seemed worlds older as he crossed the room with a light step and said, “How was it, then? Being me?”

An unexpected ache bloomed like a flower behind Kel’s rib cage. I want to be like him, Kel thought. I want to walk through the world as if it will

reshape itself around my dreams and desires. I want to seem as if I could touch the stars with light fingers and pull them down to be my playthings.

It was strange to want something you had never known you wanted.

Kel just nodded, as if to say that it was all fine. Conor tilted his head to the side, like a curious robin. He came closer to Kel and, without any self- consciousness, took his hand and turned it over.

Conor made a startled noise. Across Kel’s palm were the weals of multiple knife slashes.

“I was trying to keep myself awake,” Kel said. He was looking at his hand next to Conor’s. His own skin was a shade darker from exposure to the sun, and Conor’s palms were smooth and free of scars or blisters.

“Yes, I saw,” said Conor. “I was watching, tonight. From behind a screen.”

He let go of Kel’s hand.

“That is a quite impressive determination, really,” said Bensimon. “And a resistance to pain.”

Conor’s gaze was steady, clear, and gray. Your eyes are wrong, Bensimon had said. “Leave us, Mayesh,” he said. “I would talk to Kel alone.”

Kel rather expected the Counselor to put up a fight. Instead, Mayesh Bensimon seemed to be hiding a smile. “As you wish,” he said, and swirled from the room in a cloud of gray cloak.

When he was gone, Kel rather missed him. Bensimon was the person he had known longest in the Palace. Prince Conor, though Kel had spent the night pretending to be him, was a stranger. He watched as Conor went over

to the table and picked up one of the daggers and then another. Perhaps this was the end of things, he thought with some dismay. The journey, the peculiar ritual of dinner, and now the Crown Prince would stab him to death.

“Do you like weapons?” Conor said. “I could give you a dagger, if you liked.”

Kel felt inordinately pleased to have correctly identified the presence of daggers. Still, this did not seem promising. “To do what with?” he asked, suspiciously.

Conor smiled crookedly. “I don’t know what you like, you see,” he said. “I’m trying to think how to convince you to stay.”

“Stay? Here? In the Palace?”

Conor sat down on the edge of the smaller bed. “My father fostered in the kingdom of Malgasi,” he said. “They have a tradition there. When a prince

turns ten years old, he is given a sort of—bodyguard. Királar, they call him. Sword Catcher. He is meant to stand in for the prince, to—to protect him from danger. He learns to walk and talk like him, to dress like him. He is

made to look like him.”

“Made to look like him?” Kel echoed.

“Talismans, charms. Posy-drops to change the color of his eyes.” He sighed. “I am not making it sound very pleasant, but I told myself I would be honest with you. There is no point not being. You would find out, eventually.”

“You want me,” Kel said, slowly, “to be your Sword Catcher?”

Conor nodded. “My father could order you, but I do not want someone reluctant. I want someone who wants to do it. And not someone torn from their family, either. That is why—you are from an orphanage?”

Kel nodded. He was too stunned to speak.

Conor relaxed minutely. “That is good. Jolivet did not lie to me, at least.” He looked at Kel. “What do you think?”

“I think,” Kel said, “that it sounds dangerous, and probably difficult. I think if you are looking for someone who wants to do it, that may also be difficult.”

Conor exhaled painfully. “As you say.”

He looked deflated, which brought home the peculiarity of the situation. Kel had not known what to expect of a meeting with the Crown Prince of

Castellane, but he had certainly not expected him to be depressed. “Well, you could try to convince me,” he said. “Tell me, what about it would be good?”

Conor looked up, his eyes brightening. “Really?” He sat up straight.

“Well, you would live in the Palace. You would have whatever you wanted, most of the time. Within reason, but any clothes or books or—well, really anything. If you saw it in a shop window, I would get it for you. Unless it was a jade elephant or something else enormous.”

“That does seem impractical,” Kel said gravely, fighting a grin.

“We would learn together,” said Conor. “Jolivet isn’t the most agreeable fellow, but he’s the best sword-trainer out there. You would become an expert fighter. And my tutors are teaching me everything there is to know; they would teach you, too. You would speak a dozen languages, know the history of all Dannemore, the patterns of the stars, all the Great Equations.”

Despite himself, something kindled inside Kel. It was small and bright, a distant signal fire. It startled him. He had not expected to feel truly tempted.

“You would never be hungry,” Conor said softly. “And you would never be lonely. You would sleep here, beside me, and we would always be together. And your life would be extraordinary.”

Kel leaned back against the table. Extraordinary. He knew the word— from lessons, mostly.

Conor leaned forward in excitement. “You would meet royalty from all over, people descended from famous heroes. You would watch the greatest dancers dance, hear the best musicians. You would see things hardly anyone ever sees. You would travel the whole world.”

Kel thought of the White Rock near the Orfelinat; that had been the ship he sailed with Cas across imaginary oceans. He thought of the marbles they used to weight down their map in the endless game of where-do-you-want- to-go. They had both always known they would never see those distant lands.

“See the world,” he said. “With—you?”

Conor nodded eagerly. “Most of the time you won’t be pretending to be me. You’ll be given another identity. The name of a noble. And when I

become King, you stop being the Sword Catcher. After that, you will

become like Jolivet, the leader of Castellane’s finest soldiers. The Arrow Squadron. And one day, you can retire in honor and wealth.”

Honor sounded boring; wealth less so.

“But perhaps you had something else you wished to do? Like becoming a merchant, or a guildmaster?” said Conor, uncertainly. He looked tired. Kel had not thought rich boys ever looked weary like that. “I won’t keep you

here against your will. I told my father that.”

I told my father. That he meant the King was strange enough, but even stranger, Kel saw that Conor’s hands, laced together as they were, were shaking. He really did need him, Kel thought in shock. He had never been needed before. Cas was his friend, but Cas didn’t need him, and neither did Sister Bonafilia or the others. Parents needed their children, but he had never had parents. He had not known what it meant to be needed by

someone else: that it made you want to protect them. To his own surprise, he wanted to protect this boy, the Prince of Castellane. Wanted to stand between him and a forest of bristling fléchettes. Wanted to stare down and demolish any enemy that wished Conor Aurelian harm.

It was the first thing he had wanted to do since he had come through the Palace gates. Well, besides eat.

Perhaps you had something else you wished to do? Like becoming a

merchant, or a guildmaster? When Kel turned sixteen, the Orfelinat would eject him, penniless, into the world. It existed to help children—and only children. Untrained, largely untutored, on the streets of Castellane, there would be nothing for him. Even sailors were trained from a young age. He could scrape by as a lamplighter, or a ship’s boy if he was lucky, and would be poor as dirt. Or he could be a criminal—pick pockets or join the Crawlers, the highest he had ever dared to dream—and wind up dangling from the gallows of the Tully.

He took a deep breath. “Extraordinary, you say?” And Conor began to smile.

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